Friday, April 27, 2007
"Someone didn't come home last night," Evvie whispered in my ear, startling me. Debra and I were in the serving line at the caf, and I hadn't seen Evvie sneak up behind me.
"Um ....: I stammered, turning to see she was with Naomi, Rip, and Verdant. "I don't know ...."
"What I'm talking about?" Evvie giggled. "Yeah, right!"
Naomi grinned. "Judging from that stupid grin on your face, I'd say you didn't get much sleep last night."
I blushed crimson, though I couldn't deny what they'd surmised. At the same time, I couldn't help but smile to myself as I recalled the very confusing night before.
"So, was the hot tub party worth it?" Rip asked with a leer, waggling her eyebrows.
"Mmmmm," was all I could say. I'd been so terrified of going to the party because Rosalyn was really hitting on me, and I was afraid that I couldn't resist her advances. And indeed, I hadn't; I was ready to let her take me when she led me back to Poe, to her room.
And then the world became glorious, with angels' voices and trumpet blasts, fireworks and roses and sunshine. I leaned to Debra. "You planned this, didn't you? With Rosalyn, I mean."
She smiled sweetly, so sweetly that I wanted to kiss her again. "Guilty as charged. I hope you don't mind."
I purred with contentment. "No," I answered, "but next time, please let me know so I won't be half-terrified." I'd actually been mortified at my own actions when I'd let Rosalyn escort me back to Poe, and I was so ... in need ... that I let her walk me to her room with nary a protest. I'd gone into the darkened room, fully resigned to letting her have her way with me to satiate my seemingly-insatiable curiosity, and when the door closed and someone wrapped her arms around me and kissed my neck, I was melting, though disgusted with myself for giving in.
And then I'd heard Debra's voice asking why I was so nervous. We kissed long and passionately, me crying with happiness, and then we sneaked out of the cottage to the guest apartments where she was staying. The rest, as they say, is history, and besides, I was never one to kiss and tell
"If I were to hazard a guess," Evvie teased, "someone got laid last night!"
I turned to glare at her but the stupid grin on my face couldn't be wiped away, and instead, my faraway, contented gaze gave away my secret.
We - Debra, Evvie, Naomi, and I - joined Vasiliy, Laurie, Chat Bleu, and Adrian at our usual table. The guys looked at Debra with an appreciative gaze, while Chat Bleu sat impassively and Laurie looked back and forth between Debra and me, a knowing expression on her face. I realized that I'm going to have to have a chat with her.
"Guys," I began as we sat down, "this is Debra - Cornflower. She graduated last year ...."
Adrian nodded. "I remember. You were in Venus Inc., right?"
Debra nodded, smiling. "Yes, I was. I decided to visit my alma mater."
"She's my best friend, and she's with the Sioux Falls League group of superheroes," I continued quickly. "They rescued me from the East River branch of the MCO and helped me get here." I figured if I got past the best-friend and into the entire league's help, it'd disguise _how_ good of friends we were - although I suspected that Laurie had seen through our cover already.
"Vasiliy, also known as RPG," I introduced the Russian, then continued around the table. Debra asked a lot of questions about our fight with the snake-demon in Dunwich and their roles, plus she really drilled into my various incidents and how they'd helped me.
"Sorry, guys," I interrupted her to apologize, "but Debra sometimes is a little overly concerned with my safety and well-being - like my mom." That elicited a chuckle, and a 'look' from Debra while Evvie and Naomi giggled a bit.
After breakfast, on our way out of the cafeteria through Schuster, we bumped into Alicia and Addy; Debra hugged Addy like a sister, and we chatted a bit; Debra wanted to get to know Alicia, because I was going to spend part of my summer with her and Addy. It kind of reminded me of Mom, who'd always insisted on meeting my friends so she knew who I was with, and it left me with mixed feelings. I knew Debra cared deeply for me, and like Mom, she worried about me. On the other hand, I was sixteen, so I didn't need babysitting or her approval of my friends.
"Kayda, can I speak with you for a moment?" Mrs. Carson's voice called down the hall of Schuster.
I almost jumped out of my skin. "Yes, ma'am," I answered quickly. I glanced nervously at Debra, wondering what Mrs. Carson wanted me for. She simply shrugged, so I hastened down the hall toward our headmistress.
She directed me into an empty classroom, since her office was on the second floor and she obviously wanted a bit more privacy than the hallway afforded. "Do you know why I want to talk with you?" she asked bluntly, with an inscrutable look on her face.
"No, ma'am," I answered hesitantly, "unless it's something about Debra's visit."
"Right in one," she said impassively. "I'm sure you are aware that we have a rule against certain ... extracurricular activities." She watched me blush; she was probably enjoying making me squirm.
"Yes, ma'am," I answered, even more nervous.
"Those rules don't apply to Cornflower," she said, "since she isn't a student. But _you_ are." Crap - was I going to be expelled for the previous night? I gulped - hard. "Normally, we would frown on how you broke two rules - ignoring curfew and sneaking out of your cottage, and engaging in, um, extracurricular activities."
I was almost shaking from nervousness. "Normally?" I squeaked when I realized that there was possibly a lifeline in her words.
"I had a visitor who indicated that you were under significant ... social pressure. This visitor seemed to believe that others were being unknowingly influenced by some external source to apply pressure to you." She watched my eyes pop wide open, and nodded. "I've had Mr. Geintz check, and we can't find any evidence of overt psychic tampering, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that the belief was false."
"But ... why?" I stammered. I could only think of one _social_ pressure I'd been under, but last night had belied that feeling.
"Perhaps to demoralize you. Perhaps to drive you away from Whateley. This wouldn't be the first such incident with you." She smiled knowingly. "That's why I'm _overlooking_ your activities last night."
"Ma'am?" I stammered, confused.
"I'm going to pretend that I didn't see anything. If someone _was_ trying to demoralize or shame you into leaving, your after-hours meeting was a very good way to discourage more such attempts."
I was even more confused. "I ... don't understand."
"You satisfied your normal teenage curiosity in a way that doesn't influence you to 'cheat' on your girlfriend," she continued. "And apart from breaking curfew, which is a school rule, nothing you did last evening was illegal since you are now sixteen.
I know my cheeks were even redder than before. "No, ma'am."
"I only have one request." She smiled pleasantly as I started worrying about what her request was going to be. "Try to be a little more discreet." My jaw dropped at her request. "Oh, don't be like that. We have a school full of hormone-laden teenagers. Do you _honestly_ think we expect to keep kids from experimenting?" She chuckled softly. "The rules are there to help all the students to be a little more ... discreet. And careful."
"Yes, ma'am." I breathed a sigh of relief. I _wasn't_ in trouble. "I have one question, though?"
"Who told you ... about the pressure, I mean?"
Mrs. Carson chuckled again. "Probably the last person you'd expect." She knew she was tweaking my curiosity. "A very good acquaintance of yours." She smiled, letting me suffer from my curiosity. "Blackrose," she said after a few seconds.
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
After lunch, Debra and I went back to Poe, where Mrs. Horton was waiting for us in the lobby. She'd sent word to Crystal Hall that she wanted us both to meet with her as soon as we finished eating. "It's nice to see you again," she greeted Debra with a big hug. "Come in, girls," she said after the hug, gesturing toward her open door.
Inside, Rosalyn was seated at the table, and she looked more nervous than I'd ever seen her, like all the self-confidence had been sucked out of her. She looked up at me timidly. "Hi."
"Hi," I replied uneasily. At Mrs. Horton's gesture, we all joined Rosalyn sitting at the table. I looked at Rosalyn, who was alternating her gaze between the table and Debra. "What's going on here?" I asked bluntly. When Rosalyn didn't answer, but just looked at Debra, I turned to my girlfriend. "Debra? What's going on here?"
Debra winced. "When you came here, I ... asked Rosalyn to watch out for you."
My eyes bulged out. "You ... asked her to try to seduce me?" I was flabbergasted and angered that she might do that.
"No," Rosalyn replied quickly and sharply. "She just asked me to watch out for you and keep you distracted."
"By trying to seduce me," I accused.
Debra put her hand on mine. "No. That wasn't part of the plan. I was worried about you and I knew that you weren't very confident. I figured that if someone like Rosalyn were paying attention to you, it'd help your self-confidence. And she could watch out for you, distract you from things that might not be going well." She smiled. "I knew she wouldn't get serious about you. She never gets emotionally involved."
"Um ...." Rosalyn mumbled nervously. "That's not ... quite ... true." Debra and I gawked at her, and she looked down again. "I ...."
Debra stared at her for several seconds. "You ... started having feelings for her?" Debra asked, stunned.
Rosalyn gulped, and then nodded, meekly looking at Debra. "It ... was just a challenge at first. Like usual." She looked down again, not quite sure how to proceed. "I ... never felt anything ... for a girl. Not like I wanted a long-term relationship. I ...." She looked up at me, and I could see the tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. "I ... I'm afraid I fell for you. Like I swore I'd never do. Not again. Not after Janet."
I stared at her, speechless. Debra, too, was dumbfounded, her jaw worked, trying to get words out, but her brain failed her, and she just couldn't find anything to say.
Mrs. Horton interjected, "Janet and Rosalyn had a thing during Rosalyn's first year here. But Janet broke Rosalyn's heart - quite badly."
"I know it's silly," Rosalyn forced a laugh, a hollow, sad sound, "but ... I did ... start falling for you." She looked up at me. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I guess I really messed up this time."
"Mrs. Carson said ...." I began.
"I talked to her earlier this morning," Rosalyn admitted. With a sad smile, she added, "While you two were probably in the shower." Debra and I both blushed at that little supposition. "Something - I don't know what - seemed to make me ... want you more than normal." She sighed, shaking her head. "Normally, when a girl says no the third time ...."
"You back off. I know." Debra finished her sentence. "But this time?"
"Almost from the start, I really didn't want to take no for an answer, and while I like the hunt, that's not like me. Something seemed odd, but it took me a while to figure out that something hinky was going on."
"Why didn't you tell someone, dear?" Mrs. Horton asked, almost like she was upset that Rosalyn wouldn't trust her.
"Tell them what? That I felt more attracted to Kayda than normal?" she asked. "Would you have believed me? Especially with my reputation?"
Mrs. Horton thought a moment. "No, I suppose not."
"The other night," she admitted, "when I found myself wanting ... to take you, and not take no for an answer, I ... I knew for certain that something was wrong."
"So you called me?" Debra asked, to which Rosalyn simply nodded.
Mrs. Horton put her hand gently on Rosalyn's arm. "You did the right thing, dear."
I was absolutely baffled. "You ... set up ... last night?"
Rosalyn blushed and nodded. "I ... I called Debra to arrange things." She looked down. "Even though it felt like Janet all over again, that I was getting hurt." There were drops forming in the corners of her eyes. "I ... couldn't ... hurt you," she admitted. "Even though I knew I was hurting myself."
The conversation didn't last much longer; there was nothing else to say. As Debra and I walked to my fourth period martial arts class, I couldn't help but wonder. "Will she be okay?"
Debra shrugged. "I hope so. I've never seen her so vulnerable before. She was always rock-solid, the steady, unemotional one in relationships."
"And you're still fond of her, aren't you?" It wasn't an accusing tone, or at least I hoped it wasn't.
"Of course," Debra answered bluntly. "You never forget those you love." We walked in silence a few yards. "Are you going to be okay? With her here, knowing how she feels?"
I tried to nod, but my head refused to move. "I don't know. I think so." I took a few more steps. "I'm ... I'm worried about her."
Debra pulled me close in a brief side hug. "I know. So am I. But she'll be okay."
Debra nodded. "That's all we can do - hope that she's okay."
