Tuesday morning, August 28, 2007,
McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Judging by the ruler-straight part combed and pomaded into brown-black hair, crisp white shirt with sunglasses tucked into a pocket, plain black backpack, and parade-polished shoes, one might have assumed that Mason "Mase" Goodwin was brought up in the most stable environment possible for their corner of Utah. His biological parents, legally adoptive parents, and most of their co-parents would reluctantly agree.
"At least he didn't wear the nametag," his Aunt Aramathea said as the departing flight taxied away from the gate. "Though it might discourage his future roommate from burning some weird-ass incense mix in the dorm room."
"Mase is frightfully allergic to patchouli," her sister-wife Katryn sniffed.
"Kat, stop beating yourself up over that! The boy was too young to know to knock first. Truth to tell, I never did like the taste." Aramathea looked her wife in the eye, "That's not the real problem, is it?"
"What if he forgets who he is, living among them. You remember what Hector said about the place?" Katryn asked.
"Are you even listening to yourself? Mason will be just fine. I'd be more worried for the sleazebag who waltzed up to the airline counter after listening in on the kids comparing notes."
"Not at all. Mase has been practicing. A taste of the real world might do him some good."
Baggage claim, Logan International Airport, Boston, Massachusetts.
Bunny "Bugs" Cormick watched the thirty-something they'd been packed in with for the last six hours scuttle off like a man on a mission. She waited until he was too far from them to hear her before saying,
"Mase, I think I should warn you that the school has classes dedicated to punking what you did there."
"Now, hold on! If you didn't approve, why didn't you say something?" If anything, Mase had been sure that she'd enjoyed the show.
"I was born and raised a Vegas girl. I don't need to have the perp looking down my cleavage to know a pedo when I see one, and I was raised better than to heckle a good act."
"In the mood for a second act?"
"Down, boy. My evening's already booked if a certain someone knows what's good for them."
Train Station, Dunwich, New Hampshire.
The end of August might be late in the season, but except for the tasteful use of bulletproof glass, the train station still kept its "white-washed for the tourists back in the 1950s" curb appeal. His Ring helpfully filled Mase's head with far too much information about the train, the truth of how the track got laid, and other Dunwich trivia that the Chamber of Commerce wouldn't even bury with an enemy. For example, the landscaping failure in the middle of the town square across the street? That was the site of a witch burning, technically speaking. The technicalities were that while witches were humans who practiced witchcraft, this hadn't been human in a long time. Setting out a sandbox for children to play in had been a horrifically bad idea. The 1970s must have been a good time for bad urban planning ideas.
Someone behind him asked, "Brother Mason?"
"Beg pardon? Oh! Right." Someone was due to meet him. And, by the sound of it, this one had all the right mouthparts. "That's me. You're Father Rico?"
"In the flesh," the older man said, leaning into his cane to offer a handshake. "Don't worry. You'll get used to the inner tour guide. The more you know and understand, the less it feels obligated to fill in."
"Wouldn't it have been easier to send me to school for all that?"
"What? And leave the burden to pass to someone more mature and qualified? Perish the thought! The Order does have facilities for exactly that purpose. Even as we speak, there are good men and women in training."
"So. Why me?"
"In an hour of need you took a leap of faith at the risk of your soul. Most importantly, you were accepted and survived."
At the ticket office, Mason signed for his luggage to be sent ahead to the school. He held onto his backpack and his misgivings.
It just isn't right.
"Father Rico," Mason asked, "how long have you been practicing that many are called, but few are chosen spiel?"
"I could say that it's been ever since I learned that one of my fellow Knights inducted a certain young woman without her full knowledge last Autumn. Given the events that followed and what I know of Brother Jonathan, I'm not surprised that rules were circumvented. However, I confess that you would not have been my first choice."
"Lord knows, that makes two of us."
"That doesn't make it the wrong choice. Now, come along! I'll introduce you to Mrs. Maguli. She keeps everything in the parish in working order and the rest of us on our toes."
Office of the Headmistress, Whateley Academy, NH.
"... Father Rico," Mrs. Carson said, "While our school has always considered the Church a valued supporter and would like for that relationship to continue, I must profess some confusion at what I see before me."
"Whatever could that be?"
Elizabeth looked over to the smiling young man seated next to the Father. If she didn't know better – and thanks to his older brother Hector, she damned well did – she might have mistaken him for a Mormon elder on a mission from God.
Try again? "Father Rico." God, she hated to have to use this next title, "Brother Mason."
Interesting. For a moment, the student looked ready to correct her. Enough of an empath to know better. Maybe that gap year he took did some good?
"Would either of you care to explain how it comes to be that I have a Cainite Initiate enrolled in our incoming freshman class who bears the Ring and Mark of a certain Roman Catholic Church Order?"
To his credit, the boy had the grace to blush.
"Mrs. Carson, surely there's good to be found in lessening any burdens imposed on Miss Donner," Father Rico asked.
"Now I find myself becoming even more skeptical."
Mason Goodwin said, "The Pit keeps its own counsel," even as Father Rico replied, "The Lord works in mysterious ways."
"Mason? Who's telling this parable of the fishes, you or I?"
"You are, Father."
"Very well. One of our more, er, pragmatic Thorns – Sister Petra notwithstanding – found himself on a collision course with Mason here. The best outcome to be hoped for otherwise would have been a premature and final Judgement for him."
I once caught a fish that was this long.
Elizabeth said, "Such unexpected charity."
Mason stepped in, "The opportunity to invite others to our community – should they seek to join our hunt and should Our Master accept their oath – is an unexpected bonus."
The Children of the Testimony of Cain were keen on recruiting the willing and dispatching the damned, all in the name of the Pit. However, even though the Adversary thrives on chaos, education does not.
"I expect you to refrain from proselytizing while you attend Whateley Academy."
Oh, you'd better.
For what may have been the first time in her long life, Elizabeth hoped that it was hellfire flickering in the young mutant's eyes.
Father Rico asked, "Perhaps we should speak in private on a couple of matters?"
"Of course. Mister Goodwin, please step outside. Don't go too far in case I have more questions for you. If I don't, then welcome to Whateley Academy. Please try to keep the physical and spiritual damage to a minimum while you are here."
Once Mason closed the office door behind him, Mrs. Carson asked, "What else were you hoping to avoid admitting to?"
Father Rico sighed. How best to explain the madness? "Like most of his community, the boy firmly believes he belongs to and in Hell. However – and this is conjecture on my part – the ordeal required each time he uses the Ring to heal may serve more as a penance against heresy than a warning against Pride."
"How does four seconds of Hell and three of Heaven count toward that?"
"I won't ask where you heard that but assume they had good reasons to discuss the matter with you. For Mason, the order is Heaven before Hell. He refuses to say more beyond wanting to go back."
"To Heaven? That would be hypocritical."
"Elizabeth, would you care to stand Judgment in this moment, in the Presence? I fear that, having glimpsed the iram Deus, Mason's time spent in The Pit comes as close to a moment of Mercy as he'll ever see. The alternate ordeal, given his upbringing, is hardly better."
"I can't name many people who could live with that."
Father Rico shook his head and looked down at Mrs. Carson's desk. "Suicide is an act which he has been taught from birth as being, perhaps, presumptuous? The Rose wouldn't permit success at that except in dire circumstance." He looked back up, "Moreover, what token power that has been granted him by his sponsor makes death by old age unlikely, should he live that long in Service."
"That is... That is cruel, Father."
"Some might call it Inspired. As far as more mundane matters are concerned, we also must insist that Mason learns the Church's catechism, history, and teachings as part of his scholarly discipline, among other things."
"So that the Devil may better quote Scripture, Father?"
"If Our Father wills it so, yes. He will also need instruction in Latin from someone other than Darren Englund. As you can imagine, the conflict of interests could become an overwhelming temptation. After all, Mason still has years of formal education and theological training on which to catch up to his peers."
"In other words, Father, you wish for me to intercede, as needed, for him to live long enough to do that."
"Is it a greater burden than you'd shoulder for any of your charges?"
"It isn't," agreed the Headmistress. I may be easy, but my services don't come cheap. "However, there will be an accounting."
"Hell to pay? For all our sins, for ever and always."
Office of the Assistant Headmistress.
"Mr. Goodwin. There you are! You should know that we've been asked by your sponsors to allow your animal under the 'familiars' exception, despite your lack of a wizard rating," Ms. Hartford conceded grudgingly. "However..."
"However, you are still responsible for the usual pet-related chores: feeding, cleaning, getting your dog a license, and shots."
"But he's not really a dog. He's a..."
Hubris wrestled with Diligence before Mase's eyes. "It presents as a dog, so it will be treated like a dog," smirked Hartford.
'Or else' hardly needed to be said. The boy was a freshman, not a run-of-the-mill idiot.
Mason kept his reply to a polite, "Yes, ma'am. I'll see to it."
One side of Room 209 had a bare bed, a dusty desk, and boxes bearing a familiar Utah return address. The desk on the other side featured a handful of well-worn softbound books, a family photo, and a carved jack-o'-lantern that someone somewhere would have called a reliquary. Mason's roommate must have already checked in and found other things to do.
Seeing that he had only a few minutes left before the Campus tour, Mason left his pack on his bed. A fox-eared kid walked out of the bathroom just ahead of him getting there. The kid was anxious, though Mason couldn't see why he would be. Did foxes compare dick sizes at the head? He probably shouldn't ask things like that until the others were used to his sense of humor. Jase always said he was running one smart-assed comment short of a lynching. Mason could only hope that his brother was wrong and this school wasn't too flipping uptight.
A group of mostly-curious boys was gathering in front of the dorm. Mason recognized one of them from last June's disastrous camping adventure. It stood to reason that Dalton Meier would be a freshman too, so this had to be where they were supposed to be. Some of the other boys wore hoodies, but only one of them wore his down... If that was Dredz, no one had any business complaining about Mason's chosen code name!
He heard Dalton's "Ah, hell. Should've known," but decided to let it slide. Not enough people around to use the story of how his good sleeping bag got trashed for dirt. Even so, the day was already getting better!
The black guy smiled wide when he saw Mason walking over, "We have one guy who's not coming in until tomorrow, so that makes you Goodwin?"
