Friday, 31 March 2017 09:00

Would the Last One Out Please Turn Out the Lights

Written by ElrodW
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A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure

Would the Last One Out Please Turn Off the Lights



Tuesday, September 27, 2016, Afternoon
Outside Doyle Medical Center, Whateley Academy

"Are you sure?" The man squatting beside the power chair at the entrance the academy's clinic was worried, and he wasn't afraid of showing that concern, but then again, he and the woman in the power chair were adults, beyond the high-school games of being 'cool' or aloof that the majority of the Whateley campus population seemed to be engaged in, since it was, after all, a boarding high school. He was big and quite muscular; even in his jacket, he was an imposing figure, but at that moment, showing his concern for the woman, he looked quite vulnerable.

The woman in the power chair was a beauty, with flawless complexion and long, wavy, dark hair in a style that would have fit a Hollywood celebrity crowd. She even made a power-chair look graceful and attractive despite her simple sweatpants and sweatshirt. "Yes, Jake," she said firmly, without a trace of doubt in her mind. "I have to try. For you."

"Honey," Jake Barton admonished his wife gently, "you know you don't have to do this for me. I thought you knew that by now."

Vanessa Barton winced ever so slightly. "Then I have to do it for me. I have to try to be whole again, to be someone worthy of your love. Someone who can give you ...." Her voice cracked, and she quickly turned away, fighting the misty-eyed feeling that was only too familiar to her.

"You don't ..." the big man started to protest her selection of words.

"Jake, don't!" Vanessa spoke sharply. "Don't go there!" She turned back toward him looking into his big sad eyes. "Don't look at me like that!" she chided him. "You know that if the positions were reversed, you'd do the same."

Jake hung his head sheepishly. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I think I'd probably want to. But ... it's just that, well, you've tried everything. Regen, neural bypass, cybernetic implants, cloned tissue grafting. Demonologists, mages, shamans - no-one has been able to help." He dropped his gaze again. "And ...."

"And for the sixteen thousand, four hundred and eighty-third time, it is not your fault! How many times to I have to tell you that?"

"Apparently sixteen thousand, four-hundred and eighty-four," Jake forced a chuckle. The unspoken truth was that Jake was terrified of Vanessa finally giving up and losing the spark of life that made her so delightful, paralysis or not, and he was worried that one more failed cure, one more disappointment , would be the one that stole her hope and made her give up.

"Hi, Dr. Barton," a soft-spoken girl with pale blue skin and royal blue hair said from a couple of feet behind the big man. "Hi, Mrs. Barton," she added, smiling at Vanessa.

"Hi, Laura," Vanessa said pleasantly. "Jake told me he drafted you to help me today since you have a few free hours?"

The girl blushed, making her pale blue cheeks almost purple. "I ... I volunteered," she said quickly. "Because ...."

"Just teasing, Laura." Mrs. Barton chuckled. "And thanks for babysitting the Cody kids Friday night. It was nice to have a night out with Lanie and Wyatt without kids underfoot."

"Oh, they're fun!" Laura gushed. "Except sometimes the twins make me think of the baby Jack-Jack from The Incredibles. Sometimes, I swear those kids manifested!" she giggled. "But we know that's impossible, so .... Anyway, thank you for bringing back dessert for me! It was fabulous! I wish I could cook like that!"

"Honey," Jake said to Vanessa, "if you need anything, ask Laura. That's what she volunteered for. And what I'm paying her for."

"I know, I know. She's always so helpful around the house," Vanessa assured her husband. "Now I've got to get ready for the procedure. Dr. Tenent already knows to call you if necessary."

"Okay. Love you," Jake said before he leaned forward and kissed his wife, not a quick peck on the cheeks either, but a lingering, sensuous kiss to remind her that she was very attractive to him no matter what.

"Love you, too," Vanessa said. She touched the controls on her power-chair. "Come on, Laura. Let's see what kind of fiendish torture the doctors have cooked up for me today." The girl and the woman went toward the automatic double doors into the medical center. "You should have seen when those two little brats swiped the cookies I was baking for a faculty get-together! They worked perfectly as a team, like they have a hive mind, and the way they were popping up and disappearing ...." Her tale was cut off when the doors closed, leaving Jake watching sadly after his wife.

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"We'll have to get together after you're done," a tall redhead said to a shorter, dusky-skinned woman who wore an ornamented buckskin dress. "Dinner, at the Brown Moose!" The two were standing near Doyle, and had just watched Vanessa Barton go inside in the company of a blue-skinned girl, while Jake Barton walked tensely toward the classroom-office building.

The buckskin-clad Native American woman smiled. "That sounds like fun, but ... can you get a sitter on such short notice?"

"The girl who went in with Vanessa, Laura? She's one of Jake's students. She's a fantastic sitter, and she can almost always watch the kids. I think she really likes kids." She giggled. "I think she's on to the twins, but she hasn't said anything, and they haven't driven her crazy ... yet! So I'll ask, and if she can sit, we'll do dinner."

"Okay," the other one replied.

"What's this new procedure?"

"Fey, Circe, and I have been doing some research on Vanessa's case, and we think we might have found a ritual that will cleanse the taint."

The redhead's eyes widened. "Is it ... dangerous?"

The Native American woman winced slightly. "Yeah, it's .... Yeah."

"Probably a lot less than some of the other things she's tried," the redhead added to comfort her friend. "I swear she's tried everything under the sun."

"Can you blame her," the Native American woman asked, her voice tinged with emotion. "Anyway, I've got to start preparing. I'll talk to you when we get done."

"Sounds like a plan." The redhead hugged the other woman and gave her a kiss on her cheek, which was reciprocated. "See you later." With a smile, she bounded off to attend to her kids or a lab or something. Her life was usually quite busy.

The Native American girl watched Tractor walking toward Schuster Hall, his shoulders slightly stooped, his gait a little uncertain, which was a far cry from the confident superhero she'd met a long time ago. "I promise, Tractor, I'll make this work. I'm going to find a way to make Vanessa walk again. I owe it to you two," she said to herself as a tears rolled gently down her cheeks.

Summer, 2011
Sioux Falls League Headquarters

Kayda Franks paused one last time by her car and looked back longingly, in the warehouse that was part of the vast complex owned by the Sioux Falls League. Impulsively, she turned and took a couple of quick steps toward the blonde superhero who'd come to see her off. Wrapping her arms around Debra, her love, she tilted her head toward the attractive and shapely blonde, their lips meeting in yet another extremely passionate kiss.

Vanessa Barton - Vanity Girl - who was also one of Kayda's dear friends and a member of the League, smirked. "Oh, get a room!" Then she chuckled aloud. "Oh, wait - you two had a room for the past few days!"

Pulling her lips back but keeping her forehead against Kayda's, Debra feigned a smile. "I wish you didn't have to go."

Kayda smiled sadly. "Me, too, but it is a Seven Councils Fire, and they expect me. This one's bigger than normal, because the gathering is for most of the non-Lakota plains tribes as well."

"I hope things work out this time," Debra replied. "And at least it's close this time, not like the last two meetings in Arizona and Canada!" She shuddered involuntarily; whoever had thought that Canada was a good site in the winter and the desert Southwest a good site in the summer had to have been mad. "Please, drive carefully! Not like Lanie!"

"Me too. This whole unification thing is a lot harder than she made it sound! And I promise I'll be safe," Kayda answered before giving her love another quick kiss. Having delayed the inevitable, the pretty Lakota girl climbed into her car, closing the door and settling herself into the Recaro bucket seat. Flipping a couple of switches, she pressed a newly-installed start button on the dash - a replacement for the quaint but in her opinion highly-obsolete key - and four hundred cubic inches of Chevrolet V8 roared to live.

Checking her gauges, the girl smiled and blew a kiss to her love, relishing the custom creation that started life as a 1957 Chevy Nomad and which she'd lovingly built during her years at Whateley and since. Deftly flipping a paddle-shifter on the steering column, Kayda revved the engine and dumped the clutch, resulting in all four wheels screeching as the car shot out of the warehouse.

Driving through Sioux Falls, she grinned to herself, knowing that she was getting a lot of attention - some for herself, since she was an exemplar with the beauty that gave, but more for the car. It wasn't often one saw a '57 Nomad, let alone one like hers. With a custom-built drive-train she and her best friend had carefully created, the car accelerated and cornered like no Chevy of that vintage ever could. A momentary glance away from the road allowed her to turn on the stereo, letting loose many decibels of 'girl band' rock music, Kayda's favorite.

The car turned easily onto I-29 northbound, and a few miles later, took the cloverleaf to go west on I-90, turning the tight corner a lot faster than the speed limit, but the suspension and four-wheel-drive did their job, and there wasn't even the faintest hint of oversteer or understeer or body roll. The Lakota girl pushed down the gas pedal, and was rewarded with a throaty roar from the engine as it almost instantly revved up, while the acceleration pressed her sharply back in her padded seat. A huge grin crept across her face - driving like this was a passion for her. She'd be at Fort Pierre for the gathering in no-time, especially since she had wangled a 'diplomatic' license plate as a favor from the governor on account of all she'd done to improve relations between the Lakota and the state government.

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HPARC, 55 Level, Security Point 3

Seated at a sophisticated control station, Kelly Roberts sweated in the newest state-of-the-art armor, which gave him and his two team-mates the appearance of a trio of silver-plated gorillas. Under normal circumstances, the cooling system would have kept the suit at a comfortable temperature, but seven thousand feet below the surface in the former mine's deepest levels, the heat from the earth's outer core diffused upward, raising the temperature to uncomfortable levels, high enough that the suit cooling system couldn't quite cope. Even though it was against regulations, Kelly had his suit faceplate open because the suit's air system didn't cope well with the smell of sweat and flatulence that seemed to soak into the very metal of every power suit ever designed.

Kelly cocked his head to one side at a strange crumpling sound. "What was that?" he asked his partners.

"Don't know," Herb Sulley answered, automatically reaching over his shoulder for his energy rifle. "Sounds like it was in section 4."

"Could be just ...." Kelly started to speculate, looking intently at his monitor board. His eyes bulged as he gawked at the indicator lights. "Force field breach!" he cried after pressing a microphone button. "Level 55, Section 4," but his thoughts were interrupted by the screech of alarms blaring and the suddenly flashing illumination that tinted everything red.

The third man in the team awkwardly pulled himself out of his chair, drew a heavy particle cannon, which was hard-wired to his suit's power pack, and with hand signs to his partners, he glanced around the corner.

He'd forgotten that his visor, like those of his partners, was open. Had it been shut, it might have afforded him some protection. His jaw dropped at the wicked-looking half-snake, half-monster thing that was charging toward him, and when the creature stared hard at him, it was the last sensory input his brain ever responded to. Moments later, the claws and teeth of Unhcegila's last son tore into the armor, and though the super-dense metal resisted penetration by the dagger-like teeth, the bite pressure collapsed parts the metal cocoon around one thigh, crushing the flesh and bone encased inside. But there was no mental awareness of pain or pressure from the affected limb. The guard fell over, a mindless vegetable, just in time for the son's tail to hit the suit, sending it caroming across the room and back through the door into a huge rack of electronic control systems for that level and power relays for lower levels.

The metal power-suit shorted out many circuits; some of the overhead lights flickered, and one siren went silent as electrical systems failed. Two of the three ventilation systems for the level failed as well. Worse, and unseen, the suit's power-pack, the weakest point in the armored outfit, cracked open, and the cells discharged in massive electrical arcs that flashed brightly, causing more damage as the electrical surge rippled outward into undamaged systems in other sections, damaging even the hardened electronics of the control systems.

Herb reacted almost immediately, slamming his visor shut and swinging toward the massive door through which the third man had been bounced. Standing to one side, he waited, knowing that rushing through the door would probably net him the same fate as his now-deceased comrade. As Unhcegila's son burst through the massive steel door frame, he opened fire in a sustained stream of energy bursts directed at the snake- demon.

At the console, Kelly stabbed at the controls, trying desperately to drop the armored isolation doors, but only a few of the controls responded; the rest were inoperative because their controls were, unknown to him, useless.

An unworldly scream sounded from the doorway as the energy shots tore into the snake-demon; he retaliated by turning into the fire, screeching and slashing blindly with his scythe-like claws, suddenly blinded in one eye by a lucky shot. Herb tried to duck, but was grazed by a claw, enough to stagger him but not to pierce his armor.

"It's some kind of snake thing!" Kelly shouted into the microphone even as he swung his own automatic heavy rifle toward the threat. "It came ...." He, too, had his visor open, and upon meeting snakey's gaze, all of his thoughts ceased as neuron connections vanished. He slumped across the control panel, just as the demon smashed his body into the console.

"What's going on down there?" the loudspeaker overhead blared, partially drowned out by the constant sirens. "Report!" But with Herb, the final guard, stunned by a tail swipe, there was no-one to answer the call.

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Ernst Schmidt growled in frustration as he waited for the elevator to descend to the control room. It had taken him twenty minutes to get up, dress, and drive at breakneck speed from his home in Deadwood to the entrance, and the reports coming to him were not good. It sounded like something had broken into the 55 level, where levels were measured in hundreds of feet below ground - and had taken out some of the guards.

Finally, the elevator stopped and the doors popped open.

If he hadn't known already, Ernst would have immediately guessed that something serious was happening. Outside the elevator, two heavily armed guards stood, in body armor, with power weapons. His ID was required five times to open blast doors, each with armed guards in power suits, so he could pass to the next level of security, and finally, he got to the control room after an agonizingly-slow - at least to him - journey.

"Report!" he demanded as he stormed to his own supervisory console overlooking the others. In the center of the room was a three-dimensional hologrammatic representation of the former mine. Ominously, some areas flashed red, indicating trouble or systems failure. Below the 55 level, too much was red.

"It's confusing," one of his staff reported. "We had a breach on level 55, section 4. No response from the guard station. We've gone to lockdown, but some status on that level and below is sporadic. No response from any guards at checkpoints four or seven. Only limited amounts of data is getting through from level 60, 63, and 67. We've got two full squads in power armor enroute."


"Not good," came the answer. "This is all we got." The staff member's fingers danced across the keyboard at his station, and the fragmentary, blocky, jerky video from down below showed up on a huge monitor at the front of the room.

"Freeze!" Ernst snapped, gawking at the screen and rising without even thinking about it. "That's ...."

"Same as the remains in cold storage."

"Unhcegila's son!" Ernst mouthed softly. "What level?"

"Six three."

"Damn, he's moving down!" the facility director swore. "Get everything below 50 locked down."

"Including psych?"

Ernst nodded grimly. "Switch all the weapons systems below 55 on to full automatic response. Notify the combat teams. Notify the psych ward that they have to button up and stay put. It's too late for them to get out!"

