Saturday, Dec.2nd, 4:30 PM
Samantha Everhart was worried. She'd made a promise to a very powerful and influential man to watch out for his daughter, Nikki Reilly. The girl had blithely walked into a forest that was known to be inimical to most visitors early that morning. Not unusual, it seemed she had permission from whatever entity controlled that trackless and often impenetrable tangle of trees, underbrush, and stone to be there. From the files kept in security, it was clear that she was welcome in the area even though it was strictly off limits to most students and staff at Whateley.
Okay, she thought. It isn't as if Nichole Reilly was anything close to helpless, or a willing victim for anyone or anything. But not long ago Sam had heard the muffled, but distinctive sounds of a battle in progress out there. And the damned forest wouldn't let her in. Nothing she tried with her not inconsiderable talents and experience got her any further than several hundred yards into the woods before she found herself right back at the cleared ground leading to the Whateley campus.
“Sam.” Gus Rhinewold, commander of the combat rescue squad walked up and shook his head. “The old forest is being stubborn today. Nothing we do gets us any further inside it than you managed. I'm sorry.”
“I guess I shouldn't be surprised.” Sam closed her eyes and took in a long, calming breath. “At least I haven't heard any more combat in there since I called you guys. Thanks for trying.”
“What we're here for, Sam.” Gus offered a tentative smile. He didn't like not being able to reach students that were apparently in trouble any more than the young woman he was speaking with did. With a sigh of frustration, he finished. “If a kid gets really lost and in trouble in there, whatever rules the forest usually lets us in to find them. If that's any indication I'd say the kid you're worried about is okay. Not that it helps a lot, I know.”
“I know.” Sam nodded and let out a sigh of her own.
“And the Reilly girl isn't one who's very likely to run into much of anything in there that would really be a danger to her, from all I've heard about her.”
“Point taken.” Sam answered with a grin. “Crap, if something even dared to threaten that girl out there, from all I hear the trees themselves would try to defend her. Still, I'm worried. It's been quiet for over an hour now, but she hasn't come out yet As capable as she is right now, she's still a kid when it comes down to it. Even if the damned forest does like her, she may be lying out there hurt right now, and whatever rules in there thinks she can heal without outside help.”
“Want us to wait around for awhile?” Gus questioned. “The damned forest might change its mind or whatever it uses for one, you never know.”
“No, that's all right, Gus. Thanks, though.” Sam shrugged as she looked back at the intransigent forest. “No need to tie you guys up here any longer right now. I'll hang around a bit yet and if anything changes, I'll be in touch.”
“Do that.” The man turned to look at the trees once more and ran a hand over his grey shot black crew cut. “You need us, we'll be here in a New York minute. I promise.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Sam watched the stocky CR boss walk back to his frustrated troops and order them back to Whateley. As she did, a familiar feeling stirred in her belly, though in this context she found it more than a little unwelcome and muttered to herself. “Damn it, I'm not ready to be attracted to someone right now. Especially not a man.
“Well, what do you think?” Nikki questioned her companion as they made their way back towards the school. “I know The Grove approves of you, wholeheartedly. I'm glad it lets you wander around in here whenever you like. It's good for both you and the forest.”
Razorback nodded, then signed. Yes, I like it here. It's quiet, peaceful most of the time, and I actually feel like I belong instead of just being tolerated.
Nikki couldn't really understand his signing, but she seemed to possess an uncanny knack for understanding what he was saying regardless. She nodded and gave him a warm, if somewhat sad smile. “You aren't a monster, I know that and so does The Grove. In spite of how you look and the rage thing that gives you so many problems. I might be able to help with that off and on, by the way. If you want me to help, that is?”
Razor nodded and gently reached a clawed hand to squeeze her shoulder in understanding and agreement. Yes, please, that would be a great help if you could do what you did earlier for me.
“I'm sure I can if I'm anywhere nearby.” She answered then grew thoughtful. “You know, the Glade treated you as if you were some preordained warrior for it's defense. I've never seen it so ready to accept someone new other than myself. What do you think about that?”
Razor shrugged then signed. I knew something really wrong was in the forest, and was in a rage just because of that. Plus I had no real choice other than to go find it and eradicate it.
“You felt compelled to fight the things, didn't you?” Nikki questioned with a little frown. “Something was very wrong in the forest and you were feeling as if it was your place to fix that?”
Razor nodded and didn't sign a response.
Stopping, and placing her hands on his shoulders, the girl answered. “I think you're a predestined champion for The Grove, and maybe for me. Like my friend Chou is fond of saying, nothing happens without reason.”
She finished that with a soft kiss to his cheek. “Even if I'm wrong, I'm glad you were here. Thank you again.”
Razor was surprised by her kiss, and very carefully enfolded her in a hug to respond.
“I'm stronger than I appear to be, dear. I won't break from a hug.” Nikki chuckled, then gave him a careful look. “Would you object to me calling you Jack?”
I would treasure that. Razorback signed and knew she caught the emotions behind the gestures.
“Okay.” Nikki nodded. “Whenever you need me, just call. I'll be there as soon as I can. And I'm giving you the means to do that now.”
Razor felt something settle into his mind, and knew that it was a direct link to the disturbingly lovely, but understanding girl walking with him. He nodded in answer and gave her shoulder a pat.
“Just use that if you need to.” She told him. “I'll answer.”
I will. He signed then nodded to reinforce that.
“Okay, good enough.” The girl responded, then grew thoughtful. “If you know of people who can help us with this fight, please send them to me or bring them along the next time we go into the forest, would you?”
Thinking of Jericho with his visual blindness but ability to see things others didn't, he nodded.
“Good, I'll be recruiting, too.” Nikki told him. “This is something that is going to take a lot of us to handle, you know.”
Razor only nodded.
The thought that they and whoever they recruited couldn't handle the present difficulty never entered his mind.
Sam had just about given up on the waiting and was readying herself for another try at getting into the forest when two figures emerged from its edge and calmly walked towards her.
Now that's a unlikely pair. Sam thought in some surprise as Nikki Reilly and Razorback walked easily towards her. The pair were obviously friendly and having what looked to be a rather lively discussion.
“Oh, hi Sam.” Nikki greeted the young woman with a grin and wave, then gestured to her reptilian companion. “Have you met Razorback?”
“I haven't had that pleasure as of yet.” Sam replied while shifting her scrutiny from one kid to the other.
Razorback signed with something that she swore was a smirk on his scaly snout.
Laughing, she nodded. “Yes, I have heard about you, Razorback, and yes I can read your signs, so you'd better watch what you're saying there.”
“Razor, this is Samantha Everhart.” Nikki told the boy. “She's in security, but she's one of the good ones.
“Sam, Razorback here isn't really as bad as his reputation implies.” The girl added.
“I know.” Sam replied with a slow smile. “We all know he's trying, and that it isn't easy to control the kind of rage he has to deal with once he's been provoked. Glad to meet you Razorback.”
And I'm glad to meet you, Ms. Everhart. The boy signed back with a nod as he gingerly took the hand she offered and gave it a slow shake.
“So.” Nikki questioned with a mischievous twinkle in her violet eyes. “Checking up on me, Sam?”
“Well...” Sam shrugged then offered a rueful grin. “I did make a promise, after all.”
“Yeah, I know my Dad worries about me and asked you to watch out for me, Sam.” The girl grinned back. “I don't mind, it keeps daddy happy and from worrying about his 'little girl' too much. I hope.”
“Yes.” Sam agreed, then fixed the pair with a practiced glower. “What exactly was going on in there? I heard screams, roars, and fighting.”
“Oh, just some rowdy weres.” Nikki shook her head like an adult talking about children getting into trouble. “No big deal, we just swatted their noses and they quit.”
Bad Doggies! Razor signed with a grin that revealed more sharply pointed teeth than a civilized grin should ever possess.
Sam closed her eyes a moment and shook her head. “Hey, you two. I'm nowhere near so young as I look and I've been around. I know an evasion when I hear it and see it happening. Now truth here. What happened in there?”
“We had a disagreement with some weres.” Nikki answered quietly. “Then taught them that neither one of us was really someone to pick on without a lot of careful thought on their parts.”
“Well, that sounds more truthful.” Sam let out a sigh. “But you still aren't telling me all of it, I know that.”
“Sam.” Nikki let out a long sigh of her own and gave the woman a look that was so weary it almost hurt to see it. “Please just accept that there are things Razor and I can handle, and do, that you can't. Even with your own considerable abilities. Can you do that?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“There are always choices.” The girl replied softly as her eyes took on a look that wasn't only very adult but positively ancient. “But the consequences of making some are harder to bear than holding the curiosity about some things in check when it should be. Giving in to that curiosity in this case would have some very real and seriously BAD effects in your case. Believe me on that one. It's a possibility I'd rather not see happen. For your sake.”
A little shaken by the absolute certainty in the girl's voice, expression, and stance, Sam inclined her head slightly. “I take it I'm speaking with Aunghadhail now?”
“You are.” The girl responded with a quirk of her mouth that could be taken as either a smile or a sneer. “Simply let it rest, Samantha Everhart. This is a matter for the Sidhe, the Grove's chosen guardians, and the were tribes living in the area. I have no control over who the Grove chooses, and sadly, even with your considerable abilities, it has not chosen you. I will do all in my power to see that neither the child I am part of, nor any of the children or staff at this so remarkable school come to harm. You have my word on it, by my Name.”
