The Starborn Knight: Part VI

Shekaree, Chevalier

One month ago — August 2016

After three earth years of trying to get me to come to the village with her, I finally agreed to follow Sikara into town. Everything in the human’s settlement was different from ours; the roads went as they pleased with no logical organization, the buildings were also haphazard with service establishment mixed among the housing, there was no central square or clear delimitation of districts. How humans could live in such chaos, I didn’t know.

Come on, we’re almost there.” Sikara declared as we walked through the town. Somehow she’d made sense of the chaos.

I was keenly aware of the stares of the humans as we moved around, Sikara and I’s hands laced together. One of the thing I’d learned about them was that they did not tolerate mates of the same gender.

Here we are!” She declared as we stopped in front of a building. The sign above said ‘La republicana tapas.’

At Sikara’s insistence, I had learned some of the humans’ languages, it had helped delay going out, as I learned but now that I spoke spanish well, she hadn’t taken no for an answer anymore.

A mess hall?

“Un restaurante” She corrected me in Spanish. “Mi favorito en el pueblo.” Her favorite restaurant in the village.

I thought we were meeting some humans.

“Si, pero más tarde.”

Later, fine. Now you can drop the spanish, I don’t need more practice.”

If you say so.

We went inside and a human female servant guided us to a table before taking our order. I let Sikara pick the food, not being familiar with human dishes or ingredients. I couldn’t stop myself staring at the human’s chest and the way its breast poked from under its clothes.

Shekaree?” Sikara asked once the servant turned away.

How do humans babies even drink milk?” I asked in a whisper. “Their teats are so big…

She burst out laughing at my comment. “They don’t have massive teats, Shekaree, they’re just like ours. They just have fatty tissue underneath.

Are you sure?

Very sure. You could say I’ve verified it myself with the help of a friend.

My ears folded back at the thought of her having been with a human… The food we’d ordered came only a moment later, composed of many small plates which the human servant placed down on our table along with utensils.

Although the other patrons tried to be quiet, I could hear them talking about us. I let out a growl at one of their word. “Damn space pigs shouldn’t be allowed here.” it said in spanish.

Ignore them.” Sikara ordered, putting a hand on mine. “They’re not worth our time.

I did my best to do it, focusing on the food. Some preparations were akin to our foods, such as sausages, fritters or stuffed pastries, but the tastes weren’t what I expected, being different ingredients. Once our meal was done, I thanked the servant who’d brought it to us and began walking for the door only for Sikara to take my hand and stop me.

Shekaree, wait.” She said.

What is it?

We haven’t paid yet.

Paid?

Compensated them for the meal.

We have to do that?” I blinked.

“Lo siento señora, mi amiga es nuevo.” She said, apologizing to the human. She opened her bag and took out some thin but long polymer strips, counting a few and giving them to the human. “Gracias.”

She came back to me and took my hand, leaving the establishment.

In the human world, you need to compensate establishments for their service. Humans receive money in exchange for their work and they trade it for services.

That seems very complicated for nothing.” I frowned. In our culture, we didn’t use money, services like mess halls or clothing were provided for free with the understanding that people contributed to society in exchange. “Where did you get that money?

I traded for it.” Was all she said.

We walked out of the restaurant and she guided us out of town, but in a different direction from our camp. Instead we found our way into a small valley in the hills where a few humans were waiting for us. They got up and greeted Sikara who introduced me, I stayed back, only listening to their conversation.

One of them, Migel, was late and supposed to bring the equipment, whatever that meant…

A few minutes later an old beaten truck  drove down the path and stopped a few feet from us. A few more humans got out of it.

“Hola Kara!” One of them shouted. I turned around and saw it was in full armor, a weapon in its hand. It raised the weapon, aiming for Sikara.

My heart stopped, it was as I’d feared. I didn’t think and rushing in. Before he could fire, I was on top of it savaging with my fists.

“Karee!” Sikara screamed.

“Migel!” The other screamed.

Someone tried to pull me off and I roared at them, ready to fight until I saw who it was; Sikara herself.

Stop it!” She begged and I did. “Why…

It had a weapon.

She leaned down and grabbed the human’s weapon, levelling it at me and firing. The projectile that had hit my belly lightly pinched but that was it. A few splotches of blue paint now stained my outfit.

It’s a toy! He was going to show me how to play with them.

I…” I muttered frozen. “I didn’t know…

Her lips parted about to say something but I didn’t listen, instead running away. She called out for me but I kept running. I didn’t stop until I reached our camp and was back in our room. I crumbled down on the ground, shaking…

What had I done?

My claws were still stained red with the alien’s blood.

I don’t know how long I stayed there, but eventually the door opened, Sikara coming through.

Miguel will be okay.” She said. “He will need surgery and will have scars but he’ll be well.

I’m sorry.” I answered, tears dripping down my face.

She offered me a hand and I took it. The dried blood caked on my claws contrasting with the pristine ivory tone of hers. The moment I was back on my feet, she wrapped her arms tightly around my torso.

I’ve told master Kiorga what happened and we both agree you need help.”

“It—”

She put a claw on my mouth.

Shekaree, you’re afraid of them. You constantly think the worst will happen, but humans aren’t our enemies anymore, the war is long over and this is our world now… I can’t count the number of times I knew you snuck out at night to stand watch on the wall, you think I don’t know, but I’ve known about the knife you keep hidden in our bed… I’ve heard you speaking in your nightmares.

I didn’t answer her.

I’ve been trying to help you, but it’s not working.” She said her ears folding in shame.

There was a knock at the door and I looked up. Master Kiorga stood in the doorway. I got up and she came toward me, giving me a tight hug.

