The Guardians: Speed Demons
Christine Morgan


Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or permission.
All other characters belong to the author, who incidentally knows nothing about real track meets, so apologies in advance for getting it wrong.
November, 2002. 13,500 words.

Fall, 2018
The Sterling Academy

The campus was ablaze with color. All of the palette was represented. Green predominated, but the changing of the leaves was already edging the trees in brilliant reds and golds. The buildings were dark brick with pristine white trim, the lake at the edge of the grounds glimmered with the reflected blue of the sky.
The dark grey forms of two gargoyles stood sentinel on one of the roofs, arms raised so that their webbed wings made stony fans. The newer students regarded them with interest and awe, pointing, talking amongst themselves. Upperclassmen affected a casual worldliness.
"Gargoyles? Sure. You just have to sign up for the evening courses if you want them as teachers. Computer science, and thaumatology."
Dee Maza drew her share of glances as she walked briskly down one of the curving, flowerbed-lined paths that cut the emerald lawn into wedges. She was self-aware enough to know that it wasn't solely her tight, lean, athletic body that turned heads. Either the rosette-spotted pelt of tawny gold that covered her skin, or the dark batlike wings that sprouted from her back would have been enough. The combination assured that she'd be the object of attention.
The school dress code had not changed much in the past fifty years, but allowances were made for certain students whose unusual biology made it necessary. Dee's crisp white blouse was tailored to be backless. Her pleated skirt fell to where a normal human's knees would be, midway down muscular legs that looked back-jointed. In reality, she walked on her toes and the structure of her feet and lower legs was elongated, like that of a cat. She was able to get away with eschewing knee socks and black patent leather shoes, going with much greater ease on the pads of her furry toes.
She was twenty-one, a junior this year. The book bag she towed along behind her on little wheeled casters was loaded with thick textbooks and school supplies. She still hadn't decided on a major. In some part of her mind, she recognized the futility of it. What good was a degree, even from a private college as prestigious as the Sterling Academy, going to do for one of the world's few mutates? It wasn't likely to help her get a job, that was for sure. So she stayed in school mainly to keep her grandparents happy, and delay the moment when she'd have to finally sit up, look around, and decide what the hell she was going to do with her life.
In the meantime, it was lectures and labs and lunch from one of the many cafes and shops that ringed the campus' central quad. Each dorm boasted its own small cafeteria which served breakfasts and dinners, and each floor had a kitchenette as part of the communal lounge for those who cared to do their own cooking, but the midday break between classes generally saw students selecting from the variety that the cafes and delis offered.
Dee opted for the sushi bar, then headed for her customary table under one of the many gazebos that dotted the lawn. Her book bag bumped and trundled along obediently behind her. She relished the feel of the grass on her toes, and as always the urge seized her to drop to all fours and run fleet over the gentle hills.
"Save it for the track meet," she told herself. But the dry, dusty track with its unnatural rubbery paving was not the same, not nearly as satisfying.
Sebastian St. John-Burnett was already in attendance, wearing his staid and scholarly persona as he pored over a tome on metaphysics. Beside him, Orpheus Bluestone was murmuring to himself in his pleasantly melodic voice as he made notes from a law book. They both, although the former was eighteen and the latter nineteen, managed to seem much older than the two seniors at the table. Neesha and Mulan, who had been mostly raised by Dee's grandparents, were currently huddled over a copy of VIP and giggling dreamily at photos of the latest crop of hot young movie and television hunks.
A shadow tracked across the quad. Several people looked up admiringly as Dee's cousin Amber backwinged and settled gracefully to earth with her skirt blowing high around trim, taut thighs.
"Giving everyone a show?" Dee asked, nodding toward Amber's legs.
Amber grinned and smoothed the hem over her thighs. Like Dee, she was allowed certain exemptions from the dress code, and wore a similarly cut blouse, and no shoes. Her feet were extraordinarily high-arched, the toes ending in talons. Aside from her feet and her dusky lavender wings, the only signs of her half-gargoyle heritage were in the nubs at the outer corners of her eyebrows, and the pronounced sharpness to her canines.
The cousins shared little besides a last name, sharp teeth, and wings. Where Dee was covered in fur, Amber had her mother's mocha-toffee skin. Amber's hair was a smooth sweep of sable, while Dee's was a full, wavy mane of a shade that recalled the undulant grasses of the savanna. Dee's eyes were green-gold, with cat-slit pupils, and her face pushed forward into something of a muzzle. Amber's face, except for those nubs, was entirely human and her eyes were dark.
Dee supposed she should have had ample reason to envy her cousin. Amber's parents were both still alive and well, though there had been that close call when Demona poisoned and nearly killed Goliath earlier in the year. Amber had grown up with the full and unconditional love of a home not torn apart by grief.
Bluntly, Amber had a home, while Dee had bounced around from Labyrinth to Aerie Building to her grandparents' house.
Come to think of it, she did envy her cousin.
Everybody made room at the table and Amber sat down to unwrap her own lunch, a hearty sandwich of roast beef. She tore into it with gusto.
"It's so good to be back at school," she said when she'd devoured half of the sandwich.
"You don't find it too dull?" Sebastian asked, quirking one white-blond brow. "After your fabulous adventures?"
"I had enough of that to last me a while."
"Oh? Considering that you slept through most of the last one?"
Dee, who had stayed sensibly in school, knew the whole story. The clan's longtime enemy, Demona, had vanished on what had come to be known as Devil's Night. The same horrible, hellish night, as it happened, that Dee's own mother had died in fiery agony. Her father, Talon, had never been the same after that. Most of Manhattan hadn't been the same after that.
But Demona had returned, and wasted no time getting up to her old malice. With the help of an ally, the sorceress Morgana – Sebastian's cousin – she had stolen the Seven Vials, raised an army of trollish thralls, and launched a plan to render humanity sterile.
The plan had been foiled but in the course of it, Demona had been able to poison and very nearly kill her former mate, Goliath. Amber had wheedled the newly-completed Phoenix Gate out of Alexander Xanatos and gone back in time to seek the aid of an alchemist and ancestress of the clan.
She'd ended up bringing the ancient she-gargoyle, Old-Mother, for a visit to the present. Old-Mother had saved her son Goliath's life, seen the future of her clan, and gone back to her own time. But in accompanying her, Amber lost the Phoenix Gate and had to seek magical refuge on Avalon.
There, Queen Titania had encased Amber in the very gem that shared her name, and left her to while away the years in an enchanted sleep. Amber's mother, Dee's aunt Elisa, had taken clan second Brooklyn, Sebastian, and Elektra on a quest that crossed dimensions in hopes of finding a way around the spell that had blocked off Avalon.
Along the way, they had run afoul of Morgana, picked up a stray son of Brooklyn by his mate from an alternate reality, and brought one of the Avalon clan back to their own world. Now little Jake was trying to find his place among the other hatchlings and come to a working relationship with not only his alternate father, but with Brooklyn's mate Angela. Zachariah, the gargoyle from Avalon, had elected to join King Arthur in his travels – a choice that had more to do with an unmated female of the London clan than any knightly calling.
And Amber had been returned to the embrace of her loving family. While Dee had just kept attending classes.
