Ashes & Steel

Ashes and Steel
by

Joe Gunnarson

December 14th, 2006

“Liz, I need to talk to you.”

Headmistress Carson turned to Delarose with an annoyed look. “I know that tone. Please tell me whatever this crisis is, it’s not necessary to deal with it until after we’re done with the Junior and Senior combat finals, preferably after Christmas.”

“Caitlin’s on the move, she dropped a note on my desk and said she was going off the ranch to unfuck herself.” He looked at Carson evenly. “Typical maneuver for our favorite impulse-control problem.”

“What’s Eldritch doing?”

“She just rolled through the parking lot, took 'Mahren’s' truck," he punctuated the statement with air quotes, "backed it up to the Range four door, unloaded a bunch of boxes into the back, and completely ransacked her own room afterward. Right now she's on a beeline for the Grove. I have Corey and a couple other hardasses suiting up to follow her and give her some Overwatch, bring her back if need be.”

“Why Corey?”

“Corey’s the one that kept Mahren from bleeding during Nex’s suspected incursion on Range 4.” He paused. “I’ve given him instructions to shadow and defend if need be but not to interfere and report back to me.”

Carson smiled slightly. “At least you haven’t lost your light touch when you need to. I assume it’s just cursory to ensure no heavies came out of the weapons locker?”

“Yeah right, like that'll ever happen." Delarose snorted at the thought. "She’s off the ranch, and if she gets into trouble...” Delarose spread his hands and shrugged slightly.

“She won’t call for help.” Carson sighed. “Keep me posted, Franklin.”

* * *

The battered pickup cruised off the Academy grounds and rolled quietly through areas where normally traffic was limited to security vehicles and the occasional speed freak disobeying the rules to test drive his new toy. A quick turn near Kirby Hall went onto a nearly invisible road leading from the campus in a roundabout path towards the Grove. The sun hung low in the sky, and she could see Lady Luna’s shadowed face high above the trees. Perfect for what she had to do, and the moonlight would light her way.

Caitlin concentrated very hard on keeping to the path, ensuring that her tires didn’t leave the almost luminescent trail lit by the odd daylight/moonlight. She could see the currents coming together and flowing down the path like a river corridor, coming together to guide whoever was on it to her destination.

The grove was forbidden for a very good reason, and she made sure that she skirted the edges. Caitlin could almost see the branches reach out to rip her or the truck off the path. She hated this place, but she had to come down this path every semester as emergency overwatch for the Senior magic classes. Sometimes the only cure for a young mage’s screwup was through the sudden and total application of brute force. Much as the kids who pursued the esotera refused to admit it, there was no more effective tool for defense than trained armsmen with the right weapons. Both Grimes and Circe were in agreement on the point.

Thinking of that, she looked back to see the two vehicles trailing her. The armed dune buggies weren't much shelter against the low temperature, but the men in full combat kit weren’t looking cold, they were looking worried. She’d borne that white-knuckled look herself many times, and she wasn’t looking forward to this. She recognized Corey's presence in the tagalongs, and mentally shrugged. Regardless of their orders, she was not going to cease her path unless she was dead.

She reached the clearing, marked as it was by a simple, circular rut in the ground that had been packed with rock salt, which in turn had been specially cultivated to grow in the circle. She knew from experience dealing with this place that salt lines grounded out magic energies and kept them from fully penetrating. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but a lightning bolt strong enough to kill an exemplar-5, cast by an enraged mage wouldn’t retain much more energy passing over a salt line than it would take to startle a toddler.

The circle was perfect for her purposes, but she needed to set everything up correctly. When she looked up the moon’s face was half-obscured by clouds, something that her instincts registered as perfect for concealment of energies. Caitlin took a breath and stepped out of the truck into the cold air. If she'd thought overly much about the lack of a chill it gave her she'd have wondered how human she still was.

She walked over to the security officers who pulled up a bit further back, and nodded. “How much did the boss fill you in?”