“And that's supposed to make me feel better about whatever is going on in there?”
“I have pledged my very soul in this, Samantha Everhart.” The ancient being softly answered. “Is that not enough for even you? I will not willingly or easily allow lasting harm to befall any but our adversaries in this. Forcing yourself into this will only bring needless harm to you. Be wise. Trust this child you watch over if not me. I know how galling not being able to protect her must be to you. But take heart. It is her enemies who require the protection, not her. She is learning, and doing so very well. She is my power, quite literally, and I would not risk her life carelessly.”
“All right.” Sam glared at the being the girl had so disconcertingly become. “But if Nikki comes to harm in all this, you'll answer to me.”
“As I have pledged.” Aunghadhail nodded curtly.
An understanding passed between the two at that moment, from warrior to warrior, defender to defender. Sam nodded then held out a hand. “All right. I'll accept that. Your hand on it.”
“Such barbaric customs your kind still cling to.” Aunghadhail smiled, but took the offered hand and gripped it strongly. “My hand on it, Samantha Everhart.”
Nikki walked into Hawthorne without the least worry, and gave the kids she passed in that dorm smiles and friendly waves. The smiles and waves were returned. Since her first time in detention, she had kept coming back to talk, help, and just be a friendly face for the kids that most of the school ostracized.
“Hi Louis.” She greeted as a rather dapper renaissance gentleman appeared out of nowhere in front of her. Fubar enjoyed his little jokes, and she wasn't going to ruin it for him.
“Nikki.” The figure performed a graceful, formal bow and grinned at her. “And what can I do for milady elf today?”
“Got any idea of where her door is today?” Nikki questioned with a chuckle. The person she was looking for had a door into her quarters that habitually moved from place to place and asking someone with Fubar's mental talents made finding it that much easier. Providing he was in the mood to answer and not watch the questioner search the entire dorm for the thing.
“In the basement, milady.” Fubar answered with another courtly bow. “Right beside my tank, actually. If you hurry, you might be able to catch it before it decides to move again.”
“I'll do that, Louis, thanks.” Nikki sketched an equally formal curtsy though she was wearing jeans, much to Fubar's delighted amusement.
“I'll have to find another game to play with you, dear.” He laughed. “You are getting much too practiced with this courtly Shakespearian approach.”
“Aww, and I was getting used to this one.”
“Precisely my point, dear lady.” The courtly figure saluted her with his rapier.
“Just don't try that Zombie thing again, please!” She rolled her eyes. “That one left a nasty smell in my nose for hours!"
“I pride myself on no replays of things I've already used.”
“Come up with a nastier one and I swear I'll throw up on you. The real you, not the projected image.”
Simply more protein for me, my dear.” Fubar laughed. “I am a non discriminatory eater, after all.”
“You and Jimmy T.” Nikki grimaced then chuckled as she entered the chamber that held Fubar's tank and thumbed her nose at the Cthulu-like being floating in it. “Looking good today, Fuub.”
“Thanks.” Fubar answered with real warmth in his projected voice. Nikki Reilly was one of the few not confined to Hawthorne who not only visited willingly, but was always ready to work out some way to help the GSD kids living there.
“Ahh, there's that elusive door!” She crowed, grasping the latch before it could get away. “Thanks Fuub. Let me know which kid in here really needs a friend, or a solution to a problem I can work on or fix.”
“As if you don't do that, anyway.” Fubar answered quietly. “But I'll let you know if someone is really in trouble and could benefit from your assistance.”
“Good enough.” Nikki nodded, then asked. “Is she in?”
“Thanks for the help.”
Nikki did knock on the door before opening it a crack. "Sara? Are you taking visitors right now?"
"Sure, Nikki, Louis told me you were here." Sara answered from the general darkness at one end of the heavily warded room. "Come on in."
"I'm letting my eyes adjust to the light." Or lack of it, Nikki thought to herself with a little chuckle.
"Oh, hang on a sec." The Daemon sex goddess answered, and lights flared along the walls revealing her lounging back on the bed with an almost predatory anticipation. "Here for another go round?"
"Not today, thanks." Nikki responded quietly. "I have some things I'd like for you to look at, and give me an opinion about."
"Okay." Sara gave the other girl a long, careful looking over. "You reek of Old Ones, or their minions. What gives? Going out on me are you?"
"Hardly." Nikki actually chuckled. "Not with any of your relatives, anyway. No, these are blood -- or ichor, and tissue samples from some very strange creatures I encountered in the forest. I'd like for you to tell me what you can about them."
Once she had handed a pair of vials filled with some rather noisesome stuff to Sara, the elf girl stepped back to watch what she would do with them, then how she would react once she'd tested them.
"Do you need to keep these?" Sara questioned.
"No, I have more for the labs if they're needed.
"Okay, just checking." Sara unstopped the vials and poured the contents of first one, then the other into orifices that opened in her arms. That those looked disturbingly like sharp toothed little mouths waiting to be fed was something Nikki had actually, almost, gotten used to.
"You're turning green there." Sara observed with amusement.
"It's the light." Nikki countered with a crooked little smirk.
"Right." Sara nodded with a smirk of her own, then got a thoughtful expression on her face. "Interesting. I taste traces of were, human and Old Ones in these. What were they?"
"Weres corrupted physically and mentally by some kind of essence from The Great Old Ones." Nikki answered tiredly.
"You're sure?" Sara waved the question off and nodded. "But that's..."
"Not possible?" The young Sidhe finished with a shake of her head. "Weres were created in the first place to be inimical to anything to do with The GOOs?"
"Tell me about it." The elf girl grimaced. "But there have been changes, the weres have evolved since they were created. Case in point, you and that young idiot who bit you, the one you're supposed to marry? That bite should have killed either you or him, but it didn't. So it is not only possible, it's been done. And the results of that are laying siege to the were tribes all across the country."
"Who's doing it?" Sara questioned with a frown. "These things taste of lust for death, which I can't abide."
"In your dealings with the local weres have you ever heard of someone or something known as the Bastard?"
"Vaguely, maybe." The daemon princess answered, the shrugged. "But it never really came up when I was around other than in a few rather oblique references off to the side of any conversation I've had."
"Well, he, she, or it is the major problem here." Nikki answered. "The Bastard is some kind of hybrid of Great Old One's minion and were. His main base of operations is out on the west coast somewhere, but he and his 'troops' have actually driven several were tribes out of their ancestral lands. Now some of them have shown up right here next door to Whateley."
"Today." Nikki confirmed grimly.
"Did they attack the local weres?"
"No, I have good reason to believe they were sent to kill me."
"Shit." Sara breathed. "You're sure of that?"
"Sure enough." The Sidhe Queen nodded with a frown. "Three of them were in place to intercept me on my way back here from visiting the weres."
"Where are those now, or their bodies I should say." Sara gave her blood sister a long, penetrating look. "I know if you're here, they couldn't have survived the attempt."
"The didn't." The other nodded. "But I had some help fighting them. One of the weres, Ben, was following me, just in case, and another Whateley kid found them before they could spring their ambush."
"The new and improved velociraptor? From Hawthorne?"
"That's him." Nikki confirmed with a small smile. "He was actually holding his own against two of them when Ben and I reached the fight. He felt them in the forest, found them, and attacked."
"Two of them?" Sara lifted an eyebrow. "You said there were three, didn't you?"
"Yeah, the third one was waiting to ambush me. Evidently the suckers were arrogant enough to believe they could take anything around here. Ben, Razorback and I taught them the error of that thinking."
"Where are the bodies?"
"I destroyed them." Nikki said with a shudder. "Even dead they were defiling the woods. I took the samples, then dissolved them. Well, from two of them. The other I dissolved when it attacked me."
"Probably just as well." Sara nodded carefully then gave her visitor a thorough, if quick looking over. "Are you and Razorback okay? And Ben?"
"Yes." The elf girl nodded with a long sigh. "These things have some kind of venom that will eventually transform anyone infected with it into something like themselves, but the good news is that I can cure that. They also have a nasty habit of leaving bits of claw in wounds, which makes the transformation that much faster and a lot more painful."
"Damn. Have any of these things been captured?"
"Not according to the information I have so far." Nikki's flame red hair rippled as she shook her head. "Evidently they either achieve their objective, kill everyone in the target area, drive them away, or die. There doesn't seem to be any kind of middle ground with them. It's win or die. Simple as that."
Sara spat a few curses no teen aged girl would be expected to make use of, in more than one language. "This needs taking care of. Can you feel these things when they appear?"
"Probably. Now." Nikki nodded. "I'm pretty well attuned to the forest and the Grove, so if the nasties show up again, chances are pretty good that I'd know it, though that isn't proven as of yet. I did feel a wrongness most of the afternoon before the ambush they'd set got blown, though."
"I guess we'll just have to take that and do what we can with it." Sara let out a sigh of her own. "I'm really glad that you, Razorback, and Ben came through that okay."
"So are we." Nikki snorted, then got a distant look in her eyes. "Aunghadhail says that Razorback is the Grove's mortal guardian, created to kill these creatures. He did sense their presence, and killed one of them, and would probably have done so to the other one on him if Ben hadn't taken it's head off. Gods, poor Jack, put through the kind of Hell he endures every day for that."
