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Annual #1
 
an FDC original series...

Higher Learning
#9
"Perfect Pairs and Nightmares"
By David Marshall


The new teacher had everyone’s attention - especially the males. Her long, raven curls cascaded onto her soft, round shoulders and framed the most attractive face Bo Freebird ever saw. Her name was Carmen Maria Elena Escobar de la Pena, or Ms. Escobar, as she introduced herself to the class. She was Professor K’s secretary’s daughter and was hired to teach Spanish since the school was located in a predominantly Spanish-speaking country.

“Repitan, por favor,” said Ms. Escobar. She held up a textbook and pointed to the lesson. “Maria mira la television.”

“Maria mira la television,” the class repeated.

“Carlos llama por telefono.”

Again the class repeated the teacher’s lead.

“Very good,” said Ms. Escobar. “Be careful to pronounce the double-l’s as a ‘y’ sound, like yama, not like a beast of burden.”

The class laughed.

“Let’s try it again,” said Ms. Escobar. “Carlos llama por telefono.”

The class did a much better job at pronouncing the sentence, but Ms. Escobar insisted they try it individually.

Indira had no problem whatsoever. Neither did Portia or Tristan. Zeke struggled with at first, pronouncing it la-yama, but the pretty teacher worked him through it until he got it right. Of course, Chaucer had no trouble. Then Georgia stunned everyone by pronouncing it with no hint of an American accent.

“Excellent, Georgia,” said Ms. Escobar. “You’ve had some experience with the tongue?”

“I doubt that,” Bo snickered under his breath. The teacher didn’t hear it but Portia shot him a dirty look.

“Yes, ma’am,” Georgia replied nervously. “I’m fluent in seven languages; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, and Swahili.”

“Maybe I should speak with Professor Knott about allowing you to make better use of your time,” said Ms. Escobar. “Bo, your turn.”

“Carlos llama por telefono,” Bo said in his deep, southern twang.

“Is it me or does Freebird sound like Speedy Gonazalez in one of Indira’s time cones?” Zeke said aloud for everyone to hear.

The class burst into laughter.

“That’s enough, class,” Ms. Escobar warned. “Very good Bo, but be careful when pronouncing telefono. It’s not telephone with an ‘o’ at the end. Ta-lay-fo-no.”

Bo nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

Ms. Escobar turned to Mastadon. He was the imposing new kid at the school and did little to make anyone like him. Bo didn’t like anyone who could put him and Goldman on the same side even if they were supposed to be on the same side. “I have a note that says you prefer to be called… Mastadon?”

Mastadon smiled dumbly and blushed. “You can call me whatever you like.”

It seemed Bo wasn’t the only one smitten with Ms. Escobar’s beauty.

“Carlos... Carlos...” Mastadon struggled with the sentence. “Carlos...”

“It’s ok,” Ms. Escobar encouraged. “You’re doing fine.”

“Carlos...” Mastadon stammered, his face growing bright red as he struggled with the words. “Aw... to hell with Carlos and your screwy language lady! If you people were smarter you’d learn to speak English like everybody else!”

Mastadon slammed his book shut.

The class was stunned.

Ms. Escobar’s mouth hung open in shock. “I don’t know what to say… I…”

“Now hold on a minute,” said Bo. “In case you ain’t noticed we’re not in America anymore, big guy. She’s doing her job! No need to insult her!”

“Figures you’d stand up for her, Bubba” Mastadon laughed. “Could you be more obvious? Every time she writes on the blackboard you’re sitting there hoping her dress will creep up an inch higher than the last time!”

Ms. Escobar shot Bo a quizzical look as he sunk into his seat, like she was asking him if it was true without really asking or wanting to know. And of course it was true! How could any red-blooded male not look at her? But getting called out for looking wasn’t cool. “Dude, she’s our teacher!”

“Like that means anything to you! You’d do your own momma if you got the chance, Bubba! If I want to hear this Spanish gibberish, I’ll go back to Southern Cali and pick fruit,” Mastadon huffed. The hulking boy stood and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

No one said anything at first. Bo finally broke the silence. “Hasta la vista, baby!”

His classmates didn’t argue with him. For once, they were in complete harmony.

