Sunday, April 29, 2007, Early afternoon
Debriefing Room, Arena 99 Simulators
I didn't know whether to scream in anger or cry in frustration as we marched to the debriefing room. Mule had an unreadable expression on his face, while Thunderbird and Stonebear looked a little disappointed. Lupine, Flux, and Pristine, though, looked like I felt, which is to say lousy. We sat down, with Mule and Stonebear sitting toward the front of the room. I just slumped into a chair, wondering how the hell the three guys could be so nonchalant after the debacle of a sim.
Gunny walked in, and Mule practically broke his own spine snapping to a very attentive position in his chair. Stonebear, Thunderbird, and Pristine, too, sat up a bit straighter, attentive to Gunny. I, on the other hand, took the opportunity to slouch in my chair, a subconscious protest against Gunny and what he'd done to screw up our introductory simulation.
"That was one of the biggest fuckups I've seen in these simulators this term!" Gunny spat, looking thoroughly disgusted. He spun to Mule. "What happened?"
Mule winced. "We were surprised by overwhelming numbers outside the enemy's camp. Somehow, we lost the element of surprise."
"You were the team leader, correct?" Gunny demanded. "So why the hell weren't you leading? Where was your recon? What was your plan?" He didn't give Mule a chance to respond. "It was a simple stealth mission - reconnoiter, sneak in, liberate a few horses, and make a fast retreat. And you guys couldn't even do that?"
"This was _supposed_ to be an easy exercise to practice," I snapped at Gunny, thoroughly pissed. "Most of us haven't used the simulators before. But then someone fucked with the scenario." My glare was most unpleasant and my words put the blame for the fiasco directly on Gunny.
Admiral Everheart stepped forward. "And precisely _when_, Pejuta," she countered sternly, "does combat go as planned? When do you get to pick and choose how many enemies and what their strengths and weaknesses are?" While she had me flinching, she continued. "That snake-demon you fought twice didn't play by some nice set of rules, did he?" She looked around. "With one exception," she glared at me momentarily, "all of you have had combat finals, and several of you have been in simulations. And even the exception," she was looking at me, "has had numerous combat experiences. You all should have known better."
"My shaman magic wasn't working," I complained.
"What happens when your magic and your spirits fail in a real fight?" Gunny barked at me. "Do you expect to call 'time out'' while you recharge your magic or find your spirits?"
"You have to learn to fight even when your powers fail you," the admiral noted dispassionately. "I _assume_ that Ito is still teaching that concept, right?"
Gunny's eyes bored into me. "This simulation was your idea, right? Why did you put Mule in charge?"
I squirmed uncomfortably. "Because he's got the most team leadership and simulation experience through ROTC," I replied hesitantly.
"And what's his ethnic background?"
"Um, part Seminole?" I sensed that Gunny was about to jump on me about something.
"And you were raiding where?"
"Crow Indians, on the plains.
"How similar are the swamps and forests of Florida to the fucking Great Plains?" Gunny demanded. I felt my eyes widen in surprise. "Who knows the cultural aspects and lore of the setting best?" he demanded.
"Um, me," I squeaked nervously. "And Lupine," I added.
"Then why the hell weren't one of _you_ two in charge?" Gunny demanded. "Or at least acting like a strong deputy? You were asking Mule to lead in an unfamiliar situation, while _two_ of your team members had knowledge of the setting and situation!" He paced back and forth a couple of times, a deep-seated scowl on his face. "Okay, Mule, you were in charge. What went wrong?"
"We walked into a trap." He glanced sideways at me. "When our shaman's magic didn't work, we didn't get a good read on the enemy. About the time we reached the horses, one of the sentry dogs barked and the enemy attacked us from behind."
"That wasn't a dog barking," the admiral retorted, stern-faced. "It was a signal from a warrior to attack you guys. Don't you know that Native Americans use animal sounds as signals when stealth is required?" I felt like sinking through my chair and the floor. It was an important detail I'd overlooked. To be fair, so had Mule and Lupine.
We put up with Gunny's yelling and Admiral Everheart's stern correction for another twenty minutes, and then we were ordered back into the simulators for another try. This time, we knew that the two of them were going to be out for us, and that the 'introductory' simulation wasn't going to be a cake walk.
"Damn, that was fun!" Stonebear grinned enthusiastically. In the second simulation, he'd single-handedly dispatched twelve Crow Indians.
I nodded, having mixed feelings about the day. While the first simulation had been a total cluster-fuck, the second had been better, but still not what I'd expected. "That was a great idea, Lupine, to use your wolf form to scout for us."
"If we're going to do this often," Mule interjected, "we'll need to develop an adequate signaling method. Hand signals at night are almost useless, and talking would give us away instantly." He sighed. "Moonless nights would give us the most cover, but they'd also make signaling nearly impossible."
The rest of us nodded. That had been our single biggest weakness in the second sim run. "At least you, Pristine, and Flux got away with a dozen horses," I observed.
"Yeah. But the losses were too high," Stonebear said with a shrug. He glanced at me. "If I'd have gotten that one enemy, you wouldn't have gotten hit from behind."
I nodded, disgusted with myself. "I wouldn't have been hit if I could have read the sky and earth spirits."
"Even then," Lupine noted, "you took out a lot of the enemy."
I hung my head a bit, feeling embarrassed. I'd had a panic attack when one of the enemy warriors had grabbed me, going into what was essentially a berserker rage. I wasn't sure, but in the close-quartered, frenzied, dark battlefield, it might have been _my_ tomahawks that had dispatched Lupine. I really didn't remember a lot of the action. And then there was a sharp pain to my neck, followed by the simulator going dark.
I'd never had claustrophobia before, but with sudden, total darkness while in the midst of a full-fledged panic attack, it had taken Admiral Everheart almost twenty minutes to get me calmed down. I'd missed a lot of the debrief, and I was still quite rattled when I _did_ finally get to the briefing room.
But Stonebear was right. "Yeah, we have a few things to work on." I noticed that Lupine and Pristine gave me sideways glances at that comment. "But it _was_ fun." Lupine raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "Well, mostly," I added quickly. "Although I could do without writing essays analyzing the sims."
Mule chuckled. "It comes with the territory. If we want to play in the simulators, we follow _their_ rules - including brutal post-sim debriefs and essays."
Sunday, April 29, 2007, afternoon
Whateley Academy, Remote Tunnels
Hekate's Master watched Amber, permitting himself a smile of anticipation as she came toward him. He was starting to see a way that the pathetic, amateur plots of those idiots Speakeasy and Quickdraw could be made to work to fit _his_ goals. That Lakota girl had the potential to cause him serious problems. Well, not so much her, but those two spirits of hers - especially the powerful one she channeled. Easier to get rid of her than to try to deal with yet another unknown. And better still to have unknowing stooges do the dirty work.
"What new can you tell me?" he asked Amber as they ducked through a door into a relatively isolated room.
"Speakeasy and Quickdraw are getting rid of the two of them," she reported diligently.
"Interesting. Tell me more." The evil magic-user was pleasantly surprised that they were already at the step that he thought he'd have to nudge them toward. These two - Darren Haskins with his irrational racial bigotry and Eddie Rutherford with his borderline pathological love of violence - were perfect puppets.
"Speakeasy is working on a plan so that even if the attacker wiggles out of blame and isn't expelled, they'll be so humiliated at the alibi that they'll leave, or get run out in shame. In any case, they'll both be neutralized."
"The idea is to use a lust spell on one of them - the one they'll frame as the attacker - so they can't help but get into the middle of a very nasty love triangle. Darren plans to record it for evidence if he needs it," Amber explained, sounding more than a little robotic. It was a side effect of the mythos magic on the charm he had given the girl, not that he cared. "It'll either add to their humiliation, or can be used by the administration to expel them for blatantly violating the rules about carnal contact."
The plot unfurled in the wicked one's mind in a heartbeat. "So - they don't have a good out. And if the target of the affair is chosen correctly, there will be a very jealous third - who might do some serious violence!" His mental gears spun as he silently assessed the options and sub-options, narrowing down to a plan that was most favorable for him. "I can make this rid me of _two_ of my problems!"
He turned back to the girl. "Meet me here tonight, and I'll give you something to plant and instructions _where_ to put it. And I'll tell you _exactly_ what you need to tell Speakeasy. Of course, you'll forget you talked to me. Now go." He effectively dismissed her as he crossed to an old desk and unlocked the roll-top. He had plans to make.
Sunday, April 29, 2007, after dinner
I met Lanie in the lobby, giving her a quick hug. "Are you sure about this?" I asked hesitantly. _I_ wasn't sure, and I wasn't the one who'd be on the receiving end of the rituals.
Lanie tried to nod confidently, but I could see her trepidation. "Ah'm ... Ah'm pretty sure," she said, her voice quavering a little bit. "Ah ... need to do this," she added, her voice more firm. "You know why."
I nodded slowly, knowing only too well why Lanie felt that she had to go through with the rituals. "Okay. Let's go up to my room. We'll need somewhere peaceful and quiet."
"Poe Cottage? Peaceful?" Lanie chuckled, although her laughter sounded a little forced.
"Evvie," I said to my roommate when the two of us walked into my room, "I need the room for a bit."
Evvie looked at me and cocked an eyebrow. "You two are making a habit out of needing privacy in here. Is there something I should know about?" Her voice had a mischievous, playful tone, despite the innuendo in her comment.
I scowled at her. "You know Lanie and I are just friends. We need someplace quiet for doing some magic."
Evvie laughed aloud. "Yeah, and I saw the 'magic' between the two of you at the hot-tub party the other night!" I grabbed my pillow and launched it at her. "Okay, okay! I'm going!" she said, grabbing a book and scampering out of the room. "I hope you have a 'magical' time," she chuckled just before closing the door behind her.
Lanie put her hand on my shoulder. "Ah hope you aren't embarrassed by all the teasin'."
I turned from the door toward her and I gulped when I looked up into her soft, green eyes. "Um, no," I stammered, looking away quickly. "Not really." I hastily opened my medicine pouch and began to arrange the contents so I wasn't looking at her enchanting eyes. Why, I asked myself as I set out my stuff, why did Lanie seem to hold such power over me? What was it about her that was so captivating? A shudder went up and down my back, and I shook my head to clear my thoughts.
"Ready?" I asked as we sat cross-legged on the floor. I couldn't help but notice the valley of cleavage under her low-necked knit shirt, the fabric pulled tightly across her generous mounds. I could mentally picture, from the hot-tub party, her delicious curves, the nice flat stomach and narrow waist flaring into her wide, curvy, luscious hips. With her knees spread as she sat, I could almost picture .... Once more, I shook my head to clear those unwanted, intrusive thoughts. Why was I nearly obsessing over Lanie? I had Debra! And I'd had Debra, and she'd had me - many times! Thinking of that pushed thoughts of Lanie from my mind and I was able to focus once more.
"I'm going to be going back and forth between here and dream-space," I cautioned her. "So don't be surprised if I zone out for a moment or two. I've got to have my spirit teach me the spell and guide me through it. But I won't draw you into my dream space. I have to do the spell in our real world."
"You can't do it in your dream world?"
I winced. "A spell like that - in dream space - can cause ... complications."
Lanie's eyes narrowed. "What sort of complications?"
No matter how embarrassing, I knew I had to tell her. "A significant spell in dream space can create ... a bond ... between the shaman and the patient," I said softly.
"Ah see. Like a Vulcan mind meld?" she asked.
I gave a half chuckle. "That's exactly the way I described it to Debra."
Lanie's eyes widened, and then she nodded knowingly. "So you and Debra ...."
"She was badly injured in a fight. Her regen wasn't working because of the nature of the injury, so I had to use shaman magic to do some very major healing spells on her. We weren't ... ready."
"Ah see. So you're sort of bound to her?" She nodded in understanding. "And if we did this ritual in your dream world, Ah might be psychically bound to you, too?" I nodded affirmation of her guess. "Well, that might not be so bad," she mused with a grin, "if Debra liked redheads and the two of you were into three-ways!"
It took a second for me to pick my jaw off the floor, and then I realized, from the twinkle in her eyes, that she was teasing me. "You .... you're bad!" I said, playfully slapping her arm.
Lanie grinned at me. "No, I'm _good_! And you just want to find out _how_ good I can be!"
I blushed, trying to ignore her joke that she knew would embarrass me, and I slipped quickly into my dream space to consult my mentor.
"Are you certain your friend is willing to undergo the ritual?" Wakan Tanka asked as we walked through a cool mountain meadow.
"Yes." I glanced at her. "Why the change?"
