"Something just happened. Something opened and then there was, I don't know."
"No. She called it . . . evil."
"It's reactive, the Blade."
"A fraction of an infinite number is still an infinite number."
The sun disappeared behind the trees. A fire crackled in a clearing. Tricia held her hands close to the small blaze, warming them up. She was utterly exhausted from the practice she had put in. Her limits had been thoroughly tested and stretched. Tricia knew that she far surpassed her previous ability to the point she was surprised she considered herself the most powerful in the area. Her previous self was a mere pretender, a wanna-be compared to what she could wield now. There would be none who could stand up to her, power for power. With some thought, some planning, she would be unstoppable, even by the so-called Bladekeeper.
Tricia felt hunger pangs, a limitation of her body. She ordered her skeletal minion to retrieve the cooler from the trunk of the Lexus. The remains of her secretary responded to her command immediately. It brought a red plastic cooler out of the car and set it down beside its mistress. Tricia opened the container and looked through her choices before settling on the eggs. Not trusting her newest toy to be able to cook, Tricia shooed it back to the car, then started making her dinner. It wouldn't be the best she'd have had, but the satisfaction of making it herself more than made up for it.
She lay back on the ground, not minding the dirt. Tricia let her dinner digest as she contemplated the stars above her. Even those felt like they were within grasp. She silently warned herself about overstepping her reach too soon. Tricia knew of too many stories where victory was denied through hubris. She was determined to not let that happen to her.
The woods grew dark, the only light left being the small camp fire. Tricia considered turning in, but the essence of the ashen man demanded more practice. The only way Tricia would be prepared, he insisted, is to go beyond exhaustion, to reach down to her very soul and push harder. She spent the night making the clearing larger. A pile of debris grew, ringing Tricia's campground. By midnight, Tricia collapsed in her tent, her body trembling from the exertion of the night. She pulled her blanket over her, snuggling underneath, and fell fast asleep.
Missy pulled the Volvo into the parking lot outside her store. She got out, her friends following. Krista had problems walking in a straight line. She tripped over something unseen in the dim light of the street lamps and careened off to her right, staggering and stumbling before she regained her balance. Krista giggled at her misstep. Brenna ran over to try to help but wound up leaning on Krista instead. Missy sighed as she watched the scene. "I just can't take you two anywhere."
Krista burst out into another laughing fit. "Sorry, Missy." She and Brenna used each other as support.
"Why are we at the beach?" Brenna asked when she recovered. "I didn't bring my bathing suit."
"Skinny dipping!" Krista cackled.
Missy dropped back to corral her wayward friends. "No, no skinny dipping here. The police make regular patrols around here. I don't think Brenna really wants Matt to see her in her birthday suit just yet." She winked at the tiny brunette.
Brenna blushed. "He really comes out this way on patrol?"
"Try to focus here, Brenna." Missy guided the other two women towards Gnarly's Boards. "I've got stuff to show you inside."
"Cool!" Krista squealed.
Missy unlocked the front door and turned off the alarm. She let her friends into the dark store first, then followed. The tall woman flicked on the light switch. Fluorescent lights flickered to life. Missy kept walking through the store, heading to the back office. "This way, ladies."
"What do you got?" Krista asked.
"A surprise." Missy gave a mysterious smile.
"A good surprise, I hope," Brenna said.
"You'll like it." Missy unlocked the office door and ushered her friends inside. "Have a seat."
Brenna dropped on to the couch. "Can you make the room stop spinning?"
"Which way is it spinning for you?" Kirsta asked as she sat in a chair.
Brenna waved a gloved hand in the clockwise. "That way."
"It's going the other way for me. Maybe we should sit together." Kirsta tried to get out of her chair but fell back down.
Missy opened her small refrigerator and took out two bottles of water. "Here, guys. You're going to need this." She handed Krista one of the bottles. "Need me to open it?"
Krista twisted the cap. "Got it, thanks."
Brenna took the bottle. "I can get it." With effort, she removed the cap. She took a swig of water. "Thanks."
Missy sat down on the couch beside Brenna. "How did you two manage to get so sloshed?"
"I think it's because we drank so much." Krista tittered. "I don't remember buying that much beer."
"Me, neither." Brenna shifted on the couch, laying her head on Missy's shoulder.