Everyone had adventures but her. Even her twin brother, Thomas Reed Maza, was off on an adventure. He had dropped out of the Academy and gone to Africa to explore that aspect of their heritage. Grandpa Peter had protested, but Grandma Diane sure set him straight. Had she complained when their daughter Beth decided to follow the Native American half of the Maza family tree? No. So Peter should hush up and accept it when one of their grandkids decided to take the Nigerian path.
The last letter Dee had gotten made it sound like Tom was quite happy, getting along well with the were-panthers. He was much like a panther himself, being darkly furred as opposed to her leopard spots.
What, she wondered, did that leave for her? What hadn't been done? The Reed side? There was a laugh. Her maternal grandparents were figures of utter mystery. All Dee knew was that they'd disowned their daughter Maggie, never having accepted her decision to run away to New York in the first place. They blamed her for the unfortunate circumstances that had led to the mutation, and flat-out refused to have anything to do with Maggie or her mate, Talon.
The craziest part of that, Dee knew, was that the Reeds had been more offended by the fact that their son-in-law was mixed African- and Native-American. Not that he was a black-pelted mutate who could shoot bioelectrical bolts from his hands.
So, that was out. She could only imagine the reception she'd get if she showed up on their doorstep in Ohio, and upset their narrow Midwestern lives. They hadn't even come to the memorial service that had been held after Devil's Night. Their daughter had died to them long before that.
What did that leave? Her mutate heritage? There was a joke, all right. Until her parents, Claw, and Fang, there hadn't been any mutates. Fang had disappeared ages ago, was probably dead. Her mother was dead. Her father still hadn't recovered from the loss. And Claw? Mute since his transformation, having once suffered a severe coma, he was a frail shadow of his tiger-striped self.
Dr. Sevarius, their creator, was still around. Sort of. Through a series of bizarre happenings, his formidable mind now inhabited the wheelchair-bound body of a woman. His activities, as well as that of his equally brilliant and sinister brother Gustav, were closely monitored by Alexander Xanatos' people. Anton Sevarius now spent his time frantically trying to stabilize his son Samuel's mutation.
Samuel, or Samson as he was more generally known, had been afflicted with an agent not unlike the one that had turned Derek Maza into the winged panther-man Talon. Except that in Samson's case, the 'donor species,' as Sevarius put it, had been a Sasquatch. And something in the genetic structure, perhaps as a result of the degenerative bone disease that had led the doctor to experiment on his son in the first place, had caused the mutation to begin to break down.
As far as Dee knew, the two of them had gone off with a select team of Xanatos Enterprises scientists, bound for the Pacific Northwest in hopes of obtaining a fresh genetic sample. Samson, who had lived in the Labyrinth when Dee and Tom were little, was Delilah's mate in almost every sense of the word. Delilah was the only survivor of the clones who had also dwelt, for a time, in the Labyrinth. Until Damien. Until Devil's Night.
Now Samson was off with his father … if that was the right word. And Delilah spent much of her time at the Aerie Building, with her four hatchlings and Hudson, who had sired them and now had the teaching of them.
Dee thought it was all too complicated, all too weird. So much stuff going on, and she was not a part of any of it. A Maza by name, a member of the clan more or less by extension, she felt like she was on the outside looking in.
Maybe Tom had the right of it. Maybe a new start in a whole new place was the answer. But she knew she couldn't leave Talon with just Claw and her grandparents to keep him company. Losing Maggie had torn his heart out. Seeing her die like that … Dee knew that he still dreamed of it. He'd wake them all sometimes, screaming into the darkness, screaming about the fire.
Lost in these thoughts and memories, Dee picked at her lunch and ignored the chatter of conversation at the table until she heard something about the track team.
She looked up. "What?"
"I said, I heard we're getting a new student today," Neesha said. "He's going to be on the track team."
"If he goes out for track, and makes the cut," Dee said. Her fur fluffed a little, indignantly. "I'm still the captain, last I checked. It's up to me."
"I thought it was up to Coach Lennox," Mulan said.
At this, Sebastian, Amber, and Orpheus shared a secretive smile. They knew, like Dee did, that 'Coach Lennox' was far more than a humble professor who took charge of the track and field teams on top of his regular duties in the history department. The Institute Kids, as their older and now-graduated "sister" Brittany still liked to teasingly refer to them, were in on a lot of the news but not all. Not the inner-circle stuff that you had to be part of the clan, or a Guardian, to know about.
"Coach Lennox listens to me," Dee said. "If this new guy can't handle it, that's his tough luck. We field the fastest team in the division, with a three-year undefeated record."
Orpheus laughed wryly. "The division consisting of only two schools doesn't make that much of anything to crow about. Not a lot in the way of competition."
"I've suggested to my mother that other schools of our general sort be included," Sebastian said. "Offbeat ones. The Xavier School, Hogwarts, what have you. She said she'd consider it, but I think she was just humoring me."
"I can outrun any fourteen-year-old on a broomstick," Dee scoffed. "Just watch me."
"It's the Diamond Academy you've got to worry about," Amber said. "I heard they've got a new coach who can really burn up the track."
"The coaches don't compete in the events. Do you see Coach Lennox out there running every afternoon?" Dee popped the last bite of her sushi and wadded up her trash. "It's just not done that way."
The bell in the narrow brick clocktower tolled the hour of one. All over the quad, students got up and threw away their trash, and the migration toward various buildings for the 1:10 classes began. Dee fell in beside Amber as they headed for their shared Theater Arts elective.
"What do you think is wrong with Orpheus?" Amber asked.
"I didn't say anything was," Dee said.
"No, that's not what I mean."
"Well, what do you mean?"
"Am I being too subtle?"
"That must be it," Dee said, "because I know I haven't got a clue what you're talking about."
"I'm trying to get him to ask me out on a date, but he's not picking up the hints."
"There've been hints?"
"Come on, Dee. He's not stupid. But he spends all his time with Alex, Patricia, and Sebastian. I'm tired of being left out. They act like I'm still a child, even though I'm right about their age."
"It's the comparative maturity thing," Dee said, shrugging. She knew from the other end what Amber was talking about. She and Tom, being part feline, had matured slightly faster than others their age. Amber, being part gargoyle, aged at roughly three-quarters human speed. "It all evens out in the end."
"I think he's been avoiding me."
"So maybe he is picking up on the hints, and he's not interested."
"Oh, thank you very much," Amber said.
"I didn't mean it like that. Maybe he thinks you'd rather have a boyfriend with wings."
"Like who?"
"Whom."
Amber spared her a sour look. "Thanks, professor. Like whom. Okay?"
"Well … like … I don't know. Wait for the hatchlings to grow up?"
"Eew," Amber said. "They're all like my little brothers. And even if that wasn't icky, it still doesn't help with getting dates for this year. The Winter Ball is coming –"
"A couple months from now! What's all this about a boyfriend, all of a sudden?"
"I'm eighteen," Amber said defensively. "I'm old enough."
"What, did you meet some hunk in the past and –" Seeing her cousin's scarlet blush, Dee's eyes widened. "You did, didn't you?"
"It's not like that."
"Little Amber is growing up."
"Dee, quit it."
"One of the Scottish gargoyles from a thousand years ago?"
"None of your business."
They had reached their building. The halls were lively with bustle and conversation, so Dee lowered her voice. "So, did you? You know … do it?"
"No, I did not. And even if I did, I wouldn't tell you."
"You mean you'd deny it. Which you just did."
"Oh, shut up." Amber pushed ahead, and through the door.

