The Sooner Nation




The Sooner Nation
Book I

Part I

Sooner Spirit stood alone, ready for battle, ready to throw herself into a combat she knew she couldn’t win. The light was red and dim, the air redolent with the oily scent of pitch from the braziers and torches. Her body ached with exhaustion and bruises that would likely never have the time to form. Her red leather costume was stained with blood and marred with deep scuffs. Her cape, once a proud red and flashing white, hung dirty and tattered around her. Her hood had fallen back from her face, revealing her mussed braid of long, reddish-gold hair. She held her tall, slender frame straight and strong, though she felt the despair of defeat working its way through her soul.

Sooner already knew she couldn’t defeat the demon. The magic of the prophecy that had shaped her life and doomed her sisters prevented it, but she couldn’t just turn her back and flee either. Not after everything that had happened. The logical thing would be to attempt escape, but they were past logic. Caryn was missing, Cerise was dead, and their mother lay dying in a Paragon City hospital. Her life would over at the whim of The Beast.

The demon - The Beast - Ciara Banenighe stood on the dais above her, mockingly confident as she stared down at her opponent. Leathery wings flared above her, her horns catching the firelight. The flickering flames danced over the demon's red skin and lushly feminine body, displayed to female perfection in a few strategically placed straps. Her barbed tail flicked lazily about her ankles like that of a satisfied cat watching the mouse it knows it will eat... in good time. The demon's face was darkly beautiful as she smiled, her full lips parting to reveal deadly sharp fangs.

The shadows surrounded Sooner as she crouched, ready to charge her enemy, and wondering how it had come to this....

Eighteen years ago
A perfect ball of purest crystal sat on a carved ebony stand. Its smooth surface reflected the warm light from the hundreds of candles set about the room, but a different image danced and flickered in its depths. A woman, hugely pregnant, sat on a bright red pillow on a carpeted floor with two little girls. All three had hair just a little too red to be blonde. The woman was beautiful - though her face was lined by grief - and the girls appeared to be taking after her. The eldest of the children was about five, and her sister was a wobbly but sturdy two.

An enormous clawed finger gently tapped the crystal, right over the woman’s round belly. “If the babe is a daughter, she’ll be the third.” a sultry feminine voice said. The speaker stepped closer to the crystal orb and cupped it in red-skinned hands. Those who had opposed her over the centuries had given her the name Ciara Banenighe [pronounced Key-ah-rah Bay-nee], and she had taken it as her own.

A pair of winged imps moved closer, but did not dare to touch the crystal. Ciara spoke again. “And once the three come into their power and come to me, the pact will be broken. I will take the woman's daughters, and once I am free I will finish her and her entire line.”

Abruptly the pregnant woman looked up, glaring directly at the demon. Her entire attitude changed from tender, nurturing mother to fierce warrior. She reached out and pulled her daughters close to her body, then lifted her right hand. Her power glowed - white, pure energy, and gathered around her raised hand like a fiery nimbus. She gestured, and the power flared. It flew straight toward Ciara, and then the crystal shattered.

A few years ago
The Orange Bowl

Cydney Nation dropped onto the bench on the sidelines, staring in disbelief at the scoreboard. 55-19. The numbers made no sense. 55-19. Outkast sang “Hey Yeah!,” blaring over the stadium’s speakers as the young men in cardinal and gold danced joyfully in the endzone. Meanwhile, the young men in crimson and cream trudged off the field. 55-19. She shook her head, and stood. With a heavy sigh, she tucked her long reddish-gold hair back under her cap, and started gathering up water bottles, tape and ice packs, before following her team off the field.

Norman, Oklahoma
Bizzell Memorial Library

Cydney plowed through her pile of books. She had spent the last two weeks pouring over her sport science textbooks, then branched out into more detailed reading in physics, physiology, and now into the realm of holistics. Her head hurt, her eyes burned, and her butt was going numb from sitting in the chair for too long. She spent a minute fantasizing about the run she was going to take later on, and then got back to her task. She had no illusions that she knew more than Coach about anything... but there had to be something....

It was getting late, and there were fewer and fewer people in the library. Cyd glanced around, and bent over to her book bag. She pulled out a bottle of water and a baggie of chopped veggies, when she heard a faint noise. She sat up quickly, but she didn’t see anything. She peered around, decided she was hearing things and carefully hid her snack on the table. After a couple of surreptitious sips and a pair of baby carrots, she reached for the next book on the stack.

She frowned at the slim book with the odd symbol on the cover, bound in midnight blue. The title was done in a text so ornate it was difficult to read, but she finally made out “Magickal Strength.” She didn’t remember picking the book off the shelves

“Magic...” she muttered under her breath and shook her head. She nearly put the book aside, but curiosity won out, and she opened the cover. What she found there, if true, was like the answer to her prayers. The woodcut drawings showed warriors chanting in a circle around a fire, then empowered by the magical energy they’d summoned, finding new depths of strength, speed, endurance. In the back of her mind, she searched for a rational explanation: self-hypnosis, perhaps something in the herbs tossed on the fire, or just the power of positive thought.

Sitting there, she plowed through the book until the library was closing and harried work study students were chasing the last of the students out. Cyd took the slim book to the counter, where a young man with bangs covering half his face and a large ring in his nose peered at her from behind his stringy dark hair. “This isn’t ours.” he huffed at her.

“I got it from the shelves,” she answered.

“Its not in the system,” he answered, in tones making it clear it was entirely her fault.

“Oh,” she answered, discouraged. “I guess it should go in the lost and found, then.” She pushed the book towards him, already anticipating a search online for the book.

There was a pause, then he spoke suddenly, “You might as well take it,” he said, “It’s not ours. I don’t care. You can bring it back to the lost and found when you’re done, if you like.”

She turned back to him. There was an odd glazed look in his eyes, but he pushed the book back towards her. She hesitated, but finally grabbed the book, stuffed it in her bag and walked out, wincing as she stepped through the security scanners, expecting them to beep at the book in her bag.


After a bike ride home, a quick greeting to her sister and roommate Caryn, an excellent jog, and a long hot shower, Cyd ducked into her room and sat down with the book. She flipped to the first exercise, and read how to tap into the magical energy that surrounded the world. She sat lotus-style, since it seemed appropriate, and closed her eyes. She followed the instructions in the book, imagining the magic flowing around her, until she could actually see it. It was beautiful... shining white streamers, angry red, peaceful blue, soothing green, purple, orange, yellow, and dark, ominous midnight black. She reached out and touched it and felt her whole body suffuse with warmth and power. She opened her eyes to see her hands glowing with brilliant white energy. It felt wonderful. She felt powerful and refreshed. She could run a marathon and still go out dancing with this much energy.

She smiled, thrilled at the power that flowed through her, until the phone rang, disrupting her revery, and the light vanished.

“Cyd!” Caryn bellowed. “Mom wants to talk to you! She sounds pissed!”

Cyd stared at her hands for a long moment, the pure beauty of the bright white power that had glowed off her hands still emblazoned on her mind.

“Cyd! It’s MOM!”

“Ok, ok! I got it, Caryn, I got it!” Cyd reached for the wireless phone on her bedside table, and clicked it on. “Hi Mom! What’s up?”

“Cyd! What are you doing?!”

Cydney pulled the phone away from her ear and frowned in confusion. The hissing, anxious voice on the phone sounded nothing like her mother. “Mom?”

“Are you ok?”

“Ya... I’m fine. What’s wrong?”

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. And then her mother’s familiar voice, sounding much more like herself, spoke again. “I just... had a... fright.”

“Caryn and I are fine, Mom.”

Another long pause. “What are you doing tonight, Cyd?”

Cyd felt a knot starting to form in her belly at the strangeness of this conversation, but not a one of the Nation girls would ever consider for a moment lying to their mother. “I was at the library, and I found a book about training.” She hesitated, “with magic.”

Cyd could hear her mother breathing. “And you read it?”


“And you tried it?”

Cyd blinked. “Yes....”

Her mother sighed. “Ah, Cyd...”

“What’s wrong, Mom?”

“We need to talk, sweetheart.”


“I’ll drive down this weekend. Stay safe till then.”

“Ok... what’s wrong?”

“And DON’T let Caryn see that book.” Cyd didn’t answer right away, just a little too confused by the conversation. “Cydney! Don’t let Caryn see that book.”

“I won’t, Mom.”

“And you put it away, and don’t touch it again.”

“I will, Mom.”

“I’ll see you this weekend.”


“I love you, Cydney.”

“I love you, too.”

Cyd hung up the phone and stared bemusedly at the book. She wrapped her hand in a crimson hoodie hanging off the bedpost and used it like a glove to pick up the book and toss in a drawer in her nightstand. She closed the drawer just as Caryn opened the door, and looked up with a guilty expression.

“Mom didn’t want to talk to me?”

“She said she would come visit this weekend.”

“Cyd? What’s wrong?”

“She seemed weird.”


“I have her, now.” Ciara purred, showing pointed teeth in a satisfied grin.

The pair of imps squirmed nervously. “But the mother is coming to warn the girl.”

“It does not matter, I will simply move more quickly, then.”



Part II

Norman, Oklahoma
South Oval, University of Oklahoma Campus

Cydney peddled quickly through the throng of students scrambling to get to class. Her breath puffed out ahead of her as she huddled down into her sweatshirt. The weather had done another of those abrupt changes. It had been a gorgeous sunny 64 degrees the day before, but on that day the temperature was still in the low 40s and the sky was overcast with dark clouds. Cyd wasn’t dressed for the weather, was dreading the trip home, and debating whether she should risk leaving the bike locked up and taking the CART home.

