Monthly Archives: August 2012

Scene 56 – Caelus

CAELUS

ADAM

I flipped my phone closed. “That was Derek,” I explained. “He said I should stay away from the dorm for a while. Ling and Akane are apparently testing their powers a bit more.”

Lily just grabbed my arm and smiled. “Then that means we have more time alone.”

I winced as she pushed at my wounds. “Sure, just not doing anything physical. I still ache from that gargant.” The stupid metal bristles on its plating had been sharper than they looked, and had slashed the entire front of my body pretty badly. Not to mention that my shoulder still ached from being dislocated last night.

She frowned, loosening her grip. “I thought you said Doctor Clarke patched you up?”

I sighed. “Yeah, he did, but the toy maker can only do so much for me. He said something…” I paused. “Okay, he said a lot of things, but Laura explained that they were pretty much just accelerating my natural healing, which takes time.”

“Hm. I forget that without the toy maker, you can’t just pay a fee and your wounds disappear.” She shrugged. “It’s been such an integral part of the city for so long, I can’t even remember a time when we didn’t have it.”

I scratched my chin, trying to remember the timeline from my high school classes. We had only barely touched upon the toy maker. It wasn’t a military school, after all. “So that’s been, what…ten years?”

“Fifteen,” she corrected. “That’s when Doctor Clarke invented it, and Mister Butler started selling it.” She smiled a little, her fangs peeking out. That had been disconcerting at first, but I was starting to find it cute. “Soon after, Butler started his crusade to unite the city.”

I nodded in understanding. “Money opens a lot of doors.”

“Yes, but the toy maker caused a lot of problems too.” She indicated a couple of canes chatting on a street corner as we passed. “A gang is just a group of people. Eliminate the leader, and they disperse. Cultures are harder.”

“What about—” I stopped before I said the wrong thing. Lily always got edgy when I brought up Malcanthet, and I didn’t need to understand the details. “—Orcus. The leader of the orcs. They dispersed when he died, right?”

“That’s actually an excellent example,” she admitted warmly. “When he was around, they were an army, fighting to keep the cultures from destroying each other, specifically the vampires. That was before the Big Boss realized the cultures were dangerous.” She shrugged. “When Orcus was murdered, the orc gangs dispersed, but the orcs themselves remained. They weren’t gangs any more, they were an ethnicity.”

“And ethnicity gives people another reason to hate each other,” I finished.

Lily nodded. “The Culture Wars are hard to place. On the one hand, they’re gang wars, as there is nothing stopping people from switching cultures at a whim. But on the other hand, they’re race wars, since people consider their culture more natural than their own skins.”

“So, while Butler was stomping down the drug rings and smuggler groups, the vampires and the kemos and so on were getting established?”

“Exactly. Like a cancer. You can’t just burn it out without damaging the host.”

“Well, from what I’ve seen, its not too bad. I mean, two of my friends are a vampire and an angel, fighting side by side.”

She smiled sadly. “The ‘sarians are different, sweetie. They’re full of people who have given up their hatreds in hopes of attaining peace.” Her crimson eyes dimmed with sadness. “But while they’re huge for a gang, they’re not nearly enough to protect the entire city. The cultures outnumber them a dozen to one.”

“At least they’re making progress,” I mused. “Before the screamers showed up, anyway.” I grinned down at her. “You seem awfully knowledgeable about all this, for someone who claims to have skipped college.”

She rolled her eyes. “My sister rants about this whenever I give her half a chance. Besides, I hear rumors at my jobs. The point is, the people respect Necessarius, but the gangs just fear them.”

“Better to be feared than respected, right?”

“No,” she corrected. “It is better to be respected, it is easier to be feared. And it is vital not to be hated, which is the reason Necessarius is winning. Very few people truly hate them.”

“That’s something, I guess.” I paused for a minute, as I realized something, before barking out a laugh. “I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to spend the day arguing philosophy with you.”

“Well, we don’t have the whole day,” she sighed. “I have my job at the BOB’s down Nirvana street in about an hour.”

I strained my memory. “BOB is the one that makes the Olympian guns, right?”

“And other stuff. But yeah.”

I grinned. “Pick me up the Zeus while you’re there?”

She just rolled her eyes. “What is it with you and shotguns? I thought the Saint George was enough for you.”

“It’s supposed to be the best one out there,” I admitted. “But the Zeus has a better recoil.”

She just looked at me sideways. “You don’t actually expect me to buy you one of those, do you?”

I pulled her a little closer, despite the fact that it made my wounds ache. “Of course not. I’m just teasing.”

She cursed under her breath. “I’m never going to live down that time I offered to bring back clothes, am I?”

I chuckled. “Don’t be silly. Of course not.”

She probably would have said something witty in response, or perhaps just punched me in the gut—though maybe not, what with my wounds and all. But we were interrupted by a scream.

At first, I thought it was a screamer, but I quickly realized my mistake. This wasn’t a scream in the literal sense, but the tortured shriek of burning air, as an aircraft hurtled through the sky at speeds and trajectories it was not designed for. I had heard it pretty often a few years ago, when my dad became convinced he could make miniaturized rockets.

I looked up and saw something streaking across the sky, trailing smoke and fire, enough to trace its course back beyond the horizon. It was impossible to tell what it was, but it was too small to be a shuttle, and too large to be something natural.

I turned to Lily, frowning. “I thought today’s drop was done already?”

She nodded, still looking up. “And it’s way too close. It’s gonna—”

With a thunderous boom that nearly shook me to my feet, our worst fears were realized. The object had crashed less than a mile away, throwing up a huge cloud of debris that we could see from here. The dust cloud was already settling back to the Earth, but was fast being replaced by a large plume of smoke.

Whatever it was, it had missed its mark. Launching something from space—or the air, I suppose—and landing safely on solid ground was possible, but too difficult to do when there was a giant landing pad nearby. That pad, of course, being the ocean itself. The shooter or pilot or whatever had missed by nearly fifty miles. Considering how much smoke the thing had been giving off, it might have been clipped by anti-air fire. But who would be shooting at it? It had come from the west, which meant the mainland. Had they fired at it, or launched it in the first place?

“C’mon,” Lily cried, grabbing my hand. “It’s not far. Let’s see if we can help.”

I let her drag me along, towards the crash site. I was still focused on the cause.

Space drops happened every day, at noon sharp, as the space stations and colonies shot pods containing goods and materials at the city, or more specifically the ocean surrounding it. Domina’s space cannons (controlled by Necessarius) returned packages containing whatever the space habitats might need—such as food and water—half an hour later, at 12:30 exactly.

It was after two now. There was no reason for anything to be anywhere close to our airspace for another twenty-two hours.

It was just idle speculation at this point. We would know more once we looked at the object.

We reached the crash site quickly enough. The object had scored a long, deep furrow in the street, only ending where it had plowed into a building, which was now on fire, and the source of the smoke. Luckily, the structure was relatively small at five stories, and it looked like the occupants were having an easy time of escaping via the roof.

