Monthly Archives: October 2012

Scene 66 – Cutis

CUTIS

DEREK

I woke up when the screaming started.

It took me a minute to shake the sleep from my head, longer than usual. The interference from Butler’s captured zombies made it hard to identify new ones, but I could hear them coming from the North, probably past NHQ. I glanced at the clock; it was six in the morning. Not that bad at all.

I shook Adam awake quickly, and he immediately started getting ready. It was lucky he was even here. He had been going out with Lily most nights, doing who knows what. I don’t think she had an apartment, so it wasn’t that, but it still meant he only slept in our room about half the time.

We were ready in a few minutes, and when I opened the door Akane was waiting in her Minerva silk, looking frazzled. Ling, however was nowhere to be found.

“Where’s—”

Akane shook her head. “Don’t know, don’t care, let’s go.” She headed for the elevators before I could say anything else.

I shrugged at Adam a little weakly. “She’s never been a morning person.”

We went downstairs, collected Laura and the retinue, and headed north. Like last time, the van was mostly quiet. It was strange how empty it felt without one little fel who didn’t even speak.

“We’re going to have some help on this one,” Kelly said after a few minutes of driving. I noticed that she was scratching her fixer a little. “The General’s hellions and the Hammer’s Aesir will provide support.”

I was surprised. The two were hardly enemies, but they had never worked together either. “That’s wonderful news. How’d they manage it?”

“The Big Boss managed to convince pretty much everyone last night that an alliance was the only hope for survival. This is a test run.”

Adam frowned a little. “Okay, now…the Aesir are giants, right?”

“The first giants, actually,” George rumbled. “Though there is a little bit of argument on that.”

“Right. But I don’t think I’ve heard of the hellions.”

I chuckled. “Even I know that. They’re one of the first demon subcultures.” When he stared blankly at me, I elaborated. “They’re demon soldiers. Sargeras is in charge of…Laura, which Legion is he in charge of?”

The Legion,” she replied, without looking up from her phone. She seemed to be studying a map. “Also known as the Army. Their emblem is a red wasp.”

“Oh, right,” I muttered. “I forgot how unimaginative the General is.”

“And the Aesir?” Adam asked.

She just shrugged. “The standard mythological symbol. The threefold triangle, I think it’s called.”

“We’re here,” Jarasax said as he pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript ‘scraper. “Time to meet the neighbors. Watch your step, it’s a little bit icy.”

We piled out into a small square already crowded with armed men. On the left there was a Legion of demons, well-equipped with the latest anti-personnel weapons and with red wasps stitched on their shoulders. On the right was a clan of giants, carrying oversized guns and emblazoned with the threefold triangle Laura had mentioned.

A hellion and an Aesir were arguing in the empty space between the two camps, next to a fountain. That was the most important place to be at the moment; I walked up, with Laura following. Everyone else stayed behind, probably to check their weapons and such.

“We can’t send them in now,” the hellion was saying as I strode up. “We don’t even know what the screamers’ power is. We need more intel.”

The Aesir—a Thor, if the hammer sigil on his shoulder was any indication—waved a massive hand airily. “We don’t need them at all. Either send them in now and let them die, or force them to stay back. We don’t need to change our strategy to match a bunch of crazy vampires.”

“What seems to be the problem here?” I asked.

Both leaders turned to look at me, apparently surprised I was here. It was the hellion who spoke. “You’re the Paladins, I take it?”

I nodded. “I’ll be personally leading a small strike force. This is Laura. She’s strategy.”

The demon frowned. “Well, I’m not sure we need help…”

“You’re arguing,” I pointed out. “That means you need help.”

He shrugged. “Fair enough.” He scratched near his large horns. “The problem is that a couple Canians have shown up, and we don’t know quite what to do with them.”

Laura grimaced. “Who’s leading them?”

The giant barked out a laugh. “Leading? Leading Canians? If that’s your question, I’m not sure you should be in charge of strategy, little girl.”

She glared daggers at him, enough to make him swallow visibly.

“There’s always a leader, Honored Titan,” she said calmly. “Even if it’s just the one who happens to be in front. Where is the one who speaks for them?”

The giant pointed without saying a word.

“Thank you,” she replied scathingly, and walked off in the direction he indicated—farther down the no-man’s-land between the two armies. I nodded at the men and quickly followed her.

The Canians was closer to the screamers than the demons and giants, but still far enough away so that we couldn’t see the zombies. They seemed to be mostly confined to a street about ninety degrees to the staging area, blocked in by a barricade of cars. That’s also about when I noticed that the streets were relatively undamaged. Even the intermittent patches of frost were undisturbed. Did that mean their power was something non-destructive, or had they just not come this way yet?

Not important at the moment. The Canian leader was talking to someone, surrounded by perhaps two dozen of his men. The second man was clearly not a Canian; he didn’t have daygoggles or a flamethrower, for one thing. He seemed mostly baseline, of some South American ethnicity I couldn’t identify. He was arguing with the Canian pretty vehemently, but the pyro didn’t seem all that concerned. As we got closer, the crowd parted to allow us through, and I got a good look at the speakers.

I blinked. “Flynn?

He started. “Derek? Oh, of course you’d be here…”

“Yeah, but what about you? You’re not a Canian.”

The swordsman just shrugged. “My roommate is.” He indicated the pyrovamp he had been arguing with. “This is Guland.”

“Pleased to meet you, Honored Nightstalker,” I said diplomatically. “Are you the one who led these Canians here?”

He grinned around his cigar—a safe cig, if the smell was any indication—and nodded. “Meph didn’t want to come down himself. The Nessians are getting violent again. So I called up a couple of my kithmates, and they called a few more, and…” he grinned a little wider. “Here we are.”

Laura didn’t seem to care. “You need to stay back and wait for orders. You’re upsetting the plan.”

Guland’s fuel pack started to shriek as gas began to leak out. He reached back and adjusted a valve, quieting it, without even looking. “It’s not our job to take part in any plans, Mrs. Paladin.” He hefted his flamer. “We’re just here to burn things.”

“If you don’t at least have some idea what you’re getting into, you’re just going to get killed or infected,” Flynn pointed out. “Nobody’s asking for you not to fight, just cooperate a little.”

One of the other Canians, a shorter white boy with smoke-stained skin, spat on the ground in disgust. “Ca şi Iad. Ei toţi ne urăsc. Am putea foarte bine uita doar despre ele. Ei nu vor fi nici un ajutor.”

“He’s right,” Guland insisted, though damned if I knew what his friend had said. Languages were Lizzy’s department. “Worse, they’ll probably throw us on a suicide mission. We’re useful. Let us fight.”

“We’re going to,” Laura promised. “But you clearly don’t want to die, right?”

The pyro’s eyes narrowed. “That a threat, Mrs. Paladin?”

She met his gaze evenly. “Far from it, Honored Nightstalker. But right now you have two choices: You can rush the screamers in a kamikaze strike, or stay back with us and help us with building up our strategy. That way, when you do attack, you can be certain its not a suicide mission.”

He shifted the cigar around again. “And if it is?

The Spanish woman just shrugged. “Then you either take it, or you leave. Either way, you get to choose whether you live or die. No one can force you to do anything.” She smiled grimly. “But you won’t be getting any support if you go in alone.”

The Noble—at least I think he was at actual warlord level, it can be hard to tell—turned to the vampire who had spoken earlier. The smoke-stained pyro in question shrugged in defeat. “Se pare de bun cu mine, domnule.”

Guland sighed. “Fine. Fine.” He raised his voice. “Everybody, back up! We’re playing nice with the other kids on this one.”

The other vampires murmured in annoyance, but obeyed, holstering their flamers for the moment and returning to the demon and giant camps.

As we returned, the hellion raised an eyebrow. “That was fast. I figured it was a toss-up on whether they’d run off or you’d shoot them.”

