Layuerk

Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks go to all of the incredible $10+ donators to my Patreon for these snippets! Remember, $10 may get you one 500 word snippet per month, but a mere $5 gets you every chapter one day early, and $3 gets you the interludes a day early! Not to mention the ability to vote on upcoming end-of-arc interludes with bonus points! 

Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

Listening to Professor Dare extol the evils of non-humans as well as the virtues of Heretics and the creation of the Heretical Edge thanks to the incredible genius of the clearly charming and handsome Hieronymous Bosch made Aylen Tamaya want to stab herself in the ears. At least then she wouldn’t have to listen to the bullshit until her hearing came back. Though, on the other hand, doing something like that might possibly attract some curiosity from the teacher who was, at this moment, going on about how Heretics were the lone defense against the hordes of evil that would wipe out civilization and so on and so forth. Frankly, Aylen didn’t think the woman’s heart was really in her explanation. It kind of felt like she was saying the right words without totally feeling it. 

But then, Aylen was probably just projecting her own feelings onto a woman who had given this same or similar speeches for decades. The lack of true fire behind the words probably had more to do with how often she’d explained all this rather than any lack of conviction. The worst thing Aylen could do here, right in the camp of the enemy, was start thinking that any of them could be trusted. While the majority clearly believed they were doing the right thing rather than being actively malicious, that was no consolation. They’d been raised to be fanatics, and she had no doubt they would take that fanaticism far enough to kill her if they knew what she really was. 

This was dangerous. It was so dangerous. Being here, talking to these people, letting them think she was one of them… it could go wrong in so many ways. But she had to. This was the best–only chance that her family had to free Mother’s father, Aylen’s Reaper grandfather. That was confusing, given the Grandfather she had grown up with. She needed another name.  

Lost in thought as she was (not to mention the fact that she was intentionally ignoring the ‘everything else is evil, humanity fuck yeah speech), she almost missed the fact that Professor Dare was activating the lever. Light suddenly filled the room, drawing everyone’s eyes while the woman called for them to gaze into it and to not look away. With the dramatic declaration that this was the Heretical Edge, the light grew blindingly bright, taking away all other vision as the students around her were all swept away into the Edge Visions that would turn them into Bosch Heretics. 

But Aylen was different. She was already part-Reaper. Everything the Bosch Heretics could do, she was already capable of. That and more, given Grandfather’s tinkering. There was nothing for the Edge to do to her. And yet, the light still blinded her. And as her vision cleared a few moments later, Aylen still found herself elsewhere, just as her fellow students would have. 

Specifically, she was standing in her own living room–no. No, this wasn’t their most recent living room. It was the living room of the house they had lived in when Aylen was still only seven years old. That was the first time she remembered hearing enough of the story about where Mother’s father was and what Heretics were to actually understand it. It was the room Aylen had been sitting in, with Mother and Mama, when she first resolved to somehow, someday, save Mother’s papa. The thought that her beloved mother had been without her own father through her entire life had left the young Aylen stricken, and she’d promised that she would someday help free him. Neither of her mothers had taken it entirely seriously at the time, but she was determined.

And now, here she was. Years later, facing the Heretical Edge, Aylen was here in this room again. 

“Interesting.” 

That single word came from behind Aylen, and she spun to find herself facing a figure she had previously only seen in drawings and in magic projections. It was a tall man, with sharply, almost achingly pretty features that reminded her of the elves in the Lord of the Rings movies. His skin was bone-pale, his hair as blue as the sky. Eyes that were deep violet stared at her, seeming to take in every feature with an intense curiosity. He gazed into her, reading things even Aylen wasn’t aware of. The power and authority radiating from his form made her reflexively gasp. She felt, in that moment, the way ancient, primitive man gazing up into the wonder of the sun must have felt. An apt comparison, for the power in this man compared to her own was that of the sun to a primitive human. He was more than she had ever truly expected him to be. 

“Grand…. father… “ Aylen whispered, staring at him as her mouth fell open. Everything she had planned out to say, everything she wanted to explain, was washed away in that moment. She knew nothing, she thought nothing. She could only stare. 

He had only said that single word, before falling silent when she turned to him and spoke her own single word. For the several long seconds, neither said anything else. Aylen could see, could practically feel, the old Reaper taking in everything about her. His gaze, once it was done taking her in, slowly panned around the living room. He looked to the pictures and paintings on the wall, to the television where DVD’s of her favorite childhood movies were stacked up, and to the baby blanket neatly folded on the nearby chair. A blanket she still had to this day. Through it all, Aylen remained silent. Something told her not to interrupt, to let this go at his pace, not her own. 

Finally, those intense eyes returned to her own gaze. And in that moment, they softened. The dark, almost black purple turned a more gentle violet as he spoke three words in a voice that was so small, so vulnerable and hesitant that Aylen thought there was no conceivable way it could have come from the blindingly powerful figure in front of her. 

“She is alive?” 

Those three words, that single question from the being who served as the linchpin of the entire Bosch Heretic society and empowered literally thousands of beings, came wrapped in the emotion of a man who had lost his child eons ago. It was the emotion of a man who had forgotten what it was like to hope that such a child had survived, whose heart had long-since abandoned those thoughts. 