Outside Crystal Hall, after lunch
Amber Prentice clung tightly to Mike's arm as they strolled casually away from the cafeteria. For the past few weeks, he'd been getting more and more uptight. She led him to one of the little detached patios where she sat next to him in the warm spring sun. "Are you okay, Mike?" she asked, worried because he hadn't spoken since they'd left the caf.
"Sure," he answered immediately, a little testily. "Why?"
"You seem ... tense," Amber replied, trying to soothe him. "Like something's on your mind."
Mike sighed, and then glanced around. "It's that damned favor I owe my shaman," he grumbled. "That girl just _isn't_ taking any hints! I'm going to have to get ... more serious."
Amber's eyes widened. "You're not thinking of something ... drastic, are you?"
Mike laughed, surprising her. "It won't be anything she doesn't deserve," he replied, "and my shaman got me some tools."
"Security is really watching her," Amber cautioned. "What ... what are you going to do?"
"Tell me, sweetie," he replied, "how would you like to get back at that _other_ Lakota freak for hurting your cousin, Gold Stallion?"
Amber's eyes narrowed to burning slits. "That ... bastard!" she snarled. He'd really, really hurt Gold Stallion, and then had forced him to eat a humiliating meal to get cured.
"Suppose," Mike mused with an evil chuckle, "he got blamed for the next attack on the girl?" He grinned wickedly. "We can take advantage of security paying attention so that _he_ gets the blame for the next one, and for all the other attacks too, and he'll get expelled!" He looked at her eye-to-eye. "You _do_ want to get even with him, don't you? And if the attack is really, really serious, she'll leave - just like the shaman wants."
Laird Hall, 4th period
"Cornflower!" I'd never seen Sensei Tolman display the kind of enthusiasm that she greeted Debra in my advanced Aikido class. She walked quickly to Debra and wrapped her in a warm hug. "What brings you here?"
"My ... well, adopted sister is the best way to say it ... had her birthday yesterday, and since she's had a few radical changes very recently, I thought she'd like to see a familiar face," she replied easily. As we lay cuddling earlier in the morning, we talked about how she'd explain being here with me - because we didn't dare state the truth. Hence the 'adopted sister'.
Sensei looked back and forth between the two of us, an eyebrow arched like she understood our little fiction. "So I assume you wanted to see how 'little sis' is doing learning to defend herself, right?" she chuckled.
"That _did_ cross my mind," Debra replied lightly. As other students came onto the mat, they stared - some nervously - at Debra because she was a visitor to the class and she was speaking with Sensei. I knew exactly what was going through their minds, and Debra did too. Visitors talking with an instructor usually meant special sparring and demonstrations. "How _is_ she doing?"
Sensei's eyes darted around to ensure no-one was close enough to overhear. "Kayda's ... issue ... is a handicap for her, but she is improving. She's a diligent and attentive student - most of the time - when she's not angry at Ito Soke and calling him names in Lakota." Both women looked disapprovingly at me, and I shrank back. "She's learning quickly. She's started sparring with some of our male students, but we're being careful."
Debra nodded her approval. "Good."
Ito strode out of the instructor's locker room, so I had to rush to get in seiza position and everyone was surprised when Debra joined me at the edge of the mats.
Sensei Ito strode confidently to the center of the mat as usual, and after scanning the students, he gave a cursory nod to Debra. "We have an alumna of Whateley visiting us today," he began. "Cornflower, could you come to the center of the mat?" As she strode confidently toward Ito and Tolman, Ito continued. "Cornflower is a member of the Sioux Falls League, a hero group in South Dakota." She turned and smiled at the students. "She has agreed to help us today with some demonstrations." He got a subtle smile that we all knew meant trouble. "Phase, would you come to the center ring, please?"
If Ayla was nervous about being called out by Ito, he sure didn't show it. "Yes, Sensei," he answered, springing to his feet and striding to join Debra with the senseis.
"Here is the scenario," Sensei Tolman explained, "Phase, you are a villain who has just stolen fragile vials of a highly toxic substance, and your goal is simple - to escape within three minutes - with your ten-pound bag of stolen materials, before more superheroes arrive to ensure your apprehension. You will begin in the circle to the left, and you will have escaped if you exit the right edge of the rightmost circle with the loot. Cornflower's goal is at minimum to delay you, to not allow the container to rupture and release the toxins, to get the bag safely from you, and if possible, to capture you. Understood?" Phase nodded, not taking his eyes off Debra, while she smiled at the challenge, nodding her agreement. "You may use your powers, but no lethal holdouts, understood?"
The two bowed to each other, and then took their places. "Hajime."
Almost instantly, Debra changed from her street clothes into her superhero costume - which I knew was courtesy of magic from Vanity Girl, while without hesitation, Ayla took the initiative. He went heavy and tossed one of his smaller ball bearings at Debra, but she had experience and expected use of holdouts or power, and she ducked, using a pulse of energizer push to deflect the ball bearing into a wall. If he'd have been fighting full-out, the ball bearing would have left a crater in the wall, but in this case, he hadn't thrown it full-force so it merely chipped the paint. She moved in quickly to Ayla, closing for a direct attack or grapple, but Ayla was ready; Debra's force pulse rocked Ayla back a little, but didn't throw him since he was heavy. As he recovered, Debra attacked directly, but Ayla countered quickly, swinging with his baton. Debra had to duck and roll away from the heavy object, doing a foot-sweep as she did and temporarily knocking Ayla over.
He rolled and came up on his feet, deciding at this point that a dash for the exit was more practical than continuing to fight. Debra, though, anticipated such a maneuver, and one of her own holdouts - bolos attached with very high-strength cable, wrapped around Ayla's legs, tripping him.
Ayla's experience in training and in real fights showed; he immediately went light, phasing through the cables and freeing himself, floating upward so he wouldn't smack into the ground. I couldn't help but gasp; he could float over Debra and make his escape.
Except that Debra was experienced and expected the unexpected, and not knowing if her opponent could escape the cables or not, she used the distraction to shoot a strange-looking gun at - of all things - the loot bag, and at the same time, used her other hand to direct a force-shove at Ayla. Being light, Ayla was pushed head-over-heels, tumbling, toward the back wall.
Ayla managed to go heavy again before he hit the wall, but was then surprised that when he tried to move away, the loot bag wouldn't come free from the wall. Further, his hand was stuck to the handle, and some of the glue was splattered on the side of his gi, which might make it tricky for him to move. He made the best of it, though, and phased in a way that disintegrated the glue from his hand, freeing himself. His strategy changed instantly; he threw another ball bearing, which Debra wasn't able to deflect completely because she was too close; it smashed into her left knee, and she crumpled, a scream of pain erupting from her lips.
"Debra!" I cried aloud, starting to my feet, but Alicia and Addy held my shoulders so I didn't run to her side. I guessed that Ayla was going to disable Debra or force her to surrender, and if he did that within the time limit, he could use his phasing to free the loot bag, get away, and win.
"Non," Addy gave me a knowing look. "It is Debra's fight, not yours. The Senseis will punish you if you interfere."
"I can't just sit and watch her be hurt again!" I cried - not even realizing that I'd replied to Addy in French. My heart ached; I desperately wanted to run to Debra and help her, but I couldn't. All I could do was watch as Ayla went light and floated toward Debra, high enough to be out of her reach as she lay on the mat, wincing in pain. I gasped again when he drew his tactical baton from his waist belt; I'd seen that thing in action against bricks, and it was devastating.
Debra wasn't done, though. To the surprise of everyone in the class - although I wasn't certain if Ayla was surprised as well - she rolled to her feet and in the same motion launched a golf-ball toward Ayla. No sooner had it left her hand than it split into numerous segments, the expanding segments drawing forth a thin mesh that seemed to crackle with energy. In only a foot or two of distance, it was a net about three meters in diameter, and dragged by the weights of the ball pieces, it wrapped around Ayla. Ayles gasped in pain as energy discharged from the net; to avoid pain, he went heavy, and as a result, crashed to the ground with the net completely encircling him as the segments somehow drew back together, closing the trap.
Debra limped painfully to where Ayla lay on the mat. "Do you submit?" she asked, one hand in a waist-pouch just in case.
Ayla struggled with the net for a few seconds, and then nodded. "Yes," he said simply.
Debra touched the reassembled ball, and it split back into segments. She offered a hand to Ayla to stand, and then pulled a small spray bottle from her waist pouch. "This should take care of the glue," she said. "Sorry about the mess."
"Are _you_ okay?" Ayla worried his lip, fretting about whether he'd hurt Debra seriously or not. From the way she was limping and the look on his face, he was certain he had.
Debra nodded feebly. "I've hurt worse." The Monty Python joke fell flat because everyone had seen and heard how bad Debra had been hurt. She gathered up the remains of the net and cautiously tried a step - unsuccessfully. "I think you might have broken something." She saw the worry lines deepen on Ayla's face. "I'll be okay. Might take a bit for my regen to fix it, though."
Sensei Tolman looked at me, and I ran into the locker room to get my medicine pouch. While others separated into groups and started sparring, I made a medium-strength healing potion and spell for Debra. "Are you okay?" I asked, genuinely worried about how hard she'd been hit.
She flexed her knee to test it. "Not a hundred percent," she said with a smile, "but your magic helps a lot." She glanced around, and then whispered, "I'll have to thank you for it later."
I blushed and grinned stupidly at the memories. Before I could say anything, though, Sensei Tolman cleared her throat. "Are you well enough to spar?" she asked Debra.
Testing her knee, Debra stood. "As long as no-one launches any more cannonballs at me."
"Good. Ito Soke would like you to spar with Kayda."
I tried to argue, but I lost. Worse, Ito came over to judge our match. I did horribly, because I was worried about Debra's injured knee and I didn't use my powers as Ito thought I should have. I tried to use my combination ghost-walking and shield spell, and discovered to my dismay that my reflexes of moving quickly after casting a ghost-walking spell needed work, and also that the combination spell was more of a ball than form-fitting shield. One of Debra's force pushes glanced off the shield, and I was bounced around the gym like a billiard ball before I could deactivate the spell - including running over Adamantine when I ricocheted off a wall. And then I had to spar Adamantine, who was still quite pissed at having been run over. And then Ayla. Followed by sparring with Aquerna, who I might have held my own with, except I was getting tired, and she wasn't. That match was followed by a match with JJ, who beat the crap out of me. I was simply too tired to fight a speedster.
While I was suffering through humiliating match after humiliating match, Debra - who was mostly recovered - was sparring with other students, and giving them tips about what she'd learned in real-life battles with super-villains.
After class, I walked out of the gym with Debra. I was in a foul mood. "See?" I grumbled. "Ito makes me do that kind of shit all the time. I get beat up in class all the time like that."
"Then you shouldn't have gone so easy sparring with me," Debra suggested.
My eyes nearly bugged out. "But ... I can't!"
"You have to," Debra countered. She noticed Ayla coming toward us. "Nice match," she said.
Ayla shrugged. "I messed up a couple of times." I'd heard some of Ayla's self-critiques of sessions in the simulators so his self-disparaging comment wasn't completely unexpected. "Very interesting toys you have there. I wasn't expecting something with an energy field."
Debra chuckled. "Don - our devisor - is very good." She held up the mess of tangled web, "But these things are a bitch to repack. It's actually easier for him to dissolve the mesh and use his devises to create a new, folded, packed net."
"Would he be willing to discuss selling some of his ... creations?" Ayles asked.
Debra chuckled. "I'm sure he'd be willing to talk about sales. Of course, our team agreement says he has to charge a little extra to help cover our overhead."
"Naturally," Ayla replied, already dismissing that as a point of negotiation. "I wouldn't expect anything else."
