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Short Tales

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A Whateley Academy Story Collection

Short Tales

by

Amethyst

 

* Fallen *

The Hanson apartment, Churchill Manitoba
Tuesday, March 6th, 2007– 10:57 p.m.

The room that I appeared in was dark and a little cold. It was obviously a bedroom but it had nothing in the way of personal touches except for the computer sitting on the desk and bore an almost suffocating aura. There was a thin layer of dust present that made my heart heavy with worry. Felicia probably hadn’t been here since not long after I last spoke with her. It had been almost three weeks now and I had been growing more and more concerned with each day that went by without her logging into Ergan’s Tears or contacting me by phone or instant message.

I felt for the mark which I had used to teleport here and saw a duffel bag sitting by the window. Opening it, I saw a couple of energy drinks, a half dozen granola bars, and some clothes stuffed inside. The latter included three pairs of panties, each white with stripes. One had blue stripes, another pink, and the third yellow. It was a bolt bag; she had been planning on running but for some reason never got to take the bag with her.

“Shit!” I cursed angrily. When I had sent Felicia the care package for Christmas I had magically tagged each of the pairs of Shimapan with a charm spell that would allow me to teleport to her if necessary. If she was gone for as long as I feared, and didn’t have any of them with her, then my chances of finding her now were far too slim for my liking.

When I had first started playing Ergan’s Tears last year it had been as an escape, something to pass the time when I wasn’t studying magic, searching for a cure, or scouting out future meals. I had never expected to make friends, in fact, I preferred to play solo. Sometimes you need to join raids though, especially if you want the really good gear. That was how I met Felicia, with her catgirl avatar and a concern for the loneliness of strangers.

She was lonely too and I saw a lot of my younger self in her. She was excitable and impulsive, and I didn’t want her repeating my mistakes. Therefore, I took her under my wing and since then she had become like a kid sister to me. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she was transgendered and in the closet, and from what she had told me about her home life I was concerned for her.

Despite my attempts to convince her to talk to her mother, or even accept my help, her abusive dick of a father terrified her and she was afraid that her mother might react similarly upon learning that she had a daughter instead of a son. I had thought that I had been making headway with her. The presence of the bolt bag seemed to confirm that but I feared that it might now be too late.

Opening the door that led to the rest of the apartment, I was immediately hit with the smell of stale beer and moldy food. There was something else too, the smell of a man. It was probably Felicia’s father, so I crept around the beer cans that littered the floor as silently as I could, making my way toward him.

The man had a dark soul, not as dark as my usual choice of victims but I wasn’t one to pass up a good meal, or a chance at vengeance if it was earned. I could already feel my face and body shifting to suit his preferences as I staked my claim and sauntered toward him. The need for pleasure and essence was already singing in my veins, a siren's call of addiction about to be sated that I couldn’t refuse if I tried.

I had tried resisting it not long after I was first cursed to this existence but it wasn’t that easy. I couldn’t control how much essence I took when I fed, I always drained my victims dry. If I tried to starve myself and not give in I would just become a slave to my instincts and feed regardless, only then I wouldn’t be able to choose my target. That mistake had resulted in the death of a father of three, the youngest a girl of only three months who would never know her father because of me.

Suicide attempts had proven similarly fruitless; my regeneration healed the wounds nearly as fast as I could make them. This was a curse, after all, no easy way out. Now though, I tried to make the best of a bad situation and do a little bit of good with it. I only fed once a week unless I used up a lot of essence. It was the longest that I could go without risking losing control, and I went after people who deserved it like rapists, child molesters, murderers, and drug lords.

With the latter, I also destroyed as much of their product as I could find and confiscated their funds to live off and serve the greater good. A large portion of what I took from them was given to charities or the victims of my meals anonymously, and I knew of a widow with three children in Brazil who would now be able to give them a good life. They would never want for anything, except for their father.

Despite that, I had grown a sizable nest egg during my three months in Columbia a few years back, enough that I could have helped Felicia if she had just accepted my offers to help. Easily enough to afford a nice home and pay for her transition. Even if I didn’t, there were always more drug lords. If she was still alive, if I could find her, I would make sure that she lived the rest of her life happy and free.

As much as my instincts and addiction were screaming at me to feed on the man slumped half asleep on the couch and watching television, I knew that I needed to take my time. John Hanson was a large and muscular man. I wouldn’t have the strength to take him in a straight fight so I had to get closer, let the pheromones cloud his mind and make him pliable, and then pump him for info. Once I had what I wanted, then I could get what I needed.

He didn’t notice me until I was standing almost in front of him and once he did his speech was slurred from heavy drinking. “Hey, what’re you doin’ here?” This was going to be easier than I thought.

“I’m here for you, of course, Sexy,” I purred sweetly, brushing empty beer cans off the sofa so that I could sit nice and close and let him get a good whiff of Eau de Succubus. Then I pouted prettily and added in a convincingly hurt tone, “What, don’t you want me?”

He incoherently mumbled something in the affirmative, his drunken mind probably being long past sober enough to wonder how I got inside, even without any help from the tantalizing scent that I was pumping out. Pseudo-succubus pheromones for the win. They were doing their job well if the rising bulge in his pants was anything to go by. So it wasn’t long before he slurred, “Juz a minit, lemme get ready.”

“Are you sure? What if your son hears us?” I asked as my eyes fluttered and I turned my gaze to the door of the bedroom that I had emerged from.

There was a hint of rising anger in his voice, as he grumbled, “Ain’t got no kids. Mutie freak probly wasn’t even mine. Shoulda left it wit’ its mother, the lyin’ mutie whore. Fuckin’ thing nearly killed me, an’ got away ‘fore we could finish it off. Disappeared, but no way it survived, not after what we did to it.”

“Wh…what did you do to it?” I didn’t even have to fake my hesitance.

“Broke its face an’ arms I think, beat the shit outta it good,” he mumbled proudly, a lazy-eyed grin on his face. “Shoulda broke its legs too. Jumped out a fuckin’ window an’ took off. Think Vern put a couple bullets innit too. Couldn’t have lived long, maybe a bear dragged it off.”

I felt sick to my stomach and suddenly I wanted this over with as soon as possible. I zoned out, letting the need and my instincts take over. It wasn’t the first time. Even after nearly a decade, the thought of being with a man in that way still made me sick. It was better to just close my eyes and lose myself in the euphoria of getting my hit, and the physical pleasure that came with it, than to think about what my body was actually doing.

When his essence was mostly gone and I could feel him weakening beneath me I did something that I had never done before. I opened my eyes and looked down at him. I was starting to shift back into my true form and I was just in time to see the confusion warring with fear in his eyes.

He screamed, they always scream. Usually, it’s because I’m crying by this point and blood flowing from a person’s eyes, combined with the rest of my true form, have that effect on a person. Especially when I’m carnally attached to said person.

I knew all too well what he was seeing. He might not be able to see the long lavender-hued spaded tail from this angle but he could likely see the matching bat-like wings sprouting from my back. There would be no missing my face though. The face that haunted me every day, a demonic caricature of the girl who I once loved more than anything.

The angelic face itself wasn’t any different except for the lavender color that it now bore, a beautiful eighteen-year-old girl, her face framed with long flowing hair the color of corn silk. I remember her eyes being cornflower blue but these held ominous orange irises with slit pupils, housed in pitch black sclera. Prominent winding black horns topped my head, adorning it like a crown and making the pointed ears seem even more noticeable. And from between my plump kissable lips, fangs peeked out as a forked tongue flicked at my meal.

I didn’t like to think about what people saw when I brought them to their end, but this time I wanted to see his expression. I wanted to twist the knife, to see horror and suffering in his eyes as he realized his fate and the life left his eyes. I strove for that look and I got what I wanted as I spoke, a cold smile curling my lips.

“You know, I've fed on hundreds of men this way, and I can 'taste' the subtle differences in them. You tried to kill your own child for being a mutant, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that your genes were probably just as responsible for her mutation as her mother’s. Oh, and when you get to hell, tell them that Danarika sent you,” I said frostily. He let out one last strangled and silent scream, his eyes filled with horror just before he breathed his last.

“It wasn’t enough,” I muttered several minutes later, my eyes closed again as I hugged myself, tried to stop the shaking, and finished draining the last of that delicious essence as his body went cold. I extracted myself from his corpse and once again felt that empty ache between my legs. That wasn’t the only emptiness that I felt. I wished that I could control my feedings so that I could have slowly drained him over several sessions and let him know that each time he would come closer to death. This wasn’t enough of a punishment for him, he should have suffered slowly and for a long time.

It would never make up for what he had done to Felicia. I should have intervened sooner, whether she wanted me to or not, she didn’t deserve what they had done. That’s why I had to hope that she was still alive out there somewhere, surviving. If she was, then I had faith that she would try to contact me or her mother. I would wait for that and see if I could find her mother too, to keep an eye on her in case she heard something before me.

At least I had a little information to go on. Felicia had once told me that her mother was a naval officer who lived in the Vancouver area and that she had returned to her maiden name, Jessica Knight. It was time for me to relocate away from Tokyo anyway. I didn’t like to stay in one place too long, it tended to get attention that I’d rather not have, and I still had demon hunters who wanted a piece of me. Well, at least I wouldn’t want for suitable meals in Vancouver, I just had to be careful to avoid any superheroes.

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* Hematoma *

Billings, Montana
Thursday, April 12th, 2007 – 9:48 p.m.

“Shit! I am so late,” I muttered as I glanced at my phone. My curfew was nearly an hour ago and my foster parents were going to be pissed. That was nothing new; they were always pissed, usually at me. It wasn’t my fault though, I was working on a project for school at the library, just like I’d told them I was going to, and I lost track of time. I didn’t leave until closing and the wait for the bus and the trip after had added an extra forty-five minutes.

The foster home was four blocks away from the bus stop and I would need to run the whole way if I didn’t want to be over an hour late. With a quick glance both ways to make sure there was no traffic coming, I dashed across Grand Avenue. Or rather, that was what I had intended. I barely had time to notice the flash of lights and the squeal of tires as some jackass in a big pickup truck tore around the corner and I was sent flying.

I was in more pain than I even knew existed as I lay there on the cold pavement, and that truck seemed to slow for a moment before tearing off again even faster than before. That barely registered though. At first, all I felt was agony; there wasn’t a place on my body that wasn’t re-defining the word pain. “So, this is how I die,” I thought as my awareness of my surroundings faded, focusing on the one thing that I could see in the light of the streetlight. My arm, bent at an unnatural angle, with the bone jutting out of skin that was purple from bruising where it wasn’t bleeding all over the road.

I think someone may have been standing over me but everything was so numb and distant at that point as I just waited to die. Maybe I made out the words ‘ambulance’ and ‘shock’ but it was all so unclear and hard to focus on. It didn’t matter, I could already feel the embrace of darkness calling for me.

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Advanced Care Hospital of Montana
Billings, Montana
Friday, April 20th, 2007 – 6:30 a.m.

Cold and empty darkness released its grip on me as I clawed my way to consciousness. I opened my eyes but immediately had to close them again because the light hurt. My eyes weren’t alone in that though, my whole body seemed to be one big dull ache and my head was fuzzy. I tried opening my eyes again, slowly this time to adjust to the light. A blurry face greeted me, slowly resolving into a woman I didn’t know. She was maybe in her late twenties or early thirties with mahogany-colored hair, hazel eyes, and a look of concern on her face.

“She’s coming out of it, doctor.” Her lips moved in conjunction with the sound of a soft and feminine voice.

“Good, thank you, Nurse Hollins,” a man’s voice said as the woman moved out of my feeling and after a moment she was replaced there by a man of dwindling years with receding white hair and a kind but serious expression. He tried to smile though as he looked down at me and said, “Good morning, Miss Dawson, it’s good to have you with us.”

I tried to reply but found myself only choking on the tube that was down my throat. “Please, don’t try to speak or do anything strenuous. You’re in the ICU at the Advanced Care Hospital of Montana. You were in critical condition when you were brought in and we had to place you in a medically-induced coma until we got you through the worst of it. That said, you are seriously injured and you have a long road to recovery ahead. Nod if you understand me, please.”

I gave a slow nod and the man, who identified himself as Dr. Phelps gave me the deets on what had happened and my condition. He started by telling me that I’d been hit by a truck. Duh, I already knew that. Been there, done that, and now I was wearing the t-shirt, or rather, the hospital gown.

Half the bones in my body had been broken when I was brought in; including my right leg, both of my arms, and several vertebrae. I also had some internal bleeding and swelling in the brain going on, which was why they put me in a coma. None of that was a huge surprise after kissing the grill of a speeding truck and I was fully expecting Dr. Phelps to tell me that I’d never walk again or something similar with the grim look on his face but instead, once he was finished going over my multiple injuries, he asked a simple question. “Did you know that you’re a mutant, Miss Dawson?”

I shook my head a little too quickly, and fuck, did it hurt. My whole body felt like I was on fire, and it felt… wrong somehow. It was a good thing that good ole, Doc Phelps had mentioned that they would be giving me something more for the pain once we were done talking. “Ah, I thought as much. We believe that the accident caused you to manifest. Your eyes are… very strange We haven’t seen any signs of regeneration but now that you’re out of the woods and awake, we will be keeping our eyes out for signs of other powers until you’re recovered enough to be properly tested.”

Dr. Phelps left soon after that and Nurse Hollins put something in my IV to ease the agony that had been increasing with every moment since I regained consciousness. She left soon after, telling me that she’d return to check on me regularly and leaving me alone with my thoughts. I had a lot to think about.

“Well, there goes another foster home,” I thought bitterly, not that I liked the Gibsons anyway. They hated mutants, very vocally, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they dropped me like a hot potato now that I had joined the ranks of the ‘mutant menace’. They wouldn’t be the first or the last. I’d gone through more foster homes than birthdays in the fourteen years since I was a newborn baby abandoned in a dumpster. I was trash, nobody wanted me, but I’d survived until now and I would damn well keep doing it.

The mutant thing was hardly a blip on my mental radar. I mean, it wasn’t as if people were going to treat me any worse, it would just be more of the same. I didn’t know my parents but it was blatantly obvious that I was of mixed ancestry. I looked Native American in features, hair, and skin tone but my eyes were a bright blue rather than brown. They probably weren’t now though, given the comment the doctor made about them. I mean, blue was strange, given the rest of my features but he had made it sound like I had the eyes of Cthulhu or something.

Not that I had a way to look. They probably didn’t want me to either in my delicate state. The drugs were barely doing anything for me and between the pain and the feeling of wrongness that filled me; I was literally itching to do something about it. I was so focused on wanting some relief that the tingling feeling that spread through my body caught me by surprise, causing me to start and grunt from the pain that sudden movement caused.

What was that? Did I just imagine it? There had been this fleeting instant of blessed relief that had accompanied the tingling sensation and I wanted more of it. It took a while, but I managed to recreate the tingling and the sweet relief that seemed to come with it. Whatever it was that I was doing, I kept it up until I was too exhausted to do it anymore and I passed out.

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Advanced Care Hospital of Montana
Billings, Montana
Saturday, May 19th, 2007 – 9:13 a.m.

I got my casts off two weeks ago, all of them. Dr. Phelps was concerned about some things and ordered some tests early that morning, including X-Rays and an MRI even though it should have been at least another month to six weeks before they would normally remove them. To everyone’s surprise, my injuries from the hit and run were all fully healed. That had got them asking me some serious questions, so I told them about how my body felt wrong, the tingling feeling that I could summon to make my injuries hurt less, and how I had been using it as often as I could.

Dr. Phelps decided to test me for regeneration again, with my permission. The small cut on my arm didn’t heal on its own though, it wasn’t until I focused on the cut, how wrong it felt, and summoned that tingling to ease it, that the cut healed nearly instantly. He said that while he was no expert on mutants, he figured that I was some sort of healer. That didn’t explain why my skin was turning a sickly yellow or why my hair was coming in purple at the roots though.

When I got up earlier this morning, I had finally made myself face the mirror and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I was different before and I seemed to be more so now. For one thing, my formerly blue eyes were just as strange as Dr. Phelps had said. They were now pitch black with blood-red sclera. Hell, I was scared of them.

I still sort of looked like my old self but there were some differences too. I was more slender now but not gaunt like one would expect after over a month in a hospital. In fact, I might have been in better shape now, judging by how toned my muscles were.

Then there were the more obvious changes. My skin had lightened and now had the greenish-yellow tint of a healing bruise. There were these dark purplish spots though, with sharp and jagged bone spikes emerging from my skin and they were all over the place; along my arms, legs, shoulders, spine, skull, and even my cheekbones. The spikes were roughly two and a half inches long and a little thicker than a pencil at the base. It looked like I had multiple compound fractures but the X-rays had shown that my bones were fine. These were some kind of offshoots.

The spikes had barely been noticeable when I first got the casts removed, just barely breaking the surface of my skin, but I had spent most of the past two weeks in a panic over my new health problems and dedicated most of that time trying to heal them with my newfound power. It only seemed to make the situation worse, and make me really hungry all of the time. Now, I couldn’t seem to heal myself at all, it was like there was nothing wrong with me.

We were hoping that maybe I could find out more by going for powers testing, so now I was getting ready to do that. As I had thought, the Gibsons had dropped me as a foster child faster than you can say ‘H1!’ so now I was waiting for my caseworker, Ms. Beckham, to arrive. She had come by every couple of days to see how I was doing after her first visit to deliver a pair of suitcases with my clothes and belongings.