The words came from a man who had entered this room and had that hope rekindled in the form of the girl standing before him. Those long-extinguished flames had begun to smolder once more. 

Somehow, Aylen found her voice. “My… my mother. My mother is your daughter.” 

The man said nothing, not aloud anyway. But his eyes. When she looked into his eyes, Aylen saw a rush of emotion. Those embers of hope she felt before had flickered into a small, yet fierce flame with a heat that drove away what had clearly been cold certainty of his daughter’s loss. 

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

So, she did. Walking through the house of her memories, Aylen spoke with her mother’s father for what felt like hours. She had no idea how these visions worked for the actual Heretics, but she seemed to be there for much longer than was actually possible. She told him of her mothers, of her own birth, of her other grandfather. She told him of her mission here. 

“I’m going to get you out of this place,” she promised him. By that point, the two were back in the living room. Through all of that, neither had touched the other. She didn’t feel right making that sort of assumption, and he had not extended his own hand through their discussion. “I don’t know how yet, but that’s why I’m here. It’s the whole reason I came to this place. I promise, no matter what, I–” 

In mid-sentence, the phone on the nearby wall interrupted Aylen by ringing. Her gaze snapped toward it with confusion, but her grandfather simply looked at it without moving. A moment later, it stopped. She was about to ask why the phone would ring in her vision, when he spoke instead. “You… you said your name was Aylen?” When she nodded, he continued. “Aylen, I believed my daughter, my only living heir, was dead since before I was trapped in this place. I have spent millennia believing the only child I would ever have was gone forever. Listen now. In telling me that she lives, in telling me that my… my child has survived all this time… you have already freed me from far darker a prison than this could ever be.  

“You, Aylen, are my granddaughter. You are my proof that my child is not dead, my proof that she has lived a life, that she has known happiness. Even if I could not be there, you are my proof that she has stood, learned, lived, and loved. You say you have come to free me? Your existence is my freedom.”

After saying those words, the old Reaper raised a hand. Only then did he finally touch Aylen. His palm pressed against her cheek, as he exhaled slowly. “Granddaughter. When your grandmother spoke of children, grandchildren, and on, I… I did not understand the concept. It took such time for her to explain the–” He stopped talking then, looking away as the phone rang once more. Again, the man made no move to answer it, instead staring until the ringing stopped. 

Aylen meant to ask about the phone. Instead, the words that first were, “What about Grandmother? What… happened?” 

“That is for another conversation,” he replied quietly. There was pain in his voice, a deep ache that had clearly yet to heal even all these centuries later. “I’m afraid our time here is still limited. You’ll be waking up soon. And I would rather not end our visit on such things.” 

“Grandfather, there’s… there’s more, there’s a lot more I want to say,” Aylen pleaded, though she wasn’t even sure who she was directing the plea to. He held no control over the fact that she would have to wake up and be amongst the true Heretics once more. “I don’t know how we’re going to get you out of this, but we will. I will. I’m here to find out everything I can about how the Heretics have you trapped. Once I do, Mother, Mama, the other Grandfather, we’ll all get you out. I promise. We will get you out of this. You’ll see her again. You’ll see Mother again.” 

She was embracing him. Aylen wasn’t even sure when or how that had happened. Her arms were around him, her face buried against his shoulder. She clung to the man, wanting to stay there and tell him everything about her life, everything about her mothers’ lives. That brief flicker of loss and pain she had seen when he thought of her grandmother made her want to stay forever and tell him everything he had missed. She desperately wanted to fill the emotional pit she had seen in him with everything she could. 

And then again, even as she felt herself begin to drift away from the vision, the phone rang once more. Aylen stubbornly clung to her grandfather, refusing to let go. The phone was louder. “What is it?” she demanded with confusion. “Who keeps trying to call you? I don’t–how are they calling you?” 

“It is symbolic,” he informed her in a quiet voice. “The phone you hear is a manifestation of my old power reaching out to me. If I establish contact, it will free me from this place.” 

Staring at him, aghast, Aylen blurted, “Wh-what?! Why–why wouldn’t you just answer then? If your power can free you, answer the–” 

“No.” His voice was sharp, even as Aylen realized that she had been reaching toward the phone herself. “It is the power of my darker self. The power of what the humans call a Hangman, an evil being bent entirely toward destruction and death.” 

Hand shrinking away from the phone, which had gone silent once more, Aylen murmured, “Your old power… it’s right there, and you’ve been ignoring it all this time. All you have to do is answer it, and if you did, you’d be free but… you’d be evil?” 

“Far worse than that,” her grandfather quietly replied. “I am connected to every Heretic created through the light or the apples. 

“If I become a Hangman, so will they.” 

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

 

“Don’t make me do this,” Cameron Reid pleaded. The black girl stood at the edge of a used car lot, beside a rusty old sedan that had been cleaned up as much as the employees could manage. She held a wicked-looking faintly curved short sword in each hand, with her favorite little friend, the blue-tongued skink named Tad Cooper (no one she talked to ever got the reference), perched on her shoulder. “Just walk away. We don’t have to do this. I don’t want to do this.” 

