The Zero Factor Part 2
David J. Duncan
[Dave's Anglo-Saxon History Class-the next day]
After a very difficult night, Dave decided to try and teach his class the next day. Ever since the funeral, he hadn't slept very much, if at all. From time to time, nightmares from the fire would appear, disrupting any sleep. He could feel Ashlocke's presence around him. His friends thought he was nuts, but knowing that the SOB was such a strong psionic, the professor had no doubts in this regard.
He's stalking me all right.
For his part, the Child was very active as well. Even though Dave didn't lapse, the Dark One worked behind the scenes, watching for the new mutant patricide to make his move.
Ah won't miss ya, Twit. This time, Ah'll deal with ya.
Even as he started to teach the class, the professor felt woozy. His moods were swinging although not as badly as they had the night before. Since the subject matter was familiar-the transition from blood feud to modern justice in medieval England-he tried to tough it out.
In the audience, Martin watched his every move. He's right on the edge. If something happens, it'll be up to me to do something.
"At one point, murder was met with murder...the Golden Rule and all that stuff. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought the concept of the blood feud with them. This institution held sway until legal bodies took shape centuries later including the predecessor of our jury trial came into being...." From there, he described how the institutions evolved and became more intricate before going on about the Church's role in these affairs.
A hand went up. "Excuse me, Dr. Dubois. Where was the line between vengeance and justice?"
The shaman's eyebrow arched, recalling the events at the church. Where indeed?
"Well, that's a good question. It depends upon several things such as the right of the body to administer justice, the method, and the circumstances of doing so," Dave noted, feeling a tremor surge through himself.
The student pressed further. "Let's give a hypothetical case. Let's say somebody murdered your family. Does that give you the right to hunt them down?"
The professor took a deep breath and quaked a bit more. "The law says no."
"What do you think?"
From her seat in the back of the class, Brigid Shannon interceded, "That's enough!"
"It's hypothetical," the other student protested.
"N...No, it ain't," Dave slurred, the change starting to happen. Then, in the corner, Ashlocke's image appeared. "What the? Ya'll here?"
"Who?" the student asked, looking around and seeing nothing.
Martin saw the image too. "Go away. You have no business here!"
The Indian can see me too. Amazing. "I do. I want to hear this from him."
By now, Dave's right eye was shut and his mouth was locked in a firm line as he tried to hold back the change.
I won't change. I won't.... "That's the diff'rence between us. I work with the authorities. Ya...You take the law into yer...your own hands...."
"Really?" the image asked.
"Ah ain't the patricide here!" the Child roared, seizing control. Concentrating, he forced the image to appear in full view. "Now that we see ya, scuzbag, Ah'll answer ya. Ya'll wiped out mah family, mah friends, mah home. If Ah were into blood feud, ya'll be dead right now! Scram!"
Ashlocke frowned and vanished into thin air.
"Damn...lousy murderin'," the Dark One muttered.
"Everyone," Martin announced. "If Dr. Dubois doesn't object, class is dismissed."
"Ya'll heard 'im." The Child stared at the others through the intense left eye. "'Cuse us." With that, he threw his materials into the satchel and stomped out of the room, heading for the office.
Brigid and the shaman threw the student an angry glance for provoking this display before they followed him.
Across campus, Angie sat in her office performing her research. Since the funeral, she had fallen behind in her work. Now that things had clamed down a bit, she reclaimed lost ground in a hurry. I should have this piece done if all goes well....
Then she felt her husband's mood shift. No! What's going on? He's teaching right now. Oh my! Focusing on the source, she realized what the problem.
Ashlocke. Fighting off a surge of anger and indignation, she concentrated again and closed her eyes.
I'll be there in a second. Just hold on.
Eve entered the Social Sciences Building eager to plan her next class...that was until she saw her friend storm down the hall, walk into his office, and slam the door behind him.
What in Eli's name?
"Dr. Messenger!" Brigid's voice called.
The former messenger turned to see Brigid and Martin hurry toward her. "What happened?"
"He just went off. We were discussing blood feud when a student asked him about the line between vengeance and justice. Anyhow, he started losing it and then, this ghost guy popped up and started messing with him," she told Eve.
"It was Ashlocke," Martin added.
The Religion professor nodded. Ashlocke's taunting Dave. It would figure. "Is there anything else, Martin?"
He shook his head. "Yes. He changed in there. The Other confronted the image and made him go away."
"He didn't hurt anyone, did he?"
"No. We got him out of there before anything could happen," he assured her.
That's a relief. "Come on. Brigid, can you find Toni Quintana? I need to talk with her," Eve requested. "Send her to Dr. Dubois' office please."
"Sure," the younger woman agreed, heading for the stairs.
"Let's get to the bottom of this," Eve asserted, leading them down the hall toward her friend's door. Knocking on it, she asked, "Dave? Are you in there?"
There was no answer.
I can feel him...the anger is flaring up. "C'mon! Open the door!"
"Git!" he yelled. "We wanna be alone!"
The Child. He's finally lapsed after all of the strife. "We need to talk to both of you. Please." After once again getting silence, she
shrugged. "Let's go to my office. I need an account of this."
"I can contact Emma if you'd like," Martin offered.
"Yes please. Let's go," she accepted, heading for her own sanctum.
Dave struggled to retain control in the office. I can't believe he did that. Then again, he wants to send me a message. Screw him...I'll give him a response when he shows up here.
["Yeah! Let's send 'im a message right back!" the Child roared.]
["Cool it. Don't you think I want a piece of him too?" Dave asked.]
["As long as it's done within certain limits," Angie's voice interjected.]
Both entities saw the oncologist's image appear in front of them with a concerned look on her face. ["What happened?"]
["Asscrock finally showed his face," the Dark One replied. "Ah taught 'im some manners."]
She winced. Probably embarrassed Dave in the process, I'll bet.
