The hills shuddered as the last desperate strike from the Great Old One’s minions, the enemy that had been battled against for so long, began to work.
Trees moaned in agony and terror as the attack gained strength, and She laid a hand against rough, dear bark to calm that. “Hush, there is nothing to do but endure this. You are protected.”
“Daughter of The Burning Oak, Great Queen!” A rough voice tinged with growls and fear interrupted her brief communion with the woods. “We stand ready to defend you!”
“What defense there is against this will not come by tooth, claw or blade, my faithful friend.” She answered quietly while giving the figure in front of her a look that held both love and more respect than a Queen of the Sidhe gave most. “Take those of your people who remain and go to the sanctuary that has been prepared. Your people await you, and need you.”
“I WILL NOT abandon you, great Lady!” The being, a strange mix of wolf, Shidhe, and Man almost screamed. “You gave us our freedom, I gave you my pledge! I will die for your sake, My Queen.”
“No, Garand, my friend.” She answered in a whisper that still carried to him through the tumult of elements and magic working to tear the fabric of reality itself asunder. “LIVE for me. Go to your people and protect them, teach them, and remember.”
“As you command, my Queen.” He bowed low to hide the pain and grief his bright yellow eyes held. “As you command.”
“Not a command, dear one.” She answered sadly. “A request. I ask this of you.”
He had fought more battles than he could count or even remember, Shed more blood, his own and that of others for her sake, than there were leaves on the shaking, terrified trees around them. But this last thing She had said pierced his heart with a deadly accuracy that none of his enemies had ever hoped to attain. Drawing Imralis, the blade She had gifted him with, he drew the razor edge against his wrist and let the blood drip at her feet, then laid his muzzle against her toes for a moment, scenting his own blood mixed with her spicy woodlands scent, so forming the PROMISE that it held. “My people will NEVER forget, my Queen. I swear this to you by blood, honor, and duty.”
“Swear only by love, my champion.” She returned, reaching out to rest a hand on his broad, fur covered shoulder. “Go now, time is short. I would not have you share what may be my fate here.”
“I am no cub to run yelping and whining from an elder’s blow.” He told her, giving his outwardly simple but complex soul to her once again in that admittance. “I would stand with you to the end.”
“Endings.” With a sigh, She tightened her grip on his shoulder. “Signal beginnings, too, old friend. There is no shame in avoiding that which one can not hope to defeat. This thing is a powerful, terrible magic that will tear the world asunder. But it will also weaken those who crafted and sent it enough that those who remain once it is finiShed will be able to not only face them, but defeat them. Your concern is no longer this dying world, but the one that will be born from this. Go with my love and my blessings, Garrand the Mighty. Champion of the West. Take those to your people from me. Even now, with our world being ripped to ragged bits, you know that is no small thing.”
“No it is not, my Queen. Yet...”
His answer was cut short when She opened the portal and used her power to throw him into the Lands of the West. His scream of raging grief was cut off as the portal closed.
“May the True Gods smile on and protect you and yours, old friend.” She sighed tiredly as the last of the Wolf Kin in the Five Fold Courts vaniShed to a dubious, but firmer safety.
An eternity of minutes later, joined with the remaining Shide mages in a hopeless defense of their realm, Auhnghadhail, Daughter of the Burning Oak, Paramount Queen of the West, Patron of the Wolf Folk and their kin, screamed her anguish, rage, and agony as THE SUNDERING tore both her and her realm apart.
Friday December 8: 11:48 PM
“Nikki! Nikki, wake up!”
Alien surroundings became familiar as She felt her roommate, Toni, shaking her and Nikki slid out of the rigid, arms spread posture of defending and death, into a limp bundle of shuddering sobs.
“Oh, god, Toni, I saw it!” She whispered hoarsely, vaguely recalling the screams that had awakened her roomie, and probably the whole cottage, if not the campus. “I lived it!”
“What?” Toni questioned, still hanging on to the elfin beauty as if She might begin screaming and crying in a language no one on Earth had spoken in eons again. “What happened? It was a dream, a nightmare.”
“No, it was real.” Shaking, and clinging to Toni like she was the last life preserver a sinking ship’s crew had thrown to drowning passengers, She shook her head. “I know it was, I felt everything, the trees’ terror, the lightning, the land itself writhing in pain. It was THE SUNDERING!”
“Damn, Boss!” Samantha Everhart swore as she reported to Frank Delarose, Chief of Security for Whateley Academy. “The boards are going nuts here. Every psychic on campus is going apeshit right now!”
“So I see.” Delarose nodded then tapped the screen. “Got a fix on the source yet? The monster patrols are ready to move once you do.”
“Just about.” Sam answered then groaned. “Okay, it’s coming from Poe Cottage, second floor.”
“I suppose I should be surprised.” Delarose let out a sigh. “But for some reason, I’m not. One of the more powerful empathic projectors on campus lives there.”
Leaning forward so he could speak into the general freq, microphone, Delarose ordered. “Stand down, response teams, repeat, stand down. I think we’re dealing with a nightmare here.”
“One helluva nightmare, wasn’t it?” A voice crackled over the com.
“Yeah.” Delarose answered with a heavy sigh. “Go check on Poe Cottage, Sims. Pay special attention to Nichole Reilly when you do.”
As the acknowledgment came through, Delarose patted Samantha’s shoulder. “Well, you should know by now, anyway, but boring just isn’t something that happens all that often around here.”
“The What?” Toni questioned as the rest of Team Kimba crowded into the room She and Nikki shared. “You're still not making sense here, GF.”
“The child shared a memory of mine that escaped.” The voice was Nikki's but not hers, either. It held more surety than the teenager's usually did, along with an ages old weariness. “She experienced the death of my realm, the terrible magic that was meant to destroy the Sidhe once and for all. That is The Sundering She speaks of here. The Eldritch curse that shattered the souls of The Nine Queens of Faerie into spinning bits, but failed to devour those fragments as planned. We were able to a least blunt that much of the spell before the end.”
“"YO! Unga-Dunga!” Toni answered, not at all put off by the presence of the ancient Sidhe Queen. “It may have escaped your attention with the 'Lord of the Rings' ho-hah, but Nikki's like _15!_ She gets upset at _zombie movies!_ How could you show her something like that?"
“I showed her nothing.” The ancient spirit answered with a sigh. “My memories are hers, as hers are mine. This particular one got loose prematurely. She did not simply SEE it, She lived it with me again. Part of that memory is to be treasured, but not the end of it. Comfort her, all of you. She will need it for a time here.”
“Well, She seemed a bit more helpful that time.” Jade offered as the regal haughtiness winked out of Nikki's face.
“Yeah, some help.” Billie shook her head and moved to join Toni beside the still shaking Nikki. “She just watched the near death of an entire race, and we're supposed to COMFORT her.”
“I – it's okay, guys.” Nikki hesitantly joined the conversation. “Aungdhadhail couldn't help it. She's right, I get randoms flashes of her memories all the time. It's just that this one was bad, really bad. Except...”
“Except?” Hank prodded. “The joining of your memories is inevitable, we all know that, but there was something good in that nightmare, or memory?”
“Yes.” Nikki looked up, then inward with something akin to wonder. “Yes. She saved something, someone, very important at the last moment. I saw a Werewolf in that one, but not one I needed to fear. This one loved me – Aungdhadhail – so fiercely he would have died in her place if he could have. She wouldn't allow that, though. She sent him to a safer place despite his protests. Aungdhadhail sent him – here. To join the rest of his kind.”
“Here?” Toni questioned.
“Yes, here.” Sara entered the room giving Nikki a look that held mixed respect and fear. “The northeastern part of North America. The ancestors of the tribes of Weres living around Whateley right now, and others spread over the continent. The Sidhe, specifically Aungdhadhail, sent them all here for some reason. Didn't you, Nikki?”
“Yes.” Nikki nodded, the assumed an expression and stance that everyone in the room associated with the spirit that was so inextricably joined to her. She actually chuckled when her friends stepped back a pace. “No, it's still me. But Sara is right. We – The Sidhe rulers, did send the Werekind, here. To give them a place of their own where they could grow, and develop without every race in creation trying to subjugate or use them.”
“Why?” Ayla got into the conversation by asking the question everyone was thinking.
