By Joe Gunnarson
In 24 hours they'll be
on my life, it's over tonight
I'm not messing no I
need your blessing
and your promise to live free
please do it for me -Jem, '24'
Whateley Range Two, Tuesday, November 14th
Erik Mahren scanned the range quietly, checking targets, and safety measures silently. Gunny Bardue was working with the rest of the Crisis Simulation team over at range five, while he got to corral the kids on the live fire rifle and pistol range. He took in a deep breath and let it out, looking at the clock. Five minutes until the students of Whately Academy's final period began trickling in from various parts of the campus. He took another deep breath and looked over at the most important sign in the range, the one that laid out the four most important rules of weapon safety. As far as Erik was concerned, these four rules were the voice of God himself and the students, by this time knew he had absolutely zero tolerance for violating any of them.
1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.
2. Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.
3. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
4. Keep the weapon on safe until you intend to fire.
Too many accidents had occurred because someone played fast and loose with those four rules the world over, resulting in injury, property damage, and death. All by accident. Erik sighed to himself as he looked at the fifth rule, added by himself with Gunny Bardue's approval.
5. All modified, customized, mystical, or prototype weapons are to be examined by Cpl. Erik Mahren before use on any range.
The last rule came because of not a few incidents where various devisers and gadgeteers around Whateley brought in some highly dangerous and experimental gear onto the range. Erik had seen one poor girl almost flash-fried because she underestimated the blast radius of bizarre, almost baroque-looking piece of hardware that fired a compressed plasma bolt in an unstable magnetic field that she had somehow managed to cobble together. The result, needless to say, had been impressive. Even so, Erik developed a reputation as a control-freak safety Nazi that none of the more flamboyant children wanted to deal with, much less endure his rather severe ass-chewing when they put themselves or other students in danger.
The first two students walked in, and Erik sighed to himself. It was Marie Schultz and Mandi Carter AKA Flashbang and Tinkertrain, or as Erik thought of them, "most likely to blow up the school before graduation." Every time he saw her Erik wondered if Mandi had ever heard Ozzy's song, or what the Ozzman would think of her moniker. But it had been approved so he kept his trap shut. Both held some pretty... interesting gear in their hands.
"Hiya Teach!" Marie practically radiated good cheer, even when he down checked her toys as inappropriate for all but the most controlled range fire situations.
"Hello Ladies" Erik eyed the gear suspiciously. He hadn't seen either of these two contraptions before. "What have you brought for me today?"
"Well..." Began Mandi, "We haven't exactly come up with names. We figured we might as well see if they work properly first before we come up with something like that.
"Good Call. Pass that thing over and lemme have a look at it." The heavy rifle-seeming contraption was very space-age looking, and had a cable running to a backpack that made him think of the ghostbuster proton packs. That was never a good sign.
Erik couldn't for the life of him, figure out how the hell he was always able to pick up a piece of gear and determine it's proper use within a minute or two, no matter WHO built it, but he could. When people commented, he just shrugged and chalked it up to probably having a really low-key mutant talent for Weapons and equipment. And as he pored over Mandi's monstrosity he checked the safety interlocks, and the power feeds, and a slow picture of what this futuristic popgun might do began forming in his head. He wasn't liking what he was seeing.
"I need to test-fire this thing Mandi, if you don't mind."
The girl looked slightly dejected, naturally wanting to be the first one to rip off a few blasts with her invention, but she caught the tone of worry in his voice and nodded as Erik strapped on the pack, stepped up to the range and powered it up. A powerful whine burst from the backpack and settled to a dull hum, again reminding him of the ghostbusters. Definitely not a good sign. He thumbed the safety and aimed at one of the targets downrange in a cluster.
The blast from the rifle could only be described as a cross between a lightning bolt and a particle beam, bright bluish-white and hot as hell. It lanced into the target center mass and then lanced out, hitting another, and another, until it had picked out every target within fifty meters in an insane, random, zig-zagging non-pattern as all eight targets simultaneously exploded. Not good. Two more shots showed the same thing. The blasts were like a bolt of chain lightning jumping along helter-skelter ripping through targets completely at random. It seemed that the only requirement was that the target only had to be within a few meters for the jump, which made him almost lose it when the beam finally hit a target ten meters in front of him and blew it's stack. A few closer and he'd be Crispy-fried grunt all over the walls.
Mandi was, of course, elated. "That was so cool!"
Miraculously, it was Marie who said it before Erik could. "Mandi, your gun almost killed Mr. Mahren"
Comprehension dawned as Mandi realized what might have happened had a target been a few feet closer, and HER wearing her shiny new bang-bang. "Oh my god. I'm so sorry!"
Erik let out a long breath and turned off the blaster and thumbed the thing back on safe. He set the apparatus on a table and went over to fill out a piece of paper and handed it to Mandi. "That Power Lance of yours is restricted use. Range Four only until you get the chaining effect under control. I recommend you reduce the beam's capacity for target jumping to a maximum of five. Go find Gunny Bardue and show this to him. "Do NOT ever fire that thing at a target any less than fifty meters downrange, or within fifty meters of anything you don't want barbecued, comprende?"
Marci nodded, and collected the paper and the her weapon and scampered off, looking absolutely mortified. Erik let her go, closed his eyes and took a VERY deep breath, and turned to Marie. "OK lemme see it."
Marie passed over the silvered rifle and Erik gave it a once over, carefully noting everything before passing it back.
"All right young lady, rip a few off." Erik settled back to watch.
The girl bounded off to Land three and began firing the rifle. It released a distortion in the air that caused the line of fire to ripple a bit before slamming into a target and exploding in a shockwave. Erik looked at the monitors and gauged the force at enough to Knock out a grown man, possibly with broken bones. Then the last shot she took showed enough force to throw an armored personnel carrier on it's side.
Erik noted that the other students were trickling in one by one, each quietly going through the routine of checking, loading and firing at the targets. Erik wandered back and forth, helping students correct posture, giving tips and generally trying to help them improve their aim. The class went so smooth he almost was surprised when it was over. As the students filed out he called out.
"Hey Flashbang! get over here. Lemme see that rifle."
"Uhhh, OK?" Marie walked over and handed it over, and almost cried when Erik surreptitiously removed the power cell and the magnetic accelerator from it and handed it back.
"You can have these back once you install a safety selector on the thing. It's nonlethal. I like that. But it needs to be able to not be fired by accident. Capiche?"
"Oh. Okay. I thought I was in trouble. Yeah I'll get that done." Marie darted off, and Erik slumped into a chair.
He rubbed his temples against the stress headache that was forming. It was always the same. The panic and stress never kicked in until AFTER the crisis was over and he was alone. Memories of a running firefight through the campus trying to get to the students on Halloween raced through him. Memories of more than a few near-misses on the range, or seeing kids get severely injured in fights on campus raged through him.
"Here, take these" He felt something pressed into his hands and took the aspirin and water gratefully.
He looked up to see Gunny Bardue standing over him. "You OK kid?"
"Yeah Boss. Just had another near-miss today with an overenthusiastic Gadgeteer."
"I heard. She was almost in tears when she told me what happened. Damn kids always wanna make guns that make things explode loud and pretty, but never really think about what will happen if they actually get used on someone."
"You're in a weird mood, Gunny."
"So are you for the last few days, Mahren. You been a bit off ever since Halloween. I been wondering when you were going to talk to someone."
Erik sat up, and looked at the glass in his hand, half-empty. "I know it ain't our fault, but I can't shake the feeling that we let the kids down Halloween night. If that crazy Kimba crew and the other kids hadn't been so on the ball we'd have had a fucking tragedy instead of just a nightmare."
"Don't beat yourself up too hard Erik. You and Cat kept enough of those fuckers tied up so that the students and the rest of the staff could drive them back."