Later the same night

What was that blasted noise?

Hugo Knott rolled out of bed, careful to not awaken his wife, Patrice. She was a light sleeper and stirred at every bump in the night. Thankfully she didn’t rouse from her slumber.

Hugo slid his feet into his slippers and walked to the door. He grabbed the doorknob but quickly jerked his hand away. It burned him! He placed his other palm flat against their heavy six-paneled oak bedroom door. It too felt warm.

Abigail! Hugo’s young daughter was asleep in her room at the end of the hall. Patrice only recently convinced her to sleep in her own room. The battle of wills between a three year old and her mother was epic. If anything happened to her Patrice would never forgive herself.

Hugo burst through the door into a flame-filled hallway.

“Hugo? Hugo? What’s happening?” Patrice screamed after him.

“Stay where you are, Patrice!” Hugo ordered. “I’ll save Abigail and come back for you!”

“Abigail!” Patrice screamed. “Oh god, Hugo! Save her!”

The fire swept through the mansion without prejudice. Both heirlooms and everyday bric-brac succumbed to the fury of the angry flames. Hugo fought through the smoke and gripped the stair rail to guide him through the thick, black smoke, but decided the walls were far sturdier and a more permanent fixture to lead him. He struggled through the flames down the hallway toward Abigail’s room, but the inferno had other ideas.

Unbelief finally beat down Hugo’s panic. Surely someone else’s home was on fire and not his own! Abigail screamed - or was it Patrice? He dodged a falling beam and lost his sense of direction. Thankfully, he bumped into the wall instead of going over the stairs now that the banister had burned away. He searched in vain for the door to his study. If he could find it, he could use the odd-shaped door knocker as a guide. The heavy iron knocker was shaped like a lion’s head. It held a ring in its mouth that served as the knocking mechanism. One side of the ring was ivory, the other ornate brass. The brass side faced the bedroom he shared with his beloved wife. But the knocker wasn’t there!

Abigail was awake now and her cries rose above the roar of the flames. Hugo cursed the wall of flame that prevented him from reaching her. Another beam gave way from overhead and crashed to the floor. It lay across the hallway, daring him to cross like a fiery gargoyle at the gates of hell.

Hugo tried to clear his lungs but sucked in another gulp of smoke. He covered his mouth and tried again to cross the second fallen beam. Perhaps there was something in his and Patrice’s room that he could use to cover his mouth. He turned back to their room but found that yet another beam had crashed down and blocked his retreat.

Abigail’s screams mixed with her mother’s in a thundering cacophony of noise – the roaring fire, the cries of his loved ones, his own heartbeat! Hugo tried again to push on through the fire in either direction but the heat was too intense. Both sides of the hallway were blocked by Hephaestus’ fury. The room started to spin as Hugo fought dizziness. The fire was sucking the oxygen from the home. Hugo dropped to his knees.

“Patrice! Save yourself!”

“Daddy! Daddy! No! No!”

Hugo Knott realized he couldn’t reach his frightened daughter. Her fearful pleas filled the hallway first and then she screamed in agony. If he lived to be immortal Hugo would never forget those pitiful screams. He thought of her first steps and of taking her to Metropolis World. Even as a small child, she possessed a sense of adventure. So what if the kiddie rides posed no real threat? She refused to back down from any of them. She loved the planes the most. The small, ceramic aircraft followed the same mundane flight pattern round and round, attached to a steel, mechanical arm. Abigail was never more than six feet off the ground, but beamed as if she’d conquered Everest.

“Look at me, Daddy!” she cried each time her plane came back around.

“Hugo!”

Patrice’s cry shook Hugo from thoughts of a more pleasant day. If he couldn’t save their daughter then he would save his beloved wife. Another beam fell from the ceiling and nearly hit him. “Patrice! Go to the window!”

“Hugo! Help me, please!”

“Go to the window, dammit!”

