The guys murmured amongst themselves.
“We have a female Dominus?” one of the guys asked.
I didn’t like the derision on his face.
“You got a problem with that, Decker?” the girl asked.
The guy, Decker, glared at her for a long beat.
“Answer her,” Conah said. “Do you have a problem with female authority?”
Decker tore his gaze from the petite woman and fixed it on me. “Not in an academic setting, but out on the field, yes. Especially one who didn’t even know she was one of us. One raised as a human.”
Looked like news got around. But that wasn’t the issue, it was the way he said the word human as if it was a dirty word.
My hackles rose. “If you have a problem with humans, maybe you shouldn’t be protecting them. Maybe you’re not reaper material.”
Decker’s gaze flew to Conah in panic. “She can’t do that, can she? She can’t expel me.”
“No,” Conah said. “But I can.”
The female cadet made a sound of exasperation. “Fucking hell, Decker. Just apologize, and stop being a dick.”
But Decker had his eyes on me now. “I don’t have a problem with humans, I just think they’re weak, and I’m not sure how someone raised as one could be a Dominus.”
My smile was cold. “Ask the celestial power that chose me. Or do you question that too?”
His jaw ticked, and anger and frustration raced across my skin. “Women are ruled by their host of emotions, and there is no place for emotional decisions in the field.”
Well, that was a load of crock. “It seems to me the only person getting emotional right now is you.”
He grit his teeth.
I wasn’t done with him, though. “If emotions were redundant on the battlefield, then the government would have replaced the flesh and blood military with a bunch of robots. Emotions aren’t a weakness, they’re a strength; after all, aren’t they what make us different from the host of monsters we fight?”
Decker looked surprised. Maybe he was expecting me to bawl him out? But it wasn’t hard to pick up on the thread of anxiety simmering under his frustration. He was nervous about this class, and he was acting out.
But Conah wasn’t so forgiving.
“Speak out of turn again, and I will fail your ass. Being a reaper isn’t just about physical prowess, it’s also about emotional equilibrium. Get some.”
Decker looked like he was about to argue, but then he ducked his head. “Apologies, Dominus.”
Conah sat back down. “Let’s get this assessment over with.”
The cadets stepped away from the podium, and a shimmering blue screen like a forcefield cut them off from the podium and the exit.
The room descended into night. A nighttime urban landscape that seemed to stretch for miles. Fuck, this was clever shit.
The cadets walked into the streets.
Conah tapped a button on the keyboard. “And so it begins.”
Forty-five minutes later, the mouths were down but not without wreaking some damage. Decker had a leg wound and if not for the female’s assist would have lost his face to a mouth’s talons.
The corridors were once again empty when we made our way away from the training room. Conah was reflective, closed off as we walked side by side, and there was no way to get a read on his emotions. It made me realize how much I unwittingly relied on my ability to suss people out. According to Conah, it had been muted before the scythe found me, but it was still there all those years, giving me an edge with people. What would life be without it? Would I have done as well?
We took a different route this time. Away from the corridors that housed the classrooms and into a part of the building that looked more relaxed and residential.
I touched Conah’s arm lightly to get his attention. “You could have shut the mouth down before it clawed a chunk out of Decker’s leg, couldn’t you?”
“I could have,” he agreed. “But what would that teach him?”
“You’re still pissed at him for what he said.”
“That attitude causes conflict, and there is no room for conflict in the ranks. We must respect each other and work together to survive. Decker is a promising cadet, but he has issues.”
He wasn’t just talking about the reapers’ role in the human world. This was more, but his closed expression and the firm line of his lips told me he wasn’t ready to speak about it.
He exhaled through his nose and then met my gaze. “There is a lot you’ve still to learn about our world, but not today. Maybe not even next week. The rest will come in time. For now, we must focus on your training and finding that dagger. They’re our goals.”
He turned a corner and then stepped through an archway into a massive lounge area. Children aged seven to maybe eleven or twelve sat reading books or playing board games. Several tea trolleys dotted the room complete with sandwich and cake stands.
Laughter and joy filled the space.