Not that those clothes fit anymore. I had grown slightly and all of the stupid bones sticking out of me made it hard to put on clothes without damaging them even when they did fit somewhat well. Ms. Beckham had promised that she would come by after lunch sometime to take me to the MCO office for my testing. She had also promised to bring me some clothes that would fit somewhat decently.

Ms. Beckham was okay, as social workers went. I’d had worse social workers, and she seemed to actually listen and care about my feelings and what happened to me. She treated me a lot better than most people, and it wasn’t her fault that none of the homes where she had placed me worked out. She told me once that people can’t understand people who are different, especially in a rural state like Montana, and when people don’t understand something, they end up fearing or hating it.

I was starting to get bored of waiting when Ms. Beckham entered my room. She was in her late twenties, in excellent shape, and seemed too pretty to be a social worker; she probably could have been a model. She was dressed professionally in a charcoal gray skirt suit and had her strawberry blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. “Hi, Ariel, how are you holding up?” she asked. At least she didn’t freak out when she looked at me like most of the hospital staff did now.

“I’m okay,” I said with a shrug, “looking forward to getting out of here and getting this testing over with.”

She nodded but there was a grim look on her face as if she wasn’t looking forward to the testing any more than I was. She gave a weak smile and offered. “I brought you some exercise clothes, I got them a bit big so they’ll be baggy on you and less likely to snag on those bone spikes. Why don’t you get changed and we can be on our way.”

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Advanced Care Hospital of Montana
Billings, Montana
Saturday, May 19th, 2007 – 6:55 p.m.

That was the most exhausting and nerve-wracking day of my life. The MCO tested me in every way possible, and then some. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t for the disgusted and openly hostile looks that the agents testing me kept throwing my way. They made no secret that they didn’t care for me, or my kind. It wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to but my new appearance made me more self-conscious about it than I probably would have been before. I knew all too well that they were treating me as some sort of hideous freak because I was a hideous freak.

The power I had actually known about turned out to be the hardest to test. The assholes made it clear that they didn’t want me touching any of them any more than necessary so they had taken me to St. Vincent to heal some patients who had volunteered. That was fun, not. They had made me feel like some sort of criminal the whole time with the way they had ‘guarded’ me and the reactions of the patients weren’t any better, except for little Lucy. She was five years old and had broken her arm on the jungle gym at school and she had looked so amazed when she excitedly thanked me for ‘fixing’ her.

I felt like there was more that I could have healed on all four patients who had volunteered, but with the MCO agents breathing down my neck the whole time I decided to just focus on the injuries that I had been asked to take care of. It gave me something new to try. When I had healed myself, I just tried to heal the wrongness in me. Now, I was trying to ignore anything like that and focus just on the specific injury.

We had to take a break for lunch then since I was starving, and Ms. Beckham took me through the drive-through at Mcdonald's to buy me something that wasn’t hospital food. She had tried to encourage me to go inside but after the looks that I had been getting all morning, I had balked at that. She seemed to understand and didn’t try to push me. We ate in her car and then she drove me back to the MCO office to finish my testing.

By the time I was done, I had a shiny new MID under the codename Hematoma. One of them did answer my questions though, even if it was reluctantly. I was apparently an exemplar 2 and healer 5, and the reason I looked the way I did was because of my BIT. Every time I had healed myself over the past month or so, I had been pushing myself closer to matching that BIT. It was actually Ms. Beckham who answered that particular query though, once we had left the office. Usually, exemplars are beautiful but I had a serious case of something that she called GSD.

I was staring at the MID in my hands with a sigh as Ms. Beckham drove me to wherever I would be staying now, at least until that family got tired of me. It wasn’t a good picture. I doubted that there could ever be anything like a good picture of me now though. I looked up when I realized that I had been staring at it for far too long and the car had stopped. I recognized the place, it was a temporary foster home used between placements and I had never liked the place or the people who ran it. I had a bad feeling about this.

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Transition Home
Billings, Montana
Friday, June 1st, 2007 – 5:45 p.m.

My bad feeling was right. The Jamesons, the couple that ran the temporary placement home, had never liked me before and they liked me even less now that I looked like I did. At least I didn’t have to go to school since Ms. Beckham was having the school send my assignments home and had arranged for me to take my exams online. That meant spending all my time at ‘home’ though, and while the Jamesons hadn’t said or done anything directly abusive there were always the little verbal jabs and low-key hostility, and they didn’t stop the other kids.

The other kids, Zach and John, weren’t as restrained. Both of them called me a freak to my face or hit me when the Jamesons were looking away and I had dared venture out of my room, and they always seemed to look away a little too long. Ms. Beckham was trying to find a registered home to take me in but none of them wanted to deal with having a mutant there. I was afraid that I was going to be stuck in this temporary hellhole forever as I sat in the backyard and brooded while the two boys were distracted by some idiotic TV show.

I could hear the phone ring through the open kitchen window, followed by a hushed conversation that I couldn’t really make out as I was absorbed in my dark thoughts. A few minutes later the back door opened and Mrs. Jameson said, “Ariel, I need you to go to the corner store for me, we’re out of milk.”

“Why me?” I complained, “John and Zach are sitting in front of the TV, ask one of them.”

“I’m asking you, Ariel,” she snapped. “Your therapist says you need to get out more.”

“Since when do you give a shit what my therapist says?” I snapped right back.

Mrs. Jameson sighed and then tried a smile but it looked strained, as if it was causing her actual physical pain to smile at me. “I’ll give you a twenty and you can do what you want with the change. You won’t even have to be out in public for long, it’s only a five-minute walk.”

“Fine,” I grumbled as I rolled my eyes. Then I went inside to my room, put on a bulky hoodie to help hide my freakishness, and came back downstairs to snatch the twenty-dollar bill from Mrs. Jameson’s outstretched hand before going outside.

I kept up a brisk pace as I made my way to the corner store since I didn’t want to be outside any longer than necessary. My hoodie and a pair of sunglasses hid most of my features well enough but the bone spikes made awkward bulges in my loose-fitting clothes that were bound to get attention. And anyone that I got too close to would see my coloring and the bone spikes jutting from my cheeks.

I was almost there when a black van down the street gunned its engine and its tires screamed as it swerved onto the sidewalk toward me. My exemplar reflexes saved me. Instead of hitting me head-on, I had managed to move quickly enough that I was clipped by the side of the vehicle and fell into the alley I’d been crossing. My right hip and shoulder were in agony but I was still alive. I had to wonder for how long as the van screeched to a stop and then backed up toward the alley, cutting off most of the view from the street.

I heard a man’s voice ask, “Is it dead?”

“No, it’s still moving,” another man answered. “We need to hurry and finish it off, that freak is too dangerous to let live.”

Their words were clear and sharp as adrenaline pumped through me and I tried to heal myself. I turned my head to glare defiantly at the men in black suits who stood over me. Fuck did that hurt, but I was able to look them in the eyes as one produced a gun and pointed it at me. I recognized them; Agent Gordon was the one who oversaw my testing and the guy with him was the other one who had ‘guarded’ me when we went to the hospital.

Agent Gordon was standing by the rear of the van, roughly ten feet away, and had the gun pointed at my head. I couldn’t move and there was no way that I was going to finish healing my injuries in time to fight back. I closed my eyes and braced myself for the bullet to come but the crack that I heard a moment later didn’t come from the gun. My eyes snapped back open as Agent Gordon screamed and his gun clattered on the hard pavement while he clutched his wrist with a pained look on his face.

Standing between me and the MCO agents was a woman. She moved fast, fast enough to kick the gun out of the other agent’s grip before he could even finish drawing it, and she was surrounded by this sort of reddish light. “Running Wolf,” I heard Gordon hiss through pain. I recognized the name; she was one of the few local heroes and was supposed to be some kind of speedster from the Crow Indian Reserve.

“The police are on their way,” Running Wolf warned. The men seemed to freeze up for a moment before cursing, grabbing their guns from the ground, and jumping back into the van to tear out of there. Only when they were gone did the woman breathe a sigh of relief and turn toward me. She seemed a bit surprised when she got a good look at me but there wasn’t the disgust or loathing that other people usually directed my way.

She looked to be in her late twenties with a pretty face, amber eyes, and the same coppery tinge to her skin and black hair that I had before manifesting. She wore a black costume with tan-colored boots and gloves and rather than a mask, she wore a silver-colored wolf-head hood and cowl that looked to be the pelt of a real wolf. A necklace and belt of tooth, bone, and colorful beads hung around her neck and waist.

“The ambulance is on its way, kid, should show up around the same time as the police,” she assured me. Then she knelt down to assess my injuries as she kept talking, probably in an attempt to keep me calm. “Good thing there weren’t more of those assholes, my PK shell might make me fast, and a bit stronger than average, but if they had reinforcements and something more powerful than handguns then I might have been in trouble. Did you recognize them?”

I nodded, hissing at the pain that was caused in my shoulder. “MCO,” I managed to say between gritted teeth.

“Yup,” she replied grimly. “And since they weren’t showing off their badges or showing up with power armor, I’m going to guess that they wanted this one off the books.”

“But they… know who you are now, they…”

“Can’t do shit,” she interrupted with a savage grin. “I’m a registered hero and they made an attempt on your life without just cause. If they had authorization then it wouldn’t have been done in the shadows like they tried to. My lawyer is going to rip them apart. I don’t wear a mask for a reason, kiddo. Masks hide who and what you are. I take pride in it.” That was around when the sirens approached and our conversation went quiet.

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Outskirts of Billings, Montana
Monday, June 4th, 2007 – 1:26 p.m.

I just sat in my seat numbly. It had been three days since the MCO agents had tried to kill me. Ms. Beckham spent her whole weekend at St. Vincent with me while I recovered and I felt bad for her having to take so much time out of her personal life like that. The story that the MCO was trying to feed my social worker was that the two agents had gone rogue and were being disciplined internally. When we had heard that, we were both furious that they weren’t being charged with attempted murder. The police had certainly come to question me about the incident enough and I had recognized my attackers.

It was a slipped comment from one of the nurses that made Ms. Beckham suspect why I had been targeted in the first place, at least once she was able to talk to the right people. The people that I had healed had all started changing within a week and a half. At first, they thought it was jaundice from the yellow skin tone but then they discovered that their hair was growing out the same plum shade as mine from the roots. The MCO had called in one of their experts on mutation after figuring out that I was the common thread and he had figured out the problem. At least, he had a theory.

Most regenerators have a BIT that tells their bodies what to heal and how. As an exemplar, I have a BIT too. The expert’s theory was that when I healed people, my power tried to use a BIT to do it. If I were healing an exemplar or a regenerator that wouldn’t be a problem since they had one. For those who didn’t, like the baselines I had healed in the hospital, my power used my BIT instead, transposing a copy of it to them to use as a blueprint for healing.

Now those people, including that poor little girl, were slowly changing. It would likely take many years for them, longer for any who happened to be male, but they were all going to eventually turn into physical duplicates of me. They’d have all the downsides of being a severe GSD case but with no powers or anything to make it bearable unless they happened to have powers beforehand.

That wasn’t even counting the many possible health issues that their changing bodies could develop since they couldn’t just heal themselves as I could and they weren’t actually mutants, whose bodies changed through a somewhat natural process. Those poor people, that poor little girl. I had condemned them to a fate even worse than my own while trying to help them.

The day before I was attacked, the expert had discussed his findings with his current bosses at the Billings MCO office and the patients involved. I hadn’t been invited. That night, one of the two men I had healed committed suicide. The other and the middle-aged woman were both now under suicide watch. Lucy, the little girl, was having issues from some sort of infection. Since we had heard, I had sunk into a deep depression. Ms. Beckham had been trying to convince me that it wasn’t my fault but we both knew otherwise.

Just before lunch, Ms. Beckham announced that she had found a place that should be safe for me and we packed my few belongings and got into her car. We stopped to eat drive-through burgers and fries in her car, and we had been driving since we had finished eating. I looked up and tried to snap out of my dismally dazed state as I realized that we were outside the city limits. “Umm… where are we going?” I asked uncertainly.

“We’re going to the Crow Indian Reserve,” my social worker informed me with a smile. “A friend that I went to school with lives there and she’s agreed to take you in for a while, maybe make it permanent if the two of you get along. She can’t have kids because of an old injury and she’s been looking into adoption anyway.”

“A social worker like you? What about this?” I inquired somewhat bitterly as I gestured to all of me. I wasn’t able to shake my foul mood, I just kept picturing Lucy in a hospital bed slowly changing into me and it felt like my heart was being slowly fed through a wood chipper over and over. The bone spikes jutting out of my spine and shoulders made it tough to find a comfortable sitting position that wouldn’t end up perforating her passenger seat, and that didn’t help my mood either.

“She won’t care that you’re a mutant, Ariel. And no, she’s not a social worker but she does help people. We didn’t go to college together, we were roommates before that at a private school and met when we were around your age. I’m going to look into getting you a scholarship so you can go there too.”

“I’m not just a mutant though, I’m a freak, and I turn other people into freaks too,” I said with a sigh. I barely heard the rest of what she said as the thought of going to school, any school, as I looked now left me feeling even more depressed. At least until now, I had been able to do my lessons remotely so nobody had to look at me. I could see the bullying already, probably far worse than I had experienced before manifesting, and it would probably be doubled as a scholarship student at some hoity-toity private school.

“You’re not a freak,” she insisted sternly. “You’re just a girl who has gotten far too many bad breaks, and Josie will see that, just like I do. This will be good for both of you. You’re half Crow, right? It’ll be a good chance for you to learn about your people’s culture while living in a safe environment. Josie will take good care of you too.”

I sighed, shaking my head. “I don’t know my heritage, I was abandoned at birth. I guess that was the theory though, I used to look like it, except for my eyes.”

By this time, we had driven onto the reservation where we pulled up in front of a slightly rustic-looking home that seemed a bit isolated from the others nearby. There was a pickup parked outside and the grass needed mowing but there was a flower garden started. Ms. Beckham didn’t bother knocking, she just led us right inside, and the living room we entered was clean but the place retained the rustic feel of the outside and felt lived-in rather than someone trying to show off how nice their home was.

“Josie! We’re here!” my social worker called out as I looked around. The floor was polished wood and there was a recliner and a large comfy-looking couch that were both covered with comforters, a coffee table with a romance novel folded on top of it, and a large fireplace with a stack of wood at the ready and a bearskin rug in front of it.

“I’ll be down in a minute, Steph! I’m just getting Ariel’s room ready! Why don’t you get comfortable and make us some tea?!” a cheerful feminine voice called out. Somehow, it seemed familiar to me.

‘Steph’ led me into the kitchen and sat me down at a simple wooden table with four matching chairs and started placing some sort of ground-up herbs from containers in the cupboard into a metal tea ball. Once she had finished and the tea ball was resting in a teapot, she placed three coffee mugs on the table and proceeded to blow my mind. She took a large bottle of bottled water from the fridge, poured it directly into the teapot on the counter, and then winked at me as she took the teapot in both hands. I could have sworn there were heat distortions around her as she held it for a moment and then walked back to the table, and when she put the teapot on the table, steam was rising from it.

I could only stare until a giggle erupted from behind me and I turned to see a very familiar Crow woman smiling and shaking her head. “Showing off, huh, Hotstuff?”

“We don’t all run around in spandex,” Ms. Beckham countered with a grin before turning to me. “Ariel, this is my good friend, Jocelyn Running Wolf. You’ll be staying here with her.”

I stared at her even more than I had at the teapot. She was Running Wolf, the hero who had saved my life. “You… I…” I couldn’t seem to get the words out.

“Aww, you broke her, Josie. Now you have to keep her,” Ms. Beckham teased.

“Let’s see how we get along first,” Jocelyn replied with a roll of her eyes. Then she gave me an encouraging smile. “Kaheé, Ariel, it’s nice to meet you officially. Welcome home. It’s not much, but I think you’ll come to like it here and I promise that you’ll be safe with me.”

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The Running Wolf residence
Crow Indian Reserve, Montana
Sunday, August 26th, 2007 – 11:58 p.m.

“Are you finished packing yet, Ariel? We need to get going soon if we’re going to make our flight,” Josie called from downstairs as I tried to squeeze shut the second of two suitcases.

“Almost, Josie, I’ll just be a minute,” I replied at full volume. Finally, I managed to get it closed, put on my jacket, and slung a purse containing my MID and other essentials over my shoulder. Then with the cases, I headed downstairs where my guardian was waiting by the door.

We’d grown close in the past two and a half months and Stephanie often came to visit, not always in her role as my social worker. They both treated me like a normal kid, Josie treated me like a daughter, and recently she had been talking about making it official. She’d been teaching me more about the Crow Tribe, or Apsaalooke people, and was teaching me some of the language and traditions too.

There was one lesson that she was trying to drill into my head that I still had trouble with though, being proud of who and what I am. I still can’t help but feel like a freak, especially when we’re out in public and people make nasty comments or start to stare. She says that they’re just words, but words still hurt and I still have nightmares about Lucy. The last we’d heard, she was having health complications because of my ‘help’ and had to stay full-time in the hospital.

At least Josie’s lawyer managed to keep their lawyers at bay. They had given informed consent and were aware that I was being tested for my powers after all. We also found out that a bunch of local MCO agents had been reassigned and several more were facing criminal charges, including the two that had tried to kill me. It sounded like there was some sort of plot to murder a superhero that had passed through Billings on the same day that I had moved in with Josie, and she had her lawyer pushing for charges in the attempt on my life as well.