There was a crowd standing around the object, which I quickly identified as a small escape pod with the Chinese flag—scorched nearly beyond recognition—on the door. Nobody was getting too close. They were probably worried about the heat.

“We have to do something,” Lily hissed.

I looked at her sideways. “Why?”

She glared. “This could be a life or death situation, not just for the person still inside but for the entire city. Escape pods are designed to not land in the middle of cities.”

I cursed under my breath. “You’re saying it could explode?”

“Possibly.” She stopped at the edge of the mass of people, not wanting to elbow through the crowd, but I had no such compunctions.

If Lily was worried, I was worried. As I was elbowing my way through, I slowly realized that nearly half of them were two or three feet taller than me, and more than a few had strange skin colors, like blue, purple, red, and yellow.

Right. This was giant territory. I had forgotten. Well, that could be to my advantage.

Once I was on the other side of the ring of people—the same side as the pod—I immediately pointed out the biggest giant I could see, a massive Middle-Eastern man perhaps ten feet tall and with muscles to match. “You! Start organizing a team. I need at least two strong guys not afraid to get burned to get the door off. You—” I pointed at one of the trolls, one with purple skin. If memory served, they were the stealthy ones. That wouldn’t be helpful directly, but hopefully she could run fast. “Find the nearest Colossus, tell him what’s going on.” She ran off, pulling out her phone at the same time. Smart girl.

“Honored Paladin,” the first giant I had singled out said. “I have some strongarms.”

I started at first, before I remembered that ‘paladin’ was catching on as a general honorific for baselines. He didn’t know I was a Paladin.

The group he had collected consisted of one giant besides himself, and two red trolls with claws. I was pretty sure that meant they were warriors, but in this city it could just mean that they really liked canned food.

“Thank you, Honored Titan,” I replied. Best to be polite, even in an emergency. I looked over at the escape pod. It didn’t seem in danger of exploding, and by some miracle the hatch wasn’t buried under more than a little rubble, but we needed to be quick. “Okay gentlemen, there’s a Chinese astronaut in there that needs our help. Let’s start with the door.”

The big giant handed me a pair of leather gloves my size—well, not giant size, anyway—and I nodded my thanks. I stepped forward quickly, not pausing on the hot rocks of the crater, and tried to pull open the hatch while wearing the gloves. I could only pull for ten seconds or so before I had to let go, and it didn’t seem to move at all.

“There goes Plan A,” I grunted. “Plan B: Guys, see if you have any better luck.”

The trolls grunted and stepped forward. They were barefoot and shirtless, and as they got close to the pod I could hear their feet sizzling on some of the hotter concrete, but they didn’t seem to notice.

They didn’t bother just yanking the door. Instead, they used their claws to tear out the hinges, then pulled off the hatch itself with minimum effort. It was still fused into place from the heat, and every time they touched the metal it sounded like someone cooking bacon, but they managed to get it off.

I jumped inside quickly; none of them could fit anyway. It was a tiny, cramped space, with barely enough room for the one seat with the astronaut strapped in, still in one of those temporary maintenance space suits. It was uncomfortably warm, but not hot. I guess the insulation was working. The astronaut began to move slowly as I started cutting the crash webbing off him.

“Ni…shi shui?” he muttered groggily, his suit’s radio making it come out tinny.

I cursed under my breath. Of course he’d be speaking Chinese. We’d need a translator. It wasn’t exactly the most common language planetside…did Ling speak it? I didn’t think so; I vaguely recalled something about her being a third generation immigrant, not to mention an orphan.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” I said slowly, trying to look him in the eyes. His mirrored visor made that difficult, but hopefully I looked trustworthy. “Do not move.”

“I…I speak English,” he said, although with a pretty thick accent. He tried to move a little, but I placed a hand on his chest, and he stopped. “Who are you?”

“My name is Adam,” I said in a smooth voice. My mom always said people are the same as horses: If you speak calmly, they’ll be calmed in turn. “What’s your name?”

“Ru. Ru Yu.”

“Interesting.” I finished cutting the straps around his arms, and handed him another knife so he could help get his legs and torso free. “I know a Chinese girl with that last name. Is it common?”

He shrugged slightly. “A…little. I think.”

“Interesting. Why’d you get in the escape pod, Ru?”

“Uh…it was…” he touched his helmet. “I think I’m bleeding.”

“We’ll find you a doctor in a minute,” I promised, cutting through a few more of the straps holding his legs in place. There were a lot of them, and I didn’t see any sort of emergency switch to get rid of them all. Who designed this thing? “Just tell me what happened.”

“There…was a mutiny. Aboard Shaohao Station. Peng just went crazy, and locked himself in the control center. He started isolating sectors, refused to explain anything, and he destroyed the communication relay.”

“Shaohao…” I searched my memory. “That’s the big one in charge of making new shuttles, right?”

Ru wasn’t cutting anymore, which had me worried, but he nodded. “Among a few other space technologies.”

“Like toilets?”

He chuckled slightly. Good. “Yes, like toilets.”

“How did he take over like that? It’s a big station, surely there are failsafes.”

“That’s just it. He subverted the failsafes. He can’t kill anyone, but he can shut down production and keep the sale from going through.”

I paused in my cutting. “Sale? What sale?”

“Sale of the station. The USP is going to buy it.”

I frowned. “Wait, I thought everything in space was already owned by the United Space Program?”

He barked out a laugh. That was good, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. “No, not for…ten years now. Longer, probably. I’m not sure. Oh.” He moved his arms and legs and the last of the straps fell free. “That’s it.”

I pushed my concerns about space and politics to the back of my mind. “C’mon, let’s get you out of this thing.” I didn’t add that I was seriously worried it was going to explode. With what I had seen so far of its design principles, I wouldn’t be surprised.

I slung his arm around my shoulder so I could support him better, and pulled him out as quickly as I could. Part of it was the aforementioned risk of serious danger, but mostly it was because my wounds screamed every second he put weight on me. It felt like some of them had opened up again. Wonderful.

Before we even cleared the hatch, long arms reached in and pulled the astronaut gently from my grasp and placed him on a stretcher far too big for him. I had half expected him to freak out when he saw the giants, but there were no trolls nearby, so he probably just thought the size discrepancy was due to the blow to the head.

“Honored Paladin,” something rumbled nearby as the ambulance shut its doors and sped away. I turned to see the biggest giant I could imagine, almost twenty feet tall, looking down at me. I couldn’t even make out any details, since all I saw was the sun shining behind his silhouette.

I brushed my apprehension aside as quickly as I could. “Honored Titan, perhaps we should get away from the escape pod. I’m a little afraid it might be…volatile.”

“Hammer and spear,” the giant cursed under his breath. “David. Send a tech team in. Remove any fuel cells.” He turned back to me, although I could only tell because the shadow shifted. “Necessarius has already been informed of the situation. Thank you for your help, but we can take it from here.”

I frowned. From some of the stories Derek and Akane told, I had assumed this would go a little differently. There were more questions, for one. “Honored Titan, I—”

“Thank you for your help, Mister Anders,” the Colossus interrupted. “I’m sure Necessarius will debrief you later. Expect a call in a few minutes.”

