Monday, 16 December 2019 13:00

Dissonance (Part 1)

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A Whateley Academy Tale

Dissonance

A Sara Waite story by Branwen Gillen

 

Part One

 

Prologue

Waves rolled over rocks far below where Otto stood leaning against the railing of his balcony, overlooking the iron grey ocean. The steaming cup of cocoa warmed his hands and face as he sipped it gingerly. Tiny sporadic flakes of snow drifted on the breeze, stinging his face as each alighted on his drawn, unshaven, face. He breathed in the salty scent of the ocean spray, trying to centre himself.

The sound of a car pulling up the driveway on the other side of the house called his attention back to the dark, empty interior. Wandering back inside, he picked his way through the mess of his living room, converted months ago into a crisis room. Free-standing cork boards covered in photographs and maps, different coloured strings cross-crossing between linked pieces of information, clues and persons of interest.


Opening his front door, he saw Elizabeth Carson walking from her black sedan up the path wearing an expensive black suit that accentuated her curves while remaining professional. Green hills covered in pines dusted with snow loomed around them, wind whistling through the spiky leaves. She had a tablet PC tucked under one arm. “Elizabeth,” he greeted when she finally came within earshot, “if you phoned ahead, I would have cleaned up.”

Carson paused at the threshold, her eyes creased with worry. “You look like hell, Otto,” she observed.

He gave her a long, sad, look, his composure slowly crumbling. “Come on in,” he said, turning away from her, unable to stand in that gaze. “I’ll make you some tea.”

Elizabeth stepped gingerly inside, her low heels clicking on the slate tiles as she closed the door behind her, plunging the house into silence. Otto flicked on the lights as he passed by into the kitchen that overlooked the living room, exposing the mess of papers scattered across every horizontal surface and plastered on every wall. Walking into the middle of it all, she turned a full circle, taking it all in. “I don’t know whether to admire your tenacity,” she said, “or reprimand you for your obsession.”

Otto set his own cocoa aside before turning his kettle on to boil, retrieving a teabag and a newly washed mug. “It’s been six months, Elizabeth,” he whispered hoarsely. “Six months and we have no idea where she is. And the only lead we have is some idiot child that seems to be able to elude the best investigators on the planet and whose friends are going down for murder!” His voice rose sharply as his hands shook, gripping the edge of the kitchen bench white-knuckled to prevent himself from throwing any nearby loose object. Taking several deep breaths, he managed to regain his composure. “I’m sorry,” he sighed.

“That’s all right,” she said gently, “I’m worried too.”

“Six months and we don’t know where she is,” he repeated, his volume rising with his sense of frustration. “We don’t know what condition she’s in, we don’t know if she’s all right. Anything could have happened to her! And the longer we take to find her, the more damage could be done!”

“I know, that’s why I’m here,” she replied, “we’ve found Speakeasy.”

It took a moment for the news to sink in. Breathing a sigh of relief, the tension went out of Otto’s body as he leaned against the wall. “Oh, thank God. Where is he being held? I’ll call in and have a psychic interrogation team meet…”

“No, Otto,” Carson interrupted firmly. “You’re on indefinite medical leave, remember? You’re not going anywhere near Speakeasy.”

“What?” he asked, stunned. Shaking his head, he squeezed his eyes shut and counted down from ten, concentrating on his breathing. “Ok. You’re right, I’m sure you’ve got the best people grilling him as we speak. I would like to request permission to be there when you retrieve Sara. She’ll need to see a friendly face.”

“Otto,” she said gently, “he’s not talking. We have him as an accessory to murder, if not conspiracy. Depending on what he’s done to Sara, he might be guilty of magical coercion which carries the death penalty. His lawyers have his lips locked so tight he’s learned to breathe through his rectum. We can’t make him talk.”

Otto stared at her, silence stretching out as the seconds ticked by. “Six months we’ve been waiting for Speakeasy to be caught,” he said, “thinking the only way we’ll ever have a hope of finding Sara is if Speakeasy tells us where she is. And now you’re telling me we can’t make him talk?”

“I’m sorry, Otto.”

The kettle clicked off as the water inside came to a boil. Otto poured the water and jiggled the teabag several times before handing the mug to Carson. He could feel every single emotion drain from him, leaving him empty inside. His limbs felt heavy, his eyes drooped as hopelessness set in. “Why did you come here?” he asked. “If all you wanted to do is tell me that we’ve failed her completely?”

Carson took the mug but set it aside on the countertop. “You deserved to hear the news straight from my lips,” she said, “not over an impersonal phone call like we’re not friends. I also wanted to see how you were holding up. I’d heard you’d become a hermit.”

“I’ve been waiting. Going over everything, every little piece of evidence, Speakeasy’s every known movement, every Security report looking for the slightest clue. He’s just a stupid kid but he’s given us the runaround. We’ve got nothing. How long is it going to be, Elizabeth? Years? What’s she going to be like when she comes back to us? Will it be in time?”

“You know the moment we know anything, you’re the first person I’ll call,” Carson said. “I want her back too. Everyone wishes she was safe back with us.”

“Do you?” he asked pointedly. “What are you doing to look for her now? Rhetorical question, you’re not doing anything. The search is off. Her friends are waiting for any news. That’s all any of us are doing, waiting. We’ve given up. We’re not even forcing her abductor to talk. We’ve failed her, utterly.”

“We did everything we could.”

“Did we? I don’t know about that,” he sighed. “In fact, our lack of action seems far too convenient. Why did you even want her at Whateley in the first place? We can’t even protect the students from each other!”

“We had the Lovecraft Room, remember? My school is right on top of N’Kai! I needed someone or something to protect my students from anything that might crawl out of that hole. What was I supposed to do when a golden opportunity like a tame Great Old One dropped right into my lap? And it was working! She was culling corrupted weres and wrangling the creatures in Hawthorne’s basement like a pro! Stan and Morrie’s workload was cut in half! Nobody wants her back more than me, as problematic as she could be at times, no matter how much Englund and the rest of the staff bitched. Underneath it all, she was a good kid. She was learning, all she ever wanted was to help!”

Otto held his face in his hands. “Where’s Speakeasy?” he asked.

“No,” Carson said, shaking her head. “Not while you’re like this. I’m not going to let you throw your life away. I’m not going to let Speakeasy get away after everything he’s done. He murdered one of my kids, even if he didn’t hold the blade. If you lean on him, he’ll get off and I’m not going to let that happen.”

“And that’s why you came,” Otto sighed, “to tell me that you’re watching me. Because we both know I can’t beat Lady Astarte. Not that I’d even try.” Slowly sinking, he slid down until he was sitting on the floor with his back against a cupboard, staring up at the ceiling.

“Otto, how long as it been since you slept?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, “I don’t sleep. When I do, I don’t sleep well. How can anyone sleep knowing she’s out there somewhere and we can’t find her?”

“We don’t know that,” she insisted. “We don’t know anything. What good do you do her by torturing yourself like this?”

“It seems miniscule compared to the depths of my failure,” he said, his head lolling to one side to face her. “She’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to family, Elizabeth.”

“We’ll find her. I promise you we’ll find her.”

“It’s already been too long,” he said despondently. “The damage is done. We’ve lost her.”

Elizabeth picked up her mug and took a sip before sitting down on the floor next to him. “You can’t stay here anymore,” she said. “Is there anyone you can stay with? I’m not leaving you alone like this.”

He shook his head. “No family, remember? Maybe Donna but she was my employee. Without work, without Sara, I have… Nothing.”

Sighing, she considered for a few moments. “You’re coming home with me,” she said in an authoritative tone. “We’ll sit here a while, then I’ll help you pack a bag. You can stay in my guest room.”

“Afraid I’ll do something stupid, Headmistress?” he asked tonelessly.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to put you on suicide watch,” she answered tenderly. “We’re not giving up on her, we’re doing everything we can. And you need to take care of yourself so you can be there for her when she does come back.”

After a while, he looked up at where his mug of cocoa sat on the countertop, still steaming. “All right,” he agreed, defeated. “Could you hand me my drink, please?” Concerned, Carson reached up and retrieved it and handed it to him. He took a long drink before nursing it in his lap. “Do you mind if we finish our drinks first? It might take me a while before I feel like moving.”

Sympathy in her eyes, Carson rested her hand gently on Otto’s shoulder. “We can take as long as you need.”

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Book 1: Overdog

Chapter 1

“Why don’t you go and talk to her?” Alley-Oop whispered from a table in a dark corner of Crystal Hall.

His companion glared at him over his lunch, taking in his familiar unkempt mop of dirty brown hair, dark blue eyes, square face and habitually rumpled uniform. Rest was quietly glad that he’d at least learned how to iron his uniform before leaving home. Rest’s dark brown hair was short at the sides and long on top, combed over to hang down the right side of his face, a 90’s style his mother loved that he had yet to grow out enough to change. It called attention to his unusual pink eyes and feminine face, which he hated.

Glancing back at the subject of conversation, Rest took in the form of the exemplar girl leaning forward to delicately cut her steak and vegetables. Her uniform hugged the curve of her waist and the lines of her pleated skirt contoured the curve of her butt and thighs as she was turned slightly away from him. Her straight, silky, black hair shimmered in the light as she talked and laughed with her friends. Looking away, he shook his head, “Why don’t you go talk to her?” Rest groaned inwardly. Genius retort, his internal critic rebuked himself.

“Me? I’m not the one staring at her,” Oop grumbled, staring at her.

“What do you think she’s like out of uniform?” Rest pondered, absently chewing as he speculated on the question of whether she had a bikini line on that olive skin.

“Boys!” Pythia hissed angrily, snapping her scaled fingers in front of their faces to bring them back to reality. “I’m right here.”

“Sorry,” Oop murmured an apology, pointedly looking down at his food.

Rest sighed as he tore his eyes away, considering Pythia where she sat across from him. She was one of them, an Underdog with a case of GSD that doubly sucked for her. Covered in snake scales from head to toe, yellow snake-eyes, no hair, a forked tongue and small fangs. There were guys who were into that but Rest wasn’t one of them. He preferred girls with curves and large racks, Pythia’s body was pencil-thin. The rat tail hanging out of the corner of her mouth didn’t help her any either. “You know her?” he asked.

“No,” Pythia snorted. “I mean, I know of her. That’s Envy, she’s in Poe and she’s a Bad Seed. Forget it, boys, she’s waaay out of your league.”

“No harm in talking to her,” Oops muttered darkly.

“If you think she hasn’t noticed you staring at her like a piece of meat,” Pythia pointed out with a saccharine smile. “Forget it, she’s EX-3, her thighs would crush your pelvis like an empty beer can.”

“Christ, Pythia,” Rest said, shaking his head to get that image out of his mind. “Maybe I could compose a song for her. Surprise her by singing it to her from outside her dorm room.”

He jumped when Pythia rapped him on the nose with her finger. “No!” she rebuked curtly.