“Because the Sidhe created them.” Nikki answered softly. “As warriors, terrible, wonderful warriors to defend the forests and glades of their realms. Warriors that they could rule completely. But they gave the Weres their freedom, and sent them away when the danger was greatest.”
“To keep someone else from getting them.” Ayla retorted over the general exclamations at Nikki's last comments.
“Partially, yes.” Nikki nodded, still wearing that unconsciously regal expression, but also showing more than a little awe herself. “The Weres were – are – children of the Sidhe. We, the Sidhe, pledged to defend them as they once defended us when we sent them away. Even after The Sundering, no one had the desire to test that promise, so the Weres were allowed to live and grow on their own.”
“These dreams, memories, return for a reason.” Chou interjected quietly. “The Tao says nothing happens without reason.”
“What?” Toni interjected while the others rolled their eyes. “Even the Spice Girls?”
“Just ignore that last one.” Ayla advised while everyone but Toni nodded in agreement.
“Yes, there is reason these memories came to me now, I'm sure.” Nikki frowned, then looked at Chou. “I think the Weres, the ones descended from Garrand's tribe, the one who was last with Aungdhadhail, need help right now. Something is threatening them, and that ancient pact is making itself known to me.”
“Meaning? Toni questioned with a sinking feeling in her stomach.
“Meaning The Queen to Come must honor the pact.” Chou answered with a look at Nikki.
“Yes, I have to go to them.” Nikki was looking into the distance, whether past, present, or future, no one in the room could tell. “The Sidhe didn't make promises lightly, and I have to honor this one. Somehow.”
“Honor it how?” Toni questioned with a look on her face that plainly showed She was not only concerned, but incredulous. “You still have problems NOT burning the building down when you try to light a candle with magic, according to you. Wake up here! What are you going to do, sic a bunch of your hobgoblins on whatever is threatening the Weres who just happen to live next door to the school?”
“If I have to do that, yes.” Nikki answered quietly.
“Is everything all right in here?” A familiar voice interrupted them and the group turned to see Mrs. Horton the House Mother of Poe cottage in the doorway.
“Umm, yeah, Mrs. Horton.” Nikki answered Poe's House Mother with a shaky grin. “I had a nightmare is all.”
“Well, it woke most of the cottage up, dear, and then some.” The woman responded as she appeared to examine each person in the room within seconds. “Security is downstairs asking about what happened here.”
“It was a real beaut, Mrs. H.” Toni shrugged. “But everything is cool now.”
“Well get yourselves back to bed everyone.” The House Mother ordered. “It may be Saturday tomorrow but some of you still have classes to attend, after all.”
“Soon as we get Nikki settled down so we can sleep again we will, Mrs. Horton.” Toni grinned. “That yowl She let out earlier was almost as good as one of my Chi shouts for shaking things up.”
“I'm okay, really.” Nikki put in with a yawn. “Thanks for checking, Mrs. Horton and tell security that I'm sorry they had to come check up on me?”
“All right, I'll tell them, dear.” Mrs. Horton shook her head then fixed the gathering with one of her patented gimlet stares. “Now everyone settle down and get back to bed, all right?”
“Sure, Mrs. Horton!” The group chorused.
“See that you do that then.” The House Mother nodded then turned away from the doorway.
Sara lingered for a minute after the others had filed out. “What are you going to do, Nikki?”
“Go see them, I suppose.”
“I will, but I can't NOT go to them.” Nikki sighed.
“I know.” The Daemon Princess nodded. “Go talk with The Grove first, though, would you?”
“That'll be my first stop.”
“Good enough.” Sara grinned as She nodded. “Even a Queen of the Sidhe shouldn't go into something like you're thinking of doing without some preparation. It's been a very long time since the weres had to deal with something like you, after all.”
“I don't expect it to be easy, Sara.” Nikki shrugged. “It's just something promised long ago that I have to honor. If they don't want to take the help, that's their affair, but I have to offer it, you know?”
“Yes.” Sara agreed with a little smile. “Obligations are like that.”
“Yeah, and we have more than my old one with them, don't we?” Nikki's violet eyed gaze bored into the other.
“That we do.” Sara shook her head with a rueful grin. “They took her in when just about everyone else wanted to hunt her down and kill or put her back in a cage. Yeah, we do owe them.”
“What are you two talking about here?” Toni jumped in. “That girl you two were seeing over at the ARC place? The one who got away during all the brou-ha-ha with that nasty getting loose?”
“You aren't supposed to know about that.” Nikki chuckled, then turned serious again. “But yes.”
“Okay.” Toni bounced back into her bed and gave the other two a narrow eyed look. “Now, can we go back to sleep here? Maybe you guys don't need it, but my beauty sleep is important! And Nikki is hard enough to get up some mornings as it is!”
Saturday December 9: 6:00 AM
Nikki was up before Toni, actually feeling a little rested in spite of the previous night's events. Following some thought she picked an outfit of cotton denim jeans, a heavy sweater, and walking boots, then quietly made her way downstairs and outside.
The crisp winter air was invigorating instead of chilling as it once had been for her as she moved to join Chou who was starting her morning exercises. The other looked at her clothing, then glanced towards the neighboring forest and simply nodded her understanding of Nikki's plans without questioning.
Saturday mornings at Whateley weren't as quiet as many would think for a school on an off day. There were students going to extended or special classes, or simply up early and wandering to take advantage of the low amounts of people out and about, a few instructors moving purposefully to classes or a day of free activities, and the occasional security person doing his or her rounds. Nikki waved pleasantly to those she knew, ignored the outright stares her appearance still drew from students and staff alike, while making her way towards a little used path into the forest. A path that She was one of the few people in Whateley, students or staff, allowed to use without security's intervention.
Not that anyone without permission, not from Whateley, to walk that particular path would have even found it, let alone been allowed to walk along it unimpeded in most cases. The uninvited tended to find obstacles suddenly in their way, or discovered twists and turns in the trail that led right back to the edge of the forests bordering the school. Those who persevered in their determination to move forward and possessed a sense of direction that wouldn't be confused found the obstacles becoming more numerous and even dangerous as they progressed. This very special pathway was flagged red by Whateley security for good reason. The forest protected its heart with the savagely innocent indifference of the wild thing it was.
The Grove knew she was coming, it always knew when she was doing so and, Nikki suspected, had methods to keep track of her on the campus as well. But she was welcome there, so the trail opened smoothly ahead of her while closing almost protectively behind her.
“Sensors show one of the kids heading out towards sector 13.” Frank Delarose heard over his comm unit as he was preparing to head home and to bed.
“You got an ID on the kid, Harris?” He questioned with a sigh, hoping the twisting trails in that part of the woods would just spit the kid out instead of getting him or her lost. Search and Rescue in that part of the bordering forest was a real bitch.
“That Reilly girl.” Harris responded. “Should we try and stop her?”
“No, let her go.” Delarose responded with relief clear in his voice. “She has an open invitation to go in there. Let me know if anyone tries following her, though.”
“Roger that, boss.”
Samantha Everheart, getting ready to leave at the end of her shift, glanced at the boards and shook her head. “Nikki Reilly is heading into those woods?”
“She doesn't go there a lot, Sam.” Delarose answered slowly, but nodded. “She's one of five or six students and staff who can actually go in there, not get lost, and come out intact. That section of forest is strange, yes. But you can't say Nikki Reilly isn't that either, can you? Besides, I've been following her progress here. The girl can handle herself in a crunch, believe me. Good thing She isn't a deliberate troublemaker or we'd really have a problem on our hands around here.”
“Still, She's just a kid.” Sam let out a sigh. “Okay, I know she handled herself during that Halloween mess, and have read the files from that fracas in Boston with the Necromancer and his crew...”
“But?” Delarose prodded.
“I'm supposed to be looking kinda watching out for her.” Sam sighed. “That was a promise I made when her Dad helped me get this job.”
“So go camp at the entrance to the path.” Delarose gave her a light pat on the shoulder in sympathy. “If that makes you feel better you go ahead. Just don't follow her in there, okay? Like I said, and you should know by now, the kid is not only very capable, but at times is a LOT more than just a kid.”
“That's part of what worries me here, boss.” Sam answered quietly.
“Hell, Sam, we all worry about the kids around here at one time or another.” Delarose sighed. “Once in a while we even manage to do something to help one of them out. Go on, camp out there for a while, so long as you're here for your shift tonight it's okay with me.”