"You and I both know that Chou Lee and her Taoist spoutings are more true than many credit." Sara slowly answered as she moved forward to place a comforting hand on the other girl's shoulder. "Nothing happens without reason, and if you ask me, the reason that Razorback, Jack, was put through his own personal Hell is to help fight off a much more indiscriminate type of Hell."
"Much as I hate it." Nikki set a hand on the one Sara had rested on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "I think you're probably right. He is the Grove's designated Champion, I do know that much. The spirit was very friendly, even grateful to him when we went to visit it after the fight."
"You know," Sara mused. "This corrupted weres thing might just be at least one of the reasons so many really powerful and or skilled mutants have shown up at Whateley recently, to follow that Taoist reasoning."
"What, you think that a bunch of kids are supposed to be the force that keeps these things from spreading out and contaminating the world?"
"Maybe." Sara nodded, then grew thoughtful before she went on. "I also think, if that's so, that this is a preliminary kind of test for those of us that will be fighting the Great Old Ones and their minions. To see if we're up to the task, and to train us for the real battles to come."
"Us?" Nikki tilted her head and grinned, then her expression turned very serious. "And trust me, this feels plenty real to me."
"I celebrate life, joy and bridging differences, Nikki." Sara answered. "You know that well enough. The kind of thing you just showed me glories in death and pain, while trying to divide the forces that could be arrayed against them. Of course it's US. I couldn't, wouldn't allow you and others to face this thing without my being there. Besides, I have my own ties to the weres now, and not just because of 'that young idiot' who bit me."
"Glad to hear it." Nikki actually smiled, and gave the other girl a hug. "Preliminary or not, test or otherwise, this thing with the Bastard and his corrupted minions is something I'd really rather have friends helping me to fight."
"You aren't alone, hon." Sara assured her while returning the hug. "Who else are you going to try getting into this mess?"
"It is a damned mess, isn't it?" The elf girl shook her head and actually laughed. "Oh, Chou for one. Maybe Tennyo. Hank. Some of the Outcasts and maybe some of the Grunts."
"No teachers or admin people?"
"Come on, Sara." Nikki chided. "You know what would happen if Carson or Delarose found out about this. They'd call in 'The Authorities' and things would get screwed up worse than even the most devout pessimist would believe possible."
"True, and we would be forbidden to help."
"Worse, we'd be carefully watched to make sure we didn't put ourselves into harm's way."
"Good point." Sara nodded. "You actually think some of the kids here at Whateley are up to this?"
"I am, you are, Razor is." Nikki answered simply. "We're young, okay in your case only physically, but we are the best hope for everyone on this one."
"I agree." Sara kissed her companion lightly on the cheek. "But admin and security are going to get wind of all this, you know."
"They already have." Nikki shrugged, smiled, and returned the kiss. "Samantha Everhart was waiting when Razor and I came out of the woods. But if we're careful with this, do it in shifts that don't have us skipping too many classes, I think we can keep the 'adults' from interfering too much."
Backing away from the other girl, Nikki gave her a halfway playful slap. "And keep that tentacle out of there!"
"Can't blame me for trying, can you?" Sara grinned.
"What the Hell, have you been doing, Jack?" Jericho questioned when he found Razorback resting in the dorm. "You smell of blood, and things that aren't quite blood."
I was in the forest, like I do to relax. Razor signed. And found something nasty, as well as a new friend.
"Nasty and a friend?" Jericho asked raising his eyebrows and waggling them in his Groucho Marx imitation.
She could be if she doesn't like you. Razor answered with what passed for a chuckle for him. But she likes me.
"What's not to like?" Jericho grinned. "Temper, rage, claws, teeth, a really devastating approach with your tail... She?
Yes, SHE. Razor responded with a toothy grin. I will add that she was more than a little impressed with my more subtle attributes.
"You? Subtle? Jericho shook his head and muttered. "Wonders never cease, do they?"
She understood me without knowing sign. The reptilian boy answered with something close to reverence in his gestures. I like her.
"I can tell." Jericho answered, puzzled and trying to think of just who such a girl might be. "Is this romantic?"
Probably not. But I like her.
"Who is she?"
You'd never believe it unless you see it.
"So, okay." Jericho nodded with a quirk to his mouth that promised mayhem for the mysterious she if Razor got hurt over this. "Do I get to meet this paragon of feminine pulchritude?"
I'll take you to meet her. Razor signed with another grin. But you'll have to do the talking.
"I usually do." The paramount geek, according to himself, at Whateley responded. "At least with people who don't understand your signing.
Oh. Razor added as an almost afterthought. I need your help with something.
"You got it, buddy. You don't even have to ask." Jericho answered without hesitation. "But if it's to get this 'hot chick' in bed with with you I don't guarantee results."
Nothing like that. The reptilian boy actually sighed as he signed that. Something else, but I'll let her tell you about it.
"Why do I get the feeling I'm being led into something I won't like here?"
Because you're my friend? Razor asked with a toothy smirk.
"You know." Jericho went on. "Friends help friends bury the bodies all the time. Is this like that?."
It's important, really.
"I didn't say I wouldn't." The blind boy grumped. "But this worries me."
"That worries me even more."
I'll let her explain it. Razorback answered as he gently -- for him -- patted his friend's shoulder. We really need you in this my friend.
Consciously refraining from groaning from the friendly pat, the devisor nodded dubiously. "Okay, and you know I would never leave you hanging, Jack."
I wouldn't blame you if did that this time.
After that more than disturbing comment, Razorback refused to say more, simply left the room expecting his friend to follow. Intrigued, and not inclined to abandon his friend in any case, Jericho followed.
Nikki searched through the stacks in the library for a book on sign language. It was tougher than she'd expected to find one that simply gave the signs and the translations. Putting one book back with a snort, she muttered. "I don't need to know about the development of the language, or how it impacted those who use it. I just want to learn the damned signs."
Eventually, she did locate a slim volume that contained what she was looking for. Only it was not the signs Razorback used. Cursing under her breath, she replaced the book and shook her head. "Well, if I found one, the stuff I need is here somewhere."
"Ah hah!" She crowed, then winced as the librarian glowered at her. "Sorry."
But she had what she'd been looking for, and took it to a quiet corner to go through.
The person Razor was looking for, Nikki Reilly of all people, wasn't at Poe when the pair went there and asked the house mother. Mrs. Horton gave them suspicious looks, then relented. "I think she went to the library to do some research. Your best chance of finding her there would be either some secluded corner or the restricted section on the arcane."
"Thanks." Mrs. Horton. "Jericho answered with a grimace. "Though I don't think either one of us could get near that restricted section. Let alone just walk into it."
"Then just wait at the door for her to come out, if you really want to talk with her so badly." The house mother chuckled. "I'll call ahead to let the staff there know that you're coming and who it is you want to find. Maybe they can help you once you arrive."
That would be good, thank you. Razorback signed.
"No problem, dear." Mrs. Horton smiled at him. "Ms. Reilly tends to handle surprises rather drastically lately."
I know. Razor actually grinned and the woman didn't flinch from his show of teeth. I've had a few more of those than I like recently, too. Thank you again. We appreciate the help.
Once they were outside Poe, Jericho shook his head. "Nikki Reilly, the HOT Nikki Reilly, the girl every guy on campus would give his soul 'to do' is your new friend?"
Yup. The nouveau velociraptor signed without so much as a smirk. Be nice to her. She's worth having as a friend.
"Razor m'lad." Jericho gave his friend a companionable slap on the back, being mindful of the spines and other sharp protrusions as he did so. "I've always respected you, but you've just gone up a couple of notches in my estimation. Nikki Reilly!"
Razor only shook his head and let out a hissing, put upon sigh in answer.
As they entered the library, Jericho zeroed in on the desk. "Hi, we're trying to find Nikki Reilly. Could you give us an idea of where in here she might be?"
"Yes." The clerk winced on seeing Jericho's choice of attire that day, then grinned. "Mrs. Horton called a few minutes ago to let us know you two were coming. I have to admit her descriptions didn't do your wardrobe justice, though."
"I'm blind." Jericho grinned. "Like I know anything about color coordination? Could you tell us where to find her, please?"
"She's studying in the northwest corner." The librarian answered with a sniff in response to the sartorially challenged boy's answer. "She's expecting you."
"Good, thanks." Jericho smiled. As they walked away from the desk, he asked Razor. "So what's wrong with my clothes today?"
I think it's the hot pink shirt with the day-glo lime green pants combo. Razorback let out the whistle that served as a chuckle for him. Though the glittery purple socks kind of help make that combination even more memorable.
"Then I achieved my goal." The boy stroked his dreadlocks with a grin.
I'd say so. Razor signed with a roll of his eyes.
"I didn't know you could see in color."
It's something I try to forget at times, like when I first see your picks for the day in clothing. Razor grinned.
"Hey, it's my signature, after all."
Very unique, too, I should add. The annoyance factor is very good, by the way.
"All according to plan, my friend."
Razor didn't respond to that one at all other than to let out a quick snort.
They found Nikki ensconced in a comfortable chair looking through a book. The girl was turning pages way to quickly for most people to consider what she was doing to be reading. But her eyes scanned each page as it was flipped over. Jericho shook his head. "Wow, that talent must make studying a real breeze."
