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 Topic: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Waterdeep
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Waterdeep [message #90745] Sat, 23 August 2014 17:37
drakensis is currently offline  drakensis
Messages: 34
Registered: November 2012
Location: Leeds, Yorkshire, England

Chapter One

Whateley Academy, 21 December 2006

A cavern, a place of ancient and potent magic that even Elder Gods treat with caution. A stone altar constructed long ago by those who presumed to appeal to that magic...

Harmless enough, if left alone.

Disturbed by a trap left by a sorceress for one of her rivals in beauty and magic?

Empowered by the raw and barely trained essence and ki of young masters in the arts of wielding such?

All the ingredients were in place... or perhaps more precisely a key had been turned in the lock. All it awaited was a hand to touch the door.

Had no one been there, had no one touched it, then nothing might have followed. Weather would have swept away the circle drawn on the altar, essence and ki would have trickled away through what channels they found.

Of course, Don Sebastiano was never one to leave well enough alone. Even - especially - when he didn't know well enough to know better. Knowing only that the plan, laid out by Hekate, to lay a critical division between Chaka and Fey had failed to leave them easy prey for a 'rescuer' to sweep in...

The young psychic spread his senses in search of anyone who might have meddled in the trap, allowing the insolent pair to slip free of it.

Normally safe enough.


Behind the locked door, out of his view, a ripple deposited a limp female form on the cold stone.


New York, 21 December 2006


The Anti-Paladin changed course as he heard the manager of the New York Chapter of the Grand Hall of Sinister Wisdom call his name. Randall Pierce was holding onto the frame of a doorway - a doorway that, unlike the rest of the chapter house lobby wasn't tearing itself apart as a result of the super-battle that had engulfed it.

With space distorting itself into an Escher nightmare, running to the door turned into a stagger across floor, stair and in two places a wall before Randall reached out his hand and managed to yank his errant 'security staff' through the door.

Having salvaged all he reasonably could from the debacle, the manager slammed the door firmly on the chaos beyond. On this side of the door... was the lobby of the New York Chapter, unaffected by the chaos and the cleaning staff hard at work.

"What?" the mercenary asked, looking around himself and then back at the door.

"May I take that as a sign my ploy was entirely successful?"

Kurtz removed his helmet and rubbed his face. "How?"

"My dear Kurtz, have you ever wondered how the Grand Hall can afford to maintain a Chapter House of this scale and quality in NEW YORK CITY? The 'house' is actually 36 large separate and distinct spaces, and over a hundred smaller spaces, spread out through the five boroughs, Long Island, and Hoboken, They are connected in what the Trekkies might call 'hyperspace'. This allows me to shuffle the interior of the Chapter House around to suit the -"


Both men turned sharply and looked at the closed door.

"You don't think...?"

Randall fished a key out of his pocket and locked the door. "Yes, well. Among the many advantages of this arrangement, is that when Korrupt and Pater Tempus violated the security prohibition against teleportation within and without the Chapter House it became my positive duty to prevent our being compromised. And the bylaws clearly state that members guilty of compromising Chapter House security are expendable so..."

"So you created an unstable bubble in hyperspace, slipped in a spare lobby and let things go smash somewhere containable?"

There was another knock on the locked door.

Both men ignored it.

"But what if they hadn't fatally compromised the security of the lobby?"

Randall grinned ferally. "With Pater Tempus, Korrupt and Bête Noir all involved? My dear Kurtz, I only wager on sure things. Bête Noir opening the door right in front of one of those tracking mandalas the Esoteric Chapter was planting around Manhattan made certain."

"And as manager, you'd know all about that."

The manager spread his hands. "I sent her a memo. It's not my responsibility to make sure the Executive Committee read the memo's I send them."

There was another sound from the door, but it wasn't another knock. The key was turning in the keyhole.

Kurtz crammed his helmet back on as the door opened a crack. Rather than an attack though, what came through was much worse.

"Interesting conversation you were having," a voice murmured from behind the door. "Hypothetically, what do the bylaws say about staff who set out to hinder member's plans?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Randall bluffed. "Who are you?"

"I'm the man planning on blackmailing you with a recording. Even if you avoid formal sanction, there are all sorts of informal problems that might arise to someone with the wrong reputation."

Kurtz and Randall exchanged looks, imagining for a moment the likely consequences if someone like Lady Jettatura were to deem them a threat to her security - and therefore expendable. "Not that I'm admitting to your laughable accusations -" the manager gestured for Kurtz to ready himself for an immediate attack, reaching for the door knob. "But what are you after?"

There was a sardonic opportunism in the "What have you got?" that was flung back.

Randall yanked on the door, revealing a serpentine figure - half-dragon and half-man, lurking on the opposite side. Dark demonic power hissing around his sword, the Anti-Paladin charged -

- directly into a kick that dented his armour below the ribs, forcing all the breath out of his lungs. Although he retained the presence of mind to bring his sword down, somehow one of the wings flicked it aside and then his helmeted head bounced off the door-frame.


New York, 21 December 2006

When the pretty lights were no longer clogging his vision, Kurtz found himself sprawled in one of the lobby armchairs, helmet and sword on the coffee table.

"Please hold still, Mister Anti-Paladin," one of the maids asked politely. "I'm still bandaging your head."


"It's quite alright, Kurtz." Randall moved into Kurtz' field of view. "Mr Abere and I have come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement and the chef is preparing a wonderful roast quail with mushrooms, a suitable dinner to welcome the Grand Hall's newest member."

"Newest... member..."

"Of course. We do have vacancies now that the Ghastly Trio have... moved on. Young Mr Abere was quite amenable to being introduced to a charming and complaisant pair of young ladies of Bête Noir's acquaintance, who she'd thought might endear her to me."

"So you're sacrificing them to the dragon?"

Randall looked smug. "Judging by his more human guise, Mr Abere is perhaps sixteen. We'll get our stories straight over dinner - the debacle this afternoon, how you valiantly defended the Chapter House and my rather brilliant ploy to cut our losses - and then pack him off to Whateley Academy before any of the other members can interrogate the lad."

"And you think you can trust him?" asked Kurtz uneasily. Dragons, in his experience, were never good news. Plus he'd just gotten his ass kicked by a teenager, which wouldn't look good on his resume.

"Trust?" Randall shook his head. "He might be a young opportunist right now, but he's got the makings of a proper professional. Better get in his good books now... and if all else fails, Lady Jettatura would probably be interested in a source of half-dragon blood and bone." He grinned coldly. "And we don't have to discuss how he handled you... wouldn't do to have that on your resume, would it?"

Up the stairs, behind two doors - and halfway across New York City, depending on your perspective, Khrel Abere grinned toothily and looked out the window of the apartment previously assigned to Korrupt. It sounded as if Randall and Kurtz were going to be co-operative, at least for now.

"So," he suggested to the women flanking him - one arm around each of their waists. "Tell me more about this New York place..."


Whateley Academy, 22 December 2006

In the small hours of the morning, long after a frustrated Sebastiano had stalked away from the cave, the female form inside stirred and awoke.

Long blonde hair, mint-green eyes, long and pointed ears...

Sarasa Sybaern rolled to place her back against the iron-clad door, eyes wide and concerned. No enemies in sight or hearing... but no allies either. Those same senses told her the cavern was entirely empty.

Other senses told her that that emptiness was nothing to trifle with.

Without looking back, she ran her fingers across the door until she found the lock. With that established, breathing shallowly, Sarasa produced tools from her pockets and went to work.

Sooner than those who'd fitted the lock would have been happier to learn, it snapped open under the elf's ministrations and she pushed against the door.


Mouth dry, Sarasa tapped the door. Bolts, top and bottom. And something else - not a lock but something similar securing another device, intended to alert someone if the door was opened. It was tempting to risk a spell to throw the bolts and let whatever alarm it was sound...

But that might be hopping from frying pan to fire...

It took what felt like an eternity for careful probing with wires to work the bolts and secure the pins for the lock keeping the alarm for sounding.

The door swung open, just wide enough for Sarasa to slip through it. She closed the door behind her and restored the bolts before looking around.

Another door, one with just enough room for this one to open. Lightless to most eyes, the chamber gave up its secrets to her eyes and she gave the runes decorating the door she'd come through a respectful look. It would have been a very bad idea to try to open the door with magic.

Touching the handles, Sarasa frowned. The proportions were... off, slightly. Too large, too high? Something like that. With a shake of her head she reconnected the alarm and went to work on the single lock securing the next door.

This, at least, was easier.

Minutes later and this door too yielded to her efforts. Outside, she found not another door - as she'd half-feared - but on starlit snow. Looking up at the sky, Sarasa could see but the barest sliver of the moon above.

