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Chapter 2

An original story
by Aaron Bergman

© Copyright 2002-2003 by Aaron Berman.

Akari jerked awake and fell out of her bed, stumbling for the door in a bleary haze of half-sleep, certain that the soul-piercing shriek that had shattered her already-fading dream and still rang in her ears was the fire alarm. An oddly aware thought floated through the dim murk of her mind as she turned the doorknob and half-opened, half-fell out of the door. Wouldn't it be just like Dad to pull a fire drill on the first night here?

When she emerged into the hall, however, the shriek ended as suddenly as it had begun. Akari exchanged sleepy, startled glances with her parents, who looked just as freshly awoken as she did.

"What the hell…?"

The shriek sounded again, but this time it seemed quieter, more muted. Akari cocked her head to one side. That sounds like it's coming from, uh, Camael's room!

Meiko dashed for the child's door. "Camael! What's wrong?!"

Akari happened to glance over at her father and almost flinched away at the mixture of worry, loathing, sorrow, and raw fear in his eyes as he watched his wife run away from his side. Richard noticed Akari looking at him and a smiling mask slid visibly over his face. "Poor kid probably just had a bad dream."

Akari nodded slowly, still unsure of what, exactly, she'd seen on her father's face just a moment ago. "Yeah, sure. I mean, his first night in a weird place? I remember having nightmares on my first few elementary school trips back when I was a kid." She shuddered at the memory, then started for the door to Camael's room.

Meiko had the boy on her lap, rocking him back and forth as he sobbed helplessly, murmuring soft reassurances. Akari sat on the bed beside her and patted Camael's soft hair. "What happened, Camael?"

He looked over at her, his body jerking slightly. Camael rubbed at his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He hiccupped occasionally as he spoke. "I was in… a big tube, an' there were doctors, an' they hurt me over and over, making me into something that I shouldn' be, an' all I wanted to do was destroy them, burn their bodies into nothing, rip them apart, and I couldn't, damn them!" His voice rose higher and higher as he spoke, little fists clenching and opening convulsively, and an angry snarl distorted his face, though tears continued to leak from his reddened eyes. "I hate them I hate them I hate them."

Akari glanced again at her father, and this time he didn't, or maybe couldn't, hide the sadness in his eyes. "I…." he started to say, then shut his mouth tight and looked down at the ground.

"You poor little thing," Meiko crooned out, and Akari turned her attention back to her mother as she spoke. "What a terrible, terrible dream." She looked up. "I'll stay the night in here, dear. Maybe the dreams won't bother him if someone stays with him."

Akari bounced off the bed. "No way, Mom. I'll stay in here, you go back to sleep with Dad, okay?" Before the older woman could react, Akari hefted Camael out of her lap, stumbling backwards slightly at the surprising weight of the child. "Oof!"

Meiko looked startled. "But… uh…."

Akari grinned. "Go! Enjoy the fact that our rooms are no longer separated by one very, very thin wall!" She gave an extremely lewd wink, and was most amused to see her parents blush. "C'mon, you seriously think that I couldn't hear you? Adults these days…."

Meiko stammered as she stood up, crimson flooding her face. She looked away from Akari. "Well, then, I'll, ah, just leave you alone then." Akari could barely hold in the giggles that shook her shoulders as both of her parents fled the room with mortified looks.

Once the door swung shut, Akari set the child down, rumpling his hair absently. "Well, now off to sleep again. I think that's enough excitement for one night." She yawned voluminously and stretched, scratching her back through her panda-print pajamas. "I've got school in the morning, and Mom'll probably enroll you in the elementary tomorrow, so we'd better get as much sleep as we can, while we can."

Camael looked up at her with wide brown eyes. "Are you sure? I mean…." he looked down and whispered, "The dark is so scary. I think like it's going to swallow me up and I'll never see or feel or taste anything but bitter anger and hate like poisonous bile that rots me from the inside ever, ever again…" He started to sniffle again.

Akari brushed one hand along the child's cheek, brushing away a stray tear, and frowned. What is with this kid? One second, he's so vulnerable, and the next…. She smiled kindly and beeped his nose. "Do you know what my name means?"

He stared at her with a serious expression. "Nuh-uh."

Akari grabbed for a notepad that her father had left on the bedside table and wrote kanji carefully, a bit of tongue sticking out of her mouth as she concentrated on doing with a pencil what was meant to be done with a brush. She showed it to Camael and said, "This is my name; it means 'Guiding Light'.

"If you ever feel the nightmares creeping up in the middle of the night, just remember my name and know that no matter what, I'll be there for you, a light to steer your soul to safety." She put the notepad aside and swept Camael into a hug. "After all, we're family now, right?"

He turned his face into her shoulder and let out a slow sob, then looked away from her. "Yeah, but…."