["Actually, he was well behaved, Angie. He just challenged Ashlocke. By the way, how did you work the trick with making him appear like that?" Dave wondered.]
["It's a new power. Ah'll show ya sometime," the Child revealed. "Meantime, that boy needs to learn that he can't keep stalkin' us and git away with it."] With that, he vanished.
["That's new. Ranting in the face of danger like that?" Angie asked.]
["He got a few choice words in, trust me," her husband responded, shuddering. "I want Ashlocke to hurt for what he did." He glared at her, allowing his pain-not the Child's-to show through. "He's going to pay for that. I can't kill him, but I can make him hurt for what he did to us all."]
[She shook her head, fighting off the resurgent feelings of vengeance inside of herself. "You can't give in to those feelings and neither can I. We'll get through it. If he and his troops come here, we'll deal with them. Are you going to be okay?"]
["I'll live," he told her. "As long as Ashlocke stays away."]
I'd best book off early if he's that touchy. ["Okay, see ya," she concluded, disappearing.]
Just then, Michael phased through the door. "Professor, are you all right?"
"I'm feeling better although today's still pretty lousy. Why?"
"We were concerned about you," Paula added after returning to normal. "I slithered under the door so to speak."
"Clark's on his way over here in case we needed to break in here. Martin and Brigid told us what happened," Michael replied. "Ashlocke's a real creep, isn't he?"
"The worst kind," Dave responded. "Well, I guess we'd best let your classmates know that I'm all right. Let's go."
With that, they left the office and walked down the hall.
[Ashlocke's lair-6 hours later]
Back across the country, Ashlocke snapped back to his senses abruptly. For much of the previous two weeks, he had tracked David Dubois' movements, psionically following him from home, to the office, and class. Of late, he had the feeling that both of his quarry's personalities felt his presence. The episode in the classroom affirmed that.
He saw me even before I was ready for him to do so. He rubbed his head, trying to massage away the headache occurring between his eyes.
"How'd it go, Gabriel?" Morgan asked.
I'm not going to admit weakness here. I was meant to rule not to crawl. "Fine. Dubois knows I'm on his tail," the head mutant informed her.
"Is that wise? I don't mean to doubt you, but..."
He managed a smug grin. "Everything's going according to plan, Morgan. Now, come with me. It's time to move on our target." Walking through the door, he stood in front of his followers. "It's time, my friends. It's time to move on those who would resist us. We must make them links in the Strand."
The other mutants cheered.
Adam and the others had best watch themselves. We're coming for them all.
Then, the lights wavered and flickered in the area. All of the psionics in the room felt another presence.
"BWWAAAHAAAA!!!!!" a familiar voice laughed menacingly.
"Show yourself!" Ashlocke growled. Nobody threatens me especially not on my own turf.
"Sure. Why not? Ah'm bored with ya'll anyway," the Child taunted, appearing as an ebony image with the red eyes. "Better watch yerself, Asscrock. Ya got away last time, Coward. Ya'll won't be so lucky the next time."
Ashlocke approached the dark image. "You talk big for an ghost. I made you look like a fool back there."
The Dark One chuckled. "I should've known that ya're as big a jackass as advertised. If ya'll weren't such a yellah coward, ya'll face us like a man instead of sending yer image." A low growl escaped his lips. "Ah owe ya'll a little somethin'. How do ya'll want it?"
Ashlocke fired a mental pulse at the Child that passed harmlessly through the latter.
"Aw, don't ya know the rules, Asscrock? Ya can't hurt an image. Too bad, Ah can do this!" The Child-image concentrated and sent blasts flying out in all directions, knocking the Strand members into the walls and knocking them unconscious.
How can he do this? He's a psychic manifestation...he shouldn't be able to.... Ashlocke wondered as he watched the scene from behind a psychic shield.
"Oh, Am much more than that, ASS-crock," the Child cracked. Using his own telekinetic powers, he picked up the Strand leader and pinned him against the wall despite the shielding. Allowing his left eye to glow blood-red, he continued, "Ah still owe ya for what ya'll did. Consider this bit a down payment. Come back to Tucson and Ah'll collect out of yer ass. Stay away from us!" With a flick of his head, he sent Ashlocke crashing into the wall across the room. "This is yer only warnin'."
With that, he disappeared as quickly as he had arrived.
Ashlocke jumped to his feet. His rage seethed inside of him. "Nobody does that to me! If Dubois wants a war, that's exactly what he'll get!"
The Mutant X members sat around the table eating their dinners. With the threat of Ashlocke and the Strand looming on the horizon, Adam had upped the intensity of their training sessions. They needed to master their new powers. For Max, the leader wanted to see how she would react in extreme circumstances.
"Is he always like this?" Max groused, taking a spoonful of her casserole.
"When there's a threat, yeah, he is," Shalimar agreed.
"He's only trying to make sure we're ready for the Strand's next attack. Given what happened last week, I think we need to be prepared," Jesse added.
"Whatever. I think we're ready to kick their asses," Brennan disagreed, drinking his milk.
Emma rubbed her forehead and winced. "No...."
The others looked at her with concern. For most of the afternoon, the psionic had been in pain. Something was going on.
"Hey, Em, what's going on?" Shalimar inquired.
This doesn't make any sense. I feel Dave in Tucson with the others. However, he's also....back east with Ashlocke? How can that be? Her eyes bulged.
The Child has gone off on his own. Through the darkness, she saw him appear, take out the Strand with hardly any effort, threaten Ashlocke, and then, leave.
"Emma?" Jesse asked, this time more assertively.
"This is so weird. Sorry, guys. I'm getting these strange vibes from Dave. It seems if he's in two places at once."
"He's double trouble, but even he can't split himself like that, can he?" Brennan asked, dreading the answer.