Now we were headed to Boston, where Josie would put me on a train to New Hampshire, and the school that she and Stephanie had attended there. It’s called Whateley Academy, and they told me that it’s a school for mutants. They’re both hoping that I can make some friends there and learn to control my powers. Maybe someday I can learn to heal people without turning them into freaks like me. Until then, I won’t heal anybody unless they have a BIT of their own, I can’t put anyone else through that. As for friends, I’ll just wait and see but I won’t hold my breath while waiting for it.

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* Gestalt *

San Francisco, California
Sunday, May 6th, 2007 – 9:54 a.m.

I woke up in the office of my uncle Cho’s warehouse with a splitting headache and blearily searched for my purse and then for my phone. With the phone in hand, I discovered two things. The first thing was that it was nearly ten o’clock on Sunday morning, while thing two was that I hurt from more than just what I assumed to be a hangover.

Using my phone to get a look at myself, I didn’t like what I saw. I looked like I felt, hungover. Not a good look on someone who wasn’t going to be turning fifteen for another few months. My previously long black hair had been shaved off, making the new piercings even more visible. Before I had only had two studs in each earlobe but now the upper portion of each ear sported a pair of rings as well, I think the body piercer had called them helixes. I also had a ring in my left eyebrow and another in my right nostril.

Strangely, it wasn’t the piercings or the baldness that caught my attention the most, it was my eyes. They were blue. As if blue eyes wouldn’t look unusual enough on a Chinese girl like me, the eyes reflected back at me insisted on being electric blue. They didn’t belong on a human, at least, not a normal one. It was strange because I remembered almost everything we did over the last couple of nights and I didn’t recall getting any funky-colored contact lenses.

“Maybe Mei Lin and I had a little too much fun the past two nights,” I thought with a sigh as I looked down at my right forearm. A tattoo of a black Chinese dragon was coiled around it from elbow to wrist, blue flames that glowed with an unnatural light erupting from its mouth to cover the back of my hand. At least the tattoo didn’t hurt since I didn’t get it the traditional way. A friend of Uncle Cho’s had used magic to make it. It was all part of inducting Mei Lin and me into the glorious ranks of the Tong of the Black Dragon, or so Uncle Cho said.

Wait… no, I don’t have an uncle, Cho or otherwise, do I? Wasn’t he Mei Lin’s uncle? I tried to clear my head and think back on what had happened. It wasn’t easy, my head felt like it had been shoved in a blender and I kept thinking of the most random things while trying to focus.

I met Mei Lin at school on Friday. She had just moved to San Francisco from Beijing and was staying with Uncle Cho. The school principal had asked me to let her shadow me for a few days while she settled in and translate for her since her English wasn’t very good. I hadn’t been too keen on the idea since I’d been feeling weird all morning but I wasn’t really given a choice in the matter.

So, Mei Lin and I ended up spending the whole day together and the more time we spent together as the day went by, the more we seemed to click. It was as if we were in one another’s heads or something. We got along so well that we ended up hanging out after school as well. I showed her around Chinatown and then we made our way to a restaurant to meet her uncle.

The restaurant owners seemed eager to please Uncle Cho, in fact, they were so eager that they were nervous and I wondered why that wasn’t suspicious to me at the time. Uncle Cho was all smiles though and seemed happy that Mei Lin and I had gotten so close. He talked quite a bit about valuing loyalty and trustworthiness.

I couldn’t really remember calling Mom or Mama to ask permission but I ended up spending the night at Uncle Cho’s house having a sleepover with Mei Lin. We just seemed so close, even our personalities seemed similar. The next morning at breakfast, Mei Lin made some comment about my eyes, which now made total sense, but other than that we spent the morning hanging out until Mei Lin needed to get ready for her big day.

Uncle Cho was a major player in some organization called the Tong of the Black Dragon and Mei Lin was sent here from China so she could join up and help her uncle with their activities here in the States. She was eager to get initiated, fanatical you might say, and I found that eagerness infectious for some reason. Therefore, we ended up getting initiated together, which was when we got our new magic tattoos and had our heads shaved.

With our oaths sworn, Uncle Cho told us what our jobs would be. It would mostly be collecting protection money from local businesses or working in the warehouse for now until we could prove ourselves. The Tong of the Black Dragon doesn’t trust blindly, that’s what the tattoos are for. Gen, the mage who made them, could use them to track us in case we betrayed the organization and needed to be dealt with.

After that grim warning, Uncle Cho told us that he wanted us to stick together for now or with himself or one of the other seniors in the organization until we knew the ropes. Still, Mei Lin and I were in a celebratory mood as we accompanied one of our seniors to collect protection money for the first time. Since one of those businesses did body art, we decided to coerce him into giving us some new piercings to celebrate our ascension.

After that, we just hung out until midnight when Uncle Cho called Mei Lin to get us to come help offload a shipment from a boat. Most of it was just crap imports and we were told to leave those there and just take the real treasures that had been hidden away after their contents were confirmed. Most of the good stuff was ancient swords, armor, or other antiques from mother China but there was some weird stuff in there too; dragon bones, sídhe blood, mermaid flesh, kirin scales, and pickled kappa.

Once it had all finally been moved to the warehouse until buyers could be found, Uncle Cho brought us up to the office to celebrate our first day as sisters of the Black Dragon. All that work certainly explained why I was so sore now, and the mostly empty bottles of mijiu on the desk explained the hangover. What they didn’t explain was why I had thought any of this was a good idea in the first place.

I needed to get the hell out of here and somehow find my way home. Mom and Mama were going to be furious and not just about the new look I was currently sporting. I hadn’t called either of them since leaving for school Friday morning and my phone was almost dead and lit up with dozens of messages from them. I needed to go home, face the music, and see if they had any idea how I could get out of the mess that I had gotten myself into.

My aching muscles and head protested as I tried to get up off the ratty couch and onto my feet and I damn near emptied my stomach right there and then. I was almost into a sitting position when I heard the lock on the door rattle and in a panic, I fell back into a laying position and closed my eyes to try to look asleep. My heart raced as the door opened and footsteps approached. There was this moment of silence then as I carefully controlled my breathing and then, Cho’s voice was speaking to someone in Mandarin.

*She’s still unconscious. She will probably need to sleep off the alcohol for a while. It was why I suggested celebrating last night, I don’t want her running off before Gen can enspell something to ensure her future obedience. No, Great One, I haven’t seen obvious signs of powers yet but her eyes changed overnight so I think she’ll start showing powers soon. She seems very pliable for now and if we can keep her around my niece and others loyal to the cause until Gen can ensure that she’s under our complete control, she could be very useful to us.*

My breath almost caught at that since I had a sinking suspicion that I was the ‘she’ he was talking about. Fortunately, Cho didn’t seem to notice or wasn’t watching me at the moment since his voice seemed to be moving to the door in time with his footsteps now. *No, he says he needs some mithril to create a powerful enough artifact. Of course, Great One, since you deem it necessary, I will keep her locked up until Gen finishes the control bracelet. Yes, I will have Mei Lin come keep her company and keep her distracted and out of trouble. She should be back shortly, I sent her to...*

The voice cut off as the door closed and then I heard the lock click into place. Adrenaline surged through me as I fought off nausea and got quickly to my feet. I needed to get out of here! They had plans for me, plans that I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like at all.

The door to the office was locked and, even if it wasn’t, I doubted that I would be able to get out of the warehouse unseen. They probably had someone watching the door too until Mei Lin got back. There was a small window that I might be able to squeeze through but a look outside told me that I was two stories up. I’d never survive the drop.

I looked quickly around the office and inside the desk, coming up with a lighter but no paperclips or anything that I could use to pick the lock. What kind of an office doesn’t have paperclips? There were bullets for a gun that I assumed was on Cho at the moment but maybe I could use the remaining half bottle of rice wine to start a fire or something? There were a few crates as well, filled with some of the more valuable ‘imports’ that we had offloaded last night. It was mostly ancient vases, though there was an impressive-looking sword.

The manifest in the crate said that the sword was a Zhanmadao from the Song dynasty. It had a long, curved, and single-edged blade and it was probably meant to be used with two hands. It came in a sheath and looked pretty sturdy for its age. The whole thing was wrapped in old cloth and it was just what I needed.

I tore off a bit of the old dried cloth and poured a bit of rice wine over it. With a shrug, I plopped all of the bullets I had found into the half-full bottle of rice wine and followed up by stuffing the alcohol-soaked cloth in the neck as well. Then I took the sword in hand and listened at the door for a moment before using its hilt to bash the door handle. Once the handle had come off completely I stared at the old relic in surprise, I had expected it to break along with the doorknob.

Shrugging again, I looped the strap on the hilt around a short piece of twine to use as an improvised sword belt, and then with my Molotov cocktail in hand, I kicked the door open. Ow! Door opens inward, apparently. Let’s try that again. I pulled the door open by slipping my finger in the hole where the knob once sat. Fortunately, there was no guard outside the office but there were a lot of people on the warehouse floor beneath me that I would have to get past.

I used the lighter to set fire to my improvised explosive and then tossed it as far as I could manage. It landed on a pile of wooden crates and straw packing material and the whole thing went up in flames pretty quickly. Yelling and panic ensued and while the people downstairs were trying to put out the flames, I made a mad dash down the stairs and toward the exit. I was almost home free when Cho blocked my path. “Out of my way,” I bluffed, my hand reaching for the hilt of the sword. “I’m not afraid to use this.”

“You do not realize what you’re doing, Xia. Come back to the office with me and…”

I cut him off, not wanting to hear whatever lies or threats that were about to leave his lips. “Uh… I’m pretty sure that I just have to put the stabby end into you. Doesn’t seem that hard, really. Now, move, before I…”

And that was when the rapid popping of bullets firing interrupted me. Men trying to fight the fire were screaming as the bullets that I had put in the rice wine all started to go off wildly, hitting some of those closest to the fire. Wow, cool! I really didn’t think that was going to work, I just added them on impulse. The rapports took Cho’s eyes off me for a brief instant. It was all the time that I needed to kick him in the jewels as hard as I could and take off running as his eyes bugged out and he fell to the ground, clutching his crotch in agony.

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San Francisco Public Library
San Francisco, California
Sunday, May 6th, 2007 – 12:27 p.m.

I didn’t dare go straight home, I was afraid that I would end up leading the Tong of the Black Dragon straight to my parents if they really could track me through that tattoo. I wasn’t even sure where I was exactly anyway. Instead, I walked until I found a subway station, took a train that would take me toward Chinatown, and then a streetcar to the public library.

Once there I called my mom. My phone was almost out of juice and I figured that she would be less likely to panic and waste time than Mama. Besides, Mom was a lawyer and I was afraid that I might need one. I might have been wrong about the lack of panic thing though. It had barely started to ring before Mom answered. “Xia! Where are you?! Are you okay?!”

I was understandably nervous, I didn’t fear Cho’s criminal organization near as much as I feared my mom when she was mad, and she was going to be mad. “Define okay,” I muttered briefly before swallowing and just barreling in. I didn’t have much time left for this call after all. “Mom, my phone is about to die. I’m okay, but I think that I might be in big trouble. I need you to come pick me up but you can’t bring me home. I’m at the Public Library, I’ll wait for you outside. Mom, I lo…”

That was when my phone chose to die. I sighed and sat down on a park bench to wait, where I got a lot of strange looks. It wasn’t the first time since I had made my escape, I had gotten them on the train and the streetcar as well. I stood out wearing rumpled clothes, not to mention my electric blue eyes and the sword at my hip. The t-shirt I was wearing and my shaved head left my tattoo and piercings visible too, and at my age they probably made me stand out more than the sword.

I didn’t have to wait long before I saw Mom’s car pull up. She and Mama both got out and started looking around frantically until I waved. I take after Mama, short and Chinese with modest features, but then she is the only one I’m actually genetically related to. Dad was a random sample jar at the sperm bank. All I really know is that he was Chinese too, Mama had been insistent on that I guess. Mom on the other hand is tall and pretty with auburn hair and bright blue eyes. They made an odd couple but they’ve always told me that love isn’t about looks, gender, or any other label.

As soon as they got close enough to get a good look at me their eyes went wide. “Xia! What did you do to your hair?! Is that a tattoo?! What were you thinking?! Where have you been for the past two days?!” Mama rapid-fired the questions without coming up for air.

One very long explanation later, I put on a hoodie that Mama bought for me at a nearby shop to hide the tattoo and stuff and we relocated to a nearby hotel where we got some room service for lunch. If Cho’s people were looking for me, it was better to hide the more distinctive features if we had to leave the hotel. Mama left briefly to get my phone charger and a bag of clothes and other necessities to last a few days while we figured out what to do.

Meanwhile, Mom drilled me on everything that had happened since I left for school on Friday morning. She wanted to know every last detail. Finally, once we had gone through things for the third time, she sighed and gave me a long look. “This was extremely out of character for you, Xia. You mentioned that it felt like you were in each other’s heads. Do you think that she might have been mentally manipulating you?”

I thought it over for a moment before shrugging. “I guess it’s possible, it’s like I had her thoughts and memories at times, even my personality became like hers and I didn’t even realize it until I woke up this morning and she wasn’t there. Why though? I’m nothing special.”

“Maybe she sensed that you were manifesting, or somehow caused it,” she suggested. “Your eyes have changed color and that’s a pretty common first sign. We’ll need to get you tested but I don’t trust the MCO to do it while those Black Dragon people are after you. I’ll talk to a former client of mine, she has contacts and might be able to put us in touch with someone trustworthy at the DPA. Until then, you’re staying out of sight with Zhuli.”

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Hotel Fairmont
San Francisco, California
Wednesday, May 9th, 2007 – 10:54 p.m.

Mom’s former client turned out to be a superhero, Iron Butterfly, and Mom wasn’t kidding about her having contacts in high places. A DPA Agent was supposed to be picking us up tomorrow morning to take me to some secret facility for testing. I was going to have to give up my cool sword as evidence and tell them everything I knew to help in their investigation of the Tong of the Black Dragon though. Ah well, at least I wasn’t going to be charged with anything if I cooperated.

It was boring staying in the hotel all day for the past three days with the police officers that Iron Butterfly had arranged keeping guard outside. I needed to do something. I was worried about my daughter too and that wasn’t helping matters. I needed some time to process all of this and spend some time just snuggling and talking with Karrie, she never freaked out and always knew what to do. I wished that I could be so collected, for our daughter’s sake.

A cold shower would help, but the noise from the other side of the bathroom door reminded me that it was in use. I sighed and tried to immerse myself in focusing on other things. As luck would have it, that was when Karrie arrived. She had been working on finishing what work she couldn’t pass off to someone else in her firm so she could be with us for our daughter’s testing and she looked so tired as she collapsed onto the bed.

A playful thought entered my mind. We were alone as long as the shower was going, so as she lay there with her eyes closed, I climbed up onto the bed and straddled her with a sly smile before leaning down to kiss her and show her just how much I had missed her. Our lips met and I was suddenly shocked as she pushed me off of her, her eyes wide in shock. “Xia!”

Something in my mind snapped, bringing me to my senses and I looked at Mom in horror. What had I just done? Tried to do? The contents of my stomach curdled in a mix of fear, horror, and disgust at myself and I barely made it to the wastebasket before emptying my dinner inside. Mama came into the room as I was getting sick, “Xia? Karrie? What’s wrong?”

I wiped off my mouth but was too ashamed to look at Mama, at either of them. What the hell was wrong with me? How could I ever have thought something like that was okay? Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mama approaching but I quickly fled behind ‘my’ bed, hiding as close to the side of it and the bedside table as I could manage.

“Xia? Honey, it’ll be okay.” It was Mom’s voice this time as she tentatively approached with Mama looking from her to me in utter confusion. “We can figure this...”

“No! Stay away! Don’t touch me!” I curled up in a ball and buried my face in my heaving chest as tears flowed and sobs tore themselves from inside of me. I didn’t understand, I didn’t know what I was feeling or thinking, I wasn’t even sure who I was anymore. My parents could only stand there watching until my sobbing exhausted me enough that I fell asleep.

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Department of Paranormal Affairs Facility
Somewhere in New Mexico
Friday, May 11th, 2007 – 7:00 p.m.

I had barely talked with my parents since the incident in the hotel room. They had been trying but I just felt so guilty and scared over it. I could use the excuse that I’d been busy, it was certainly true but I had been avoiding it too and using the multiple tasks to do so. I had spent the entire trip on the plane and much of the remainder of the day on Thursday after we landed telling DPA agents everything that I had found out about the Tong of the Black Dragon and letting one of their mages examine the tattoo.

They couldn’t do anything to remove the tattoo but they were able to confirm a tracking spell on it. They also told me what little they knew about the Tong of the Black Dragon. As I had seen, they mostly smuggled black market items, very hard to get stuff. They were a sect that had broken off from a former cult called the Tong of the Black Madonna. I thought that was awfully derivative but they’re cultists. They’re known for being fanatical, not for their creativity, and Cho’s entire family was as fanatical as they come, judging by things that investigators had found in the home I had visited on my first night with them.

DPA agents had managed to find the warehouse from the information that I had given them through Iron Butterfly, but by the time they had found it, there was no trace of Cho, Mei Lin, or the black market goods. Even the protection racket turned out to be a dead end and the DPA figured that they had probably gone underground as soon as I escaped their clutches. That meant that they were still out there and as long as they were, I was nowhere near safe.

Today I had spent the whole day undergoing every test that the DPA powers experts could think to throw at me and I was exhausted. I had just taken a break for dinner with my parents in the cafeteria but it was a quiet and uncomfortable meal. I just couldn’t say anything. I was afraid to do anything for fear that I might do or say something horrible again and I think they were trying to give me the space to work through this on my own.