"No buts!" Akari slid one hand up Camael's shirt and started tickling his bare ribs. He squirmed and laughed, trying to get away, then she stopped and pulled him into bed, yanking the covers over them. She switched the lights out and yawned again. "Good night."

It was impossible for the boy to understand why the girl was doing these things for him.

His Puppet, he could understand her concern; she would do anything for him without thinking of what it cost her personally. The knowledge filled him with nothing but an empty coldness, an isolated, detached sensation that hurt him deeply. It's just a false front, a lie, an aberration. She would feel nothing for me if I had no strings within her soul.

But this girl….


Why would she try to comfort him? Why would she throw his Puppet out of the room and do something that was probably inconvenient for her?

The whispers of a past not his had no wisdom to offer in this regard. They were as dismayed and confused as he.

The moment the lights went out, the boy froze in terror, fresh tears threatening to flood from his eyes. What if she lied to me? What if this darkness is the only truth there is? What if I do have to do what it tells me? What if I have no freedom, no life, no….

He trembled on the brink of madness in those few seconds, caught up in thoughts far too weighty for his young mind to comprehend.

Then, a heavy arm fell across his chest, and a soft snore accompanied by a hot breath splashed against his ear.

For some inscrutable reason, it was the snore that convinced the boy that she was really there in the bed with him. It was… comforting.

With a broad smile, Camael put both of his hands around Akari's much larger one, pulling her arm closer around him, then slipped into a peaceful sleep.

"I lost control again today."

A million waves of data washed through the infinite neon ocean of information before the black nova replied to the slender figure that knelt in supplication before it.


"…Did you get those out of fortune cookies?"

"SILENCE!!!" Thunder crashed through the endless tide and a bolt of white lightning struck mere inches from the slender figure, who held up both hands, his long coat blowing back in some unseen breeze.

"Sorry, sorry, spirits, don't get so mad, okay?"


"Yo, Entropy, what's up?"

The slender figure turned rapidly, his coat flickering in and out of sight with the speed, one hand sliding for a weapon, then he relaxed as he recognized the speaker. "Ah, Ruben, how good to see you again."

The magician smiled, and Entropy frowned to himself. It's too bad he won't go for an icon that's flashier than a digitized image of himself. I mean, how last century….

Entropy glanced over his shoulder, sighing when he saw that the nova had dissipated. Damn! It might take me weeks to find him again!

"Hey, Entropy, you never answered my question."

Entropy turned his attention back to Ruben and, with an effort, managed to prevent his icon from rolling its eyes at him. "I was just about to go looking for you. You seem to be friends with that new girl, Akari, and I was hoping that you could apologize to her for me." He looked down at the ground and shrugged. "I offended her twice yesterday, once with the description of her and once with…."

Ruben raised one finger. "Which 'you' do you want the apology to come from, old friend?"

Entropy considered that for a moment. "I want it to come from Entropy. The description is the thing I feel less guilty about, but it seems to be the thing that offended her much more." He paused. "Tell her that 'I' want to talk to her online about it when you see her tomorrow at school, okay?"

Having four people at the breakfast table seemed more intimate than just three for a reason that Akari couldn't quite pin down. It just made a whole circle, with her mother reading the newspaper as she finished up her meal with a cup of tea, her father writing down something or other on a notepad with one hand as he shoveled food into his mouth with the other, and….

Her little brother eating a bowl of toxic-for-you-cereal with a contented smile on his face.

Akari grimaced. "Can't you taste how terrible that stuff is?"

Richard pointed a fork at his daughter's plate. "And you're one to talk about terrible-tasting stuff? That mixture you favor is vile, and no one else will come within five feet of touching it."

Without looking away from her paper, Meiko said firmly, "Now, now, children, not at the breakfast table."

"Sorry, Mom," they chorused contritely, then laughed. She glared back and forth between them for a moment before shaking her head and looking back at her paper.

Richard set down his pencil and looked over at his wife. "So, what are you doing with the sprout today?"

She folded her paper aside and smiled. "Well, I'm going to enroll him in the elementary level at Akari's school. It's important that he—" Meiko cut herself short and rolled her eyes. "They're only giving me a few days off of work to get Camael settled in. And, dear, I may love you, but I don't want a repeat of what happened when I left poor Akari in your care for only a week." She stuck her tongue out.

"How was I supposed to know that the cold medicine would affect her like that?!"

Akari looked back and forth between her parents. "What are you guys talking about…?"

"The potion I prepared said 'A teaspoon every seven hours', not 'a teaspoon every hour'. It's no wonder she didn't stop claiming she was the Lizard Queen for three days!"

Akari drummed her fingers. "I don't remember anything like that."

"I thought it was kinda cute, the way she would go outside in nothing but a big fluffy towel as a cape and demand that the people worship her as a God…."

