Chapter 8: …And Many Happy Returns

"Do you really have to go back, Kiersten?" Ickis complained. "This place is just gonna be so dead without you around."

The girl smirked. "It’s like I said… you guys are deprived. You really ought to try to work in some fun now and then!"

Oblina sighed. "I’m going to miss you too, I’m afraid. Class won’t be the same without you throwing new facts about humans at the Gromble… Snorching or no Snorching."

"Yep… Me too, girlfren’, me too. Never had class discussions so… so…" She searched for the right word.

"Fervent? Divided? Suspenseful?" Oblina supplied.

Kiersten chuckled. "I was thinking more along the lines of ‘loud’…"

"Troublemaker…" Oblina kidded.

"I’m gonna miss you too… the room’s gonna seem so empty without you there anymore," Krumm muttered in his bass rumble.

"Come on now.. you guys are acting like this is the end of the world! It’s not like I’m going off to fight a war or anything! Ya know? Three’s company, four’s a crowd?" Kiersten wished she would back up what she was saying to her roommates and the rest of the crowd of monsters surrounding her to see her off. She herself really didn’t want to leave them all. She’d found a new home at the Academy, but now it was time to go back and face her demons.

"It’s.. just not going to be the same," Ickis muttered, almost too low for her to hear, but not quite.

"I’ll come back!" Kiersten promised. "Tell ya what, if I’m not back in a day or so, come after me. You can show up and spend a week or two at the Colony… I owe you that much for the exchange program." She looked to the Gromble. "After all, it’s not quite an exchange if it only works one way, right?"

"Well said, Miss Kiersten. Though I must say I am sad to see you go, as well. Classes have never been quite so… er, loud, before you were around. And it always pains me to lose good students to the outside world…"

"Would y’all quit acting as if I was dyin’ or something? Jeez…" Kiersten nodded to the headmaster and shook one of his gloved claws. "Take care, old monster. It’s been real. G’bye, everyone!" she shouted and waved and arm over her head for all to see, and started on her way out of the dump. She’d walked over a mound of garbage, strangely repulsed now by what she had been eating a day earlier, and out of the sight of the monsters before she realized someone was following her. "Ickis, come on… don’t make this harder than it has to be…" She stopped and turned around, stopping the little monster in his tracks.

"I…" he started, blushing a darker shade of bruise-red. "I guess I really didn’t get to say goodbye. And good luck." He paused thoughtfully. "Do you really have to—"

"Ickis, we’ve been through this! It’s time I got back on the horse that threw me."

He paused, thinking. "What’s a horse?"

Kiers huffed in frustration. "Look, we discussed it, right? I need to go back. Bad things are happening there without me… Lisa and Jenn couldn’t lead their way out of a ziplock bag, and all of my friends, the ones that didn’t want this happening in the first place, are suffering for it! Suffering, Ickis… and if I don’t do something—even if it’s not taking the Colony back over—they’re just going to go on suffering, and starving, and getting bossed around by those two twits who don’t have a brain between them!"

Ickis stared at her this whole time with a mix of concern, envy, and brokenheartedness etched on his face. "I’ll miss you," he said finally. "A lot."

She grinned at him sympathetically over her shoulder, a sadder look in her eyes. "I’ll miss you too, Icky. Come an’ see me soon, okay?"

"You betcha." His expression lightened as she set off again, refusing to turn back and look to see if he was still there. He was. For a long time.

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The road home was a long one, not made any shorter by Kiersten’s meandering wild-goose shortcuts. It sure hadn’t seemed this long on the way out…

Kiersten tucked a note about remembering to look up in an atlas just how far she’d come into the back of her mind. It was a big accomplishment to have run the whole distance, panic and fury or no. Maybe she’d even be in shape enough to try out for the Boston Marathon. She ducked through the swarms of humans—she wasn’t quite willing to accept that she was still one herself, as if spending a stint as a monster excused her from becoming one again from another stay in the machine—and easily slipped back into the pattern of urban life. It drove her crazy, wanting to scare and forcing those feelings back down. She might be able to freak out the humans around her by yelling and baring what was left of her fangs, but not in the sense of run-down-the-street-screaming-bloody-murder terror. She would get stared at, mumbled about behind hands, and quietly passed over… just one more kook in a city full. A rather disheartening notion, once she got to thinking about it.

