Call the Thunder: Chapter 2

A Whateley Academy Story

Call The Thunder

By Joe Gunnarson and the Whateley Crew

Chapter 2: Wake-up Call

Monday, December 11th, 2006

The Crystal Hall was packed, with most of the students crammed into the cafeteria, vying for breakfast and time in the excited rush to get fed. Most of them were jonesing for the good seats in Arena 99 and didn't want to be caught in the nosebleed section when the fun began. Only a few tables sported students taking their sweet time, mostly because their seats were reserved, they thought the Combat Finals was just another potential ego-train, or they figured that there would be mayhem aplenty to be witnessed, so were in no hurry to fight the crush for the good seats.

The Alphas were at their accustomed table talking, unconcerned by the frenetic movements of the lesser students. Sara's small cluster of friends had settled into a small corner, deliberately moving at a more relaxed pace in comparison to their peers. The Wild Pack just sat, shaking their heads while the Capes were relaxed and S.T.A.R. League Junior settled in to watch the aftermath and help the Security forces on Campus keep things from heating up too much during the inevitable row that was in-progress. Most of the Junior and Senior power teams treated everything like business as usual, while the froshes and sophomores jostled, shoved and bolted in and out of the Crystal hall like their asses were on fire.

In one of the less-frequented spots used by the Crystal Hall, five of the most heavily GSD students who were still able to move about on their own without assistance or special gear wolfed down plates of food at their normal, ferocious pace. Well, Jericho's wardrobe was usually considered severe GSD all on its own. Razorback, Diamondback, Jericho, Phobos and Deimos sat at their table, joking, making wisecracks and generally being a bunch of loons, as they were wont to do. Neither Jericho nor Diamondback questioned the presence of their three ultraviolent friends, and all in all the company was always welcome.

Jericho was grinning while he talked. “So Jobe being the arrogant little bugger decides that he is wants in on the action! I swear to god these two could give lessons in the Mad Scientist community for hokey attitudes. So while I'm telling Belphegor that no, I wasn't going to let him use my table-scanner to work the bugs out of his latest creation of abominable genetics Jobe makes like he's all sly and walks by, pocketing Belfy's blood samples from the scanner that I'm ensuring isn't working and replacing them with something else.”

“Oh dear God, please tell me they're not still snarking on and on about that perfect girlfriend shit.” Phobos, one of the 'Fury twins' put her lower left arm to her face and sighed.

The Fury twins were card-carrying members of the small, but odd group of Whateley girls who fell into the category of beautiful, but creepy. Except for hair color they were identical twins with Phobos having bright, flame-red hair and Deimos having hair so black it almost had blue highlights. Both of them had three pale green eyes apiece, fangs, four arms with pretty little clawed hands, a pair of whiplike reptilian tails, small horns coming from their foreheads and digitigrate legs ending in hooves. The fun part was the aura they both had that left bystanders with a feeling of creeping unease, or outright fear that spiked straight to absolute terror when they were adrenaline rushing or just plain mad. Anyone they hung out with on a regular basis was invariably very hard to spook, or just had a hefty amount of willpower. Even then they were uncomfortable to be around for long stretches.

“Oh yeah, perfect girlfriend this, Dhrow that, both accusing each other of stealing their research.” Jericho's grin started eating his face. “Well of course Nephandus and his stupid-ass prettyboy attitude has to go defend his Bad Seed buddy and brings over this weird cyborged-out golem thing. To make a long story short, threats flew, the screaming started, Neph made an ass on himself with his speech about how he was the nemesis of all that was pure and then Belph started claiming he was the true genius. It devolved from there and all right in front of my shop space in the main bay. So I did what any aspiring weird science fanatic does. Sat back, moved my tools and took a sip of my coffee.”

“So what happened?” Deimos liked Jericho's stories from the Devisor Lab, even if they didn't have a punchline.

“Well, a scuffle started, when Bephegor realized that Jobe had snaked his DNA samples, and Nephandus started cackling, and calling him a fool. So things are getting really heated when Belphegor threw a wrench, missed Nephandus and knocked my coffee out of my hand and spilled most of it on the shop floor.”

Razorback and Diamondback, Jericho's reptilian teammates turned and looked at him curiously. If there's one thing that anyone could call truly neurotic about their team Devisor, it was his obsession with coffee, his personal Black Death and inspiration. Even back home in Texas screwing with Joe Turner's coffee mug was akin to a death warrant, because he'd start the pranks, and wouldn't stop until he got bored. Even the bullies left the fat kid's thermos alone, although these days Jericho was looking less chubby around the cheeks and belly. Hard work and trying to keep up with a trio of exemplars will tend to do that to someone.

“So now, I'm thinking to myself, 'self, these asshats just spilled my Java all over my workshop floor.' So now not only am I gonna have to be the poor ass that has to go get the mop, but I have no coffee. And the coffeemaker was all the way at the opposite end of the Lab. This was a true dilemma for me.”

“Oh dear god, here it comes.” Diamondback was grinning. Razorback had already begun chuckling.

Jericho leaned back in his seat, idly playing with his coffee mug and noted that it was almost empty. He downed the last of it and smiled. “So I do what any self-respecting Devisor does when his plans are thwarted. I unleashed my Arachnid bots on the lot of them because I still have them hooked into the teleporter marix that they keep fired up to move heavy shit around. So now, Nephandus and Belphegor are being swarmed by doberman-sized metal spiders, and Jobe is laughing his merry little ass off at them. But I haven't forgotten him, oh no. I very calmly went back to my locker, and pulled out a nice bit of work that I'd stolen from him earlier this semester. He borrowed my surgical tools without asking, so turnabout's fair play. I of course am completely innocent of all wrongdoing, merrily setting up Belphegor's auto-injector with something I chose at random from his mutation rack at Jobe's work console, since I can't read. I swear these twits couldn't have given me better cover.”

“So finally the teachers get to the scene and they're trying to get my little technological terrors under control when Neph, who's screaming like a little girl while they try to maim him, gets the bright idea to blow a magically amped EMP grenade in the middle of the cluster. And people wonder why I tempest-harden everything. Oh man, you could hear screaming clear across the bay, hell Megadeath threw his wrench across the damned Workshop and started 'dricking himself. He was pissed. It all devolved from there. Meanwhile I wiped a bit of the little concoction from Jobe onto Belphegor's thermos of whatever the hell he drinks that I had conveniently wandered over by, tapping my cane the whole way. Then, I went and poured a bit of Belpho's 'Eye-enhancement' serum into Nephandus' tea, another acquisition from earlier that he wanted to test on me. I kept it and told him it just gave me gas.”

-Oh you are a rotten fucker Jericho. I approve, and I ask you to remind me never to piss you off. - Razorback was signing away, and enjoying the tale as it went off.

“So finally, Mr. Bumsfeld and Ms. Merenis get things under control when my spiders 'conveniently' lost power and switched off. I, of course, simply use my cane to hunt for my portable control unit that had been seemingly stomped on by Neph's Golem-thing, which is at this point twitching and crying out like a wounded moose from the EMP shock. We have a near-riot forming around the little escapade as the other Devisors realize that these three idiots were the source of the EMP burst, and I still don't have coffee. Well, Bunny, being the little sweetie she is, helped me clean up the coffee mess around my station and refills my mug for me. That girl is forever on my list of friends” Jericho grinned evilly. “Whether she wants to be or not.”

“Poor, poor little Poesie. She knows not what she has done.” Diamondback said solemnly, then started cackling maniacally.

“Now, after things calm down, Belph and Neph are trying to calm down, drinking their non-coffee beverages like the heretics that they are when Jobe yelps like Old Yeller while holding his hand. Yup. He found Belphegor's present. Belphegor drinks a few more sips and then turns green and starts throwing up all over the place, and drops a load in his pants as Jobe's little concoction makes him lose all control over his digestive tract. Nephandus starts screaming and clutching his eyes, screaming about going blind, which he was since they were turning into something resembling a bad butt joke, and Jobe's arm starts flopping around like a boned fish with the fingers fusing together. Looks like I found Belpho's Kraken formula he was going on and on about. Oops.”

The Outcasts and the Fury twins started chuckling to themselves as Jericho summed up. “It took those three morons a WEEK to get that shit out of their systems and reverse the changes. The entire time they were furiously plotting revenge, and from what I understand, they are all planning their vendetta to go off during Combat Finals, with a little encouragement from Yours Truly of course. So now we enter Combat finals with Round Two in the offing and I have me some serious Egos to annihilate. I mean, how the hell do you miss the blind guy in dreadlocks, a kilt and a purple wifebeater get up, walk away, and come back a few minutes later after you tear up his work space?”

Phobos and Deimos were smiling beatifically. The pair of them hated Jobe and Nephandus with a passion bordering on holy. Apparently Jobe had been the cause of their extra arms and claws, as well as the hooves when he'd made a perfectly reasonable-sounding offer to help them overcome their conjoinment issues when they got angry and to get rid of their paired tails and extra eyes so they could fit in better. The current odds were as soon as Jobe stepped off campus during graduation they were gonna tear him limb from limb. Wishful thinking kept them from going nuts.

Belphegor was another “helpful” rat-bastard who'd originally tested his Kraken Formula on a girl called Grabby, who was now scaled like diamondback, but with cream and pinkish scales. Her legs were gone, replaced with eight thick octopus tentacles that were strong enough to keep her upright and mobile, and her arms had been replaced with yet another pair of tentacles, all delicately scaled. Grabby had been looking for a way to correct a cerebral palsy problem she was rapidly succumbing to. It worked, but the cure was almost as bad as the disease, as she was now one of the freaks of Whateley.

Nephandus... Well what could be said about Nephandus that didn't involve him being an arrogant, pigheaded prettyboy with far too much money and far too few attacks of conscience. He, like Jobe and Belphegor, tried to be the brooding, and impressive evil genius warlock with style. Unfortunately he WAS a genius, but he couldn't get the brooding down, and he lacked in anything resembling style save his rich kid wardrobe. Nephandus was the brutalized butt of many of Jericho's pranks, up to and including Jericho sneaking into the lab, breaking into Nephandus' storage units, then altering many of the little toys with which Neph tried desperately to win the love, affection and the minds of a few of the girls at school, even the annoyingly hot Fey.

The chatter went on for a few minutes when Deimos growled above her tray, which was almost screaming for mercy as she tore into the assorted foods with a gusto that would have made a rabid pack of wolves proud. Phobos looked over and grimaced.

“Heads up guys, Pretty at three o'clock, coming our way like she wants something.” the tricloptian redhead mumbled.

Everyone snaked a glance over and the three Outcasts started chuckling.

“Chill ladies, that’s just Caitlin,” Diamondback smiled. “She got here while you two were at that funeral your family pulled you for. Trust me, she's cool.”

“If you say so.” Phobos and Deimos did the particular creepy twin trick of saying the exact same thing, at the exact same time, in the same tone.

Razor gave out a barking screech and pumped a fist in the air at the chrome-haired girl burning with insane energies, and she visibly smiled. “Hey Razor, how's it hanging?”

-Down, a little to the left and hard to carry.- Being mute never stopped Razor from being a smartass since he knew sign language.

Jericho and Diamond both started snickering while Phobos and Deimos watched Caitlin with leery eyes.

“That one's a storm,” Deimos muttered. “I can feel her from here. Cheerful on the surface, cold-blooded fury and frustration in the middle. And fear, but not from us.” Her sister nodded slowly. “None of it's directed at us.”

“That's normal for her.” Diamondback nodded toward the newcomer.

“Yeah, and that aura she's porting's weird. She rips up reality just by being in it.” Jericho's expression went from thoughtful to gleeful as Cait got to the table. “It's just fucking cool to watch.”

Caitlin dropped her tray unceremoniously, as usual, next to Razorback and slid in next to the dinosaur-like rager. “Can someone translate what he said?” She jerked her thumb at him.

“Razor says hi.” Jericho grinned wider.

-No I didn't you prankaholic nerdboy. I said my balls were lopsided. Get it straight.-

“And he's jealous that you can wear that halter so well. Something about getting himself fitted for panties and a dress.” Razor hit Jericho between the eyes with an egg in response.

Diamondback smirked. “The boys are giggling themselves stupid over Jericho's antics in the labs. So while they get their 'it's all about me' time, this is Phobos and Deimos. They're the infamous Fury twins I told ya about.”