Now we were sitting in front of Dr. Huxley, who had been put in charge of my testing. She was a slightly chubby and cheerful woman who I imagined spent a lot of time absorbed in her research. Now though she had a serious look on her face as she looked across her desk at us. I ran my hand over the stubble on my head in an attempt to calm myself. It was starting to grow back and we had discovered that, much like my eyes, my hair was now electric blue. I would be happy when it grew out again because electric blue stubble looked weird.

There was a long and awkward moment before Dr. Huxley finally spoke. “Xia, your testing has determined that you seem to be a devisor, which we’re rating at a three, and a telepath. A powerful telepath, we’re thinking at least a five.”

Realization hit both my parents and me at the same instant, though it was Mama who asked, “Is that why she’s been… having issues?”

“Yes, your daughter is a powerful telepath, able to pick up thoughts from anyone nearby without realizing that she’s even doing it, and that’s the problem. She doesn’t seem to have any conscious control over the ability, she doesn't even have enough inherent control to keep a clear line of distinction between 'me' and 'other'. As a result, she is constantly picking up stray thoughts and strong memories of those around her and believing they’re her own.”

Mom had turned about five shades paler and I could feel the blood leaving my face too as she asked, “What can we do?”

“Unless Xia can develop some sort of control for her telepathy, there isn’t much anyone can do. She spent the entire day with me and observers found that she picked up some of my mannerisms and personality traits as the day went on. My theory is that she comes into synch with people that she spends a lot of one on one time with, because theirs are the memories she’s most exposed to. The longer she’s in synch, the more her memories and personality will change to match theirs. If this continues she won’t be the same person in a year, maybe not even in a week as the memories and personality traits she picks up from others will gradually overwhelm her, literally building a new identity out of a gestalt. She might not even be the same person from one week to the next if she can’t learn some way to control her telepathy,” Dr. Huxley said with a sad shake of her head.

Fear and anguish clutched at my chest, my shaking hands white-knuckled as I gripped the armrests of my chair. “No! You’re wrong! You have to be wrong! I’m not… I’m not going to disappear!” I shouted with tears streaming down my face. “Shit, we need to calm her down. We should have talked to Dr. Huxley privately before bringing her in here. What can we do for her? There has to be someone that can help her.”

“There has to be someone that can help her,” Mom said with a frown tightening her face as she spoke my thoughts.

“Were they my thoughts though? Why can’t I tell? No! I don’t want to lose myself!” I clutched at my head in anger and frustration.

I couldn’t breathe. Everything felt numb and I wasn’t really aware of just how badly I was freaking out until Mama yelled at me in Mandarin. *Xia! Calm down!* I felt a prick of pain in my arm as someone who hadn’t been in the room earlier jabbed me in the arm with a needle. I tried to fight it but soon I could feel myself weakening. All too soon, darkness claimed me.

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Department of Paranormal Affairs Facility
Somewhere in New Mexico
Sunday, May 13th, 2007 – 1:53 p.m.

I sat in the hospital bed staring down at my new MID. In letters that cut me to my very soul it claimed; Telepath 5, Devisor 3. ‘Gestalt’ was written in big letters down the side as my codename. I had chosen it yesterday after the sedatives had worn off and they determined that I had calmed down enough that I didn’t need to remain restrained for the moment. It wasn’t just a codename though, it was a reminder, a dire warning of what was yet to come for me.

I tore my eyes away and placed the ID card with my purse on the bedside table with a sigh. I had mostly been left alone, which I was grateful for; after all, I didn’t want to lose my identity even faster. Mom and Mama had visited briefly before lunch to tell me that the DPA was offering me a scholarship to a private school in New Hampshire for mutants that they were hoping could help me with my telepathy issues. They claimed that I would be safe there too.

The school was called Whateley Academy and they take the safety of their students very seriously. Until the fall semester started, the DPA would keep me here, where I would have minimal short-term contact with others to preserve my identity for as long as possible. I was going to be a lab rat while they consulted some experts on psychics, but this was a secure facility and I would be safe here from the Tong of the Black Dragon.

My parents had brought a gift when they visited as well. It wasn’t much, just a micro voice recorder but I could see the reasoning behind it. While the MID was a threat of who I was going to become, Mom thought that I could use the recorder as a reminder of who I am… was.

Taking the micro recorder from the bedside table, I took a deep breath before clicking on the record button. “Hi, Xia. That’s your name, by the way, Jiang Xia, so try not to lose it. I’m recording this just in case. This is to remind you of who you are, well who you were, because every time you listen to this who knows how much your mind will have changed. I figure that I… you can listen to this every day to remember who you once were, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, that kind of stuff. Then, maybe I won’t be completely lost.”

I paused to sniffle and wipe at my eyes as my voice threatened to fail and continued again. “Don’t worry, Xia, I’ll try not to make this boring for you. I figure that I’ll put the relaxing sound of the ocean in the background and you can listen to it every night while you sleep. You love the ocean by the way, and swimming. You grew up in San Francisco in Chinatown and you don’t have any siblings but you have the best mothers that any girl could want. You have pictures of them in your purse… don’t worry, I’ll label them for you. You take after Mama, she’s Chinese, and you might not be biologically related to Mom but she loves you more than anyone else in the world, except maybe Mama.”

“You might notice a MID in your purse,” I added after another quick staggered breath while trying to hold back tears. “You’re a mutant, your codename is Gestalt, and your powers are kinda the reason I’m doing this. You’re going to lose who you are, probably often, but nothing is really lost if you have some way to remember it. That’s why I’m recording this, to remind you of who you are at your core. It’s a good thing you’ll be mostly absorbing this in your sleep because this is going to be a long story from childhood to present. I’ll try to give you only the highlights. Anyway, let’s start at the beginning…”

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* Barracuda *

Vancouver, British Columbia – MSA Regional Headquarters Building
Friday, June 15th, 2007 - 2:46 p.m.

I took the elevator from the top floor down to the fifth floor and then maneuvered my way through the maze of cubicles housing agents and analysts toward an actual office. The door was labeled, “Dennis Flaherty: Regional Director.” He’s a civilian, but a decent guy. He has a spine without being an arrogant dick about things and has a good head on his shoulders, unlike a lot of bureaucrats that I’ve met over the years. Technically, he’s also my boss, or at the very least our civilian oversight for the west coast branch of T.R.U North.

As the door implies, Dennis is the regional director for the western division of the Ministry of Supernatural Affairs. Stepping inside, I reported to Dennis’ receptionist, wondering just what this meeting was all about. Kathy knew me of course since I came here fairly often in civilian clothes, but she wasn’t in on the secret. Dennis was the only person other than other team members and the Minister himself who knew the true identities of the members of the west coast team.

When he had called me, he hadn’t used my codename but had purposely addressed me by my name and rank. If he had wanted to see me in an official team capacity, he could have used my codename and asked me to meet him in the situation room or come down in costume or something. If he had called me Jessica or Jess, I would have come down in civilian clothes but he had called me Captain Knight, so he wanted me in my other uniform. It had been eight months since I had last worn my Navy uniform, way back when I was promoted to Captain.

“The director will see you now,” Kathy offered with a smile.

“Thanks, Kathy,” I replied with a wave as I opened the door to the inner office and stepped inside, where Dennis was seated behind his desk and an unknown man was seated between us in one of the guest chairs. “Director,” I said, snapping a crisp salute for show since we had company. Dennis’s salt and pepper hair was starting to recede and the life of a bureaucrat was giving him a bit of a spare tire but he had a neatly trimmed goatee that, along with his suit, gave him a sophisticated air. I also liked that his seemingly ever-present smile never seemed forced and always reached his bright blue eyes.

“At ease, Captain. Please, have a seat,” Dennis offered with a grim expression that he was trying hard to make into his usual casual smile. He wasn’t succeeding, and that worried me. Shit, this was something bad. “This is Agent Mark Williams. Mark, this is Captain Jessica Knight of the Royal Canadian Navy, one of T.R.U North’s support staff.”

I took a seat and gave Agent Williams a casual once-over. He was a tall and wiry man with brown hair that was slightly longer than regulation. His charcoal suit and black tie were about as cheerful as his cloud-grey eyes and he seemed nervous. “It’s nice to meet you, Agent Williams,” I said to try to keep things professional.

“Umm... you as well, Captain. I wish it were under better circumstances,” he replied, wringing his hands.

This was not good at all. “What’s going on here?” I asked, only my dedication to military discipline keeping my voice from quavering.

The agent gestured to a pile of papers and photos spread over Dennis’s desk. Each photo was jarringly similar; a naked or mostly naked man with a look of horror on his face. I would have thought many of them to be copies if it weren’t for the fact that both the men’s appearances and surroundings seemed to be different.

After a moment, Agent Williams pointed to one of the photos in question and said, “This was… uhhh…Tony Carlota, the head of a large drug and prostitution ring on the East Side. He was found three days ago by an undercover Vancouver PD officer who was trying to infiltrate his organization. An autopsy showed him to be in near-perfect health with no obvious wounds, despite a small amount of blood at the scene. The cause of death was declared unknown, so I was asked to follow up since the death was suspicious.”

“Suspicious how?” I asked, wondering what the hell this had to do with me.

“Well, all of the drugs on site were destroyed, like they were hit with a high-temperature precision flamethrower but with very little damage anywhere else. There was also no cash on site and his laptop was recently used to access his finances as well, three accounts were all drained and transferred to an unknown account that we’ve traced to the Cayman Islands. That’s not why we got involved though, one of our mages was called in and figured out the cause of death, his body was completely drained of its essence,” he explained carefully.

“And?” I pressed.

He seemed a little more confident talking, now that he was on to the business at hand. “I dug a little deeper, looking at other recent deaths that might be similar. It’s been a little difficult since most of the victims had known criminal ties and wouldn’t have dared involve the police. The earliest case I found was just over three months ago. They’ve been spread all over the Greater Vancouver Area with no real pattern to them except that there’s one every week, like clockwork, but I think that she prefers criminals.”

“Wait, are you saying that we have some sort of supernatural serial killer on our hands? How do you know that it’s a she?” I didn’t like the sounds of this but I still wasn’t sure why they were involving me instead of T.R.U North directly.

“There were signs of sexual intercourse on each of the victims and they were all male,” he explained. “I’d say that she’s more like a vigilante though given the nature of most of her victims. She’s been hitting prostitution and drug rings especially hard and afterward, all their funds are gone and the drugs literally go up in smoke. The timing also coincides with numerous large donations to rehab centers, homeless shelters, and other local charities for the poor in the areas affected by the criminals that she’s killed.”

“Careful, Agent, you’re making me start to like her. So, why don’t we get to the part where this involves me?” I pressed.

Agent Williams looked away, clearing his throat before speaking again. “From the evidence, I think that she’s a demon, possibly a succubus or one of the other sex-related demons, and I suspect that she’s looking for you.”

Shit! The last time that I had tangled with a demon had been an unmitigated disaster. A bunch of cultists in the Yukon had summoned one, a small town had been leveled, and most of my team had died. The only one besides me who had lived was Sigil, who had managed to banish it, but she was crippled during the encounter and had to retire. In the end, I had gotten a promotion and was put in charge of rebuilding our west coast team.

In the end, I had only found four who fit the MSA requirements and didn’t have dangerously big egos. Of the four, only Bulwark was a real veteran soldier. He was from the Army, and so a landlubber, but I didn’t hold that against him. The others had enough time in the service to qualify, but they were all still wet behind the ears combat-wise. Talisman had only just turned twenty-one and had barely been in the Air Force for two years when I was looking for candidates. There were a few raw recruits that had the potential to someday join, but for the moment we were stuck at only five members.

It seemed like I had other things to worry about though. Still not sure why though, I voiced my confusion. “Okay, so why don’t you tell me why a supposed demon that only goes after male victims of the criminal persuasion would be after me?”

The agent looked nervous again as he responded. “Well… umm… the first things we’re taught when we become agents is to follow our gut and that there are no coincidences. Coincidences are just clues that you haven’t found yet, so I started looking for similar cases across Canada. I only ran into one, a seemingly isolated incident in Churchill, Manitoba. The officer on duty at the RCMP detachment responded to complaints of screaming and the victim was found in a state similar to our victims here. Time of death was determined to be just before midnight on March 6th, exactly one week before the first known incident in the Vancouver area, and the victim was John Adam Hanson.”

Fucking John, what the hell had he done to earn the ire of a demon of all things? “I assure you, Agent Williams, my ex-husband was a lot of things but a victim was never among them. The opposite, really.” Then I frowned, clenching my fists as the implications of his death hit me. My tone and expression were carefully controlled as I said, “Thank you for that enlightening report, Agent Williams. I would like a few minutes to discuss the implications of this with the Director if you don’t mind.”

Dennis sighed and nodded. “That’s all, thank you. You’re dismissed, Mark.”

Williams couldn’t get out of that room fast enough and I managed to wait a whole minute before blowing my top. Fuck military discipline for the moment, this wasn’t a military matter. This was about my family, and I don’t mean my asshole ex-husband. “He died over three fucking months ago and I’m just learning about this now?! Where is my son?! What the fuck, Dennis?! I thought we were friends!”

Dennis winced and leaned back into his seat. He damn well knew my history. John had flown into a rage when I told him that I was going back to work for the Navy. He had tried to beat me into his way of thinking but I had unthinkingly activated my PK shell, outing myself as a mutant. He tried to sic the MCO on me but they hit a wall since the Navy knew damn well what I was, I had an MMID, and all my activities with them were classified.

John wasn’t one to lose a fight when he could fight dirty instead, so the bastard hired some slimeball divorce lawyer to drag my name through the mud during the divorce hearing. We landed on an anti-mutant judge and John was given full custody of Nathan. He didn’t even want our son, he did it just to spite me, so for the past 13 years the only contact I had with Nathan was phone calls on his birthdays and Christmases.

“I swear, Jess, I didn’t know until Agent Williams made the connection,” Dennis vowed. “The RCMP had sent our Winnipeg office a notice about the unusual death but the MCO took jurisdiction over the investigation almost immediately, apparently one of their agents was a friend of your ex-husband. I was on the phone for most of the morning with the MCO office in Winnipeg but they’re stonewalling me, all they would say is that Nathan is their prime suspect, so I put in a call to Churchill’s RCMP detachment.”

Taking a long deep breath as I clenched and unclenched my hands, I asked, “And what did you find out?”

“Nathan apparently manifested roughly two weeks before John’s death and there was a disturbance at the local pub. Your ex-husband and five of his friends, including Agent Vern Anderson of the MCO, claimed that Nathan attacked them unprovoked when Agent Anderson was interviewing him, seriously injuring all six of them but the responding officer said that your ex and his friends all had known ties to Humanity First and other hate groups. From the sound of it, they did a number on Nathan but he got his licks in and escaped. I spoke to the responding officer who had received calls reporting a disturbance and shots fired. There was a lot of blood and damage but no Nathan. The wind and snow that night made it difficult to track him and nobody has seen him since.”

“No. There is no way that my son would be involved in anything like this,” I insisted.

“I’m not saying that he is, Jess,” Dennis said, reaching across the desk to place his hand on mine. “In fact, I think it’s pretty unlikely but, given the timing, your ex-husband’s death might have something to do with Nathan’s disappearance. You need to find out what this demon wants with you, and keep that secured cellphone of yours with you at all times in case your son is still alive and tries to contact you.” I appreciated what he was saying, how he was trying to comfort me, but I also heard loud and clear what he wasn’t saying. With Nathan being missing for four months if that call hadn’t come yet, it probably never would.

The moment that Dennis dismissed me, I headed back through the cubicles toward the elevator and extracted my phone. First, I attempted to call Nathan’s cell phone but there was no answer and honestly, after this long, I wasn’t expecting one. If he was capable of calling, he would have.

Dialing a second number as I stepped into the elevator, I wasn’t really surprised to land on voicemail so I left a brief message. “Sorry, but I won’t be home for dinner tonight, me and the team have something to take care of and I’ll probably be out late. Love you.”

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It was three hours after my meeting with Dennis had concluded and I was sitting with Talisman at an outdoor café near the waterfront. We were dressed in casual civilian clothes and my companion was wearing a beanie, hoodie, and sunglasses to hide her more notable features. Vancouver was fairly accepting of mutants but there were always the odd bigots who liked to try to make trouble. Besides, if I was being watched I didn’t want to broadcast my involvement with T.R.U North, and not only was Talisman recognizable, but she and the other new members of the team were starting to gain a following since joining.

My companion was the most visible mutant among us with her birdlike black eyes and the black crow feathers sprouting from her head in place of hair but I needed her to passively scan for anyone watching me. She was originally from Haida Gwaii and had been taught to use both her Wizard and Avatar traits by a shaman from her people, though even she admitted that she still had a lot to learn. Fighting a demon would be suicide and I didn’t want Talisman drawing the demon’s attention if it could sense magic but she could send her spirit for a bit of reconnaissance.

“Zihar spotted a creature watching you from a rooftop. The other side of the street, three buildings to the northwest, Captain,” my companion said, covering her mouth with her coffee mug as she spoke.

“Good work, Tawnee,” I replied with a grim smile. It was time to find out what the fuck this creature wanted from me. Then I lowered my voice to ask, “Did you get that, Dropzone?”

A deep bass voice replied through my earpiece, “Loud and clear, Captain.”