"Paha Sapa has powerful magic. We must use some of that magic in the ritual," she explained. "First, brew some tea, and both of you must drink from the same cup. This will attune you to her spirit and hallow so that you can perform the ritual."
"Wait," I halted suddenly. "Won't that bond me to her?"
"No," Wakan Tanka assured me. "The first part of the ritual will protect you two from being permanently attuned to the other."
I brewed the tea and then we both drank of the cup. Lanie eyed me cautiously; no doubt she was concerned about this mystical bond I'd warned her of and was wondering if the tea was going to foster such a bond.
"As we go through the ritual, you're going to be in sort-of a trance," I warned her. "You're going to feel a little bit of ... tugging, and stretching, as your hallow expands," I explained, "but Wakan Tanka assures me that it won't hurt. Now, take off your clothes and lie down."
Lanie's eyebrows lifted again. "Y'all better not take advantage of me while I'm lyin' here helpless and naked and in a trance!" she warned, but then a grin crept over her face. "'Cause if you _do_ take advantage of me, Ah want to be awake to enjoy it!"
I couldn't help but chuckle. "If I can't control myself, I'll be sure to wake you up," I assured her with a giggle.
Guided by Wakan Tanka, with many short trips to my dream space, I mixed a sweet-smelling brew, feeling my magic infuse the concoction. Lying in a trance, naked, Lanie looked innocent and sweet and so delectable that it was difficult at times to concentrate. But I managed - constantly chiding myself for allowing myself to be distracted. I had Debra. I didn't need another girlfriend - or a fling. And I valued Lanie's friendship.
Chanting as Wakan Tanka directed me, I painted some sacred symbols all over her body as I invoked the magic. Her body convulsed in a great spasm as I finished the spell and felt the magic rush from within me into her. I watched her nervously for a few minutes as her body twitched and her expression reflected a small amount of discomfort. Eventually, though, peace returned to her face, and her body lay motionless.
I was just touching her forehead and incanting when the door opened. "Hope I'm not interrupting, because ... eeep!"
I spun around, startled, to see Evvie standing in the doorway, her eyes wide as saucers as she beheld the sight before her. "Um, it's not what it looks like!" I protested instantly and frantically.
"Oh?" Evvie asked. "Just what _is_ it?"
"I'm ... doing a special ritual for Lanie," I explained hastily.
"Uh, huh!" Evvie snorted. "If _that's_ what you want to call it ...."
"Honest!" I protested. Evvie and the girls had seen the way Lanie and I were making eyes at each other at the hot-tub party, the way she'd practically enchanted me, the passion with which she'd kissed me. No doubt rumors were going to be flying. I turned to Lanie and incanted as I touched the markings I'd painted onto her forehead.
Lanie's eyes fluttered and she gasped for a moment. She tried to sit up but winced and clutched her head lightly. "Whoa!" she said.
"How are you feeling?" I asked, concerned and ignoring Evvie's stare.
Lanie frowned and then nodded. "Ah'm okay, Ah think." She winced slightly. "Ah've got the strangest headache, though."
"You know how most headaches feel like your head is in a vise, being squeezed? Well, this feels like mah head is being pulled apart a bit, being stretched. And Ah feel some of that in mah chest, too."
Evvie frowned. "You really _were_ doing a ritual!"
"Yeah," I replied.
"Dammit. That spoils one hell of a piece of juicy gossip!" She chuckled and walked to her desk beside Lanie who I was helping up from the floor. "Although, I could still tell the girls that I came in and Lanie was lying naked on the floor with you hovering over her!" She read the expression on Lanie's face. "Just kidding!" she said quickly.
"Good," Lanie replied, smiling. The pain must have been gone for her to smile like that. "Because you remember what happened to Tansy when Ah put mah mind to dealin' with her, don't you?" When Evvie goggled at that little comment, Lanie grinned. "Ah'm just kiddin', too," she chuckled as she began to pull on her clothes, but then she realized she had sticky-sweet herbal markings painted all over her from the ritual.
I knew what she was thinking. "Here," I handed her my robe. "You can go take a quick shower to clean all that off." After she put on the robe, I handed her my shower caddy as she walked out the door. "Don't get too distracted by the showers," I called after her.
Evvie flopped onto her bed. "You _know_ someone is going to see her showering with _your_ robe, don't you? The rumors _are_ going to fly fast and furious!"
Sunday, April 29, 2007 - evening
Near the Grove
"That's a very interestin' set of showers y'all have in Poe," Lanie observed as we squished through the mud on what had become a well-worn path due to the service for Aunghadhail. A nearly-constant rain all day had saturated the ground and made it soggy. "It's almost enough to persuade a girl to move _into_ the nuthouse!"
I chuckled. She'd returned from the shower looking quite blissful; no doubt as a gadgeteer she'd found a compelling need to experiment with the non-standard plumbing.
"Yeah, it's only on our floor and it's a secret, too, so you can't tell anyone," I cautioned her.
"Ah've kept the secret of Poe," Lanie said with a smile. "Ah think Ah can keep the secret of the Freshman girls' plumbin' fixtures. Although Ah might have to check them out from time to time to make sure they're workin' right!" After walking a little ways more, Lanie sighed. "Ah hope Ah'm doing the right thing."
I paused, grasping her shoulder so she turned to face me. "This is _your_ call. I'm only going to do this if you're one hundred percent sure."
Lanie nodded to me. "Its the only way Ah can be sure. Ah want to be with him. Ah have to know it's what Ah want, not that meddlesome bear spirit messin' with mah mind!"
I nodded, and we continued to chat as we walked. She'd broached the subject of being with Wyatt, and why she felt the need to continue being with him, which made me extremely uncomfortable, but Lanie was very supportive, hugging me when she saw I needed a hug.
After a pause, Lanie chuckled. "Are you going to tell me about you and Rosalyn?" She smiled as I felt my cheeks burning. "Ah guess the White Buffalo Calf Woman has been picking Blackroses! Watch out for thorns!"
I swatted her arm playfully. "Stop! You're assuming that my understanding with Rosalyn is physical." For a brief moment, I thought of Rosalyn and the heartbroken, fragile expression on her face as we'd talked in Mrs. Horton's apartment. I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for her; how much of her self-confidence and assertive manner was really her, and how much was a facade compensating for past hurt?
Elaine regaled me with the tale of her first time with Wyatt - which though it made me nervous, was still amusing. They'd gotten into a serious fight in an arena - her in her armor - because she had to know that he'd respect her. She'd gotten a black eye out of the deal - and some serious passion. And she was still worried that she was just a whore for him, that he didn't respect her? After fighting him to a draw? I adamantly assured her that if she fought him to make sure he respected her, she didn't have anything to worry about on that front.
When we got to the Grove, Lanie rubbed her shoulder briefly like it stung or tingled - in the spot where the night before, in Melville, the Kodiak had marked her. It was supposed to be something that gave all the students in the league protection and succor from the Grove. I hadn't been marked, not that Kodiak didn't try, but Wakan Tanka made me manifest Ptesanwi and assert - very strongly - that we were marked by Wakan Tanka and could never, ever bear the mark of another. The Grove knew us, and we knew it. It would protect us. When Ptesanwi de-manifested, I was on the receiving end of a _lot_ of very puzzled looks.
Tatanka joined us as we approached the spot that bore the charred remains of Aunghadhail's funeral pyre, and Grizzly, in her primal bear form and skyclad, waited for us in the center of the clearing. We manifested Ptesanwi again.
"We are here to ask you to bear witness to a contract under the Seal of Solomon, blessed by the Great Spirit, between Elaine Ethel Nalley, daughter of the Emerald Isles, and Grizzly, the Spirit of the Shaman, Medicine Woman, Pipe Holder of the Council of Spirits."
"It is good that the spirits once more walk among the children of men," the Oak tree rumbled to me before he turned to Lanie. "Come forth, Pict Daughter."
A gentle breeze blew, and I felt magic coursing through the Grove, and suddenly Lanie was clothed in the Pict garb she'd worn in my dream space. Strangely, her clothing - the Georgia Tech jacket, shirt, and pants, were stacked neatly behind her.
The tree spirits looked skeptically at Lanie. "You are far from your homeland."
"Ah'm from these lands as much as Kayda," she said defiantly, before reaching down took up a handful of soil. "This is the dirt of mah homeland and Ah don't need a Tribal Card to be Native American. Ah came from this," she said, gesturing to her clothing, then turned and pointed at her jeans and Georgia Tech jacket. "That is who Ah am."
"Well spoken," rumbled Oak. "Now, tell us what you and this good spirit shall contract for."
Grizzly stepped forward and stood by Lanie. I will protect this girls mind. I will share my strength and my skill with her and teach her how to control the fire within her and I pledge that never again will another human have power over her.
"Ah will be a hallow for this spirit," Lanie said, her voice trembling with uncertainty but her eyes burning with determination to complete the ceremony. "Through me will she walk the earth once more. Ah will share mah life with her and protect her from any who would entrap her spirit, steal her power, or enslave her by magic or charm. Through me shall she have voice for teaching the people once more."
I swear that never again will you be a prisoner in your own body, Grizzly proclaimed. Nor will you come to harm that is in my power to prevent.
"Is the contract satisfactory?" asked Troll.
A shudder passed through Elaine. "Ah am satisfied."
I am satisfied.
"Grizzly," intoned Oak. "Tell your host your True Name."
The huge bear spirit sat on her haunches, leaned forward, and whispered something to Elaine. I knew it was Grizzly's True Name, the name which could give a person huge power over the spirit and which was carefully protected. I, of course, knew the true names of my spirits Tatanka and Ptesanwi, although I didn't know - and didn't _want_ to know - the true name of Wakan Tanka. I wasn't sure that I could handle such knowledge.
"Ptesanwi," instructed Willow. "Bind the spirit to her host."
We took a vine-like leaf and a branch from Willow and went back to Lanie and Grizzly. "Elaine, Grizzly, we have witnessed your contract and we are glad to have a closer binding with the Spirits of the Land and the children of men." We wrapped the vine around Elaine's left hand and Grizzly's right paw, tying them together. "In the name of Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, we bless the binding of these two spirits into the hallow of Elaine Nalley."
Elaine's eyes widened as she saw that the branch wasn't really a branch, but a massive, needle-sharp thorn as thick as a thumb. Before she could chicken out, we continued the ceremony - knowing what was to come. "We see the birth of a new being, and birth means pain, but in that pain and trial life enters the world. Here a new life enters, and by the laws of the Creator and the Contract of Solomon, life is blood. You are tied together," we said, lifting the thorn. "Now, you are born."
We plunged the thorn down, through the paw and the hand, completing the ritual. Grizzly roared in pain, and then vanished, while Elaine cried in pain. She stared at her hand, and then she convulsed, her eyes widening before they rolled over to the whites and she collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
We stood, looking, confused. This wasn't the way of a spirit-binding, at least not what Wakan Tanka had told me!
"Something is wrong with the binding," the Oak tree said in concern. "Ptesanwi, you must get help for the girl."
Suddenly, Ptesanwi vanished, and I felt the spirits fading in strength as they left. I lifted Lanie, cradling her tall, inert body, and ran out of the Grove as fast as I could, thankful that I had _some_ Exemplar strength so that I _could_ carry her, even though it was tricky to balance her. I'd done the ritual, and something had gone wrong. My friend was hurt now because I'd messed up. Tears were pouring down my cheeks as I ran.
A beeping sound behind me finally caught my attention. I turned, half-blinded by lights of the golf cart which rolled up beside me. Mrs. Carson leaped out before it was stopped, grabbling Lanie from my arms, suddenly in her Lady Astarte outfit. Without waiting, she flew off toward Doyle Medical Center, cradling the stricken girl.
"Get in, Kayda." I recognized Ms. Grimes stern voice. Numbly, still crying at what I'd done to my friend, I staggered into the golf cart.
"Ms. Grimes, I ."
"Not. A. Word." She said very sternly through clenched jaw. "Not. One. Single. Word."
I shrank down in the chair, realizing at that moment that Ms. Grimes and probably Mrs. Carson were _extremely_ pissed at me. I'd fucked up royally. I was in very deep trouble, and that was to say nothing of the harm I'd caused my friend. I started to tear up and then to openly cry.
Monday, April 30, 2007. 1 am
I sat numbly, barely aware of the student who seemed to always be doing clerical work in the office. Two security guards in full kit flanked me as the minutes turned to hours and we waited. Ms. Grimes had been furious when she dropped me off, so angry, in fact, that words failed her. She just turned me over to the two guards to 'escort' me into the waiting area outside the headmistress' office.