"You're just messing with me, aren't you?!"

"But the neighbors didn't stop staring at us funny for months! That is not the kind of impression I want to make in our first week here."

"…Wait a second, I remember the neighbors…"

"Aw, c'mon. What could possibly go wrong?"

Meiko stood up, sliding her chair away from the table, and frowned at her husband. "As I recall, that was what you said last time. I mean, really, how foolish do you think I am?"

Richard's smile broadened, and he said slyly, "Hey, you married me…"

Meiko humphed and looked away without a response. Akari exchanged a glance with Camael, and they giggled at the look of confusion on her face. The teenager jumped out of her chair and called out, "I'm off to schooool! See you guys later!"

The teenage girl turned away from the hallway mirror and looked up plaintively at the old man. Her voice was spun sugar as she said, "Grandfather dearest…"

The old man smiled as he patted her on the head. "Yes, my lovely granddaughter?"

Quick as a striking viper, she batted the hand away, and with a poisonous smile, she asked, "Please, please, please don't make me wear this to school…." She batted her eyes cutely.

He shook one finger and looked down at her sternly. "Until you've learned your lesson, granddaughter, I'm afraid that I'll have to insist that this is part of your training."

She stomped her foot. "But Grandpa, I've learned my lesson!!" Her voice, which she no doubt meant to sound righteously angered, rose to a high-pitched whine. "If you hadn't pushed my training so far this morning, I wouldn't be like this for school!!"

The old man grinned unreservedly, his stern facade cracking like so much cheap plaster. "But I don't think you have, and anyway, I'm sure there was some way you could have defended yourself without resorting to such a powerful spell." With a wise nod, he crossed his arms across his chest and closed his eyes. "You must learn how to adapt and overcome, even with your current… difficulties."

With a sideways glare, she muttered under her breath, "You can't stop me from changing clothes once I get out of your sight, dirty old man…."

He laughed heartily, and with a sinking feeling she realized that he'd heard what she'd said perfectly. "If you did that, dear granddaughter, I'd be forced to admit to certain individuals that I do, indeed, have certain… pictures of you."

The girl paled. "You mean, with the teddy and—" She cut herself off. "You wouldn't dare. What kind of a grandfather would that make you?"

He shrugged. "It isn't as a grandfather addressing his dear granddaughter that I speak, but as a master chastising his student. Two weeks ago, you overreached yourself, and now you have to drink deep of the bitter dregs until you never wish to do anything so foolish again.

"But it is your choice. Go to school like that, or the pictures will be released to whomever wants one." He held out a pink hair ribbon.

With an angry sound, she snatched it out of his hand. Turning back to the mirror, she used it to tie her hair up in a ponytail, agile fingers making short work of the chore. The magic mirror whispered in what it no doubt thought of as an encouraging tone, "We foresee that it makes you look cute."

"Shut it." Spinning around, the teen glared up at her grandfather. "You win this round, old man."

"Well, duh." With a smug grin, he added, "By the way, I've told your school to expect… 'Robin'… to be late to her first class this morning."

Her voice dripped sarcasm. "Oh, thank you so much." Suddenly, the girl's face drooped. "Dammit, what happens if I change while I'm wearing this?!" She lifted up and dropped her skirt.

The old man sounded not the least bit concerned as he shook his finger again. "If you remember my lessons on Tantric Tailoring, I'm sure that you can adapt even that outfit into something suitable."

A bead of sweat rolled down her cheek. "Uh…"

He turned her around and started shoving her for the door, barely giving her time to grab her backpack from the side table. "Time to go anyway; you can't be missing more classes than absolutely necessary!"

As the door slammed shut behind the girl, her grandfather reached into a pocket and pulled out the picture he'd threatened her with, frowning slightly. "My student is far too full of pride. If I'd done something that monumentally stupid, I'm certain I'd've done something far more embarrassing than curl up with my childhood teddy bear and cry myself to sleep…."

He carefully folded the picture away and grinned. "But as long as it gives me a chance to teach her a few lessons about pride, I don't care either way!" As he started downstairs for his laboratory, he added in a thoughtful murmur, "That picture is definitely going with the humiliating baby photos."

Akari dropped her backpack on her desk with a thump and smiled at her new classmates. She only knew one of them by name: Erin Dyne, the strange girl that had knocked her down yesterday, was staring out the window, her chin cradled in her mechanical hand. Yesterday, Akari hadn't managed to do more than catch the occasional name, but today the young woman was determined to at least start matching more names to faces. There are so many of them, though… where to start?

Becky stepped into her view with a smooth motion and waved casually. "Wow, I didn't have to rescue you this morning!"

Akari clenched one fist threateningly. "This is one princess that prefers to rescue herself. So, how are things going with, uh…."