Hugo hoped Patrice knew what he had in mind. He made his living teaching others to control their emotions and their fears. Now it was time for him to master his own. The unforgiving heat lapped at his nostrils as he inhaled deeply and tried desperately to bury the sorrow of losing his daughter long enough to save his wife. Control, that’s what he needed. Just like at work. Sure, some of the inmates at Arkham were more difficult to rehabilitate than others, but he’d made his reputation on knowing the criminal mind and teaching Gotham’s most deplorable reprobates to battle their eccentricities. If he could go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Joker and Scarecrow, then he could damn well calm his own mind long enough to think straight! Even if it was his destiny to give up the ghost to the flames then he would face his end with dignity and a clear mind.

First he had to find his study again. He knelt and crawled through the smoke, respectful of the raging inferno above him. When he reached the door, he rose to his knees and turned the knob. He yelped as his tender flesh seemed to melt around the brass knob. But it opened and the study wasn’t yet burning. It was filled with thick, black smoke but no flames.

“Hugo!”

“I’m coming Patrice! Stay at the window!”

CRAAAASHHH!!!!!!!

At first Hugo thought the heat blew out the windows, but the glass landed around him in the study. That was impossible! Glass blows outward in a fire, not inward! Even in the confusion he knew that wasn’t right.

Then he saw him.

Batman rushed to Hugo’s side. Maybe his family had a chance after all.

“You’re safe now! I’ll get you out of here,” said Batman in an unnatural, electronic voice. It was then Hugo noticed the filter mask beneath the opening of the Dark Knight’s cowl.

“My family!” Hugo argued. “Save them! Let me die!”

“It’s too late for them,” said Batman. “We should go! The house is coming down!”

An exhausted Dr. Knott raised himself to one elbow and grabbed Batman’s throat with the other hand. “No! No! Damn you, Bat! Save them and not me! My little Abigail and my Patrice! Save them! Got to save them... Got to ...”

 

Professor Hugo Knott jerked awake and sprung up in his bed. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his pajama top. It was the same damned dream that haunted him for years. His lungs felt like Superman was beating the walls of his chest from the inside.

The Professor cradled his legs to his chest and curled into an upright fetal position. Why couldn’t Batman have left him to die with his family? There would be no nightmares then, no haunting questions with precious few answers. The authorities blamed the fire on faulty wiring, but Hugo knew better. He’d made plenty of enemies in the metahuman community on both sides. But it was the Bat who left his family to die and for that he would one day pay dearly!

“Need a drink of water,” Professor Knott mumbled to no one in particular. His shaking hands reached for the glass and the pitcher by his bed. He watched the liquid fill the smooth glass and pondered the irony. The very thing that could have saved his family was the one thing he craved after the nightmare. He kept a pitcher beside his bed each night, knowing the fitful dream may come. It was still semi-cold from the previous night’s ice cubes melting at room temperature. He raised the glass to his mouth and wished the flames in his dreams were as easy to quench as his thirst.

Strategic Theory 101, The Next Day

William Hand was late for class. He thought of the times he’d chastised Portia for being tardy. Of course this was his first time and she made a regular habit of it but it set a bad example. He grinned wryly. If someone had told him six months before that he’d worry about setting a bad example for a teenage girl he would have laughed in their face. What would that smug idiot Green Lantern say to that? That was the problem with the spandex set. They assumed every thought that went through a so-called super-villain’s mind was evil of some sort, but they were human too. At least, most of them were.

Professor Hand opened the door to his room and found the students as he expected them - loud and more than a little wild.

“Ok! Ok! Settle down you hooligans! Teacher’s gone for a few minutes and you act like a bunch of two year olds,” Professor Hand shouted over the din. He shot a glance at Portia and wondered if she’d made it on time, but was too embarrassed to ask.

Professor Hand quickly retrieved his workbook from his briefcase and got right to the point. “Today’s assignment will measure your ability to work in smaller groups. Most often, we work alone, but there are times when you’ll find yourself allied with others to achieve a common goal. More often than not it is because some damned superhero has stuck his nose in your business but other times another meta will possess a skill set specific to your job! It stinks to split the spoils but half a big payday is better than none. Thus I will assign lab partners whom you’ll work with in smaller teams for this task.”

Indira raised her hand.

“Yes, Indira?” Professor Hand asked.

“How small are these groups?”

