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"…Aaand it's good! What a beaut of a single! That sends Rodriguez into home and the outfield tosses it to first just after Schultz steps in!"

A slight crackle of static jarred the young woman's almost meditative trance and she reached one hand up to adjust the earplug radio's settings, not wanting to miss the announcer's next words.

"It's the tail end of the ninth, and the Giants have three people on base, two outs, and're trailing by only a single run. Who can take advantage of this? I have the batting lists for the Kyo—, er, Tokyo Giants right in front of me…" The microphone picked up the slight shuffling of paper so well that the young woman knew it was only a sound effect, meant to impress the people listening to him.

"Next up to bat is—" The man's gasp, however, was not a sound effect, and she stood up, striding forth towards the dugout's exit, picking a bat with seemingly careless élan.

As she had done a hundred times before, she timed it perfectly.

Just as he spoke the name emblazoned on the back of her uniform, she stepped into the sunlight to the wild cheers of her fans."Jennifer Jukuren!"

A broad smile spread across her face as she waved her metal bat, then tossed it into the air. The sunlight flashed from it as it flew into the perfectly blue sky, revolving end over end so fast that it seemed to be a brilliant circle of blazing metallic fire to the captivated audience. Jen held one open hand up above her head to wait for her weapon's return to her, not even bothering to watch its downward progress.

The handle thwacked into her glove seconds later, and she gave it a quick practice swing while continuing her confident stride to the plate.

"And once again, Jukuren makes a helluva entrance! It's her presence this season that has made all the difference for the Giants; if they win this game, the Giants head straight into the final game for the World Pennant against…"

Jen tuned him out then mentally, reducing the announcer's overly enthusiastic voice to a pleasant hum that centered her perfectly as she planted her feet and gave a feral grin to the pitcher. She'd owned him, body and soul, since the top of the sixth, and they both knew it; but while that knowledge gave her confidence, it only made him nervous and edgy.

Jen's grin began to bare teeth as the ball nearly slipped from the pitcher's fear-numbed fingers. I love it when they sweat. Now, how to make this last as long as possible before breaking him… Her head dipped in a slight nod. I'll swing high on the first pitch, low on the second, and bracket his ass on the third. Homerun, patented Jukuren-sports style.

The bat came up into the air. The gloves tightened and loosened on the grip. The pitcher wound up, and the pitch—

CRAAAAAACCK!!!!

The bat jarred out of Jen's shocked grasp as the ball flew into the air, hitting the ground with a muted thud. "Oh, dammit!" No! This isn't how I wanted it!

The announcer confirmed her deepest fears. "It's OUT OF THE PARK! What a PERFECT home run!"

Gaahh! Not a home run! Not now, not on the first pitch! For a moment, she considered picking the bat back up and going after the pitcher with murderous intent. That idiot's butterfingers ruined my carefully orchestrated come-from-behind victory! I spend all that time bolstering my team's courage with plucky speeches, training them in special midnight practices, and for what? To have it all ruined here? RRRRGH!

Instead, she gritted her teeth in a grimace that might vaguely resemble a smile from the stands and started jogging casually around the bases, waving to the jubilant fans in the stands. I want to kill him. I so want to kill him…

"AND THAT'S THE GAME, folks! What a way to wrap up this beautiful afternoon! You might as well grab your kids and head on home, because—"

A sigh burst from her lips as the shortstop flipped her off. Why does this always happen to me? Why can't anything in my life turn out perfectly just the way I want it? It's almost like some being has cursed me to always fall just short of greatness.

Jen barely had the heart to plant one foot on second as the baseman gave way reluctantly before her. I mean, it isn't as if the final game is really worth being heroic in. The team we're facing in the final game are the Seadogs. They've been a losing franchise for the last thirty years; this is the closest they've come to the World Pennant for almost sixty. Where's the glory of two underdogs facing each other after brutally crushing all of the more famous teams?

Turning third was always the low point of her homerun jogs; the goal was in sight, the run was almost over, the victory close at hand, and yet—

It hadn't been hard enough. It hadn't been challenging enough. It hadn't been that perfect moment she had sought her entire life.

Sometimes, in her darkest moments, Jen thought that her entire life had been spent metaphorically turning third. No matter what I do — hockey, baseball, figure skating, karate — something always spoils it.

How long do I have to search before I find the sport that will let me become a true Sports Hero? I've worn that tag falsely for too many years…

As she stepped firmly onto home plate and flashed a victory sign for the hovering camera-robots, Jen heard the announcer saying something that caught her attention and dragged it away from her jubilant teammates, who had rushed from the dugout to greet her. "—Rumors of a departure from baseball as sudden as her entrance are rising as the season draws to a close. According to several, Jukuren has already applied and been accepted into a prominent university! Maybe, if we get an interview after the game, we can ask her about—"

Jen turned her earplug off with a quick shake of her head and accepted all the backslapping that her teammates offered, giving quite a few slaps herself despite being preoccupied. How did anyone find out? My contract with Dean Salouse specifically states that he will make every effort to keep privacy—

With an effort, Jen smiled and forcibly threw away her worries, as she'd had to do for years and years of empty victories. It does no good to be down, not when I've got so much to look forward to!

She thrust her fist into the air and shouted out almost loud enough to rise over the crowd's roar, "I'LL BECOME THE BEST NO MATTER WHAT!!!!!"


Kyouki no Kyanpasu
(Crazy Campus)

An original story
by Aaron Bergman

© Copyright 2002-2005 by Aaron Berman.


Episode 4: Part-Time Forebodings


"So, ya say ya need a job, huh?" From under the bill of his baseball cap emblazoned with the simple, two-word logo Mecha Mike's, the middle-aged man peered at Ashley. The martial artist smiled and nodded.

Though he wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, Ashley was nervous. Oh, he'd applied for jobs before. For about a year (before going full-time in school), Ashley had worked a pizza delivery job and enjoyed the heck out of it, which is why he'd taken up the offer of an introduction at this Mecha Mike's Pizza.

The moment he'd looked over the application, Ashley had known that this was going to be different from his last job serving hot pizza pie.

The first hint had been the fourth question down, "What Combat Experience Do You Possess?"

The others hadn't been any more normal.

"Can You Pilot A Giant Robot?"

"Do You Have Any Spellcasting Knowledge?"

"Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been, A Member Of A Ninja Clan?"

"Is There A Monster Or Monsters That You Can Command In Your Defense?"

"Are You Proficient In Any Martial Arts?"

"What Life Insurance Coverage Do You Have?"

It was the first time in his life that he'd ever been able to claim nearly 20 years of fanatical martial arts training as 'job experience'.

With a nod, Ashley told the manager firmly, "Yeah, I need a job. I'm a student at Serenity University—" Where did they get that name, anyway? Sheesh. "—and even with my tuition paid…"

The manager waved one hand irritably. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've heard it before." He looked back down at the paper. "Says here ya've done pizza delivery before, butcha didn't write down any of the competitors. Who were they? Samurai Burger? Shinobi Wok? Otaku Bell? General Tso's Chicken?"

Ashley blinked. "What?"

With a surprisingly disarming grin, the manager said, "Don't tell me that yer old bosses actually managed to drive all the other businesses out of town?"

Ashley blinked again. "Huh?"

The manager stood up, sliding his chair backwards. He offered his hand to Ashley. "Well, since one of my best workers has already vouched for yer skills, I'll take ya on." He added a moment later, an ominous scowl crossing his face, "We've had a coupla casualties these last few weeks anyway."

This time, Ashley didn't even pause to blink before asking the question. "Casualties?"

The manager seemed to misunderstand his question. "Yah. The boys from Samurai Burger caught one of my best people alone while he was making a delivery in their territory. He managed to get back with the help of the Guardia's AI, but he'll be in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Then there were the Shinobi Wok bastards—"

Guardia? Ashley mouthed silently, not really wanting to ask yet another question, but the manager caught it. "Guardias are the Mecha Mike's standard-issue brand, but that's neither here nor there." He slid his chair back to stand up, adding, "Well, let's getcha into a uniform."


Ruben wished, and not for the first time, that what little talent he had with the ancient skills of augury and fortunetelling hadn't been warped in such a demented direction by his grandfather.

Why had the old man twisted Ruben's budding talent so? Had it been part of his training to forge and hone Ruben into what he was today? Had it just been an accident, just an extension of Ruben's own natural growth of power?

Had it all been a joke played on Ruben that had just gone too far?

Whatever the reasons for it, his focus for fortunetelling wasn't a normal one. No Tarot cards, no sticks, no tea leaves, no entrails of chicken, not for Ruben. The method he used was a despicable and detestable one, one that he kept hidden like the horrible monstrosity it was.

Except for now, when he needed to take a look at the future.

Things were uncertain now, more than he'd ever experienced in the past. To be sure, the start of a new school year was always a time of possibilities, of the future branching out into potential paths and trails. But now… it just felt different, and he needed to know why.

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and there could be no more desperate measure than what he was doing now.

Ruben closed his eyes and shuffled the books that he'd dumped out on the ground for a moment, mixing it up so that his conscious memory wouldn't accidentally pick one. When a book felt just right under his fingertips, he picked it up in one hand. Ritually, he used his free hand's index finger to shuffle through the pages until he found yet another area that felt just right.

The sorcerer opened his eyes to look at the title before daring to look at the passage his fingers had chosen. A grimace spread over his face as his eyes took in the overly-adorable girl on the front cover; draw in an excessively flowery style. It turned his stomach to read the words of the title, but he did so anyway.

"Lovely Marin-chan's High-School Loves," Ruben almost snarled, forcing the words one by one from between clenched teeth.

He restrained a sigh as he flipped the book open to the proper page. "Why Japanese girl's comics, of all the possible friggin' things? Why? WHY!?"

The passage he'd chosen was, as with all forms of prophecy, appropriately obscure. Some girl was apparently weeping into her hands, saying to another girl (whom Ruben assumed was the 'Lovely Marin-chan' referred to in the title from her presence on the dustcover), "They've finally found me. He was the one that led them to me! Oh, my life is over!!"

Just in case the next panel might elucidate him further, Ruben read it too. The 'Lovely Marin-chan' was frowning prettily, with a thought-bubble over her head. "Well, then, you shouldn't've fallen so hard for him. You big silly…"

Ruben tossed the book aside and shook his head, discarding the second panel as irrevelent. Clearly, Ashley was the one referred to in the first girl's speech, but who could be using him to find Ruben?

No wizard who earns his staff the hard way, through blood and pain, fails to find enemies along that dreadful road. Ruben was no exception. Offhand, he could think of a half-dozen groups or individuals who might want to try reading the future in Ruben's still-warm entrails.

At the very least, they would be hoping to read that Ruben's future would be a great deal shorter.

But, judging from the fact that the prediction pointed squarely Ashley's way, there could only be one group that had finally found him:

The Lost Librarians.

It was a guess, but an educated one, because of what they might want Ruben for…

Ruben shook his head sharply and groaned. Of all the people to have found me. Damn, damn, DAMN.

When it came to bad news, though, it never hurt to get a second opinion.

It was time to go to a professional.

As he swept the girl's comics into a box, he said disgustedly, "Whoever said that shojo manga can help with all of life's problems was a total and complete fool."


Like many scientists of his long-lived and supremely intelligent race — Franklin, Tesla, Banzai, Washuu, Strangelove, Da Vinci, Frink — Devan Wiley had come to Earth for several reasons: Cheap rent, easy access to experimental animals, non-restrictive scientific laws, and the backspace hicks that inhabited the dirtball didn't have an idea of what real science was. A free hand, that's what he'd wanted: the liberty to create anything he wanted to, without having a millennia-old scientific cabal run by idiots whose brains had long since atrophied into a state just this side of brain-death watching his every move, for good or ill.

And that was just what he'd gotten.

Wiley shut down and set aside the arcspanner with a sense of… of reverence, of awe, for his own genius. "This is it. This is…" he lifted the small box carefully, "this is my greatest and most diabolical creation, ever."

He smiled broadly, forcing away the mental fog that only comes after spending nearly forty hours bent over a workbench. Toying with the box a bit, Devan wondered for a moment why no one else had ever thought to create such a device as this. It was so simple in its theory, yet had such far-reaching implications into the very nature of reality itself…

"Perhaps it takes a madness as deep and abiding as mine to conceive of such a device."

As is commonly known, maniacal laughter is the hallmark of madmen everywhere, from the lunatic scientist making robots in his garage to the long-undead dread sorcerer lord whose sole physical manifestation in this world is a single huge, burning eye. Devan Wiley, mad son of a mad son of a truly legendary madman, was no exception to this; however, he usually refrained from cathartic cackling except in the most extreme moments of victory.

This, he considered, was one such moment.

"Mwah hah… hah hah… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAHHHHAA!!!!!"


The rear area of Mecha Mike's pizza seemed more armory than pizzeria. The clang of metal against metal rang through the room as grim-faced deliverymen checked and double-checked their Guardia weapons before daring to accept their piping-hot charges and leaving the building to face what might lie beyond.