"Apparently he can," Adam indicated, joining them. "According to his file, the witch, Alti, split his two personas apart. What would happen if the Child decided to take matters into his own hands? He would go after Ashlocke without hesitation. Emma, is that what you're feeling?"
"Yes." She shuddered fearfully. He's thrown down the gauntlet. "Somehow, his dark side manifested itself and decimated the Strand. They're unconscious but not dead. I can't see into Ashlocke's mind, but from the look I saw on his face, he's angry."
More than likely from being humiliated. Adam shook his head. This will provoke Gabriel if nothing else does. "I wish he hadn't done that."
"Ashlocke started it," Emma said. "Martin stated that he appeared in Dave's class today and started taunting him. The Child surfaced and somehow, made Ashlocke appear to the others before dismissing him. The return visit was the Child's way of establishing his territory and protecting his loved ones."
"Makes sense to me," Shalimar agreed, her eyes glowing yellow. "The man's lost enough to that SOB. A line's got to be drawn somewhere."
"But now, he's going to come after everyone at the university," the leader disagreed.
"He did anyway, Adam. Dave's been complaining that something or someone's been around him since the funeral...right on the edge of his senses, following and hounding him. I thought he was being paranoid and that he was seeing things," Emma noted.
The others shook their heads feeling badly that they had dismissed their friend's misgivings as well.
"All we can do now is wait and prepare," Adam told them. "Meantime, I'm going to look at some files before I turn in. Good night." Having said that, he left them to their meal.
The quintet simply stared at each other, wondering what would happen next. Worse still, they pondered which was worse-Ashlocke or an uncontrolled Child. The answer to that one left them more than a bit anxious about their friend in the desert. Very anxious indeed.
Nick lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. For most of the day, he couldn't sleep.
Something's happening. I wonder what it is? Finally admitting that he wasn't going to drift off anytime soon, he rose from the bed and put on his robe. Walking downstairs, he looked around again.
There's someone here. "Hello?"
"Ah was wonderin' how long it would take ya," the Child's voice said.
Dave, you didn't change again, did you? On top of everything else we need to worry about. "Where are you?"
"Right here," the Dark One indicated, appearing in front of him. "Big Brother ain't here. It's just us."
Nick surveyed the image in front of him. Somehow, the pain and anger from the funeral and the fire must have increased his powers yet again. How will we be able to hold him in check now? "So, where's Dave?"
"He's with the Little Woman and the kids. Don't worry, Ah won't harm any of ya'll. There's somethin' ya'll need to know."
Need to know? Uh oh. "Such as?"
"Ashlocke's been buggin' us lately, followin' us everywhere kinda like the way Ah'm here now. Anyhow, he showed up durin' class. Ah took care of 'im real good," the Dark One explained.
"Took care of him? You didn't have a fight with him there?" Nick demanded.
"Oh, we had a fight all right. Don't worry; Ah got rid of the scumbag from the university without any fightin' there. Then, Ah turned the tables on 'im."
Seeing the expression on the vampire's face, the Child guessed at the other thoughts and chuckled darkly. "Meanin' Ah tailed 'im back to his hole an' left a message of mah own. The Strandy boys know now not to mess with us."
"Ah told 'im to stay the Hell away from here or Ah would collect outta his ass!" the Dark One asserted.
"You realize that he'll come here now if for nothing else to get payback," Nick told him.
"Good. Let 'im! Ah need to prove somethin' to Ali-Turk and Whitey! 'Sides, too many bad guys are getting' uppity. This'll send a message. Stay away or Ah'll take ya down," the Child concluded before fading away.
Nick shook his head in wonder. How could this happen? I need to talk to Dave and Angie about this. One way or another, they need to know. With that, he changed into his work clothes and, seeing that it was night, drove away in the Caddy heading for the east side.
Even as Nick drove east, the students gathered in their dorm room. Based on what had happened in the classroom earlier, there was some cause for concern. Granted, the professor had shown some degree of control there. However, they worried at what could happen if Ashlocke did show up down there with his followers.
"I thought this was going to be a school experience, not a stress camp," Michael complained, sipping on his soda and looking at his companions.
"Being different means not having a normal life," Clark told him. "Trust me, I know all about that."
Don't I know that, Lana thought to herself ruefully, remembering how mysterious he was during their time in Smallville. "And we had to have faith in him as well. We have a lot of responsibility along with these abilities. Sometimes that means we can't do the things we want to do. Clark wanted to play football. Those of us in his class never understood why he didn't. Now I know why. He could've seriously hurt someone on the field. But, with the school newspaper and in friendship things, he was...correction...is the best friend one could want. Ask Chloe or Lex about that some time."
Martin nodded sagely. "The incident wasn't Professor Dubois' fault, my friends. In fact, Ashlocke provoked him. Despite the stress he was under, he kept us safe and made sure the Child did the same. Later, however...."
The others looked at him curiously.
"What happened later?" Paula demanded. "Dr. Dubois looked all right when he was talking with us. He seemed a little shaky and pale, but he wasn't threatening or anything."
"He did seem a little distant though," Lana recalled.
"Meaning what?" Michelle asked, confused over the direction the conversation was taking.
"Meaning there was something different about him. Usually, I have to be careful around him so as not to overload my senses. This afternoon was different...almost as if the Child wasn't there," Mika pointed out. "Is that what you're getting at, Lana?"
"Exactly. But that's impossible," the former cheerleader agreed.
"No. It is possible," the shaman told them. "When the Kurgan witch split him in two, she ruptured the control that the professor has over his darker persona. The experiences in Wabash took more out of him than any of us could have guessed."
"Do we need to be scared, then?" Samantha asked.
Miranda retorted, "Uncle Dave would never threaten any of us! Don't even go there!"
"He took down Mutant X in New York, however. And I had to stand in his way," Clark recalled, rubbing the spot on his arm where the mystic fire had burned him.