"Now where are..." Scanning the sky for constellations to orientate herself upon, the elf was increasingly baffled.

No Belnimbra's Belt and no Jester in the sky. Seeking the Brow Star to at least identify north, Sarasa thought she'd found it but the stars around it didn't form the Crown of the North.

Searching for that, she missed the formation of stars below it until she'd almost given up.

"The Big Dipper? But that would mean..."

Sarasa hugged herself, uncertain if she was happy or horrified.

"I'm... on Earth?"


Whateley Academy, 22 December 2006

While Sarasa would hesitate to call herself a tracker, it wasn't hard to guess that the glow over the hills was a settlement of some kind. And it didn't take an expert ranger to recognise footprints in snow. She could even make out three distinct sets of them.

"Hopefully the footprints I've already made aren't too much of a give-away." The snow was also getting her leather boots soggy but that, alas, was hardly the first time.

Reaching the heights of the hills, the elf took cover below a tree and scanned the newly revealed horizons...

"A crystal dome, an industrial something or other, brick apartment buildings... What is this place?"

Red-brick buildings were scattered around a hilly grove, probably the original complex. At a guess, some kind of ivy-league school or college, but it had been expanded with buildings out of the 1960s, 1980s, 16th century and mid-distance future.

That was on the surface but below the surface... the entire area was dotted with mystic sites, some not so different from the one she'd just walked away from, others more organised. "If this is Earth, there are a lot of things I didn't know about. Maybe I was wrong about that."

And maybe, she thought, leaving tracks as she had was more of a potential problem than she'd considered. The elf murmured a spell, lifting off from the ground and moving into the shelter of the tree branches above. Screened from at least casual view she started to circle the area. She needed information and while going right in didn't sound wise there was probably an access road.

Her expectations were fulfilled when she encountered a substantial stone wall - although one she doubted circled the entire campus - and followed it to where it was pierced by an ornamental double-gate with a well-maintained driveway leading through it. Gargoyles leered down from the top of the gate posts and the placement was entirely too obvious an opportunity for concealed observation or perhaps even defenders for Sarasa to approach closely.

She could see well enough though, to pick out the brass plaque that read 'Whateley Academy'.

A school then. A school that concealed and perhaps even taught magic.

"And if - if - this is Earth as I recall it, then it doesn't advertise that fact." Sarasa glanced up past the gates at the school again. Even at this hour there were lights - from up in the trees she could still look over the hills that would have masked the school from anyone entering the gate at ground level. "And those are electric lights so..."

With a nod she turned away from the school and started following the driveway. Sooner or later it would lead her to a road and a road would lead her to a town and then...

And then, Sarasa mused, we shall see what we shall see.


Dunwich, 22 December 2006

Several hours later, the small town of Dunwich, New Hampshire was more bustling than usual for winter. The scenic Miskatonic Valley brought in a steady stream of tourists at most times of year but colder and wetter months were a slower season. Today the streets - particularly around the small train station - seemed to be full of high school students and their luggage.

No sooner were their numbers depleted by a train departing than another coachload would be on their way down from the nearby boarding school. Only a relative handful of the six hundred-strong student body were collected by family and although a fraction would for one reason or another remain resident over the holiday season this was more than made up for by various members of staff who were also departing.

The Kenner twins, having a half-hour to go before their train left, were leaning against a corner, watching for amusement or something that could be made into amusement.

Bradley was the first of the two blonds to spot an opportunity. "Incoming nerdette," he whispered, eyes assessing the bespectacled blonde scurrying through the snow towards him, an arm-full of papers.

His brother glanced casually in the right direction. "Don't recognise her. Local girl?"

"Could be. Shame if she fell and those papers got soaked."

James grinned. "But some good Samaritans might help her up," he proposed. "And who know what might fall out of her pockets?"

They hardly needed to rehearse the calculated one-two. James - Hamper - needed no effort at all to induce a moment of dizziness in the pigtailed blonde as she straightened up after weaving between a pair of local men. One booted foot came down on the curb rather than an inch to the left and with a panicked "Waaah!" the girl forgot all about her papers - a stack of newspapers it seemed - to pinwheel her arms wildly in an entirely inadequate attempt to stay upright.

Bradley, who'd always had the better poker face of the two, darted forwards - carefully just too late to keep the girl from face-planting. The newspapers scattered into the mess of melted snow and dirt that covered the roads.

"Are you alright?" he asked, offering the girl a winning smile and his hand. Both had, by his calculation, a good chance of distracting a girl from his wandering eyes.

In this case they weren't wandering on areas that might get a slap - after the glorious sights of Whateley's sizeable population of Exemplar girls, plain jane here might as well be part of the scenery. No, he was looking for something like... ah, some sort of purse or wallet, already half-way out an unsecured pocket.

"I... I think so." The girl had lost her glasses in the fall, staring up at him with bleary eyes as she tried to focus. "Can you see my glasses?"

"James," Bradley called, "Help me look for the lady's glasses." He nodded in the direction of them, trusting his twin to be creative.

Once he had a secure hold on the girl's hand, he helped her up, his free hand plucking away the purse and slipping it into the pocket of his overcoat. "Easy does it, can you stand okay."

"Thank you." The girl didn't seem inclined to let go immediately.

James cleared his throat. "Miss, I'm afraid your glasses..." The lenses were fine but as an Exemplar-2 he'd been more than able to twist the frame between his fingers without being obvious about it. The result left the lenses at 90 degrees to each other and the spectacles were unwearable without twisting then back - which might well be the final blow to the nose-bridge.

"Awwww..." the girl moaned. "All this and I dropped all my research too!" She squinted fiercely to look at the newspapers scattered and soggy on the road. As if on cue, a van zoomed past, scattering the papers that weren't ground into the slush by its tires.

Bradley shook his head. "Sorry, think they're gone. Have a Merry Christmas!"

Turning their back on the girl was its own form of fun. Show her what she was missing out on.

James glanced at the reflection in the shop window once they'd gone a block. The girl had turned away towards another corner, not looking back. One of the businessmen from earlier had turned around and was walking back their way, head lowered. "So?"

Bradley produced the wallet. Plastic faux-leather, holding the usual bank cards, a few coins and a driver's license. "Huh, didn't think she was old enough to drive."

His twin looked more closely. "That's not her picture on the license. That's -"

"That's my wallet!" the businessman called out in relief. "Thank god you boys picked it up."

The twins exchanged glances. "Glad to help. Uh, just to be safe..." Bradley held up the driver's license. "Okay, can I have your name please? Can't be too careful these days."

"Sad but true. I'm Jim Buckley."

With a nod, Bradley handed wallet over to Buckley, who checked the contents. "Just to be... uh. Boys. There were two Jacksons and a Hamilton in here when I lost it. You wouldn't know where fifty bucks walked off to, now would you."

The Kenners exchanged looks, less about innocence and more about what they'd do to the girl if they saw her again. "News to us," James assured the man. "Looks like you didn't just drop it. Better call a cop. If there's a pickpocket going about."

"Yeah." Bradley patted his breast pocket. "Shouldn't carry cash these days, sir." Then he patted his pocket again and opened it. "Crap! My wallet."

James groaned. "Oh man! Get your phone and have the cards cancelled."

"The cards?" His brother grimaced. "I had the train tickets there too!"


Dunwich, 22 December 2006

Around two corners and wearing a face just as false as the one of the nerdy girl she'd worn a moment ago, Sarasa dumped her second wallet of the day in a trash can. Sixty-four dollars and seventeen cents wouldn't get her far, but it was better than nothing and two train tickets to Boston was well over a hundred miles if she chanced using one.

Right now she was more interested in getting a hot chocolate from one of the diners and figuring out where the nearest public library was. Dunwich didn't even have a McDonalds or a Burger King, so either this world had an economy drastically different from what Sarasa expected or the village depended on a larger town for services like libraries.

Right now she was betting on the latter.

The mug of hot chocolate and a muffin in front of her, Sarasa pulled out a leaflet she'd found racked at the station. Listing all the stations along the Grand Miskatonic Shuttle's route, she wasn't spoiled for choice. It looked like the nearest city or perhaps major town was called Berlin.

She'd never heard of the place but the tourist information that filled out the otherwise quite short leaflet suggested it was quite rural - historic paper industry, oldest ski club in the USA, French-speaking traditions...

Tilting the mug back to drain the last of the hot chocolate, Sarasa lowered her head and was surprised to see an elderly woman had sat down in front of her while she was distracted.

"Millie does make excellent hot chocolate."

Sarasa nodded pleasantly. "So I've discovered."