"Good, good. You can call me Dredz or Charles Zander when I'm in civvies. Never Chuck. Ever. Move in a bit, guys. Let's get a few things straight from the start."
Dredz explained, "Numero uno! If you have some beef with people who don't look like you do: your Twain homies don't need none of that wack shit. Get over it. Some of the best people you'll meet in the next four years don't look much like people anymore. Some of the very worst are a whole lot prettier than any of you or anyone you've got a chance to be getting with. You get me? Anyhoo, that's why we try to pair up GSD with non-GSD guys."
Mason picked up on the stranger's anxiety before hearing someone speak behind him, "I guess I should say hello, shouldn't I? Sowersby Drake, um, your roommate?"
The hand held out had black fur and claws. The head hidden by the hood of the orange and blue Illini hoodie kept the black fur scheme going but added a jackal's snout and ears. Mase wiped his hand against his trousers before giving the other a firm handshake. You can take the farmboy out from Hell's back forty...
"Mason Abimelech Alban Goodwin. I go by Mason, or Mase. Either one."
"Alban?" That wasn't on the junior's list of names. Why should it be?
"Baptismal name." Mason felt that strike a chord for both Dalton and the really big dude with the gray skin. That made two guys he could guilt or blackmail into attending Mass.
Dredz nodded, "Got it. Since it's a yellow-flag day – yeah, I'll explain that as we go, don't worry – we can walk over to Schuster for the trophy show, then bag a classroom for some meet and greets. After that, we'll go over some more ground rules before lunch. While we're in the area, we can swing by Security. They're the ones to fix any problems you have with your ID and meal cards."
Thanks to the big dude's (Jean something?) obvious GSD, everyone got the Tolkien reference in calling himself "Orc." Mason didn't recall any Tolkien orcs knowing magic. Then again, if he could learn the basics, anyone could. That just stood to reason. It also made sense that the poor guy was already feeling trunky. Looking around at the moldy, dank green landscape so different from home, Mason couldn't blame him too much.
Dalton still had no business punching him in the arm for humming "It's Not Easy Being Green" when Ribbit started talking about his manifestation. The green avatar guy hosted Kermit! Practically Kermit. Close enough to Kermit if you're calling yourself Ribbit with half a straight face. Besides, who doesn't like "The Muppet Show", anyway?
"Okay. Knock it off, you two," Dredz told them. "It's obvious that you know each other. Dalton? You're up."
Dalton shot Mason a dirty look before starting. "Hey. I'm Dalt Meier from Omaha. I went with 'Cornhusker' for my codename 'cause between being from Nebraska and having a connection to a farming spirit, letting folks come up with something on their own might be even worse. Make that much worse, 'cause I know what happens with phoenixes in the MCU. And, before anyone makes a comment, we do have movie theaters in Omaha. In fact, we even have electricity!"
"Just don't lend him your sleeping bag."
That sounded so wrong. Dredz asked, "You two did what?"
"We met at camp."
"Is that what they're calling it now?" Sowersby had heard a story or two about Band Camp.
Dalton's face darkened to a brick red, "We're Boy Scouts! There ain't nothing weird or bad about it. Getting dumped in a damned river sucked, but that's a different story."
"Virgin River. And, as I recall, you were hyperthermic from manifestin' sickness."
"How did you know anything about that anyway? San Canaan's nice and all, but 'remote' doesn't begin to cover that place."
"Hello? Mutant here?"
"Guys? Chill." Dredz double-checked his name sheet, "Mason, so what's your superpower? Like I've said before, you guys'll be asked that a lot."
"Still an empath, though I get some personal history TMI mixed in with that. I can manage some healing, but it," Mason suppressed a shudder. "It takes a Hell of a lot out of a person."
Dredz saw a muscle in Dalton's jaw twitch at that. There was more to that story that neither one wanted to volunteer. Best to let it ride.
"That's the way it is for some healers. Good thing there are spells, medicine, and equipment to cover most problems. Workshoppers and folks in martial arts classes are always getting injured. So, yeah. Enough about that! Let's move on to our next stop!"
The campus tour had been campus-y enough. The dorms were called cottages according to some sort of Easterner tradition. Grub at the Crystal Hall was good, plentiful, and varied, a natural spot for a bit of casual gluttony. The underground complex of labs and classrooms didn't amaze Mason near as much as they did their semi-guided devisor.
How the blazes does a person get out of here if something bad happens?
You don't, do you?
Mason shoved his cold-sweat memories of that time in an abandoned mine back into the dark hole they crawled out of. He imagined giving them a swift, size 10 boot to the ass for good measure. Dark was good. Being trapped in a stone coffin? Not Good. He was still racking his mind for good thoughts when a low growl announced Sowersby's return from the bathroom. He'd best take care of introductions sooner than later.
He said to his unsuspecting roommate, "Before it gets too late, I'd like you to meet Pookie. Pookie, come on out and meet Sowersby like a Good Boy."
A glowing ball of energy flew down, from the small miner's lantern on Mason's desk, to the floor. There, the ball of plutonic energies metamorphosed into a canine-shaped mass of dark flames, acrid sulfur, bitumen, and choking soot.
"Go on, introduce yourself."
Sowersby did not want to see anyone introduced to "Pookie", himself at the top of the list. Being roasted and mauled as an intruder had to hurt more, so he put on his best fake smile and held his hand out to be sniffed.
He couldn't help but wonder, 'How far away was that Medical Center?'
Shaking paws with a bona fide hellhound had to be one of the daftest things that any of Granmama Drake's spawn had managed so far. The dog's tongue, a flicker of living flame, tickled. Sowersby would later notice that all the fur on the back of his hand had been seared off. Pookie turned and hopped into Master's lap.
"Who's a good puppy? You, boy? You? Yes, you are!"
Sowersby cringed at the sight of Pookie biting deeply into his roommate's hand. The horror abated when he saw that Mason was only briefly harmed. Abated, not negated: he was certain he'd never forget the opalescent fire flickering in Mason's eyes as the puppy licked the wound. Broken skin knit itself back together under flickers of brimstone blue.
Thursday morning, August 30, 2007,
Office of the Department of Mystic Arts Chair, Kirby Hall.
Circe considered it unusual that she'd be assigned a Psychic Arts student. Even Sarah Hawkins could advise an empath productively, with sufficient prodding and a high-voltage cattle prod to do it with. Then there was the Vatican request that he be kept away from Darren Englund — far away from him if she read the lines correctly. Given their de facto alliance with the Kellith... Oh. Interesting times lay ahead with that arrangement. A reading before the appointment wouldn't hurt. It wouldn't do to call the Knight Commander prematurely...
One disconcerting overseas call later, she had to ask herself if Jonathan remembered how much of a swift kick in the ass she owed him.
Circe, just Circe — kind of like Prince, didn't look like one of the supermodels running around campus. She didn't dress like a comic book sorceress, either. She looked... legit. Her brownish-black hair was twisted and pinned up in a simple braid, not splayed out like an uprooted tumbleweed. Her blouse's neckline ended on the modest (top) side of her bust. That was as far as observation got before his brain got slammed with the Library's files on the woman. His Sight scribbled three millennia of sins, both real and imagined, across her image.
< Morning greetings, Lady of Discernment. Please forgive your servant its confusion. The spirit is willing, but flesh is weak. >
Circe wasn't fazed by hearing Myceneaen Greek whipsawing into Aramaic, "Let's stick to English, shall we? Please sit down." She handed Mason some facial tissues once he'd done so, much to the boy's confusion.
"That's blood running down your lip," she said. "I trust it's your own."
Bless it all!
"I wasn't expecting that to happen," he said.
Circe allowed herself a faint smile, "'Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?'"
Mason lost it. Between trying to staunch a running bloody nose, laugh, and breathe, the boy looked like he'd attended the play in person. The steady flow of legends, lies, and boudoir tales broke before the neural overclocking could cause more damage. A trip to the washroom with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide later, his shirt was cleaner, and he was much more sober.
"So, er, maybe we could start over, ma'am?"
"No. I don't think so. I will be having further words with your sponsors about this. How long have you held a fragment of the trold-spejl?"
"The same night as my induction," No point hiding that from her. "That'd be a couple of months? Ma'am?"
"Mason, call me Circe. I'd wager that you already know me more intimately than even my late, unlamented, mentor."
"I hope not. There's more to most people than their sins or their reputation."
Circe's eyes narrowed, "What about their power?"
"That depends on what owns whom, doesn't it?"
"More often than even I care to dwell on."
Circe scanned the student application materials before her while Mason looked around her office. His winces at some of the shelved books telegraphed a recognition of some he shouldn't have been able to see or read. She noted that and said, "Your paperwork includes a requested exemption to the pets policy regarding to familiars. Is this an entity that you hope to acquire as a familiar, an entity that hopes to acquire you, or simply a pet you wish to pass off as a familiar?"
Mason's face brightened. He whistled a couple of times, followed by calling, "Here, Pookie!"
Circe did not expect a casual summoning like that to result in a large black caninoid creature materializing in her warded office, only to launch itself at the teen sitting in front of her. Considering the creature's flaming breath, flesh-rending teeth, and razor-sharp claws, she could have been witnessing the shortest student advisement appointment in Whateley Academy history. Not satisfied with knocking its prey to the floor and singeing the chair, it loomed over the poor child and then licked both sides of Goodwin's face. Sulfur ran like slobber. Its barks rattled the windows. The boy returned the favor, scratching behind the beast's ears and along its neck.
Circe saw a rose and thorn tattoo on the boy's wrist, as she expected, but it disappeared from sight as rapidly as it had appeared.
"Who's a Good Boy? You are, that's who! Pookie, this is Circe. She's my class advisor. Circe, this is Pookie. Shake?"
The damned thing turned around and offered her a paw. How could she refuse to return the pawshake?
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Pookie. I trust that you will help keep Mason out of too much trouble?"
"How about keeping him from getting himself killed or worse?"
"Well then, if you'll both be seated, I can approve the lodging request."
"Or you can go back until your master calls again, yes."
Mason smiled a broad, toothy, punchable, smile, "He's a Very Good Dog, isn't he?"
