Monthly Archives: February 2012

Scene 27 – Natalis

NATALIS

AKANE

I woke up slowly. My hand went to my sword, hanging next to my bed, before I even opened my eyes. When I did open them, I saw Ling standing in front of the mirror, brushing her hair.

“What the fu—what time is it?” I asked groggily. I had been having trouble getting to sleep. Butler’s screamers were still wailing up a storm that only we could hear.

“Five A.M.,” Ling reported. “Derek woke me up, told me to give you that—” she pointed to something on my dresser. “And then ran off. Something about rabbits.”

Musashi’s grave…dammit. After a moment, I managed to blink the sleep out of my eyes and focus on the object on my dresser. It was small, and white, and…

It was a bead.

Fully awake, I picked it up. It was what I thought; a white plastic bead, matching the seven on the leather strap I normally had tied to my ponytail (I hung it on the wall before I went to bed each night). They had originally been ceramic, but one bad fall and half of them shattered. So now, they were plastic.

I switched on my desk lamp and turned the bead over in my fingers, trying to read the inscription on the inner edge.

“’Courage in the face of adversity,’” I whispered, smiling. Short and to the point.

I attached it to the leather strap with the ease of practice, and quickly combed my hair, getting out the knots that come from a fitful sleep. Once it was done, I tied it up in a ponytail, weaving my blue ribbon through it at the same time. Then I attached the leather strip—with its eight beads—to the elastic band I used to hold the tail in place.

“What exactly did Derek say he was going to do?” I asked, admiring my new decoration in the mirror.

“He said he had a job, something about crazed rabbits. Someone probably used them for some new drug test. You know how it is.”

I frowned and turned to her. “And he didn’t ask for my help? I figured after yesterday’s debacle, he’d want all the help he could get.”

She shrugged. “He said to let you sleep. Besides, he had Adam with him.”

I suppose I was grateful he hadn’t woken me up earlier than he had to, but it still hurt. We had been fighting together for years. I understood why he thought I would prefer to sleep in, but he should know me better than that. I would much rather spend the time with him, even if it was just chasing after feral bunnies on a bad drug trip.

“That’s all right, I guess. Did you want to do anything today? I think there was a movie—”

“Sorry,” she interrupted. “Can’t. Have to help a friend of mine move. That will probably take most of the day. Although after we might catch a movie, if you wanted to…”

“No, no, that’s fine,” I said quickly. “I don’t want to butt in. Go have fun.”

She rolled her eyes. “I doubt it’ll be fun. But thanks anyway.” She left without another word.

It was too early for anyone else to be awake. With a sigh, I grabbed my sword and water bottle, and headed for the roof. I used the stairs, so I didn’t run into Ling again.

I ran up thirty-one floors at a quick jog, and was nearly out of breath by the time I reached the top. I had improved a lot since I moved in; I’m pretty sure the power package had something to do with that, but how much, I wasn’t sure.

The sun was coming up already. We were only at the start of autumn, so the nights were still short. The light got in my eyes, but I ignored it easily enough.

Once I made sure no one else was around, I started my stretches. It’s a bit embarrassing to do in front of people, and after that one time a fey’s homunculus was peeping on me, I always make sure to check.

After my stretches, I started on some unarmed katas, or martial arts forms. Those took a while, but I eventually moved on to my standard knife katas, including two knives at a time. It’s rare that it becomes relevant, but I am always very, very thankful for the practice when it does.

Then I pulled out my sword.

Sword katas always make me feel more relaxed. I feel elegant and in control when I’m swinging a sword. Things are simple, the answers are clear. Now the blade goes this way. Higher, faster—I make some mistakes, but at least I can see that. Not like when dealing with people. I always say the wrong thing, insult my friends or compliment my enemies.

But swords are easy. Find the enemy and cut them. This is how you block, this is how you feint. This is how you make the killing blow.

My mother hates my sword, hates what I do with it. She married into the Akiyama family, and not for our dying name. She loved my father, although she never liked this part of him either. She likes to remind me that it was his honor and his sword that got him killed.

My grandfather, of course, loves her. He was always a bit of the black sheep of the family. More than anything, he hated the fact that we were a ronin house. He never liked samurai in the first place, he would always say, but when the Tokugawa family fell, we should have died with them. It made no sense to preserve a ronin house.

I almost believed them. For a long time, I despaired, convinced that honor was dead and that the Akiyama name would die with me.

I don’t believe that any more.

I sheathed my sword without even noticing; I had finished my sword katas by instinct. I was sweating profusely, and finished off my water bottle in one long drink. With nothing else to do on the roof, I headed downstairs at a brisk jog for a shower.

After I got out of the shower, I texted Laura. She was busy too; she was doing something with Lizzy, apparently. It was strange—I had always hated Lizzy, not just because how she monopolized Derek’s attention but because she refused to speak anything other than Japanese to me, even before I understood it. But I’ve been warming up to her a little. Yes, she was still annoying and not very smart, but she was clearly genuine. I just wished she would talk to me in English.

With no one else to call, I sat down on my bed. What should I do? I couldn’t go to a movie alone, and honestly there wasn’t anything I was interested in watching. I had forgotten all my books and shows at home, and didn’t really want to deal with my mother. If I were interested in anime, I could have looked through one of the billion or so Ling had on her shelf, but I wasn’t that bored. Besides, she hadn’t actually given me permission, and I didn’t want to bother her with asking. I would call Seena, but since she became a vampire, her schedule was probably all twisted into knots.

I slowly realized that there was someone I could call. My exercise had taken longer than usual, probably because I was so tired, so it was about seven. Flynn would probably be up shortly; most athletes get up earlier rather than later.

But did I want to? He was still too confusing. He seemed nice enough, and Lizzy kept encouraging me to do something, but I just didn’t know enough about him. Could I really trust him?

I was overthinking it. I wasn’t asking him for anything important; I just wanted some company for the day. A couple hours, nothing more. It was no big deal.

Ten minutes later, I finally managed to send a short message asking if he wanted to do anything. I had re-written it a couple dozen times.

To my surprise, I got a reply within a minute.

He was busy. Something with friends.

I laid back on my bed and sighed. Everyone had friends, people they were doing things with. All I had was Derek, and even he had abandoned me.

I shouldn’t be so negative. He had intended to give me the day off as a gift, not a snub. I might as well make the most of it.

I warmed up my laptop and started trawling through the message boards, especially the one that Flynn had said started the Composer meme. I wasn’t able to find much—I’m hardly a technology wizard. But I did find the first person to use the name ‘the Composer.’ His screen name was ‘the conductor of the cacophonic steel chorus,’ which wasn’t a name I recognized. I sent him a private message, out of curiosity more than anything else, asking him where he got the name idea.

I wouldn’t get a response right away, of course, so I spent some more time online, checking updates on my favorite sites. The giant alley crawlers we had dispatched were already headline news on the kind of pages that care about that sort of thing. Obould had written a short blurb on the subject, and promised to publish his results once he was finished dissecting the corpses.

After about two hours of all that, I had enough, and headed out.

It was still pretty early, especially for a college town. There was almost no one on the streets except for a few dozen scattered teachers. I left AU without even looking around. There’s some stuff to do inside the Springfield wall, but not much. Mostly just the library, which I had little interest in.

I stopped by the intersection where the biters had attacked; it was already bustling again. A few of the stores had boarded-over windows, but their doors were open and customers came and went.

