Issue 4: Extreme Prejudice

Andi walks into the station house through the visitor's entrance and does a double take when she sees the man sitting at the desk.

"Dave? Dave Kenyon?"

The officer at the desk looks up from the computer monitor and also does a double take. "Andrea Yazzie?"

She grins and nods. "Wow, it's been a long time. I thought you were going to become a history professor."

He laughs. "I got my Masters and realized that, as much as I love history, I couldn't bear the thought of teaching for the rest of my life. Being a TA was awful! So on a lark, I put in an application with DPD... and here I am. You still didn't know what you wanted to do back then... what did you wind up majoring in?"

"Got a BA in English Lit and an MS in Library and Information Science. I've been working at DPL for six years now and loving it," she replies.

"So, what are you doing down here? No serious problems, I hope."

"No, no... just came by to see Detective Garcia, who didn't come home again last night," she says with a smile, just exactly the sort of smile a woman who misses her fiancé would show.

"Wait... you... he..." Kenyon slaps his forehead. "Duh! I should have made the connection. I'm sorry! He's always talking about 'Andrea' and I don't think it ever occurred to me that he was talking about one of the two Andreas I know." He chuckles and shakes his head. "Do you want me to get someone to fetch him?"

"If you just tell me where to find him, I'd like to surprise him," she says with a wink. "And keep your mind clean, young man, I just want to have a chance to chat with him before I get started on all my errands for the day." Andrea grins broadly.

"Hey, hey... all about the purity here," he says, holding his hands up defensively. "And when you see the bunk room, you'll know it's all about purity down there, too. Have you been around the building before?"

She shakes her head. "Not really. I know where Pablo's desk is, I know where Captain Sanchez's office is... that's about it."

He nods and points toward the door to the stairway. "So you know Homicide is on the third floor. You'll be going down into the basement... evidence lockers, small workout room, locker room, and the bunk room. Bottom of the stairs, take a left, all the way back."

She raises her eyebrows. "Evidence lockers? In a basement? In Denver?"

"Oh, they're watertight."

She nods knowingly. "Ah, but nothing else is."

"You got it."

"Ew. I feel a fungal infection coming on just thinking about it!"

Dave laughs again. "It's not really that bad. This building hasn't flooded in more than fifteen years."

"Oh, well... in that case, I feel much better," she says, laughing as well.

"Yeah, yeah. Get out of here, and go visit with your fiancé. How long do you think you'll be?"

"Not sure. What time do you expect Captain Sanchez to get in? I wanted to check in with him about the wedding." She puts a finger to her lips. "Don't mention it to Pablo."

He chuckles again. "Got it. And the Captain should be here in about an hour."

Andrea smiles and nods. "Then I'll catch up with Pablo for about an hour, then go looking for the Captain before running off all over town." She sighs... dramatically. "Planning a wedding is a nightmare, Kenyon. An absolute nightmare!"

"Yeah, Laura roped me into doing all sorts of stuff for our wedding, and by the time the wedding day came around I was wishing we had just gone to City Hall," he said with a groan. "Or Las Vegas."

"Even though our mothers are doing most of the work, there's still a ton of stuff that apparently can't be done remotely." She shakes her head. "And in this day of computers and advanced technology!" She grins, then waves as she turns toward the stairway. "Nice chatting with you again, Dave. Have a great day if I don't see you on my way out!"

"You, too, Andrea!"

Of course, even if he's still at the desk when she leaves, she'll see him... but he won't see her. Or rather, he won't see Andrea Yazzie.

Andi takes the stairs two at a time, her boots making no sound. At this time of day — or night, depending on one's point of view, since the sun has yet to rise — there's no one in the basement. Except Pablo. At the end of the hall. The only illumination is from the exit sign by the stairs and a dim light at the opposite end of the building.

It's a good thing her night vision is excellent.

The bunk room is... yeah, kind of pathetic, and for a few seconds she feels bad about telling Pablo to stay here rather than go home. Then she remembers Stryker, and his propensity for grabbing Supers and his ability to turn them to do his will. It's bad enough that Logan is being held. She's not sure she could find a way to stay anywhere near the right side of the law if anything happened to Pablo.

There's an Army cot and a small table in the room. There's a small lamp on the small table. Other than that, Pablo's phone and gun are also on the table, in arm's reach; his shoes are on the floor at the end of the cot. He's lying on his side, facing the wall, sleeping soundly.

She kneels beside the cot and sets her staff beside her.

"Pablito," she whispers, watching his aura and the qi flows. For the first time in weeks, there's no trace of a nightmare, no evidence that the memories of Quetzalcoatl's prison world are plaguing him. She lightly rests a hand on his shoulder.

"Andi?" he mumbles, turning towards her. "What... where...?"

"Yes, you're still at work. I just came by to see you before heading off to the next adventure."

He's waking up, as quickly as he usually does. She can feel him looking at her, smiling in the dark, as he shifts onto his back. "You've come to tell me all about it?"

"Nope, I just came by to tell you that I miss you and that I love you," she says, resting her head on his chest. She can feel his hand move along her back... and stop.

"Um... Andi?"

"Oh. Right. Disguise. Dressed for working the second job, but everyone will see me dressed for the first job," she says as she wraps an arm around him.

"Um... since when can you create illusions?"

"It's... sort of camouflage, sort of shape shifting? Maybe illusion might be the best word for it after all," she responds. "Anyway, I can only do it today, and only because Fox, Coyote, and Raven are helping."

He groans. "Are they all here, too? I was going to turn the light on, but not if the room is going to be crowded with your Spirits."

She chuckles. "Cobra's the only one here at the moment, although I'm sure the others aren't far away. And Cobra's going to stay unseen."

He pauses a moment, then reaches up to turn on the light. It doesn't provide a lot of illumination, but enough that he can see her hair loose and falling in waves across his chest and over her face. His fingers move through her hair... except they don't. "That's really disconcerting." He rests his hand on her back instead.

"Yeah, I think the illusion I used earlier disturbed Wolf, although Masterson seemed pretty amused by it. The rest of the folks who saw me? My people thought it was fascinating and I think the other military folks were a little on edge."

He sighs and she can feel him tense up a little. "Can you tell me anything about what's going on?"

She hugs him close. "Right now, not a lot. It's sort of like some of your cases. You don't talk much about on-going investigations. In this case..." Now it's her turn to sigh. "I feel like we're at a very precarious place and a wrong move anywhere could bring about exactly what we don't want."

"The Shadow?"

Andi just nods. There's not really anything to say about that.

"I need to be with you when you face the Shadow."

"I know. I don't disagree at all. But today, Wolf and I are facing down the earthly representative of the Shadow." She raises her head slightly to look at him. "If we screw up? Oh, trust me, you'll have Spirits and Quetzalcoatl in your face trying to get you to me! But Wolf is damn good, and wicked scary, and I'm really glad she's on our side and not the other side. I think we have a good chance... mostly because the woman is crazy and has an insane plan."

He smiles... eyes lighting up, crinkling around the outer edges, grin crooked and charming and boyish. He knows just how to melt her heart. "I don't suppose you'll tell me about it?"

She returns the smile. "I don't suppose I will, no. Besides, you're a cop and you probably don't want to know."

"Andi..." he says with a warning tone.

"Hey, I'm not going to tell you not to worry. But I am going to tell you that this is something we need to do, and I have a high level of confidence that it will turn out... not sucky."

He just looks at her for a minute, then closes his eyes again and groans. "Is this what the rest of our life is going to be like?"

She lifts her free hand to brush her fingers across his forehead. "You're a police officer. I'm the Diné Warrior. We're on the same side... but there are going to be things I do that are going to upset you if you don't come to realize the difference between a cop and a warrior."

His fingers move up and down her spine for long minutes, silent minutes. Finally, he struggles to sit up and pats the cot beside him. "This is not the most comfortable place to sit... or sleep... but at least we can be uncomfortable together."

She gets up from her kneeling position and sits beside him, resting her head on his shoulder. "Henry's in our house right now."

"Is there going to be a house left when we get home," he asks, only half joking.

"Probably. But I can pretty much guarantee there won't be any food left."

"No problem. I'll stop at the store on the way home. Speaking of which... when can I go home?"

She sighs. "By the end of the day, by the time the veils raise again."

She thinks he senses her unease. "Are you sure?" he asks.

She just holds him tightly. At this moment, all she wants to be is that younger Andi, the one who had tried so hard to be Normal. But then she looks up at him and smiles when Cobra taps her leg. "Yes. Yes, I'm sure."

"And you'll be home, too."

She traces her fingers over his face, then leans over to kiss him softly. "I will be home, too, my husband."

The tension drains from him and they sit in silence just holding one another. He starts to doze again; she smiles. She watches the qi flowing around him, and she smiles a little more.

After quite a while, she recognizes the hurricane of energy that is Rodrigo Sanchez entering the building. And again she smiles.

"I need to go drop some information off with the Captain, love," she says softly. "You should sleep as much as you can today, for your dreams will all be peaceful ones."

He smiles a sleepy smile. "And how can you be so sure of that, Miss Yazzie?" he asks without opening his eyes.

"Because the Spirits watch over you, Mister Garcia. Dove will stay with you as long as you wish to sleep."

"And why would Dove do this for me? I'm not one of your People." He opens his eyes and turns his head slightly to look at her.

"It's Halloween. The day the veils drop between our world and theirs. This is the first time I've been able to see them all, appreciate them, talk to them, work with them." She smiles at him. "I think they're as interested in me, in my life, in my people as I am in them. You're my husband. You are especially interesting."

"Do you have to go?" he asks before moving closer to kiss her... a long, passionate kiss.

Andrea comes back to the reality of the station bunk room with reluctance and, just as reluctantly, she nods. "Wolf will be waiting for me. Things to do. Places to go. People to save. You know how it goes."

"Am I ever going to get the whole story?"

She shrugs. "Most of it, yes. I'll leave out the bits that will upset the police officer in you."

"I wish you didn't do things that will upset the police officer in me. Or your husband, for that matter."

She stands up but leans back down to kiss his forehead. "I know. But I am doing what I'm supposed to do." She reaches down and picks up her staff that looks like her fancy clutch. Pablo's eyebrows raise dramatically. "Well, I have to disguise my staff, too, you know."

He shakes his head and chuckles. "Just when I think I have you figured out, more weird stuff happens. Will it ever end?"

She laughs. "Probably not. After all, we're going to get married in less than two months, and eventually we'll have a child. Not nine. One. Okay, maybe two."

He joins in the laugh. "I love you, Andi, with all my heart."

"I love you, too, Pablo," she responds, then she turns to leave.

"Be careful, Andi," he whispers.

Andi stops and looks back at him. "As careful as I possibly can, Pablo. But Cobra's advice for today is 'quick and decisive', which doesn't leave as much room for careful as either of us usually likes." She pauses, just for a moment. "I'll see you at home later, beloved." Then she turns and reluctantly walks back out of the room, reluctantly walks down the corridor... reluctantly walks up the stairs to the third floor.

This early in the morning, there's only one person in the bullpen and she's on the phone. Andrea heads over to the Captain's office and knocks lightly on the open door. "Hi, Captain Sanchez. May I speak to you for a couple of minutes."

He looks up, surprised and a little confused. "Sure, Andrea... come on in. I hope nothing's wrong."

She smiles as she sits, prim and proper like a librarian, in one of the chairs across from his desk. "No, nothing at all. I stopped by to see Pablo on my way out to run all sorts of errands today. I was hoping to catch you, too, before heading out."

"Really? Well, what can I do for you today?" His aura is showing suspicion as well as confusion, although, by the look on his face, he knows something is up.

"Oh, the last time your wife came by the library, she asked me for some new author suggestions. She didn't have time right then for me to make a list, but after reviewing her borrowing history, I came up with some that I think she'll want to keep an eye on." She says the words as Andi the librarian would, and her facial expression is certainly as pleasant as Andi the librarian's would be... except for her eyes. Her eyes are all Ninja, and they stare at him intently.

"She'll be happy to hear that," he says, playing along. "Do you have a list?"

She nods. "If you'll just lend me a pen and a piece of paper, I'll write them down for her."

He slides a notepad across the desk and hands her a pen. She writes down the names and addresses of the four members of the Knighthood that are still in the Denver area, then slides the notepad and pen back across the desk to him.

"She might want to take a look at them today. They're rather popular."

He looks at the names on the paper, eyes widening, then circles one of the names and turns the paper so she can see it. "Oh, I think I've read something by one of these authors. Someone down in Patrol recommended him."

She raises an eyebrow, then nods. Not really surprising; she had already suspected there might be some members of the Aryan Knighthood in the rank and file of DPD. "Then she'll definitely want to check them out today," she says enthusiastically as she stands, preparing to leave. "I won't take up any more of your time, Captain. I know how busy you all are here."

He stands as well, a gentleman. "Thanks for dropping these off, Andrea. If Angelina has any questions about them, you wouldn't mind if she calls you, do you?"

"Not at all, Captain! I'll be in a meeting all afternoon, but let her know she's free to call before then, if she'd like."

"I'll do that. You have a good day, Andrea."

Yes, she knows that he's saying the same thing Pablo said. Be careful.

"Thank you, Captain. You have a good day, as well." She smiles and heads back out through the bullpen to the stairway.

As she walks down the stairs, she changes her appearance again... just temporarily, in case Dave is still at the desk. She's spent enough time here that it's about time for her to get on the road. As she exits the stairway into the lobby, she looks like an average Jane Everybody in an authentic DPD uniform. She looks tired and a little rumpled, an average patrol officer coming off a rough shift. Dave is, indeed, still at the desk, and she waves absently in his direction as she heads for the door.

He doesn't even notice her.

Which is the whole point.

It's definitely light out; she spent more time with Pablo — just snuggling, which was just so darn nice — than she thought. Fortunately, it still isn't a time of day when the visitor lot is busy, and she can slide easily through a shadow along the side of the building to drop the illusions altogether. Then she walks slowly back to her bike.

Hey, sometimes even Super Heroes like to stop and appreciate the beauty of the mountains and sky.

She slides the staff back into the holster, gets on the bike and starts it up.

Your Mate is worried, Cobra opines.

She heads out of the parking lot and over to Colfax Avenue.

He is. He will always worry, I think. But then, I worry about him, too.

Ninja decides to stick to the posted speed limits this morning. The day is bright and clear, and she's feeling more than a little grateful for so many of the people, places and things in her life. She doesn't know if that's the sort of attitude a Warrior should carry into battle, but it feels right to her.

He is worthy of you, and you of him.

She smiles. It lightens my heart to know the Spirits of my People approve. Now if only Quetzalcoatl approved, our lives would be so much more tranquil.

Cobra chuckles. Raven has taken on the task of helping the Aztec Spirit become more relaxed. He has been concerned for so very many of your generations about the incursion of the Shadow into your world that he seems to have forgotten about joy. Raven excels at helping all, not just your People, to gain the knowledge of themselves to be who they are truly meant to be.

She navigates through the seemingly ever-present construction on the ramp onto I-25. Raven has a tendency to get a little crazy and out of control when leading me down the path to self knowledge.

Once again, Cobra chuckles. Oh, Raven is rarely out of control, Warrior. Raven has many facets, and has led you down the path you needed to travel, guided you in such a way that you would find what you needed to find. Never doubt that Raven does exactly what it does for a good reason. Cobra pauses. At least, I believe it does.

That is certainly a concept worth pondering at length, and not completely reassuring either. Well, perhaps tomorrow. This morning, she is busy appreciating the sunshine turning the mountains into gold as she rides towards them out 6th Avenue.

About half an hour after leaving DPD's Downtown Station, she pulls up in front of the Jacobs' cabin. She listens to the sounds of nature, but also to determine whether she should head into the cabin, or go around to the bunker in the back.

# # #

Heading out, Madeline knocks on the door behind which Masterson had taken refuge and says, "Got coffee and a ride for you, Colonel."

It might have been a whole five seconds before Masterson opens the door. Mitch hands him one of the remaining Big Gulp coffees. He takes it gladly and asks, "We headed in now?"

"Not yet. Got to collect a few items. Ninja's going to meet us up at the cabin. We just figured it would be easier for you to come with us. I can outline the idea we had on the way."

"Sounds good."

He joins the two women as they leave the building and helps to load up the weapons that had been brought in the Humvees, then helps to move the C4 to the Monstrosity, as well. With everything set and secured, Mitch heads straight for the cabin. She's going to be taking it slow and easy with taking the Monstrosity up the mountain. She has no intention of blowing herself up.

Masterson climbs into the acquired pickup with Madeline.

"I have one stop I need to make... by my hotel to grab my computer gear."

Five minutes out from Commerce City, Rene partially appears between them. He is just visible enough for them both to see but not enough to be captured by any cameras.

"Logan's regressed," he says without preamble.

"It's not unexpected, considering. Will you go keep an eye on the cabin? Mitch is on her way up with the ordinance we took off the trucks."

She glances over at him when he doesn't answer right away.

"We won't be long, I promise. I'll see you there."

He nods then vanishes but dusts a kiss across her cheek before leaving.

Ik houd u.

Je t'aime.

Masterson waits until a polite amount of time has passed before asking, "Who is he, your guardian Spirit?"

"My husband, Legionnaire Sergeant Rene Jacobs."

"Jacobs? Legionnaire? Huh."


"I knew an older Spec Ops guy, last name of Jacobs, had a son in the Legion."

Madeline smiles. "Let me guess. Big Mexican looking fellow, covered in tattoos, with a steely stare, I don't give a flying fuck attitude, and first name of Jeremiah?"

"You know that crazy old bastard?" he asks with some surprise.

"Sure do. He's my father-in-law."

"Crazy runs in the family?"

Now she laughs. "You have no idea."

He chews on that while she drives on. After a few minutes, he has another question.

"How did your husband become a Diné guardian Spirit since neither of you is?" His tone is more curious than anything.

"A friend asked me the same thing. My answer is the same – Magic. You want details or a real explanation, you'll have to ask Ninja. I was not about to question it."

He files that away for consideration. One could practically see the wheels turning in his head. When she pulls up to the hotel, she says, "You hang here. I won't be but five minutes."

As she gets inside the hotel room, a sudden sense of vertigo sweeps over her and she finds herself bent over on her knees, a sick feeling crawling through her gut and head. She squeezes her eyes shut and tries to determine what the hell is going on. There is a surge of emotional pain and anger and, although it comes from within her, it does not come from her.

"Logan," she gasps, curling up on the floor.

He must be, at least partially, in another plane. She can see things, but it's like looking through a curtain of water and smoke. She certainly can feel his pain and rage; feels the primal part of him rising up more and more. She bares her teeth and snarls, wanting to strike out at the unseen enemy... or was it prey? And just as suddenly as it had come, it is gone again.

She becomes aware of a knocking on the door as she gasps for breath and reorients herself. How long had she been with Logan? How long had she been on the floor? Masterson's voice comes through the door, "Ma'am, are you all right in there?"

Fortunately, she is close enough to reach up and open the door to let him in.

"How long?"

"Twenty-two minutes since you left the truck." He offers a hand as she leverages herself up.


Logan is back in this world now, but his primal nature is still in the fore. It rolls and roils through their connection.

"What happened?" Masterson asks.

"My Mate was unwillingly pulled into another plane or tricked into going there. They are trying to get full control of him."

"Can they?"


"How can you be so sure?"

"We're fucked if they do. Let's get my tech and get up to the cabin."

She opens the safe and pulls her computer and gadgets from it, then grabs a bottle of water from the in-room fridge.

"You'd better drive," she says, shaking her head when he offers her the keys. "Be real bad if that happened behind the wheel."

She stays silent on the drive up except to give directions.

Rene, everything good there?

Checking. I just got back... Oui, c'est bon. Y vous?

Oui. Soyez la bientot.

The Monstrosity is pulled off to the side, tucked in with its back end toward the bunker. Mitch is reclining on the steps, fresh coffee in hand.

"More inside," she tells them as they exit the truck.

"Great. I'm grabbing a shower first. You two can play in the bunker if you want. There's also the couch and the bed in Leon's old room if you want to catch more Zs."

Without waiting to see what either will do, Madeline heads straight back for their bedroom. She pulls a change of clothes from the cedar dresser before heading into the shower itself. She leans against the tile as the water pounds her. She is still puzzling over the oddness in the bond with Logan.


He is there with her in an instant. Yes, love?

I know he went somewhere...

I tried to go, too, but got shunted back to my own place. I don't know what it was, or where.

He's different. More feral than he has ever been.

I know. He folds her into his arms. It will be all right.

Will you look in on the kids?

Of course, I will. Did you want me to go now?


All right.

He is gone then. Madeline lets the water run a little longer before actually cleaning up. She wraps up in a robe, and a towel dries her hair. She moves slowly through her routine, but it is methodical. She also listens for the sounds of the cabin. Apparently, Mitch and Masterson have opted to check out the toys. That is good... for her. Once dressed, she goes out to the front porch where the sun is just rising. She settles down into a spot that will be warmed by the earth's star and begins to meditate. The things she had sensed through the bond... they puzzle her, and the more she probes, the more confusing they become. She needs to step back and let the instinctive part of her look at them.

When Ninja arrives, Madeline still kneels in meditation. Rene is there, too, a frown of concentration on his handsome face.

Ninja can hear Mitch and Masterson behind the cabin, out in the bunker, talking weapons. Two serious professionals discussing the merits of one killing method over another. It seems surreal.

She doesn't hear Maddie, but she senses both her presence and Rene's on the porch. As she walks toward the stairs, she can see that something is wrong. Very wrong.

It's much easier to see from the bottom of the stairs... the change in her bond with Logan. It's not so much that it's tainted, it's... wilder, more chaotic. No less strong than it was, so it's not like the shredding that happened to her bond with Pablo.

But something happened. To Logan.

She looks up at the Jacobs from where she stands near the bottom of the stairs.

"Tell me everything you know about this."

The distant look in her eyes, the slight glow to them, makes it obvious that she's not talking about the cabin.

It's Rene who answers, Madeline still being deep in her meditation. "He was taken or enticed into another place. I don't know which. I could not follow. Unlike the other place, nothing could be clearly seen, only shapes in smoke. Then there was searing pain, emotional pain followed by unreasoning rage. I don't know what he saw or he believes happened, but I can guess."

Madeline's eyes open but they don't focus. Her voice is nearly trancelike when she speaks. "He thinks one or more of us is dead. Most likely the children. I am not sure, but I think he is too far subsumed by his primal nature to recognize our bond. As it is, it is drawing me towards that part of my nature as well..."

Now her eyes do focus and she looks from Ninja to Rene and back. "I do not believe they are aware of our bond as of yet."

"And if your current state is any indication, we need to make sure they don't become aware of your bond."

Cobra uncoils itself from Ninja's waist and studies Maddie carefully before looking between its Spirit sibling and the Warrior.

What has happened to her Mate... the place it appears he was taken... It hisses angrily. It should not be possible! Greater laws than the ones that guide those on this world have been broken. I must consult with the others.

"What are you talking about, Cobra?" Ninja asks.

It is a greater law that none from your world be taken to another world without consent. When your Mate and her Mate when to Quetzalcoatl's prison world, each consented to do so. Because Quetzalcoatl possesses a trickster nature as Coyote does, he did not fully inform you and your Mate of the dangers he would face. But consent was given. Her Mate agreed to go, as well. But no one from your world would consent to go where I believe her Mate was taken. Even the greatest tale told by Coyote could not entice one of your world to venture there. Cobra hisses again. He must, then, have been taken against his will. Thus, the one responsible has broken one of the greater laws. Balance has been upset.

"Yeah, no shit."

I must go!

Cobra winks out of existence... on this plane anyway. Andi blinks, a little surprised. But only a little. The Spirits are an odd bunch. She's a whole lot more worried about Maddie.

She walks up the stairs, sets her staff down and kneels in front of Maddie, mirroring her posture.

"We need to keep you grounded here. Rene can protect you, but being a Spirit he can't keep you grounded, connected to this plane, can't keep Logan's feral nature from pulling you. We need you focused, Maddie. We can't succeed if both you and Logan are, essentially, in Berserker mode."

She looks up at Rene, his worry written across his face and rushing through his qi, then back at Maddie.

"I might be able to help, but..." She sighs, closes her eyes for a moment, then shakes her head as she opens them again. "But I might not. And even if I can, I'm not sure what the long-term consequences would be." She chuffs out a harsh half-laugh. "Although I'm sure letting Stryker win would be far worse."

"I know. It is why I am out here and not back there with those two." A dip of her head indicates the direction of the bunker. "Whatever it was, it only lasted about fifteen minutes on this side, but as you said before... time moves differently in other places."

Madeline takes a deep breath, then another, and again.

"Are the kids all right, Rene?"

"They are fine. All three of them, along with all the Commerce City residents who went there. The school is safe."

She nods before turning her attention to Ninja. "You might be able to help, but we need you unaffected by this for when we have to face It. I think we should go in earlier than we had originally planned.

"And perhaps Charles can help."

She nods. Andrea suspects that whatever protection she could offer Maddie would create a bond of some sort between them. A simple one, of friendship, like the bond she has with Bobby... a slightly more complex one, of siblings, like the bond she has with Justin... it's hard to say. And impossible to know if it would be temporary or permanent.

But being connected to Maddie with any sort of bond would give Stryker yet another avenue through which to attack her. Why he has such a deep and abiding hatred for her, she doesn't know... and probably doesn't want to know. But it sure seems like she's the focus of his attention.

Which... could work in their favor. Maybe. She's just not quite sure how.

"Charles protected you before," she says softly. She doesn't dare close her eyes for fear that she'll see the events of that day playing on the backdrop of her eyelids... and seen from two different points of view. "Can he help from where he is... or will he need to come here?"

"He can help from where he is, assuming he has the time."

She calls his personal line. She hopes he'll be in his office, although at midmorning he might be teaching a class. She grimaces when only his voicemail comes on. She tries another number; that one is answered by someone who knows her number as well as Charles does.


"I need to speak with Charles. I need his help."

He clearly has questions, that much is obvious. But he also knows her. "I will have him contact you."

He hangs up without saying goodbye. A very long ten minutes go by before she sits up a little straighter. Some of the concern leaves Rene's face.

"They're talking," he says for Ninja's benefit.

Madeline? What's wrong? What has happened?

Look at my bond with Logan, Charles. I need you to keep me grounded long enough to get to him.

I see. I will stay with you as long as you need me to. Let me just notify Hank that I will be unavailable for a time...

While Charles has his attention directed elsewhere, Madeline refocuses on those around her.

"He will be with me. Besides, I already have a link with him."

I'm all yours, Madeline.

Charles, you flirt. I really just need you along until I get into his current base of operations. Then if I go a little crazy, it might be better.

So it is him again.

Yes, it is.

Try not to let yourself get captured this time, Madeline.

But Charles... it is the easiest way in.

His mental sigh of long suffering patience makes her chuckle.

"We rolling early, Ninja?"

"We can roll anytime you want. I'd like to get some data on entry points beforehand, however."

She looks from Maddie to Rene and back to Maddie. Then she sighs.

"You're just going to wind up getting yourself killed. Again. Which, for you, is not a problem. For me, it's a problem. For Masterson, it's an even bigger problem." She shakes her head but smiles slightly.

"The last time I had to deal with him I died four times, so just once is okay," Madeline remarks.

Giraffe appears at that moment beside the cabin, bending its neck down so its face is level with Andi's and looks from her to Maddie several times. Then it raises its eyes to look at Rene.

Tsk. Such a mess! Cobra has informed us about your Beloved's Mate. The one who has done this must be censured. The Spirit looks back down at Andi. I will help you with your seeing and communicating today. Your vision must be acute, your messages must be clear.

Andrea's smile grows slightly; Giraffe is Talia's guardian Spirit. Tali always says it reminds her of a school teacher.

Thank you, Giraffe. Your assistance is welcome and greatly appreciated.

"Okay, let me see what kind of intel I can get us..."

She closes her eyes and reaches outward with her mind, ranging farther than she's ever managed before — even on Halloween — thanks to Giraffe's help. She hones in on what she already recognizes: Logan's aura.

She peers at him through a shrew's eyes; between the animal's fair eyesight, acute hearing, and echolocation ability, she feels a little dizzy. There's a lot of data coming in from that little animal.

"Large cavern... two men..." she murmurs. Then she begins translating what the shrew sees to what would make sense to a human. "Height two to three men tell, ten or twelve long, five or six wide. One man surrounded by shiny... ah, by metal bars, very wild, very dangerous. One man looking at the other. Just looking. Something else... oh. A chair, a table. The room is very bright. No, no... normal light for humans. Nothing else, no one else in the room."

She's silent for several minutes as she urges the shrew to show her the way to the surface, which it does... more swiftly than she thinks is usual for the animal. It seems to sense Logan's rage and is content to leave it behind. When it reaches the surface, Andi finds a nearby hawk and they spiral upward so she can get a fix on Logan's relative location.

"He's closer to the Idaho Springs side of the tunnel, but not by much." Unfortunately, the hawk has spotted a meal far below and begins a fast dive.

"Oh gods, I hate when they do this," she says through clenched teeth. Just before the hawk reaches its meal, she jumps to a sparrow sitting calmly on a tree branch, where she waits... and watches... until her stomach settles. Then she urges the bird to wing off in the direction she suspects will be the main entrance to Stryker's lair.

Floating along on the winds with the sparrow, she watches for anything unusual in this area. Riding the winds like a bird... this must be what it feels like for Pablo when he flies. It actually is rather nice. She spots something definitely unusual, and a lot farther from Central City than she'd expected. There are hundreds of old mining roads in the mountains, and a few of them — relatively speaking; the ones that will actually allow a motor vehicle to get from one place of interest to another — have been paved into highways and minor roads and given names. A lot of them are still old dirt roads that become more and more overgrown every year, disappearing into the annals of history.

What one never finds is a paved road that goes from nowhere to nowhere. Except that is what she seems to have found. The sparrow and Andrea glide down for a closer look, landing on a tree branch near the point where an old dirt road off the Santa Fe Mine Road becomes a carefully and professionally paved road.

Her brows draw together and she tries to make out the features of the area from a bird's point of view. "Nah, that ain't right," she mumbles, "there shouldn't be a paved road there." She needs to have feet on the ground here and, more importantly, forward facing eyes! She casts her mind out and finds a wolf not far away. Wolves are bloody smart and not easy to influence... but Giraffe said it would help, so wolf it will be.

Will you aid me, wolf? she asks.

He snaps at the air and growls. Who speaks? You are not wind and you are not wolf!

I am one who seeks to drive the evil from the mountain.

He sits down and looks around — trying to see her, she suspects — then looks intently in the direction she wants to go.

Can you do so?

I can try. I have warriors and Spirits to aid me. Will you aid me as well?

Why do you need this one's help if you have spirits and warriors?

Ah, a clever fellow, this one. She's not particularly surprised; nearly every encounter with a wolf seems to come close to a battle of wits.

Spirits do not see as well as a wolf, and the warriors are too far away yet.

Apparently that's a good answer because he stands again, still looking in the direction of what Andrea believes to be the entrance to Stryker's base.

What shall I do to aid you?

Walk the path of the man's black road; let me see through your eyes.

I will not walk upon the black road. It is cursed with evil.

She gets a sense of loss, death... Andrea suspects one of his pack mates was hit by a vehicle up here. That makes her hate Stryker even more. Wolves are smart, and wolves hear well. The only way a wolf would get hit by a truck is if someone was purposefully running it down. Bastards.

I understand. Walk beside it, stay in the trees. Only let me see what is near the road, and what lies at the end of the road.

Evil lies at the end of the road. But you may journey with me. I will show you the evil.

The pavement begins at a switchback behind an abandoned copper mine, heads westerly for a short distance — for a human — before curving back to the northeast; a dirt road goes off toward the north. The wolf crosses the the dirt road to continue pacing along the paved road until they reach another dirt road angling to the northwest. He crosses that road, too, then sits beneath a stand of trees at the end of the pavement. In front of them — possibly ten good-sized strides of hers — is what looks like an old mining shack... if one doesn't inspect it too closely. The weathered wood covers what appears to be a concrete bunker. And old mining shacks don't have guards.