She recognized Andrews and Byron with the new guy. Neither of the two new officers were what she’d have called drinking buddies in the past, but they were pros. They were also the two men whom Carson and Delarose had said, on multiple occasions they would trust with their children.

Andrews spoke first, and she considered the short man carefully. “Chief said you have to do something, you couldn’t be talked out of it, and allowing anyone to stop you would likely be detrimental to your safety.”

“Close enough.” Caitlin looked at all three. “There’s more to it than that, but not that I can explain in the time I have. Something may come at me, or you at guys. If it’s not a student, and it tries to enter the circle, please by all means stop it with extreme prejudice.”

Corey looked at Caitlin. “So we just stand here and freeze while you do this bit and shoot at anything that gets too close to you with hostile intent?”

She nodded. “All right, I have to start now.” She walked to the truck without another word, the timing was too tight and she’d had to fight to say that much. She was rapidly vanishing into that half-trance she’d come to associate with Artificer construction and analysis. She could think, or talk, sort of. But the process would override her personality for a short time to get her started.

"Delarose, we've made contact, she's getting started. Send reinforcements. Looks like this one could get really ugly, real fast." Corey spoke into his helmet comms. "Yeah, I saw the look in her eyes even with those metal discs, she's worried. Andrews, Byron, firing line one hundred meters from the Grove, set the mines..." Caitlin stopped hearing as the three men, and the crews of the other two dune buggies moved to follow Corey's orders.

She dropped her warded ball cap on the hood of the truck and snapped the key to the vehicle in half, throwing the remains into the bed. She walked behind the vehicle and pushed. Nothing could contaminate the circle that wasn’t to be used in it. So she carefully pushed the pickup to the center of the circle and held it stopped, then began unloading the bed.

Everything she had left that she remembered fondly, that she hated, anything with an emotional link, she handled carefully, walking around the truck and setting the item in its own place on the soft earth of the circle. Everything from an old, weather-worn baseball, an old pair of running shoes, a battered and ancient computer, a new laptop, a box of letters - all found places on the ground carefully arranged around the truck. The photos were stacked neatly, the books set up as though they were on shelves. The last thing she did was place her old dress blues in the empty bed of the truck. They were arranged in the bed as though to be worn, save for the arms that were crossed over the chest as though in prayer, or in a coffin as an effigy of a lost life.

The mason jar of blue ink, and a few tools remained outside the circle. Caitlin gingerly stepped out of the circle and walked for the very edge of the grove, looking at the ground beneath the tree branches. She found the branch, ripping it from the reach of the grove before the place could react, stepping beyond its reach even as she grasped the tip and began humming. No particular tune was really needed, just the humming, and the shadowed moon. An instinctive twist of the wrist seared the tip of the branch, blackening the dead wood as she began carefully using it to inscribe a large, complex pattern in the earth beneath the last physical remnants of her old life.

As Caitlin went about her work, preparing to sacrifice those physical connections to her memories, she never really gave much thought to the slow notes of Amazing Grace she was humming, charging the circle with a hopeful, melancholy energy of a lost soul searching for the light. In a way, she was building her own pyre, arranging everything just so in an odd emulation of cremation rites and what might be a Viking funeral had there been water nearby.

She carefully wove her way along, deepening the lines she’d cut with the branch and set the various objects above the paths and stepped back, watching the horizon as the sun began to almost touch the top of the horizon she ducked under, using a screwdriver to slam four holes in the bottom of the gas tank and a fifth in the side to allow airflow. Sometimes ritual tools were critical. Sometimes any old damned thing would do, and Caitlin loathed unnecessary complexity.