Her new companion leant forwards and spoke quietly. "If you hadn't lifted Jim Buckley's wallet, he'd have been in just the wrong place when an eighteen-wheeler slips out of lane due to ice. Unintentional as it might be, I think he'd agree that's worth the fifty dollars. On behalf of the Town Council, please leave it at that."

"I really don't know what you mean." But a shiver went down her spine nonetheless.

"Yes you do, dear." The woman lifted her own mug and sipped it appreciatively. "I wouldn't advise you rely on those tickets all the way to Boston, it'll occur to the young men that they ought to report them as stolen a few minutes before the next train to leave reaches Berlin. You'll have time to leave the station there before word trickles down."

Face slipping into that of a teenager confronted by an unwelcome non-sequitor from a geriatric or insane elder, Sarasa slipped out of her chair. "Gosh, is that the time? I've got to go catch my train..."

"Good girl." The old woman folded over her napkin and dabbed at her lips. "But do be sure to be back here before the New Year. You wouldn't want to miss your friends at school." There might have been nothing significant in how the woman nodded then - although she did so at a slight angle that meant she was nodding in the direction of Whateley Academy.


The elf left the diner briskly, mind whirling. Should she ignore the tickets and look for transportation other than the train? It was tempting but little that was good ever came of ignoring an oracle. Of course, few stories suggested that fixating on one helped either.

One way or another that old woman was a seer, diviner or oracle. Trustworthy was another matter.

Sarasa's feet took her to the train station while she was still wrestling with the decision. Crunch time...

She decided to take the train. Halfway to Berlin, she'd ditch and continue on foot. That way if an ambush was waiting for her there... let it close on air. If her 'friends' really were going to gather at Whateley Academy then she could get back there easily now. And it wouldn't be hard to tell.

The explosions, riots and other hallmarks of their presence would probably be obvious.


Whateley Academy, 22 December 2006

"The tracks go as far as the nearest hill overlooking the school," Reverend Darren Englund reported with unusual terseness. He was on touchy ground since Halloween, even if his removal for the Board had been blocked. "After that... nothing."

Elizabeth Carson nodded from her place at the head of the table. "Quite possibly whatever it was didn't anticipate needing stealth until then. Did Residue find anything?"

"I didn't take her further than the outer door. From what she says it was opened from the inside but by purely mundane means."

"Ordinary lockpicks? That isn't supposed to be possible." The headmistress didn't need to take physical notes but she did make a mental one to have the workshop look into a new lock - and perhaps an entirely new door to the cave. "So we don't have any information on what came out?"

"Judging by the footprints, humanoid. Unless it's a shapeshifter of course."

The Dean of Students shifted in her seat. "Oh happy thought. If it replaced one of the students..."

"We'd be unlikely to recognise if someone's been replaced. That's the worst case scenario. Best case, whatever it was got scared off when it saw got a look at Whateley. Chances are we're almost entirely alien to it."

"Not so alien that it couldn't cope with our locks."

"Quite right, Liz." Dean Shugendo leant forwards. "Have any of our neighbours reported trouble?"

"The tribes have their own concerns, but given how on edge they are I can't see anyone passing through their territory unnoticed. As for Dunwich -" Carson cut off as her cell phone rang. She raised one eyebrow as she put it to her ear. "Can I help you, Mrs Potter?"

She paused, frowned and then leant back in her chair.

"Hmm. I see. I suppose you know we had an unexpected visitor last night?"

The rest of the available members of the Board watched her with bated breath.

"I see. It's like that, is it?" Her eyes flicked from one to another of the Board. "No, I've not heard anything. One moment please." Carson looked to Franklin Delarose, covering the phone with one hand. "Is there any more news regarding Tennyo?"

The head of security shook his head. "Not since Tom Manning let me know she'd gone into the mountain. The CIA are still sitting on that information."

The headmistress nodded and put the cell phone back to her ear. "No, nothing new."

Another moment and then, "Yes and Merry Christmas to you." She closed the phone.

Englund was the first to speak. "Did she know anything?"

"Knowing something isn't the same as being ready to share it, Reverend." She folded her arms. "We're all bid a Merry Christmas - one we shouldn't waste worrying about this matter, she says."

"That's all?"

"It appears we should expect more students than usual to arrive after the vacation. More difficult students."

Dean Shugendo shook her head. "Difficult students? It's not as if we don't have plenty of those."

"She's meddling again," Englund grumbled.

"That seems to be a perquisite of the Board of Trustees."

The Reverend subsided at the reminder of the strings he'd pulled to arrange for Residue's scholarship at Whateley.

"In any case, we may have already heard of one or more difficult students already. I had a call from New York."

"Yes. I need to get back there. Our young angel there will need the protection of Whateley until she can..."

"Perhaps so. However, the call wasn't about her. It seems the Grand Hall of Sinister Wisdom have a protégé they feel would benefit from a Whateley education."

"They haven't involved themselves for quite a while. I wonder which of their members is behind this."

Carson shook her head. "That, they didn't tell me. Just a name: Khrel Abere."


New York, 22 December 2006

Having politely shed the companionship of Courtney and Ashley, the pair of young ladies set to see to his needs by Pierce Randall, Khrel was busy seeing to needs he didn't particularly feel inclined with the Grand Hall of Sinister Wisdom.

For one thing, right now Randall and the Anti-Paladin thought he was financially dependent upon them, something they probably thought would let them tie strings to him. They'd hardly have arranged a loan from the Grand Hall's petty cash if they didn't expect him to someday replenish those offers and with interest.

Even his sponsorship to the apparently not too distant Whateley Academy was expected to ultimately rebound to the favour of the Grand Hall. Since the school was - according to what he'd been told - located in a mountain range miles from the nearest city, going there couldn't really happen too soon. Khrel was getting itchy, surrounded by so many people.

His instincts for where to find a dodgy part of town and shops that did business that would mysteriously be unreported to the local authorities - for taxation purposes or otherwise - didn't seem to have dulled though. When a pawnshop owner offered him fifty dollars for a gold coin, Khrel knew he'd found the right man - or one of them, anyway. Grinning toothily the whole time he produced a dozen more and suggested there should be another number in front of the fifty.

When Khrel walked out of the shop twenty minutes later, there were twelve not especially crisp one hundred dollar bills taking the place of the coins in his pocket. It probably wouldn't have taken so long if he'd been closer in appearance to his actual age.

Heading down the street, eyes open for another suitable shop - or for trouble - he recalculated. He'd only have time for one more shop before returning to the Grand Hall's 'supervision'. It wouldn't do to leave them too suspicious. He'd been sure to 'carelessly' jingle additional coins in his pocket, but the man had been so oblivious he could have missed hearing them.

A jeweller had a sign in the window saying it bought gold. From the look of the displays, Khrel thought that buying gold cheap and selling it on was more likely to pay the rent than the jewellery was. Exactly the sort of place he was looking for.

The clerk was a rat-faced man who might be dressed respectably but couldn't disguise sharp eyes and ears. The former widened when Khrel produced yet more gold coins and narrowed speculatively when the tall teenager took a rather gaudy ring that had somehow ended up among the coins and put it back into his pocket.

This time, with only eight coins on offer, Khrel bargained more sharply and added a thousand dollars to his stake. He also walked out with the clerk's eyes fixed on his back and his hands hidden behind the counter, working on something. Reflected in the glass of the shop across the way he saw the rat-faced man move a phone into view and turned right so the camera caught his good side.

It took only four blocks for a group of teenagers - or slightly older men who'd not matured out of the mind-set - to catch up with him. "Hey, kid, you got a lighter?"

"Nope." And amusing as it might be to light whatever you're smoking with a fireball... that's not what I'm after.

The one who'd asked nodded and pointed towards a shop on the corner. Oh look, an obvious distraction. And right as we pass an alley... "Spare a buck so I can get a lighter than?"

"I don't actually have a dollar bill on me," Khrel admitted and then snagged the wrist of the man who reached out to yank him into the alley. One twist, two quick paces and... WHANG! ...Khrel was standing inside of the mouth of the alley, his assailant having collided face-first with the side of a dumpster. "Why don't you boys ask the nice man bleeding there," he added.

They followed him of course. Two of them produced switchblades and a third seemed to have - although he had the sense not to produce it - a pistol under his jacket.

Khrel never laid a hand on them.

His feet, yes.

And he hardly had to 'help' at all, for one of those with knives to place that knife's blade into the arm of one of the others.

"The quality of modern youth is on the decline," he observed sadly. "Now then boys, why don't you spare yourselves some more bother and tell me who I need to talk to to get connected around here."