Only through an Exercise of Will did Circe banish the image of the boy playing fetch with the guardian nightgaunts.
Whoever does suggest that to him will be in for a detention bordering on the epic.
"I dare say he may be better trained than some of your classmates."
The request to keep Darren Englund far away from Mason Goodwin made more and more sense by the second. Back to academics. What did the boy need right now? What could Whateley offer that no other institution could?
"Speaking of training, my experience with esper abilities is that they can provide an edge to the prepared. However, they're rarely enough to carry the day."
Would the boy take that as a warning or a challenge?
"Is that a kind way of saying the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train?"
"At both ends. The school requires Basic Martial Arts, Survival I, or equivalent, to meet your physical education requirement for graduation." Years of communal farming and desert treks had left Goodwin with less body fat than some exemplars. Like the lads of Circe's youth, he didn't need to run in circles on a track or chase after balls.
"I want to place you in first-period Basic Martial Arts, if possible. Fourth and fifth periods are over-subscribed already, and as of this morning, the class lacks an assigned Healer. Students do get hurt in that class, sometimes seriously. As an empath, I'd think you would be quite motivated to avoid causing or receiving serious injuries."
"You have no idea, ma'am."
"Try me. I have witnessed Roman executions, martyrdom, Crusades from both sides of the battle, and Inquisition confessionals. Or don't. Either way, the consequences are your own to bear."
A mortal might not dream it possible, but angelic grace in the hands of an expert striker can shatter bones like so many shards of glass without spilling a single drop of blood on Holy ground. Expertly executed or not, the crunch of tearing cartilage made an exquisite counterpoint of pain to the mundane wrenching of ligaments. He'd long since given up on the sweet release of Death, and his siblings were just getting started.
Hunched over, Mason watched cold sweat splatter against the polished tile floor. Had it been moments or hours? By the powers of Hell! He drew a couple of rattled, shuddering breaths before daring to look back into the woman's ageless dark eyes. She knew these things as both guest and witness. Yet, he imagined he saw something like a new concern there.
"I apologize," Circe said. "I should have remembered the Knight's Burden. However, the point remains that you need self-defense training. You also need confidential and open-minded counseling. Do you agree to take BMA this term and, perhaps, 'Survival I' in the Spring Term?"
"That may be for the best."
"Very well. I will not ask you to get counseling for post-traumatic stress. I am telling you that you will do so before you become alienated from your own humanity. That is a known risk for every member of your Order. Whatever your true mission is, that would be a guaranteed route to failure."
Mason numbly nodded.
"As to your other required classes: Powers Theory and Lab – together they're called 'Introduction to Superpowers', but it could be worse – are required and may be useful in adapting strategies to various mutant powers. Together with freshman English and Algebra, there isn't much weekday time left over. There is a Saturday morning opening for 'Introduction to Psychic Disciplines', which you obviously need. As long as you refrain from trying to stake him, Señor Schmidt is open to teaching Latin in the evenings."
"You're not asking for my word on the matter?"
"I know what a Thorn is. Do you know what a Sorceror's Contract is?"
"It can be as formal as a signed-in-blood and witnessed document or as deadly casual as words that never should have been said and can't ever be taken back."
"Good enough for now. Our mystic arts curriculum is geared toward formal Western paradigms. Thus, traditional seasonal rituals, hedge magic, and the like get short shrift. Celestial and Abyssal Rites are best learned elsewhere, far from here. Nevertheless, I'd like you to take Miss Grimes's third-period 'Introduction to Magical Arts'."
"That sounds like we get fingerpaints?"
"Mason? Exactly how well did that midsummer observance go for you?"
"Fingerpainting for Dummies it is!"
Christine is going to enjoy that fingerpainting comment.
"For independent study, my apprentice and I will be tutoring you in Classical and Biblical Greek." Circe continued, "We'll enlist The Imp in teaching you calligraphy. She has certain skills that better lend her to the task than most others I could name. Any questions?"
"Do I get time off for good behavior?"
"That depends on how well you behave." Fairy light twinkling behind her eyes, Circe smiled as if she were taking a sucker's bet, "Show me how well you take advantage of the resources we've placed before you, and then, perhaps, you may ask again."
Saturday morning, September 1, 2007,
Picnic Lunch, The Quad, Whateley Academy.
The afternoon's mid-seventies temperatures and break from the morning dampness felt pretty darn good. The Easterners milling about around him wouldn't like the mid-nineties temperatures and tumbleweed-dry air he'd left behind, but they didn't know what they were missing. The trees were too tall, too close together, and too green. However, once he settled into his schedule, he'd have to block out time for hiking. Sooner or later, he'd need time away from people and all their uncontrolled emotions.
The burgers were good; they just needed more seasoning! Folks couldn't afford to waste too much water or spend too much money on cattle back home, so he'd have to get while the getting was good here. What was that old song Aunt Thea liked, "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes"? Somebody had the right idea. Another good thing about hiking would be that he wouldn't have to lose out in comparison to the exemplar guys every single time. Trees didn't care.
Worse luck followed. Whatever the various clubs out repping themselves today were after, it wasn't Mason Goodwin. He couldn't honestly say he was Native American, Black, Asian, or a foreign exchange student. He didn't have the looks for modeling, striking a heroic pose, or striking fear in the hearts of normies. Now that he thought about it, the so-called Intelligence Corps of Cadets and the Euro kids were suspiciously GSD-free for groups claiming to be focused on skills or hometowns. Someone had mentioned there being other clubs and groups, but those must operate on the don't call us because we sure ain't calling you system.
On the other hand, he wondered what some of these kids must have been taught back home to be yapping about how a flipping fourteen-year-old could already be a supervillain like their parents. Shouldn't a villain be able to pass English and Algebra first?
He might not be Future Farmers of America material anymore. However, few options were available for a guy who couldn't bench-press a quarter ton, jury-rig a star drive, or make kittens rain from the sky. It might have been less disappointing if fewer folks shared his alienated mood. That esper class he'd signed up for had best cover shielding technique.
Mase overheard one of the campus' blonde bombshells (hadn't she been up on stage just now?) say to another supernaturally good-looking kid, "... the least of us, with no interest, will always be better than them at what is their primary concern and interest. And we will be better than them without thinking about it."
It must be nice to be so practically perfect in every way. Too bad she's been such a liar, a user, a bully, and whore... The self-hate behind it all was exploitable, cracks and all, but that wasn't why he'd been sent to Whateley.
Why should I have to rustle up all the temptations around here?
Mason was more surprised than disturbed to see Dalton Meier chatting up a blonde over by the Christian Fellowship table. One could see he was more interested in her than she was in him, but that's how things go. People usually hated finding out they were pitied, so, yeah. He wandered over.
The blonde was still talking at Dalt, "... I think you'd like Reverend Englund. He's, like, traditional and all, and sometimes kind of strict, but he's devoted to ensuring the safety of the whole community, regardless of..."
Too bad the girl wasn't easier on the eyes – bloody hands and the intense bloodlust of a fanatic were a turnoff – but someone must like her.
"Um," There wasn't a smooth way to warn Dalton. He'd have to work on that. But, for now, the Ring gave a decent translation to Diné, < You do know that you're hitting on an attempted murderer, right? >
< Not a what, more of a who. That is how that one works. >
In Dalton's eyes, the girl he'd been talking to grew even cuter with her eyebrows and nose scrunched up in confusion, "I'm sorry. What seems to be the problem? Is your friend one of our exchange students?" Had her eyes gotten glassier as she explained the club's Holy Mission to Dalton, or was that a trick of the afternoon light?
"N-nothing!" other than Mason turning out creepier than before. Dalton said, "My friend here decided to wait until now to mention something he could have told me much, much earlier."
"Oh, my roommate does that too! Anyway, here's one of our fliers. One for each of you! I mean, once you know that we're in more danger from supernatural threats than the people in charge want you to know. You'll see. Have a blessed day!"
As he folded up the flier to shove in a pocket, Mason caught Dalton sneaking a look to see if the paper would catch fire in his hands.
"What? It's just paper! By the way, choir boy, their sponsor is Episcopalian."
"I am not a choir boy! I can't even sing!"
Maybe he could bend over? Nah.
Mason grinned and shook his head, "Come on. Let's see if the big guy at the grill will let you scarf down an extra rare one. I hope Sowersby doesn't stay too long at the Third Faction meeting; he'll totally miss out."
Mason made himself scarce before the Senior Alpha could explain to Dalton what else an extra rare one could mean. A bearishly amused word in the right ear got Dalton the illegally rare hamburger he'd been craving.
Late Saturday afternoon, September 1, 2007,
Twain Cottage, Whateley Academy.
Basic black suit... blue tie? Sure. Extra tee and briefs. Shorts. Pookie's doghouse. Mason looked up from his packing when Sowersby returned to their room. "Hey. How was the F3 thing?"
"Decent. It was weird getting dirty looks for being too pretty. Pretty this, pretty that... Mase, why does it look like you're packing to go somewhere?"
"Because Mrs. Maguli called to remind Mr. Filbert that I was expected at St. George's in time for the evening meal and whatever vespers are."
Sowersby looked around at the various protective wards and sigils around the room Mason had helped him with.
"Tch. That doesn't sound very 'eclectic neopagan'."
"It's a Catholic parish."
"As in 'Virgin Mary in a blue bathtub on the front lawn' Catholic?"
So that's what they're for! "Yeah?"
"Does your family know about this?"
"Aramathea and Katryn do. Jase does. Everyone else? Probably not. I am not telling Petey."
"My littlest brother so far. He's got some growing to do. You could say he's high-strung?"
"Do I want to know what's in the silver flask?"
"Right. Because a tap is going to be hard to find in a town."
"Fine," Mason sighed. "It's holy water."
Was he expecting booze?
He was expecting booze.
"Sowersby? In a place like Dunwich, holy water comes in handy. Just saying."
"Didn't you say you didn't want anything to do with that Christian fellowship of whacko monster hunters club? Now you sound like you're trying out for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What gives? Am I going to have to worry about waking up to my roommate trying to stake me as a heretic?"
"Nah. Probably not. Let me know if you run across a good heresy, though!"
"Mase? I'm pretty sure that's not how it's supposed to work, but I'll keep an ear out for divine retribution."