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The snake-demon snarled in a combination of pain and anger as he struggled through the level, looking for a way down, having killed or disabled seven more guards. Blinded in one eye, one arm hung almost uselessly courtesy of another guard on another level. Leaving a trail of foul, black ichor from his wounds, he struggled through an armored door that was jammed half-open. Moving down from level to level was difficult because of the armored metal doors, some of which were closed, and the guards in their strange armor with their strange weapons. He'd found some vertical tunnels to descend, filled with cables and the largest blocked by a massive moving metal box, but so far, he still hadn't found a way down to the lowest level, despite his determination not to not fail, not as close as he'd come.

Luck was with the snake demon again; in one side tunnel far away from the metal walls, cameras, and weapons turrets, he came across an old ventilation shaft, part of the three-dimensional labyrinth that had been the Homestake Gold Mine, which had been useful as a utility shaft by the planners of the reinforced HPARC complex.

The planners that built HPARC hadn't worked from a complete map of the old mine and all its shafts and tunnels and elevators and vents; some, like this one, weren't reinforced at all, but still had the cables and fans and other systems that had been abandoned with the mine. The hardware was not designed to stand up to a very determined snake-demon who was not going to let anything stop him from liberating his father, not after all these years of struggling to penetrate the tough security, wards, and force fields of the facility. The way down to level 70 was finally clear.

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"Where is it now?" Ernst demanded. On the hologramatic display, a 3-D schematic of the facility's lower levels was showing, with the known movements of the snake demon highlighted.

"No idea, sir." The woman on the console saw something flicker on a sensor. "Wait a sec - I've got something on 70!"

"Reinforce the shields on all containment units."

"No response," she said after making a few mouse clicks. "Can't tell if they're reinforced or not. We've got no feedback from a lot of level 70."

"Reinforce the squad at the cross-tunnels on level 60. And then get me some sensors down below! We're blind here!"

"Combat teams Charlie, Echo, and Foxtrot, deploy your ROVs. Repeat, deploy your ROVs. Try to get them down to 67 and 70."

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The snake demon was hurting badly from the tiny white-man's darts that were able to penetrate some points in his tough skin, and coupled with the previous injuries, plus cuts from smashing through steel grates and from cables and conduits in his way, the son of Unhcegila was in bad shape. Dispatching these warriors had been much more difficult than in the old days when his foes had only arrows and no encasing metal armor.

When he neared his father, he found himself at the entrance to yet another of the strange metal caverns, protected by a huge, thick, half-closed door that he had to scrape his way under. Partway through the very low passageway, he screeched as another automated weapons mount opened fire. With a mighty convulsion, his body pushed the door up in it frame, and he rolled the rest of his body into the room, his reckless moves throwing off the aim of the AI-driven machine gun. Thrashing about wildly, he smashed machinery indiscriminately, using the claws of his good arm as well, and the turret's automatic tracking system and guns fell silent, but still the son smashed about. His father was close, he could tell, probably behind the strange large metal door opposite him. He was going to get through that door.

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"Sonny is in compartment 14," the woman at the console reported. "We had a brief image on a sensor, and a gun activated. But it's silent now."

"What about the containment unit?"

"Last readings before we lost all telemetry on that part of 70 was that the cryo chillers and force field generators for units twelve through sixteen are off-line."

"Snakey-junior is one determined mother, isn't he?" Ernst muttered to himself.

In the middle of the near-chaos, Ernst's phone range. "HPARC control center." He was trying to sound calm, but given the magnitude of what was happening, that was difficult.

"Ernst? Hazel. What in tarnation is going on there? I got seventeen alarms and emergency phone calls!" the old Lakota woman said, her words etched with concern.

"Breach on level 55, and it's moving down. We've lost a lot of systems on 55 through 70."


"Yeah. We got a camera shot before we lost the video feeds - it's the same as the remains we have on level 67," Ernst replied grimly.

"Unhcy's son finally broke through," Hazel said, not a hint of doubt in her mind. "And he's going after Daddy."

"I still have control on level 48, so we're setting up a layered defense. But so many systems are out, I can't get the psych sections up from level 67," Ernst explained.

"Get your staff the hell out of there," Hazel ordered. "You're going to have a running fight all the way to the surface, and the facilities are probably going to take a hell of a lot of damage."

"I can't sacrifice the psych patients ...." Ernst started to protest.

"You'll sacrifice everyone if you don't get your team out!" Hazel countered sharply.

The director sighed heavily "I know." He shook his head sadly - so close to retirement, and this had to happen. "The teams have their visors locked down, indirect video-feed for visuals. Ranged and energy weapons only. We've lost contact with four teams; I'm not sending anyone else down below. We'll wait for him to come up." Even as he spoke, the words, Ernst had a very bad feeling that his assumptions were about to be proven wrong.

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"You have done well, my son," Unhcegila said as he stretched, trying to drive the remaining chill from his still stiff body. He barely looked at the battered hulk that had once been his offspring, a smaller likeness of himself, a major demon of Lakota mythology.

"I told you I would not fail, unlike my brothers," Snakey-junior said with smug pride. "We must go - I have found a relatively unguarded tunnel toward the surface, but there are many warriors between there and here, armed with fire-sticks of a very advanced type and wearing tough metal armor."

"No," Unhcegila said with certainty. "That way is certain pain and death. If they were able to hurt you so badly, then there will be more of them, and they will attack us both."

"But you are ... you are Unhcegila!" the son declared, astonished that his father might fear mere mortals. "Then ... what?" the son asked, puzzled. "How are we to escape?"

"How close were you able to tunnel before you hit the magical barrier?" Unhcegila demanded. "And where is this tunnel? Perhaps I, being stronger and no longer frozen, can breach this barrier, or destroy it, and we can use the tunnel to make good our escape."

The son nodded. "The closest point was fifteen to eighteen paces from the first chamber in which you were held."

"Lead me there."

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"Where are they?" Ernst demanded anxiously, peering over his subordinate's shoulder at the video monitor. The picture was very broken and blocky, and even those bits that showed jerky motion were very dark, making it difficult to be certain what they were looking at.

"The scout is on RF relay links since we lost the umbilical," the console operator reported. It didn't help that one of its lights had been broken in the same tangled metal obstacle that had broken the umbilical cable, while the other was twisted so it didn't illuminate the same area the camera pointed to. Worse, the scout bot was on battery power, so it wouldn't last very long, and groping through the darkened tunnels and shafts and compartments was slow going. What they'd seen so far was total chaos and destruction.

Ernst gulped nervously as he considered his options. Fighting a major snake-demon was going to take more firepower and manpower than he had, and the casualties and destruction to the facility would possibly be significant. He looked at another console. "Evacuate all underground personnel."

"Sir," one of the console operators said, grim-faced, "Psych is locked down. They won't be able to get out."

The director grimaced. "I know," he replied simply. Those two words - I know - condemned everyone in the psych ward, patient and staff alike. The control center, too, was below the surface. Cursing his bad luck that this was happening on his watch, he picked up a special phone which was seldom used except in emergency response drills.

"DPA Response Center," the voice on the other end answered in a crisp, professional tone.

"Ernst Schmidt, Director, HPARC. Code Foxtrot Yankee Golf One Three Five Two Niner Whiskey Four Four."

"Authentication confirmed. What is your emergency?"

"We have a breach, and the external is moving down toward containment area. We believe it is attempting to liberate a Class X Lakota demon. Reference file Uniform November Hotel Two Zero Zero Seven Zero Niner Golf Two Bravo."

The line was silent for a bit. "File identified." The voice sounded a bit worried, which was quite unusual for a DPA crisis officer. "Requested action?"

"Request authorization for Omega contingency."

"Copy. Request authorization for Omega. Stand by." For several agonizingly long minutes, while Snakey junior was trying and may have succeeded in liberating his papa, Ernst could do nothing but wait. Finally the voice came back online. "Presidential authorization confirmed. You have release for Omega. Code Mike Seven Seven Eight Four Tango. Repeat, you have release for Omega. Code Mike Seven Seven Eight Four Tango."

"Authorization Mike Seven Seven Eight Four Tango. Copy."

"Good luck, Ernst. Out."

The director hung up the phone, a very grim expression on his face. "Attention. We have been authorized to execute Omega contingency. Lena, Paul - your safes, please."

Stiffly, aware of the magnitude of the decision that had been forced on him and the consequences for his staff, he walked to one of the four safes in the room, the one to which he knew the combination. Only two of the four were required to be opened to retrieve the 'keys'. Once the three HPARC staff members had taken the keys from their safes and were back at their consoles, they sat, grim-faced, waiting to execute the order that they all had hoped they'd never have to carry out.

"Code Mike Seven Seven Eight Four Tango." Nearly simultaneously, the three operators punched the combination into keypads. "Confirmed." "Confirmed." "System unlocked." A series of red lights turned green, indicating that the main computers, programmed to use a different computer-generated sequence every twelve hours, had accepted and validated the code.

"Keys in." Ernst pushed his large red 'key' into a special receptacle on his console.

"Roger." "Key in."

"Turn in five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... TURN!" With that, he turned his key, like his other two staff members, their faces pale at the thought of what they were doing. "Release in five ... four ... three ... two ... " Before Ernst could call out the next numbers, his and every other console lit up with a terse and ominous message. "Defense System Omega activated. Detonation in five seconds!"

Ernst let go of his key, and a spring mechanism turned it automatically back to the unenergized state. "Well, people," he said gravely, "it's been nice working with you."

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On level 70, electronic relays closed under computer control, but the damage to the triply-redundant control systems caused by Snakey junior's undirected, wild rampage had been enormous. Still, one cable got a signal to the device.

Initiators in carefully packed shaped charges, each precisely arranged on either end of an egg-shaped sub-critical mass of plutonium, received what were supposed to be simultaneous detonation signals. The shaped charges, acting like explosive lenses, would compress the sub-critical mass of plutonium so that it had local critical mass, which would initiate an atomic explosion. In the midst of that infernal heat, a charge of tritium would be compressed and superheated to conditions like those in a star, and they would fuse into helium atoms, releasing inordinate amounts of energy.

At least that was the theory. In all the indiscriminate smashing of machinery by the son of Unhcegila, the outer shell of the device had been breached. When the detonation signals were sent to the shaped charges through wires carefully arranged to be the same exact length so the detonation signals would arrive within a few microseconds, one wires short circuited, damaged by the crushed outer shell. The charges didn't go off at precisely the same time. The explosive pressure on the radioactive core was uneven.

The device fizzled.

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A Massive Indian Encampment, Fort Pierre, South Dakota

Since arriving in Fort Pierre, just across the Missouri River from the state capitol of Pierre, for this massive gathering of chiefs and shamans from hundreds of tribes from all over the United States and Canada, Kayda had been in countless meetings, mostly populated with squabbling chiefs who were arguing mostly over which tribe would have the strongest representation and what the standard would be for being considered a legitimate Native American. Several smaller nations wanted the standard to be kept at the tribe's discretion - some had the bar for enrollment as a tribal member as low as one sixty-fourth, so that one Native American ancestor six generations prior would qualify a person as a tribal member, where others had the bar at one eighth. No doubt they did that to pad their tribal rolls for the purposes of federal money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the equivalent Canadian agency, and were no doubt hoping to use the same strategy to increase their relative importance if the tribes were to unite politically.

Fort Pierre had been chosen for the simple reason that it was the turn of the Plains Indians to host the conclave, and a rather wealthy individual had donated use of his land for the campout as well as funding for the hotel for major guests such as Kayda and for other amenities and supplies. It didn't hurt that the site was not on Lakota lands, but was sort-of centrally located among the various Sioux tribes, and the enthusiastic backing of the South Dakota state government had sealed the deal. Given the size of the donation, the other Plains tribes had readily agreed to the site.

The worst part was that, as Ptesanwi, the White Buffalo Calf Woman, the Lakota girl had to stay aloof from the politics, somewhat as the Queen of England and the Emperor of Japan did, trying hard to not throw her weight into the more mundane political discussions but instead reserve her comments for the more esoteric, more spiritual and philosophical arenas - unless she was specifically asked for her opinion, or more precisely, that of Wakan Tanka whom she channeled.

Emily Walks-far, one of the Ptesanwi's 'personal assistants', poked her head into Kayda's room. "Do you feel like stopping a challenge duel?" she asked with a smirk. "Like, one of the Iroquois assistants got his nose bent out of shape when a Cherokee warrior accidentally tripped him, and they're getting ready to fight."

"Oh, crap!" Kayda spat. "I should just let them kill each other, and then spit on both their bodies!" Doing so would be a profound gesture of disapproval of their conduct, a message that couldn't help but be noticed by the gathered shamans and chiefs.

Another assistant, Anne Roaring-fire, who'd been taking notes at the previous meeting and was transcribing them into a laptop, laughed aloud. "I'm sure they deserve it, but the fallout might set this whole thing back by months!"

Kayda sighed. "Yeah, I know. Emily, please run and try to slow this down. I don't care what kind of tale you make up, just slow them down until I can get there, okay?"

"Sure, boss!" the girl answered with a grin before she turned and ran off.

"Anne, can you have Suzie run to get four guards - hopefully with their furs and weapons, and meet me? Pronto. Then get back here and help me get my robe and headdress on." Like EmilyWalks-Far and Anne Roaring- Fire, Suzie White-Peak and Christy Black-Rabbit were Kayda's other attendants, girls who had sworn undying loyalty to the Ptesanwi, and who traveled everywhere with Kayda, assisting her in all official functions. They were more than aides; they were good friends to Kayda, too. Unlike the other three Lakota girls, Suzie was from the Crow tribe.

The girl disappeared, only to re-enter the room a moment later. Dutifully, she got a very elaborate ceremonial robe from inside a hanging garment bag, and helped Kayda don the heavy, ornately-beaded garment, then she helped the girl put on a headdress. "Let's go stop some bloodshed," Kayda said when she was ready. Outside her room, four guards in buckskin, wearing the furs of the In'oka warrior society and carrying ceremonial lances and wearing tomahawks at their belts, waited. On their hips, they carried holstered Glocks as well; the guards weren't just for show. As the retinue walked through the hotel toward the outdoor gathering space, heads turned and eyes goggled at the girl, as if the viewers were staring at a famous movie star.

A large crowd began to follow the Lakota girl, but after a few years of such attention, she mostly ignored it, instead putting on regal airs as she sought out the two offended men. It was easy to find the brawl; a crowd surrounded the fighters as they traded punches and wrestled, each trying to gain an advantage over the other. As she approached the fight spectators, heads turned, then nodded, respectfully lowering their gazes, while the crowd parted as if the girl was Moses and the crowd was the Red Sea. Flanked by her guards, she stepped boldly to the two battling men, who were wrestling on the ground.

Perhaps it was the cessation of crowd noise urging them on, or perhaps it was seeing, from the corners of their eyes, the moccasins of Kayda, but the fighters noticed that something was amiss, and they slowly stopped their battle and looked up, right into the frowning countenance of the White Buffalo Calf Woman.

"Is this how you respect the peace of the councils' fire I called?" she practically spat at the two fighters. At least weapons hadn't been drawn - yet.

One of the combatants, the Cherokee man, lowered his gaze in shame for violating the rule against fighting, but the other glared defiantly at Kayda. The girl looked at the contrite man. "Go tell your chief what you did, and ask him and your shaman how to atone for the offense." The man nodded, and scurried off, leaving the girl to face the remaining angry Iroquois warrior. "What about you?" she demanded.