“You don’t?” Standing in front of her, long pike raised and pointed that way, Foster Remels snarled the two words. Foster was a light-skinned red-headed boy with the tattoo of a flaming skull on the exposed left shoulder of his sleeveless arms. “Good, does that mean you’re giving up this bullshit and not being a traitor anymore? Because that’d be pretty fucking spiffy, Cameron.” His eyes narrowed. “Otherwise, we really do have to do this. You come back, tell the Committee you’re sorry and you were just confused. They’ll understand, Cameron. Stop this. Help me kill the monsters, and we can all go home.”

At the word monsters, Cameron glanced sidelong toward the small group of blue-skinned humanoids huddled next to one of the nearby trucks. They were the owner of the car lot and his family/employees. Seeing them like that, huddled together while staring fearfully at the two squared-off Heretics, the lump in her throat at the idea of fighting one of her classmates and friends hardened. She swallowed it down, turning her attention back to Foster. “If you think not wanting to fight you is enough to make me change sides, then you don’t understand why I left in the first place.” 

“You’re right!” Foster snapped. “I don’t! We’re supposed to be the good guys, Cameron! We kill monsters and save people! We–” His burst of anger softened, the boy’s clear frustration melting into a desperate plea. “No, you’re right. I do get it. It’d be really nice to see all those creatures out there and think that we could be friends with them. I understand! I swear, I get it. And maybe someday we can! Maybe someday we can find another species to work with us! But not like this. Not by betraying our own people. Don’t you see? You and the others are doing exactly what the monsters want. They’ve been trying to create a civil war in Crossroads for all this time! They did it once before and we survived, and now they’ve done it again!”

For a moment, Cameron was silent. She thought about the students she had mentored back at Crossroads over the past year. They were all so different. Zeke, his incredible pride and hot-headedness repeatedly getting him in trouble despite his intentions. He came to her several times over the year trying to get help with his anger issues. In calm, private situations, the boy repeatedly planned out how to be ‘nicer,’ but in the heat of the moment, repeatedly fell back to the same attitude that got him in trouble. He and Malcolm Harkess, the remarkably gifted athlete and fighter despite his Bystander-kin origins who had ended up being one of Zeke’s closest friends despite their differences and constant arguments, had stayed back at Crossroads. 

Erin too. She was at Crossroads, though Cameron wasn’t sure why. She would have thought that someone like Erin would switch sides, given what she knew about the girl. And yet, here they were. 

Travis Colby, another Bystander-kin like Malcolm, had joined the rebellion. Actually, he’d followed Cameron. When she’d made the choice to follow Chambers and the others that fateful night, Travis had been behind her. She warned him about what she was doing, and he’d simply replied that if Jazz had a boyfriend who was a Stranger, then he wasn’t cool with killing all of them. 

Then there were the twins, Vanessa and Tristan. They, of course, switched sides. They were part of the switching sides. They weren’t even fully human, but hybrids. Humans mixed with a Stranger. 

Her team. The team she was responsible for mentoring, had been split in half. So why had Cameron chosen to switch sides? Why did she choose to go with the rebellion? 

“I don’t know,” she started out loud, “how many of the things out there who aren’t human are actually good. I don’t know how many of those claiming to be good for the rebellion actually are! I don’t know how many are faking it or might just go back to being monsters the second they get a chance. I don’t know! But I know one thing. I know the only way, the only real way, that someone who is bad becomes good is by being treated like they could be! If you treat people like monsters, if you hunt and kill them just for existing, you give them no choice but to act the way you’re treating them. If all you ever do is look for monsters, that’s exactly what you’ll find!

“I don’t know how much this will pay off. I don’t know if we’ll be betrayed. But we have to give it a chance. We have to try to treat them like we’d want to be treated.”

Pointing his pike past Cameron to the huddled figures, Foster declared, “They’re selling cars to humans and then selling their info to monsters who hunt down the humans in their homes.” 

“You don’t know that,” Cameron insisted. “That’s just what Crossroads told you. Why do you believe them?” 

“Because they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years!” he insisted. “Because they know better than you or me. I side with the people who protect humanity, Cameron, with the people who have always protected humanity. Maybe they’re not perfect, maybe we still have a long way to go as a group. But throwing that all away can’t be the right answer!” 

For a moment, the two squared off. Then Cameron turned her head and murmured something to Tad. The tiny lizard ran to the end of her arm, to her waiting hand. Cupped in her palm, the lizard started to glow as she used her favorite power before tossing him to the side. 

He was already growing. When he landed near the huddled family of Alters and straightened up, Tad Cooper was four feet tall and a solid twenty-feet long. He was a massive lizard, armored with scales that were as hard as steel. As he looked toward Foster, the lizard opened his mouth and sent out a rush of freezing breath that created an ice wall between them. 

“If he goes near those people, Tad,” Cameron ordered her empowered lizard, “put him on the ground.” 

Face sombering, Foster cracked his neck while lifting his pike. “So… it’s going to be like that.” 

“Yeah,” Cameron agreed, her own voice just as unhappy, yet equally resolved. “It’s going to be like that.” 

Then there was nothing more to say. The two former friends watched one another’s eyes, saw the impasse between them… and lunged to attack. 

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

 

Of all the great, remarkable, sometimes even terrible deeds that Alcaeus, once known as Heracles, had achieved in his incredibly long life, convincing Maria and Arthur Chambers to leave their home for an extended vacation had to be one of the most impressive.  

