Ruedu

Class Action 14-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As it turned out, my first Universal Ecology (which Ruedu outright said was an almost hilariously broad subject) lesson was focused on the Relukun. Or rather, on the effect a large group of them had had on human society here on Earth when they set up a society in the forests of England back during the middle ages. Apparently, even with the (not as strong as it was now) Bystander Effect in place, the presence of a colony of Relukun in England had led to a lot of their myths about the forest and trees in general. Such as the idea that a Rowan tree would protect against enchantment and witchcraft. The local Relukun tribe protected a village against an evil sorceress of some sort, and that had spread out through the Bystander Affected humans as ‘trees protecting people from evil magic.’ Things like that. 

There were two fur-covered lion-like boys who were wearing letterman jackets with the name of some high school in Iowa seated on the far side of the classroom from where I was. One of them raised his hand after we got through that bit. “So like, the humans remember certain pieces of what happened even with that spell? Like, subconsciously or whatever. Enough for their brains to go, ‘ooh, tree saved me’ but not enough to remember the tree walked and talked.”

With a quick, eager nod, Ruedu confirmed, “Yes! That is correct. Less so now, but still some. The memory’k is changed and suppressed, but there are still echoes, fragments. These echoes form much of human myth and legend, you’k see’k? The Relukun who’k lived in the forests there affected much of emerging human stories. Not only’k with myths of magic wood, but of monsters lurking in those forests, when the Relukun went to’k war with a tribe of were-creatures who’k insisted on encroaching upon their territory.”  

That made another boy, whom I suspected was some sort of Were himself, raise his own hand before asking, “A war with Weres? You mean like some kind of super pack, like the one–” He cut himself off briefly, looking over his shoulder in my direction for a moment before turning back and quietly finishing with, “The one Lemuel put together.” 

At a nod from Ruedu, Hazel spoke up. “That’s right, though they weren’t quite as violent or set on attacking everyone in sight as the one you’re talking about. From the different histories that came out of both groups, we’re pretty sure a lot of it was a case of miscommunication and egos. At least at first. Both groups wanted the same area, and there were some badly translated negotiations that ended up making everything worse until they started fighting. Even that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere near as far as it did if it wasn’t for the Herr-Pala.” 

“The air-pay-lay?” Rebecca blurted. “What’s an air-pay-lay?” 

He spelled it for us, including the silent h at the start, which wasn’t even remotely fair. Then Hazel went on to explain, “A long, long time ago, even by our standards, the world that the Relukun call home was ruled almost entirely by a very dangerous man named Pala. If you’ve spent enough time here on Earth to understand the reference, you could compare him pretty closely to someone like Genghis Khan. Same general idea. He died forever ago, but the Herr-Pala consider themselves his heirs, his descendants. The name means saplings of Pala. Basically, they’re really mad at the rest of their people for not being more into war and battle and all that. They think the Relukun should be conquerors, the way they used to be. So they push for battle as much as they can.” 

Ruedu took over then. “Yes, yes, precisely’k. The Herr-Pala think it is bad to’k be’k passive or to’k make peace with others rather than conquering all who’k stand in their way. And of course there is something to be said for not being too’k passive.” She looked away briefly, as thoughts of the position her own people had been in for so long clearly ran through her mind. But she shook it off quickly and focused. “That can leave your species in a very bad spot. But in this case, the Herr-Pala were creating more of a problem than they were solving. They wanted war, and the disagreement with the were pack gave them an excuse. The pack called themselves ‘Of Remus.’ If you’k were a bird-were, you’k were ‘Talon of Remus’ or ‘Feather of Remus.’ A wolf were would be ‘Fang of Remus,’ or a lion or panther would be ‘Claw of Remus.’ There was some variation, enough that it would not tell you exactly what someone was by hearing their title. Which is how they wanted it. Obfuscation was useful, yes.” 

She looked to Hazel then, before the Seosten put in, “There’s some theories that the specific ‘feather, talon, fang’ and so forth also had something to do with rank within the pack, but as we haven’t been able to talk to anyone who was directly there and was a reliable source, that’s still just a maybe.” 

“What happened when the pack and the Relukun went to war?” Jazz asked. “I mean, which side won?”

“As is true’k in most such wars of territory’k and pride, there were far more losers than winners,” Ruedu answered quietly. “So many’k died. Not only’k among the pack and the Relukun, but among many’k innocents and uninvolved who’k happened to be there. War is fast and angry’k. It does not spare time to’k think of who’k is deserving or not.”

Hazel spoke up. “There’s a lot of things out there that make Bystander people afraid of the forest. Too many to count or to put the blame on any one group. But the war between the Remus pack and that tribe of Relukun sure didn’t help matters. It helped convince the people of England that there were monsters in the trees, and that even some of the trees themselves could be monsters. Or some of the trees could be helpful, like we said before. The point is, the people who grew up in those areas while that war was going on spread their stories everywhere else. And that by itself affected a lot, not only as far as the type of stories that people were telling, but also in how they interacted with their environment. Bystanders wanting certain types of wood because they thought it would protect them made others want to plant more of those trees, those flowers, and anything else that was supposed to be important like that.” 

“And that,” Ruedu explained with a glance toward me, “is one of the important things you’k will continue’k to’k learn in this class as we’k keep going. Our unit for these few weeks will focus on how situations within the Bystander world affected Alters and Bonded alike, and vice versa. We’k will be’k dividing into groups of five, and you’k will research two events of your choosing. One will be’k in how a situation within the Bystander world strongly affected the Alter world. The other will be the opposite, an event within the Alter world which strongly’k affected the Bystanders. And no,” she added with a chuckle-clatter of her mandibles, “you’k cannot use the one we’d just told you’k about.” 

That prompted a little bit of good-natured groaning from people who had thought they had a chance at an easy headstart, before everyone started to divide into groups. For me, it was easy to get a quick team of four with Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon. But that left us one short. Or it did, until Jazz darted off to grab someone. She came back with one of her (and Gordon’s) housemates, Ruckus. He was the Alter who appeared to be made out of several giant slinkies, just an assortment of metal coils. Two slinkies for his legs, a big one in the middle for his body, two for his arms, and a head that was a slinky on its side with the ends connecting to make a circle. Two glowing red orbs, barely visible between a couple vertical coils of his head-slinky, were apparently his eyes. 