She watched carefully as the sun touched the horizon, the gasoline filling the odd lines of the symbol she’d drawn by instinct. At a moment she couldn’t fully quantify, Caitlin Bardue struck a match and dropped it into the gasoline, igniting a hundred-foot diameter, circular mandala of flame in a symbol not seen since before man walked fully upright on the earth. The ground burned, and as the flames ripped out the circle closed, creating a tight mystic barrier that not even the burning smoke could escape as it rose in a black column. She didn't realize that the blaze reached its full glory just as the sun dipped below the horizon, fully.

She never left the circle, even as the flames turned an oddly azure color, everything in the circle igniting and catching - plastic, metal, paper all charring and blackening and crumbling away as though they were wood in a fireplace. Caught in the flames, she was oblivious to the world outside, or to the wash of energy so concentrated that even the baseline security officers felt something dance on their graves, felt their hair stand on the back of their heads, and felt like something was watching them, all at once.

She didn’t hear the thunder of the Security Officer guns as something responded, and came from the grove to investigate the sudden surge of power.

* * *

Some things can neither be explained, nor reasonably quantified to someone who has never experienced it. It’s a phenomenon akin to an adrenaline junkie trying to explain his first rush to someone who doesn’t take risks, or a soldier trying to explain combat to a desk-bound civilian. It doesn’t work, leaving only half-formed abstractions to anyone who hasn’t experienced something similar.

What many students on the campus felt in the moments of dusk couldn’t be articulated to anyone without anything resembling mystic or psychic senses. Nephandus felt it as a brief flash of exhilaration, of unrealized potential rippling across his senses. Fey felt a cold wind that made even Aunghadhail shudder in naked terror as every single Ley line flared with a bright power and all of them shifted to a vivid cobalt blue color for a brief instant. Sara Waite experienced a surge of hunger so deep and profound that the universe itself could never sate it for a brief moment. Jadis felt the world die and birth itself from ruin while Nacht found everything suddenly too bright.

Bladedancer felt the Tao become a vortex, pulling everything into an open wound in reality. Lindsay's pet, Pern suddenly, inexplicably grew big, spread his wings, gave a Godzilla scream, and then shrank down and hid under the bed. Elysia Grimes felt the clock tick closer to the end with the finality of Big Ben about to toll its bell. To Caitlin herself, the circle stood awash in the eye of a hurricane as the currents permeating her vision tore about in a spectacular vortex of energy, oblivious as her own clothing burned and the violent corona of power erupted from her body and soul, adding to the intensity of the display without touching her flesh.

All the while more remnants of her old life, the possessions of Erik Mahren, were rapidly rendered to dust by eldritch flame. Not even the iron, steel and aluminum of the old pickup were spared, burning to ash rather than melting, as though it were constructed of cloth and paper. The salt surrounding the circle was glowing and bizarre shapes and sigils were etching themselves into the ground at her feet as the fire consumed the last of the effigies.

With each item's destruction, the memories associated with it hammered her like an oncoming truck, then burned into her soul as it passed through her, and beyond. She relived each nightmare, every joy, the pain, the exultation, love and loss all over again in the moment frozen in time, as it stretched into eternity. She relived her life as each piece fell, and renewed her ties to those memories.

His mouth opened for the first time and he screamed as soon as he was clear. Somewhere in the back of his outraged subconscious he heard, but did not understand as the man in white proclaimed "It's a boy."

The candles burned merrily on the cake, all three of them, as the boy blew out the flames and made his wish, then proceeded to shred every piece of colored paper off the packages...

The boy looked skeptically at the pink-wrapped bundle. His baby sister was so tiny and fragile he was afraid to touch her. He might hurt her, and he wasn't sure he liked the attention she was getting, feeling ignored...

"Cally go home!" Erik hollered at his baby sister. She wasn't supposed to be out here. He and Mike were shooting BB guns at cans in the Alaska snow. Cally was annoying as hell, and he had better things to do. He was seven years old for crying out loud!

Caitlin shut her eyes as the images, both clear and unclear ripped across her subconscious. She knew what was coming next... She didn't want to, but she got to relive it in flashes.