“Jeeze,” he whined, “I thought girls liked to be serenaded?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Pythia said, exasperated, “by guys they know. Singing at someone from out of the blue is just stalker-level creepy. Look, here’s how this will go. You’ll casually go up to her and say hi, then there’ll be this horrendously awkward silence. Maybe she’ll say hi, maybe she’ll ask if she knows you. You’ll stammer out something incoherent, and one of two things will happen. She’ll either politely blow you off because you’re creeping her out or she’ll tear you a new asshole just so you’ll leave her alone forever.”

“What the hell? How the fuck do you know?” Oop asked indignantly.

“Because girls like that deal with boys like you every day,” Pythia pointed out, “and she’s already goddamn sick of it. If she doesn’t humiliate you, you’ll take it as a sign that she somehow likes you and you’ll become a bigger problem. Sure, you’ll call her a bitch and maybe even an ice queen but that’s a damn sight better than dealing with your shit.”

Oops rolled his eyes. “Fucking girls. You don’t have to be so mean about it.”

“No,” Rest sighed, “she’s right, Oops. We were being pigs.”

“Thank you,” Pythia sighed. “So what have you guys got on after lunch?”

“Study period,” Rest answered, grateful for the change of subject. “I’m going to go down and work on Mia.”

“Speaking of creepy,” Oops said, “why the heck do you name your instruments after girls?”

“Because it’d be weird to say I was going down to work on my Dick,” Rest quipped.

Pythia snorted, quickly sucking the rat tail down with a short slurp.

“So gay, dude,” Oops groaned. “Going to hit the ring this afternoon.”

Rest and Pythia looked at each other, smirking.

It took a moment for Oops to get it. “Basketball!” he finally snapped, clutching his head. “I’m talking about basketball! It’s sports this afternoon, get your heads outta the gutter!”

“I wasn’t the one who started with the ‘that’s so gay’ shit,” Rest said, chortling.

“Still chasin’ the dream, huh?” Pythia teased.

“I’m just a normal guy,” he answered defensively, “other than being able to nudge seven-hundred grams with my mind. As long as I don’t use my power, it should be fine.”

“That’s not how the league sees it,” Rest pointed out.

“Shut up,” Oop mumbled, crestfallen. Pythia patted him comfortingly on the shoulder.

“What about you?” Rest asked Pythia.

“Me?” Pythia replied, taken back by the question. “Herpetology.”

“Why so shocked?”

“It’s not like anything I do is exciting,” she answered. “Snake girl studies reptiles and amphibians, what a surprise.”

“Hey, animal-themed heroes are all the rage,” Oop said enthusiastically. “You could do martial arts, I’m sure you’d be great at snake style or something.”

She gave him an arch look. “I’m happy with an ordinary, boring, career thanks. Being a hero’s for people who can shrug off bullets.”

They finished their meal in depressed silence before the bell rang and the three of them had to part ways. Rest waved goodbye as his friends headed off across campus while he turned down the stairs to the underground. It was a green day, so Pythia didn’t have to cut underground. Rest was happy that she was going to get some sunlight today but anxious as he descended into the dark labyrinth under Whateley, headed for the basement workshop. He preferred travelling through the tunnels with at least one other Underdog, it helped prevent issues with more powerful students looking to take out their insecurities on someone else. Trying to make himself look small and inoffensive, he kept his eyes to the floor and shrunk away from everyone else moving to class.

The workshop was empty when he arrived, shutting the door behind him and flicking on the light before moving to his table in the back corner of the room. Scattered parts littered the other tables, remnants of his madder and more inventive gadgeteer peers. Death rays, gravity harnesses, jet packs, experiments in transmutation and teleportation, the products of budding super-scientists were on display for all to see. Then there was his work, stuck in a tiny corner of the workshop, away from everything else, a humble violin resting in its case still under construction.

Sliding his hand over the instrument, his ‘Mia’, his fingers hummed like tuning forks, testing and feeling the resonance of the materials. Mia was not yet perfect but she was progressing well. Her ribs were still exposed but the glue had set perfectly, just as he had designed. Unlike most violins, Rest had opted, not for wood, but more modern materials each fabricated to a very specific density. His Siren ability to feel the resonance of objects combined with his abilities as a gadgeteer to make him the best crafter of instruments since Stradivarius. Theoretically. If he could get hold of the correct materials and refine his technique. Mia was the first of what he hoped would be his perfect instruments, fit only for the best musicians in the world.

“REEEEEEST?”

Recognizing the voice, Rest immediately dived under the table, dragging his schoolbag with him. Stilling just as the door opened, he tried to be as quiet as possible as he watched a pair of school trousers enter the room through the forest of chair and desk legs between them.

“I know you’re in here, Rest, the lights are on,” the newcomer called out, his voice echoing in the nearly empty room. Closing the door, he sighed. “Come on out, I’ll take it easy on you if you don’t make me work for it.”

Looking around desperately for anything that might help him escape, something strange but unhelpful caught his eye. Stuck to the underside of his desk drawer with yellowing sticky tape was what looked to be a piece of folded sheet plastic. Weird but completely unhelpful, Rest shut his eyes and held his breath, hoping that his hiding place would conceal him.

The visitor walked casually up the aisle between desks, footsteps echoing from the tiles. “Come on, Rest. Thuban just wants me to deliver a message is all. You owe him a lot, don’t ya?”

He paused, leaving nothing but silence hanging for several moments. Quickly turning, soles squeaking on the polished floor, he stalked out of the room, turned off the light and slammed the door behind him.

Rest finally gasped for breath, heart beating rapidly in his breast. Crawling out from under his desk, he stood up and put his bag on the tabletop before carefully, slowly, opening the drawer in the weak light of the high windows that lined the top of the wall. Once it was fully out, he lifted gently to pick the rollers up off the rail, then jimmied it a little to get it clear of the mounting. Turning it over, the stark white of the plastic sheet seemed to glow faintly in the dim light.

Too curious to contain himself, he placed the flat of his hand on the sheet to keep it down while he slowly picked away the tape from each corner. Once that was done, he was surprised to find that someone had stuck the backside of the sheet to the drawer with spray adhesive, still strongly bonded to the wood. Not daring to turn on the light in case Thuban’s thug came back, he retrieved the small LED torch attached to his keyring and lit it, holding the beam on the paper as he took one corner in his hand, feeling that the inner surface was rough like paper.

Hesitantly, he considered what he was about to do. Was this just an epic prank left over from a previous year? Some kind of trap left for someone else who never found it? Or had a gadgeteer stashed some kind of ultra-secret blueprint here and promptly forgotten about it? Glancing at Mia, Rest decided he needed to take the risk. He was in debt to Thuban for the materials he was using to construct her and he was late in repayment. He’d intended to convince the dragon to play the long game and invest in him but it seemed time was running short. He took a deep breath and steeled himself for what was about to happen as he unfolded the sheet.

Then he screamed.

As the paper bloomed, space itself seemed to unfold before him, as if the image of the workshop around him were refracting through a tesseract. Emerging, squeezing through that hole in space and time came a blob of blackened purple flesh, shrivelled grey skin stretched across a protruding chitinous endoskeleton in the vague shape of an enlarged foetus. The form lay in the middle of a closed circle surrounded by runes, limp tendrils writhing across the paper surface. Burning pure red eyes like orbs filled with blood stared wide at Rest as it reached out to him, opening a black slit of a mouth from which purple drool spilled between serrated black teeth. The noise it gave off was an unearthly, weak, gasp ending in a whine as it tried futilely to crawl towards him.

Rest hit the table behind him, scattering chairs as he climbed up, kicking the air. His only thought was escape, to run from this horrible thing before him. In his manic kicking, however, he caught the edge of the sheet, knocking it up at a right angle before it teetered down, closing over the grotesque thing. Space folded itself around it as it let of a high-pitched scream that was abruptly cut off as the paper closed.

Panting, Rest’s mouth was dry and his throat hurt. He sat there, staring wild-eyed at the sheet. He didn’t notice the door opening behind him, or the lights flickering to life. “There you are!” the visitor shouted triumphantly as he grabbed Rest from behind and hauled him over the desk, putting him down in a chair the way one might a child.

Rest stared up at the boy’s vicious grin, his befuddled mind taking a moment to recognize Disassembler’s square-jawed mug. “D-Did you see that?”

Disassembler cuffed him on the side of the head, making Rest’s ears ring. “So you were in here,” he sighed, grasping Rest’s shoulder in is big, beefy, hand. “I told you not to make me work to find you.”

Blinking the spots out of his eyes, Rest’s mind kicked into high gear. “Look, ‘Embler, I’m sorry. Please cut me a break, I just saw…”

He was interrupted by a casual jab to the stomach that felt like a lance went straight through his abdomen, doubling him over. “Thuban wants to know where his investment is,” Disassembler said in a deceptively reasonable tone. “You made him some big promises, boyo. You need to deliver something.”

“I know,” Rest wheezed, forcing himself to sit up again and breathe. “Please, I’m being serious. Did you just see what was in that?” he asked, pointing to the plastic sheet.

Disassembler looked at the sheet stuck to the underside of the drawer and back to Rest, pulling his hand back.

“No, no, no!” Rest protested, holding up his hands in front of his face. “I mean it! I-I just found it, Thuban… Thuban might be interested in it! I don’t know what it us but it’s… It’s something! I don’t know!”

Scowling, Disassembler grabbed Rest by the collar and dragged him kicking and screaming around the table to where the sheet lay folded atop the overturned drawer. “This better not be some bullshit you’re spinning,” he threatened. “If you run, I’ll put you in the infirmary. If you’re playing me somehow, you’ll be drinking every meal through a straw for two months.”

“Please,” Rest whimpered, “I wouldn’t fuck with you. Please.”

Looking unsure of himself now, Disassembler turned back to the plastic sheet, slowly reaching for the corner. Snorting, he shook his head. “You almost had me spooked, idiot,” he said jovially, leaning over the sheet as he flipped it open.

A torrent of grasping blackened tendrils burst from the circle in a geyser, engulfing Dissassembler’s head and dragging him bodily onto the table. Rest fell to the floor and scrambled backward as the petty thug thrashed, gritting his teeth to prevent intruding tentacles from forcing their way into his mouth. Managing to rise to his knees in the circle, he screamed when he saw that the blob was stuck to his skin, tendrils burrowing painlessly into his flesh and wriggling beneath the surface like worms. The foetus-like thing was melding with his neck, squealing in delight over the wet, slurping noises of his consumption, tearing through his uniform.

Rest scrambled back from the horror, unable to look away. Disassembler’s eyes were wide, pleading silently as he opened his mouth to reveal a nest of tongues blocking his throat. He raised his unnaturally bubbling hand as if to reach out to Rest but a spark of yellow light burned away his fingertips the moment they reached the edge of the circle. Stunned, Rest just watched, his mouth gaping in soundless shock.