I hadn’t spent much time around Ruckus before, but I did remember one thing about him. 

“Youreallywantmetojoinyourgroup? Ohmygoshyouhavenoideahowcoolthatis! Ireallydidn’tknowwhichgrouptojoinbutifyouwantmetoI’mthere!” 

Yeah, that was the bit I remembered. He was like December, if not even more of a fast-talker. Every sentence all blurred together and it took me a second to really process what he was saying. “Uh, yeah, sure. That’s cool,” I managed, holding out a hand. “Welcome to the team, partner.” 

He bounced at that, literally. His coiled metal legs extended and he launched himself nearly to the ceiling before coming back down again and bouncing a little more carefully. “Thatissocool! YesyesyesI’mthere. ImeanI’mhere!” 

Chuckling despite myself, I nodded before taking one of his metal coils in my grip. It felt a little weird to hold. He did have something approximating a hand there, though it was more of claw made out of five thin metal pincer-finger things. He had a good grip too, shaking my hand enthusiastically while promising in a rush that he would help and be a good part of the group. 

Eventually, all the groups managed to organize themselves and we were told to take some time after classes to figure out what two events we wanted to focus on. We were supposed to have a plan when we came back to this class on Friday. Actually, we were supposed to have several options, just in case two (or more) groups chose the same thing. Ruedu wanted every group to focus on different events, so if more than one chose the same, she’d pick a group out of a hat or something to decide who got to do that one. 

In any case, once that was settled and people were thinking about what events to suggest to their team, she and Hazel went back to discussing that whole war between the Relukun tribe and the Remus pack, and how it had affected Bystander history, lore, even the availability of crops in the area. That single event–okay, not a single event given it had lasted for years, but still, that one thing had created a domino effect that changed a lot in the area. And that sent waves of change throughout all of England and beyond, given how much influence people of the UK had had over the rest of the world for so long. 

Yeah, I had the feeling I was going to learn a lot from this class. And all of that made me wonder about something else important. Years, decades, even centuries in the future, how would other students in those classes learn about the whole Bosch civil war going on right now? 

And which side would they be learning those lessons from? 

******

After that, the second class I had was a little more familiar. It was Trials of the Sea, with Sinbad. Apparently this was the same class unit I had started before everything happened, he was just back around to the start. Or close enough that I could easily pick up things as we went along. 

It was, of course, a bit of a shift to go from talking about how different events affected the Bystander or Alter world in ecological terms, to standing on a wooden ship somewhere in the middle of the Starstation’s massive (three-hundred and fifty miles long and a hundred and fifty miles wide) artificial lake so we could talk all about treasure hunting, ship-to-ship combat, diving, or just plain sailing. Though referring to it as ‘plain’ was probably a bad idea, since from everything I’d heard, even totally normal sailing was never ‘plain.’ There were so many natural dangers in being out on the sea with just a wooden ship and the rest of the crew around you, let alone the living, magical, or man-made ones. Yeah, sailing the oceans was a lot of things, but it was clearly never boring. 

This particular class I was taking with Sands, Sarah, Roxa, and Shiloh (the Caucasian girl from ‘Harper’ and Eiji’s team with jaggedly-cut brown hair who used a wrist-mounted computer that could ‘hack’ into and control almost any object from computers to cars, guns, doors, etcetera). 

In Roxa’s case, apparently she was taking a lighter schedule so that she could spend more time with her pack. But she still wanted to be around some and take classes with the rest of us since she could do that while still being herself and not hiding what she was, unlike the situation with Crossroads. The rest of us were still taking three classes a day, alternating between being focused on mundane and magical. Though there was some overlap in that, since the previous class about Universal Ecology was actually considered one of the mundane ones. I supposed a better descriptor of them would be ‘academic’ versus ‘action.’ Some classes were focused on book and fact learning, others were more about getting out there and doing things. Training versus classroom learning, that sort of thing. 

Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how they determined the system, but it was apparently working well enough. And I sure wasn’t going to argue about getting another chance to take this particular class. Growing up in Wyoming meant I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time at the ocean, or on boats in general. This was just plain neat. 

At the moment, we were all standing around on the deck of the ship after coming through the connecting portal that brought us here. There was no sign of the teacher yet, but I was pretty sure Sinbad would shrivel up and die if he didn’t get to make at least three dramatic entrances per day. 

This was technically the fifth class this group had had together, but I could catch up on anything I’d missed in my off-hours. Just another one of the benefits of never needing much sleep, which was a list that seemed to be growing long enough to reach into the triple digits. 

Oh, and there was one more benefit to having a class like this. 

“She’s so huge!” one of the other students gushed excitedly. He was a Lupera, the red-furred humanoid canine figures who were another of the four sapient species who came from the same world as the Akharu. Which was apparently called Verhava (pronounced Vare-Hay-Vuh) Anyway, the ‘she’ the Lupera student was referring to happened to be Princess Cuddles, my great white shark who was currently gliding through the water just off the side of the ship. The rest of my sharks were arranged a bit behind her as they moved almost in formation, like a squad of fighter jets. Because that was the other benefit to having this class. It meant I could be around all my sharks together. Being able to pull them to me in those forcefield bubble things was still incredible, but getting all of them together in their natural habitat was fun too. I had summoned one at a time from the bigger-on-the-inside vial and sent them down into the lake to stretch their fins there. I could almost sense their excitement with this whole thing, because they knew I’d be able to swim with them soon. And boy did they like it when I swam with them. 

Stepping over beside the boy, I leaned out to look down into the water myself. Yeah, PC was definitely playing up for the crowd of students, who all kept oohing and ahhing over all the sharks, but her in particular. Well, her and Jabberjaw, who was still Mr. Vanity, doing anything he could to get the crowd to pay attention to him. 

Realizing I was standing next to him, the Luperan boy looked over to me, a grin evident in his snout. “That must be so cool, making friends with all these sharks. They really listen to you?” 

Matching his smile with one of my own (okay, with slightly fewer fangs involved), I gave a quick nod. “It is pretty cool. And yeah, they’re my shiver. Oh, that’s what you call a group of sharks,” I added in response to his briefly confused look. 