The regenerative nature of Domina City is really amazing. I’ve never been anywhere else, but everything I read made it clear that if this had happened anywhere else, the entire area would have been condemned.

I didn’t bother checking out Triple I. Half of those buildings were ash, and the rest skeletal remains. The burners had been thorough, and trying to capture them had given them a lot of time to play around. Thankfully it was mostly smaller businesses, rather than the massive apartments ‘scrapers of the Middle City, but a lot was lost regardless.

“Hey, sweetie, looking for someone?”

I glanced up and realized I had taken a shortcut into a dark alley without even noticing. A couple dumpsters were open nearby, and the six ghouls who had been partaking of their contents were starting forward, fierce grins on their faces. They surrounded me quickly, cutting off my escape back to the daylit street.

They were pretty heavily modified. In addition to the nighteyes and the internal cannibalism buff, they had pale skin, large fangs, enhanced jaws, and steel claws surgically bonded to their fingers. These were not homeless people trying to save money on food. They were dangerous predators, who probably killed multiple people a day.

It was like God was trying to cheer me up.

I didn’t bother with a warning; I would have just lost the advantage of surprise. I left my bag partially unzipped for exactly this kind of situation. I reached inside and grabbed the hilt of my sword, drawing it out and slashing the closest ghoul without hesitation.

He screamed and stumbled back as a deep cut blossomed on his chest, but he wasn’t out yet. As I dropped the bag and sheath, I stepped forward and made a great horizontal swing. I separated his head from his shoulders without too much difficulty. The trick is to aim between the vertebrae. It’s still hardly easy, but there’s minimal resistance that way.

Even before his blood began to fountain, I kicked the corpse away and started at the second one, on my left. His instincts were good enough that he managed to dodge my first blow. He stepped inside my swing and tried to get at my chest with his claws, probably trying to reach under my rib cage and towards my heart.

I simply released my katana with my left hand and swatted his wrist. He retracted, the same instincts that had saved him before dooming him now. Now I stepped inside his swing, and plunged my sword into his heart.

I spun away just as one of his companions slashed at me. He ended up hitting his friend’s corpse instead, but he just cursed and tossed it aside. But that gave me an opening, and I carefully cut his wrist, rendering it useless.

I would have followed through, but two of his allies were coming from behind me to either side, likely hoping they could grab my arms and end this quickly.

A quick backstep left me behind them rather than the other way around, and I got the one on the right in the heart before he even realized what was happening. The one on the left tried to attack while my sword was still in his friend, but I whipped out one of my smaller knives, meeting his claws and cutting into his fingers.

He cried out, clutching his bleeding hand, which left me enough of an opening to withdraw my katana from his companion and give him the same treatment, only from the front.

The ghoul I had injured before, the one with the newly gimp left hand, tried to feint at me a couple times with his right, but I wasn’t fooled. This wasn’t my first waltz; I knew what trick they tried next.

Sure enough, when I faked overextending myself, he whipped forward his left hand with all the strength he could muster. He might not be able to flex his fingers with the tendons cut, but there were still sharp claws at the end, and he had more than enough muscles in his arm to propel them with deadly force.

I ducked under the sloppy blow and stabbed him in the throat with the same knife I had used moments earlier. He died gurgling in surprise.

One more. Where was—

I saw him, standing behind one of the dumpsters, moments before he opened fire with a small boxy handgun. Low caliber, but still enough to kill me pretty easily.

But, again, this wasn’t my first waltz.

I threw the knife at him quickly, and immediately dodged for the dumpster. The blade didn’t get him, of course; it was hardly balanced for throwing, and even if it was, killing someone with a throwing knife is harder than it looks.

But, it served its purpose, as he tried to dodge and shoot at the same time. His shot went wild, and by the time he managed to get his wits about him, I was already there, and I stabbed him in the throat with my blade without a word.

I cleaned my sword quickly, then sheathed it and slung the bag over my shoulder again. I took a few minutes searching the bodies, but as expected they didn’t have much of value. I took the gun, though, and the extra bullets the ghoul had on him. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

As I collected my knife—undamaged, thankfully—I pulled out my phone and dialed MC.

“Hello, Miss Akiyama,” her fake voice greeted me as warmly as possible. “What can I do for you today?”

“I just killed six ghouls in an alley off Abigail and Celestia,” I said, skipping the pleasantries. “The intersection where the biters attacked. Is there a reward or anything?”

“Nothing was posted,” she responded. “And no one is reported to have gone missing in that area.”

“Well, if they had been here a week ago, they’d be dead or screaming.”

“Correct. If you would like to send me their pictures, I could check the wanted notices.”

It was a bit grisly work, getting the mug shots of the dead ghouls, but I had been forced to deal with far worse in the past. I sent them to MC and waited for her to finish searching.

“The leader had a bounty,” she said finally. “Only fifty dollars dead, I’m afraid. But it is something.”

I sighed. “Can you have that transferred directly to my account?”

“Certainly. Of course, there will be a six hour wait, in case you are trying to take credit for someone else’s kill.”

“Of course. I understand. When will the ‘sarian cleanup crew be here?”

“Now,” a voice from behind me said.

I turned to see an older baseline man, dressed completely in black except for a red stripe on his hat and white rubber gloves on his hands, walking into the alley. He set a large briefcase on the ground.

“I’ll take it from here, Miss,” he said warmly. Kind or not, it was clearly a dismissal, but I looked around with a frown. Where was the rest of his crew?

He chuckled at some private joke as he opened the case. I saw that it was packed with carefully secured objects I didn’t understand the purpose of; feather dusters, empty vials, filled vials, and other things. “I’m not actually the cleanup crew,” he admitted. “I’m the forensic man, here to make sure there was no foul play.” He indicated the mouth of the alley. “So I’m afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave the scene.”

I frowned at first, but when I held up the phone to my ear to ask MC, she spoke. “He’s genuine. The cleanup crew will be there shortly.”

I hung up, nodded to the CSI, and headed back to my dorm. I wasn’t covered in blood, but my clothes were certainly stained. Thankfully, one of the gifts of the toy maker was a spray can of genetically engineered…something or other that ate away blood, letting me get rid of stains without having to resort to bleach.

Emily stared at me a little oddly as I entered the lobby, but she just shrugged and went back to her magazine. When I reached the elevator, though, she spoke up.

“Once you change, head to Laura’s room,” she called without looking away from her reading. “She said they needed help rearranging the furniture.”

I sighed, and nodded, though she didn’t seem to care. I entered the elevator and pressed the button for the ninth floor.

Ling wasn’t home, as expected, and neither were Adam or Derek. Fetch quests can take annoyingly long, especially when the MacGuffin can run around. I threw my gi in the hamper—I’d deal with the stains later—and put on some jeans and a loose black t-shirt. It was force of habit. I don’t think I had anything that I wouldn’t be able to fight in. I made sure to bring me sword with me; again, even when I wasn’t expecting trouble, things always went wrong.

There were a couple people on the elevator when I got back on. They tried to engage me in conversation, but I found it difficult to even smile politely, so they quickly stopped trying and chatted among themselves. I felt relieved when I got off on floor six.

Laura’s room was…number sixteen? Yes, that was right. It was a few yards down the right hallway. The whiteboard was covered in Lizzy’s handwriting, inviting people in using about six different languages. I sighed and knocked.

