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A Whateley Academy Adventure

Blast from the Past

by

ElrodW

Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - Late Evening
Whateley House, Whateley Academy

The blonde woman rubbed her eyes, fighting a growing fatigue that even being an exemplar couldn't ward off. After another few attempts at deciphering the huge pile of signs and sigils and magic scribblings nearly covering up a spare table, she pushed her chair back. With a few muttered but very mild oaths, she cursed the lack of hours in a day; there was always far too much to do each and every day, and her research had been suffering.

"Still trying to figure it out, Liz?" a man said from behind her, startling the woman, who was so involved in what she'd been doing that she hadn't heard him walk into the room.

Elizabeth Carson pushed back her chair with a sigh. "Yeah. It feels like all the pieces are there, but I can't quite put them together!" she grumbled. "The answer is so close, I know it!"

"Why don't you come to bed? I always found that a good night's sleep helps me organize my thoughts."

Liz stood and let the man hug her from behind. "I've got to find the answer!" she said heavily. "I know that it's in there," she gestured toward the table, "somewhere!" In his arms, she turned to face him and lifted her lips to his. "Just a little bit longer," she said after their lips parted. "Promise. Now you get yourself to bed, and I'll be right in."

"Okay," he said reluctantly before trudging out of the study.

Stumbling to the kitchen with a large coffee cup in hand, she glanced at an old analog clock ticking merrily away over the stove. With a sigh and a shake of her head, she strode wearily to the counter and poured the contents of an almost-eternally-on coffee pot into her cup. "Damn," she swore softly when the dark liquid only reached halfway up the inside of her formerly-white coffee cup. "It's a sign," she said, rolling her eyes. "I need to get some sleep." She knew, and had long known, that the caffeine in the beverage would do nothing for her alertness; it was one of the downsides of her particular mutation that many substances like alcohol and caffeine had little if any effect on her.

Taking a sip of the strong brew, Liz flipped off the coffee-maker and tossed the used filter and grounds. Another sip of coffee, and she stepped to the sink to rinse out the filter holder and the coffee pot, then she wearily began to prepare the automatic machine to brew her a fresh pot so she would wake up to the smell of fresh brew.

A small bag of coffee beans came out of her refrigerator, and she let out yet another exasperated sigh. "I'll get you for this, Ayla!" she said, shaking her head at the fact that she didn't have enough of the gourmet coffee beans that she'd been introduced to by Ayla Goodkind. No sense wasting them on a partial cup, she thought as she put the special blend back into the refrigerator. If it wasn't so late, she'd simply call Poe Cottage; Ayla would be more than willing to share his coffee with the headmistress, but at the late hour, she dared not interrupt the student's sleep.

With nothing else for it, she filled the filter with her old blend of pre-ground coffee, made sure there was enough water in the reservoir, then carried her cup back to the study. The table of charts and drawings and notes hadn't moved or miraculously sorted itself into meaningful piles, which was not realistic anyway but which would have been gratefully received by Liz. As she began to sort through the piles, feeling like she was looking through a haystack for not a needle but instead a particular speck of dust, she took another sip of the coffee, wincing at the taste. She'd been spoiled by the special blend, she realized.

Decades earlier, when she'd picked up a taste for coffee, she would never have guessed that such minor variations in soil conditions, sun, and dozens of other factors made a huge difference in the taste of the product. To even expert eyes, there wasn't much to distinguish her normal blend of coffee beans from the gourmet beans Ayla had introduced her to. It took an expert with not only a keen eye to judge the darkness of the roast, but also a superb sense of smell and taste to unlock the secrets of what would become choice blends of coffee and separate various batches of the beans according to unseen and hidden qualities. Time, too, was a critical factor - an extra couple of days before harvesting could seriously change the flavor of the resultant beverage. All the factors were important, not just one. It still amazed her how much of an art that was, and it was a bit of an embarrassment to her that she'd never considered the subtleties of taste and aroma in anything, let alone her coffee.

More than a 'little later', the coffee cup was empty, and still the papers offered no clues to the weary woman. When she glanced at the clock, she was dismayed to find that it was almost two in the morning. Enough, she decided. The mystery would have to wait. She had to get some sleep. But still, she couldn't help but feel a sense of urgency, a sensation that had only grown ever since she'd confronted two girls who were overly adventurous to the point of being foolhardy - just like she'd once been.

As she brushed her teeth, she thought of the redhead and the Lakota girl. Kayda and Elaine were going to be the death of her yet, she mused. Even with radically-retarded aging, she figured she'd have more than her share of gray hair by the time the two trouble-magnets graduated - Nalley with her gadgeteering and Franks with her odd shaman-influenced magic and her own gadgeteering talents. In the years Liz Carson had been at Whateley, she'd thought she'd seen everything, but the two had a unique way to put a new twist on things, causing new trouble because they simply looked at thing differently than everyone else did. It was like the brewers looking at coffee beans - the true masters sensed things differently from others.

And their incessant nerdy Star Trek references - the two girls habitually seasoned any explanations of their antics with obscure Trek references, which had at first baffled the Headmistress. To deny them their 'secret code', Liz had had to undertake a crash course in all things Trek, including watching all of the higher-rated episodes for key references. The look on their faces when she'd interrupted one of their explanations with some quotes from what she considered a particularly silly episode about energy-web-spinning aliens trapping the Enterprise in some interdimensional space - that had been a priceless moment as the two deflated with the realization that they couldn't use their favorite sci-fi TV series to mask and obfuscate their antics.

As Liz Carson's head hit the pillow, she was consumed with frustration. There had to be a pattern there. There had to be a way to decipher all the drawings and information and data she'd collected, including those old pictures. And yet, the answer defied all attempts to find it. She snuggled up to Langley Paulson and slowly drifted into a fitful sleep, the same as she'd had for months, ever since Louis had forced her to confront a horrible past event that still haunted her.

All of a sudden, Liz Carson bolted upright in her bed, eyes wide open and her mouth open in surprise. For a second, she struggled to regain a true perspective of her thoughts. "Of course!" she said as if speaking to herself, and forgetting her partner. "The other senses! And time!"

"What?" her partner muttered, having been aroused from his sleep by her sudden motion. "What about senses and time?"

"The Tholian Web!" she said, now wide awake, and she scrambled out of bed. "That's the key!"

"What?" Her racing thoughts had obviously confused his still sleep-befogged mind.

"I think I might have the answer," she said excitedly, yet at the same time her voice was wary. She pulled on her robe and dashed from the room, leaving the man lying on the bed half-awake and confused.

The light in her study popped on, and she sat down at the table, this time and without her coffee, but she felt as alert a she'd ever felt since she began the project. It took several moments, but then an answer slowly appeared. Time. It was all about time. A few cryptic clues from obscure references that had pranced through her sleepy mind hours ago had coalesced into a possible solution to the issue. She already knew the interdimensional aspect of the puzzle, but without considering that time factor, none of the rest of it made sense! Now she had an answer to one key question, but that had only opened up two more unknowns. Still, she had more to go on than she'd had before. It was going to be a long night.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - Early Morning
Headmistress' Office, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Despite operating on only a couple of hours of sleep, Liz felt energized coming into the office earlier than most of her staff. As usual, Elaine Claire was present. "Morning, Elaine," Liz greeted her aide. "Call Ayla and see if he's got any more of that special coffee." She put a list on her aide's desk. "Get these students into my conference room at eight - excuse them from classes if necessary."

It took Ms. Claire only a moment of examining the list. "All devisors? Including Jobe?"

Mrs. Carson nodded. "Set it up. Then get Ribbon and Roulette in here now." She went to a coffee maker tucked into one corner of the office suite and filled a very large coffee cup.

* * *

"Langley?" Mrs. Carson spoke into office phone, her attention split between the call and the computer display of the runes and sigils she'd been so focused upon.

"Yeah, Liz?"

"I'm probably going to have one or two devisors coming in, and I need lab space for them, access to anything they need, and the full cooperation of the Advanced Technologies faculty and staff," Liz said simply.

"Your project?" Langley Paulson asked. He knew the answer without asking. "How much cooperation?"

"If you have to, cancel classes to help them," Liz said solemnly. "I'll get you my personal account for any and all supplies."

"Liz, you're probably crossing a line with this project - excusing students, using lab space," Langley warned her. "The trustees don't take kindly to ...."

"I know the trustees are going to get upset," Mrs. Carson replied firmly, her jaw set in determination. "But even if it costs me my job, I have to do this."

"I know," Langley replied sadly. "When do we go?"

Liz Carson frowned. "What makes you think you're going?"

"I'm on the team," Mr. Paulson repeated, his voice unwavering."

The headmistress sighed. "Okay," she agreed reluctantly. "From the sigils, it looks like this window of opportunity closes Sunday evening, and if I read it right, there won't be another one for seven years. I figured we'd go early Sunday morning - a tradeoff between mission time and time for the devisors to prepare holdouts."

"The rest of the team? Faculty and staff?"

"No." Liz rattled off four names. "This is going to need all the firepower we can get."

Langley Paulson whistled. "Those are pretty heavy hitters! Even so, if the rest of the team can get here, I suggest you schedule time on Saturday morning or afternoon for some sim exercises, so we're familiar with each other and can work as a team."

"Good thinking," Liz agreed. "I'll talk to Gunny about booking range time."

"I can't talk you out of it?"

"You already know the answer to that one," Liz replied.

* * *

Mrs. Carson looked evenly at the apparently ten-year-old Goth Lolita sitting on the leather sofa in her informal meeting section of her office. "In case you are wondering," Mrs. Carson began, not sure how much to tell the girl, "you aren't in any kind of trouble."

Ribbon looked evenly at Mrs. Carson with a gaze that belied her apparent age. "Since I hadn't heard anything from Mrs. Horton, I didn't think so."

"I have need of the services of some devisors," the headmistress said cautiously, "who specialize in ... weapons."

Ribbon straightened up a bit. "And the reason you're talking to me is ...?"

"I've made several calls and already made arrangements for getting the help I need. One of the devisors will be working here, but ... I could use your help with her."

Ribbon's jaw dropped the moment the mental pieces were put together. "Rachel?"

Mrs. Carson nodded. "She'll likely be lost in the labs and tunnels, so I need a liaison. You know how to deal with her. You're someone she trusts."

"May I ask why you need her services?" Ribbon ventured the obvious question.

"No, you may not," Liz answered sternly. "Mr. Paulson has arranged lab space for her, and will ensure she has access to any materials or machinery she needs."

"Okay."

"I figured you wouldn't object to the opportunity to spend time with her," the headmistress said with a wry smile. "But you realize people will probably gossip that you're her daughter."

"Fuck them," Ribbon snorted, then she winced. "Pardon my French," she apologized. "I'll deal with rumors if it means time with my daughter."

"Ms. Claire will give you a pass excusing you from classes for the rest of the week."

"How soon will they be here?"

"Pinnacle is working on the paperwork at that end, and as soon as he finishes it, your son will port them here. Pinnacle and one other will be staying here as escorts," Mrs. Carson replied. "You should have sufficient time to get some breakfast before they arrive."

Ribbon nodded. "Thank you."

Mrs. Carson gave a half chuckle. "No, I'm the one who should be thanking you."

* * *

The students crowded around the table were a varied crew, from the bubbly-happy-blonde Bunny Cormick to the coal-black Drow Jobe and Belphoebe, but the one thing they all had in common was that they were devisors - Bunny, Jobe, Phebes, Koala, Moebius, Hazmat, Eruption, Flashbang, Goodvibes, Fixx, Dredz, Less-than-three, Kew, Keystone, Spark, Techno-Devil, and Slapdash - and based on the curious looks on their faces, they were all equally clueless about why they were there, although they probably had some suspicions, as all of them were considered among the top-ranking devisors in their respective fields. When the door to the conference room opened, all of their heads swiveled to see who was coming in.

"Good morning," Liz Carson said, but there was a serious undertone in her greeting that none of them missed. She raised her hands, gesturing to cut off their questions before any of them could speak. "Let me make this brief, and hopefully all your questions will be answered. There is a ... potentially dangerous ... mission that has to be undertaken," she said, quite obviously choosing her words very carefully, "and the team needs your skills to make or adapt some special weapons and holdouts."

"Interesting," Princess Jobe said calmly. "I presume that the purpose of the mission is secret and you are not at liberty to inform us of details?"

"That's a correct assumption," the headmistress replied. "The mission is to extra-dimensional space, which makes it very possible that the team's normal holdouts might not function correctly. Therefore, your tasks will be to 'tune' some of the holdouts you've developed or that you make to our best estimate of that dimension."

Several of the students nodded. "I can do that," Bunny answered for many of them.

"There will also be a couple of ... very special ... last-ditch holdouts that I need to have created." She looked grimly at the gathered devisors. "You will be compensated for time and materials, and you'll be given passes excusing you from attending classes for the next few days. You will have to make up any and all class assignments you miss, of course. That's all I can tell you until you agree. If my terms are not satisfactory, then you may leave, and it will not count against you in any way."

"Are we going to have to work in teams?" Slapdash piped up, alternating his gaze between Jobe and Mal.

"Given the timeframe," Mrs. Carson said solemnly, "that's unavoidable."

Spark stood up. "I 'ave a project I am in the middle of," she said by way of excuse, "and if I 'alt it, I will be set back by weeks. I'm sorry, but I must decline."

Mrs. Carson nodded. "I appreciate your attention for the introduction, and your honesty with your commitments."

One by one, Dredz, Less-than-three, Techno-Devil, Kew, Slapdash, and Keystone followed her example. After they left the room, Mrs. Carson picked up a remote and turned on a projection wall. "Okay, this is what I need." She looked at Bunny. "I need two dozen of your cryo-grenades, ten smoke bombs, and three PFGs. In addition, you'll be in charge of containers for three other projects, and they have to fit inside a standard holdout pouch." She handed the girl a large, thick manila envelope. "You'll find more details inside."

She turned to Jobe and Belphoebe. "I need a selective bio-agent."

"Against what?" Jobe countered. "Without a sample, it would be difficult to produce a specific agent."

"This is a holdout of almost-last-resort," Mrs. Carson retorted as she handed Jobe an envelope. "You'll have to make the best guess you can from the information we have." She grimaced slightly. "If we have to use your agent, it's a very, very bad day."

"Delivery mechanism?"

"Splash effect, delivery by one of Bunny's eggs." She looked at the blonde. "For this one, I'd suggest you use something that won't accidentally break." She turned back to Jobe. "In your envelope, you'll also find a list of equipment to be purchased from your father's equipment line."

Jobe cocked one eyebrow. "Much of this is ...." she started to say.

"I know. Do it."

Quickly, Liz ran down the other projects - an electron accelerator cannon from Koala, Moebius for holdout belts and equipping some of Bunny's eggs with similar dimension-stretching properties so her small eggs could contain much larger weapons. Hazmat would deliver some caustic chemical agents tailored for the alternate dimension. Flashbang would deliver plasma grenades, Goodvibes would provide sonic disruptors.

"Eruption, you'll work with Fixx on a special, absolutely last-resort holdout. You'll find information in these packets." She handed each of them an envelope, and watched as they opened, began reading, and their eyebrows climbed up their foreheads. The two simultaneously gawked at the papers they were reading, then looked questioningly at Mrs. Carson.