As she walked, she realized that she was almost glad to go back… she had gotten used to seeing Ickis and Krumm and Oblina on a more or less hourly basis, and her other monster friends—Horrifica, Dizzle, Jigger, Hairyette, and the rest—pretty much daily. She had fit right in at the Academy, and she was a natural at scaring. But despite all that, Kiersten realized that she missed her friends and wanted to go back to what had been her home. She’d missed it. She wondered offhand if anyone, while they were scrounging around pillaging her house, had remembered to water her vegetables.

She wondered what everyone was doing.

She wondered if they were still there at all.

And if they were, would they take her back? How would she explain to them where she had been, and why she was as nice and cleaned up as she was, for being away for a good three or four weeks? * ‘Yeah, guys… I got myself turned into a monster and lived underneath the dump for a month’… Oh, they’re really gonna believe that one, Kiers…* she told herself. Still, nothing else she could come up with would really hold water.

Then there came the problem of Lisa and Jenn. Kiersten knew that they had taken over when she had left. Were they still there? What would they do if she came back? Would they give her back control? *No, I’d think not… after all, why else would they be trying to get me to leave in the first place? It wasn’t just because I’m a dork… because dork or no, my friends would have backed me. Wouldn’t they?* Her own thoughts echoed in her mind. *Wouldn’t they?* And more importantly, *What am I going to do?*

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Erica had been sent to stand watch. It was a far cry from the semi-fun two-hour shifts that the Colony had worked out. Now, with Lisa and Jenn’s Hostile Dictatorship in charge, the entire system had gone to rot. A four hour shift was a mercy, especially so in this heat! Nearly everything had been stripped from the watchtower’s wooden haven, including the battery-powered fan that would have provided so much more comfort. Still, getting to sit for a while was better than the work the others were forced into at the threat of Jenn and her whip hovering over them. She had found it one day when she was cleaning out her house: an old black leather riding crop with a braided whip at its point. All of the Colonists had felt it at some point. Some more than others. Erica winced. She thought she could hear it snap against someone’s back a few blocks off, where the two dictators were having the Colonists, now prisoners in their own refuge, scavenge for food, money, and just about anything else that struck them as ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’ at the spur of the moment. It was a crime what they were getting away with.

It wasn’t that the Colonists hadn’t tried to get away… Lord knows they had. Only one of their attempts was successful: Stephen had managed to get away and returned to his home, with the parents who had every intention of making him into a lawyer, despite his "temporary amnesia," as he claimed. Once he had a plan worked out, he fully intended to come back to the Colony under fall of night and help to overthrow the Twin Bitches. Tia, Paige, and Libbi had taken a brutal whipping after that one, after Jenn found out what they had done. The whip would leave its mark on their backs for the rest of their lives, lashed and re-lashed skin leaving strange scar lines across all of their backs. That wasn’t the real thing keeping them there… The reality that had sunk into all of the Colonists was that they had nowhere else to go. Their previous homes, for the ones who still had parents (who had stayed in the state; Erica’s own mother and father were probably well on their way to Texas by now), were not much less Hell than what they were putting up with now!

Given the chance though, Erica knew, any of them would run and leave the rest behind.

*If Kiersten hadn’t left, maybe things would still be okay…* she thought. Sighing, she peered through the telescope, scanning the eastern half of the neighborhood. She was so busy concentrating on her own thoughts that she almost passed right over the small moving dot, heading straight up the main road. She hadn’t really expected anything to happen, same as all her other shifts in the tower before. Erica focussed the old telescope in with one hand.

*No, no, it can’t be! Hallelujah!* Erica nearly fell down the battered rope ladder, running to greet Kiersten home…

…and suddenly found her path blocked by someone twice her own height, tapping a riding crop and whip in one hand. Jenn.

She gasped and cringed.

