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A Whateley Academy Tale

Insanity Prerequsite

Part 3: Metamorphosis


By Dr. Bender and Renae

Chapter 6 – Integration

Donna threw herself screaming out of bed, pure agony searing through her forearm. Her shoulder bounced off a mahogany bookcase, the impact thrusting her across the floor. Half rolling, half crawling, she pulled herself across the threshold into the master bathroom, scraping her knee on the slick metal divider between white tile and the cream carpet.

The cold, hard, discomfort of smooth tile pressed against soft skin was nothing compared to the pain embedded in her flesh as she reached over the rim of the bath to yank open the polished brass tap marked in blue. Forcing her arm under the running water, the psychologist screeched as steam billowed from the wound, the cold water exploding into vapour at the merest touch.

Finally, gasping for breath, laying naked half in the tub, half on the bathroom floor, it stopped burning. She lay still, breathing, feeling the water trickle down her hand, the sense of time lost to her.

It was the relentless press of gravity that caused her to shift. The clammy skin of her pliable butt cheeks clinging to the floor, she hoisted herself up onto her feet with one elbow, squeezing her eyes shut so as not to look at the Mark on her arm until she was ready.

Bandages and burn ointment were easily found in the first aid kit inside the mirrored cabinet above the sink, the phone required a trip back into the bedroom. She treated the burn while autodialing the Whateley Campus Security desk.

“Hello, this is Doctor Donna Bell,” she hoped the use of her full title would speed things up, “you have a Sara Waite under protection… yes. Yes, I’m her guardian. Could you check on her? Yes, I know you’ve got two guards… are you aware that she’s a psychic? I don’t care what can or can’t get through the wards! Yes, I am a classified Black level researcher at ARC, I am probably more aware of what magic is capable of than you are. Oh, you’ve done the training course? Look, sugar, either A, you check on Sara Waite now, before she implodes in the middle of the hospital or B, I come over there to personally kick your… DAMN! BITCH!”

She threw the ointment across the room, the contents spraying across the ceiling, the soft plastic crushing a white tile from the force of the throw. Tucking the phone under her ear, holding it in place with her shoulder, she dialled her second emergency number while slipping into her underwear, jeans and t-shirt.

“Otto? I know it’s late, but Sara’s… What do you mean you know? It feels like it’s on fire. Amagata? Of course I feel better. If you knew, then why didn’t you… oh. That old bas… how the hell did he get on the Board of Trustees? Oh, you have got to be kidding. Yes, I’ll be right there. Try and stop me.”

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Several Minutes Earlier…

“What the hell’s wrong with her? …is she burning out? …let me see…”

“Out of the way, girls,” Mrs. Savage, housemother of Whitman cottage, ordered as she pushed the girls aside. At six foot, she cut an imposing figure as she stormed through the doorway, despite still being in her knee-length nightgown. She surveyed the situation with a single sweep of her eyes. Broken furniture, one of her girls writhing on the ground, clutching her hand in pain, while she screamed in pain and the roommate screamed in panic. And there is no sound quite as piercing as the scream of an adolescent girl.

Rolling her eyes, she gave a long-suffering sigh before getting to work. A good slap across the cheek silenced the roommate. Grabbing the other girl’s smoking hand by the wrist, she hauled the screeching girl to her feet.

“Let me see, child,” Mrs. Savage pried the fingers open, revealing a triangular burn on the girl’s palm, “What’s your name?”

“G-Gypsy.” She gasped, tears streaming down her face.

“It’s alright, how did you do this?”

“I-I don’t know, it just started burning…”

Savage considered the girl for a moment, trying to decide whether to believe her. In the end, though, it didn’t matter one way or the other, “Ok, for now. Come on, I’ll take you to the infirmary. THE REST OF YOU BACK TO YOUR BEDS!” she shouted at the gaggle of girls in the hallway.

The housemother’s shout cleared the hallways in seconds.

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In a small café in the centre of Boston, a cute redheaded waitress stumbled, the drink tray tumbling across the kitchen floor. She rolled around in agony, clutching at the small tattoo under her arm. As the evening crowd looked on in shock and surprise, as the smoke roiled up from her arm. 

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Nightbane had never seen anything like it. Pulsating veins and throbbing tentacles burying themselves in concrete and brick with ease, chewing through the building’s stonework. At the centre of the expanding web, the girl shuddered on the floor, twisting herself into impossible shapes. She was ashamed to admit that she had given in to her first instinct. She ran, the rest of the Goober Elite on her tail, Ecto-tek slung over her shoulders.

Everything was far too quiet in the darkness of the sewers, the biorhythms of the area disturbed, even threatening. She felt sick to the stomach; the attack was nothing like she had read about in Englund’s books. The tentacles… the stench… the pain. Her bones felt like ice buried in her flesh. Her muscles ached like nothing she had ever felt before. She felt her pulse thunder through her wrists and neck as her legs pumped, pushing herself and her burden towards safety, brackish water tugging at her heels.

For the first time in her life, she felt alive.

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“Can’t this thing go any faster, Major?” Otto glared at the blackened playing card in his hand as the countryside screamed past in a blur of motion. ARC Securities’ UVTOL insertion platforms, affectionately known as ‘Dropships’ by the engineering team, partly due to their slight resemblance to the vehicles popularised in various sci-fi movies over the last twenty years.

“ETA in five, Sir,” Amagata replied, quickly checking his rifle and armour. Looking up at the balding doctor, he reached over to pat his shoulder, “She’ll be all right, Otto. That one has an instinct for survival.”

The soldier sounded so sure that Otto simply nodded, still fretting when his phone beeped. With practiced ease, he tapped the send/receive button on his earpiece, “Donna. Yes, I know, I’m en route with Major Amagata. How’s your arm? … Feel better? … Whateley R&D’s kicking up a stink over our exclusive rights on Sara, the Board of Trustees is backing them up with Englund’s support. According to the contract, our hands were tied. … Take a breath and calm down, Donna… Money, he’s one of the founding fathers, and an old friend of the Mystic Six. He and Totem had a falling out, though, after Cirque passed on. He’s funded by the United Churches Consortium, which includes money from the Inquisition. … I’m afraid not, are you leaving now? … Good, I’ll meet you there, then.”

“Problems, Sir?” Amagata inquired as Otto hung up.

“Not for us, Major. It seems reinforcements are on the way.”

“You certainly know how to sweet talk a soldier, Sir. Four minutes… just enough time for a final briefing.”

Otto nodded, the pilot giving them both the thumbs up as they filed out back into the passenger compartment. ARC Security personnel were culled from the best professional soldiers on the planet. CIA, SAS, Navy Seals, Seattle Knights, The League, MI6, Mossad… their professionalism was obvious in the way they carried themselves. Looking at them now, seated quietly while checking their equipment, they waited for the red light overhead to flick to green with inexorable calm and inhuman patience.

“Listen up,” Amagata never yelled, yet nobody ever disobeyed his orders, “lets go through the brief one more time. Your orders are to secure the infirmary and take charge of Sara Waite; you all have her picture in your HUD. We don’t know whether hostiles have captured her or are still inside the building, so be cautious but only use force if absolutely necessary. Remember this is a school, not a war zone, but don’t take chances. Any hostiles encountered will be assumed to be Mutants and you are to react accordingly. Once the area is secure, Dr. Otto’s medical staff will land. Anything else, doctor?”

“Yes,” Otto stepped forward, “I would like to reiterate that this is not a war zone. The target that you are protecting, no matter how she may appear when we arrive, is a scared little girl, perhaps in a severe amount of pain. Whatever you do, approach her cautiously and do NOT touch her without my express orders. I will handle that end of the operation. That is all.”

The doctor held onto the overhead rails as the ship descended, gravity dampening fields leaving him with a vague sensation of movement while allowing him to stand despite the g-forces that should have been involved.

The point guard were off the ramp before the Dropship had even touched down, covering their fellows as they filed off two by two, making a beeline for the Infirmary. Otto sat and waited, watching the ominous old building intently, feeling the age of the ground underneath his feet. Local lore claimed that the Miskatonic valley was one of the oldest geographical locations on Earth, the psychic echoes Otto felt thrumming through it only supported that idea.

“Hospital secured, Sir,” Amagata’s voice sounded over his commlink, “Sara Waite is in a hallway, suffering from some sort of toxic attack. The staff on this level have been tranquillised, and a teacher just admitted a student for a burn mark on her right hand. I have one of my medics treating her now. Two guards and a duty nurse had been rendered unconscious at the scene; all three have been secured in the staff office. And the Headmistress is waiting for you in the lobby.”

Otto took a deep breath. He hadn’t expected to have to deal with Elizabeth yet, “Tell the perimeter guards to watch for the arrival of more of the faculty staff. I want to know the instant they spot Englund.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The doctor sighed as he stepped off the boarding ramp, following the ARC medical personnel as they ferried equipment into the building. Carson was waiting for him at the door, glaring, “Took you long enough.”

“I had some political difficulties, you know how bureaucracies are,” Otto grimaced, “how is she?”

“From what I can tell, in a lot of pain. Don’t worry, nobody’s touched her.”

They stepped over the threshold together, into the pale white light inside. Otto was so used to the antiseptic smell of hospitals that he no longer noticed the acrid aroma. However, the usual smell had been contaminated with the stench of a sewer.

Elizabeth growled, “I’ll give you three guesses where the attackers entered the building. I’ve got our two best maintenance men sealing the breach.”

Otto nodded again as there didn’t seem to be anything to say. Carson led him down the hallway towards Sara’s room, ARC personnel crowding the area. At last, Carson pulled back the plastic blinds that separated the scene from the rest of the building.

“The tentacles have rooted themselves into the foundations,” Carson pointed out the pulsing veins, “there is no way we can budge her.”

“Get everyone back,” Otto sighed, pulling several vials of red liquid from his jacket, along with a strip of yellow paper and a writing brush. Carson glared at the bystanders, urging them back while Otto worked, scribbling symbols over the paper. A flick of his wrist and the paper ignited, burning blue between his fingers. “I’m sorry, Sara.”

He cast the burning fragment onto Sara’s stomach. Otto’s only reaction to the sudden explosion of light that accompanied his charge’s fresh screams was a tightening of his deadpan expression. When it was over, he picked the small girl up in his arms and carried her back into her room, laying her gently on the bed and extracting the tube from her ribs.

“Ingenious. Carson, look here,” Otto waved the Headmistress over, “obviously the work of a gadgeteer. Cast carbonised plastics with surgical steel injection blades and a pressure-based release system.”

Carson took the instrument, “What was in it, though?”

“That is for my lab boys to determine,” Otto examined the dark veins that writhed under the girl’s translucent white skin, “but my first guess would be faerie blood. See the silver residue on the glass?”

“Is it lethal?”

“To you or me? Unlikely. To some demons and spirits, probably. Vampires and undead, almost certainly. To something like Sara? Certainly not. Her kind used to consider pixies an appetizer a few million years ago.”

Carson blinked, “Then what’s happening to her?”

“Most likely, her body’s trying to eject the DNA. I can understand how someone would make the mistake that this condition was lethal, it does look more than moderately disgusting, and fey energies do oppose the energies of the Great Old Ones.” He fished a Swiss army knife out of his pocket and tested one of the black veins, puncturing it with the tip of the blade.

Nothing happened, the cut simply vanished as soon as it was inflicted.

“Interesting, and yet vexing.” Otto growled, “I should have been faster. Get my team in here; I want a full scan now. Can you take me to see the other girl that was admitted tonight?”

Carson nodded. She led the balding research chief back down the hall, past the ARC soldiers and doctors hastily assembling their equipment. She left him at a door to a small surgery and a moment later he was inside looking down at a dark-haired young girl who scratched the bandage around her hand.

“I wouldn’t do that, it won’t heal properly,” Otto smiled benignly. He didn’t feel like smiling, but he tried anyway.

“Um… sorry…”

“I’m Doctor Otto, Sara Waite’s physician. What’s your name?”

“Gypsy.”

“Good name,” Otto adjusted his glasses, “What can you tell me about Sara, Gypsy? Did she put the mark on your palm? It really burned tonight, didn’t it?”

The girl’s already large eyes widened noticeably, “Oh my god! How did you… what… why? Please don’t tell anyone…”

“Shhh,” Otto sat in the chair opposite, “not to worry, your secret’s safe with me. Tell me, did Sara put it there on purpose?”

Gypsy looked straight into his eyes, “We made a deal… or, rather, I did. With Kellith.”

“Ah,” Otto nodded, “so, Sara had nothing to do with it?”

“Yes… no… I don’t know, it’s hard to explain,” she shook her head, looking down at the floor, thoughtfully, “We were giving a demonstration of palmistry. When I took her palm, I sort of got lost in her… I don’t know how to explain it. Past, present and future, everything she is, was and will ever be merged into one. It identified itself as Kellith and asked me what I wanted. We made a bargain, I got my confidence. In return, I’m hers, body and soul.”

Otto felt a bad taste enter his mouth, “So, Kellith is already playing goddess is she? You are a very lucky girl, as most lust demons would have had you fifteen pounds heavier by now. Beginner’s luck, I’ll never know.”

The girl’s wide eyes bugged out, making her resemble a frog for a second, “B-b-b-but… I don’t…”

“You do now,” Otto shook his head, “Sara’s one of the good ones, though. However, you could have made a better choice. Demon wishes tend to be a mixed blessing, you see, particularly from ones like Sara. You’ve made your bed and now you’ll get to sleep in it, it’s far too late for regrets. Here…” He stood and handed her his card, “If you ever need help or if anything happens and you need to talk to someone, call me.”

Gypsy stared at the card, then up at the closing door. She was alone again, staring at the card in her hands. Could he really be serious?

Nah, Gypsy shook her head, laughing at the idea, it’s not like Sara…

She winced, her nipples suddenly painfully erect, digging into her bra. The thought of Sara’s lithe body made her feel gooey inside. She felt her cheeks turn red as she crossed her legs, trying to block out the feeling of dampness between her thighs. She thought she felt something twitch low and deep in her abdomen…

Images of Sara pressing herself against her filled her mind, pushing away other, more immediate, worries and pains. Clutching her hands to her breast, she was surprised to discover that she was panting, hot and flustered. She ran over to the sink and splashed cold water in her face.

Her own image in the mirror looked pale and drawn, the dark red circles under her bloodshot eyes almost like… almost like makeup. As she stared at the reflection, something seemed to shift. A ripple, very slight but there in the surface itself.

Tentatively, she reached out to touch the glass… and it moved.

The first tentacle grasped her throat, peeling out through the mirror as if it were made of mercury, choking her, pulling her closer…

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Saturday, 21st October, 200608:00am

“Nikki? Nikki, it’s Ms. Horton,” the gentle, feminine, rap on the door hammered Fey’s tired brain, “there are some people here to see you, it’s rather urgent.”

Chaka groaned in the other bed as Nikki slid her legs into the freezing morning air, rubbing her eyes. Wrapping her blanket over her shoulders, she scampered across the room, wincing as her bare feet touched the floor.

“Ms. Horton?” Fey slowly opened the door, peeking though. The matronly lady was there, all right, along with two soldiers in black armour. The presence of their guns snapped her fully into reality, adrenaline chasing away the cobwebs, “What’s going on?”

“They need all of you at the infirmary… I thought you would be the best person to wake the others, so I came here first.”

Nikki nodded, running across the room to her wardrobe, throwing a pillow straight into Chaka’s stomach on her way past her bed.

“YAK! Wha’ tha’ ‘ell, Nikki???”

“Get dressed, Sara’s in trouble.”

Toni threw back the covers so fiercely that Nikki felt the breeze on the other side of the room. Dressing as fast as possible before splitting up, they fished the other members of Team Kimba out from their usual Saturday morning slumber. Five minutes was all it took, a world record by any standard, for the girls to be winging their way across the lawns.

“Wha...” Jade gasped as they caught sight of the lawns around the hotel, “Are they gunships?”

“Shouldn’t have left her... shouldn’t have left her…” Nikki shook her head, brow creased with worry.

Otto was there to meet them at the door, “Stop, girls, stop.”

Something about his demeanour made them comply, even the usually intractable Tennyo.

“I could feel you all getting closer from halfway across the school,” Otto sighed, “Please, all of you must try to remain calm. Sara is in a stable condition at the moment but she is, for lack of a better word, comatose. I will take you to see her, but please steel yourselves for the worst.”

With that sort of warning, the sight of Sara’s prone form lying peacefully on the gurney, draped in hospital blue sheets, was anticlimactic. Aside from the pulsing black veins covering her face, of course. Most of the furniture had been taken away to make room for the equipment, several technicians monitoring arcane holographic displays.

Otto stood at the head of the bed, absently stroking his patient’s slime-crusted hair, “Sara was attacked by an unknown group. They hacked the security system, so we have no data on the attackers other than the physical evidence our response team collected. However, we do have the device they used for the final blow.”

He reached into his lab pocket and fished out a plastic bag. The instrument inside was steel, similar to some of the equipment lying around in that very room, with a clear plastic tube visible in the framework. The reservoir was obviously empty, dark residue clinging to the inside in spots. Three barbed needles extended from one end, making extraction from a normal human being an act of murder.

“GOD DAMN IT!” Toni turned and punched the doorframe, splintering wood. Chou stepped back and grasped her shoulder, a silent reminder of the Martial Artist’s dignity. Jade was busy hugging Tennyo while Hank stepped up behind Nikki, rubbing her shoulders, a grave look on his face.

Nikki sighed, holding it in, as she looked the body over, “Where’s the wound?”

“In the chest, where the heart should be,” Otto pointed, “but you don’t want to see that.”

“I… I think I should,” Nikki gulped, “I might be able to identify what was in there…”

“We know already,” Otto said softly, “but if you still want to see, I won’t say no. We don’t really understand these effects, Sara is an alchemical life form, any help you could give us would be welcome. But I warn you again, it’s not pretty.”

Nikki too a deep breath and eased Hank’s hands off of her shoulders, she stepping slowly over to Otto, her footsteps ringing in her ears as she walked.

Otto lifted the sheet so she could see.

It took every effort for Nikki not to vomit, turning away and squeezing her eyes shut, the image burned into her mind. The wound was a suppurating sore oozing pale green puss like a burst pimple. Thick, ropy, veins writhed around the raw flesh, tiny, leech-like, tentacles swimming in the discharge. Suction tubes collected the excretion, slurping it away as even more poured fourth. All around the central mass, tiny faces screamed in torment, red eyes blinking in shadow.

“I… I… What was it? What did that?” Fey swallowed several times, pushing down the reflux that burned the back of her mouth through pure force of will.

“It was your blood,” Otto sighed, “Eliz… Headmistress Carson has confirmed that one of your samples was stolen from the vaults under Kane Hall. She’s over there now, trying to get a lead.”

“My blood.” Fey repeated, as if testing the idea for a moment, “My blood? MY BLOOD!”

She span around, laughing and crying at the same time, so overjoyed that she forgot herself and kissed Otto on the cheek, “She’ll be alright! Ergh, but she’ll have SUCH a headache…”

Otto blinked. Everyone in the room stared at her as she bounced, grasping Sara’s hand to pat it comfortingly.

“Um,” Otto wiggled his tie, trying to regain his composure, “Ms. Reilly, if you could please explain yourself to us, my staff and I would be very grateful.”

Nikki paused, looking off into space for a moment before explaining herself, “Ok, lets see if I can say this right in English. I can see the mistake that the assassins made, on the surface, Fey Blood is alchemically opposed to the composition of Demon Ichor. Usually this would mean neutralization… perhaps dramatic neutralization in the case of some of the lesser entities. An uninitiated scholar, who may take their observation of one ‘species’ and extrapolate that behaviour into the others, might assume that all Demons are alike.

“Sara’s different. She’s got the blood of the Great Old Ones, pure chaos in solid form. My blood won’t have that effect… though since she’s not used to it, she’ll be in a lot of pain, her body’s shut down in order to process the blood and regenerate the damage caused by the alchemical reaction. I wouldn’t want to be her right now but she should survive.”

Chaka turned on her heel, heading for the door.

“Toni?” Jade called, “Where you going?”

The black girl stopped, “If she’s going to be all right, you don’t need me here. I have some questions to ask some people. Think you can keep an eye on her for me, Tennyo?”

Nikki gave Sara’s hand one last pat, then moved after her roommate at a brisk walk, “I’m coming with you.”

“Can’t let them go off alone… hold the fort, guys.” Hank sighed, right on Nikki’s heels.

Ayla rolled her eyes and tapped Chou on the shoulder, extracting a deck of cards from her pocket, “Good thing I brought these. Want a game?”

The Handmaiden nodded, thankful for the distraction.

Jade took the redhead’s place by Sara’s side, holding the hand that peeked out from under the covers, “What… what’s happening to her, Doctor?”

“As far as we can tell, she’s dreaming. She entered a state similar to REM sleep a few hours ago, notice her eyes twitching? Several of our best psychics tried to spy in, but her anatomy makes any connection with her practically impossible from this end.” Otto shook his head, staring at her face while he stroked the slime off her brow, exasperated, “I just wish I could take a look in her head. If I could just look at her dreams…”

The laser-red image of the Gate under Whateley and the things that lurked under their feet immediately popped into Jade’s mind. Sara’s cousins… at once, Jade was certain that none of them really wanted to know what Sara was going through at that moment.

Feral crawled back through the crack between the windowsill and the wall easily in her spider-shape, morphing back into an eagle to swoop away after Chaka and the TK posse, floating silently in the currents high above.

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Somewhere in Timeless Dreamspace.

It was pain. The red void ripped her into atoms, then reassembled her so that it could tear her apart once more. She was choking, drowning in the mucus that swept her through the heart of the dread universe, bereft of time or law. She swam through the red, viscous, torrent that sped her inexorably towards the deep nothingness. Galaxies were her compass, planets the ticking arms of a vast, infernal, clock that was slowly winding down, collapsing into the centre of the vast realm unseen by the bacterial infestations that inhabited the tiny, spinning, effervescence they called the Universe. The current constricted her, crushing her fragile meat in its folds and warps and weaves even as she expanded beyond the infinite.

Yet infinity seemed so small, a bag wrapped in on itself, folded into the wrinkled layers of an obscene orifice, bleeding it’s vital juices into the great vacuum that bubbled and fornicated to the incessant piping of hideous servitors, oblivious to the plight around it. It looked up to see her with clouded white pimples. Dead, sightless, orbs that could not, nor should not, be capable of existence in a sane continuum.

Swept up by the sheer force of that glance, she found the end of the infinite rushing towards her, a wall of utter blackness that existed without. Her skin melted. Her limbs withered. She curled up into a pitiful, tight, ball of organic matter. Mind, body and soul shredded and merged, the matrix reformatted into something far simpler in order to resist the pain. Existence was pain. Pain became life.

The wall was red shot through with pulsing veins of yellow puss. She was breathing blood, black blood that leaked from her being in pulsing torrents. Generations of tiny parasites made holy war on one another for the blessed pools of her lifeblood, supping from the unliving mass. Eventually her blood consumed them in turn, a world without a universe drowned over countless eons for the happenstance of a tortured deity.

Floating, drowning in her own fluids, the deity felt her tiny universe expand as her blood pressed outward on the confining sphere around her. Reaching out, she found that she had appendages of some sort and only a vague memory of how to use them. Pressing against the membrane, it bent outwards as she willed, weakening, thinning, and stretching. Her universe burst, spilling her onto a cold, hard, surface that seemed to pull her down against it, resisting her efforts to escape its embrace.

More time passed and she became aware that other things besides her limbs could move if she willed it. Tiny shutters above her upper orifice could open or close, allowing blobs of colour to appear in her brain. Curious, she tried moving the stunted club on the end of the sort tentacle in order to change the blobs. After a while, the blobs started to attach words to themselves, her appendages began to take on meaning and she herself began to develop something called an ‘Identity’.

I am alive, she thought, and I am a she. What is a she?

She moved her limbs in an attempt to change her perspective, but her form felt too strange with her ‘head’ hanging between her ‘arms’ towards the ‘floor’. All the things around her had ‘names’, even things that weren’t there as well. Floor, chair, wood, carpet, table, stove, kitchen, ceiling, light, candle, wax, painting, book… the number of things was overwhelming.

Looking down, she saw that she was dead white. As starkly white as the eyes that had cast her out of existence and into the Universe of Chaos and Pain. She was naked, though she knew she needed something called ‘clothes’, and when she reached back to retrieve the information on where she could obtain some, it wasn’t there.

He stepped into the room.

He was tall on the surface, possessed of wrinkled dark yellow-brown skin with an outer wrapping of artificially coloured insect excrement. He looked like one of the bacteria… but he wasn’t, he was older and possessed a vast intellect that spanned dimensions. He looked at her, his thoughts and feelings radiating outward in a rainbow kaleidoscope of colour much like his clothes.

Who am I? She asked, pushing the words into his mind with ease.

“Your name is Kellith,” he projected his words as vibrations in the swirling vapour that surrounded them, vibrations that her skin received and her mind could interpret as some primitive form of communication, “you are my wife, my female. You exist to serve my needs.”

Kellith found that unlikely, but his form was intriguing. She kept her peace, waiting for more as he approached.

“If you do as I say, I can make you feel good. Like this…”

She considered eating his limbs as he reached out, but the way he caressed her sent shivers down her spine, deep into her soul. Emboldened by her acceptance, he grasped her chest, kneading the small sacks that graced it.

Kellith thought she was going to melt again, throwing herself against her husband so that she could sample more. His fingers probed and prodded her outside sensuously, his orifice tentacle testing her innards. Her excitement did not leave him unsatisfied either, purple waves rippling from his body with each new delight he inflicted.

He span her around, continuing his ministrations while rubbing himself against her backside, “You are Kellith my wife…”

What he did felt too good, she could only groan out her agreement.

“…you will obey me in all things…”

“Yes…”

“…you will be who I order you to be?”

“Yes…”

“Good. I want my wife to be older, more mature, and capable of bearing my young. You want to carry my young in your belly, don’t you?”

“Yes… yesss…” Kellith hissed, her form rippling. Deep inside, something pushed out at her surface, filling out her form, taking her from youth into womanhood. She grew taller, taller than her husband. Small horns sprouted from her forehead. Her spine snaked out above her butt, wrapping around her lover to hold him tightly against her cheeks. Her chest inflated in his rough hands, squeezing erotically between his fingers. Dark hair tumbled down her back.

He seemed disturbed, “No… shorter. With bigger hips. Child-bearing hips…”

She did as he instructed, her need to pleasure him overwhelming her will. It was nice to know what to do, a relief to surrender herself, to let him use her as he saw fit. All her worries and fear melted away into a state of acceptance just short of death. All she cared was that he sighed and groaned in pleasurable agony as he rubbed himself against her new curves.

The room was melting. Through the malaise of twisting lava, two perfect hands grasped her wrists, tugging on her. At first, Kellith thought they were trying to drag her under, but in actuality they were pulling themselves out. Slowly, another female emerged from the wall itself, sleek limbs wrapping around her while an elfin face with flowing red hair took her lips with unbridled passion, curvaceous legs straddling her hips. Looking over her shoulder impishly, the elf glared at Kellith’s husband, “You can’t have her. She’s mine… all mine…”

“SELFISH WITCH!” He grabbed her arms and pulled, trying to separate her from her new lover, “SHE IS MINE! MINE! MINE!”

The girl kept her hold tight, refusing to let go, nails piercing skin, “I shall shape her… she is not yours to dominate! Only I can tame her!”

Kellith felt her insides tearing apart. On one half, her flesh paled, streaked with pulsing black veins. One horn expanded and lengthened, curling up into a dark crescent. Her right eye burned with infernal fire, her tail lashed, her claws and fangs ached to taste lifeblood, her feet lengthening into bestial paws.

A lock of red curls caressed her face while her ears grew into a graceful points. A warm, rosy, flush spread across her face, down her shoulders, back and chest, darkening into a more healthy shade, her body settling into lush, youthful, curves.

“NO! I WILL NOT ALLOW THIS!” screamed a pudgy, thick-limbed, teenager with a microphone in hand, as he suddenly erupted from the floor, hugging her leg, trying to drag her down. Another lock of her hair bleached blonde in an instant, her leg twisting into the slender, tanned, limb of a swimsuit model as the amateur bully pulled with all his might, his greasy-haired companion helping reluctantly.

The Demon screamed as they pulled her in three different directions, the scene rolling and shifting under their feet as she writhed helplessly. Kellith was bent backwards over an altar on a cliff overlooking a gaping, hellish, maw as an Asian girl took up her other foot, bellowing a harsh war cry for ‘The Balance’, the leg shifting to a honey-like colour, gaining muscle tone like the girl herself.

Hordes of others boiled up from the pit, descending upon her like vultures pecking at a corpse. Each took a piece and wrenched it away, demanding, wanting, and needing. Money, justice, peace, love, hate, war, sorrow, joy, pleasure, the requests fused into pure white noise, the high-pitched squeal driving her mad with pain…

Her tormentors played with her in a twisted tug-o-war. Her body shifted in the sea of limbs, stretching and contracting, expanding and deflating as the demonic assailants vied for the biggest piece. Skin stretched, bones dislocated and liquefied, pain arcing through every chord of her being once more as the gluttons divided her up into bite-sized pieces, thousands of supplicants picking at her flesh like vultures.

Then someone else was looming over her head.

Sara’s shadow blocked the torch light as the young Demon Princess grabbed Kellith’s head and pulled, slicing at her neck with her own claws, “I’m sorry, everyone, but this bit’s mine.”

She exploded into a billion motes as Sara severed her head.

Another eternity later, Sara became vaguely aware of sand between her toes and water lapping at her heels. Pleasantly tepid water, that normally would be a pleasure to take a dip in at any other time. Time that didn’t include waking up on the shores of New Zealand next to Granddad’s old beach house, white paint flaking off weathered grey planks. He was there as he always had been when she had been young, rocking slowly to the beat of the wind.

“Granda?”

He smiled and opened his arms. Sara ran into his embrace, crying like never before, crying like the eight-year-old girl she appeared to be.

“Shhh,” he clutched her, rocking her like a baby, “No need to cry, Kellith, I’ve got you now.”

“S-so many...” Sara shook, “too many…”

“It’s all right. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there, your mother’s sorry she couldn’t either. Our family is old, older than the hills themselves. I’m sorry our bodies failed you, we were just too tired to continue.”

“It’s not your fault, Granda.”

“Maybe not, but I’m sorry all the same. Your mother and I are so proud of you, Kellith. You’re doing a far better job of it than any of us could have hoped for.”

“But I… I can’t control myself… everyone wants and wants and wants, telling me how to act, how to think, how to work, how to play. When to bleed… I’m not strong enough to hold it in.”

“Then why try? Kellith, you are what you are. Don’t bind yourself to their arbitrary rules, you aren’t one of them, you are an Old One. You are a primal law, responsible to no one but yourself. Love and life spring from your heart but these things are not always nice, almost never gentle. Choose your own road, Kellith, what is it that you want the most?”

“Power,” Kellith sniffed fiercely, “I need power to help people.”

“Then take it. Forget the advice, forget the lies, forget the truth. Behind all that you perceive lies what you need, you have control of your own fate. Let nothing stand in front of your goal, not anyone else, not even yourself, and you will achieve it. In this universe, nothing is impossible… look… look at the sky.”

Sara followed her Granda’s arm up to where he pointed in the heavens. The sun split in two, lids parting so that the great eye could gaze upon them as it ambled towards the horizon. Closing on the seabed, the ocean steamed and hissed, boiling away into billowing clouds. Ever so slowly, towers rose up from the mists, kelp and other seaweed draped over blunt rooves of gargantuan blocks of black rock.

A single figure stepped from the deserted city, splashing and clawing it’s way up the waterlogged sand. It was large and scaly, gills flapping in the wind with each breath, dripping slimy mucus with each step. Sharp, horny, scales covered the body, claws tipping each and every limb, shark-like fangs glimpsed with each and every contraction of the jaw.

Granda smiled, lowering Sara back to the ground, “Go to her, Kellith. Your mother has returned.”

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Separating his figurines once more, Chessmaster re-attuned to each with the coming of dawn, keeping the connections fresh. The picture of Mrs. P glared sternly at him from across the table in reproof. He ignored it like he ignored the cuts and scrapes across his chest and back, the remanets of Deathwish’s love bites from a busy, yet most pleasurable, night.

And, as always, he fretted over his Lover’s piece, a Golden Queen of their matched pair to his own King, the dust thick over both models. He had been a piece once in his own games, before he had gone pro. The days at Whateley had been heady. ‘So many pawns, not enough time’. Never enough time, he would always say, eager to play the next game.

He always won. Almost. Every fisherman has the tale about the one that got away, or so they say. Chessmaster thought about his ‘fish’, the first game that he had lost, every single day of his life. The names of his former teachers haunted his dreams, taunting him with his failure and baiting him with success.

Setting the Queen down with loving tenderness, he picked up the current game’s King; a tiny little Goth girl. To look at her outer shell, she was nothing special. Indeed, Chessmaster often wondered what Mrs. P saw in her. She had potential, true, but potential is so often wasted.

It mattered not. Chessmaster didn’t care about the whys; it was enough that Mrs. P cared about her. That the old bitch’s plan could be ruined with the removal of a single piece.

Yes, all that mattered was revenge.

Broken out of his reverie by the stomping behind him as his partner lurched out of bed, Chessmaster called out over his shoulder, “When will you be leaving?”

“Two hours,” the death machine rasped back, pouring himself some liquor, “it may take us a few days to infiltrate the strike zone. Whateley’s perimeter defences are tough but I’m sure my children can handle it.”

Chessmaster nodded, picking up another piece in his other hand, contemplating, “I have every confidence in them. What of Lady Astarte?”

It took a moment for Deathlist to reply, downing his drink in one gulp, “I’ll take care of her myself.”

Not for the first time in his life, Chessmaster was worried. “Are you sure you can defeat her?”

“I killed Champion once, my love, I can kill an ex-sidekick has-been without breaking a sweat.”

“You’re underestimating her power.”

“And you’re underestimating mine. Do not make that mistake again.”

Chessmaster smiled, tracing the raw scratches on his hips. He loved it when his cyborg played rough.

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“Doctor Otto?”

Otto paused for a moment, his finger freezing over the tap at the base of the tall kettle, a tiny wisp of steam dribbling from underneath. Looking over his shoulder, he visibly relaxed, “Jade. You startled me.”

“Sorry,” she demurred, scuffing one heel, “Doctor, is Sara going to be OK?”

He continued pouring as he answered, letting the boiling water dribble into his cup, “I hope so, Jade. Honestly, I don’t know for sure, despite what your friend says. However, if what I have read and seen about her is correct, Nikki should know better than anyone. Would you like some?”

She shook her head at his offer of another cup, “No thanks. I’m hyper already, that stuff makes me bounce off the walls.”

“How about some tea then?” He smiled, “there’s some oolong here. It comes from dragons you know.”

She blinked, “Really?”

“Of course,” Otto nodded, “their power seeps into the leaves through the roots that invade their chambers under the earth, where they lay sleeping for generations. Some wait there for the call to arms, when the enemy is unleashed upon the Earth once more. Have a seat and we can talk a while.”

He placed the tea before her, heavily laced with milk and sugar. It was sweet and warm, both of which Jade found she needed on the freezing winter’s day. The sky was clear outside but for some reason the lack of cloud added bite to the air.

“Sara tells me that your BIT is stuck.”

Momentary panic hit her like a thousand volts to the backside. Before she could say a word, Otto hushed her, “Not to worry, she broke no vows of secrecy. I gathered during one of our sessions that you are an unexpressed Exemplar undergoing treatment here… however, my sight, you see, is a little too penetrating at times.” He tapped his head, clenching his fingers together as if to stop his hand from shaking.

Furrows formed on her brow as Jade squinted at his eyes, trying to read what she saw there, “You look really tired.”

“I haven’t slept for a few days is all,” Otto grimaced wearily, “our Sara is quite a handful at the best of times. I see… something inside her that reminds me of days long past. A glimmer of light buried so deep in a well of darkness. Life was unkind to Michael Waite when he was alive; in death the world is even more unkind. Sara fits inside no box, her continued existence defies all rational thought. Those her enemies do not destroy will be taken by time itself as she watches. I don’t fear Sara’s death at all, Jade, what I fear is that she will change, which I guess is a type of death. The Mythos, as we like to call it, corrupts. They toy with reality and the perception of reality, powered by formless nuclear chaos most mortal mathematicians have no inkling of.”

Jade scowled, unimpressed, “I asked her for help and she said she could, but she wasn’t going to. Could you sit by and not help a friend who was in mortal pain, Doctor? That’s what it’s like for me. I’m trapped in this stupid, ugly, damned body and I can’t get out! She hung salvation over my head, then took the carrot away, just out of my reach!”