“I thought you had a fear thing going on.” Caitlin looked at the two, shrugged, then proceeded to start ripping her plate apart. Really the only thing that separated the two semi-normal outcasts from their more feral or animalistic friends in eating habits was their penchant for using utensils.

“And I thought your aura made reality... go... Haywire?” Phobos wasn't really able to inject the snark as a jagged bolt of green energy arced along her hand and caused the fork to animate in Caitlin's hands. The manic piece of metal immediately tried to escape her hand by stabbing it's tines at her eyes after throwing a piece of sausage at her.

Caitlin gave Phobos a blank look. “Oh how I just love being me.” she deadpanned. She slammed the fork to the table and drew her obsidian-bladed harvester and cut the thing in half, whereupon it sparked, and went back to normal, albeit with the tines curled up in a way that was akin to a dead insect's legs.

Phobos and Deimos exchanged looks. Each knew the other was confused, as the obviously exemplar “pretty” had more or less given them a cursory glance then went about her business. Usually there were creeped out, disgusted or pitying looks. The pity was always the worst to take. She also let that fear generated by their aura slip into the sea of negative emotions that were bottled up and contained deep within her, as though pain, fear, frustration and rage had been with her for so long that they had become a part of her as much as those odd, metal, runed eyes. They looked at the Outcasts and got the impression that this was business as usual.

Caitlin's return impressions were much different, and more insightful as they were less based on power that she didn't have and quite a bit of foreknowledge. The two girls wore matching halters and shorts, obviously modified for their unusual frames. They both were slouched with a wary, challenging expression, so she guessed that their self-esteem was in the crapper but they would be nasty to anyone who pushed it in their faces. The bright red ultraviolent armbands on their lower-left arms near the second shoulder told Cait that provoking them would be like poking a bear with a flaming stick. Not conducive to health and long life.

Ultraviolents came in five flavors recognized by the administration, and by mutant experts worldwide, although they were called other things by the psychology majors of the world. There were your 'flip out and attack whatever pissed you off and anyone nearby' types, which Razorback, Phobos and Deimos were. The Whateley designation for them was a bright red armband with a very visible UV printed in black letters. For the ragers and sickos who loved to hurt people, or loved to fight there was a black armband with red letters. The kids who were just dangerous by virtue of the nature of mutation, there was a dark green armband with red letters. The poor schleps that were always just getting sucked into fights wound up with a white band lettered in black. The really dangerous ones, for whom there was a “Thou shalt not provoke” edict, the armband was blue. Shapeshifters screwed up the curve, so guys like Jimmy Trauger always were required to wear a name tag in lieu of the armband.

“So what's got you so cheerful this morning?” Deimos asked Caitlin cautiously. Unlike many of the Ultras, neither Phobos, nor Deimos liked the fact that they could be rapidly overwhelmed by whatever emotions were being felt by the people around them and mirror them, then have them amplified in their own minds. This effect had led to some very embarassing situations as it didn't just work on rage, fear and negative emotions. There had been a few lucky Twain and Melville boys on campus after one of the sisters or the other wound up getting too close to people making out when no one was watching them. Most of the boys involves remembered a very wild, but eerily frightening experience. Fortunately said boys had thus far shown the common sense not to brag about it or comment on the twins' virtue.

Both of the twins wanted Caitlin's dark side to stay bottled up in the background static.

“I started my first job officially today on campus, being Smythe's admin bitch on the ranges, and I managed to recover thirteen missing guns.” Caitlin smirked. “Plus I'm officially on the security auxiliary. So now they aren't going to hassle me when I want to get out and walk around at night. Ugh, I give up.” The nascent Artificer pushed her tray away when all of the food suddenly turned into bluish ice shaped like food.

Jericho looked over, having finished his food and smirked. “You going to eat that?”

“Nope, it's all yours buddy.” Caitlin handed the tray over to Jericho with a sweet smile.

Diamondback had to stifle a smirk as Jericho picked up a piece of food and crunched down on the ice. He yelped and spit the offending cold shards out... onto Razorback.

A loud, and indignant shriek erupted as Razor glared at Jericho and the dreadlocked Devisor sputtered. “Agh! You coulda warned me!”

Caitlin leaned back and smiled at Jericho. “Tunnel incident.”

Jericho started turning a bit red. “Uh. Right. So can we call it even?”

“Ohhhh no, boyo. You'll be paying for that one for months.”

“Are we missing something here?” Diamondback asked, confused.

-Nerd Wonder here decided that playing a bit of a prank on the newbie was a grand idea. So he set up a nitrogen cooler meant to drop the temperature by about forty degrees in the Thorny sub-level where we do our guitar shtick, which you are going to sing for tonight, by the way. Unfortunately, he accidentally cracked one of the cooling lines for the sub-basement and Cait got a liquid nitrogen bath and all her clothes broke and fell off. Then things got REALLY weird. We both had to run like hell because she about exploded, the walls started writhing, fire and lightning went everywhere, and we had a general panic until Circe sent me to the utility sheds for a spare set of clothing for her.- Razorback shot a look at Jericho, who was really trying to look invisible. He loved being the prank king of Twain, but he was invariably mortified when the pranks went too far.

“Put it this way Diamond, I'm almost immune to the cold and when that crap hit me I felt hypothermic.” Caitlin shot Jericho a mock-angry look. “I hadn't gotten like that since I lived in Alaska.”

“Jericho? Remember what I said about pranks backfiring? You're gonna feel this one for years.” Diamondback had a smug expression on her face.

“I know, I know ok? Jeez! I'm sorry! I said it before, I'll say it a thousand more times if I have to!”

“You're lucky no one saw me naked. I'd have really been pissed.” Caitlin said archly.

“See you naked? Yeah right, sorry Cait, I was too busy running for cover, and I heard something screaming and snarling in there and it wasn't you.”

“Trust me, you don't want to know. By the way, bud. I'd avoid the maintenance crew for a bit. They called Stan and Morrie in to clean up the mess, and they weren't able to get their other crewmates in so they had to fix that shit by themselves.” Cait looked a bit smug.

“Oh no. Oh god. No wonder the toilets back up whenever I use them since then.” Jericho shook his head. “I offered to help fix the damage!”

“Doomed.” The intoned word by the twins had the finality of the grave buried within. Then they cracked grins.

“Oh I wish I had a camera!” Diamondback smiled serenely as she cherished the look on Jericho's face. After a second, she abruptly looked at Razorback. “What do you mean I'm singing tonight?”

 

The arena was packed to the gills with teachers and students. Razorback led the other five through the throng, weaving and ducking the masses until he found what he was looking for. Sue, Lucille, Rhianna and Anna of the Underdogs had somehow managed to tie up six extra seats. Caitlin chuckled as she saw the “Reserved for Ultraviolents” signs on the loose chairs. The four girls weren't even mildly put off by any of the Outcasts, getting up and giving big hugs to the mottled black and yellow-brown velociraptor-thing that was Razorback. Diamondback got similar treatment, and the girls just shook Jericho's hand, which he missed several times trying to “find” playing up the blind man act for all it was worth. Not for the first time Caitlin wondered why he'd told her about his oddball senses allowing him to perceive everything around him when he played up the whole blind man act so much.

Caitlin actually knew Anna and Sue from the ranges. The two of them had been taking pistol courses from Cat before Halloween. She'd wound up picking up the slack for about two weeks before her life had taken a sharp left from reality. Both were actually a fair hand with a nine-millimeter pistol, and she had wished more than once that she had been better with pistolwork so she could teach them better. Wilson had taken over that duty in the interim and he, Bardue and Smythe were all running ragged trying to keep the three gun ranges open, as well as the combat simulators below the main arena complex of Arena 99. From what Caitlin had seen, they were doing it by the skin of their teeth and running the student assistants ragged. She would have volunteered to help program the Arena scenarios, but the likelihood of her accidentally destroying the sensitive equipment was a bit too much to risk.

The first few matches were over already, given the Outcast proclivity towards taking it slow and easy. Besides, they hadn't missed much with Peeper and Greasy giving a running commentary on the fights in progress on WARS, although the comments about the hot bodies in skimpy clothing were annoying.

Caitlin found herself wedged into a seat between Diamondback and Deimos, uncomfortably aware that she felt out of place, and trying not to move too much for fear of hurting one or the other. While she knew that hurting an exemplar was pretty damned hard in the long run, and accidentally transforming them was largely a non-issue, it could still hurt like hell. And if her wards went out she'd have a problem of epic proportions, as Jericho and Razor found out by accident.

“So how's this shit work?” Diamondback asked, leaning towards Razor.

Caitlin pointed to the overhead screens. “That's going to be where detail stuff will display along with MID info. Each of the sim programs is pretty much generic. You remember when Carson said, 'in most cases, students are being paired up at random'? What that meant was that sometimes, it’s not even close to random. And not everyone's going to eat the stupid spindle scenario down there.” Caitlin looked up at the display. “We're actually on fight five. We should see the next one soon.”

“How do you know all this?” Phobos asked.

“My adopted father is programming the scenarios. He told me how it works, and what the rules were gonna be, but didn't give me anything more specific.”

“Fun fun.” Jericho looked around. “So what are the rules this year since we missed the opening announcements?”

Lucille forcibly grinned in the face of the Fury Twins’ fear aura. “You'll love it. It's called the Doomsday Device scenario. See the spindle down there with all the glowy lights on it? That's the objective.” The cute underdog put in the wanted info excitedly, much to Caitlin's seeming relief. “You have to use the keypad and voice software to answer questions to activate the spindle. Takes about 30 seconds to do if you're quick. You succeed you win and your opponent flat loses. The whole thing's rigged so that you can't snake around the win/loss criteria.”

“Oh fun. So what's my motivation here?” Deimos looked at her sideways.

“Well, Combat Finals are thirty percent of your semester grade. And we'll be marked up or down on how well we perform, not on whether we win or not. A passing grade means we get an option for a new class or something. I forget what it was though. Big thing is to throw everything you got because you can win and still get an F on this one.”

“Oh greeeeeeat. Makes me wanna perform there.”

“Hey guys! It’s starting again!” Anna smirked and looked at the display.

The picture displayed was of a Native American with a nervous smile. She was pretty, and had a white streak of hair along the right side of her head in the MID photo. Thankfully, only the arena-bound spectators could see that Photo. She'd found out just why Whateley's infamous Arena 99 had a “Masks required” rule three days ago from A.D. and she was thankful that the viewing public wouldn't be treated to her unmasked face on the Mutant Deathmatch broadcasts that were undoubtedly running on Pay-Per-View. The MID card info read:

Code Name:

Heyoka

Ratings::

Exemplar 1, Empath(rec)3, Empath(pro)2, Shifter 1

Techniques:

Dialing 911, Running Away, Hiding, Improvised Weapons, Begging for Mercy, Taunting

Weak vs.:

Narcolepsy <Do Not Wake>, Migraines, Speech disorder (intermittant)

Backup/Team affiliation:

No official team, loosely affiliated with Team Kimba

A ragged cheer came from the section of the arena where the Poesies seemed to be largely clustered as the MID card went up.

Diamondback started giggling at Heyoka's “techniques.” “Hey if I'd known we could be smartass about it I'd have done something like that for the MID card!”

Caitlin smirked “Yeah well, you'll have to change it when you graduate anyway. They're a lot more forgiving on student types, part of the agreement between Carson and the MCO to keep 'em off Whateley's case.”

“Wonderful. Oh well. Not like I need to worry about that for another four years.”

“So who is it, and who's the opposition?” Jericho asked, genuinely irritated that he couldn't read the screens.

“First one up is Heyoka. Have any of you figured out if he's a boy? I have a real hard time telling.” Sue said mildly,” and they're about to... There it is. Oh god it's Alvin!”

Code Name:

Cerebrex

Ratings::

PDP, ESP 2, Psi 2, PK 3

Techniques:

Strength Enhancement, Mind Hunter, TK Throw, Flight, Ram Surge

Weak vs.:

Emotional overload

Backup/Team affiliation:

Vindicators

Most of the Underdogs, and all three of the original Outcasts groaned when they saw the lineup. Caitlin, Phobos and Deimos leaned forward to watch, curious.