“We didn’t have enough ammo,” I quipped. “So we settled for recruiting them instead.”

“We have more ammo,” the Aesir grumbled, glaring at the pyros in annoyance. “If you need it.”

I smiled a little weakly. “I think we’ll be fine.”

“Suit yourself. So what is the plan?”

“I’ll go in first with two of the other Paladins.” Akane was already walking up…which was when I remembered Ling wasn’t here. “Ah…one of the other Paladins. Laura will stay here and coordinate everyone. The others will act as a fireteam.”

“When you go in, be sure to call back with details on their powers as soon as possible,” Laura advised. “We can’t really do anything until we figure that out. Don’t want a repeat of the bleeders.”

“MC,” Akane said. All these people she didn’t know were clearly making her nervous, but I got the message and flipped out my phone.

“MC? You’ve got something for us?”

“Not much, sorry. There were singers before, but they’re out of sight now. And whatever spec the screamers have, it’s not something flashy.”

I frowned. “Well, if we’re lucky, we can still get to the singers. Akane and I will scout ahead, try and get more information.” That reminded me. “Oh, and call Ling for me, would you?”

“She’s not there?” MC asked, incredulous. “Yeah, I’ll ping her right now.”

“Thanks.” I hung up and turned to Akane. “Ready?”

She nodded, and off we went, with Akane conspicuously avoiding looking at Flynn. The barricade of cars was actually surprisingly difficult to bypass. Someone—the giants, probably—had physically thrown the vehicles together about three high until they blocked the entire way. Unless the screamers sensed enough people on the other side, they’d look for an easier path.

Luckily, we were smarter than the zombies. It took some doing, but we managed to clamber up to the top of the barrier quickly enough and get a good look around.

The street that greeted us was surprisingly empty. Well, it was full enough by most normal standards, with more people milling around than you could count, but for screamers that was positively empty. Normally, the horde was so massive you couldn’t even see the street beneath their feet.

It also became clear that whatever their power was, it wasn’t directly dangerous. They were destroying everything in sight; bashing in windows, stomping on appliances and so forth, but they were doing it all with their bare hands. They didn’t even have the intelligence to pick up weapons.

They were still screaming, of course, so I couldn’t really say anything to Akane, but we both knew what to do. We knew what their power wasn’t, it was time to figure out what it was.

We slid down on the zombie side of the barricade as quietly as possible, though with the toneless shrieking, I doubt it particularly mattered either way. There weren’t any within twenty feet or so of the barrier, but they’d notice us quickly.

I held my hand out to Akane, and she placed her Colt in it. True, I wasn’t very good with guns (not to mention my moral leanings on the matter), but I wasn’t going to tackle a superpowered zombie until I had some idea of what it was capable of. So I squared my shoulders, planted my feet, and took aim using both hands to hold the gun.

Then I fired.

The closest screamer stumbled back, stunned, before regaining its balance and resuming its wordless chorus. Of course, now it was aware of us, as were a few more nearby ones. They rushed forward as one, their undulating pitch making it difficult to think.

Okay, they were bulletproof. But I couldn’t tell how. They weren’t morphers, like the biters; in the early dawn light, it was easy to tell that they at least looked normal. Was it possible they had some sort of ability that let them deflect the bullets? Metal control, or something?

That was something to think on later. For now, we had to run. We couldn’t go back the way we came; we’d just end up leading the horde past the barricade.

We ducked into a nearby ‘scraper, jumping through the shattered ground-level window. The lowest store was just clothing, with all the racks knocked over and the shirts ripped up, but the next ones up were a few food places. That format popped up a lot, with food being cooked upstairs and eaten downstairs while people browsed.

We were ahead of the screamers for now, but I knew they’d catch up sooner or later. The way to prevent that was obvious.

So as we reached the third floor, I tossed a grenade over my shoulder.

Akane glanced back as she heard the grenade bounce, cursed, and sped up the stairs at superspeed. I don’t know why she was so worried. It wasn’t like it was a big grenade.

It exploded behind me a little too close for comfort, but I just popped a shield and didn’t feel so much as a flash of heat. The zombies howled in outrage before reverting to their emotionless screams. It was only when I reached the fourth floor—where Akane was glaring at me—that I turned to look at my handiwork.

The entire stairwell was on fire.

I had intended for the grenade to just take out a dozen steps or so. Just enough to make a hole too big for the screamers to jump over. But that’s the problem with incendiaries: They rarely just burn what you want them to. The fact that this building wasn’t quite up to code didn’t help either.

On the positive end of things, I could see a few zombies on fire, writhing in pain. So it seemed like the Canians would be useful after all.

“Should’ve at least used a frag,” Akane admonished.

I shrugged. “Probably. Too late now, though.” We needed to jump to the next ‘scraper before the fire gutted this one completely. Fortunately, it was a relatively short building, at only ten stories.

Unfortunately, that meant the next one over was too high to jump to.

The shortest adjacent building wasn’t that high, only about fifteen stories, but that’s still way too big a difference to jump. Even jumping down would have been a problem. But smoke was already billowing out of the stairwell, and this ‘scraper wouldn’t last much longer. Not to mention that the screamers might be attracted by the smoke. Were they smart enough to make that connection?

“I can jump that high,” Akane muttered, eying the distance. “But not while carrying you.”

Oh right, physics got a little bent when she activated her speed. Unfortunately, mine was useless here.

I frowned. Well, my ability might work. I hadn’t really thought about it, but my barriers could by either stable, floating in the air without moving, or mobile, and could be carried around. If I could…

I held out my hand and concentrated. This would be a little difficult, but I thought I could manage it.

I made the first shield about six inches wide and placed it face down a couple feet away from the edge and higher in the air. Then I made an identical one a few feet from that, and then another and another until I had a crude staircase up to the next roof. It looked good, but my reservoir was draining fast, and I wasn’t even sure it would support my weight.

Akane stared at me. “Don’t tell me—”

“Then I won’t,” I quipped, and jumped onto the first shield.

It held, mostly, though I could only fit one foot on it. The small part of my mind that kept track of them noted that the shield was weakening rapidly; they wouldn’t last more than a few seconds each.

It was difficult getting to the next one, and I was beginning to regret placing them so far apart. I had to stretch, balancing on one foot, until I could get my free leg up to the right level and leverage myself up. It got easier, but only barely.

I released each shield as I finished with it, lessening the rate my reservoir was draining, but I was still worried. Creating new shields cost more than maintaining existing ones, so I couldn’t just start over when I was in the middle of it. I just had to hurry.

I reached the next rooftop with maybe ten seconds to spare and had to resist the urge to collapse in the early morning sun. Straining the boundaries of my power was a workout, but not a physical one. It was hard to explain.

As I was still catching my breath, a blur arched over the short balcony marking the edge of the roof and landed a few feet away from me, throwing up a small cloud of dust and gravel. It quickly resolved itself as Akane, none the worse for her experience, and glaring daggers at me.

“Couldn’t you at least have tested that a little more?”

I bit back an angry retort. I get a bit defensive when I’m questioned, but she hadn’t meant much by it.

I flipped out my phone before I said anything I’d regret. “MC? We still don’t know what the screamers can do, but they’re bulletproof, and fire works on them. Tell Laura to send in the Canians.”

“Wait, Akane set another ‘scraper on fire?”

Where the hell was she getting her information? There weren’t any open-source cameras nearby. Well, I guess it was possible that the shop owners had decided to give her full access to theirs. That happened sometimes.

“Well, kinda, but it wasn’t quite on purpose.”

“Oh, that makes it so much better.”

“Hey, if you think you can do better than come down here yourself.”

There was a short pause. “Laura says figure out their specs, then fall back. She’s sending in the Canians now. Try to stay out of their way.” She hung up.

Wonderful advice. I slipped my phone away with a sigh. We weren’t even close to done here.

