TG Universes & Series:
A Whateley Academy Story
Call The Thunder
By Joe Gunnarson and the Whateley Crew
Chapter 4: The Beatings will Continue Until Morale Improves!
Tuesday, December 12th, 2006
Ito looked at the massed audience of students gathered in Arena 99 for the excitement. He smiled evilly as Punch, Lancer’s normal sparring partner knocked Jobe’s lights out. It was a red-letter day for the pudgy brick girl as she managed to walk away from a victory with quite probably the most arrogant, revolting and despicable student in school. Jobe, the notorious Bio-Devisor had underestimated the girl, and had to be wheeled out after she’d shrugged off the effects of the toxic goodies he’d arranged for the bout. She’d barely been left standing and able to fight, or even use the spindle to confirm her victory, but she pulled it off by the skin of her teeth.
As she was helped out of the arena, Ito spoke into the pickup he had clipped to his suit. “Ladies and gentlemen. It is time to explain the purpose of last night’s battle between Chaka, Silo, Nephandus and Bravo. Please remain in your seats and maintain silence while Gunny Bardue of the Crisis Simulation Team explains that and several upcoming matches over the week.”
Gunny Bardue stepped into view wearing the traditional garb of a Marine Corps Drill Instructor. The sixty-plus year old African-American put forth the reality of what intimidation should be. “All right kids, listen up! For those of you who were here for the battle royale last night we have a special treat for you all.” His strong voice almost didn’t need the amplifier pickups to be heard, as he knew how to project.
“In the real world, the battles you think you’ll be fighting are not necessarily going to be the ones you will find yourself involved in. This is why we have the Crash, a set of exercises geared to illustrate the difficulties we face in the world outside of Whateley Academy. Each year, two or three teams are chosen, and certain members hand-selected to illustrate something we, the staff, believe you all need to consider in the future. In the Crash, anything goes. Multiple opponents, odd situation, complete changes in the rules of the game and opponents who are NOT your fellow students are all part of this event. This means should we deem it necessary, we will place a lone Freshman against a small pack of Seniors, or a SWAT Team, or if we’re feeling particularly froggy, one of your instructors.”
Bardue paused. “Now, in the interest of moving things along allow me to address the teams. From each team we have hand-selected some of the members to participate in the Crash, and their opponents. This is not a team versus team thing, but a series of extremely difficult tests. To the junior members of the Capes, the Wild Pack and the Grunts, you have been the standard set for the Crash for the past four years. You will not be participating as our primary subjects in the Crash events this year.” Bardue paused again as the murmuring started. “And now I give you the two teams from which we have hand-selected our Crash subjects. TEAM KIMBA! OUTCAST CORNER! Welcome to the Crash!”
Bardue grinned evilly as both of the freshman teams looked like deer in headlights, including Caitlin, whom he saw freeze as she was walking down the aisle to her new friends. The students were standing, craning their heads for a look at the two teams who would be suffering the wrath of the Combat Finals, trying to guess which ones would be dropped into the hotseat.
“You’re a rotten old bastard Bardue!!!” He couldn’t see the person yelling, but he could guess, as it sounded male. And blind. He gave his most patently evil grin.
“Your hatred only feeds my power.” He turned and nodded to Ito and got the nod from the Japanese man. “Ladies and Gentlemen, for our second Crash event, in the spirit of the martial arts victory of Chaka in our Disaster Zone Scenario, I give you our one independent Crash subject. BLADEDANCER! Get to the Arena! NEX! Get down here! Let’s see what you got.”
Bardue grinned in a way that would later be described as demonic in a way even Sara Waite would have been hard-pressed to mimic. “Watch the screens. We’re going to have a night-fight.”
The monitors that allowed close-up views of the arena shifted, then seemed to glow as a thermographic image of the battlefield was displayed, showing all the various points of heat in the arena.
The Kimbas sat, mouths agape at Bardue’s pronouncement, looking at each other with shock while Chaka grinned ferally. Chou stood shakily, a little pale. Jade wasn’t present at the moment, having gone to collect some of her things in preparation to go visit that mad doctor she had been introduced to by Thuban.
Hank gulped. “I think I know why some of us haven’t been told when our combat finals are.”
Chou looked to her friends, and Chaka grinned at her. “You get him, girl. Nex won’t know what hit him.”
“Give him a swift one to the cujones for me,” Nikki added with some venom. She hadn’t forgiven, or forgotten the ambush Nex had sprung on her.
Tennyo growled before she spoke. “You got this Chou. Show this ninja-punk wannabe what a real martial-artist can do.
“Trust in the Tao, Chou. Nothing happens without a reason.” Destiny’s wave spoke as she moved around the arena to the entrance of the battle area.
“I know, but why Nex? I’ve never gone up against someone like him.”
“It does not matter. Trust in yourself and use the resources you have been given and he cannot defeat you.”
The conversation broke as Chou found herself blocked by a tall, Amazon-like girl with steel-irised, rune-scripted eyes and metallic black hair that ran straight down her back to below her ribs. The girl was standing in the aisle, and recoiled from her slightly, as though she recognized her. The girl’s eyes flicked to the blade once and widened. Something like fear tore through the girl’s features before she composed herself and nodded. Chou reached for the Tao, maybe to learn something about why the girl recoiled and found nothing.
Destiny’s wave was oddly silent, and Chou saw, or rather felt, nothing from the girl save a wound, like she should be there but was not, a vortex of chaos, unpredictable and unreadable, like her destiny was unformed or missing, torn from her or dead. It was unnerving as all get out. Even demons had a presence in the web-pattern. Then she remembered, the feeling of someone torn from the web as though screaming and fighting a while back and leaving a shadow-presence that wasn’t really there. Well she seemed to have found the source.
She snapped back to reality as the girl spoke again. The feral and hostile look on her face was unmistakable, but it wasn’t directed at her. The odd girl pointed at her opponent, taking his leisurely time and spoke. “Kick his ass, and I’ll send you and your buddies pizzas. Nex is an overconfident braggart with a touch of Diedricks. Get him mad and screaming and you own him.” The voice the girl had was eerily familiar, and Chou turned her head to make sure it was, in fact, the girl and not Destiny’s Wave being cute by mimicking an American accent or not clipping her voice to the soft tones of a traditional Chinese woman.
Chou watched as the girl walked away towards Jericho and his pack of unruly GSD friends, as well as a surprising number of kids wearing the Ultraviolent protected armbands, also known as the Underdogs, or the Born Losers Club to the student body at large. She was rubbing a spot above her right kidney as she walked away.
“Not now, Chou, we’ll talk about this later. Now is not the time to discuss this, nor to act.”
Chou sighed and moved into the arena, drawing Destiny’s Wave and drawing her cloak around her. She slid on a simple red and gold mask with a yin-yang symbol between the eyes and darted into the shadows as the lights seemed to dim, and the Arena cityscape took on the aspect of night.
Caitlin was unnerved by the girl with the sword. She’d never seen Chou Lee up close but her appearance and face triggered memories and flashes that she hadn’t been aware of. Flashes of past lives were becoming as much a part of her as the new body. Most of the memories she could do without, as they dealt with her times under the thumbs of various mages and monsters as she slaved for them to create magic items that no mortal had any right holding. Sometimes the flashes were of happy, contented lives, or from childhoods that weren’t hers.
This memory was of death, specifically, hers. She’d seen that face, and blade before. The memory was as poignant and painful as the one of Nex stabbing her above the kidney from behind. The death didn’t bother her. Quite frankly she felt each of the ends she’d faced in her past incarnations to be mercy of the highest order. She also recognized the girl and blade that killed her in the mountains of China, God only knew how many years before. The currents didn’t react to either one, flowing through them like they were merely more current flowing through reality.
It was only the thought that this girl could end her should someone capture and bind her again that had kept her from panicking and running in terror. She didn’t want to die, and would fight tooth and nail to prevent it, but it was reassuring to see someone who had struck her from the life of hell before and might do so again. Mercy in any form, even death.
Caitlin sat down next to Sandra and looked up at the two MID cards. They could not have been more different.
Baseline Human, Tai-Chi, Chinese Martial Arts
Chinese Sage-Blade, Weapons of Opportunity, Sweeping Strike, Shadowed blade, Stalker-strike
Normal human vulnerabilities. No powers of note.
ESP-3, PSI-3, TK-4
Cloak, Psiknife, Vortex, Eyebreaker, Doppleganger
Upon reflection, a night fight scenario suited her just fine. Chou re-buttoned her Chinese-style cloak around her tightly and shivered slightly. From all indications, if she was the only independent Crash subject, and Toni’s battle-royale with two maniacs and the world’s biggest joke of a mage, the rule of the Crash was anything goes. That could be the only possible reason for her facing a junior, who was supposed to be facing other upper-classmen next week.
She huddled in a shadow under a supermarket, letting the power of the cloak slide over her, making her appear as nothing more than another shadow in the dark, nearly impossible to see. She scanned her surroundings and took stock. The storefronts and offices of one of Chicago’s many business districts made for an odd battlefield. There were no bystanders other than the occasional drunk leaning against a store door, or the occasional human body wrapped in a blanket to simulate the night life, or lack thereof, of a darkened city street. A lone police cruiser drifted down the road to the soft hum of a modern engine.
Chou got up and began moving from shadow to shadow, the cloak blurring her image and breaking up her outline. While there was no way one could miss the rapidly flitting shadow moving from point to point the brief moments of immobility were enough to render her all but invisible to the naked human eye. Surprisingly she reached the spindle completely unopposed.
