Call the Thunder: Chapter 6

A Whateley Academy Story

Call the Thunder

By Joe Gunnarson

Chapter 6:  There is no homework, only Zuul!

 

Tuesday, December 13, 2006

Lieutenant Simeon Trout jaunted across the quad, allowing his gaze to sweep across his domain, taking everything in.  He was still spitting mad about that bloody girl who came through his office like a hurricane and cowed three members of his squad with hardly any effort whatsoever.  His back still spasmed occasionally from whatever she’d done to him.  He turned into Schuster Hall in the early morning, hoping to catch Collins before his appointments began.

The latecomer students MID cards were being prepared, and he needed to get in with the mandatory data from Whateley to facilitate the MID registration.  Fortunately this process also allowed him to get some measure of revenge against that amazonian bitch of a teenager.

Agent Collins was a stereotypical MCO suit, expensive clothing, carefully tended hair, and of course, the mirrorshades.  The man had a perpetual scowl on his face that he wore every time he went into a field operation that warranted his personal attention.  The man disliked mutants since he started in the agency.  Trout had walked his first beat with the man under his original name.  Neither of them was particularly fond of mutants, but Trout had always had more an eye for the big score than the moral imperative.  Never mind the MCO paid better for information about up-and-coming threats than they paid their agents.

The agent’s scowl lessened a bit as he recognized his former partner.  “Ah, Lieutenant, I was wondering when someone would be bringing in the Materials package for this particular run.”

“I decided it’d be best if I brought in the stuff myself to avoid tampering.”

Collins nodded.  “So anything of note this time?”

“Short batch, only eight kids this time.  Only one with a B-warning due to biological alterations.  Boy’s probably going to be wheelchair-locked for the rest of his life.”

“Anything my agents need to be appraised of?”

Trout shook his head.  “Nah, kid’s fine unless you decide to pull off the respirator.  Then you might have some problems.  He’ll be here with a nurse to make sure his apparatus stays tight though.”

“Bad?”

“He’s one of those rare kids for whom I’d ask for a gentle hand, Collins.  Kid’s going to have trouble staying alive, much less causing trouble.”

“Alright, I’ll give him to Sanchez.  He’s a bit more sympathetic when it’s kids involved.”  The MCO agent looked Trout up and down.  “So if there’s nothing of interest, why are you looking like you’re about to put the hammer down on someone and gonna deeply enjoy it?”

Trout shrugged, forcing his expression under control.  “Number seven.  There’s a bit extra in there for you.  Girl’s likely to not be entirely forthcoming.”

“I take it you would rather her subjected to a bit more of a harsh Q&A session?”

“If you think you can handle the little hellion.”

Collins grinned, “I live for the hellions, buddy, you know that.  I’ll see to her myself.”

“Good to go.  Burn the extra after you’ve entered it.  No point in letting Carson see that there was extra baggage in the works.”

“And I’ll make sure you get the standard finders’ fee.  I’m assuming it’s accurate?”

“Culled straight from Delarose’s Director files, although it’s skimpy for what he packs into those files.”

“Don’t get caught doing that Trout.”

Lieutenant Simeon Trout sneered.  “Please, not even Buxton knows I found a way into those files.  Let me handle Delarose, you handle your end.”

* * *

Caitlin tried to ignore the knocking on the door to her room, desperately trying to find some moment of mental quiet.  Maybe if she could find a moment of internal peace, sleep would come.  The knocking continued, an annoyingly staccato sound, ramming against her eardrums in the perfect quiet of her room when she finally rolled out of bed for the eighth time that night.  She should have been tired, damn near dead to the world, as this was her fourth night in a row without sleep, but she was as alert and aware as she would have been at noon with a pot of coffee on a normal work day.

“It’s Six-thirty in the morning, somebody had better be dead!”  Shouting felt good, it helped her forget briefly that she should be going bugnuts crazy from sleep deprivation.

The door clicked and Elyzia Grimes’ face poked in.  The face got a panicked look and the woman began frantically waving and talking.  “Cait, it’s me, Jimmy-T.  I woke up like this, sorry, but I was told to come get you!”

The words came through, and jarred her to the realization that she was growling - loudly - and her corona had erupted in a hellish, yellow, arcing glow that illuminated the room.  She forced her temper back in the box she kept it in, and growled something as the surging energy subsided.

“Sorry, what?”

“Out!”  She managed not to yell, or shriek somehow, “I need to get dressed.”

“Right.  I’ll be right outside.”  The head popped back out into the hallway.

Caitlin swore under her breath as she began searching for her clothing, a task made more difficult by the suppression runes cut into the walls of her new room.  It caused the currents and energy to swirl around like a cyclone, partially obscuring what she was looking at.  Normally she could separate things out easily, but in here, where everything was contained, absorbed and shunted, vision required one to open the door at least once an hour to let the excess backwash out.  Jimmy had only partially cleared the room by cracking the door.

Once she was dressed, she opened the door, and felt and saw the cyclonic rush, causing her skin to spark wildly as she looked in the hallway for her unwanted interruption.  In Elyzia Grimes’ place was the thin, wiry form of Deadeye.

“Better Jimmy, not by much, but better.” 

The shapeshifter grinned in response.  “Not a fan of military madness?”

“I have enough madness in my life.”

“Ouch.  I would strongly suggest an alternative school then.  Whateley has nothing but madness, and it’s not getting any thinner.”

“Yay, I can look forward to chronic dementia in my old age.”

Jimmy grinned.  “That’s the spirit.”

“You’re fired.”

“So I was told to come get you for the MID session for you and the other Johnny-come-latelies.”

“Oh, perfect, just what I always wanted, a morning bull session from the Mutant Control Office, or the Mutant Commission Gestapo, whichever you prefer.”

“Ah, reasons to be unfond much?”

“Maybe someday I’ll tell you about it.”

Jimmy smirked.  “We’ll call it a date for later then.  But for now, we have been awakened at this repulsively early hour for the purpose of paying homage to the Law Gods.”

“I suppose this can’t be any worse than the medical examination.”

“If you’re lucky.”

“Aren’t you cheery this morning, Jimmy?  Lead on.”

The shifter kid shrugged, keeping his distance from the sparking and wildly flashing Exemplar, cringing at the occasional grunt of pain or swearword that she let slip as her unholy aura did something that either annoyed or hurt her.  He knew that she couldn’t stop it any more than Compiler could quit going haywire, but it did grate that there was nothing he could do to help.  Just like with all his Thornie buddies.

After a few minutes walking out into the cold, Jimmy looked at her.  “Aren’t you cold?  Most kids on campus can’t handle walking outside with just a t-shirt, jeans and some fingerless gloves.”

Caitlin shrugged.  “I picked up a lot of resistance to temperature when I manifested, plus I grew up in Alaska, so this wouldn’t bother me even before.  It’s what, Twenty-Two degrees?  Easy money here.”

Jimmy chuckled.  “Funny, Kodiak says the same thing.”

“Kodiak would be a tolerable human being if he didn’t gleefully hang out with the campus Douchebag brigade.”

“Agreed, but you gotta admit, there are worse people in the Alphas.”

“Like all of them?”

“Exactly.”  Jimmy grinned.

Caitlin rolled her eyes.  “I’d rather hang out with the other Outcasts.  At least they don’t try to pretend to be better than everyone else.”

Jimmy grinned slightly, “And I have to agree with you, even if Jericho’s a bit off-putting and Diamondback’s a bit too moody for my taste.”

Caitlin snorted.  “Usually it’s Razorback that I hear people bitching about.  Was he really that bad last year?”

Jimmy nodded.  “Worse, actually.  For the longest time I actually thought he was murderous.  When he first got here it was like watching a wild animal trapped in a small space, surrounded by food.  It wasn’t till a few people bothered to learn sign language that he stopped trying to habitually bite off limbs put too close in his direction.”

“So what changed?”

“He mauled someone he liked.  It didn’t help that Aries was provoking him the whole time.  Razor was antisocial, hostile, tended to growl at anyone who got close.  The only person he’d let near him is Spider over in Dickinson.”

“Spider?”  Caitlin ransacked her brains for a few moments, and brought the image of a dark-haired Australian girl with the lithe frame of an elf of fantasy novel fame.  “Oh you mean Koala?”

“Don’t let her hear you call her that.  She despises the fact that she got stuck with that codename.”  Jimmy chuckled.  “She doesn’t get on well with the other elfy types on campus.  Hell, the last time one of ‘em tried to claim she was a Baroness and that Spider needed to recognize her nobility, Spider had a full-on Diedricks’ moment, only with less screaming and more throwing of pulse charges and Electron-accelerator cannon shooting.”

“Heh.  That sounds like Koala.”  Caitlin grinned to herself.  She’d absolutely adored driving that girl batshit calling her by her codename… constantly… even when it was unnecessary.  “I’m guessing the Sidhe types got a hard lesson in the difference between Fae, and a human with pointy ears?”

“Ohhh yeah.”  Jimmy grinned.  “Razorback has the recording somewhere.  He brings it out when the dorm needs a morale boost.”

“I’m not surprised.  That sounds like something he’d do.”

“Oh yeah.  Razor’s a real character once you actually get to know him.  He spent most of last year in the last semester biting his tongue damn near off, literally, whenever his temper started spiking.  This year it’s like night and day.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“So what’s your story?”

Caitlin stopped for a second and considered.  “My story’s long, involved, and uncomfortable for me to talk about.  Needless to say I didn’t always look like this; in fact I was kind of a dog.”

“It’s an improvement, I’m sure.”  Jimmy turned toward Schuster Hall.  “I’m just glad your change to how you look now didn’t go to your head.”

“If I ever start acting like Majestic, or any other poncy little shit with a sense of entitlement, feel free to break out the long knives, it means I’m an imposter.”

“Will do.”

Caitlin grinned.  “Thanks Jimmy.”

“For what?”

The sparking, metallic-haired girl shrugged.  “Helping me forget stupid shit with a good laugh, even if it doesn’t last long.”

Jimmy grinned from ear-to-ear… literally.  “Always glad to lighten a dark mood.  Unfortunately we’re here, so you need to get your game-face on Caitlin.”

“Eldritch when we’re around the suck-suits please Jimmy.”

“Gotcha.”

Caitlin looked at the mixed bag of about seven students waiting in the woodworks to talk to the MCO.  None of them looked thrilled to be there, and she saw at least three frightened looks.  She sighed, suppressing feelings of hatred as she saw the three dark-suited agents of the Mutant Commission Office.  It wouldn’t help her cause to show outright hostility and anger.  Dollars to donuts, the agents present were unaware of the existence of Butcher’s Row.

That didn’t change the fact that one of the agents looked right at her and got a hard look.  Great.  He was expecting her, and he’d already decided she was a shithead, whether it be her appearance - which was just off-human enough to be disturbing to the unprepared - or the fact that she was bedecked from head to toe in mystic sigils.  In any case, whatever it was he didn’t like about her was more or less irrelevant.

“Miss Bardue, come with me please.”  The man’s demeanor was like a dog chomping at the bit to bite someone.  Caitlin’s face creased up with a pleasant smile that for once wasn’t forced.

If he wanted to fuck with her, she was going to fuck back.

Caitlin simply walked into the office he indicated and sat down in the chair, ignoring the fold-out biometric scanner sitting next to the chair.  She made herself comfortable and even remembered to fold one ankle over the other in a fashion Diamondback had told her was something more dignified than her usual Poor White Trash mode of seating that involved a controlled flop and sprawl that could occupy most of a common room couch.

The agent settled behind the card table he’d been allowed as a desk during his tenure at Whateley, shuffling through files, and finding one.  He made a big show of opening it and flipping through the paperwork.  Once he was done, he looked up at the girl who sat stock-still, unmoving, watching him… and was slightly unnerved.  She almost looked like a statue except for the slow breaths she was taking.

“Miss Bardue, my name is Agent Stephen Collins, and I will be conducting your interview today.  For the purposes of the MCO and TSA I am required to record this conversation.  Do you have any objections?”

“Well, yeah I do considering the contents of this interview are protected by international law and under the privacy act of 1974.”  Caitlin smirked.  She knew one thing about cops of any stripe, that if you gave them what they asked for without giving them more one could aggravate the shit out of a lot of them.  Not that she considered MCO goons to be cops…

Agent Collins’ eyes narrowed as he scrutinized her quietly.  “And how would you be under that impression?”

“My adopted father works here at Whateley with mutant kids every day.  How do you think I know that?”  Caitlin suppressed an internal grin.  This could be fun, even if under normal circumstances she despised people who tried to rules-lawyer their way out of things.

“Well, this interview isn’t protected by that law.”

“Well then if that be the case I’ll go get Dad right now and he can sit in on the interview.  Be right back.”

Caitlin started to get up while Collins glared bullets at her.  “Sit.  I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”

Caitlin smiled sweetly.  “Good to hear.  Turn the recorder off.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“You can or I’ll turn it off and get Delarose down here and you can discuss privacy laws pertaining to minors with him.”  Caitlin thought for a minute.  “Oh and Mrs. Carson.  I’m sure she’d be absolutely thrilled to hear your interpretation of the laws pertaining to MID interviews.”

Caitlin again suppressed a smile as Collins got a face like he was chewing on a turd.  The man reached over, visibly clicked off the recorder at the corner of the table and placed it inside a briefcase which he judiciously closed and locked.  She leaned forward and helpfully picked up a pen and used the end to click on the silence generator he was supposed to have active to prevent bugs, shotgun mikes, or even regular eavesdroppers from listening in.

“There we go.”  She gave the sour agent a smug look.  “I’m ready to continue, how about you?”  Hell, if she could keep him occupied for a sufficient amount of time, none of the other kids waiting would have to suffer this douchebag’s attention.

Collins took a moment and composed himself.  Caitlin locked his eyes and held them silently.  That’s right asshole, I play hardball.  You’re up to bat now, let’s see if you strike out.

“The file given me by the school here says you are a WIZ, a Devisor, an Exemplar and an Esper.  May I ask why the Wiz and Devisor ratings don’t have classification numbers?”

Caitlin nodded.  “I’m unclassed there because we can’t get a solid read on it due to this delightful little lightshow.  There’s been a lot of speculation, but until I can consciously focus even a little bit or direct it, not a damn thing can be done because the whole magic thing fluctuates from harmless, to obnoxious, to painful, and then up to very-likely-lethal, depending on how fast and hard I’m moving.  The Devisor slant seems interlocked, so no one’s really sure what the hell I can do.”

“So you have absolutely zero control over who it affects or how?”

“More or less.  It’s one of the many reasons I dislike getting physically approached.  I don’t want someone else being injured by accident.”

“What about by intent?”

“What about it?”

“Can you harm someone with it intentionally?”

“Can a spork actually be used as a deadly weapon?”  Caitlin’s return question was entirely facetious.  She’d seen Prison Bitch gouge out someone’s jugular vein with a spork once.

“Why are you being uncooperative?”

“I’ll be cooperative the instant you stop trying to shimmy around U.S. Law and quit asking me inane and pointless questions that would only be incriminating in the future if the MCO decides it doesn’t like me.”

“Young lady don’t you even dream you get to dictate how this interview will be conducted.”

“Fine, fuck you, I’ll have Dad pop the paperwork for a retiree dependant MMID.”

Collins stopped as Caitlin uttered the words he didn’t want to hear.  Military Mutant I.D. cards were a blank spot in the MCO records.  The only time the military ever shared that information with any outside agency was posthumously, or in the one case of a mutant soldier going on a six-state killing spree when his girlfriend cheated on him during a deployment.

Caitlin looked the man in the eye.  “I’m only cooperating as much as I am as a courtesy to the Headmistress’ desire to have this school not be listed as an enemy of the establishment.  However, if you do not conduct the rest of this interview in the regulation fashion as laid down by TSA guidelines and federal law, this interview is over, comprendé?”

Collins was angry.  This girl was not a typical, scared teenager afraid of scrutiny.  He much preferred the scared ones; they were far more easily guided into whatever he wanted them to say.  Trout had warned him that the girl was a handful, but he hadn’t warned him that she was actually smart and educated in mutant law enforcement procedure.

“Step through the scanner.”  Collins waved at the odd metal-detector looking thing.

Caitlin snorted and stepped through.  The scanner gave an odd buzzing noise she’d never heard on one of the things.

“Step through again.”  Collins leaned forward and pulled a control device out and began tweaking it.

Once again, Caitlin stepped though.  Once again the scanner gave that odd buzzing noise.

“Why are your biometrics not reading?  All I’m getting is a mana surge reading.”

“Couldn’t tell you even if I were so inclined.  None of the medical scanners here did us any good either.  The docs were mumbling something about heavy internal GSD.”  Caitlin declined to mention that according to the docs she was effectively made of some kind of rock, and Grimes had identified her as some sort of mystical golem construct.

“All right, no helping it.  Step through one more time.  I’m going to use the mana spike as your biometric pattern.”

“Great.  More stupid magic bullshit.”

Collins looked up quietly as she stepped through again.  He’d never actually heard a WIZ mutant express distaste for magic before.

“All right, let’s get back to business.  Have you come up with some sort of Codename?”

Caitlin nodded.  “Eldritch, and I did some research.  The last person to haul around that moniker died in ‘82.”

Collins nodded, restraining himself while he typed in the data.  “So why exactly did you pick that name?”

“I didn’t.  Razorback did.  I’m just running with it because it seems to fit.”

He cocked his head.  “Razorback?”

Caitlin smiled and said nothing.

“Names of parents?”  Collins looked up from the computer.

“Deceased, and I’m not feeding you the names of my blood relations, sorry.”

Collins bit back another comment.  He knew this girl would rip him up over demanding said information, which was marked as optional due to U.S. laws about that.  “Do you have a guardian’s name that I can use?”

“Since I have his permission, yes.  Gunnery Sergeant Oscar C. Bardue, USMC, retired.”

Collins entered the data, then looked up.  “Permanent address of record?”

Caitlin sighed.  She hated this part of her so-called cover.  “Whateley Academy.  I got nowhere else to go.”

“Any other oddball powers or abilities that need to be put on the MID?”

“Nope.”

Collins nodded and began typing data before going into his file sets and began copying information.  Caitlin surreptitiously craned her neck and looked at it, seeing what he was looking at.  What little she saw made her blood boil rather abruptly.  It took every ounce of self-control she’d developed since High School, the first time, to keep from going absolutely psychotic.

When Collins finished he printed out her card and handed it to her.  Where he’d gotten the photo…  She was going to have a chat with someone about that.  Government-issue I.D.’s were required to take photo on-site as the card was being made.  But what really burned her ass, beyond a lot of data that the MCO should not know was the little warning statement in fire-engine red lettering.