"Humph!" The girl that had thrown a ring in Becky's face yesterday morning walked by with her nose in the air, eventually sitting at a desk in the back of the classroom. The slim girl sighed regretfully.

"Ami is still quite angry with me. Ah, but she's a very spirited wench." Becky grinned as she slid into a seat next to Akari. After a moment, she added, "…But for my safety's sake, I'm gonna keep my distance from her."

Akari eyed her suspiciously, one hand sliding books for her first class out of her backpack. "But won't it make her even angrier to keep close to me, if I'm the one she's mad about?"

Becky chuckled softly and leaned close to Akari. "Being near you makes this fight a huge one. And the secret to fights in a good relationship," she whispered, "is the fun you have making up afterwards."

Akari blushed as the taller girl leaned away. Becky seemed about to add something, but her eyes went wide as she looked at the doorway. She gasped, then started laughing near-hysterically, the laughs barely making any sound as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Whatever Becky had, it seemed to be catching. More and more people through the classroom were falling ill of this odd disease. What in the… Akari turned to the door and saw what stood framed within.

And almost fell prey to the same virus striking down classmate after classmate.

It was hard to tell what wanted to make her laugh the most at the person standing there. It may have been the pink dress, looking as if it had been stolen from a confectionary's ickily, disgustingly sweet candy. The short, almost freshman height of the poor, poor girl wearing it only added to the illusion that a doll had just walked off the wedding cake but hadn't quite managed to grow all the way. The pink hair ribbon's bow spread out almost three times the width of the girl's head, almost seeming more a hat than a hair decoration.

But to Akari, the funniest and most adorable element was the scowl of long-suffering frustration that she had plastered on her face as she looked around the classroom, her cheeks flushed a delicate shade that nearly matched her dress.

She's sooo… cute!

"Miss Stryfe, I understand that you have a sense of dramatic necessity, but please move out of the doorway so that we may begin class." The teacher loomed over the short girl, so he probably didn't see the angry glare she directed up and backwards at him. That done, she moved out of the way, walking swiftly for the nearest empty seat. Her skirt bounced as she moved down the aisle, sitting down next to Akari.

Becky leaned halfway over Akari and said in a low tone, "So, almost didn't make it to class today, Robin?" She uttered the name with an almost cutting edge, and Akari saw the girl in the pink dress flinch.

Her tone, however, was firmly casual. "My grandfather insisted on practicing this morning, and it ran a bit late."

Becky lifted one eyebrow. "What's with the dress? Starting to realize that the tomboy life isn't for you?"

Before Robin could say anything, Akari snapped out, "Stop torturing the poor girl, Rebecca! She hates that dress, and you're only making her feel worse!"

Becky looked startled for a moment, then she closed her eyes and inclined her head towards Robin. "I'm sorry for taunting you. I know it's not right to kick a man when he's down, but I just can't resist sometimes."

From the front of the class, the teacher said dryly, "Well, if we're done with the high school drama play, I'd appreciate a little attention from some of the actors up here, please." All three girls blushed as the whole classroom started laughing, and they turned their attention to the front of the room.

Everything seemed fine until gym class.

Robin had originally started walking for the men's locker side almost absent-mindedly until Akari had grabbed her arm and dragged her into the proper room. Then, the short girl had gone off into an isolated corner where no one else was, avoiding the stares of all the other girls in the class, and Akari had followed her there. Then, despite her protests that she didn't have the proper clothing, Robin had looked in her backpack and…

"Stupid old man I can't believe he went this far buying clothes like this. Bet he had them in his closet, the perverted old geezer…."

Akari looked over at Robin, who was staring at the PT clothes she'd pulled out of her backpack and muttering. "What's the problem? I mean, this class is about the only one that has a uniform just like my old school did."

She pulled her blouse off and replaced her regular bra with a sports bra, trying to ignore the way that Robin was staring at her. What is her problem? Jeez, she acts like she's never been in a girl's locker room before…. As she slid off her skirt and pulled her buruma up, Robin looked away sharply, a trickle of blood leaking from one nostril.

"I guess that there's just no avoiding it…." Robin sighed and started unfastening her dress, the skirt making rustling noises as it dropped to the floor in a pool around her ankles.

Akari didn't find the boxers Robin was wearing too surprising; after all, the things were comfortable sometimes, but….

"You're not wearing a bra?! How the heck do you manage to stay…." Akari made a gesture near her chest, not wanting to utter her thoughts for fear of sounding more than a little perverted. She's so big! How the hell does she stay perky? Flesh just doesn't stay like that… and if it does for her, that's just not fair to the rest of us!