“It’s open!” Laura called. I pushed open the door.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AKANE!”

I blinked. What?

Everyone was there, even Lily and Flynn. Derek, Adam, Lizzy, Laura, Ling… There was a large birthday banner hanging from the ceiling, and a small stack of presents on Laura’s desk. At least I think it was Laura’s. It was the side with less posters, anyway.

“I thought…” I couldn’t find words.

Derek stepped forward, grinning broadly, and placed a small paper crown on my head, the kind you find at kiddie restaurants. “Sorry I had Ling lie to you, but this took a while to set up.” He pulled me into the room gently. “C’mon, you only turn nineteen once.”

I got hugs and birthday wishes from everyone, though I was still a bit dazed. I had never had a birthday party before, not a real one. Before I met Derek, I was always that crazy girl who thought she was a samurai. Even after, pretty much my only friends were Derek, Lizzy and Seena—and I didn’t particularly like Lizzy, and Seena was often busy.

“Oh, there’s someone else!” Ling said, handing me a phone. Frowning, I took it.

“Happy birthday, Akane!” Lori’s voice chirped in my ear. “Sorry I can’t be there in person, but Derek has my present for you.

“N-no, it’s okay, I understand.” I was a little worried about what kind of present a Dagonite would give me, but I put that on hold. “Calling is enough.”

“I’m really busy, so I have to go, but I’ll call again later, all right? Have a great day!”

“Thank you,” I whispered. She hung up.

“The twins were supposed to come too,” Derek apologized, referring to Simon and Seena. “Not sure where they went off to.”

I wasn’t really all that upset that I didn’t have to deal with the sibriex today, but I was upset that I wouldn’t get to see his sister. Oh well. I’m sure they had a good reason. She always did.

Lily set up the cake, a small white-frosted dish with nineteen candles, on a folding table. She spread out the paper plates and smiled at me. “Did you want to do the cake first, or presents?”

I was at a loss. I…could barely think. “Presents,” I managed. That way while we were eating the cake, we could examine the gifts I got more closely.

Derek carefully sat me down on Lizzy’s bed, where I could see the pile of presents. Everyone else—seven in all—sat on the other bed or stood. Flynn seemed hesitant, but eventually sat down on Lizzy’s bed next to me. I didn’t say anything, but I was grateful. It felt weird sitting there alone.

“The first one is from Lori,” Derek said, bringing over the box in question. I took it; it was heavier than expected. I sort of just sat there for a moment, not really sure what to do.

“You can open it,” Adam pointed out. Quiet laughter rippled through the room.

I blushed and started ripping open the package. It was…

A cell phone?

“She said you told her about how you hate your current phone,” Derek explained. “This is a top of the line model. Waterproof, large memory, and it will take a bullet and keep working.”

“I…” I glanced around at the expectant faces and blushed again. I put the box to the side. “Remind me to thank her in person later.”

“Mine next,” Ling insisted, grabbing a long and thin box. I opened it, and found a rather elegant silver necklace. Just the chain, though. There was a place to add a pendant, but I didn’t have anything.

“Thanks,” I said honestly. I wasn’t really sure when I would have a chance to use it, but I liked it. I carefully packed it away again, and placed it with the cell phone.

The rest passed by in a bit of a blur. Laura’s present turned out to be a pendant to go with the necklace; it was a simple onyx stone, my birthstone. Lizzy cheerfully handed me The Art of War (in Japanese, of course), all the while rambling on about how it had managed to capture the intent and feel of the original Chinese. Her rambling was also in Japanese, so everyone else just looked politely confused.

Lily gave me a black gi, and I vaguely remembered mentioning to her months ago that I only had white ones. Her memory could be scary at times.

Her boyfriend, on the other hand, gave me a sharpening set. It was very high quality, I’ll admit, but I had a billion of the things. I just smiled, thanked him, and moved on.

Flynn gave me a pair of absolutely beautiful earrings, each with three onyx stones inscribed with the kanji of my name. I couldn’t resist; I put them on right away, earning murmurs of approval from everyone else. I hugged him, but withdrew quickly when I realized what I was doing.

Derek was last. “Here,” he said, handing me a lightweight bag. I frowned. Normally, he gave me knives and other practical things, but this didn’t feel like that. I opened it up gingerly.

It was a panther.

A plush panther, I mean.

Adam raised his eyebrow. “A stuffed animal? Really?”

But I smiled. Panthers were my favorite. He really did know me perfectly.

Maybe it seems odd, but that was about when I decided that I wasn’t going to let him go with just being friends. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but in a good way. He was in love with Lizzy? Fine. That just made it a challenge.

“Thank you so much,” I said, hugging him warmly. “I love it.”

I’ve never failed anything I’ve set my mind to. Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest course of action, but I had made my decision. No more pussyfooting around. The heart wants what the heart wants, isn’t that what they say?

Lily slid off the bed. “Now, its time for cake!”

Behind the Scenes (scene 27)

The leader of the ghouls stole some important documents, which is why the reward was higher for him alive. Now they probably won’t ever find them.

I guess Buxom Babes Monthly will just have to re-take their centerfold shots.

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Scene 26 – Commeatus

COMMEATUS

LING

After about an hour at the cafe, Lily ran off to another job, and the group kind of broke apart after that. Derek and Akane had to make a delivery for a job, and Lizzy and Laura had something else to do. Flynn didn’t quite feel comfortable enough around us yet, so that left me and Adam all alone. One of the benefits of minimum classes on Friday.

I considered finding Alex, but decided against it. He was great, but angels still creeped me out, and the fact that I was technically his boss made things weird.

While I was still wondering what I should do to put off my homework a little longer, Adam stood up from the table, brushing crumbs from a croissant off his lap. “Well, I guess I have to go. Need to buy some ammo.”

I put my drink down. “Can I come? I wanted to look at some new armor, and I might be able to help.” I still wasn’t his biggest fan, but he wasn’t a complete moron, despite debacles like today.

He looked hesitant, but after a moment just shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

We paid our shares at the counter and headed out. Most gun shops are a little bit away from the middle of the city, probably because the students don’t usually buy from them. So we headed south.

We actually had to get on the light rail; like I said, the good shops are a bit farther away, but I managed to convince Adam it was worth it. He didn’t like the rail, probably because it was crowded enough that we had to stand, but he got over it. Ten minutes of bumping around later, MC’s voice announced our stop over the train’s intercom, and we got off at a small platform.

The central parts of…well, Central look like an open-air mall. They cater to students and workers from the server farms, and use lots of neon to attract attention. The stores themselves are small and nearly identical; if you want a bigger store, you usually have to buy an adjacent one and take the dividing door off.

Farther from the heart of the city, shops become less important. Most of the buildings are warehouses and other large, low-population structures. Its not quite close enough to Middle to get into actual apartments, but its far enough from the schools so there isn’t a constant influx of students.

The shop I led Adam to didn’t even have a sign; it was more a warehouse to pick up orders than a traditional shop. The inside was just a small lobby with a counter separating us from the sole cashier. He looked up as we came in.

He was a full anthro ave—a bird kemo. Aves were still pretty rare, not least because wings were still far beyond the reach of the toy maker. Even the feathers were a bit new. By Tezuka, when did that happen?