She set the card down and gave Collins the gimlet eye, the runes in her irises were already heating to molten as she pointed at the red letters.  “Take… that… off.”

“No.”

“The MCO is not allowed to issue DFA’s to U.S. Citizens, and doing so with a minor is a double-shot federal violation.”

“Take it to Court then.  It’s not my problem.”

“And where, did you get the idea that I had all of this training the card says I have?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”

Caitlin’s dark mood twisted and warped into a sickeningly delicious feeling of vindication and she gave the MCO agent the first God’s-Honest smile she’d given him all day.  “Very well, you want to play?  We will play.  I’m going to burn down the house that Jack built.”

“Is that a threat young lady?”

“Hope you’ve got a good lawyer, fucktard.  You’re gonna be needing him in about three months.”

Collins snorted.  He’d won the round, and in every single case where a U.S. Citizen had fought the DFA warning in court it had gone nowhere and bogged down in proceedings.

Caitlin was grinning evilly as she stormed out.  She was thinking the same thing, only she knew for a fact that none of the DFA’s being fought were held by persons under the age of eighteen.  She had to restrain herself from practically skipping to Carson’s office to see the Wicked Bitch of Silicon.  If there was one thing Hartford and Caitlin as Mahren agreed upon, this little Death threat from the MCO was one of them.

* * *

Caitlin crackled her way into Schuster Hall and waltzed straight up to Amelia Hartford’s desk.  Sitting next to the desk was a girl with one arm and a prosthetic, a feline tail, and cat ears.  Caitlin mentally shrugged when she realized that Hartford wasn’t wearing her cool aura of distaste she normally affected for the GSD crowd.  It had happened before, and she knew Hartford could really care less what a kid looked like so long as the school-rat in question was in some way redeemable or interesting.

Hartford’s calm disappeared as she sneered at Caitlin.  “What do you want?”

“Not much ma’am, just a moment of your time before I talk to Carson and Delarose about something.”  Caitlin glanced at the catgirl, who seemed oddly entranced by something, and was staring, glassy-eyed into space.  “In private if possible.”

Hartford scowled, looked over at the catgirl, and nodded.  “Paige should be occupied for a while, so I have time to talk.”  She stood up and led Caitlin into the same conference room they had talked in just a short time ago.

“What is it Caitlin?  I believe I was rather clear about how you should expect to approach this office.”

“And I’m in full agreement, Amelia.”  Caitlin’s voice changed ever-so-slightly, rather like Mahren’s did when he’d needed to talk about something that needed done, all antagonism aside.  “They finally did it.”

“Did what?”

Caitlin carefully slid out the MID card and handed it to the most reviled woman on campus.  “There’s a bunch of shit on there the MCO should have no reference for, and they have officially given a DFA to a minor.”

Hartford scanned the card carefully, scowling.  The only way that anyone could have found a record of Caitlin’s combat and weapons expertise would have been from Delarose’s personal files that he’d culled and modified to account for the new student.  When her eyes reached the red lettering Caitlin imagined she could see Amelia’s blood pressure spike to lethal levels.

WARNING!
Combat experienced.  Source of training, unknown
Deadly Force Pre-Authorized
See also: Dx-211-23-DS-Foxtrot

“What the bloody, fucking hell?  Has the MCO lost their goddamned minds?”  Hartford stared at the little piece of plastic incredulously.  “And what is this file reference?”

“That is a file tagged in Delarose’s records that he is only authorized to access in the event that Corporal Erik Andrew Mahren were to act in an aggressive fashion against Whateley Academy.  It’s tagged eyes-only, and the MCO should not even know about the filing number, much less what’s inside.”

“Can they access it?”

Caitlin snorted.  “Fuck no they can’t.  I’ll give Pearson one thing, she may be a cunt, but she’s dead-on about never sharing information with the MCO.  Delarose would have to, in person, ask for a military courier to deliver said file.”

Hartford nodded.  “I’ll decline my curiosity and forget I saw that.  But the Deadly-Force marker, on a minor?”

“I’ve seen them do worse, Hartford.”  Caitlin growled.  “But that’s neither here nor there.  The thing I was going to ask, is there anything you can do to fuck them?  Fifty bucks says I’m not the only student they’ve tipped a DFA to, and the whole thing skips the constitutional right to due process.  The MCO is explicitly forbidden from pulling this shit on any US citizen, overseas or not.”

“Yes, but all of the court cases being pursued are being bogged down by MCO lawyers and Goodkind money.”

Caitlin grinned.  “Yeah, but the courts have never had a case where the subject in question is not only a US citizen, but a minor with no criminal history.”

Hartford blinked.  “Oh my God.”

“Yup.  I’d prefer you use OTHER kids as your crusade point, but if the MCO neglected to do this to any other kids I’ll play the part of scared kid who’s been issued a death warrant by the man.”  Caitlin got a wild-eyed look.  “I can’t leave campus because the MCO guys can shoot me for jaywalking!” her voice sounded sufficiently panicked.

Hartford considered, and then got the most patently evil grin she’d ever displayed.  “Thank you Caitlin.  You’ve just given me the opportunity to pay back a lot of wrongs.  This will not stand, not with children.”

Caitlin nodded.  “Have a fucking party Hartford, bring booze and snacks.  While you’re having fun at the Jackboots’ expense, I’m gonna call out the dogs.”

Hartford looked at Caitlin.  “Just how many dogs do you have under your belt?”

Caitlin just smiled in a happy way that Hartford knew boded ill for anyone who crossed her path.

As the severe, blonde woman came back out, followed by the sparking Artificer, she nodded.  “Go right in, Carson will forgive us the interruption.”  Hartford blinked and caught herself.  “Caitlin wait don’t…”  It was too late.  She’d just sent Caitlin Bardue into a meeting with Carson and Reverend Englund, discussing the situation in Hell’s Kitchen.”

“Oh shit.”

* * *

Caitlin restrained her impulses quite well when Darren Englund turned back to see who was coming in the door and locked eyes with the sparking girl.  Her eyes went molten at the sight of him, and a low, inhuman rumble began somewhere in her chest.  She did not, however, give in to her immediate impulse to reach forward and rip his face off.  Englund’s eyes went wide and his face went abruptly pale as he recognized the girl Gunny Bardue had warned him off.  He knows, was the first thought that slashed through Caitlin’s mind.  Another good reason to introduce him to God, personally.

Englund got up, and held his composure, somewhat.  “Mrs. Carson I believe we can continue this conversation over the phone.  I need to catch up with Charlie anyway before we lose our chance at bringing this ‘angel’ out of this situation alive.”

Carson nodded, never taking her eyes off the girl in the doorway.  The ex-superhero headmistress didn’t even allow herself to blink as Englund tried to wiggle his way around Caitlin.  “Caitlin, come here and sit down.”

The girl continued that odd growl as she slid just enough out of the way for Englund to retreat.  She didn’t turn back until he was gone and the door closed.  Carson was literally the only thing standing between the man and a gruesome death at Caitlin’s hands.  So long as she was still the headmistress, Englund was nominally safe.

Caitlin got a sour look and took a deep breath, closing her eyes, counting back from twenty.  When she finished she was still contemplating murder, but no longer directly fighting the urge to chase him out of Schuster hall and tear him to ribbons.  She turned to Carson, who was watching impassively.  Caitlin gingerly sat down, trying to keep the sparking terror at bay with slow motions.

“For a moment there I thought you were going to do something rash.”  Elizabeth Carson wasn’t the most sympathetic to the good Reverend’s plight, but she couldn’t afford him dead… yet.

Caitlin growled out slowly, “I’m saving it for the next time he so much as twitches in the direction of endangering another person at this school again.”  The tacit, unspoken understanding was that if Englund ever tried to pull anything like what happened on Halloween, Erik Mahren, and thusly Caitlin, had dibs on the preacher-man’s ass.

“Have you been taking your medications?”

Caitlin shook her head.  “They aren’t working.  Right now the only thing keeping me leveled off is Outcast Corner.  I gotta hand it to them; they know how to keep the bleeding edge of anger pushed back.”

“I’m happy to hear it, though I want your honest, professional opinion before we go further.”  Caitlin nodded and forced her anger back in the box she kept it in as Carson spoke.  “Do I need to have you issued an Ultraviolent armband?”

That hurt, even though she knew this time it was nothing personal.  Caitlin had spent the better part of five years proving to Carson that underneath the bullshit, she was a decent human being.  However, she also forced herself to acknowledge that Carson had a responsibility to protect the kids.  Regardless of her current predicament, Caitlin felt the same way in regards to herself.

The nod came grudgingly.  “Yeah I do, Carson.  I really think I’m going to need to have the warning out.  I’m not like the ragers here so much, but, like you know, I was diagnosed with PTSD and Intermittent Explosive Disorder, so I can’t promise that without the medication working I won’t go thermal on someone.”

Carson nodded.  “You do realize that I’m not asking you because I don’t trust you?”

Caitlin snorted.  “If I were wearing your pants right now I’d be doing the same thing, much as I hate to admit it.  I’d like to say I’d be fine, but I know me, when I go off I don’t just bull-rush the nearest person and start pounding.  I just start using everything I have, or can get a hold of, until someone stops me and pins my ass to the floor.”

“What are your limitations when you are having an episode?”

“Carson, you’re the one who saved my life on Halloween.  My worst-case thus far has been jacking an antigravity flyer and using it to kill a lot of syndicate personnel.  My ‘episode’ started long before that happened.”

“I’m sorry to bring up bad memories, Caitlin, but I have to know.”

Caitlin nodded.  “Yeah, well, I’m not going to get over it by sitting on it and bottling it up forever.  That’s done me so well in the past.”

“And you won’t talk to the Psychiatrists, or even Fubar about what’s eating at you?”

“Carson, I can’t talk to the shrinks about what’s been eating at me.  I pretty much told you what was eating at me back when I started here.  It all starts there, why you hired me.”

“Against my better judgment I might add.”  Carson smiled warmly.  “I’m very glad that I was wrong about you.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”  Caitlin sighed.  “I violated clearances when I told you about my team, Carson.  You know that already.  Sam knows I did, I used to pull a bunch of my shit alongside the SEALs, and I got a lot of my orders from Everhart at the time.”

“That’s why you won’t talk to Bellows?”

“Bellows would need to get a clearance level that I don’t even have, to hear the shit I have to say.”  Caitlin smirked.  “You know it’s a sad day when bureaucracy decides you aren’t allowed to know that you exist.”

Carson chuckled despite herself.  “I have not told anyone what you told me, not even Frank Delarose.  I can, however, be here to talk if you need it Caitlin.  No one should have to shoulder things alone, and you can’t even get your old teammates to talk to regularly, especially not now.”

“Yeah, see, that might be a problem boss.”  Caitlin got another sour look.  “We promised each other we’d keep an eye out, and if one of us went silent, the others would start hunting for the missing man.  We cover each others’ asses.”

“Will this endanger anyone on campus?”

“Hard to say.”  Caitlin looked out the window.  “Sooner or later, one of ‘em will come looking for me or Cat.  I went silent and stopped talking after Halloween.  I don’t think they realize she’s gone yet.”

Carson blinked.  “Cat knew them?”  Carson had never heard Erik talk about any of his buddies, save peripherally, and even then only by their radio callsigns.

“Only as my unruly buddies, boss.  Cat didn’t ask too many questions about us.”

“How problematic will this be?”

“Depends on who gets curious.”  Caitlin looked back at the headmistress.  “If it’s Heckel or Jeckel, no worries, flat out.  Believe it or not, you know them.  They said they were in your English Class once upon a time, but I’ll leave it at that.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because Worm might come, and the man has a deathwish.  He wants to die, bad, but he doesn’t have it in him to pull the trigger himself.”  Caitlin sighed.  “If someone challenges him hard, he’ll push back until the situation comes to a head and around here that would likely be fatal for him.  Heckel and Jeckel have identity issues, sometimes they lose track of who they are, where they actually are or what they’re doing.  We all got pretty fucked up, and all of us are in dire need of medication and counseling.”

Carson nodded.  “And the others?”

“Messenger was the most stable, but loud noises can set him off.  He had to drop artillery on our own heads a time or two.”  Caitlin sighed.  “The Ell-Tee doesn’t really have much of a clue, but he’ll probably be the most sane to talk to.  He went through the least amount of bullshit.”

“That’s six, you mentioned there were seven at one point.”

“Prison Bitch.”  Caitlin looked at Carson intently.  “Compress the third security platoon into one man and you know Bitch.  I don’t want him to be the one to get curious, because I don’t want him on campus near the kids.  He’s the one I flat told if he stepped onto campus grounds without an escort I’d kill him myself.”

“This does seem problematic on the surface.” Carson considered.  “However, these are the men who protected the Parkour Hooligans back in September, yes?”

Caitlin nodded.  “Yup.  They don’t hate mutants any more than I do.  They just hate the mutant assholes over at M-SOC as much as I do.  More in the case of Heckel and Jeckel.”

“Can you give me names and descriptions?”

Caitlin grimaced, unhappy.  “You know I can’t Carson.  In the off-chance they don’t come I can’t put my boys at risk any more than I can put the kids there.”

“Then we need to give them some kind of word, so that they don’t start hunting for you.  Do you think you can let me do that much?”

“I hate this.”

“I’m not fond either, but I would rather your friends not risk exposing themselves by seeking you out.  Thrasher’s been silent, but as you said several months ago, Caitlin:  We need to let the bogeyman die.”

Caitlin nodded.  “Phone please.  Just hit the speaker.”

Carson nodded and pushed the phone over and Caitlin gingerly picked up a pen and began tapping out the phone number that came to mind first.  The twin brothers had always been her closest friends in the Corps.  They deserved to hear it first.

The phone rang and a little girl picked up the reciever.  “Hello?”

“Miss, my name is Elizabeth Carson at Whateley Academy.  I’m calling in regards to Erik Mahren, may I speak to your father please?”

“Daddy there’s a lady on the line that wants to talk to Uncle Erik.  Is he here?”

Caitlin almost choked.

They could actually hear thundering footfalls and a man’s voice.  “Give it here, sweetie.  Hello?  This is Jeckel.”

“Mister… Jeckel, I am Elizabeth Carson.  I was recently given your name as a possible point of contact for Erik Mahren.”

“What’s up?  Is Erik okay?”

Caitlin screwed up her courage and caught Carson’s eye.  “Don’t lie to him” she mouthed silently.

“I’m afraid I am not the bearer of good tidings, sir.”  Carson sighed.  “I have been appraised that you are aware of the purpose of Whateley Academy, and Erik Mahren’s function here.”

“Yeah, what happened?  Erik’s gone silent.  Haven’t heard from him since Boston.”

“Sir I must regretfully inform you that on October 31st, Whateley Academy was attacked by parties connected to the Syndicate.  Caitlin McQuiston was killed defending the Academy, which led Erik Mahren to have a near-lethal late manifestation of mutant traits later on.”

“Holy mother of fuck, Mrs. Carson, is my school still standing?  And is Erik going to be okay?”

“Yes the school is still standing.  No children were seriously injured or taken in the action, largely because of Erik, Cat and a few other notables among the Staff and student body.”

“Erik’s not going to make it is he?”

“The prognosis is not good.  Erik has been officially transferred over to ARC Black due to his manifestation of an explosive and uncontrollable WIZ trait.  It’s pretty much already destroyed who he is, and we aren’t expecting Erik to ever recover and neither is the ARC staff.”

Caitlin sighed sadly even as the weight was somewhat lifted.  She really was letting go, letting things rest, and it hurt.

“How long does he have?”

“Honestly sir, it’s impossible to communicate with Erik any longer.  We’re simply waiting for him to go peacefully.”

“And it’s Black Complex.  No visitors.  Was it that bad?”

“Could have been much worse had certain parties not intervened.  But no, there can be no visitors.  With Cat gone, perhaps it may be best to leave the man to rest in peace.”

“Fuck.  I’ll pass the word.  This is going to sound weird, but Erik had a medallion of Saint George with Corporal Chevrons cut on one side with Hijacker engraved on it.  If Mahren’s in Black, the body is done, but I’d like to ask you to find that pendant so we can lay it to rest with the others.  We’d like to do that much.”

Carson looked at Caitlin, and saw the recently-minted girl nod slightly.  She slid a gold-colored neck chain with a medallion of Saint George from a pocket and slid it across the desk.  One more bogeyman down.

“We have the pendant, sir.  I will arrange that it be delivered to a location of your choosing.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Carson.  I’ll just come by Whateley with my brother and pick it up at Schuster Hall.  We’ll be along in a few days, but we won’t be in your hair long.  It’s been a while since I saw Emerson Hall anyway.  Felicis Fossor.”  The line clicked dead.

“Felicis Fossor?”

Caitlin chuckled despite herself.  “It was our motto in the corps.”

“Lucky fools?”

“Always fear the lucky idiot with a gun, boss.  He may be an idiot, but he’s still lucky, and he has a gun.”

Carson gave Caitlin an odd look then started laughing despite herself.

Caitlin smiled slightly and straightened up.  “Look Carson, this walk down memory lane’s been cathartic, and it’s nice that I can talk to someone, but if I have to deal with any more of this shit today I’m going to get an androgynous haircut and go Emo on you.”

“Must you always be flip about your emotions?”

“Yeah, because if I don’t laugh at them even the good ones hurt.”  Caitlin pushed the extra crap out of her mind.  “But thank you for derailing me from my happy-go-kill-someone mood.  I betcha with what I just gave Hartford, there’s a few motherfuckers about to have a very, very bad day.”

“What did you do?”

“Retribution.  Someone sold my data sheet to the MCO.”

Carson blinked as Caitlin once again carefully passed over the MID card that had brought her here originally.  Carson nodded slowly, than began checking the card.  Her face became troubled as she read the listings of Caitlin’s combat training, and when she reached the bright red Death Warrant Caitlin saw the headmistress’ eyes go to slits as she hissed out a breath.  “Oh hell no.  Someone’s going to PAY for this one…”

The conversation went about the way Caitlin expected it to go.  Dog two unleashed upon the poor fuckers in the Mutant Comission Office.  Dogs three and four would be the FUN ones, even if normally Caitlin would rather have a root canal than deal with the fourth.

* * *

Caitlin grinned as she walked away from the security office.  Nothing helped a bad mood like spreading it around.  Security Chief Franklin Delarose had simply gone very silent and calm when he looked at the MID card.  Caitlin knew he was less worried about the DFA and more spitting fury over the contents of her MID information, information held in one place and one place alone: his personal files on the Academy students.

Delarose simply ran a cross-check, pulling up MID cards and comparing the data in the official files to the confidential ones.  Sure enough the ones tagged for Deadly Force Authorization, and often, true power classification, on said cards could only have come from his own files.  Eldritch, Razorback, Tennyo, Fey, Carmilla, Imperious, Counterpoint, Stormwolf, and about a dozen other kids were tagged with the Deadly Force classification.