As the lump of the foetus-thing was absorbed into his body, shrinking as it spread under his skin. From the burned-off tips of his fingers, black claws sprouted to replace them. Thick muscle and ropey tendons were eaten from the inside out as bones crunched. The sound reminded Rest of his father gnawing and sucking on chicken bones. Purple veins leeched the pallor from his skin until his dermis was smooth and white. For a moment, the thing’s red eyes popped into his eye sockets, squeezing his old eyeballs to one side before they burst and were consumed by a thousand tiny mouths.

Disassembler was shrinking inside the shredded remnants of his uniform. His hands seemed comically tiny compared to his broad shoulders. His face crackled, reforming into a beautiful heart-shaped visage atop a slender neck. His shoulders and ribcage collapsed, waist contracting as his hips grew, filling out his trousers. As the horror show subsided, breasts filled out his slender form, thick lips turning black as blood red hair grew from his, now obviously her, scalp. Finally, a stylised inverted triangle was burned into her forehead by an invisible brand. Collapsing into the middle of the circle, she slumped, legs tucked underneath her, body supported by one arm as her red eyes stared blankly at the floor.

“What the fuck?” Rest finally gasped, lower lip quivering.

Grabbing the table leg he was propped up against, Rest managed to climb to his feet, legs shaking. After a quick check, he sighed in relief to discover he hadn’t soiled himself. “What the fuck did you do?” he shouted, voice hoarse.

The monster finally looked up at him, though her slitted red eyes were blank of emotion. Looking back down, she discovered her hand like it was something new and strange to her. Holding it up, she turned it over curiously, wiggling the slender clawed digits. Pausing for a moment, Rest gasped as she leant down and bit her index finger clean off. She didn’t cry out in pain, she just stared, looking blank as she crunched the finger between her teeth. As she did, a new claw sprouted from the stump, tendrils forming around chitinous false ‘bones’ until it was sheathed once again in her white dermis, apparently as good as new. The she looked at him again with the same blank stare, as if nothing had happened.

Lurching forward, Rest brought his hand up under the paper and snapped it shut before folding it over again, her entire form folding back into whatever other space she came from. For good measure, he grabbed a roll of masking tape and hastily sealed all four sides to the drawer, not stopping until it was practically covered. Looking around, there wasn’t a shred of evidence he could find, not so much as a thread or scrap of Disassembler’s uniform.

“Fuck!” Rest swore, walking in aimless circles and clutching his scalp. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK! What the FUCK!” Turning, he kicked over a chair, barely noticing the pain lancing through his foot. Limping slightly, he walked back to the crazily sealed sheet and looked at it.

Making a decision, he searched the workshop until he found a spare tarp, usually used for keeping dust off works-in-progress, and swaddled the drawer in it. After securing the tarp with duct tape, he grabbed his bag, tucked the drawer under his shoulder and fled from the workshop as fast as he could, turning off the lights and locking the door behind him.

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Chapter 2

Alley-Oop stared at Rest from his bed on the other side of our dorm room, the wrapped drawer lying to one side in the corner of the room. “You’re pulling my leg,” he said, breaking the long silence that had stretched after Rest had ended his story.

Standing, Rest hiss through clenched teeth. “Do I look like I’m pulling some shithead prank?” he whispered, voice hoarse. “I’ve been sweating bullets all afternoon,” he said, tugging on his sodden shirt. “My eyes are bloodshot because I fucking balled my eyes out. Does that sound like I’m fucking around?”

Oop held his hands up defensively. “Come on, dude, you’ve got to admit it sounds pretty unbelievable. Someone didn’t dose you with some kind of experimental hallucinogen while you were down there, did they?”

“If I’m fucking hallucinating, what the fuck is that?” Rest asked, pointing at the bundle.

“I dunno, something random you grabbed in your drug-addled state wrapped in the first thing that came to hand?”

“What do you want me to do? Open it? Didn’t you hear what that thing did to Disassembler?”

“I mean,” Oop began, smirking, “if it did it’s no great loss. What did you think Disassembler wanted from you anyway?”

Rest snapped his mouth shut. Oop didn’t know about Mia or that he’d gone in debt to Thuban, so he just shrugged. “You know assholes like that. Just want to mess with an underdog sometimes,” he lied, “make themselves feel powerful. Dunno why they need to when they can bench a small car.”

Pursing his lips in thought, Oop glanced at the bundle. “I mean, if there really is a girl in there, I guess the only way you can prove it is by opening it up so I can see for myself.”

“Did you even hear what she did?” Rest gasped, recoiling in horror.

“I still think you got drugged or something,” Oop said, shrugging. “You want to open it or will I?”

“If you’re that curious, you fucking open it,” Rest answered, stepping away. “No way I’m fucking with that thing.”

Oop huffed. “If you didn’t want to fuck with it, why’d you bring it up here?”

“I was scared, ok! I could be party to a fucking murder! Should I just leave her there so some other poor sap can get fucking eaten?”

“Jeeze,” Oop sighed, getting up and walking over to the bundle, picking it up. “Don’t be such a drama queen.”

Rest stared wide-eyed as Oop began peeling off the duct tape. “N-Now, Oop, don’t be so fast…”

“Why?” he scoffed. “I don’t know what you’re pulling or why but this stupid shit’s gotta stop.”

As he tore open the tarp, Rest crawled into the corner of the room, clutching the wall as he tried to merge with it. Seeing his friend’s reaction, Oop paused. “You’re a really good actor,” he said in a low, even, tone. “You’re even starting to freak me out.”

“I’m not acting,” Rest said, shaking his head. “Leave it alone, Oop.”

Tugging the tarp free, Oop stared for a few moments at the sea of masking tape plastered over the folded plastic sheet to hold it in place. “This is good, Rest,” he said, “this is real good. Practicing for Halloween or something? If this is some sort of itchy powder bomb or some shit, I’m going to be real pissed, you know?”

“It’s not a trick,” Rest insisted, “please leave it alone.”

Something about the way Rest was practically begging him made Oop change his mind. Rather than tear open the masking tape, he placed the drawer on the ground and reached into his boot, pulling out a butterfly knife which he unfolded with a flick of his wrist.

“What the fuck! Where’d you get that?” Rest demanded.

“Calm down,” he snorted, rolling his eyes. “Protection, you know.” He carefully cut the masking tape around the edges of the sheet with the knife rather than tearing it off. Crawling back away from the sheet, he carefully flicked the first fold open with the tip of his knife before turning to look at Rest over his shoulder. “Last chance, buddy,” he said, “wanna change your bullshit story before I do this?”

Rest shook his head, slowly climbing behind the foot of his bed.

Looking back to the sheet, Oop slid the tip under the last fold and braced himself. As the page unfolded, he saw the extra dimensions unfolding just as Rest had described. A moment later, he was scrabbling back away from the pale redhead that emerged. She was mostly naked now, the remnants of Disassembler’s uniform merely scraps hanging from her skin. A black rag dangled from her mouth as she chewed on it absently, barely reacting to her sudden appearance in the middle of the room.

Rest peeked at her from behind his bed, holding only his eyes over the board. “Oop,” he said calmly and quietly, “get away from her.”

Oop looked between his friend and the eerily beautiful vampire girl. “Who are you?” he asked her, gulping. “What’s your name?”

She looked up when she was addressed, staring at him impassively. “Kellith,” she said shortly in a toneless voice.

“You didn’t say she could talk,” Oopp accused Rest over his shoulder.

Rest shook his head but stayed cowering behind his bed. “She didn’t talk.”

Looking down at her feet, Oop noticed that she was hovering slightly over the paper in the direct centre of the circle. “S-She can’t get out,” he observed, chuckling. “You’re a demon and you can’t get out of the circle, can you?”

Kellith cocked her head curiously to one side. “No.”

“Did you eat someone?”

She simply blinked at him as if she didn’t comprehend the question.

“Answer me, did you eat someone?” Oop demanded firmly.

“I don’t know,” she replied, deadpan.

“You bitch,” Rest hissed, getting up from behind the bed. “I saw you eat someone!”

After a long moment of silence, she simply shrugged. “You saw what you saw.”

Getting up, Oop creeped forward, careful not to cross the line of the circle as he walked around her, looking her naked body over. “You have to answer us when we ask questions,” he observed. “Do you have to do what we say?”

“Yes.”

The two boys stared at her for a moment before they looked at each other. “Like,” Oops began, “if we ordered you to have se…”

Rest cut off his question by wrapping his arm around Oop’s neck and clamping his hand over his mouth. “No! Dude! What the fuck are you thinking?”

“She’s got to do what we say,” he mumbled around the hand. “Look at her, she’s fucking hot.”

“She ate fucking Disassembler, remember? Either of us cross that line and we’re lunch. If she steps across that line, we’re lunch. Don’t fuck around with this.”

“All right,” Oop said, thrusting Rest’s hand away. “But if we can’t touch her and she can’t touch us, what good is she? Why would someone put her there in the first place if she’s no fucking use to anyone? What, can we make her pose sexy and jill off while we watch?”

The slap came as an utter shock to Oop, the impact of Rest’s palm echoing from the walls. “You are such a pig,” Rest growled, enunciating each word slowly and clearly. “Get your mind out of the gutter.”

Oop balled his fists, his face red from pain and rage. For a moment, Rest thought they were about to get into a fist fight but the fit passed as the other boy took a deep breath. “Sorry, I deserved that,” he admitted.

Looking to Kellith, the two boys stared as the demon plucked a scrap of cloth off her skin and shoved it into her mouth to chew. “You eat clothes?” Oop asked incredulously.

“This fabric contains cotton fibres,” she answered distantly. “I prefer living biological matter but I’m hungry.”

Oop turned to look at the potted plant on the windowsill. “Dude,” Rest rebuked before he could say a word, “my mother sent me that plant.”

“You hate looking after it,” Oop reminded him.

Curiosity winning out over maternal loyalty, Rest retrieved the potted plant and placed it on the corner of the sheet outside the circle on top of the drawer. Taking a ruler from his bag, he carefully pushed the plant over the line. Kellith waited until he was finished to bend down and touch one leaf with her claw. It only took a moment for the plant to shrivel and burst into a pile of blue ash.

“Woah,” Oop said, mouth hanging slack. Glancing at Rest, she shook his head. “I don’t know about this, man. Maybe we should hand her in to Security.”

“Are you crazy?” Rest hissed. “She ate someone that was trying to beat me up. You want me to get arrested? It’ll look like I fed him to her.”

Oop rubbed his temples. “Well… Like… Do it anonymously. Leave it somewhere someone can find it with a note or something.”

“And risk her eating someone else? Fuck, no!”

“So your plan is to just keep her? What, fold her back up and stuff her under the bed or something?”

Rest paused, considering. “You know what? Yes,” he answered, nodding as he walked over to the edge of the sheet, “that’s a damn good idea. At least until we work out what the fuck to do with her.”