"We ever gonna tell the kids why Cat's not gonna be back on the range? They have a right to know, and more than a few of them have some things figured out. I think that Jade kid from Poe's figured out that she died. They have a right to know what she did for them."
Bardue pulled up another chair and sat down. "Yeah, we will. Carson's already given the go-ahead for a memorial service, and we were going to ask you if you'd speak for her. We all know you two were close. Now if we can get Hartass to fucking work the schedule we can get going, but she's being her usual, control-freak bitch self again."
"Maybe I should have a talk with our dearly beloved computer genius..." Erik almost snarled.
"No. Dammit Erik you stay well away from that woman. After the last incident you're already in hot water. The ONLY reason Carson didn't fire you was because you didn't do anything stupid, and she provoked the hell out of you. As much as I'd love to turn you loose on her, no. Cat deserves a better Eulogy than 'she died defending the students and her best friend got fired because of her."
"Fine. I'll avoid her, per usual. But I don't have to like it."
Bardue chuckled mildly. "No you don't, but on another note, I want you to go get tested by the docs. You have way too much talent with oddball gear to simply be chalked up to "natural talent." And no damned arguing. You are good, but this was one near miss too many for you. We need to find out if you are a mutant like you are so fond of joking about, and if so, what your limits are."
Erik sat silently, trying to chew on that last bit.
"Look Erik, you're the best range hand I got, and a damned good Marine. You know that, otherwise I'd have never offered you the job. But I don't want to lose any more people than I already have. I like you a lot, and the rest of the Crisis Team, and the monkeys down in security are getting worried. So. Tomorrow, you're going to take the day off, and then you are going to go see the doc on Thursday. Full battery of tests, so try not to kill the docs."
Erik nodded once. "I'll right, fine, boss, you win. But I draw the line at spandex and cheesy one-liners."
"I expect nothing less. Now go home." Bardue chuckled as the younger man walked out.
Thursday Morning, November 16th
Erik woke up in his apartment with a ripper of a headache, on his couch, with a too-loud television blaring somewhere at the edge of his consciousness. As he pushed himself up groggily he looked at the clock. 5:37 AM. He groggily pulled himself up and looked around. The apartment looked like a tornado had torn through it, weeks of clutter and random crap, never mind the case worth of beer cans from last night stacked in odd formations on the coffee table. He really needed to stop this drinking alone thing, but ever since Cat...
He cut off that line of thought and stumbled into the bathroom and looked at his dishevelled face in the mirror. He looked like a high school band had done a full concert while on the march, using him for the road. Couldn't go to work looking like a drunk bum with a hangover, never mind the example it would set for the students. A fast shower followed by breakfast were in order.
When he came out of the bathroom in pure bachelor style, in his boxers, he wandered over to the kitchen, started the coffee machine and pulled two pop tarts and a couple burritos, tossing the lot into the microwave for two minutes. Then he reached over, picked up his ever-present gallon jug of water and popped two aspirin. People were always saying one bullshit thing or another about how to cure a hangover. In his experience, getting water in the system was the only real way to do it. The doctors would have agreed, even if they wouldn't have approved.
Clothes came on and he looked himself over. He wasn't going in to collect a paycheck, just to get checked so his standard-issue military fatigues were left in the closet and he opted for faded jeans, hiking boots and a black T-shirt that read "God's busy, Can I help you?" It had a leering red devil face in the middle. A leather jacket later and he looked at himself in the mirror again. Short, military cut blonde hair, both blue eyes thankfully intact, and a non-drunk and disorderly expression. Great. He looked human again.
He wandered over, picked his breakfast out of the microwave and poured himself a cup of coffee in a hastily cleaned mug and sat down on the couch to eat. The TV was still on, and he switched to CNN, watching for anything interesting, or at least not depressing in the newscast. No such luck. Another cup of coffee and a belly full of wholesome, week-old, reheated burrito and he was out the door, turning off the tube and wandering to his truck.
The sight of the old beater pickup made him wonder exactly why he lived in a fairly crappy apartment by himself with a banged up twelve-year-old truck. He didn't need a lot. Whateley paid very well for a teaching assistant job, but most of it just kept piling up in his bank account. Food, gas and a computer with his GEO account seemed more or less all he needed to keep going contentedly. And beer of late.
He needed to stop drinking. Gunny Bardue would light his ass up like a Christmas tree if he found out just how much Erik was on the sauce since Halloween night. But the memories hurt. The panic as he'd realized that the school was under attack, the running fire fight trying to get to Hawthorne, Cat charging the... No, best not to think about it or else he'd be tempted to go and just drown his sorrows away in more beer. The last thing he needed was to become a complete alcoholic. He'd be useless to everyone at that point.
The drive to Whately always took a half hour or so, and as always, was uneventful. Only a few students were up and about this early before classes started, although the cafeteria rush would begin soon. He did a walk around the campus, watching for signs of unusual activity as had become his habit since Halloween, nodding to the teachers and students who actually were up and moving this early in the morning. He passed three girls having a quiet moment, recognizing that they were performing Tai Chi, and were remarkably adept and graceful for children in their formative years. His miserable mood didn't stop him from noticing the red haired girl, big time.
Fey. Yeah the magic kid from poe, one of the students who had been in that debacle at the ball and had done very well in staying alive. That would make the Chinese girl with the sword Chou, another of the oft-maligned and so far very effective Team Kimba. The third girl was one he'd seen, but didn't know by name. Or by file that was mandatory reading due to a severe proclivity for getting deep into the biggest trouble thus far this year. He left the girls to their exercise and walked towards the Doc's office. He'd already hit the better part of campus.
He noted the various groups as they began trickling out towards the cafeteria, the Wild Pack, the Masterminds, and, of course, the Alphas. Now THERE was a batch of kids who set his teeth on edge. They acted the worst stereotypes of rich little snots. They had a air of entitlement about them, as if they were owed something by all the lesser worms of the world. For someone with his upbringing and background, it always set his teeth on edge to watch them. It didn't help that they were some of his worst problems in the crisis unit and on the various ranges, paying bare lip service to safety rules and looking at him with sneering contempt. They were well aware that should they so desire it they could turn him into a messy stain on the concrete at range two, or worse. He was content to allow them to continue believing this. No point in borrowing trouble.
He stopped when he saw the Ultraviolents. Now that was a pack that were probably the only exception to Erik's personal rules about protecting children. He could smell it, feel it, see it with every twitch of body language. They were killers. He knew that as soon as they left Whateley there would be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth among the populace until they were safely locked up or killed. And he knew, sooner or later he'd be on the receiving end of their fury. He always got that bad feeling whenever he saw them. He just hoped he could hold out long enough to get help when it happened.
Doctor bellows was waiting for him as soon as he entered the building. The Doc had a resigned expression on his face as he saw the large range technician walk up to him, but he put on a cheerful face.
"Hello Mr. Mahren. I know that you don't like being in hospital areas so I'll do my best to make this as fast an painless as possible for you."
"Thanks Doc, sorry I'm such a lousy patient. But eh. What can we do? So about these tests. I think I know what the problem is. I seem to be developing a deeper voice and have started to notice girls." Erik kept a straight face until the good doctor started snickering.
"And here I was thinking you weren't going to take this whole thing seriously."
Erik grinned. "C'mon Doc, what's the fun of being a lab rat if I don't get to run my own experiments on the staff? Wouldn't want them to think I LIKED them or something ya know. Reputation and all that."
"Oh yes, I do understand. This way please."
They passed the main medical area and went into a room. A nurse came in, drew blood and got his blood pressure, the whole nine yards. For a minute he thought he was back in the marines, getting all the yearly shots and blood tests, feeling like a pincushion. The Dr. Bellows walked back in. Erik simply turned his head to the right and coughed.