“Yeah, I think I'll do that.” Sam said as She moved towards the door.
Nikki spread her senses and allowed them to roam, drinking in the feel of life all around her that wasn't concerned with either how she looked, or who she was friends and enemies with. The simple, but clear acceptance she always felt in this area was a welcome relief from the usual flood of emotion she had learned to ignore but not completely cut off at Whateley. Maintaining an easy pace, she soon found herself among trees that were ancient even for this forest, and soon entered a small glade surrounded by even older ones.
“Welcome, little Queen.” Most would have heard the wind moving through branches still covered with green leaves even in winter as that voice spoke. “How may we serve you this day?”
“Greetings, Spirit of the Wood.” Nikki replied to the air in general since the spirit hadn't manifested a material body this time. It, and she, knew there was no need for that any longer. “Tell me about the Were tribes living in this area.”
“The tribes within the reach of this Grove are ancient, lady.” The Grove answered slowly. “They are descendants of the tribe of Garrand, Champion of the West in the Five Fold Court, and there is a direct lineage from Garrand to the present leaders of the pack closest to here.”
“So they would remember The Pact made when they were freed from Sidhe domination?” Nikki questioned. “And hold traditions regarding that?”
“They remember, O Queen.” The Grove responded with the sighing wind through it's branches. “Their traditions go back to before The Sundering. They remember, and hold Garrand in near worship. But they would greet anyone, even you, who called on those traditions, with a great deal of suspicion. If you plan to approach them, do so with care. They are besieged from within and trust very few.”
“I felt that they were threatened.” Nikki answered slowly. “But had no idea of how, or from where. Can you tell me about that?”
“An outsider, Half Were and half OLD ONE has come to prominence in the West.” The answer came with a heavy sigh of the breeze. “This one has taken control of the tribes in the West and seeks to subjugate the other packs, tribes, and nations to his will. He is know as The Bastard, and his existence threatens the very fabric of the Were community. His forces are pressing the local Were tribes even now, though they are yet more than half a continent away.”
“Old One.” Nikki let out a breath and closed her eyes. “As in the Old Enemy? The Great Old Ones?”
“One of their disciples.” Whispered the wind. “That one seeks to corrupt Were-kind throughout the world. Should he succeed, the Return of the True Enemy will be hastened greatly.”
“Then it is time to counter this threat.” Nikki, with Aungdhadail's agreement, noted. “My ancient self can help with that, and my present incarnation has the power to buffer the local Weres if they will accept it from me.”
The Grove questioned. “And what is your thought on this, O ancient Queen?”
“Nichole is a child.” Aungdhadail responded quietly. “But She grows in wisdom each passing day, and her POWER is like nothing even I could have summoned. When she comes into her maturity, there will be few indeed who would contest her with hope of surviving the encounter.”
“As we see it, Great Queen.” Trees nodded in response as the breeze became stronger. “Yet she is still untried, and this thing is one that will require all her present resources to match.”
“Hey you Two!” Nikki shouted. “I'm here, and I'm listening. If you don't think I'm up to this just tell me and get it over with already! Not that it's going to stop me from trying, by the way.”
“We expected nothing else, Little Queen.” If wind and leaves could chuckle it would have happened then. “We are only concerned with your continued well being. There is no doubt you will be a powerful, and great queen when your time arrives. Our concern is that that time will arrive with you still present to do what is needed.”
“Oh, I'll be around, don't worry.” Nikki snorted. “I may have a lot to learn about non-magical defense right now, but I'm too mean to die before I do. If you've been following me at the campus like I suspect, you know that already. There is NO WAY I'm going to let this threat to a whole race that Aungdhadhail helped create then free be subjugated by some outsider or destroyed because they hold to the tenets they swore to before the civilization I was born into was even a dream in someone's mind. I'm going to do whatever I can to help them, whether they want it or not.”
“Spoken like the QUEEN you are now.” Aungdhadhail put inwith approval clear in her voice. “And a good indication of the QUEEN you will be, young one.”
“Yeah, right.” Nikki snorted then glowered at both the trees and herself to include the ancient spirit that was part of her. “I'm about sick of this Queen to Come stuff, and all that. It's about time I did something that all you old folks don't think is precocious or lucky. So lose the crap about the Queen to Come already. If I'm that one, I'm here already, if I'm not then all this is kind of useless, isn't it?”
Neither entity had a response to that. Nikki nodded in satisfaction. “Okay that's settled then.”
“As we said. A true queen.” The Grove seemed to nod as the trees around it bowed to the breeze.
“A fitting successor.” Aungdhadhail agreed.
“WILL you two stop it?!!” Nikki almost screamed. “It isn't about what I might be in time, but what's happening NOW!”
“Well spoken, O Queen.” Came the response in the trees. Significantly without the little in front of it. “Great POWER resides within you already, Queen of the Sidhe. Use it sparingly, and wisely when you do unless circumstances demand that you show your true ability so soon .”
“Now you sound like Sir Wallace.” Nikki grumbled, but nodded. “I know my fine control leaves something to be desired right now, and that you've given good advice...”
“Yet?” The Grove questioned with a sudden breeze through the treetops.
“I'm FIFTEEN years old!” Nikki shot back, then gave her surroundings a weary look that was far too old for her years then grew into something close to anger. “How the HELL am I supposed to handle all this?”
“As you have handled everything else up to now, O Queen.” Nikki could feel Aungdhadhail's amusement as well as The Grove's once she'd said that. “With the determination to master it, and not be borne under by the very wise concerns you hold so tightly to yourself.”
“I'm not old enough to be wise yet.” She snorted.
“Some come into the world already wise, though they often do not realize that.” Aungdhadhail answered softly. “You were once part of me, young one, and were born with that innate wisdom, such as it may be. I was often accused of being capricious, but nothing – NOTHING – I did was without reason.”
“Yeah, one of these days you should tell my friends that.”
“They are learning, young one.” Aunghdadhail laughed. “Even those so annoying hobgoblins of yours have a purpose and never harm those you care for.”
“You know, that's right.” Nikkie said with some wonder in her voice. “I never thought of it that way, but now that I've heard it from you, it makes sense. Sir Wallace tried telling me, but I didn't believe him.”
“Will there be anything else this day, My Queen?” The Grove put in with more than a little satisfaction in its ethereal voice.
“No, just point me towards the center of the Were enclave.” Nikki responded with a shrug. “I could find it, but I'm kind of tired and that would make things a whole lot easier.”
Part of the thicket surrounding The Grove opened. “This way, My Queen.”
“Thank you.” She moved towards the opening. “I appreciate the help here.”
“All you need do is ask, My Queen.” Rattled the thorny buhhes that had parted. “We are yours to command.”
“NOW I know why this place makes me nervous.” Nikki giggled, then stifled that in embarrassment.
“Get used to it, young one.” Aungdhadhail answered with the amusement and pride that a parent watches a particularly precocious child with. “Should you choose it, the entire WORLD will soon be yours to command, and on the whole, it will obey.”
“Oh, wonderful!” She griped. “As if I can even get my own impulses to fall into line here.”
“See?” The ancient Sidhe spirit answered smugly. “You begin to learn.”
“Oh, shut up, will you?” Nikki retorted, but couldn't keep the smile at the spirit's approval from spreading over her face.
Saturday December 9: 7:30 AM
The Mediwhila Reservation
Maintaining an easy, but ground eating pace for half an hour, Nikki became aware of intelligences watching her progress. Wary intelligences. She let a slow smile spread over her face, including her eyes. It was an odd feeling, being watched by beings she knew were deadly if they chose to be, even to one like Aungdhadhail. But it was also very similar to encountering old, and very much loved friends.
The twins hurried into the cabin without so much as a knock and announced to Eloise Donner. “She's coming!”
Eloise let out a sigh of mixed trepidation and relief. “I take it you're talking about the new Sidhe at Whateley?”
“Yes, the new QUEEN.” Kim and Betty chorused with excitement and no little fear in their voices. “The one we've been feeling since last September. And she's close!”
“Well, it was bound to happen.” Eloise, what would be called a chief in other, more Human tribes responded with a shrug. “Have the borderers been minding their manners with her?”
“The watchers have done nothing but watch this time.” Betty nodded.