I will go no farther, the wolf ways. Have you seen enough of the evil?

I will find a small animal to take me closer, one that will not be of interest to the evil. I thank you for your aid. May your pack be healthy and strong.

Andi temporarily finds refuge in another small bird while looking for one of the ubiquitous chipmunks that call the Rocky Mountains their home.

May you succeed in your task of driving the evil from our lands. The pack will thank the warriors and spirits should you succeed.

She watches the wolf for a moment before turning the bird's attention back to the ground. After a moment, she spots a chipmunk and moves down for a close to the ground view of the facility. Being considerably smaller than a wolf, it takes longer to get around the building than it did to get up the road, but the information is valuable.

"No way to get in except the front door, looks like it's probably commercial garage door size. Building is solid, foundation goes deeper than chipmunks burrow, don't let the rustic exterior fool you. Two men at the door with rifles, very alert. They noticed the wolf... they're ignoring the chipmunk once they took note of it. I'll look in your stash to identify the guns. Hold on while I see if I can get a guided tour of the facility."

Again, she searches for animal life nearby, this time on the other side of the concrete barrier. After a moment, she finds exactly the tour guide she needs... a yellow-bellied marmot. What's interesting is that the tunnel and mine system Stryker has kept habitable means the marmots who live in the area have a ready supply of food year round. Not a lot, granted. Probably one harem would be able to go without hibernating, but it does mean hibernation will set in later than usual for the local harems. Usual is... oh, about a week ago.

Her guide is a yearling female, so she's small and easier to miss in the tunnel and the dug out cavern areas.

"Two more guards inside the door."

Interestingly, the Argo Tunnel is sealed off in the direction of Central City. It looks, from this level anyway, to be modern materials. Maybe Stryker sealed it off when he set up his base here. Andi idly wonders where he diverted the water that still should be flowing through the tunnel. Even during the spring runoffs, there probably wouldn't be more than a few inches of water that would — or should — soak into the earth or seep out the end of the tunnel under the mill. The tunnel heading toward Idaho Springs is reinforced and reminds her more of a really clean sewer, or maybe a subway tunnel. The marmot is uncomfortable here, but after a few minutes the reinforcements are more traditional braces, although these seem to be metal rather than wood. The lighting is much dimmer here as well... more comfortable for the marmot.

"Short distance of concrete reinforcement, very clean, very bright, and then normal mining braces. Metal, however, instead of wood."

There are some side passages, but her guide informs her that they don't go very far... at least human-sized beings wouldn't be able to get very far. Then she comes to a larger side passage; Stryker has turned this into his office... of sorts. It's the same room Andi saw earlier. The view isn't much different seeing it through a marmot's eyes. Stryker is just staring at Logan; Logan is caged and enraged.

"You'll find Logan in the first large passage — a room, really — on the right. He's..." Andi takes a deep breath as the little marmot shivers with fear. "He seems unhurt physically, but I'm not going to get close enough to make sure. He's in a cage. He's raging. Stryker — I assume that's Stryker — is just standing there, staring at him. He's alone. No guards inside or outside the room. Moving on..."

Madeline can feel Logan's rage and the primal intensity of it that tugs at her, beckons her to join it. The underlying anguish is there, too, and all too familiar. She has been in one of those rages herself and knows without a doubt that it fuels a desire to utterly destroy everything connected with the cause of the pain.

But with Charles there in her mind, she can keep her clarity and concentrate on the information relayed by Ninja. He has typically hidden in plain sight — not quite as hidden as the Alkalai base, but another place equally forbidden to most.

"He heals faster than I do. Physical pain is not the way to get to him. Stryker knows that and has used that knowledge. I recognize the pain he feels. I have felt it."

Rene places a hand on Maddie's shoulder. He knows what it is that she means.

Andi continues down the tunnel as she hears Maddie's voice beside her. It's... odd.

While there are many small crevices and passageways for animals, there's very little in the way of accommodations for humans. It's difficult to tell distances underground and in the body of a small animal, but it's quite a long distance before she comes across another room.

"Getting close to the Idaho Springs end of the tunnel, I think. Found another large room, looks like barracks. Cots, lockers. Maybe two dozen? No one in here, however."

Slightly farther down, there's a passageway leading off to the left, but there's also a lot of light and noise just ahead. Moving forward, Andi can see a gated exit to what looks like... a gift shop? Just beyond the gate, it looks as if there's a film over the entrance.

It is an illusion, says Giraffe. From the other side of the gate, no one would be able to see it.

"Well, that's some interesting magic. The Idaho Springs entrance is in the gift shop, hidden by an illusion, Giraffe says. There's a gate, metal bars, hard to tell from down here, but the lock looks like some sort of deadbolt. Nothing on this side that looks like it will set off an alarm; no way to tell what's on the other side, but it would be prudent to assume walking through the illusion would trigger an alarm."

"The gift shop entrance could be a 'pathic illusion or technology," Madeline says. "Charles and I both have tech that can do such. Stryker is certainly capable of recreating it."

She thinks her body at the cabin nods its head. Andi is more focused on the little marmot, however.

"There's a passageway just behind me that I passed up. I'm going to go back and check it out."

She turns around and heads back to the passageway. Just looking down there gives her the creeps.

"It looks too... clean, too sterile. I see doors, windows in the walls. I assume there are rooms all the way down this corridor. Giraffe, is there any way I can see into the rooms? Marmots are awfully small and don't jump that well. And this one is terrified."

Of course, says Giraffe.

A moment later, hardly more than an instant, Gorilla towers over her.

Just reach out your hand, Gorilla says, holding one of its own hands out to Andrea, and you will see what I see. The Spirit looks to one side, through one of the windows, and shakes its head. However, I am not sure you want to see what I see, Warrior.

She reaches up and takes its hand, hers feeling dwarfed in the Spirit's. One of my tasks as Diné Warrior is to be witness to what humans do to others, is it not?

Gorilla nods and looks terribly sad. Then witness the evil of humanity, Warrior.

She looks through the first window. It looks like a laboratory of some sort. There's a child, maybe five years old and so small it's hard to tell if it's a little boy or a little girl, strapped to a table, wires and probes attached to his or her head and body. Someone in a lab coat holds a clipboard and watches readings on a monitor. The child is crying. The adult in the lab coat makes a note on the clipboard, then adjusts the settings on a panel beneath the monitor. The child screams — although the soundproofing is excellent, as Ninja doesn't actually hear anything — trying to arch his, her back and escape the bindings. There may be no sound coming from the room, but Andrea can read the emotions. In fact, she can feel them wash over her — pain, terror, desperate longing for his, her parents. Her hand tightens over Gorilla's, and on the porch of the Jacobs' cabin tears begin streaming down her cheeks.

All of them, Gorilla. I must see all of them.

And every room shows something similar.

"Children. He has children."

Ninja thinks she has learned everything she needs to know, and finally allows herself to return to her own body. She silently thanks Giraffe and Gorilla for their help while she tries to contain the rage she feels building.

"Eight children."

She opens her eyes and looks at Maddie through her tears of rage, eyes glowing brightly.

"They range in age from about five to early teens. He's torturing them."

She takes a deep breath, rolls her shoulders and neck to the sounds of joints popping, then settles back into a meditative pose. It would be convincing if her eyes weren't glowing so brightly, if her lips weren't starting to peel back in a snarl.

"Death is too easy for a pig like Stryker, no offense to the pigs of the world."

"I agree that death is too easy. However, I prefer he have an easy death rather than being allowed to escape once again.

"I have refined my entrance plan. We both know Stryker is waiting for me, expecting me. I don't believe he will have me shot on sight. He wants to use me against Logan, and I'm going to let him... to a point. I'll drive right in, unarmed, turn myself in as it were. I'll wire the truck with a bit of C4 and a remote detonator and leave that with you and Masterson. That way, if you need the diversion of that, you can blow it. If not, we will have wheels out of there."

Andi nods. She can almost empathize. It's not quite the same pain she felt when Pablo left, but it's similar enough that... Well, she can understand why Logan has gone feral.

Giraffe, can you say more about the illusion in the doorway? Is it a true illusion, or created by human technology?

It is a true illusion, but not of the kind we create. It is a magic from another place.

Could it be created by human minds?

Giraffe stands up straight and looks toward Idaho Springs, almost craning its neck. It is possible, although it would take a very adept mind to create it and hold it in place.

Oh, from what I understand, this guy could absolutely find a very adept mind to create the illusion.

Giraffe looks back at us and tilts its head. I will ask Raven, Fox, and Cat to look more closely. They are the ones who know magic.

Again, she nods. "Giraffe says that it is a true illusion, created by... well, its term is magic, but that works as well as any other. Raven, Fox, and Cat are investigating to give us more information, but it would seem it's a 'pathic illusion rather than a technological one."

She simply listens to Maddie's revised plan — listens, hears, and tries not to overlay her own emotions over it. If Stryker does want her that badly, and it really seems he does, then the plan might work. Probably could work.

Ninja nods, however, at her assessment. "I'm going to want Masterson's whole squad there to secure those kids, so we should tell him to get them in the air ASAP." She drums her fingers on her thigh as she thinks out loud. "If you take the truck, I go up on my bike — I really hate being without my bike, but I could deal if I had to — and Masterson and crew come up in the Chinook, it won't matter if we blow the truck. That thing's going to take up the entire parking lot for the Mill, though."

She regards Maddie intently.

"I'm going in to pave the way for Special Forces so they can get the kids out. Then I'm coming after Stryker, too. Once that fucker is dead, I think Charles — well, Hank, really — is going to want to see to those kids. Make sure they're as okay as they can be. Find their families.

"I'm more than a little pissed off at someone who does to children what I saw being done."

"The illusion might be a little more challenging to break if it's 'pathic. It depends on the one casting it and whether the casting is willing or coerced. Whoever that is would not be kept around the others. They would have to be isolated to maintain concentration."

"Or he's built a Cerebro again," Rene interjects.

Madeline nods and sighs. "A Cerebro or something very similar at least." She pauses as Charles speaks to her.

It is possible, Madeline. He has done it before. And yes, the school is on special alert, and all your additional safeguards are active.

"Cerebro is a very special piece of technology that amplifies a telepath's abilities," she explains for Ninja. "As far as we know, the only one in existence is at the school with Charles, but Stryker constructed one before. That one was destroyed except we don't know that he didn't keep details of the technology somewhere other than the base. Charles believes it is a possibility as well.

"Did you happen to notice if the guards were wearing uniforms or were plain clothes?"

Her rage actually makes it easier to follow Maddie's train of thought, and the abrupt turn in the question about clothing helps her to return to her center, to become just a bit calmer.

"It could go either way, really," she says about the illusions. She decides that, at the moment, she does not want to contemplate this bit of technology they have. That seems extremely dangerous, and the fact that Stryker is capable of building something that complex is more than highly disturbing.

"They seemed to be wearing regular clothing as far as I could tell, but it also had some uniformity to it. It was all black, but..." But there had been something off about it. What do small animals notice? Oh. Right! "...but none of them wore the same footwear, for example. The two outside wore athletic shoes and motorcycle boots, the two inside were wearing a pair of loafers and dressy boots." She shakes her head at their footwear choices. "So pseudo uniform maybe."

She pauses, brows furrowed, as another thought comes around regarding the illusion.

"The person or people creating the illusion... would they need to be nearby? If not, would Stryker want them nearby?"

"Different shoes?" Maddie nods to herself. "That's actually a good thing. It means they are not an organized unit, at least not in the military sense.

"And depending on how strong their abilities are? Not necessarily. But Stryker would not let someone of that capability be too far away from his base of operations. It's the control freak in him."

"Well, being a control freak is a good thing because that means we — or rather those most attuned to magic — should be able to find them." She smiles apologetically. "Sorry. To the Spirits, pretty much anything 'pathic is magic to them."

"Magic is as good a word as any. I'm not one of those folks who need scientific explanations. All I need to know is that it works."

That's when Raven, Cat, and Fox appear. Raven makes itself home on Andi's lap. Fox sits beside her, leaning slightly against her arm. Cat circles the two kneeling women on the porch several times. Finally, it climbs onto Maddie's lap and gets comfortable. It looks at Fox in that haughty way cats often have, then looks up at Maddie. Both of Andi's eyebrows shoot towards her hairline. Cat looks at Maddie almost... well, adoringly. At least as close as cats can come to such an expression. It also begins purring loudly.

I like you, Cat says to Maddie. I might keep you.

She is not of the People! Fox says. Cat studiously ignores Fox as it continues to purr, and Fox just sighs. Andi gets the impression that the two of them have teased and taunted one another since the beginning of time.

Madeline looks down at the Spirit creature that has just taken up residence in her lap. There is something about this "cat" and its purr that soothes the rough edges off the primal tug from Logan. Both surprise her, and she finds herself absently scratching it under its chin.

"Oh, really?" she asks, amused. "Well, as along as you don't expect me to change my other identity's name, I suppose it's all right. Le Chat Noir has a very different connotation than La Loup Noir."

She smiles at the idea of Cat — any of the Spirits, really — choosing to guard and guide someone not of the People, and an adult at that. Not without a lot of rituals and involvement by the Ha'atathli, that is, and even then... well, she'd have to ask her cousin, but she doesn't think it's a thing that actually happens anymore.

Of course, Andi has never met Cat before, as it is not the guardian Spirit of anyone in her family. It's about the size of an average house cat and appears to be a standard American Shorthair in a sandy color. It could certainly be mistaken for an ordinary cat — on the occasions it decides to show itself — if not for its eyes, which are constantly changing color. They remind Andi a little of Quetzalcoatl's true form, but brighter... cycling through mostly the rainbow colors and very few of the neutral colors.

However, Maddie's reaction to Cat — petting it as if it's an ordinary house cat — brings a smile to her face. And it seems to be having a calming effect on her, too. It's all good.

The illusion was created by three people thinking different things, Fox explains. They sit in a small hidden room in the building with the illusion, above the illusion.

Since Andi rides by the Museum when she takes I-70 through the mountains to visit her family, she thinks she knows what Fox means. "You mean the attic above the gift shop?" She shows the Spirits what she recalls of the small boxy, windowless area of the building.

Yes, that's it, says Fox. These three seem very... what would you say about them, Raven? You spend more time among the People.

Very stressed and anxious, Raven replies. Remember when my buddy and I were being very annoying? You were stressed. These men are more stressed. And their anxiety is the same level as their stress.

"Yes," Andi add dryly, "I believe I was stressed enough to threaten you both with terrible things, wasn't I?"

At least Raven has the good sense to pretend to look guilty.

They need more naps in the sun, Cat says. They work too hard, they have no fun, there is no enjoyment in their lives.

Madeline knows she is missing large parts of the conversation. "Living without enjoyment is no life at all."

"Well, considering who they work for, that's not surprising," Andi says. "So three men, in the attic above the gift shop, creating the illusion. What else?"

Each of them creates a different part of the illusion, so it all looks to be one thing. One makes the walls and shelves; one makes all the trinkets on the shelves; the third sets a feeling of unease in the area so no one wants to go there.

And they don't like one another, Cat interjects, interrupting anything else Fox might have said.

"If they dislike one another, it wouldn't be difficult to create the feeling of unease along with the illusion, would it? How difficult will it be to get past the illusion?"

For you, Warrior, on this day, Raven says, as simple as walking from here to your flying wheeled thing.

"It's called a motorcycle, as you well know. And how difficult would it be for Colonel Masterson and his squad to get through?"

They are warriors in their own right, are they not? asks Fox. They would be strong-willed and fierce, would they not? It would not be a great burden for them to pass through the illusion.

"Okay, so we can all get through the illusion. What kind of alarms are in place?"

The casters of the illusions will certainly take note of the ineffectiveness of their illusions, says Cat. Wouldn't they be required to investigate the problem? Or report it to someone else?

"Probably the latter, I'd guess. And I know we don't want Stryker aware of our movements at that end of the tunnel." She pauses to consider that particular dilemma. "So if we break the illusion, how do we keep them from alerting Stryker? I'll assume he's clever enough to have some sort of backup warning in place if they become incapacitated or... oh, I don't know... dead, maybe?"

Raven giggles. Fox has a sly look on its face. And Cat purrs even more loudly before saying, Why, just have Coyote the trickster and Jaguar who enjoys chaos pay them a visit! You will not even get close to the illusion before these three people who already dislike one another are convinced that the other two are responsible for every unpleasant and terrible thing that has happened in their lives!

Andi shakes her head. "Really? I mean, I love the idea, of course. Paranoia can be an effective weapon, and they already have high levels of stress and anxiety. But I worry that their training or compulsion or whatever is causing them to work for Stryker will kick back in before we can get all the kids out safely."

Fox nods. Coyote and Jaguar are very good at what they do, but you must also be quick and efficient in moving the young ones.

"Okay, I'll talk to Masterson and see what he thinks." She looks at Maddie. "What do you think? I'm not sure I'm in a position to be objective about this... what with this being Halloween, and having the rare honor of most of my People's Spirits willing to help."

Oh, all of us will help if we can! says Cat.

She smiles wanly. "Okay, all of my People Spirits are willing to help."

She follows the part of the conversation she hears, continuing to pet the cat.

"If it were me, I would have a trip wire or a motion sensor there as well. However, if it is in use frequently, I would set up a sensor system that read tags carried by my people. Anyone crossing through it without them would cause an alarm. Lucky for us, Stryker isn't as paranoid as I am. However..."

"I know Stryker is a sadistic son of a bitch, but I don't know much about his operations," Ninja says. "Other than they're vile.

"But we're looking at a location that draws tourists fairly steadily for half the year, and then the occasional one during the winter season. Maybe one of the employees is one of his people. Maybe not. Between the emotional unrest being created in that corner of the shop, plus the fact that I would suspect the items on the fake shelves would be unattractive items or perhaps simply boxes of stock, it would be rare for anyone to get near the illusion.

"It would be even rarer, especially if the shelves are used for backstock, for anyone to notice the wall and shelves and whatever is on the shelves are all illusion."

Raven and Fox are both looking at Cat... Well, who can tell with the Spirits? But it still seems odd to Andi. She taps both of them on their heads.

"Stop it. You're distracting me."

She looks back at Maddie... and Cat... and is tempted to chuckle. Yes, despite the circumstances.

"But say they did notice the illusion and could actually see through it. There's still the barred door with a sturdy lock, at least as far as an average person is concerned. I'm sure I — or anyone on Masterson's squad, for that matter — would have no problems kicking it in. Even the best lock can be kicked in when the strike plate is attached to wood.

"Add to that the fact that until this past week, no one had any idea he was even out there..."

Ninja shrugs.

"Why shouldn't there be a barred door there? There are a lot of old mines leading to that tunnel, and the majority of them aren't safe. The history of the area gives him reasons enough to put a simple door, without alarms, in place... because there are dozens of similar passageways all through the canyons of that particular range of mountains.

"And if he's not as paranoid as you are?" She shakes her head. "I'd be willing to bet he wouldn't bother with alarms.

"Of course, the... ah... 'attendants' for the children are likely to make a ruckus. But since they would be more likely to need to go to a bit of trouble to raise an alarm — and I fully intend that every single one of them is dead before that can happen — I'm not sure they'll be a problem either."


Yes, Madeline?

You are in Cerebro, yes?

I am.

Do you think you could make those three think they are still creating the illusion without them actually doing it? If they are being coerced...

I might be able to manage two, but the complexities of three... If Jean were still here... There is someone who might be able to help, but I believe we both would be loathe to involve him.



What about working with Rene? His gift isn't as powerful but coupled with your ability and Cerebro's amplification...

Hmm. We could try.

Test it on Ninja and me?

Rene, could you come here?

On my way.

Rene vanishes from where he had been standing, and Madeline explains the idea to Ninja. "I figure Charles asked him to go there so they could decide what the illusion was without me overhearing. Besides, if we can trick them into thinking it is still holding, there will be less chance of an accidental alarm before the children are out. And I don't want you rushing on my account. Stryker loves to hear himself talk, so I am sure I'll be lectured somehow by him."

Then Ninja makes a face — part disgust, part annoyance — at the thought of Stryker and his propensity for long-winded monologues.

"What? Does he think he's a cartoon villain? Ugh. I'm sure I'd want to crack his skull open like a melon before Logan could prove his loyalty. I lose patience with that sort of thing far too easily, I'm afraid. I'm the one who is supposed to be doing all the talking, confusing and mesmerizing the idiots trying to pick fights. And just long enough for my friends in Patrol to show up."

Madeline snorts. "Of all the things that bastard had done to me physically, that was the worst. Give me electric shocks any day."

Her eyes catch something out beyond the drive and, her eyebrows rising, she says, "Oh. I guess they're starting the show."

A Victorian carriage is coming up the dirt drive... except it really isn't, as it appears to be moving across level ground where none exists. Rene is driving and Charles reclines in the back. Both are also outfitted in the Victorian manner.

Charles, you appear to be flying.

Give it a moment, my dear.

As the horse's hooves touch the ground, they make an audible clomping sound. The wheels hum on their axles and throw up a faint spray of dust. The carriage pulls to a stop in front of the cabin. Rene climbs down and then holds the door open for Charles, who steps out. Charles bows elegantly. "Ladies."

Just about then, Masterson and Mitch come around from the bunker, having been drawn out by the odd noise.

"What the fuck...?" Mitch asks.

"Complex enough, mesdames?" Rene asks.

Is that you or a projection, Rene?

A projection.

"Wow. Ninja?"

When the carriage was first approaching, looking awfully damn odd as it floated above the ground, it had been clear that it had been an illusion. But when it touches the ground?

To the normal five sense, their display is both charming and excellent. Well, three of the five, as she hasn't yet had a chance to stroke the horse's nose and there is no way she's going to involve her sense of taste in this experiment. But by sight and sound and smell, it all appears very, very real.

Mitch's reaction certainly confirms it.

"Colonel, do you sense anything odd about our visitors?" Ninja asks without taking her eyes from the display. She doesn't want the smile she's trying very hard to hide giving him any hints. She does sense his confusion, however.

"Other than the fact that there's a Victorian carriage in this neighborhood, you mean?"

Ah, yes... he does have a point. There are a few towns that still have carriages to impress the tourists, although the ones they use are not as close to looking authentic as this one does.

"Yes. Other than that."

He pauses a moment, then shakes his head. "No. If someone gave me a plausible reason for that thing being here, I'd accept it."

She nods, then turns to Maddie. "I can tell there's an oddness to the qi surrounding the illusion, almost as if the energy here is trying to compensate for the energy being used to create the illusion. But I'm fairly certain there's no one else on the planet who would notice, not even my teachers. And I'm not entirely sure I'd even notice any day but today."

She looks at Rene and Charles. "Will it pass muster if I pet the horse or Mitch shakes your hands?"

Charles smiles. "Give it a try."

The horse nickers in what seems to be an invitation and reaches its nose toward Ninja.

"Mitch?" Madeline asks. "Care to shake hands with Charles?"

"I s'ppos," she says warily as she comes forward and reaches out a hand.

Gallant as ever, Charles takes her hand but bends to kiss the back instead of shaking it.

"I see the weirdest shit around you, Jacobs," Mitch says.

"Thank you," say Rene and Madeline at the same time.

That is when Mitch looks more closely at the carriage driver. "Fuuuuuck. I ain't asking. I don't want to know. I'm going back to the normal stuff in the bunker. Let me know when you're done with the magic show."

Andi stands and walks down the stairs toward the horse, and makes a determined effort not to laugh at Mitch's reaction. It is simply priceless, however, so it's not easy. A random thought floats in the back of her mind that maybe she'd like to move somewhere she could keep a horse... or two. Pablo likes to ride, too.

As she strokes the soft, velvety nose of the horse, it winks at her and she laughs.

"Okay, you two are a couple of real jokers. Too bad I don't have an apple or a carrot for you."

She continues to chuckle as she walks back toward the cabin, then she leans on the stairs' handrail.

"It definitely passes muster. I felt more than what I'd normally feel of a horse's qi — and horses don't wink — but I can pretty much guarantee no one else in this world would notice a difference. Of course, after recent experiences with my guardian Spirit, I might believe a horse could wink."

We can see many glaring differences, says Raven, who has decided to stand on her head. She hates when it does that. It usually means she's going to lose more hair. But there is no need to share that with those of other realms. It giggles; another trait that just... is... not... right. Coyote and Jaguar would still enjoy a chance for creating chaos, but will refrain if that is the best way to help.

She rolls her eyes. "Raven says blah blah blah, Coyote and Jaguar still want to have fun, but will behave it that's the best way to help."

That isn't what I said! Raven cries as it plucks out another strand of hair and flaps off to settle next to Fox.

"OW! Damn it, Raven! Stop that!" Andi rubs her head where the hair had been plucked. "At this rate, I'm going to be bald by thirty five."

She takes a deep breath and sighs.

"Okay, if we still need more of a diversion, the Spirits will be happy to provide one. Masterson, can you round up your kids and head out to Idaho Springs in the Chinook? There are eight children that are going to need evac. How long will it take them to get out there?"

"They can be airborne within five minutes of my call. They stayed out at DIA, so... fifteen minutes or so air time," he responds.

She nods. "If I take my bike, it would only take me about ten minutes to get there, but I've got a no-passenger policy..." She gestures to the bike. "...seeing as it's a single passenger bike."

She looks up at Maddie. "There are two routes you could take up to the far entrance. One route takes you through Idaho Springs; you could take Masterson along and drop him off at the McDonald's or the gas station, and he could hoof it over to the museum. The other route takes you up to Central City and then down to Stryker's base.

"I'd recommend the first for a few reasons. One, it's less time on the back roads if my bird's eye view was any indication, and that means less time... I'd say maybe ten minutes, so that might not be a big deal. But going the posted limit and being careful on the back roads — something I'd recommend highly with a truck full of C4," she adds with a smirk, "you're looking at probably forty minutes one way, fifty or so the other.

"Second, of course, is that Masterson here gets a ride up to Idaho Springs.

"And third... if they see you coming and keep their eyes on you — hopefully ignoring your hitchhiker — you're going to be giving them exactly what you wanted to give them... driving up to Stryker's front door, alone and unarmed. If I'm thinking like a not overly paranoid person who is waiting for my prey to come to me, I'd expect my prey to come the easiest route. I'd expect my prey to come alone... I'd know how you'd rather sacrifice yourself than allow innocent bystanders to be killed. And if I'm not all that paranoid and completely focused on how much I really, really hate you, I'm not going to expect anyone to have figured out the secondary entrance to my base... let alone expect anyone to actually show up at the secondary entrance."

Andi shrugs. "I'm not an expert on tactics and strategy; dealing with the scum I deal with, I don't really have to be. So feel free to tell me I'm insane," she says with a grin. "It's not something I've never heard before, and it won't hurt my feelings.

"Oh!" Yes, that other little detail. She turns to Charles. "Charles, once we've gotten the kids to safety, could you send Hank out in that light speed Romulan ship of yours? They're going to be awfully messed up, hurting, scared. I get the feeling you have the resources to find out who they are before they even get back to you, and to find their families... if they still have families."

Fucking with kids. Gods, Buddhas and Spirits! There's no creature so low as one who fucks with kids. Andi agrees with Maddie that a quick and easy death is far better than letting this guy get away. The Warrior wants vengeance, but the Warrior knows the enemy must die by whatever means necessary. If quick and easy is necessary... so be it.

"They can help while you are getting the kids out," Madeline says. "That's when it will be most useful, as a diversion if necessary, but possibly getting them to trust you. We don't know what the young ones are capable of, but some might be able to see them without the Spirits intentionally making themselves visible."

Charles becomes serious at the mention of the children held by Stryker. "Yes, of course. And as I have had some experience with those that man has taken, perhaps I should bring them here to the school. We would be more able to help them in that situation."

"And once the kids are out, you wouldn't need to maintain the illusion anymore, Charles," Madeline adds. "And you can use your calming influence on them."

"Most children can see the Spirits before puberty hits if they just open their eyes and believe what they see." Andi smiles softly. Raven wasn't as ever-present when she was small, although she does recall seeing it once or twice after they moved to Japan. And she remembers Pelican staring at Justin when Mama and Dad brought him home from the base hospital. She and Justin never really had a chance to talk about them. It reminds her that she should ask him sometime what he remembers.

"And anything that will help calm the children, give them something to focus on besides their captors and their pain, will be helpful."

"Idaho Springs it is then," says Madeline. "And it won't be a truck full, just enough to light things up and certainly not stored in any obvious place. I still need to do the wiring. That won't take more than ten minutes. And I am fairly sure he will have as many eyes on me as possible. I will be the first diversion, you can blow the truck if you need another or turn Coyote and Jaguar loose."

Bear appears and stands just to Rene's side. I can dance for them! it says as it attempts the Arabesque ballet position, realizes its bulk doesn't allow for the proper form, then drops to the ground with some break dancing moves.

Andi facepalms and groans. "A dancing Bear is extremely cliche." She looks up and shakes her head as she smiles at Bear. "But watching a Bear break dance would definitely be distracting. Your traits of healing, strength and courage will help the children immensely."

She looks away from Bear, looking between Maddie and Masterson.

"You'll start the show. Head out as soon as you're ready, Wolf.

"Masterson, call your crew as soon as Wolf drops you off. If my figurings on time are right, they should arrive a few minutes after Wolf gets to Stryker's base. Call me after you talk to them and I'll come on out. Then you should head over to the Argo Museum. I'll probably get there about the same time you do if you cross Clear Creek at the bridge near the McDonald's, but I'm thinking that going in undercover might be wise so you won't recognize me. I'll recognize you, however." She grins. "Just go with the flow."

"Wolf... you'll be heading out of town from Business-70 on..." The Librarian tries to remember some of the maps the library has in their collection. Most of them are labeled with the old names, not the county route numbers they have now, and obviously she is more familiar with the older maps. "...Virginia Canyon Road. I'm not sure how well the streets are marked out that way, but after crossing Clear Creek, go past Riverside Drive, and where Colorado Boulevard, Business-70, bears left you're going to take a hard right. The old maps call it Placer Street. Then you'll want the first left, Virginia Canyon Road. About a half mile... hmm, yeah, seems about right... about a half mile or so up, Virginia Canyon Road switchbacks, so continue going forward on Two Brothers Road. Some of the road names out there can tell you a lot about the history of the area... but that's not of importance now. Two Brothers Road meets back up with Virginia Canyon Road about a mile up; you'll want to make a right turn there, and not take the switchback.

"About a mile and a quarter up, there should be a fork..." She closes her eyes to better picture the old mining map and superimpose the view she had seen from the air. "...take the right onto Santa Fe Mine Road, and maybe a half mile or so on the left will be a dirt road. That's where you need to turn. At the switchback, the pavement will pick up again. Just stay on the paved road and it will end at Stryker's base."

Andi looks from Maddie... to Masterson... to Rene... to Charles... and finally settles her gaze on Rene.

"If you let me know when you get up there, Maddie, Masterson and I will give Rene and Charles time to give the illusion makers the illusion that they're still creating an illusion..."

She looks back at Maddie.

"...and give you time to make your grand entrance."

Then she turns to Masterson. "Then we go save some kids."

"Just need to grab a few items from the bunker to get the first piece done. Charles, you two can let the illusion go now. Don't want to over tax either of you."

Charles, Rene and the horse and carriage all wink out of existence.

"There's more coffee inside, Ninja. Masterson, have you ever done any demolitions work? If so, this will go faster with an extra pair of hands."

Masterson nods. "I've done a bit in my day. Be happy to give you a hand."

"Grab a couple of bricks out of the Monstrosity. I'll go get the wiring and electronics.

"You can come along, too, if you want, Cat. I kind of like you, too."

Ninja chuckles as Cat daintily dances around Maddie, purring. "I'm actually going to take some time to practice," she says. "Better than sleep, better than coffee."

Madeline disappears around the side of the cabin with Cat winding around her feet. She isn't gone long, knowing where everything is. Between her and Masterson, the truck is rigged in very little time. As she hands over the remote to him, she says, "I assume you know how to work one of these."

"I do."

"We're rolling, Ninja," she calls out as she dusts herself off. Then she walks over to Ninja's bike and leaves her phone on the seat.