Professor Hand opened his workbook and found the proper page on his daily planner and lesson guide. “Two to each team. Professor Knott specifically asked that I pair Portia with Tristan as he seems to be able to exert a manner of control over her feral form. Chaucer will work with Jake...”

Mastadon shot up and pointed a finger at Professor Hand. “That’s Mastadon, you washed-up has-been!”

A black beam shot from Professor Hand’s glove and struck Mastadon in the chest. The energy burst sent him sprawling over a row of desks and pinned him to the ground as it bathed him in its dark swathe. “You will learn that I don’t scare quite so easily, Mr. Thurston. Perhaps it would be a fitting end to atomize you in front of your new classmates and teach them how to deal with the obligatory bullying muscle and their always larger-than-life egos. Not bad for a… Let’s see, what did you call me? Ah yes! A washed-up has-been! You listen to me, you insufferable punk, and you listen well! When you are in my classroom, I address you as I see fit. Understood?”

A groggy Mastadon raised to one knee and tried to shake off the cobwebs. “Yes, sir.”

“And that applies to your other instructors as well. If I so much as hear about another incident like the one today with Ms. Escobar I will bring your miserable, young life to a premature crescendo. Are we clear?”

Mastadon broke his grimace long enough to nod. “Sir, yes sir! You have my word! Please, make it stop!”

“Good,” Professor Hand continued as his energy burst dispersed. “Where was I? Oh yes, Jake and Chaucer. Zeke, will work with Georgia. That leaves Indira and Bo. Does everyone know their lab partner?”

“Yes sir,” the class answered in disgusted unison. No one seemed thrilled about their partner - which was good. When paired with another villain in the real world, more often than not, it was someone you couldn’t stand. The exercise was valuable in terms of experience for the students.

“Let’s move on to the next item on the daily agenda, shall we? Has anyone besides Jake come up with their moniker?” asked Professor Hand. “Professor Knott has been on my case about it so I’m going to be on yours until you come up with something.” He wasn’t sure why it was taking the students so long to choose names.

“I was thinking Father Earth,” said Bo. “Or Father Nature.”

“What about Sister Redneck?” Mastadon laughed.

Professor Hand glared at Mastadon. Despite the boy’s unpleasant demeanor, Professor Hand admired how he taunted and tortured the others. Fear was the great motivator. Either they would allow him to bully and control them or they would act as one and put him in his place. Either way the Academy won. Once he settled Mastadon down, he turned his attention back to Bo. “Try again, kid.”

Indira’s hand shot up. “I’ve got one... I think.”

“This ought to be rich,” Bo jeered.

Portia whipped around in her seat and pointed at him. “Nobody asked you... Geo-Hick!”

“That’s enough,” Professor Hand snapped. “Indira?”

Indira’s face grew bright red and she seemed to shrink in her seat but finally she answered in a barely audible voice. “Tempo.”

Professor Hand smiled. He had to admit it was short and sweet and described her powers aptly. It lacked intimidation factor, but was still quite effective – and she was a female so her moniker didn’t need to drip with testosterone. “An excellent choice, Indira. I like it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Indira replied with a relieved smile.

“Anyone else?”

“I’ve been tossing a name around too,” said Portia. “She-Wolf.”

“Another good one,” Professor Hand replied.

“I’m going to be Lady Sivana,” said Georgia.

“Absolutely!” said Professor Hand. “It’s wise to use your family name. It will remind everyone that you represent a powerful legacy in the underworld and that alone will open doors that would be shut to you otherwise. Anyone else?”

Professor Hand glared at the boys who hadn’t yet spoken up. Their only replies were dumb smiles from Zeke and Tristan and a total lack of interest from Chaucer. Apparently their dumb game of juvenile posturing was more important to them. Or in Chaucer’s case his head was a million miles away.

“Fine! Open your textbooks to page one-hundred thirty-one....”

Mastadon’s Room, That Night

Jake Thurston spoke into a pen communicator. “They’re pairing us up for missions in the morning. I’m to go with the brainy one to photograph a top-secret defense weapon.”

“Is everyone accepting you?”

“I can be persuasive,” Jake answered.

“You’re there to gather information, not to draw unneeded attention to yourself! You can’t get kicked out. We need to know more about this school if we’re going to shut it down.”