“Good.” Eloise answered with some relief while wishing Ben was closer. The were-bear added an often needed stable influence and calming to her own usual impulses. “Go find Ben, and get him here immediately. I don't care what he's doing, just get him here. This meeting isn't going to be a comfortable one. Have the Watchers bring her here.”
“They already are.” The twins answered in unison. Eloise knew complaining about it was useless, but at times like this She really wished they wouldn't do that.
Aungdhadhail's sense of meeting old friends pervaded Nikki's awareness as her expanded senses felt the weres watching her, and it felt oddly comfortable rather than upsetting. Stopping for a few moments, She turned around completely to regard the seemingly empty woods andannounced. “All right, I know you're out there. Come out and save me the time and trouble of finding your leader on my own, would you please?”
Undergrowth in the forest rustled as five weres hesitantly showed themselves. The stood in a ring around her, without threat, but holding the caution that came from eons of memory.
Watching the weres show themselves without a trace of fear in her demeanor, Nikki gave them all a sunny smile. “Don't worry, I'm not here to hurt you or take you over.”
“My name is Billy Joe, Lady.” One of them answered quietly. “Please follow us, and we'll take you to meet our chief.”
“I take it she's expecting me?” Nikki chuckled without knowing precisely why she knew their leader was a female.
“By now I'd be surprised if she wasn't.” Billy Joe replied with a .careful bow to hide his grin.
“Garrand himself foretold her coming.” Ben sighed as they waited for the newcomer to arrive. If we can believe it was really HIM.”
“Meaning?” Eloise questioned while her own mother and former matriarch of the tribe, looked on in something like bemused thoughtfulness.
“Sufficient magic could have “raised” Garrand's shade.” Ben replied after taking a deep breath. “At least to such as us it would have appeared genuine. Our magic potential is notoriously lacking, after all.”
“Though like our so ancient progenitors we are magic.” Eloise rebutted with a slow smile. She'd always excelled in debate and enjoyed the opposing arguments. “But unlike them, we are unable to use that which is so much a part of us. Still it seems to me we would be able to discern the use of magic to deceive us.”
“I'll take that argument with the proverbial grain of salt.” Ben answered slowly. “Just because magic is part of us, it doesn't necessarily follow that we can always recognize its use.”
“So we welcome HER with caution?” Eloise chuckled at her mate's reluctance, but was also more than glad to see that some were questioning the 'vision' of several nights before.
“Exactly so, my love.” The Were Bear nodded thoughtfully. “Even if this one is what she claims, a new Queen might seek to reestablish dominance over us. We have been independent too long for that to be a healthy thing for either side.”
“So we welcome her, listen to her, and what?”
“Feel her.” Ben answered simply.
Mrs. Donner, Eloise's mother and a former tribal leader herself, nodded without a word, knowing She'd approved of her son-in-law for good reason.
The place looked like well designed and long established campground that supplied rustic campsites all the way up to modern cabins for those who wanted them as Nikki was led into the large clearing the weres had escorted her to. Campfires, spitted meat, and the smell of cooking vegetables underlying the heavy, almost nauseating aromas of cooking flesh pervaded the place. But no one was showing themselves as they crossed the outer ring of the place. Tents, Wooden lean toos, sleeping mats and bags, showed that the area was well populated even if it seemed deserted as she entered.
The cruder living arrangements gave way to well constructed cabins, houses, and buildings that had to contain shops, meeting areas and other necessities for even a small community though the people who should be present in such a place were still absent. She felt eyes watching her, some hostile, some almost reverent, and felt a weird sense of rightness when she did. Raising her chin, She announced. “Hello! I bring you no harm, and ask that none be aimed at me.”
Now what caused me to say that? She wondered, then noted that Aungdhadhail was subtly guiding her words and actions as she moved to the central area of the settlement. “Come out that I can see you! My blessing on all of you.”
The first to emerge was a woman, lithe, confident, and with the inborn grace of a big cat. Closely following her was a man, stolid, calm, and so bear-like Nikki could nearly see the huge, furry form surrounding his.
The woman nodded, then spoke in a voice that was challenging while holding a hint of growing awe. “We are here, Lady. What brings you to us after so long?”
“You and your kin are in need, and sorely pressed.” Nikki answered, wondering why she was speaking in such archaic words until Aungdhadhail gave her a mental nudge. “I come to honor The Pact.”
“The Pact is legend.” Eloise answered with a bit of truculence in her voice and attitude.
“So am I.” Nikki replied with a shrug. “Yet here I stand before you.”
“For what?” Eloise asked point blank.
“To help.” Nikki answered without elaboration.
“Help with what?” The Were leader questioned.
“Survival.” Nikki said, then simply waited for the response.
“You are no more than a cub!” Another Were challenged. “What would you know of survival?”
“More than you might think.” Nikkie shrugged while keeping her face expressionless. “Both from my own short experience and from the Ancient One who is part of me. She was old before your race was even a dream in Gaea's mind.”
“You could have been well coached.” The challenger said with suspicion clear in his voice.
Nikki regarded that one, an older male with grey in his hair, though he appeared healthy enough and answered in a language that few had heard in eons. “Seris ammndt, Keodht. Leardt Dadthvay Cammoch.”
The girl was covered in a silvery aura while she appeared to grow before their eyes. Once she reached a height that over-topped everyone but Ben the growth halted while her power fairly hummed through the clearing.
The gathering drew back with hisses of surprised awe as they became the first beings in thousands of years to behold the true shape of a Powerful Sidhe. “I show you all what I am.” Nikki's voice was quiet, yet filled the clearing and the trees appeared to bow at the revelation.
“Know me, as I know you.” The harp strings of her voice offered simply. “I open myself to any of you with the wish to see the truth of the faith I hold, have held, for all of you through this never ending cycle of centuries.”
Some few, including Eloise and Ben actually looked, and found themselves nearly spell bound by the terrible, wonderful beauty that was this being's many faceted soul. Those who dared look saw no deception, nothing of ill towards them, no wish to rule.
“I could enforce the old rule.” She went on with a sigh, then shook her head. “But I haven't come here for that. You have been independent far too long for that to be a comfortable thing for any of us. There was a pact made in blood and love long ago. I come to honor those promises, nothing else.”
“My ancient self loved your race dearly.” She continued. “Loved you enough to send your Eldest to safety when her whole world, and self, was being ripped apart. I can't ignore that now, or turn my back on you any more than I could stop breathing.”
“What?” Eloise questioned quietly. “Would you do if we refused your offer of assistance?”
“Give it, anyway.” Nikki offered the gathering a crooked smile as the spell faded and she returned to her normal height and aspect, then chuckled. “But it would make things a whole lot easier if you were all cooperating with me when I do.”
“Be welcome among us, O Queen of the West, Daughter of The Burning Oak.” Eloise responded and there was no disagreement from the crowd. “It's quite obvious we need to talk. At length.”
“Oh, probably so.” Nikki agreed soberly. “I can feel a huge threat on the horizon, not only to Weres, but the whole world. And trust me, I have no desire at all to go through another thing like The Sundering. Even the memories are bad enough.”
Saturday December 9: 8AM
Somewhere in California
The being known as The Bastard lifted his head, as if catching a scent in the wind and his hackles would have risen had he been in his Were form. Eyes fixed on something beyond the hollowed out chamber of a mountain in the High Sierras he used to meditate in, he drew in a breath and expelled it with an explosive chuff.
“Very well.” He whispered into the silence none dared interrupt. “The hated one has returned. This time she will truly die.”
None of the followers trusted enough to be allowed near his sanctum dared approach his private place as the howls of raging, insane laughter filled their minds to the near breaking point.
The Mediwhila Reservation
“So.” Eloise eyed her guest with bemused inquiry. “How does it feel, holding the spirit of Aungdhadhail inside of you?”
“Crowded.” Nikki answered with a brief smile. “Though I wish the most of your people would quit fawning over me like I was some long absent mistress. I'm not here like some matron retrieving lost pets.”
“On the crowding inside yourself, I would imagine so.” Eloise said while watching the deceptively fragile looking girl seated across the table from her. “On the second thing let me put it to you like this, dear. The Sidhe quite literally created my race, even if it has been so long ago that most even vague memory beyond tradition has faded. But we were hard wired genetically, to use a present day term, to defer to and serve the Sidhe. One of which you quite obviously are. Now I ask you. If the creator of your race, either Human or Sidhe just wandered into town one Saturday morning and started talking with people, what would your reaction be?”