Caitlin whistled a random tune as she thought of the fact that some poor fucker was very soon going to wish he were dead.  Delarose was not some laid back chump who flew a desk because it was the place to be to kick back and enjoy the perks.  The old bastard was relentless when he found something to dig his teeth into, and it was only a matter of time.  Caitlin would have been hard-pressed to not lay money on third platoon being the culprit.  Some distant, evil, vindictive portion of her mind dearly hoped Sergeant Buxton would be caught as the culprit, or Lieutenant Trout.

She ducked and weaved the student body, sparking and zapping her way to a place where the military recruiters invariably hid out during combat finals.  These guys she left nominally alone, only torturing one when she was feeling particularly obnoxious.  Their normal M.O. was to check up on the Grunts surreptitiously, rather than actively trying to poach students.  Uncle Sam was investing a lot in the Whateley JROTC program, and jealously watched over it just to ensure the money was being well spent.

Range Six wasn’t a range.  It was a small bunker set among the woods and hills near the Academy.  The chosen hang-out point of the Grunts, hardly anyone was aware of its existence.  Also, mostly unknown was the spider hole that the military had their watchdogs occupy on occasion, well off the beaten track.  The “recruiters” were invariably naval psych officers who would pop in to talk to the Grunts without the teachers around, to make sure that the kids’ heads were actually still on the military track.  Mutant kids were twitchy enough that the US Armed Services wanted to make sure that this was what the kids wanted, so that the normal behaviors among new recruits who were becoming disillusioned and looking for ways out could be avoided.

Caitlin popped open the spider hole and looked down at the startled young woman hiding in the little box compartment.  “BOO!”

The young woman wasn’t exactly poster-child materiel, but she wasn’t a dog either.  Caitlin looked at her quietly for a moment then spoke.  “I have a courier data transfer for M-SOC Naval and M-SOC PACMAR, do not ask me what the fuck it means, but get your fucking pen out and stand by to copy.”

The young officer blinked, still startled, then nodded.

Caitlin pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded it carefully.  The paper was blank, but she wanted to make it look like she was an actual messenger.  “First message, M-SOC Naval, whoever is in command, Warning Alert, code Bravo-Seven-Hijacker.  Delta Sierra, SOC.  The MCO is issuing DFA’s to minor citizens of the USA, Whateley Academy students have been targeted, very likely others as well.  Butcher’s Row is starting again.”

“How do you know authentication codes?  How did you know how to find me?”

Caitlin grinned.  “Look lady, I don’t know what the hell this is all about, I’m just following instructions left in Erik Mahren’s last will and testament.”

“And the second message?”

Caitlin grinned again.  “This one’s fun, for one Colonel Pearson, from Erik Mahren.  Reads as follows:  I’m dead, bitch, take my name off the fucking blotter.  I’ll see your sorry ass in hell.”

The woman blinked.

“Write it down and have it delivered, woman, I don’t wanna have to repeat it.”

“That’s a bit… crude for a message to a colonel.”

Caitlin shrugged.  “The instructions from mister dead guy say to say it word for word, otherwise she won’t have a reason to believe its authenticity.”

“How did Mahren die?”

“Late-stage mutant manifestation resulting in terminal burnout.”  Caitlin shook her hand and her aura flashed azure, and the paper puffed out in a sparkling haze of snowflakes that fell on the woman.  “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go have me some breakfast, and then go pick up my courier check from the provost.”

Caitlin stood up and unceremoniously dropped the lid on the spider-hole.  She walked away, whistling.  Dog four, turned loose.  Even with all of the personal drama that she was trying to unfetter from her life, to maybe rebuild something resembling sanity, this was turning out to be a good day.

* * *

Majestic and Cytherea glowered darkly as the abomination they knew as Galatea waltzed right into the Crystal Hall dining area.  The metal-haired thing sidled up to the chow line, loaded up and proceeded to plop down next to the mixed bag of freaks and losers she called friends.  Imperious was watching intently, as though expecting something.

The two young women exchanged looks, and silently nodded to one another.  Come hell or high water, they were going to make sure that Imperious didn’t acquire this new toy he wanted.  No matter what it could mean for the New Olympians, the Artificers were harbingers of chaos and destruction when bound.  In one of the last times this particular one had showed up, a quarter of Athens, Greece had burned in the homicidal construct’s bid to destroy any competition for Pygmalion’s attention.  The wonders that flowed from Pygmalion’s workshop had devastated far too much, as greedy Senators and petty sorcerers took the opportunity to destroy their rivals in the ensuing mayhem.  And to cap the whole thing, the creature’s destruction had more or less obliterated the entire quarter of the city she had been frantically disassembling.

Even if it meant losing a chance to touch the higher planes, the Artificer had to remain unbound to anyone’s will, mortal or otherwise.  The risk of the raw potential of the thing falling into anyone’s hands and overwhelming the sense of the master was too great.  Contained within that exotic, yet so very mortal-appearing shell laid the seeds of too many catastrophes, where the world itself seemed to lash out to end the threat.

“I don’t think that batty devisor and his pet lizard took me very seriously yesterday.”  Imperious got a long-suffering look.

“It’s Jericho, what were you expecting?”  Stygian’s eternally-depressed nature shone through yet again as he deadpanned his comment.

“I would have thought him intelligent enough to not try and test me.”

Cytherea rolled her eyes.  “Imperious, you have no idea how stubborn that boy is.  Even the animal he rooms with assaults Alphas on his off-time, and they’re seen to be the top of the heap.”

“He resist your charms, Cytherea?”

“He’s blind.  Glamours and impressive auras don’t function without the visual component too, and you know it, so even your mighty lord presence is lost on the devisor.”

Majestic leaned forward.  “Perhaps a different track might be in order?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“The snake.”

Cytherea cackled wickedly.  “Oh that is perfect.  Diamondback’s too shy and unassuming.  If someone were to pressure her, the message would be passed along.  Just don’t do it near the Fury Twins.  She’ll crack if she can’t hide behind her brick friends.”

“Perhaps it might be time to approach Galatea directly.”  Imperious had an eager look to him that everyone recognized.  He was hungering for her body as much as he wanted her mystic crafting talents.  “I already have the binding ink prepared and ready.  Jericho and the speedster might not be particularly pliable, but the girl won’t be much problem.  She’ll likely be grateful for the assistance controlling her aura.”

Majestic watched him staring across the Crystal Hall with an angry, conniving eye.  She’d be damned before she let him sideline her for some pliable tart!  “Perhaps, but since when do you approach someone else like some common beggar?  You command, or she will come to you out of desperation or gratitude.  A word in the correct ear could very well provoke the response we seek.”  The response that I seek anyway.

“Then we need to ensure the right words reach the right ears, now don’t we?”

Stygian rolled his eyes.  “Of course, let’s be circumspect in collecting a hot little piece of ass.  Have fun with this one, I’m going back to my dorm room.”  The gaunt, broken boy got up and walked out the door, somehow managing not to look at anyone directly.

Imperious scowled at the departing ghost-caller and looked to Cytherea.  “Do put words in the right ears, my dear.  I’d hate for us to be interrupted by Carson or that bint Circe before we’re finished.”

“Oh don’t worry about that, dear one.  I know all the right things to say to the scaly little Miss Outcast.”  Cytherea stood and shared a wicked smirk with Majestic.  It was time to put a little bug in the ear of Whitman’s most vicious, though unpolished, little rumormonger.

* * *

Chief Franklin Delarose looked up at Samantha Everhart as she walked into the room and closed the door.  Delarose pulled a small device out of his pocket and clicked it on.  The young-appearing woman winced, painfully.  “Sorry Sam, but I need this conversation private.”

“Understood, Chief, just give me a second to filter that out.”  The woman seemed to almost meditate for a few moments, then let out a breath.  “Much better.”

“I have a rather serious problem, Miss Everhart.  Apparently someone has found a way to access my unconnected and encrypted files.  I have two people on this campus who I know are capable of doing this via their abilities, but Paige Donner has avoided this office like the plague and you already have the data due to Hive.  And given that I have every single new officer monitored for a period of time, I know that you are not the source of the information leak.”

“Well thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Delarose chuckled.  “Honestly Everhart, I’m wildly more concerned with someone who will do damage to my kids, and it seems I have missed just such a rat.  You are going to help me find them.”

Sam got a serious look.  “Is this about the MID cards?  Carson pulled me in about thirty minutes ago on that one, considering I promised to keep a watch out on Nikki Reilly for her dad.”

“Yes this is about the MID cards.  The data pulled from these cards that hit the MCO Deadly Force criteria came from my files.  More specifically, the files I keep separate in case of emergencies.  Caitlin’s MID is of particular interest, as it has a file referenced that I had the authorization codes to acquire from M-SOC MARPAC should my former Range 4 instructor ever show signs of going psychotic on the children.”

“What’s the file?”  Sam’s eyes narrowed.  “If it’s any of the files I think it is we could be in for a world of hurt, boss.”

Delarose pulled the reference and rotated the screen so Sam could see.

Sam blinked.  Her enhanced memory drew that document out right away.  She’d written a large portion of it.  “That file, if released, would get seven very private individuals, who want to be left alone, very messily dead.  Erik would have been one of them.”

“Do I need to know what is on that file?”

Sam considered, then shrugged.  “I’m going to have to make this one a judgement call on your part, Sir.  Just bear in mind, once that one’s out, it’s out and it has some nasty ramifications involved.  Do I think it’s likely to become relevant any time soon?  No, as a lot of the reports and files in that docket are written from a very biased and hostile slant towards the individuals in question.”

Delarose looked at her silently.

“Look sir, unless you are going to invoke that code authority to view the file, all I can tell you that yes, it pertains very much to Caitlin, yes she’s a nasty piece of work, and I served as Mahren’s commanding officer for a bit over two years on some seriously… problematic training.  However, the only reason I would recommend that you look for it is if the MCO were to get their claws on it you would already be informed and be able to take steps.”

Delarose nodded.  “Does anyone else know what is in that file?”

“Caitlin does.  Beyond that I know Carson’s very likely been told a sliver of what’s in there, just enough to risk having her turn him into a greasy paste when he interviewed for the job.”

“What happens if that docket gets released to the general public?”

“The analysts think we’d have another Mutant Riots problem like back in ‘72.  I’m not so sure about that, but there would be some backlash.”

“Would the MCO release the information?”

Sam shook her head.  “No, they’d be even more interested in suppressing it than Uncle Sam.  However, there’s that whole ‘seven messily dead men’ issue.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to invoke that authority.  There are too many problematic and stupid factors revolving around our former range hand.”

Sam nodded.  “It’s paper hardcopy only, no electronic file.  No electronic file is to be made, no copies cut, and no release of information to any parties save yourself and anyone you deem relevant.  Once you’re done reading it Delarose, I recommend you destroy it.  Don’t hang onto it long enough for your information leak to get ahold of it.”

“You act as though national security rides on it.”

“Not so much national security as the good reputation this country is fighting to keep, and because like I said.  It’s basically the death warrant for some good men.”

Delarose nodded.  “Moving along, what was on the camera?”

Sam opened up a sheaf of photos and spread them out along the table.  “Students, mostly around Hawthorne.  Some you would expect, some you wouldn’t.  The high-trouble ones in the batch are Eldritch, Razorback, Fey, Jimmy Trauger and of all people, Majestic.  They’re the only students with multiple photos from different angles.”

“Since when do the Voodoos start using digital cameras?”

Sam shrugged.  “Intel, most likely.  I can see Majestic, Razor and Fey being enough threat to warrant it, but Caitlin and Jimmy T don’t make any sense.”

“Caitlin’s got a lot of things going that make her the center of attention in certain circles.  Jimmy Trauger is a walking siege weapon.”  Delarose looked at the photos.  “Start keeping tabs on the kids in the pics and these five in particular.  I don’t want the voodoos recruiting off our student body.”

Sam nodded.  “What’s got my priority, the file theft or the Voodoo problem?”

Englund looked at Sam.  “The files.  Get Dodson on the horn and have him bring the monster squad out for shift work.  They can do rotations keeping an eye on the kids.”

“Okay Chief.  I’ll get on it.”  Sam mentally flipped through the list of possible suspects who could possibly have found a way to access the chief’s files, and then had the sheer balls to turn the data over to the MCO.  She decided to investigate Trout first, as she’d seen him on the receiving end of one of Caitlin’s shrieking tirades, unable to do anything about it.

* * *

“Bout time you got here, Sparky.  We all thought you might have fallen into a toilet and gotten yourself flushed.”  Diamondback grinned at Caitlin as she set her tray down.

“You know me, I had to get shit taken care of and take my glaucoma accelerant to buffer myself from Jericho’s clothing.”

The blind boy leaned back and grinned widely.  “Ah my fan club arrives.  Tell me how much you adore the kilt.”

Caitlin looked over at the devisor’s hideous ensemble.  “I’m just fucking happy you don’t go commando like Bannockburn.  There are just some things I don’t need to see while I eat.”

Phobos grinned evilly.  “Well Bannock is kinda cute…”

“And at least you know what you’re getting yourself into…” Deimos only egged on the horrible image that had many times scarred Caitlin’s retinas.

“TMI!  Good God, why do you do this to me?”

“Our petty revenge for the horny comment last night.”  The dark-haired twin looked pleased with herself.

“Jesus, make one joke and pay for it for the rest of your life.”

“Oh admit it, if we didn’t you wouldn’t respect us in the morning.”  When Phobos finished the comment, the Outcasts and friends began chuckling as Caitlin did her traditional thumping of the head on the cafeteria table a few times.

“You know, braining yourself won’t actually make the image go away Caitlin.”  Jericho smiled evilly.  “Besides, I know you fantasize about hunky guys in dresses.”

Caitlin groaned, face still planted on the table.  “There just isn’t nearly enough alcohol in the world for this shit.”

Razorback saved Caitlin’s mind from further damage by surreptitiously plopping into his seat and making some very birdlike chirps and whistling noises, banging his hands on the table in a fashion only a speedster could do.

Caitlin looked over at him.  “What’s that Lassie?  Jericho’s fashion sense is trapped in the well again?  Lead the way!”

The raptor kid chirped with amusement then started a rapid-fire series of hand-signs, of which Caitlin caught only the words “home” and “Christmas.”  Razorback was like a kid in a candy store, and about three times as hyper.

Caitlin looked over at Diamondback.  “Smee, translate.”

“In three days we’re gonna have a war!”  Jericho cackled maniacally as Diamond dutifully completed the joke.

“And me without my happy thoughts.”

“If that fails, we have some extra-heavy Prozac we can give you.”  Phobos grinned, almost hopefully.

“At discount prices, no less,” her sister continued.

Caitlin looked up and held a finger as Jana, in her centaur form, walked by to get back in the kitchen.  “Check please.”

The girl smirked and cantered off.

“What the big dope with the speech impediment was trying to say,” Diamondback explained, “is that our flight is confirmed, Joe’s family is going to be en route to Australia on Sunday so they can get used to the Darwin heat, and we’ll be riding in the Overwatch Defense C-130.”

“Wow.  That’s awesome, except for the C-130.  Those birds blow chunks.”  Caitlin gave the others a good grin.  “You all going?”

“They are,” Deimos pointed at Jericho, Diamond and Razor.  “Me’n sis here are going back to Montana for the holidays.  Grandma’s hosting a big family party.”

“Rock on.”

“What you doing Caitlin?”

She looked over at the snake-girl who was rapidly turning into her partner-in-crime and shrugged.  “I’ll probably just meander around here.  Holidays aren’t my big thing, honestly.”

“Christmas break and you’re going to stay at school?”  Jericho looked horrified.  “Dude, not cool.  What’s the Dad doing?”

Caitlin gave him a smirk as he referenced Gunny.  “He’s probably going to do his usual thing, decorate a small tree, watch TV and relax.”

Razorback signed, Deimos helpfully translated.  “You two need some serious help, you know that, right?”

“Nothing wrong with taking it easy while everyone’s stressing out.”

Everyone at the Outcast table stared at her like she’d grown a trout from her forehead.

“But...  What about Christmas loot?”  Diamondback was almost horrified at the thought of a Christmas with no presents, even if she only cared about the presents part.

“What was that Miss Wicca?  Do I detect a Christian urging in your voice?”

“No Sparky, you’re detecting cool-stuff greed in my voice.”  Diamondback grinned.  “Just because I don’t buy into the Bible doesn’t mean all the holidays are reasons to rage against reality.”

“Don’t start this discussion Caitlin.”  Jericho shook his head.  “Sandra here could find a legitimate reason for just about anything, including circular logic.”

“Spoilsport.”

Caitlin chuckled.  “Fine, fine.  I give.  No, I’ve never been huge on the whole...”  She jerked abruptly as a loud crack and a flash of light erupted from the central areas of the Crystal hall.  “Why the fuck is Imperious making lightning between his hands and staring at us?”

Jericho looked over at Razorback, and the two boys nodded, simultaneously standing, turning towards the New Olympians, and simultaneously doing the one-finger salute, arms crossed over in the full, traditional greeting.  Razorback shrieked, and Jericho yelled across the abruptly silent Crystal hall.

“Why don’t you come over here and lick my nuts you poncy shit?  The answer is NO!”

Imperious abruptly stood, then stopped as Diamond, Caitlin, Phobos and Deimos stood in response, chairs skidding away from too-strong bodies, resulting in an interesting staredown as the freak parade of Whateley Academy stood with each other.  Caitlin’s aura crackled wildly, and each of Phobos and Deimos’ four hands crackled in azure/ruby energy that ran the length of their forearms.

Jericho ignored the rest of the Crystal Hall as many students surreptitiously vacated the space between the Outcasts and the New Olympians.  “I don’t play games with this threat shit Jason, I play for keeps.  Fuck with one of us and you fuck with all of us, so if you’re really feeling froggy and wanna see what the monsters can do, JUMP!”  His Texas twang was in full-force today, and he scowled.

“You really have no idea what you’re getting yourself into Jericho.”  The response was slow, cool, as though it was just the two of them.

“If you think you can take us on here, now, in front of the school, then step.”  Jericho gave an internal snarl.  “Come on, oh he who would be a God.  Come on and play with the damned titans!”

Imperious and the other New Olympians literally dismissed the Outcasts as one and went back to their meal.  It was a clear message.  The New Olympians didn’t consider punishing them to be worth their time.  From the corners, Judicator, Knick-Knack, Prism and Feral watched, blinking, and as the Outcasts began taking their seats again, Feral and Prism favored the outcasts with a silent golf-clap, shielded from Imperious’ sight.