“Roger that,” Jake replied.

“Make them trust you!” the voice demanded.

“They fancy themselves super-villains. I have to make them respect me first.”

“Just don’t go overboard.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Jake shot back. “I can handle it.”

“And Jake?”

“Yes?” Jake asked.

“Be careful.”

“Will do. Jake out.”

Jake clicked the ink pen and converted it into a writing utensil once more.

“Interesting device,” said Chaucer. “I could have built one in my sleep when I was two but I’m surprised you can operate it with your Cro-Magnon brain.”

The boy genius startled Jake with his sudden appearance. He cursed himself for being so careless. He couldn’t have Chaucer telling the others about his communicator.

“Who were you speaking with?” Chaucer asked.

Jake fought back the urge to panic. There was only one way to recapture the advantage in such an awkward situation. He grabbed the young genius by the throat and slammed him against the wall. “What did you hear egghead?”

Chaucer struggled against the massive hand gripping his throat. Fear drained the color from his face. “Nothing,” Chaucer stammered. “I arrived only moments ago. The door wasn’t closed completely so I entered. I- I swear! I thought we could go over our mission plans.”

Jake pulled the smaller boy to his face and snarled at him. “Our mission plans? There is no “our” in this mission! We do this my way! Understood?”

“But this mission requires stealth,” Chaucer replied. “We can’t go barging in like...”

“Like what?” Jake demanded. He shook Chaucer hard.

“No... I...” Chaucer pleaded. “Please don’t hit me.”

Jake threw Chaucer to the floor. “I don’t take orders from lab rats! Got it?”

Chaucer curled up in a ball to protect himself. “Yes sir, Mastadon, sir! We do this your way.”

Jake smiled. “Now you’re talking, lab rat and if you open your mouth about any of this I will make you pay dearly.”

The Colombian Jungle

The truck rolled over the rough terrain for hours. The caravan hadn’t stopped once. Indira wasn’t thrilled about being in the middle of the jungle in the back of an old army truck with Bo. It was hot and humid, the ride was rough, and the company was even worse. In fact, being in the back of an army truck brought back some bad memories of the invasion by El Diablo Ramon’s paramilitary band of marauders. (Issue 3 – Ye Dear Olde Editor)

Bo slapped his neck. “Damn skeeters could carry off a bowling ball down here.”

Sometimes Bo spoke nonsense to Indira’s ears. English was her second language and Bo’s southern twang and colloquialisms were difficult to comprehend. “I don’t understand.”

“Mosquitoes,” Bo answered. “They’re big.”

“Oh,” Indira answered. She wasn’t sure what to say. Why did Professor Hand pair her with Bo of all people? He made her nervous and wasn’t shy with his opinions on everything from Indira’s powers to the state of affairs at the school.

“Tempo, huh?” Bo asked.

Indira cringed, anticipating the inevitable. She expected Bo to make fun of her new name on the trip, but hoped to avoid the conversation as long as possible. “Yeah.”

Bo’s lips curled into a smile. “I like it. It works for you.”

“Really?” A compliment was definitely unexpected.

“I wish I could think of something cool, too,” Bo replied.

Bo thought her name was cool? What had gotten into him? “I’m sure you will.”

“I guess,” Bo answered. “But I wanted you to know I like your moniker, as Professor Hand calls it.”

Indira smiled. “Thank you, Bo.”

“Even if you did name yourself after an old Ford,” Bo added. It was a playful insult with no hint of malice in his voice.

“I’m not sure I understand, but thank you,” Indira replied.

“Ford Tempo - an old car Ford stopped making years ago. Forget it. I was just being a pain in the ass,” Bo explained.

Indira laughed. “You’re good at that!”

“Hey!” Bo shot back. He extended his hands and animated the dirt on the canvas. It gathered itself together and assumed the form of a head. It stuck out its tongue at her.

“That’s funny. You should do stuff like that more often. Why are you such a jerk sometimes?” Indira asked.

“I don’t know,” Bo answered with a shrug. “It’s what I do best, I guess.”

“No. It isn’t,” Indira argued. “You should let the others see you like this.”

Bo shook his head. “And taint my golden-boy image?”