"Well, that take care of the physical. let's get to the testing."
"Very funny Erik. Full physical. let's get to it."
"Dammit why is it only the doctors who wanna feel me up?"
"Must be your charming personality."
The morning went fast, and the tests popped up pretty much as Erik expected them to. Boring, annoying and more or less a pain in the ass. He got through them, then the Xavier test, the endurance tests, the strength tests, the reflex tests, and all the others. The psychic test was a hoot. the Doc kept trying to get him to tell him what was on the face of a card via telepathy. That went nowhere, so Erik tried to read the doc's mind. Nothing doing so he made it up as he went along. Bellows was simultaneously amused and mortified by some of his more bawdy comments.
"You don't talk to the children like that do you?"
"What doc, and let 'em come out as screwy as me? No. Although I do play Barbara Streisand's greatest hits at full volume on the radio while they try to concentrate. You wouldn't believe how much they whine some days."
Bellows smirked. "How could you do such a thing to their impressionable young minds?"
"Easy. I have earplugs and an iPod."
"Ahhh, a closet sadist I see. So tell me. What is on this card?"
"And the testing ends and you are Zero for fifty."
"There goes my future as a phone psychic."
The most interesting part of the training was when Erik was sat down with a LOT of equipment, both assembled and disassembled. Dr. Bellows asked him to assemble, disassemble, and operate as many of the devices as he possibly could. Each device turned out to be anything from a handgun to a heavy machine gun in weaponry from around the world. There were bits of electronics, body armor, and other odds and ends, as well as a computer of a design that he'd never seen before. The computer was by far the most difficult, but he got it assembled and operating in about ten minutes after examining the parts for a minute and a half on the first try. He then went through the system and checked the software, the files and got it connected to the Whateley net, which was a bitch because he had to sift through a tub of odd wires for a few minutes to find one that looked right. Most of the mundane weapons and equipment he had completely figured out inside of seconds.
The odd bits were a talisman, a dagger and a piece of rune worked Iron. After a minute examining each he made a gesture or spoke a few words that sounded RIGHT after correctly identifying each one's function to activate them. The assistant for this test seemed rather astonished and brought out a gnarled, blackened staff inlaid with eldritch runes Erik held it for a minute, and fought down the rising feeling of horror before he filled a sink with water, spoke some words that made no sense even to him, then dipped the staff in the water at both ends and struck it against the floor. the staff shattered, disintegrating as it exploded all the way up the haft in a startling display of eldritch green fire. The lab assistant ran screaming. He wasn't aware of any of it. Just the fact that his world was reeling and spinning and it took all of his conscious effort to stay upright.
The response was almost immediate. Two teachers, and several students, including Sir Westmount, Ophelia, Fey, and that Goth girl, Sara looking like the proverbial angel and demon twins, as well as Chou burst into the area, all of them practically radiating energy and looking ready for a fight of epic proportions.
Sara simply looked at Erik and pointed. "Him."
Erik, slightly dazed felt himself stiffen and rise into the air, unable to move as the elderly man shouted something and Fey added to the mix. He was still dazed, and that shriek of psychic energy had hit him like a thunderclap. He shook his head and suddenly crashed to the ground, freed from his bonds only to find himself pinned by a very angry looking Chinese girl with that jade-bladed sword pressed to his neck. He did the most sane thing someone in that position with a migraine and severe disorientation would do. He stayed still.
"How the hell did the holding spells break?"
"...ing on here?"
The voices were jumbled, incoherent and loud. The more people yammered and talked the more queasy he got.
Suddenly the blade was gone and he found himself roughly hauled to his feet by Sir Westmount, who seemed to be screaming in his face, but he couldn't understand any of it. The voice was just noise and thunder, and it only exacerbated the growing nausea growing in the pit of his stomach. He did the only natural thing at that point. He puked on the man's fancy tweed jacket.
Then security piled through the door, their boots making loud claps as they hit the tiles. The argument began, but by that point, but Erik was too far gone to make out any of it as his consciousness slipped away and he hit the floor.
Four hours later, after he woke up, Erik sat in Dr. Bellows' office and the man set down a folder.
"Well do you want the bad news or the really bad news first?"
"Bad news, of course, I need fuel for my cynical side."
"The bad news is that you won't be giving blood at the local red cross any time soon. You have high concentrations of Iron, cobalt and tungsten, believe it or not, in your veins. Enough to be dangerous to a normal person."
"Sweet I was right, and I can mine in my own ass for precious metals now."
"Indeed." The doc smirked. "The worse news is there is some hubbub in administration over what to do with you. You are currently going to be suspended from your teaching duties until we figure out exactly what happened."
"Spit it out Doc, you got that nervous "I shouldn't tell him something" look in your eye."
"That staff. What was it?"
"What, you don't know?" Erik looked skeptical.
"No, We didn't know what that runed hunk of iron was either until you broke open it's secrets. The staff was brought in to see if you could puzzle it out as well."
"Oh. I dunno what those things are called, but lemme go down the list. The talisman is a simple charm that lights up if you activate it. I got the feeling that it was a testing tool, nothing more. The knife was a nice little number that seems to be able to slice through damned near anything except skin. Wonderful letter opener. The runes in the iron are a part of something else. What I don't know. I'd need the pieces to figure it out. But it makes some wicked electrical arcing effect when ya trigger it"
Dr. Bellows nodded and continued taking notes. "And the staff? People have been poring over that item for years, and nothing seemed capable of being able to damage it, including a plasma cutter and some more esoteric methods. Nor has anyone been able to figure out what it's purpose is."
Bellows hit a remote, and a TV came down and began playing, showing him holding the staff, and the look of horror that crossed his images' face matched what he felt. The faucet seemed innocuous until he howled guttural words in a language he didn't know, dipped the staff at both ends and shattered it. The disintegration happened but what Erik hadn't seen was the sickly green flash of a nauseating sigil erupting around him along the ground. then the camera went static.
"The Sigil of the Gateway." Erik breathed, feeling sick.
"You know of it"
"Just now. Just what it is. What it does.. Jesus H. Christ doc, where the fuck did you people find that thing?"
"I don't know Erik, all I know is you just sent Every single mystic student into a screaming fit all at once as soon as that thing shattered. They were all screaming, like someone walked on their grave. I was hoping you could tell me what it was."
"A key. Put it to the ground, right place, right time, you open a gateway to... something. I don't know what. All I know is once it starts it's impossible to stop until it consumes the life of everything from horizon to horizon, leaving nothing but living death in it's wake. It's a mystical tacnuke Doc, and the fallout would be things that weren't alive, not dead, wholly mad, and hungry for flesh and blood and life."
"Are there any more?"
"Jesus Doc I don't know! I didn't even know what that was until you people put it in my hands!"
"How did you destroy it so completely? What you are describing tells me there should have been... Something, Some kind of backlash."
"There was doc. The kids started screaming. I think what I did forced the energy inward, back to the plane it originates from. Or something. I don't bloody well know. All I knew was that it was a horror that needed to be destroyed, so I figured out how to destroy it without vaporizing the area."
"And how did you do that?"
"I don't know. It was like working on instinct. I started out wanting to know what it was, and how to use it, but when I figured that out I just wanted to destroy it, and as I kept looking at me a way sort of popped into my mind and I did it by reflex."
"Don't start lecturing on how dangerous it was doc, I know how dangerous it was. I also knew that if you did it a certain way almost all of it's energies would self-annihilate without killing everyone in the process. So I did it a certain way."
"What else do you know about it?"