I nodded. Of course. The ‘sarians wouldn’t know whether this was secret-level or not. They wouldn’t want any information to leak to out. I’m sure the moment they figured out who was heading the rescue (somebody probably gave MC mine and Lily’s descriptions), they had interceded with orders for the Colossus. He probably didn’t like that. Now would be a good time to go.

I looked around for Lily. I had left her at the edge of the crowd. Where was she?

I spotted her in the same place I had left her. Although the crowd had started to disperse, she hadn’t moved. She was standing quietly at the lip of the trail of destruction the pod had caused. She seemed to sense my gaze, and turned to lock eyes with me.

She smiled, proudly.

Today was a good day.

Behind the Scenes (scene 56)

No, the story isn’t going into space. The USP, Shaohao, and the colonies will definitely be relevant, but currently there are no plans to have any narrator go offworld. This is just a side story that will be explained later.

Once again, I’m a little worried about the number of sideplots I’m dropping here, but I think it will work, especially when read in sequence.

Advertisements

Scene 55 – Reddita

REDDITA

DEREK

I finished off the last dumpster dog quickly, jumping on its back, grabbing its neck, and twisting violently. It snapped with a crack, and the creature fell limply to the ground.

Ling stared in what might possibly have been awe. “Derek, that was…”

“Slow,” Akane interrupted. “You took too long. You’re still injured.”

I disentangled myself from the corpse, taking care not to trip over the other dead dogs in the process. “No, I was slow on purpose. Weren’t you the one who told me to take it easy?”

She sighed as she pulled her sword out of another hound. “You’re right. Sorry.”

I smiled, trying to set her at ease. “C’mon, let’s get them loaded up.”

We had borrowed my mom’s car for this, since there were a dozen of the dumpster dogs. We couldn’t lug those the two miles back to our employer, and requesting she come get them would have cost us money. Thankfully, my mom was generous. She had even put a tarp down in the trunk so blood didn’t get everywhere.

It was nearly noon (Akane had missed kendo, but that was no big deal) by the time we stopped outside a tall and thin ‘scraper, one of the places with the really small shops on each floor. This one was mostly informal restaurants, with the food prepared inside the actual building, but bought and served outside, where small tables with umbrellas were bolted to the sidewalk. It was around lunch time, so the courtyard was about half full.

It had taken us almost two hours to get here. Domina traffic was bad most of the time, and late morning was one of the worst. I was getting a little too used to the retinue’s van, with the colors of Necessarius painted on the side, cutting through the traffic.

Regardless of our tardiness, our employer met us outside the building, smiling.

“Good, good,” she said, nodding. She was an old ghoul with big claws and daygoggles hiding her eyes, but she was a kind woman. “My son will be very happy now. The beasts were hounding his customers.”

I smiled. “That’s funny, Miss Nervi.”

She cocked her head. “What is?”

Sometimes I forgot English was her second language. “Nevermind. Where do you want the bodies?”

She waved towards the door of the shop. “The freezer is fine. We’re just on the third floor. The boys will show you. Ragazzi!”

A couple of the nearby customers, ghouls with the same shape to their faces as Gloria Nervi, jumped up. I opened up the trunk, and they helped us wrap up the tarp and carry the bodies upstairs. The freezer was large and well-stocked, but we found a plastic box to put them in, so that the blood didn’t get everywhere. My mom would want the tarp back.

When we came back down, Nervi was on her cell. She hung up as we approached.

“I’ve sent the money,” she promised. “As we agreed, a hundred dollars each. Twelve hundred total.”

I glanced at Akane; she had her phone out, and was checking texts. After a moment, she flipped it closed and nodded.

I smiled at Gloria again. “Thank you, Miss Nervi. We were happy to help.”

She grinned. “You come by more often, you hear? You never come by for lunch any more.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “College. It’s…a busy time.”

I don’t like lying. It’s a filthy habit, and a slippery slope. Even simply not telling the truth was something I liked to avoid. But revealing our nature as the Paladins would cause problems. Not too many to deal with, I’m sure, but it was better to keep it quiet for as long as possible.

But she just nodded. “I know that, for certain. You sure you don’t want to stick around for some steaks?”

“Sorry,” I apologized honestly. “We have too much to do today. If traffic hadn’t been so bad…”

She waved her hand. “Bah. Traffic. Don’t talk to me about traffic. I drafted a proposal to replace all cars and streets with more light rails. Got a couple hundred signatures, too. But it was vetoed by Congress.”

Somebody from inside the restaurant called to her, asking for help with something.

“We shouldn’t keep you,” I said. “We’ll be going now. Call if you have another job for us.”

“I will,” she promised. “Take care.”

We left pretty quickly, but it still took another two hours to get back to the dorms. Of course, traffic got better pretty much the second we dropped off the car at my mom’s. At least she wasn’t home, so we didn’t get stuck in some conversational sandtrap.

The reason we were in such a hurry was waiting outside our rooms. Obould, with another box in his arms. He grinned when he saw up rounding the corner.

“Ah, Huntsman! I thought you weren’t going to make it.”

I waved my hand. “Remind me not to deal with cars ever again.” I opened the door to my room, and everyone piled inside. Obould plopped the box on the bed again, and opened it up quickly.

“Since both of my creations were such failures last time, I pulled out all the stops.” Akane’s armor hadn’t exploded like Ling’s did, but it turned out that it wasn’t anywhere near as flexible as it needed to be, and had slowed her down dramatically. She had quickly decided it wasn’t worth wearing and sent it back.

“Ling, let’s start with you.” The orc pulled out what at first glance just looked like a black wetsuit, but on closer inspection didn’t bend nearly enough.

“You didn’t ask me for help making it,” the blonde girl noted. “Did you find something that was shaped right?”

“Well,” he said slowly, frowning. “I think the slate will work, but we’ll have to see. I actually plated it in titanium, so hopefully it will be strong enough.” He held up the suit, and I could indeed see rectangular plates, sewn under the fabric, at all the vital areas. It pretty much looked the same as any other military tactical armor, except the plating was covered in fabric.

“It’s a one-piece?” Ling asked. “How do I put it on?”

He turned it around to reveal a long zipper at the back. “You should be able to do it yourself, but if not, I’m sure Akane can help you.” He put it down on the bed. “Derek and I will leave, let us know when we can come back.”

It only took about five minutes before we were called back in. I opened the door to find Ling looking very smug and covered head-to-toe in black. As she moved, I noticed that there were a few slits in the cloth at strategic locations, probably to help the armor breathe better.

“I like it,” she muttered, doing a few stretches. “Feels great.”

“How’s your range of movement?” the old armorer asked. “I had your measurements, of course, but there’s only so much I could do without you actually wearing it.”

“It’s not perfect,” she admitted. “But good. I’m not the agile one, anyway. I just need to be able to hit things hard.”

“Speaking of which,” I pointed out. “Did you test your power on it?”

She flinched a little. “No…not yet. I mean, I’m sure it will work. I can feel the plates, even under the metal. I’m just afraid something will go wrong again.” She shrugged. “Like maybe they’ll break if I push them too hard.”