Careful that his fingers didn’t cross the circle, he grabbed the bottom lip of the pot and pulled it out. As he reached down to crab the corner of the sheet, Kellith stirred. “Please don’t, I…”

Her plea was cut off when he closed the page as she was sucked back to wherever she’d come from. Once the sheet was completely folded, he placed the pot on top of the sheet and shoved it under his bed. “There, now we don’t have to worry about it for a while,” he said before flopping onto his bed.

“You’re going to sleep with that thing under you like that?” Oop asked, aghast.

“Why not? If she could get out while the page is folded, she had plenty of chances before now. Don’t be such a drama queen.”

Oop shook his head. “Bigger balls than I.”

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Oop’s stomach growled as Rest sat in front of an out-of-the-way terminal in the corner of the Library. “I can’t believe I’m skipping lunch for this shit,” he groaned.

“You can afford to skip a meal,” Rest mumbled as he waited for the computer to boot up.

“Bro, I work out, I am NOT getting fat!”

“Didn’t mean to imply you were,” Rest said, trying to mollify him, “calm down.”

Opening the Library’s book and topic search engine, Rest typed in one word: Kellith. There were seventy-four matches, all of which had the large, red, restricted label. “May only be borrowed by seniors and teachers with written permission of the head of the magical faculty,” Rest read aloud in a whisper. “Sexual Magic Practices, Cults of the Beyond, Sara’s Little Purple Book, Incongruity…?”

Minimizing the window, Rest opened the web browser, which brought up Whateley’s local web page. Creating a new tab, he typed the demon’s name again into the search bar, which returned a plethora of hits. The top search result was the official website of The Church of Kellith, the second being its Wikipedia page. Avoiding the official site, he navigated to the wiki and began reading.

“The Church of Kellith is a large cult based around a messianic figure called The Kellith, who they claim to be a saviour figure sent to protect life on Earth. The Church is recognised by most legitimate religions but does not enjoy tax exempt status in any country. They are known to oppose many terrorist organizations but are also mired by scandals involving sexual deviancy and links to supervillains.”

Oop leaned in and pointed at the screen. “Click on the hyperlink for The Kellith.”

Obliging, Rest began to read the new page. “The figurehead of the Church of Kellith, who claims that The Kellith is a supernatural entity that directly opposes another entity they call ‘The Unnamed’. The Kellith is currently believed to be living somewhere in American New England, probably in the vicinity of the Miskatonic.”

“Well, that checks out,” Oop murmured.

Switching back to the tab with Whateley’s local web page, Rest typed the same search in and pressed enter. The results were several news articles and a student profile page. Right-clicking on the latter, he opened the page in a new tab. The profile picture was a dead ringer for the demon he had trapped under his bed. “Carmilla,” he read, “alias Sara Waite, Kellith. Classification exemplar four, shapeshifter four, regenerator six, psychic X. Ultraviolent green band. Apparent age sixteen, height between four-foot-six and five-nine. Consumes life force via physical contact. Voted one of top five beautiful girls in WARS polling for 2006. Currently missing, if you discover any information as to her whereabouts, please contact Security immediately.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Oop whispered. “She’s some sort of demonic messiah? What’s she doing at Whateley? And what the fuck does psychic X mean?”

“If you buy that bullcrap,” Rest mused. “She was probably using the alias to mess with people. And an X-rating is what they give when your power level is either too low for a whole number or it’s off the charts. Considering the rest of her stats, I’m betting off the charts.”

Intrigued, Rest went to the next item in the local search and opened it. “Student murdered, two students missing,” Rest read the headline. “In the wake of the arrest of Quickdraw for the murder of fellow student Heyoka, two other students believed to be involved in the case have gone missing. Authorities are searching for Quickdraw’s alleged accomplice Speakeasy and another possible victim, Carmilla. Carmilla disappeared from her room in Hawthrone with witnesses claiming that she literally vanished into thin air. Her disappearance was described by Peeper of WARS as ‘the greatest tragedy since Fey’s Automatic Nudity Censorship Spell’.”

Sitting back in the chair, Rest sighed. “Well, shit.”

Both boys blinked when a new deep blue window appeared in the middle of the screen with a simple question written in blocky white text: Why are you researching Sara Waite? A cursor flashed in a text box below.

“What the fuck?” Rest asked rhetorically, looking around. Other than Oop, their area of the library was deserted.

“Close the window,” Oop suggested, an edge of panic in his voice.

Rest tried but there was no ‘X’ button in the top right corner of the blue window. He couldn’t even minimize the window or manipulate the windows behind it. Frustrated, he clicked in the text box and typed, Who the fuck are you?

If you have any knowledge of her whereabouts, I’m willing to compensate you, the anonymous text replied.

Rest paused to consider the message. “Just fuckin’ tell ‘em,” Oop said, pointing, “we could get a reward, dude!”

“Don’t be stupid,” Rest snapped, “the moment they think they can get out of paying by handing us over to security, they will.”

I heard she disappeared and got curious, he replied instead, that’s all.

There were several, long, drawn-out seconds before the messaged changed. I don’t believe you, it read. Standing up, Rest jammed in the power button on the computer for five seconds before it hard booted, grabbed Oop and walked quickly but calmly out of the building as fast as he could without raising suspicion.

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“You guys better have a good fucking reason for this,” Pythia said once Rest opened his dorm-room door, her arms full of regular food and a cage of live mice.

“I’ve got the flu!” Oop groaned from under his blankets, putting on his best fake sick voice.

“You’re a lifesaver, Pyth,” Rest said gratefully as he ushered her inside and closed the door behind her.

“Isn’t having a girl in your bedroom, like, a violation of Emerson bylaws or something?” she asked, putting everything on their desk.

“Technically, yeah,” Rest said, “but if you don’t stay too long, it’ll be fine. Plus, you know, it’s not like we’re not perfect gentlemen.”

Pythia rolled her eyes. “Oop is not a gentleman.”

“Hey!” Oop protested in a decidedly healthy voice before breaking into a fit of obviously fake coughing to cover.

“What’s going on, Rest?” Pythia asked in a tired voice. “Even if Oop was sick, why the hell would you need a double portion of my lab mice?”

“Look,” he replied, “it may be better for you if you don’t know…”

She interrupted him by grabbing his left ear and twisting.

“Ow! Ow! Ow! Ok! Ok! I’ll show you! I’ll show you!”

Letting him go, she put her hands on what little hips she had and gave him an impatient look. Sighing, Rest knelt down, pulled the drawer out from under his bed, took the plant pot off it carefully before unfolding the sheet from arm’s length. Pythia gasped and took a step back as Kellith emerged from the paper, almost knocking the cage off the desk.

The demon was now entirely naked, which made Oop take notice, forgetting his sick act to sit up and stare at her. Rest turned his head away, holding up both hands to manually censor Kellith’s naughty bits. “Um, well, ok, er, could you please put something on, Kellith?”

“I mean, I’m fine with her being naked,” Oop commented.

At the order, however, Kellith’s blood red hair grew, winding around her neck, down over her chest and around her waist. Ribbon-like strips wove themselves into plaits over her abdomen and around to her back before allowing the hair to fall around her legs like a skirt. “Better, thank you,” Rest said, lowering his hands. “Um, Pythia, this is Kellith. I, um, found her last night. Apparently, she eats living things, so, well… I figured you could get some mice for her without raising suspicion.”

“Rest,” Pythia said, pointing, “that’s Sara Waite!”

Rest winced. “Please keep your fucking voice down! You know who she is?”

Pythia looked at him aghast. “Who she… Of course I know who she fucking is! That’s the demon guardian of Hawthorne, you idiot! One of the most powerful mutants on campus! There’s a memorial and a wanted poster on the wall in Crystal Hall… You’ve never seen it? Are you blind? What the hell is she doing here?”

Taking a deep breath, Rest sat her down on the chair while he dropped onto his bunk and began telling the tale he’d told Oop. That is, without bothering to mention that Disassembler was after him because he owed Thuban. After finishing the part where a mysterious entity had contacted them via the school computer, he paused to rest his throat.

“So you can’t just hand her over to the faculty because you might be accessory to murder,” Pythia said, grasping the problem immediately. “And there’s someone creepy out there looking for her and we don’t know if their intentions are good or bad. We can’t just set her free because she might eat us…”

“And, you know,” Oop interrupted, “if she doesn’t, she can tell anyone she likes we’re involved. Besides, what’s this ‘we’ stuff? You don’t have to deal with this shit.”

Pythia glared at him. “We’re Underdogs,” she reminded him, “we fly together or die together. And if you didn’t want me involved, you shouldn’t have asked me to bring a double portion of mice to your room.”

“To be fair,” Rest murmured, “we were hoping that you wouldn’t ask too many questions and leave you out of this.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and humphed. “Like that was ever going to work out. Kellith,” she said, turning to address the demon, “you’re supposed to be super-smart. What would you do in our situation?”

Kellith was looking distractedly off into space. The only sign that she’d heard Pythia was a slight turn of her head in the snake-girl’s direction. Her gaze was still distant and glazed, like she was seeing through the walls. “I’d anonymously turn me over to Security,” she answered.

“And there’s the self-serving reply,” Rest grumbled.

Pythia gestured to Kellith. “She’s got a point. I think you’re overcomplicating the problem.”

“I really don’t want to be handed over to the MCO, thank you,” he replied. “I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon and I think you’re both missing the fact that she has to do whatever we say.”

Pythia groaned. “Get your mind out of the gutter.”

“Right back at you,” Rest snapped. “I’m not talking about perverted sexual favours. We can’t even touch her without the risk of being eaten anyway. But she is a psychic of enormous power. Think about it, this is our chance to put the Underdogs on equal footing.”

“She’s not a puppy,” Pythia protested, “we can’t just keep her.”

“Not forever,” Rest said, “just long enough for the heat to die down over Disassembler. If we treat her well and explain ourselves right, I’m sure she’ll go to bat for us with the Faculty. Hell, hopefully we’ll get a good ally for the Underdogs.”

Pythia looked dubious. “I don’t know, Rest. If she can’t step out of the circle…”

“I’ve got that covered,” he interrupted, producing some paper and an ink pen, holding them up for his friends to see, “watch.” Getting up, he cleared his throat before addressing the demon. “Um, Kellith. I’ve been reading up on scrolls and charms. Can you make those?”

Kellith didn’t look at him, she stood there rocking slightly on her feet, but she nodded.

Kneeling, he pushed the paper and pen into the circle. “Create a charm that will make the wearer stronger and more agile for fifty minutes.”

Kneeling, Kellith picked up the paper and pen as if they were curiosities rather than familiar objects. After a moment of fiddling with the lid, she discarded it outside the circle and began drawing. Her movements weren’t human, they were far too precise as she traced the outlines of arcane characters like she had a robotic arm controlled by a computer. After the outline was done, her hand blurred as she filled the characters in with ink. Light flashed from the paper when she was done and she carefully brushed the paper out of the circle with a flick of her claws.

