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
"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'
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
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
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
"What do you think is wrong with
Orpheus?" Amber asked.
"I didn't say anything was," Dee
"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
"I didn't mean it like that. Maybe
he thinks you'd rather have a boyfriend with wings."
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
"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
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:
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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."
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
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
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
"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.
"Not a cheetah, you're not. No
marathons for you. Sprinter city, sex kitten."
"Hope you like the taste of dust,
"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
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."
"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, yeah." There followed
a long and distinctly uncomfortable pause. "It's been a while."
"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.
"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
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! 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,
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
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
"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."
"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
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
"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
"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
"Like you'd know."
"Like I would. Diamond Academy
approached me first."
Dee stopped short and stared at
"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
She didn't let it get to her.
What mattered now was Feral, finally a rival worthy of the name, and the
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
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
"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
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
"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."
"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."
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
"Yeah, you do, because I just
"You're a pain in the tail, you
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
"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.
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
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
"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.
"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,
"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,
"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,"
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
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
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?"
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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.
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.
She hurt herself with the volume
of her shout. Her legs felt clumsy and unfamiliar as she stumbled to her
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
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
"Derek, be careful," Elisa said.
"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.
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.
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
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
"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,"
"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
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
"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
"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
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.
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
"What? What's that tone of voice
"You didn't exactly shower me
"Oh. That. Well, I hate hospitals.
The smell, the sick people, you know."
"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?"
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"Got a date for the Winter Ball
Caught off-guard, she stood for
a second with her mouth open. "Uh … no, not yet."
"You do now."
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
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.