“I’ll be ready to shield everyone if the suit explodes again,” I promised. “And you can always get new plates.”

She took a deep breath and nodded. “You’re right. Okay, give me a second.” She fell into horse stance, her legs bent, her breathing shallow. Akane and Obould dodged behind me. I’m sure they were both confident in his creation, but better safe than sorry, and one of those plates moving at high speed could actually kill someone. Which reminded me, we needed to look into some sort of stone bullet for Ling, if only as a last resort.

Bah. We were in a city, and she could control concrete. She’d be fine.

My thoughts were brought back to the issue at hand as slowly, ever so slowly, Ling’s arms began to move.

She moved them like in swimming class, bringing them into her chest, then out, then in again and out again. From our perspective, it just looked like she was moving her arms slowly, but I could see the strain on her face.

“Okay, perfect,” Obould said from behind me. “Now fall back and catch yourself, like last time.”

She nodded, and slowly leaned back on her heels. She fell back normally at first, but slowly lowered to an impossible angle, then back up, then back down.

I grinned. “Perfect. You’re doing great. How’s your reservoir?”

She brought herself to a normal angle and opened her eyes. “Pretty much empty. I can’t keep that kind of thing up for long.”

“Let’s take a look at Akane’s while you rest,” Obould suggested, scrambling past me for the box. “Now, I thought we could put some reactive armor weave in here, which should be able to enhance her movements even at super speed.”

Akane perked up at that. “Really?”

“Yes.” The old man paused briefly. “Well, that was the idea, but we’ve had some trouble finding anything that isn’t too bulky.”

Akane’s face fell.

“However,” he said quickly. “We did find a temporary substitute.” He pulled out what at first glance looked like another wetsuit, but I quickly realized was far too flexible to be made out of that kind of material. It was still black, though. I think Obould didn’t trust his eyesight enough to put colors in something. “It’s fitted to your size down to the millimeter. It should feel better than your own skin.”

She touched it gingerly. “Soft.”

He nodded. “It was sewn by a Minerva, using her own silk. It’s not bulletproof—there’s too much give for that—but it is cut and stab proof, and should be mostly fireproof as well.”

“We’ll leave,” I said, as she took the outfit from him.

She grinned devilishly. “No need.” She started taking off her top.

Obould quickly looked away. I started getting a migraine again, and sighed. But before I closed my eyes, right before she got her shirt off, Akane…blurred.

She was suddenly a rush of motion. It lasted barely a second, but when it was done, she was dressed in the Minerva weave, adjusting her sword around her waist.

I blinked. “You…”

She grinned again. “Been practicing in the mornings.” She shrugged. “Getting faster.”

“You should’ve seen her the first couple times,” Ling interjected, smiling a little. “She pretty much just ended up throwing her pajamas everywhere.”

My migraine came back again, and I pinched the bridge of my nose. “That’s…great.” I shook my head to clear out the mental cobwebs. “Anyway, how does it feel?”

Akane flexed her fingers a little. The material there was thinner and tighter than the rest of the suit, probably to make sure it didn’t get in the way of gripping things. The rest of the armor wasn’t quite skin-tight, but it was very well-fitted, with slack in just the right places to give her full range of movement.

“Perfect,” she practically purred. “Much better.” I blinked, and suddenly she was gone, only a slight breeze noting her departure.

“Wow, that’s something,” Obould muttered. It was hard to tell, but I don’t think he was being sarcastic.

I was a bit more impressed. I had thought I was the only one practicing my powers with any regularity. Sure, using them for mundane tasks might not be perfect, but it was something. I was glad she was finally taking this seriously. Before, she had been…hesitant to use her powers outside of combat.

She sped back in suddenly. This time, my eyes happened to be open, and I saw her speed in, albeit as little more than a blur of motion. So she still wasn’t fast enough to be effectively invisible. Well, perhaps I was setting the bar a bit too high.

“Perfect,” she said again, grinning. She blurred again, and it took me a second to realize she was going through a couple quick sword moves. She stopped, sheathing her sword, with a look on her face like…well, like a soldier given a new set of armor. Satisfied. “Perfect.”

Ling picked at Akane’s arm. “You’re right, it is soft. What’s mine made out of, anyway?”

“A high-quality variant of spandex, mostly,” the orc admitted. “It needed to be flexible and breathable. But there’s still a good amount of kevlar woven in there, especially around the plates. It will hold, I can guarantee that.”

She looked at her own arms in admiration. “It feels nice. Though I’m sure the silk is better.” She twisted, apparently trying to get a look at her own rear end. “How much is this going to cost?”

“Five thousand dollars each,” Obould replied.

Ling tripped and fell to the ground.

I raised an eyebrow. “You okay there?”

From the floor, she stared at me in shock, then at Obould and Akane. “Uh…I don’t have that much money. I’m in Domina on a soccer scholarship.”

I bit back a laugh. “Is that what you’re worried about?” I smiled and reached out a hand to help her up. She took it, and I pulled her to her feet. “Don’t even think about it. I’ll be handling the cost.”

She stared up at me again, though it was a bit more disconcerting when she was standing three inches away. “How much money do you guys make from monster slaying, anyway?”

I frowned, trying to think. “Well, that’s a bit tricky…”

“About five thousand dollars a week,” Akane said. “After expenses.” She shrugged. “Better, if it’s something unique that we can sell for a high price.”

“There have been more gargants recently,” I mused. “Which is great for business, but not a good sign.”

Obould snorted. “The Autumn courts are the most inventive of the fey, but not the most prolific. Which means we’ll be seeing fewer of the smaller monsters, and more of the unique ones—like gargants.” He shrugged. “Not much we can do, except kill them when we see them.”

Ling shook her head, as if to intentionally derail her train of thought. “This is depressing,” She grinned and pressed herself against me, which might have actually felt nice if she weren’t wearing armor. “There’s always at least one way to boost spirits.”

Before I could come up with a decent reply, Akane rushed forward at superspeed, ripped Ling away from me, and tackled her out into the hall. The little blonde delinquent yelped and tried to fight back, but Akane had much more experience. She stayed on top without any difficulty, pinning Ling to the floor.

Ling apparently realized she wouldn’t win by fighting fair. She suddenly rose into the air quickly, if a little wobbly, intent on dashing Akane against the ceiling.

Even without factoring in her power, Akane was fast, and backflipped off Ling’s chest before she was in any danger. Ling, in turn, flipped her feet back down, landing in what at first looked like a fighter’s crouch, but which I quickly realized was actually a goalie stance.

I closed the door just as they rushed towards each other.

Women. It seemed like all they did was screw with me. Seriously. I don’t understand why teasing someone is so much fun. It gave me a headache just thinking about it.

“Well,” Obould said slowly. “At least they’re putting the armor through the wringer.” He paused, thinking. “And their powers, too.”

I nodded. “That’s true. Akane’s been getting more comfortable using her speed, and hopefully this will do the same for Ling.” I shook my head. “I’m not quite sure why Akane was so hesitant, though. Usually she’s good about practicing.”