I squeezed Debra's hand. "I've got to go to French class, so have fun talking business with Ayla. I'll see you after electronics?"
Debra made a kissy face at me. "I'll meet you at your classroom, and then we'll go to your special tutoring."
Archery Range, late afternoon
The archery range was nestled between two hills like a natural amphitheater, a few hundred yards from the campus core beyond Laird Hall. I liked going there because it was generally peaceful, but as Debra and I walked, hand-in-hand over the crest of a hill, I saw that the normally-tranquil setting was anything but. I expected Mr. Two Knives, and perhaps Molly and Chou, but there were two other girls there as well. With a worried glance at Debra, I let go of her hand to minimize our outward displays of affection. I wasn't worried about Molly and Chou - they were winkte like Debra and me, and Mr. Two Knives was Lakota in the old tradition so he understood winkte and the need for discretion. But the two new people?
Pristine, Crimson, Molly, and Mr. Two Knives were working on standing bow, while Chou practiced from horseback. She was having a little difficulty with the Chinese horn bow her mentor Guan Yu had given her; I'd tried it and found the draw weight challenging, and I wasn't a baseline like Chou. She was managing, and no doubt as she continued practicing she'd build more muscles, but it was easy to see that she struggled a little at that point.
When she saw Debra and me, Chou called out cheerfully, "Hi, Kayda." She wheeled her horse toward us, stopping next to Mr. Two Knives and the other three girls and practically leaping from the saddle. "Up for a little challenge?" she asked eagerly.
"I'd hate to take advantage of you," I chuckled. Debra and I waited and watched while Mr. Two Knives corrected something that Pristine was doing wrong. I was impressed by her talent; she seemed to be a natural with the bow. Crimson, on the other hand, was doing like Chou originally had - fighting a habit of placing the arrow on the right of the handle. I suspected that she was also experienced with archery - and like Chou, had learned the 'wrong' way to fire a bow in combat.
"Let's have a little bit of friendly competition," Mr. Two Knives suggested when he saw us.
Pristine blanched at the thought, and Chou grinned. "Sounds like fun," she said eagerly.
"Um, I'm not sure ..." Crimson stammered.
"Competition inspires improvement," Mr. Two Knives said philosophically. "Five arrows slow fire," he continued, ignoring Crimson's reluctance, "and then five arrows rapid fire. One arrow at each person target in each round. Not more than fifteen seconds for all five arrows in the fast round. Five bonus points for firing all five arrows in less than ten seconds. The targets are scored like center-of-mass pistol targets - five points in center, four in the area outside that, and three points around the perimeter. No points for a miss."
Pristine nodded, looking uncertain, and Crimson flinched. Chou and I grinned; I still had the edge on her in rapid-fire, or at least I hoped I did. Molly simply nodded.
"You, too," Mr. Two Knives said to Debra, who frowned at being included.
The slow-fire round went pretty well, but I was outshot by both Crimson and Chou. Surprisingly, Pristine was almost as good as I, and Molly and Debra brought up the rear. When we got to the rapid-fire round, Crimson had serious issues, and didn't get off all her arrows in time. Neither did Molly or Debra. Pristine just made it in time, and Chou almost made the ten-second bonus. I got all shots within ten seconds, so I got the bonus, which was good, because I'd gotten one three-pointer and two four-pointers.
In the end, I won - by one point. Molly laughed at Debra when three of her ten shots hit below the hypothetical waist of the target. Both Chou and I flinched, knowing precisely what those shots would have done to a guy. "I guess being around Hippy rubbed off on me a bit," Debra whispered at me after retrieving her arrows. If I'd have been drinking something, I'd have spewed like a fountain since I burst out laughing. Pristine was in third behind Chou by one point, and Molly and Debra fought for last place. Chou shot me a look that said, "Next time, you're going down!"
Our arrival and the competition seemed to mark the end of Pristine's and Crimson's lessons, because they thanked Mr. Two Knives for the tutoring, promised to be back on Monday, and left the rest of us.
"Can I work with Kayda to try the magic arrows?" Molly pleaded immediately.
"Sure," Mr. Two Knives said with a nod. "Chou, back to the horse." He looked at Debra. "Do you want to try your hand at horse bow, or do you want to practice standing?"
Debra goggled at him for a second. "You're assuming that I'm here for more than just watching," she replied.
"You're a superhero. You can never train with enough different styles or weapons."
Debra frowned. "Ito must have put him up to this," she whispered to me. "Okay," she grumbled.
Molly showed me some arrows she'd set aside. "The arrowheads are enchanted," she said proudly.
"What do they do?" I hoped she hadn't done anything dangerous. Not until she knew how it would work.
"Just a light flash for practice," she answered. I stepped back while she picked up her bow and drew one arrow. After aiming, she let the arrow fly, and as soon as it hit the target, a brilliant flash encompassed the target, temporarily blinding us both.
"Wow! That was COOL!" Molly giggled gleefully.
I blinked, trying to clear the spots from my eyes. "Yeah. But I wish you'd have told me that it'd be like thirty-thousand flashes going off at once!"
Molly winced a trifle. "Sorry."
I realized that she'd taken my lighthearted comment as criticism. "No, it's okay. It's a good choice for demonstration. Besides, I can see again!" I mimicked being blind for a couple of seconds to further tease her, groping at the air and pretending not to see anything, and she caught on that I was just joking, giggling at my ridiculous acting.
She shot another one, and this time, we both knew to close our eyes as soon as she released the arrow. Still, it was quite cool. After that shot, she put the special arrows back in her quiver. Unfortunately, one arrow missed the quiver, and as soon as she released the shaft, it fell to the ground. Another blinding flash erupted, this time at our feet.
"What happened?" Molly asked, surprised.
"Um, what triggers the spell?" I asked hesitantly, blinking furiously to clear the stars from my eyes. I had an idea of what had gone wrong - and it was going to be a big problem if I was right.
"When it hits the target," Molly replied, and then her eyes widened. "But ... when I dropped it ..."
"... it went off, because the spell can't tell the difference between being shot and being dropped, right?" I asked.
Molly nodded, looking a little distraught. "I forgot about that."
"Hmmm. My uncle was in the artillery when he in the army. I'm sure they have similar problems. There's got to be a way to solve it."
"Do you think so?" She looked hopeful that we could figure out this little snag because it would really give her some nice distance weaponry.
Under the diligent tutelage of Mr. Two Knives, I practiced with my horse bow; while he was a thorough and demanding instructor, this was my favorite practice, because I got to ride Summer. In the first passing drill, I put five of ten arrows into five dummies, which left me feeling disgusted with myself. I thought I heard Chou laugh; she _would_ pay attention to how I was doing, since she was turning out to be quite competitive. Mr. Two Knives saw my expression, and knew he didn't need to say anything. I knew what I'd done wrong and was chastising myself for being so sloppy. The second drill, I put seven of the ten arrows, and by the sixth pass, I was putting nine of ten arrows on target. I moved five yards further back and repeated, starting off poorly again, but improving much more rapidly because the mechanics of bow-shooting were the same and all I had to do was adjust my aiming point.
At the end of the training session, Chou and I had another competition, this time on horseback. I tried razzing her about having to use a saddle and bridle, while I did things the hard way. If I'd hoped to psyche her out, though, it didn't work, because she was hitting her targets at a consistent rate. Still, having had more practice, I won but by a margin that wasn't as large as the previous competition, and I had a feeling that the contests were going to get pretty close - and a little more intense - _very_ soon.
We were joking as we walked back to the center of campus but there was a nervous edge to the banter. As soon as Debra and I separated from them, she stopped me. "You and Chou are both pretty competitive, aren't you?"
"Does it show?"
She nodded. "Yes. The two of you better figure out how to dial it back a bit, or it's going to create some tension neither of you needs."
I sighed. "Yeah, I suppose."
Debra squeezed my hand. "I know how it can be. Sometimes I get kind of absorbed in things, too." She suddenly smiled. "Let's invite Chou and Molly along with us to dinner and the movie!"
"Sure," Debra said easily. "It'll give you guys a chance to interact in a non-competitive environment, which might help take the edge off your competitions. And we don't have to worry with those two, because they're winkte, like us." She waggled her eyebrows. "Besides, in the theater, we don't have to sit in a group. In fact, I'm sure Molly and Chou would prefer _not_ to!"
"So you want something that will act like a safety and arming mechanism," I explained to Molly. The four of us sat in the Dunwich pizza parlor.
"How?" Molly asked. "Like something that triggers when the arrow is nocked?" she asked
I thought a few seconds. "What happens if you nock an arrow, and then don't shoot it? It'd be armed."
Molly's face fell. "Oh, yeah." After a moment, she had another thought. "What if it is triggered by motion?" An instant later, before I could reply, she sighed. "But then, dropping an arrow would be motion, and that'd arm it, too."
I stared into the distance, my focus on mental images flitting rapidly through my mind. After some thoughts gelled, I grabbed a napkin. "Do you have a pen?" Puzzled, Molly fished a writing instrument from her purse. "Okay, what would be a good safety to keep the magic from being armed?"
Chou spoke up. "It should be nocked and held."
"And then something like motion sensor as another step so it's got to be held and nocked and _then_ fired to arm," Debra replied.
I thought a second, frowning and I considered the conditions. "If you released the initial arming step by gripping the arrow like you'd hold it," I mused, "and then nocking the arrow did the second arming step - hmmm. It'd have to be designed that if you released the grip _or_ the nock, it'd disarm." I winced as I considered the potential complexity. Almost automatically, I grabbed a napkin and began to sketch the tail of an arrow, highlighting where pressure would be when it was nocked and drawn.
"So?" Molly asked, puzzled.
Debra leaned toward Chou. "Definitely a gadgeteer," she chuckled.
I scribbled on the napkin some more. "Here's what an arming mechanism would look like. This," I indicated the tip, "is the firing pin, for lack of a better word. An impact here would set it off."
"But that's a mechanism, not magic," Molly protested.
Debra patted Molly's hand gently. "Bear with her. Kayda thinks of things in mechanical terms. It's how she can visualize components of a spell going together."
"Now this," I indicated another component which was blocking the firing pin, "is the safety. As long as this is here, it can't detonate." A few more jots. "These three points - they'd be the nock and the fingers squeezing on the arrow to hold it - are the latches to release the safety. If you put pressure on these three all at once, the safety can be released."
Chou frowned. "But as soon as you release the arrow, the safeties would re-engage, wouldn't they?"
I nodded. "That's what this piece is. It's an inertial mass. The acceleration of the arrow will push this back, locking the safeties off, so that when the tip hits, it can release the spell."
Molly fretted again, worrying her lower lip. "But ... how do you fit all that into the arrow?"
I shook my head. "This doesn't go into the arrow. This is how the trigger and safety spell would work." I saw her staring at the napkin drawing. "It's how I visualize things. Now that I can see how a mechanism would work, I can work with ... my mentor ... to design a spell to do the same thing."
"But then only you could cast ...."
"No, no, no," I interrupted. "Once I design the spell, then anyone can learn it and cast it."
"I haven't learned anything about designing spells," Molly fretted. "How do _you_ know?"
"My mentor is a pretty strict teacher," I chuckled. I saw her puzzled look. "No, it's not anyone at school. It's the spirit I channel who mentors me when I'm in the dream world." Time to share what I'd learned. "You know in magic class that they teach about spell slips, right?" Molly nodded. "A spell is a magical template to direct and shape the flow of essence. A spell slip is the same, with a bit of essence bound onto the slip, so that when it activates, the essence flows through the ... schematic. The pattern."
Molly nodded uncertainly. "That ... kind of makes sense."