“Right,” Rest said, picking up the paper and handing it to Oop. “Use this before your game tomorrow. If it works, awesome. If not, back to the drawing board.” With that, Rest went to the cage, plucked a mouse from inside, and threw it into the circle with Kellith. The mouse didn’t even hit the ground, a tentacle sprung from the demon’s arm and rendered it into a puff of blue dust on contact.

Oop coughed and sputtered as the room was showered with mouse dust. “Ewww! Never do that again!”

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Chapter 3

Rest held his breath as Oop ducked and weaved between the opposing team, dribbling the ball like a pro. Leaping into a three-sixty-degree spin, he arced the ball high in the air to plunge cleanly through the hoop. The Coach blew his whistle as the scoreboard ticked up ten to zero, with Oop practically carrying his team.

“No, no, no, this is bullshit,” a lanky kid a third taller than Oop complained. “You seeing this, Coach? He’s cheating, somehow.”

Coach looked unimpressed. “Wanna know what I know? While all the rest of you are layin’ about, I see Alley-Oop on the court every afternoon. Oop, hit the showers. I think you’ve given ‘em a big enough lead.”

Oop nodded, breathing heavily. “Thanks, Coach,” he puffed, jogging away.

Rest was waiting for him when he came out of the changing rooms, grinning in elation. “Holy shit,” he breathed, “did you see that?”

“I saw it,” Rest answered, impressed. “Did it last the full fifty minutes?”

“Almost. Came off when it got too wet.”

“I think we can handle that particular weakness,” Rest murmured. “Just steer clear of any wet t-shirt competitions.”

“Awww, but those are my favourites!” Oop quipped, still high off his victory.

Pythia was already waiting for them at their usual table as they sat down with their lunch trays. “Well?” she asked, nearly vibrating in excitement.

Oop grinned. “Worked like a…”

“Don’t say it,” Rest interrupted, glaring. “And don’t talk too loud, you can get suspended for pulling that shit.”

“What, like either of you are going to rat me out?”

“Be that as it may,” Pythia said, “you might want to cool it before something bad happens.”

Oop’s brow furrowed as he stared into his food. “I just wanna be a winner, you know? I’m sick of losing and being wrong and failing. People listen to you about everything just because you’re good and successful at one thing. Basketball is that thing for me.”

Rest and Pythia shared a vacant look and a shrug. “Whatever, dude,” Rest said. “We’re going to need a double portion again tonight, Pyth.”

Pythia sighed. “Ok, I think I can wrangle that. We really need to find some kind of alternate food source for her, someone might notice if I do this on the regular.”

“It’s ok,” Rest said reassuringly, “it’ll only be for a couple of days, until I…”

All three of the friends jumped when a fourth person simply appeared in the seat next to them. He looked to be a junior of First Nations descent, his uniform and grooming immaculate. His cutlery also appeared to be polished silver rather than the freshman’s plastic implements.

“What the fuck!” Oop exclaimed, shying away from the newcomer.

“This seat wasn’t taken, was it?” the junior asked, casually picking up his cutlery to carve a piece off his slices of lamb roast.

Rest stared at him for a long moment before frowning. “If you’re here to bully us…”

“I’m not,” the newcomer snapped, glaring darkly a moment before cracking a jovial smile. “I just need to ask you some questions. I’ve got no interest in poking fun at people who can’t fight back. I much prefer to point out the shortcomings of the powerful.”

“Who are you?” Pythia asked.

The newcomer gestured to the girl. “See? This is a pertinent question. My name’s Bluejay. You may have heard of me; I operate on the fringes of the Alphas these days.”

Rest glanced at Pythia, who nodded. “I’ve heard you take a lot of jobs investigating disappearances on campus,” she said.

“That’s right,” Bluejay replied. “Day before yesterday I got a call from some concerned students that their friend hadn’t returned to their dorm. They were informing Security, of course, but you know how effective our rent-a-cops are in such cases. I did some digging and a little bluejay told me that the last anyone had seen of him was before he left to go talk to you.” He looked at Rest as he said it.

“Guy got a name?” Rest asked.

Bluejay smirked. “Goes by Disassembler. A bit too long and wordy for a brick, I think he was trying to overcompensate for the whole dumb thug image.”

Oop glanced at Rest nervously, but neither Pythia or Rest’s expression changed. “Sure, I know him,” Rest said, smirking, “he made a sport of picking on Underdogs. He’s gone, huh? What a shame.”

“Even sewer trash comes from somewhere, you know,” Bluejay said. “A mother, a father…”

“Funny, nobody says that when an Underdog’s getting his lights punched out,” Rest snapped. “But seriously, what am I going to do to a brick?”

Bluejay nodded. “True, true. He’s a wall of muscle, you barely qualify as a mutant. What was your rating, again? Oh, yes, Gadgeteer X, Siren X. A low-level ability to feel the resonance of objects and instinctive knowledge of the construction of musical instruments. Still a handy skill, if not the most exciting, but certainly no good in a fight.”

“Then why bother me? Day before yesterday, I went to work on my school project but I got a headache and went to crash out in my dorm. You say he was looking for me but I didn’t see him.”

“Well, if he expected you to be working on your project, that could explain why you missed each other,” Bluejay mused. “But if that’s the case, where would he have gone?”

Rest shrugged. “You’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Mind telling me why a guy like Disassembler might be looking for you?”

“I’m an Underdog, he’s a bully, you do the math.”

“Random petty intimidation, huh?”

“Happens all the time.”

Bluejay chewed as he gave Rest a penetrating stare. “Well, thank you for your time,” he finally said with jarring cheerfulness, “I may need to talk to you again.” Just as suddenly as he’d appeared, he disappeared with an audible popping noise.

“What was that about?” Oop asked.

Rest shook his head. “I’ve got no idea,” he lied.

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Pythia dropped a stack of paper and several pens onto the desk in front of Rest as she set her cage of mice down on the floor in his dorm room later that night. Picking up the blank pages and rifling through them, he looked up at her in askance.

“I stole them from the magic department,” she admitted. “Proper scroll paper and ink. They’ve got cupboards of the stuff, they won’t miss it.”

“Nice one, Pythia!” Oop congratulated her. “Plenty of stuff to make charms for all of us now, right?”

“As long as we can keep our pet demon fed,” Rest said.

“There’s a particular charm I want from her,” Pythia said forcefully. “I’m supplying the mice and the materials; I think I’m within my rights to ask for one thing.”

“Jeeze, Pythia, you’re a friend,” Rest said, “you know you only have to ask.”

“Alone,” she insisted. “I want to talk to her alone.”

“Why?” Oop asked.

“It’s girl stuff, ok?”

“Hey, if anything goes wrong it’s on your own head,” Rest said, glancing at Oop. “We can go for a walk while you do girl business. I’ve got some tongs resting on the paper under the bed, use ‘em to stay out of the circle so she won’t, you know, eat you.”

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Rest felt a clarity of mind like nothing he’d ever felt before. Around him, his fellow gadgeteers were tinkering and toiling, experimenting and making mistakes. In his hands, however, the machinery sang as he moulded Mia into existence before his own eyes. The usual distractions, flashes of light, sudden bangs and foul stenches were nothing. He was in the zone, aware of nothing but the resonance of his instrument and the charm stuck to his chest under his clothes.

When it was done, it took him a moment to register that Mia was complete. Gingerly picking her up in his hands, he could feel her perfection in the resonance of the whole. Even the strings were finely tuned to produce a sound that would rival a Stradivarius. Tucking the chinrest against his neck, he took up Mia’s bow and tested a few notes. Satisfied, he closed his eyes and began playing Rachmaninov’s Vocalise.

It wasn’t until the end of the piece that Rest noticed that all other sound had ceased. Opening his eyes again, he found himself being stared at from every corner of the room. Experiments stood silent, tinkerers sat hunched over their desks, tools in hand, stopped in the middle of their work to listen to his music. After a long silence, the crowd broke into a round of applause.

Smiling, Rest took a bow for the first time in his life.

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“Well,” Pythia said, taking off her blazer and folding it neatly by her side, arching her back as she sat at their usual table for lunch. “Notice anything different?”

Oop looked her over as he mulled over the question. “Some mosquitos have been biting your chest,” he observed, which earned him a cuff on the side of the head.

“Really?” Rest scoffed, unable to keep from grinning after his triumph earlier that morning. “Of all the things you could ask for, you went for boob growth?”

“I don’t want to be big,” she admitted, blushing, “but I want something. Girls are supposed to have them, after all.”

“Well, I finished Mia this morning,” Rest bragged, “and she is perfect!”

“Congratulations!” Pythia said, giving him a short hug.

“That’s great,” Oop said, “you know, I think this is really working out. It’s about time we caught a break.”

“I’ll be back late tonight,” Rest informed them, “I’ve got to put Mia through some tests and lock her in the vault to keep her safe. My teacher mentioned that, if all goes well, the faculty might commission me to build instruments for the school orchestra.”

“That’s ok, I can always shoot some hoops,” Oop said.

“And I can have a decent meal with some of the girls,” Pythia added.

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Trudging along the pathway to Emerson, Rest huddled in his jacket against the cold. Tall trees loomed over him on either side, the lights of the cottage ahead deceptively distant. The path was deserted, dinner long over. He’d been kept back to explain the exact construction methods he’d used with Mia to produce such a pure, perfect, sound. His girl was now safe in the school vault, ready for valuation.

The crunch of footsteps in dirt behind him came as a surprise. Turning, he saw a large boy on the path, walking towards him. He had his hood up, shadows concealing his face. “Cold night,” Rest called to him in a friendly manner.

The boy paused, dropping his hood with a flick of his head. The face was hideous, bony plates and spikes sticking out of his flesh randomly. Rest recognised him. “Oh, it’s you, Porcupine,” he said, slipping his hand into his coat pocket. “I always wanted to ask you, why not ‘Echidna’? It has a better ring to it.”

Porcupine smirked. “It’s taken,” he said in a gravelly voice that didn’t belong coming from a kid’s mouth. “It’s also a girl’s name.”

“Good point,” Rest admitted. “Look, if this is about Disassembler…”

“That’s a start,” Porcupine interrupted, “but honestly Thuban’s more interested in his investment.”

“Well, then you tell Thuban that my violin is finished and I’m going to get paid for it soon.”

“Thuban also wanted me to tell you that he’ll need more,” Porcupine said, “for loss of personnel.”

Rest considered, his heartrate kicking up a notch as anger and fear caused his adrenaline to spike. “You know, a day ago I would have said fine, whatever Thuban wants. But today, I’m going to say this: Tell Thuban he can kiss my ass. We did a deal for an eighty-twenty split his way. You tell him if he wants to deal with me, I’m getting the eighty. And he can shove his personnel cost up his ass. Oh, and while you’re at it, tell him that twenty percent of what I’m going to make off my instruments will be far, far more profitable than zero.”