"If you need to call Charles or Freak, the numbers are there. I'd rather not have it on me when I go in.

"Saddle up, Masterson."

Ninja pauses in her practice.

"I would prefer not to have the need to call either Charles or Freak," she says, "so don't make me have to use that phone." She does nod more seriously, however, at Maddie's reasoning. "The less you have with you that will give Stryker any way to connect to your people, the better."

She watches Maddie and Masterson get into the truck... sees Cat's hesitation.

Go with her, if that's what you think you should do.

Cat looks at her, the very picture of indecisiveness. That's an odd experience for her... seeing one of the Spirits less than sure and confident. Fox will become annoyed. Others might, too.

Then I say before you and Raven and Fox and Bear... Andrea looks around to see which other Spirits are visible. ...and Coyote and Cobra that I claim her as sister. I say she is of my family and my clan and my People. Now go with comfort, O Cat, knowing none can gainsay you this choice.

Cat leaps into the truck just before Maddie closes the door, and Andi smiles. Once the truck is out of sight, she turns to continue her practice, only to come face to face with Lion. Lion is grinning broadly, a sight no more comforting than seeing Raven grin.

Most adroitly done, Warrior. Claiming those of another tribe into your own is, of course, the right of every warrior. Lion tilts its head, not in puzzlement or censure, but more as an artistic statement... because apparently Lion believes it looks regal that way. Although custom generally dictates that the one brought into the clan is a vanquished enemy.

The Warrior matches the Spirit grin for grin, head tilt for head tilt. "Customs are merely guidelines, O Lion. There are times when customs can be put aside."

Oh yes, and you are correct in saying it will ease any dissatisfaction that might have been caused by Cat's sudden... enthusiastically friendly nature. Fox and Cat banter, but that is the way between them. It may only be the Spirits of healing who would have thought poorly of Cat's choice.

"Independence and detachment seem appropriate qualities for a mercenary, she has the magic of regeneration, guardianship and mystery as one who protects the people of her home as I protect my people here, and what woman does not possess sensuality... at least at some point in her life?" she asks, smiling mischievously as she begins her practice again.

Lion laughs. I see others have given you the gift of eloquent argument. It would seem your sister has two guardians, which is probably better for her if the stories her Beloved has told are true. He insists, quite strenuously, that he is her guardian Angel and not a Spirit. How peculiar.

I am sure it makes perfect sense to him, she says, moving through her Chen 18 form for the most efficient storage of qi. And are Angels not merely another form of Benevolent Spirit?

Lion sprawls out to watch her practice, and the other Spirits gather around as well. She finds it more than just slightly bizarre that they seem just as fascinated by this practice as the children usually are.

Instead of thinking about that, however, she simply moves through her forms, watching the growing brightness of qi all around her, and waits for Masterson's phone call.

# # #

Cat hops up onto the back of the seat and curls around Madeline's shoulders; at least, that's the way it feels to her. She has no idea if that's what it looks like, or if Cat is even visible to anyone besides them. She feels Rene's presence as well.

"Masterson, I have an inkling of what might happen when I get in there and see Logan again. I know Stryker's M.O. I may very well wind up dead. Do NOT come after me or let Ninja do so. I do get back up... it just might take a little bit."

The Colonel looks over questioningly.

"I want your oath, Colonel Masterson, that you will not come after me and that you will attempt to keep Ninja from the same."

He considers arguing about it — she can see that — but he didn't get to be where he is by missing the important things.

"You have it," he agrees grudgingly.

She gives a nod then drives the rest of the way in silence. There is nothing more to say. She drops him off in Idaho Springs and heads up to meet her nemesis. With a glance in her rear view mirror, she sees Masterson pull out his phone, presumably to call Ninja.

I'm going to head to the gift shop, love... get a good look at it before Charles and I need to recreate it.

Be safe, love.

And you as well. I will see you soon. Je t'aime.

Ik houd u.

She passes the switchback and finds the paved road in the middle of nowhere. Although the ride here is much smoother, she tenses more. Cat curls a little closer, and she feels it purr even though she doesn't hear it. She drives all the way through and right up to the guards. They know the truck and are looking suspiciously at the driver.

She leans out the window and looks at the one on her side.

"My name is Madeline Jacobs. I believe William Stryker is expecting me."

The guard speaks into his radio. After being told to stand by, and then waiting a bit, the next voice that comes over the radio is Stryker himself. "By all means, show Mrs. Jacobs in. But make sure you check for weapons."

Hearing that, she shuts the engine down and gets out of the truck. Cat jumps down through the open window after she closes the door. She knows the drill and puts her hands on top of her head before the guard can say anything.

# # #

It seems like moments, but it must be at least fifteen minutes later that Ninja's phone rings. She finishes her form and answers the phone after the second ring.


"Masterson. My squad's mobilizing. Wolf is on her way up to Stryker's base."

"Copy that. I'm on my way and will meet you outside the gift shop in ten... or whenever you get there."

There is a moment of silence, a slight hesitation before he speaks again. "It was a twenty minute drive out here."

She reaches her bike and puts Maddie's phone in the small locked case where she keeps the things she doesn't really want on her person when she's out and about as Ninja.

"Yeah, so? You probably did the speed limit." She smiles as she swings a leg over and sits astride the bike. "I'm not generally hampered by such foolish notions. Ninja out."

She starts up the bike as she calls out, "Mitch! I'm outta here. We'll be back after tu amiga loca takes care of business."

Mitch comes around from the back of the cabin, looks at Ninja, and shakes her head. "The both of you es locas, chica."

Ninja shrugs and starts down the road. "Job requirement," she calls over her shoulder.

Contrary to the impression she might have given Masterson, she does head down Ballantine at the speed limit. However, she takes it up to fifty once she gets down to Colorow Road, then up to sixty five down Lookout Mountain Road. Route 40 has recently been repaved, so she really does need to push her speed up to seventy five. Really... it's a requirement on a newly paved road, isn't it? And how can she not head out I-70 at anything less than ninety-five miles an hour? Once she gets into town, especially crossing Clear Creek on Gilson Avenue and heading up Riverside Drive, she drops down to fifteen.

As she turns onto Riverside, she pulls her camouflage around her — and her bike — so that she looks like an elderly woman driving a boat of a car... in this case, a 2000 Lincoln Continental. She passes Masterson not far from the Argo Mine and Mill property, but he looks fine walking alone. He actually looks like he's enjoying the view of Clear Creek.

She pulls into a handicap parking space in front of the building, making sure there's a valid handicap hang tag on the rear view mirror. Yes, she feels a little guilty about it, but this is the off season, so she's probably not going to be depriving an actual handicapped person of a parking space. She gets off the bike, pulls her staff out of its holster and looks up toward the gift shop. What anyone else would see is an elderly woman getting out of her car, opening the back door to fetch her cane, then carefully closing the doors before looking for the handicap accessible entrance.

It's not exactly easy to find — and she feels sorry for anyone who actually does need the old elevator. But she manages to reach the gift shop before Masterson does and stands beside the door. As he reaches the top of the stairs, she waves and calls out, "Jeffrey, dear! I'm over here!"

The Colonel looks in her direction and his expression of surprise, confusion and shock is totally a Kodak moment. But it only lasts for half a minute before he manages to replace it with a pleasant and happy look.

"Now, don't tell me your mother didn't send you a recent picture of your Aunt Norma! Why, I will just have to have words with that niece of mine!"

He comes over for the obligatory hug. Ninja isn't sure if he's terrified of touching her or if he's acting like she's really a fragile old lady who might break a hip from sitting down wrong. In either case, she finds it amusing.

"Wolf made me swear not to come after her, and to attempt to keep you from doing the same," he whispers.

She pats his hand. "Shall we go inside? It's a bit nippy out here. All my friends have told me what wonderfully interesting souvenirs they have. And the tour is supposed to be absolutely fascinating!

"Oh, thank you, dear," Aunt Norma says as he opens the door for her. "It's so nice to see young people still have manners." She steps inside and looks around with wide eyes. "Oh, goodness, such a place!" Ninja looks back at Masterson. "You're not going to try talking me out of taking the tour, are you, Jeffrey?"

"I really should, Aunt Norma," he says. "I would never forgive myself if you got hurt."

"You're such a good boy, Jeffrey. Always have been. Don't tell your cousins, but you've always been my favorite," she says with a smile. "But all my friends have told me so much about the tour!"

He sighs, resigned. "Well, I tried."

"Yes, you did. You certainly can't be faulted for that, and I'm sure it was your mother's idea to talk me out of it, wasn't it?" She tsks and shakes her blue-haired lady head. "Always was a bit of a busybody, that one."

They spot the illusion over the doorway... Well, rather, Ninja spots it and stares at it just long enough for Masterson to nod slightly.

She pretends to squint at the sign with the tour times written on it. "Can you tell what time the next tour starts, dear? My old eyes aren't what they used to be."

# # #

The guard takes his time with the pat down, which is something she had fully expected. She has been through enough uninvited gropings to not even flinch. Madeline did have to stop herself from sighing in exasperation, however. And a snort is forced into a cough when Cat hisses at him. Scumbags are the same the world over. Finally satisfied she is not carrying any weapons and having had his current round of jollies satisfied, he waves her forward.

She doesn't bother to lower her arms as she walks into the mouth of the tunnel. She does, however, keep her eyes open and looks for signs of surveillance beyond the obvious. Unfortunately, going from outside to inside is like changing nearly instantly from day to night. She stops inside the doorway to let her vision adjust.

"Keep moving," the guard orders.

She takes slow, deliberate and small steps, each one bringing her farther in, yet letting as much light in as possible around her figure and that of the guard at her back. Cat stalks forward at her side, its tail swishing in irritation. After another step, the guard is able to come fully inside. The door stays open long enough to let another guard pass through to replace him outside. That also shed enough light to wink off a bit of unlit spherical glass near the ceiling.

Cameras. Low light, definitely. Possibly infrared or heat sensitive. That is something Ninja needs to know.


Yes? it purrs inquisitively.

Can you tell Raven's Warrior that the ceiling has eyes?

I can.

Madeline puzzles over that for a moment.

Will you? she asks finally.

No. I will not leave your side. But I will tell Raven.


That is just odd, but she hadn't wanted to risk contacting Rene or Charles. Stryker could very easily have a telepath watching for such communication. She isn't entirely sure the communication she has with Rene is still telepathy, but why risk it?

They move farther in and she becomes aware of a low vibrating hum that's more felt than heard. For a tunnel, the air quality is remarkably good. It smells of scrubbing. There is undoubtedly more than just the office and lab corridor here. Those air processors have to be somewhere.

Her inspection of the interior is interrupted then as the chief scumbag himself comes out to greet her.

"My dear, dear Madeline," he oozes. "It is such a pleasure to see you again. I did not get a chance to say goodbye the last time we parted."

Bile tries to rise in her throat, but she will not let it. "William."

"And there is no need to keep your hands up like that. You are not a prisoner of war."

She lets her arms fall slowly to her sides as a brow rises. "But I am, undoubtedly, a prisoner even if it is not one of war."

He laughs. "It is good to see the years have not dulled your wit and, if I may be so presumptuous, neither have they dulled your beauty. You look like you have hardly aged a day in the last decade."

"Flattery will get you nowhere, and I can't say the same for you."

He smiles. She would have said it was like the smile of a snake oil salesman, but she didn't want to insult the hawkers of fraudulent wares.

"To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?" he asks.

Her chin drops a little and she gives him a look that says Really? "Come now, we both know why I am here, and that you were expecting me."

"True. True. I have been expecting you," he admits. "Not quite as soon or as openly, I must admit, but you are always full of surprises."

Now he turns his attention to the guard that had escorted her in. "Where are Mrs. Jacob's weapons?"

"She did not have any, sir."

"None. Are you sure? You searched her completely?"

"Yes, sir. There is nothing on her person other than her clothing."

Stryker gives Madeline another greasy smile. "You have surprised me again, dear Madeline. You arrived unarmed?"

"I figured there wasn't any point in bringing weapons. You got enough of my gear ten years ago when you acquired my Humvee from the facility in Westchester."

He tsks and shakes his head. "You gave all that up when you threw my very generous offer away, killed my men, and took up with Weapon X."

"You mean the Wolverine."

"Potato, potahto," he waves off the correction. "Besides, all of that is easily replaceable by someone as resourceful as you are."

"Not all of it."

"Oh?" he asks, his brows rising. "There were items of a sentimental nature in there?"

"Don't be coy, William. You know damn well there were."

"Ah, yes... the photographs. Your husband was quite a handsome man. It really is quite tragic that you could not save him, that you arrived too late."

Going to be like that, is it, you prick??

He's prodding at her known guilt, trying to tear the scab from a wound that had already healed. She has to play into it, however. She has had years of self-loathing and self-doubt upon which to draw. She flinches, closing her eyes and partially turning her head away.

"It was a false hope..." she says quietly and with despair. "I betrayed that boy for a lie."

He comes toward her now, acting protective and fatherly. "No, my dear, no. You were only protecting your son and trying to do what was best for him. A boy needs his father, yes?"

Cat, can you help me look pitiful?

Cat doesn't answer right away but has been paying attention. Finally, it says, Yes.

"Yes, he does," she agrees, raising sorrowful eyes to him. "And Logan's the only father he has ever really known."

Stryker puts a hand to his heart in a show of contriteness. "Oh, how remiss of me to forget he had become a part of your lives. Come, dear, I think we can make arrangements so that your family can be together again. That is, after all, all you want, isn't it?"

"Yes," she sniffs.

"Tell me, how is it you came to be here in Denver anyway?" he asks as he begins to escort her down the tunnel and toward his office.

"I came out to pack up the cabin..." she says and stifles a sob.

"Oh, my poor dear. You really have never gotten over Rene's death, have you?"


# # #

Masterson is trying hard to hide his smile. "The next tour starts in forty five minutes, Aunt Norma. Would you like to sit down at the little table over there and wait while I get the tickets?"

Aunt Ninja pats his arm and smiles up at him. "Oh, you dear! I'm not so old that I need to be sitting down all the time, you know... unlike some of my friends," she says, adding a slight rolling of the eyes for good measure. "Live a healthy life, Jeffrey, that's what I tell everyone, so that you'll feel young and energetic when you're eighty five! No, no... I'd like to look at the trinkets and whatnots and doohickeys and geegaws and doodads. We'll sit and chat while waiting for the tour to start!"

He shakes his head and lets himself smile. "No one could ever get you to do anything you didn't want to do, Aunt Norma," he says with a soft chuckle.

"That's right, Jeffrey. I'm glad someone in this family realizes that."

"Enjoy looking at the souvenirs, then, Aunt Norma," he says, then walks toward the information counter.

Ninja, on the other hand, walks toward the souvenir displays, carefully inspecting some really tacky crap that was made in China. As she does so, she edges closer to the illusion hiding the gate that bars the corridor to Stryker's lair. Would 'lair' be the right word? Well, he is more of an animal than human, so yes. On the other hand, that's an insult to every animal that takes shelter in a lair, so maybe not.

She can see that Rene and Charles have not yet taken over control of creating the illusion. Looking at the energy flows around the current illusion, it's obvious the creators don't work well together. It's chaotic and messy and just plain... well, hideous from an artistic point of view. Perhaps her particular talents protect her from feeling the compulsion to stay away, but since anyone else would feel it, she doesn't move any closer.

They can wait. And she'll watch for the change in the illusion.

Raven appears on the display shelf in front of her, takes one look at the illusion she's creating, and falls over on the shelf, clutching its belly with its wings. It's laughing so hard it falls off the shelf to land on the floor at her feet with a loud thud that, fortunately, only she can hear.

She closes her eyes and shakes her head. Oh, stop it! You know I couldn't just come walking in here looking like the Warrior.

Raven pretends to gasp for breath. My lessons have paid off! You have found your true self!

What... an old woman is my true self?!? Is there an exchange policy for guardian Spirits?

Raven stands up and wraps its wings around her legs in a tight hug. No, my silly Warrior! Your true self is creative and adaptable and flexible and fierce and brave and I'm very proud of you!

She admits to herself that she's a little stunned. Speechless, even. She opens her eyes and hesitantly looks down at Raven. Ahh... okay. Thank you. Let's not get all mushy now. I still have work to do.

Raven flutters back up to a shelf so they are eye to eye. Ninja takes another made in China piece of plastic off the shelf — this one bearing a vague resemblance, maybe, to a mountain — and inspects it.

Cat has told me that its Warrior wants you to know there are eyes in the ceiling.

She considers that for a moment as she puts the doodad back on the shelf. She starts toward the table Masterson had pointed out, looking at the racks of postcards as she passes them.

Eyes in the ceiling. She's going to guess that means cameras. So Stryker is monitoring his corridors. She wonders if he's monitoring the — must not let her jaws clench, must not let her face look angry, must not let her eyes start glowing, definitely must not let her eyes start glowing — laboratory wing. She will have to assume that he is.

Raven, would you ask Rene if he and Charles would be able to create an illusion over the eyes in the ceiling while we're rescuing the children? I don't know what sort of eyes they are... just pictures, or maybe they see movement or body warmth. But Rene would know more about those sorts of things than I do anyway.

Serious once again, Raven nods. I will ask. And then it's gone.

She sits down at the table while waiting for Masterson to finish the transaction. The person at the information desk seems to be reluctant to have old Aunt Norma going on the tour of the mine. Masterson, the long suffering nephew, is patiently explaining that Aunt Norma has a will of iron and has her heart set on seeing a genuine gold mine. The young man at the desk tries to explain that the tour isn't really the best thing for elderly visitors, but Masterson merely spreads his hands as he shrugs. His posture gives the impression of conveying we might as well give in, we can't win this one. Then he points to the sign above the desk. "If you're going to let children on the tour, Aunt Norma will spend an hour bending your ear on why she's much more responsible than a six year old."

Meanwhile, Aunt Ninja sits patiently and primly at the table and looks around the room with a delighted smile on her face. She's trying not to laugh at Masterson's act.

She doesn't see any cameras of the sort that might be in the corridors... just a single, obvious, normal surveillance camera. That may or may not actually be working. Of course, just because she doesn't see them that doesn't mean they aren't there. She'll have Masterson take a look when he's finished gently browbeating the clerk. Of course, she would be remiss if she didn't take a close hard look at the clerk, as well.

She can tell a lot about a person by looking at their aura, looking at the qi flows around them and through their body. She doesn't normally take a that close a look at people. She normally doesn't need to. Today, however... ah, today is a good day to question everything.

The poor guy is clearly worried. However, other than that he appears not just normal, but Normal, in every way. His concerns seem to stem from some memory he has, although she has no way of knowing what it might be. Perhaps a previous elderly person was injured on one of the tours? That would certainly make sense. He's earnest, trying to do his best, worried about... getting in trouble with the manager? Worried about losing his job? Masterson's assurances — that Aunt Norma is certainly more robust than she looks, that Grandma Anne, Aunt Norma's mother, is still alive and well at one hundred and nine, healthy and wreaking havoc and creating scandals in her retirement community — seem to be dissipating the young man's worries. Yes, perhaps this old woman will be fine looking at the mine.

And as the brochure says, it's a very safe tour.

Finally, Masterson has the two tickets, and walks over to the table, sitting down across from Ninja. "You did this," he says quietly, indicating her appearance, "on purpose to torture me, didn't you?" At least he's smiling.

She folds her hands on the table and looks at him with an innocent smile on her face. "On purpose, true," she responds just as quietly, "but not to torture you, I swear. Who's going to question the actions of an old lady? You can always claim senility if anyone asks why Aunt Norma did whatever I do to cause a ruckus."

"Right. After I just spent five minutes convincing the clerk you're a solid, healthy, upstanding citizen," he says grinning.

"Your defense of my character and my onset of senility are not mutually exclusive, you know," she says, returning the smile. "Business, now. Raven says there are surveillance cameras in the corridors; I don't see any in the shop except the obvious one by the cashier's station, but I don't know what I'm looking for either."

He looks up at the ceiling. "You're right, Aunt Norma," he says in a normal tone of voice, "those beams do look ancient. They probably are the originals." He continues inspecting the room carefully. "But everything seems to be very well maintained. It's really quite impressive; they've done a wonderful job here." He turns back to me and whispers, "Nothing. And the camera near the cash register is a fake... a high-end fake that probably cost more than a cheap real one... but still a fake."

"Well, color me silly," Ninja responds softly. "Here I just thought they'd turned it off."

Masterson grins. "I recognize the model. I have the same one outside my house."

"Why you sneaky sneak!" she chuckles... just before Raven reappears.

Rene says those watching the monitors can be fooled for a time.

"Rene and Charles will be able to fool whoever is watching the camera monitors for a time, which I'm going to translate as a short time," she says, continuing their quiet conversation. "How far out is your crew?"

He pulls out his phone while she gives him a disapproving look. "Sorry, Aunt Norma. Sometimes work just gets in the way," he says as he taps out a text message.

"My goodness, you'd think they'd be able to manage a day, just one day, without you so you can visit with your dear Aunt," she says with an offended sniff.

"I know, Aunt Norma. I would have thought they could manage, too. Apparently, I was wrong," he says, sounding slightly annoyed as he glances at the return message. "Just setting down," he continues quietly, "ETA under two minutes."

"Are they in uniform or civvies?" she asks, again softly.


"Cool. Let them know they've only got a few hours left on their leave, and whichever one of them wants to play native absolutely insists the mine tour is a must."

He raises an eyebrow, although he begins typing the message. "You're really getting into this," he says, sounding maybe just a tiny bit nervous... as in worried about her sanity nervous. He finishes the message, then puts the phone back in his pocket.

"This is only the second time we've worked together," Ninja says while appearing to look haughty. "How do you know I'm not like this all the time?" she winks, then continues speaking in a normal tone. "I certainly hope you told those people who work for you that they need to shape up or ship out."

"Now, Aunt Norma, you know that's not the sort of thing you want to tell someone in a text message. It's something better done in person."

She sighs and rolls her eyes. "Oh, I suppose you're right, Jeffrey."

You really are having a good time using Coyote's gifts, you know, Raven says with a grin.

Oh, hush you! she says to Raven just as Masterson's squad starts filing into the gift shop.

"Tell me again, Zelka, why we ought to be doing this? Seems kind of dumb to me," Sergeant Castelli says.

"What, crawling around in underground tunnels isn't your idea of fun, Sarg?" Chief Warrant Officer Toleman asks jokingly.

"Hey, I had enough of caves and that crap in Afghanistan to last me forever," Castelli responds.

"Guys, come on! We only have another six hours before we need to be back on base. I promise it's a great tour, and gold mines aren't anything like the caves in Afghanistan," Sergeant Zelka, the only woman in the group, says. "Been in both, so I ought to know." She throws her hands up in the air. "Oh, come on! It's HISTORY, you guys! If you're going to be stationed in Colorado, you ought to experience a little more of of the state than just eating at Beau Jo's and teasing the flyboys."

"Mmmmm... pizza," says her buddy Sergeant Bradway. "I'm in if there's pizza at the end of the tunnel!"

Zelka pokes his arm. "Bradway, you're a dork."

There was more general griping and grumbling; both Masterson and Ninja are trying hard not laugh.

"They're good," she tells him.

At that he grins. "Would you expect anything less of Special Forces?" he asks quietly.

"Guess not." She flashes him a grin before turning to watch the newcomers.

Raven, let Rene know we're all here and are ready to go once he and Charles have control of the illusion.

Raven nods and disappears. That's still kind of weird. She should be used to it by now, shouldn't she?

The squad seems to have almost come to an agreement. Almost.

"I dunno, Zelka," Castelli says, still reluctant. He turns to Captain Murray. "What do you think, Cap?"

Murray holds up his hands and says, "Oh, no you don't. I said I'd go along with whatever you people decided. My only job here is to keep you lunatics from embarrassing the Colonel, which is going to become difficult if you keep this bickering up," he concludes with a smile.

Despite the fact that they had immediately noted their Colonel's presence, they are doing a superb job of pretending they don't know who he is. Her presence has all of them bemused, although — again — they are doing a superb job of pretending she is exactly who she appears to be... an elderly woman.

The clerk is watching them with great interest. One does not need to be a telepath to know what he's thinking; his body language and facial expression are so easy to ready. Oh, happiness! A large tour group in the off season! Oh, happiness!

Castelli groans and rolls his eyes. "Fine! I'll go on the damn tour, Zelka. But if we ever get leave out in New Jersey, I pick the outing!"

"Fine, Castelli, you got yourself a deal. I hope it involves Mafia dons," she says with a smirk, before heading over to the information desk to arrange for the squad's tickets.

Captain Murray notices that she's watching them... well, actually, he allows himself to be seen noticing her, as he noticed the moment she turned to look at them. He steps over to the table where Masterson and Ninja are sitting.

"I apologize, ma'am, if my men were disturbing you," he says, the corners of his mouth twitching in a smile. Logically, he knows the old woman in front of him must be Ninja, but his aura is crackling with amusement.

"Oh, they're no bother, General. You should see when all my nieces and nephews and children get together!" she says, waving away the apology. "It looks like we'll all be going on the tour together! Isn't that wonderful? I'm Norma Anderson, and this is my nephew, Jeffrey Masterson."

Murray chuckles and allows himself to smile. "I'm just a Captain, ma'am, and I'm pleased to meet both of you. Sergeant Zelka seems to think the tour is well worth the trip."

Raven returns again, and squawks at the sudden appearance of eleven more people.

Relax, crazy bird... this is just the rest of Masterson's squad.

It looks around, inspecting each person, before nodding.

I approve. And the illusion is in place.

"Oh, my friends all say the same thing! Now, until a moment again, I was sure my eyesight wasn't completely gone. Your Sergeant Zelka doesn't look like a man to me," she says. Then, much more softly, "The illusion is under our control. The door behind it is a plain, barred door with a simple lock... I shouldn't have a problem kicking it in."

Murray nods. "It's the Army way, ma'am. A bit backward, maybe, but while we're in uniform, we tend to refer to the women as men." He lowers his voice significantly but grins at Aunt Ninja. "Seriously? You can kick in the door. You don't look a day under eighty."

She snorts. "Silly notion." And that in response to both his public and his private statements. "I was aiming for eighty five, so thanks," she says quietly. "And yes. I'm a lot stronger than I look, even when I don't look eighty five. We're going to have to move fast because there are surveillance cameras in the halls, and I don't know how long our illusionists can keep those watching the monitors from seeing what we're doing. There are eight children who need to come out alive. No one else on the other side of that door needs to."

Murray's eyes grow wide, and he glances at Masterson, who is stony faced. Masterson gives him the slightest nod. "Acceptable losses?" he asks, even more softly.

Ninja shakes her head. "Terminate with extreme prejudice."

Murray's face goes blank, and he straightens, then walks over to a rack of postcards to absently peruse them.

"He hates doing that," Masterson whispers.

"Yeah. I got that. I'm not a fan either, but in this case..."

"I know," he says.

She takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. "I think we're ready to move," she says. "You want to introduce yourself to the others on the tour and let them know how this is going down?" The Warrior looks him in the eyes. "Are any of them going to have a problem with extreme prejudice?"

He returns my look, unflinching. "None of us like it, Ninja. But we do what's necessary."

She nods once. "You're all good people. You're the first bunch of military folks to make it on my Christmas card list."

He raises an eyebrow and just looks at her for a few seconds. "You're crazy."

"Thank you," she replies, completely deadpan. "It's a job requirement, I think. Go talk to your people."

She watches as he stands and walks among the people of his squad, pretending to introduce himself to them, occasionally pointing in Ninja's direction. She smiles and waves. She also has a chat with Raven.

Rene and Charles will be ready to switch illusions the second I kick in that door?

Raven bobs its head. They will be ready. I will watch, I will make sure all is well. Are you sure Bear should accompany you?

Not really. On one hand, Bear can be very funny. On the other hand, Bear can be large and intimidating.

Raven tilts its head to one side. Perhaps Bear would be more helpful amusing the children once they are out of harm's way.

Probably. But we could still use some help calming the children. Charles will be able to help once we have them out of the... rooms, once they're beyond sight of the cameras, but until then I need him and Rene to keep Stryker's people from knowing what we're doing for as long as possible.

Raven sidles closer and leans against her arm. Dog and Butterfly have offered to simply be a visible presence. Children often find these forms comforting, do they not?

Yes, in many cases.

And Monkey has reluctantly agreed to act, in its words, foolish... if that will help.

Well, it might. Guess we'll just have to see. And that's very generous of Monkey.

Monkey will help to add its trait of success to this endeavor. If foolishness is needed... foolishness will be provided.

Masterson is standing among his squad, smiling — probably something they rarely see — and chatting with them... while keeping the group between the clerk and the illusion covered door. She stands and walks over to Murray.

"You ready, Captain?" she asks, regarding him steadily.

He puts the postcard he'd been staring at back in the rack and nods. "Yes, ma'am."

"Oh gods, do you have to call me ma'am?" she asks with a quiet groan.

That gets him to smile a bit. "Yes, ma'am, I do," he says. "You outrank me."

She looks at him suspiciously. "I'm a civilian."

He leans down to whisper in her ear. "You're a Super Hero, Ninja. To us, you rank at least as high as a general." He straightens up, stands almost — but not quite — at attention. "Ma'am."

"Oh goodie," she mutters, "just one more thing to drive me crazy. Good thing it's a job requirement."

"If you say so, ma'am," Murray replies with a hint of a chuckle.

"Jeffrey dear!" Aunt Ninja calls out. "You really must see these postcards." She looks across the shop at Masterson, then jerks her head towards the corner where the illusion is.

He nods and, in an instant, he goes from simple nephew Jeffrey to Colonel Jeffrey Masterson of the US Army Special Forces. "Fall in, people. The civilian will take point. There are eight hostages, and I expect all eight to be retrieved."

Ninja, Warrior, the Protector of Denver walks towards the corner, shifting her camouflage again. She tries to pull in every story she's ever read to the children and becomes The Fairy Godmother. Not any specific one, but recognizable as the archetype Fairy Godmother. Her staff becomes her magic wand. Every Fairy Godmother needs one of those.

She turns to make sure the squad is right behind her. The clerk is sputtering almost incoherently. "Hey! Hey! What are you people doing? Hey! Stop it! What's going on?"

As Ninja turns back to the illusion, she hears Masterson say, "If I were you, son, I'd tuck myself under that counter and not come out for a while."

She takes a calming breath, then takes a step forward past the illusion and executes a deadly sidekick against the door, at the point where the locking mechanism meets the door jamb. Being deadly, the lock doesn't stand a chance, and perishes... allowing the door to swing free.

"Okay, wizards, I hope you've switched your feed," she mutters as she walks quickly through the door and into the corridor.

Rene and Charles have revised their illusion, Raven informs her.

Great. Damn, how many of you are here? It feels like... almost all of you, she says as she walks the short distance to the laboratory corridor and turns into it. She's sure she looks like something out of... okay, yes, she'll say it... something out of a fairy tale as she moves down the sterile hallway.

Almost all of us are here, Warrior. Cat refuses to leave her Warrior, those among us who provide the healing gifts wait outside. Those who do not believe their gifts will aid this endeavor are with Cat and its Warrior, to use their gifts against the great foe. Raven hesitates, then continues in an amused tone. Rabbit is sidling close to the great foe in the hope that its gifts of timidity and nervousness will help Cat's Warrior in even a small way.

Ninja pauses at each pair of windows, looking inside. Some of the children appear dazed and lethargic, the rest are sobbing and trying hard to escape their bonds. But as she pauses at each window, the child and the minder see her. The children's eyes widen... those who are dazed and lethargic seem to gain a bit of energy, those who are sobbing and railing against their bonds calm down. They all smile; or, at least, they make the attempt. The minders, on the other hand, freeze — each with a look of shock on his face. The hesitation gives her time to move to the next set of windows and the Special Forces people behind her the opportunity to break down doors and move into the rooms.

They know the drill. Eliminate any threats. Rescue the children. When she reaches the end of the hallway, she turns back to see Masterson standing at the end of the corridor; at least one of his people is in every one of these eight cells, doing whatever needs to be done.