"I'll give ya a proper introduction later. We won't have ta fitcha for Guardia wear, but we do gotta give ya a uniform."

Ashley followed the manager closely as he walked through the garage. Several people nodded and smiled at the martial in greeting, and Ashley nodded back in return. Well, at least the people seem nice…

The manager swung open a metal door labeled "Outfitting & Supply" and strode in. When Ashley came through the door, a low-pitched female voice greeted him with a friendly, "Hiiii, Ashley!"

The martial artist stared at the woman seated on the edge of the only table in the room in complete and total lack of recognition. She was dressed in a blue-and-yellow pinstriped shirt and a pair of very, very short-shorts that clung to her a bit too closely for Ashley's comfort. Her hair was bound up under a "Mecha Mike's" cap just like the manager's, with only a few stray wisps of golden hair leaking from underneath it, and her eyes… her eyes….

She winked, and he knew who she was.

"Lilah?" She's that computer geek's girlfriend, that Gweep dude. She's the one that teased Ruben, and told me about his secret? His brow furrowed. Why the heck didn't I recognize her right off the back? Hell, she lives just down the hall. She seems… different…

Then Lilah uncrossed and recrossed her legs, destroying all of Ashley's higher brain functions in one elegantly erotic motion.

"Geh?"

Lilah smiled broadly at the martial artist, subtly flashing a fang, and said, "Long time no see. When I heard that you were going to come work here, I put in a good word for ya!"

Ashley managed to shake the spell of the woman's legs for long enough to say dryly, "I hope the short-shorts aren't part of the uniform."

Lilah stuck out her tongue for a split second. "I think you'd look pretty good in them!" Then, she laughed. "But no, they're not part of the uniform. I just blackmailed Mike here into letting me wear them."

"Blackmail? BLACKMAIL?" Mike roared, and then he laughed heartily as well. "Well, it isn't so bad having a hot chick around, even if she really is just a demon."

Lilah slid off of the desk and sauntered casually for the door. "'Just' a demon? I won't stand here and let you belittle me like that." She looked over her shoulder and winked at Ashley. "I'll be waiting outside for you, okay?"

The door closed behind her, and Ashley looked over at the manager. "So, where's this uniform that you're giving me?"

"Right here." Mike handed a cloth bundle to Ashley, who unfolded it to look it over. It was a button-up striped shirt like the one that Lilah had been wearing, with a black pair of slacks to go with it, and inside was a cap just like the one that everyone else had, but…

"What are all these rips and tears?" To emphasize his point, Ashley put his hand through a particularly large one in the leg of the pants.

Mike had the grace to look embarrassed. "Right now we're suffering from a shortage of new uniforms; I've got some on order but they don't come in 'till Friday. I don't have anything that'd fit a guy as tall as you."

The martial artist frowned as he asked his next question. "And what are the stains around the rips and tears?"

Mike looked down, as if unwilling to meet Ashley's eyes. "You know how they say blood comes out after soaking the cloth in cold water?"

"Yeah…"

"Well, it ain't… entirely true." The manager clapped Ashley on the shoulder in a reassuring manner, wincing slightly when the martial artist's rock-hard muscles failed to cushion his hand in any way. "But don't worry about it! I'm sure that you'll have much better luck than the last person who wore this uniform."


The whispers passed through the hallways of the Extreme Science building with a speed that barely left time for the newly-returned students to gasp in shock and possible terror at the sheer portentousness of the rumor.

"—and that's the truth!"

"No way, not after what happened—"

"Did you hear? Wiley has—"

"—learn his lesson the last time? Good gawd!"

"—dancing like a—"

"—and the horse he rode in on, too."

Through all the hushed voices and terrified speculation, Devan Wiley strode calmly down the corridor to what had been dubbed the Presentation Room (or, as it was more commonly known, the Panic Room, for what a presenter did when their invention failed to work…) Pretending he didn't see the way everyone drew away just a little bit from him and the box in his arms without laughing manically was difficult, but he restrained himself.

There were two doorways into the auditorium that was his destination. One, a grand set of double doors paneled in magnificent oak, each towering twice the height of a man, were designed to strike awe and just a hint of fear into the audience members as they filed in to view the latest creations of the greatest minds extant attending the university.

The other was a simple door two corridors and three turns away from the larger entrance. It was adorned with a picture that depicted a gibbering madman, his frizzled grayish-white mane sticking out from his head in tufts that made his head look more as though it had risen through an ocean of hair than having gone anything so mundane as bald. Clutched in his hands was a raygun, and from this raygun protruded a flag-sign labeled, "You must be at least this maniacal to enter this door."

Below this picture was a smaller sign labeled, "By appointment only."

It was this door that Devan Wiley made for.

As he made his way onto the stage, the low-voiced murmurs of those he had invited to this unveiling gradually died away, finally ceasing just as he reached the presentation podium. Wiley cleared his throat and began, as his grandfather had always advised him, with a joke.

"Friends, scientists, fellow beings, lend me your auditory receptors!"

As expected, the joke didn't go over very well, so Wiley moved on with a shrug. "Today, I have for you an invention which will revolutionize your conception of the inevitable force of Fate itself. It is the first step that you will take towards truly controlling your own destinies."

"How?" asked an anonymous voice from the audience.

"Because of this!" With a practiced flourish, Wiley held his creation high above his head for all in the audience to look upon and envy!

Several seconds of shocked silence passed.

At a precisely calculated moment timed to override the sudden rise of comments and questions, Wiley leaned forward and stated calmly, "This is the clichémeter.

"Now, because you're no doubt wondering what it does, how it's so revolutionary, and why in the hell I consider it worth your time, I will begin my presentation." Wiley pressed a recessed button on the podium's panel, and the screen behind him lit up with three pictures as the lights in the auditorium went down.

"As the historically-minded among your species should have recognized by now, every powerful scientific discipline goes through three major stages: Measurement, Production, and finally, Control. After spending hours last night researching examples from your planet's brief history for this lecture, I settled on the most obvious and clearest example I could find; to wit, nuclear power."

Wiley pressed another control, and the picture on the left swelled up and displaced the other two. It was an ancient black-and-white photo of a youngish woman, wearing a black dress, sitting in an overstuffed armchair. "This is Madame Curie, the wife of the man who first discovered radium, and — through the course of their amateurish experiments with that dangerous substance — the first to die of radiation poisoning.

"Their measurements paved the way for future scientists, however, and the second stage in nuclear power's development came quickly, culminating in this." The second picture reappeared and swallowed up the first in a sudden white blast of light that threw the darkened room into sharp relief, then vanished slowly, leaving only an eerily beautiful cloud of dust and debris that drew up and expanded into a poisonous toadstool that squatted over the devastation it had created.

Wiley watched in undiluted wonder. His own species had never researched ways of using nuclear energy as fission and fusion bombs, having already developed far more dangerous weapons, and to see the effects of a weapon none of his race had glimpsed before…

He shook it off as quickly as he could, and moved on with his lecture. "From uncontrolled loosings of the atom's power such as this one, your race rapidly advanced to ways of controlling it. The first steps were fission plants, but it didn't take you long to realize that they were horridly unsafe, and nowadays you use controlled fusion for your power needs." The second picture, that of the cloud still rising slowly, vanished quickly, replaced by the third — a static tri-d picture of a common household "Mr. Fusion" unit.

The picture faded away, and the house lights came back up. "Now, to this." Wiley once again held up the clichémeter, but quickly lowered it again.

"All life is bound up in patterns, from the lovely frozen flower of DNA to a hidden cycle that only a few of your race has recognized until this point, and those few have been derided as utterly mad. That hidden cycle is… Cliché."

A few muffled laughs among the audience and more murmurs made Wiley wonder if his translation unit had produced the proper word, but his lecture wasn't going to finish itself. "There is no such thing as destiny; that is, the idea of each person having a fixed end that they'll meet, with set things they'll do on that path and set encounters they'll have on that path. However, there is truth in the idea that there are only so many ways that humans can proceed down the path, with the most common ways growing commoner… and commoner… until there is nothing but that path, drawing them into a living parody of everyone who has walked down before.

"The closest concept your language has to this is the word cliché, though that really doesn't come close." He waved the clichémeter once. "This device will detect the distance to and strength of any clichés nearby that will affect the operator. In this way, the operator can keep himself from treading down a path that has proved hopeless in the past and could only destroy him in the future. Now, for the test."

Wiley set the clichémeter down and opened his wristphone. "I will call a young woman who I know will reject my romantic overtures with the clichémeter on." Another press of the podium's buttons projected an image of his device onto the screen behind him. "When I turn the on switch, the clichémeter will show neutral, but if I've properly calibrated it, during the call it should show—"

While he'd been speaking, he'd switched the clichémeter on. The moment Wiley's finger left the switch; the little thing started howling, its little arms moving up to the maximum level allowable.

"What the—" Wiley reached for the "Active-mode Standby" switch, only to be jolted back by the electrical shock he'd included into the design to reprimand foolish users who might try persisting in their cliché-ridden paths.

That was when the laughter started.

Though he wasn't the first intrepid young scientist to be laughed off the stage, Devan Wiley was arguably the most puzzled. Why had his device malfunctioned? Had it malfunctioned?

What could possibly be horribly cliché-ridden as to set off the detector with such strength?

"An old enemy appearing suddenly out of nowhere, bent on revenge, about whom I know nothing about?" Wiley considered that for a moment, and then shook his head. "Nahhh…"


The ice-cream shoppe was brightly lit and filled with sounds of good cheer and happiness, a mood that clashed sharply with that of the ninja as he leaned back into the booth's comfortable cushions.

Shinobi Wok had a history that stretched back over ten centuries of fast food and faster death, and the ninja even now resisting the seduction of comfy shoppe-booth cushions was usually proud to be a part of that tradition. Usually, but not always.

This place grated upon him and his sensibilities, cemented over fifteen years of carving a bloody path to fast-food middle-management through other ninja whose attitude towards promotion was, "Over my dead body." It just seemed wrong to conduct business of this sort in any place but a dimly-lit alley, abandoned warehouse, or maybe, if you lacked couth and style, the corner of some dank bar.

But the customer was always right, and so the ninja manager was forced to meet the Hunter here.

Even the word, 'Hunter', conveyed images that were in stark contrast to the red-tressed, attractive woman who was eating a parfait (that she'd insisted he buy with his own money!) not three feet from him. The movies he'd seen which either vilified or glorified the Guild always cast as a Hunter the tall, grim-looking man who looked as if he'd traveled for a thousand miles on his custom Wildsbike to save the day; that or the short weasel who'd just as soon stab you in the back as shoot you in the face.

Sometimes, the same person was cast in both of those stereotyped Hunter roles, as shining hero and traitorous villain.

Only her eyes, which glittered with a dark amusement as she watched him squirm, betrayed what she might be.

There was only a small pool of melted ice cream in the bottom of the dish when she finally spoke. "You 'ave it, no?"

The ninja, who'd let his mind wander far away from the table, jumped as the single word jangled across his strained nerves. She smiled at him as she slowly licked her spoon clean. From one corner of her mouth, a missed line of crimson sauce that almost looked like blood trickled downward.

He took a moment to make sure he wouldn't stammer, and then produced the disk from his sleeve holster. "Yes, here is your information on the target—"

The spoon dropped into the dish with a ringing sound, and she said in that disturbingly attractive accent, "Mistair Smith, I am not in ze business of, ah, assassinacion, though you could not prove it by ze membairs of my… fellowship."

It took all of the ninja's willpower to keep from showing any sort of shock at the way her words paralleled his thoughts of just a few minutes ago. "I would never suggest anything like that!" he protested, his voice seeming just a bit too high for believability, even to himself.

The smile vanished from the woman's face as she leaned forward. "Well for you zat you do not, eh?" The dead emptiness of her tone was more of a threat than any promise of violence or death could ever hope to be.

Then, she leaned back again, and the smile reappeared. Politely, she said, "Ah, Mistair Smith, now zat is settled." The Hunter closed her eyes for a moment in thought, then reopened them. "How much?"

The assistant manager said, "Three thousand." The information disk's case clacked against the table as he set it down.

"Eehhh???? I cannot afford that!" Ruefully, she added, "A girl must eat, else she will surely lose all chances of catching a husband, eh?"

The ninja blinked uncertainly at that remark, and barely managed to recover before the Hunter set to haggling with a skill that belied the blithely idiotic smile on her face. She managed to argue the price down seven hundred before finally throwing up her hands and saying, "Merde! You have won. Though it wounds me to pay such a price, I have no choice!"

The datadisk's case scraped across the table while the Hunter counted the proper amount. She also slid the money across the table, which was a relief to the ninja — for some reason he didn't want to touch her.

She scooped up the disk and ran her fingers over the name inscribed there. "Ruben Stryfe," she breathed, the spectre of a smile drifting over her face as she moved from her seat.