She braked in front of the steps leading up the heavy wooden doors in the brick archway of the Zoology building. Her eye was caught by movement out in the middle of the Oval. A man, dressed in dark, loose fitting clothing was performing what appeared to be some sort of kata. She absently locked her bike and watched him. She could still faintly see the tracers of magic flowing through the world, and she was intrigued to see that he was surrounded by a magical glow that grew stronger as he moved. As the glow became more intense, his movements became faster and stronger, and she noticed that he was actually breathing more slowly, in complete contradiction to his increased effort.

Cyd adjusted her bookbag over her shoulder and started across the street, jumping back quickly to avoid a rumbling CART, and then jogging to the middle of the oval. Several students were standing around watching the man, but it was cold enough that most of them moved on quickly. Cyd stayed, studying the way the magic flowed through him, into him, and back out. He went on, increasing the intensity until his movements were a blur.

He slowed and then stopped. He executed a bow to his small audience, and Cyd narrowed her eyes thoughtfully as she observed him breathing as normally as if he’d just strolled across the oval. He was neither sweating nor flushed. He turned towards her as if she’d called him, and walked closer. He was a fit middle-aged man, with salt and pepper hair cut short, his skin tone and angled cheek bones spoke of Native American ancestry.

He reached out for her shoulder and said, “You have questions.”

She frowned and pulled back before he touched her. His lips quirked in a smile, and he pulled his hand back. “Ya,” she said, “I have questions.”

“I can see the power swirling around you,” he said. “You need my help, and soon. If you don’t control it, it will control you.” He smiled again. “I am Akando. Let me help you.”

Cydney stepped back from him. Her mother’s face appeared suddenly in her mind. A chill went up her spine and she took another step back. “No. I don’t think so,” she answered. She turned and strode back across the Oval, took the steps up to the Zoology building at a run, and darted through the heavy wooden doors.

When she exited the building, there was no sign of the man who called himself Akando. She shook off the uncomfortable feeling he’d given her, and braved the weather for her bike ride home.


Ciara let a frustrated growl escape her full lips. She rose languidly to her feet and stalked closer to the crystal. Her apparent calm fooled her imps, and one of them let her get too close. She grabbed it up by the scruff and flung it into the stone wall with a crunch. She rushed after the unfortunate creature, kicking and biting until it went still and limp. With a final aggrieved stomp she turned, her wings flaring over her back, her tail lashing the air. “I must press the issue,” she said. “Quickly.”


South Oval
University of Oklahoma Campus

The weather had turned dark, cold, and rainy, and Cydney rode the CART in for her evening visit to the library. An ominous quiet had settled over the normally bright and bustling campus. Cyd hunkered down into her windbreaker and pulled up her hood as she stepped off the bus. The lights of Bizzell Library even seemed more dim in the gloom.

She settled her bookbag across her hip, and started a long-legged jog across the damp Oval toward the main library entrance.

The only warning she had was a screech like an angry cat. She skidded to a halt, glancing around for what had to be a mortally wounded animal, when something small, winged, red, and definitely NOT a cat skittered across the path and vanished into the shadows. She let out a small screech of her own, and then suddenly there was another. She couldn’t see them clearly, but they didn’t look like anything she could identify. They were just a little taller than her knees, and what she could see of them was horrifying. They made shrill chittering noises as one after another they darted towards her. She danced back, still not really sure what she was seeing, then one of them got close enough for her to lash out a kick at it.

It responded too quickly for her even to see as it bounded up and then latched onto her leg. Tiny, needle sharp teeth sank into the muscle of her calf. She let out a startled cry and tried to step back, but the thing was much heavier than it looked, and she fell onto the cold, damp earth behind her.

Just like that, the other one pounced at her face. She barely managed to cross her arms in front of her face in time, and then she let out a genuine scream at her first real look at one of them. It could only be called a demon, with fiery red eyes, tiny horns, and a viciously fanged grin as it tried again and again to reach her face with its clawed hands.

The magic she could still see in the world suddenly swirled towards her. Her body began to glow with power, but she didn’t know what to do with it. The thing on her leg just kept chewing, and she could feel blood starting to roll down her leg while angry, fiery pain shot straight to her spine with each chomp. Against her chilled skin, the blood felt red hot. The one reaching for her face sank its teeth into her arm instead and shook its head like a dog trying to pull meat off a bone.

The power abruptly exploded out of her, and the two miniature demons flew back. She scrambled to her feet, nauseous from the pain, and wondering if they had toxins in their bite. She glanced around, but the library was the closest, and she sprinted toward the beckoning lights.

She splashed face first into a puddle when one of them landed on her back. It chittered some sort of evil laugh and then bit into her shoulder. When she tried to scream, the other one landed on her head and forced her face into the cold, muddy water.

Panic set in and she shoved her way up to her hands and knees to let out a frantic scream for help. The combined weight and strength of the two of them began forcing her head back down, and she flopped over onto her back to avoid being the first person to drown on the South Oval. She pinned the one on her back, but the other one hopped free. It turned and prepared to leap for her face. Just as it cleared the ground, a beam of pure shadow struck it. It seemed to freeze in midair, then vanished.

“Get away from her!” a man’s voice growled, and Cyd looked up to see Akando standing there. His loose-fitting attire was obscured in shadows as he crouched with his hands up.

The tiny demon scrambled out from under Cydney and hissed furiously at Akando. The man stepped closer to where Cyd still lay and, with a gesture, did something to the demon. The pain vanished from Cyd’s leg, arm, and shoulder, and she scrambled up and away. It was still so dark, and so cold, she couldn’t see well, but she stared wide-eyed as some sort of greasy black tentacles reached up to grab the last tiny demon, and it too vanished.


Cyd found herself in an bare gym on campus corner, with Akando watching her. She was dressed in a blessedly warm and dry yoga outfit. She sat cross-legged on the mat and closed her eyes. The magic swirled around her as if welcoming her.

“Reach for it,” Akando said. “Reach over it and take it.”

She mentally reached out and embraced the power. It flowed into her, and she opened her eyes to see her hands again glowing with pure white energy. She smiled happily and held her hands up for him to see.

“Excellent!” he answered. “But you can do more. The white is the weakest of the energies. Reach deeper. Reach further. Grab the darkest color you can find.”

She frowned and struggled. It had been so much easier to just let the power come to her, but trying to reach for the darker colors was more difficult, and the energy of the pure, white power faded slowly as she struggled.

“That’s it...” Akando encouraged her. “Reach down.. Reach down for it. Use that energy.. Use your frustration... use that energy...”

Cyd was an intelligent woman, and a natural athlete. She had been tall and strong her whole life, and excelled in both scholastics and athletics. She was unaccustomed to failing. She was becoming frustrated, and she did ride the energy of that frustration. And slowly, the darkest tendrils of energy turned towards her and began to flow into her. Once again, she was filled with energy. She opened her eyes to see her entire body surrounded by black shadows. Her hands were covered with them. She lifted her eyes, and the dark grin on Akando’s face unsettled her.

“Excellent.” he said. “You succeeded.” He settled back into a fighting stance, his weight balanced on his toes, his hands up, his dark eyes on her. “Now.. Try to strike me with it.”


Deep within the close confines of her tiny prison, Ciara waited anxiously. She eyed a trio of glowing red cabochon spheres as one of them began to pulse. The light within flared suddenly. Deep within she saw a tiny flaw appear - a tiny crack. She placed on hand on the magical barrier that defined the boundaries of her prison and smiled hugely as the surface gave under the pressure of her hand.

“Excellent...” she purred.



Part III
Ciara pressed her clawed hands around the crystal and peered at the eldest sister. Her red-skinned face glowed with satisfaction. She was pleased with the progress the girl was making, but it was time to ensure that her magical path would continue. She must draw more magical energies if Ciara was ever going to be free. Akando moved too slowly, he did not press her enough. No daughter ó Floinn would respond well to coddling. She needed to be pushed, and Ciara intended to give her a solid shove.

Ciara whirled, pointing rapidly to a trio of her imps. “You! You and you! Go, now! She will find you shortly. Be ready.”

Campus Corner
Another dark night, and Cydney Nation was back in Akando’s gym tucked away on an alley of Norman’s Campus Corner. Cyd had said nothing to correct Caryn's belief that she was studying at the library. She was coming to believe that magic was the answer she was seeking. When she drew the darkest of the magical energies into her body, she was instantly tougher, stronger, faster. She was already trying to decide how best to present her discovery to Coach. He wouldn’t believe her at first, but if she could get him to listen long enough to see what she could do... maybe he’d consider it.

Akando danced around her, the dark magics coiling off his body as they spared. She knew he was holding back with her, but that was ok. She was learning more by the day, and she was confident that soon she would be able to match him. She struck at him, her fists moving so quickly they vanished in the cloud of darkness that surrounded her. To her surprise, she managed to sneak a fist past his guard, where it landed solidly. She danced back quickly with her hands up. “Did I hurt you?” she asked anxiously.

He coughed and straightened. “I’m pleased with your success, Cydney.” he answered. “A few bruised ribs are a small price to pay to see a student succeed.”

She smiled at the praise, and bowed slightly. “I have a good teacher,” she said.

He rubbed at his ribs, and his smile quirked. “That’s enough for tonight, though, I think. I’ll walk you to the CART stop.”

“Oh, no.. I’m going to just catch it at the South Oval so I don’t have to transfer. That’s too far.”

“Not at all. I want to be close in case the demons return.”

She blanched, and didn’t protest again. The demons had frightened her badly, and with his reminder of what had happened earlier, she welcomed the company.

As they walked out into the muggy night, Cyd shrugged into a warm hooded sweatshirt. It was the official sideline wear from last year, and its heavy fleece was perfect for the chill night. The temperature wasn’t as frigid as a few days ago, but she knew she’d be grateful for its warmth.