“Awesome!” the boy barked, almost literally. Belatedly, he extended a hand. “Sorry, we all know who you are, but I’m Timmins. Actually I have like three names, one of them’s–” And then he made a long, complicated growl-bark-yip sound. “But the Trade language version is more like Seclutimminsrek. I prefer just the Timmins part.” 

“Well, Timmins it is then,” I greeted him while shaking the boy’s hand. “Did you uhh, grow up on Verhava then?” I was curious about that world in general, particularly given the fact that we were supposed to be getting close to tracking down Asenath’s father. The fact that it was the native home of four distinct and very different sapient species was pretty curious in and of itself. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t very normal. Four species, the Akharu, the Vestil, these Luperan, and finally, the last of the Verhavan natives were Incubi/Succubi. Those people were capable of shifting their sex as needed, and did a lot of the whole ‘draining people’s life force either through sex or by making bargains/deals’ thing that tended to be attributed to demons in Bystander myths. 

It was an Incubus that Deveron had killed to get his permanently radically altered appearance when he was my age. Which made me picture what seeing a female version of him would be like, and boy was that different. 

“For awhile!” Timmins enthusiastically confirmed, his ears perking up. “We took a colony ship away when I was–uhh, like the human equivalent of twelve?” His head tilted as he did a bit of mental math before giving a sharp nod. “Yeah, that!”

“You took a colony ship? Like a spaceship?” That was Shiloh, who had stepped up beside me to look down at the sharks before focusing on what he had just said. Only belatedly did she flush visibly and start to take a step back. “Err, sorry. That was rude.” 

Both Timmins and I insisted she was fine, before the Luperan boy confirmed that he did indeed mean a colonizing spaceship. “We were supposed to go to this other hidden planet behind an asteroid belt, where some of our people set up to escape all the wars. But we hit some kind of magical… portal… transport thing and ended up crashing here on Earth, in Arizona. That was like… ten years ago.” 

“Dude,” Shiloh gushed while absentmindedly brushing her uneven bangs back out of her face, “you’ve gotta–hang on.” Glancing over to the corner of the ship where she’d dumped her backpack with most of the others, the girl hit a button on her wrist-mounted computer. As she did so, a narrow beam of green light flew out to hit the bag. A second later, the thing literally floated up and moved through the air to where we were, controlled by a few short gestures from Shiloh’s hand. When it was close enough for her to grab, she did so, reaching in to take out a bag of beef jerky, which she offered to the canine boy. “Trade a snack for you telling me all about your world during lunch?” 

“Hey, I’d like to get in on that too,” I put in. “I uhh, I’ll get back to you on the bribe part.” 

“Are you kidding?” Timmins gushed. “I’d tell you guys all about home for free!” After a brief double-take at the bag of dried meat offered, he quickly grabbed it. “But uhh, if you wanna share…” He was clearly embarrassed by his own excitement over getting the jerky, his tail wagging rapidly. 

With a giggle, Shiloh gestured. “Take it, no worries. I did offer. Just make sure you’ve got some good stories to tell, huh? I’m sorta collecting them for a book. Stories about other worlds, I mean.” 

“Really?” That was news to me, and I blinked that way. “That’s pretty cool.” 

She started to nod and say something else about it, but that was the point where Sinbad chose to make his grand entrance for the day. That entrance, in this case, turned out to be descending through the sky while riding a giant feathered serpent with wings. Yeah, seriously. The thing was fifty feet long, fairly narrow like a snake along with an appropriately-shaped head, but had feathers all over it along with six large wings, three on each side all working in concert. 

As soon as the first cry went up as the feathered serpent appeared with Sinbad literally standing near the head, the thing dove fast and began to fly in circles slowly around the ship, far enough out that the wings didn’t immediately capsize us, though it did lurch under our feet a bit. The heavily-tanned man, wearing a glorious violet and silver sleeveless silk shirt, stood tall as his long, curly dark hair flew wildly in the wind. His gold eyes seemed to gleam just as much as his gold, silver, and ruby teeth as he grinned. “Good morning, my brilliant treasure seekers!

“Who’s ready for an adventure?!” 

A/N – the next commissioned chapter will be out early Friday afternoon, US mountain time.

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Class Action 14-02 (Heretical Edge)

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It turned out to be a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time before classes, because apparently Sariel and Haiden were going to take Persephone to talk to a few people. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was about, but the general gist was that they thought she could help solve a few mysteries related to things she might have heard while close to Manakel. Stuff he’d done or asked to be done back before he’d sent her away that last time. Which would’ve been a hundred years earlier, right around the time the first revolution was really getting going. I didn’t know if what they were checking had anything to do with that, of course, though I did hear the name Dallant while they were having a quiet conversation. The baron guy. Whatever they were having Persephone talk to people about, at least part of it seemed to have something to do with the maybe-bad guy Wyoming baron. That was… interesting. 

All that aside, Persephone had been happy to see me. Actually, she was happy to see all of us, and very cheerfully introduced herself to Columbus. And then equally cheerfully did so for Amethyst when the cyberform poked her head up over the boy’s shoulder from her place in his backpack. They talked a bit, she got him to tell her about his past and life as a Bystander before Crossroads. Persephone seemed fascinated by the concept of adoption and asked a lot of questions about that. Andromeda, speaking through a computer pad thing clipped to her belt, occasionally piped up to tell Persephone when she was possibly asking something that was too personal, but for the most part, Columbus rolled with it and answered as best as he could. 

After briefly glancing over to see that Dylan girl with Vanessa, Haiden, and Sariel, having a discussion about the other Vanessa, I focused on the Revenant-girl nearby. “Uh, Persephone?” 

Turning a bright smile my way, the white-haired woman cheerfully started to reply, “Yes, my…” She trailed off, seeming to catch herself before very deliberately changing her words to, “Yes, Flick?” 

“Do you mind if I talk to Andromeda for a second? Uh, over there, I mean.” I gestured to a corner of the Moons’ very cozy little living room. “Not that it’s a secret or anything, I just wanna ask her a couple things that might be sensitive for her.” 

