“Ling,” a harsh voice called, while rough hands shook me. “Ling, wake up.”
“Nnngh?” I opened one eye a crack to see an annoyed Akane standing over me.
“Screamers again,” she said without preamble, and started dressing at super speed.
Now that I was awake and she had mentioned it, I could hear new screamers, far to the north. It was just hard to sift it all out from the background noise of the captured ones.
It had been a week and two days since the shopping trip with Lizzy, not to mention a little over two weeks since the last screamer attack—which, of course, I hadn’t participated in.
I was tired. It was barely even morning, sometime around two, and I had been up late playing with my armor. In fact, I had fallen asleep with it on, which hadn’t helped anything.
“Five more minutes,” I muttered.
I heard Akane step up to my bed. “By Musashi’s sword, that’s not happening.”
I instantly snapped awake as I felt her grab me by the torso and yank me out of bed at super speed, pulling me towards the open window.
Despite the danger, I couldn’t help noticing the strange sensations of super speed. Akane had never mentioned it, which was hardly a surprise. Maybe it was different for her, or maybe she just didn’t feel like talking about it. But for me, it felt like being dragged underwater. Warm and fluid, like every molecule of air was trying to hold me back.
Then she threw me out the window, and everything went back to normal.
Except the fact that I was falling thirty floors to my death, of course.
With the cold wind and burst of adrenaline, all thoughts of sleep were gone. Thankfully, I had enough experience with getting thrown in soccer that I didn’t waste any precious seconds screaming or flailing in terror.
The first thing I did was flip so that my feet were facing the ground, using my powers on the plates in my armor (which I thanked Tezuka I had worn to bed). Fighting gravity was more difficult. I had the power, no question, but that was part of the problem. I had too much power, so I usually just ended up sort of bobbing up and down until my reservoir ran out. When I was practicing, it was no big deal. Here, it was a matter of life and death.
Luckily, I had been practicing, and I was able to pull up on my armor with enough strength and control to slow me down. I still hit hard, and my ankles buckled under me, but I was alive. Sore, yes, but alive and kicking.
I settled onto my hands, breathing deeply and willing my jack-hammering heart to slow. Velvet hell, what was that? Even if Akane had known I was wearing my armor, it still seemed…like an overreaction. To say the least.
But I didn’t have time to get mad about it, I was sure, and I doubted anything good would come of confronting her about it later. I guess…I guess I’d just have to forget about it.
Yeah, forget about being thrown out a window. I’d get right on that.
Kelly appeared at my side within moments, her pistol held at the ready in a two-handed grip. “You okay? What happened?”
I shook my head. “I…” I sighed. “I decided to jump out the window. You know, as a test.”
The Belian raised an eyebrow. “Did you try to flirt with Derek around Akane again? I told you she’d fight back eventually.”
“No, actually,” I admitted, standing slowly. I was a little nauseous from the spinning on the way down, but it was fading fast. “I wouldn’t get out of bed.”
“So she threw you out the window?”
“She’s not a morning person.”
“I gathered.” The vampire glanced back at the van, scratching the fixer still strapped to her arm. “Well, whatever. I hope the others are down quick. The attack is at North Outer this time. Janelle is having a hell of a time.”
I didn’t know which Janelle she might be referring to, and that wasn’t the most important part anyway. “Where’s the attack? Exactly, I mean?”
“Chronias,” the vampire said flatly. “The Illuminated Heaven.”
The others came down quickly enough, and after a few questions about why I decided to jump out the window, we were off. Jarasax was insisting on driving faster than normal—which was saying something—and we were able to use some Necessarian shortcuts, but it still took nearly an hour and a half to reach our destination.
“How much longer?” Adam asked, glancing at the GPS on his phone. “We should be there already.”
“We are,” the driver said grimly, pulling to a stop next to a dark ‘scraper on an even darker block. Now that I was paying attention, I realized I hadn’t seen any lights for a few minutes. “This is it.”
I had already noticed the screamers were nearby, of course, but Adam didn’t have that luxury. We weren’t quite close enough to hear with normal senses yet.