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Kiers jogged along at a rather bored and impatient pace, good though it was to be past the barricades and so close to home. She sent a glance toward the watchtower, and saw the reflection off the glass of the telescope. If there was anyone up there, they would certainly have seen her by now. The scope had to be pointed straight at her for her to see that kind of glint at all. She waved toward the tower exaggeratedly, wondering who was on watch. *Someone was watching, right? I mean, they couldn’t be that stupid…*

She saw someone in the road up ahead. Actually, two people, one towering over the other. She heard Erica shriek in terror before she realized what was going on, and as her mind realized and became increasingly angered, Kiersten’s feet broke into an exhausted but desperate run toward Jenn.

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"You weren’t thinking of deserting, were you, Erica?" Jenn asked snidely, tapping the riding crop in one hand. "We knew some of you would… that’s why Lisa and I decided to keep a watch on the watchtower while we worked. I suppose you wouldn’t have noticed, being so occupied at keeping a watch, now, would you? You remember what the punishment for desertion is, don’t you?"

Erica didn’t reply, just backed herself up as much as she could manage without Jenn getting suspicious. But of course, Jenn was suspicious anyway. She closed the distance easily, setting a hand gently on Erica’s shoulder. "You know I don’t want to have to do this, especially to you little kids…" She smiled that same evil smile that had driven Kiersten out. Erica felt it; there was no defeating that smile. "Now, turn around, and I’ll try to go easy." She raised the whip above her head, poised to strike the little eight-year old. Erica turned around and scrunched her eyes shut, bracing for the sting of the whip across her back.

SNAP! A deft hand grabbed hold of the riding crop causing it to bend at and angle it wasn’t meant to when Jenn brought it forward. Jenn was left holding the handle of the riding crop. "Wha??!" She gasped, whirling around to face her new adversary.

Kiersten smiled at her, enough to rival Jenn’s own sickening smile. "Hey, Jenn. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to play nice?"

"You..!!" Jenn launched herself at the intruder, earning herself the other half of the riding crop in her face and a quick trip to the pavement over Kiersten’s outstretched leg. Kiersten grabbed a handful of hair close to the scalp and dragged her back to her feet. Then she drew back her right arm and flattened Jenn’s nose with her fist. Jenn splayed across the road on her back, unconscious and dripping blood from one nostril, nose not yet showing the signs of swelling it would when her body functions caught up to where her body had landed.

Erica blinked, awed as the dictator sprawled to a stop on the street. She turned and ran into Kiersten’s arms on the verge of tears. Kiersten hugged her tightly, Erica did the same in return. "Heya kiddo," Kiers said softly.

"Welcome back," Erica sniffled.

Kiersten sighed, looking Jenn over and shaking her hand out. "Know where there’s some rope?"

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Kiersten peered around her. "Getting kinda dark. Looks like rain," she mused. "So these jerks took over everything?" She gaped, prodding the unconscious Jenn with a toe. "I was afraid of that. Getting violent too, aren’t they?"

Erica peered out of the watchtower to check for trouble, and not seeing Lisa, continued her explanation. "Devon’s been getting the worst of it, since you named her as ‘second in command.’ Lisa really resented it, I guess. Any chance she gets, any reason, out come the whips." Erica’s look became sympathetic as her friend sighed and put her head in her hands, shaking it back and forth miserably. "We got Stephen out. He made it home, and was intending to come back as soon as he came up with some way to help us out."

Kiersten looked up. "Does anyone else know about the colony, then?"

The smaller girl shook her head, brown hair flopping across her eyes. "He faked am.. amee… that thing where you forget when you get bonked on the head or something?"

Kiers chuckled. "Amnesia."

"Yeah, that. No one’s come looking for us."

Kiersten nodded. "Mmmkay. I think it’s high time I took back over. Wouldn’t ya say, kiddo?"

Erica grinned widely. "You bet!"

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After a rather short discussion of what was to be done, the two of them slid down the rope ladder. Erica sneaked off in the direction of Lisa’s so-called "work crews" to spread word of the revolution. In their discussion, it was clear that a violent overthrow would be the only way to take the Colony back. Kiersten never considered violence an option, but in this case, she didn’t see any other way if she was going to get out of it in one piece. She wandered up the main road, wondering if she was really up to this, what she would say, what she would do. There were plenty of things she wanted to tell Lisa, Lord knew, but would have to edit for the sake of fragile young ears present. Her mind rehearsed various bits of these speeches as she wandered.