"And designing a spell is all about designing how the magic flows and how you shape the essence to do what you want. It's ... like a machine. That's why I visualize spells like mechanical stuff - because I'm good with machinery and stuff."
"I wonder when I'll learn to start designing spells," Molly said with a sigh. "Probably never."
"How about if, when I work with my mentor on this, we get together?" I saw Chou's expression. "Both of you. I think you'll like my ... workspace."
"This isn't something you do ... down in the basement of Kirby ... you know, skyclad, is it?" Molly asked, blushing furiously. Many magic students _did_ work in the special rooms in Kirby - in the nude.
I blushed, too - thinking how embarrassing it would be to be with the two girls naked working on spells. "No."
"In case you forgot while you were wrapped up in drawing schematics," Debra said, making a show of looking at her watch, "the movie starts in about fifteen minutes."
"What are we seeing?" Chou asked.
I realized that we hadn't picked out a movie. "Does it really matter?" I asked, wiggling my eyebrows suggestively. Both Chou and Molly turned red at that comment, while Debra leered at me knowingly.
There was a short line for movie tickets - almost all Whateley students, mostly couples. We got tickets for some romantic comedy, not that I cared. Once the house lights went down, I had no intention of watching the movie. From the way she brushed my hand, I didn't think Debra did, either.
The theater was quite old-fashioned, probably having been a playhouse a century earlier. It had a balcony, and more unusually, boxes on the sides - completely impractical for a theater, but they would have been luxury seating for plays or operas before the rise of movies. But one of the boxes was occupied; I couldn't quite focus on the two spectral figures, but my senses told me very clearly that they were there.
Debra sensed my alarm and saw where I was looking. "Oh, don't worry. That's just Statler and Waldorf."
"Statler and ... Waldorf?" I asked, astonished. "Like in the Muppets?"
"Yeah. They're apparently a couple of spirits that were bound to that box, and over the years, students started calling them Statler and Waldorf. All that psychic influence kind of molded them, so they actually look and act like Statler and Waldorf. Nobody pays them any attention once they get used to them. When the lights go down, you'll be able to see them better."
"Two ghosts - like the Muppet hecklers?" We sat down in the back of the theater, and as Debra had predicted, Molly and Chou sat apart from us. Once the house lights dimmed for the previews, Debra and I started kissing.
"These kids love this place." I looked up to see one of the spirits peeking over the railing. "It's just a sign." the other one said. "A sign? Of what?" The first one chuckled. "That kids gets dumber every year!" "Ohohohoho," the two chuckled together.
I shook my head at their corny joke - let alone that they were _spirits_ joking with the full look and feel of the Muppet characters who'd they'd come to resemble. Debra felt my movement. "They've been doing that for years." She leaned her head on my shoulder, her fingers intertwined with mine. "Now, are you going to cuddle through the movie, or pay attention to two old geezer spirits in the box?" I gave the two another glance, and then focused on Debra.
It wasn't long before the two were at it again. "This movie romance is like the Lusitania." "Why do you say that?" "The relationship is a shipwreck!" The two chuckled at their bad pun "Ohohohoho."
I glanced up again, and when I saw one of the spirits glance my way, I gave him a raspberry. He chuckled in response. "Those two aren't watching the movie," he said. His buddy chuckled, "That's understandable - no-one comes here to watch the movie!" "Ohohohohoho."
After a while, I put my head on Debra's shoulder, and her arm sipped around me, her fingers sliding down the front. I gasped as a shiver of anticipation went through me, and Debra halted. "Don't stop," I whispered, reaching up to take her hand and slide it down to my breast, then I slid my hand up onto her chest.
"Is he kissing her or giving her a tonsillectomy?" "Where?" " Down in the fourth row!" "Ohohohohohoho" At those words, I straightened up, feeling a little guilty, even though the spirits had been talking about some other couple. I glanced around and noted that many other kids straightened up suddenly, also feeling guilty about necking instead of watching.
After a bit, when the hero and heroine in the movie locked lips, I glanced up at Debra and saw that she was looking at me, the same hungry look in her eyes that I knew were in mine. We began kissing again, as if it would take the example on the screen to make me want to kiss her.
"I wish I was one of those two," one of the heckling spirits said, sounding a little wistful. I suspected he was talking about Debra and me. "One of those girls? So do I," the other said. "Ohohohoho!" I ignored them and kept kissing my girlfriend. They weren't ignoring us. "Trade places with that girl down there," one of the two demanded. "Why? You're too old to remember what to do if a pretty girl was sitting next to you!" "Ohohohohoho."
I don't know how long our kissing lasted, but it was several scenes. "Look! She's got to kiss him now!" one spirit chuckled. "Why?" "Her shoes are stuck on all the soda that's been spilled on the floor and she can't get away!" "Ohohohohohoho." That one was good enough that I glanced up at the spirits and gave them a thumbs-up. And then I turned my attention back to Debra.
While I didn't quite fall asleep on Debra's shoulder, I was really relaxed. The movie plot - eh, I don't really know what it was. And I didn't care. The credits started to roll, and we straightened up because the house lights were about to come up.
"Nothing like a good movie to spend a Friday night." "And this was nothing like a good movie!" "Ohohohohoho!" I glanced up and saw the spirits continuing to perfectly mimic the two Muppets. When the house lights _did_ come up, Debra and I stood, avoiding the strong temptation to hold hands because we didn't want to advertise.
Outside the theater, we met up with Chou and Molly. "Enjoy the movie?" Debra asked the two with a wry smile. Molly nodded shyly, her cheeks bright red, and Chou just smiled. "What was it about?" Debra continued with a wry grin. Molly's eyes widened and she glanced at Chou, not sure what to say. I couldn't help giggling. "I don't know, either," I whispered to Molly and Chou, which earned a wry smile from Chou and an embarrassed giggle from Molly.
From the shuttle-bus stop by Schuster, Molly and Chou walked toward Poe - where I knew they'd be able to kiss and cuddle without fear of gay-bashers, while I walked with Debra to the guest cottages where she was staying. It was Friday night; curfew was a _bit_ later than on school nights, but I wasn't planning on going back to Poe - at least not for quite a while.
Barry Linton, Sharpie, looked up from the drawing he was working on when he heard the room door open. "Hey, Mike," he said in a neutral, conversational tone to his roommate. He returned his attention to his drawing where, living up to his code-name, he was practicing control over the colors of inks he could exude from his fingertips. As powers went, it wasn't much, but Sharpie thought it was cool to draw without pens or pencils.
"Yo," Mike Reynolds - M2, but also known as Magic Mikey - replied, flopping on his bed. "'Sup?"
Sharpie shrugged. "Just drawing. You?"
"Nothin' much. At least," he continued, "nothin' you can help with." He absently retrieved an object from his pocket, fondling it as if it were the most precious gem in the world.
"You okay, man?" Sharpie asked cautiously, noting the morose tone. "You've been kind of ... distant."
Mike bolted upright, his eyes flashing with anger. "What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
"Whoa, man!" Sharpie held out his hands, palms facing his roommate. "Just asking, okay?"
Mike's eyes narrowed. "Nothing's wrong." He turned the object over in his hands over and over, feeling the magic coursing around the object and his hands, feeling it infuse into him. "Nothing's wrong at all." He scowled at his roommate. "Why?"
Sharpie read the mood of Mike. "You just seem ... tense, dude," he replied, trying to sound non-threatening and calm. "Ever since you found that _thing_." He gestured to the item Mike was holding and playing with.
"I'm not tense!" Mike replied angrily, clutching the object possessively.
"Dude," Sharpie replied, shaking his head, "you _are_ pretty wired." He thought of something which elicited a frown. "Does this have anything to do with all those phone calls you keep getting?"
"Mike, if someone's threatening you or something, you _need_ to go to security or Carson. It's way against the rules for an outsider to threaten a student."
"Just mind your own damned business!" Mike shot back. Sharpie recoiled at the mask of rage on his roommate's face. For the first time, he was a little afraid of Mike. Something was going on with him, and he was getting scary. The shudder of fright brought a new realization to Sharpie - he was going to _have_ to talk to Mrs. Tolliver and see if he couldn't be moved. Mike was getting that scary-crazy.
Eons and Eons ago
The writhing mass of malevolent energy, contained in the crudest of physical forms required to interact with the pesky, annoying beings, seethed with unnatural rage. These mere primitive, insignificant beings were _hurting_ it! Impossible as it sounded, their strange magic - so different from that of the Sidhe with which it was familiar - complemented the Sidhe magic, stinging sharply, much harder than it would have imagined possible.
The Bastard _had_ to get rid of the beings so they could no longer help the Sidhe. But how? His mind racing billions and trillions of times faster than the puny _humans_ arrayed before him, working in dimensions and in ways that would literally melt a human mind as he contemplated possibilities.
The humans were not nearly as powerful as the Sidhe, who would fall once their flow of magic was ripped from them. But the humans? Their magic wasn't tied to the mystical trees that harnessed and supplied the essence required by the Sidhe, and so they weren't as vulnerable to his tricks of interrupting the magic, no matter how painful that sometimes was. Though it was painful to touch Sidhe magic, he'd often tricked Sidhe that way, confusing them, making them easy prey, but these humans weren't so easily fooled. And to his total shock, the humans had responded to the Sidhe plea for help, sending their magic wielders and heroes to help the Sidhe in their futile defense.
The plan that emerged from femtoseconds of thought was brilliant. The being _knew_ precisely how to deal with the pesky, primitive humans.
In the blink of an eye, the evil force reached out and found spirits that were unanchored, floating freely about. He touched one psychically, and the foul stench of evil instantly corrupted the spirit, driving it insane and malevolent. The Bastard stole some essence from the Sidhe's trees, ignoring the excruciating pain of using their magic, using it to form and sculpt whatever was at hand into a frightening, powerful vessel, which he then placed the insane spirit into. Over and over, he repeated this movement, sending the newly-created monsters out, away from the battle with the Sidhe and the shamans, to hunt down the People from whom the shamans came, no matter where on Pangea, or what race or color. These human magic-wielders would quit the battle, fleeing home to protect their tribes and clans from the evil demonic beings the Bastard had just unleashed on them. Freed from the annoying but effective nuisances that were the shamans, he could finish off the Sidhe, and their magic that protected the world's very existence would be shattered.
A fresh sting of magic energy interrupted the Bastard's scheme, and he instinctively reached out to smash the puny magic-using shaman, but then, much faster than imaginable, he stopped himself, Instead of squashing the human like a bug, the Bastard reached out and touched the human, corrupting his flesh as the human's spirit withered and died, and then he shoved one of his evil, tainted spirits into the newly-arranged flesh. This one would be special. This one was attuned, by its very origin, to the energy of the shaman, and the utterly mad spirit within was given a special task. Because of the body, it would be immune to most shaman magic. And because of the spirit, it would hunt and destroy those who would bring magic against the Bastard. It was a shaman hunter. And now it was freed upon the People.
Saturday, April 28; morning
No doubt I still had a morning-after glow as I walked down the stairs of Poe toward breakfast. I had my costume class, so Debra had chased me - quite late, mind you - back to Poe to get at least a little sleep before class. Eventually, the smile would fade as the day wore on, but for now, I was relishing the feeling.
"Good morning, Kayda," I heard a familiar voice behind me. "You're not sneaking out without escort, are you?"
I stopped, knowing that she was going to catch up to me anyway. "Morning, Rosalyn," I sighed. "I suppose you were waiting for me?"
Rosalyn's face fell, like my words had stung her. "No," she said in a small, hurt voice.
"I'm sorry," I apologized quickly. "I guess ... I was just so used to you flirting that ... I kind of expected it."