“Good, be ready to pop some portals on my word,” I replied in a whisper just loud enough for my mic to catch. “First one from me to its perch, second one over the bay so I can get it away from civilians and somewhere that I have the advantage.”

I can put out about two tons of force with my PK shell but I can’t make weapons or shit out of it like some PK supermen. However, I can use it to decrease wind and water resistance and protect me from significant water pressure. That’s where my other power comes in. I’m a shifter; only one form, I change as soon as I’m submerged whether I like it or not, my mass stays the same, and I can’t partial shift or anything fancy like that, but I am uniquely suited to surviving underwater.

My first commanding officer called my other form a mermaid from his worst nightmares. My ‘mermaid’ form looks scary as fuck and while underwater I’m fast, deadly, and can go as deep as most subs without a suit. Imagine that ramming into you with two tons of force behind it. It’s why the navy recruited me. It’s why they called me Barracuda.

Bulwark’s voice came in next. “Mindscape and I have eyes on the target, ready to back you up if… shit! She’s on the move! She just jumped down to street level. She’s a shifter and she’s coming right at you, Captain. The blonde in the white sundress, coming at you from your two o’clock.”

“Well, there goes the plan,” I muttered as I turned to look over my left shoulder. A girl in a white sundress was approaching as advertised. She had bright blue eyes, near-platinum blonde hair, and a pretty face. Despite what I knew her to be, she gave off this aura of innocence and she smiled as if we were old friends as she approached and asked, “Do you mind if I join you, Barracuda? I figure that it should save us some time, and you the effort of trying to pound me to pulp and getting nowhere.” Her voice was loud enough for me and Tawnee to hear, but not to carry any further.

“Wha…” Was this some sort of vengeance thing? How did she know who I was?

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone. I’m just observant and you can’t hide your soul, at least not from me. I would have rather avoided your team altogether but fate has a funny way of taking what I want and twisting it in the worst possible way. We should make this talk quick, or take it somewhere more private though, using this form eats up a lot of essence, and I don’t want to feed again any sooner than I absolutely have to.”

“What do you want from me, demon?” I snapped. She wanted quick? Well, I was fine with that.

Her expression twisted with anger and disgust so strong that it was nearly palpable. “I’m not a demon, I’m cursed. I’m a faux-demon, a pseudo-succubus, eternal punishment for wanting to save the life of the girl I loved. If you don’t believe me, just have your fine feathered friend there try and banish me. She wouldn’t be the first to try and fail. Banishing sends a demon back to their plane of origin and this is my plane of origin.”

Briefly, I let my gaze turn back to Tawnee who had been whispering under her breath with her hands under the table but she frowned and shook her head. The ‘faux-demon’ seemed off-balance now though so I taunted her a bit. “Are you just here to gloat? Is this some sort of supervillain revenge thing? Sorry but if we’ve faced off before, I don’t remember it. And if you think killing my ex-husband is going to upset me, think again.”

It was her turn to be surprised and her eyes went wide in shock before she shrugged and laughed it off. “Someone connected the dots, huh? I’m not after you. Usually, my meals aren’t personal, though I try to limit myself to people who deserve to die. Lucky me, your ex was a piece of shit who fit the bill and I had a very personal reason for wanting to see him die.”

“What, didn’t he pay up when it was time to give you his soul? Can’t imagine it was worth getting that upset about, you must have been hard up,” I said, goading her a little more.

“He tried to kill Felicia and I haven’t heard from her in months!” the faux-demon snapped angrily. It took a moment and an obvious effort before she regained her composure. “She was… is like a younger sister to me. We met online playing a game and I hadn’t heard from her in a while so I got worried and went to check on her. That dick ex of yours was beating the shit out of her for years and when I asked about her he gleefully admitted to beating her to death with his friends, or trying to anyway.”

So, he had taken someone from her as well. She was clenching her fists and trying to control her expression and I tried not to show my own fury at my ex-husband or the judge who had taken my son from me to leave him with that abusive asshole. Only one thing confused me. “Who is Felicia? Nathan didn’t mention his father having a new girlfriend during our last calls.”

“Her name is Felicia, not Nathan!” Her anger faded almost immediately to a pained expression before she turned away and I could have sworn I heard her curse.

“What?” I asked though I had heard her clear as day.

“Could you just… uhh… forget I said that?” she asked sheepishly. One look at my face though and a sigh escaped her and she muttered, “Yeah, I guess not. Sorry, it wasn’t my secret to tell but she was trying to work up the nerve to tell you, to ask if she could come to live with you. I thought I had convinced her to do it or accept my help and then I guess she manifested and disappeared.”

What the hell? It was just one life-altering revelation after another today. “Are you trying to tell me that Nathan is…”

“Felicia,” she corrected firmly, cutting me off. “That’s what she calls herself. She isn’t… Sorry, but I know her better than anyone and I won’t call her by that name. That’s not who she is, it never was.”

“You talk like she’s still alive,” I said with a sigh. I hadn’t seen Nathan since he was two. If what she was saying was true, this cursed girl knew him… her far better than I did and it tore me up inside with sadness and jealousy both.

“She has to be,” she replied stoically. Her face was tight with grim determination as if she could make it so through sheer force of will. “She’s a survivor, and she’s the only person who has given a shit about me since I was cursed. I don’t want to lose that. I promised that I would watch out for her, be a big sister to her and I’ll keep that promise no matter how long I have to wait.”

I was torn between wanting to reach out and hug her and trying to keep my game face on. If she believed that my baby was still alive so intensely then I could do no less, and I felt grateful to her for giving me that hope. And yet, this… person could be extremely dangerous if left unchecked. She was trying to turn her curse into a positive for now by going after those who deserved it and helping others but I feared what might happen if something made her stop caring about that. “I hope that you’re right… for all of our sakes,” I said with a sigh.

She issued a sigh of her own and placed a coin on the table. It looked Japanese. “Look, I should go. If I hear from her, I’ll contact you. If you hear from her first, just hold that coin and say ‘Danarika’. That’s my name and I’ll hear it if you’re holding the coin. It’ll also allow me to teleport to you. Don’t expect to find me any other way, there’s no need to follow you anymore and I’ll be pulling up stakes and finding a new feeding ground since it seems that the MSA is on to me.”

My eyes widened in surprise. “You’re just telling us your name and giving us a way to summon you? Aren’t you worried that we could double-cross you?”

“It’s not like it’s an actual summoning and it’s not my true name, so it holds no power over me,” she said with a laugh. “Besides, I don’t think that you, or your teammates, would do that. You’re all soldiers, you all know that sometimes the best and most efficient way to deal with a problem is by removing the person or people causing it. My methods may be different because of my curse but I think that we both want the same thing, to help and protect the innocent. So, use the coin if you hear from Felicia, or if you need my help for some reason, or even if Feathers there needs to learn how to really banish a demon, rather than whatever it was that she was trying to do under the table.”

Tawnee was blushing bright red as I turned toward her. Danarika had a point though and we both knew it; I wouldn’t have recruited her for the team if I didn’t think that she had the potential but her training was incomplete, only enough so that she had control of her abilities and a few useful tricks up her sleeves, not enough to develop them further. She was still young as well and had been largely missing out on training with her magic and spirit-related abilities for almost three years since she joined the Air Force.

If Tawnee was going to be effective in the field as Talisman, then we needed to rectify that. It might also be an opportunity to keep an eye on Danarika in case she became a danger, or to keep her from becoming one in the first place. When I turned to tell the cursed young woman that we would consider her offer, she was already gone.

With a sigh, I finished my cold cup of coffee before whispering into my mic, “Let’s head back to base everyone. We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’re in a race with the MCO.” Since there was no corpse to prove otherwise, I had to try to believe that my child was still alive somewhere. Dennis was going to be sending us every incident report from across Canada involving homeless, hospitalized, or runaway mutants for the past four months.

Though it was unintentional, Danarika had given us two important clues that the MCO probably didn’t have. First, I had been thinking that we would be able to narrow things down by just looking at the boys, and the MCO was probably doing the same. Now though, it looked like we should be looking at the girls too, maybe even prioritizing them among the runaways and homeless. We also had a name to add to our search parameters. “Hang on, Felicia, I’ll find you.”

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* Bug-Out *

Victoria, British Columbia – Harbourview Skate Park
Thursday, July 19th, 2007 – 2:43 p.m.

“Woohoo!” Soaring through the air in an alley-oop with a shit-eating grin on my face, I reoriented my body to catch the board and stick the lipslide. Once I came to a stop, I stuck my tongue out at my best friend, Calista. “See, I tol’ you that I could do it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she groaned while rolling her baby-blue eyes. “Can we go already? This is boring and we’ve been here, like three hours.”

Taking off my gloves, I absently scratched at the palms of my hands. For some reason, they had been itchy as hell the past few days and it was driving me crazy. Thus why I was at the skate park trying to distract myself. Once my BFFs words sunk in though, my eyes went wide with sudden worry. “Wait, three hours? What time is it?”

“It’s, like, quarter to three, we’ve been here all afternoon,” she replied with a frown and a flip of her shoulder-length brown hair. “And that thing that just showed up is probably here to cause trouble, mutie freak.” The last was muttered only loud enough to carry to me as she glared at a boy with green skin who was in the middle of an ollie.

Her complaint about the mutant barely registered, I was used to it from her by now, and I had more important things to worry about. “Bloody hell, I am so late! Mom an’ Da are gonna kill me!” I wailed as I snatched up my backpack. “I was s’posed to meet my parents at home to go to the hospital fifteen minutes ago! I gotta jet. Later, Callie!”

Snatching up my backpack, I grabbed my phone and flipped it open. There were three missed messages and after checking them it was clear that my parents were not happy with me. We were all supposed to go to the hospital together as a family to look at the ultrasound. Calling my mother, I felt like three inches tall.

Yeah, Mom was not happy that I had been goofing off and not paying attention to the time. They could still make it to the appointment if they left now though so I told them that I’d skate straight to the hospital and meet them there. With that done, I jammed my phone back in my backpack, hopped on my board, and booked it as fast as I could to the hospital downtown.

Why were they so pissed? I mean, it wasn’t like I was the one having a baby. But oh no, they wanted to do this ‘as a family’. Probably to start drilling it into my head that this new sibling was going to eat up a bunch of my time with babysitting and shit. Having a baby at their age, really? What were they thinking? They went on and on about how the wee bairn would be the first of our family born in Canada as if that made it more important than me.

We moved to Canada when I was like four so I barely remembered living anywhere else. The only thing I really had from Ireland besides my parents was an accent that I was trying my hardest to get rid of. I got razzed too damn much already for being the redheaded freckled skater girl with the ‘leprechaun accent’. I had enough problems without all my free time going up in smoke.

Okay, I know that I probably sound like a bit of a bitch. It’s not like I hated the idea of being a big sister, It might be nice to have a munchkin running around worshipping their big sis. The only problem with that is there’s that little thing about them being babies first. Nothing but eating, pooping, and sleeping, and having no consideration for other people who might be sleeping in the middle of the night when they wake up screaming and needing to do two of the three. And who do you think was going to be coerced into helping with that shit? Me.

I was almost to the hospital; I’d probably get there before they did since I could weave around traffic instead of having to deal with it. Not that my parents would appreciate that, they’d probably still be mad at me for making them run late. It wasn’t like I asked to go to the appointment so I could see my future overlord kicking back and chilling in Mom’s belly.

My brooding on the subject as I raced along the street was intruded upon by the sound of a loud bang. Another, and then more quickly followed it. They seemed to be coming from all over the place, some along with the sound of screaming brakes. What the hell was going on? I stopped to take a cautious look around but I couldn’t see anything close by, a lot of the sounds were a couple of streets over. It was like I was in the eye of some storm of explosions.

After pausing for a couple of minutes and not hearing anything else except for the sound of approaching sirens, I tried to ignore the chills running down my spine and continued on my way. There hadn’t been any bangs in the direction that I was headed in so I continued on my way, taking a shortcut through a park. It was as I exited the other side of the park that I nearly slammed into a cargo van that some asshole had parked on the sidewalk, blocking the walkway into the park. The van had been left running but there was nobody in the driver’s seat.

After being forced to squeeze between the van and a decorative hedge to get on the sidewalk, I went around the van and saw signs of the apocalypse. Cats and dogs were working together. There were dozens of them and they were chasing off anyone who even came close to the bank across the street while growling, hissing, or yipping as they did so. A pair of security guards were collapsed in terror just outside the bank doors with two of the biggest dogs I’d ever seen on top of them with their teeth on the men’s throats.

As if the entire scene wasn’t wrong enough by itself, there was something wrong with the animals in question as well. Every one of them was covered in a patchwork of metal plates, wiring, and some sort of cybernetics. It was while I was standing there, stunned and staring that a corgi spotted me, snarled, and leaped toward me. What the hell? That cycorg must have got five feet of air, and it was coming straight at my neck.

My reaction was a mixture of fear, instinct, and luck as I swung my skateboard in a panic, striking my attacker and sending it flying. My board snapped in half from the impact and the corgi blew up mid-air, the force of the small explosion slamming me into the side of the van. I was still trying to get air back in my lungs and shake off the impact as a poodle and three cats decided to pick up where my first attacker had left off, stalking toward me while hissing and yipping.

That was when things got weird…er. I was holding my hands up in front of me as if that would somehow placate them when that itchiness in my palms turned into a tingle and a swarm of glowing purple bugs poured from my hands. I may have started shrieking as some of the nastiest and creepiest bugs I had ever encountered crawled over my legs or flew to swarm my new attackers. There were spiders, fire ants, hornets, wasps, bees, moths, and even dragonflies. They all had that purple glow and they were moving really fast.

The bugs started to sting, bite, and try eating the animals alive, but I wasn’t sure that they could take the cybernetic animals down that way. I wasn’t sure whether any of them had poison or not and even if they did it would take time to take them down that way, they should have been going for the wires and stuff rather than the fleshy bits. Much to my surprise, as soon as that thought entered my mind, the bugs did just that, gnawing on exposed wires and burrowing between flesh and metal plates to get at the electronics inside.

The cyberpets were fighting back though and each time a bug was swatted, shocked by damaged wiring, ripped apart, or otherwise damaged I felt a pinprick of pain in my head as they vanished with a pop and a puff of purple smoke. Finally, the four attackers collapsed in twitching heaps and the bugs went on to disable the other cyber animals that seemed to be holding people hostage. I scrambled to my feet, intent on getting the hell out of there while the getting was good. As luck would have it, that was when a lanky man with a pair of duffel bags slung over his shoulder emerged from the bank, running toward the van.

He looked to be Caucasian and of average height but it was hard to tell much more than that with the fur-trimmed black hooded cape and a black bandana covering the lower half of his face. His whole outfit was like that, black with grey fur trim. Beneath the cape, he wore combat boots, baggy cargo pants, a military-style jacket with lots of pockets, and a bandolier of lab mice?

He stopped short, looking at the disabled robo-animals and the remaining glowing bugs moving toward the rest of them in confusion. “What?! Who dares to mess with my ani-drones?!”

My eyes went wide in fear and a swarm of glowing bees flew from my hands, straight at the man. His eyes widened as well, but not in fear since the bees just bounced off some sort of barrier before they could sting him. “So it’s you! You’ve come to foil my plans, have you?! Fortunately, I always have a force field generator handy for my escapes.”

“I… don’t even know who y’ are,” I protested as he yanked one of the mice from his bandolier, pulled its tail, and threw it at me. I was already on my feet and diving out of its path. Mouse or not, this guy was crazy and I was pretty sure I didn’t want that thing hitting me, I could get rabies.

*Narf!* the mouse snarled as it sailed toward the spot I had been crouched in seconds before and landed with a *Poit!* before exploding and leaving a blood-stained scorch mark on the pavement. “I am the Furrminator, you brat!” the crazed villain yelled as he rapidly lobbed the rest of the mice in his bandolier, tiny explosions ringing out as I dodged and ran for my life.

I needed to get out of here; this guy was a nut case. What kind of freak uses exploding animals? At least he seemed to be out of mice. That was when the bastard pulled a gerbil from one of the pockets in his cargo pants and tossed it, and I barely avoided the resulting small explosion and flying half-cooked gobs of greasy gerbil guts. Ewwww.

He was reaching into another pocket for something else when he stopped and his eyes narrowed at me. “Oh! I know who you are! The bugs say it all; you’re one of those would-be heroes! Why else would you be trying so hard to stop me?!”

“I’m tryin’ to get away!” I snapped back.

“No! You’re just trying to buy time so you can think of some way for your bugs to penetrate my forcefield, Verminatrix! You’re just like those other heroes! No, wait, you’re different… I can see it now. I use animals; you use bugs, we must be fated to be… nemesi? Nemeses? Mortal enemies!” As he ranted, I tried to book it but a black cat jumped into my path and exploded, sending me flying and rolling along the pavement. “Don’t ignore me!” he shouted angrily.

Just great, now I was his nemesis, which meant that there was no way that I was getting out of this fight. The bastard had even randomly gave me a stupid codename. The problem was that I had no way to actually fight him while he had that stupid force field generator. Not to mention that I was sporting bruises and scrapes all over my body, I had animal guts on me, and I felt like hammered shit.

Wait, the sound of sirens was getting closer. If I could just keep him distracted for a few more minutes the police, and maybe a real superhero, would show up to stop him. No such luck. He heard the approaching sirens as well and his head snapped briefly toward the source before he glared back at me.

