I watched Akane with interest. She had invited me to her kendo class apparently just to be polite, but I was genuinely excited. I had never seen a live match before—anime hardly counted. I doubted those were entirely accurate.
It took me a few minutes to realize that this was not, in fact, kendo.
Kendo is a sport based on sword fighting. It involves similar motions, but requires strikes be called by the attacker before they hit, only a few limited strikes are allowed, and usually each match is only three points. Both participants use bamboo swords, which are hardly dangerous, but they wear heavy padding regardless.
This was not kendo.
This was a duel that happened to use wooden swords rather than real ones.
The second the bell was struck, Akane leaped forward at lightning speed, drawing her sword in the same motion. I thought she might be using her ability, but if so her opponent didn’t notice the discrepancy, and managed to jink backwards, dodging her horizontal slash by a hair.
Her opponent—a South American baseline—knocked her off balance, stepped inside her reach and brought his sword down on her head in a two-handed strike.
If it had hit, it could have killed her.
But Akane simply stepped to the side, dodging by a hand’s breadth, and jabbed her opponent in the side with stiff fingers, knocking the wind out of him. I expected the teacher to call her on this, but he didn’t.
Her competitor tried to recover by sliding away from her strike, but he had overextended himself, and he was still recovering from her jab. With her foot, she swept his legs out from under him, landing him heavily on his back, and pointed her sword at his throat.
He sighed. “I yield.”
The teacher rung the bell. “Akane wins.”
“Not trying,” she whispered, only barely audible.
Her instructor frowned. “Yes, I noticed that.” He glared at the loser, still on the floor. “Akane’s a better fighter than you, Flynn. If you’re afraid of hurting her, you’ll never have a chance.”
“I think he’s more afraid he won’t be able to get into her pants,” another student called out. The class laughed as Akane blushed scarlet and rushed back over to where I was sitting, grabbing her real sword—which I had been holding onto—apparently for a sense of comfort. Flynn, still struggling to his feet, also looked embarrassed, but didn’t deny anything.
I raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re not actually sleeping with him, right?”
She glared at me with such hate I immediately dropped the subject.
Yeah, she only had eyes for Derek.
She was wearing a loose white sparring suit, called either a gi or a ji, I can’t recall. It gave her a wide range of motion, perfect for a fight. It was stained with sweat; Flynn was her last fight, not her first, and she gulped down water from the bottle I handed her.
The beads in her hair clicked together as she moved. I hadn’t really looked closely before, but they were seven white plastic beads tied to a string of leather, which was in turn tied to her ponytail. What surprised me more was the blue ribbon I saw wound lightly in the ponytail itself. I hadn’t noticed that before.
“That’s a nice ribbon,” I said, once she put the bottle down. “Is it new?”
She reached up to feel the item in question, and smiled. “No, I’ve had it for over seven years now.” She shrugged. “It’s just hard to spot most of the time.”
She was speaking quietly, as if she didn’t want to be overheard. She was warming up to me, but her classmates had no such luck. She still didn’t speak a single word more than necessary to them. Considering how many of them wanted to get her into bed, that was probably a good idea.
It had been three days since the screamers attacked and we met the retinue. Well, four. We started on Monday night, but didn’t finish until Tuesday morning. There hadn’t been any incidents since, but we had enough trouble already. Nearly a thousand people had been turned; I didn’t know the exact numbers, but over five hundred, at the very least. Necessarius had captured over a hundred, in the hopes that they could be cured, but that still meant hundreds of people were dead. Not to mention the massive property damage. The ‘Incinerated Intersection’ wasn’t going to contribute anything for quite a while.
The fey had disappeared, to the surprise of no one, but Laura and Derek seemed to be worried about her for some reason. I still didn’t get how the singers worked, but apparently they were afraid one of them could infect all of the homunculi at once, or something. Who knows.
More interesting to me was the changeling, Loga. He seemed like us—a single power, the ability to hear screamers, immunity to infection…it brought up some interesting questions. No one could figure out why he had been cured when no one else had. Too many possible answers, I guess.
Speaking of screamers, I was worried that even if more did attack, we wouldn’t hear them. With a hundred captured screamers constantly droning in the background, it was a miracle we could even sleep at night. At least Butler had followed our advice and grouped them together, so hopefully we’d be able to distinguish new ones. But I had my doubts.