Missy ruffled the tiny brunette's hair. "There's a few disappointed people back at that bar."
"Guys bought us drinks?" Krista's eyes widened. "Why didn't you say something?"
"It'd be easier to corral Ms Libido here," Missy held up Brenna's pony tail, "if I didn't have to pry you off men as well."
"I wasn't going after anyone," Brenna said. "Honest."
"Only because I parked my butt so yours couldn't get out of the booth."
"Brenna wouldn't have done anything," Krista said. "She was there sitting all cute and fluffy."
"I am not letting either of you get pregnant under my watch."
Brenna snaked her arms around Missy's. "I wasn't going to get pregnant." She squeezed her friend's arm. "Promise."
"Good. Your father would kill me if that happened." Missy turned to Krista. "And your mother would make me wish I was dead, Kris. So, no, not when I'm the designated driver and chaperone."
"Missy, did you know your arm feels like Matt's?" Brenna snuggled closer.
"Brenna, you're cut off."
"Really?" Krista switched over to the couch, sitting on the other side of Missy. She grabbed her friend's free arm. "Wow, Missy, do you work out?"
Brenna closed her eyes. "I bet Matt does."
Krista ran her fingers along Missy's arms. "You must! I can feel it. I didn't know you were so strong."
Missy sat still. "You two are weirding me out."
"Is Matt really strong, Brenna?"
"Uh-huh, and gentle, too."
Missy pulled her arm away from Krista. "Okay, Kris, I think it's long past bedtime for everyone. You have work in the morning."
"Yes, she does. I'm going to get the cots out so we can get some sleep."
"Not sleepy," Brenna mumbled.
Missy patted the tiny brunette's head with her free hand. "Which is why you're half-asleep now? I need my arm back, Bren." Missy slowly slipped her arm out of Brenna's grasp. She sat her friend up. Brenna turned slightly, letting her head down on the couch's armrest.
Krista got to her feet. "Won't the owner be upset if we sleep here?"
"She'll be angry if her friends got hurt on their way home."
"Don't want to go home. Gracie will make me walk on towels."
Missy smirked. "And then there's that new torture Bren's sister created."
"She'll yell at me if I don't stay on the towel. She even made Matt stand on it."
Missy shrugged. She stood up. "I've got blankets over in the closet if you want to get them, Kris. I'll go get the cots."
"What about the owner?" Krista persisted.
"Missy's the owner," Brenna answered. "Duh."
"Cool." Krista walked over to the closet.
Missy took the distraction as her time to escape. In the store's storage room, she found the camping cots she kept for when she had to work late in the night. As Brenna had said, Missy did own the store, taking over from the previous owner after working there for a year. The store wasn't the dream job she wanted after graduating university, but it let her spend time near the beach and keep up with the coming and goings of people. Besides, Missy couldn't think of any other job that would let her wear cut off shorts and a bikini top to work.
She hauled the cots out from storage. After a quick wipe with a cloth to get the dust off , Missy carried them to her office. Brenna was still curled up on the couch, her breathing deep and regular. Krista had the blankets out and was holding them despite swaying on her feet. Missy set down the cots and started to set one up. Krista walked over, watching over her tall friend's shoulder. "Whose bed is that?" she asked.
"Yours." Missy straightened up. "Hand me a blanket?"
Krista gave the top blanket from her stack to Missy. "Where are you going to sleep?"
"I've got a second cot." Missy spread the blanket on top of the camping bed. "There. Pleasant dreams." She took the rest of the blankets from Krista and helped her drunk friend get settled in.
Missy took another blanket and tossed it over Brenna as the tiny brunette slept on the couch. Stepping back, she leaned against her desk. Sometimes, being built like an Amazon had its advantages. There was no other way she could have gotten both of her friends out of the bar and into her car, Missy figured. Just being able to hold on to Brenna with one arm helped, but Krista needed help getting herself in the Volvo. She watched her friends as they got comfortable. Krista fell asleep almost has fast as Brenna had. Missy went back to work, setting up her own cot and throwing a blanket on top. She set the store's burglar alarm, turned off the overhead lights, then climbed into her bed. One of the drawbacks of her Amazon stature struck; Missy's feet hung over the edge of the cot, out from under the blankets. Missy curled up the best she could, and fell asleep.