“Oh, that,” the orc chuckled. “She said something to my wife about it. She was afraid using it would age her faster.”

I blinked. “And…what’d your wife say?”

He shrugged. “That there was no way of knowing if it was true, but she needed to practice regardless. Could save her life.”

I turned to the door, beyond which I could still hear the two fighting—hopefully without bringing the entire ‘scraper down.

She was worried about aging? How was that even…what did that have to do with the fight? Maybe it was true, but what did it matter? We lived dangerous lives, in a dangerous city. We were almost certainly going to die long before old age caught up with us. What was the point in worrying about such miniscule time differences?

“Huntsman?” Obould asked. “You worried about the girls?”

I snapped out of my fugue. “No, they’ll be fine. I’m sure they won’t do anything unexplainable in sight of anyone, or destroy anything valuable.” I gestured to the box he had brought the armor in, which also contained a small pad for calculations and transferring money. “Let’s work out exactly how much I owe you.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 55)

Ling’s armor sprung from two related questions I asked myself. 1: What reason is there for her not to be wearing armor? Sure, she’s flexible and stuff, but her power has little to do with that. 2: Remember that cool scene near the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender where Toph metalbended a set of armor for herself? And here we are.

Oh, and Akane’s speed does not age her any faster, even though it really should. None of the powers have any side effects. Sure, a pyrokineticist will still burn himself if he’s not careful, but using the power itself isn’t going to give him a tumor or something.

Scene 54 – Occulta

OCCULTA

TURGAY

My name is Turgay Corvi. I am eighteen years old and an ave anthro—an eagle, to be exact. It was only about a week ago that I got my feathers. It was an expensive and mostly useless procedure, but it was the last in the long list of toys that made me a full anthro. Hollow bones, improved eyes, talons, beak…any one would have been expensive for me, but Soaring Eagle paid for them all.

It was my reward for stealing the toy box from Necessarius.

It was Friday morning, and it was a bit cold in the back of the shipping truck where we were keeping the device. The most recent screamer attack was yesterday morning, and it had the ‘sarians scrambling to patch giant holes in their defense. Apparently they lost a full company or more, and so they needed every man they could get on duty.

That meant they weren’t paying attention to a couple of aves trying to smuggle the hottest item in the city.

I didn’t have anything against Necessarius, and neither did Soaring Eagle. They were just in the way, that was all. She had given us all direct orders to not kill anyone unless absolutely unavoidable, which I was grateful for. I had never killed anything sentient, and didn’t feel like starting now. Besides, the ‘sarians could forgive grand theft. Murder made them vengeful.

I hadn’t been involved in stealing the toy box back from the Guruhi a couple nights ago. That had been left to a different group, who were not under orders to minimize casualties. It might sound harsh, but the Niktuku had done worse than leave a few bodies around when they stole it from us, and the Guruhi did the same to them.

“We need to make sure it doesn’t get nabbed again,” Pigeon said next to me. I had no idea why he was called that—he was a crow anthro—but I didn’t ask.

I rolled my eyes. “If I had been in charge of security from the start, this wouldn’t have happened. Skies above, what idiot thought it would be a good idea to drive through Nosferatu territory anyway?”

Once the box was on the truck last Monday, I had gone separately, with most of the grab team. We just weren’t built for the physical task of securing it from hostiles. Clearly, at least one of us should have gone with them regardless as an adviser, but the guards were arrogant bastards, and no one wanted to deal with them.

Of course, now that they were dead, we all missed them, but that’s normal. Just because they were jackasses doesn’t mean they deserved to be tortured and killed.

Pigeon shrugged. “Dunno, Guy. But I’ve looked at the maps, and the choices were Nosferatu or Necessarius territory. Guess they thought they chose the lesser of two evils.”

I sighed. The ferrets were significantly less organized than Butler’s men. There would have been a good chance the truck could have gotten through their domain without being noticed. Just bad luck.

I felt the truck roll to a stop, and someone pounded on the side. That was the signal. Pig and I grabbed opposite sides of the box and started rolling it towards the doors at the back. The device itself didn’t have wheels, but we had it in a crate on a roller pallet.

One of the fledglings, who didn’t have any noticeable ave toys yet, opened the doors as we reached them, and helped us bring it off the truck. It was only a hundred and fifty pounds, but that’s a lot to aves. We’re built for speed, not strength. It would have been easier if our truck had an elevator pad, but nooo…

We got it down without too much trouble, and I looked around. We were inside a small warehouse, maybe ten stories tall, that was almost entirely empty. Our drivers had found more than enough room to bring the truck in completely and close the big entrance gate, so we could unload our stolen goods in private.

“Open it up,” a woman said, stepping out from behind one of the few crates in the warehouse. “I want to see it.”

The woman was one of Soaring Eagle’s most trusted lieutenants, Delia. She was a hawk anthro, with dark brown feathers, a sharp black beak, and keen eyes. She was wearing a tight short-sleeved shirt and jeans, but didn’t seem bothered by the cold. She just stared at the crate we had pulled out of the truck, fixated.

I opened it up quickly; I didn’t need a crowbar, my talons were strong enough to pry off the top. The inside was filled with golden straw, and some of the lighter pieces stirred into the air as I lifted the lid. Pig and the fledgling finished pulling it off and putting it to the side, while I brushed aside the packing to expose a pallet of shotgun shells, carefully packed away in their individual boxes.

Delia narrowed her eyes. “What is this?”

“Patience, Honored Hunter,” I advised. “This is just the smokescreen.”

The three of us—the Alpha didn’t help at all—unpacked the shells carefully. Under the second layer of them there was a plywood false bottom, which I removed. Underneath…was the toy box.

It didn’t look like much. If anything, it looked like a mirrored metal coffin, though with air vents on the sides. There was a small keyboard for controlling it, but that was hidden under a recessed panel for the moment.

Delia, however, was entranced. She brushed the reflective surface lightly with her talons, but flinched back as if worried she would hurt it, though she shouldn’t. The thing was covered completely in that amorphous metal stuff. She wouldn’t be able to dent it with a sledgehammer.

She licked the edge of her beak. “It…works? You tested it?”

I shook my head. “No, unfortunately. That was the plan, but then the ferrets intervened. We figured taking it straight here would be the best option.” We were still under orders to maintain strict radio silence. The ‘sarians would be tearing the city apart looking for this thing, and advertising ourselves was a horrible idea.

The Alpha nodded. “Good. It’s good that you don’t know. The less people that know the details, the better.”

I frowned. There’s a trick to doing it with a beak that I can’t really describe, but rest assured I managed it. “Honored Hunter, if there’s been some change of plans that we need to be aware of…”

She waved her talons, dismissing my worries. “No, no, of course not. But if you’re tortured, it’s best if you don’t know where this is going. That way, you can’t sell us out.”

I sighed. What did that have to do with knowing whether the thing even worked? But I nodded as if I understood. “Where do you want this, then?”