He was an eagle (their subcultures didn’t even have real names yet), with a large, strong yellow beak and white feathers on his head. I could see black feathers poking out of his shirt; I think that means he was a bald eagle, but I’ve never particularly cared about birds. His eyes tracked us, much like the predator they were based on, and he clicked his talons against the counter. He stared at us for a moment before his beak opened a little, in what I barely recognized as a smile.

“Ling? Is that you?”

I smiled back. “How you doing, Turgay? I almost didn’t recognize you with the feathers.”

He chuckled, brushing them back a little. “Yeah, I got them just a few weeks ago. Soaring Eagle footed the bill; I’ve been doing some work for her.”

“Adam, this is my friend Turgay Corvi. We lived in the same orphanage when we were kids. Turgay, this is Adam Anders. I’ve been doing some missions with him.”

Adam held out his hand to shake. “Pleasure.”

Turgay seemed surprised, but gingerly shook it anyway, careful not to hurt him with his talons. “Likewise.” He reached under the counter and pulled out a thick pad, designed to hold up against claws. “But you’re here for something besides introducing me to your boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” I said, waving my hand airily. “Lily got him already.”

Turgay clicked his tongue. “Lily, Lily…oh, Lily? The one who got Malcanthet run out of town?”

“The very same.”

He looked at Adam with new respect. “Good catch, baseline. Or good job getting caught. Whichever.”

“Uh…thanks. But I really do need…”

The ave waved his talons. “Right, right, you need something. Guns or ammo?”

“Ammo,” Adam replied, clearly enjoying not having to engage in small talk. “For a 6-gauge shotgun.”

Turgay looked up. “A Saint George?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, you’re in luck. The Dragon Slayer can handle some pretty heavy-duty shells.”

Adam bit his lip. “There aren’t…there aren’t actual dragons running around the city, right?”

The ave frowned. “Well…kinda. There’s a lace subculture called the dragons, but they’re mostly harmless. Gargants count, I guess, if you squint…it’s not important.” He held up one talon. “Let me show you something.” He opened the door and headed into the warehouse in a hurry, though he was careful to close the door behind him.

The silence didn’t last more than a second.

“So, you like Derek,” Adam asked in a completely failed attempt to act nonchalant. I just smiled.

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

“Not particularly. I’m just wondering why.”

I shrugged. “He’s nice and cute. Isn’t that enough?”

“And saving your life probably didn’t hurt.”

I grinned widely. “No, not really.”

“I’m just trying to figure you out.” He shrugged. “I mean, the other day you all but tackled him.”

“Laura beat me to it.”

“Heh, yeah. But I’m surprised you just gave up after that.”

I started. “What? No, I haven’t given up.”

He frowned. “Really? You don’t seem to have been doing anything.”

“No! I mean…” I paused.

He was right. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I was backing off a bit. I really did like Derek, and Akane wasn’t doing anything, especially since she was clearly attracted to Flynn. I guess I just hadn’t really thought it was possible. He was thick as a tree.

Well, that just meant it was a challenge.

Before I could articulate a proper response, Turgay came back, carrying a heavy box. He plopped it on the counter with a loud thud and opened it up. It was filled with boxes of shotgun shells.

“I brought out a few different kinds,” he explained. “First we have the dragon breath rounds. Very nice.” He unpacked one of the boxes and started pulling the shell apart, revealing a bunch of large ceramic beads. “The shot is filled with pyrophoric dust, which ignites on contact with air. They crack when they hit something, exploding in a burst of heat. These babies are great against swarms. I recommend keeping a few with you at all times.” He packed it up carefully. “Just make sure you store them someplace that’s not flammable.”

He pulled open another box, but didn’t unwrap the actual shell. “These are simple 6-gauge, steel shot shells. Anti-infantry. They’re somewhat armor-piercing, but don’t rely on them for that.” He rubbed his feathery chin. “Of course, with a six-gauge nearly everything is armor piercing…” He waved his hand. “Regardless. For that, you want one of these.” He pulled out another box and placed it carefully on the counter, as though that was enough of an argument by itself.

Adam opened the box; I noticed that they weren’t shells, but slugs. And big ones, too, designed to fit in a Saint George. “What’s so special about this one?”

“That’s a Teflon-coated armor-piercing slug,” Turgay chirped happily. “It will punch a hole the size of your fist in anything you shoot at. It’s perfect for the bigger monsters, like a brick-plated gargant. I’ve even heard of it breaching tank armor, though that’s probably an exaggeration.”

“Sounds perfect,” Adam said, nodding in approval. “I’ll take one of those, two of the dragon breath, and two of the normal 6-gauge.”

While Turgay started stacking up the boxes, I noticed something.

“What’s that one?” I asked, pointing to a mostly unmarked box in the corner of the crate.

Turgay glanced at it in surprise. “Oh, that’s my mistake. I think that was already in there. Pay it no mind.”

“No harm in showing us,” Adam pointed out.

The ave shrugged and took out the box slowly, almost reverently. He pulled out one of the shells very, very carefully.

It was shaped more like the slug he had showed us earlier rather than a shell. It had a larger than normal primer, and I could tell by the way he held it that it was heavier than it looked.

“This,” he said slowly, “is a Necessarian God Slayer. It’s not so much a slug as it is an RPG. Once it exits the barrel, a secondary fuse lights, igniting the rocket and giving it a huge boost in velocity. When it hits something, the depleted uranium nose gets pushed back, even as it penetrates the target. Once it reaches a depth of about an inch, the nose will hit the payload inside, activating it, and setting off another explosion. The uranium becomes shrapnel. All in all, this baby is better than a frag grenade.” He set it on the counter very carefully.

Adam picked it up and looked at it curiously from every angle. “I can’t think of how anyone would need something like this,” he muttered. “It seems like overkill.”

Turgay shrugged. “Definitely. But a good shot can take out a vehicle’s engine pretty easily, and these can breach tank armor. Very little can stand up to them. They’ve only been around for about a year; they might get a good counter for them sooner or later, but I’m betting on later.”

Adam put the slug down. “A box of those as well.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 26)

Totally not foreshadowing anything.

Scene 25 – Quiesco

QUIESCO

LAURA

I stared at my phone. Derek had just called, and wanted to meet up at a coffee shop nearby. Oh, and I should bring Lizzy.

Silver and gold, that man was annoying.

“So that was Derek?” the girl in question asked, shuffling her shopping bags in her arms. She was wearing a canary-yellow sundress, despite the declining temperature. She compensated with a long black scarf wrapped a couple times around her neck, but I still couldn’t understand how she could survive. “What did he want?”

“They just finished a monster hunt and wanted to have lunch,” I said tiredly. “Over at that cafe near the dorms.”

“Cool! That could be fun!” We were heading that direction anyway. There was really no reason not to go.

Dammit.

Shopping with Elizabeth Greene is an…interesting experience. She seems to consider it a challenge to buy the most stuff with the least amount of money, despite the fact that she has pretty decent funds from the web animation thing she is a voice actress for. Now, one may think that this isn’t any different from what anyone else does while shopping, but Lizzy doesn’t care what she buys, so long as she gets good deals. Her bags were filled with nicknacks, souvenirs, and all manner of junk she didn’t care about in the least.

On the other hand, she did buy a bit of winter clothing for herself. When she’s buying things she actually needs, her brain apparently turns off. I had to keep her from buying a two hundred dollar sweater that wasn’t noticeably different than the twenty dollar one a couple stores down. That’s why she drags me to these things: She needs a chaperone.