"It was made of the heart of a dead tree that died by fire when the forest died of some kind of disease. It was etched with Moonsilver, amber and reeked of the blood of a lot of innocent people that formed it's essence. It was dipped in the blood of something that I'm pretty fucking sure doesn't exist in reality, and about the only thing I don't know is how to put the fucking thing together again. Which I wouldn't even if I could tell you how and I'd kill anyone who could give you step-by-step instructions."
Bellows nodded quietly. "I'm going to ask that you see Sir Westmount tomorrow. He would like to have a long talk with you about what you did and how."
"Will it help get me un-suspended?"
"I can't promise you that Erik. But it would go a long way."
"Fine, I'll go see him. We done?"
The doctor sighed. "For now Erik, for now."
The big man got up and walked out without another word.
Friday morning, November 17th
Erik walked into the training area, this time in a much better state than he'd walked into Bellows' office. Somehow he'd managed to stave off the urge to get hammered last night, but it had been a fight. He'd ended the evening by pouring the beer down the toilet, can by can, while wondering how he was going to stave off the nightmares. He'd spent the majority of the night fighting memories that burned in the back of his skull, then two hours of screaming nightmares of blood, death and carnage. Every time it was the same scene. Running toward Hawthorne, finding dead children who had not gone to the ball for one reason or another but hadn't actually died, fighting maniacal laughing figures that were only half-seen, and finally watching Cat die over and over and over again. So at the appointed time he'd thrown on his fatigues, combat boots and cover and driven to Whateley.
The small gym had three occupants. There was Westmount at one side of the room, talking to that Fey kid, Nikki. He had vague images swimming in his mind of them screaming bloody murder at him over... something. To the side was a dignified woman in a Gi, standing easily against a wall. All three looked up at him at once, and he saw a flash of fury pass through the face of the elfin girl as she began to stand. Westmount said something he couldn't hear and she settled, eyeing him darkly as the two prattled on with their lesson.
Oddly enough it was the woman in the Gi who walked over to speak to him first. Oh yes, Susannah Hagarty, one of the combat tutors they hired to mentor the girl. As she approached he nodded politely.
"Hello, Erik, is it?" Her voice and expression spoke of polite conversation in that British accent, but her posture and body language screamed to him that she thought he might be a threat. "We weren't expecting you here so early. You look awful."
"Trouble sleeping. Plus I'm trying to give up a crutch." Erik was tired, He could feel the bags under his eyes.
"Ah, well since these two are going to be at it for a while, care to talk over here?"
"Sure. Sorry about what my attitude's probably going to be like in advance, Miss Hagarty, but like I said, trouble sleeping, I feel like a damned lab rat and you are half-expecting me to sprout fangs, claws and trying to eat you."
"First rule please. No bullshit. Your face and tone are friendly but your posture and body language are anything but. And I'm really good at picking out people's state of mind by watching them move."
"Ah, mutant talent?"
"No, just lots of practice with siblings and parents. And a few others who thought everyone around them were threats. So please, don't try to fuck with me and tell me you're all happy to see me because I know that Mister Knightly over there wants to know just how the hell I managed to blast every mystic in the school with visions of a Cthulian nightmare."
Susannah nodded once and settled back. "So Doctor Bellows thinks it wasn't deliberate. You were reacting instinctively to something, and what he described was none too pleasant."
"Yeah, let's just say I'm a firm believer that some things should not exist. Period."
"I think I can respect that." She looked over at the two who seemed to be chatting. The girl seemed to be concentrating on something, and Westmount was watching her very closely. "You're a blunt young man, you know that right?"
"Yeah, you should see me when I'm in a good mood. But polite and chipper and watching what one says stacks a lot of crap on top of what needs to be said. It may be blunt, rude, or whatever you want to call it, but it cuts out the B.S. and gets to the heart of the situation fast. It hurts more to be lied to in the long run anyway."
She nodded, and the two settled back and watched the lesson quietly. Westmount and Nikki didn't really seem to be DOING anything. Erik began fidgeting, and looked annoyed, then shucked the camo shirt and began stretching. It beat sitting around on his ass. He began doing a warmup routine that he'd learned in the Corps, then stood, feeling a bit more awake and began pacing.
"You know, if you're just going to wear a hole in the floor, I could spar with you a bit. You're tense, angry, and confused, and you're definitely feeling a bit more than aggressive."
Erik raised an eyebrow at her.
"Body language, as you said, Mr. Mahren."
Erik chuckled and shrugged and moved to a ready position on the mat, after shucking his boots and socks. He and Susannah bowed once to one another and stood at the ready, her in some martial arts stance he didn't recognize and him with his hands loosely to the sides, hands wide open. He sized up the woman in front of him, noting her posture, stance and how she moved as she did the same with him. He waited for a few moments, and she made the first move. He reacted like a coiling spring, shifting down to a wrestling stance faster than most opponents could react, catching the punch and twisting, only to take a elbow to the jaw as she spun with the move.
Three seconds later Erik was on the mat, pinned to the floor and unable to move. He'd been right in his first appraisal. Hagarty was good. Better than him, in fact, with little to no wasted motion in her maneuvers. He spent a few moments gauging her strength and grip trying to break her loose, then tapped the mat.
Oblivious to the fact that two sets of eyes were now watching them, both rather smugly at watching the big man get tooled by the older woman. This time, Erik went on the attack, and deliberately overreached, promptly getting thrown across the mat, rolling and coming up on his feet. He charged again, this time being redirected into a wall. It really didn't hurt at all. She was obviously keeping to the spirit of a sparring match and he turned around and growled even though he didn't feel it.
"So are you going to actually do something Mister Mahren?"
Erik walked back over to the center of the mat and nodded. Susannah immediately launched herself forward, then perfectly executed a kick to the chest. It was the opening Erik had been waiting for, catching her leg and twisting it around in such a way that she'd have to turn to keep it from snapping then drove a palm into her back, propelling her across the mat, with seemingly more power than he'd actually put into it. She immediately rolled and popped back to her feet and circled him, both oblivious to the outraged gasp from the girl being taught at the "cheap shot."
After that it was on, it was vicious, it was fast, and it would have been brutal had either combatant failed to keep their strength in check or their sparring technique perfect. In the end it was Erik that was slammed to the mat, wind knocked out of him, and gasping for air. It had all been in the skill Miss Hagarty had shown. She was graceful, fast, strong and she knew what she, and he, was doing. By contrast Erik's fighting style was fast, heavy and extremely vicious, the kind Gunny Bardue would have been proud of, and he'd given the Englishwoman a royally rough time of it. But it all came down to skill. He was bigger, stronger, and a helluva lot tougher than she was, but she was simply better.
Sir Westmount and Susannah both came over when they heard the odd noises coming from the man, and were concerned until both realized he was laughing, and trying to gulp in air at the same time. When he finally rolled to his feet he grinned. "Well that was fun."
"Not bad Mister Mahren, but you could definitely use some work. I might suggest Aikido. You seem built for it."
"I'll keep that in mind. I haven't had that much fun since me and the Gunny went rounds on range two."
Erik looked around and saw Miss Hagarty smiling a bit, and both of the mystics in the room seemed torn between smiling and really hurting him. He hoped for the former.
"Now that I have your attention, I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here today," Erik said with a bow to Westmount and Fey.
Westmount's response was completely deadpanned. "Ah another comedian. This place seems to attract them like flies. Dear, get the bug spray if you would."
"Ah yes Miss Hagarty the Extra-strength Raid if you would, the regular stuff just clears my sinuses." Erik deadpanned back.
"Well, now that you're in a good mood, and you've completely broken our attention from the lesson, perhaps we could get you to tell us what happened last night." Sir Westmount didn't seem sure whether I was friend or foe at this point.
"Seen the video yet?"