The girl looked up as she heard that, and grinned. Then signed. Hi Razor. Do I have these right? Hi Jericho, nice outfit.
"Thanks." The boy preened a little then grinned. "Most people just try and avoid looking too closely."
Nikki chuckled. "Then they'd miss seeing the important things, wouldn't they?"
"You are entirely too perceptive to be comfortable." Jericho answered. "But yes, that's true enough. And your signing is perfect, by the way."
"Good." With a grin she closed the book and set it on a side table. "Then I don't need this any longer."
"How long have you been working on sign language?"
"Oh about ten minutes so far."
"Could I make an arrangement with you to do my homework?" He asked. "I'd pay good money."
"Nope, sorry." Nikki laughed. "It takes me as long as anyone else to write the stuff out no matter how fast I can assimilate the information."
Razor glanced around then asked. Are we private here?
"We can be." The redhead nodded, then gave Jericho a long, careful look. "I take it he's one of the allies you're trying to recruit?"
"Okay, this'll take a second or two. Have a seat and relax while I put up the privacy spell."
Her startling violet eyes narrowed slightly, and she performed some gestures with a delicate hand that involved more finger movement than Jericho was able to follow without getting a headache. "Okay. No one should be able to eavesdrop now. So what do you want me to tell him, Jack?"
All of it. The boy signed with a nervous rapidity that revealed his agitation regarding the whole subject. Jericho specializes in healing, and I think he'd be a great help with things.
Twenty minutes later, Jericho pursed his lips and let out a low whistle. "This is all on the level?"
Yes. Razor signed with a sigh of his own.
"The things were waiting for me." Nikki answered quietly, then shuddered. "Not that I think I'll be the only target here. The local weres are under siege right now, and those on the west coast have either pretty well vanished or migrated out of the path the Bastard's forces appear to be taking. I can say that looking at a map of his 'conquests' it's fairly obvious that he's aiming for here."
"Whateley, you mean?" Jericho raised an eyebrow. "This terrible monster is going after a bunch of high school kids?"
"So it seems." The girl nodded grimly. "Whateley isn't your usual gathering of normal kids, now is it? Some of the students here, like Jack, pose a real threat to the Bastard's minions and maybe even to him. Others are very likely to grow into more than potential threats, too. Also, the local were tribes are old. They can and do trace their lineage back to when the Sidhe actually ruled most of the western world. And remember those times, and the enemies they were created to fight."
"Who were created to fight what?"
"The weres." Nikki answered simply, then added. "They were specifically brought into being by the Sidhe to combat the Great Old Ones and their minions. And did it very well, too."
"Great Old Ones?" Jericho sat back. "Are you talking H. P. Lovecraft fiction that makes you scared to sit in a dark room after reading it here?"
"Lovecraft knew what he was talking about." The girl replied with a frown. "He had to disguise it all as fiction to even get it out into public view without being ridiculed and labeled as just another crank with end of the world syndrome."
"And this Bastard is one of those things?"
"Not one of the really bad ones, no." Nikki answered slowly. "He, she, it, whatever, is a minion of the truly powerful Old Ones. A minion intent on opening the gates that were sealed milenia ago at such terrible cost, so that the real masters can reach Earth again."
I believe her. Razor signed with more than a little emphasis in his gestures. The things I found in the forest weren't something that nature abides at all well. They were monstrosities beyond any description I can give you. It was more feeling than anything else, but they are something inimical to life in general, and glory in killing, blood lust, and destruction.
"But you can kill them." Jericho gave his companions a long look as if he was trying to not believe them.
"We can." Nikki added softly. "I think silver weapons of any kind will kill them, since they are part were. If the silver doesn't, it should weaken them enough for regular weapons to get rid of."
"You think?" Jericho gave her a long, worried look. “As in you don't know for sure?”
"I used magic to kill the one attacking me." She shrugged. "But I have it on pretty good authority that silver is still a bad thing for the creatures. The western were tribes actually got desperate enough to use silver against the things with more than a little success."
"Okay, I'll accept that, so far." Jericho nodded, but frowned. "So where, exactly, do I fit in all this?"
"You can take care of yourself, you're a brilliant devisor, and you specialize in being a medic, so to speak." Nikki said with a grin. "If I were to give you some samples of the venom these things use, I think you'd have a really good chance of finding a counter agent for it."
"This sounds more like something in Jobe's line."
"Maybe later." Nikki shook her head. "We're trying to keep the ones in the know here to a minimum right now so admin doesn't get wind of what we're doing. If you can't figure out a cure, then maybe we'll go with Jobe. The guy is kind of a sleaze, and has problems of his own just now, but he does honor bargains he makes. I just worry about what his help would end up costing."
"Good point." Jericho nodded then gave the elf girl an expectant look. "I take it you have some samples?"
"Right here." Nikki handed him four vials, tightly stoppered, sealed, and filled with something that made his skin crawl just looking at the contents. "Be careful with them."
"Oh, yeah." Jericho nodded with a grimace. "I can 'see' the nastiness in these. I need to get to my lab. Is there anything else you need to tell me right now?"
"Just that if you spill those vials, call the biohazard people right away, and stay well away from the spill. Or set the lab on fire with something like White Phosphorus."
"How comforting." He responded with a little sigh. "Okay, give me a few hours and I'll be in touch, all right?"
"Sure." Nikki nodded. "But don't take too much time. We don't have it to waste just now."
"Why does that sound ominous to me?" Jericho questioned.
Probably because it is? Razor asked.
"Yeah, that would be it, all right." Jericho agreed. "Okay I'll get back to you on this stuff later today or tomorrow morning at the latest. Best I can tell you just now."
"That will do." The redhead answered with a smile that nearly melted him even if his eyes couldn't see it, then turned sober. "It will have to."
Will you please stop hovering?" Jericho shot out to Razorback in irritation as he carefully filtered the contents of the vials through an analyzer of his own invention. "I need a little room to work here, after all."
Sorry, pal. Razor signed as he moved a bare two feet back. But this stuff is dangerous to handle. If some gets on you, I'll have to call Nikki fast.
"You can do that?" The devisor questioned as the last of the rather nasty fluids went into the analyzer. "Call her, I mean?"
She gave me the means to do that, yes.
"Should I be jealous?"
Probably. Razor smirked then shook his head. Convince her that you are up to this and I'm pretty sure she'll give you the way to do that, too.
"The ability to call Nikki Reilly on a whim..." Jericho sighed then shook his head. "I gather she'd take a dim view of that, though."
Just to have show up in your room? Razor gave the whistle that was his laugh. I'd pay good money to see that one. From a safe distance, that is.
"Got it." The other boy let out a pained sigh. "Only call her if it's important, and that doesn't include satisfying the usual male libido."
I always knew you were a bright boy. Razor smirked.
"Okay." Jericho checked the analyzer, then looked at Razor. "This will be working for a few hours. How about getting something to eat?"
Good idea. I've eaten, but could use more right now.
I have to stay at my peak efficiency, you know. Razor grinned. Besides, I'm hungry.
"Aren't you always?"
Saturday, December 2nd
Following a more thorough going over than any doctor had given him in years, Ben gave the woman a questioning look as she moved away to note something on her computer. "Well?"
Lydia Takamora shook her head and gave the faint scars on the bigger were's right arm another dubious looking over. "Those look like they've been healed for months instead of hours, and nothing shows any trace of abnormality in your blood at all."
"Satisfied?" Ben questioned Eloise, who was working hard not to hover while keeping to the other side of the kitchen table. "I told you, the girl healed me in seconds -- after she dug out that claw fragment."
Eloise moved to give her mate a tight hug as he shuddered at the memory, probably of the encounter since her man was typically stoic in the presence of others regarding pain. "Yes, I am now. You're certain these were some of the Bastard's minions?"
"Love, I talked at length with refugees from the west, and to our people who have ventured out there and made it back." The were bear nodded slowly with a grim expression on his face. "From their descriptions, and the unholy feel of the things, they couldn't have been anything else. They were pure monstrosities that would never have come from nature, or any sane place."
"All right, I believe you." Eloise let out a troubled sigh. "It's very disturbing to discover that they've reached our lands, even if the three you encountered were eliminated there might be more hiding in the forest."
"I'll set up patrols that cover more ground." Ben answered then shook his head. "But I don't think there are more of them around just now. Those three were in an ambush setup that got blown when another kid from Whateley found them and attacked."
"Ambush for Nikki Reilly, you've said that, yes." Eloise nodded. "What about this other Whateley kid? You really haven't described that one yet."
"A velociraptor, with human sensibilities and expression in his eyes is as close a description of him as I can get." Been answered. "With spines. And he is fast. I thought we weres had that up on almost everyone, but this kid moved like nothing I've seen before, and he tore into those things without a bit of fear. He was holding his own against two of them when the girl and I found them all."
"His name?" Eloise questioned with a little smile at her mates enthusiasm over the boy's fighting abilities.
"Razorback." Ben answered with a sheepish grin. "Guess I forgot to mention that, didn't I?"
"Understandable enough under the circumstances, dear."
"Yeah, oh one more thing. Could you help me pass the word that he's welcome here anytime he comes?"