The two were long-retired and spent every day in their California home, where they had lived for almost their entire married life. When their ‘friend Al’ had come to them with a suggestion that they join him on a tour of the world, they had been a bit… uncertain, to say the least. When he explained that he was putting together a book about various tourist destinations specifically for the retired community and that he needed their perspective on all the places he was supposed to go for the book to work as intended, they had understood a little more. Though they had still been a bit surprised that his publisher was footing the bill for three people to go on this journey. 

But even with that explanation, Maria and Arthur had been hesitant. As much as this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see everything they had ever wanted, the two were content in their lives the way they were. Not only that, but with their son (as far as they knew) on a long undercover investigative assignment and their granddaughter away at private school, the two wanted to be close to home in case either needed them. 

Fortunately, Arthur was a bit of a tech-obsessed geek, particularly for an old man. He ended up pointing out to his wife that their cell phones would take calls from their son and granddaughter no matter where they were. And beyond that, their security system would let them know if anyone showed up at the door. If it was Felicity or Lincoln, Maria and Arthur would be able to talk to them through the doorbell camera and arrange for a flight out to meet wherever they happened to be. 

That was one of Maria’s primary conditions. She and Arthur set aside money for two separate plane tickets, enough to bring Felicity and/or Lincoln anywhere they were, no matter where that was. She insisted that if her son or granddaughter needed them, they would have the money, their own money, to fly them to DC, New York, London, Hong Kong, or anywhere else in the world. 

In the end, they did at least finally agree. Which allowed Alcaeus to get them out of their house and away from home on this globetrotting trip. It was a temporary measure, of course. But it would give him time to figure out just how serious the Seosten attempts to get at the two would end up being. It was a stop-gap, yet an important one. 

At the moment, they were in Alaska, staying in a hunting lodge. Al had taken his friends out to see all the incredible wildlife and stunning visuals that the area had to offer. They were in awe of it all, of course, and their own utterly stunned reactions to these things reminded Alcaeus of how much he took for granted. He had been on this world for so long, had seen so much, that he sometimes (often) forgot just how incredible it really was. 

They deserved to know more. They deserved the whole truth. And part of this trip, if the man was being honest with himself, was his own way of deciding if he should take that step or not. Because while they deserved the truth, they also deserved to live their lives without being dragged into the whole problems of Heretics, Seosten, and everything else. 

Yet, Al asked himself while standing on the porch of the hunting lodge with Maria and Arthur cuddling on the swing behind him, weren’t they already involved? Their granddaughter was a Heretic who had found out the truth about Seosten. Their son had somehow (assuming Al’s contacts were correct, and he believed they were) broken the Bystander Effect and figured out a lot of the truth on his own, and was even now living with the old Gabriel Prosser’s people. 

Yes, they were involved. The only real question was how involved. And Al thought he knew the answer. The only real answer was to give them the truth and let them decide for themselves. It would take some effort, there were things that needed to be collected to make the spell work. But once he did, he could temporarily remove the Bystander Effect and tell them the truth. Then he would let Arthur and Maria decide if they wanted to retain that knowledge and be a part of… of all this. Because the truth was, it wasn’t his choice. It was theirs. 

For now, however, he would simply keep them safe. And show them as much of the world as he could. To that end, he raised his hand to point. “If you’re up to it, in the morning–” 

Then it happened. In mid-sentence, a rush of memories burst forth out of nowhere, an explosion of knowledge that rocked Al backward. 

He had never been an official part of Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion. But he knew of it. And he had helped now and then, when possible. For the most part, the Alcaeus of that time simply wished to be left alone, if the threats weren’t world-ending, like the Fomorians. He had been trying to keep his ever-present temper in check, had tried to find true balance in his life between the good man he wanted to be and the embodiment of rage and destruction that he was so good at becoming. 

So, he had helped when needed, had served as a sort of… babysitter at times for those who were in danger and had nowhere else to turn. He had met Joselyn Atherby, had seen the strength in her. Strength was something he liked… a lot. And he liked her… a lot. For a man like Alcaeus, liking a woman generally meant one thing. And… well, this case was no different. The two of them had, with the blessing of her husband… Deveron, that was it, taken that liking to another level once or… twice or… 

Fuck, this was awkward. 

The rush of memories, the realization that he not only knew the woman who had supposedly abandoned Arthur and Maria’s son and granddaughter, but had actually slept with her (and quite enjoyed it, honestly), was almost more than even a man as strong as Alcaeus could handle. He stumbled back a step, gasping. Rebellion, Joselyn, the Atherbys, her daughter… Her daughter had awakened those memories, had awakened the rebellion. 

Arthur was suddenly there, a hand on Al’s arm while the other caught his back. Nearly half a foot shorter than Alcaeus despite being six-foot-five himself, he was still built sturdily enough to catch the stumbling man. “Whoa there! Hey, Al, you okay?” In the background, Maria was already insisting that her husband help him over to the swing while she called for a doctor. 

“No, no, I’m okay,” Al insisted, shaking his head. “Just got a little dizzy for a second. Long day.” 

“You come right over here and sit down,” Maria Chambers insisted, pointing to the swing. “I don’t want to hear any arguments, you understand? Get off your feet, now. You men, always pushing yourselves so far. Too damned stubborn to admit you’re getting too old for these things.” 