Porcupine cocked his head to one side. “I’m sorry, what? Can you come closer and say that again, I’m a little hard of hearing thanks to the GSD.”

“Sure,” Rest said. Instead of walking forward, however, he whipped his hand out of his coat pocket, snapping the paper charm between his index and middle finger. Bursting in a flash of blue light, an arc of lightning streaked between the two of them, hitting Porcupine in the chest and throwing him into a tree. Rest watched the thug writhe on the ground, the burn hole in his jacket smoking, before he turned on his heel and ran the rest of the way to Emerson.

He arrived at his dorm room door to find Pythia and a girl he didn’t know waiting outside. “Hi,” he stammered quickly as he fumbled his keys with trembling hands. The girl he didn’t recognize was tiny and cute with a shock of curly auburn hair.

“Hi,” Pythia said, “are you ok?”

“J-Just got spooked, thought I heard footsteps behind me,” Rest lied, finally getting the door open. Inside his sanctum, he felt better, safer, and his heartrate slowly began to drop. “Who’s your friend?”

“Rest, this is Twinkle, my friend from Whitman. She’s a manifestor.”

Twinkle sighed, opening her hand to produce a puff of sparkles. “That’s all I can do, though.”

“Right,” Rest said, beckoning them inside and closing the door behind them, “I’ve seen you around the Underdog meetings. Sorry, I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.”

“That’s ok,” she murmured, shrinking in on herself. “Um, I’m having some problems dealing with girls teasing me in the showers. Pythia said you might have something I can use just in case they get violent again.”

Rest felt a wave of pity wash over him. “Yeah, I get that too. If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”

“Thirteen,” she answered, “GSD’s stunting my growth.”

Flopping into his chair, he sighed. “Yeah, that’s shit luck. Yes, I can give you something that’ll make those bullies think twice. Are we talking warning shot across the bow or nuclear apocalypse?”

Twinkle gave him a shy half-smile, half smirk. “I was thinking, like, mace to the face.”

Grinning, rest took his pile of scrolls out of his jacket pocket and flicked through them. Selecting one, he held it out to her. “Flick this in their direction. It’ll produce a cone of magical stench that’ll incapacitate them for five minutes or more. I’m talking vomiting, eyes watering and a smell that’s not going to come out on its own. Let ‘em know that there’s more where this came from.”

“Gee, thanks,” she said, grinning as she tried to take the slip of paper. However, he held onto it, shoulders slumping.

“Look, I’m sorry to ask this,” he sighed, “but, um, making these isn’t cheap. If you could spare a little bit…”

“Rest!” Pythia protested, her mouth gaping in shock.

“No, no! It’s ok, I wasn’t expecting a hand-out,” Twinkle said, quickly rummaging through her purse before producing a fifty. “Here, please take it! That should cover some of the cost, right?”

Rest nodded, taking the money and handing over the scroll. “I’m sorry I have to ask for this. But this will help me make some more for all the Underdogs.”

“Twinkle,” Pythia said with forced calmness, “do you mind waiting outside for a minute? I need to talk to Rest about something.”

“Sure!” she said, tucking the scroll into her purse before gleefully skipping outside, thoughts of revenge dancing in her head.

With the door closed, Pythia glared at Rest. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“You can’t keep stealing supplies from the magic department,” Rest answered forcefully, “and you can’t keep getting double portions of mice every night. It’s going to take money if we want to supply all the Underdogs with this shit to keep them safe. Just think of it as taxation or something.”

“Oh?” Pythia scoffed. “Who suddenly made you the grand high poobah of the Underdogs?”

“Nobody,” Rest said, taking deliberate deep breaths to keep his tone even and reasonable. “This isn’t about me; this is about protecting the Underdogs. We can’t do it for free, you know that.”

A sudden, high-pitched, scream from outside made both of them jump. Rest had his wad of scrolls in his hand in a blink, throwing open the door to find Twinkle pressed against the wall. Standing in the hallway was Oop, his face black and blue, torn shirt spotted with blood.

“Hey,” he said before falling into Rest’s arms.

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Chapter 4

“How is he?” Pythia asked at breakfast the next morning.

“Bruises, contusions, a few stitches,” Rest answered, his glare as dark as his mood. “They’re keeping him for observation until this afternoon. I should have given him some scrolls.”

“You couldn’t have known that would happen.”

“I saw how those kids were after he beat them. I should have known they’d come after him. I should have gone to pick him up from Holbrook Arena rather than going straight back to Emerson. So stupid, I know an Underdog should never go anywhere alone, especially not at night.”

“We can’t be watching each other’s backs all the time,” Pythia said.

“Well, we should be, damn it,” he replied, gnawing on his lower lip as he scanned the faces around him. They were laughing, smiling, eating, blissfully unaware of the suffering of those beneath their notice. “I’m not hungry,” he said, pushing away his plate as he stood, “I’m going for a walk. Get some fresh air, cool my head.”

Pythia nodded and let him go.

Stalking outside, Rest stepped away from the door and took some long, deep, breaths. No matter how much air he sucked in, it never seemed to be enough. His heart hammered and the school grounds felt like they were spinning around him.

A boy’s laugh punched through his panic attack, the world suddenly snapping into hyperfocus. Following the familiar voice, he rounded the side of Crystal Hall to find a small group of students that Rest immediately recognised. The lanky one that had mouthed off to the Coach was laughing, the others chortling along with him. Looking around, Lanky spotted Rest first, his smile fading for a moment.

“Yo,” Lanky said, pointing, “I know you, right? You’re Oop’s friend. What’s up, someone shit in your cereal?”

Rest glared, saying nothing.

A stocky kid stood up and joined his friend. “Hey, I hear your friend’s cheatin’ ass wound up in medical,” he called, tisking sarcastically. “What a shame.”

Rest balled his hands into fists, shoving them into his jacket pockets. “That why you beat him up?” he asked, his voice cold. “Because he cheated?”

Lanky scoffed. “So he was cheating? Looks like his ass got what he deserved, then.”

“Must be nice,” Rest said, “feeling like you’re better than everyone else.”

“What?” Stocky asked, glancing back to the rest of their crew as if to ask ‘what the hell is this guy on?’.

“People like you, you genetically superior types. You just think you can step on anyone you think is beneath you,” Rest explained. “You don’t think we won’t find ways to fight back. Put ourselves on a level playing field.”

Whipping his hand out of his pocket, rest snapped a scroll in the air before him. The arcane symbols flashed brightly, consuming the paper in a puff of smoke. One moment, the boys in front of him were upright, looking bewildered. The next, they were writhing on the ground, screaming in agony as the spell lit up every nerve ending like they were on fire.

Watching them for a few moments, Rest felt his grim expression crack into a slight smirk. This is what it’s like to be one of them, he thought. This is what it’s like to be an Overdog.

Turning on his heel, he left them there, ignoring the screams.

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“I need more,” Rest snapped at Kellith, shoving a stack of scroll paper and a pen halfway over the circle. “A lot more.”

Kellith didn’t move to take the paper, instead she looked up at him with the same empty red eyes. There were wrinkles forming across her face, white skin becoming translucent enough that he could see purple veins running through her flesh.

“Don’t look at me!” he ordered. “Just get to work!”

Looking down at the paper, Kellith slowly took the top sheet off the stack and began to draw. Pausing, Rest flopped onto the edge of his bed, staring down at the floor. “I’m sorry,” he apologised, “I wouldn’t ask you to make more if it wasn’t important. I need them. I promise, I’ll buy you a feast tonight. What do you like to eat?”

Kellith paused her drawing for a moment, considering the question. “I don’t know,” she finally said before resuming work.

Rest blinked several times. “What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“Sentient beings are the most nourishing,” Kellith explained dispassionately, “particularly mutants. Therefore, I instinctively find them the best meals but I don’t like eating them.”

“Why not?” Rest asked. “I mean, if mutants are your prey, why not eat them? Whateley must be like a buffet to you.”

“Indeed,” Kellith answered. “Walking among you is like being a lion amongst gazelle. There is one important difference.”

“Which is?”

“I am sentient, as are humans, and they don’t want to be eaten. I am sentient and empathetic; therefore I understand their feelings. So I don’t eat them because tormenting people needlessly is evil.”

“Bullshit,” Rest snapped, “I saw you eat Disassembler.”

“I believe you,” Kellith admitted, moving on to a new scroll. “To my knowledge, I’ve eaten two mutants here at this school. Both times I wasn’t aware of my actions.”

“Who was the other one?”

“A boy called Ecto-Tek, he was part of a group that attempted to kill me. The method they attempted didn’t work but it was excruciating. I was out of my mind with pain, base instinct took over. Later, I justified my action as self-defence.”

“Well, he was trying to kill you,” Rest murmured. “He can’t be too sore that you killed him back.”

“Can’t he?” Kellith asked in the same monotone.

“What do you mean by that?” Rest asked in return, curious.

“Lately, I’ve had time to do nothing but think,” she replied. “Humans have been a puzzle I’ve never quite been able to understand. My confusion only got worse when I was opened to the world of emotion. Before that, things were simpler. The people who were being hurt needed help. The people who hurt others should be stopped.”

“You were right on that score,” Rest said fiercely. “What changed?”

“I received new information,” Kellith said. “I discovered that everyone is hurting, in one way or another.”

“Bullshit,” Rest snapped.

“It’s true,” Kellith continued. “Not all pains are justified but the pain is always there. The pain of a starving man is the same as the pain of a rich man that needs another yacht. Need is the gnawing void that eats at everyone the same.”

“Shut the fuck up!” Rest shouted. Bending over, he grabbed the tongs from under his bed and flicked the rest of the stack of scroll paper fully inside the circle. “Have all those done by the time I let you out again,” he ordered, before slamming the paper shut.

Rest jumped when someone knocked on his door. Whirling around, he grabbed one of the enhancement charms from his desk and reached up his shirt to slap the charm onto his chest before hurling the door open. It was just another kid he recognised from a few doors down, blinking at him stupidly. “What?” Rest barked the question.

“I heard shouting,” he said meekly, “are you ok, dude?”

Growling, Rest shoved him hard enough that his back hit the opposite wall. Stepping through the door, he slammed it shut and locked it behind him. “I’m fine!” Rest yelled right into the boy’s face before storming down the hall. “Just fucking peachy!”

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Pythia had arrived to find rest sitting in the waiting room outside sickbay, glowering at the empty seat across from him. The look on his face made her hesitant to approach. “Rest? Are you ok? How long have you been here?”

Rest glanced at her, gnawing on his lower lip. “Since lunch,” he mumbled, trying not to take his anger out on her.

Sighing, she took the seat one chair away from him, purposefully leaving a gap as she looked at him fearfully. “I heard a bunch of kids were taken to the infirmary today. Someone hit them with a pain inducement spell.”

“They say anything?” Rest asked.

“No,” she answered, “they won’t name who did it to them.”

“Good,” Rest said grimly.