"You extended that privilege to him?" Eloise lifted an eyebrow.
"Damned right I did." The big were nodded emphatically. "And anyone who won't accept that is going to answer to me personally."
"If this boy impressed you that much." The panther woman answered with a slow smile. "I don't think you'll have to worry about taking retribution on anyone fool enough to try something against this one."
"Probably not." Ben chuckled with a shake of his head. "Though it might save some idiot more grief than he or she ever wanted."
"Now about this venom." Takamora questioned. "Did you happen to get any samples of it, or tissues from the things?"
"Only this one." Ben shook his head with a frown as he gingerly handed a crystal vial that was sealed with more than glue to Takamora. "That stuff is dangerous so please be very careful with it. Nikki destroyed the bodies before I could get close to them, but took some samples herself and said she had friends who could examine it safely. No matter how good the facilities we have here are, the ones available at Whateley are probably far better."
"Sara Waite." Eloise nodded. "And there is likely more than one student or teacher there who could figure out the chemistry of the stuff. Okay, we'll wait on her for a while, but if we don't hear anything by Monday, I'm paying the girl a visit."
"Good enough for me." Ben answered.
Takamora nodded while carefully wrapping the vial in soft cloth. "I'll get this to our biohazard lab right away. Good as the labs at Whateley may be, most of them are run by kids. Our people are professionals."
Saturday December 2nd
Somewhere in California
The attack had failed. Catastrophically. The links he held with his assassins had winked out like candles in a high wind several hours earlier. The three weren't his best but they had been more than simply competent and were sent against one untried girl.
Their failure was disturbing, but nothing insurmountable in the long view. Something he had become very good at taking over the milennia of waiting since his original banishment from this plane of existence.
It was encouraging that his gate spell had penetrated into the very heart of the were's ancient lands and more raids were to come. A dagger aimed at the soul of another ancient enemy. A poisoned dagger.
He had time. Though impatience to subsume the peoples from one of the old enemies nearly consumed him, he knew there were others waiting. One such, the most hated of them all, had reappeared and avoided his first attempt to be rid of her. Next time he would be more careful in his planning, and make sure his minions would execute the plan correctly.
"Got it!" Jericho whooped as the analyzers spat out the fifth set of results from the parameters he'd programmed. "This stuff is really, really nasty, but I can work up an antidote in about half an hour now!"
That seems like a pretty short time for something even you call 'really, really nasty'. Razor answered but he did give the black boy a grin. Are you sure this antidote is going to work? Especially when it takes such a short time to work up?
"Not to worry, my friend." Jericho smirked. "The analyzer has worked out most of it already. All I need to do here is refine things a little and get some produced."
"We have to test it, of course." Jericho answered distractedly. "Against pieces of the culture I didn't use for analysis."
And this will take how long? Razor questioned.
"Oh, probably most of the night at least."
Razor didn't bother to answer that. He just found a relatively uncluttered corner, a blanket, something for a pillow, and started snoring.
"Thanks for your support." The black boy shook his head, then grinned. "But the confidence you show is encouraging."
Sunday, December 3rd 7:00 AM
Toni had been awake for over an hour, but stayed in bed as if she was asleep while watching the usual lump of blankets her roomie tended to become when sleeping. Something was up with her roommate, something strange, or stranger than usual when the redheaded Sidhe was concerned, and Toni was determined to discover what it was.
Nikki had been gone most of the day Saturday, then returned smelling faintly of blood, smoke, and other scents that actually threatened to turn Toni's stomach. The Sidhe girl had given her a quick hello, grabbed a towel and clean clothes then hurried to the showers before Toni could ask her anything. Then, maddeningly, had managed to disappear right after that until her return hours later to literally fall into her bed and burrow in for her characteristic night's sleep.
But today was going to be different. If the girl wasn't willing to tell her what was going on, Toni was determined to follow her all day to discover the truth for herself. Holding so still was difficult, especially when her usual morning energy surge hit, but she subsumed that by working some particularly difficult mental exercises with her Chi.
The subterfuge didn't work. Nikki groaned, then unwrapped herself from the usual tangle of sheets and blankets, sitting up with half the mess still wrapped around her. But her large, oddly slanted violet eyes were wide and alert instead of being their usual sleepy fogged over morning selves.
"You may as well get up." Nikki told her quietly. "Your Chi is glaring so much it would light up the room if it was still dark. Holding so still is probably driving you nuts, anyway."
"You are getting entirely too good at reading that kind of thing." Toni grumbled good naturedly as she threw her own blankets off and sat up.
"I also know you, roomie." Nikki chuckled. "Your curiosity was about to kill you yesterday, so today you've decided to find out what it was I got involved in. Right?"
"What?" Toni questioned with a broad grin. "You're reading minds now?"
"Nope, I just know you is all."
"I won't go there." Toni muttered, then gave her roomie a long, penetrating look. "This all has something to do with that nightmare you had Friday night, doesn't it? You were in the woods most of the day yesterday, then managed to pull a disappearing act once you got back."
"Yes." The redhead ran a hand through her tangled hair and grimaced, then managed to untangle herself from the bedding enough to stand and stretch. "But it isn't something I really want to drag friends into if they don't absolutely have to be involved."
"Friends are involved." Toni countered with an exasperated sigh. "Girl, I've been here for you through everything so far. Don't shut me out now when it's obvious that you're into something really messed up."
"This is different." Nikki countered with a frown. "I'm sorry, it's not some schoolyard prank, or a shopping trip gone bad. You could lose your soul on this one, believe me when I say that."
"Like the Necromancer, his badness, wouldn't have done that to us?" The black girl countered. "Come on now, girl friend. Tell Toni what it is."
"If I don't?"
"Then I'll be forced to take drastic measures."
"Meaning." Nikki grinned and shook her head. "That you'll try to skulk around behind me all day?"
"I don't skulk." Toni sniffed. "I track, and follow."
"Right." Nikki chuckled. "Okay, let's get showered, dressed, and get something to eat. I'll work on filling you in while we do that."
"No disappearing acts today?" The black girl gave her roomie a suspicious look.
"No. I promise, my word on it, by my True Name." Nikki answered without expression.
"Your true name?" Toni gave her a puzzled look. "That's important, huh?"
"For a Sidhe, very." Nikki nodded soberly.
"What is it?"
"What is what?"
"Your true name."
"That." Nikki laughed and shook a finger at Toni then turned serious. "Would be telling. True names are secret. For a reason. Know something or someone's true name and you have absolute power over it. The Sidhe swear by their true names like a catholic priest would swear by the Name of God. It holds that much power over us."
"Yeah? I knew that, already. Been reading some of your less weird books, you know."
"I know you have." Nikki grinned. "It broadens your education."
"I'm not touching that one."
"Good choice." Nikki answered, gathering a clean towel, jeans, underwear, a sweater, heavy socks and her hiking boots. "If you're coming with me, get with it."
"Wow." Toni watched the other girl leave the room then rushed to get herself some things that matched what Nikki had taken. "This must be something really important. You usually forget your towel in the morning."
Razorback woke up to see Jericho staring at several vials of reddish fluid and nodding. The devisor turned as the the other moved and grinned while holding the vials out with a triumphant grin. “I have the antidote!”
How reliable is it? Razor questioned. The stuff it's supposed to fight is really nasty.
“Passed every test I ran.” Jericho answered smugly. “This stuff eats that poison like a starving man at an all you can eat buffet.”
Good enough. Razor nodded. Let's get hold of Nikki with the news, and how much of the stuff can you make?
“Oh, as much as is needed.” The black boy shrugged his dreadlocks off his shoulders. “I have the formula and my equipment is working on more now.”
But? Razor tilted his head in question then snorted. I do see a 'but' in there.
“I need to find something for emergencies, when I've dealt out what I have and still need to get rid of more poison.”
I'm sure you'll figure it out.
“Got a few ideas already.” Jericho nodded.
“Say what?” Toni shook her head, then literally peered at her roommate for a few seconds once Nikki had told her what was going on.
“You obviously heard me the first time.” Nikki shrugged as she munched on a stalk of celery. “What part didn't you understand?”
“I don't understand how you call that kind of stuff breakfast!” Toni countered while giving the plate of raw vegetables and fruits her friend was consuming a wary look. “Okay, the fruit, maybe. But C'mon here! Carrots for breakfast?”
“I'm a vegetarian. You know that.” Nikki wrinkled her nose while looking at the ham, bacon, and sausage on Toni's plate. “I don't make a big deal out of it, but just the thought of eating meat disgusts me these days. It isn't bad if others do so, I just can't make myself do it anymore. But that isn't the thing here. What about the story I just told you can't you get your head around here?”
“Nothing, I guess.” Toni answered with a sigh. “Let me get this straight. Great Old Ones, Weres, combination of the two... Nasty, and they seem to be out to get you personally. Have I got that much right?”
“Yup.” Nikki nodded as she selected a plum from her plate and delicately bit into the fruit. “That pretty well covers things, except that these things are also going for the local weres and seem to be aimed a Whateley.”
“So who is involved with this so far?” Toni raised an eyebrow. “Besides you, me, and the weres around here?”
“Razorback, Jericho, and that 's about it so far.”
“Great.” Toni nodded. “A lizard, a blind kid, a mage that has trouble controlling her power, and me. We got 'em, Nikki!”