“Can we plan a long session tomorrow being Saturday?” Akando asked.

“I don’t think so. I don’t know if I’ll be available at all tomorrow. My mother is coming to talk to me, and I don’t know how long she’ll be here.”

“Your mother?” Akando frowned. “I hate to see you miss an entire day this early in your training.”

Cyd smiled. “If I’m free in the evening, perhaps?”

They passed through the brick archway of the North Oval and continued south. They passed Evan’s hall and then entered the lights of Bizzell Library. The chill was just starting to work its way through Cydney’s hoodie, and she glanced at her watch. Her CART should be along very soon.

Just at the edge of the lights, in the narrow strip where the shadows began to take over from the light, Cydney saw a skittering red body. Fear jolted through her like a shot of lightening. She let out an embarrassing shrill shriek and stumbled back. Akando turned toward her with a question on his face, but before he could begin to ask it, two of the tiny demons hit him, one at the knees, one at the shoulders. He tumbled down, she thought she heard the distinctive “thunk” of a skull hitting cement, and then they turned to her.

She was breathing so fast, her heart was pounding, she was nearly paralyzed with fear, and her skin tingled with her agitation. Then a calm came over her and she called the magic. It eased into her like a cooling balm, and she settled herself into a ready crouch while letting her book bag slide to ground. As the first creature leapt at her, she gathered the dark magic around her and slammed her fist into it. Its body felt fragile and weak as it folded over her fist, dropped to the ground, and vanished. She felt a surge of triumph and her confidence soared. The second demon paused and looked faintly uncertain as she advanced on it. It backed up one step, and another, then let out a frightened squeal as she landed a rapid series of blows on its tiny body. It managed to get one claw on her arm, rending the heavy fabric of the hoodie and scoring her forearm with a deep scratch. She hissed in pain, but before she could respond, it vanished as well.

Cyd ran anxiously to Akando. She was relieved to find him breathing steadily, and stirring. She was elated with her victory and filled with concern for her mentor, and didn’t think to look for another of the tiny monsters. The last of the trio hit her high on her shoulders and nearly took her to the ground. Its tiny teeth ripped through her clothing and its claws were scrambling at her neck. She reached for it, but couldn’t get her hands on it. Instead, she crossed her arms across her body, grabbed the hem of the sweatshirt, and yanked it off, pulling the demon with it. She then proceeded to smash the bundle into the ground until it stopped moving and chittering. It was still for a long moment, and then the shape inside the hoodie vanished.

Once again, Cyd stood, cold and bleeding in the darkness of the South Oval. She took several deep, shaking breaths, and then let out a triumphant warcry. Akando pushed himself to his feet and stood shaking. “Well done, Cydney,” he said, clapping her on the shoulder. “Very well done.” She nodded, shivering with reaction in the cold. He continued, “Let’s go back to the gym, and let me treat your injuries.”

“I want to go home,” she said as a rumbling CART pulled up in a hiss of air breaks and a rumble of a diesel engine.

“You’ll frighten your fellow passengers with the blood...” Akando pointed out.

“**** ‘em,” she answered with surprising heat. “I want to go home.” She glanced over at Akando one last time. “You’re ok?”

“I’m fine,” he answered.

“Then maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,” she answered, picked up her bag, and jogged on shaky legs to the CART. As her bus rumbled off into the darkness, Akando picked up the discarded hoodie. A red skinned imp appeared out of the darkness at his side. Akando glanced down and handed the creature the bloodied garment.“Our mistress may want this,” he said.


Cyd carefully hid her injuries from Caryn as she entered their apartment. Claiming exhaustion, she headed straight to the shower. When her wounds were as clean as possible, she retired to her room where she dressed in her warmest sweats and called the magic again. She welcomed the power, and waited patiently as the deep scratch on her arm slowly closed. She frowned at the oily dark power coiling off her skin. She had loved the clean white power she had first called. Maybe it was the ancient concept that light equaled good and dark equaled bad, but she felt somehow wrong to be surrounded by shadows when, at first, she’d been glowing with bright light. She tried to call the lighter colored magic, but, when she descended into her trance, she couldn’t even see the brilliant white colors. When she reached for the paler colors, blue, yellow, green... it was as if they fled from her. She couldn’t call them any more. The harder she tried, the more the dark magic came to her, the less she could even see of the brighter magic.

Glowing with darkness, she put her head in her hands and wished hard that she’d never seen that book.

Campus Corner
Norman, OK

Cydney opened the glass door into Victoria’s Pasta shop and stepped inside. The interior of the small restaurant was dark and fragrant with garlic, onion, cheese, basil. A large party of students in the side room laughed and talked loudly. Her mother loved the local restaurant, and they ate there most of the times she visited. She glanced at the daily specials board to note that the mushroom caps that day were crab and feta. She trotted up the narrow steps to the elevated section near the back and waited. She settled herself into a corner table and watched the front door.

A young woman putting considerable effort into passing as a homeless person approached and offered menus. Cyd waved them aside and ordered, “Two waters with lemon, two house salads, add shrimp to one, chicken to the other, an order of the caps, go easy on the sauce, and we’ll split an order of lasagne rolls.” The waitress wandered away to return moments later with the glasses of water, and then left Cyd alone to wait for her mother.

Mom was punctual, as usual, arriving at 12:30 on the dot. She pushed her dark sunglasses up onto her forehead, holding her jaw-length strawberry blonde hair back from her face. The family resemblance was strong in the Nation girls, and since their mother appeared quite young for her age, she was often mistaken for an older sister instead of their mother. She was tall and slender, like all her daughters, wearing dark jeans, black boots, a dark patterned sweater, and a bright red peacoat over it all. She waved when she spotted Cyd and trotted up the stairs. Their hug was warm before they settled into their seats.

“I ordered the usual for us,” Cyd told her.

“Shrimp on the salad?” Mom asked.

“Of course,” Cyd smiled.

“Then it’s perfect.” Mom peered at her oldest daughter, and Cydney could see the worry deep in her eyes, even though she hid it well. “You look tired, Cyd.”

Cyd shrugged. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

Mom nodded, “You kept using ... the magic, didn’t you?”

Cyd’s mouth dropped open. “I didn’t touch the book...” her face fell. “But I did keep using it. I didn’t realize.” Crushed at disappointing her mother, she looked down at her lap.

Mom reached out and laid a hand on Cyd’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t have tried to keep you three in the dark. After everything that happened.... after your father died...” her hand went to her neck, in a gesture of long habit and she grabbed the wedding ring she had worn on a chain over her heart for the last 18 years.

Their waitress returned, placing salads, baked mushroom caps, the luscious lasagne rolls, garlic bread, and two empty plates on the table. Cyd silently dished out a pair of caps to her mother, and one of the lasagne rolls, her mouth watering at the thought of the indulgent rich shrimp, cheese and spinach filled roll. When the waitress left, mom looked up, her face filled with some dark emotion. She delicately sliced one of the caps in half as Cyd filled her own place.

“I think,” mom began hesitantly, “even though I knew better by the time Cerise was born, I think I was hoping it wasn’t true. That it was just a charming family story, not a cautionary tale.”

Cyd savored the rich flavor of a mushroom cap as she tried to understand what her mother was saying. “What’s going on, Mom?” she asked when her mother fell silent.

Mom laughed, though there was no joy in it. “I always thought your grandmother was deliberately flaunting family tradition, with me and then six sons. I think she was trying to have three daughters, but just couldn’t.” Mom pushed her food around her plate, she had yet to taste it. “You know what’s going on, Cyd.. You know the story.”

“Mom, I don’t know... what are you talking about?”

“The Irish clan, the beast, and the three sisters.”

“But... Mom...” Cyd went pale, as in her heart she suddenly knew the old story was true. “That’s.. that’s just a bedtime story.”

“No, Cyd. It’s not. It’s the truth. It’s a warning to all the women of our family to never let themselves have a third daughter, or else the beast would be released.” Cyd stared in shock at her mother. “I wouldn’t change a thing. Cerise was the very last gift your father ever gave me. But, I should have taught you myself. Not left you to find it on your own. I’ll have to tell Caryn and Cerise... but not just now. It’ll be hard enough doing this today.”

They talked for hours. The food grew cold, and was eventually taken away. Cyd was filled with horrified certainty and dread the more she listened to her mother explain.

Cyd rode back to the apartment and Caryn bounced out to take Cyd’s place in the passenger seat of the little red miata convertible. Caryn with her mother, absently waved goodbye to Cyd, and pulled the door closed.


Cydney had a plan. Like Jonah, she hoped to run away from her fate. She packed quickly and efficiently, taking everything she needed in a duffel bag emblazoned with the OU logo, and a rolling suitcase. Before she left, she deposited her OU student ID, her keys for work, her sideline badge, and several books that needed to be returned to the library on the dining table in the hall. She wrote a quick note saying goodbye to her sister and asking her to please return the books.

She exited the apartment without glancing back. Just a few minutes after she left, a small red imp materialized in Cydney’s abandoned bedroom. It glanced around curiously, then skittered to the bedtable. It pulled open the drawer and removed the slim blue book with the ornate title “Magickal Strength.” With a high-pitched giggle, it bounded down the hallway and placed the book on the dining table. It waved its tiny red hand over the note and Cyd’s jagged handwriting flowed across the bottom of the note, “...and, should read this. It’s really interesting. It might help you with your running and your field events.”



Part IV

Jenks, Oklahoma
Cerise Nation sat at the kitchen table, books and papers spread out all around, and tried to work on a research paper about Mendelian genetics. The room was filled with the odor of stew in the crockpot and some sort of dough rising in the bread maker, but that wasn’t what had her distracted. Cyd had been missing for 3 weeks, and no one had heard anything. The Nation family was close, and Cerise and Caryn were deeply worried. Oddly, their mother seemed unruffled. Cerise wondered what mom knew that she hadn’t shared with her daughters.