Rosalyn stopped and put her hand on my shoulder, causing me to turn to face her. "I'm ... sorry if I went overboard."
I suddenly felt sorry for Rosalyn. Her predatory nature was self-defense against being hurt again, and she hadn't allowed herself to truly love for fear of that pain. "I ... liked it some," I replied slowly. "You ... made me feel ... special. Wanted."
"Good," she replied. "That was what Debra was hoping for."
"What were _you_ hoping for?" I asked cautiously as we walked out of Poe toward the caf.
Rosalyn shrugged. "The same as always. Another notch in my bedpost, I guess."
I stopped and turned her toward me. "Thank you ... for distracting me." I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her, and then slowly, found myself kissing her.
After a brief kiss, we separated, with me quite confused about why I'd done that. "I like kissing you," Rosalyn said, looking straight into my eyes. "You're a good kisser." She read the look on my face. "And you like kissing me, don't you?"
I blushed and stammered out a denial, but the more I tried to deny it, the broader Rosalyn grinned. Finally I nodded. "Yeah. You're a very good kisser." One more thing crossed my mind. "Are we going to be okay - living in the same cottage, occasionally bumping into each other? It's not going to be ... difficult for you, is it?"
The doubt left Rosalyn's face instantly. "No," she said, quite assuredly. "It'll be okay." She waggled her eyebrows. "It'll let me see you from time to time, like escorting you around campus. And maybe seeing you in some hot-tub parties. And who knows," she added, winking, "maybe we can talk Debra into a three-way - for old times' sake!"
I almost had to pick my jaw up off the floor. There were a few things I was definitely going to have to talk to Debra about.
Afternoon, by an outlying pond
The figure flicked another stone, watching it skip across the pond. On the second hop, he stretched out a finger toward the stone and let his energy catch it, stopping its forward progress. Directed seemingly by the direction the boy's finger pointed, the stone shot skyward, halted, and then smashed down into the pond, making a splash and wave that belied the stone's relative small size.
"Not bad," the second boy said. "But I doubt you asked me to meet you here so you can demonstrate your power."
The first boy snorted. "No, Eddie, I didn't." He stretched out his hand toward the speedster, using his gravity warping to lift the speedster off the ground. With a wicked grin, he dropped him from a couple of feet above the ground.
"Would you knock off that shit, Darren?" Eddie Rutherford - Quickdraw - snarled. "I'm not a damned regenerator, and if you get carried away ...."
"You know I'm just kidding around," Speakeasy - Darren Haskins - said snidely, as if it was obvious. From his actions, though, it seemed more obvious that he intended to intimidate the other boy. "You remember those favors you owe me?" Speakeasy asked cryptically. He _could_ mind-fuck with Quickdraw, using his other power - his esper power - to make Quickdraw a little more pliable mentally, but he knew he didn't have to.
"Not this again," Quickdraw complained. "I've paid back ..."
"You did a couple of small favors, and you want to call it even?" Speakeasy asked, his eyebrows arched. "I helped you with some spending money. I kept your ass from being tagged UV, or even getting expelled, and you think a couple of tiny favors are payback?"
Quickdraw sighed. "What's the job?"
Speakeasy grinned wickedly and put his arm around Quickdraw's shoulder. "We've got a little ... garbage here that needs to be taken out," he said euphemistically.
"I'm not following," Quickdraw said.
"It was bad enough with just _Heyoka_ here, but now that _she's_ here too, their stench sickens me!" Speakeasy snarled, not even trying to disguise the venom in his voice. "I can't take any more of their self-righteous crap! _She_ corrupted Mr. Lodgeman's Native American group now, too! Making it into some kind of cult that worships her or something!"
"Those Lakota scum!" Speakeasy ranted, almost frothing at the mouth.
"Wait," Quickdraw said, confused. "You're an Indian, too, so ...."
"I'm _Crow_!" Speakeasy spun on the other boy, practically screaming in his face. "They're ... scum! Their kind has always harassed and killed my people!"
Quickdraw looked puzzled. "I thought the girl was off limits because of heavy security!"
Speakeasy shook his head, leering. "She is - sort of. I've got an idea to take care of _both_ of them."
"What's ... what's the plan?" Quickdraw asked curiously. Truth be told, Quickdraw liked having power to hurt people after having been a runt on the receiving end of bullying.
"Something right up your alley," Speakeasy chortled, his voice echoing with madness.
"Don't worry," Lanie said as we walked into the vehicle lab. "Ah'll introduce ya t' Mr. Donner. He's really nice, and he'll be interested in your car ideas."
I winced. "I'm not so sure. I've got a very busy schedule, with the tutoring, electronics, and my Lakota training. I'm not sure I'll have ...."
"Nonsense," Lanie said with a grin. "If y'all think Ah'm goin' to let another gearhead get away from the labs, you're crazy." She fanned herself like a Southern belle "We ladies are outnumbered here by the less civilized males of the species. We _have_ to stick together."
"This isn't just because you saw me naked in the hot tub and you want me nearby so your imagination can continue to run wild, is it?" I whispered, trying hard not to giggle - and failing.
Lanie chuckled. "Well, Ah'd be lyin' if Ah said there weren't fringe benefits to having you around." She led me to the office. "Mr. Donner?" she said as she peeked through the door, "Ah'd like you to meet Kayda, a friend of mine and a potential Gearhead."
Mr. Donner rose from behind his desk, where he'd been looking at an on-line parts catalog from what I could see of his computer. He seemed to keep rising; he was quite tall, and I gulped at just how physically imposing he was. He reached out a beefy hand that was permanently grease-stained, just like those of the men who worked in Dad's dealership. "You're Pejuta, right?" he asked as he shook my hand.
"Yes, sir," I replied, trying not to tremble with fright.
"Elaine says you were working on diesel trucks and tractors from an early age, and that your current project is a fifty-seven Nomad?"
I nodded meekly. He already knew a lot about me. "Yes, sir."
"Please," he implored, "knock off the 'sir' stuff. This isn't the military, and I'm sure as heck not an officer!" He gestured to the chairs opposite his desk, grinning lopsidedly in a way that seemed to be a permanent facial feature. "Have a seat." As Elaine and I sat, he continued. "What are you planning to do to the Nomad?" he asked.
One of the guys stuck his head in the office. "Sorry, Mr. Donner," he said, interrupting. "Loophole, have you got a free hand for a minute?"
Elaine glanced at me, and when I gave her a tiny nod, she stood up. "Sure. What's up, Ringo?" she asked as she strode confidently from the office to help a fellow Gearhead.
I looked back at Mr. Donner, still surprised; I'd expected questions like 'why do you want to be a Gearhead' or 'what do you know about mechanics' or the like. "Um," I gulped, a bit taken aback. "Like I told Elaine the other night, I want to modify the rear suspension to be independent instead of a live axle, and if possible, I'd like to replace the entire front suspension with something like a multi-link McPherson strut setup coupled to front-wheel drive components of a four-wheel-drive system."
Mr. Donner's eyes widened. "That's a serious set of changes."
"Yes, si ...." I caught myself before I completely said 'sir'. "I've been working on a four-hundred small block to couple to a four-speed Muncie," I said nervously, "and using a variant of the Torsen differential I made into a transfer case for one of Dad's tractors, I think I can make a good variable-torque-split transfer case to get power to the front." I shrugged. "I'd prefer a six-speed manual, maybe with flappy-paddles for faster shifting, but ...."
Mr. Donner chewed on that for a bit. "It'll be hard fitting a four-wheel-drive under that engine and cross-frame."
I nodded, still nervous. "But if I use a dry-sump oil pan and reservoir, and rework the entire front frame, I'm pretty sure I can get it to fit. It's got a long engine compartment, and I figured I've got about half an inch clearance over the front-drive system of something like a Lamborghini Gallardo or a Mercedes 4-matic." I shrugged. "And if I go to multiport injection, I can get maybe another three-quarters of an inch lift on the engine mounts without having to alter the hood if I don't have carbs sticking up out of the manifold."
Mr. Donner nodded. "You're going to have a lot of fabrication to do with that."
"I know," I answered, starting to feel a little more confident. "About the same as I did making a modified Torsen differential as a four-wheel-drive variable power splitter and transfer case for Dad's 6300 tractor."
Mr. Donner looked at me for a moment, and then his grin almost split his. "You _are_ a Gearhead!" He looked evenly at me. "I _hope_ you're on the tech track!"
I winced. "Well, that's the thing. My spirit is a magic type, so I'm on the magic track ..."
"But you also have a high Gadgeteer rating," Mr. Donner finished. He saw my stunned expression. "What, you think I wouldn't look up information about a student that's recommended for the Gearheads?"
"I'm ... just in electronics this term," I confessed. "And with what I need to learn for my magic, tech electives might be tight."
"But you _are_ interested in tech electives, aren't you?" he asked, sounding hopeful.
"Yeah," I answered. "But my car is back home, and ...."
"We've got about five weeks of the term and finals left," Mr. Donner countered. "And even if you can't get your car out here this term, there are always projects to work on - like my Ford 730 Deluxe, or you could work on designing your modifications and maybe using some of the workshops to start fabbing parts."
"Uh, yeah," I answered hesitantly, "I guess so."
"Were you planning on rebuilding the entire frame, or just replacing sections of the existing frame?"
"I hope I can replace the whole frame," I answered. "Less chance of weld cracks at the new joints." We talked for another half hour, with his questions getting more and more involved into the mechanics of what I was thinking. And he had me sketch out the modified Torsen differential I'd done as a transfer case, and hoped to use on my car - when I got it to the shop. I realized only after we'd left that while he'd been asking a ton of questions, he'd never once tried to tell me what to do or how to do it. Instead, he asked leading questions to get me to think about my design ideas and come up with my own answers.
Elaine and I left after I'd filled out the minimal paperwork to join the Gearheads, plus more paperwork to get a car to Whateley. It wasn't easy; the limited lab space and parking really put a damper on who got cars on campus and who didn't. As a Gearhead, I'd be able to get a car on campus and into the shop.
While I'd been in costuming class and meeting Mr. Donner, Debra had been on the phone with her family. As soon as I saw her, I could tell something was wrong. "What's up?" I asked when she met me for lunch.
Debra sighed. "It's Aunt Kathleen," she said morosely.
"The one in Boston?"
"Yeah, Mom's twin sister. She was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and she's having a rough time with her chemo."
I put my hand atop hers. "I'm so sorry. Is she ...."
Debra shook her head. "No. She's just having a real tough time, so Mom's driving in from Pittsburgh, and Aunt Penny flew in last night. Aunt Penny asked me to come down to help Mom."
"So I'm going to drive down to be with them." She saw the look in my eyes. "I know you'd rather have me here with you, but ...."
"I know," I said, trying to be selfless. "You have to go. It's your family."
"But you're my love," Debra countered. "I promise I'll come back up here so we can spend more time together before I fly back to Sioux Falls."
After saying goodbye at the guest cottage - which I really, really hated, I went back to my room. I had a tough assignment in magic class, and I wanted to work on some of my advanced math. I'd barely sat down when my phone rang. "Hello?"
"Kayda, honey," Mom's voice said cheerfully. "How are you doing? How's Debra enjoying her visit?"
My eyes felt like they popped out of their sockets. "You _knew_ Debra was coming out to visit?"
"Of course," Mom said cheerfully. "I paid for her ticket."
"I figured your sixteenth birthday was a very special day for you, so after talking with Debra, we figured she could fly out and surprise you."
My jaw flapped for a bit, trying to figure out what to say. "Um ...."
"Did you have a nice birthday, dear?" I could practically hear her smiling. "Was it as good as you hoped it would be?"
"Now, now, Kayda," Mom said to soothe me.
