I slashed quickly, bisecting the bat cleanly. It burst into a cloud of black smoke, which quickly coalesced into two halves of a young Nosferatu, cut diagonally from shoulder to opposite hip. Underneath the claws and fangs and nighteyes, I was surprised to find an ordinary Asian girl, only a bit older than me.
Not much different from my sisters.
I shook my head to clear away the distracting thoughts. Now was not the time to relive those memories. Kat was gaining ground even as I stood here brooding. I had to catch her before she found victims. I sped forward, my power at about half strength, trying to make up for lost time.
I could see her ahead of me, albeit only barely. Her tawny coat wasn’t the best camouflage for a moonlit night, but she made up for it by turning into a bat every few minutes. Every time she did that, I almost lost her.
Where was she going? We were heading away from the battle, past locked and gated shops and apartments. The people here knew better than to poke their noses into a warzone, so at least I didn’t have to worry about even more screamers yet.
What was she thinking?
And she was thinking. There were two types of screamers Laura had identified: The more common ‘aggressive’ types, which were dumb as dirt, and the rarer ‘defensive’ screamers, which seemed at least as intelligent as before their infection.
Kat was obviously of the latter variety, based solely on the fact that she hadn’t just turned around and tried to kill me. But then that meant she had a plan. I just had to figure out what it was.
She dodged around a corner, and I hurried to catch up. I needn’t have bothered. By the time I rounded the corner, the street in front of me was completely empty.
Musashi’s sword, this was an annoying hunt. At least with monsters I knew what they were looking for, so I could predict them better.
I stalked forward slowly. I hadn’t lost her entirely; I could still hear her screaming with that weird sixth sense we had, but it wasn’t accurate enough to pinpoint her location.
I stopped dead at the sound of the soft, feminine voice.
Unlike the screaming, this was easy to find the source of. To my left, from the bottom floor of the building, just a few doors from the corner. A large horizontal metal grate covered the door and windows, an anti-theft measure that proved equally adept at deterring wandering murderers and zombies.
“You’re not a ferret,” the voice noted. It was a female voice with an accent I couldn’t quite identify. It wasn’t Romanian though, and she didn’t sound like her mouth was overstuffed with teeth, so the chances of her being a Nosferatu were low. But still, I couldn’t take any chances. I nodded politely in her direction and headed forward again.
“Wait!” she hissed. “You’re chasing that fel screamer, right? We can help!”
I stopped and glared suspiciously at the door. “Why?”
“Trade for information. C’mon, get in here.” She opened the door wider and unbolted the grate.
Regretfully, I slipped inside the dark building. I knew from experience that if someone offered you help on a hunt it was always best to at least hear them out, but usually Derek did that part.
Once inside, it took me a second to notice the person I had been speaking to, hidden behind the door. As the woman stepped—or rather, slithered—out of the shadows, the first thing I noticed was that her legs had been fused into one long, sinuous tail, which was clearly strong enough to hold her upright. An ophidian? In vampire territory, no less? Odd.
But on second glance, I realized I was mistaken. Her horns and red skin marked her as a marilith, not an ophidian. That was pretty odd all on its own; mariliths weren’t all that rare, but ones who got the full package definitely were. And the Nosferatu were not exactly friendly to outsiders, so it was strange seeing anyone flaunting their toys so blatantly.
As she locked the grate and door behind us, I noticed a few other people scattered around the room, lit by dim light coming from one of the doorways. Two were normal demons, but one was covered in fur, had a long and powerful tail, and had the face of a goat, with the horns to match.
First a marilith, and now a bulezau? I hadn’t seen one of those in person since Shendilavri.
“This is the demon embassy to the Nosferatu,” the marilith explained as she slithered over to the others. She had probably noticed the confused look on my face. On second glance, I could see the demon flag hanging on the wall. It was probably outside, too. “We boarded up immediately once the fighting started. Is it really screamers out there?”
Too many people. “Yes.”
The woman frowned. “Are we safe here? I don’t even know what their powers are. I can’t find a way out without more information.”
The main draw of the marilith subculture was not the package, but the environment they had created—that is, the culture itself. They got accused of being armchair tacticians a lot, but most of them were actually extremely cunning strategists. It wasn’t at all uncommon to find one of them hired to help another subculture with one of their fights. They tried to stay out of politics, but even maintaining neutrality as a mercenary was difficult. Mostly, they helped defend against the fey.