Tuesday morning, September 4, 2007,
First Period, Basic Martial Arts, Laird Hall.
Once Mason got his first good look at the academy's dojo, he was willing to thank Hector for going over the basics he'd need to know. Things like sitting seiza at the start weren't obvious from course listings. Having the right gi and a well-fitted cup on the first day made sense. And, he'd used knowing how to throw a punch or take a fall back home. Hector hadn't said anything about three-quarters of the class being women!
A two-tailed fox girl looked down her nose at Mason, no mean feat for someone hardly over five foot tall. An Asian girl with insanely meaningful body art was already ignoring him. Then there was the junior miss Italian movie star who wanted even less to do with Mason or Dalton than Dalton did with Mason. He'd have felt more welcome at a tent revival! Mason had never been to a tent revival, because his aunts cared for him, but he'd seen one on a bootleg tape of "Supernatural".
After the cold-shouldered reception from his classmates, Mason dialed any expectations for enjoying this class way down. This wouldn't be the first time someone hated him for existing. Usually, that came from cultural differences. Or something he'd said, which still amounted to cultural differences. The others broadcast normal feelings: morning soul-suck, expectation, enthusiasm, etc. One of the students, even though the stink was well-camouflaged by some kind of rot he didn't recognize, reeked of high Heaven. Abigail Newgrange's chosen codename, Jenny Sorrow, was easy on the tongue. Tastes may vary, as she didn't seem to fancy him any more than the other clique. Soon enough, it was his turn to practice throwing and being thrown. Still, he did what he could to avoid her.
Sensei Tolman held Mason and Jenny Sorrow back at the end of class. What had he done this time?
"I don't care what they are, but the two of you will set your differences aside in this class. There will be enough injuries without provocation, and that is where your assignment to this section comes in. While Miss Valocco has the potential to learn healing magic, you two are the only students in this class capable of more than basic first aid training."
Abigail said, "Sensei Tolman, there aren't many students in the class. If basic bruises and sprains are too much for him, I'm sure we can do without."
"I didn't say I wanted out! It's just that, well, she reminds me of folks I don't want to deal with."
"Well, you remind me of the Anti-Paladin, without the armor, the sword, or the guts."
Lord, save me from would-be saints and send me a happy sinner.
"Whatever. If I'm not needed, I'm going to hit the showers."
"Mister Goodwin, can you heal a punctured artery or a crushed larynx before the injury kills a person? What if you're the one critically injured?"
Little Miss Gift-from-God boggled, "You're saying he can do that? You'd even trust him to try?"
Mason paused for the Ring to confirm his gut impression. There were some caveats, but there always are.
"Yes, Sensei, if the Healing serves a Purpose, I will do as I am called to do. If there's a price to be paid, that may be entirely on me."
Miracles on demand. No way that won't be abused.
"Mason, we only need to be prepared against likely mishaps, not sheltered from the end of the world. There are other classes offered for that."
Third Period, Introduction to Magical Arts, Kirby Hall.
Whateley's Kirby Hall couldn't have looked less like Hogwarts if the architects had designed it in protest. Between the modernist concrete and glazing on the outside and the kitschy-but-flameproof terrazzo flooring inside, it might have been nice if they had tried. Inside the classroom, everything was more of the same-old same-old institutional design. The smoke-damaged ceiling tiles might be an exception.
"The bell hasn't rung yet, and you're already counting ceiling tiles? This is supposed to be one of the good classes!"
Mason countered his roommate, "You haven't had Powers Theory yet, have you?"
Sowersby shook his head.
"It's really that boring. I'd clap my hands, but my 'I Believe' button is still numb."
"Remind me to hit up the bookstore for some no-doze after lunch. This class can't be that boring!"
If the Morticia Addams impersonator walking in was any indication, or the way a couple of the girls shrunk in their seats, maybe not?
Setting down a well-worn briefcase, she said, "Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to magickal workings: the less exciting they turn out, the better off you'll be."
"But they can still be more interesting than Mase's last class, right? Er, Powers Theory."
"My colleague, Doctor Quintain, has his own teaching style. It will behoove those of you who take that course to excel despite that. Bethany?"
"Ummm... I think my brain is still numb from last period, Miss Grimes."
"Let's correct that, shall we? Please pass out these papers. Boys, move up, hoods down. Most of our freshmen are in Mrs. Chulkris' Introduction to Basic Mystic Concepts class, so this class won't be large enough to hide from your fellow students."
"But..," Sowersby looked over at the two youngest, most normal girls.
"While your appearance may be disturbing to the so-called normal observer, you left 'normal' behind when you set foot in this building. Are you familiar with the saying, 'Fair of face, foul of heart'?"
He nodded, unsure where that was leading.
"Wouldn't it be logical to watch out for your roommate, then?"
"I haven't even done anything yet!"
From Mase's perspective, it wasn't fair at all for his roommate and teacher to glare at him like that!
How does a guy with a jackal head pull off a glare anyway?
"Good," Miss Grimes said before continuing, "I like to compare this course to Basic Mystic Concepts as Imp might compare Art Appreciation to one of her practical classes. Minus the fingerpaints, of course."
And now we pause our program to see how red young Mister Goodwin's face and ears can get.
"As one might trace art movements through history or across cultures and belief systems, so too can magical systems and arts be traced. Some are recognizable by recurring motifs, such as the principles of Western magic. Some differ in intent and methods; for example, shamanic and natural magics versus qabalistic practice and theurgic ritual. We will have guest lecturers come in from time to time to discuss salient points of their traditions and specialties. For example, Circe will be talking to us about the history and development of Western magic over the past three millennia. I would recommend that you each take pains to study the recommended materials beforehand so you can keep up... Yes?"
A student behind Mason asked, "Isn't it presumptuous to take a mythological codename like 'Circe'? That's what I was told, anyway!"
"In this case, I am talking about the Circe, whom those myths are about. However, many of those accounts are no more accurate than the tabloid accounts of celebrities in our time."
"You believe that?"
"Magic is more about belief than one might believe," Grimes said with a faint smile. This was just the windup. Now the pitch: "However, my mentor is far older. Raven says she's the real deal. Just as there have been numerous frauds over the years, so have there been numerous practitioners who've lived full lives without being noticed. By the end of the class, you should leave able to recognize, correctly identify, and react properly to Magic as you encounter it. Magic and mutation have become entangled in popular culture zeitgeist since the early Twentieth Century. We will discuss that in more depth later. For now, how is being able to do magic different from being a mutant with the Wizard trait?"
Bethany raised her hand after only a couple of seconds of being stared at by the teacher.
"Being a wizard means you get lots of essence coming to you without working hard at it, but everyone can do magic if they can get enough essence to do the cool stuff. It's way too hard to get enough that way."
"Can anyone think of other magic-related or mystical abilities, or is there only the wizard trait? Estelle."
"Everyone knows that avatars can get magic from their spirits!"
"That's one way. Any others? Mason."
"Pacts. Deals with the devil, so to speak."
He was the local expert, so to speak.
"Indeed. The entity doesn't have to be a demon, though some argue the point. However, it could also be argued that as a general case, avatars, channelers, and Imbued also demonstrate one party's end of a mystical agreement. Mister Drake? You have a question?"
"Where would, er, shifters fit in?"
"There are some shifters and mimics who can duplicate the mutant wizard trait, just as there are spells that replicate their abilities. Arguments over which ability enables what are best left to others. On that note, for homework, I'd like you all to catch up on your class preparatory readings and be ready to answer questions that weren't already in your powers theory homework or covered in your classes last year."
"Miss Grimes?" Miss Why Couldn't I Register As Circe asked, "Are there any major types of magic that we won't be discussing?"
Because those are clearly the Cool Stuff?
"None of you are known to have Sidhe, Faerie, or Great Old One bloodlines, so there is no point in dwelling on sorceries that are incompatible with your very existence. As a result of how students conducted themselves in last winter's class on the ethics of Necromancy, it will be a very long time before I return to that topic. Furthermore, we will not be risking Whateley Academy's neutrality over theurgical arguments. Worship your own deities at your own risk."
She couldn't be addressing that to Mason, could she? Wait. Deities? As in more than one? How?
Miss Grimes dismissed the class after the routine questions about the syllabus and tests petered out. On their way out, Sowersby asked Mason, "Lunch?"
Mason's afternoon classes were normal high school stuff. Powers Lab used gym equipment for the first few sessions, passing for general phys. ed. Not many high schoolers were miniature tanks in human form, but there was the usual trash talk over this one's bench or that one's squat. There was one difference: Mason knew who was lying through their teeth and who else was engaging in desperate fanstasy. Empathy wasn't as pertinent to English or Algebra – books don't PMS, and numbers don't stare at the back of your head without mustering the courage to hit on you – factors he considered favorable to both classes.
The two mid-afternoon "optional" periods were intended for work-study assignments, so very few people were in class. That made afternoon prime time to hit the library, recharge his mental batteries, and maybe get some homework done. Or not. The books on familiars and entities like hellhounds looked interesting, and maybe there were more uses for the hellfire he'd been taught to draw on. One of the manga series on the shelves looked like it had something to do with space pirates! Could he use that in English class? The library assistant, who looked like she'd walked off the pages of the manga, assured him that he wasn't using her for his English class.
He'd been warned about gadgeteers and devisors making a bad habit of ignoring meals. However, Sowersby couldn't think of a way that should apply that to empaths. Shouldn't they naturally feel hungry when everyone else does?
How much had Mase acted like everyone else does?
The guy had left that lantern on his desk, the one that felt like caged power. Maybe it was effectively a dog house?
If anyone ever asks, this didn't happen.
Who the hell names their familiar that? He tried. It didn't work. Maybe he could leave a note?
That sounded more like a bass speaker blowing out than like a puppy. Sowersby turned, not thinking what "Master's friend" might mean to whatever Pookie was. Whatever a very big, very, very male Pookie was. He put his hands up in time to avoid having all the fur burned off his face. They both bounced a little on the bed.
"Pookie! Down, Boy! Down. That's a Good Boy." Gawd. Now he was starting to do it too! "I need you to find Mason and remind him it's time for dinner." How far could he push it? "In fact, he needs to go to dinner at just about this time every day he's here."