"What is… er…" The manager started to ask, then shut up. The code of fast-food ninjitsu strictly forbade asking questions like that of a paying customer.

She froze just as she was standing up, and slowly turned her head towards the ninja. "What do I want with Ruben, you mean?" The woman's ghostly smile cemented into what almost looked like… a snarl. "He iz a dead man, a dead man who just 'as not realized it yet."

With that, she was gone, moving almost too quickly for even his ninja-sharp senses to follow. He breathed a sigh of relief. Even though he was armed to the teeth with all the self-defense gear a Shinobi Wok middle-management executive needed to survive the daily grind, even though he knew that he could've buried a dozen poisoned shuriken in her before she could react, something about her made him… made him…

Afraid.

Just like a small rodent, cornered by a predator that was smiling down hungrily…

He reached into the same inside pocket and pulled out two more datadisk cases identical to the one he'd slid over the table not a minute before. "And," he murmured, "I have two more meetings today…"


The rips weren't nearly as visible once he had the uniform on as Ashley had thought upon first examining it, for which the martial artist was grateful.

On the downside, however, donning the uniform had brought to his attention larger rips, which had been so neatly mended that only a close view of the inside had revealed it.

Much larger rips.

If Ashley had had even a smidgen less confidence in himself or his abilities, he would have quite likely have told Mike where he could shove this job and found something less dangerous. As it was, he took the condition of his loaner uniform as mute warning that, apparently, this was going to be different from his last deliveryboy job.

Besides, this looked like a good chance to keep his skills sharp. A slow grin spread across his face as he slid through a quick kata to check the uniform's freedom of movement. Finding it satisfactory, he walked out of the men's room, Mecha Mike's cap twisted backwards so the bill would shade his neck, ready to face his first day's work.

Lilah was waiting just outside. She looked him up and down quickly, then smiled wryly. "Good. I was afraid those stitches weren't very good when I made them." She shook her head. "I may be a pathetic characterature of many feminine archetypes spawned from the most depraved imaginations in a male's psyche, but seamstress ain't one of 'em."

Not sure whether that had been a joke or not, Ashley chuckled hesitantly. Lilah shook her head as if driving away an errant thought. "Anyway, I'm gonna be your wingman for your first few days."

"Wing—" Ashley glanced down at Lilah's body briefly, noting that she had the top button of her shirt undone, before he regained control of his eyes, "—man?" Then, he frowned. Hey, wait a second. There's something very, very wrong with what just happened.

"It's just a phrase. Sheesh." Lilah punched him in the arm playfully, then turned and started walking away. She looked over her shoulder and added, "Follow me and I'll introduce you to some of the guys."

Ashley followed Lilah down the hall, brow furrowed as he tried to figure out why the world seemed suddenly off-kilter. She stopped in front of an unmarked door and Ashley, lost in thought, almost tripped over her. "This is the Ready Room, Ashley," the succubus said as she swung the door open. "I'll introduce you to some of the other delivery pilots."

…Then, as Lilah stepped into the room and waved at several people sitting around the room, Ashley realized what had happened a moment ago; or, rather, what had not happened.

I looked right down her shirt at her cleavage, and I didn't freeze up for even a second. He stared at Lilah almost without seeing her. She's still attractive, but it's as if she's giving off no aura at all!

That was why he hadn't recognized her a few minutes ago. Ashley was so used to the almost palatable feeling of sexuality that the demoness gave off that seeing her without it, and knowing that she didn't have it, gave him the heebie-jeebies. How had she done it? Why was she doing it?

"Ashley?"

The martial artist blinked and realized that Lilah's face was less than three inches away from his, her dark eyes meeting Ashley's with a look of concern. "Huh?" Startled, Ashley took a step backwards. "Sorry, I was, uh… thinking."

Lilah said, "Yes, and I suppose that thinking is so hard the rest of your brain shuts down?" A moment later, she winked to show that her harsh comment had been just a joke.

Ashley's lips curved into a broad smile as he replied, "It ain't so much the thinking that freezes me up, it's trying to route around the brain damage from one to many hits to the skull." He knocked on the object in question. "No matter how thick it might be, it's been smacked around enough to give me some problems on anything harder than two plus two."

"So what does that equal?"

"What equals huh?"

"Two plus two?"

"Oh." Ashley furrowed his brow and frowned as if thinking hard, all the while fighting the urge to grin. "Many?" he ventured cautiously.

Lilah rolled her eyes and she laughed, a hint of her true nature showing through as her head tilted backwards. Or maybe, Ashley thought, it's because she is just cute when she laughs. He shook his head sharply. Best not to think that way, Ash; she's already got a boyfriend.

To derail his own train of thought, he looked over Lilah's shoulder at the ready room and the pilots who were laughing just as hard as her. "Ain't you gonna introduce me around, or should I just stand out here makin' an idiot of myself all day?"

Without saying anything further, Ashley strode into the ready room, and Lilah had to back up or be trampled, still laughing. The rest of the pilots laughed even harder as she had to quickstep backwards to avoid the lanky martial artist, finally falling into a chair.

The manager of Mecha Mike's Pizza poked his head in. "Yo, ya lugs, this here is Ashley Raine. He's my newest hire. He won't be gettin' a Guardia, but he will need a vehicle of some kind."

"What, can't I just use my skateboard?"

Just as if Ashley had been joking, everyone in the room laughed again, the manager included. Suddenly, Lilah spoke, and her words scythed through the laughter.

"I'll lend him… The Bike."

Now, all that filled the room was shocked silence as the succubus stood up. "Ashley, do you know how to drive a hov—" she checked herself. "A motorcycle?"

He frowned. "Yeah, I know how. Why?"

"Because you're about to ride the next step up." She tugged at his uniform's sleeve playfully with one hand. "Come on!"


Ruben lifted one hand to knock at Amber's door. His knuckles were only an inch away from the door's surface when the psychic called out, "Come in, Ruben." He smiled wryly to himself and complied, stepping into his friend's parlor for the first time as a customer.

He'd never been in to see Amber during the times that she hung her official fortune-teller's sign outside her room, so the wave of incenses and perfumes that hit him in the face was a sudden, if not entirely unexpected, shock. Ignoring the intense mixture of smells took effort, and Ruben muttered a charm against them under his breath as he swung the door open.

The room was dark, lit only by the burning edges of incense sticks and a few wavering candles… aside from the glowing ball of crystal that floated several inches above the table in the center of the room, the cool green light it exuded throwing everything else in the room in weirdly wavering shadows. Amber was seated behind that table, her normally friendly features seeming strange, almost alien, in the viridian glow from the crystal in front of her.

Ruben nodded respectfully, one professional to another, at the effectiveness of her parlor. Despite the differences that Amber and he had had in the past, he had to admit that at least she was upholding the proper mystique of power. What with today's modern integration of at least a little magic into everyone's daily life, some practitioners forget the traditions, or discard them outright as if they never mattered!

"So, Ruben, what, like, brings you here today?" She might have winked, but Ruben couldn't see her face clearly enough to say for certain. "Is there some problem that only I and the awesomely omniscient spirits of the afterworld can totally help you with?"

Ruben pulled the chair across from Amber out from under the table and spun it around, sitting on it backwards and crossing his arms over the back piece. "You might say that." He opened his mouth to say what he'd come down here to say, closed it, then opened it again. "I—"

Now that he was down here, however, and far away from the shojo manga prediction that had worried him so, Ruben found it hard to ask for help. Admitting weakness, even to a person who was nominally an ally, came hard to any magician. A wizard who showed anything less than a complete facade of omnipotence was asking for trouble, and many an established mage who'd slipped up once spent the rest of his life waiting in fear for a voice from behind to say, "Go fer yer staff, pardner; I'm a-callin' you out."

Amber knew that as well as he did, despite being more psychically rather than magically inclined. A half-smile appeared on her face. "Shall I do a general reading of your future, then?"

Ruben nodded gratefully, and the crystal ball floated gently up several more inches as Amber cupped her hands around its lower half, her fingers waving and knotting together to form unearthly shadows against the table's surface. "Ooooohhhmmm, liiiikkeee, ooooohhmmm… may the gnarliest spirits of the hereafter guide and protect me as I surf the waves of the present to like see the above them into the future…."

Unsure of whether or not Amber's chant was just part of the show or really necessary, Ruben stayed silent. The green light began to pulse, then a warm orange gradually blended into the pulses, alternating with the green, and Amber's eyes opened wide.

At first, they flickered and danced in the crystal's eldritch glow, then slowly they turned into a flat black that reflected not an iota of light. For a long moment, the thing that stared out of her eyes was silent. When she — no, it — spoke, the voice that echoed hollowly from her throat was unworldly, fear trailing up and down Ruben's spine like a freezing spectral finger at each syllable. "You are named Ruben."

Having heard spirits, dragons, Chinese Amazon elders, avenging angels, and wizened master magicians at their most terrifying, Ruben was less than impressed. "Yes, I am," he stated simply.

A ghoulish chuckle emerged from Amber's lips. "You look more like your mother than I would have imagined."

"You knew my—" Ruben shut his mouth before he said mother. Even though he'd never spoken with a spirit under these conditions (necromancy not being his forte), he knew the rules: Three questions, no more and no less.

"Who was named this afternoon in my foretelling as having found me?"

Amber's lips curved into what might have looked like a smile in better light. "Many people."

This time, Ruben shut his mouth against a muttered curse. Damn, it's the Genie's Bottle scenario right out of the Mystical Entities class I took back in high school. "Just because the genie can grant you three wishes, it doesn't mean that it wants to. What could you say, how could you word your wishes to keep the genie from screwing you?"

"Can you name them?" As soon as he asked the question, Ruben winced. Damn! I know just how he's gonna—

"Yes." There was a gloating note in the voice that said, two down, one to go

"Answer that," Ruben finished angrily. What kind of third-rate prestidigitator am I to get punked by some lousy ghost? He furrowed his brow as a memory drifted forward. Come to think of it, I failed the test on how to deal with djinni.

"What is the best, safest way to protect myself from them that doesn't involve killing myself before they find me or running away? And no bullshit, or stupid obscure mystical stuff, or one-word cryptic replies, or else I'll hunt you down in the spirit world and twist you up like a pretzel." Ruben had the satisfaction of watching the spirit open Amber's mouth halfway through his question, then close it again with a look of disgruntlement as he finished. While it might not have been a traditional conjurer's threat, Ruben knew that the spirit could read the sincerity in his voice.

"The secret to your defense lies not in your own abilities, but those of your friends." Before Ruben could say anything about the threat, that hideous smile appeared on Amber's face again. "This one's a freebie, Ruben. Protect your roommate Ashley, teach him, because he's the one that's going to save your ass at the critical moment. I'd hate for you to die before…"

Ruben leaned forward. "Before?"

Amber blinked twice, and after the second blink her eyes were the clear cerulean blue they'd been before. The crystal ball went dark and fell to the table and Ruben lashed out one hand to catch the ball before it rolled off the table.

The psychic looked down at the now-dark crystal and grimaced. With a gesture, clear electric lights sprang to life overhead, and she said, "Like, I'm so-o-o sorry I couldn't give you a reading, Ruben. I've never been totally cut off from the spirit world like that before!"

Her grimace grew stronger as she grudgingly uttered the dread words no fortune-teller ever wanted to say. "No charge."

Ruben sat back, his hand leaving the crystal. "You mean you don't remember—"

"Remember what?"

The magician shook his head. "Never mind." He stood up slowly, shrugging once. "I'll just have to muddle through as best I can by myself."

After he closed the door of Amber's room behind him, Ruben leaned up against the wall and put one hand against his forehead, trying to slot what had happened in that room into his world view. He knew, knew, that Amber was no amateur. There was no possible way that an ordinary spirit could have possessed her so completely that she had no memories of what it had done with her.

Who HAD that spirit been? And how could it have known his mother? Had it met her in life, or in the shadowed valley after? It had obviously been a statement designed to make Ruben waste a question, but he KNEW spirits wouldn't lie directly.

It wasn't often that Ruben thought of his mother; after all, she'd died just after his birth, along with his father, in obscure circumstances that had never been fully revealed, as he’d been the only one who’d lived through it. His earliest memories of parents were only of his grandfather. But now, that spirit's probing statement wouldn't leave him alone.

You look more like your mother than I would have imagined


The Bike was indeed worth seeing.

A low whistle escaped from Ashley's lips as he slowly walked in a circle around it. "Wowww…"

Though Ashley was no serious judge of vehicles, he judged that the beast had to weigh at least half a ton, painted in a red flame pattern that lent menace to it in ways beyond mere weight. The thing seated two, but a pizza warmer occupied the second person's seat.

The Bike was floating six inches from the ground.

Lilah plopped down sidesaddle into the driver's seat and smiled. "It's a Kearny-Fuchida Peregrine Courier Hovercycle. Originally developed for use and sale to mercenary companies for quick and reliable combat usage, the civilian model was released some thirty years ago — just before the company went under."