"Well, I found that bras were, well, uncomfortable, so I tinkered with a spell and crafted an invisible bra. It keeps me from," Robin grimaced as if she found the word distasteful, "bouncing too much." She put her head in her hands and groaned out loud. "What-the-hell-was-I-thinking-oh-spirits-why-me…"

Akari interrupted the smaller girl's muttering. "So, this invisible bra thing is comfortable?"

Robin looked up and nodded, seeming to get more comfortable as she started to lecture, one finger held in the air. "The basic spell is actually a rather fine piece of work, if I do say so myself. It configures itself to your body type and comfort index, holding your br…."

"Hey, we don't have forever, ladies. Hurry it up!"

Robin's finger dropped, and she looked down at the buruma. "…How am I supposed to wear these?! I've got boxers on, fer cryin' out loud!" She plucked them from the bench in a pile with her shirt, and out of the pile fell a paper sticky-note attached to a pair of panties. Akari picked them up and read it aloud.

"'You don't have to use a crystal ball to foresee some problems, my student. Wear these in good health for your gym class, and don't forget about the picture of you and the….'"

Robin snatched the note and the panties from Akari's hand. "Damn old man. He doesn't leave anything to chance." With a grim look that promised a dire fate to her grandfather, she finished putting on her gym outfit and followed Akari outside.

"A rabid dog should be shot before he starts biting people in the street."

Richard set down his cup of tea and said, "It's traditional to at least finish the first teacake before discussing business. So, how has your wife been?"

"Dead for twelve years." Farad took a deliberate bite out of his teacake after his flat statement, staring Richard in the face challengingly.

Richard didn't rise to the bait, though he was tempted. How dare he even imply that I don't have a right to be married, after…. "So, what have you been doing in the meantime?"

"Not much." Farad took a drink of tea, then continued. "Perfecting ways to destroy our creation with the help of some of our brothers, living my life in an endless bitter rage, wishing only to be destroyed for my sin and wondering why God doesn't strike me down, that sort of thing."

"Sounds like you've been keeping busy since the last time I've seen you. It's been what, forty-seven years?"

"Longer than that."

"Ah, you're right." Richard scratched his chin. "I don't think we've actually met since that night."

Farad ate the last of his teacake with a grimace. "There, I have fulfilled your ritual. Now, can we please get on to business?"

"You can't have him now."

Farad lifted one eyebrow. "You wish to defend him, after what he's done?"

"No." After a moment, Richard added, "I invoke the ancient ritual of calling dibs. He's mine to destroy, for what he's done to all of us, and for what he's done to me and mine."


"Yes." For a moment, Richard debated not telling Farad anything. Despite the bond that they shared through magic, blood, and nearly a century's worth of guilt, he really didn't like the man. I always get the feeling that he's just mouthing the words, giving the ideal we're all dedicated to a mere modicum of lip service while wishing in some deep part of himself that we'd succeeded on that rainy afternoon so long ago….

But the sad truth was that they were beholden to one another, and until Farad did something to betray their brotherhood, Richard had no choice but to trust him.

"HE has Controlled my wife. We can't destroy him outright without crushing her mind, otherwise I would have plunged the Dagger into his back already."

For a moment, Farad said nothing. "…And this matters to me because?"

"It may not matter to you, but it matters to me." Richard traded glares with Farad, and neither of them said anything for several long moments.

Farad slammed both hands onto the table. "This is my last warning. If you don't allow me to destroy Camael, I will simply do it over your cold corpse."

Richard grinned mirthlessly, his lips baring his teeth in a carnivore's merciless smile. "Do you really think that you can stand against the power of the Dagger I hold?"

Farad matched Richard's grin, staring him in the eyes without the slightest sign of fear. "Perhaps I cannot, but I believe both Michael and Azrael could together."

Richard's grin slipped away from his face. "Those experiments were uncontrollable. We destroyed them years ago!"

"Oh, did we? It must have slipped my mind…."

"Dear, I'm home!"

Richard didn't look away from Farad for a second, then he stood up and turned around to greet his wife. "Meiko, this is a cousin of mine. His name is Farad Grigor."

Farad stood up and gave his most charming smile to Meiko. "Pleased to meet you. My wife died years ago, and it's so nice to see that my cousin married such a lovely young lady."

Meiko nodded and smiled herself. "I can't believe my husband never mentioned you before! Will you please stay for dinner?"

Farad shrugged. "I'm sorry, but I hope to only be in town a for very brief time. I'm here on a business trip, you see, and I just thought I'd stop in to see how Richard's been doing for himself."

Watching Farad talk, and knowing the double meanings in everything he said were flying over Meiko's head, brought back more painful memories to Richard than he cared to think about, memories he'd kept buried deep for a reason.

He may have never been a good scientist, he may never have been a good person, but he always knew how to talk his way around people. That's why he was one of the ones who ended up in charge…. Sudden tears stung at his eyes, and Richard regained control of himself with an iron will.