“I thought we were stopping by Chronias?” Alex inquired. “The actual headquarters, not just the general domain.”
“We are,” the changeling repeated. He pointed to the skyscraper, over a hundred floors high and without a single light on. “That’s it.”
I think my heart stopped in my chest.
That couldn’t be.
It was impossible.
Alex slid open the van’s door as fast as he could and stumbled outside, retching onto the unlit street.
Adam was just confused. “What’s wrong?”
Laura was the one who managed to answer. “What the hell do you think the angels’ sanctuary would look like, you moron?”
He glanced around at our horrified faces. “More…light, I guess?”
That was the understatement of the century. The Heavens were impossibly beautiful. Covered in mirrors and magnifying glasses stretching out from the central structure like the limbs of a tree, during the day Chronias reflected the sunlight with unspeakable perfection, looking like nothing so much as a giant tree made of light.
At night, depending on the state of the moon, artificial lights would be used to produce a similar effect, but even more striking. Without the sun to interfere, the light architects could craft even more impressive displays, such as a small-scale aurora borealis that would hang about the Heaven like a warm cloak. Even though the sky was overcast, the skyscraper should have been glowing bright enough to see for miles.
But it was dead. Completely dead, not even the smallest spark of light dancing in its heart. I might not have any love for the angels, but seeing them brought low so quickly…
“It’s not as bad as it looks.”
We all turned to see a demon, cloaked in soft red light from a lantern hanging from a staff he carried, standing on the street a few feet from Alex. He nodded to the dark ‘scraper. “The screamers here can manipulate light. They had to turn everything off, otherwise it would be like just handing a bomb to the enemy.”
That made sense, to everyone’s unimaginable relief. It also explained why all the other lights in the past few streets were off as well.
“The compound isn’t far,” the demon promised. “We actually saw you guys drive past.”
We all filed after him quickly enough, though Alex took some coaxing. He kept glancing back over his shoulder, as though to reassure himself the Heaven hadn’t crumbled into dust when he wasn’t looking.
It quickly became clear that we really had driven right past the ‘sarian redoubt. It was nestled in a wide alley just a few minutes walk from where we had stopped, out of sight of the road.
Once we clambered past a hastily-erected barricade made of parked cars—parked, not stacked—we found ourselves in a small tent city. The alley was nearly big enough to be a road itself, but it was a dead end with nothing important, so no one had bothered to give it a name.
The entire camp was illuminated by that same soft red light as before. It was nightlight; nothing special, just bright enough for baseline eyes to see, but not so bright to blind nighteyes.
I noticed that none of the armed men and women were angels, though only a small fraction wore Necessarian armbands. What few angels I did see were sitting on the ground, as though waiting for something.
Laura noticed the same thing. “The angels can’t see in this light?”
“Barely,” our guide answered as we navigated the small maze of tents. “They raised a fuss at first, but then some idiot daybroke over at Camp Beta, and the whole place was nearly destroyed. Quieted down, after that.”
Derek was the next with a question. “How many of these camps do you have?”
“Ten. Got about two hundred souls in each.”
Derek frowned. “I hope that’s more than it sounds.”
“Nope. There are about five hundred thousand people in the threatened area. There aren’t that many screaming yet, but that will change. They’re just hiding in their houses, that’s no defense.”
We had reached the end of the camp by now, blocked off by the back wall of a building. An old woman, maybe fifty years old, looked up from a table strewn with papers. “Thank you for getting them up to speed, Gavin. Return to your duties.”
The demon saluted, then left quickly.
The woman came out from behind the table, and even in the dull red light, it became clear she wasn’t baseline. Although her upper body was normal, her legs had been replaced—or, more accurately, fused together. Whatever the exact process, the result was a long, sinuous snake tail, which she used to slither over to us with ease.
“I am Admiral Janelle Ursler,” the ophidian said without preamble. “And you would be the Paladins. What do you need to know?”
“First, we need to know more details about the screamers,” Laura said, stepping into her role as strategist smoothly. “Gavin said they could control light. To what extent?”