I spied a small plume of smoke from further to the west. That would be the pyrovamps, no doubt, coming at the screamers from a different side. I nodded to Akane, and we headed over to look, roofhopping to get there. Luckily these were close enough in height that they had ziplines and ladders set up, so we didn’t have to try riskier methods again.

We didn’t see any zombies as we traveled, but that made sense, with the Canians attracting so much attention. It also meant that we needed to get to them fast, before they were overrun.

They turned out to be holed up next to the second to last ‘scraper on the street. It was some sort of gardening store, which was probably where they got all the sandbags they had piled in front of them as makeshift barricades. They had probably used one of the back doors as a shortcut into the street. If there was a more obvious way through—like a road unblocked by piled cars—the screamers would undoubtedly have found it first.

Note I said next to the building. Any other group would find it far easier to set up inside, but these were Canians. Each and every one was equipped with some form of flamer, from the little Romanian guy and his pistol with incendiary bullets to Guland, with his massive fuel condenser and attached flamethrower.

I used my shield stair trick to walk down into the short alley between the two ‘scrapers. Akane landed next to me, glaring, but I ignored her. It had worked, hadn’t it?

“Guland!” I called, walking forward. “Any news?”

He turned back and grinned before roasting a few more zombies, who ran off squealing in pain. “Not much. The fires are keeping ’em off us, but I don’t think it’s killing them.”

Taking a closer look, I realized he was right. The smoke we had spotted were the screamers themselves, but they weren’t burning as much as they should. After a minute or two, the flames died and the screamer just came back for another run, usually with their burned clothing falling off. A few were staying down, sure, but not nearly enough.

“This doesn’t make sense,” I muttered. “You been able to tell what their power is?”

“Nope. They’ve just been rushing us, as you can see.” He let out another burst from his flamethrower. It was one of the saner, long-range types, which actually fired streams of burning liquid a few hundred yards. Some of the Canians insisted on using short-range versions, which just coughed out clouds of incendiary mist. It can be helpful at times, but it usually isn’t.

“I can check,” Akane whispered. “Quick.”

I thought about it for a moment. That was probably the best idea, since it would let her get a good slow-motion look at what they were doing, but it was hard to tell. What if they had some weird power that screwed with inertia or whatever, and forced her speed to backfire? Except that wouldn’t have helped them against the fire…

Bah. We needed intel. I nodded to her, and she blurred off.

“Hold your fire,” Guland called to his men. “Don’t hit the paladin.”

They didn’t stop entirely, of course—Akane wouldn’t be able to hold off even a tenth of the screamers by herself—but they did clearly make an effort to avoid the area she was running around in. It was hard to tell what was going on, since mostly it just looked like she was running up to them and blurring away without doing anything, but I trusted her enough to know better.

She repeated the pattern nearly a dozen times—move in at normal speed, move out at super speed—before she sped back to my side, and the Canians resumed shooting everything in sight (as opposed to merely most everything).

I raised an eyebrow at her.

“Skin,” she said with a shrug. “They harden their skin.”

I blinked. “Enough to deflect bullets?”

“Enough to deflect my sword.” That was actually more impressive. We hadn’t gotten around to actually testing it in a lab or anything, but it was pretty clear that at full speed her blade had more force behind it than most firearms. If these screamers were that tough, we had a real problem on our hands.

“What about their reservoirs? Were you able to deplete them?”

She shook her head. “But they can’t be very deep. Mine isn’t.”

That seemed to be the way powers worked. It was give and take. If you wanted more power, you got a smaller reservoir. If you wanted a bigger reservoir, you got less power. That was the trap Laura had fallen in. She wanted—or had been given—the power to detect lies all the time. So she ended up with a very weak power that she could use literally every second of the day. Worse yet, it didn’t seem to improve with use, unlike the rest of ours. It was still as useless as it was the first day we got them.

With such a strong power, these…skins had to be burning through their resources quickly. The only problem was they were retreating when that happened, so we didn’t get a chance to inflict real damage on them.

“We need to focus fire on one at a time,” I explained to Guland. “We should be able to outlast their power pretty easily.”

He nodded. I doubted he understood everything we were talking about with the powers, but at least he realized we knew more than him on this subject. “We just need to wait for Adonides. We’ll want everyone for this.”

That’s when I noticed the Romanian vampire was missing. I frowned. “Where is he? It’s not like there’s anywhere to go.”

The lead Canian just shrugged.

I sighed. “Fine. I’m going to call MC. One second.”

She answered immediately. “Derek? Jig back nowlike.”

“Uh…what?”

“The horns and hammers have gone out, plugging each other in the byway. Hell’s gonna fin, they can spawn mooks faster. Bathory either which.”

I did not spend enough time on the internet for this. “Just…calm down and speak English.”

There was a brief pause where I could imagine her taking a deep breath. “Warfield shot Johnsson, then the Aesir started shooting the hellions. You need to come back ASAP. You’re the only one who might be able to stop this.”

I cursed. “What’s Laura saying?”

“I don’t know. She shot Warfield in the chest and is trying to hold everyone apart, but not much luck there.”

I glanced around. The Canians were holding pretty well, and now that we knew how to defeat the screamers, they should be able to last. “Okay, we’re coming back.”

I turned to Guland. “The hellions and Aesir have gone crazy. Don’t do anything yet, just hold the line.”

He nodded. “Simple enough. We’ll call if something goes sideways.”

I patted him on the shoulder as we left. He was a good man, despite being a pyromaniac. I’d be really upset if he got turned.

We managed to reach the staging ground quickly by dodging through the ‘scraper the vampires had come through, but it wasn’t fast enough.

The place was a warzone. Both sides had already set up primitive fortifications, and were unloading cases of ammunition at each other. The hellions were mostly using assault rifles, while the Aesir were using large gatling guns, and a few were scrounging up missile launchers. There didn’t seem to be very many casualties; there weren’t that many corpses, anyway. I spotted the Aesir leader in the center no-man’s-land, minus a head, and some ten yards away the retinue, along with Adam and Flynn, were protecting Laura.

I summoned a large shield and ran over, skidding to a stop next to the upended car they were hiding behind. No one shot me in the process, which I took as a good sign. It seemed like both sides retained the presence of mind not to just shoot everything in sight.

“What the hell happened?” I hissed, as Akane blurred in next to me. “I thought everything was going fine.”

“The hellion just pulled out a shotgun and blew the Aesir’s head off,” Laura muttered, confusion in her eyes. “It was the strangest thing. It was like he wasn’t even aware he was doing it.”

Huh. “The Composer can control screamers, right? Maybe he suppressed it for long enough to get into a good position, or something?”

George shuddered. “That’s not a fun thought.”

“And not something we can deal with right now,” Adam cut in. “What’s the plan?”

Before I could answer, my phone rang. Not MC’s tone, just my default old-fashioned telephone ring. I picked it up, confused. “Hello?”

“Paladin?” Guland’s panicked voice greeted me. “Adonides went crazy! He started shooting everyone just as the screamers rushed us! We’re falling back, but we do not have the zombies contained.”

I cursed. “Belay that. You’ll just be fuel on the fire over here. Can you find a redoubt?”

Negative. We had to dump most of our flamers, we’re just running now. If we try and hold them, we’ll be slaughtered.”

I lowered the phone to explain the situation to the others, when I noticed that Laura was already on hers. Apparently MC had hooked her into the conversation. I put the phone back to my ear just she started talking. “Fall back to the staging area. We need all of them in one place.”

“Fair enough, Mrs. Paladin. Can you cover us as we come in?”

She glanced around. “Doubtful. Just get as close to us as you can. We’ll be at the south end. Derek will shield you as you cross.” She hung up.

“Wait,” Kelly said with a frown. “Why do you want us to cross to the other side? We’re safe enough here, and the screamers might convince the hellions and Aesir to pull their heads out of their asses.”

“It won’t,” Laura replied firmly. “You can count on that. And we need them all in one place.”

