Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
Colonel Nixon was out of her chair and saluting before she really knew what she was doing, her body acting on a completely instinctive level to the voice and tone of command of the person who had entered her office. That voice had been the next best thing to God for her for years, and even now it bypassed her conscious mind, wrapped itself around her spinal cord, and jerked her upright.
Of course, then her higher functions, a second or two behind her lizard brain, took over once again, and she wagged a finger admonishingly at the man in her doorway. "Don't do that, Sir," she scolded. "It's really not fair."
Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Ramirez chuckled softly and eased his bulk through her doorway, and Colonel Nixon looked at him with an appraising eye. He had definitely lost weight in the past few months, but was still as solid a man as one would find in something not carved from stone. "You were so intent I almost didn't want to disturb you, Dicky," he commented, leaning across her desk to shake her hand. "But I couldn't resist."
"Well, next time, Sir, I wish you would. Resist, I mean." She waved her guest into a chair, briefly wondering if it would support him.
"We'll see," Sir Arthur said mildly. The chair creaked and groaned alarmingly, but it was a testament to its manufacturer that it held together, and the Colonel made a mental note to see about ordering some more for the building.
"I didn't realise you were back, Sir," Colonel Nixon said, seating herself, and noting that her own chair didn't even begin to strain under her weight. "The last I heard, the grapevine put you in
Colonel Nixon nodded. With his own empathic and precognitive abilities, meagre as they were compared to Lady Alleandre or Princess Evelynne, Sir Arthur was the Guard's premiere interrogator in seeking the source of the attack on their country. So he had been rushed off his feet, trying to make himself available to everyone at once, both at home and abroad, as a near-infallible lie detector.
"I've been reading your reports whenever I can, Sir. I also did that full background check on Yolinski like you asked. That order definitely came from his office, but I haven't found anything to indicate he knew what was actually in the shipment. He seemed pretty shaken up when I told him he'd helped ship a bomb to the Ungerwilt Fire Station, and I believe him. I think he was just a tool."
"I can't say I'm surprised," Sir Arthur said heavily. "Finding who actually shipped the bombs has been easy. Extremely easy. All the shipments were absolutely legitimate, after all. But as soon as we try to find out who actually gave the order we run into a black hole." He sighed. "The paperwork from Ru'en Base Logistics definitely traces back to Central Logistics. But there's no trace of that paperwork ever originating at Central on their side. Someone, somehow, managed to drop it directly into the pipeline. From where, we don't know, because as far as we can tell, nobody we've investigated has done anything wrong." He waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, we've found a little corruption, a few 'favours' asked and answered, a couple of greased palms, but nothing beyond what happens in any bureaucracy. We're looking for a smoking gun, and so far all we've found is the smoke." He fixed Nixon with a stare. "You know what this means."
"Yes, Sir." The Colonel nodded. "Whoever did it is very highly placed. I'd say the King's or Queen's Advisory Councils would not be out of the question."
"Mmm. And while I've been given Royal Carte Blanche in the investigation, we all know that the slate is never completely blank." Sir Arthur sighed again and rubbed his eyes. "Of course, the simple solution is either the King or Queen themselves are behind it. Or both." He looked up at Colonel Nixon's gasp. "Oh, don't worry, I'm not suggesting anything treasonous. Or maybe I am, but it was the Queen who actually suggested it the last time I met with her." Huffing out a breath, Sir Arthur made a gesture as if throwing something away, then leaned back in his precarious chair. "What about you?" he asked, changing the subject. "You whipping this scruffy lot of hoodlums into shape? Is it true you actually found a psychokinetic?"
"They're getting there, Sir," the Colonel replied. "They've been thrown in at the deep end but they're working hard. I suppose it helps in a way that they don't have any actual Charges to protect at the moment. And yes, Gyrus does indeed have some talent. He's only had about a fifteen per cent success rate with it so far, but it's there. I think he's half-praying, half-dreading to have Lady Alleandre back so that she can teach him a bit. Speaking of which…" She rifled through a stack of folders on her desk until she came to the one she wanted. "We've found two more 'Angel Cults'."
"Really?" Sir Arthur took the folder from her and flipped through a few pages. "You're sure it's her?"
"No, Sir, not positive. It's just a fairly close match with what we've found here at home with Armston's little support group. Although the one in
"It sounds like what she'd do," Sir Arthur commented. "And the other?"