"Because you stood in the way of the Child's vengeance, Clark," Martin explained. "I do not fear the Child. None of you should. He is the Protector born of the professor's pain to protect him and those that he cares about. This afternoon, he performed that role once again." Getting up from the floor, he took out some incense and began to chant.
In the smoke, the group watched the events unfold as the Child appeared in the Strand's midst. They were unnerved with how he took the group down so easily and threatened Ashlocke before disappearing. Most of all though, they were uneasy about the anger and hate in the Dark Avenger's eye and dripping in his warning to the sect's leader. Not only was it a warning, but also the tone in his voice made it very clear. If ya'll step into mah pond, Ah'll bite yer foot off.
"When did he start doing that? Mika, has he ever done that before?" Paula asked.
"I'll have to ask Mama and Aunt Angie, but that's gotta be a first," Mika replied, shaking her head in wonder.
Miranda shuddered, recalling the scene from her nightmares. In them, the Child was just as threatening, blasting everything in his path...including the wizard, Lousain. "The tone isn't, trust me."
"Your nightmare?" Lana inquired.
"Yeah," she indicated in a frightened whisper, nodding sadly. "He was protecting Auntie, Mika's mom, and me in that wicked place."
"The Pit," Martin surmised. "The evil there amplified the Dark One's abilities even as it taught him to trust our professor's judgment. That is why the Lady of the Light appeared to you, Clark."
"Stopping him was something else," the farm boy remarked hesitantly. "I remember that he got all of us all of the classroom when the GSA attacked. Then, he went ape." A shudder passed through him as the Child's wail echoed through his mind followed by the berserker's charge past him and Dr. Messenger on his way to the UMC.
"As in New York, pain provoked him there: his wife's pain as well as his own...not to mention the situation at the Medical center. Even as we learn from him, we need to be at his side, helping him," Martin continued.
The others nodded in understanding once they heard the explanation. Having seen the rage in Wabash, they knew their professor would pull out all of the stops to protect them. However, in the conflict to come, they would have to pull their own weight against their counterparts in the Strand. That would be an interesting experience to be sure.
Dave sat at his computer busily preparing his last three lectures for the semester. With all of the grief and aggravation over the past month, he had been distracted. His lectures lacked their usual punch. His comments on their assignments and papers remained cursory at best. Fortunately, his students were supportive, talking to him along with Eve earlier that afternoon.
They don't know how much I appreciate that. Ashlocke's harassment on top of everything else has made things a bear to deal with.
Through his senses, he detected Nick's presence outside the door. I wonder what's up. The sun's barely set.
"Honey?" Angie called.
He walked into the living room to find the detective sitting on the chair with a very serious look on his face.
Uh oh. Now what? "Hey, Nick."
"Dave, where have you been this afternoon?" the former Crusader probed, his brow furrowing.
"With the students and Eve at school. Then, I came back here. Why?" the professor responded.
"I can vouch for that," Angie added. "What happened?"
If he's been here, then how could the Child appear? "The Child appeared at the loft about an hour ago."
Angie looked at her husband before realizing; it's got to be bilocation, but if His Darkness can split himself off, then...oh no.... "What did he say?"
"He claims that he took on Ashlocke and the Strand. Dave, is this true?" Nick asked.
"Let's find out," the professor stated, focusing on his inner personality. Come out and tell us what you've done. Out with it!
The ebony image appeared in the corner. "Yeah what? Ah'm busy!"
"So I hear," Dave mentioned. "Tell us, did you take on Ashlocke?"
The Child shook his head. Ah knew they were gonna say somethin'. Damn it, they're too chicken shit for their own good. "And ya'll weren't doin' nothin' about Asscrock. Ah gave 'im and his boys a taste of their own medicine. Don't worry, Ah didn't kill anyone."
Thank God for small favors, Dave mused. "So you pissed him off."
"Aw...too damn bad. He pissed us off first! That appearance in class was the last straw! Ah ain't gonna tolerate that shit! No damn way!" the Dark One snarled.
"Now he'll attack," Nick pointed out. "You challenged him!"
"So damn what? That's better than this shit! Adam's scared of 'im! The other mutants are scared! He's got Big Brother so damn paranoid it's sick! Ah wanna take him down! That's mah job! Both times Ah've run into that boy, Ah've whupped his ass good! This is mah home and Ah ain't gonna let that twit hurt any of ya'll!" the Child seethed. "Nick, ya'll are vamp leader, ain't ya?"
"Ya'll have to defend what's yer's, right? Well, so do Ah! Ya'll are under mah watch as are the kiddies! If Asscrock comes, it's his loss."
Angie shuddered. He's totally out of control.
"Naw. Ah ain't outta control," the Child continued, reading her thoughts. "Ah won't murder the scum, but Ah'll teach 'im a lesson he won't forget. Ah guarantee that."
"There are some of us who own a piece of him as well," Xena indicated as her image materialized on the other side of the room. "A little discretion might not hurt."
"Discretion?" the Child chortled. "That bastard's been buggin' us for weeks now! And that was after killin' everyone! Where have ya'll been anyway?"
The warrior snarled menacingly. "I've been here. As much as I agree with you, we can't pick a fight."
"And why not? The bully boy likes to play games. I say we smoke 'im out...make 'im come to us," the Dark One stated.
"And if everyone gets hurt in the process? There are a lot of students who aren't involved in that area," the oncologist debated.
"If the Strand attacks, you know Asscrock won't hesitate to use 'em as hostages anyhow. This way, we can be ready." Seeing the others' disapproval, he ranted, "Aw Hell, screw this!" With that, he disappeared, stung by the others' ingratitude.
Xena looked at the spot where the Child had been. He's right. As much as I hate to admit it, we have to force Ashlocke out. Taking a deep breath, she disappeared from sight.