"I listen to my chief, and to my shaman. Not," he growled, "to a Lakota woman!"

The crowd stirred at his challenging words, but the girl was unfazed by his action. She cocked her head toward her attendants, and one took her headdress, while two others slid the heavy, ornate robe from her shoulders. "You wish to fight?"

The taller man glared at her. "I have no quarrel with you, because you have not insulted me and my tribe."

"My attendant told me the incident was an accident. You would go to war for an accident, before the offender even has a chance to offer an apology? Is that your nature?"

"It was no accident!"

"If you want a fight," she said boldly, getting right in the man's face, "you have one."

"I have no quarrel with you," he repeated defiantly. "But I do not back down from an insult."

Kayda looked evenly at him, then took a half step back and spat on the man's feet. "Is that sufficient for you?"

For a brief moment, the man gawked in disbelief at the deliberate provocation, and then he launched himself at the girl. Shaman or not, female or not, he was such a hot-head and his adrenaline was pumping so fiercely that he was not going to take any insult.

Trained or not, he was no match for years of tutelage from Ito Sensei and Billy Two Knives. All the crowd could tell was that he angrily attacked the girl, and then was on the ground, expertly thrown over her hip face-first into the dirt, his arm held in a very painful arm-bar.

"Do you yield and admit you acted hastily?" she hissed at him. "Do you admit that you violated my peace, my councils' fire?"

The man struggled, which only caused Kayda to increase the pressure and pain. "I ... I apologize for my actions," he said, struggling to talk against the pain.

"We must not be divided," Kayda announced, letting go of the man's arm and standing and looking around. "We can be a political force only if we stand united! We will always have our quarrels," she admitted, "but we must not let them keep us from presenting a united voice." Aware that she had the attention of the crowd, she decided it was a teaching moment. "Grizzly, the first shaman, and Coyote, desire us to unite, to put aside our differences for the benefit of all the People! But how can we do that if we bicker over accidents?" She looked at the defeated man who was sitting on the ground. "The ancient enemy of the Lakota has been the Crow," she declared to the crowd, "and it was a Crow who tried to frame me for murder, who caused me great pain. I have more reason than most to hate the Crow!" The silence of the crowd told her she had the crowd's undivided attention. "But I choose to not hate. I choose to not hold old animosity, because it does no good for me, for the Lakota, or for the Crow! One of my attendants is Crow. I trust the Crow warriors as my guard as much as those my own tribe. So must it be with all of us if we wish to prosper."

The girl let her attendants slip her robe back over her shoulders, and then she looked at her guards. "Bring him." To Emily, she said grimly, "Find his chief and his tribe's shaman. Bring them to my room."

Forty minutes later, having presided over a lengthy discussion with the offender and the tribal chief in the living area of her suite, Kayda watched the backs of the men as they left, having extracted a promise of suitable but not overly-harsh punishment for the fighter. Once the door clicked shut, she leaned back. "I'm tired of that kind of stuff," she said to Emily and Anne.

"Admit it - you loved a chance to fight and show off," Anne laughed before shaking her head. "Damn, I wish I was as good as you are."

"Like, that was too fast to even see what you did," Emily agreed enthusiastically.

Kayda laughed. "Okay, you caught me. I did enjoy a chance to cut loose. One of my teachers, an ancient Pict spirit named Laneth, taught me that leadership is knowing how to avoid an unnecessary fight, and more importantly, knowing when to fight. Challenges such as the Iroquois man made cannot go unanswered if I am to unite the People." She strode to the room's refrigerator and pulled out three sodas, handing two to the girls. "I don't think this is quite what you expected when you helped in the sweat lodge four years ago," she mused.

"This is, like, even better than I imagined!" Emily grinned. "I mean, like we get to travel all over, Mr. Two Knives is teaching us to fight, and ... like, it's fun!"

"You just like having all the boys fawning over you," Anne teased her friend.

"And you don't?" Emily shot back.

"From what I hear," Kayda said with a knowing grin, "Billy's nephew has his eye on you!"

"I guess he'd be okay," Emily admitted, blushing slightly. "But ... he can wait! This is, like, way more fun than making out with a boy, even if ...."

"Even if he's really hot and makes you all wet?" Anne giggled. Emily's increased blush as she looked down was admission of the accuracy of Anne's comment.

"Let's call it a day," Kayda said. "I'm tired of all these ass-kissing chiefs trying to suck up and get special consideration in the agreements. Reschedule the rest of today's meetings."

"Is Grizzly going to come to this council fire?" Anne asked hopefully as she picked up her laptop to make the schedule changes. "She didn't attend the last two." She sounded disappointed.

"I don't know. Mitaka ki said she might come if she could get away. But Grizzly usually comes only when things aren't going well." Kayda smiled. "Enough work. Get Suzie and Christy, and pick five or six girls from other tribes. Make sure you get at least one wife of a chief or shaman. Let's hit the sauna. I'll do a sweat lodge ceremony for the other ladies, since they probably expect something special." The grins of anticipation on her attendants' faces were all the answer she needed. When they'd started, the girls were nervous about serving the Ptesanwi, worried about how she might behave. But those worries were groundless; Kayda treated them the same way she asked to be treated - with friendship and respect. The five had quickly become friends.

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Somewhere in West River South Dakota, Midnight

The snake demon reveled in the taste of freedom as he slithered purposefully toward her, toward his destiny of extinguishing the nettlesome messenger and banishing the spirit she channeled from the world, freeing him to grow in power. He was angered that his second son had lost the seed of power, but he could feel the presence of the tree, and he knew that once he banished the spirit, he'd have enough power to take the tree's power for himself.

He barely thought of his third son. That one had succeeded where the other two had failed, freeing him from the icy captivity that had held him. It bothered Unhcegila not the slightest that after his wounded son had shown him where the tunnel approached the mine, the father's massive tail slammed the badly wounded son across the room, further shattering the minor snake demon's body. Once that offspring died, Unhcegila would spawn a new generation of sons, hopefully worthy enough to fight with him instead of disappointing him.

Like the sons, Unhcegila avoided the sun if he could. Unlike them, he knew enough magic to shield himself well from the burning orb, but he didn't want to waste his precious essence when traveling at night gave him huge advantages over almost all enemies, hiding him from any who were foolish enough to challenge his power.

He was drawing nearer to her. He could feel her presence, her power. And he could sense a huge gathering of the People, and more importantly, of their shamans. Killing a large number of them would teach the rest to fear and respect him. He grinned wickedly in anticipation of a huge bloody battle.

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HPARC, South Dakota

"General Roland," Ernst spoke into the special phone, working to control his frustration and anger, "you don't appreciate how dangerous this demon is. He tore up a battalion of National Guardsmen and shrugged off two Hellfire missiles!"

"It would help if you would send me his file," the general replied. Clearly, from his tone of voice, he was used to being in control of a situation, and having a civilian, especially one from one of the mystic sites, try to order him around didn't sit well.

"With all due respect," Ernst forced himself to say, "unless I can verify your clearance, I cannot give you that file."

"Well, then, we seem to be at an impasse," the general replied haughtily. "Unless I know what I'm dealing with, I can't and won't ask for permission for a weapons release."

Ernst shook his head in anger. "Very well, General," he said through clenched teeth, "I'll have to go through DPA and the NSC. You'll be hearing back from the Pentagon or SecDef and then me. In the meantime, consider how many people might die needlessly if we don't stop that thing now!"

"Consider how many people will die if a device is detonated in a ground-burst," the general replied. "I'll be here ... if you manage to get authorization."

Ernst hung up the phone, then dialed another number.

"DPA Response Center."

The director looked at the security token hanging from his badge, and read the current code. The token generated a synchronized code in a seemingly random pattern, and since a thumbprint was required to activate the token, it was a very good authentication device for high-level secure conversations. "Ernst Schmidt, Director, HPARC. Code India Romeo Echo Two Six Six Niner Zero X-ray Three Two."

There was a momentary wait. "Authorization code confirmed. How can I help you?"

"I need someone to read in the SecDef and POTUS on file Uniform November Hotel Two Zero Zero Seven Zero Niner Golf Two Bravo. Append report from HPARC on the failed activation of the Omega option and the escape of the file's subject. And fast."

"What action do you propose?" The voice at the other end was suddenly very alert and tense.

"I need SAC to release a delivery platform and a weapon to HPARC control, so that when we locate the subject, we can terminate it. Our best estimate is that a weapon with at least a 200 kiloton yield will be required."

"You realize ...?"

"I know exactly what the consequences will be," Ernst snapped. "That's why I get paid the big bucks, isn't it?" he added in a snarky tone.

"Okay. I'll get the message delivered ASAP."

"That's all I can ask. Well, that and DoE's cooperation on cleaning up our hot zone, since Omega fizzled." He hung up the phone, shaking his head at the layers of bureaucracy and the numbers of people who were going to die while the bureaucrats shuffled their paper. On the other hand, if SAC did release a thermonuclear device, the fallout might kill many, many more people. It was a no-win situation for him. He looked up, gazing around the room. "Someone put on another pot of coffee, please. This is going to be a long few days, I'm afraid."

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Franks Family Farm, South Dakota

Danny, Kayda's younger brother, tossed a backpack of camping equipment into the back of his pickup, patted the sides of his buckskin outfit to make sure his holdouts and equipment was on his belt, and climbed into the cab, pausing after he closed the door to open the window.

"Drive carefully," June Franks, his mom, said as expected. It was almost a ritual for her. On her hip, she was carrying Danny's three-year-old little sister Brenda. "Call when you get there."

"I will, Mom," Danny repeated automatically before he turned the key, and the diesel engine in his pickup roared to life. As his mom backed away from the truck, Danny put it in gear, and flipping on the lights to pierce the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, he eased the truck out of the driveway and onto the highway. His departure was a little later than he'd have liked, since his mom had insisted on making him breakfast, but he knew he could speed a little bit driving through the reservation, since it was almost never patrolled. He'd make it in time for the sweat lodge ceremonies, and surprise Kayda.

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Sioux Falls League Headquarters, South Dakota

Romeo Foxtrot dashed out of the 'comm shack', the area he considered his private territory in the headquarters complex where all of the League's communication gear was operated. The look on his face spoke volumes of the urgency of the situation. He found Farm Boy in the dining area enjoying a morning cup of coffee with Twinkletoes.

"Strangelove," the comm expert said ominously.

Farm Boy and Twinkletoes stiffened. "Are you sure?" Farm Boy asked uneasily.

"Got confirmation from DPA and JCS. Strangelove."

"What?" Cornflower and Ping Pong, just coming into the dining area, had heard the tense voice of Romeo Foxtrot, and they followed him.

"Strangelove," Farm Boy repeated the code word.


All eyes turned to Romeo Foxtrot. "Something escaped from HPARC. Anticipated target area is Fort Pierre."

The eyes of Cornflower - Debra - nearly bulged out. "Kayda!"

Farm Boy bolted to his feet and put his hand on Deb's arm. "We don't have confirmation."

The blonde hero didn't notice; she was frantically dialing on her phone. After she put it to her ear, she grimaced as the phone rang and rang. "Pick up!" she practically begged. "Please pick up!"

"It fits," Twinkletoes said, his steaming coffee cup inches from his mouth. After a sip, he set the beverage down. "The ANG was activated yesterday in Rapid City. I haven't gotten any reports of why, but ...."

"If it's connected to the HPARC escape, the radio chatter that wasn't encoded was extremely frantic. Heavy casualties, aviation support requested ..." He shook his head. "It sounded bad. Now we know why."

Finally, Debra's phone must have rolled over to voice-mail. "Kayda? Please call! Unhcegila escaped HPARC and is heading your way!" With a very pained expression, she hung up the call. "I'm going," Debra said firmly, looking at her compatriots. "You gotta call someone and get them to hold off Strangelove," she pleaded with Farm Boy. "Please! I've got to save Kayda! I've got to!"

Farm Boy and the others winced; this was one of the major dangers of being a superhero - getting attached to someone in a way that affected judgement. And Debra's attachment to the Lakota girl was beyond normal attraction; through a spiritual healing ritual by the Lakota girl, they were soul-bonded. "I'll try." He looked at Romeo Foxtrot. "Get ahold of HPARC. I'll get ahold of the governor's Emergency Response Team - right now, they probably know more than we do." He looked into Debra's pleading eyes. "Get the rest of the team ready. And call the Guard - see what they can do for transport. Fort Pierre is out of Vanity Girl's range."

Debra nodded, her expression replaced by extreme gratitude, and she darted from the room. Behind her, Ping Pong and Twinkletoes were moving to rouse the rest of the team, while Farm Boy followed the comm expert to make some very important phone calls.

Less than half an hour later, the team was at Joe Foss Field, loading into a National Guard C-130. Debra fretted, of course. "Haven't you got anything faster?" she complained.

"Not if you want to take the whole team," the cargo plane's loadmaster shot back. "Buckle in - we're rolling." Indeed, before the cargo ramp had even closed, the plane was already moving away from the hangar toward the taxiway. Farm Boy was already in his seat, a special headset on his head to allow him to continue communicating with both Romeo Foxtrot at the base and by extension, with HPARC and the SecDef's office.

Debra didn't sit. "Based on the remains at HPARC, Don came up with these goggles," she held aloft a special pair of protective eyewear. "They'll filter out the Class X imagery, so don't take them off!" She gave each team member a pair of the special goggles. Each member put a pair of goggles on his or her head, and put a second pair in their equipment pouches. She handed a few pair to the loadmaster. "Give these to the crew, and wear them when we come in range." The man nodded nervously as he accepted the devises, and he went to deliver them to the others in the cargo plane.

"Comm check," Debra said when the team was ready. "Cornflower, check."

"Tractor, check." "Vanity Girl, check." "Twinkletoes, check." "Card Trick, check." "Ping Pong, check." There was a minor pause. "Farm Boy, check." A very nervous voice called out, "Catapult, check."

Everyone turned to look at the newbie, the recent grad from Whateley who was interning with the team, and who was going into action for the very first time. He was a warper, able to distort the gravity in a small area, and he used that power to warp heavy objects like a massive linear accelerator, turning seemingly normal items into very fast-moving projectiles. Given time to build up the field, he could even accelerate a small-enough object to hypersonic speed. His rate of fire doing that was very slow.

Tractor turned to the new guy. "Okay, kid, listen up," he said, sounding strangely old. "This thing is a Class X demon. His gaze will literally melt your mind, and he's very strongly armored and fast." He tapped the hardened tablet computer on his forearm bracer. "This is what he looks like." Tractor read the kid's reaction. "Yeah, he's a fugly mother, isn't he? Those claws can go through your armor like a hot knife through butter. His fangs - well, no-one knows exactly, but it's estimated that the bite pressure is an order of magnitude higher than that of a great white shark."

The kid gulped nervously - again.