She immediately agreed, taking off the little tablet and handing it to me. So, leaving her talking to Tabbris, December, Tristan, Columbus, Sands, and Sarah, I stepped over to the corner and used an enchanted coin to make sure I could ask my questions privately. 

“Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?” the voice from the tablet asked curiously. 

“Huh? Oh, no.” My head shook. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean not really, I just sorta wanted to ask a couple things. Like… umm, do you not have any way of having a body? I mean, with the tech level around the universe, it seems like you could’ve had a robot body built for yourself pretty easily. So I was just wondering if something was preventing that, or if you just… chose not to. Not that that’s a problem, you should go with whatever you’re comfortable with, but if you want a body and there’s some reason you haven’t–yeah. This is why I wanted to talk to you privately about it.” 

After a brief pause, the voice from the tablet responded quietly. “You are very thoughtful, Miss Chambers. You have my sincere thanks for the consideration.” That was followed by another pause, this one a bit longer. It actually made me wonder how her whole ‘AI-ness’ worked. Like, was she doing a bazillion calculations a second and still taking a noticeable pause before responding to me because her conscious thoughts truly took that long, or was it more of a case of her intentionally attempting to seem more human–err… biological, by including a pause? 

Either way, whatever the reason, eventually Andromeda spoke again. “I have indeed had a body before. Many, in fact. I tend to be rather rough with them, given my ability to survive their destruction with relative ease. Unfortunately, my capacity to ensure that a satisfactory new body is prepared does not match my ability to get them destroyed. I watch for appropriate shells that can be easily taken and modified for my purposes, and provide what compensation I can in the cases where a more delicate touch than what Percy tends toward is needed. She is surprisingly careful when she needs to be, but there are times when an actual expert must be used. Though I have had some success in simply injecting myself into the various robots used to perform various maintenance tasks.” Once more, a slight pause before, “We make do. Currently, I am in the ‘watching for a good body to… I believe, from the media I have absorbed, that the correct term would be ‘yoink?’” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while holding the pad up in front of me. “Yeah, I think yoink would be the right term. And I know some people, maybe I can see if we can put in an order for you. Making a body to your specifications might be just the challenge they’re looking for.” 

“I… I thank you for the thought, Miss Chambers,” came the response a moment later. She sounded a bit surprised, which, given the whole situation, had to be intentional? She was expressing surprise by making her voice sound that way, as deliberately as someone saying ‘I am surprised.’ Which again, made me wonder about how her whole personality and mind worked. But it probably would’ve been a bit rude to go outright asking. At least for now. 

Instead, I just gave her a slight smile. Well, gave the camera on the device a smile, anyway. “Lemme talk to my friends, we’ll see what we can come up with. Oh, uhh, also I know your name is Andromeda and the myths portray you as a female, but the myths aren’t exactly accurate about you being a computer intelligence, and I don’t know how much of your voice is intentional or whatever. Or, you know, exactly how accurate Persephone is. So um, do you prefer to present as female or male?”

“I… present as female,” she informed me. “But it is good to be asked.” 

So, I simply promised once more that I would talk to the others about the whole body thing when I got a chance. Then the two of us returned to the main conversation. Not that those of us who were actually students could take too much longer. It was almost time for class. 

And hey, nothing had blown up yet. 

******

The Fusion School was still working the way it had back when it started several months earlier. Mainly, classes were decided and scheduled at the beginning of the week based on who was available to teach. It wasn’t exactly the sort of curriculum an ordinary school would sign off on. But then again, an ordinary school didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the amount of evil werewolves, trolls, giant fire-wielding flying snakes, or kidnap-happy psycho necromancer pieces of shit that this one did. To say nothing of an ongoing war against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, although that was relatively limited to a skirmish here and there whenever any loyalists happened to cross paths with our rebels. At this point, there hadn’t really been much in the way of a full-scale, prolonged battle aside from when we had rescued Sean and the other prisoners. 

With all that to deal with, it was a real wonder we managed to have any classes, let alone scheduled ones. But Abigail, and plenty of others, were insistent that we do our best to keep some semblance of education going for everyone. Even if that meant just taking each schedule on a week by week basis and basically piecemealing the curriculum as best as they could. 

The point was, it was probably a good thing Abigail didn’t have to answer to any sort of education board or follow any laws or anything. They were doing the best they could, but still.

In any case, my first class that day was definitely in-keeping with the idea of having a bit of normal, mundane education. Well, sort of. It was Ecology, which was absolutely a class you’d have in the Bystander world. Except in this case, that whole ‘studying the relationships between living beings and their environment’ included a lot more variety both in ‘living beings’ and ‘environment.’ Most recently, they had been covering the subject of how technology and magic both allowed hyper-specialized species to branch out from their native lands. Such as creatures who only breathed methane being able to create enclosed suits to operate within an oxygen environment. At least, that’s what they had covered according to what I followed from the brief rundown Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon gave me while the four of us were on our way there. Avalon, Shiori, and the others weren’t part of that, as they had a different class to go to where they were in the middle of a course that would be far too difficult for me to just pick up in the middle. I’d have to take that one later once the professor got back around to the beginning again. Such was the joy of this sort of school schedule. You jumped on a class as close to the start as you could and rode it as far as the professor could take you before they got busy. 

We were still walking together quickly down the hall toward the classroom itself as Rebecca glanced at me. The tiny girl (for a human of our age anyway, the whole concept of size got really muddled in a school which included both pixies and a few trolls, ogres, and the like) asked, “You really saw the surviving Meregan, and they’re umm, they’re okay? Grandma said they were going to a new planet with these aliens–err, I mean these other aliens.” 

“Oh, uh, yeah.” I gave a quick nod. “They made some friends who live in some other universe or whatever, so completely safe from the Fomorians and the Seosten. For now, anyway. They’re setting up over there so the Meregan can recover and start to rebuild… everything. Sucks that they have to leave their whole planet behind, but rather lose the planet than the species.” Pausing then, I curiously added, “Do you know any Meregan?” 