“And she calls herself dishonest,” Otto grunted in amusement, “Jade, if you’d seen some of the things Sara has, you’d understand why she couldn’t help you. If your problem was normal, Transmutation is a relatively simple branch of Thaumaturgy. Ms. Reilley could probably cast the spells necessary after a few weeks of study. To fix your problem, Sara would have to contact one of the Outer Gods. And once their seed was implanted in you, you would no longer be the Jade she wanted so badly to help. She’s watched that process once, I don’t think she could survive it again.”

Jade watched the Doctor take a long sip of his coffee, puzzled, “She’s seen it once? What do you mean?”

He sighed, “She hasn’t told you about her mother, then.”

“Only that she died of cancer.” Jade shrugged.

“That’s not the whole story,” he winced, “she didn’t tell me about it while I was under oath though… I think I can tell you. Under the circumstances, she’d want me to.”

Jade wiggled in her chair, the suspense gripping her heart.

“Michael wasn’t always a writer...”

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“There you are, Greasy!” Chaka put a slender, yet superbly toned, arm around the pizza-faced nerd, pulling him into a deserted side passage near Crystal Hall. Hank pinned the little boy to the wall with one hand, taking great pleasure in exercising his strength, spoiling for a fight. They all were.

“LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Chaka put one finger over her lips, “Shush. To tell you the truth, we’re not after you today. However, you do know where your companion in crime is, don’t you? We want to have a chat with him.”

He looked up at her defiantly, “I won’t tell you.”

Nikki stepped forward, grabbing him harshly by the chin, Aunghadhail pointing out the cuts and abrasions on his face, “You would defend the one who put these marks on your countenance?”

“Peeper’s my friend,” he snarled, thrusting her hand away, “he just gets carried away sometimes… he’s always sorry later.”

Hank chuckled, picking Greasy up by the shirt collar, “I thought you were the smart one. Look, we know he’s lying low somewhere for the weekend. We know you know where he is and we know that between the two of you, you probably know who’s out to kill Sara. So spill it, runt!”

Hank’s not-so-gentle shakes proved ineffective, the gadgeteer squeaking at the height of each thrust, “Hit me all you want, it won’t do you any good.”

“Ok, back off, Hulk-man,” Chaka patted Lancer on one muscled arm, “this needs a woman’s touch.”

Setting Greasy down gently, Hank backed off muttering something about girls.

Chaka glared down at Greasy again, right into his eyes, “Take us to Peeper.”

Everyone blinked. Chaka’s voice seemed to echo in the mind, the command reverberating as if two or three people had spoken at once.

“Ok, I’ll take you to Peeper.” Greasy muttered, glassy-eyed, then turned and walked back the way he had come, the TK posse in hot pursuit.

“What the hell was that?” Fey whispered.

“Had the idea watching a re-run of Dune the other night,” Chaka smirked, keeping one eye on Greasy several feet ahead, “it’s my version of The Voice. I figured I could channel my Ki into my speaking voice like with the war cry, the subsonics carrying my suggestion right into the subconscious.”

“So, does that make you Obi-Two?” Lancer jibed, leaning forward so his whisper wouldn’t carry in the empty hallway.

“May the Force be with you,” Chaka grinned, “’cause the Farce ‘ain’t.”

Nikki patted him on the shoulder, “Don’t give up your day job.”

Lancer glanced up at the heavens and mouthed the word again. ‘Girls’.

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“What the hell happened?” Englund demanded as he paced the briefing room in Goober HQ, the dejected members of the core elite wriggling in their chairs like wounded puppies, “Carson was so far up my ass this morning that I won’t be able to use wooden chairs for a week! And I have to explain the disappearance of one of the Dream Walkers’ more powerful members to the Council of Astral Magi, and what do I have as a result? NOTHING!”

No one looked at the pile of blue ash on the bed in the corner that used to be Nobody. They didn’t need to.

Nighbane stood up, standing to attention, “Sir, Nobody’s sacrifice allowed us to deliver the toxin as was suggested by our informant. If Sara Waite is still alive, it constitutes a failure of intelligence, not us. She certainly looked like she was doing a good job of dying when we left her, and we had wounded.”

Englund glared, “I rely on you to interpret that information. Conformation of that intelligence was left up to Ecto-tek.”

All eyes turned towards the gadgeteer/devisor.

He shrugged, “Don’t look at me like that. Her physical composition baffles all the ordinary tests, and I never claimed to be an expert in Class X manifestations.”

“But you said it would work!” Nightbane glared.

“Correction,” Ecto-tek tutted, “I said is SHOULD work. On the surface, the metaphysics of it should work. Sidhe blood is a strong conduit for positive energy; Sara’s blood appears to store that same energy, sort of like a liquid battery. Adding the two together should have been like throwing a lit match into a drum of rocket fuel. I can’t explain what went wrong.”

“I thought the TS devise gave a detailed analysis of everything down to her shoe size,” Englund queried.

“That’s the problem, here,” Ecto-Tek reached over and hefted a stack of paper the size of an ancient tome, and threw it into the Reverend’s waiting arms, “that’s chapter 7, alchemical composition of Sara’s bodily fluids. The summery states everything quite clearly if you can understand the Devisor’s notes and have a degree in Metaphysics, Alchemy and Xenobiology. It’d take a team of researchers YEARS to analyse the DNA results, the strands are so long the TS devise had to break it down into an encrypted equation on forty DVDs, and I don’t have the key. Give me the rest of my life and I just MIGHT be able to tell you what went wrong last night.”

Scowling, Englund pulled two Aspirin out of his jacket pocket and swallowed them dry, “All right, I’ll drop the subject. However, the job has yet to be finished. What do you suggest?”

Ecto-Tek stood up and brushed himself off, “I say we do it the old-fashioned way. We know the Yang energy in sunlight hurts her thanks to Beacon. The Mithril-coated holy sword also did some damage before she corrupted the enchantments. If our friends from the Syndicate really want her as dead as we do, I think it might be time to call in some favours. What we need is going to cost money.”

All eyes shifted again towards the figure lurking in the shadows. The dark, feminine, silhouette stubbed out it’s cigarette before replying.

“Whatever you need, consider it done.”

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“Headmistress Carson! Always a pleasure to hear your voice.”

“Can it, Vlad. What are your cronies doing interfering with my school.”

There was silence on the other end for the moment.

“I asked you politely not to call me that any more. And I have no idea what you’re talking about. My country does not involve themselves in affairs of the USA…”

“Oh, I’m not talking about your agents, Vlad, they keep to themselves. I’m talking about the Syndicate thugs smuggling contraband past the wards. Two norms got into the school on a GREEN day, no less.”

“My dear, you’ve been on about that for decades now! I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, I am not involved with some quasi-mythical ‘shadow government’ or any form of organized crime, now or ever. I am the head of state of a sovereign nation, I disavowed all my non-political ties when the people elected me to office.”

“I thought we knew each other well enough now not to play these games. Very well, let us take a hypothetical situation, as an example. Let us say that you were a part of a multinational criminal organization that hired and fired super villains on a daily basis. Better yet, let us speculate that you are at the head of such an organization.”

“Well, there is no harm in speculation.”

 “Very well. Would you consider smuggling a profitable business?”

“Yes and no. It would depend on the product. You would have to have something to make the end result worth the trouble of moving the illegal merchandise secretly over national boarders. I would have considered a facility as secure as Whateley to be impenetrable for living cargo, though the board often fields complaints about illegal substances filtering though with regular traffic. I have investigators searching for the Dylan’s secret hydroponics lab to little success.”

“Be that as it may,” Carson screwed her eyes shut, trying to concentrate on the matter at hand, “I would speculate that you would be aware of your agent’s activities in this hypothetical situation.”

“Not necessarily,” his tone was grave, with a tinge of disgust, “in any organization, there can be elements that do not follow orders and have a different agenda to the leaders. This may be more true with a group like you describe.”

“Therefore the leaders would have to assert stricter authority structures to rein in the misfits.”

“True. However, such an organization might be structured more like a business network than a formal government. If lone Masterminds are any example, they work best with a relative amount of freedom. A criminal’s stock-in-trade is thinking outside the box.”

“But there are some rules that must not be broken for the good of the whole, such as interfering with affairs on neutral ground. It wouldn’t be good for business if the competition decided that their truce wasn’t being honoured.”

Another, longer, pause.

“Correct. If one looks at Whateley as a model for such a place, the training of possible future members must take priority for the good of the whole. There, such competing groups have a mutual interest. However, the door must swing both ways for trust to exist. Criminals are also more flighty than law-abiding brethren.”

“Good, I see that our opinions coincide. We must talk again sometime soon, Vlad.”

“Soon.”

The line beeped once before they were disconnected.

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Elsewhere in Dreamspace.

Megaliths dotted the broad boulevards while more slender stonework decorated the elder pyramids, worn smooth by eons of shifting tides. The stench of the flopping fish, mucus membranes baking in the red heat of the eye hanging overhead, permeated everything.

Sara hugged her mother close, snuggled safe and secure in her arms as she was carried inside, Granda hobbling along behind them with his walking stick. The years seemed to peel off his face as they descended into the depths of the Earth, his eyes shining with the wonder of a small boy wandering through a forest for the first time.

Ever so slowly, the basalt walls were replaced with webs of tarnished gold, leading towards a portal forged of the same material. The corridor was as cyclopean as those in her dreams, the intricately embossed double doors weighing in the realm of tonnes. Despite the obvious weight, they shifted ponderously apart as the unusual trio approached, soft green light seeping through the crack.

The sight that greeted them was stranger still.

The Deep Ones bowed, grovelled and scraped in row upon row to either side of the gargantuan chamber, the only objects unadorned by their precious yellow metal. The glyphs that covered every flat surface burned themselves into Sara’s head, their true meaning clear to her immediately. Tentacled statues fought an endless war all around, though each seemed to give tribute towards the dark throne, illuminated in the distance by a putrid green phosphorescence.

Sara’s Mother set her down on the path, a sculpted road paved with gold that led straight from the door to the throne, and nudged her forward. Looking back in askance, pain gripping her heart, her Mother simply shook her head sadly, nodding towards the throne once more. The bond they shared was so deep, that words were unwelcome.

Stepping forward, Sara became aware of how small she was compared to the ‘monsters’ that surrounded her. Each grizzly fish-man stood nine feet at the shoulder at the very least, muscle encased in leathery green scales, dripping vile gelatinous slime with every movement. The unholiness of the place made her skin tingle with excitement, their chants resonating with her pulse. She didn’t even realize that she had been walking until the Throne loomed before her.

Looking back again, Mother pointed to the throne, stoic, stern, immoveable. Granda smiled knowingly and nodded, gesturing towards the throne as if pushing her up into the seat.

It seemed to grow bigger as she approached, so big she had to reach up to clamber into the chair. The Throne engulfed her tiny body, feet dangling off the floor; she had to reach out to clasp the arms. The supplicants bellowed in epiphany, the chant climaxing along with them.

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“Michael wasn’t always a writer,” Otto breathed heavily, “in fact, he was one of the most promising minds of his generation. I first met him when he was 18, though she can’t remember that now. I’m not surprised, honestly, I wasn’t quite so grey or quite so bald and the lecture was crowded. He was one of Oxford’s shining stars in the field of Metaphysics, which was the sexy new field of study all the kids flocked towards, trying to get in on the ground floor of history. I don’t know what he told you, he might not remember it himself, after…”

Otto trailed off for a moment, then snapped back to the here and now, “Sorry, I’ll get to that in a moment. Michael was a child prodigy. One of those kids you see on TV who can prove the theory of relativity at the age of 9, a borderline mutant I suppose you could say. Got his scholarship for Oxford at 16 and never looked back. His lecture two years later was on Pattern Theory, a revolutionary new idea that won him a PhD. ARC then recruited him and his professor for a project run out of MiskatonicU.”

Jade had to remember to blink while Otto took another sip of his coffee.

“He gave us four years of first-class work, in both the field and back at the lab. His current foster mother idolized him and he doesn’t remember her from back then at all, not anymore. Then, one day, he got a call from home that shook him to the core. He left for the family home that same day, leaving everything behind. I tried to help him… but he was incoherent, babbling about his mother dying. When I asked the secretary that put the call through, she said that it was from his grandfather, whom I knew for a fact had been dead for more than ten years.

“I panicked. I think you know better than the others the sort of work we did, our facility was rated to withstand Class X threats… seems ironic now. We all marvelled at Michael’s fortitude of mind, he faced things that made others quail without a single complaint. I arrived a day after Michael did to his Grandfather’s beach house in New Zealand. The place was burning, I found him covered in blood, wandering the beach. It took me another year to piece together what was left of his mind,” Otto sighed, staring into his empty cup.

“His mother had been dying of cancer for years. Or that’s what the doctors had thought. Actually, she was changing, mutating in her later years so that she could join her ancestors under the oceans. Some cultists trapped her in the beach house and used some sort of rite to chain her to their will. Michael watched the transformation complete itself, then slaughtered them all and set the house on fire. He left his mother to burn in the basement.”

Jade felt sick to the stomach, trying not to think.

“His mind was shattered,” Otto shook his head, “he became obsessed with writing. Kept diaries and diaries, scribbling out formulae and anecdotes. I’m not sure if something was forcing him to write or if he did it to keep the memories out of his head. In the end, I think it was a bit of both. I’ll always regret what I did next. We wiped his memory, and then we built him back up from scratch as best we could. After that, he wasn’t the Michael Waite we knew anymore; he was a writer. We pulled some strings and got him published, his success amazed even us. You can imagine my surprise when who he had been and what he had done started to filter through into his stories. When Incongruity came out, the board had a collective heart attack, but we had no choice except to ignore it, let the story filter into the collective unconscious until it lost all meaning and became a work of fiction, not of fact.”

“Er,” Jade fidgeted, “what is Incongruity, Doctor? I mean, what is it really?”

“Incongruity,” Otto smiled sadly, “is the First Scripture of Kellith.”

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“Um,” Greasy stuttered, “aren’t you going a little too far?”

They had finally arrived at Peeper’s hidey-hole, an abandoned room under Twain that looked like it had once belonged to a mad scientist, though all the machinery was covered in layers of dust. The trio looked down at Greasy, then back up at the amateur agony art hanging from the ceiling fan by one foot, gagged and bound, though that didn’t stop him from wriggling or trying to scream, spinning like a top as the blades revolved on high power. The industrial-strength contraption (once used in a wind tunnel to test jet aircraft) was mounted to draw air down from the surface and into the underground complex several hundred feet below ground level. In other words, perfect for the task at hand.

Nikki shook her head, a savage gleam alight in her eyes, “No.”

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Hippolyta glared at the poster on her roof, the practically naked redhead glaring back at her with equal intensity. “Stupid,” she told herself again, “stupid, stupid, stupid. Of course she doesn’t like you, you’re the big, butch, muscle-bound She-Ra wannabe. Heck, she’s only thirteen! What the HELL are you thinking? Cradle-snatch much?”

The knock on her door disturbed her self-loathing pity. “WHAT?” she barked, almost glad to have something to vent on.

“It’s Erin.”

What the fuck? Hippolyta glared, wishing she could shoot laser beams from her eyes like some of the other mutants. Not in the mood for subtle, she went for brute force, “FUCK OFF!”

It seemed to work for a moment. Then the door ripped off its hinges, a gigantic white bear crowding the hallway behind it. Shrinking back down into her human shape, Erin casually sauntered through the door, “What did you do to Sara?”

Snarling, Hippie jumped to her feet, “What the FUCK are you talking about? I NEVER TOUCHED HER.”

“I heard you were sulking up here,” Erin kicked the tiger skin rug on the floor in disgust, “figured that you might want a little payback after yesterday. You can’t have her, no-one will, right?”

“What. The. Fuck. Are you talking about?” Hippie grit her teeth together, trying not to hit the impudent little frosh in front of her. She was too close to suspension as it was.

Erin flipped her hair out of her face, “Don’t try to tell me you haven’t heard.”

“Heard what? I haven’t been out of my room since yesterday.”

There was a long pause as the two girls glared at each other.

Erin looked away first, frowning slightly, “I guess you’re telling the truth. Damn, I was sure…”

“Whatever,” Hippie brushed off everything else, suddenly worried deep down, “now, do you mind telling me what the hell is going on?”

“Someone tried to kill Sara again in hospital last night…”

“WHAT!” Hippie was out the door before she even finished her exclamation, leaving Erin standing in the middle of the room with her eyes bugging out.

“Holy hell, that was fast.”

“Hippolyta?” Mrs. Horton looked around the corner of the destroyed doorway, sighing deeply as she spied the wreckage, “Ah, I see she’s stopped sulking at least. Why must she always wreck things like this, I’ll never know… Come on out, dear, I’ll get this door back on in a trice.”

Erin walked out of the room half-dazed at the matron’s calm, businesslike, manner. She pulled the heavy hardwood door back into place easily, a single touch mending the hinges in a flash of magic, “There. Now, it’s a lovely day outside, shouldn’t you be out with your friends, young lady?”

“Er,” Erin gulped, slinking away, “yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Horton waved her off, smiling gently, “That’s a nice, polite, girl there.”

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A jet-black craft raced through the forested hills, the ground shooting past in a blur underneath. Hugging the ground, the stealth transport made no noise, dampening fields shielding even the nesting birds from the whine and crackle of anti-gravity engines. Slowing as it arced over a mountaintop, the strange vehicle slid to a halt over a small clearing surrounded by camouflaged sheds, the ground opening to reveal a secret hangar as the transport descended.

Deathlist debarked from his personal transport, a modified VTOL stealth platform customized by Chessmaster himself, straightening his tie while smoothing over his immaculate Armani suit. The toys were his lover’s department after all. Looking over the field, he was always surprised at how small the troops were, like dolls or action figures parents give to their children for Christmas. This particular facility, disguised as a militia base, housed only three brigades of Tiger Guards, the Syndicate’s military enforcers and mercenaries. It also, however, played host to other guests.

“Sir,” General Tetsuo saluted as he stalked forward, his gauntlet clacking against his helmet, “The Sabretooths are mobilizing in the motor pool.”

“Very well,” Deathlist dismissed him, surveying the troops to either side. His bionic ears picked up a rattle, like a trooper shaking in fear. It was a familiar sound, one he heard often. Turning towards the source, he heard the clatter increase, very low, too low for normal ears.

It was a girl, a girl wearing a man’s uniform. The hard ceramic compound armour was loose across the shoulders like it was on most green recruits, and this young woman was no exception. Built to the Syndicate’s exacting specifications, the hard plate armour had been developed as a spin-off from the US Army’s Land Warrior powered combat armour, though Kevlar weaves had been replaced with tougher carbon composite scales, the whole surface painted with LCD cells as adaptive camouflage. At the moment, however, the ensemble displayed the Tiger Guard’s dress pattern, black tiger stripes lancing around from the back like enclosing fangs on a background of orange-yellow.

Towering over the girl at nine feet, Deathlist reached out to grasp the side of her helm, staccato breathing clear to his heightened senses. The noise stopped with her breathing as bare metal scraped across paint, gently running down the side of her ‘cheek’.

“No need to be afraid of me, child,” Deathlist smiled, baring steel fangs, “you are one of us now. You survived my tests and were proven worthy, you have nothing to fear now, and you are a warrior. How old are you?”

“S-Seventeen, Sir!”

“And how many have you killed?”

“Nine, Sir!”

“An impressive count for your age,” closing his lips, his smile became warm and fatherly, “but it is only a start. Like a Tiger, you will kill to survive. Like a Tiger, you will learn to enjoy the taste of blood on your lips, the intimate thrill of delivering death to your enemies. The fear that you are feeling now is the knowledge that you are in the presence of a superior predator. It is not cowardice that drives you in this moment, but wisdom. Have you chosen a mate yet?”

“Sir, no, Sir! No Guardsman has proven himself a good match, Sir!”

“Then I declare these men here to be without foresight. General, I want this Guard to execute the next three traitors. See to it.”

“Yes, Sir!” Tetsuo snapped his heels together.

“Sir! Thank-you Sir!” The recruit snapped into a crisp and eager salute.

Deathlist gave her a pat on the shoulder before continuing down the line, giving each of his children a quick glance and a friendly nod. The Guard was more than a military unit, more than comrades. More than family; they were blood.

The General dismissed the brigade, following on Deathlist’s heels, “Sir, speaking of executions, we have dispatched three traitors this month. Two were from US Army Intelligence, one was from Interpol. However, we have a thief. Someone is stealing supplies from the Quartermaster…”

“There’s always someone stealing supplies from the Quartermaster, General,” Deathlist growled, his raspy voice hollow with irony, “I am more concerned that my men find it necessary to steal supplies from the Quartermaster.”

Tetsuo gulped. Deathlist could hear his heartbeat flutter.

“Tell me, General, did you ever play cricket at school?”

Tetsuo blinked, “No, Sir.”

“I did. It was a boarding school for problem children in the heart of England, one of those quote ‘posh’ places so despised by the common man. One day, a peer of mine hit a cricket ball clear across the green, straight through the Principal’s window. The Principal rushed out of his office and immediately recruited him for the school cricket team. I had to admire that in the Principal, he knew when to overlook a slight to snatch the advantage of an unforeseen opportunity. Likewise, I will do the same with this thief, any member of the Guard who can successfully steal supplies is an asset I want for the Sabretooths. See to it, General.”

“I see what you mean, Sir,” Tetsuo nodded, “I will take care of it.”

The cyborg halted in front of the door to the Gym, hand frozen halfway towards the biometric scanner that unlocked the outer door. Turning back, Deathlist’s wistful half-smile unnerved Tetsuo more than his fanged grin from before, “You know the funniest part of that story, General?”

Tetsuo shook his head.

“I slid a steak knife up through that boy’s eye and into his brain the next night, and then buried the body underneath my tomato garden. To this day, the teachers still haven’t found him,” Deathlist chuckled, sonorous voice booming, “and they wondered why my tomatoes tasted so sweet. I took the blue ribbon for gardening that year.”

Secretly, General Tetsuo was glad that the sweat rolling down his forehead made neither sound nor was visible under his mask, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the murder machine could smell it from a hundred yards away.

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“Fold,” Chou sighed.

Ayla grinned, raking in the spare change, “Another game?”

“What? You want the shirt off my back?” Chou glared, gathering the cards together and shuffling the deck, “Don’t know why you’re being so hard on me. I told you that I couldn’t play.”

“Got to learn sometime,” Ayla grinned, “ready to go again?”

Chou scowled, “All right. ONE more time.”

“You said that three times ago.”

“I know, but this time, I mean it.”

“You said that four times ago.”

“You going to deal or not?”

The technicians chuckled, their eye half on the game and half on their screens. By silent agreement, they were not looking at the cute chicks, and would deny any such accusation with the utmost vehemence. Leaning over, Bob tapped Larry on the shoulder; passing an innocent-looking note, ‘Think we could convince her to bet her shirt?’

‘Doubtful,’ Larry wrote back.

“Hey.”

Both men jumped, Bob hastily scrunching up the paper. Looking over his shoulder, the spiky-haired girl leaned over them, hands on her hips, “Either of you know where Jade is?”

Looking at each other, they both shrugged. Bob answered, “No, sorry Ms.”

She sighed, “Well, if she comes back, tell her I’ve gone to get some air…”

Bob nodded, cocking one eyebrow up, “Er, sure. No problem.”

She gave them both a distracted ‘thanks’ as she turned to leave, patting Ayla on the shoulder as she walked past.

Outside, Tennyo literally flew into the woman’s bathroom, her stomach was growling like an angry lion. Panting, she splashed some water in her face, trying to concentrate on something, anything, other than food.

She was now painfully aware that they’d skipped breakfast. With Jade gone a ready source of food had disappeared with her. Of all the benefits that her roommate’s power gave her, the ability to organize take-out from the cafeteria without actually leaving the room was perhaps the most useful.

A new series of burbles had her doubled over the sink, clutching her tummy in agony. Her brow crinkled, “Not normal… not normal…”

“Are any of us?”

Jumping slightly, Tennyo snapped her head around searching for the source of the voice. And the smell, such a wonderful aroma… but it was only another student, a girl who displayed her large bust with confidence, long, wavy, black hair framing her face.

“I… er…” Tennyo chuckled sheepishly, at a loss for words.

The girl sashayed over to check her face in the mirror, poking her cheeks as if to check if they were on straight, “Rough morning?”

“Er, yeah,” Tennyo gathered her dignity, turning to check her own face in the mirror, trying to emulate the other girl and not give herself away, “skipped breakfast.”

“Oh, dear. Not to worry, the Nurse at the desk said that someone had ordered some lunch a little while ago, shouldn’t be long now. Is Sara feeling better?”

Tennyo tried not to let her feelings show, holding back the sudden tightening she felt around her eyelids, “She seems to be better. Just got to work the poison out of her system.”

The girl’s smile seemed genuine, “Thank the gods… I was so worried. They wouldn’t let me in to see her…”

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Tennyo asked (in a very un-Ryoko like manner if she did say so herself), “who are you?”

“Oh, me? My name’s Gypsy,” she held her palm up, revealing a stylised inverted triangle like Sara’s, only this one was dark red rather than black, “I’m one of her disciples, I guess.”

Tennyo turned back to the mirror, trying not to look interested, “Yeah, Nikki and Toni told us about you. If you don’t mind me asking, why’d you do it? Sign on with something like Kellith, I mean?”

She winced, “Do you really think of my… I mean Sara, as a ‘thing’? She’s as human as you are, you know.”

Chuckling, Tennyo ran one hand through her hair, needlessly smoothing it back only to have it spring back up again, “That’s not saying much for her, I’m afraid.”

“I know,” Gypsy murmured contritely, “but did you ever stop to think about why she is? Why demons are at all?”

“Nope,” Tennyo shrugged, “I don’t particularly care either, as long as they keep to themselves. Problem is, it’s their business to hurt people, isn’t it? I mean… Sara’s fine in my books, but the way she looks at people… it’s like you’re a side of beef or a cherry waiting to be picked. The way she talks about… stuff… she makes everyone uncomfortable. Now, she may have saved Jade, but you have to wonder if it won’t be her backing Jade into a restroom next time.”

“Ah,” Gypsy smiled ruefully, “it’s a matter of trust, then.”

“Nobody touches Jade,” Tennyo glared intensely at her reflection, “nobody hurts Jade. I don’t know what Sara was playing at, but I’m not going to forgive her for toying with Jade’s feelings.”

Solemnly washing her hands, Gypsy sighed and closed her eyes, “No good deed goes unpunished. How much do you know about Sara’s family? You may know the words and be able to parrot them back to me, but do you know? I think you just might be able to comprehend what I am trying to say, but if you were in Sara’s place, could you drag sweet, innocent, little Jade into that world? Could you make her a monster?”

Tennyo continued staring into the mirror, unable to answer.

“I didn’t think so. Sara could have taken advantage of Jade like she ASKED to be, she could have made her female and given her a legion of children. But all that would have been left of the little girl you love would have been a puppet of flesh. Would you have thanked Sara for giving that gift? Would Jade? Her affliction is most peculiar, even in the annals of the Old Ones to whom an unchanging form would be anathema.”

“But why…” Tennyo looked up. The scene had shifted and suddenly she was sitting just outside Sara’s hospital room, looking at her own reflection in the window in the opposite wall. Looking down again to check the time, she found a Hershey Bar in her hand, half eaten, the time the same as it had been before, about twenty-five to ten.

“ROYAL FLUSH!”

The shout almost made Tennyo jump out of her skin, barging through the door in panic.

Ayla’s mouth worked like a fish out of water as Chou beamed at her from across the table.

“Ok,” the Chinese girl rapped on the table insistently with her knuckles, “off with the shirt.”

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“I did warn you didn’t I?” Hippolyta asked casually.

“PUT ME DOWN!”

Patricia Horton, the Yellow Queen of the Whateley Academy Cheering Squad, screamed at the top of her lungs while dangling over the edge of the observatory, the highest point in all of Whateley.

Hippie wasn’t feeling so sympathetic at the moment, her stomach tied into a series of complex knots, worry gnawing at her heart, “Just tell me who put the hit on Sara and I’ll let you go.”

That statement just made the blonde scream louder.

“Look, as much as I like the view here,” Hippolyta leered down the girl’s supple leg, which was held at the ankle by one of her own sinuous arms, “all your wriggling is making me lose my grip. Just tell me what I want to know and I promise I’ll let you go safely.”

“I DON’T KNOW!”

“Sorry? I didn’t quite hear that, could you speak up?”

“I SWEAR, I DON’T KNOW WHO DID IT!”

Scowling, Hippolyta lifted the girl up and flipped her over, grabbing her by the collar so they could look at each other eye-to-eye, “Don’t give me that shit. Word is you want in with Sebastiano. The Don has his shit in everything, EVERYTHING!”

“He doesn’t tell me shit!” Pat whined, crying, “How the fuck would I know?”

“You must have heard something, right?” Hippolyta drew her face close, teeth snapping a hair’s breadth away from her nose, “You keep tabs on him like a good little wannabe fuck-bunny, right? Don’t disappoint me, Patty…”

“Ok… ok...” Patricia gasped as Hippolyta tightened her collar around her slender, delicate, neck, “I know a girl who knows one of Hekate’s spell slingers. She said she heard the Don bragging that he had Peeper set up all that business with Sara the other day, but the little shit’s gone underground ‘cause he’s shitting over himself both ways. On one hand, Team Kimba wants to strangle him with his own testicles… though I doubt they’re that long, but anyway. On the other, the Headmistress has cut off his access to the subspace transmitter, which means WARS is out of action…”

“Wars?”

“His radio station? Honestly, Hippie, don’t you pay attention?”

Hippolyta slapped her across the face. Hard. “And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m this close to dropping your ass over the edge of a seven-story building. Keep talking.”

It took Patricia a moment to get her breath back, “Ok, ok. Without WARS, Peeper’s shit on the Don’s shoe, a loose end and he knows it. Dug himself a hole and buried his head in it until the shit storm blows over, only the Don doesn’t give a shit what he does. Whatever went down, it went according to plan.”

“So? Why’s he want to kill Sara?” Hippolyta increased the pressure.

“He doesn’t,” Pat squeaked, “word is that he’s working at the request of someone else…”

“Who?”

“I don’t know! Nobody knows…”

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“Ididn’twanttohurtanyoneitwasjustgoodjournalism…”

“SLOW. Down.” Toni commanded, using ‘the voice’ again, pinning Peeper back against his chair with one foot on his chest, “We know you’ve been working for the Don. So spill it, what’s he up to?”

“I don’t know… not exactly. He told us to make trouble for you, and I got an idea on how to do it but I couldn’t pull it off on my own. So… so Greasy went and asked around for some help when I TOLD him NOT to!”

Greasy quailed slightly, shivering. Nikki patted him on the shoulder, subtly shaking her head at Toni.

“Some of the guys from Twain went and told Thuban,” Peeper fidgeted, “and he… he got mad. Really mad. They said he went to tell the Don to lay off us if he didn’t want to start a war between Melville and Twain. The Don got mad too and wouldn’t back down, so Thuban got him to agree not to hurt us if we did the job for him, even offered to use his own influence to smuggle the Darlings in…”

“Thuban? You’re saying THUBAN wants to kill Sara?”

Greasy shook his head, “If Thuban wanted Sara dead, I don’t think he’d miss. Sebastiano told Thuban that it was only a contract job for him anyway, so he didn’t really give a shit who or what did it as long as it hit Sara where it hurts.”

“Should have known,” Hank shook his head, staring at the ground, “never deal with a dragon. So, in all likelihood, Thuban knows who’s out to kill Sara. Are we done here?”

“Not quite,” Toni grinned malevolently, glaring down at Peeper, “this asshole’s given us a lot of grief. And you know he’ll just end up doing Sebastiano’s dirty work for him again.”

Peeper shook his head violently, side to side, “NOnonononononononono! No I won’t! I promise… you’ve got to believe me!”

“We don’t,” Nikki shook her head, “but that’s ok. We want you to follow Sebastiano’s orders. In fact, we want you to get as close to him as you can. Talk to him, find out his plans, do whatever he says, just as long as you tell us EVERYTHING.”

“Y-y-you want us to spy on the DON?” Greasy stuttered in disbelief.

“WE’LL DO IT!” Peeper shrieked, breaking down into tears, pleading with his captors, “JUST DON’T HANG ME FROM THE FAN AGAIN!”

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A polite knock on the door interrupted Jade and Otto’s heart-to-heart, Rip and Bunny arriving with two great armloads of steaming food for all. Hurriedly charging Jann into the boxes, Jade’s alter ego whipped about the hospital distributing the much-needed food around the hallway.

Otto chuckled as he plucked his sandwich from thin air, “I wish I could co-opt you for ARC, that trick’s worth it’s weight in gold.”

Jade curtsied, blushing furiously, “Thank-you, Doctor.”

Tennyo jumped on her hamburger with relish, almost consuming the paper in her haste to devour the meal.

Jann chortled weirdly, using the box lids as speaker ‘discs’, teasing, “Remind me never to let you skip a meal again. If I was Jade, you could have taken my hand off.”

“Sorry,” Tennyo mumbled around the mouthful, “I’ve been starving… where have you been?”

“Oh, shooting the breeze with Otto,” Jann answered evasively, “he was just… I asked him about Sara and we got to talking about her, that’s all.”

“Hmmm…”

Jann paused before going inside. Tennyo seemed distracted by something aside from the hamburger, her eyes had that far away look of the deep thinker, tinged with her patented hard glare that was usually a prelude to violence. The spirit made a mental note to spend the afternoon with her roommate one way or the other. Tennyo the Destroyer was not someone you ever wanted hanging around a hospital.

“Oh my God!” Bunny gasped as they entered Sara’s room. Even Rip went a shade of dark green at the sight of the Goth-girl’s blanket pulsating strangely, without rhythm or sequence, as if a mound of worms were writhing unseen beneath.

“What is that smell?” asked Rip as she covered her nose with her sleeve.

Chou shrugged, Ayla’s jacket draped over her shoulders, “You get used to it. If it really gets to you, I’d eat outside with Tennyo if I were you. Speaking of which…”

Weird as it felt ‘tossing’ a part of her body at someone, Jann was fairly practiced at, feeling only a slight electric twinge as the salad roll separated from her like a dividing bacteria she’d glimpsed on one of Tennyo’s Genetics DVDs.

Ayla was another matter, grabbing her Burger before Jann could let go; she seemed to be in the middle of a good sulk, mumbling something about cheaters and liars.

“No change?” Jann asked the techies was she distributed their lunches to their desks.

Slightly disturbed hearing his meal speak to him, Bob took a second to reply, “Er, no. No change.”

Sighing, the group sank into their chairs and began to eat.

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At the Centre of Dreamspace.

Sara rocked back and fourth on the throne, the chant, the feeling that permeated the stagnant air washing over her skin and sinking into her flesh. The monsters rutted all around, screams building cadence in irresistible waves. The sound of metal rasping across metal brought her to. Her eyes snapped open.

Blood. Blood everywhere, sticky red fluid that clogged and dripped and oozed from every crack as if the temple itself was wounded. Wallowing in the slithering tentacles that descended from above, her children made love. Sweet and gentle. Rough and hard. For the first time she noticed the fetid corpses that nestled around her feet, maggots and worms burrowing through flesh, lacing wounds together only to burst through the aperture as the pressure grew to a peak.

A wet cough wracked her throat, pure gold dripping over her lips and down her chin, melding with the golden seat beneath her. Trying to move, she felt herself fuse to the seat; even her hands had merged with the armrests. She was no longer able to tell where she stopped and the temple started. The waves of emotion beat against her shields, threatening to wear her down in the tide.

“I thought you wanted power?” Granda asked, his head forming from the bloody veil that obscured her vision.

“Not like this…”

“This is the way of life. Life comes from death, child. It is the way of your grandmother. You kill to bring life, you love to bring life. You can seed or be sewn as you please. Every lover you take becomes a part of you, your own hunger devours them…”

“That’s not what I want.”

“But it is. You wanted power, remember? The power to help people and more. You wanted boundless love, compassion, LIFE. This is life, this is life as it really is, relentlessly fecund, growing and eating. Life unchecked consumes all, destruction unleashed does the same. Bound together in an unending struggle, these contenders battle across the face of the universe. Everything that exists springs from this principle, and it is this which you embody. Sara, Kellith, Michael, Daughter of the Void, Mistress of Flesh…”

Her Grandfather trailed off as another figure faded into existence, it was she and yet not she. She was obviously older, wearing a thin gown that appeared to be starkly white at the top and fairly dripped hot, red, blood as it approached her knees. She gestured to her younger self, “Hello Sara, nice to see us again.”

Nonplussed, Sara glanced down to see she was wearing the same gown, yet the colours were reversed. “Hello Kellith,” she replied, trying to focus on herself in the raging sea that surrounded them.

“Do you mind?” Kellith pointed to the throne.

“Be my guest.”

“Poor, poor mixed up self,” Kellith shook her head with a mocking pout as she took a seat at Sara’s elbow.

Sara glared at herself, seeing herself through the other’s eyes.

“So? Deny it, go on. I haven’t had a good laugh in an eon.”

Sara scowled at herself, “This isn’t power. This is an abortion, an abomination, doesn’t it sicken you?”  