“Put that way, I suppose I can understand.” Nikki grimaced and shook her head. “I'd be in nothing short of an almost superstitious awe, I think. If not outright terror. Just about anyone would be if there was no doubt about the creator's being genuine”
“You, my dear.” Eloise nodded seriously. “Have left little or no doubt as to what you are open to any of us. So give it time. We've been independent for a long time and I think that independence will reassert itself once the initial shock wears off. Though you should be prepared for a certain amount of reverence from most of my people even then.”
“Wonderful.” Nikki sighed. “As if I don't get enough of that already, and worse, part of me just about expects that out of people, even though I try to keep that kind of expectation from being a habit.”
“Part of you is very old, Lady.” Eloise slowly responded. “That part of you was not only used to receiving deference and being looked on in something akin to awe, it accepted such things as its just due. Yet I think that part also accepted the obligations that came with such reverence.”
Nikki held the steaming cup of tea in both hands, as if seeking the warmth it could offer while enduring that regard without flinching. “Oh, you don't know the half of it. Like now, I'm driven to do things I really don't understand completely. But I do understand that what I'm doing here is important. Not only to your tribe, your clan, all the Were clans, but to this entire world. It's like I have to honor a contract one of my grandparents signed, if that makes sense at all.”
“It does, actually. And is a fairly accurate description of your situation, I believe. Though that's a pretty heavy burden for someone so young to carry.” Eloise answered with sympathy in her voice and actually wanting to reach over to give the inhuman girl sharing tea with her a tight, comforting hug.
“Maybe.” Nikki answered with a shrug. “It seems to be a burden I was born to carry, no matter how much I might try and argue the point. There's nothing to be done about that now, but there are things I can do here. I intend to do them. That's all.”
Giving the girl a look that held both respect and disbelief, Eloise nodded. “All right, that speaks well of you. At least you aren't protesting about what's happened to you and what some people expect from you as a result of that.”
“Oh I've done my share of that, trust me. It didn't do any good at all, let me tell you.” Nikki chuckled without real mirth. “As for some people... Well, I've already taught some crystal wavers the error of believing they could direct, or should I say control, me. Others have tried and none of them have been too lucky with the trying either. So far.”
“There is luck, then there is skill.” Eloise answered. “Which one has gotten you through those incidents so far?”
“Oh, luck. Definitely.” Nikki let out a sigh. “But those times have taught me that I need to learn things, and not to go into any situation, no matter how innocent looking, with the attitude that I can just bull my way though with pure power. Undirected power is as dangerous to me and those I care for, as it would be to those I'm aiming it at. So I'm learning to control not only my power, but my impulses.”
“Are you now?” Eloise questioned while watching this disturbingly wise child seated in her kitchen. “And how is that going?”
“About like you'd expect.” Nikki grimaced. “I'm a teenager, and wasn't even a girl a little over a year ago, but that's another story. I'm getting a grip on that, and on the hormonal impulses. Just don't ask any of my friends about me PMSing, please. My other impulses are getting easier to control too. I know I'm a powder keg waiting to go off if I'm not careful, so I'm learning to think before acting.”
“All right.” The woman nodded thoughtfully. “The council is going to want to speak with you, and that won't be an easy meeting. There will be disbelief, suspicion, and outright hostility in some cases. Will you be able to control your impulses there? Anger has no place in the coming meeting, and there will be some very powerful weres there.”
“Oh, I have a temper, I'll admit.” Nikki let a little grin show the girl She should be but would never be allowed to be. “Red head, you know. But I've also learned to contain that. Though Aungdhadhail can't seem to understand why just yet. I have to override her at times, you know. But to answer your question, yes, I can and will control it in the meeting. She loved your people dearly, Eloise. I think I like most of you too, so far.”
“That's comforting.” Eloise answered without irony as She recalled the terrible beauty and power of the aspect this girl had shown everyone in the village earlier. “Okay, I'm convinced that you're not the usual teen aged girl, my lady. With you coming from Whateley, that shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone, though. So tell me what you know about the problem we're having right now.”
“All I know is what The Grove told me.” The girl answered, then gave Eloise a long, penetrating look. “And my name is Nikki. I haven't earned the right for anyone, especially you, to be giving me titles.”
“You've just taken a big step in that direction – Nikki.” The woman answered softly, then tapped the table top with a finger. “So what exactly did The Grove tell you?”
“About what I said in the clearing.” Nikki answered. “This creature called The Bastard is more that than most actually realize. He's a mix of Old One and Were. I know, I know, Aungdhadhail swears that's impossible, but somehow it's been done, so don't try to convince me otherwise. I feel him and his malevolence from here if I try. If he wins this war between the clans it won't stop there. No one, anywhere, will be safe, or immune to the evil he'll bring.”
“So he plans to use the clans for spreading his sickness?”
“Yes.” Nikki said with an expression that hinted She had just tasted something foul in an expected pleasant taste, then shook herself for a moment and looked up to stare right into Eloise's eyes. “That's something Aungdhadhail, or I, won't permit to happen while I live.”
Saturday December 9: 10:20 AM
The Forest Bordering Whateley
The forest was quiet, a condition that was a true rarity for him, and it enfolded him in a welcoming embrace that nowhere else in the world offered. Even when he indulged in a hunt, not often since food was not a problem, the only fear he felt at his presence was that of woodland creatures in the presence of a hunting predator. He was always careful to be selective in those hunts, and to eat what he killed. The forest understood in a way that none of his few friends, no matter how well intentioned, could
Oh, the kids at his dorm accepted him most of the time, even if they considered him dangerous off and on, but it wasn't the same thing at all. Here, in the green lit dappled shadows of an ancient forest the changes his mutation and GSD had worked didn't seem to matter all that much. In this place he was free of the stares, the taunts, and the whispers that followed him anywhere he went. Here his saurian form, monstrous to so many, was just another shape moving quietly through the trees.
All he really wished for, as any teenager might, was acceptance. To be part of a humanity that had largely turned it's back on him over the past few years. Just to be considered a regular guy might be too much to ask, but that didn't stop him from dreaming about it. Or wishing it could be.
Venting a snorted whistle of bitter amusement – The Gross Structural Dystropy had even taken his voice, he shook his head and worked to simply enjoy the moments he had in this place.
For one of the few, and very precious, times in his life these days, Razorback was at peace.
The Seirra Madres
“Find her. Kill her.” The Bastard commanded the three who stood in front of him outside the fastness he'd had his thralls build in the mountains. “Leave no witnesses and bring me her head.”
The three, proven killers, who had once been weres, but had become something else, something the world abhorred, thanks to The Bastard's influence, simply nodded. They knew the quarry they hunted through the often, and mercifully tenuous link their master used to guide and control them.
A portal opened in the mountainside and The Bastard waved them into it. “Don't come back without the Sidhe's head.”
The Forest Bordering Whateley
Razorback tensed as something assailed his non-physical senses. Something wrong had suddenly appeared in his sanctuary. Something that had no legitimate existence in a sane world, let alone his special quiet place. Raising his snout as if to pick up an elusive scent in the breeze, he began moving towards the wrongness. If he'd had hair, it would have been standing on end by then.
Saturday, December 9: 4:30 PM
“Well, that didn't go too badly at all.” Eloise sighed as She accompanied Nikki out of the very high tech conference center at the heart of the were town. “The others seem ready enough to accept that you are what you say you are, and that you have no intentions of trying to enforce old rules on us.”
“They do?” Nikki grumbled, tired from the hours of video conferencing, and effort She'd expended in trying to convince the were leaders not physically present of her 'credentials' and intentions. “I was starting to get a bit tired of all the repeated questions and hostility there.”
“You held that in quite nicely, dear.” Eloise answered with a chuckle. “From the legends, patience isn't something the old Sidhe were known all that well for, but you showed very good restraint at times in the meeting.”
“Restraint.” Nikki grumbled. “That's about all I hear from my teachers these days. I know restraint, but it isn't easy, let me tell you.”
“It never is, dear.” Eloise laughed and gave the girl beside her a companionable pat on the shoulder. “But it is necessary these days. At least at times it is.”
“I know, I know.”