Pookie caught Master's friend on both sides without the fire. Now their fur smelled much better. Time to get Master fed!
Sowersby still reeked of sulfurous drool when Pookie delivered Mason to the Crystal Hall's entrance. Sure, it was unconventional, but he did catch up with his roommate.
"Mase. Um, sorry about the interruption? And, like, I know you've got Latin coming up, but do you mind heading straight back after the class? I don't want to risk anyone screwing with things in the room."
"Like the thing that lets you let your other half be free to be themself?"
"It's not that sexual. Otherwise, yes."
"No problem. I don't think Pookie'd let just anyone in, but we haven't practiced Maul yet."
Sowersby bit his lower lip, pasted on a cheerful smile, and tried not to back away.
Sunday, September 9, 2007,
Saint George's Parish, Dunwich, NH.
The boy hadn't taken the necessary instructions or vows, but there were times during Confessional that Father Rico would have loved to set Brother Mason loose to troll one or two of his wayward parishioners. There were others to whom, judging by the silences between things not said, he couldn't do that. Alas, Mason still bore the zealotry of youth and had been raised to prey on the sinful, not pray for them.
Nonetheless, he was tasked with furthering Mason's religious education to whatever extent might prove practical. Father Rico ordered his lesson notes and went to fetch his charge. Outside his office, he found Mason engrossed with a book, jotting notes in a bound notebook.
"Might I ask what you're studying?"
"You might." Mason closed his notebook and held up the book so the priest could read the title: "On The Diverse Naturs of Baelfyre, Faerie fyre, and Hellsfyre".
Whatever happened to the comic books and girly magazines of Rico's youth? Hold on...
"That wouldn't happen to be from the restricted section of the school's library now, would it?"
The lights flickering in Mason's eyes danced, "I'll have to write up a report for class, but Miss Grimes approved it."
"Under what conditions, lad?"
"That I don't try bullshitting her about hellfire, 'unlike the book's author'."
"Which you would know because?"
Mason repeated the little trick he'd used in class yesterday.
"I wasn't sure I could call it up here, to be honest," Mason said before letting the flames die out.
"I hadn't expected that, here of all places, either. However, you are a member of the Mother Church and an invited guest on the grounds. That's something you must never forget, lest you invite doom upon innocents around you out of misplaced trust." An idea came to Father Rico. "I doubt it could be much of a sin if you didn't let it be widely known your familiar, or other well-behaved guests, can be summoned on consecrated ground."
"Other well-behaved guests? Do I want to know?"
"Want? No. Need? Perhaps. Such is the world in its need for redemption."
The boy's eyes lost focus and his face paled, as the Library downloaded relevant information. This was why candidates required years before being Knighted! Even the shortest lapse in concentration could have been a lethal pause in combat! With luck and a little misdirection, the other students at the school might assume he's keeping quiet about being an avatar of sorts. Other tactics came to mind.
"I think you'll find that, except in dire circumstance, you should be able to heal or enhance your familiar, using whatever energies you've been taught to draw on. What about Essence?"
Mason said, "I think Aunt Katryn can work with that? I can sort of tell when someone's concentrating on using magic, but that could just as easily be empathy picking up on the effort."
"I see you have a challenge before you in that matter. But before you get lost in your studies again, we have more spiritual matters to discuss."
Mason's shoulders dropped.
"Consider it an object lesson on the consequences of promises! It's easy to get burned."
"Don't give up the day job, Father."
"It's nice work if you can get it, but the real work is still ahead of you."
Saturday morning, September 15, 2007,
Coös County Humane Society, Berlin, NH.
Taking care of chores wasn't Mason Goodwin's idea of a fun way to spend a Saturday. First, there'd be extra work the coming week to make up for missing his Saturday morning Introduction to Psychic Disciplines class. And, he could only prevail upon Father Rico or Mrs. Maguli for a ride out to Berlin if the need was great and the cause was just. That left helping out on a supply run or lining up a chaperone, permissions, and transport. Paperwork in triplicate, doubly countersigned and witnessed, all that had to be the work of the Adversary.
"Excuse me," Mason said to get the receptionist's attention. "I'm Mase Goodwin, here for Pookie to get whatever shots he needs to get so as to be caught up to date? I recall it was a Miss Angela that I talked to for the appointment?"
"That would be correct. I have some forms for you to fill out. After that, it shouldn't be long after that that we'll call you and Pookie in."
Mason took the offered clipboard and pen. So many of the questions didn't sound like they'd apply, but he filled out those he had an answer for. Guessing at the rest wasn't quite false witness, but that would have to serve.
Pookie sniffed. This hole stunk of cleansers and potpourri. Were they trying to hide fear, pain, and death? Pathetic. Maybe he could rip out a throat or two? Master wouldn't smell bored then!
When Mason and Pookie were led into the examining room, the veterinarian was turned away from the door, focusing on paperwork. Mason's quiet "Heel!" went unnoticed until the vet set his papers in order and turned around.
"I see some missing entries... No problem, really. Now, which breed of dog is Pookie Goodwin?"
"I was told 'Terror', but Pookie's been a Very Good Dog!"
Master was pleased? Happiness smoked and smouldered.
"Terriers can certainly be a handful for a new pet owner! There's many kinds of... oh my god."
Pookie growled, face to face, at the rude veterinarian. Terrier? He was no mangy little purse puppy! In fact, he'd personally castrated several Infernal nobles, and would do so again if the opportunity arose. Maybe he should switch from using his teeth to picking out the soggy pieces with rusted soup spoons?
"Terror. Right. My mistake!"
'Mistake' was the word. He'd been promised many needle punctures and strange potions, but there wasn't a single hook or chain to be seen. Had these miserable humans lied to Master?
The vet backed away and circled to the entry, "Angela? Remind me to call up that damned school in Dunwich on Monday and ask what we've done to deserve this. For now, draw up rabies, bordetella, leptospirosis, Lyme, and DHPP vaccines for... Pookie, while I try to draw blood to test for heartworm."
Now we were getting somewhere!
Mason blushed as he asked, "Um, Doctor? I live in a, um, special needs dorm. Are there any things that Pookie might catch...?"
Pookie, in fact, had a list of Things That Needed Catching and Playing With. Kill It! was his favorite game.
"Er..." That school! The kid doesn't look like an exemplar, either. "Regenerator?"
Mason shook his head. They hadn't gotten that far in Intro to Superpowers.
"There's not much either of you can do about scabies. We're taking care of the rabies vaccination today. If you're worried, I have a colleague who'd be willing to draw second doses for a coronavirus series, influenza, meningitis, tuberculosis, HPV, ebola, and anthrax. There's little to be done against athlete's foot beyond a scrubbing with soap and water. Just so you know, like with any other vaccination, you'll both have to avoid broad-spectrum healing spells for a few weeks."
The second office required "authorizations" before drawing the first vaccine. Some of the shots weren't on the CDC's usual schedule and were expensive, leading to Mason breaking out the "no limit" credit card. The doctor must have had an entertaining conference call between San Canaan, London, and the Holy See, because he came out grinning... Mason was already spiking a temperature (well, a higher temperature) when he limped back out of the office, carrying Pookie. Thank the Lightbringer, the lady in charge of the supply run let them curl up on a couple of van seats.
The heat radiating off the Twain freshman meant she'd have to call ahead in case Doyle Medical needed to prep an ice bath. But, sleeping curled up with his puppy like they'd both tired each other out playing fetch? Too adorable to wake up.
Sunday afternoon, September 16, 2007,
Walkway to Twain Cottage, Whateley Academy.
The Trustees of Whateley Academy long hoped to make the school's campus a sanctuary for mutants coming to terms with a harsher world than they'd been taught to think. Most days, it worked.
Mason Goodwin wasn't thinking of much in any terms. Now that Mrs. Maguli's chicken soup had worn off, his ribs hurt every time he coughed. Also, his joints ached, and he thought he might be running a fever. No one was sure what would rate as a 'fever' for him, so the doctors wanted to play it by ear. The cough and cold syrup they dispensed was somehow viscous but runny, smelling like bad licorice, and overall a shade of green that did not belong to mortal nature. So was the nasty shit he kept coughing up. Green, just a different green. Could coughing up plague phlegm on someone be considered a superpower?
He so did not need a debrief on the known effects of Yersinia pestis on lung tissue downloaded to his brain right now. Heavens! His shoulder still ached from being vaccinated a couple of weeks ago. Would it be so bad to take a nap on one of the benches? No one really used them...
They never did tell him which junior dropped his unconscious body off at the clinic. How was that fair?
Monday morning, September 17, 2007,
Basic Martial Arts, Laird Hall.
Morning started off chilly and wet. September might be early Autumn, but it was still autumn in New Hampshire's White Mountains. For Mason Goodwin, it was also a Monday following a Doyle dropoff, and soon, 1st period Basic Martial Arts was well and truly derailed. Most of the students had just been blissed out by Jenny Sorrow's (literally) heavenly blast of channeled energies, leaving them in no condition to resist Tolman's psi ability. Abigail was, of course, immune to her own power. Mason was on the mats, struggling to reach whatever was left of his familiar. Both were so badly burned. Oily black char trailed behind Pookie as he crawled the last couple of feet. He hurt so so bad, but Master needed him! Mason carefully lifted Pookie's broken body into his lap.
Mason whimpered back, nose to muzzle with the blackened, burnt puppy, "There, there. It's okay. Don't you worry about that bad, mean old angel girl!" Tears (or was that liquid from deeper in his eyes) streamed down over his cheekbones. In return, the creature tried to lick its Master's face. It couldn't suppress a sharp yelp; even that was exhausting enough to force its head back down.
Abigail stared ahead, mute from horror.
Some light must have dawned in her closed little mind because she finally shouted, "That godforsaken thing is yours?"
The pain wasn't enough for her to understand that?