"It's amazingly durable." The smile grew into a grin. "I've crashed it four times since buying it, once at three hundred kilometers an hour, and all it ever needed was bodywork."

Suddenly, the grin morphed into a hideous scowl, and Lilah lunged upwards, closing with Ashley in a frozen half-second. A razor-sharp nail slid down Ashley's neck as she whispered intimately into his ear, "But if you so much as scratch the paint, I scratch off just as much of your skin, dear…"

Ashley backed off, stammering just a bit as he said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! I haven't even said that I'll ride this thing! I mean, it's pretty freakin' scary!" A bead of sweat rolled down his cheek. Yeah, and how do I go from riding little 150cc dirtbikes to that monster?

Just as though she'd plucked the thought from his head, Lilah's grin reappeared. She waved one hand to dismiss his concerns, saying, "Don't worry about it, Ashley! This thing's much safer than any machines you've ever dreamed of riding."

She picked up the pizza warmer and set it on a nearby workbench, plopping down in its place. Lilah leaned forward, her hair falling from her hat and over her face, and ran one hand slowly along the driver's seat. "Come here, Ashley," she said, a teasingly seductive note in her voice, "and I'll show you how to ride this thing for all it's worth."

"Gah?"

"Uhh… Ashley? I was… just kidding…"


The Tokyo International Skyport was a constant hammering glinting shining conglomeration of humanity's farthest extremes, salarymen, sorcerers, tourists, mercenaries and more crammed cheek to jowl in a constant blind flood that might have seemed from the outside to have the same rhythm as a beating heart, each drop of blood a human being ignorant of the larger organ he kept alive.

Maybe it was an inherited sense of detachment from the humanity surrounding her, perhaps it was some remnant of her family's teachings to take the longest view possible, possibly it was some ability granted by her adventures, or maybe it was all of that and more that let Reiko Tereshkova see the crowds buffeting her in that way.

Of course, her enchanted staff wasn't nearly so blasé about the situation.

Whither dost thou goeth to require such a trial? Reiko felt it twist in her hand as if trying to strike at the people jostling her. If thou wouldst merely consent to using my power…

"No!" she snapped, twisting to one side as she avoided a collision with a cart clotting the flood of people through the passageway. "I absolutely refuse to use your power unless I'd die otherwise. You know that—"

Suddenly, a hand caught her arm just above her elbow. Not one to be caught by surprise so easily, even in a place like this, Reiko twisted out of the grip and danced away, twisting around as she dropped one of her bags. Placing both hands upon her staff, she brought it to the ready, noting absently that in defiance of airport physics there was a clear space around her—

And then, she saw who had seized her. The young woman struggled to suppress a scowl as she slowly put her staff back on her shoulder. "Ken. What are you doing here?"

Kenichi looked as if he were cut to the quick by her tone, a look that made Reiko feel even angrier because it was probably genuine. Gods! If only he had a slight shred of dishonesty in him! If only he weren't so… literal, so serious, so… fucking perfect, he'd be easier to deal with.

"Reiko, I've heard about your mad plan to go to school in America, and I've come here to put a stop to it," Ken said solemnly, stepping closer to her so that his words could be heard over the low roar of the airport around them.

"Are you serious?" The shocked question escaped her lips before she could close them, and Reiko winced.

Ken considered that for a moment, then said, "Of course I'm serious. Why would you possibly want to attend school anywhere but Japan?"

Because it's Japan was the sarcastic rejoinder that almost sprang from Reiko's tongue, but with an effort she swallowed the words. She tried to be polite and gentle as she said, "I told my grandmother why I wanted to leave, and she gave me her blessing to do so. I don't need to seek permission from you—"

"But I'm your fiancé, Reiko." From a lesser man, that might have been a whining, complaining sentence, filled with bitterness and anger; but from Kenichi's lips it was a firm statement of fact, as if he were telling Reiko "The sun rises in the morning" or "Water from the skies is called rain."

Regardless of how he said it, no words could have been worse chosen to make Reiko lose her temper. "You are not!" She nearly shouted the last word. "Maybe we were, once, a long time ago. But our parents engaged us for a reason, and—"

For a moment, she almost choked on the words, then swallowed her pride and went on with, "I'm not a psychic. I don't have any ability at all." Bitterly, she added, "What good does it do to marry two scions of the most powerful psychic clans in Japan if one of them doesn't have enough power to rattle a salt shaker?"

There. The scab over that wound was well and truly torn away again, and even fifteen years of picking at it did nothing to lessen the pain. Fleetingly, she hoped that this time, Ken would understand. Don't you get it, you idiot? It's not because I think you're a fool; I could live with that. It's because I'm not worth it. Don't waste your time on me.

Moments later, Ken proved her hopes in vain. "That doesn't matter, Reiko. It's still our choice whether or not we get married, our parents agreed on that after the… test." Even he couldn't keep a note of reluctance out of the last word.

With a sharp noise that rose above the general background of the airport, Reiko struck the end of her staff against the floor's tiling. "And this is my choice, Ken. Whether or not you understand it, you have to accept it."

Almost sadly, Ken said, "No, Reiko, you're the one that doesn't want to accept the truth. I've seen what the future holds, and if you don't want me by your side, then…" he turned away, then hesitated and looked back around. "Then there's nothing I can do to help you."

Reiko watched Ken disappear into the crowds, her mouth open, then she closed it and muttered, "What the hell was that supposed to mean? Stupid jerk. He always gets the last word, and I hate it!" With sharp, angry gestures, she scooped her carry-on from where she'd dropped it and strode through the passageway again, rejoining the flow of the airport around her.


Some people may have considered standing up on a hovercycle going at sixty kilometers an hour, steering with one foot while using both hands to fend off a pair of Vietnamese fried chicken mercenaries trying to knock him from the bike with lances, a hot pizza needing delivery growing rapidly colder on the back seat, to be a difficult situation.

Ashley laughed out loud as he batted aside another strike. "Man, I love this job!!!"


As with almost every technical fault, Devan Wiley found the problem with his clichémeter to be so shockingly simple he had to smack himself the moment he found it.

He'd simply set the detection of it too wide! Instead of scanning the operator's direct path for clichés, it scanned the paths of everyone that the operator would meet for weeks ahead!

This had led to several simple, logical conclusions.

1) He was a blithering, thumb-fingered mental defective who shouldn't be allowed within two meters of a hydrospanner, lest he hurt himself or others, and

2) That the clichémeter, though flawed, had actually done him a great service: It had warned him that one of his friends was about to walk down the dark path.

Since he had only one real friend on this planet, the final crystallization of his logical chain had been quick and easy.

Wiley found Ruben Stryfe in the place the young mad scientist had expected to find him: strolling around the campus in a broad circle, staring up at the sky that was slowly fading towards twilight, his expression that of a man lost in thought.

With a spring in his step that Wiley didn't entirely feel, he started a path that would take him directly into Ruben's, staring up into the sky just as if he was as lost as Ruben.

The bump, when it came, wasn't nearly as bad as he'd expected. Wiley was knocked back a step, of course, but he managed to catch himself easily.

"Wha— oh, Ruben!" Wiley said, doing his best to sound sincerely surprised as he turned his attention towards the young magician.

Ruben hadn't managed to keep on his own feet, probably because he hadn't been expecting it (unlike the crafty mad sci major, of course). Wiley extended one hand to help Ruben to his feet.

The sorcerer took it, of course, and with a crafty slip of his jacket, Wiley's newest plan came to fruition. The clichémeter slipped from Devan's breast pocket and landed squarely in Ruben's lap just as he started to rise.

As Wiley had predicted and feared, the clichémeter wailed the moment it touched him.

Ruben's first reaction was predictable: he tried to brush the screaming little device off. To his misfortune, however, the back of his hand brushed the "Active-mode Standby" switch, which gave Ruben the same electrical shock it had given Devan onstage.

Ruben yelped and jumped to his feet, the clichémeter clacking against the pavement as it fell off him. It still continued its plaintive cry, however, and the shaken magician pointed down towards it unsteadily.

"What the hell is that, Devan?"

"My latest creation," Wiley replied as off-handedly as he could manage. "I was thinking about asking you if you'd help me test it, but—"

"But?" Ruben quirked one eyebrow up.

"But it seems that you already have." Wiley fought to keep the grin off his face.

"Okay, new question." The wizard pointed a finger at himself and asked dourly, "Why me?"

In his gravest Leonard Nemoy impersonation, Wiley intoned, "Because you are, and always have been, my friend." A silly impulse made him raise his left hand and hold it out palm-first, his fingers spread in an ancient symbol. "Nanu nanu."

Ruben stared blankly, and after a moment Wiley lowered his hand, disgruntled. "It isn't even my planet, and I know more about its history than you?"

After taking that gibe, Ruben started to look angry. "Hey, I don't study ancient crap that doesn't apply to life now!"

"Then how can you have perspective on how life is now, eh?" At that, Wiley held up one hand. "No, no, no. I'm not here to argue right now, okay?"

"Then why are you here?"

Wiley told him.


"What a groovy first day on the job," Ashley said out loud as he slid through a warm-up tai chi stretching exercise. "A kick-ass hoverbike, some nice co-workers, a battle with some Vietnamese fried chicken mercenaries just when things were about to get boring, and they let me take home a free pizza, to boot!"

He allowed thoughts of that anchovy and Canadian bacon pizza cooling in his fridge even now, grease solidifying in that rancidly appetizing fashion, to conquer his mind and clear it of all other thoughts as he moved smoothly through the form's motions. Ashley finished the kata without even being conscious of its movement; his arm moved into the last motion, rotating his hand to the last position, with his mind perfectly emptied.

He stood there, arm extended, eyes closed. It took an eternal moment for thought to return, and he would have basked in the sheer pleasure of that emptiness, that pureness, had he been able to experience emotion at all.

His release of that, his recovery, was slow and reluctant. However, spending all night standing here would leave that poor pizza alone with no one to eat it, so Ashley expelled a slow breath and with it his state of nothing.

A clapping sound echoed through the skateboarding lot that the martial artist had informally adopted as his dojo-away-from-dojo. Ashley had to search for its source, turning to face one of the narrow alleys leading into the lot just as a slim girl stepped from it.

"Zat was great!" she said enthusiastically. "You are a truly magnifique martial artist!"

In the soft glow of the lot's streetlamps, Ashley looked her up and down. Her long red hair flowed down past her shoulders, with a hank of it obscuring half her face in what was either sloppy habit or carefully styled look. What was visible of her face was delicate and fair, with a faintly oriental cast and an amused expression.

Her clothes were a mix of what Ashley mentally categorized as goth and punk; a clinging violet dress hung halfway down to her knees and brushed the tops of massive, thigh-high boots that didn't look comfortable at all to walk in. Her strides were even and flowing in spite of those boots, a long coat made out of some kind of corduroy swirling out behind her like a cape.

With a graceful, practiced gesture, the stranger smoothed her coat out behind her and sat down on a waist-high grinding bar. "My name is Kara, and I shall be a student 'ere zis semester. 'Ave you been at zis school long?"

Ashley responded to her friendly tone with a sheepish grin and, "Well, no, not really; this semester's gonna be my first too." Belatedly, he added, "My name's Ashley."

Kara clapped her hands once and a happy look spread across her face. "Ah, zat is perfect! Perhaps we shall be in ze same classes, eh? Studying togethair iz more effective zan studying alone, no?" She leaned forward. "We both live in ze Bedlam dorm; I saw you zere when I checked in zis aftairnoon. I don't know anyone, and so far from home I feel shy. Could you introduce me to ze people here?"

She just wants to make a few friends here; be nice to her! So forceful was the sudden thought that Ashley nodded involuntarily. "That'd be no problem," he said, adding, "but right now I kinda want to finish my evening's practice and go eat some pizza."

"Cold pizza?" Kara asked eagerly, and after Ashley nodded again the redhead licked her lips. "Ah, it 'as been so long since I have eaten such a delicacy… may I ask to eat wi' you?"

"Shouldn't see why not. More there than Ruben and I can suck down, that's for sure."

Kara's eyes narrowed suddenly, a piercing, calculating expression falling into place over her face, but it vanished into a smile so quickly that Ashley shook his head, unsure of what he'd just seen. A strange, wavery feeling cut through him, making the usually strong martial artist wobble on his feet. Wow, maybe I should just cut practice short tonight and get to bed early, after a good meal that is.

As has been noted in previous chronicles, Ashley was far from stupid. While outright paranoia wasn't his style, neither was even thinking about cutting short a practice session. Ever. So where did that thought come from? Was it—

"Why, yes, it was me, as you 'ave guessed." Kara's face slowly slid back to the sharp expression that had so raised Ashley's suspicions. "I was 'oping to do zis ze easy way, no? But you 'ave forced my hand. I promise zat I won't hurt you."

She seemed to flicker; one moment she was still sitting on the bar, the next her hand was grasping for Ashley's wrist. Instinctively, he pulled his hand out of the way, throwing himself backwards in a leap that took him to the top of a plywood ramp.