"I'm deadly serious. If it comes to it, every member of the team is prepared to use such an option." She looked seriously at all the kids around the table. "Some extra-dimensional beings don't kill you. In some dimensions, the best you can hope for is eternal torture and agony." She watched most of them gulp nervously. "Now you understand why we want that particular holdout." She let the two look back at the notes. "Can you do it?"

Both Eruption and Fixx nodded grimly. "Yeah," Fixx said. "We'll make it happen."

* * *

Liz and Franklin Delarose stood by the statue of Noah Whateley, waiting under the autumn sun. A moment later, an oval portal, like a giant hole in the middle of the air, opened, and a warper strode easily through. It took the warper a moment to orientate himself, and then he positively grinned. "Mrs. Carson," he said enthusiastically, "it's good to see you again."

"I appreciate your help on my little project," Liz said, sounding a little weary. She was going to need more coffee, if for no other reason than the psychological boost it gave her.

"As soon as you're ready, the others are ready to come."

"All set."

Shortcut looked warily at Chief Delarose. "No more security than just the Chief?"

Liz smiled. "Ribbon is on her way. I figured that if she can't control Lady Havoc, a security squad couldn't either."

Rich simply nodded, then he stepped back through the portal. A moment later, he reappeared, followed a moment later by an Asian woman in costume.

"Good morning, Min," Mrs. Carson greeted her former student. "I appreciate you taking a little time from your busy schedule to help."

"It wasn't that busy," Mystery Woman - Min - replied with a warm smile. She saw the small Goth girl approaching. "Alyss!" she called out excitedly. "How are you doing?" She opened her arms and took the short girl in an embrace, whether the girl wanted a hug or not. Before Alyss could reply, a woman wearing handcuffs and leg manacles stepped through the hole in space-time which was Rich's portal.

"Rachel!" Alyss cried out, her voice cracking with emotion at the unexpected reunion. The little girl bolted from Min's arms to encircle Rachel enthusiastically, ignoring the moisture gathering in the corners of her eyes.

Awkwardly, working around the handcuffs, Rachel hugged Alyss as best as she could. "Da ..." she started to say in a voice that was cracking with emotion, only to catch herself. Before she could say anything else, Pinnacle stepped through the portal, followed by Rich. As soon as he was through, Rich let the portal collapse.

Pinnacle scanned the setting, then stepped smartly to Mrs. Carson. "Lady Astarte?" When Liz nodded, he produced a document. "Rachel Anne Morgan is temporarily released to your custody, subject to proper supervision at all times and the condition that she not leave the grounds of Whateley Academy."

Mrs. Carson nodded, accepted the document, and signed where she was required. "I trust you'll stay to assist supervising her?"

Pinnacle looked at Rachel, and taking some sign from whatever look he saw in her eyes, he nodded. "That's one of the conditions of the temporary parole."

"We'll put you all up in the guest cottage. Chief Delarose will have a security detail when necessary ...."

"I'll sleep in the lab, if you don't mind," Rachel interrupted.

"Nonsense," Mrs. Carson shot back. "You're my guest, so you'll be treated as a guest." She looked at Rachel, specifically at her restraints. "I don't think those will be necessary now, do you?" she asked Pinnacle.

The hero from Pittsburg smiled, and he handed keys to Chief Delarose, who unshackled the woman.

"Now, I suspect you are hungry," she glanced especially at Rich, who, having held the portal open for so long, was probably starving, "we'll go get some brunch at the cafeteria, and then we'll go to the lab which Mr. Paulson has set aside for you, and we'll discuss what I hope you can do for my team."

Several students did double-takes as they walked nearby, having recognized Lady Havoc with their headmistress and two heroes. For her part, Rachel stood for a few moments, soaking up the warm autumn sun and enjoying the gentle breeze on her cheeks as she ignored the attention she knew was directed her way.

Wrapping an arm around Ribbon's shoulder and pulling the girl close to her, Lady Havoc smiled. "I'd love a chance to have a nice meal with my darling daughter," she said, adding extra volume to the last three words so that passers-by would definitely overhear.

* * *

"You wanted to see me, Mrs. Carson?" Amy Maguire asked as she peeked through the door held open by Ms. Claire.

"Yes, Amy, please come in," Liz said pleasantly. "Can I have Ms. Claire get you anything to drink?"

Amy - Roulette - shook her head. "No, thank you."

"I have a very simple request," Mrs. Carson cut to the chase. "I would like you to be on the phone with me when I ask your mother if she can deliver a special devise to me."

Amy arched her eyebrows in confusion. "Huh?"

Mrs. Carson smiled thinly. "I remember Liz very well from her time here as a student. If she's having one of her episodes, I'll never get through to her. I believe you can."

Twenty minutes later, Amy left the office. Mrs. Carson had been right - her presence had been necessary to get Liz Maguire to focus. It was left to determine whether she would complete the devise before she dricked out or fell asleep from exhaustion. Liz was very hopeful that Amy's mom would complete the devise as a holdout; it would be a good safeguard.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Tunnels beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy

Liz ran down a mental checklist as she walked out of Jobe's lab. Despite her bravado, Jobe was having some difficulty isolating an agent which would be non-fatal to humans but would work against the biochemistry of the alternate dimension. Or at least the best guess of what the biochemistry should be. There were only so many unknowns that even Jobe could deal with.

The good news was that Jobe anticipated that the Gizmatic gear - including two Giz-Ruptor 1500 sonic disruptors, three Giz-Shield 4000 personal field generators, a Giz-Gatler 2600 chain gun with armor-piercing explosive ammo, and a Giz-Plasma 625 plasma gun - would be delivered to Whateley Saturday evening, in plenty of time for gear familiarization before the Sunday morning foray.

She went to the bigger but still isolated lab where most of the students were working collaboratively; not surprisingly, none of them had objected when Jobe and Belphoebe insisted on working in Jobe's lab, especially when they knew Jobe would be working on a dangerous biological agents. Only Eruption and Fixx were also working in separate labs, but for radically different reasons than Jobe.

Koala was busily adapting a copy of her signature neutron cannon, which she figured would be more effective and disruptive than her electron gun; neutrons would smash deeper into living tissue, shredding nuclear bonds and destroying living tissue - at least tissue in their dimension. Bunny was perhaps the busiest, multitasking between filling her cryo-grenades with liquid helium, synthesizing the smoke chemicals and the slippery foam, and creating containers for the other projects.

Moebius had two equipment belts in stock, so he'd been working on other containers. He'd already completed containers for Hazmat's incendiary chemicals, leaving it to Bunny to get them packed in one of her eggs. The tricky problem was a pouch fitting Eruption's and Fixx's specifications for size - the opening had to be large - while also being able to fold so it would fit into a grenade-sized container. The faux-leather he normally used would never fold that tight. When Bunny interrupted to note that her detonator pack would take half of the sphere, Moebius nearly threw up his hands in dismay, until Mrs. Carson asked if he could use silk, which was strong and light and very flexible.

Flashbang was busily creating her plasma grenades, which took significant time. The magnetic field holding the plasma had to be almost perfectly spherical and strong enough to contain compressed plasma, while the grenade also had to have a compact power supply to keep the plasma energized. Only a devisor could create such a grenade that could keep a charge for longer than a few minutes.

Goodvibes, however, was having serious problems - miniaturizing the power supply needed for a sonic disruptor was incredibly difficult; a backpack-sized contraption could power six or seven shots. Even that was difficult, as the disruption effect required multiple soundwaves to constructively interfere at a specific point, so it would be good only at one specific range. Reluctantly, Mrs. Carson cancelled that desired weapon, having him instead build a compact sonic generator that would hopefully disorientate anything they encountered, and a set of ear plugs so the team wouldn't be affected.

* * *

As he walked past the lab on his way to return a specialized micro-welder to the central machine shop, Jericho walked past the labs, and with the door open, he wondered what was going on. He, like all the other devisors and gadgeteers, knew almost instantly of a super-secret meeting that Mrs. Carson had called, and suddenly some of those kids were not in classes or their regular labs. If it was a meeting of devisors, why hadn't he, or several other devisors, been invited?

Jobe working with Moebius and Bunny? Was it a sign of an apocalypse? No-one worked with Jobe - for any reason! And Eruption and Fixx were reportedly in labs that had double security guards and were reportedly swept frequently for bugs and scrying?

"Moebius' bags can be any size externally," he overheard Hazmat saying. "Since the chemicals are liquid, the opening can be small, so it'll be easy to pack them into one of Bunny's eggs."

Jericho paused, a puzzled expression on his features. What the heck was going on? Dimensionally-altering containers inside Bunny's egg? And a trigger that would inflate bladders in the two containers when the container was broken? Was this some kind of new chemical delivery system? Perhaps fire-fighting foam? And Mrs. Carson seemed to be in a hurry to have the project completed - by Saturday from what she said.

He was still puzzling over what he'd heard when he realized that Mrs. Carson was coming out of the lab. He straightened, turning quickly away.

"Mr. Turner." The call from the headmistress wasn't unexpected, but it was still a bit unnerving, her personally addressing him as she stopped before him, her eyes gazing sternly upon him.

"Yes, Mrs. Carson?"

"This section of the labs was restricted this morning. What are you doing here?"

Jericho shrugged. "I was returning the micro-welder to the shop," he answered truthfully. "I decided to take a shortcut.

"The security warnings don't apply to you?" Mrs. Carson asked in a rather unpleasant tone.

"Honestly," Jericho answered, tapping his cane, "I didn't see any signs. Of course, having heard a lot of rumors, I will admit that I was curious, like every other gadgeteer and devisor."

Mrs. Carson frowned deeply. "You do realize that there are times and places when you should control your curiosity to avoid trouble?"

"True," Jericho replied easily, "but it isn't every day when Belphegor gets a security officer escorting him every moment he's in the labs and tunnels. That kind of thing tends to increase suspicion that something big is in the works."

"I'm not going to quiz you on what you overheard," Mrs. Carson fixed a steely gaze on the blind devisor. "But I want your word - your solemn oath - that you won't tell anyone what you overheard."

"Yes, ma'am," Jericho replied immediately. He knew all about secrets and the consequences - possibly to others - of betraying said secrets. He also had a feeling, from Mrs. Carson's tone, that if he didn't agree post-haste, he might end up under the same kind of scrutiny as Belfatso.

* * *

"This layer," Fixx explained, standing at a whiteboard and talking to Mrs. Carson, "is a porous layer which will be both a neutron reflector and will be charged with deuterium and tritium. The core is being shaped like this," he pointed to a very strange shape on the board, "to cause a point-critical-mass from a very small amount of the material."

"And the material? Can you extract a sufficient quantity from the reactor? How long will that take?" Mrs. Carson quizzed the devisor.

"I've already started cycling the fuel pellets through a separator devise I had to create. I should have enough material to machine in a couple of hours."

"Good. Very good."

"I should have the core done in a couple of hours, then I can focus on separating deuterium and tritium to charge the reflector layer. That part will take quite a while. After that, it's up to the others to assemble the pieces."

Satisfied with his progress, Mrs. Carson moved to the next lab in the secure area, where Eruption was busy over a workbench. "How is it going?"

"I'm about to take the explosive package to a blast chamber to test my theories. If it works as I expect, it'll only take a couple of hours to fabricate another set."

The headmistress nodded. "I'd ask you to explain this odd shape, but I doubt I'd fully understand. You realize," she added, "that if this passes a gadgeteer test, you could patent it and sell the concept to the Department of Energy?"

Eruption grinned. "I was already planning on it."

* * *

"Ahem," Mrs. Carson announced her presence from the door of the lab, giving the two a chance to recover. With a neutral expression, she walked all the way into the lab, watching Rachel Morgan scramble off Pinnacle's lap, where she'd been kissing him.

"Um," Rachel said, blushing furiously, while Pinnacle turned almost the same shade of red, "I was, um, taking a break."

"Yes, I see." The headmistress turned her attention to the workbench, covered with a mish-mash of parts, electronics, and tools, pretending that she hadn't seen anything. "How are you doing?"

Pinnacle stood up. "Since you're here, I think I'll take, um, a restroom break." He turned and fled the room, obviously embarrassed.

"I'm not sure Alyss would understand if she'd come in on you," Mrs. Carson added with a tiny smile.

Rachel laughed. "She'd probably tell me it was about time I focused on a man instead of my devises!"

"Well, I'll leave that discussion to you. I'm more interested in your progress."

Rachel walked the bench and started explaining what she was doing. "The energy rifle - I don't have enough information to tune it, so I'm going to build a variable frequency modulator with an IR scope, so that as it sweeps, if it finds a frequency that's particularly effective, it'll lock on and pour on the power." When Mrs. Carson nodded her approval, Rachel continued. "These grenades will be filled with a special slime. It'll spread easily, but after exposure to air, it finishes polymerizing, using carbon and nitrogen from the air, into a nearly unbreakable shell." She picked up a hammer and smacked a thin, odd-looking half-sphere on the desk, hard enough that all her components and tools shook from the impact. The half-sphere was seemingly untouched.

"Impressive."

"Based on my calculations, it should easily contain a level 5 exemplar," Rachel added. "And the force field grenades are nearly done. They're adapted from something I had before, so they're the easy one. It'll just take time to manufacture as many as you want." She turned back toward Mrs. Carson, and the headmistress saw something in Rachel's eyes - a look of ... gratitude? ... that she was being given a chance to use her talent for something positive. But just in case, the shark-toothed woman wore her bracer and the headband that Ribbon had told her about, the one she'd invented to control her Diedrick's. "I should have a couple of slime grenades and a field generator done by midnight."

"If you're on schedule," Mrs. Carson chided her, "I want you to quit working at ten and get a good night's sleep. It's important to complete the job, but it's also important to take care of yourself."

"I won't need ...." Rachel started to object.

"That's not a polite request," the headmistress cut off her protest. "That's one of the conditions of you being my guest here."

Rachel's eyes nearly bugged out, and then she nodded. "Yes, ma'am," she finally said.

* * *

Mal Diabolik crept quietly toward the open lab door, following Ribbon, who hadn't observed him yet. He thought he'd recognized the villainess that had been brought into the labs, mostly from her very peculiar grin with pointy teeth. Cautiously, he put a tiny bug on the door jamb with the intent of confirming her identity. It wasn't every day that a villain like Lady Havoc visited, and rarer still that she was given access to a lab, carte-blanche for materials and tools, and by Mrs. Carson herself, if rumors were to be believed.

Backing down the hall, he ducked around a corner and pulled his smart-phone out of his pocket. A few taps and the wireless camera feed showed on the screen. She was smiling about something as she talked to Ribbon, and with a quick check to a deep-web site, he frowned at the confirmation that not only was it Lady Havoc in the lab, but she was accompanied by a man who Ribbon called Pinnacle. Was this the hero Pinnacle from Pittsburg? And Ribbon? What was that little girl doing with her? The only conclusion he could draw was that Ribbon had to be Lady Havoc's daughter. And whatever Lady Havoc was doing had to be related to Mrs. Carson's mysterious project.

Without warning, the feed from the camera turned to static. A couple more taps elicited a very deep frown - the telemetry from his bug was gone, his backup to ensure that he knew if a feed was true or if someone had noticed and was spoofing his spying. The lack of telemetry could mean only one thing - either magic or technological means had destroyed his remote spy.

This whole thing was getting more and more curious. But with Mrs. Carson involved, it wasn't clear to him that he'd be able to uncover the secret, no matter how much he wanted. With a frown, he slunk down the cross-tunnel, easily avoiding the security checkpoint. Perhaps one of the other Bad Seeds had a clue about what was going on.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007 - Before Dinner
Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy

"The recall crystals?" Mrs. Carson asked of the artificer.