“I’m seriously debating just shooting that motherfucker with the Core-Ejector.”

“What the hell was that all about?”  Caitlin looked at Jericho.

“Don’t worry about it.  For now, no one walks about alone, alright?  If you see a New Olympian approach you be ready to beat them stupid.”  He looked very pointedly at Caitlin as he spoke.  She got the message loud and clear.

* * *

Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue stepped into the Crystal Hall just in time to see Jericho’s little tirade.  He stopped, and waited, watching to see how the scene would play out.  He was a baseline, and if the New Olympians and the Outcasts had decided to throw down in the middle of the Crystal Hall there would have been precious little he, or anyone else could to to rein in the absolute havoc that would have occurred.  He knew from experience that the Olympians were unholy powerful on their own, but the heavy-GSD nightmare crew of Outcast Corner boasted some very disturbingly destructive abilities themselves.

The most disturbing thought was the realization that save Jericho, Stygian and Cytherea, every single person in play was either a brick, or a speedster, and on the Outcast side, most of them were ragers of one stripe or another.  He caught himself stock-still and silent, not breathing, when Imperious sat down.  He knew Jericho well enough to know that the boy wouldn’t escalate on an opponent who wasn’t bothering to fight.  When the Outcasts took their seats, he moved again, weaving through the tables, setting his face in an inscrutable mask and saying a silent prayer of thanks that the situation had not exploded.

Caitlin saw him first and clearly mouthed the words “Oh fuck” as he walked to stand behind her.  She stared very intently at her food, shoulders tense, head somewhat down in a body language that was pure Erik Mahren in his not this shit again phase.  Her corona started crackling and sparking in its multi-hued light, and abruptly the table and tray of food near her was covered in a layer of hoarfrost that started melting and evaporating in the heat of the Crystal hall.

“Jericho, would you care to explain why you are threatening other students on-campus?”  Bardue managed to keep his voice level.  “Also, the lot of you please explain to me why you were acting like you were planning on starting World War Three in my Crystal Hall.”  He very carefully did not look at the Fury Twins, remembering full-well the terror aura the two of them possessed, and the creeping dread that was even now making its way up his spine.

All of the Outcasts were silent, trying to not have a blowout.  Razorback in particular was very carefully not looking at Bardue, instead forcing himself to eat more of his meat platter.  “Well since you all seem to have so much aggressive energy I’m sure none of you will mind reporting to Sergeant-Major Smythe tonight for Range clean-up.”

He didn’t get a response in the negative, although Diamondback, Phobos and Deimos rather abruptly scooted their chairs at least three feet away from Caitlin.  When the empaths shifted away from someone it wasn’t a good sign.  He tapped the stock-still girl on the shoulder once and simply said “You’re late.”

“What for?”

“You have a Combat Final to attend, Caitlin.”

There was a crunching sound as the fork she’d been holding turned into a crumpled mass in her right hand.  “I thought I was getting a waiver.”

“You thought wrong.  Get your shit together and be at Arena ‘99 in the next thirty minutes.”

Caitlin slowly nodded, and the Fury Twins, as well as Diamondback, started shaking, and got up to leave.  Bardue let them go.  If Caitlin was mad enough that they were reacting to her, then something was going on, or she was finally starting to crack.  Neither one was good.

“We’ll get her there, Gunny.”  Jericho nodded to the old man slowly.

“See to it Jericho.  I’ll be waiting with bated breath.”  He turned and left the Crystal Hall, thanking God that under all their confrontational, devil-may-care bullshit, the kids of Outcast Corner seemed to respect authority, even when they were pissed off at it.

Jericho looked at the leaving teacher.  “This is such bullshit.”

Caitlin shook her head, grinding out the words slowly.  “He saw us doing the act, Jericho.  He can only go on the evidence he has on hand.”

“And how would he react to Imperious’ sudden demand to speak to you away from everyone at Melville?”

“Same thing Carson would tell me to do in this particular case.”  Caitlin snarled internally as she realized she was actually contemplating deliberately harming a Whateley student.  “Defend myself by any and all means necessary.”

“That doesn’t sound like Carson.”

“I have a few issues we’re trying to keep quiet.”  Her voice never lost that scary, leveled-off, deceptively neutral tone.

“You’re not going to hurt anyone, are you Cait?”

“God, I fucking hope not.”  She looked at Jericho.  “God help me, I don’t want to, but if Imperious makes a play, I’ll have to.”

“Do good in this combat final then.  Maybe you’ll scare him off.”

Caitlin nodded again.  “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”  She didn’t believe that would happen for a second.

“So what’s your plan for the Final?”

“I have no earthly idea.”  Her eyes were still burning as she got up and started walking to Hawthorne, well aware of the two boys trailing her just close enough to watch, far enough to give her space.

* * *

Lillian Dennon was an older woman, with dark hair with streaks of silver running down to the tips on her shoulders.  As the school Brick combat instructor, anyone who knew her was already aware of the fact that the fragile-looking woman’s body was the home of one of the most ferocious PK bricks in the United States.  Once upon a time she’d been known as Wildhammer, and her past was a bit more checkered than most.  Even in her fifties, everyone could see the fiery attitude of a girl who’d made it her personal mission in life to rip off dozens of wealthy companies on the late sixties.

Her tenure in Thunder Mountain Prison Complex had mellowed her out quite a bit.

She stepped up to the podium overseeing the arena and waited for the noise from the last Combat final to die down.  “Ladies and Gentlemen,” she began in her quiet Louisiana drawl, “it’s time for the next crash scenario.”

The arena spectators went silent, looking up to the woman, expectantly.  No matter who was part of it, the Crash scenarios were invariably some of the most interesting.  Mrs. Dennon carried herself with the poise and grace of one of the most potent Exemplars, even if she wasn’t one of them.

“Today, the scenario is Prisoner transport.  The spindle has been deactivated and will not be a part of the scenario.  The normal rules of engagement do not apply.  The prisoner transport is a two-on-one scenario, with the one being the prisoner being escorted to the police line.  The objective is to hold the prisoner at the location until the Wheeling Prisoner Transport arrives.”

A darkened portion of the arena lit up and the children could clearly see the heavily-armed ANTS bedecked in police SWAT uniforms guarding a drop point.

“The prisoner’s objective is to escape, by any means necessary.  She will not be bound by normal grading standards for collateral damage.  The escorting ‘heroes’ will be, however.  If in twenty minutes the prisoner is not in the pick-up site, the escorting supers will be presumed to have lost.”

The kids leaned forward as the defenders screen, unused since the spindle scenario was up lit up with the two MID’s of the escorting kids.

Code Name: LANCER <MMID>
Ratings:: TK 5/D, <All other information classified>
Techniques: Flight,<All other information Classified>
Weak vs.: Unknown
Backup/Team affiliation: Team Kimba, United States Army Dependant

The Military Mutant ID was displayed in powder blue, a different setup than most.

Code Name: HIPPLOYTA
Ratings:: EX-6, Regen-6
Techniques: Muay-Thai, Savaté, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Power Jump
Weak vs.: None
Backup/Team affiliation: Capes, Sinear

 

* * *

“Oh Gawd!  They stuck Hippy and Hank on a TEAM together?”  Chaka was snarking as the lineup came across the screen.  “I smell Hartass’ hand here somewhere.”

Hank looked over at Chaka.  “Who knows?  Hippolyta and I kinda have an understanding.  Don’t get in each others’ way unless we wanna roll.”

Tennyo smirked.  “Methinks Poe could use a bit less of you two crazies ‘rolling’ around together.  I thought the foundation was going to fail last time.”

“Gee, and who was it that runs around with foam rubber swords trying to play whack-an-elf, bonking everyone willy-nilly?”

“I do not ‘bonk,” Fey said archly.  “I destroy my nemesis with the full power of the Sidhe.”

“And your destruction holds a mighty rubbery popping noise too.”  Toni just couldn’t resist.

“Hush you.”  She drew the Nerf weapon from nowhere and thwapped her grinning roomie.

Hank just grinned as he mimed the two girls trying desperately to catch and thump each other with bats by Nerf as though they were swords.  The attempt fell flat as Nikki was watching a girl walking towards the arena entrance, one looking mightily upset.  The rippling arcs of mystic energy that caromed along her body captivated and horrified the Sidhe girl.  She could see the ley lines twisting, bending, knotting and snapping away in horrible ways every time the girl moved.

“By the Gods.”  The voice wasn’t entirely Nikki.  “I KNOW her!”

Hank shrugged and tapped Nikki on the shoulder as he made his way to the arena entrance.  “Yeah, and apparently she’s the person me and Hippy are up against.  He pointed up at the screen on the Villain board, and they could clearly see the girl’s MID.”

“So that’s the mysterious Cait Jericho keeps making references to.”  Toni studied the girl and her MID now showing on the board.  “Talk about some jacked up Ki energy.  How is she walking?”

Code Name: ELDRITCH
Ratings:: Exemplar - 4, Mage - <Unknown>, Devisor - <Unknown>, Esper - 2, Martial arts – Advanced Infantry Combat Expert, Martial Arts - Fencing, Sabre specialist, Rifle - Expert, Pistol - Sharpshooter, Submachine gun - Expert, Shotgun - Expert, Belt-Fed Weapons - Expert, Explosive Launch Weapons - Expert, Combat Demolitions Training, Vehicular combat training
WARNING! Combat experienced.  
Source of training, unknown Class 2 Rager
Deadly Force Pre-AuthorizedSee also:
Dx-211-23-DS-Foxtrot
   
Techniques: Charged Magic Aura, Class 3 Firearms License, Weapons of Opportunity, Vehicular Assault, Explosives, Assault Weapons, SMAW, Grenades, Knives, Sniper, Sabre, Parkour Master Traceur
Weak vs.: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Magic Aura Uncontrollable
Backup/Team affiliation: Outcast Corner

“Holy crap, talk about a full dance card.”  Hank just blinked at the data.  “I better get going, they’ll be missing me soon.”

Nikki gave an odd look.  “Aunghadhail says this is probably going to be the easiest fight ever.  Apparently people like her are supposed to be very docile and obedient.”

Toni looked at her oddly.  “With that list of stuff on her?  What is she, the world’s crappiest super-soldier?”

“Don’t ask me, ask Aung.  All I know is there’s a lot of pissed off radiating off that girl.”

“That might explain the Rager warning.”

Nikki shook her head.  “I don’t get that either, and it looks like she’s the one who’s been screwing up the lines all over campus.”

“Hey look, the Outcasts are coming in.”

Contrary to the group’s normal cheery and demented demeanor, most of the GSD team looked as though someone had just kicked their collective puppy.  Molly and Chou came in shortly thereafter, looking like they’d just gotten done snogging before they sat down.

Nikki looked at Molly and smiled, “Molly dear, would you be a dear and call Rythax?  I think he needs to see this one.”

Molly shrugged and nodded as the black panther seemed to erupt from the air, plopping into a chair awkwardly and looking on with interest.  “Ah more tournament, how delightful.  May I ask what is so interesting that you wished me to come for?”

Nikki pointed at the Villain board.  “Tell me what you see.”

Rythax looked over and took in the exotic-cast face, pale skin, metallic hair and runed eyes on the villain board.  “Why is an Artificer participating in the tourney?”

“I don’t understand either but it looks like this is going to be the most one-sided fight ever.”

Chou looked at Nikki oddly and whipped out a twenty-dollar bill.  “Care to place a little wager on that easiest fight ever bit there, Nikki?”

Nikki foolishly took the bet with the helpful prompting of the ancient Faerie Queen in her head.  After all, Aunghadhail had never been wrong before about things of this nature.

* * *

Caitlin glared at Wilson and Bardue while the two of them put the restraint shackles on her arms and ankles.  She decided she might forgive them… someday.  For now she was settling for the silent treatment.

Hippolyta and Hank looked at each other, looked at Caitlin, looked back at each other again, noting the girl’s expression.  “So should we have a plan to keep her from escaping?”  Hank wasn’t exactly hopeful for blissful cooperation.

“Yeah, stay out of my way, traitor.”

Caitlin watched Wilson and Bardue who both looked over at Hank and Hippolyta.

“She’s all yours.”  Bardue waved at Caitlin.  “Your objective is to get her into the circle of cops and keep her there.  The spindle is the pickup point.  If she’s at the spindle in twenty minutes, you win.  If she’s not there, she wins.”

Hank and Hippy looked over at Caitlin from the exit.  “Let’s go.”

“You go on ahead.  I’ll stay here.”  She managed not to inject the anger into her voice.

Hank looked at the two instructors and Wilson just grinned.  “She’s your prisoner.  Transport her.”

Hippolyta looked at Caitlin, who stood stock-still, unhelpful.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.  You’re not going to make us carry you.”

Caitlin looked at Hippolyta with an evil smirk.  “I’m not seeing much incentive to help you now do I?”  She looked over at Bardue, gave him her best ‘I’m not cooperating’ look, and simply said “clock’s ticking.”

“Much as this reeks of bad idea, I’ll get her left arm, you get her right, ok Hippolyta?  That way if she rabbits one of us at least has a grip on her.”

Hippolyta scowled and gripped Caitlin’s right arm.  Lancer took her left.  The two of them hoisted her up, causing a cobalt-blue flash of energy to rip across the bare skin of her arm and hit Hippy’s hand.

The girl howled, as a layer of ice formed along her skin, and the limb went instantly numb, only to start healing and returning to normal almost instantly.

“Oops.  Watch the aura, I have no control over it.”  Caitlin simply cocked her head at Hippolyta oddly, otherwise standing stock-still.  “You could always leave me here, which would keep me from killing you by accident.”

Hippolyta looked Caitlin in the eye and gripped her arm again, lifting, and putting painful pressure on the arm.  “Sorry, girl, I don’t give up that easy.”

The two Poesies carried an unresisting Caitlin towards the center of the arena, carefully juggling their grip when they elicited the odd spark.  The crowd above, watching, was silent, then multiple boos came from the assembled crowd.  When they dropped Caitlin inside the circle of SWAT cops, Hippolyta looked at her disgustedly.  “You aren’t even going to resist?  You’re not even going to try to fight back?”

Caitlin cocked her head.  “Nope.”

“Now I know how Bunker felt.”  Hank scowled, having amped himself up seemingly for nothing as they plopped the odd girl down in the circle to wait for the timer to run down.  He’d actually been itching for a challenge, and the easy win did not sit well with him.

Hippolyta was pissed.  She looked around at the SWAT ANTs, for once at a loss for what to say.  “Why aren’t you even going to fight back?  Come on, this is your chance to show what you got!”

“I don’t have anything I need to prove.”

“So why?  Why are you just giving up?  Are you scared?  Is that it?”

“Sure, we’ll go with that.”

“What is wrong with you?”  Hippolyta got in Caitlin’s face.  “It’s bad enough that you don’t care about your grade here, but we get screwed too if you just stand there and let the timer run out.”

“Gunny’s problem, not mine.  I was supposed to have a waiver for this shit.”  Caitlin didn’t look away, didn’t raise her voice, but she made it clear that she was refusing to play this game.

Hippolyta just shoved her to the ground out of pure frustration.  Caitlin wasn’t set, so when her head hit the concrete with a sound like stone hitting stone, both her eyes and Lancer’s went wide.

“Christ Hippolyta, what did you do?”

* * *

“It would appear that our rabbit doesn’t want to run.”  Bardue cursed Loophole for tanking the simulator program enough that they had to use the arena live for even the kids with damn near one-shot lethal powers.  They’d be lucky if they got the system back up and running in time to cover the upperclassmen.

“Would you in her place?”  Ito looked on impassively.  “We’re not dealing with a normal student, and her precursor always cursed at you relentlessly whenever you threw him in with the students.”

Wilson nodded.  “You know he’s right.  I was the only guy she’d ever agree to run full-throttle on in the sims.  I asked her why once.  Something about not being able to do enough damage to me on her own.”

Bardue scowled.  “We might have to do another run for Lancer.  This isn’t even fair to him.”

Ito looked at the monitor banks.  “It seems Hippolyta has taken offense.  Caitlin might be injured.”

“Fuck.  Do we need an ambulance?”  Bardue came over.

“She is moving, however, I am more concerned with what happens with a girl that has serious explosive issues that cannot be medicated properly.”

Wilson turned and started walking out.  “I’m heading to the arena edge.  Ito, if Caitlin goes into her episodes, holler at me.”

“Why would we need to do that?”

Wilson turned and looked at Bardue.  “Because boss, Erik was able to run me around in circles for fifteen minutes in a simulator while shooting, stabbing and hitting me with fucking CARS on a regular basis.  That girl in there is about seven times stronger, a buttload faster, and she doesn’t get tired.”

“Go.”

* * *

Caitlin’s head was pounding.  She couldn’t hear.  She couldn’t breathe.  She couldn’t think.  When she opened her eyes and blinked, looking about all she saw was men in blue uniforms holding guns in her direction, and two nutbars in costumes who kept fading in and out of doubled vision.  Both of them were moving towards her, she was surrounded by guns.  She didn’t remember where she was.  She felt like she’d been too close to an artillery hit.

Artillery…  Danger, danger DANGER!  Mutants.  RUN!  RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN!!!

Meaningless words pounded in the back of her head as seemingly ancient reflexes, a legacy of days where panic was the norm and the rule was kill or be killed, took over.  She didn’t even notice the chains of the shackles seeming to explode.

She didn’t think twice about spinning over and driving her heel under the big woman’s kneecap, jamming it upward as hard as she could.

She acted purely on reflex as she kipped to her feet, world seeming to go into slow motion as the blonde howled, slamming a fist into the woman’s abdomen, right between her hips, twisting the punch and grinding it in.

She wasn’t cognizant that she was attacking a student when she lurched over the woman’s head, driving her to the ground, jerking her arms around her head and twisting until she felt a crack and the body go limp.

She grabbed the other mutant hard by the throat and threw him into the crowd of blue-armored gunmonkeys, following him in hard to begin smashing bodies with a terrifying, speedy abandon available only to someone with superhuman strength and speed.

Lancer bolted skyward, startled by the lightning-fast change from docile and injured to murderous, fast and strong.  Hippolyta had gotten taken down in less time than it took for him to pick a fight with her.  If he hadn’t seen her heal broken bones in seconds before, he’d have thought that the girl, who was very busy tearing apart the SWAT guys for their mistake of being too close together and not having clear shots, had killed her.  As it stood, Hippolyta was standing back up, groggily; but she was standing as Hank jockeyed for a better angle of attack.

* * *

Nikki’s expression, despite the ragged, aggressive cheer from the Outcasts a few seat sets away, was somewhat horrified.  “If that’s docile I do not want to see aggressive!”