“Huh?” Rebecca blinked before shaking her head. “Oh, uh, not exactly. Grandma was talking about them before you guys went over there for your rescue mission. She umm, she met a few back when she was with your mom in their old… you know, that whole thing.” Shifting from one foot to the other, the girl explained, “I just… from what she said, they’ve been through a lot. It sucks. Even their ‘happy ending’ or whatever was all about abandoning their homeworld to be completely destroyed by those stupid genocidal monsters. And that was like… the deus ex machina best-case scenario that could’ve happened aside from all the Fomorians across the universe being instantly obliterated.” 

“And wouldn’t that be a fun time for everyone,” Jazz put in with a snort. “I mean, sure, everyone would keep fighting because of course they would. But if the Seosten weren’t focused on fighting this war with the Fomorians, they’d probably…” She trailed off, frowning. “Huh, how long have they been fighting it, again? What do you think they’d do if the Fomorians didn’t exist?” 

We had stopped outside the classroom by that point, as Gordon spoke up. “Hundreds of thousands of years. Their entire society and existence has been built around this war for… you know, hundreds of generations. It’d be like if humans were still fighting a war that started back in ancient China or something. And never stopped fighting it. If that all disappeared, they just…” He paused before making a face. “They’d probably find some other enemy to fight.” 

“You don’t think they’d be glad they had peace?” Rebecca asked. “They could give it a chance.” 

Gordon, however, shook his head, voice quiet. “Historically speaking–I mean, we don’t really have any comparison historically speaking, but generally, the odds that they could just turn completely away from having a big bad opponent to fight and be peaceful again are… slim. Like I said, this is all they know. It’s all they’ve known for what might as well be their entire existence.”

“He’s right.” The voice came from nearby, as we turned to see an incredibly, achingly handsome guy with long, slightly curly dark hair and the deepest blue eyes standing next to the door we were blocking. He looked like he was maybe a year or two older than we were (so who the hell knew how old he actually was), and wore a simple pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt with all the buttons open over a black tee shirt that had a picture of the Death Star blowing up on it. “My people probably wouldn’t handle any sort of sudden peace very well.” With that, he extended a hand my way. “Sorry, jumping into a conversation was rude, even if the others here know me. My name is Hazaelibre, but people around here mostly call me Hazel.” 

“Uh, Flick.” I accepted the handshake before adding, “These guys know you, huh? You take this class too?”

“Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to take the class as far as my boss will let me.” The handsome Seosten replied with a broad, distractingly glamorous smile. That same smile faltered a second later as he squinted. “Uh. right, that’s only funny if you actually know what’s going on.” With a cough, he added, “Would someone please help me out here so I don’t look quite as dumb?” 

Snorting, Rebecca spoke up. “Hazel’s the teacher’s assistant. He helps with the class.” 

“See?” Hazel made a grand gesture with both hands as though to indicate himself. “I’m only allowed to take you and the other students as far as the teacher lets m–never mind.” Rolling his eyes at his own words, he added, “I promise, I try to do my best to help with class a lot better than I make jokes. But my baking? That’s top-notch.” 

“He’s not kidding,” Jazz informed me. “He brought some pastries in a couple times. They’re amazing.”

The others agreed, and I felt a pang. They had spent weeks here going to classes and forming these relationships while I was gone. I had never met this Hazel guy before, and these guys were so casual and easy with him. They’d had his pastries. Wait, did that sound like a euphemism? I didn’t think so, but basically everything was a euphemism anymore. 

Still, I pushed all that aside and managed a slight smile. “Well, I look forward to the next time you fire up the oven, then. You said you’re the teacher’s assistant?”

With an easy nod, the man confirmed, “That’s right. And my boss gets a little antsy if we take too long out here.” Once more, he grinned as though expecting me to get some sort of joke, before that too faltered. “Uh, just remember I said that while you go inside.” That said, Hazel turned and opened the door, gesturing for all of us to go ahead. 

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca whispered while stepping past me, “you’ll get it in a second.” 

And get it I did, as we moved into the classroom and I saw the figure waiting near the front, standing next to the teacher’s desk. It–it was a Kenkean, one of the humanoid ant-like beings that we had saved from Isaac back when we were way out in Seosten space. Just like the rest of those people, this Kenkean looked like an ant whose three body sections were stacked vertically rather than horizontally, with four legs attached to the bottom of the abdomen and four arms (two at the top and two at the bottom) coming out of the thorax. And then, of course, the ant-head.

Oh, and this Kenkean wore clothes, of a sort. Specifically, a set of what looked like jeans, but specially made to fit those four legs together. They also wore a red and white pin-striped shirt and red suspenders, with a bowler hat perched on top of their head. All in all, it looked kind of ridiculous. But hey, who was I to judge? I barely understood anything about human fashion, let alone Kenkean. 

“Welcome, welcome back to’k the class!” The Kenkean spoke with that familiar clicking k sound as their mandibles clacked together. The voice sounded male, and I was just considering whether I should make that sort of assumption when the Kenkean focused on me. Those big ant-eyes widened almost comically. “Flick! It is me’k, the one you’k have spoken to! Ru–”

“Ruedu?” I quickly blurted in surprise, looking the Kenkean up and down. He–no, she, I remembered belatedly. I’d made that same mistake before too, but Ruedu had made it clear she was female. She looked a lot different than when I had last seen her right after that whole fight with Isaac. Much less grovely, for one. And she was wearing those clothes. And– “You’re teaching?” I managed to get that part out verbally, the surprise in my voice enough to make several students around the room alternately cough or snicker. Or squint at me as though trying to decide if I had a problem with that. Which, given the attitudes of Boschers they had grown up with, was fair. 

Ruedu’s mandibles clattered together repeatedly in what I belatedly realized was some form of chuckle. “Yes, we’k Kenkeans have changed much. Not all. Some stay in the tunnels. But others came and we’k learned much. We’k grow much. And I very’k good with learning. Always been put in helping office jobs. Make old masters happy with organizing. I used that time to learn many things in their books. But never was able to use such learning for anything good. Not til we’k came here and speak to’k Principal Fellows. She’k was very’k impressed by the things I know.” 