"But ... you paid for Debra's trip - so we could ....?"
"Have sex? Yes. So?" She chuckled. "You were going to sooner or later - there's no way your father or I could have stopped it - and since you were sixteen, it was legal. And we were worried that you might be tempted by some of the good-looking girls out there."
"I was there, dear," Mom said, "and I saw them. To be honest, if I swung that way, I'd find it a very tempting place."
I wanted to crawl under a rock; it was a good thing that Mom couldn't see how brightly I was blushing. "Debra had to drive down to see her mom and aunt," I said to change the subject. "Her aunt is having a real hard time of things with chemo."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Mom replied. On the one hand, the new subject was rather sad. On the other hand, it got away from talking about my sex life with my mother. "Will she go back to Whateley before she comes back to Sioux Falls?"
"Yeah. She figured Tuesday or so. She's only got so much vacation time because she used a bunch of it on spring break." We talked for a while longer, and then I excused myself. I had homework I had to do. "Love you, Mom."
"Love you too, dear. Keep up your studies. I'm looking forward to seeing you at home in a little bit. Goodbye." The phone clicked off, and I turned back to my magic - just in time for Evvie to return.
"What's up? Who was on the phone?" she asked curiously.
"Just Mom," I answered, still shaking my head in disbelief over that conversation.
"What?" Evvie asked. "Spill it!" She knew me well enough that I couldn't really keep a secret from her.
I sighed. "Promise not to tell anyone?" She nodded somberly, so I continued. "Mom ... paid for Debra's trip out here."
"That was nice."
"So I could satisfy my curiosity!" I blurted out the rest.
Evvie goggled at me in disbelief for a moment, and then she literally collapsed onto her bed laughing. When she could speak again - sort of - she wiped the tears of mirth from her eyes. "Oh, that's too good!" she guffawed. "The girls aren't going to believe this one!"
"You promised!" I blurted out, horrified at the thought of how all the girls would react. I'd be the butt of a lot of jokes, a laughingstock among the Poe girls.
"It might take a little something to help me remember that promise," Evvie teased. "I might need reminding off and on!"
"That's ... that's blackmail!"
Evvie rubbed her hands together while chuckling evilly. "I prefer to call it ... capitalism!" she cackled. Seeing my look of horror, she decided that she'd teased me enough. "Relax," she said, suddenly serious. "I promised, and I won't tell." I breathed a sigh of relief. "Besides, who'd ever believe a story like that?" She flopped back on her bed. "Will it bother you if I turn the stereo on?"
I shook my head. "Nah. I'll go to the study room. I'm working on this stupid magic homework, and maybe the view of the outdoors will inspire me." I picked up the massive tome I'd checked out from the library and trudged to the study room. As expected, it was empty this time on Saturday afternoon - everyone was out enjoying the spring weather.
Sitting on the floor with the book open, I was trying to follow along with the fiendishly complicated hand motions of the particular magic style when I realized that someone was watching me. I turned.
"Boy, Ah hate it when Ah have an itch Ah can't quite scratch," Lanie said with a wicked grin.
"It's homework for Ms. Grimes," I explained. "Western Occult Tradition and its stupid finger movements." I slammed the book shut. "What's up?"
Lanie shrugged, glancing around. "Ah come with an invitation."
"Is this the setup to a bad joke, 'beware redhead Irish girls bearing invitations?" I saw her smile. "If it involves hot tubs and nakedness, I try to limit those to once a week."
"If only," Elaine replied, waggling her eyebrows. "There'll be boys present, so we'll try to keep everyone's clothes on."
I felt a shudder at that mental image, but at least it wasn't threatening to become a full-fledged panic attack. Lanie noticed. "No, it's a lot more dangerous. Worse than the Class X problems you've been having."
I goggled at that. "You have my undivided attention." I glanced around. "But not here. This isnt a good place for _those_ types of discussions." I led Elaine back to my room. "Evvie, can I have the room for a bit?" I asked as we came in.
Evvie's eyes bulged. "Rosalyn is going to be soooo jealous!" she giggled. Seeing my reaction, she grabbed her jacket and darted to the door. "I'm going, I'm going!"
At Lanie's confused expression, I smiled. "Relax. This is going to be a little weird for you the first time." We sat down and I incanted the words Wakan Tanka had given me and touched her forehead.
Suddenly the two of us were in my dream space, looking out over a vast herd of grazing bison. I was surprised to see Lanie attired in primitive garments with geometric tattoos on her arms and a bow in her hand. "I didn't know ...." That was as far as I got when she turned to face me. She was wearing what I first thought was war paint, but then I realized it was something completely different. Lanie chuckled and explained about her garb being a symbol of her Pict ancestry - Pict, of course, as she explained, meaning 'painted people'. And the tinted mud she had on her face was called woad or something like that.
"You scared the woad out of me!" I chuckled.
Lanie laughed aloud. "Ah should sic Rosalyn on you for that." She cocked an eyebrow. "Are you two ... you know?"
"Let's just say we have an understanding and leave it at that, okay?" I doubted that was going to satisfy her curiosity, though. As I explained my dream world to her, I saw her eye me head to toe, her eyes dwelling for a second on my cleavage visible through the very low-cut beaded dress. After the kiss we'd shared at the hot-tub party, I felt a shiver of something at her appreciative stare.
I thought of a setting and we were instantly in Wakan Tanka's village and I was brewing some tea. "What's this about?" I asked her as we sipped the beverage.
If I'd been frightened by Wakan Tanka's talk about Unhcegila, what Lanie told me about was worse. Far worse. A creature called the Enemy of Life. It had apparently shattered Atlantis and the Five-Fold Court, destroying the Sidhe and most of humanity and wiping out the World Trees that were the source of so much magic in the world. And it was waking up.
"Why don't we talk to Mrs. Carson? Or the other members of the faculty?" I asked the obvious question.
Lanie snorted with disgust. "How much help have they been to _you_ with your Class X problems?" She shook her head. "By the time they take it seriously, it'll be too late."
"Can we stop it?" I asked nervously.
"If we can't," Lanie said somberly, "Ah promise you won't care." She was dead-serious, and I felt a cold chill.
Tatanka chose that moment to arrive. "She speaks the truth, Wihakayda," he said to me. "Raven saw the breaking of the world and the great battle. He saw that the enemy wasn't defeated, but merely put to sleep."
I glanced at Tatanka and then looked at Lanie, at the serious expressions both of them bore. "I'm in," I said simply. There was no other choice. It was an end-of-the-world thing. I had a sudden thought - perhaps Wakan Tanka had foreseen it and had manifested in me specifically for this role? Another cold shudder chilled me - was I up to being part of such an undertaking?
Satisfied, Tatanka stood. "I'll leave you alone. The discussion of women does not interest me."
Elaine frowned. "What is _that_ supposed to mean?" she demanded.
Tatanka stared at her, cocking his head toward me. "She denies herself because she fears her nature. You indulge your nature and thus fear yourself. Give in to what you _are_ and do not be afraid here. Be honest, or she can't help you. Drink. Your. Tea." He lumbered away from the camp.
I refilled our cups and handed one back to Lanie. As she took it, our eyes met and I felt something trying to hold my gaze upon her, some kind of unspoken, unconscious desire. It took me a moment or two to regain my concentration and look away from her sparkling green eyes. "When he says something like that," I said slowly and nervously, "he means that I'm ... resisting ... being a woman. That I'm not acknowledging what I've become."
Lanie blinked slowly. "Ah guess that means you ...?
I nodded, wondering if Tatanka's advice was going to steer me wrong this time and afraid of losing a new friend because of my status as a changeling. "I wasn't always one." I looked down, nervous. "I ... changed when I manifested. I ... used to be a ... boy."
"Ah see! Now some of your aversions make so much more sense. Ah'm not judging you," Lanie said quickly enough that it startled me. I looked up, straight into those captivating green eyes again, and I saw that she was speaking the truth. "And Ah probably would never have known if you hadn't told me, so don't worry about that."
I smiled, grateful that Lanie was so understanding. "Tatanka said I'm supposed to be helping you. So why don't you drink, relax, and tell me what's up?"
I would have never expected to hear what Lanie said next. "Ah'm a whore," she began bluntly. It was like saying those words pulled a stopper so that she could really open up about her troubles. Despite her brave talk at the hot-tub party of not wanting a rebound, when Wyatt had told her about the Enemy of Life, she slept with him - and she didn't regret it one bit. And the worst part was that she was afraid that it wasn't her own true feelings, but that Wyatt's spirit the Kodiak had put those feelings in her head. She thought she was very much in love with him, but was terrified that the feelings weren't real - and despite that, she still wanted to be with him.
I shuddered, trying to suppress my fears. Perhaps Tatanka had insisted that Lanie drink her tea because he knew that I would have more as well and it would calm me so I could help my friend. As all of her fears and hopes and doubts came out, she collapsed into a blubbering mess crying on my shoulder.
And then two bear spirits approached us. When Kayda saw them, she was on her feet, an arrow nocked in her bow and drawn. "You!" she screamed.
Slowly, the bears stood, and then their figures melted to the form of spirit-guides - half-bear, half-human. The Kodiak looked foppishly medieval, and the other was the physical embodiment of womanhood - tall, powerful, strong, and yet radiating tenderness and sexiness. She, like me, wore a beaded buckskin dress, but she filled hers out far more than I did. I couldn't help but glance down - feeling meager and not at all sexy compared to the shapeliness of both Lanie and the she-bear. "She hates you," the she-bear said to the Kodiak. "I like her already."
"We are honored to stand in the presence of the Ptesanwi," the male bear said, bowing. "May we join you?"
Their presumptuousness pissed me off. "You have _no_ right to enter our dream space!"
"And that is why we ask permission," the Kodiak replied.
That only made me angrier. "For asking permission, you're awfully damned far into my dream space already!
"Well," the big bear said, leaning forward to eye-level with me, "I wouldn't want you to feel that I penetrated too far."
The blood drain from my face and I stumbled back at the obvious innuendo, memories clawing at me, trying to pull me back into my nightmare. Lanie rushed to my side, holding me to give me comfort, glowering at the bear. "It's the Kodiak," she snarled.
I forced myself to be steady, trying hard to quell my inner demons. "We know. We don't trust him. Not after our last dealings." I was shaking and my voice trembled despite manifesting Ptesanwi.
The she-bear held out a paw to me. "Cante waste nape ciyuzapo," she said in formal greeting.
"Wakan Takan kici un," I answered, feeling a lot less hostile toward the she-bear than I did toward the Kodiak. "Please, join our circle and be welcome." I stepped in front of the Kodiak and scowled up at him. "If you bring discord you are not welcome."
"Actually," the Kodiak replied, "I bring a solution to the problem you ladies were just discussing. Grizzly, my wife."
It took a few seconds for Lanie's astonishment to abate to the point she could speak. And then she noticed that I had manifested Ptesanwi, which added to her confusion. And _then_ the Kodiak told Lanie who my spirit really was. I was actually surprised that Lanie didn't faint from the number of shocking revelations she'd received in the past few seconds.
The Grizzly's proposition to Lanie was very unusual and pretty direct. She would bond with Lanie in the same way spirits bonded with avatars - granting her protection, especially from the Kodiak's mind-messing. And then she told Lanie that a person's hallow, which held that person's own spirit, could be expanded through shaman rituals, that one didn't have to be an avatar to host another spirit. Lanie gawked at me.
I flinched slightly. "There is a ritual done for shamans," I explained. "It's ... complicated and not something to be done lightly. I'm not sure I'm ready ...."