**

Room 210 was set up partly like a lecture hall, with rising ranks of seats fanning out in a pie-wedge shape, and partly like a theater. A small stage was at the front of the room, its sides draped with curtains. Doors opened into storage rooms crammed with props and costumes. A freestanding blackboard stood at the foot of the stage, next to a desk.
Their usual instructor was nowhere to be seen. A buzz of talk went around the room – Genevieve Trent had come back to school after summer break about five months pregnant, and any of them had been able to tell it wasn't going well for her. She'd been wan and without energy, her body somehow both bloated and sunken at the same time.
Amber and Dee slid into their seats, mindful of their wings. They customarily sat in the back of each class to keep from blocking the view of the students behind them, and in this room at least, had benches instead of chairs.
Just before the long hand on the clock indicated that it was ten past one, a woman rushed into the room and dumped an armload of books, scripts, and other stuff onto the desk. She puffed for breath, ran her hands over her wild black curls, and turned to face the class.
"Who moved the drama department?" she asked. "Cripes, a girl leaves for twenty years and what to they do? Rearrange everything. I was waiting in Amberson Hall, wondering why all I was getting were engineering students who were looking at me funny."
"Oh, my God," Dee muttered.
"Didn't you know?" Amber spoke in a sweetly innocent tone, her payback for Dee's earlier needling. "Aiden told me last night."
"Serves me right for thinking nothing would ever change around here," the woman said. She was fortyish and full-figured, wearing a billowy jewel-tone magenta blouse over black slacks. The color of her blouse exactly matched the dyed lock of hair over her forehead. "I'm Roberta Yale, here to fill in for your Professor Trent –"
A girl in the third row squealed. "You're Birdie Yale? You were Princess Hahtutraht in All's Pharaoh!"
"Oh, wow!" Ned, a gawky guy of seventeen exclaimed. "And the Romulan priestess from Star Trek: Galaxia!"
Birdie raised her hands, palms out. "I know it's a step down from your usual teachers, star of the legitimate stage and screen, but I was the best they could get on short notice. Sorry about that. Just call me an understudy who's a little out of my league."
"Weren't you in Quentin Tarantino's remake of 1984?" someone else asked. "As Julia, with the topless scene?"
"Now, that was one seriously fuh –" Ned coughed. "Messed up movie."
Tracie, the class snob and teacher's pet, raised her hand. "What happened to Professor Trent?"
"Nothing drastic," Birdie said. "Her doctor wants her to take it easy and start her maternity leave early. She's hoping to be back for spring semester. In the meantime, you're stuck with me. Now, as some of you already mentioned, you might remember me from my TV appearances. I've also been in a handful of movies, some very off-Broadway musicals, and I provide the voice of Immacula the Vampire Nun for the animated series of the same name. I'm not sure what that qualifies me to teach you, but I'm willing to give it a try."
"Miss St. John was at the end of her rope," Amber confided in a whisper to Dee. "She tried all weekend to find someone else but Birdie was the only one available."
Dee snickered. She didn't know Birdie as well as Amber did, but stories got around. And there had been that one time, one particular memory. It had taken place a few months after Devil's Night, during the time that Talon had taken the twins to live in the castle.
One day, she and Amber had been bored – the gargoyles were sleeping, Alex and Tom were playing Xantasia, Elisa was at work, Xanatos and Owen were at a conference in Chicago, Talon was off moping somewhere. Desperate for something to do, the two little cousins had first tried to make a batch of cookies, and when they spilled the ingredients all over themselves, they'd decided to clean up in Fox's private bathroom.
That had been Amber's idea, Amber who showed Dee the way to the sumptuous retreat of Italian marble and mirrored tiles. After washing up in the deep whirlpool tub, they'd gotten into Fox's cosmetics. They'd only started out with powder, but the lure of the multicolored array of vials and tubes proved too much for their youthful curiosity.
Rouge and eyeshadow hadn't adhered well to Dee's fur, so they came up with the bright idea of applying colored hair spray and dye. By the time they were caught in the act, Amber was painted up like a trashy pop star, and Dee boasted spots and stripes in every imaginable color.
Birdie, hearing their squealing giggles, found them first. The girls suddenly realized what they'd done, the mess they'd made, the state of themselves, and the probable cost in designer cosmetics that they'd destroyed, and cringed in expectation of punishment. But Birdie had taken a long look at them, burst out laughing, and helped them repair the damage before Fox came home.
It had been the first day since the death of her mother that Dee could remember really feeling happy and fun.
"I'm also a Sterling Academy alumnus," Birdie said to the lecture hall full of drama students. "Class of … well, never you mind. Like I said, they've changed a few things around here, but it's good to be back."
She started by going around the room and making everyone introduce themselves, and asked for input on what they'd been doing lesson-wise with Professor Trent. Tracie the prima donna sulked, as if sensing that her prized status was in jeopardy. Others kept interrupting with questions – what had it been like to work with Bruce Campbell? How had she gotten a role in Star Trek?
Midway through the discussion, the door opened and a latecomer slouched in. The moment she saw him, Dee sucked in a gasp. He paused in the doorway for effect, tossing his hair out of his eyes and leaning indolently against the jamb.
He was a mutate.
His shape was humanoid, but there was something both wolfen and feline about it. Like Dee and Amber, he went barefoot on clawed toes. His fur was a dusty grey-brown peppered with darker markings and a wild mane of snowy white hair spilled to the collar of his school blazer. He had no wings. His face was a pointed muzzle and black-furred wolf's ears peeked through his hair.
A startled silence fell over Room 210. Birdie turned to look at the male in the doorway. He gripped a manila folder in one long-fingered hand and held the strap of a backpack over his shoulder with the other.
"That must be the new student Neesha mentioned," Amber said. "He's … cute."
"I saw him first."
"You did not."
"Well, hello there," Birdie said. "Looking for Room 210?"
"If it's the drama class," the newcomer said. His voice was a husky growl, like that of a German Shepherd that had been taught to speak.
"You've come to the right place." Birdie moved to greet him and accepted the folder he handed her. She flipped briefly through it and her eyebrows went up. "St. John, is it?"
"Feral St. John."
"Any relation to our illustrious headmistress?"
"She's my great-aunt."
"Well, Feral, have a seat." She swept her hand to the room at large.
For the first time, Feral allowed his gaze to roam the lecture hall. His eyes were yellow-gold, timberwolf eyes, and when he saw Dee and Amber, they flickered with intrigue. He headed for the back of the room, climbing the wide flat carpeted steps with an easy gait. Watching him walk, Dee remembered what else Neesha had said. A new member of the track team. Well, he looked like he could run, that was for sure. He could move, anyway, with a casual litheness that bespoke speed and strength.
And Amber was right … he was cute.
He sat down across the aisle from them and sent a sidelong glance their way. Immediately, both cousins straightened up into good posture and checked to see that their short pleated skirts were showing off their legs to their best advantage.
"He doesn't have wings," Dee hissed to Amber.
"So?"
"So you wouldn't be interested."
"Then neither should you."
"I'm not the one with the wing fetish. Besides, it's obvious he and I have more in common."
"Wonder who he is," Amber said. "Sebastian never mentioned this cousin."
"Second cousin."
"Whatever."
The rest of the ninety minutes passed pleasantly enough, though Dee was more eager than ever for track practice. Her 2:50 class seemed to go on for an eternity. Secret Societies and You, it was called, available only to upperclassmen with permission from their advisors. She'd signed up for it because she could, thinking it would be a lively romp through conspiracy theory, but so far it was a grueling historical snore about the origins of Freemasonry and other musty old sexist fraternal orders.
At last, 4:30 rolled around and she was free to zip back to her dorm, swap book bag for gym bag, and go to the sports complex. As with the rest of the Academy, the old-fashioned brick buildings belied the state of the art interior. The gym had both indoor and outdoor tracks, ballfields, and pools. The complex covered everything from archery to yoga, with more of an emphasis than was usual on pursuits such as fencing, martial arts, and marksmanship.
None of the other options did much for Dee. She didn't like to swim because of what it did to her fur, didn't like organized sports with their rules and contingencies. What she liked best was what she did best, and that was to run.
She changed into a jogging bra and snug shorts, pulled back her hair into a ponytail, and slung a towel around her neck. Water bottle in hand, she went outside to the rear of the complex, emerging onto a balcony overlooking the main track. It went around the football field in an oval, surrounded by shaded bleachers. The spongy surface, pebbled black and blue and green, was painted with white lane markers.
Coach Lennox, a powerful man with iron-grey hair and a matching beard, was down on the field in a navy blue sweatsuit. A silver whistle hung on a cord around his neck. This wasn't his main function at the Academy. He taught medieval history, particularly that pertaining to the British Isles, as well as courses in beginning sorcery and alchemy. Somehow, he'd gotten coerced into taking over the coaching duties.
Dee trotted down onto the field and went into her warm-up exercises as the rest of the team showed up one by one. She did a series of stretches, relishing the feel of healthy muscle, and her heart quickened with excitement when the coach's whistle blasted.
The team assembled, and here came Feral St. John. Out of his uniform, in a black tank top and shorts, he was an even more impressive sight to Dee's eyes. The markings on his pelt were plain to see, a line of dark fur down his spine feathering out around his shoulderblades, and when the sun hit him, she could see the shadow of rosettes similar to her own. His legs were exceptionally well-sculpted, looking capable of running long and hard.
Nice butt, too. Very nice.
He presented himself to Lennox, showing him the same manila folder. The coach looked him over, steely eyes evaluating.
"You say you're a runner," Lennox said, with just the hint of a brogue adding warm texture to his voice.
"I can outrun anyone you've got," Feral said, looking at Dee.
"We'll start at the top, then. Maza, you're up. Take your places."
"Sprinter, or long-distance?" Dee asked him as they went to the starting blocks.
"Both," he replied belligerently.
"Me, too."
"Not a cheetah, you're not. No marathons for you. Sprinter city, sex kitten."
"Hope you like the taste of dust, wolf boy."
"Places, I said," Lennox called. "We're not getting any younger over here. Let's make it a mile and see what you can do."
Dee braced her feet and bent low, folding her wings tight against her back. They were her worst handicap, she knew. If she held them wrong, or they deployed at a bad moment, it was like she had her own instant built-in drag chutes.
Feral hunkered down in the next lane. His lips skinned back from his teeth in a grin.
"Mark … set … go!" came Lennox's shout. The whistle shrieked again.
They both launched themselves from the starting blocks. Right away, Dee realized that he was as fast as he looked, and he wasn't about to take it easy on her because she was a girl.
Good. She wasn't about to take it easy on him because he was the new guy.
Around the track they went, both pacing themselves expertly, taking steady, controlled breaths. The rest of the team lined the edge, cheering them on. Dee glimpsed Amber up in the bleachers, watching, and put on a little extra speed. Her cousin might be the better glider, but when it came to a footrace, nobody beat Dee Maza.
She left Feral behind, not in a cloud of dust on this specially-prepared surface, and heard him snarl in displeasure. A moment later, he had drawn even with her again. His white hair blew back from his face, and his fur rippled.
The two mutates pounded down the final leg in a dead heat. As they closed on the finish line, Dee tapped her reserves and poured it on a little more, only to see Feral had done the exact same thing. They crossed neck-and-neck, to the exhilarated whoops and cries of their teammates.
"So much for the school record," Coach Lennox said, consulting his stopwatch.
Dee and Feral slowed in unison, to a fast jog, then a trot, and finally a walk.
"You're pretty good," she said.
"You're not bad yourself. But it was only a mile. I'd kick your butt in a marathon."
"I'd kick yours in a sprint."
"If there's butt to be kicked," Lennox said, coming over to them with amusement in his tone, "let's save it for the competition, shall we?"
"Sure, Coach," Dee said.