Ayla spotted Nex in the thermographic imagers first. He had circled around Chou with a leisurely lack of effort and was simply walking in the open behind her, following her trail. His psychic invisibility trick couldn’t fool the mechanical sensors dotting the arena floor, or the cameras angled for the best view. His posture was nothing short of contemptuous for the ridiculous baseline girl he was trailing, and he treated it like a leisurely stroll in a park during daylight.
“I really hope she smears him.” Nikki growled fiercely.
“Well she’s not in a position to do much about him. He’s right behind her and she doesn’t SEE him.” Tennyo looked worried. “I thought she was some kind of super-mystic.”
Nikki shook her head as Ayla spoke. “Chou’s still getting used to the whole Tao thing. I mean come on. Mystic she may be and a helluva handful to boot, but we all know Nex can get the drop on mystics.”
Nikki thought back to the battle with the Voodoo-Wolves a few nights back. “If she’s looking the right way, she’ll get him. But I don’t know if she’s looking.”
Toni snorted. “Even if she doesn’t spot him first, he’d have to cripple her on the first shot to put her down. Once that girl gets rolling she gives me a rough time in sparring matches.”
“That’s just it,” the ethereal redhead said quietly, “He will probably do just that.”
Tennyo rolled her eyes. “Oh come on, Nikki. Quit being such a pessimist. Chou’s going to turn him inside-out.”
Toni smiled. “You’ve said it yourself, roomie, Nex is an overblown hackwit coward. Give him solid resistance and he caves. You worry too much. We’ve seen what she can do, and Nex ain’t nearly as bad as some things.”
Nikki nodded as Chou activated the spindle, sending furtive glances as the strobing lights on the device announced that Bladedancer was beginning to fulfill the victory conditions. “Maybe you’re right. I worry a lot sometimes, but she’s a friend.”
“Friends don’t let friends get mopey, so quit over-thinking this bit and let’s just cheer our friends on.” Toni looked down at the Arena floor. “Besides, I don’t think Nex CAN win this one.”
“Oh? And why is that, oh mighty mistress of hyper?”
“Because I said so.”
“Care to place money on that justification?”
Toni just grinned.
The conversation at the Outcast section was dead. Four Outcasts, two Fury twins and a small army of Underdogs were watching with rapt fascination. Even Razorback and Jericho were nearly praying that Bladedancer would really, really fuck Nex up. The fact that he was a junior didn’t even enter into it. The fact that the guy was a complete dick did.
Only Razorback noticed that Caitlin was leaning forward, watching the arena and not the screens, her posture was verging on violent, and her breath came in short spurts that sounded like soft growls to his ears. The runes in her eyes, directed away from the others, were burning with an eerie, molten glow, as though the metal of her irises had superheated.
Diamondback, Phobos and Deimos watched on with eager, even violent expressions, so caught up in the moment and fascination that they didn’t realize that the storm of fury, hate, and rage they were feeling towards Nex wasn’t born of their hearts, but of the troubled girl sitting just a few seats away.
Nex watched patiently as the girl plugged in the last question, her finger hovering over the enter key as she took a look around and yet again failed to see him. He was mildly amused by his own plan. Let her finish, let her revel in her victory, and then snatch it away as she relaxed. He’d plotted the strike perfectly, not a lethal one but she would never walk again, thus removing an unwanted baseline blemish on his school for the truly gifted. He could afford a little more patience.
Chou’s finger struck the enter key and the spindle went dark, inert. He noted Chou’s gasp as a single line of text displayed on the monitor. He moved in closer and took a look, and puzzled over it for a minute before comprehension dawned. Then the sword started talking.
‘SHOULDN’T YOU BE KICKING NEX’S ASS RIGHT NOW?’ Chou read and re-read the message on the screen with disbelief. Then the reality sank in.
“I spy, with my lack of eyes...” Destiny’s Wave was almost sing-song, like a child playing a game, “an IDIOT! MOVE!”
Chou threw herself aside as Nex erupted beside her, hand swinging in a wide arc as a knife-blade of psychokinetic energy flashed into existence. The strike passed through the spot where her spine had been seconds before. Unfortunately it caught her rib, gashing her open as she darted away. The suddenly visible junior tore through the spaces she chose to occupy like a mad tornado, not giving her any time to mount a defense or do much more than draw Destiny’s Wave.
Nex pressed his advantage mercilessly, eerily silent save for the obscene hum of the energy surrounding his hands as the knifehand strikes whipped through the air scant millimeters from her skin, sometimes drawing blood, sometimes not. Chou was barely able to avoid the rapid-fire series of attacks by the skin of her teeth, finally drawing DW across to parry one of the knifehands.
The psychic energy leading the blades shattered and fizzled as Nex gashed his hand on the white-jade-blade. With a hiss he threw himself back and vanished from her eyes. She took the opportunity to reach for the Tao clumsily and began running.
She found herself following an odd track not entirely of her choosing as she pelted through alleyways, offices and vaulted over dumpsters and climbed fire escapes in a chaotically random non-pattern that took gross advantage of moving shadows that would cover her passage. When she felt it was safe she stopped and hunkered down, invisible against the background.
She reached into a pocket and pulled out a thin strip of paper and crudely drew the Chinese pictogram for “Protection,” and looked for a way to affix it to her head. She finally settled for licking the back of it and sticking the thing to her forehead. The protective spell wasn’t very powerful, but it should allow her to buy enough time to catch her breath while Nex scoured the arena with his mind, seeking his prey.
“Licking the paper to stick it to something seems somewhat barbaric.” Destiny’s wave was no louder than a whisper.
“Yeah? Blame it on my upbringing.” Chou whispered, “If it’s stupid, but it works, it ain’t stupid.”
“Yes, I agree, but there is a question of style, Chou.”
“Survival first, style later.” Chou looked around, looking for any sign of her assailant. “I don’t suppose the Tao wants to help with this one?”
“I thought you’d never ask. Yes Chou, but you’d know this had you looked yourself before entering into this conflict. You must learn to do these things without me prompting you. It is you who must wield me and act as the Handmaiden, not the other way around.”
“Yeah, I’ve done so well at that, letting myself get sucked into killing some poor guy who never deserved what he got.”
“Which is why I urge you to start looking for yourself. If you don’t start doing that on your own, there will be more needless deaths, even if you did do the man and his family a favor. Learn to trust again, but remember to confirm the facts before you go in.”
“Facts. Something that’s in rather short supply for me right now. I better start connecting before the spell fails.”
Even as she said it she opened herself to the Tao. The web of destiny here was simple, all of the other threads were grossly unimportant, but hers and Nex’s were critical. Suddenly she understood the reason why the combat instructors pitted her against the boy.
The instructors wanted her to smear Nex, to teach him some humility, to show him that baseline humans were not the pathetic pieces of uselessness that he thought of them. They believed she could do it. A few of the instructors, warriors of the modern battlefield more than teachers, didn’t want to see her simply win. They dearly hoped she would stomp him into the ground and rub his nose in it. They wanted her to humiliate him and cripple his confidence so that he would never casually maim and cripple another person without considering the consequences. The Tao did not object. Simple defeat or humiliation would accomplish the same thing for Nex’s destiny in the long run, and Chou had a grudge to settle on behalf of a friend.
The Handmaiden would grant their wish.
Rythax watched the proceedings with something akin to amusement. It was rather like watching a tournament, only far more... brutal. All in all the ancient shadowcat found the whole concept rather engaging, once the initial distress from Molly, the darling girl who could call him away from his limbo had subsided some. Her distress at seeing Chou ambushed after she should have won this little contest had been like an alarm siren in the ancient diplomat’s mind and he had erupted from his imprisonment in full splendor, scaring many of the students nearby and causing them to panic. After the reality that Molly was in no danger he settled in to watch, reducing himself to the dainty size (to him) of a normal panther.
Idly he glanced over at Molly, who was distressed over the superficial injuries her paramour sported, yet eager as Chou began moving again. The tiny girl’s hands were in fists, shaking slightly, while her heels bounced off the floor rapidly, and she could clearly be heard muttering “Get him, Chou. Get him. Get him.”
“My dear Lady, calm yourself. I’m sure Chou Lee will be fine once she deals with this... Assassin.” Rythax spat out the word with distaste. Combative though he could be when pressed, he preferred by far the play of words and intent that came with double entendre and diplomacy.
“Can’t I be worried?” Molly’s tone hovered between upset and angry, although with humans, who could tell?
“Of course dear Lady, however, I can not quite figure out whether you are worried, or seeking vendetta. Your voice and scent speak of both to me.”
“He’d better not hurt her any more or I’ll gouge his freaking eyes out!”
Rythax didn’t press, instead went back to half-watching the arena spectacle, half watching the Pack-Stalker, or at least what similar to one, that was doing more or less the same thing, watching the fight and eyeballing him in turn. Rythax determined to enjoy the arena battle, and make sure the Stalker didn’t come near Molly. The things were notoriously dangerous to ally and enemy alike. It never occurred to Rythax that the other one might be doing the same, eyeballing him in case he came near the tight knot of students near it.
Wilson grinned in a manner akin to a shark as he watched Chou begin moving with a purpose again, this time directly towards Nex, circling behind the Junior in exactly the same jaunty fashion he’d trailed her. “Yo Gunny B, Ito, check this out! Looks like Tolman was right!”
“Well I’ll be an Army Ranger.” Bardue grinned as Wilson gave the old man the finger. “Looks like Nex is in for a fun one.”