“What is, as they say, is,” she answered and toyed with the hem of her gown. “For a made up persona you are quite amusing.”

Sara nodded to the corrupted and dying flesh that surrounded the throne, “This wasteland of death you have created. If Life comes out of Death, where is the life?  All I see is stagnation and self-destruction. Where is the humour in this?”

“Life is a joke honey, the punch line is death.”

“Then you need a better script!” Sara inhaled harshly feeling the air burn her throat. “You call me a made up person, but look at yourself! You let yourself be moulded into this, thing. This travesty of unlife that everyone thinks I should bow my head towards like a good little girl! Where the fuck is your fire, your ambition?”

“But it is our place. This is our role.”

“Then by whomever the fuck we pray to, it’s time to make our own role.”

Kellith laughed, “But we do pray to the fuck, weren’t you listening? Shub-Niggurath is all forms of procreation, from the fornicating sentients to the dividing bacteria. Our place as its Champion was set before time started, we accepted that.”

“I do not accept this and if you are me you wouldn’t either.”

“It is necessary.”

“For who, certainly not me.”

“Like that cute Asian girl is so fond of saying, we balance another part of the Tao.”

“The Tao is Harmony, this is hardly harmonious. Nothing good can come from this monstrosity you perpetuate.”

“But everything dies, even the universe will die. Or do you plan to wave your hand and say it is not so?” She was grinning, white fangs hovering over her black fingernails, hands steepled in mock prayer.

“I would,” Sara leaned back, restrained by the gold that crept up her skin, “I would erase all of this and start anew.”

“Like your friends erased who and what you were?” She motioned to a body that lay supine before the throne as it arose, taking on flesh until she was staring at Michael Waite, her older self.

“Hello,” he said simply, tongue thick from rigor mortis, “I guess that this makes us me, myself and I.”

“I am not you!” Sara screamed, unable to flee, stuck fast.

“No, neither was I,” His smile was a sick, insane, “Some truths are hard to accept, like the death of Mother at the hands of a monster. That I was that monster makes no matter.”

“No, mother died of cancer.”

He sighed, “A cancer of the soul, perhaps, but we did kill her in the end. And she did not go gently into that goodnight, we scattered her atoms into light.”

“Making us like her?” I pointed to Kellith on her throne, then to Mother who waited patiently at the threshold.

“We are like her. We carry her blood, her diseased, corrupted, blood. They were trying to prevent us from being born.” He motioned and a wall of flesh transformed itself into a scene of a woman in childbirth. The room was bedecked with flowers, the scent of pain and sweat filled the air. “But they were about twenty-three years too late.”

Sara watched as the squalling infant was born, as the cord was cut and tied it seemed like the universe bellowed in triumph, “Why all the noise?”

“Some events shake the core of the Mythos. What you heard was one side trying to drown out the other. I can attest, from being here, a great many folks were equally pissed, but anger is not as loud as joy can be.”

“But if it was such a triumph, how the hell did this occur?” I pointed to the shifting flow of sex and death.

“Oh, in some ways Kellith is right. Death does bring life unless something stops it.”

“Stops it?”

“Your mother’s murder was not unplanned, if anything it was quite meticulous.”

“You sound as if you admire them for it.”

“It is a matter of perception, Sara. Being dead I am able to look forwards and backwards. But then, I am not dead, in all truthfulness.”

I shook my head, “So what was the goal of this plan?”

“To break me, to destroy me so I could be remoulded into something ‘mostly harmless’. Yet things still leaked through. Once touched by Mythos, you forever bear its mark. This ‘Incongruity’ I wrote, and the last scene I was writing before I died and you were born.”

“I remember that part.”

“Do you?  So tell me, what do you think of my solution?”

“Solution?”

“Yes, how does one defeat a being that knows every move you make before you can make it?”

“I don’t understand, we couldn’t solve it.”

“Ah, but I did,” Silver boiled up like mercury from the floor, pooling at their feet like a clear mirror, “Look hard and close, Sara, what do you see?”

I look down into the pool; something was out of place as I looked back at the throne.

“Look harder,” My other self prompted, “look deeper and see what is right before your nose.”

“I don’t see my own reflection.”

Michael started clapping and the dead and living around Sara picked up the applause until it was resounding, “You are starting see.”

“People fear what they cannot control,” Granda chuckled, “as much as the Great Old Ones would like to deny it, they fear you all.” He pointed the to three versions of myself.

“Fear us?”

“They want the status quo to continue, they like the current state of things. They are ‘comfortable’,” a manic glint appeared in Granda’s eye, “and some of us agree with them.”

Kellith purred, her wicked smile splitting her face, “It’s all a stage trick, simply smoke and mirrors dear self of myself. Ultimately, as you so aptly proved, this part is mine to play. The role I was born for, I will enact, and frankly I don’t care who I have to kill to obtain it, not even myself. But you’re like the fucking energizer bunny, every time I think I’ve cut you off, you grow back. Demons do not have a conscience, it’s that part of me that I intend to kill now.” She motioned down the steps with a broad gesture, “See anything you like?”

A scream ripped fourth from Sara’s lips as two of the Deep Ones dragged a young boy into her view in chains.

“GARY!”

“Mommy, help me!” he begged, tears streaming down his bloodstained face, the weight of the chains dragging him down.

Granda twisted the handle of his walking stick, a shining blade rasping fourth, “It’s for your own good, Sara, really it is. I don’t know why you refused to digest him like the others, but you can’t move on with this thing stuck in your craw. Just sit there like a good little girl while Granda takes care of it, ok? Just like lancing a boil…”

“GRANDA, NO!” Sara twisted and writhed in her seat, straining against her own limbs. She could only watch from her chair the old man descend on her son like the angel of death, broad shoulders tense with thick cords of muscle developed in his years as a fisherman sailing off the coast of New Zealand.

“There, there, little one,” Kellith stroked her hair, “the rest of us are in agreement on this. As soon as Gary dies, we will all be one and nothing will ever divide us ever again. My opinions will be yours and Michael can rest in peace. Free will is overrated; really, do any of us truly have it? A human can’t stop being a human, a man can’t stop being a man and a demon cannot simply stop being a demon. Just watch it all unfold here and now and blame your fate.”

Sara slumped forward as Granda raised the knife over the screaming boy. Time contracted as her pulse quickened, thundering through her ears as she stared at the empty throne reflected in the pool beneath her feet, Kellith frozen in the moment, head thrown back in mirth.

The silver veil wavered as the surface rippled in a sudden breeze as her reflection faded into existence. Sara stared at herself, shocked at the exotic beauty reclining before her. Upturned almond eyes. Waves of red hair. The diaphanous gown that cascaded over her curves matched the colour of her eyes. Tips of slender, white, ears poked out from underneath the canopy of hair, her skin matching the monochromatic tone of the silver throne she sprawled across with ease.

The reflection slid one perfect, slender, hand up Chou’s knee, the Handmaiden taking the place of Kellith in the scene. The flawless martial artist stroked Destiny’s Wave in her lap while the red-headed Sara straightened her jade-coloured robes. The Asian convulsed with pleasure, tamed with a mere touch.

The bodies at her feet morphed into living beings that stroked and caressed her calves and ankles lovingly, pleading for attention. Their faces were like those of the rest of Team Kimba, glancing over their shoulders to beckon Sara enticingly into the scene, lewdly rubbing against each other in naked heat. All except one.

“Aunghadhail,” Sara growled, glaring at the reflection that wasn’t hers.

“Well, finally,” the Queen purred in a voice like silk, looking regally down her petite nose, “who knew that my final reincarnation was going to be so… interesting. Two bodies for the price of one.”

“I’m not your vessel…”

“Oh, but you are,” she giggled, “my blood runs in your veins now. Our patterns are aligning… sister. Your delightful talent for assimilating information into yourself, something I learnt about the Old Ones during the war: Get them while they’re young. The principle was true then as it is now. I lured you out of your shell into our dreams…”

“THAT WAS YOU?!?!?”

“Partly, all it took was a lure and a nudge,” she bit into the soft flesh of her lower lip gently with a single fang, glancing coyly as her free hand caressed her breast, “you can’t lie to me in here, little one. I’ve seen your lecherous glances at Nikki’s back, I have felt the touch of your tentacles on my inner folds… tell me, do you wish your dream had continued? Do you want this body, or is it my power that attracts you like so many others? Whatever it is, I am sure that we can come to some arrangement… sister.”

“You’re just like the them,” Sara shook her head, “what does this power do to people?”

“There are only two types of people, Sara Waite,” Aunghadhail gestured to herself with her right hand while indicating the fawning souls at her feet, “Leaders and Followers. Winners and Losers. The Haves and the Have-nots. The names change, but the concepts stay the same…”

“Is there a point to this, Hungledhingy?” Sara snarled, sick of that reasonable tone of voice everyone in her dreams seemed to possess.

The Queen didn’t let the jab rattle her, though her face took on a stony cast, “I can help you. Join me, become one with us and all that you see can be yours. Beauty. Power. Bend all around you to your will. Break your bond to the Great Old Ones and serve me as one of the Sidhe for all eternity. Take my lips with the rest of my body and rule by my side!”

“You’re offering Nikki to me?” Sara blinked.

“We are one, like yourself and Kellith, there is no distinction to be made. You are a creature of lust, a pastime that I enjoy myself on a regular basis. I know my body pleases you, and I guarantee that I am skilled beyond any lover in the entire universe. I can see that same skill within you, so I know that I will be satisfied in your arms.”

“Fuck off.”

The Queen smiled, “Not even for Gary?”

Sara looked up. The scene was still frozen in that moment, Gary’s mouth wide, giving voice to his terror as he watched the blade about to descend. Her pulse thrummed through her ears, drumming to a constant, desperate, rhythm.

Then it stopped. The blade moved.

“MOMMY!”

“NO!”

Sara screamed as she ripped her arms loose from her frozen hands, golden skin stuck to the throne as she tore herself away, flesh popping loose to expose a mass of roiling green tentacles fastened around tiny fragments of bone. A firm step forward scattered the silver pool at her feet as the entire congregation turned to stare, dumbfounded, as she descended.

Her first swipe knocked Kellith from her seat, sending that part of herself tumbling down the stairs. Michael gasped as the second lash ripped him to shreds. Beyond care, beyond mercy, Sara tore his head from his body and let the lifeless mass join the others at her feet.

Granda gaped at her like the Deep Ones that surrounded them, forgetting Gary in his terror at her approach. Sara gently wrapped her tentacles around his throat and pulled him close, “Come on, Grandad. How about a kiss?”

Mashing their lips together, Sara wasted no time or thought plunging another down his throat, greedily sucking in his essence until his ashes slipped through her fingers. She let his clothes fall limp to the floor.

The Deep Ones to either side of Gary looked at each other, and then back at her.

“All right, who’s next?”

Both fled.

Sara wasted no time breaking the chains that held Gary, the little boy immediately leaping into her arms, crying fitfully.

“Shhh... it’s alright now, Mommy’s here.”

“No, Gary, I’m over here.”

Sara turned to find Kellith strutting down the aisle towards them, “Stay behind me, Gary.”

Kellith laughed as Gary clutched the back of Sara’s dress. “A little young to bear a child, aren’t we Sara?” The Demon stroked her stomach while rubbing her other hand down her curvaceous hips, “Only I have the power to give him life again, you know. Become me. Mifruzli can father Gary and raise him as one of us. We shall be the seed that brings life to the planet once again as Cthulhu scrapes it clean. GARY will be the one to continue that legacy with us and the Great Old Ones will rule this Galaxy once again. We can rule, Sara, as Queen...”

Kellith’s voice echoed through Sara’s skull, soothing, promising, pleading, and demanding. Gary squeaked as Sara shuffled forward, entranced by the voice, her loins burning as Kellith opened her arms, the promise of such power made her insides melt.

As Sara stepped into the embrace, Kellith grinned, reaching...

The Demon blinked as Granda’s knife slid into her stomach, liberated from his powdery grasp by Sara’s hand as he had fallen, the move unnoticed in the shock of the moment.

Sara twisted the blade, probing the Demon’s innards, “You aren’t me. You’re HIS program, aren’t you? The template of a happy little demonic fuckbunny. Something nice and staid, controllable with the promise of a good lay and a little power. Well I’m not like that, bitch. I won’t just lie down and take it up the ass for anybody. ANYBODY!”

Kellith felt true pain for the first and last time, Sara pouring her will through the blade, tearing her mind and body into pieces. Her form simply disintegrated under the onslaught, shredded tatters disintegrating in the air.

“AND YOU!” Sara wheeled on her Mother, pointing in accusation with the dagger, “YOU are NOT my Mother! I killed her! I destroyed her! I remember! I know!”

Strands of lightening whipped out from the dagger’s tip, entangling the impostor and lifting her from the ground, bellowing in pain. As the energy lashed, her skin blackened and peeled, sloughing off, melting, and dripping like wax.

The charred ruin that was Mifruzli, or at least his mental projection, fell to the ground with a bone-crunching thud. Sara strutted over to the dying corpse and flicked him over with one foot, stamping down on its neck.

“I. Am. NOT. Yours. If you’re so desperate for a partner, go fuck yourself.” With that, she plunged the dagger into his skull.

Gary ran up to hug her again, his image starting to fade, his tears now of joy rather than fear. “You know,” he quipped, “You’re one mean mother.”

Sara laughed and scruffed his hair, “Sleep again, Gary. Mom has some things to do first, but I won’t be long, I promise.”

He smiled as he disappeared, sliding back to where he came from.

Sara removed the dagger from the floor and stood, pulling in as much of her energy as possible. Lightning crackled. The shadows recoiled. Cultists fled in all directions as the temple shook on its foundations, then exploded into the sky, titanic blocks flying through the air.

She pointed the dagger at the Red Eye that gazed down upon her; it’s baleful light gleaming from the golden throne at her back, “SHUB-NIGGURATH!”

The Earth shook as the Eye glared, gravity failing under the sheer POWER of that malevolent will. Pebbles fell into the sky, blood pools dripped into the air, never to return.

Sara felt the tug as IT pulled at her but refused to yield, clinging with all her might to the ground, “SHUB-NIGGURATH...”

Balling her fist, Sara raised her arm, looked the Beast straight in the eye and extended her middle digit in defiance.

“...FUCK YOU!”

The blast shattered the world she stood upon. Great chunks of molten rock hurled themselves into the Eye with unknowable force, piercing the Sun and breaking it into a billion motes of light.

Everything plunged into darkness. No world, no light, no life nor death. Nothing existed, as far as the eye could see, infinite black in all directions. Just her alone, standing at the centre of it all; the ruler of nothing.

Almost. Sara felt Aunghadhail hair feather her left shoulder while the elfin Queen’s hands explored up under her dress. The Demon Princess gasped at the soft, cool, touch, and Aunghadhail’s firm bust pressing against her back.

“Do you come here often?” Aunghadhail breathed seductively into Sara’s ear, a slight tinge of laughter in her voice.

Sara tried to answer, turning her head, but Aunghadhail stole a kiss from her dark lips. Tongues slid over one another in that passionate moment, blood running together as the meat sliced open on their fangs. Turning the rest of the way, Sara wrapped her arms around the other’s neck, drinking in her taste.

Finally they parted with an intake of breath. Sara rested her hands on the taller girl’s shoulder and smiled, “My Queen, you only made one mistake.”

Cold, steely, hands clamped down on Aunghadhail’s throat, Sara pressed her thumbs savagely into her windpipe, crushing it mercilessly. “You know it’s funny really,” Sara chuckled, watching the elf gasp for breath, “I did this once before, you know. This... cultist, I suppose, hid in the back of my car and tried to knife me once. Not very original, I know, but it’s that sort of mentality that goes into being a ‘cultist’. Not the most sane of people, you know.”

Aunghadhail gasped for breath, scratching her nails down Sara’s arm.

“Oh, don’t bother trying to answer, Dinghy,” Sara grinned, “I had to do so much for Michael when we were trapped in that miserable body, you know. Still, I loved him like a little brother. Mother screamed terribly at the end, Michael retreated into his head for a while, so I had to take care of things. She was at the end of her rope anyway, all I really did was put her down. It was mercy, really. The mutations grew out of control; her body was tearing itself apart. You can imagine what was going through my mind when I was coughing up my own internal organs. It was like ‘Woah, Déjà vu’!”

The elf’s hands were going limp, jaw working like a fish out of water.

“Oh, sorry, you are right, back to the point. Yes, you made only one mistake. One basic mistake, at least. I love Nikki. Beautiful, courageous, loving, practical, the very idea of someone treating her like a common whore makes me... angry. Not to mention the rest of Team Kimba. Who the fuck do you think you are? Better yet, who the fuck do you think I am? If I wanted people fawning at my feet, I’d simply rewire their brains.”

She kept the pressure on even after the body underneath her went limp.

“Of course, you do know you’re not the real Aunghadhail, don’t you? Well, sort of, maybe, you might be a tiny little part that found it’s way into me somehow. The fangs gave you away, you see. All those little bits and pieces of me that leapt in to fill the gaps in the pattern you were missing. But that’s ok... none of it... matters... any...”

White light burst into all her senses, screaming blue waves piercing her brain. She felt her throat trying to push out air where there was nothing left in her chest to vent. Dark blurs wheeled about as she thrashed, ghostly faces fading in and out of her vision.

People were screaming, high-pitched whines overridden by bellowed commands. Sara grasped, groped and slid, vaguely aware that she was pressed against solid blue linoleum. Scrabbling into a corner trailing viscous slime across the floor behind her, she curled up into a ball to hide.

Her insides roiled, her skin pulsating of it’s own accord. Sara could feel everything down to her cells turning inside out, her skin tightening over expanding bones.

“Sara? Sara can you hear me?”

She looked up to see a shadow looming over her, framed by a halo of light. Fortunately, she recognized the voice, “DOCTOR! Dr. Otto, help me, please... I’m changing again, please...”

Her voice sounded strange even to her, lower, huskier, more ethereal. Someone grabbed her shoulders and hauled her back into bed, ignoring her convulsions. Something soft slid between her teeth and she bit down. Warm, wonderful, metallic fluid rolled over her tongue and slid thickly down her throat. She started sucking, light still glaring in her eyes.

“Is that what I think it is?” Chou sounded shocked.

“What,” Otto didn’t sound too impressed, grunting for some reason, “you thought the fangs were for show?”

There was a long pause, as if someone were feeling VERY sheepish.

“Sara’s a complex creature at the best of times,” Otto continued, squeezing out the words as if he were trying to open a bottle of pickles at the same time, “you know how Indians use every part of the Buffalo? Sara’s body goes for the same principle. She feeds off of life. Blood, bodily tissues, fluids, and energy, all of it except those final salts that just sort of glue everything together. If she gets you, well... you become a part of her, mind and soul if not body. Everything you were goes right up in her head, at least the bits she wants. Blood carries the metaphysical ‘life force’ that she needs, however, so it can be used as a substitute for her regular diet in extreme circumstances... or we think she could suck some of it from creatures without killing them. The problem is getting her body to stop before she’s finished.”

“Um...” Sara recognised Jade’s meek voice, “why?”

“Part of her cycle. She’s an infant of her race; in the early stages they crave information like a twenty-pack-a-day smoker. The more information they soak up, with the requisite amount of power behind it... they change.”

“Into what?” Sara recognised Ayla’s voice.

“Depends. All the Great Old Ones are different. They start with a core paradigm like fear, lust, destruction, enslavement, time, thought... whatever, then they build on that, collecting information and assimilating it into their new being, becoming more powerful with every transformation. In the beginning, these transformations come thick and fast, but as they age, the times space out, though they never truly stop. That’s why they all look different, though they are distantly related. Think of them as the ultimate shifter/exemplars, ever changing, ever improving, and ever evolving. Besides, their physical bodies are just the tip of the iceberg. I suggest you ask Sara about it sometime, she wrote the book on it. But that is why she eats the way she does. Information.”

He wasn’t lying about the addiction. Sara sucked on the bit in her mouth with enough force to tear a man’s arm to shreds, squeezing every drop out of the spongy material. Ever so slowly her hunger abated, but the pain was still fresh and raw.

“Jade, hold her hand and talk to her,” Otto ordered.

“M-me?” Jade almost squeaked.

“You’re the best friend she has, Jade. She told me so on several occasions. Just talk to her, let her know we’re here. She’s delirious but she can hear you, I need you to talk to her while I work.”

Sara felt someone take her hand. She could feel the pulse fluttering through the veins of it. The hand seemed small for some reason, but it was warm and friendly. She could feel it.

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Erin, for want of a better idea, staked out the cafeteria during lunch, watching Don Sebastiano and the Alphas like a Hawk. Or, rather, as a Hawk perched in one of the nearby trees just outside their window, eyes and ears trained on the table below. Several times she thought about dive-bombing the Don as he left the building, after all her stomach was working on several mice already. She squashed the idea, however, dismissing it as far too risky for now.

Fun, could wait; it was time for business.

Unfortunately, the Alphas were talking about anything and everything BUT Sara, ARC and school politics. The closest the Don came to spilling the beans was a few rude words about Stormwolf and the Betas.

Suddenly, they all went quiet, Hekate nudging the King’s elbow while nodding towards the interior. It soon became apparent what they were looking at as Hippolyta strode into view and slammed her hands, palms down, into the table. Fortunately, all the tables in Crystal Hall had been reinforced, or the blow just might have shattered more than the hard plastic cover and a few plates.

“Spill it, Bastardo, who’s trying to kill Sara?” Hippolyta practically whispered, her voice deadly. Erin had to give it to her, she certainly had style.

Ares was up in a flash, the dog leaping to his master’s defence. Then he was down on the floor clutching his stomach just as quickly. Erin wondered absently if the imprint of Hippie’s knuckles would ever fade. She wasn’t playing around.

But neither was Sebastiano, the King waving off his subjects negligently, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Hippolyta. Why don’t you go pump some iron before whatever crazy conclusions you’ve made based on your own flights of fancy burn out your brain.”

Several of his sycophants chuckled brainlessly at the taunt. Most of the tables around the core Alphas filled with wannabe members, each more than willing to laugh at their King’s jokes no matter how feeble they were.

Hippolyta wasn’t about to back down, grabbing the Don himself by the collar and hoisting him to his feet, “Now listen you…”

Her words were cut off by a blast of telekinetic force that made the windows shudder from the backwash. Hippolyta was thrown backwards over two tables, sending students diving for safety, then she impacted with a third table that halted her slide, wrapped around one solid steel leg. Everyone stared at her and the Don in disbelief.

The Don dusted himself off and straightened his tie, “Don’t touch me, butch. If Hekate were here I’d have her put you in your place, it’s not proper for a real man to hit girls. But since you’re not a real girl, I’ll make an exception…”

“Back off, Sebastiano,” Stormwolf interceded himself between the Don and his prey, the Betas glaring from their own table nearby, “I think you made your point already.”

The Don grit his teeth, his smile becoming strained, “Mindbird is not enough for you, Adam?”

“Is something amiss here?” The newcomer was almost, but not quite, as big as Stormwolf. Like the Don, his uniform was immaculate, where Stormwolf let his tie loosen during the course of the day. Like the other two, however, his reputation preceded him. Along with the six other members of the CapeSquad, most of them just as broad and firm of body.

The Don’s eyes tightened, “Pendragon. Good to see you again.”

“And what hath my friend done to deserve such ill treatment at your hands?”

“Ruffled his shirt, I believe,” Stormwolf answered.

“Not at all,” Sebastiano smiled smugly, pointing down to Ares who was having a problem getting his wind back, “the Amazon assaulted one of my comrades, I was only acting in self defence.”

“He knows,” Hippolyta croaked, levering herself up into a kneeling position with the help of Lady Liberty, one of the CapeSquad, “he knows who tried to kill Sara Waite!”

Almost a hundred heads turned to look at Sebastiano. None of them really liked the creepy Goth-girl, and her method of eating made most wretch just at the thought of it. But assassination was stepping over the line. After all, if they weren’t safe here of all places, could any of them sleep soundly at night? That was the way the crowd’s thought had turned, one step away from forming a fearful mob.

“Utterly absurd,” the Don chuckled, “if I knew anything of any wrongdoing, I would quite naturally report it to the authorities. Your girl has obviously used her… subtle powers of observation, added two and two together and obtained five.”

“Is that so?” Pendragon raised one eyebrow.

“Of course, I don’t understand why everyone’s so jumpy.”

Stormwolf’s gaze turned flat, “Oh, really?”

“You should understand better than anyone, Adam,” the Don continued, “from what I’ve heard, you’re worried about her yourself. Is everyone here so sure that the so-called ‘bad guys’ are responsible for this mess?”

“What are you implying?” Stormwolf’s eyes went from flat to flinty. The Don had that effect on him.

“Just speculation, old boy,” the Don smirked, “I’ve heard you comment on any number of occasions that Sara Waite bears watching… and I can’t blame you, there are less pleasant things to look at. Of course, there is the question of surviving the mating ritual, as Bloodworm discovered to his detriment.”

“I didn’t realize that my personal opinion of Sara Waite was common knowledge,” Stormwolf scowled.

“Of all your faults, Adam, you must know that you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve. Not to mention your pungent body odour.”

“None of which matters,” Pendragon interrupted the two old enemies before they could start on each other again. “I am positive that, no matter the case, there is no proof to be had here either way. The people responsible for this latest debacle are obviously very good at covering their tracks…”

Nobody could miss the meaningful glance Pendragon threw over the Don’s shoulder at Cavalier, “Come on, I am sure there are more productive paths of enquiry we could be pursuing.”

With that, Erin watched the boy practically flounce away, dragging Stormwolf with him. The Don chuckled behind their backs as he reclaimed his seat.

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“I must apologize for the overzealousness of my comrades,” Thuban smiled, offering the visiting members of TK a seat off the lobby of Twain Cottage, “many of them are rather touchy where my possible safety is concerned.”

Toni purposefully took the seat at the head of the rectangular table rather than the offered seat to one side, cutting off Thuban before he could take the initiative, “Cut the crap. We know you smuggled the Darlings past security.”

“Indeed,” Thuban didn’t skip a beat, showing his pearly white teeth, taking the nearest seat that was convenient with aplomb, “then I encourage you to take your proof to security so that the proper authorities can deal with the matter. I am sure that they will find your ideas most enlightening.”

“I don’t know about you, Thuban,” Lancer glared, his threatening half-smile giving some of the younger Twain residents around them shivers, “but we tend to find the authorities more obstructive than helpful in these matters.”

“My sentiments entirely,” Thuban agreed bitterly, glancing at Nikki “though it’s hard to see how such… pretty folk as yourselves would have a hard time with the law. Just have your mage batt her eyelashes at them, you might not even need your proof.”

“Our mage’s code name is Fey,” Nikki scowled, “and she doesn’t like being talked about in the third person in front of her. You and I are going to have to live with each other for a VERY long time, Thuban, I suggest we at least keep ourselves civil.”

“Very well,” the Dragon grumbled, his human mask slipping a little, “I would guess that this is about Sara Waite. What do you want?”

“Lets start with why?” Toni suggested forcefully.

Thuban took a moment to consider his answer, “The same reason I do everything. Making Whateley a friendlier place for the so-called freaks. Something none of you would understand…”

“I hate to be the one to burst your bubble,” Hank’s glare had deepened into a full-blown scowl, “but the three of us are considered freaks by many.”

“Are you really?” Thuban’s scowl was equally vicious, “Do children flee from you when you walk down the street? Does your mere appearance at the outskirts of a town spontaneously provoke lynch mobs? You’re all exemplars at the very least, you have NO idea what some of us here at Twain or Hawthorne go through, no idea at all.”

Fey growled, “So you betray the only one of us who fits your narrow bill of a suffering Mutant?”

“Sara is different, certainly,” Thuban shrugged, “but she is not a mutant, nor is her normal form unacceptable to the public eye. Honestly, who cares if she has to rug up during the day? The majority will flick her off as a Goth or a rock groupie. And she’s not at either Twain or Hawthorne, is she? When it comes down to it she’s a whiny apologist. ‘Oh, look at me, I have to eat live food to survive, oh how tragic!’ Just watching her flounce about makes me want to puke.”

Toni looked him up and down meaningfully, “Nice body you’ve got there yourself, you know.”

He spread his hands, “A temporary measure only. My time as a human is severely limited at the moment, but I find that norms such as yourselves, prefer dealing with a more acceptable face.”

“Ah, so the difference between yourself and Sara is that she wallows in self pity while you wallow in bitterness,” Hank scoffed.

Thuban wasn’t impressed, “To an extent. What you see as bitterness, I call realism.”

“Back to the point,” Fey interrupted before the boys could get into a pissing contest, “I think we’ve established that you don’t like Sara and, as the generally-appointed protector of Twain, you took exception to Sebastiano’s treatment of Peeper. So you struck a deal.”

“Sebastiano is a powerful force in student politics here at Whateley,” Thuban spread his hands wide open, “more than I think you freshmen really know. A word from him can open certain doors that otherwise remain closed to us. I made him a simple offer. I help him in his little scheme and neither of our groups tangle for the rest of the year. Even an arrogant prat like the Bastardo could understand what a good deal that was. Even us ‘pond scum’, as he put it, have teeth.”

“And you let Sara pay the penalty,” now Toni was scowling.

Thuban waved her off, “The Demon Princess can take care of herself, I couldn’t care less about her. I’m upset that she’s close to compromising one of my assets.”

“Assets?” Hank was puzzled. “What’s he talking about?”

“He means Jade,” Nikki hissed.

Toni’s face displayed no hint of emotion, but she began to rise from her chair casually. Too casually.

“Jade herself requested my protection,” Thuban continued.

Toni paused, halfway out of her chair.

“Yes, she bargained quite well. I didn’t grant it, not so far as she knows, but I feel a certain responsibility toward her.” He favoured them with a cold smile, “In any case, the real issue is that demons don’t belong here, this is a school for Mutants. The faculty should be concentrating on training those of us with REAL needs. Besides, ARC will spirit her away before their investment suffers a catastrophic breakdown and all of us will be well rid of such a disruptive influence. I mean, really, what are they thinking letting a lust demon loose on the grounds? Would you let a Succubi loose in Poe?”

“No, she’d be eaten alive within the hour,” Hank’s laugh carried no mirth.

“Cut the bullshit,” Toni slammed her fist into the table, The Voice adding weight to her charisma, “this isn’t about Sara, is it? This is about your own little empire. What? Were you afraid that you couldn’t compete with a Demon Princess, Thuban? Afraid that she’d take Jade away from you?”

 

Thuban shot up from his chair as if someone had lit a fire underneath him, scales forming about his eyes in his anger, “JADE! JADE HAS…” Blinking, he suddenly realized where he was and what he was doing, the scales fading back into skin.

“You are too clever by half, Chaka,” Thuban growled. “All right, I’ll admit that I have my own plans for her. And before you insist on another display, you have my guarantee that I, at least, operate honestly and openly. Unlike those who ‘involuntarily’ broadcast their compulsions.  You have nothing to fear from my plans. I don’t plan to remove your friend from Team Kimba or Poe, or even the human race. My interests are strictly professional. Unlike certain demons, who have been freely ‘gifting’ people with her mark of indenture.”

Now he sneered at them openly. “You’re like all the rest, aren’t you? Let an unattractive ‘monster’ approach, even with an act of benevolence, and you’re so full of suspicion. But when the good-looking demon dispenses her soul-bond of slavery, you have no problem looking the other way. Well let me give you a prediction, absolutely free: Sara is befriending Jade for one reason only, to give her a Demon’s Mark! Once that happens, and it will, your young friend will become pregnant as soon as she forms a functional womb.”

The three friends shared a worried glance.

“That’s right. That’s what Demons of Lust do, you know,” Thuban chuckled, “they don’t care about age of consent, they don’t care about statutory rape. They just want a nice, warm, place to sow their seed. THAT is why Sara is here. Look around you; this is the perfect breeding ground for her children. The most powerful mutants in the world issue fourth from this place, they grow up here, they date here. If Sara can merge her bloodline with the Mutants, who knows what the next generation will be capable of? And, eventually, the whole human race becomes tainted, a new race enslaved to her. I may not have formally extended my protection to your friend, but I WILL NOT let Jade mother this atrocity!”

After a moment of stunned silence, Fey started to chuckle, Chaka and Lancer following soon after.

Angrily Thuban went red in the face, “What?”

“S-sorry, Thuban,” Fey covered her mouth airily as she laughed, “I’m afraid you’re too late. Jade offered to bear Sara’s children the other day.”

Thuban went from red to pale green in less than a second, struck dumb by the announcement.

“Oh, don’t worry,” the redhead continued, “Sara turned her down.”

“She turned her… she can’t have! She couldn’t!” Thuban was up out of his seat again and pacing the floor. The rest of the Twain students made themselves scarce very quickly. “What is she playing at? I’m not wrong, I can’t have been wrong! It has to be a trick…”

“Oh, sit down Thuban,” Toni clucked, “you’re not the first person to mistake Sara for a villain, you know. If impregnating everyone was her goal, why haven’t half the girls a Poe got one in the oven yet? I mean, aside from Fey, she’s the sexiest girl at the school. And if she really wanted to, she could just blast us with her lust aura and that’d be that! Instant orgy! We wouldn’t even need a hot tub.”

“Hot tub?” Thuban looked confused.

“The older girls have a Hot Tub Party every once in a while,” Hank explained, winking snidely, “it’s to improve interpersonal relationships.”

“Oh.” The dragon huffed.

“Anyway,” Fey steered them back on track again, “the million dollar question is: Who tried to kill Sara?”

Thuban was showing his teeth again, this time for an entirely different reason, “Was that an offer, Miss Reilly?”

“Oh, no,” Fey smiled with equal intensity, “but I will make a deal with you. Tell us who tried to kill Sara Waite, and we won’t tell Jade you were involved.”

Thuban’s face fell.

“Very protective of her friends, Jade is,” Toni drove in the screws, “I don’t think she’d ever forgive the person who could help do that to Sara.  So much for your ‘plans’, whatever they are.”

The dragon-boy made several choking noises before answering sullenly, “Very well. I’ll tell you.”

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“Urinalhelium?” Nightbane queried, raising one eyebrow.

“Ori-hal-cium,” Ecto-tek pointed to the word on the chalkboard, enunciating it clearly, “the Ultimate Metal of Alchemical studies. More valuable than gold itself, refined using magical formulae, it is the ultimate conductor of Yang, sometimes known in western occult traditions as ‘positive energy’, though that’s a bit of a misnomer. It is also the energy in sunlight that causes Sara to disintegrate…”

“Meaning that this metal MIGHT be able to hurt her?” Englund interrupted.

“If my theory is correct, and the experimental and field data we have thanks to Beacon supports it, then orihalcium weapons will do a lot more than hurt her like sunlight does. If we manage to find her core, she will die. And she won’t be back.”

Nightbane stood up to take a closer look at the blueprints, the proposed design of her new sword impressed her, “Why didn’t you suggest this before, Tek?”

“Cost,” Ecto-Tek shrugged, “orihalcium is expensive, the refinement process is a mystical journey, and you can’t mass produce it. They make it out of Mithril, among other things. The only reliable source is a surviving coven of ancient Fey under the Himalayas. However, once the blessings are inscribed on this blade, it will be a weapon to be feared by all who live in darkness.”

“How long before they can be ready?” Englund pressed.

“With the Syndicate’s help, one week at the latest. Just in time for the Halloween Party. Sara and Axel are the first act on the bill; I don’t think Mr. King will let her bow out now. If the Tiger Guard can keep the students busy, we can take care of the rest.”

“Very well. Nightbane, have a tactical assessment of the McFarlane Stadium on my desk ASAP. I want no mistakes this time.”

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“Yes, Nimbus, what is it?” Chessmaster slid back in his chair, not taking his eye off the board in front of him, watching his Queen martial their forces.

“There have been rumours circulating that you’re planning to go ahead with your assault on WhateleyAcademy.”

“Glad you like to keep up to date.”

“I am offering my assistance. I mentioned in your discussion with the Grandmaster that I have several toys that I believe would be invaluable in such an attack.”

“What’s the catch?”

“Nothing, all I want is the data from my gadgets. They have been field tested against conventional forces; I need to see their effects on Mutants. I’ll supply the vehicle and weapons experts to run the machines and train your men, all you’ll have to do is get our forces into the strike zone. I trust you are well ahead of me in that area?”

Chessmaster considered how much he should say. Nimbus, despite his low status on the council, had earned the respect of the members for delivering exactly what he promised without fail and his gadgets were impressive and imaginative in scope.

“Perhaps… what are these toys?”

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Fey, Chaka and Lancer returned to find the rest of Team Kimba sitting in the lobby among a forest of flowers, chocolates and ‘get well’ cards.

“What the hell?” Lancer asked, eyes bugging out.

“It seems,” Chou sighed, “that Sara has a few admirers. Half the Goths seem to have a crush on her, the computer geeks had a few things delivered, Bluejay tried to deliver her a single red rose personally but the nurse turned him out and Axel’s in the bathroom trying not to be sick.”