 

Heyoka bit her lip slightly and slipped into the crowd like just another normal bystander, albeit with a headscarf mask that covered the top of her head, and had holes for her eyes, mingling and doing everything to not draw attention to herself. She wasn't exactly easy to pick out as she wound her way towards the spindle cautiously. One baseball cap later and even the headscarf was subdued somewhat. The brightly-colored orange windbreaker was just the kind of touristy kitsch that one would expect to see in a crowded street. The pants were generic, not so baggy that it stood out, not so tight that it highlighted the shape of her frame.

She wasn't looking forward to dealing with Alvin Cuthbert, the self-styled Captain Canada!, or Cerebrex officially, who was a supreme annoyance and all around pain in the ass to anyone with even a modicum of something resembling common sense. Alvin's long-winded diatribes on the greatness of Canada were painful, and annoying beyond all reason. He couldn't use Captain Canada! as his codename officially, due to rules laid down about that kind of thing, so he was stuck with the supervillain-esque moniker of Cerebrex.

She grumbled to herself, not wanting to have to deal with the so-called finals which would put her at an inordinate disadvantage against a large chunk of the student body since she couldn’t count on spiritual help for a win. This left her with what she had learned in Survival class, the great joy of joys where you learned important combat techniques such as running like hell, dialing 911 and hiding from dangerous people. The actual class final had been bad enough when Mr. Anderson had brought in a small group of the most terrifying students on campus to play aggressor while his students tried like mad to escape their attention. The great big, mottled, black and orange, spined velociraptor had been her aggressor for the test, which she had passed, barely. She'd wound up playing up the other student's seeming inability to work around basic things like doors and locks, only to find out later that he'd been playing dumb.

She glanced to the sky occasionally and kept an ear out as the spindle came into view. Alvin was already there, in his atrocious red and white costume with a giant red maple leaf emblazoned on the chest. A diamond-shaped shield completed the image of this comic-book rip-off as he began punching in his codes for the spindle to register him as the winner.

A quick look to the left and right revealed what she wanted. A crowded street, lots of people and cars, plenty of cover. A nearby policeman stood, idly watching traffic and she smiled, wandering over to the cop. “Excuse me, officer? That guy over there by the spire thing's acting all wigged out and said something about that device and the power grids around here. Something about an overload.”

Heyoka noted the name tag: Officer Catspaw. Someone had a sick sense of humor.

 

“Holy shit, Gunny!” Wilson started chortling, “did she just do what I think she did?”

Gunny Bardue looked up from the control console and smiled. “Well that's a first. Give it to her, full response. Let's see how Captain Canada! deals with law enforcement climbing up his ass.”

“I'm on it.” Wilson turned and began inputting commands and speaking to the audio pickups.

Ito smiled mildly and sat back to watch the chaos unfold.

 

The Kimbas were cheering when Chaka spotted Heyoka slipping through the crowd. They watched as the girl snuck her way to the spindle, and then started talking to the cop. All of a sudden Fey burst out laughing like a maniac when she realized what Heyoka was up to. The laugh was contagious as the girls and Hank rapidly put two and two together, got the appropriate number, and watched the fun begin to unfold while the other students around them snarked about a “boring match.”

 

Jamie “Heyoka” Carson didn't wait to watch the police officer go do his thing. Instead she went bolting around to the crowded areas of bystanders and began saying things like: “Holy shit, that cop's going after a mutant alone!” and “Someone call the cops! I think that guy at the spire's arming a weapon!” The crowd began turning and people saw the cop, weapon drawn facing the obvious, costumed mutant at the ready.

“Sir, please step away from the terminal.” The cop waited for a moment while Cerebrex in his ridiculous Canadian best continued to plug away at the machine, oblivious to the law officer. “SIR! You in the stupid Canada suit! Turn around now and step away from the terminal, now!”

The stunned look on Whateley's own erstwhile Captain Canada! when he turned to face the cop was priceless. “Officer, is there a problem?”

“I have a report about you acting suspicious here, now step away from the terminal and remain motionless until we get this sorted out.” The cop kept his distance, warily.

“Officer I assure you, there is nothing untoward going on here, I'm merely disarming this machine so my nefarious enemy cannot use it to his whims.”

“God, trust this jackass to be all corny and comic-booky.” Heyoka muttered to herself as she readied her next little 'Surprise' to spice up the show. “Why do I always have to deal with the goofy ones?”

In retrospect it was probably for the best that Alvin was a pretentious little git. It gave her room to maneuver, since the boy was just not that bright. Unfortunately she knew from experience that a brick like himcould pulp her in a fistfight. She looked around at the crowd which was unconsciously moving in to get a better view, and then the whispers began.

Heyoka blended in with the crowd well, appearing as a young girl that was fairly nondescript, a side-effect of her slow recovery from channeling a spirit that had definitely been on the female side. This was a good thing as her normally gender-ambiguous appearance might draw a bit too much attention.

The argument had continued while she got ready and she could clearly hear Captain Canada!, Cerebrex, she corrected herself, pontificating. “Fear not, ladies and gentlemen, I will ensure that my villainous opponent cannot take advantage of this fair city, for I am Captain Ca...”

Cerebrex pointing to the crowd, while striking a heroic pose was too tempting, as she snapped off a couple inches of fuse from the little toy in her hand, and lit it, rolling it out into the open behind Officer Catspaw.

BANG! The gadgeteer flashbang went off right behind the cop, who happened to be pointing his gun at her Canadian patriot opponent. The gun went off and Captain Canada! barely had enough time and warning to bring up his shield a few inches. It was just enough to deflect the bullet into the crowd watching nearby. Screaming began, and the crowd panicked while the cop began screaming into his radio while trying to shoot at the costumed maniac in front of him. The caped loony had used a power on the crowd and then deflected the cop's bullet into bystanders, by all appearances. A man was screaming on the ground, bleeding, and Heyoka's stomach lurched as she realized what would have happened in a real crowd.

Unfortunately Cerebrex was a Package-Deal-Psychic, and had kicked in his TK, using it and his shield to deflect the bullets away from his body. Also unfortunately, he'd had enough time to build up the emotional intensity to use his powers fully as the crowd surged.

Heyoka's distraction at the wounded bystander cost her. She found herself thrown to the ground and scrambling as the throng stampeded, and forced herself to get back into the game. Some went running from Cerebrex, some attacked him, some stood in shock or screaming. In short it was utter chaos. Perfect. Mr. Anderson always said that confusion was a weapon. Use it to your advantage.

She scrambled into a crouch and looked, then dove into a group of people that were oddly running towards the spindle and got in with them, trying desperately to look panicked like the crowd. She glanced over and grinned, noting that Captain Numbskull was desperately trying to defend himself from the crowd while trying to calm them down.

“People, please calm down! I am not your enemy!” He sounded almost desperate as Heyoka did her civic duty and fired a Tazer she'd picked up a few weeks before into the back of this obviously dangerous lunatic. He jerked spasmodically and fell to the ground, as he hadn't been shielding his backside and the crowd surged at him like a wave of enraged dogs. Really all that was missing was the torches and pitchforks.

She reached the spindle and began the process of getting her information plugged in by wiping Cerebrex's answers and plugging in her student number. The mixture of voice-activated answers and typed responses was slow, and painful. She stumbled a few times, when she realized the crowd had parted, or been thrown clear of Mister Psi-brick and she was exposed. Her opponent had also noticed the flashing lights as the spindle ran through the processes of challenging her mind.

“And my nemesis shows her face, finally.” Cerebrex stood proudly as heyoka scanned the area and found her next target for mayhem. “You cannot stand against Captain Canada! protector of the Canadia... Where you think you're going?”

Heyoka was already running like a lunatic for a street crowded with fleeing pedestrians and vehicles when her opponent, foolishly forgetting about the spindle, took to the air to chase her. Fortunately for her, her target was well within reach and clear of bystanders, as the crowd was running away from the flying idiot. Bonus!

She lit another firecracker on the run, one with a long fuse and started counting. At one second she reached the car, at three seconds she had the gas cap off as her erstwhile opponent rushed in at her. At five seconds, the firecracker went down the pipe, having been drawn from the supplies of a gadgeteer who thought standard firecrackers were a waste of money, and the laws hadn't gotten around to banning his particular brand of pyrotechnics. He also had a fondness for coated fuses that kept the burn contained and unnoticed until it was too late, which kept the tank from blowing prematurely. At seven seconds, Cerebrex was flying low, directly at her as she ran like hell.

At nine seconds the firecracker went off, exploding and igniting the fumes in the gas tank, causing pressure to tear the vehicle apart and hit Cerebrex with a blast of heat and a spray of burning gasoline. People screamed, sirens blared, and confusion reigned supreme as she ducked into another crowd, ditching the jacket and hastily rummaging for a purple sweater and long, red wig. Thirty seconds later she was another pedestrian wearing cool weather clothing and some stylish sunglasses, wandering back to the original scene, while Cerebrex, the man with delusions of being a national superhero under the name Captain Canada!, flew overhead, searching for the dark-haired native that had managed to make him look like a complete jackass.

She found the spindle, untouched, and simply walked up and began inputting her final codes while her angered opponent circled. He didn't see her until it was far, far too late. He dove at the flashing thing in time to hear the gong and the announcement: “Victory to Heyoka.”

Heyoka stood, smirked and shucked the wig and glasses. With a wave she yelled “The world is mine!” and bolted for the exit with a maniacal supervillain laugh.

 

“Dammit, there's another trail of this stuff!” Fey gave a disgusted look at the knotted and twisted lines in the entrance of the arena proper at lunch time. “I really want to find out who's doing this!”

“Oh calm down Nikki, it's not like you don't deal with weird shit like this every day.” Toni smirked as the two walked towards the Crystal hall.

“Magic lines don't just 'twist' Toni. Something screwy has to happen for this to get all snarled!”

“It's Whateley! It's probably normal here! Look around for a few minutes I bet you find about twenty oddball twists in the stuff.”

“I have.” Fey shook her head to clear the cobwebs. “Ever since about mid-November I've been finding this stuff around the school, and it's been getting more tangled and more widespread. And it's all over the place! I mean yeah it goes back to normal after a day or so but the next morning everything's all knotted again!”

“So? Untwist it! You're miss all-powerful Sidhe!”

“I wish. Do you have any idea how bad these knots screw my magic up?” She grumped as she continued. “It's like you when your Chi gets whacked out. I see weird shit and the hobgoblins come in hordes!”

“You? See weird stuff? Oh my gawd! Call the press!” Chaka laughed. “Look I know that it's got you worked up, but if you can't find the source, what's the point griping? Besides! We gotta go talk to Jamie and say congrats! I mean he, she... Nevermind, thumped Captain Numbtard pretty hard and won! We gotta at least go give her the Kudos he deserves.”

“You know, I'll never figure out how you can slide the pronouns around like that.”

“Easy, I reject my English Teacher's reality and substitute my own.”

Fey rolled her eyes. “Ok, miss Mythbuster, you win. Let's go give Jamie her props. I'll mention this to Sir Wallace later, and see what he thinks.”

“Now you're talking! Let's get some food!”

Fey chuckled to herself, as she trailed a bit behind her ever-bouncy roomie, knowing full-well that Chaka was neither dismissing her issue, nor ignoring it. The two just didn't always share the same sets of priorities and Chaka always said she worried more than she needed to. It had been mildly maddening at first, but Chaka never had an air of malice or annoyance at these discussions, unless the ever present Unga-Dunga decided to pop in and add her two cents. Even the old Sidhe queen had given up trying to chide the upbeat martial-artist about her illusory lack of attention-span.

The Crystal Hall wasn't exactly packed, as the combat finals were still raging. The vast majority of the students, excited by the newness of it all, had grabbed their food to go and run straight back to the Arena. As a result, the traditional Kimba table wasn't surrounded by gawkers and other noisy kids stuffing their faces. In fact very few teams were wholly in attendance. The Wild Pack was all there at their table, as were the Alphas, of course. Fey let her nose wrinkle a bit when she saw the Don and Hekate holding lunch buffet court, per usual. She very clearly remembered Sebastiano's subtle attempts to shatter their team with his mental tricks. Unfortunately for him, the arrogant bastard screwed up, and got caught using powers on unwilling students. Word on the street was that he'd pulled toilet detail down in Hawthorne the whole week.

Dredz and Lily were chatting, or arguing over to the side. One could never really tell with those two.