And a moment later, Conway steps out of the first room cradling one of the smallest children in his arms; the child has his or her arms wrapped around Conway's neck, but looks up at the Fairy Godmother and relaxes a bit. She blows the child a kiss. That's what Fairy Godmothers do, right? She watches as Conway turns the corner and knows one child is safe.

The Spirits are a huge presence, at least to her. Only Butterfly has made itself seen so far, but she feels an abundance of peace, and she knows Deer is going from child to child to child. It's possible most of these children can see the Spirits... they all seem so young.

Raven, how much time do we have? How much longer can Rene and Charles hold their illusion?

At the rate Masterson's people are moving, they will be out of here in under three minutes. She hopes they have that much time.

# # #


There is a clang, and Logan looks up as the cell door swings open. Madeline stands there, beckoning to him. "Hurry. We don't have much time. They'll know I'm here soon."

He follows her out, not knowing where he is or how he got here. The place lets out into a forested wilderness, one that is familiar and yet not.

"I'm sorry it took so long," she says when they are about a mile away.

He looks at her quizzically.

"Logan, it's been three years."

He comes to a standstill. "The children?"

She won't look at him as tears roll down her face. "I couldn't get to them in time..."

A knife goes through his heart, and his blood runs cold. "Dead?"

"Leon is," she sniffs.

"And the twins?"

"Please, Logan, don't make me say it," she begs.

His brows lower and he demands, "Who are you?"

"What?" she asks, surprised.

"You are not Madeline. Where is she?"

Fear comes over the woman's face.

"I... I..." is all she manages to stammer out before her head disintegrates and Logan wears her blood and brain matter.

She is the first to wear Madeline's face, but not the last. He searches for her for... he doesn't know how long, but he can't find his way out of wherever he is.

And then he wakes up one morning, on a cot, inside a cage. A voice near him says, "He's coming around, sir. Hang in there, buddy, you're going to be okay. You've just had a rough time of it in spite of your healing factor."

"Logan," another voice says, this one familiar. "Good to have you back among the fully living."

"Stryker!" he roars and rushes toward the voice, only to be impeded by bars.

Stryker doesn't even step back. "I know what you are capable of, Logan. I took precautions."

"Where is she?! What have you done with her?!"

Stryker looks puzzled. "What have I done with whom, Sergeant?"

The title of address confuses him enough that he stops his rage, or at least pauses it. He looks down to see that he's dressed in a military uniform. He feels dog tags resting on his chest. He is confused now. He sees her face, but suddenly her name escapes him as a searing pain shoots through his temple.

He roars with pain that brings him to his knees.

"I'd have the medic give you something for that, but we both know it won't do any good."

Logan curls his hands around the bars, claws snikting in and out as his head pounds. Finally, the pain subsides and leaves, and with it goes the questions he had asked, leaving behind only the confusion. His breathing takes several minutes to even out. When he finally looks up, he is more confused.

"Colonel?" he queries, leveraging himself up. "What... happened?"

"I'm not sure you are ready to hear it, son," Stryker says sadly. "I just need you to pull yourself together. We have work to do. If you think you can keep a rein on that temper of yours, I'll have the Corporal there show you to better quarters and get you something to eat."

Something is wrong. His instincts are telling him this, but he can't figure out what it is that is out of place.

"Sir? What's going on?"

"We were infiltrated, Logan. There was a spy in our midst, and I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. If it were not for your healing factor, she would have killed you."


"Yes, she. She gained your trust despite your misgivings. The woman is very good at what she does. I'll give her that. It's a shame we can't bring her over to our side."

"Who, Colonel?"

"Why don't you get some food and rest, and we will discuss it after. I have some things I need to attend to at the moment."

"Yes, sir."

After Stryker has left, he turns to the Corporal in the cell with him. He sees the medical corps patch on his sleeve. Logan has not been in need of a medic... ever. "How long was I down?"

"Over a week, Sergeant," he answers, moving to the cell door and punching in the code to unlock it. Swinging it open and leading the way out, the Corporal adds, "The Colonel said you would recover, but I didn't believe it until I saw it. That Jacobs woman really put a hurting on you..."

"Jacobs?" Logan asks following the man out.

"Crap. Don't tell anyone I told you, okay, Sergeant? I'm not even supposed to know. I just overheard them talking about her."

He leads him through a door and down a long corridor.

"What did she do to me?"

"Sliced open all your major arteries at once then punctured all your organs. Wanted you down long enough to get away, I suppose."

The whole story seems beyond fishy. "What? I just stood there and let it happen?"

"Well, um..." the corporal stutters, then flushes.

He waits until Logan is beside him, then leans in and speaks in a low voice. "Um, I, um, was told that she, um, fucked you senseless, so you were just kind of lying there."

His eyebrows go up. "I think I'd remember something like that."

The medic is still flushed. "Yeah, you'd think."

Logan stops as he gets flashes of imagery. He scowls as he tries to make sense out of them. Dark hair, olive skin, green eyes.


Logan shakes it off but asks, "You didn't happen to overhear what she looked like did you?"

His escort looks around uncomfortably but decides to answer anyway, "I heard she was a hottie for a cougar."


"Yeah, you know, an older woman. Well, maybe not older to you, but..."

"I get it."

"Maybe you can ask the Colonel. Here's the mess hall. Figured you'd want something to eat first."

The smell of food makes his stomach growl. "Good idea."

As he gathers up a tray and food, others come over. Men he can't put names to, but they all seem to know him.

"Good to see you up and about, Sergeant."

"Welcome back, buddy."

"Be more careful where you put that thing, eh, Logan."

Apparently the corporal is not the only one who has heard the scuttlebutt. He doesn't remember any of it, any of the people here, maybe the woman. The only recognizable person has been the Colonel, although he seems so much older. He is still trying to figure out why the sound of his CO's voice had enraged him. He tells the corporal he would rather eat in his quarters, if possible. The medic obliges; his explicit orders were to suggest it strongly.

Over the next few weeks, Stryker brings him up to speed regarding the infiltration, and what the spy had done and had taken. It is in that last session that Logan finally says, "Look, sir, I know you've told me all this happened, but I still don't remember any of it. I don't even remember her name or what she looks like. And who let her into the base in the first place?"

Looking contrite and rubbing his hands absently, Stryker sighs and says, "I am afraid I am the one to blame. I brought her in. Although she was a mercenary, she had good credentials and good recommendations. I figured we could use her infiltration skill to go places most of you can't... You didn't trust her from the start, but I asked you to give her a chance and told her she would have to win you over."

"I understand she did that."

"Yes, yes, she did."

"Maybe it's a good thing I don't remember."


"We should find her and find out what she did with the information she took from us."

"I have had people working on it."

"What's her name? Do you have a photo?"

"Her name is Madeline Jacobs," Stryker answers and pulls an image up on his computer and turns the screen towards Logan. "And this is what she looks like."

The eyes capture him. There is another flash of memory.

The weight of her laying on top of him, those eyes looking up through a fringe of lashes and bangs.

"Love Wolverine," she says.

His hands curl into fists. Yes, she had gotten to him. She had convinced him the she loved him, and he loved her too. And, yet, she had betrayed them. People, his friends, his squad members had died because of her. All the evidence had been laid out before him.

Why, Madeline? Why?

His eyes show the anguish of his heartache, but only briefly. His pain quickly morphs into anger. "I want to be a part of the team that brings her in, sir."

"I thought you might, Sergeant. Don't worry. I'll let you know when we have a solid lead."

"Thank you, sir."

Stryker's desk phone buzzes. "If you'll excuse me, Sergeant."

"Yes, sir."

Stryker smiles like the cat that ate the canary as Logan leaves his office. He only wishes he had tried this years ago. The man is too valuable an asset to leave as a free agent.

# # #

Stryker puts his arm around her shoulders. It's all she can do not to damage him seriously right then and there. She does tense up, which results in a stronger hug from him. He doesn't need to know her special ability just yet, and all those guns would likely make it necessary for her to die. Temporarily.

I am going to need to bathe in bleach...

"Come, my dear, my office is just this way. Can I offer you a drink?"

She swallows. "A drink would be good."

Her eyes rake over the cage half of his office, the empty cage. Where was Logan? Had he been moved so quickly? It can't have been more than an hour since Ninja had asked her friends to show her around. She collapses in one of the chairs, deflated.

"All I have is scotch," he offers.

"Scotch is good," she says.

He pours the drink and sets it down in front of her. As he takes to his chair, he asks, "I take it you would like to see Logan?"

She sips at the scotch and tries not to seem too overeager. "I would."

He picks up the phone and pushes a button. After a moment's pause, he speaks into it. "Have Logan escorted to my office."

# # #

Elsewhere on the base

There is a knock on his door and a voice calls out, "Hey, Sergeant, the General wants to see you in his office."

He had been inspecting his dog tags, emblazoned with a single word. Wolverine. He tucks them back under his collar and stands, straightening his uniform as he does so. Unlike everyone else on base, he does not carry a weapon. He does not need to. He joins the messenger waiting outside to escort him to Stryker.

As they walk to the waiting office, it dawn on him that the man had referred to Stryker as a General and not a Colonel. "The man get a promotion since I saw him yesterday?"

"What?" his escort asks.

"You called Stryker General, not Colonel."

"Oh, that," the guy says nervously. "It's just something we joke about, you know. The man will be a General someday, so we call him that to save time."

"Uh huh. Right, bub."

Logan knocked on the door. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

That does cause Madeline to look up in surprise. It is undoubtedly Logan's voice, but...

"Come in, son," Stryker calls amicably, that smug smile directed squarely at Madeline.

The door swings open, and Logan stops in his tracks. He growls. There is no mistaking the animosity directed at her. She feels it like a punch to the gut.

"Look who came to see us, Sergeant. Well, you actually."

"Did you come back to try to finish the job?"

Madeline is speechless. She was prepared for the raging, feral Wolverine, not good soldier Logan.

"She said she came to see you, Sergeant. I can give you some time alone if you would like."

"Has she talked yet, sir?"

"Not yet."

"I can change that."

"Do you what need to, son. I'll be down the hall."

Stryker steps out through the door Logan had entered. Madeline stands up slowly.

"Logan?" she asks.

"Madeline," he responds, his voice cold.

It's déjà vu. It's almost like when she faced Rene that last time. He had recognized her, briefly broke through, before the programming had taken over again.

"What have they done to you?"

"What have they done??" he echoes, taking a menacing step forward.

She does not flinch or retreat from him. She is not afraid of him, had never been before; she saw no reason to start now. And, unlike Rene, she does not have to worry about killing him, accidentally or on purpose.

"Are you working for Stryker now?"

"I always have. And now you are going to tell me what you did with the data you stole from us."

"Dear gods, he's messed with your head again," she says. She closes the distance between them and cradles his face in her hands.

He stiffens but his claws do not extend. "What do you think you are doing?"

"Remember me," she says.

"I remember you all right. You won't get another chance to betray us," he tells her. "What did you do with the data?"

She looks into his eyes and sees someone she does not know there. "If I tell you, will you kiss me once more?"

He grimaces as through the thought was distasteful. Finally, he says, "Yes, but if you lie to me, I'll kill you."

"I sold it to Eric Lenhnsherr. He has a bone to pick with William Stryker."

That tidbit is for the watchers, Stryker in particular. She doesn't know what story they had told Logan, but she is willing to play along.

"Did he hire you to do this?"


"And me? Us? It was all part of your cover?"

"At first, yes. But I do love you still."

"We'll see if it's in your kiss."

He kisses her then. She kisses him back, trying to will him to remember. Perhaps some part of him does as he cups the back of her head. She feels his other hand roam over her and come to rest over her stomach. Two of his claws shoot out and pierce her lungs.

She gasps in surprise and sorrow. "Why, Logan?"

"You will never betray me again."

She coughs and sputters as her lungs filled with fluid. "Mercy," she gurgles.

Logan can't be that cruel and gives her the mercy she asks for, the middle claw slicing up and piercing her heart. She dies near instantly, and when she does his soul tears, breaking whatever control they have over him. He looks down in horror at what he has done then roars his grief.

# # #

Ninja stands at the corridor end of the sterile hallway with Masterson. He's keeping a watch down the tunnel; she's monitoring activities down the hallway.

Raven returns as Chief McCaffrey carries a dazed little girl towards them. Her qi is in complete disarray, similar to the homeless people who huddle outside the library's doorway talking to themselves. Whatever Stryker's people have done to her, they've hurt her mind. There is no forgiveness for that sort of thing. She knows Charles and Hank will do their best for all these children. That's their job.

Her job is to help Maddie and Logan make sure Stryker never hurts another child, another person again.

She touches two fingers to her lips, then touches them to the child's forehead as McCaffrey waits for Masterson to nod an all clear.

"Good people are waiting to help you, little one."

Rene says they can hold the illusion as long as you need. The guard rotation will be the problem. He says to keep your eyes and ears open.

She looks down the hallway, wishing she could do more to move the children out faster. The minders are all dead, and she feels no remorse about that. Masterson's people are as gentle as they can possibly be, but the children are in such pain that even the most gentle touch only adds to their pain.

Thanks, Raven. Would some of you help with the watching? Masterson has his eyes open, I am listening well, but we are only two.

Crane is vigilant; Bear waits to defend; Lizard moves to defend.

She nods. Chief Collins and Captain Murray are supporting the oldest child, a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen. He doesn't have the strength to walk but seems too stubborn or proud to let them support his legs in a seated carry. Ninja takes a few steps towards them.

"Child, let them carry you," she says gently. "You will have time later, so much time, to prove your bravery. Now, we must hurry you all to safety."

His eyes glaze over from the pain of his nervous system betraying him, but he manages to croak out a question. "Are you really a fairy godmother?"

"Yes, dear. Today I am. Right now, I am. Please... let them help you."

He nods, and the two soldiers swiftly grasp the other's forearms and sweep the boy off his feet.

"My name is Jake," he says after a whimper that he can't contain. "Will I see you again?"

She leans forward and kisses his forehead. "I'll try to find you again before you are all taken to safety. I might look different... but I think you'll know me." She smiles at him, then nods to Collins and Murray.

Lizard has found a hive of others! They belong to the great foe!

Are they moving around?

No, not yet.

"Guys, we need to hurry this along. One of the Spirits has found a squad of Stryker's men. They're not moving yet, but it's only a matter of time."

Sergeant Fraser and Lieutenant Fourtris each step out of separate rooms holding crying children. Both children reach out a hand to the Fairy Godmother, trembling and weak. There is such little comfort she can give them, but she chose this guise to help them feel safe enough to accept the Special Forces personnel as their saviors. Damn, they look so tiny and malnourished! She pauses to place a kiss on each hand.

"Now, let the Knights take you to safety, children. Go, go."

Chief Toleman carries a little one who is crying silently and sucking his thumb. It nearly breaks Andi's heart to see children in so much pain. She brushes her fingers lightly over the boy's forehead. He looks up and pulls his thumb out of his mouth long enough to say, "Mama?" She can feel Toleman's anger welling up, and rests a hand on his shoulder.

"Peace, Chief," she whispers, then looks at the little boy again. "No, sweetie, but I have friends who will be looking all over for her, okay?" He nods, still crying, thumb firmly back in his mouth. She looks at Toleman and lightly squeezes his shoulder. "Go, Chief. The healing Spirits will do what they can for him."

"Ninja! We can't get these bindings off in here," Castelli calls from the room behind her. She notes that Lieutenant Phelan is watching the tunnel with Masterson, and Sergeant Conway carries a weeping child from the room in front of her. She takes a moment to kiss the little girl's forehead. It seems to help them, and if it's all she can do, she's going to do it, damn it!

"Hurry, Conway... go," she says before stepping into the room where Castelli and Bradway and trying to remove the bindings from a child who is thrashing and screaming. She's small, like all the rest, maybe seven or eight and far too thin.

Deer? Dove? Frog?

We are here, Warrior, but the girl's mind is in another place, Deer says. Dove is trying to reach her, to return her here. But it is difficult and takes time.

I understand.

The Warrior looks at the thick leather straps holding the child down; there needs to be some slack for them to be unfastened, and her frantic movements aren't allowing for that. She might be able to cut them...

She looks at Castelli and Bradway. "If I get rid of the bindings, can the two of you handle her?"

They look at one another, then back at Ninja. Both nod and Castelli says, "It won't be easy with her thrashing about, but yeah... we can manage."

She quickly untucks the sheet that's under the girl, pulling the bottom up over her legs, threading — with no small amount of difficulty — the sheet under the straps; then one side across her body and tucking it under her then does the same for the other side.

"It's not the best swaddling, but it should help you carry her."

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop her wiggling that's keeping the straps too tight to unfasten.

"Hold her down; I'm going to try burning through the leather."

While they move to comply, she pulls qi into the lao gong point of one hand and passes her hand over the lower restraint — as close to the edge of the gurney as possible — while letting a trickle of qi escape. The restraint almost seems to evaporate. She lets out a sigh of mild relief and quickly cuts through the other two restraints.

Castelli and Bradway are lifting the girl even as she says, "Okay, get her outside. Try to keep her restrained until the Doc can get here. I don't know what a sedative would do. Her mind's lost, and sedation might make it impossible for her to return to herself."

They hurry out the door, and Ninja follows them.

Dove and I will stay with her, Deer says.

"Roger that, Ninja," Bradway says. Masterson is already motioning them out into the tunnel and through the doorway, so they don't need to pause.

Which is a damn good thing.

"Incoming. Six pairs of feet, I think."

The next couple of seconds are surreal in the way they seem to stretch into minutes.

She sees Castelli and Bradway carry the girl through the doorway.

She sees Masterson kneel at the juncture of hallway and tunnel, his gun held steady and pointed in the direction of the approaching footsteps.

She sees Phelan backing out the doorway after Castelli and Bradway, gun steady and also pointed down the tunnel.

She hears the footsteps coming closer, coming closer.

She feels her qi building, gathering, focusing in her lao gong points.

She hears a shot. It sounds entirely too loud. But it comes from the people coming down the tunnel, from Stryker's people.

She can see the disruption of the qi. She can see the bullet's intended target.

She knows that Lieutenant Phelan's kevlar vest is not going to protect him from a bullet that is intended to shred his femoral artery.

And she has an empty mind as she moves with her greatest speed to dive in front of Phelan. She feels the bullet shatter a rib and tear through a lung, and she thinks she can feel it exit close to her spine.

Then time returns to normal as both Phelan and Masterson fire on the six approaching men, as Ninja drops to the ground hurting like hell, as six oncoming enemy soldiers become six dead enemy soldiers.


Fuck, fuck, fuck!

She's hurting and itching, and just plain pissed off. But she's listening for more guards.

Lizard says there are no more near you. But there are others elsewhere.

Great. Thanks, Raven.

Phelan and Masterson are both kneeling beside her. Bizarrely, she's managed to maintain the fairy godmother illusion. Blood soaks into the beautiful white and blue and pink beaded ball gown in two spots. She notes that there is more in the front than the back. Isn't an exit wound supposed to bleed more than the entrance wound?

Fuck it.

All she knows is that she has yet ANOTHER ruined turtleneck.

She coughs and spits out some blood.

"Will you guys back off and stop acting like nervous nellies? Christ, you'd think you've never seen anyone get shot before."

They exchange looks over her.

"Uh, that's a near fatal wound, Ninja," Phelan says.

"Is not. Just shattered a rib and tore through my lung." She coughs again, spits again. Good. Less blood, more phlegm. "Would have been fatal for you, buddy. Was heading right for your femoral."

She closes her eyes. Breathing is still painful on that side, but getting easier. Oh, but by the Gods, Buddhas and Spirits, the itching is driving her crazy! She starts to sit up and, being the gentlemen they are, Phelan and Masterson assist. She leans against the wall; the pain is nearly gone. She has one more coughing attack — that neither aggravates nor causes any pain, so she's pretty sure the major healing part is over — and spits out only pink-tinged phlegm.

She opens her eyes and starts to stand. This time when Masterson and Phelan try to help, she waves them off. The dress looks awful, and she drops the illusion. At least black hides blood stains. Yep. Hole in the front of the shirt. She reaches around to her back and groans.

"What? Are you okay?" Phelan asks.

"Do you know how hard it is to repair leather? It's not like I can take the vest to a tailor and have them fix it! They're going want to know why there's a bullet hole in the back! Arrrgh!"

The two of them look at her as though she's crazy. She knows she isn't. She's very serious. Repairing leather is not easy. She idly wonders if she can get Mrs. Peregrine to patch it for her.

Then Masterson bursts out laughing.

Ninja looks at him, rolls her eyes and sighs. "Yeah. Laugh it up, GI Joe. The Army provides your fancy uniforms for you." She shakes her head and takes another deep breath. No coughing!

"Now the two of you get out of here. I'll have Raven let Rene know the kids are out and he can have Charles send his Doc out here. I need to find Wolf."

Phelan nods and heads out into the gift shop where the rest of Masterson's squad tends to the children, and where Phelan gets to deal with the appalled-looking gift shop clerk.

Masterson lays a hand on Ninja's arm. "I'm supposed to attempt to keep you from going after her."

She looks at his hand, then at his face... and smiles. "How much pain do you want to endure in that attempt that will fail no matter how hard you try?"

He returns the smile and removes his hand. "I believe I've endured all I'm willing to endure."

Raven appears, flapping its wings and spinning dizzily, looking... panicked?

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Cat says bad things are happening! Hurry! Hurry!

Her face reflects Raven's unease, and she says to Masterson, "Gotta go!" even as she starts running down the tunnel, leaping over the dead bodies of Stryker's men. Normally she's fast; today she's even faster.

Tell Rene to have Charles send the Doctor...

She skids to a stop in the doorway, and time seems to stretch out again, each instant lasting forever.

She sees Logan and Maddie kissing.

She sees his hand move to her stomach.

She hears his claws snikt out, stabbing Maddie. Her sister.

She hears Maddie ask, "Why?"

She hears him respond with some bullshit about betrayal.

She is moving again then as she hears Maddie beg for mercy.

She is behind him with her staff raised as she hears his third claw snikt out.

An almost physical pain knifes through Rene. Maddie. I have to go. Charles does not respond. He knows what has happened. All he can do is wait.

Her staff hits the back of his head as he begins howling.

Rene arrives in the room just as Ninja strikes Logan. He looks for her spirit.


Here, Rene, she says, coming to his side and twining her hand with his.

Time returns to normal. She senses Rene's arrival. She knows this was part of the plan. And she needs to play her part. That doesn't make it any easier.

My sister!

Ninja looks quickly around the room with sight and hearing and her connection to qi as she backs away from Logan and Maddie's body, away from Rene and Maddie's spirit. Stryker is not here. Cat is utterly furious with Logan.

"You fucking moron!" Ninja yells at Logan. "Where the hell is Stryker?"

Settle, please, O Cat. We play a dangerous game here. Your Warrior will return, have no concern.

Its eyes whirl faster and faster, its anger growing. You swear this, Warrior?

I swear this, Cat.

Madeline had known it would likely be necessary to get Logan to kill her. She also knows, first hand, what it will do to him. Her anguish is nearly as great as his.

I wish there had been another way...

I know, love.

Cat winks out of existence at the same moment Raven, Lion, Coyote, Cobra, Fox, Alligator and Opossum appear. Ninja has not, and will not, take her eyes off Logan. Her posture is clearly defensive; there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that she will do her best to beat the living daylights out of Logan... should a certain someone be watching.

The great foe has fled. Can you find him?

There are those who can, Cobra replies as it wraps itself around her waist. Why do you hesitate in striking the one who killed your sister?

I am not hesitating. I'm waiting to be sure her death broke the spell the great foe placed on him.

You are clever, Warrior!

Yeah, maybe you'll get me to believe that once we've eliminated the great foe.

Logan is in such great internal pain that he hadn't even noticed Ninja's staff splitting open his head. He cradles Madeline's limp form against him and retracts his claws. The moment she dies he realizes he has killed his Mate, as her death rips a hole in his heart and soul. He gently lowers her into the chair. "What have I done...?"

He kisses her forehead and swears, "Be at peace, Mate. You will be avenged."

He knows then that Stryker had lied to him, had tricked him, and his grief turns to anger. In the emotional turmoil, he has still not remembered the thing Stryker does not know. His vision turning red with his building rage, he stalks back out through the door he had come through, his claws audibly extending.

Okay, Ninja is going to admit to being a little surprised.

Be at peace, you will be avenged?

She's beginning to think Stryker did a serious Cuisinart move on Logan's brain. He ought to know Maddie will be back... it will just take a little time.

Well, at least he didn't say, "By Grabthar's hammer, you will be avenged." Small favors and all that.

Ninja watches his rage build, however, and knows that at least part of Logan is back. When he turns and stalks out of the room, she changes her appearance again and follows him silently.

Rene, give me a heads up when Maddie's ready to follow.

Will do, Ninja.

Madeline's spirit twitches. It's starting, Rene. Lights.

Then she is gone from his side.

Her body convulses with a sudden intake of breath as she comes back nearly as suddenly as she had died. And then the room goes dark. Rene is standing at the light switch.

"Fuck," she curses, her breathing labored.

Ninja looks down at herself, a little freaked out at how well this illusion stuff works. She seems to be floating several inches off the ground; her hand looks exactly like Maddie's smaller one... except for the added bonus of being, ah, transparent.

She wonders how Stryker will react to seeing Maddie's ghost? It's probably too much to hope that he pisses himself. Wonder how well she can imitate that crazy person look of Maddie's? Well, Andi will sure give it her best shot.

I think it's very good, says Cobra with confidence.

Okay then. Let's go find that gangrenous old bastard, shall we, Logan?

Rene kneels at Madeline's side. "Maddie?"

"Almost there," she growls and begins pushing up from the chair, except...

"Can you get off of me, Cat?"

"I was worried."

"I appreciate that... but you're also heavy right now... and it's hard enough to breathe as it is..."

Thankfully, Cat jumps down and she gets herself out of the chair. She pats the desk and finds the glass, downing the remaining liquid. She can't let good scotch go to waste. "Remind me to come back for the rest of that bottle, Rene."

She rolls her shoulders and cracks her neck.


"Already following Logan."

"Come on then. Let's join in on the fun."

She moves a bit stiffly toward the door but would be back in top form momentarily. "Which way did they go?"

Ninja, did you turn left or right when you left Stryker's office?

Take a right, she tells Rene. And you might want to hurry. Logan could probably spit fire right now.

"Right," he says, and they turn down the corridor in that direction.

Ninja follows the very angry Wolverine — and really, this is Wolverine, the efficient killing machine, and not Logan, the father and lover — down the corridor.

I don't get it, Rene. It's like he can't remember Maddie is like him now.

There's a lit doorway ahead; that's where Wolverine's attention seems to be focused. She has to keep reminding herself to contain her anger, control it. Having glowing eyes would totally ruin the effect of being a ghost. Or would it? Well, it would give Wolverine a clue that someone's following him — and shouldn't WOLVERINE know someone is following him? She'd have to figure that out later. The point is that she'd rather he not see Maddie's ghost until he has a chance to see Maddie.

She hears footsteps behind them. Apparently Wolverine's hearing is nearly as acute has her — Shouldn't it be more acute? What is going on? — because an instant later he turns his head to look back down the corridor. Ninja takes the opportunity to slip past him and moves as quickly as possible toward the lit doorway. Maybe camouflaging herself as a ghost actually gives her ghostlike qualities? So very confusing.

Stepping into the room — or is that floating into the room? — she looks at Stryker sitting at the desk drinking his scotch and she grins. She hopes the grin has a fair dose of madness to it.

"Oh, William, William..."

She laughs her mad scientist laugh, the one that always gets the kids squealing at Story Time. She can't help it! Maybe this is why Henry is always blaming things on Coyote. Maybe she should, too.

"He's coming for you, William."

Hey, why is everybody always blaming me for stuff? Coyote asks from beside her.

It might have something to do with your reputation.

Now it's okay for her to feel angry, to allow herself to feel the anger. Now she can let that anger show through her eyes.

Really? That's wonderful! I like that.

Rene is on Madeline's right and Cat is on her left as they move down the corridor. Her Spirits pace her, increasing their speed as she does. Despite the uniform, she knows it is him from the set of his shoulders. The extended claws would have cinched it had she any doubt.

Fade, she tells them as he turns at the sound of her approach.

His rage wavers only momentarily as he sees her. She stops where she is, out of arm and claw reach. She does not fancy having to heal up once more. It would take too much time.


His voice is rough and guttural, a sign of his feral nature being in the forefront. "Madeline?"

She holds her arms out to the sides, stretching the fabric of her shirt to expose the three rents. She heals, her clothing does not.

"Stryker," she begins.

"I'm going to kill him," he growls.

"Not if I get to him first," she challenges.

"Hunt?" he asks with a feral smile.

"Hunt," she agrees with one of her own.

He turns and continues the way he had been headed. She no longer fights the primal nature that pulls at her. She welcomes it and lets it wash over her. But she does have the presence of mind for one last thing.

Charles, log out and look for the other one. Help him, Rene.

She jogs to come up beside him and together they go to face Stryker.

They can't enter side by side, so Logan goes through the doorway first. His bulk hides Madeline's slight frame, but once he is fully through the door, she steps in and to his left.

Anything they might say is preceded by the form of Cat jumping up on Stryker's desk and hissing angrily at him.

When Wolverine and Maddie step into the room, Maddie is between Ninja and Wolverine.

"Woopsies," Ninja says as she changes her appearance again.

For a split second, she considers dropping the illusion completely. But today is the day she has come fully into her role as the Warrior. Instead of her entirely black outfit, she wears pants and a woven shirt the color of the desert sand, with beaded stylized designs of the primary Spirits helping her today — Raven, Coyote, Cobra, Lion, Alligator, Fox, and Opossum. She wears a necklace of cylindrical wooden beads interspersed with turquoise. Instead of braids, her hair is bound on each side with strips of cloth for the three or four inches closest to her scalp; the rest hangs free. She wears a headdress with a wide leather band studded with turquoise, two feathers dangling down each side, and a crown of dozens of eagle feathers.

Well. She hadn't intended THAT. Wholly inappropriate for a Diné!

Today, you have the right to wear the Great Chief's war bonnet, Warrior, Raven says.

Right. Well. Who is she to argue with a Spirit? Oh, right. She has been arguing with Raven for months. It doesn't seem the time to argue about wearing a Lakota war bonnet at the moment, however.

When Cat jumps up on Stryker's desk and begins hissing, she rests her hands on her staff and just waits. It's extraordinarily rare for a Spirit to do what Cat is doing.

Cat has always been... different, Opossum says, sitting on her shoulder and running its tiny pays over one of the feathers that hangs near her ear. But we like it. Cat is an excellent guardian.

"Cat doesn't seem to like you much, Stryker," Madeline says.

Stryker's eyes move from the cat on his desk to Wolverine and then to Madeline. He seems puzzled. "I know he killed you."

"I got that. And that's the second time you've orchestrated me getting killed by a husband. I'm getting really fucking tired of it, too."

Stryker shifts a bit and an alarm begins to sound throughout the complex. The sound of many running feet can be heard, but neither Madeline nor Wolverine seems to care.

"No one's going to save your ass this time, William."

A soft click sounds from under the desk. Near simultaneously with the following blast, Wolverine vaults over the desk. Madeline moves, too, but around the desk, her intent to push Ninja out of the way. However, the Warrior hears the click, too, and her reflexes are lightning fast; she hops backward before Maddie can push her. The modesty panel on the desk disintegrates, as does part of the door Madeline had closed as she had entered. By the time — mere seconds — Madeline gets to Stryker, Wolverine already has him pinned against the back wall.

"Damn," she says. "You beat me to him."

Even with Logan's hand around his neck and his growling visage in his face, Stryker is still trying to talk his way out. "Come now, Madeline, Logan, can't we come to some agreement?"

"As long as you end up dead," she replies.

She touches the back of Wolverine's hand, the one not around Stryker's neck. He glances over. "Together, Mate?"

His claws retract. "Together."