“Oh of course she’s docile!”  Chaka was at her sarcastic best, “she wouldn’t hurt a fly!  Now the people on the other hand, they might need to worry.”

“Docile?  Where the hell did you get the idea she was docile?”  Chou looked incredulously at her friends.  “Girl beat up Jay-Arm and duct-taped his head in a toilet last night!”

“But that is an Artificer!”  Rythax was worked up, almost like the ‘way things were’ had betrayed him by changing without asking permission.  “Artificers do not fight!  They never fight.”

“Did you pass along the memo to her?”  Toni grinned wickedly.  “Oh this is awesome in a disturbing way!  How often do you get to see Nikki and Rythax get a bug up it at the same time?”

“Right, and on that note, I think I need to go down and have a chat with this girl when she comes down.”  Nikki got up and began walking towards the arena entrance.

“Nikki, that might not be the best idea…”  Chou shrugged as the redhead wandered away.  The Tao said to not interfere.  Something about a date with a roach.

* * *

Hank watched in fascination as he sought a way to enter the fray without doing more damage than good… and came up empty.  The metallic-haired girl was destroying the SWAT guys, at this point turning their own MP-5’s on them.  Men, ANTs, he corrected himself, fell rapidly as the girl turned and stood, checking for threats.  The one she saw made her eyes go wide for a second, as none of the blue-uniformed “officers” were still standing.

Hippolyta pulled herself standing and glared at the girl, whose expression didn’t change from the twisted mask of anger she wore at the realization that her opponent had gotten back up.  Hank watched as Caitlin raised the weapon fast, slamming home a fresh magazine as he dropped all pretense of subtlety and hit the ground hard in front of Hippolyta, blocking the Exemplar as Caitlin let rip on full-auto, holding the weapon out one-handed like a pistol.

The bullets hit his PK field, and simply stopped, falling to the ground harmlessly, intact, in front of him.  Contrary to the movies the bullets didn’t pancake against the psychokinetic energy, rather coming to a standstill about an inch from his chest and falling.  Thirty bullets stopped in rapid order, the adrenaline pounding Hank so hard he could almost count the rapid-fire cracks of each bullet going off in the chamber.

Biting back the urge to flinch back with each percussive shot took every ounce of self-control Hank had.  PK brick he might have been, but standing in front of someone shooting with intent to kill went against every instinct he had.  It just wasn’t a bright maneuver.

The girl stared at him with a blank expression on her face and bolted, dropping the weapon and hauling ass straight into traffic, running straight over the top of a sporty two-seater and dropping right in the open top before grabbing the driver and throwing her bodily from the moving vehicle.  Hank lurched forward, flying hard and catching the screaming woman before she could hit pavement.

When he turned, Hippy was up and chasing after the hijacked vehicle on foot.

“Goddammit Hip, we need a plan.”  Hank threw himself forward in a powered flight after setting the woman down, arcing around a building corner to chase the two girls.

* * *

Caitlin wasn’t home at the moment, her thoughts and emotions gone, subsumed by the explosively violent side of herself that she tried to keep bottled up.  Pure panic and pissed-off fury exploded from inside the emotional bottle she kept tightly locked up inside her mind, erupting with a rush that to her was perfectly normal in the intensity.  Unfortunately for every single empath and telepath with poor mental shields in the arena, it wasn’t normal, and the level of emotion they were used to dealing with seemed like the eye of the storm compared to what the fighting girl was giving off.

A pedestrian bounced off the hood of the car, and she fought to keep the car on the road as she accelerated toward what seemed to be a giant wall where there should, by all logic, have been more streets and buildings.  She was barreling towards a hard, curved, dead-end at over fifty miles an hour.

She pulled the parking brake while hitting the gas and turning the wheel, sending the car into a fishtail reversal that would have made Hollywood stunt-drivers proud.  The car came to a stop as she reapplied the brake, and scanned the area.  She saw the blonde running full-tilt in her direction, the flyer not too far behind.

Caitlin slammed the car into gear after revving the engine, tires squealing and blackening concrete as she aimed the bumper for the blonde apparition that should have died when she twisted its neck.  She wasn’t seeing a human, anymore than she saw a person in a sniper scope’s reticule in Range 4 shooting Crazy Ivan pop-up dummies.  All she saw was a target to be destroyed.

* * *

“Hippolyta I’ll stop her you take her down!”  Hank’s shout was almost lost on the enraged junior as he crashed to the asphalt and threw his shoulder into the oncoming car.  Even exemplars didn’t take vehicular impacts well.  He could, although he questioned the wisdom as the PK field tried to stop the parts of the car that were hitting him directly without pushing along the rest of the bumper.  The results were predictably bad as metal crumpled and shredded with the front of the car folding inward like a pincer around him as the car abruptly, violently, stopped.  It actually hurt a little.

Hippie jumped onto the hood of the car and ripped Eldritch out of the seat bodily, seat belt and all as Hank began bending himself to force the metal away from his body.  He reflected that the girl really was as big as Hippolyta when she wasn’t hunched over and trying to look small.

He almost lost track of what he was doing as the two girls began a violent whirlwind of strikes, and grappling maneuvers with one another.  Hippolyta clearly had the advantage of raw power, but she’d learned her lesson the first time, playing hot potato with Eldritch’s body as the arcs of energy ripped along her skin and clothing.

Hippolyta slammed the girl to the remains of the hood of the car, pinning her by the neck even as the girl ripped an obsidian knife with a lethally sharp edge from somewhere hidden on her person.  Hank stopped trying to pry the metal from around himself and caught the girl’s arm, stopping the arc of the blade that looked sharp enough to slash open even an Exemplar with ease.

Hippolyta hauled back to crush the girl, as a hand reached up in her face and hellish ruby light erupted from the hand, arcing to the girl in front of her and causing Hippie to scream, letting go of her opponent while clutching her face.  The girl wiggled free and fired another eruption of energy, and emerald-and-yellow lightning bolt straight into Hank’s face.  Blessedly there was no pain, save the shrieking in his ears as for once, his PK field saved him from the raw magic, absorbing the energetic release and leaving Hank feeling like someone lit his skin on fire.

An Azure bolt and an odd, lavender-and-cobalt blast later, and he was still alive and breathing, though mildly panicked at the sight.  Normally, magic tore him apart.  Hank’s shock didn’t register on the girl’s face as she suddenly moved her trapped arm inward, twisted and pulled on the unresisting limb.

It was Hank’s turn to howl in agony as he got to experience his very first shoulder dislocation.  He couldn’t fight through the pain very well, and he was only dimly aware of the berserk girl reaching for the coup de grace when Hippolyta slammed into Caitlin, sending her sprawling across the road.  She followed up by grabbing a parked car and flipping it hard into a caroming bounce that almost took the sparky little psycho’s head off.  Unfortunately the girl darted out of the way and into an alley.

* * *

Nikki watched the screen footage with morbid fascination as she wound her way down into the bowels of the arena, looking for any of the range crew.  She’d never seen anyone really hurt Hank before, and to call the event shocking was a gross point of understatement.  She also couldn’t help but turn that maneuver over in her head until it clicked just how the girl had done it.

It was difficult to think straight through the haze of emotions from the crowd, and particularly from the girl in the arena.  As Nikki carefully re-erected her emotional shields she reflected that even Aunghadhail was commenting that she’d never experienced such painfully intense emotion from a human before.  And Aung’s one experience with an artificer told her that the girl should have been emotionally dead.

* * *

Hank howled again as Hippolyta reset his shoulder back into the socket.  The girl began peeling the car away from his body, having to put more effort into it than the PK boy did.

“I still think you’re a scumbag male.”

Hank shook his head slowly, still trying to clear the stars.  “That’s nice Hippy, we need to come up with a plan.”

“Much as I despise admitting it, you’re right.  The old ‘run down and smash’ standby just isn’t working.  This girl’s more flat-out brutal than some of the senior teams.”

Hank nodded.  “Now I know why she didn’t want to play.  You get a good look at her MID?”

Hippolyta nodded.  “Class two rager.  I have this funny feeling we need to get her there so she isn’t thinking.”

Hank shook his head as he painfully pushed the remains of the car off of himself.  “No, she’s already there Hippolyta.  The lights are on but nobody’s home.”

“That’s impossible.  She’s not acting like a normal rager.”

Hank shook his head again.  “That’s just it.  I’d hate to see what she’s capable of cooking up with intent.  She’s got heavy combat training.  She’s using it on autopilot, the girl’s just fighting by instinct.”

“How do you know that?”

“Call it a hunch.”  Hank breathed, breathing shallowly, flushed and warm.  “Alright, this is going to hurt a lot, but Hip we’re going to need to do the old hammer and anvil routine.  I’ll play blocker, you smash her hard.”

“Are you…”  Hippolyta saw Hank’s pale skin, unfocused eyes and his breathing and put a hand to his head.  “Lancer, you’re burning up.”

“Huh?”

Hippolyta reached forward and her hand stopped, energy tingling across her fingertips that felt absolutely bizarre.  “Let me through, Lancer.  I need to check something.”  Her fingertips gently pushed on his neck and she could clearly feel his pulse hammering like a mad dog.

“Fuck, we need to stop this.  Lancer you’re going through a burnout.”

“I feel fine.”

“Dammit you stupid man, this can kill you!”

Lancer stood to his full height, coming up to about Hippolyta’s chin.  “I’ll be fine Hippy.  It’s not so bad right now.  If it gets worse or you think I’m going to go wrong, I’ll stop and head to the infirmary.”

“This isn’t a good idea.”

Hank nodded.  “Yeah, but we still have a prisoner to detain before she wrecks the arena.”

“Fine, we’ll do it your way.  But let me do something first.”

* * *

Bardue picked up the receiver on the phone.  Hippolyta was using a public call box, something the kids were briefed on doing for emergencies in the sims and arenas.  “Bardue.  What’s the problem?”

“Lancer’s going through what looks like low-grade burnout.  He says he feels fine and wants to finish, but we need to have a medical group on standby.”

“On it.  If you so much as think he might get worse you pull the plug, got it?”

“I got it.  I was planning to anyway.”  Hippolyta’s voice was snarky.  She despised being told what to do by a man, even if he was an instructor.

Bardue hung up the phone.  “Ito.  Hit the button for Lifeline, Prism and Jericho.  Tell them I need a medical team on standby, high probable burnout, and get Tenant prepping the infirmary.  We’re going to have injuries here.  Dammit, why did Loophole have to fry the fucking simulators?”

“I do believe someone rather foolishly pushed her into a corner.”

Bardue gave the old Japanese man a dirty look, but did not press the issue.  When he looked back he scowled.  “Caitlin’s coming back around.  She’s going on the attack.”

* * *

Fey reached the arena entryway and saw the tall man in forest camouflage.  He was putting on an armor vest and helmet.  Wilson looked at her and grinned evilly.  “Perfect timing Fey, we were going to hunt you down next.”

Nikki looked up at the man, startled.  “I was just coming because I needed to speak to this Eldritch girl.”

Wilson snorted.  “Yeah well that’s gonna have to go on the back-burner.  Welcome to the Crash.”

Nikki blinked as the man opened the blast doors to the arena.  “What are you doing?”

Wilson looked back at her, no longer amused.  “I’m the insurance policy so Eldritch doesn’t get too out of hand.  She’s… there she goes.”

Nikki watched in horror as a figure moving faster, far faster, than even an Olympic athlete was capable bolted past the area, turning and heading back towards Hank and Hippolyta.  The Ley Lines twisting and knotting in her wake as she tore back into the area, coruscating with Technicolor energy as the corona seemed to build the longer and faster she moved.

“Careful child, that energy aura is more than capable of doing us serious harm.”

“What’s wrong with her?”  Nikki was curious.

“Lots of things, kid.  Some that there’s no helping, really.  You got any healer skills?”

Nikki nodded.

“Good, stay here then, because if I get the call to go in and stop her it means we’re dealing with injuries.”

“She can’t be that bad.”

“Oh yes she can.”  Wilson grimaced.  “And the worst thing is, she never needed powers to be an absolute nightmare to pin down.”

Nikki chewed on that for a moment as Aunghadhail turned over the new information in their minds.  “Perhaps it would be wiser to watch and wait, child.  If this man is concerned, then we’re likely dealing with something I’ve not yet seen.”

“Now there’s a comforting thought.”

* * *

Hank took another blast of eldritch energy to the chest, absorbing it as he had before, as the girl popped up above the cityscape clutter, actually running along a wall for a short distance as she snapped off the shot.  She vaulted a car with one hand, blazing another bolt at Hippolyta, who wisely ducked the blast as it caromed into another parked car.

The vehicle changed, seeming to tear itself to shreds as it stood up, an apparition of steel, iron, plastic and upholstery.  The thing roared, then seemed to freeze in place as the magic that empowered the monstrosity sputtered and died, grounded out by the iron of the engine.

Hippolyta rushed forward to meet the charge, only to have the maniacal, raging girl bypass her as she bolted head-on for Hank.  He took to the sky as she tore through the spot he’d just been occupying, letting loose a shrieking bolt of pale blue fire that his PK field absorbed yet again.

Hippolyta had turned and was following hard on her heels, gaining ground when the girl ran forward, straight for a wall.  Just as the enraged amazons were going to hit the wall the coruscating berserker jumped and hit the wall feet-first, hard enough to force her into a crouch.  She jumped back towards Hippolyta, twisting unnaturally and taking the Exemplar-6 girl in the head with a foot coruscating with energy.  Hank felt the concussive impact from above as Hippolyta was blasted through four separate walls to come to a complete stop in an alleyway behind the building she had passed completely through.

He decided he needed to end this, taking to the sky as the girl chased him up a wall, leaping from windowsill to fire-escape to wall to rooftop as she chased him, ignoring obstacles like a crack-fiend spider-monkey.

She vaulted the distance between buildings easily, showing no sign of slowing down as she went.  Hank began to form a plan as he saw one of her powerful leaps.  She had no leverage in the air.  His head was buzzing like the hum of electricity as each blast she snapped at him was absorbed by his PK field.  He was beginning to see multicolored stars.

Hank led her across two more rooftops, then started slowing just enough that she could almost catch him.  As she made her final leap to cross the gap between rooftops, he stopped, rolled back and grabbed the girl by the leg.  She immediately jerked forward, scrambling for purchase in air, and fell right into his foot.  Hank kicked her, hard.  Then he kicked her struggling body again, and dropped her from thirty feet up.

The girl hit the concrete hard: stunned, injured and almost unmoving.  As he watched, incredulous, she stirred, pushed herself up to all fours, and began standing.

“Goddammit why won’t you stay down?”  Hank prepared to slam forward and train-wreck her when his chest erupted, spraying bolts, flares, and flames of energy back at the girl and the surrounding area.  All of the energy she’d thrown at him came back at her as she weakly tried to dodge the effect.  Luckily for her, she was missed by the majority of the seemingly apocalyptic storm that savaged the concrete and asphault.  Even through his surprise, Hank tried to aim the blasts of weird at her.

The Artificer had taken too much of a beating, and when the ground nearby her seemed to explode she was mercifully unconscious.

Hank picked up the unmoving form and checked her pulse.  Her heartbeat was very slow, but strong.  He carried her to where Hippolyta had landed, and found Hip stumbling toward the spot where she’d been kicked from.  “Hey Hippy, we got her.  Let’s get her to the pick-up.”

The blonde amazon nodded, then followed Hank towards the objective.  He gently lowered the unconscious girl - who was mercifully not sparking at the moment - to the ground and waited.

Three minutes later the gong sounded.  The winners, Lancer and Hippolyta, were announced over the school P.A. system.

As soon as the gong went off, Wilson and Prism came running up, Jericho lagging behind, as they loaded Caitlin onto a stretcher to take to the small arena infirmary.  Jericho stopped to give Hank the once-over, checking his vitals and transmitting them to Ophelia in the main school medical center.

“You okay Lancer?”  The blind, black boy was very careful to leave Hippolyta alone.

“After seeing your outfit dude?  I wish I was the one unconscious.”

Jericho grinned.  He touched an earbud idly.  “Yeah doc, I got him.  He seems to be doing okay, he’s a bit warm but the temperature is already fading out.”

Jericho “looked” at Hank without actually looking at him.  “Doc T says you’re gonna be fine.  Looks like a Level Zero burnout.  You got lucky.  The rest of the day you are to relax, drink lots of water, and at dinnertime you are not to leave the Crystal Hall until you’ve eaten twice your normal food intake.  Got it?”

Hank nodded.  “So I’m going to be ok?”

Jericho nodded.  “Just can the use of powers for a day or three, mano.  The more you use them over the next couple days, the more likely you are to cook up to a badder level of ‘oh fuck I’m gonna die.’”

Hank nodded.

Jericho turned.  “Now I gotta go back.  Whatever you all were doing it has the Fury Twins and Diamondback practically spitting violence.  I need to get back to keep them calm right now so we don’t have a Fury event upstairs.”

“Thanks man.”

Jericho nodded then jogged off, surprisingly swiftly for a boy who was still noticeably overweight.

* * *

“All right, Ito, hit the resets and put the games on hiatus so we can repair some of the damage.  We have to put Fey in the tank with Mule next.”  Bardue scowled at the controls.  Putting Caitlin in the Arena had not been his most brilliant moment.

Ito was listening to the audio pickups in the ready room.  “Bardue, you might appreciate this.”

He clicked on the speakers and Nichole Reilly’s horrified voice rang out for them to hear.  “But I can’t do a fight in there!  The Ley Lines are so tangled that I’ll hardly be able to do anything!”

Bardue grinned, feeling his old, sadistic self realigning.  “On second thought, screw the repairs.  Put her in the tank with the cockroach now.”

“You’re a cruel, cruel man, Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue.”

“What?  Like you wouldn’t do the same?”

Ito shrugged noncommittally.  “Just because one is evil does not mean one needs be flagrant about it.”

“Right, so you would have done exactly the same thing.”

“Yes.”

Bardue chuckled as he put on his drill instructor cover to announce the next Crash Final.

* * *

Nikki entered the arena and grimaced to herself.  Two things were on her mind that interfered with her potential performance at the moment.  One, a new kid with the code name Eldritch had just finished her combat not long before, and she was the one that had been twisting the lines all over the campus recently.  She grumbled to herself about that then sighed.  “Well, at least I know who’s doing it now.”

The second thing was that Aunghadhail was in a near frenzy after seeing this Eldritch.  The girl was something the ancient spirit called an Artificer, a supposedly very powerful fabricator of magical items.  One that was supposed to be docile in the extreme.  Nikki snorted to herself and muttered again.  “If that’s docile I don’t want to see belligerent!”

She looked up at the displays and saw her smiling face next to the MID display.  She wasn’t exactly pleased with the information listed.