"Hey fatass!" The big, red ball slammed into his skull with enough force to knock him on his side. He hated being fat, hated being a big joke. The other kids pointed and laughed at him, jeering and giggling...

The impact of the other boy's fist slammed Erik in the jaw, rocking his head to the side. The other boy was half his size and a weightlifter, but something finally snapped, and he felt a searing heat enter his body for a brief instant causing him pain, a flash of runes and the sound of metal on metal. Pain... He couldn't take it. He blacked out as he felt himself roaring forward, a look of fear on the other boy's face...

"I'm impressed Erik," Dad said as he looked at the car. Erik had gotten busy and restored the ancient pickup to working order while his dad worked, and he felt happy. He'd managed to do it without looking at the manuals...

"You wanna go see a movie?" Erik looked at Natalie's suddenly shocked face. The girl was a mutant, and not one of the low-key ones, one of Erik's friends for over a year that he kept from his folks. They wouldn't understand why he'd been hanging out with the two mutants in school. Especially not the girl with hair that resembled four-foot long black octopus tentacles...

"Get out of my house!" Dad was yelling, mom was bawling. "No son of mine makes time with those freaks!"

"You sure you want to go now, Erik?" Sergeant Vaughn, the Marine recruiter asked. "Yeah, get me the fuck out of here. There's nothing left for me in this frostbit shithole..."

Caitlin opened her eyes as the memories burned even as they shuffled back to her mind, leaving something of her every moment in the pyre.


"Move it recruit! I swear to god, you must be the biggest fucking piece of nasty that the corps scraped up. You better catch up to the platoon before I put my boot up your ASS!"

Worm looked at Erik. "We are so fucked. Get that launcher rolling, Heckel and Jeckel will provide cover, me and the boys will pull the swarmstomp." Erik nodded and kissed the Medallion of Saint George at his neck and bolted from the cover of the shattered wall and took aim at the raging mutant, even as his other two teammates let fly with machinegun fire. He aimed and fired, praying that the rocket's HEAT round would do the job...

"This is Dragonslayer actual! We are fucked! Artillery my position! Repeat! Artillery, my position! Grid coordinates are..."

Worm's voice cut across the comm, "Target down, Hijacker report." Erik looked over to see the boy scream and ignite with arcing energy as the lightning bold cooked the Kibble, the fresh meat, leaving a smoking corpse where the former marine had stood. He spun the gun towards the boy. "Add add add! Blaster has joined." "Holy shit he's just a kid!" Worm cut in. "He killed the Kibble, take him down!"

"For bravery above and beyond the call of duty, in keeping with the highest standard of the United States Marine Corps, Corporal Erik Mahren is hereby awarded the Navy Cross..."

Heckel looked shocked. "You mean we can go home finally?" Erik nodded. "No more Dragons for us bro..."

Caitlin started shaking as the final bell began to toll in her mind...

Gunnery Sergeant Bardue continued his speech. "This year we have a new heavy gunnery instructor. Corporal Erik...

"Englund fuck off, I don't care how dangerous you think she is, unless she starts killing other students you will stay the fuck OFF MY RANGE!" Erik shouted at the older man...

His grin died when he saw her lurch backwards as if hit with a mack truck. He heard the thunderous report of the .50 Caliber rifle as Cat's body exploded for the last time, sending burning waves of searing heat and fire to touch the ground even a hundred feet below. He looked, desperately ignoring the heat, trying to see any sign of her. There was nothing left.

Bardue and Smythe held Erik firmly, pulling the struggling and vicious man back away from his target. Reverend Englund looked tired and somewhat saddened even as the enraged Range Instructor screamed invective, an unfired pistol lying on the ground where Smythe had knocked it away. "Motherfucker you brought them here! We trusted you and you brought them here, and now Cat's dead!" He did his level best to break loose, slip away, but his coworkers had him solid and would not let him go until Englund got his act together and left...