She curls her hand around the fist he makes, and then their joined hands slam into Stryker's midsection, right below his breastbone, forcing the air from him. Tough to talk when you can't breathe. The claws snikt out, sliding easily between Madeline's fingers, through the uniform, the kevlar vest and into the soft flesh underneath. Instead of pushing up under the ribs, Madeline pulls Wolverine's hand down and out, shredding all the abdominal organs.

Wolverine lets go of Stryker's neck, and he slides to the floor with his viscera spilling around him. Madeline doesn't even try to step out of the way of the wash of blood. It is not as slow and painful a death as she would have liked, but it will do.

Ninja steps around the desk, however, as Stryker's lifeless body slides down the wall. She looks at Wolf and Wolverine, down at Stryker, and back up to the lethal pair. Her eyes narrow and there is a slight pout around her mouth. She taps her staff on the floor... once, and not too hard.

"Damn it, you grown ups never let the kids have any fun!" she complains.

Then she steps over to Stryker and rams her staff down on his neck, crushing cartilage and — more importantly — severing his spine.

"That's for Sally, asshole."

Then she kicks the lower part of his skull, hard.

"That's for Ben, asshole."

She kicks him again, in the same place, just as hard.

"That's for Dick, asshole."

One last kick makes sure every bone is broken, every nerve fiber, muscle tissue, tendon, ligament, and blood vessel in his upper neck is shredded.

"That's for fucking pissing me off, asshole."

She looks up at Wolverine. "If I had a knife, I'd finish the job. Would you mind cutting it off?" She glances at the door. "Then we need to get out of here."

Ninja steps back and looks Maddie in the eyes, knowing that hers are glowing slightly.

"Extreme prejudice. All of them."

With a single claw and a swift stroke, Wolverine decapitates the dead man.

"Extreme prejudice," Madeline agrees. "Let us lead the way."

"Thank you," Ninja says to Wolverine. "And yes," she replies to Maddie. "I don't heal from dead like you two."

"It is a handy thing," she agrees, then turns to rifle through the desk drawers. It doesn't take long for her to find what she's looking for, although the item does give her pause.

"Son of a bitch..."

She pulls out a pearl handled Colt 9mm and check the clip and chamber.

"You're lucky I can't kill you again," she says to the body as she pops the clip back in.

Ninja raises an eyebrow at Maddie's reaction to the gun, but does nothing else except drop the illusion of Diné... well, not with the Lakota war bonnet... Damn, she hates that Pan-Native shit. But she drops the Warrior Chief illusion. As evidenced by the illusion's persistence when she was shot earlier, she doesn't think it will be problematic to hold onto the illusion.

But damn it, if she's going to be kicking ass, she's perfectly fine with letting those asses know who's kicking them. And that would be Ninja.

"Wolverine, you got point," Madeline says.

He grins and growls eagerly before saying, "Door."

As Wolverine flattens himself against the sidewall, Madeline does the same, urging Ninja to follow suit.

Maddie's urging is almost superfluous; Ninja's back is against the wall almost before Maddie finishes her motion.

There are enough footsteps outside moving at different speeds and gaits that she doesn't have the time to concentrate on figuring out how many there are. At least eight people... she's not even going to guess at how many more there might be.

There is an initial pounding, followed by someone calling out, "Sir? Are you okay? Sir?!"

Then someone tries the handle. Madeline and Wolverine each move to either side of the door, Wolverine being on the swing side. The knob twists fully and the latch disengages. Madeline crouches and waits.

The door is cautiously pushed open by the barrel of a rifle. Madeline grabs the barrel and pulls hard, surprising the person behind it, pulls him in and rips it out of his hands. A quick swipe from Wolverine ends any chance of resistance that one might have considered; those behind him open fire.

Swinging the weapon around and sliding to sit on the floor, Madeline waits until they stop. Then she leans out and shoots out their knees. Wolverine moves around the door and leaps over her with claws out to finish what she started.

Watching Maddie and Wolverine working together, totally in sync, is pretty awesome. Having always worked alone, Ninja can't even imagine working in partnership like that with someone.

Then she looks out the door and sees that the two of them have eliminated this squad of goons.

Giving Maddie a wry look, she says, "Again?"

Any idea how many more of the great foe's men are left, Raven? And where they are?

Lizard says there are two small hives and a large hive. It points a wing deeper into the mines. The large hive is farthest away, very far. One small hive is close to the large hive. The other small hive is not far from here.

Are any of them moving towards us?

The closest hive appears to be stirring.

Wonderful, she responds sarcastically. How many men in a hive?

Lizard is not very good at counting... Raven says, then trails off. Coyote bats a paw at Raven.

Now is not the time to play games with the Warrior. Coyote looks at her, almost apologetically. The small hives are six men. The large hive is a group of four smaller hives.

She shrugs. "The Spirits say there's a six man squad not far from here; they appear to be stirring. There's a twenty four man team much deeper in the mines, and another six man team not quite as far in as the large group." Her brows draw together as another thought comes to her. "Hang on..."

She looks at the assembled Spirits, including Cat, who's scratching at the floor near Stryker's body as if trying to cover... ah... yeah. Ninja shakes her head and looks at the others.

Are there any structural weaknesses we can exploit to trap — or even better, kill — the hives farthest away?

They look among themselves for a moment, then Lion replies, I will ask the Great Mother if there is a way she can move to trap the hives without harming those who live within her, or those who live above on her skin and in her hair.

She nods to Lion. Thank you.

As Lion disappears, she says to Maddie and Wolverine, "Lion's gone off to ask Mother Earth if she can trap the farther squads without harming anyone or anything else. I have no idea how long that's going to take.

"I don't suppose there's any way to take out their communications system?"

Wolverine is already moving deeper down into the tunnel. Madeline searches one of the bodies and pulls a mic and earbud from it, as well as another rifle and extra clips. The Colt is tucked into the back of her waistband.

"Looks to be standard issue," she says of the communications device as she slips the earbud in. Her eyes search the ceiling. "There are probably repeaters to boost the signals and get them around corners, but without direct access to the main it's a waste of time to take them out."

Tapping her ear, she adds, "Besides, we can listen in."

She looks down the tunnel.


He stops and looks back. She signals the information she's picking up from the acquired radio regarding the approaching unit's formation. He nods and walks right up the middle.

Madeline offers the extra rifle to Ninja as she begins to follow him. "Know how to use this? They've split, two men on each side of the corridor and another pair hanging back and aiming up the middle.

"Rene and Charles are trying to find the source of the mind fuck, too. Whatever they did to him was more than just taking him to that other place.

"Well... we, I, the Spirits can't strategize about how to deal with the place they took him until we know what it looks like." And that annoys her. Oh, not the waiting to figure things out... Ninja is okay with that. She's just annoyed at the fact that Logan was taken to someplace none of the Spirits nor Quetzalcoatl had ever hinted at.

And she shakes her head at the offer of a gun. "I'm only a fair shot still. My palms are much more accurate," she says absently. "I take it Wolverine is going up the middle. I'm ambidextrous, so you pick your side, I'll take the other."

They're still far enough away that she doesn't hear the oncoming squad's movement, but she suspects that's not going to last long. She starts pulling qi into her lao gong points.

"No, not the place itself. There's a way to do what they did to him if you have the time and money to stage the whole thing... or a strong telepath.

"And yeah, he's going up the middle. But I don't think there will be any left for us, hence the rifle. It's the only way I get to take any out."

Ninja narrows her eyes and glances at Maddie; she can feel her lips starting to curl. "Are there any other people out there like Stryker who can do this sort of thing? I need to know if I should start a hit list."

She glances down at her palms then, whirling with energy only she can see. "Good thing I have a fairly good range," she says, then looks up at Maddie again with a really not very nice smile. "Although the farther away they are, the less dead they get and the more they just hurt for a while wishing they were dead before they actually die."

"What? You mean mind fuck a person so they don't know what's what? Yeah, lots. But that's a long convo we don't have time for right now."

She aims and squeezes off a couple of shots as the first set comes into view. Wolverine growls when they go down before he can reach them.

"Hurt's good. Dead is better."

"Dead it is, then," she responds as she aims both hands at the first man in the second set, pulling qi from around her and focusing it in two tight blasts of energy. One blast hits the man square in the face, burning off skin and tissue down to the bone. The other blast hits him just under the sternum and slices through to sever his spine. He doesn't even have the time to scream in pain like Tsui had. Left behind is the stench of charred flesh and burning fabric.

"Ooops," she says, almost contritely. "I forgot those are more powerful today." She shrugs. "Oh, well. One for me, one for Wolverine."

The first six are dispatched fairly quickly and they keep moving. Madeline speeds to catch up with Wolverine, who is only stalking steadily forward and not running. Ninja has a much easier time keeping up with him. They travel only about another ten feet when Rene appears before them. Wolverine strikes, but his claws slice harmlessly through the air as Rene becomes transparent.

"He's with us, Mate," she tells him. "Rene, did you find him?"

"Yes, I found her. There's another small warren of tunnels off the end of this one."

"Willing or not?"

"Not sure."

At Madeline's look, he says, "You should see for yourself. And you aren't going to like it."

"Ninja?" she queries. "Isn't that where the last twenty four are?"

"Not sure, let me find out..."

Raven? The large hive... is there a female among them?

I don't know. Lizard can't tell...

Raven is unable to finish its thought before Coyote picks Raven up in its mouth, shakes Raven hard several times, then lets Raven go skidding down the corridor in the direction from which they'd come. She stares at Coyote open-mouthed for a second, snaps her jaws shut, then decides maybe half a conversation is better than no conversation right now.

"What the hell is wrong with you two??!"

Raven has not been...

And now Coyote is unable to finish its thought before Cat hisses.

"Raven and Coyote are fighting over you, Warrior."

Ninja looks at Cat, stunned. Then looks at Coyote. Then at Raven, who is waddling back up the corridor.

"Are you fucking kidding me? In the middle of a shit storm of a mess, the two of you need to act like five year old children?!"

Cat makes a sound like... well, like it's coughing up a hairball. She turns back to look at it.

"It's not just them," Cat says, before proceeding to daintily clean one paw.

She looks back at Coyote, who has stretched out on the floor and tucked its nose between its front paws. Fox is on the opposite side of the corridor in the same position. If Alligator had front legs long enough, it would be in the same position. All of their eyes are rolled up looking at her. Raven is leaning against the wall, its head under one wing, pretending to sob. Cobra and Opossum are conspicuously absent, which Ninja decides she's going to take as a good sign. And she had sent Lion off on an errand.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, then stretches her neck to each side, cracking it loudly.

Lion returns then, looks at the three prostrate Spirits and one sobbing Spirit, sniffs with disapproval, and says to Ninja, Great Mother does not believe it would be possible to move in such a way to achieve your goals without harming innocents.

She nods. "Well, then we deal with the hive. Now will somebody please tell me whether or not there is a female among the large hive!"

They did not tell you? Lion asks, indicating the four misbehaving Spirits.

"No. They did not tell me anything." She is quite aware that her eyes are glowing, that she is building up to nearly the same level of anger and frustration that she had when Raven and Quetzalcoatl were being complete idiots.

Lion glares at Coyote, Alligator, Fox and Raven. There is. She is... Lion glances at Rene and then Maddie before turning to Ninja again. She is very disturbing.

"What do you mean?" she asks suspiciously.

Lion just shakes its head.

Her eyes flare with a burst of angry frustration.

I will remind these, my siblings, of their duties and responsibilities, Lion says as it walks over Coyote, Alligator and Fox... as in, he uses them as a rug.

Ninja looks back at Maddie.

"Yes, she's with the last twenty four. And from what Lion says, I don't think I'm going to like it either."

Madeline's face goes stone cold.

Rene, what are you not telling me?

He just shakes his head. She knows he is disturbed by what he had seen.


Madeline, I have my theories but... As Rene has said, it's best if you see for yourself.

The words from Charles are colored with worry and concern, and not all of it is for her. Now she is worried, too.

"Fuck this," she says.

She picks up another rifle from one of the fallen and pushes on past Wolverine, Rene, and the bodies, rifle held at the ready.


Wolverine glowers and follows after her. They come on the next squad of six and she has four of them mowed down before they can even think to mount a defense. When the last two take aim, Wolverine takes them out.

They continue down the tunnel toward the last twenty four and the female.

With a backward glance at the Spirits, Ninja follows Maddie.

Get them sorted out, would you, Lion? And Raven... stop acting like an ass. We've had this discussion before. Behave yourself.

It really does make her wonder if there's an exchange policy for guardian Spirits. She supposes she should be making a list of things to ask Tommy the next time she sees him.

"Wolverine, spare the female... for now," Madeline requests as they approach their destination.

The remaining squads are set up and waiting for them. Twelve barrels are leveled and waiting. Without a word, Wolverine steps out in front of Madeline and charges them. They fire. Rounds rip through him where there is only flesh, others are stopped cold by his metal-laced skeleton. His rage increases with each hit.

Their guns almost stop him in time, but it's too late for the first line. It's too bad for the second that Madeline had been right behind him, and when he drops she opens up. Her gun clicks to empty and she begins to use it as a bludgeoning weapon as she fights her way to the door.

Ninja thinks she has the hang of this now. She waits behind Maddie while Wolverine clears the first rank, gathering qi, feeling Mother Earth herself lending her power. When Wolverine drops and Maddie starts on the second rank, she finally has a clear shot at those behind the ones Maddie is dropping.

She doesn't have time for delicacy and precision. One hand slices across necklines, but that's just an approximation... upper shoulders, lower jaw, middle of the head. It's eerily bloodless, as the energy blasts cauterize any wounds they make. Where she doesn't run the risk of injuring Maddie, she aims lower with the other hand... gut wounds, mostly, although one... er... dips a little lower than that. Unlike the goons with head wounds, none of those with gut wounds are dead. But they're certainly overwhelmed with the pain, and very likely wishing they were dead.

Ninja can see Maddie starting to stagger; she's taking a hell of a beating. One of the three goons still standing sees her...

Ut oh...

All Madeline knows is that she must get through them, to whoever it is that is beyond them. The female... the one neither Rene nor Charles will tell her about. Both are worried, uncomfortable, and that usually means — especially with Rene — that they are trying to be protective. But... but she had sensed that there was something else as well, with both of them pulling back and not being as open as they usually were. Even with the pull of Wolverine's primal nature she can feel it.

Those beyond, however... with only an empty gun and her hands and feet as weapons and a need to not kill that other person accidentally... She is taking more precautions, holding back the Berserker rage that wants to break free. Her healing factor can't keep up with the damage she's taking. Then one of them gets a lucky shot in, boxing an ear but good, shattering her eardrum. Her balance suddenly gone, she is reeling.

The goon aims and fires all in one motion, which is good for Ninja in the sense that he's not aiming high enough for it to be a head shot.

And it's really, really bad for her that the fucker seems to be some sort of telepath because he actually anticipates her dive to the side... a dive that is considerably higher and longer than an ordinary human could manage.

Oh, gods damn it all to fucking hell that hurts I hate you!!

As she hits the floor, Ninja grabs as much energy from Mother Earth as she possibly can and points her hand at the man's face.

The sound of his gurgling scream as his face begins to fry off is... well, it's not as satisfying as she had hoped since her gut is on fire.

Wolverine draws in breath and pushes himself up as the flattened bullets are pushed out by his flesh, the spent rounds dropping with oddly musical sounds. He raises his head to look for his Mate and sees her begin to fall.

Two men are left, trying to keep a very determined but rather wounded Maddie away from whoever is in that room... that's when Ninja hears Wolverine getting up. She can't think for a moment because his roar is deafening... at least for folks like her with hypersensitive hearing. She's facing the wall on her side, going absolutely insane from the itching in her gut as it heals, so she can only hear each foot as it hits the floor.

Oh, those last two guys are dead. They just don't know it yet.

Wolverine roars and lunges at the man intending to shoot his Mate in the head.

She hears him, hears her Mate's roar of protest even though she can't tell from what direction it's coming. Not with the room spinning and the floor coming at her... or is it a wall? She bends a knee and drops to it, her hands seeking purchase on a floor that has to be there. She closes her eyes, waiting for the tattered remains of her inner ear to repair itself.

Something rushes by her... her Mate by the feel and scent of his rage. Counter it all, a softness drifts across her hands, and it takes a moment to realize that it's Cat.

Thank goodness it's Halloween. Ninja would be lying here for twenty minutes if it weren't. She can hear Wolverine moving, she can hear an awful crackling thud and a sound from Maddie. Ninja hears death... more violent than the last she had dealt out. She hears a buzzing, sees a fleeting image pass in front of her eyes.

She takes a breath... one that doesn't hurt quite as much as the last one.

The fleeting image holds still in front of her eyes. She blinks and focuses. She smiles a crooked half smile.

Heya, Hummingbird. Long time, no see.

Hello, Warrior. You need to get up now.

Oh, I'd love to. Getting shot in the gut... darn, I just don't like it. And it takes a while to heal. Even today.

Hummingbird lands on her shoulder, as light as a feather. I've come to help. You will be needed. Your sister will need answers.

She likes that... 'your sister'. It's nice to have more family. On the other hand, she can feel tissues knitting back together even faster than they were before. In addition to the unbearable itching — how the hell does one scratch a pancreas or intestine, anyway? — healing this fast is a little, possible a lot, nausea inducing. She closes her eyes.

And you think I'll be able to give her the answers? Ninja asks, completely skeptical.

Oh, yes. Her Beloved can guess. You can say with certainty.

She's still skeptical. But despite the insane way some of the Spirits have been acting here, she feels like Hummingbird is on the side of the line with those still relatively sane. Hummingbird is guardian Spirit to Aunt Alicia's mother, and the few times Andi has met Mrs. Tallsalt, she and Hummingbird were always a wonderfully settling force.

Between one breath and the next, she can tell that everything has been knit back together in the proper way, in the proper places. Her meridians hum with energy. She opens her eyes again, feeling great.

Wolverine swings at the remaining grunt and sends him flying to crash and shatter against a wall.

Then he sees... Her...

"Please, Wolverine," she says.

That is all he hears as three years of memories crash in on him as he stares at Her. Except... He turns slightly, just enough to see Madeline where she kneels without losing sight of Her. He growls warily...

Wow, that really feels a lot better. Thanks. Even the itching has stopped!

Hummingbird floats off her should to hover in front of her face, radiating happiness.

I am happy to have helped. You must get up now. Your sister needs you.

Right. She hears a body crash into a wall as she stands. She hears Maddie say, "Please, Wolverine," as she walks to the door. It sounds... odd.

Finally, things stop moving and swaying in an odd and unnatural way. The bruising fades from her cheekbone and the swelling disappears. Madeline gives Cat's head a stroke before pushing back up to her feet. She notices the near quiet first, the only sounds being Wolverine's harsh breathing and a soft... sniffle. She looks at him, sees the odd look on his face and the strident rising and falling of his chest.

She moves toward him, but her second step brings her to where she can see the female. She stares into a tear-streaked face that is her own.

Beyond Maddie and Wolverine, Ninja can see... the person Rene and Lion found so disturbing. She stops and steps to the side as she hears Wolverine growl.

Rene, give me a very clear picture of what your mother looks like.


Okay, she'll admit that probably did seem like the most random non-sequitur ever.

Never mind why, just do it! Hurry!

Not only does Ninja get a physical image of her, but Rene also gives her a sense of who she is... her character, her personality. She uses his image to create her next camouflage. He didn't say, but she seems to just know this image of his mother is from a time close to when Leon was born. She hopes she can come close to doing the woman justice. Ninja will say one thing for the woman... she's got much better taste in clothing than either the Warrior or the Librarian. Oh, right, right... Maddie is part of that whole fashion world thing.

Her mouth opens in surprise and works without sound before she finally says, "What in all the nine hells?? Who the fuck are you?"

"Madeline Jacobs," her own voice tells her.

Ninja / Marie steps into the room as Maddie asks her lookalike who she is.

She stands beside Maddie as the... the Other answers.

She raises an eyebrow, managing — she hopes — to look slightly offended. She looks at Maddie and lightly touches her shoulder. "Madeline, ma chère. Permettez-moi, s'il vous plaît."

As Ninja approaches the Other, she senses apprehension. Well, that's peculiar. Then she feels Hummingbird alight on her shoulder.

Heya, Hummingbird. Welcome back. That was you helping me out the French, wasn't it?

It was. I did not want your atrocious accent to cause your sister more pain.

Well, thanks. French is one of the languages I totally suck at. Maybe there aren't enough glottal stops or something.

She walks slowly around the chair in which the Other sits, watching her, making her even more nervous and apprehensive. Most importantly, she looks at the Other's aura and her qi.

Whoa. Yeah, that would explain why Lion had said she was disturbing. And maybe it explains at least some of the reasons why Rene wouldn't tell Maddie anything. Although she doesn't think Rene can see as deeply as she can, she suspects if the dear Spirit lad involved Charles, that wily charmer could probably suss out most of what she's seeing.

She stops in front of the Other and looks down at her.

"Do you know who I am, mon enfant?"

"You... you are Marie Beauvoir," she says hesitantly, glancing at Wolverine.

Ninja, on the other hand, glances at Maddie. Her posture, her facial expression... absolutely nothing has changed about her. Except her aura. That is not the answer Maddie would have given. Interesting.

"Oui, très bien," she replies. "And how is it that you know me?"

"You... I mean..." The Other looks thoroughly baffled. "Why can't I see you?"

Ninja raises an eyebrow, tilts her head slightly, affects a rather worried look. "I am right in front of you, mon enfant. You watched me walk across the room, you watched as I walked around you. How can you say you cannot see me when you clearly can?"


We surround you. She can only use her eyes to see, her ears to hear.

Ah! Got it.

The Other twists her hands together. "I have never seen an invisible person," she whispers to herself. "I don't understand." She looks up, and Ninja sees a spike of energy as the Other focuses her attention on Wolverine.

Or tries to focus her attention on Wolverine; the Warrior take a step sideways to block him from her sight.

"What are you doing! He's mine! Why are you doing this to me?" she says as fresh tears begin to fall.

Hummingbird, are Maddie and Logan protected from her?

Yes. Cat is fierce, Lynx guards as well. Horse and Stag stand with the Elder until he is strong enough to stand alone again.

The Elder? Yeah, okay. Never mind.

"What am I doing? I am doing nothing but asking a question. How do you know me?"

Madeline might have been a bit surprised by Ninja's latest appearance had she not been so repulsed by what she sees before her. She watches as Ninja / Marie circles and asks her questions. She also moves to be beside Wolverine, laying her hand on his wrist just above his tightly curled fist. Rene comes with her and lays a hand on her shoulder.

The Other starts wailing pathetically. It's truly embarrassing. And Ninja has had enough. She drops the illusion and rap her staff on the floor sharply to get the Other's attention.

"Oh, stop it! You are working my nerves..."

She screams... loudly, piercingly, and painfully.

Ninja shakes her head, takes a step forward as the Other shrinks back in her chair, and grabs her arm.

Ninja! What are you doing?

Oh, relax, Rene. I'm not going to hurt her. I just going to stop her from trying to pierce my eardrums with that wailing.

She presses a point on the Other's forearm with her thumb, below the elbow. The Other relaxes, but in this case, Ninja doesn't think relaxation is good enough. This is one scary bitch. And definitely not scary in the same way Maddie is scary. After a few seconds, she droops, temporarily unconscious.

She steps back toward Maddie and Wolverine.

"That's not going to hold as long as the number I did on the Knighthood guy.

"This is your telepath, and from I can tell, a damn powerful one. She's... well, a clone I guess. Somewhere between eight and nine years old. At that age she ought to be able to see the Spirits, but... well, cloning is a fucked up thing, even beyond fucked up. I'm not going to get into the ethics or legalities of it, except that it's fucked up and off the charts illegal.

"She seems to be imprinted with memories of who she is and her relationship with Logan, but she is honestly puzzled about how she knows Marie Beauvoir... so she hasn't been programmed with much, if any, information about Rene.

"She looks, thinks, acts like Madeline Jacobs, but in the cloning process, things got altered. Charles could probably give you a better idea of just what Stryker did to her.

"She's pregnant..." Ninja holds up a hand before anyone can interrupt. "...and she's sterile. The fetus is also a clone. And if that's not fucked up, I don't know what is."

She leans her forehead against her staff for a moment, just trying to think.

"I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Stryker's been plotting this for so long... in my state, that he created a fake Madeline to fuck with Wolverine's head..."

She looks up at the two of them.

"Damn, people... you really pissed that fucker off."

The warrior sighs and rubs her forehead.

"Oh, and yeah, looking at her energy signature, she's been quote alive end quote for eight or nine years, but she's probably only been... I'll say awake, maybe self-aware, for no more than half that time. And she's already winding down. I can't see DNA, but I can see the effects of damaged DNA in a person's aura. And she's damaged goods."

Madeline knows what is before her is possible, and not just because it sits there before her eyes but because it had been something Eric considered. Even he, however, had dismissed the idea after consideration, although not for ethical reasons.

Madeline cannot take her eyes off the physical copy of herself.

"I need to know how closely he duplicated me..."

"Maddie, no," Rene protests.

"I have to know, Rene."

She goes to... herself... and pulls the blanket away, exposing a belly swollen with child.


She holds up a hand then bends over the other one and looks under the loose blouse. She goes very still for a heartbeat, then looks back at Rene and nods. Stepping back between Rene and Wolverine, she asks very calmly, "Wolverine, Mate, what do you remember from before?"

"Madeline come for Wolverine. We live in wilderness, Stryker find us, help us."

"Do you know how long?"

"Many months."

"Ninja, are you absolutely sure the child is a complete clone and not an implantation?"

"I can only tell you how the qi looks, Maddie. And the two options are not mutually exclusive."

She feels like there something Maddie knows, or at least suspects, about this construct and its child. Precision is necessary. Perhaps even too much information... although it's possible that too much information might just be the right amount of information for Maddie at the moment.

"In fact, given the state of her reproductive system, the way her meridians are misaligned and damaged, the... child... had to have begun life in a petri dish.

"In a normal pregnancy, the mother and child are clearly distinguishable as two different... call it energy signatures. The child will have a resemblance to the mother, and to the father. But the child will also have its own unique signature that is all its own. It will have its own identity, be its own person."

This explanation hits a little too close to home for her. But that memory and the pain associated with it have faded somewhat into her personal past. Why do the memories of others always keep everything so crisp and vibrant? Even Andi can't explain everything about her own Curse.


She looks at the unconscious... woman in the chair, feeling suddenly nauseous again, at least until Hummingbird flutters its wings close to her ear. Still, when she looks back at Maddie, there's no way she can keep the revulsion from her face.

"I could look a lot closer than I did, but I have to be honest... I really don't want to. From what I can see, though, the child looks virtually identical to the mother. It has no separate energy signature, no separate identity. I don't know what other conclusion to reach other than clone."

What IS that thing? she asks, addressing the question to no particular Spirit.

It is bad. It is wrong. Even Hummingbird is slightly agitated by it.

But not Shadowkin?

No. Not that. Hummingbird circles her head several times before settling on her shoulder again. Crow knows the ways of energy better than any, knows of balance and change. Perhaps it would be wise to consult with Crow.

She nods slightly.

Yes. Perhaps it would be wise to consult with Crow.

"The Spirits... even they recognize it as a very wrong thing. But it is not Shadowkin.

"It's just a different kind of bad and wrong."

"No, there are other ways," Madeline says. "How is she a telepath? We need to know that. I am no mutant nor did I contract the Virus. We do know, however, that my DNA is malleable and adaptive otherwise I would not be here. Therefore, she must have more than my DNA. I'm guessing considerably more, and we need to find out whose, and if there are any more like her..."

Oh, they are not going to like this, not at all.

"We need to search this place thoroughly. I need to go to the lab area where you found the children, and we need to find where their servers or mainframes are. I doubt she came to be here, in this base, which means there's another more hidden one somewhere..."

She looks from Ninja to Wolverine to Rene, even to Cat.

"And we need to take her with us..."

"What?!" Rene demands.

Wolverine growls dangerously.

"Eric could secure her. He might be willing to help."

Charles, we have to know who else was mined. You. Jean. Scott. Any of the kids he held... we have to know. And we have to know if any others were created.

Ninja feels that Wolverine expresses her feelings best.

Well, he comes closest.

Looking at Maddie, eyes blazing, she points a finger at the construct still slumped in the chair behind her.

"THAT is not a 'she'. THAT is an 'it'.

"That thing was built in a lab and programmed to think it was you. And not programmed especially well, I might add."

It's not just the anger building now. The qi is building up to levels that are going to make her skin start glowing in the dark. And she thought that was only possible with Pablo around, and under considerably different circumstances. Looks like she was slightly mistaken about that.

"Do you believe that thing can tell you the composition of its DNA? It can't even be Madeline Jacobs properly; you think it was programmed to know it's DNA sequence? No. You'll need to run tests.

"Do you believe it can tell you if others like it exist and where they are? Again, not programmed all that well. Hey, but maybe it can.

"Do you really believe — honestly, in the depths of your soul — that it can say anything that will answer any of your questions? It cries like a child when its programming is disrupted. I don't know why, but I scare the crap out of it."

She pauses for a deep shuddering breath, drops her arm, noting that the knuckles on her other hand are white from gripping her staff so hard.

"If you believe you can get useful information out of it, fine. Sedate it, keep it sedated, keep it the hell away from Wolverine. Did I mention you should keep it sedated? Deeply. At all times. Until you can get it to some place you and Rene and Charles and maybe Hank and any other other brainiacs you've got can agree is absolutely and utterly secure. Keep it away from Logan.

"If not — if you don't think it will tell you what you want to know — then kill it now, throw it in a bag, and you can take the trash back to Charles."

In the back of her mind, she knows that this harsh, cold, utterly pragmatic and brand new part of her personality is the result of the Aztec blood magic. She can feel the way her skin seems to crackle with electricity. The glowing? Yep, that's starting. The weirdest part — for her, from inside of herself — is feeling so calm while feeling so angry, sounding so calm while feeling such rage.

Oh yeah, ultimately, this is all Quetzalcoatl's fault. And she's going to be sure to remind him the next time she sees him.

Snaky little bastard.

"You misunderstand my meaning. She... It does know things. It just doesn't know it does. I can get the information. As for the science part, there are only two who have the expertise and who I would trust with this. And yes, sedated..."

Ninja interrupts her with a shake of her head, her voice softer and far less angry.

"No, Maddie. You can't. This isn't a person like... those others. She can't tell you anything outside her programming. Humans all have something to lose, yes? Eventually, a human can tell you what you want to know... even if you need to sneak past a Shadowkin or find a way to break a geis.

"But a computer — and that's what this is — is just going to crash. I said its DNA was winding down. This is a computer with very little RAM, an ancient video card and a hard drive that only measures in the megabytes. And you're going to try running a modern CAD program on it."

She shakes her head again. "I know you believe you can get it to tell you things. You're very good at what you do. But so is Freak. And think of this thing as being more in his area of expertise than yours."

Madeline pauses, then she turns to Wolverine. "Mate?"

Brows lowered, he looks at her.

"Trust your Mate in this. Me. Madeline Messijer Jacobs. You felt me die when you pierced my heart, and yet I came back to you. I have the ability because of you, because of what we shared."

"Wolverine no like."

"I know. Madeline no like either, but thinks will help. Wolverine say live or die. Madeline listen."

He glowers, looks from Mate to copy and back and again. His claws slide in and out. Finally, he says, "Die."

He moves to do the deed, but she stops him. "Madeline do. Madeline's right."

He nods and steps back. Madeline circles to stand behind it.

"Do it, Maddie," Rene says, a tone of entreaty in his voice.

She reaches down, takes the head in her hands and twists... quick, clean and hard, snapping the neck. She moves around the room, looking at the bodies and pulls from one a combat knife. She returns to the body and plunges the knife into the abdomen.

"It is done," she says and walks out of the room, unable to explain the odd feel of pity for the construct.

Wolverine follows her out, but Rene does not. The clone still has his attention and, although it is dead, still causes him to worry.

Ninja watches Maddie and her Mate, feeling... she's not sure. Whatever she's feeling, it hurts.

Wolverine's aura is a raging fire of... she can't even say anger and hated because those are human emotions and right now Wolverine is still so feral. It's more a recognition of something that hurt him — badly — coupled with a desire, a need, to eliminate the threat both to him and to his Mate.