"Unreal," the doctor said in disbelief. The disaster continues to haunt us. Still, he did have a point. We do need to force the issue. This has gone on long enough. "Dave, is there any way you can work with him?"
"I've been trying! You know that!" the professor snapped defensively. Shuddering, he almost immediately apologized. "I'm sorry...I just can't do anymore...."
The Elder rubbed his friend's shoulder. The Child has a point. He's reacting out of concern for Dave and the others. It all he knows. Still, he needs to trust the rest of us too. "We'll work on it. Angie, can you...?"
"Right. Thanks, Nick, for letting us know," she replied, letting him out. "Stay close and thanks for being such a good friend."
The former Crusader nodded. "It's my pleasure, Angie. Take care of yourselves. Good night." With that, he got into the Caddy and drove back toward the precinct.
Angie closed the door and wondered what they were going to do now. All we can do is to take care of each other. She sat down beside her husband, hugging his face to her chest and letting him express his sorrows there.
Logan typed away on his computer, methodically trying one lead after another. Since returning from Wabash, he had tracked down a good deal of information on the Strand's activities.
It could help us to anticipate their next move. I wonder if Max and Mutant X have discovered anything on their end?
Almost in response to his query, Max swooped in through the fourth story window, alighting quietly behind him. "Hey."
"Hey. What's going on?" he asked, turning to face her.
She shrugged. "Adam's been working me like a dog in the dojo. He figures that I need the practice."
He hasn't seen her fight. "You know what they say about being careful what you wish for, right?"
She grinned. Yeah, yeah...keep rubbing it in, Smart Ass. "Hey, it's fun kicking the guys around, ya know? Besides, when that Ashlocke creep shows his face again, we need to be ready."
"Speaking of which, I found out that his group's been training," he told her. "They've hit a few undisclosed targets."
"Those 'targets' were shelter points for the new mutant underground, Logan," she informed him. "I went with Shalimar to check out one of them. We got the people out. Heck, I even got to kick some Strand butt in the process." She frowned.
"Fighting's getting to you, huh?" he wondered, typing away.
"Please," she scoffed. "This is me you're talking to. I love a good fight. It gets the blood flowing."
"Have you run into Ashlocke?" he worried.
"No. That rat likes sending his followers to do his dirty work. He's out there. He'll show up and we'll be ready for him," she declared. As will Dave. If what Emma says is true, Ashlocke's in for a world of hurt when he does appear.
Apparently though, Dave's had two run-ins with him."
"There was the incident over at the university earlier today," he stated. "Apparently, Ashlocke showed up in one of his classes."
"And then, the Child showed up somehow in the Strand's place." Max smiled wickedly.
What? "How did he?"
"Apparently, our boy's alter ego can project himself anywhere. Get this-he actually wiped the floor with the Strand, threatened Ashlocke, and disappeared before anyone could do anything. I wish I could've been there to see it," she explained.
Can anything control him? "I think you'll get your chance. According to the communicades I've intercepted between his groups, Ashlocke's going to make his move soon. He's coming here." Pulling a CD-RW from the CD-ROM drive, he put it into a jewel case and handed it to her. "This is for Adam."
"Right," she agreed, slipping the case into her belt pouch. "Well, the others are waitin' for me. Thanks!"
"Remember, you owe me dinner some night. I will collect," he advised, grinning at her.
"Yeah. I'll have to check with fearless leader first," she gibed back. Flashing him a smile, she leapt out the window toward the alley and her bike below.
[Lex's hacienda, Tucson foothills]
Lex walked about his new house, admiring the architecture. The structure, built in the Spanish colonial style, provided a change of pace to the castle in Smallville not to mention a break from the rural lifestyle of that town.
Tucson does have its benefits. He admired the fine wood working of the beams, mantles, and furniture. The fountains and gardens on the patio livened up things considerably. In particular, the magnificent stone fountain with its giant cascading waterspout provided frosting on the artistic cake so to speak.
On Chloe's next visit, we'll have to host a party here. After allowing himself a moment to smile at the thought of the blonde reporter, he walked purposefully through the house and into the office.
Business waits for no man.
At that moment, the phone rang. "Yes?" he answered.
"Lex, this is Steve Petersen. How are you?" Steve asked.
"I'm fine. How are things going up there? Everyone is cooperating I hope," the entrepreneur replied pleasantly.
"They are. I think your talk with the managing staff really made an impression on them, Lex. We've confiscated the GSA's gear and are reassigning those people within the organization. Your people are doing a great job assisting us in that regard," the agent complimented.
"That's good to know," Lex acknowledged. "My people work really hard for me. If you don't mind, I'll put a note in their files to that regard."
"Please do with the Bureau's thanks and to let them know to keep up the good work. Any more on our boy down there?" Steve asked.
"Adam's been keeping silent as have Clark and Lana. I'm sure he and his gang will be appearing here soon enough. Are you keeping an eye on Ithaca?" Lex informed him.
"We have agents keeping an eye on things up there. Chloe's an obvious target for Ashlocke, but we'll do our best to keep her safe," Steve reassured him. "Should we move her?"
"No. Ordinarily, I would ask you to bring her back with you, but seeing as the Strand will likely strike here next, I want her out of harm's way."
"You and me both," Steve told him. "We'll make sure she's safe.
"Thank you," Lex concluded. "Check in with you soon." That news will reassure Gabe. In the meantime, I hope she can stay out of trouble up there. He smirked and chuckled.
No. Chloe and trouble are best friends and always will be. C'est la vie.
[Restaurant-outside of Ithaca, NY]
The Golden Goose café sat at a quiet point outside of Ithaca. As it was after 10 PM on a school night, the establishment was empty for the most part and would close within a half-hour. In the corner of the facility, three people-two men and a woman in their mid-twenties-sat around a table talking about plans for the next week. For over an hour, the group debated strategies and such.