"Those were easy," Caitlin answered Mrs. Carson's question about her progress; as usual when making magical artifacts, Caitlin was working in her lab, a dedicated space in Kirby Hall that was remarkably heat resistant and had powerful magic warding on all sides of the room. That allowed Caitlin to work with the incredibly hot temperatures necessary to forge magic items from mithril and other alchemical metals. She put down the article she was working on, some kind of odd tiki-looking statue and picked up a necklace which had a hollow-looking crystal dangling from a braided metallic cord. It looked austere, barely decorative; instead, its visual appearance was that of pure functionality.

"By the way, where are Silver and Seraphim?" Mrs. Carson interrupted, inquiring about the other two members of the trio that crafted extremely powerful magical items.

"They took a break to get something to eat," Caitlin said simply, then she returned to the subject at hand. "The cord is braided cable infused with adamantium shards, so it's almost completely unbreakable. If the wearer simply crushes the crystal - it has a relatively low strength, so it's easily broken - that activates the recall magic, returning the wearer to the focus."

"What, or where, is the focus?" Mrs. Carson asked the obvious question.

In response, Caitlin put down the crystal among the other five she'd made and picked up the tiki statue again. "This - when we're done with it. It's portable, so you can put it wherever you like, and it's got a built-in attachment spell. Once set, a little bit of essence essentially glues it in place, so others can't steal or move it."

"Good," Liz nodded her approval. Caitlin's experience no doubt helped her think of and plan for contingencies in the artifacts and magical devices that she and the other two jointly made and enchanted.

"It may not be a pleasant experience; in fact, it's most likely going to be painful and disorientating, but ...." She let the sentence hang. "One essence battery is done," she continued, putting down the statue and picking up an intricate sculpture that looked like a diamond inside a very coarse spherical mesh of silver, which in turn was encased by two more of the coarse meshes, each slightly larger, and to Liz's eye, the meshes weren't touching but were somehow held in the exact center of the adjacent mesh sphere. Because it was magically active, a storage device for essence, the metal was no doubt mithril. Caitlin handed the device to the headmistress.

"Good. I'll start charging this immediately."

"As soon as the other two get back, we'll start working on the second one. It should be done late tonight or early tomorrow morning."

"Their passes from class are good for tomorrow, too, in case they forgot. Now, what about the psi shields?" Mrs. Carson continued her queries about the magical devices she had ordered from Caitlin.

"We have a prototype," Caitlin replied, picking up another silver charm. "It's based on Nikki Reilly's psi blocking spell; in fact, I had her come in to shape the spell in the mithril as I formed it. All you have to do is infuse essence, and once activated, it should provide an hour or two of psi shielding. I'll test it with Fubar this evening. Then we'll make the rest of them."

Something was nagging at Mrs. Carson, something that she couldn't put her finger on, but it was there in the back of her mind. "Work on the psi shields first." Mrs. Carson directed. She'd long ago learned to trust those 'gut feels'.

"Okay." Caitlin put down the prototype and turned directly to Mrs. Carson. "Okay, Carson, what's all this about? I heard from a little birdie that a select group of devisors and high-level gadgeteers are busy as beavers in the labs, on your orders, for some hush-hush project."

"That would be Mr. Turner, right?"

Caitlin shrugged, not rising to the bait. "He didn't say anything," she defended her fellow Outcast. "And if he had, it would be because of the blood circle we form, his disclosure would be restricted to our circle, and there would have been good cause." She flashed the mysterious tattoo that she and all her fellow Outcasts bore - seven hands each clasping the wrist of the adjoining hand to form a circle. "And I would have been bound to the same secrecy promise he made."

"Then who?"

"Lots of students, actually. The workshops are a hive of rumor and gossip, especially when it comes to secret projects. So what gives? Why did you bring in Lady Havoc? Why do you have Jobe working with Moebius and Bugs?" Caitlin crossed her arms into a posture of stubborn defiance.

"I can't tell you," Mrs. Carson repeated, just like she had to all the other inquiries from the curious devisors who were working on her projects.

"Cut the bullshit, Carson," Caitlin snapped back. "You don't suddenly have a need for lots of heavy weapon devises and magical items without a damned good reason, and if it's a threat to the school ...."

"It's not a threat to the school," Mrs. Carson replied sharply, too sharply she realized. She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "It's a ... personal issue," she replied. "That's why all of the costs of these devises and items and students' time are being paid for by personal funds." She looked at Caitlin Bardue, scrutinizing her steely expression that gave no hint of anything but stubborn resolve. "There's an old issue I need to resolve with a very limited window of opportunity."

Caitlin, realizing that Mrs. Carson wasn't going to budge, simply nodded. "If you were going to put students in danger, you know I'd insist on helping."

"That's why I hired you for the ranges in the first place," Mrs. Carson smiled wryly. "And you are helping - by making these magic items for the team. And that's all I'm going to say ... for now. If the situation changes ...."

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Friday, September 21, 2007 - Second Period
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Liz Carson's eyes popped wide open as she gazed at her computer, not quite believing what she saw. For a second, she closed her eyes to refocus her thoughts, then she looked again. The expression which dawned on her bordered on frantic; she tore through a pile of papers on her desk until she located two key documents. She looked at them again, then compared the documents to the notes on her computer.

With a sudden sense of tremendous urgency, she grabbed a notepad and began to draw what looked like doodles and sigils. When she finished with her drawing, she paled at the implications of what she'd discovered, and her pen dropped to the floor, but she didn't notice.

Gathering up the documents and her notepad, she dashed out of her office, not slowing to let Ms. Claire or any other office staff know why she was leaving. Her nine-thirty appointment, a disciplinary issue which included Chief Delarose and Armadillo, one of the UV students, sat in the waiting area, startled by the headmistress' sudden departure.

Ms. Hartford had seen Liz in that kind of rush before; she knew it was unlikely that she had time for her meeting. She also knew what Mrs. Carson expected of her; she stood and walked toward Mrs. Carson's conference room. "Chief, I'll fill in for Mrs. Carson until she returns. Bring him in." Armadillo paled; any chance of clemency in being removed from the UV list was most likely out the window.

* * *

"Circe!" Liz called out as she quick-stepped into the Mystical Arts department office. Without bothering to wait for an answer, she stormed into the department chair's office. Unfortunately for the headmistress, Circe was not in her office. She spun on her heel and marched down the corridor, looking in the first open door of a faculty member that she came across.

"Elyzia," she called to the occupant, Ms. Grimes, as she practically burst into the room. "I need you to check something for me."

Ms. Grimes looked up from the tablet she was writing on, startled by the unexpected and highly unorthodox interruption. "Okay," she said, pushing aside the tablet when she saw the papers in Mrs. Carson's outstretched hand.

"What am I looking at?" she asked as she began to scrutinize the papers, noting the various magical sigils and scribblings and photographs.

"Extra-dimensional gateway," Liz replied as she sat down uninvited in Elyzia's guest chair. "The key is the summoning circle on the photograph. It appears to be a time-constrained gateway, if I read it correctly."

Ms. Grimes studied the drawings for a moment, then nodded. "That's my first impression, too." Poring over the documents, she retrieved the tablet, tore off the top page, and began to write and doodle on the fresh sheet of paper.

"What do you calculate for the gateway?" Liz asked.

"Give me a sec," Elyzia replied curtly, shutting up Liz. She'd never seen Mrs. Carson acting this impatiently, nor with such a worried expression. "Hmm, it's periodic," she said as the doodlings began to make sense. She turned to her computer and pulled up some type of mystical calendar and clock application. After consulting the chart and scribbling some more, she tapped the pencil on the tablet. "The gateway appears to be periodic, about every seven years and four months," she read her notes. "It should be open now."

"When does it close?" Liz demanded.

The mystical arts teacher looked at her notes some more, then looked at the calendar and clock app. "If my calculations are correct, an hour, two tops."

"Damn!" Liz cursed, rising from the chair and turning toward the door, looking over her shoulder to talk. "That was my calculation. I missed it the first time; I thought I had another two and a half days."

"What's this about?" Elyzia asked, now curious.

"Personal matter." Then Liz stopped. "How are you with extra-dimensional gateways and entities?"

"I'm very weak in that area," she replied. "Try Al Fayez. He's ..."

"He's at a conference, remember?" Liz interrupted. "How about Circe?"

Ms. Grimes shook her head. "She's not good in extra-dimensional spaces. I'm afraid that there's no-one here who'd be good at that."

"Damn!" Liz swore again before she stormed back out of Ms. Grimes' office, leaving the mystical arts teacher baffled.

It took Ms. Carson only a minute to get back to her office. "Clear my calendar," she ordered Ms. Claire as she strode purposefully into her office, shutting the door behind herself. Even before she was seated, she had her office phone in her hand and was rapidly punching buttons as she dialed. "Langley? Liz. I need a favor."

"Sure, Liz. What?" Langley Paulson answered, a little confused by the urgency in her tone.

"Go round up everything that my special project students have completed. I need them in my office ASAP."

"You want the stuff that's passed testing?" Langley asked the question that was obvious to him.

"Anything complete, whether it's passed testing or not. Mark the stuff that hasn't been tested, though, just in case."

"Okay. I'll be there as soon as I can." Mr. Paulson hung up the phone.

Liz dialed again. "Elyzia, Liz. Run down to Caitlin's workshop and have her bring everything she's got done to my office. ASAP."

"Is this related ...?" Ms. Grimes started to ask.

"Yes, and now it's an emergency," Liz shot back before hanging up. She'd been a little short with Ms. Grimes, and she'd apologize later, but at that moment, she had much more important things on her mind than civility and politeness.

* * *

When Langley Paulson walked in, the first thing he noticed was a dejected Liz Carson sitting at her desk and staring angrily at her phone as if it had been the cause of all her problems. He carried a box with many devises and gadgets, most of which looked like grenades, although there were a couple of items that looked like exotic sci-fi firearms.

"Okay, what have we got?" Liz asked, rising and coming around her desk.

Langley ran down the list of completed projects, starting with Moebius' utility belt. As the lab teacher rattled off the devises, Liz began to stow them in the belt, making sure she memorized what was stowed where. In went a pair of cryo-grenades, two smoke grenades, and the bio-agent that Jobe had concocted; Liz was extra-careful, because while Jobe was quite fanatical about safety, it was usually his own safety he was concerned with.

"Okay, Liz, what's going on?" Mr. Paulson asked after laying out the energy rifle and other exotic weapons. "Why do you look like someone shot your puppy?"

Liz grimaced, and opened her mouth to reply, but before she could speak, the door opened and Caitlin barged in, carrying a small bag. "Here's your stuff," the artificer said bluntly.

"It may be all for naught," Liz replied glumly. Seeing the curious faces on Mr. Paulson and the girl with the cobalt tattoos, she sighed. "There's something ... personal ... I have to do in an extra-dimensional space. Previous forays there haven't been exactly easy."

"You've got damned near enough here for a combat squad," Caitlin observed.

"I had a team arranged to help."

"But?"

"But I miscalculated. The window of opportunity closes in," Liz looked at a clock hanging on her wall, "just over an hour. The team was preparing to go on Sunday. None of them can get here in time."

"So you're going to go by yourself, aren't you?" Caitlin asked, but it sounded more like a statement of fact.

"I have to do this," Liz replied. "There won't be another window for around seven and a half years."

"I'll be back in fifteen minutes with my combat load," Caitlin said firmly.

"You can't ...." the headmistress started to object.

"I owe you," Caitlin shot back, interrupting her. "If nothing else, for the job. And for pulling my ass out of the fire a few times since. I'm going."

Mrs. Carson gawked at the tattooed girl, then she noticed that Langley Paulson was likewise nodding grimly. "I can be loaded in ten," he said, adding himself to her team.

"But ...."

"Suggestion," Langley offered up. When Mrs. Carson nodded, he continued. "You've got two experienced fighters in your extra-dimensional class next period. Take them."

"Elaine and Kayda?" Mrs. Carson goggled at him. "I can't ...."

"We've got the emergency-return charms," Caitlin interrupted. "They can get their asses out of danger anytime they need."

"I can't put my students in danger," Mrs. Carson rebutted.

"Then I'll tell them, and you won't be able to keep them away," Langley shot right back. "Both of them are very capable, and both of them would volunteer if you gave them a chance. Both of them would do anything for you."

Liz winced again, biting her lower lip as she contemplated her rapidly-vanishing options. "Okay," she finally said. "I'll text them to come to class fully armed and loaded. We'll meet in my classroom. While you two get ready, I'm going to Kirby to get the staff to charge the essence batteries, so I can save everything I've got."

As the three left the office, walking as quickly as possible, Liz remembered a small detail. She paused by Elaine Claire's desk. "Let Pinnacle and Lady Havoc know that the job is done. She's off for the rest of her time here. Get her vouchers for Le Bistro to thank her."

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Friday, September 21, 2007 - Third Period
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

"Ready?" Mrs. Carson was in her Lady Astarte outfit, augmented with the extra equipment belt. Both Kayda and Lanie were in their combat suits, by direction, Lanie was in her Wicked outfit, which she'd augmented with protection for her thighs and upper arms. Both girls had bows and quivers of arrows, many of which were 'special', and equipment belts with their remaining holdouts. The Lakota girl had her tomahawks and knife on drop-holsters from her waist-belt.

"No, but Ah doubt that's going to stop you," Lanie drawled.

"Is it too late to drop this course?" Kayda tried to joke, but the joke fell flat.

The girls looked nervously at Caitlin, who held a machine gun casually, with a rocket launcher over one shoulder and Slapdash's Core Ejector over the other. With her other holdouts and weapons and the extremely casually-confident way she handled them, she looked plain-and-simply dangerous. Then they looked at Mr. Paulson, who was in his armored suit that seemed more like a shiny silver liquid metal which had been poured over all of his skin except his face, and which moved like a spandex body-suit. With an energy rifle in hand and a personal force-field generator at his belt, he was likewise an intimidating figure.

"I have never been to the extra-dimensional space we're about to visit," Mrs. Carson intoned gravely, "but read reports that indicate that it is quite dangerous. For that reason, we're going in a larger team."

Those might have been the words that made Kayda tremble slightly with fear. While she'd fought two snake-demons, it sounded like Mrs. Carson was prepared for something even more dangerous.

The headmistress, in her Lady Astarte costume, handed out the return crystals which Caitlin had made. "Put these on. If we have to leave in an emergency - such as if you're seriously injured - crush the crystal."

"The crystals are an emergency return," Caitlin continued the explanation. "The magic contained in the crystal will immediately transport you back to the focus, which is that statuette." She pointed to the odd, silver-greenish tiki statue on the teacher's desk.

"We won't leave ...." the two girls started to protest.

"No heroics!" Mrs. Carson barked at them. "I want your word - sorcerer's contract, Kayda, Lanie - if something happens to me, or I so direct, you will invoke the magic and return here ASAP. Agreed?"

"Agreed," the two girls squeaked, getting even more nervous at the seriousness of the preparations. For her to extract that kind of promise was as good as an admission from her that the team might be in extreme danger.

"If you are injured, break the crystal. If someone is down, one of you go to that person and break their crystal. That goes for all of us. We're not leaving anyone behind if I can help it. The cord has braided adamantium in it, so it should be unbreakable."

"If you have to use it, the return ticket may be a bumpy ride," Caitlin added. "But that's better than being stranded or dead."