"Pookie's a good boy. Aren't you, Pook?" Mason whispered through cracked lips to the canid, "You trust me, right? Cause I don't know if this will hurt or not." Sulfurous blue flame dripped from Parish's hands like napalm, flickering once, twice, vanishing, as he softly stroked his puppy. "Please, someone, let this work." Flesh recongealed, reddened, and pulled itself taut against bone and sinew. Skin slithered across bloody gaps to hold renewed follicles and hair. Soon, the little one barked and tried to lick his master's face where bits of white were beginning to show through, but he was dismissed elsewhere to rest. The boy dug his thumb into the wrist of his off-hand. Blood poured out of the newly lanced hole, from his hands, the cracked skin of his brow, and too many other places, until Mason was seated in a pool of dark purplish red that oozed up to cover the burns. The dojo reeked of pressed roses bound in copper and iron snares and soaked in aged wine too sweet to ever sour.
Abigail shook her head to clear it enough to focus on healing her sparring partner's injuries, but Tolman-Sensei held a hand up.
Stay where you are.
After an eternal instant, Mason licked a tattoo clean. Had it been there before? Not that it helped: Mason collapsed, still as death. As if second- and third-degree burns had been nothing but an appetizer for the main course, horrific pain and anguish blasted through Abigail's shields. Pale sparks crackled across the dojo's psi screens. Their existence stood as proof that while students weren't maimed every day in the martial arts classes, the injuries could be bad enough for any sensitives on campus to need the extra buffer.
The spell was broken when Parish stood up in his unmarked white gi. He bowed to the instructors and bolted for the door. Neither moved to stop him.
Sensei Ito nodded, signaling Ms. Tolman to allow the other students to wake up. They had been warned by Admin to expect a nightmare and a miracle. Circumstance had delivered. Once he'd coaxed Jenny Sorrow back out of the psychic safe room she'd fled to, Ito said, "Miss Newgrange, please do not attempt to banish the Church Knight's Hellhound in class again. We cannot risk putting you through what he's just been through. However, we can make disregarding this most reasonable of requests a memorable occasion."
Abigail shook her head, "Who the Hell would have him as — did you call him a Knight?"
"I would not pretend to dictate how the heavenly bureaucracies should work. My class is another matter. For now, take a seat so the next students can spar. Reflect on what you have done and easily could have done."
Men's locker room: Mason.
Mason hadn't had that many past occasions to compare to, but this time? It had been bad. Really, really bad. He hadn't dared risk dragging Pookie through his ordeal because the Enemy's idea of complete healing for a hellhound might be as cruel as he knew their servants could be. According to Father Rico, those might not even be his own memories, but how much did that matter? It was hard to know what was true when you feel like you're drowning on dry land.
He must have been operating on base instinct when he landed. He struck out pathetically at the first things that moved. Hooks and barbed carapaces ripped away the flesh of his hands, elbows, feet, and knees before he could recognize where he was. Those closest to the arrival agreed that this was an amusing sport. Taking up better perches, they shouted out suggestions to make the sport more entertaining – both good and bad advice – toward dealing with the insane one. Hours constricted into three seconds of mortal time before inflicted wounds lashed the mind back to the soul returning to its astral body. It would never do for a Knight to skip out on his Ordeal by virtue of insanity. Hell forbid! Playing with the food was expected here. However, his minders had orders to take as long as needed — and to make it as painful as possible by any means imaginable.
Back in the world again, Mason felt the shakes coming. If anyone thought less of him seeing that, or his fingers knotted in his hair, or the shuddering salty rain falling to the floor: to Hell with them! Despite himself, he had to laugh at that. The thought of seeing some judgemental bastard in Hell – after their Judgement and everything else, too – was funny in the same way that people fucking the entire planet into an eldritch knot was funny if you looked at it from where he saw it, falling forever, burning. The laughter faded to hiccups and silent bawling.
Men's locker room: Dalton.
They hadn't talked about it, but Dalton Meier remembered some of what went down in that Utah campground. Had it only just been back in June? He remembered too much, to be honest. Afterward, Brother Jonathan hadn't spared him the details of what was meant to have happened to him, not Mase. The spirit he'd bonded with knew Mason, Mason's family, and their community quite well. When the Senseis sent him to the locker room to change out early, he didn't rush in to spook the other boy. A row of lockers blocked the view from the entry doors. Mason was crouched barely on a bench, still in his practice gi.
Dalton walked over to Mason and sat down next to him. Seconds went by without much change, so he took a chance on putting his arm around the other.
How do you comfort an empath? Pretend to feel good about all that just happened? All you can really do is make sure they know that you're there with them. Make your personal space theirs until they can recognize that others are real, that you are real, that both of you exist here, now.
Dalton suspected that that understanding had come from Grandmother Spider. That, or maybe from seeing what a losing hockey season can do to a guy? Last year's goalie took their loss in the semifinals hard. Someone told him later that the guy almost... that he... Not a good time to think about things like that! No one tells you how to ask for help when you need it. How was that fair? It might have taken a solid ten minutes or so, but he breathed a sigh of relief to feel Mason's muscles begin to relax.
"I'm supposed to get you over to Doyle Medical Center, but maybe you should change clothes first?"
"Why? What does it matter? It'll only happen again. It always happens again."
"'What does it matter?' Now I know that that's not Mason Goodwin doing the talking! Besides, if I'm smelling what I think I am, that there's a whole 'nother kettle of fish that you don't want people poking into. Jonathan told me what you are. No one else at this school needs to be gathering clues about that."
"Some of the teachers know."
"They're teachers. That hardly counts. Now, come on, I don't want to miss too many classes if I can help it."
"Go ahead and study, then! Leave me alone."
"I want to get into a good college! Can't do that with bad grades. Guess what, though? Changing the subject ain't getting you out of nothing."
Talking with the on-call counselor helped despite giving Mason the impression she didn't understand what it was like to get your face melted off by something passing itself off as wholesome. Maybe she was an atheist or some other kind of free-range crackpot? Mason could almost imagine some poor soul walking up to the Presence and announcing, 'You don't exist!' It would be even funnier if that were all it took to beat the Enemy! Maybe he would feel better after a couple of take-out trays and a dose or two of Sleepthruarmageddonol. They didn't understand that an injured soul doesn't heal up with a bottle of pills and a pat on the head. How could they?
Sowersby almost had a heart attack walking in and seeing his roommate in bed in the middle of the day. The guy wasn't sprawled out as usual but curled up on his side facing the wall. A black muzzle and floppy ears pupped up over Mase's side. Pookie stared at Sowersby, daring him to make a false move. Mason groaned as he shifted position.
Pookie's head disappeared, the better to lick his boy's damp face.
Master sleep now. All is well. It has to be.
Tuesday morning, September 18, 2007,
Mason and Dalton.
Aside from early-morning grogginess from the sleeping medication he'd taken, Mason was in excellent physical condition. Healing by itself didn't remove the lingering memory of pain, so the damp morning overcast for his morning walk with Pookie suited his mood. Breakfast, light by necessity with a first-period martial arts class, sat like mushy lead in his stomach.
He didn't notice that Dalton had walked with him from Twain to Laird Hall until they were in the locker room.
"Did they give you something to get you through today?"
"Yeah, but I'm not sure I need it."
"If it's a tablet, there ought to be marks so you can take half or a quarter. Just to be on the safe side."
Mason hadn't thought about that before. "How would you know about something like that?" he asked.
"When I broke my arm playing hockey, the doctors prescribed me some of the good stuff. Well, it's good if you don't mind being useless as tits on a boar hog for the rest of the day. Mom ended up showing me. Let's see."
Mason handed over the pill bottle he'd tossed into his gym bag.
Half of one in place of two has to be better than nothing. Dalton showed Mason the lines and how the tablet could be broken as long as you had thumbnails. On the way out to the dojo's practice area, he lagged behind the other just enough to push if Mason balked at the entrance. That was enough of the battle won to accept that they'd be sitting as far as possible from Jenny Sorrow for the foreseeable future. Truth to tell, he wasn't entirely comfortable with her either. Grandmother had read his dreams and didn't like how that one walked in her webs.
'Uncomfortable' must have been chosen as the Word of the Day. Abigail was used to Kit's and Haruko's disapproval. They were polite enough to her face, but in every other way, they had made it clear that, in their expert estimation, the other freshmen (save Envy) were holding them back from moving on to weapons training. Yesterday had earned her another black mark for the blond bimbo in their eyes. Erin and Vicky were kind enough to sit between her and the rest of the classmates who weren't happy with her. Their rejection hurt no less, but there was only so much she could do.
Judging by her latest bruises, Abigail didn't think that Senseis Ito and Tolman were happy with her either. Come to think of it, even though BMA was a tough class, almost everyone enjoyed it. Today, people were more cautious, calculating, or both around her. Nothing she said or did could chisel a crack into the tension. Emotionally drained, she could have been happier skipping the showers at the end of the class. But no, Abigail had to run the gossip gauntlet whether she wanted to or not. Not one of the harpies let slip that on Wednesday, Mason was simply too sedated to participate. No, she'd had to learn about that third- and fourth-hand.
Thursday and Friday went well — without her. That also hurt, but even in her defense, she couldn't complain about being excused from classes.
Friday, September 21, 2007,
Reverend Darren Englund's office, Schuster Hall.
"... and that's where it stands. I hurt Mason really bad! I didn't mean to, honest!"
Something boy-shaped was on the mats, reaching for his dog. Both were badly burned and in immense pain. Oily black flakes trailed behind Pookie as he crawled the last couple of feet. Mason lifted the little one into his lap.
Abigail felt an arm around her shoulders, bringing with it a kind of strength to counter the memory.
"After that, I didn't even know what to do! When I returned from my safe room, they were both gone. He wouldn't even look at me the next day. Since then, I don't know." She wailed, "What have I done?"
Rev. Englund patiently waited for the sobs to subside. He handed Abigail a box of tissues he kept on a side of his desk. Finally, he asked her, "What do you know about Parish? Be as specific or general as you wish."
"Not much. He's supposed to be a heavy-duty healer, but Sensei Tolman says that's to be reserved only for emergencies. He looks a little older than the other freshmen. I think he's in Twain."
"Is that all?"
"Sensei Ito called him a Church Knight... Oh, no. That's not even possible."
"Abigail, Mason Goodwin is, by no stretch of the imagination, a Teutonic Knight or a Knight Templar." Seeing her confusion, the reverend continued, "The Roman Catholic Church has multiple militant Orders. They are needed in the fight against the forces arrayed against the faithful. Some are more inquisitive than others. Others interpret their mission loosely in the name of pragmatism. I'd hoped that you had picked up on him being an empath."