**

He took as long to get showered and dressed as she did. It was the fur. She could hear the endless whirring buzz of the hot air dryer coming through the wall from the men's side, even as she was using the one in the women's to fluff her own pelt.
Everyone else had finished up and was long gone by the time she emerged with her gym bag. Feral appeared almost exactly at the same time. He had asked her at the end of practice if she wanted to get something to eat, and with a flash of a triumphant grin Amber's way, Dee had agreed.
"So what are you?" he asked. "Some kind of cat gargoyle?"
"I'm a mutate," she said. "My parents were exposed to a mutagenic agent containing DNA from jungle cats, bats, and electric eels."
"Electric eels?"
"Sure." She concentrated, summoned up a swift snap of a spark. Only a little one, because otherwise her fur would go all fuzzy. Not even daily doses of conditioner could fully rid her of static cling. "What about you?"
They strolled companionably toward the quad. The sun had gone lower in the west, and the hazy golden afternoon light was turning coppery.
"My father was a wolf-mutate. That's what they tell me, anyway. He died before I was born. Mom, though, Mom's a were-leopard."
"Cool! My brother is in Africa with some were-panthers."
"She got it from her dad, who was bitten or enspelled or something down in South America. So technically, it's probably were-jaguar, not leopard."
"But you're also a St. John?"
"Yeah. Mom's mother, my grandma, is the headmistress' twin sister."
"Again, cool. I'm a twin."
"Since they weren't married, my parents, I got Mom's last name. Besides, it's weird enough being named Feral St. John. Feral Wolf would have really been pushing it."
"My name's Diane Maza, but everybody calls me Dee. Where do you want to go?"
He picked one of the little bistros tucked in a corner of the quad. The interior was all dark wood and brass, with a vaguely railroad motif. They sat near the back and ordered the deluxe appetizer platter, and as she was bending over to stuff her gym bag way under the table, Dee realized that the patrons in the next booth were none other than Coach Lennox and Birdie Yale. Then she remembered having heard that they used to be an item.
"You could have called and told me," Lennox was saying.
"I didn't know until this weekend," Birdie said. "And, well, I thought it'd be … awkward."
"Like this?"
"Like this, yeah." There followed a long and distinctly uncomfortable pause. "It's been a while."
"Five years."
"But who's counting? Look, Macbeth, I'm sorry I ran out on you. It was cowardly and wrong. I wasn't ready for a commitment back then."
"I thought you were committed to your work."
"That, too, and you know that you hated it. The public eye, the tabloids, people wondering who that handsome mystery man was with Birdie Yale. Too much prying into your past gives you the twitches, I understand that."
Dee tore herself away from eavesdropping. Feral was watching her, amused, his own ears cocked.
"The coach and the drama teacher, huh?" he asked.
"Long story."
"I'd rather hear about you, anyway."
So she told him the basics of her life. Those early childhood years in the Labyrinth, thinking that was how the world was supposed to be. A home in the tunnels. No windows, sunlight a rarity, a community of people in ill-fitting clothes. Most of them fairly clean, at least in Talon's protectorate, and well-fed. The former cop didn't tolerate drugs or excessive drunkenness.
But Dee had roamed other parts of the subterranean city with Tom as they grew older and bolder, and they'd encountered denizens who were filthy, deranged, and dangerous. She played amid the forgotten underground of the city and thought it was perfectly normal.
Then they'd moved as far from the Labyrinth as it was possible to get, in many ways. The castle atop the towering structure of steel and concrete and glass, high and aloof in the sky. Live-in servants. Gourmet kitchens. A media center. Limousines and expensive clothes. But just when she and Tom had gotten used to that, Talon decided that they belonged down below.
"I lived with my grandparents for a while too," she said. "Home-schooling before being admitted here. Did you go to regular school?"
"Nope." Their appetizer platter, a giant wheel of chicken wings, batter-fried prawns, potato skins, shredded beef taquitos, and barbecued ribs, had arrived while she talked, and both she and Feral fell to with teeth that were made for tearing flesh. "We're carnies."
"Carnies! You mean, circus folk?"
"Not exactly. My grandma's a fortune teller, or psychic advisor if you want to be legal and proper. My uncle Caleb runs the freak show, and my other uncle Chris owns half the midway rides and pitch games. I had an aunt but she took off a long time ago. And then there's Mom."
"What does she do?"
"She's Uncle Caleb's star attraction. She went a little wild when I was born. Crazy-wild, dangerous. Bit some people. Killed a few. She has a hard time turning human now, so she mostly stays in her cage."
"At least you still have her, though."
He shrugged and dunked a taquito into a container of dipping sauce. "Anyway, the family decided I should get a real education. Grandma called in some favors with her sister, and they put me on a bus to New York. It's a heck of a change after Gibtown, or the roving carny life."
When they had demolished the platter, leaving nothing but a few shreds of potato skin and the untouched extra-spicy salsa dip – both of them found that their keen senses disagreed with flavors that were too pungent – they strolled back out into the twilight cool of the campus.
A crowd was gathering around the base of one of the buildings, everyone looking up expectantly but standing prudently back. Feral glanced quizzically that way, then saw the two winged shapes on the roofline. Moments later, with a brittle cracking sound that was audible through the sudden hush, the stone skins of the gargoyles split into fragments and powder. Some of these rained down gritty grey on the newer students who'd strayed too close.
Eyes blazed white and red, and simultaneous roars rang out. Lexington's was husky, Aiden's petite and somehow cute.
"Does this happen every night?" Feral asked, nodding toward the crowd as they broke into applause.
"Yeah, pretty much," Dee said, noting that as usual, Lex was beaming and Aiden was blushing. The two gargoyles took to the air, swooping gracefully hand-in-hand, and Dee felt a brief urge to have the wind rushing under her wings and through her hair.
But she got the same effect from running, as well as the healthy pleasure of working muscles, and besides, when she ran, half the school wasn't ogling up her skirt. Like they were to Amber, as her cousin glided to greet Aiden and Lex.
"Some school," Feral said. "When they told me I was coming here, I wasn't too sure. No matter what they said about me not being the only freak. I still didn't believe it until I saw it."
"We're not freaks."
"Sure we are. Just not genuine freaks of nature. Those wings of yours aren't birth defects."
"If you think you're a freak, that's how people will treat you," Dee said.
"And I suppose if we act like we're normal, that's how they'll treat us? Dream on." He eyed her, golden eyes shining in the dusk's gloom. "Don't tell me you don't flaunt it. Don't tell me you don't get a charge out of the double-takes, the reaction."
"Well …"
"I know I do."
"I guess," Dee admitted. "But sometimes I'd trade it all to be like anyone else."
She expected him to say something along similar lines, and was shocked when he whirled on her and grabbed her by the upper arms. His dark lips peeled back from his teeth.
"Never say that!"
A charge built in her skin, crackling through her fur to glove Feral's clutching hands in sparks. He flinched, but did not let go.
"It's true," she said. "You think I liked growing up in the sewers of Manhattan? You think I wouldn't jump at the chance to have spent my teens hanging out at the mall, shopping for clothes that didn't have to be tailor-made? You think I don't feel like I missed out on dates and normal family life and everything that the rest of these people take for granted? Maybe you grew up in the carnival, where everybody was a weirdo, but I grew up surrounded by regular people."
Mentally, she amended that, because it wasn't strictly true. Even the ordinary, non-magical, non-mutated humans she'd known hadn't exactly been 'regular.' The kingdom beneath the city was populated by legions of the homeless, the criminal, and the insane. What she knew of so-called 'normal' life came more from watching television than from anything in her personal experience.
"If you spend your time wishing to be what you're not," Feral growled, still holding onto her though now his fur was bristling, and the lightshow of sparks was drawing attention, "you're going to wake up someday and realize you've wasted your entire goddamn life. Accept what you are, everything that you are, and live it!"
"Let go of me, that hurts," Dee said, and a surge of blue-white energy snapped and spat.
Feral was flung back, but kept his feet with instinctive agility. He tossed his head, flipping his hair out of his eyes. "I'm right, you know."
"Oh, yeah, and what am I supposed to do?"
"Look at you, Dee Maza," he said. "Trying to blend in with them when it's flatly impossible."
"You are too," she said.
"I'm not trying to be one of them."
"Then why are you here?"
"For an education. Not for a meaningless degree that wouldn't even get me a job at Wal-Mart."
She was spooked to hear her earlier thoughts coming out of his mouth.
"Knowing things, Dee," he said. "That's what's important. That's what gives you the edge."
"But if you don't do anything with what you know –"
"Besides," he said, his whole mood changing with an abrupt laugh, "Dearest Great-Aunt Cordelia wanted me here so that we can utterly trounce Diamond in the track meet."
"Our team could have done that on our own." She thrust out her chin. "We don't need any ringers."
"Oh, balls!" Feral said. "You going to carry the whole team? The rest of them couldn't outrun a sloth."
"What makes you think Diamond's team is going to be any better? We whipped their sorry asses three years in a row, and I don't care if their new coach is the Roadrunner, it's not going to help them."
"It's not just the coach," he said.
"Like you'd know."
"Like I would. Diamond Academy approached me first."
Dee stopped short and stared at him. "What?"
"True." He curled his foreclaws over his heart. "Mutate's honor. A scout from Diamond, the assistant coach, contacted me last spring. It was a tasty offer, too. Full scholarship, all sorts of extras to sweeten the pot. Grandma Cassie was on the horn to her sister the very next day, seeing what Sterling was willing to offer."
"That's disgusting," Dee said.
"So's major league baseball."
"Fair enough, but still," she groused, thinking of how her father had had to humble himself to Xanatos and request the mogul's intercession on behalf of Dee and Tom. The idea of Feral having been the center of a bidding war … that just sucked.
"So anyway, Great-Aunt Cordelia was happy to deal. The last thing she wanted was me signing on with Diamond, even if it meant bringing me here. And here I am."
There was a sour taste in Dee's mouth that she couldn't blame on the appetizer platter. "I guess."
"But with the two of us, all the little tricks the other team's been pulling won't amount to squat."
"What other tricks?" She thought of the Diamond Academy track team from last year, excellent athletes all, Olympic caliber for sure, but not a one of them that could match her pace.
"I hear," Feral said, drawing close and pitching his voice so that she could barely hear it, "that they've been playing around with nature too."
He would say no more, changing the subject as they continued on toward the dorms. Dee fumed, caught halfway between liking him and wanting to kick him square in the middle of his superb butt. She hadn't felt both so at ease with someone and so annoyed with them since Tom went away.

