I woke up slowly and groggily, with a massive headache. There was a bright light above me, a little to the left, which wasn’t helping my head. I blinked and shielded my eyes with my hand, looking away. In the process, I saw bookshelves with monster magazines, above me and to the right.
Ah. I was in bed. My bed. All right, that was the where. Now how’d I get here?
The last thing I remembered was fighting the screamers. The Necessarians had been overrun, and…
I groaned. Akane had put me in a sleeper hold. One I had taught her, no less. Wonderful. I had always been curious how those felt. Apparently, they felt like crap.
I rubbed my head and sat up. I needed to find Laura, figure out what exactly had happened. The fact that I was in my room rather than a ‘sarian hospital was a good sign, but I needed more details.
“Oh good, you’re awake.”
It was Akane’s voice. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, turned to my right…
And saw a very, very, very naked Akane, only half-covered by my sheets.
I catapulted out of my bed with a shriek immediately, though I got tangled up in the sheets and tripped over my own feet. I ended up on the floor, on my back, with my legs still half on my bed. Akane looked down at me, clutching the other end of the covers. Her beads clinked in her hair.
“You all right?”
I closed my eyes, cursed, and untangled myself as quickly as possible. Once that was done, I stood up and glared in my friend’s direction. Not at her directly. Just the general area. “Akane, where are your clothes?”
I saw her grin out of the corner of my eye. “Elsewhere.”
“Yes, I noticed. I mean why aren’t you wearing them?”
She slinked forward, and I stepped back, bumping into Adam’s (unoccupied) bed. “You woke up to find a naked girl in your bed. I know you passed health class, Derek. I think you understand this well enough.”
My headache was getting worse. I needed to figure out what was going on, and quickly. Could she have been drugged? Possible, but she seemed in control of her wits, if nothing else, and what motive could someone have for something like that?
Akane carefully held the sheets against her body in such a way as to emphasize her curves. I’ve always known she was beautiful, of course, but seeing her like that was…a very loud reminder. The fact that the sheets were white, and therefore a little bit see through, didn’t hurt.
No. That wasn’t important right now. I had to proceed under the assumption that she was sober, and had full knowledge of her actions. From there, I could come up with the most likely scenario.
I sighed. “Akane, this isn’t funny.”
She stopped leaning forward quite so much, and let the sheets loosen a little. “What?”
I shook my head. “Look, I’m sure this seemed hilarious when you thought it up, but I have a blistering migraine, and I just don’t have the capacity to deal with this right now. Can you please put some clothes on?”
She stared at me, her mouth agape, then set her lips in a grim, firm line. She slipped off the bed carefully, stood in front of me, and dropped the sheets to the floor.
I looked her in the eyes. Just the eyes. “You need to stop this, right now.”
She pouted. “Why?” She smiled coyly and tried to step forward again, but I put my hands on her shoulders—her skin was distractingly smooth—and held her at arms length.
“I want you to think for a second,” I said evenly. “What would have happened if you had tried this joke on someone else?”
She blinked. “Wait, you can’t mean—”
I shook my head again. “You really didn’t consider the consequences at all, did you? Look, obviously I’m not going to try and take advantage of the situation. But you can’t pull something like this again. I hate to say it, but not all men are as chivalrous as I am.” I let go of her shoulders and stepped aside, giving her a free run to the door. “Get dressed, then come back. I need a report.”
She looked more confused and shocked than chastised. “Derek, I—”
“That was an order, Akane.”
She swallowed, then nodded once, her face hard. “Yes, sir. Right away.” She picked up my sheets, wrapped them around herself, and left my room in a hurry. A moment later, I heard her door open and close.
I glanced at the clock. It was noon. Of course, I had no idea what day it was, so that didn’t help much. On the other hand, my headache was already fading, so there was some good news.
Within minutes, Akane was back, dressed in black cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, with her bagged sword over her shoulder and my sheets under her arm. She tossed the sheets onto my bed, before turning to me again.
“After I knocked you unconscious, Ling and I had to run. We couldn’t hope to fight effectively while protecting you. Unfortunately, the majority of the horde followed us.
“Luckily, Adam, Laura, and the retinue managed to call in an airstrike of sleeper gas. You got a pretty heavy dose of it, which is most of the reason you were out so long. Ling and I didn’t have masks either, but we managed to keep away from the worst of it, so we just got really, really drowsy.