She isn't surprised at his decision. She isn't surprised by Maddie's decision or her actions.

She is surprised by the sharp pain she felt when Maddie killed the construct's... she doesn't even know that there's a word for it.

She is surprised by the worried look Cat gives Maddie before it follows her and Wolverine out the door.

She is surprised by Raven's appearance and the wings it wraps tightly around her legs.

She is surprised by the appearance of so many of her People's Spirits in the room. Yes, she had felt their presence all along, but they had not been showing themselves even to her. Until now.

She looks down at Raven.


She doesn't say it harshly or abruptly or impatiently. She's not sure there is any kind of emotional overtone at all. In fact, it's barely a question, hardly more than a statement.

I'm sorry.

She mentally shrugs. It's not like you haven't been an idiot before. I'll assume you'll be an idiot in the future. It's part of your personality.

No. I shouldn't behave that way with you.

Well, then don't. Just... don't.

I won't!

Hmm. Yeah, you said that last time, too.

Raven has no response, simply continues to hug her legs. Hummingbird, on the other hand, is becoming agitated.

Warrior... we... Cat is very worried about its Warrior.

She looks through the doorway where Maddie had gone.

She's human. She just did a very difficult thing. Perhaps Cat should talk to her.

Cat does not know what to say.

She closes her eyes for a moment. How many times has she been in that position? Knowing that a friend or a coworker or a family member is upset about something, not knowing what to say? Far too many times to count. She opens her eyes again, looking out the door. She sees Cat pacing and... yes, looking worried.


It stops for a moment and looks her way.

It's as simple as saying, 'I am worried about you.' That's all you need to say.

Cat looks skeptical, turns to look at Maddie, then runs over to wherever Maddie and Wolverine have taken themselves.

Then Deer walks over to her. We're worried about you, Warrior.

She manages a half smile at the irony. What worries you, O Deer, guardian of my grandmother?

We fear you are losing your compassion. We fear you are losing your Self.

She looks at Deer, then at all the other Spirits in the room, clearly confused.

I do not understand.

Deer looks at Lion, and Quail, and Dove.

You are not who you once were.

She's still confused. Humans change, grow, become something they were not as we move linearly in time. I should not be who I once was. I should be who I am now.

Frog hops over and leaps to the top of Raven's head. She swears that they're all insane... every single one of them.

Where is your peace, your compassion? Where is the one who guards and protects? Frog's questions are not accusatory; the Spirits are clearly puzzled. But Ninja... Andrea... is beginning to understand.

The one who guards and protects stands before you. Peace and compassion are in my heart.

Truly? We have watched, and we have seen the opposite of peace and the opposite of compassion this day. We have seen... hardness. Frog almost seems to be... No, they're messing with her again. The Spirits don't cry, do they? Well, the idiot Raven does, but for Raven it's a show.

She looks around the room again. There is one Spirit that might understand. Yes... there, near the ceiling.

Spider, speak to us of balance, she requests.

Dropping down on an unseen bit of spider silk, Spider comes level with her eyes. You understand the ways of balance, Warrior. There is a time for compassion, and there is a time for harshness. There is a time for peace, and there is a time when battles must be fought. Even within the Great Balance, there is a time of balance, and a time of instability. Once, before, you avoided the harshness, you avoided the hard battles. Then, in that time, the instability made you fall. Now you know you cannot avoid the occasions when you must be harsh. Now you know you cannot avoid the most difficult battles. You are the Warrior now.

She's not sure that Spider's words are the comfort the other Spirits seek, but she's not sure those words would have been comforting to her even a week ago. Even today, they are not a balm for her soul, merely an acknowledgment that she still walks the right path.

I know these things, O Spider, it is true. But when I feel my heart tear because I must be harsh, is that a sign that I have chosen harshness when I should have chosen compassion?

Spider swings deftly to land on her shoulder, to look at its sibling Spirit that have gathered.

When your heart tears at harsh acts and battles that must be fought, that is a true sign that you are Andrea Yazzie, daughter of the Diné. It is a true sign that you still embrace all that makes you human. When your soul is still and is not beaten by the winds of the Universe when gazing upon the outcomes of your battles, know that this is a true sign that you have chosen the right path, Warrior. Is your soul still and calm when seeing the results of your actions today, when seeing the outcome of this day's battles? Can you say that you make peace with the actions you have taken and the consequences of those actions?

She pauses. She knows what she will say without thinking, but perhaps it is better to search her soul for a moment to be sure heart and mind are in agreement. Oddly, the way Spider phrases its questions makes it easy to find those answers in her heart and mind and soul.

It... Yes, my soul is still. I can make peace with what I have done.

Spider gives the impression of shrugging. Then there is balance.

She sighs softly and looks at Deer again. Do you still worry about me, O Deer?

Deer seems to smile. Yes. But it has been such a long time since there was a True Warrior on this plane that we may have chosen to ignore how difficult it is to watch one grow and become a True Warrior. Perhaps you will find yourself with additional Spirits to watch over you.

She mentally groans. Really, O Most Compassionate One, a single Raven is sufficient!

Deer chuckles. I was considering the possibility that our sibling Raven does not provide enough balance, although it would seem our sibling Raven has been trying very hard. It's possible that we have forgotten that a True Warrior needs more than one guardian.

Andrea nods slowly. I will trust the judgment of Deer and Lion, of Lynx and Turkey... guardians of my grandparents and my parents.

She glances over at Rene. A conversation with the Spirits does not take anywhere near as long as the same conversation with people would take... yet time does pass. And Rene has been regarding the clone for a minute or more.

"Rene," she says softly, "would you ask Masterson to send some people for that? If there's nothing they can use as a body bag, some sheets should work.

"But before you do... you seem disturbed by this, in a different way than the other Spirits. And it is disturbing... on so many levels. Do you... want to talk about it?"

Rene had heard the Spirits talking to Ninja but hadn't paid any attention to the conversation. He knows what Maddie had checked for, and that pains him. She had checked for what she no longer had. He can't decide if it's a good thing or a bad thing that it was still there. Another thing gnaws at him.

With serious eyes, he looks up at Ninja.

"He recreated her in full physical form, including the things her pregnancy with Logan's children erased. He set up shop here, near where we used to live. She was bound to return sooner or later to take care of things she left behind...

"I'm wondering if she hadn't been the target all along. Not me. Not Wolverine. But Maddie herself. And who else will take up where he left off? Someone had to be funding this. It's good that he's dead, but... There's a saying... Better the devil you know.

"She's right, we need to find the computers, the files. We need to search every centimeter of this place and find out as much as we can. Maybe Masterson's people can help with that, too."

She stares at the clone for a moment... for a minute... for however long it takes to breath a dozen times. Then she looks up at Rene.

"The fact that we both have entertained that idea — that Stryker was after Maddie all this time — makes it more than just a passing thought, Rene. I know Maddie is worried — I would even dare to say frightened — that Stryker used her unique DNA in this process, but I wonder if he truly knew what he was doing. Or if he even understood her uniqueness. Wouldn't the clone have her current form if he understood?

"And he arranged things so that she'd have little or no backup when she came out here. The fact that Peregrine has had more requests from his Sponsors in the past week than in the past two months could just be a coincidence... or it was meant to keep him busy. Not that Maddie is the sort to reach out to the Sponsored Super here. But Perry is the sort to offer if he knew there was trouble. The Knighthood kidnapping three of my people and killing one of them... that was no coincidence and was definitely meant to keep me busy. And possibly meant to take me out as the end of that particular game.

"Sheriff Baker and his people are top-notch, but not trained for Stryker's level of evil. Without me, Maddie wouldn't have had a way to tap Special Forces... and Masterson's squad of slightly more talented than most kids, to boot. She wouldn't have had access to the power of the Spirits."

She pauses and looks down at the crazy bird still wrapped around her legs. Hey, I'm not leaving you, Raven. You can let go now, okay? Raven looks up at her with pathetically sad eyes and drops its wings to its side. However, it doesn't move very far away. She looks back up at Rene.

"Who would she have had then? Without us? Charles and his people. Maybe some of your old contacts, but how many of them could have mobilized in time? Stryker could have taken out two... or two dozen birds with one stone."

"And she wouldn't have called the old group anyway," Rene says. "Not like she did when she came after me. Too many died that day and it still lies heavy on her... always will, despite what anyone says.

He glances out the door toward the woman that will always have his love. "Wolverine's perfect for her. I'm glad she has him."

She pauses again, looking him in the eyes. She can sense he has his own pain he's trying to hide, but... well, qi doesn't lie. And she's not angry, not in the least right now. Nope. She's proud.

"YOU stopped all that shit from happening, Rene. You were the key that unlocked all these resources for her. It was you, catching the attention of this crazy Raven, who fetched someone who could — at the very least — warn Maddie. You started it all. I picked up the ball and ran with it, doing my damnedest to get you reconnected with your wife."

She gestures toward the clone and shakes her head.

"I'm not sure there's a way anyone could have predicted the perfect storm that was started with that first contact. My cousin is a damn good precog, and if she'd seen anything that would have helped me save a life... well, she would have told me. And she didn't contact me at all. If Stryker had a precog on his payroll? Well, I'm going to say it's highly doubtful because precogs are fucking rare, and anyone more powerful than Talia..."

She pauses. Unfortunately, she does know what happens to those more powerful than her cousin.

"They go insane. I've heard stories of many Shamans of many Tribes and Nations. Death is usually a blessing for them, as you recommended for my kidnapped annoyance with a good heart.

"I've heard that Stryker was a brilliant man. But so many things happened here that he never could have anticipated — some of which he never even could have known — that his plan was doomed to failure the moment you stepped from wherever you wound up when you died and stepped into the world of the Benevolent Spirits.

"Yes. I think she was his target all along."

She shakes her head, frustrated by her lack of knowledge of the greater world.

"Who will take up where he left off? I'm small potatoes, Rene. I'm a Super, a mutant, who uses her powers to protect the little people, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the underdogs. I'd never even heard of Stryker until you told me about him. People with a higher pay grade will have to suss that out. But based on what I've seen her friend Freak do... well, if it were me, I'd call him first. Then Charles... who seems to know every damn thing," she says with a hint of a smile.

"Therein lies the irony," he says. "People with a higher pay grade are the ones that bankroll people like him. Freak..."

He chuckles a little and shakes his head.

"That crazy bastard. Yeah, he's going to be real interested in all this. And Charles... he's a good man. Along with that stunning intellect, his ability for compassion and forgiveness is... impressive."

He offers up a bit of a smile, although it is steeped in sadness.

Ninja nods. She doesn't really understand everything that's behind that smile hidden in the sadness, but it's enough to acknowledge that it's there.

"Once Hank's got the kids off the ground, we can get Masterson and his crew to help. If we need more people — there are a lot of tunnels and mine shafts here, and there are only a dozen of them — I'm pretty sure Special Forces has the authority to tap local law enforcement departments to assist in an investigation. Whose business is it if Masterson taps Jefferson, Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, and Douglas Counties and passes over Clear Creek County?" She shrugs. "Unless Masterson's worked with these folks before... but I got the impression he hadn't. And we want people we know and trust down here."

She looks at the clone again. It really creeps her out.

"Call it intuition, but I am really uncomfortable leaving that thing alone." She nods toward the door. "And I'm not going to ask either of them to watch it. I'll stay here and see what I can find out about this base. Maps would be good. Finding animals to help find passageways and things they find odd would be next best." She takes a deep breath and sighs it out. "And if necessary, I'll try to talk to Mother through the Spirits." She shakes her head. "Talking to a planet is really hard."

Ninja waves him off. "Go talk to Masterson. Maybe have Hank take a look at the labs when he gets here, although the kids are the first priority." She gestures to the shelves and file cabinets that are in the room. "I'll snoop."

"I'll go find him. We'll make sure you don't need to be around that thing much longer."

He's gone before Ninja can say another word.

# # #

Out in the tunnel, Madeline turns it all over in her mind to understand the source of her pity. It had been a clone with no hope of a normal life, even if it had been nurtured and allowed to grow properly. Finally, it comes done to this: that so easily could have been her. No, not the telepath part, but the experiment part. The fact that it had worn her face only underscored that fact.

Stryker had long ago left behind all the bounds of decency and compassion, so it doesn't in any way surprise her. She feels sick and sad, and wonders if there are any others. She sighs and leans against a wall.

Wolverine comes up behind her. "Madeline?"

She turns slowly and faces him.

He doesn't have the words, not when his feral nature is so much at the fore. Those instincts, however, know his Mate is hurt, too, and knows how to comfort her. He holds out a hand and tilts his head.

She places her hand in his and steps in close as he bends to kiss her.

"Love Madeline," he whispers just before their lips touch... soft, gentle and caressing.

"I need some air," she says softly.

He nods and, with his arm around her shoulders, walks with her to the entrance, the one she had come through. The truck is right where she had left it. A look around shows nothing but asphalt, dirt and rocks. The sight or smell of the truck makes Wolverine's lip curl back in a snarl, and he guides her away from it. There is a natural indentation in one of the boulders and he settles into it.

She sinks down in front of him and leans back. His arms go around her. After several minutes, he asks, "How... how long?"

"How long did they have you?"

He nods.

"Only a day... but they took you someplace where it might have been longer."

He chuffs a question.

"I'll try to explain. There are other places where Spirits and other things live. Time moves differently in those places. So it was only a day here, but I don't know how long it was there."


"I felt it like you felt it when I died."

"Hmm." Then he pulls her closer, the two of them lapsing into silence. There they would sit — together in a familiar silence — until someone came looking for them.

# # #

True to his word, less than five minutes later Sergeants Castelli and Conway arrive with a makeshift body bag and stretcher. Rene must have moved... Right. Instantaneously. And it clearly hadn't taken long to convince Masterson to send a couple of folks.

The two soldiers stop short in the doorway, however, when they see the body. Ninja turns from the file cabinet she had been rifling through, then looks between them and the body.

"Yeah, looks..." She sighs and shakes her head. "Never mind, long story and I don't even know the half of it. Doc come for the kids yet?"

Castelli nods. "If you mean an odd looking blue dude, yeah. He didn't say much — well, not to us anyway — but Conway here says he's got the chops."

She raises an eyebrow. "And you'd know this because...?" she asks Conway.

"Oh, squad medic," he says with a grin that fades quickly as he looks at the body again. "What the fuck, Ninja?"

She closes the file cabinet, having found nothing of interest in that drawer.

"Listen... I'm well aware of the fact that it looks like Wolf, that it appears to be seven to eight months pregnant, that it's dead, and that there's a knife protruding from its belly. You guys are used to the weird, that's what 10th Special Forces 2nd Battalion does, right?"

They both nod. And she shrugs.

"As you saw from the south entrance, Bad Guy liked to experiment on mutants. That was a clone. And, as far as I can tell, so was the fetus."

Conway narrows his eyes. "Cloning is illegal."

"Yeah, and the really bad people are always so observant of the laws," she says sarcastically. Right. That's the smart ass Ninja that everyone knows and loves. Or finds highly annoying.

"I have one more drawer to go through, and I'll be ready to walk back with you. That needs to go back with the Doc," she says, nodding at the body.

She turns to the last drawer in the cabinet; these simply appear to be duty rosters. Who keeps ten years' worth of duty rosters? Especially when the names all seem to be nothing more than rank and initials. All in all, she's found little that she thinks looks interesting — just a set of pseudo-architectural drawings and a file folder with information about the computer system in this place.

The drawings are poor quality, primarily due to age — probably the original drawings James Maxwell had commissioned when he bought the mine back in 1976. The folder contains a stack of packing lists for dozens of computers, the oldest of which are about ten years old. Possibly still in use; she's not a hardware expert. Not really a software expert either. She can generally find her way around a database, however, which isn't any help here. But it seems like Stryker has an awful lot of processing power. If she's reading this right, he's got two 8U racks of high end servers and an 8U rack of storage units... to say nothing of the dozen or so PCs and AV equipment that would make a university jealous. Makes her wonder where his power source to run a massive system like that is.

She feels a jolt of energy through the soles of her feet and look up sharply at Castelli and Conway. They don't seem to notice anything unusual at all.

She glances at Raven, who's been sitting quietly on the desk. Raven nods and points a wing at the floor.

He's pulling energy right from the Earth??!

Raven shakes its head. He put something ugly and dirty, something offensive in a place that is painful to the Great Mother.

Do you know where?

Raven shrugs. It is a place no one else has ever been. Closer to her heart.

Okay, so not on the maps, and deeper than any of the tunnels go?

Raven tilts its head as if listening. Close to a place men came, when men first came. It is the closest men ever came to her heart before the hurtful thing was put there.

And closer to her heart means farther from her skin, right?

Raven nods. So that would mean the deepest of the old mines, at least in this area. She wonders how to ask a time-related question of a planet.

When the men first came to the place near the hurtful thing, did they just scrape and poke at Great Mother and take bits of her away... or did they cause her to move?

Raven shudders. They scraped and clawed, they hurt her, they made her move, she had much pain.

I am so sorry that the men hurt her. I wish men would stop hurting her. She sighs. Well. It sounds like one of the deep mines where there was a mining accident. There were a hell of a lot of mining accidents out here in Colorado. There's ample evidence of that in their Colorado History collection at the library. But at least the location can be narrowed to one of the mines in the general vicinity of the Argo Tunnel. And asking a planet about distances and location on a scale that would be a cellular on a human is no easy task, either.

This hurtful thing... is it on this side of the long tunnel men cut here, or must we cross the tunnel again to find it?

Raven is starting to look confused, but that's okay. Raven isn't a librarian who helps dozens of students each semester learn about the Colorado mining towns... of which Idaho Springs was the largest.

It is hard to say because the long tunnel was so small and it is partially healed, but most likely this side of the tunnel.

Andi nods and checks on the progress Castelli and Conway are making. They're nearly finished, so she needs to wrap things up if she's going to head out with them. But being on this side of the tunnel — and because of the curving the length of the tunnel, she's fairly certain they're on the east side — narrows it down to only two mines that would be close enough to fit Mother Earth's description.

One last question, Raven... is the hurtful thing closer to the end of the tunnel that has healed, or the end that has not yet healed?

With barely a pause, Raven responds, It is close to the unhealed part.

She gathers the old maps and the more recent computer system file information as Castelli and Conway lift the stretcher and look in her direction. She nods and they begin the trek back to the gift shop.

Then I should be able to tell whoever is searching in that direction where to find the hurtful thing, she says to Raven as they follow Masterson's men out of the room. I think Colonel Masterson would want it removed for different reasons than I would like it removed... but I think I can promise it will be removed if we can do so without further harming the Great Mother.

She feels another jolt of energy through her feet — softer, gentler than the last one. She smiles.

You're welcome, Mother.

When they arrive back at the gift shop, the clerk is standing behind the counter again, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at Hank. From the young man's disheveled appearance, she suspects he had been helping Masterson's people with the children before Hank arrived. She spots the Colonel off to the side, talking with Captain Murray. She heads in their direction and hands the maps and files to Masterson. "We can chat about this after I have a chance to talk with the Doc," she says.

With no magical camouflage disguising her appearance, she's fairly certain she looks pretty disheveled herself. Her shirt is a total loss, and repairing her vest will take... damn, she doesn't even want to think about how long it's going to take! At the moment, Hank is looking over the oldest boy, Jake, in the corner of the shop he commandeered as his triage center. As she walks up to him, he says ever so nonchalantly, "My goodness, it looks like you got into quite the fight with a pair of scissors!"

She looks down at her shirt and sighs. "It does look like that, doesn't it?" Looking over at the boy, she asks, "How's my friend here doing, Hank?"

"I know you," Jake says quietly but manages a glimpse of a smile. "You're the fairy godmother."

She grins and winks at him. "Told you you'd recognize me."

"Fairy godmother? And I would have pegged you more as the avenging angel," Hank says with a smile.

Ninja shrugs. "I figured fairy godmother would be the most recognizable archetype. And an easier illusion to create."

"I'm not sure I should even ask," he says as he continues tending to Jake. "The ability to create illusions isn't in your file."

She raises an eyebrow. "I have a file?"

Hank chuckles without looking up. "You do now."

"Cool. Well, as long as the file is in the possession of that charming headmaster at your school, I suppose I don't need to worry."

"It is, of course." He gives Jake a light pat on the shoulder, then looks back at Ninja. "Like all the children, Jake has had a hard time of it. But given time to heal, I think he'll be just fine."

She relaxes shoulders she hadn't realized were tensed. "Good. The girl who seems lost?"

He sighs and draws her off to the side while a pleasant middle-aged woman comes to sit with Jake. He notices Ninja's glance and says, "I brought a few of my medical staff. I didn't quite know what we were facing."

She nods. "Makes sense."

"The youngster in question is severely damaged, Ninja. I think you could tell that, yes?"

Again, she nods. "Her qi shows a fractured mind and a psyche that... well, wandered off, ran away, escaped."

"Right. She's the most badly damaged, and the one I worry about most. I can't promise anything."

She looks at the kindness of his face, but her lips are pressed tightly together. It's taking an effort for her to hold back the anger. She needs to hold it back. Finally, she takes a deep breath and nods. "I know you'll do your best, Hank. And with all of the resources Charles has, I'm sure he'll be able to find their families... assuming Stryker left their families alive."

"They may all just be kidnapping victims," he responds. She's not sure if he means to calm her down with the words or cheer her up. Possibly both.

"And that would be the prayer I would make to the Great Spirit," she says. "If you could take a look at the rooms where they were held... Maddie will probably go over them again, but she wants to know exactly what Stryker was doing here."

He nods. "As do we all, and I'll take back whatever I can find that will point to those answers."

"Thanks." Then she looks toward the side of the room where Castelli and Conway stand beside the stretcher. Rene is there, too, still looking worried... but he's insubstantial at the moment. She can see him; no one else can. Well... possibly the children. Perhaps some of the people from Charles' school, although she isn't sure what gifts a person would need to have to see... She almost sighs. She has no way to categorize the Spirits except as qi.

"You'll need to take... that... back with you," she says softly.

"Yes. Charles told me."

Ninja shakes her head, again resisting the urge to sigh. "Does it make me a bad person to wish Stryker had died far more slowly and far more painfully?"

She feels his hand on her shoulder, but she continues to stare at the body bag, just as Rene does.

"No, dear Ninja. It makes you human. I would go even further to say it makes you a human female."

She turns and looks at him, an eyebrow raised by the second half of his statement.

"Well, the females are the most dangerous in many species. Especially when their young or their families are threatened." He smiles as he squeezes her shoulder. "And rumor has it Madeline is your sister now?"

She can't hide her look of surprise. "Yes... after a fashion... at least among the People."

He laughs at her look of surprise. "You're going to have to get used to information traveling at the speed of thought when Madeline Jacobs is involved."

"Or the other Jacobs," she says dryly. "Speaking of whom..." She glances back at Rene and sighs. "I'm sure he's shared his worries with Charles regarding... Well, all of this, I guess," she says to Hank. "Let's just say that I share them." She looks around the gift shop and sees that all the children have been tended to, and Jake is being led out to the Romulan ship. Oh, she knows it's not a Romulan ship, but that sounds way cooler than Blackbird. Castelli and Conway are following with the clone. "Looks like you're just about wrapping up. I need to chat with the Colonel about getting this place thoroughly searched."

She smiles at the blue-furred doctor. "I hope I get to see you again soon, Hank. Under better circumstances."

"Well, we still have a small share of your people out at the school," he says, returning the smile, "so I've no doubt we'll be meeting again." He heads through the gate, going to the laboratory wing, and Ninja heads toward the Colonel, raising an eyebrow at Rene as she passes by him.

"Colonel, Captain..." She points to the maps and the files as she says, "These seem to be the tunnel maps made by the guy who bought this place back in '76. They're not going to be accurate, but they'll be a starting point. The files all pertain to his computers. Wolf would like every inch of this place searched for anything whatsoever that might be pertinent to Stryker's operation. Think your folks can handle it without outside assistance?"

"Depends on how long we have to do the searching," Masterson says.

"End of the day," she replies.

He hesitates, then walks over to the information counter to spread out the maps. The clerk is still standing here, bemused.

"Kid, you might just want to go home," Ninja says.

"But... but... but I'm not supposed to close until six."

"I'll write a note for your boss," she says, half seriously.

"You would? Really? Well, okay. Yeah, I'd really rather not be here, because... I'm sorry, this is really just freaking me out a lot." He looks relieved and panicked all at the same time. She hadn't been sure that was even possible.

Ninja gestures for the pad of paper she sees behind him and picks up a pen. "What's your name, kid? And your boss' name?"

"My name's Darrell Sheffield, and my boss is Dave Maxwell. It was his dad who bought this place," he says as he hands her the paper.

Dave Maxwell:

Your facility has been deemed a Federal crime scene and is temporarily under the control of the United States Army Special Forces. Darrell Sheffield was instrumental in assisting with the hostages found on the premises. I gave him permission to close the shop and leave early. I would be unhappy if I heard a rumor that his pay had been docked due to these unforeseen circumstances.

Until further notice, any questions you might have should be addressed to Colonel Jeffrey Masterson at Fort Carson.

Most sincerely,

"Great... get me involved in this madness," Masterson says, reading over her shoulder.

"You're already involved," she says with a smile as she hands the note to Darrell. "Have a good afternoon, Darrell."

He can't seem to get out of the place fast enough. Ninja just shrugs, then looks at the maps as Masterson pages through them. She points out the areas she's seen and he makes notes. When he gets to one of the last pages, she stops and inspects it more closely.

"Yeah... somewhere on this level I think is where you're going to find his power source. From the amount of power his computer system is drawing, from what the Spirits say, from the information I can understand from Mother Earth, it's very likely a nuclear powered generator. And it's all yours... please take it away... both Mother Earth and I will thank you."

Masterson looks at her like she's crazy. She's starting to get used to that.

"Mother Earth talks to you?"

"Oh, hell no! I get impressions, she shares energy with me. But talking? Oh, gods, no. I have to use the Spirits as interpreters, and even then it isn't easy. Come on, Masterson! Talking to a planet?"

She just grins slyly before making a note on the map.

"I think it's going to be somewhere around here. I'm guessing the computer center isn't going to be too far away... maybe lateral on this level, or within a level or two above or below. From what I see on the packing lists..." she points to the folder Murray is still holding. " should just be able to just pull out all the hard drives from the racks. Do the same with any PCs you find. Wolf has a computer whiz who'll analyze the data."

Murray clears his throat. "We have computer experts, too, Ninja."

"Oh, I'm sure! And I'm sure they're absolute geniuses. But Wolf's guy is still better. Trust me."

The two military men exchange a glance and then shrug.

"Fine. Chain of custody for the pencil pushers, however. And from the looks of it, we can get this done by the end of the day as long as Stryker didn't make too much more than double the amount of renovations you've already noted," says Masterson.

"Great. I think we'll want to make sure no one can get back in that area from the gift shop, too."

"Oh, we'll close that up permanently," he says. "Absolutely."

"Yeah, well, just don't bring down the mountain doing it, okay?"

He laughs. "Trust the Army, Ninja. We do demolition for a living."

"Masterson, didn't I tell you earlier I don't trust the military? That your team is the first to get on my fictitious Christmas card list?" She rolls her eyes at him. "Yeah, yeah, okay. I'll trust your team."

"Your Christmas card list is a fake? Aunt Norma, how can we ever trust you again?"

"Watch yourself, Masterson. Snark is my game... not yours."

Rene comes over then and looks at the maps. She gets the sense that it's not really because he's interested in the maps, but rather to have something to do.

I'm worried about Maddie, he says. I know she's with Wolverine, I know she's safe...

But you worry, Ninja replies, looking towards the tunnel. I get it. I worry, too, and I haven't known her anywhere near as long.

Hank is just coming out of the tunnel, carrying a large box full of... well, whatever he thought would be useful.

"Got everything you need, Hank?" she asks.

"I think so, but do have our friend give it another look before you leave, would you?"

"Absolutely. See you soon, and tell that charmer I said hi."

With a slight hesitation, Hank replies, "And he says hello in return." Then he walked out of the building, chuckling.

"DAMN! I am never going to get used to that!"

Rene is laughing. At her.

"What?" asks Masterson.

"Instantaneous telepathic communication with people who are a gazillion miles away!"

And then Masterson starts laughing. At her.

And it's not a gazillion miles, Ninja... it's only about eighteen hundred.

She narrows her eyes. "Fine. Everybody's who thinks this is funny is coming with me to find Wolf and Wolverine."

"Glad I behaved myself," Murray mutters under his breath. "I'll organize the squad, and get the search started, sir," he says out loud to Masterson.

She rolls her eyes again and heads off down the tunnel toward the far end. Rene has no problem keeping up with her... until he becomes solid. By the time she reaches the garage door — open now — they're both struggling to catch up and nearly out of breath. She waits for them at the entrance, scanning the area to see where Maddie and Wolverine are. Oh... not far. Just on the other side of that boulder.

When the two men catch up to her, she smiles sweetly. "That will teach you not to laugh at me, right?"

"Well, it will teach me... not to become corporeal... after I laugh at you," Rene says, returning the smile.

Masterson just nods.

She walks out and takes a wide path around to the front side of the boulder. Normally, she'd just scamper up the side and look at Wolf and Wolverine from above. She has decided that this would not be the best idea today.

"Hey," she says, walking toward them, "how are you guys doing?"

Wolverine looks up with a noncommittal sound. Maddie's expression is relaxed, but her eyes are full of pain.

"They Swiss cheesed his mind again," she says with a sad smile.

Her eyes shift to Rene.

I'm not sure he even remembers the children. Our bond is the only reason he even knows me for me.

Rene's expression takes on more pain and he relays the information to Ninja. Madeline had known he would and simply shakes her head as a way of saying that she isn't quite ready to go there. There's another matter that Ninja and the Spirits need to know.

Ninja just clenches her jaw when Rene tells her what Maddie said about the children. She sees the shake of her head as she looks at Wolverine, then abruptly turns away from them all. Sometimes she doesn't care if people see her cry. Sometimes she does.

Today, right now, she does. It isn't even the Super Heroes don't cry thing; she doesn't want her pain to add to Maddie's.

"When I asked about that other place, he said he was there for many months. I think it may even have been years."

Ninja nods at Maddie's statement and just bows her head, resting her staff against the crown.


We are here, Warrior. All of us.

She hears a gasp of surprise from Masterson. Apparently, they've decided to show themselves to everyone. Unusual, rare...

How can a portal to another place be opened? How many ways are there to open a portal from our world to another?

Few. The many People may Dance or Sing. An adept may open one alone, as you do, with your Dance and your Song.

Portals can be opened from other worlds into this one. On this day, the barriers between this world and others disappear.

Yes. That is true.

She raises her head and wipes her tears away. Call Quetzalcoatl.

But, Warrior...

She turns around in a fast spin while holding the staff horizontal to the ground. Her eyes fasten on the black bird perched on top of the boulder where Maddie and Wolverine sit. Thrusting one end of the staff through the gravel at her feet, she says, "Call him NOW, Raven."

She has always had the sense that, if a hierarchy exists among the Spirits, Deer is at the top. Or at least very close to the top. She realizes that it's likely the bias she has because Deer is Tita's guardian Spirit. She looks around — noting Masterson's wide eyes as Armadillo waddles past him — and searches for Deer.

"Are there any other possible ways to open a portal from this world to another besides the rituals of Dance and Song?" she asks Deer, who has walked over to stand beside the boulder.

"In dreams, a person may cross to another place," Deer responds aloud. "Once awakened, they would immediately return here."

Quetzalcoatl appears in front of her face before she can ask Deer another question.

Why does the Mate of my Chosen One dare summon me again?

"Why don't you speak out loud, as the Spirits of my People are so courteously doing, for the benefit of those who cannot hear your unpleasant thoughts?"

"You did not answer my question, Night Walker," he hisses. "Why do you dare summon me?"

She can see Lion stalking forward; she raises an eyebrow at Quetzalcoatl. She then takes a deep breath and sighs as she shakes her head.

