The next day was a little confusing. Jim and Claire had a hard time…

Okay, so I sort of blush when I look at Claire and she does when she looks at me, it's normal…

Of course, Dean just stared at them and shook his head, because yeah, empath. But he didn't say anything.

Or maybe it was because Vicky was sitting down, just staring at her food. "Mom said that Amelia isn't allowed back into the house. She's also said that she doesn't need any shrink trying to 'excuse what has been done'."

"What about Amelia?" Dean asked.

"I asked and…" Vicky closed her eyes. "She said she'd prefer to have Merlin as a parent."

"Ouch," Jim said. But Merlin hasn't lied to her… Although from what Jim had heard, Merlin and the tinkertech review board were in a state of cold war right now. Merlin wanted to push Amelia's abilities to their limits, and the tinkertech review board, and Director Piggot were… reluctant.

Especially after Clockblocker had dropped off some Earth Aleph game books, Warhammer 40K and asked Amelia if she could make some.

The answer had been yes. Merlin, for his part, had been interested in finding out if Amelia could duplicate the more exotic parahuman powers in her creations, and the answer, so far, had been…

No.

But the only reason Director Piggot was tolerating it was that only one unusual creature at a time was created, none of them had replicating ability, and they were all disposed of at the end of the experiment.

And Dinah, every morning, was asked about the chance that there would be an issue by the next day. So far the percentages were low.

Her other attempts, the healing pods and burnfoam, were currently in tinkertech review, but it'd be a while before they were approved. Apparently there had been past incidents of tinkertech having… undocumented features. The Eagleton Home Security System was a good example.

Today, people called it the Machine Army.

And we're avoiding the problem, Jim thought. Amelia was doing so much because she didn't have a home to go back to.

"What about her father?" Claire asked.

"Dad's… Dad's not too good right now," Vicky said. "I think he's been skipping his depression meds."

Fuck.

"Aunt Sarah's trying, but the thing is that she doesn't want to push, because Mom's really… She's started taking pills to go to sleep. She's having some kind of nightmares…" Vicky shook her head. "And every light, I mean every light in the house is on right now…" She pushed her mashed potatoes around. "What is this stuff?"

"Gunk?" Claire asked.

"Everything's Gunk to you," Dean said. "You and Jim are food snobs."

"Are not!" Claire said. "It's just that Jim's a good cook."

"I—"

"Hi, guys…" Ann said. She sat down by them, and Jim wasn't certain who looked worse. Ann or Vicky.

"Ann, what happened to your hands?" Claire asked.

"I washed them." Ann said.

"In what, boiling water?"

"Just hot water. They were dirty." Ann looked around. "The E88 is pulling in its horns."

"What?" Jim asked.

"None of their capes have been seen anywhere near the old ABB territories."

"We're doing more patrols there…" Claire said.

And we know that the E88 and Elite have some kind of truce going on. But Jim wasn't about to tell Ann that.

"Maybe they're afraid of Jack the Japanese Ripper." Vicky stared at her food. "I thought I was bad before Armsmaster yelled at me…"

"She's protecting her people," Ann said.

"By what, murdering a bunch of Leet's cronies?"

"They shouldn't have been there. They were going after the temple!" Ann said.

"And she nearly chopped off a 15-year-old girls' arm!" Vicky snapped back. "Ask Jim, he was the one who had to keep his hand on her arm so she didn't bleed to death."

The kids around them were listening, although Jim saw one girl turn pale.

"She was part of the Winslow video club," Claire said. "We managed to convince Amelia to heal her…"

"Why wouldn't she?" Ann asked, turning pale. "You mean, she might not have?"

"Merlin told her not to waste her time on fools and maybe the lesson would last longer if they saw it in the mirror every morning." Claire glared at her plate. "He's a prick."

"Are… Are they going to prison?" Ann asked. She looked a little ill.

Jim looked around. "Officially? The DA is still looking into it."

"Unofficially…" Claire's smile was vicious, "No, because they're getting ready to indict Uber and Leet for multiple counts of child endangerment. Most of the kids are going to get off with warnings."

"Should just mention to Bastard Son that they're bad for business," Vicky said.

"Let's not ask the guy who is nearly as bad as the Slaughterhouse to take out someone…" Dean said.

"But what about the kids?" Ann persisted.

Probably Kenji and Kim on her mind, Jim thought. "Well, there were some critical injuries, but Amelia fixed them…"

"Good thing or that idiot Onna-Bugeisha would be going up for murder…" Vicky stared. "Seriously, what kind of brute just stabs a kid without even thinking about it?"

"I seem to recall some…" Dean trailed off meaningfully and Vicky turned red.