For my part, I just bought a jacket, some underwear, and more ammo for my Occisor. I was pretty much out since the attack a few days ago. It wouldn’t do to run dry in the middle of a mission.

“Laura! Lizzy! Over here!”

I glanced up to see Ling waving us over; they already had a couple tables pulled together.

They were wearing different clothes than this morning, and had picked up another member: An ambiguously dark-skinned baseline with a long black bag next to him—probably a sword like Akane’s.

Lizzy ran over quickly, weaving through the tables with her big bags, and I followed close behind, a little reserved. We came in at the middle of a conversation.

“I just don’t get how you can leave them behind,” Derek said in an annoyed tone.

“I didn’t think I’d need anything more than the Sica,” Adam replied. “I won’t make that mistake again, trust me.”

“Hey guys,” I grunted.

Everyone looked up and greeted us warmly, especially Derek, though he only had eyes for Lizzy. Well, everybody greeted us except Akane, of course, and the new boy didn’t quite seem to know what to say, though he tried.

“Hisashiburi desu ne, Ken-chan!” Lizzy said warmly. “Kono otoko-no-ko wa dare desu ka?”

“Hello, Elizabeth,” Akane replied in English—very pointedly in English, I might add.

This was one of the strange things about Lizzy. She can’t learn facts about history or science to save her life, but her language skills are incredible. I didn’t even know how many she spoke, but Japanese was apparently one of them. She had tried to do the same thing to me with Spanish, but I had never had any interest in my heritage, and I wasn’t particularly good with languages anyway, so eventually she had given up.

Before Lizzy could launch into a whole conversation in a language only one of us understood, I plopped down in the nearest chair and set my bags on the table. “So what happened with the crawler?” I nodded at the baseline. “And who’s the new guy?”

“I’m Flynn,” he said quickly, offering his hand to shake. I took it. “I’m in Akane’s kendo class.”

Lizzy nearly jumped out of her seat. “That’s perfect!” She dug around in her bags for a moment before finally pulling out a small carved wooden statuette of a giant in a combat stance. A troll, judging by the claws. She placed it carefully on the table in front of him. “There, that’s yours.”

Flynn blinked and picked it up. “This is amazing detail…where did you find it?”

“Somebody makes them…somewhere,” Lizzy said cheerfully, not caring that she couldn’t even remember something that had happened less than an hour ago. “They’re really good.”

He held it carefully. “And you bought it…for me?”

She laughed. “No, of course not. But I knew it would be a good present for someone, and then you showed up.” She smiled widely. “Isn’t that what they call fate?”

“I…” he nodded in thanks. “Thank you. I’ll treasure it.”

She might be dumb as a sack of rocks, but she found ways to do kind things for others, no matter the circumstances. Not to mention that she seemed to always know the right kind of gift for each person; Flynn clearly liked wood carvings. Was it luck that she had chosen that one, or something else?

Of course, it would probably break in about a week. Lizzy had a good heart, but she wasn’t very good at buying things that would stand the test of time. Actually, that explained a lot of her shopping.

“Ii hito desu ne,” she said. Though she was still looking at Flynn, she was obviously talking to Akane. “Kareshi desu ka?”

Akane coughed, struggling to breathe. If she had been drinking anything, she probably would have actually been in trouble. Flynn immediately patted her on the back, trying to help her get out whatever she was choking on; she waved him away, and he stopped quickly.

“Naraba, hontōni kareshi desu nē?” Lizzy pressed excitedly.

Akane finally deigned to reply. “By Musashi’s gravestone, stop talking.”

Adam spoke up. “Uh, for those of us who don’t speak Japanese…” Akane made a cutting motion with her hand, and the matter was closed.

There was an awkward silence for a moment, which I managed to break before it dragged on too long. “So why’d you all change clothes? I thought you were just hunting crawlers.”

Derek rolled his eyes. “Don’t get me started on that. It…didn’t go as planned.”

Ling raised two fingers. “Two crawlers, two hundred feet long each.” She shook her head. “Ridiculous.”

Lily suddenly stepped into view, still wearing her waitress smock, and sat down next to Adam. She kissed him lightly on the cheek before speaking. “I hope you got a bonus on that one. I’ve never even heard of worms that big.”

Adam shrugged. “They sold the corpses to an orc, ah, what was his name—”

“Obould,” Akane provided.

Derek nodded. “Yeah, him. I sold them for five hundred each, which was pretty good considering the state they were in. And we got twenty-five hundred for the actual slaying.”

I frowned. “You should have gotten more than that. What’s the normal reward for one crawler? Seventy-five? You should have been able to get four thousand, easy.”

“Base was a hundred. I argued him up to twenty-five.”

“Derek was being nice,” Ling said with a roll of her eyes. “But considering the morons let the worms out intentionally, I don’t think they deserved it.”

Adam cut in. “I thought they just let them into the sewers on purpose. They got out on accident.”

Ling waved her hand. “Whatever. The point is, you start playing with the fey, this kind of thing happens.”

“But I still can’t believe it,” Flynn said, finally pulling himself away from his gift. “It was incredible to watch—men and monsters, that hurt!” He grabbed at his ankle where someone had kicked him.

“What was incredible?” Lizzy asked, wide-eyed.

Of course. If the fight was really as difficult as they were saying, Flynn would definitely have seen them use their powers. He seemed trustworthy enough, but apparently they hadn’t told him that Lizzy didn’t know anything.

I stepped in before Flynn could say something stupid. “Derek and Akane fighting. They’re very impressive.”

She grinned. “Well, they’d have to be.” She turned to Derek. “How long have you two been monster slaying? Five years?”

“Seven actually,” he replied, with only the barest hint of boasting. He might have the ego of corn starch, but he can rarely resist making himself look better in front of Lizzy. “We make about ten thousand dollars a month.”

Adam coughed. “Seriously? I thought you just ran around catching rats.”

Derek laughed. “No, that was just to ease you into it. We’re a bit on the higher end of the scale.”

“Those two are some of the best slayers in the city,” Lily explained patiently. “They’re very well known, in those kind of circles.”

Lizzy turned to me. “Laura, didn’t you say you did something like that up in North Outer?”

I waved my hand. “Just minor consulting. Pocket change.” I smiled. “But you’d be surprised how little people know about the monsters the fey drop in their backyards.”

Adam was still a little bit shocked. “You can really make a good living like that?”

“Not really, you can only charge so much to teach people things they can learn on the internet.”

“No, I meant the hunting. If a hundred bucks is the most you can get each time—unless something goes wrong, like today—then I don’t see how that would be viable.”

Flynn chuckled. “Crawlers are hardly the most dangerous things in Domina.”

“Drakeswarm,” Derek suggested.

“Deathmarked,” I added.

Land piranhas,” Flynn insisted.

Lily cocked her head. “I don’t know, dog eaters are pretty bad.”

“Fey,” Akane whispered.

We all shut up.

We had gotten lucky during the burner attack. The Princess of Killing Sparrow wasn’t prepared or interested enough to fight ten well-armed men and women, and had decided to go play with something easier. Normally, if a fey sets a horde on you, you’re lucky to be armed at all.