"What tha—"

Kara looked up at him and clucked her tongue, walking slowly towards the martial artist. "Ze only thing I wanted from you waz informacion on my target. But zen, you mentioned being roommates wi' 'im…"

"Hey," Ashley retorted, "have you seen the rent prices around here? No way I could afford it by myself!"

This time, Ashley was better prepared for her sudden lunge, and he was twenty feet farther away. Despite all that, he barely managed to avoid her grasp by stepping backwards and sliding down the ramp.

Kara leapt down after him, not giving the martial artist a moment to recover. Desperately, Ashley grabbed her outstretched arm and threw her into the ground, using her forward momentum against her in a textbook fashion. She slid along the ground for a half-second, rolled over four times, and remained still once her momentum was spent.

Ashley froze too, but for a different reason. Shit! At the angle she hit the ground with, I might've broken her neck! He almost went over to check the damage he'd done, but the same paranoia that had started this whole mess smacked him upside the metaphorical backside of his head. What if she's shamming?

The martial artist waited.

The girl didn't move.

Not only did she not move, but she was so still that it seemed to exclude even the possibility of movement.

Finally, nearly a minute of waiting later, Ashley took a tentative step towards her. "Uhh…"

Kara rolled to her feet in a quick, smooth gesture. The only sign she'd taken a fall at all was a bruise across one cheek that was fading from a rich purple to a sickly green, shrinking visibly as he watched.

"I suppose ze 'Oh, I am so dead, pleaze come close to me so I can grab you' iz too old of a trick to work on you!" she exclaimed irritably, adding in a disgusted mutter that Ashley didn't think he was supposed to hear, "I waz 'oping to 'ave my way wi' you aftair zis was ovair, too… you are quite cute."

Somehow, after seeing her supernatural speed and nearly falling victim to some weird kind of mind control, Ashley wasn't in the least bit surprised to find out that his foe could heal even as he watched. It would make beating her harder, maybe even impossible.

In fact, there was only one way he could think of to win. "Undefeated Ultimate—" Kara stopped as if following the Martial Artist's Code herself, waiting quite patiently.

"—Secret Technique—" He took a deep breath, focused and cleared his mind, set himself in the proper stance, then…

Turned tail and ran for the hills as fast as his legs would take him, shouting the name of the technique in the finest martial arts tradition. "PANICKED FLIGHT FROM THE ENEMY!!!"

Ashley could sense Kara's dumfoundment like a psychic wave of perplexity beating against his back, and without even turning the martial artist could feel her standing there, staring blankly after him.

"'Ehh?? Wait jus' a minute!"


Three.

One portent of impending doom, Ruben might have blown off. With two, he would have made some sketchy preparations, but not truly taken it very seriously. But three… in one day…

There were numbers that had power in magic and of them all, three stood the strongest. No one knew who had first discovered its power, but Pythagoras (as much magician as mathematician, not that the two had ever been truly too different when he'd lived) had been the one to spread the knowledge as far and wide as he knew how.

Despite Devan Wiley's joking insult about how little Ruben knew of his own planet's history, Ruben knew how important threes were. After hearing what the little device did, he also knew that it was a third portent of impending doom, and…

It was the one he had to act upon.

It was a cool, clear evening; the brisk air heralded the season's early turning from summer to autumn. The sounds of the city echoed in the distance as Ruben strode into the empty field on its outskirts. When he reached a spot that simply felt right he stopped and took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the chill air.

It's not myself I'm worried about…

This was a great night for a ritual.

it's my friends

Ruben chanted the first line of the ritual as he knelt down in the freshly turned dirt. "One finger in the earth; my eyes on the sky."

…I don't want them hurt…

Slowly, he sketched the first line of the circle, turning his eyes upwards to find the North Star. "The star that guides, the ground that lives; breath of wind and heart of earth, come to my call!"

for a wrong that is mine alone.

The simple circle finished, Ruben stood up and reached into his pouch, finding an amethyst by touch and feel. Channeling a bit of the power that he'd called forth, Ruben held the gem over the circle's center and crumpled it into dust. "Spirit whose Name is Ael'khar, I call you to me!"

He dropped the destroyed amethyst, and the powder formed the swirling whirlwind, which was Ael'khar's manifestation. With a voice that seemed to keen out of the chill black sky, it spoke.

"Eh dere, mon, whacha wanna bodda me for?"

Ruben lifted one eyebrow. "What kind of accent is that supposed to be?"

"Jus' a bit of de island, mon. Issa where I do mosta me work, an' me and dem do blen' togedda afta awhile." Ael'khar paused for a moment, and Ruben felt it feeling the edges of the circle for imperfections that might allow it to escape without completing any service.

Not finding any didn't seem to repress Ael'khar's spirits, no pun intended. "Right, den, big kahuna, why ya call me?"

Ruben repressed his smile ruthlessly and continued with the ritual. "Amethyst for three services: To watch the man named Ashley Jacob Raine for ten days and a day, to protect him with any powers you may possess, and to report to me immediately if you see him in any trouble, no matter how minor." Clarity was important with spirits, no matter of what ilk; a minor fact that had been reinforced by this afternoon's experience with the spectre possessing Amberite. Ten days should be plenty enough for Ruben to come up with something more permanent… or so he hoped.

The amethyst flashed and flared, then vanished as the spirit spoke. "Me hear an' me obey, big kahuna!" The dirt that the circle had been drawn in flew away in all directions as Ael'khar accepted its duty, thus finishing the ritual.

Ruben turned away from where the spirit had been, smiling slightly.

"What did you do that for, Ruben?"

The wizard whirled around, one hand sketching a hasty ward of protection, then he stopped it in mid-motion. "Oh. It's you."

Lilah floated down from the sky and smiled at Ruben slyly, the breeze from her flapping wings disturbing the dirt. "I saw you summon that watcher, Ruben, and set it on your roommate. What's the matter, don't you trust me to keep the poor dear safe?"

For just a moment, Ruben was about to take her seriously; then he caught the teasing undertone. He matched it with, "Trust is not the issue here, but his own safety is."

The wizard hesitated, then related an abbreviated version of his afternoon's conversation with the dead being through Amberite's power. "I don't know what it meant, but I'd rather… keep tabs on him for a bit. He is, after all," a dramatic roll of thunder came from the clear nighttime sky, "lost in time."

Lilah looked up. "What keeps doing that whenever I'm having a serious conversation with you?"

Ruben countered her question with, "What good is it being a wizard if you can't arrange some dramatic sound effects when you need 'em?"

Ael'khar suddenly reappeared in front of Ruben. He gasped and spoke as if he were out of breath (a subtle professional touch that the magician admired.) "Eh, kahuna, dat Keiki ya wan' me ta watch?"

One of Ruben's eyebrows went up at the almost diffident tone. "Yeah, what about him?"

"De skinwalka dat be pursuin' de Keiki righ' now be countin' as trouble, yah?" A moment later, he added mournfully, "Why do dese jobs always godda be hard? Me was hopin for a little vacation, mon!"


Ashley was going to lose this race, and he knew it. He'd known it before he'd even started running, in fact, but he'd eat his black belt in aikido without salt or even ketchup before just giving up. So he struggled on, dashing for all that he was worth, jumping over concrete barricades, and generally giving her the best run that he could.

The only really depressing part was that Kara seemed to find his attempt amusing. He could hear her laughing over the sound of wind and the occasional passerby saying, "What the—"

Kara called out, her French accent adding a playfully mocking tone, "Where are you, my little clay pigeon? I am looking somewhere to find you!"

Well, regardless of her enjoyment of this, he had work to do. Only the first third of the Undefeated Secret Technique was Running. The next third, Ruminate, Ashley was accomplishing, albeit slowly. The next third, Re-engage…

Sadly, he had yet to Ruminate something worthwhile, which was necessary before the Re-engage portion could be initiated. "Running away until you think of something better" may lack a certain style, but it beats getting pulped.

He ducked into a narrow passage between two buildings that led towards his dorm. Can't fight her on my own, can't run away forever, she's just too fast and she heals too quick. I guess my best bet is to go for help. Right, then, to find Ruben I—

Suddenly, Ashley skidded to a halt as a silhouetted female form appeared at the exit. Kara raised one finger and tsked. "Ah, stubborn iz cute in ze man, but being cute only cuts so much of ze slack wi' me, eh?"

The martial artist looked around wildly for an escape, any escape, and saw only one.

Coiling his legs underneath him, Ashley leapt straight up with all the strength he had. For a moment, he thought that he would make the roof—

Then with a tooth-jarring smash he hit an invisible wall in midair that sent him spiraling back to the ground.

He crashed into the earth and nearly blacked out. As Ashley struggled to keep conscious, his world narrowed to the stars overhead and the sound of Kara's boots slowly walking closer and closer to him.

She crouched down next to him, and with a tender hand brushed the hair away from Ashley's forehead. "Of course you would go for ze sky, foolish boy." Kara laid one hand on Ashley's chest, and warmth spread from it into his body. A scolding note entered her voice as she said, "I promised I would not 'urt you, and you 'ave made me break zat promise!"

Ashley tried to reply, but couldn't; a pleasant feeling of lethargy stole over him and all he wanted to do was lie there, staring up at her. She bent her face down over his and whispered, breath hot on his skin, "You won' remembair a thing…"

Then, she touched her lips to the center of his forehead.


"Geh! Ooomph! Argh! Ruben, when did you get so heavy??"

Ruben replied dryly, "The last time we did this, I was almost thirty kilos lighter. Of course, I was a woman the last time we did this…"

Lilah shifted her grip around his waist, pretending to struggle in her efforts to stay aloft as they flew back to campus. She was, of course, easily strong enough to carry three or four people the size of Ruben through the air, but she enjoyed joking around.

Giving the lie to her pretense, the spires and buildings of the city flew by underneath them at a brisk pace. Not for the first time since the spirit had reappeared, Ruben wished he had prepared the spells that could let him fly even faster than Lilah's wings. Too bad I was expecting a relaxing flight back to campus on my little carpet. That poor thing can't push over thirty, though, and speed is of the essence right now. Damn! What could Ashley have gotten himself into?

Ael'khar stayed close in front of them, guiding the pair as quickly as it could, the city's lights glinting through and off the powdered amethyst that was its body.

It was almost ten minutes before they reached the university grounds, and Ruben used the time to recall a number of combat incantations, preparing for the battle ahead by bringing to the very front of his mind so that there would be no problems in reacting quickly no matter what situations might arise. After some consideration, he decided to add some heavy-duty healing spells as well.

The spirit had said it was a lycanthrope attacking (at least, that's what Ruben thought it had meant with the 'skinwalker' comment), and if this was a kind of shapeshifter that was infectious… not all of them were, of course, notably the werefoxes, but Ruben knew that he couldn't send Ashley back to his own time with a lifestyle difficulty like turning furry once a month.

Ael'khar swooped downward, and Lilah followed in its wake. The moment Ruben realized that the spirit was heading for the Languages building, he nudged Lilah and said, "Drop me. You hit 'em from the air, I'll nail 'em from the ground."

"Right." She released the wizard and he fell. Just above the ground, Ruben spat a syllable which arrested his descent and let him land gently on the ground. He sprinted the last hundred meters to the Languages building, glad he wasn't wearing robes; they were a real bitch to run in.

Once he got there, he looked up at Lilah, who was hovering just above the entrance to an alley that ran between the Languages building's two halves. She glanced back at him, opened her mouth, then realized that she was too far away for him to hear anything she said. Her hand waved in a combat hand-signal: Ward here.

Ruben nodded, and gestured back, After my sign, go in. It was strange, but just whenever he was starting to think that learning the arcane language of combat hand signals had been a total waste of time, something came up and he was thankful his grandpa had forced it down his throat.

The mage concentrated, and he felt at the ward. It had been a hasty creation, probably cast more to keep someone in then to keep them out, and a frisson of fear ran through Ruben for Ashley's sake. Whoever had cast it was reasonably strong and fairly skilled, but the ward tasted of Wiccan rote: the spells were easy to learn, easy to maintain, and oh so easy to break.

Ruben signed, Go in, just as he focused a blade of power and severed the flow that kept the ward active. The ward vanished a split second before Lilah would have smashed into it, but she never flinched. Ruben followed her closely, weaving several combat spells together as he rushed into the alley.

It was dark in there, so dark that for a moment all he saw was a vague shape in the middle of the alley. After his eyes adapted, the shape resolved into that of a woman straddling a man, both of them lying on the ground. She had her hands around his head, lifting his forehead up to her lips, and Ruben stumbled over a step as he realized what she was doing to him. Mind rape? MIND RAPE?? Who the HELL does she think she is?

Her eyes suddenly became visible, glowing a brilliant emerald green even in the alley's gloom, slitted like a cat's, and she rolled to one side just as Ruben reached out with bonds of air to tie her immobile. Capture her, then find out what the HELL SHE'S DOING, that's the plan. Her speed was incredible, no doubt because she was a shapeshifter, but she barely managed to throw herself backwards and dodge the red darts that lashed from Lilah's fingertips.