Khrel sighed and applied the tip of his shoe to an unbloodied part of the person making unproductive noises. "Don't just repeat what I say," he chided. "I know you're barely grease between very little cogs but you certainly know someone more prominent than yourselves or the jeweller's clerk in the field of arranging matters outside the arm of the law. You'd better know such a name, at least."

It would be immensely frustrating if he had to keep doing this in order to catch someone with half a clue.

Something of the intensity in his eyes crumbled bravado. "Turrin. Leo Turrin. He's running a string of call girls over in Jersey. I don't got his number."

"I don't need his number." Khrel stepped over them, shooting a derisive look at the one who'd been carrying. The youth in question gulped and stopped trying to wriggle to get the gun out of his pants - a holster might have kept it from slipping through the waistband and rendering it inaccessible.

Two minutes later and the apparent teenager slipped into the crowded subway, just another anonymous commuter buried in a heavy winter coat, face half-hidden by a muffler.


Berlin, 22 December 2006

A long walk through the woods to Berlin gave Sarasa time to think, always a valuable commodity. Other than tire marks on the logging trails she crossed, she might almost have been back in Faerun.

She wasn't though, so when she entered the town it was in another guise.

The young girl in the slightly faded red winter coat and the woollen cap didn't draw much attention as she tramped up the main street, noting shows where she could assemble a local wardrobe that was more than illusion.

On the right she spotted what she'd been looking for: a red-brick building with a sort of Renaissance Roman arch forming a porch. Outside a tablet in the shape of an open book allowed even the illiterate to know this was the Berlin Public Library. Presumably to allow said illiterates to avoid it.

Sarasa, now Mary-Alice Bellouin (in her own mind and soon to others), stamped her way up the stairs and stared big-eyed up at the woman behind the desk - and the shelves that fill the library. It had been a long, long time since she'd seen so many books in one place.

"Can I help you, sweetie?" the librarian asks, bringing Mary-Alice back to herself.

"I have a project," she explains. "I don't know where to start."

The woman practically melts. A cute young girl and a desire for knowledge, how couldn't she? "Then you've come to the right place. What are you looking for?"

"It's about pary... p-perry-normal..." She sighed and shook her head as if frustrated by her inability to remember the word.


"Un!" Mary-Alice nodded her head vigorously, glad the hat would keep her ears from being revealed. Now as long as she wasn't directed off to a shelf full of nonsense...

"Right over this way." The librarian took a chance and left her desk to guide little Mary-Alice to a set of shelves packed with formidably sized book. The first she took down had a great many pictures, including one of a man in a blue and white spandex suit with a large red C on the chest.

Almost before Mary-Alice could blink she had a half-dozen books in her hands. None of them looked like the sort of heavy reading necessary to give her an in-depth knowledge, but with titles like 'An Illustrated Paranormal History of the Twentieth Century' and 'Superheroes And Their World', she could at least get a reasonable overview. "Thank you!"

"It's no bother dear. If you want to get anything else, you know where the shelf is now. There's a stool at the end - please be sure to use that if you want to get something else from the top shelf." She leant down conspiratorially. "Some of the boys think that they can climb up the shelves like monkeys but it's really not a good idea."

They shared a laugh at that.

"Just put the books on that trolley, behind my desk, when you're done with them."

Mary-Alice nodded her head and said "Un," again. Disarmed by the cuteness, the librarian ruffled her hair before heading back to her desk.

Stacking the books on a table, the blonde girl sat with her back to the librarian to hide the fact she wasn't taking notes - and that she was reading every page at a glance.

Magic, at least, had been around for a long time she gathered. However it hadn't been too prominent until the rise of other paranormals created a niche for the practitioners outside of reclusive study. Superheroes dated back to the 1930s with super soldiers fighting for all sides during World War Two. The predominant issue - aside from the not precisely trivial possibility of nuclear annihilation - since then had been the issue of mutants.

Tracing the broader term of metahuman down in the glossary of 'Who's Who: 100 Superheroes and Supervillains', Mary-Alice found the other broad categories as Imbued (roughly, people who'd found a magic ring or the like), Origin (people who'd been changed, such as a werewolf bite), Baseline (otherwise ordinary people distinguished by especial knowledge of magic or science - or just possession of power armour). Mutants, however, were genetically different and in a consistent fashion - despite being consistent in very little else.

Setting the book down, Mary-Alice frowned. She was fairly sure that anyone seeing her ears would assume she was a mutant. Unless there was a tradition of 'were-elfs' which was a pretty ridiculous idea when you came down to it. There would be queues forming to get bitten.

The girl rested her chin on her hands. Particularly at her apparent age, mutant simply made the most sense. Fortunately a talent for magic wasn't uncommon among mutants it seemed. So... she'd emerged as a mutant, gained a talent for magic and run away from home.

Plausible, she judged. There was obviously some prejudice against mutants...

So where should she go to...?

There wasn't any mention of the school she'd seen, which was obviously aimed at metahumans rather than just arcanists, given what Mary-Alice now knew.

She drummed her fingers on the table and checked a sidebar in 'Superheroes And Their World'. Apparently mutants were legally required to carry an identification card, issued by an agency called the Mutant Commission Office. That would be the best place to start.


New York, 22 December 2006

There were any number of things to do in New York, particularly in the company of two pretty young women. Some of them weren't legal at Khrel's apparent age but since Courtney and Ashley didn't seem bothered about that, he wasn't going to fret either. Among the list of legal entertainments was shopping and since he wasn't having to pay the bill Khrel was happy to splurge on the ladies while he was at it.

There was a slight reversal of roles wearing new dresses Courtney and Ashley were sitting waiting from the back of the store when Khrel emerged with the in-house tailor. "I'm rather pleased with the way this displays your shoulders," the man said. "Not quite the fashion today, but you really carry it off."

"I've nothing against following fashion as long as fashion isn't stupid." Khrel adjusted the cuffs slightly and worked his shoulders. "Some things are classic for a reason."

"It looks good on you." Courtney left her chair and walked over to stand next to Khrel, wrapping one arm around his shoulders. "But not everyone can pull it off."

The boy placed one hand around her waist. "That's not a problem I've generally had." He looked over at Ashley, sitting over the bags. "So did you lose the coin-toss or something?"

"Actually I won." She smiled smugly. "Courtney gets to take the bags back to the apartment, so my time will come."

Khrel gave the tailor a 'women, what can you do?' look. "Well you've got the credit card, Ashley. How about you settle up the bill for this while Courtney and I get my clothes together. You don't mind me wearing this out of here, do you?"

"Not at all, sir." The tailor produced a business card. "And if you want anything else... or if you ever want to turn your hand to working professionally, please give me a call. It's nice to see another man interested in fashion without acting like a mincing fool."

"Stereotypes are harsh," Khrel agreed amiably.

One misdemeanour back in the changing rooms later Khrel was more or less indifferent to the law and wouldn't have gone out of his way for the act but Courtney was enthusiastic he left the shop arm in arm with Ashley. If it encouraged the Grand Hall to think he could be led around then so much the better. Possibly Ossip or Lissa was rubbing off on him. He hoped not, that would be damn embarrassing.

"She has that flush." Ashley waved down a taxi. "You're a beast, you know that?"

"A dragon."

The woman laughed at the joke, not a flicker of concern to suggest she thought he might be serious.

Which he was, of course.

"So we've done my shopping for clothes. What do you suggest next?"

"How about a movie? Dreamgirls premiered at Ziegfield, they're still running that there."

"What's it about?"

"Sixties and seventies R&B. So it's historical, and they've got music."

"Maybe if we eat first."

"Hey... there's a place down in Brooklyn that serves food while you're watching the film. I've never been there but it sounds good."

"Convenient at least. Are they showing the same film?"

Ashley squeezed his hand lightly. "I don't know. We can find out when we get there. Wanna call a taxi?"

Spotting a flash of yellow in the traffic, Khrel stepped out a little and waved it down, using a little spell to encourage the taxi driver to be helpful and pull over. "We're going to Brooklyn," he advised. "The..."

"Nitehawk theatre."

"I know the place."

"I don't suppose you know what's showing?"

The cabbie grunted and then fished around in his glove compartment, producing a newspaper. "Might say in here," he offered, passing it back.

Ashley leafed through it, eventually finding a listing. "Aw, they don't have Dreamgirls."

Khrel took the paper and ran one finger down the listings. It came to rest on Rocky Balboa. "What's this?"

"Oh, didn't you hear about that? Sylvester Stallone's made another Rocky movie. You like boxing?"

"Sounds good to me."

Ashley leant over and rested her head against his shoulder. "You're sure built for it."

The boy sighed and put one arm around her. What I'm not built for is this city. Another day or two and I'll go crazy with all the crowds here. At least this school they're taking about is out in the sticks.