**

The following days only increased her dilemma. Feral turned up in quite a few of her classes, and every afternoon the two of them strove to outdo each other on the track. The school speed records were shattered again and again. Dee would break one, but the next day Feral would beat her time, and the day after they'd tie in some other event. Neither of them could keep the edge for long.
In the news, President Harmond was calling for new amendments to the Sentient Rights Act. Initially put forward to recognize gargoyles and mutates as thinking beings legally able to hold property, pay taxes, and enjoy their various Constitutional privileges, the NHRA Committee was now looking at the issues of employment, discrimination, and interracial marriage.
They were the new minority, the loose oddball group of non-humans, meta-humans, and out-of-the-closet wizards. Dee was waiting with a sort of blind optimism for the law to open up professional sports. She knew it would never really happen, that the best she could hope for would be some special league, but even that wasn't likely. There weren't enough of them, especially if such a league wound up further divided along gender lines. It was one thing for Broadway's long-running late-night cooking show to have made him a celebrity. It'd be something else for Dee to bring home gold medals.
In the meantime, though, she was at least allowed to compete here at school. But even here at the Sterling Academy, some of her classmates made snide remarks. It wasn't fair, any more than it would have been fair for people to pick on Aiden's students because they'd happened to have been born with magical ability, but nobody did that.
She didn't let it get to her. What mattered now was Feral, finally a rival worthy of the name, and the upcoming match.
The appointed time arrived in crisp October, when fallen leaves decorated the fading lawns and the evenings were clear and frosty. The meet was scheduled for a weekend, and on the Friday night that the Diamond Academy team was due to arrive, Dee and Feral and several of their fellow runners staked out the guest dormitory hoping for an advance look at their foes.
They were denied. The Diamond team arrived in long buses with windows so tinted they were nearly opaque, and the only people that were in view were the three drivers, and one woman in a smoke-colored jogging suit that bore the school logo on the left side of the chest. Her ponytailed hair was mostly grey, with a few strands of blonde, and her face was heavily lined.
"What the hell?" their best hurdler muttered. "She's sixty if she's a day."
"Maybe, but look at her body," Dee said. "She's fit, you've got to give her that."
"She's the assistant coach," Feral said. "Moore, her name is."
"Yeah, but if that old fossil is the best they can –"
The hurdler was interrupted by the sound of a throat clearing. The team spun, feeling guilty even though it wasn't yet curfew and they weren't anywhere they shouldn't be.
"We're not judging anyone on the basis of age, now, are we?" Coach Lennox asked sternly. In the moonlight, his hair was white burnished with silver, and his eyes were very, very old.
Professor Yale stood beside him, suppressing a snicker. She had on a wine-red nylon windbreaker with a school logo of her own, the large silver capital-A with lowercase 'sterling' scrawled across the middle of it so that it was somehow vaguely reminiscent of the eye-and-pyramid.
"I'm sure they know better," she said. "A person's only as old as he feels, isn't that right?" She bumped her hip companionably against Lennox's, and some of the students rolled their eyes and grimaced at each other the way they might if they walked in on their grandparents kissing. Evidently, whatever their past held, they'd come to an arrangement of some sort. And it looked like a pretty comfortable one, as far as Dee could tell.
"Off to bed, the lot of you," Lennox said. "Tomorrow's a big day and you'll all be wanting your rest."
"We wanted to see –" Dee began.
"You'll see in the morning, Miss Maza."
"Yes, Coach."
Chastened, the track team filed off. Only Feral was growling about it, and Dee poked him hard in the ribs without bothering to retract her claw once they had parted company with the others.
"Ow. What?"
"You already know about them," she said. "Isn't that what you said?"
"I haven't seen them."
"So what is it, anyway? What's the big deal?"
Feral leaned to whisper in her ear. "They're mutates."
"What? Really?"
"That's what Moore told me. Diamond wanted to field a whole team of mutates this year to put Sterling Academy in its place. They took their best to a special summer training camp, or at least that's what they told the parents, and injected them."
"What kind of mutates?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't be so keen to see them," he said.
"More people like us," Dee marveled.
"Don't be so happy about it."
"Why not?"
He thumped her on the forehead, smack between the eyes, like he was testing a melon in the supermarket. "Hello? Anyone in there? Because a team full of mutates might mean that this meet won't be the walk in the park we're expecting."
"Pardon me for thinking more globally. Cosmetic genetic enhancement is the next big thing, but the more real mutates like us, the better off we'll be in the long run."
"Spare me the political activism, would you?" he snorted. "All that matters right now is that we win this weekend. You want your dad to see you lose?"
"No!" Dee said. Her father would be arriving in the morning, along with Aunt Elisa. They'd be right there in the stands with Amber, watching, and if she lost … "No way."
"So forget the rest of it. Tomorrow's a race, not a damn Mutate Pride parade. Got it?"
"I got it, I don't need you to tell me."
"Yeah, you do, because I just did."
"You're a pain in the tail, you know that?"
He craned his neck to look at her backside. "There's a tail under there? A cute little lynx tail, maybe?"
Dee clapped her hands to the rear of her skirt. "No, and you know there isn't."
"I do? Whoa, did I miss something?"
"I mean," she said stiffly, "that you've seen me in my track suit. You'd have noticed if I had something sticking out in my shorts!"
Feral grinned. "Does that mean you've noticed when I do?"
"I meant the back of my shorts, you … you …"
"So you did notice!"
She sputtered, the sly twinkle in his golden eyes only making it worse. "Oh … shut up!" She stormed off to the sound of his laughter.