Letting himself be pulled by Arthur to sit down on the swing, Alcaeus mused inwardly. He’d thought that explaining the truth about this whole situation to his friends was going to be awkward before. 

Now? Now he was going to have to be good and god damned drunk before even starting. 

***************

Earth Club

 

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

As he blurted those words, the green-skinned boy known as Layuerk (or Lurk, as many called him), pumped his fists into the air and jumped up and down in front of the entrance to the most incredible, wonderful place he’d ever set foot near. Truly, the shining jewel of the vast universe.

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

“It’s radical, dude.” Stepping beside his friend, the Reusfiel (essentially an anthropomorphic fox-bunny) named Grisson added, “Cowabunga’s something you yell, like neat or yay. Something can’t be cowabunga. Come on, we watched every Ninja Turtles movie last week for a reason. So we sound like normal teenagers and don’t stand out. We’re supposed to be under cover.” 

As he said that, they were joined by a new figure. She stood two inches over six feet, with body entirely made of metal, and arms that reached all the way to the ground despite her height. Ferrdreis, the Ullmis. Her male twin, Aerlicht, was right behind her. “We are very good at being under cover,” Ferrdreis announced, before looking at a passing elderly couple who were on their way into the mall. “Greetings, Bodacious Lady and Sir Dude! May your days be totally tubular and free from bogus.” 

The couple stared at them for a moment, clearly confused before hurrying off. Watching them go, Ferrdreis tilted her head. “Perhaps it is my accent?” 

These four, the full members of what they had always called the Earth Club back in Seosten space, were finally here. They were here on Earth after so many years of picking up random toys, games, movies, and more from the place they had become obsessed with. With the arrival of the Aelaestiam station and its conversion to the Fusion School for Heretics and Alters, these four were finally able to live their dream of actually setting foot on Earth. And they were making the most of it. 

“I still don’t get it,” Layuerk insisted. “So you can yell radical, excellent, awesome, all those things. You can say yell those and something can be those. Like a radical car or an excellent movie. And you can also yell cowabunga, but something can’t be cowabunga? No, I refuse. This building is totally cowabunga!” 

“If you think this mall’s cowabunga, you’re gonna flip if we ever go to Mall of America.” The drawled announcement came from the Earth Club’s adult escort for this little trip, Deveron Adams. The handsome, dark-haired man stepped up onto the curb, accompanied by his teenage granddaughter, Koren Fellows. 

“One step at a time, Grandpa,” Koren teased the man. “Don’t overload their circuits.” Even as she said it, the girl was wincing with a look toward the two metal figures. “Errr, that wasn’t supposed to be a robot joke or anything. Not that I think you’re robots, it’s just–I mean I wasn’t–” 

“Would you like me to interrupt and pretend you never said anything?” Deveron asked conversationally. When the flushing girl covered her mouth with both hands and nodded, he turned his attention to the quartet. “Alright, guys, you remember the rules. We stay together. We’ll look at what you want to look at. There’s plenty of time and plenty of stores to see. They’ve got an arcade, a mini-golf place, a food court… let’s work our way toward the food court. We’ve got two hours before the movie in the theater. We’ll mosey that way, pick up some food, then see the movie. And what do you do in case of emergency?” 

In answer, all five teenagers held up their arms to display the wristwatches that had been enchanted with spells to teleport them to safety if a command word was spoken. 

“Good job.” With a smile, Deveron gestured. “Right then,

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

 

Stepping off the brightly lit sidewalk with a sharp pivot into a much darker alley, a frail-looking Asian woman wearing a long dark coat with a leather satchel over one shoulder strode smoothly in the shadows. Her feet announced her movement with each step that clicked against the dirty cement, until they simply… didn’t. Between one step and the next, she abruptly stopped providing any sound at all, her motions utterly silent. It was as if she had flipped a switch, no longer deliberately walking in a way to invite her pursuers into a false sense of superiority. 

It was to those pursuers that Jiao spoke, as she stopped walking a few feet from the wall marking the dead end of the alley. “If you would like to have a conversation, I have time now.” 

“A conversation?” The derisive voice came from the first of two orcs who stepped up into the opening of the alley. They were joined by a larger troll, who growled with annoyance while filling up the entire alley entrance. “Oh,” the orc continued, “we can have a really quick conversation. Just tell us where your husband is.” 

Still facing the wall rather than turning to them, Jiao tilted her head a little to gaze at the trio over her shoulder from the corner of her eye. “I would say you’ll have to narrow it down, given my apparent proclivity for wandering husbands. But I am afraid it would not be helpful, as I remain sadly unaware of the whereabouts of either.” 

The orc who had been speaking gave a dark chuckle. “You say a lot of words, but not the ones we wanna hear.” His eyes narrowed, and he produced a heavy flintlock-like enchanted pistol, pointing it at her. “We wanna know where Liang is. More to the point, our boss wants to know where he is. You can either tell us, or we’ll make you scream and see if he comes running.” 

Jiao’s response to the threat, as the second orc produced a glowing energy blade and the troll heaved a massive axe off his back, was a simple, “You are welcome to the attempt.” 

With a snarl, the orc pointed his enchanted gun and pulled the trigger, sending a concentrated blast of electrical energy (enough to put an Amarok on the ground), while the other orc dashed forward, energy-blade already lashing out to cut through the space the woman would have to dodge into. 