Berlin, 22 December 2006

The streets of Berlin were clearing as shops shut. That made it a little too obvious for Mary-Alice to be wandering them - not that she'd be entirely out of place, but the fact was she'd be memorable.

Instead she'd found a nice, sheltered spot in some bushes - well, sheltered from sight. The weather was still cold and snowy so it wasn't exactly where she'd prefer to be sleeping. Fortunately that wasn't the plan.

The first step of her plan was getting a change of clothes. Illusions were all very well, but she'd be subject to considerable scrutiny no matter how well intentioned it might be. Her story would cover for her own appearance but her clothes and other possessions were far out of line with the story so they'd need to be hidden - and it wouldn't do to have no clothes.

Obviously new clothes would also be a problem but used clothes could be obtained reasonably from a charity shop she'd spotted. Equally, however, it wouldn't be sensible for her to be seen buying the clothes - not to mention the hole it would make in her limited supply of dollars. Even a single outfit could easily cost half the money.

Stealing from a charity shop wasn't something she'd be proud of - not unless she was far more desperate than she was right now - but she could leave something other than money in token exchange.

The risk was that the theft could be reported and someone match up what was stolen with what she was wearing. A charity shop probably wouldn't have a detailed inventory of what they had on the racks, which was a plus, but might be more inclined to report a sudden find of gold, feeling they had a moral obligation to do so.

Even so, that probably wouldn't be linked to her.

Once darkness fell - as much as it did in a town with streetlights (electric streetlights, the criminal's worst enemy) - Mary-Alice went back into the streets although she stayed on side-streets as much as possible. If the light was a complication, the way buildings were spread out - and the lack of beggars - almost entirely offset it. Wearing darker colours and weaving an illusion of a more adult height, she didn't attract more than casual glances from the few people she passed.

She wasn't surprised to see the shop had been among the first to close. Volunteers, this close to Christmas, would probably have other things on their minds than working late. Furtive scuttling around the back would have drawn more attention than boldness and at first glance the lock wasn't anything special.

Her first impression was right. She couldn't have unlocked the door much faster if she had the actual key already. She was slowed more reading a sign on the door declaring the shop was closed for the Christmas period.

Inside, close the door and head for the racks she'd noted before as child sized. Despite the dark she could easily read the size labels and it only took her a couple of minutes to pick out clothes that would fit, if not necessarily match.

Bagging them actually took longer and Mary-Alice buffed a silver bracelet, studded with topaz, before placing it on the shelf behind the counter where the staff couldn't help but find it when they opened on Wednesday, that being the twenty-seventh.

Moments after entering she was out again, bag in hand and locking the door behind her. Now all she needed was somewhere discreet to get changed. Preferably somewhere a bit warmer than behind bushes because it was cold enough dressed. A gust of cold wind when she was half-undressed could leave her with a cold and the last thing she wanted was sneezing fits every time she tried to sneak anywhere.

Fortunately the library had closed early so a little work on one window and she was in the basement. She'd have to make do with her existing underthings. Excuses could be made. The things wore out after all.

Getting back out of the window was harder than Mary-Alice had suspected. Those extra few inches mattered more than she thought, at least in for things like that. Oh well. She'd get them back with time.

The MCO building wasn't far, fortunately. Just around the corner on Mason and Pleasant. Still, at this time it didn't matter too much if she was seen. In fact, it might be better all-around if she was.

"Excuse me, Mr Policeman?"

The officer in question, a deputy sheriff engaged in getting two bags of chicken wings into his patrol car, turned and felt a little Christmas spirit at the sight of the girl wearing the cheery Christmas sweater and long velvet skirt smiling up at him.

"Merry Christmas, young lady. Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for the MCO office. Is it around the corner?"

"Just round the corner and to the end of the block," he confirmed. Putting the food down, he looked at her again. Berlin wasn't the sort of place a kid her age couldn't be out alone but... "You really oughta wear a coat in this weather."

"I noticed." Mary-Alice rubbed her arms. "But I'm almost there now," she said with a smile.

"Hmm. Want a ride the rest of the way?"

"Thanks, but it's just a block. Have a merry Christmas."

When she reached the corner, out of the corner of her eye Mary-Alice spotted the police car pulling out. She wasn't surprised a moment later to hear it turning to follow her. Pleased, but not surprised.

The MCO building was a clean, boringly styled office block. The only things that made it look like the MCO might be more than just another insurance company was the helicopter pad up on the roof and the small multi-storey garage attached to one side. Every other business in town Mary-Alice had seen made do perfectly well with a parking lot.

She politely ignored the police car passing behind her as she went up the three steps from the street and pushed open the glass door into the MCO's reception.

It was a much more comfortable temperature inside, although still on the cool side. The man behind the desk didn't look like a receptionist. He wore what appeared to be a fairly expensive suit, with a pair of mirror-shades tucked in the top pocket of jacket. Subtle signs of boredom fell away to be replaced by irritation but the MCO man did a passable job of hiding both behind bland indifference. "What brings you to the MCO?"

Mary-Alice pasted a suitably uncertain look on her face. "Um. I'm here to register for an MID... A Mutant Identification Card," she added when that didn't get an immediate response.

"I know what an MID is, kid." The man gestured towards some seats. "I'll get someone down to deal with you."

The chairs were the usual institutional rubbish. From where she was sitting, most people couldn't have heard the man's conversation over the phone, particularly with the apparently casual way he held it by the bottom of the receiver. Elf ears were excellent and any adventurer worth their salt learned to use all of their senses. Eyes couldn't see around a corner after all.

"Agent Haustin, it's Agent Collins on the front desk. We've got a live one, she just walked in and said she was here to register for an MID. .... No, sir, a young girl. Looks about twelve, no parents with her. ... Okay, not a problem."

He put down the phone. "One of my colleagues will be down shortly." He reached into the desk and pulled out a piece of card. "I'll need your name for a visitor pass."

"Should I give you a codename or my real name?"

A scowl crossed the man's face and then settled in to stay. "Real name for now. The codename will go on the MID but until then it's not official."

"Okay. I'm Mary-Alice Bellouin."

He nodded and started writing. "How do you spell Bellouin?"


"Right then." Collins put the card in a plastic sleeve with a lanyard and got up from the desk to walk over. "Put this on and keep it on until you leave the building. Once you have your MID, just put it in over this to hide your real name." He tried to smile confidingly and made a horrible job of it. "You can keep it when we're done."

Some sort of tracer in it, perhaps? Mary-Alice put the lanyard around her neck and adjusted it to let the badge hang comfortably. "Thanks."

He nodded curtly and went back to the desk. A real people person, Collins.

The door on the far side of the reception area slid open two men dressed similarly to Collins. The man in the lead glanced around and took a look at Mary-Alice before nodding. "Collins, you can help me with this. Johnson can take over here for the rest of the shift."

"Yes sir." Collins surrendered the desk eagerly to Johnson. He gestured towards the door. "Please follow me, Miss Bellouin."

Mary-Alice obediently did just that, with the man in charge behind her. Once past the door, the MCO building still looked like an office, a bland corridor with doors off on either side. Most were ordinary but two were obviously elevators.

"Room 308?" asked Collins, tapping the call button for one of these.

"Hmm. Yes, that would be best." The other man directed condescending smile towards Mary-Alice. "We'll need to discuss your powers before we can fill out your MID. It's alright if you're not sure about the answer to anything we ask. There are some standard tests we can run through. Just to make sure we're on the same page, how did you discover you're a mutant?"

Mary-Alice brushed back her hair to reveal one pointed ear. "I figured these were a give-away."

"Hah. Yes, that would do it, wouldn't it? When are your parents expecting you back?"

"Ah, they don't know I'm here."

Oh dear! Mary Alice thought as she noticed that the two men seemed entirely too pleased about that. This isn't a good sign.

"Well don't worry about that, this shouldn't take long," he said as the door closed behind them and the elevator started to rise.

"I don't think we've been introduced, I'm Mary-Alice."

"I'm Agent Haustin and you've already met Agent Collins." The door of the elevator hissed open again, revealing a corridor almost indistinguishable from the last one, although there were a couple of people in blue uniforms walking down it.

"Just packing up for Christmas, sir," one of them said to Haustin, giving her a curious look. "Kind of late for you."

"We have a last minute visitor." He pointed at a door with 308 on it. "Just in here, Miss Bellouin."

There wasn't really any graceful way not to have them behind her as she entered. Braced for a sudden attack from behind, she wasn't expecting a puff of air from beside her. An odd, not unpleasant scent filled her nose. "What..."

The door clicked closed behind her. Then there were additional clunks she identified as a locking mechanism.

"Hey!" The room was spartan, a single bunk and a toilet in one corner.