Code Name: FEY
Ratings:: Wiz (Fae Class) - 7, Esper - 5WARNING!  Sidhe-Class Mage.Deadly Force Pre-Authorized
Techniques: Glamour, Hovering, Thunderbolt, Fire Blast, TK Strike, Barrier Wave
Weak vs.: Cold Iron
Backup/Team affiliation: Team Kimba

 

* * *

In the stands the group from Poe cottage was cheering for Fey, while exhorting her to ‘Kick his ass GOOD!”

Oddly, the part of the section where the outcasts sat was as vocal in support of her as her team and cottage mates.  Notably, Razorback and Jericho.

Jericho almost chortled as he watched the scene below.  “Oh, Mule, I almost feel sorry for you today.  That girl has tricks she hasn’t shown anyone yet, I’m positive.”

Razorback nodded in agreement and signed.  Nikki is going to shock a LOT of people here whether she wins or loses.  There’s a lot more fight in her than most people realize, even with that ‘deadly force authorized’ on her MID card. 

“Deadly Force?”  Jericho questioned.  “I know I can’t read the things they put up on the boards, but I didn’t think they put that kind of thing in for these finals.”

They don’t, except in extreme cases when the mutant involved is considered a danger due to some mental issues, or is too damned powerful for words.  Mine’ll display the Deadly Force Authorized tag because I’m a rager.  Razor signed back with as smug an expression as his lizard-like face would allow.  She actually showed me her card the other day.  And she was pissed about it, too.  A word of advice here, make friends with her because you wouldn’t want her as an enemy.

“Don’t I know it.”  Jericho shuddered at memories of the nearby forest and what had happened there recently.  “I’ve seen her in full combat mode, you know.”

“What are you two talking about?”  One of the twins questioned.  “Mule is going to wipe up the floor with that pretty little -- fashion model.”

“Care to put some money on that?”  Jericho asked with an innocent smile.

Mule’s MID showed, but everyone who could see noted with interest that like the other Grunts’ MID’s, Mule’s was almost completely uninformative.

Code Name: MULE <MMID>
Ratings:: TK 4/D, Wiz <Classified>, Psi <Classified>, Martial Arts<Classified>, Belt-Fed Weapons<Classified>, Rifle<Classified>
Techniques: Nonranged Psychokinetic, Modified M-240G Medium Machinegun, Class 3 Firearms License, <All other information Classified>
Weak vs.: UNKNOWN
Backup/Team affiliation: Grunts, United States Military Mutant Delayed Entry Program <Enlisted>

 

* * *

A warning horn blared, shaking her out of that reverie and back into the present.  Which looked as if was going to be interesting, to say the least.  She knew that her opponent, Mule, was a member of the Grunts, a bunch of kids obviously headed for careers in the military.  As such, he was likely very familiar with tactics, strategy, and (worse) carried weapons all the time, so those would be present in this contest.  Also, the guy could soak up a lot of damage. 

And the tangled up, knotted lines in the arena were guaranteed to be messing up her magical abilities big time. 

“Well, I’ll just have to figure out what works really fast.”  She sighed while moving away from her starting position.  One thing she could start doing right away was making it difficult as possible for Mule to find her for a while.  Following a little concentration and one false start, she took the lines around her and the surrounding air shimmered as it started bending light waves.  The effect didn’t exactly make her invisible, but did make her harder to see unless her opponent knew what to look for.

Casting about to catch emotional traces from Mule wasn’t working.  It seemed as if the guy had a nearly impenetrable shield over his emotions.  Not a good sign, since that left her completely in the dark as to where he might be and would allow absolutely no warning of a surprise attack. 

“Okay, so I do this the hard way.”  Nikki shook her head and began moving through the ‘people’  populating the area with all the stealth she was capable of.  Which wasn’t all that much in a concrete filled city setting like this one.  Finally she decided to risk levitating above some of the nearby buildings to see if she could spot him that way.

“Awk!”  That didn’t go too well.  The tangled lines of force fouled the magic just enough to make it feel as if some huge hand had grabbed her ankles and hoisted her thirty feet into the air.  Which left a cursing, squirming elf girl hanging upside down in midair trying to get herself upright.  But she did spot Mule in the distance, moving towards the center of the sim with the deliberate, watchful pace of a soldier working his way through sniper-infested enemy territory.

Unfortunately, Mule spotted her, too.  The sudden yank of the fouled levitation had left her light-bending shield behind on the ground.  Not one to pass on an opportunity, he raised a weapon and fired in her direction.  It was big, it was belt-fed, it was loud, and it sent swarms of bullets into the space she’d just been occupying at a rate that seemed impossible.

Still swearing in more than one language, Nikki dumped the levitation and took her chances on landing in something softer than concrete as the projectiles whined through the place she had recently occupied.  At least she managed to guide her literal nosedive into an open trash dumpster.  The landing jarred her, but the garbage did soften the emergency landing.  She emerged from the thing trailing old fruit and vegetable rinds, fast food containers, and one very confused rat.

“Go back to what you were doing,” Nikki advised the rat as she carefully brushed it off her shoulder and back into the dumpster.  “It’s probably safer in there, anyway.”

As she moved away from the alley where the dumpster rested, a sudden blast sent garbage, and one now pissed-off rat into the air to spatter the buildings, pavement, and pedestrians nearby.  Nikki winced as the rat stopped to squeak invective at her, then scurried into a nearby sewer.  “Well, maybe not so safe, after all.  But, living in a sewer or not, that kind of language was uncalled for!”

* * *

 

Peeper was repeating himself over, and over in the WARS announcer’s booth, saying the same thing only with different words.  The most frequently used term was “nubile”, and he kept making comments about Fey’s unusually voluptuous figure while Greasy kept the transmitter gear going, ensuring everyone listening in or in the arena was getting his boss’ every word.  They were unaware that Carson had left her office and was stalking toward the arena, her face like a thundercloud, and intent on hunting down the two for commentary that might, no, WOULD be considered explicit and inappropriate.

Fortunately, Carson’s rampage would not be the thing to stop the blatantly sexist and sexual commentary, as the small door leading into the booth crashed off its hinges and fell on the floor when Razorback’s bulk smashed into it feet first in a classic leaping pounce.  Peeper and Greasy screamed as the black-mottled velociraptor pounced on Greasy, dragging him into a corner and pulling out some duct-tape.

Jericho entered a second later, and fired his shock-rifle into Peeper on its lowest power setting, knocking the boy out of his chair, and taking the wind right out of him.  A few seconds later, the Twain boys had Peeper and Greasy huddling in a corner, with Greasy hog-tied and duct-taped.

“All right you two monkeys, you get to sit and shut up.  Don’t piss me off or I let Razorback eat you.”  Jericho talked loudly as he pulled on the headset and plugged his datajack in so he could abuse the cameras.  A little back-editing cut out the gratuitous cleavage shots and close-ups of Fey’s ass that really had no place in the recordings.  Especially after Caitlin had filled him in on the Mutant Deathmatch shows in Vegas and how they were broadcast from Arena 99.

Razorback joined him in the other chair, put on his own headset, and shrieked loudly.

“That’s right, mi compadre, WARS is back on the air with full coverage of the matches.  Sorry about the odd noises folks, but we had to sack the previous announcers.  So let’s get to it!  Fey seems to be pulling herself out of a dumpster and is moving yet again.  Razor, tell us a little about our combatants would you please?”

Razorback let out a series of animalistic chirps and barks, punctuated by an odd whistling noise.

“Right you are brother, now let’s see if we can’t get a close-up of the actual action...”

* * *

Nikki was moving again to make herself into a tougher target, especially while keeping to the cover offered by nearby vehicles, signs, and cul-de-sacs.  She caught sight of Mule headed warily for the spindle.  Gathering her power, she sent what should have been a wall of hardened air to not only keep him away from the thing, but that should have knocked him over.

What happened was… nothing.  Her magic seemed to vanish into his TK field so quickly she almost expected the thing to burp.  Surprised, but thinking fast like Haggarty had been teaching her all semester, Nikki gestured to a spot above Mule’s head and shouted.  “Damn!  This calls for Plan B!!!” 

Mule looked up and behind him.  Nikki took that opportunity to charge down a street running ninety degrees from where he stood.  “I can’t believe he actually fell for that one!”

Skidding to a stop at a rather strange six-way intersection that also offered an almost bewildering array of telephone and power poles, along with streetlights, road signs, and a complex arrangement of stop lights, she thought furiously.  Direct magic seemed to be absorbed into his field. But what about indirect stuff?  Like non-magical things propelled by magic?

Making judicious, if hasty, use of the lines around her, and stretching one in particular across the street, she carefully almost hid herself behind a nearby van and waited for the expected pursuit.

Mule had felt the power of the blast Fey had sent his way, even though his defenses soaked it up like a dry sponge dropped in water.  He’d seen enough of Nikki Reilly to have a healthy respect for her, but following that he was pretty sure that her magic couldn’t touch him.  At least not directly.  Indirectly, however was another thing, So when she shouted about a Plan B and gestured to a spot above his head, he’d quite naturally looked and started to dive out of the way.

By the time he realized she’d been bluffing, a matter of about a second or two, the girl was gone from sight.  Scanning the area carefully, and slowly moving forward, he shook his head and grumbled.  “I know she isn’t a speedster, but damn it, she’s quick.”

Halting at an intersection, he looked down all three options then made a quick check to his rear.  The second sweep of his eyes showed just a bit of flame-red hair showing from behind a van.  “Gotcha!”

As he advanced, Mule decided that distance weapons weren’t going to be all that much help, since they hadn’t worked either time he’d used them.  So it was clear that he’d have to close with the elusive elf girl and force her to fight close in.

Peering cautiously around the back of the van, Nikki spotted Mule moving quite quickly towards her and grinned.  Stepping out from behind her ‘cover’ she formed a small fireball and sent it arching in his direction.  It landed behind the guy, and his shields soaked up the damage that reached him, too.

Mule grinned at her, shook his head and charged forward.  Right into the line she had stretched across the street at knee level.

* * *

“Dang!”  Jericho shook his head.  “She missed him!”

No she didn’t.  Razorback signed while letting out what passed as a chuckle for him and gestured at the intersection Mule had just entered.  Watch.

“Uh-oh, folks, my scaly compatriot is right, seems she’s setting up a little surprise for...  OH!  That HAD to hurt!”

* * *

When Mule went through the invisible line Nikki had strung, his field swallowed that too.  With unpleasant results for him.  The girl had carefully cut every light pole, power pole, and street sign off at ground level, plus the cables holding the massive array of stoplights up, then held them in place with a very delicate web work of magic.  All tied to the line Mule broke as he passed through it.

Stoplights plummeted towards his head, while every pole at the intersection converged on the point he’d reached at that stage of his charge.  With predictable results.  Mule was buried in a mass of power, light and street-sign poles, while just to add more insult, the massive stoplights bounced right into the mess once they’d hit pavement.

“Take that!”  Nikki crowed, then her eyes widened as the mass of wood, metal, and whatever shifted, and Mule emerged without apparent damage.  “Uh-oh!”

Mule was slightly stunned, as much by the precision of the trap as anything else, and shook his head to clear it.  He caught sight of his opponent pelting down the street away from him and rapidly performing another ninety degree turn to get out of his line of sight. 

“This isn’t going to be easy, is it?”  He muttered with a grin.  “That’s okay, you can’t outrun or dodge me forever.”

* * *

Peeper warily watched the pair that had taken over his so-carefully constructed and camouflaged announcer’s booth while Greasy simply sat on the floor and shook.  “Do something, Greasy, you useless coward!”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”  Jericho calmly told Peeper without so much as turning his face away from the surprisingly interesting combat final, as the usual announcer of WARS was aiming a slap at Greasy’s head.  Razorback added to that with a toothy grin that promised mayhem along with the boy’s amusement.  Peeper let out a sigh, and settled back against the wall.

* * *

Almost literally skidding to a stop, Nikki turned to watch the street she had just run down and swore as she spotted Mule moving down it, carefully checking for more booby traps like that one that had caught him last time.  With one notable exception, he caught them all.  Gathering her strength, and the lines she could reach, she directed the radio broadcast antennae she had gimmicked to fly apart and shower her opponent with shrapnel to go ahead and fall apart.

The fouled lines thwarted her again.  Instead of starting to fall, then exploding into a flurry of shrapnel a heavy artillery shell would have been proud of, the thing simply collapsed into itself.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  The undirected magic formed itself into something altogether unplanned.  Hobgoblins.

“Uh oh,” was her reflexive response to that, as the magic coalesced into a mass of fluorescent yellow daisies that were each three feet in diameter with cute smiley faces in the center.

“Oh great!”  She grumped to herself and into the audio pickups so everyone could hear.  “Now I’ll be hearing ‘Flower Power’ jokes until I graduate!”

Without the least hesitation, the daisies giggled, gathered themselves into a swarm, and flowed towards Mule shouting in high pitched little voices.  “We LOVE you, Mule!”

“I could puke.”  Nikki sighed then shrugged with a chuckle.  “But I’ll do that later.”

Taking advantage of the distraction Mule was soon to be dealing with, she pelted down a convenient alley into another street, thinking furiously as she did.

Mule, for his part was attacked by a swarm of day-glo daisies chirping about how much they loved him and competing for the chance to touch him.  To say the least, he was momentarily overwhelmed by glowing yellow petals and smiley faces making kissie motions at his face.  His shields held off the indignity of being orally mauled by a bunch of oversized, giggling, day-glo daisies.  But the time that took allowed his opponent to disappear again.

One of the daisies managed to get through his temporarily overwhelmed shields to plant a very wet kiss combined with a lasciviously probing tongue on his mouth before it vanished in a puff of lavender smoke with a satisfied and triumphant sigh.

“I’m really going to hurt you for that one, girl.”  Mule muttered as the petals that had enveloped him in a hug that was more exploratory than he liked went up in smoke.  “I’ll never live this one down.”

* * *

“Hobgoblins to the rescue!” Toni chortled as Team Kimba watched the swarm of daisies cover Mule’s form.  “Go, Nikki!”

“One of those daisies managed to maul him a little.”  Ayla announced with a chuckle.  “And he looks like he’s really mad now.”

“Way to go, Nikki!”  Hank shouted.  “Keep him off balance!”

“Would you like having a three foot wide, day-glo daisy maul you like that?”  Chou questioned.

“Depends on the daisy.”  Hank answered with a grin.

The Arena announcer’s voice came over the intercom, proclaiming, “And ladies and gentlemen, the hippies had it right.  Flower Power does trump the marvels of the modern military!”

* * *

“Damn, my hobgoblins really are on my side.”  Nikki grinned to herself and started gathering the ley lines she could find in the air.  Working from memory, she replicated the sound of the gong that indicated one participant of the contest keying information into the spire.  “But this one is going to be good.”

“Now that I have his attention elsewhere.  I hope.”  At her direction, another spindle appeared, only this second one was fifty feet away from the original, and entirely a fabrication of her own will. 

“It wouldn’t do to confuse the poor boy with two spindles, though.”  She carefully worked the lines of air around the real one, weaving another light-bending shield that made the device as nearly invisible as she could manage.  A shimmer like heat makes on a distant highway faded as the screen stabilized, and with a satisfied nod, she began working another trick.

Three duplicate Nikki’s, correct in every detail, including her mussed hair, formed next to her, and she grimaced.  “I’ve handled bed hair, but dumpster hair?  Oh well, no time for that right now.”

“You know what to do.  Have fun, girls.”  She waved the simulacrums away with a nasty grin.  The three duplicates gleefully raced off in three different directions.

One went straight to the false spindle and began furiously keying things into the illusory keyboard.  The others charged off in opposite directions intent on mayhem, but with Nikki’s plan firmly implanted in what passed for their minds.

After the pair of ambushers had disappeared into the crowd, Nikki carefully hid herself from sight, leaving no tell-tale sign of where she was this time around.  “Now this should be interesting.”

* * *

Mule found himself both frustrated by his inability to close with his opponent as of yet, and enjoying the chase.  Admittedly, he hadn’t expected Nikki Reilly to be so resourceful, or quick to take advantage of opportunities like she had done so far.  But the challenge was more than making up for the frustration factor in it all.

As he was thinking of ways to minimize her mobility and inventiveness the sound of the spindle’s gong galvanized him into faster movement.  “Oh, it isn’t going to be that easy, dear girl, traps or not.”

Moving faster or not, he didn’t fail to examine his path towards the goal.  Managing to avoid several fairly clever traps that could have been painful had he triggered them, Mule reached the central area with the spire to see Fey working at the board attached to the thing. 

“Oh, no you don’t,” he muttered while firing a burst of low velocity rubber bullets at the girl and moving forward.  The rubber rounds, though hard, weren’t fatal.  Just painful - and distracting.  He’d decided that keeping her distracted was the only chance he currently had to catch up on the score with the surprisingly difficult opponent he’d drawn in this combat final.

The rubber bullets had no effect, seeming to pass right through their target.  Was it an elaborate shield, or was the girl and spindle a skillful illusion?  Rubber rounds spanged off the spindle, or so it seemed, but the ricochets weren’t having any adverse affects on the nearby pedestrians or traffic.

Also, the girl was so intent on what she was doing with the keyboard, that she seemed oblivious to his attack and approach.  Once he got within six feet of her, the girl and the spindle both went up in a puff of smoke that threatened to blind him with its density for a moment or two.

Once the smoke started to clear, he heard the rumble of a big diesel engine.  Turning towards the source of that sound he was surprised to see a gleefully and maniacally grinning Nikki behind the wheel of a city bus that was speeding in his direction.

Before he could get completely out of the way, the huge vehicle’s front fender caught him.

* * *

“Once again, Fey has suckered Mule into a trap!”  Jericho almost crowed over the mike as the bus quite literally rolled over the Grunt.  “Oh, now that one really had to be painful!”

Razorback added his own enthusiastic whistles, growls, and tweets to the commentary.

“Exactly right, Razor, my friend!”  Jericho responded.  “Whichever way it goes, this particular matchup has been a real surprise to everyone!  Mule is still going, or was, but Fey has given him everything he might want in a contest and more!”

* * *

The bus had been another unpleasant surprise, and had nearly overwhelmed his shields as it roared over him.  Mule held onto enough strength of will to grab at the undercarriage as it passed, allowing the vehicle to drag him along for a while.  It was a rough ride, but his recovering shield held any more damage at bay while he shook off the effects of the initial impact.

Mostly.

Finally letting go, he rolled off the street and took cover behind a mailbox so his still slightly stunned wits could gather themselves without any more disasters for at least a few minutes. 