Mrs. Carson looked seriously at the two girls. "This is going to be a demonstration of how rough extra-dimensional space can be. There's an EMT team from Doyle on their way; they'll be at the return focus in case anyone is injured, okay? Now, since you've insisted on dealing with Coyote ...."

"Mrs. Carson, please cut the bullshit," Caitlin growled. "They're going because you know they're capable fighters and you know you can trust them."

Mrs. Carson took two cell-phone-sized devises off the desk and handed them to the girls. "PFGs. Put them on. Kayda, since you have a shield spell, I want you to activate it. Give your charm to Elaine for an emergency backup for her. If either of you lose your shield, activate your PFG. If you lose both of them, you are to return." She waited for the two girls to exchange worried glances before they gulped and agreed to her terms.

Holding her Astarte staff, she looked at the girls. "Kayda, close-in weapons. Elaine, ready with your bow and special arrows. Langley, ranged weapon. Caitlin - machine gun." When the team had complied, she took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Okay, here we go."

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Somewhere in Extra-Dimensional Space

The extra-dimensional world was a very intimidating place, with a pale blue sky dotted with sickly yellowish clouds and no distinct sun, but rather more like a constant background glow that illuminated the entire area. Some things moved through the air, darting among the clouds, but they were too far away to be recognizable, yet close enough to be of concern as a threat.

The landscape - more of a moonscape, really, was jagged and rocky, with crystals jutting upward singly and in clumps, with some distant things shaped like crystalline trees, all glowing dimly from within, as if they were living and light was their life-force. The two girls glanced about uneasily, while Mr. Paulson - Tin Man, Lady Astarte, and Caitlin formed a defensive triangle. "Get your heads in the game," Caitlin barked at the two to snap them out of their distracted state.

"What are we looking for?" one of the girls asked Lady Astarte.

"It's more proper to ask 'for what are we looking?'" Mrs. Carson, ever the English teacher, corrected the girls.

"That's not important right now," Caitlin snapped. "I think something found us." She jerked a thumb upwards, to where the black dots in the sky - whatever they were - seemed to be starting to circle.

An unearthly, frightening screech erupted from seemingly everywhere, as if the creature's vocalizations echoed off all the surroundings, so that it seemed impossible that it could have been located with directional microphones. But the smashing of the 'crystalline trees' didn't echo, and those sounds gave away the 5-meter-tall thing's location - it was large and quite hideous as it stomped toward the group, if stomping could be an accurate description for its amoeba-like manipulation of its multiple pseudopod legs in a very rapid motion. Its skin was a disgustingly mottled color combination of black-and-blue and yellowish-green pus.

Four nasty arms, unjointed and resembling more pseudopods, ended in a hand-like structure capped with nasty, pointy spear-like claws that glistened with some liquid that was probably toxic. Atop the thing's head, three eyes on eyestalks jutted upward, two waving about as they looked around but the third firmly fixed like a targeting laser on the small crew from Whateley. In what was apparently the head, as the thing had no discernable neck, beneath the one unmoving eye, was a huge mouth lined with rows of disgustingly blackish-green teeth, triangular and pointed like shark's teeth, while some kind of liquid oozed from the maw.

The worst part for the team was the overpowering stench of rot and decay, like it was made of gangrenous, rotting flesh with patches and tufts of long fur that seemed as alive as Dr. Tenent's hair.

The two high-school girls froze for a moment, but Mrs. Carson let loose a blast of some kind of magic which hit the monstrosity, momentarily halting its motion toward the group, while Mr. Paulson let rip with an energy blast from the rifle he carried. Even as that happened, one of the pseudopods snapped a huge branch off one of the crystalline trees and hurled it toward the intruders in the thing's world. A brief sigh of relief that the creature's aim was bad turned instantly into concern as the tree smashed into the rocky terrain and shattered into hundreds of shards of the crystal, hitting at the Whateley crew like flechettes. Only the shields and PFGs protected four of the adventurers; Mrs. Carson dodged by leaping straight up, but one of the fragments hit her suit in the arm. Only the intrinsic armor of her Lady Astarte suit kept her from being badly cut.

Caitlin let rip with her machine gun, but it only fired a handful of rounds before it stopped. She saw instantly that the feed from the Aegis loader, the devise which kept a nearly-unlimited supply in a pocket dimension much as Moebius' bags of holding did, was not feeding. Without ammo, the machine gun was useless, so she dropped it, letting the auto-sling catch it and pull it to her back, while she pulled the core ejector off her left shoulder.

Kayda started to change weapons to her bow - something with range, but then the beastie shrieked as one of Elaine's C4-tipped arrows hit near an eye and blew a crater in the thing's head. The noise was deafening, and something about its tone caused the two girls to fight a gag reflex, as if by sound it was projecting nausea. By the time Kayda had her bow out, Elaine had shot another exploding arrow, which nearly blew off one of the thing's pseudopods.

Mrs. Carson and Langley Paulson moved slightly to the right to present two targets to the critter, but still stay close enough that either team could support the other. A shot from Paulson's energy rifle right in the critter's mouth only seemed to annoy the thing.

Displaying an intelligence that was certain to make things more difficult for the group, the demonic thing halted its headlong rush, instead reaching toward more of the 'trees' with two of its arms, while the other two pointed, one toward each group. From each arm, a handful of its spear-like claws launched toward the heroes, flying with a precision that spoke of intelligent aiming. Even as it did so, the eye and arm that had been so brutally ripped apart by the explosives started to regenerate at a frightening pace.

Only their shields protected the group, but for some reason, Mrs. Carson's PFG wasn't active; one of the long claws jutted from a bleeding puncture in her armored suit. And then the second round of splintering crystals hit at the groups, hundreds of razor-sharp shards that would have torn them apart if not for the shields.

It began to get rapidly worse. From the top of the demon's head, another pair of eye stalks sprouted, focused on Mrs. Carson and Mr. Langley, and beneath them, another dagger-filled mouth opened. Kayda and Lanie gasped together - the thing had no distinct form, but was adapting itself as needed, which meant that there was likely no single vital organ or area that would put it down. Still, they tried - one of Kayda's exploding arrows blew off half of one of the mouths, but they already knew that was a temporary thing.

Round after round from the Core Ejector slammed into the creature's body, but they did little more than puncture the outer skin, leaving a burned hole but failing to slow it down. Snarling and swearing, Caitlin gave up on the core ejector - even rounds to its face did nothing. One round in the mouth had gone completely through the monster, leaving a visible hole that quickly began to repair itself.

Nearby, Mrs. Carson threw a fireball into the base of the creature, and the white-hot bale-fire burned at the pseudopod, causing the creature to flinch backward. At the same time, Langley tossed a cryo-grenade quite expertly, right into the mouth facing him and Mrs. Carson. The toxic drool dripping from the mouth froze instantly, and the entire mouth stiffened as frost spread across the face from the super-cold liquid the grenade had held. As it tried to move its maw, skin cracked and teeth feel out, unable to bend in the direction the critter wanted its flesh to move.

On the other side, Kayda yelled out to her companion, "Shoot its body!"

"It won't do anything!" Elaine Nalley protested, but she did as her friend suggested. A mighty blast tore a chunk out of the monstrosity, and a moment later, one of the Lakota girl's essence-laden arrows smacked into the crater.

The creature screamed in pain as the raw magic energy flashed into its body, past the protection of its skin which had so far proven nearly impervious to magical energy. A second arrow hit near the same spot, and with a howl, the creature fell back several yards as a sickly pus-like substance oozed out of the wound and the foul stench increased to the point that Kayda and Lanie both vomited.

A rocket from Caitlin tore into the creature, at the base of one of its arms; the shaped-charge of high explosive turned into a concentrated jet of superheated gas and shock wave, which severed one of the demon-thing's arms completely. But no sooner had that one flopped to the ground than another arm sprouted from the amoeba-like monster. It roared again, whether in pain or fury was not known, and a visible energy wave, a golden distortion of the air, exploded out from the thing. Instantly, all the PFGs snapped off, leaving the party vulnerable. At the same time, claw-missiles from the creature shot out toward the parties.

The Lakota girl was in front of Elaine, or the redhead would have been pierced by two or three of the missiles; as it was, Kayda, inside her magic shield, was battered by the sheer power of the missile strikes on her shield, and she crashed backwards into her friend, knocking both of them over.

"Fuuuu...." Caitlin started to scream as one of the projectiles tore into her left shoulder. By chance, her position holding the rocket launcher had pushed her recall pendant to the side, and when the claw-tip hit, it crushed the crystal as it plowed its way through the artificer's joint. The tattooed girl vanished in a flash of light as her emergency return crystal was accidentally triggered.

"At least it can be hurt!" Kayda called out as she got back to her feet, her shield spell still between her friend and the hideous monstrosity. Around them, the tree-like crystals started to brightly glow an evil red, somehow powered by the energy wave of the demonic being, and a low hissing sound erupted from all around them as the trees began to exude some kind of mist or fog. Very quickly, visibility in the area dropped to about twenty meters, and the creature scuttled back into the mist until it was no longer visible.

"Look out!" Mrs. Carson called sharply to the girls, too late, as a pseudopod exploded out of the mist. Once more, Kayda's shield was sorely tested, and it passed, but the Lakota girl and Elaine, who she'd dragged into the shield with her, were battered as they were knocked backward yet again.

From overhead, rumbling screeches sounded, a strange and ominous noise that bode ill and set the girls' teeth on edge. "I don't think this is good!" Kayda yelled as she got back to her feet. Beside her, Elaine had likewise regained her footing, and she activated the charm Kayda had given her, providing her with her own magical protection.

From nearby, the crackle of discharges from the energy rifle slowed, as the target was obscured by the mist, but then suddenly, large dark shadowy figures appeared from above, man-sized quadrupeds with wickedly-clawed feet and gigantic wings like a dragonfly, swooping down on the team. Like scorpions, segmented tails tipped with a vicious stinger that dripped some kind of venom curled over their backs, and their mouths were filled with razor-sharp teeth. The creatures dove to attack, but their tails and claws failed to penetrate the girls' shield, while Mrs. Carson had erected her own magical barrier. Near the headmistress, Langley Paulson's armored skin blunted attack after attack, and feeling helpless on the ground, he launched himself up to better battle the flying threat. Shot after shot rang out from his energy rifle as he darted about in what would have been an awesome display of aerial acrobatics, but everyone else was too busy to watch.

Protected by her magic, Mrs. Carson lobbed another cryo-grenade at the main demon, and one of its leg-like pseudopods shattered and crumbled as the now-frozen tissue was unable to bend. Still, the creature moved to attack, sprouting a new pseudopod in moments to replace the one that was lost.

Inside their shields, the two girls defended themselves against the diving threat, Kayda with her tomahawks and Elaine with her .45 pistol, shot after shot ringing out as the creatures succumbed to her well-placed rounds. Around them, the carcasses of the dead fliers vanished into nothingness as soon as they touched the ground, but still more of the airborne threats dove upon them.

In the skies above the battle, Mr. Paulson was clear of the thick fog where he could spot the fliers, agile though they were, and was more effective, but he could tell that no sooner was he dispatching one than one or two more swarmed up out of the mists at him.

On the ground, Mrs. Carson was able to focus her energy on the monster, but its combination of missile claws and rampaging arms was slowly, inexorably driving her back. The special holdouts she'd had made for her were being consumed at a steady pace, and they weren't going to hold out for very long. The trip seemed hopeless; she made a decision. "Abort the trip!" she yelled at the top of her lungs "Abort!"

Kayda looked at Elaine questioningly; they could tell that Mrs. Carson was still fighting, and the sound of the energy rifle above them let them know that Mr. Paulson was still in the thick of the battle. In the moment of distraction, one of the demon's arms smashed into the pair, knocking them flying. Nalley got the worse of the deal; her shield charm was nearly out of essence, and the mighty blow from the pseudopod finished it off. She landed roughly, breaking an arm and cracking a rib on one of the many jagged rocks. Still, she rolled and came up fighting, shooting now at the demon which was barely visible through the fog.

Seeing their chance, the diving dragonfly-monkey-scorpion hybrids dove toward the Lakota girl, who was fingering her magical shield charm to open it up so she could also protect her friend. In a moment, it was down, and Kayda grasped the redhead with one hand as she chopped the tail of a flier, thwarting its attack on the pair. Bug-monkey guts splattered on the two girls, but like the corpses of the flying abominations, the ooze quickly vanished into nothingness.

Two of the claw-spears stabbed into the Lakota girl before she could activate her shield, and a cry of agony involuntarily burst from her as the spear-points penetrated one thigh and grazed her arm. Her limbs felt like they were afire, as if something poisonous were on the claws.

The mist thinned slightly - perhaps the trees could only exude so much of it before it dissipated, and Langley Paulson could see the large demon again, some of its many eyes focused on where Liz battled and where Kayda shrieked in pain. It didn't seem to be deterred by the fog. A few ugly bulges formed rapidly on the thing's shoulders, in moments growing huge, before the skin split and more bug-monkeys sprang forth into the air. A pseudopod waved skyward, and Langley darted quickly out of the way as the air was filled with the claw-missiles heading his way.

Langley heard Liz's call to abort and he reached for his charm, but he paused, knowing that he had to wait until Liz and the girls were safe.

"Help!" an unknown voice screamed, a high-pitched woman's voice that didn't belong to any of the party, perhaps spurred by Kayda's scream of pain or Mrs. Carson's loud cry to abort the trip. "Help me!" it screamed again.

Langley froze in place a moment at the sound, then he made a snap decision and darted toward the sound of the voice, moving just in time to avoid being hit by a bug-monkey's attack from above. In the dissipating mist, he could see some kind of clearing about a hundred fifty yards away, a rock-strewn field of blackened rubble in the center of a clearing in the crystal trees. In the center of the clearing was some type of tableau, and on it was something.

"Help!" The desperation in the voice was unmistakable.

"Liz, there's a clearing about a hundred twenty meters from you, four o'clock relative to you," he yelled as loud as he could. His announcement was greeted with renewed fury from the flying bug-monkeys, and he became totally absorbed with defending himself and maneuvering away from the increasingly dangerous attacks.

Liz Carson paused at the scream, then again when she heard Langley's directions. She was shocked by the sound of a human voice, and she hesitated just long enough for one of the demon's arms to club her viciously to the side. She rolled with the blow as best as she could, coming up with her scepter to block another blow and dumping essence through it into the arm. The creature shrieked in pain at the injury, withdrawing its arm, but the missile claws came at her with heightened intensity.

"Hello?" Liz called out sharply, wondering if she was really hearing a human voice.

"Help me!" a scream answered her. "Help!"

Nalley's jaw dropped at the sound. "Let's go!" she called to the Lakota girl.

"We were told ...," Kayda started to say, mindful of the wizard's pact the girls had agreed to, that they would return immediately if Mrs. Carson so ordered.

"I'll take the fliers! You focus on ugly!" Elaine barked to Kayda. Her gun began to bark repeatedly and deliberately as the redhead picked off the fliers.

"Any explosive arrows left?" Kayda asked.

"A couple," Elaine replied. The Lakota girl pulled a couple of arrows with mortar-shell-like heads, then pulled a couple of her own arrows from her own quiver. In quick succession, she fired an explosive round, followed by a magically-charged round. The creature shrieked again, pausing as if torn on where to focus his attention. During that time, the girls were running as quickly as they could toward Mrs. Carson's shadowy figure, which was in turn moving in the direction of the voice.