A tap on her shoulder alerted her to the friendly presence behind her. She turned and saw Razorback standing about two feet away. The giant-sized, spined, dinosaur thing towered over her petite frame, looking absolutely ferocious. She knew better, even though it was true enough.

-How are you doing? Melt any more demons this week?-

Nikki grinned. One of the things that she loved about the spiny ultraviolent was his absolute fearlessness when it came to talking to people. -Hey Razor,- she signed in return,-no demons, but Eloise and Ben were asking about you and Jericho. You two made a real impression.-

Razor let out a slight chirp. -Well I'm glad things have settled a bit. Me'n the blind one are gonna be gone over Christmas. Much as we'd love to stick and play border watch, we gotta take care of the families as well. We're taking Diamond and Cait with us. Cait doesn't know yet.-

Nikki aloofly disregarded the always-incredulous stares by nearby students who were shocked that she was so friendly with the Detention King of Whateley Academy. Even though he'd stayed out of trouble for this semester, his record for consecutive detentions during his freshman year was still unrivalled on-campus. She noted that he didn't even spare a glance for the gawkers.

-I understand fully. I have to spend some time with Mom and Dad too. I'm just not for sure what the plans are. But for now, the weres know what they've got to do. They'll survive well enough without you two for a bit.-

Razor nodded, bobbing his head up and down, rather like a bird. -Me'n Jericho are going to go talk to Ben and Eloise one more time before we shuttle our asses to OZ. We have to take the Overwatch prisoner transport plane, since I can't fly regular and Cait might blow up the plane by accident.-

-Cait?- The word was unfamiliar, but she recognized it as one of the special shorthand signs he used for names. -New friend?-

-Yeah, you'll see her around. She's kinda hard to miss. Dunno if I’d bring her in on the weres thing though. I got protection somehow, and Jericho's blind, so the weirdness doesn't hit him so bad. I don't want to put her or Diamond at risk of what happened to those poor State Trooper bastards. Dunno if they can take it, mentally.-

Nikki nodded. -Probably for the best. We've already got enough necks on the line. And you and Jericho have more than done what we would have asked. Thanks.-

-No problem, but for now... FOOD!- Without waiting for a response, Razorback darted off to the chow line and began gleefully piled the meat on the tray.

Nikki chuckled to herself as she watched the unlikely friend she'd found fighting two of the “Voodoo-Weres,” as Jericho called them in the Grove. That particular slice of nightmare had been dicey, but he'd made an impression on both her and Ben, which was saying something.

She tracked him back to his table and saw Jericho, of course, and Diamondback. The Fury twins were mildly surprising to see, as well as the small group of Underdogs. She chuckled and turned to join her friends after seeing Jericho saying something, and watching a tall girl with long, metallic black hair start banging her head on the table like she was trying to hammer out something bad. Knowing Jericho, it was.

She turned back to her friends, the Kimbas, Sara's “pack” and an odd one or two others who were busy congratulating Poe's first glorious victor. She reached the table in time to hear Heyoka griping. “So because I decided to make a joke after I won, and stood in the open Mr. Anderson graded my final at a B-, and even then, only because Cerebrex's hero complex probably would have resulted in him not killing me if he caught me!”

 

“Bad, bad, bad, BAD!” Caitlin punctuated each word by thumping her head on the table. “That's it. No more drugs for that man!” She pointed at the offending white-eyed, dreadlocked black boy across from Razorback.

Jericho grinned. “Whaaaat! It's not like I pulled out the full Pun arsenal.”

Phobos and Deimos looked pained, and the Underdogs were groaning in mock-agony. Diamondback seemed completely unaffected.

“What?” the snake-girl pretended to be oblivious. “You all knew when you started hanging out with Joe that he'd suck all the Pun out of your lives.”

That set off a new round of groans as Jericho and Diamond exchanged a high-five. When the two childhood friends decided to be in cahoots, the results were painful to observe.

At this table, once they got used to Caitlin, the near-total use of Codenames had evaporated like the wind as the Outcasts opened ranks to allow a new friend in.

Caitlin looked up and grinned as Razorback plopped into his accustomed spot next to her, and he eyed her suspiciously. -The sparky thing is looking at me again!- He hovered protectively over his tray, as he'd found out that Cait was an accomplished and skilled food-thief over the past two weeks.

“Hey Jack. Nice ham slices there.” The metal-eyed girl gave him a grin that was purely evil as she used his real name.

-Back off, Sparky. These are MY ham slices!-

Jericho and Diamondback, AKA Joe Turner and Sandra Carter, sat back and grinned as they watched the spectacle unfold. Everyone knew that alone among all of the gathered bodies, Caitlin was the only one who couldn't even do the very basics of signing well. She was learning the basics, slowly, but she could only understand one word in five, such as and, the, or and taquito. Everyone was mystified by her taquito obsession until she'd pulled a Gir during lunch during one of the impromptu food wars.

“What? Help myself you say? Ok!” Her hand darted forward and Razor snapped at it, trying to defend his prize from the evil food-thief when he missed Diamond swiping a piece of chicken from him. The shriek of protest was half-hearted and only made everyone grin.

Phobos and Deimos were smiling despite themselves, having decided that the 'pretty' was going to have to prove herself before they trusted her. Even so, her complete lack of... anything regarding their odd appearances had shaken them up quite a bit, and it's hard to pull a fast one on an empath.

Lucille caught on first and snatched one of Diamond's hard-boiled eggs. “Razor, catch!”

The egg vanished into the lizardlike maw, and Caitlin used the distraction to swipe the prized slices of ham. A pregnant pause ensued when Jack Carlyle realized that the metal-haired girl was gnawing on his ham slice!

-Of course you realize, this means WAR!-

The chaos erupted, and rapidly devolved as even the Underdogs and Jericho were sucked into the burgeoning war for food-territory, all while trying to devour what's on the plate so the enemy could not take advantage of it. Phobos and Deimos turned out to be enthusiastic players with a grossly unfair advantage in their extra arms. They could assault and defend at the same time! The random chaos caused by Caitlin's aura made it all the more amusing!

When all as said and done, the whole table had devolved into laughing, and even the two twins seemed to have relaxed. The two of them and Diamond also relished the temporary reprieve from Caitlin's darker side as the unpleasant emotional background static in her faded in the face of simple fun.

Caitlin looked up at the clock, and sighed. “Hey guys, I got to get going. I have an appointment with Carson and Hartford.”

Jericho promptly whipped out a kazoo and began playing the funeral march as she stood. “Gee, thanks for the vote of no-confidence, Joe.”

“Anytime Cait. Anytime.”

“Ass.” She looked to the rest. “All right folks, see you all at the arena in an hour or two.”

Surprisingly, even Adrienne and Janine, the girls with all the 'extras,' actually smiled and waved as Caitlin wandered off, hissing and sparking like a dynamo.

-Hey Jericho, we need to go see Eloise and Ben before we get outta here.-

Jericho nodded as the rest of the table looked on, mildly confused. “We'll do it tonight instead of hitting the guitars.” Diamondback pumped a fist happily as that meant she was off the hook for singing that night.

Everyone else sat thunderstruck when Razor nodded in agreement. Those two never missed a chance to practice their music.

 

Caitlin wandered into Shuster Hall, looking around. For a school admin building there was surprisingly little activity, probably related to the fracas in the Arena. It was the same every semester. Fortunately her target never changed her routine, even during the Combat Finals.

The package Sam had given her that morning had been from Hartford, complete with new I.D.’s and new documentation confirming all of her old certifications and licenses that would allow her to continue as the official Range Oversight Manager, instead of as the Heavy Weapons Instructor. That had been the final piece confirming that Amelia Hartford knew what had happened, or at least where Whateley's erstwhile heavy instructor was at if not the full details. The cagy old bitch never missed a trick when it came to the staff.

The personal note, however, had been a complete surprise. Like most instructors on-campus, Erik Mahren had always referred to her as Hartass when students weren't in earshot. Hell, he'd even had more reason to than most, but that damned letter made the visit a necessity for Caitlin.

Mindful of her own strength, she stopped just away from Hartford's desk and knocked on the wall, to get the woman's attention. Hartford looked up at her, and her eyes narrowed, slightly as they always did when confronted by a student she didn't know or like. Then recognition set in.

“I got your package. I came to say thanks.” Caitlin's attitude towards Hartford had softened somewhat from the borderline rage she'd been carrying for the woman for the past two weeks after she'd read the note.

Hartford nodded and looked around before standing up. “Walk with me.” The simple command held all of the imperious superiority of the Alphas, or at least the Alphas Caitlin had come to know and loathe over the last three or so years, but she followed without comment. The area was invariably bugged to shit by any number of students, and it wouldn't do to give the listeners, or the recorders, the wrong ideas.

The conference room was never used for anything important that the students were aware of, an illusion carefully fostered by the administration to discourage listeners. After all, every student knew that all of the really interesting stuff happened at Hartford's desk, or in Carson's office. Without a word, both did a sweep of the room, just in case, before they settled in to talk.

“Thanks for the note,” Caitlin began shakily. Some things were just hard to say. “I didn't know that Cat's family had come up to get her belongings early. I'm sorry I thought you were trying to screw with me on the memorial service.”

Hardford's severe demeanor softened a bit, not much, though for once her voice didn't carry the oh-I'm-so-superior attitude. “She was my friend. Just because I didn't approve of her relationship with you didn't mean I was willing to use her death as a way to hurt you.”

“Yeah, I know. I haven't exactly been rational about things over the past month.”

“Anyone who expected you to be rational would be in for a rude shock, but of late it's understandable.” She settled back and looked around. “And regardless of my personal opinions, you did hold that range together better than that slacker Jimenez ever did. Six years, and the only incidents were student fights, one attempted break-in that you thwarted and were injured during, and two fatal burnouts, none of which can be laid at your feet.”

“Yeah, well, doesn't mean you deserved the badmouthing for it. For that I'm sorry, but only for the last month of it.” Caitlin smirked.

“And people wondered why I said you were a complete dog.” Hartford held up a pen, from the desk, seemingly examining it for flaws. “We may have had our differences, and our arguments, but we kept things more or less civil for Cat's benefit. I'd like to keep it that way in her memory, not taint it with a feud with you over something that you should have been able to attend by all rights. I was trying to hold off until Smythe thought you'd be able to take it better, but her parents coming to collect their baby girl's effects and your unexpected burnout pushed my hand.”

Caitlin nodded. “I found Cat's pistol, the one she got when she left the LAPD, the one that went missing. Turns out Trout claimed it on the sly. I got it back to the cage.”

“Ah, good.” Hartford actually smiled. Upon reflection, Cait thought that she should do it more often. “I do believe Trout should be discouraged from this sort of thing in the future. I believe I will have to speak to Chief Delarose about certain security issues that only Third Platoon is properly equipped to handle.”

Caitlin almost winced as she realized that certain statements from Hartford's mouth carried the finality of a Death Warrant for the recipient. That was one of those statements. “Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.” Lieutenant Trout had long been on Caitlin's shitlist, and if Hartford wanted to play with the bastard, well who was she to deny the older woman her simple fun?

Hartford looked at Caitlin. “I pulled together as complete an I.D. as I could for you, given the parameters Gunny Bardue and Headmistress Carson laid out. Sorry, but your previous grades in school leave much to be desired.”

“Sounds about right. My teachers always were saying I never applied myself.”

“And so far as this goes, when you leave this room, you are a student. From that moment forward, there will be no talks, no explanations, and no playing nice. You will be treated just as any other child here would be. I know it will be a bitter pill, but if you are going to succeed at this charade you will have to accept it. For the record I do not want to know the details of why this charade is necessary. And as soon as you walk out those doors I will pretend that Erik Mahren had a GSD blowout so severe that he was sent to ARC Black for permanent containment due to concerns for the safety of everyone around him.”

Caitlin nodded slowly, not interrupting. She knew what would be said, but knew that it had to be said.

“You, are a sixteen year old girl who was held back in first grade due to learning problems and flunked her freshman year in High School. As a result, you are not on my radar. The Alphas will not become aware of your new status, and I am going to try very hard to forget that this happened. So you, like every other wise student, are going to be very dilligent about keeping your secrets from me.”

“Thank you.”

“Don't thank me until this whole nightmare is fully over. Just do me a favor, and keep an eye out. The whole Halloween thing, combined with a few... other incidents absolutely reek of something foul, and I doubt it's fully played out yet. For now, as of tonight, by the time Combat Finals are finished you are to move into the Mage Suite in Hawthorne. Not my decision, as I would have left you where you are, but Carson wants you somewhere you will have Louis' eyes on you.”