“You won’t catch me this time, Verminatrix! I’ve beaten you! Until next time!” he yelled. Then he pulled a hamster from his pocket and tossed it at me before bolting for the running van with his duffel bags, laughing maniacally. I tried to scamper backward but I was too slow and the last thing that I saw before everything went black and my world erupted in searing pain was the hamster exploding in mid-air, inches from my face.

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Victoria General Hospital
Saturday, July 21st, 2007 – 7:00 p.m.

My only company in the darkness was the electric hum of machines and the constant beeping of the heart rate monitor. I had to assume that it was evening since I had just finished what the hospital passed off as dinner, or at least that was what the nurse had told me as she fed me. With a sigh, I reached up and touched the bandages covering what was left of my eyes.

The doctors said that the scarring to my face would be minimal but metal shrapnel from the exploding hamster had made my eyes useless. My sight wasn’t the only thing that I had lost though. When the police had come in earlier today to question me about the incident in front of the bank and get a description of the Furrminator and his van, they had also been the bearers of more bad news.

The Furrmintator had had his ani-drones causing havoc all over the city to keep attention away from his real target. Apparently, that was his MO and the animals usually didn’t kill anyone but accidents happen. A large dog had been hit by a car and exploded in a busy intersection, and a semi that had swerved to avoid the ‘accident’ had hit my parents’ car as they were on their way to the hospital, killing both them and my unborn sibling.

That explained why I hadn’t gotten any visitors since I had been brought here three days ago. My family was dead; I had nobody left who gave enough of a shit to come to visit me. Well, I had had one visitor, for all of ten seconds. My supposed BFF, Calista, had shown up yesterday just long enough to kick me to the curb once the nurse had accidentally let it slip that I was the mutant who had fought against the psychotic supervillain.

Pain surged in my chest and tears soaked my bandages, as I lay there sniffling and sobbing. It wasn’t the first time and likely wouldn’t be the last. The worst part was that I knew that it was partly my fault that my family was dead. If I had just been on time instead of goofing off and only thinking of myself, we would have all been there before that ‘accident’ could have happened.

Not all of the fault lay with me though, the Furrminator was the real villain here and somehow I was going to make him pay. My fists and teeth clenched as I thought about it. He had gotten away and the RCMP had no idea about his current whereabouts. I didn’t know how yet, but I would find him and destroy him for everything that he had taken from me.

If only I could still see, I wouldn’t be so helpless, so useless. I’d be able to learn to control my new powers and then I could find that bastard and make him pay. The thought was enough to activate my power, a brief tingling in my left hand before I felt something skitter along my bare arm toward my shoulder. That wasn’t all though, I could sort of see too. It was all in shades of purple though, and when I thought to look around everything looked huge.

I could see myself too, and tried to focus on my face. Even in that monochrome purple, I could tell that I was a mess, eyes covered with gauze and small bandages dotting my cheeks as well. I wanted to see in front of me though, so my bug proxy finished crawling upward and positioned itself on my shoulder. It turned to the right and then to the left at my mere thought. Yes, this was a start. This weird power of mine might be a little creepy but I was going to learn how to control it and use it to find the Furrminator and make him pay.

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Victoria General Hospital
Sunday, August 12th, 2007 – 3:52 p.m.

I had spent the last three weeks in this damned hospital room and was lost in darkness for most of that time. I couldn’t use my powers much since the sight of glowing bugs freaked the nurses out, though I had sent out a few flies to scout the floor beyond my room late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. Most of that time though was spent trying to adjust to being blind and starting to learn to be somewhat independent again through rehab.

During my sessions, I was starting to learn to read braille, to ‘see’ with a cane while walking, and to rely more on my other senses. They had tried pairing me with a seeing-eye dog as well but that had been a disaster. I completely freaked out. I couldn’t breathe suddenly and I backed away as far as I could into the corner of the room. When the dog had gotten close enough again to lick my hand and try to make nice I had curled up in a ball whimpering and crying. Not my best moment ever.

Since an animal companion seemed to be out of the question, I had a very special new phone. Well, sort of a phone since it could allow me to make and receive calls in addition to a bunch of other functions. It had been built and donated by a local gadgeteer named Clockwork, who had heard about what had happened to me on the news. The device was voice-activated, keyed to my voice only, and came in an impact-resistant leather and metal case that buckled onto my forearm. From what I had seen using one of my bugs it resembled a steampunk-themed Pip-Boy from the Fallout games, and it was pre-loaded with ADA and various phone apps for the blind.

ADA stands for Audio Digital Assistant, she gave me whatever information I needed and read for me orally through a special pair of earbuds that not only wouldn’t interfere with me hearing things from the world around me but enhance it as well if I needed to. Ada wasn’t quite an AI, more like a purposely programmed personality, but she could learn to anticipate things from my past behavior and requests. She had a pleasant feminine voice and over the past week that I had been playing around with her, she was getting to know me well enough to sometimes ask if I needed something before I could ask her.

While I was doing all of that, and occasionally breaking down as grief and loss overwhelmed me, Dakota tried to find someone who would be willing to take in a newly blinded mutant with creepy powers as a foster kid. Dakota Olsen is a psychologist that works for the Ministry of Supernatural Affairs. I met her the day after the police had come to interview me and she claimed to be there to make sure that I was placed in a safe and nurturing environment, though I was pretty sure that she was there to test my sanity after losing both my sight and my family as well.

She had certainly made me take enough psych tests. I tried to answer things honestly for the most part but it was hard since it made me feel even weaker and more helpless than my blindness. I told her about the nightmares, the crying jags, the disaster with the dog, and how loud noises sent me into a panic. I also told her how much I wanted to bring the Furrminator to justice for what he had done. I didn’t say that I wanted to kill him but I think that she might have suspected it because she told me that there are many types of justice.

We spent a lot of the time that I wasn’t in rehab together, and a couple of days ago she brought me some clothes and personal stuff from my home. I guess it wasn’t really my home anymore though. It was being sold, and that money and the insurance money from my parents’ deaths were going to be placed in a trust fund for me. I couldn’t claim it until I was eighteen, or sixteen if Dakota couldn’t find a family to take me in and I had to emancipate myself.

I wasn’t going to hold my breath waiting for it. Dakota hadn’t found anyone ‘suitable’ so far and I didn’t think that she ever would. I was only a danger to everyone around me and I didn’t want people pitying me for being blind, I was self-conscious enough about it. I spent a lot of time when I was in bed thinking about things I would never be able to do again; see a blue sky, pull an ollie on my board, or hug my parents. I could never tell them how sorry I was or how much I loved them. Just the thought had me curled up in my bed sobbing again while Ada tried to comfort me. Her program just wasn’t up to the challenge.

Yesterday, Dakota took me to the MCO office for my power testing. It had been nice to get out of the hospital for a little while but I was uncertain at first about trying to use my cane to see in an unfamiliar place. It wasn’t the problem that my anxiety tried to convince me that it was though, since I was there for testing and actually supposed to use my powers.

The testing revealed that I was a Manifestor 3 and Psi 2. I manifest various ectoplasmic bugs from my hands and while I didn’t seem to be limited by number, their mass did seem to be an issue. The most that I could manifest at one time without straining myself was roughly 15 lbs. total mass worth of various bugs.

My psi powers seemed to be limited to the bugs that I manifested. The powers expert at the MCO office said that I have a psychic link to them and can mentally issue them orders as their 'queen'. He said that when I use one of them to see for me, I’m focusing my psychic link on a specific bug to take direct control of it and use its senses in addition to my own. My range to control the bugs maxed out at roughly 200 yards. Any further than that and I lost my connection and the bugs would dissipate. He did mention that those limits could improve with time and training though.

One side effect that I had already discovered on my own was that prolonged use of a bug's senses caused me to have the worst migraines. The most I could manage was about three hours before it became too much to bear. With that in mind, I was trying to use them only when I really needed to see, at least until I could train myself to last longer. So, I was enduring my private darkness and doing some research with Ada’s help on various types of bugs until my most recent emotional breakdown. I was still trying to calm down when I heard someone knock and enter the room.

The sound of clicking heels and the familiar unrushed pace made me guess, “Dakota?” I quickly sat up in my bed and tried to wipe away the tears. The bandages were off now which meant it would be easier for her to tell that I’d been crying.

“Yup, get some clothes on Casidi, we’re going to get you out of here and get you some real food for dinner before we catch a plane to Vancouver,” the MSA assessor replied. Her voice was sympathetic but she mercifully didn’t mention the fact that I was probably a mess.

My ears twitched in interest at her news though and I manifested a tarantula so that I could see well enough to dress myself. Putting on clothes was a pain in the ass now. When I didn’t have my ‘eyes’ out I would have to feel around for my suitcase and put them on by feel, to varying degrees of success. It made me feel so damn helpless. Even with a bug to see for me I couldn’t exactly color coordinate since everything was in shades of purple. It was taking a while for me to get used to seeing from different perspectives than my actual eyes as well.

It wasn’t until we were eating at Burger King that Dakota decided to tell me what was going on. Being in public was making me self-conscious and I was mostly quiet as we ate. I could practically feel people’s eyes on me. I could hear the pity in the fast food jockey’s voice as she asked for my order. As we sat and I quietly ate, I tried to remember what the last Burger King that I had eaten at looked like and visualize it in my mind.

It didn’t help. The memories were hazy at best and the exercise just made it more clear that I would never see properly again. I could picture myself forgetting what a sunset, a forest, or even colors looked like in time. I was shaken out of these dark thoughts as Dakota said, “I found someone who has offered to take you in. She was a superhero called Sigil until Halloween and I’m sure she and her… son will take good care of you and be a good influence on you until you go to school.”

I wasn’t really sure what question to ask first but the school thing got my attention the most. “Can’t I be ‘ome-schooled?” I complained.

“Liz Armstrong has something in common with you; she’s familiar with loss and coming to terms with suddenly being disabled. She was paralyzed from the waist down while her team was fighting a demon and most of her team were killed during that fight,” she continued to explain before finally seeming to register my complaint. “No, you’ll be going to a school for people like you, Casidi.”

“A school fer blind people? Oh, that sounds like loads o’ fun,” I snapped sarcastically.

“No. It’s a private school for mutants in New Hampshire,” she countered evenly. “I’ve approved you for the Ride-along program since I feel that, with the right guiding hand, you could be an asset to any superhero team. You’ll be going to Whateley on an MSA-sponsored scholarship to learn to use your powers and make friends with others like yourself, During the summers you will learn the ins and outs of super-powered law enforcement from your new guardian’s former team alongside her son, Robin.”

“Oh, aye, I’m sure I’ll be jus’ peachy there,” I snarked. “I’ll be a freak among freaks. The girl who can’t see, prime bully material in a school where everyone ‘as superpowers. If I’m lucky mebbe I’ll get vaporized afore midterms.”

I felt a hand take my own, the contact and the warmth surprising me as Dakota said gently, “Give yourself and other people a chance, Casidi. If you stop focusing on what you can’t do and start working on what you can, I’m sure that you’ll do well there and make some friends.”

The rest of our meal was eaten in silence until it was time to go to the airport. I had Ada make a playlist for me and listened to music while Dakota straightened out our tickets and took us through what I could only imagine was a long line through airport security. Until they had to take my new ‘phone’ to run it through the security scanners. “She’ll need that right back,” Dakota told them firmly, “it’s special and she can’t use a regular phone.”

“Yes ma’am,” a man’s voice replied. And then I had to use my cane and follow their instructions to get through security, after which Ada was returned.

“Ada? Are you there?” I asked once I had her strapped back on my right wrist, just to be certain that they hadn’t damaged her as Dakota guided me by the left arm to the MCO checkpoint.

“I am here, Casidi. Do you require any assistance?” the device replied.

I raised my wrist to aim the forward camera in front of me with my free hand as Dakota led me by the arm, the loop of my cane securely around my left wrist. “Is the checkpoint busy?” I asked.

“There are four people in line ahead of you, Casidi. I suggest that you have your MID ready for inspection,” my digital assistant replied.

“Thanks, Ada,” I said with a sigh as I reached into my purse and fumbled around for my new ID card. Fortunately, it was the only ID that I had in my purse and I was able to locate it by feel before we got to the checkpoint. Dakota had most of my documents, like my health card and birth certificate, so she could turn them over to my new guardian when we arrived in Vancouver.

“Bug-Out hmmm?” asked the man who I assumed to be the MCO agent as I held out my ID and he perused my codename. I had to call myself something and I didn’t want to give that asshole, the Furrminator, the satisfaction of calling myself Verminatrix. I turned my face to the sound of the man’s voice and nodded in confirmation and he asked, “Where are you traveling, and what is your business there?”

“She’s with me,” Dakota cut in. “It’s MSA business and I’ll be traveling with her.” We were let through fairly quickly after that and were able to board our flight on time. It wasn’t a long flight so I didn’t have much time to do anything but think.

I wasn’t sure about any of this. The school, or the strangers that I’d be living with. I knew that I had to give them a chance though. If I was going to learn to control my powers and become strong enough to take down the Furrminator and his exploding menagerie, then I needed to. And I would do that, even if it was the last thing that I ever did.

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* Anesthesia *

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007 – 8:13 a.m.

*Next stop Dunwich Station*

The announcement stirred me from my reading. Okay, so maybe I had been dozing off a little but I can’t be blamed for that. Between the connecting flights to get from Santa Cruz to Boston, MCO checkpoints at the airports, and then hopping the first available train so that I would have the time to get properly set up at my new school before classes on Monday, I hadn’t gotten much sleep. Of course, I could have slept on the L.A. to Boston flight if the guy sitting next to me hadn’t spent most of that time trying desperately to get into my pants. Being attractive really sucks sometimes.

Quickly grabbing my carry-on bag and the small backpack that substituted for a purse, I disembarked once the train came to a complete stop. I had to wait for my luggage to be unloaded but fortunately, it seemed that I was the only passenger getting off at this dingy little station. A groan escaped my lips as I watched the large steamer trunk and the four-piece set of matched luggage being unloaded. What the hell was my mom thinking anyway, having me bring all of that?

Scratch that, I knew exactly what she’d been thinking. It was the same thing that she was always thinking. That I need to be prepared for any possible social situation so I can snatch myself a rich and influential husband, just like she had. Way to pass down those family values, Mom.

My mom… well, I’m just going to say it, she’s a trophy wife. She and Dad want the same thing for me, or they don’t think a pretty girl is capable of more, I can’t really tell which sometimes. I had been in those child beauty contests since I could walk, and even before I manifested they were doing their very best to raise me to be some vacuous bimbo princess trophy as if being pretty was my only redeeming quality.

My father is a high-profile contract lawyer and works with a lot of the Hollywood types, though luckily he had no desire to actually live there so we live in Santa Cruz. My kid brother, Thomas Junior, is expected to follow in Dad’s footsteps and go to law school but our parents just want to marry me off and have me reap the benefits of being some rich guy's eye candy for the rest of my life, just like my mom. That's probably why my middle name is Candace, not that they ever use the full version, not even when they’re angry at me. Taffy Candy Sweet; it makes me sound like a stereotypical blonde bimbo, or a cartoon character.

Six months ago, when my powers first manifested I was actually excited at the prospect, hoping that I could somehow become less attractive, maybe grow scales or something so my parents would stop pressuring me to try to be someone who I had no interest in being. No such luck. My powers testing showed me to be an exemplar four and projective empath they rated at a three.

Beautiful became unnaturally gorgeous, like my natural beauty from before had been dialed up to eleven, or maybe even twelve. Seriously, I would be turning fifteen in two weeks and I was already five feet and nine inches tall with a body like a real-life Jessica Rabbit. Okay, well maybe my waist isn’t quite that ridiculously thin but it was close, and you have no idea how hard it is to find practical bras in an F-cup. At least my growth spurt seemed to have stopped for now.

The agent that my mom foisted upon me before school started said that I had some ‘undefinable quality’; every one of my perfect features seems to only enhance every other, and my whole overall look. Even the beauty mark on my left cheek is a perfect size and in just the right spot. My parents ate that up and only added more pressure on me to get some modeling exposure and find a good catch to spend the rest of my life looking pretty and popping out kids for, when I wasn’t hanging off his arm with a vacant expression on my face.

It makes me so angry. I hate being treated like a bimbo or sex object because I’m blonde and look like this but when people see me and then hear my name, that’s where their thoughts go. Why did I think coming to a school across the country was a good idea again? Other than being far away from my parents, that is. My eyes scanned the station around me once more as I sighed and thought sadly, “I stood out enough at my last school but how many unnaturally beautiful blonde girls could there possibly be in New Hampshire, of all places?”

It was as I was considering that, trying to figure out what to do with far too much luggage, and wondering if a town this small had a taxi service that a voice said, “Hi, are you Taffy Sweet?” Looking up, I saw a blonde bombshell who had to be an exemplar standing there. When I nodded in response she added, “I’m Tansy Walcutt, it’s nice to meet you. I volunteered to come get you and help you get settled in.”

“Well played, irony,” I muttered to myself before putting on a friendly smile and saying, “It’s nice to meet you, Tansy.” This had my dad’s influence written all over it, and a freaking Walcutt no less. He and Mom wanted to make sure that I kept to the right social circles, no doubt. It could have been worse, I guess; it could have been a Goodkind. Hopefully, I’d be spared that dubious honor, what with this being a school for mutants and all.

Tansy gave me a smile that seemed surprisingly genuine and gestured to a tall young woman with scarlet hair who had been hanging back a bit. “This is my friend, Lanie. She offered to come along with her car in case you needed help with luggage.”