Teamwork, that's the key, teamwork! Not wanting to give her even a moment's respite, Ruben attacked now with water: he focused all the moisture in the alley's air around his foe and then withdrew all the residual warmth in one quick effort, flash-freezing the woman in place.

For a moment, she stayed still, trapped in a prison of ice. After a moment, however, the woman glowed so bright that Ruben was forced to cover his eyes for a moment, and she shattered the ice with a desperate effort of uncontrolled magic, sending razor-sharp shards spraying through the alley.

Ruben grimaced as he wove a shield to protect both himself and the still unconscious Ashley, trusting Lilah to be able to protect herself. It took barely a second of his time, but in that second his attention was away from the woman she won the initiative back.

When his eyes turned back to her, or rather where she should have been, all he saw was an inky blackness that hid her completely. As he watched, the blackness exploded outward, flooding through the alley and hiding everything inside of it.

Ruben hesitated a moment, trying to think of something he had prepared that could dispel this darkness, and came up empty. As if in response to his wish, the darkness began vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, withdrawing as if being sucked into the air. He looked up and saw Lilah holding her hand forward, palm out. The blackness was being drawn into her palm in what Ruben had to admit was a pretty flashy effect.

The only sour note was that when the darkness cleared away completely, the woman had vanished.

Ruben dashed to Ashley's side and knelt down beside him, touching his face. The martial artist was muttering something under his breath, but Ruben couldn't quite hear what it was. Cautiously, in case some sort of magical trap had been left, Ruben spun a probing spell to check his roommate's status. "Ashley? Are you all right?"


Ashley jerked upright, nearly smacking his forehead into Ruben's chin. "Her eyes!"

Ruben frowned, a worried expression on his face. "What about her eyes?"

"They were like…" As he spoke, even the vague memory began to fade, "Like oceans… of jade…"

"Who was she?" Ruben asked quietly.

Ashley blinked. "Who was who?"

"He doesn't remember her." Ashley turned his head and saw Lilah landing on the ground lightly, her wings furling up and vanishing.

Ruben nodded his head and stated resignedly, "That's only to be expected. She didn't seem like a fool, and the first thing any sensible mage would do is erase memories of the attack."

Ashley was starting to get mad. "Will you two stop talking like I'm not even here? What the hell's going on?"

The two standing over him traded looks, then Ruben offered Ashley a hand up. "Someone attacked you, Ashley, and wiped out your memory of it. We only found you just in time."

Ashley accepted the hand and climbed to his feet, almost falling down again as a wave of dizziness swam through his head. "Aggh… Oomph…" He wobbled back and forth, and Ruben put a hand on Ashley's shoulder to help steady the martial artist. "But… why would anyone want to attack me?"

Ruben and Lilah exchanged glances again. Lilah spoke first. "Yeah, that's the thousand-zenny question, ain't it?"

The silence stretched out for long moments as each person tried to find their own answer to that mystery. Then—

Ashley frowned. "Why are we standing around here, when there's a Canadian bacon, pineapple, and anchovy pizza in my fridge?"

The other two in the alley exchanged a third glance, this time for a different reason, and Lilah's face contorted into a disgusted mask while Ruben made fake retching noises. "Eww! That is so gross!" they chorused, and Ashley laughed before saying,

"Awh, c'mon, guys. Sure, it's an acquired taste, but…"


Kara watched as all three people she'd chosen as prey strolled out of the alley, her tails twitching almost angrily. With an effort, she stilled them, but the urge to leap upon them was not stilled so easily. Merde! My enchantment of Ashley did not take hold! How dare they interrupt me…

After they'd left sight, Kara scampered over to where she'd left her clothes and slipped her skin into a human form. The change didn't leave her disoriented, as it did some of her cousins, but regardless she was careful as she bent down and retrieved her phone from its case. After dialing a number she'd acquired just a few hours ago, she waited.

But not for long.

"Hello?"

"Mistair Smith, I am sorry for, ah, interrupting your meal."

"How did you get this number?!"

Kara's lips curved into a vulpine smile. "Zat iz not of importance, right now. I will tell you what iz: my money and what I need to hire your ninja to do."

As she went over her plan carefully with the man on the other end of the line, Kara's eyes watched the direction that Lilah, Ashley, and… Ruben… had disappeared into.

Soon enough, you bastard, I'm coming for you…


The ninja ambush, when it came, was hardly a surprise.

Ashley had felt someone's eyes on him all day, watching as he tooled Lilah's Kearny-Fuchida Peregrine hoverbike around (her warning, But if you so much as scratch the paint, I scratch off just as much of your skin, echoed through his head ominously), delivering pizza to hungry customers.

Judging by the feelings of anger and annoyance being projected by those watching eyes, the martial artist had decided that they didn't exactly want to be his friends. Naturally, he adopted a similar attitude towards those unseen watchers.

It was midafternoon, and he'd just delivered a pizza, when they struck.

The first one leapt off the house Ashley had just turned away from and tried to put a nunchaku into his skull. Contemptuously, Ashley twisted out of the way and took the weapon out of the ninja's hands, letting the fool fall forward onto the ground. He sneered down at the ninja.

Keeping a sneer on his face wasn't quite so easy after four more ninja appeared from under cars, jumped down from other buildings, and stood up from behind a lawn gnome that couldn't've possibly hid him. "Okay, what's all this about?"

One of the ninja gestured with his staff. "We're here to keep you distracted until—"

Another ninja hit him in the head, and insofar as the man was wearing a mask which totally obscured every feature in his face besides eyes that glittered darkly, he wore an expression of disgust. "Shut up, Charli— uh, Death's Hand Three!"

Ashley snorted. "Look, I've only known you guys for ten seconds, and either you're the most incompetent band of ninja I've ever met, OR," he added heavy, sarcastic emphasis to the word, "you're trying to make me feel way too overconfident."

The ninja wielding a spear stabbed it into the ground, barely missing his foot. "Incompetent? Incompetent? I'll have you know we're the best ninja that Chinese fast-food has to offer!"

Struck dumb by surprise, it took Ashley a moment to sputter, "Chinese? Chinese ninja?" Several of them nodded, and Ashley added indignantly, "Ninja aren't Chinese!"

"Who says?"

"The immutable tides of history, dammit. Even IF ninja existed in the form of black-clad goobers with masks and weapons stolen straight from the Okinawan rebellion, an idea which remains highly doubtful, I don't believe that they would ever allow any bands to spring up in China!"

Another of the ninja stepped forward. "Hey, the Japanese stole much of their culture from the Chinese — writing, Buddhism, chopsticks, bondage, eBay, the Euro, democracy — and who's to say that they didn't steal the idea of ninja the same way?"

"Because—" Ashley cut himself short. "Why am I standing around, debating history with you idiots?"

The ninja exchanged a look. "That's an interesting question," one that had been silent up until now said. He pointed with a tonfa at himself, then at Ashley. "Why don't we discuss—"

"No!" Ashley made an angry motion. "The time for discussion is over! The time for clobbering is now."

Without another word, as if Ashley's curt words had been an order, they attacked.

The ninja that had struck at Ashley first, who had been lying on the ground at the martial artist's feet while everyone spoke, spun her legs around to entangle Ashley's in a groundfighting technique. Ashley leapt up and backwards to avoid that attack, swinging his newfound nunchaku — Not my weapon of choice, but any port in a storm, he thought to himself — to meet the spearholder's assault.

Hardened wood met steel in a clash that turned aside the spearhead, though just barely, and Ashley entangled the spear with the nunchaku, flinging the spear and the ninja using it with all his strength at the building behind them. Ashley frowned as he used the momentum from that to jump even farther away, towards the hoverbike waiting for him in the street. The spearholding ninja had leapt into the air as though he'd predicted Ashley's avoidance, almost as though he'd planned for—

A pole of hardened wood cracked along Ashley's back, swatting him from the air, and he barely managed to get his hands underneath him in time to handspring from the walkway instead of just slamming into it. Damn! Suckered!

These guys were better than he'd given them credit for.

He landed some ten feet beyond the hoverbike, in the middle of the street, and almost instantly there were four ninja between Ashley and his only reasonable means of escape. They didn't look like they would just stand aside and let him start it up, which left only one option: Going right through them.

"Fine with me," Ashley growled, shifting slightly to see if his back was hurt badly enough to hamper him. He ran his eyes over the ninja facing him.

Gotta get a weapon. Sure, I might be able to take them all with bare hands, but with four on one, that's a very big might. He backed away slowly, and the ninja shifted forward to match his movement, staying just out of striking range. Let's see, I want to use that guy's tonfa, but those are kind of hard to take. The guy on the left is using a bo stick, that won't be hard to steal.

Decision made. Ashley tensed himself, relaxed, took a deep breath, then suddenly rushed the ninja with the short sword, moving as quickly as his feet would carry him. Feint, dodge, and strike! The ninja raised the blade, and just before it descended Ashley threw himself towards the bo-wielding ninja, lunging with his elbow held forward in a half-remembered Thai kickboxing strike.

The ninja he lunged towards was so startled that he reflexively stabbed out with his bo as if it were a spear. Ashley twisted to one side and dodged, the bo passing so close to him that it caught at his uniform shirt, and his elbow landed firmly in the ninja's face. The ninja reeled back as Ashley snatched the staff, whirling it around in a strike that sent its previous owner reeling away.

Ashley's teacher had always disdained fancy-schmancy posing and twirling with weapons, but Ashley felt like indulging. He leapt up onto a fence and whirled the staff behind him, holding it with his right hand as he raised his left and beckoned to the three remaining ninja tauntingly.

For a moment, the three ninja looked at him as if shocked, then they split apart and surrounded him. Ashley's face split into a grin as he swung his staff around, jumping from the fence at the tonfa-ninja. The ninja blocked his first strike, straight at the head, and the next, swung around for a blow at the knee, but the third strike, lunging straight for the ribs, took the ninja, and Ashley followed up with a knockout blow to the head.

Feeling one of the ninja behind him, Ashley dodged to one side, swinging his staff to deflect the sword's strike easily. The ninja didn't let up, however, and now Ashley saw the second ninja from the corner of his eye, her nunchaku blurring the air. Down to the last two and of course they're the most coordinated. Why can't things be easy for once?

Rather than lament further, Ashley moved his staff in an elaborate form that kept his two remaining opponents at a distance, hoping to buy some time until one or both of them made a mistake. Sure, Ashley would definitely be able to take out one of them, but by the time he finished off that one the other would be on him.

However, it was Ashley that made the mistake.

As he was circling around, he stumbled over something; a small rock or maybe a weapon that had been tossed aside by one of the combatants. It was a moot issue either way. Both of the ninja leapt at his momentary weakness, and the martial artist twisted aside from the sword, bringing the shorter end of his staff up in a swift arc that ended at the sword-wielder's temple.

But that left him wide open to the other ninja.

The nunchaku slammed into his back with a force that drove the breath from his body and sent him forward a step. It hit the place where Ashley had taken a blow earlier with such calculated force that even though spots of white swam across his vision, Ashley thought to himself hazily, She musta seen me take that hit earlier. Dammmnnn…

He turned his involuntary step into several more, whirling around quickly. A bit too quickly, as it turned out. Ashley's vision split and doubled from the suddenly worse agony that seemed about to tear his back apart. Okay, this time my back is hurt bad.

Surprisingly enough, the female ninja hadn't moved to take advantage of his weakness.

In fact, she hadn't moved at all. Her arm was still held forward in the same position that she'd struck him with, the nunchaku dangling limply. Even as he watched, she slumped forward slowly, hitting the ground with a dull thud.

Ashley blinked in disbelief. "Did I take a hit to the head too?"

A disembodied voice said almost intelligibly, "Eh, mon, relax. If dese monkeys did, me and mine be fixin' ya right up, yah?"

Suddenly, purple sparkles flew across his vision, and now he muttered, "I did take a hit to the head. I can't believe it!"

"Keiki, dis is de best dat I can do." A sudden wash of pure warmth went up and down Ashley's back, seeming to focus on his injuries, and then most of the pain vanished.

Most of it. There was still quite a bit left, but spikes of agony didn't drive their way into his back with every slight movement.

"Izzat betta, mon?"

"Um, yeah. Who are you? What are you?"

The voice hesitated a moment. "Me is for thinkin' dat don' matta none now, keiki. De one ya should worryin' 'bout is de cute wahine name of Lilah. She be in deep, deep trouble, mon."

"What?" Is that what that one ninja meant at the beginning, when he said that they were keeping me distracted? "What are you talking about?"

The voice didn't answer, and Ashley didn't wait on it. He dashed over to Lilah's hoverbike to grab for the radio she'd said was set to the Mecha Mike's frequency. "Home base! Headquarters! Boss! Big cheese! Dispatch! Anyone!"