Caitlin nodded again. “I will. I may not be a teacher anymore, but no one fucks with this school on my watch. And I figured I'd be inside the Thorny Den sooner or later.”

“Good, now get out of here. I have work to do.”

Caitlin nodded and walked to the door and stopped when Hartford addressed her one last time.

“And Caitlin. I think Cat would have approved of your choice of name.”

Caitlin smiled sadly in thanks and left.

 

“Oh my god, that was the perfect end to a crazy day!” Jericho watched through his laptop's wireless connection as Nephandus was dragged out of the arena, whimpering. He'd tapped his computer into the Arena wireless and watched the fight through the cameras surrounding the action. A thin cord ran from the laptop to the back of his skull, allowing him to interface with the machine.

Caitlin walked up to the group and looked at Jericho. “What's he chortling about?”

Phobos looked over and smirked. “One of the Kimbazoids went three-on-one in a fight with earthquakes and a tornado! Oh wow, you totally missed it!”

Diamondback smirked. “You know, the Poesies may be a buncha useless fluff, but at least that Chaka girl knows how to fight! I give her a nine-point-nine.” She was unaware of Jericho and Razorback exchanging an odd look at that statement.

“So what happened?” Caitlin was actually curious.

“Sorry Cait, you really had to have been there. It can't be explained. I mean, wow!” Deimos was impressed, and that usually took some doing.

“Oh come on! I been stuck moving all my shit to Hawthorne and you guys won't even tell me what happened?” Caitlin mock-pouted. “That's cold.”

Jericho smirked and stood up. Razorback joined him. “Okay, ladies, me'n Barney here,” The blind boy accepted the reflexive backhand with good humor, “have an appointment to keep. We'll talk to you all later.”

The two boys moved quickly back to Twain, leaving Caitlin to beg for the details of Chaka's battle-royale. Once they arrived they were all business. They needed to go talk to the weres, and to get there and possibly be back with anything resembling swiftness they were going to have to go through the Grove. Jericho hated the place, as he felt out of sorts and unwelcome for the most part. That had been slowly changing, but the place was still unnerving.

It wasn't the Grove that prompted Jericho to load the shock-rifle and set it to maximum output and set his Personal Protective Field. Nor was it the reason he loaded a backpack with a laptop and a set of medical scanners, as well as a full EMT kit. It wasn't the reason he loaded up every trick and cheap nasty he had ever built for dropping bricks, or was setting up the emergency freight teleporter in the Devisor shop to his Simulator attack-bots and his newly-completed Rafe armor. He strapped an armband with what looked like five epi-pens in sleeves, the kind used for bee-stings among the allergic, and tightened it down so it wouldn't come loose.

Razorback's load wasn't nearly so heavy. His sim armor wasn't perfect, but it was a lot better than just running with his scales as protection. His armored hide was fully capable of withstanding most kinds of physical punishment. That being said, the black, laminated metal plates with the blood-red, runic script worked better, and the helmet was form-fitting with some protection for the eyes. Re-growing those was a bitch, and it hurt like hell. The last thing that Razorback strapped to himself was a professional cricket bat. Jericho knew better than to ask what that thing's purpose was.

The boys slipped out of the dorms at dusk, and went off-campus, heading to the Grove, that nasty little slice of beautiful woodland that was severely off-limits. Razor's path in was vastly different from the one Fey usually led them through, and far less inviting. Fortunately the crazy lizard-kid knew where he was going. The trip was uneventful, and Razorback and Jericho entered the slice of landscape Jericho had cheerfully dubbed “Weretown” about an hour and a half after they left the school. Creepy as it was, to Jericho, the Grove made for a handy shortcut.

The sentries the weres inevitably kept out were in attendance, though none moved to intercept the boys. Jericho could see the wolfen and feline forms in the trees, light and camouflage useless against his texture-based senses. Razorback could smell each one, hear them breathing, and feel their heartbeats. Surrounded and seemingly alone the two boys walked into the den of the monsters that normal folks feared. This suited them fine, in their own special way; the normal people often considered them monsters.

Eloise was there, waiting when they got to the meeting area that had been set up in the interim. Ben stood off to the side and grinned wide as Razorback signed his greeting to the huge man.

“Off the beaten track, boys?” Eloise's grin was unconsciously predatory, and she moved with the ferine grace of a hunting cat.

“Oh you know us, just out for a walk, communing with nature, thumbing my nose at the Grove because we felt like a walkabout while armed to the teeth.” Jericho's return smile was less than predatory, but full of honest, fun-loving wiseass.

“Well in any case, welcome back.” Eloise walked up and clasped each boy's, young men she corrected herself mentally, hand. “So what honestly brings the two of you out here?”

Jericho slid the rifle he'd been carrying onto his shoulder after setting it on safe, a welcome loss of strain on his arms and shrugged. “We popped out because we probably aren't going to get a chance to say bye for the holidays. The 'rents are dragging us all to Oz for the holiday season, so we won't be around again 'till January.”

Eloise snorted. “Ah. Well, that'll be good for you two. Give you a chance to stay out of trouble for two weeks.”

Razorback wandered over to Ben and began signing at the man, who smiled, clasped hands with him and then the two began a silent conversation slightly away.

“Yeah, fat chance of that. We have this knack for either causing, or finding it.”

“That you do. By the way, we do appreciate you volunteering to help us. You've both already done more than we expected, or would have asked.”

Jericho smirked. “Hey, thank Razor. If it weren't for that great scaly numbskull I'd still be bored off my ass in Twain.”

Jericho dodged the flying branch and semi-outraged shriek at the numbskull comment.

“Don't mind him, it's that time of the minute.”

Eloise chuckled and shook her head. “You two are classic, you know that?”

“Yeah, we are. Like a Delorean, really cool until you realize it's a Delorean.”

“Well, you're the second set of guests to arrive today, and we're cooking dinner. Care to join us?”

Razorback's enthusiastic shriek was immediate and Jericho grinned. “Say no to free food? Perish the thought! However... I do request that the burgers be well done this time. I prefer my food to be docile and edible, not trying to attack me in order to flee.”

“All right, smartass, let's head to the house.”

-Wimp.- Razor signed at him.

Jericho's response was simple and elegant, saluting his roomie with a single finger.

 

She stalked back into the Hawthorne common room, chewing on her lip and trying to puzzle out how to keep occupied and her mind off the problems in her life when she felt a familiar presence behind her. He always did have the courtesy to warn her when he popped up, even though she hadn't really talked to him since a week after Cat had died. She turned to face the pleasant-seeming man behind her, knowing better than to believe the Illusion he presented.

“Hey there Louis, trouble sleeping?” She gave a genuine smile at seeing her friend standing there in his astral form.

Fubar grinned. “I'm surprised any of the psychics on campus are getting any sleep with you stalking around in the mood you've been in for the past couple weeks there Erik, or I guess it's Caitlin now, isn't it?”

“Been a lot to adjust to.”

“I can understand that, although I doubt pacing back and forth across campus is going to improve your mood much.”

Caitlin smirked a bit. “You got any better suggestions?”

“Well there are always those chess games we used to play during downtime between classes.”

“You're on. I'll be down in a minute.”

Caitlin wandered up to her room, thankful for the sort reprieve from the hissing and snapping corona of energy when she breached the wards in her room and hunted around amidst all her loose stuff, hunting for the chessboard. She found it and began hiking down to the basement, where Fubar's pool lay sequestered from the rest of Hawthorne.

Fubar was below the water, as always, and she dodged the occasional ball of snot that he was prone to hocking up. She hit the stairs and went down into the viewing room and took a moment to reflect on the fact that all in all she got off easy. Fubar was probably the most fucked up guy in the world, but he still managed to put on a cheerful face for everyone around him. She wished she could keep the same upbeat attitude that he did.

“That takes years of practice you know. Took me a while to get to the point where I could cope with this sanely.” Fubar was the only psychic in the world she gave any leeway with her thoughts, and he returned the favor by being her counselor in the past. He was the reason she and Cat McQuiston had been together. Fubar had helped Erik knuckle down and get the courage to ask the fiery little instructor out the first time.

“I know. It just makes me feel like a shithead wandering around feeling sorry for myself knowing how easy I got off by comparison to some folks.” Caitlin grimaced.

“Everyone's got their issues, and you seem to have gotten hit with the hammer several times in quick succession. It's normal, besides, all this happened too soon after Halloween and Cat.”

Caitlin frowned a bit. “Yeah. Here soon I need to say my good byes.”

“Wait till you're ready for that.”

Caitlin pulled out a folding table and a chair, setting up the chessboard and butting the table against the viewing glass as she had done so many times in the past. She sat down and faced off while Fubar's massive form coasted closer, eyes looking out. He really did look like Cthulu's illegitimate love-child. “Cthulu plushie” was the name she used when she wanted to really rib him. He never bothered using his astral body for her comfort while they played. She wasn't bothered by his form anymore, having driven herself hard to get over her prejudices during her first year at Whateley. All in all it had helped her be a better teacher.

“So what are you planning to do once you get through this hurdle you're trying not to think about?” The voice settled soothingly in her mind.

“Going to continue going to classes. I've got to relearn how to interact with everyone and get some power control, and on top of that, learn how to be a girl.” Caitlin smirked as she made the first move. “Stupidly enough it's the whole being a girl thing that's been causing me the least of my troubles, although sitting to pee is getting annoying.”

Fubar chuckled. “Been pulling your usual trick of just ignoring the problem and getting used to the idea instead?”

“Lord give me the strength to change the things I can, the patience to accept the things I can't and the wisdom to know the difference.”

“Or in your case, if I can't fix it, fuck it?”

“More or less. Why stress over shit you can't change? Fix what you can and learn to live with the rest, or improvise.” Caitlin wished it didn't feel like empty bravado when she said that.

Fubar and Caitlin had shifted turns in chess several times during the conversation. She wasn't really paying attention to the game so much as talking to Fubar, which somewhat compensated for his telepathic talent he couldn't fully shut off. He was smarter than she was, but he couldn't read her plans for the game.

“Well, Caitlin, if it makes you feel better your mind really hasn't changed any. For better or worse either way, you're still the stubborn, smarter-than-average repressed Jarhead grunt you always were.”

“Small favors bud.” She looked him in his eerily human eyes, past the facial tentacles. “But I kind of wish I'd gotten the Exemplar intelligence boost. Might have made my life easier in some ways.”

“Maybe. But you never know. Maybe you have other compensations that are just as good.”

Caitlin grimaced as she moved her bishop on a direct path to block Fubar's queen. “Yeah, if I ever get the binding tattoos to work.”

Fubar's queen took the Bishop and Caitlin looked at the board. She was toast in three turns. Oh well.

“You don't sound too hopeful on that score.”

Caitlin frowned. “I still have to figure out the last piece and even then if I do it myself, I might still wind up a mindless, drooling zombie.”

“You willing to take that risk?”

“Damned right I am. I can't even touch my friends without risking them dying. Hell I touch myself and it feels like someone flayed one of my nerves and is rubbing a salt lick on it.” Caitlin moved a rook, not really paying attention to what she'd done.

“There's a pleasant image.”

Fubar caught Caitlin in check-mate and the two reset the board, his pieces sliding back into their places without being touched, eerily. She turned the board and her friend slid a pawn forward.

“Just a heads-up Erik. You're not exactly the same. Everything's different about you and I don't mean your gender bender.”

“I already figured that out Foob. Hell I bleed some kind of red steel and every time I see it my instincts tell me I should be doing something with it.”

“Fun. But you're going to be a hard one for people to handle. Your personality alone makes it difficult for anyone to keep you under any semblance of control. Add to that you just about reek of some kind of power, and you're probably in for an interesting time.”

“Great, having a Chinese moment there Foob?”

“Maybe. Although I think if your life wasn't interesting or nightmarishly difficult in some way you'd waste away and die.” His mental contact held an edge of humor to it.

“A fact only made worse by the fact that I have a metric crapton of memories involving being a slave to other people and things I can't really describe as people.” Caitlin and Fubar began a fast-paced game of chess where each took perhaps a second before seemingly randomly moving their pieces. Caitlin was, but Fubar wasn't.