Able to actually think clearly following the much needed respite, he considered the things Fey had done so far.  They all seemed dependent on deception and misdirection when they worked at all.  Which brought up an interesting point.  The girl seemed to be having more than a little trouble with her magic, and was even avoiding certain points in the sim.  Why?

The mailbox literally melted in front of him from a very concentrated fireball with an impressively limited range of damage.  He felt the heat through his shields, which absorbed the flame and blast.  But a vehicle next to him appeared unaffected.

“Hey, Gunslinger!” a musical voice called out, and Mule saw her standing less than a hundred feet away holding up an ammo belt strung with grenades while she was wearing a pleasant grin.  “How’d you like your bus trip?  Lose your baggage?”

Mule’s hand went automatically to his waist to find his own belt still comfortably there, but his bandolier was gone.  Swearing under his breath, he watched the ammo belt in her hands vanish only to be replaced by his missing bandolier.

“Is it real or is it memorex?”  She shouted with a lift of her eyebrows.  “Lost and found department is open from 8 AM to 8 PM daily except for holidays and weekends.  You can find out there!  Bye!”

Having said that, she turned and sped away with a whoop of joyful mirth, taking what looked to be his bandolier with her.  Along with his rifle launched grenades.

“This is getting annoying.”  He grumbled with a sigh.  “I’m going to be a LONG time living this final down, but you gotta admit, this girl might just keep all the Grunts busy for at least a while.”

* * *

“A fake spindle and a fake Fey!”  Jericho announced to the listening world with more than a little admiration in his voice.  “And a real bus that took Mule for an unexpected ride!”

Razorback chimed in with a series of chirps, yowls, and reptilian guffaws.

“Right again, my friend.”  Jericho responded with a chuckle.  “Most people who take the bus ride inside it, not underneath!”

“Uh oh!  Now she’s waving what looks like an ammo belt and actually taunting Mule!”  Jericho added in near disbelief.  “And she’s off and running again!”

Razorback added some grunts and growls.

“True again, Razor.  Good point there.  Just where did she put the real spindle?”

* * *

Nikki chuckled as her simulacrum, with the faked bandolier, first taunted Mule then darted in a completely wrong direction for the guy to really lay hands on her.  But she did have the real bandolier, though for the life of her she couldn’t quite figure out what to really do with the thing other than stash it somewhere that would be difficult to find until the sim was finished.

Stuffing the thing, loaded with ammunition and things looking suspiciously like grenades, into a convenient corner mail box and making sure nothing showed even with a careful examination, she waited as her opponent chased after the fake Nikki.  Once he had rounded the corner, she moved carefully, but quickly to where the spindle really was.

Only to have the area around her explode into a maelstrom of light and noise. 

* * *

Mule had discovered that the girl he was chasing wasn’t real by the simple expedient of throwing a brick at her.  It didn’t bounce off a shield, or knock her down as it impacted with her back.  Instead, it went right through her.  That was all it took for a little bell to go ‘ding!’ in his mind.  The spindle and Fey that had vanished when he got close, the disappearance of the real spindle, and the too-convenient taunting and uncharacteristically delayed running away the girl had been using so effectively.

Following that, it only took a quick reversal of direction and careful approach to the intersection he’d just left to spot the real (he hoped) girl creeping towards an objective that he still couldn’t see but rightly inferred to be the real spindle.

Taking long enough to gauge her direction of travel, and getting an idea of at least the way to reach the destination she was so intent on, he then took a string of flash-bangs, armed them, and threw them in her direction.  Two could play at the ‘keeping off balance’ game.  “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!”

The flash bangs went off in a satisfying spread around her, and Mule moved forward.

* * *

“Oh!  Mule strikes back!”  Jericho shouted into the mic.  “Smart guy, he discovered the taunting Fey was a fake and circled back to find the real one, then bracket her with a lot of bright, noisy fireworks!”

* * *

The light and noise were more than simply distracting, but worse, the area she was currently in was a tangled mass of hopelessly knotted lines that she couldn’t possibly make use of.  Nikki shielded her eyes and just had to let her sensitive ears take the punishment for the few endless seconds the detonations were going.

Seeing bright spots in her vision despite having covered her eyes - even with her preternatural reflexes some of the blasts had happened before she was able to react and close them - Nikki worked her way out of the tangle of lines into a more useable area and set shields between herself and the direction the grenades had come from.  Then she crouched down behind the convenient cover of an SUV to let her reeling senses recover at least a bit.

“Make a note.”  She muttered.  “Extra sensitive eyes, ears and touch can be a bad thing at times.  Figure out how to filter sensory input to avoid this kind of thing in the future.”

She knew Aunghadhail would remember to remind her, and maybe even show her a way to do that, so went back to waiting for her now aching head to begin working properly.  She managed to use a small healing to get that done, but had lost ground in the contest and knew it.  She had to move, and quickly, or she would be overwhelmed right where she crouched.

“No way am I going to lose this match cowering like a mouse who has seen the cat.”  She told herself.  “It’s time to get moving and working a few more tricks.”

A quick check confirmed, with no little relief on her part, that the scimitar named Malachim’s Feather was still comfortably resting in its nearly invisible sheathe at her shoulder.  That blade, a gift from her martial arts sensei Susanna Haggerty, could cut through anything she’d yet run across.  Believing that Mule was a regenerator eased her worries about making use of the blade if it became necessary.  She’d just have to be careful not to take off his head if it got to close in fighting.  And try to use only the flat of the blade if possible.

* * *

Mule had judged the direction of her path perfectly.  The girl, after shaking off the effects of the flash bangs with distressing speed, felt at her left shoulder, then began to move.  Right into the ambush he’d set.

“You aren’t the only one who can do this.”  He whispered while waiting for her to enter the ‘kill’ zone.

His gleeful setup of the Claymore mines was hasty, and would be completely visible from the correct angles.  Now all he needed was to get her into range where she could SEE them.  He smirked evilly as he screwed on the barrel attachment to the machinegun that would make it impossible for her to pick out where he was firing from.  He grinned as he remembered the old Combat Range axiom of “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

* * *

Nikki cursed wildly as the rubber bullets bounced almost silently off the ground nearby.  She could HEAR the gun, but it was so quiet she couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from.  Really the only noise she could make out was the sound of the bolt of the gun slamming back and forth rapidly.  She dodged into an alleyway as the tearing-air sound went across in front of her and a window shattered.  She couldn’t take the time to draw in the ley lines or she’d be bracketed by the crazy Grunt.  Whatever she said about him, he was a damned good shot, and only her amped-up reflexes kept her from more than one or two stinging, painful bruises as the projectiles ripped by her in volumes that would rapidly knock her unconscious.  Her only hope was to outlast his ammunition supply, which had to be dwindling even with his carefully controlled bursts.

She broke out into the intersection where she’d trapped him with the power and telephone wires when she finally heard the distinct racking sound of a gun clicking empty.  “Gotcha now, grunt-man.”  She grinned as she looked up and saw Mule standing on top of a small apartment building.  She began drawing in the lines when she noticed him waving and grinning.  He held a small piece of metal with a red button on it, in his other hand. 

A cold feeling washed over her as she glanced around.  Her eyes easily picked out several green boxes marked with the ever-friendly warning “FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY.”  Her eyes went wide, and she grabbed the lines around her and pulled the energy into a barrier as they exploded in a wash of sound and flashes of light.  She felt each of the tiny ball-bearings ricochet off the hastily constructed shield, and then another round of explosions went off.

She was still alive when all was said and done, and breathed a sigh of relief.  She held the shield and looked around to see if any more mines were undetonated.  Then the sky fell on her.  She barely had time to draw Malachim’s Feather when Mule dropped right on top of her, his protections eating her mystic shield like a child in a box of chocolates.

* * *

Mule grinned ferally as she threw the shield up then blew the explosives.  He’d waited for her to see the danger, because nonlethal shot or no, the claymores could kick up a lethal spray of debris, and he wasn’t interested in an accidental death for another student.  The secondaries went off, and she held her shield, looking around wildly as he silently launched himself up and dropped straight into her shield, and passed through it.  She never saw it coming.  None of the mages did, even the ones who knew better by now.  His TK field completely absorbed and dispersed magic and psychic energies directed at him, and now he was in close.  All that remained was the beating.

* * *

“Daaaad!”  Troy Reilly hollered as he watched the Mutant Deathmatch broadcast on Pay-Per-View.  “Nikki’s on the T.V...  Again.”

* * *

Carson entered the arena, her face a thundercloud, heading for the spot that she knew Peeper had set up the announcer’s booth, with intent to tear the little monkey a new asshole verbally, when she heard the chirps, whistles and shrieks of Razorback, followed by another boy’s cheery voice.

“Oh DAMN!  Ladies and gents that had to hurt.  Fey may be feisty but I really can’t see having two hundred pounds of TK brick falling on you be happy.”

Carson listened bemused as the two boys’ commentary continued, describing the fight in an actual announcer capacity over the hijacked Arena Intercom.

“Razorback, now that Mule has Fey in close quarters what do you think her chances are for coming out of this on top?”

A series of clicks, whistles and an aggressive shriek fired over the com as Carson looked down at the two combatants and winced.  Apparently Fey had figured out a hole in the TK bricks’ defenses.

The boy’s voice echoed through the arena as Mule’s temper gave out.  “Oh my GOD!  Remind me never to piss him off!”

* * *

Nikki swung and swung again, slamming the adamant-edged blade against Mule’s chest with enough force to do some serious harm.  He parried her swings with his bare fists and slugged her twice in the jaw.  She backed off a bit and snarled, noting with foul humor that he let her, but always stayed right inside her reach.  She attacked again, Malachim’s feather skittering along the invisible barrier blocking his skin.

“No fair, I thought you were a regen.”

Mule grinned widely.  “Hey, what’s a little misdirection between friends?”

Nikki’s blade parried the punches and kicks he threw her way, barely.  He wasn’t nearly as strong as Hank, but he had skill in abundance, and he was keeping her too busy to cast any magicks.  TK field, had to be.  She went defensive and her mind tracked back to the previous fight.  Hank had gotten in close and grabbed that girl, only to have his arm...  That’s right, the joints are the weak point on a TK.

“You fading out?  Come on, girl, I heard you sucked in Hand-to-Hand but this is ridunkulous.”  Mule grinned as he landed two more strikes, and took two slashes across the face.

“I suck?  I’ll show you SUCK!!!”  Nikki flipped Malachim’s feather straight up, whipping end-over-end and his eyes followed.

By the time Mule realized what she’d done, she was wrapped around his leg and angling her foot upward.  He realized she was lined up for a very sensitive spot and winced even though he knew it wouldn’t penetrate his TK field.

The foot slammed upward and there was a sickening pop as she twisted his leg hard to the side with all her might, and his hip dislocated.  TK fields could take a ferocious impact but they didn’t impede his body’s own movement.  Even if it moved the wrong way.  The separate pulls of his body dislocated his leg at the hip.  He felt his leg rip in agony and a red haze went over his vision as Mule quit holding back.

Nikki found herself buried under the sudden onslaught of Brick as Mule began pummeling her in earnest.  Even with his bad leg, he had a grapple, which gave him the advantage.  He caught her in a colossal bear-hug, and began applying steady pressure to the point where Nikki thought her ribs were going to shatter, and she pulled one last, desperate ploy.

The scream that tore through was magically charged, and fuelled with desperation.  Every window exploded, and two ramshackle buildings vibrated and collapsed nearby as Nikki loosed the full nightmare power of a Banshee’s wail.  The field protecting the audience flared, sparked, and failed with a hiss as the students were exposed to the raw power.  Several dozen students passed out, even though by the time it got to them its power was mostly spent, sparing them from the worst.  A sudden ululating howl crackled over the speakers that everyone recognized, followed by a high-pitched sonic whine from the announcer’s booth.

For a moment everything was silent.  Mule, bleeding from both nose and ears, couldn’t hear anything and felt weak and pained.  Some of that raw power had bled through his shielding and hurt him as he slowly looked at his opponent.  Fey had passed out, turning slightly blue from lack of oxygen, and when he let her go, began breathing normally.  He tried to stand, and found that his leg wouldn’t support his own weight.  He picked up a stop sign that had the misfortune of being nearby and used it as a crutch then looked down and lifted Fey gently and threw her over her shoulder.  If she woke up while he was working the spindle he was screwed.

The crowd, the ones still conscious, cheered audibly as Mule dragged himself and his opponent to the spindle and began the sequence to have himself declared the victor.

Carson had to have help standing, as she’d had to shield the arena from the overpowering magics Fey had unleashed.  She noted that it was an Underdog that kept her steady as she threaded her way to see the combatants.  The Announcers could wait.

* * *

“So you won.”  Nikki gave Mule a direct and approving look once she had shaken her head and regained her composure.

“It was close.”  He admitted then grimaced as the injured hip gave way again.

“Sorry about that one.”  The elf girl - Sidhe, Mule corrected himself - winced.  “Here, I might be able to do something about that right now.”

Before Mule could demur or anything else, the girl smacked his hip with a strike that would have make Ito Sensei proud and the hip snapped back into place.  “Ahhhh!  Hey, that’s better, thanks.”

“It’ll be sore for a while, but you can walk normally now.”  Nikki answered then grinned as mischief flared in her violet eyes.  “You can lose the stop sign now unless you plan on using it to warn off idiots who try to fight you one on one.”

“You did good – uhh, Nikki? – or Fey.”  He answered with a grin of his own.  “I never expected you to be so…”

“Inventive?”  She helped.

“Damn tough to fight one on one.”  Mule finished with a look that held respect at the frail looking girl.  “You almost took me and I have combat experience, at least in the sims and in live exercises.”

“Me, too.”  She answered with a shrug.  “Though mine is thousands of years stale by now, it was in real, and bloody, combat situations.”

“So you really do have an ancient Queen of the Fairies riding you?”

“She rides me, warrior.”  Nikki’s voice took on a different tone and inflections, giving it an even more exotic accent than normal and her eyes had quite suddenly become both very ancient and very amused.  “The girl is the power, I am the experience.  Blending the two isn’t all that simple a matter and you have helped greatly in that.  My gratitude.”

“What was that?”  Mule questioned as the girl’s violet eyes returned to being those of a teenager. 

“Aunghadhail.”  Nikki’s expression was a cross between a smirk and grimace.  “She’s an ancient and once very powerful Queen of the Sidhe.  “Don’t let her bother you, she does things like that to people at times, but she likes you, for what that’s worth.”

“I suppose I should be glad about that.”  Mule answered.

Looking around at the devastation, the supposedly-unbreakable glass in shards all over the arena, and some still stunned members of the crowd, Nikki nodded.  “I think you should be.  Did I do that?”

“Yes.”  Mule slid down to sit beside her against the spindle.  “I think my ears are still bleeding.”

“Ouch.”  The girl winced then her eyes widened as she saw something else.  “Uh-oh.”

Carson didn’t give Mule the time to ask what the problem was as she imperiously stalked up to the pair.  “I do HOPE you two have an explanation for all this?”

“Which part, Ma’am?”  Nikki questioned a little weakly.

Carson held out one clenched fist, opened it and turned her hand upside down.  Bits of what appeared to be some kind of electronic emitter tinkled to the floor as she favored Nikki with a scathing look.  “Which part do you think?  That sound blast you let loose destroyed, totally destroyed over a million dollars worth of a supposedly indestructible forcefield specifically designed to protect observers from anything a mutant might come up with.  Not to mention that half the audience is still stunned by what you did.  Explain THAT, please.  And I don’t mean tomorrow, I mean right NOW, young lady!”

“I don’t know?”  Nikki responded at first then took on the expression of someone deeply in conversation.  With someone no one else could see.

“First comes the ‘Defend me’ thing, then the Banshee Wail – or in more modern terms, a last ditch defensive gambit all young Sidhe of Royal blood had implanted at birth.  The wail stuns everyone in the vicinity who aren’t expecting it, and destroys combat, or magically inclined items in the process.  It’s an involuntary reaction to being close to death, and Mule had me in a bear hug that was literally crushing my ribs into my lungs and other vital organs.  At least that’s what Aunghadhail says.”

“Is that your excuse for holding something like this back from the people here who really need to KNOW these things?”  Carson quietly questioned, but her expression was one those familiar with Lady Astarte equated with ‘trouble on the way’.

“I didn’t know it was there!”  Nikki shot back then blushed as she realized she’d just yelled at the Headmistress of a school that taught some of the most dangerous people on Earth how to handle themselves and their powers.  “It’s true, it just, kind of – came out!”

“Just came out.”  Carson repeated while closing her eyes briefly to work on quelling the headache that was threatening to start as she contemplated all the possible permutations of that phrase where this girl in particular was concerned.  “Another automatic defense reaction that you’re going to need to control, just what we need.”

“I didn’t mean for it to happen, you know.”  Nikki winced as some bruise or muscle strain let itself be known as she shifted position.  She winced again at the thunderclouds still swarming to get out from behind the Headmistress’ eyes.

“No, of course you didn’t.”  Carson let out a long sigh and looked the girl right in the eyes.  “Nevertheless, it’s back to powers testing for you after this, and maybe that will help you get more of a handle on some of these things ‘that just come out’ on you at times.”

“More powers testing.”  Nikki grimaced, but nodded her understanding.

“Either that or a lot of detention work – in jobs without pay because you’re going to be paying for the damages in the arena for a long, long time,” Carson affirmed.

“Powers testing it is, ma’am.”  Nikki let out a sigh of her own but it was clear she wouldn’t argue any longer about the decision.  “I’ll make an appointment.”

“I’ll make it for you, dear.”  Carson almost gently told her.  “That will get it through channels a lot faster.  Expect to hear from the labs sometime in the morning.  You’ll be excused from whatever classes that interrupts.  Just don’t miss that appointment or we go back to option two.  Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am.  Very clearly,” Nikki affirmed.

“As for you, young man.”  Carson turned to Mule.  “WHAT were you thinking?  Taking a mutant with unknown abilities to the brink of dying?  You should know by now that always triggers something in people like that.”

“I wasn’t… thinking,” Mule admitted.  “Just reacting, and she was kicking my butt, so the only thing I could think of doing was get in close and hurt her enough to keep her from doing anything else I’d regret.  It wasn’t so much about winning by then, just keeping the damage down.”

“Well, that worked well, didn’t it?”  Carson took a deliberate look at the now unprotected stands before returning her gaze to the boy.

“Uhh, no?” Mule answered with a wince of his own.

“My point exactly,” Carson answered then gave him a wicked grin.  “I’d give you detention for that, but I’m sure Gunny Bardue can come up with something appropriate without my racking my brain to devise something that would fit the current need.”

Mule actually looked a little sick at that thought, and nodded without comment.