"Miss Reilly I don't know who you think you are and I do not care. You will not speak to me in that tone again. I may be here to provide answers but I will not, and I mean this in no uncertain terms little girl, NOT tolerate disrespect from a student, no matter how powerful. Now sit down and be quiet!"

"New face? Don't see too many people sitting back here in outcast corner."

The memories flashed and fell in, and she was left with a sense of loss, something... Peace. The last of the fire died as she finally let go of Erik, and let him rest... and realized she had never lost who he was, never lost who SHE was, even after Halloween, after the change...

When the last trace died, Eldritch simply plucked the mason jar from nearby and scooped a handful of ash into it. Everything went still, as the maelstrom ended as though it were never there, and a slow creep of metallic tint began to diffuse through the cobalt blue ink even as the facade of humanity stripped itself from her.

Skin hardened, and went pale, then ghost-white as a marble, stone sheen covered her body. She became the construct hidden underneath her skin for a moment, and her emotions snuffed out like candles between two wet fingers as the trance took hold fully, insulating her from the things to come, and forcing her mind open to them all at once. Her illusory flesh came back to the fore, then faded back to stone and steel after a moment as she realized that the percussive hammer of the guns by the security team ripped through a line of... things rushing straight at her.

She stood, impassive, watching the maddening mix of voodoo-wolves, eldritch creeping things and manifested spirits which were eviscerated by the sweeping fire of men with powerful weapons and helmet visors warded by herself and Fey to protect their minds from the full spectacle of the things that inspired a thunderclap migraine even in herself. She couldn't even acknowledge the pain spearing her skull as the trance took hold of her again. Whateley Security had the situation under control. She had work to do.

* * *

"No, get back to your cottages. The Grove is off-limits. Do I make myself clear?" Delarose glared at the grab-bag of students, all of whom he recognized as magic course students who were walking curiously towards the site of whatever disruption they could feel. The percussive thunder of heavy fire sounded off distantly in the background.

"But what's going on out there?" Nephandus looked longingly past Delarose.

" Same as with the Senior Class Ritual workings. What's going on is none of your business."

It was odd to see so many kids, many of whom hated each other with an unbridled passion, unified in curiosity. Nikki Reilly's face was screwed up with irritation, Diamondback looked worried. Delarose had no illusions as to whom the two girls had noticed was conspicuously absent.

Most of the students were there because they felt a power in play. No one moved to go back to the cottages, staring past Delarose almost in a daze, past the small line of Whateley Security personnel that were watching to ensure that the only safe path into the Grove was blocked. The nonviolent standoff had been going on for an hour when the serpentine wiccan and the fae redhead looked at each other and seemed to come to a mutual agreement, nodding slightly as they turned and obeyed Delarose's quiet, but firm instruction to go back.

As they moved out of earshot, Nikki looked at the massively deformed girl and shot a rueful glance over her shoulder. "Caitlin?"

"Whoever's out there is putting out resonance of discipline, rage, violence, honor, and a whole host of other contradictory things."

Fey nodded. "Caitlin. Whatever's going on out there, I don't think we should leave her to her own devices."

"Agreed. I'll round up the boys."

"You will do no such thing." Both girls cringed as they slowly turned to look behind them. Headmistress Carson wasn't one oft-thought of as "stealthy," but she hadn't been sensed by either. "You two are going to do as Delarose asked, and return to your cottages."

Nikki almost threw her hands up in frustration when she heard "No" come out of the most well-behaved and least-belligerent Outcast. When she looked, Diamondback's jaw was set in an obstinate, defiant position as she looked Carson right in the eye and uttered her words of defiance.

The imposing woman arched an eyebrow and gave Diamond a withering glare. "Excuse me?"

It was one of the fascinating moments in time where a simple decision could shift the course of destiny, and Fey found herself echoing the word without prompting from Aunghadhail.

"No."