“Twenty bucks says Bladedancer breaks him.” Wilson held the bill under Bardue’s nose.
“You’re on. If she wins, it’ll be worth it.”
Ito just smiled.
Chou couldn’t see him, but she knew he was walking ahead of her about fifteen paces away, carefully watching the surroundings, except behind him. Apparently it never occurred to Nex that she might do exactly the same thing he did to her, walking jauntily behind her prey, while the ironic echoes of laughter echoed above from the stadium seats. Time to up the ante. She drew Destiny’s Wave and dove forward, and past Nex, slashing him lightly along the arm as she moved. He let out a startled yelp as his concentration broke.
“What’s the matter Nex, Baselines a bit much for you to handle?” Chou’s voice was mocking as she crouched in front of him, blade at an odd ready stance while the Tao guided her, and that strange girl’s words thundered through her head. Get him mad and screaming and you own him.
“Nothing you can do matters here,” Nex’s words were startled, shaky. He wasn’t used to being actually challenged by anything short of a TK brick or high regen. “Once I’m done with you, the school will be back as it belongs, with no baseline trash to muddy the waters.”
Chou raised an eyebrow. “You do realize the folks up above can hear everything you’re saying?”
“What do I care about them? They all feel the same way. There is no place here for baselines. Teachers, or students it doesn’t matter. You’ll be shipped out with the rest of the trash sooner or later.”
Looking up, the sword-wielding girl smiled. She could clearly see the looks of disagreement on many of the students’ faces even in the darkness. That odd girl was leaning over the precipice cracking her knuckles. She could see Stormwolf looking down, face like a thundercloud. The Grunts looked collectively like they were going to spit bullets. And the most disturbing were the faces of Ito and Bardue, Ito with that serene expression on his face and Bardue with a grin that could have made the damned demon that hounded her scream in terror and flee for his life.
“I think our peers disagree.”
Nex’s first attacks were parried easily, though he seemed to not notice. “What would you know about peers you baseline trash? Why are you even here?”
Ok, that hurt, because she could see several of the students also nodding in agreement with Nex’s sentiment. She idly made a few attacks of her own. His skills were being suborned to anger, and he went from deadly to novice in seconds. She danced back and shook her head.
“Why am I here? Simple Nex, because they couldn’t find anyone else close enough to your power to make it challenging. Everyone else would have kicked your ass sideways. Alas, only the simple baseline girl was weak enough to give you a chance at winning.” Chou’s eyes gleamed as she drove the last nail home. “Fey was right. You are a pathetic loser.”
Nex stood there shaking in a rage as the slight girl completed the insult by sheathing her blade and turning her back on him as unworthy of her time. All thought ceased as he attacked, screaming, determined to gut the cocky little shit and bleed her out all over the arena floor.
It worked, but it wasn’t fun. Chou darted away and down an alley, giggling despite herself. She knew it would only piss him off more. She could hear him clearly, snarling death threats as she vaulted off an alley wall, hit the other and bounced upward on the brick faces and into an open window. He followed, scant inches behind her and she faced him, standing as though she’d just been to a party, rather than doing strenuous activity. “Oh, you’re still here?”
Nex shrieked in an absolute rage and shot towards her, only to find himself redirected into a wall. Again he charged, and again he faceplanted, this time with the floor. As he stood up he actually focused and the psiknives formed around his hands, and she found herself staring at the ruins of his nose. He slammed the psiknives together and the world seemed to slow for her as bright bolts of energy exploded in all directions towards her. The energy shards were small, and fast, and she found herself not escaping, but dodging in such a way that none of them would hit anything vital, guided by the Tao to suffer minimum damage. Unfortunately the Tao didn’t exactly filter out the fact that it hurt like hell.
Nex charged, and Chou found herself not caring so much about the fact that she was gashed and bleeding so much as blocking his attacks. The psiknives flickered and faded, Nex was too enraged and out of control to focus properly, and she found herself instead battling him amidst a psychic storm as random objects in the nearly-empty room whipped about randomly like they were caught in a whirlwind.
Each time she parried an attack it was almost gentle, a redirection of his blows, and she leeched a tiny portion of his chi away with each strike. Thus it went for several minutes as he danced around her, attacking and being blocked as she refused to move. Any motion done wrong and her leg would buckle; the muscles of her left thigh were injured by the energy shards.
Nex was screaming incoherently, howling promises of pain, never realizing that with each strike, he expended more energy, and she took it from him, adding it to her own pool, until she felt ready to burst.
He never realized she’d moved until he felt her foot slam into his chest, driving him back, hard. He hit the open window and fell, tumbling back in freefall, barely managing to twist so he didn’t snap his neck when he hit the concrete and stopped moving. Chou smiled as the Tao left her, and she fell to her knees, the pain of the myriad cuts finally getting to her and waited for the medics to get to her.
There was much cheering in the arena. Bardue passed the twenty to Wilson with a grin, and Ito nodded to himself approvingly. Diamondback and the fury twins let out a feral shriek of victory, and Razorback and the Underdogs roared their approval. The Kimbas were oddly silent, with knowing looks and wide grins pasted to their faces. Even Stormwolf let the facade break and he chuckled as the instant replay of Nex getting defenestrated played on the screens, complete with amazed commentary from Peeper over the Arena P.A. and WARS station.
Molly was shrieking, half pleased, half enraged at the damage Nex had done to her girlfriend. Rythax nodded in his smug, self-satisfied, feline way and nudged the girl. “Come, let’s go make sure she’s well. It will make both of you feel better.”
“Okay!” Molly was happy to find an excuse to run to Chou’s side. She never realized she was being herded away from someone.
Rythax and Razorback exchanged half-quizzical, half-warning looks at each other as the shadowcat and mottled raptor-kid interposed themselves between each other and their friends and charges. Neither made any move towards the other, and the incident faded away in the wash of mad cheer that infected the arena. So intent on each other were they that Rythax never noticed the odd, metallic-haired, sparking girl as she had left the company of her friends.
Off away from everyone else, Caitlin smiled as she reached the phone, the feeling of smug satisfaction actually overpowered the disappointment that she hadn’t been the one to smear Nex. Having a baseline girl do it was so much more satisfying, however. She picked up the phone, and began dialing. “Hello, Wild Mike’s Pizza? I have a Whateley delivery for ‘ya. Yeah, no problem, the standard surcharge. Poe cottage, I need a Team Special. That’s right, give it the works. I need it delivered at about six PM. Recipient is Bladedancer. That’s right. Debit card number is...”
“Okay, why the hell am I here?” Caitlin snarled. She found herself in Doctor Polland’s office after Carson had personally hunted her down and told her in no uncertain terms to report to the Powers Testing labs. The evil queen of Whateley had spoken.
Doctor Polland sighed. He knew she was going to be a handful, he just wished that he could believe she’d be less of a handful than that Paige Donner girl that had come over from the weres. Experience told him otherwise. “We just need to do a rotine run Caitlin. It came from on high yesterday. Both Carson and your guardian want you fully tested out and ready. You have an MID card interview tomorrow morning and we need to get your biometrics and powers locked in.”
“Why the hell do we have to do it during Combat Finals? It’s not like it has to be done before January, I got here late!”
Polland sighed. “Sorry, but it has to be done today. Headmistress’ orders.”
Caitlin folded her arms across her chest and snarled to herself.
“All right, if you’re done, we’re actually set up to test you properly this time, hopefully without interference from your aural energies.”
“Wonderful. Can we do this fast?”
“That depends on you.”
“I can’t believe I’m missing the Combat Finals for this shit.”
Polland just sighed. Erik Mahren’s abrupt and total transformation had done nothing to curb the former Marine’s surly, Lab-Rat mentality or aggressive nature.
The Xavier test was a repeat of the first time she did it, and she began the intelligence/physical portion rapidly, as she’d done it dozens of times before. Only the changing nature of the test made it a challenge, as she couldn’t just memorize the answers on the fly. She also wound up skipping a lot of questions that were pertaining to advanced concepts that she had no basis of knowledge for, as usual. It was looking to be a long day.
Chou entered the Crystal Hall to cheering, mostly from the underclassmen, and the few upperclassmen who weren’t concerned with decorum, or who actively despised Nex. She was bandaged up, and had spent a while in the infirmary getting stitched and bandaged up. She’d gotten to see Punch in the infirmary bed, working off the toxins Jobe had hit her with, veritably surrounded by flowers and get-well cards from students who held similar opinions of Jobe Wilkins.
She was treated to a hero’s welcome that would undoubtedly be forgotten in the wake of the next great victory by someone in the Finals, but it was nice to have everyone on her side for a change. Sure, the Ninjas were giving her dirty looks but the smiles from the Kimba table more than made up for that. Several painful slaps on the back later and she realized that Killstench of all people was carrying her tray for her. She guessed even the Ultraviolents held Nex in some measure of contempt, or hatred. She didn’t know if she wanted to find out why though.
Killstench parted ways with her after setting the tray down with a nervous sidelong glance at Jade and half-ran back to his buddies. Jade watched with a mischievous smirk on her face.
“Oh thank god, I was afraid he’d try to talk to us or something.” Tennyo watched the Ultraviolent boy leave with distaste.
“Maybe he realized that you don’t like him oneesan.” Jade managed a completely innocent little smile as she said it.
Hank rolled his eyes. “Suuuuuure he did.”
“What? You act as if you disbelieve!”
“So how did the visit with the doc go?” Nikki asked with morbid curiosity.
“Just more preliminary stuff.” Jade looked disappointed. “Nothing worth talking about... yet.”