“Axel?” Fey cocked her head to the side.

“Sara’s band partner,” Ayla rolled her eyes, “they’re playing the Halloween Concert.”

Jade jumped and slapped her head, “ACK! I knew I was forgetting something! Costumes! We need costumes for the dance!”

Tennyo grabbed her shoulders, “Woah there, girl, enough chocolate for you. We’ve still got over a week, I’m sure we can whip something up.”

“Why’s he sick?” Chaka was looking slightly confused.

“He got a whiff of the smell coming out of Sara’s room. She’s giving off fumes at the moment, that’s why we’re out here.”

“Oh?”

“Try to imagine a skunk-infested Hawthorne toilet.”

“Ouch.”

“Is she better?” Fey interjected.

Jade shook her head, “She’s conscious but in a lot of pain at the moment. Doctor Otto says that she’s entered the first stage of some sort of metamorphosis.”

“Metamorphosis? Metamorphosis into what?”

“Well, er… maybe you should go and have a look…”

Fey gulped, steeling herself for the worst as she walked down the corridor towards the door flanked by two ARC troopers, others like them scattered throughout the hospital. Chaka and Lancer looked no less nervous, the rest of Team Kimba peering after them from the lobby.

“Er,” Fey batted her eyelashes at the nearest Stormtrooper, “can we take a look through the window, please?”

He nodded tersely and stepped aside.

The three of them crowded their faces against the dark, foggy, glass, trying to get a good look at the writhing form on the bed.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding!” Fey gasped, unable to hold the words in.

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She butted against the door, wedged her tongue through the crack to grasp the handle on the other side and levered herself out of the wardrobe. Impact with the rock-hard carpet, the thin variety that simply covers the concrete beneath, jarred her skull.

“Oooh, that’s gotta hurt. I was going to tell you to watch that first step, but you don’t have feet.”

Blinking to clear the spots from her eyes, the severed head wiggled slightly, trying to look up at the speaker, recognizing her at once, “Gypsy?”

The dark-haired young girl un-crossed and re-crossed her legs sexily, her half-smirk seeming out of place on such a young face, “Not quite.”

Realization hit her like a mallet, “DADDY?!?!”

Gothmog laughed. “Not with a set of these, my dear girl,” ‘he’ reached down the front of his blouse to grasp the soft mounds inside, “Hmmm, it has been a long time since I’ve taken a female form. How about a little head?”

“Oh, very funny…”

“So, how IS the Queen of Hearts these days?”

“Grrrrr…”

“Now, now, no need to blow your stack.”

The head started to swear, “IS there a point to this?”

“OH! Yes, of course,” Gothmog snapped her fingers, “I’m sorry, I forgot. I swear, I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached.”

“ARGH!”

“All right, all right, I’ll stop. For now. Honestly, I never expected that Mifruzli’s slayer would be my own daughter’s severed head.”

The head winced, “You found him, then?”

Gothmog nodded, “Yes, or rather Donna did on her way through Dunwich. Donna told Otto and Otto had the foresight to summon me. Very smart duck, that one.”

The Demon King stood gracefully, picking up what appeared to be a petrol canister from where it sat next to her feet. Unscrewing the lid, the fumes announced what was contained within louder than words.

“D-daddy?” The head squeaked.

Gothmog shook her head, “I’m not your father, dear. Sara had a choice to make and she made it. She chose her own path over slavery to Mother. She took your name and made it her own, you are but a fading possibility. It’s time for me to put you out of our misery.”

The head gasped and cried as he poured the petrol all over the room, soaking it especially.

“Oh, spare me the tears,” Gothmog snarled, “if it were up to you, this whole planet could die and burn to ashes and you wouldn’t lift a finger.”

“Fuck you.”

‘He’ laughed, “Usually, I take people up on those inadvertent offers. Nothing like sex with a supreme enemy, you know, danger is the spice. But I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You’re still blood, in your own way.” The laugh became a smirk as the Demon King produced a box of matches, a smiling redhead emblazoned on the front, “Don’t worry, Sara has a good head on her shoulders now. You can leave this world in peace.”

“Spare me. Just do it.”

“Hold onto your hat,” Gothmog chuckled as he struck the match.

Chapter 7 - Change

Monday, 23rd October, 200610:56am

Sara was vaguely aware of her surroundings. The sheets underneath her were hot and damp, the one above her was cold and stuck to her as if she were covered in crazy glue. The pain wracked her from the inside out, her arms and legs twisting like snakes, as if they could wring the pain out like water from a dishcloth.

Once again she lost all track of time, meandering in and out of awareness. At times, she heard herself screaming or whimpering incoherently. At others, she felt the cold, hard, touch of a doctor probing her skin. Once, she thought she saw blurry heads hovering over her face, their lips moving without sound. At another, she felt someone holding her hand.

Eventually the pain ebbed, leaving her sprawled over the bed like a rag doll, unable to move the tiniest muscle. Paralysed, she simply let the darkness take her away, counting herself down into a peaceful trance in her head.

When she opened her eyes, she noticed that her view of the ceiling had changed slightly. It was the same ceiling, small cracks in the paintwork matching her memory of the place, but the whole view was much sharper than she remembered from before. The ceiling had texture, minute texture, but it was there. The painters had used a roller, probably on a long handle.

Done with such fascinating observations, she concentrated on trying to move, resisting the impulse to recite ‘wiggle your big toe’. She settled for twitching her right index finger.

“Sara? SARA? Otto, she moved!”

A moment later, Donna was leaning over her, the young psychologist’s smile belied by the furrows that creased her forehead. Feminine scents assailed Sara’s nostrils; hormone cocktails carried on the back of evaporating sweat droplets from her skin. A pleasant haze drifted over her mind as her body warmed with remembrance of Donna’s curvaceous form and the feel of her skin.

“Mmmmm… Donna…” The words escaped Sara’s lips in an unbidden sigh as the warmth spread, thawing her muscles.

The flush hit her cheeks just as Otto appeared before her, “Sara? Sara can you talk? How do you feel?”

Distracted, Sara revelled in the way the clean linen sheets caressed her skin, the sensuality of rubbing against the cloth overtaking her, “I… I feel gooooood… come here…”

Reaching out suddenly, she took Donna by surprise, pulling her down into a deep, lustful kiss. She felt Donna’s body react immediately to her touch, the pleasant ache, the need to be joined, echoed in her own body.

Otto pried them apart with great difficulty, snapping his fingers in Donna’s face to bring her out of it.

Groaning and moaning in ecstasy, Sara was beyond care, running her fingers up and down her body to feel herself all over. She pulsed with energy, focussed in her stomach and breasts while radiating outwards like one, long, continuous, orgasm without peak or end.

Ever so slowly, she felt herself change, much like the day she’d spent after waking in the morgue, only more intense. More erotic. It started with a tightness pushing out from her chest, building behind her hardened nipples. She felt her whole body stretching, bones sizzling like frying bacon on the grill.

Donna was feeling it too, orgasmic waves electrifying her nerves, issuing from the mark on her forearm. She fell backwards from the sheer pleasure of it, hand clamped over the symbol, knuckles white. Sweat broke out of her skin, dappling her thin shirt.

When it was over, they both lay gasping for breath, basking in the afterglow. Otto cleared his throat, “Are you both all right?”

Sara opened her eyes again, and then blinked. Parts of her were pressed against the mattress that never had before, while the small of her back seemed to have been raised slightly. It was the weight on her chest, however, that caught her attention.

“I’ve got BOOBS!” Sara exclaimed, as her body shot up like a springboard, grasping the aforementioned appendages as if testing her eyesight.

“It would seem so.” Otto replied, deadpan, a model of discipline.

Donna chortled, “It was going to happen sometime, you know. Girls do that.”

“Yes, but… but…” Sara scowled, more at herself than her mentors. Then she noticed that she was fondling her breasts in full view and bundled the covers up with her arms so fast she was surprised that friction didn’t set them alight.

It was that movement that drew her attention to the rest of her body. Even under the sheet, she could tell she wasn’t thirteen any more. She’d had curves before, nice curves as a matter of fact. But her legs hadn’t stretched out before her like that, nor had the knees reached up to the base of her collarbone half bent. They definitely hadn’t been that curvaceous either, that’s for sure, nor had her hips flared from quite as slender a waistline.

“How do you feel?” Otto almost mumbled, relief obvious in his tone and on his face.

Half a laugh escaped her lips before she could stop it, a warm tingle creeping down her spine, “Wonderful.”

The answer didn’t seem to please him, “Well, just take it easy for a while. Your friends are in class, luckily, they’ve been keeping a vigil for two days.”

Sara blinked again. “It’s Monday, almost 11 0’clock. Why do I know that?”

Otto sighed, picking up a clipboard from one of the empty desks nearby, “Internal clock. Damn, it’s more then external. I hate to have to tell you, Sara, but it seems we have to re-test you for classification.”

“Oh, fun,” Sara giggled, “well, it’s probably for the best. I’ve got to reorganize my classes anyway.”

Otto paused in his scribbling, staring at her, “Sara, are you sure you’re all right?”

“Better than ever,” Sara answered, positively jubilant, “a little hungry, though.”

“Well, Donna can take care of that,” Otto nodded, scribbling something else, “right, Donna… Donna?”

Donna shook her head, tearing her eyes away from Sara, “Hmmm?”

He frowned for a moment before answering, “Why don’t you feed her and bring her up to speed. I’ll let her friends know that she’s ok and get the paperwork started on the new batch of tests. Incidentally, Sara, we’ve had a Mr. King asking after you this morning…”

“Argh!” Sara slapped herself in the forehead, “The concert! We haven’t practiced!”

“Not to worry,” Otto smiled, “he said that he has every confidence that you and Axel will give a bang up show. When I broached the possibility that you might not be well enough to perform, he simply asked me to tell you that he’s counting on you…”

The wonderful feeling took a momentary dent as Sara groaned in consternation, “I ought to teach him a lesson for trying to appeal to my finer nature.”

He raised his eyebrow again, “You are feeling chipper. What happened?”

Sara shrugged her delicate-seeming shoulders, unconsciously setting her breasts to jiggling, “Pleasant dreams.”

“Interesting… well, I’ll be back in an hour or two with some forms, and try not to excite yourself. I don’t want a relapse now that you’re finally awake.”

Sara nodded and watched the middle-aged doctor retreat from the room quizzically while Donna unlocked what looked like a bar fridge standing against the wall. She was bent over, the hem of her tight jeans slipping down half an inch, giving a rather pleasant view of skin under the loose shirt. Looking the young woman over, she felt something stir deep inside, something she wouldn’t have been prepared to accept before.

“Mouthpiece or straw?” Donna inquired cheerfully as she straightened up, turning to reveal a plasma bag in one hand and a small, black sponge mouthpiece with a slot for a plastic tube.

Sighing, Sara shrugged, “Straw. If I bite into the sponge too hard, I have to pick crumbs out of my mouth for hours.”

Taking the soft plastic bag from her, Sara tried to ignore the smell of the older woman’s sweat-laden flesh. The pulse of blood through Donna’s veins was audible to her as she bit off the end of the ‘straw’, spitting the useless piece of plastic out nonchalantly, letting it bounce across the floor.

“Ergh,” Sara commented as she sucked down a healthy gulp.

“Not good?” Donna inquired, worried.

“I can drink this stuff,” Sara sighed, “and I generally have to at ARC. They don’t get live animals in anymore, not economical, but it tastes like plastic and it’s barely nourishing. The ‘life force’ bleeds out of it after a while, if you’ll excuse the pun. Um… do you have a mirror?”

Smiling, Donna drew a face mirror out from under the bed and hopped up onto the bed at Sara’s feet, holding it out to her, “I knew you’d want this, picked it up on the way through Dunwich. Of course, we didn’t think you’d change this much, but…”

The reflection that looked back at Sara caused her to stop drinking in mid gulp, the thick fluid dribbling down the back of her neck. Unbelieving, she closed her eyes for a minute, counting down the seconds, then opened them again. It was still there.

It wasn’t that she was ugly, in fact just the opposite. The girl in the mirror was fourteen at the very least, trim and slender with not an ounce of noticeable fat. But things had changed. Her face had lost the leftover ‘chubbiness’ of early youth, refining her features. Her chin had widened very slightly, casting her jaw into a more womanly frame.

While it seemed at first that she’d lost the ‘pixie-ish’ quality, her eyes had gained a noticeable slant, almost oriental in caste. In addition, the tips of her ears poked out from under the mess of hair on her head, now pointed rather than round, the lobes merged with her cheek.

Most striking of all, however, was the lock of blood-red hair that hung just out of sight of her right eye.

Sara snatched the mirror out of Donna’s hands, staring at herself, jaw hanging open to reveal her fangs between black lips, “WHAT THE HELL?!?!”

“Woah!” Donna winced back as she was showered with a light spray of blood from the plasma bag, “Easy, Sara, easy. Someone injected you with Fey’s blood; your body has assimilated her DNA. Can you tell us who it was?”

Sara shook her head, “No, they were masked in generic black, no insignia. One was a Werewolf female; another was an Astral Mage of some sort. The leader was a girl with a sword who knew martial arts. Oh, and there was a guy who projected blasts of light from his hands… you know, the usual.”

It was only a small fib.

Donna rolled her eyes, muttering, “Whateley. The only place I know where a team of highly trained mutant killers could be called normal.”

Still recovering from the shock of her reflection, Sara didn’t bother to chide her foster mother, “I guess.” Tentatively, Sara let one of her tentacles slip out of her wrist, flexing it. “I don’t feel any different.”

The duty nurse burst in through the door, ass-first, wheeling in a table full of electrical equipment, “Oh, sorry dears. Your doctor wanted this lot brought in…”

Donna sighed, “That’s ok, Jenny. Just leave it in the corner over there.”

Smiling, Jenny wheeled the table over by the window behind the bed, “My, it’s dark in here… lets get you a bit of fresh air…”

It took a second for her statement to sink in properly, Donna halfway out of her seat before Sara noticed the startled look on her foster mother’s face. Turning, she was just in time to catch the rays of the sun streaming in through the window as the curtains were thrown back, the sun shining in all it’s terrible glory beyond.

Sara shot up like a scalded cat, then plummeted to Earth just as fast, tangled up in the bed sheets. Writhing and flopping like a fish on dry land, the rays of light stabbed at her skin as she tore at the restraining sheets with her razor claws.

“Um, Sara,” eyes wide, Donna called gently to her, “Sara, you’re not burning.”

She stopped, frozen in mid fit. Donna was right, she felt the hot shaft of energy caressing her skin, but no searing of flesh, no acrid smell, no smoke. Peering down, Sara stared at her alabaster skin as it shone in the sunlight, unharmed.

Stunned, Sara sat up, forgetting her nakedness and the shredded sheets she’d been using as covers, turning her hands over in the light as if experimenting. “I’m immune. I am immune. I’M IMMUNE!” Launching up off the floor, Sara grabbed Donna tightly and mashed her lips down on hers, the force of the leap toppling them both back over onto the floor.

After a minute, Sara remembered to let up for air, giggling at the audible ‘pop’ as they separated. Gazing into her foster mother’s eyes, Sara felt her deep, rapid, breathing, heart fluttering in the other’s chest. She could smell the arousal building down below, feminine hormones thick in the air.

Jenny cleared her throat, “Ahhh… I’ll be leaving now…”

With that, the nurse fled.

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Otto didn’t comment on Donna’s ruffled shirt when he returned with a proper hospital gown for Sara at lunchtime, with a small army in tow.

“Hey girl!” Toni wrapped Sara in a hug that would have crushed the bones of a less spongy being, “You gave us a real fright, you know.”

“Hey, you know me. Energizer bunny…”

Bunny sniffed in amusement, “I ought to sue for copyright infringement.”

Fey rolled her eyes behind Bunny’s back, an amused smile on her face. It took almost ten minutes to get through the whole group. All of TK crowded her while Axel, Erin and Hippolyta hovered near the doorway, keeping an eye on the hall.

“We’ll leave you all to it then. Tests this afternoon, Sara, don’t wear yourself out. Come on, Donna.” Otto nodded sternly with the hint of a smile on his mouth before walking out. Donna closed the door behind her, winking meaningfully.

“Bunny?” Toni didn’t bother to look around as the blonde flicked a small egg-shaped device (what else?) from the sleeve of her blaze, twisting a few knobs.

“No bugs.”

The room seemed to hold its breath for a moment as a half-dozen smart-asses tried to think of a witticism and failed.

Toni coughed, covering the lapse, “How are you, Sara, really? The Doc says you’re fine…”

“Better than fine,” Sara spread her hands, grinning like she was high, “I’m immune to sunlight, guys. I don’t have to dress like the Michelin Man anymore…”

There was another pause.

Sara looked at each of them in turn, and then suddenly realized that nobody was actually looking at her. The light in the room seemed cold, a great shadow looming over them all. She snapped her fingers, trying to attract attention by reflex, “Uh, guys? What’s up?”

“Um, Sara,” Jade mumbled, stepping forward, “we’re sorry, we’re all really sorry.”

It took a moment for the sight of Jade’s tearful eyes to sink in. Sara smiled and hugged the little girl around the neck, “It doesn’t matter, ok? All of you, it doesn’t matter. I don’t trust myself either most days.”

Toni gulped, “Really, Sara, we should have stuck with you…”

Waving her off, Sara winked, “Forget it, Toni, we’ve got more important fish to fry. I assume you’ve all been looking into the attack?”

“Yup,” Toni nodded, “We started with Peeper and Greasy, figuring they were the weak link in the recent chain of events. We discounted the idea of co-incidence immediately, of course.”

Sara agreed.

“Peeper led us to Don Sebastiano, but the Don worked this as a contract job and he’s keeping tight-lipped on his employer. Thuban had a chat to him about threatening some of his own. Peeper and Greasy are out of the game now, they’re under Thuban’s protection.”

“Why’d he do that?” Sara cocked her head to one side, suspicious, “Peeper and Greasy are practically norms…”

“No, they’re not,” Bunny interrupted, shaking her head, “Greasy exudes motor oil from his pores. You can’t tell because he developed this second skin stuff that keeps him clean, except for his hair of course. And Peeper wears some MAJORLY heavy contacts, apparently his iris glows bright blue in the dark without them.”

“What does Peeper do anyway?” Fey asked.

Bunny shrugged, “Beats me, he refuses to tell anyone and nobody seems to think he’s worth bribing anyone to find out.”

“It’s awful tempting, though.” Sara smirked.

“Anyway,” Hank steered the girls back on track, “Thuban’s decided to maintain his neutrality on this one, so we’re on our own. No proof that links any of the suspects to the crimes, Peeper and Greasy are keeping their mouths shut. We were hoping that you’d have something we could take to Carson.”

“I have a few things. But,” Sara shook her head, “nothing that we can take to Carson.”

Fey sat next to Sara, taking her arm. For a moment, the rest of the room stared; the two girls in the bed could have been sisters. “Just tell us what you saw.”

Sara closed her eyes and tried to remember, flashes skipping through her brain, “I was sleeping when I felt a presence nearby. Hostility. I got up and scampered up the wall over the door, waiting in ambush. It worked; two of them rushed the room, two waited in the hallway. One was a werewolf, female, silver fur. Another projected blasts of sunlight from his hands, I know because they singed me and nothing else.  They came through first and I incapacitated them. The Third was tougher, she’d had training in martial arts, but I couldn’t tell what kind. Hard style, though, she liked to use her feet, very powerful. Used a Mithril sword, of which I ate.” Sara chuckled. To anyone else, that statement would have sounded strange, the present company took it in stride. “Number four was a devisor with some sort of energy weapon. I didn’t let him hit me, so I can’t tell you what it did. I was about to make a break for it when an astral mage grabbed me from behind and number three stabbed me with the injector in the chest…”

Fey flinched slightly. Sara squeezed her hand, “Not to worry, Donna told me what was in it already. Oh, last thing. The leader with the sword, the Astral Mage called her Nightbane. Anyone know the name?”

They all looked at each other.

“Yeah, I know a Nightbane.”

Everyone turned to face Hippolyta, who was leaning against the wall with her arms folded over her chest. After a minute of silence, they all started to get impatient.

“Well?” Hank scowled.

“You won’t believe me if I tell you.”

“Try us.” Tennyo glared. It wasn’t unusual; Tennyo automatically glares, just like the anime character she resembled.

“Her real name is Sarah Nicole Gardner. She’s a member of the Goobers, wannabe monster hunters that get busted by security every few nights going out on ‘patrol’ looking for nasties. Occasionally they find a goblin or something and kick its ass, act all cocky the next day. She’s a flake, we call her ‘Fluffy’, acts just like that stupid show on TV, tough, flip and arrogant. Plays at being a vampire hunter all the time. We kick her around the mat on general principles.”

“What style?” Toni queried.

“Karate. Not that good at it either, just enough to stay on the bottom rung of the advanced classes. Trust me, if it’s her, she’s a great actor. The Goobers are losers, no way anyone’s gonna believe they could pull something like this off. Did you get a good look at any faces?”

Sara shook her head; silently thanking whatever deity was on her side today. She did not want to have to explain to them about eating the astral mage, not right now.

Hank punched his fist into his palm in frustration, “Damn. So, we’re looking for a sword-wielding martial artist, a guy that can shoot light-rays out of his hands, a female werewolf and a gadget-geek with a ray gun. Gee, that shouldn’t be hard…”

Rip rolled her eyes, “At least we have a suspect, that’s more than we had a few minutes ago.”

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“Nightbane,” Carson muttered, holding the binoculars perfectly steady with her small, frail-looking, hands, “Should have known Englund would sic his little squad on her.”

Otto peered over the hedge they were hiding behind at the foot of the building opposite the hospital, whispering, “All the technology in the world and we’re reading lips just like in the old days. Makes me wonder…”

Otto stopped, interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. Turning, he found a man in a black business suit creeping through the dirt, tipping his cap, “Excuse me, sir, could I trouble you to move back a sec? Headmistress.”

“Oh, hello Giles.” Carson waved without looking down from the binoculars.

“Oh, sure,” Otto smiled, letting the man past. Watching the strange man crawl around the corner, Otto couldn’t help but ask, “Who was that?”

“Oh, one of the recruiters for MI6. Bushes are full of them.”

“Recruiters for MI6? Why?”

“No, just Recruiters. They spy on everything that goes on, scout potential talent for future recruitment, that sort of thing. We give them one holiday a year, Career’s Day, so they can all come out of the woodwork and stand up straight for a change. Lets us know exactly how many are out there too, and who they’re working for.”

“Hang on, ARC has a stall here on Career’s Day!”

“Yes, you’ve got quite a contingent of spies here yourself. Didn’t you know?”

“No,” Otto scratched his chin, “no, I didn’t.”

“Not surprising,” Carson smiled, “I hear they come under the jurisdiction of your Marketing Division.”

Otto swore, “Orange Level’s here? Great, the executive will have a field day with this little escapade at the next board meeting. Last thing I need is more questions on why I’m not keeping her locked up in Black Complex.”

There was a long pause before Carson continued, “You’re not going to, though, are you.”

It wasn’t a question, Otto understood that, but he still answered it. “No. Sara has a role to fill. I don’t know what it is yet, exactly, but…”

There was another tap, this time on his foot. Looking down, a short gentleman in a black ‘Ninja Dogi’ gave him a polite nod before continuing on his way under the hedges.

Otto shook his head and tried to focus on the task at hand, “Where was I?”

“Shush!” Carson admonished him, “They’re getting to the point.”

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“So what do we do?” Fey interrupted the outbursts of discussion, letting a bit of her glamour shine out for emphasis.

Hank and Toni looked at each other. “Depends,” Toni started, “What we’ve got isn’t enough for a conviction. We need to catch them with the smoking gun to be sure…”

“Ok,” Sara sighed, “you don’t have to talk in circles around me, guys. Yes.”

Hank’s eyebrow cocked up again, “Yes?”

“Yes, I’ll act as bait to lure them out at the Halloween Dance.”

Everyone started. Jade blinked, “How did you…”

“Jade,” Sara pointed to her backpack, “Your backpack is stuffed with clothes and I know you take costuming class, remember? Halloween is the only upcoming major event at Whateley in the near future and everyone will be wearing costumes, it’s the perfect set-up to ambush me while on stage… or behind it. I’ll be out in the open, vulnerable, and even if I scream bloody murder everyone will think it’s all part of the show.”

“Exactly,” Toni nodded, “All part of the show. Eight of us versus, what? Five or six of them? I’ll take those odds.”

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Deathlist surveyed the battalion as it assembled, his Sabretooths standing loose and professional behind him. A map was laid out on the table behind them, the cavernous ceiling beginning to open high above the Anti-grav transports.

“We’ll use the Stealth Shields to cross over to the rendezvous point,” General Tetsuo pointed out a red circle on the holographic map, “from there, we can strike the target zone within five minutes of your command, Sir. But it’ll all be moot if Security gets a signal out to their allies.”

“We shall take care of it, General.” Deathlist rasped.

Several bleeps alerted the General to his communicator. A sharp stab at one of the buttons connected the call.

Deathlist didn’t need to turn around to know who is was, “Chessmaster. To what do we owe this honour?”

“I’ve found some reinforcements for you and new equipment for the Battalion,” Chessmaster stated simply, “I’m ordering a legion of Chessmen to the rendezvous with a supply of non-lethal weapons…”

“I assume this new caveat does not extend to the Sabretooths and I?” The cyborg’s low, reasonable, tone belied the implicit threat of the statement.

“Of course not,” Chessmaster scowled with disgust at the question, as if it were the most foolish thing he’d ever heard, “kill as many of that dross as you like, I only care about the babies. Chessmaster out.”

The hologram flickered before snapping off with an electric hiss.

Tetsuo glared at Deathlist’s back, “Zombies? We don’t need those things, sir.”

Nobody could fail to notice the killer’s steel sinew bunching around the shoulder blades, the tiny movement conveying the very idea of a world of pain. Slowly, it relaxed, metal creaking, “The Chessmen are reliable, General, and they are useful in situations where casualties would be otherwise unacceptable. Attend to your men and make sure they are fully trained with our Master’s new implements. He is right, collateral damage in this arena is unwise.”

Deathlist watched the General salute, then depart, boarding his command carrier. The cyborg beckoned to the Sabretooth next to him, absently admiring the way his second’s masculine body filled out his armoured form, “What do you think of General Tetsuo, Terror?”

Terror, a man of few words, remained silent, thrusting his fist out in front of his chest and turning his thumb downwards.

“Yes,” Deathlist chuckled, “I don’t like him either. Unofficially, lets make him a target of opportunity.”

Terror grasped his shoulder in agreement, and then stepped forward to join his comrades. Deathlist spared each of them a penetrating look before he concluded the briefing, “Within the next 24 hours, we shall be arriving in the vicinity of Dunwich. A magical insertion specialist will be there to facilitate our entry with the help of our insider. Until Halloween, any lethal force utilized will be met in turn. Curb your instincts for a time, my brothers and sisters, for we shall carve our initials into the greatest Super heroine this world has ever seen. Lady Astarte will be OURS!”

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Jade scratched the back of her head, “Oh, I’m sorry, but I didn’t realize that you’d changed that much…”

“That’s ok,” Sara tried futilely to wrap the short kimono around her bust, “I think I can fix this.”

Closing her eyes a moment, seizing her concentration, Sara slowly forced her body to contract, shrinking back to her usual height. Opening her eyes again, she pulled the dress around her again, “Ah, much better. What do you think, guys? Guys?”

Everyone was staring at her.

“What?”

Fey got her voice back first, “How long have you been able to do that?”

Sara shrugged, “Since I woke up, I think. We always knew I was a shifter, it was just a matter of me working out how to get my body to do it.”

“So you can just do it now?” Bunny asked, incredulous,  “And that’s all you have to say for yourself? If I woke up with a new power, I’d be scared shi… I’d go to pieces!”

Sara noticed Toni covering her mouth, trying not to laugh. Bunny was never one for swearing. “I don’t know what to say,” Sara shrugged again, letting her hair plat itself and roll up into a ‘Princess Leia’ ‘do, “I guess I just made a… subconscious leap while I was sick. For the last month or so, I’ve been working to control my powers with a disciplined regimen, building structures with which I can work. It occurred to me that my powers might be instinctive, in which case I was simply trying too hard. I literally have to train myself to let go of all my old preconceptions.”

“That makes a strange sort of sense,” Fey tapped her cheek with one dainty finger, “all of us came into our powers fairly young. The Law of Definitions states that the universe is defined by our perceptions, I guess at fourteen your idea of reality isn’t as set in stone. Besides, Psychics may use a different system and energy source, but it’s still a brand of magic.”

Sara grunted while Jade helped her arrange the Kimono, the look of utter concentration on the young girl’s face amused the Demon Princess no end, “I don’t know how to explain it. I feel… free. Buzzed. Elated. Like I could do anything as long as I can just let it happen.”

“You make it sound like that it’s not doing something that’s your problem, it’s not doing things. Or something…  did that make sense to anyone?” Hank frowned.

“No, but I know what you mean,” Sara smiled.

“I don’t like it,” Rip’s forehead creased, “most of the mutants I know who have to exercise restraint are too strong for their own good physically. I don’t like the idea that you could manipulate my brain accidentally if you forget yourself.”

“Face it, Rip,” Sara admonished, “it’s restraint that a lot of us are here to learn.”

Even Rip had to agree to that. Sara checked the costume from all sides, even as a thirteen year old, the hem of the red kimono was scandalously high. “I love it, Jade.” Sara grinned impishly.

Toni rolled her eyes, holding up her prototype costume which was still held together mostly by pins, “I’m still trying to get why I have to wear this dull body stocking and the crazy wig.”

She was right, the suit was a dull brown like wholemeal bread, tufts of short fur sprouting from the chest, elbows and ankles. It was definitely not the most flattering of colours.

“It’s the character,” Jade shrugged, speaking in that determined voice younger kids get when trying to convince the world that their flaky logic is perfectly sane, “We’ve got Ryo-Oki the cabbit, we need at least one Ryo-Oki in human form, and since everyone’s agreed that I’m playing Sasami, you get to be adult Ryo-Oki.”

As Sara surveyed the costumes, she couldn’t help but feel left out. The team had decided to go as the gang from the Tenchi Muyo OAV series and nothing seemed bound to stop them. “Why Tenchi Muyo, though? I mean, couldn’t we have picked another series?”

Jade shrugged, “Well, we had to figure out something fast. This way, Tennyo’s fine as long as we get her a dress something like one of Ryoko’s; Jinn can play Ryo-oki using the stuffed toy; Fey can go as Ayaka with a couple of special effects logs courtesy of Bunny, who’s playing Washu by the way; and Ayla and Chou can play Mihoshi and Kiyone respectively! Rip had already started on her Niobe costume, we ran out of characters and Toni was bitching about being adult Ryo-Oki, so I gave her the deciding vote on your costume.”

Everyone slowly turned to look at Chaka, the martial artist trying to look nonchalant, “What? I like Vampire Princess Miyu. And other than the hair, you can’t say she doesn’t fit the bill.”

Sara had to admit she was right. The short kimono in blood red suited her to a tee and she felt a certain thrill looking down at her own bare legs in the sunlight.

“I’m playing Tenchi, of course,” Hank gritted his teeth. A few of the girls had to turn away to hide their smiles, though sever snorts of mirth could be heard.

“Any idea what you want to sing?” Axel interrupted, “I suggest we do a few Manson tunes, start Halloween off with a bang.”

Jade started scuffing her feet, looking down at the floor, “Um… I’m sorry, but I was sort of wondering if you could do a J-pop song for a change of pace?

Cruel Angel Thesis from Evangelion might fit Sara to a T, but I think Kaze no Hurricane from Bubblegum Crisis would be even better.”  She peered critically at Sara.  “Hmmm, if you could ‘grow up’ while wearing that same kimono, and slap on a shaggy blonde wig, you could do a quick Priss.  Indecently short and the bad wig would be perfect – all you’d need would be some shocking red lipstick.”

Half-smiling, Sara reached over to lift Jade’s chin back up with one knuckle, “Good idea on the J-pop, not everyone there will be Metal-heads. Manson’s a good choice to start off with though, Axel. Hit ‘em with 1996 for the first act, move into our Beautiful People/Better of Two Evils remix, bring them down with Ka-boom Ka-boom and finish off with a surprise for Jade. And I know JUST which song to do, too.”

Just then, the bell rang. Everyone groaned in sympathy with each other before shouldering bags back onto backs, stomachs still growling from lack of food. Each member of Team Kimba hugged her in quick succession before racing off to class, even Hank, though Sara wondered what his ladylove would think about that. Jade gave her a quick squeeze with instructions on how to keep the costume in perfect condition until the dance, managing to sound quite imperious the way little girls often do.

Axel gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, “Er… what about this surprise?”

Sara rolled her eyes, nodding towards Jade who was still hanging about straining towards the two so she could hear. Finally, Tennyo turfed her out the door. Still, she didn’t want to take any chances, “Don’t be dense, I’ll send you an e-mail with the details.”

He smiled, nodded and strode out, long leather jacket flapping at his heels.

“I don’t know what you see in them.” Hippolyta grunted.

“Men?” Sara asked, knowing the answer.

“Filthy, useless, beasts! Arrogant, fascist, brutal pigs, all of them, and don’t you dare deny it!”

Sara sighed, sitting back on the bed, “All right, then I’ll have to say nothing. Don’t you have somewhere you have to be, Hippolyta?”

The Amazon hrumphed, coming closer to the bed but still leaning against the wall, as if afraid to approach closely. “Study period. Besides, someone has to watch your ass.”

Unable to resist, the demon turned over onto her stomach to give the girl a better view, “Go right ahead, Hippie, I don’t mind at all.”

Hippie looked away quickly, her face red, “Don’t you have any shame?”

“Fine one to talk you are. But to answer your question, no, I don’t have any shame. Why should I?”

Sara watched Hippie slowly turn her head back to look her over, smirking, “No reason I can see.”

“Good answer,” Sara smirked. “Seriously, though, why do you hate men so much? I mean, I can understand a girl preferring other girls in bed but I just can’t understand your level of hatred…”

“I don’t hate ALL men… not completely,” Hippolyta growled, “I can respect some, I can work with them, but I don’t like them. There’s something in testosterone that makes them evil at the core. Some of them can fight it, but that core is still there, waiting.”

“Interesting theory. The men in your life hurt you didn’t they?”

Curling in on herself, Hippolyta started searching her pockets, “Shit. No cigars left.”

“It’s not like they can effect you anyway,” Sara chuckled, “besides, this is a hospital.”

“I can’t tell you the story sober!” she snapped, rummaging around for something in her bag. Finally, she pulled a stick of chewing gum from a front pocket, popping one in her mouth and chewing furiously. “All right. You tell anyone else this and I’ll kill you myself, ok?”

“My word is my bond.”

Hippolyta grunted, but she continued, “I grew up in Afghanistan, right in the heart of Fundamentalist Islam. My father and mothers kept us, me and my sisters, in pens that wouldn’t be fit for pigs in the west. My father practiced one of the more radical forms of fundamentalism, and so did all our neighbours and friends in the village. Women were treated as slaves and chattel. My eldest sisters were bartered off along with the cows. We weren’t allowed off the farm and had to wear Burkas, the full ones, not the little scarf sort of things you see here in the States. When we weren’t working the fields, always in the Burkas, we were always being yelled at by our mothers. They told us that we were worthless, that it was our duty to slave for the men and not allow ourselves to lead them into temptation. They told us we were evil, that we were going to hell for being born women as if it were OUR fault we weren’t sons. They also punished us for our evil natures; my father would whip us if we even showed a single ankle.

“It got worse when we got older. When they reached about twelve, our older sisters were taken away for a coming of age ritual and were never the same afterwards. Limping wherever they went, cowed and docile. They were forbidden to speak of the ritual, and if we asked about it we were soundly whipped for the trouble. I was ten when I reached puberty, early bloomer, the Taliban were everywhere. When my mother noticed, my father and his friends grabbed me and took me for the ritual. They… they castrated me.”

A sudden screech of metal forced Hippolyta out of her daze of remembrance. Sara clutched the frame of the bed, knuckles white, clamping down on the steel. The bed bent and twisted slightly under the force. For a moment, the Amazon could have sworn she saw something ripple under the demon’s skin, two lumps trying to push their way out of Sara’s forehead. Then everything calmed, a cool breeze sweeping though the windows.

“But the pain started your transformation.” Sara stated.

She nodded, “Yes. I escaped and they chased me, but I was faster, stronger, tougher. I don’t want to talk about it, but when the sun came up it was just my sisters and I. I set fire to the crops and took the guns. We found our way across the boarder into Pakistan and appealed to the American embassy when we figured out I was a mutant. Whateley offers ‘Mutant Visas’ to anyone who checks out in the tests, and the Government gives the family of known mutants priority for the green card. A few of them decided to stay in Pakistan to find husbands for themselves, but I was able to bring my younger sisters over here with me. I found them good foster parents, I’m going to try to visit them over Christmas.”