"You two are riding the ragged edge of detention if you don't turn around right now and get back to Whitman and Poe."

"I'll get my detention in the morning. If that's Cait, I'm helping her. She's backed me up and helped me from the first day I met her for no better reason than she could. I'm not leaving her to hang." Diamond's voice was calm, measured and laced with pure steel, and more than a touch of her rarely heard Texas Twang. "If you tell me right now that whatever is going on has nothing to do with her, we'll go back, and we won't bug you again. But if it is, there is no force on earth that's going to stop me from going there."

"And if I told you that you'll be expelled if you ignore me a third time?"

Both Fey and Diamondback recoiled slightly at the thought, then the serpentine girl looked over at the horizon, toward the distant sound of gunfire. Her jaw was set in a manner only Jericho would recognize. She looked back at Carson, determined but with tears starting to pool at the edges of her eyes. "Still helping Cait."

Nikki watched, agape as the serpentine girl's body turned, and her tail slid back and forth as she headed towards Twain without so much as looking back, hiding the fact that her eyes were pooling and her face was a mask of despair.

"That was mean, you know." Nikki didn't even turn to look at Carson. "She's not quite sensitive enough to realize you're testing her."

"I know, but I had to be sure." Carson's eyes bored holes directly into the back of Nikki's head. "What's your interest in the matter of Caitlin?"

Nikki tossed about the idea of being deceptive, and not telling the whole story rather than trying to lie for about three seconds before she discarded it. "I owe my life to a pained, angry range instructor who kept something from killing me and effectively died in the process." She glanced back at Carson's taken aback expression, "I'm going to make sure that frustrated teacher's chance at a new life belongs to her, not someone like me."

"And the rest of the Kimbas and friends?"

"Aren't involved. They aren't aware of what's going on, unless Chou's connection to the Tao demands her presence; then there's not much anyone can do to stop her from already being there. They don't need to know what she doesn't tell them. It's not my place to tell them Caitlin's secret, any more than it was Sharisha's place to out me and Chaka to Diamondback" Fey nodded to the subtly shaking reptilian girl. "She kept our secret, and she knocked Sharisha on her ass for running her mouth."

"That saves me the trouble of skinning Sharisha." Carson stood next to Fey, watching the slithering girl gain her composure and begin slithering firmly towards her destination. "As to Diamondback... Fortunately I never said she would be. Just 'if."

"I noticed that too." Fey didn't waste any more words, instead hooking the Ley Lines and twisting them in a manner she'd become more used to, and was becoming more skilled at. There was no flash, no gateway. She was simply gone.

She met Diamondback at Twain as the determined, angry girl did her side-to side slide, trailing thirteen feet of serpent behind her, arms simply moving in tune with the undulations as though she were normal, simply walking.

"Thought you'd stay behind." Sandra grinned to see the redhead at the door.

"What, and leave you to have all of the fun cleaning Thornie toilets by yourself? Please."

"Let's go get the boys."

* * *

Caitlin shook herself out of the trance, loading the needle into the odd tattoo gun she'd fixed for the purpose as one of the foul things her friends dubbed "voodoo wolves" charged into the circle, having slipped past the Whateley Security team covering her.

She set the jar down, picking up a crescent-shaped piece of Obsidian that had fallen from her person, realizing her only adornment was the intricate pentacle medallion she had created early after her transformation.

She crouched and waited, blade held in a reverse-grip, blade edged upward along her arm and waited. When the thing reached her it skidded to a stop, and grabbed her torso with its arms, careful not to pierce her with its claws, to run off with the docile thing that helpfully knelt almost in supplication.

The look on the thing's face was surprise and disbelief when the Harvester slid through its belly, then tore upward through the sternum like the bone was made of butter before the odd, naked, burning woman stepped around it. She pulled its head back and slashed its throat, careful to aim it away from the untainted jar of tattoo ink nearby.