The hawk paused. “I’m not sure. One moment.” She turned and called to someone I couldn’t see. “Kioman! Where’s your car?”

“Look, we can just leave the toy box with you,” I pointed out. “Pigeon and I—”

I stopped as I saw my friend.

It couldn’t be. It just wasn’t possible.

No one could be that stupid.

He was on the phone.

And the caller ID clearly said ‘MC.’

I grabbed his cell and threw it as hard as I could away from us. “You idiot!” I hissed, grabbing his shirt and pulling him close. “What is wrong with you?!”

“I was just checking my messages,” he insisted, as he tried to peel my talons out of their death grip. “Screw off. MC said I won a prize.”

I blinked. “You won a…” Realization dawned, and I wheeled back to a clearly confused Delia. “They know! They’re coming!”

Then the doors exploded.

I don’t know what they were using, but the shrapnel from the door hit Pig in the side and the fledgling full in the face. They both went down, but at least Pigeon would be getting up again. Seconds after the explosion, Necessarian troops began piling into the warehouse, guns blazing.

Delia cursed. “To arms, warhawks!” A dozen more hawks, all armed with machine guns, appeared from hiding and started returning fire.

I wasn’t getting paid enough to fight, and I was unarmed anyway. I worked at a gun store, how was I unarmed? Regardless, I just hunkered down as best I could and tried to drag Pigeon out of danger. Unfortunately, this seemed to attract the Alpha’s attention.

“Eagle!” she cried angrily. At least she had the sense not to use my name. “Take the toy box and run!”

I stared at her. “What?” That would never work. The only sensible option right now was to return the device and beg for the Big Boss’s mercy.

“Now!” she ordered, emptying an oversized pistol at the enemy.

I cursed. I had no doubt that if I tried to surrender or even simply ignore her orders, she’d turn that gun on me without hesitation. I had no choice. I threw Pigeon on top of the toy box, tossed my own phone away, and started moving.

Luckily, the device was still in the crate and on the roller pallet, so I just had to get behind it and push. Some bullets streaked past me, but they all missed. The ‘sarians were probably afraid of hitting the toy box. Apparently someone had forgotten to brief them on its durability.

The warehouse was small, but it was pretty much empty, so there was a lot of open space to run through. The warhawks covered me as best they could, but I wasn’t worried about the Necessarians inside, so much as the ones who would be waiting for me outside.

On second thought, as long as they didn’t shoot on sight, I should be okay. I could surrender, figure out where they were taking the device, and find a way to relay that information back to Soaring Eagle. It wasn’t perfect, but it would work.

I pushed on with renewed vigor. It took me a minute to find the exit; it turned out it was behind one of the only shipping crates in the place. I ignored the landing bay, going for the smaller double doors next to the giant gate. I pushed the doors open with the crate, held my hands up in surrender, and…

Nothing happened.

I blinked.

No one was here.

Well, this was arach territory, after all. The spider kemos were a small subculture, but they liked their ambushes, and Necessarius would have to be careful about sending troops into the area. I guess I had just gotten out before their men came around.

I realized that meant I had little choice. Soaring Eagle had managed to score alliances with both the Lolths and the Minervas. Great for her and all, but it meant that if they saw me captured by the ‘sarians, they’d just kill everyone and grab the toy box. Not to mention that Butler’s troops would know that, and would shoot on sight to keep their jobs easier.

“What’s going on?” Pigeon muttered from inside the crate. He tried to sit up, but stopped when he saw his torso. “Guy, why am I bleeding?”

“Because you’re an idiot, Pig,” I spat out. “Now shut up and lay down.” Finally making a decision, I began to roll the cart north. We were in South Middle now, but my warehouse and boltholes were at the edge of South Central, not too far away.

Even just getting out of arach territory would be helpful. They bordered a giant clan in that direction, but the Colossi generally stayed out of this kind of thing. It was as close to a safe run I would get. It would be best if I could steal a truck, but I wasn’t holding out hope on that. Besides, my skill at hotwiring was below average.

I quickly pulled into a dark alley filled with dumpsters. The smell was horrific, and worse yet, told me that these were restaurants. I didn’t need food.

But where there was rotting food, there were ghouls. I saw one nestled against a dumpster, glaring at me with one eye. He was mostly baseline except for the nighteyes, and wrapped in a big wool blanket that covered his ragged clothing. It was still pretty cold.

I licked my beak. He wouldn’t part with the blanket easily, and even if I was willing to, I just didn’t have the skill to take it from him by force. Instead, I went the other route. I took out my wallet.

He came fully awake as I pulled out all my cash. Not really all that much, but five twenties is still a lot to a homeless ghoul. I nodded and offered it. “Hundred bucks for the blanket.” I licked my beak again. “And to tell the ‘sarians I went down Hades street instead.”

He hesitated for a moment, then shrugged off the blanket. He exchanged it for the money quickly, fast enough that I think he could have just stolen the cash from me if he wanted.

I understood what his speed was supposed to imply. He could have robbed me blind. But he didn’t. I nodded my thanks, wrapped the cloak around myself to hide my ave toys, and pushed the crate carrying my bleeding friend and the most valuable item in Domina down the alley.

Behind me, the ghoul started whistling as he walked away, presumably to find a store to spend his money.

Behind the Scenes (scene 54)

I have a feeling I might be dumping too many plot threads at once with this, but the toy box kinda has to happen right now.

Oh, and about the amorphous metal stuff. This is a very real thing, in development right now. The name refers to its atomic structure, not its material state; it’s still perfectly solid. Long story short, it’s basically indestructible, and holds an edge very well. We’re still at the stage of “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we made surgical tools out of this stuff?” Domina, however, is a little farther down the line, though not by much. It’s still very expensive, but they have surgical tools made out of amorphous metal, and are experimenting with other applications. Armoring the toy box with it was ridiculously expensive, but worth the cost. Note that this is the original toy box that Necessarius bought from the fey: The copies are built out of cheaper materials.

Scene 53 – Praesidio

PRAESIDIO

MARIA

TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS AGO

My name is Maria Pittaluga, daughter of Natale Pittaluga and Lelia Idoni. Both of my parents died ten years back, when I was starting middle school. I hadn’t been too keen on the idea of school in the first place, and even less on a foster home, so I left. Through a series of hilarious misadventures which were not my fault, I ended up helping to build Domina City.

That was three years ago, and I hadn’t found reason to leave the island since. Victor—the cause of many of the aforementioned hilarious misadventure—and I had gotten a nice apartment in a skyscraper we had helped build, and things seemed to be going pretty well. Technically our terms had expired six months ago, but it was easier like this. We weren’t rich or anything, sure, but we were surviving, and the city was getting better by the day.

“I swear, the city is getting worse by the day,” Gloria Nervi muttered from her seat on the ground next to me.

I had met Gloria on my third day in the city, when one of the guards tried to get me to translate for her. It turned out she wasn’t speaking Italian because she couldn’t speak English, but just because she thought the guard was a dick and didn’t want to deal with him. She still hadn’t told me what her original crime was, but it couldn’t be too bad. None of the prisoners had sentences worse than ten years.