I’m sorry, I did wrong and as your apprentice, I stained your honor.” I removed her emblem pin from my collar and handed  it to her. She however closed my hand tightly around it with her own.

Shekaree, stop. What you did was wrong, but it’s because you’re still hurt.” There was a pause and I stared at the ground. “I talked with the head chaplain and we both agree you need help we can’t provide.” The chaplains were responsible for the mental and spiritual well being of the empire’s citizen.

What does that mean?

You’ll be leaving, there is a place I believe could help you. You’ll be among powered humans, you’ll live with them, study with them and train with them.

She was getting rid of me, I knew it… Sending me away like those who had contested her rule and challenged the order of the camp.

I—” I began but the interrupted me.

It’s for the best. This is not an exile, we are not abandoning you, you will still be my apprentice. You will be free to come back when you can.

When do I leave?

At the start of the next human month.

Very well.

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Kelfire: Part III

Kellen Gustke, Present Day

“Wolfrick Heppenheimer,” Magnus echoed, tailing me as I walked to the teleportation room. “He’s a chimera scientist who works for the European branch?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, not really having the patience for Magnus at the moment.

“How do you know him?” he asked, frowning.

“I used to live with him and his son,” I explained. I didn’t talk much about my past, mostly because I had been determined when I came across to America that I would build my own success without relying on my surname. People in America were so distracted by their own worlds that very few people actually knew Gustke was the name of the man leading the Europe branch of the Syndicate.

“Oh, so you were involved in the chimera rings?” he asked, sounding surprised.

“Something like that,” I lied. I was relieved to see the security staff hadn’t done anything insulting like cuffing him. Heppenheim stood up from the seat he had been given as I walked in. He looked tired, his wrinkles deeper than the last time I had seen him. Admittedly it had been at least three years.

“Didn’t expect you to turn up on my doorstep,” I said, giving him a warm smile.

“Kellen,” he said, sounding equally surprised and relieved. I pulled him into a hug.

“It’s nice to see you again,” I said. “Right,” I said, pulling away from him, “Why are you here?”

“The Legion found us.” I felt my skin pale as something dawned on me.

“Where’s Jaeg?” Heppenheim’s face broke before me, the closest I’d ever seen it come to tears.

“They caught him,” he whispered, sounding mournful.

“Fuck,” I sighed. “Okay, follow me. Yvanna is a tech genius, she’ll be able to work out where they’re keeping him.” Heppenheim nodded and followed, then Magnus intercepted us.

“Look, I’m all for helping the old man, but we have a mission,” Magnus said.

“Your team can take it,” I replied, making him double take.

“But Ethan said-”

“You guys can take the prize. This is more important,” I said, brushing him aside and leading Magnus to the main hub room. Yvanna looked up from her screen, cocking an eyebrow.

“Yvanna, will you please work with Heppenheim? We need to track down a European agent,” I explained.

“My eye has access to all the cameras in my lab building in England, maybe some of it will help?” he suggested.

“It’s a start,” Yvanna nodded. I left them to it and went into the corridor, pulling out my phone and calling Ethan. He picked up on the fifth ring, by which point I was tapping my heels impatiently on the metal grated floor.

“Magnus informed me you’re directly ignoring my orders,” Ethan said, his tone calm. Shit, of course he beat me to it. I knew that tone as well, he only used it when he was keeping his temper in check.

“Heppenheim came to the base. Something has happened in England, I’m helping them-”

“That’s a problem for the Europe branch. Let them handle it,” Ethan cut me off. I bit my lower lip, letting out a measured breath.

“I know the protocol, but the Legion have an old friend of mine Ethan,” I said. Silence reigned on the other line and I began to pace.

“Kellen, we were very clear when we began relations that you would not use it for more favourably treatment,” Ethan finally replied.

“That’s not what I’m trying to do Ethan. You wanna dock my pay while I’m doing this search, go for it,” I threw back, annoyed he saw through my ruse.

“Who is this old friend?” Ethan asked.

“His name is Jaeger Heppenheimer.” Ethan let out a short laugh.

“You’re asking me to let you use work hours to help your ex?”

“It’s not like that Ethan,” I sighed.

“Kellen, you’ve always followed the rules precisely. Suddenly your ex has been caught by the Legion and you’re recklessly abandoning all of them – so I believe there is a connection.” I rolled my eyes at his lecturing tone.

“Right, well enjoy the hotel alone next week since I’ll be doing the search off-duty,” I said, shrugging with a grimace on my face. I felt his hesitation before he eventually sighed.

“You have 48 hours to find him. If he’s in a cell or somewhere in Europe, we let the european branch handle it.” he hung up and I glared at the phone, just about resisting the urge to throw it at the wall. Ethan had basically given me the go ahead to do absolutely nothing. I could find him and he could be bleeding out in a  ditch somewhere in England, and I couldn’t help. Fuck. I took a moment to get back my composure before heading back to where Yvanna and Heppeneheim were working.

“Any luck?” I asked.

“He’s being transported to Mingulay prison,” Yvanna sighed. “However it looks like one of Legion heroes has already scheduled to visit him.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It could mean nothing, or something,” she shrugged. Another screen beeped and she opened the window, smirking. “On the plus side I have some locations for you and Magnus’ team to check out.”

“What’s the nearest place?” I asked.

“Washington,” Yvanna said. “The other location that’s probably worth checking out is Ravenhold Academy.”

“Wait, you mean the superhero school in Maine?” I asked. Maine was on the other side of the country to us so was a fair old trek.

“The one and only,” Yvanna replied. She went back to hacking something without speaking and in a few moments we saw grainy black and white footage of a plain grey room with simple table and chair. And sitting in one chair with his hands cuffed together was Jaeg. I felt a lump form in my throat at the sight of him. Heppenheim moved closer to the screen and Yvanna wheeled aside for him.