"No I can't say that I have. I wasn't aware there was one."
Nikki looked like she didn't know whether to talk or keep her mouth shut. Or she was arguing with herself. Erik wasn't sure.
"All right cats and kittens, I'll be right back. I need to go get my Greatest hits DVD from Dr. Bellows." Erik walked out for a bit.
Nikki looked at her teachers. "Can I stay? Aunghadhail is rather... insistent that we observe this."
Westmount looked at her and nodded. "I have my suspicions, but you may. I worry for your safety though."
"Oh I don't think he'll be a danger," Susannah said in an almost cheerful way. "He seems a good sort."
"How can you tell?" Nikki asked. "He seemed to be rather... vicious with you on the mat, and really surly when he walked in. No, he was angry and confused, and sad. Right now he's bottling it all up and only letting his humor show but he's feeling very bitter and used right now."
"I know, Nikki, but I think I can guess the reasons for his mood," She smiled "And he was a perfect gentleman on the mat. Never used an ounce of force more than he needed to get the point across that he got me, and managed to avoid striking me in any place that a gentleman would consider off-limits when in close contact with a lady in public. He'll have to be cured of that of course, sooner or later working here, but he was more concerned with not hurting me than he was with not getting hurt."
"I don't get it. So if he wasn't holding back he would have beaten you?" Nikki looked skeptical.
"No. He's got power, drive and ferocity, but even were we trying to kill one another I would have won. He is not as skilled. Now granted, if that situation were to occur and I made even a slight error the results would be bad for someone like me. But as I said, he was a perfect gentleman, and the one time he thought he might have hurt me, he faltered, and he wound up on the mat trying to breathe."
"He doesn't like hurting people. I felt that for a brief second."
Westmount interjected, "But he will if he thinks it is necessary, without hesitation or remorse. Make no mistake, the man is a killer. He proved it Halloween night trying to get to the children in the ball on Halloween. But he is the right kind of killer. Trained, aware, and very considerate of the consequences. The only time he spared the lives of some of the attackers was when he thought a student would die by the act."
"Is that why he's so... Angry and depressed?"
Susannah sighed. "No child, it's because of something else that happened that night. He had to witness a few things that will haunt him for a long time. And he cannot talk about such things in the open just yet. That's the part that sticks in his craw the worst, the feeling that he's not allowed to mourn, or try to move on."
"Quite frankly that's why we are worried. If what happened last night was because he's having a suicidal or homicidal rage, steps will need to be taken." Sir Westmount looked thoughtful.
Erik chose that moment to walk back into the little gym. He was carrying a laptop and a few CD's. He set up the laptop at the table Westmount and Fey had been using for a study area and began flipping through the CD's looking bored.
"Porn, porn, porn, Jane Fonda? How the hell did that get in there?" He continued on while the adults suppressed chuckles. "Ah, here it is. How to scare the straights in four easy steps."
The DVD started out with him in the lab Westmount and Fey had found him in the night before, rapidly moving from one device to another, then to the weapons, disassembling, assembling and operating. He plowed through a dizzying array of gear within a half hour then moved on to the three seemingly innocuous pieces. At that point Erik began talking, explaining the talisman, the knife and the piece of runic iron as the scene went on. Then the bombshell came, and all four watched Erik puzzling over the staff, the look of dawning horror, the sink, the howling of words that three of the watchers didn't recognize, and the shattering disintegration of the staff. Then a flash of the sickening green sigil. Then the camera feed died. The room was silent for a few moments Erik took the silence as an opportunity to back away from the little redhead, feeling the power build up in her.
Nikki was the first to fully react, spinning and fixing Erik with a look that could pierce a steel wall. "By the Gods, do you have any idea what you could have unleashed? What you could have done?"
Every instinct screamed at him to drop to one knee and beg forgiveness to the little elfin girl who suddenly radiated a power and presence he was not prepared for. He wanted to swear his service to her... To be her servant. Then Erik's mind roared back to the front smashing through those thoughts and urges like a hurricane. He would not be cowed, nor possessed, nor sworn to service of anyone.
It took every ounce of willpower he had to look her in the eye and grind the words out. "Yes, Miss Reilly... I knew EXACTLY what that... thing... could have unleashed on the world. And if I had it in my hands again I would destroy it again. And I would kill any who tried to stop me from doing so."
"Aunghadhail!" It was Sir Westmount who spoke sharply. "Rein in your temper. If what we just saw was any indication, he just did the world a service. Now calm down!"
The girl's eyes flashed to her teacher, and her fury abated. A little. When she turned her head back to Erik he realized this was far from done. "How did you know how to destroy the staff, and Where did you learn that language?"
Erik simmered and let his anger buffer him from the raging little woman.
"Well? Answer me!" The imperious command was backed by... something. It gripped him and then faded almost immediately, and his Marine instincts kicked to the fore.
Erik stalked right up to the girl and spoke in a level, and deceptively calm tone. "Miss Reilly I don't know who you think you are and I do not care. You will not speak to me in that tone again. I may be here to provide answers but I will not, and I mean this in no uncertain terms little girl, NOT tolerate disrespect from a student, no matter how powerful. Now sit down and be quiet!"
The little faerie girl's eyes screwed up in fury. "How dare you..."
Erik felt something try to strike, grasp and strangle him, and each time it sloughed off of him like a cast off skin. But with each probe he felt something building, began hearing a low hum in the background and began seeing ripples at the edge of his vision, like heat distortion.
"Aunghadhail that is ENOUGH!" Westmount was up and looking angry. "I agreed to be the instructor for Miss Reilly and to help her fully master her power, but if you cannot contain yourself our partnership is at an end."
The girl snapped her eyes back and looked at Westmount, who has a look of cold fury in his expression. And there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he would carry through this threat, no promise.
"I will have your decision, now."
"Very well, but I demand answers." The girl managed to seem imperious even when giving ground.
"And you shall have them, through Nikki. Now leave us to our work. I still have a lesson and she needs to learn it."
Very abruptly the girl's expression changed, as did her posture, and she looked apologetically at the stony face of her instructor. She looked mortified and when she turned to look at Erik she winced. Intentional or not, his expression was purely controlled anger, and he looked mean, to the tune of near-violent rage, and she could feel the cold fury pouring off him like a wave.
"I'm so sorry!" She squeaked, and tried to bolt from the room.
Erik blocked her. "I believe your instructor is not finished with you yet, Miss Reilly." His voice was very carefully regulated and controlled.
Nikki turned and walked carefully towards Sir Westmount and sat down. She gave nervous looks at both men then at Susannah, who seemed to be expecting violence to erupt at any second. Erik watched her go and his boiling emotions started to calm as he forced his rage back into the deep, dark hole he kept it in.
Sir Westmount walked over to Erik, "A word, sir?"
Erik nodded and led the way into the hallway. "What the fuck was that Westmount?"
The British man took a deep breath and let it go slowly. "First, don't judge her too harshly. She is... sharing her mind with a being that is very old, and very used to having things her way. I believe you will find Miss Reilly to be an exceptional girl once you get to know her."
"Thank God, I was hoping that wasn't her personality. I won't hold it against her, but I'm not taking shit off of Ungabunga or whatever the hell you call her."
"Quite. Ungabunga, as you put it is called Aunghadhail, a very old and powerful Sidhe queen. One of the faeries."
Erik processed that for a few moments. "OK. That explains the urge to bow and pledge my everlasting service. Not like I'm going to allow that to happen any time soon."
"I see you two are going to get along rather like nitroglycerine and electricity." Wallace looked at him. "How did you shrug off her spells? She threw a lot of power at you, with the intent of humiliating you and making you beg forgiveness."