"Stay back and use your power for ranged attacks, just like we practice in the drills. If he comes at you, do NOT stand and fight - get back and keep up the ranged attacks. Warp yourself out of trouble, and then keep shooting. You've got an anti-grav belt, so if you have to, use it to stay high and away from the demon. Ranged attacks are what you'll be best at."

"Estimated thirty-five minutes to jump zone," Twinkletoes said after glancing at his own data-pad. "Catch a nap or use the head; we hook up in thirty."

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Private Charter Jet, Near Pierre, SD

Inside the small business jet plane, a tall redhead was settled in as comfortably as possible. It wasn't exactly warm at twelve thousand feet in the very early morning, but it was better than flying in a slow, unpressurized, unheated cockpit . Despite being practically compelled by her mechanical and technological interest to ride in the right seat of the cockpit, she was trying her best to get a brief nap, because the plane had left very, very early. Pierre was just outside the Cessna 510 Mustang's range, so they'd stopped to refuel, which had taken more time, much to the redhead's chagrin.

A shake on her shoulder roused her from her half sleep. She looked at the pilot who'd jostled her. "Just got an alert. Pierre airport is closed. So is half of west-river SD. We have to turn around."

The young woman frowned. "Hold course for a couple. Let me check something." From a waist-belt, she extracted a very advanced cell phone. After typing rather quickly, her eyes bulged from their sockets. "Like hell!" she directed angrily. "Firewall the throttles and get me to Pierre ASAP!"

"No can do! It's closed airspace!" the pilot rebutted angrily. "I'm turning around."

The girl grasped the second control yoke. "Ah know some about flyin'," she snapped. "If Ah have to, Ah'll put this thing on the runway at Pierre mahself." She saw the pilot's eyes bulge as he tried to manipulate the controls and found he couldn't even budge them against the girl's strength. "Ah'm an Exemplar 3," the girl said with a pleasant smile after he quit struggling. "So, you can land this plane in one piece, or Ah'll land it, in which case mah lack of experience will probably cause it to be bent a little bit. Your choice."

"I'm going to get in trouble for this," the pilot grumbled.

"Let me deal with that," Lanie said calmly. She flipped a couple of switches. "Minneapolis Center, November Eight Five One Mike Zulu."

"Eight Five One Mike Zulu, Minneapolis."

"Declaring an emergency, Code Foxtrot X-ray Niner Niner. Request clearance to land in PIR restricted airspace." She rattled off a long identification number.

There was a long pause; no doubt the in-flight controller had consulted a supervisor. "Eight Five One Mike Zulu, you are cleared to PIR. Repeat cleared to PIR."

"Thank you, Minneapolis. Y'all have a nice day." The redhead let off the push-to-talk button.

"You're a Class 5 air marshal?" the pilot gawked at the curvaceous girl.

"Yes," she answered sweetly. "Now could you please call to have a car waiting for me when we have wheel- stop?"

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Large Indian Encampment, Fort Pierre, South Dakota

Before the sun rose, hundreds of shamans from across the continent, representing nearly every tribe in the US and Canada, gathered around dozens of primitive structures. In groups of six and seven, the shamans went into the little huts, cleansing themselves in ritual sweat lodge ceremonies spoken in dozens of different tongues, with as many different rituals and songs and chants, and yet, the purpose was all the same - to prepare themselves spiritually for a significant morning ceremony of peace and bonding.

Much to their chagrin, Kayda sent three of her attendants to other sweat lodges to mingle with other women. It was politically necessary that someone close to the Ptesanwi, the one who called the gathering, should mingle, even if they would rather be with 'their lady'. It was yet another lesson from Laneth. A host of an affair or gathering couldn't afford to be exclusive or unapproachable. And she personally did five sweat lodge ceremonies, despite the fact that was boring and repetitive.

At the final sweat lodge ceremony, she and Suzie joined a small group of women, mostly older, who were waiting for their turn. The reactions of the women were interesting - some suspicion, some delight, and more than a modicum of curiosity. Kayda just smiled. "I thought I'd join you ladies for the ceremony, if you don't mind?"

"Of course not," several women said at once.

"Kayda!" one woman squealed with delight.

The Lakota girl turned at the sound, and a grin broke across her face. "Doli! It's great to see you!" The two girls, about the same age, hugged in greeting. "How are you? What are you doing here?"

"My father is on the Tribal Council, so we came. I knew he'd talked about an important channeler, but I didn't realize it was you!"

"Well, I'm not that important!" Kayda protested. Suzie snerked loudly at that, trying to keep a straight face, because Kayda did know how important her role was. "But - we can catch up later." She turned to the other women. "How about if we all introduce ourselves, and then we can do the ceremony?

The women were mostly older - apart from Suzie, Kayda, and Doli, the average age was probably around fifty-five, and most were shamans or chiefs' wives, although one very old woman represented an Ojibway tribal council. No two were from the same tribe; they were Shawnee, Seminole, Apache, and Paiute. They represented the Zuni, Kiliwa, Nez-Perce, and Tlingit tribes, coming from all directions of the compass.

As the robe-clad women went into the sweat lodge, most easily piled their robes inside the huge domed structure, but the Paiute woman, one of the younger at about forty, hesitated, looking nervously at Kayda.

"Is there something wrong?" Suzie prodded gently, having noticed the woman's hesitancy.

"No," the woman shot back, a little too quickly. "It's ..., I mean, I heard ...."

"That I'm a lesbian?" Kayda challenged the woman, having overheard her stammered unease. She read the woman's expression and knew she'd hit the nail on the head. With a smile, the Lakota girl looked around the hut. "Does this bother any of the rest of you?" She could tell that some of the women were a little uncomfortable, but none of them acknowledged it.

"Let's sit down," Kayda continued with a pleasant demeanor. "This is part of why we should unite. Before the Europeans came to conquer and colonize," she said as she slipped off her robe and sat down in the circular lodge, gesturing for all to join her, "many, many tribes understood a concept of two spirits."

"Homosexuality," the woman said, as if the word was distasteful.

"That's the European concept," Kayda replied gently. "Before their coming, tribes recognized that some women wanted to be warriors, and some men wanted to be caregivers. Some women took wives, while some two- spirit men took husbands. They were looked on with honor, recognizing that the Great Spirit had a reason to create them as they were, and therefore, what the Great Spirit created, we should not shun or mock." She smiled. "Maybe the white European culture can't accept it, but least in my own culture, I'm not afraid to say that I'm Two Spirits. It's who I am."

The women seemed both disturbed and comforted by the frank admission, and that inadvertent ice-breaker eased the atmosphere inside the sweat lodge, which allowed the women to discuss what they liked about their own tribal cultures, and what they wish to hang on to and pass down without feeling pressured to conform to the predominant white culture around them.

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The ancient demon moved slowly in a ditch along a road, drawing nearer and nearer to the gathering. Because it was still quite early, the shadows were long, and without much traffic on the road, he hadn't yet been spotted.

A shout sounded very close, followed by more shouts of alarm. He'd been spotted. At that point, camouflage and stealth were pointless; speed was of the essence. Heaving his body out of the ditch, he slithered toward where he sensed the Ptesanwi, moving at a speed that, considering his immense size, defied belief.

A man moved toward him, lifting some kind of weapon, shouting in the language of the People, but the cry died in the man's throat as he met Unhcegila's gaze, and in an instant, the man's thoughts disappeared as his mind was wiped by the demonic force.

Despite the thoughts from his sons that the People were soft and weak, the men reacted quickly, and strange weapons barked over and over. Unhcegila felt the prick of dozens of rounds on his thick, nearly impervious skin, but it was only a nuisance - so far - and as his tail swiped about, the men scattered or were battered aside. With such puny weapons and his regeneration, he felt no need to bring up his shielding, a dark magic power to make his hide all but impenetrable. The snake demon reveled in the taste of blood as his jaws rent through warrior after warrior, puny humans with the audacity to try to stop him!

After breaking through the first wave of men who were trying to defend the camp, Unhcegila found before him a spread of small structures, dome-like, and scurrying from them, dozens of men and women. More importantly, some of the people smelled like shamans. The lure of killing shamans distracted him from his goal, and he reared up and then smashed his immense snake-like body down onto the nearest sweat lodge, crushing a few people in the process, and his maw with its nasty scimitar-like teeth tore into a victim while he ripped another apart with his razor-sharp claws.

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The rental car tore into the parking lot, sliding expertly around the grass, and skidded to a stop. The transmission was in park and the door was open even before the car finished sliding. The young woman that emerged was clad in a red body suit, with over-the-knee boots, a red cowl hiding her upper face, and a wicked-looking bow strung over her shoulder with a quiver of arrows on her right thigh. Silver bracers on her forearms complimented the silver armor on her thighs and the silver equipment belt around her waist.

Wicked, Elaine Nalley Cody's alter-ego, looked around like a trained professional. Seeing people fleeing down from the crest of a hill, and hearing some god-awful screeching from that same direction, she paused and gently touched her belly. "Sorry. Ah know Ah promised you peace and quiet, but Ah gotta go save a friend." When the sound of distant gunfire interrupted her contemplative moment, she dropped her hand and bolted up the small rise, her bow in hand.

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Before the commotion stirred anyone else in the sweat lodge, Kayda's eyes opened wide, and she scrambled to her feet. She felt something - something awful, evil, dangerous, and very nearby. "Grab your robes and run!" she ordered the women. "Move!" She paused at the entrance of the sweat lodge. "Run! Whatever you do, DON'T look back! Run for your lives!" She turned toward the oncoming noise, the huge snake-beast that was still somewhat camouflaged by the slow dawn, but remembering something, she turned back. "Doli, Suzie - get them to safety NOW! Doli, this is Class X - do NOT look at it, understand? Don't let ANYONE look at it!"

The Navajo girl's jaw dropped, and then she nodded and began to herd the women out of the sweat lodge while the Lakota girl dashed the other way, toward the snake demon. Kayda cursed that she had only the robe, and not her usual buckskin dress with her weapons at her side, but she knew that she had to do something. She could stand up to the gaze of the snake-demon; others couldn't.

Around her, her guards rushed toward the battle. "Wait!" she cried after them, but she already knew it was too late. They'd sworn an oath to defend the People and the Ptesanwi, and they were not about to back down, even if it was a hopeless battle against a superior enemy. Honor demanded no less an effort.

Before she could take a step, a hand grasped her arm. She turned, fully intent on telling the person to not interfere, but she was confronted with the face of Emily, one of her handmaids. "Here!" Emily said, putting a bundle of tomahawks, a knife, and a belt full of holdouts and medicine pouch in her mistress' arms.

"Thanks," Kayda said a she began to hastily fasten the belt around her waist. "Now tell everyone to get the hell out of here! That thing is a very, very dangerous demon! Tell them to run and not look back!" The girl nodded, eyes wide as saucers. "And Emily? No heroics! Promise?"

The attendant gasped a moment, and then nodded. She'd pledged everything to serving the Ptesanwi, including her life if necessary, but now she'd been ordered to not defend her mistress. Pain in her heart, she ran the opposite direction from the unearthly screech of the snake demon and the wounded and dying warriors who were trying to slow it.

Her belt on and weapons ready, Kayda fingered the charm around her neck, igniting the spell within it and creating a powerful shield around herself, even as her feet carried her swiftly toward her deadly foe.

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Danny frowned as he drove his truck onto the grass parking lot; he'd had the bad luck to bump into a state patrol officer, and he'd barely managed to escape without a ticket. At least the officer knew of the Native American gathering, so after the usual checks on the truck's license plates and his drivers' license, he let the boy go with a stern warning. A lengthy stern warning. Now Danny was probably late for the ceremony.

As the engine shuddered off, Danny frowned - there was some unearthly shrieking and a lot of yelling noise from over the small hill that separated the parking area from the camp. Leaving his gear, he broke into a trot toward the camp, then a full run. The hundreds of tents and tipis, and a few huge National Guard tents set up for dining and recreation, slid past him in the dim morning light, but he ignored them. His hands reached for his belt with its holdouts, and he made sure that his ever-present charm was still hanging from his neck. Beyond the camp was the place where they'd set up sweat lodges, and it was a scene of bedlam. Women, girls, and older men were running from the scene, screaming in terror, while men with weapons dashed to the unearthly shrieking. The sound of gunfire was nearly constant, competing with the monstrous noise in volume.

"Unhcegila!" Danny's spirit cried out to him in his mind. "I feel it."

"What?!?" Danny exclaimed to the voice in his mind, the constant companion and spirit of Wihinape, the cougar, which he carried.

"I've felt him before. Smell! He smells like his son, only stronger!"

Danny paused, and his body flowed like a very viscous liquid, passing through his intermediate forms as he sprouted fur and his mouth extended into a muzzle. Clothes slipping from the lithe, powerful cat's body, he shook himself free of the last encumbrances, and with a huge growl of anger, he charged toward the huge, black shape that was a hideous hybrid of snake and humanoid demon, with vicious claws on his arms, and a huge mouth full of ugly, wicked, dangerous teeth.

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The snake-demon sensed her coming, strong enough of a presence to snap him out of his frantic blood-lust. With crimson claws and blood dripping from his mouth, he turned toward the Ptesanwi. "So," he roared in Lakota, "you save me the trouble of finding you among the sheep!"

"My loyalty is to the People! I will not let you harm them!" Kayda snarled at the demonic snake-thing.

"Then you shall die with them!" Snakey roared. Even as he talked, his tail whipped around to smash the girl.

Kayda laughed as she leaped over the tail, rolling when she hit the ground and stabbing her magic knife into the demon. She winced when the knife didn't easily penetrate the demon's hide, but there was something moist glistening in the dawn, and his sudden screech told her that she'd managed to hurt him, even if only a little.

"Your sons tried that, too," she jeered at the snake demon. He was probably smart, she knew, but if she could make him react out of instinct instead of thinking, he might get sloppy. "That didn't work out too well for them, did it?"

If her intent was to anger the snake-demon, she succeeded. With a mighty roar, he twisted his body and lunged at the girl, leading with his wicked-looking claws which slashed at her.

Using well-honed skills taught by very demanding instructors at Whateley Academy, Kayda dodged the claw attack, feeling a blow as one of the claws raked at her shield. But the snake-demon was no slouch at combat, and the claw attack was a diversion. His massive tail smashed into the girl's shield, battering the girl and knocking her twenty-yards from him to land heavily on the ground.

Despite the pain of bruised bones, the girl rolled to her feet, and just in time; the snake-demon had followed up his tail-bat with a diving bite at the girl, figuring she'd be on the ground helpless from being bashed about by the tail. She threw herself forward and down, beneath the demon's massive maw, cutting upward with a tomahawk as she did. Unfortunately for her, the snake's hide was much tougher than that of his sons; what would have been a lethal blow to a human didn't even scratch Unhcegila. And he was ready with his claws, which raked at the girl.

With the energy of dark magic behind his blows, the snake's claws tore at the girl's magic shield, and it collapsed under the assault. One of the wicked claws raked her body, tearing the flesh of her back open and eliciting a scream of pain. But even as she was seared by her back being flayed open, Kayda thrust upward with her other hand, the one holding her magic knife, and it sank into one of the demon's hands.