“Regardless, before they could call in the airstrike, they had to get the horde into position. They found a tall building, and used Alex’s blinders to draw the screamers in, which was when MC dropped the gas. The ‘sarians moved in, rolled up the zombies, and we were done. Adam dislocated his arm saving Alex from a fall, but otherwise there were no other injuries.”
It always felt weird when she talked this much. Sure, she always talked more when people weren’t around, but this was a bit odd.
“Good,” I said, when it became clear she wasn’t going to continue. “How many dead screamers?”
“About two dozen. Nearly a thousand captured. This was the biggest group yet.”
I whistled. “Hopefully the Composer won’t try and use these guys again. I’m not sure we could handle them.”
Akane shrugged. “Maybe. They were easy enough once we knew what we were dealing with. Clarke and Laura are off doing tests right now.”
I nodded. “Good, good. But that reminds me: What day is it, exactly?”
“Tuesday. Same as when the bleeders attacked.”
I blinked. “That means we missed Politics and Geography.” There was a possibility Akane had gone without me, but practical joking aside, she was loyal. She wouldn’t leave me unconscious and unattended.
“Don’t worry, I got some of our classmates to take notes.” She shrugged sheepishly. “Well, I got MC to ask them. Anyway, they’ll drop them off soon enough.”
“Perfect.” I searched around for my clothes. I was still wearing the same ensemble as last night, and I needed to change. “We have about an hour to get to that gargant rampaging around the Dresden mall.”
Akane frowned. “What? No, you’re still injured. You’re not fighting anything in your condition.”
I waved my hand dismissively. “We’ll grab Adam, and Flynn too. Ling’s busy, but that should be enough.”
She looked frozen. “Not Flynn,” she whispered. Then she regained her composure. “And not anyone else, either. You’re in no shape to take on a gargant, help or no.”
“Akane, I’ve been asleep for eleven hours.”
“No, you’ve been unconscious for eleven hours. There’s a difference.”
I threw up my hands. “Somebody has to do it. We’re contracted for the job, I’m not going to just give up because I’m too tired.”
She grabbed my shoulders and carefully guided me until I was sitting on my bed. “I’ll go, with Adam and Ling. Maybe the retinue too. We’ll take care of the gargant, while you rest.” She headed to the door. “Play around on your computer. See what’s going on outside your little world.” She opened the door and smiled. “I’ll see you later.” Then she was gone.
I sighed. She had a point, I wasn’t as aware of current events as I should be. Especially considering I was having a large impact on them, personally. Besides, she was pretty inflexible when I was injured.
I fired up my laptop and logged in. Domina’s internet, maintained by MC, was built on the foundation of a system called the Fundamentum. Fundie was a pretty basic code, just enough to give everyone a single user name they could use everywhere. Log onto a brand new site for the first time, and Fundie would automatically import all your settings and avatars. Pretty convenient.
For most of my life, the system had just been there. I hadn’t really appreciated it at all. But in the last few weeks, after talking to Laura for the first time in seven years, I began to understand its purpose a bit more. She had been outside the city a few times, and had launched off in more than one rant about all the problems out there. It was odd, but also somehow fitting, that one of her biggest complaints was simply that you had to create a unique account for every site you visited.
I searched around randomly for a little while, not really finding anything useful. Most of the news was on the screamers, some factual, but a lot of speculation. Clarke’s techs were doing damage control, promising that they were studying the problem as much as possible in hopes of finding a cure, but it wasn’t helping much.
Interestingly, according to a few stats on sites I trusted, the actual deaths caused by the screamers was less than I had thought. The burners were the worst, but even then casualties were relatively low. Over ninety-five percent of anyone who engaged the zombies were either fine, or zombies themselves. If they did find a cure, this whole thing would soon go from a tragedy to a minor inconvenience.
It was when I was browsing the Monster Slayer’s Information Database that a chat window from ‘many-arrows’ opened up. That would be Obould, the orc I had sold the giant alley crawlers to.
<Hey, Huntsman. How’s it going?>
I smiled. Obould was one of the first orcs, the trusted lieutenant of Orcus himself. Technically speaking, he was the leader of the subculture ever since his boss died in a fight with Malcanthet, but he took a very hands-off approach to command.
<Hey back. How are those worms?>
<Oh, fantastic! The fey somehow managed to introduce a new enzyme into their system that toughens their entire structure, allowing them to bypass the problems of the Square Cube Law.>
I frowned. <Wait, you’re saying that now crawlers will just keep growing until someone kills them?>
<Well, no. There is still an upper limit to their size, it’s just much higher than before. And the fey don’t seem to have figured out how to make the change genetic. They had to do it manually. Basically, they found an easy way to make crawler gargants.>
<That’s hardly good news.>
<True. I expect you’ll be seeing a lot more of these around soon.>
<Do you have some sort of poison we could use to fight back?> This was Obould’s real strength; he wasn’t a monster slayer, he was the support system. Monsters always had fatal flaws, even if those flaws only existed on a cellular level. It was his job to find those weaknesses and expose them. If he had to whip up some crazy new chemical in the process, he would.
