Upheaval: New Friends, New Problems
By Joe Gunnarson
Wednesday, November 29th
Caitlin woke up, groaning. The dreams had to stop. It was bad enough that she only seemed to be able to get an hour of sleep at a time, but the dreams stretched off into eternity. Always the same, always images of forge and fire, and always those maddening tattoos. She shook her head to clear the images from the last one. She really shouldn't complain, after all the new dreams were better than dreams of screaming terror and gunfire. She got up and picked through her limited wardrobe, grumbling.
She picked out a black T-shirt and blue jeans, all inlaid with those damned wards. Getting dressed wasn't as much of a pain in the ass as it could have been. The bra was easy. She'd removed enough of them from enough women in the past that it was almost intuitive how the damned things worked. It still felt weird to have one on, but she was also acutely aware of the reactions she'd get if her nipples were poking through her shirt. She got dressed and put the ballcap on, grabbed her knife and pendant and wandered outside.
Whateley was dead quiet at three in the morning, per usual. The only light and sound besides the stars was the crackling hiss of the energies that tore across the surface of her body. It still hurt like hell, but she was becoming adept at tuning it out. When she was still male she'd had an insane level of pain tolerance, and all of it was purely psychological. She had no innate resistance to pain, just a remarkably easy time tuning it out as background static. There were occasional flashes of searing agony, but thankfully those were rare.
She began her routine walkabout of the campus, looking satisfied at the complete lack of activity. Even with the change she loved being out when it was dark, the cold night air was thick with the promise of snow, something she actually liked when it didn't come in the typical Alaskan overabundance. Watching roofs collapse under the weight of metric tons of hard-packed snowflakes was not fun. She felt a bit of the cold, but it didn't feel bad at all. Given her attire she should be freezing. She moved into an easy jog, just enjoying the morning, picking her path randomly through the school.
She heard the two men jogging to catch up to her before she saw them, and slowed to a stop to look at them. Two of Chief Delarose's security gumbys were moving up to her at a quick trot. They were lightly armed and armored, and it only took her a moment to realize that she looked like a student out after curfew and lights out. She waited the short moments it took the two men to catch up and nodded to each in turn.
They went from relaxed to at ease when they realized she wasn't going to be a fussy one. "Miss, you shouldn't be out of your cottage past curfew." The shorter one said.
"Hey guys, sorry. Can't sleep. Literally. Besides, I haven't been assigned a cottage yet."
"Can I get your name Miss..."
"Caitlin Bardue." She smirked as the taller one shook his head in disbelief.
"Bardue? Not related to old Gunny Bardue are you?" the tall one asked.
"Yeah. Adopted when my dad bought it overseas. The Gunny was my godfather."
"Ah. Well, sorry about your family, miss, but we have to take you in to see the duty officer." He looked somewhat annoyed at having to play truant officer. "Students aren't allowed loose after hours."
"Ok, fine. I'll talk to him." She sighed. "Lord knows you guys put up with enough shit without me adding to the pot. Just don't touch me, ok? The results aren't usually pleasent and I can't stop it."
The two men nodded and led her to the main security office, flanking her on each side while keeping a respectful distance. She noted the security React force around a table, playing cards, while a the command center crew was looking bored, sipping coffee and staring at empty screens. She recognized Lieutenant Forsyth immediately from her many dealings with him in the past. The man was, by reputation, almost as big a card shark as she was according to some of the security goons she'd dealt with.
"Any problems?" Forsythe asked her escort.
"Not a damn bit of trouble from this one, boss. Cooperated all the way and was kind enough to warn us off of touching her. Something about a bad reaction." The short guy said.
"Yeah, my little lightshow is hazardous to self and others." She snarked just a bit. She was getting tired of that ever-present, snapping, coruscating field of pain
Forsythe looked at her, noted her posture and expression. "Go ahead back to the ready room guys. She's gonna be one of the cooperative ones."
The two men wandered back to the ready room and he turned to her. "Thanks for making this easy for everyone."
"No problem. Gunny Bardue... Guess it's Dad now, said you guys put up with too much bullshit already so I didn't think going for a blood pressure rise would be that great an idea."
"Yeah, I think we all appreciate it. So you're the new student coming in that Gunny's sponsoring?" He saw her nod and relaxed.
"I keep forgetting that normal people get nervous at lone wanderers at Oh-Dark-Stupid in the morning."
"About that. We will have to file it with the school that you were out after hours."
"Somehow I doubt that will be a problem." She noted his look, "And no, I don't mean Gunny... Dad... God this is confusing... Will be trying to pull my fat outta the fire. I only sleep an hour a day, if that. Past that and I'm up and moving and fresh as a daisy."
"So, in other words, you're going stir-crazy staring at four walls for hours on end."
"Yeah, that's about the size of it." She looked around. "I'm used to being able to take care of myself in a pinch. Got to the point where I could wander a military base without having to worry about anything."
"I can understand that. But yeah, you are right, it probably won't matter much. You weren't causing trouble, so the report's a formality. Gives us something to do."
She looked at the monitors and sensor panels. "Damn, and I thought the Pentagon was tricked out."
"Been there?" At her nod he continued. "Yeah, this place is layered. A lot of it is top of the line hardware, plus what the students have built and sold to the school as added precautions. There's not much that can sneak by us, although we had a near miss with some assholes earlier this year."
"Oh god, those Holy G.H.O.S.T. chumps? Yeah, Gunny told me about them a while back. I heard the kids at one of the cottages rolled 'em for their lunch money and then beat the tar out of them."
Forsyth chuckled. "Yeah, that's about the size of it. Poe cottage. Strange kids, but they tend to be harmless, at least they don't deliberately start trouble. Wish they were better at avoiding it though."
"Hey, we're kids. What's the fun of growing up if you can't cause havoc in the process?"
She was slipping into character easily. Looks like all those tabletop and LARP games she'd played off and on for fifteen years were paying off. They chatted for a bit and Forsyth let her go after signing a few papers and she went back to her morning run.
When she finished she hadn't even broken a sweat, which was hardly surprising given the temperature outside, and she felt a bit better, having gotten out and really stretched her legs. She wandered about before heading over to the ranges. The indoor range was locked and empty, so she plugged in her code to the keypad, and went in. The lights came on and she went about setting up Lane three. Two hours, and about three hundred rounds from her personal stash later, she was less than pleased. She'd has to completely relearn her firing stance with the pistol. Her body wasn't built for the same shooting style as Erik Mahren. She cleaned the pistol, policed her brass and locked the door on the way out.
The school was coming awake as she headed towards the main campus area, walking past the center area and had a sense of Deja-vu as she watched the three girls from before practicing their Tai-Chi. All three were graceful in their own way, but it was the slight chinese girl, Chou, who flowed the most. it was obvious that she was the most practiced. The other two had a lot of grace, but it was became apparent that the fiery-haired Fey was the least practiced after a few minutes of observation. She shrugged and began wandering aimlessly, waiting for a bit before heading over to the Crystal hall for food.
She didn't get directly into the line, instead settling back to watch as the students trickled in. She saw the pattern now, that she'd missed during the frenetic hustle of the lunch and dinner times. The groups trickled over to favored areas and ate. Mostly they divided by team, or cottage, and a few tight groups. The GSD kids came in, ate, and left, seemingly in a hurry to get out of sight for the most part. There were a few exceptions, of course, but they were grouped together, as much for protection as company.
The Alphas came in a trickle, but sat together in the best seats in the house. She immediately recognized Aries and Hekate, as well as Don Sebastiano, Skybolt and Cavalier. She paid less attention to the hangers-on. Those five students were the core of the Alphas. They were markedly less animated and condescending than they usually were, but then most of them had that 'just woke up' look to them.
The Grunts came in, being the loudest and most boisterous in the early morning. Deadeye and Bunker were leading the conversation, with Mule, Slapdash, Bomber and Breaker eating and laughing at the other two's wild stories. Caitlin liked the six of them, as they were good kids. They all had aspirations to military service, and while they were hardly the most powerful students on campus, they were some of the most motivated. Bunker was usually they most responsive to the flak other students gave the six of them, and Caitlin had seen the tiny freshman spew streams of invective that would make a drill instructor cringe. Of course the fact that a certain ex-marine Range instructor had taught her how to spit said streams of cussing and verbal abuse never seemed to come up.