What did that mean? Well, I doubted she’d tell me, so I just nodded as if I understood. She was better at strategy than me. “Is everyone ready? I can shield us, but you need to stay as close to me as possible.”

Akane blurred off ahead—one less person to worry about—and the rest nodded. Jarasax and George looked worried, but Kelly, Adam, and Laura seemed to have confidence in my abilities. Well, I don’t think Kelly did, but she was ready for whatever came regardless.

“Let’s go,” I said decisively, and we went.

We dove headfirst into the hail of gunfire, Laura and I in the middle of the press of people. I raised a full shield immediately, but I could feel my reservoir depleting far too quickly for my taste. It was about a fifty yard run; our only hope was that both sides realized shooting us would bring the full might of Necessarius down on their heads.

Luck seemed with us, and the hail lessened until only a few misfires here and there plinked against my barrier. I still urged my friends on faster; I didn’t really want to find out what would happen if it failed.

Akane waved to us from behind the van, and we joined her just moments before my shield died.

“They’re crazy,” she said. “Saw their eyes. Blank, dead. Don’t know what they’re doing.”

Laura frowned. “All of them?”

The swordswoman shook her head. “No. But a few leaders.”

Laura sighed deeply. “Some sort of mind control. Wonderful. Not unexpected, but still.” MC called, and she picked up quickly. “Yes? Good, perfect. What about the Canians? Good, wait until they reach us.” She hung up and turned to me. “The pyromaniacs will be here soon. Get ready to shield them.”

I frowned at her. “What are you planning?”

“Just get ready to shield them.”

This did not bode well. But I had little choice; the Canians were rounding the corner, and the crazed demons and giants were already opening fire on them. At least they were clustered together, which made it easier to fit a barrier around them. But there were still almost a dozen (including an unconscious one Guland was carrying, which I assumed was Adonides), and unlike before the gunfire wasn’t slowing down. I didn’t know if I could hold it.

“George, Adam. Lay down some suppressive fire,” Laura ordered tersely.

They obeyed quickly enough, their guns distracting our erstwhile allies long enough to let the Canians survive the run. A few rounds hit the van, but they mostly left us alone. Shooting them had made them angry, but they still weren’t idiots.

It turned out to be mostly unnecessary anyway, since the screamers followed close behind. The hellions and Aesir quickly ignored the pyros in favor of the more dangerous and easier to hit target in front of them. The zombies didn’t seem to be taking much damage, but they were slowed.

My barrier fell almost thirty seconds before the Canians reached us, but luckily no one noticed fast enough to take advantage. “Paladin!” Guland cried, throwing the Romanian vampire to the ground roughly. A few of his men were injured, but none serious. “Burning blood, what is going on here? Why are they still shooting each other?

“We’ll explain later,” Laura cut in before I could respond. She turned to me. “How’s your reservoir?”

“Filling quickly,” I replied. “Why?”

“Let me know the second it’s full,” she said, not answering my question. She pulled out her phone. “MC, what’s the timing? Good. We just need a few minutes.” She huddled closer to me. “Everyone crowd in close. We all need to be covered by Derek’s shield.”

Well, I had figured out that she needed my power, but I still didn’t know precisely what. Judging from Laura’s side of the conversation with MC, reinforcements were coming, and we were the distraction. Fair enough, but I’d like a better explanation from her.

“I’m not sure about this,” George muttered. He was on his hands and knees, and still taking up the most space. But we’d be fine; the eight Canians that were left didn’t seem to have a problem literally piling on top of each other, so everyone was mostly within my area of affect. It would be a big shield though, and I wasn’t sure how long I could hold it. Hopefully they wouldn’t shoot at us too much.

“Isn’t there a better way to do this?” I muttered, as Adonides drooled on my foot a little in his unconscious state.

“Yes,” Laura said tiredly. “But there’s no time, and the van’s not reliable. Start the shield the second you hear whistling.”

I frowned. “Wait, whistling? What are you—”

But she wasn’t listening; she was on her phone again. “MC, go for it.”

I heard a shrill whistling, coming from almost directly above us, and put up my barrier as fast as I could, covering the retinue, the Canians, and of course all four of us Paladins.

Then the sky fell.

Bombs rained down, exploding shortly before they hit the ground, creating massive clouds of dust and fire. Nearly a dozen in all, on the entire square. I could hear the bombers overhead, and they clearly didn’t have time to sort out friend from foe. They did seem to be concentrating away from us, but even though nothing hit within a dozen yards, merely the collateral damage could have easily killed us.

After a minute or two, it stopped, and I lowered my shield with a sigh. “All right, first we need to see if any demons or giants survived—”

As I heard the whistle again, I only barely got my shield up in time.

More bombs fell. How many, I have no idea. A hundred, a thousand, it all blurred together as my brain got played like a drum. Dust and ash flew everywhere, until the outside of my barrier was completely black.

My shield failed soon enough, but the barrage continued. Nothing landed on us, but the chunks of flying concrete dislodged by the assault were dangerous enough. I couldn’t see anything; I could feel dust scraping at my eyelids and didn’t dare open them. But I already had a few injuries—cuts on my left side, and a bruise where something large had hit me in the shoulder.

After what felt like an eternity, the world stopped shaking. I opened my eyes with difficulty, the caked dust and shattered asphalt trying to hold them closed.

There wasn’t much left. The square was completely destroyed, the entire street pulverized. Most of the surrounding ‘scrapers were on fire or crumbling to the ground, and at least one was already flattened.

I turned and saw that Laura was trying to talk to me. My ears were still ringing, so I couldn’t hear her, but she seemed to be trying to justify her actions. I turned away. I wasn’t interested.

There was some movement in the demon and giant camps, but not much. A few of them had apparently had the presence of mind to hide under sandbags or other cover. It didn’t seem to have done them much good.

I saw someone standing up, and felt a shred of hope—until I saw that the person was between the two camps, where the screamers had been.

The zombie stumbled a little, clearly injured, but tried to drag himself forward anyway. More rose, trying to do the same. It was unclear how many had survived, but far more than hellions or Aesir. Had this all been for nothing? This entire exercise, a complete waste?

I groaned as something else occurred to me.

We still didn’t know where Ling was.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 66)

Why did the skins suddenly recover when they were set on fire? Simple: They turned on their powers, and suddenly they weren’t flammable anymore. Of course, other parts of them—such as their clothing, and the fuel still on their skin—still were, but they usually managed to smother those simply by spasming on the ground before their reservoirs ran out.

 

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Scene 65 – Impero

IMPERO

HORACE

My name is Horace Warfield. I am a hellion under the command of General Sargeras, specifically a 2nd Lieutenant. I am one of the most respected officers of the 9th Special Reconnaissance Division, well-known for my unconventional tactics and the high moral of the men under my command. I consider it a point of pride that I have never been defeated, despite several dozen pitched battles to my name.

And I had no idea where I was.

“Feeling better?” my father asked.

I looked up and saw…someone. It wasn’t my father. The build wasn’t right…or was it? My head. Something was wrong with my head.

“Good,” the person purred. Its voice was changing. It wasn’t my father’s any more. It was my first girlfriend’s, the one who dumped me when I got my horns. “I want you to have a clear mind for this.”

“What…what are you?”

The shape before me flickered like a shadow. It had a tail, but bigger than anything the toy maker could produce. Then the tail disappeared like smoke. “Well, not a completely clear mind. I want to gloat, but I still have to be somewhat smart. What would happen if you escaped and told everyone who I was? Then I’d have to kill you and everyone you’ve ever met. That would be…” the voice, so much like my old drill instructor’s, paused, as though savoring the thought. Was it licking its lips? “So…terrible.”

“What’s going on?” I tried reaching out to touch the shadow, only to find I couldn’t move. My arms and legs were bound to some sort of examination table, angled to give me a better view of the room. The manacles were…stone?