“Don't worry about it, Nikki.” Ben put in with a grin. “The others know that you aren't trying to play them into some kind of imitation, or reopening of the OLD ways. You got that across to them quite well.”
“I don't know about that.” Nikki grumbled, then sighed. “I was still getting the impression that Beringer, and Coates didn't really trust or believe me.”
“Their tribes have been displaced during the present difficulties.” Eloise answered wearily. “And have taken some horrible losses trying to hold a line that refuses to define itself enough to be held. Surely you can understand that following such upset they would be hesitant to trust in anything, or anyone. That pair looks at the rest of us as potential betrayers at times, I fear. Be patient and they'll come around. The simple fact is that they have no choice.”
Thinking about how dependent she'd become on her empathic abilities in dealings with people, Nikki resolved to begin studying more about facial expressions and body language in the future. “I know that, wish it wasn't so, and will work with what we have here. At least we hammered out an agreement of sorts with everyone.”
“Like I said.” Eloise chuckled, but gave the girl's arm a quick squeeze to show that she wasn't laughing at her. “Things went pretty well, overall.”
“I just hope it's enough.” Nikki responded.
“So do I.”
“Will you stay the night with us, or go back to Whateley?” Eloise questioned. “You are more than welcome to stay until morning.”
“Thanks.” Nikki smiled, then shook her head. “But I think I ought to get back. I have resources there that I can't access here and I think I'd better get started with some things this evening.”
“Understandable.” Eloise nodded while looking into the surrounding forest. “Would you like an escort through the forest? It may be dark by the time you back within sight of Whateley.”
“No thanks. I can get there fine on my own. No need to trouble anyone on that account. The woods don't let me get lost.”
“No, I don't suppose they would.” Eloise answered with a shake of her head. “This part of the forest was ancient when Rome was being born, and is known for being rather strange at times.”
“Strange or not, it's friendly to me, and to your people.” Nikki answered with a shrug. “Thanks again, but I can get home on my own. I've caused enough upset here today as it is without pulling someone from other things that they could be doing.”
“All right, dear.” Eloise said with a smile. “Just remember that you're as welcome here as you are in The Grove.”
“I will, and it means a lot to me, and to Aungdhadail.” Nikki nodded with a warm smile. “I do have to admit that this place nearly feels like home to me already.”
“That's because of your affinity for us, dear, and ours for you.” Eloise answered without hesitation. “We all know the ancient lore. Your Aungdhadail truly loved our people and that love was returned. It is only fair that the Weres today should regard you the same way since it's clear that you feel as she did.”
“Oh, she isn't MY Aungdhadail.” Nikki snorted a little laugh. “We argue all the time.”
“But,” Eloise answered with a grin. “She doesn't rule you, does she?”
“No way!” Nikki retorted then caught the gently humorous look that the woman was giving her and laughed in response. “She tells me I'm way too stubborn for my own good, or hers.”
“I can see how that could be, dear.” Eloise laughed in her turn. “You strike me as someone who would thumb her nose at a demon if one had the audacity to try taking you.”
“Done that.” The girl shrugged, then actually looked embarrassed. “Don't ask.”
“Well, here we are.” Nikki stopped at the edge of the village's clearing. “Thanks for the hospitality, and the understanding. I'll come back, but you could visit me at the Academy, too if you like.”
“I'll keep that in mind, Lady.” Eloise answered with a grin, the waved off the protest the girl was about to voice. “Trust me, you've earned that much respect here today. You are a Lady, dear, and deserve that title after today.”
“I'd rather have friends.” Nikki grumbled, but was glowing at the compliment.
“Oh, you've made those today, too.” Eloise grinned. “No small thing that.”
“Well, I need to get going.” Nikki gave the woman a hug. “It's kind of a long walk home from here, not that I'm afraid of the woods after sunset or anything. I just don't want to trip over a root I can't see.”
“Good point.” Eloise nodded with a grin while thinking that the root in this forest that dared trip this girl would be in for a world of hurt from its neighbors. “You be careful. Times are unsettled, and there are things walking the wood that have never been seen before.”
“Yeah, like me.”
“Oh you were expected.” Eloise assured the girl. “There are others wandering about who weren't, though they are welcome too, for the most part.”
“It's that 'for the most part' I worry about right now.”
“Well, time's wasting.” Nikki let out a sigh. “I need to get going here.”
“Go with our good wishes, dear Lady.”
“I still don't think I've earned that.” Nikki sighed then smiled up at the woman. “But thank you.”
“Go on, get yourself back to the school.”
As the girl entered the forest, Ben moved to stand beside Eloise and watched where the girl had been. “I don't think the child should be moving through the woods alone right now.”
“She is no child.” Eloise answered with a shrug while her hand found his. “No matter what her physical age may be, that girl is far from being a child.”
“Whatever.” Ben nodded in tacit agreement. “But I still don't like the idea of her walking the woods without an escort this evening.”
“So follow her if it puts you mind at ease, my love.”
“I think I will.” Ben replied.
Razorback was hunting.
Not a hunt for fun, or food. Not this time.
There was a wrongness in the forest that had welcomed him without reservations, and he was determined to find that evil and drive it from the wood. Something foul had dared to cloud the atmosphere of his sanctuary, and it was going to pay for disturbing that peace.
Ben trailed the girl at a discrete distance, aware that she knew he was there but pretending she hadn't noticed. If not for the uneasy feeling he'd had since she entered the forest, it would have been hilarious, his sense of humor still tweaked and prodded him off and on. He was giving up the pretense of quietly following and moving to join her when a reverberating shriek of rage echoed through the trees.
It was an uneasy walk towards Whateley. Something was wrong, but she couldn't quite place what it was. She was being followed, but that wasn't the problem at all. She wasn't bing stalked, simply followed, and the presence working so hard to be unobtrusive wasn't hostile at all. The concern touched her and Nikki noted the large, deceptively ambling presence that bespoke BEAR. Slowing just enough so Ben would either have to stop or admit he was there, she was turning to greet him when an enraged shriek she had heard before filled the woods around her. Turning towards the background presence she knew to be Ben she almost shouted as he emerged from the trees. “I know that sound, it's a Whateley kid and he's in some kind of trouble! Come on!”
Ben started to run as the girl turned and seemed to flit into the nearby trees without even moving her feet.
“Damned Sidhe.” He muttered as She effectively vanished in front of him and he shouted. “Hang on! Don't go into whatever it is without me!”
Cursing would have been useless, he saved his breath for the run he'd need to put in to just keep up with her.
Razorback had found the wrongness. Three creatures facing something in the distance and paying no attention to him, but that soon changed. One, an unlikely combination of cougar, human and something unspeakable remained fixed on whatever they had been watching when he found them. The others, a boar headed thing with evil looking tusks, and a rabid looking wolf creature on two legs turned to confront him with frightening speed. Even with his sensibilities about different appearances the youth knew these creatures weren't anything good.
As the two moved in for what they expected to be a quick kill, he met them with his characteristic shriek of rage and challenge when threatened, and a flurry of claws, razor edged spines and tail. He would not allow these abominations to ruin the peaceful, comforting embrace of his sanctuary without a fight to the death. He could do nothing less. The Rage filled him, and he was once again the supreme predator in this place. This challenge would not, could not, be tolerated.
Distantly amazed at her speed moving through the forest towards the sounds of inhuman battle, Nikki did consciously slow her progress enough to take in what was ahead of her, and allow the were bear to catch up. In that instant she caught the sickening sense of an enemy so old most of the world had forgotten it and felt Aungdhadail's battle rage building in her. For once, she didn't even try to mitigate that. Instead, she helped it build. Instead of blinding her, this rage brought things into much clearer focus, and heightened her already on guard senses. This was the ancient enemy. The one that had caused The Sundering. The enemy Aungdhadailhad fought to a near standstill for so long at such great cost.
The ululating hunting howl she heard next confirmed her fears about another Whateley student encountering these things. Everyone at Whateley knew that raging howl and most went the other way when they heard it. It was Razorback. Seeing Ben catching up, She nodded to the were bear and moved forward at speed again.