“Who is that?” I asked, the hero was clad in a full body suit and mask, no way to guess their alter ego.

“Sentinel,” Ace said. I jumped and spun to look at him. “Ethan called, said you’d need some back up,” he shrugged. “So little Julie,” he murmured looking at the screen.

“He’s called Jaeger,” I said through gritted teeth.

“Right, sorry. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about him,” Ace murmured.

“I bet,” I muttered.

“Hmm?”

“Nothing.”

“Is there any audio?” Heppenheim asked, oblivious to our conversation. Yvanna did some more typing and we could hear conversation.

“Well?” the hero said, leaning forward.

“You,” Jaeger murmured.

His voice sounded so much deeper than I remembered. Then again he had only just started hormones back then.

“Want me to become a-” he cut himself off, unable to complete the sentence and instead bursting out laughing.

“What does the news say about human chimera’s Jaeger?” she asked him, making his laughter die down quickly. “It’s never good, right? A lot of villains. I’m not going to make assumptions about your past but I can tell you that whatever it’s made of, it doesn’t have to be your future. You have the powers to be a great hero. The power to change public perception.”

“Is she asking him what I think she’s asking him?” Ace asked.

“What, your mind reading voodoo don’t walk across an ocean?” I muttered.

“You’re very moody today,” he sighed.

“A lot’s happen-” I was cut off by Heppenheim shushing me. After deliberating a long time she was leaving, but Jaeger had stood up.

“Sentinel,” he called. A moments hesitation. “Sign me up.”

Everyone watching the screen was quiet for a moment until Yvanna killed the live feed and began analysing the footage. Zooming into the image, focusing on the leaflet Sentinel had given him.

“He’s just avoiding prison,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Ace asked.

“It’s Jaeger. We practically grew up mocking heros. If someone can reach out to him wherever they send him then he’ll leave in a heartbeat and come back to the Syndicate,” I shrugged.

“Well, you’ll have to do the reaching out,” Yvanna said, drawing my attention to the screen. “He’s going to Ravenhold.”

Kelfire: Part II

Kellen Gustke, present day

The portal dispensed us to Central Base, although ironically it was situated deep under the sea off the coast of California. I’m sure there was some parahuman involvement in it’s construction. Nyesha and Ace followed me down corridors and to the central hub where I could see other members of the parahuman unit and senior human officials were waiting. They waited patiently as we all took the seats left around the table. I slide the small external drive across the table to Yvanna, a short woman with blond hair and blue eyes. She looked more suited to a Miss Serbia contest than The Syndicate but she was much smarter than her looks suggested. She quickly stood and took the drive out the room to upload to our own secure servers here for analysis.

I took a moment to take in the other sitting across from us. Marcus was the oldest one here, with greying brown hair. He’d removed his holy cross mask although he was still wearing his ridiculous templar type outfit, although his arms were bare to show off his tattoos. Azra was of mixed American and Turkish descent and a transwoman – part of why she had joined the Syndicate was because her local hero group had been anti-trans. She had a natural dark tan with curly black hair and amber eyes. She had various hennas on her skin at any one time – usually with Magnus’ help. She kept her get up simple – black and white with the occasional purple garnish, cape included.

And finally, Magnus. Who looked as though he was king of the world right now. He wasn’t anything impressive to look at, tall, well-built and looking like your typical all-american boy wonder. Except he was definitely not a good guy. His costume was black with the silver lighting up as he moved, displaying the star constellation of Gemini. Continuing the theme his mask was black with silver adornment, and between his eyes was the simple gemini star sign symbol. Three guesses what his supervillain name was.

“We were short of gathering 100% of the data stored but-” I began looking at the head of the table. Ethan Campbell. He was charged with the organisation of the syndicate in America. His head was also on the chopping block if his specialised parahuman unit failed to deliver appropriately.

“But you screwed up and got caught,” Magnus interrupted me. I felt my jaw clench as I maintained my eye contact with Ethan. His only acknowledgment of any of us as he stared at a handheld device was a strangled bark of laughter.

“We’ve already ascertained that the Legion were alerted by another group. As I said, we gathered just short of 100%. It is still possible we have the information we desire.”

“We better. People will pay handsome sums of money for an effective defense from parahumans. If the government has synthesized anything they’re in no rush to share it with the general public.”

“You almost make it sound like we’re being the good guys,” Ace murmured.

“We are the good guys, giving protection and peace of mind,” Ethan countered, letting the charisma that would win him the local election shine through.

“For the right price,” Nyesha added with her typical rebellious streak. “Is there any point in this meeting? Until we know what’s on the drive we’re just having a pissing contest.” she sent Magnus a pointed look with her last comment.

“Can’t handle the heat of consequences?” Magnus asked.

“I don’t suffer fools,” she replied without missing a beat. “I need to get back and secure cargo.” Ethan gave a nod of dismissal and she left, heels clicking and long ponytail whipping behind her as she walked.

“Ace, was there anything else of use the Legion were thinking?” Ethan asked.

“Mostly just the usual good guy thinking. We knocked one of them down pretty well but I imagine Tachyon will recover in a few days,” Ace said. “And Magnus, at least try to hide your thoughts.” Magnus merely huffed at Ace’s comment. I thought I saw a proud smile cross his features for a moment but Yovanna returned at that moment.

“Unfortunately a lot of the data was still partially encrypted or incomplete. It’ll take me a few hours to get it but I believe it has the locations we require.” Ethan thanked her for her report and she left, returning to her computer no doubt. Ethan made a thoughtful sound as he looked around the table.