"Whoa!" Lanie declared. "Ah don't trust _him_ in mah head! How would you help that? And you want me to invite you into mah head and mah body just on your say so? Do Ah look like Ah have stupid written on mah forehead?"
Grizzly grinned. "Now I'm _certain_ I like you!" She nodded. "Trust should be earned."
Elaine considered the offer for a moment. "Why can't mah life be more boring? Lots and lots more boring?"
Lanie and I came out of dream space and she shuddered involuntarily at the transition. "Is it like this for you every time?" she asked. "'Cause Ah'm not sure Ah could get used to doing that all the time."
I chuckled. "I'm used to it. Which is a good thing," I added, "because sometimes if I have a question or if Wakan Tanka or Tatanka need to tell me something important, I can switch into dream space in the middle of class, or when I'm eating - really, anytime." I stood and offered a hand to help her up. "I know you're busy but I've got some free time since Debra had to go to a family emergency in Boston, so I can do a little research on the whole shaman-hallow thing - if you want me to."
Lanie shuddered nervously. "Ah'm not sure if Ah want to do that," she said, "but Ah'm more scared of what could happen if Ah don't."
I sat down on my bed, and guided her down beside me. "It's no big deal. Wakan Tanka wants me to learn more about magic anyway."
Lanie nodded, and for a brief moment, she looked confident, but that confidence broke and her lip trembled. "Ah'm terrified that somethin' might mess with mah mind again!" she whispered in a tiny, frightened voice. "Kodiak did, once before, and it made me a monster to .... " she looked at me and I saw a kindred spirit, someone who was wounded and needed to share something bad to get it off her chest. "...to a girl who loved me. He made me believe things that weren't true, and Ah did something terrible to her because Ah thought she'd hurt me, but it was all because of what Kodiak had done to mah memories. Ah really don't know if Ah love Wyatt or if it's still because of him messin' with mah mind, but Ah know Ah don't want that to ever happen to me again. Ah don't want to ever be manipulated into bein' a monster again!"
I pulled Lanie into a sort-of hug, one arm around her and leaning against my shoulder. "I ... think I understand," I said softly. "When Wakan Tanka and Tatanka offered to help me if I would accept them," I admitted something to her that I'd only told Debra, "I was terrified that they'd control me." I let her sit up and wiped a tear from her cheek. "Tell you what. I'll check with Wakan Tanka to learn more about the whole thing. She'll know if there are contracts and bindings and such to keep a spirit from harming or possessing a person. And I'll find out about the hallow-expanding thing. After I get more data, I'll tell you what I found out. Then you'll have the data to make a logical decision."
Lanie nodded, gratitude brimming in her eyes. "Thank you, Kayda," she said, giving me a hug. "Ah don't know what Ah'd do without mah friends helping me."
Dream Space of the Ptesanwi
Nervously, I strode into the village, the empty one that was Wakan Tanka's personal refuge. She was sitting by the fire, and as soon as she saw me, she started brewing tea.
"Am I getting _that_ predictable?" I chuckled.
Wakan Tanka smiled at me. "No. You're getting that _polite_. You're learning that even simple habits and rituals - like brewing and sharing tea - help put people at ease, reducing their worries."
"Like with your friend Elaine. I am proud of how you calmed her from all her worries and fears. And it started with a simple cup of tea to help her feel welcome and normal." She smiled at me.
"One of these times, I'm afraid _you're_ going to be the one coming into the village after you make _me_ wait, and you'll expect me to serve you tea!" I fussed, but in jest.
Wakan Tanka's eyebrows rose. "That is a good idea, Wihakayda!" She handed me a cup of tea in a fired-clay cup. I noticed that she used whatever was at hand to serve tea - gourds, fired-clay cups. And I noticed how she brewed the tea, because I _knew_ she was going to make me do the same. In a large, hollowed-out gourd, she put water, and then put in a rock that had been really heated over a fire. It was the same trick used in the sweat lodge. No doubt she'd expect me to demonstrate mastery of these techniques.
"What troubles you?" she asked after taking a sip of the tea.
"My friend Elaine is worried about spirits like Kodiak altering her memories and tricking her. Apparently he has already done so once."
Wakan Tanka snorted in disgust. "I'm not surprised. He's done that trick many times before."
"Well, his ... ex-wife, I guess, Grizzly offered to bond with Elaine to protect her."
"And the Pict girl is nervous, correct?" I nodded. "She should be. She doesn't have a large hallow, so it would take a ritual to expand it so she could hold Grizzly. And the spirit of Grizzly, like that of Kodiak, is powerful, and might overwhelm her."
My eyes widened. "Like ... possess her?"
"No," Wakan Tanka assured me, smiling. "It would be a shock to her to accept such a spirit.
"So ... it's dangerous and she shouldn't do it?"
"No, it can be done. But as you know, accepting a spirit can be difficult."
I sighed. "What do _you_ think?"
Wakan Tanka chuckled softly. "What she seeks is to have one spirit protect her from another. It has been done before, but the ritual is intended so that a shaman can accept an animal spirit, not to protect from the meddling of other spirits." She smiled at me. "And yes, your friend is right to be wary of Grizzly's offer. And she is right to fear being hurt - and hurting others - like the Kodiak caused her before."
My mouth dropped open. "You ... you listened?" She nodded with a smile. "Why didn't you come to talk to her yourself? To answer her questions?"
"You know the answer to that," Wakan Tanka chided me. "She was hurt by a spirit. She doesn't trust spirits completely. If you were in her position, would you feel like listening to another spirit extol the virtues of being an avatar, or would you be suspicious that you were once more being manipulated?" She saw my startled expression slowly turn to comprehension. "Now, let us speak of the ritual and what it involves. And what it can mean to the one whose hallow is made larger."
Sunday, April 29, 2007, Mid-morning
I slid the papers to one side and took a long drink from my coffee cup, wincing at the taste. Despite putting in three sugars and two creams, I still didn't like the taste, but it was necessary to try to keep awake. Setting down the cup, I pulled my sketches back in front of me. Anything to try to distract myself. After last night, that was proving hard. Wyatt had been pretty explicit in his description of the task ahead of us, and he laid out the odds - which weren't good. It was so disturbing that Poise even became sick to her stomach thinking about the Bastard, the Enemy of Life. I hadn't been comforted at all as the meeting broke up when Wyatt and Lanie asked me to hold back a moment. We went to Wyatt's apartment for privacy and then dream-walked, talking extensively with Wakan Tanka to learn what she and Tatanka knew about the Bastard.
I was going to have to learn to be a battle mage; there were no two ways around that simple fact. Worse, the group was going to have to rely on my shaman magic far more than any other mage, because the Bastard had proven more vulnerable to the nature magic of the People and the shamans than to the magic of the Sidhe. And without Fey, the group was starting out crippled in the area of magic.
Debra wasn't in my dream space; she'd called and let me know that they staying up late with her aunt because she was finally a little better, so the aunt wanted to talk and enjoy family company before she had to go for another round of chemo and get all messed up again. That meant an all-nighter for Debra, and she'd nap during the day. After the meetings, I desperately needed to cuddle with Debra, even if only in dream space. And even I hadn't been able to completely dream-walk because of the nightmares of dealing with a creature so powerful that it made Snakey-junior look like a worm in comparison. I hadn't slept well at all.
I yawned, and then turned back to my drawings. At least doodling and sketching ideas for my car's frame was keeping me occupied - a little. About four that morning, unable to sleep, I'd taken my laptop down to the study room and done some Internet searching, finding design drawings and measurements from the '57 Nomad. With that data in hand, I could at least kick around ideas to see what might fit under the body.
A shadow passed over my drawings and I closed my eyes momentarily, not quite sure if it was my fatigue or something real. Opening them again revealed the continued presence of the shadow. I looked up - right into the smiling face of Elaine. "Oh, hey Lanie."
She was grinning as she quickly looked over the pages of scribbled notes and drawings, but there was something in her eyes that said she was uncomfortable about something. "Hey, Kayda, got a minute? Ah'd like to talk to you, if Ah'm not interruptin' anythin' important."
I put on a weary smile. "Pull up a chair."
"Um," Lanie said, wincing slightly as she hesitated, "Can we go somewhere ... else?"
"Oh!" I mouthed, my eyes widening. "One of those talks? Not a problem. I was just ... doodling." I gathered up my papers and shoved them into my backpack.
"Right," Lanie chuckled. "Just doodling. Is that the frame you want to put under your car?"
I sighed heavily. "Yeah. I got the specs on-line, so I know how much room I have to work, and it's turning out to be a real bitch. I've got all the room I could dream of up front, but the rear is really tight if I want independent rear suspension. I don't know what I'm going to do for springs."
"Well," Lanie said thoughtfully, "if you're not married to an independent suspension, you could just swap out the rear axle. Mah Daddy did a job for a guy with a fifty-six that needed a better diff, and that's how we tackled it. It's a bolt-on swap."
I shook my head. "Nah. Independent suspension should make it handle a lot better, especially with what I'm planning for the front suspension." I stood and smoothed down my dress, which had ridden up a little. "Lead on, oh great one."
Lanie scowled at me, or at least tried, but she couldn't hold it and ended up chuckling. "Ah see it doesn't matter how many times Ah ask you not to do that, because you seem to get a kick out of teasin' me!"
I chuckled. "Moi? At least I'm not walking in front of you scattering flower petals for your feet and demanding that all bow as the Gadgeteer Goddess passes!"
Lanie slapped my arm playfully. "If you ever do that, Ah _will_ get back at you!" she chuckled. As we walked, she gave me a peculiar glance; I was getting that a lot because whenever I could, I wore my buckskin dresses and I always wore my In'oka paint. We walked toward the vehicle lab down in the tunnels beneath Kane Hall.
"Ah hear you had an interesting birthday surprise after Ah left," she said out of the blue. She glanced and saw my cheeks flushing, which caused her to chuckle. "So there _is_ some kind of story there! So ... are you and Rosalyn ...?"
I needed to change the topic of conversation. "How about we drop it, okay?" It was going to take a bit for my beet-red cheeks to fade back to their normal ruddy color.
"You're just piquing mah curiosity," Lanie chuckled. We got into the elevator, and if I hadn't known better, I would have sworn that she was checking me out from the way she kept glancing at me. "Ah _will_ eventually find out what happened, so you might as well tell me now."
Outside Crystal Hall, Late Morning
"There goes that Lakota bitch!" Darren grumbled bitterly as his eyes tracked Kayda walking with Lanie out of the cafeteria.
Quickdraw snorted. "If she's really getting tight with Loophole, it's going to be a lot harder to get rid of her. Loophole _is_ boffing Kodiak, and he's head Alpha."
Darren sighed. "Which one - Heyoka or her?"
Quickdraw glanced after the two girls walking. "It'd be a shame for it to be such a nice looking piece of ass," he said wistfully.
"She's a fucking Lakota cunt!" Darren snarled angrily. "The women are filthy whores!"
"Pretty harsh, dude," Quickdraw said critically.
"So it's her," Darren said with an air of finality, scowling. "And if you help out, you can do whatever the hell you want first."
A grin of pure evil spread across Quickdraw's features. "Works for me."
"But ... we've got to make sure that no matter what happens, there is _no_ alibi. No excuses. None whatsoever!"
"Dude," Quickdraw cautioned, "there are _always_ clues!"
"Xanatos Gambit," Darren said with certainty. "No matter what happens, even if they skirt getting the blame, the alibi has to be so humiliating that they leave in shame or get expelled."
"I don't know about that," Quickdraw mused. "Carson didn't expel the Don or Tansy, so it might be pretty hard to ensure that thorough of a frame-up, and it'd have to be for something so serious that she'd couldn't avoid expelling them."