"How does that help?"
"Don't you think an empath would know a sincere apology when he heard one?"
"Well, maybe. It's just that he didn't seem to like me very much even before this happened."
Rev. Englund said, "Then let me put it this way. Would you say that he's cute?"
"I could see some girls being interested back home. Around here, I doubt he gets a second look."
"So picture what it might be like if your situations were reversed. How much trouble would you go through to get the attention of someone who's very beautiful, lives in one of the nicer dorms, and you know for a fact they're not interested?"
"Pshyeah. I wouldn't even know where to start."
"Have you tried..."
Sunday, September 30, 2007,
Saint George's Parish.
Abigail walked up to Mason after the services were completed.
"Um, hello?" Had she waited too long?
Mason stumbled through what to say with, "Hi. You're Abigail Newgrange. From class, right?"
Even though his eyes were obscured by sunglasses, she saw them dart around as if Mason were looking for the exits. Fair enough. She'd been pretty damn shocked to see him wearing a black cassock and white surplice. That was a bit much for a work-study assignment at the church, wasn't it?
"Yes. I'm glad you remembered. Is there, um, somewhere we can talk?"
A Filipina woman of a certain age interrupted the awkward teens, "Of course there is! You must stay for lunch before you go. It's not much, but we'll sit down to eat as soon as the Padre is free. Brother Mason, unless you there other parishioners you need to tend to, why don't you catch up on your studies while Miss Newgrange and I talk?"
Was that defeat in his eyes?
"That is an excellent idea. I'll go do that." Mason scurried off.
The small churchgoing crowd, mostly elderly, had thinned out already. They only needed to say a few other hellos and introductions before Mrs. Maguli could usher Abigail over to the rectory.
"With all my children off making a life for themselves, it's been just myself and the Padre. Not that I'm complaining! I just remember the old days too well, I suppose."
"There's nothing wrong with that." Abigail hoped that that was the right answer. That wouldn't lead to getting steamrolled into matchmaking, or worse, would it? Change of topic! Abigail wracked her brain for one that couldn't lead to 'you could use a good man.'
"What was that about people – Brother? – Mason needs to see?"
Mrs. Maguli laughed and ushered Abigail inside, "When you get to be my age, you learn a thing or two about people. For example, young Mister Goodwin was not raised Catholic. Heavens, no. So, if you were afraid he might be a zealot like those smiling young men in white shirts you've dealt with before, you don't have to worry about that! You can set your things down here. The kitchen is this way."
Abigail asked, "What else is there to worry about?"
"Secrets, unconfessed sins... I think you kids call people like him espers? Other things as well, but I was raised better than to repeat such nonsense."
"Okay." That wasn't helpful. "Why do you call him Brother Mason? He's way too young to take orders, right?"
"You could call it a reminder to be on his better behavior. Men need that now and then."
Men's needs? Dangerous topic off the starboard bow!
"Do you want me to help set the table, or is there something else I can do?"
"I've got it. You're a guest, but maybe you can help by keeping an old woman company?"
Reverend Englund could have warned Abigail that Father Rico and Mrs. Maguli would not allow either teen to duck out of the table conversation. Of course, he didn't. Father Rico fired the first volley.
"So, Miss Newgrange, was this your first Sunday Mass, or are you familiar with our faith's little quirks?"
"My first, though, I wouldn't mind coming back again. In spite of all the differences, we all worship the same God."
Mason turned fire-engine red before coming up with, "Saint Jerome might have taken issue with that idea."
"Saint Jerome wouldn't have stopped at that. One shudders to think what use he might have made of the Internet." To Abigail, Rico added, "He was a vociferous critic of doctrinal error. "
"Is that why you talked about not allowing the letter of the text to keep you from embracing the heart of the message, Father?"
"That was one consideration. Call me a fool of an old man, but I do hope that people will come to extend some charity to the messenger as well. For example, prior to his conversion, Saint Genesius of Rome was an actor who ridiculed the Church's holy rites. Does that make his conversion invalid or his proclamation of faith afterward?"
That was a saint she'd never heard of. He couldn't have been very popular.
"I don't know if that's more of an ad hominem fallacy or a red herring," Mason said as he speared a chunk of potato with his fork. "Actors and comedians are meant to expose the lies within what we consider our truth. That doesn't make their points correct." After eating the bouncing potato chunk, he went on. "Arguments about predestination aside, having a Come To Jesus moment suggests he wasn't that close to holiness to begin with. Maybe misguided."
"A red herring. Is mockery a sin when it exposes hypocrisy or leads others to truth?"
"Ask me no questions, Father; I'll tell you no lies."
"Spoken like a Jesuit."
Mason choked on the killer potato that time.
"Father," Mrs. Maguli said with reproach in her voice, "I doubt that Abigail is interested in Church politics."
Saved by the bell?
"Of course not. My apologies."
As if it were so simple. Oh, well.
"Actually, I'd hoped to apologize to, er, Brother Mason for what happened in class. I didn't know my power could do that."
Mason looked ill. "Might I be excused for a moment?"
"Of course. No less than half a tablet, son."
Mason quick-stepped out like a man on a mission.
Half a tablet?
"Sadly, it's more difficult to heal the spirit than the flesh. May I ask about the nature of your powers? Please, take your time. Thanks to Mrs. Maguli and Mason, We've plenty of food and time."
Mrs. Maguli explained that one should, "Ignore anything you hear about him being vegetarian or vegan. But, even for a farm boy, he's partial to his vegetables."
"Er, well. They say that I'm some kind of avatar. What energies I use are granted to me by my guardian angel. I've got these angelic bursts that usually bliss people out, n-not h-hurt them. They've always been completely safe other than the mental effects!"
Father Rico raised an eyebrow in question, "Other than the mental effects?"
"I'm not sure how safe the effects would be for drivers or around moving equipment."
Father Rico nodded. "An entirely reasonable concern in those cases."
She'd half expected some shouting about blasphemy. Did a small voice in the back of her mind want that? But, so far, nothing of the sort.
"I can also fly and do some healing. I hear there's a girl in Dickinson who's much more powerful. She's also an empath as well. Not that it's a competition! People just make those comments."
"So I've heard."
Brother Mason returned to the table several minutes later, his mood much more subdued. Sometimes he seemed ready to join in the conversation about home and school but lost his train of thought. What good was it to spend most of the day here to make amends when he was drugged out of his mind? Without making him understand, there was no way for her apology to make good between them.
They were saved a horrific wait and bus ride back to school by Father Rico coming up with some errand he needed to run. That left them alone on the Quad, between Schuster and Kane Halls.
"You're in Dickinson Cottage, right? I'll walk you there."
Abigail couldn't avoid staring. Standing with her in street clothes, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, Mason looked like a cowboy from a book cover: deep-tanned, rail-thin, whipcord muscles. The illusion of flames flickering behind his eyes failed to spoil the effect. Was the scent of woodsmoke and sage also an illusion? If so, props to the caster.
"I'd like that. Except, I'm in Whitman Cottage. Are you going to be okay?"
"Should be. You meant what you said. You honestly didn't know of problems beforehand. I reckon that it is what it is."
"That said, the next time you hurt Pookie like that, I'll see you in the hospital."
"Not going to kill me, then?"
"There's worse. Life, judgment, all that. You ever hear what happens to saints in the Church? It's not pretty."
"Just whose side are you on?"
Mason finally, for the first time in a long time, smiled.
The winning side."
Saturday morning, October 27, 2007,
Office of the Headmistress, Schuster Hall.
Never in a million years would Elizabeth Carson have thought she'd be hoping for the Imp to come up with something to distract her from an early-morning headache. Even Christine could not have dreamed this up. The freshman's broad smile was too polished to have been coached at the last minute. The fake Elder's name tag, white shirt, plain dark trousers, and simple tie threatened to escalate the throbbing pain to dental.
"Could you explain why I have a vehicle waiver in front of me?"
"I am old enough to operate a bicycle in the State of New Hampshire. Broadly speaking, a bicycle is treated as a vehicle; therefore, the vehicular operations waiver."
"Mister Goodwin, we both know you do not need a bicycle to travel from cottage to cottage."
"But it is traditional."
"Do you remember what I said at the beginning of the year regarding proselytizing?"
Mason cocked his head, puzzled.
"I thought that only applied to the true religion?"
"Any proselytizing, young man. For any religion, yours or anyone else's, including but not limited to Abrahamic religions, even Pastafarianism. Don't ask. As to this? Request denied, and get out of my office."
Mason had barely trudged his way out the door when the Headmistress called out again.
"And take that name tag off! You are not in a play based on The Book of Mormon!"
Front entrance, Schuster Hall.
Previous disappointments and appointments for detention to be determined aside, Mason was clearly eager to see his Aunt Thea and Jason. He'd even taken enough of the prescription Fuckitol to stand in the Parents Day meet-and-greet crowd. He even ignored Dalt Meier grabbing his elbow now and then.
"What's the problem?"
"You're swaying again. You should have told someone this was too many people to be around."
"Family's worth it. B'sides, my shields are fine."
"Then, why did you have to medicate?"
"Hurts my eyes."
"Hurts your? Dear God," Dalt said when Mase tipped his favorite black Stetson up to show the bloody eye behind an eye patch. The guy didn't wear it often. Then again, Dalt's spirit usually didn't show him how badly Mason's soul had been hurt. Mason couldn't bring himself to tell Dalt how pathetic his sins were.
"It'd help if I could let Pookie out."
Not in this crowd. Or, any other.
"It's a green-flag day. If Razorback can give his kid brother dino-back rides, you should be able to let Pookie out later."
Whoever coined the phrase 'a boy and his dog' didn't know the half of it.
"Yeah. So, cheer up already."
Once the busses pulled in and disgorged their passengers, the two Twainees got all the warning of any plans going off the rails they'd ever get.
A young woman's voice flew over the crowd, "Mama, Vati, Dalt's right over there! See the guy in the cowboy hat?"
Oh, crap. No time to distance himself from the psycho Utahn now.