The longer I waited, the more I worried about Lanie, and the more helpless I felt because if something bad happened to her, it was _all_ my fault. Tears continued to flow freely.
Mrs. Carson barged through the outer door, scowling angrily, and stormed to her office. "Bring her in," she barked to the guards. I winced; she was so angry that she wasn't speaking to me.
The two guards took my elbows, none too gently, and hoisted me to my feet. Still holding me as if I was some fugitive who'd flee if they let go, they led me into Mrs. Carson's office. At her nod, they let go and departed, pulling the door shut behind them.
Mrs. Carson faced away from me, her fingers working furiously on the keyboard of her computer. I waited for her to direct me to sit or something but so far she wasn't even acknowledging my presence. Presently, she turned around slowly.
A couple of days earlier, I'd seen a motherly, caring side of Mrs. Carson. Now, though that image was gone; instead, she looked like an avenging angel and I was the target of her wrath. She glowered at me, taking two or three deep breaths. "Tell me why the hell I shouldn't turn you over to the DPA _right now_?" she demanded.
I started to tremble with fright. "I ... I was just ...." I couldn't get words to come out the way I wanted them to. "Lanie ... asked me ...."
"Do you have _any_ idea of what you've done?" Mrs. Carson interrupted me.
"Lanie was afraid ... after Kodiak mind-raped her ..." I stammered.
"And _that_ gives you the right to use untried, untested magic to bind her to a spirit?"
"It's ..... Wakan Tanka said it was a normal spell for shamans," I said through trembling lips, not even trying to dry the torrent of drops on my cheeks.
"But you're not a shaman, are you?" she countered angrily. "You might have bound her to a malevolent spirit," she continued, "or to a spirit that's too powerful. Did you think of that?"
"But ... but we _met_ the spirit!" I protested weakly. "Kodiak introduced us to her!"
"The same Kodiak that messed with her mind last year?" My jaw dropped as the implications of Mrs. Carson's question hit me. "You know _nothing_ about the spirit world! Spirits are every bit as deceitful, double-dealing, backstabbing, manipulative, and conniving as humans. Worse, in fact," she added, "because they have access to things in the spirit world that can literally melt a person's mind!" She glared at me for a few seconds while her words sank in. "_That's_ what you exposed Elaine to!"
I started to bawl, realizing that if I'd thought it was bad before, it was much, much worse.
Mrs. Carson showed not the slightest bit of sympathy for my distress. "The _only_ thing the doctors can tell me right now is that Elaine is stable physically. She's _no longer_ in danger of dying. But her mental activity is ... even Louis can't get a clear understanding of what's happening inside Elaine's head." She watched me goggle at that news. "If a spirit is too large for a hallow, an avatar can be crippled mentally. Or killed. Or possessed. _That_ is what you may have done to Elaine. Didn't they cover that in your avatars class?"
She let _that_ bit sink in so I'd realize just how serious a threat my rituals were to Lanie. Lanie might die. She might be crippled so badly that she'd just as well be. I might have caused her brain damage, or been tricked into binding an evil spirit to her. And it was my fault!
"When you're not in class, eating, or doing work-study," Mrs. Carson snapped, "you're confined to your room. If - and that's a huge if right now - _if_ Elaine isn't harmed, you're in line for the mother of all detentions. If she is ...."
I realized as she sat in her chair glaring at me and taking slow, angry breaths, that I was about to be expelled. And if anything happened to Lanie, I was going to be turned over to the DPA for prosecution. Or the MCO. My trembling increased until I was shaking like a leaf. Slowly, the room started spinning, fear clutching at my throat, my chest so tight that I felt like I couldn't breathe. My vision tunneled, the periphery becoming gray and then black, and then things went completely dark.
I turned around, trying to get my bearings; it was a hallway in one of the buildings but I didn't recognize which hallway in which building. I didn't know how I got there. The last I remembered ... was Mrs. Carson's office. As I turned once more, I saw Lanie in the hallway, and with my heart skipping a beat with relief and happiness, I dashed up to her. "Lanie!" I cried out in greeting.
She turned to me, and though she had her normal smile, there was a haunted look that flashed in her eyes before they turned blood red. As I watched in horror, her body stretched, growing an extra set of arms, while her skin turned crimson and her fingers morphed into razor-sharp claws. Her lower jaw moved forward hideously, and long, vicious fangs sprouted upward outside her upper lip. Taxed beyond their limits by the large and growing demonic form, her clothes gave up and ripped, falling away from her body in tatters.
A girl near her screamed, and the Lanie creature turned instantly, her long arm slashing claws across the girl and disemboweling her in one swipe. Another screamed, and the tail that had sprouted from her rear poked out like a spear, impaling the second girl. She turned to me, a vicious grin on her face, and began to stalk toward me. I backed up hastily, away from the abomination that had been my friend, but she had me pinned in a hallway corner with nowhere to run. "You!" she hissed in a guttural, hideous voice. "You did this to me!" She sounded quite insane and enraged.
Panic rising in my throat, I tried to cast a shield spell, but a slash of her claws, the tips crackling with energy, tore the shield apart. "You're mine, bitch!" the Lanie creature hissed. I looked down as the thing slid its sharp claws under my dress, and my clothing parted as if cut by razors, leaving me naked before it. One wickedly-clawed hand reached down toward my waist while I felt hard, sharp claws against one of my breasts.
Its eyes - the once sparkling green eyes - were full of hatred and ... lust! I finally managed to croak out a scream for help as it pressed against me.
I woke up dripping with sweat, panting for breath, and trembling uncontrollably. At least I thought I was awake, struggling mentally to put the pieces together. I'd been in Mrs. Carson's office after doing a ritual with Lanie and .... and had _that_ been real? Or was that part of the nightmare I'd just awakened from? Or another, different nightmare? Was I even awake? Dreams and reality were blurred to me, and I felt panic rising, the same helpless, all-consuming panic of my PTSD.
Was this another dream - or nightmare? Where was I? The room was dark, and I was on a bed. Was it my cottage? How had I gotten there? Shaking, I lay back down, curled in a little ball and clutching my knees tightly to my chest, shaking with terror.
Mrs. Carson came into my Avatars classroom, looking sternly around the room, her gaze settling on me. "Kayda, come with me," she ordered, turning without waiting and storming down the hall. Looking around nervously, I ran to catch up to her. Was this another dream? Everything seemed so perfect that it _couldn't_ be a dream! Could it?
"Where are we going?" I asked, but she said nothing. The answer slowly became clear as we strode, me half running to keep up with her very aggressive pace, toward Doyle. We entered the facility and Mrs. Carson led me down the hall toward one of the magic-enhanced recovery rooms. She stopped and pointed at the door. "Go in. She's awake."
I looked at her in puzzlement, and then pushed through the door.
Lanie lay on the hospital bed, turned away from me, a breakfast table in front of her.
"Lanie?" I asked worriedly. "Are you okay?"
Slowly, the redhead turned toward me, responding to the sound of my voice. Her head flopped over uncontrollably, and her vacant eyes, devoid of the sparkle of life, devoid of recognition, devoid of _intelligence_, stared almost unseeing toward me, toward the noise. Drool ran down her face from the corner of her mouth. "No!" I screamed in shock, backing away in horror from what I saw, at what _I_ had done to my friend.
The doors crashed opened, and I spun in surprise. Wyatt stormed through, grim-faced and scowling. "_You_!" he snarled in fury. "You did this to her!"
"She was my friend!" Ayla barked at me as he came through the door behind Wyatt and advanced menacingly toward me.
"She was a wonderful roommate!" Lifeline bawled as she entered the room. "My best friend!"
"Lanie was the best gadgeteer ever! A great mechanic. And _you_ did this to her!" Mr. Donner growled at me.
"It's _your_ fault!" Zenith cried to me, her face a mixture of rage and sadness.
One after another, more people came through the door, all blaming me, all angry and threatening, pressing in on me from all sides. I backed against a wall, but there was no way to go. They reached for me, clawing at me with fury burning in their eyes, hatred for what I'd done to Lanie, their murderous intent only too clear.
My eyes snapped open, and without moving because of my sheer terror, I lay where I was, crying and shaking. Slowly, I realized there was a slightly flashing red glow. I turned, seeing a large red LED clock counting slowly upward, blinking slightly with each second. I shuddered with relief; that was the 'gift' from Rosalyn, and I was in my cottage, with Evvie breathing softly across the room from me. I still didn't have any clue as to how I got there, though. Or was I dreaming that I was in my room? If it was real, I wasn't going to allow myself to go back to sleep for fear of yet another nightmare. But was I awake? Or was I dreaming that I was awake? I was so exhausted that the line between reality and dreams and nightmares was completely gone.
My pillow was wet from my tears and sweat. But even though I felt exhausted, I was terrified of going back to that land of horror, the realm of nightmares, if I'd indeed ever left it. And I couldn't focus enough to go to my dream space. If it was possible to move from a dream or nightmare into dream-space.
Monday, April 30, 2007, morning
The alarm startled me, and it took longer than normal for me to shut it off. Evvie groaned and rolled over. "Shut that thing off!" she growled.
I flinched from the unhappiness in her voice, even though I long-since knew she was a bit of a bear when she woke up. "Sorry," I muttered.
Evvie swung her legs over the edge of the bed, stretching and yawning as she tried to awaken herself. She looked at me, still lying on my side. "Kayda?" she asked, suddenly concerned. "Are you okay?"
I just stared blankly, not really feeling like doing anything.
"Holy crap!" she exclaimed. "You look awful! Didn't you get any sleep last night?"
I shook my head a little bit.
"Were you having nightmares last night?" she asked. "Is that why your screaming woke me up three or four times?" She sighed. "What time did you get home anyway?"
I shook my head. "I don't know," I admitted. "How ... did I get here?"
"You don't remember?" Evvie asked in disbelief. "What _do_ you remember?"
"I ... think ... I was in Mrs. Carson's office," I explained softly. "She ... didn't get back from Doyle until around one. And ... when she was yelling and screaming and threatening me, I ... I must have passed out."
"Wait, wait, wait!" Evvie interrupted. "Mrs. Carson? Yelling? One in the morning? Kayda, what's going on?"
Tears flowed anew. "I ... I was trying to help Lanie," I bawled. "She asked me to help her with some rituals, so I did, and ... and now she's in Doyle ... in a coma ... and it's all my fault, and Mrs. Carson is furious, and I'm going to be expelled and turned over to the MCO for what I did, and Lanie isn't going to be okay because I was so stupid ..." I broke down bawling again.
Evvie got Chou to help her drag me to the bathroom because I really didn't feel like getting up. When they shoved me into a shower, I just stood, tired and anguished about Lanie. The girls started to complain about me hogging one of the stalls, but I didn't care. I wasn't the one who'd crawled into it in the first place.
Fey looked up from shaving her legs, and her jaw dropped at my appearance, and probably also at the feelings I was throwing off since she was an empath. "Kayda?" she asked, "are you okay?" When I didn't reply, she did a little magic, and the water swirled around me, scrubbing me with the magic-manipulated spray. Evvie opened the door long enough to squirt some shampoo on my head, and then Fey's spray continued to scrub the lather into my hair and over my body. A repeat with conditioner, and then Evvie shut off the water and Fey did a magic thing and the water dropped off my body, leaving me dry.
Verdant was giving me a dirty look as I climbed out of the shower, but her anger changed to surprise when I glanced at her apologetically.
I managed to get dressed - somehow - and then the girls took me to Crystal Hall for breakfast. Evvie, Naomi, and Laurie took over and got me food and led me to our table, but I just sat, staring unseeing at the plate. I finally had a bite of eggs and a nibble of toast when the girls threatened to feed me like a baby. Despite their entreaties, I couldn't tell them why I felt the way I did; the nightmares were too fresh.
After breakfast, Angel drew the short-straw to escort me to my first class. She was trying hard to be conversant. "Did you hear the news?"
"What news?" I asked unenthusiastically.
"Some big to-do in the Grove last night. Lady Astarte and Ms. Grimes were all up in arms about ...." She stopped, her mouth ajar, staring at me. "You?" she finally asked, astonished.
I nodded, hanging my head in shame. "Yeah."
"What happened?" It was natural that she'd be curious.
I shook my head, sighing. "Lanie wanted me to do a ritual so she could get a protective spirit. Only something went really, really wrong. And now she's in Doyle in a coma," I continued, fighting tears, "and Mrs. Carson and Ms. Grimes are hyper-pissed at me."
"Accidents happen," Angel tried to be reassuring.
"I hurt Lanie," I cried, not fighting the tears. "And Mrs. Carson is going to kick me out of school."