“It’s the ‘yet’ that has me worried.” Toni changed the subject as she realized Chou was sitting down. “Hey hey hey Bladedancer! Nice work with Tweedledee the wonder dummy.”
Chou was subjected to half a dozen smiles, two hugs and three or four happy, yet painful pats on the back. “Ow, guys go easy. I have stitches there!”
“Oops. Sorry.” Hank looked chagrined.
“No worries. Hey where’s Molly?”
Nikki looked over at Chou and smiled. “She’ll be back. She said something about bringing Rythax in. Apparently he wanted to congratulate you as well.”
Chou rolled her eyes. “Oh great, one of Rythax’s dissertations. If she wasn’t so cute I’d be tempted to throttle her.”
“Well it’s a good thing I’m so cute then.” Molly plopped into the empty seat next to Chou and grinned. “You nearly gave me a heart-attack. Don’t do that again.”
Chou looked back and saw the shadowcat, who bore a wounded expression on his face, and smirked. “Come on Rythax, I was joking. Thank you for coming along.”
Rythax looked mollified and smoothly moved up so he was looking chou in the eye with those alien, feline orbs of his. “Well fought warrior. It has been some time since I’ve been privileged to see such skill.” Chou’s look of surprise at the short praise didn’t seem lost on the cat, and Rythax’s eyes glittered with amusement at her confusion.
“Just when I thought I had you figured out, Rythax.”
“Why whatever could you mean, my Lady? I am but a humble diplomat, ill suited to the winds and ways of deception.” The shadowcat somehow managed to not look smug.
“Yes, just when you think you have a shadowcat figured out...” Nikki’s voice held that ancient edge to it, and her eyes twinkled mischievously.
Rythax managed to do that odd bowing thing again. “Ah, but I am remiss once again for not having greeted you properly, oh Queen of the West.”
Nikki managed to somehow stop just shy of shooting tea out through her nostril as he said it. “Ya know, I’m really, really going to have to talk to my P.R. guy. This queen thing’s really starting to grate.” In a more quiet voice she muttered, “I’m so glad I remembered to put up the conversation barrier.” She tried to ignore the Sidhe queen’s laughter in the back of her mind as she contemplated the reactions of the nearby students to that.
“So Chou, how did you do that whole Chi drain thing?” Toni leaned forward, eager to learn a new trick. “I mean I caught the bare edges of it. Those cameras really put a damper on the whole thing, you know?”
“Sure, I’ll tell you, after you teach me how you did that tornado surfer thing.” Chou smirked back at her martial artist buddy.
“What? And give away the secrets of my most impressive, yet functionally useless tricks?”
“Useless?” Nikki sputtered.
“Tell that to Silo,” Hank grinned.
Toni, of course, protested her innocence. “It’s not my fault he was in the way! How was I supposed to know that when I’d roundhoused him into the funnel that he’d STAY there?”
“No Chi drain tricks for you.” Chou gave Toni a twisted little smirk.
“Would you teach ME the Chi-drain tricks?” Molly’s puppy dog look was so innocent and beautiful Chou nearly melted.
“Well, since you asked so nicely...”
“I see how it is.” Toni pretended to grump at them.
Nikki simply smirked at her friends as they went back and forth, having managed to drain the offending leaf-based drink from the back of her nasal passages. “So Rythax, what did you think of the school’s latest torture tool for the student body?”
“Torture tool? Surely you cannot mean the tournament, my Queen.” Rythax looked scandalized by the thought.
“If that’s what you wanna call it, then yeah, the Tournament.”
“Actually I find it rather fascinating, rather akin to the tourneys held by the Court of the West, only with less fanfare and more emphasis on raw martial prowess.” The Shadowcat looked around at the half-empty Crystal Hall. “The raw power held by some of these short-lived human children is staggering to say the least, and yet to have no fatalities during the proceedings thus far. It seems a monument to the self-control and advancement of a race of people whom I never thought would be more than a footnote in history. No offense intended, Ladies, Sir, but I find myself pleasantly surprised and grateful that my perceptions were awry. Otherwise I might still be stuck in a pocket of space with nothing to do and none to talk to.”
Nikki and the other kids had an ironic chuckle at that, given their knowledge of human history. Advancement and self-control rarely seemed to go hand-in-hand in the world.
“Did I say something amusing?”
Molly smiled and held a hand out, and Rythax suffered the indignity of having his ears scratched in public with stoic determination, and no small measure of pleasure that he would never allow anyone to see. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll understand as you learn more about humanity and our history.”
“I’m certain of that. Ah, I thought it would bear mention that there is a Pack-Stalker here. Or something very similar.”
Nikki raised an eyebrow. “Explain please.”
“Ah yes, you would have a different name for them, yet I forget at the moment what that was.” Rythax craned his head up and looked around the Hall until he spotted his target. “Over there, the great, black mottled beast sitting with the dark boy with the strange hair and white eyes.”
The entire table looked over and Toni snorted. “Oh man you must have been stuck alone for a long time if you see Jericho and you think his hair is the weirdest thing about him.”
“Would I have given offense?”
Chou shook her head. “Naw, I doubt there’s anything you could say to Jericho that’d offend him Rythax. He’s... weird, and he revels in it.”
Rythax chuckled to himself. “How droll, but his companion is the one who concerns me.”
“Razorback is no worry unless provoked, Rythax.” The voice that emanated was not quite Nikki. “That one doesn’t seem to be one of the ones you are thinking of. He’s too big, too spiny, too broad in the chest and his arms are as long and developed as any human. He doesn’t even acts as the old Grendelhadagh did. He’s driven as much by thought as instinct, and he’s far more powerful than any of those that I ever saw.”
“Earth to Unga-Dunga,” Toni looked at her friend oddly. “What in the world are you two babbling about?”
“We are talking about some of the Gaian court’s old warriors Toni. Gaia’s warriors tended to follow a much more animalistic and feral bent. The only real strictures she placed on them were those of instinct. They were left to fend for themselves and destroy any pockets of the old enemy that they came across. Some were great, some were small. All were dangerous, and not just to that enemy.”
Chou shrugged. “So basically you’re saying the dinosaurs were demon-hunters?”
Nikki or Aunghadhail, one couldn’t always tell which, shrugged and gave that maddening smirk that couldn’t really be taken as confirmation or denial, and then dug into her plate of green stuff.
Jade rolled her eyes dramatically. “And you all say I’M weird.”
“Diamondback, would you come with me please?” Mrs. Dennon caught Sandra just outside the powers testing area, bringing a tray piled with the usual eats Caitlin normally went after.
“Am I in trouble?”
“No young lady, you’re not in trouble. Sensei Ito and Gunnery Sergeant Bardue would like to speak with you.” The elderly woman’s stern face softened a bit as the serpentine girl relaxed, and then tensed up.
“I’m in the Crash next, aren’t I?”
“I see you’re a bit quicker on the draw than most students. Yes, your match will be coming up shortly.”
“Crap.” Sandra slouched a little. “Can I at least give Caitlin her lunch and tell her what’s up? I wanted to drop in and keep her company so she’d have someone to talk to instead of being driven insane as a lab rat.”
“Of course, but make it swift, girl. We are on a timeline.”
Sandra nodded and slithered into the testing areas and asked around, eventually being directed to a room where Caitlin was in the middle of the notorious “dodge ball from hell” phase of her testing. Mrs. Dennon walked discretely behind and stopped, watching through the armor-plastic window as the girl dodged bowling balls lobbed at her at random intervals. She wasn’t sparking her corona, and Diamondback reflected that the wards that had been drawn into the walls might have had something to do with that.
It was always much cooler to watch the reflex test than be a part of it upon reflection. Caitlin wasn’t bothering to stand still for the test, instead bolting ducking, rolling and diving in an insane non-pattern that showcased just how high and far an Exemplar 4 could actually jump, which was an impressive thing to watch. Seeing her friend able to do things that she could no longer take for granted Sandra felt a tiny stab of jealousy, which she quashed rapidly before tapping on the window and pointing at the tray of food in her hand.
Caitlin spotted her and grinned, then turned back to the machine that was so diligently trying to kill her with the redneck projectile of choice and stopped. The machine, of course, wasn’t interested in ending the exercise and spat yet another of the low-velocity resin balls at her. Caitlin spun and caught the ball on either end and used her momentum to alter its trajectory back where it came from and whipped it, with her own prodigious strength, back at her assailant, with predictable results. The crash and the toppling machinery were rather impressive.
Caitlin stepped out just as Doctor Polland rushed up. “What happened?”
“I think I broke the test.” Caitlin’s evil smirk punctuated the exasperated look on Polland’s face.
The good doctor simply shook his head and walked away swearing to himself.
“Miss Bardue, just how long have you been terrorizing Doctor Polland for?” Mrs. Dennon’s look was stern, almost like an angry grandmother until one realized she could knock over a city transit bus by bodychecking it.
Caitlin somehow looked disgustingly unapologetic. “About...” She counted on her fingers... “Three hours now. Ever since about ten minutes after Bladedancer’s Crash run.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that the medical profession at large is not your enemy?”
“Once, but then the fever broke.”
Sandra had to stifle a snicker, and a sarcastic comment of her own.
“Fine, but I had better not hear of any more property damage to Whateley’s testing facilities. If anything further is broken, I imagine detention will involve working for free to pay off the repair bill.” Sandra had the distinct sensation that the aging Brick instructor was tired of saying this, and a definite feeling of familiarity between the two, like this was a very old song and dance.