Farad turned away from Meiko and let everything he couldn't express with his voice come out on his face, and it took every bit of Richard's control not to look away from the man's face. In an empty, joking tone, he said, "Don't forget, cousin, about that outstanding debt. I'd hate to send my legbreakers in to collect it!"

He turned to give a wink to Meiko as if sharing a private joke with her, and it was almost more than Richard could stand. In the same empty tone, Richard said, "Don't forget what happened to those legbreakers the last time they came up against me and my little friend." He made a gun-pointing gesture at Farad's face. "Bang!"

A grimace of hate distorted Farad's face, and he bowed. "I do remember, Richard, and I don't think they've forgotten either. Good day, madam. No need to show me to the door, I can find my own way out." A wash of magic deformed his outline as he teleported away, fading into a slight glimmer and then nothing.

"What was that all about?"

Richard smiled at his wife, but a sudden pang pierced him. I WILL protect you, damn it all! "Farad likes to play word games against me, even though he never does have a hope of winning." He shrugged nonchalantly. "I wouldn't worry about it." After a moment, he asked, "Where's Camael?"

"Still at the school." Meiko nodded once. "His new teacher insisted that he stay there for the rest of the day to get acquainted with the class."

He felt… different than he'd been yesterday, in a way that he couldn't quite pin down.

It was strangely comforting, to be part of a crowd, to blend in, to be normal. Even though his memories were fragmented, even though the whispers told him that this was not right, that he could never be normal, that he had a responsibility they could not yet remember, they seemed to agree with him that this was a truly nice feeling.

He'd spent the morning getting used to his new school, being shown around by a little girl who was in one of the few primary school Gifted classes.

Apparently, it was unusual for a Gift to appear in a child as young as he seemed, so he still stood out a little bit. It wasn't so bad, though, being taught, talking to classmates, reading the book they'd given him. The whole day had been a great thing, until….

Camael poked at a misshapen glob of white protein with his fork and made a face. Ick.

His whispers had given him no warning of the perils of cafeteria food, but Camael was proving to be a quick learner in that regard.

One of those whispers gave a solution to the problem, and a simple illusion of good-tasting food later, Camael was eating the food with a broad grin.

"Your name is Camael?"

Camael looked up from his lunch at the person who'd asked the question. He was a dark-skinned boy with pale hair that stood out shockingly against his skin, and his clothes were of an almost military cut that stood out to the whispers within his mind somehow as ominous.

Despite what the whispers told him, Camael smiled shyly. My Puppet said to get along with the kids here. I… I think I want to do what she said. "Yeah, it is my name. What's yours?"

"Delaney." The boy seemed to consider something for a moment, standing there in thought. Then, he slid into the bench opposite Camael, setting his tray down. "So, you're Gifted?"

"Yeah, I am." Camael frowned, bothered by that simple word. It just doesn't seem right… it doesn't feel as if it covers everything that I am….

"How many people have you killed?"

Distracted by his thoughts, Camael answered absently, "Several cities' worth. Pretty close to two million, I think."

Silence seemed to fill the room after his pronouncement. Camael noticed this right away, and the whispers in his head gave advice that he was desperately glad to follow.

"…Just kidding, just kidding! It was a joke!" Camael grinned, though there was a knot of something inside of his stomach. The whispers told him that it wasn't a joke, that he'd done what he'd just said, and if he had….

What kind of person was he?

Delaney looked puzzled for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed. The sound seemed to be a signal for everyone around him to carry on, and Delaney leaned forward.

"You got me pretty good with that one. I like you." The boy took a quick bite of his food and grimaced. "Ick. Stupid cafeteria food…."

Without thinking about it, Camael waved one hand over Delaney's food, weaving the same illusion into the food. "There, now it'll taste better."

A look of disgust came over Delaney's face, and he shoved his tray away. "I don't want any dirty magic in me."

Camael felt something resentful and burningly angry rise up within him, and he almost reached out and crushed this arrogant insolent pipsqueak in front of him with the merest fraction of his strength, wanting only to watch Delaney struggle and writhe in agony at the pain that wracked him for as long as it took to die.

Almost, Camael did that. Almost.

It hurt to fight the urge back, it hurt to keep his rage from harming the people around him, but he didn't let it rampage freely. I am my own master! I will not let anyone or anything control me but what I wish to!

"What do you got against Gifted people?" Camael didn't try to stop his voice from sounding out how angry he was, but Delaney looked him straight in the eyes.

"A dirty Gifted sneak killed my Mom and crippled my big sis because he wanted to get to my Dad. I hate the Gifted. They're good for nuthin'."