Unfortunately, she never got to recite the brilliant, passionate speech she had planned. Devon and Manda appeared in the street ahead of her, followed by Lisa, wielding a long leather strip in one hand. This was their idea of control: take by force.

"Get moving," Lisa demanded, brandishing the strap authoritatively. When both paused to exchange a glance, the whip lashed severely across their backs. Devon, already wounded, yelped and fell forward, only to be hit again.

Kiersten felt the rage boil up inside her. A pair of tears clouded her vision and then fell away, leaving no more in their wake. Every inch of her, from the core of her being, cried, I won’t let you do this!! Her breathing became heavy, her eyes bloodshot to the point where one could almost say they were luminescent…

The storm had moved directly over them. Bolts of lightening crackled over their heads as Lisa suddenly realized a fourth presence on the road.

Letting go of everything holding her back, Kiersten let out and inhuman wail, drowning out the thunder, and charged her adversary.

Running on pure and sweet adrenaline, she never noticed her wings jutting out of her back, didn’t feel a thing when her long tail shot out from her spine. A flash of lightening behind her made an eerie silhouette, showing crisply the sharp claws at the end of each of four fingers. Her snout also formed, open in a snarl, as she made a lunge at her victim.

Lisa, who had watched this odd transformation in frozen horror, bolted away from the apparition as fast as her tennis shoes would carry her. Unluckily for her, flight has the advantage over running shoes, and Kiersten easily overtook her, swooping around to cut off Lisa’s path and bash her in the ribs with her tail at the same time. Landing in a fighting stance as the girl attempted to get her wind back, she unsheathed her claws and bared her fangs. All thought of her elegant speech had been put out of her mind. The only thing present now was the hate, the fury she had against this human. A low, rattling growl emanated from her throat, past the rows of malevolent ivory spikes of her fangs. The girl let out a labored squeak and staggered backward.

Manda and Devon scrambled to get out of the way as Lisa nearly backed over them. The dragon snarled maliciously and spread her wings out behind her, almost creating a barrier between the four of them and the rest of the world.

"What are you? What do you want?" the skinny blonde shrieked.

Kiersten’s vocabulary wasn’t up and working, however, and the only answer Lisa received was another low and unhappy rumble, and a flash of red in the dragon’s eyes.

The girl turned to run and managed to get half a block before she was brought down under Kiersten’s full weight, with twelve razor-tipped claws pricking into the skin of her back. In a desperate attempt to get away, Lisa threw her attacker from her back and pelted for her house. The dragon landed on her back with an expression of shock, more than anything, turned over and got back to her feet, shaking herself to clear some of the haze and pain from her mind. It was quite possible she let Lisa reach the house; she certainly could have run after her or flown into her and brought her down. Lisa’s reaching the porch and bounding up the steps in terror was no accident, and certainly not luck.

A moment later, the girl burst from her front door and out onto the wide deck, brandishing a 20-20 shotgun, pilfered from some house or another in the old neighborhood. She took aim on Kiersten just as the dragon reared back on its hind legs and launched itself skyward.

CRACK! The rifle report echoed through the block. The Colonists, two blocks away and listening avidly to Erica’s tale of Kiersten’s return, froze, exchanged glances, then as one entity, jumped up and ran for the main block.

Devon and Manda squealed as the rifle went off, grabbing their ears and ducking. Devon looked to where the dragon had been a second before. It wasn’t in the air where it should have been, it wasn’t on the ground where it should have fallen had Lisa wounded it. In fact, it simply wasn’t.

Lisa’s reaction was similar, though after a few seconds of silence on the block, as the first spatters of rain began falling, she held the gun up over her head and danced around on her porch. "I got it! I got the bastard!" But after a second, the hairs of the back of her neck began prickling. She whipped around suddenly, facing the dragon blocking her doorway as it gave a scratchy hiss. She could see the creature’s chest heaving in and out steadily, scaled green skin stretched tautly over the slight frame. She brought the butt of the rifle back to her shoulder, trying to get the sights lined up on the dragon, but before she could even find the crosshairs, the gun was snatched out of her hands by a powerful green claw.