“I can feel the bare edges of that. I'm not sure I want to have to feel those fully. It's unpleasant to say the least.”

“Heh. Should feel it from this side.” Caitlin stuck her tongue out at him.

“Thank you, but no. I pride myself in not being as crazy as you when you're feeling normal.”

“It's good to talk to you again Louis. I hadn't realized how much I missed just being able to talk to someone.”

“It's good to talk to you too again, finally. But if I may? I'd really suggest that you start learning to shield on top of that weird land mine defense you figured out for dealing with psychics. Some of the things you have floating close to the surface could really damage someone.”

“Wouldn't want a kid to learn the consequences of doing things they aught not to, eh Louis?”

Caitlin grinned and began playing in earnest, burning the time away with her friend until she felt the combined might of Louis' fatigue and hunger just before the arrival of his last meal for the day. She said good-bye, trying to be upbeat for his benefit and scampered up to the showers to get herself cleaned up for the evening

 

Du Meng Kuang, AKA “Breaker” to the rest of the student body, walked up to Poe about two hours before lights out. He idly nodded to Hippolyta, who glowered at him fiercely as he walked up to the door of the cottage, bedecked in his usual attire of digital camouflage and combat boots. The Chinese-American exemplar rolled his eyes as Whateley's biggest bull-dyke man-hater moved to intercept him before he could go in.

“Evening, Hippolyta.” He watched her warily. The last thing he wanted was a fight on the doorsteps of another cottage, so he kept his tone light and friendly.

“What do you want?” Hippolyta's tone was rough and hostile, as could be expected towards any non-Poe student with a Y-chromosome.

“I'm here to talk to one of the Kimbas, not invade. So if you would be so kind I'd like to ask Mrs. Horton's permission to borrow them for about an hour.”

“Which one?”

“While it's not any of your business, I'm looking for Lancer.” Breaker gave Hippolyta a steady look. He knew better than to let her intimidate him. He'd been a Sophomore when she was a frosh, and he was well aware of Hippy's propensity towards bullying the male gender.

“And if I don't let you in?”

Breaker grinned. “If you don't let me in, then tomorrow I'll come back again. Only this time I'll bring Sergeant-Major Smythe and Bomber. You do remember Bomber don't you?”

Hippolyta gave him a foul expression and stood aside. “If you cause any trouble...”

“Hippolyta if I cause any trouble it'll be by accident. Or in self defense, either way. I'm expecting this meeting to go peacefully, or should I have brought my field kit?”

Hippolyta just growled as Breaker stepped into the cottage and made a beeline straight for the house mother's den. She didn't quite let him out of her sight the entire time he was there, at least keeping the cocky male in earshot the entire time. Normally she'd have just sent someone like him packing save for two things. First, he was a senior, and there was a certain amount of deference to the senior class expected in the school. Second, screwing with a Grunt without provocation was a good way to have his entire team out gunning for a piece of you.

Breaker walked up to the door and knocked firmly, but gently. The wooden door wasn't up to the kind of strength output he was capable of. After a moment, Mrs. Horton opened the door and smiled.

“Breaker! I haven't seen you here since Cass graduated!” She honestly welcomed the Chinese exemplar's presence. He always avoided causing trouble with her students, mindful of the mental issues other people had.

“Hello Mrs. Horton.” He smiled, “I'm just here to get permission to talk to, and maybe borrow one of your Kimba kids.”

“They haven't caused more trouble have they?”

“Not unless you count Lancer catching my eye as a possible recruit.”

“Yep. Trouble. Just do me a favor, no trying to coerce the boy into the service.”

Breaker nodded. “Not a problem, ma'am. I ain't the Marine recruiter, and that's his job. I'm more or less fishing to see if Lancer's got what it takes mentally for the team. Been keeping an eye on him, and he seems to be the solid type.”

“Solid would be a good description of the boy. Although I doubt he'll want to leave the girls.”

Breaker let a loopy grin widen across his face. “If he did want to leave that pack of exemplar hotties I'd be worried about his mental state.” Even though he'd spent time in Poe with Cass, his girlfriend who lived there during her stay at Whateley, he was blissfully unaware of the state of affairs in the cottage. It was willful ignorance at its finest. He didn't want to see Poe for what it really was, so he didn't.

“Very well. You may have Lancer so long as he is returned by curfew.”

“Yes ma'am. I'll make sure he's back in time.”

“Then go do your thing. Last I saw he was in the common-room with the girls.”

Breaker nodded and wandered over to the Poe common-room, and stood in the doorway, watching the kids in there. He noted that an entire corner of the common-room was marked by a spider-web of hammocks, ropes and other things with the notorious Team Kimba all in attendance. Hank was leaning against the wall, deep in thought while the girls were looking annoyed about something. Sometimes silence is the best thing to gauge the opposition, although in this case he wanted to make sure he didn't accidentally antagonize a bunch of froshes by accident. He considered himself better than that.

“It's not like we started it.” Fey said irritably. “Whatever they're up to, it's not good and they've already tried to kill me twice.”

“It's not like we're optionless here, Nikki.” Hank considered carefully. “These Voodoo-wolf things aren't exactly students and they seem dangerous as hell, so we might actually be able to get Stormwolf and the Wild Pack to help out too.”

Chaka rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right, then we have to deal with Mister Sanctimonious watching us to make sure we toe the line. He isn’t going to like how Fey and Sara do business. God only knows if he sees how Jericho and Razorback fight he's likely to have a coronary, and Bunker and Mule, while they are bloody good at what they do, aren't enough backup against these things.”

So... This was actually what had been occupying the moments when Bunker and Mule seemingly drifted into oblivion every few days. He'd almost been hoping that Bunker's wild stories had been the product of an over-active imagination. Breaker's eyes narrowed a bit as he waited, but no more information was forthcoming, as the elfin redhead named Fey was staring at him rather harshly. The other Kimbas eyes followed, and Breaker found himself under scrutiny more quickly than he would have liked. Girl must be an empath or something.

He walked forward easily. “So, you lot are why my two junior Grunts keep disappearing every couple days to run 'land navigation practice' huh? And someone's tried to kill you twice.” He nodded to Fey. “Care to share what's on your minds?”

“Not really. It's kind of a family thing.” Chaka looked in askance at Fey's response but the redhead shrugged.

“Oh, in this case I'm afraid I must insist.” Breaker looked to each of the Kimbas in turn. “But for now, I'll let you get back to it. I just came to borrow Lancer tonight if he is willing. I would appreciate it if one of you explained later why Bunker and Mule go hopping off into the woods every couple nights, and occasionally come back bloody I would much appreciate it. I'd rather not have to interrogate them.”

Hank stepped forward. “Why do you want to talk to me?”

“Nothing bad, I just want to talk. I've been watching you for a couple months now and would like to speak to you to get to know you a bit better. I probably won't keep you out too long as this...” His eyes scanned the Kimbas, “Seems to have some level of urgency.”

Hank nodded. “Ok, where do you want to talk?”

“Range Four is usually private enough at this hour. So let's take a walk.”

Hank shrugged apologetically to the girls and wandered outside. Breaker turned to the girls. “Oh, ladies? If no one comes forward with what the hell is going on in the next two nights to either myself, or Deadeye, I'm afraid you will no longer be able to count on Bunker and Mule being able to get away to assist you. From your tone, whatever you're doing sounds dangerous and I will not have you putting my teammates at risk without the rest of us knowing what they're getting into.” He looked at each stunned and mildly angered expression, and then added, “Oh and by the way, Chaka? Nice going in the Combat Finals this afternoon. Three on one in a crash scenario? Giving you a B was robbery.”

He turned and left as all of the Kimbas' eyes widened at the young man's blunt, up-front ultimatum, and by the time anyone thought to argue he was gone.

“You know, that little ultimatum's just going to piss them off.” Hank said mildly as they left the cottage.

“I'm aware. Just as I'm aware of what is going on with the weres that Whateley's leasing the property from, as well as those 'Voodoo-wolf' things.”

Hank started. “Mule told you about it?”

“No, Bunker did. She was fishing for information and wanting to know how to get authorized to have more rocket ammunition released to her for 'extracurricular target practice.' And Mule's got one of Jericho's biometric scanner gadgets bolted to his 240 that has some very specialized filters in it. She told me and Deadeye what was up and we've been waiting for you to get up off your asses and ask the rest of us to help. Hell, Bomber's practically rabid over the thought of some hard kills that he's not going to get arrested for.”

“So why the asshole act?”

“The hardest thing for someone to do is to ask for help. Usually they sit and chew on the problem for an eternity until it's almost too late to go back. While myself and Deadeye are interested in helping out with this nasty shit, neither of us are interested in subordinating our team to a pack of froshes. We're also not interested in trying to take over a conflict involving said froshes whose tactics wouldn't mesh well with ours, or a were community that's notorious for having an independent streak a mile wide. Besides, if we keep the weres intact, Whateley prospers onward, without a major upheaval on the land rights issue.”

“So if you want to help, why not come out and say it?”

“First step is for you lot to pull your heads out of your butts and realize not all of the teams fall under the classic hero/villain stereotype. If you do a bit of digging there are at least three teams who would be willing to help you skin some demon-wolves, no questions asked, and be brutal and destructive enough to make it stick. You're not going to want to necessarily look at just 'the good guys' here, Declan. You need to start looking at options you haven't considered. But for now, that's enough proselytizing out of me.”

“So if you're not here to talk about the wolves, what are you here for?”

Breaker smiled as they continued wandering out into the woods, into the main cannon range area. The sound of a screaming, high-velocity machinegun sounded off through the trees. “Back in September, me and Deadeye got emails from one Colonel Roger Declan, asking us to keep an eye out for his son, give him a spot and see how he does.”

“Dad asked you all to yank me into the Grunts?”

“Yeah, he did. But that isn’t how we do business. Just like the military we're all-volunteer. You either come to us as Bunker did this year, or we watch and see who might have what it takes before approaching them. Your dad asked us to grab you, so while I have a lot of respect for Army Colonels in general, I decided to watch and see how you did rather than drag you in screaming, thinking that you had to do it to make Dad happy and possibly embarrass the shit out of yourself in the process.”

“Thanks, I think.”

“It's a compliment, Lancer. If I thought for a minute that you couldn't hack the job we wouldn't be having this conversation. So far among your team, you've shown the highest aptitude tactically, as well as a knack for not being a whirling dervish of chaos once you get rolling. We don't look for power and pretty like the Alphas; we look for skill, ability, talent and a style that will actually mesh with a team that relies on coordination and tactics over raw brute force. Hell, I'll be honest, even kids like the Outcasts I'd pick over most of the pretty ones here at the school. They may be a pack of sneaky, underhanded and violent bastards, but they're not hamstrung by their own delusions of grandeur.”

“Ok. I can buy that, but I already have a team. I can't just leave them in the lurch.”

“Don't worry about that. There's already a precedent for that kind of thing. Hell, Slapdash ran with the A-Team you know, the pack of hokey armchair military tacticians, for most of the year last year while he was running with us. We just ask that if you do run with us, you keep our team's secrets and weak points in the team. Besides, try to split you up from the hottie brigade? We're not remotely THAT stupid.”

Hank nodded. “I'll consider it, but it'd be the same with the Kimbas too. I'm not diming out my friends to another team, even if I'm on that team.”

Breaker smiled as they entered the heavy weapons range. The other five Grunts stood at attention in full combat gear, and sporting a mix of light and heavy weaponry. Slapdash's power harness was distinctive, being about seven feet tall, and sporting a 20-mm, tri-barrelled autocannon, and what looked like a multipack rocket launcher on the other arm hard point.

“Well, Declan, I'm glad you feel that way, because nobody likes a buddy-fucker, even when they're the ones benefitting from the fucking. Now for your enjoyment, we'll show you what we can do. So, I have one last question for you before we begin. Are any of the Kimba girls single?”

 

Dinner was short, and Razorback was fed again and happy, the small group of mutants and weres wandered through the woods near the Weretown community. Jericho was keeping an eye on things while Eloise and Ben talked to Sara Waite, who'd come along looking to talk to Eloise about the Voodoo-wolves. Carl, Sara's errant werewolf “mate,” whom was annoying, obnoxious and a general pain in the ass was tagging along ostensibly to provide “security.” This was his word for harassing Razorback to the point where the lizard-kid was stalking in a foul mood, growling unconsciously, with the red nictitating membranes half-slid across his eyes. The rigidly erect spines on his body gave testament to the fact that he was seriously debating injuring Carl, possibly eating him, if the posture and sign language were any indication.