"Prostitution rings. Serial rapists. I think I'm beginning to see a pattern here."
"Yes, Sir. It certainly fits Lady Alleandre's profile. We know she's nearly obsessive about sexual conduct."
"In the sense that she abhors inappropriate sexual conduct, yes." Sir Arthur shook his head. "I'd hate to be around if something made her snap over that."
Claire leaned over her knees, gasping for breath. Her chest was so tight it hurt, but she managed to look up accusingly at the man sitting calmly across from her, sipping from a glass of pungent tea. Finally bringing herself under control, she tried not to begin laughing again. "Oh, my God," she rasped finally, "he actually did that?"
"Oh yes," Black Crow replied, nodding solemnly. "During the ceremony itself. And of course we couldn't say anything until he was finished. When he found out, though…"
"Oh, I can just imagine," Claire said, still giggling. "I'm trying not to." Finally bringing herself under a modicum of control, she reached for her own mug of tea, knowing she'd be asking for a scolding if she didn't finish it.
The scolding would, of course, be delivered by a stern Mekohah, a look of almost comic disappointment on her face, but would quickly devolve into a bright-toothed grin. It had been a shock seeing that grin for the first time, the day after they had arrived, since Claire had clearly remembered a distinct lack of teeth in the old woman's mouth the first time they had met. She had since learned that this was Mekohah's modus operandi; the devious old woman's penchant for practical jokes was on par with her mothering instinct, which was saying a lot. Always making sure that her charges were fully clothed, fed, and nurtured almost to the point of smothering, she also took enormous care that nobody should take themselves too seriously. "A Daughter of Coyote," Black Crow had named her, referring to the common trickster motif in Native folklore. She also had a perfect understanding of English, despite appearances, although she refused to speak it. Unless, of course, she could get in a perfectly timed jab at someone's inflated ego.
The diminutive, forceful woman had taken Claire under her wing, as promised, and despite the recipient's initial trepidation. Claire had never known a mother growing up, only a series of vaguely distant foster parents, but she was now convinced that Mekohah was the only one she would have chosen. She was rapidly learning a range of domestic arts under the vigilant tutelage of the older woman, who was always ready with a scolding or praise in equal measure. She had prepared her first solo dinner a few nights before, even going so far as to serve it personally in the traditional Indian manner. Even before that, though, Claire had been drafted into cooking and baking a massive selection of sweets and snacks, and the constant urging by Mekohah to offer them to Ally and Evelynne at every opportunity. Black Crow had had a few sharp words in his own language with his mother because of it, but not even he could divert her when her mind was set on a path. Eventually he had capitulated, grumbling that she was interfering and finally explaining that Mekohah felt they were all "way too skinny" and needed fattening up to survive the winter.
It actually wasn't such a bad suggestion, in Claire's opinion. The temperature had dropped even more as winter settled in completely, and now a thick blanket of snow had settled on the entire mountainside. Evelynne especially, faring from the much more temperate climate of Atlantl, was feeling the cold much more keenly, although that did not stop her from going out whenever it was necessary, and that turned out to be quite often.
The reason for the frequent sojourns was Dr. Black Crow's unorthodox style of therapy. Far from being a "couch and office" psychiatrist, the Native healer's methods seemed to primarily consist of long walks through the forest with Ally, his primary patient, sometimes carrying more arcane objects like brightly woven blankets, animal pelts, bones, and herbs. Once he fully sensed the depths of Ally's connection with Evelynne, he began splitting his time between the two of them, and recently had even taken Claire on a few hikes. That had actually led to a triumphant smile on Mekohah's face for days, but Black Crow just scowled and muttered something about "interfering old Coyote's Children" under his breath. Claire didn't know what he was doing with her friends, but her "sessions" with him mostly consisted of long conversations about anything and everything under the sun. It was only after a couple of sessions that she had felt the faint hint of the touch of his mind on hers, and had finally realised that whatever they were doing on the surface was only a cover to an incredibly subtle psychic diagnosis and healing. He had realised she felt him the instant she did, but had just smiled and continued the conversation.
It had quickly become clear that this mind-to-mind contact was only going on during their "official" sessions, and that at any other time Black Crow was careful to keep his subtly powerful telepathic ability under strict control. Such as now, in the early morning, while they were simply sitting and chatting while they waited for Ally and Evelynne to come down.