“It’s been so long since I had a chance to properly gloat,” the voice mused. “So much secrecy. And for what? So a couple more mud-apes can live out their dreary little lives? Pah. Worthless.”

“You’re…” dammit, what was wrong with my head?

A claw gripped my chin and forced me to look into my captor’s glowing red eyes. Except it wasn’t a claw and the eyes weren’t red. Every time I tried to look at the…thing talking to me, my brain seemed to shy away from the subject.

“I am the Composer,” the shadow said in a clear female voice. It was beautiful, like carefully tuned bells. “I am the one who is going to burn this city to the ground.”

It let me go, and I tried to look around the room, in the hopes of actually discerning my location, but I didn’t have much luck. It looked like a small maintenance room for the sewers, judging by the large pipes running throughout the chamber. There were only two entrances I could see, one to my left and one to my right, but I couldn’t see any light coming from either of them. That didn’t help much.

“Stop that,” a voice much like my mother’s ordered, and I felt the manacles twist and tighten. But when I looked down, nothing was touching them. They were just moving on their own. “Don’t bother trying to figure out where you are.”

“You’re a screamer,” I whispered in horror.

The Composer rolled its eyes, and for a brief moment, I saw the face of a beautiful woman with red skin. Was it real? It felt real, but so did the rest. “No, I’m a composer. I have more than just one power. I have three different types of kinesis—stone, fire, and electricity—two types of fragma—shields and blades—a basic sapizo power, one of the better forms of tachytita, two types of detection, a very minor allagi power, and most importantly, hypnotism.”

I blinked. “Was I supposed to understand any of that?”

The shadow clicked its tongue in disappointment. “Actually, yes. You should have stayed in school longer.” Another pause. “Of course, I destroyed most of my schools, so I’m not one to talk.”

“What do you want with me?”

“Two things,” a high-pitched child’s voice explained. “First, I want you to just stay a while and listen. I need to get all this gloating off my chest or else I’ll end up actually telling it to someone important, like the Paladins.

“Second, I need you to disrupt the alliance.”

I frowned. “What alliance?”

The Composer sighed. “Butler finally managed to get his act together, and is forcing a truce between all the cultures and gangs. All to hunt down little old me.” I saw a flash of gleaming white teeth as it grinned, but it disappeared quickly. “I can’t have that. It would be best to just make Butler break the treaty himself, but he’s too well-protected. There’s no way I can get to him.”

A treaty with Necessarius was perfect. It was exactly what the General had been looking for. Yes, we hellions had prejudices of our own, but we would be able to put them aside for the greater good. Hopefully, the other subcultures would feel the same.

But something my captor had said was nagging at my mind. “Wait, how are you going to break the treaty? You’re not a part of it…” I felt a surge of horror. I still had no idea who this person was, but it couldn’t be that bad. “…right?”

The shadow laughed again, the sound of bells returning. “Oh, that would make things far too easy! No, I’m not a part of your silly little games. No, I’m going to make you do it.”

I marshaled my will and tried to sound more confident than I felt. “There’s nothing you can do that will make me betray the General and his cause. If he wants this treaty, I will hold to it.”

The Composer laughed. Bells again. Why was it always bells? “Silly little hellion. Were you even paying attention?” Those gleaming white teeth returned. “Why do you think you can’t identify me? Why do you think you can’t remember how you got here?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, shutting out that confusing, shifting visage, and my wits returned to me. “You drugged me.”

“Not drugged,” it said cheerfully. “Hypnotized. So much more useful. Harder to detect. Harder to defend against.”

“You can’t hypnotize me if I don’t want you to,” I insisted.

It just chuckled. “Not that kind of hypnotism.” It leaned forward and brought its hand in front of my face, moving its fingers in a pattern I couldn’t identify, but was riveting. “Here’s what you’re going to do…”

Right before my mind fled completely, whatever previous hypnotism placed on me wore off, or perhaps was overwritten by the new one. Regardless of the cause, I could suddenly see the Composer in all its glory.

I couldn’t tell if it was male or female, young or old; it was too brief a glimpse for that. I only identified one thing.

Earlier, I had thought the creature had red skin, which would probably mark it as a troll or goblin. But it turned out I was incorrect.

The Composer’s skin wasn’t red.

It was just completely drenched in blood.

Behind the Scenes (scene 65)

In the grand tradition of pseudo-scientific technobabble everywhere, the powers all have proper names in Greek. The Composer dropped a few basic names here.

Kinesis I’m sure everyone knows; it literally means “movement,” and is used to describe the ability to move things with your mind. Stone, fire, and electricity kinesis are referred to as petrakinesis, pyrokinesis, and ilektrikinesis, respectively.

Fragma means approximately “barrier,” and refers to the type of power Derek has.

Sapizo means “rot,” which is actually a bit more specific than how it is used in relation to powers; while rot and sapizo imply only biological decay, it is used to refer to all forms, including things such as rust.

Tachytita means “speed,” and as you may have guessed, simply means super speed. Akane’s power is one form it comes in.

The translation for detection is actually anakalypsi, but the Composer didn’t bother using it. Partly because it doesn’t quite fit with the way the power works, but mostly because “detection” just covers it so much better. This is Laura’s power, specifically the power to detect lies.

Allagi means “change,” and will be translated as “morphing.” This is what the biters had, and should be understood to be different from allasso (literally “shifter”), or “shifting,” which is what the bats had.

And finally, any inconsistencies with Greek grammar shall be henceforth blamed on the fact that the one who originally named the powers was not Greek, he just thought the names sounded cool. (now ask yourselves whether I meant in-universe or out)

Scene 64 – Foedus

FOEDUS

ARTEMIS

I rubbed my forehead. “Mary, are they ready?”

“In a minute, sir,” she replied quickly. The real her, not one of her fakes. This was far too important to leave to a hacked-together bundle of code. “The Nessians are yelling about having to deal with the Nosferatu.”

“Cut them out,” I said tiredly. “I don’t know why I even bothered.” The Nessians, the followers of that bastard Asmodeus, were slavers and nothing more. They had tried to usurp the power structure of the vampires a while back, and been cut down to a shadow of their former glory as a result. In the process, their leader was poisoned by one of the Nosferatu. An exceptionally virulent poison that the toy maker couldn’t cure. Apparently he was in constant, agonizing pain. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

“Done,” she quipped. “Anyone else you want me to nix?”

“No. We need as many as will stay. Everyone else will play nice with others. Probably.”

“If you call in Kelly, the Belians will fall into line easier.”

No. She has made her feelings on the matter clear.”

“But—”

“No. Mary Christina, this topic is closed.”

“Fine,” she muttered a bit angrily. “Anyway, everyone is set up. Starting video conference now.”

My screen crowded up completely with dozens of windows, each with a single face. Many were mostly human, but some more monstrous. The Nosferatu, the sibriex, the cans and the Glasyans were only human in a legal sense at this point. Others were normal enough on the outside, but still terrifying inside. The Dagonite ambassador was an excellent example of that.

There were a few missing, but that was hardly unexpected. Some still didn’t trust me, while others didn’t understand the danger the Composer represented.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” I said by way of greeting. “Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.”

“As if we had a choice,” Nicholas, representing the Aesir, grumbled. “The screamers are a threat to us all.”

“Not quite all,” the Dragon, the leader of the Draculas, noted. He grinned, displaying his prominent fangs, and nodded to something I couldn’t see; presumably, another of the ambassadors on his own screen. “Georgia and her Dagonites don’t have much to worry about.”

The woman in question huffed. “I’m sure this Composer will find a way. Although I doubt we can be of much help; we have limited abilities, and the war with the Rahabs is straining us.”

“Your support is appreciated regardless,” I told her honestly. Considering how much I had to deal with trying to make the other subcultures see a problem that was on their very doorstep, it was refreshing to see someone who could anticipate the threat.