“Let’s see how many places Yvanna isolates. Then since, as Nyesha said, this is a pissing contest, I’ll give both teams different locations. First one to get a sample gets a bonus.” Immediately the other two with Magnus grinned, looking far too self-assured for my liking.

“With that out of the way I have a speech to go draft. You’re all dismissed.” Ace didn’t linger, immediately leaving. Magnus took a moment to smirk at me before he and his team left. I stood up and walked over to Ethan who was looking at his handheld.

“Yes?” he finally said, acknowledging my existence.

“Pitting us against each other, really?” I asked.

“You like competition,” he replied dryly.

“Not when it’s clearly just a cover for punishing us. Menagerie tripped them off. I was the one breaking into that building. I tripped no alarms,” I insisted. Ethan lifted his gaze to look at me, a half smile on his face.

“If I thought for one moment you had tripped the alarm you wouldn’t be here Kellen,” he said, the threat in his voice. “As it is you consistently do a good job. It’s just something to motivate people,” he shrugged. He glanced around but it was only the general staff outside the room now.

“Are you busy tonight?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I replied. “I was planning to take a time out to relax before the next mission starts,” I shrugged.

“Hmm…How about a secluded hotel and spa getaway? My treat,” he said, closing the gap between us. I felt a smile quirking on my face and slight blush.

“Tell me where and when,” I replied, leaning closer. He immediately pulled back, the controlled smile he uses at his speeches in place.

“I’ll send you the details,” he promised, walking past me and out the room. I chewed my lower lip and released a tired breath.

I headed back to the teleporter room when my phone beeped with the details. I’d have a few hours to kill so I headed to the training room to beat some dummies. However before I got there the alarm sounded. I immediately raced back to the central hub where I saw armed units heading towards the portal room.

“What is it?” I asked, kneeling next to Yvanne’s desk. Without speaking she brought the cameras up on the screen and I did a double-take. I grabbed her mic and sent a message to all units.

“Stand down. I repeat, stand down.”

“What are you doing?” Magnus asked, appearing behind me.

“He’s not an enemy. He’s Heppenheim.”

Skins: Part IV

Sasha Vasiliev, Vucari

September 2016

The next morning, I woke up feeling Karee’s gentle breath on my neck, her powerful armored arms wrapped around my torso. It didn’t take long for my heart to start beating out of my chest.

“Karee?” I whispered.

She didn’t answer and I whispered her name again.

She stirred a little a moment later and I saw her eyes open. She yawned, giving me a close up view of Tzari denture. In addition to the tusks protruding from their mouth, they had twice the amount canines humans had and looked like she could tear flesh straight from a carcass. Having studied Tzaries I knew their ancestors and closest living relative species were a mix between a boar and an armadillo.

“Karee?”

“Gar?” She mumbled and she shook her head. “English…” She then muttered to herself. “Yes?”

“You can let me go now.”

She removed her arms from around my body and I quickly got up.

“Thank you…” I answered, still feeling a little flustered.

“Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m just surprised you didn’t wake me.”

“You were very tired. I do not know earth culture, but for Tzari it is normal for friends to share bed.”

“You think of me as your friend?”

“Why would I not?” She said, with a frown.

“No reason, I guess I’m just a little surprised. You were the first alien I’ve ever met, I never really thought I’d be friend with one.”

“You are my first human friend.” She confessed. “I have met many humans. But many not be good, call me Cerdo espacio or Cara ósea.” She let out a low growl at the memory. “Even not bad ones, not good. Fear Tzari, see us different from humans; as interesting thing but not person. But you are different from them.”

“I guess I just try to judge people for who they are rather than what they are.” I said with a shrug. “And I know what it’s like to be different…” I bit my lip at the memories.

“You look sad.” She said, putting an armored finger on my chin and raising my head ever so slightly. “Is that my fault?”

“No, just bad memories.” I sighed. “Many people on earth don’t like Rashkru like me, think we are sick and wrong.”

She let out a snarl in answer, exposing her rather sharp teeth. “That is why I stay away from humans; I do not mean to hurt you, but they are primitive.”

“It’s alright, I kind of agree with you. We have a long way to go.”

She put her arms around me and hugged me. Evidently that was a gesture both our species shared. Once she let go of me we prepared ourselves for our second day of school, which thankfully went smoothly, even if I had to help Karee understand some of the more complicated ideas of ethics class. As soon as we all arrived back at the house, Abigail called a meeting in the living room.

“Alright, I thought we should organize tasks around here.” She proposed.

We all agreed and she got a white board and placed it so we could view it. She quickly outlined all the things that needed done in terms of cleaning and people started negotiation what they were okay to do and what they preferred not to.  I took a few dishes chore, trading away vacuum and lawn mower duties. I couldn’t stand the noise.

“As much as I like cooking, I think we should do a rotation because cooking for so many people is way too much.” Abigail then said, people once more agreeing. “Since there’s fourteen of us and seven days a week, we should pair up and claim a day. How does that sound?”

“Uh… There’s sixteen of us.” Harley pointed out.

“Fredrika and Ruth don’t eat our food. It wouldn’t be fair to make them cook for us.”

I looked at the two of them. Ruth’s large lizard like form was apparently vegetarian, eating mostly raw greens, fruits and roots, while Fredrika with her more humanoid but very catlike body was the opposite; being an obligate carnivore that could only stand minimally cooked meat.

“What about Kylie?”

My eyes turned to her. Unlike Ruth and Fredrika who were mutant paramorphs, Kylie wasn’t human to begin with, being Avian. Avians had been the result of a less than ethical american experiment to create chimeric bodies and transplant the consciousness of humans.