“No we don't.” The other girl countered with a grimace. “And I know your were being sarcastic there. But Razor really tears these things up. I found a way to kind of dissolve them, Jericho is working on an antidote for their venom, and you're just crazy enough to fight them without letting their outsider aspect boggle you. But we need more people. I was thinking of Chou, and maybe Tennyo. Any other ideas?”
“Tennyo?” Toni shook her head. “Bad idea if she gets a taste for these things. Because we both know she could level the whole area they come from if it comes to that, we won't be able to control her, or hold her back. Let's keep her in mind for a real emergency, okay?”
“Good point.” Nikki nodded. “What about Chou?”
“If The Tao will let her help, that's fine.” The black girl agreed. “Destiny's Wave would wade through those things like nothing they've ever seen, I think.”
“That Mithril bracelet of your's would, too.”
“Oh, yeah.” Toni grinned. “That new sword of yours, whatever you call it, would too, I think.”
“Malachim's Feather.” Nikki answered with a little grin. “And don't insult it, it's a scimitar, not a sword.”
“Whatever.” Toni shrugged. “It's made of mithril and adamantite, right?”
“So it'll be a major screw up for these nasties, won't it?”
“I hope so.”
“ Hey! The thing cuts through steel, concrete, and anything else it decides to doesn't it? You know better than to just hope.”
It was early, especially for a Sunday morning, and the dining area in Crystal Hall was empty enough to seem cavernous when Razorback and Jericho arrived for breakfast.
Razor spotted a head of flame red hair, with the attached girl speaking to a slender black girl with some animation. Jericho nudged him. “There she is. I need to tell her about what I found out.”
There are other Kimbas at the table. Razor shook his head. We need to get her in private.
“So we ask her to meet us later.” The black boy shrugged.
Okay. The other boy signed with an audible sigh and the pair moved towards the table that was usually the territory of Team Kimba and their friends.
“Heads up.” Toni told Nikki as she watched something over the other girl's shoulder. “Your new buddies are headed this way.”
“Well don't say anything to them about what we were just talking about here.” Nikki answered quietly with a glance towards Jade and Tennyo, along with Ayla. The other three were involved with breakfast and their own conversation at the moment, but there was no sense in giving any of them something to wonder about other than two of the group widely known as the Outcasts approaching their table.
Jericho cleared his throat quietly and announced. “Umm, Nikki. I have something to show you on that class project you asked me about yesterday.”
Nikki turned away from the table, noting that the boy was in the same sartorial nightmare he'd been wearing yesterday, and smiled. “Really? Great! When can I talk with you about it?”
“Anytime.” Jericho answered with a grin that showed he really had found something worth telling.
“Okay.” Nikki nodded. “I'm almost finished here, have you guys had your breakfast yet?”
“No, I wanted to let you know about this first.” The devisor told her with an expression that any geek boy might have while trying to impress one of the really gorgeous girls in school.
“Razorback forgoes eating to give you moral support to tell me this?” Nikki chuckled with a wink to Razorback. “It must be good. Okay, if I can't join you at your table in a bit, meet me in the commons outside once you two are finished. How's that?”
Razor grinned back at the elf girl and returned the wink, though only someone who knew him would recognize the lazy flicker of an eyelid for what it was.
“Nice to see you, Jack.” Nikki gave him a warm smile, then waved to the serving line. “I know you have to be feeling your stomach working on your backbone at this time of the morning. Go get breakfast before you fall into two pieces here.”
I like the way you approach things. Razorback chuckled as he grabbed his belly in a mime of stopping it from going for his backbone. Practicalities first, then the fun stuff.
“I'll talk to you two later.” Nikki nodded while making little shooing gestures towards the serving line. “Go on, get yourselves around some food right now. Our project can wait that long, guys.”
“Talk with you later then.” Jericho nodded with a wide grin threatening to become a yawn from his night without sleep.
“See you.” Nikki lit up the hall with her smile again.
Chou had arrived in time to see Nikki talking with two very unlikely people for one of the most beautiful girls in school to be hanging with. The elven mage even appeared to be glad to see the pair of Outcasts. Jericho, wearing his usual horrible clash of colors and Razorback said their goodbyes then moved to the serving line.
Put together with the nightmare the girl had experienced on the previous Friday night, and her missing their morning exercises two days in a row, plus going into the part of the forest Whateley students were specifically warned not to enter, The Handmaiden part of her knew something was going on.
She determined to at least follow her friend and make sure it was something the deceptively fragile appearing beauty was capable of handling.
Nikki and the black martial arts whiz Chaka were sitting on a wooden bench in the commons set between Crystal Hall and the rest of the major campus buildings, still involved in what appeared to be a very animated discussion.
The boys hesitated, but Nikki's large violet eyes found them and the girl signed. It's okay, Toni knows. Come on over and talk. Privacy screen is UP.
Razor vented a sigh and chuckle together and signed back. Figures. Didn't think we could keep your friends out of this one.
“Neither did I.” Nikki answered aloud as the two boys joined them. “I should have known the first one to get in on things would be my roommate. Toni, let me introduce Jericho, and Jack.”
The black girl looked them over with a visible wince at Jericho's clothing, which was something the worse for having been worn the previous day and all night, then grinned at Razorback. “Hi guys.”
“How much does she know?” Jericho questioned after he smirked at the black girl's reaction to his outfit.
“All of it.” Nikki answered with a sigh. “So I take it you've found some things out about those samples I gave you last night?”
“Oh, yeah.” Jericho grinned at Chaka, or Toni to see what her reaction would be. The girl returned the grin and he decided that he may have met another person who could see past his carefully constructed 'bumbling blind kid' facade. “Lots.”
“You're going to share this?” Nikki prompted, pulling his attention from the slender and very pretty black girl.
“Well, that venom you gave me works like a really powerful retrovirus.” Jericho nodded. “That's something that gets into a body and actually attaches itself to the DNA to make changes...”
“All of us here understand how a retrovirus works.” Nikki interrupted him. “Just skip to the part about what it does please.”
“Exemplars.” The black boy blinked his white eyes once as he shook his head. “Always take the fun out of explaining discoveries, but okay. What this particular 'virus' does is to warp the DNA of the person it gets into. Into what I don't know because I've never seen anything like it. The end result is pure chaos genetically. It could end up as a combination of any living creature on earth, and some things the database I use can't identify.”
“The Great Old Ones.” Toni responded with a nod. “No current database on Earth has much of anything on them.”
“Whatever.” Jericho shrugged, still boggled at the idea that such things really existed outside of some really twisted stories. “But the medical one I use is the best there is. So the upshot here is that this venom is major bad news, can affect anything, anything at all it gets into, and may well be fatal to regular humans. It's really nasty.”
“Okay, that fits with some other input I've had on the stuff.” Nikki nodded. “ But is that all you've found?”
“Oh. no.” The devisor gave them a wide grin. “I found a cure. Or at least an antidote for the venom.”
“A cure for it?” Toni gave him a look that held more than a little respect, which for some reason made Jericho feel very, very good.
“Well, almost.” He amended. “If I can catch a victim soon enough the antidote will kill the virus and help the person's body repair the damage already done.”
“How soon?” Nikki questioned.
“That's the kicker.” Jericho answered with a heavy sigh. “I don't know. Without field tests there's no way to tell if that window is minutes, hours, or days. I was working with the virus in conditions that were less than optimal for it in this research. But signs of the antidote working should show up within minutes of administering it. Personally, I'd go with the hours thing. The stuff is fast, but not impossibly fast.”
“A window of hours isn't impossibly fast with something this dangerous.” Nikki nodded with a sigh. “So this venom could possibly corrupt someone within twenty four hours?”
“That would depend on the victim's system.” Actually tugging at his dreadlocks, something he did when in deep thought or extreme agitation, Jericho had to shrug. “The stronger, and healthier the body, the longer it would take. Like with any other virus.”
“Okay.” Nikki answered as if she'd made a decision and her tone held more than a little command presence. “So how much of this antidote have you got now, and how much could you work up in the next few days?”
“Best case on presently available supplies.” The devisor answered. “Twenty doses. If the virus in a live host is stronger, which I suspect, I've got maybe ten. But I have my production facilities synthesizing more already. How much that will produce, I can't say as of yet, it's a difficult molecular chain to work with. I'll have a better idea in a day or so.”
“All right. Are you up to a hike right now?” Nikki asked him, then added. “Through the forest, and for more than five miles?”
“Oh, sure.” Jericho chuckled. “I've done without sleep a lot of nights.”
“Okay. I want you to meet something, and then the were tribe that lives next door to us here.”
“Don't worry about it.” The girl assured him with a grin. “If you're fighting these things, it won't give you any trouble.”
It likes me. Razorback added with what appeared to be an almost reverent expression on his scaly face.
“Okay. But now I'm really worried.”
“Oh, I haven't met it either.” Toni put in with her usual abundance of energy and confidence. “But Nikki has told me about the place. It won't kill you, Jer. Even if it doesn't like you. You're on our side in this fight. Right, Nikki?”
“Don't call me Jer, please. I hate that. Sounds like Jerry, or someone being a sidekick to some cheesy talk show host.” Jericho answered as the elf girl nodded in agreement to the other girl's statement. “Neither of which I'm too fond of.”