“Ok. No more broken stuff if I can avoid it. Scout’s honor.” Caitlin did the two-finger scout salute.
“Oh I know you were never a Scout, unless there’s a Psychopath Scout troupe somewhere.”
“There is! Wanna see my T-Shirt?”
Dennon rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to you later Caitlin. But for now, your friend brings food, and she has an appointment to keep. I am really not looking forward to spring semester.”
Sandra looked at the teacher. “Why, what happens in Spring Semester?”
“I get to have this hellion cluttering up my combat class.” She pointed at the unrepentant girl who was eyeballing the food. “I expect you back at Arena ‘99 in no later than twenty minutes Diamondback.”
“Crap, it’s going to take me ten minutes just to get there.”
Dennon looked down and remembered the girl’s snake tail. “Thirty minutes then. But any later and you forfeit.”
Sandra nodded as the Brick teacher left, and the two girls sat down.
“Ten minutes? Come on Sandra, I know you can’t scoot around as fast as most people but you aren’t that slow.” Caitlin grinned.
“True.” The impish grin on Sandra’s face was made complete by the fangs. “So what’s this about you terrorizing Doc P?
“I... Hate... Going... To... See... The... Docs.”
“You realize I can understand a multisyllabic vocabulary, right?”
“Yeah, but I’m feeling rather monosyllabic and caveman-ish right now. If one more person asks me how something makes me feel I swear I’m going to scream.”
“How does that make you feel?”
Sandra quickly covered her ears as Caitlin let out a wild shriek that made her wonder if her friend had one of those voices that could shatter glass. When it ended she went back to talking like nothing happened.
“What the hell was that?” A much-beleaguered Doctor Polland rushed back into the area with a couple orderlies.
“Girl talk. We’re bonding.” Caitlin somehow managed to say it with a straight face.
Polland left with a few more choice epithets.
“Everhart, Get to Hawthorne, now. Palmer, Matthews and Raczinsky will meet you there. We got one of those blips for a split-second that match up the things the Wild Bunch have been shotgunning. I need eyes on at the site; Jericho and Razorback are En Route.” Delarose’s voice cracked over the com like a whip.
“Shit, roger that, Chief. ETA three minutes. The Monster Squad boys know what we’re up against?” Sam started running even as she spoke, unslinging the assault rifle and charging it even as she moved.
“Affirmative. The three of them will be there a few minutes after you. They have more gear to load.”
“Got it. I’ll try to get eyes-on as soon as I arrive.”
There were very few students out and about, thankfully, leaving her own breathing and the crunch of snow beneath her boots as the only sounds in Sam’s ears. The white, frosted eaves of Hawthorne Cottage were silent in the December day, and in a moment of cliché, Sam reflected that it was too quiet. That didn’t last long as a tearing sound coming through the snow and a cloud of white powder erupted from the direction of Twain as Razorback dug in with the claws on all fours, kicking up a cloud of snow as he braked his speed. He came up on his hind legs, chirped oddly and started sniffing at the air before turning to look right at Sam. Without a word he stalked right over to her and stood nearby, watching the area and waiting. He hadn’t bothered changing out of his shredded rocker kid clothing, which clung to him like a second skin from the wet cold.
“Well hello again Razorback.” Sam cradled the rifle under one arm, and noting that Hive clocked the dinosaurian boy at approximately 103 MPH as he approached.
Razorback nodded to Sam, chirped and started off, circling Twain at an easy lope, which put him at speeds well beyond what Sam herself was capable of.
“Hive access security sensors in the area and give me a rundown on what we got here.”
Processing. Hive detects fifteen students, Mrs. Cantrell and FUBAR in the immediate area inside and around Hawthorne.
“Extend search outwards to one thousand yards in all directions.”
Processing. Hive detects two students and one unknown life sign in the range specified. One student is performing a circular sweep of the area while the other is heading directly towards our position. Unknown life sign is not moving and is approximately three degrees east-north-east of Hawthorne Cottage. Range is six hundred yards.
“Display overlay, and alert me when Jericho and the Monster Squad arrives.”
Affirmative. Jericho is approximately five hundred yards away and approaching at seven miles per hour.
The map overlay helpfully appeared in her vision, out of her main view. Three green blips marking her, Razorback and Jericho were outside while a small cluster of amber blips remained inside Hawthorne. One dull red marker showed where her target was skulking in the trees a ways off.
As she waited for backup, she heard a slow, steady crump of snow as Jericho polished off the distance between Twain and Hawthorne, wearing a blue EMT uniform with heavy rucksack rather than his usual gouge-your-own-eyes-out regalia. A metal harness was strapped with an assortment of power relays and odd devises and gadgets. Cradled in his hands was a worrisome piece of hardware, a heavy gun with a two-inch wide barrel, which looked like some sort of pump-action rig.
“I’m here,” Jericho said between heavy breaths from the exertion of running through the snow, “Where’s the bad guys?”
“Nice timing. Razorback seems to be doing a patrol sweep.”
“Is he acting crazy, like he’s going to randomly tear someone apart?”
“Not that I noticed, but then I don’t know him very well.”
Jericho nodded. “Trust me, you’d know.” He pressed a finger to the device wrapped around his right ear. “Razorback, regroup with me at Hawthorne. Let’s do this the right way.”
An answering shriek called out from somewhere behind Hawthorne moments before Razorback came tearing back around the building to meet up with them. As he slowed to approach Jericho tossed the lizard kid a syringe of something, which was promptly injected into his shoulder.
“What was that?” Sam pointed at the now-empty syringe.
“That? Just a core temperature stabilizer Razor needs during cold weather. He’s cold-blooded. Without that stuff this chill could kill him.”
“Oh. So why were you asking about him being all crazed then?”
Razorback’s hands danced in the Sign language. Jericho nodded as Hive translated the signs to words.
-I’m not smelling, or sensing anything out here. I think we might have a sensor glitch.-
“Every time these Voodoo-Wolves have shown up, Razor goes on edge and ready to rampage even before we see them. Once they get close enough we’ll know, because we’ll have about three seconds to react before he starts ripping.”
“I prefer a bit more disciplined response if we can muster it.” Sam didn’t like the idea of Razorback going loose cannon.
“So would I, but I’ve seen the results when he gets rolling. If there are less than ten of them out there, and they come near him they’re dog chow.”
“And if there’s more of them?”
Jericho grinned as he hefted the huge monstrosity of a cannon. “Then I just have to thin ‘em out a bit.”
Sam looked at the gun critically. “What the hell is that thing?”
“Core Ejector, a Slapdash special. I picked it up from him a couple weeks ago as a trade on some gear. I was intending to trade it off for something more usable. Now I’m glad I kept it. It’s actually a lot lighter than it looks, and it only kicks like Mule.”
Sam nodded as she kicked in the radio frequency. “Chief I have Jericho and Razorback here. Where’s the Monster Squad?”
“Hold position, The buggy’s acting up. Looks like someone went off-roading and didn’t bother to report some damage.”
“Typical.” Jericho snorted as he ran a cord from the harness of his chest and plugged it into the back of his skull. “Chief we have eyes on, request permission to... MOTHER FUCKER!”
“What is it?” Sam looked at the boy sharply.
“What is it Jericho?” Delarose sounded calm, oddly.
Jericho brought the monstrosity of a firearm up to his shoulder. “Chief check for damaged sensors. There’s five of them out there, if not the Voodoos then something pinging on my bad shit-o-meter.”
“Can you handle it?”
“If it’s voodoos? Easy. Razorback can clean out that many of them in a couple minutes.”
“Get a visual and engage at your discretion. Everhart, give ‘em fire support. They’re our resident experts at the moment.”
“Check Chief.” She turned to the boys. “I have point, Jericho you’re in the middle. Razorback covers our rears in case anything comes up behind us.” Sam didn’t even bother commenting on the idea of a blind kid with a gun. She was already well aware of the fact that Jericho was fully capable of perceiving the world around him from his file and the debriefings on the Voodoo-Wolves.
Both boys nodded as Sam began moving forward. Jericho and Razorback exchanged odd looks.
As they entered the trees within a hundred yards five places erupted in a cloud of snow and fleeing forms as the five Voodoo-Wolves bolted from their positions away from the three patrollers. Sam noted that the five were moving fast and would pass outside the Whateley sensor net in a matter of a few minutes. She wasn’t able to get a good look at any of them, just blurs of motion blocked by trees.
“Okay, that was fucking weird.” Jericho didn’t seem to watch much of anything as Razorback nodded.
-They were here, but I couldn’t sense or smell them.-
Sam looked at the two boys. “Did they ever run away before?”
“Not from us. A bunch ran away from Bunker and Mule when the two of ‘em started breaking them on Range 4, but no, I never seen ‘em just run without trying to fight.”
A quick search of the area turned up a set of abandoned binoculars and a camera.
Sam got on the radio once more. “Chief we just had five hostiles break and run without engaging. We’ve recovered a set of binocs and a camera. And the boys are telling me these things have found a way to spoof Razorback’s senses.”
“Not good, do a patrol sweep, and then send the boys back. I got Bunker and Chaka up on the blotter next for response, just in case.”
“Roger that, Everhart out.” She looked at the camera. “And while we’re at it, let’s see just what’s on this film, shall we?”