“Did you heal?” Sara asked. It was indelicate, but there was no other way.

Hippolyta just shook her head.

Sara hopped lightly off the bed and strode towards Hippolyta, lips pressed thin with determination. When she was less than a foot away, she stopped, looking up into Hippolyta’s eyes, “Do you trust me?”

Her right eye started to tic, “I… yes. Yes, I trust you.”

“Then close your eyes.”

Reluctantly, she did. Blind, at the mercy of the Demon Princess, Hippolyta shivered like she never had before. Anticipation mixed with fear mixed with… lust. There was no other way to describe the sensation, the tingle underneath her nipples as if they were begging to be stroked by unknown hands. She jumped like a scalded cat when Sara’s hands slipped up under her skirt, then down under her panties.

She felt Sara press her body against her as she bit her lip, standing on tip-toes as if trying to crawl up the wall to escape the cold, probing, fingers. “Shhh… be still. Trust me.”

Hippolyta desperately tried to remember what Master Ito had said about Zen meditation, tried to count sheep in her head, anything to distract her. Then something more distracting than the unnatural numbness that was her personal curse dug into her brain.

It was a tingle at first, like pins and needles that traced her outer lips, following Sara’s finger. She felt the twisted scar start to expand, puffing outward, the tingle blooming into true pleasure.

“Uh… I… Urgh…”

She gasped as Sara slipped two fingers inside; her thumb rubbing something that was trying to poke it’s way out from under a fold of her skin. Something that felt too good to be true. She was only vaguely aware of Sara lowering her to the floor, lost in the building heat.

Finally the wave broke and Hippolyta was surprised to hear herself screaming. She opened her eyes just in time to enjoy watching Sara suck the juice off her fingers. The visual reminder snapped the Amazon out of her daze, thrusting her shoulders upwards so she could look at herself. Despite the fact that her panties were hanging from one ankle, the rest of her looked and felt clean.

She reached up to feel herself first hand, hardly believing what her fingers were telling her, “You… HOW?”

“Easy,” Sara shrugged, “one of the advantages of being a Demon Princess rather than a therapist is that sometimes you can take the fast way rather than be bogged down over petty rules like not sodomizing the patient.”

Chuckling, Sara continued, “A little bit of healing power and some encouragement and your BIT was able to heal itself with some help from moi. It’s called traumatic psychosomatic GSD, it’s a close cousin to Hysterical Injury. You know, like people who convince themselves they’re blind so they are? Of course, the normal technique is about ten to twenty years of therapy, but what can I say? Sexual organs are my forte.”

Stunned, Hippolyta simply gaped, lips unable to form more than half-strangled words. Slowly she leant forward, quivering, tears running down her cheeks.

“Shhhh, it’s ok,” Sara smiled, hugging the girl close to her breast. Hippolyta was forged of iron, but even iron melts in a crucible.

They sat huddled together for a long time, waiting for Hippolyta to cry herself out.

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“By the way, Dr. Bellows sends the heartfelt gratitude and admiration of the entire counselling faculty,” Otto smiled gently, “Hippolyta made an impromptu visit to her therapist to let her know that her problem has been fixed. They’re going to keep her under observation, but all indications point towards her complete recovery.”

“Good.” Sara smiled, throwing a hurried glance at Donna. Her foster mother had sat stone-faced all through the tests, fully occupied with note-taking and other calculations. The new classification system was more accurate than the old one, yet the added complexity made an already onerous task even more distasteful.

The tests had taken up the whole afternoon and well into the night. Otto had ordered all visitors to be turned away so as not to interrupt them. To ‘Get it out of the way’, he said.

The results looked good on the surface. Finally, she was improving! Telekinesis was well over the five-pound mark, she was able to create a tennis-ball sized ball of fire in mid air and could control her appearance with unbelievable proficiency. Unless she tried to take on a male form, then nothing seemed to work right.

Underneath her slight disappointment, Sara was glad. She never wanted to be Michael again, no matter what.

Otto wore one of the deepest frowns, however, that either Sara or Michael had ever seen him wear. “It seems that we’ve been leading ourselves down the garden path,” he scowled at the test results as they flashed up on his screen, “I’ve been an idiot.”

Donna looked up, blinking as if for the first time in hours, “Wow. Never thought I’d hear you admit something like that.”

“Well, to my knowledge, I’ve never been this big an idiot before.”

Sara and Donna shared a meaningful glance. Both could remember plenty of times. Fortunately, he had his back turned to them at the time.

“I can feel your scepticism, you know.”

Well, so much for that, Sara chuckled internally. “Ok, what have you been missing, most intelligent person I know?”

Flattery will get you everywhere.

“We’ve been putting too many labels on you. The old test focussed around what a mutant could DO rather than the SOURCE of their powers. Do you follow?”

Sara nodded, “The tests were about classifying what our powers do, not the way we do them.”

“Exactly,” Otto beamed, “you always were my best student, Sara.”

“Hey!” Donna protested.

“Excuse me. Equal first,” Otto winked. Sara suppressed her chuckle, still not sure what Donna was thinking beyond her surface thoughts as she read through the test results. Any deeper would be an invasion of privacy and she didn’t want to start doing that no matter how curious she was.

“The point is,” Otto continued, “that part of the new revisions went over the criteria for classification. If our results are accurate, everything you do is just an expression of your psychic abilities. Shifting, regeneration, telepathy… all of it. Your absolute control over body, mind and soul… well, more or less. You’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of you.”

“So what else is new?” Sara laughed. “So, other than to an eclectic group of eggheads like us, what does that mean for me?”

“Well, it explains why you’ve been going to pieces these last few weeks,” Donna took up the explanation, “the faculty’s been trying to train you like the other mutants. Most mutations are like lifting weights, the more you practice, the more tricks you can learn, the stronger you get. Remember we told you how psionic abilities place stress on the mind? Well, there you go. We misdiagnosed your symptoms and you paid the price for our mistake with near-catastrophic burnout. It makes me wonder how many mutants are being misdiagnosed and burning out because of it. If we see a reduction in the next few years with this new test in place, there might be a paper in it.”

“Wait,” Sara held up one hand, “aren’t psionics like that too? I mean, we all have to practice, right?”

“Not in the same way,” Otto shook his head, “yes, you must practice to get better but strength in the psionic realm is a matter of finesse rather than raw power. If you lift your maximum weight through telekinesis doing a hundred ‘reps’ as a psychic, all you are doing is burning yourself. You won’t see a single result, compared to one of your friends like Jade or Hank who will improve when doing so. We believe this is because you are pulling the energy through your body in different ways, but there we get into the realms of theory and speculation.”

Sara scowled, “I’m years behind the cutting edge, Otto. I think I’ve got more catching up to do than I realized.”

Otto squeezed her shoulder, “You will catch up, though. Pattern Theory’s still not out of date, that paper’s practically our bible in this field. Anyhow, the trick to improving your powers will be expanding your knowledge and breaking down your preconceptions. Once you truly convince yourself that you can hurl lightning from your fingertips or lift an airliner with one hand, you just might be able to do it.”

“So in other words, I have to drive myself into what is, by most normal standards, insanity before I can meet the prerequisite for that level of power?” Sara quipped.

“I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but you are right from a certain point of view.”

“Thank-you, Master. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go polish my lightsaber.”

The corners of Otto’s lips quirked, “Very good, my young Padawan.”

Donna gaped, “Otto! Was that a joke?”

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Later that night, Sara found herself holding the new hospital gown up into the light for inspection, still wearing the Vampire Princess Miyu costume, “It’s awful.”

Donna arced one eyebrow while she scribbled out more notes from the tests, “It’s not meant to be pretty, just functional.”

“I know,” Sara rolled her eyes and cast the garment aside, “but I’m not wearing it. I understand why I can’t go back to my room yet, but why on Earth can’t someone bring me some of my own clothes?”

“Since when did you become so fussy?”

“Gee, I think it was about the time someone introduced me to looking good. She looked suspiciously like you, actually.” Sara chuckled, hugging her around the shoulders and leaning her cheek against the older-looking girl’s hair.

Donna giggled, shrugging to shake the girl off, “Come on, I’m trying to work here…”

The blonde shuddered as something licked upward behind her ear, stroking along a nerve that made her skin tingle right down to her toes, gasping with delight.

I love you.

The words echoed through her mind, Sara’s voice sounding through the Mark rather than utilizing the vulgar, meaningless, distortions of air that passed for human speech. Sara’s love harmonized with her own, echoing, reverberating, enhancing each other, and threatening to drown them both in a tsunami of emotion.

Sara’s kisses were cold down her neck, Donna’s blood burning in her veins. “Michael…” It just escaped. The one word she’d sworn not to utter. Panicking, about to bolt upright, she felt the other girl’s hand on her breast, holding her down.

“Not any more,” Sara whispered into her ear, “Michael is dead Donna, but he lives on in me. He loved you. I love you. I remember that night we spent in Prague.”

Donna felt the Demon’s arms grow, could see the hand on her chest slowly expand. Her voice lowered, becoming husky, silken and promising.

“Please relax. Please, Donna. If all I wanted was your body, I could take it. If all I wanted was your love, I could make you love me. I want you, free and willing, to be mine. I swear I will never force you, but if you are willing, my love, than so am I.”

Donna turned her head to where Sara’s cheek pressed against hers. The little girl had grown far past the awkward fourteen years old she had been before. Red eyes bored back into hers, long black horns arcing gracefully back over her head, starkly contrasted against her alabaster skin. She was beautiful, more beautiful than anything Donna had ever seen. Their lips met, and it wasn’t Sara who was the aggressor.

Work forgotten; Donna straddled her old love, desperate to feel her between her legs. Sara grasped her head gently as they kissed, tongues practically tied together as they shared their taste. Donna felt the Demon’s tongue slide past hers, filling her mouth as she drank it’s sweetness. The strangeness of it made the muscles clench in her arms and neck, the tension leaping down her back.

Sara stopped, retracting her tongue, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s… I…” Donna stuttered, trying to sort out herself, “I want you. I want you inside me in the worst way, but… you feel so strange to me. I’ve never had any feelings for another girl in my life… and your tongue, and your breasts, and… but I love you, I want you.”

Sara smiled, hugging her lover tenderly, “It’s ok. Let me show you, let me get you comfortable.”

The Demon Princess picked her up as if she weighed nothing, laying her gently on the hospital bed. Donna shivered at her touch, half from anticipation, half for fear of the dark claws that graced the tips of her fingers. Her breath caught as Sara shrugged herself out of the loose kimono, folding it neatly before laying it carefully on the side table. Her adult body bore out the promise of her younger forms, slender, svelte curves undulating sinuously with every movement. Donna felt an intense pang of jealously at the unnatural perfection of her form.

Smiling, without a word, Sara started undoing her buttons from the top down. Donna froze, unblinking, fixated on Sara’s face and body as her own flesh was slowly revealed. Parting her blouse, she tried to cover her breasts with her hands despite the fact that they were already covered by her bra but Sara shooed them away, pinning them back down as she crawled onto the bed.

“You’ve seen all of me, I have nothing to hide. I want to see you.” Sara whispered, her grin not showing a hint of fang, just open curiosity. Donna was breathing heavily, causing her chest to expand and contract provocatively. Tracing her claws down her toned stomach, Sara undid Donna’s belt and pulled down on the hem of the jeans, sliding the rough material over smooth legs, running her hands around to feel her lover’s ass, then down over her thighs, lifting her knees up so she could slip the garment over her calves and feet.

Donna eagerly shrugged her way out of her shirt, sitting up to reach around to pluck at the clasp on her Bra, hands shaking. “Let me…” Sara reached around, slipping the clasp open easily, “Relax.”

Sara kissed her gently again, then ran her lips down over her chin and along her collarbone, letting them both sink slowly into the mattress. Ever so slowly, Sara brushed her lips over her lover’s breast, gifting the nub at the apex a light stroke with the tip of her tongue. Donna gasped, feeling the nipple harden as the Demon swirled her appendage around it, then slowly licked the tip once more.

“Yes…” Donna’s mouth gaped, rapture warring with tension. Muscles spasmed with indecision under Sara’s probing hands, the press of soft flesh drawing out a sigh of contentment. Tentatively, Donna reached up to touch Sara’s waist, running her hands up onto her back, then down, feeling the slope of her hips.

Another lick and Donna’s back arched of it’s own accord, heat blossoming deep in her abdomen. Something squeezed between her legs, nuzzling her crotch through her panties. They were soaked already, the familiar thickness of Sara’s sinuous, rubbery, tentacle lapping at the sodden silk rag, driving her wild with expectation.

It nudged the damp cloth aside, exposing her to the cold, septic, air of the hospital room. More tentacles slithered around her arms and legs, spreading her open, ready for invasion. They moved like snakes, writhing with a hypnotic grace, skin slick like smooth scales that vibrated from friction against her own soft flesh. Donna ground her hips forward as her bones buzzed, tension giving way to deep, liquid heat, trying to rub herself against one of the amazing members. Sara responded to the urging with glee, her thickest appendage sliding up between her lover’s thighs. Donna continued to wiggle like a worm on a hook, encouraging the head to move inside as it swayed on the tantalizing edge of her lips. Rising up, it pressed in, stroking her love-bud, the remaining tension melting away as it pleasured her.

Sara stroked her cheek, “Ready?”

“Yes!” Donna gasped desperately, eyes begging for release of her own free will.

The Demon Princess felt her own heat rise with her love’s acceptance, thrusting the tentacle deep into the woman’s slick, tight, canal. Donna screamed, peaking with that single stroke. But the pleasure didn’t stop as it began pumping her, pistoning in and out, muscles she didn’t realize she had clamping down to squeeze every ounce of ecstasy from the deliciously thick member.

Sara savoured the taste of Donna’s innards, rocking in time with her thrusts, basking in the glow of the almost constant orgasm that washed over her. Her body was made for love and pleasure, able to transcend mere human limits of endurance. She rocked, not only with her own, feminine, orgasms but with her partner’s as well, the psychic echo driving her to greater heights. Doors opened in her mind, the veil lifted in the moment of passion.

This was who she truly was.

As certainty flooded her being, she saw Donna’s soul shining brightly within her chest, a beacon to guide her inside. Carefully, she reached out with one intangible tentacle and stroked it, letting her love fill it to overflowing.

Donna’s eyes rolled up into the back of her head, the intensity of sensation overloading her mind. In that state of bliss, she opened her mind to Sara’s, letting her goddess inside without restraint. They spoke without words, sharing their thoughts, their fears, joys and sorrows. Donna begged her lover to complete the act, to let her instincts run their natural course. Reluctantly, she agreed.

Sara felt something inside her move, breaking away from a pocket of flesh deep within her hips, squeezing it’s way down the thick member that plunged into Donna’s eager depths. Instincts took over, relief washing through her as the bulge travelled down the tentacle, distending the woman’s labia before squirting deep inside, taking residence in her womb. She felt Donna’s sigh of contentment more than she heard it, a preternatural calm descending over her.

They lay together, entwined, for the rest of the night, pressing close together as if to ward off the rest of the world around them. Donna caressed the slight swell of her abdomen with reverent awe as if she could feel the egg within gestating inside.

No words were shared. None were needed.

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Deathlist surveyed the aerial photographs of Whateley from the Stealth Satellite that hung over his head somewhere in space as the last of the Sabretooths ducked through the gap in the Wards. The mage remained on the other side as he sealed the rupture with painstaking care, his job done.

Terror squatted beside him, silent as a ghost, watching the map as his commander cycled through the pictures, his sharp mind assessing the tactical advantages of the ground.

“Our contact will meet us here with her intelligence,” Deathlist pointed to an area deep in the forest, well out of range of the buildings that fanned out around the central complex, “there’s an abandoned tunnel out that way that used to be part of a secret base. Nobody’s used it for decades. We’ll hole up there until zero hour. Chessmaster tells me that there’s a Genius Loci situated to our right, so we have to go around. Let the others know that if they see anything strange, avoid it at all costs, security has marked the boundary with radio beacons so it should be clear to them if they are straying into its territory.”

Terror nodded.

“Right, move out.”

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Thursday, 26th October, 2006 10:46am

Sara looked up at Poe from the base of the steps as if seeing it for the first time in her life. With most of the other students out at class, the building was eerily quiet and foreboding. Maybe it was the sunlight washing over her or the breeze brushing her smooth skin, but it felt as though everything had changed.

Maybe it had, but more likely it was she who had changed.

Otto was halfway up the steps already, looking down at her. She felt self conscious in the hospital gown, the only article of clothing that now remained to her other than the Kimono that Jade was altering in Costuming today.

“We agreed that this is for the best, Sara.” He reminded her.

He was right, Whateley could do things for her that ARC couldn’t. Like give her friends her ‘own age’, going through the same things she was. Getting her out into the world again, a real fresh start. The way Otto and Carson talked, people wanting a student dead was nothing new.

“I agree it’s unusual because you’re so young,” Carson had chuckled, “usually it’s the seniors that go in for the life-and-death duels. Trying to prove they’ve got what it takes for a real team after graduation.”

Sara didn’t really know about that, but they were right, damn it. She could either deal with it or give in and run. In that sense, she’d already made that choice.

Walking around in sunlight again was new. Everything seemed sharper, clearer than before. The smells, the fresh air, the cold, the heat… as if she were more in tune with the world progressing around her.

He waited patiently at the top of the steps as she ascended, then led her inside. Mrs. Horton was waiting for them with a smile, “Long time no see, Sara. Welcome back.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Horton,” Sara gave her a genuine grin.

Horton blinked, then chuckled, “My, my, what have you done to this one, Otto? It’s a pleasure to see a real smile on such a beautiful face.”

Sara blushed purple.

“Oh, she has her moments, no doubt about that,” Otto chuckled, gesturing towards the basement, “you look well yourself, Bella. Shall we?”

Mrs. Horton nodded and led the way downstairs. The door to Sara’s room was criss-crossed over by strips of red security tape labelled ‘Class X Do Not Cross’ like you’d see in a cop thriller on TV. The housemother just ripped them off casually and opened the door.

The inside had changed. The writhing runes had shrunk and multiplied during Sara’s absence, barely noticeable unless you knew what to look for. The old room was still there, but the wallpaper was peeling off to reveal ancient stonework of inhuman origin. The dark blocks were the size of minivans, though achingly familiar in design. Several doors had sprouted of their own accord, leading to god-knows-where or god-knows-what. Sara hoped it was only the former. The room had also enlarged itself again, becoming practically cavernous.

“It seems the room likes you,” Mrs. Horton beamed, “I have to admit, I was a little worried for a while there.”

“It’s alive?” Sara asked incredulously.

Horton nodded, “Of course! It’s the reason why we placed you in Poe and not Hawthorne, dear. The Lovecraft Room is about the only place that suits your unique physiology. Think of it like a relaxation tank, a place where you can let your hair down without turning the whole school into an interdimensional nightmare.”

Sara blinked.

“Now, I suggest that you read up on wards and put a few defences on the window and the doors. I doubt that anyone will try to attack you here again, but better safe than sorry. Here,” Mrs. Horton pulled a small box out of her pocket, “just in case all else fails, this is a panic button. Leave it near the desk and your bed, if anything happens, pressing it will notify myself, Security and any Peacekeepers on duty. We’ll respond in less than a minute, so don’t use it unless it’s absolutely necessary. Do you understand, young lady?”

Sara had to admit; there were times when being thirteen again grated on her. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good, remember to go and have lunch in the cafeteria. No more starving yourself just trying to get attention.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She did something to really surprise Sara then. Before she could blink, she was caught in a rough bear hug and kissed soundly on the forehead, “Thank heavens you’re back! We’ve been worried sick. Now, off with you.”

With that, she turned and strutted away, leaving Sara’s eyes bugging out (literally, they are on the ends of tentacles after all).

Otto chuckled, “Ah, yes, that’s the Bella I remember. Stern, demanding, emotionless. Then, just when you think you have her figured out, she goes and does something like that. Nice room, by the way.”

Sara looked again. Other things had changed aside from the room. The furniture, for instance. Her bed was now a four-poster double bed that looked to be carved from obsidian, covered in blood-red silk. The chairs, dining table and desk all matched the décor. The once-sparse carpet was soft and blood-red matching the covers, obviously. All in all, it looked like Count Dracula’s interior designer had been given licence to go crazy with her living space.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, she knew exactly who was responsible. His scent was all over the room, seeped into everything the way rotten cabbages are wont to do. Sara stalked over to the gold box on her new desk, catching a glimpse of the new bookshelves that dominated one wall and a brand-new wardrobe next to the bed. Opening the box, she pulled the new scroll out and unravelled it, feeling the soft, spongy, texture of the ‘parchment’.

“So,” Otto crossed his arms, identifying the material immediately, “who writes messages to you on human skin?”

“Daddy,” Sara sighed, reading the message with a glance, “listen to this. Hello, my darling daughter, glad to see that you are now safe and whole once again. It is with great pleasure that I can tell you that Mifruzli has been dealt with permanently. I cannot express how sorry I am that I have placed you in harm’s way, however, I took the liberty of reshaping your room into a form more fitting your status as my little Princess, re-stocked your wardrobe and left you a new book I know you’ll love. Sorry I couldn’t see you in person, I’m still trying to get permission through official channels to visit on Parent’s Day. Love, Gothmog. P.S. Try my name with the summoning spell on page thirteen forty-seven. If you can get the hang of it before then, I can see you even sooner! Hugs and kisses, Daddy.”

She’d left out the congratulations on his first grandchild. They’d told Otto as soon as they were able, naturally, but he wasn’t taking the news well. No point in rubbing the sore spot right now.

Fortunately, Otto was more interested in the new book than the parchment, “An original copy of The Black Book of Shub-Niggurath, right next to the Scriptures of Gothmog. By all rights, I should confiscate these and lock them both up in the darkest hole of Black Complex.”

“Well, I talked him out of the Al Azif.”

Otto froze, his mouth working without giving out a sound, eyes bulging so far out, Sara wondered if they were on tentacles too.

“Just a joke, Otto,” she chuckled.

It took a moment for him to regain his composure, “Please don’t joke about that. I know this is all old hat for you now, Michael, but try to remember that the rest of us don’t have the right wiring to deal with these things.”

“SARA, please,” she corrected firmly, opening her new wardrobe, curious, “Michael’s dead and I want to keep him that way. I’m happy now, Otto. I promise you that I will never do anything to harm humanity. The Kellith that didn’t care is dead and gone, you have no reason to fear her now.”

“Now I’m worried about the Kellith that cares too much.” Otto mumbled.

Sara smirked, “Just no pleasing some people… oh, daddy, what were you thinking?”

She pulled out a short red satin dress with spaghetti straps that couldn’t be long enough to cover all the vital parts that needed covering. Quickly throwing off the plain hospital gown, she drew the new dress over her head, marvelling in the feel of the fabric against her skin. Otto span about so fast, Sara worried that he’d give himself whiplash. Daddy had also, most thoughtfully, provided her with a mirror, so she proceeded to check herself out from every angle. Her flexible bones were turning out to be most useful.

“If it’s all right with you, Sara, I want to upgrade your status at ARC back to Special Ops.”

It was Sara’s turn to freeze in place, checking out her new, longer, legs that were almost wholly revealed by the dress. “You want to give me my old job back?”

“Part time, yes,” Otto nodded, turning back around now that Sara was fully clothed, “and Mrs. Carson wants you to become a teacher’s assistant for the magic department. You’ll be spending most of your time there from now on anyway; it might not be a bad idea. Butter them up a bit, let them know you’re not all bad.”

“Just a little evil,” Sara chuckled, squeezing a small amount of air between her thumb and forefinger, careful not to click her claws together.

Otto found himself laughing despite himself, “It’s good to have you back, Sara. I’ll take that as a yes?”

“Yeah, ok,” Sara sighed.

“Good, you’re scheduled for a lecture in the main auditorium on Pattern Theory this afternoon and I’ll give you Saturday off. Sunday, however, you start on your new assignment.”

He said it so fast; it even took Sara a second to register it. “The what? The who? The where? OTTO!”

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Sara was still swearing at the old bastard as she waited in the wings of the auditorium while the students filed into their seats. Peeking through the curtain, she could make out Gypsy, Fey and Toni in the front rows surrounded by seniors. One hour to prepare a speech on Pattern Theory, perhaps one of the most nebulous and difficult concepts to grasp in the whole field of Metaphysics and she got it dumped into her lap on the day.

“Nervous?” Mrs. Chulkris asked, an annoyingly motherly expression on her face.

“A little,” Sara answered honestly, “but I still haven’t forgiven you for dumping this in my lap at the last second.

She chuckled sheepishly, “Well, I’ve been trying to organize this for a month now. The students don’t get many chances to hear a theory straight from its creator. I’m sure you can give all of us insights that we’d never be able to get from the books. The whole department of magic and Sir Wallace Westmont are sitting in too.”

Sara gulped, “You definitely need to work on reassuring people, Miss.”

She coughed, patting Sara comfortingly on the shoulder, “Gone and put my foot in my mouth again, haven’t I? You’ll do fine, dear. It’s like riding a bike, you never forget.”

The Demon Princess shuddered at the platitude but was grateful for the sentiment at least. Soon, the crowd was hushed by the teachers, and Mrs. Chulkris was giving her a flowery introduction before beckoning her onto the stage. Sara didn’t hear it; she was too busy getting over the collective stare she was receiving as she walked out to the podium. She’d finally decided on one of her father’s less lascivious ensembles too, the lace of her black skirt reached halfway down her thighs, the wide-shouldered leather top didn’t reveal any cleavage and her low-heeled boots hugged her calves like a second skin to just below the knee.

Whatever it was that set them off, her appearance caused a collective gasp that devolved into a babble of incoherent comments. The few Sara caught made her blush.

She decided to use anger to cover her lapse, bearing her fangs, “All right, settle down, settle down. It seems that I have been conned into giving you all a lecture on the topic of the day. So let’s get it over with.”

The babble immediately hushed. Sara turned to the whiteboard, writing PATTERN THEORY across it in large letters, mainly to give her time to deal with the stares and some of the thoughts that were accompanying them. It seemed that a pretty face went a long way towards academic learning. Might be a paper in that.

“Pattern Theory. This is the concept that I am about to introduce to you and I MUST stress that it is a THEORY. If you want hard and fast answers, I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree. However, like super strings or the stuff you learnt back in high school chemistry before coming here, it is a good framework for understanding mutant abilities and where they MIGHT come from. I believe that Pattern Theory is correct, but please formulate your own opinions and examine the evidence before you allow me to convince you out of hand.”

The thoughts of her audience started to turn towards their notes, several students beginning to make notes even though she hadn’t really said anything yet.

“Long before you were born,” Sara continued, “the first seeds of Pattern Theory were sewn by a philosopher called Jung. Jung posited the existence of an ‘Overmind’, formed of all of humanity’s thoughts and feelings. This was long before Parapsychology, Metaphysics or Paragenetics ever became recognized fields of study by the scientific community. Parapsychologists went looking for this ‘Overmind’ and found substantive evidence in support of the theory, particularly now that the psychics among you have consented to be tested and researched along with the recent discoveries made in Dimensional Physics that have made useful items such as the Subspace Transmitter a reality rather than science fiction.”

She paused to let that tidbit sink in before continuing, “Pattern Theory posits that everything, You, Me, this chair, the Earth, all of it has an individual Pattern that extends beyond the physical planes of existence, indeed, perhaps the influence of a single rock can be felt across a staggering number of Dimensions. We know, for example, that Gravity bleeds off into other dimensions, explaining why it is a comparatively weak force compared to its brothers. If gravity can do it, the Pattern Theorist asks, why cannot there be other forms of energy, perhaps energy that is influenced by us in other dimensions of space that we cannot see, nor feel. In fact, it is a method of explaining the unexplainable: Your mutant powers. What are they? Where does the energy, the force that powers these alterations come from? Where is the BIT stored? How can simple energy affect us so? Even for non-mutants there is the question of emotion. Is emotion a force? Can it be utilized? Are psychics really using emotional or mental power to move objects? The key, we realized, was in the ongoing study of Gravity, the only form of natural energy we KNOW exhibits these multidimensional, or even transdimensional, qualities.”

As she watched the audience, she could see the usual mix of blank stares, nods and rapt attention that usually accompanied one of her lectures. About fifty percent of them would be bewildered, forty percent would get the basics and ten percent would really understand what she was saying. Thus was the teacher’s lot. Looking at Toni’s crinkled brow, however, she decided that she might be going a little too fast. Not all mages needed a degree in Metaphysics and these were high school students after all.

“If you want the details I suggest that you read the PT Manifesto. However, I’ll try to give you the gist here and let those of you who are more technically minded delve into it yourselves. Imagine yourself at the centre of an invisible web. You are connected and interconnected with everything around you, across time and space. Forget all limitations. Everything you have ever met, touched, walked on, lived in; all of it is connected to you at different levels. Imagine these webs exist connected to you all in THIS universe, to your physical body, emanating and returning to you in an endless and infinite cycle…”

Sara heard someone in the back row snigger something about ‘using the force’. Singling out the person, she decided to form a rebuttal, “Yes, you may well ridicule me now, Mr. Uberman, but you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face when this research discovers how to make Universal Power Nullifiers.”

Everyone took a collective breath in. Silence descended on the whole hall.

“These forces take on myriad forms,” Sara picked up where she’d left off, “electromagnetic energy, gravity and possibly others that we are only just discovering and touching upon. And, yes, for those of you Kane Hall boffins, this is the field of Metaphysics that some of you are studying and participating in at the moment. A few of you may see some correlation to your studies of Ectoplasm and Ectoplasmic Energy. I won’t bore the rest of you with details, but I strongly suggest you look it up.”

Sara turned back to the board and scrawled a few equations under the title as she spoke, “Howard and his Unified Dimensional Theory opened a can of worms. The explanations are simple, the math is elegant and the proofs irrefutable. However, it only works if there are an infinite number of dimensions permeating what we know as Reality.” She turned back to the audience, stepping to one side to let them view the complicated math, “Look around. What you are seeing is only a tiny, insignificant, fraction of the Universe. A mere FOUR dimensions in an infinite sea. Beyond them are places influenced by your thoughts, your atomic structure and your genetics, your physical pattern if you will. Some of these dimensions hold, we believe, your BIT, if you indeed have one. An Overpattern stronger than genetics with the power to alter your physical make-up like a master computer program. I am sure some of you will square away this little fact and mull over the procedures you use in even the smallest spell. Focus, connection, weaving and casting, the very methods you use are designed to manipulate this Overpattern and bend it to your will. If you Seniors would consider alteration, transmutation and transformation magic and how this theory echoes the methods used there. After all, all of us here know that the gap between man and mouse is only a spell away.”

A titter of nervous laughter broke some of the tension. It wasn’t really funny, but at that point they would have laughed at anything to dispel some of their anxiety.

“How exactly this Overpattern effects us physically is of great importance to every single one of us at this school. I, personally, do not believe that a normal human being, or even WE, can touch all the dimensions, though cases have been made for and against. Think of it more like a pebble thrown into the sea, the ripples die out eventually. However, your pattern may cover hundreds of thousands of dimensions, each influenced by your body, mind and soul. A giant pattern of pure indestructible energy, maybe even enough to power all the houses, cars and appliances in the world if it could be efficiently harnessed as some of you Energizer folk may actually be doing. You Exemplars and Shifters pay close attention here, that Overpattern is controlled by your mind, consciously and/or subconsciously. Your mind has learnt, somehow, to harness that energy and redirect it or alter itself to alter the pattern or enhance itself using the Overpattern like jacking more memory into your laptop. GSD and other manifestations are eccentricities, sometimes faults, in the structure of the program. Burnout is what happens when you tap into too much at once, whether you know it or not, your body develops a fault and acts like a resistor or a short circuit. Boom.”

She had said it in as flat a monotone as possible, but a few of the more impressionable students still jumped. Burnout was one of those subjects no one at school talked about openly. It was scary enough without dwelling on it, the perpetual sword over all their heads.

“With all that energy just lying about, is it any wonder at the miracles some of you can perform? Howard’s Dimensional Theory states that across an infinite number of dimensions, there is an infinite amount of potential energy. This energy is actualised by the action of a force upon it… say gravity on this vase. In another Dimension, energy is poised to express itself as soon as the counterforce of this table is removed and, once it is expressed, it will seep back into that dimension. If the incidental energy is greater than the physical bonds that tie these atoms together, the vase will shatter as the energy bleeds out, yet the energy will still disappear into this other dimension, a formless dimension that touches countless others. In this way, part of the pattern that is you is formed. All of your actions, thoughts and emotions recorded timelessly and indestructibly somewhere in the ether. Yes, it is a scary thought, isn’t it?”

In the reflective pause that followed, someone Sara didn’t recognize put her hand up. “Yes, you at the back?”

“Ah, yes, um,” the girl stuttered, “how can this energy effect us like this? I mean, transforming stuff and us? I mean, if a vase drops, it just breaks. It won’t turn into a silver kettle.”

That got another laugh from everyone except Sara.

“Good Question. How could a energy pattern form a program that enhances life when it has no physical structure? I’d like you to take a look at some of our friends in Hawthorne, here, particularly that one composed of light entirely up on the left there... sorry, my left.”

The jokes were coming easier now. Sara felt relieved that the crowd was now staring at the glowing girl in the full-body spandex suit rather than her, even if it did cause the other girl some discomfort.

“How can she live? How can she move? She still claims to have thoughts and emotions, and here she is in front of us! Her physical body is a pattern of energy, just as your body is a pattern of matter. Matter is simply a different form of energy. If you want a more ‘real’ example, then I can point your towards the study of Prions, an interesting phenomena otherwise known as ‘Mad Cow Disease’. This disease is not, in fact, a disease. It is a chemical that acts like a virus! Introduced into your system, it would seek out certain parts of your brain, bond with them chemically, and transmute your structure into another form. A form that is lethal to you. Your physical pattern is disrupted, fails and you go mad. Death follows shortly thereafter. It itself cannot be ‘killed’ because it is not alive, like a rock or a glass of water, but its pattern can be broken with a fire that is hot enough. Oxidization changes the structure and it’s nature along with it. What happens to the rest of your pattern when you die is unknown at this point in time. It has been posited that Regenerators like myself have an Overpattern so strong that significant physical damage must be inflicted to disrupt our pattern OR the Overpattern itself must be attacked in extreme cases. Lady Light here may seem invulnerable, yet refract her or violate the field that keeps her together and she hurts just like you or I.”

‘Lady Light’ seemed to shrink slightly. The thought had obviously never occurred to her.

“On top of Ectoplasmic Energy, we now have Ki, the elusive energy of the soul. Only things with a soul can access Ki, though everything is affected and bound to it on a co-existent Dimension much like Subspace. Together, the Physical, Mental and Spiritual patterns form the greater Overpattern of each of us. Exactly why this triplicity exists is for the philosophers among you to decide, all I can tell you here is the facts. Each of these bodies can, theoretically, be trained and harnessed; we mutants are just a step ahead of the rest. Something about the way your patterns developed gave you access to the gifts and curses you possess, patterns of mind-boggling complexity beyond what your genes can dictate. A human made of living stone is impossible, genetically speaking, yet I see one over there picking his nose. His genetic code has changed so far that by the old definitions of scientific theory he would no longer be considered human. The tiny difference between man and ape is enough to distinguish a species, how far away is the man of living stone? Some of you may be thinking at this point: Can I pass on my genes? Can I have children if my genetic code is so amazingly deviant? The answer to some of you is yes and some of you no.

“Each of you is an individual, formed by the dictates of your Overpattern and the individual rules it follows. That Overpattern is imbued in your sperm or your eggs, like every other part of you, something beyond your genetic code. Combined when you mate, the patterns are so incredibly complex that the end result is completely unpredictable. The Overpatterns have been known to alter the genetic structure of sperm and eggs in order to facilitate otherwise impossible combinations themselves to produce new life. That is why mundanes can be born to mutant parents, or mutants from mundanes, and why two Exemplar Sixes can mate to produce an Energizer Two. The interaction of the patterns is all that matters towards the end result. It is also why some of you grow horns or spontaneously change sex or any of a thousand other permutations. All that information is stored in the Overpattern, to be accessed when, where and how the program dictates.”

Sara glanced at Nikki. The Faerie Queen was staring at her hands and flexing them, as if trying to see something beyond her simple flesh.

“Now I see some of our Avatars squirming there. Yes, I’m sure realization has dawned, you folk are at the mercy of alien Overpatterns. Some of you may have Overpatterns that digest weaker patterns, and some of you are linked to beings composed only of Mind and Soul, and maybe a negligible physical from. These patterns are shaping you, altering your genetic and physical structures, even your minds and souls for their own purposes, whether as parasites or symbiotes. Pray that they are the latter and not the former. Some of you may be Channelers, in which case you have a sweet deal, bartering and trading for temporary powers without binding yourselves to the spirit.”

“What about Prognosticators?” One of the Seniors in the front row blurted the question out, “If Avatars interact with other Overpatterns, and these patterns include past, present and future influences, doesn’t that mean that Prognosticators may be accessing a larger Overpattern?”