A powerful scream of agony erupted from the snake-monster as the magic knife dumped energy into the cut, and one of the demonic fingers, with its terrible claw, was nearly severed from his hand, dangling uselessly from strips of flesh as black, smelly ichor oozed from the wound.

The girl rolled from beneath the snake demon just in time; like his sons, the creature had tried to smash his body down onto her, crushing her, but having seen that tactic before, Kayda scrambled out from beneath its belly.

Unhcegila was nothing if not skilled. Once more, his tail whipped dexterously around, and once more, the girl was knocked more than a dozen yards. This time, she had no shield to protect her, and she landed with a sickening crunch as an arm and a few ribs broke from the massive blow.

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Danny sprang toward Unhcegila when he saw Kayda smacked hard by the demon's tail. Around him were bloody remains of warriors and shamans that had been shredded by the powerful demon, and more than a couple of men and a woman still alive on the ground, their hearts still beating, but their eyes vacant and unseeing as there was no longer any cerebral activity in their brains.

Adrenaline gave the boy the ability to ignore the gruesome remains as he dashed toward the snake demon. Warriors still approached, guns firing, although the shots were less frequent and less random, since Kayda was in the fight and thus the field of fire.

With a loud growl, Danny leaped onto the snake-demon's back, scrambling as claws tried to dig into the thick, armor-like hide. He snarled in anger; this was much tougher hide than he remembered from the snake demon in the Badlands. Inspired to defend his sister since she was at least momentarily vulnerable, he easily avoided a clawed hand that was swiping at the creature's back. With the arm placement on the monster, it was very difficult for him to strike at his own back, giving a large vulnerable area that Danny used.

Clawing his way up over the beast's head, he clawed frantically at one of the snake-demon's eyes, trying desperately to gouge one out if possible, but mostly to distract the unnatural beast until Kayda had gotten clear of the thing. Claws swiped toward him, and he dodged one, but the other hit him, and a cat-scream of pain burst from his lips as he was flung off the creature.

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National Guard C-130 Hercules, Near Fort Pierre, SD

"Stand by!" the loadmaster called out to the heroes. "Drop zone in thirty seconds."

"Copy," Farm Boy shouted his response to be heard over the roar of the engines and the wind noise that came in around the open rear loading ramp from turbulent air flow. All of the team members except him had static lines hooked to the inside the airplane, and Farm Boy was a flyer, so he didn't need a chute.

"Captain advises that there's some disturbance south of Fort Pierre."

"That'll be the encampment!" Farm Boy yelled back. "That's the drop zone!" He turned to the team. "Goggles on, weapons ready. We're probably going into a hot situation."

The loadmaster nodded, and called into his headset. In a moment, he gave Farm Boy a thumbs-up as the plane banked steeply toward the encampment and disturbance and then leveled out again.

"Standy by," the loadmaster intently watched a pair of lights. When the red light winked out and the green one illuminated, he slapped Farm Boy on the shoulder. Concurrent with the green light, a loud buzzer sounded, signaling the team should jump. "Go! Go! Go! Go!" he yelled at the Sioux Falls League members.

Debra was the first to go, inspired as she was with a fierce determination to save her love Kayda. Farm Boy just flew out the back of the plane, while the others hesitated a moment, and then stepped into the slowly-lightening sky. The new kid, nervous as hell about his first action, balked, not sure if he wanted to parachute out of the plane, but the loadmaster, with orders from Farm Boy and Twinkletoes, kicked the kid in the ass - hard - ejecting him, screaming, from the plane.

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Large Indian Encampment, Fort Pierre, South Dakota

Painfully, Kayda dragged herself to her feet, her left arm hanging limply from her side. She glared at Unhcegila, who was grinning, as if he knew he was triumphant. But before either could react, half a dozen Native American warriors, including Kayda's In'oka guard, rushed around her toward the snake demon. And impossibly, atop the beast's head was a mountain lion. Instantly, Kayda knew that it was Danny in his full- feline form, manifesting Wihinape.

"No!" she cried frantically knowing that the men were foolishly throwing away their lives. Even the pistols the men carried were of little use against snakey's armored skin, and if he met the gaze of any of them, they would be worse than dead.

One got too close - a clawed hand swiped and impaled the warrior, while another was crushed by the demon's massive tail. A third foolishly looked up, and collapsed into a babbling heap as all coherent thought vanished from his brain. But the others kept firing at the demon, trying desperately to defend their Ptesanwi.

In horror, Kayda saw the beast swipe Danny from his head, roaring in pain. With a warrior's cry, the girl sprang forward again; she was not going to let their sacrifice be in vain. Having learned a lot of tricks, and remembering the battle where she'd had help from Nikki Reilly, she paused and incanted. A fraction of a second later, a blindingly-brilliant ball of white light burst from her hands, flying toward the face of the snake demon. Only feet from its face, the ball exploded brighter than ten suns, and the snake roared in agony, flailing about and sending the Native American warriors into retreat from the temporarily-blinded demon who thrashed about angrily and at random. A few didn't make it, and by chance, one of them was impaled by a wildly-flailing claw, and was driven into Kayda's side, knocking her down again hard, the claw through the warrior's body puncturing her thigh.

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"NOOOOO!!!!" Debra screamed when an intensely bright flash illuminated everything like a dozen suns, blinding everyone even though Don's devisor goggles had suppressed nearly all of the flash.

A few seconds later, Tractor's voice sounded, very unsteadily. Like Debra and the others, he had been convinced that the device had been delivered early and that they'd flown directly into a nuclear blast. If that had been the case, they would all have been incinerated in a fireball. "No Strangelove!" he barked. "No Strangelove!"

"It's a magic flare!" Vanity Girl chimed in. "Continue with the operation!"

"Got 'em!" Don snapped. "Two o'clock. Oh, God!!" He felt the bile rising - even from five-hundred feet altitude, the carnage was unmistakable. From the sound, the kid hadn't managed to choke back his vomit.

On the ground, as their sight cleared, they could see Unhcegila twisting about wildly, while around him, men were stumbling about, having been temporarily blinded by the flash. "Got her! Thirty yards past the snake!"

From under the canopy of his parachute, Don unholstered some gizmo, and carefully drew a bead on the snake-demon. A hugely-powerful energy discharge flared into a massive lightning bolt that flew from the device, striking the snake demon and outlining him in dancing electrical discharge that seemed to be slowing the monster down.

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Debra tweaked the risers on her chute, steering herself frantically so she skirted the snake and headed directly for Kayda, popping the release twenty feet above the ground and dropping the remaining distance from the chute to the ground. Even before she hit, she was sprinting the last few yards to the Lakota girl, scooping her up in her arms, desperate to find some sign of life. "Kayda! Kayda!" she screamed urgently, "Please, talk to me!"

Kayda grimaced. "Deb?" she asked in disbelief as she shook off the effects of the flash of light. "What ... how ...?"

Hearing the unearthly roar behind them, Debra jumped as far as she could to the side, which was pretty far, given that she was an exemplar. As she jumped, she focused, and a pulse of pressure radiated out of her hand to the snake-demon, who had made another lunge at the Ptesanwi. It wasn't very effective, but her leap had taken her and Kayda out of range, at least temporarily.

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Ping Pong dropped to the ground, rolling from the impact and coming to his feet, and already having spotted the demon, he shot a fireball in the same motion, having obviously practiced that type of maneuver. Unfortunately for him, all that did was to attract the attention of the monstrosity; a bat of Unhcegila's tail knocked him off his feet, catching Debra and Kayda in the same swipe, and having recovered some of his vision, the snake-beast dove headfirst toward the young hero.

Kayda screamed in horror as the dagger-like teeth easily tore through Ping-Pong's armor, tearing the young man into dozens of small pieces. Like Debra, her gaze was fixed a moment too long on the horrific sight; the snake-demon's clawed arm swiped at them. Once more, Kayda felt her flesh being sliced. Behind her, Debra screamed in agony as a claw punctured her torso, tearing downward. She was lucky - a few more inches and her guts would have been pureed, but the vicious claw, backed by the monster's tremendous power, smashed into her hip joint, shattering bone as if they were twigs. Overwhelmed by pain, bleeding profusely, Debra collapsed to the ground, dropping Kayda.

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Tractor charged the beast from the side, trying a flanking attack. When it moved, practically leaping toward Kayda, his attack became reckless as he struggled to create a diversion. "Farm Boy - get Kayda and Debra!"

"Ping Pong!" Card Trick cried out weakly, fighting to not hurl at the carnage that had accompanied her friend's death. It was bad enough to see the human wreckage and remains around her, but watching Ping Pong torn asunder had been nearly too much.

"He's gone!" Vanity Girl shot back, trying to snap the girl out of shock. "Sunburst spell, now!" She summoned her essence and created a ball of incandescent fire between her hands, channeling the magic energy into it as if she was molding and shaping it, and when it was as bright as she could control, she flung it at the snake demon's head.

It took Card Trick a moment to get past the shock of her colleague's violent death before she, too, hurled a fireball at the monster. The flash of light from Vanity Girl's magic blinded everyone again momentarily, and then a huge red and orange ball of flame consumed or absorbed the light energy, encircling the monster.

Twinkletoes slapped the newbie on the ass. "Get your head in the game, kid!" he yelled at the boy. "Grav Warp attacks! Shoot shit at it!"

The boy looked stunned and quite overwhelmed. Nothing in his four years at Whateley had prepared him for the carnage and destruction around him. Even Gunny's worst scenarios in the simulators were different somehow; the participants knew, at least subconsciously, that the situations weren't real, that it was only make-believe. But this was only too real. The death around him wasn't hard-light or computer constructs. Finally steeling himself, he looked around, trying to keep one eye on the monster so he didn't get surprised, and seeing a chunk of still steaming rock from one of the sweat lodges, he reached out with his power, feeling the rock, hefting it, getting a sense of its mass and shape. Then, feeling enraged at the beast, he channeled all his power into accelerating the stone mass.

With a warped gravity field providing the equivalent of fifteen-thousand-G, precisely focused on the stone and willed by the mutant to move with the rock, the rock accelerated insanely, crossing the sixty yards in less than 30 milliseconds and reaching a hypersonic speed exceeding Mach 12. The rock slammed into Unhcegila, and didn't so much pierce the snake's armored skin as vaporize on impact into a sun-like plasma that burned into the demon, incinerating skin and muscle tissue beneath.

The snake demon screeched in agony; this was the deepest wound it had received so far. He instinctively snapped on his magic, causing a shield around himself, while at the same time, the wound began to regenerate quickly, at a rate that would have been a Regen 6 on the mutant's scale.

Twinkletoes, understanding that his power was not overly useful, knew instantly on the best course of action for his power. Using his telekinetic ability, he reached out and pulled Debra away from the battle, toward him. "Kayda!" he called, even though he suspected it would be futile because she wouldn't have on comm gear, "I've got Debra!"

Indeed, it was futile. All the shaman girl had seen was her love being torn into by a claw, with blood spraying everywhere. She knew from past encounters with the creature's offspring that wounds would be tainted, and thus they would not regenerate. She knew that a massive blow to the hip would almost certainly tear the femoral artery, and a victim would bleed out in moments. Her heart shattered at the knowledge that she didn't have time to do even a simple healing to try to save Deb, that if she did, Unhcegila would easily kill her, too. Convinced that the monster had killed the hero, Kayda went into a senseless rage, charging at the beast, her tomahawk deflecting claws as her magic knife tore into the monstrosity's hide.

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Vanity Girl clicked on her comm link. "Twinkletoes, crowd control! You can't do anything here!" She wound up and let fly another light ball, the one spell she had tried that seemed to hurt the snake-demon. Electric bolts, fireballs, conjured whirling blades - all of them had failed to noticeably harm the abomination. A sudden burst of white-hot plasma formed on the snake's side, and he screeched and thrashed in agony - clearly something had hurt him. But even as she incanted for another light ball, intending to throw it into the wound, the demon began to heal at an insane rate.

It took the new kid, Catapult, time to regain strength after such a powerful gravity wave, but as soon as he felt strong enough, he located another rock. Hefting it with a gravity warp, he began to mentally squeeze the gravity field around the rock, visualizing it squirting from the field like a pebble shooting out from between fingers squished together. Again, the massive gravity warp formed, and again, the rock accelerated at an almost unthinkable rate. The new projectile slammed into the snake demon like its predecessor and vaporized, the resulting burst of plasma masking the wound by the dazzling light.

And then the snake demon was visible once more. This time, instead of a crater nearly a foot across extending at least twice that deeply into the creature, there was only a burned patch about eight inches across that barely extended through the snake's hide. Vanity Girl let her spell fizzle, incomplete; she'd intended to try throwing the light into a gash, to see if that would hurt the demon more, since he was proven to be vulnerable to the light.

Card Trick incanted a quick spell, and her mouth dropped open in shock. "He's got ... some kind of magic shield!" she cried.

Tractor hefted a large pole, a remnant of one of the many downed structures, and he turned toward the creature. Like a knight riding in a joust, he carried the timber like a lance, intending to spear the monstrosity. He paused a moment when he saw Kayda rushing in, her face contorted in rage, dodging and slashing, and despite another vicious cut from the thing's claws, she got beneath its belly and made a huge, jagged cut. He shifted his attack, both to hit the creature somewhere else and to distract it from smashing the Lakota girl.

Dumping essence into her knife like water through a hose, Kayda stabbed again and again into the belly, each time feeling the creature's magic defenses weakening, and each time having to dodge as it flopped about trying to hit her. Tractor charged into the fray, and the critter's defenses were weak enough that the pole penetrated the flickering magic shield; backed by Tractor's enormous strength, the pole penetrated the armored skin, thrusting into the guts of the creature.

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Wicked ran into the bedlam and chaos, an arrow already nocked. All her dreams of her spirit-fragment Laneth's life, a very rough life of hardship and battle and bloodshed, had somewhat immunized her to the carnage around her. She saw Deb fall from a massive claw wound, saw her soul-sister charge in a berserker- like rage at the monster, saw the heroes trying to contain the inhuman thing that was giving more than it took. When Tractor speared it, Wicked hoped that it was a turning point, but watching in horror, the creature turned and plucked the huge pole from the wound after battering Tractor away with a massive swat of its clawed hands. Even as the ichor-covered lodge-pole came out of the injury, it was evident that it was already healing.

The young woman raised her bow, aiming carefully, and let fly an arrow which sailed true into the demon's eye. Its shield battered by the combined magic assaults of Kayda's knife and relentless starbursts from Vanity Girl and Card Trick, the snake demon was unprotected for a few moments, and in one of those moments, the arrow, carrying a warhead of C-4 explosive, found its mark.

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The explosion rocked the snake-demon, and the massive spasm hurled Danny from its back, where, out of reach of the arms and teeth, he'd been trying unsuccessfully to tear through the formidable armor of its hide and to distract the snake monster. Before another of the painful sunburst spells could hit him, he turned toward the source, the two magic users, and he leaped. The attacks on him were uncoordinated and haphazard, and for the most part, they weren't hurting him, at least not seriously, but the sustained sunbursts? They were burning away his protective essence quickly, and they had to be stopped. With a flick of his tail, he swatted one of his attackers away as he lunged toward what he considered his most serious threat.