Lizzy sighed. “Why are you guys always so depressed? You shouldn’t focus so much on the negatives.” She smiled. “I mean, you just made thirty-five hundred dollars for what—an hour of work? That’s something to cheer you up, isn’t it?”

Lily smiled a little at that. “Good point. It’s a nice day.” It was actually a bit chilly. “There are no zombies running around.” Because they were all locked up in one of Butler’s warehouses—I could hear them even now. “And there’s nothing to worry about right now.” Actually, the rest of us already had a lot of homework piling up. “So let’s just talk about something else, all right?”

Everyone muttered agreement, which made Lizzy and Lily smile.

“Good enough,” Elizabeth said. She grinned at Akane. “But wasn’t Red going to tell us about her new boyfriend?”

Akane turned as crimson as her nickname and Flynn looked distinctly uncomfortable.

I smiled a little. Maybe today wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 25)

Yes, Lizzy calls Akane ‘Ken-chan.’ It means approximately ‘Little Sword,’ and is one of the reasons Akane refuses to speak Japanese back. The other being that Japanese is actually her second language. She’s fluent (not least because of Lizzy), but she’s still more comfortable speaking English.

Also, while I am mostly certain the Japanese is correct, please e-mail me if you notice any glaring errors.

Scene 24 – Secreta

SECRETA

AKANE

It was a stupid, stupid thing to do. Stupid, stupid…

There was no reason to bring him, and a thousand not to. He was annoying. He was weak, not cut out for fighting. He was just trying to get into my pants.

And most of all, he couldn’t know about our powers.

“So what’s your favorite anime?” Ling asked nonchalantly.

Flynn shrugged. “Hard to say. I liked Gundam for a while, but its been going on for so long, everything gets repeated eventually. Though there was that one about the guy with the hypnotic eye and giant robots…can’t remember the name.”

But why not? I mean, he had promised not to speak a word of this, and he seemed trustworthy enough…

No he wasn’t. That was stupid. He wasn’t trustworthy or nice or sweet or kind. My brain was just plastering delusions onto him, since he was the first person to ever actually show any interest in me. I was projecting my desires for Derek onto a more viable subject, nothing more.

Ling was eying me warily, but didn’t seem all that perturbed by Flynn’s presence. That should have made me feel more confident, but she probably assumed I knew something she didn’t, something that made him seem more trustworthy.

But I didn’t! I had only known him for four days!

Ling turned her attention back to the swordsman. “That sounds familiar, but I can’t remember it either. Is it shounen?”

He frowned. “Hard to say. It’s one of those genre-busters.”

“Shounen is a demographic category, not a genre,” the little Chinese girl corrected. “Who was it marketed towards?”

He thought for a moment. “Boys, I guess.”

“Then it’s shounen.”

“Hey Akane, Ling. Who’s this?”

I looked up; we had reached the mouth of the alley Derek’s text had directed me to without even noticing. It was really close to my class, still within campus, which was one of the reasons Derek had called me. If it was outside campus, it would be both too far away and not enough of an emergency to pull me out. We had gotten the mission earlier, but had delayed it because of my class. Apparently, now the monsters were doing enough damage to actually constitute a real problem.

Derek stood, hands on his hips and a smile on his face, in front of the alley, while Adam leaned against the side of the building. Derek was the one who had spoken.

“Wait, don’t tell me…” he furrowed his brow, considering my classmate. “You’re…Neil, right?”

He flinched. “Flynn Neilson, actually. Neil was my father,” Flynn corrected, shaking his hand. “You saved my life once.”

“Right, I think I remember. Crabswarm?”

“Land piranhas.”

Derek clicked his fingers in frustration. “I knew it was some kind of swarm. So what brings you around here? On your way home?”

This was why everyone loved him. Saving people was one thing, but the fact that he honestly, truly remembered them, treated them as people rather than victims to make him look better…this was it. People would die for him, I think. Other than me, of course. I don’t count.

“Actually,” Flynn chirped a little bit too excitedly, “Akane invited me on the hunt.”

Derek blinked. “Really?” He turned to me. “You sure?”

I knew what he was asking. I could have signaled to him, got him to find an excuse to send my classmate away. There were a thousand good reasons, not even considering our secret.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I just nodded. Derek paused for a moment, then shrugged.

“Good enough for me. You know how to use that sword, Flynn?”

Flynn had a sword as well, a bit higher quality than mine. He already had it out of its case, same as I did, and had it belted onto his waist, again mirroring me. He really was a pretty good fighter. Maybe if he was actually being serious, he’d be able to be useful.

“Second best in the class,” he affirmed.

“All right,” Derek said, clapping his hands together. Adam stepped away from the wall and unbuckled the holster on his pistol, but didn’t draw it yet. “Laura got dragged to a shopping trip with Lizzy, but that’s fine. It’s just an alley crawler. Difficult, but simple enough. Adam, you’re on point. Akane, Flynn, second position. Ling, you’re on rearguard.”

Everyone nodded, and arranged themselves as ordered, though Ling grumbled a little. Adam had his pistol ready, though I didn’t see his other guns. I guess it would be enough in this case.

We inched into the alley slowly, careful not to make more sound than necessary. This was a deep one, what the crawlers like, and it twisted around a few times until I wasn’t completely sure where we were. The nest of buildings wasn’t a maze; there was only one choice at each turn. But it was still disorienting.

At least the alley was wide. The brick walls were covered with smelly crawler slime, which you don’t want to touch unless there’s absolutely no other choice.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Flynn whispered to me. “Going after a crawler with guns, I mean.” He frowned. “Ling and Derek aren’t even armed.”

He was too close. I could feel his breath on his face, and my heart beat a little faster.

I took a step away from him, and he didn’t pursue. “Watch,” I said simply. He blinked, but shrugged.

He’d understand soon enough.

It took about ten minutes from entering the alley to finally find the crawler, but we never let our guards down. Still, it was pretty surprising when we turned the corner and it was just there.

It looked like nothing so much as a giant earthworm—which, basically, it was. Luckily, worms were never designed to be much bigger than your pinkie, so crawlers rarely survive long. They can do a lot of damage in the meantime though, which is why monster slayers occasionally get called in.

But this one was huge.

It was as wide as the alley—ten feet, maybe a little more—and just as tall. I couldn’t even see the other end; it was curved around the far corner, and probably another besides. It just crawled slowly away from us, the slime it had already spread on the walls helping it along. It hadn’t quite noticed us yet, but it would soon.

Adam stumbled back, blatant surprise on his face. “I thought we were after a rat!”

Derek cursed. “Silver and gold–That’s why you left your other guns behind?”

The great beast rumbled and slowed to a stop. Then it started creeping towards us, trying to find the source of the vibrations.

“Adam, to the back,” Derek spat. “This is way bigger than I thought. We might not have the firepower to take it out.”

Normally, crawlers were only about a foot wide and maybe twenty long. Big and dangerous, no question, but swords took care of them pretty easily. I didn’t even know where to start with this thing.

“Ling, get ready. Akane…” Derek paused. “Just cut the damn thing.”

I did as I was bid, rushing forward with sword drawn.

The crawler hadn’t quite noticed us, but it edged in my direction as my footfalls sounded on the concrete. Before it had a chance to try and take a bite out of me, I slashed it’s ‘face’ with an upward cut.

It wasn’t deep, by any means. An ordinary crawler’s skin is tough to cut, like animal hide, and it was clear from the amount of resistance that it only grew tougher with size and age.