The bulezau shook his head. “Superpowers…I still can’t believe it. What’s next? The angels will grow wings and open the gates to Heaven?”
“The aves are working on wings,” one of the other demons noted. “And depending on your definition of Heaven—”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“Safe,” I cut in before they had a chance to really start sniping at each other. “…probably.” I indicated the door I had just entered through. “Keep locked.” I blushed when I noticed they were all staring. “Ah…and the fel?”
The marilith clapped her hands. “Right, of course. It’s not much, but we do have some nets that should prove useful. Sobber is a birdcatcher.” She nodded at the bulezau. “He’ll go grab one.”
As the goat-demon growled left, the man he had been arguing with seemed to notice my confusion. “His name is Song of Blood, but he hates it—for obvious reasons. Call him Seth.”
“Well, that’s what happens when your parents are chem-head vampires,” the man in question noted as he returned from the next room, with a folded net in his arms. It was pretty big, but the holes were small enough that a bat shouldn’t be able to slip out. “They come up with really weird names and think they’re a good idea.”
I blinked. The toy maker was invented fifteen years ago. The vampires, the first culture, rose about six months later. Chems were a bit harder to pin down, but even if we threw that out completely, that would mean this bulezau was less than fifteen years old.
He could easily pass for thirty.
That was one of the side effects of the toy maker. It was hard to pin down someone’s age when they could change it on a whim.
Regardless, I took the net with a grateful nod. I still had to find her, but once I did at least I’d be able to catch her.
Although it ramped up the awkwardness more than a tad, I left as quickly as I could, with the marilith locking the gate again behind me. They had clearly wanted to wring me for more information, but that was hardly my strong suit. I made a mental note to tell Laura about them later. She could decide what they should know.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of the cold night air, and concentrated. The screaming was…ahead, above and to the left.
I snapped my eyes back open. As I suspected, the screaming was coming from a building, a ‘scraper some forty or fifty stories tall. Hopefully it was an empty one, but I doubted it. This area wasn’t exactly residential, but it definitely wasn’t abandoned either.
Well, the situation wasn’t going to improve with me just standing here. I rushed across the street and pushed my way inside, past the flimsy security grate crumpled to one side. The sign on the door marked it as an apartment building. Not good. Too many potential victims.
Kat’s screams led up the stairs at the back, but I was more interested in the muffled whimpering I could hear off to my right. It might be a trap, but I felt confident it was genuine.
Kat had left survivors.
It didn’t mean much, I reminded myself as I strode towards the door in question. She hadn’t done it on purpose. But still, I couldn’t hear any new screamers, and I didn’t see any bodies. Whatever the cause, it boded well.
I rapped on the steel door twice, trying not to make too much noise, lest I attract unwanted attention. But whoever was on the other side evidently heard me; the whimpering stopped immediately, and I heard footsteps come up to the door.
“Hello?” a very small, probably male voice asked. He sounded young, probably five or six. Good. I could deal with kids. Usually.
“I’m a Paladin,” I said softly. “Are you all right? How many people are in there?”
“I’m fine. I-I think I am.”
“That’s good. What about everyone else? How are they?”
“I’m the only one in here. I don’t think…you’re the first one to come looking.”
The sole survivor was a kid? Well, at least there was a survivor. And better him than a dozen murderous Nosferatu.
“I’m Akane. What’s your name?”
“Okay Patrick, I need you to stay right here, okay? Don’t open the door until an adult tells you its all clear. Can you do that for me?”
“All right. Someone will be here soon enough.”
I turned back and started up the stairs, not bothering to use my speed. My reservoir was full, but I didn’t want to risk facing Kat with anything less than full power. I still wasn’t really sure how smart a defensive screamer would be, so I was being cautious, even though I didn’t see Kat anywhere nearby.
It was at the third floor that my caution became justified. I felt a tug at my ankles, and heard the distinct twang of a snare trap snapping.
I didn’t have time to think. I cranked my speed up to full and ran forward, desperately trying to escape the blast radius. But still, I couldn’t resist looking back.
Slow motion explosions are my favorite parts of most movies. Honestly, they’re pretty much the only reason I go. Whether it’s a real explosion or CG, the attention to detail required never ceases to impress me.