"I dunno, honestly. Part of it being I'm a stubborn prick, and while I'll follow orders from people with that right, as defined by me... "
"You will never bend knee."
"But I must say, in all my time here I never expected to see Aunghadhail told to stand down in such a tone. It is rather refreshing."
"What can I say? Some guys got it..."
Erik left the comment unfinished as he poked his head in just in time to hear Nikki talking to Susannah.
"Now I know why Jade says Mr. Mahren can be scary at times."
Nikki nearly jumped out of her skin when the door slammed open and Erik walked in with a loud voice that carried. "Who speaks my name without fear in her voice?"
Susannah looked at Erik, Annoyed. "Mister Mahren, fun is fun but you did scare the girl."
Erik nodded, not seeing his errant conversation partner's dry smirk. He walked over to Nikki, who unconsciously cringed. "Miss Reilly I'm not angry at you, and you don't need to think I'm going to hold this against you. Just please, try to keep a lid on Aunghadhail around me. I don't take well to folks thinking they have some mystic right to bark orders at me."
The girl nodded and Erik looked at Susannah. "All right. Crisis is over. Let's get back to brass tacks so I can go back to working the cannon range please."
"I couldn't agree more. For now, Mister Mahren if you would, I'd like you to have a look at these three books I brought."
"Call me Erik. At this point I'm not on the staff, and I'm the interruption here."
"Very well, Erik. The books are in the satchel under the table."
"I think I'm going to go get something to eat at this time." Susannah said smoothly as she walked out. "Nikki, dear, try not to start the apocalypse. And Erik, Try not to provoke the apocalypse."
"Well there goes my weekend plans." Erik mock-groused as Nikki giggled.
He picked up the satchel, and looked at it. Black leather, brass lock. Big enough to carry all his books from High School. He thumbed the lock and jumped up, with the sound of a hissing ZAP!.
"Mother f..." Erik cut off the rest of the curses that were going to come loose in the presence of the girl and snarled. He looked at the other instructor, who was trying to look innocent. "Cute, Wallace, real cute." The British Gentleman merely smirked.
He looked at the lock, at the satchel for a solid minute, then began searching around for something. Then he grinned. "Sir Wallace, please come here and touch your ring to the lock before I start making Monty python jokes... Badly."
"Can't you open it yourself?"
"Bag's enchanted. Won't open without the key and I can't cut it. You sure you want me to open this thing myself?"
Erik walked outside, bag in tow, and went straight to a tree outside the building, followed by a curious Nikki and Sir Westmount. He stopped at a tree and set the bag on a branch, then looked around for a sharp rock, which he used to cut his palm.
"EWWWWWWW!" Nikki was watching.
He rubbed his blood all over his palm and slapped it on the bag, leaving a red hand print that seemed to reflect light like a mirror. "By blood, be undone."
Both Nikki and Sir Westmount recoiled as if slapped when he spoke those words. He picked the bag up, walked inside, and opened the satchel while the two mages stood by, horrified and slack-jawed. Three large books fell out, as well as a series of odd trinkets, one of which was a khukri knife. As he set the items aside and opened the first book, he realized that each page had a series of symbols that looked identical covering the page. No, not identical, each one had minor variations, and as he scanned the first page he picked out the real symbol. He picked up a pencil from the bag's contents and lightly traced a circle around the symbol. He did the same with the next twenty pages, never spending more than a minute on each one, usually only a few seconds on each page before moving on.
The two mages burst in. "What did you do... Why?" Wallace was aghast.
Erik looked up at him. "I told you to use your ring to unlock it. I checked it, figured out what it's for, figured out how to use it. When you said to open it myself I figured out how to disable it. Permanently."
"Do you have any clue how hard and expensive it is to make something like that satchel?"
"About five thousand dollars and three weeks of bullshit ritual. Oh and a precise mix of gold and mercury in the sigil that is nearly impossible to see in the anodized brass of the lock."
Wallace and Nikki looked stunned. "And how exactly would you re-enchant the item?"
Erik pushed the book he was looking at aside. "Fucked if I know."
The older man shook his head and looked at the book, then flipped through the pages. "How did you spot these sigils?"
"Eh instinct. I look at them and I recognize them for what they are. Some are harder than others. But they have a certain feel to them."
"Well you found all the correct ones."
Nikki, meanwhile stood transfixed, staring at a piece of quartz crystal that had come from the satchel. Erik looked up, saw her, saw the crystal, puzzled over it for a moment, then looked at the enraptured face and reacted just before her hand could reach it, grabbing the slight girl by the wrist and propelling her across the room. Wallace cried out and reached for him only to wind up propelled the same way as Erik picked up the crystal and slammed it to the table, muttering something. He picked up the Kukhri and drove the blade through the glass like thing and deep into the table.
The crystal exploded with a soul-shattering shriek and a silhouette of a ghostly, elfin woman tore from the facets. It was her that was shrieking. Erik felt the power of the inhuman voice threatening to tear the life from his body when the apparition faded. He slumped to the ground, gasping for breath like a boned fish, the heat ripples at the edge of his vision creeping in ever more.
For a few moments, silence reigned. Sir Westmount was the first to recover, taking in the scene, noting Nikki was twitching and Erik was gasping for air like he was suffocating. Nikki recovered shakily and looked up.
"Banshee Crystal." She gasped. Westmount looked over at the shattered remains of the innocuous-looking crystal he'd brought along and paled.
"Dear God in heaven."
Nikki looked over at the fallen man on the floor and saw the Ley lines warping and twisting around him like snakes on the attack, the magics he'd unleashed thrashing about his body seeking egress, until finally, mercifully they subsided, pulled into him as all the magics Aunghadhail had unleashed upon him had. She'd seen the glow about him before but had shrugged it off as an after effect of eldritch energy of the staff clinging to him. Now she saw that it was him! Looking closer she felt the presence of Aunghadhail in the back of her mind guiding her perception. Impudent upstart or not, he had saved both of them, and he was building up a charge of mystic energy that was unmistakable and worrying. She could see that there was a definite limit to how much he could hold.
Studying him she realized that he was holding a LOT of power inside, and he was reaching his utter limit, accelerated by the staff, her spells, and the shattering of the crystal. "He's an energizer! And he's just about full up! If he takes any more I don't know what will happen to him!"
Westmount looked at the prone, unconscious form, and made a snap decision. He ran over to Erik and checked his life signs, and proceeded to mystically scan Erik himself. As he watched he realized that the man was holding too much energy, more than could be accounted for in the last two days' time. Even the staff could not have forced that much raw magic into his body.
"Nichole, Call medical! Get Doctor Bellows and a team here NOW and block any magic from entering this room! If he's exposed he might go into burnout!" The girl nodded and darted off. "If you're not already burning out you poor bastard."
The hammer struck the metal with a loud clang and the shower of sparks. Again it struck, in perfect rhythm, forging the blade. She paused once when it was safe to do so in her work, and quenched the heated metal in the blood of the Dragon Carathwyn, who had been felled by the Knights of the realm. After a break, she went back to work, hammering the blade again, and again in perfect rhythm. The work had to carry on through the day and on through the week. Any interruption would mean disaster and the precious Mithril being forged into the steel would be ruined and useless. She pounded at the blade, for days, nonstop, never slowing. Her queen's sword had to be ready by the eve of the solstice. So little time.
She Finally finished the blade, tired and worn, a week in the forges could weary even her. Her Lady's vassals watched as she emerged from the forge, keeping their distance as she walked directly to the center of the castle and struck the blade tip firmly into the ground. The Ice would temper the fire and the point in the hard earth would draw strength from the world and the castle. She left the precious blade in the earth and walked back into the Forge. She had to begin the hilt and pommel immediately. None would touch the precious blade. None would dare.