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Vanity Girl barely missed being hit by Danny, who hit the ground hard with a sharp cry of pain. She glanced at him; the ferocious cat bore several bloody gashes, but was still trying to get up, despite a leg that, judging from the way it was bent, was obviously broken. The magic user turned back toward the threat, just in time to see the snake demon lunging at her and Card Trick. Years of practice had made protective shields almost instinctive; she had a hemispherical dome shield around herself, her junior colleague, and the injured mountain lion.

The snake-demon bounced off the dome, its bloody maw only inches from Vanity Girl, who flinched from the terrible sight. Beside her, Card Trick was momentarily frozen by the sight of the ferocious beast so up-close and personal, but she let off another sunburst spell at point-blank range.

Rolling off the shield, the snake-demon lashed out with its claws and he focused on the three weak members of the hero team. Crackling with conflicting magic energies, the shield held for a couple of swipes, but then it yielded to the powerful Class X assault with its very dark magic. Sensing that their protection was gone, Unhcegila swept his long, claw-tipped arms around, intending to shred the trio or bat them toward his vicious teeth.

Farm Boy was already rushing to help shield his teammates, and when he saw the shield flicker and snap out under the magic assault of the snake-demon, he threw himself toward the two women, using his own body to knock them clear of danger. While Card Trick was knocked down beneath the terrible claws, Vanity Girl was merely pushed in front of his body, and she felt an awful, burning, stabbing pain explode in her back. Crying aloud in agony, she crumpled to the ground beneath the hero.

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Tractor saw his wife and Farm Boy crumple. Hearing her shriek of pain, he threw caution to the wind and charged at Unhcegila, ignoring the claws that bounced harmlessly off his PK field, instead grasping the hand and physically tearing at it, trying to dismember it piece by piece as another explosive arrow blasted at the snake, barely missing its gaping maw when the snake-demon lunged forward to bite at the PK superman. Another hypersonic missile smashed into the demon, and he had to pause a moment to renew his shields and put energy into his regeneration; in that moment, Tractor literally tore the creature's forearm from its body.

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Lanie slung her bow over her shoulder and rushed in to where Kayda was crumpled on the ground, scooping her up without missing a stride. Changing direction to get away from the monstrosity, she saw the beast glare at her, and for a moment, reality seemed to waver, but then she felt her spirit's powerful presence shielding her from whatever malevolent mythos power that so easily corrupted and erased the minds of mortal men. She took a few powerful leaping steps away from the fight. "Kayda?" she practically begged, looking with great concern at the wounded Lakota girl. "Mitaka ki?"

The girl in Lanie's arms shook off her momentary mental confusion. "Lanie?" she asked in total shock. "What ... what are you doing here?"

"Saving mah soul-sister," Lanie replied with a grin.

"But ... it's too dangerous!" Kayda protested, struggling to stand. "Get away from here to protect yourself!" Her jaw dropped as she sensed something that felt like two very small lives within Lanie. "You're ... you're pregnant? With twins? And fighting? You ... you can't! Get them out of here! You owe them a future!"

"Ah'm not leavin' mah mitaka ki!" Lanie shot back defiantly.

With an anguished look, Kayda turned back to the noise and chaos and confusion of the so-far mostly one- sided battle. She had to fight this unstoppable thing, or it was going to keep killing. Behind her, Lanie reached toward one of the vambraces, touching a jewel inset into the metal. "Time to call in an old marker," she muttered before she took the bow back off her shoulder.

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Tractor was receiving more punishment than he was dishing out, despite the distractions of exploding arrows and sunbursts and hypersonic projectiles smacking into the snake, and of Kayda dumping magic into the beast with her knife. That seemed to be the only way that the beast was injured; cuts from her knife weren't healing, unlike the damage being inflicted by the others, which was regenerating at unfair speed.

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With all the shaking and violence, inside one pair of goggles, one solder connection could take no more shock and vibration. Silently, with no warning to the wearer, power ceased flowing to the special Class X filter that Don had created for the protective eyewear. The goggles failed, and the devisor-shielding inside ceased to function.

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Twinkletoes had two casualties beside him; he'd managed to stop most of the Deb's bleeding, but the wound was ugly and her normal regen wasn't healing it. He knew, from lots of tales from Kayda and from having seen it before, that something was interfering with Deb's self-healing - most likely some taint caused by the demon. He turned his attention to Vanity Girl, who lay on the ground moaning in agony. The wound wasn't as severe as Deb's, but it might be damaging in another way; it was a huge, jagged puncture next to her spine. Probing gingerly, Twinkletoes found that it was only a couple of inches deep, and it didn't seem to have pierced into her internal organs. Satisfied that she was stable, he turned back to the battlefield, and reached out with his telekinesis, focusing on the large man crumpled beside where Vanity Girl had fallen.

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The firepower directed at the snake demon was just enough to keep him at bay, but it wasn't really hurting him, at least not seriously. Kayda looked around; there were a lot fewer heroes than when the battle had begun, and she felt despair that they were going to be able to pull this off, that the remaining firepower would be sufficient to finally defeat the ancient enemy of Wakan Tanka. She was failing as the Ptesanwi.

In the midst of another attack, a rip opened in the space next to Lanie, and a familiar figure, leaped through. It only took Lady Astarte a moment to realize what was going on and who the foe was, and she lowered her scepter and directed a huge energy wave at the hulking black snake-demon. It didn't hurt the demon, but it was enough to get its attention.

Don, too, saw Lady Astarte warp into the battle; dropping his particle cannon, he pulled out a pair of goggles and threw them. "Lady Astarte - put these on!" he yelled.

The superheroine turned at the sound of her name; seeing the goggles flying toward her, she snatched them out of the air, and with barely any interruption in what she was doing, she pulled the goggles over her head and refocused her attention on the battle. Fresh to the battle, unlike the heroes who felt like the ten minutes they'd been battling were ten hours, Lady Astarte charged in to the snake demon. Wielding her magic scepter, she tore into the snake-demon's armor, tearing it in places and being splattered by the foul- smelling, oily black body fluid of the monstrosity.

"Sun type energy!" Card Trick shouted to the newcomer. "Sun energy hurts him most!" She began to incant anew, preparing yet another sunburst. When it was ready, she held the sun-ball in one hand, while with the other she invoked a bolt of lightning, which she cast at the beast to get its attention. "Hey, Ugly!" she screamed at the same time.

She wanted to get its attention, and she succeeded. The monster turned toward the source of the sunbursts and the latest lightning bolt. Card Trick released the energy ball into the creature's gaping maw at the same moment as he fully gazed at her.

The superhero crumpled silently to the ground, her eyes suddenly vacant and unseeing.

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Another hypersonic missile hit the beast, and though it was still regenerating, it was much slower. His tail batted at Danny once more, and though the mountain lion dodged the latest attack, it was obvious that he was injured and slowed. Out of arrows, Lanie was trying to slash at the monster with her adamantium claws, which were making progress at the tough hide, but it was slow going. Don's best weapon, the particle cannon, was out of energy, and his laser gun had been broken when he'd taken a tail-swipe from the demon; he was with Twinkletoes trying to tend to the injured.

The shaman girl was overtaken by a sense of helplessness. They were losing, she realized. Much more and the team would fall. Screaming at the insanity of it all, she rushed in again. Her sacred knife plunged into the snake demon, and as he shrieked in agony, the girl began to dump her essence into the blade as fast as she could.

The beast felt the attack, felt the energy tearing at his insides, and he roared and thrashed about, but somehow, the girl kept her knife in him. Finally, though, sensing that the energy flow had ceased, he twitched once more, throwing the shaman girl from himself.

"Catapult," Lady Astarte yelled, "gravity warp! Crunch him!"

"What?" The boy gawked at the teacher.

"Point-focus a gravity field inside him! Collapse him on himself, like a black hole!" the teacher directed.

The boy was confused for a moment, and then he realized what his former headmistress was saying. Dropping the stone he'd been about to hurl, he turned his focus to the snake demon. Concentrating, he imagined the snake demon as the center of a black hole, and he let his power loose, his surging adrenaline giving him an urgency and power he never knew he could muster.

Inside the snake demon, a pinpoint of incredible gravitational force pulled at the monster. With the attacks of the new lady superhero and the insane magical attack of the shaman-girl, the power the snake demon would have used to shrug off the physical forces, even ones as powerful as the warper was creating - all that power was gone. Organs ripped and squeezed as the gravity pulled more and more of the snake demon toward the focal point of the field.

Outside the demon, heroes struggled as the gravity suddenly turned nearly sideways; they fought to stand, and then to keep from sliding into the incredible force the warper was creating. Realizing what was happening, Tractor grabbed Kayda and Lanie and held them, while Lady Astarte fought to neutralize the effect it was having on her. Twinkletoes held Don with his TK field, struggling against the mighty force.

The snake-demon was collapsing into a super-dense ball, a concentration of matter that was unnatural but not nearly as powerful as a black hole. Then, fighting the G-forces, Lady Astarte pointed her scepter at the black, evil ball, and a rip in space occurred. "Push him in!" she ordered.

Catapult fought to retain control; he'd never done such powerful gravitic forces as he was working with, and he knew that if he didn't keep things managed very precisely, it might end quite badly. With some minor redirects of the gravitational focus, he pinched normal space-time, and slowly at first because of the incredible mass concentrated into the two-foot black ball, he pushed the remains of snakey through the rip. As soon as it was in, Lady Astarte let the inter-dimensional hole snap shut, light and magic and seemingly part of the universe swirling in a sanity-testing display, until that, too was sucked into a small silver ball which Lady Astarte had plucked from one of her vambraces. The evil demon was sealed in a pocket dimension of Lady Astarte's creation, and thus control. From inside, it would be nearly impossible for Snakey to get out, and if he did manage, the spherical silver gateway would be sealed into a low level of the HPARC facility, this time hopefully with even stronger force fields and wards and cryo-chilling.

"Why didn't you do that sooner?" Tractor demanded, astonished.

"I ... I never ... I didn't know ... that I could do that!" Catapult stammered. Then he crumpled to the ground as the horrific morning's exertion and carnage took its toll, overwhelming his brain and causing him to faint.

Lady Astarte took a deep breath and then slowly exhaled. "That was one nasty mother," she sighed. She looked around, then pulled out some kind of devise and pressed buttons. After she finished, she relaxed a tiny bit. "I've got a couple of warpers coming to get everyone to Doyle for medical care."

"Thanks for comin'," Wicked said, walking up beside the headmistress. "Ah guess we're even now."

"That's one of your markers," Lady Astarte chuckled. "As I recall, you still have two more. And besides, you should know that even without that, if I could, I'd help save any of my students." Seeing the Georgia girl's cocked eyebrow, she smiled broadly. "Okay, most of my students."

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Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy

With a nurse beside her, Dr. Tenent came into the room where Debra lay in bed, her wound and lower torso covered by a white blanket. She seemed dazed, her eyes half-glassy as she fought the devisor pain killers that were making her sleepy. Beside her on the bed, Kayda clutched her tightly, as if afraid to let go. The Lakota girl was battered and bruised, deep cuts still oozing blood onto the white bed linens of her love.

"Kayda," Dr. Tenent said gently, lifting at the girl's arm. "I need to treat you."

Deb looked up at the doctor, then at Kayda, who seemed quite dazed, shell-shocked as they used to call it. "Go, honey. They need to tend to your wounds."

"I don't want ..." the girl began, tears on her cheeks.

"Go," Deb repeated firmly, but even saying that word was an effort.

"Come on, Kayda," the nurse helped her out of bed and led her from the room.

"Doc?" Deb called weakly as Lanie, who'd been sitting beside the bed holding Kayda's hand, scooted closer to Deb. "How ... how are they?"

Dr. Tenent looked to Lanie like she'd aged ten years in the twenty minutes since Mrs. Carson and a warper named Shortcut had transported them from the carnage of South Dakota to the Doyle emergency room. "Tractor has some broken bones, but otherwise he's okay. He's with Vanity Girl. Twinkletoes and Catapult weren't injured, but they're in shock. Catapult much worse. They're sedated right now."

"Ah'd imagine that they'll be spending time with Dr. Bellows or his staff soon." Lanie noted.

Dr. Tenent nodded. "Vanity Girl ... is hurt pretty badly. The puncture ... damaged her spine."

Deb noticed the very slight wince. "How bad?"

Dr. Tenent drew in a slow breath. "It's not healing," she said simply, her voice weary. "We've tried everything, but ... we can't get it to regenerate. Until we do, she's paralyzed below the wound."

"Farm Boy?" Deb asked hopefully. She read the grimace on Dr. Tenent's face. "He ... he didn't make it, did he?" she stammered. Her eyes misted and tears began to trickle out when Dr. Tenent grimly shook her head. "What about Val?"

Dr. Tenent looked away and wiped the moisture from one eye. "She's ... she's not too bad physically."

"Physically?" Neither Deb nor Lanie liked the sound of that.

"Don ... said her goggles broke." The two women goggled as the implications started to dawn on them. "There's ... no discernable higher-order mental activity."

Deb's jaw dropped in horror. "She's ....?"

Dr. Tenent sighed again. "Her mind ... is wiped. She's ... she's in a permanent vegetative state."

A whimper of anguish escaped from Deb as she thought about her teammate, the Whateley alum who'd decided to stay with the Sioux Falls League after her internship and who'd become a friend. "Danny?"

"Minor cuts and a broken forearm. But ... he hasn't been able to change back to his normal form." Deb's eyes widened. "He's down in the power labs where Hewley and Aranis are looking at his case."

"How ... how bad is Kayda?" Deb finally managed to stammer, her voice tinged with fear.

"Broken bones, cuts - nothing that won't heal," the doctor replied, but there was an edge to her voice that Lanie and Deb picked up on.

"But ...?" Lanie asked, frowning in concern.

"The wounds are tainted, just like yours. And Val's. And Jake's and Danny's. And ... and they're not healing."

"Y'all will be better when she decontaminates the taint," Lanie said confidently. She saw the concern flit across Dr. Tenent's face. "What?"

"Kayda has ... she has no detectable magic," the magic-using doctor replied heavily. "Her well is out, and Mrs. Carson couldn’t relight it." She waited for that to sink in. "And none of the rest of us can even detect the taint, let alone decontaminate it."

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The Lakota girl lay in bed curled up tightly with Deb; despite all the normal protocols in Doyle, someone had granted the two a dispensation and was allowing them to stay together, or at least to not notice when Kayda was 'visiting' Debra for an extended period of time. The hospital wing that the surviving heroes were on was isolated and heavily warded;

When the door creaked open, Kayda looked up carefully; beside her, Deb was sleeping, and she didn't want to disturb the blonde hero. In a chair in the corner, it looked like Lanie was doing the same, keeping vigil on her soul-sister. "Hi," she whispered softly as Jake Barton crept softly into the room.