“And she gave you a job.” Finishing those words, I smiled. “It’s good to see you again, you look… wow. You look great, Ruedu. Seriously.” Hearing her talk a bit more, I had realized another change. She wasn’t making that clicking k sound on every word that ended in a vowel after all, only on words that ended in ‘ee’ or ‘ooh’ sounds. Words like we, very, you, and so on. Was that just a measure of having more practice speaking English? 

Somehow, I could tell the ant-like woman was beaming. “It is good to see’k you too’k, Flick. Very’k good.” Her voice turned a little stern then, though I could tell it wasn’t exactly easy for her. “But do’k not think I shall be’k easy’k on you’k. You’k will learn your grade in this class. You’k will learn all of your lessons, yes?” 

Yeah, I could tell that it took an effort for Ruedu to put her foot down, after spending so long as part of a slave race. Honestly, I was surprised she had progressed this far already, even if it had been like three-quarters of a year by now. She clearly wanted to do a good job teaching. And I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardize that.

So, I took a seat with the others. A few people around us wanted to ask a bit about that whole Fossor thing, having heard either second or third-hand about how it went. With a glance toward Ruedu, who was moving over to start doing something on the holographic board, I quietly promised to write everything down. 

Because that was the thing. All these people kept asking me about what happened, wanting to get my first-hand experience on the whole death of Fossor. And I knew how to give them what they wanted. I didn’t need to sit here and repeatedly tell the story. I needed to write it down. Like a newspaper article. So, that was what I would do. I would write it down and let people read the story for themselves. 

But in the meantime, I had a class on Universe Ecology. Taught by my old Kenkean friend, who was assisted by one of the Seosten, the race who had previously enslaved her. The last I’d known, she was meek and could barely speak up for herself, ready to prostrate herself along with the rest of her people in front of us when she thought we were Seosten. Now she was… wow. 

One thing was for sure. Things really had changed a lot in the past year. 

I just hoped we were ready for all the changes that were undoubtedly waiting to come. 

A/N – Ruedu was previously seen/introduced right here directly following Isaac’s capture.

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A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-05

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Please note, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on the origin of King Arthur posted Saturday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

You did it! Tabbris enthused, sounding almost giddy. Yogu got that piece of–I mean, um… him.

Chuckling a little to myself at that, I tried to push myself up before stopping with a groan. It was just too hard to be upright just then. Given the situation, I sent back to her, I think calling him a piece of shit is allowed.

I sat there like that, breathing hard for a moment while Roxa and Jazz moved slowly over, both of them limping a little. The other two helped me up, just as Sands and Gordon joined us. They were panting just as hard as the rest of us, and looked pretty disheveled. Sands had a pretty nasty looking burn all along the side of her neck and left cheek that was very slowly healing. 

“Son of a bitch,” she spat. “When he upgraded those drones, he really upgraded them. How much tech help did the Seosten fucking give him? Those things are nasty.” At her words, the other girl waved a hand back over her shoulder toward the remains of one of the drones.  

“We’ll be sure to ask,” I informed her, grimacing in pain. Ow. “Or just have someone take the things apart to figure out exactly what he did to them. Maybe they’ll come in handy somehow.”

Gordon, standing nearby with his arms folded, quietly observed, “You have a thing for taking what you liberate from your enemies and turning it against them, don’t you?” To make his point further, the boy nodded toward Jaq and Gus, who were both in their mice forms as they sniffed around the nearby Gidget. From the look of things, the two of them were making sure that their big friend was okay after she had been thrown around by Isaac’s metal manipulation power.

“What can I say?” I shrugged. “Gotta use what’s available, and there’s no sense in letting good resources go to waste. There’s too many overpowered bad guys out there for that. Besides, look at those little guys. There’s no way they deserved to have an asshole like Doxer for a partner.”

At the sound of their former owner’s name, both mice abruptly twisted around toward me. They looked almost guilty, like they were afraid that the boy himself was somehow there and they were in trouble. Wincing at the sight of their faces, I shook my head. “It’s okay, go ahead.”

Jazz spoke up then, shifting a little uncomfortably. “What about these guys?” she asked quietly, gesturing toward the ant-like Alters who were still chained along all of the walls. None of them had actually called out for help or anything. Actually, they had done nothing to attract our attention. It was like they were as afraid of us as they had been of Isaac himself. Which, I supposed, made sense. They were probably accustomed to only seeing Heretics who were being possessed and puppeted by Seosten. Plus, after the display they had just seen through that nasty fight… yeah, it was no wonder they were trying not to attract attention to themselves.

“Sands?” I looked to her. “Could you send a message to your mom, let her know what we’re doing and that Isaac’s where he belongs? Oh, and see if she can confirm with the ship that he is there. Just to, you know, make sure.” I knew Larissa had given her daughter something that was supposed to allow them to communicate, though I wasn’t really sure how it worked. I just assumed it was similar to the communication pins that we had used back at Crossroads.

She nodded, taking a small red ball from her pocket before stepping out of the way. Meanwhile, I gestured to the imprisoned Alters. “Come on, let’s free these guys. But uh, let’s try to make sure that they know we don’t mean them any harm first. It could get bad if they all panic.”

The others nodded, and together we moved over to the nearest ant-figure. He, and the others, were all watching us fearfully. They were each chained about three feet apart, with fifty on both walls. From the look of things, some of them had been beaten badly before being chained up. It was a sight that made me wish I’d hit Isaac more than I had before sending him up to the ship.

“Um.” Glancing to the others briefly as I stopped in front of the chained figure, I held a hand up to stop them before looking back to the figure in question. Clearing my throat a little, I hesitantly continued. “Excuse me, do you speak Engl–I mean, the Trade language? Do you understand?”

For a few seconds, neither the one I was talking to or any of the nearby figures actually responded at all. I was about to ask Tabbris to translate into Latin, when the figure to the right of the one I was standing in front of actually spoke up. “We’k in understanding the’k Master.”

Weak in understanding? I was confused for a moment about what that could possibly mean.

Fortunately, Tabbris quickly settled my confusion by putting in, I think he said ‘we in understanding the Master’. I don’t think the k sound is intentional. Or it’s just a… um, an accent or something.

“Right.” Biting my lip, I looked to the one who had spoken. “You understand. And you think–” Inwardly, I flinched at the realization before shaking my head. “No, listen. We’re not Seosten. We’re not possessed, and neither was… neither was that guy. We’re not the Masters.”