Cerise stared off into the living room, lost in thought. The father she’d never met had left them comfortable in their split-level home, even if the nice house was strictly middle class by Jenks standards. The living room was a series of shrines - glass cases documenting successes and awards. Cydney’s was crammed full of trophies and medals. Cyd had dabbled in basketball, track, and softball before finding a home in soccer. She’d never been on a losing team. The case held picture after picture of championship teams celebrating victory, always with Cyd’s tall frame and long red braid somewhere in the middle. Crowning the top shelf were the twin photos of Cyd graduating from Jenks High and from the University of Oklahoma, decked out in the cords that commemorated her academic success. Her disappearance had put a hold on her rapid progress towards her master’s degree photo. Next to Cyd’s was Caryn’s shrine. Unlike Cyd, Caryn had found her true love in track and field events and never strayed from it. The tall, slender, leggy build of all three girls had helped Caryn to more ribbons and trophies than could be counted. Caryn’s graduation photo had just as many cords and held the place of honor in that case as well. Their mother had her own trophy case. Her sport had been softball. A worn, soft catcher’s mitt still snugly clutching a ball sat inside along with her own plethora of ribbons and trophies.

And then there was Cerise. Her case stood between mom’s and Caryn’s. Cerise loved her mother. She loved her sisters. But she didn’t want to be them. The reaction of all three when she tried out for cheerleading still made her laugh. Her mother proudly, if somewhat bemusedly, placed Cerise’s awards for winning cheerleading competitions in prominent positions in the trophy case. Cerise’s photos of a clean pretty girl wearing short skirts, make-up, and ribbons in her hair were in stark contrast to the sweaty, dusty, make-up free pictures of her sisters in action. She knew her family didn’t quite know what to make of the girly-girl in their midst, but she was ok with that. She needed to be her own person, and being a clone of her older sisters wasn’t going to accomplish that.

Cerise deliberately looked down and away before her gaze fell on her father’s trophy case. Daniel Nation had died before she was born. She’d never known him, and it gave her a funny feeling in her gut when she thought about him. Like she was supposed to love him, but how can you love someone you never knew? She’d studied it enough over the years though. The loaded shelves held championships rings from his high school days as a multi-talented athlete, more trophies and ribbons, then his career as a running back for the University of Oklahoma. The thought prompted her to look up at the photo of the young man in shining crimson and cream, wearing the red jersey over the snug white pants, in a close approximation of a Heisman trophy pose. She jerked her head back down to her books. Another championship ring adorned that shelf. The next shelf held pictures of him as handsome marine in his uniform, smiling his handsome smile. Daniel Nation had been too attractive to even be real, with his chiseled jaw, bright blue eyes, wide mouth that always seemed to be smiling, and golden blond hair. The top shelf of his shrine held a triangular wooden box with a glass front. Inside was an American flag, folded into a tight triangle. Laid out in front of the flag were the medals and ribbons he’d won after he was done with sports. Cerise had heard the story of each one, including the ones awarded after his death. She glanced back up, as always, when she looked at her father’s memorial, she was filled with both resentment and grief. Cydney remembered him and Caryn claimed she did, but he had never been anything more than those pictures and trophies to Cerise.

She was saved from her spiraling bad mood by the ring of the phone. A quick glance at caller ID revealed that it was Caryn. She snatched up the phone quickly, “Hi Car,” she answered.

“Any word?” Caryn asked, as she had every night since Cyd vanished.

Cerise rolled her eyes but answered pleasantly, “No... we haven’t heard anything.”

Caryn was silent for a long moment, then suddenly asked, “Whatcha up to tonight, sis?”

“Homework!” Cerise sighed, expressing her extreme suffering. “I have to write a paper about Mendelian genetics and I don’t know what to do!”

“About anything in particular?”

“Just some aspect of genetics and how they’re expressed.” Cerise answered.

“Write about McCalli.”

“Huh?” Cerise glanced over to the back of the couch, where the tiny calico was curled into a tight ball. “The cat?”

“Sure! All calicos are female. Why is that?”

“Genetics?” Cerise guessed.

“Look it up, sis. It’s pretty cool.”

“I guess that could work,” Cerise answered skeptically.

“Is mom around?” Caryn asked.

“She’s out shoppin’ and stuff, I guess.”

“Ok, tell her I called. Love you, sis!”

“Love you, too, Car.”

Cerise hung up the phone and picked up the cat, who, in true calico style, protested vocally, hissed, and jumped down. After huffing and flicking her tail, she climbed back up into her favored spot, bestowed one last glare on Cerise, and curled up. With a shrug, Cerise settled back down at the table and dived into her research paper.

Norman, Ok
Caryn was feeling the pressure of the end of a very full semester. Her dining table was full of textbooks ranging from Ancient Egyptian Art to Physical Chemistry. The far corner of the table still held the small stack of items Cydney had left behind, including her keys and that slim blue book, stacked up and left untouched like a shrine. Caryn rubbed her aching eyes, thought longingly of a nice run, a challenging kata, or just a long hot bath, and finally shut the chemistry book with disgust. She turned and hit the remote control to turn on the television.

The colorful image flared to life, showing what appeared to be a disaster area. Text scrolled across the screen identifying it as the former Eastgate bay area of Paragon City, now known as The Hollows. A trio of heroes stood behind the handsome reporter. Caryn watched as the reporter turned to the first of the heroes, a bizarre shadowy figure with a quiet, whispery voice identified by the screen as “Broken Shadow”. After exchanging a few questions, he turned to a strikingly handsome man identified by just the name Ahren. He spoke briefly, then the reporter turned to a tall woman wearing red leather and a hood, her eyes hidden by a stripe of red across her face. Caryn frowned, and then jumped up with an angry protest when the woman spoke with her sister’s voice. When the text identified the woman as “Sooner Spirit,” Caryn put a furious fist through the drywall of the kitchen.

She stalked through the house and began tossing everything of Cydney’s into garbage bags. She was too angry even to call mom. Her sister just LEFT! Didn’t say a word to anyone. They had all been SO worried, and she’s been playing HERO in Paragon CITY! Clothes, bedding, photos, shoes, CDs, all got tossed into bags. After an hour of furiously removing every trace of her sister, Caryn stalked by the dining room table and swept Cydney’s keys and that blue book titled “Magickal Strength” into the last bag. She shoved all the bags into the closet of Cydney’s former room and angrily slammed shut the door.

The Demon Realm
Behind the veil that separates the world of humans from the underworld, a demon prowled. He was mighty, he was angry, and he was waiting for his chance. Conall Cian was big and powerful, an imposing winged monster with huge wings flaring over his back and curved horns framing a harsh human shaped face. Lesser demons fled at the sound of his voice and the trapped souls which resided there trembled at his approach. But all his strength was not enough to let him cross over. Yet. For that, he needed something to weaken the barrier from the other side.

He stalked the veil. He know his time had come to return to the human side of that barrier. It was now. An opportunity was about to arise, an opportunity he had no intention of missing. He had plans for the future, and those plans all started with him breaking through that barrier into the rich world of opportunity which was the world of humans.

And when he heard the first faint sounds of violence, when he felt the child’s fear, he placed his hands on the barrier and felt it starting to thin.

Kings Row
Little Christopher Newman huddled under his thin blanket in a room too cold for good sleep, but mommy said the gas was off again, and she didn’t know when it would be back on. When the knock came at the door, he buried his head under his pillow and squeezed his eyes tight. Daddy often got visitors in the middle of the night, and Christopher knew he was never ever to leave his room when those visitors were there. It was stupid. Christopher knew Daddy was selling his special medicine to the people that came by. So it was stupid to make him stay in his room after the knocking woke him up.

But something was different this time. Usually the people who came to buy medicines were quiet, but these men were yelling, and Daddy was yelling back. Christopher slithered out of bed, clutching his blanket around him like a cape, and crept to his bedroom door. He slowly and quietly turned the doorknob and peered out. It was policemen. There were policemen in the living room and Christopher knew Daddy wouldn’t like that. There were two of them, both dressed in long dark coats over shirts, ties, and dark pants. One of them was older and stood back, looking around the living room like he was counting anything that might be valuable. Christopher didn’t like the way that one looked at Mommy’s legs where she was just starting to wake up from her nap on the couch. The other one was really big and he stood there with his hand on his gun and never took his eyes from Daddy.

Daddy was yelling, “Just get outa here! I already paid you. I don’t got any more for you!”

“Mike? What’s goin on?” Mommy asked. Christopher whimpered when he heard how frightened she sounded. She got up and stumbled a few steps until she stood behind Daddy’s shoulder.

“These ******** want me to pay them off again!” Daddy yelled.

“Hey!” the big cop yelled, “watch your mouth, Mike. Unless you want me to start comin up with probable cause to toss this dump.”

“I don’t have any more money!” Daddy yelled again.

The older man stepped up then and spoke calmly. “Perhaps we can work out some sort of trade, then.”

Daddy stood very still and cocked his head. “What sort of trade?” he asked.

The older man took another step forward and licked his lips. “How did a looser like you get such a good-lookin woman, Mike?”

“No!” Daddy yelled. “No trade, no more.” He stepped forward and pulled Mommy behind him. “You come back next week, like usual, and I’ll have your cut.”

“No,” said the big one. “We’ll take it now.”

The older man stepped forward again and grabbed Mommy by the wrist. That was when Daddy hit the older cop. And the big one pulled his gun.

It happened so fast after that that Christopher never could really remember exactly what happened. The gun went off and the boom was so loud it made Christopher’s ears ring. Daddy spun around and blood went everywhere. Two more tremendous booms and Daddy fell down with a red river running from his body. Mommy screamed and screamed, and then turned to run, but they grabbed her and pulled her back. Her pretty blue eyes met Christopher’s, and he saw her lips form the word, “HIDE!”