Brenna woke up the next day in an unfamiliar bed. Her mind felt like moss had grown in it overnight. She tried to roll on to her back, but was stopped by something padded. Brenna opened her eyes, blinking twice from the bright light on. The first thing she noticed was that she was lying down on a couch. The next was Krista sleeping on a cot. Brenna pushed herself up to sit on the couch, wrapping her blanket around her. As the rest of the room came into focus, she recognized Missy's office. A bottle half filled with water sat beside the couch. Brenna reached for it, removed the cap, and took a long swallow.
With her mouth no longer feeling parched, she got up and walked in stocking feet to the office door. She listened, trying to determine if the store was open for business. The door opened and Missy walked in. She stopped when she saw Brenna. "Good morning. How are you feeling today?"
"Confused." Brenna looked back at Krista's sleeping form. "When did we get here?"
"After we left the bar," Missy explained. "You two were drunk off your asses. I figured it'd be easier for all of us to sleep it off here than try to fit three people in my double bed."
"There would have been space at my place."
"Yeah, but your sister would have made us go through the Walking On Towel test before she let us in."
"The what?" Brenna gave her head a shake to clear out the cobwebs. "Did we go to my place?"
"No. Your sister had some towel torture going on that you didn't want to deal with."
"What? No, Grace wasn't doing anything to towels."
Missy smiled. "That's not what you said last night."
Brenna rubbed her temple. "I don't remember saying anything like that."
"Do you remember us arriving here?"
"How drunk was I?"
"You still have your clothes on. Your shoes are near the desk. Better let Kris sleep a little longer. She had far more than you did."
Brenna tiptoed to retrieve her footwear. She followed Missy out on to the sales floor. "What time is it?"
"A bit past eight. The store's not open yet. I was going to go grab breakfast once one of you two woke up. Do you mind a breakfast taco? I think that's all that's open around here."
"Sure, thanks." Brenna leaned against the counter as she put her shoes back on. "Why did you bring us here?"
"I have more space here than at my apartment." Missy grabbed her purse. "Let the phone go to voice mail if it rings. No one should be coming here for another half hour, so you shouldn't have to worry about the door. There's water in the fridge in the office if you're thirsty and make sure Kris rehydrates herself."
Brenna nodded at the instructions. "Missy, before you go, how did we pay for all the booze?"
Missy smiled. "The latest crop of graduating engineers were also at the bar. Apparently, they appreciate cute girls."
"Oh. Wow. And I didn't, you know, do anything? In public?"
"Relax. I was looking out for you." Missy patted her friend's shoulder. "And some breakfast will help you get your head straight."
"Thanks, Missy. For everything."
"That is it!" Tricia cut her hand through the air. A diagonal slash appeared on the remains of a tree trunk. A moment later, the trunk exploded into splinters. "I do not need more practice!"
Oh, yes, because trees are so inherently dangerous, standing still.
"You sarcasm is noted."
Perhaps if you tried using your new friend as a moving target, I'd be more impressed.
Tricia stormed to her Lexus. "I have full control over the magic flowing through me. More control than ever. What more do I need to learn?"
"I have been researching this ever since I was in secondary school." Tricia unlocked her car. "I have put up with ridicule, with the rubes around going on mindlessly, pursuing such mundane goals and wondering why I wasn't chasing the same rabbit. Me, I wanted more." She got into the luxury vehicle. "Power. And since getting it through the normal channels is a fool's errand, trying to get the sheep to recognize me as their leader, backstabbing. Politics." Tricia started the engine. "However, magic? That is power. That is what will propel me. So, no, don't worry. I know what I am doing and I am going to be damned certain that I will make no mistake."
You had better. Much rides upon your abilities now.
Tricia called to her skeletal minion. The remains of her secretary climbed into the trunk of the Lexus, closing it from within. "We are going back to the city, where I can get a proper night's sleep in my own bed, eat a proper meal, and take a long bath followed by a soak in the hot tub. Then, maybe, I'll be more open to your tutoring." Tricia turned the Lexus around, driving it back up the fire road to the main highway. "Until then, I don't want to hear a word about the flow of magic through me."
"However, you have footprints on my car."
"I have the photos I want you to look at."
"You're not about to track blood into the house, are you?"
"Did I just identify your dead person?"