Tractor didn't speak for quite a while, only moving to her bedside. "Please," he whimpered, tears streaming down his cheeks, "you have to heal Vanessa!"

Kayda sobbed at his words, feeling her heart breaking again. "I ... I can't!" she replied, shaking as she cried. "I ... I can't heal anybody!"

"What?" Tractor's mouth hung agape. The sound of his hope shattering was painfully obvious in the way he said that single word.

"I ... I can't do any magic!" Kayda wailed. "My ... well ... it's out! I can't feel my spirits. I can't feel my magic!" She began to convulse significantly with sobs as she was forced to admit what she'd been so busily denying to herself - that she was broken, incapable of doing the magic that had made her feel special.

Silently, a new bout of tears streaming down his cheeks, his head lowered in grief, Jake Barton - Tractor - shuffled out the door. His hopes for someone able to heal his wife Vanessa - Vanity Girl - were being snuffed one by one.

A couple of minutes later, the door opened again. "Kayda?" Dr. Tenent called out.

"Yeah?" the girl answered softly.

The doctor came fully into the room, crossing to the bed. "Circe wants to see us."

"What?" the girl asked, surprised. She moved enough that Deb stirred.

Lanie slowly sat upright in her chair. "Huh?"

"What's up?" the blonde heroine asked as she pried her eyes open.

"Circe wants to see Kayda and me," Dr. Tenent repeated for Deb's benefit.

"I'm coming, too," Debra said firmly as she instinctively tried to sit up. Her leg, though, was still badly shattered, and she nearly passed out as her face contorted with excruciating pain.

"You're going to stay here and rest," Dr. Tenent chided her. "We've got to do a magic ritual, and you can't be in the casting room or the circle," she admonished the blonde exemplar. "You do want Kayda to get her well relit, don't you?"

Deb didn't even need to think. "Go," she urged her lover.

"But ...." Kayda was hesitant to be part of a ritual that involved a casting circle; it was taught early and often to magic arts-track students that walking into a casting circle, otherwise known as a fool's circle, was surrendering one's soul to whatever happened. It had been a fool's circle by Hekate that had mind-enslaved Cavalier and Skybolt all those years ago, Kayda remembered nervously.

"Go," Deb repeated, with Lanie joining in emphatically.

"If you don't go on your own," Lanie said, rising to her feet with a stern expression, "Ah'll carry you. Ah want to know that you're okay before Grizzly and Ah fly back to the gathering." She saw the Lakota girl's eyebrows rise, and nodded. "Grizzly insists that Ah go back, to try to see what can be salvaged."

Slowly, painfully because of her own unhealed injuries, the Lakota girl climbed from the hospital bed and allowed the doctor to support her and lead her to a small room. It wasn't a formal casting room; the casting circle was carefully made but not a permanent fixture, and the lighting was improvised. Standing in their robes, waiting, were Circe and Ms. Grimes from the Mystic Arts department and Mrs. Carson. Dr. Tenent slipped casually out of her clothes and into her own robe.

"In the circle, please," Mrs. Carson directed. Had it been anyone but the faculty of Whateley that Kayda had repeatedly trusted with her life, she wouldn't have been so cooperative, but knowing the magic users, she slipped off her hospital gown and stood naked in the middle of the circle.

Fifteen minutes of ritual later, the magic users stepped back from the compass-points of the circle, their brows dripping sweat and their faces screwed up in consternation.

"Something," Circe speculated heavily, "is interfering with your well. Something is keeping the essence from settling in."

"The taint," Kayda spat bitterly. It had to be - the taint from Unhcegila in her wounds must have been the reason her well was so unstable that it couldn't light. "So that's it," she muttered dejectedly, "I'm back to being a baseline." Overwhelmed by the enormity that her well had been extinguished, she sank to her knees. "Coyote was right," she sobbed.

"What?" the magic-using women gawked at her.

"When he offered me a deal," Kayda muttered. "Because I ... I was selfish and ... and couldn't think straight," she shook her head slowly as she talked, her eyes misting, "I ... this didn't have to happen. To anyone! Danny is stuck - because of me! It's my fault. It's all my fault."

Mrs. Carson stepped into the now-still casting circle and lifted the girl into an embrace. "Kayda, it is not your fault. You couldn't know, none of us could have known, what was going to happen. Now, I've got a theory. Is the taint stronger than that of Unhcegila's sons?"

Kayda started, and then she looked up and nodded slowly. "Yeah."

"And it was tough to fight the taint from the sons, right?" Again the Lakota girl nodded. "The taint is active magic, not just a passive spell. It's fighting to keep your shaman magic from accumulating. That may be why we can't keep your well lit. It's fighting the in-flow of essence."

"So ... it's over?" the girl asked softly, sounding defeated. "I'm done as a magic user?"

"No," Mrs. Carson firmly responded. "You know the spell you used to fight the taint on Skybolt's piercings?"

Kayda remembered that nightmarish battle with active mythos magic, and she shuddered involuntarily. "Yeah."

"You're going to have to do that same thing to yourself," Circe commented grimly. "We'll channel the essence to you, so you can fight the dark magic."

"But ... I can't control it ...." Kayda started to object.

"I'll have to enter your dream-space," Mrs. Carson countered, "to help direct and channel our essence into your shaman form of magic." She saw the girl's eyes widen. "Yes, I know how dangerous that can be. After helping you with some of Skybolt's sessions, I know enough to help."

Nearly an hour later, a very fatigued Mrs. Carson carried a totally exhausted Kayda into the hospital room she sort-of shared with Deb. Laying her gently in the bed beside her love, Mrs. Carson smiled at Deb. " It was a very long and difficult struggle against the demonic magic. She's exhausted, and the rest of us are pretty worn out, too. But her well is lit, and seems to be stable." She adjusted the girl's position so she'd be more comfortable. "She's going to need to rest for a long time, and it'll take time for her essence to rebuild, but she'll be okay."

"Thank you," both Deb and Lanie practically blubbered to their former teacher and headmistress.

"When she wakes up, we'll have her start decontaminating everyone. Hopefully," she added with a wince, "that'll take care of whatever is interfering with Vanessa's healing, too."

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"You have to heal yourself, honey," Deb protested as Kayda prepared yet another healing ritual. Since she was the only one who could decontaminate Unhcegila's taint from all the League's wounds, she was determined not waste essence on herself. Besides, she had a major regenerative-healing spell to do on Debra.

"No. I'm going to heal you first," Kayda rebutted. "And I don't think there's much you can do to stop me."

"Oh yeah?" Debra asked, holding up the 'nurse call' button. "You wanna bet?"

"You know demon-tainted wounds don't regenerate right," Kayda reminded her lover. "Ms. Grimes is coming over to help provide essence, and I'm going to decontaminate your wound and do the regeneration spell."

"And then you'll conk out from exhaustion."

"And we can dream walk," Kayda said with a smile, leaning over to kiss her girlfriend.

Behind Kayda, the room door clicked shut, startling the two. "I would say 'get a room'," Ms. Grimes chuckled, "but somehow, you two already managed that bit."

"How is Don doing?" Deb asked, quite obviously irritated at being bedridden because of her shattered hip. "And Catapult? And Twinkletoes? And Danny?"

"You'll have to ask Dr. Bellows about Don and Catapult," Ms. Grimes replied. "Physically, they're fine. Mentally?" She shook her head. "That was tough on them - on both of them. Personally, I think your young intern is done with the hero business," she acknowledged. "And Danny ... Danica .... The powers lab folks can't find any reason his form is stuck in Wihinape now that his taint has been cleansed. Dr. Markham has a theory that it's psychological and will take time and therapy for her, er ... him to get over."

"I can't say as I blame him," Kayda snorted. "That was ... rough." She didn't even try to suppress the shudder which memories of the battle caused her. She knew that it was going to take a long time to get over what had happened. "Where's Lanie?" she remembered to ask.

"She went back out to Pierre," Ms. Grimes reported. "She said her spirit is needed right now at the gathering to help heal all the people and to try to restart the unification talks."

"I imagine that Unhcegila screwed things up pretty badly," Kayda lamented. "All those years of work - and now I have to start over."

"Elaine said that Grizzly was hopeful that this would demonstrate that there were forces which would defeat the tribes one by one if they didn't unite," the teacher replied. "This morning Elaine called to tell me that you're credited with personally saving several prominent women from other tribes. She told me to tell you that Wind Runner is really talking glowingly about you. She's talking about making you a member of the Navajo tribe in acknowledgement of your heroism. The Shawnee have already done so; the chief's wife was pretty effusive about your actions that saved her."

Debra smiled up at Kayda. "I told you, hon," she beamed.

"It'd be pretty ironic," Ms. Grimes chuckled, "Unhcegila wanted to kill you to stop any thought of tribal unity. And then your actions during his attack are actually furthering the unification that he wanted to prevent." She nodded toward the girl's medicine pouch. "Let's get going. There's a lot of healing to do."

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Tractor sat in a chair in the hospital room in Doyle, his back to the door, staring blankly out the window, not move even when the door squeaked as Mrs. Carson eased it open. Seeing him sitting so still, she frowned. It wasn't like him; when he'd been a student, he'd been very full-of-life, very dynamic and gregarious, and almost never serious.

She crossed the room and pulled a chair up beside him and sat. "How are you doing, Jake?" she asked

"I ruined her life," he said in a morose voice.

"No," the headmistress said sternly.

"If I hadn't chased her," he lamented softly. "If I hadn't made her move to Sioux Falls, to be a part of the League .... How is that not my fault?"

"Jake," Mrs. Carson chided him gently, "you can't blame yourself."

"If she hadn't been with me ...." His emotional dam broke, and bitter tears began to trickle and then flow from his eyes. "She's paralyzed, and Dr. Tenent can't heal her!"

"You weren't the one who injured her," Carson countered.

"If she hadn't been with me, she wouldn't be hurt!" the big hero cried.

Mrs. Carson put her hand on his arm. "Jake," she said sternly, waiting for him to look at her. "You can't leave your life asking 'what if'. You can't know - nobody can know - what would or would not have happened if you hadn't married her, if she hadn't joined the League. You can't blame yourself."

"It's all my fault," he repeated, not even aware of how much his eyes were leaking. "I ruined her life!"

Despite appearing only a few years older than Tractor, Mrs. Carson was old enough to know that, no matter how old, sometimes everyone needed a comforting motherly hug and a shoulder to cry on. She knew that many of the students of Whateley were like her own children, and she looked on them with an almost motherly affection. Standing, she took the younger man's hand and pulled him to his feet, then wrapped her arms around him to try to comfort him as he bawled unashamedly on her shoulder. She knew that Dr. Bellows and his staff were going to be very, very busy.

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"Deb said you'd probably be here," Mrs. Carson strode easily up to the top of a small hill that overlooked Poe and Hawthorne cottages. It had been a favorite spot for the Lakota girl to sit and think about her troubles while she'd been a student at Whateley, and often to feel sorry for herself.

Kayda snorted. "Yeah. Not a lot has changed, I guess."

"Oh?" Despite her Armani suit, Mrs. Carson sat down beside the girl, leaning against the mighty oak that was Kayda's spot.

"Yeah." Kayda leaned her head back against the tree bark, letting her eyes drift shut and sighing heavily. "If I hadn't gotten the Sioux Falls League involved ...."

"You'd be dead," Mrs. Carson said with certainty, startling the girl. Her eyes popped open and she stared at the headmistress. Mrs. Carson nodded. "It took all of us to beat him. You could not have defeated him by yourself. We were getting our butts kicked. The National Guard got torn apart. He shrugged off Hellfire missiles." She paused, waiting for the girl to look at her. "By themselves, the League would have all been killed. It took teamwork." She smiled. "Kind of like the first snake demon you guys fought in Dunwich."

Kayda leaned back again, closing her eyes once more. "I don't feel heroic. Farm Boy is dead," she said, fighting tears. "So is Ping Pong. Vanessa is paralyzed, and I can't help her." She wiped at the moisture that was accumulating in the corners of her eyes. "And Valerie - she's ...." Kayda couldn't stop the tears this time. "She might be better off dead. Even if ... if her body could ... be cleansed of contamination," she sniffled, " Valerie Hinson is gone forever!"

"Strategic Air Command supplied a thermonuclear bomb to stop him," Mrs. Carson continued. "The capitol, Pierre, would have been obliterated. Thousands would have died. The entire Native American encampment would have been destroyed. And that's not talking about the effects of the nuclear contamination or fallout."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Kayda asked bitterly. "Because it doesn't."

"No," Mrs. Carson said gently. "All I can tell you is that's the calculus of being a hero, the tradeoff of lives saved versus lives lost." She leaned back against the tree, and got a far-off look in her eyes. "You can't stop it. None of us can."

"It ... it hurts!" Kayda complained as tears streaked down her cheeks. "It's ... it's not fair! Not to Farm Boy, or Ping Pong, or Vanessa. Or Valerie" She sat silently for a moment; Mrs. Carson was not a psychologist, and she didn't know how to answer the Lakota girl's comment. "I ... everyone ... would have been better off if I'd never become the Ptesanwi. Then it wouldn't have happened!"

Mrs. Carson reached out and gently turned Kayda's head toward her. "Yes, it would have. Her return was going to stir ancient enemies. If it wasn't you, it would have been another. Thousands might have died." She twisted her body and clutched the girl to her shoulder. "I know it hurts, dear. It's always going to hurt. I can't make it feel less painful. Even Dr. Bellows can't make the pain go away. All you can do is live your life in a way that doesn't make their sacrifices pointless."

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Eyes bloodshot from exhaustion and from crying seemingly non-stop since the end of the battle, Kayda poked her head into the one hospital room that she had been avoiding. "Hi," she said, trying to be cheerful. "The nurse said you wanted to chat?"

Vanessa Barton turned her head toward the door. The back of her bed was raised so she was sitting, more or less. "Hi!" She, too, sounded like she was forcing the cheerful act. "Close the door and come sit down." She gestured toward a chair beside her bed.

Kayda obliged and sat down. "How are you doing?"

Vanessa shrugged. "I ...I don't know," she finally confessed. "I'm ... I guess I'm trying to wrap my head around the fact that I'll never walk again," she said, her voice cracking.

Kayda felt her eyes moisten again. "I'm sorry," she said, wiping a tear. "I ... I tried to heal it, but ...."

Vanessa reached out and put her hand on Kayda's shoulder. "I know."

"I feel like it's my fault," she confessed. "If I hadn't gotten involved with Debra ...."

"Do you know Jake thinks of you like a little sister?" Vanessa asked, startling Kayda with the sudden change of topic. "He ... he talks about all the times he had to cajole you to study your history, and you probably never heard how pleased he was when you got good grades in your formal history classes."

"I don't understand."

"Jake is an only child." Vanessa smiled. "You're the sister he never had. I ... we ... need you to ...." Her voice cracked and tears flowed. "Jake is going to need you. A lot."

"I'll ... try," Kayda stammered, a bit confused. "I've already talked to Hazel about Unhcegila, and ...."