Angel was so stunned that she couldn't reply. The last fifteen yards to Schuster were walked in silence, which suited my mood perfectly.
Monday, April 30, 2007
Dr. Bellows' Office
"I understand you've had a pretty rough time of things since yesterday afternoon," Dr. Bellows began casually. I'd been pulled out of Avatars class and sent to counseling, which suited me just fine. It kept me out of dealing with Lanie's friends an angry faculty.
"Not as bad as Lanie," I muttered. My eyes were watering again as I thought of her lying helpless in Doyle - all because of me.
"I read the report," he said. "What happened wasn't your fault," he countered, having obviously read the emotions I was projecting.
"_I_ cast the spells," I said bitterly, my voice full of self-recrimination. "_I_ did the rituals. I put a spirit in her that's hurt her."
"Please tell me _everything_ that happened," Dr. Bellows asked. "In your own words."
I looked up at him blankly, and then lowered my gaze. Slowly, painfully, I recounted the events of the day, from the ritual to expand her hallow to the binding ritual, and the angry dealings with Ms. Grimes and Mrs. Carson.
"I see. And that's your fault why?"
"I did the ritual! I'm the one who screwed up!" I protested.
"In your mind," Dr. Bellows countered. "From what you said, Lanie asked you to do the rituals. Ms. Grimes ..."
That stirred up another memory. "Please don't make me go to Ms. Grimes class!" I begged them, horrified at the thought of facing her again after her fury the night before.
"Why not?" Dr. Bellows asked.
"She ... she was really mad at me last night," I muttered. "She's probably going to flunk me for .., what I did." I looked down, shaking my head. "I ... can't face her. I'm ... I'm afraid of her."
"I'll write a note excusing you from classes today and tomorrow. And tomorrow, we'll talk to see if we need to extend that. We'll talk as long as we need to."
Monday, April 30, 2007, before lunch
Amber Prentice's smile seemed a little off as she acknowledged other students coming and going to the library. Without thinking, she walked to the computer catalog, sat down, and did a search. After finding the entry she was looking for, she gracefully rose and walked to that set of shelves, and scanning the books, found a particular volume. Pulling it down, she opened it to a specific page, and extracting a paper from her purse, that looked to be at least a hundred years old, yellowed and crisp, she inserted the document into the book, reshelved the book, and strode purposefully out of the library.
For a moment, she seemed to stagger, and then she looked around, a little puzzled. A moment later, having shrugged off her sense that something was off, she walked toward Crystal Hall where she'd join her boyfriend for dinner. And if he wasn't there, she could always dine with her friends from Dickinson.
Monday, April 30, 2007, Dinnertime
Megs and Selkie practically dragged me to Crystal Hall instead of letting me sit in my room sulking. When we walked in, it seemed to my overactive imagination that conversations halted, that a strange, eerie silence descended over the cafeteria as everyone stared accusingly at me. Very self-consciously, I got a little food - everything seemed totally unappetizing for some reason - and then checked out, feeling like everyone was staring at me the whole time - and most of them angry glares.
My friends were already gathered at our usual table, and quite unusually, Ayla, Addy, and Alicia were with them. And so was Fey. And Bugs. I glanced around, and saw that Mindbird and Stormwolf were watching me cautiously.
Tears started flowing again; it was my nightmare all over again, but in real life. I cast a ghost-walking spell and scooted away from all the accusing faces, ducking behind the waterfall to where there was a small out-of-the-way nook with a less-than-desirable table. Mindbird and Stormwolf immediately swooped in to where I'd been, and then they walked past, looking around for me. I sighed. Great. The security auxiliaries were double-teaming to babysit me.
I frantically called to my furry white friend. "Tatanka," I urged him, almost begging, "I need you to block any psychic probes."
"As you wish, Wihakayda," he said dutifully. "But you should know that I cannot block the emotions and feelings that you send. Only those that come to your mind."
I frowned, angry. "I need to block all, so that Mindbird can't hear my thoughts and emotions."
"Then you should discuss that with Wakan Tanka, and learn a spell to do what I cannot."
Mindbird and Stormwolf came past me again, and I could see from Dale's expression that she could feel my emotions and what thoughts I was radiating, but since her sense wasn't directional, she obviously didn't know where the thoughts were emanating from. Every time the doors opened, their eyes focused immediately that way, suspecting - accurately - that I would use my ghost-walking to flee the caf. When they looked my way, I forced myself to look down, away from them, in case she might pick up a surge in fear and correlate it with the direction she was looking and find me that way.
Once they had passed again, I picked unenthusiastically at my food without any kind of appetite, tears falling invisibly onto my tray as I felt disgusted with myself for having hurt Elaine so badly because I'd been so stupid. I might have managed to eat two or three small bites of meatloaf before I couldn't eat any more; I was sick to my stomach thinking about what I might have accidentally done to Lanie.
When I was sure I wasn't going to eat more, I carried my tray to the conveyer, passing near our usual table and noticing that while Alicia and Addy were still there, eating with my friends, Ayla and Fey weren't - probably having gone to their usual table on the third floor. I sighed with relief; I knew that Fey could find me even if I was ghost-walking. Once I'd dropped off my tray and dirty dishes, I waited by the door until another student was departing, and then I followed her out the door.
Glancing over my shoulder nervously because Mindbird was following me, I bumped into someone - hard enough to knock her into an oak tree behind her. I spun, and found myself face-to-face with Tansy, who, to my utter and complete horror, grabbed ahold of me.
Mindbird was coming out the doors, and Tansy had ahold of me. I felt a panic attack coming on; I wanted - no, I _needed_ - to get away!
And then Tansy pushed me behind herself, between her and the tree, leaning back slightly to keep me pinned in place.
"Solange!" Mindbird shouted. "Have you seen Kayda? She's under a protective custody order and she ran away."
In my mind, I could feel Mindbird projecting telepathically, searching for me; I thought that type of use of telepathy was against the Code of Psychic Ethics. She had to be desperate to find me if she was risking detention for using her powers that way. I commanded Tatanka to shield me from her probes, while I tried hard not to project thoughts or emotions - a task I wasn't in the slightest trained for.
"No," Tansy said, confusing me. "I haven't seen anyone out here but you." Why would she protect me? What was her game? Was she planning to call in the favor later - maybe with the Don?
"She's invisible," snapped Mindbird.
"Then I couldn't _possibly_ have seen her, could I?" Tansy seemed to be enjoying playing games with Mindbird.
"Thanks for nothing!" Mindbird snapped as she stomped off toward Poe, probably reasoning that I'd run back to my room - a very logical inference on her part. It was where I _would_ have been going if I hadn't run into Tansy.
Tansy stepped away, freeing me, turning around. "It's okay," she said, her voice strangely sympathetic. That was _not_ the Tansy I'd experienced and heard about. She looked - and sounded - like her entire world had been turned upside down.
Warily, I dropped my ghost spell, feeling relief at not being caught by Mindbird rush over me like a wave, and I staggered against the tree. Damn, I was so tired I could barely stand!
Tansy recoiled at the sight of me. I figured I looked pretty bad. "Why ... why did you do that? Hide me from Mindbird?"
Tansy glanced at the figure of Mindbird, now far away and moving rapidly toward Poe. "Don't flatter yourself; I don't like Dale, and I like messing with those fools." She caught herself, her eyes widening as she seemed to consider the words she'd spoken. Her entire demeanor shifted visibly. "I ... I don't know," she muttered after a moment, shoving her hands awkwardly into her pockets and looking away from me. "I don't know. You ... you needed some help, so ...," she shrugged, "so I helped." She looked down, scratching at the ground with her foot. "I ... I guess I owe you at least that much for keeping those three little pests out of my hair at lunch lately." She looked back toward Mindbird, and then at me. "What do they want you for?"
I looked down, feeling like a condemned prisoner who managed a momentary escape but knows the law would catch up very soon. "They're going to expel me," I said softly. She gasped in surprise at my words. "I ... hurt Lanie."
I should have known that a Dickinson girl wouldn't know Elaine's nickname from the hot-tub and Poe girls. "Loophole. I ... I bound a spirit to her, and now ... she's in Doyle in a coma, and it's ... it's my fault." Having to admit it - again - renewed my misty-eyed feeling.
Tansy looked quite startled, putting her hands on her hips? "What? You dragged that red-headed bitch off somewhere and did a ritual on her?"
"No," I cried, literally, since my eyes were leaking tears. "It was an accident!" I looked down again, "Lanie was afraid that Kodiak was playing with her mind again, and she wanted a spirit to protect her, and she asked me, and .... and I ...." Grief and guilt smacked me hard again. "Oh, God, what have I done?" I wailed, tears pouring down my cheeks.
For some reason, and completely out of character for her, Tansy wrapped me in a hug, like she was trying to comfort me. It felt awkward; I guessed that Tansy had given and received precious few comforting hugs in her life. "It's pretty well known that I don't like Loophole - not at all - but I ... I can tell the truth when I hear it." She paused a moment, obviously trying to figure out what to say. "I can tell you didn't mean her any harm, and Carson won't expel you for that."
"What?" I asked, pulling away from her hug, puzzled at the confidence in her voice. "How would _you_ know?"
Tansy looked away from me, fidgeting a little. "Because what I've done is worse. Hundreds of times worse," she admitted very softly. Was that a hint of remorse that I detected in her voice? "And I'm still here." She shook her head. "It takes a lot ... for Carson to give up on someone."
"But ... she said she was going to expel me and turn me over to the MCO!" I protested
"And she's mad, like she usually is. But that doesn't mean that she's going to expel you. You didn't hurt Loophole on purpose." She looked down, wincing, and her voice softened. "Unlike some of us."
I said nothing, staring in disbelief at the girl who'd helped me unexpectedly. Was _she_ having some type of emotional crisis, too?
"I ... I've realized," she began, pausing to bite her lip, "that I'm not who I thought I was. I'm ... a monster." She put her hand on my shoulder, and she flinched. I wondered suddenly if she was a touch-telepath. If so, I had a lot of reason to be concerned.
"I hope you never know what it feels like," she whispered softly. "I ... I don't know how I'm ever going to make up for even a tiny fraction of what I've done," she added. Was that a glint of moisture in the corner of her eye?
"You better get going before she doubles back," she advised me suddenly, forcing a smile.
"If ...." I began hesitantly, catching her hand, "if Mrs. Carson hasn't given up on us, maybe ... we shouldn't give up on ourselves? Is that what you're saying?"
Tansy gave a half chuckle. "Loophole is lucky to have a friend like you." She got a far-off, reflective look in her eyes. "I ... I wasn't as wise making friends."
I studied Tansy's expression for a bit; she was going through some _serious_ self-reflection for some reason. I wondered _what_ could have rocked her world so badly that she was acting like a completely different person. "You can always make friends," I said softly - mostly for her sake. In truth, I wasn't convinced of that. I'd made a friend - and now she was in a coma. Being friends with me was hazardous. Look what it had gotten Julie. And now Loophole. The sadness which had faded somewhat returned with a vengeance. "If ... if you ever want to talk ..." I offered, an automatic habit of good manners my parents had tried to instill in me. "Or have tea ...."
Tansy nodded slightly. "I'll ... keep that in mind."
I turned to walk to Poe, pausing to glance over my shoulder. Was this another dream, another pocket of unreality in my mind? Tansy - helping me, and then being nice? Shaking my head softly, I headed over toward Doyle. No doubt Wyatt would still be there, but I could at least ask a duty nurse how she was doing without having to face him. That thought terrified me. Hopefully the nurse would be able to say that Lanie was improving. If not, I didn't know how I'd handle bad news. Every step closer to Doyle seemed harder to take. And yet ... I had to know.
Monday, April 30, 2007, after dinner
The two boys sat outside the caf in one of the little walled sitting areas, watching as students meandered back and forth along the campus walkways. Presently, a trio of girls came walking by, and when one of the boys waved at the pair, one of the girls spoke a few words to her friends, excusing herself, and she walked to the two sitting boys.
"What's new?" Eddie greeted the girl.
"Not much," she replied with a shrug. "Classes, tests, quizzes. Normal stuff."
"Anything interesting going on?" Darren asked conversationally. "Mike isn't off trying something ... rash, is he?"
"Nah," Amber replied easily as she sat down. "Just his normal rambling about his magic class." She sighed. "I wish he'd pay as much attention to me as he does to that stupid spell book."
"You _will_ let me know if he tries something ... stupid," Darren replied, giving her a slight psychic, emotionally-supportive nudge. "So we can help keep him from getting in trouble, you know."