Mahren had been a Marine, another type of soldier, another brand of killer. Even though she laid his life to rest on the Pyre, Caitlin still kept everything that was him within herself. She was still capable of killing, capable of love, capable of fear, capable of everything that had made Mahren human.

Caitlin retained everything that was him, but she hadn't re-bound it to herself. There was no feeling of exaltation at victory, no cries of fear as the thing had approached. There was only the machine-like determination of the construct-creature she was now, having begun her work, bound and determined to complete it. Her mind was in a half-state, somewhere between the man she was, and the perfect slave she could be. Without those links to her old life, she would simply have her humanity fade and become the emotionless automaton she feared becoming anyway, and she had deliberately annihilated all of them, save one, which she surrendered and was no longer hers.

As she picked up the mason jar, she simply hooked a battery pack to the tattoo gun and walked over to the parked dune buggy Whateley Security had brought, pulling out the medical kit and using it to sterilize and clean the monstrosity's blood from her body rather clinically. Then, ignoring the irrelevant sacks of meat behind her that were frantically shouting and shooting at worse things she began with her right hand, slowly etching cobalt blue arrowheads in the first knuckle of each finger and her thumb, tracing a tattoo pattern that had not been seen since the first proto-humans had walked the earth apart from the Five-Fold Court.

Without caring, she noted the dim flash of light as one of the redheaded Sidhe creatures, a pair of humanoid monsters and a child appeared near the sigil, simply watching them for signs of interference as she dipped the needle again and began to trace a line up her arm, scoring stone flesh with each pass, locking the binding magic home.

Jericho started as he realized Caitlin was naked, sitting on a dune buggy doing something to herself, causing a new, metallic texture to appear on her arm, painting gray lines even he could see simply watching the four new arrivals with an empty expression. To his senses she looked wrong. Razorback's reaction was similar though he politely averted his gaze, something Jericho couldn't do. After the initial shock, the two boys simply ran past her, leaving her to the girls, and joining the fray at the edge of the grove, as things boiled from within it that even the spirit guarding the Grove could never hope to stop all of.

"Oh God." Diamond STARED at her friend, and felt... Nothing. There was no emotion, no outpouring of relief. "What's happening to her?"

"She started. Shit." Nikki looked around, frantically, feeling the void of emotion and personality that the thing wearing Caitlin's form was. "She started, and we won't know if she'll be ok until she's done. We have to keep the things off of her."

"Will she be okay?" For the first time, Nikki saw and felt Diamondback's terror that she might lose one of the few friends she had.

"I have no idea, but until she's done, we draw a line in the sand and make sure nothing gets to her."

"I can do that." Diamondback turned and bared her fangs as she saw the things coming through the lines of the security squads. They were trying to get past them, so focused upon their prize they couldn't be bothered to kill them. "I got your number RIGHT HERE!" She charged and having forgotten her bag 'o tricks that had let her beat Hekate, she was limited to her raw physical might, which was prodigious.

Nikki, however, simply stepped forward and drew Malachim's Feather, more carefully choosing her targets than the very enraged and frantic Diamondback as she tried to adapt to support the girl's vicious and calculating combat style.

Caitlin registered none of it as the tattoo gun finished tracing the outer lines of the first part of the lines on her arm, meticulously filling in the gaps so none of the bare skin between the blue threads would remain unmarred. Had she not remained blissfully unaware that her friends were fighting, and possibly dying, she would never have been able to finish her work.

A blast of energy stripped one of the miscellaneous creatures of its existence as Carson hit the ground and aimed her Rod at another of the creatures. Behind her were several forms dressed in heavy Range REACT armor, similar to Mahren's protection of choice when he raged on Halloween night, each carrying their particular weapons of choice, loaded down with ammunition.

Bardue, Wilson and Smythe went about the grim business of setting a perimeter around the dune buggy that Caitlin's vacant but still-moving form occupied. Delarose was keeping the children mostly contained back at the school, even though he wasn't able to stop Chou from slipping through and taking a knee not twenty feet from the Artificer, silently praying that the young woman would finish and be whole. If not, she'd made a promise, and she'd keep it.