Through a concealed speaker she heard Haustin's voice. "The gas you just inhaled will either make you nauseous or sleepy, Bellouin. Use the bunk or the toilet as appropriate."

"What are you doing? I only came here for an MID! I didn't do anything wrong!" She didn't feel nauseous or sleepy, which strongly suggested someone had made unwarranted assumptions about what would or wouldn't affect her. She checked the bunk for traps, moving slowly as if tired. There were more vents above the bunk but otherwise it seemed more or less what it appeared.

"Is this some kind of test?" She turned back to the door and pressed her hand against it. "I don't understand, please let me out."

"You're not getting out until we say you get out."

Mary-Alice snapped her fingers and the door unlocked itself.

"Uh-oh. She's loose!" Collins' voice rose sharply.

"What...? Dammit Collins, why didn't you lock the door?"

"I did!"

Pulling the door open, the girl was faced not by the suited men, but instead by a woman in the same sort of blue uniform she'd seen earlier. She was also pointing some kind of ray-gun towards Mary-Alice's face and the elf twisted her head sharply and out of the way of a blast. "Whoops."

Without a word or motion she called forth a spell to drop the woman into a deep slumber and caught the blaster as it fell out of her hands. "Huh. I wonder what this does." It wasn't the best moment to play around with an unfamiliar weapon though, so she threw it back towards the bunk and moved out into the corridor.

What to do now? She'd gone to all this bother to create Mary-Alice, would it be better to persist or simply to make her escape, become someone else and look for other avenues...?

Well there was no point stopping being Mary-Alice right now. She trotted along towards the door to the elevator and pressed the call button more to buy time to think than out of any expectation it would do anything. Sure enough, although the light lit up briefly it then extinguished without the doors opening.

"Awwww..." Okay. Next plan. There was a door marked with the sign for emergency stairs. It was locked when she pushed the bar but a little magic took care of that and the door swung open. On the other side was the usual concrete stair well, with broad and sturdy looking stairs leading up and down.

She could be sure of the 'sturdy' part because the stairs down supported a pair of suits of what must be powered armour - or robots but they'd probably look less humanoid. Reflexively, she put the occupant of the first to sleep or rather she tried to.

Mary-Alice was just considering that with the occupant asleep it might be in for a nasty fall down the stairs when the suit raised one arm. "Psi Jammers. Don't leave home without them."

"...aaaaaaaah!" The girl dashed back into the corridor, saw another suit of armour emerging from the elevator and reversed course back to the stairs.

The armoured troopers apparently weren't expecting that, because she was able to slither past the first one and then hop onto the rail when the second one tried to grab her. "H-hey, kid!" The hand didn't catch hold as she slid down to the half-way point and then scrambled for the door out onto the next floor down before they got turned around. She was followed by all sorts of profanity that shouldn't be directed at a young girl like herself.

Bursting out the door she almost bowled over two more people in blue jumpsuits, both of whom conveniently dropped to the ground asleep, unlike whoever was in the armour. She'd really have to... oh yes, that should work.

The elevator pinged and the doors opened to reveal the suit of power armour she'd seen above - fortunately there were markings on the front so Mary-Alice could keep track. "Slade? Colson?" The suit raised a gatling-style cannon towards the girl. "You little bitch!"

"I didn't huuuuuurt them!" she protested and quietly cast a spell on the armour, which proceeded to lock up. The spell was intended to immobilise armoured knights and apparently the MCO's power armour was close enough. Unfortunately she'd cast about half a second before the man inside closed his finger around the trigger.

The gatling proceeded to unload its entire ammunition belt almost but not entirely along the length of the passage, gouging deep into one of the side walls until the bullets reached - and were halted by - the heavily reinforced outer wall of the building.

"...oh crap," the man said in the echoing silence after the ripsaw sound had faded. Mary-Alice thought from the sound of his voice he might have matched action to words. "Sir, she's a mage. Slade and Colson are down, my armour's locked up!"

Mary-Alice back-pedalled away from the fallen suit, looking at the doors. Nothing looked like it led to another staircase or elevator. She might have to display a little more in order to get out of here.

Then a loud voice echoed through the building. "All personnel, we have a Code Ninety-Eight. I repeat, Code Ninety-Eight. We have personnel down, deadly force has been authorised."

Mary-Alice had to reach quite deep into her vocabulary to express herself in a suitable manner.

"Oh poot."


NORAD-C, 22 December 2006

Sir Michael Aurelus was desperate.

He still wasn't sure how it happened. One minute he had the Wilson girl right where he wanted her and was about to clean up the loose end of her parents and the next...

His eyes dropped to the crudely bandaged stump where his right hand used to be and he shuddered. Despite the pain he thought he might have gotten away lucky compared to the rest of the Knights of the Eternal Presence.

With his left hand, Aurelius typed hastily at the commands for the teleportation booth. With the army securing the tunnels out of Norad C and the formidable shields against teleportation, extra-dimensional penetration and who knew what else, the booth was the only way out. In theory all the Knights would have been using it shortly, but no one else had reached the command centre.

The waves of energy that had crashed across the command centre weren't helping. The more shielded control room Aurelus himself occupied had more or less survived... the Knights manning the consoles outside hadn't been so lucky.

Perhaps it wasn't luck, perhaps it was fate.

Not that it would matter soon: the waves must have been of dimensional energy and they'd played havoc on the ability of the teleportation booth to lock onto its counter-part, thousands of miles away. With a groan he went to the communications panel and flipped a switch. "Nimbus."

"I'm here, Aurelus. Should I assume your plans have reached fruition?"

The words tasted like ashes as the Knight admitted: "Unfortunately not. The teleportation booth isn't locking on and I need the exit. Have your technicians retune the connection from your end."

The distorted and shadowy face on the screen radiated scorn. "I'll be sure to do so, once I'm convinced that it's in my best interests. I hardly want your failure leading back to me, after all."

"What? We had a deal!"

Nimbus nodded. "A deal that I delivered upon, equipment and other resources lavished on your Knights of the Eternal Presence. And yet, you don't appear able to fulfil your side of the bargain... unless you've salvaged the promised source of antimatter out of this debacle?"

"Salvaged?" Aurelus laughed bitterly. "She's tearing down this base one chamber at a time. It's only a matter of time until she reaches this room. Now open the portal!"

"And risk having her come through? You must be joking."

"Damn you, Nimbus!" Frustrated, Aurelus slammed his hands against the teleportation booths controls. To his astonishment, there was the whine - familiar from tests when it was installed - of the systems coming to life and locking on. "Aha!"

Not questioning this sudden stroke of luck, the last - or so he presumed - Knight of the Eternal Presence spun on his heel. His rush for the booth was cut short as he saw a new arrival at the threshold of the command room. The glass scattered across the floor from the aftermath of the energy waves didn't bother Billie Wilson as the teenager floated effortlessly above the floor, naked as the day she was born save for a halo of crackling energy. Her spiky blue-grey hair bristled and her eyes blazed with the same fires he'd wanted to harness.

He thought they did, anyway. It was increasingly difficult to focus.



Three sets of eyes flicked in the direction of the teleportation booth - Nimbus had to give up in frustration as the camera pick-up wasn't wide enough but Aurelus and Tennyo (as Billie Wilson was codenamed) saw a girl in her early teens looking out of the booth - more in bemusement than concern at the unconventionality of the room and its occupants.

For a moment, Tennyo thought she was looking at her friend Nikki - red hair and gracefully pointed ears - but a second glance showed her the differences - hair almost wine-red, skin tanned until it was almost bronze. She certainly had a touch of the same presence as she stepped out of the booth though. "Have we been introduced? I don't quite recall..."

"Out of my way!" snarled Aurelus, grasping the new arrival's shoulder to brush her aside. Then he reconsidered and used the stump of his right arm to restrain her while his left sought a hand-grip attached to his belt. Said handle sprouted a three foot blade of energy the knight raised towards the girl's throat. "No sudden moves, Wilson. My hand might slip."

"Let her go, you piece of slime." Tennyo flicked her hand and a glowing blade appeared in it.

His response was a mocking laugh. "Your parents are probably dead by now, do you want to add this girl to it? I'm not sure why Nimbus sent her through -"

"I didn't," the distant mastermind advised patiently. "My booth is inactive - and it'll stay that way until I feel it's safe for me to allow otherwise. Wherever your new guest arrived from, Aurelus, it's not here. Take your chances with it if you want but either way we're through."

"Please, sir knight." The girl Aurelus held didn't tremble in his grip, nor did her voice. "Pray stay your hand."

The words slid smoothly into his subconscious and almost before he realised it the tension went out of his sword arm.