God, how confused must these guys be? They had been abducted by what they thought was one of their Seosten masters, dragged down here into the tunnels and used to fuel a shield spell against what appeared to be more of their Seosten masters. No wonder they were freaked out.

They were all staring at us, clearly even more confused and frightened. I could hear some of them whispering down the line as the uncertainty about what we were doing or what we intended grew. By that point, I was pretty sure most of them were resigned to death.

“We’re not here to hurt you!” That was Jazz, stepping up beside me. Starting to raise her hands before clearly thinking better of it, she reiterated slowly, but firmly.  “We’re not going to hurt you.”

I nodded. “She’s right. We are not going to hurt you. We’re going to unchain you, okay? We’re going to let you out. Just… don’t run away or anything. There are bad guys out there. The Seosten. They’re out there.” I pointed back the way we had come. “So don’t run off or whatever. We’re just going to let all of you out. I promise, we are not going to hurt you.” Yes, I was just repeating myself by that point. But I figured it bore emphasis, considering how scared they were.  

“We’k good for Masters,” one of the others tried to insist. “Never go’k running from Masters.”

Right. No wonder Isaac had been able to herd them down here so easily. They probably hadn’t even tried to resist, since they thought that he was one of the Seosten. They’d just obediently followed him down here. Hell, they probably even showed him where to go when he demanded a hiding place. The ones who had been hurt… Isaac had probably just been enjoying himself.

“No, I said we’re not–” Stopping myself, I let out a breath before giving up. Better to show rather than tell, in this case. Stepping closer slowly, I examined the chain for a second. It led from the wall to some kind of metal belt that was locked around the man’s waist. Eventually, I found the seam. It looked like Isaac had taken a bunch of scrap metal bars or something and bent them into circles around these guys with the same power that he’d used to throw Gidget around.

Carefully getting my fingers under the metal band on either side of where both ends met, I tried to give the ant-figure as reassuring of a look as I could before heaving at it. The band resisted stubbornly for a few seconds, before slowly prying apart with the groan of protesting metal.

Finally, I was able to pull the partially unbent metal bar away from the formerly trapped figure, tossing it aside to dangle by the chain. As promised, the Alter didn’t run. He stood there, openly trembling. If anything, he seemed even more afraid now than he had before. It was like he was convinced that he was now going to be made an example of because I had singled him out.

“Guys,” I looked back to others. “Could you help the rest of these guys get free?” I figured that between all the powers that they had, it wouldn’t be too hard to get everyone unchained.

They moved to do just that then, while I turned back to the one I had freed, trying to keep my voice as calm and reassuring as possible. “Can you tell me what your name is? And what your people are called, your species?” Maybe if I showed an interest in who they were as people, it might help a little bit. All I knew was that we really needed to calm these people down if we were going to get any information out of them about what was going on, and where the rest of the town was.

The ant-figure shifted back and forth, looking nervous as he made a weak noise before finally speaking. “We’k are the’k Kenkean, Master. This one is called Ruedu’k. It is ready for serve.”  

“Kenkeans.” I repeated the name of the race, which sounded like Ken-kay-un. It was good to have something to think of them as beyond ‘ant-people’. “And you’re Ruedu.” That one sounded basically like saying ‘rude you’, which was ironic considering how he had been acting so far. 

I was also starting to recognize when the k sound was intentional and when it was just their mandibles clicking together whenever they ended a word on a vowel.

When the Kenkean gave a quick nod, I extended a hand reflexively. “Good to meet you, Ruedu, I-” Belatedly, I realized my mistake as Ruedu recoiled, looking with wide, terrified eyes at my hand. Oops. Right, when people like me could have any power imaginable, extending a hand to someone who was already afraid of us was probably a bad idea. Jazz had realized that earlier.

“Sorry, I… I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. I swear. Um. Umm…” I thought quickly, trying to remember the word that Jokai had used back when we first met him and had promised to save his people. “Sacramentum. Sacramentum, we swear. We are not going to hurt you. We… You know the Seosten, the Masters. We are not Seosten. We are… They use us too. They enslave us. They possess us. But we’re not possessed. We are… human. We’re here to help you.”

Pointedly, I gestured to where the others were working on freeing the other Kenkeans. “The boy, the one who abducted you, he was… we came to stop him. I’m sorry that you were… that he hurt your people. He was bad. He’s gone now. He won’t hurt you anymore.”

Ruedu lifted his head a little, watching me carefully. “Not… Masters? Not Seosten?” He said the name very hesitantly, like he was afraid that just saying it outloud would make them appear.

“No. We’re not Seosten,” I assured him. “We fight the Seosten. Can you…” I swallowed, dreading the answer. “Can you tell me where the rest of your people are? Where are the rest of the Kenkeans?” Quickly, I added, “We just want to know that they’re okay. That’s all. The boy that brought you in here, did he… did he hurt anyone else? Did he–” The words choked their way out of my throat. “Did he kill anyone?”

“Three’k,” Ruedu answered, crushing my hopes. “Boy’k killed three’k for making sure he’k was obeyed.”

“No,” I replied flatly. “He did it because he wanted to.” Swallowing hard, I shuddered a littled before looking back to him. “I’m sorry, Ruedu. I’m really, really sorry.”

For a few long seconds, he stared as if seeing me for the first time. His mandibles clicked together a couple times, but produced almost no sound. Then he lowered himself slightly, in something that kind of almost looked like a bow. “Other Kenkean below’k.” One of his hands pointed at the floor. “Deep tunnels. When boy’k ship crash, most flee’k to’k bottom. Only’k we’k remain above to’k aid Masters. Boy’k…. Master?”

My head shook again. “No, he’s just an asshole.” Belatedly, I amended, “He’s just a bad person. Evil.”  

Okay, so there were a lot more Kenkean below, apparently. Good. For just a second, I had been terrified that Isaac had killed a lot more than three. Hell, even that many was tragic, but it could have been so much worse.  

Shaking off that horrible thought, I focused on Ruedu. “My name is Flick. Like I said, we’re human.” My mouth almost formed the word Heretic, but I stopped it at the last second. Human. Human sounded better, somehow.