“Free time,” Conah explained. “The youngers get free time every afternoon. We don’t believe in overloading their brains with useless facts they might never use. Rather, we allow them to read and play strategy games, so they can learn to think outside the box.”
I slowed down by a small group of children. They couldn’t be more than eight or nine, and they were playing what looked like a dungeon strategy game. Pieces of paper with notes sat on the table, and neatly painted figures of orcs and elves dotted the board.
A messy-haired boy looked up at me with huge gray eyes. “Are you a new tutor?”
“No. I’m the new Dominus.”
His mouth popped open in shock. “Like Master Conah, blood of Lilith?”
“Um, yeah. This looks interesting, who’s winning?”
A girl with braids sniffed and rolled her eyes. “It’s a cooperative game.”
“The monsters are kicking our asses,” another boy with ivory horns said, then slapped his talon-tipped hand over his mouth and looked warily up at Conah.
I bit back a smile. “Do you mind if I watch?”
Conah cleared his throat.
I shot him a sharp look. “We have time, right?”
He sighed. “I have some paperwork I need to get done. An hour.”
I grinned up at him. “Perfect.”
An hour and a half later, I was deep in a dungeon with my team. We’d taken out a gorgon and a demon boss, and we had the treasure. There was only a band of orcs standing between us and the exit.
“I can use my remaining spell points,” Clayna said.
“Nah, Fee should just tank them,” Palin replied.
Damn, this was a hard one. We were all low on health, and there was a huge risk that one of us wasn’t making it out alive, but I was damned if I left anyone behind.
“I’ll take them out with my annihilate spell,” Frederin, the messy-haired boy, said.
“You can’t sacrifice yourself,” Clayna said.
Frederin shrugged. “For the good of the team.”
I stared at the little boy, willing to die to save his comrades, to make sure they got out alive, and a lump formed in my throat.
“Um, Fee, are you okay?” Palin asked. “It’s just a game, you know.” He patted my arm reassuringly.
Just a game, Fee, dammit. They were all staring at me now.
“Fee, it’s time to go.” Conah waved me over from across the room.
“Aw!” the kids cried in unison.
My heart swelled with love for these little munchkins. “How about we finish this the next time I’m here?”
“I’ll make a note of the board and stats,” Palin said eagerly.
“When are you coming back?” Clayna asked.
I looked up at Conah as he approached. “When are we coming back?”
A small smile played on his lips. “Next week. We’ll be back next week.”
“Fralling!” Palin said.
“Awesome,” Conah said. “It roughly translates as awesome.”
It was weird to think I was speaking their language without realizing it, but there were words I didn’t comprehend.
We left the kids as they set up a new game. They were insatiable.
“It’s all great practice for the real thing,” Conah said as we headed out of the lounge. “Most of these kids were made orphans from the battles that broke out after hundreds of reapers were killed by the virus the humans released. Theories on how it got into the Underealm, conspiracies about why it affected some regions more than others, rumors that it was demon-made, not human-made, prompted distrust and fear, and the conflict lasted for decades after the fact. There are many older demons that lost reaper parents to the actual virus, but the younger children lost their families to the wars that followed it. We smoothed things over with your world quickly, but it took time for the unrest in the Underealm to die down … in fact, there is still tension between regions in the Underealm.”
“Those kids I was playing the game with are orphans?”
“I believe so. They live here full time as wards of the Academy. We built outbuildings as residences a few years ago accessed only by resident biometrics.” His smile was wry. “This place is their home.”
My heart ached for them. “There must be something we can do for them.”
“They’re well provided for.”
“What about love? What about that?”
He paused to look down at me. “There is no time for love on the battlefield, Fee. We’re training soldiers here. Reapers aren’t just there to collect souls, we’re also Lilith’s army, and we fight against any threat to her rule whether it comes from within or without.”
He sounded so cold and unfeeling right now. So Mal-like that I wanted to shake him. “Yeah? Well, right now, they’re children. They deserve a childhood.”
“They’re demons, not humans. Don’t get confused.” He strode off through a set of doors and outside. The sky was an orange hue that signaled late afternoon.