"So we have to plan very carefully. What would be totally humiliating to be caught in?"
Quickdraw started to reply, but Darren cut him off. "Shhh," Darren said quickly as he spotted a girl walking from the caf who'd pass very close to them. He didn't want to be overheard plotting something like this.
Amber Prentice was staring at the ground, lost in thought, as she walked back toward Dickinson. "Hey, Amber!" The call startled her, and she looked up sharply to see who was talking. "Oh, hi, Speakeasy. Quickdraw."
"Nice day, isn't it?" Darren said conversationally. He noticed how distracted she seemed, and he smiled inwardly. Maybe Mike had contacts inside the new Native American group that could get the straight dope on the two Lakota students. Darren avoided the group because of the two so he didn't have good inside sources. And if Mike knew anything, Darren might be able to leverage the data from Amber. "What's Mike up to these days? We haven't seen him around for a while."
Quickdraw leered at her. "Unless you've been wearing him out so he never has any energy to get out!"
"Fuck you!" Amber snapped at him. "That's none of your business, you ... asshole!"
"Why is Mike taking such an interest in that ... Lakota ... girl?" Darren said, struggling to keep the hatred from his voice. He projected empathy toward Amber, nudging her to feel that Darren was sympathetic and helpful, and that he was someone she could safely talk to about her boyfriend's problems with Native Americans.
Amber glanced around nervously for a moment. "He's been on the phone a lot with some shaman," she admitted, "so I know he's ... up to something."
A little more sympathy and a bit more emotional prodding, and Amber confessed that she thought Mike was getting way too emotionally involved with whatever the shaman wanted, and she was certain it had to do with the Lakota kids. Inwardly, Darren was gleeful about this source of information; it might be _very_ useful to his plans.
After Amber left, convinced that she had a new, supportive friend, Quickdraw and Darren sat back, Darren with a wicked grin on his face.
"What?" Quickdraw asked simply, puzzled by Darren's newfound confidence.
"It's _perfect_!" Darren chortled.
"I'm not following you!"
"They're both avatars, right? Both of them are supposed to have important spirits, right?" He smiled. "We can play the 'jealous spirit' angle. One of them thinks the other isn't respecting the first one's spirit appropriate - and vice versa! Behold - a reason for a bitter rivalry and even a serious feud and fight!"
"I thought you said ..." Quickdraw was puzzled.
"They don't _have_ to actually fight each other - as long as it looks like they did, and one of them ends up really, really messed up! So bad that Carson has to expel the other one." He read the confusion on his friend's face.
"So we want to get rumors going that the two are having a serious feud?" Quickdraw asked, finally catching on. "Is _that_ what you were suggesting to Amber?"
Darren nodded. "Yup. So we spread rumors and fuel speculation that the two hate each other. And I've got some ideas for doing _that_, too!"
"There _is_ the issue of them having an alibi," Quickdraw reminded Darren.
"Yeah. Hmmm - I wonder ....." Darren had a far-off look. "What if the only alibi they could give was so embarrassing that they'd rather be expelled than humiliated?" He grinned wickedly. "Like being in the middle of a love triangle? And if they admit it, they have a jealous lover to deal with, as well as humiliating the other participant?"
Quickdraw nodded, understanding. "And if the little lovers' knot involved a friend, so much the better!" He laughed. "And if it got out, they'd lose a lot of respect among their friends and such."
"Yup. Enough that even if they don't get expelled, or killed or beaten by a jealous friend, or leave from humiliation, they'd lose all their friends and their reputation is totally ruined!"
"How do we _make_ someone participate in an affair?" Quickdraw asked, frowning. "If it's just a rumor, they could deny it. Might even have an alibi for _that_!"
"Hmmm, you may have a point," Darren replied. "A rumor alone might not be enough. We'd need _proof_. Maybe ... maybe we can find something magic?"
"That rules me out," Quickdraw said in disgust at his apparent impotence to help the plot. He _liked_ violence.
"I'll go do some research," Darren said. "There _has_ to be something. Meanwhile, Amber said that the girl has a rival in the Native American group, right? Wind Runner? I think we need to go have a little chat with her, and see if I can't _persuade_ her to help with some nasty rumors!"
Vehicle Lab, Beneath Kane Hall;
In the lab, we walked past a number of stalls with project cars, including Lanie's own Mustang, her "Baby Girl", and the newest project car of Mr. Donner, the Ford 730. To my surprise, Lanie took out a key and opened Mr. Donner's office door, flipping on the lights as she went inside. She must have read my astonishment. "As long as Ah don't abuse the privilege, Mr. Donner lets me use his office."
I sat down in one chair, half-facing Lanie as she sat in another. "So what's so hush-hush?"
Lanie winced, hesitating. "Putting it bluntly," she blurted out, "what's it like to have a spirit in you?"
I felt Ptesanwi manifest in me, and then we touched Lanie on the forehead, drawing her with us into our dream space. We sat by the fire and Wakan Tanka made _us_ brew and serve tea. We talked about having spirits and Wakan Tanka explained that some spirits are _in_ a person, and some are _with_ a person - like she was with me, but Ptesanwi was in me.
Lanie winced nervously. "Ma'am," she said politely and formally, "Ah'm a bit nervous about havin' a spirit inside me."
Wakan Tanka nodded. "Too powerful a spirit can control a person, or harm them physically."
"That's what Ah'm afraid of." She glanced nervously at the tea cup. "Ah'm afraid that Grizzly will be in contro, and that Ah'll be lost. That's why Ah wanted to talk to Kayda, to understand what it's like to have a spirit in you."
Wakan Tanka smiled pleasantly. "You are wise to be cautious. But with spirits, there are precautions one can take, and one can make a binding pact with the spirit."
"Ah ... Ah'm not an avatar!" Lanie protested. "How can Ah host a spirit?"
"There were shamans _long_ before there were avatars," Wakan Tanka explained. "There are rituals that will stretch a hallow to make room for a spirit. If Grizzly can't help you prepare, Wihakayda can bring you here and we will perform the ritual if you desire."
With those words, we snapped back to the real world. Lanie shook her head. "Ah don't think Ah'll ever get used to that!"
"So you have questions," I said plainly. "Ask away, and I'll answer as best as I can."
Lanie looked nervous as we talked; I explained that yes, Tatanka _did_ know both Grizzly and Kodiak. And then I explained what it was like to have Ptesanwi and Tatanka in me, how they'd helped me, including protecting me from The Don and Tansy's mind-fuck attempt. And then she asked me if I'd do it again, if I had the choice.
Funny thing was that I hadn't really thought of that question. It was so natural to have my spirits with me that I barely noticed them. They were friends, companions, always protecting me.
Lanie's next question shocked me - could I push the spirits out? It took me a few seconds to get my jaw working again. "I don't know," I replied. "And I don't _want_ to know. They're ... part of me. If I lost them, it'd be a hole in my very life. And yes, if I had to do it over, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
Lanie seemed satisfied with my answers, so she turned her attention to my drawings. "Is that a four-wheel-drive setup?" she asked as she scanned the drawings.
I nodded. "I figured that I could make a variable power-split four-wheel-drive system based on a design I did for one of dad's tractors. It's based on a variation of a Torsen differential."
Lanie's eyebrows rose. "Really? Ah'd like to see that." She got another mischievous grin. "And Ah really want to hear about what happened on your birthday."
I blushed furiously, giving her yet another hint that there was a story behind the hot tub party goings-on after she'd left. But I wasn't going to tell her. No matter how much she asked. I had a sudden thought that popped into my head. If she kissed me again like she had at the party, I'd probably sing like a stool-pigeon. That made me blush again, which elicited another chuckle from my redheaded friend.
Simulation Briefing Room, afternoon
Gunny Bardue looked around the room, shaking his head. "I'm giving up my weekend - for this?" he scowled.
I glanced around and resisted the temptation to chuckle. We were a rather motley-looking group; seven Native American students from the Nations - myself, Mule, Stonebear, Pristine, Flux, Lupine, and Thunderbird. Mule, Stonebear, and Thunderbird looked like they knew what they were doing but the rest of us were wide-eyed and innocent about the workings of the holo-simulators.
"Mr. Lodgeman said that we _could_ use the simulators because ...."
Gunny glared at me. "Yes, I know. You're a sanctioned school group. But ... this?" He turned his attention to Mule. "Are you in charge of this little ... war party?" he growled.
"Yes, sir!" Mule replied back enthusiastically.
"You four -" he was looking at me, Pristine, Flux, and Lupine, "the first twenty minutes will give you a chance to get the feel of the sim suits. Then we'll proceed to your little ... adventure. Got it?"
"Yes, sir!" everyone echoed in chorus; every single person had experienced Gunny Bardue, or knew someone who had.
"Have you read the simulator instruction manual?" he demanded.
The four of us nodded weakly; Gunny was just too intimidating to appear confident in front of. He read confidence as arrogance and bored in to make sure the person wasn't getting cocky.
"Go to your sim suites," he ordered. We all rose; I was tempted to snap off a salute, but I resisted because I knew that would get me in a world of trouble.
"What's this world coming to?" I heard Gunny talking to Samantha Everhart as we followed Mule to the individual sim suites.
The four of us newbies were in borrowed sim suits, and the three vets helped us get seated and plugged in. It was a little disconcerting when the helmet closed over my eyes and left me in pitch blackness, but as I'd been hunting in dream space on moonless nights, I didn't feel too claustrophobic.
"Going active in five," Gunny's voice called over the headset built into my helmet.
I silently counted down, and suddenly I was attired in buckskin, like the other six around me, weapons at our belts, a warm prairie breeze in our hair. I glanced around, feeling positively delighted at the sensations and realism of the simulator. I felt alive, free. I tilted my head back and let out a war cry, and two of my comrades joined in. The ululating, primal scream rolled over the hills.
Control Room, Arena 99 Simulators
Gunny Bardue was still shaking his head. "What the hell is that supposed to be, some kind of war cry?"
The sim technician shrugged; he knew what kind of moods Gunny could get into. "I don't know."
Gunny looked at the monitor which showed the scene inside the sim. "Okay, they want a war party and war cries? Let's give it to them." With a malicious grin, he began to set parameters of the simulation.
Sunday, April 29, 2007, Dinnertime
"Hey, Wind Runner!" Darren called when he spotted the Navajo girl. As he fully expected, she was on her way to dinner with a few of her friends, and it wasn't a random encounter; he'd been waiting unobtrusively for her to appear at the door of her cottage.
Doli Peshkali turned at the sound of her code name, looking around warily to find who was calling to her. She spotted Darren quickly. "Oh, it's you." Her tone left it clear that Darren wasn't one of her favorite people.
"How are things with the group?" Darren asked conversantly. He _knew_ the answer; he had to use it as a hook for the conversation and what he planned to do. "I've been meaning to come to a meeting, but I keep getting behind in homework."
Wind Runner's face clouded. "It's okay," she mumbled in an angry tone, "I guess."
"You ... guess?" Darren sounded surprised, even though he wasn't. He had a source or two for information. "Problems?" Darren asked. "You had it running so well." A little psychic pressure to go along with his flattery and fake concern, and she opened like a budding flower. And as she gave vent to her emotions about "that usurper bitch", Darren gave her a little psychic nudge here and there to reinforce her dislike of the girl. And he asked - again seeming innocent - about how the two Lakota kids got along, influencing her to see problems that weren't really there.
He left her at the cafeteria to join his own little clique, knowing that she was now putty in her hands, another tool to spread disinformation about Kayda, and more importantly, about growing friction between the two Lakota kids with competing, mutually-antagonistic spirits.
Things were going just like he wanted. Except for one little problem to solve, he knew the campus would soon be rid of the filth that infested it.