"I think I see Mase! He's with Dalton — you remember him from back in June?"
"Of course I do!"
How were all those familiar voices coming from the same area? Dalton was tempted to cry. But there they all were. Hans Meier took the lead, along with Mandy, Steff, Drew, Chris, and Dusty. Mama Sophie Meier, holding on to Alyssa Jane, was watching for stragglers, which now included Aramathea Nilsson and Jason Garnett. That meant the ladyfolk had been talking. Ohgodohgodohgod.
"Hey, I'm guessing that that's your family?"
"What gave it away?"
"The black UNO and N hoodies. Also, the fact you're glad to see them. Not sure why your palms are so sweaty."
Dalt took a quick look, just in case.
"Just messing with you. You're way too tense."
Private time ended in hugs and introductions all around. It was tough watching how long the practically-twin brothers held onto each other. Dalt and Drew hadn't been that close, each needing sibling-grade boundaries to help them get along.
Drew punched Dalt's arm, saying, "Bro. Don't stare like that. It's creepy."
"Not as creepy as coming home to finding your gear all over my bed."
Some of the gear had still been wet.
"Pshyeah. Like you've never seen a jockstrap before."
"Remind me to introduce you to Mason's familiar, Pookie."
Mason said, "Naw. Pookie's a Very Good Boy. He's just a puppy and not used to crowds an' such."
To that, Mama replied, "Maybe you could bring him with you when you visit for Christmas."
"Mrs. Nilsson and I already have it settled. Dalton can visit with your family for Yule, and he can visit for Christmas before going back to school. The Alumni Association even subsidizes cultural exchange trips like that."
Wednesday, October 31, 2007,
Dalton winced at what Mason thought was an acceptable Halloween costume. It wasn't quite like feeling something dying inside, but it had to be close.
"Let me guess: you've taken on a Vow of Poverty."
"How could you tell?"
"There's hardly ten dollars' worth of fabric in that outfit. I'd say you're going to Hell for that, but..."
"Thank you anyway."
"Madre de Dios."
"Great idea! I could add one of those fake pregnancy things."
"Dude? I'll be surprised if you should live so long."
Monday morning, November 12, 2007,
Basic Martial Arts, Laird Hall.
When he saw the two new students walk in, Mason nudged Dalton awake, just in case. His fellow channeler was having more and more trouble getting up early enough for breakfast with each shorter day. If it got much worse, they'd have to get seasonal depression lights or something for studying and finishing assignments. The first newcomer looked Native, if her facial structure could be trusted. Then again, the same could be said of Dalton, having been touched by Nuwuvi and Diné spirits. Her long black hair was tied up and out of the way for sparring. That set her apart from the tall, pale-faced redhead who entered the dojo with her.
The first one also didn't have a bright red armband with a very visible UV printed in black letters on her arm.
Mason caught Red's request: "I...I'd like to request that I only spar with women."
I'd like to second Killer Red's motion.
Afraid of being beaten by a girl?
Jessie's really going there? Mase pictured a bratty kid blowing a raspberry before sending back, No. I'm justifiably terrified of being mauled by — bless me sideways, that was quick!
After the traditional period of sparring – i.e., practicing the many ways a guy can be faceplanted into or through the mats – Sensei Tolman called Jenny Sorrow and Parish aside.
"I take it that you both heard Miss O'Callahan's request and the reason behind it?"
Both Mason and Abigail nodded, "Yes, Sensei." It didn't take an empath to guess where the girl's pain was coming from.
"Mason, that means you don't even so much as touch Miss O'Callahan unless you know she's unconscious, it's a life-or-death situation, or you're given the go-ahead by myself or Ito-Soke. Abigail, what we've discussed doesn't change: if one of you is committed to a healing, the other works crowd control. Are we clear?"
"Hit the showers, then!"
Wednesday evening, November 21, 2007,
San Canaan, UT.
Mason leaned back in a chair in front of his home, eyes closed, listening. Just listening. Not that he dared set foot in his aunts' kitchen the evening before Thanksgiving! If they needed water drawn, furniture moved, something fetched from the back forty, what-have-you, he was there to make himself useful. Otherwise, there wasn't no way he was going to be stepping into the eye of the culinary holiday storm again. He was kind of trainable that way.
He tipped his hat to Pavati Cook for dragging her boyfriend, Hector, out of the cooks' way. He waited for Jase to deliver the five bucks he owed for not having seen that one coming. He had asked her to stall, which just might have thrown off the betting a mite.
Jason hauled out a chair of his own. "You're still a bastard, Mase. You know that?"
Mason grinned and pocketed the fiver.
"You should hear what the girls in my martial arts class call me. I wouldn't recommend repeating any of it within shouting distance of Essellcee."
"You should try hitting on them instead of just hitting them. Works for Heck."
"Nah. The only time any of them are interested in me is when they're planning on throwing me through the mat. The ones you saw on Parents Day? They've been replaced twice over."
"The mats or the girls?"
"Because it sure sounds like you're targeting the mats and... That didn't come out right."
Mason counted down, finger by finger, "One of the midterm transfers has a restraining order against anything with a Y-chromosome. The other has been hanging onto a cowpoke from down in Arizona. Two other girls have been radiating the UST, with some May-December creepiness mixed in. Ignoring any other lesbians in relationships... Jenny Sorrow and I are never, ever, ever getting together. Not after the way she hurt Pookie. Something still doesn't add up about that, by the way. I just can't put a finger on it. That leaves Archon. She's a high-end exemplar, as much of a jock as Dalt, and it takes a high-end exemplar to catch one's interest, let alone keep up anyway."
"So, you're just giving up?"
"More of a strategic pause while I work on my relationship prospects."
"They can't all be lesbians or saving themselves for the married guy."
"That ring you got means you're sleeping with the Enemy, doofus."
"I ain't promised no one chastity. I just want something. You know, I don't know what I want some days."
"There's always guys. If you're upfront about keeping it casual, they're more live and let live than girls."
"True. How would you know?"
"Oh. Yeah, he'd know. The trouble is that Whateley folks talk big about acceptance – while fantasizing about some hot lesbian action – but in practice? Not so much. There were even a couple of gay students murdered last year. I figure... Hm."
"If there is a cull needed, whoever it is could be someone with a self-righteous axe to grind for gays. Not just some perv driving an ice cream truck... Nothing's ever as easy as it looks on TV."
"If there is, and if they're preying on mutant kids, they probably have superpowers and backup. You don't have backup or a team you can trust. Priests? Pshyeah. Best talk things over with our moms before doing something stupid. Again."
"When have you ever seen me do something stupid?"
"Harry the Wonder Llama."
"That fuzzy bastard always had a grudge against me!"
"How surprising that it was only against you and then only after you were told not to hug him and play with him like a pet. But you went and did it anyway. The poor guy thought you were a weird llama instead of just a weird kid. Half-right."
"I was eight! Hang on. Speaking of which, where're the twins and Ellie?"
"Demi's got Ellie distracted with glitter and glue. Petey? Take a wild guess."
"Locked in a closet?"
"With extra batteries and a copy of War and Peace."
"I should find a way to introduce him to the girls in Wondercute."
Jason could imagine the scheming look in his brother's eyes. "Wondercute. Do I want to know?"
"I hear it's something to do with all things cute, ribbons, glitter, and anime. Maybe they could teach him to relax once in a while?"
"Those Sailor Moon cosplayers we saw on that Parents Day visit? Petey would have a stroke."
Thursday morning, November 22, 2007.
At breakfast the next morning, Thea was all smiles, and Katryn mentioned something along the lines of having been wondering when Hector and Pavati would Define Their Relationship. Pavati knew she shouldn't have let Hector try to sneak them back in after they'd celebrated the proposal. She still wasn't sure how they'd managed to fit in the bottom bunk and she wasn't about to ask how "Mase-n-Jase" and Pookie fit in the top bunk. Coffee and a shower before any sharing, please.
The nine people at the table made short work of the guinea hens, cornbread and jalapeño dressing, cranberry salad, beans and rice, squash, and carrot cake. With most of the adults in a food coma, the community's common areas were filled with youngsters playing tag football, frisbee, pickup basketball, and full-contact competitive gossip.
As far as Pavati could tell from the stories, everyone knew about Mason Goodwin's rocky relationship with Harvey the Wonder Llama. Then there had been Scarlett Christensen's Great Kindergarten Trek, which would have been headed off much sooner if the Garrett twins hadn't come up with a "shortcut".
"Is Scarlett around?"
"She's the redhead over there, who... Oh. Ouch. Yeah, that would be Shane who just got elbowed in the chest. Last year, Mase would have been hitting the ground with him."
One of the teens nodded as if remembering other incidents, "Empathy has got to be right up there with something like precognition for worst boobie prizes in the genetic lottery."
"Doesn't it bother you?" Pavati asked. "Since I've met Hector, I've run into far too many people happy to embrace the latest prejudice."
"Heck Nilsson and Mase Goodwin are still the same dumbasses they always were. Can't blame mutant genes for that. Being congenitally dense in the head? That comes with the Y chromosome."
Sunday afternoon, November 25, 2007,
Twain Cottage, Whateley Academy.
After a dozen hours' travel on the road, in the air, and by rail, just to return to the damp chill he'd left behind the week before, Mason was ready to collapse on his bed and be done with the day. As if to prove that no day is too long, Mr. Filbert stopped him near the Twain Cottage entrance.
Mason! Hold up!"
I haven't even had time to do anything wrong!
"There's something you need to know before heading up to your room. We had to swap Dalton and Sowersby while you were away for the holiday."
"Why? I thought me and him were getting along?" Mason set his duffel down on the floor.
"You were. The problem is that with the shorter days we're getting, Dalton now needs special grow lights to fight off seasonal affective disorder."
Mason frowned. "I don't get it." The rooms all had multiple electrical outlets.
"Ribbit hasn't been able to sleep, knowing that a timer will be turning on the lights. You're the only freshman who routinely gets up early enough not to be bothered. On the other hand, Sowersby and Dalton are the only students Pookie would let in ... of those willing to try. I don't think you understand the reputations you're building."
"What about the rule about GSD and non-GSD roommates?"
"For the purpose of this exercise, consider yourself GSD."