“Relax Razor, come over here for a minute while Sara and the weres talk. We'll do a bit of recon for a few.” Jericho said mildly. Normally Razorback would blow off the kind of mockery and taunting Carl was laying on pretty thick, but he was verging on a full-out frenzy. Not a good thing.

-I can take that shit from ignorant pinky bipeds but I'll be DAMNED if I'll take it from people who KNOW.- Razor's signing was jerky, agitated, but he came over and started walking. His growling became louder as Carl started following.

“Hey Carl, stay here and keep an eye on Eloise and Sara, just in case.”

“Shit, they don't need me to...” He was interrupted as Jericho took the safety off his shock rifle and aimed at the were's torso. Carl had seen what crazy devisor-tech weapons could do and halted.

Jericho smiled in a way that could only be described as evil. “Actually, I insist. Wait here and we'll give you a milk-bone later when we get back.”

Carl's eyes narrowed and Jericho's face grew hard. “Me and my boy gonna talk about private shit. You're disinvited. So stay here and wait or we're gonna make you sit, Carl.”

“CARL! Sit down on that stump, shut your damned mouth and quit antagonizing our guests!” Eloise's voice was like a whipcrack, and the young werewolf unconsciously winced and did what he was told.

Jericho smiled at Eloise, and snapped to attention, bringing his shock-rifle straight in front of him, rifle-saluting the were leader. He almost pulled it off except for the dark blue EMT uniform he was wearing didn't look military enough, and he wandered off, chuckling to himself at Carl's disgusted look.

Once they were away, Jericho looked at his buddy who STILL wasn't calming down. “Heya Razor, you ok? You seem like you're on edge man, moreso than usual.”

-I'm getting rapidly sick of that little shitweasel mouthing off at me like I'm a dumb animal.- Razor's signing was jerky and rough.

“I know man, but this is oddball even for you. I mean c'mon. You don't even get this riled when those New Olympian pricks make snide comments about leash laws with you.”

-I don't know. I'm pissed, I feel off, like something's not right, and it's been like this all week.-

“Yeah. I noticed. You’ve been stalking back and forth like a tiger in a cage every night for the last week. Come on Razor, you're better than this. You can't tell me it's just Carl that's pissing you off this bad.”

Razorback just shrugged. He was acting like what happened whenever he was forced to use a vodor to talk. It was like watching someone try to do a fire walk over broken glass instead of smoldering ashes.

“Let's take us a few minutes alright man? We'll get you calmed, then we'll head back and say good-bye to Eloise and company. Then it's smooth sailing all the way to Oz and seeing your folks again.”

Razor nodded, and sat down on a tree stump, elbows on his upper knees, the onse that didn't bend backward, and started taking deep breaths while Jericho sat and watched his friend worriedly.

“So what do you think about Caitlin, man? I know she seems cool, and I been thinking about asking her to join us in the sim team, as well as hanging out with us.”

Razorback looked up. -Do it. She's an odd duck, and she's the first exemplar pretty I've met that would rather hang out with us than the other, more popular crowds. Plus she's cool, funny and she doesn't look at me, Sandra or you with fear, revulsion, or even a hint of pity. She takes us as we are, no questions. Plus she stood toe to toe with Bloodwolf's Ultraviolent crew without going down, so I'm betting she'd make a good addition in the sims, too.-

“I was hoping you'd say that, bro. I talked to Sandra about it last night, and she just asked why we hadn't done it before now.”

-Because you're a paranoid, overprotective nerdboy, that's why.- Razor looked Jericho in the eyes. -I know you're covering me and Sandra, man, and I figure you dress like a wonky retard as much to draw attention from us as it amuses you. You're that guy who draws fire from his friends because he knows he can take it. But you've been neglecting yourself in the process. Like that starvation diet bullshit we made you stop.-

“Yeah, and I thank you for making me see the error of my ways. And you're right about my dress code, to a point. It really solidified when Hartass about puked when she saw the look though.”

-And you didn't get her expression on camera? What's wrong with you?-

“I'm crazy, not stupid, Jack.”

-Ok I'll give you that.-

“Somehow I doubt I'll be running interference for Cait.”

-Oh yes you will. I don’t know about you, but the girl's posture and personality are violent. No offense to Cait, but she's got a bit too many openly belligerent and combative cues to be able to stay out of trouble.-

“You noticed that too, huh?”

-Yeah. She's really cool, but I have a feeling that girl has her secrets, and she has no intention of sharing.-

“Hey, everyone has some of those. Just so long as those secrets don't bite us in the ass, yeah?”

-Yeah. It'll be a bitch if she learns ASL. Diamond likes to talk about our gender wonk problems that way. Might have to can it during lunch periods.-

“Yeah. I really dearly wish people weren't so fucking touchy about that shit. It's fucking retarded.”

-All right, I still feel off, but I think I can face the fucktard.-

“Fair enough. Let's roll bro.”

-But if that retard starts again I'm gonna make him pay dearly for his asshole behavior.-

“Just don't kill him.”

-Wasn't planning to.-

The two boys wandered back into the clearing and Jericho grinned. “So you see, Razor, on the seventh day when I rested...”

“Oh no. Jericho's finally given into delusions of godhead,” Sara smirked as the two boys walked up to the small group. Carl took the opportunity to stand up and wander over, idly swinging a stick back and forth. Razor just eyeballed him with an expression Jericho had come to know and recognize as a prelude to severely screwing with someone.

“It's only a delusion until I brainwash my own cult.”

Eloise shook her head and Ben chuckled

Jericho, sometimes I wonder about you,” the big bear of a man said with good humor. “Although I gotta say, your sense of humor's been good for us.”

Eloise nodded. “You boys planning to head back to Whateley tonight or you need bunk space?”

“Probably best if we head back to campus tonight.” Jericho jerked his head at Carl, who was waving the stick at Razorback. The velociraptor looking kid seemed almost hypnotized by the mobile piece of wood. Jericho groaned inwardly. Razorback's vision was not motion-oriented, contrary to the current activity, or some silly dinosaur movies. “This is gonna be bad.” He muttered to himself.

“You want the stick, boy?” Carl waved the stick at Razorback, who was hopping back and forth, following the stick like an enthused dog. When Carl whipped the stick off into the darkness, and yelled, “Go get it boy!” Razorback tore off into the woods at full speed, barely a blur to anyone's vision.

“Stupid fucking lizard.” Carl said cheerfully.

“Carl, if we trained you better, could you be more of a fucking asshole?” Ben snarled at the pup that stood there with an unapologetic look on his face.

Eloise looked about ready to start yelling when a distant crash sounded, followed by the sound of tearing metal, another crash, more tearing metal, and several metallic crunches.

Sara looked off into the woods. “I think Razorback found the stick.”

Sure enough a rapidly-moving speedster lizard skidded to a halt in front of Carl, spraying him with a small shower of dirt and leaves. In his mouth he held a truck axle, dragging one wheel along the ground. The other wheel spun slowly in the air with a tic tic tic tic tic noise. Razor dropped it on Carl's feet, ignoring the yelp of pain and wagging his tail on all fours. The look was predatory, and to Jericho's lack of eyes, and Sara's perceptions, his posture promised further pain.

Eloise looked at Carl, annoyed. “First it's you getting mixed up with demon-girl, then you aggravate Merry, and now you can't leave the giant clawed, spined mutant kid who tears the demons apart like a wolf in a chicken hatchery alone? When will you learn?”

Jericho sighed, as Carl's jaw worked up and down like a beached fish. “You just had to encourage him, didn't you?”

Carl didn't hear him, he was instead staring at the expensive hubcaps on the wheel that he, himself had bought with his own ready cash a few months back. “My truck! You wrecked my truck you dirty, stinking scaled...” The stream of invective continued for several minutes while Razorback happily bathed in Carl's frustrations. The poor idiot was too stunned to even get angry.

“Don't worry, Carl, walking is good for you.” Sara snickered as she wandered over to stand by Jericho.

Eloise and Ben were trying desperately not to burst out laughing at Carl's stupidity, and Razor's puppylike revenge.

-Consider yourself lucky. Next time I'm fetching your femur.-

Carl fixed Razorback with a look of pure disgust and hate. “What did the stupid lizard just say to me?”

Jericho gave a pleasant smile and said, “He said, and I quote.... Arf, arf arf, arfarfarf, arf.”

Ben and Eloise actually started snickering.

“He just bet me a million dollars that you won't have the guts to throw the stick again.” Sara pretended to examine her claws as she talked. “I've seen his investment portfolio too. You're on Razorback.”

“Is that right?” Carl picked up another stick and lobbed it into the woods again, showing his typical lack of common sense.

Jericho just sighed again, and Eloise looked at Carl like she was debating killing him herself.

“Hope you like the money, honey.” Carl smirked at Sara.

“Here we go again.” Jericho turned to Sara, pretending not to watch.

Eloise started moving forward, irritation writ plain on her face, with Ben flanking, face like a thunder cloud. They never got close.

Razorback let out an oddly quizzical chirp, then whipped the cricket bat off his back and attacked, showing just how fast a speedster going full-throttle could hit someone, repeatedly. Carl found his knees slammed out from under him, his torso and spine struck about four times apiece as Razorback whipped the bat around him, then ended up slammed to the ground by a shot to the face. Razor backed up as Carl whimpered and howled in pain, trying to stand, then ripped forward and proceeded to beat the ever-living shit out of the cocky werewolf with the bat in the span of a human breath.

Sara sighed as Jericho watched the spectacle with an immense amount of satisfaction. “Testosterone, the curse of modern man.”

Jericho smirked, “Are you sure about a bet for money, Sara? I thought he said that he was betting your boy here wouldn't be able to stand for the next ten minutes when he got done with him.”

“Well, he did mention something about femurs...” she stopped when the sound of claws tearing flesh sounded out and Carl screamed over a loud, wet, cracking noise. “Oh, there it is.”

Jericho went pale, as he could “see” the whole thing clearly through his odd, all around vision. He counted his blessings that he couldn't make out colors, or he might have puked. Razorback was really on edge. Ben and Eloise had stopped cold, their eyes wide and stunned at the scene of their resident moron getting something a long time in coming.

“I so did not need to see that.” Jericho's voice was a bit weak.

Thankfully, Sara was there to distract him from the little horror scene playing out nearby, snuggling up to him. “He's a Were, it'll grow back. Besides, all this violence is so... stimulating.”

Jericho unconsciously put an arm around the beautiful girl pressed against him, momentarily tuning out Razorback's revenge. “If this is a dream, then my alarm clock had better not go off again.”

“Yes, that was annoying...” Sara mumbled just quietly enough that he couldn't hear.

“Sorry, Sara, I couldn't make that out.”

“I said, that'll teach him to try and give a dog a bone.”

“More like the dog got boned there.”

Razorback was waving the offending bone above the whining, pained werewolf in near-exact mimicry of the asshole's previous behavior.

Jericho shuddered. “That's just disturbing.” He palmed a shrieker grenade, just in case Razorback snapped and went even MORE overboard. The sonic emitter would flatten his buddy faster than anything under the sun if need be.

“Some people just have it coming.” Sara looked into his blank, white eyes as she spoke.

“You know, we never tried that particular method.” Eloise looked thoughtful as Razorback continued waving the bone tauntingly over the whimpering were, then whipped it into the woods and watched disgustedly as Carl let out a cry and began dragging himself after it.

-Asshole.-

Razorback stalked away from Carl and began pacing, agitated again, like he wasn't sure whether to leave and calm down, or go rip Carl's head off and put the son of a bitch out of his misery.

“Suddenly my appreciation for Razor's restraint at school just skyrocketed.” Jericho watched his friend, more than a bit horrified, even if the punishment was appropriate. Sara simply nodded in response.

Eloise nodded towards Razorback. “Can we formally adopt him? I mean all the way?”

Ben shook his head. “No dear, there are pack laws against doing that to family.”

“Pity.”

“We're going to have to print color-coded t-shirts. Something that says 'MINE! HANDS OFF!” Sara chuckled mildly.

“I think that might be the meanest thing Jack has ever done to someone.” Jericho watched his friend carefully. Jack was still furious, and he was moving like he was stalking something.