“She’s Avian, they can eat just about anything.” I explained, drawing all eyes on me. “I studied them before…” I sheepishly added.

Explanations over, we all got into teams. Karee immediately found me.

“Do you want to be cooking mates?” She asked.

“Sure, although I’m not too great, I’m warning you.”

“And I am from other world.”

“Another world.” I corrected her, making her smile.

By the luck of the draw, it was our turn to cook the next day. After class we made a quick detour to the library, Karee wanting to get Tzari books to help me learn her language, having become dedicated for the task. As I looked around for a specific book, she browsed the next aisles for stuff. After a solid ten minutes and a half dozen search in the section, I didn’t find it. Someone had checked it out or misplaced it. So I went back to Karee’s side.

“The book isn’t here Karee, someone else must have gotten it out already. I’ll need to ask the librarian if there’s an electronic copy so—” I began speaking but as I turned the corner I found Karee with a black guy, looking at her a little weirdly. “Hi, are you new here too?”

“Yeah, my name’s Allen.”

“I’m Sasha.” I said with a smile and they looked me a little weirdly, I could imagine the gears in his head wondering if I was a lesbian or something. “First time meeting a Tzari?”

“Y-yeah.” He answered sheepishly.

“That’s the beauty of Ravenhold. Everyone’s welcome regardless of species, sex, gender and everything so long as they want to help people.” I checked my phone and saw the time. “We better go back if we don’t want Harley to be all melodramatic about dinner being late like last night.”

“I hope you settle well.” Karee declared as we left the library, bookless.

We went back to the house and into the kitchen where I checked the state of the pantry. Cooking wasn’t exactly my forte. My mum and dad were both restaurant owners and operated a Mongolian-Russian fusion kitchen but their passion hadn’t passed down to me. But I could handle myself if I had to.

“So I was wondering about something.” I began, drawing Karee’s attention as she looked through the fridge, seeming as if she was lost. “What do Tzaries eat? I mean, I’ve seen you eat our food, but what is your food like at home?”

“It is different, but not very so… Different part, but similar foods. Does that explain?”

“We have similar dishes but different ingredients?”

“Yes. But Tzari ingredients. But not eggs, eggs not common on Resh.” She said with a smile. “Breakfast is heavy meal, often stew cooked in evening and through the night for strength for the day. The middle of day meal is light and cold, Resh is very warm then; bread, fruits and…” She picked a piece of bread made a spreading motion.

“Spreads.”

“And spreads.” She confirmed. “Late day meal is also light, very quick before work continue. Evening meal is largest and longest, many dishes so family can spend time together. Resh has long days, thirty earth hours.”

I nodded and kept asking her about Tzari meals, thinking about how we could adapt them in the future. In the meantime, I opted to prepare Budaatai Khuurga, a mongolian rice dish my father would often make and taught Karee how to slice earth vegetables. Although she wasn’t familiar with the produce, she seemed to know the cooking technique well. About forty minutes later, we found ourself with a completed dish to serve.

So, are you hungry Karee? I feel like I could eat a buffalo.” I said once everyone else had taken their bowl. I filled two bowls for us and was about to join the others at the table when she spoke.

“No, wait.” She put down her bowl.

“Okay?” I blinked but put mine down too.

“Shekaree.” She said putting a hand on her chest. “You call me Shekaree now.”

Kelfire: Part I

Kellen Gustke, present day

The white building looked nondescript. Blending perfectly into it’s surroundings in this small sleepy town. However I knew it was armed to the teeth with defenses and a security system that would rival even the most advanced banks. The government thought if they hid these things in tucked away places like this we would never find them. Unfortunately their staff were their own downfall.

You sure this is the place?

Yes.

Somebody had skipped their breakfast this morning. Don’t get sharp with me, I thought back. Mariusz, known more commonly as The Black Ace or simply Ace went quiet, apparently not interested in saying anything further.

“Ready to do this?” I asked, shooting my partner a side-glance. Nyesha nodded. She wouldn’t speak right now, her voice was usually muffled by her full black bodysuit. Since this was a small town knee deep in the bible belt and it was mid-morning Sunday, everyone was on the other side of town in Church. I approached the building carefully, seeing where there was a opened window. Eventually I spotted a basement with small windows next to the ground. They were dusted but I could see well enough. I focussed on a spot and let my power do it’s thing.

I blinked my eyes and I was in a small basement that smelled strongly of bleach and had what looked like the aftermath of a bad mold infection on the walls. I pulled out my handheld sensor and it warned me there were beams at the bottom of the stairs and also at the windows. There wasn’t any on the stairwell itself though. Stairs were more tricky but luckily there was a banister. I blinked and gripped the banister instantly. Good thing I did as I wobbled on the corner of a step. My teleportation wasn’t 100% accurate unfortunately. I checked and saw there was a trip on the other side of the door which made things more difficult. I grabbed a laser cutter from my belt and got to work making a small opening. I had to be fast here. The moment it began to fall and I saw the other side I blinked, spinning and catching the fallen debris in the nick of time.

I let out a breath and checked the handheld. Nothing to see. I continued making my way through the building, avoiding any alarms until I found the room I was after on the third floor. In side were servers filled to the brim with information. It was one of five or six the Legion had scattered across the globe. They acted as a back ups if their main server hub in space went down for any reason. I plugged in the decrypter and went about preparing the upload of info to our own secure server. Admittedly the Syndicate doesn’t usually target parahumans, rarely employs them either. Apart from in America for some reason. I was sure arguments were had over Ethan’s approach to management but he liked having his own specialist parahuman unit, and it paid well too.