The boar headed creature slashed with razor edged hooves and tusks, and it was fast. Very fast. But so was he, and the advantage there seemed to be going his way at the moment even though the wolf thing had fastened its fangs into one of Razorbacks spined arms and was hanging on with the tenacity of a terrier with a rat in its jaws. Pain only served to increase his own rage, and speed though and he brought one three clawed foot up in a rapid disemboweling thrust at the thing clinging to his outstretched arm. Wolf thing avoided that, barely, but was knocked off its hampering hold on his arm by the blow and staggered away streaming the noxious stuff that it seemed to use for blood.
The boar creature took advantage of Razorback's slight distraction and slashed forward with it's tusks, gouging a chunk of flesh out of his thigh. With another ululating hunting cry of rage Razorback's head snapped forward with a snake like speed and his own fangs fastened to the creature's throat. He yanked his head back, both at the foulness of the flesh and ichor that filled his mouth and to rip his own pound or two of flesh out of the thing.
All three of them were bleeding, but the two creatures attacking him had lost their arrogant certainty that he would be an easy take down. They began to circle, looking for an opening with more caution than previously. They now knew Razorback could hurt them as badly as they could hurt him but numbers were on their side and they fully intended to take advantage of that.
Unless the wolf thing managed to penetrate his armored hide in a critical spot, it was more annoyance than true danger, but the boar creature had weapons that could give him serious injury without a relying on luck. Razorback didn't wait for the attack he knew was coming. Hurling himself at the boar thing feet first to make full use of his wickedly clawed feet, he knocked the wolf thing aside with his tail and started the second part of the battle himself with a scream of battle rage that ignored pain, wounds, and danger to himself. He had be created for things like this, something whispered to him through the rage.
Pain, even agony, were simply things to tell him he was facing someone almost worthy of his abilities. But rivals that close to him required killing. There could be no equals allowed here. Not in this special place.
“Shit!” Nikki hurled herself to the side as something, a mix of big cat, human and entirely wrong flew through the air in the spot She'd occupied a moment before. In an eerie slow motion She noted the kid known as Razorback fighting two more of the things before slamming a shield between herself and the one that had obviously been waiting for her appearance.
The shield held. Barely. The cat creature didn't exactly bounce off it, but was deflected from its second leap to carom from a nearby tree and tumble into a furred and scaled heap several yards away. A quick command to the living lines of force in the area had roots, branches, and even the earth itself reaching to hold the monster down.
But it was horrifically fast and avoided those hindrances, though it was considerably slowed getting through the web she had thrown to hold it. Short as it was, that gave her enough time to overcome her horror at its appearance and uncanny speed so she could counter the monster's next attack. Taking up a nearby dead branch, she wove it's still present lines to reform it into a lance tipped with a wickedly sharp needle point and then sent it flying towards the thing that was so intent on killing her.
Ben, in bear form, burst into the melee to see something that almost stopped him in amazement. A hulking, reptilian creature, the other student Nikki had been so concerned about, was fighting two creatures that raised his hackles like nothing he had seen before. The girl was handling herself against another of the things, but that wouldn't last unless she could do some real damage to the monster.
That concern was taken care of when the creature threatening here was impaled and nailed to a nearby tree, though far from dying. She was taking care of herself, and he felt that there was more that deceptively fragile looking girl was preparing.
The other kid, and he knew the reptilian being giving such good account of himself was a kid, wasn't faring nearly so well. The boy was bleeding from numerous gashes and his armored hide was gouged in more than one place. It was clear enough then. Nikki was taking care of herself, but the other kid was in trouble even if giving as good or better than he was getting.
With a roar of challenge and rage, Ben moved to keep the wolf thing off the boy.
Razorback, even in a fighting rage, could notice his surroundings. A girl he recognized, and had actually had fantasies of his own about on campus had entered the clearing, then almost effortlessly thrown herself to the side as the monster that hadn't joined the fight he was in had leaped at her. It missed, and it's second attack worked no better. She was giving more than a good fight. Even in the heat of battle, he made a mental note that it wouldn't be a good idea to piss that girl off.
As that happened, a huge furred shape roared as it rushed past him to swat at the wolf thing with a massive paw tipped with wickedly sharp claws. The wolf creature tumbled away in a mist of blood and flesh followed by what appeared to be an enraged grizzly bear.
Not one to turn down help, or allies when they showed up, even when in a Rage, Razorback trusted that the newcomers would handle themselves and went for the kill on the boar thing.
The cat creature broke the lance with a scream of pain and pulled itself off the short piece that still held it to the tree. Raging, it gathered for a final, killing leap at the girl.
But the time that took had been enough. Nikki gathered in the lines She'd found at Aungdhadail's direction and focused them on the abhorrent form of her adversary. As it leaped towards her a distortion in the air whirled, bending light sound and senses, meeting the thing as it left the ground. With an agonized raging yowl the thing began to dissolve as if it had been dipped in acid.
The wolf thing wasn't moving, but Ben took no chances. He mauled it even more just to make certain it wasn't going to get back up. A good thing since it did rear up and rake him with a clawed hand before life ebbed from it's glowing eyes like an evil, sickly yellow fungus light banished by clean sunshine.
The disemboweling kick had worked. The boar creature was down in a welter of blood and entrails but it was still alive. Razorback delivered a finishing blow to its head with a scream of triumph, spreading brains, bone, and less wholesome things over the ground and nearby foliage. The fight was over, but his rage hadn't gone. He worked to pull it in, to stop it, but the pain of his wounds and the fighting instinct refused to leave him.
A ululating scream Samantha had come to recognize reached her faintly from the depths of the forest she had been almost absently watching for the past hours. Not stopping to wonder why Razorback, of all people was in there, but knowing the kid was in a fight of some kind, she literally leaped from her cross legged seated position and threw herself towards the border of the forest.
Another faint shout, in a language she didn't understand but from another familiar voice reached her and Sam was going frantic. Nikki was in there, and Razorback was in a RAGE. The perimeter of the forest seemed to close in as she tried entering it, like it was actively keeping her out.
The distant roar of an enraged bear was too much. Sam accessed Hive. Find a way to get me in there. Now!
As Hive worked, Samantha Everheart picked up her communicator and called security HQ. “Got a situation in sector 13. Mobilize combat rescue units now and get them out here!”
“No.” Nikki spoke softly, but her voice carried across the small clearing as Razorback turned towards Ben. She could feel his rage, and his battle to control it. That last she reinforced with a projection of peace and safety. “It's over. They're gone now, the bad stuff is over. Come back. This fight is finished, my friend. It's over.”
As the rage began to subside, Nikki walked forward to stand in front of Razorback. “It's done. Lose the rage now, you don't need it any longer here. We're friends, Razorback. We won't try to hurt you. I swear it.”
Razor felt the conflicting urges. He was experiencing a heightened sense of the peace the forest usually gave him and knew it was actually coming from the lovely girl in front of him. The rage was fading, but not entirely gone. He started to turn away from her, to minimize any damage he might accidentally cause her.
“Don't go, please.” Nikki spoke again as he started to turn away. She even reached out a hand to lightly touch his cheek. “You can't help what you are, or what you do, any more than I can. You're hurt, let me take care of at least the recent wounds.”
“These things were sent to get me.” She shuddered while glancing at the dead shapes in the clearing. “You found them first. I'm sorry that happened. But thank you.”
Calming, as much at her lack of fear and touch as at her soft words, Razorback gave a slight nod then gestured at the trees around him.
“You were doing it for the forest?” Nikki questioned with an almost uncanny understanding.
Razorback nodded again then let out a little whistle as his injuries started to really make themselves known to him.
“That's good enough for me.” Nikki answered with a radiant smile. “Now hold still while I get rid of the poison in these wounds, could you?”
A warmth, a sense of health and well being spread from where her hand still touched his cheek and Razorback noted a fading of the burning, crawling pain that had been reaching further into his body from the wounds he'd taken. Then the pain from the wounds themselves faded. When she finally pulled her hand back even the gashes he'd received in the fight were fading scars.
“There. Better?” Nikki looked up at him with a grin.
Razorback nodded and signed. Yes, much better, thanks. What did you do?”
Seeing the signs, but not able to read them, Nikki guessed. “Good, I'm glad you're feeling better. I took the poisons from those things claws and, teeth put into your system out of you first. Those would have eventually made you into something like them if I hadn't done so. Then it was an easy thing to talk your flesh into healing. It was the least I could do for you.”
Razorback nodded, then gestured to Ben, still in bear form.
“Yes, I need to see to him, too.” Nikki agreed with a look to him. “Are you okay now?”