Staring at him, Pythia shook her head. “Rest? What’s wrong with you?”

Taking several deep breaths, Rest fidgeted with his jacket. “Oop’s lying in a hospital bed, what do you think’s wrong?”

“There’s more to it than that.”

Looking away from her, he cursed internally. “Kellith said something weird to me today,” he admitted.

“What did she say?”

“She told me that everyone is in pain. That everyone feels pain the same.”

“Oh,” she replied, chuckling, “is that all?”

Listening to her laugh, Rest glared at her angrily. “What the fuck are you talking about? She said the pain of someone starving was the same pain as a fat cat wanting another yacht. It’s bullshit.”

“Not when you think about it,” she said. “Poor or rich, blessed or cursed, everyone has needs they want to fulfil. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have needs. Sure, I’d love to be an exemplar but on the other hand I’m glad I don’t have guys pawing me wherever I go. I’m glad I don’t have demanding parents breathing down the back of my neck.”

“Really? You don’t wish you could be something more? Someone better?”

“Well,” she answered, looking down at her chest, “I guess even I’ve got little niggling worries, obviously. Sure, it’d be nice but that’s not who I am, is it? I think I’m happier just trying to be who I am.”

“You lack ambition,” he accused.

They were interrupted when a nurse opened the door, leading a bandaged and limping Oop out of the ward. “This one is all yours,” the nurse said, exasperated, “he refuses to lie still. Try to make sure he gets some rest and takes it easy. No picking at those stitches.”

Oop rolled his eyes. “Yes, ma’am,” he said contritely.

Rest clasped his hand in a firm handshake while Pythia gave him a gentle hug. “Should you even be up right now?” she asked sternly.

“Geeze, Pyth, gimme a break,” Oop sighed, limping for the door. “I’m fine, just a few stitches. I just want to get back to my dorm room and… I want to talk to you-know-who about something.”

Rest blinked, holding the door open for his friends. “Why? Something to do with you getting attacked?”

“Sorta… Not really,” Oop answered enigmatically.

“What happened last night?” Pythia asked, grabbing Oop’s left arm in an attempt to take some weight off his bad leg as he walked down the stairs.

“I was walking home when the ugliest motherfucker came out of the bushes near the dorm and king hit me out of the blue,” Oop said, pointing to the stitches on his brow.

Rest felt his blood run cold. “Wait, it wasn’t the guys who did basketball with you?”

“What? No,” Oop replied. “Some motherfucker with boney spikes stickin’ out everywhere.”

Shocked, Rest almost tripped, his mind racing. Did I fuck up? Am I responsible for this? his mind asked over and over again, unable to answer.

“Didn’t even tell me why he was kickin’ the shit out of me,” Oop continued, “just started wailin’ right out of the gate, like an animal.”

“Well, I hope you told Security,” Pythia said.

“Nah,” Oop mumbled. “I’m not ratting anyone out. I’m going to find the guy and make sure he gets his.”

“Woah, time out,” Pythia said. “Have you even seen yourself, numbskull? You can barely walk!”

“I’ll be fine!” Oop snapped, shrugging out of her grip. “Kellith can sort me out.”

“Oop,” Pythia said, helplessly wanting to reach out to support him but still stung by his rejection, “I really don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t know how much energy she’d need to heal someone.”

“I don’t remember asking for your opinion,” Oop growled, “if you don’t like it, just leave me the fuck alone!”

Pythia stopped walking and just watched as the two boys left her behind.

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“What the fuck was her problem?” Oop asked, leaning heavily against Rest as his friend helped lower him into bed.

“I don’t know,” Rest answered, still preoccupied with his own problems. “She’s been saying some weird shit lately.”

Rest jumped when Oop suddenly grabbed his wrist, catching his attention to look his friend in the eye. “I need to talk to Kellith.”

Looking at the folded sheet of plastic-backed paper still adhered to the drawer lying where he’d left it before storming out, Rest shook his head. “No. You’re not thinking straight. How the fuck are we going to explain that you’re right as rain after a night’s sleep?”

Oop grabbed the front of Rest’s shirt and yanked him down, glaring into his friend’s eyes. “I wasn’t fucking asking. Open the sheet so I can talk to Kellith or I’m fucking calling Security. I’m sick of being pushed around, I’m sick of looking over my shoulder. This place was supposed to be safe for us! Bull. Fucking. Shit. You want to walk around with a pocket full of scrolls, fine, I’m doing this my way.”

“There’s no need to be an asshole about it,” Rest snapped, thrusting Oop’s hand away. “Fine, you want to be that way? Be my fucking guest.” Turning away, Rest kicked the sheet open with one foot before flopping onto his own bed to glare darkly at his friend.

Kellith had looked better. She flicked the stack of completed scrolls out of the circle with a bony hand. Her body looked emaciated, pale skin wrinkled and tearing at her joints. Purple tentacles wriggled like worms plainly visible through the holes. Her eyes were sunken, her entire body gaunt. Her eyes were still empty and lost, staring off into space blankly as if seeing something a million miles away.

“Holy shit!” Opp exclaimed, recoiling from her. “You look like hell!”

“What is hell?” Kellith asked absently. “Is hell a feast of never-ending flesh? The cycle of predation writ large? Or is it our lives gone wrong, the extinction of everything but raw, animal, need? Or is it merely infinite, eternal, absence when your body itself becomes the prison of your mind?”

Oop and Rest looked at each other, forgetting their spat for a moment. Both boys shrugged. “Kellith,” Oop said, ignoring whatever bullshit she was talking about, “can you make me an Exemplar?”

“Oop,” Rest interjected, suddenly afraid, “this might not be…”

“Don’t ask me that,” Kellith interrupted, blinking once for the first time since the circle had been opened.

Oop sat up, snarling. “Fuck that! I asked you a fucking question! Answer me!”

Kellith tried to choke back the answer but some kind of force seemed to compel the word from her lips. “Yes!” she cried, a purple tear trickling down her cheek.

Grinning, Oop struggled to his feet. “Then do it,” he ordered, “I want to be the strongest exemplar at school! Make me an exemplar five… No, six! Nobody gonna mess with me!”

“Oop…” Rest tried to say again but his friend’s glare scared him into silence.

“No! No more of that shit!” Oop shouted. “I’m tired! I don’t care anymore! I’m not going to sit on the sidelines while some assholes who won the goddamn genetic lottery get all the girls and all the glory! I’m going to be on top for once! I’m going to special! I’m going to be powerful! I’m going to be the best! I’m sick of struggling! So you damn well just sit there and shut up for fucking once and let ME have this! I’ll be the one to remember you this time! I’ll be the one to look after the Underdogs! I’m not going to forget where I came from!”

“Please,” Kellith gasped, begging on her hands and knees as purple tears flowed freely, staining the paper underneath her for a moment before disappearing, “please take your words back.”

“Do it!” Oop demanded.

Shuddering, Kellith’s hands balled up into fists, digging her claws into her palms. Tentacles strained like rigid muscles as she fought the command, even as her dark energy crackled in her eyes. Unable to resist, she let her spell out with a high-pitched wail of utter despair.

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Rest followed his friend hesitantly as they strolled down the path towards Crystal Hall, huddled beneath his hoodie and giving him nervous glances.

By comparison, Oop was jovial, grinning like a madman on speed. He was nearing seven feet tall, his chest and abdomen a wall of rock-hard muscle. His jaw was square, his face handsome, even his blonde locks had a lustrous shine. His shirt had ripped but he didn’t seem to care, laughing as he strutted down the path. Other kids who spotted him paused to whisper and gossip, several of them audibly asking ‘who the hell is that?’ and ‘what is that guy doing with a dweeb like Rest?’

“Why so glum, champ?” Oop asked, wrapping one mighty thew around Rest’s shoulder. “Er, if this is about how I acted before, I’m sorry. Seriously, dude, this feels so good! Being an exemplar is awesome!”

Acutely aware that Oop could probably dismember him by accident, Rest slipped out of the hold. “C-careful, dude,” he stammered, trying to smile, “if you get too excited, you could pop my head clean off.”

“Oh, shit, yeah you’re right, sorry,” Oop said, suddenly concerned. “I didn’t hurt you, did I buddy?”

Looking up at his friend’s face, Rest finally caught sight of the guy he knew. Sighing, he forced the most genuine smile he could onto his face. “No, you didn’t hurt me. I’m good. And I’m sorry about before. Looks like it all worked out for the best.”

“I know, right!” Oop enthused, flexing an enormous bicep. “I feel like I could take on Champion, man! I’m faster, I’m stronger, I’m smarter… I’m not lookin’ out for the world no more, the world’s gonna look out for me! Huh, I’ll need a new codename, huh? Alley-Oop doesn’t quite cut it for a superhero, right?”

Right then, his stomach growled loud enough to shake the ground. “Er, maybe we can talk about it while I eat. I’m starvin’! I hope they have, like, a whole cow! Maybe two…”

Stepping across the threshold into Crystal Hall, Oop paused dramatically with his hands on his hips, surveying the scene. A couple of girls nearby noticed him and whispered behind their hands but most of the student body were too busy eating or talking to pay yet another exemplar any mind. “Huh,” Oop mused, looking to Rest, “I think I’m going to have to get their attention. Don’t think they realize there’s a new Overdog in town… Hey, Overdog! That’s catchy! Overdog, protector of the downtrodden!”

“That’s corny as shit, dude,” Rest hissed, turning red from embarrassment. “Come on, why don’t we get you some food and try to lie low for a bit. Then we can take you to sickbay, get you re-tested…”

Rest trailed off when he realized Oop wasn’t paying him any attention. Following his friend’s gaze, horror gripped his heart like a claw of ice. Envy had her back to them, talking with her friends, she hadn’t seen ‘Overdog’ drooling at her yet. “No, no, Oop, that’s a really bad idea!”

Oop ignored him, checking his reflection in the mirror and running his new, thick, fingers through his hair. “Rest, you worry way too much. I mean, look at me! There’s no way she can resist this beefcake! Don’t worry, I’ll ask if she has a friend,” he said, patting Rest affectionately on the head as he tried to give his friend a reassuring, confident, smile.

Watching Oop go, Rest stood frozen, knees trembling. He had a very, very bad feeling.

“Hey, Envy isn’t it?” Oop asked, stepping way too close behind Envy as he put his hand on her shoulder. “Hi, I’m Overdog,” he introduced himself just like he’d been taught by online pickup artists and pornographic movies, wiggling his eyebrows while flashing his far-too-pearly whites.

Envy breathed a long-suffering sigh; Rest felt the chill of her voice from across the room as she shrugged his hand off. “Touch me again and you won’t get that hand back,” she threatened without looking at him. Her friends were glaring daggers at Oop.

He wasn’t taking no for an answer, leaning over to try and force her to look at him. “Oh, come on, don’t be like that. I bet I can thaw that cold heart…” He had to backpedal when she suddenly stood up. The dark glare she flashed in his direction would have made a wiser man slink away. “I’m not interested in wallowing in the mud with pigs,” Envy rebuked him in cool, even, tones.