Christopher scurried back into his room and tried not to hear Mommy. He was a very smart young man, and knew they would look under the bed first and probably in the closet second. He climbed into his toy bin instead, burrowed down into it, and pulled it closed over him. It seemed like forever that he hid there, the air growing stale as he panted in terror, then the noises from the living room changed. It sounded like they were breaking everything, opening and closing doors and drawers, dumping stuff out and stomping on it. He tried to make himself even smaller when he heard his own bedroom door open. He heard heavy shoes stomping around and thought he would be safe when they started to leave, but then the chest opened, and the big cop stood there with the bedroom light glinting off his badge. The rough face broke into a smile, “C’mere kid.” he reached down and pulled Christopher out by the front of his pajamas. “Where’s your dad keep his drugs?”

“H-h-h-his... medicines?”

“Ya, kid. Right ... where’s he keep his medicine?”

Christopher knew big boys didn’t cry, but he couldn’t help it. “I-I-I....”

The big man drew back his big hand and struck Christopher a hard open hand slap. “C’mon kid... where?”

Conall bared his teeth in a smile as the barrier thinned even more. The rich blend of terror that leaked across the veil was immensely powerful. The thin wail of a terrified child ripped through it at last and Conall roared with triumph as he pushed his way through. His essence passed into the child whose fear had broken the barrier, and for a long moment, Conall looked through the child’s eyes at the powerful human man who held him in his grip. The sensation of being small and powerless, helpless before a stronger enemy was profoundly unpleasant, but then Conall completed that step and stood in all his winged and clawed demonic might in the world of humans.

Standing before him was a big human man, wearing the shield of one sworn to protect. And that sworn protector held a bloodied and cowed child. The human was an oathbreaker and false. And that made his life forfeit.

“Where the **** did you come from?!” The human yelled.

Conall plucked the child away from the human. “You should not be concerned about where I came from, human.” With surprising gentleness, the huge demon sat the child on the narrow bed before turning back to the human. “You should worry about what I am about to do to you.” The human just stared, stunned, at the monster, and then reached for his holstered gun.

“You have made a grave mistake, human.” he growled. He stepped into the punch, driving his clawed fist into the man’s jaw. The cop slammed into the thin bedroom wall, still attempting to draw his gun, but Conall stepped into him again, hammering his fists into face, chest, and gut. The big cop dropped, and Conall turned back to boy. It was his first mistake in the human’s world, and he was not looking when the second cop came through the door firing.

Conall moved faster than the cop could ever have expected, but still two rounds found a target in the demon’s belly. Three steps carried Conall to the cop. The demon grabbed up the smaller man like a stuffed toy and ripped his throat open. Blood fountained out as the cop collapsed.

Conall cursed as his own blood dripped from his wounds. He was bigger and broader than the human the cop had been expecting or the wounds would have been much worse. He crouched by the bigger cop. The man wasn’t dead yet. Conall stripped the cop of his clothing and studied him. A big man. A hard man. Square jaw, hard eyes, a powerful body. It was a good shape, and the demon claimed it for his own.

Conall Cian straightened, and concentrated as his wings vanished, his legs reshaped themselves, and his skin paled. He stood over the dying man and could be his twin. The demon pulled on the cop’s shirt and pants before shrugging into the rich leather trenchcoat and straightening the badge. When he had taken the human’s form in every way, Conall reached out with one big clawed hand and ripped that throat out as well.

Finally, he turned to the child who sat motionless on the bed. At first, Conall thought the child might be injured and dying, but outside of the marks of the beating on his face, there were no injuries. The child must simply be in shock. Well, he was young and therefor resilient. He found the child’s coat in the closet, with a tag that read in a neat feminine hand “Christopher Newman.”


When the big Paragon Police Department detective walked into Kings Row’s Crowne Memorial Hospital carrying a child, the overnight staff was concerned and attentive. The cop didn’t have much to offer besides the name “Christopher Newman,” the information that his family had been killed in a shooting, and that social services should be called right away. Then the child was safe, and the demon was loose in the world.



Part V
Ciara Banenighe prowled the confines of her mystical prison, exploring rooms and corridors forbidden her for centuries. As the eldest of the daughters had grown steadily in power, the walls had grown softer and fallen back further and further. She found treasures long forgotten, and a few she had longed to hold again. She pressed one clawed hand into the shimmering field of magic and was filled with both joy and frustration as it gave, just a little, under the pressure of her palm like a fruit just starting to ripen. It was happening. It was finally happening. But so slow...

She furled her wings and stalked to stare at the three cabochon spheres, each the size of her fist. Two of them still glowed with fierce red energy. The third... She bared her teeth in a fierce grin as she stroked the surface of the third. The light flickered weakly from within that one and tiny cracks and flaws formed deep within it. The more the girl drew on her power, the darker that crystal became.

Her smile grew wider and she turned to one of her imps. “Get me Akando.”

Paragon City

Sooner Spirit ducked as swarm missiles shot by overhead, and then whirled to make sure Broken Shadow was uninjured. Her oldest friend in Paragon City had avoided the worst of the damage and she turned back to face the titan again. Ahren, blazing with brilliant shimmering white power swooped overhead as he positioned himself to attack. She fought back tears as she tried not to hear the frightened voice of the man trapped within the robot. She’d promised his family she’d save Joe, but it was too late for him. All she and her friends could do now was stop what had been done to him.

The abandoned office building was dark, dusty, and smelled of mildew. The raging battle just made it worse. Fogman, another old friend, drew the attention of the titan off of Sooner and her companions, and they threw themselves back into the fight.

As the Zeus titan attacked Fogman furiously, as Joe’s frightened voice begged them to stop him, Sooner, Ahren, and Broken Shadow tried to find a way. The giant gleaming metal body ignored her fists, Shadow’s dark energies slid around it, and Ahren’s impressive light show of attacks didn’t even make it flinch. It drew back one massive arm and swung, smashing into Fogman like a wrecking ball. Fog shrugged it off, but in that moment, Sooner saw a weakness. She pressed in harder and waited for the titan to swing again. Rockets burst around her, and fire, the shrapnel, even the poison gas was starting to get through. Her lungs burned, blood dripped from a dozen wounds, and her cape was smoldering. But then the titan drew that arm back again, and Sooner took her chance.

She drew hard on the magical energies that gave her power and leapt up, With her left hand she grabbed the edge of the armor that protected the titan’s torso while she plunged her right deep into the exposed wires under that arm. She ripped and pulled everything she could while the titan reared back like a bucking horse. Fogman tried to get its attention again while Joe’s voice screamed at her to help him. Then she got her hand on the hose she’d seen. She yanked it loose and foul green liquid began to spew out. She held onto that hose for dear life as the titan thrashed and Joe’s voice finally became quiet. All was still as the last of the mechanical noises from the titan died away. She dropped the hose, and then the magical power hit hard, surging through her, flaring around her.


The demon glared at her servant in crystal ball, flexing her fingers furiously.

“You told me I could have the girl, and now she’s gone!” Akando complained.

Ciara hissed in fury. “You can have all three if you finish the job. The middle girl hasn’t even DABBLED in magic yet. You must show her the way.”

Akando held his breath and expelled it angrily. His jaw worked as he grit his teeth over an angry response and then nodded. “She is back in school. I’ll get to her.”

The demon started to retort, then whirled at a flare of light behind her. Her gaze was drawn to the three glowing spheres. The dark one flared suddenly, and she heard it crack deep inside. She threw back her head and roared triumphantly. She turned back to Akando. “I have waited long enough. You will find a way.”

Akando nodded and the crystal ball cleared.

Norman, Ok
Caryn rushed into her apartment and dropped her overloaded backpack on the couch. She frowned when she noticed the pile of dirty dishes still sitting in the sink and wish heartily that Cyd was still her roommate. Well.. Next year, Cerise would be here and she could dump the slob roommate.

She trotted to her room to change. She’d taken 19 hours this semester so she could graduate in the fall. That would let her start her master’s work in the spring. It also meant she didn’t have a lot of free time. As she changed from her jeans and tank top into comfortable workout gear, she perused the mail tossed on her bed. Cell phone bill, statement from the bursars office, and yet another letter from Chi Omicron Sigma. She stared down at it in frustration, “I’m a SENIOR!” she yelled at the envelope. “I’m not joining a friggin sorority!” They’d been hounding her for the last three years, and Cyd had told her that they’d tried recruiting her even after she’d graduated.

Back out in the living room, she flipped on the TV while she stretched. She flipped channels until she got to Hero News for the latest news on Paragon City, and stopped mid-stretch when she was treated to a close-up of Sooner Spirit, smiling, with the caption “Latest Hero of the City, Sooner Spirit!” The shot drew back to show the hero in red being presented with a plaque, while several people she recognized as Sooner Spirit’s friends in the Ghosts Reborn watched.

“Well... son of a *****...” Caryn marveled.

She was still holding her position, watching the brief ceremony when she was interrupted by a knock at the door. She stood, backed to the door, and smiled as she opened it.

The extremely attractive man that stood there smiled back at her. Their relationship was still young enough that they spent a lot of time smiling at each other. Benjamin Tenkiller, with his tall, athletic build, wore his course black hair just long enough to pull back into a queue. His face was straight out of a western movie with its high, broad cheekbones, eyes so dark they were nearly black, and chiseled features. He would look just right in war paint and a loin cloth clinging to the back of a pinto pony. He was dressed for running, but the loose fitting clothes really didn’t hide how fit he was. He was a few years older than she, but a year behind her in school. He was going to school on the GI Bill, and had started school a little late because of his military service.