"When do you think Gabriel will want to move out?" one person, an African-American male named Robinson, wondered.
"Within the next few days," Lisa Linsuki, the Asian woman, replied from across the table.
I wish that there were a more private place to discuss these things.
"I want to get a few shots in at Dubois," the third, a Caucasian male with a buzz hair cut asserted. "We still owe him for that sneak attack of his."
If only Gabriel didn't antagonize him. This is a dangerous game he's playing. The first mutant looked at his Asian counterpart and asked, "Did you lose anything when that ditzy blonde ran into you on campus?"
"No. In fact, she helped me to pick everything up," she responded. "She was really apologetic too."
I'll bet she was. Buzz Cut shook his head. "Did you get everything we need?"
"Yes. The stuff's being delivered to Gabriel even as we speak. Remember, we need to meet with him tomorrow afternoon," Robinson reminded the others.
"Right," Linsuki agreed. "And we have that training session tomorrow too before we leave. Come on, let's go. We still need to pick up one last thing."
With that, the trio paid their check, walked out to their cars, and drove away into the night.
Around the side of the restaurant, Chloe slouched low in her seat, listening intently to her headphones. Ever since that mess at the funeral, she had been doing her research on the Strand. Just two days earlier, she had overheard a conversation between Robinson and another man concerning some sort of attack in the desert while walking through a deserted part of campus. Earlier that day, she had "accidentally" bumped into one of their friends, spilling her bag's contents all over the place. As she helped her victim, she planted the bug she had 'borrowed' from her FBI shadow in the Strand member's bag.
It's picking up everything like a dream. As the woman drove further and further away, the signal broke up more and more. However, she did manage to overhear part of a conversation between her pigeon and Ashlocke. More importantly, she heard him confirm her worst fear. The raid would target her friends within the next few days.
I have to get back to campus and let the others know.
She gunned the motor and made her way back toward her dorm. A few minutes later, she arrived there and looked around.
Strange, it's too quiet. Finding the check in desk deserted, the alarms blared in her head.
Old Lady Randall's here religiously. This stinks.
Sneaking up the stairs, she crept down the hall and peeked through the slightly open door. There, she found the three Strand members surrounding her friend, Marie, and threatening her. On the floor, Agent Reynolds lay unconscious.
Now you've done it, Chloe. I gotta get help.
Then, Robinson grinned and asked, "Miss Sullivan, I presume?"
"Chloe! Get out of here!" Marie urged.
Crap. Sorry, Marie. I need some space. She bolted down the hallway and ducked into the ladies room, locking the door behind her.
C'mon, guys. Be in. She pulled out her cell phone and frantically punched numbers.
Outside, the pursuers' footsteps grew louder.
"Hello?" Lana asked, speaking from outside of the Social Sciences Building at the U of A.
"Lana, thank God! It's Chloe! I'm in real trouble here in my dorm!"
"Chloe, what is it?"
"Lana, where's Clark? Is he there?"
"He's talking to Professor Dubois in the other room. Why?" her friend asked.
At that moment, somebody started to bang on the door. "Come out, Sullivan!"
"Who's that?" Lana asked. "What's going on?"
"Three of Ashlocke's creeps are after me. I'm cornered and I need help!" Chloe panicked, seeing the door started to splinter. Then, she heard it crack and collapse.
"Chloe! CHLOE! Are you there?" Lana asked before she heard a crunching sound and static on the line. Running down the front hall of the Social Sciences Building, she found Dave's office door and started beating on it. "Professor Dubois! Clark!"
The door opened and Clark wondered, "What's going on?" Seeing her expression, he insisted, "Tell me, Lana."
"It's Chloe. Clark, Ashlocke's goons have her cornered in her dorm. What do we do?" she queried.
At that moment, Eve and Francesca hurried to their side. "What's the problem?" they asked.
"Ashlocke," Dave indicated, willing up a portal. These guys can't take a hint. Best take action before the Child does it himself.
"I'll see if I can find some help." Francesca indicated, running down the hall and around the corner. Once there, she changed into Gabrielle. Then, she doubled back as quickly as possible.
"We have a problem? I could hear you yelling down the hall," the bard pointed out.
"We can talk later!" the medievalist indicated. "Let's go! Lana, Eve, we'll be back." With that, he vanished into the mists followed by the other three.
Buzz Cut carried Chloe back toward the room, enduring her scratching and clawing as they went. "If you don't stop it, I'll have to hurt you!"
"Try it, Meatball!" she dared him. "You're in big trouble now."
"Yeah right. Look, Sweetie, unless the cavalry's gonna appear outta thin air, your goose is cooked," he doubted. "Gabriel's really interested in getting to know you better."
"Well, I don't need to see him. Put me down!" she protested, cuffing him on the left shoulder.
"You heard the lady," Clark asserted, stepping out of Chloe's room. "Put her down."
"Kent? How did you get here?" he asked. "You're still outnumbered."
At that moment, Linsuki stumbled into the hallway. Her face was bloodied. Yet, she fired an electrical burst back into the room.
Tailing her closely, Gabrielle dodged the burst and smacked her with the staff, knocking her out.
Robinson backed out of the room next, avoiding the bard.
Dave stepped out into the hall after him. "I suppose you didn't take the Child seriously. Trust me, you should. Be thankful, it's my turn to deal with you." Allowing his hands to spark, he fired a burst of his own at the attack group's leader, knocking him out cold. "Clark, your turn."
The farm boy nodded and moved on the other man. "Last chance."
Buzz Cut massed out and took a swing at Clark with his free hand. Unfortunately, even the super dense hand broke on contact with the teenager's skin. "Ow! What the Hell?"
"Told you that you would be sorry," Clark shrugged. Advancing on the still massed foe, he pried the other hand loose from his friend, freeing her.
She backed away slightly, watching in disbelief as her classmate pinned the attacker to the wall.