<Not yet,> he replied quickly. <I have a counter agent that will destroy the enzyme and kill the worm, but I haven’t had a chance to test it, and even if it works it will take a few days to take effect. Hardly the magic bullet you’re looking for.>
<Fair enough. You mentioned something earlier about Ling’s armor?> Obould was one of the few outside of Necessarius who knew of our status as the Paladins. We had a good working relationship, and the guy you buy equipment from needs to know exactly what you’ll be facing.
<Yes, I believe I have something. She’ll have to try it on, but think chainmail, woven from pebbles.>
It took me a minute to respond to that. <Uh…>
<No, hear me out. It’s a simple body glove underneath, but everywhere possible, I sewed pebbles into the fabric. If I’m correct, she should be able to use her powers to move the stone, creating a primitive sort of powered armor.>
Huh. That actually sounded good. <There’s just one problem. I’m not sure how fine her control is. She might rip them off, or liquify them.>
There was a brief pause before he replied. <…liquify?>
<Yeah, she can affect the viscosity of stone, as well as simply controlling it.>
<You didn’t mention that.>
<Oh. Oops.> That was my mistake.
<Well, either way, she just needs to practice controlling it. This should be as good a trainer as any. Once she plays around with it a little, I’ll have a better idea of what she needs.>
<And before I forget, I have your Akane’s armor ready as well.>
<More pebbles?> I typed, smiling.
<Hah. Funny. No, it’s pretty much just a black body glove But it’s got kevlar woven throughout, so it should stand up to pretty much anything.>
<What about other aramid fibers?>
<Some heat resistance. I didn’t add too much; she needs to be able to breathe and sweat. And I’m worried enough about how flexible it is. Have her come over once she gets a chance; I need her to try it on tell me how it feels.>
<That should be perfect.>
<I also have a friend, Elrond, who can help with her sword.>
I frowned. <Wait, is this the same Elrond who thinks he’s an immortal elf?> Elves were a pretty rare subculture in Domina, not because there was anything wrong with them, but just because the cosmos they used were barely even noticeable. Wow, you have pointy ears. Big deal.
<Well…yes. But he’s also a very good smith. He’s been experimenting with that amorphous metal stuff. You know, what they’re using for surgical tools?>
<Yeah, it’s a non-crystalline metallic alloy with a disordered atomic structure. I read the article you sent. I’m just not sure I trust him.>
<But she needs a new sword, right?>
<Well, she could use one, but the one she has is working fine.>
<Okay, okay, we’ll table that for now. Maybe I can sell you some knives, get you interested. Check out my market in the Emporium.>
The Emporium was Domina’s online marketplace. Brick and mortar stores were still more popular, if only because when ordering online there was always the chance the truck delivering your goods could get hijacked. But they were getting much better about that.
<I’ll look into it,> I promised.
<Good. Now, what about your armor?>
<I don’t do armor Ob, you know that.>
<I know, but come on, you’re not perfect. You need armor, or at least a damn gun.>
<I have an Occisor I got for my fifteenth birthday if I really need something.>
There was a pause, probably caused by Obould doing a quick search to see what model that would be. <The mark 2?>
<Yeah, that’s the one. It’s a good gun.>
<Well, it will serve. Hardly useful against gargants.>
I shook my head, chuckling. <Very little is useful against gargants.>
Behind the Scenes (scene 47)
You know, considering how much fun I have writing these, I’m not really sure why they don’t come up more. I suppose I’ll have to remedy that.
Oh, and Obould and Derek’s text messaging was not cleaned up to make it look better. They just both use complete sentences and proper punctuation when they IM people. They’re kinda strange like that.
One last thing: Originally, I didn’t mean for Ling to be able to affect viscosity as well as normal kinesis. It just sort of came out in the fight scenes. However, not all petrakineticists will have that ability. In fact, most won’t. When she received the talent, she subconsciously chose that option, which also slightly decreased her raw power and control. Many talents have these “secondary talents.” Genesis abilities, for instance, have the ability to sense how the created material will behave as a secondary talent, allowing genists to produce better effects than if they were simply throwing things at people.