“Thanks, both of you,” was my somewhat awkward reply as I looked over my luggage again. “Honestly, I would have been fine with a pair of suitcases but my mother insisted that I needed at least this much. I’ll probably never wear most of it; I’m a jeans and t-shirts kind of person.”

As much as I appreciated the help, I had to wonder what the price for it was going to be. My dad’s wealthy friends never did anything that didn’t benefit themselves in some way. At least, not that I’d heard of. That made me wonder what Tansy’s game was as I grabbed the largest of the suitcases in one hand and the handle of the steamer trunk in the other, picking them up effortlessly.

“Don’t worry about it. Ah don’t mind helping at all,” the redhead offered. “Ah like jeans and t-shirts too, being comfortable is good.”

“And I wouldn’t have volunteered if I minded,” Tansy added with a smile as she grabbed my other suitcases. “I’m going to be honest with you here though, Taffy. Our fathers know one another but I won’t hold that against you. My dad’s secretary sent me your portfolio and said that you were interested in modeling, so I just had to meet you when I heard that you were coming to Whateley. I’m the president of Whateley’s modeling club and from what I’ve seen; I think you would make a great addition to Venus Inc.”

And there it was, the pitch. Of course, my father wouldn’t have left anything to chance. Even from the other side of the country, my parents were trying to control my life. I sighed and shook my head. “I’m sorry that you made the trip for nothing but I have zero interest in joining your little modeling club, Tansy. That was probably my parents’ doing. They want me to become a model so I can catch a rich husband; they’ve been pressuring me about it since I was in diapers. I came here to get away from that. No offense, but I’m not just some little bimbo whose only talent is being pretty. I’m here to get a good education so that I can get into a good university.”

The angry vitriol that I expected to spew from the other blonde’s mouth at my statement never happened. Instead, she smiled and shrugged as we followed Lanie to her car. “Beauty and brains, huh? I can understand not wanting to lose your mental edge just because you’re beautiful. I can understand controlling parents too. I’ll bet that you have your future all planned out.”

“Yeah, I have my own plans for my future and I’m going to pursue them now that I’m out from my parents’ thumbs,” I told her as coolly as I could. “I can just focus on my future without their pressure to be the perfect little bimbo in training. No more plotting about who I’m going to screw my way to marriage with, and no more pressure to start modeling to increase my exposure. I can just study and go to Harvard or another good school after graduation to pursue a career in psychology or medicine.”

By this time, we had reached Lanie’s car parked outside, a vintage 1969 Mustang that was painted a metallic light blue with wide white racing stripes over the hood and roof. Tansy wore a pensive expression as we somehow managed to tetris my luggage into the trunk. Finally, as we closed the trunk, the other gorgeous blonde spoke again. “I’m all for you living your life how you want to, I wish that I knew what it was that I really wanted when I started here, but there are probably some things that you haven’t considered. Would you be willing to hear me out and maybe compromise?”

She was so calm and looked like she was actually considering my situation. I had said my piece but if she really had logical arguments, shouldn’t I listen to them? She hadn’t acted like the spoiled rich girl that I had expected so far, so it would be stupid of me to act that way myself just because she voices some suggestions. Still, I was uncertain, I had my plans and I didn’t really want to alter them. I wanted to be my own person.

My gaze landed on Lanie as she leaned against the driver’s side door. She had been watching and listening, but hadn’t really offered any comments of her own yet. The redhead merely shrugged and said, “Don’t look at me, Ah'm just here because Ah have a car."

Was she trying to stay out of it or just subtly let me know that I had to make my own decisions? Either way, she was right. It wasn’t really her business and I did need to make my own decision on the matter. “No promises on the compromise, but I’ll at least hear you out,” I told Tansy uncertainly. Then we got into the car where I would be a captive audience until we got to the school.

Tansy actually made some good points that I hadn’t considered. The first one was that being on the other side of the country was obviously not going to prevent my parents from trying to control my life. The mere fact that Tansy had received my portfolio with a message saying that I was interested in modeling proved that. Even here at Whateley, they expected me to be their obedient daughter and follow their plans for snatching a rich husband. And if I didn’t play along they would probably drag me right back home so that they could be sure that I would.

There were also my plans for the future to consider. Good universities are expensive and could I really expect any help from my parents with that, given the direction that they had planned for my life? Sure, there were probably some scholarships that I could qualify for but it probably wouldn’t be enough to cover all of my education and living expenses. My brother may have had a trust fund, but I didn’t. Why would I need one when I was just going to catch a wealthy and influential husband to take care of my every need and desire?

I would need to start making some money of my own that wasn’t held tightly in my parents’ clutches if I wanted to save up for school. Modeling paid well and Venus Inc. would help me to vet any jobs that I was offered. Tansy’s logic was sound but I didn’t want to devote all of my time to sitting in front of a camera, and I told her as much.

“You don’t have to be a full-time member of the club,” she pointed out as we pulled into the parking lot of Whateley Academy. “You just come to the meetings, eat lunch or dinner with us once in a while, and take enough jobs to help save some money for school and convince your parents that you’re doing what they want. The rest of your time can be devoted to studying and if your parents ask why you aren’t doing more, just tell them that Freshmen and Sophomores don’t get much work.”

“That could work,” I agreed, “at least until I’m a Junior.”

“That’s when you take on a bit more work but tell them that the club requires that you keep your grades up, so you need to study as well,” she said with a devious smile. She was considering all of the angles and I thought that I could get to like Tansy. We seemed to have a lot in common.

With a defeated sigh, I relented. “Okay, I’ll do it but only part-time and the jobs have to be tasteful, I don’t want to do anything too sexual. No cleavage hanging out or anything.”

“No cleavage? Seriously, Taffy, have you seen you?” Tansy said with a roll of her eyes that her smile belied. Even Lanie was trying to cover a smile and she’d been careful so far not to show anything that might sway me one way or the other.

“Fine, no excessive cleavage,” I countered, knowing that she was right despite the teasing. With the size of my chest, even my most modest outfits usually showed at least a little. With a deal made and my fate sealed, Tansy and Lanie helped me to drop off my luggage at Poe Cottage, where I would be spending most of the next four years.

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Room 113 was on the ground floor, something that surprised Lanie and Tansy when they were told where we could put my things. It was just off the great hall and close to bathrooms, the computer lab, and study rooms. Since Tansy had to go back to her own cottage to prepare for church, she wasn’t able to give me a tour of the school but she did invite me to join her and the other members of Venus Inc. for dinner that night so she could make introductions. Lanie lived in Poe too though, so once we were done and Tansy had left she took me to introduce me to Mrs. Horton.

The housemother’s apartment was just down the hall from my room and a moment after Lanie had knocked, a matronly woman who regarded us with a kind smile answered the door. Once introductions were made and Lanie was released to do whatever she usually did on Sunday mornings, Mrs. Horton led me into her living room where she had me sit on the couch. There was a tea set on the coffee table and I wondered if she had been expecting me.

“How do you like your tea, Taffy?” she asked, making no motion to sit down yet. “If you don’t like tea, I’m sure that I can find you something else to drink while we chat.”

“No, tea is fine,” I quickly assured her, wondering what her game was. I was raised to be polite though so I went along with it for the moment. “One cream and one sugar please.”

Only once I had told her that I was fine with tea did she sit and pour for both of us. After I had taken a few cautious sips, she broke the silence by asking, “So dear, what brings you to Whateley?”

For a long moment, I was uncertain how to answer. With what had happened with Tansy, I couldn’t be sure who my father might have contacted here. I had a feeling that I could trust Tansy but… “Stop that,” I mentally chastised myself, “I’m just being paranoid. Not everyone here is going to be under Dad’s thumb. I have to trust some people and she seems like the motherly type, not that I have much experience with that.”

Finally, my shoulders shrugged as I decided to answer honestly. “I came here because I want a good education and to learn how to use my powers better. I also want to get away from my parents so I can live the life that I want, instead of the life they want for me.”

“Frank, aren’t you?” she said with a sympathetic look on her face. “It’s not easy having parents that see you as an accessory rather than a person. I can see that you want to be seen as more than just a pretty face.”

My eyes widened in surprise as she hit the nail on the head. “Honestly, I’d rather not even be seen as a pretty face at all. People constantly think I’m some kind of idiot because I look like this and it brings too much attention, attention that I don’t really care for.”

“Is that why you marked the questions on your admissions form about your gender and sexuality as ‘complicated’?” she asked.

“In part,” I admitted. “I’m not really like other girls. Sexuality and gender are just confusing and don’t really interest me.”

“Confusing how?” she asked, hoping that I would clarify.

Figuring that there were probably no take-backs for that, I decided to explain as best I could. “It’s not like I hate being a girl. Sure, it can be physically inconvenient during a certain time of the month, but I don’t hate it. I hate people expecting me to behave or dress a certain way or have gender-specific interests because I’m female and pretty but I’m not uncomfortable with it. I think that I’d feel the same way if I were male. I guess that I feel like how people feel under my powers about it. I’m gender-numb. I’m fine being a girl and with my body but I have no real interest in it, it feels distant and unimportant. I don’t want it, or other people’s expectations because of it, to hold me back in life. So, I’m not really the type to enjoy girl talk, shopping, or pursuing boys, no matter what my parents might want.”

“And what do your parents want?”

“They want me to find some rich guy, marry him, and be a vapid bimbo for the rest of my life while he ‘takes care of me’,” was my bitter reply. “Even if I did want to act all stereotypically feminine, I don’t think that I could fake an interest in boys… or girls. I’m not physically attracted to anyone; I’m just not wired that way. I guess that you could call me asexual, sex holds no interest for me, it’s not what I want a relationship to revolve around but when people see me they think…”

From the expression on her face as I trailed off, it was easy to tell that Mrs. Horton could imagine very well what people might think when they looked at me. “What is it that you want then? Do relationships interest you at all, Taffy?”

“I’m not really sure. I guess that an emotional connection with someone I genuinely like and feel intellectually compatible with might be nice eventually. Maybe someone who can respect the way I am, who appreciates romantic things like cuddling, holding hands, and the occasional kissing without thinking that sexual attraction needs to be a part of it, or even necessary. I’m not going to waste my time by looking for it though; I’m here to get an education.”

“You’re very goal-focused, aren’t you?” the housemother asked as she took a sip of her tea.

“I’ve got goals, and if I want to achieve them I’ll need to do it on my own. I have more to offer the world than this,” I grumbled as I gestured to my face and body.

An awkward silence fell over us as we both tried to think of something to say. I was worried that I had said too much, that she might think that I wouldn’t fit in at Whateley, or in Poe Cottage. It was my own fault though, for being too hung up on what the outside world sees.

It’s probably fairly obvious that I hate being valued for only my appearance. It’s one of the few things that makes me lose my temper if people don’t get the message, and that happens all of the time. That was why I had zero interest in the offer to join Venus Inc. until Tansy had offered a compromise and reasonable arguments for why I should. It’s also why I meditate a lot when I’m not studying, to control my emotions and find peace. Sometimes I really wished that I could use my powers on myself.

People have told me that while I’m using my empathic ability to calm them down or influence their emotions that the emotional state that I put them in is so mentally and emotionally encompassing that they feel physically numb, almost detached from their bodies. It was how I got my codename, Anesthesia. Maybe it will be useful if I can get into Harvard or another good school after graduation to pursue a career in psychology or medicine.

My meandering thoughts were interrupted as Mrs. Horton spoke candidly. “Let me tell you a bit about Poe Cottage, Taffy. Many students think that this is where we put the ‘headcases’ but many are placed here because they might be bullied in other cottages, for reasons largely outside their control. You were assigned here because this is also a safe haven of sorts for LGBTQ students. If you don’t think that you’ll fit in here then we can transfer you somewhere else but I think that you should give us a try. You might find some kindred spirits here, or at least friends who will accept you for who you are.”

Honestly, I didn’t really care what cottage I was in, so long as I could study in peace. Mrs. Horton and Lanie both seemed nice enough, and I was fairly certain that I was going to draw attention wherever I ended up staying. Maybe in Poe people would actually respect that I was asexual. “Alright, Mrs. Horton, I’ll give Poe Cottage a chance.”

“Good,” she said, a smile touching her lips again. “I’m afraid that there is no space for you on the Freshman floor, so for now you will be staying in one of the junior high rooms until space becomes available or the new wing is finished. You’ll have that room to yourself unless another new girl shows up.”

That news brought a smile to my face. A room to myself without having to worry about others bothering me? She should have led with that. With my decision made, she went over the cottage rules with me and then reminded me that I had a meeting with the Headmistress at eight tomorrow morning. Once the tea and the conversation were both finished, she walked me out toward my room.

We were just outside my door when Mrs. Horton stopped a girl with blonde hair. “Robin, you’ll do perfectly. Would you mind giving Taffy here a tour of the cottage and the school?”

The girl turned toward as and I was a bit taken aback. She, or maybe it was he, was around five feet ten inches tall with a slim and athletic build, long blonde hair, and bright green eyes, and they looked like an elf right out of the Lord of the Rings. They were very pretty, or at least I thought that others might think that they were. Their voice straddled the line between male and female though, as they turned and looked between Mrs. Horton and me uncertainly and said, “I… guess so, Mrs. Horton.”

“Thank you, Robin, I’ll leave the two of you to get to know one another then. Taffy, if you need anything, my door is always open,” the house mother said before returning to her apartment.

Once Mrs. Horton had left us, Robin looked at the floor and there was an awkward silence as neither of us knew what to say for a moment. Since I was uncertain of their gender or how they identified, I didn’t want to make any assumptions and make things even weirder. Finally, I introduced myself just to break the silence. “I’m Taffy Sweet, I heard that some people prefer using codenames though, mine is Anesthesia.”

“I’m… uhh… Robin Armstrong. My codename is Evenstar,” Robin replied self-consciously. Then he asked, “So, you’re a Freshman too, huh? I’m surprised that they didn’t put you in another cottage. There’s no room on the Freshman floor, they had to put me with another guy like me on the Sophomore floor.”

“Yeah, they put me down here in one of the junior high rooms for now. Wait, there’s more than one elf here?” I asked in stunned confusion.

“Well, there is Nikki,” he said with a palpable mix of loss and jealousy in his tone and on his face before it shifted to embarrassment as he turned bright red. “My roommate, Shawn, isn’t… I mean… he’s not a Sídhe like me. We… uhh…” The funny thing was that I didn’t think that it was my appearance that was making him nervous, at least, that wasn’t entirely it.

“You don’t need to explain anything to me that you don’t want to,” I told him while fighting the urge to use my power to calm him down. “How about we start with the tour? If you feel like talking about anything else while we’re doing that, then that’s okay too. I’m a good listener.”

As Robin showed me around the cottage, I told him about why I had come to Whateley and why I thought that I had been placed in Poe. He probably saw me as a kindred spirit of sorts because he relaxed a bit and by the time we had finished touring the cottage, he started opening up about his own issues with gender and sexuality. Where I was gender numb and physically attracted to nobody, he was a girl changing into a boy and a Sidhe. The gender portion of that change wasn’t a welcome one and had left him frustrated and confused about both his gender and his sexuality.

The Sidhe changeling sighed as we exited Poe cottage. “Shawn is like, super excited about man-ifesting but I just… I don’t know if I can handle it. I see Nikki often on our floor and I get jealous. She’s Sidhe too but she’s everything that I was hoping I was going to become, and it hurts. I keep getting prettier but beneath my clothes, I… hate what I see happening there sometimes. The glamour doesn’t help either, especially since I can’t control it and it seems to be more effective on girls. I’m too pretty to be seen as a boy and it just confuses me as much as it does everyone else. It doesn’t help that my name is gender-neutral and I chose my codename before…”

I let him ramble and let it all out. Then, reaching my arm around him in a platonic side hug as he trailed off, I let out a bitter laugh. “Aren’t we a pair? I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat if I could. The gender thing probably wouldn’t bother me, I’m just not invested in it, and people might stop talking to my chest.”

A somber mood settled over the pair of us as we wandered the campus and Robin showed me where everything either important or interesting could be found. The school and its facilities were very impressive and the thought of the education that I could get at Whateley had me very happy. I was getting far more stares than I was comfortable with from the other students who were out and about though, and we both got hit on a few times. I’m not sure who that was more awkward for, me or Robin.

It was almost one o’clock when the tour took us to a large geodesic dome that Robin called Crystal Hall. Apparently, it was the school cafeteria. That seemed a little odd, but it certainly fit the school. There had been far stranger things on our tour, especially in the tunnels.

Once we had both filled our trays, I followed Robin to a table where a trio of girls greeted him. “Hey, Evenstar. We were beginnin’ to think that our Tolkien male would never show up,” a girl at the end of the table said without turning her head. There wasn’t much humor in her voice though, they were actually a pretty somber group.

The one who had spoken was a redheaded girl with a mix of freckles and small scars on her face who was wearing sunglasses and spoke with a faint accent. It sounded Irish to me but I couldn’t be certain. She was dressed fairly simply in a dark green blouse and black skirt, had a phone-like device strapped to her wrist, and a white cane sat beside her chair. She also had what looked a tarantula sitting on her shoulder that was facing us. It was glowing with faint violet light and it felt like it was watching us for some reason.

The second girl was a small Chinese girl with electric blue hair and eyes who sat facing us. Her hair was short and spiky and she had several piercings in her ears, one in her nose, another in her eyebrow, and a tattoo of a black Chinese dragon coiled around her right forearm that spat glowing blue flames along the back of her hand. She seemed to be paying more attention to whatever gizmo was sitting in front of her than to the world around her. She did look up and wave at Robin as he approached the table though.