She took the time to mark the differences between students, noting how many of them seemed to divide themselves into groups. It seemed to follow no rhyme or reason, but there were patterns that fit in high school. The pretty people gossiping and competing for the best looks. The GSD kids who seemed like they were off in their own world for the most part, and the kids who fit the bill of normal talking and ramping up speed. The social circles, and what held them together became obvious with a little bit of watching.
She finally got into line and got her food, wandering over to Outcast Corner, and saw Jericho there with what looked like the biggest nightmare of a lizard she had ever seen. The Lizard...kid she was forced to remind herself... was big, wiry and covered in yellow and black scales from head to toe. His face was a foot and a half long snout, and he had six spines, three on either side of the top of of his head about three inches long and angling back and out. His back had two rows of eight inch spines that hung at an angle towards the floor, and was sporting a long, thick tail that he had wrapped to the side of the seat. The boy's legs were digitigraded and ended in three thick, bird-like toes. Both the toes and fingers had some wiched looking claws. He was dressed in a simple T-shirt with the Megadeth logo on the front and a pair of shorts.
She shook her head when she realized she was staring and started getting annoyed. This was not the way to prove she wasn't just another daft woman who couldn't see past skin. She walked up to the table, and unceremoniously set her tray down, sitting next to Lizard-boy and looking at Jericho. She nodded to both and looked at the amused grin on Jericho's face.
"What?" She asked, looking across the table at the white-eyed kid.
"Pay up Razor." He chuckled as he pocketed the money that the reptilian kid handed across. "I told you."
"Oh great, I'm now the subject of a betting pool." She looked a bit rueful. "Razor huh?"
The Lizard-boy nodded, impossible to read emotions in his completely inhuman face.
"Yeah. Caitlin, this is Razorback, one of my friends I was talking about before."
"Nice to meet you." She looked the boy straight in the eye and nodded. "I'd shake your hand, but hurting you by accident might make a really bad impression."
The reprillian face made a fast, staccato chirping noise, and his hands moved in the air in an intricate dance that she recognized as sign language. She suddenly wished she knew how to speak it.
"Raz here can't talk. He's mute, except for the odd chirp and growl. That was him laughing by the way. He says he likes you and you smell nice." Jericho watched her reaction carefully.
Caitlin found herself blushing lightly. "Thanks. Those spikes are pretty nifty."
Razorback nodded and turned away and began eating the tray piled high with various meats in front of him.
"Razorback don't talk much, even signing." Jericho started in. "He's more or less fearless, so unless it's a red flag day, he walks around campus like he owns it."
"Good. Nice to see a GSD kid who isn't afraid to stand out in a good way." She looked over at Razorback. He was eyeing her while he ate, eyes spaced just enough apart to give him a wide angle of view without losing binocular vision. She followed his angle of vision and blushed a bit more. The eye looked up and forward as he pretended to be concentrating solely on eating.
"Hah. Busted bro. I told you she was quicker on the draw than most of the other girls here except for maybe Diamond."
Embarassment forgotten Caitlin turned back to Jericho. "Diamond?"
He nodded, a bit ruefully. "Diamondback. Another extreme GSD case, only she's got it somewhat worse than Razor here. She's the most self-conscious one. They got her in Whitman with some bint who is constantly on her case. I've known her since we were able to walk. girl had it rough, me and my family had to hide her for a month from her own folks and their pastor. Getting her to meet new people is like pulling teeth some days."
"Why is that?"
"Mostly personal reasons, but she's been the one caught in a corner and burned the most."
"I'll keep an eye out for her." She picked at her food for a minute and dug in. The table was silent for a few minutes as the three wolfed down their food.
"So what's she look like?"
"Diamondback. What's she look like?" Caitlin looked him in his white eyes.
"Trust me, with a name like Diamondback, you'll know her if you see her."
Razorback looked up, and signed at Jericho. "Hey we gotta go. Class in a few minutes. See you around? What's your schedule?"
"No schedule yet. I got powers testing here in a few minutes myself. I am not looking forward to this."
"Can't be all bad. We all had to go through it."
"I feel like a damned lab rat."
"And a pretty lab rat too. Tell you what. If we get time me or Razor here'll snag you some food. You'll probably miss lunch and those bums usually forget that some of us need sustenance."
"I appreciate that."
The two boys got up and walked off. Caitlin noted that the crowd parted like the red sea around the two of them, as they left unhampered. Those two would bear some watching.
Caitlin walked towards the powers testing area. This was going to be far from the low-key testing that she had endured with Doctor Bellows before, and she was not looking forward to it. When she stepped in the door Dr. Polland was waiting. She walked up to him and gave a mock-salute. "Student Ma- Bardue reporting for Lab Rat duty, sir." She caught herself before giving her old name.
Dr. Polland smirked. "I see. Apparently the warnings of your personality weren't too exaggerated."
"Well I'd hate to see my reputation ruined by not meeting expectations."
"All right, " he looked at his clipboard, "Caitlin, we've got a full battery set up for you. Dr. Bellows waived the physical examination based on hazards to medical staff."
"Uh, yeah. This trippy lightshow isn't fun." She breathed a silent sigh of relief, the thought of a gynecological exam gave her the willies.
"Well, if you'll follow me this way we'll get your blood drawn. and sent in for testing."
She followed the doc to a room and after some wrangling, got the nurse to let her do the blood draw herself. The nurse had been convinced when she picked up some tissue paper and shook her hand rapidly. The discharge caused the flimsy materiel to blacken and run in rivulets down her arm like some kind of bizarre ink. She got her arm cleaned and went about doing everything the docs back in the corps had taught her about I.V's and needles, cursing when the steel needle sheared and snapped just under her skin.
It took four tries and three needles before the nurse handed her one of the more sturdy variety. The blood was drawn quickly, and she hopped out of the room to follow the doc to the first area. Strength and endurance testing. Wonderful.
The first test was easy. She was set to lift increasing weights until she couldn't lift one, then she was given a rest for a few minutes, then set to it again. The cramping buildup from the increasing weight was typical, but the results were not. She easily hefted the four-hundred pound weight, and was able to work up to just over eleven hundred pounds with effort, and 1200 pounds being her absolute maximum. The process was impeded by weird things happening to the weights. Changing to different alloys, cracking and falling apart, transforming into odd shapes, and the most memorable, superheating and melting. Her arms were covered in molten metal to her elbows before the panicked girl and the medical staff were able to scrape the rapidly cooling materiel off her skin.
A few panicked moments later and she was staring at her unmarred skin incredulously. The heat had hurt like hell, but not the maddening pain she had expected. She looked at the many ruined weights with a sick feeling, suddenly very thankful for the super-pagan looking clothing she was wearing.
The endurance test held a few surprises. The doctors exposed her to rapidly elevating levels of heat, cold, electricity, and other phenomena until she couldn't take it. The heat and cold she endured without complaint or really noticing, until they started getting past the temperatures that would melt industrial grade steel, when she started hollering at them to turn the damned thing off. Open flames didn't even bother her. The cold started becoming too much once the room they had her sit in reached below -100 degrees Farenheit. She had no resistance to anything kinetic, beyond an extremely toughened musculature and bones, so she wasn't bulletproof, although knives and bladed objects would have a much rougher time penetrating deep enough to do real damage.
She was amazed by the amount of raw physical strength and stamina she had. It was like discovering muscles you never realized you had. She pushed herself for the testing, and they found that she was extremely resistant to most natural phenomena that could cause serious injury. Drugs worked just fine on her, but electricity only tickled a bit, even when they amped up the generators. The static charge she built up from that caused several computers to blow out when she got close.
Reflex testing was pure torture. There was a lot of "Dodgeball from hell." She was able to duck, dive and weave extremely quickly, for a normal person, but her reflexes were perfectly in line with what she could do before her world went completely upside-down. Running she was able to do a six-minute mile at an easy run, topping out around sixteen miles an hour at a dead run, still within the normal range of a well-trained and conditioned human. Again, this was pretty much the same as when she had been a man. The two phases of testing didn't really hurt at all but it was frustrating as the docs ramped up the difficulties to just beyond where she could perform effectively.
A side effect of this was the discovery that her energy corona built up in intensity the faster she moved to the point where at a full run she was completely surrounded by a hissing corona of energy that burned like fire. As she slowed down, it faded to a trickle, and when she remained perfectly motionless for a few seconds it died down completely and did not return until she moved again.