In real life, I found that it’s even better. The slowly expanding sphere of fire lighting up the stairwell was impressive enough on its own. But I could feel the rising heat. I could feel the air rushing past me into the temporary vacuum, feeding the hungry flame. Shrapnel, shards of the bomb and slivers of the stairwell, flew past me, shining like stars from the heat.
My reservoir dried up just as I managed to round the corner. I dodged the explosion by less than five feet. Worse yet, the fire had caught most of the stairwell. The entire ‘scraper would go up soon, if I couldn’t find the sprinkler system. Why wasn’t it already on, anyway?
But that could wait. Someone had set that trap, which meant they would be expecting an enemy. I had to get out of here quickly. They probably thought I was a screamer.
Turns out I was mistaken.
The trap hadn’t been set for screamers.
Something large and human-shaped dropped onto my back, short but sharp claws tearing at my flesh. I shrugged her off, losing a bit of skin in the process, and confirmed my suspicions.
Kat. She had set a trap and an ambush, and was trying to take me out before my reservoir could replenish.
Her fur looked a little singed here and there, probably from hanging from the ceiling just outside the radius of an incendiary grenade. But if it pained her, she didn’t show it. She slipped into a three-point stance as gracefully as one of the felines she was emulating. She kept her right hand up, claws out, ready to leap forward and strike.
Her mouth was still open, trying to scream, but nothing came out. But there was…something. Something in her expression. Anthros are hard to read, and nighteyes aren’t much better, but I could tell she was analyzing the situation. Considering it from a tactical perspective, unlike the other screamers, who just rushed in like blind animals.
I didn’t give her a chance to come up with a plan. I rushed forward, hoping to catch her off guard. I didn’t have my power to fall back on, but I’m still pretty fast when I want to be.
But I wasn’t packed with a few thousand dollars worth of buffs.
She dodged my slash easily by leaping to the side, landing on the solid railing of the stairwell with her hands. She then lithely brought her feet back down and started running up the rail away from me. I followed along the stairs.
Which, of course, was her intention.
The second trap wasn’t another grenade—either she ran out of explosives or she was afraid the first one would have set off the second prematurely. Rather, it was just a couple weak steps, probably weakened even more by the explosion. The second I stepped on them, they shattered under my feet without even a groan of warning.
I managed to grab the unbroken step in front of me with one hand as I fell, but it wasn’t enough to pull myself up. I scrambled to sheath my sword and get a free hand, but I didn’t have much luck.
Kat cartwheeled onto the stairs a few steps in front of me, the claws of her bare feet gripping the wood tightly.
I didn’t have a choice. I needed both hands.
So I dropped my sword.
My sword wasn’t all that important, in the long run. It wasn’t a very high-quality sword, and it was getting old enough that I really should be considering buying a new one. I definitely had the money to get one of the best on the market. It didn’t have any real importance other than the fact that it was a gift.
But it was my sword. A symbol of my dedication, a reminder of why I fought. No matter how little sense it made, some part of me was terrified that if something happened to it, my determination would suffer the same fate.
I steeled my heart as I heard it clatter to the ground three or four stories below. I could collect it later, but I had to be alive to do that.
With my newly unburdened right hand, I reached out and grabbed Kat’s ankle and yanked hard. She didn’t fall, but she did lose her balance long enough for me to scramble up out of my precarious position. On my hands and knees was better than dangling above a raging inferno.
The fire was climbing higher, the temperature was rising, and smoke was filling the air. But I didn’t have time to worry about any of that right now. Kat slashed upwards at my face with her claws, aiming at my eyes.
But I had some power in my reservoir now.
I didn’t drain it completely, just tapped into it enough to leap to my feet faster than she anticipated and dodge her attack. She stepped forward and slashed with her other hand, but I dodged that one by stepping inside her reach and slamming my shoulder into her.
I’ll admit, I’m not really used to fighting humans. Oh, I take care of a few angry ghouls now and again, and I’m at the top of my kendo class, but most of my skills are geared towards fighting monsters. Humans are a different beast altogether, and not just because they walk upright. The fact that I got caught in no less than two traps is evidence enough of that.
Kat, however, was used to fighting humans. She knew our tricks and how to play to our weaknesses. She was a sniper first and foremost, true, but a good sniper can mix it up in melee for when the enemy finds their nest. The furry little screamer had blackbelts in at least three different martial arts disciplines, and could give pretty much anyone in the city a run for their money in hand-to-hand.
Also, she had claws.