"Okay, I've had some accidents, but you never saw me stab a bunch of kids in costume…"

Ann turned pale, then green. "I… I gotta go," she said and went running off to the bathroom.

"Guys…" Dean said. "We'd better try to keep it lighter with Ann. She's still pretty rocky from Lung and the whole trial with Kenji is still coming up…"

"Yeah," Vicky said. "Sorry guys, I don't feel like hanging around. I think I'll check out early and head back to the rig to beat up some brute dummies. Maybe talk to Amelia if Merlin has her free from making abominations of nature."

"Sorry, Vicky," Jim said.

"Not your fault." The normally exuberant girl said as she dragged her way out of the room.


"Normally," Merlin said. "Soul magic is something only masters are taught. But I will teach you the basics. The very basics." He raised a hand. "Beware Claire Nunez, that those who trifle in these arts, especially for poor reasons, will come to a very bad end."

Claire nodded. If Merlin was being that upfront with a warning, she intended to listen to it.

"First of all, a soul is immortal and indestructible by any outside force. There is one way it can be destroyed or removed in this world, and that is by self-destruction of the soul."

"You mean like suicide?"

"Yes and no," Merlin said. "No individual can choose to destroy his soul, any more than he can…" Merlin chuckled. "Sell it."

"But you said—"

"Destroying your soul, or… detaching it, since no mage has ever been able to prove that a soul can be destroyed, as opposed to being removed from our perception… is a slow process. A process of seeing the world as nothing but cutouts, every other object, and person valuable only inasmuch as they provide value to you. It leaves the personality, the mind intact, but the part that conferred the ability to exist after death is forever lost. The soulless one will cease, completely, upon death."

"So they try to become liches or vampires?" Claire asked.

"That is one route." Merlin nodded. "Those who have lost their souls, and understand that many that society would consider evil have quite undamaged souls, understand on some deep level, the impermanence of their nature." He glanced at her. "Given the fact that a soulless one sees others only in terms of their practical value, and yet also burns with fear and anger, even if they don't understand why, regarding their death, you can understand the acts of some of the 'great' leaders in history…"

"Some?"

"Not all. Again, you can be evil and keep your soul." Merlin paused. "But the great tombs and temples, the forced acts of praise—to those who have destroyed or driven off their own immortal components, the noise of cheers helps drive off the silence for one more day. To them, there is no greater goal than existence. Existence at the cost of everything else, existence as the end goal, with no other greater purpose."

Claire swallowed. "So how can they get it back?"

"Oh, the method is simple. Start caring for others again. See others as… human. Or take pleasure in something for no other reason than it brings pleasure. But for those who have taken the final step… Well, I doubt they could." Merlin picked up a vial. "Now, as for its uses… Well, I utilized soul magic on the Trollhunter."

"What?"

"You don't think a mere potion could have changed his form and left him so unhurt?" Merlin shook his head. "That was the outer part and the easiest part. But I cast a powerful ritual, that mixed his soul with that of the trolls. Something that could only be done with Jim Lake. Any other would have failed."

"Why?"

"My amulet chose him and had started its work, and Jim saw the trolls as people. He empathized with them like he would any of his other friends…" Merlin chuckled. "As do you, as did Toby. In a world where people are murdered for their skin color, I don't believe you understand how unusual that can be. But Jim accepted being a troll in a way that someone who saw them as his enemy never would."

"You could have given him a choice!" Clair snarled.

"My dear, I did. His vision. Whether to take up the burden again, no matter the cost or whether to drop it." Merlin shook his head. "When he made the right choice, the hard choice, would you have had me turn him out to face Gunmar as a human?"

"I… I don't know. I wish—"

"If wishes were horses we'd all ride to fair. But you're becoming a wizard. You don't get to wish. Well, at least not until you're more skilled than you are now." Merlin shook his head. "Now, to more productive measures. Those who 'read' minds and emotions here do so mechanically, by observing changes in the physical brain. Our form of sense involves examining the soul, of the individual and viewing their emotions and communicating with them that way. You have engaged in postcognitive visions with Morganna, and it's time to train you on how to better use them. We'll start with…" Merlin walked over and brought a cage back. Claire stared at the hamster.

"Hamster's have souls?"

"Of a kind. Why Fair Claire, I wouldn't have expected you to be a bigot against hamsters…"

Asshole! Claire thought. Then she opened her mouth, closed it. Wait a minute, if animals have souls, does that mean that meat really is murder? She glanced over at the hamburger that Merlin had been eating.

Evidently, he didn't think so, but… Merlin.

God, I hope I don't have to tell Jim we're going vegan after this lesson…