Ben growled, I think Carl might learn to not piss people off so quickly. Besides, he's been antagonizing our friend there since they met.”

Sara looked in askance at Ben. “You think having a dinosaur rip out his femur while his friends watch without lifting a finger will sink in?”

Ben nodded. “Just might. All right, I need to go see to dipshit. We might need him over the next couple days, and we can't afford to have him laid up for a month re-growing that bone.”

Sara sighed and nodded. “You're probably right; kicking him while he's down might be counterproductive.”

Ben nodded and stalked into the woods after the errant pup.

Jericho looked to Eloise. “Sorry, Ma'am. I don’t know what's gotten into Razor, he's been a lot pissier of late.” Eloise's return shrug was an elegant reply in its simplicity.

Sara walked up to Razorback and wiped some of the blood off his face. “Feel better?” She licked her fingers and smirked.

-Not really. Something's not right, and human blood tastes like shit.-

“That's what I've heard. I guess I just like new things.”

-No offense, but I need some time to calm down. I'm still fighting the urge to kill that dickwipe.-

“And how long have you felt this irritable?”

-About a week now.-

“If you were a girl I'd ask about PMS. Jericho, honey, how many sensors are you carrying at this moment?”

Jericho started rummaging through his pack. “Enough to sink the Bismarck from field emissions alone, why?”

“Be a dear and give Razor the once over while he takes a seat and a few nice, deep, cleansing breaths... maybe a drink of water.”

Jericho nodded and brought out one of his biometrics scanner, and ran the triage protocols, running the devise across Razorback for a few moments, then ran a cable to the back of his head to read the data.

“Heartbeat's up, breathing's up, blood pressure's up, but other than that all normal for Razor after he's gotten riled.”

“What about noises, high pitched sound higher than the human ear?”

“He'd be in frenzy right now if that was a problem.”

“I’m just being thorough, dear. Besides, we're in a village full of weres, someone else would have heard it anyway. Ok, Razor, did you just wake up one morning feeling out of sorts?”

Jericho considered carefully as he spoke. “I've only seen him like this right before...” He paused and drew the shock-rifle, dumping the safety and spinning it back up to maximum power. “Right before those fucking voodoo-wolves show up.”

“Bonus.” Sara grinned.

“He's been getting like this at school, at night. I think the voodoo-wolves have decided that you and Fey are a bit too much of a pain in the ass Sara. They seem to have tracked you home.”

“God, I hope so.” Sara's expression was predatory. “Question, though. How come we're not swamped with voodoo-wolves right now?”

“Easy. You infect a city, you get nuked. Wait, you meant right now, didn't you?”

Sara nodded.

The sounds of snarling and screaming erupted near the houses, and whatever was bugging Razorback snapped into full clarity as the spined nightmare released his distinctive, ululating hunting call and burst into full-speed, tearing off towards the homes of the weres.

Jericho pulled out an odd piece of headgear, and strapped it over his ear, as he began running. He jacked it into his skull-jack and poured on the speed, which was surprisingly swift for a pudgy kid. All the running coached by Razorback had been helping him.

“That's why!” he yelled as Sara easily paced him.

“Methinks there's a slight flaw in our working hypothesis.” The demon-girl was speaking easily while Jericho was huffing under his load.

“And that flaw is?” He was having trouble talking as his breathing quickened.

“If they want me, there's much easier ways. And I've never seen a voodoo-wolf with orichalcum claws.”

“And iron for Fey, I know!” The statement came out quick while the blind boy tried to regulate his breathing. “So what the *huff* fuck... *wheeze* are they looking for?”

“Ok, what are the other commonalities to their appearances? Razor, you, the outcasts...”

Jericho was beyond talking by the time they got halfway to Weretown. “Cant... talkandrun.. At... the same time!”

“Humans.”

“Go.”

“What?”

Jericho took a deep breath. “Go! I'll catch up!”

Sara looked concerned but saw the hard set of the boy's jaw and nodded, flickering and seeming to vanish as she poured on the speed.

Jericho caught his second wind as he entered the Weretown perimeter, running straight for the worst sounds of fighting, homing in on the sounds of animal whines and checking motionless forms. The Triage monitor plugged into his head immediately began overlaying his grayscale vision with colored brackets marking each living being, green for Razorback and Sara, Yellow for the weres, and red for the voodoo-wolves, regardless of actual species.

He spotted a pair of Voodoo-Wolves dragging what looked like three unconscious weres away from the combat and laid in, dropping to a knee and firing his shock-rifle at the one closest to him. It would injure the unconscious weres, but better broken bones than being left to the tender mercies of the enemy. The air distortion fired from the rifle hit the voodoo-wolf, a great bear-like creature mixed with something... other, something foul. He couldn't make out the full form, as his odd vision left the monster hazy and indistinct, which was probably what kept him from suffering the same kind of mental trauma that those poor cop bastards had dealt with.

The distortion exploded in a shockwave, blasting the voodoos and their captives apart in a great burst, flinging all of them like rag dolls. Jericho hit a trigger on his EMT vest and ripping pops announced the teleportation of his simulator bots. The simple, arachnid, robotic killers had been fitted with biometric scanners and programmed to seek out voodoo-wolves as preferred targets autonomously and kill them.

Two of the leaper bots bounded forward and tackled the voodoos, tearing at them with bladed legs as the monsters tried to get past the robots and recover their captives. Jericho ignored the voodoos and started dragging the unconscious weres together and set his PPF for proximity activation. It was just in time as a great cougar-thing leaped at him, and hit the force-field the PPF interposed between it and him. An Arc-Spider let rip with an electron burst, man-made lightning that tore through the corrupted werecougar's body, flash-frying several organs. Two more spiders added to the thunder, and the voodoo-wolf burned, twitching as Jericho's Triage monitor marked foreign objects in several of the bleeding wounds of his patients.

A pair of needle-nose pliers did the job quickly, pulling black, pulsing claw-fragments from the wounds until the monitor gave the all-clear. The spider-bots were busy chasing down, shredding or simply blasting at the voodoos that got too close to him and his charges as Jericho thanked whatever gods were watching that the patients weren't awake for the next part.

A metal spike heated to red as Jericho activated the Devise and ran it through the wounds of the unconscious weres. Heat slowed and killed the toxins, and he saw the gunk disintegrate as the brand cauterized the wounds. It wasn't a cure, but it would buy time that the weres might desperately need. He almost hit his panic button that would send an emergency signal to Poe, twice, but the bots burned down the voodoos, claws unable to penetrate the armored little monstrosities, or his PPF shield. For the millionth time Jericho thanked the heavens that he was always over-prepared. If he hadn't, he'd be dead already.

As he finished patching up the unconscious weres as much as he could, he drew a metal spike out of his pack, and drove it into the ground, then began running to the next combat hotspot, blasting two more Voodoo-Weres with his shock rifle as the spike caused a black bubble of energy to surround his wards, encasing them in a force-bubble permeable only by oxygen.

He and his spider-bots reached the next crowd of fighting as Jericho began the process anew, trying to calm a screaming were while he pulled out the claw shards, then cauterizing wounds after administering a type of fast-acting morphine he'd concocted and tested thoroughly.

Somewhere nearby, he heard Razorback's feral shriek of victory, then another...

 

Jericho sat away from the weres after the battle ended. It wasn't exactly safe to be human near a pack of battle-wired werecritters after a fight. He didn't feel calm and collected afterwards, the way the superheroes always seemed to be. His hands were shaking as they gripped the Shock-rifle, trying to sort out what had happened. The sims were one thing, but real combat was different, no matter how much the sims did to make it real. This... This wasn't a video game, and he found himself thanking God on high for letting him see the end alive. The shakes would go, he'd had them before, but he knew from the last time he'd seen a fight with the fiery Fey, that there would be nightmares to follow, and he'd have to cope with it, even as he'd begun to learn to deal with a real life-or-death situation.

Razorback was already asleep, having gorged on the contents of Ben's meat-cooler after his extended berserk fit. Usually when Razor flipped he was indiscriminate, but against these things, he was like a guided missile, and each time he fought them he was getting more effective. Word was he'd fought and killed three of the damned things at once tonight before moving on to savage more. It was a bit terrifying to contemplate, like Jack was made to kill these things.

He noted Sara walking up, covered in cobalt ash, interrupting his brooding thoughts.

“They don't do that voodoo so well,” the demon-girl said as she sat next to him, seeming not to notice the blood and other things covering parts of his clothing.

Jericho nodded slowly. “Yeah, fortunately, Eloise says the healers can patch the rest of the wounded up now those claw-bits are out of everyone, so no emergency oh-shit calls to bring Fey out.”

Sara nodded and leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Whoops, looks like I made a clean spot. Guess I'll have to do the whole thing.”

Jericho smiled wanly and turned his head, not quite looking at her. “Tempting, but I really need a shower right now.” She noticed for the first time, the stressed fatigue in his features, and the shaking hands. “And some sleep.”

“It's called a joke, we have them on Saturn.”

“With you it's hard to tell. Maybe I'll catch on quicker in the morning after I've drank all of Elois' coffee.” He stood, shifting his rifle in his hands like he was afraid to let it down. “I bet it's that Folgers crap too. So hard to find good Java these days.”

“Mental note: never joke with people after a fight. Gotcha.”

“Hey, I'm counting my blessings. No fatalities, I'm in one piece and I didn't have to use Burnout in a Can to keep the goddamned poison from doing to me what it did to those State troopers.”

Sara nodded and tried to wipe the blue dust off her clothing, mostly successfully. “Burnout in a Can? Something fun from the Devisor shop?”

Jericho nodded. “It's a piece of nasty I concocted after I used Jobe's lab to have a look-see at the venom shit I collected. That bastard didn't believe me when I said it was dangerous as fuck all. Then he took one look at it and set the lab's burn protocols himself. We destroyed the shit after. All of it. Even Jobe didn't want to touch the stuff.”

Sara nodded. “Smart of him, although I can't say bringing that stuff to Whateley was a bright idea.”

“Had to test a theory. Heat slows it down. Turns out Burnout will kill the shit in a mutant. So I came up with this.” Jericho removed an epi-pen from the harness on his left arm full of amber fluid. “This is pure devisor, so I'll only trust it with me. If I get caught by those assholes and live, it'll give me about an hour to get help before it causes full burnout and kills the toxins. Unfortunately it also leaves me with the dilemma of needing to get medical attention, so I'm not eager to test it.”

“I can see why.” She handed it back and watched him replace the pen into the harness. “Why would you put yourself through that?”

“Better dead than turning out like those things.” Jericho spat on the ground. “Damned Voodoo-Wolves. Remind me to borrow some of Tinkertrain's plasma grenades in case I meet this 'bastard' motherfucker you all are talking about.”

Sara bit back a smartass comment, recognizing Jericho wasn't up for it, which for him was extremely odd.

He continued onward, actually saying something that got Sara's attention. “This Bastard's got to be a mutant, or had to start as one. This corrupted were shit's supposed to be impossible, right? That means we're probably looking at a mutant whose physiology allowed the jump, then got infected.”

Sara nodded. “That might be. Makes sense, after all, Ebola didn't go airborne until after a mutant got exposed and died. Of course it's also possible the bastard has a mutant that allowed the jump in his employ.”

Jericho nodded, took a few steps and stumbled. Sara was up and kept him from falling as battle-fatigue took its toll on the boy. “Looks like that's my cue. All right. I'm going to grab some shut-eye as well. I'll talk to you tomorrow before we kick it back to Twain. We don’t know when Razor's final is.”

“That's ok. Where'd the big goofball end up? I'll go check on him.”

“He's passed out in Ben's kitchen. He almost always has to gorge after he flips out.”

“Will he be ok like that? Should I move him into a bed or something?” Sara gave a worried look.

Jericho shook his head. “He's done this before. He passes out on the floor in the dorm fairly regularly, or in the common room. No one with any sense screws with him.”

“Ok, I'll leave him be. Goodnight, Jericho, sweet dreams.”

“Joe.”

“Joe?”

“Name's Joseph Turner. You can call me Joe.”

“Ok Joe, sleep well.”

“You too Sara.”

Sara was left, watching Joe stumble towards Ben's cabin. The devisor kid's fatigue, and loss of humor capacity after the battle only reminded her of the differences between her and the people she called friends.



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