The headmistress saw the girls. "Go back!" she ordered. "Now!"

"Not without whatever is calling for help," Elaine Nalley shot right back, knowing that she was violating a wizard's pact and was going to pay some price for that act.

All the bug-monkeys began to swarm at Mrs. Carson, while the demon redoubled its attacks on the headmistress to try to stop her movement. Nalley's pistol barked repeatedly, interrupted periodically as she changed magazines, while Kayda pumped essence-filled arrows one after another into the major demonic entity. She paused to dump more of her own essence into her shield, and finding that her well was emptying, she took out the magical battery Mrs. Carson had given her and let the power therein flow into her well, refilling it.

The girls caught up to Mrs. Carson, who had a missile-claw sticking out of her leg and a stinger from one of the bug-monkeys protruding from her arm; whatever was on them was clearly slowing her down. "Take this," she said, throwing a grenade toward Kayda. "You don't want to be within twenty yards of it when it goes off!" she added. "Slow down the demon!" Her intent was obvious - she intended to rescue whoever was calling out, now in a steady sobbing series of cries for help.

Langley Paulson was busy in the air, picking off the bug-monkeys that were trying to swarm Mrs. Carson, while on the ground, Elaine was doing the same with her pistol. Kayda slung her bow over her shoulder and armed the grenade, then threw it at the demon.

Nothing happened.

"It's a dud!" Kayda started to call, but then there was a muffled 'crump' sound, and a flash of energy from where the grenade had landed.

Instantly, there was a crater in the ground about fifteen yards in diameter, a perfectly hemispherical indentation. At the same time, that part of the demon that had been within the spherical circle of destruction simply vanished. Two of its leg-like pseudopods, one arm, and a small chunk of its body were torn mercilessly into the singularity which the bomb had created. Off balance, the demon fell into the crater.

Mrs. Carson used the distraction to dart to the center of the clearing, to the figure on the tableau. "Oh, my God!" she called in total shock. "Donna?"

The figure on the tableau, a human female in tattered remains of clothes, her body torn bruised and blood-stained, still bleeding in spots, strained to look up at Mrs. Carson. Her eyes were having trouble focusing, but she finally locked her gaze onto her rescuer. "Liz?" she asked very hesitantly.

With a cry of anger and pain, the creature clawed its way up out of the crater, its focus entirely on Liz Carson and whoever was on the rock table.

Mrs. Carson was torn - she had a demon to fight, and she had someone to rescue. If she focused on the demon, she knew it was a losing battle, and she'd eventually have to return. If she focused on the rescue, she'd be vulnerable.

"Get her!" Elaine Nalley's voice called out from near her, although she couldn't be seen. "We'll hold this thing off!" Arrows and gunshots and grenades flew from nothingness - no doubt Kayda's invisibility shield and charm - toward the demonic creature, and while it was regenerating very rapidly, the fury of the girls' attack had it off-balance, at least momentarily. Above them, Langley Paulson was pouring a nearly-continuous stream of fire at the bug-monkeys, keeping them away from Liz.

And then Liz broke the restraints which had held the girl on the table. "Got her! Let's get out of here!" She dumped essence into her scepter, into a pre-stored magical command. The party simply vanished from the alternate dimension as the spell returned them from whence they came.

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Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

Two girls, along with Langley Paulson, and the headmistress who was carrying Donna, stepped out of a tear in reality into the classroom, stumbling enough from the dimensional shift and height difference that Kayda and Elaine tripped and almost fell, while Mrs. Carson managed to stay upright.

All of the team looked around, puzzled, as the classroom lights were off and the door shut, making it much dimmer than they remembered leaving.

"Where's Cait?" Elaine asked, a little puzzled. She'd returned only a couple of minutes before the rest of them completed their mission, but there was no sign of the artificer.

"Already at Doyle?" Kayda was just as confused as her red-headed friend. "The EMT team took her?"

"We'll know very soon," Mrs. Carson snapped, already heading for the door with Donna in her arms. "We've all been hit, and Donna needs a thorough exam, in case there's some kind of contamination or toxin."

Langley dashed ahead of her to open doors, moving as quickly as his injuries would permit, although none of the others could remember seeing him hit. For their parts, Kayda and Elaine were also limping from their own wounds. It got more puzzling in the halls of Schuster - where it should have been bustling with students and noise, even while students were in the classrooms, there were only dimmed lights and silence.

Even with the speed of the elevators down into the tunnels, Mrs. Carson did a quick mental calculation and opted to travel across campus rather than take extra time for the ride down. As soon as she was out the door, she flew off to hasten her trip, knowing that the others wouldn't be far behind her.

"It's starting to hurt really bad!" Kayda complained as her wounds seemed to be on fire, slowing her pace. By the time they got to the doors of the Doyle Medical Complex, they could hardly move. Fortunately, alerted by Mrs. Carson, the medical staff had three gurneys waiting, and the trio were loaded and then wheeled into the emergency wing, by which time both girls were in tears from the intense pain.

"We know what we're dealing with," Dr. Tenent soothed the injured party, "thanks to dealing with Caitlin's injuries last evening."

"Last ... evening?" Mrs. Carson asked with a raised eyebrow.

"That's why there wasn't a team there - because of how long you were gone. How long do you think you were gone, anyway, Liz?" Ophelia Tenent asked the headmistress, a knowing smile on her face.

"Everything happened so quickly," Liz responded, "and I know that a person's sense of timing is useless when fighting, but it couldn't have been for more than ten or fifteen minutes." She wrinkled her forehead. "I don't understand how you could have dealt with Caitlin's injuries last evening."

At that moment, Circe and Elyzia Grimes came into the emergency room, dressed casually instead of something that would have been expected of a teacher in class, or at least in classroom hours.

"Ah've got Liz," Dr. Tenent said. "You take the others."

"Same thing as Caitlin had?" Circe asked knowingly.

"Yes." She turned back to the headmistress. "Can you feel your essence flow?"

"No," Liz replied with a frown of consternation. "Well, sort of. It's ... rough."

"Whatever was in that demon-thing is interfering with your essence flow," Dr. Tenent explained. "In addition to being quite bio-toxic. The essence interference nearly killed Caitlin. The team left a member on watch for your return; she came back stiff as a, well, as a rock. It took a bit of doing for us to figure out what was going on with her. You know she has an essence flow the same as we have blood flow."

A nurse came into the ER with a tray of syringes. "Thank you," Dr. Tenent said as she took one. "Give the others a shot, will you?" With an affirming nod, the nurse went to the other side of the room, to where Kayda, Elaine, and Langley lay groaning in pain.

"Frankly, Liz, Ah don't know how you're toleratin' the pain. Hazmat analyzed the toxin we got out of Caitlin's wounds, and from what he said," she paused to jab the needle in Liz' arm, "it should be painful as sin."

"It is quite ... uncomfortable," Liz agreed reluctantly.

"Ever the one for understatement." She incanted a magic spell, and almost immediately, the pain level spiked momentarily, replaced by tingling in the areas around her wounds. "With the magic neutralized, the agent Hazmat developed will neutralize the toxin. Now," she continued, "do you know what time it is?"

Liz looked at her, wincing for a few seconds as the pain shot up to around eleven-point-five before settling down to a dull ache, while numbness spread around her injuries. "No," she admitted.

"It's just after nine in the morning - on Saturday." Ophy smiled as Liz digested the fact. "Near as we can figure, there's a time dilation factor between the two dimensions of at least seventy-five. So while you think you were gone for ten or so minutes, in our dimension, it's been just over twenty-three hours."

Liz's jaw dropped. "So ... that would explain ...."

"To my eyes and to the bioscan, she's right around twenty."

"Where is she?"

"They took her into a warded isolation room. Until we know for certain that she's clean, that whatever you fought can't use her for a gateway to get back into our dimension, we want to keep her under close observation."

"Sensible." Liz tested her joints, feeling the tingling numbness starting to slowly fade. "I want to see her," she said, swinging her legs off the gurney to sit.

"Won't do any good," Ophy said with a head-shake. "Ah had to sedate her heavily - her body is so full of the toxin that she's got to be in agony. Now, since you're decontaminated and cleared of the toxin, your own healing will kick in, so why don't y'all clear out."

"You're trying to get rid of us?" Liz asked with a wry smile. "Unless there's something you're not telling me ...."

Ophy chose to ignore the implied distrust. "Ah promise Ah'll tell you when her situation changes."

Mrs. Carson nodded. "Okay." She hopped off the gurney, wobbling unsteadily as the numbness struggled to give up its hold, but eventually she walked over to the others. "Feeling like a cup of coffee?" she asked them, which was more of an order than a question. She looked at Mr. Paulson. "I'll tag up with you in a little bit - I need to talk to the girls privately first."

Exchanging a worried glance between them, the two girls followed Mrs. Carson out of the ER, to a lounge area with vending machines. Kayda raced to a coffee pot and poured three cups of coffee, adding in cream and sugar in two as she knew her own and Elaine Nalley's preferences. "Cream or sugar?" she asked the headmistress.

"One sugar, one cream," Mrs. Carson replied as she and Elaine sat down. While the Lakota girl finished preparing the coffee, Mrs. Carson invoked a small privacy spell on the area, a temporary barrier that would keep their conversation private. When Kayda presented her coffee, she took a careful sip, wincing slightly, which alarmed young Miss Franks, thinking she'd made it wrong.

"Oh, no," Mrs. Carson chuckled, "it's not you. It's just that I've gotten rather used to a gourmet blend that Ayla introduced me to. Compared to that, other coffee is rather ... plain." She took another sip. "Now, girls," she began, in a slightly more stern voice, "you disobeyed my direct orders."

Kayda glanced at her friend, then at Mrs. Carson, wearing a determined expression. "Yup," she said simply.

"And you both violated a sorcerer's contract," the headmistress added. "You know you're going to have to deal with the consequences of that. That's not something to take lightly."

"You wouldn't have made it without our help," Miss Nalley drawled somewhat defiantly.

"You were hurting it, but it was regenerating, and your magic wasn't affecting it very much," Kayda added.

"It would have worn you out," Elaine concluded.

"Perhaps," Mrs. Carson noted dryly. "But I had a few more tricks up my sleeve."

"Includin' the pocket A-bomb y'all had the devisors and gadgeteers whippin' up?" Lanie asked with a cocked eyebrow.

"How ...?" Mrs. Carson shook her head. "There are few secrets in the labs, I suppose."

"Besides," Miss Franks said with a knowing smile, "what's that you're always saying about teamwork?"

"I was not going to put your lives in danger for something that may or may not have been there!" the headmistress shot back. "It was dangerous enough going, sufficiently so that I took extra precautions to ensure that you'd get back safely even if something happened to me."

Kayda and Elaine exchanged another glance. "Donna?" the Lakota girl asked simply. "How is that possible?"

"I should have figured that you'd remember the images from the arena," Mrs. Carson said with a shake of her head.

"How ... how is that possible? It's been ... decades!"

"And she looks ... young. Late teens, early twenties, I'd guess."

Mrs. Carson pointed at the clock. "Did you notice the time?" The two girls looked, starting at the fact that the clock read just before nine. With sunshine pouring in the window, it was daytime. Seeing the girls shocked expressions, she nodded. "How long were we there?"

"I dunno. Seems like hours, but it was probably seven or eight minutes."

"It's Saturday," Mrs. Carson said simply, watching the two girls goggle at the news. "Ophy told me. You experienced time dilation on our first trip. This dimension has dilation the other way - time moves much faster in our world than in the dimension we visited. Ophy estimated, based on a quick magic observation, that Donna is only six or seven months older than when I last saw her." She waited for the two to take in what she'd said. "Now this time, I want your solemn oaths, unbreakable, that you will not talk about this, to anyone. No fingers-crossed, no exceptions, no 'I'll deal with the consequences later'. Not a word to anyone. Not your mothers, not your ... significant others, no-one."

Kayda glanced nervously at Elaine again, then nodded, holding up her hand and swearing an oath, as did the redhead.

"Pinky swear?" She placed her cup on the table and extended her pinkie fingers toward us. Without hesitation, the two hooked their little fingers around hers. Mrs. Carson stared intently at the two for a while, until they both swallowed nervously. "Okay, girls - go clean up. Expect to come to my office - probably tomorrow - for some private discussion of what happened and what we found. Okay?"

With a nod, the two girls rose and left, glancing back at Mrs. Carson nervously, still trying to digest all that she'd.

"Well," she said to herself after the two had left, "this complicates life a lot."

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Saturday, September 22, 2007 - Afternoon
Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy

"Sometimes," the girl said weakly, fighting pain that she couldn't keep from her expression, "it was really hard to keep going, to keep ... sane, but ... I knew you'd come for me."

"You're my best friend," Liz reassured the girl.

"It's ...." she stared up at Liz, fighting to focus her eyes. "You ... you're different!" she said finally. "You're ... older! How can that be?"

Liz took Donna's hand, holding it tightly. "Donna," she said softly, "to me, to the rest of the world, it's been almost sixty years."

"What?!?" Donna gasped. "But ... that's impossible! It ... it was only ... it seemed like ... it was only a few months!"

"Donna," Liz said softly, "time doesn't move the same in all alternate dimensions. For you, it's been a few months. For me, for our world, it's been much, much longer."

"And ... you've ... been looking? All that time?" Donna's eyes misted at the thought that, even if it had been so long, Liz hadn't given up on her. The look she was giving the headmistress was pure gratitude and adoration at the love she felt for Liz.

"Because of what you've been through, I have one of our staff psychologists coming to spend some time with you."

"You're not going to ...?"

Liz clutched her friend's had tightly again. "I'm going to be here for you, Donna," she said reassuringly. "But ... Dr. Bellows can help you in ways I can't. He's trained to help people deal with trauma. I'm not. Promise you'll talk to him? That you'll let him help you?"

Donna turned her head slightly. "I'll try," she said morosely. "But ... I don't know how he can help me more than you," she sniffled. "Sometimes, the only thing that kept me going was my love for and faith in you," she admitted, her voice cracking. "I knew you'd never give up on me, that you'd find me and rescue me."

"You're my best friend, Donna," Liz said solemnly, squeezing Donna's hand. "How could I not try?" She moved her hand, wiping a teardrop from Donna's cheek with the back of her hand. Inwardly, she cringed with guilt at the knowledge that she had given up, that she had forgotten about her friend. That was not something she could tell Donna - not now, and maybe not ever.

* * *

Dr. Alfred Bellows sat at his desk, elbows propped on the desktop, thumbs pressed lightly into his cheeks beneath his cheekbones, while his steepled fingers supported his forehead. This was not going to be an easy case. Unlike his usual office attire, he wore a simple polo shirt with Dockers and casual walking shoes, as he normally did when he was called into the office on a weekend.

When his office door opened without invitation, he looked up toward the portal, sighing when he recognized the headmistress. "What's up, Alfred?" she asked as she eased herself into the chair opposite his own. As always, she moved with grace and poise, just in case one of her students happened to watch, so she'd always set a good example.

Dr. Bellows shook his head. "Miss Fields is not talking, Liz," he reported.

"If I recall, you said that it takes you time to build up trust with the patient," Liz reminded him.

"Yes, but in her case, I barely get past the 'hello' stage. I'd like you to be there the next time I talk to her." He looked up directly at Mrs. Carson, crossing his arms on his desktop. "When she does talk, it's about you."

"I see."