Robin sat beside the third girl and I couldn’t get a very good look at her because she was facing away. All that I could see was that she seemed to be of average height with a slim and athletic build and wore an ill-fitting sleeveless top and long skirt. That was probably because of the jagged bone spikes sticking out from her plum-colored hair, and presumably, the rest of her body as well since I saw them all along her bare arms and shoulders, and bumps hinting at them being along her spine as well.

A walk around to the other side of the table had me sitting beside the Chinese girl and across from the girl with plum-colored hair. That provided me with a better look at her and what I saw surprised me. I had heard of extreme cases of GSD but I had never seen one up close before.

Those jagged bone spikes emerged from her skin along her arms, shoulders, spine, skull, and cheekbones. She probably had them jutting out from her legs as well under that skirt. The spikes were roughly two and a half inches long and a little thicker than a pencil at the base, though that was an average since their size seemed to vary by location. Her skin was the sickly yellow color of a healing bruise, turning purple where the spikes emerged from her skin, making it look like she had multiple compound fractures.

She glared at me with eyes where near-black irises stood out against blood-red sclera. “Yeah, get a good look, blondie,” she snapped as I sat down. “You’re at the wrong table. You should be sitting with the other pretty little bimbos or the popular kids.”

Anger bubbled up inside me at the B-word and I took a series of deep breaths to calm myself before speaking. “I’ll choose my own friends, thanks. I didn’t mean to stare, I’m just… a little bit jealous.”

“Taffy is cool, Ariel,” Robin assured her. “I’ve been giving her a tour around the school and we’ve been talking, I think that she can understand you and me better than you think.”

She didn’t seem to know what to say for a moment but let out a bitter laugh. “The most beautiful girl in any room jealous of me? Get real. I’m a freak. Nobody wants to be like me, people would rather kill themselves first… believe me, I know.”

With a sigh, I looked down at my plate and grumbled. “I didn’t want or ask for this. This was the last thing I wanted. Do you think I want people to look at me and think I’m some airheaded sex-kitten all of the time? Nobody takes me seriously. They judge me as soon as they see me, just like they probably do with you.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that you’re so hard done by. Those are designer clothes that you’re wearing. Rich, beautiful, can get any guy that you want. I’m sure that it’s just so painful,” Ariel snarked.

To my surprise, the Chinese girl glared at her and snapped back, “Oh yeah, I really want controlling and obsessive parents who only see me as some pretty thing to be sold to the highest bidder! I just love guys coming onto me and people thinking that I’m some brain-dead bimbo when I’m smarter than any of them! I have no interest in guys; I just want to be left alone so I can pursue my dreams!”

There was an awkward silence at the table and everyone seemed to be staring at me rather than the girl who had made the outburst. Ariel sighed and looked away as she mumbled, “Xia, you’re doing it again.”

“Sorry,” Xia mumbled as she self-consciously looked back down at the gizmo in front of her.

“It’s no’ like she can help it, especially if people are projectin’ strongly,” the redheaded girl pointed out. “Sorry, Taffy was it? Xia is a strong telepath, rated at five, but she doesn't ‘ave enough control to clearly distinguish between which thoughts and memories are hers and which belong to other people. She’s always pickin’ up the memories of people around her and starts taking on personality traits too if she spends a lot of time with a person. Other people don’t like spending a lot of time with her because of her lack of control, and because they’re no’ sure who she’s goin’ to be from day to day.”

Ariel’s gaze returned to me from the table and she said, “I apologize, Taffy. I’m jealous and I thought that you were here to mess with us like the other popular kids. I can get a bit snappy when I’m depressed. Please don’t get mad at Xia, she really can’t control it and it causes her more problems than anyone whose memories she accidentally adopts. She’s been looking at that devise that she made last week for the last half hour trying to remember what it does and how it works.”

“None of us can help how we manifested. The best we can do is try to make the best of it and take control of our lives,” I offered.

After that, we got the introductions out of the way as Robin and I started to eat and we all talked about our powers. Robin could manifest small crystals and had the wizard trait so he was learning to use magic. He seemed to have a knack for light spells and was thinking of ways to use them with his crystals.

Xia Jiang was of course a telepath and a devisor and her codename was Gestalt. It made sense since she was an ever-changing fusion of various memories and personality traits. What was more worrying for me was how that might affect Xia’s psyche in the long term.

Ariel Dawson went by the codename Hematoma, for obvious reasons. She was an exemplar like me, and despite her fearsome appearance, she was a healer. She claimed that her healing ability was broken though. She wouldn’t say how or why, only that it only worked properly on other exemplars. Judging by the pained look on her face when she talked about it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know more than that.

The redhead was Casidi O’Callaghan, though most people called her by her code name, Bug-Out. She was a manifestor like Robin, but she manifested bugs. She was technically a Psi too but the ability seemed to be limited to controlling her bugs and being able to use their senses in place of her lost sight. Doing that for too long at a time gave her headaches though so she tried to limit how much she used it.

We were finished eating and thinking about continuing my tour when a boy around our age, or maybe a little older, approached the table with a smile, his eyes laser-focused on me. He was wearing a black fedora over frizzy brown hair, a white button-down shirt, and extremely baggy black cargo pants with no shoes, and I could see what looked like hooves peeking out as he walked. “Here it comes,” I thought with a sigh.

He completely ignored the others as he walked up to the table, looking me up and down before his brown eyes focused on my chest and glazed over for a moment. He had to wipe at the drool dripping from the corner of his mouth before giving me a big smile and saying, “Hey baby, are you new around here? I’m Satyricon, but you can call me Rick, and you are easily the hottest girl at this school. So, why don’t you ditch these losers and come hang out with me, I promise you won’t regret it. You know, once you go Satyr…”

“Just stop,” I interrupted. “You’re embarrassing yourself and I’m not interested.”

“Oh come on! You can’t tell me that you’re not interested when you look like that. You look like you were custom-made by a horny devisor, and I should know, I am one.”

“Well, if I was, then they’re incompetent because I’m asexual,” was my deadpan reply.

“Of course, you’re a sexual person with a body like that, you’re practically begging for it,” he insisted. I just glared at him, letting him know that I was not interested. He sneered at me as he tried to change tactics. “You’re just biased against people with GSD.”

Just how stupid was this guy? My eyes rolled as I gestured to Ariel sitting across from me. “Really? Take a better look at the company I’m keeping.”

“Yeah sure, anyone can say that they’re cool with people with GSD but you’re probably just using these losers to make yourself look better. If you’re really supportive of people with GSD you’ll prove it by going on a date with me,” Satyricon insisted as he leaned across the table to stare me dead in the eyes.

My fists were clenched at my sides and I gritted my teeth as fury burned in my chest. This jerk was not taking no for an answer. Taking my empty food tray off the table, I crumpled the metal into a small ball right in front of his face. “If you continue to harass me, I will start doing this to your various body parts until I find one that will shut you up.” I was ashamed as soon as the words left my mouth, I didn’t like violence as a solution to problems but talking wasn’t working with him and I was starting to get too angry to think straight.

Satyr boy swallowed a sudden lump in his throat and looked away, right at Robin, causing his eyes to widen. “Hey, how about you? You’re pretty hot too. A little flat-chested but I’m sure that I can come up with something to help you with that. Elves and Satyrs, it’s like pb and j, hey?” he waggled his eyebrows suggestively at the Sidhe.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, asshole, he’s our Tolkien male,” Ariel stated while glaring at our harasser.

“That’s a dude?!” the panicked satyr said with a look of horror as he recoiled.

I barely heard either of them because I had had enough of him invading our space and treating me, and now Robin, as some sort of sex object. Thinking back to times when I had been truly terrified, I let that emotion sink in and then directed it at Satyricon. His face contorted in terror as he turned and ran. He managed to make it fifteen feet away from us before the numbness set in and he collapsed onto the floor like a puppet with his strings cut. Then he just laid there, curled up in a ball and trembling.

With a sigh, I released my hold on him. He wouldn’t be able to move until the effects of my power faded completely, so he just laid there in a pool of urine until a couple of people from security showed up and talked to us about what happened. Miss Everheart didn’t look much older than we did, and certainly not like she should be a security officer, but from the way that she carried herself, I had a feeling that she was a lot more dangerous than she looked.

Satyricon seemed eager to get as far away from me as possible once he could move again. We both gave our sides of the story and anyone who had witnessed what had happened was questioned as well. It all wrapped up as Miss Everheart said, “Look, since he was harassing you and it’s your first day here, I’m going to let you off with a warning. In the future, please try to avoid using your powers on other students unless it is in self-defense.”

“Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised, still feeling bad about losing my temper.

The blonde security officer nodded. “See that you do, Miss Sweet. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll escort Mr. Sievers here back to Twain so he can shower and change clothes.” She wrinkled her nose as she turned to join the others in leading Satyricon away.

It wasn’t until Robin had decided to continue my tour and we had left Crystal Hall that I decided to ask about something that bothered me, mostly because I was worried about the effect it might have on Robin. “Doesn’t it bother you when your friends call you their Tolkien male? You said that you’re having trouble adjusting.”

Robin flushed and looked away. “That was actually… my idea. My therapist says that I need to try to adjust to this and I figured that it might help. If I can’t laugh at myself, who can I laugh at?”

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Satyricon wasn’t an isolated incident, though I did manage to handle further ones somewhat better than I had done with him. Far more attention was being paid to me than I was comfortable with though as Robin finished showing me around campus. By the time we returned to Poe and I had met some of the other residents, I was frustrated enough that I had to stop and meditate before unpacking my things. Eventually, I ended up trying to clear my mind and relax until it was time to go meet Tansy at Crystal Hall so she could introduce me to the other members of Venus Inc. Then I had to deal with more unwanted attention as I made my way back to Poe afterward.

My first day had gone about as well as I could have expected, being the new kid and looking like I do. Especially with me starting a month later than everyone else. However, I still wasn’t comfortable with the attention that I had gotten during the tour and afterward, and my post-dinner meditation was going nowhere.

There was just too much on my mind right now, I needed to get ahead of my current problem. There had been far too many propositions today, and too many for my comfort had come from kids I had met after returning to Poe. A few of those had been boys but most had been girls, not that their gender mattered to me, I was equally uninterested.

My decision made, I stood up and made my way outside my room and toward the housemother’s apartment. Mrs. Horton seemed supportive so maybe I could get her to call a house meeting or something to get ahead of this problem. Then I could universally declare that my fellow Poesies had less chance of getting anywhere with me than they did of finding a three-thousand-year-old USB drive containing all of the Dead Sea scrolls.

There wasn’t much that I could do about the interest I would get from kids from other dorms, and I knew it, but if Poe was going to be my home for the next four years then I wanted to set clear boundaries from the start. Hopefully, my cottage-mates would respect that when told clearly, and it would save me rebuffing every advance individually. It didn’t matter to me if they looked, so long as they weren’t creepy about it, but I wanted no touching and no indecent proposals, period.

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* Evenstar *

Poe Cottage
Sunday, September 23rd, 2007 – 7:21 p.m.

With a long sigh, I changed out of my clothes and into my silk pajamas, one of the few benefits to an allergy to all synthetics. Then I settled into the chair at my desk and booted up my laptop. Thank goodness Shawn wasn’t around, I didn’t think I could handle him being so damn happy about our mutual situation right now. It had been a long day showing the new girl around and I just wanted to relax for a bit in peace and quiet.

Not that I didn’t like Taffy, she seemed like a decent person and we had some things in common, but giving her the tour had taken longer than I had expected, especially with us being stopped constantly by guys trying to hit on her. She was gorgeous though so who could really blame them? Hell, I thought that I might be attracted to her too, but no means no. Taffy needed someone who wasn’t after her for her body, who cared about her as a person. She could be damn scary when someone pushed her enough to lose her temper though.

My mind went back to the incident at lunch. Satyricon had hit on me too and I keenly remembered the look of horror when Ariel had told him I was a guy. Not that I could really blame him, I felt the same way whenever I had to shower or look at myself naked. Well, I wasn’t completely a guy, but it wouldn’t be long now, the doctors said six months max until I was complete, and there isn’t anything that anyone can do about it. Even as I kept getting prettier, my body was changing to male. A very effeminate male, but male all the same.

When I had manifested fifteen months ago, I had been scared but not even I could have guessed my fate then. When I started getting prettier and showed signs of becoming a Sidhe I had been so excited, it was like a dream come true. It should have been a great time; I was turning into a real live Sidhe, I kept getting prettier, and I was learning the basics of magic from my mom who had revealed that she was the superhero Sigil who worked with T.R.U. North.

As I slogged through my first year of high school and learned to control my powers though, that dream became a nightmare. On Halloween, Mom was crippled and most of her team was killed when they had to fight a demon that had been summoned in the Yukon. It wasn’t long after that when I started to notice that what little development I had in my chest was quickly disappearing. By the time that summer came around it was pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be changing with the girls for gym class this year.

Mom and her former teammate, Barracuda, managed to land me a scholarship to Whateley and get me involved in the ride-along program but since school grades work differently here, I was starting high school all over again. I guess that I wasn’t completely alone though. About a week before I was due to come to Whateley, I got a sister of sorts.

Casidi had lost her parents and been blinded in an attack by some supervillain calling himself the Furrminator in Victoria and she would be going to Whateley on the ride-along program as well. Mom heard about her through Dakota, a friend who worked for the MSA. I guess that she saw herself in the traumatized girl who had been left feeling helpless by her new disability and decided to take her in. Casidi was a manifestor like me, so we sort of had something in common too.

Casidi was quiet and it took mom and me a few days to get her to open up. She gets jumpy at loud noises and freaks out if animals get too close to her but she seems okay with the glowing bugs that she manifests. By the time she got used to us and settled in a bit, it was time for us to leave for Whateley. She was still getting used to finding her way around with her cane and couldn’t use her bugs in public so I ended up holding her hand to guide her and seeing for her for the trip on the plane to Boston and then the train to Dunwich for our freshman year.

Being a Freshman sucks. It sucks for Casidi because she’s been labeled as the poor blind girl with the creepy bugs. Perceptions and labels hurt, I know this as well as Casidi does. It especially hurts when people think you’re a girl and you have to tell them that you’re a boy. It’s downright heartbreaking when you think that you’re a girl too.

With a shake of my head, I brushed away the tears and tried to shake off those dark thoughts as I started up GEO. Some of my classmates had told me about the MMO last week and I downloaded it because people said it was an awesome and immersive game. I installed it last night and had planned to spend most of the day playing it before I got recruited to show Taffy around after a late breakfast.

The opening cinematic was amazing and once it was over, I was surprised. I had expected to be taken straight to character creation and have the usual bit where you choose a race, gender, class, etc., and then customize it to look like you want it to. My assumption couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, I got some sort of multiple-choice test and the questions seemed strangely specific to me.

I tried to answer as honestly as I could but some of the questions seemed very personal and it was as if the process knew when I was hesitating and pushed me along. Eventually though, the profiling test came to an end and the screen briefly said, “Thank you for answering honestly,” before moving on when the screen lit up to show the server choices. Without thinking about it much, I just selected Primus.

There were five empty character slots available and I quickly selected one so I could get started on character creation. My screen was suddenly covered with close to twenty hexagons, all bunched together, though each one had different patterns and color schemes on them. When I hovered over them with my mouse cursor, the music coming from my speakers changed slightly as the screen showed the ‘archetype’ that was currently selected.

As much as I tried to look carefully through all of the different archetypes available, the one that stood out to me most was the Spellblade. She was perfect; an elven maiden that seemed to call out to me, exactly what I had been hoping to become myself before my manifestation threw me the gender curveball. My finger couldn’t click the mouse button to select her fast enough.

By the time that I had distributed my stats and selected my equipment, my character was tall and slender, yet supple and toned. She was very pretty with long blonde hair, green eyes, and a modest bosom. She looked like my female twin, which was very strange because I hadn’t intended on that at all, I had just been trying to create a good build and the avatar seemed so change with every stat that I altered. I just stared for a long moment. This was the me that I wished I could be.

She stood before me in leather armor with practically positioned steel plates and a long and slightly curved sword at her hip. Rather than wearing a shield, I opted for steel bracers and hand guards that went well with the plates on the armor. I figured that it was practical and a good look for her as I tried to shake off my shock and move on to skill selection.

It took a while to find a good balance that I liked for her primary skillset but soon I felt that I was as ready as I was going to be. Despite the usual second thoughts about character creation, I clicked on the button that said “Character Complete” and then waited as the screen morphed between several scenes before my character, Naerisse, appeared in a forested glade with an Aztec-looking pyramid rising above the trees in the distance. Just as I was about to start moving my character toward it, the door to our room opened and Shawn stepped inside.

My roommate was a slender black boy, a little feminine looking, but I figured that unlike me that would probably change for him in time. He made no move to go to his side of the room but instead said, “Hey, Rob.” Damn, I hated when he called me that. “Mrs. Horton wants everyone to gather in the great room downstairs. There’s this new girl, and she has some sort of announcement to make. You should see her, I mean, damn.”

“Sure, I’ll come right down, Shawn.” With a sigh as he left the room, I logged out of the game. It was a little after eight-thirty, so I was hoping that maybe I’d get a chance to start playing before going to bed for the night. Ah well, if I had read Taffy right, then this was probably going to be entertaining. I had a feeling that a lot of people were about to be disappointed.

 

The End
Read 768 times Last modified on Monday, 14 November 2022 02:25

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