The two boys made it back to the arena just in time. Diamondback’s call on their com system the Outcasts shared had alerted them to the fact that her Battle Royale would be taking place shortly. Unfortunately Caitlin wouldn’t be there. The Powers Lab rats had her for the foreseeable future. Since Diamondback and Caitlin were indisposed, and the Underdogs and Fury twins were all at their campus jobs for the moment, Jericho and Razorback decided to invade the Kimba Zone by the simple expedient of jumping over the seats and moving down towards them, row by row after they entered the building.
It would have been simple had the boys just used the aisle. Unfortunately they took the opportunity to invade the spaces of as many teams as they possibly could. They made it to the Kimbas to the sounds of outraged students yelling threats and invective at them. All of the Poe kids looked over as the two boys made themselves known. A quick glance showed that the Arena was still being reset after the last bout.
“Ya know I dunno what their problem is, Razor, I mean it’s not like I spilled all the popcorn.” Jericho smirked as the Kimbazoids shook their heads.
-I think it was the bag of Hot Tamales you confiscated for the safety of the students around them.-
Toni rolled her eyes. “You two are classic you know that? Anyone else would have used the nice, non-obnoxious walkway.”
“Anyone except you, oh Martial-artist of the bounciness. I do believe it was you who ran across several students’ heads in the rush to get to her Combat Final and whup some ass?” Jericho’s grin was infectious.
Toni tried to look innocent. Needless to say, it failed to work on anyone.
Nikki smiled. “Hey Razorback, Tennyo’s back at Poe, helping Mrs. Horton with some labor work. Hank too.”
“I thought I smelled a distinct lack of testosterone here,” Jericho began. “I guess me and Razorback will have to make up for it.”
“How kind of you.”
-We aim to please.-
“Why do I get the feeling you two are out to drive the world nuts around you?” Chou asked lightly.
“SHHH!” Jericho put a finger to his lips. “You want to reveal the master plan to everyone?”
“Well your wardrobe is a good start for that.”
“My wardrobe is scientifically calculated to be on the cutting edge of fashion!”
Nikki smirked. “Cutting edge huh? Watch your wrists girls, he’s dangerous.”
“Nobody understands me.”
-Hey Nerdboy! Looks like one of the teachers is taking the stand!-
The mixed knot of kids looked over and saw Wilson, in full Ranger battle dress step out to the podium. Down below Diamondback and Hekate entered the arena side-by-side, looking wildly uncomfortable with each others’ presence. Diamondback wore the flowing, Blood-red robe and deathmask she wore in the sims and Hekate sported a rich robe of purple with golden trim and an odd wingtipped mask that made them look like hero and villain. With the roles reversed in the minds of the Outcasts and Kimbas.
“Welcome to the Final Crash test of the day, Ladies and Gentlemen. For those of you who do not know me, I am Staff Sergeant Ryan Wilson. I teach on the gun ranges here at Whateley with Gunny Bardue, who most of you know.” There was no hint or trace of Wilson’s slacker bum demeanor as he spoke. “In battles between Mutants, or even battlefield combat among baselines, you rapidly begin to realize that nothing is ever quite what it seems. Sometimes allies become enemies, and even the bitterest opponents must sometimes be accommodated in order to win all. For our Next Crash I give you Hekate and Diamondback.”
The MID cards helpfully displayed for the two girls in the monitors above.
Exemplar 3, WIZ 3, PSI 3
Fireball, Telepathic Sweep, Stunner, Shadow Step
Exemplar 4, Esper 2, Wiz 1, GSD (Severe)
Constrictor, Venomous bite, Venom-spitter, Distracting wave, Bogeyman, Doppleganger, Healing Hands
“As always the objective is the spindle, but in order to do that, they must overcome a mutual adversary, and only one can win. And now, I give you their opponents, the Dragonslayers.” As Wilson stepped back, a list of seven simple Codenames, no MID’s flashed on the screen.
Jericho jerked and looked at the others’ worriedly. “Please tell me he did not just say Dragonslayers.”
“Ya... He did.” Jericho wasn’t able to see the suddenly ashen expressions on the other kids’ faces when Nikki spoke. For once, mercifully, neither he nor Jack had anything smartass to say.
The Bogeymen were coming to Whateley.
Deep within the bowels of Arena 99 seven specialized ANTS bots, highly modified from the originals with a better A.I. simulation than most of the static opponents and bystanders the children would face normally powered up, and moved to collect weapons and ammunition. The skeletal robots flickered as the holographic imagers kicked in and soon Hook, Devil’s Envoy, Major Screwup, House Arrest, Hacker, Slacker and Slamjack walked in old-style city camoflage to the staging ground where their programming kicked in, and the robotic attackers bolted into cover, moving from building to building by alleyways, by sewer and skyline, out of view of the normal “people” milling about the constructed Chi-Town cityscape.
Each of the robots was heavily modified to be able to fully mimic the human range of motion, and all were rated to match a low-to-mid range exemplar three, considered the upper limits of human development. Each one had its strengths, and weaknesses. One was more agile than the others, one was a bit more hardened against damage, one was stronger, one was smarter, and two of them had linked senses so each could operate with the other’s data. All in all, even though the forces arrayed represented mere baselines, even the seniors and most of the staff had to admit that facing Whateley Academy’s mock-up of the mutant world’s most hated conspiracy theory was among the most nightmarish scenarios to face alone, to be surpassed only by things like the Mob Assault scenario, or the scenarios involving opponents with the power and personality of such psychopathic greats like Deathlist.
“So what the hell are we up against?” Diamondback muttered to herself crossly.
“How should I know? It’s not like I planned this.” Hekate’s aloof demeanor was unwelcome and unasked.
“That was a rhetorical question. And I wasn’t asking you.”
“Then who were you asking?”
“Nunya. Let’s just get this over with. I don’t want to be anywhere near you anymore than the reverse is true.” Diamondback’s voice held very real rancor as she read Hekate’s emotions. There was no doubt in her mind that this was going to be an exercise in backstabbery. Hekate was notorious for double-crossing people when they hadn’t come up with some kind of “favorable” arrangement beforehand.
“There’s something I can agree with, freak.”
Diamondback smiled behind the bone-white skull mask and tightened her shields as she felt Hekate’s mind probing at hers. Oh no you don’t, bitch. I’m not giving up my tricks that easily.
Sandra slithered to the side and pulled a satchel out and removed three candles and a deck of cards. A quick check revealed that the enchantments she’d laid were strong on the tarot she had brought with her, not for divination, but as a focus. She ignored Hekate as she withdrew the Queen of Wands and the Emperor from the deck and brushed away the weaves she’d placed before. Unlike most students of magic who put spells into each card, or coin or whatever they chose as a focus, Sandra had placed spell elements into each one, forming an incomplete spell until she laid them in the proper order.
Sure, she could channel raw magic like some, like Hekate or Fey, but compared to any of the WIZ students she was pitifully slow, and the draw took way too long. She couldn’t just rip the energy from her surroundings and fling it with abandon. She had to work for it. Fortunately she was so far ahead of her Freshman magic class that she could utilize more advanced concepts, some of which she had learned from She-Beast in exchange for a little grunt work a few weeks back.
“What are you doing?”
Sandra hissed as she set up the candles and began rapid-drawing the cards and setting them up in a classic world spread with the Queen of Wands, representing her, and the Empress, Representing Hekate went into the center. She hissed out a poem she and her brother had made up during their tenure at a small coven of Wiccans before her change as she did so. As she did so the words and cards wrapped around her will, forming the core of the one major spell she would cast during the combat final.
“Broken Mirrors, Shattered Dreams,
Never be the way it seems.
Call to Mother, hold me tight
Always fear the touch of night.
Deception reigns as shadows fall,
Hear me allies, heed my call.
My light rests now, my fear runs deep
So let my fear to thy hearts creep.
Break the boundary, Smash it down
We see the king wearing his crown.
We understand you wish us ill,
Our touch carries the Winter’s Chill.
Hungering to feel your dreams,
Hear us whisper, hear you scream.
It’s getting dark, sire you must see,
My mind grows numb.
We come for thee.”
“Oh... My god, what did you do?” Hekate was flabbergasted as the power, raw and unfettered, erupted from the spread of cards, and infused her. It was like being in the immediate vicinity of Fey tearing off one of her insanely powerful spells when they went right.
Diamondback spun and hissed at Hekate. “Shut up and get ready to fight.” The tone and inflections weren’t Diamond, and her mind had shifted subtly, as though someone other than the meek and shy snake-girl she loved to mock as though she was just out of earshot was in control now. “The spell is powerful and it will protect us, but it won’t last long. Now get ready!”
Hekate was shocked, and most certainly angry. Not only was this upstart freak barking at her like she was a dog, but she’d managed to spin together the elements of a spell complex enough that she couldn’t simply look at it and follow the flows to determine exactly what it did. As she began forming her defenses she studied it until she found the weak spot.
It was a simple mistake, one that could be expected of any first year student. The cards at the center were bound, with Diamondback’s card on top, thus she was the primary beneficiary. But she hadn’t locked the spell in fully. The cards could be shifted without Diamondback knowing. As the snake-girl began slithering towards the spindle warily, Hekate simply used her abilities to cause the cards to flip places and locked them into the spell, completing the circuit. Now she would be the primary beneficiary of the spell as the landscape of the Chi-town business district darkened and took on an unhallowed feel, shadows moving unnaturally as the civilian pedestrians panicked and scattered in the wake of the two obvious mutants as they walked towards the center of the arena.
“What the fuck did that bitch just do?” Jericho’s voice was enraged as he used his laptop to hijack the arena cameras and watched the switch through his brainjack uplink.