Some of Congress were crying out for a vote of no confidence against Butler, because he hadn’t been able to prevent the attacks, but they were in the deep minority, and were getting shouted down. The fact that Derek and Laura had apparently personally saved and fought beside one of the senators from South Central didn’t hurt at all.
My thoughts were interrupted when Akane’s opponent, Flynn, sat down on my other side, trying not to make it too obvious that he was watching her. She ignored him, but I held out my hand to him.
“I’m Ling Yu,” I introduced myself warmly. “Akane’s roommate.”
“Flynn Neilson,” he returned, shaking my hand. He had a strong grip, probably the result of years of these mock-duels. “What brings you to class today, Ling?”
“I had some free time, and Akane invited me.” I shrugged. “Seemed fun.”
“You an athlete too?”
“Soccer, mostly. Got in on scholarship, but that might be drying up.” Games were getting canceled left and right with the threat of screamers. They hadn’t actually attacked anything like that yet, of course, but it was a logical assumption. At least, that’s what Laura said. Luckily, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get kicked out of school as long as I was a Paladin.
He whistled softly. “Yeah. Those zombies are a real problem.” He shook his head. “Hopefully, Butler will find and stop the Composer soon.”
I frowned. “Who?”
“It’s all over the place,” he said nonchalantly. “Has been since the burners. The zombie lord, right? There has to be one. They’re calling him the Composer. You know, in relation to the singers.”
I glanced at Akane. She seemed as surprised as me.
“I think it started right after Butler released the report on Triple I,” he mused, using the easy term for the Incinerated Intersection Incident. Then he nodded to himself. “Yeah, that was it. Somebody on one of my message boards started using it, and it caught on.” He shrugged. “You know how this kind of thing works.”
He was right; memes were a part of Domina culture almost as much as the toy maker. This city had been built on three things: Crime, the toy maker, and the internet. They were the machines that kept the city running. The names for most of the subcultures had originated in much the same way.
But something about it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, though. No, wait, that was it: There was already a nickname floating around. Flynn had even mentioned it—’zombie lord.’ ZL. So why did the new one suddenly become so popular?
I was thinking about it too much, and our new friend was waiting patiently for a response. He seemed nice enough.
“I hadn’t heard that one,” I admitted. “But I’ve been so busy these past few days, I’ve barely been able to check my mail.”
Speaking of which, Akane’s phone buzzed. Just a text message; with singers around, people were avoiding actually listening to things like the plague. At least the recordings of singers…well, singing, didn’t have any effect. Otherwise some asshole would probably have already managed to turn half the city.
Which was odd, the more I thought of it. Why didn’t this…Composer just attach a singer to some big speakers? Now, it made sense, since we were warned and prepared to some extent, but the tactic would have been simple before Triple I.
Very little of what this person was doing made any sense. Why was he only launching one attack every few days? Why didn’t he start with a huge attack? It made no sense.
Akane interrupted my musings simply by gathering up her stuff and standing. She replaced her wooden sword on the rack as I was scrambling to her feet.
“Derek,” she said by way of explanation. Flynn was still nearby. “Monster hunt.”
“Uh…” was that code for screamers? I didn’t hear any.
“You can stay.” She shrugged. “Or come.”
Okay, so just a monster hunt. “But is it all right for you to just leave class like this?”
Flynn cut into the conversation smoothly. “We’re allowed to leave once we’ve fought at least once.” I had watched him fight twice, including the one with Akane. She had fought four times.
She nodded, and headed for the door. I followed.
It took him a minute, but as I half expected, Flynn caught up with us quickly once we were outside. He looked hesitant.
“Um…” it was almost endearing, really. He was clearly smitten with her. No wonder he didn’t even bother hiding it. “I know you’re going to meet with Derek, but…” he shifted his feet. “…can I come?” He made a slight verbal backspace. “It’s just that I’ve never been good at fighting monsters, and I was thinking maybe I could get some pointers from watching you fight. You two fight, I mean. Three, I guess, if Ling will too.” He shut his mouth with some effort.
I glanced at Akane and was surprised to find that she was blushing slightly. She leaned forward and whispered into my ear. I nearly jumped in surprise, but reported it faithfully anyway:
“You can come, but you’re not allowed to tell anyone what you see.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 23)
I am going on vacation this weekend, and I’m not completely certain I will have internet. I’ve already uploaded scene 24, so it should update normally. But if it doesn’t, I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to fix it. I’ll be back Tuesday morning though, so any problems will be fixed then.