"If I were to hazard a guess," Dr. Bellows continued, "I'd say she has a bad case of hero worship since you rescued her."

"It's more than that, I'm afraid," Liz said, turning her head to gaze out the window for a few moments, looking down on the quad, where students were relaxing or studying in the final days before Autumn really hit. "If she were a student, she'd be in Poe," she finally said.

"That explains it," Dr. Bellows said softly.

"No, it doesn't," Liz retorted, still looking out on the quad. After a weary sigh, she turned back toward the psychologist. "When we were in high school, it became pretty clear that ... that she was developing very strong feelings for me."

"I see ...."

"It never went anywhere, because while she was like a sister to me, I wasn't attracted to her as anything more than sisterly affection. We ... worked it out; I don't doubt but that she continued her unrequired love, but she kept it to herself so I wouldn't have to turn her down. We ... avoided awkward situations."

"So ... you think that now she's letting the horse out of the barn, so to speak?"

"Would you be surprised by that?" Liz turned the question around to him.

"No," Dr. Bellows answered with a thoughtful smile. "No, I suppose not. So how are you going to deal with it this time?"

"I've got some time to think about it," Liz replied with a grimace.

"If I were you," Alfred Bellows said, "I'd start thinking pretty hard."

The headmistress sighed heavily. "That's not the biggest problem I'm going to have to deal with."

"What is?" Mrs. Carson had piqued the psychiatrist's curiosity.

Liz bit her lip and glanced out the window again, indications that she was nervous about the answer. "Donna ... told me that her belief in me rescuing her is what kept her going."

"Yes," Bellows acknowledged carefully.

"How do I tell her that I forgot about her? That until Elaine and Kayda reminded me, I hadn't thought of her for over twenty years?" She shook her head, looking back at Bellows. "I don't think it'd be good to tell her that, at least not right away."

"I'd tend to agree."

"The problem is that Donna always could read me like a book," Liz said with a grimace. "If the subject comes up, she'll know I'm dissembling if I don't tell her the whole truth or change the subject."

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Sunday, September 23, 2007 - Morning
Conference Room, Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy

Liz looked around the conference table; she wasn't surprised by the presence of Elyzia Grimes or Ophelia Tenent, or by Dr. Bellows being there. She was concerned about the presence of Dr. Hewley and Dr. Aranis from the powers labs.

"Okay, Ophy," Liz skipped formalities, "what's her status?"

Dr. Tenent glanced uneasily at Ms. Grimes and powers wonks; all of them had looks of significant unease, like none of them wanted to talk.

"Mentally," Dr. Bellows jumped in to at least start the conversation, "she's doing as well as can be expected, considering the time dilation and the pain medications you've got her on. It's going to take a lot for her to adjust," he added, "but with the right help," he glanced pointedly at Mrs. Carson, "there's no reason that she shouldn't be able to return to a normal life - with continuing therapy, of course."

Liz noticed the grimace on Hewley's face; it matched that on Ophy's features. "Spill it," she said gruffly to her Georgian friend.

"Ah should have known that you'd see through us," Dr. Tenent said. "She's in significant pain, and we've got her on as strong of pain killers as we dare. If we keep up that dosage, she may suffer analgesic necrosis - kidney failure from her pain meds." She saw Liz flinch. "Not that it'll matter."

Liz frowned, not liking the sound of her chosen words. "What do you mean by that?"

Ophelia sighed. "Dr. Hewley or Dr. Aranis can explain it better than Ah can."

"Um, yes," Dr. Aranis began uneasily. "Something has happened to Ms. Fields - physically, that is, we suspect because of her prolonged exposure to the alternate dimension. Whether it's an effect of her body adjusting to the toxin, or an effect of the time dilation, we don't know. All we can tell, from the tests we've run so far, is that she is not physiologically stable."

Liz's eyes popped open and her jaw dropped open a fraction of an inch. "What?"

"Liz," Ophy said, putting her hand on the headmistress' hand, "Donna is dying. We can't stop it. We don't even know why!"

"What? She's ... dying?!?" Liz was thunderstruck. She reeled from the news.

"Her body is so full of toxin that ... that something is interfering with her healing."

"You purified me," Liz shot back.

"We tried," Dr. Tenent countered. "It sent her into cardiac arrest. If we did any more, it'd kill her outright."

"Liz," Elyzia interjected, "she's been in an alternate dimension a very long time. Her body is used to the toxin and the effects of the time dilation and the way it messed up essence around her. She's not physically strong enough to be fully decontaminated."

"Even removing the toxin may not be sufficient," Dr. Hewley added. "From what we've been able to determine, the time dilation effects are literally tearing apart her cellular structure."

The headmistress frowned heavily. "So why did we ...?"

"You were exposed for a short time, the level of contamination was low, and you all had strong life forces in our dimension," Dr. Aranis answered.

"You all had an anchor, if you will," Dr. Hewley continued, "in our dimension and with your strong life force. She doesn't."

"So what you're telling me is that there's nothing more to be done? That Donna is ... dying?"

"Ah'm sorry, Liz," Ophy said, holding Liz's hand. "We spent hours last night brainstorming, but we couldn't come up with anything."

"The biggest factor against her," Elyzia added, "is that the toxin is interfering with the flow of essence in and around her. We can't do a healing spell without removing the toxin ...."

"And we can't remove the toxin without triggering massive physiological shock."

The sting of defeat hit Liz hard; she let her face sink into her upturned hands, her elbows on the conference table. For a couple of minutes, she sat like that; only Ophelia could tell, from putting her hand reassuringly on Liz's shoulder, that the headmistress was crying. Ophy looked around the table, cocking her head toward the door, and the others took the hint, quietly rising and leaving.

After a bit, Liz looked up, her eyes moist. "How long?"

"Based on the pain you and the others were experiencing," Ophy replied hesitantly, "by tonight she'll have to be put into an induced coma, or she'll go crazy from the pain. Drs. Hewley and Aranis think her body will ... fall apart ... in thirty to forty hours. Long before then, though, Ah think she'll have major organ failure."

* * *

"How are you feeling?" Liz asked from the door of Donna's room. Her friend was hooked up to more monitors and gadgets than on the bridge of the fabled starship Enterprise, and the beeping was a distraction.

Donna opened her eyes heavily, and though she smiled, the expression was forced through her pain. "Better," she said. "Thanks to you."

"Dr. Tenent said you'll be in pain for a while because of ... because of the time dilation and how much poison is in you."

"At least I'm alive," Donna said, letting her eyes close. The smile seemed more natural for a moment. "And I'm home." She opened her eyes and looked earnestly at her friend. "How about ... family?"

Liz Carson shook her head. "No. Your parents passed ... quite a few years ago."

"Jack? Henry?" she asked about her two brothers.

Liz sighed, shaking her head. "There was a war ... in Korea. In the 50's. Henry ...," she bit her lip for a moment. "It was called the Chosin Reservoir. He was decorated with a Silver Star."

The young woman winced, stifling a cry. "Posthumously?"

"Yeah," Liz replied. "Jack ... is retired in Florida, but ... he has Alzheimer's." Seeing the puzzled look, she explained, "It's a form of dementia."

"So I'm alone?" Donna sobbed. Then her eyes brightened. "But I'm not, you know," she added. "As long as you're here." She noticed something in Liz's posture. "What is it? What's wrong?" she demanded.

"What makes you think ...?"

Donna forced a chuckle. "You never could keep anything secret from me," she reminded her friend. "Spill it."

Mrs. Carson walked to her bedside and pulled up a chair, sitting down and taking her friend's hand. "Donna, there's ... there are some bad effects of where you were," Liz choked on the explanation. "It's ...."

The girl in the hospital bed fixed a steely gaze on the headmistress. "How long?" she asked simply.

"Two days, three at most," Liz confessed. "They ... don't know how to fix things."

Donna leaned back heavily, closing her eyes and sighing. Finally she turned her head and looked at her friend. "At least I'm home," she said, her voice sounding tired. "Please - don't leave me alone. I don't want to die alone."

"Okay," Liz said, forcing back tears. She stood and leaned over her friend, embracing her warmly, and finally, tears streamed down her cheeks. "I'm sorry I was too late," she sobbed.

"And ...," Donna started to speak, but her words caught in her throat. "And ... before I go, I want you to know that ... that I ... I love you. As a sister, and ... and more. I've never said anything, because ... even though I know ...."

"Shhh," Liz put her finger over Donna's lips to hush her friend. "I know. I've known for a long time. You're like a sister to me. I love you as my sister."

"Liz," Donna said, giving in to her own bout of tears, "please don't forget me. Please ... keep my spirit alive ... in your memories?"

"I promise," Liz cried, overwhelmed at the thought of losing her friend all over again.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007 - Early Afternoon
Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy

The constant beep of the monitors was almost hypnotizing in its effect; Liz had to keep her mind focused on tasks she was trying to at least mentally do while she kept a vigil with her friend, who was at that point napping.

How could Donna trust her? How could she trust herself? Keep her spirit alive in Liz's memories? When Liz had already forgotten Donna once?

True, Liz had seen death before, many times, and up-close-and-personal. It was no stranger to her. She couldn't count how many people close to her had passed, let alone 'her' children that were under her care at Whateley. Every one of them weighed heavily on her heart, but she somehow knew that Donna's passing would hit her harder. She had let Donna down once. Now her friend trusted her to not do that again.

Keep her spirit alive? How?

As Liz contemplated how unfair it was that Donna's life was being cut short, that she wasn't having a chance to live a longer, richer life, something in her unfocused, random thoughts nagged at her. There was something there, something that ...."

Liz's eyes popped open as she realized what it was. She bolted to her feet and out the door.

* * *

"Would it work?" Liz demanded of Dr. Aranis through the phone.

"I don't know," Dr. Aranis replied. "Besides, she's not an avatar. She doesn't have a hallow!"

"What if she did?"

She could hear Dr. Aranis grimace through the phone. "Even if she did, and you could bind a spirit, there's no ... certainty ... that it would work."

"But it might?"

"Maybe. But ... it'd have to be a powerful spirit to hold her body together while the toxin was purged."

"Ophy?" Liz asked of the doctor, who was in the room with her on the call to Drs. Aranis and Hewley.

"Ah have no idea," she said. "Where are you going to get a spirit that powerful?"

"Leave that to me." She pursed her lips tightly. "We're going to try. I owe that much to her."

* * *

"You want me to what?!?" Kayda demanded incredulously. "You said I can't do that!"

"I said you can't do it unless you're supervised," Mrs. Carson shot back to the astounded Lakota girl.

Kayda looked at the other one in the room, the huge, imposing senior Wyatt Cody. "Can't you?" she practically begged.

Wyatt laid his meaty hand on Kayda's shoulder to reassure her. "The Kodiak is a very strong, ancient healer, but he doesn't know how to expand a hallow. Right now, you are the only one on campus who knows how to do that."

"But ... you know that's dangerous! I ... I might hurt her!" she protested.

"If you don't," Mrs. Carson said, her voice grave, "Donna's going to die."

The girl flinched, then she closed her eyes and sat still for a few moments.

"Communing with your spirit?" Mrs. Carson asked when the girl's eyes opened.

Kayda nodded. "Wakan Tanka says it's too dangerous. She won't help me find or bind a spirit. If it doesn't work, the spirit will be destroyed. She won't have any part of that."

"I know where to get a spirit strong enough to hold her together," Liz replied. When she had Kayda's and Wyatt's attention, she continued. "You'll need to help me break off a piece of my spirit, my force."

"The Astarte Force?" Kayda gawked at her. "I ... I'm not strong enough to do that!"

"But Baloo is," Wyatt said evenly. "I can help with that."

"I'll help you. I know it can be done. You'll have to do it in the spirit plane, and I'll have to ... control ... the force so it doesn't retaliate. Kayda, while the Kodiak does the ... surgery, I'll need your help with the Astarte Force."

"Retaliate?" Kayda's nervousness at the choice of words was obvious. "And help? How?"

Mrs. Carson nodded grimly. "Normally, in the spirit plane, the force will fight back - like Wakan Tanka or Tatanka would. The Kodiak is going to have to ... injure it, to sever a piece of it, so you can transplant it into Donna."

"That sounds risky," Wyatt said cautiously, echoing what Kayda also felt but hadn't yet said. "And ... is it going to hurt you?"

"Yes, it's going to hurt," Mrs. Carson answered. "As to the first question, it's a lot less risky than the dimension we rescued Donna from." She read the hesitancy in the Lakota girl's voice. "Kayda, I remember that your special teas work in the spirit realm, right?" When the girl nodded, she continued. "I'll need some tea before the Kodiak does the ... surgery to help me stay calm and focused, and after to heal from the wound. Wyatt, Kayda, I can't make you do this, but if we don't try something, Donna is going to die, and from what Dr. Aranis and Dr. Tenent say, it's going to be a rather gruesome, painful death." She turned away abruptly so the two students couldn't see her moist eyes. "I'm not going to let that happen if I can help it. Not again."

Kayda glanced up and saw that Wyatt Cody was looking at her, his eyes resolute but still quite filled with sympathy. He gave the tiniest of nods to encourage her. She closed her eyes and sighed heavily. "Okay," she finally said. "I'll try."

"I'm in," Wyatt said simply.

Mrs. Carson turned and wrapped one arm around the girl and the other around the bear of a senior. "Thank you."

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Sunday, September 23, 2007 - Early Evening
Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy

The group gathered in Donna's room was small, but the room wasn't that large anyway. Unfortunately, Dr. Tenent's prediction was optimistic; Donna had been put into an induced coma an hour earlier. At least Liz had a chance to get her permission for the procedure they were going to do.

"Ready?" Liz asked Kayda, Wyatt, Ophelia, and Ms. Grimes. The two adults and the burly senior nodded, but the girl gulped nervously before she, too, gave a tiny assenting nod. "Kayda, I want you to go to your dream space, get Wakan Tanka, and then I'll meet you and guide you to my hallow."

The Lakota girl nodded, then sat cross-legged on the floor and closed her eyes. To the outside world, she looked like she was meditating and napping at the same time. Mrs. Carson waited for the others to sit, then she did a small incantation to guide them to her own hallow. Finally, she sat and closed her eyes.

Twenty grueling minutes later, Mrs. Carson opened her eyes, looking more than a touch unsteady. Ophelia immediately went to the headmistress' side, while across the room, Ms. Grimes steadied an obviously shaken and pale girl. Wyatt sat still; he was with the Kodiak in the spirit world holding the piece of the Astarte Forced so that it didn't return to Mrs. Carson and so that no other avatar or spirit could mess with it.

"Are you okay?" Ms. Grimes asked of Kayda.

Kayda took a shaky breath and tried to control her trembling. "I ... I think so," she said in a trembling voice. "That was ...."

"Interesting? Not fun?" Ms. Grimes prompted.

"Difficult. It was like ... the Kodiak was directly attacking Mrs. Carson," Kayda replied. "The force ... was fighting, and it was hard to help Mrs. Carson control it."

"This next part is going to be trickier," Dr. Tenent told the group. "I'm going to have to go to Kayda's dream-world and ...."

"Why mine?" Kayda asked, puzzled.

"Because that's where you're strongest," Ms. Grimes explained.

"Liz, you're going to have to say clear of this, or your force will try to reabsorb what we took."

Mrs. Carson nodded. "Okay. I'd rather ...."