"Yeah," Amber replied, a look of gratitude on her features at his concern. "He was thinking about it last night when I was helping him study for a magic class test - you know, asking him questions from the book? And he got a really funny look on his face when I quizzed him on the section dealing with compulsion spells. I think he was hoping to put a spell on that girl and compel her to drop out of school." Her tone was as unconcerned as if she'd been discussing the weather. "But I _think_ I convinced him to drop the idea."
"There are spells for that?" Eddie blurted out before Darren could stop him.
"Yeah. He even checked out a book from the library, but I stopped him, because some of those spells are associated with demons and stuff."
Darren shot Eddie a quick look, and then he put his 'compassionate, concerned friend' face. "You _know_ we'll do everything we can to help out. All you have to do is ask."
Twenty minutes later, Darren and Eddie were in Beck, searching for a book based on the hints that Amber had been able to give them - a word or two and topic for the book Mike had supposedly checked out.
Eddie grabbed at a book. "Psst, Darren!" he hissed. "This might be it!" He flipped open the book and was thumbing through the table of contents.
Darren took the book from him. "Let me see!" With the other looking over his shoulder, he began looking, and the more he looked, the wider his eyes got. "Look at this! Influencing others. Suggestions. Compulsion. Emotional manipulation! Wow!" he exclaimed softly. "I can see why Mike was looking at this!" He tucked the book under his arm. "I think we found what we need here. This book looks like a 'how to' book for what we need."
"What's that? You're not thinking ...."
"Shhh!" Darren hissed. "Let's check out." With Eddie hot on his heels, Darren took the book to the checkout counter, and shortly after, had it in his hands as they walked back to their cottage.
"That anime girl working there freaks me out!" Eddie said as they walked. "Did you see the look she was giving us when she was checking the book out?"
"Who cares about some blue-haired chick!" Darren replied sharply. "This book is our _answer_!"
"So how are we going to get essence to make the spell? I'm not a mage, and neither are you!" Eddie asked nervously.
"I've got a plan," Darren chortled. "We'll let someone else do our dirty work!"
Monday, April 30, 2007; evening
Northwest Territory, Canada
The land was still covered in ice and snow; spring and summer came late to the northern latitudes. Still, Tikaani didn't complain. His ancestors had lived for countless generations with the ice and the snow and the cold, and he could as well. He stood on the rear of the dogsled, guiding the animals across the sea ice back toward the tundra to their south.
"Did I do okay today, father?" Tikaani's son asked from the front of the sled.
Tikaani smiled, glancing at the seal carcass loading down the sled. "Yes, my son," he said. "You're learning to be a fine hunter." There was a note of pride in Tikaani's voice; though his son was still young, he had done much of the work in hunting the seal. "We will eat well tonight, I think."
An unnatural roar interrupted the shaman's thoughts of the day's hunt. The sound came from all around him, and with trembling in his heart, his eyes darted around nervously. The dogs pulling the sled were startled and their leads fouled, causing them to stop and the sled behind them to slide to a halt.
"What is it father?" the boy in the sled asked, looking around?
Tikaani got out his charms and quickly incanted a spell as he ran to the front to untangle the dogs. The roar sounded again, and he redoubled his efforts, glancing occasionally and nervously to the west, toward the source of the noise. He saw his son starting to get out of the sled to help. "No!" Tikaani cried to the boy. "Stay there!" At last the dogs were untangled, and Tikaani dashed back to the sled.
Tikaani screamed for the dogs to run; with a jerk, the team took off, obeying their master dutifully, and with his son watching him, wide-eyed, he sat down on the ice and closed his eyes. "Father!" the boy screamed from the sled as it sped off, watching as Tikaani prepared to do battle as only a shaman could.
He turned, scanning the horizon, looking for trouble, and he started when he beheld the the northern lights decorating the sky, blood-red wisps of glowing lines snaking through the sky, casting an eerie red glow over the icy, forbidding dream-world landscape that matched his real world.
A noise sounded to his left, and he turned, watching in dread certainty as something unnatural and unholy climbed over a huge jumble of ice, a small ridge of shattered sea ice that had been pushed and piled up in the same way that colliding continental plates formed mountains, only the sea and ice had made this high ridge in a season instead of thousands of millennia.
Tikaani looked at the thing as it surmounted the ridge. It was a large furry beast, easily five times the height and seven times as broad as a man, covered in brown and white mottled, shaggy fur, although it wasnt clear how much of the white was natural color and how much was ice and snow frozen to the matted fur. The creature's mouth was cavernous, full of sharp, dagger-like teeth, with four huge, scimitar-like fangs jutting angrily upward and downward from both jaws. The creature spotted the sled, and it tilted back its head and roared its spine-tingling, other-worldly scream.
"Kigatilik!" Tikaani swore to himself as he pulled out another charm. In a few milliseconds, he considered many options, none of which were good. Gritting his teeth, he snatched a long, vicious harpoon from his side and turned toward the demon.
Tikaani gritted his teeth. He _knew_ of Kigatilik; as a boy, he'd learned the tales of his people, the Inuit, and of the various monsters and demons. And none was more feared by the shamans than Kigatilik, the shaman-hunter.
Trembling with fear, Tikaani fingered his charms once more, invoking protective magic and he hefted his weapon. The demon looked at him warily, surveying the scene, and then, without warning, it charged.
In the distance, the boy in the speeding sled screamed as he felt a hollowness form in his heart. In that instant, he knew that his father was no more.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007, morning
"Hey, sleepyhead!" Evvie shook me as she called out rather loudly. "Get up. You're going to be late for breakfast and classes again."
I curled up tighter in my little ball. "I'm not hungry," I muttered, barely moving. Was this yet another nightmare? Was I awake? Was I really in my bed, being awakened by my roommate? Or was it another of the unending stream of nightmares?
Evvie turned me over, and she flinched when she saw me. "Holy shit!" she swore. "You look like death warmed over!"
"I ... didn't sleep well last night."
"No kidding," Evvie snorted. "Your screams woke me up at least three times - again. Nightmares?"
I nodded mutely, terrified of those awful nocturnal visions, quite thoroughly rattled by the nightmares with their awful things that I'd caused to Lanie.
"Come on," Evvie said, grabbing my arm. "Get up." She pulled me to the edge of the bed and to a sitting position, and then tried to get me to stand. As soon as she let go of my arms, I collapsed back onto my bed.
The next thing I knew, Mrs. Horton was sitting on the bed, hugging me. "Kayda, everything is going to be okay."
"No, it's not!" I bawled. "Lanie's in the hospital and no-one knows how she's doing, and it's all my fault." I didn't even try to wipe the tears from my face. "Mrs. Carson is going to turn me over to the MCO because of what I did if Lanie's not okay!"
"Shhh," Mrs. Horton said, stroking my hair gently. "No, she's not."
"She said she was going to!"
"She _ never_ says something like that! You probably misinterpreted what she said to get a you to realize that you've done something that wasn't smart."
"But ... Lanie's hurt, and it's my fault!"
"Let's get you cleaned up and get you some breakfast," Mrs. Horton said. "Then you can stop by Doyle and see that Lanie is okay." She released the hug. "How much have you slept the past two nights?"
I thought a moment and sighed. "I ... don't know. Maybe a little."
"You're obviously exhausted. I'm going to call in an excuse from classes for today, and then I'll get someone to get you over for some breakfast."
As she left the room, I collapsed back into a fetal ball on the bed.
Moments later, two girls returned with her. "Get her showered and dressed, please," Mrs. Horton directed, "and then get her over to the cafeteria for some breakfast. She had a pretty rough night last night."
Two girls sat on the bed and swung my legs over the edge, pulling me up beside them. I looked up into the face of Rosalyn on the one side, and then I saw Zenith on the other. I flinched away from Zenith, with a dread certainty that she was going to hate me when she learned what I'd done to her friend. She reached an arm to put around me, and I recoiled even further, right into Rosalyn's arms.
Mrs. Horton was watching. "Rosalyn, can you handle this?" She must have nodded, because Mrs. Horton then called, "Zoe, come with me please."
After Mrs. Horton and Zoe left, Rosalyn tugged me to my feet. "Get your jammies off," she directed. I gawked at her, so she continued in a no-nonsense way, "You've got to take a shower. You're stinky and sweaty."
Exhausted, robotically, aided by Blackrose, I pulled off my clothes and then put on my robe. Rosalyn held me by the elbow to guide me and to keep me from stumbling or falling because I was so exhausted. I climbed in the shower after Rosalynn turned the water on, and I promptly let my back slide down the wall until I was sitting on the floor, miserable, afraid, tired, and not caring that the water fell from the shower head onto me.
"Come on," Rosalyn said to me over the sound of running water, "get up and get yourself washed."
"It doesn't matter," I muttered dejectedly. "I ruined Lanie's life, and I'm going to get kicked out." I didn't even look up; all I could see was the water swirling down the drain, much like my life was, and like Lanie's - because I'd been so stupid and had hurt my friend so badly.
One could easily imagine how startled I was when the door opened and Rosalyn, having doffed her clothes, climbed into the shower, and sat down beside me. "Kayda," she said gently, "Mrs. Horton told me what happened. It's not your fault."
"Yes, it is," I protested, not even fighting the tears. "I ruined her life!
"From what Mrs. Horton was told, Lanie _asked_ you to help her. She _asked_ you to do those rituals. You didn't force her."
"But ... Mrs. Carson is right! I was _stupid_, and now Lanie's paying for my mistake. She ... should have just kicked me out last night."
Rosalyn put her hands on my cheeks and turned my head toward her. "Listen to me, Kayda. You. Did. Nothing. To. Lanie! From what I've heard, she _asked_ you to do that. If there's blame, it's _her_ impulsiveness, not yours!"
I wanted to believe her. I really, really wanted to know for certain that it wasn't my fault, but somehow, I couldn't convince myself of that. Rosalyn pulled my head onto her shoulder and hugged me, softly reassuring me that it wasn't my fault.
Inside the tepee, I lay on the buffalo skin on my side, curled up, my back to the entrance. Wakan Tanka sat beside me, a faint flickering orange glow illuminating the side of her facing the tiny fire in the center of the tepee. "A shaman cannot blame himself for the errors of others."
"It's my fault," I sobbed. "I hurt her."
"You made sure she wanted to proceed. It was her decision, not yours. You forced nothing on her."
"I messed up the ritual," I grumbled, "and she got hurt."
"Unless a shaman acts without permission, the shaman cannot hold himself at fault for what others ask the shaman to do," she repeated.
"If all I do is hurt people," I said, shaking my head sadly, "then I don't want to be a shaman. I'd be better off without that responsibility."
"Would Debra be better off if you weren't a shaman?" Wakan Tanka asked sternly and bluntly. "Or your mother?"
I started to say something, but no words came out. Was my mentor right? I had to consider that she was, but also, there was the thought that she was trying to get me to absolve myself of responsibility that I rightfully bore. I didn't know what to say or think.
After a while, Rosalyn rose and pulled me to my feet. I was too exhausted and emotionally numb to protest much, but I still did nothing, so she started to wash me.
Over the rushing water, I heard Verdant's squeal of surprise; no doubt she was shocked to see me in the shower with Rosalyn, and then I heard the door clunk shut as she hastened out of the bathroom. Rosalyn chuckled. "You know the rumors are going to fly."
"Big fucking deal," I moped without a vestige of emotion in my voice. "It doesn't matter."
"Are you going to finish washing yourself, or am I going to have to wash you like a little baby?" Rosalyn asked. I couldn't tell if her voice was scolding or suggestive. Still I did nothing, so she continued washing me - and none too gently. Even that sent me deeper into a funk, because if Rosalyn wasn't taking advantage of the situation to flirt or make sexual advances, I must have pissed _her_ off pretty badly, too.
"Kayda," she said as she began to pat me dry with my towel, "you need to go over to Doyle. Go see Lanie. She's going to be okay."
"Go to Doyle!" Rosalyn repeated more firmly. "You need to see that she's okay, and then you need to go to your counselor so you understand that it's not your fault."
"Mrs. Carson said ... I think she said ... that I can't go anywhere but the caf and classes because I'm under restrictions." That brought a new round of fears and tears. "And she said she's going to turn me over to the MCO if anything happened to Lanie!" I wailed anew.
"You can't worry about that until you know how Elaine is doing," Rosalyn offered. "That's why you need to go over there and see how she's doing for yourself."
Slowly, I calmed down some. As she was helping me brush my hair, I turned to her. "Why?"
She cocked an eyebrow. "Why what?"
"You ... aren't just a ... predator," I muttered. "You really _do_ care!"
Rosalyn shrugged. "If you tell anyone that, I'll deny it."
"No wonder Debra talks about you so fondly. You really _do_ have a soft, caring side."