**

The next morning dawned foggy, but it had burned off by ten when the bleachers began to fill up with spectators. Dee met her family for breakfast – well, they ate while she drank a protein energy shake – and had to endure Amber telling Talon and Elisa all about "Dee's new boyfriend." This led to an intense questioning from them both. She felt like a suspect being grilled in the interrogation room.
"Hey, come on," she pleaded. "If you're going to do this, can't one of you at least play 'good cop'?"
"I just don't think you can trust this guy," Elisa said. "After all, it was his aunt that we left on Avalon, in Amber's place."
"Yeah, well, Sebastian and Patricia are his cousins, and they're okay."
"He is really cute," Amber said.
"But his father was one of the Pack –" Elisa said.
"So's Fox," Dee countered. "Besides, he never even knew him."
"You probably know more about him than Feral does," Amber said.
"Now, Dee," Talon said. "You can't blame us for being concerned."
"I don't, Dad." She gave Amber a dirty look. "Anyway, he isn't my boyfriend."
They went around and around some more, and Dee was glad when it was time to escape to the locker room and get suited up. She pulled on her track suit, getting flustered all over again as she remembered Feral's teasing of the night before, and tied her hair into a tight braid which she coiled against the back of her head for the least wind resistance.
The seats were already half full, and her teammates assembling on the field. Coach Lennox was there, talking gravely to Moore, the assistant coach, but of the rest of the Diamond team, there was no sign. She did her stretches, adrenaline fueled by anticipation already pumping through her bloodstream.
When Lennox's whistle blew, Dee and the others fell into their usual positions, lined up along the side of the track. "This is Ms. Moore," he said. "She's the assistant coach for the Diamond team."
"So where are they?" asked the hurdler. "What's the hold-up?"
Moore had a plug in her ear and a small microphone clipped to the collar of her fleece jacket. She cupped her hand around it, spoke briefly, and then looked up and blew her whistle.
The doors to the guest locker room banged open. A row of sweatsuited figures bounded out, and Dee wasn't the only one to catch her breath.
They were beautiful. Even in drab brown sweats, they were beautiful. Tall, all of them, not a one under six feet, and slim, and golden. They moved with effortless strides, heads held high and alert on supple necks. They had fine pelts of pale yellow feathered with white and brown markings, and wide watchful eyes. Some, the boys, had thin spirals of horns sweeping back from their heads.
"Gazelles?" whispered Feral as they came closer. "You think?"
"Some sort of antelope-mutate, yeah," Dee said. "Look at their feet! They have hooves, cloven hooves."
The Diamond team stripped down to running shorts and form-fitting tank tops. Their unusual, and oddly delicate, appearance had riveted the audience. Their legs were slim but wiry, promising swiftness. One of them, warming up, gave a few little practice leaps that made the Sterling Academy hurdler swear in astonishment and dismay.
"Our team," Coach Moore said. She had a trace of an accent, not dissimilar to that of Lennox. "Pardon them if they seem a wee bit shy, around ye two especially."
"I can see why," Feral said.
He showed his teeth to the gazelle-like beings, and they pranced and recoiled nervously. Their faces were human enough, perhaps slightly long in the nose, and they talked among themselves, but instinct was telling them that there were predators near. Dee could see it in the rhythmic flaring of their nostrils. And, oddly, the urge seized her to chase. To run them down and tackle them. And to …
She shook her head. "Whew."
"You feel it too?" Feral asked.
"Uh-huh."
Moore smiled, but it was a hard curve and no warmth reached her blue eyes. "To paraphrase an old adage," she said, "In the race between hare and fox, the hare will win. Because the fox is running for his supper, and the hare for his verra life."
"Is that so?" said Feral. "Well, I'm really hungry. How about you, Dee?"
"Yeah," she said, looking at their opponents. "Yeah, me too."
"Perhaps ye'd like a demonstration," Moore said, mildly enough but with such a threat beneath it that Dee's hackles rose.
She raised an arm, signaling to her team. The gazelle-mutates lined up along the starting blocks, slim but strong legs braced, heads up, bodies quivering. As Moore blew her whistle, they sprang into motion.
Dee heard the astounded exclamations of her teammates. To ordinary eyes, the racers were nearly a blur, streaking down the track. Dee, made for this, found that she was able to focus sharply on any of the runners, as well as scanning the group. There – that one was lagging, her stride not quite as smooth. That'd be the one to take down.
"No," she breathed. "Concentrate."
They were fast. Far faster than any of the human members of the Sterling team. Faster than Feral? Maybe. She had seen him run, and thought that maybe they were.
"They're faster than you," Feral said to her.
"Bull."
"Look at them go."
"In that case, they're way faster than you, because I'm faster than you."
He scoffed. "You wish."
The racers rounded the track. One broke from the group – the herd, Dee thought – and went down the straightaway stretch with the hurdles. He cleared them with a series of jumps that looked impossibly easy, as if his dainty cloven hooves were spring-loaded. The rest trotted to a stop in front of Moore, their breathing light and quick.
Dee and Feral exchanged a long, long look.
"Shit," he said.
"You know it."
"Can we take them?"
"We'd better," Dee said.
Moore, not without a swagger in her step, approached Coach Lennox. He wore an expression that said he knew exactly how fast that lap had been run, down to the millisecond, and he wasn't happy about it. Before she could speak, though, Birdie Yale squinted at her whistle, which had a name engraved on it.
"R.C. Moore," she said in a sort of musing, knowing way. "What's the R. stand for?"
This, weirdly, threw Moore off. She faltered, and shot a narrow, wary look Birdie's way.
"Robyn, isn't it?" Birdie went blithely on. "Robyn … C … hmm, could it be Can? Robyn Can Moore?"
"I dinna know what ye're blithering about," Moore said. It was coolly done, but her eyes were still so narrow, so probing.
"What's she doing?" Feral hissed.
Dee shrugged. Something heavy and electrical was in the air, and it only got worse when Birdie laughed her rich, throaty laugh.
"Oh, never mind," she said. "I shouldn't be down here on the field anyway. I think I'll go see if Elisa saved me a spot."
It hit a nerve. Moore tensed. As Birdie gave Coach Lennox a hearty smack on the cheek before making for the stairs, Moore made a casual turn – too casual, far too casual – to scan the stands. Dee didn't so much follow her gaze as watch for her reaction. And sure enough, when Moore spotted Elisa sitting between Talon and Amber, her jaw clenched and a troubled shadow darkened her eyes.
"Something going on here that I don't know about?" Feral asked.
"Never you mind," Lennox said. "Take your places, people."
The first race pitted four from each team against each other. The two unaltered humans on the Sterling side looked glum as they lined up. The tall Diamond students towered over them. Dee and Feral got into position as well, and when the nearest competitor looked nervously her way, Dee couldn't help emitting a little snarl.
The gazelle-woman pranced an edgy sidestep, nostrils flaring. But she mustered the guts to meet Dee's gaze. "You think you can outrun me?"
"I think I can run you down," Dee said.
Again, the nostrils flared, and the doe-like deep eyes widened.
"Where's your lead coach?" Lennox inquired. He had a stopwatch in one hand and the regulation starting pistol in the other.
"She's here," Moore said, gesturing toward the doors to the guest locker room. "Ye just go on and start the race."
He frowned at her, but raised the pistol. Dee hunkered down, wings folded flat. If she'd had a tail, it would have been twitching with anticipation. Beside her, the gazelle-woman was likewise poised, muscles trembling with pent-up energy.
The gun went off and the runners launched themselves. Right away, the Diamond mutates leaped ahead, fleet and quick, their hooves striking the track with dull little thuds. Dee lengthened her stride, closing on the one next to her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Feral speeding along. They were pouring it on but their opponents made it look so easy! The two human runners were left behind as if they were mired in mud.
And then the door of the locker room flew open. Something low, streamlined, and a fiery red-orange shot out. Dee's first crazy thoughts were of comets and burning balls of pitch shot from catapults. Heat ripples surrounded the bulleting object. The gazelle-mutates veered to the inside of the track, moving in unison like a wheeling flock of birds, and ran even faster.
The flaming thing swerved to follow the outside of the track. Now Dee could see its shape, four-legged and pantherlike, wreathed in fire. She had an impression of feminine curves and fur, and then the cat-creature blasted by leaving a scorched trail in the grass.
Dee had slowed in amazement, letting the rest get ahead of her. Even Feral, although goggling at this new apparition, was close on the heels of the herd.
Forget it and run! she scolded herself.
Sucking oxygen deep into her lungs, she fixed her sights on the herd and put her powerful legs to work. Around the track they went, the flame-cat-woman-thing pacing them, and the image that lodged in Dee's head was of a greyhound track gone wrong. Instead of chasing the mechanical rabbit, the gazelle-mutates were chased by this blazing feline, and it struck such terror into their hearts that they ran like the very wind.