The rest of the morning was more or less as expected. Besides the odd currents that she could see, she didn't really show any aptitude for any other types of powers. Doctor Powell was waiting for her on the way out.
"Well we've done about all we can here. Circe wants you over in the Magic department for the rest of your testing. We're going to tag you as an Exemplar 4 for now, along with an Esper 2 given we're not sure what to make of those currents you're seeing constantly, and an Energizer 2. Nothing horribly huge by Whateley standards, but it's a good base to build on."
"Yay. off to Oz with me. Anything else? Bellows said something was off on my bloodwork before I changed."
"Ah, yes, well your blood has a massive mineral content in it. We're not exactly sure why. From all indications you're eating normally for a healthy pair of twenty-five year old men. That doesn't explain the odd composition, or the fact that when it solidified it formed some kind of blood colored metallic alloy. The lab rats are still trying to pick it apart."
"Oh goody. Well at least if I ever need to spot-weld something I can do it by slitting my wrist."
"Actually, you might be able to do just that."
"So what's with the hair? Why's it all shiny?"
"So far as we can tell your hair's normal with some metallic traits, although it's a lot stronger than normal. You could probably use it as high-test fishing line if you were of a mind."
"Jesus can my life get any more weird?"
"Well, since you're being slated to start classes this week, my best guess would be yes."
"Gee, thanks Doc. I feel so much better now." She walked away while Polland chuckled, went into his office and took the cross-file for Erik Mahren and ran it through the shredder and burned the remains, per Carson's orders.
Circe was in her office when Caitlin wandered in, half-heartedly. The sorceress looked up and smiled slightly.
"Hello Erik, or is it Caitlin now?"
Caitlin looked over at the sorceress for a moment. "Caitlin. I figure I'd best get used to my new circumstances. Hiding from it isn't going to make it go away."
Circe nodded and looked at her, motioning to a seat directly across from her desk. "I'm glad to see that you're holding together so well. I can only imagine what you're going through, and it takes a lot of courage to face what you're going through."
Caitlin sat down, looking at the woman quietly. "Why do I get the feeling that this isn't going to be the frantic testing bum rush that the docs rammed me through?"
"It won't be, mostly because rushing blindly with magic is a sure route to disaster. It's also because I wanted to have a chance to get a good read on you as well." She leaned back in her seat easily. "I know that out at the ranges you all dismiss my department as a bunch of gibberish-spouting finger-wigglers, and for the most part it's not far off the mark. But I'm more concerned with you. You've gone from a healthy and fit man with a strong will to a fairly young woman with no real identity of her own and some massive problems. I'm fairly sure that almost anyone who didn't have a personality like yours would have a total breakdown given the same circumstances."
"It's not easy. I want to just be invisible half the time. Male, female, I never put much stock in form defining the person. Unfortunately it isn't that way with most people, I'm still having issues with feeling completely off, and I'm just not comfortable with how people look at me now." The young woman took a deep breath. "I don't know. Ever since Cat died I've been a bit off anyway. I started drinking and burying myself in work. I wasn't even able to say goodbye." The last was hardly more than a whisper.
Circe nodded. "I think Cat would have approved of you taking her name. She was a strong woman, I liked her a lot, as a teacher and coworker. I'm sorry you weren't able to be at the memorial, but there are many ways to say goodbye. I know you'll find one."
"It's hard. We had plans. We were going to get married next year on the solstice back home. We..." Caitlin stopped, biting back tears that came anyway. "I'm just not ready to let her go."
"You saw her die, didn't you." It was more a statement than a question, and the girl saw sympathy in the older woman's eyes. She only nodded.
"I saw it. I saw what she did. SheThrew out everything she had for the school, and she died. I couldn't help her. I couldn't catch her. I couldn't even be there when she fell. She charged the attackers, she burned them, fought them, and she died. All the while all I could do was shoot and fight. I couldn't even find her body. I never saw her after that."
She broke off, actually crying as the memories and feelings cracked through the mental barriers and came out, full force. She didn't care, she just cried.
Circe moved over and took the young woman's hand gently and crouched by her. The wracking sobs just continued on for a good long while, punctuated by crackling energy whenever her body shook. The tears fell like falling stars, some Ice, some glass, some as pure light. She didn't interrupt the girl. Former man or not, sometimes people needed to cry to get it out of their system.
After a long time, the girl recovered, looking up at the woman kneeling beside her. She instinctively threw herself over Circe and sobbed quietly in the woman's arms.
"You're a strong individual, but everyone has to let go sooner or later. I honestly wish she could be here with you right now." Circe helped the taller girl to her feet easily. "But for now, the time to mourn is best left behind. You need to look forward, and begin living again."
Caitlin nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes, and whispered out, "Thanks."
Circe nodded and smiled. "You're lucky you can pull off the natural look. Most of us would spend the next hour having to fix our makeup."
The young woman laughed in spite of herself.
"A bit, yeah."
"Good. Don't let anyone try to tell you that you shouldn't cry. No one is invulnerable, even to emotion."
Caitlin nodded and wiped her face off. She looked at Circe quizzically a bit. "Hey, how come nothing happened to you when you touched me? Everyone else got burned!"
"One of the advantages of being a 'gibberish-spewing finger-wiggler.' A bit of loose magic is easy enough for me to counter, even unconsciously."
They had a bit of a laugh at that. Caitlin stretched a bit. She honestly did feel better. It was like a large weight had been pulled off her shoulders.
"Boy am I glad Gunny didn't see that."
"I don't think Oscar would have blamed you. He loved Cat like a daughter. And you were the pasty faced boy coming along to run off with his baby girl."
"Yeah, that sounds about right." She composed herself. "So what say we get this show on the road? I'm starting to like you, but I'd like to get dinner tonight without running off-campus to the taco bell."
Circe nodded and led her downstairs into an empty classroom, avoiding the press of students coming and going between periods.
"So. I really can't properly test you until we get your talents under control. Have you looked at that ink I gave you?"
"Yeah. I figured out what it's made from, and how to make it, but I'm missing something. It's a part of me, a sacrifice of some kind, symbolically if I was to make a batch of my own. It's not something you can make for someone."
Circe nodded. "For me, I had to infuse it with magic. It's been a part of my life for so long that it is literally a part of who I am. For you it will not be so easy. Each person's is unique. Unfortunately I have not found a way around the soul-binding aspects."
"Is it possible to bind something to itself?"
"Yes, although it is a lot harder. Magic responds not to what you want it to do, but what you will it to do. Sometimes it takes a greater sacrifice in order to accomplish something. After all, the energy does not come from nowhere."
Caitlin nodded. "So all that finger wiggling and latin..."
"Some words have power, but they aren't necessary. The words and motions are mostly a mnemonic trigger, meant to help focus your will into action."
"Like a running cadence."
Circe nodded. "Yes. Very much so. Bardue may not admit it, but the military could give some very good lessons on focus and control that many would-be mages lack. You have a natural connection to it. Unfortunately that connection is a little too sticky. When it tears away from you, unguided by will it simply manifests of it's own accord. For some, these manifestations are harmless, or merely aggravating, like the hobgoblins of one of the newer girls, Fey."
"Met her. She seems like a good kid. Just... a bit confused at how to react sometimes."
"You'd be right. Unfortunately your manifestations are not nearly so benign. When you move against the flow, the connection you have catches any stray bits and tries to hold them, but fails, causing that corona. Quite frankly if it weren't for your new stamina and toughness, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Yeah, I'm getting tired of looking at wards though. I appreciate the clothes, but I think I need to puzzle this out, and quick for my own sanity, and for the safety of the kids here at whateley."
"I would tend to agree. I'm beginning to see why Bardue hired you, Caitlin."
"My dashing good looks and ability to one-up him in a shouting match?"
Circe chuckled. "That may have contributed, but it's you, why you fit so well with the military ideal. You put others before yourself. That's the most common comment I hear from your coworkers since I started asking. Right after that would be 'smarmy bastard' and 'card shark.'"
"That's what I love about my friends. They love me so much."
"Well. Let's get to work. All the materials save one are in this room. The process usally takes about six hours of ritual, but, if you are what I think you are, you'll probably finish much more quickly with far less hassle."