"Whatever," she said nonchalantly. "Now, get dressed so you can get over to Doyle and see how Lanie's doing." Carrying her clothes, wrapped in my damp towel, she scooted me to my room and then went up so she could dry and get dressed.
Casting a ghost-walking spell because I didn't have the required escort, I tiptoed down the stairs and out of Poe, and then over to Doyle. Something at Doyle's door shattered my spell - which wasn't surprising. Given what happened around this place, the last thing the docs would want would be someone invisible sneaking around their patients.
I walked to a nurse's station. No staff was present, though; I figured they were dealing with an emergency or making morning rounds with the doctors. After finding Elaine's room number on their status board, I crept to the room. Hesitantly, I opened the door a crack to peek in.
She looked unnaturally peaceful, lying flat on her back with the head of her bed tilted up a few degrees. I strode to her bedside, terrified and yet captivated - I _had_ to know that she was alright, but I could tell nothing from the myriad of monitors connected to her tracing some type of vital signs across their displays, over and over.
I looked down on her, and felt my tears flowing yet again. "I'm so sorry, Lanie," I muttered softly, apologizing even though she probably couldn't hear me. "I didn't mean to hurt you!" For a minute or so, I stood beside the bed, crying at what I'd done to her. Then it was time to go before someone saw me, because Doyle was not on the list of approved places Mrs. Carson said I could be when I'd gotten yelled at the night before.
I barely noticed the men's restroom door open as I walked past it. Only when I heard someone call my name did I look up - right into the face of Wyatt. Horrified, certain from his shocked expression that he blamed me, I backed up a few steps hastily, and then spun away from him and dashed down the corridor.
"Kayda!" he yelled after me, "We need to talk!"
I glanced over my shoulder and was horrified to see that he was running after me, chasing me. Panicking, I cast a ghost-walking spell, but it fizzled. Now terrified, I tried to run faster because Cody and I were attracting attention by running in the hospital and from him yelling after me.
He was bigger and faster and he was catching up, but then I heard some woman yelling, "Mister Cody!" I dodged through the doors to the outside and then recast my ghost-walking spell, not even breaking stride.
Any confidence Rosalyn had given me was gone. My friend lay unconscious in a hospital bed because I'd done something stupid. Her boyfriend Wyatt was keeping vigil by her side, and I could tell from his expression that he was grief-stricken about her condition, but also from the fire in his eyes that he blamed me for what had happened. I shuddered, thinking about how angry he was and what he'd do to me. Lanie had told me that Wyatt had been tagged UV his freshman year for nearly killing a kid; no doubt I'd provoked far more anger in him.
I'd caused way too much trouble here, nearly getting my friends killed fighting _my_ enemy! I'd hurt my newest friend. I'd angered her boyfriend. I'd angered Mrs. Carson and my magic instructor, and Security hated me. Weeping, stumbling from exhaustion, I trudged to Poe, my mind made up.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Magically-Enhanced Intensive Care Ward, Doyle Medical Complex
Wyatt nearly tripped as he halted himself to not run over the girl walking past the men's room door. He recognized the girl even as she turned and stared up at him.
"Kayda," he called to her. "We need to talk."
The girl's expression turned instantly to horror, her mouth hanging agape, and she turned, darting down the hallway away from Wyatt.
Wyatt called after her as his feet, acting of their own volition, took off after the girl. "Kayda, wait up!" he yelled. He recognized the look in her eyes; she was absolutely terrified, and to his bear-sense, she reeked of fear. "Kayda!"
A passing nurse stared at the chase through the hospital, barely dodging as the big senior sped past her. "Mister Cody!" she called out after him, but the boy ignored her, focused as he was on the girl fleeing before him.
Wyatt knew from her expression and actions that Kayda feared him. She'd misinterpreted his expression and call to her, and now probably thought he was furious and blamed her. He _had_ to catch her to explain that he _wasn't_ angry at her but that he appreciated her trying to help Lanie.
"Mister Cody!" A large nurse stepped directly in front of him, causing him to halt, "If you're going to run around the hospital yelling and screaming, you will _have to leave_!" Her arms were crossed in determination, and the scowl let him know that she meant what she said.
"But ... Kayda!" he started to protest.
"You. Will. Not. Run. In. This. Hospital!" the nurse repeated firmly.
Wyatt was torn. He _had_ to stay with Lanie. He loved her and was not going to leave her side. But he strongly suspected that Kayda was blaming herself, based on her reaction and her smell! And if she was as fatigued and emotionally distraught as she appeared, she might do something rash. She probably _would_ do something rash. He didn't know what, but he'd guessed from her body language and hints that she'd been through some extreme emotional trauma before. The healer in him knew that he should follow Kayda. Ghost-walking spell or no, his ursine sense of smell could follow her like a bloodhound. Better than a bloodhound because her scent wasn't masked by the invisibility spell.
But Lanie lay helpless in a bed back down the hall. The girl he adored, the one who'd so utterly stolen his heart, needed him by her side. Slowly, he turned back down the hall, still anguishing over Kayda's emotional state. Before he got to Lanie's room, he paused suddenly and went to the nurse's station. "May I use the phone?" he asked. The nurse nodded, and Wyatt picked up the phone handset. From memory, he dialed a number. "Security?" he asked when someone picked up the phone on the other end. "This is Wyatt Cody. I need to warn you of a potential problem. A _big_ problem."
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Whateley Academy, Near the Main Entrance
I glanced around nervously from the side of the main road, my backpack stuffed with a few meager possessions and slung over one shoulder. I didn't really have a plan except for getting away from Whateley and all the misery I was causing. It didn't help that I couldn't get ahold of Debra; I figured she was either sleeping after an all-night vigil with her mother or had silenced or turned off her cell phone in the ICU or hospice where her aunt was.
In retrospect, I wasn't thinking clearly because of my fatigue and grief and guilt, but at the time it was the only thing I could think of. I'd slip out of the gate, using my ghost-walking spell to stay off the sensors and cameras, and once I was a ways away from the academy, I could try calling Debra again - and figure out what I'd do next.
It seemed that security patrols were a little heavier than I'd seen before, but it didn't click as unusual.
"Wihakayda!" Wakan Tanka called sharply to me. I was staring into the fire, not really seeing anything. Around me, the night was dark and the moon was but a silver sliver on the horizon, so the only illumination was the flickering orange glow from the fire. "What are you doing?" she asked insistently.
I didn't look up. "Nothing," I mumbled. Funny, but I'd never felt so tired in dream-space - except for when I'd been attacked and nearly killed in the real world.
"You _must_ renew the protection around your dream space," she urged me. "You didn't do that this morning."
Angrily, I pushed myself out of dream space. I didn't want to listen to her nagging.
"Wihakayda!" She'd yanked me back into dream space. "You cannot leave Whateley without your wards being strong!"
"Listen to her, Wihakayda!" the white bison said sternly.
"Stop, Wihakayda!" Wakan Tanka said in a commanding voice. "Do _not_ leave the campus! Your wards aren't strong enough!"
I pulled myself out of dream space and continued my journey toward the gate. A security man was looking around, pacing back and forth and turning so he could see down the road toward the campus as well as out the gate and down the road both directions.
Whether it was self-confidence or apathy, I assumed he couldn't see me and walked off campus onto the road. Something seemed to hit me hard as I passed the faceless gargoyles, and I staggered, nearly falling.
"Miss!" the guard called sharply.
I turned, panick-stricken. How had he seen me? It took a long time to realize that he didn't have the silver aura.
"Miss," he barked again, trotting toward me, a hand on his firearm. "Halt!"
Instinctively, I invoked another ghost-walking spell, and as an aura surrounded him, he caught himself mid-stride and looked around, surprised. In a lucid moment, I stepped quickly to the side of the road a few yards from where I'd been standing; if he continued walking, he would run into me, betraying my position.
"Control," the guard thumbed a microphone at his shoulder, "I spotted her, but she cast some kind of spell and disappeared again!"
"She probably did her invisible spell. Walk around softly and watch for disturbances - footsteps in gravel or dirt, brush being stepped on or pushed aside. Anything unusual."
"Could you tell which way she was going?"
"She was heading toward Dunwich."
"We'll get a unit out to intercept."
I waited a bit while I listened, not really caring because I was going to avoid them anyway, and then continued down the road toward Dunwich, being careful to avoid the random wanderings of the security guard who was hoping to find me by bumping into me. I got about sixty yards when I realizes that there was someone standing in the middle of the road.
I was still ghost-walking, so I figured it wouldn't matter; I'd just go around the person. As I drew closer warily, I saw a boyish-looking girl - or a girlish-looking boy - standing in the road in yoga pants and a white t-shirt, barefoot, with a mop of unkempt hair, and holding a dagger at arms' length, pointed down like a knight pointing his sword down to demand that a foe submit. It was that last bit of the person's look that pissed me off. Like hell!
Annoyed, I stepped around the kid - and bounced off some kind of shield. Frowning, I moved further away, pressing hesitantly, and the shield was still there. It wasn't around the kid; it seemed to be some kind of shield wall he was in the middle of.
"Let me go!" I hissed at the kid. I didn't want to speak so loudly that I alerted the security guard down the road. The kid stood still, his eyes half-shut like he was asleep. "Let me go past you!" I said again, more insistently as I pressed against the shield. It didn't budge, not even a millimeter.
Irrationally, I took a swing at the kid - and my hand bounced off the shield. For a brief moment, I thought about having Tatanka manifest, but the guard would surely see a ton-and-a-half white bison on the road! Instead, I moved to the side again and pressed very hard against the barrier, starting to summon some magic to help me.
The kid moved in front of me again, and as my magic fizzled against the barrier he had, I screamed in anger, "Leave me the fuck alone!"
Pissed, frustrated, exhausted, but still ghost-walking, I sat down on the side of the road and pulled myself into dream space.
"What's going on?" I demanded of Wakan Tanka. "Why can't I go around him? Why won't he or she answer me?"
"Look around you, Wihakayda," she said simply as she poured herself a cup of tea.
I glared at her a moment, and then strode from the village toward the hill. I halted mid-stride when I saw the same kid, in the same clothes, holding is dagger the exact same way, atop the hill. Shocked, I ran toward the hill, away from him, only to discover that the barrier was present in my dream-world as well.
"Let me go!" I screamed at the kid. "You have _no_ right to stop me!"
Wakan Tanka's hand on my shoulder made me nearly jump out of my skin. "You should be grateful that this person is here," she said firmly.
"Why?" I demanded. "I'm trapped!"
"No," she said soothingly - not that I was in a mood to be soothed. "He's protecting you. The world around here is full of very evil and dangerous spirits. Since you let your shield down, you are vulnerable. Without his help, you would have been attacked since you are no longer protected by your school."
"Tatanka!" I screamed for my bison spirit. Immediately, he appeared. "Tear down the barrier! Make him stop."
"No, Wihakayda," he said patiently. "That would put you in more danger."
I sat down in the ditch, dejected, annoyed, even furious. That stupid kid was stopping me. As my rage grew, I manifested Tatanka. "Make him stop."
Tatanka looked at the kid, and then at me. "No, Wihakayda."
Nearly in tears with frustration and guilt, I sat by the road, not knowing what to do, and somehow, not really caring - so long as I got away from this place. Somehow. But right now, I was stymied by this strange boy-girl kid.
I looked up when I heard the sound of a vehicle driving slowly down the road, its tires humming on the road and occasionally crunching gravelly spots. I rose, panicking - it was a Whateley security vehicle. Then my heart leapt into my throat - inside was an unmistakable redhead!
I cried out softly, then rose and ran into the ditch, planning to escape into the woods by the road so I could hide from Fey. Worse, Tatanka was still manifested, and plodding along behind me, a signal beacon to anyone who was looking for me.
Between tears of frustration and exhaustion and grief and self-loathing and a general sense of gloom and doom, I didn't notice the fence until I was almost upon it. I had to stop, and as I started to climb over the fence, two things happened almost at the same time. My ghost-walking spell shattered, and my exhaustion caught up with me. I tripped, falling into the fence and becoming helplessly entangled in the wire strands. I struggled to free myself, but only succeeded in getting badly scratched; I simply didn't have the strength left.
Fey and Lieutenant Forsyth strode purposefully toward me. Overwhelmed, I began to cry aloud. "Go away!" I screamed at them, crying. "Just leave me alone!"
Fey helped me disentangle myself from the wire, and then she led me, crying and protesting, back through the ditch toward the security SUV. She opened the back door and helped me in, and then climbed in beside me, buckling the seat belt around me when I made no move to do so.