“C’mon in, Ben.. I was just finishing up my stretches.” She clicked off the remote and finished prepping for their run, and wished she had another couple hours in her day so she could spend them with him.

Caryn finished her evening happily perfecting her Tae Kwon Do techniques in a private lesson. Every minute she spend with Ben just made her happier, and when he'd reached over and taken her hand when they paused before crossing the street.... it had made her heart sing. And he was going to pick her up after her lesson, and they were going to have dinner. And she made up her mind that at some point, she was going to reach for his hand. Just so he knew she liked it. And that she liked him.

She smiled again, a big goofy smile, as she finished her last kata and picked up her towel. She hoped by next spring to be good enough to start competing in tournaments, if she could find the time. She had tried several different forms, but found the stand up style of Tae Kwon Do suited her best. It had been a good lesson. Any lesson where she put that combination of surprise and approval on her teacher’s face was a good one, and she’d managed a couple of surprises that night. She was sweating and pleasantly exhausted by the time her hour was done and she changed to wait for Ben to pick her up for a late dinner, then home for studying.


Ben trotted out to his old dusty blue pick-up truck. He didn’t want to be late to pick up Caryn because he knew she only had a little bit of time for dinner and then she’d want to hit the books. And he wanted every minute he could get with her. He’d never met anyone like her, and it seemed that she was all he could think about. Her smile, her laugh, the way she moved, the sparkle in her green eyes, her red-blonde hair that seemed to have a mind of its own... and... other things.

He climbed up into his old blue Chevy, cranked the engine until it started with a rumble, and backed out. He let out a surprised curse at the loud metallic “thunk!” Nothing else sounds like a automobile crash, and he was already cursing his own stupidity.. Thinking about a girl and not watching where he was going and he hoped he hadn’t hurt anyone...

But it wasn’t another car. It was the apartment’s trash dumpster. It was out of place, and it would have been nearly impossible to back out without hitting it. The dumpster was a dark green, and he hadn’t seen it in the dusk. He cursed again when he realized his crumpled rear bumper was caught on the dumpster.

He climbed back into the truck to call Caryn and let her know, only to find his cell phone shattered. He frowned. He hadn’t remembered anything getting damaged - and it hadn’t seemed like he hit the dumpster hard enough to have done that kind of damage to the phone - but there it was.

“****!” he yelled with feeling. He wondered how long Caryn was going to wait for him, and how mad she was going to be. Finally he took off on foot to find a pay phone.

He never noticed the trio of small red imps that scampered gleefully away.


Caryn tried calling Ben again, but it went straight to voice mail. Again. With a last glance at her watch, she took off walking. She was going to have to hoof it to get to the CART stop on time. She hoped he was ok. She hoped he had a good excuse.

It was too hot for her to cool off. It was August, which meant it was still in the mid-90's well after dark. She was sweating again after just a couple blocks, and her mood was plummeting. She’d been looking forward to spending time with Ben, and she was hungry! Now she was going to be grabbing a PB&J while studying. And showering as soon as she got home to rinse off the sweat.

Most of the businesses on Campus Corner were closed, except for the bars, of course. But she could see the lights on behind a large, plain storefront. The floor was one huge mat, and there was one man dressed in loose clothing inside. He was working his way through the slow, measured movements of Tai Chi. It was beautiful. She paused, watching his hands and feet. He appeared Native American with his skin tone and high cheekbones, but he wore his black hair cropped short. She frowned as she watched him. She could faintly see something moving around him, like shadows, but when she tried to look directly at it, it vanished.

The man ended his routine and looked up. His dark eyes found Caryn’s and he smiled a welcome at her. He approached the front door of his studio, moving with the grace of a hunting cat. He opened the door and looked out at her with a friendly and open smile.

“Are you interested in Tai Chi?” he asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she answered.

“Come in, I can teach you how to start,” he said. “My name is Akando.”



Part VI
“Come in, I can teach you how to start,” he said. “My name is Akando.”

Caryn let out a musical laugh at the thought of adding anything else to her already crammed schedule of school and activities. “Thanks, but no thanks, Mr. Akando. I gotta run.” She fit action to words, and jogged briskly across Boyd street and the North Oval, wanting to make sure she caught the CART before they stopped running for the night.

One month later....

Caryn knelt on the soft mat, eyes clothes, as her instructor paced around her. “Shin, gin, tai” he repeated. “Mind, body, spirit.” Caryn let her thoughts drift while his soothing voice spoke to her. Strengthening the mind? Sure. She was just a couple months away from graduating with honors. Strengthening the body? Well.. She was strong and fit and healthy. In running she was competitive at sprint distances and dominant at longer distances. But spirit? How did one strengthen a spirit? There were no studies, no exercises that would bulk it up and fill it with knowledge. She’d stopped rolling her eyes at him, since he could apparently hear it even when her eyes were closed, but... seriously... besides... “spirit” made her think of Sooner Spirit, and that just made her mad, that her sister had run off without a word and was now halfway across the country playing hero without letting her family know what was going on! She’d always thought Cyd was her best friend.

“Focus, Caryn,” her instructor said in admonishment. “You’re not here. Be here.”

“Yes, sorry,” she muttered, and refocused on her breathing and her heartbeat.

“I know you are a very busy young woman,” he said, “but you must be sure that whatever you are doing, you give it your best, in that moment.”

“Yes, I will,” she agreed.

“Good. Now, get up, and give me your best.”

Caryn smiled and did as instructed. And neither of them ever noticed that the man known as Akando was watching, full of frustration.

And one month after that....
Ben looked up from his studies of recombinant genetics in fruit flies and smiled at Caryn. She was bent over her own text book, concentrating as she highlighted away in three different colors. Her short cropped hair kept falling into her eyes, and she distractedly raised one slender, long fingered hand to trail across her forehead and tuck her hair behind her ear. And with just that one gesture he was filled with a fierce longing for those fingers to trail across his skin. She glanced up, her green eyes smiling, and then her lips quirked as she noted the look in his eyes. She held his gaze for one long moment, arched a brow, then ducked her head back to her book.

He reached across the table to rest his left hand on hers, smiled at the contrast of his dark skin on her so pale skin, and thought about bringing her home to his family. His father was heavily into tribal politics and his mother worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Would they have any idea what to make of this pale-skinned red-headed girl? But they’d like her. How could they not like her? She was smart, funny, and gorgeous. He squeezed her hand, just once, and then let go before he started blurting out things he wasn’t quite ready to say. Things he felt... but wasn’t ready to tell her yet. Besides, he had a big test tomorrow, and this gene mapping thing was tricky. He stroked his thumb just once over the base of her ring finger, and drew his hand back.

He was deeply absorbed back into the details of red eyes, curly wings, and tubby bodies when they were both startled by a knock at the door. Caryn muttered as she climbed to her feet, and Ben took the opportunity to enjoy the view as she walked to open the door.

Three perfect young women stood there. They could be pictures out of a fashion magazine. A blonde in a form fitting fuschia tank dress and endless legs with her perfect hair falling over her tanned shoulders, a brunette with short spiky hair, a bright blue sun-dress hugging her curvaceous body, and a stylish African-American beauty in form fitting jeans, pointy toed boots, and a floating peasant style blouse in brilliant yellow. All three of them oozed stylish sophistication and money.

“Are you Caryn?” the brunette asked with a brilliant, friendly smile.


“I’m Jessica, and this Ashley and Stephanie,” she said. “We’re with Chi Omicron Sigma, and we were hoping you could find the time to come by our “Get to know Chi-O-S” party next Friday.”

Ben could clearly see the frustration on Caryn’s face. “I’m a senior,” she said as if speaking to a particularly slow child, “I’m about to graduate.”

“All the more reason to join us, then.” the blonde, Ashley, said. “Once you graduate, you’ll have an unparalleled network to help you get a leg up on your competitors in the job market.”

“I’m going to grad school,” Caryn responded.

“Ah! Then you’ll still have the strength of our social activities and academic support to help you as you finish your graduate studies.”

Ben could read Caryn’s body language, and it was clearly stating she’d had enough. She took one step forward, crowding the fashionable trio away from the door and onto the step. “If I had any interest at all in frittering my valuable time away with drunken parties and shallow people, I’d have joined you when you FIRST started stalking me 3 years ago! Now you come here and waste my-”

Ashley had caught sight of Ben, and actually brushed past Caryn into the apartment. “Hello there,” she purred at him.

Before he could say a word, Caryn stepped back into the apartment, grabbed Ashley by the thumb and twisted her wrist up and back. “Ok ladies,” she said in a light, friendly tone over Ashley’s outraged howls. “I have some studying I need to do. I appreciate your considerate invitation, but I think I will have to decline. I hope your party goes well.” She steered Ashley outside, “Thanks for dropping by!” and slammed the door.

“Wow...” Ben marveled.

“What the hell?” Caryn asked as she walked back to the table, “I’ve never heard of a stalking people before. Why do they want me to join so bad?”

“You’re academically successful, athletically successful, and gorgeous. Why wouldn’t they want you?”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

Ben smiled at her. “Well, I want you. Does that make sense?”

She smiled back, settled into her chair, and resumed her studying.


Ciara roared her frustration. She pounded clawed fists into the magical barriers and smashed furnishings. She grabbed up the pedestal with the three cabochon spheres and smashed it into the floor. The pedestal shattered, but the three spheres were unaffected. She grabbed the one that had gone dark and flung it with all her considerable might at the stone floor, where it bounced twice and lay still. She roared again and kicked all three spheres furiously. Her imps scattered before her, but she managed to grab one by its tail. She lifted it from the floor, ignoring its terrified shrieks, and smashed it into the stone wall. It went limp, stunned, and she set upon it with teeth and claws. When it woke enough to whimper and struggle feebly, she redoubled her efforts, finally leaving the remains scattered in moist shreds over the floor of her prison.