I checked in with Nyesha who was playing look out somewhere in the shadows no doubt but she gave the all clear. This was the part of the process that could trip an alarm. I looked at the time estimate, ten more minutes. I suppose it would take time to download and upload their whole entire database. If we actually got useable information was another matter for our in-house tech genius Yvanna. The decrypter was top of the line but the Legion had parahumans who specialized in making new and more difficult technology. It was entirely possible the decryption would fail and we would have terabytes of useless data. It was trickling down to two minutes when an alarm was sounded. I saw the machine screen hijack before my eyes and cured.

“Nyesha, what’s going on out there?” I asked.

“Noth-” she was cut off by a hiss and I could hear the wind around her whipping. I also heard another voice talking about arrest, etc but it was so fast I could barely track it. Tachyon, just great. I manually hacked my way into the house security quickly and saw where things like traps were set. I also saw a blur on the camera footage. I couldn’t hang around. I hit go on all the traps that weren’t right by the door and heard an explosion go off. Below and to the right of me. One minute to go. I dialled Ace and hung up to let him know I needed an update.

Give me a chance, she’s doesn’t just talk fast, this is difficult to follow.

If she was still thinking then this didn’t work. I checked in with Nyesha but she was busy fighting someone else. Of course an attack on their data was a serious thing so more than one would turn up. 50 seconds to go. I heard another trap trigger much closer and muttered a curse, pulling out a small gun in one hand and a curved knife in the other. In close quarters next to the machinery I couldn’t use my bombs.

Abandon the mission, there are ten on their way. Looks like something tipped them off before we arrived.

Shit! I gritted my teeth and looked at the terminal. 43 seconds. Three versus ten wasn’t good odds though, no matter how good we were. I yanked out the equipment taking whatever we had and threw a bomb at the far wall just in time for Tachyon to arrive. I teleported the heck out of there and outside. The s

un blinded me for a second and I saw Nyesha trying to deal with two people at once. Ace was quiet but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was trying to help from a distance. I raced to her and gripped her arm, pulling us both down to dodge an attack.

“Time to bail!” I teleported us as far away as I could on the road, where conveniently our escape vehicle sat. Ace was waiting inside as our driver. We dived in and he sped off quickly. I checked our rear cameras but nothing was giving chase. Then someone was, Tachyon. Perhaps the only time you can see her without a blur is when she’s chasing a speeding vehicle. It meant I had a better shot though. I reached for a bomb but Nyesha stopped me. She lifted the hood of the vehicle and waited, watching her. When she got within Nyesha’s dead zone she hit her. I saw the moment Tachyon felt the impact of Nyesha’s power, her body stuttered and she squeezed her eyes shut to fight the assault. I used the distraction to grab a much nicer gun from the backseat. I easily sniped one of her knees to hell and she disappeared behind us in a whirl of dust and limbs.

“Guess she’s out for the count for a while.” Ace commented. “She was thinking pain then passed out.”

“Sure she isn’t just dead?” Nyesha asked but he didn’t even bother replying. Ace was very adept at knowing the difference.

“Good. Let’s get back to base asap. We’ll need to switch vehicles under cover, they’ll already be following us on satellite.”

Skins: Part III

Sasha Vasiliev, Vucari

September 2016

The gods must have taken mercy on us because the first day turned out to only be a half day. Our homeroom teacher, Mr. Martin, was also much nicer than the Rook. He’d apparently been a hero before retiring but I wasn’t familiar with american heroes, knowing more about the Russian superheroes and villains such as the People’s Champions, the Red Sons, the Children of Perun. Many of whom were relics of the cold war.

After eating lunch in the large cafeteria court and then taking care of administrative things, we all returned to the house. I could see some friendships forming already; Harley and Síthmaith, Clarke and Abigail. However, I didn’t join them. Instead I went up to my room and grabbed the most important bag in my closet, taking it out onto the upstairs balcony.

Night had already fallen and thankfully the stars were decently visible that night so I set up my telescope. It was a gift my parents had gotten me two years prior. I’d owned telescopes since I was barely able to make sentences, but this one was an expensive professional one.

“Are you looking for something?” I heard Shekaree said, I hadn’t heard her or the door open.

“Not particularly, but Mars and Uranus are visible tonight.”

“You like looking at other worlds?”

“I love looking at the stars and think about what’s out there. We’ve met some of our neighbors; Tzari, Itharii, Shivat, Ct’chisk, Zot-fit-ta, Yev. And yet we’ve only seen what’s in the Orion-Signus spur, there’s a whole galaxy to explore and many more people to meet.”

“Humans do not normally like… Star people.”

“Aliens.”

“Yes, aliens.”

“I believe that deep down people are good, even if they make mistakes or stray from the right path. In the message your people sent when you came, you said you came to help us, that if we accepted to join the empire we’d be free of poverty, suffering and divisions. I’d like to believe it was true, that even if you were misguided, you wanted to help.”

“It is true. We had weapons to destroy you if we wanted. But we did not.”

“The same weapons that destroyed Moscow?”

At the mention of Moscow, she looked away, clearly ashamed.

“Yes… It was cowardly. Many of us and your people die because of Lord Kuthal was a coward and scared…” I saw her claws clench into fists. “Moscow was in your nation I was told.”

“Yes… I lost aunts and uncles that day.”

She bit her lip. I took a step toward her and wrapped my arms around her, causing her to flinch.

“It’s okay Karee, it’s not your fault. Your people aren’t responsible, only one was and he was punished for what he did.”

She nodded and I let go.

“Come on, let me show you my telescope.” I said, changing the subject. I went back to it and explained to her how it worked, the model and its features. I was ninety-nine percent sure sure she didn’t understand what I was going on about, but she seemed enthralled regardless.