Caitlin nodded and began working. All told it took three hours to mix and match the processes and the components, but in the end she had a clear jar of fluid with a slightly murky tint. She drew her knife and drew it across the palm of her hand, hissing, and allowed three drops, no more, no less to fall into the mixture. The fluid darkened then began shifting, turning a deep, cobalt blue color. She bandaged her hand and looked up.
"Safe stopping point. This is where I need to figure out what the last part is."
Circe nodded. "I would never have believed it if I had not seen it myself. You really are one of the artificers."
"What does that mean, exactly, beyond being really strong, really tough and being able to make weird items?"
"The artificers are also natural magic users. Each one has a form of magic that they take to naturally, depending on who they were before they were marked. It has a lot to do with personality and mindset. Given your personality and adaptability I'd guess that spells geared towards prevention of harm, and transmutation would be your natural inclination."
"How can you tell all that?"
Circe smiled. "I've been at this for a very long time, dear. I've had lots of practice."
Caitlin considered. "You've met one of the artificers before, haven't you?"
"Met isn't the word. What I saw wasn't a person anymore. She had become an extension of her master's will. Nothing more."
"So how can we be sure that even if I pull off making my own mix it won't turn me into a zombie?"
"I can't be sure, but it binds the servant to the master's will. Your will has always been that of loyalty and fierce independance. I don't think any magic you ever undertake will allow for anyone, much less yourself, to become enslaved by it. As I said, the Will shapes the flow. What you think is more or less irrelevant at that point."
The girl considered and nodded. "It's a risk I gotta take. I'm not gonna give some jackass the chance to make the choice for me."
Circe nodded yet again. "Sometimes the courage to drive forward is all it takes to find one's road."
Caitlin picked up the mithril needle and scowled. "This needs a bit of a modern touch. This pricking the needle and umpteen hours of work thing has gotta go."
"It's the way things have been done for thousands of years."
"Just because something has been one way for a thousand years doesn't mean there's not a better way."
"Just so. Now get going. I'll expect you in my office tomorrow afternoon. I will be your class advisor for the forseeable future."
"Cool!" Caitlin smiled, picked up the needle and jar of blue ink and walked out the door.
Circe watched her leave with a slight smile.
She made it to the Crystal Hall just as the first few students got into line for food. She'd stashed her jar of the ink with Circe's along with the two needles she had. She'd been careful to keep the needles separate, as one was becoming bound to her, the other to the school's magic department head. She also didn't want to lose them. From what little she knew, actual moonsilver was hella expensive, and she wasn't gonna risk losing the valuable items.
She sat down, and began eating, tossing the puzzle over in her head, quietly as she chewed her food. A piece of herself, a symbolic sacrifice. She couldn't think of anything, off the top of her head that actually defined who she was, or who she had been before. She couldn't stuff Range two in a bottle and shake it up. Not that that place really defined her.
Her thoughts were interrupted when she saw Jericho and Razorback walking up to the table, followed by a girl that actually made her stop cold.
This must be Diamondback. the girl was tall, and athletic looking at first glance, wearing a red T-shirt and black skirt that reached down about two feet, pleated and hanging loosely. Her long, reddish, deep brown hair hung loosely down to her waistline, her bangs obscuring her face. Her body was scaled, similar to to Razorback, but different in a way. The undersides of her arms and her front were flesh-colored, but deepened into rich greens and blacks along the outsides of her body and back, forming Diamond shaped patterns. Her legs didn't exist, and Caitlin saw a thick, powerful looking serpentine tail trailing from the bottom of her dress to a point well about thirteen feet behind her.
The girl was slithering like a snake along the cafeteria floor and was garnering her fair share of horrified and disgusted looks from the crowd. The trio reached the table as Caitlin forced the shocked look from her face, remebering that she'd seen worse. Not by much, so far as GSD cases went, but she'd seen worse. She'd gotten a good look at the girl's face as she sat down. Tiny scales covered it, and went from a pale, flesh tone to the deep green of her backside and tail. The face was long, with high cheekbones, and small chin. Besides the scales and tail bit under any other circumstances the girl would have been considered gorgeous.
Caitlin waited until everyone sat before speaking, beating Jericho to the punch as the new girl and razorback began eating from the heaping plates of meat they had in front of them.
"Hello, Diamondback, right?" She looked at the girl for a moment, and was rewarded with a silent nod. "Nice to meet you. I'm Caitlin. I'd offer to shake hands but I'm not sure it'd be safe for you."
Diamonsback looked up skeptically and flinched as Caitlin flicked her wrist, causing a flash of sickly green energy to erupt. "Happens whenever I move, pretty much randomly, and people have gotten hurt touching me in the past week."
She felt the stares on her, and Caitlin realized both boys were watching the little interaction. She glared at them and they began eating furiously, as if their plates had suddenly developed gold deposits.
"Look Diamond, I know you probably don't buy it from me right now, but I'd like to be friends. I already like these two knotheads. No strings, no promises. Just give me a chance, alright?"
"Okay." the serpent-girl nodded and began ripping into her tray with gusto, and Caitlin sat quietly, eating from her food, thinking.
Caitlin looked at Jericho, who was smirking, and Razorback, who was unreadable. "So you two have fun today?"
"A bit. Been going through the usual daily grind." Jericho was busy stuffing his face, so Caitlin decided now was as good a time as any to polish off the prodigious amount of food she had to eat. It wasn't all that much to her, she'd eaten this much on a regular basis as Erik. It just seemed that her appetite was bigger because of her size.
"What happened to your hand" Caitlin looked up when she realized Diamond had spoken.
"Session with Circe. Had to use blood to seal something."
"I thought blood magic was dangerous."
"You in the classes?"
"Yeah, I have Introduction to Magic theory, and magic lab With Earth Mother and Circe, respectively."
"I dunno about the blood magic bit. Circe thinks I've got a knack for some things. She supervised the blood bit. It was kinda necessary.
"How much can you do?"
"Nada. I catch and pop magic, it's sticky and snaps like a rubber band on me. I can see it, feel it, but can't do anything except cause random havoc with it."
"So why all the wards?" Diamondback was working up at a rapid pace, talking about something she obviously loved.
"It keeps me from becoming a mystic firebomb. Like I said, I'm a bit dangerous to touch. You do not want to see the kind of crazy, violent stuff that happens when I get mad or aren't wearing the wards." Caitlin pushed the empty tray away from her.
"I don't think I've ever heard of that before."
Caitlin chuckled. "Yeah, story of my life. So what about you, you another natural mystic?"
Diamond shook her head. "No. I'm learning it because I want to. I like learning about magic. I'm Wiccan, despite what my folks would say."
"Hey it takes all types, right? Hell, I just got thrown to the wolves about a week ago. Don't even recognize myself in a mirror."
"You're lucky. You're pretty."
"So're you, actually, just not in the way any of the fools here are gonna look close enough to see, and you have a really pretty voice. you sing at all?"
Caitling considered the shocked look, and open mouth and saw that the girl wasn't expecting to hear that. She also noticed that the girl's tongue was forked, while she sat slack-jawwed, and she had some really nasty looking inch-long fangs.
"You don't have to be nice to make me feel better." Diamondback sounded sullen.
"I have been accused of many things. Being 'nice' was never one of them." She shrugged. "I just call it as I see it. And I see a pretty young woman who's a bit different and hella shy because too many jackasses decided to burn her."
Diamondback cocked her head. "How do you figure that?"
Caitlin snorted. "You kidding? All the kids with GSD around here seem to walk on eggshells around the damned pretties. Well, except for you three so far. And the others who don't tend toward the other extreme. Like that Bloodwolf mook."
Caitlin pointed to herself. "This? This ain't me. Maybe in a few years I'll get used to it, but for now I'm just trying to cope. Sounds pathetic, don't it? I'm just not used to the attention, and I feel all wrong."
"At least you don't look like a monster."
"Meh, give me time. I haven't finished changing I don't think. If I do wind up looking like a monster that's not gonna stop me from being me. And if someone tried to tell me otherwise I'd be liable to hurt them." Caitlin looked Diamondback in the eye, noting the reptilian slits in the ice-blue irises. "Form doesn't define who I am. It just changes the playing field."
The serpentine girl looked thoughtful. "Maybe. Can we talk about something else? GSD always depresses me."
"Sure. We can talk about how the two boys are being absolutely silent and still in the blind hope that we won't notice that they're done eating and listening to us."