"I don't see what Pablo sees in you. I really don't." She shrugs. That's not today's worry. "My sister's Mate seems to have been taken to another world against his will. It is my understanding that this is a great wrong. In addition, he was grievously harmed in the process. I want to know in what ways a portal may be opened from this world into another... and who might be able to accomplish such a thing."

The serpent backs up slightly — big mistake! — and glares at her. "What concern is it of mine if one of your people is harmed?"

She doesn't even bother attempting an answer... because an instant later, Lion has Quetzalcoatl in its jaws.

"Ow! Stop it! What are you doing? How dare you?! Let go of me! Raven, help!!"

"Oh, I cannot help you, my buddy. You have offended one of my siblings. Well, all of my siblings, really," Raven says sadly from atop the boulder. "And our Warrior." It sighs a mighty sigh — and, for the record, birds should not do that!

She looks back at Deer as Lion looks from her to the boulder where Maddie and Wolverine are sitting.

"Is it possible to tell how someone has been taken to another world? Is it possible to tell to which world they may have been taken?"

Deer nods as Lion appears to make up its mind and walks toward Maddie and Wolverine.

"The how is possible, although often difficult. The where is fairly simple."

Lion drops the sputtering serpent in Wolverine's lap, close — very close — to Maddie's head.

Ninja isn't snickering, no she's not. She really is NOT! Barely.

But most of the Spirits are.

Wolverine reacts to the perceived danger to his Mate and, with one hand, snatches the serpent away from her, his large and strong hand wrapped tightly around his body just below his head. The man's growl is low and dangerous.

"They," Madeline tells him, indicating the other Spirits, "mean us to harm. I think this one can say where you were taken."

Cat is there too. It has been here with her the whole time and is now pressed against her hip as they sit. It holds its place still and looks daggers at the Aztec demi-god wrapped in its Warrior's Mate's hand.

"Speak!" it hisses in demand of Quetzalcoatl. "Say where my Warrior's Mate was taken!"

"Huh," Ninja says, looking placidly at Quetzalcoatl, "you just make friends everywhere you go, don't you, Little Buddy?"

Quetzalcoatl's eyes seem to bulge out, his tail whips frantically back and forth, and his shimmery rainbow wings are half caught in Wolverine's large hand.

"C...c...can..." he croaks out but doesn't manage anything more than that.

The Warrior shakes her hand as she walks over to Wolverine. Quetzalcoatl's tail is moving faster now, almost too fast to see, but it's moving in a regular pattern. So, after a second or two, she grabs his tail... almost as easily as if it wasn't moving at all. Another Halloween bonus. She squeezes tightly and looks at Wolverine with a smile.

"May I?"

His dark eyes glance up at Ninja and he simply lets go.

"Thanks," she says, then looks down at Quetzalcoatl. It is her imagination, or does he look queasy? "So... Q. You'll answer Cat's question, won't you?" she asks, rather politely given the circumstances.

"Uhhnuuhh," he replies.

"What that a 'yes' or was that 'oh, how I wish I could be pummeled against the rocks and torn to shreds by needle sharp Cat claws'?"

"Talk, tell, yes," he manages to say.

"Oh, darn." She sighs, perhaps just a little dramatically. "Oh, well... go ahead and talk."

"Put me down first."

She snorts. "Yeah. Right. Guess again, Little Buddy."

He tries to swing himself up — she can only imagine why. Maybe to wrap his pretty little rainbow self around her arm? But he's too slow and she's too fast. She lets her staff fall against her shoulder as she grabs his neck... fairly close to where Wolverine had grabbed him. She's just not squeezing as tightly. Oh, she could... but she does want the idiot to talk.

"Going somewhere, Little Buddy?"

He hisses and sputters and his eyes whirl almost as fast as Cat's do. "You shouldn't be able to do that!"

She sighs. "Bored now," she says in an extremely accurate Evil Willow imitation.

"You are merely my Chosen One's Mate! You can't... glarg," he says, then... doesn't as she squeezes his throat harder.

"I am so fucking tired of you demeaning me, you pompous piece of shit," she says, surprisingly calmly. "Do you know who I am? No. You don't. To you, I am merely the catalyst to bring your Chosen One into his powers. Well, whoop-dee-doo! Is your Chosen One here?"

"Glksg..." he tries to say, before she loosens her grip just a bit. "You told him to stay home like a woma..."


"You probably haven't noticed that it's 2012, not 1512. You probably haven't noticed that the world has changed just a little tiny bit in five hundred years. You probably haven't noticed that your Chosen One's Mate is more powerful than he is.

"But, Quetzalcoatl, Little Buddy, you can't keep pissing me off, dude. First, it's just rude. Second..." She looks around at the Spirits gathered. "'ve annoyed the Spirits of my People." She smiles at Cat before looking at the serpent again. "Except for Cat. You've pissed Cat off.

"Your Chosen One isn't here because what happened to my Sister's Mate would very likely have happened to mine. I was not going to risk that. We are bound too tightly, and his... capture... would have been more harmful to me than her Mate's capture was for my Sister.

"Is any of this getting through to you, Aztec demi-god? ANY of it?"

He manages to flick his tongue out at her. She shrugs.

"Listen. Just answer the question. You tell us where Wolverine was taken, and the smarter people can figure out how it was done." She loosens up a bit on his neck.

"You'll let me go then?" His eyes are glowing what weird green that Pablo's do.

"I'll let you go as soon as you've answered all the questions from our studio audience."

He glares. Actually, she doesn't think he even knows what she's talking about. Eh, like she cares.

"There is a world near my prison. That is where he was taken."

"See, now that wasn't so hard, was it?" She looks up at Deer. "Do you know of this..." All the Spirits are growling or hissing or cawing or screaming... making whatever sounds the animal forms they chose would make. "Yeah, guess that kind of answers that question. Ah, do you know who owns that land, or lives there, or however you figure out who belongs where?"

Cobra twines itself up her body to wrap itself around her waist and looks at Quetzalcoatl.

"Oh, yes. We know, Warrior. It is this one's mirror, Tezcatlipoca."

"Oh, wonderful. More jackass serpents?"

"No, probably an even more unpleasant jaguar. Or turkey. Tezcatlipoca likes to take both forms."

"And if Quetzalcoatl has a Chosen One, Tezcatlipoca is likely to have one as well?"

Cobra nods. "Yes. Very likely. This is apparently a time of convergence."

"Oh, things just keep getting better and better." She sighs again. "Okay, we know where Wolverine was taken. We know who owns the property." She looks at Maddie and Wolverine. "It's probably a fair assumption that Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One is the one who opened the portal. It's probably too much to hope for that he or..." She glances at the serpent in her hands and shakes her head before turning back to Maddie. "...yeah, probably he... was killed. So one more bad guy to track down and gut. Slowly."

She looks at Masterson — poor guy — Rene, Cat, then back to Maddie and Wolverine. "Any more questions for the ancestral pest?"

Madeline has a question, just one. "Can what was taken be given back or retrieved?"

Wolverine will recede eventually, and Logan will return. But it could take time, much time. And how do you explain to your children that their father, who heals from every wound, had so much done to him in a single day that he does not remember them. Now she looks at all the other Spirits, her gaze coming to rest lastly on Rene.

"Or is there something you can do to heal his mind?"

For the sake of the children... she doesn't say it, but it is in her heart and her mind.

Charles, tell the children we love them.

Of course, Madeline.

Quetzalcoatl swivels his head to look at Maddie. Ninja is ready to crush the life from the little sucker if he says anything — anything at all — that she finds annoying or disrespectful.

"Nothing was taken. All he had when entering that world, he still has. It is more likely that he returned with more than he had before."

Again, Ninja squeezes his neck and turn his head so she can look him in the eyes.

"It is my recommendation that you spend a considerable amount of time with your Chosen One learning about a thing we call 'tact'. He is, in this time and place, what is known as a gentleman."

She can see Stag moving towards Wolverine; Cat sits close to Maddie, rubbing its head against her cheek.

Then she lets go of Quetzalcoatl's neck completely and start swinging him around in circles over her head, faster and faster. When she feels she's built up enough momentum, she lets go... sending the ancestral pest flying through the air and landing in one of the conifers about a half mile down the road.

"I will help the Elder," Stag says, "if he will allow it."

Ninja meets Maddie's eyes and holds her gaze. It takes a moment before she can speak, and she needs to swallow hard before she can do so.

"Quetzalcoatl is overly fond of obscuring the meaning of his words, but..." Boy, does she ever wish she had a bottle of water right now! "...but it would be a reasonable conjecture that a block, a curtain, was placed over Wolverine's memories, rather than anything taken away... most likely to keep him from remembering what really happened when he was in Tezcatlipoca's realm."

She glances at Stag, then Wolverine.

"Yes. Stag can remove the curtain."

"What happened there I think he remembers," she says carefully, glancing at her Mate.

He is more feral now than he had been when they had first met. She has an intuition that his time in the other place has a lot to do with it.

"It is what happened before that was lost... from eleven years ago to about midday yesterday."

She shifts and kneels before him, places her hands on either side of his face. She has a brief flash of another time she had held his face like this. He had been nearly incoherent with rage, and he had been restrained. When she had finally been able to get through to him he had yelled for her to run, there was danger...


He had been watching Stag approach with curiosity, but now he turns his gaze to her.

"Let Stag help?"

He looks from her to the Spirit and back. "Madeline want?"


"Yes, let help."

It's hard to say how he will react to the return of the memories, but she will hold her place. She has never feared him and never will.

A brief thought crosses her mind as Andrea watches Maddie... is this how Pablo felt when she couldn't remember their bond?

Stag merely steps closer to Wolverine, breathes on his face, tousles the man's hair with its lips, then breathes on Wolverine's face again.

"Elder, you know us and we know you. Elder, you know your friends and they know you. Elder, you know your family and they know you. Elder, you know your enemies and they know you. Elder, you know your life and your life knows you."

As Stag speaks the words, Andi can see an oil black cloud exit Wolverine's head. By the time Stag finishes speaking, the poison has completely been drawn from his body. His aura looks as clean — and as unusual — as the day she had first met him at Sheriff Baker's house. And there's a brightness to his eyes that was not there moments ago.

Madeline simply holds his gaze with her own as Stag works its magic. She sees him... not shrink precisely but... recede rather. Or his feral nature does, becoming less the beast and more the man. She holds her breath until finally it seems like he is himself again.

The poisonous cloud coalesces, much the way the poison Pablo had brought back from Quetzalcoatl's prison world had. This poisonous being stands far less of a chance of survival, however. That is to say, it stands no chance at all... the slut Pablo brought back with him was very nearly dead when Quetzalcoatl carted it off. Every spirit that can fly or leap begins viciously attacking the poison. In a matter of seconds, there's no evidence that the... whatever it was... ever existed.

Except for those of them who will remember.

"Wolverine?" Madeline asks softly.

The angry whirling of Cat's eyes is dying down, and it's leaping from one part of the boulder to another, jumping over Maddie, head butting Logan's arm, purring loudly, and generally being a cat-like nuisance.

Andi barely manages to hide a smile at Cat's antics.

He searches her face, eyes wondering, as he puts his memories back in order. He licks his lips and swallows, then corrects, "Logan."

She sags in relief and wraps her arms around his neck as she remembers to breathe. He hesitates a moment before hugging her tightly. Those looking on see guilt and recrimination on his face. Rene comes over and kneels beside them, placing a hand on each.

"Two of a kind, you are," he says gently. "Taking on responsibility where it isn't yours to bear. You have nothing to be sorry for... either of you."

After a moment and with a bit of his old humor back, Logan asks, "What's with the cat?"

Madeline chuckles. "It's my guardian Spirit. Apparently I've been adopted by the Navajo or something like that."

"Cat, Logan. Logan, Cat."

He lets go with one arm only and scratches under Cat's chin. "So you're of the Nations now, are you?"

"This, I can say, is all your fault, but like the healing factor, it is a good thing."

Watching Maddie and Logan reconnect lifts a weight off her shoulders and it takes a minute or two for Andi to realize she's crying again. But these are happy tears, so she doesn't care.

"Oh, you can't really blame Logan for you being adopted into my clan," she say with a smile. "That was Cat's fault." The wide-eyed innocent look on Cat's face makes her chuckle.

He smiles a bit. "The kids are okay? Leon? Em? Vin?"

She smiles and nods. "Charles is looking after them."



"I love you."

"And I love you."

"Christ, would you two kiss already?" Rene asks, exasperated.

They both laugh and grin and oblige him. He grins, too, as their bond lights up — at least to him does — and he adds his own strength to it. There is more that is needed, but he has no doubts they will take care of it later. Finally, they part, their shared love emanating from them.

Andi feels like she should be surprised by the bright glow of their love, but she's not. Why should she and Pablo be the only ones to have a love that burns as brightly as the sun?

"Danke, Stag," she says, although she does not take her eyes from Logan.

"Yes, thank you," Logan echoes.

Stag bows, bending one foreleg and lowering its head in response to their thanks. "It is an honor to help, Elder. We have always been fond of your people, and now that there are so few of you left, it is all the more important to help when we can."

Ahh... no. Andi can't let that one go. She raises her hand like they were taught to do at the American School in Japan.

"Question from the young one, if you don't mind, O Stag?"

Stag looks at her, chuckles and seems to smile. "Of course, Warrior. What is your question?"

"You call Logan 'Elder.' Why? Well, I know he's a bit older..." Understatement! "...than pretty much anyone else I know, but you make it sound like a title." She shrugs and smiles. "I'm just a bit confused, that's all."

"That's quite understandable. And Elder is a title... just as yours is Warrior," Stag replies. "The reason is that his people were already here in this land when Those Who Brought Forth the People lead your Ancestors here. And when Those Who Brought Forth the People came to this place, so did we. The Elder's People could see us and speak to us, just as all of you can see us and speak to us now. Oh, they saw us in different forms, those that had meaning to them at the time. But it was not a time when we needed to make an effort to be seen.

"It was quite an interesting time for all of us." Stag looks at Logan as he continues. "Once, this one you know as Logan was the youngest of his people. We are pleased to see this is no longer true. Even though his daughter is but a child, she too has the title of Elder."

"So... Logan can see you anytime, talk to you anytime? All of you?"

Stag shakes its head. "Sadly, no. His previous injuries have made that impossible. And before you even ask, Warrior... because we know your heart... yes, it might be possible to heal that wound, but it is a task that should involve one of the other Elders and would be most arduous."

"But Em... she can see you?"

It is Cat who answers this time... with a happy grin. "Oh yes! Even when she comes of age, of course! But yes, yes, yes, yes!" Andi isn't sure if it's her imagination or not, but Cat seems almost giddy about the prospect.

She looks at Maddie, half apologetic and half worried. "Well, it's better to know these things now, right? Rather than have it be a surprise?"

The information from Stag doesn't surprise Madeline. Logan senses the truth of its words, although the rest eludes him. But at the excitement from Cat about Em, she can only shrug. Leon had only been four when he first began manifesting his gift, and she had been completely unprepared for that. The intervening years have given her a better understanding of dealing with it.


The frisky feline Spirit looks over inquisitively.

"The protection you afford me extends to her as well?"

"Of course. If she wishes it."

"And her brothers?"

Cat goes suddenly silent. Madeline looks at Ninja and the others.

"And Leon and Vin?"

Ninja looks at Deer, wondering if it's her place to explain... or if Deer would prefer to have that honor. The Spirit merely nods to her.

Okay then. She's not sure she's ever had the need to explain their culture so deeply before, but... she take a deep breath as she turns back to Maddie.

"You are now Diné, and we are a matrilineal people. So all of your children are also Diné. The stories my mother and grandmother tell say that the Spirits gather around a woman during her pregnancy, determining the nature of the child as she or he grows. While unborn and until three days of age, a child is protected by the mother's guardian Spirit. By that time, the Spirits will have decided which one will guard the new child.

"Because you have been adopted into the People, they have not had that time to determine the children's natures. Therefore, Cat should be the one to guard all your children until the other Spirits get to know them. Ah, that might be a daunting task, even for Cat," she says, trying very hard not to smile.

"Daunting for anyone, Spirit or otherwise. But I know Em will adore Cat..."

Madeline looks down at the Spirit itself. "But don't be offended when the big cats of the mountain pull her attention from you."

Cat assumes a haughty stance that seems to say as if.

"There are times — rare, but it does happen — that a guardian Spirit relinquishes their role to another when a child comes of age," Andi continues, "because that child's... role, purpose in life has changed more drastically than anticipated. Vincent and Emelia may be watched over by one Spirit now, and another when they come of age."

She raises an eyebrow as Monkey rolls and shambles over to Maddie and grins up at her. "I will be guardian for your son who is the son of our new sibling. I watched him during the ceremony that you and the Warrior performed to bring us our new sibling. His heart is true."

"Merci, Monkey. That only leaves Vin."

Andi chuckles at Monkey. "Is it everyone named Leon you guard, or merely the ones related to me?"

Monkey blinks, points a finger at her and clutches its belly with the other arm, then rolls backward in a somersault, laughing hysterically. "Oh! Yes, yes! Your uncle who married the sister of your father! Ho ho! That is a good one, Warrior! Would I know that someday he would be your relative? Would I? Would I? Who knows?" It winks at Andi as it reclines on the ground beside Deer. "Health is what your uncles does, and health is what your nephew will have. Changing the environment is what your nephew does, and changing the environment is what your uncle's students experience when he teaches them the Dances. Success! Everyone I protect should have success!"

Well, Uncle Leon grew up to be a great guy. She already has a sense that young Leon will be a fine man. Having heard a story or two from Uncle Leon about his guardian Spirit, young Leon can expect a slap on the back of his head if he strays too far from, as Uncle Leon calls it, the straight and narrow.

When Maddie asks about her other son, several of the Spirits begin eyeing one another. Finally, Lion bursts out laughing. "It would seem there are several of us who would be happy to guard young Vincent until we know which of us is most suitable for him. Panther, Falcon and I have volunteered. We shall leave the decision to you. You may choose based simply on our fine physiques and vibrant personalities... or our Warrior can tell you about our amazing attributes."

Andi looks at Lion as if it's gone mad. Turning to Deer, she sees it rolling its eyes. She shakes her head and rolls her eyes as well.

Maddie looks from one to another, each in turn.

"Perhaps you should ask him. Vin knows himself best. Even at his young age, he is quite self aware. Or you could take turns. Whoever guards Vincent also guards Emelia as well, and vice versa. They are rarely far from each other by choice."

"And Monkey, have Rene introduce you first. Leon's found himself a girlfriend already."

"Ah! If that is the case, that the two are nearly inseparable," Lion says, sitting up straighter and looking quite regal, "then the task should go to Panther, who — of the three of us — finds Cat most enjoyable."

Monkey is jumping around... well, who knows why? It's just jumping around. "Oh my, oh my! Such fun! Already at that age of courtship!" It sits down, stares off into the distance and sighs. "The most exciting time, the most difficult time. Ah, the joys and heartbreaks of young romance!" Monkey looks at Rene. "Yes, yes... I would very much like an introduction. When the time is convenient, of course." It points at Andi. "I think the Warrior is not yet off the Warpath."

She shrugs at Monkey's pronouncement. "Too many bad people in the world. Right now, I'm interested in eliminating Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One. Would that effectively close the portal to Tezcatlipoca's realm?"

Deer nods. "Until another is found and trained, yes. There has not been one who could reach Tezcatlipoca's realm since the days he and Quetzalcoatl were seen as gods, so it is not likely the portal will open again anytime soon... even by our standards of time. But you understand that his Chosen One will likely be as difficult to fight as your Mate."

"I understand. But as I told Quetzalcoatl, I am more powerful than my Mate. Even if Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One is stronger and has had more time to acclimate to his powers..." She looks around her, then back at Deer. "...I have the Black Wolf and Wolverine, I have the Spirits, and I have the 10th Special Forces 2nd Battalion Bravo Company A-Team 1 to assist." She smiles that predatory smile that's just Ninja, all Ninja... before turning to Maddie.

"What do you say we go hunt down the rest the fools who messed with our family, Sister?"

A smile that is not pleasant comes to her visage.

"A Hunt sounds good. You up for a little search and destroy, Logan?"

"Yes," he says without hesitation.

They rise together, in near unison. Rene seems a touch wistful. That had once been him.

Madeline looks at Masterson. "Your people got everything out? I want to get any files, digital or otherwise, to my Hat."

At his nod, she continues, "Show us the labs, Ninja."

The Spirits fade away... except for Cat, following at Maddie's heels. She can still feel their presence, however. When they all gather like this, it can make a large room seem entirely too small, and a not particularly large tunnel even smaller.

"Hank already looked over the labs, and took a box of... well, whatever he thought he'd find useful."

Madeline nods at that. "Hank's a good man and sees what good men see. We need someone who isn't so nice to look at it. Believe me, I'd rather not, but I don't want to risk missing anything."

She returns Maddie's nod. She suspects Hank's focus was trying to do his best to help the children they found. Maddie has a whole different agenda. And that's just fine. As for her, about all she can do is look at the energy. It will certainly be different without the children there. The question is, however, will there be anything useful to see?

They walk back down the tunnel, at a normal pace this time... or at least one that won't leave anyone out of breath when they reach the labs.

You okay there, Rene? I caught a flash of something before we came inside.

Walking beside Ninja, he shrugs. I just miss being the one at her side... He gives her a self-deprecating smile. I'm not used to being second fiddle.

I can't say I know how you feel, Rene, Andi says honestly. I know what it's like to be on the outside looking in, but not from the perspective of once having been on the inside. She glances at him briefly. I get that it's rough for you sometimes, though. And I wish it wasn't. Anytime you want to talk, you know how to find me.

As tough as it can be, I wouldn't give it up, not for anything. She is worth it even if she doesn't think so.

He glances back at Madeline and Logan.

He is so primal, she makes an effort at being more civilized. It's rather funny, actually.

As for Madeline and Logan, their fingers have laced together as they follow Masterson. That simple touch and continued contact work at repairing the damage that had been done.

Yeah, I could tell you weren't ever going to give up on her that first night we chatted. The air sort of vibrated every time you said her name. She watches Maddie and Logan, watches their bond continue to repair itself. But what Rene had said... about her not thinking she was good enough, about how she tries so hard to balance Logan...

Yeah, Andi's met people like that before.

Something bad happened to her when she was younger, she says to Rene. I don't need to know what. I just hope it's not too late to heal that part of her that believes she's not good enough because it hurts living nearly forever feeling that way. She shrugs. Maybe that's what this odd situation is all about... about both of you helping her heal enough for that, at least.

He keeps his eyes straight ahead, but there is no mistaking the tightening of his jaw. Oui. It was... very bad. I do not know if she can ever heal completely from that... experience.

The recording that had been played for him by her father was forever imprinted in his mind along with the evidence provided.

The phrase you used to describe the clone, damaged goods... that's the way she has described herself. But I hope you are right. She has a lot of years ahead of her still. And maybe Logan can heal too.

I think...

She remembers something David said. It seems like so long ago, but it was probably recently that he said it.

A friend of mine is a psychologist with the Department of Children and Family Services. He tells stories that make me cry, others that make me so angry I want to rush out and make sure those people never hurt another child again. I asked him one day how he can manage to bear all that pain, every day, and not give up, not give into despair.

He said, "I believe everyone can heal. It takes the right support people, the right environment, and sometimes a lot of time. I do my damnedest to get them the right support, the right foster homes... and let time do the rest. I have to believe everyone can heal, Andi, or I couldn't do what I do every day."

Andi pauses, glances at Rene as they near the end of the tunnel.

Maybe Maddie's got the right support people now... you and Logan and Cat. Never discount the healing magic of a cat! she says with a mental chuckle. Especially one that's a Benevolent Spirit. Maybe I should take Maddie out to New Mexico, meet the family... just be in a place where nothing is expected of her. She giggles. Out loud. Mama is going to love having another daughter to spoil.

He gives her a bit of a smile.

She used to talk about getting a pet for Leon once he was old enough. It was always a cat. And New Mexico would be nice. My mother's health is failing. She doesn't have much longer. Her mind is still sharp as ever, but... I went to look in on her after Leon told me about it. My father was there too. He spends more time with her now than he ever did while I was growing up. She holds on for Maddie, but if there were someone else who could fill that void she might allow herself to go sooner.

The giggle catches Madeline's attention. Are you flirting again, Rene?

I'm just doing what comes naturally.

Mmm hmmm.

Seeing where they are, she asks, "Those the rooms?"

Time for seriousness. She hates what Stryker was doing to those kids... well, ordering other to do, she supposes. Everyone here had been culpable; Stryker was responsible.

Ninja nods to Maddie.

Before entering the lab corridor again, she checks the gift shop. The door appears to be locked, the Closed sign prominently displayed, the overhead lights are turned off. There is still plenty of light streaming in the windows — for some reason, it seems wrong... shouldn't it be later in the day? She can see stacks of rack-size hard drives lined up near the door and a crate of PC-size hard drives beside them. She doesn't know where Masterson's people found banker's boxes — she idly wonders if they found an archive room — but there are already at least two dozen boxes of files ready to be delivered to the location of Maddie's choice.

Darn that Masterson and his excellent team! She's going to have to give up her semi-irrational dislike of all things military now. Now she just dislikes all things military with the exception of Masterson and his people. Yeah, it might not make sense, but it works for her.

As she heads back toward the labs, she has to deftly dodge Castelli, who's carrying a large box of gadgets.

"Whatcha got there, Castelli?"

"Comm equipment. Thought Wolf mind find it useful."

She nods. "Anything that isn't a desk, chair or wastebasket could be useful." She smiles wryly. "Hell, for all I know, those could be useful, too. Find the generator yet?"

He sets the box down as he nods. "Yeah, the Cap and Collins are thinking they might be able to winch it up the shaft. They pulled up an aerial map and it looks like there's a building at the top of the shaft."

"Hmm. Why doesn't that surprise me?" she asks rhetorically. "How much longer do you think you'll be?"

"We've got all the electronic data. Maybe another forty minutes to grab the rest of the paper files. I've got another two boxes of comm equipment." He rolls his shoulders and neck. "Wow, it's been a while since we've done pure grunt work. Apprehending trans-dimension energy suckers and picking up battered kung fu lunatics who have a personal hate-on for you is more our usual field duty. Of course, I might dislike you, too, if you did to my face what you did to his," he says. "You think Wolf's going to want a walk-through before we block all the exits?"

"Wouldn't surprise me," she says as she heads back out into the tunnel with him. "And I hate Tsui as much as he hates me, so I'm not losing any sleep over it. For the record, I wasn't trying to rearrange his facial features, Castelli. I was trying to kill him. Just didn't have the power at the time. Used most of it opening the portal to suck the bad juju out of him."

"Roger that, Ninja."

She pauses and takes a good look at him. What she sees gives her considerably more appreciation for the military — at least the ones who support the Supers... that is, Masterson's team. They understand lethal force while working to make sure it's their last resort. And they are far more accepting of it than the local law enforcement. It makes sense. But it also gives her an instant of cognitive dissonance when she realizes she's more like these folks than her local contacts.

"Uh... do I want to know what this is about," Castelli asks after a couple of seconds.

She shakes her head slightly, but then shrugs. "A moment of introspection, Castelli." She waves him on. "Enjoy the grunt work while you've got it. Looks like we've got another rogue Super to locate and take down," she says over her shoulder as she enters the laboratory corridor. She really hates this place.

"Anything in particular you want me to look for, Wolf? Or should I just... look?"

"You do your kind of looking and I'll do mine. Between all of us and the files, we might be able to piece together exactly what the fuck he was doing, how far he got, and if anyone else is in on it. Logan, scent around... see if anything triggers anything. Rene, you know what kinds of things I'm looking for, so I wouldn't mind an extra pair of eyes for that."

Logan grunts his assent; Rene replies, "Oui, Madame."

She steps into the first room and does a simple once around. In the second circuit, she checks everything at counter height; the third is below the counters; the last is everything above them.

While Maddie had been searching through the rooms in her way, Ninja had been searching in hers.

One of the... side effects? She can't really call it a benefit, but one thing her Curse does is allow her to read someone's aura to gauge a number of things, including emotional state and physical health. That's not such a bad thing. The hard part is that she also gets a dose of every highly emotional event in their life. Full force. That's not even counting the emotions associated with memories of people who are her relatives and closest friends. Before she learned how to control it, her life was a nightmare of emotions... her own as a teenager and those of everyone around her. It took a good number of years to learn how to filter what she sees and feels to just right now.

But today, she needs to see it all. She already knows she's not going to like it.

She steps into the first room to look at the energy flows first. They're different now, of course, than they were earlier... muted, less intense, starting to move back into what might be normal for this area. But because this lab had been operating for so long, a lot of damage has been done to the environment. It really doesn't matter what humans do, we affect the world around us. Some of it's fairly harmless, some of it less so. Some of it — like this laboratory and what happened here — has a huge impact. And because it's primarily on the level of the... etheric, psychic, universal energy... planes, most people won't even notice it.

Even though the energy is less intense, it still feels like a whirlwind when she opens herself up to the qi of this place. It's been saturated with hate and fear, anger and hopelessness, cruelty and desperation, domination and shame, sadism and misery for close to a decade. It's a hideous place to be. There's some evidence that Mother Earth herself had tried to at least shield those outside Stryker's base from the worst of the emotion detritus, but she wouldn't be surprised to learn that Mr. Maxwell found it difficult to keep employees for any length of time. She's good at keeping this sort of thing from affecting her, but even she's feeling a little nauseous.

As important, or perhaps even more so, are the memories of the children she met earlier. Thinking of the child who had been strapped to this bed, Ninja feels her fear, her loneliness, her despair that mommy and daddy would never find her. She feels the pain of the torture she endured. They thought there was something special about her, and she didn't know what it was... only that she had wished every single day that whatever it was would go away so she could go home.

She actually has to use her staff as support as she crosses the hall. She feels Mother Earth lending her more energy; she can only try to smile her thanks. She can feel the Spirits around her. She can tell how much they want to stand between her and this evidence of human depravity... but she needs to know what happened. Sweat trickles down her back and breaks out on her forehead.

She is the Witness and she will play that role here, too.

She walks into the room across the hall, follows the same procedure, and returns to the hallway. She checks each room... adjacent room, across the hall, adjacent room, across the hall, adjacent room, across the hall. Each room seems just as bad; some are worse. She's drenched in sweat by the time she finishes and slides down the wall at the end of the hall while waiting for Maddie to finish her search. Raven leans against her side as she tilts her head back, closing her eyes. She's not sure if she looks pale, but she sure feels like half the blood has drained out of her body. She hasn't experienced this kind of emotional overload and turmoil since the Curse took her.

Good thing it's Halloween.



Did Hank take samples of all the pharmaceuticals?

He did.

Will you ask him to send me an inventory of what he removed?

I will.

How are my children?

The twins think they are on holiday, and Leon has been attempting to concentrate on his schoolwork when they are not tugging at him.

Thank you, Charles.

It is my pleasure, Madeline. Will we see you soon?

Not sure yet. There's another out there we need to track down. Maybe more. We'll call tomorrow morning to talk to the kids. I might call you later, though.

Any time you need to talk, Madeline.

She pokes her head out into the tunnel and sees one of Masterson's people that Ninja had been speaking with earlier.

"Castelli, right?"

"Yes, ma'am. What can I do for you?"

"You got a few more of those boxes?"

"Sure do."

"I want to pack up all the drugs, too. I'd appreciate a hand."

"Sure thing. I'll go grab some more boxes and a couple more hands."

"Great. Just let me go through the rooms before you pack them."

"Will do."

Returning to that first room, she says, "Rene, check where those cameras go. I'd be willing to bet they burn to DVDs somewhere."

He nods and goes incorporeal to handle the task.

"Logan, anything?"

"Blood, piss, pain and suffering."

"That is not unexpected."


"Pain, suffering," she says without moving, without opening her eyes, "torture, brutality, the worst humanity has to offer. Seven of the eight had no idea why they were even here; the oldest had a very mild healing factor. He always thought he was just a healthy kid who didn't get sick as often as his friends. Found out differently after a little while here. He was the last to arrive, maybe about six months ago. His last happy memory was visiting his grandparents in Cheyenne for Easter. Harder to pin down timeframes for the younger ones, but I think the little girl whose mind was shattered had been here about three years.