“Has Doctor Clarke had any progress on finding some sort of cure or vaccine for the screamers?” Evangel asked. The big ursa senator wasn’t the leader of his subculture by any means, but the others had agreed to let him act as an ambassador for all of them.

“No, unfortunately,” I admitted. “He isn’t having any luck whatsoever. He hasn’t even managed to find out what causes the condition. I believe he’s given up on it.”

“We can take a look,” Tharizdun, the sibriex representative, offered. I wasn’t sure if Nhang had sent him as an intentional slight, or if the warlord just didn’t have time to deal with anyone himself. “I doubt we’ll have much luck, but a few more eyes are always helpful.”

“My people will help as well,” Glasya, the Noble from Malbolge, put in. She had a bit of a friendly rivalry with the sibriex, so it was nice to see her so eager to work with them.

“Thank you both, and I will accept any help you can offer. If the Avernans could lend their aid as well, that would be much appreciated.”

Bel scratched his hairy chin. It wasn’t actually hair, but a patch of short, poisonous barbs. Much of his body was covered in the strange buff. “We’d be happy to, of course, but I’m not sure how useful we’ll be. Our methods are geared towards the toy maker, not general research.”

“You’re avoiding the main problem,” Nick, warlord of the Host of Glorious Destruction, pointed out. “The Composer needs to be dealt with. Everything else is secondary. You said you may know where he is. Why haven’t you attacked?”

“We have no idea what this creature is capable of, Honored Daybreaker,” I replied with as much patience as I could muster. “If you read through the data I sent you, you’ll see that Doctor Clarke has theorized it may be able to jump between bodies. Killing the one it is currently in will do nothing but make it more cautious in the future.”

“But you don’t know,” Jasmine, the can ambassador, clicked. “You don’t know anything about this…thing.”

“We know that there is an intelligence behind the screamers,” I reiterated. “Not much else. The fact that it seems to have a base does imply it has a physical body, with physical limitations. Hopefully, that means a lead-based solution can be applied here. But we must be cautious.”

“Then just kill all the screamers and then move in,” Mephistopheles insisted. “I don’t know why you’re keeping them alive.”

Evangel huffed. “It is still possible these people can be cured, Canian. Don’t be so quick to abandon them.”

“But the pyro has a point,” Dispater cut in. As leader of the warbloods, the military arm of the vampires, I knew his grasp of strategy would be valuable. “Clarke thinks this Composer is limited to using screamers as hosts. If we kill all the screamers, it will have no where to go.”

“And what if he is wrong?” the Dragon asked calmly, his godeyes twinkling. Godeyes were rare beyond imagining; they were the fusion of dayeyes and nighteyes, and almost impossible to make work. It took over a hundred thousand dollars to even try, and usually the subject just ended up blind. I only knew one other person in the city that had them. “If the Composer can use bodies other than screamers, we’ll have murdered several thousand people for no good reason.”

The other representatives murmured uneasily, but it was Nick who voiced their concerns. “There can’t truly be that many, can there?”

“Not quite that many,” I assured her. “Only barely a thousand.”

“And that’s a thousand more than there should be,” Simba pointed out angrily. It took me a second to realize he was just angry in general, not at me specifically. “If we could find a way to give more people powers, or at least make them immune to infection, everything would go much more smoothly.”

I saw Obould lean forward before speaking. “I’ve spoken with the Paladins a little. They’re more than happy to help with this crisis, but they are limited. Sooner or later, the Composer is going to stop playing around, and they aren’t going to be able to keep up.”

Greyanna shook her head. “Preposterous. A thousand screaming, half that dead, and you think this Composer isn’t even trying? Trust a man to—”

“Oh put a sock in it, Lolth,” Halisstra interrupted. “Put aside your prejudices and think about it. The incident with the burners confirmed that a singer can infect people over the radio or the phone. The Composer could easily hook up some giant speakers and infect half the city. Why hasn’t he?”

“I have some failsafes in place to prevent that,” Mary Christina interjected.

“Yes,” Dispater noted, “you do now. But why didn’t he just do it before we knew about that capability? It doesn’t make any sort of tactical sense.”

“He could just be a moron,” the Erlking suggested.

“That’s a dangerous thought path,” Sargeras, representing the hellions, cautioned. He was one of the most respected warlords here—as one of the founding members of the demon culture, he was one of the very first warlords. “In a situation like this, you have to assume the enemy is smarter than you. Anything else will lead to ruin.”

“Isn’t this all secondary?” Hyalinix of the Time-Lost Shadows cut in. “I haven’t heard anyone actually promise to work together.”

“The sibriex, the Glasyans, and the Avernans have at least agreed,” I pointed out. But only an uncomfortable silence greeted my words. I frowned. “You said you would help.”

“Help, yes,” Bel admitted grudgingly. “We’ll share data. But that’s very different from actively working together.”

“Exactly,” Nick muttered, clearly not enjoying even such a minor agreement with a vampire. “You’re suggesting sending troops into battle side-by-side, correct? They’ll never stand for it.”

“We can work up to that,” the Dragon mused. “But even working together at a strategic level would make a huge difference in the war effort.”

“My men won’t fight beside angels,” Dispater cautioned. “But that wouldn’t be a good idea regardless. Anyone else, they will help gladly. And of course, I would be happy to lend my expertise.” He started a little, as though surprised at his own words. “Ah…from the Iron Tower, of course.”

The other vampire ambassadors just rolled their eyes. Dispater’s agoraphobia was well-known. But, he was useful, so everyone put up with the fact that he refused to leave his base.

“My hellions should be able to support the angels,” Sargeras offered. “And I can speak with the other leaders as well.” He nodded to a corner of his screen. “No offense, Honored Daybreaker, you just don’t have the numbers to wage this kind of war.”

“None taken, Honored Devil,” Nick replied graciously.

“I’m also not opposed to cooperating,” the Great Wolf admitted. “There will be some logistics problems, as we keep mortal enemies away from each other, but surely we can all leave off killing each other long enough to fight for our city.”

Doresain shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Though like you said, we’ll need to be mindful of prejudices. I know I wouldn’t want to fight next to a lupe, and I doubt any of my men are going to feel differently.”

“I think we can leave that to the more military-minded leaders,” Focalur of the Mammonites pointed out. “Best not to get in their way.”

The taur representative, an ugly Baphomite named Cairne, raised an eyebrow. “You would be willing to follow the orders of another, thief?”

Focalur just laughed. “Like you said, I’m a thief. I don’t know how to fight a war.” He became serious again. “But Dispater, Sargeras—whoever ends up giving the orders. Just remember the strengths and weaknesses of your allies. We can’t stand up to front line combat like you.”

Sargeras nodded. “We will of course take everything into consideration. We’ve been fighting against you for quite some time. We know what you are capable of.”

The Beast growled, literally. “This is ridiculous. I will not put myself under the command of any other kith, and I know my followers will feel the same.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Then leave, abomination, and don’t come crying to us when the screamers appear on your doorstep.”

The Satanist growled again, and his window went dark. Honestly, I was pleased. His subculture was almost as bad as the Nessians. I had known all along they would be trouble. I was surprised it had taken him this long to voice his objections.

“Good riddance,” Tripurasura, the Akoman daeva, muttered. “He would have set his men on us like hounds on roadkill.”

The cane and lupe representatives both shouted at once. “HEY!”

The vampire winced. “Sorry. Figure of speech.”

“I am pleased you have all seen the wisdom of working together,” I said slowly. Using violence to force the issue would have just made things worse in the long run. “But there is one thing I don’t think anyone will like.”

I found myself unable to speak. This was going to be a nightmare. I still had a chance to change my mind.

Everyone just looked at me, clearly apprehensive. My silence was only making things worse. Senator Nagi, representing the laces, was the one who spoke up. “And what’s that, Butler?”

“Tharizdun and Glasya, I need…” I paused, then sighed and bit the bullet. “I need you to open up communications with the fey.”