The forging took a week, as she examined her work. Only the richest metals had been used in the delicate basket hilt of the blade. Steel and Silver with Orichalcum laced as golden filigree made it up. The handle wrapped in precious hides was stained a deep, royal purple. She carried the hilt to the blade, and stepped up to the blade. A serving girl, vassal of her queen stopped and stared in horror. She was human, it was to be expected. The girl ran in fear as she slid the pommel onto the blade to complete the joining process.
Whispered words and bent knee before the heavens and the sky erupted in storm. Eldritch energy flashed from above and below in equal measure, as the Queen's people desperately sought shelter. It was not her place to worry about their safety. Her only concern was the blade of her Lady. She chanted on for hours, rain falling upon her naked body, and the blade. She was oblivious to the screams of terror from the humans beyond the castle wall's enchantments. The Humans would have to fend for themselves. They would cry and shout, and beg the Queen to abate her anger, but it would not. Until her task was complete there would be no abatement.
The sword slid free of the earth easily. She walked up the castle battlements, always chanting, always speaking in that language that none, not even she could understand. As she passed in and out of the castle to her destination Even the Queen's true people moved away from her, some sneering with contempt at the naked woman who blithely stalked past them. They were not her concern. Her Mistress'; will be done.
The battlements were clear, and even the pointy-eared, beautiful people of the queen dared not disturb her. To stand against the storm was beyond them, all but the most powerful mystics. She pointed the sword high, and thunder clapped and the while light of lightning speared the tip of the blade, searing it, forging it anew, ripping the length of the blade and into her. Even in her weary state she felt refreshed, energized, and ready for the next task that her mistress would lay before her once the sword was presented by the court seneschal. She would not see the queen. Base servants were to stay to their place, not seek to see or speak with Her Majesty.
She tested the blade not. She knew it would cut the strongest steel, and pierce the magic defenses of the Queen's enemies. She laid the blade by her bed and went to sleep. When she awoke, the blade was gone. In it's place there was a note with instructions, and the raw materials she needed, as divined by the Court mage. Her Majesty's champion required armor. This would take a year of nonstop work.
She walked to her mirror and looked upon herself. She did not know she was beautiful. She did not know she was human, or had been. It had been so long since she realized she was like those round-eared people. She was plain, even ugly to the court. She did not see herself. She saw the marks of the tattoos, they covered her body, her face framed on the sides by delicate, cobalt blue waves that tapered to tips on her forehead and chin. The tattoos that bound her power, that allowed her to ply her craft. Without them she would have died, consumed from within. The tattoos marked her for all to see.
She could not see herself, just the beautiful, delicate cobalt blue marks that were her brands. She could not remember her name. She looked in the mirror, and saw nothing.
There was a crack of shattering glass, and it took a moment to realize what it was. The mirror was shattered, her fist held in the wall, bleeding from it's passing. The castle guards desperately ran to the forge as the furious shriek tore through the silent night.
Sunday, November 19th
Erik opened his eyes slowly, mind buzzing, pulsing with the throbbing rhythm of the migraine. He hurt all over, never mind the confusing dreams of heat and steel. Still, it was a welcome respite to horror and death. He pushed himself up and gave himself a once-over, seeing everything in place where it was supposed to be. He tried to remember how he got there.
He had seen it, but hadn't looked too hard until he caught sight of the girl's face. He looked over, examining the objects on the table and saw it. He'd thought it was a simple focusing crystal at first until he REALLY looked. The knowledge had come unbidden to his mind. He KNEW that there was something trapped inside. He could tell it was calling out, reaching. Then he saw it. The trap was elegant, delicate, and keyed somehow to what the girl had become. Bean Sidhe, the ghost of a Sidhe woman who died in pain and horror. It would kill any fae that touched it, he didn't know how, but he knew it would... He reacted... The knife came down... Nothing. Pain.
He shook his head, then looked around again. He saw it. the delicate, nearly invisible lines cut into the wall. Circles, stars, and a few other symbols came unbidden to his mind. The pentacle surrounded his bed, which was situated in the dead-center of the room. Earth, fire, air, water, spirit. All focused to keep magic from the bed. The walls warded to diffuse and disperse magic in the room. He suddenly knew how to unbind the wards. He didn't necessarily want to though. They seemed to project in a protective array, and he was at the center of that protection.
His vision was off, the air around him seemed to ripple and swirl like a living thing, just below the surface. He could feel the passing energy, and he reached out to touch it... It slipped through his fingers. He couldn't grasp it, mold it, shape it as every instinct was now screaming at him to do. Shape... Mold... Build... He shook himself from the reverie, looking around again, this time standing up.
He realized as he looked at the wards on the wall, he knew what they were, though he wasn't familiar with most of them before this moment. He knew what they were, what they did, how to use them. What escaped his consciousness was why they were important and how, exactly, they worked. It was like being gifted with the knowledge to build a gun and knowing what the end result could do without understanding any of the processes involved in making it or what exactly caused it to work. Do this, get this. Do that, this is the result. Nothing of the hows and whys ever entered his mind. He looked back at the range weapon inspections. He always knew what it was made from, and always knew what it would do and how to make it work, never understanding why it worked.
It was like a bucket of cold water had been thrown in his face. He'd been doing things by rote, never knowing really what could happen if he made a mistake on the range, or with the magic items, just figuring it out and accepting the result. He knew if he stepped from the pentacle circle it would alert someone but not how it would alert them, or how it would work. The realization chilled him.
Most people, when they think of the marines, think maniacal, effective, and above all, stupid apply. Hardly anyone realized that when training it was drilled that every movement, every action carried a purpose. They were taught that purpose, and expected to learn it. It wasn't throw a grenade and it explodes in a few seconds, it was far more complex, and even the most dimwitted infantryman could explain in detail, exactly how every piece of gear he carried works. They had to. Their lives and the lives of those around it depended on this.
He was playing with explosives without the knowledge, or instructions the entire time he'd been working at Whateley. What he had been doing was both dangerous and foolhardy, though seemingly innocent. Sure, he could completely disable the entire ward network in the room more or less harmlessly, but he couldn't tell how they were interacting, or how they were working, just the beginning and the end. No middle ground was there that he could see.
He stepped from the pentacle and went through the medical closet. He picked up a bottle of clear fluid from the improperly secured cabinet and examined it without the label. Clear fluid, containing water, sodium, and a few other distinct chemicals he couldn't put a name to. Results when mixed with blood would stop the blood from clotting and scabbing over. He kept his mind clear and picked up a syringe, and the same happened. He knew what it was and what it was used for in the instinctive manner, but he actually had to think about what it was to put together the procedure for actually using both together. But he couldn't discern dosage, or potential side-effects.
"Erik what are you doing?" Doctor bellows asked from behind him.
"Checking something." He set the items down.
"Doc, find me something oddball. Find me a piece of equipment that is simple and innocuous to use that you think I won't know what the function is or what it's for."
"Because I think I've hit the really fucking dangerous part of my being able to operate anything trick."
He didn't see the Doc leave, or return with a small device that looked like a pen until it was handed to him.
Erik picked up the pen and looked at it, a picture forming in his mind again. Some kind of sonic thing. Click it this way and it caused sonic vibrations at short range. Harmless to humans. He tried to discern why it worked. He saw the little projector in his mind, saw how it was constructed and how to disable it, about fifteen different ways, but nothing on why it worked. Erik handed it back.
"Fucking hell I've really been playing with fire." Erik braced himself against the counter.
"What's wrong Erik?"
"Doc imagine being able do open heart surgery... by rote."
"Ah, actually I can do it by rote if I have to."
"Really doc? Now imagine being able to do the same surgery without knowing the hows and whys of the human body. Imagine doing it without any knowledge but action and result." He turned as he spoke.