"I still don't believe it happened," Claire said finally, after a long sip of her tea. "He would have had to kill you if it had."
"Oh, he was certainly not my best friend after that. And when my relationship with Chen Wei finally came out he was probably the one most instrumental in turning the rest of the band against me."
"Chen Wei? Who's she? Were you…?" Suddenly Claire's eyes bugged out. "Chen Wei? Wei Chen? Mrs. Chen? You were with Mrs. Chen?"
"Oh yes, didn't I mention it? She and I were together for a short time when we were younger. Much younger."
"Oh man, that is just so—so weird." Claire's whole body shivered. "I can see you two together, though."
"Oh, Mekohah always said we'd make her beautiful grandchildren. Wei was the only one who could keep up with Mother. Got her good a few times, too. This one time—"
Black Crow was cut off abruptly when Ally almost flew down the stairs, her breath coming in sharp gasps. Slamming to a halt at the bottom of the stairs, she looked startled to see other people up and about, and Claire gasped to see the wild, frantic look in her eyes. She was dressed semi-haphazardly in a sweater and track pants, both of which were skewed, and her socks were mismatched. Before Claire or Black Crow could say anything, Ally rasped, "I'm sorry. I have to—I've got to—I've got to get out." Her tone was harsh and fractured, and she was twitching like a bird beating its wings against the bars of a cage. "I'm sorry." Then she was out the front door and into the cold before anyone could stop her.
"What—" Claire began, looking at Black Crow in confusion, already heading towards the stairs to find Evelynne. She stopped when the object of her search appeared on the stairs, her face both confused and devastated. Evelynne looked so lost that Claire was moving and wrapping her in her arms before she could think. "Evy," Claire began, her tone soft and gentle, "what happened?"
"I don't know," Evelynne replied, her own voice dull, and her body tense. "I don't—We were—I don't…" She trailed off.
Evelynne lay on the bed, trying to control her body, which was being torn in conflicting directions. In a purely physical plane, she really needed to go to the bathroom, but that desire was being firmly, yet absently, relegated to the background. Of much more emotional immediacy were the sensations created by the head resting on her chest.
Although they had shared a bed ever since the night of Ally's attack, barring the other woman's mysterious nightly sojourns, it had been just that: sharing. She and Evelynne could have been in completely different houses for all the emotional closeness, despite the mere inches that separated them. Ally actually recoiled whenever her bedmate got too close, and Evelynne had learned that doing so was a sure way to drive Ally out into the night.
Which made this morning all the more poignant, since Ally had spontaneously, and apparently unconsciously, shifted in her sleep to wrap her arms around her erstwhile lover and burrow into the warmth there. The sensations had been enough to rocket Evelynne out of her own dreams. Now she lay still, desperately trying to remain calm and relaxed, not wishing to disturb Ally's slumber, but her attention was so focused that she was constantly fighting the urge to tense up. Realising that she had tensed, Evelynne consciously relaxed her muscles again, drawing a contented sound from the body wrapped around her, which snuggled in even closer.
And then Ally was awake. Evelynne could instantly feel the moment she woke, the body against hers turning from soft and pliable to tense and uncertain in a heartbeat. Ally remained frozen, fear and confusion rolling off her in waves, until Evelynne slowly and gently began to stroke her short-cut hair, and her head lifted slowly, almost against her will. Her eyes met Evelynne's for a split second before darting away again.
"Hi," Evelynne whispered, carefully controlling her reaction when her hand briefly touched an ear and Ally flinched.
Ally swallowed convulsively before she finally managed to speak, her whisper barely audible. "Hi."
Evelynne smiled hesitantly, maintaining her gentle touches. Ever so slowly she drew Ally's face closer, her body and soul begging for a return to the intimacy they had known. Unable and unwilling to stop herself, she drew her lover closer, a small part of her noting the increase in Ally's breathing and the way her eyes darted about, as she brought their faces closer than they had been in months. Their lips were a whisper's breadth apart when her hand dropped, curling around Ally's side and brushing the strip of skin between t-shirt and pants.
With a convulsive spasm, she literally threw herself off the bed, falling to the floor with a light thump, and scrabbled backwards to press herself against the wall. Her eyes wide, Ally stared at the woman in the bed, breath coming in pants, before they blinked and refocused on the sweater and socks on the dresser. A mere hand gesture had them flying into her grasp, and Evelynne could only stare, still shocked by the swiftness of events as Ally dressed with more haste than accuracy.