Or rather… the space she should have dodged into. But instead of moving that way, Jiao simply pivoted. Her left hand snapped upward, producing a small pistol of her own before firing off a single bullet, striking the hand of the lizard-like Alter who had been silently sneaking down the wall in an attempt to ambush her while she was distracted. With a yell as his hand was struck by the shot, the lizard-man plummeted off the wall and ended up falling directly into the path of the incoming ball of lightning. 

Meanwhile, Jiao’s other hand snapped backward and down, producing a pistol of its own before firing a shot into the knee of the orc who had just whiffed his laser-sword through the air where he’d thought she would be. He collapsed with a scream, before her pistol fired a second shot through the side of his head. 

Before the body could fall completely, the vampire used a very slight burst of speed to put herself on the opposite side of him just as another lightning ball from the first orc blew a hole in the wall where she had just been. Dropping both guns, Jiao hoisted the body of the second orc with one hand. A moment later, it was sent flying through the air. The first orc ducked, but the troll simply caught the incoming body with one hand. 

“That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch,” the orc snarled, already striding toward her with his magic pistol raised. “What the hell did you think that was gonna accomplish, huh?”

“What you should be asking yourself,” Jiao patiently and quietly replied, “is, if I threw him with one hand, why did I drop both guns?” 

“If you threw him with one–” As he echoed those words dismissively, the orc’s eyes suddenly widened as he saw that Jiao’s other hand wasn’t empty. Rather, it held a remote detonator. He spun back toward the troll, who was staring curiously at the dead orc in his massive hand. “Put him–” 

That was as far as he got, before the explosion blew the troll into little chunks. The force of the shockwave was enough to knock the living orc to the ground, where he lay with a groan before slowly lifting his head as the barrel of a pistol was placed calmly against it. 

“Perhaps,” Jiao began, as calmly as ever, “we can have that conversation about the gentleman who wishes to find my second husband now.”

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Lessons 32-06

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“You must remember to use all of your powers. Practice with every instrument that you possess, so that when you fight, your battles are a symphony.”

It was several days later, and I was standing in the backyard behind the house that Tabbris and I had been assigned, listening to Athena’s advice. Tabbris herself was sitting on a wooden swing hung from a tree nearby as she watched us.

Athena continued, “I have spoken to your partner.” She gestured that way. “And she has shown me some of her memories. You do quite well for the short amount of time you’ve been training, quite well indeed. But you do have a tendency to forget about the powers that you have access to. You focus on one or two in a battle, to the exclusion of others that could help you just as much, if not more. You must learn to use them all.”

After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “I know, it’s just kind of hard to remember everything I have access to in the middle of a fight. I have to focus.”

“Of course.” The woman’s head bowed in agreement. “It must become second nature, your powers must flow one into another and fit together seamlessly. For that, you require practice. Lots of practice.” Her smile quirked up a little bit. “After all, you can’t expect all of your Seosten opponents to be as arrogant and easily manipulated as Charmiene.”

Blinking at that, I blurted, “Okay, do you know what happened to her? You looked at me funny before when I brought her up, and you knew that I could possess you, but I’m not sure how much you… you know, how much you actually know.”

The woman’s eyebrow arched up slightly. “I was aware that you killed her, yes. The specific circumstances were… not explained. But knowing the former Nemesis as I do, I can make several educated guesses.”

Swallowing hard, I looked away for a second. “She possessed my teammate… my friend. She forced him to do awful things. And when we finally fought her, she was just…”

“Toying with you,” Athena finished quietly. “Allowing the fight to drag on far longer than it needed to. Charmiene would say that she was proving a point, breaking your spirit so that you would be more likely to fall in line.”

“Yeah, well she fucked up,” I muttered. “She dismissed Columbus, the boy she had been possessing. She dismissed him and he… hit her at just the right time. It left her open and I…”

“You took advantage.” Athena reached out, putting her finger under my chin to tilt it up. “Good,” she announced flatly. “Never hesitate to take any advantage you can get, Lady Felicity. Your enemies are far beyond you in straight capability. For you to succeed, or even survive, you will need to seize any and every possible edge. That includes cheating, if need be. All that matters is winning.”

Biting my lip, I met the woman’s gaze. “I’ll remember that, when I’m trying to deal with the rest of the Seosten on my list.”

That made her blink, head tilting curiously as she watched me for a moment. “You have a list of Seosten enemies?”

Despite myself, I flushed a little bit. “Yeah, well, they keep fucking with me and the people I care about. I–” Blinking up then, I quickly blurted, “I don’t suppose you have any idea who Manakel might be possessing at Crossroads?”

Her head shook, deflating that brief hope. “I am afraid I don’t have much contact with Earth at the moment. And what contacts I do have out here are either unaware of his host’s identity, or unwilling to share it. I have… made certain outreaches, anticipating that question. But thus far, they have not paid off.”

“If something does come back?” I asked then.

Athena gave a short nod. “I will inform you as soon as I know. You have my word.” She paused then before looking to me seriously. “When you killed Charmiene, you put a target on yourself, one that is even larger than what you already had. There are many Seosten crewmembers of the Olympus who will seek to end your life. You must be ready for them.”