"Why don't you just leave me alone?" I wailed over and over. "Just let me go!" Lieutenant Forsyth looked worriedly at Fey, and then put the SUV in gear and turned around, back toward the school. Sometime during all of that, Tatanka demanifested, his job of betraying my presence complete.
Monday, April 30, 2007. mid-morning
Kane Hall, Security offices
"What were you trying to do, Kayda?" Chief Delarose asked as he came out of his office to where I sat in a chair, watched over by the desk officer. Whenever I so much as moved, the desk officer scowled at me unhappily.
I didn't look up at him. I didn't need to see another judgmental, harsh, angry expression glaring at me. "Saving everyone the trouble," I muttered despondently.
Chief Delarose started, and then sat down beside me. "What do you mean, saving everyone the trouble?"
"Mrs. Carson is going to kick me out, so I'm just saving her the trouble."
"What do you mean, she's going to kick you out? What's going on here?"
"I ... hurt Lanie," I explained softly, my voice cracking. "Because I was trying to help her but she got hurt, and Mrs. Carson and Ms. Grimes are really, really mad, and Mrs. Carson told me that I was in real trouble, and then said she was going to expel me and turn me over to the MCO if Lanie was injured in any way, and Lanie is in the hospital and no-one can tell how she's doing, and Wyatt's mad at me, and all of her friends are going to blame me and hate me...." I was rambling, nearly incoherently.
Chief Delarose held up his hands to stop me. "Whoa, Kayda," he interrupted. "Wait here a moment," he said, rising and walking into his office. I heard him dialing his phone.
"Liz? Franklin. I've got Kayda in security." It was unusually quiet in the security office, so I could hear his side of the conversation through his open door. I looked up at the desk officer, but dropped my gaze when he glared at me with a look of pure disgust and disapproval.
"She was doing her invisible-walking thing and leaving campus. If the wards hadn't spoiled her spell, we'd have never known she was gone."
"We got a tip from Cody that he was afraid she'd try something desperate, and then Fubar told us where to go find her. Fey helped us find her, and she kept Kayda from using her invisible spell to get away, and that white buffalo of hers was a pretty dead giveaway, too."
"I talked with Mrs. Horton as soon as we picked her up. Bella said the poor kid is exhausted - hasn't slept in days - and she think's Kayda's pretty seriously depressed."
"What's going on Liz? She's convinced that you're going to expel her and turn her over to the MCO."
"No, I haven't read that report yet. It's on my desk, but it's been a busy morning."
"That would explain it." He sighed very heavily. "So what do you want me to do with her?"
"K. I'll get her over there, and we'll institute a full suicide watch again. Do you want me to put her in protective custody?" After a moment, he hung up the phone, and then walked back out, sitting down beside me. "Kayda, I'm going to have an officer take you over to talk to someone." My eyes widened, and he reacted instantly. "No, not Mrs. Carson. She wants you to talk to Dr. Bellows."
I looked at him, fatigued, still processing the snippets I'd heard from his phone call, and fighting despair. "It won't do any fucking good," I muttered after a bit.
"But you will try?" the Chief asked hopefully. He waited until I nodded. "And I need to hold onto your knife for the time being?" he asked. I looked up at his eyes, and seeing his resolve, I unfastened my sheath and set it on the chair. Then two officers walked me over to Dr. Bellows' office.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Dr. Bellows' Office
"How are you feeling today?" Dr. Bellows asked casually as he sat down in his chair.
"Like shit," I grumbled.
"Is it okay if Louis sits in today?" he asked.
"Doesn't make any difference," I replied unenthusiastically.
"You tried to run away from school today. Why?" Dr. Bellows got right to the point.
"I ... tried to see how Lanie is. But no-one will tell me anything. I hurt her really badly."
"We don't know that yet." Dr. Bellows looked up from his notepad.
"I was just saving Mrs. Carson the trouble of expelling me." I looked down. "Because she's right - I deserve it."
The two of them looked evenly at me for several seconds. "Tell me everything that's happened in the last twenty-four hours," Mr. Geintz requested.
I began with how Lanie, out of fear of being mind-fucked again, had decided to bond with Grizzly for protection. I explained the rituals, including expanding her hallow and then binding Grizzly's spirit to her, and how she'd screamed and collapsed. As I recounted that, I started crying again. The long hours waiting - with a security guard - until Mrs. Carson came to her office at one in the morning to chew me out, furious and threatening to expel me and turn me over to the MCO. The nightmares, over and over, in which Lanie was _not_ okay, but had been horribly injured or harmed or possessed by an evil spirit. Faint memories of trying to visit Lanie, only to see the rage on Wyatt's face in the hall, of being chased by Wyatt and fleeing.
"So you decided to run away?" Mr. Geintz asked bluntly. I nodded, my face buried in my hands. "Exhausted, emotionally stressed, you decided to leave campus?"
"It'd save Mrs. Carson the trouble of kicking me out," I replied bitterly.
"You're convinced she's going to kick you out, aren't you?" Dr. Bellows asked.
"She's really, really mad at me, not that I don't deserve it, because I do," I replied, looking down at the floor. "The first thing she asked was something like why she should let me stay here. She really yelled at me."
"Did she _say_ she was going to kick you out," Mr. Geintz asked, "or are you perhaps jumping to conclusions?"
I looked up plaintively, not having heard his question. "Why didn't they just leave me alone? Why didn't they let me go?" My eyes were watering again.
"Why are you so concerned about Miss Nalley?" Dr. Bellows asked the obvious.
"She's ... she's my friend!" I replied, a little confused.
"It sounds like a little you two really hit it off," Dr. Bellows commented.
I started at his comment. "Yeah," I agreed. "She's fun, she's really nice, we have a lot of the same interests, like cars and stuff." My voice cracked again. "Was. I hurt her - very badly. Mrs. Carson said it might be an evil spirit, or maybe ... physical harm." I shuddered inside to think that my brilliant friend might have brain damage. "Mrs. Carson and Ms. Grimes are right - it's all my fault."
"Is Elaine ... more than a friend?" Dr. Bellows asked hesitantly.
My eyes popped open, startling me that I had enough energy to open them that vigorously. "No!" I protested quickly.
Dr. Bellows noted my reaction. "I wasn't suggesting anything ... romantic," he replied in a soothing, understanding voice. "But did you consider that she might seem like a sister to you? Or that given the trauma you've faced, that you look on her as a role model, someone to respect and admire and look up to?"
I bolted upright on the sofa to protest, but then slumped back against the chair. I hadn't considered _that_ angle. _Was_ she a role model for me because she seemed so confident of herself, and also so understanding and caring? I slowly nodded. "Maybe."
"You feel guilty about her condition, even though she explicitly asked for your help?"
I looked down, shaking my head. "It was my magic spell. It's my responsibility. But running away was wrong."
"Oh? Dr. Bellows and Mr. Geintz were surprised at my change of tone.
I nodded somberly. "I need to do what Dad always taught me. I need to go to her office and get it over with, to stand up and take the punishment I have coming." I looked up at Dr. Bellows. "Can you get someone to walk me over to Schuster?"
Dr. Bellows scowled. "So you can go demand to be expelled as punishment?"
"I deserve it, don't I?" I replied bitterly, resigned to my fate, too exhausted to think clearly.
"I'm not going to let you speak to Mrs. Carson again until we've had a lot more time to talk. We're going to spend however long it takes for you to not feel so depressed. We'll see how you're feeling tomorrow to see if you'll need more time off from classes," Dr. Bellows said.
"There's no point in me ever going back to classes," I answered softly. "I hurt Lanie. Badly. Mrs. Carson and Ms. Grimes are right - it's all my fault." I shuddered. "How am I supposed to face all her friends after what I did to her?" I buried my face in my hands as I began to sob again. "They'll all hate me because I hurt Lanie!"
"You're jumping to some pretty extreme conclusions," Mr. Geintz suggested. "With some rest, classes might be the best thing to keep your mind occupied."
We talked a _lot_ longer - mostly they talked, trying to convince me that I wasn't a vicious, villainous person who'd set out to hurt my new friend, and that accidents happened frequently at Whateley. They _tried_ to get me to promise not to do anything drastic without talking to either Mr. Geintz or Dr. Bellows first. I think they were satisfied that I'd made such a promise, but I hadn't Their talks were small consolation; I left feeling as bad as I had when I'd gotten there. And just as afraid of Mrs. Carson and Ms. Grimes.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007, About 9:30 PM
Schuster Hall, Headmistress' office
Liz slumped wearily into her chair. It was times like this that took an emotional toll on her. There was still no word on Elaine's condition, and as required by school policy, she'd just called Mrs. Nalley. That call hadn't gone well; as expected, Mrs. Nalley was distraught to learn that her daughter was in the hospital, unconscious and unresponsive.
Liz pressed a button on her phone, wondering if Elaine Claire, her receptionist, was still at her desk. "Elaine?" she spoke into the intercom.
"Yes, Mrs. Carson?" It was well past quitting time, but Ms. Claire was nothing if not thorough about her duties, and she was good at anticipating crises.
"Make sure that someone is at the airport to pick up Mrs. Nalley as soon as she lands," Liz said. "And have the driver call me the moment they pick her up."
"Already taken care of, Mrs. Carson."
"Elaine, you're a Godsend at times like this." Liz sighed. "There's nothing else you can do tonight, so why don't you knock off."
"It's no problem, Mrs. Carson."
Liz chuckled. "Yes, it is, Elaine. I know you were supposed to go to dinner with your boyfriend tonight, and I'm sorry you had to work late."
"I can always whip up something at home," Elaine countered, "and we can watch a movie."
"Since you're here late tonight, I don't want to see you first-thing in the morning. Take a little extra time. Sleep in. You've earned it."
"Okay, Mrs. Carson. Good night." The intercom clicked off, and Liz sat back, sighing heavily again, her eyes closed for a moment of rest.
Liz didn't even open her eyes or sit upright. "What is it, Louis?" she asked almost as soon as Louis' projected form appeared in her office. "I know this isn't a social call. Do you have some news about Elaine?"
"Actually," the psychic projection replied, "it's about Kayda."
Liz let out a frustrated sigh that bordered on sounding like an angry snort. "She really screwed up, Louis," Liz explained curtly. "She _hurt_ Miss Nalley through stupidity and inexperience! She bound her to an unknown spirit, and we have no idea what kind of damage it caused Miss Nalley. I can _not_ allow students to do that kind of thing!"
Louis shook his head. "She's very depressed." He nodded when Liz's eyes snapped open and she stared at him. "Worse than before. Much worse."
"She ... practically idolizes Miss Nalley and blames herself for what happened. She's totally exhausted and didn't sleep the past two nights because of nightmares about what might have happened to Loophole. I don't think she's eaten anything, either, and she's completely isolated herself from anyone who is Loophole's friend because she's certain they blame her, too."
Liz frowned. "Not good."
Louis nodded grimly. "It gets worse. She feels that nothing matters because you're going to expel her anyway and turn her over to the MCO, and she's convinced herself that she deserves it."
"She said that?"
"Isn't that what you told her Sunday night?"
Liz shook her head, frowning. "No. You know I wouldn't idly say something like that."
"She's certain that you _did_ - even if it's only her imagination."
"Has she been to see Alfred?"
"Yesterday _and_ today. I was there with them today." He saw Mrs. Carson's frown. "I know it's not normal because counseling sessions are supposed to be completely confidential, but we both felt it was too serious of a crisis to _not_ have both of us, and we _did_ ask her if it was okay." He shook his head sadly. "It wasn't a productive session. Your ... talk ... with her really got to her. She's so absolutely convinced she's going to be expelled - or worse - that she's given up."
"What do you mean, given up?" Liz scowled, but then her eyes widened as the implication sank through her fatigued mind. "Do you mean suicidal?"
"I'm not sure," Louis replied, his countenance grim. "I don't think so, but she's close. Very close."
"What do you think of her story that some kid stopped her? Was it some kind of hallucination?"
Louis shook his head. "No. The kid was real. He's in his early teens, from what I saw in the astral plane, and most likely a mutant."
"How did he stop her?"
"He put up some kind of shield - both in the physical world and in her astral world. She wasn't keeping up her own astral wards, so she was very vulnerable as soon as she stepped off campus," he added. "If it wasn't for that kid, some quite nasty spirits would have found her."
"A form of astral suicide?" Mrs. Carson asked, her concern ratcheting up several levels.
Louis shrugged. "Perhaps."
"Do you know anything else about that kid? How did he find Kayda? How did he get involved?"
"I'm not sure, but I suspect that her spirit somehow contacted him and got him to protect her."