Both girls turned and stared at Jericho and Razorback almost in complete, slow synchronization. Their stares were expectant and a little miffed that they were having an audience. Jericho winced and Razorback signed something to him.
"Yeah I hate it when women do that, too." He was slightly smirking. "A little backup here Razor?"
The lizardman shook his head and darted off, not wanting any part of the typical, inexplicable, female behavior. Jericho found that he agreed, and backed out and followed his buddy out the door.
Both girls busted out laughing at the same time.
"Oh my god, I've wanted to do that to them for months!" Diamondback chortled.
"Heh, now I know how other girls do that. I'll have to remember that trick." Caitlin grinned evilly. "So I take it those two are always in cahoots?"
"Oh yeah, and Jericho's the ringleader. He has this kooky band thing that the two of them want to get together. They both play guitars."
"So at minimum they need a drummer and a singer?"
Diamondback smirked. "Drummer at the minimum. They keep trying to con me into singing with their little band thing."
Caitlin shrugged. "So why don't you?"
"I don't think I could handle performing in front of a crowd."
"Yeah, I hear you. So what say we hit the store and get some coffee before we head back to our respective prison cells?"
"Come on. You need to get out and have some fun, I can tell." Caitlin smiled. "Oh, yeah, one thing." She reached over with a pencil and pushed Diamondback's hair away from the front of her face. "You have a pretty face. You shouldn't hide it."
"But what about the people who call me a monster?"
Caitlin just grinned. "Fuck 'em. If they mouth off too bad I'll pound on them, and I imagine that tail of yours can do a number on someone in a fight."
"You make it sound so easy."
"It is. Me and my friends proved it back home. Most girls catfight, I just smash. Works a lot better, too."
The two girls went out and picked up coffee at the small shop on campus. With a little gentle encouragement Caitlin was able to keep Diamondback from slouching, or hiding her face with her hair. A few students started to make a comment in the snake-girl's general direction when they were fixed with Caitlin's homicidal glare. The two of them went over to the benches near the crystal hall, and sat down, Diamond coiling her lower body under her to avoid getting tripper over, or stepped on.
"So you said you were studying magic," Caitlin said, "able to throw fireballs or anything yet?"
Diamond looked thoughtful. "No. I'm only able to do a few minor illusions, and some healing spells. I understand the theories, and formulae well enough, but it's hard. It'll take years and years of study and practice before I'm anywhere near a fraction as good as someone like Circe."
"Illusions and healing? Not a bad starting point though." Caitlin pondered. "Can you see the currents?"
"Yeah, I see currents under everything, and feel them too. I just can't do anything besides having them stick and snap."
"Oh! No, I can see resonances if I concentrate. I've known that some people are good enough to see magic as lines or waves. I haven't gotten to the point of much more than feeling it and seeing what kind of magic something resaonates." Diamondback was animated as she talked, idly flicking stray hairs out of her face.
"Resonance, huh?" Caitlin looked at her. "Care to take a look at a couple things? I'd like to get your opinion. I've heard a bunch of other peoples' takes, but I'm always interested in other pieces of the puzzle."
"Sure." Her eyes widened as Caitlin passed over the Knife. "Holy crap!"
"This thing almost hums. It's pulsing with energy, small amounts, but strong." She turned it over. "Hardened, sharp, I get a resonance of... collecting? No that can't be right."
"From what I was told by Mrs. Chulkris, that's more or less dead on." Caitlin picked up the knife gingerly and settled it back in it's sheath.
"That's the weirdest Athame I have ever seen." She went on to explain how an athame is a ritual knife used in magical ceremonies and used to harvest and cut certain herbal items.
Caitlin nodded. "Sounds about right. This one's a bit unique."
"I can see that. The wards on your clothes have a resonance of suppression, your body whenever you're flashing is chaotic. unrestrained, painful?" Diamondback looked Caitlin in the eye. "It hurts?"
"Yeah. Hurts quite a bit. I just usually tune it out. Sometimes it gets pretty bad though."
"Ouch." She looked at Caitlin's neck. "Focusing medallion?"
"Sorta. I dunno what the hell I'm supposed to focus. Maybe I can learn something when I start magic classes."
"You're definitely gonna start on magic?" Diamondback looked hopeful.
"Circe is my Advisor. I go to her to work out a class schedule tomorrow."
Diamondback grinned "She is really something else, huh? Mrs. Chulkris is my advisor. She was happy that someone who isn't a natural mage is willing to put in the time to learn the hard way."
Caitlin thought about that. "Makes sense. I've noticed that folks who work harder toward an end tend to do better than people who start out able to play the game."
Diamondback nodded. "I hope so. At least I'm learning not to take these things for granted." She looked up. "Hey I need to get back to my room. Got studying to do, you know. I'll see you around later?"
Caitlin rose and nodded. "Sure. I'll be around. Catch you later Diamondback."
"Sandra." The snake girl smiled slightly. "Call me Sandra."
"All right Sandra. Have a good one, and don't let anyone give you any shit."
Sandra nodded and slithered off in the direction of Whitman.
Caitlin smiled and walked back up towards her room to work on the puzzle of the Ink she had made.
Caitlin entered the room to a welcome sight. Apparently someone had gone through her apartment and cleaned it out, transferring all of her stuff to her room out in the storage building. She grinned and moved the desk to the wall, where someone had helpfully installed a cable connection. She pulled out all her stuff and began arranging it around the room, thankful that the combined strength of the wards on the walls and her clothes kept her mystic backlash in check.
A few hours later and the place almost looked like someone lived there, rather than a demonic containment unit. She set up her desktop and work laptop on the desk and booted them up, hooking up to the school internet connection. She smirked as she saw her desktop backgroud come up. It was a picture of two of his old buddies from back in the corps. Heckel and Jeckel, the mutant twins from hell. They were both low-key, exemplar 1's who had the most twisted senses of humor she had ever come across. She almost came close on a good day.
After she finished setting up, she went about studying the two ink containers. The fluids inside were more or less the same except the color, a byproduct of the maker's personality. The green one just screamed power and magic, and she realized that was probably that resonance thing that Diamondback, Sandra, had talked about. The other was difinitely herself, but missing something. Empty.
She poked at the problem, going through all of her stuff, and seeing if anything screamed ME! Uniforms, old records on paper, Cd's everything came up blank. The electronics crap she dismissed immediately as unimportant. The rest of it, seemed to resonate with the past, something she dearly wanted to hold onto. She wasn't Erik Mahren, the rough and ready Marine anymore, but she definitely didn't want to forget or lose that part of her.
Her attention went back to the two needles that awaited use. Both of them reeked of unused potential. Mithril implements were expensive for a reason. She imagined sitting for painstaking hours, even days while those needles were used to inscribe the complex designs that would be necessary. There was no proscribed pattern, each design would be distinctively of the maker's own, an expression of their soul.
"Screw this. I need a tattoo gun." She muttered as the sun came up again, having not gotten any sleep and feeling fine despite the lack. "This stupid ritual shit needs the modern touch.
She walked out and went over to the art department, and talked to the teachers theree, procuring a tattoo gun from them. God I love Whateley, she thought, we have everything here. She took the gun back and looked at the device, comparing the needle, and smiled. She knew what to do.
Thursday, November 30th
She was going to be late to her appointment. Most of the students, tough or not, knew that one did not stand in the way of someone running full-bore through the campus while blazing with energy across their bodies. She had a clear path to the magic department, stopping long enough for the corona to die down. Normally she wouldn't give a hairy rat's ass about being late to anyone's office save Gunny Bardue's, but she found herself liking Circe.
Circe was in her office smirking as she entered. "Running a little behind, Caitlin?"
She grinned. "Yeah, sorry. I had to finish up a project before I came."
Caitlin reached into her wallet and pulled out a thin silver needle, significantly different than the one Circe gave her. "Yeah, It was one of those 'can't leave it if I want it to work' deals."
Circe inspected the needle. It was significantly shorter than the one she'd given Caitlin, with a hollowed out core, but the Mithril construction was unmistakeable.
"I had enough to make both sets I'll need."
"You changed the needle?" Circe looked somewhat surprised.
"Yeah, I got to thinking there had to be a better way than the dip, prick, dip, prick method of tattooing. I was able to change the needle without altering it's attunement."