Regardless, clear blood began to flow from the wound, and a low, rumbling moan echoed through the alley. The crawler opened its mouth and lunged forward, hoping to snatch me up before I could attack again.

I activated my power, slowing down time by about ten percent. I was getting better at controlling it; normally I just went all out and drained my reservoir in seconds.

But ten percent was more than enough with my own reflexes, enhanced by the package. I backed up to Flynn, momentarily out of reach of the crawler.

My classmate glanced at me. “Did you just—”

Before he could finish, the worm lunged again, this time at him.

I froze.

Getting in the way of a normal crawler is a bad idea. Jumping in front of this one would be suicide.

But…

I was thinking about it.

Derek, thankfully, was better suited for this than me, and conjured a strong glowing blue shield in front of Flynn. The worm bounced off it, confused, its mournful moan changing tune.

Flynn stumbled back, his jaw nearly falling off. “That’s…you’re…”

“Ling!” Derek cried. “Wall, under the worm!”

She obeyed with a grunt of effort, planting her feet solidly and thrusting up with her arms, as if lifting a great weight. In response, the crawler’s head got flung up ten feet as a large mound of concrete erupted out from under it.

The creature wouldn’t be distracted for long. I saw my cue, and activated my speed, this time at about half capacity.

It was strange. When I was using my power, everything seemed easier. I guess it made sense that my sword would cut easier, but why could I jump higher? Was I moving too fast for gravity somehow? That didn’t actually make sense, but that was what happened. I made a mental note to ask Laura about it.

I jumped at the left wall, planting my foot on the brick. Before I had a chance to fall, I jumped to the other side of the alley, higher up, and repeated the process. The third jump landed me on the creature’s head, such as it was.

I let my speed fade, and before the worm could notice my presence and try to buck me off, plunged my sword down into it’s head.

The crawler screamed, a deep, undulating sound. It wasn’t dead yet, not by a long shot, but it was definitely hurt. I leaped back to the ground without trouble, just as the worm started thrashing, trying to throw off the rider that was no longer there.

Flynn, it seemed had recovered, and rushed forward. He stabbed upward, at the worm’s underbelly, eliciting another scream of pain. Although he got covered in clear, smelly blood, Ling’s mound of concrete kept him mostly safe from being crushed. The crawler’s attempts to squash him just kept putting it in his reach.

I heard gunshots and saw spurts of blood appear on the creature; Adam, doing all that he could. Well, it wasn’t much against something of this size, but that was all right. If nothing else, it would teach him not to forget his bigger guns. With the Saint George, this would be over already.

Eventually, the worm summoned the brainpower to retreat, pulling beyond Ling’s mound and out of reach. The mound sunk back into the alley—Ling’s doing, no doubt—though it didn’t get perfectly flat, and we followed the fleeing creature quickly. I avoided using my power; my reservoir was still low, and that was no time to be charging in.

The crawler moved faster than we could chase it, but it was leaving a long smear of clear blood, so we followed it easily. Of course, there seemed to be only one way for it to go, but at least we didn’t have to worry about losing it if it found a way to escape.

Such as by carving a path through a building. Which it was doing right now, its tail end disappearing out of sight.

Derek cursed behind me. I could see the problem. Hopefully our employer had thought to empty these ‘scrapers, but he might not have. And either way, there was going to be a lot of damage. These were just lecture halls, so there wouldn’t be too much expensive equipment, but the cost of the stadium chairs they like to use here adds up very quickly. We ducked past the shattered door—the worm had selected the weakest point instinctively—and into a white corridor.

It seemed to be abandoned, which was good, and the trail remained clear. We followed it for a few turns until it disappeared into a room. Another lecture hall, a history one, if the plaque outside was anything to go by. We piled inside quickly, trying and failing to keep a formation. The others just didn’t have as much experience as Derek and I.

Like I thought, it was arranged like a small stadium, with seats for maybe a hundred students, tiered. Unlike a real stadium, it wasn’t circular; the room was rectangular, with the lecture pit at one end. And in that pit, filled with what appeared to be sewage from some shattered pipes, was the crawler we had been fighting.

As well as another one.

It was the same size as the first—ten feet wide, and perhaps two hundred long, coiled up at the bottom of the classroom. It was uninjured, as might be expected, and I’d probably call it the mate of the first one if I knew anything about crawler anatomy. Earthworms were asexual, but what about these things?

Once Flynn spotted them, he cursed vehemently, and the others weren’t far behind. Derek, however, just frowned.

“Akane,” he said slowly. “About those grenades my mom got me last Christmas…”

“At you house,” I whispered. “On your dresser.”

He sighed and put his hand against his face. If they were at the dorms, I could have fetched them. It wouldn’t have taken ten minutes. But his house was twenty miles away; the crawlers would cause way too much damage, and might even get away before then.

“Well,” he muttered tiredly. “We’ll just have to do this like before. Bleed them slowly. Ling and I will keep them off you two,” he nodded at me and Flynn. “and Adam will have the axe as a last line of defense.”

I glanced at Adam; he had grabbed a big red fire axe when I wasn’t looking. His pistol was probably nearly out of ammo.

“Start with the wounded one,” Ling advised. I resisted rolling my eyes. That was the obvious tactic. It was already moving slower than the fresh one, so hopefully it was near death. Again, earthworms never evolved to be this big, so they’re a bit easier to kill, proportionately speaking.

The smell got worse as we started forward. The dying crawler was bad enough, but the sewage line may as well have reached up and punched me in the gut. I tied one of the handkerchiefs I carry around my face as a crude mask; it helped a bit. I handed another to Flynn, and he followed my example. But in the process, he was distracted, and accidentally kicked one of the loose stadium seats. It bounced down a few steps before stopping.

The worms turned in our direction.

“Now,” I hissed.

I zipped forward at twenty percent, fast enough to take the lead but still conserve my power. I jumped from about ten feet from the pit, at the same height as the worms. I landed on the wounded one without difficulty, using my sword to secure my place.

I think the crawler screamed; it was hard to tell, with my ability distorting sound. I pulled my blade free from the long gash I had created and immediately plunged it in again, creating another deep wound. It seemed easier to cut when using my power, but at least that made more sense than my improved jumping ability.

I let my ability fade before my reservoir emptied completely, in case I needed to make a quick getaway. Flynn reached the worm moments later, and since he wasn’t able to match my jumps, just stabbed it in the roof of the mouth. It screamed even louder, and he got splattered with bits and pieces of whatever it was eating, blown from the force of its cries. Considering the sewage line, I made a mental note to remember that we all needed showers after this.

The second crawler tried to lunge at me, either protecting its mate or just aiming at a source of heat and vibrations, but a big chunk of concrete struck it in the head. I glanced back at the entrance and saw Ling picking up another piece of the floor as though it was mud, shaping it in her hands.

But still, she shouldn’t be able to throw it that far. Did that mean her ability was really telekinesis, just limited to rock and stone for some reason?

It wasn’t important. We could do more tests later, when Laura was around. For now, we had monsters to slay.

The worm I was riding tried to swallow Flynn, its tiny brain finally realizing the easy way to stop him from hurting it. I stabbed it’s ‘face,’ distracting it and causing it to rear up in pain. Flynn dodged to the side of the creature, on the opposite side as the other one, and started slashing its flank. The beast screamed again, longer and louder than before.