“So what should I call you, White Eyes.” Toni asked with a grin as she bounced. “God! I've always wanted to say that!”
“Call me Jericho.” The boy replied, thinking it was going to be a really long day.
Jericho, who had insisted on changing into his special EMT gear before leaving, eyed the surrounding forest warily. Razor and Nikki were clearly comfortable as they moved along pathways so vague he was never quite certain if he was going to walk into a tree, a thorn bush, or what. Unless his attention remained fixed on that pair so easily walking through what he perceived to be a hopeless tangle. Chaka almost danced while walking, while giving everything they passed, even if it was only trees, looks that showed she was memorizing a trail he couldn't even see.
“Wow.” The black girl breathed when she slowed down enough to be able to do that in his estimation. “This place is sooo kewl!”
“Whatever you say, Toni.” He winced as a wayward vine wrapped around his ankle in a way he was almost sure was maliciously teasing. “I prefer a nice park with grass and shrubs, to be honest.”
The vine gave his ankle a yank as he said that, and the boy almost swore he could hear a nasty giggle somewhere in the vicinity.
“Be nice!” Nikki commanded almost like a mother would scold an overactive, mischievous child.
At least the feeling of being deliberately impeded went away once she'd said that.
Toni looked around the small clearing surrounded by trees that could only be described as huge and ancient with a reverent expression on her face. “This place is powerful, isn't it?”
Jericho eyed the huge trees and the suspiciously clear area in the center of a ring of those with an uneasiness he couldn't define other than he wasn't comfortable there.
Conscious of an intelligence that was far older, and larger, than anything he'd ever conceived of watching him the boy nearly jumped high enough to reach the lower limbs of the massive tress with a powerful, but oddly gentle voice filled his mind. So, you have a cure for this new plague?
“Well, an antidote.” Jericho answered slowly then added. “If I can catch the victims soon enough.”
Then pass freely here. The voice responded before going silent as the heavy, ancient presence left his mind. Though he had the feeling that the woods would still play with him. He was just glad the intelligence in this place had given him that much approval.
Welcome Dragon Mistress. A powerful voice filled with an ancient presence Toni had noticed when Aunghadhail spoke through Nikki filled her mind.
“Dragon mistress?” The black girl questioned. “The only Dragons I know are obnoxious asses. I wouldn't want to rule the butt heads.”
As is the one you will meet and master. The voice actually chuckled in her mind. It will come in time, so do not worry about it now. You have other things to concern you. The Queen thinks highly of you, Mistress of the Chi.
You speak of her in familiar terms, but yes that is the one I refer to.
“Okay.” Toni nodded as the presence withdrew from her mind. “Now I know this is real, weird, but real.”
Welcome back Our Champion. The voice filled Razorbacks mind with warmth and a true feeling of being welcome. It said nothing more than that, but he continued to feel it's presence for a few more minutes.
These two will do. The Grove told Nikki simply. The healer is of a type that is rarely welcome in this place, but he is genuinely concerned for all things living.
“Yes, Jericho is different.” The girl answered softly. “I'm learning a lot of new things about people lately. “He won't bring conscious harm to anything that belongs here.
As we are aware, my Queen. It is good that you find allies in this reopening of the ancient conflict. The Chi Mistress is uncommonly powerful for one of her kind and should stand well with you in the times to come. Though she refers to you with a familiarity that borders on insolence.
“Oh, that's just the way Toni, or Chaka is.” Nikki answered with a sigh. “She's a good friend, and her bounciness and irreverent attitude tend to hide the true depth of her spirit.
As we have seen, O Queen. Came the answer through the sighing of wind in the branches around them.
“Is there anything else?”
One more will be present momentarily. This one followed your group and we allowed it.
“ We were followed?” Turning back to watch the way they'd come from, Nikki frowned. “I wasn't aware of that, and I usually am these days. That bothers me.”
This one is highly skilled, with help of her own that we understand all too well. The response was almost a chuckle. Also, we masked her presence while determining her true intentions.
“Who is it?” The question was interrupted as a familiar figure emerged from the forest from the direction of Whateley.
“Oh, this party just keeps getting better and better.” Toni put in as the newcomer approached their small group with smoothly confident grace.
Chou was consumed by curiosity, and was concerned. Nikki, Toni, a strange blind devisor she had seen around, and an ultra-violent getting together was odd enough, but having seen them in what amounted to a private conference was something that stirred the sense of the Tao in her. Destiny's Wave had nothing to offer other than the obvious disparity in that group was something the Tao delighted in.
“Yes, but something has been bothering Nikki lately, she had that nightmare, then went off into the forest yesterday. Now she has Chaka and two of the bunch calling themselves the Outcasts with her. Something is going on, something I don't think is good.” Chou replied as she observed.
Then follow them to relieve yourself of the concern, Handmaiden. The sword simply answered.
Chou did so. Carefully, for some reason she couldn't quite figure out but noted that the girls were dressed for hiking, and following a stop at the labs, the devisor, Jericho, was outfitted in some kind of gear that nearly looked to be armor.
A glint of silver at Toni's wrist, the gleam of a well oiled hilt at Nikki's shoulder and other little things added up to something worrisome. “They're getting ready for a fight it looks like.”
Being ready for trouble and looking for it are two entirely different things. Destiny's Wave pointed out.
Chou didn't answer that, simply followed the odd little group into the forest. Once there and away from the bordering brush that met the Whateley grounds she felt a presence observing her. It was ancient, and seemingly indifferent regarding the well being of mere humans, and to concepts like good, evil, and mercy. Much like the Tao.
Feeling as if she was an insect under scrutiny, she continued on the pathway the others had taken, following as much by instinct as anything else by then because she had lost sight and sound of them. Whatever had been watching her seemed satisfied, as the uncomfortably prickly sense of being probed lifted and the pathway cleared even more in front of her.
Oddly, though it was December in New Hampshire and there was snow on the ground, even the trees that generally lost their leaves in the fall were green with healthy growth. Another oddity to think about.
To say Chou was ad surprised as the others when she emerged into a large clearing surrounded by the most ancient trees she had ever seen and with the four she had been shadowing still in its center would have badly understated things. On both sides.
Welcome Overseer of Balances. A voice thrummed within her head as the others stared in her direction. Join your compatriots, Handmaiden. There is work for you here.
Toni's wisecrack had barely faded and the other three were assimilating the idea that they weren't alone there when a rich voice filled all their heads. Good, now The Five are present. Join with your friends, Handmaiden. There is much to be done and little time to get things started.
“Don't worry about it Chou.” Nikki told the newcomer as the Asian girl warily looked around the clearing. “You're hearing the Grove. If 'hearing' is an acceptable description of the way it communicates with others. Come join us in the center here and relax. If this forest meant you harm you wouldn't have gotten here at all. As it is, I think you were led here.”
Correct O Queen. The wind through branches responded. The Overseer of Balances is needed among your small company. She is required for success in this new battle with the Old Enemy.
“I don't suppose you'd care to explain that, and the thing about The Five?” Nikki gave the trees a look that clearly held annoyance. “I am not doing well with surprises lately, you know.”
The Five are you children. The Grove responded with something close to amusement in it's tone at Nikki's truculence. The Queen with all her arrogance in power. The Healer, the Angel of Mercy with his doubts and belief in the material to balance that. The Champion and Bard, full of tempers and inexplicable rages, The Mistress of Chi – Life Force, to ease the Champion's internal suffering and outward bellicosity. And last, The Overseer of Balances to hold the rest of you into coherency as a functioning group.
“Why do I feel like we've been had here?” Jericho muttered.
“Probably because we have been.” Toni sighed. “I hate it when this kind of thing happens. It blows the Hell out of the free will theory for people.”
“Everything happens for a reason.” Chou answered quietly. “Free will is not compromised in this, we still have choices to make here.”
True, Handmaiden. The Grove answered. Now is the time to begin making those choices. You are together, here, as ordained long ago. Now it is time that you all choose.
“Choose what?” Jericho almost shouted. “The things attacking here are bad. With a capitol B! We have to fight them.”
Razorback simply raised his arms and clenched his hands with a roar of challenge.
Nikki crossed her arms and stared at the trees. “You know I can't leave the weres to face this alone. If they lose, Whateley is next, then what stands between those things and the rest of the world?”
“Hey!” Toni jumped in. “I have friends at risk here! What do you think I am, one of those whining, gangsta wannabes? I'm NOT going to abandon them or walk away from this thing just because the going gets a little hard!”
Chou was silent for a few moments as images flashed in her mind. Things that her consciousness shied away from looking at too closely they were so horribly wrong.
Things attacking Nikki, and others. Innocents would suffer if this wasn't stopped here, and the Balance would be irretrievably disrupted.
“You see truth here, Handmaiden.” Destiny's wave informed her. “These terrible things will come to pass if you turn your back now.”
“I'm in.” Chou put in slowly. “But more information would be appreciated.”
You will have it, Handmaiden. The trees answered quietly. The choices have been made, The Five are joined.
“What's that supposed to mean?” Jericho frowned.
“I get the feeling we're going to find out soon enough.” Nikki replied with a sigh.
The others filled Chou in as Nikki tried something she hadn't done before. The blood bond between her and Sara was a strong one, and as blood magics, even the non-lethal ones tended to be, the bond was powerful. She tried contacting the lust daemon, her blood sister at a distance. Sara? Can you hear me?”