“Come on, take a look.” I said after arranging the telescope.  She approached the telescope and leaned down. “Do you see the star at the center?”

“Yes.”

“That’s HD 147513. But for the last twelve years, we’ve had a new name for it; Aruat. It’s where Itharii were born, their planet, Ithar, lies in the fifth Lagrange point between the sun and a gas giant. They’ve traveled over forty light years to come here.”

I went back on the telescope and looked around for a moment until I found the right star.

“And this one is known on earth as Kepler-442.” I said before letting her look through the telescope again.

“I know this one. It is Oarakus,the maker’s eye and star of Resh.”

“It’s where you come from, you’ve crossed 1120 light years to come here. The light we see was emitted when your people were just beginning to industrialize.”

“You know Tzari history?”

“Only a little. There are not a lot of Russian book about Tzaries and I only learned to read English fluently recently.”

“You could learn our language.”

“How?”

“I could teach you.” She said making my heart skip.

“You would?”

“If you help with mine english.”

“My english.” I corrected her.

“See? You are already a teacher.” She said with a smile.

“You have a deal then. It’s getting late, why don’t we go back inside?”

She nodded and I packed my telescope back into its bag. We went inside and the moment we were back into our room she searched through her things until she found a slim book. She sat on the bed and flipped it open. The insides were full of tzari text; blocky detached letters peppered with dots dashes and other marks.

“Come.” She said.

I put my telescope back into the closet and sat down next to her.

“You know I can’t read Tzari, right?”

“Yes. I am showing you text.”

With her claw she pointed at the first two letter of a word in the sole line of the first page. “This is ‘R’. You see next letter? It ‘N.’ Language has only consonant, vowels are above or below.” She then pointed at the tiny spiral like mark below the ‘R’ “This is ‘en’”

“Ren.”

“Yes.”

She went over the next letter and vowel mark; ‘Ta’

“Ren-ta. That’s the Tzari code of honor isn’t it?”

“Ren-ta is the Tzari way of life. Teaches order, loyalty and unity. It was given to us by leader Raskhan.”

“I’ve heard a lot of things about him. Mostly bad ones…” I sighed. “What is he really like?”

“I have not met him, but Raskhan is not a bad leader, he is fair and good. Made all tzari equal, even… I do not know the word; Person born servant and belong to master, like me.”

“You were a slave?”

“No, only ancestors were slave.” She reached for her face and brushed the brand on her cheek. “This reminds us where we come from. What Raskhan did for us.”

“Oh wow…” There was a moment of silence. “The Rook mentioned lords, what are they?”

“Lords are Tzari leaders, chosen from best and smartest of Tzari, to learn Ren-ta. They are leader, warriors and bring justice to people.”

“Are you a Lord?”

“No, only a apprentice—”

“An apprentice.” I said, making her smirk.

“Tzari are apprentice for two year —eight Earth years— before they become lord. I only have done one Resh year, but because of mission was given lord improvement early.”

“Improvement?”

“Made faster, stronger, smarter.”

“You’re like a real life transhuman or trans-tzari, I guess.”

“No?” She frowned. “I am not Rhaskru.”

“No, no. Transhuman not transgender, I know they sound similar, but they’re different things. Transhuman is a human who is made stronger by technology.”

She nodded and went back to the book, showing me more letters and vowel marks, reading passages that even though I didn’t understand I still focused on. With her finger, she traced the text as she read so I could better follow.

“So, what was Resh like?” I asked once she finished a paragraph.

“Beautiful but harsh. Resh has less water and is hotter. How is your home?”

“Cold.” I said with a snicker. “But it has its charms. Can you tell me more about your world?”

And just like that, we spent the night talking away; about Resh and Russia, about our childhoods and culture, the people we’d left behind. I don’t even remember falling asleep still in her bed after hours of passionate and melancholic talk.

Skins: Part II

Sasha Vasiliev, Vucari

September 2016

After pizza, we went to our room. It wasn’t anything special; two single beds, two desks, two nightstand and two closets. Karee put down her things and began undressing, removing her armor without any shame or hesitation despite being clearly naked underneath.

As I put down my things, I could just feel the rattling in my lungs from binding for too long. Wearing my binder for the whole trip had been a terribly idiotic move. Although I was normally shy about changing, something about Karee made me at ease, probably the fact she hadn’t hesitated to strip. After relieving the pressure with a few cough, I put on a baggy shirt which hopefully would hide my shape. When I turned around I noticed Karee was giving me a look.

“Are you well? You…” She paused before faking a cough.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.”

“You said you were male to the others, did you?”

“Yeah, it’s just that I’m well… I’m transgender.” I said biting my lip.

“Is that the human word for it?”

“it?”

“You were born with the body of a female but have the spirit of a male? Is that transgender?”

“That’s one way to put it.” I said with a nod. It wasn’t the best way to put it, but with our limited communication and her literally alien culture, it was good enough.

“We call you Rhaskru.” She said before pausing for a moment, clearly searching for her words. “It means family of Rhas.”

“Rhas?”

“Rhasnel, one of first companion to leader Raskhan. He was like you. Tzari like him are Rhaskru in his honor.”

“In his honor?”

“No shame in being transgender.”

“I didn’t know you Tzaries could also be trans.”

“Humans do not listen to us, make their own story about us to make us bad people or monsters. But for Tzari there is no hate on female, Raskru, color of skin or choice of mate.”

“That sound really nice.” I sighed. “I wish we were like that.”

She frowned.

“I am sorry.”

“Thank you… I should probably got to bed soon, I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been up for.”

Karee nodded. “Rest well, Sasha.” She said before leaving the room.