Camael didn't look away either. "You think I asked to be like this? You think I wanted this? I'm just a kid like you. I bet you can do stuff I can't. I can just do something you can't, that's all!" He stuck his fork into something on Delaney's tray and ate it. "All I put on that was an illusion. It just tastes different. The good taste ain't anything but your imagination."

The two boys glared angrily for a moment, then for some reason, Delaney's hateful mask cracked slightly, a grin twitching at his lips. "Well, my imagination really stinks. There's no way that anything could make this gunk taste better…."

Camael's face didn't crack at all. "Try it and see if you can't swallow your words."

As Delaney took a bite of his lunch and grinned, several of his friends came up and sat down, introducing themselves casually. As all five of them joked back and forth, Camael finally put a word to that feeling he hadn't been able to pin down before.

I'm… happy.

Erin Dyne frowned as she drummed her metallic fingers on her desk, feeling the oddly disjointed sensation of seeing her hand on the desktop and feeling it hanging down to her side. Most of the time by now, her 'sense' of her lost limbs and where the metal replacements actually were matched, forcing herself to feel them as one and the same, but today she didn't have the willpower to bring them together.

Erin let the lecture of the teacher wash over her, droning into a pleasant background hum. Erin's father had taught her the higher aspects of math years ago, and she detested the fact that she had to take this class, regardless of whether she needed it to graduate or not.

Fortunately, the teacher agreed with her, so he usually didn't involve her unless he needed a very difficult problem solved. She liked to use this time to review for other classes and do homework, but today….

This day has been terrible. First of all, he shows up dressed like that! How dare he flaunt himself like that, showing himself off, pretending to be what he isn't, while I'm stuck in this… this… crippled, worthless side of beef! Her metal hand clenched into a fist with a snap, and Erin forced it to relax before anyone noticed. Her one good eye narrowed, and she felt the muscles around her cybernetic eye twitch as they tried to match the movement.

Then my little brother doesn't show up at lunchtime when we were supposed to meet, and he knows damn well how dangerous this place is! What else could possibly…

"Miss DYNE!"

Erin looked up quickly, feeling her calm reserve slide into place over the turmoil inside of her. "Yes, what is it?"

"Would you please explain this problem to the rest of the class?"

Erin stood up and strode forward, forcing her clunky artificial limbs to follow her commands precisely and smoothly despite what they wished. Sometimes, she daydreamed that they had minds of their own and they only wanted to escape from her and form a new body all of their own….

But daydreams were for the foolish, the slow, and the weak, and Erin had been raised to be none of those. Just to show herself that she was the controller of her body, she used her metal hand to pick up the board's scripter and started the equation for her classmates to see. "First, we…."

Akari heard Robin sigh in relief as she snuck up behind the inattentive girl, ready to pounce. "I made it through the whole day…." Robin muttered softly.



Akari darted around Robin and giggled at the expression on her face. "So, how are you getting home?"

Robin put one hand on her chest, breathing hard. "I-I'm… walking…." Her eyes looked around shiftily as if searching for some kind of escape.

Akari leaned forward. "What are you so nervous about?"

"N-n-nothing!" Robin shook her head vigorously.

"So, can I walk home with you, then?" Akari wasn't expecting the girl to jump into the air again as if someone had goosed her.

"Er, ah… Why?"

Akari poked her in the side with a grin. "Because we're friends, silly. I mean, is it that hard to understand?"

"Well, why do you want to walk home with me? What about Becky?" Robin slapped herself on the head. "Oh yeah, she has martial arts club after school."

Akari raised one eyebrow. "What, do I have the black plague or something? Am I infected with a dread disease that you don't want to bring unto your house?"

Robin shook her head again, this time in disagreement. "No. It's just that my Grandpa is the only one there, and he always embarrasses me when I bring a girl home." She scowled cutely. "I don't like even giving him the chance to do anything like what happened when Becky and her girlfriend, Ami, came by for a study meeting…."

Akari laughed. "Doesn't Ami bite any girl who gets within ten feet of Becky?"

Robin smiled in spite of herself. "You're not far wrong. I remember one time…." Her smile disappeared. "Uh-oh." Without another word, she turned and ran away into the school hallway.

Akari stared after her for a moment, then called out, "What's wrong?" After getting no answer, she frowned and started chasing the flashes of pink hair bow through the hallways full of students leaving for the day. Several times, she thought she'd lost her prey, but the hair bow always gave Robin away.

Finally, Akari slid around the corner and into the girl's locker room. I know she's in here….

Hurried chanting was filling the air as Akari ran through the small locker room, her skin tingling with eldritch energies. Akari glanced around one corner….

And saw Robin.

Except, it wasn't Robin. It was a man, wearing Robin's dress, with Robin's hair bow, and waving his hands back and forth….