“That new boy - Jake - this has something to do with him, doesn’t it?” Indira asked.

Bo turned away and his smile disappeared. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Boys could be so difficult to understand. Was Bo afraid of Mastadon or was it something more? “I’m here if you want to talk.”

Bo stared out the back of the truck as it moved deeper into the heart of the jungle. He didn’t answer.

That Night in Buenaventura

“We didn’t exactly draw the primo assignment of the bunch. Did we?” Zeke asked.

Georgia shrugged her shoulders. She and Zeke were outside a pawn shop on the edge of town that looked more like it belonged on the set of Sanford and Son than the outskirts of Buenaventura. “Maybe we can use it to our advantage.”

Zeke’s face contorted. “I’d like to know how. Knocking off a run-down pawn shop is hardly the big time.”

“Exactly,” Georgia replied. She and Zeke snuck in the shadows to the shop’s electric pole.

“Now you’ve really lost me,” Zeke answered.

Georgia found the small pawn shop’s electric meter and flipped the breaker. “Ok, we’re in. No alarm.”

“Yeah, but you still didn’t explain,” said Zeke.

Georgia turned and faced her partner. “Everyone else is on difficult assignments with a greater likelihood of failure. We have a greater chance of success without incident which will make us look better than the others.”

“But if we screw up...”

“We won’t screw up,” said Georgia. “Trust me.”

“You’re different lately,” said Zeke.

Georgia smiled. “Portia’s been helping me. I’ll never be a looker like her, but she’s....”

Zeke shook his head. “Not just that, I mean more assertive. You were such a wallflower before.”

“I was the new girl,” Georgia replied. “I am still a Sivana though! The cream rises to the top and it’s easier when my father isn’t around.”

“You don’t like your old man?” Zeke asked.

“Don’t be a fool!” Georgia shot back. “I adore my father, but when he’s around I try so hard that I totally screw up whatever I’m working on. What’s up with you and Indira?”

Zeke shrugged his shoulders. “You tell me and we’ll both know.”

“I don’t think she was too happy about you siding with Bo and teasing Tristan about Amazing Man,” said Georgia. She retrieved a pair of wire cutters from the small bag on her shoulder and used them to cut a hole in the steel mesh fence and crawled through

“We were just...” Bo followed but found the opening a little tight. “I’m caught on the fence.”

“Hold still. I’ll cut around you,” Georgia instructed. She carefully snipped around Zeke’s body and made the opening large enough for him to crawl through. “Indira’s very sensitive to the feelings of others. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how good a villain she’ll ever be.”

The pair ran across the junkyard. “Wanna know something?” Zeke asked.

“Sure.”

“I don’t know how good any of us will ever be. I mean we got our asses handed to us by a holographic robot for God’s sake!”

“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Georgia replied. “It was good for us to realize it’s not always going to be easy.”

“You weren’t here during the invasion. It’s never been easy,” said Zeke.

Georgia rattled the doorknob but its lock held tight. “I think your expertise would be of service here.”

Zeke twisted the knob and released a small explosion. It fell off in his hand.

“Good control,” said Georgia. “Wasn’t even too loud.”

The two young villains crept inside. The store was eerily quiet except for the sound of someone breathing.

“Oh great!” Georgia whispered. “Someone is sleeping here. Use as little light as possible.”

Zeke nodded and moved to the jewelry cases. He leaned over slowly.

“No, go around,” said Georgia. “Watch out for the...”

DING!!!

“... bell.”

Zeke’s elbow hit a small desk bell causing it to chime.

Georgia shined her small penlight at Zeke. His face was frozen in horror. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed.

The breathing stopped. Georgia hoped whoever was sleeping would roll over and return to la-la land, but the silence lingered like the proverbial elephant in the room. She held her index finger up to her lips and mimed a shushing noise.

Zeke nodded.

After what felt like an eternity, Georgia finally relaxed. It was their biggest mistake of the evening.

Also in Buenaventura That Night

Portia and Tristan stood outside a small church. Portia glanced at the brick and concrete announcement board that graced the church’s face with its worn, red brick enclosure. It was one of the few semi-modern improvements the small house of worship had seen in its long lifetime. It read “Iglesia de San Domingo. Est. 1744. Bienvenidos amigos.”