With an affirmative nod, Razor gently moved her towards Ben.
“Can you shift?” She asked the were once she was next to his huge furred form.
“Ben shook his massive head and whuffed in pain.
“All right, hold still, this may not be all that pleasant, but it has to be done.” The girl told him and actually dug her fingernails into one of the long, bleeding wounds following a few moment's examination and a very unladylike curse. “Don't pull back, I need to get something out of this one!”
The were willed himself to not move though her probing fingers sent waves of agony up his arm. Her fingers suddenly withdrew as she let out a relieved sigh of satisfaction and Ben's wavering vision showed him the tip of a claw radiating unhealthy blackness in her small hand. That dissolved into a noxious mist that dissipated and She rubbed that hand against a clump of grass to get the residue off it.
“That could have been really bad.” She told him as he shifted into human form, incidentally healing the slashes he'd taken. “That piece of claw would have worked it's way to your heart eventually. It wouldn't have killed you either, nothing so merciful It would have changed you into something like what we were fighting here. If there are others among you who have been wounded by things like this and don't seem to be getting better, they need the kind of healing I just worked on you. If no one can do that, send for me and I'll take care of them. But don't waste time getting them taken care of and if they suddenly appear healthy again without the 'cure', don't trust them.”
“Eloise and the others need to know this.” Ben answered, shaken by her revelation but not disputing it. “If we do need you, how quickly could you get to us?”
“You saw me moving a while ago. I can get through these woods a lot faster than most.” Nikki shrugged. “I could probably port right to you if it's a real emergency, though that's something I haven't done myself. Aungdhadail could show me how if it's needed.”
“All right.” Ben nodded. “Thank you, Lady, but be careful if you try something like that.”
“Caution is one thing, timidity another.” Nikki shrugged with that strangely adult response. “I will exercise caution, but being timid about things is only going to lose this war for us. And make no mistake, it is a war. Aimed at disrupting not only you weres, but the entire fabric of the world.”
“I believe you.” Ben quietly answered with a shudder. “And I need to go now. You'll be all right?”
Looking towards Razorback, who has been watching the conversation with interest, Nikki smiled. “Yes, we'll be fine. Get home with this news, I'll be in touch within a few days unless you have need of me before that.”
“Good enough for me, Lady.” Ben grinned tiredly. “I've seen that you can handle yourself well enough in a fight, and with him close by I think it's a foolish demon indeed to try anything at all with either of you.”
“I suppose that's true.” Nikki chuckled then sighed. “One thing I need to tell you here before you go, Ben. Something very important about weres in general.”
“What would that be?”
“Your races were originally brought into being to specifically fight this kind of thing. You should be inimical to them with your simple presence.” The girl stood a bit taller and looked directly into his eyes with her own violet orbs while she gestured at the dead things. “What brought those into being shouldn't have been possible. Were essence should have eaten the Outsider poison like a hungry kid in a chocolate shop he's found without a clerk around. I need to know what was done to enable them to exist at all, let alone become such a threat to your kind.”
“I understand, Lady.” Ben answered with a frown. “I don't know how we could find such a thing out, but we'll start digging.”
“That's all I ask.” Nikki said while turning to look at the bodies. “I'll study bits of flesh and whatever they use for blood, too. Between us, and a few others I know, maybe we can discover that secret and find a counter to it that anyone could use if needed. I hope so.”
“So do I.” Ben answered quietly, then looked back the direction they had come from. “I really need to get back now, though.”
“Yes.” Nikki nodded. “You do. Go on and let Eloise and the others know what little we've discovered here. Razorback and I will be fine.”
“Oh, I don't doubt that at all.” Ben actually laughed. “I know I wouldn't want to get on either of your bad sides after seeing what I have today.”
Before he left, Ben stopped in front of Razorback and offered his hand. “You did good here today, my friend. You're welcome among my people anytime you feel like visiting, okay?”
Razorback nodded his massive head while a clawed hand gingerly took the offered clasp from Ben and gave it a light squeeze.
“You've also made a pretty powerful friend in her today.” Ben moved his chin to indicate Nikki, presently engrossed in collecting samples from the dead creatures. “And I think she's made a good one in you. Am I wrong in thinking that way?”
Razorback shook his head in answer and signed. I think so, too. But what did she mean about her having no more choice than I do? She's one of the pretty ones, not that I'm going to hold that against her at all. Anyone willing to talk to me is a potential friend, you know.
Ben surprised him by understanding the signing. “She wasn't always the way she is now, my friend. And trust me, being beautiful as she is, I'm pretty sure that people tend to look at the outside more than they consider the inside. Something I'm sure you know all too much about as it is.”
Yes. I see that. Razor signed in response while giving the still very occupied girl a speculative look. I think She sees beyond the Shell that others see. And has her own share of pain to endure from what she now is. Interesting perspective, thank you for bringing it up.
“She does see far deeper than most.” Ben agreed. “Even in the short time I've known her, I see that much. And everyone deals with their own brand of pain on a daily basis. Some just have more to handle than others. Remember, I'm around if you need someone to talk to, okay?”
I will, thank you, Ben. Razorback replied.
“Good.” Ben put a hand on the boy's shoulder and squeezed, then chuckled. “Just don't get her mad at you and you'll do fine.”
The girl dissolves demons. Razorback signed with what passed for a chuckle of his own. I may be stupid at times, but I'm NOT a fool even then. I might even try to warn some of the more obnoxious people at Whateley about her. If they'll listen.
“Good for you.” Ben laughed. “I have to get going. Watch out for her, will you? She's still vulnerable at times even with her power.”
I will. Razor answered then watched in near bemusement as the were bear faded into the forest as if he'd never been there at all.
Nikki stood up from her examinations and gathering samples, Made a few gestures and the remains dissolved into noxious clouds that rapidly dissipated in a wind that wasn't felt anywhere else, then turned to give the other Whateley kid a quizzical look. “Hey, are you up for meeting someone really special? I need to go ask this being a few questions anyway, and you're welcome to come along. Obviously, it likes you already or you wouldn't have been allowed to wander around in here so freely.”
Thinking about that, he decided there wasn't anything else pressing at the time and nodded.
“Go ahead and sign.” Nikki told him. “I don't understand it all yet, but I'm figuring it out. Next time I see you, I'll really be able to understand what you're saying.”
Let's go. Razorback signed, then gestured deeper into the forest where he had sensed a presence that could have been very bad had it chosen to be, but had instead welcomed him. Even if from a distance.
“That meant something like okay, didn't it?” Nikki grinned and moved towards the forest in a direction other than Ben had taken. “Come on. It's getting late and we'll both be in trouble if we stay out past curfew.”
He snorted his amusement at that. After all, he was still the reigning Detention King at Whateley, and he knew this girl had done some of her own. Like that ever bothered either one of us?
“True.” Nikki grinned, understanding what he'd felt if not what he'd signed. “So come on, let's go see The Grove so we can go get dinner.”
Mention of food caused his stomach to grumble. He was always famished following a rage, and this time he was actually embarrassed over that.
“Oh.” Nikki looked at him and even appeared a little contrite. “You need food NOW, don't you?”
He nodded slowly. Following a rage especially one that had been stopped before it ran down on its own, he always needed to eat. In large quantities and it didn't matter what he was eating.
“Do you need to hunt now, or could I try to whip something up here?”
Looking around the general area he knew the game had been scared off by both the unnatural things and the fight. He gave her a look that was eloquent in it's silence.
“Okay, give me a minute here.” The girl let out a sigh and took on an inward expression that showed she was communicating with the spirit that lived within her.
“Sir Wallace is probably going to give me Hell for this.” Nikki sighed as a mound of steaming meat materialized in the clearing. “But I'll deal with it. You need to replenish yourself now. I have no idea what that stuff is, or where it came from, but it's nourishing.”
She didn't turn away as he gorged on the offering, or even seem all that put off by his ravenous appetite. Once he was finished She grinned. “Can I cook or can I cook?”
He laughed, which was about the only answer he could have given her under the circumstances.
“Okay, ready now?”
“With a nod, Razorback followed her deeper into the forest.
“Oh, no lewd suggestions with those signs of yours, please.” She tossed out as they moved through the forest. “I may not understand all your signing yet, but believe me, next time I see you, I will.”
He didn't doubt that at all.