She stalked to her crystal ball and screamed “Akando!” at it. Her fury grew with each moment that it stayed clear, then, finally, Akando appeared. The furious demoness brandished one of the glowing cabochon spheres, its deep red hue glowing throughout the room. “What are you doing!” she screamed. “The girl! You have done NOTHING with her!”

Akando’s face paled, but his voice was calm as he answered, “My attempts to connect with her have been rebuffed. She is never alone. She is either in class or with her boyfriend.”

“Then kill him.”

Akando went even more pale. “I.. I..”

“You are reluctant to kill?” the demon sneered. “You have no compunction against my giving you the lives and freedom of three girls, but you hesitate to kill one young man?”

Akando hesitated to answer, then spoke, “I cannot enjoy my reward if I am in prison.”

“When I am free, there will BE no prisons!”

“There may be another way. Give me more time.” The demon roared again, but Akando stood his ground. Reluctantly.

“You will find a way to draw her into magic. You WILL find a way!”

Akando nodded and stepped back.




Conall's Lair

Deep in the earth, in a place no one, hero or villain, would ever think to look for him, Conall Cian rested. He wore his enormous demon form, and his wings wrapped about his body like a bat's, while his tail draped over one powerful calf. If a creature of pure evil could ever appear relaxed, Conall did. However, deep within his mind - or perhaps it was his soul - ancient bindings began to take hold again. Magical ties crept into him. They had never broken, but they had faded to nearly nothing. Now, like gleaming silver chains, the magic moved through the depths of his will and began to claim him once again.

His red eyes opened and narrowed. Flame erupted from them as he bolted upright. His wings flared, his tail lashed and his claws flexed. Fury oozed from his powerful body as his head lowered. His lips moved in a snarl and he growled out a name, "Ciara...."

Norman, OK
Ben stripped off his gloves and hat and laid them on the small table in the basement food court of the student union, and then his heavy coat, still damp from the cold rain, and draped it over the back of his chair. Winter had come to Oklahoma, with a cold vengeance, and he was bundled up for the cold. He patted the pocket that held the tiny box and debated, again, whether to give it to Caryn here or wait for a more romantic moment. It wasn’t an engagement ring, or even a “promise” ring. It was just a token - a carved silver ring inset with a pair of turquoise triangles flanking a deep, rich blue lapis. He wanted her to know he loved her, and how important she was to him. He nodded as he made his decision. The crowded, noisy food court was not the setting he wanted for that moment. He would give it to her when they both had the time to give each other their full attention. He settled in to wait for her.

He was becoming absorbed in his studying when he heard the opposite chair pulled out. He looked up with a smile, expecting to see Caryn, but instead he saw a gorgeous blond smiling at him. Her form fitting sweater was an argyle pattern of blue and pink. Her long blond hair was pulled back into a thick tail with delicate tendrils framing her face. She wore snug, purple pants and dainty snow boots. She looked vaguely familiar but he couldn’t place her until she crooned, “Well... hello there,” at him, “Ben, isn’t it?”

“Ah.. Ashley?” he asked, remembering the blond in the fuschia dress that Caryn had so forcibly expelled from her apartment. There was something very predatory in her expression and it made him more than a little uncomfortable. And... He didn’t think he’d ever had the opportunity to tell her his name.

She flashed a smile at him, a brilliant, perfect, white smile. “You remember me? How sweet!” She cocked her head, batting eyes the color of a warm spring morning sky at him. “Don’t tell me any woman would be foolish enough to leave a guy like you alone waiting for her?” She ran perfectly manicured fingertips through a lock of her hair and her smile ratcheted up another notch. “Someone else might just try to snatch you up.”

Ben smiled back - it was hard not to - and answered, “I was a little early. Caryn’s coming all the way from Dale Hall Tower. I was just across the street.”

“Caryn’s coming?” He had the feeling the wide-eyed expression was not entirely feigned. “Maybe I’ll just keep you company until she gets here. You don’t think she’ll throw me out into the snow just for talking to you, do you?”

He laughed nervously, “She might,” he answered as he scanned the entrance to the food court. He had a feeling Caryn would not be at all happy to see the blonde there. Why? he thought, why do girls always want to flirt with you when you’re seeing someone else? And.. Why this girl? He wasn’t stupid, he knew he was a good looking. But he wasn’t in her league. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t powerful, and he suspected her mother and father were equally pale and blonde and wouldn't be happy to see their daughter with an Indian. This girl shouldn’t be giving him the time of day. He nervously looked back down at his book and wondered if there was some practical joke in the making.

“You’re such a handsome man,” the blonde sighed suddenly. She reached out with one slender hand and touched his face. “Do you see other people?”

He flinched back from the touch as if a spark had jumped between them and glanced back up, looking for Caryn. He reached up and firmly pulled her hand from his face, setting it back on the table. “No, we’re not seeing other people.”

“Ben,” she said, twisting her hand to clasp his. “Ben, look at me...” He dropped his eyes to meet hers. A shock like a bolt of lightning shot through him. Her eyes were so blue... so big... he sank into them. She reached out and grabbed his other hand and smiled. He couldn’t see anything but her eyes, couldn’t think of anything but her. “Ben?”

“Yes...” he answered slowly.

“Ben... come with me.”

“Yes,” he nodded. He stood up, never taking his eyes from hers.

“Ben, get your coat. You need to get your stuff.”

“Yes,” he agreed, and gathered up his belongings. His mind was empty of anything but Ashley’s big blue eyes as he followed her out.

Caryn tried calling Ben again, but got no answer. It wasn’t like him to miss a lunch date. It made her worried, and it made her angry. She glanced at her watch and sighed. Her precious lunch hour was nearly gone. She finally trotted over to Sbarro’s, ordered a slice of cheese pizza and a soda, and sat down alone to finish it off, still wondering what had happened to Ben.

A week later, Caryn lay awake, staring into the darkness. Her cheek was on Ben’s chest as she listened to his slow even breaths. Her right hand traced the tattoo over his heart, a beautiful stylized phoenix in heavy black lines transposed over a fiery sunrise. She loved that tattoo, she thought it said so much about him: the hope of life reborn from death, the fire transforming into the hope of a new day. But this morning that tattoo was marred by a heavy purple bruise, a bruise that he couldn’t explain. He said he didn’t remember how he got it. She was getting very very tired of things he couldn’t explain.

She flexed her fingers, running her thumb over the pretty ring he’d given her earlier that day. It was a token of his love, he’d said, but something was deeply wrong. She didn’t know what it was, but he had been the most solid person she knew. A truly good man, and one she’d looked forward to getting to know better and better. But in the last few weeks he’d become flaky, unreliable. He would disappear, not show up, and have no real explanation. She’d already given up depending on him for rides and gone back to using the CART or her bike to get around Norman. There was a look in his eyes she just didn’t understand, like he was listening to music no one else could hear. They’d had their first real fight, but even then he didn’t seem to really be there. It felt like he was slipping away from her. Ring, or no ring, she had a feeling that she and Benjamin Tenkiller would not be a couple much longer. And that made her heart ache.

The Chi Omicron Sigma House
Ashley stroked her gold handled brush through her thick blonde hair with a smile like a cat with a bowl of cream. Her eyes, however, flashed with anger. “I don’t WANT the Nation ***** to join us. I want her to pay for daring to touch me.”

“Ashley, be reasonable,” Stephanie said. “There is power in that family. Power Chi-O-S could profit from. We never got the oldest but we still have a chance to bring Caryn in. We can use your hold over the boyfriend for that.”

Ashley slammed the brush down on her dressing table and stood up, flinging her mane around in a move that didn’t look at all practiced and perfected. “I will not!”

Stephanie sighed. “I knew we should have had Jessica get the boy.”

“Jessica! Hah... I’ve got him wrapped up like a little blue box. Jessica would still be trying to get his attention.”

“Is that right?” Jessica said with a snarl as she entered Ashley’s room. Sparks flew as the blonde and the brunette glared at each other until Stephanie stepped between them.

“Ashley, we need the Nation girl,” Stephanie said with infinite reason and patience. “We need the boy to get her. I like that she had the nerve to fight us. Get her to join us, then work it out with her. Surely the fact that you took her little boy toy from her is payment enough?”

As Ashley opened her mouth for a scathing response, Jessica waved a postcard between them. “Forget Caryn Nation. Cerise Nation wants to join us.”Jessica bestowed one last glare on Ashley, as a reminder that her prior insult was not forgotten. “Ashley, do what you want with the boyfriend. For that matter, do what you want with Caryn Nation.”




Ben woke up in his apartment with a foggy head and vague memories of a very explicit dream. The hint of an expensive perfume still seemed to linger in the sheets. He lifted his head from his pillow, but was instantly dizzy. Something was very wrong with him. He tried to remember what day it was, but couldn’t. He tried to remember what he’d done to feel so sore and tired, but couldn’t. His whole body hurt and he couldn’t even think. He struggled to wake, fought for consciousness. After a supreme effort, he lifted his watch and blinked to focus on it. He read SA 11-27 2:28PM and frowned. That couldn’t be right. Saturday? Oh... no.... he was supposed to have gone with Caryn to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family. Had they talked? Dread filled his belly, and that gave him the strength to roll out of bed. He grabbed his phone as he dragged on a pair of jeans. Caryn’s phone rang twice and then went to voice mail, which meant she’d hit the “ignore” button on her phone.