The crackling energies in Ruben's hands died as he noticed her. "Uh, er, ah, this… isn't what it looks like…."

The slap echoed throughout the school. "PERVERT!!!"

Akari walked home slowly, her mind numbly going over the day. Robin was actually Ruben? What the hell? That… explains a lot, actually. But, why didn't anyone tell me? That PERVERT saw me naked in the locker room! I was nice to him all day, and all he was doing was laughing in his sleeve at me! And that damn Becky isn't any better. She could've at least SAID something! 'Hey, Robin is really Ruben… somehow.'

What the hell is going on?

"So, they didn't tell you?"

Akari looked up just in time to avoid smacking into Nathan's chest. "Huh?" She glanced around. "I'm already at my house?"

Nathan shrugged. "Yeah. I'm supposed to show you around town and stuff." He stuffed both hands into his pockets and… posed was the only word that Akari could think of to describe the way he stood.

Akari looked at him with a skeptical expression. "Oh, really?" Why don't I trust him?

"Yeah." He looked away from her. "My father is your family's sponsor, so as his only kid it's my job to show you and your little brother around town. It's not a huge place, but it does the job…."

"Akari! Akari!" The girl turned to face Camael, who was dashing towards her from the house door. He came skidding to a halt inches away from her feet and grinned up at her. "I made some new friends today it was so much fun I can't wait to tell you about it but Nate is gonna show us around town on his hovercycle!" He bounced up and down impatiently.

"Hovercycle?!" Akari backed away a step. "No way! You expect me to trust my life to you on one of those dangerous things? I read comic books, I know how easily a poor girl can get killed on those things!"

Nathan hunkered down, his cool reserve gone as he poked Camael in the side and winked at him. "Hey, kid, I'm not taking you on the bike unless your sister goes. That's what I'm here to do."

Camael looked at him. "What can I do?"

"Puppydog eyes, kid. Beg and plead, because you don't want to miss out on that ride no matter what you have to do, right?"

Akari crossed her arms over her chest. "That doesn't work on me. Years of babysitting have made me entirely immune to—"



Camael and Nathan high-fived each other. "Yes!"

"Well, your credentials are in order, Mr.—"

"Watcher. Farad Watcher." Farad smiled as he leaned back in his chair. The school's dean tapped on his keypad for a moment.

"I notice that you don't have any particular teaching specialty. Was this for a reason?"

Farad shrugged. "I like teaching, but I don't have any preference to what I teach. So, when I was choosing my courses, I took as broad of a course spread as I possibly could."

The dean nodded sagely. "What an admirable philosophy. I know you'll do just fine here." He tapped on a few more keys, smiling at the result. "How fortunate! We've just had an opening in a junior class. Their teacher had to take a long leave of absence to take care of his father."

Farad frowned and leaned forward. "You're sure that there's no openings in the primary part of your school? I do prefer teaching little children, not annoying, insolent teenagers."

"Quite sure. I would ordinarily hire you as a substitute, but I… have a feeling that I want to put you in there."

Farad grinned as he stood up, holding out his hand to the dean. "Great! I'll take the position!" Several signed contracts later, Farad was walking out the door.

Outside by his car, a tall, thin man with no hair was waiting. He looked sickly and pale, and had his long trench coat wrapped tightly around himself as if he found the springtime air chilly. The man looked up as Farad strode closer. "So, how did it go?"

"You fool! Your curse didn't put me into the primary school! Now how am I supposed to get close enough to destroy Camael?" Despite the height difference, Farad glared at the man, who held up both hands.

"Hey, hey, hey, wait just a second. I did the best I could, but the powers that sleep inside my brother are still protecting him some. I couldn't bring you directly into contact with him, but where you are will give you some sort of access to my brother. One way or another."

Farad seized the man's chin and quite deliberately dragged him downwards to his knees, staring him in the eyes. "Remember who is the master here, Azrael. I will not tolerate such insolence and loose talk from you again."

Azrael glared up at Farad, raw hatred blazing in his eyes. "One day I will crush you in my bare hands." Power mixed with rage suffused his voice, and Farad felt a trickle of hot blood leak from one ear.

Suddenly, Azrael began writhing in mortal agony, tearing loose from Farad's grip, gasping in pain as he twitched on the ground. Slowly, he recovered, and glared again at the man who was looking down at him with a smug grin.

"When I figure out how you do that…"

Farad lifted an eyebrow. "You'll what? Kill me after unweaving the spell? Keep dreaming, and in the meantime, get in the car. Michael must be done apartment-hunting by now."

Azrael grimaced. "You know he'll have done it again in the meantime."

Farad's grin grew wider. "I designed him to need fresh blood for a reason. I find his need…." He looked up at the sky for a moment as he sought the proper words.

"I find his need… easy to understand."


To be continued.

Chapter 3
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