“I can’t believe they’d keep something like that here,” said Tristan. “There’s not even a guard.”

“It still doesn’t feel right,” Portia replied.

“What?” Tristan asked.

“Stealing from a church.”

“Nervous?”

Portia nodded. “Of course I am. I’ve never really stolen anything in my life, especially from a church.”

“So what’s up with you and church? I didn’t know you were a holy roller,” said Tristan.

“I’m not, but my mom drug me to Mass every week. And I can’t tell you how many times I sat in the confession booth and wanted to tell the priest there was a demon in me,” Portia answered.

Tristan laughed. “A demon? You have a gift.”

“I don’t know,” Portia replied. “Maybe it’s good old Catholic guilt.”

“Oh, so Catholics have their own brand of guilt?” Tristan asked.

Portia nodded emphatically. “Damn right we do! Nothing else like it in the world. When we swipe that crucifix all I’ll hear is my mother’s voice telling me I’m going to burn in hell.”

“But your mom - she still works for Penguin. How does she justify that?” Tristan asked.

“We owe him a lot,” Portia replied. “She says she’s there to shine a light.”

“I don’t get religion at all,” Tristan replied. “Exaggerated stories designed to keep the human race in line. Spooky stories for when we do bad and tales of extravagant reward for doing good. Why do perfectly sane human beings do it to themselves?”

“So you don’t believe in God?” Portia asked.

“Not really. Something may be out there, but whatever it is, it sure as hell’s not interested in me,” Tristan replied.

The bitterness in Tristan’s voice was surprising. Even though he hung around Bo, Portia always saw him as so even-tempered. “Why would you say that?”

“Let’s just get this over with, okay?” said Tristan.

“Sure,” Portia stammered. “Should I wolf up?”

“Wolf up?” Tristan laughed. “Watching old Michael J. Fox re-runs?”

Portia giggled. “Maybe.”

“Yeah, it’s probably best if you do. We don’t know what we’ll run into inside. Are you ready Sister Teen Wolf?” Tristan asked.

“I hate this,” Portia nodded. She felt Tristan’s empathic manipulation tugging at her emotions. At first the feeling was mild annoyance. She wished he would get out of her head. Then her anger bubbled like lava inside a volcano. The change was coming on too quickly. She hoped Tristan could control it, because she couldn’t. Or was Tristan the problem? Could it be the anger in his voice was a danger signal that he wasn’t in charge of his own emotion? Had her words about God and religion struck a dissonant chord within her classmate? The flood of molten emotion continued to rise and finally erupted.

Pain racked Portia’s body. It felt as if hot knives sprouted from deep within her and tore their way through her skin as the lupine hair appeared. She writhed as her face contorted to a wolf-like state. A snout sprung from her nasal cavity as her other features elongated. Her ears rose to the top of her head. Her eyes shifted closer together. The rearranging of her bone structure hurt so badly she wanted to die. It always did. Then came the flood of smells assaulting her olfactory center, a dizzy aromatic cornucopia that made her want to vomit at first before she was able to zero in on a pleasant one. The salty tang of her own blood filled her mouth as canine incisors ripped through her gums and grew into sharp fangs. For some reason her tongue never thinned until the teeth came in, slicing underneath it each time as it flicked across her canines.

She turned to Tristan and unleashed a furious, guttural snarl but he didn’t move. His refusal to yield angered her even more, or so she thought. She suddenly didn’t want to harm him at all. In fact, she would see that no harm came to him.

Just like last time Tristan helped her, Portia was able to maintain a semblance of humanity in the eye of her feral storm. He was like a beacon calming her rage and focusing it on the task at hand.

Tristan motioned for Portia to tear the door from the hinges. She eagerly complied, but deep within the werewolf raged a storm of the Catholic guilt she spoke of earlier. Once inside the church the feelings intensified. She-Wolf didn’t belong in such a holy place and she knew it. Hers was a damned soul and every artifact of worship in the building reminded her of it.

At the front of the church beneath a glass display sat a small, silver cross on an ivory base. Portia cowered from it, but Tristan approached it confidently. His fingers worked carefully to lift the glass....