The sudden outcry was almost explosive. Every single representative started shouting. Even the more level-headed ones who were trying to calm everyone else, like Evangel and Nagi, had to yell just to have a chance of being heard.

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t hear any individual arguments in the noise, but I knew what they were saying. The fey were crazed monsters who would kill their own mothers for no reason other than because they felt like it. They were almost as big a problem as the Composer. Allying with them was insanity.

After a few minutes, there was a brief lull. Not really a lull; just a short pause, nothing but coincidence. I seized the opportunity to speak. “If we don’t ally with them, the Composer will,” I said quietly.

Everyone choked on the words they were going to spit out, and dozens of faces stared at me in shock.

“If we don’t ally with them, the Composer will,” I emphasized. “Perhaps he’ll infect them, or perhaps he’ll just pay them off, but either way he’ll have access to their armies and their toy box. We cannot allow one of those to fall into the wrong hands.” I glanced at Soaring Eagle’s window; she winced at the reference to her own crimes.

Still, nobody spoke.

I leaned back in my seat and sighed. “I understand this is not easy. I understand that they might ask for things we are not willing to give. But we don’t have a choice. They are too powerful to simply leave waiting for the Composer’s control.” I closed my eyes. “That is all. Mary Christina will contact you shortly with more information on the details of the alliance.”

I cut the connection.

It was necessary.

Behind the Scenes (scene 64)

Homework question: Why would the leader of the Draculas be called the Dragon?

And yes, every single one of these people (and the subcultures they represent) was named for a reason. Some of these reasons are simpler than others, however. For example, Jasmine, the can ambassador, is named because that’s her birth name, and she thinks changing your name to match some mythical character you find kinship with is stupid.

Oh, one last thing: There are seven cultures (six, since most people don’t count the fey), but that’s only the ones that use the toy maker. Changelings, therefore, are not a culture, nor is Necessarius.

Scene 63 – Examen

EXAMEN

LAURA

“And then she just left,” Lizzy finished. “I hope she’s feeling better. Doctor Clarke has some pills for headaches, right?”

“Probably,” I admitted. As usual, Lizzy had grabbed me after she finished her class. Technically both her her normal history and my advanced class ended at the same time, but her professor tended to drone on, so I usually got out a little earlier.

“She also left her bag and sword behind,” she added, probably not even aware that I had responded. “Derek is taking care of that. Was there somewhere you wanted to go for dinner?”

“The DC is fine.” The Dining Commons might not be the highest quality food, but it was free. Well, included in tuition. My dad was paying for it, but money was tight, so anything extra I had to pay for myself. And I hadn’t taken a consulting gig since I came back to South Central.

“Don’t be silly,” she admonished with a pout. “Aren’t these the End Times? Isn’t this when you pig out on pizza and ice cream?”

I raised an eyebrow. Lizzy had been conspicuously avoiding the subject of the screamers for as long as possible, especially regarding her ability to hear them. I hadn’t asked what her power was, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t know. Obviously, she wasn’t to know about ours, either.

Regardless, there are some comments I just can’t let slide.

“If the end is coming, you need to do everything you can to stop it,” I insisted. “If nothing else, too much junk food will slow me down when I need to run.”

She rolled her eyes. “Your metabolism can handle it.” She grinned. “C’mon, a new Peach’s opened up down Mechanus. Shouldn’t we celebrate my test?”

“Oh yeah, you got the results back,” I mused. “What’d you get?”

She stood proudly. “Ninety-three percent!”

I shook my head. “When we study together, you can’t remember any of it. How do you keep passing tests? Are you seducing your teachers?”

She looked genuinely horrified. “No! Of course not! It’s just…” she shrugged. “In an emergency, the brain can do some incredible things, you know?”

Well, she was proof of that. I almost considered the possibility that her power had something to do with memory, but quickly discarded it. She had been like this for as long as I could remember. When it comes down to the wire, something strange happens, and her brain dredges up old memories with uncanny accuracy.

I suppose that was the only way she survived past childhood. She was too ditzy and nice to pay enough attention to anything.

“Hey, you heard about that drop pod, right?”

That woman switched topics too fast to keep up. “The…Chinese one, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. Butler did an interview on it.”

I frowned. “I must have missed that. What’d he say?”

“Nothing important. A bunch about how the USP is trying to choke the independents by buying back the station.”

I shook my head and sighed. “What’s your point, Lizzy?”

She leaned forward eagerly. “What’d Adam say about it?”

I threw up my hands. “Why would you care what he said? You’ve never cared about politics before.”

“Yeah, yeah, but he’s the one who found it! Organized a recovery and everything. Very heroic, don’t you think?”

I frowned. I honestly wouldn’t have thought that he had it in him. It was becoming increasingly clear that he was some flavor of psychopath, but you could say that about a lot of people in Domina. The fact that he rescued someone for no reason other than because he could was probably a good sign. Well, I didn’t know enough details to be certain that was exactly what happened, but I made a mental note to look into it.

“Do you think we should go get Derek and the rest?”

I blinked. “What?”

“For the pizza, silly.”

Oh, we were back on that? “I don’t think so. They’re very busy with homework.” And preparing for the next screamer attack. There hadn’t been one in four days, so another was due soon. “Honestly, I’m tired too. I’m not really in the mood for anything.”

Lizzy pouted. She seemed to think it was cute, but it just looked silly. “Why are you always like this? First you just want to eat at the crappy DC, then not even there! C’mon, a bunch of people said the new Peach’s was good. I’ll even pay, how does that sound?”

I sighed. There was no reasoning with her like this. If I didn’t give in, she’d just drag me there anyway. “Fine,” I muttered. “Pizza it is.”

She grabbed my arm tightly and started dragging me down the sidewalk. “Yay! Ooh, can we stop for ice cream after?”

I rolled my eyes. “Sure.”

She ate most of the large pizza we were supposed to share by herself, then did the same with the triple-scoop ice cream cup we got after. She also didn’t pay for either.

Seriously, if she wasn’t so goddamned nice to everyone, somebody would have shot her in the face when she was a kid just to save the hassle of dealing with her.

Behind the Scenes (scene 63)

Dear lord, a short one. Didn’t notice until I was done. Well, next one is a bit long, and this one isn’t too important anyway. Just a bit more of Lizzy and Laura’s relationship.

Scene 62 – Inudiam

INUIDIAM

AKANE

Monday night, History class. I was sitting with Derek, Lizzy, and Adam, same as always, listening to the old cane droning on about the first moon landing. How old did he think we were? I swear, every history teacher feels the need to rehash everything else we had been taught.

My armor, such as it was, was working out pretty well. Derek and I had only taken six jobs since Friday; we needed a bit of a breather after the constant fighting. But still, the Minerva silk was holding up nicely.

Adam’s astronaut was in ‘sarian custody, as expected. Word had already spread about the mutiny and the USP takeover. It didn’t affect us directly, but a lot of Domina’s supplies came from free colonies, so we’d be hit hard regardless. The big nations never liked their investments deciding to simply go independent.

But we weren’t talking about that here. No current events, or indeed anything within the last twenty years. The old cane refused to even touch upon the toy maker. Ridiculous.

Lizzy, of course, was her usual bubbly self. All the horrors of the city never seemed to touch her. If anything, she seemed happier. Probably because the screamers hadn’t affected her at all, plus she was at college. She always did love meeting new people.

She was having trouble understanding what the teacher was saying—she always had that problem—so she kept leaning over to ask Derek for clarification. He tried to explain everything as best he could, but he kept getting distracted by her cleavage. In fairness, he avoided looking if at all possible, but that in itself was obviously costing him effort. He didn’t look at any other girl on the planet like that. What made Lizzy special? They met first? Unfair.

After about half an hour of this little dance, I had enough. I couldn’t watch it any more. But what was a I supposed to do? I couldn’t just ignore it; they were right in front of me. I couldn’t tell them to knock it off; they weren’t actually doing anything wrong. I could—

“Akane,” Adam whispered from the seat next to Derek, staring at me.