"Hold him there, Clark," Dave told him and fired a little burst, stunning him.
"Are you okay?" Clark asked.
"Now, I am," she nodded, hugging him tightly. "My hero...all of you. Pardon me, I still can't believe it when you...well..."
At that moment, Steve and Garth rushed onto the scene. "What's going on?" they wondered.
"The Strand attacked Chloe. Fortunately, she got a call off to Lana. The rest is history," Dave pointed out. "Where were you?"
Steve shook his head. This would have to happen just as I'm checking in with Lex. Great. "Well, at least, you got here all right."
Eve and Gabrielle helped Marie out of the room.
"Professor Dubois? What is this?" Marie wondered.
"You'll have to trust us," the medievalist asserted.
"Come with us, Marie," Chloe advised. "At least you'll be safe."
"You're going to Lex's place for tonight," Dave added.
"Agent Petersen, ummm...this belongs to your department," the reporter added squeamishly, taking the bug off of Linsuki and returning it to him.
"Where did you get this?" Steve demanded. "You know how big a chance you were taking?"
Chloe squinted indignantly at him. "Listen, my friends are in danger! Do you think I'm going to just sit back and these creeps take a shot at them! Not on your life, Buster! Besides, if I had been here, we'd be in Ashlocke's hands right now."
"Chloe...you were almost killed," Clark protested.
She turned on him next. "I don't care, Farm Boy! Maybe I'm not super-teen, but you all are still my friends! I have some info for all of you about what they're planning."
Steve glanced at Dave and shook his head. "I'll get these three into custody. You all get back to Tucson."
"Tucson?" Marie wondered. "How?"
"Trust me. It's a weird ride," Clark told her.
The professor recited the chant and opened the portal. "Let's go! The bus is leaving!"
Chloe guided her friend into the fog followed by Clark.
"I wonder when Ashlocke's going to find out?" the agent asked.
"He knows already," his former classmate replied, savoring the expression he imagined would be on the mutant mastermind's face. "And he knows we stuffed him. Let him suffer. This'll egg him on a little further." With that, he stepped into the portal, closing it behind him.
He never changes, Garth mused, remembering all of the times Dave had baited bosses like Ashlocke. "C'mon, Steve, let's get them secured. Can we send her down to free the others in the TV room downstairs?"
His partner nodded and told their female associate, "You heard him."
She rushed off to get the others out.
"Let's go," Steve told them. There's been enough excitement for one night.
[Ashlocke's Headquarters, New York]
The head mutant slammed his fist against a wall. Why does he continue to frustrate me? WHY?
His best unit was now lost to him. Knowing Petersen, they're under guard and they'll be looking for
Kristin this time. We'll have to move fast.
Walking out into the main area, he collected himself, allowing the smug grin to reappear on his face.
A leader must always seem in control.
Morgan approached him. "When do we get them out?"
"Not until after the raid is finished," he asserted. "Give them a few days to think about their failure."
The second in command sighed, shooting him a disappointed glance.
He laughed derisively. "You wouldn't happen to be doubting me, would you, Morgan? I hate to think that you were." Grabbing her by the nape of the neck, he stared deeply into her eyes. "You know how much I hate insubordination."
"I...know," she relented.
"Good," he snarled, pushing her away from him. Turning to the others, his grin returned again. "Tomorrow, we leave for Tucson. I want no screw-ups. It'll take us two days to get there if we drive in shifts and another two days to plan. Come Friday night, we'll really heat up that town."
Hurrying back into his sanctum, he shut the door and sat on his bed. Time to pay Dubois another visit....
Lex drove frantically through the city streets, banking his Ferrari into a hard left turn through the university's main gate and down Third Street until he screeched to a halt outside of the Social Sciences Building.
I can't believe she would be that reckless! Damn! Then again, this is Chloe I'm thinking about. Looking around, he saw Nick's Caddy on the opposite end of the circle.
The vampires are in on this too. Well, the more the merrier.
Entering the building, he saw the light from Dave's office. Rushing down the hall, he huffed his way through the door.
"You know, I almost radioed traffic when I saw you out there," Nick advised. "Slow it down, okay?"
Yeah, yeah. Lex grumbled to himself. A lecture on my driving isn't what I need right now. Seeing Chloe sitting in the corner by Lana's side, he asked, "Are you all right?"
"A little scared, but yeah, I'm okay," the reporter replied, hugging him. "Fortunately, Clark and the others showed up when they did."
"I don't know, Chloe. You were beating on that guy already when I got there. I just stood my ground," Clark recounted.
"Yeah," she agreed. She was about to finish her statement when she noticed Marie nervously trying to make heads or tails of the situation.
Careful, Chloe, remember their new things are still a secret.
"How are you doing, Marie?" the entrepreneur inquired.
The girl stared at him through big eyes. "I'm trying to understand all of this. Forgive me..."
"Non. You're fine," Lex reassured her. "Listen, you and Chloe are coming home with me tonight. I've already had the guest rooms set up for you both. All right?"
"And we'll be with you. Okay?" Chloe added.
"If it's okay, Clark and I would like to be there as well, Lex," Lana requested.
After seeing him nod in agreement, Lex concurred, "Why not? It'll be like we were back in Smallville."
"And you can bring them to school with you both. That is...if you don't mind," Eve suggested.
"Is that wise?" Marie doubted.
Chloe looked around them. "Trust them. I really hate hiding behind Lex's convent walls myself..."
Lex frowned. Convent walls indeed. "Let's just get through this, okay?"
Chloe smirked. I'm not going to let these creeps beat me. "Right. Then, you can prove me wrong, Mr. Luthor."
"Isn't that sweet? A slumber party," a familiar voice mocked from thin air.
"Who? Mon Dieu, now the walls are talking!" Marie panicked.
"No. Just one person," Lana indicated, leaning up against her boyfriend.