She stepped back then while continuing. “And to be ready, you must train. So, let us begin with this sand manipulation power. Would you mind?”

Obligingly, I withdrew my staff from its place on my hip and triggered the button to let the sand come through the portal that was connected to the canister on my belt. As the sand poured out, I let it fly up and hover in a cloud between us.

Reaching out, Athena let her hand one through the sand for a second before looking to me. “Any fight in which your opponent has exposed eyes, or other ocular orifices, and you were not besieging them with this sand to blind them, you are wasting this power. If their mouth are exposed, choke them with it.”

“I try to do that,” I confirmed. “But a lot of the guys out here are wearing armor.”

“That special sense of yours,” the woman replied, “the one that allows you to identify and understand the position of objects that are close to you. Use that to identify where any chinks or openings in the armor happen to be. Let your sand flow to those openings and fill areas such as the knees and elbows, any joints. Send the sand into those areas to make it harder and slower for them to move. Making their arms and legs bend or extend even a second slower or less can mean the difference between winning and losing.

“Send it into their shoes or boots, so that they have to step on sand. Rub it over their skin to give them burns. Force it under their fingernails. Find any opening to any sensitive tissue and exploit it. This power is very strong, if you use it properly. Particularly if you use it in conjunction with that item sense power so that you know where those openings are.”

As I nodded quickly to that advice, she continued. “This new power that you have picked up, the one that allows you to transport any object from one part of your body to any other part of your body. You don’t seem to have done very much with that.”

I nodded a little sheepishly at that. “Yeah, I guess I haven’t really given myself much of a chance to practice with that one. Though it does make getting dressed a breeze. So I guess you could say that I’m incorporating it into my lion transformation.”

She gave me a little smile, chuckling. “Yes, of course. But it can be used in other ways as well. You can move your staff from one hand to the next without a second’s pause. But more than that, you can transfer items from your pockets or belt. Items that you have prepared with spells, or other abilities. Your new ability to embed sound into an object, for example. Imagine being in a fight, with a rock embedded with a very distracting sound in your pocket. In the midst of this fight, you transfer the stone from your pocket to your foot and kick it away while activating it. The sound distracts your opponent, drawing their attention that way for the brief instant you need to deal the finishing blow.”

Absorbing that advice, I nodded slowly with a smile. “That’s a pretty good idea,” I admitted. “Plus, there’s those flashbang rocks that I learned how to make. Those could work too.”

From where she was swinging, Tabbris piped up. “What about the Kevlar spell? You know, the one that makes projectiles lose their momentum just before they hit you. They only work against a few hits before the spell wears off, but what if you enchanted a bunch of little things like handkerchiefs with the spell and put them in your pocket. Then, just before something was about to hit you, you move one of the handkerchief to the spot where it’s about to hit.”

I nodded quickly to that. “See, that’s another great idea. I mean, it might be a little hard for me to focus on that, and on fighting at the same time. This is a lot to keep track of.”

“That,” Athena interjected, “is why this partnership is so important.” She looked to the younger girl, gesturing for her to come over. “If you wish this to be a true partnership, it must function as one. Everything that Lady Tabbris said just now could be done by her, while Lady Felicity here focuses on the actual fight. Even small things, such as monitoring the item sense power to keep track of where everything is, and similar abilities can be maintained and monitored by Lady Tabbris.”

From the look on the little Seosten’s face, Athena might as well have suggested that she murder me in my sleep. Her eyes widened, and she gave a mortified squeak before blurting, “You mean use her powers without asking permission first? You mean just do it? But, but, but…”

I interrupted,“Hey, we’re partners. I trust you. You can totally use those kind of powers to keep us both safe. That would be kind of cool actually, you run the powers like that, and I focus on actually fighting. If we practiced enough, get good at communicating when we need to, and you get good at just taking over certain abilities at the right time, we could be pretty damn dangerous together.”

“That,” Athena announced with a smile, “is precisely what I have been trying to teach you.”

*******

Just under a week later, a voice abruptly announced, “Are you sure you’re a Reaper-Bonded?”

Blinking at the question coming from behind me, I turned away from the door of the classroom where I had just dropped Tabbris off for another few hours of learning from Mr. Reinswield.

The boy standing behind me was just a couple inches taller than I was. But other than the height difference between them, he basically looked like a male version of Bandy, the adorable little red and white fox-bunny girl.

“Uh, yeah. I mean,” I amended quickly, “not a natural one or anything, but the Seosten-created pseudo-version, sure.”

“Sorry.” The bunny boy’s ears dropped just a little bit and he looked kind of sheepish as he admitted, “That was probably pretty rude. I was just thinking, you don’t set off the internal alarm that those Reaper-Bonded do. And Reapers themselves, you know. Oh, and uh, I’m Grisson. I was just dropping off Bandy and I, uh, saw you.”

“Hi, Grisson.” I smiled. “I’m Flick. And yeah, I am definitely a Reaper-Bonded. But I also kind of have a power that makes it so that I don’t set off those alerts, unless you see me actually use another power.”

“Pssst.” From down the hall, a green-skinned face poked around the corner. The boy it belong to stage whispered, “Did you ask her about it yet?”