"Not that," Vanessa shook her head. "Jake blames himself for what happened.

"That makes two of us," Kayda spat bitterly.

Vanessa slid her hand down to rest on Kayda's. "Don't be like that!" she said, her voice suddenly strong. "I ... I didn't have to say yes to him, or agree to be a hero." She shook her head. "I ... I need him to be strong for me. And that means ... that I can't be strong for him. Not as much as I'm afraid he's going to need." She wiped her cheeks again. "I need him to not blame himself, because I know it's going to be very, very difficult for me."

Kayda's eyes widened. "What?"

Vanessa forced a tiny chuckle. "I bet you didn't know that Dr. Bellows has been visiting with me a lot the past three days. He doesn't have answers, but he did tell me what I'm likely going to feel as I try to adjust. And he talked a lot about what this is going to mean to Jake."

"I ... I'll ... try," Kayda said hesitatingly.

"There's more," the crippled heroine said sadly, startling the Lakota girl. "Jake and I had started planning." Kayda had a sinking feeling about what Vanessa was implying. "He just has to defend his dissertation, and then he'll be Dr. Barton." She let a smile cross her face. "I'll be so proud of him when he gets his doctorate." Kayda sat quietly, her mind racing.

"We ... talked about retiring," Vanessa said. "He was already thinking about where he might teach. And ..." Her eyes misted and tears flowed again. "And ... we were going to start ... a ... a ... a family."

Kayda's jaw dropped; in her heart, she knew where Vanessa was going.

"He doesn't know yet," Vanessa continued, "but when ... I was injured," she wiped her cheeks yet again, "my ... ovaries were contaminated. I ... I can't ever give him children," she blurted out before the words choked in her throat.

Kayda rose, leaned over the bed, and clutched her friend tightly. For a long while, the two women cried on each other's shoulder, Kayda out of a sense of guilt, and Vanessa out of fear and an overwhelming sense of suddenly being unattractive or undesirable to her husband, of being now faulty, of everything associated with how drastically life had changed for her, and fear of what that meant for her and Jake.

"When I tell him," Vanessa said softly, her head on Kayda's shoulder, "I want you to be there, as ... as family. I need to ask you to be strong for him. To help Jake. Because I know this is going to be very, very rough for him."

Kayda tried to reply, but emotion choked off her voice. "I'll try," she finally croaked. "I'll do whatever I can for both of you."

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Battleship South Dakota Memorial, Sioux Falls

Battered, bruised, and a long way from healed, the survivors of the battle dragged themselves wearily to the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial, a park and monument to the World War 2 battleship that had born the state's name, where a special group of VIPs, including the mayor, the governor, and the Vice President had gathered. Three stands had been hastily erected for all the dignitaries, and a crowd of over a thousand had gathered.

Wearing their backup uniforms, the group stumbled more than they walked to a stage that had been placed for some kind of ceremony. The wounds had been healed, at least the physical ones. But the Sioux Falls League bore the mental scars of the battle, and it showed on their faces. Twinkletoes had the 'thousand yard stare', while Tractor looked distraught like he'd lost everything. Debra clung tightly to Kayda, and Mr. and Mrs. Franks huddled protectively around Danica like she was the most precious, most fragile person in the world. Even ten days after having her wounds decontaminated from the demon's taint and being healed, she still hadn't been able to change back. Behind them, Charlie Lodgeman sat somberly, as did Mrs. Carson, attired as Lady Astarte, to support 'her' students, the heroes who she had fought alongside.

If any of the heroes had been asked which of the dignitaries spoke, or what they said, it was highly unlikely that they could have recalled a single speaker or a single word. They sat on the stage like automatons, their nods and smiles completely fake.

The governor of the state strode to the speaker's stand, in his perfect suit with his perfect hair, looking so dignified and important. "The State of South Dakota owes a great debt to the members of the Sioux Falls League," he began, looking at the battered heroes on the stand, a look of feigned admiration that was part of the stock and trade of politicians. "Most of us never know the extent of sacrifices made by our heroes who fight to ensure we can live our lives in peace, whether that is in the military, the police, fighting fires, or as superheroes."

He continued for several minutes, heaping praise upon the unsung heroes of the state. Finally, he got to something unexpected and different. "Several decades ago, the state, recognizing that we were inadequately recognizing those who sacrificed for the public good, authorized and had designed a special recognition. Unfortunately, the exigencies' of World War Two caused everyone to forget that recognition as the entire nation turned its attention to defeating the Axis powers. When we learned of the actions by the Sioux Falls League against Unhcegila," he glanced to the side, to an aide, "did I pronounce that right? Unhcegila is ... was ... an ancient Native American demon that had escaped confinement, and killed many people, including decimating two battalions of the National Guard. His reign of terror was stopped only through the heroic action of the heroes on this stage. In the aftermath, as my office searched for a suitable recognition, we stumbled across the records of the authorized but never awarded recognition."

The governor held up a large medal, dangling from a very wide blue ribbon with two small yellow stripes, the colors of the South Dakota state flag. "It gives me great pleasure to award these first, and only, South Dakota Medals of Valor to the heroes who fought against and defeated this ancient demon, in the process saving countless lives." He held it higher for view, and the click-click of reporters' cameras was momentarily overwhelming. In the foreground was a gold disk with the seal of the state of South Dakota, atop three progressively larger five-pointed stars, one atop the other, enameled in red, white, and blue. Behind the stars, visible behind the disk of the seal between the points, was a gold laurel wreath, and on the center of the ribbon, above where the medal hung, was a relief figure of Mount Rushmore on a split field of pine green below and sky blue above. Around the perimeter of Mount Rushmore were sixteen small diamonds.

SD medal of valor 3In somber fashion, the surviving heroes were called across the stage, where the governor and lieutenant governor put a medal over each of the hero's heads, shaking their hands as they posed for photos by the news media. Danica, Lady Astarte, and Kayda, though not formal members of the League, were likewise draped with medals, and then medals were presented posthumously to the parents of Farm Boy and Ping Pong. Likewise, a medal was given to the mother of Card Trick. Even Lanie was honored with a medal, although the governor got in a couple of lame jokes about South Dakota being the genteel southern part of the Dakotas, and thus it was fitting that they honored a southern girl. The media lapped it up; the heroes on stage wished it was all over.

After the presentations, the governor invited the heroes forward to say a few words, but no-one rose to speak, which seemed to take the governor by surprise. He'd been expecting a group of heroes in the mold of Superman, willing to make stirring public speeches after heroic battles. The Sioux Falls League was well-known for making inspirational public appearances, but not that day. They seemed too shell-shocked to speak.

To one side, behind the heroes, two bored reporters were already putting away their cameras. "Good," one of them said softly to the other. "I was afraid they were going to drone on and on about their heroics and stuff."

"Yeah," the other chuckled sotto voce. "I promised I'd be at my nephew's birthday party this afternoon, and I don't want to disappoint him."

Tractor had overheard the exchange, and with sudden rage burning in his eyes, he leaped to his feet, spinning toward the two bored men. "Can't you even show a little respect?" he roared. "We save your sorry asses from demonic hell, and this is a nuisance for you? This is a joke?"

Debra and Twinkletoes, sitting closest to him, rose in their places and reached out to take his arms to restrain him in his inexplicable outburst, but Tractor shook off their arms. "We risk our lives, and you think the whole thing is some kind of sideshow? Like we're comic-book heroes? Pat us on the head, give us a fucking medal and put up a tiny memorial, and run off to your contented little lives?"

"Tractor," Debra tried to calm the angry brick.

"My wife is paralyzed! My best friend is dead!" Tractor roared at the two men who looked like they were about to wet themselves. "Ping Pong is dead! Is that enough entertaining enough ...?"

Slowly because of her own fatigue and because she was seated in a row behind Tractor and had to scramble over Danny, Mr. and Mrs. Franks, and Farm Boy's parents, Lady Astarte got to his side as quickly as she could, already incanting, and when she touched his forehead, his eyes rolled over as unconsciousness mercifully washed over the distraught and exhausted hero. On the stage, the other dignitaries shuffled uncomfortably at the spectacle, only too aware that Tractor's words had more than a grain of truth.

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Sioux Falls League Headquarters

Walt Reynolds sank wearily into a chair in his private room, feeling the full weight of being the leader and senior member of the group. Farm Boy's funeral had been hard for him, but not as hard as it had been for Tractor, his best friend. And Farm Boy's family. All they got was a ceremonial but empty urn. Despite the ruse, they seemed to know that they'd never get to lay their sibling and son to rest; as contaminated as his remains were by Unhcegila, his remains and those of Ping Pong were interred in the maximum Class X isolation level of HPARC.

And Card Trick? She was lucky to be alive, if one could call it that. Her mind was blank, every thought and memory and neural pathway wiped out by the gaze of the snake-demon. She, too, was at HPARC, but on the most isolated medical level, where she was treated as a complete infant. No-one could yet say if she'd every regain her abilities, but if she did, she'd most likely be a completely different person.

Debra? Kayda? Danny? All contaminated, battered, and only an infusion of magic had relit Kayda's extinguished well of essence. If not for that, the trio would likely have eventually succumbed to the taint as well, and would have joined Ping Pong and Farm Boy at HPARC. The girl had nearly killed herself cleansing the other two, almost extinguishing her well again. If not for Mrs. Carson ....

If not for Mrs. Carson, they'd all be dead. And even Mrs. Carson, the vaunted Lady Astarte, had problems with a major demonic entity like Unhcegila. Overwhelmed by loss, exhausted emotionally, Walt put his face into his hands and began to cry.

Some hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, Walt struggled out of his chair, feeling every one of his years and then some, and went to his bathroom. The reflection in the mirror looked to be a man of sixty, not in his late thirties. Sighing heavily, he trudged back to his chair, his mind playing the events over and over. After a while, when there were no more tears, he picked up a phone and dialed a number from memory.

"Brigitte?" he asked hesitantly when a familiar voice answered.


"It's Walt," the bedraggled man answered. "I ... I want to ... I need to come ... to visit for a while."

"Walt?" the French superheroine asked, astonished at his request. "Is something wrong?"

"It's ...," Walt began, but hesitated. "I'm ... I'm done being a hero," he finally said somberly.

"What happened?" Brigitte prodded, now getting alarmed. "Hero Watch had a blurb about a large battle near you. Was that ... was that your team?"

"It's ...," Walt bit his lip, his mind replaying the most critical moments of the battle, "we ... the League ... we had to go help Kayda and Deb fighting a major Lakota demon," he finally admitted. "It ... it wasn't good."

Haltingly, fighting tears, choking back intense emotions, Walt related the battle and the League's casualties. "I'm tired of constantly fighting battles that could be my last, like this last one. Like it was for Farm Boy and Ping Pong," he concluded. "I'm getting too old for this. I've spent all these years fighting for others. I ... I want to spend some time ... living. For me."

"I ... I think I understand," Brigitte replied slowly. "You know we lost Flamme Bleu two years ago? Because of that, Monique and I have started to talk about the same thing, that perhaps we need to think of ourselves for a change."

"So," Walt asked, nervous with anticipation, "could I ... come and visit? For a while?"

"I'll arrange to expedite a visa," Brigitte assured him, "so you can visit for a while."

"Maybe ... for a very long time?" the hero asked. "Maybe ... permanently?"

"Walt," the French woman asked in open astonishment. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying ... I know ... I've known for a long time ... that I love you. After that mess, I don't want to take a chance of not being with you."

There was a hush on the phone, which Walt was beginning to take as an ominous sigh. "Okay," Brigitte finally answered, her voice soft and hesitant. "I'd ... I'd like that very much. Come and visit for as long as you want, and we'll see what happens, okay?"

"Okay," Walt replied, fighting tears again. "I'll talk to you soon. I love you."

"And I love you, too, Walt."

He hung up the phone, but sat a while staring at it. After several long minutes, he arose and walked out of his room; a cup of coffee would be very welcome to steady his nerves. At least, he felt a little bit of calm in the torrent of emotions he and the rest of the team had been dealing with.

Not surprisingly, Jake, Debra, Don, and Kayda were gathered around the table, looking as haggard as he had appeared in his mirror. Kayda clung tightly to Debra, afraid to let her out of her grasp, which was understandable.

Walt stopped in the door. "Um," he mumbled, breaking an oppressive silence, "I'm ... I just talked to Brigitte," he said, looking at the floor. "I'm ... I'm going to France."

"I think we all need a vacation," Kayda commented dryly.

"It's not a vacation," Walt said heavily. "I'm ... not coming back."

"What?" Jake's jaw dropped open in surprise. "Are you ...?"

"Yeah," Walt said, nodding. "I'm going to retire. I'm ... done fighting. I need to spend time living for a change. While I'm still alive."

Jake nodded sympathetically. "I'm not surprised," he said. "I'm ... I've been thinking, and talking to Val, and ... um ... we should have quit a while ago." He didn't bother to wipe the guilty tear which leaked onto his cheek. "Val can't do this anymore, and ... and ...."

Deb put her hand on Jake's arm. "I think we all understand," she said supportively. As she spoke, Danica - stuck in the Wihinape form - slunk into the room, sitting silently in a chair with a sulking expression.

Kayda's tears burst forth anew and she clutched Debra's arm. "I ... want you to quit, too," she pleaded. "I ... was afraid I'd lost you! I can't do that again!" She looked into Deb's eyes. "Please?"

Slowly, Debra nodded. "I was afraid I'd lost you, too. I'm ..." She looked into the eyes of her beloved. "I don't want to take a chance." She pulled Kayda into a deep kiss. When they broke, Debra looked at her again. "What are we going to do?"

Kayda sighed. "I don't know. We can go stay at the farm for a while," she suggested, "until we figure out something." She looked at her brother - possibly stuck as a cat-girl sister. "We'll figure out something for you, too," she tried to reassure Danica.

"I managed to change back last night," Danica said, still morosely, "but it took all my energy, and I could only hold my Danny form for a minute or two. I was exhausted when I changed back."

"Like I said," Kayda tried to assure the girl, but she didn't sound confident. Danica tried to nod, but after the past few days, she felt lucky to just be alive.

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As Cornflower and Tractor stood in the doorway to the SFL headquarters, they both looked around, both sad and nostalgic at the same time. "A lot of memories in here," Tractor said, capturing in six words all that Debra and he and the others felt.

Debra nodded. "A lot of bad memories, too." She gave the room one last glance, then shut off the light. As the blast door swung shut, she muttered to Tractor, "Maybe someday, someone else will use this for heroing." They turned toward the exit, and behind them, the door slammed shut with an air of finality, as if sealing forever their memories of their time in the League. The last sliver of light reaching into the now-still headquarters from the entranceway by chance fell upon a copy of a small memorial that had been dedicated in the state capitol, glistening for a moment and then fading into darkness, like the former band of heroes.


memorial 2


Read 3853 times Last modified on Saturday, 07 August 2021 03:28


sam wheeler
3 weeks ago
when are you going to bring loophole and Mrs. Carson back?
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