I patted the girl on the head affectionately. “C’mon Glory, it isn’t that bad. At least the guards aren’t screaming at us as much any more, right?”

“Yeah, because they’re dead or in hiding,” she snapped back with a scowl. “Christ, much as I hate those assholes, they’re all that’s keeping the city in one piece. You should be more worried.”

“Bah. Details.”

“Agh, you’re hopeless. It’s too nice a day to argue with you.”

I’d give her that, at least. It was September 8th, in the depths of a good autumn. The air was refreshingly cool, and filled with the smell of fall. Foot traffic was a little slow because it was a Sunday, which made our jobs that much easier.

“I guess you’re right,” I admitted, leaning back on my hands to look up in the sky.

The slender little girl just rolled her eyes and pulled some kind of sandwich out of her lunch pail.

I whistled. “That smells good. What kind of meat is it?”

She looked away, as though embarrassed. “It’s…dog. One of the feral ones attacked me, and I fought back.”

Seriously, this city was even turning her into a killer? “Silver moon and golden sun, Glory…”

She glared at me. “Oh, screw you. I did what I had to. At least I’m not eating goddamn people.” She shook her head and changed the subject. “And what is with that weird curse…thing? What does it mean?”

I shrugged. “It means that the moon is silver and the sun is gold. Does it have to have anything deeper than that?”

She shook her head again. “Freak.”

“Don’t be cruel, Nervi,” old miss Ljunborg admonished gently from behind us. I turned to see her leaning against the door of the apartment complex we were sitting in front of. “I think their little quirk makes them cute.”

“I didn’t know you lived here,” I greeted her happily. The old Swede had been sentenced over a few minor embezzlement charges, but everyone knew she had entire mountains of money her government hadn’t been able to find. In Domina, she helped train people to handle finance—people including me.

Of course, I had a tendency to fall asleep during her classes, but I still liked her as a person. It wasn’t her fault her teachings clashed so much with my skillset.

She smiled. “Just moved in a few days ago. Got transferred a little closer to the center of the city, so I realized I needed an apartment to match. What are you two doing?”

“Lunch right now,” Gloria said around a mouthful of sandwich. “Obviously. But we’re also helping to build that big storehouse over there.” She pointed at the skeleton of a building, rising on the other side of the intersection. “Mostly just organization and stuff while the boys move heavy things.”

Just organization and stuff?” Ljunborg said with a laugh. “That’s management, dears. Most girls would kill for a job like that.”

I shrugged. “It’s small stuff. Directing traffic, double-checking to make sure we don’t have one team digging ditches and another filling holes, that kind of thing. No actual decisions.”

“Oh. Well, still. In my day, it was considered improper for women to be too close to physical labor. Count your blessings.”

Gloria snorted in derision. “They still won’t let me on guard duty.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s what happens when you threaten to shoot them if you ever get your hands on a gun.”

“Hey, I was joking! Mostly.”

“Well, you’re the one always going on about tensions between the guards and the prisoners. You shouldn’t rile them up.”

“They started it.”

Ljunborg kicked Gloria playfully in the side with a smile. “Someone always starts it. Just don’t continue it.”

“Words to live by if I ever heard them,” an unfamiliar male voice called out.

I turned to see a tall, smiling Asian man a few feet away, his black hair tied up in a topknot. He wore a loose white t-shirt, jeans cut off to act as shorts, and steel-toed boots. His entire outfit was covered in dust and patches of grime, so he looked much the same as any other unskilled laborer running around the city.

Except for the long Japanese-style sword belted to his side.

“You have a sword!” I shrieked in delight, only refraining from bounding forward with an effort of will. “Where can I get a sword?”

Gloria looked at him with narrowed eyes. “It’s supposed to be impossible for prisoners to get weapons. Who’d you kill to get that?”

The man just smiled. “No one. I brought it myself. I’m not a prisoner.”

That made me do a double take. “Wait, you mean…you moved here? Voluntarily?”

He nodded. “With my wife and daughter.”

Ljunborg shook her head. “Why in God’s name would you do that?”

“I don’t know, there wasn’t any work on the mainland, and they had positions available for pretty much anything, so…”

“That seems pretty stupid,” Gloria muttered. She had never been one for subtlety. “Your life back in Japan couldn’t have been that bad.”

“America, actually. Second-generation immigrant.” The swordsman shrugged. “And I’ll admit it wasn’t so bad, not really. But I just…” He looked behind him, at the skeletons of the new skyscrapers, stretching into the blue summer sky. “It just felt like I was needed more here.”

“Oh! I understand that!” I cried. “The same thing happened with me and Victor!”

The man cocked his head to the side. “You’re here voluntarily too?”

I couldn’t help it; I giggled. He was adorable. “No, no. It’s just that we both got this strange urge to drive a truck around.” I shrugged. “And then it turned out that it was filled with a shipment to some store, so we got sentenced to five years in prison.”

Gloria rolled her eyes and sighed. “God, you’re a freak. I don’t think that is quite what the man meant.”

The Japanese man waved his hands. “N-no! That’s the same! Uh…” He winced. “…kinda, anyway.”

“Close enough,” I chirped. “Uh, you…” I frowned. “Hm. I don’t know your name.”

He relaxed. “You’re right. Sorry, I came up to you out of the blue, I should have at least introduced myself.” He held out his hand and smiled warmly. “I am Akio.”

I took his hand; he had a firm grip. “Maria. That’s Glory—”

Gloria.”

“—and that’s Miss Ljunborg. Glory and I are just on lunch.”

“Oh, so you have jobs already? That’s perfect! Would you mind pointing me to your boss? If he’s hiring, I mean.”

Ljunborg looked at him sideways. “You don’t have a job? Jesus, how long have you been here, a week?”

Akio chuckled. “No, over two years. It’s just…” His good humor faded. “I was working as a dock guard up north. But a few days ago, it got burned down by one of the gangs. Christ, I don’t even know which one…”

Gloria leaned back and sighed. “God damn, I know what you mean. Seems like a new one pops up every week.”

Old miss Ljunborg looked past us. “Speak of the devil…”

“…and he shall appear,” the well-dressed white man walking up said with a grin. “Though I think you might be overstating my importance in the grand scheme of things just a bit.”

The Swedish woman sighed. “What do you want, Mr. Judd? It’s Sunday. Day for rest.”

The man spread his arms mockingly, which also served to help highlight the two suited goons flanking him. I could see bulges under their shirts that were probably handguns. “Now why do you insist on speaking to me like that, Miss Ljunborg? My boys and I are working hard, even today. Is it so much to ask you show some appreciation?”

She just scowled back. “Considering you’re the reason I left my old neighborhood, yes, it is too much. Did you assholes follow me?”

Judd covered his heart and faked staggering back. “You wound me, my dear. The boss simply decided it was a good time for the family to…” He grinned. “…expand.”

“I already gave Butler’s goons their ‘protection’ money,” the Swede spat. “I’ve nothing left.”