Oop glared back at here. “Hey, I was just trying to be friendly. Now you’re giving me this bitchy attitude? Think you’re too good for me?”

“Maybe if you nuzzle your snout in the dirt outside, you’ll find some worms that are on your level,” she snapped back. Several of the girls nearby gasped and twittered, covering their mouths.

“Do you have any fucking idea, you dumb slut?” Oop shouted into her face. “I’m exemplar six, a cunt like you should be on your knees begging for this!”

All noise stopped. Envy stood her ground without moving a muscle, her expression never wavering from unimpressed boredom. Oop was sweating bullets, huffing air like a bull winding up for a charge, just waiting for the tiniest thing to set him off. Everyone was staring at them, shocked.

“Is there, like, Deidrick’s for asshole jocks?” A girl near Rest whispered into her friend’s ear.

“NO!” Oop shouted, his face as red as a beetroot. “I’M THE HERO! I’M THE BEST THERE IS AT WHATELEY! I! AM! THE OVERDOG!”

“Woah there, friend,” Thunderbird interrupted, interposing himself between Oop and Envy before things could get ugly. He had a mildly condescending knowing smile on his handsome, rectangular, face as he reached out to pat Oop on the shoulder. “Hey, why don’t we go get some air? Take some breaths, calm down…”

Oop raised his hand and backhanded Thunderbird, the blonde boy scout quickly bringing both forearms up to take the meaty blow. Even using his powers to mimic Oop’s exemplar trait, he skidded five feet across the floor. Oop was getting even redder as his sweat started to smoke from the heat of his skin. “SHUT UP! EVERYONE SHUT UP! THIS IS MY TIME NOW! YOU’LL ALL LISTEN TO ME!”

“He’s burning out!” Rest shouted in horror before ducking under a table, causing screams to echo though the hall. A nearby security guard kicked open an emergency exit and started herding kids through while Thunderbird grabbed the closest fire extinguisher.

As Oop screamed, his clothes bursting into flame, Envy leapt forward, tackling him. Her momentum took them both through one of the glass windows. As they landed, she quickly rolled away, putting out the burning spots of her uniform. Thunderbird leapt through the window a moment before the security shutters kicked in, closing behind him. Aiming the extinguisher at Oop’s glowing, writhing, body, he unleashed the pink flame-retardant foam. Screwing up his courage, Rest crawled to the edge of the front door to peek at what was happening.

Thunderbird swore as the gathering energy in Oop’s body began to cause the ground under their feet to vibrate, buildings trembling around them. “It’s too late, he’s going to blow! Get out of here!” he yelled at Envy.

Rather than Run, Envy picked him up bodily with one hand and hurled him to a safer distance. Turning to Oop, she mumbled arcane words under her breath, slamming her hand into the ground. A glowing blue circle surrounded Oop, runes flashing into existence in the air around him as a dome of force covered his body.

A moment later, Oop exploded.

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Chapter 5

Rest gasped wildly, wild-eyed as he burst into his room, slamming the door behind him and leaning against it. Slowly sinking down, he finally sat, weeping openly with his arms around his knees.

“I told him to take his words back,” Kellith said dispassionately, staring into space.

Growling and screaming, Rest launched to his feet to confront her, pulling himself just short of crossing the circle. “This is your fault!” he accused her, shouting.

Kellith cocked her head to one side and blinked. “I told you to give me to Security anonymously. You still have a chance to do the right thing, admit your mistakes…”

“My mistake,” he hissed, tears blurring his vision, “was telling anyone about you. Everything would have been fine if I’d kept you all to myself. I’m not going to make that mistake again. You’re going to pay me back for killing my friend…”

Pythia didn’t bother to knock, she practically barged down the door. “Rest! What the fuck! They told me that Oop’s DEAD!”

“Shut the fucking door!” he snapped. “Oop is dead, she killed him!”

Pythia frowned, moving past Rest to confront Sara directly, swallowing sobs. “You have to tell the truth, correct?”

“Yes,” Sara answered.

“Did you kill Oop?”

“Not deliberately,” Sara answered, “he asked me to make him the most powerful exemplar in Whateley. I warned him not to make me do that, he insisted. His body couldn’t handle the power and was going to burn out but I was forced to comply. Nobody asked me why I didn’t want to do it or I could have told them.”

Pythia stared at her for a long moment and nodded before turning to Rest. “Rest, it’s time. We’re taking her to Security. We’re going to tell them everything and they’re going to fix this before anyone else gets killed.”

“No,” Rest refused, turning away from her, “I need her power to fight Thuban. We need her power.”

Glaring at him, Pythia crossed her arms. “Who is ‘we’, exactly?”

“You! Me! The Underdogs, remember?”

“Bullshit,” she snarled, “this is about you, isn’t it, Rest? This is about the shit you’ve gotten yourself in. Funny, you’re usually so good at weaselling your way out of things but you really didn’t see what was about to happen to Oop coming?”

He wheeled on her, horrified. “What the fuck are you suggesting?”

“Funny how you let Oop test out becoming an exemplar,” she said. “First. Before you, I mean.”

“Are you saying I knew he’d fucking burn out?!?”

“I’m saying you were pretty sure it was a bad idea,” she observed, “but you let him go ahead and do it anyway. Just to see if it was safe for you.”

“I wouldn’t! He was my best friend!”

“Maybe you didn’t know it’d kill him but you still let him take the risk. It’s time to stop, Rest. If you’re not really the monster I think you are, it’s time to let Kellith go free. Now. One way or another, I’m taking her to Security. Look at her!” She gestured back at Sara, a nearly skeletal, pale, figure. “She’s just skin and bones! There’s no power left for you to take anyway!”

Rest stared at her for a long moment. Peeking over Pythia’s shoulder, he took in Sara’s gaunt form. Pythia was right, she was nearly nothing but skin and bone, her pale shell so translucent that he could see her purple tentacles wriggling under the demon’s skin. Focusing on Pythia, he looked his fellow underdog in her reptilian eyes. “I… I guess I’ll just have to feed her. Something more substantial than mice.”

“Wha…?”

He surprised her by planting both hands on her shoulders and pushing, thrusting her backward. She stumbled, back peddling, unable to stop herself from crossing the threshold of the magic circle. Sara’s tentacles reached out toward her in hungry anticipation. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see what came next.

Outside the dorm, students paused as a girl’s scream echoed across campus.

Pythia opened her eyes to find herself still alive on the other side of the circle. Sara, grasping her tentacles in both claws, had thrown herself bodily into the other side of the circle. She was screaming, her flesh burning and bubbling as she desperately scrambled away from Pythia, holding herself back.

Turning back to Rest, who was staring at the scene in shock, Pythia took a step forward, raising her right fist. Leaping back through the barrier, she twisted her torso just like she’d learned in self-defence class as she unleashed her punch, her whole body putting momentum behind her knuckles. There was an audible crack as her blow struck him right in the cheek, skin rippling from the impact, spit flying from his mouth as he span to the ground unconscious.

A moment later, Bluejay popped into existence next to Sara, drawing his sword and striking with one smooth motion, cutting through the circle under Sara’s feet. Sara’s screaming immediately cut off as her charred form fell into his arms. He lowered her gently to the floor, cradling her on his lap. “It’s ok! It’s ok, Sara, I’ve got you. Security! SECURITY! Someone get me Security now!”

Pythia grasped her wrist, feeling the broken bones in her hand. “Ow…”

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Headmistress Elizabeth Carson walked out of the medical bay to survey the small crowd gathered outside. Scanning the faces, she saw the members of Team Kimba, several of the students from Hawthorne and the remnants of Sara’s Pack. Hippolyta’s face looked ashen as she stared at the floor, worlds away.

“She’s going to be fine,” Carson announced, which was received by a collective sigh of relief. “But she’s in quarantine. No visitors until the Board and ARC experts deem her safe. Dr. Otto will be flying in on a private chopper and is taking up her case exclusively. Before you see her, though, I have to warn you that she’s been through a lot. She might not be the same person you remember.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Generator said, a determined look on her cute face as she stepped forward. “Whatever we can do to help.”

Carson smiled down at her, giving her a pat on the head as she tried to walk away. Before she could, Fey coughed, to call attention. “Headmistress, where was she all this time?”

Turning back to her, Carson took a deep breath. “She was trapped in a magic circle on a piece of paper-thin plastic folded up under a desk in the basement workshops. Right under our noses this whole time.”

Standing, Hyppolyta raised her fist to lash out at the wall. Between blinks, Carson was by her side, gripping the large girl’s wrist and holding it there. “Please don’t destroy school property, Hyppolyta,” Carson whispered evenly. “I didn’t see anything. Go hit the combat trainer.”

Hippie pulled her hand away, but calmed. Nodding, she looked down at the floor as she walked out. “Yes, Ms. Carson.”

Looking back at the crowd, Carson glared at them. “The rest of you, back to the dorms or whatever you’ve got to do to work out the anger. Classes tomorrow, get some sleep.”

“I’m hitting the combat trainer too,” Chaka said evenly, stalking after Hippie.

Carson felt pride as she watched the crowd disperse into groups, heading off to support each other. She had some good kids and Sara had found some good friends. “Listen to them, Ms. Waite,” she muttered to herself as she walked back towards Security, “you’re going to need them.”

Entering the hardened building, rebuilt stronger after last year’s attack on campus, the guards nodded her through as she headed towards the cell block. Opening one of the lower-security cells, she stepped inside the concrete cube and put her hands on her hips. The form curled up on the hard bunk bundled his rough blanket harder around him, keeping his back to her.

“Your codename is Rest, correct?” Carson asked after the door closed behind her. When he didn’t answer, she continued. “Maybe you think that people like me couldn’t ever understand what it’s like to be powerless…”

He rolled over to sit on the edge of the bed suddenly, hurling his blanket away. “You don’t! Don’t pretend for a moment you do!”

She glared down at him. “You’re wrong. I’ve lost more than you can know. I’ve watched people I love, who I’d do anything for, die when I was unable to do anything.” Reaching down, she grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him bodily off the bench, setting him on his feet before letting him go. “You and the girl you imprisoned and abused faced the same choice in nearly the same moment and you both made exactly the opposite choices. Your best friend burned out; the rest of your friends hate you now. Was it worth it?”

Frowning, he looked away from her. “No. No, it wasn’t worth it. I’d take it all back if I could.”

She stepped back from him. “Well, you’ll get a chance to pay your debt.”

“Why are you here?” he asked, grumbling. “Just come to rub it in?”

“No, I’m here to thank you,” Carson answered, turning away from him and opening the cell door.

“Thank me for what?”

 

She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Because thanks to you, I know that Sara’s the girl I always thought she was.” Stepping out, she closed the door behind her and walked away with a spring in her step.

 

To Be Continued
Read 11544 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 20:28

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