Doctor Bellows' face was a bit pale and he looked a bit ill. "So that's what you're doing."
"Yeah. I see all this crap on the walls I know what it IS, but not what the individual pieces ARE. I know how to start it and how to stop it, but I don't know why it works." Erik looked up. "I think I have a problem."
Bellows sighed. "Erik, your problem is bigger than that. You seem to be some kind of energizer. You've picked up a pretty heavy charge via the staff, and the magic things Sir Wallace said you have interacted with. And we missed it, but your body's been developing this charge for a while now. It probably started the day you started working here."
Erik looked up. "Oh shit. It's just building and I have a limit, isn't it?"
Bellows just nodded.
"OK. So what happens when I hit critical mass?"
"We don't know, hence the wards, set up by Fey and her tutor."
"Any way I can dump the charge? I know that oddball kid Skybolt does the same thing with electricity, but she can dump it off like it's her job."
"That's what we'd like to find out. Because when you hit that critical point and overcharge, I'm told you're porting enough magic to blow a crater the size of the campus in the ground."
"Fucking wonderful. So you mean I'm now a direct threat to the kids now too?"
Bellows nodded slowly. "I really didn't want to say it, but yes."
"Let's get to it doc. I wanna figure out how to dump this charge off."
"It will be dangerous Erik. We have to take you away from the children for this, and we can't risk them if you..."
"I get the picture Doc. Better me than them."
"That's not what I..."
"No, but it's what I meant. Let's go."
The drive out into the countryside was pretty boring, especially since the Doc seemed awfully nervous. Erik couldn't blame him. Ever since he'd been to the doc's office things had started to go straight to hell in a hand basket, and so far it was a rocky ride. He felt like he was spiralling into insanity, and wondered if he was. If it was he'd wake up strapped to a bed hopped up on drugs, probably, then have to make some kind of hellish recovery. But the problem was, it felt all too real. Never mind the whole fact that all of the students at Whately took the concept of reality and wadded it up for a game of basketball.
The truck lurched as the doc took the truck off the road. Signs were posted, he didn't pay attention until he saw the very prominent hazard warnings, marked with the biohazard sigil. One had the instantly recognizable nuclear radiation symbol. "Uh doc? where are we going?"
"Hazard zone. We test students with powers that are dangerous and often uncontrollable out here. There's a few who'd qualify were it not for their control. Tennyo for instance."
"Blue haired girl, tends to stand in defiance of gravity. One of the Poe kids."
"I think I read the file, but I tend not to remember the kids' details unless I have to. Only Poe kids I'm familiar with are Nikki, that Jade kid, and one or two of the boys who make the Gunny uncomfortable."
Bellows chuckled. "Gunny Bardue is a character but at least he doesn't hold it against the kids."
"Nah, Gunny's a pro. Besides, the kids tend to like him. I'm the one a lot of 'em have problems with."
"Ah, yes, you're the so-called 'range Nazi.' I figured you'd be taller."
Erik chuckled mildly. "Kids never really seem to understand the safety rules until someone gets really hurt."
"Erik, be careful. This range is for children who cannot keep their powers in check. Watch yourself. If you can bleed off the magic energy safely, I'll be happy. If not I have no idea what will happen."
Erik nodded. "Hey is that Westmount? What's he doing out here?"
"Earning Hazard pay."
Erik shook his head and got out of the truck with a nod to the doc, and walked to the Englishman fairly calmly. Inside his emotions were roiling. He barely noted it when Doctor Bellows revved the truck and drove away. "I wasn't expecting to see you out here old man."
Westmount nodded. "Yes, but the magic department is rightly rather skittish about you Erik. They are worried that they would only accidentally overcharge you and cause you to burn out. In fact the only volunteers to assist in helping you overcome this ordeal were Nichole and Sara Waite."
"Hope you squashed that idea Sir Westmount. I won't endanger the kids." Erik considered. "Maybe the Ultraviolents."
Westmount chuckled. "Well Erik, please call me Wallace. I believe two men risking death together should at least be on a first-name basis."
"Can't argue with you there. So what's the plan?"
"A few simple exercises. You soak up mystic power like a sponge. We are going to see if we can squeeze you out a bit."
"Wow, my smartass gland just ran out of juice. I don't know how to respond to that one."
"Small mercies Erik. Shall we?"
"Yeah. Let's get to it." Erik looked up. "Thanks. I appreciate this."
"No man should walk into danger alone Erik. Yea though I walk through the valley in the shadow of death..."
Erik finished the statement. "I shall fear no evil, for I am the baddest motherfucker in the valley, and my battalion is well entrenched"
The exercises were a series of meditative exercises, during which Erik outlined the knowledge gap in his talent. Wallace seemed troubled about that but let it pass. He also described the undercurrent he felt almost beyond his perceptions and Wallace nodded. "All right Erik I want you to focus on that target down there. I want you to watch my movements, and words. Normally I'd force you to learn the formulae and the hows and why's but for this purpose, we need to try and bleed off your power. The target has a symbol engraved. That is the formula. Keep it firmly in your mind as you do as I do."
Wallace went through a fairly simple series of gestures, and spoke a word. "Incendius!" The adjacent target burst into flame. He showed Erik the motions again and again, forcing the marine to get them just so. Erik finally nodded and turned to the target and performed the motions and spoke the word. The currents seemed to catch in his hand and formed into... something, then snapped from his grip as he felt a wash of energy burn into him.
"What happened? Your execution was almost perfect. I thought you were actually going to get it on the first try."
Erik looked at Wallace nervously. "That's just it. It worked. I felt it pull back and diffuse into me. Just like all the other shit."
"This can't be good."
Erik turned, and he felt one of the currents seem to stick to his skin, and as he felt it snap away he felt a spark, and a burning sensation as the air around his arm burst into a shockwave, throwing him and Wallace apart.
He tried to stand, and the brush at his feet caught fire. "Fuck me Wallace get the fuck out of here! Whatever it is it's catching and breaking off me!" He darted away from the sudden fore and vanished with a sick *POP* and reappeared forty feet away. He tried to turn, and again felt the current catch on him and froze in place like a soldier stepping on a land mine.
"Erik are you OK?" Wallace was running forward and realized Erik stood stock-still. He stopped a few feet away. "What is happening"
Erik rasped out through gritted teeth. "Those currents. They're clearer and they're sticking and snapping every time I move. Ever step on a mine that if you lift your foot it goes off?"
"Can't say I have."
"Well it's happening like that, and with every step I make I can feel that charge building. I think you might want to get the hell out of here Wallace."
"I'm not just going to leave you out here Erik."
"Yes Wallace, you are. Go. You've done all you can, now get clear and get away. No one's saying it'll be lethal. We just know it might be lethal. And no point in you getting killed by accident."
"Which way is the center of the range zone here Wallace?"
The gentleman sighed and pointed. "Godspeed sir."
"Thanks. Now get out of here. I don't want any more ghosts on my conscience."
Wallace walked away from the range, got into his vehicle and drove away, fully conscious of the fact that he was leaving a good man to die alone, and knowing that good man would not allow him to stay and bear witness. He hoped that Erik was right, and this wouldn't be fatal, but he wasn't optimistic.
Erik stood stock-still for a very long time, far longer than it should have taken the man to get clear, then tensed, crouched and felt the energies clinging like spider webs to him, and he burst into a full sprint directly towards the center field, felt the energies build, release and burst around him, building up a tempo rather akin to a machine gun the faster and farther he ran, oblivious to the wake of fire, ice, storms of force or the bizarre transformations that erupted and burned about him. When the final eruption happened he was beyond delirious, and when the final wave took him he was mercifully well beyond where pain could reach him.