"Now surely we can discuss this like civilised people."

Tennyo almost fell out of the air. "Lady, he took my parents hostage, he might have had them killed!"

The girl tsked. "How very unfortunate." She twisted around to look up at him, startlingly deep green eyes snaring Aurelus. "Have you really done so?"

Strangled panting came from the man's throat. "I... I gave... orders..."

"Not the gas?"

"Do answer her," the new arrival suggested smoothly.

Aurelus shook his head. "No... no controller... lost it..."

Tennyo sighed in relief. Poison gas already prepared to be released into her parents' cell she could have done nothing about. Knights, on the other hand, were a more solvable problem.

"Now why don't we do introductions?"

"Billie Wilson... er, you can call me Tennyo. Where did you come from, anyway?"

The girl gave her a sultry smile, quite at odds with her youth. "A most heavenly maiden indeed."

Tennyo flushed but declined to yield to temptation and cover herself up.

"I'm Lissa Firedancer. As for where I'm from... a long story. As, I'm sure, is where I appear to have arrived." Lissa stepped away from Aurelus. "And you, sir?"

"S-sir M-m-michael A-Aurelus." He gripped his weapon. "K-knight of the Eternal Presence."

"As if that's anything to take pride in." Nimbus' voice cut across the control room. "If losing your base to a simple girl wasn't bad enough, now you've let some half-trained wizard ensorcell you, Aurelus. I doubt you've even the wit to clean up this mess and spare me the bother... fortunately, a possibility that occurred to me already."

A panel on one of the desks popped up, revealing a hidden device - one with a LCD clock that was evidently spinning down rapidly.

"That's not good." Lissa pressed one hand against Aurelus' chest and pushed him away from her. Feathered wings burst from her back as she rushed towards Tennyo, grabbing her hand. "Think of somewhere safe. Quickly!"

"What, uh..." Tennyo let the smaller girl drag her over to the booth. Safe? Safe like where? Outside the mountain with the CIA and army leaders? The Tanaka's dojo in Colorado Springs? Her room in Poe Cottage? "I..."

Lissa pulled her into the booth and almost wrapped herself around Tennyo. "Focus!" And then she forced her lips against the Whateley freshman's.

Tennyo's eyes went wide but they certainly didn't see anything.

Jade, what's your Oneesan supposed to do now? she wondered.

Hushed whispers with other girls... and before that with boys had acquainted Tennyo with the phrase 'the earth moved'.

That was what it felt like now.

"Oneesan!" "Billie!" "Billie?"


She pulled her head back from Lissa's. "Uh..."

They weren't in the control room any more. Dust was falling from the ceiling but this was an entirely different room - little more than a hall with heavily secured doors along its length.

Her parents were there, both untied and armed. So was Jinn in her full stuffed toy glory.

Lissa didn't try to hold onto Tennyo as the girl flew into her parent's arms. "You have an interesting idea of safe," she murmured and then blinked. "Is that... cabbit?"

Jinn nodded and uttered a fervent "Miya!"

"Random's fault," Lissa decided. "This has to be Random's fault."

Mr Wilson looked at his wife over their daughter's head. "I think it's time to get out of here." He ruffled Tennyo's hair. "I take it these are friends of yours?" He gave the redhead and the cabbit a not entirely unsuspicious look. "And how many red-headed elves do you know?"

"This makes two."

"If Aurelus is anything like the usual run of troublemakers, he'll have some sort of suicide device to cover his tracks. We need to get clear before he drops the mountain on us."

"His associate just tried," Lissa observed. "I suppose we're fortunate it didn't reach this part of wherever we are. Of course now we're still inside the teleportation wards and I don't have that handy booth to use as a chink in them. I suppose we'll have to hope an entrance was still unscathed."

"Aurelus got away then?"

The elf smiled slightly. "I think we can safely say no to that. So. Which way is the door? I believe we've overstayed our welcome."

"This way." Mrs Wilson and Jinn said together. They looked at each other and then Jinn miyaed again. Mrs Wilson inclined her head and the cabbit led the way.

"I don't want to sound ungrateful," Mr Wilson murmured, "Since saving Billie was without any doubt the first priority, but it's a shame we won't be able to question Aurelus."

"Yes, well. The booth was cramped with just the two of us. C'est la vie."

"How very true. Do you go to school with Billie? I don't recall seeing you when we visited."

"Oh I'm not from around here. I was travelling somewhere else entirely when what I presume to be Aurelus' half-bright fumbling with the booth interfered with my arrival." She shook her head. "I'm not sure there weren't other side-effects. Everything feels... off. Where are we, anyway?"

"A former-military base in Colorado." The corridor led into another, wider corridor. Tennyo recognised it as one of those leading down to NORAD-C's loading bay.

"Colorado? The state?" At the nod, Lissa brightened. "Maybe I can forgive Random."

"I'm sure we can arrange a lift home for you. Your parents are probably worried."

"My parents?" Lissa gave him a puzzled look. "How old do you think I am?"

"Mmm. That always gets me into trouble."

"Daaaad!" Tennyo protested.

Lissa looked down at herself and then, in a crystal-cutting clear soprano shrieked out loud.


"My breasts! What happened to my breasts!?"

" this really the time for this sort of conversation?" asked Mrs Wilson.

The elf nodded her head sharply. "You're right. I'm sorry. I need to get out of the teleportation wards first. Someone is going to pay for this. I'm not sure who, but Random'll do to start with!"

"Who is this Random you're talking about?"

"A strange attractor, a roll of the troll's dice..." Lissa gestured for them to keep walking. "There is a door out, I hope?"

Tennyo pointed ahead. "Through the next door there's a broad corridor leading to a loading dock. From there there are two tunnels out to the surface."

"We'll have to watch out for automated defences in the loading dock," warned Mr Wilson. "I'll see if I can get to the control runs before we go in."

"Ah... that probably isn't necessary, Dad."


"Oneesan blew them all up!" Jinn's enthusiasm was evident. "Pew-pew-pew and they all went boom!"

"Uh... sort of."

The parents exchanged looks. "And this is something they teach at school?"

"Uh... one of them."

"It sounds like a useful school," Lissa observed as they reached the door. "Don't worry about that," she added as Mr Wilson produced some lock picks. The lock snapped immediately open. Whoever warded the base must have worried more about the macro - stopping a brute force entry - and less about specifics like opening the lock on an internal door. Was it a design flaw... or a feature?

Either way, it made it easy for Lissa.

"Is that something taught at your school?"

The half-elf shook her head. "It was more of an apprenticeship. I'm not in any sort of formal education."

"At your age, you really should be," Mrs Wilson observed. "How old are you - thirteen? Do you have a GED or whatever your country call them?"

"We call it the school of hard knocks." Lissa rubbed her face. Well at least that was pretty much intact. "And believe me I graduated at the top of my class."

Tennyo gestured for her to go back. "Jinn and I will go first. She's sneaky and there's not much that can hurt me."

"I'm hardly likely to refuse an offer like that." The smile on Lissa's face made Tennyo's heart beat faster. The girl didn't see her parents' faces, but Lissa did.

Mr Wilson waited until his daughter had gone through the door. "You didn't say how old you are."

The winged half-elf drew herself up. "I'm older than I look."

The two adults exchanged looks. "I'm sure you are. Thanks for helping Billie out. We've tried to prepare our children but she's had it rougher than the others in some ways."

There didn't seem to be any sensible answer to give to that, so Lissa merely shrugged and listened for any noise from the doorway. It didn't take long for the other pair to reach the far end for only a moment later, Tennyo flew back and pushed open the door so the other three could join them.

"All clear as far as the door into the loading bay," she reported. "I think someone's in there though. Jinn's going to see if she can work her way through a crack I made to find out who it is."

"Is there anyone who might be friendly?"

Tennyo nodded. "The Army was trying to break in earlier." She gulped. "The defences cut most of them to pieces. I managed to get one of the survivors back to the door earlier."

Her mother nodded. "But if they tried again then the defences wouldn't stop them this time."

"How many of them were there?"

"We don't need to know that," Mrs Wilson told Lissa firmly. "We'll probably see too much as it is."

"I wouldn't ask if I didn't feel it was relevant. Death isn't anything new to me. I could stand to have seen less of it but the universe isn't being co-operative."

Tennyo looked at her mother and got a thoughtful nod before reporting: "There were six. I moved the bodies back to the door too."

"Well at least it's not a whole platoon."

They reached the door again in time to see Jinn wiggle through a narrow hole that Lissa would have thought was too small for a creature her size. Then again, she wasn't precisely an animal - more like a very small golem perhaps?

"There are soldiers out there!" The cabbit spat out some metal chunks. "They shot at me!"