It finally began to slow, its dozens of wounds proving too much for it. I didn’t bother waiting for it to die; I activated my speed at full blast and jumped onto the other one. It was a risk, but we simply weren’t prepared for this. We didn’t have the luxury of going by the book. If the fresh worm didn’t get injured quickly, it would destroy us.

Almost to prove my point, before I even landed the uninjured crawler surged up the tiers, aiming for Ling. Of course, it couldn’t know that she could mold the concrete into a wall of stone, which she did without hesitation. The beast slammed into it at full force, letting out a keening cry of pain.

My reservoir was empty by this point, though filling; it drained way too quickly at full blast. I had to plunge my sword into the monster’s hide just to stay on, never mind actually do any real damage.

The worm slithered around the wall quickly; it wasn’t very wide. By that time, though, Flynn had caught up with us, and cut a wide wound in it’s side. Adam joined in with his pilfered axe, though I was a bit worried, since all his combat experience was at range. I wasn’t sure he had the instincts to survive melee.

It quickly became moot; the beast fled away, gushing clear and nauseating blood, with me still stuck on top. It seemed to be heading for the exit.

Derek summoned a barrier, blocking the way. The worm screamed in pain as it bashed it’s head again, and when it tried to dodge around, he summoned another. And another and another. Every avenue of escape it had was cut off. It finally paused, its tiny brain not sure what to do.

That was my chance. I ripped out my sword, activated my speed, and started cutting huge chunks out of its back.

The creature screamed, but its cries were cut off as Derek—wielding Adam’s axe—split it’s head in two with a massive overhead strike, getting completely drenched in viscous fluid in the process.

I don’t think that would have done much if the crawler was as robust as the earthworm it was based on; they can survive being cut in half, after all. But scaling a creature up that much does more than just leave you with a bigger monster—they can’t deal with the increased demands of the larger body.

So, bleeding from dozens of minor wounds and a few much bigger ones, the alley crawler finally went still.

I sighed deeply with relief and slid off it’s back. Derek caught me and stopped himself just before pulling me close.

No. It wasn’t Derek. It was Flynn. Not Derek. Not.

“Are you all right?” he asked, looking into my eyes as though searching for something. He did seem genuinely concerned, but how much of that could I really trust?

“I called MC,” Derek said a few feet away as he flipped his phone closed. “Our employer is outside.” He grimaced. “Let’s have a chat with him, shall we?”

It turned out that ‘outside,’ in this case, meant about ten feet from the door to the lecture hall. He had apparently been informed where we were.

He was a teacher, that much was obvious, from the way he held himself to the pad under his arm, not to mention his understated suit and tie. He was an older man, maybe sixty—positively ancient in Domina—and balding on the top. He was a little bit portly, but not overly so.

“Thank you very much, Mister Huntsman.” He smiled, though there was a hint of strain at the edge of it. “Of course, normally we’d take the property damage out of your pay, but I understand that you prevented far worse.” He reached into his vest and pulled out a hundred dollar bill. “Here you are, as agreed on.”

Derek glared at the proffered cash, then met the old man’s gaze. “Multiply that by twenty-five.”

I thought the man would have a heart attack right then and there. “Twenty-five? Are you completely insane? A simple alley crawler—”

“Mister Vere,” Derek interrupted, “what do you know about alley crawlers?”

Our employer stood up a little straighter. “Quite a bit. I teach monster anatomy, you know.” The cadence of his voice changed, and I had a feeling he was switching to ‘lecture mode.’ “They are one of the more common types of monster, although they cannot breed. The fey enjoy seeding them through the sewers, and they generally only last a few months before their bodies simply break down.”

“How big are they, Mister Vere?”

The teacher blinked. “A foot wide, twenty long. Why?”

Without a word, Derek led him into the ruined classroom, letting him see the destruction and the two dead two hundred foot-long worms.

It was almost worth the entire fight just to see his reaction. He stumbled back from the scene, tripping over broken seats and trying to run from the smell. It was worse than before; the blood had mixed with the waste from the broken sewage line in a smell that can only be called unholy. Derek gripped him tightly with one hand, trapping him as surely as if he had put him in a headlock.

“As you can see,” Derek said calmly. “These worms are about ten times the size of normal. So the reward should be multiplied by ten as well. And, of course, there are two, so the reward should be increased proportionately.” He glared daggers at the cowering man in his grip. “And since you sent me and mine into an extremely dangerous situation with false intelligence, I’m tacking on an extra five.” He leaned in close, terrifying the old bastard even more, and whispered dangerously. “This is me being merciful, Vere. I could ask for fifty and your head on a platter.”

The teacher looked like he may have that heart attack after all. “But…but she said that the second was just backup! That there was no way both would survive!”

Derek’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Explain.”

Vere swallowed and glanced at the rest of us, perhaps wondering if he could escape if he managed to break Derek’s iron grip.

He started talking.

“We—the school board, I mean—bought them from the Queen of Eternal Silver last year.” Seeing the looks on our faces, he hurried to continue. “That’s the court of Day’s Southern Summer.”

There were thirty-two fey courts, split between the four seasons, the four directions, and then Night and Day. Each court had three members, a Maiden, a Matron and a Crone—the Princess, the Queen, and the Queen-Mother. Obviously, that should have meant that there were ninety-six fey, but with their homunculi, it was impossible to know for sure. There could have been more, less…no one could tell. Not that it mattered.

“Why bother?” Derek demanded. “You had to know dealing with fey was stupid.”

The old man flinched from his tone. “Well, yes. But you see, AU was a bit poorly constructed. The school itself is fine, but the sewage system was…not very well thought out.” He shrugged awkwardly. “We needed the worms to handle the overflow.”

“But…” I started, but stopped as everyone turned to me.

Flynn seemed to figure out what I meant, and finished for me. “But how did they get to the surface?”

Vere licked his lips nervously. “Well…you see, crawlers usually end up above ground for a variety of reasons.” He seemed a bit more sure of himself, now that he was back in lecture mode. “Sometimes the fey release them, but mostly its because they find a manhole, come out, and then can’t figure out how to get back in.”

Ling raised an eyebrow. “If your manholes are big enough to let one of these things through, no wonder your sewers are screwed up.”

“Worms can fit through surprisingly small spaces,” Vere insisted. “Although I’ll admit this strains credibility a little.”

Derek snorted. “The fey probably got bored and let them out for kicks. Probably cracked the black water line down there as well.” He indicated the pit of the lecture hall, still filled with sewage.

Vere groaned. “We’re going to need to have that repaired. This entire floor is going to be useless for a month.”

“So,” Derek said, still gripping the man by the arm. “Twenty five times the agreed reward seems fair?”

Our employer looked at him, then glanced at the dead crawlers again.

“Two and a half thousand dollars. Agreed.”

Derek pulled out his phone. “You get all that, MC? Good. Have them take it to my room.” He sighed. I think we all need long showers.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 24)

Flynn Neilson is going to be very important later on, but he’s going to take the sideline for a while. This seemed a good time to introduce him as any.

And as for Akane jumping higher when her power is active, I’m not sure how much sense that makes. However, whenever I thought about her fighting, I could not get it out of my head that she should jump higher at superspeed. So that’s how it works. Basically, she can outrun inertia. Doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way its gonna be.