Elyzia Grimes and several other teachers, some who knew Erik and some who didn't, set up a mystic perimeter, keeping watch as Astarte and four very frantic, angry children tried desperately to keep whatever was seemingly boiling from the earth away from their friend.

"Come on Hollow man, win this," she hissed.

* * *

Shortly before Dawn, as the gunfire slowly petered out, the thing that was Caitlin stopped, and the tattoo gun simply fell out of her hand without fanfare or ceremony, the puppet's strings finally cut as she froze like a statue as though waiting for something. And she did nothing.

Someone had built a fire, and the flames reflected merrily off the steel discs inset onto the construct's eyes. Its form was marble, its hair black, reflective metal, its eyes were Onyx gemstones inset into a stone head and then adorned with two runed, steel discs. There were no signs of life to be found in the seemingly dead creature.

The attacks petered out and slowed, then died out as soon as the tattoo gun touched the earth, like a faucet being turned off. No one got the artificer this time around, and the slow procession of teachers, security officers and friends slowly made their way back to the odd vehicle that was covered in a layer of hoarfrost, standing silently around her in a circle.

Diamondback was crying.

No one said anything; they all just stood there as an odd memorial for a lost friend, comrade, colleague or student. The body just sat there, unmoving, slouched, bereft of life, naked as the day she came into the world. There was nothing sensual about what sat on the dune buggy, just a mock-up of a human form which replaced one who by all rights should have died on a range meant for the testing of children with uncontrollable powers.

Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue bowed his head and closed his eyes, whispering a prayer he could never expect to be answered.

Jericho was trying desperately to keep his composure, while his childhood friend wept on his shoulder.

Razorback was silent, covered in gore, and unable to think of anything smartass to say for the first time since he'd become a monster and been fished out of the Outback.

Nikki was delicately checking the unmoving form for any spark of life, any sign of consciousness. Aunghadhail was no help, for she had not been the one to mark the Artificer held by the Western Court.

The statue was beautiful, the cobalt lines of tattoos traced delicately from her toes to her forehead, twin bars of elegant, curving flowing lines travelling up its body with ancient glyphs trapped between that none here could translate. The lines curved around stone breasts, seeming to cradle them, ending in delicate tips over the too-well-sculpted nipples. Her arms and face were works of art, the only marring where she had dislocated her arms to blindly etch the delicate patterns on her own back, bracketing her spine, then clinically forced the bones back into socket.

Her face was coldly beautiful, devoid of emotion, blankly staring at nothing, the delicately patterned lines on her face began as points above her eyes, then travelled back to her hairline and curved to another point under her cheekbones, then curved back again along the cheekbones and ended in tips below her eyes on her lower jaw.

Nikki finally stopped looking and let Grimes come forward. Doctors could find a heartbeat, but if the mages could find no trace of magic left...

Chou finally stood and put her hand on her sword, then joined the odd circle, finally. She wouldn't have to put a dead statue out of its misery.

"She was brave." Grimes said simply, and was surprised that she was able to close the eyes, and move the limbs of the statue.

"She was honorable." Carson put a blanket over the body, to preserve what little dignity Caitlin had left.

"She was one of our best." Wilson helped arrange her limbs so that Caitlin's body was lying flat, smoothing her hair under her.

"She was my friend." Diamondback settled alongside the body, tears flowing freely.

It was the darkest hour, right before dawn, when the light had been at its weakest that the teacher known formerly as Erik Mahren died.

The mourners watched the sun come over the horizon, and when the first rays of the naked sun peeked over the horizon, their eyes were drawn by a ragged gasp at their feet, and a whimper of pain as the stone body seemed to turn flesh as the pained girl named Caitlin Bardue drew in her first real breath.



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