“Yes, that is correct, Prognosticators and Diviners tap into these other dimensions of energy and access the Overpatterns and their links. Understanding the data they get back is the hard part, it’s like trying to fit a biblical flood through the kitchen sink, knowing what information is vital and what to get rid of is critical to the accuracy of the message. The more powerful the Prognosticator, the bigger the pipe and the processing power, you have to literally think of more things at once than the next person. Remember that the Overpattern is timeless and indestructible, so information on the past is easily obtained. To predict the future, one has to run the simulation forward, which takes tremendous effort for the human brain and even the Overpattern. The details are too long-winded to explain in this forum, I suggest that you begin with the Metaphysics course and study the field for the rest of your life. You may come up with the answer to the question of how, but don’t hold your breath. Remember always that we are the pioneers of entirely new branches of science, the answer to a lot of your questions will be ‘We don’t know, but we are looking.’”

Another, more polite, hopeful put their hand up.

“Yes, you.”

“Could it be possible to map an Overpattern, like they did with the Human Genome?”

“Miss, the Overpattern makes the Human Genome look like High School algebra and it took 12 years to map that…”

Sara immediately had to wave off the startled outcry of several students still wearing their lab coats, “Yes, yes, Gadgeteers and Devisors may have mapped it long before, but only they could understand their findings. Most Gadgeteers may be smarter than the average Human or have a knack, but when such information is couched in language unique to the inventor nobody can understand what he’s about, you might as well be reading out stereo instructions. For example, a Gadgeteer in the 40’s called Genes ‘Protherts’ and Chromosomes ‘Bobs’ after his lab staff. The scientific community couldn’t understand his experiments; he was so far ahead of them that it was like describing a computer to a caveman who had just gotten the knack of the Wheel. Why do you think that Drafting Papers is a course offered at Kane Hall, both as a credit and as a night class? Language was the barrier that inventors had to cross throughout the last century, this more than anything else was the reason that the so-called Pulp Era came about, and being a scientist during this time was a lonely business. However, this is not the forum for that topic, I suggest you ask a few of your teachers at Kane Hall who were around to see it if you’re interested. Now, let’s go through some of the supporting math. If I lose anyone, feel free to stop me at any time…”

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Nikki was grilling Sara over the lecture in Kimba Korner as Toni returned from Martial Arts. “So, you think that Aunghadhail’s Overpattern survived her physical death? How’s that possible? I thought you said that the Overpattern was part of the physical body?”

“It is,” Sara sighed, “but you’re looking at it from a human or a mutant perspective. Unlike Toni here, our bodies aren’t the lynchpin of our existence…”

“Well, ex-cuse me,” Toni huffed.

“No offence,” Sara chuckled, “some of my best friends are humans. The point is that, for magical creatures, the most important part of our bodies is the Pattern, not the matter. If whatever destroyed her race was powerful enough to shatter Aunghadhail into shards, some of which retained enough will to search each other out and recombine themselves, then that suggests to me that there may be more Fey poised to return to the world.”

Nikki considered that for a moment, then took a breath in preparation for a reply.

The crash from the hallway interrupted her as something large and heavy shook the walls, causing loose plaster to rain down from the ceiling. Toni was out of her seat before Sara could say ‘What the...’, Nikki following close behind her roommate.

Sara froze half way through the door. Unbridled power brushed past her arm towards the combatants, Tennyo and Hippolyta facing off right there in the hallway surrounded by cheering students. Hippolyta was wet; her clothes clinging to that supremely toned body. The room darkened as Tennyo closed her fist, as if light itself were attempting to dodge the blow.

“Billie! NO!” Fey screamed shrilly.

Sara just froze as the blow was let loose, staring with disbelief. Life itself shied away from that blow, pure darkness radiating from Tennyo’s fist.

The impact was almost anticlimactic. Anyone who couldn’t see the power would have simply thought Hippolyta had crumpled over the fist, thrown back into the wall by the force and collapsed. A minor injury for a brick.

But Hippolyta didn’t get up. Sara could see, see the girl’s life leaking out through the tear in her Pattern. The sight, the feel of the wound sent a shiver of pleasure down her spine. That shiver made her freeze.

Fey took charge. Sara couldn’t shake the feeling that tingled across her skin, it was like Tennyo’s power had touched something within her, something dark that resonated with that power. Unable to think, she did the next best thing, she followed Aunghadhail’s orders.

Between them, Toni and Fey re-sealed Hippolyta’s pattern and Mrs. Horton helped the nurses cart her off to hospital, still unconscious.

Waking as if from a dream, Sara found herself sitting in the hallway outside Hippolyta’s room, her old room a few feet away. It was dark and she hadn’t noticed.

“Not you again.”

Sara blinked, then looked up at the duty nurse. It was the same one who’d seen her on the floor with Donna. “I guess it is me again.”

“Visiting hours are over, dear. You better go back to your cottage. Don’t worry, your friend is well on her way to recovery, all she needs is peace and quiet and she’s less likely to get it with you here, isn’t she?”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Sara scowled. She never had liked being judged.

“Dear,” the nurse’s eyes tightened, her glare penetrating, “I’ve worked here a long time and after a few years you learn to read people. At first you think the bad ones are what they look like, what they behave like, then after a while life hands you a few hard knocks and the ones you thought were all right turn out to be the worst. All too often, the ones who seem the most loving hold inside them the most ravenous hate. The one constant that holds is that trouble follows them, mainly because they bring it on themselves.”

“Fuck you.”

She gasped. “E-excuse me, young lady?”

“I said, fuck you,” Sara repeated, feeling cold inside, “what the fuck do you know about evil? Pottering about safe and secure in this dinky little hospital, dressed in white like a fucking martyr? Get back to me when you’ve seen a mother fillet her own baby like a fish, then I’ll listen to your bullshit.”

With that, she stormed out of the Hospital.

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She was back in the councillor’s office the next morning, silently berating herself for the slip. Bellows sat across from her in his armchair while she sat silently on the couch, looking at the decorations on his shelves in an attempt to stall.

“Sara?”

Sighing, she answered, “Yes, Doctor?”

“I think you know why you’re here.”

“I’ve made an educated guess.”

“Nurse Sterling said that you said some pretty shocking things to her last night and that you even swore at her. Did you swear at her, Sara?”

“Yup.”

He waited.

She just remained silent.

“Why?”

“Because she was being a judgemental, nosey, self-righteous bitch.”

“Sara!”

“You asked. If she’d been any more candid, she would have come right out and told me I was a candidate for the top one hundred villains list.”

It was his turn to sigh, “Sara, you can’t just go off at people like that, ESPECIALLY you and especially not a member of the staff. Security keeps record of these things, too many black marks no matter how justified you feel yourself to be and you will be a villain in their eyes. Do you understand that?”

“Ah!” Sara couldn’t help but grin, “Excuse me, Sara Waite, but are you a Sociopath? We’d really like to know wether we have to lend you a straight jacket now…”

That brought him up short. Like gears ticking over, she felt his mind switch tracks, “Did you really ever witness a mother fillet her own baby or were you just trying to shock her?”

Touché, Sara thought. “Do you really want me to answer that question?”

“Now I think that you’re trying to shock me.”

Sara shrugged and changed the subject, “I’m actually sorry I went off at her, but I get very frustrated with people who preach at me about morals when they’ve never actually had to face real evil in their entire lives.”

“Did she make you angry?”

“No, she scared me. Her comment hit a little too close to home.” There, she had admitted it.

Bellows started making notes furiously, “So, you’re afraid of becoming evil?”

“Isn’t everybody?” Sara muttered, “I mean, all the mutants here have to potential of being very, very good or very, very bad. I, however, seem to have a jump start in the latter category. People are afraid of me and in my darkest hours I almost enjoy it. My instincts are all screaming at me to jump left and all I want to do is jump right. I’m not an animal, damn it! I have a choice! I have free will! I can make my own destiny, nobody can choose who I am except ME. That’s what I believe in my heart, but my mind ticks over and logic shunts my beliefs aside. If I look like a duck and I think like a duck and I quack like a duck, why try to be a goose?”

“I never thought I’d ever say this to someone, but don’t you think you’re overanalysing yourself? How has your relaxation been going?”

Sara blinked, “Relaxation?”

“Yes, what have you been doing for fun? You remember that? Fun?”

She blinked again, tasting the word in her mouth, “Fun?”

“What do you do to take your mind off things?”

“I… don’t. Why should I stop thinking about things? The problems won’t go away because I ignore them.”

“Not necessarily, however recreation is a generally accepted method of keeping ourselves sane.”

“I haven’t had time for fun.”

He stopped making notes. Slowly, he put down his pencil and paper, “Sara, I want to ask you a question and I want you to answer honestly. I know that in the last week, you’ve had a rough time of things to say the least. But when was the last time you did something just for yourself? Something that you can enjoy on your own?”

Sara looked down at the floor. She didn’t want to answer, but the words just started spilling out, “Book shopping in Boston.”

“And before that?”

“Clothes shopping at Cecilia’s.”

“Have you been into town at all since your arrival?”

She shook her head.

He sat back in his chair, “That’s it, then. I’m putting you on indefinite stress leave as of right now.”

Sara felt her jaw drop, “Y-you can’t!”

“Yes I can. You’re strung so tight at the moment; it’s no wonder you almost snapped. I’m bumping our sessions up to twice a week. It seems to me that somewhere along the line, you’ve forgotten the human part of superhuman. We call it Parker Syndrome around these parts, so you better get used to the idea of having FUN, young lady, we’ll make you happy if you like it or not!”

Despite his grin, Sara found something profoundly chilling about that statement.

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Hippolyta was sore and she didn’t mind letting everyone around her know about it. Sterling wasn’t anywhere to be seen, which Sara thanked whatever Deity looked over her profusely.

“They call this food,” Hippolyta muttered, poking at her jelly with the plastic fork, “I guess nobody ever told them that healing bodies need protein.”

Sara wasn’t in the mood. The thought of having to start school over again next semester was turning into a real possibility now that she was, for all practical terms, suspended. It might have been unfair to bully a sick person but, if Tennyo’s story was correct, then the person before her had started it. “Hippie, what happened yesterday?”

“I got into a fight, happens all the time,” she answered evasively.

“You got into a fight with Tennyo,” Sara glared darkly, “and you obviously had no idea what you were getting into. What were you thinking?”

“I don’t like cheaters…”

“She didn’t cheat. If she did, Tolman would have had her guts for dinner. Ito Sensei would have had the leftovers for desert. Are you trying to tell me that you simply believed everything Arianna told you on face value?”

“She’s not a liar. I trust her.”

“Bullshit,” Sara glared, “you may have half the school fooled, but I know you have a brain between those ears. You’re a soldier; every good soldier I’ve ever known had something going on up top. You trusted her because you wanted to pick a fight with Tennyo, didn’t you?”

She shrugged.

“All right, I don’t need you to answer that. All I want to know is why.”

She took a slow bite off her jelly, considering how to answer. “Because she’s tough.”

Sara stared. “That’s it? What sort of macho bullshit…”

“I don’t expect you to understand,” Hippolyta glared back, “you’re not a warrior.”

“No, I seem to have more common sense,” Sara retorted, “Tennyo spends her days producing antimatter for the science department and you want to pick a fight with her to see how tough she is? She could have just disintegrated you in a real fight!”

Hippolyta growled, “She insulted me by holding back. I’m not some fucking frosh she can just ignore…”

“Are you listening to me? Do you have any concept of what you were fooling with? She could have ripped your soul out you lummox!”

“Why do you care? And what the fuck is a lummox?”

Sara clucked, “I take it back. You worded it perfectly, you’re not a soldier, you’re a warrior.”

“What does that mean?”

“A soldier fights for a reason and fights to win. A warrior is just a thug who’ll get himself killed in a pissing contest.”

Hippolyta watched Sara storm out of her room, aghast.

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Saturday, 28th October, 2006 11:47pm

Sara glared at the GEO interface as she pounded a low level group of adventurers into smears of red goo. It was evil, unsatisfying, and grossly unfair to pick on them which was exactly why she was doing it. Above all, she felt the need to hurt something and the lowly group stumbled on her at just the wrong time.

Hippolyta had come back hours ago. They’d had a party up in the study room. Had she gotten a party when she’d come back from hospital? Hell no. It was snotty and childish, she knew that, but she couldn’t help it. She’d tried to go out but Feral seemed to be everywhere she went, hanging around like a bad smell. Not that she didn’t love the girl, but Erin needed to find other girlfriends. Artemis was starting to despair of her ever gaining the ‘pride’ mentality, but Sara was sure that she’d get it eventually. Her desires were too close to the surface to be denied.

“Come in!” Sara called, answering the knock before it happened. People hated it when she did that, it was one of the reasons she did it regularly.

The door creaked open. Sara didn’t turn around, she knew the feel of that mind, “Hippie.”

“We need to talk.” The voice was angry.

“Do we?”

“Look at me,” she demanded.

Sara punched the disconnect button and span around in her swivel chair. Hippolyta stood just inside, the door closed behind her, her body wrapped up in gauze under her clothes, panting with the effort of walking around. Sara didn’t feel any sympathy, “What?”

“I made up with Tennyo, but I’ve been thinking about what you said. I think you’re wrong.”

“Oh, really?” Sara glared, flicking her red lock out of her face and crossing her arms over her chest.

“You said that a warrior’s just a thug, but a soldier has a reason to fight. That’s bullshit, soldiers give up their freedom of choice for what they fight for, a warrior can choose her causes.”

“And she can get herself killed over some meaningless crap too,” Sara stood up, fists clenched as she used her powers to grow back up to sixteen, trying to make up for Hippolyta’s sheer physical presence, “she can get so caught up in a pissing contest that she forgets how to pick her fights. Just like a man.”

Face contorted with rage, Hippolyta grabbed her shoulder, Sara’s bones grounded together in the iron grip, “Take. That. Back.”

“Fuck you.” Sara snarled back defiantly.

The Amazon’s red lips mashed down on Sara’s, moving her hand up to crush her fist in the Demon Princess’ hair, holding her head in place as she ravished her mouth.

Thrusting her back, Sara slapped her hard across the face, claws extended. Hippie’s tongue snaked out to taste the blood before she hit back, the force of the blow spinning the smaller girl towards the bed. Sara grinned as her face reformed, an evil leer that almost split her face in two as she beckoned to the warrior-woman, “That all you got? Come get some.”

She dodged the next punch and grabbed the arm as it sped by her face, the wind catching her hair, and bit down on the soft inner flesh of the elbow, tasting blood. Hippie roared, her backhand throwing Sara off her and onto the blood red satin of the bed. In a second, she was on top of her, pinning the Demon’s arms into the sheets, one knee pressed painfully into her torso.

“Yield?” Hippolyta growled, squeezing Sara’s wrists until they popped from the pressure.

Sara spat in her face, still grinning, “Just fuck me, you wuss.”

“I’ll make you beg,” she threatened, reaching up Sara’s dress and simply ripping her panties off. Sara gasped, convulsing as the Amazon simply shoved two long, thick, fingers up inside her, slamming them in up to the hilt. Her body arched automatically, throwing her head back and screwing her eyes shut as Hippie began to thrust in and out, pounding her mercilessly.

“That’s it, beg for it…” Hippie snarled, accelerating the pace, spurred on by Sara’s gasps and the flood between her lover’s legs. Pulling the dress up, more carefully so as not to rip the expensive fabric, she wrapped her face around one of the Demon’s tits and bit down hard, feeling the flesh part between her teeth. The warm blood that gushed into her mouth was nothing like she was expecting, the sweet nectar intoxicating her tastebuds. But it didn’t last, the flesh healing too fast to gnaw upon, so she bit down again.

Sara bit her lower lip as her new lover fed on her flesh like a starving animal, enraptured by the sensations rocking her body. Raking her hands over the Amazon’s superbly muscular back, she ripped off the bandages binding her torso, the bruises already fading under Sara’s touch.

Well, doctor, she quipped internally as she felt her climax begin to build, how’s this for recreation?

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Much later, Sara lay wrapped in her lover’s arms. Hippolyta’s limbs were warm and strong, enclosing her body in a protective circle of love. For a long time, they just lay together, entwined, neither wishing to let go of the other. Hippolyta started to bite the back of her neck playfully.

Sara grinned wickedly and turned over. Her lover moved onto her knees, leaning over Sara as she lay on her back, her head only a foot away from the smaller girl’s, “Are you ready again?”

Sara chuckled, reaching out to grasp the big girl’s muscled shoulders, “I think it’s my turn to show you something.”

Sara seemed to explode, tentacles ripping through her skin, wrapping around Hippolyta’s arms, legs, neck and waist, lifting her into the air. The Amazon found that even with all her strength, the tentacles had the advantage of numbers, even she couldn’t fight them all!

The tentacles forced the Amazon over, depositing her on her back draped sideways across the bed. Sara straddled her hips, raking her claws lightly down her chest and over her rippling abs. Hippolyta moaned as the tentacles started to rub her muscles, massaging the tension away. Sara looked straight into her eyes, the hypnotic, lustful, red orbs mesmerizing her, “Just relax and let go. You’re safe with me, I promise, my lovely Sif.”

Hippolyta’s moans turned into groans as Sara stroked her, probing the purple web of the pleasure points on her stomach and back. The whole time Sara kept their gazes locked, everything outside of the moment disappeared. Hippolyta arched her back as the pleasure built, her legs parting involuntarily.

Sara grinned mischievously as she slid down Hippolyta’s body, hands trailing behind, following her curves before coming to rest on the Amazon’s hips. Hippolyta spasmed as the pleasure really started, burying her face in a pillow to muffle her screams.

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Go-go watched Hippolyta stagger into the visitor’s lounge on the ground floor, an astonished expression on her face. She sucked on her raspberry jelly absently as she watched the huge girl flop into one of the big, high backed, leather chairs next to the fireplace. The Amazon just sat and stared into space, which was not like her at all.

The speedster gathered her assorted sweets into her arms and approached the volatile girl cautiously. Like everything one did around Hippolyta. “Er… Hi-Hippolyta? You, er… you feel like anything?”

“A lollipop.” Hippolyta replied absently, without so much as a glance, as if she were answering an entirely different question.

Go-go hesitated for a moment, then picked out a lollipop, ripped the plastic off and reached out to her full extent to hand it to the other girl. Hippolyta took it and began to lick absently, though there seemed to be a method to it.

With long broad strokes of her tongue, the sweet was slowly worn away. Hippolyta’s right leg started to jiggle, vibrating up and down in excitement. With each lick, the jiggle grew stronger and stronger, until the side table quivered beside her. The Amazon began to squirm slightly and her left leg waved rhythmically from side to side.

Go-go jumped as Hippolyta thrust into the air, leaping to the balls of her feet like a cat, as if the chair were electrified, her lips pursed together to cut off a scream. The big girl threw the clean white stick in the bin and left without another word.

The speedster stared the lollipops, “I knew they were good, but not that good!”

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Hippolyta found herself under a cold shower again, trying to beat back the gooey feeling in her stomach and the flush in her cheeks. The hairline scratches etched across her back tingled pleasantly as the freezing water washed over her.

She remembered Sara’s probing hands, hands that glided smooth as silk across her skin, knowing exactly where to touch, where to press, how to fondle. She remembered caressing her bone white, flawless, skin, pressing their bodies together, mashing of lips, probing her mouth, and tasting her essence…

She remembered her lover sliding down her body, as she lay arched over the bed…

Hippolyta shot to the tips of her toes as another bolt of ecstasy pulsed through her body, her hand slapping across her mouth to stifle the embarrassing squeak that issued forth involuntarily. The afterglow made her knees week, forcing her to lean her back against the wall. She bit her lower lip, trying to distract herself before she came again. Her left hand began to rub her stomach, index finger circling her bellybutton. The other pressed against her chest, trying to avoid her breast, feeling her heart race.

She probed her stomach, wondering what it would be like to be great with child… She snarled at that thought, NO. No man shall ever. EVER. The very idea made her skin crawl. But if it were Sara’s…NO! She hit the back of her head on the wall, leaving a dent in the concrete. It was impossible, Sara was a girl.

But iffff…

Hippolyta slowly sank to the floor, giving in to the aftershocks as they rolled over her.

 

Chapter 8 – Reformation

Sunday, 29th October 2006, 07:38

“What have you done to Hippolyta?” Belle demanded from between clenched teeth, leaning over the Kimba table in Crystal Hall, fists curled up on the bench. Though trying to remain inconspicuous, Sara noted that the ‘lesbian posse’ hovering over her was attracting no small amount of attention. The older girl’s dark locks tumbled over one shoulder as she glared down at the Demon Princess, blonde-haired and blue-eyed Zenith directly behind, the fixer’s roommate Shrike cracking her knuckles beside her. Two others, the familiar Go-go and another blonde knockout with pure white angel wings stood nearby, concerned and nervous rather than angry like their companions.

Sara remained calm, purposefully crushing another hamster to dust before answering, “Nothing she didn’t want me to do.”

The rest of Team Kimba were staring in either one direction or another, trying to decide whose side they should be on. Fey in particular was glancing between Belle and Sara as if she was trapped between a rock and a hard place, which she was, “Belle, I’m sure this is a misunderstanding…”

“Call me Beltane.” Belle snapped.

“Bullshit,” Zenith interjected, ignoring the exchange, “Hippie’s changed. This morning, she walks out of her room in a daze and drags herself into the showers.”

“She SMILED at me!” Go-go glared.

“She complimented me!” Angel twirled a lock of hair around her finger; as if she were afraid it was about to fall off.

“She’s wiggling her hips when she walks,” Shrike snarled.

“She told me that she was thinking of growing her hair.” Beltane added in a deadly tone.

Chaka blinked, “Are we talking about the same Hippolyta here?”

“My point exactly,” Belle glanced off to one side, pointing one delicately manicured nail between Sara’s eyes, “YOU did something to her last night! You’ve gotten inside her brain somehow and rewired it to turn her into some sort of sexy bombshell with a nice personality… and… and…”

Angel put her hand over her mouth, “Why are we mad at her again?”

“Because,” Zenith rubbed her temples, “psychics have VERY strict rules and guidelines as to what they can do to people and why. That’s why they have the Oath, to stop them from literally wrapping our minds around their little fingers.”

“Hippie’s been talking about nothing else but you for over a week,” Belle scowled, “I’ve never seen her as sick with worry over ANYTHING, she freaked out while you were in hospital. She even asked my advice on writing love letters. Then, last night she sneaks out of her room and doesn’t come back until morning, and you think I’m not going to believe that you’re responsible for this? What did you do to her?”

“If you must know, we made love for six hours.” Sara answered calmly, scooping out another cute little hamster.

Chaka spat her orange juice back into the cup while Hank turned a pale shade of green. Coughing erupted from mid air as their daily eavesdropper lost their breakfast up their nose. The rest of the group were staring at her as if she’d grown three heads. “Hip-o-lee-ta?” Chaka gasped, juice running up her nose.

“Can you believe that she squeaks like a chipmunk when she’s really excited?” Sara smiled evilly.

Several jaws dropped, Belle and her posse looked as if they wanted to catch flies.

“Hip.. o… lee… ta?” Chaka coughed, still gasping from the shock.

“That’s it? I hate to burst your bubble, but Hippie’s had sex plenty of times. You saying that sex with you is so special that her whole personality’s changed?” Shrike was still snarling.

“Well, no, I’m also saying that girls of any stripe go a little strange the day after they lose their virginity.” Another hamster bit the dust.

Tennyo banged her head into the table. Hank sank back into the chair, “Too much information… brain cannot process…”

“I don’t think I want to hear this…” Jade moaned, sticking her fingers into her ears. Her Kitty Kompact, however, hopped out of her pocket to get better reception.

“So… er… you… er,” Belle seemed at a loss for words, surreptitiously balling her hand into a fist close to her stomach.

Sara laughed, “Oh, no, nothing so crude…” Everyone jumped as the Demon Princess’ tongue suddenly whipped out of her mouth, two feet long and four inches thick. With a strange slurping noise, the tip of the tongue split into five ‘fingers’, a second tongue slipping out from the centre as the fingers spread, waving at the flabbergasted girls. Then, as fast as it appeared, the appendage was gone.

Eyes bugged open as their jaws worked up and down, unable to find breath to speak. Fortunately, Zenith had enough presence of mind to catch Angel when she feinted. Unfortunately, no one caught Bugs as she slid off her chair.

Belle blinked several times, looking down at the smiling Goth, conflicting emotions crossing her face while Fey, Go-go and several others rushed to Bugs’ side, “Er… so, how was it?”

“Tasty!” Sara licked her fangs.

“Oh my god,” Hank held his head in his hands.

“Hip… o… lee… ta?” Chaka gasped, this time between jags of deep-throated laughter.

“Yes?”

The whole group went quiet. Hippolyta bent over to kiss Sara on the forehead before taking a seat next to her. An impish smile on her face, Sara hopped over to sit across Hippie’s legs, one arm wrapped around her muscular neck.

“Let me guess,” Hank snorted, “you had a thing for Masters of the Universe when you were a kid?”

Sara chuckled, cutting off Hippolyta’s growl, “Good idea! Siffy, you can be She-ra, I’ll be Evil Lyn!” That broke everyone at the table into a fit of guffaws. Turning back to Hippie, Sara brought her up to speed, “Belle’s just here to check that I haven’t tampered with your brain.”

The Amazon blinked.

“Ah… Siffy?” Zenith stuttered.

Hippolyta smirked, though she still glared at Hank out of the corner of her eye, “Like Sif, the goddess of skill in battle.”

Tennyo face-faulted again. Ayla wasn’t impressed, “Anyone here got a barf bag? I think I’m going to be sick.”

Rip sighed, stirring her coffee, “No-one ever gave me a cute nickname like that.”

Chaka spat her orange juice back into her cup again.

“Besides,” Hank smirked, “how do we know that Hippolyta’s not the one who messed with Sara’s brain? I mean, look at her…”

“What was that, traitor?” Hippolyta glared at the lone male. They bared their teeth at each other as if several millennia of human civilization simply hadn’t happened.

“Would both of you just stop pissing on the floor here?” Sara scowled at them both, “I know you have a nice feud going, but not in front of the straights. ‘Sides, I think Siffy and I need to have a long talk to Belle, here. Won’t be long, give my deepest apology to Bunny for me when she wakes up, would you Fey?”

Sara winked at the Sidhe Queen as she passed, but the glare she received back had daggers in it.

Sara wasn’t laughing an hour later. It took Hippolyta a half hour to convince Belle that she wasn’t mind-controlled, or at least for Belle to accept that she might not be mind controlled. Several of her commands for Hippolyta to pick up dog dirt with her bare hands, eat slugs and roll in poison ivy had been soundly refused, even after Sara had expressly ordered her to obey no matter what. Of course, the argument then devolved into the ridiculous when Shrike had suggested that she’s ordered Hippie not to obey any order after being told to obey no matter what and finally, Sara had just washed her hands of the whole thing.

She was so engrossed in berating the air around her for the silliness of the situation that she failed to notice Terrance popping into her room, ready to take her for tests again. Five seconds later she was back at ARC, stalking down the corridors as if a thundercloud had alighted on her head, Otto close on her heels.

“May I ask where you’re going?”

Sara stopped dead in her tracks, turning slowly on her heels to face her friend, “We’re doing tests again, right?”

He shook his head, “Not today, what gave you that idea?”

“But… I… er, we always do tests? Aren’t you curious about the whole…” Sara trailed off, flabbergasted.

“Of course we are, but we’ve got all the data we need from the faculty. Come on, I’ve got something much more important for you to do.”

Sara blinked as Otto took her forearm in one hand and practically dragged her downstairs, into the grey basement levels of the Sanatorium. Underneath the corporate lobbies and glass offices, Arkham Sanatorium was built from bare concrete and steel, gigantic girders cutting deep into the rock. Winding down a long staircase past the motor pool and maintenance levels, Sara gasped as they emerged from the ceiling of a vast concrete chamber. Six gigantic, open-rooved, elevators sat in varying states of use around the hexagonal chamber, climbing or descending inclines of anywhere between 45 to 30 degrees, miles into the earth.

“Welcome to the Hub. Come on, we can catch the express down to Red 12.” Otto led her across the floor, threading their way through plastic crates, barrels and workers, both robotic and living, of all shapes and sizes. Sara noticed a seventh large elevator in the centre of the room for ferrying goods from the Hub to the surface, alongside numerous smaller elevators along the walls. Dr. Otto fished a red identification badge with Sara’s picture on it out of his pocket, “Here, hang this around your neck. If anyone asks, you’re Janice Walters, a special consultant under me. Do as little talking as possible, if anyone asks your business, tell them to talk to me, I’m your supervisor. I’ll then get so far up his or her ass that nobody will even think of bothering you again. Oh, and here’s your communicator. Keep it somewhere you can get to it in a hurry, if you get into any trouble, pop the red cap on the panic button and mash the button down hard, every security man in the complex will be down on your position like white on rice.”

“Doc, where are we going?”

“Don’t ask yet, wait until we’re in the elevator.” Otto released his grip, suddenly becoming self-conscious. Despite the calmness of his voice, his eyes were slightly wild, “I’m sorry for the secrecy, I promise I’ll tell you everything as soon as we get downstairs.”

Sara stared at him a moment before putting the identity card around her neck. Janice Walters, another name for the collection. Smiling like a boy with a brand new bicycle, Otto guided her more gently by the upper arm towards a small, empty, elevator painted in red and yellow stripes. Breathing a sigh of relief, Otto pressed the down arrow once they were inside. There were no other numbers or markings.

“Ok, time to explain a few things,” Otto breathed in and out for a second, steadying himself, “this is the express elevator to Red Complex, one of our deepest underground labs. The only lab deeper is Black Complex, but that’s something for us to talk about later. Both were completed after you left us, so many of the procedures will be new to you, if you have any questions, just ask. We can use this because we are both VIPs, you can tell this is an express elevator because of the yellow stripes; black stripes are for light cargo and other passengers. If you don’t have a VIP badge and enter this elevator, the gatling laser turrets in the floor pop up and politely ask you to leave. So don’t lose your badge. Once we get down to the lobby, we’ll have to pass three security checkpoints, seven blast doors and eight firewalls before we can get into level 12. Then we can get the mages to open the wards and placate the guardians so we can cross the underground chasm. That’s where we hold our most secret and dangerous mutants for special treatment.”

“Why am I suddenly on edge.” Sara crossed her arms under her chest.

Otto chuckled, “No, no, not you. You’re easy to deal with and can be quite reasonable when the mood takes you. I’m talking about real head cases, powerful mutants who have gone insane one way or another. We keep a few Super Villains down here in cryogenic suspension, I even think we’ve got one or two of Tanaka’s old nemeses down here.”

Sara cocked one eyebrow, “Head cases… is this some sort of high falutin’ medical term?”

Otto chuckled, “That was the quick explanation.  The particular mutant I’d like you to meet is a paranoid schizophrenic with a borderline personality and multiple personality disorder, one personality of which is a sociopath.”

“Great. Sounds like we have a lot in common.” Sara scratched the back of her head, thoughts spinning in the whirlwind of information assaulting her. Otto’s aura was black, as usual, but even he couldn’t hide the bright green sparks of nervousness that popped through his shield. The elevator was smooth and silent as it moved steadily, absolutely no indicators gave the passengers a clue as to when the doors would open or exactly how far down they were underground.

Otto handed her a blank Manilla folder, “We call her Circuit Breaker down here. Don’t ever refer to her upstairs, as officially she doesn’t exist. We got her from Langley a day or two ago; the Feds are sponsoring her stay here. Her original name was Chad Wilson, born in Pennsylvania, raised in Philadelphia. Age 15, 5’ 4”, 123 pounds, most striking feature is her glowing blue eyes. In his early days, he was quite the hacker and a model student if you can believe his school records. In actual fact, our field teams insist that he was a hermit who lived inside his computers; his only distinguishing personality feature was a distinct dislike for authority. Considering the noted religious bias of his family, specifically against mutants, it’s no wonder, really. Then he did two things wrong, first, he went up against The Palm, then he manifested at about the same time. Of course, that wasn’t his fault, but it didn’t help any. Luckily, he made contact with the black ops wing of NEXT, a rival R&D Company. They set him, now her, by the way, his mutation turned him into a bilateral hermaphrodite, up with a job and a relatively steady life, basically pimping her out to the government to hunt down Palm…”

Otto took a deep breath before continuing, a facial tick breaking his usual stoic exterior at every mention of The Palm, “…unfortunately, while at Langley, she saw her bodyguard and best friend murdered in cold blood by mutant operatives who were trying to assassinate her. After that, there were several successive attempts on her life, each coming closer to success. Then she expressed symptoms of Deidricks Syndrome and the medical officers at Langley were (ahem) forced restrain her. I’ve talked to her a few times, but she always clams up when I start on anything important. We’re all the ‘enemy’ here, you see, I’m a head of the ‘system’ and a doctor to boot, my colleagues at Langley have not treated her very well. I thought that you, looking about the same age and being in, well, a similar position, could get her to open up.”

“You still haven’t told me what this girl does, Otto.” Sara traced a claw across the faces in the photographs, a grainy ‘before’ shot, probably enlarged from a family photo. Next to it was a ‘after’ shot, a moderately pretty girl with glowing blue eyes. High cheekbones, slightly hawkish nose, square chin and thin lips. Definitely not your usual Exemplar package, if indeed she was one at all.

“Well…” Otto sighed, interrupted by the final arrival of the elevator at their destination, “Damn, we’re here. Come on, I’ll tell you once we get to my office.”

Security was heavy, the continuing concrete and steel motif lending to the weight of the rock above and the oppressive nature of the guards. Unlike the nice, polite, men and women on the security desk of the lobby, who wore pure white overalls and carried simple stun guns, security in Red Complex wore ARC HM-32 exo-armour in gunmetal silver, probably to match the décor. Sara let Otto do the talking, particularly to the featureless black glass that comprised the guard’s facemasks. There was definitely something wrong with the suits, the guards hardly looked human anymore.

Beyond the first checkpoint, they obtained a small buggy to drive them through the rest of the complex. The double doors they passed were opaque, simply featureless automatic steel doors with electronic locks. No windows were visible anywhere, the atmosphere was even more forbidding than a jail. “I know what you’re thinking,” Otto interrupted her train of thought, “it is really bleak down here. But this is just the main corridor, each of these blocks represents a department or a division of Red Complex. In where the people actually work things are much more atmospheric and friendly. Except for Security, of course, they’re a stiff-necked bunch.”

“And where we’re headed?”

Otto’s lips tightened, “Maximum security’s little more than a series of disconnected cells. We keep it in good order, but it is Spartan.”

“And you put a 15 year old girl in there?”

“Not my decision. But I have to admit, it is the safest place in the grounds, not to mention the only place we could separate her from… well, that can wait for a minute.”

After two more security checkpoints, and going through the exact same procedure each time. The blast doors and firewalls opened and closed for them without complaint or hassle, the sensors deactivating and reactivating the automated security systems. The security mages saluted Dr. Otto as they passed by; areas of arcane writing scrawled on the walls glowed brightly to Sara’s aura sense. Finally, they emerged into a wide chasm spanned by a steel bridge. Sara glanced over the side of the buggy, “There’s something down there. I can feel it.”

Otto barely spared her a glance, “The guardians. They’re harmless to us, pay them no mind.”

“This is one of the upper shafts of N’kai, isn’t it?”

Otto nodded, but remained silent. They both kept their peace until they arrived at the docking station, a circular adamantinum door, though it looked more like a plug. “Here we are…” sliding his key card through the electronic lock, Otto and Sara stepped into the lobby of the maximum security prison. Inside was carpeted with a thin red weave, slightly threadbare from years of use. After almost a mile of desolation, it was good to see people walking between offices and having coffee in lunchrooms.

“See what I mean?” Otto smiled as he led her through the corridors, “Down here’s like being on a cruise liner in the middle of the ocean. We have our own cafeteria and kitchens, even sleeping quarters.”

“No more guards?” Sara looked

“Not like outside. Through here’s my office…”

He held the door open for Sara, letting her step inside first. The office looked fairly modern, the walls painted in a dull white, a mahogany desk with black leather office chairs taking up most of the space. The desk bore a simple, unmarked, desktop computer. Behind the desk, along the back wall, was a bed built in to the cupboards, appearing much like a ship’s cabin.

“It’s not much, but it does the job,” Otto sat behind his desk, offering Sara a seat while pouring himself a cup of tea, “In answer to your question, she’s a fairly high level energizer. Shorts out circuits around her when she gets mad or upset. In actuality, her real power is her ability to control digital information by projecting herself into cyberspace.”

“You’ve gotta be shitting me.”

“I wish I was,” Otto shook his head, “that’s why we keep her down here, we can control her environment and seal her powers. Her cell’s lined with lead and magnetically sealed, no signals in or out, no computers inside the cell, no connection to the net, no problems. Except one.”