***

I slept in wolf form that night. It was a thing with me, I always struggled to find sleep when in human form, tossing and turning, thinking about everything and nothing all over. But the different headspace given to me by my animal forms always soothed my mind, with the wolf being one of my favorite.

I woke up to the smell of bacon and coffee coming to my snout. When I stirred up, I saw that Karee had already left so I quickly got dressed. Because of the trip there, I had to leave my binder off and instead stacked on several loose layers so I wouldn’t have to see my body.

I went down and joined some of the others in the kitchen rather than take a shower. Much to my irritation, Clarke —along with a tall dark skinned girl who had introduced herself as Abigail the night before— was the one who was making food and in large quantities by the looks of it. Clarke quietly dropped a plate of bacon and eggs and I muttered a thank you but we didn’t interact any further.

Once breakfast was over, we as a group left for our first class of the year, given in the Dojo which was part of the training center. As we lined up inside, the teacher came to us wearing his full superhero costume; A dark armored costume strapped with pouches and gadgets. His face was hidden behind a bird shaped mask and red goggles.

“Good morning students.” He said, his voice baritone and projecting through the dojo. “I have the honor of introducing you to Ravenhold. An honor you will surely not enjoy within the next few minutes. It’s my job to teach you how to fight, with or without powers, but to do that, I have to see what you already know so we’ll be going through a series of battle. But I do warn you, I do not pull my punches and I do not expect you to.”

He went through the line and the first two who went before me had their asses kicked painfully and brutally.

“Your turn kid.” The Rook said pointing at me. “Please don’t be as disappointing as the others were.”

I looked around and at my clothes. Although I could pull biological mass in or out of my metaphorical butt, anything I carried wasn’t affected, clothes included. Rather than strip in front of everyone, I quickly transformed into a rat and snuck out my clothes, now lying in a pile at the ground. Once I was freed, I transformed into a large brown bear, charging at him.

In answer, he threw some caltrops on the ground and I tried to stop but the momentum behind my charge kept me going, one of the spikes driving itself on my front paw. I grit my teeth in pain and transformed again, becoming a gorilla. The caltrop fell as soon as I shifted, unable to stick to the gooey transitional state.

I looked around and found the Rook charging toward me. I readied for his charge only for a bright flash and bang to throw me off balance. I hadn’t even noticed the flashbang…

He rammed his staff to sides and then punched me in the throat. To say it wasn’t pleasant would be an understatement. I tried to escape, turning back into a rat but as soon as I shrank, he grabbed me with a hand, squeezing tight… So I turned into a whale, the explosive increase in mass sending him backward. I quickly switched to wolf form and looked around. Unfortunately, the Rook was ready for me, he shot me with something and the next thing I knew I fell on the floor rocked by spasm. He came closer and put the blunt side of his knife against my throat.

“You lose.”

I growled but didn’t fight. I shifted into a tiger and the change cleared the pain away before going back to the others.

“Aren’t you going to transform back?” Harley, one of my classmate, asked.

Rather than go back to human form, I switched to parrot form. “Can’t! Be naked!” I said. I’d actually practiced speaking in that form in case I’d need to.

“You look adorable, can I pet you?”

They stepped forward and reached down. I answer, I changed into a porcupine and they drew their hand back.

“Buuuuzzkiiiill.” They said, dragging the word along. “But you know, that power has to be crazy kinky.”

In answer I just switched back to tiger form and glared at them. I could feel my other forms would need some time to heal from the fight and that left me with Tiger as the best option for that moment. The others went for their turn and only Harley did well. At least until it was Karee’s turn.

“Your turn Tzari.” The Rook declared.

“No.” She said in a bored neutral tone.

“No?” The Rook asked, the confidence in his voice replaced by surprise.

“I don’t fight for show. I don’t fake fight.”

“Fake fight?”

“Restrain.”

“Then don’t, give it your all. I can take it.”

“You can’t.”

“I love that cockiness. Let’s see if you can back it up. If you don’t you’ll have to explain to Kiorga why you were kicked out.”

Karee let out a snarl, exposing her teeth, stepping forward weapon in hand and her armor powering up. Out of all of us, it was Karee really shined. She was fast, she was strong and she had the technological advantage against him. Everything he threw at her, both literally and metaphorically was dodged, blocked or ignored. Before we could even process what had happened, she was on top of him, savaging him.

“There.” She snarled. “Happy?”

“Fuck.” He coughed. “I’d heard a lot about you lords, but always thought it was bullshit.”

Then out of nowhere, he laughed.

“Alright students. Class is dismissed.” He then said. “I suggest you get changed and showered before your next class.”

We didn’t argue, going to the gym’s lockers to clean up. Thankfully there were very private stalls. I brought my clothes into one, holding them in my tiger-mouth and changed back to human form before getting dressed again.

“You power was really cool.” Ruth said. She was a giant lizard-like paramorph the size of a bear, but unlike me she couldn’t shapeshift. She was admittedly kind of goofy looking, with beige-colored leathery skin on her large belly and scales of the same color on her back. “So can you transform into anything?”

“Yes and no. It’s kind of complicated. I can transform into any animal but first I have to ‘study’ them for lack of a better word. I need to look at them, see how they move, how they act until the switch in my mind clicks.”

“Can you turn into dinosaurs or what about dragons and stuff?”

“No. I just can’t get that connection from just bones or recreations. I can get it through videos, but typically not pictures unless I have a lot to work with. Oh, I forgot to mention, I can’t change into another human form. And obviously, I can’t change into fictional creatures.”

“Still a really cool power.”

“Thanks?” I answered without thinking. Was that the proper answer? I had no idea.

We finished getting cleaned up and went for the next class; homeroom. Hopefully, that one would have less ass-kicking involved…