"None of them could fathom why they'd been taken from their families to be hurt so badly all the time. Sure wish we could kill him a few more times. That pox-ridden excuse for a human being nearly destroyed their souls.

"Mother Earth was angry... still is angry. Their pain was poisoning her, too. But the best she could do was try to shield the gift shop employees and the tourists. She wanted to shake the poison loose, but it would have certainly destroyed Idaho Spring, possibly everything on this slope. There are people here who care for her; she didn't want to destroy all of them. And she truly cares for the animals who live in the area."

She opens her eyes and looks up at Maddie. She thinks she's feeling better. Some. Mostly... mostly she's angry that Stryker didn't die more painfully, more slowly. She's never felt this much hatred of her own before. She doesn't care much for it.

"Jake, Vanessa, Lori, Kevin, Melissa, Ryan, Heather, Shawna...

"Is there anything else you need to know that might help? I picked up a lot of memories and images... those are just the things I thought might be important."

Madeline relays the first names to Charles, then asks, "Any last names? Anything to help Charles find where they belong?"

Ninja... decides nodding probably wouldn't be the best idea at the moment.

"Turner... Keenfeld... Hall... Robison... Ballard... Stevens... Marshall... Pierce."

She may not have Ninja's 'gifts', as it were, but she has seen enough, has experienced enough, has done enough over the years to surmise what had gone on here. Logan's assessment told her the same. The real bitch of the matter is that she understands why he chose children. Children are more malleable and controllable, take considerably less effort to contain than adults.

Which means he may not be trying to raise his own mutant army this time. Then again, there is the matter of the clone. Still...

"It doesn't make sense. Abilities don't normally manifest until children hit puberty, and there is no way to tell before that if they will..."

She looks over at Logan then. "Although it can sometimes manifest early due to a traumatic experience. Or..."

Her thoughts turn to the clone.

"Genetic manipulation using a gene source you suspect accelerates the manifesting..."

Now, there was a wholly unpleasant thought, especially combined with it all.

"I need my phone, Ninja."

She takes a deep breath and stands, surprised that she has no difficulty since only a minute ago she would have sworn it was going to take another five minutes to pull herself together. But that's when she feels Cobra wrapping itself around her waist again, Opossum is sitting on her shoulder and holding onto her ear. Grasshopper, Ant, and Spider cling to her arm; Butterfly and Bee are tangling themselves in her hair. Snail is sitting on her boot.

She manages a partial smile.

Thanks. Very much. All of you.

"I locked your phone in my bike with my personal one. It'll just take a minute to get it.

"First, I'm going to play hell with your... statistics or assumptions or what have you. Abilities manifesting at puberty is still most common, but in this area — use the Mountain Time Zone in the US as a general frame of reference — the prevalence of abilities manifesting earlier is rising. That's especially true among the People — in fact, manifestation before puberty is getting statistically more common — but it's not something we advertise."

She shrugs. "Might be another reason why Stryker picked this general area for his depravities."

Going back out to her bike is certainly less of a production than coming up to the gift shop had been. Unlocking the small valuables compartment is a piece of cake as well. Installing the thumbprint lock had been a bitch and a half, and it had taken her and Charlie working together for nearly two hours to get it right, but it's been worth it. She retrieves Maddie's phone — it's enough to have both of Ninja's phones on her right now, so her personal phone can stay where it is — and jogs back up the stairs.

As she hands the phone to Maddie, she says, "You know... there might be one other way for Stryker to have known these kids would manifest an ability at some point." She furrows her brows, trying to remember exactly what happened, and exactly which summer it was. "I have a cousin who's a precog... damn good one. The summer before my brother and her brother of the same age turned fifteen, she told me neither of them would be Cursed. I'm pretty sure told me because I'd been so worried about my brother for years. But she also said that her youngest brother would be Cursed. I remember saying something to the effect that now I'd have to worry about him for years, too... he was only eleven at the time. Her exact words were, Oh puh-lease, he's going to be just fine, and one of the best shifters of our generation. And she was right about all three of them... although it's probably still a little soon to say whether or not my cousin is the best shifter of our generation," she says with a hint of a smile.

"If Stryker had access to a precog, even one with a limited ability like knowing whether or not a child would manifest the gene mutation, that could explain why he had the children, as well."

When Ninja hands her the phone, she opens it and sends a message to Freak about all the new data she had for him on a couple of server drives and banker boxes of paper files.

"I don't know if that's better or worse. In any case, I need to get this stuff out to the magician."

"I'll take precog over genetic manipulation or trauma, at least if the research my cousin's done regarding her own Curse is any indication," she says. "Whatever the cause, the man was evil, and I consider anyone working with him guilty until proven innocent."

Madeline's phone buzzes and she looks down at the screen. An eyebrow raises. "That was quick."

Then she places a call. "Hey, Mitch, need you come out to the mine and collect a bunch of stuff for transport. Gotcha. See you then."

"Which will be one more thing that pisses Pablo off," she mutters to myself regarding guilt and innocence as Maddie makes her phone call to Mitch.

Would your Mate not understand this situation? Raven asks.

Sure he would. But his job is to uphold the law, to maintain its integrity. And according to the law, everyone is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. In a court of law.

It seems terribly cumbersome, especially in situations where guilt is obvious, Raven responds, still bemused.

Sometimes it is. And sometimes... I don't follow the letter of the law. I just do the right thing. She mentally shrugs. We'll have a lifetime of disagreements.

Raven looks up at her, a pitifully sad look on its face. Perhaps he was not meant to be your Mate, then! Perhaps my buddy was wrong!

She raises an eyebrow as she looks at Raven. Look at the bond we have, Raven. I don't think it's possible that anyone else could have created that, do you?

Well... no. But disagreements between Mates... that doesn't see proper.

If we agreed about everything, Raven, life together would become dull very quickly. If I assume my expected longevity has been shared with him, spending several hundred years with someone dull would be torture. Even if we have but a single normal lifetime, I wouldn't take me long to become miserable.

Raven seems to be thinking that over... which is good because Maddie's off the call with Mitch.

Slipping the phone back into her pocket, Madeline tells the others, "Mitch is going to be about forty five minutes. I'm going to take the time to walk the rest of the complex."

"You and Wolverine mind company? I'd like to see what other damage Stryker might have caused Mother Earth... and see if there's any way to help her if he has."

"Another pair of eyes is always welcome. Still waiting on Rene regarding those cameras any..."

"I found them," Rene says as he materializes. "Pretty well hidden, too. You'll need some more of those boxes."

"Show us."

He pauses to consider how to get there from here since he had 'cheated' in moving from one place to another. Finally turning towards Stryker's office, he says, "This way."

Once in the office, he says, "Wait a moment."

He vanishes again, and one entire wall swings open a few moments later. Appearing in the new doorway, he tells them, "I figured it was simpler to open it from the other side. You might want to block it open with something so Masterson's people don't think we've left."

Logan points to the desk, and Madeline nods then follows Rene into the room beyond where there are racks of high density DVDs all neatly labeled. A bank of burners stands against one wall, four per lab room.

"They recorded audio as well as visual," Rene explains. "Well, you'll want to see it, both of you."

Following Rene to the room from where the labs were monitored seems more like a Hollywood script than reality. Well, that or a lesson in paranoia.

We've found three ways so far that men can enter this place, Raven. We will seal them once we have removed all of the great foe's information that can help us find those who helped him. Are there any other ways to enter?

After a brief hesitation, Raven responded, Not any longer. Two other ways had been opened, but between the time these men came and now, the Great Mother has closed them.

Can she seal this place away forever... without harming the small pocket where people come to view her wonders? The Maxwells have gone through a lot of trouble to renovate the small portion of the mine so tourists can see what life was like during the Gold Rush. Tourism is about all that keeps this town going; she'd hate to seem them lose that.

She can. It will take as long as the great foe was here to fill all the caverns with water so men will not be able to enter. Raven pauses again. Those who bring the guests to view her have been respectful, here and many places nearby. She will do her best not to harm them.

If any men come into these caverns before she has flooded them, will she let me know so I can investigate and rid her of them if they have harmful intentions?

Oh yes! She will tell one of us, and she thanks you for that help.

I think I should help her and the animals who live on her skin and in her hair as much as I help men.

"Want or need, Rene?" she asks as she looks around the room, wrapping an arm around Cobra who is still wrapped around her waist. "I suspect there's very little Stryker was doing here that I actually want to see."

He looks from Maddie to Ninja with a frown. Maddie would say she wanted to see it, looking at it from a detached and clinical viewpoint, calculating and filing everything away. He remembers her dispassionately walking through some real shit holes while the more macho and testosterone-filled members of the unit would be outside puking their guts out. Those that didn't know her always considered her a cold, ruthless bitch for it... and maybe that was true in some ways. It was what she did... because she had to. It was her initial coping mechanism.

He glances at Madeline again, who wears her stone face as she waits. She is ready. "Need, I guess," he says. "That bearing witness thing."

Ninja nods at that. It was her duty; she would do it.

Going to the console, he hands a set of headphones to Madeline. She slips them on and nods. He had figured out what everything did earlier and had even watched some of it. That was what had taken so long. He had also set everything up before he came back to find them and now only needs to switch it all on. Four monitors come up: one is normal video, one is infrared, one is thermal, and the last...

The last is the one he directs Ninja's attention to specifically. It captures and records auras of everything in the room. The time stamp on all four feeds shows it to be 02:23:13 MST 2012.10.01. Someone — the oldest boy — is strapped down to the table. He is alone on only two of the four monitors...

Madeline looks from one monitor to the other, the sounds of the boy's fitful sleep coming from the headphones. The normal feed shows nothing out of the ordinary and neither does the thermal. The infrared and aural ones, however, had extra... people... in them.

"The volume?"

Rene points to a dial and Madeline adjusts it. Her brows furrow and she looks for the reverse. Finding it, she replays the sequence.

"They are talking to him," she says. "Whoever, whatever they are... but it's hard to make out. It is familiar though. Early Malay maybe...?"

Ninja picks up a set of headphones and listens as well. Setting aside, for the moment, the question of how Stryker even managed to find or create the technology to record voices and images of people not of this dimension, she listens carefully to the sounds. Like Maddie, she reverses and listens several times.

She comes to most of the same conclusions Maddie has: they're speaking to the boy, it's a familiar language, really familiar... but Malay would not be familiar to her.

She looks from Maddie to Rene. She's half tempted to have Logan and one of the Spirits listen, too... but she's a little concerned about what they might say.

"The language sounds familiar to me, too, but I don't know any Indonesian languages. It sounded like a mash-up of Diné Bizaad and the N'de People's language. It could be Athabaska, the ancestor language of both the Navajo and Apache languages."

She does glance at Logan... and feels the curiosity of the Spirits... then she looks at the monitors again. It's creepy and it's... she's not sure she can think of a word that describes the possibilities of having technology that can see what appear to be spirits. Or beings from another dimension, at any rate.

"You lived in Asia though. "There are similarities. And Malay is the root of many languages there," Madeline says.

"In southeast Asia... yeah, I think so. Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, maybe the Philippines... but not Japanese or Mandarin Chinese. Those are definitely different language families. I'm not saying there won't be some similarities, but definitely not enough for me to understand.

"Rene, what language did you hear? The same? Maddie, you have Indonesian ancestry, right? I wonder if we hear whatever our ancestors might have spoken."

"The same as Maddie," Rene replies. "That's why I played this one. She's more familiar with Malay than I am. She grew up with it."

"Yes, my parents were both born and raised there. It was still the Dutch East Indies then."

She looks at Maddie for a moment. "I find it more than a little disturbing that we hear different things. Eerie doesn't even come close to describing this. I can't even come up with a plausible explanation for how it's possible... well, unless I refer to science fiction and say they've got a maladjusted universal translator."

"No, listen again... it's not the words themselves..."

She pulls the plug on the headphones and set the console so that everyone could hear.

"There are different languages being spoken."

She watches and listens closely, then points out one ghost. "That one is speaking a Malay dialect, but it isn't what passes for Indonesian. Sounds more mainland Asia..."

"Okay," Ninja says, "Maybe Thai or Burmese?"

Madeline points out another ghost. "That one is... Caijia. And this... that's one of the tribal languages from Africa..."

She looks over at Rene and asks, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Slaves or near enough?"

"Yes. People who were worked or driven to their deaths. The railroad came out here. Early mines were notoriously unsafe. Chinese laborers and freed slaves, anyone who had a hard time finding a job because of the way they looked. But what are they doing?"

She looks at Ninja now.

"You're the spirit expert here."

"I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that the two of you hear half a dozen different languages and I only hear... essentially... one. I should at least recognize something that sounds like something from that part of the world. And all I hear is Navajo and Apache."

She shakes her head. But then she blinks as Maddie's words get through the linguistic conundrum.

"Right. I'm the Spirit expert.

"Well, at least I think I may have an advantage here. My Apache is a little rusty, but our root language hasn't drifted as far as most languages. It's mostly a matter of sentence structure. I might be able to figure out what they're saying. At least to get a gist of the meaning."

She looks around the room and picks up a tablet of paper and a pen from a nearby desk, then sits down and plays the recording again, transcribing the words she readily understands, then goes back and fills in the blanks. She has to run through the recording four more times before she catches all the words.

She looks at the sheet of paper and replaces words she knows are Apache with the equivalent Diné. Then she rewrites the words with the proper sentence structure in Diné Bizaad. She reads the message and frowns, shaking her head. How is that possible? It doesn't make sense.

You have the words correct, Warrior, Opossum says from my shoulder.

But how could they know? she asks.

Opossum just tweaks her ear.

"Rene, could you pull up a recording from more than a year ago? From a child we didn't find here?"

Very helpful, Opossum, she says, while waiting for Rene to pull up an earlier recording. Have there been others here, with the great foe, who could speak to those who speak words I can understand, but Maddie and Rene cannot?

None, Warrior. You are the only one to have heard their words.

The recording Rene plays next is eerily similar to the first one... a barely pre-teen child, bound to the bed, sleeping fitfully; images of others only on the infrared and thermal monitors, speaking the same languages.

But the words are different, quite different. And there were more of them. She dutifully transcribes these words as well, unable to stop the feeling of dread as she recognizes more and more of the words. As with the first recording, it takes numerous times to catch all the words... translating the Apache back to Diné Bizaad... arranging the words to make proper sentences.

She sets both translated pages in front of her. She's not going to translate them into English — not in writing, anyway... and not unless it's really necessary. She rests her forehead in her palms for a moment.

"What in the name of all things holy was Stryker doing here?" she asks softly. She doesn't expect an answer, but Opossum gives her one anyway.

The what... that may not become clear today. But why he did not succeed in his project? You know that, Warrior.

Yeah. She does.

The Warrior sighs and picks up the two final pieces of paper, then turns to Maddie, Rene, and Logan.

"In essence, the whole valley that runs from here all the way to Central City, and even beyond, is a graveyard. Two, three, maybe four thousand men, women and children died in this valley mining, working the railroad, from disease, from accidents, from very deliberate harm." She looks down at the papers. "I don't think Stryker realized what he had done when he made his base here. Not at first, and perhaps not for quite a while. But I think... once he suspected something was, perhaps, not quite as he expected..." She nods toward the monitors. "Well, there probably were not four monitors in the beginning."

She places the transcript of the older recording on top of the newer one.

"The voices that speak in the older recording are full of... pain, despair, grief, helplessness. My best interpretation of what they're saying..." She takes a deep breath before looking down at her translation.

Come with us, child; we will take you to a place of safety. There will be no more suffering. Please, child... allow yourself to leave this world, allow this existence to end. We wish people would come for you, but they will come too late, too late to save you. Come... please come with us. Your suffering will end, we swear it to you. Oh, child... please, we cannot bear your suffering any longer, we cannot bear it any more than you can.

Andi slips the other piece of paper on top. "The voices in the latest recording," she says without looking up, "are much more hopeful, although there is still an undertone of pain and sadness." She pauses a moment before reading that translation.

Do not despair, little one. There is One who will come to rescue you; of this we are certain. Hold on, child, it will not be much longer. The day is coming; THEY are coming to take you home.

She looks up at Maddie again. "I'm going to guess that Stryker hadn't been able to get those recordings translated. If he had, we would have encountered considerably more resistance. I'm going to guess Stryker had more monitors installed because the ghosts of this place enticed the children away from their suffering with enough frequency that Stryker was frustrated. Children were dying before he could learn whatever he was trying to learn from them... could do whatever he had planned to do to them."

"All things considered, that's kind of a relief," Madeline says. "And I would hazard to guess that the spirits spoke in non-European languages so that the ones doing this to the kids could not understand them. Children are incredibly adept at understanding languages as well as tone and intention."

She stands and nod. "That makes sense. My grandfather was a Code Talker, and the Navajo code was never broken. Even if Stryker had found the best linguist in the world and set them to working on this..." Andi gestures to the recordings. "Well, I have a feeling that the languages you heard would just be nonsense. That they speak in a language only I can understand..." This is starting to make her head hurt.

"Well, I can't deny being relieved that Stryker didn't seem to find what he was looking for... and grateful that he picked a place where the spirits of the dead could guide the children away from their pain." She glances at the monitors again, shaking her head. "I am more than a little angry that he..." She pauses, consciously calming herself. "Well, I sure do wish I could kill him again."

"With him using the Aryans as his front group, he couldn't exactly have a non-white waltz in here to do translations. Even if he did, finding someone who would translate it without questioning the reason for the words would be very difficult."

"Maddie, I'm not sure someone who did understand the languages would have heard what I heard," Andi says. "I have a feeling they would have heard... at best... something akin to fairy tales. But most likely, all anyone would hear would have been gibberish." She glances back at the monitors and laughs without humor. "Stryker didn't need translators. He needed what you brought with you today... a Spirit expert."

Madeline looks down at Cat winding around her legs and chews her lip.

"Any of you know of any way to be able to talk to those ghosts? See if we can find out where the bodies of the children are buried? There are families out there that need closure."

Dove glides to the chair Andi had vacated and perches on the back, looking up at Maddie.

"It is a simple thing on this day, the day when the veils are gone, to speak to the spirits of the ancestors." Dove tilts its head one way, then the other. It's extremely bird-like; a refreshing change from Raven's often bizarre behavior. "They will speak to you in the place of great pain."

"The place of great pain? There's a lot of that around here. Think you can narrow it down at all?"

Andi looks down at Dove. Dove simply looks back at her.

"The labs, Maddie," she says softly. "Dove means the labs."

She folds the papers with the translations and stuffs them in a pocket. "Did you want to walk the rest of the complex before heading back there?"

Madeline shakes her head.

"No. Let's do that first. If they know, then you can relay the information to your PD friends and they can start the work to get those kids home."

Ninja nods and picks up her staff from where she had leaned it against the table. Heading back towards the labs, she feels both the desire to run as fast as she possibly can and to avoid walking into that corridor ever again.

Opossum continues to hold onto her ear, which at least helps to keep her speed to fairly a normal one... moving too fast would dislodge the adorable little thing. Right, yes... she knows. It's a Spirit and can't be knocked off her shoulder unless it wants to leave her shoulder. She's sticking to a normal human speed, isn't she?

At the laboratory corridor entrance, she hesitates. Opossum tugs on her ear and points to the room where Jake had been held. She steps into the room reluctantly, and doesn't speak until Maddie, Logan and Rene arrive.

"I heard you, on the recording machines, speaking to the children," Andi says. "You helped many cross to a place of no pain. You encouraged these eight to wait for me. Will you speak with me?"

For a long time, there is no evidence of anyone else in the room. But eventually, she can feel what seems like a change in the air pressure... slight, barely noticeable, but it is there.

"You are... Indian," says a disembodied Oriental voice.

"I am Diné... Navajo," she says with a slight smile. "My people are of this land, not a place called India. Does that mean you will not speak with me?"

A wizened old man chuckles as he nearly fully materializes. "I am from Siam... white man still call me Chinaman. I will speak with you. You are One we waited for."

She raises an eyebrow. "Why me?"

He gestures around the room and smiles. "You speak to Spirits!" He pointed to the bed. "You save the children."

She shakes her head, sadness filling her heart. "Not all of them. Only eight. You saved the rest."

"We try. We only save their spirits. But their spirits were not eaten by the white devil, so there is less grief."

"Not for their families," she responds softly. "Their families still grieve."

He nods. "Yes. And the Buddha has said they must wait for you before they can journey on. And here you are! They will speak to you, then they are truly free. No grief for them."

"When will you journey on, good man of Siam?" He must be dead a hundred and fifty years, give or take... although, she supposes that might not be such a long time. Other dimensions, strange time flows, all that.

"Ah! I will journey on after last child is at peace. That is why Buddha require me to stay here long after my cousins and brothers were gone."

And he doesn't seem the least bit unhappy or upset about it.

"How many children?" It's a question that needs to be asked, but she dreads the answer.

"Funny," he says, definitely looking perplexed. "I can only say it in my language. Gaao sip song."

"Yes, funny." And not in the sort of way that makes one laugh. As he spoke the number in Thai, it actually translates in her brain as náhást'éí diin naaki.

"Ninety two," she says. There just aren't enough times, not enough ways a man can die to make up for that kind of heinous crime. "Will the listening devices capture their words, so I can give their words to their families?"

The old man shakes his head. "Oh no! We fool the listeners so well they will never listen properly again. Not to spirits, anyway. Oh, we were clever!"

Ninja nods and takes a deep breath. "Clever indeed, and you saved more than you know. But I'm going to need a notebook and a pen to make sure I get all the names and all the children's words."

"Go get a notebook," Maddie says to Ninja. "We'll wait for you."

After Ninja leaves, Madeline presses her palms together and bows to the old man. "Salam, kakek. Terima kasih atas bantuan anda."

He looks at her curiously. "You are Malay?"

"Partially. My parents are from the Dutch East Indies."

"Ah. Very good. You help the One."

And although the men hang in the background, the old man does not miss their presence. "You are Spirit too," he says to Rene, but Logan holds his attention for a mite longer. "You are the one they trick, but you are better now, yes?"

Logan chuffs a single word, "Hai."

"Interesting. You know the Nipponese but not be Nippon."

She is able to run full out down the tunnel, back to Stryker's office and through the opening to the monitoring room. It seems perhaps all the tablets of paper she can find might be a good idea. She rummages through drawers and the single cabinet and finds six letter sized pads of paper... and only three pens? Did these people not write anything?

Running does burn off some of her anxiety and anger, but it's going to take more than the run up to Stryker's office and back to burn off all her anger. Maybe she ought to ride down to Forsythe's neighborhood later... there's an old abandoned farm out there where she can run for about ten miles out, then back again, without anyone seeing her. Inside of ten years, however, the whole place is going to be McMansions.

As she re-enters the room, she notes that Dog is sitting near the wall, looking friendly and harmless, just a mutt with its tongue lolling out.

"Heya, Dog. Come to help the children, too?"

It barks in a perfectly dog-like way, then smiles one of those doggy grins that friendly dogs always seem to have on their faces.

Of course, Warrior. We will all do anything we can to help.

Now, why can't her guardian Spirit be normal?

"Well, is this going to be a mad free for all with ninety two children rushing at me, or will there be some semblance of order?" she asks the old man, smiling.

"Ah, the children have been waiting, and have learned patience. They only want to be heard."

Andi drops into a cross legged seated position beside Dog and grins at the elderly Siamese man. "I will hear each one. Perhaps three or four at a time?" She sets five of the six tablets down and two of the three pens then looks up at Maddie. "Would you and Cat like to join me?"

"Sure," she says, dropping into an identical pose beside Ninja.

"Rene, Logan... why don't you two see what else you can stumble across? We might be here a little while."

They both nod and leave.

Then she looks at the Siamese man. "Shall we begin?"

The older children are polite and sit or kneel beside the women. The younger ones want to sit in their laps and be held. Everyone is enthralled with Cat and Dog, who are patient and allowed the children to pet them or hug them... or both if the child needs it.

They gather names, of course, and addresses if the children know them. Some of the younger ones don't, but they at least know the names of their towns. Most of them have something they want to say to their families... all of it along the lines of "I love you, please don't worry anymore, I'm fine now."

When Andi asks the old man about retrieving the bodies for burial, he simply looks at the floor and shakes his head. "The white devil... he was not respectful."

She clenches her jaws for a moment before feeling a soft jolt of energy in my feet. She relaxes and slowly smiles. "Mother Earth holds them in her arms."

It had taken a couple of hours and many pages to record the last messages of the children — and to hear them, as the old grandfather had mentioned in the beginning. But after they bid farewell to the last of the ninety two children and the Siamese grandfather, Madeline hands over her pages of neat, precise script to Ninja.

"You get those to Sanchez, and I'll finish seeing what there is to see. Then we should go eat and sleep and wish for the ability to become very, very drunk..."

Andi adds Maddie's papers to her own and stares at the sheaf of papers for a moment. The old man had been so kind, so peaceful. She will remember his serene smile for a long time.

"Look at these, Maddie... these kids are from all over the country! Less than a dozen from Colorado." Ninja sighs. "I'm beginning to feel like I need a contact I can trust with the FBI. This is interstate criminal activity here... kidnapping children and taking them across state lines. That's the FBI's bailiwick." She shakes her head and stands up. "Yeah, I'll drop these off with Sanchez, though. He's bound to know the right person."

"We're lucky he actually stayed within US borders else I'd be calling my people at Interpol too," Madeline says with a sigh.

She stands and stretches, loosening up stiff muscles and joints.

"And without any physical evidence, I don't know that any would close the cases. If there were a mass grave... well, DNA testing has come a long way even in the last ten years. Perhaps Sanchez can figure a way around that."

Andi rubs the back of her neck, suddenly happy at the idea of going home. While Taiji is still the most optimal way to relax, having her husband massage her neck and shoulders isn't a bad way to relax either.

"I don't even know what it feels like to get drunk, so I can't even wish I could get drunk.

"The families might find some kind of... I don't know... closure doesn't seem the right word, nor does satisfaction... perhaps relief... in prosecuting a dead man, but I don't know how it would help." She pauses, regarding Maddie for a moment. "Of course, on the other hand, I'm not a mother, so I'm not qualified to speak on the matter. And I sure as hell don't know how the courts deal with this kind of shit.

"Hey, Mitch has probably already headed back to the cabin, and I think you and Logan need your alone time. Let her know she's welcome to come down to my place for dinner... the only caveat is that she'll need to ride one of the bikes down, or drive a normal car if she's got one." I grin. "The Monstrosity or a Humvee is going to be awfully damn conspicuous in my neighborhood of subcompact cars."

"I'll let her know. She'll appreciate that though I don't if she'll take you up on the offer. She might have plans already."

She turned to look out the door into the tunnel corridor beyond. "I have a feeling we'll be out in the wilderness so you might want to warn your animal friends..."

Ninja feels another slight jolt of energy in her feet, and she looks down at the floor, puzzled. Dog interprets for Mother this time.

The place where the great foe left the other children is not accessible to humans, but the animals who live within her can reach what is left of the children. It will take a very long time, longer than the great foe hid in this place, to bring all of the bones to a place where humans can collect them. It is because the animals are small and some of the bones are very large. The Great Mother understands the grief of mothers.

Her attention turns to Dog. The Great Mother is kind and generous indeed. For the purpose of penalizing the great foe, even after death, not all the bones are needed. If the small animals brought perhaps only one or two small bones from each child, how long would that take?

Dog pauses for a moment before answering. They could bring them to a place you could find, a place you could reach, by the time the days and nights become equal again.

"Wow." I give you thanks, O Dog... and give great thanks to Mother and all the small animals living within her. She looks at Maddie again. "Mother Earth will provide the means. I could speculate on how Stryker managed to get the children's bodies in a place too small for humans to reach, but speculation like that would just piss me off all over again." She takes a calming breath... just to be sure. "She suggested that the small animals who live underground bring all the bones to a place accessible by humans. Unfortunately, to bring out ninety two full skeletons would take more than ten years." She looks down and nods to Dog. "But bringing out only one or two small bones from each body, they could have enough for DNA analysis by the Spring Equinox."

Madeline shrugs. "Anything that will bring peace to the families is good in my book, so if tarnishing his name for all time is all that can be done, I'll come back and collect bones in a few months to help make that happen."

Andi folds these precious papers, too, and tucks them into a pocket with one of the phones. "And if Mitch wants to drop by, I'm sure we'll wind up making my husband's and my cousin's heads spin," she says with a grin. "If not, I hope she has a good evening. And I'll let my friends know you and Logan may be running through their territory. Although... like the Spirits, I suspect the non-human residents of the mountain have a great deal of respect for your Mate.

"I'll start doing whatever research I can on Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One... after entertaining my cousin, that is. I assume it will take a day or two for your wizard to analyze this much data, although I'm not sure I'd be very surprised if it took him less time," she says, wryly. Andi really is amazed by Freak's talent. "Give me a call when you're ready to start tracking down the less pleasant Chosen One... or when Freak has some information we can use."

She watches Maddie head back down the tunnel for a moment before heading out to the gift shop again. Chief Collins is waiting, along with Lieutenant Phelan and Sergeants Zelka and Fraser.

"Just waiting for you, ma'am, so we can block this entrance off," Collins says.

"I wish you guys wouldn't do that," she says, giving him the stink eye.

"Ma'am?" he responds, puzzled.

"That. What you just did."

Zelka laughs. "We're brainwashed, Ninja, we can't help it. Collins, quit calling the civilian Super Hero ma'am."

Collins looks at her, slightly embarrassed. "Oh, that. Right, what Zelka said. We're brainwashed." He smiles an apology. "I'll try to remember not to do that anymore." He points towards the entrance to the tunnel. "We're going to set off a small explosive to bring down the roof of the area leading to the tunnel here, then put up some drywall for Mr. Maxwell. I'm afraid he'll need to take it from there. The other team will seal off the entrance at the other end when Wolf gives the okay down there. The Captain has retrieved the generator and is planning to have a team return tomorrow to demolish the building and drop everything down the shaft."

The civilian Super Hero nods. "Considering the fact that Maxwell probably hasn't been in that corner since Stryker had his illusionists create the go away spell, he may actually be pleased with the opportunity to have the space usable again. And not that I don't trust your expertise, but there's a greater authority on how much damage you're going to do here," she says with a grin.


The Great Mother believes, based on the damage she witnessed of the great foe, that the man is essentially correct. The explosions will cause her some small shaking, but she does not believe it will cause any but the smallest rocks to fall across her skin into the water, Cobra replies. Although by 'smallest rocks' she does mean those about twice the size of your head. It probably is not Ninja's imagination that she hears humor in Cobra's voice. The explosion at the other entrance will likely cause only parts of the tunnel men created to crumble; very tiny bits — perhaps the size of your foot — of the ceiling to collapse. She is also pleased men will no longer be allowed in places she does not believe they belong.

"Uh..." Collins says intelligently. "I don't understand, m... um, Ninja."

So... Collins and the others have done a good job, and closing the shaft with the demolished building is acceptable.

Yes, all is acceptable to her.

She chuckles. "Wanted to verify with Mother Earth that you weren't inadvertently going to shake something loose that could be harmful elsewhere. But she approves of your skill, Collins, and that of the other team. Way to go. There may be a few rocks — no bigger than twice head size — rolling down into the Creek, foot-sized chunks of the tunnel ceiling may collapse, but everything else is good."

Collins just stares at her, as do the others.

She laughs as she pats his shoulder, walking past him towards the door. "No, as I told the Colonel, I don't talk to Mother Earth. I talk to the Spirits, the Spirits talk to her. Talking to a planet? Who does that?"

She continues to chuckle as she jogs down the stairs to her bike. The few trees in the vicinity sway and the Creek down below jumps over rocks more playfully. Ninja feels Mother chuckling as well.

"It's important to find joy where we can, isn't Mother?" she says softly. A soft, cool breeze whirls around her as she stand beside her bike. Smiling, she unlocks the storage compartment and stuffs all the papers inside. She has to take her personal phone out to close it again; that she tucks in one of her pockets.

© Kelly Naylor and Ividia Kt