"Very nice. I hope you know what you're doing."
"Not a clue, but it kinda came to me."
Circe shook her head. "All right. Down to business. I know you've already graduated High School so we can skip the core requirements. I took the liberty of checking your transcripts from High school before Carson had Hartford burn them. Your grades were atrocious."
Caitlin looked sheepish. "I passed didn't I?"
"Caitlin, a 2.3 GPA is hardly adequate, especially given how intelligent you are."
"Yeah, well. I kinda skipped the homework and aced every test the teachers tossed at me." She looked to the sky. "I got bored too easy. Most of High School was spent going over shit I'd already learned."
"So you'd prefer a challenging class schedule?" Circe smirked slightly.
"In a word, YES!" Caitlin looked at her. "Even if I get this magic thing under control I have no identity except as a sixteen year old girl. I can't just walk away from school at this point, because I have no diploma, and I sure as hell am NOT going to settle for a GED. Those things are worth about as much as toilet paper, and the toilet paper is actually useful." She settled back. "I figure if I have to put up with High School I'd rather have classes that didn't leave me yawning at the end of the day."
"Be careful what you wish for." Circe began typing on her computer. "All right, We'll settle you into Introduction to Magic theory, and Magic Lab. Mrs. Chulkris teaches the first, I teach the second. Any preferences on self-defense classes?"
"I think I should start with the basics. Yeah I can fight just fine, but I'm gonna need to learn how to move all over again. The range has already showed me my points are off."
"I think Sensei-Ito and Sensei-Tolman would appreciate that sentiment, but you'll likely give them a headache if your fighing style is anything like Oscar's.
"Where do you think I learned all my dirty tricks?"
"We'll round out this semester with Basic Rifle Combat, Powers Lab and Physics. Rifle combat won't be much challenge, but I know how you and Gunny are about staying sharp. And I don't know any teachers here at Whateley who haven't read all the powers theory books half a dozen times each, mutant or not."
Caitlin nodded. "So am I officially on a scholarship for this then? And yeah. I've read all the powers theory stuff till my ears started bleeding."
"Yes, the details were arranged by Carson, since even though he signed on as your 'adopted parent' Gunny Bardue doesn't need to foot your bills. That means a job here on campus."
"Yay. How about Range Assist? I know we're short two teachers there, and while Wilson's good at what he does, he's better at teaching the basics. Not so hot on the safety thing."
"I'll look into it. How are you going to explain your expertise?"
"Orphaned child of a single, marine father. I was hanging out with the leathernecks since I got out of diapers. Daddy couldn't afford Day care, so arrangements were made to allow me to go with him into the field and to the ranges. Been shooting since I was eight, total tomboy." Caitlin waited for the verdict.
"Given this some thought have we?"
"Not much else to do besides trying to puzzle out that ink crap. The closest thing that I can think of would be blood, but that's me now. Not me, from before."
Circe nodded. "If I had thought of that earlier I would have had Bellows save your blood samples. But for now, anything else?"
"Yeah. If you can I'd like to take classes for the magic stuff and self-defense with Diamondback."
Circe raised an eyebrow. "Any particular reason?"
"She's a good young lady who could probably use a friend besides Jericho and Silent Bob going to some of her classes. The girl needs to come out of her shell."
Circe nodded. "Good enough. Besides, she might be able to help you catch up easier. The girl hides it well, but she's smarter than almost anyone on the campus."
"Why does this fact fail to surprise me?"
"It's always the quiet ones you have to watch for. Now get going. I have to get ready for my next class." She handed Caitlin the printed schedule and shooed her out of the office.
Caitlin nodded in thanks and went out the door.
Caitlin looked at the schedule Circe had printed out for her on the way to the Crystal Hall. First period was Aikido with Sensei-Ito, then Powers Thory, and Intro to Magic theory. Lunch, of course, Magic Lab, followed by physics and Basic rifle combat rounding out the day. Not bad, she'd likely need to unwind at the end of the day and range time was perfect for that kind of thing.
She looked at her class equipment list. Lots of stuff. Time for another trip to the store, but that could happen after lunch. She was feeling acutely hungry, something she was getting used to. Before, she'd been able to go for weeks on one middling meal a day. Now she got hungry as hell quite a bit more. More shit to adapt to. Dr. Polland had said something in passing about a highly accelerated metabolism.
Sandra and Razorback were absent when she arrived, but Jericho was in attendance, scarfing his food as only a teenage boy could. She dropped into the seat across from him and dug in. When she finished she looked at him. He seemed concerned. "Hey, Jericho, what's eating you?"
"Sorry Caitlin, just thinking. Word on the grapevine is that two of the guys from Diamond's self-defense class are planning something 'special' for her tonight. Apparently she beat their asses but good and they're looking for a bit of payback."
"Wait, Sandra clobbered two people?"
Jericho looked up, mildly surprised that she used the snake-girl's real name. "Yeah. She's all shy and quiet in public, but Ito's class lets her take out all her pent-up pissed-off. She's a nice girl, but her and Razorback are both people you do not want to corner. Both of 'em got reflexes from hell and Sandra's bite is poisonous. She's a spitter too.
"Ouch. So what, these monkeys planning, just to embarass her, or to hurt her?"
"Willie and Necro are both wannabe ultraviolents. They want in with Bloodwolf and his crew, so it's not gonna stop at embarassing."
Caitlin got a nasty look. "Wonderful. More good news. I'm not even in classes and I'm already gonna get into a fight."
"You don't have to Caitlin. Me and Razorback are gonna be there, and we already set out the word with security." Jericho said evenly.
"Nope, nothing doing. Sorry Jericho, but I do believe I'm gonna have a chat with these boys about how you treat a lady," Caitlin replied archly.
Jericho chuckled. "All right, here's the deal. Sandra's got a dance club/class thing after hours. Not the ballroom, stuff, more modern dance with some traditional styles like bellydancing and native forms. They're planning to ambush her outside Whitman once it's dark. I told security that me and Razorback were gonna meet her and provide an escort home to make sure it don't happen. We're hoping that her having friends with her will deter them, but like I said, they want in with Bloodwolf. Carson's been told, and we've been told to go ahead and do it, so long as we don't start the fight."
"How accurate is the word here?" Caitlin leaned in.
Jericho thought about it. "Pretty good most likely, see we got this guy named Thuban. He keeps eyes and ears out watching for this kinda shit, mostly to keep the GSD kids from getting hurt. He gets favors in return for the info, but when he gives word, word is usually good."
Caitlin nodded. "He's one of the cottage fixers?"
"Yeah. I think he's one of the best ones we got so far. Creepy guy though. Not sure if I like him." Jericho paused. "But then again, if he's right and this set up goes off I'll be happy to pay him his favor."
Caitlin nodded. "Alright. I know where that club meets. I been exploring. I'll provide some overwatch for Sandra, meet her at the door and walk her home."
"No offense Caitlin, but Willie and Necro are nasty fighters. Willie's a speedy. Likes to run circles around you while hitting every pressure point you have. Necro's got this thing where he touches you and your skin starts to melt."
"And I'm combat trained, and am a lot stronger than I look." Caitlin got a nasty grin. "Please tell me Willie is not that kid's codename."
Sandra slithered out of the building where she had dance class, smiling. This was the one thing besides magic she did at whateley that she loved. She'd figured out a long time ago that not having legs wasn't much of an obstacle, you just had to learn to move differently. She smiled to herself and began slithering over to Whitman.
"I thought I told you not to hide that face behind your hair." Caitlin was walking up, grinning from ear to ear.
Sandra smiled and pulled her hair away from her face. "You're not gonna let me get away with not being seen are you?"
"Hell no." Caitlin grinned and fel into step beside the snake-girl. "Besides, Jericho's been telling you the same thing for how long?"
"About a year now."
"Jericho's a bright boy. He's right. But that's not the issue. Somewhere, between where we are now and the mysterious Whitman hall, there lies two idiots I like to refer to as Willie and Necro, lying in wait for a certain slithering lady."
"Willie and necro are after me?" She began to look a bit nervous.
"That's the rumor." Caitlin winked at her. "Don't worry. You beat their asses once, you can do it again. Besides, now I'm joining the party and Razorback's being sneaky. Jericho's standing by to hit the Campus security panic button."
Sandra nodded. "So why you here?"