"If he's _that_ powerful," Mrs. Carson said with a grim expression, "we need to find him. If he can do things like that, we _must_ get him trained properly in the astral world."
"I'll see what I can do to find him."
"Now, back to the original question. What do we do about Kayda?
"If anything happens to Miss Nalley, I'm afraid it'll push Kayda over the edge. You know she has a strong sense of social isolation. She and Elaine ... clicked as friends. She's afraid of losing her best friend, and she's convinced herself that she doesn't deserve friends because she'll just hurt them."
"I _had_ to scare her Sunday night," Liz said defensively. "What she did was stupid and dangerous. I had to impress that upon her."
"You need to ask yourself something, Liz," Louis said calmly. "Did you go a little overboard when you bawled her out because you're taking Loophole's ... situation ... a little more personally than you should?"
"Are you suggesting that I'm favoring Miss Nalley?" Liz bristled, astonished at Louis' blunt statement.
Louis smiled sadly. "I can't answer that," he said. "Only you can." He vanished, leaving a totally stunned Mrs. Carson sitting with her mouth hanging open as she considered his words.
Liz sat, frowning, thinking about what Louis had said. _Was_ she favoring Elaine Nalley? Was it possible? Preposterous! She tried to push that thought away from her, and yet it wouldn't leave. Sure, she _had_ helped Elaine with some the issues associated with Mr. Cody and Ms. Ricardo, and she _had_ deliberately turned a blind eye to Loophole's and Songbird's pretty flagrant relationship, and she _had_ greased the skids behind the scenes for Ms. Nalley to help Mr. Cody take over the Alphas, but ... but she helped _all_ of her students like that.
Liz turned to her computer and began to sort through her pile of unread-but-urgent e-mails, but she kept pausing and returning to Louis' question. And every time she came back to that question, she visualized Ms. Nalley in the hospital bed. Why?
And why had she co-opted Elaine's AI to spy on her? The last one really, really nagged at Liz. She had other faculty spying on and monitoring other kids, but those were usually the big trouble-makers. So far, the trouble Ms. Nalley had caused was trivial compared to the likes of the Don and Freya and DuPraeve. And Liz hadn't personally monitored them, at least not as personally as she seemed to be monitoring Ms. Nalley. Why was it so different with Elaine?
Liz rested her forehead in her hands, her elbows propped up on her desk, and closed her eyes.
Her mind's eye saw a face - a vision from Liz's past, vivid and unflawed and perfect, just like the second-to-the-last time Liz had seen her so many long years ago. "Donna!" Liz gasped softly at the apparition, the mental image. Damn, it had been so long since she'd thought of her former best friend. Liz recoiled, bolting upright and opening her eyes.
How long had it been since she'd thought of Donna? Forty years? Fifty? And since the 'incident'? Was it coming up on sixty years? Liz sighed, feeling a surge of guilt at forgetting her once-best-friend. But why was she suddenly remembering a 60-year-gone friend?
1947, Miss Champion
Miss Champion sat in an overstuffed chair, tears on her cheeks, a picture in her hand - a taller, very shapely brunette girl named Donna Fiedler. She'd just come from Donna's memorial service, and she sat, full of self-recrimination about the loss of her friend. She _should_ have seen it coming. Memories flooded through the young superhero, memories of her and Donna, who she loved as a best friend and more. Donna was like a sister to Miss Champion.
They'd been practically inseparable after the war, even though Donna was considered 'odd'; in truth, known only to Liz and one other, Donna was a lesbian who dated guys only to squelch rumors. Liz was certain that Donna was attracted to her, but the girl was afraid of saying or doing anything lest she lose her best friend. And so they did nearly everything together despite an overhanging cloud of unresolved sexual tension. Liz smiled sadly at the way she and Donna drove around in Donna's old 1937 Packard Twelve coupe; like Loophole, Donna was a gearhead, having learned at the knees of her father who was a mechanic with his own garage. That coupe wasn't the prettiest car, but it ran well thanks to Donna's tinkering and tender loving care.
Donna was a tall girl - friendly, cautious, and she'd developed a knockout figure that had guys drooling over her. She'd been one of the few who Liz had trusted with her secret, but as Liz learned magic and how to use her powers, a gulf started to form between the two friends - small at first, but widening more and more, and that chasm in the relationship corresponded to Liz's mastery of her powers. When Liz finally confronted her increasingly agitated and distant friend, Donna had finally admitted that she was envious of Liz's powers.
And then - disaster. Miss Champion had been part of a team pursuing a powerful imbued psychopathic jewel thief in a cross-country rampage. It had taken nearly three months - and seventeen deaths - to catch up to and subdue the villain. When Liz had returned home, she couldn't find Donna anywhere. After a somewhat frantic search, Liz had discovered a bloody summoning circle, incorrectly drawn, with pages and pages of notes. It took a very detailed investigation - and lots of consulting with knowledgeable wizards - but Liz finally learned that Donna had sought to bind an extradimensional being - a demon - to imbue her with power. She'd been so envious that she was finally pushed into a desperate attempt to gain some powers like her friend Liz.
They never found a body, but Liz wasn't surprised. If she had managed to summon an extradimensional being with the slightly-flawed ritual, Donna would have been eaten or dragged - body and soul - into the extradimensional realm of the creature.
Liz blinked to clear the mist from her eyes and focused again on the picture, now mottled with drops of moisture that had fallen from her eyes. 'Donna,' she whispered to herself, not fighting the tears, 'Why? Why did you get so reckless?' There was no answer, and Liz was left heartbroken at the loss of such a dear friend. She vowed that she'd be very careful about who she told of her secret. She _couldn't_ risk another friend - or possibly family in the future - becoming so desperate to have powers like Miss Champion that they'd take such foolish risks.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007, Evening
Emerson Cottage, Darren's room
The shout of surprise startled Quickdraw, making the speedster flinch. "What?" he demanded, frustrated.
"This is _better_ than a spell!" Speakeasy - Darren - exclaimed gleefully.
"Better than a spell?"
Darren nodded. "One of the most powerful things on earth is essence of an extra-dimensional being," he read from the book before looking up at his co-conspirator. "A demon. Well, we're after pure, unbridled lust, right?"
"Yeah," the other agreed, puzzled.
"So we have to create a lust spell, or find a lust-inducing devise, right?" He saw his partner nod. "Both of which would require outside help. _Outside_ help! As in accomplices."
Darren grinned gleefully. "Why do that when we have the most powerful source of lust in the world _right here on campus_?"
Darren picked up the dry, crinkly piece of yellow paper. "Someone else was studying this, probably a long time ago! Look what it says here - it's a list of demons and their major powers."
"Yeah, but a paper that old wouldn't have ...."
"Not Sara. The Kellith! Her real, eternal self, the demon of lust and sex!"
Eddie frowned. "So what, you just going to go to her room in Hawthorne, knock on the door, and say, 'Excuse me, Sara, but I'd like a cup of lust essence, please?'" he asked sarcastically.
Darren scowled at his buddy, not amused. "Yeah, right. Like she'd give it to us voluntarily, and _then_ keep her mouth shut about us having it!" He grinned and held up the paper. "No, my friend," he practically purred. "The answer is right here, right in front of us!"
It took Darren only five minutes, with a little psychic boost, to convince Eddie of the brilliance of the plan. The two then quickly gathered their supplies and began the preparation.
"What's with the big paper sheet on the plastic?"
Darren just grinned. "You'll see." He winced when he cut his finger, but then began to trace a figure in his own blood on the paper, pausing frequently to refer to the yellowish instructions they'd found as he traced a geometric figure inside an unbroken circle of blood. When it was complete he sat back. "Okay, now we have to write her name inside the figure."
"No. Her _true_ name, the one written here on the paper!" Taking a breath to steady himself, he squeezed more blood from his finger and began to trace a name on the paper. He leaned back again, outside the blood circle and solemnly pronounced that true name. "Come to me!" he intoned.
There was no flash, no smoke, no noise. One moment, the paper was sitting on the floor, and the second, it was occupied by a white-skinned, red-headed demon girl who they'd seen around campus all too often. She was facing away from them, and puzzled at the sudden change of location, she turned to look around.
There was something to the blood circle, the mystical figure, because when her body was repelled as if by an invisible cylinder. "Ow!" she snapped, and then she noticed the two boys. "What are you two doing?"
Eddie flinched at the sight of the girl, the angry gleam in her red eyes and the visible canine teeth, but Darren was a little more cocksure. "You are going to give us something."
"You could have just asked," Sara said sarcastically. "And you interrupted ... a game." Watching the boys, she reached out hesitantly toward the two, and was rewarded with a sharp spark and pain. She raised an eyebrow at the situation. "You _do_ realize that what you've done _will_ have very serious repercussions, don't you?"
Darren seemed even more confident when he saw that the holding circle was containing the girl. At the same time, her stance and appearance were becoming quite alluring to him. A sideways glance told him that his compadre was being even more affected, as he was pressing against a raging hard-on in his trousers. "Turn off your power!" Darren forced himself to say while he still could.
Almost instantly, the lust vanished. "Aw," Sara complained in a sexy pout, "you _could_ have had so much fun if you hadn't done that!"
"I want your lust essence," Darren commanded.
"I was about to give it to you," Sara said, licking her black lips seductively. "And I still can, if you just let me out of this silly little circle! We'll have a night like you couldn't even dream of!"
"I want it in this!" Darren commanded, holding forth a small glass jar.
Sara posed coyly after she took the jar. "You _know_ what I have to do to get the essence you want, don't you?" she teased the boys. Inwardly, her mind was racing. She was properly summoned, and the circle had been constructed carefully enough that when she tried to scuff the paper with her toe, it resisted scratching or tearing. Damn!
To distract the boys, she made a show of lifting her skirt, with implications of just _how_ she was going to fill the request. She frowned when she realized that her lust power wasn't working under the summoning, and she couldn't freely turn it on once the boy had told her to stop.
"Darren," Eddie said nervously, "maybe we shouldn't do this! If something goes wrong, she'll own our souls or kill us or something!"
Darren grinned wickedly. "If she tries to do anything to us, she'll get in trouble and be expelled or even ... exterminated! There are a _lot_ of people, on campus and in the country, who would like her to not exist anymore."
Sara listened to the boy's sound logic. How had these boys, relative simpletons in matters of magic and demons, created such a summoning circle with proper wards? And how had they discovered her true name?
"Fill it. Now."
Sara shrugged. Might as well get the whole thing over so she could get back to her room and Sif. "Okay." She raised the jar to her lips, and a greenish fluid flowed into the jar. She put in a couple of teaspoons worth of her lust essence and then lowered the cup.
"That's not much!" Darren said with a scowl.
"That's enough to have the whole campus in a week-long orgy."
"Okay," Darren relented. "Hand it to me, and we'll be almost done."
With a wry smile, Sara reached out toward the ward, holding the small jar of lust essence. Surprisingly, though, the boy reached for it with a pair of tongs. Her eyes widened at his precautions. She'd made sure she dribbled enough essence on the outside of the jar so that the boys would free her just because they were too uncontrollably horny after even a faint touch of the sex-elixir. But he'd apparently thought of that.
As she watched, intrigued and mystified, Darren capped the jar - using another pair of tongs, and then put the jar inside a plastic bag, which he put inside a large jar. He was evidently taking no chances.
"Okay," Darren said with a nasty grin as he turned back. "Only one more thing to do."
"Now you release me, right?" Sara prompted.
"No," Darren replied coolly. "You'd talk. You'd tell someone that we forced you to give your lust essence, and that would ruin our plans."
Alarm bells which had been softly ringing in Sara's mind turned to full-volume panic mode. "What are you going to do?"
Darren reached down to the paper, and he lifted one corner. The 'container' holding Sara contorted, scrunching her uncomfortably. "We can't take a chance that you'll talk."
"But ... the administration will know I'm missing!"
"And they'll think you're hiding in your room or something. A neat fold here and there, and I'll keep the paper nice and hidden, and you can't ruin our plans," Darren cooed wickedly. " Besides, there are _some_ who would welcome your disappearance. And if you _are_ missed, they'll get the blame!" With that, he folded the paper over, scrunching the 'container' and forcing Sara out of the shell into a pocket dimension which was attached to the paper.
As she was contorted and pushed out of reality, Sara saw the yellowish paper on the floor, and she saw magic radiating from it. "It can't be!" she cried one last thing before she vanished between the folds of paper.
With a satisfied grin, Darren put one more fold in the paper to be certain, and then slid it under his wardrobe, where it would be safe from meddlers. Finished with that, he hefted the jar with its precious liquid. "We've got them now!" he cackled.