"Yes, Ah know, but we don't want to have gone through all of that just to lose the spirit fragment again." Ophy turned to Kayda. "Ah think we should hurry - in case the Kodiak has difficulties." She turned to the headmistress. "Liz, I want you do push healing essence into Donna's body the whole time we're doing this. If the monitors go unsteady, ramp up the healing essence. Ah would guess that most of it is going to be wasted," Dr. Tenent added. "But we need every bit of stability we can get to her body."

"Okay."

"Elyzia, boost Kayda's essence, just like we did for her when she did Skybolt's healings. And if something starts to go wrong," she nervously drew a breath through her teeth, "you're going to have to use your best judgment."

"Okay."

"Kayda," the doctor explained to the girl, "Elyzia is going to try to keep the essence flow stable around her hallow, while you do the ritual to expand it and then bind the spirit fragment from the Kodiak into Donna. Okay? Ah'll come into your dream world to supervise, but if she gets unstable, Ah'll have to come back here to help stabilize her physically."

"Okay," the girl said nervously. "Let's get this over with," she said with a nervous gulp.

* * *

Dream Space of the Ptesanwi

Donna lay in Kayda's tipi on a buffalo-hide robe, silent, pale, and unmoving. That, more than anything, bothered the Lakota girl, because she knew how precarious the girl's health was.

"Okay, now what?" Kayda asked Elyzia Grimes and Dr. Tenent. "If the toxin is interfering with her essence, like it was on us, how am I supposed to enlarge her hallow?"

"You start doing your magic," Ms. Grimes said, "and when I see where the hallow is trying to focus, I'll try to create and hold a bubble around it so you can complete the work."

"Won't that be dangerous?" Wyatt, channeling his Kodiak spirit, asked, sitting on the opposite side of a small fire-pit in the center of the tipi, his hands cradling a glowing, pulsing ball of energy that seemed to be trying to squirm out of his grasp.

"Yeah," Kayda echoed. "Mrs. Carson said you couldn't remove the toxin because her body was unstable, and that same toxin interferes with essence flow. So if you make a bubble ...."

"Yes, it's going to be dangerous," Dr. Tenent said bluntly. "But we have to try. So while Elyzia tries to hold a bubble, Ah'll work to keep her medically stable. Ah'll stay here to watch her life signs, and if she gets in trouble, Ah'll go back with Liz to stabilize her."

Kayda gulped nervously - again - and then prepared one of her shaman teas. Then she put it to the lips of Donna. Dr. Tenent lifted the young woman's head and back, while Kayda pried open her mouth. When she sputtered, Elyzia pinched Donna's nose, forcing her to swallow what was in her mouth. As soon as she'd taken a couple of good swigs, Kayda put down the tea, sat down beside her, and began to chant, while Dr. Tenent set Donna back down.

While the doctor monitored her patient, Kayda was beginning to struggle with her magic; she could feel that something was interfering with the magic. She redoubled her efforts, knowing that her essence, even boosted by her preparatory tea, was being rapidly spent.

"Got it!" Elyzia exclaimed. She began to gesture in old-world tradition, channeling and directing magic around the patient. "Can you feel a void?"

"She's struggling!" Dr. Tenent called out, looking at Donna. Her entire body seemed to be trembling, and her breathing was becoming ragged.

All three women could feel external magic flowing around Donna, and they knew that in the real world, Mrs. Carson was directing her essence as best as she could to try to keep Donna's body stable while the others worked in the dream world.

"It's there," Kayda said softly as she tried to avoid disrupting her focus and concentration. "Too small."

"Okay." Elyzia poured more essence into the sphere she was holding, knowing that most of her essence was being obliterated and scattered by the demon's toxins, but she had to try to get the hallow large enough.

Without warning, Dr. Tenent blinked out of existence in the dream world as she returned to the real world. Clearly, Donna was in bad shape if Dr. Tenent had to go back to help Liz try to keep her alive until Kayda could finish her work.

"Hold it!" Kayda gasped.

"I'll try." Ms. Grimes' response was curt and to the point; she wasn't going to distract the Lakota shaman any more than she had to.

For several minutes, as Ms. Grimes felt her essence flowing rapidly from her, the shaman-girl chanted and focused, pushing in her own essence. Ms. Grimes could feel that slowly, the bubble inside Donna's turbulent, chaotic essence was becoming more stable. Even in the dream world, the girl suddenly convulsed, probably because she'd had to be shocked to stop a heart arrhythmia or some other heart condition.

"Can you hurry?" the burly senior asked, struggling to contain the piece of the Astarte Force.

"Shut it!" Elyzia barked at the boy. She'd apologize later, but right now, the shaman needed to focus, as it was taking a massive flow of essence and concentration to do her work.

"Let's see if it's stable," Kayda opened her eyes and asked Elyzia. Slowly, the magic arts instructor reduced her essence flow into the injured girl.

"Okay," Ms. Grimes said as she felt the bubble stabilizing. "Let's get it in her. Quick."

Wyatt crawled on his knees across the tipi, to the opposite side of Donna from Kayda.

The shaman girl directed Wyatt's hands with the force fragment toward Donna, but the fragment became less stable, squirming and flaring in his hands.

"Let me open a channel," Ms. Grimes directed. "Hold a second." Once more increasing her essence flow, she fought the toxin's effects, trying to make a tunnel through the chaotic vortex of essence-scattering energy. To her and Kayda's eyes, it appeared almost as if Miss Grimes was reaching into the eye on Jupiter, trying to twist and hold and enlarge it.

"I can't get it bigger!" Ms. Grimes grimaced. "Can you squeeze it in?"

In response, Kayda and Wyatt both reached out to the energy, holding it and squeezing just so, until it began to bend and elongate. When a sufficient protrusion had formed, Kayda took hold of the energy, feeling like it was burning her, but she directed and channeled it into the void she'd formed. Once the first tendril was in the hallow, it calmed, after which the shaman-girl and Wyatt squeezed, and like toothpaste coming out of a tube, they pushed the force into the newly-formed hallow.

"I'm losing it!" Elyzia warned the two as she felt her essence flow weaken. In response, Wyatt began to squeeze the remainder of the ball harder, and small bits and pieces tore free, scattering between his fingers and escaping into the free space of the dream world. Almost as fast as they flew away, they vanished; all of them knew that those fragments had returned to the bulk of the Astarte Force that was still in Mrs. Carson.

Without warning, Elyzia lost her grasp of the hole, which snapped shut, pinching off what they'd managed to get inside the new hallow from the remainder of the force that was still in Wyatt's big mitts.

"We didn't get it all in!" Kayda warned Elyzia.

"It'll have to do - I've used up most of my essence!"

"And the rest of the Astarte Force has returned to Mrs. Carson," Wyatt said.

"What if it isn't enough?" Kayda asked with her brow wrinkled with worry.

"I don't think that we have enough essence left to try again," Ms. Grimes replied with a grim expression. "It'll have to do."

"Okay," Kayda said. "I'll do the ritual to seal the spirit in her hallow then." She started rummaging around in her medicine pouch for the proper supplies.

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Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy

The consciousness of three sojourners to the dream world returned to the hospital room, and as they shook off the transitional disorientation - Kayda was the quickest to recover as she visited her dream-world regularly - Mrs. Carson and Dr. Tenent were busy; while they'd been in the dream world, two more staff members from Doyle had joined the team tending to Donna, and given the way that Dr. Tenent was barking orders, and Liz was intently focused, it wasn't going well.

"Clear," Dr. Tenent barked, and the staff backed away from Donna. But instead of applying a cardiac shock, the doctor did a quick incantation and moved her hands over the patient, feeling the flow of magic and life-energy directly.

"We got in as much as we could," Kayda reported to Mrs. Carson. "Some of it escaped."

"I know," the headmistress replied. "I felt it."

"She's ... a lot more stable," Dr. Tenent finally pronounced. "Let's try to bleed off some of the toxin and see how she reacts. One half cc," she directed. One of the assistants injected some of the solution into the drug port of an IV line that had been fixed to Donna.

"Pulse is one-fifty!" another assistant reported sharply.

"She's unstable!" Dr. Tenent snapped.

"Give me any essence you have left!" Mrs. Carson directed. In response, Kayda and Ms. Grimes scrambled to put their hands on Mrs. Carson's shoulders, as the direct touch helped ease and direct the flow of essence. For several tense moments, Mrs. Carson and Dr. Tenent focused on trying to stabilize the girl, while another assistant took over monitoring Donna's vital signs.

"Pulse is back down to ninety."

Dr. Tenent applied her magic for a few more moments, then with a heavy sigh, she straightened, letting her weary arms fall to her sides. "I think we got it," she finally said. Still watching the assistant, she nodded. "Five cc's," she ordered. For over a minute, she and the assistant monitored Donna's vitals, but her heart never spiked as high as it had the first time.

"The natural essence flow around her is stabilizing," Mrs. Carson stated.

"Okay, let's give her two minutes to absorb this and stabilize, then we'll give her another five cc's periodically until we get all the toxin out."

* * *

Kayda, Wyatt, and Ms. Grimes leaned back into the leather chairs in a waiting area. "I'm wiped," the Lakota girl finally said, her voice sounding as weary as she felt. "Is she gonna make it?"

Elyzia Grimes shrugged. "Ophy said she seemed to be responding to the anti-toxin. Only time will tell."

"I'm pretty beat from wrestling even a tiny piece of the Astarte Force," Wyatt said with a wry grin. "If I ever get cocky around Mrs. Carson, remind me of this moment."

"Coffee?" Ms. Grimes asked.

"Just hot water." As the teacher got three cups of near-boiling water from a dispenser, Kayda dug in her medicine bag and pulled out small pouches of her special herbs. With an incantation over each cup, she blended the herbs into the cups, then handed one to each of her companions. "Cheers," she said, lifting her cup, before she took a sip. The medicinal brew immediately took away some of her aches, and she felt a little more essence come from the brew into her essence well.

"That hits the spot," Elyzia said with a contented smile.

Dr. Tenent came around the corner to the waiting area. "I think she's going to be okay." She permitted herself a small, hopeful smile. "We won't know for certain for a few hours, but we did all we could. Liz said to tell you 'thank you'."

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Sunday, September 23, 2007 - near Midnight
Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy

"Unghh," the girl in the hospital bed groaned weakly.

Liz shot to her feet and bent over the bed, never releasing her hold on the girl's hand. "Donna?" she asked hopefully.

"Unghh," the girl moaned again.

Liz Carson grabbed the nurse-call button and pressed it. "She's coming around," she barked into the built-in microphone.

One of the staff rushed in, and immediately checked Donna's vital signs. "I think she's out of danger."

Wearily, almost painfully, the girl's eyes opened and she struggled to focus. "Liz?" she asked weakly.

"I'm here, Donna," Liz replied earnestly, clinging to Donna's hand like it was a life preserver.

"What ... what happened?" Donna asked. Her voice was still weak and hoarse.

"It worked," Liz replied simply. "Your body seems stable, and they've neutralized most of the toxin."

Donna's eyes widened, then with a breath of relief, she let her head fall back onto her pillow. "I ... I'm going to live?"

"It looks that way," Liz said with a smile. "And you're probably going to have some surprises. I gave you part of my ... force," she added, "and that may cause you to age more slowly. We don't know what kind of powers you will have, but we'll test and find out, and I'll help you learn to use them." She looked at the nurse and cocked her head toward the door. The aide got the hint and left, closing the door behind her.

"I owe you," Donna said with a weak smile. "I don't know how I'll ever repay you."

"I have a confession," Liz said with worry lines wrinkling her brow. "If ... if you can understand, that'll be all the repayment I need."

"What?" The girl's eyes were open and narrowed. "What ... are you talking about?"

"Donna," Liz said heavily, "it was ... it was .... I tried everything I could, I asked everyone I could, but ... I ... I gave up hope."

The girl's eyes widened slightly. "I ... I suppose it was natural." Clearly, from her tone, she didn't quite understand.

"Donna," Liz admitted, her voice cracking, "I ... I cried a lot when you were lost. I ... was frantic to try to find you. But ... eventually, I had to move on with my life. And I'm sorry to admit that after a while, I ... forgot about you." Donna just gawked at that revelation. "I tried. For fifteen years, I thought about you all the time. I tried to decipher the circle you had made, I asked every magic user I could find who'd listen. I ..." She wiped her eyes, looking away momentarily. "I loved you ... like a sister, and when you vanished, it was like I'd lost part of myself."

"What ... made you start looking again?" Donna asked simply.

"I've got two students - the girls who came to help - who reminded me of you and me when we were young. That's when I realized I had to try again, to try to make up for forgetting you." Liz looked back at Donna, holding her hand tightly. "I didn't think you were alive, but I wanted to at least find out what happened, and if possible, bring you home to rest." She wiped at another tear. "Donna, it was over sixty years!" she pleaded.

Donna stared at her for a few moments, and then looked at the ceiling, contemplating what she'd just been told. "I suppose," she speculated in a small voice, "that if I'd have lost you, I ... I would have eventually given up hope after years, too."

"Donna," Liz said softly, "if you can forgive me for forgetting, that's all the repayment I need. That's all I could ask for."

The girl slowly turned back to face Liz. "How ... how could I not forgive you? You saved me from that ... pain! You ... saved my life. Twice. You gave me part of that ... power ... that makes you special. You sacrificed that to save me. You risked your life to save me." She pulled Liz's hand toward her cheek, wiping at a few tears on her cheeks. "Of course I forgive you, Liz." She pulled herself painfully up toward Liz, and her arms encircled her old friend. "I ... still love you, Liz. I always will." She smiled faintly. "You're my sister."

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Tuesday, September 25 - After Classes
Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy

"Donna?" Liz peeked into the room to see if her friend was awake.

"Hi, Liz," the young lady greeted Mrs. Carson with a huge smile.

Liz came into the room with a Native American girl in tow. "How are you doing?"

"I feel great," Donna reported happily. "Better than I have in years, even before ...."

Liz sat down and held her friend's hand. "I want you to meet Kayda Franks. She's one of the girls who I told you about - the ones that reminded me of what we were like."

"Pleased to meet you," Donna said to the dusky-skinned girl.

"She was on the rescue mission, and her shaman magic is a lot of the reason you're alive," Liz continued.

Donna nodded, then turned toward Kayda. "Liz said you made something called a hallow, to put the power into?"

"Yes, ma'am," Kayda said respectfully.

"Knock off the ma'am crap," Donna said with a big grin. "That makes me sound old - like ... like Liz!" She turned and stuck her tongue out at her friend, the headmistress.

"If you keep that up, I might forget to tell you that Dr. Tenent gave you a pardon for the afternoon, so you can get some fresh air and sunshine," Liz chuckled.

"What?" Donna's eyes popped open. "I get ... to go outside? In the fresh air? And ...?" She let a huge grin break over her face. "When can I go?"

"As soon as you get dressed," the headmistress reported. "I'm going to leave you in Kayda's capable hands, because I've got a few days' worth of paperwork to catch up on." She stepped close to the bed and grasped Donna's hand. "If you need anything, anything at all, ask Kayda. If she can't help you, she'll talk to me. Okay?"

"Okay." As Liz left the room, Donna sat up on the bed, and then she winced. "I am not going out in a hospital gown. Do you think ...?"

Kayda dumped a bundle on the bed. "You're about the same size as my best friend, so I ... borrowed an outfit for you."

"You sure she won't mind?" Donna caught the way the Lakota girl had said the word 'borrowed.'

"She was on the rescue trip, too," Kayda chuckled. "I know she won't mind." She closed the door for privacy. "Now, while we're alone, there's something that Mrs. Carson wants me to talk to you about."