Razorback shrieked his disapproval as he watched the cityscape below darken and shift to match the dark horror-swept nightmarescape the Outcasts loved to use to unnerve their opponents in the sims.
Nikki’s eyes narrowed. “Diamondback just did a very complex spell. I can’t tell what it is without getting closer, but Hekate just altered it somehow, linking it to herself rather than your friend.”
“Oh HELL NO!” Jericho snarled like a maniac. He was halfway out of his seat when Razorback pushed him down and signed at him.
“He’s right,” Nikki said as the blind boy snarled back. “What goes in the sims, stays in the sims, Jericho. All we can do is watch and hope Diamondback can overcome this on her own.”
Toni looked critically at Diamondback. “You know, I sure as hell wouldn’t turn my back on Hekate.”
Razor chirped once and signed.
Jericho nodded. “Fine, you’re right. Sandra’s not going to be that easy to drag down. Dammit! First the Dragonslayers shit and now this!”
“Hey man it sucks rocks, but what can ya do?” Toni shrugged. “I admit, the thought of your heavy GSD friend knocking the stuffing out of the Queen of Shit down there appeals to me on multiple levels, but it doesn’t look like it’s in the cards right now.”
“Hey! Shut up! I spotted the Dragonslayer guys.” Chou waved at them as she spoke. “They’re flanking and... Oh, there are seven of them. Anyone know what these bastards are capable of?”
“I dunno, I heard they’re a pack of H1’s,” Chou said.
Jericho shook his head. “No, well maybe Humanity First! but I looked at these guys when I started showing up Devisor. I had nightmares about guys in black jumpsuits bum rushing me and shooting me. All the reports are contradictory, and by all indications they shouldn’t exist.”
“That’s because they don’t exist, Frosh.” Beltane walked down and settled in. “What you’re looking at is Whateley’s simulator scenario of the Dragonslayers. I assume that this is where the rumors came from.”
“They’re just sims? I thought there weren’t any holoprojectors in the arena.” Jericho looked a bit relieved, as did the other girls, save Razorback, who looked amused. “You bastard, you knew they aren’t real?”
Razorback nodded gleefully.
“Oh man, we’ve been had by a lizard!” Toni said, amused.
Belle nodded. “So it seems. But those are robots, not people. But that doesn’t change the fact that Hekate and your friend are in for a rough time of it. I think there are maybe three students on campus that can beat that scenario. Stormwolf is not one of them.”
“Oh wow.” Chou said. “Think we’ll see that scenario?”
“Maybe,” Belle smirked, “That all depends on how cocky you lot are, and how good you get.”
Hekate rode the wave of power suffusing her as Diamondback jerked aside too fast for her eyes to track, avoiding a bullet whipping through the space her chest had just occupied. The Snake-girl clicked two bracelets together and drew them along one another and whipped her arms apart, causing a wave of brilliant green energy to rip forward and shear the truck the man in urban digital cammies was behind in half. Hekate added to the mix, firing a force blast at the man that threw him aside like a rag doll. The man hit the wall and bounced, then jumped up and bolted, running away and down an alleyway.
Diamondback moved to pursue, but Hekate had recognized the uniform and face. She’d need Diamondback alive and healthy to win, even with her newfound power. “Don’t chase! That’s Hook! He’s leading into an ambush! Follow me!”
“How do you know that?”
“We’re up against the Dragonslayer simulation! That’s Hook, as in ‘worm on a...’ he’s their bait man!” Hekate didn’t waste any more time on the fleeing human, instead diving into an alley of her own. Thankfully Diamondback did the smart thing and followed.
“How do you know about them?”
“I had to do this simulation earlier this year, they never do teams for this, its individual grade, and it’s brutal as hell. I don’t have time to explain so stay with me and follow my lead!”
“How did you win?”
“I didn’t, they took me down in four minutes. Now MOVE!”
The two girls flung themselves aside as the thunder of gunfire erupted behind them and bullets began shredding the landscape. A loud CLACK! sounded as something round and metallic hit the concrete nearby. Both girls threw up hasty mystic barriers as the grenade exploded almost in their faces. Then the tracers began raining from above as two machineguns belched bullets and noise from rooftops across the street at them. They were barely away and around the corner when the rocket exploded and shredded the cover they had been behind scant seconds before. Some of the shrapnel had penetrated, and the girls sported small, bloody gashes as they fled. Four fast-moving humans bombed out of the alleyway behind them and opened fire at them with insane coordination, forcing them to dive behind more cover in the face of the aggressive assault.
Caitlin was backed into a corner behind the exam table, with her harvester in hand. “No fucking way I’m getting on that goddamned table!”
Doc Polland held up his hands disarmingly and tried to speak in a calm and level tone. “Caitlin we have to do the exam. We need to make sure everything’s...”
“FUCK NO!” Caitlin hadn’t realized just how much the idea of sitting down and having a doctor examine her “down below” would shake her up. She thought she’d been getting used to being female, but the sight of the table and the speculum and other tools had brought on the full realization of just how real this whole situation really was. That knowledge had brought with it a full-blown panic attack, as she’d always thought of a physical as “Turn your head and cough.” This was far more invasive and the thought of someone prodding inside of her made her absolutely ill. She felt in no way ready to face this final reality check that would pronounce her change loud and in stereo to God and Creation.
Polland tried to appear disarming, as he faced off with a girl who probably would kill both him and the two orderlies if they pushed her too hard. Her aura was flashing and sparking like a dynamo in her agitation, even in the double-layer of wards on her clothing and the temporary runes on the walls which were glowing an angry red color.
She hadn’t been much better as a man, and certain aspects of the medical world had set her off like a nuke even before the change, and he was rapidly recognizing that glazed look of fear in her eyes that mirrored her old life. Corporal Mahren had been arguably one of the most stoic, bull-headed and fearless men Polland had ever known, but even men like that had their fears. Apparently he’d just hit one that Caitlin wasn’t even aware of herself.
Security officers pounded down the hall in full battle dress with Sam Everhart in the lead. The call had come from Medical when Caitlin had gone off the deep end. She met one of the nurses in the hallway, and the young man pointed. “She’s gone bugshit. I dunno what’s up, but Doc P. brought her into the exam room and she had an absolute shit fit!”
Sam peeked through the door and sighed. “Not her again.” The comment was carried away as the Security mugs moved into position on either side of the door.
“Why didn’t you tranq her?” Sam looked at the nurse with an exasperated eye.
“I did. Used the tranq gun, because she was hysterical.” The nurse just shook his head. “Didn’t even faze her. She yanked the dart and threw it at me.”
“Doc Polland, would you please come out here? Bring your men with you.” Sam shouted.
After a few tense moments Doc Polland and the orderlies slid warily out of the room, and the door slammed as Caitlin darted forward and kicked it shut with a thunderous SLAM! The doorframe buckled and cracked a bit with the force.
“Just what the hell is going on here, doc?”
“Everything was going just fine with this girl’s powers testing until we got to the physical exam. I wasn’t expecting her to react so strongly to the idea.” Polland looked tired.
“Let me guess, she flipped when you told her she had to do the physical.”
“Flipped is a bit of an understatement. Closer to a psychotic episode.”
“Shit. Doc, who dealt with her medical business before?”
“No one. She’s...” He stopped as Sam held up a finger to forestall him, and then turned to the nurse and orderlies.
“You three. Out.” Her voice held the note of command. She turned to the Third Platoon security team that had accompanied her. “Back to Kane. This can be handled without you.”
“But the Lieutenant said...”
“The Lieutenant’s not here. Get lost or I’m going in there and telling that girl you still haven’t found the Uzi and MP-5 that went missing. That’ll calm her down about the physical right quick, and I’ll let her have it out with you.”
“Uh, right. We’ll get to that.”
“You do that.”
When the Security boys and medical staff had cleared out, Sam turned to Doc Polland. “All right Doc, don’t screw with me. I know who she is, and who she WAS, better than you do in fact. Now I ask again. Who was her primary doctor before she changed?”
Doctor Polland sighed. “Ophelia, Doctor Tenant. She was the only person who could get Mahren to sit still long enough to get things done without him going psycho. Or if McQuiston was still here she’d probably stay calm.”
Sam rolled her eyes. “Ye well, McQuiston’s a bit busy taking a dirt nap, so that would leave Ophelia, now wouldn’t it?”
Polland nodded. “Problem is she’s not here. Today’s her off-day, and she’s not one I like to call in randomly, she and Raul don’t get much time to themselves, and she does far too much here already.”
“Is she apprised of Caitlin’s situation?”
“No. Ophelia’s not party to that bit of knowledge. She just knows that Caitlin is a troubled girl with massive control issues.”
Sam took a deep breath. “Ok doc, lemme break it down to you, shotgun style. That girl in there’s worked for me before, and I know her. She does not react well to medical types and she’s been caught and... Interrogated vigorously in the past, get my meaning?” Doctor Polland nodded, somewhat shocked. “She doesn’t trust doctors and she hates psychologists. Now if you have one doc who’s got her trust I suggest that you get them in here to deal with her, because you’re looking at a full-blown phobia here, one that’s gotten her into a lot of trouble before. Let’s minimize this as much as we can and get on with it. So call Ophelia, fill her in, and get her here!”
Polland nodded and walked away as Sam sighed and looked at the door. It was going to be one of those days. She steeled herself for the screaming and opened the door, jerking it out of the mauled doorjamb and pushing it aside. She met the steely-eyed gaze of Caitlin, not the upset, and touchy girl from before, but the hard-eyed gaze of an angry face from memory. She shut the door gingerly, pulled up a chair and sat down, rubbing her temples.