"Easy. I'm a lot nastier than I look, and I don't like it when people attack friends. Or threaten to."
"Friends?" Sandra looked slightly surprise.
"I like you." Caitlin stopped. "Oh shit."
Diamondback looked where she was watching and saw them, five bodies creeping through the bushes just as they burst out on the attack.
Sandra recognized Willie and Necro, while both of them recognized Killstench, Maggot and Bloodwolf.
"Sandra hold on, I'm gonna pin down the Ultraviolents!"
Sandra didn't even have time to argue as Caitlin bounded straight into Bloodwolf, smashing him several meters back with broken bones. That wouldn't last long. The big goob healed faster than it took some people to change underwear. Necro and Willie were on top of her in seconds. She dodged Willie, and slapped Necro away from her with her tail. The gaunt boy was thrown back several yards. Willie was a bit harder, as he was a speedster and could match her arguably insane reflexes, so the fight between them rapidly went nowhere.
Caitlin was in trouble and she knew it. Had she been in this fight as Erik, it would have been over in seconds. She was desperately trying to lay a hand on Killstench while simultaneously not getting hit by Maggot. She didn't feel like watching her skin melt. She finally connected and Bloodwolf was back in the game. She found herself completely on the defense as the giant shag carpet rushed her, clawing and snarling. Maggot kept trying to circle behind her, but she wouldn't stand still. A punch convinced Bloodwolf that being mindlessly aggressive wouldn't work, but the Ultraviolents had the upper hand. They were going to savor this one.
"Chief we got a live one! Scanners show a wild fight about 200 yards away from Whitman." Forsyth called out.
Chief Delarose walked over. "Who do we have in this tussle?" He watched the feeds and was surprised to see what looked like a complete knot of students in open brawl. No flyers.
"Looks like the Ultraviolents, Necro and Willie fighting... Two girls. Sandra Carter, or Diamondback and Hey! I know that girl! That's Caitlin, the one from the other morning!"
"What's her file?"
"Nada, new student settling in. Real cooperative."
"Get second squad out there armed for Heavy. This was the fight Jericho gave us the heads-up on. It's bigger than he thought."
"I'm on it boss. Get the squad there myself."
"You do that."
Caitlin screamed in pain and rage as claws slashed open her arm. The return punch sent the psychotic werewolf airborne. Killstench was back up and charging, Maggot was still trying to get her to sit still long enough for him to grab her. There were no insults, no witty banter, this was a all-out fight and everyone knew it.
Sandra was fending off Willie, but had to frequently divert attention to keeping Necro's necrotic touch off of her. She cracked her tail like a bullwhip, slashing open his shirt and hurting him, but he kept coming. When he got close enough he charged, and Sandra spit straight into his eyes. He tried to get the goo out of his vision, then fell flat on the ground, paralyzed.
She looked over at Caitlin and saw her screaming and bleeding, and Willie was coming in after her. Two more figures were coming to the fight, one slow, and one very, very fast. She turned on Willie, bared her fangs and went all-out attack.
Caitlin was taking a royal pounding. They were learning too quickly not to let her actually hit them or touch them. Maggot had burns, and part of his acidic slime coating had solidified on his body when he touched the energy corona on her. Even Bloodwolf was leery, but he kept attacking. They were wearing her down. Death by a thousand little cuts. Her right arm was slashed up, and her left had some nasty burn marks from where Maggot had actually touched her. Her shirt was torn, the wards destroyed, and the corona was arcing, burning and erupting into all-out insanity. Her hat was lost somewhere in the area, long since knocked off and her hair kept getting in her face as a result. The only thing keeping the Ultraviolents from really pressing was the fact that insane bursts of magic were beginning to erupt around her and from her, becoming a mad spectacle.
Then the balance shifted. Bloodwolf was knocked aside by two-hundred pounds of snarling, hissing Lizardman, who carried him a bit away before the two absolutely went insane in animalistic fury, each tearing ragged gashes in the other that healed just as quickly. A moment later, Killstench was on the ground when Jericho struck him with his cane. A dull *WHUPF* noise shot out and the linebacker looking guy went down like it was his purpose in life. Jericho stood above him, smiling and gently tapping him with the cane, each time a shock pushed Killstench to the ground, punctuated by Jericho's obnoxious voice. "No, don't get up." *WHUPF* "You need your beauty rest." *WHUPF* "Here let me help you with that." *WHUPF* "Oh, I'm sorry, only intelligent people are allowed to participate in this fight. You have to sit this one out."
Diamondback finally got ahold of Willie and had him wrapped up in her tail, slowly crushing him while he screamed. Caitlin looked at Maggot and charged, her eyes, and upper body blazing with unrestrained power. He tried to take the hit, but she slammed him across the battle area, angry, hurt and bleeding. Jericho and Diamondback watched as the blood from their friend hit the ground and solidified. Razorback was busy in a going-nowhere stalemate with Bloodwolf when security arrived.
Once they disentangled Willie from Diamondback's coils he was all too happy to go with security now that he could breathe again. They packed up Maggot , Necro and Killstench, and when the three friends were able to finally get through Razorback's psychotic instincts, he leapt away, leaving Bloodwolf staring down the barrels of security's heavy rifles and looking worn out. Meanwhile Caitlin was fending off the Security team medic.
"I don't care how bad the cuts are, this glowing shit will KILL you. Don't touch me!"
More arguing ensued until Forsythe came over and put a halt to it. He put several rolls of gauze and antiseptic in Caitlin's hands and told her in no uncertain terms to go to her room and fix herself. Then he turned to the rest of the quartet and demanded to know exactly what happened.
Caitlin was thankful for the wards in her room making the magic die down enough to bandage herself. She'd lost a lot of blood on the way here, and was busy using Circe's needle and some thread to stitch the wounds, and covering them with antiseptic and gauze. Doing the work without anaesthetic was a bitch, and she was really lousy at the stitching, but it stopped the bleeding. Fortunately as an exemplar she'd heal fast and without scars, at least that was the running theory.
She bandaged the arm Maggot had burned. The skin was melted and pockmarked, and she could almost see the muscles underneath. She wrapped the arm and went to pulling off her shirt and bra. Her left breast was torn up from Bloodwolf's claws. She muttered and winced and swore as she sewed up the slashes as best she could, then put a bandage from her own medical kit on the wound. She dropped the shirt and Bra on the bed. She'd fix them later.
Chief Delarose knocked and entered, realizing he should probably have waited. Caitlin got an annoyed look and put on the White Tank top with all the wards. She put the hat she'd retrieved back on and sighed.
"Sorry, didn't mean to see you..."
"Don't worry chief, everyone got a good view anyway when Bloodwolf tore open my shirt. You here to get a statement or yell at me?"
"Statement, actually. Mostly I was curious about why you were armed, and didn't use it."
"Well, as far as statements, I heard about the planned ambush and went to walk Diamondback to Whitman. I was hoping that Willie and Necro would be too cowardly to go two on two. I wasn't expecting the Ultraviolents, or else I'd have brought the Tazer guns from the Range two armory." She stood, sore as hell and feeling like eleven miles of bad road.
"And why you decided to take on the three Ultraviolents?" Delarose was more curious than anything.
"I got the muscle and the training. I knew I could at least survive long enough for someone to respond, and I knew Jericho had filled the Security station in on what happened. Hell Delarose, I know you know exactly who I am. Why you playing all coy with me?" Caitlin looked mildly irritated at the man.
"Just had to check. I'm gonna miss you up at the ranges there, we've already had to respond to a fight since they pulled you."
"I'm trying to get my student job up at the ranges."
Delarose nodded. "Ever think about security auxiliary? I watched that fight. You have good instincts, and if it had been one less Ultraviolent on you, you would have wiped the floor with the lot of them. The fact that I know I can trust you to be responsible is a bonus."
Caitlin nodded. "Ok I'll buy that. Tell you what, send the paperwork to Circe and gimmie a few days to heal these lovely gashes and I'd be happy to help."
"Already done. Good luck with your classes tomorrow."
"So why'd you skip the knife?"
"Because if I pulled the knife, the only survivor would have been Bloodwolf."
Friday, December 1st
Caitlin walked into the dojo, wincing and annoyed. She wore a blue T-shirt with silver wards, and a pair of black jeans with a leather studded belt and silver-marked wards. The hat, shoes and fingerless gloves were ever-present. She looked at the clock... Hmmm, 15 minutes early. I have to stop that. Normal High school girls aren't usually that eager to get to class.