“Speaking of Bardue.”  Carson went on.  “He is waiting for you two, along with Wilson and Ito.  If I were I you, I’d limp, crawl, or drag myself up there soon to keep them from getting too impatient with you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Both teenagers chorused and started getting up to do just that.

Carson watched the unlikely pair leaning on each other as they limped towards the evaluation rooms with a slight grin she had been very careful not to show either of them.  Truthfully, the devisors in more advanced classes had been chafing to install a new force field in the arena.  Now they’d have the opportunity, thanks to a deceptively fragile-appearing girl and a Grunt that the unobservant wouldn’t credit with more than tactical know how.

* * *

Caitlin woke up in the infirmary while the juniors and seniors scrambled around the arena, pulling the emitters on the force field generator, slapping in newer and better parts, while the freshmen and sophomores looked on, discouraged at not being allowed to help.  Mega-Death and Knick-Knack were heading up the effort, with several other devisors and gadgeteers checking the schematics as Caitlin walked out into the viewing area of the Arena.

She didn’t bother to stop and talk to Gunny Bardue, who was still in the process of gleefully chewing the asses of both Nikki and Mule for screwing around and playing when they should have been paying attention to the objective.  She didn’t bother going to the debrief, instead opting to head out to Schuster Hall.

Carson was in her office, having just returned from the arena to deliver an ass-chewing to a certain pair of student, when she looked up at Caitlin.  “Can I help you?”

“Just letting you know I’m going to talk to Delarose to get that UV band now.”

“Your combat final?”

Caitlin scowled.  “I don’t remember a fucking thing that happened from the moment Hippolyta pushed me till I woke up in the infirmary.  I snuck out while the doc was occupied.”

Carson nodded.  “Is it really that bad?”

“I don’t know for sure.  All I’ve ever seen was the aftermath.  I black out and hear stories of the psycho on a rampage.  Are Lancer and Hippolyta all right?”

“They are fine, although Lancer is recovering from a lovely dislocation, and Hippolyta’s shaky from being beaten within an inch of her regenerating brick life multiple times.”

Caitlin sighed.  “Well at least they had the common sense to pick two kids who could soak up the punishment, but I can’t keep doing this, Carson.  I know I’m technically a student, and I have to play in the sims, but no more live fire events.  Not with the kids.  I don’t want them at risk because I can’t keep a fucking lid on it.”

Carson nodded slowly.  “This is why you always had screaming matches with Bardue and Smythe over teacher versus student runs.”

Caitlin nodded.  “Just because I care about the school and want to keep the kids safe doesn’t mean I’m daft enough to believe I can always keep it together.  If I gotta do anymore one-offs against the kids, sims only.  That way I don’t go flaming nutbar and kill someone.  If we can’t do that, thanks, but I’m going to walk.  I’ll take the whole protection and shielding thing so long as it doesn’t mean my kids are endangered by it.”

Carson nodded again, slowly.  “So you’re willing to simply pick up and leave?”

Caitlin scowled.  “You know, the irony of this situation would be absolutely hilarious under other circumstances.  You used to be the one worried that I’d have a psychotic episode.”

“You know I don’t like this line of thinking.”

“There anything we can do?  I can’t exactly see myself an out here, boss.  My meds ain’t working, I’m not any closer to figuring out this whole Artificer pile of shit and I’m scared to hell of what I might do to someone if they spike me too hard.”

“I suppose the question is then, do you want to leave?”  The Headmistress looked very intently at the stressed-out young woman trying to run things over in her mind.  She wasn’t willing to abandon her people any more than Caitlin was willing to harm the kids.

Catlin seemed to deflate.  “No.  I don’t have anywhere else, and quite frankly the only three things that ever made me feel alive were fighting, teaching and Cat.  Teaching was the only time I ever felt good about what I was doing.  Fighting just reminded me that I didn’t want to die.  Cat’s the only person that ever made me feel like maybe it was worth keeping eyes forward and seeing the next challenge.”

“Whateley is our home Caitlin.  It’s an odd one to be sure, but it is our home.  You are among the few who I could honestly say that no matter what you do, there will always be a place for you here.  You have earned that much at the very least.  We’ll find a way to make this work, come Hell or high water.”  Carson carefully took the choked up Artificer’s hand.  “There’s always hope, even for someone who’s never felt they’ve walked in the light.”

“Thanks, boss.”  Caitlin looked up.  “I’m going to go talk to Delarose, then I’ll be wandering.”

“Don’t wander too far.  There have been some very ugly things wandering in the woods around Whateley of late.”

“Maybe I’ll get lucky and find a few.”  Caitlin shrugged, “burn off some of my rage.”

“I would hope not, Caitlin.”

* * *

Nikki Reilly walked along the trail, cursing furiously as she untangled yet another Ley Line knot along her path.  She’d spend most of her time since the Combat Final with Mule tracking down and un-screwing the tangles in the mystic lines around campus since the sporadic snarls that would completely disrupt or send awry her magic were becoming something she almost considered personally offensive.

Fortunately something, or someone, had been aiding her efforts around campus, likely as unintentionally as the tangle was created, but it was noticeable, especially around Dickinson where the snarls smoothed out, and the Ley Line energy simply flowed better than it did normally.  She wanted to know who was responsible for that as well, so she could convince them to come do their thing around Poe.

As she followed the path to another snarl she recognized the area.  Range Four had been the place Bunker and Mule got tangled up with the Voodoo Wolves.  She still could not believe the absolute havoc those two kids had unleashed when the monsters in the dark tried to eat them.  Even Aunghadhail had been shocked and impressed.  Most of the Wild Bunch that had tagged along had been more of a cluster of individuals seeking combat with the enemy.  The two Grunts had stuck together and played off each others’ strengths in a way that had absolutely decimated the corrupted weres even after their weapons had run dry of ammunition.

Nikki grasped the knot in her hands, delicately sliding her fingers in the tangle and flicking her hands around.  To anyone but an experienced mage she would have appeared to not have been as clumsy as she actually was with the process, reeling from the heady rush of undirected energy released by the contact.  Another Ley Line disruption fixed.

The Range Four sign was simple, carved in a wooden plank nailed to a tree, a low-tech marker in quite possibly the most high-tech school in existence.  Below it, another sign was crudely placed so as to read:

Range 4

WARNING!  Do not feed the Marine!

(He might eat your fingers)

Nikki chuckled at the sign as she untangled yet another knot before taking a moment to rest a bit.  She was still sore from the beating Mule had delivered at the very end.  She was pretty sure her bruises had bruises.  The fact that Mule hadn’t snapped her bones like twigs still amazed her.

When she reached the concrete platform that was the shorn-off top of the small hill the firing line was placed on, she looked at the odd, mixed bag of concrete firing positions side-by-side with dirt and holes dug into the ground at various points.  She could see clearly in the darkening light of the evening the mishmash of hulked cars, semi trucks and the occasional armored vehicle with varying levels of damage to them, as well as the control console outside the bunker that would allow the targets downrange to “shoot back.”

She felt the girl on the range long before she saw her, sitting up against a concrete backstop looking downrange.  The feelings were painful to deal with: sadness, loss, confusion, and above all, a sense of being very, very tired.  Nikki re-erected her shields before moving forward.  Anyone feeling that horrible would likely do something to hurt themselves.  She stopped for a brief moment when she actually saw who it was.

The girl with the black metal hair simply looked down at all the targets silently.  Contrary to what Nikki was feeling from her there were no tears, no choking sobs.  Her face was bruised horribly, but the young woman was simply staring as though she was simply trying to relax.  Cuts and scrapes along her arms seemed to be stopped closed with some kind of slick red metal, and her left shoulder bore a brand new blood-red Ultraviolent armband, the rager warning.  Her right hand held a chromed pistol with what looked like ivory handgrips that she occasionally looked at.

Mystically the girl was like a cyclone ripping at the Ley lines, drawing energy in and shunting it back out again.  But what really caught Nikki’s attention were the color of almost every single Ley Line connecting to this girl.  Deep, dark blue, like the night sky before everything went black.  She got the impression that the Ley lines were much older, more mature than the powder-blue things tracing about the boys on the campus.

“Are you going to shoot something or just look at that pretty pistol there?”  Nikki spoke softly as she moved over to sit down next to the odd girl.  Caitlin simply looked over at her.  Nikki felt an odd spike of fear well up, then get subsumed by that feeling of mental drain.

“Dunno, in any case I’d have to go get ammunition for it either way.”  Caitlin’s voice held none of the emotional intensity that Nikki was feeling, for all the world seeming like she was mildly mentally drained.

 “Probably just as well given the way I feel right now.”  She looked over at the metallic-haired girl.  “You really messed up my final you know.  The lines were so tangled that I couldn’t get my magic to do much of anything, much less what I planned.”

Caitlin shrugged.  She was too mentally tired to work herself up to the paranoia level about mages she’d been fostering of late.  “Dunno anything about that, Nikki.  Hell I don’t even know what the hell those lines are you’re talking about for sure.”

“Mule kicked my ass.”  Nikki got a sour look.  “He shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t get anything to really work right after your fight.”

“Don’t sell Mule short.  He may only be a sophomore, but he’s smarter and more competent than he ever lets on.  Plus you’re his favorite kind of meat in the grinder.  He’s been training to bust mages and psychics since he got here.”  Caitlin looked back downrange.

“I noticed.” Nikki chuckled. “I sure wouldn’t want to fight him for real without a LOT of preparation in advance, and using any kind of cheating I could get away with.”

Caitlin nodded slowly.  “So why you up here, Nikki? The ranges are a bit off the beaten track for you, and if you’re here to talk about a mithril needle and a jar of metallic ink, I’m not interested.  Ever.”

“Mithril needle?  Metallic ink?”  Nikki shuddered.  “Honestly when Aunghadhail figured out that you weren’t a mindless drone, she sort of closed down and spent a lot of time screaming and cursing in the back of my brain.  Let me tell you when she gets going, the languages she picks are… interesting.  She figured out what would happen when the ink hits skin.  She’s not happy at the moment.”

“Why would Unga-Bunga care?”  Caitlin leaned her head over and a small trace of energy lanced up her neck across her face.

“No way would I take someone’s will from them.  Aung is rather insistent on that as well, but I don’t know why.”

Caitlin turned her head to the sky and sighed, her tongue issuing words that hadn’t been heard by ears since before mankind walked fully upright.  “Your armor will take time my queen, and will not be complete until the seasons turn eighteen times.”  Caitlin didn’t bother looking back.  “You might not remember, but I do.  I know the name Aunghadhail, even if the memories are only coming back while we talk.”

“Oh gods!”  Nikki shuddered as the memories Aunghadhail was trying to hold back surged forward.  Images of an ancient forge, more massive and impressive than any ironworks of the modern day, dedicated to one purpose, flashed through her mind along with images of an artificer with black, runic tattoos of a type Aung was only vaguely familiar with.  It was the same artificer.  Along with the memories came a knowledge that never once had the thing at the forge ever shown an iota of independent thought or emotion from the day it was presented to the Sidhe.

Nikki shook her head.  “She didn’t know.  She thought the Artificer was a construct, nothing more than a tool.  She really didn’t know.”

“No one ever bothered to find out.  Even the ones who knew me before I’d changed in the past.”  Caitlin shook her head.  “Fuck, now I can’t even sort out which memories were mine and which ones belonged to the poor fuckers who came before.”

“Well I know,” Nikki was almost spitting at the thought, “and anyone trying to pull that will need to get through me first.”

“You’re powerful, Nikki, but there’s always ways around shit like that and you know it.  My big thing is trying to lay low enough to solve the little puzzle before someone puts me in a situation that for me is kill or die.”  Caitlin looked back at the handgun.  “I ain’t living through that again.  If someone comes for me with intent, I’ll freaking kill them.  I don’t care how goddamned powerful they think they are.”

“Good.”  The redheaded elf gave Caitlin a tired smile.  “If you’d let me I could put a connection to you.  Anyone who tried to subjugate you might get a rude shock there.  Besides, the thought of owning someone mind, body and soul like that?  Ew.  Kinda makes me feel icky contemplating it.”

“I’ll pass, thanks.  Dunno if I’m ready to form any kind of mystic connection to anyone like that.  For all I know this lovely little lightshow would find a way to travel the line and fry you.  I’m not exactly in control even in my cognizant state.”

“Then don’t worry about it.  Just bear in mind the offer is there.  Just trying to help out.”

“Thanks.”  Caitlin looked at the pistol in her hand and Nikki felt that sense of sadness and loss connected to the weapon, like it belonged to someone else.  “I just hope I can keep it all together, you know?”

“Believe it or not I know exactly what you mean.  There are some times when I’m pretty sure I’m going insane myself.”

Caitlin snorted.  “Technically, I am insane.  I just don’t have the voice of someone with delusions of grandeur stuck in my head.”  She looked over.  “I’m Caitlin by the way.”

“Good to meet you, although you already know who I am.”

“Yup.  Kinda hard to miss you.  Hagarty and Westmont still making you bleed from the ears?”

“Oh yeah, but it is paying off.  I never would have even been able to stand up to Mule if they hadn’t been teaching me.”

Caitlin smirked, and Nikki felt a sharp twinge of amusement.  “There’s the crux.  Mule’s a good kid.  He needs to quit trying to be everyone’s big brother, but I envy his worldview.”

“I should probably get to know him better, as friends you know?  He has helped me and my friends out a bit.”

“Go for it, Nikki.  Mule’s a good kid, just do me a favor and keep a leash on Aunghadhail with him and his team.  They’re like me.  No taking well to orders from someone who hasn’t earned the right, you know?”

“No worries there.”  Nikki gave a quirky, ingenious grin.  “I haven’t earned that right with anyone, really.”

Caitlin looked over at the redheaded child again, almost as though seeing her again for the first time.  “You just might be one of the good ones this school kicks out.  Just try not to lose that perspective for as long as you can.”

Nikki gave another quirky smile.  “I can’t afford to lose that.  I’ve seen enough royal pains in the ass turn up whenever a kid gets an advantage.  As long as I can see myself clearly, it’s not happening.  I just don’t go barking orders.  I don’t have the respect or the experience for that.”

Caitlin nodded.  “Give me a sec.  I need to put up Cat’s pistol so her Dad can come and collect it.”

“Okay, take your time.” Nikki gives Cait a sad smile. “You lost something precious and I’m not talking about your manhood here, didn’t you?”

“How the hell…”

“It’s the lines I was talking about.  You’re covered in blue ones, just not the baby blue ones that most of the kids here have on them.  You’re older than you look.”

Caitlin still looked a bit shocked, then a bit frustrated, then sighed.  “No, I lost her back on Halloween night.”

Nikki watched as the sparking young woman walked up to the range bunker and keyed the locks like she’d done it thousands of times before.  When her conversation partner disappeared inside, her mind wandered to a big, blonde teacher who very much gave off the same feel.  Emotions too strong, bottled-up rage, and a loss of a loved one on Halloween night.  Mahren never left, he’d been right here, hidden among the children of Whateley Academy to protect him from anyone who might try to use those tattoos to enslave him.

“I’m sorry.”  Nikki didn’t really know what to say.  “I can feel your grief.  That loss, it’s like a stabbing wound.  How do you live with that?”

“This is why I don’t like hanging around empaths.  I always give ‘em headaches.  Fix your shields.”  Caitlin said it with the brusque manner of someone who was used to saying that a thousand times over.

As Nikki reconstructed her shields again, stronger, she listened to Caitlin talk.  “Takes a Poesie to spot a gender screwball, but yes, if that were my biggest problem I’d be thrilled right now.”

“Hey, I’m here to listen.  Whatever you want to talk about.  I’d rather get to know you better than play potential owner, if that makes any sense.”

“Thank you for that. Guess it was bound to become obvious sooner or later. I’m just not so hot at playing the normal girl game for very long. Nor am I quite sure how to handle this Artificer bullshit.”

“I can understand that,” Nikki was rather rueful as she spoke, “I swear if I hear that ‘Queen to Come’ bullshit one more time I’m liable to hurt someone, badly.”

“You one of Horton’s Changelings she’s so protective of?”  Caitlin simply asked.

“Yes.”

“Figures.  Still Carson’s logic in isolating all of you escapes me.  Insulating the other kids from the fact that you all actually do exist just smacks of asking for a tragedy.  Last time one of the kids got outed, it was pretty bad.”

“Tell that to Ayla.”

“I think our resident Goodkind is familiar enough without me rubbing her face in it.”

“Two years ago, I was this kind of klutzy, clumsy, teenage boy.” Nikki admitted. “Now look at me. The girl of my dreams, only I’m HER.”

“You’ll bounce back though. Probably faster than I will.”

“I already am.” The redhead admitted. “Hormones you know, and I didn’t have adult experience to overcome when the ‘change’ hit me, either.”

“Let’s take a walk.  If I stay up here much longer I’m either going to start crying or kill something.”

“Is crying that bad?”

“Only when it’s not healthy.”

“Oh are you in for a treat.  PMS will take care of that.”

“Gee, thank you for reminding me of that lovely bundle of fun I am so not looking forward to.”

“Hey look on the bright side.  You aren’t likely to cause thunderstorms in the hallways.”

Caitlin snorted as the two of them started walking a large loop around the campus.  “With my luck it’ll be heralded by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Nikki giggled.  “Oh my, was that a sense of humor in there? Or was I hallucinating?”

“It likes to hide, and come out when kids are being bad.”

“I’m behaving.”

“I thank all the angels in heaven for that miracle.”

“Hey!”

The two walked around campus twice, before parting ways.  They never got around to speaking of anything important, but Caitlin’s mood was improving, slowly.  It wasn’t until close to midnight that the sounds of the campus fell off, and she found herself alone again with her thoughts.  It was exactly where she didn’t want to be, so Caitlin Bardue turned about the campus, went to her room, doubled and then tripled her warding clothing, then left the dorms.

As she moved, her feet began to pick up the pace, and as she finally broke into a full sprint she veered into the quad and began vaulting low obstacles like benches and tables, then began pacing herself for wall runs.  For the first time since Halloween, she hit that odd mental state her friends called flow.  By the time security responded, the madcap girl was bounding across benches, shimmying up fire-escapes and climbing the walls using the windows.  For once she was completely focused on something that wasn’t part of the odd bad dream that seemed to be her life, and she ran. 

Caitlin ran until the sun broke the horizon, then kept running until the students began trickling out of the cottages.  As she passed Melville her problems were long forgotten as the Parkour Hooligan in her woke up after a long sleep.  She slapped Breaker’s shoulder as he came out for breakfast, shouting “Tag!  You’re it, punk!” before bolting through the back trails around Poe.  Zenith was her next victim, and the three exemplars tore hell-bent-for-leather through the campus until the first bell sounded, and Combat Finals began again.



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