“Caryn... No no... c’mon...” he muttered as he ran through the apartment. He paused for just a moment to stare as he passed a mirror. His body was covered with bruises and scratches and he had no idea where they’d come from. Then he pulled on a t-shirt and he ran out the door. It was far too cold to be running around outside in short sleeves, but he didn’t waste the time to go back inside for a jacket. He sprinted, still barefoot, to his truck and pulled out of the parking lot with squealing tires. He tried again to call Caryn, but this time it went straight to voice mail. She’d turned off the phone.

He blatantly double parked and ran across the dead grass, the cold concrete sidewalk, and up the steps to Caryn’s door. “Caryn!” he yelled, banging on the door. It seemed like forever before he heard the locks turning and then the door cracked open.

Caryn’s roommate, Angie, stood there, short, dumpy, dishwater hair pulled back in a sloppy
ponytail. She shook her head at him. “Dude, you screwed up.” she offered helpfully.

“Just let me in, Angie.”

“Your funeral...” she said with a shrug and stepped back. “Caryn! He’s here!” she called.

Caryn came stalking down the hall like a lioness on the hunt. “You... get out!” she growled.

“Caryn, c’mon... let’s ta-”

“Talk?!?” she scoffed. He could almost see the sparks flying from her eyes. “By talk you mean telling me you don’t know? You can’t explain? You don’t remember?” She snatched up a dufflebag from the floor by the couch. “My mother made cherry cobbler for you, you *******!”

“I’m sorry, Caryn, I don’t know-”

“You NEVER know!” She advanced on him, fury twisting her face. “How stupid do you think I am?”

“Dammit, Caryn, I love you, let’s talk about this.”

“You don’t LOVE me!” she yelled. “You don’t treat people you love like this!”

“But I do! You’re everything-”

“Shut UP!” she yelled. “I’m so tired of hearing lame excuses from you!” She flung the dufflebag at him. It bounced off his chest, striking the huge blue and purple bruise there, and he winced. He had no idea where that bruise had come from, but the pain was sharp and surprising.

“Caryn... please calm down and listen to me.”

“Fine! Where were you? Why didn’t you call?”

“I don’t-” he broke off at the look on her face. “Caryn, really... I don’t remember. I just woke up today and-”

“Is it another woman?”

He gaped at her, stunned. “No! Of course not!”

“Drugs? Are you doing drugs? Drinking?”

“You know I don’t-”

“I don’t know anything! I especially don’t know you!” She pointed at the bag. “Get your ****. Get out of here.”

“Wait! No, Caryn...”

She took the last two steps toward him and shoved him back. “GET OUT!”

He winced when she pushed on that bruise. “Stop it, Caryn. Talk to me.”

“I am DONE talking to you.” She pushed him again. “Get OUT of here!” She pushed again, “I don’t ever want to see you again!” She shoved him even harder, and he hissed from the pain of the repeated pressure on that bruise. He reflexively reached up and grabbed her wrists.

“Stop it,” he said, “Just stop it. Calm down and talk to me.”

She twisted her wrists out of his grip. She drew her arm back and landed an slap on his face. Like her sisters, Caryn was a tall, strong woman. Even an open hand slap had power behind it. His head snapped back and he tasted blood where his lip had smashed into his teeth. The sound of it, the sharp concussive sound cut though and echoed in his head. Shock froze him as she twisted the ring off her right hand and threw it into the dry grass. With one last fiery glare, she kicked the duffle outside and pushed the door closed in his face.

He stood there for a moment, then pounded a frustrated fist into the door. “Dammit Caryn, I need your help and now you refuse to even listen to me at all! I'm hurting here and I don't know what the hell is going on, I can't explain it to you because it doesn't make any sense to me! I can't believe you think I'd touch drugs or go on some bender, if you think I'd do that I guess you don't know me as well as I hoped you did!” He pounded his fist one more time on the door and stepped back, hoping that she’d open it up again, even as he knew she wouldn’t. Finally he turned and searched through the grass until he found the ring. He gripped it tightly in his hand, picked up the duffle and trudged back to his truck. He took a deep, bracing breath, but couldn’t make his throat work above a whisper. “I need you Caryn,” he breathed. “I love you...”

“It appears the boyfriend is no longer a problem,” Akando said. “In fact, the situation may well work in our favor.”

“You finally killed him?” Ciara asked.

“He has left her for another woman. She is alone, and upset.”

“Make your move, then. Quickly. I am tired of waiting and may take out my frustration on you. Or give the boyfriend to me, and I’ll make him pay for the delay.”

The next day....
Caryn landed hard on her back on the soft mat and her breath whooshed out of her. Her instructor stood over her, and shook his head. “You’re distracted, you’re not centered” he said. “You’re not here.” She experimentally shifted her jaw back and forth. It didn’t appear to be dislocated. He reached down to help her up. “Shin, gin, tai , Caryn. Is it mind, body, or spirit?”

“Bad break-up,” she muttered. “Really bad.” She shook her head. “Ya, I’m distracted.”

He nodded. “Cool down, then. We’ll call it early today. But, Caryn...”


“You need to take this seriously: shin, gin, tai. Think of it as a tripod. If one leg is weak, the whole cannot stand. You are off balance today. Why?”

“I’m hurt. And sad.”

“Your spirit is wounded.” She nodded. “Don’t neglect the spirit, Caryn. Shin, gin, tai. Remember it.”

She gathered her belonging, shrugged into her parka and trudged out into the cold, dingy day. She was miserable. School started back up tomorrow, she had two tests and a paper due, and she just didn’t care. All she could think about was Ben. What had changed? Why had he suddenly become a stranger to her? She so badly wanted to call him, to beg him to explain what had happened, but she knew it would be more of the same: excuses and evasions. Whatever it was, it was obvious she couldn’t change it by talking about it.

As she walked, her eye was caught again by the Tai Chi studio. Today there was a class in session, a dozen students swayed in graceful synchronized movements under the direction of the instructor. She watched, drawn in by the beautiful movements. The instructor glanced up and caught her eye. He smiled a welcome and gestured to her to come in.

“Shin, gin, tai,” she muttered to herself and approached the door. Her hand was on the handle when she saw Ben’s battered old blue pickup screech to a stop nearby. He looked terrible as he jumped out. He had deep, dark circles under his eyes, and his normally neat long black hair was a bird’s nest around his ashen face. He'd missed a button on his shirt and it hung crooked on him.

“Hey, I was hoping I’d find you here.” he said. She could hear how tired he was.

“Go away. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

“Please, listen to me, Caryn. Something is wrong.”

She sighed, tired and hurting and not ready for another fight. “Ben, no.. just leave me alone.” She turned away from him and reached for the door of the gym.

“Caryn, dammit! Let me explain!” Ben shouted, moving around in front of her. “I don't know what's going on, I'm not even sure what day it is anymore! Something very wrong is going on, I'm so confused. I need you to listen to me, instead of accusing me of stuff you know isn’t true! I know you're mad, I.. I know I’ve screwed up recently. I should have talked to you before but dammit something is seriously wrong!” He yanked open his shirt and revealed his chest and belly covered with huge purple bruises, welts, and scratches.

“What....” Caryn was stunned. She’d seen strange bruises on him before, but he looked like he’d been through a war. “What did that to you, Ben?”

Before he could answer, the Tai Chi instructor stepped out of the gym onto the street. “Is everything ok?” he asked, with an expression of concern.

“Caryn, c’mon. Come sit with me, and just talk for a minute.”

“Is this young man bothering you?” the instructor asked.

“No... no no,” Caryn answered both of them. “I need a minute... just... give me a minute.”

“Caryn!” Ben reached out and took her elbow in his hand.

Caryn narrowed her eyes and slowly looked down at his hand. She saw the ring he’d given her on the pinky of that hand and that caused a fresh spurt of pain. She masked it quickly with anger. “You’re going to want to move that hand before I move it for you, Ben.” She glanced at the Tai Chi instructor, watching intently with concerned eyes. She remembered his name suddenly. “Akando, isn’t it? Yes, I think I would be interested in learning Tai Chi.”

“Wait wait...” Ben stepped forward suddenly. “His name is Akando? Akando? You’ve talked to him before?”

“Ben... go home.” Caryn said, suddenly just very tired. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to be jealous, now. Ya.. He asked me before if I wanted to learn Tai Chi.”

Ben put himself completely between Akando and Caryn. “You stay away from her!” he growled. “You just stay far far away from her.”

“What are you DOING?” Caryn demanded.

“Caryn, you don’t want to learn anything this man might teach you. Stay away from him, please.”

“What are you talking about?” She shook her head and closed her eyes, not sure how much more she could take.

“Akando is an Indian name,” Ben glanced over his shoulder at her, and suddenly she could see that warm look in his dark eyes, the one that was just for her. And worry. His eyes were filled with genuine worry for her. “They are... wrong... they... ” he looked confused suddenly. “...and he means you harm. I don’t know how I...”

“What are you talking ab-” Caryn started to say when a hot pink corvette convertible pulled into the slant parking nearby. Caryn’s jaw dropped when she saw the gorgeous blonde step out. Caryn hadn’t seen Ashley since the day she’d ejected the blonde forcibly from the apartment, but recognized her instantly. Her eyes narrowed.

“Ben, darling?” Ashley called. Ben’s eyes went cold and he turned away from Caryn to stare fixedly at the blonde. “Come on, sweetie, we’re going to be late for dinner.”

“Yes, Ashley,” he said quietly, and walked away without a backward glance.

Caryn just stared after him with her jaw hanging as he folded his tall frame into the corvette. Ashley then spared one single bright smile for Caryn before she settled behind the wheel and drove away.

Akando turned his dark eyes on Caryn then. “Today might be a good day to get started, I think,” he offered gently.

Caryn threw her hands up in the air. “No. No no no.” was all she could bring herself to say as she stalked away across campus to the CART. She relived again and again and again the moment he denied that there was another woman. And each time felt like a fresh betrayal.