I bit my lip to keep from crying out as she embraced my tackle and started shredding my back. I was already bleeding from her earlier attack, but this was worse.
I threw the tawny cat girl to one side, intending to chuck her over the railing. But in my confusion, I accidentally threw her the wrong direction, thudding her heavily into the wall instead, stunning her for a moment.
I headed farther up the stairs as my shirt and bra fell away in shreds. Some distant part of my mind was scandalized at my nudity, but the more practical parts noted that the front of the shirt was still intact, and I should be able to turn it into a makeshift bandage. My wounds were already beginning to sting, and blood loss was getting to me, but I pushed it all aside for the moment. Everything could wait until I dealt with Kat.
I didn’t have any time to come up with a plan, though. Kat was tough all on her own, and the power package just made her tougher. Even though her skull had smacked hard against the wall, she shook off her disorientation and was after me in under half a minute.
Of course, she had a power as well, and she seemed to know how to put it to best use. She jumped back onto the railing and then leaped diagonally forward, towards a spot about ten feet ahead of me on the stairwell. She would never make the jump, but she didn’t have to. Just before she started to lose momentum, she exploded into black smoke, which reformed into a bat, flapping madly. It only lasted a few seconds before the process reversed, but that was more than enough time for her to get ahead of me and land gracefully.
The smoke was getting thicker as the flames devoured more of the building. I needed to end this before the entire place went up. Even before that, I’d start choking on the smoke soon.
My reservoir was mostly full at this point, and I still had the net clipped to my belt, but even at super speed I wasn’t confident I’d be able to capture Kat. The net was huge for bird catching, but only barely big enough for a human. If I tried to grab her, she would probably be able to just slip out as a bat.
While I hesitated, she acted. She leaped forward, claws out, ready to tear out my throat.
I might not have my sword, but that didn’t mean I was defenseless. I whipped out one of the combat knives I kept on my belt and met the fel’s attack.
Her experience reared its head again; while most people would have flinched away or taken the hit, she grabbed my wrist, moved my strike aside, and slashed at my bare chest with her other hand.
Not many people have ever had an angry cat claw at their boobs. Suffice it to say it hurts. I yowled involuntarily and tore her claws away, losing a bit more skin in the process and splattering her tawny fur with blood. She jerked her arm out of my grip and leaped backwards, where she could watch me warily.
Between the roaring fire and the blood loss…this was taking too long. But Kat still held the advantage due to the simple fact that she was trying to kill me, while I was trying to capture her. My only chance to even the odds was to stop holding back and start aiming to kill. Derek would be upset, and the retinue would be angry, but they’d understand.
I flipped my knife in a reverse grip and rushed forward without hesitation. She was ready for me, of course. She knew better than to try to grab my wrist again, but she had other tricks up her sleeve.
She dove at my feet, under my knife, probably to try and upend me. It was a risky maneuver, but a well-played one: It wasn’t something anyone would expect, and since she wasn’t injured and I was, she had a much larger margin of error to work with.
But by this point, my reservoir was full again.
I dipped into it to move at about ten percent of my maximum, just enough to give me the speed to hop up onto her head and run along her back. I let my power go and wheeled around; as expected, she was sprawled face down on the steps, just a few feet from the yawning hole that was already filling with flame from down below.
She was a bit stunned from the complete failure of her unorthodox maneuver (not to mention nearly falling to her death), and I didn’t intend to give her time to recover. I didn’t try and push her into the fire; she was ready for that, and it would snap her back to her senses faster than smelling salts. Instead, I did away with all that complicated tactical frippery and stabbed her in the back of the neck.
She was at my mercy now. Not for long, true, but I had a chance. It was a chance that probably wouldn’t come again; despite this close call, she was still fresh, while I was getting weaker by the second. Luck accounted for a lot in combat, but not everything.
But if I killed her, the retinue would be devastated. Kelly and Sax had known her for a while, and she was one of their only friends. Alex and George were warming up to her. Her death would create a rift that might never be repaired. Or, more specifically, her death at my hands would hit them like a bullet to the gut. Death was common. One friend killing another…less so.
So, using my speed to gain a little extra time, I flipped the knife back around and smacked her as hard as I could in the back of the head with the hilt.
I didn’t have time to worry about giving her a concussion. With her toys and the package, I wasn’t entirely sure I could knock her out.
Turns out I could. She slumped against the steps like a sack of sand, and a brief second with my fingers at her neck told me she was still alive.