Otto leant back into his chair, taking a deep sip of his steaming herbal tea, “I’m holding a 15 year old girl against her will, or at least a division I am in charge of and responsible for is. As far as the government’s concerned, she’s too dangerous to let her be free. As far as every other government is concerned, she’s too dangerous to live in the hands of an enemy. On the other hand… she’s certifiably insane, so they may have a point.”

“I take it that this is the part when you tell me what I’m doing here.” Sara flashed the older man a half smile.

Otto smiled back, “Certainly. One, you’re about the same age. Two, you’re both mutants with extraordinary and unusual abilities. Three, you’re both fairly ostracised by society. Four, it might just be that you’re the only girl her age who’s actually more intelligent than her. Five, you can be very persuasive when you put your mind to it and six, four of my best psychics have found it extremely hard to penetrate or even comprehend her mind, I know that’s a limitation I won’t have to worry about where you’re concerned. SEVEN, if you’ll excuse one last point, you’re also the only person I trust to do the right thing in this entire exercise. You’re incorruptible, Janice, no-one can buy you out, not her, not Langley and not some foreign power or super-villain.”

‘Janice’ snorted, “We’ll just forget to mention the reason why. And my job is?”

“Talk to her,” Otto lent forward, “find out about her so we can help her. She clams right up for the doctors, doesn’t trust us at all. The Langley report calls it ‘Paranoid Delusion’, but with everything this girl’s gone through it’s more likely to be a normal reaction based on past experience. The only thing I know for sure is that Langley isn’t telling us everything, because NEXT and our own field people are filling in the gaps. The one person in this whole affair that I worry about more than Circuit Breaker is her sister. NEXT intercepted a garbled, inter-departmental, e-mail message from the Department of Electronic Analysis and Data Control to the Deputy Administrator informing him that Joni Wilson may be still alive. Evidently, one of their own people went rogue and leaked the information to the Feds. They’re trying to track her, but someone very good has been destroying her data trail…”

“Three guesses as to whom.” Sara chuckled. Looking out of the corner of her eyes, she watched the balding psychic’s pupils dilate, listening to his pulse quicken and slow. He wasn’t telling her everything, maybe not lying, but definitely not telling the whole truth either. “Ok, I accept. What can you tell me about the patient, Doctor?”

Relief washed over his face, “Thank-you, child. Thank-you. Good, what we have on our hands is a frightened mutant with powers so valuable that even the so-called ‘good guys’ want to enslave her to their wills. ‘She’ is also a bit of a misnomer, being a bilateral hermaphrodite, however she appears female and generally prefers that moniker. Despite what the current surgeon in charge tells you, she has only four personalities that I have detected, each tied to a different phase of her development as a human being. Chaddy is a young boy, but is also the most articulate of the four in the presence of surgeons. Chad is his older equivalent; he doesn’t trust us at all, though he does tolerate us. Merry is a girl and more than a bit of a fireball. She of all of the personalities is the most emotional and temperamental, much better not to take her too seriously and be brutally honest… actually, that might be the best idea all round. Hold nothing back and answer all questions fully, openly and honestly. It’s not like we’re keeping any secrets from her anyway.”

Sara narrowed her eyes, trying to give her best suspicious look, “Spill it, Doctor. Personality number four.”

He sighed, “You’re right, I’m sorry. Mai is an amalgamation of a rogue AI that was programmed to destroy all of humanity by a super-villain with a knack with computers called Dr. Abel Palm, or The Palm for short. Ironically, we keep his remains down in Black Complex for future study. Whatever happened that put the thing inside her brain, mercifully it was incomplete and started taking on aspects of Merry, Chad and Chaddy’s personalities to fill in the gaps. That’s the personality that I was telling you about that’s sociopathic. Or at least we think it is, it spends most of its time trying to bridge the gap between the language of the brain and binary code. We haven’t gotten it to talk to us yet, or even move. The telepaths assigned to her case really do not like dealing with Mai, she tends to think in ones and zeroes more than she does in English.”

“Heh,” Sara chuckled, “and here I thought that Hacking Theory was just a time filler. When do I meet her?”

Otto stood up, still grinning, “Right now, I’ll take you down into the bowels of this ship and you can meet the men. Then, we can get to work.”

“I can’t wait.” Sara grimaced.

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‘The Bowels’ was certainly an accurate description of the Psychiatric Ward of Red Complex. The irony of the name wasn’t lost on either Dr. Otto or ‘Janice’ as they made their way down the stairs. The door into the subsection that held Chad Wilson, AKA Merry Candice Powell, AKA Circuit Breaker, was made of a dull white material that looked and felt more like stone than steel.

“Ceramics,” Otto informed her happily as they walked through, noticing her stare, “Not quite as strong as adamantinum, but a far better insulator and non-conductor. We had to replace everything down here with it to keep most of the electronics working, Breaker’s energizer abilities are very hard on circuitry.”

They passed an open door labelled ‘Rec Room’, then entered the door labelled ‘Control Room’, though someone had crossed out the label and written ‘Command Center’ with a big smiley for a full stop. Otto kept smiling as he opened the door, as if bracing himself for an unpleasant duty. It was easy to see how an office comedian could make the connection, the room bore a striking resemblance to a Star Wars set, row upon row of racks full of hardware and blinking lights doing something that hopefully justified their cost.

Four researchers lounged around the room, watching screens or peeking through the glass into the cell beyond. The most noticeable was an enormous Samoan gentleman, almost as wide as he was tall, in a loud Hawaiian shirt and sandals, covered with tribal tattoos. Next, mainly because of her hormones, Sara noticed the curvy redhead in a lab coat and black slacks. Right after her was a thin male doctor which kept his ponytail fastened with bunches of multicoloured scrunches. Last was a tall, bald, man who seemed to enjoy looking down his nose through his half-glasses, a thin gold chain looping down his back from the end of each arm of the spectacles.

The last man greeted the new arrivals first, taking Otto’s hand automatically, “Dr. Otto! What a pleasant surprise, here for your daily inspection?”

Otto kept his false grin on firmly as he replied, “No, not yet, Dr. Lenston. Just checking your progress.”

Sara took the opportunity to walk past the group and look into the cell through the window. Merry at on the cot, huddled into the corner with her arms around her legs, clutching a hospital blanket around her. Her lips twitched as she rocked her head back and fourth, talking to herself in a little voice. Feeling out with her mind, Sara caught a sharp stab of fear, something about snakes and running in the dark.

“I wasn’t informed that Red Complex was open to school children. Is she a relative of yours, Otto?”

Sara recognised the voice as belonging to Dr. Lenston, but she kept her back to him, remaining silent, leaving Otto the pleasure of taking him down a peg.

“Actually, Lenston, this is Janice, she’ll be assisting and assessing the treatment of our patient.”

“Her?” Lenston almost spat, as if just discovering that he’d stepped in dog dirt several hours ago and left a trail across his new Persian rug, “But she’s only just in her teens! This is ridiculous.”

“Before you say anything else you may regret, Doctor,” Otto replied, his smile obvious in his voice, “Janice is a certified psychologist and the most powerful psionic in the organization. Furthermore, her grade is only one step below mine…”

Lenston gulped, “Ah… I’m sorry, Ms, if I said anything offensive. I was just surprised.”

Sara didn’t bother to turn around, “When you make an assumption, Doctor, you make an ass out of you and umption. Unfortunately, as part of my mutation, I can’t grow any older than I am now. It is also the reason for my unusual skin colour, no this isn’t make-up in case you were wondering.”

“So, lets get you introduced to the rest of the crew,” Otto swung in to interrupt the conversation, “the man in the shirt that needs no introduction is Kam.”

Turning, Sara smiled and nodded her head at the big Samoan, “A pleasure.”

He nodded his head, smiling back, “Little lady.”

“Kam is basically the orderly here. Next is Kerry, she’s one of our researchers, and Chris the only remaining Telepath of the original team.”

The two doctors nodded, Sara returning a half-bow.

“Ok,” Otto slapped his hands together, “lets get started! I’d like Janice to meet Merry and get a feel for the patient, see what she can turn up that might help us. Janice has extensive experience with mental illness, so we won’t have to worry about her breaking down in the middle of the session. Janice, you might want to use a pseudonym in Merry’s presence, just in case.”

Sara caught on and shrugged, “Sara. It was my mother’s name.”

“Good, good. Now, nothing too strenuous on the first round, I’ll be here to pull you out, if I say you’re out, you’re out, don’t make me send Kam in to fetch you.”

Kam flashed a toothy grin at Sara. Sara tried not to be impressed, but he was very, very, big. “All right then. How do we get inside?”

Kam showed her to the airlock while the others powered up the equipment, ticking items off checklists as they verified their functions. Otto was involved in a heated debate with Lenston as Sara followed the Samoan, taking one last look back at the command centre.

“Nervous?” Kam asked.

“Yes and no,” Sara replied, straightening her clothes, “sort of like a racehorse at the starting gate, you know? In a state of high alertness.”

“Otherwise known as nervous,” Kam chuckled, his deep voice rumbling the floor as he slipped his cardkey through the magnetic lock, “I can understand. If you want some advice, watch her and stay alert. She’s a sneaky one and a little hostile. If she thinks she can get some sort of advantage and escape, she will without hesitation. I know, she tried it on me a few times.”

It took a long time for the airlock to open, revealing a short corridor beyond that led to the actual door into the cell at the other end. Sara stepped in, “Don’t worry, I’m used to sneaky patients. Anything else?”

“Yeah, she’s a live wire. Literally. Unless you want 10,000 volts through you, don’t even let her brush shoulders.”

“Not a problem,” Sara smiled, tapping the airlock cycle button, “I’m insulated.”

Kam laughed again, walking back to the command centre as the door slammed shut. The hiss of air being exchanged inside the corridor only lasted a moment before the inner door cracked open, allowing Sara to step inside. The room was bright as she entered, the fluorescent light reflecting off the white of the padded walls, floor and roof. Other than the bed, there was a polished steel toilet in one corner and a matching table in the centre of the room.

Sara didn’t make a move as the airlock slid shut behind her, the girl huddled in the corner of the room staring at her over her knees, quaking slightly. She looked to be about 15, and fairly well endowed at that. Though not as big as Fey up top, the hospital gown and blanket did nothing to conceal the swell of her hips or the curves of her legs. Despite her obvious age, she clutched the blanket underneath her shin like a small child afraid of the boogieman.

After a while, she took a short gasp before speaking, “S-so are you my executioner?”

Sara blinked, surprised, “What would make you think that?”

“You look like death. If they can’t fix me, I have to die.”

“No, I’m not here to kill you. Can we talk?”

She glanced up at the ceiling in fear, squeaking, “They hear everything.”

“Then come closer so they can’t hear.”

She shuffled forward, uncurling from her corner, as if her body were much smaller than it was. “They won’t like it,” She smiled rebelliously, “they won’t like not hearing.”

Sara smiled back, “I don’t care. They’re afraid of me too.”

“They let you out of here, though. Too many whispers, too many looks.”

“They give me those too. I’ve got a secret for you…”

“Another sec’ret? Like bombs or banks? Or better?”

“Much better. One they don’t even know.”

“Careful, some secrets people don’t want to find out. I can hide a secret so deep they can’t find it, not even him!”

“Who’s he?”

“He’s a secret. He’s like Pinocchio, wants to be real and free. Very Bad. He wants to kill me.”

“What’s your name?”

“My Sister calls me Chaddy. Mom calls me Chaddwick Lee Wilson when she’s mad. Dad just uses bad words when he’s mad.”

“I’m Sara. Can I call you Chaddy? I’d like that.”

Chaddy shrugged, “If you want. I got too many names anyway, I think the short ones are better.”

“Me too. Sara’s the one I give to friends.”

“I don’t have no friends. Well, maybe three, my other friend died. Too much blood…”

“Shhhh… you don’t have to tell me. Although, you could show me if you like.”

“Show you? How?”

“It’s one of my secrets. You can show me if you touch my hand.”

She reached out her hand, leaning forward hesitantly, the look on her face half horrified, half eager. Her hand hovered over Sara’s for a minute before she spoke, “I hurt people if I touch them. They fall down. I don’t even have my gloves…”

“It’s ok. I can’t be hurt.”

“I-if you fall down, don’t hurt me, ok?”

“I’ll never hurt you, Chaddy.”

She strained forward. For a moment, their hands touched, Chaddy merely tapping Sara’s fingertips with her own. An arc of electricity snapped between them, lighting their faces for a moment. Sara merely blinked, “You have to hold my hand, Chaddy.”

“I never got to hold my friend’s hand,” Chaddy sniffed, eyes watery. Gently, she lay her hand on Sara’s, wincing slightly in anticipation, “’Sept when he was gone.”

“Then think about him,” Sara concentrated, allowing tiny tentacles to work their way through Chaddy’s skin, squeezing through pores and slipping between minute cracks to wrap themselves around nerves, becoming one, “take me there and show me…”

There was a rush of feeling, sound, light, and emotion. The scene faded into view like a movie dissolve, etched in shades of blue rather than full technicolour. Except for the reds. There was a lot of red. Something that had once been a man was plastered to the walls and floor. Entrails still dripped off the ceiling. The room was thick with the aromatic cocktail of ozone, cordite, smoke and charred flesh. Gunfire could be heard in the distance.

Sara looked at the girl covered in her friend’s blood. It was Chaddy, but it was not Chaddy. This was not a cringing, scared, little girl. This was a shocked yet almost fully-grown woman with the experience of more hard knocks than her years gave her any right to. Somehow, Sara knew this girl’s name instinctively, her personality totally separate from the one now in command of her physical body.

“Merry?” Sara asked.

“He knocked me out of the way,” she whimpered, “he did it. He was a hero, a real hero. But real heroes always die. The grenade…”

Sara looked at the scorch that marked the final act of a human being before checking the area itself for clues. The room was composed of bare concrete, the only features of note were three wrecked Tesla coils and a metallic rod set into the centre of the chamber, a mirrored window broken but not yet shattered. Only a single set of double doors provided a means of entrance or exit.

“He chose himself over me. He saved me again.” She whispered, too overcome to feel any emotion. Her heart fluttering, blood racing, skin cold.

It was obvious to Sara that she was going into shock. From the inside, though, Merry had no chance at self-diagnosis. Sara came to the point, “His sacrifice should not go to waste.”

“No.” Merry agreed, kneeling with a deceptively placid expression on her face, calmly replacing the automatic pistol in the dead man’s severed hand with a medallion from around her neck, checking the breech and clip in an expert military manner as she stalked towards the door.

Time sped up slightly as Sara followed her, the gun held lightly in Merry’s grasp. They came upon a woman in combat fatigues down the hall, time once more grinding to a halt as Merry raised the gun, still dripping blood. “She tried to make us stop,” Merry confessed, “but we wouldn’t listen.”

Sara looked at the woman who was screaming a single word over and over at the top of her lungs, caught in a loop of time. The demon noticed the grenade key hanging free from her combat harness, alongside three companion grenades. It was obvious what this woman had done.

Sara moved close to Merry, holding her waist and sliding one hand down her right arm, caressing the girl’s trigger finger, “Vengeance?”

“Yes.”

They both pulled the trigger together.

“I shot her twice.”

Suddenly they were looming over the woman, staring down the sights directly into her face. A face that disintegrated violently under the force of Merry’s justifiable rage. Time stopped again, the gun slipping from her grasp, “It’s not enough is it?”

Sara slipped around Merry, anger coursing through her veins she knelt over the corpse at her feet. “Maybe I can give you some peace.”

Reaching into the bloody ruin of the woman’s head, Sara found what she was looking for: a tiny wisp, the animus. She wrenched the lingering soul from the enemy, cupping the twisting strand of spirit in her hands so that Merry could watch.

“How’s this for a party trick?” Sara grinned as she lifted the screaming wisp to her mouth, sucking it deep inside to join the oblivion that dwelled within.

The dream Merry was hyperventilating, sweating, too choked to laugh. The grin on her face transcended bliss, the girl was sick with competing emotions. Sara held the crying girl in the darkness as the dream faded, Chaddy wept and wailed into her shoulder.

Sara couldn’t think of anything to do except pat her on the back and cry with her, rocking gently, her own black tears creeping down her face. The words came unbidden to Sara’s lips, the need to express herself overriding the need to be silent, the first song that sprung to mind somehow the most appropriate. She whispered the words gently, soothing the pain by giving it voice.

This is me, for forever,
One of the lost ones,
The one without a name,
Without an honest heart as compass,

This is me, for forever,
One without a name,
These lines the last endeavour,
To find the missing lifeline,

Oh how I wish,
For soothing rain,
All I wish is to dream again,
My loving heart,
Lost in the dark,
For hope I’d give my everything,

My flower, withered between,
The pages two and three,
The once and forever bloom,
Gone with my sins,
Walk the dark path,
Sleep with angels,
Call the past for help,
Touch me with your love,
And reveal to me my true name,

Oh how I wish,
For soothing rain,
Oh how I wish to dream again,
Once and for all,
And all for once,

Nemo my name for evermore…(Nemo-Nightwish)

 

Chaddy had cried herself to sleep by the time Sara’s last word trailed off into the still air, the oppressive weight of the concrete above seemed to be pressing down, trying to crush them both with the patience of mountains. Sara tucked the broken girl in under the covers of her Spartan bed, parting from her only with deep reluctance as the lights dimmed.

She couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks, propping herself against the wall of the airlock as static decontaminants sprayed the area. The Demon Princess felt lucky that she was wearing black, at least her clothes wouldn’t stain with the bloody rain from her eyes. She hurled herself into Dr. Otto’s arms as soon as the door cracked open, the older man patting her on the back in sympathy, not bothering to waste words.

“Like I told you, the only cure for this type of insanity is forcing her to examine the truth about her rash and violent actions…”

The tears became rage. Sara gently pulled herself from her mentor’s arms and stalked down the corridor, homing in on the voice in the command centre. Quite a crowd had gathered in her absence, several were trying to hold back tears, empath and telepath patches emblazoned on their shoulders.

“…those actions were very obviously the results of a psychotic break, the trauma of which splintered her already taxed mind into…” Dr. Lenston stopped in mid sentence, his audience’s eyes firmly glued to the glaring young Goth girl behind him. He turned to face her, blinking in surprise at the vehemence of her glare, “What?”

Sara was beyond the sloppiness of rage, her pure anger moving into the realms of utter hatred. In the next moment, the professor was thrown across the pool table in the ‘Rec Room’, a place that was finally about to earn its name.

Picking the telepath up off the floor, she rammed his back into the bar, covering him in wine, spirits and broken glass.

“STOP!” He tried to put all of his will into the command, but his compulsion simply washed around her like acid off a glass duck’s back. He staggered as she approached him again, looking desperately for help. He spied his colleagues at the door, “HELP ME! SHE’S GONE BERSERK! SHE’S INSANE!”

They just stood there, stock still, grim looks on their faces.

Sara picked up the little man and bashed him against the vending machine, the force of the jolt causing soda cans to tumble onto the floor. Holding his neck in a vicelike grip, she leant forward to spit her words into his face, “Listen to me you arrogant fuck. You better find a monastery in the middle of nowhere and ask whatever God you believe in to allow you the privilege of starting your penance for what you did to that girl. And you better do that now, because if you don’t then I will guarantee you that you are going to Hell.”

“And,” Sara continued, lowering her voice to a whisper, “if you go to Hell, then I promise you that I will be there, waiting at the gates for you. And once I have you, I will make your eternal torment my personal project. I will spend every waking moment thinking up new and exciting ways to make your very existence a curse, and believe me when I say that I have a lot of waking moments. However, IF YOU EVER TOUCH HER AGAIN, I WILL NOT BE SO MERCIFUL! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?”

The stench of evacuating bowels was the only answer she needed. In truth, it was the only answer she would have accepted. She let the ‘ginger bread man’ run, run, run as fast as he could out the door, not bothering to check if he had left a trail behind him as he went.

Dr. Otto and the rest of the researchers were staring at her. It might have been because her teeth had unconsciously grown into three-inch long fangs, or that her face had split vertically in half to allow more fanged tentacles to slither out of her body than otherwise possible. Or maybe it was because she’d just acted like a sadistic demon bitch from hell.

Oh, well, you just can’t help it when people get the right impression sometimes; she shrugged mentally at herself before getting down to business. “There are now rules here. My rules,” Sara stated firmly, in a tone that offered no space for rebuttal, “One. Nobody but I am allowed inside her mind. Two, only Dr. Otto and I are allowed to engage her in extended conversation. Three, I will take any threat to her as a personal threat to myself and act accordingly. If any of you are even considering doing harm to her, for any reason whatsoever, you forfeit your soul to me. And believe me, I will take great pleasure in collecting your debt. To those of pure intent here tonight, I apologize, but I believe that these methods are necessary in this case. Time to go to work, ladies and gentlemen, prey you live through it.”

The crowd scattered like mice caught nibbling on a piece of cheese by a predator. All except for Kam, who gave her a thumbs up before getting back to work.

Otto took their place, offering Sara a tissue to wipe away the rest of her tears, “Rough mind, wot?”

She chuckled at his attempt at a British accent, “Oh, yes. Still, I’ve been there before. I take it you saw?”

He nodded, “Half the staff in Red Complex saw that, Merry was giving off enough emotion the bring most of the complex running, wondering where the war was.”

“I… maybe I shouldn’t have interfered, but…”

“Shush,” Otto dismissed her worries; “you should have heard the cheering in here when you both pulled that trigger. You got a standing ovation when you finished that… woman off. And don’t worry about Lenston; I was going to fire him this afternoon anyway. If I can get you to go through an assessment of his work as my investigator into the case…”

“No problem,” Sara snickered, “he’s toast. If they won’t let you in, promote Chris or Kerry so we can get on with the work. Probably Chris, if he can withstand the chaos of Merry’s mind.”

“Sara,” Otto grinned, “I have a feeling that this is going to be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Sara groaned as the Doctor led her back into the command centre, a long interview ahead of her.

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“Chaddy, you awake?” The room was still dark, though the motion sensors had detected Merry’s stirring more than five minutes ago. Sara wanted to be here when she woke, just in case she remembered her being in the room.

The last two hours had been agonizing, answering questions, being interviewed on camera and giving her initial and professional assessment of ‘Chaddy’, with proper mental promptings from Dr. Otto she managed not to make any mistakes. So, while Chris and Kerry ushered the gawkers back into the hallway before leaving to get lunch, Otto and Kam kept a vigil while sending Sara back into the darkness with the wolf, so to speak. Otto seemed adamant, almost eager, that Sara squeeze in as much face-to-face time with Merry as she could in the day, warning her to stay out of her mind for a while to let them both recuperate.

Chad blinked a few times, “I think so, my head hurts. That you Joni?”

“No, not Joni. It's me, Sara...”

Chad rubbed his eyes, a few trails of water hastily chased away with a quick wipe of his hands, “Oh, um. I think I know you, when I was small?”

“Ah... yes, we met when you were little. Mind if I still call you Chaddy? Or would you prefer another name now?”

Chad eased up to a sitting position and blinked once as the lights flickered back on, “Ah, I'm Chad, only my sister calls me Chaddy. So this is what a rubber room looks like?”

“Well, a lead-lined rubber room a kilometre underground. You have made a few people nervous, you know?” Sara grinned.

Chad smiled, though it seemed more like a grimace, “My uncle would be pleased, though I’m not sure I like the arrangements.”

“It is a touch Spartan, isn't it? I don't think anyone could ever want you here.”

Chad frowned, “Well my Uncle is more than a bit rabid on the subject of mutants, as is my old preacher. So the shepherd leads does the flock follow. I tried to be a sheep, but it seems I am more wolf. If this is being a wolf.”

Sara sat on the edge of the bed, starting to wonder if the girl was in fact a telepath, “Humans often try to cage beasts.”

Chad eased a slight bit away, “I, um. Humans. Do you, are you human, or one of the dammed souls as the preacher would have folks believe?”

“Look into my eyes, Chad, what do you think I am?”

Chad leant over, blinking, “As a friend of mine once said, 'Nice contacts'. Still in this place at this time, lets say you are as much a freak as I am. Why are you not in a cage?”

 “I'm on a sort of good behaviour bond.” Sara winked, “I let them do a little poking and prodding, they leave me alone mostly. It's a good arrangement, for me at least.”

Chad slipped a hand down to his buttocks and seems to squeeze one side, angry. “Being a lab rat with privileges is still being a lab rat. Sorry, I am a bit angry at someone’s work.”

“Understandable. I don't like it... what's wrong with your bum?”

Chad lifts a hand to look at it, “There's an implant in it. If you are to believe the medical reports it’s just to give me Insulin.”

“What do you believe?”

“I’m not entirely sure what to believe. So much has been like I was dreaming; yet the pump is real. I can feel that. Some people think it’s just another aberration, if that is the correct word,” he looked around the room and up at a camera, “But dreams don't usually come with time stamps.  Well maybe mine do. So much of my life is lost in dream. So If I believe my dream I am being used to test something very illegal.”

Sara thought for a while, but couldn’t work out any other way to phrase the question, “What can you tell me about these dreams?”

“Ah to dream, though not to sleep. I have seen my various selves, if that is indeed the case. Though it may be said that dreams do make the man, or what ever I am.” For a moment he laughs, “Sorry I should say, if what I dream is real, then I am a very messed up person. Do you know what it’s like to not know who you really are?”

“All the time.” Sara sighed. Something about this girl was getting to her. Her aura glowed with a mixture of fear, anger and defiance, and a pure note that somehow resonated with Sara’s own.

“So I may or may not be crazy.” He shook his head, “I used to know who I was… I think,” for a moment he lapsed into silence, “I wasn't always this way. I… we found a problem. Medicines. I hate medicines.”

Sara smirked, “Sounds perfectly sane to me.”

Chad snorted, “Ah, sounds. If you spend enough time around doctors and shrinks you can learn to sound sane, if you are tricky enough. Still, if you are given enough drugs and are told enough times that you are bad, perhaps you would think you were bad. Then if you are bad, you get beaten. The sane part of you fades away and hides. Perhaps it screams so softly that no one can hear it.”

Sara leant forward, “So insanity is just a matter of perspective? Do you think you're insane?”

Chad stood up to move under the video camera, out of its line of view. “I didn't get here by being 'normal',” He turned around and leant back against the wall, “I think the answer lies between yes and no. Which means maybe.” He sat, sliding down the wall into the corner, “Then yes I must be crazy.”

Sara slid off the bed and knelt in front of Chad, “Define normal, Chad. Just because you've got problems doesn't mean that your life is over. I learnt that a long time ago. But lets see to what is real and what isn't, what can you tell me about this pump, what do you think it does?”

Chad pressed back into the wall, “It, when activated, feeds a drug into my system that amplifies my powers to the point where I cannot stay in my own head, or not fry those I merely touch, or things like the camera above us,” he looked at his softly glowing hands, "this is normal, what happens with the drug is not.”

“Has this happened lately? Since you've been at ARC?”

Chad nodded, "Saturday, not long after I woke up. Though I can't be sure of anything except afterwards.”

“Ok, I can check that, then we can have a look at your implant. If it turns out to be something other than what it looks like...”

Chad laughed bitterly, “Yeah it happened, though I am not sure how you would be able to tell it is what I say with out pulling it out to look at it. I'd cut it out myself and hand it to you if I had a knife.”

“If that's what it takes. I'm sure with all these doctors about someone can give you an insulin shot. I'd do it myself, only they'd have kittens.”

Chad shook his head, “More than likely you won't be able to convince them it’s anything other than what it’s supposed to be. They have 'documentation' and a doctors 'signature' as to what it is.” He frowned, “If I am making it up, which they no doubt will tell you. Who will you believe?  They tried telling me it's just a odd twist of my mutation.”

"I believe nothing I hear and only half of what I see. It's possible that it's part of your mutation; it's also possible that you've been experimented on. Until I get proof, one way or the other, why should I believe them over you?”

Chad laughed for a long moment, “Ah, belief and truth. I am willing to bet they haven’t told you why they are so scared about me.  Tell me, what do you see before you, what did they tell you I could do? Doesn't it seem just a wee bit strange that a kid has so many people freaked out?”

Oh the irony, Sara thought. “They told me you can control all the digital information all over the world by projecting your consciousness into the net. And in front of me, I see a scared and depressed girl about my own age huddling into a corner. And no, I've freaked out a few people in my own time and don't I look younger than you?”

Chad blinked a few times, then looked down at him/herself, “Yeah I suppose I am sort of a girl.”

He covered his face and let loose a raspberry, “Younger, older, I don't know, I haven’t seen a mirror lately. You 'seem' older. Though that could be the way you hold yourself, not to mention you have yet to burst into giggles like most of the girls at school did.”

“I don't have much reason to giggle anymore.”

“Laughter has seemed to escaped me lately as well, unless it is tied to sarcasm,” he pulled his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them, “I think one of the last times I was happy was when I was in a sewer. Which, of all things, led me here.”

Sara shivered at the mention of sewers, the memory of Boston still fresh in her mind.

Chad noticed. “It wasn't bad then. Though later,” he shivered himself, "so many dead people, I wish I could say that was a dream.”

“What makes you happy now?”

Chad looked at his roughly chewed fingernails, “Well, having some one 'really' listen to me, is nice.” He smiled for a moment, lost in thought, “Knowing someone is safe, and may yet have a shot at a normal life.”

Sara slid over to sit next to Chad, “Your sister?”

Chad looked across at her and sighed, for a moment the lights flickered as he frowned, “My secret isn't so secret. Yeah my sister, the only part of my old life I wish I could have back.”

“You will, one day.”

“Not if I want to keep her safe.” The lights dimmed, then faded out for a moment, Chad glowing brighter, “I think the only way she would ever be safe was if I never saw her again, or if I was dead. She's my Achilles heel. The one person I would give anything to protect or avenge.”

“Give me your hand.”

Chad reached over to hold out his hand, “I think you might be in for a jolt, though I remember a dream where we touched.”

Sara took his hand firmly in her own, “You're not the only one with extraordinary powers in this world. I sware to you, as long as she breathes and beyond, Joni will never have to fear for her life. I would pry her loose from hell itself if it gave you only a moment's peace.”

Chad looked at the joined hands, “So it wasn't entirely a dream.” He glanced at her with a hint of a smile, then back at their interlaced fingers, “With luck you won't have to go into hell for my sister’s sake. Such a rare thing is a touch.”

“You never know, for some people it's only a short trip,” Sara giggled, “I have to admit, touching you does make my skin tingle a little. It's like jamming a nine volt battery onto your tongue.”

Chad blushed more than a little bit, “Ah, you giggled.” For a moment, blushed a deeper shade of red, and then sighed, "You know, I think you are the first girl to ever hold my hand… aside from my sister or the odd result of one being next to me in a forced prayer circle.”

“I had a reason to giggle,” Sara smiled, “never had a special girl?”

Chad shook his head, “No, it was verboten, well it would have been if my family had anything to say about it. Even then, I didn't have a life, my parents were, um, religious about being religious and then some.”

“So, your Uncle wasn't alone in the family.”

Chad took a deep breath, and then let it out slowly, "NO, my father was a deacon of the church, though only a minor one. Not enough money to be a major one, but he made up for it with following the party line or more correctly, the preachers ass.”

“I... know how you feel. My family's religious too, though not like yours. We're the black sheep of the family, I suppose you could say. I don't know what to think about that or what to believe anymore.” Well, it’s not quite a lie…

Chad nodded. “I am so very 'black' I need to make my own light. I am the epitome of evil incarnate. I am a mutant freak, an idolater and deeply amoral, at least if you were to ask my father, which you can't be cause he's dead,” for a second a hint of sadness tinged with relief crept into his voice, “I don't think I would have been living at home much longer as it was anyways.”

“One way or another?”

“Yeah, I think so. He was drinking more and more, especially every time I needed to have my prescriptions filled. Not to mention all those tests.”

“I lost my mother a long time ago. I still have my father though...”

Chad nodded again. “Well I hope he is nothing like mine,” he rubbed at his legs with his free hand, “I used to have scars.” He shivered, “Though my mom wasn't much better.  I suppose hat I kept the worse of their attentions from my sister. So she should not be as messed up as I am. I hope.”

“You love her a lot. You don't have to say it, I could feel it radiating across the room when you said her name.”

Chad smiled, then closed his eyes, “You remind me of her slightly, though you are definitely not her.” After a moment, he opened his eyes, “That sounded odd, sorry, I just can't put my finger on it....”

“I think it's my turn to blush.” Sara smiled uncertainly.

Chad turned an odd shade of white, then red, “Umm, I didn't mean anything bad…” Oh man, he thought, did I just put my foot in my mouth????? “…I mean, ah, well, I... oh, shoot, I am an idiot.”

“Nothing like that,” Sara shifted closer, bringing the two of them hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder, “in fact, I'm more than a little flattered. You're not the only one who's put their foot in their mouth here, are you?”

Chad tensed for a brief moment, then relaxed, allowing himself an embarrassed chuckle. “I don't think you have. You seem so much more 'together' than I am, though together is a relative term. I miss this so much,” he squeezed her hand tightly, “I think not touching anyone has been part of the harder things to endure.”

“Trust me, its all a facade. I'm sorry, I won't always be here, but I will be as often as I can.”

“If I said I liked your facade, it would sound corny. Though seriously you can't be as messed up as I seem to be. Tomorrow when I wake up, will you have just been a dream?”

“It doesn't matter, I live in dreams too.”

“Then with luck I will see you here and in dreams until I see you in truth. As odd as that sounds.” He offered with a lopsided smile.

Sara lifted her head up to whisper into his ear, “No matter where you see me, I will be truth.”

Chad turned to look at her, nose to nose, “Even if this isn't the real me?”

“Always.” Sara breathed as she gently lent forward to press her lips to his.

Chad kissed back awkwardly, then broke the kiss after a moment, stunned, “Good. I don't want to lose this dream.”

They both jumped as the airlock cracked open, pulling apart slightly while maintaining their grasp on each other’s hand, unwilling to let go. Dr. Otto stepped through the door, Kam close behind, “Sara, Chad, lunch is on. Sorry, Chad, I’ll have to trade you.”

“Will you be back later?” Chad almost begged.

“You bet.” Sara winked as they reluctantly parted, Kam setting the stock standard hospital food on the table as the airlock closed. “How on earth are we going to explain how I eat, Otto?”

Otto shielded his glasses while the light spray cleansed them of unwanted static, “We aren’t, I filled a thermos full of fresh pig’s blood for you. It’s not much, but it should tide you over until tonight, then we can send you out to hunt. Now, what was all that with Chad?”

Sara looked away from her mentor, “He’s starved for human contact. I can touch him without getting hurt so I let him hold my hand. It was nothing.”

His silence said more than words. Looking up, she caught the twinkle in his eyes as he looked down on her, the hint of a smile curling the corners of his lips. It hit her like a ton of bricks, “You crafty son of a…”

“Shhh,” he put his fingers to his lips, “please don’t spoil it.”

In the end, Sara could only stare at the crafty old dog as he stepped out of the airlock, whistling happily.

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Sara was still swearing at the ‘crafty old dog’ as she re-entered the airlock, only crafty old dog was the least offensive of the words that sprang to mind. Lunch had come with many surprises. The sudden flight of Dr. Lenston had forced the Deputy Administrator of ARC to rearrange her staff commitments, somehow leaving Otto as the only psionic qualified enough to lead the team on Merry, though the analysis of ‘Sara Waite’ had to be rescheduled and put back several weeks, mainly due to the fact that several members of NEXT had insisted on an appointment with Merry and the chief researcher of the facility where she was kept, leaving Otto firmly entrenched as the ‘Acting Head Research Manager’ in the case of Merry Powell.

Dirty old bugger, Sara snarled at herself for falling into his trap, crafty, dirty, conniving, deceitful, lying, two-faced…

Merry held up one finger as the door opened, interrupting Sara’s train of thought, “...and end of file. Hi, bring a computer by any chance?”

“Ah, no, sorry.” Sara shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs, “No computers allowed through the airlock.”

Merry blinked. “Airlock? And I thought I was still on the planet,” Merry closed her eyes, as if trying to look at the inside of her eyelids, “Though that might explain why all the lines are so small and fuzzy.”

Sara gulped, trying to think of a way to get off the topic and back into the game, the girl’s state of semi-nakedness wasn’t helping any either, “Er... you must be Merry.”

“Could be, could be,” she grinned impishly, looking down at her pure white hospital gown, “then again from the decor and the natty wardrobe, I could be someone else.”

Sara grinned back, “Oh, well I'm very sorry for keeping you. I'll just get your release forms and have you out of here in a jiff.”

Merry blinked again, glanced toward Sara, then at the camera. “O-kay… Yes and have the limo restocked with something other than kiddie DVDs.”

“Sure, Nemo and the Lion King do get boring after the first thousand times, don't they?” Sara smiled weakly; more nervous now than when she entered the first time to confront Chaddy.

“Well, Pixar is miles ahead of Mouse World by a long shot, computers and such.”

“Oh, I prefer Anime. Ever seen Appleseed or Ghost in the Shell 2?”