Nikki? Came the startled response. Is something wrong? I know you're back in the forest, and in the Glade. Do you need my help?”
Not just now, at least not here. Nikki responded, marveling at the new things she was discovering every day. There are others here with me, we'll be fine for now. What I was wondering is if you could contact your father to see if he knows anything about this Bastard or what the creature is doing. You have sources I don't. Between the two of us I was thinking we might get more information on this mess before a real confrontation happens.
Sure, I'll get hold of Dad and see what he can tell me. Sara answered. And I'll see what I can wring out of my 'congregation'. Maybe someone there has information that will help. Anything else?
Got the feeling that'll keep you busy for a while. The Sidhe girl answered with an internal chuckle. Tell your dad I said hi , give him a hug for me, and say that Aunghadhail is reconciled to the alliance now, even thinks it's a good thing. I'll let you know if I need anything else.
Good enough, dear. Sara sent back. If you need me for help if things get nasty, just call. I think I can port to you now. Though you may have to do that for me for a time yet.
If it comes to that, I will. Nikki assured the other. If you see a gate suddenly open in your vicinity, do a quick check just in case, but it's probably me yelling for help.
You'll have it, sis.
I know. Call me if something else comes up, will you?
I will. Sara told the other girl.
The connection broke at that, but the things needing to be said had been done.
“Where you just now?” Toni questioned when Nikki ended her talk with Sara.
“Arranging for some backup if it's needed.” The elf grinned. “And to get more information on our enemies if it's available.”
“Works for me.” Toni nodded then added. You're really getting weird lately, you know that?”
“Good.” Nikki chuckled and left things at that.
“That wasn't an answer calculated to make me feel better about this, was it?” The black girl questioned. Nikki raised an eyebrow, grinned, but didn't reply.
“Daughter.” Gothmog called. “It is good to see you.”
“Hello, Dad.” Sara answered, caressing one of the tentacles Gothmog had extended. “It's good to see you, too.”
“You're doing well at that academy.” Her father told her.
“I'm working hard at it, yes.” Sara nodded with a grin. “You know about my blood oath to a Shidhe, I'm sure.”
“Yes, dear daughter.” Gothmog's chuckle rumbled through the place that wasn't a place where he generally held court. “It is a necessary alliance. I have already spoken with the spirit that rides within your friend. I may have antecedents from that one's ancient enemies, but I was born on this world and love it fully as much as Aunghadhail does. She recognized that. The Elders will not regain their foothold on this world while I exist, or while she does. We understand each other.”
“I thought you felt that way.” Sara answered with a smile. “But it helps to hear you say it, father.”
“That you even had to wonder.” Gothmog sighed. “Is saddening.”
“Oh, I never doubted that you would defend Earth.” Sara soothed while kissing the tentacle that was still in her grasp. “I'm glad that bitch Eleven Queen accepts the truth where you're concerned.”
“She fought our kind for longer than either you or I have existed.” Gothmog reminded. “She should be suspicious, and as for bitch, have you ever heard of a true queen who wasn't?”
“Point taken.” Sara chuckled.
“So, what brings you here, beloved daughter?”
“I know, I know, I should come visit you more often.” The girl sighed. “But you're right. I'd like for you to taste something.”
“Yes.” Sara held out her arm and in part of it opened. “This.”
Gothmog absorbed it through the tentacle still draped around Sara. There were a few seconds before he said anything. “It tastes of weres, humans, and the Elders. The last is the dominant flavor here. But how is it that the weres can be infected like that? They are the nemesis of the Elder's lackeys.”
“It's a venom of some kind.” Sara answered. “We don't know how it was made, but we do have an antidote for it.”
“And who, or what is responsible for this venom?”
“Something we only know as the Bastard.”
“Should you require the help, call me.” Gothmog told her. “I will obliterate this 'Bastard' no matter what it is.”
“Thanks.” she answered while caressing the tentacle. “I'll do that, and I know Nikki will feel better knowing you're in the wings and on our side.”
“You truly love this Sidhe, don't you?” The god asked without needing to be answered.
“There is much to love there, father.” Sara nodded.
“Yes there is, and much to admire. That one has gone through a change nearly as traumatic as the one you did. Yet she still strives to not only cope, but to excel.”
“She is something special.”
“As you are, beloved daughter.”
“And now she and I are joined in way that is far more intimate than mere sisters, or lovers know.”
“As it should be, daughter.” Gothmog laughed as his tentacle caressed her cheek. “I am proud to have that one as another daughter .”
“I think I'll wait for a while to tell her that one.” The girl chuckled.
“She will know in time, so that is just as well.”
“I think she already knows, Dad.” Sara laughed. “She just doesn't want to admit it yet is all.”
“In time she will, my love.” Gothmog answered. “One thing you learn, being ageless as we are, is that patience generally rewards those who exercise it.”
“Tell your sister that I will be there when needed.”
“I will, though I think she already knows that.”
“Having it confirmed helps, my dear.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Sara kissed the tentacle and smiled. “Gotta go now. Other things I need to do.”
“Yes, take care of those things..” The god responded. “I know you will be ready to go to her when she calls for help. As I will.”
“A father indulges his daughters, dear.”
“We take shameless advantage of that, too.”
“Part of being a father.” Gothmog's chuckle rumbled. “We know that, but daddies always spoil their little girls, you know.”
“Go on and keep spoiling me, dad.” Sara laughed. “You know I love it.”
“Of course, that is the nature of daughters with their fathers.”
“Bye, dad, and thanks.”
“No need for thanks.” Gothmog answered. “Call if you need me and I will be there.”
“Love you, daddy.”
“I love you, dear one.”
“Bye for now.”
“Come back soon. I enjoy your visits.”
“I will. See you later.”
“Okay, now we go introduce you two to the weres.” Nikki told Toni and Jericho. “If you're going to be in the woods, it's a good idea to let them know not only who you are, but that you're working with them. They can be kind of nasty to interlopers.”
“Does that mean we can leave now?” Jericho asked with hope clear in his voice.
“Kewl!” Toni grinned. “I've always wanted to meet a were that wasn't trying to gut one of my friends!”
Nikki sighed, rolled her eyes, and waved to a new path that had opened at the edge of the clearing. “That way.”
In the Sierra Madres
She was within reach again. Not one to repeat mistakes, the Bastard glared at the twenty he had chosen to kill her. “It is time. Bring me her head, and those of the ones with her. She must die. Fail me and I will kill you on your return, and not quickly.”
The portal opened, and the assassins went into it without hesitation.
“Now you will die, my old nemesis.” The Bastard smiled.
Razorback lifted his nose while Nikki shuddered. She looked at the boy and nodded grimly. “Get ready. We have more of them ahead of us.”
“More of what?” Toni questioned looking around but feeling nothing out of the ordinary other that being in the forest.
“Just be ready to fight.” Nikki told her without further elaboration. “We have a reception committee between us and the weres.”
“Oh good.” Jericho let out a sigh. “How many of them?”
“More than ten.” Nikki answered grimly, then looked at the devisor. “How much of that antidote do you have with you?”
“About ten doses.”
“Give me one.” Nikki ordered.
“Here you go.” Jericho handed her an ampule filled with cloudy liquid. “Now, why do you want it?”
Drawing Malachim's feather, she carefully squeezed part of the contents from the ampule onto the edge. “Call it hedging my bets.”
Jericho did what passes for watching for him as she produced a quiver of arrows, and applied the rest of the antidote to the wickedly barbed heads on the shafts. “Let me guess, you're poisoning those.”
“You got it.” Nikki nodded, putting the arrows back to wherever she had pulled them from with a nasty smile. “If this can cure the venom, maybe it will screw these suckers up when it gets into their systems.”
“You, know.” Jericho grinned. “I like the way you think.”
Razor snorted in agreement.
“I think I've told you this before, roomie.” Toni quietly put in. “But you're really scary at times.”
Nikki just grinned in response.
Eloise and Ben both stopped what they were doing and looked to the forest in the direction of the Grove. What they felt drew involuntary snarls out of both.
“Go find the experienced fighters available.” Eloise ordered. “And meet me at the edge.”
“You got it, love.” Ben was getting dressed, with only a hint of regret at what they had been doing being interrupted by the thing they'd sensed. “See you in five?”
“Make it four.” Eloise answered as she hurriedly pulled on a pair of jeans and a top.
“The watchers are alerted.” Ben told Eloise as he joined her at the beginning of the path leading to the Grove. “The others are coming.”
Sniffing the air, his mate only nodded.
“I don't suppose going back is an option here?” Toni questioned, then added. “I hope not.”
“No.” Nikki answered tersely. “Theses things are after me. If we run now, they'll just follow us to Whateley. We have to face them here and now.”
“Good enough for me.”
Razorback flexed his claws and glanced at Jericho, who was pulling some kind of weapon out of his armor.
“This will even give weres, or whatever they are, something to worry about.” The devisor told his friend while checking the odd looking weapon and slapping a magazine into its receiver. “I can't just wait for people to get hurt, you know. I'm going to do some hurting of my own before that.”
Razorback gave an approving whistle, then went back to watching the way ahead of them.
End of Part 2