She settled in, wondering where the teacher was.
"New student?" She almost jumped out of her skin as the small asian man who taught Aikido seemed to materialize behind her.
"Yes Sensei." She turned and gave Sensei Ito a bow, and looked at him.
"Ah at least you know the proper forms of address." He nodded. "Do you have a Gi for practice?"
"No sensei, I have one, but it won't survive. The clothes I'm wearing have been modified by Circe to keep my powers under wraps." She replied nervously.
"Unpredictable as well, yes."
"Very well. Have you had formal training in the martial arts?" Ito went on quietly, studying her.
"A lot of heavy striking and dirty fighting taught by military types Sensei."
Sensei-Ito scowled a bit. "I suppose I'll have to teach you to unlearn all of your bad habits as well. Do you have any powers that might be an issue besides that energy wave that seems to go off whenever you move?"
"Yes sensei, I'm a lot tougher than I was before and can lift about a thousand pounds unaided."
Ito nodded thoughtfully. "The bandages?" He motioned to Caitlin's arms.
"Close encounter of the Ultraviolent kind, Sensei. I was trying to keep a student from having to go five on one."
"Not the smartest thing I've heard, but children are seldom sensible." He nodded. "Very well once you are healed I will allow you to demonstrate what combat skills you have. But before you leave, I want to know what made you and this other student think you could win five on one odds."
"We weren't fighting to win, sensei, we were fighting for time. We had made sure to report to security that there might be trouble."
Sensei-Ito nodded once again. "Very well, Miss Bardue. I expect to see you no later than monday here again. Sooner if you happen to be an exemplar."
Caitlin nodded. "Aye, Sensei."
Powers Lab was interesting. Mrs. Bohn was insightful and tried to instill common sense into her students. A few runs in the simulators were done. Caitlin couldn't due to her injuries, but all in all it was an interesting class. She was slightly uncomfortable in the classrooms, but no one else showed any sign that she was out of place, thinking she was simply another Brick type. She saw no reason to correct the notion.
Mrs. Chulkris gave her a smile as she entered the Magic theory class. Caitlin didn't think she'd ever get used to seeing plants growing from someone's body. She nodded to Earth Mother and scanned the room, eyes automatically locking on Sandra's serpentine form. She walked over and plopped down in the adjascent seat, ignoring the incredulous looks from the students who were less than friendly with the girl.
"Heya Diamond." Caitlin grinned.
"Hi!" Sandra immediately perked up and grinned. "I didn't know you were gonna be in this class."
"I kinda finangled my schedule with Circe. She was curious, but didn't really object."
"Cool. We're into a discussion of focusing crystals and how they work."
Caitlin nodded. "Think we can get together so I can get up to speed sometime? I'm way behind on all this finger-wiggling mumbo-jumbo."
"Hey, it's not..." Sandra caught the glint in Caitlin's eyes and her smirk and realized she was messing with her. "Oh you're gonna fit right in with our group."
"Kinda figured. We'd better shuddup now. Mrs. Chulkris looks like she wants to address the class."
Both girls payed attention to the lecture beginning. Mrs. Chulkris started the lecture in much the way Caitlin expected, but it rapidly became apparent that she expected audience participation. Turns out Sandra really knew what she was talking about. She kept up with the more esoteric concepts readily, even answering questions Caitlin couldn't figure out if there was a coherent answer to.
"Now can anyone tell me how to empower a crystal for use as a mystic aid?" The verdant woman asked the class. No hands raised.
Caitlin sighed and raised her hand when she realized that everyone was silent and Earth mother was staring right at her.
"Yes, Miss Bardue."
"Depends on what you want. Care to give an example so I can give a coherent answer?"
"A simple focus crystal that will allow one to channel energies into a ritual or spell to allow finer control." Mrs. Chulkris looked entirely too smug.
Caitlin thought for a minute, wandered up, palmed one of the crystals she had on the display, pocketed it and walked back to her desk. "Easiest way is to simply keep the crystal on your person for about a month or so, especially if you're casting. The more magic you use, the faster it attunes to you."
"Correct. Now I'm going to pass these out to the rest of you. Remember, for the full attunement it will take a month in most cases. Faster for some. Now what is the principle behind this Miss Bardue?"
"Search me. I can tell ya effort and result, but I never got a chance to study the whys and hows of the whole deal." Caitlin felt her face burning as a few students smirked at the new kid being put on the spot and choking.
Earth Mother nodded and went back to her lecture. "It's a simple process. The more exposed to magic an item becomes, the more sensitive to those energies it becomes. Some items have a natural resonance that allows for faster or more powerful results. Crystals are one of these. They don't require any ritual work per se for basic attunement, but more potent results can be attained with such. They aren't the most powerful foci, but they can help in a pinch."
The rest of the day went along in similar fashion, and Caitlin felt like her head was going to pop from the information glut that she barely understood. High school understanding of mysticism really didn't provide many clues to the more potent energies of the world.
When lunch rolled around she and Sandra wandered into the cafeteria, and the two loaded up their plates and enjoyed a nice, low key meal. Jericho and Razorback didn't make it before they finished, and Sandra went over some of the very basics of magic theory. She managed to dumb it down to Caitlin's level, but the ex-marine was left with the feeling that the shy, quiet girl was light years ahead of her in the brains department. The only advantage Caitlin had was twelve extra years of real-world experience, and an ability to break down complex ideas into their simplest forms and build from there.
When the two split off it was getting towards classes, so Caitlin went and picked up her metal case, wandering over to the store with her class lists. She picked up all the required materiels and a few she thought she might need later for random projects. The ballistic vest was problematic. She couldn't use her old one. It was too wide, and she needed something with a bit more stopping power than kevlar. She eventually settled on the matte black Mylar-weave vest with deforming ballistic plates. Someone called it a devisor special. Gauranteed to stop knives and bullets that weren't supernaturally accelerated. She picked up a sewing kit and some special thread from the section of mystic gear, and checked the lot out.
Her bank account took a heavy hit in fifteen minutes of shopping, but had enough to hold out for quite a while yet.
Physics was a breeze. The class was studying ballistics, something Caitlin knew a disgusting amount about. She managed to get by rather easily, even contributing meaningful commentary. Dr. Zalman was impressed at how accurately she was able to describe and diagram a ballistic arc, complete with ricochet patterns.
Magic Lab was interesting to say the least. Most of the students were concentrating on conjuring illusions and controlling small elemental energies. She watched and paid attention, as the effect the students had on the currents that underlied her vision was absolutely fascinating. The kids seemed to grasp and pull the currents into patterns and shapes that coalesced into actual effects. Diamondback wasn't the most adept at it, but she certainly put forth a lot of concentration and effort.
Mostly Caitlin sat back and was busy sewing mystic wards into her new Ballistic vest that matched up with the ones on her shirt. She was going to ask Circe to activate and empower them once she got the groundwork laid out. Circe said nothing, and everyone was too interested in the results of their work to notice her.
Basic Rifle Combat was a dud. She wasn't permitted to participate due to the fact that she couldn't yet wear her vest without cooking it off or something equally stupid. Gunny Bardue supervised, but they didn't get time to talk. She simply observed the class while continuing her sewing on the vest. The kids were using MILES gear and blanks in open combat, divided into two teams. The Seniors led the underclassmen, and Bardue supervised, hollering tactical information and invective at the students who weren't performing well. Not surprisingly, Deadeye was leading one of the teams. Breaker had control of the other team.
The two Grunts Team members were surprisingly effective leaders, and Caitlin had to suppress a long sigh. She'd been teaching the two since their Freshman year. Both were planning to join the Corps. and she'd wanted to be able to be the one to drop them off at MCRD Parris Island herself, and be able to be there when they graduated. Oh well. Such is life
The day ended, and she skipped the cafeteria, opting to grab her food to go. She went back to her room and continued her efforts to puzzle out that damned Artificer Ink. She knew she was missing something, something so basic that it was almost invisible. She felt like she was searching for a mithril needle in a stack of needles. But all in all, classes were good, and she was looking forward to her second chance at life. Maybe someday she'd be able to get her teaching job back. Maybe she'd be able to do something equally fulfilling. Only time would tell.