But not for long, if I wasn’t careful. The fire was spreading. Looking down, maybe half of the lower floors were already aflame. That didn’t make much sense—fire tends to eat up faster than down—but I suppose there could have been something exceptionally flammable down there or whatever that caught when the grenade first blew.
After making a few quick bandages (including one that conveniently doubled as a bra), I wrapped Kat up in the net the bulezau had given me and strapped her to my back with my belt. My pants were a little loose without it, but I could manage. At least the fel was pretty light. If this were almost anyone else, I probably would have been forced to cut my losses and abandon them.
Once I was sure she was secure and my reservoir was full, I didn’t waste any more time. I jumped off the railing, aiming carefully for some of the non-burning floor four levels below.
The split-second before we landed, I cranked up my speed as high as it would go. For some reason, this works. When I have my speed up, the laws of physics—including the inertia that would kill me from a fall like this—don’t apply quite as strictly.
The floor cracked a bit as we landed and we threw up a huge ash cloud as everything within ten feet was blown away by air pressure, but other than that there was no harm. In fact, the ash actually put out some of the nearby fires.
I found my sword quickly enough where it had bounced under the stairwell, and took both it and Kat outside. I laid them on the sidewalk a door or two down, made sure Kat’s netting was secure, and headed back in. I couldn’t leave her alone for long, but I had one last thing to take care of.
I found the door from earlier without any difficulty. Thankfully, the fire seemed to have skipped over this part in favor of the more flammable back rooms, so there was no debris, and minimal smoke.
“Patrick!” I cried as I got closer. “Are you in there? We need to go now!”
I didn’t hear any response other than the flames roaring from every direction, but I didn’t have time to wait. I reared back and kicked the door, near the lock. It didn’t break, of course—it was a steel door—but I heard the lock squeal a little under the pressure. I kicked again, then again, and—
Then I realized that the sole of my shoe was melting from the heat of the door.
Then the door exploded.
I had weakened the lock sufficiently that the pressure of the hot air was able to do the rest of the job. Using what little of my speed I had left, I was able to dodge the brief fireball, although only by hiding behind the door and getting third-degree burns on my arm in the process.
I had more to worry about right now than a couple burns, though. The second the burst of flame had passed, I jumped back around and headed into the room. I knew what I was going to find, but I had to check—
I shouldn’t have. Musashi’s broken sword, I shouldn’t have.
Most of the room was on fire. Turns out it was one of those flammable rooms; the fire had just taken a roundabout route to get to it, through a cheap wooden door on another wall. There was a lot of old burning furniture, but no windows, which had probably combined to create the overpressure.
In the center of the room, laying on a couch, was the corpse of a small child.
I couldn’t tell any details. He was already burned mostly beyond recognition; the couch was burning violently, and had probably caught fire too quickly for him to run. I couldn’t tell if he had died in pain or not; the fire made it hard to tell what position his body was in—whether it was a horrible throe of pain or the gentle repose of a boy who died in his sleep.
I left quickly but quietly, knowing that if I stayed much longer I wouldn’t be able to function.
I had a job to do, and it wasn’t over yet.
The second I was out of the burning building, I flipped out my phone and dialed MC, even as I was checking Kat’s bonds again.
Once I got to the real MC, I didn’t waste any time. “I need an interrogation van over at the burning ‘scraper in Nosferatu territory. Make sure they have lots of sedatives. If she wakes up she’s going to escape, no matter what kind of cages they have on hand.”
“Wait, you set another building on fire? Sooner or later we’re going to start charging you, and not even you can afford that.”
I groaned. “This was not my fault. And neither was the dog house or the rat warren.”
“Yeah, yeah…” she muttered, distracted by something. Probably the main fight, with the angels and all that. “Whatever. You injured?”
“I need treatment for…” I winced and did a quick tally. “Multiple lacerations, a bad burn, severe blood loss…” I coughed. “And maybe a little bit of smoke inhalation. How soon can they be here?”
“Ten minutes,” she promised. “Along with a fire truck. Can you hold out that long?”
Ten minutes. “Yes,” I said weakly. “Just…” I focused on my breathing. “Just make sure they get here.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 34)
The building was mostly empty when the fire started, and those who remained were awake and ready to escape should the screamers get too close. Most of them survived relatively unharmed, though the people in the rooms closest to the grenade died pretty quickly.