“Flick?” Ruedu repeated my name, overly stressing the kuh sound at the end. “Flick.”

By that point, most of the others had been freed, and were gathering in a group. As the Kenkean looked back to his people, there was a brief flash from the corner of the room. My head snapped that way, hand darting to my weapon.

It was Larissa and Haiden. They walked quickly over, the former stopping to embrace her daughter while Haiden himself stepped over to us.

The Kenkeans, including Ruedu, had all collapsed to the floor, hands outstretched toward the arriving adults as they frantically supplicated themselves.

“No, no!” I quickly shook my head, catching their attention. “Guys, Kenkeans! It’s okay. It’s okay, they’re with us. They’re not Seosten. They’re humans. Not Seosten.”

“Having fun, I see,” Haiden announced as he stepped over. Roxa and the others moved to join us.

“Loads,” I replied flatly. “Isaac?”

“Secure,” he assured me. “Dries says he’s out like a light. Good job.”

Nodding once, I looked back the other way. “Ruedu, this is Haiden. Haiden. He’s a friend. Good. He is good. Haiden, this is Ruedu. He’s one of the Kenkeans. These guys.”

“Not true’k.” Ruedu raised a hand, looking a little terrified to be speaking up, like he was confident that I was about to rip his head off for speaking. “All close. Close to’k true’k. But not he’k Ruedu’k. She’k Ruedu’k.”

I blinked twice, then realized my mistake. “She Rued–oh! Oh. You’re a she, not a he. Female Kenkean.” When she nodded, I coughed. “Sorry. I’m sorry. This is Ruedu, she is one of the Kenkeans. Isaac was…”

As I trailed off, Haiden shook his head. “We know. Sands let us know what was going on.”

“Yes, she did.” That was Larissa, stepping over to join us. “And now it’s time for us to go. Haiden and I did enough damage and left enough traps to slow them down, but they’re still coming. We’ve got Isaac, it’s time to get out of here.”

My mouth opened and then shut, as the realization came. “We can’t go,” I announced slowly.

That made everyone’s heads whip around as they stared at me. Larissa was the first to speak. “What? Flick, listen to me, there is an army out there and they’ll be down here any minute.”

“Yeah.” I nodded before lifting my staff to indicate Ruedu and the rest of the Kenkeans. “And them, and the rest of their people below, what do you think the Seosten will do to them when they can’t find us? You think they’ll just say, ‘hey, oh well’ and go about their day? Cuz I’m pretty sure they’re not the type to care that these guys weren’t involved with us. Best case scenario, they’re all enslaved and thrown into a work camp just like the one we just saved Jokai and the others from. Worst case, they just kill them all to make a point.”

“She’s right.” That was Jazz. She rubbed her arm gingerly, panting. “They’ll kill them. Or enslave them. We can’t just walk away. We can’t abandon them just because we have what we wanted.”

Haiden and Larissa exchanged brief glances and a moment of silent communication passed between them. The man smiled before looking back to me. “You really are a lot like your mom.”

“Guys,” Larissa started, walking over to us. “I want to get them out of here too. But you don’t have the power to make the kind of portal that we’d need to get all these people up to the ship. None of us do. Not in time before Radueriel’s troops get past those traps and find us here.”

Sands looked to her mother pointedly. “Then we’ll hold them off. You just said, we can’t make the portal. But you guys can. You did it before to get us down here. You make the portal to get all these guys out of here, and we’ll hold off the Seosten goons long enough for you to do it.”

“What?” Larissa’s eyes widened at that, and she quickly took hold of her daughter’s shoulders. “No, Sandoval. You can’t fight them. I told you, there’s an army out there.”

“Yeah,” the other girl replied, “a whole army out there. But the tunnels are only so wide. They can’t send everything at us at once. We don’t have to fight all of them at the same time, just the ones that can reach us. We can use that to hold them off long enough for you guys to work.”

Still, Larissa looked distraught, head shaking. “Sweet girl, it would take us hours to put together enough energy to send a portal all the way to where the ship is. You can’t hold out for that long.”

Sands opened her mouth to say something, when Gordon abruptly spoke up. “What if the ship was closer?” As everyone looked to him, he asked, “Would that help make the portal faster?”  

Haiden slowly whistled at that. “Bring the ship closer, and we don’t have to portal out as far…”

“There is an armada up there!” Larissa blurted, pulling Sands close to her chest and hugging onto her as she looked at Haiden incredulously. “And you really think that the best idea right now is to bring that ship out where they can blow it out of the sky and strand us all here?”

“No,” I quickly put in. “It’s not the best idea. But it might be the only idea. Larissa,” I pressed then, meeting her gaze, “we can’t abandon these people. Sure, we could tell them to hide in their tunnels, to run away. But you know the Seosten would find them eventually. We can’t just leave them here. I’m not saying it’s not dangerous. I’m saying it’s worth it. Because those people are only in danger because of Isaac. And he’s our responsibility. We have to protect them.”

For a second, the woman just stared at me. Then she reached a hand out, touching my face briefly. “You are… a beautiful girl,” she murmured before straightening with a sigh. “Call them.” She was looking toward Haiden. “Call the ship. They’ll have to be really close and really fast. We’re gonna have to time this perfectly. We have to know exactly how close they can get and exactly when they’ll get there. They get the ship as close as they can, we open the portal the second they’re in position and send all these people through.” Her eyes snapped to the rest of us. “And you use those badges the second we get them through the portal. You understand?”

“They’re coming.” That was Roxa. She had stepped over nearer to the chamber entrance, her head cocked to the side as she listened. “It won’t take them much longer to get here. If we’re gonna keep them far enough away for you guys to focus on the portal, we need to go now.”

“Be careful.” Larissa reached out, taking my arm with one hand and Sands’ with the other. “Just… just don’t take risks that you don’t have to. The tunnels are narrow. Use that. Don’t let them lure you out. Hold them off, make them keep coming to you. Be…” She swallowed. “Be safe. Be smart.” Looking up to Roxa, Jazz, and Gordon, she added, “That goes for all of you.”

“We will,” I promised before looking to the others. “Come on, guys.

“Let’s go hold off an army.”

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