A moment later, someone replied, "Yeah, I'm one of those. What's up? Are you some jerk that found our secure freq?"

"No, it's Ashley Raine, you know, I just started working here, and I got troubles." He took a deep breath and steadied his voice before asking, "Where was Lilah's last delivery to?"


Ael'khar watched from the ether as the young man started the mechanical contrivance and screamed away to rescue her. His aura danced with shades of solid brown determination commingled with the light blues of courage, and as he vanished the spirit thought, Dat keiki is gonna kick de tails offa dat skinwalka, but I ain't bein' too sure dat he'll get dere in time.

If the spirit had possessed breath and a body to use it, it would have sighed deeply with resignation. It had its questions as to the orders it had received just before Ruben had summoned it, but they weren't the sort of questions one asked the Higher Authority. If a spirit got orders like this, its best bet was to shut up, obey, and hope that its essence wasn't destroyed utterly before the whole thing was over.

A tug on that essence reminded the spirit that, even though it had to obey Higher orders first, it was still bound to this plane with other commands. It turned away and sped off to find Ruben, but not before grumbling, "De big kahuna 'ad best know what dese keikis of 'is can do, else dey gonna be wearin' 'im as a necklace, yah."


Death drifted downwards from Lilah's fingertips carried on ten thousands strands of spiderweb-thin energy, delicately floating from where the succubus hovered in midair, wings spread, to inescapably cover the clearing in the park where Kara stood.

Who felt her lip curl upwards in a mocking sneer. Slow! Too slow! Whether the battle was with daggers, pistols, claws, or lasers, the field was divided into two halves: the quick and the dead.

When the battle was with magic, this line was even clearer. As spells grew in power and killing ability, they also grew in length of time needed to channel the proper energy and direct it. Many ex-mages, overly impressed with the power at their command, had promising careers cut short by much wiser wizards who knew the Golden Rule: Do unto others before they do unto you.

Of course the web drifting down towards Kara's head would certainly make a good effort at destroying her utterly if so much as the tiniest fragment touched her flesh, but it would have to get there first. Besides, she had an… advantage… that the damned succubus was almost certainly not aware of.

With a snap of her fingers, Kara sent flame upwards to meet the web, igniting the air between her and it. The moment the spell was finished, she dove to the ground, rolling along it quickly to avoid any faster strikes that the succubus might be trying to trick her into.

Sure enough, lightning crackle through the air, smashing into the ground where Kara had been only moments before. As she scrambled to her feet, Kara scooped up a handful of dirt and flung it at the airborne succubus. A short chant transformed the dirt into razor-sharp spikes of stone that flew unerringly towards Lilah.

Forced into the defensive by the simple yet effective spell, Lilah wove a hasty barrier between herself and Kara's attack. Her barrier was not a complete success, however. One spike grazed her thigh and another punched through her left wing, leaving a gaping hole in the skin. First blood! was Kara's viciously victorious thought.

She didn't wait for Lilah's response. Mentally flipping through a book of rotes, Kara found one perfectly suited for her present needs. She pulled out a hollow amulet filled with the remains of a long-dead sylph spirit, and using it as a focus, Kara conjured forth a gale-force wind that blasted Lilah from the sky…

Just as the earth erupted underneath Kara, throwing her into the air. For several seconds, she tumbled uncontrollably, then slammed face-first into the ground.

When Kara opened her eyes, their gaze met Lilah's, whose face was bare inches from her own. Almost conversationally, as though they hadn't been trying to kill each other just moments ago, the succubus asked, "Why did you lure me to this park?"

"To remove you, dear." Kara matched her conversational tone.

"Why must you remove me?"

"Because in ordair to kill Ruben Stryfe in ze way I have been hired to, I must remove or neutralize all of his allies." As an afterthought, Kara added, dropping all hint of pretense, "It iz nothing personal wi' you, you understand?"

With one hand, Kara pushed herself up to a sitting position, reaching with the other for the curved dagger sheathed in the small of her back. In one smooth motion, she unsheathed it and slashed for Lilah's head, the dagger's enchanted runes writhing and singing as it arced forward.

Lilah was just as fast, throwing herself to the side. Her damaged wing, however, didn't furl fast enough, and it fouled her roll. Kara's dagger slashed a line along her forearm, and the dagger's thirsty song grew a bit louder as it tasted her demonic essence.

If Lilah had been mortal, the poisoned touch of the dagger's blade would have certainly killed her. Even so, she screamed at the agony racking her form.

Any thought that Kara might have had of gaining an advantage were dispelled as Lilah lunged for Kara's throat with outstretched talons, still screaming in agony mingled with inhuman rage. Kara raised her dagger, hoping to impale the succubus, but her arm was knocked aside by a blow that nearly wrenched it out of its socket and sent the dagger spinning away.

Lilah's grip closed around Kara's neck with crushing force, and she was knocked down by the impact’s force, falling backwards with Lilah on top of her. The succubus' other hand raked down Kara's front, tearing her dress and rending her skin.

Kara didn't panic, despite the growing pain in her throat. She'd break my neck before she choked me to death, but I won't have to worry about either. The werefox calmly reached into a concealed pocket and pulled out a spirit ward written on a strip of paper, and carefully placed it on Lilah's forehead.

The effects were immediate. Lilah's scream took on a new note, and she released her grip on Kara to raise both hands to the spirit ward. Smoke rose from her forehead and her fingertips as the succubus clutched at it, trying to tear it free. She fell backwards off of Kara, still screaming, and tried to writhe away from her torment.

Kara stood up slowly. The only concession she made to her torn dress was to button her coat across her front once. She knelt down and scooped out another handful of earth from the bare park ground.

And tossed it underhand over Lilah's chest and stomach to begin the banishment. "Ze earth rejects you."

The dirt arced through the air and parted just above Lilah's stomach and chest, forming a latticework that held her down. Lilah's screams stopped, and all she could do was stare up at the mystic energy outlining Kara's form as the banishment took hold of her spirit and body.


When Lilah shown Ashley the controls on her Kearny-Fuchida Peregrine, there were two buttons that she had pointed out, two buttons that Ashley had sworn very quietly sworn to himself that he would never ever ever press.

One controlled the top speed.

The other was the height control.

Right now Ashley had both pressed in. Flying just over the tops of the other vehicles, with the speedometer clicking along at three hundred kilometers, was not helping his sense of well-being. His goal was highlighted on the hovercycle's little navicomputer screen, the streetmap flying along at a pace which made him wish he had an extra pair of eyes, lest he miss a turn or (even worse) pile into the back of a hovertruck at a speed that would probably kill him.

It was a dizzying nightmarish ride as the tall buildings of downtown flashed by, crystal spires flashing brilliantly in the late afternoon sun next to skyscrapers that seemed dumpy and dull by comparison. The navicomp indicated a turn ahead, and Ashley slowed the bike to a mere 160 clicks and slid the bike into the curve, moving almost sideways before the rear hoverpod caught and propelled him forward.

The map adjusted for his new direction, and now it showed the dot indicating Lilah's delivery straight ahead. Absently, he noted that he was now going almost towards the University, though not directly at it. Ashley cranked up the speed and thought to himself, I don't know what I'm gonna do, but Lilah pulled my ass out of a jam and I'll be damned if I can't return the favor.

Unseen and unnoticed by him, a golden aura of power began to build around his body…


Shock and outrage vibrated from every pore of Ruben's body, and (not for the first time when dealing with the temperamental wizard!) Devan Wiley wondered if he had finally gone too far.

"Could you please," Ruben asked as politely as he could with teeth grinding against each other with contained anger, "explain yourself?"

Well, if he was going to die, he wasn't going to die stammering and fearful. Wiley slowly reached down and picked up a book he'd checked out of the school's sorcery section. "I was doing a bit of research on basic magic, trying to see if your abilities may have deformed the results from my clichémeter, and, well, I stumbled across the descriptions for—"

Ruben cut the mad scientist off. "Protectors. Warders. Guardians. Minister Magi." At each word, a bit more of the tension faded, leaving behind an emotion Wiley couldn't easily identify. Worry? Sadness? Resignation? "No, I'm not going to bond Ashley as any of those. Why would you ask?"

"Well…" Wiley plopped into the seat across the table from Ruben, glad that this wouldn't be the moment he finally found out which was stronger, his science or Ruben's magic. "It seems to me as if you're training him up to be one. The book seemed quite logical in its description of a warrior-magician pair as being stronger than any magician by him- or herself, and, well…" Wiley trailed off.

"You were just wondering if that was what I had in mind." For a moment, Ruben hesitated, then reluctantly, he added, "I had a Guardian once. It… Well…"

He looked over at the cafeteria wall as if seeing through it, the set of his eyes seeming to say that he was staring at something deep in his past. "It didn't work out so well."

The mad scientist-in-training opened his mouth to ask the next obvious question, but he jumped as a bamph! echoed through the cafeteria and a cloud of purplish smoke suddenly appeared right next to their table. "Ey, kahuna-mon, dat keiki you be wantin' me and mine to watch..?"

"Ashley? What about him?"

The purple cloud faded away, leaving behind the amethyst whirlwind that was the physical form of Ael'khar. "He be in a heap o' trouble at de old park jus' north o' here, ya."

Ruben threw himself out of the seat, one hand scrabbling for the staff that stood, standing upright, by his seat. "What?!"

If a spirit in the shape of an amorphous whirlwind could have nodded, Ael'khar would have. "An' de wahine, Lilah, dat was wi' ya when ya met me? She be in an evan bigga heap o' trouble at de same place."


If some instinct, some subconscious prediction of the future, hadn't warned Ashley to slow the bike as he approached the flashing lights of a magical battle ahead, he could have been killed when the earth heaved underneath him and tossed the hoverbike around like a feather in the breeze.

As it was, Ashley was still thrown off the bike, tumbling forwards into the air. He tucked and tried to roll. As he hit the ground, he felt triumphant for a split second, then his back slammed into something unyielding with such force that he was sure he'd been killed.

Nothing could have survived that kind of impact.

So, when he stood up a few moments later, no one could have been more surprised than he.

Ashley looked down at his hands, which were glowing with a strange golden aura that seemed to grow stronger as he watched, then at the pile of rubble he'd crashed into and the bent steel girder sticking out of it. His glance took in the larger background of what seemed to be several blocks of nothing but destroyed buildings, collapsed in and over each other, only peripherally. The sign with the simple phrase "Price of Victory Park" held his attention, but not for long.

Something about the aura, the feeling of… of… invincibility flooding through him, was familiar, but he couldn't place it so he dismissed the half-memory.

Only one word seemed appropriate.

Ashley grinned and said, "Whoa."

He started running.


"No." Ruben's categorical denial of Wiley's request was firm.

"But—"

"NO!" The magician closed his eyes. "Look, Devan, I'm gonna have enough trouble transporting myself there. I'm not familiar enough with the park to do it easily, and the way I'm doing it may have… repercussions." I've gotta help them! That prophecy told me that someone had hunted me down… if they're trying to kill my friends, it's my fault!

"Wait a sec—"

With that said, time rapidly slipping through his fingers, Ruben shut out the mad scientist's words from his mind, shut out his foreboding thoughts of having been found, shut out the dire consequences of failure, and began the spell.

Focusing his will on the blank space of brick that he'd found near the back of the cafeteria, Ruben envisioned an image of Ashley. Slowly, carefully, he began drawing magic into himself, coiling it around him in an invisible spiral. After perfecting Ashley's image in every detail, Ruben sent out the energy in a thread, seeking the young man, trying to find him…

And couldn't.

Ruben cursed under his breath. Damnation and perdition! It's as if he's invisible to my spell! Almost like— Then he gasped and almost lost control of the power he'd gathered. Barely keeping a mental grasp of the magical force, he finished the thought aloud. "Almost like he was in the tower."

"What? What tower?"

Ruben released the image of Ashley, but kept the power he'd gathered in a tight mental grip. "Never mind, it doesn't matter. What matters is that I can't find him, and if I can't find him, I can't open a Gate to his area!"

"What about Lilah?" Wiley asked. "The spirit said that she's in trouble too."

"That's a… good idea." Ruben began envisioning Lilah…

But was distracted when a loud beeping noise came from Wiley's direction. Ruben opened his eyes, looked back over his shoulder, and snapped, "Will you put that damned clichémeter away???"

Wiley lowered it a bit, the tiny little arms on the side still waving up and down. "Hey, it's just trying to warn you that you're taking a dangerous path here! Right now it's reading clichémetrons off its scale! If you do this—"

For a moment, Ruben forgot everything and sneered. "Yeah, right. What's the worst that could happen?!"

Once again, Ruben shut his eyes and formed the image of Lilah quickly, sending out the tendril of power to find her… and did.


Kara stopped the spell in mid-cast, suddenly sensing danger, and rolled to one side as a golden blur filled the area where she'd been standing. "What the—"


Ashley grinned as he recognized the girl who'd attacked him two nights ago. Now, her movements seemed slow as molasses, and he gathered the aura that filled him into his hands, cupping them around a ball of raw power that flamed golden, throwing his features into sharp contrast.