“Caitlin I thought we’d gone over this. You need to calm down.”
“I know.” Caitlin snarled.
“I hate to break it to you girl, but you and me are both looking at this for the rest of our lives.”
“I know!” The retort was loud and angry, with real heat.
“Then why the hell are you fighting it?”
Caitlin just stood there, glowering for a moment, then sat down with an unladylike grunt.
“Well?” Sam asked.
“Don’t pull this shit with me.” Sam looked her dead in the eye. The girl locked her gaze and held it angrily. “Why are you fighting it? A few hours ago you said being female was the least of your worries, that if it was your only problem you’d be thrilled. What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know! I thought I had a handle on this, but then I came here for testing then they dragged me in here.... and it was like...” Caitlin shuddered and shoved the wheeled cart with the exam tools away from her, causing it to bang off the wall. “The thought of someone prodding at me there just made me want to shoot myself, or them. I wasn’t sure which.”
“Ever thought of shooting yourself before?”
“Dozens of times, but I keep losing the thought after a few seconds because I can’t make sense of the idea of suicide. It doesn’t click up here so well.” Caitlin pointed at her head. “Not that I think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think I want to understand it.”
Sam snorted. “Well at least I don’t have to put you on watch. But seriously, Caitlin, you need to calm down. Ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it simply disappear in a puff of smoke.”
“I don’t know what the hell else to do about it. I can’t undo it, can’t change back. Hell I can’t even sort out my damned memories.”
“So what, you’re just going to gut it out and not think about it?” Sam looked disbelievingly as Caitlin let out a sullen nod. “Jesus this isn’t a twenty mile hike that you can just push through. It’s not a fight you can just fall back to training and experience to beat, Caitlin.”
Caitlin just slumped. “What should I do about it, Everhart? Over the last month and a half my life’s been blown straight to hell with a depth charge. Granted it wasn’t much of a life, but I finally had something good going on here at Whateley.”
“What was that?”
Caitlin let a twisted, rueful smirk enter her features. “Teaching kids to survive against assholes like me. I had a job; I had a place where I wasn’t on the blotter or on the firing line. I had Cat, who I was ready to spend the rest of my life with. Now I feel like I’m back on the pointy edge of the spoon.”
“Ok, we’ll talk about this later, but for now we’ve got Doctor Tenant on her way, you think you can hold it together for her?”
“Maybe. I think so. I’m not sure.”
“We’re about to find out.”
Hekate swore furiously as the explosions continued to erupt around the two of them. Apparently some smartass had decided that giving the seven loony Dragonslayer combat wombats artillery to play with was a good idea. The eruptions continued to thunder around them as they hunkered down in a crater. The seven madmen were moving and sporadically pouring fire into their position. Several holes had been blown into the pavement, exposing the sewers below.
She leaned up and took a quick glance, only to jerk it back down as bullets tore up dirt and asphalt around her. She hated this. It was like reliving a bad dream. Last time she’d gone up against the Dragonslayer scenario she’d been confident at her ability to simply crush the baselines arrayed against her. They’d shredded her in far less than the four minutes she’d claimed to Diamondback.
“Diamondback there’s a bad guy with a radio! He’s probably the one calling for the artillery! We need to take him down but I’m pinned!”
The skull-masked snake-girl nodded and darted up for a look before ducking down again, too quick for the soldiers to react. She began hissing out something under her breath again and Hekate felt her drawing in power and channeling it to those bracelets she’d apparently stacked for attacks and drew them together, and sliding them along each other to channel as she snapped upright and released the energy. Hekate risked a look and saw the emerald wave shear out across the blasted cityscape and tear the man in two, along with his radio.
Hekate reared up and drew in that lovely wash of power from her stolen spell and sent a fireball shrieking down the devastated city street as the air seemed to shimmer and darken. Shadows erupted into motion, seeming to charge as Diamondback’s spell entered its final stage, and the city itself seemed to raise itself to strike at the attackers. Gunfire erupted as she slammed a barrier in front of her, drawing in a suddenly exhilarating level of power as she charged, drunk with raw power. The earth split and tried to draw in the attackers, the shadows clung to them, dragging at their heels and slowing them down.
They still came. Grenades flew, tearing her barrier to shreds, and she narrowly dodged a rocket fired from a storefront. With a snarl she channeled lightning and sent the bolt shrieking into the building where it bounced and arced and played merry hell with the person inside. The scream was gratifying as the second Dragonslayer died.
Diamondback smiled as she watched Hekate tear back, for once throwing the Dragonslayers into disarray. As she prepared to move and do her part she smiled and drew one last tarot card and kissed it before setting the Fool down and binding it to the spell she’d wrought. She moved with purpose, sliding into the sewer, exposed by one of the blasts.
Nikki was trying desperately to see the sudden turnaround that her friends were crowing about. Sure, she’d seen the two Dragonslayers go down, but where were the fires? Where were the rents tearing themselves into the ground, the shadows and darkness? All she saw was a blasted landscape that clearly spelled out just how hard it was to take down some mutants as Hekate and Diamondback desperately tried to fend off the Dragonslayer assault.
The Dragonslayers were horrifically aggressive, going well beyond the reactions of any normal baseline humans she’d ever met. Most wouldn’t have stood before Hekate confidently, much less Diamondback, who looked like a monster. And the attack patterns were disturbingly effective. Neither she, nor Aunghadhail had ever seen anything like the furious assault placed before her. She doubted very much that she could have stood under that barrage, knowing as little of what they were about as she did.
Razorback was practically vibrating with excitement. He’s silently but vehemently described in detail what he’d do to any real Dragonslayers who came after him. It wasn’t pretty, but it mimicked the attitude of most of the kids nearby. Nikki silently promised herself that if she ever met the real thing alone, she’d run. Screw trying to fight the insane, it was pointless and likely to get one killed. And everything she saw pointed to one thing. These Dragonslayers in the Sims were stark, raving mad.
The other Kimbas and Outcasts watched with rapt fascination as Diamondback erupted from a manhole and started laying into the two Dragonslayers that hadn’t expected her. The humans, even as capable as they were, could not cope with an enraged, exemplar-snake-thing up close and personal as she threw one negligently into a wall. As he tried to crawl away she fired a series of punches at his compatriot in a rapid-fire blur that was impossible to follow. The result wasn’t pretty. The man seemed to explode in a shower of blood and broken bits.
Another Dragonslayer was coping with what looked like two Earthen Elementals that tore themselves from the surrounding buildings and wreckage. One Elemental went down as a rocket hit it and blew it to so much rock and sand. The remaining two Dragonslayers were pinning Hekate down, darting back and forth seemingly randomly, while firing on the run. The Alpha girl was wildly whipping lightning bolts, fire and fury at the two men as they avoided her onslaught, sometimes narrowly.
Nikki saw none of this. She saw shadows and dust. The two men that had been attacked by Diamondback she simply saw fall over. The one fending off the elementals simply fired the rocket launcher into empty space, to detonate on the protective shield that separated the arena from the spectators. And she saw Hekate... She smiled, and then began tracking back to the point where Diamondback had cast the spell and her jaw dropped a bit at the sheer complexity and utter genius of it. She smiled wide and leaned back into her chair, considering.
“Jericho, remind me never to piss Diamondback off.”
Hekate was getting angry. The two lunatics that had been bouncing bullets off of her hasty barriers and dodging her own attacks were like a pair of lunatic pinballs bouncing from place to place. Diamondback’s spell seemed unreal, the amount of power it had charged, the chaos and sheer insanity it provoked. That it had been done by a mere freshman was simply unacceptable and galling. That it had been done by one of those unsightly freaks from Whitman made it even less so. Once she was done, she fully intended to find a way to rip the secrets of the casting from the girl by any means necessary.
One of the harassers fell victim to the random reality warping that accompanied the rest of the chaos. His boot got caught in a small fissure and the asphalt seized it and sealed around the foot. Hekate wasted no time with him, flinging a small, red ball of energy that struck him in the chest, burning through him and causing him to vanish in a burst of red light and glittering motes of loose matter until the disintegration spell consumed even that. She smiled to herself and began to turn when she felt the impact of a bullet in her shoulder before she heard it. The body armor woven under her flowing costume stopped it, but she felt her collarbone crack in a searing burst of agony. She dropped to her knees and saw her vision waver and reality lurched.
Without warning she was exhausted, the surge of energy gone without a trace, leaving her bone-deep weary and mentally drained. The shadows vanished, the elemental rippled and faded. The rents and warps in stone and earth smoothed out and faded as the Dragonslayers looked around, confused for a moment. The ones Diamond had torn apart up close jerked and stood abruptly, unhurt as the massive illusion the snake-girl had woven faded. An illusion of Diamondback slithering up behind one of the Dragonslayers flickered and faded away, but not before it looked at Hekate and presented the one-finger salute.
She’d been tricked. That damned serpent-girl had tricked her! All this time, that feeling of power had caused her to burn her own energy at an insane rate, and left her wounded, exhausted, and incapable of focusing for a single spell, much less her own psychic ability. She was barely able to hold herself up as the four Dragonslayers walked up. SlamJack upholstered a pistol and leveled it with her face as the gong sounded, signaling that the spindle had been successfully used. The four Dragonslayers froze in place, unmoving statues, and she simply stared at their troubled, but determined expressions until someone arrived to assist her off the Arena floor.
Diamondback smiled from her place by the spindle and slithered away towards the exit. All in all it was a good day when you could count on your enemies to betray you properly.
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