She caught up with Feral but they still lost. All of the Diamond team members crossed the finish line well in advance of them. Boos and disgruntled cries rang from the stands, and when they reached Coach Lennox, he was livid. Not at them, but at Moore.
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded.
"Ye asked t' meet the lead coach," she said. "There she is. We call her Hellcat."
The creature was coming toward them. Dee could hardly believe her eyes. If this was a mutate, it was like nothing she'd ever seen before. Not with the eyes that glowed like twin pools of lava, and the fur glowing like embers. Not with an envelope of heat-ripples surrounding her, and the grass charring underfoot with each step.
Lennox blasted his whistle. "I declare that race void and invalid. You did not tell me that you meant to introduce such an element."
"And spoil the surprise?" Moore asked.
"My team wasn't ready for this."
"Your team would have lost anyway."
"I demand a re-run."
"The win stands."
"It's not fair," Dee protested. "You sent her out to distract us."
"We sent her out t' make them run," Moore said, jerking her thumb toward the gazelle-mutates. They were clustered far from Hellcat, shifting and fidgeting unhappily.
"This is your idea of coaching?" Lennox asked darkly. "This is your idea of a team? You terrify them into every race?"
"That's cheating," Feral said. He glowered at the Moore woman. "Why not let us run a fair one?"
"Ye're a fine one t' talk of fair," she said. "What's the matter, boy, dinna ye like losing yer advantage?"
"We'll do it over," Lennox said. "Or else, Ms. Moore, you can take your reindeer and go home. I doubt that this sort of interference was what Ms. St. John had in mind when she agreed to this contest. This time, you and your so-called head coach will stand on the sidelines, just as I do."
Moore grudgingly agreed, and took Hellcat with her to the edge of the track as the runners lined up again.
"This time, we'll get them," Feral said to Dee.
"Way ahead of you. Which is where I'm going to be during the race."
"I'll believe that when I see it."
The gun's report cracked again and they were off. As she ran, Dee's mind was suddenly filled with thoughts of the Africa she had never seen. The vastness of the Serengeti, alarmed herds scattering before the swift and deadly attack of the lion, the leopard. Great cats. Hunting cats. If the other mutates were going on raw instinct, then why shouldn't she?
Run for her supper, okay, if that was how they wanted it …
She raced, body bent low to the ground. Her focus was on the lead runner, a male, a buck. She saw Feral angling in toward him as well. They'd do this as a team, take him down –
Dee leapt. At the same moment, so did Feral. They collided with the buck and the three of them rolled off the track and into the grass. She could feel the vitality pulsing through the buck, his rapid heartbeat, frantic. He kicked with his long, strong legs, but his hooves missed them. He bleated.
What were they doing?
"Feral, stop it!" She snapped out of it as she was about to open the buck's six-pack abs with her foreclaws. Feral had him around the neck, ready to snap it.
Whistles were shrieking. The race had become a rout. People were on their feet in the stands, shouting. And something like an earthbound comet was coming at them, leaving trails of fire.
Hellcat hit Dee broadside. There was a sensation of incredible heat, the smell of her fur sizzling, and Dee was torn off the buck. She and Hellcat went head over heels tumbling through the grass. Dee heard herself screaming. She broke away and ran, but Hellcat was after her in a split second.
A gout of fire, like dragon's breath, shot past her with inches to spare. Dee summoned up a charge, executed a leaping spin, and sent a bolt of lightning back at Hellcat. The fire-mutate dodged and launched herself at Dee just as Dee's wings unfurled. Beating them furiously, she got just enough elevation that Hellcat passed beneath her. She was forced into a series of spine-wrenching aerobatics to evade the volley of flame jets.
The last one, she misjudged and took full along the left wing. The pain was huge, tremendous, encompassing everything. Dee plunged to the grassy field and rolled, slapping her wing against the ground. She no longer cared that the track meet had become a battleground. All that mattered was the pain that swallowed her up in a red-hot wave.
She sprawled on the cool grass, holding her wing gingerly away from her body. Its leathery batlike surface was bubbled with blisters, and in some places the membrane looked to have melted and run like tallow. Her wings were usually either forgotten or a nuisance, but now that one was the center of her world. All she could do was sink her claws into the earth and breathe through clenched teeth, waiting for the pain to lessen. It was showing no signs of obliging.
A rising ominous growl brought her back to her senses. Hellcat was closing in on her, tail switching, eyes like volcanoes.
Dee tried to get her limbs to obey her. She had to get up, or she was going to be roasted alive where she lay. She would die on her belly.
A shadow swept over her, and then Talon landed between them with a thump. She saw how grey his pelt was getting, particularly around the nose and ears, but his body was still strong. He spread his wings to shield Dee, and thrust out his hands.
"No!" he roared. "Maggie! No!"
Maggie? In his stress, he was mistaking Dee for her mother …
No, he wasn't.
It was Hellcat he was looking at, Hellcat he was calling by that name. And she stopped. She shrank back, her growl silenced. For a moment they were in tableau, Talon standing and Hellcat crouching, and then Hellcat whirled and fled with a cry that ached with anguish.
"What?" Dee choked. "Why did you …"
"Maggie!" He set off after her, legs pumping, but she outdistanced him. She was not making for the locker room, but the chain link fence that separated the sports compound from the woods beyond.
Dee scrambled up, a spear of ice driving into her heart and making her forget the pain of her burnt wing. Either her father had gone totally insane, or …
But the 'or' was unthinkable.
Hellcat was to the fence. She sent a blossom of fire at it and the links dribbled apart like mercury, leaving a gaping hole.
"Maggie, please!" Talon cried. "Come back!"
She paused there at the hole in the fence, looking back over her shoulder. The flames around her briefly dimmed, and her features were suddenly more visible. Dee's breath snagged in her throat.
It was her mother.
"Mom!"
She hurt herself with the volume of her shout. Her legs felt clumsy and unfamiliar as she stumbled to her father's side.
Talon advanced a step. His hands were still out, open, extended. "Maggie, Maggie, it's me." His voice was shaking, near tears. "It's Derek."
Was it? Dee had so few memories of Maggie. She didn't even have any pictures, since Talon had either hidden or destroyed them all after Devil's Night. So much about Hellcat was different – no wings, her coloring, flame instead of electricity, a tail. But so much was similar, too. The lines of her face, very like Dee's own. Something in her eyes, beyond the molten glow.
But her mother was dead. That's what she had been told all these years, that's what she had always believed. Talon wouldn't have lied. He'd been there. He'd seen it. So how could this be?
"Mom?" she tried again, tentatively.
Hellcat was motionless, halfway through the gap in the fence. She cringed lower as Talon took another step.
"Maggie, it's me. And look, look, it's our daughter. Dee. You remember Dee, don't you? Maggie, please, talk to me."
Elisa and Amber had finally gotten there. Or maybe they'd been there all along. Dee hadn't noticed. Just as she wasn't aware of what was going on with Feral, or the coach, or anyone else.
"Derek, be careful," Elisa said.
"It's Maggie!"
"I know what you're feeling –"
"I know what I know! It's her, Elisa, it is Maggie!"
"Derek, that's impossible. Maggie died a long time ago."
"We never found the body!"
"Because she was … Derek, I'm sorry, but she was … burned. You saw it happen."
"Things were going on that night," he said in desperate distraction. "What if she didn't die? What if she was … changed … somehow?"
Dee ignored them. "Mom? Mom, is it really you?" She reached out.
"Don't," Amber warned.
Ignoring her, too, Dee knelt in the dirt by the fence. Silvery blobs of chain link, melted and now cooling into abstract shapes, speckled the ground around them. Her wing was pounding, throbbing, and every time she moved it would spike high with fresh agony, but that all seemed far away and unimportant.
"Mom?"
A low moan, a mewl, came from Hellcat. Her fire dimmed further. The air cooled a few degrees. Her arm began to come up, as if she meant to reach for Dee's outstretched hand.
There was a small sound – fwhht! and a dart appeared in Hellcat's neck. She jumped up, teeth gnashing, the heat building anew. But she did not get far before whatever was in the dart took effect, and she crumpled.
"Maggie!"
Elisa held Talon back. As they watched, the fire faded entirely and left Hellcat's pelt a burnished red-gold, her half-lidded and glazed eyes no longer glowing but still magma-orange. Two markings ran down her back, angled slightly across her shoulderblades. Where wings might once have grown.
"Don't touch her," Sebastian St. John said. "It isn't safe."
They all turned. He was as dapper and sweatless as ever, in white pleated slacks and blazer with a sky blue shirt. The wire-rims he wore as an affectation were tucked in his pocket, and the laser-sighted rifle held in the crook of his elbow added a surreal touch. A bandolier with more darts, feathered syringes filled with milky fluid, hung over his other arm.