Artemis was running a protection racket now? Victor and I had met him and Isaac on the boat over. It really didn’t seem like something he would do…

What was I saying? A low-risk operation with a relatively high payout. That sounded exactly like Artemis.

Akio, I noted, was inching closer to Miss Ljunborg, hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to protect her if things got violent. I tugged at Gloria’s collar, pulling her out of the line of fire.

The gangster shook his head sadly. “That was a mistake, Priscilla. Necessarius is, as you noted, just a bunch of thugs. You should give your money to us. After all, you have this nice shiny new place…be a shame if something happened.”

“I already told you. I have nothing left to give. If I have to pay both of you, I don’t get to eat this month.”

“And if we let you slide on your payments, we’d have to let everyone slide. Where would we be then, huh?” Judd shook his head again. “We’re not running a charity here, you know.”

“Yes, I am well aware of that. But I still can’t—”

“Well, if you insist on being that way, my boys might feel the need to…provide an example of what could happen when you don’t pay.” The thugs started cracking their knuckled dangerously.

Akio drew his sword. Gloria glared at him and motioned for him to put it away, but it was too late. The thugs had their guns out before I could even blink.

Judd smiled broadly. “You might want to put that away, boy, before you hurt yourself.”

Silver moon and golden sun Ljunborg, why couldn’t you just pay the man? Victor and I could have always stolen back anything they took from you.

For the moment, we seemed to have a standoff. Akio still hadn’t sheathed his sword, and the goons were wary enough not to just start shooting. But that wouldn’t last long, and a swordsman wouldn’t be able to take out two armed thugs by himself.

“What is going on over here?” a voice called.

“Oh, come on,” Gloria hissed. “What now?”

Necessarius, that was what.

A single pale young man, unarmed and with the Necessarian black and red band on his arm, strode up without fear. He was a stark contrast to Judd; where the first man was dressed in a fine suit, Artemis’ man just had on jeans and a white t-shirt. “Is there a problem?”

Judd narrowed his eyes, dropping his friendly mask. “Nothing that concerns the ‘sarians. Run back to your crippled master, little dog.”

The newcomer ignored the jibe. “Funny, because it looks like you’re harassing…” He checked a small notepad. “…Priscilla Ljunborg. Our records show that she is all paid up on her protection money.”

Mr. Judd didn’t seem impressed. “So?”

The Necessarian smiled. “So that means she’s under the protection of Necessarius, Gabriel. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

No one spoke for a minute.

Then another.

The silence stretched on for what seemed like forever.

Then Ljunborg broke it. “Huh?”

The new man’s brow crinkled into a frown. “You are Priscilla Ljundborg, are you not? From Sweden, imprisoned for embezzlement? You gave a thousand dollars last month to our collector.” He checked his pad again. “Physical description matches, as does the address and everything else. Have we made a mistake?”

The old Swede was almost at a loss for words, but that still put her ahead of the rest of us. “Uh, no, that’s right, but…”

Judd stomped forward and shoved the young man in the shoulder. “This is our territory now, kid. You should be paying us.”

The ‘sarian raised an eyebrow. “So I assume you will continue to accost Miss Ljundborg?”

“I’ll accost whoever I damn well please!”

Artemis’ man sighed. “I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but our protocols are quite clear on the proper response in this situation.”

Gabriel Judd’s head exploded, and the thunderclap of a gunshot echoed around the street.

I screeched and jumped back, but Gloria and Priscilla held their ground, only wincing a little as they were splattered with blood and gore. The few bystanders screamed and ran in every direction, but mostly away from us.

The thugs were far better trained than I was, and whipped out their guns without a moment’s hesitation.

Another head exploded. The thug on the left collapsed to the street, next to the similarly headless corpse of his boss, while the last mook looked on in horror. It took him a minute to realize that he wasn’t dead.

“I-I’m…” he stuttered. “I-I’m…”

“A messenger,” the Necessarian explained patiently. He still didn’t have any weapons drawn, and I finally realized that he must have snipers posted somewhere or other. Artemis did like to be prepared. “Go back to your boss. Remind him who is in charge over here.”

The thug took a step back, tripping over the corpses of his friends and falling to his butt. He whimpered and scrambled to his feet, running as fast as his legs would carry him. He even dropped his gun in his mad flight.

“Well,” our rescuer said quietly, mostly to himself. “I’d say that went surprisingly well.” He turned to us and smiled. “How are you all doing?”

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the corpses, lying like discarded dolls not five feet away. They had been people, not five minutes ago…

“We’re fine,” Miss Ljunborg said with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “And how about yourself, Mister…?”

“Sinclair,” the ‘sarian replied with a smile, holding out his hand to shake. “Sergeant Irvin Sinclair, at your service.”

I ran off to the street and puked in a gutter.

I heard Akio talking behind me. “Is she going to be okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” Gloria replied. “Maria just isn’t used to death. She’s here because she did something stupid, not something violent.”

The ‘sarian made a clicking sound of disapproval. “Be that as it may, at the rate she’s emptying her stomach, I doubt she’ll be able to stand for long. Billy!”

As I heaved up the last of my lunch—dammit, that was a good lunch—I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Are you going to be okay?”

I looked up to see a kind-eyed boy about my age smiling at me. He had the Necessarius red and black band on his arm, but he didn’t seem to have any weapons.

“Y-yeah,” I managed weakly. “I just need a minute…”

“Go home,” Gloria insisted. “You know you’ll be useless the rest of the day. I’ll tell the foreman.”

I nodded and struggled to my feet, the new ‘sarian—Billy, I assumed—helping me stumble along.

“Necessarius, right?” I heard Akio say as we shuddered past. “I’ve heard of you, and I think I’d like to hear more. Anyone I can talk to?”

“There’s my captain, back closer to base. You know, we own a few apartment buildings nearby, and new recruits get free lodging as part of the contract, if you and your sword are interested.”

“Karasu.”

“Pardon?”

“My sword. It’s called Karasu.”

“You named your sword Crow?”

“Actually, I prefer to translate it as ‘Raven,’ but I suppose ‘Crow’ is more accurate.”

Once we were out of hearing range and I felt some strength returning to my legs, I turned my attention back to Billy. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” I asked, only realizing belatedly that I sounded snarky and insulting.

But he understood, and just smiled. “No, I’m just a messenger. Thankfully, I’m not on cleanup duty for this kind of thing. My stomach is about as strong as yours.”

I coughed. “Yeah, I understand…and my place isn’t too far, anyway, so I guess I’m not taking you too far out of your way…”

“It’s fine, either way. No trouble.”

It only took ten minutes or so to reach my apartment. Victor and I had gotten lucky, getting a place so close to our jobs. As I unlocked the door, I blinked, realizing what was bothering me.

“Oh! I still haven’t introduced myself!” I held out my hand to shake. “I’m Maria Pittaluga. Nice to meet you.”

He grinned, and grasped my hand firmly. “William Huntsman. The pleasure is all mine.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 53)

Our first flashback chapter! I’m still not quite sure this is the right place for this, but I think it works. More will come later, including a scene showing exactly why many people don’t quite trust Necessarius.