"That's hard getting used to - Mrs. Carson," Donna smiled. "She was always just Liz to me." She shucked off the gown and picked up the clothes, pausing to hold up the bra with a questioning look on her face.

"Yeah, Lanie is kind of ... big."

"So what do you want to talk privately about?" Donna asked as she tossed the bra aside and stepped into the panties.

"When she was telling us about you, when she thought you were dead, Mrs. Carson told me about ... um ... about your ... sexuality," she said, hesitantly. The girl spun sharply, her eyes wide open in horror. "I'm a lesbian, too," Kayda added quickly before Donna could panic.

"Are you ... propositioning me?" Donna asked, gawking at Kayda, and then waggling her eyebrows as she examined the girl from head to toe while licking touching her tongue lightly to her upper lip.

"No, no, no!" Kayda replied, gawking until she realized that the other woman was joking. "I'm spoken for. But ... I think Mrs. Carson wanted you to know that you're not alone, that there's someone you can talk with if you need to."

Donna thought for a moment, and then she nodded. "That might be ... helpful. I appreciate it. And I assume ...."

"I won't tell anyone. Promise."

Twenty-five minutes later, having taken time to put on the outfit and do something with her hair, the two strode out of Doyle, with Kayda holding Donna's arm to steady and guide her.

After strolling about the grounds for a while, the pair was in an elevator going down into the tunnels. "Where are we going?" Donna asked, a little surprised by the sudden change of the tour.

Kayda just smiled. "You'll see." With a couple of turns in the tunnels, they strode into the Gearhead's private workspace. Donna's eyes bulged, and she grinned appreciatively. "Mrs. Carson said you were a gearhead, so I thought I'd show you some of our projects."

"Oooohhh!' Donna focused on one bay, where the body of a car sat in parts, a few body panels gleaming steel as the kids worked to strip them of rust and paint. "A Ford Model 40 Deluxe!" Donna purred, stepping past a few kids to the car. "V-8, 221 cubic inches, 85 horsepower!" She turned to the next bay, where the frame was similarly undergoing restoration. On a stand was the engine block, and the internal parts and cylinder heads were neatly lined up on a nearby workbench. With a gleam in her eye, Donna turned back to the Lakota girl. "I spent many an hour working on these!" she said. "After Bonnie and Clyde stole one and were killed, it seemed like everybody wanted one!"

"Mr. Donner is our shop supervisor," Kayda explained. "He's not here right now, but I'll bring you back down here so you can meet him. This is the project car he picked out for the Gearheads for this year. The club members ...."

"An auto club?"

"Yeah. The Gearheads. Some of us have cars, some don't, so the club always has at least one project car to work on." She followed Donna into the bay, where she was drawn to the engine like iron to a magnet.

Donna gasped when a little girl appearing to be about ten, dressed in shop coveralls, came in carrying the crankshaft like it was made of balsa wood.

"Hey, Alyss," Kayda called out to the little girl, who turned only after setting the crank lovingly on the workbench.

"Hi, Kayda. What's up?"

"Showing the shop to an old friend of Mrs. Carson. Donna is a gearhead, too, so I figured she'd find the place interesting. Donna Fields, this is Alyss Morgan."

The little girl stepped neatly to the newcomer and extended her hand. "Pleased to meet a fellow gearhead." She saw the look in Donna's eyes. "You like the car?"

"Yeah," Donna said. "I ... used to work on them."

"Oh, so you're a restoration specialist?" Alyss suggested with a gleam in her eye.

"Not quite," Donna said. "When I worked on them, they weren't that old."

Seeing Alyss' puzzled look, Kayda interjected, "Donna was trapped in an alternate dimension for a few decades, so ... yeah, the cars she worked on are a bit older than we're used to."

"Ah, okay."

There was a look in Alyss' eyes that puzzled Donna, but she figured she shouldn't ask. There were a lot of peculiarities since she'd come back.

"If you're going to stick around, it'd be nice to have someone to help on the cars. Especially someone who knows a little more about this particular car from a hands-on perspective." Ribbon sort-of curtsied, then turned back to the workbench.

"Alyss is older than she looks - it's part of her mutation. And she's a damned good mechanic."

"She ... carries herself like she knows what she's doing," Donna said with a cocked eyebrow. "Like she's a pro. I ... bet there's a story there. Somehow."

Kayda ignored Donna's last speculation. "A lot of us are like pros. I started working on diesel engines when I was six," the Lakota girl said proudly. "Lanie's father and grandfather are mechanics, so she grew up with it, too. It's in our blood." She smiled at the girl. "While you're here, I wouldn't turn down a chance to work with you. Same goes for Lanie." She read the expression on Donna's face, that she was afraid she'd be out of date and her skills wouldn't be useful. "A mechanic is a mechanic. Besides, you'll need to start somewhere to catch up on car technology," she added with a grin.

Donna glanced at Kayda, who was trying not to snicker. "Do you have a car?" she asked to change the subject.

"Yeah, I've got a 57 Chevy project car. And my best friend Lanie has a Ford Mustang Fastback."

Donna's eyebrows rose. "What is a Ford Mustang? And just how many girls are there in the Gearheads?"

Kayda smiled. "A fair number. Last year, the girls outnumbered the guys. This year, I think it's about even."

As they walked past, Kayda pointed to Lanie's 'Baby Girl' in one bay. "That one is Lanie's. She built the engine up to over six hundred ponies."

Donna gawked at that number. "Six ... hundred?!? Are you kidding? In my day, having anything over one-fifty was race-car territory!" Donna exclaimed softly.

"Mrs. Carson and Mr. Paulson figured you might like to help out around here while you finish recovering," Kayda said. "Mrs. Carson said you'll be here for a while getting counseling for ... what happened to you, to help you adjust to our new time. And you'll get testing to learn what your powers are and then coaching on how to use them."

Donna scrunched up her face. "It's weird. You don't seem upset or disturbed that I have powers now."

Kayda smiled. "Did Mrs. Carson tell you that every student here, and most of the teachers, are powered mutants? So to us, it's no big deal."

"Um, yeah," Donna said uneasily, "but ... it's just kind of hard to believe. Things like a ten-year-old girl hoisting a crankshaft the way people pick up a half-gallon of milk? Kids flying between classes? Yeah. That wasn't very common in my day."

"How about we go get a cup of coffee?"

On the way from the tunnels to Melville Cottage, the pair stopped at a small sitting nook on the quad. "Why are we stopping?"

The Lakota girl smiled, but it was a sad smile. "There's something else Mrs. Carson asked me to talk about, something you may have ... experienced."

Donna stiffened, eyeing Kayda warily. "I don't know what you're talking about," she snapped back quickly - too quickly.

Kayda nodded, casting a quick spell. "We have privacy now. It's not uncommon, from what I'm told, and from what I saw happen to my girlfriend, for demonic entities to ... attempt to reproduce via a ... captive," she said, wincing at the words. "It can be a physical or psychological violation, but it's rape whichever way you call it."

Donna's jaw flapped a few times, the look in her eyes changing from fiery denial to distrust to anguish, and a hundred other emotions. "It's ... it's not something anyone could understand."

The shaman girl shook her head slowly. "When I manifested as a mutant," she said simply, fighting the pain that the revelation always caused, "I was brutally gang-raped by kids from my school. I know what it's like to be ... violated."

Donna just stared at her, until her lip started trembling and her hands shaking. She clasped them tightly to control her emotions, but she wasn't completely successful.

"Donna," Kayda said in a sadly sympathetic tone, "there are some of us who understand more than the counselors ever will. If something bad happened to you, we - me and a few others who were sexually abused - have a small, secret group. We're here to talk to, to hug, or to simply hold hands when one of our members needs support.

Slowly, the older girl's eyes misted, until a tear rolled down her cheek. "I ...," she started to say something, and then she put her face in her hands. Kayda scooted closer, wrapping her arms around Donna, holding her as the tears that she'd been holding back since the rescue finally came.

After a while, she quit shaking and sobbing, and looked up at Kayda. "Is that why Liz picked you to talk to me?"

Kayda shrugged. "Maybe. I bet she suspected something, but she didn't tell me." She shook her head. "She didn't have to. I ... kind of sensed it. I'm a shaman. Kind of. Learning to be, anyway. My tutor has been helping me 'feel' people's emotions and troubles. I ... could tell that there was something you weren't saying."

Donna embraced the shaman-girl. "Thank you. I think I'll probably need a sympathetic ear from time to time."

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Tuesday, September 25 - At Dinner
Faculty Dining Room, Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"How can you stay so trim eating like this?" Donna stared in disbelief at the food, especially the rich, sumptuous desserts, in the serving line, of which Liz was helping herself.

"Powers, remember? If you have a Body Image Template, it's almost impossible to put on weight." The headmistress smiled. "That and I only indulge occasionally."

Taking cues from her friend, Donna dished up some rather delicious looking and smelling foods, and then took a rich raspberry-white-chocolate cheesecake for dessert, and the two of them went to a small table in one corner. Incredibly to Donna, another girl, younger than her, was already at the table, and Liz seemed to be expecting her.

"Maria?" Liz said as the girl stood to greet the pair, "this is the friend I was telling you about. Donna Fields. Donna, this is one of our instructors, Maria Contessa Elyssa Gomez y Ricardo."

"Pleased to meet you," Maria said in a guardedly-neutral tone. "I understand from Mrs. Carson that you will be here a while for some ... testing and such."

Donna looked at Liz questioningly. "I'm not sure how long I'll be here," she said cautiously.

Liz smiled and gestured for them to sit. After putting down her tray and taking her seat, she continued. "It's going to take a while for you to ... adjust," she said, careful to not say more than she should. "And there's power testing, plus the medical staff wants to keep you under observation for a while. So unless you have other plans," she smiled, "we'll make arrangements for you to stay."

"I suppose that there's nothing left of my old life," Donna said, feeling a stab of regret at the realization that she'd lost most of what she'd known.

"No, there isn't," Liz replied. "But we'll help you start over. I've asked Maria to help you out in any way she can."

Donna looked again at the lovely Hispanic girl, and she noticed that the girl was giving her the once-over too. "I'd appreciate that."

"For one thing," Liz continued, "you'll need a whole new wardrobe. What we wore back then is hopelessly out of style, you know."

The girl winced at the pointed reminder of how far out of place and time she was. "Yeah, I suppose so."

"So Maria volunteered ...."

"I was drafted," the dark-haired girl chuckled. "But I get to charge things to Mrs. Carson's account, so it should be a lot of fun."

"To help you with some shopping at the campus store after dinner, and then we'll get you a room in the guest house."

This time, Donna visibly flinched. "I ... I'd rather not ... be alone," she stammered in a small, frightened voice.

"I do have a guest room at Whateley House," Mrs. Carson replied, ready to help out her friend, "and ...."

"And nothing," Maria interjected forcefully. "You're always busy or in your office. I've got a spare room in my apartment over in the Village, so she can stay with me."

"I can't ask you to ...." Donna and Mrs. Carson both started.

"Nonsense! It gets a little lonely at times. I'd like to have a roommate for a while," Maria said almost eagerly.

Mrs. Carson shot her a warning glance. "That's very generous ...." she started to say.

"Good," Maria said with a smile. "Then it's settled. After shopping, we'll get you settled in, at least temporarily."

"And the vehicle lab instructor thought it would be good therapy for you to help down in the shop - so you don't feel like a freeloader and can catch up on technology," Liz added.

"Another gearhead?" Maria gawked. After a brief moment, she shrugged. "Oh, well. Everybody has their faults," she added with a pleasant, sweet laugh.

To Donna's surprise, Maria was a delightful dining companion, and she felt safe, or at least safer and less lonely, than she had since returning, at least when Liz wasn't at her side. "Shopping, huh?" she asked as the two strode out of the cafeteria.

Maria stopped and very deliberately looked up and down Donna's figure. "We'll find some things that really make you look like a knockout." She added a smile. "And I suppose we can find you a pair of coveralls or something for when you insist on getting greasy."

For a little while, the two walked silently, because Donna seemed lost in thought. Finally, she spoke up. "I can't thank you enough for volunteering to help me."

"It's my pleasure," Maria said with a smile. The pair walked into the bookstore, and Maria led Donna straight to the women's clothing section. "We'll find you something comfortable and fashionable," Maria assured her.

For her part, Donna was busy gawking at a mannequin that was clad in a casual blouse and skirt combination. "Girls wear ... that?" The shirt was far shorter than Donna was used to, and the blouse was rather low-cut in front.

"Liz was right," Maria chuckled. "You really are out of date. Well, we'll fix that."

"I suppose she told you about me," Donna replied hesitantly.

"Not a lot. Only that you were saved from a very bad situation and that you're going to be here for a while. It solves a few problems at once - my feeling out-of-place as the youngest teacher, my need to socialize with someone closer to my age, you needing a place to stay and someone to talk to. Someone who can help you adjust to the modern world. So I figured 'what the heck?'"

Maria gawked at the girl, and then she beamed as she took Donna's arm. "You know," she said with a grin, "this could be the start of a beautiful friendship."

linebreak shadow

FIN

Comments   

+2 # Mazaki 2017-05-09 03:42
Interesting story, but it leaves me wanting to know more of Mrs. Carsons past. I would guess that one of the reasons that Donna was so infused with poison was that she was forced to eat and drink what the creature of that realm forced down her to keep her alive.
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+1 # elrodw 2017-05-09 13:26
You're essentially correct - by living in the extradimensional space for so long, and being tortured by the demon-thing, Donna's body adapted. The time dilation made detoxifying her very, very difficult. In other-realms, it might not be necessary to eat and drink - it IS some kind of hell, after all.
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0 # alisa28 2017-05-12 15:46
Caugh...That was an adventure!! You threw me!..
Thought that this was going to be a Sarah rescue..Someday..
Whateley might have a new assistant shop instructor!?
My how love blossoms with the spring!
a
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0 # Phoenix Spiritus 2017-05-13 19:05
Maybe someday we'll have Sara rescued, one thing I can say, you'll know it's happening because it'll be her author writing the story ... and only her author, if they want to of course.
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+1 # doughosford 2017-05-12 20:12
I loved the story and for the first time that I can remember Liz Carson is truly the main character.

One thing that I felt though was if large amounts of essence might be need why was Fey not called, for even if still angry with Carson she would help to save an unknown person like Donna.
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0 # Phoenix Spiritus 2017-05-13 19:07
We've had a similar conversation in the discussions forums about why didn't Carson take Tennyo with her.

Tennyo and Fey are the Nuclear Weapons of Whateley, except they they are imperfectly understood Class X level somethings

Things go weird and bang in a big way whenever those two get out of hand, and mixing them with extrademensional weirdness is not something anyone sane is going to want to do.
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0 # Club 2017-05-12 22:33
Sounds like they might have discovered a method of making made-on-order parahumans. could have major implications for them, mostly negative. .
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0 # Phoenix Spiritus 2017-05-13 19:11
Having a piece of a force hacked off and shoved into a sick and dying girl has already been used in that way ... let me see, if I remember right it was a certain 'Miss Champion' who had it done to her :D
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0 # elrodw 2017-05-17 00:29
It's a tricky and dangerous procedure for both the spirit donor and the recipient. It also takes a very special skill to expand a hallow (remember, as Grizzly stated, everyone has a hallow; it's usually just big enough for their own ego and spirit).

In other words, very rare, and very unlikely.
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