"They did what!?" Tennyo, who hadn't set one foot on the ground since Lissa met her, but now she rose even further and there was a visible aura of energy around her. In her hands these intensified into actual blades.

"Don't do anything rash," her father warned. He dropped to one knee. "Are you hurt, Jinn?"

"Only my feelings. That wasn't very friendly of them!"

"Do you think they're working for the Knights? Or has the army sent in more troops?" asked Mrs Wilson, readying the submachine gun she'd taken from the guards Jinn had helped her to disable earlier.

The cabbit shrugged - which looked quite odd on someone with Jinn's shape. "I think it's the Army. They're wearing the uniforms anyway."

"Well that's great. We're almost out and we have to worry about getting shot by the Army?"

"Feels rather familiar, to be honest." Mr Wilson shrugged as his wife gave him a look. "Remember that time in Berlin?"

"It's not my happiest memory."

Lissa looked at the door. "Where are they? Can we get through the door or do they look like they'll shoot us if we try?"

"They're coming right towards the door. I think they'll be here soon."

"If they try to force an entry, we don't want to be near the door. Better let them know we're here. They might lead with a grenade and we don't want to be too close to one of those."

"Should we wave a white flag?"

"Not a bad idea. Do you have anything white though?" Mrs Wilson gestured to her blouse. After losing the fight against their captors, hours imprisoned and then an escape the garment was more grey then white.

Lissa made a thoughtful noise and opened her knapsack. "I've got something." What she produced was white. Also silk, lace and very sheer.

"Well that should get their attention."

"That's gorgeous," agreed Jinn. "I wish I could wear something like that."

"You'll get there." Tennyo took a look at around and flew up to pull on a narrow length of pipe. Almost casually she broke the pipe in two places and ignored the scalding water spilling out. It only took a moment for her to pinch them shut and she flew back down. "I'll open the door and wave this," she decided without looking at her parents. "All of you stay well back. I can take what they could shoot. You can't."

Mrs Wilson gave her daughter a hug. "Try not to put that to the test, dear."

Obediently they all backed up while Tennyo took hold of the door and forced it open a crack. Through the space, Lissa could now hear worried voices. "Don't shoot!" Tennyo called, extending the pipe with the white flag on it.

There was an ominous silence before the reply came: "Throw down your weapons and come out with your hands up. One by one!"

Tennyo rolled her eyes and raised both hands, which extended the flag off at an odd angle before shoving the door wide enough to float through. The soldiers on the other side looked to be wearing the same sort of winter gear she'd seen others wearing when she snuck in earlier with the first attempt to storm NORAD-C.

She, of course, wore not one stitch, which resulted in some wide eyes above the sights of rifles aimed in her direction. "Oh for crying out loud... My eyes are up here, guys."

Gun muzzles, which had started to dip with eye-lines rose - in one case after a smack to the back of the helmeted head behind it from the soldier with the most stripes on their sleeve - a sergeant probably. "You can put your top back on, little lady," the possible-sergeant instructed gruffly. "Anyone else back there with you?"

"Miya!" Jinn bounded out, causing a certain concern among the soldiers.


"Gomen, Oneesan!"

Tennyo rolled her eyes. "And my parents and Lissa." She started unfastening the 'flag' from the pipe.

"Okay, call them out one at a time. No weapons."

"Did you get that?" she called back.

After a second of back and forth - it sounded like all three saying 'After you' - Lissa stepped out. "The 'adults' are disarming so as not to cause concern," she reported drily and then waved her hand dismissively when Tennyo offered her the improvised flag back. "You might as well wear it until we get something warmer. It might help the boys restrain herself... then again, perhaps not."

Slipping the garment on, Tennyo glanced down and realised the lacey silk might cover parts of her but it also provided a degree of presentation that made her feel almost more exposed than being nude.

A sly smile on her face, Lissa opened her knapsack and pulled out a long cloak. "Perhaps this as well."

"You couldn't have offered it earlier?"

Unoffended, Lissa arched an eyebrow. "But darling, it didn't seem to bother you earlier."

"Um. Well, thank you."

"You're very welcome."

Mr Wilson emerged from the door, hands above his head, with his wife a step or two behind.

"Is that everyone?"

"It is," Mr Wilson confirmed. He looked at the men and then around at the room. "Someone did a number on this place."

Tennyo found the floor suddenly fascinating.

"Probably the same person who carried our dead back to the door," the sergeant concluded. "That's two good turns we owe someone. Thomas, lend the young lady your poncho."

"Why me?"

The sergeant shook his head. "Because you're perfect."

This argument - such as it was - settled the argument and between cloak and poncho, Tennyo was more or less decently clad after a moment. Barefoot, but it wasn't as if she had to walk. This also left time for the Wilson parents to identify themselves as the rescued hostages.

"Glad you've made it out this far at any rate." The sergeant pointed back towards the exit. "Now let's get you the rest of the way. The boffins say they don't like some of the readings they're picking up from further in."

There was quite a bit of wreckage Tennyo had brought down the entire crane arrangement once used for unloading heavy cargo trucks in order to destroy weapons mounted on it. The nearest trooper whistled under his breath as Tennyo pointed out some of the emplacements. "No wonder our team didn't get far. This place was a death trap."

The main door was another heavy hatch this one held ajar with sandbags. The tunnel outside had equipment stacked along the sides. As they reached it, space was being cleared for stretcher-bearers. Each of the five stretchers held a body-bag, zipped all the way closed.

"Death trap indeed." Lissa stopped walking when she reached the bodies.

"First time you ever seen death?" The sergeant took her shoulder. "Come on, kid. They don't get any better for you looking at them."

"Looking at them, no."

Lissa ducked smoothly away from the sergeant. A gust of wind down the tunnel set the girls red hair dancing. "Boys, you might want to put them down for a minute." If the words were a request, her tone made it clear she wasn't just asking.

"What are you doing?"

"Something stupid, reckless and to my mind necessary. Now don't interrupt me I don't cast this one every day... much less five times." Then she began to chant in a language none of them knew. Flurries of silvery light started to dance around.

"Should we stop her? Those are our men."

Tennyo shook her head. "I've trusted her this far." And I'm not sure I could stop her without killing her. "I don't think she means any harm."

The words reached a crescendo and the sparkling light descended upon one of the body bags, sinking into the plastic without trace. Lissa paused in her chant and took a deep breath. "That's one. You might want to get him out of the bag." Then she started the chant again, recognisably the same one as before.

"Get him out of the bag. What did she do?"

"I don't know."

"Miya!" The soldiers and the Wilsons turned to look at Jinn, who was pointing one furry paw at the body bag.

The body bag that was moving.

No, not the bag itself.

The man inside was moving!

Lissa's chant reached its height again and the floating lights entered a second body bag.

Jinn was the first to overcome surprise and she bounded over to the first body bag, grabbing the zipper with one paw and yanking it open. The man inside twisted and then sat up, revealing an healthy, if grimy head and torso still wearing tattered remains of arctic combat gear. "Jeez, I know I thought I was a goner but they could... have... checked..."

"Before bagging you?" Mr Wilson stepped forwards and offered his hand for the soldier to stand up. "Son, I think they did check. Welcome back."

Beside him the occupant of the second bag was evidently also alive and Jinn moved on to open it. Lissa was already chanting over the fourth, posture sagging with exhaustion. The magicks she were calling were among the most potent known to her - and each casting of them demanded more of her than the few she considered to be the apex of her arcane accomplishments.

The sergeant grabbed hold of his team's radio operator. "Get me the general, right now."

"Y-yeah. No problem, sarge'." The operator turned to his set, grateful to have something to focus on that made sense.

"Tennyo," Lissa said clearly after the fourth casting. "I may need you to hold me up for the next one."

"Hold you up?"

"Vertical. If I fall over and botch the spell... it wouldn't be pleasant, shall we say."

"Okay." Tennyo grasped the elfin girl's shoulders. "Are you going to be okay?"

"That which does not kill me, etcetera."


For the last time, Lissa began focusing her will and the magic she drew from the weave upon the reality she found unpalatable. It was a horribly inefficient way of solving the problem, but it took faith that moved mountains and deific patronage as a rule to handle this normally, Lissa was a lot things - some of which could be considered religious - but she wasn't quite so saintly or loved by the Gods as to rely on them for a matter of this degree.

By the time she was mid-way through the chant she was slack in Tennyo's hands, barely aware of anything but the last body and the need for absolute control of the magic she was wielding.

The last body started to twitch and rolled over.

Lissa's eyes rolled back in her head and the last thing she heard was Tennyo calling for one of the stretchers.

[Updated on: Sun, 24 August 2014 02:53]

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