"Okay, Ashlocke. Show yourself to the others," Dave demanded. "Enough with the cheap parlor tricks."
The mutant's image appeared, wearing the smug grin across his face. "This is some office. Too bad you won't be needing it much longer. I see almost everyone's here."
"Look, it's getting late," the medievalist told the intruder, forcing an exaggerated yawn for show. "Let's get on with the perfunctory threats and bad humor. My students here have a test tomorrow and they need their sleep."
"Cute, Dubois. You'll be laughing out the other side of your face soon enough. I would have thought the deaths of your family and closest friends would have broken you," Ashlocke replied curtly.
"As if we would have let that happen," Nick challenged.
"Besides, I overheard that stuff about how you can't kill me," the intruder taunted.
Dave looked in the hallway, noting the telltale mists, and hearing the echoing footsteps coming closer. "No, I can't. But, I'll teach you about pain."
"After that, I'll take over," Xena hissed, entering the room. "So, when are ya comin', Scum?" She drew her sword and held the point in his face. "This is waitin' for ya. David has issues to resolve otherwise he would deal with ya personally."
"As it is," the professor snarled, his face darkening noticeably. "I'll be waiting here....and so will the Other. Remember him?"
Taking control, the Child laughed menacingly before growling, "And seein' how stupid ya'll are, Ah'll be ready. Next time, ya'll won't git off with a simple buttwhuppin. Touch these kids 'gain and ya'll answer to us. Got it? And as for the damage, oh don't worry, Ah intend to collect."
"As will I," Cybelle added, leaning against the door and glaring at him.
"The witch," he cracked.
"High Priestess," she corrected, her hand glowing. "Ready?"
"Hooh yeah!" the Dark One agreed, releasing Dave.
"This will be worth the headache," the professor agreed, his own hands glowing. "Whenever, Sis."
Together, the siblings fired dark energy at the image, trapping and worse, burning him.
How can they be doing this? Arrgh, son of a bitch!
"Having fun yet?" Xena cracked from across the room.
Gabrielle shook her head and looked at Eve who was equally as concerned. She's consumed by vengeance and hate.
For a full minute, the energy inflicted pain on Ashlocke, driving him to his knees.
Seeing the panicked looks on the others' faces, Dave signaled his sister to stop. After she did so, he sipped his coffee for ten more seconds before gibing, "I knew that would wipe the snotty grin off of his face."
The image slowly climbed to his feet. His anger smoldered at being humiliated a third time. "You'll pay for that."
"Yeah...whatever. That was your second warning, Ashlocke. I don't give third ones. Turn yourself and your followers in. Now scram!"
The image shook his head and disappeared.
"Okay," Marie sighed, quaking even more fearfully. "Who...what are you?"
"A person who's been scarred by fools such as that one," Dave replied, getting out of his seat. "I am sorry to have to put on that display in front of all of you."
"Even if it meant getting a pound of flesh out of your family's murderer? Blood feud went out a long time ago," Nick argued. "Let the law deal with it."
"The law couldn't stop him in Ithaca!" Lex argued. "Besides, this is all on my father's and ultimately, my head."
"Why?" Chloe asked. "Your father released him, not you."
"The children suffer for the sins of the fathers," Cybelle said. "Our fathers' actions run amok. We must set things right."
"Without excessive force if possible," Dave added, trying to establish a modicum of restraint. Looking at Xena, he added, "Avoiding murder at all costs."
Nick managed a smile. He's cooled off. Hopefully, he'll stay that way.
She snarled. "Yeah...you held us all back and now, we're dealin' with this! You don't feel the pain!"
He frowned. This is getting into the realm of a marital argument here. "Lex, umm...can you get the others out of here?"
"Sure," Lex agreed, sensing the energy building between the warrior and the professor.
This is gonna be one hell of an argument. "Come on, everyone."
"Thanks again, Professor Dubois," Chloe expressed, eager to get Marie out of there.
"No problem, Chloe. Sleep tight," Dave managed to say civilly, holding his anger in check. Once the Smallville group drove off into the night, he turned on the warrior. "Okay. Who am I about to argue with? You or Angie?"
"Both of us!" Xena spat angrily. "He should be dead for what he did!"
"Mother!" Eve protested.
"Stay outta this, Eve!" the warrior advised.
"And you...ya'll don't think Ah...I'm hurting right now? I was just staying cool in front of the kids! The man murdered my family...Angie's parents...Karen's family. He's been stalking us for the past two weeks. I agree with you...." By now, he was teetering on the edge, eyes brimming with tears as he vacillated between personalities. "But don't you ever ask that of me! Angie's and Karen's parents were like my own! I want vengeance, but I can't exact it myself nor can the Child! How do you think that feels? I WANT HIM DEAD TOO, BUT THANKS TO MICHAEL, I CAN'T HAVE THAT!"
Gabrielle shuddered. Talk about role reversal. Hold on, David. Please.
"You don't want it bad enough!" Xena accused.
"I don't...?" Dave wondered as he lost control.
"Listen, Sweet Cheeks," the Child rasped. "Git this straight! This ain't ancient Greece anymore! Ah wanna deal with Asscrock too. Ah wanna skewer 'im up there too, but Big Brother says no. As much as Ah hate it, we gotta listen to 'im!"
Xena fumed as he sheathed her sword and changed back into Angie.
"I need some air," she told the others and stalked out the door.
The Child seethed, Ya'll are gonna pay for this, Asscrock. Oh, are ya gonna pay! Looking at the two Amazons and Nick, he requested, "Look after them both, all right?"
"Absolutely," the former Crusader agreed. "She needs Dave right now."
"Ah know," the Dark One concurred, allowing his alter ego to come back out.
"Excuse me," the professor concluded, rushing out the door.
For a while, the others stood there, watching the window and the scene about to develop outside.
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