**

The aftermath of the chaos at the track meet was smoothed over, toned down, and basically covered up. The Diamond students and Coach Moore returned promptly to their own school, the alpha buck nursing a sprained neck that Feral had given him before Coach Lennox was able to pull him off.
No one else had been seriously hurt. Dee spent a few days in the infirmary, suffering dressing changes and the application of salve onto her injured wing. Once again, she was envying Amber, because Amber could have simply gone to sleep for a day and woken up healed. Sevarius hadn't been able to duplicate that particular trick.
Once a day, against medical advice but at her own insistence, Dee got out of bed and went downstairs to the seclusion chamber that held her mother. Talon was there too, refusing to leave even to eat or sleep, so Elisa or Amber or Dee herself brought him his meals. His every waking moment was spent in the anteroom to Maggie's cell.
"She was caught in a fire on Devil's Night, yes," Patricia St. John, Sebastian's elder sister and Alexander Xanatos' fiancée, explained to them. "But no ordinary fire. It was Hellfire, which consumed much of her mortal body and caused her to rise up again, rather like a phoenix, in this new form."
"So she is my mother," Dee pressed.
"Yes and no. She underwent a severe shock, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Much of her psyche was burned away in that instant as well. She retained some memories of her family, but I'd imagine that it hurt her too much to think about it. She blocked it, but when you and Talon confronted her, those walls of repression broke down."
Patricia said all of this with her usual cool dispassion. She showed no signs of having gone most of a week without sleep, while she and Alex had pooled their magical knowledge and powers in an attempt to undo what had been done to Maggie.
"Because it was a power of Hell that did it," Alex said, "we needed a power of holiness to help combat it. Luckily, the Grandmaster let us sift through some of his relics. We believe we've entirely cleansed her mind and soul of demonic influences."
"Then why won't she speak?" Talon asked. He looked both exhausted and heartbroken. "Why won't she say anything to me?"
"The shock," Patricia said, as if it should have been self-evident. "She has to come to terms with the fact that she's spent most of the past two decades possessed by a spirit of Hellfire."
"Not only that," Alex added, "but she was essentially a slave for the Coalition. Their operatives, creeping around Manhattan after Devil's Night –"
"When only the Illuminati operatives should have been," Amber interjected.
"—found her, while she was still weak. They were able to do basically what we did. Trank her, cart her away, and subject her to conditioning. Except we're trying to help, while they were trying to make her into a perfect killing machine. Amoral, and deadly."
"Not my mother," Dee said.
"The proper conditioning can persuade anyone to do anything," Patricia said, her tone not quite condescending enough to earn a snarl. "While the Coalition has never been able to match the effectiveness of the Illuminati, they get results in their crude way."
Alex nodded. "We now believe that Hellcat, along with Hunter – a.k.a. Robyn Canmore – have been two of the Coalition's top operatives for nearly twenty years. They'd been most active on the West Coast, which is why we never ran into them before."
"She's been alive all this time," Talon said. "Alive, out there somewhere … oh, Maggie, I'm so sorry. I should have trusted my heart. I never wanted to believe you were dead."
Elisa put a hand on his arm. "None of us wanted to, Derek. But we couldn't have known."
"Will she be all right?" Dee asked. "That's what I want to know. Will she be herself again?"
"She will not be exactly the same as she was," Patricia said. "How could she? It's been a long time, and she will have to learn to live with the memories of what she's done. In time, though, I would expect her to make a significant recovery."
Dee looked through the unbreakable glass into the enclosure. Her mother was there, sedated, and that was probably for the best. She'd heard the story of how Maggie, Claw, and Fang had been kept locked up by Sevarius. Then she would have undergone similar treatment at the hands of the Coalition. This time, the intent was to help her, but Dee wouldn't have blamed Maggie to be completely freaked out by her confinement. Phobias had to start somewhere.
Maggie looked almost like Maggie again. Her wings were still gone, since they had been consumed by the Hellfire, but her coloring was once more the tawny gold so like Dee's pelt, minus the darker rosettes. Her eyes were still an unsettling orange, and she still had the long supple tail.
"But she should be all right," Alex said in answer to Dee's question. "Eventually."
"And she'll be able to come home?" Talon asked. "With her family?"
"Of course she will," Elisa said. "You'll see."

**

The day Dee was released, her wing sore but otherwise in good shape, she found Feral St. John lounging on the infirmary steps. He got up as she emerged, shaking out his long white hair.
"Dee!"
"Feral."
"What? What's that tone of voice for?"
"You didn't exactly shower me with visits."
"Oh. That. Well, I hate hospitals. The smell, the sick people, you know."
"Uh-huh."
"Brought you something, though." He held out a package, not flowers or candy but something wrapped in white paper and butcher's twine.
Dee sniffed. "Steak?"
"Guess again."
"Venison … Feral, you didn't!"
He laughed. "Give me some credit, would you? It's from a real, normal, mutagenic-free New England deer."
She accepted it, still rather dubiously.
"So how's your mom?"
"Okay. All things considered. She isn't talking yet, but she responds when we talk to her. She doesn't like to have Dad out of her sight, but they say that's a good sign. I know he doesn't mind."
"Is your brother coming back from Africa?"
"We had a family meeting about that the other night," Dee said. "Me, Dad, my grandparents. We decided it might be best to wait a while, and give Mom a chance to adjust."
"What about you? Coming back to classes?"
"Yeah."
"And track? I've kind of liked being the star of the team these past couple of weeks."
"Don't get too used to it," she said. "I can't wait to get back out there and run. Being stuck in a hospital bed, ugh, I feel all flabby."
"You look pretty good," he said, giving her a once-over. "Be better once your fur gets its shine back. That's probably the fault of the food."
"I guess I can start eating better right now," she said, hefting the parcel. "Maybe we should grab one of the dorm barbecues and cook this up."
"You don't want to tear into it all raw and dripping?"
"No, thanks." She made a face.
"So, Dee," Feral said.
"Yeah?"
"Got a date for the Winter Ball yet?"
Caught off-guard, she stood for a second with her mouth open. "Uh … no, not yet."
"You do now."
"Okay."
Feral grinned. "Hungry? Let's go cook up that meat."
"Here, you carry it." She tossed him the package, all ten pounds or so of it.
"Me, why me?"
"Race you!" Dee cried, and took off.
She heard him whuff and utter a curse, and then he was running after her. They raced across the campus, tossing the parcel back and forth like a football, while other students scrambled to get out of their way.

**

The End



2002 Christine Morgan ** vecna@eskimo.com ** http://www.sabledrake.com