Kiersten looked the gun over. "Nice," she finally said, and bit through the gun in three places. Once through the loaded stock, twice through the barrel. It crumpled and splintered in her teeth like it was a toothpick and tinfoil instead of thick wood and metal.

Lisa backed up until her back bumped against the wooden rail that ran around the deck. She was cornered on her own porch. "Wh-what do you want?" she stammered weakly.

The dragon let out a snorting laugh. "What do I want? WHAT do I WANT?? She jumped at Lisa in an aggressive gesture, fanning her wings over her head. "I want you to DIE!!" Lisa cringed and screamed. "You drove me out, took over my home, beat my friends into doing what you commanded… I want you DEAD!" She paused, and stared at the tiny, shaking ball of human before her. "But I’m no murderer. I can’t even stand to have a worm like you on my conscience. So get out, you traitor, before I decide I like the taste of humans. You will tell no one of us, and you will never come back, or I’ll hunt you down, and kill you with my bare teeth. GO. Take Jenn with you, she’s in the watchtower."

The girl stood cautiously as the dragon backed off, leaning on the rail until she could trust her rubberized knees not to give out on her. Then she carefully walked hand over hand along it to the steps.

"Oh, and Lisa…" the dragon called cheerily. Lisa turned warily around, only to receive a diagonal slash across her face. As she shrieked and threw her hands up, too late to defend herself, Kiersten told her viciously, "Something to remember me by."

Lisa wasted no more time, dashing off into the rain to collect her cohort in the watchtower, leaving a bleeding trail behind her. Kiersten could smell it, and the scent was highly gratifying. It was her first taste of bloodlust, though she calmed herself and let it go.

Shifting from anger to relief, breathing heavily, somehow the claws disappeared, the tail retracted itself, and her draconic snout had retreated, leaving her plain human features in its wake. She folded her wings, taking a moment to marvel at them, let out a weak half-chuckle, and toppled down the porch steps in a dead faint.

Devon and Mandy, crouched together in the street while witnessing the whole event, all but tore up the pavement as they rushed to their friend’s aid. "Kiersten? Kiersten, can you hear me? Kiersten?" Devon gently shook the body spread across the three stairs.

"I think she’s in shock," Manda diagnosed.

"I sure would be after that…" Devon added.

"Nothing really looks like it’s broken or wounded… but, with these…" She lifted a wing carefully. Manda shrugged confusedly. "Grab a couple of the others and let’s get her inside and in bed."

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Tia and Paige, the first of the Colonists to reach the block at an all-out sprint were nominated to help carry Kiersten into her house, depositing her lightly on the bed.

"Dear God…" said Paige as she fist saw Kiersten’s new appendages. "What in the world are those?"

Later that evening, with night rapidly falling, only Manda and Devon remained at the bedside. Kiersten’s breathing had become shallow, and she still hadn’t revived. "She might’ve gotten a slight concussion from falling down the steps, is all I can figure, aside of…" she flipped a finger at the wings, one propped at an awkward angle against the wall, the other hanging off the side of the bed. Manda blinked. "Do you think we should tell the others? I mean, remember how upset the Geemur was when—"

"I know," Devon interrupted her. "Not just yet. I want to make sure she wakes up before we get everyone’s hopes up. Who knows if it’s even safe to have her around? She could go berserk again and hurt one of us."

Manda shook her head. "She wouldn’t. Remember, she saved our butts this afternoon." Manda paused, thinking to herself. "You did see that, didn’t you? I mean, it wasn’t all some trick, smoke and mirrors or something, right?"

Devon shook her head. "Nope, I saw it all too. This is real, weird as it all seems. We’re just gonna have to wait for Kiers to wake up and explain everything to us." She gave Manda a slight smile, which waned as she glanced out the window at the half moon. "I’ll keep an eye on her tonight, if you wanna switch off in the morning…."

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