Wearing a long-suffering expression, Grisson slowly put his hand up to the end of his snout and heaved a long, heavy sigh before half-turning his head to look back that way. His voice was a loud hiss. “Funnily enough, I think she can hear you. Because she’s standing right here, you tetrikade.”

Resisting the urge to snicker (mostly anyway), I calmly replied, “Hey, he didn’t know. Maybe one of the powers I inherited was the ability to go completely deaf at inopportune times.”

Grisson smiled at that, letting me see his row of sharp canines. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works,” he informed me before hesitating. Looking back over the shoulder, he gestured to me. “Do, uh, you wanna come see something? I mean, if you don’t have anything else you have to do right now, or anything.” Shifting nervously on his feet, the boy gave an awkward shrug. “You don’t have to. Not that we could tell you what you had to do or anything. I mean, you know…”

Finally rescuing the boy from his floundering, I nodded. “Sure, Athena is busy right now, so she can’t beat me up again until this afternoon. I’ve got some time to kill. I was going to explore a little more, but I guess I could see what you guys are up to.” Pausing then, I asked, “But don’t you have class right now?”

The answer came from the green boy down the hall, who called out with his head still poking around the corner. “Our classes aren’t until after lunch! We’re totally free until then!”

Rolling his eyes, Grisson nodded nonetheless. “He’s right, we have classes starting in the afternoon.”

“Well,” I replied, “in that case, lead the way. And maybe you can introduce me to your friend.”

Or rather, as it turned out, friends. As we turned the corner, I found three more figures standing there waiting. One was the green-skinned boy who had been sticking his head around the corner. The other two were a boy and a girl who looked like they were twins, or at least very closely related. Each had steel skin, like a metal statue, and their arms were long enough to reach the floor despite them being just over six feet tall. Despite their height, I could tell they were young, probably younger than me. Or at least their bodies hadn’t fully matured. I didn’t know how long their species maturation rate was. For all I knew, they were two-hundred years old and would take another one hundred before they were fully grown. Alien species were weird sometimes. But, then again, they probably thought the exact same thing about us.

“We are fifteen,” the girl piped up quickly, clearly trying to be helpful. “By earth years, that is.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Wait, did you actually just read my mind?”

Looking a little abashed, the metal girl quickly shook her head. “No, no. It’s not exactly mind reading. It’s more that when people have questions around us, we kind of feel the same questions. If there’s a lot of people, or the question is really generic, we can’t tell where it’s coming from. But with this one, well, it was pretty obvious. I–I’m sorry if that was prying. We can’t really turn it off.”

The boy beside her nodded. “When we get older, it’s more than just questions, and they get clearer. We feel what people, you know, what they want. We feel when they’re cold, when they’re hungry, when they want the door to be opened. Stuff like that.”

The green boy cut in then. “You know how lots of rich and powerful people want servants that can anticipate their needs without being told? That’s what an Ullmis can do.”

With a nod, the metal boy (an Ullmis, I supposed) added, “I’m Aerlicht. This is my sister, Ferrdreis.”

“And I’m Layuerk,” the green boy put in. “But most people just call me Lurk.”

“Well,” I replied, “good to meet you guys. Like I said before, I’m Flick. Grisson said that you had something to show me?”

After exchanging brief glances, the four nodded and turn to head down the hall. I followed, letting them lead me out of the school area and through a brief maze of corridors until we reached a door that was set out of the way. It looked sort of like where I would expect to find a janitor’s utility closet or something.

“Behold,” Grisson announced while putting his hand near the pad next to the doorway, “our treasure.”

With that, the boy hit the button to open the door, and gestured for me to go in. I did, stepping through into what turned out to be a large room with tables everywhere. Scattered across all these tables were a dozen different televisions. Earth televisions. They were the really old, big boxy kind that they had before the flat panel versions. And with them were a bunch of different video game systems. I saw an original Nintendo, Super and N64 versions, a Sega Genesis, even an Atari. None of them looked any newer than the early 90s at the latest.

Standing behind me, Ferrdreis explained, “Some of it is scavenged from what the Seosten throw away whenever they pull in humans from earth, or when a colony gets absorbed, and some of it is from what refugees had with them.“

Her brother nodded, “We trade for it, or work for it, or just go digging through the garbage. Some of the stuff inside the machines is different than it was, but it still works.”

They showed me a cabinet at the back of the room where they had dozens and dozens of game cartridges all stacked up. Actually, there were probably a few hundred of them. A lot were duplicates, or too damaged to actually work. The damaged ones were piled up near the bottom, which they said they used for parts, or to try to fix later. But even going by the ones they actually had, there were a ton of games.

Running my hands slowly over the collection of game cartridges, I asked, “Why do you guys have all of these?”

“To play?” Lurk offered with a shrug. “We play the games, and we watch the movies.” He pointed then to another cabinet on the other side of the room, where I could see hundreds of VCR tapes of all different kinds.

“We like Earth things,” Grisson put in. “That’s kind of what this is, the Earth club. We really wanna go there someday.”

Pushing up the switch on one of the game systems, Aerlicht picked up a black controller and offered it to me. “We were hoping you could show us how to get through some of these.”

“Play video games?” I echoed a bit blankly. Looking around then, I shrugged. “All of this stuff is kind of from before my time. But sure, why not? I need a break anyway.

“Let’s play some games.”

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