Two men rushed into the room with guns. <“Hold it right there!”> said one.

Portia couldn’t understand the man’s Spanish but the language of guns was universal. She leaped into action.

<“Mother of God, save me!”> cried one of the men. He fired his gun into the air and sprayed the ceiling with lead. A few bullets hit Portia with little effect. She landed on the gunman and lashed at him with her claws. The sight and smell of blood made her lust for more. Again she tore his flesh. He cried out in pain. Bearing her fangs, Portia lowered herself to his neck. The man begged for mercy but Portia showed none. In one swift bite, she tore out his throat. Blood exploded from the gaping wound. The sound of the man’s gurgled final breaths was intoxicating. Portia’s heightened senses heard the fear in the man’s heartbeat as he realized he was dying.

The man clawed at his throat and closed his eyes a final time.

Portia exhaled all other scents from her nose and summoned the smell of the blood into her nostrils. The strong scent settled in the back of her nasal cavity on her olfactory gland. In her feral form her sense of smell was so strong she could taste the man’s essence. She felt so many conflicting emotions at that moment - pride for her kill, sadness, joy, elation, hunger, bloodlust, and sexual awakening. She needed more! She turned to the second man.

“Portia, don’t!” said Tristan. She could hear him but obeying him no longer seemed as it important as it did only moments before. He closed his eyes and looked to be in deep concentration.

Portia felt his hold slipping away even as he struggled to maintain it. In a moment, it was gone completely.

“Run!” Tristan shouted to the second man who heeded the advice even if it was in English and not Spanish.

Portia shadowed the man’s moves and leaped over the pews after him. She heard Tristan lift the glass behind her. He got what they came for and now she would have more of what she wanted - no, what she needed. She pinned the man to the wall with a final, athletic leap. He fought back but his puny human strength was of little consequence. Her claws ripped into his olive flesh. Blood flowed from the wounds and Portia quickly licked a trail of the bitter nectar. She wanted more... another kill... the thrill ... the joy... the....

PAIN!!!!

Portia had been shot with guns and arrows. She was accustomed to the rearranging of her own bones. She had been stuffed into a box and placed into the back of a truck that survived tumbling down the side of a man-made mountain, (Issue 3 again – ye Dear Olde Editor) but never in her young life had she felt such intense pain. Her breastbone was on fire! Her howl echoed in her own ears and filled the little church with the lament of hell. A pair of arms wrapped around her from behind. What had the man done to her?

No, it wasn’t the man! He was dying. Portia recognized the light caramel arms that bound her as Tristan’s. He held the stolen crucifix to her chest! His betrayal made no sense. He was supposed to be her friend! Why would he hurt her?

As confusion rattled Portia’s brain, she felt herself changing back into a girl. The silver crucifix did something to her, but she wasn’t sure what. All she knew was that it hurt even worse than her transformations. At last she reverted to human form. “Tristan? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Tristan replied. He released his hold. “You lost it. I lost it. I’m not sure. Old legends say a silver cross causes a werewolf to revert to human form. I guess the legends are true.”

“Yeah,” Portia answered. “But it hurt like hell. Don’t ever do it again, please.” She looked around. The church was a mess. Pews were tipped over. Bullet holes marred the painted ceiling. Even the Blessed Virgin’s visage above the altar sported a bullet hole between her eyes. And at the altar lay a bloody mess of a man. Portia’s eyes darted back-and-forth between the tiny silver Savior suspended on the cross in Tristan’s hand and the bloody altar. “Oh my god! Oh my god! What have I done, Tristan? What have I done?”

“It’s ok,”said Tristan. “Take a deep breath. We got what we came for.”

Portia heaved. She couldn’t help it. As she wiped the vomit from her mouth she noticed blood mixed with it. She felt it coagulating around her mouth. She began to sob uncontrollably. “Get me back to the school, Tristan. Please!”

With a trembling hand she reached for her classmate who assured her again that everything would be alright. He helped her to her feet, wrapped an arm around her, and escorted her away. Before leaving the church, she looked once more at the bloody altar and the crucifix in Tristan’s hand and wasn’t so sure anything would ever be alright again.


 

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