It was only when Ally had her hand on the doorknob that Evelynne could react, jerking upright and reaching for the other woman, and inarticulate sound of protest in her throat. Ally paused at the sound and looked back, and Evelynne could almost see the icy barriers slamming into place behind her eyes. "I'm sorry," Ally whispered hoarsely, and then she was out the door.
Evelynne shivered, burrowing closer into Claire's embrace, and Claire could feel tears soaking into her shirt. "I'm sorry," she whispered, although she didn't really know why she was sorrowful. A range of things, actually, from a deep, genuine sorrow over the disintegration of her friends' relationship, to a more specific sense of guilt that she had not been able to sense Ally's predicament earlier on that night months ago. It was unfair to herself, she knew logically, but deep inside she wished she could have done more.
As though sensing her thoughts, Evelynne pulled back, face tear-streaked, to gently cup Claire's face in her hand. "It's not your fault," she murmured, smiling sadly. "Any of it. I'm so glad you're here with me. With us." Her hand and gaze fell, and she wrapped her arms back around Claire's torso. "I just want her back, you know? I want what we had before. We were so good. And now I just want her back."
"You will," Claire said softly. "We will. We will get her back."
"Will we?" Evelynne asked into Claire's chest. "Maybe we can help her get over this, give her some peace and healing again, but she'll never be the same. She's lost something, and she'll never get it back. She's lost her… her innocence. You should have seen her before. She was so innocent. Not naive, but she had such an appreciation for life. And I want that back. I want the Ally who was so terrified of meeting my father, but she trusted me anyway. The one who couldn't quite believe that all these people wanted to be her friend." A half-sob, half-laugh. "I want the Ally who always tried not to cry when all the toys were destroyed in that Robin Williams movie. But she's not coming back."
"I know. I wish I could have known that Ally longer. Maybe you could tell me about her sometime?"
"I will. I promise." Evelynne sighed, the tears mostly gone from her voice, replaced by a tired sadness. "I just wish I could have realised what she was at the time and appreciated it more."
"I think you appreciated it as much as you possibly could have. Just the way you talk tells me that. But with our help this will actually make her stronger. You know how she always talked about destruction being necessary for creation?"
"Ah yes, her famous 'sword-making' philosophy." With a final sigh, Evelynne moved back, wiping her face, and Claire reluctantly let her go. "I'm just sad she's changed. She's like that, too." Her smile turned wistful. "I remember the first time we made love. We were in this gorgeous grotto that nobody had been to before, and she told me she was sad that it would never again be 'untouched', but that she was happy she'd brought me there anyway, saying it was beautiful even so." Evelynne flushed lightly and smiled sheepishly. "Of course, at the time I was 'untouched' also, but I know she wasn't thinking about that. I think that was when I decided to make love with her. We'd never have gone anywhere if it had been up to her."
"I can believe that," Claire said, grinning and wondering why she didn't feel more jealousy. "She really does turn to you for guidance, doesn't she?"
"Oh, in more ways than one," Evelynne said suggestively, earning a blush and giggle from her friend. It was obvious she was still in pain, but in typical fashion she was putting that aside to deal with the problem.
She started slightly when Black Crow appeared suddenly, having disappeared unnoticed earlier, with a large mug of tea. Evelynne smiled in thanks, taking a sip and visibly calming herself. "Mekohah says she's tracking Ally right now. She's not in any immediate danger, and Mother says she can likely intervene if Ally tries anything drastic."
Evelynne tensed along with Claire before consciously relaxing again. When she opened her eyes, she looked at him squarely. "Something happened," she said. "Something bad. I'm afraid that—" She stuttered and drew herself together again. "I'm afraid that she's getting worse. You didn't see her upstairs. And her mind… her mind's breaking. We can't keep going slowly. We have to do something now."
Black Crow sighed. "I know. I had hoped that we could heal her with less drastic methods, but I also have my suspicions about why we can't. There is a ceremony that my people sometimes use in cases of extreme mental trauma. A kind of vision quest. I will begin preparations for tomorrow night. In the meantime it is up to you to convince her we can help."
Continued in Chapter 24
Return to the Academy