I glared at him.

Akane,” he repeated, more firmly using his gaze to gesture at my hand.

What was he going on about? I wasn’t—

My train of thought crashed and burned.

My hand was in my bag, on the hilt of my sword.

I felt like throwing up. I got up and ran out of the room as fast as I could without resorting to my power.

I heard the teacher’s voice cry out behind me. “Why do you people even come to my class!?”

I stopped in the hallway, breathing heavily. It couldn’t be. I couldn’t have been about to attack Lizzy. Sure, she was annoying, but it was Lizzy. She wouldn’t hurt a fly, and she wasn’t even stealing Derek’s affections on purpose. I was not a murderer, despite what my mother said. I didn’t kill just because it was convenient.

Footsteps behind me. My hand went to the throwing knives Maria had gotten me for my birthday, holstered at my elbow, as I turned around.

But it was just Adam, wearing a concerned frown.

“What’s with you? You feeling all right?”

I waved my hand weakly. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just…”

He looked back into the classroom. “Ah. Yeah. I can see how that would upset you.” He patted my shoulder and tried to smile. “Derek’s just a moron. Don’t worry about him. He’ll come around.”

I barked out a laugh. “No, he won’t.”

“Who won’t what?”

Derek had decided to follow us, Lizzy in tow. She, of course, clearly had no clue what was going on, and clearly didn’t care. She’s always very…zen.

I sighed. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

He shook his head. “It’s not nothing if it made your run out of class. What’s going on?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Just…a headache, that’s all.”

Derek nodded in understanding. “Yeah, I get those a lot too.”

That finally made Lizzy speak up. “You really need to see a doctor about that. If nothing else, I have some pills that might help…”

He quieted her with a raised hand. “No, I’m fine. It’s—” he blinked, and grinned at me in what he seemed to believe was understanding. “It’s nothing important.”

I sighed again. He still didn’t get it.

Maybe I should just leave. I didn’t trust myself around them right now, and I had a few other things I could be doing.

“Akane was just saying she was going to go see Doctor Clarke after class,” Adam stepped in. “But I think she should go now.”

Derek nodded. “You should. In fact, I’ll go with you.”

“No,” I said quickly. “I can go on my own. And this is…different from your headaches. I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll see you later.”

He looked like he was about to say something, but Lizzy grabbed him by the arm. “She said she’d be fine. C’mon, the professor is going to be mad enough as it is.”

Derek nodded, and they all went inside, Adam giving me a reassuring look as they did.

I leaned my back against the wall and took a deep breath, silently thanking Adam for coming up with a way to keep me out of the classroom. I would have been fine, I’m sure, but I needed to be alone for a little while.

“Akane?”

I looked up to see Flynn walking down the hall towards me.

Not now. I had been avoiding him for over a week. I had even skipped kendo. Now was not the time to talk this out.

“Flynn,” I said coldly by way of greeting. Hopefully he would take the hint and find an excuse to leave.

He didn’t.

“I didn’t know you had class right now. I haven’t seen you since your party. You all right?”

I took a step away from him, then kept going, walking back towards the dorms.

He followed. “Hey, you can’t just ignore me.”

“Can,” I insisted.

“Look, we seemed to be hitting it off, and you even—” he stopped as we passed a maintenance man, installing a new speaker in the corner. Once we were out of earshot, he continued. “—you even showed me your powers. And now you’re saying that’s just nothing?”

“Yes.” I didn’t want to explain further. I didn’t have a chance with Derek. I knew that. Even if Lizzy didn’t exist, he would never look at me like that. I had known that for eight years.

My ‘feelings’ for Flynn were just the result of my heart trying to find a viable target. He was an emotional substitute, nothing more. But if I pretended he was something more, things would quickly spiral out of control.

…but he had kept our secret.

He didn’t have to. Musashi’s sword, it was becoming more and more clear that there was no real need for it to be a secret. But he had kept our trust regardless.

I stopped and turned to face him. He swallowed anxiously, but held his ground.

“Maybe…not,” I admitted. “I’ve been…mean to you. You don’t deserve to be kicked out of the loop for no reason.”

He put his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t flinch. I should have, but I found I couldn’t move. “I don’t need to be in the loop. I just want to spend time with you.”

At least he knew what he wanted. Everyone knew what they wanted. Derek wanted Lizzy, Laura wanted to be left alone, Adam wanted Lily, and Ling wanted everyone.

But I still didn’t know. Derek was out of reach. Much as I liked to pretend otherwise, that was a fact, and it had nothing to do with Lizzy.

I didn’t know what to do. I had a billion different conflicting feeling I was still having trouble sorting out. Loyalty to Derek. Love for Derek. Respect for Flynn.

“Look, why don’t we just get some coffee?” he suggested. “Lily’s at the Starcup stand just down the street. We can go there while she waits for Adam to get out of class.”

And then what? A double date? That’s not what I wanted. Lizzy kept suggesting I do it, to ease myself into the ‘game,’ but its hard to take advice from her. She’s about as smart as a bag of rocks.

I was being unfair. Yes, Lizzy wasn’t very smart. But she was cunning. She knew what worked and what didn’t.

“Akane?” Flynn asked slowly. He didn’t want to force me to give him an answer, but my silence was probably making him uncomfortable.

But I still wasn’t ready for a date. Of any kind. I had been loyal to Derek for so long—in more ways than one—that I didn’t really know what to do with the romance side of things.

And it wasn’t just me. Flynn was eager. If I went out on a date with him, even just coffee, he’d take it as a sign I approved of a possible relationship. Which could be…good?

No. It would be very, very bad.

Flynn removed his hand from my shoulder and took a step back. “If you don’t want to, that’s fine. No pressure. I’ll just—”

“Wait,” I whispered, thinking. There was something Lizzy had said, when I mentioned some of my anxiety about dating.

My sparring partner frowned, but stayed.

“’Kisu o kaishi suru ni wa yoi bashodesu,’” I quoted slowly. She seemed completely convinced it would be enough to tell me everything I needed to know. Although to the best of my knowledge, she didn’t have any first-hand experience in the matter, so I don’t know where she gets these ideas.

Flynn’s brow furrowed further. “What are you—”

I stepped forward and kissed him.

Technically, it was my first kiss. Okay, yes, it was my first kiss, since the time Robyn got drunk and licked my face doesn’t count by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps giving it to Flynn wasn’t the best of ideas.

He was surprised at first, and nearly flinched away, but after a moment he wrapped his arms around me. He was warm, and more tender than I expected. Most of my experience with men other than Derek involves working with them for hunts or hunting them, so perhaps I should have expected him to be different.

My brain stopped working shortly after that, at about the same time that he slipped his tongue in my mouth.

I lost track of time for a while there, and I’m still not sure exactly how long we stood in the hallway, but it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Twenty, tops.

Eventually, I managed to break free.

He looked me right in the eye and smiled a little. “Um, not that I’m complaining, but what was that about?”

I felt all the blood in my body rush to my face in a flush of heat. Had I really just done that? What the hell did I do now?

Drawing on my mastery of the English language, I squeaked out an “Eep” before running away at superspeed. My power had been improving ever since I decided to drown the consequences and practice; now I could go for about twenty seconds (from my perspective) at full tilt.

So I was well out of Flynn’s sight by the time my reservoir ran dry. I placed my back against the side of the building and took a few long, deep breaths. It was a long day, and Lizzy’s advice hadn’t helped much. Kissing Flynn hadn’t told me anything, didn’t make my decisions any easier. I needed to go back to the dorm and take a long shower.

That’s about when I realized I had left my bag in the classroom.

Behind the Scenes (scene 62)

Flynn speaks a little Japanese. Just barely enough to recognize simple words. He immediately picked out “kisu” (kiss), but didn’t understand the rest.