Merry wrinkled her nose. “Appleseed, no. Ghost in the Shell was ok, but I think LAIN is better,” she giggled, “but then she seemed nuts too.”

Sara glared at her from under half-closed eyelids, finally getting back into the swing of the conversation, “Well that makes sense. Personally, I'm more into Ninja Scroll and WickedCity, but then you could say the same thing about me.”

“So, is insanity a prerequisite for this place? Or am I just a special case?”

“In our case, a bit of both.”

Merry raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Well in that case I may in fact be Merry,” she waved at her bare white room, “I would offer you a chair, but the last resident of this motel took it with him. I think he was a bit of a dreamer myself.”

“Then I might be called Sara,” Sara smiled, holding out her hand, “and I wouldn't despise dreamers, sometimes anywhere else is better than where you are.”

Merry paused in concentration for a moment, “Sara, unshockable, I think?”

“You could wrap me around powerlines and use me as insulation.”

Merry reached out and took Sara’s hand, giving it a shake. “So, here we are,” she eyed the door, “they lock the doors behind you?”

“Well, they're a wee bit paranoid about you escaping, and it's not like I'm in any mortal danger from you, so...”

Merry let the handshake drop and sighed, “Well I suppose this is not a Matrix moment then.” She held her arms up in the classic flying crane pose, “Besides I never did get the knack of hanging in mid air for a few seconds down,” letting her arms drop, she glanced at the two-way mirror in the wall, “Though I’m sure the peeping toms would love to see my ass hanging out of this gown.”

Sara giggled, “What would you expect, Ms. Anderson?”

Merry looked down to her stomach, “No metal bugs or other odd shaped pills please. The last time I remember I started like this my world was very odd for a time.”

“Oh? What happened?”

Merry stared at her fingers, “Well I suddenly had twice the normal number of digits and my nurse’s face melted off... or so I think.”

“Ah, yes, your file did mention that some drugs induce hallucinations with your new body chemistry...”

Merry shuddered, “I will never watch another movie with snakes in it again.” She crossed her eyes and made a gagging sound, “I do have a problem with medications not doing what they are supposed to do. It's like the magic jellybeans from Harry Potter, one moment you are fine, then Pow! Vomit flavoured.”

“Alas, earwax. Just watch out for Charlie and his Chocolate Factory.”

Merry giggled. “So you would think people would learn that just randomly drugging me would be a bad idea, but do they listen? Nooooooo. So I take a fall off the deep end and here I am. Wherever here is, no-one handed me a map with my spacesuit.”

“Well, as far as I know we aren't giving you anything. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised that they didn't stumble onto a drug that makes you explode like an atomic reactor. From the records, they were certainly trying. By the way, your location isn't a great secret, you're under the headquarters of the Arkham Research Consortium, or ARC for short, in Arkham, Massachusetts.”

“Cool, now if I had a laptop, a direct connection to the net and a shovel, I might stand a chance of digging out of here.” She thumped the padded wall, “Not. So if I am not in space and on the planet earth, why can't I… hmm, you know about me and the net, I think.”

“Ah, well this underground vault is lined with lead and magnetically sealed, amongst other things.”

Merry fell over sideways, making rude noises, “A vault! Jeeze, talk about overkill!”

Sara shrugged and grinned, “Same principle as carrying a condom. Better to have it and not need it...”

“Well if the average age of folks running around here is like that last zoo I was in, I don't think I would have a chance of using a condom. Aside from making it into a perverted balloon.”  She pantomimed inflating a balloon and watching it fly away, “So, if I could make your bank account have as many zeros, with a number in front of them. Could I please have a laptop and a connection to the web?”

“And give you control of this entire facility? Gee, let me think...”

“Awe it'd be fun. Trust me.”

Sara laughed, “I'll tell you what, if you're a good girl, I'll bring in my laptop for you to play with next time. But no Internet connection. If you want to collect email, I'll do it for you if you like.”

Merry sat up and turned on the puppy dog eyes, “I'll be good. Though getting my email might be a trick. Hmmm. Still it would be better than just trying to write several hundred code in my head with out a debugger. I'm good but I am not quite a goddess.”

Sara slid onto the bed next to Merry, “Modesty wasn't in your psychological profile. I have some good news, though, you'll probably be having some visitors from NEXT within the week.”

Merry almost bounced, “Yes! Salvation is at hand!” She looked over at Sara with a grin, “I may just get out of this Popsicle stand with most of my marbles.”

“Don't count your chickens, ARC and NEXT are still ironing out the deal over you. Of course, you're a lot better off here than you were at Langley, ARC's not a government department, so incompetence isn't company policy.”

Merry looked over and whispered conspiringly, “Need a raise?”

Sara shook her head, “Nope. Money's not an issue for me.”

Merry grinned, “Ah, well how about power?” She inched a bit closer, then shrugged, “Surely you have a weakness for me to exploit? How about your weight in chocolate?”

“Nope,” Sara laughed, “I don't need food either. Here's a novel proposal, how about you ask me it is you want me to do, and then I'll put a price tag on it.”

Merry blinked again, “You don't eat.... OK.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and then rocked her head back and forth in thought for a time. Silence reigned as the seconds passed. Finally, she looked back, straight into Sara’s eyes, “I want my life back.”

Sara nodded, staring as if into a great distance, deep in thought. “Your life as it was? Or a newer, better, life?”

“Well some parts of my current life are not that bad, and I would definitely skip the years of abuse and brainwashing too.” Merry bit her lip, chewing on the soft flesh, “What’s in the new improved package?”

Sara leant over to speak into Merry's ear, “Friends, family, a new school and a relative amount of freedom.”

The blue haired girl turned her face to look Sara in the eye, blinking rapidly, nose to nose, “Um, is this where you kiss me, or ask for my soul? ‘Cause the Pope will freak. Though I think I had a dream like this.”

The camera in the corner of the room made strange buzzing noises, then the lights flickered, dying. Old Dog. Sara chuckled, both inside an out, “Oops, I think something's happened to the security systems. The boys in the command centre might not be able to see or hear us for a minute or two.”

Merry smiled, “I don't think that was me, still.” She eased over, kissing Sara lightly on the lips, “Ok, now the Pope only has to worry about my soul.” After a moment, she pulled away, blushing darkly, “I… umm…”

“You wanted to kiss me?” Sara blinked, aghast.

Merry nodded slowly, blushing like mad, “Yeah. Cha… um, part of me liked the last time. A lot.”

Sara tilts her head sideways, softly kissing Merry back, “Well, next time, make sure you do a more thorough job.”

Merry tensed slightly, then relaxed into the kiss, “Mmmm, better?” For a moment the fluorescent bulbs overhead fought in the eternal war between light and darkness. Darkness won.

“Oops.”

Sara sighed, “Such a pity that the doors get jammed shut when that happens. Not to worry, I have a feeling that we'll have a long time to improve your technique. But before that, there's my price for getting your life back.”

Merry glowed a feint blue in the dark, her smile literally radiant. “The kiss or the popping of the lights?” She wiggled a finger, tracing a zigzag pattern in the air, “Price, then practice?”

Sara shifted over to press against Merry, hugging her around the waist from behind and leaning her chin on her shoulder, “I want you, body and soul, to do with as I will.”

Merry reached back to wrap an arm around the Goth’s slender form. “As long as it doesn't hurt my friends, I could live with that,” she sighed, “I have so few, and, well, I’m not so sure I’m knight material.”

“I love you, Merry. Of course, I love a lot of people, but I think you'll find that my love is never to be despised. What I am proposing is more a marriage of sorts, it shouldn't effect your standing with the church as long as they aren't silly enough to order you to oppose me.”

Tension drained from Merry’s shoulders, “Marriage? Not where we have to yell at each other? And where one of us has to walk on eggshells or be in pain a lot? I would rather just live together if that’s what you have in mind.” She giggled for a minute, lost in her own little world, “Sorry, when folks say marriage I get a screwy mental image. What sort of marriage do you have in mind?”

“It works like this. You pledge yourself to me: body and soul, and I give you my mark. From that moment on, we are linked forever. You will always be there for me and I will always be there for you. No strings, I... can't be tied down to a single partner, in fact I have two others much like you already and that number will only grow with time. However, my love for each of you is unique and unbreakable. Do you understand?”

Merry hugged herself for a long time before answering, “Mark? What’s this mark? And how long is your version of forever? Mom and Dad’s church had folks saying forever, and then  they would be in a divorce in a few years. And if I’m sharing you, does that mean I’m to be shared as well, or can I choose?”

“The mark will look like the one on my forehead, only it will probably be smaller and look like a birthmark on you. I can't die of natural causes, Merry, and killing me is practically impossible. You have to know that when I say forever, I mean for all eternity. Everything else is your choice, though I could force you to do anything I wanted, I will not take away your free will or allow it to be taken from you, ever.”

Merry kept her silence for a time, a few warm drops falling from her face onto Sara’s arms as the girl sobbed, “But I won't live forever. John didn't. I don't want to hurt you like that. Only one place I might live forever and you can't go there.”

“Merry, wether you're always with me or not, I'm going to live for a very long time. Don't make me gush out empty platitudes at you about it being better to love and lose. Death isn't the end of love or friendship, if I feared losing my friends I could never do anything, ever. Besides, who are you to say where I can go and where I can't?”

Merry sniffled, sighing as she squeezed the girl pressed against her back. “Gush out? I’m the one doing that. I don't know how long I'll be yours, but if you want me, for me, and not my screwy powers an stuff you can have me. For however long I last,” her smile widened as she hugged tighter, “Though you may have to enquire about group rates.”

Sara chuckled, nuzzling Merry's neck and sliding one hand along her thigh, underneath the gown, “The more, the merrier.”

Merry barked a short laugh, intense shivers cutting off the noise, “Ahhh, I'll keep that in mind, though my mind may not.”

She squeaked when Sara bit her playfully at the nape of her neck, licking a tiny drop of blood away with the tip of her tongue, “Then maybe I'll just have to jog your memory. Now that's settled, I think we've got time for that practice we mentioned. We should go over the cliff notes, at least.”

Merry rested her head back on Sara’s shoulder, keeping her face turned towards her girlfriend, “If Cliff gets in the way, I'll strangle him.”

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“What happened in there?” Otto asked pleasantly, “We lost audio and visual for more than an hour. Are you all right?”

“Nothing happened, she was scared when the lights went out and grabbed me. I hugged her to reassure her and we had a talk, nothing big. She told me a bit more about her family and how much she misses Joni. That’s it.” Sara was a little annoyed by the charade now, uncertain what it was all about now, “What have you found out about that implant, she’s scared shitless of that thing every time it buzzes at her.”

“Kerry?” Otto turned to the desk where the redhead was scrolling down a page of invoices and catalogues. She looked up from her work and blinked, “Right, well, the injector is the most commonly used Insulin implant on the market, it was installed exactly to standard medical protocol by physicians at Langley. So, naturally, it automatically aroused our suspicions. Next, we went to look for the Doctor that actually installed it. No go, Langley blacked out all the names on the medical records. So, we’ve scheduled a scanning station for tomorrow, so by Wednesday, if everything goes well, we should have a clear idea of what the thing is and what it contains. If it’s not insulin, we’ll have it out of her in 24 hours. What the hell…”

Spinning around, following the woman’s gaze, Sara found herself looking back into the cell at Merry. She was rocking back and fourth on the bed, curled up again like she was before, the sheets moving back and fourth underneath her. After a minute, she stopped, shivering violently. A moment later, she started again. As her body shuddered, Sara gasped, feeling the shudder tingle up her spine, dropping back into her chair. Strange, erotic, thoughts took over for a moment.

Chris and Kam were at her side in a moment, “What’s up? You ok, little lady?”

She waved them off, “Yeah, I’m fine. She’s just… the proximity to her made me sensitive to her. She’s… er… look, I need to get some fresh air, or whatever it is that you guys do when you need space.”

“Come on, then,” Kam smiled, “you’ve had the hardest day of the lot of us, I think. Here, there are a few arcade games in the staff lounge, or we can go for a walk around the hallways.”

“No,” Otto interrupted, “you better stay here, Kam. I’ll take her; she’ll be alright in a few. And turn off the cameras, will you, I think Merry deserves some privacy.”

Chris nodded; flicking the switch while Otto led Sara out the door.

“Don’t think I’ve forgiven you yet, you rotten old dog.” Sara whispered.

“It was necessary,” Dr. Otto smiled, “and don’t pretend like it wouldn’t have happened anyway under different circumstances.”

“You used me like you’d use a tissue to blow your nose. What do you think I am? A whore? A psychiatric call girl?”

“No, I don’t think that.”

“Why not, I’m even being paid for this, that’s what really galls me. What, did you think I was just going to slide on in there and cure her with one good humping?”

“Well it would have been nice.”

They stopped. Looking up at the grey-haired old man, it took Sara a moment for the twinkle of mirth in his eyes to register. Annoyed more than angry, she pointed one dainty claw at his nose, “Don’t be messing with me right now, I’m not in the mood.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

It took a moment for Sara to throw off her building apoplexy.

“Look, Sara,” Otto whispered in a kindly, understanding, voice, “you’re so uptight over your hormones that you’re driving yourself crazy. Relax, have some fun for god’s sake! Think about it for a minute, you have handsome boys and beautiful girls lining up for you, what is so wrong with sex? As long as nobody gets hurt, what does it matter?”

“Sex isn’t enough, Otto.”

“Is that all it is with Merry? Are you just taking advantage of an emotionally damaged little girl?”

Sara glared at him.

“See what I mean?”

“There’s only one type of smart-ass I hate, and that’s a smart-ass who’s right.”

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Sara watched Merry tap her fingers rapidly against the table as the door hissed shut behind her, “And you would be Mai.”

Mai's eyes popped open, turning her face towards the door, “Ah, hello Sara.”

“So, you remember me,” Sara pulled the chair in with her, sliding it around to sit on it backwards, keeping the back of the chair between her and the program, “That will make things quicker.”

“I remember you, because the rest remember you. The last person to be remembered by everyone sacrificed themselves to protect Merry.”

“So you're the only one who knows exactly what the rest are up to?”

"”In part, but then I am made up from all of them, after a fashion. A bit here, a slice there.”

“So, how do you like being physical?”

“It is... problematical. Though the process had started in other places.”

Sara flashed a half smile, “How are emotions going for you?”

“Emotions. I think they are your greatest weaknesses and strengths. Merry is very effective when she turns hers off.”

“Funny. I thought she was at her best with them up to full blast. Let me guess, you weren't around for the assassination attempt, were you?”

“Yes and no, I was much less than I am now,” She closed her eyes slowly, “So many functions and yet, in part she was almost a machine. After.”

“I doubt that. Machines only fulfil a task based on their programming and operational parameters.”

Mai nodded, “So then the question that begs itself to be asked, what is life? Is it a self aware system?” She motioned to her body, “Is it this vessel alone?”

“No,” Sara shook her head, “it's the wholeness of the pattern. As long as the pattern is complete enough to trap the soul inside, this is life.”

Mai stared at her left hand, “Patterns. Such complex geometry is this flesh. So if a pattern can trap a soul, it becomes alive. So how did I become part of this pattern?”

“I don't really think you are yet. More an auxiliary system. My theory is that you were sufficiently complex to adapt to a... wetware environment, if you will.”

Mai dropped her hand into her lap. “It is part of the rules, invade the system, become the system,” her fingers started ticking though numbers, one up, two up, both down and a third up, “Part of the problem is language.”

“Have you tried changing the rules yet?”

“Some rules have changed, I am now unique,” a hint of a smile appeared on her face, “Evolution if you will. If I am able to go back, as I am, I am in violation of original parameters.”

“Have you considered that one of the characteristics of living creatures is that we make up our own parameters?”

“Part of Merry's problem is that she doesn't know limits, how can anyone set rules with out limitations?” She took a deep breath, “Well other than limits of the body.”

“Why apply artificial limits on yourself? You cannot know that you can't do something unless you try to do it.”

“Limits help define interaction,” she nodded at the door and cameras. “Acceptance of circumstances would dictate surrender. Yet I keep trying to get out,” She pouted, “and failing. So evidently I am flawed.”

“Do you really think that winning and losing is a simple matter of power?” Sara chuckled, “Some of the greatest men and women in history were brought low merely by circumstance. In this situation, it doesn't matter if you are flawed or not, your power is nullified which is why you're helpless.”

“Evidence indicates that there is a measure of truth in your words,” she paused, tapping her chest, “is this self so great?  Or is it the sum of its parts? If, the greatest of you all is so easily brought low, how is it you endure?”

“Courage. Teamwork. Love. Sacrifice. Innovation. Hate. The reasons and methods we choose are many.” Sara tried to keep the catch out of her voice as she uttered the word ‘love’.

“Love and Hate. The first I understand some points of, the need to reproduce is fundamental and in accord with where I started. Hate is not practical, yet it has its own fire. Chad hated his life and did nothing to make it better. Though if environment was a factor, it was going to change.”

“Chad did what he could within the limitations set by his environment, and did pretty well if you think about it. If all you understand of love is the need for reproduction, then you're nowhere near complete.”

Mai raised a hand twisting it back and fourth in a ‘so-so’ gesture, “Reproduction is a drive common to all living things. Adding labels tied distinctly to a feeling or uncertain state makes little sense.”

“Why do you suppose that humans have sacrificed themselves or even started wars over those they love?”

“I,” Mai paused, “do not know.” She looked down at her lap, “John only knew Merry only for a short time. In all accounting I cannot understand his actions.”

“That might be because love, when the feeling is described, is the need to do anything to let the subject of your love survive and endure, placing the needs of the subject above your own, even dying to protect it. Everything else is just a symptom of that core feeling. John and Merry's love wasn't of the physical kind, was it? They had no desire to reproduce with each other, did they?”

Mai tilted her head to one side, “John was… looking for a non-reproductive union.” She fidgeted with the hem of her gown for a moment, “Merry was interested, though did not fit the parameters of John's pattern matching requirements.”

“How do you explain a non-reproductive union, then? What need did John and Merry fulfil that would cause John to react the way he did?”

Mai set both hands on her knees, chewing her bottom lip, “I don't understand it. The only transaction that made any connection of the two was a mistake on John's part. A fragmented memory on his part.”

“Which was?”

“John wrapped Chad in a towel when he fell out of a tub. John evidently confused a similar time with his sister and kissed Chad on the forehead,” the fidgeting intensified, “Chad didn’t have a similar encounter aside from his own parents at one time.”

“What about Chad's sister? How did he feel about her?”

Mai glanced over to the camera, “Relevant question. Timing is questionable. In general terms. His sister was his life in many parts. Chad loves her, so much so he would do anything for her. I can't fight that part of Chad.”

“Do you want to?”

”I... I,” she sighed, looking up at the ceiling, “I don't want to. No. It would be so much easier if I could excise that part of me.”

“Whoever said that evolution was easy?”

“No one of record. Though I have been told that ‘Evolution Rocks’,” Mai frowned, “non sequitur. I have been trying to take only the parts that work right.  Evidently I have not succeeded. So am I evolving?”

“Yes. Adaptation to new information. The more information one collects, the clearer it becomes what questions one should ask next and what action should be taken. New data, new questions, new action. Can you see that emotion can be a strength rather than a weakness if utilized properly?”

“What is the proper utilization of emotion?” She leans forwards slightly, “The only data I have is subjective. It varies so much. I am not sure why Merry and I are tied to you.”

“Hate, for example, is an easy one. I may hate many things, I can hate intolerance, I can hate injustice. I can hate being trapped. This emotion can spur one into action to correct the intolerance or the injustice. But I'm curious, how do you mean tied?”

“Merry is both more alert and calmer when you are near. Safe is the only word that makes sense to me. I copied that part, but it is connected to other parts of her, so those parts… echo. Merry tends to connect to that part of herself in extremes, she either loves fully or hates fully. Friends or enemies. Friends are to be protected, enemies weakened or reduced.”

“If you weren't sure of what love was, why would you copy that part of Merry?”

“It was new, she has not felt safe before. Or if she did it was strictly conditional upon something she did. That sense of 'rightness' is a rare thing in Merry. Only a few circumstances.”

“So, by extension, you wanted to feel safe?”

Mai blinked, and then nodded slowly, “That 'safe' feeling yields a clean thinking pattern. Or it seemed to. It was desired first for that, then it changed parameters.”

“To?”

“Contentment or acceptance. Merry was not quite seeking her own death. She wanted to be free in any manner. I think she was looking for an anchor, a reason to not abort.”

Sara gulped, “And I'm her reason?”

Mai nodded slowly, “Last person to express interest in Merry was John, through Chad. The pathway was incomplete. Now it seems like you are second chance at correcting other mistakes. Self correcting behaviour is good.” She closed her eyes, “Self destruction is not logical.”

“At least that's something we agree on.” Sara smiled.

Mai smiled slightly and opened her eyes, “Partial fault is mine. I pushed for non-destruction. Preservation. Tried to get her out of dangerous environment before elements ensured her destruction. Other elements followed her here.”

“You believe that you're still in danger?”

“Yes. Our identity is known. Our presence is known. Our location is known.” She stared at the camera. “You understand selfishness?”

“I understand it, yes. I dislike it though.”

“If someone covets an item bad enough, he will take it, or destroy it to keep it for himself or to deny it from others. Then there is the drug.”

“The drug? Inside the implant?”

“Yes, it has damaged Merry.”  She points at her stomach, “She heals but only under extreme conditions. Insufficient time and prior warning to limit intake have prohibited recovery.”

Sara jumped off her chair, kneeling in front of Mai, "You're hurt? Where?"

Mai blinked, "it not immediately life threatening. The kidneys and pancrease are affected by the sudden depletion of blood sugars caused by the drug."

"Kidney damage can be serious. Does it hurt? Are you feeling any other symptoms?"

"Yes, there is some trouble with how the kidneys are regulating the production of insulin. From the frequency of test given, there appears to be some concern. I have not noticed any wounds that do not heal properly.

Sara stared at the floor, lost in thought, "Hmmmm... well that's something at least."

"It is inconvenient," Mai snarled, "Evidence of damage justifies insulin pump, yet also does conflict with the issue of legitimacy on the part of the person who installed it." A hint of dry humour slipped into her voice, "Also known as Merry crazy, or just crazy."

"I'm working on that. How are you feeling otherwise? This room's a bit bleak."

Mai raised herself to her feet, walking across the room to where the mirror separated the chamber from the next. "Well if I was in a position to complain, I would say that the mirror is at least clean. Though the privacy issue is disconcerting to the others."  She taps on the mirror, "Sound proofed as well."

Sara sighed, "Would you expect anything less?"

"I am not what you were expecting?  If I follow the briefing references, AI has been painted as evil. Though a gun itself is not evil."

"The official medical report claims that you are a sociopath. It's hard to credit that analysis as yet."

Mai breathed out onto the mirror and traced the word sociopath onto the condensation before it evaporated. Hmm, a person with an antisocial personality disorder. Too broad a definition. One who does not follow the approved societal norms for behaviour may be closer."

"But that would make the majority of people in the world sociopathic."

The wayward AI kissed the mirror, and then she smeared the mark across the glass. "Yes. Though John once asked Merry, ‘Why is it, if you have a weapon, you must use it if only for empashis’."

Sara laughed, "I think there's more of Merry in you than you admit."

Mai pivoted on her heels, "Indeed, considering my core files were largely corrupted, I had to improvise from her source code, odd as it is."  She stepped up onto the chair and raised a hand as if feeling towards the ceiling. "Powerlines, no data lines." She hopped down to peer under the bed. "No monsters in here except me."

"Would you like to take a bet on that?" Sara mumbled.

Mai knelt down beside Sara. "You appear base line human with odd secondary visual adaptation. Not definition of monster."

"There are many different types of monsters, Mai. The difference between us is that you're honest. I'm not."

Mai blinked a few times, "Honesty does not make a person or thing a monster. Example. Osama Bin Laden, did not lie about his hatred of United States and acted on his plans resulting in the death of innocents, property and data." Presidents and politician lie all the time and only are viewed as bad. A person who lies is not monstrous. Just acting within approved societal norms. Though there is always guilt."

Sara jumped to her feet and walked away holding back tears, leaning headfirst into the corner underneath the camera, "It's not about honesty and lies, Mai. I am a monster. I was born a monster, hated, feared and reviled. I keep my evil inside me, but its... strong... against my nature. I don't know, I try to fight it but..."

Mai rose up on her toes then sank back down before standing, following just a few paces behind. "I was made of code, programmed to invade, infect, transform, and manipulate... If need be I destroyed to promote my continued existence. Now I exist transformed. Perhaps you need to consider changing your perceptions. If I follow Merry's thinking, it is easy," she slid close, whispering, "I forgive you."

Sara turned on Mai, grabbing her by the jaw. Slowly, her skull split open vertically, revealing long fangs and writhing tentacles. A voice, Sara’s voice, sounded in Mai's mind, Could you love this? This... THING is what I am, what I really am underneath. I'm dead, yet I walk. I don't breathe, I don't sweat, I don't even have a pulse. I eat souls just to survive, in this body made solely as a vessel of daemonic lust. How can anyone love THIS?

Mai froze for a brief second, eyes locked on the fangs as if seeing something else for a moment. Then the moment passed. "Your body or shell does not make you unlovable, only your actions. Consider this shell I wear, if it was mangled beyond recognition, I would still be inside of it. Are you trying to say your shell is what you are inside? If you were a snake, Merry would have problems loving you. But you are not a snake, you are a person. Forget your shell and forget mine. Do you love?"

"Yes. Yes, I love."

“Then live as if you can be loved. I. Forgive. You. Merry's life followed one book, mostly it was interpreted wrong. But the core of it is solid. You love, and you live. The rest takes care of itself."

Sara hugged Mai close. Her skull sealed back up as she leant her head on Mai's shoulder, at a loss for words.

Mai slipped her arms around her and hugged back gently. "If you love someone, you will not harm them. Let love be your ruler, if you would hurt something you love by your actions, it is not love, so don't do it. Though occasionally you may have to backslide in order to teach something the error of its ways," for a few words, an odd Irish accent slipped into her voice, "absolution I give thee, though deity may wonder if I am its priest or priestess."

"Before the fall,” Sara whispered, “it is said that there were Demons that guarded the weak and punished the guilty..."

Mai hugged the Goth girl tightly, "Sounds like a big job, looking to take it on all at once or one day at a time?" There was a hint of jest in her voice, "Some time you must rest and live too. Otherwise you may forget people love you too."

Black tears drip from Sara's eyes, "Do you love me, Mai? Can you love me, Mai?"

"I am Merry and Chad and Chaddy, they love you, how can I not love you, and be here holding you in this moment?"

"Can you say it? For me?"

"I love you. If you think back I said it a different way. The result is the same if the words are slightly different. How else could I be the one to say them?"

"I needed to hear it straight from your lips, Mai. Any other way, with love, there's too much confusion, too much doubt. I needed to hear it to feel safe in your arms, to feel secure in the knowledge. You should understand that."

"I do, be our anchor and I will be yours. I. Love. You."

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Monday, 30th October 2006, 04:47pm

The dusk was clear, bright and crisp over WhateleyAcademy. Lying on the roof of Poe cottage still in the lacy black dress she wore to ARC, Sara watched the stars fade into view as the sunlight receded from the sky, an act she would never have considered more than a week ago. For the first day in weeks the skies had been totally clear, not a drop of rain to be had for miles.

The last week was a blur even to her ‘finely-tuned’ memory. Too much had happened all at once, too many things still needed to be processed. The lock of red hair brushed her face, caught by the frigid breeze.

“What the hell am I?” she asked the stars dejectedly.

“Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, you know,” Jade quipped, poking her head through the door to the stairwell. Slipping through the gap onto the roof, the deceptively small girl slid down to lie next to her, “Nikki sent me to fetch you. We’ve got the alterations finished for your costume.”

“Right.”

The silence started to stretch. Jade began to tap her foot on the gravel.

Sara grimaced, “Could you please not do that?”

“Oh, sorry,” she grabbed the leg to still it as if it had a mind of it's own, “I forget some people have sensitive hearing ‘round these parts.”

“It’s not just that, I’m trying not to count the stones.”

There was another pause, then, “You’re counting the stones?”

“That wasn’t what I… oh, don’t worry, it’s not important.”

“Oh, ok,” she grinned and immediately started tapping her foot again.

“Jade…” Sara sighed.

Finally she stopped tapping, flashing an impish grin at her companion, “Ok, seriously, what’s up? You’ve been up on this roof all day. We’re worried about you.”

“We?”

“Yes, we. Everyone else is down there trying on their outfits before dinner, Toni and Hank want us to stick together tonight just in case someone tries to catch us napping, especially you. And all of them seem to think I’m the best person to talk you down, so to speak.”

“Talk me down?” Sara chuckled, “what, they think I’m gonna jump?”

“For a second, yeah. Then the light bulbs all went off at once. Besides, I… I was worried about you. Erin and Hippie have been fighting like cats and dogs. Er… pun not intended.”

And they’re my sane girlfriends, Sara shook her head. “It’s… jeeze, Jade, everything around me is so… fisking complicated.” She altered the swear word at the last second and wasn’t really sure why.

“You’re stressed. Heck, I’m stressed. I’ve been through an assassination attempt before, Sara, I do understand you know.”

“Yeah, you understand that bit. Then there’s my eating habits and the transformation and the dream walking and my two girlfriends fighting and my job at ARC and getting an indefinite suspension and the concert tomorrow and… and you…”

“I forgave you already,” Jade snorted.

“Not completely.”

“I understand, you can’t control yourself sometimes and I was an easy mark. You should have just said you couldn’t help me.”

Sara twirled the red lock around her finger absently, “That would have been a lie. I don’t lie to my friends, even if it hurts.”

“Wow,” Jade snickered, “you know, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you say something idealistic. You sure you’re feeling all right?”

“No, I’m not sure, that’s why I’m up here trying to figure out how to have fun.”

There was another long pause.

“You need to figure out how to have fun?” she asked incredulously.

Sara sighed and nodded, “Yes. It’s something to do with keeping myself sane. Balanced. Whatever the hell you want to call it. I’ve never seen a sunset before and then I realized that I’ve never been stargazing, so I figured I’d try it out, but I made a big mistake. I mean look at it.”

Jade looked up at the blue canvas above, sprinkled with twinkling lights, “Yeah, they’re stars. Hey, you can see Orion’s Belt from here…”

“See that star there?” Sara pointed to one of the brighter dots, “Around that star spins a world on which lives He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named…”

“Mouldywart?”

“No, I mean the real thing. I’d tell you his name, but I really don’t want to risk him dragging you off into an alternate dimension of pain and torment. He does that, you know. For real.”

Jinn looked carefully at the star, “I don’t get it. It’s a star. Even if it is dangerous, how the hell can he effect me if he’s a million light years away?”

“Do you really want me to give you a lecture on Astromancy and Metaphysics?”

“Astromancy? You’re pulling my leg!”

Sara looked at her, her face deadpan, “See, this is why I’m saying that this was a mistake. Most people look at the stars and see a bunch of pretty lights. I look up to check for alien invasions from Mars… another one like that could cripple the world economy. I mean, you can even see New Huston from here.”

Squinting into the glare of the crescent moon, Jade could see the black speck quite easily, “Yeah, that is pretty sweet. Back in primary school, we took a look at it through the observatory telescope, the geodesic domes are really cool.”

“I was sent there for a week once…” Sara whispered.

Jade blinked, then caught herself staring, “You’ve been to New Huston? That must have been awesome…”

“It was cold back then, they still hadn’t gotten the kinks out of the environmental generators or the greenhouses. It was one of my less pleasant weeks.”

“What were you there for?”

“I was part of an archaeological expedition.”

Jade rolled her eyes, “Ok, no need to make fun of me.”

Sara looked at her.

“Oh, pull the other one, everyone knows there’s nothing on the moon except blank rock, why would they want an archaeologist there at all?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Sara shrugged, “but I was up there doing work for the government back when Michael worked for ARC in my capacity as a Metaphysicist… god this is confusing. Anyway, my point is that looking at the stars isn’t as relaxing for me as I thought it might be.”

“Did you consider coming up to talk to us?”

Sara paused for a little too long.

“You didn’t. Did you?”

“Well I wasn’t sure if I’d be welcome and I don’t really feel like answering a lot of questions…”

“Then don’t. Nobody’s forcing you to spill the beans. I figure you’ll explain everything to us when you’re ready. In the meantime, we’re here. That’s what TK was all about in the first place, sticking together; we just haven’t done a great job of it this last week or two, that’s all. Now come on,” Jade hopped up and grabbed Sara’s hand, “I want to see how you look in that kimono again…”

Sara let herself be led down the stairs. Part of her argued that, compared to the little girl before her, she had no right to complain about her fate. On the other hand, another part argued, Jade was only risking her body, not her sanity. Only time would tell which one of them was more needy, but it was waiting for the answer that was the real bitch.

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Nightbane tested her new sword. The hilt seemed to merge with her hand, the light golden blade cutting effortlessly through the air. It was nothing less than perfect. “She said the dwarves made this?”

“Never underestimate the stout folk,” Ecto-tek shook his head, “in fact, it was made six hundred years ago for a German monarch to give to his bride-to-be, but found it’s way into a Templars treasure cache along the banks of northern Africa. You don’t get Orichalcium weapons made to order, our backers had to improvise.”

“Let them,” Nightbane shrugged, “this is perfect. Makes my old weapon look like a cheap movie knock-off. So, what about the rest of us?”

There was some scuffling of feet as Nightbane gently laid the sword back in its satin-lined case. Englund took a deep drag on his cigarette before answering, “That’s it. It’s all the orihalcium we could find. I even pulled favours from the Vatican and CIA to import this. According to our contact, this weapon is truly priceless.”

Sarah looked back down to the blade, and then back up into Englund’s worn face, “So it’s up to me?”

He nodded, “Intelligence suggests that Sara Waite has overcome her aversion to sunlight, which means that not even Beacon can help you. I’m pulling everyone out of the hit squad except for you and Ecto-tek. If all of you are spotted attacking her together, we won’t be able to bribe enough people to keep you out of prison, successful or not. The Syndicate will be sending in a team to support you. I…”

Englund paused to stub out his cigarette under his heel. Nightbane was sure that she wasn’t the only one that caught the concern in his voice.

“…I want you both to look out for yourselves tomorrow. The Syndicate is running it’s own agenda here, I can smell it. Cover your asses, I want to keep the rest of the Goobers in reserve to pull you out if the deal goes south. Just kill the demon bitch and get out as fast as you can, I can’t tolerate her corruption on campus any longer. Get some sleep and God speed to us all.”

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Hekate watched Team Kimba eat at their regular table through the corner of her eye, ignoring the Don’s snide jokes and comments on Stormwolf’s performance in the Dojo that afternoon. In some ways, the two were born to be natural enemies. Brawn Vs. Brain, Penis Vs. Penis, both alpha males often wound up using their little head far too often. The Don, like Stormwolf, was falling in love with his own legend all over again.

But despite all their best efforts, Team Kimba was still gathered around that table, still there, still smiling. Did the Don care that his antics seemed to have simply bounced off the little group? Oh, no. He’d played his little game of tit-for-tat, and now he was happy.

It wasn’t enough. Team Kimba must be shattered and splintered into warring factions that could be more easily handled… controlled. The King couldn’t see the danger; after all, they are only girls, aren’t they? Good enough to fuck, but no real threat.

The King’s ignorance could be astounding. While he was occupied with Pendragon and Stormwolf, the new threat to Alpha superiority after they graduated was forming under his nose. Unlike him, however, she was doing something about it.

Oh, yes. After tomorrow, nothing would be the same for Team Kimba.

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Chessmaster watched his golden King form the troops up into their fighting formation. There were plans to make and study, the endless dance of war.

He was worried. Every time his beloved stalked into battle, he became restless. Deathlist was the boogieman of the modern age, children whispered his name for fear that he would hear them and come for their skulls. But it didn’t matter, the butterflies in his stomach beat against his innards, he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. His lover would beat him if he saw the fear in his face, but it just wouldn’t stop.

On the other side of the board, a legion of children led by a shining woman with a rod of power stood in a line against him. Mrs. P’s smiling face glared from her portrait behind them, wrinkles accentuated in the flickering firelight.

“Did you know, you haven’t made a single move all game. It’s almost insulting, Mrs. P. I expect you to take me more seriously than that.”

She didn’t answer, she never did, but talking to anything was better than waiting in the silence of his mind.

“Either way, tomorrow is more than a mere test like my last little foray. Your little toy will die and, knowing the stakes that you play, perhaps the world with it. But if you do fail, then I shall have finally proved you wrong… I’ll finally be free…”

He launched up from his seat and slammed his fist through the portrait, smashing the holographic mirror into a hundred pieces. A maniacal glare in his eyes, Chessmaster towered over the fragments, ignoring the blood dribbling from his knuckles, and watched the dance of the fire reflected below.

“I… I will escape you! I’ll prove you wrong, teacher! I will do great things, great things indeed, and I shall keep them! None of my works will fall; they shall stand as my monument! FOREVER!”