The spell having found the link, Ruben raised his staff, then knocked it hard against the brick surface. It rippled, as though the staff had been a rock dropped into water, and formed a scene of—


Too late, Kara felt another's energy seeping into the spell she'd woven around Lilah, and frantically she struggled to regain control of the powerful banishment, never noticing as—


Ashley, not knowing what he was doing on more than an instinctual level, threw the ball of his own energy at the woman who was standing before him, trying his hardest to—


Not scream as a backlash of raw energy transfixed Ruben, transforming her almost immediately as the scene in the brickwork grew brighter, obscuring the other side of the Gate in a brilliant golden flash of magical energy that threw Ruben backwards through the air. She crashed into the floor some thirty feet away from where the wall had been, and she felt something in her back give way as she landed shoulders-first.

For a moment, Ruben lay there limply, then slowly, every motion putting new gouts of fire through her body, she tried to reach for her belt and the emergency batch of healing potion she'd clipped there this morning.

This time, she did scream, a scream that clawed its way out her throat, as bones grated against each other in Ruben's arm. Disjointedly, she asked herself, Why is it that I'm never the one that gets the moment of pure clarity after hurting himself badly, huh?

Gently, a hand cupped the back of her head, raising it somewhat, and Ruben felt the edges of a bottle at her lips. "Drink up," Wiley said, something between amusement and heartfelt concern in his voice.

Ruben obeyed, and writhed as the super concentrated healing potion did its none-too-gentle work of restructuring and repairing her body.

After it was done, weak as a newborne babe, Ruben managed to sit up with the help of Wiley. "What in the names of all the gods, spirits, and Eternals the fuck just happened here?"


With no fanfare to mark the return, the Dean of Serenity University re-entered his unquestioned dominion.

Felix Salouse stepped out of the mirror he'd used as a Doorway and breathed deep of the musty gloom that belonged to his inner sanctum. A cursory check of the spells that had warded it while he was away revealed only the usual attempted tamperings; no one had intruded whilst he'd been meeting with his beloved enemies.

Of course, his chief lieutenant was waiting for him, computer tablet in hand. Iosef didn't even look away from the projected screen as he said, "Welcome back, sir. Did you enjoy yourself?"

"Eh, it was all right." Felix shrugged, then plopped down into his comfortable armchair. It was fine indeed to have a laboratory filled with the vilest of grimoires and most sacrilegious of experiments, but what good was all that evil without something comfortable to sit in? "They didn't try to kill me, I didn't try to oust them; it was almost like old times. So, what happened while I was away?"

Iosef nodded absently. "I've got the summary file somewhere on here…"

While he was searching the computer, Felix thought about his assistant.

According to a survey he'd read while on vacation in Tenets of Wickedness magazine (the magazine for the Evil Overlord in all of us!), when asked what they wanted in a right-hand man, eight out of ten Evil Overlords had said, "Someone that'll keep me on my toes, someone that I never quite know when he's going to betray me for his own gain, but doesn’t mind getting his hands stained up to the elbow in blood for me until he does that."

Felix, now, all Felix wanted in a right-hand man was someone who had a knack for paperwork and didn't mind getting his hands stained with the blackest of indelible ink. After all, writing papers was boring and evil was not. Might as well have the underlings do the boring work; that's what they were there for.

Speaking of that…

"The Ruben situation. Did you take care of it?"

Iosef looked a bit surprised before he replied, "Er, yes, sir. Already, one agent has enrolled in the school for the new semester, and I've received reports of several others coming into the city. However," a hint of defiance showed through his reserve, "I thought it was your policy to not act against students when they manage to best you."

A grin spread over Felix's face. "Hell, I'm not doing this because he beat me at the graduation ceremony last year. I'm doing it to test him. If he survives this year… he can be a true Hero." Felix stretched. "So, what's been happening?"

Iosef read the computer tablet. "Well, this year we have seven percent more freshmen, and I hired several new professors, subject to your approval of course. Professor Ken Yakamura returned from his sabbatical in the mountains of Japan and is ready to take up his courses again. Oh, and the Campus Mandala has eight new vortexes."

For just a moment, the matter-of-fact tone Iosef used as he spoke those words almost let them slide in one of Felix's ears and out the other. Then, he focused on their meaning, and his eyes widened. "WHAT!?!?"

The Dean didn't even bother waiting for a reply. He powered up a ring on his left hand, visualized the Mandala Room, and teleported there directly. He arrived standing up, in front of the Mandala's wall.

Felix stared up at the magical device he'd crafted, shocked to his core.

A long time ago (almost a century, in fact), Felix had, with the help of an obscenely large infusion of distilled alcohol, created his Unified Theory of Sociodynamics. Unlike most drunken ideas, he managed to remember it the next day, and trying to survive the hangover had refined its more depressing aspects.

"People with enough 'weight of pershonal'ty'," he had declared gravely, "r'the ones who shape shoshiety f'r the better or worse. Benjamin Franklin, Adolf Hitler, an' a buncha other people I can' think of right now 'cause I'm really wasted, those r'the ones who draw everyone inta th'r orbitsh. It'sh like, like, like, gravitity, y'shee? People exert influensh, jus' like planetsh an' mooonsh an' starsh an' black holesh, and it'sh the black hole people th't we gotta watch f'r, if we're gonna create a prurfect shoshiety. There'sh gotta be shome way o' measurin' it."

Of course, they'd all thought it was tremendously funny at the time, but the next day, looking at it through the haze of a near-blinding hangover, Felix had just felt how right it was. Dammit, there had to be some way of measuring a society, predicting its movements, and finding the black holes before they destroyed everything around them!

Or, at least, using them…

The Mandala was his beta version of that measurement device, and it had turned out both better and worse than he'd imagined. Half of the spell had been written that bleary, long-ago morning, and Felix still didn't understand how some of it worked to this date.

The Mandala itself was nothing more than sand; sand that flowed and shifted colors second by second, spread across one wall of the room in a way that defied gravity. Sure, Felix could have put it on the floor, but then ignorant folk would have been stepping in it all the time and saying, "Whoops, was this the bit you wanted me to look at?" Far better to just stick it on a wall with a spell that looked flashier than it was.

The campus of Serenity University was his microcosm of society that he measured. Each person that was a part of the campus in some way, be they professor, student, janitor, or even the ever-humble Dean, generated a certain amount of personality that the Mandala marked with a small vortex. Each one was a different color that represented overall motivations and possibilities, and each one was a different size, depending on how much force the individual exerted on those around him. Most of them were so small as to be invisible, but a few were easily measurable. Lesser personalities were drawn into the vortexes of the greater ones, subsumed entirely until the greater personality was removed from the Mandala.

This time of year, just before the new freshman arrived and after the seniors had graduated, was always an odd time. The Mandala predicted future influences in ways that weren't always accurate, and several times the Dean had seen new-arriving personalities who'd created large vortexes in the Mandala disappear months later with nary a trace.

There were a few vortexes, of course, that the Dean had labeled and kept track of carefully. Ruben Stryfe was the large, orange-black one, shot through with occasional threads of blue; Devan Wiley was the smaller purple one that, despite its closeness to Ruben's, had never subsumed into the magician's. The Drum Major's, Professor Ken's (head sponsor of no less than five of the shinobi clubs/tribes around the campus), not to mention his own, were all old and familiar to Felix. In fact, until two years ago when Ruben had entered the University, his own had been the largest vortex of personality in the Mandala.

But never, not in the eight years since finally starting this version of the Mandala, had it shown eight new vortexes nearly as large as his own.

For a moment, he thought that the Mandala might have glitched on him and the time had come to discard this version, but the thought was discarded just as fast as it occurred. Slowly, Felix walked towards the Mandala, studying it. Two of the new vortexes centered around Ruben, much the same way that Wiley's did; but the others were free-floating.

He cursed under his breath. When Ruben's vortex had appeared, it had taken months to identify it as his; the only reason he'd finally managed to label it was the way it had been drawn to Devan Wiley's. Figuring out the ones touching Ruben's vortex would be a matter of watching him a bit closer and finding out who had enough power of personality to register.

Labeling the ones that weren't influenced by Ruben was going to be a bitch and a half.

Who could they be?

Suddenly, the Mandala rippled across its entire surface, and a rumble under his feet matched the ripple. The ordinary background sensation of magic being used on the campus was suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of power that, once it passed, left Felix feeling…

Curious.

He teleported again, this time to the top of his forbidding Admin building. Felix looked to the north, and framed between two gargoyles he saw a tornado of magical power touching the ground at the Price of Victory Park.

"Well," he murmured, "that could be good or bad. This certainly will be a lively year…"


Ruben resisted the urge to brush the hair out of Ashley's face for the fifth time in as many minutes. She frowned. Why isn't he waking up? My spell should have worn off by now…

Over Wiley's protests over how weak she seemed to be, Ruben had insisted that the two of them go together to the place she'd last sensed Lilah. He'd summoned a small round skimmer-style craft from his lab and they'd gotten in together, zooming north over the campus, through the city streets, and finally into…

The Price of Victory Park. A few minutes of hunting amid the collapsed buildings and devastation that had been left unchanged from the day, a century ago, when the city had been destroyed utterly, and they found Ashley. He'd been lying on the ground, a new crater in the shattered earth some fifty feet away from him, and no sign of Lilah or the attacker.

Ruben was no longer sure who it could have been. Not the Lost Librarians, as she'd suspected after the fortune-telling she'd done several days ago; this wasn't their style. They would have come after her directly for the overdue book, not assaulted her friends.

Could it be the Watchers, suspecting what she held? Or maybe the Amazon Interplanetary Foundation, testing her for Elderhood? She gasped as a thought occurred to her. "THE MASKED MARIACHI BAND???" After a moment, she shook her head. "Naw…" Perhaps it was the—

Ashley groaned painfully, and Ruben was assailed by guilt. This is my fault, dammit. Lilah vanished spirits knows where, and you… what did I do to you?

Slowly, Ashley sat up, one hand on his forehead. "Ugghhh… the last time I felt this bad, it was the morning after a night where the only thing I remembered was people standing over me and shouting, 'Puke! Puke like a freshman, you freshman!'"

"Are you okay?" Ruben asked solicitously. "My healing spells should have taken care of any injuries."

Another movement pulled another groan from Ashley as he swung his legs out of the bed. "Naw, I'm fine. Really. Just feels like the worst hangover ever."

Reluctantly, Ruben asked the question top-most on her mind. "Do you remember… anything?"

The martial artist frowned. "I remember riding the bike towards where Lilah was being attacked… then… being filled with… power… and seeing a golden light…"

Ruben gasped. He went Super-Sanjidude again! Just as I suspected! She shook her head. Just like the last time, though, he doesn't seem to remember a thing.

"Hey-yo! Is Ashley all better now?" Wiley said as he swung the door open. He was still holding the clichémeter in one hand, Ruben noted sourly.

Ashley grinned. "Yeah, man, I'm just fine now! I think…" He looked around his small room as though for the first time, the grin slipping off of his face. "Where's Lilah?"

At that question, Ruben sighed. "We don't know. The only person we found there was you. But don't worry about it!" she said, projecting as much false cheer as she could muster. "Lilah has been alive for millennia. She can take care of herself!"

"And now, for the only loose end left." With great ceremony, Wiley raised the clichémeter, pointed it at Ruben, and slowly turned it on.

A half-second later, whizzing chunks of clichémeter had buried themselves deeply in Ashley's walls, and (not for the first time!) Wiley's face was blackened with soot from the explosion of his device.

Ruben released the shield she'd put up instinctually, sighing in relief that none of the shards had hit her. "What was that, Devan? For cryin' out—"

"Hey, you think I meant for it to do that?!?!" Wiley stared angrily through his mask of soot at the magician. "For it to explode meant it had to have read a cliché so far off its scale that no one would give it the slightest bit of credit as even the most tired of plot devices…" He shook his head like a bear bedeviled by bees. "But… what could be that bad?"


Kara came to slowly and painfully.

For a terrifying moment, she didn't know who she was, or where she was, then, her memory returned to her…

Or, at least, parts of it did.

She could remember her youth clearly. Learning Wiccan spell-weaving at her grandmother's feet; that first wonderful night when she'd discovered she was a long-lost kitsune, able to transform between human and fox forms at will; the beginning of her highschool life….

And then, it all went to pieces. Shards, fragments, occasionally rose to her call. She had been searching for… searching for…

Ruben Stryfe.

And she'd found him at Serenity University, so she'd enrolled there.

But…

"Why was I looking for 'im, eh?"

It was blank.

"Maybe, if I go to 'im and stay close, I will… be able to remembair." Kara nodded as she pulled herself to her feet with the help of the crumbling pillar that stood next to the small pit she'd woke up in. "It was important, I know it was. Was I supposed to guard him? Love him?" She sighed. "I jus' don't know…."

 

To be continued.

 Episode 5
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