“Also,” I couldn’t help myself asking. “Why is an admiral in charge?”
“They can shoot beams of light which explode on contact,” she said, ignoring my question. “Not a big explosion, not even enough to kill a man, but it adds up quickly. We’ve also spotted quite a few singers, which is how it’s spreading so fast. We killed a couple, but it hasn’t had much effect.”
Laura frowned. “I should have expected as much. I take it you killed any angels they captured? Otherwise, we’d have seen their light.”
“Actually, we found an alternative solution.”
We all turned to see a massive naked and androgynous angel stride forward with all the grace he could muster, despite the fact that he clearly couldn’t see more than two feet in front of him.
He was nearly seven feet tall, with unblemished alabaster skin, even in the dull glow of the nightlights. He was muscled like a championship boxer, but moved gracefully—again, even though he was basically blind.
I don’t pay too much attention to the angels, but even I recognized him.
Zaphkiel, the Watcher, founder of the angels. Arch-Saint of Chronias, warlord of the Illuminated Host. He hadn’t led a battle in years, but warlords spent millions on their bodies. I had no doubt that this man could fight off armies with his bare hands, half-blind or not.
But against an enemy that can infect you with a single drop of blood, he was powerless.
“We spread angelweight through the air,” he explained. “It negates the abilities of the dayskin, rendering the turned angels powerless.”
“I’ve heard about that,” Laura said slowly. “It’s a drug,” she explained for the benefit of the rest of us. “It works through skin contact, acts fast, with few side effects, and is very easy to cure.” She turned back to the warlord. “You have a stock of the Grace?”
The massive angel tapped what looked like a watch on his wrist. “Every angel in our domain has one of these. It is a simple matter to administer some Grace, which will cure the angelweight in minutes. However, the screamers are not intelligent enough to use it.”
“Inspired,” Derek admitted. “Hopefully, we can finish this up soon. With the drug distributed, the skies are safe, and we can spread some sleep gas around.”
“Can’t,” Laura cut in. “We’re out.”
I blinked. “The entire city is out of sleeping gas?”
She glared. “Yes, actually. They’ve been using a lot of it, to get the screamers to the prison facilities. And then a few days ago, the manufacturing plant shut down when one of the employees threw himself down a very important maintenance shaft.”
I shivered. That would be more sleepers, no doubt. Laura said she had something in the works regarding that, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence on that front. Villains don’t have their main plots foiled because a scientist finally figured out a cure or whatever. Maybe if this was a sub-plot…
Derek interrupted my thoughts with his accusatory tone. “You were going to mention this when?”
Laura just rolled her eyes. “Until today, I had no reason to suspect it was anything but an accident. Silver and gold, it might have been. We still don’t know how the Composer works.”
The blond man opened his mouth to say something, then apparently decided not to bother arguing. “That’s a question for another time,” he said decisively. “Akane, Ling and I are going back the way we came, to see if we can make a dent in the screamers.”
I frowned. I hated being ordered around. The fact that his orders actually made sense made it easier to deal with, but only barely.
“Good luck,” Laura said. “And be careful.”
We left swiftly, finding our way back to the disturbingly dark Chronias within a few minutes. Once we were out of the nightlights, our eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness, but with the cloud cover, it was still only enough to see vague shapes.
“It’s times like this I wish I had nighteyes,” I muttered. That got a smile out of the others, but nothing else. It’s not like we had time to rectify that.
It wasn’t hard to find the screamers, even without any light. Even without our ability to sense them at a distance, we would have stumbled upon them soon enough.
There were a lot of them. A thousand, maybe more, just standing in the streets screaming. Apparently, without light to manipulate, they were largely helpless. Sure, they smashed windows and threw garbage cans around, but it was nothing a few small community cleanup projects wouldn’t fix. It almost seemed silly.
No. Silly wasn’t the right word. Petty. The Composer had a horde of night-blind, helpless screamers, and was angry about it. This was all he could do with them.
Which made me realize something.
“The Composer is going to be here soon with light,” I warned. “Or he’ll manage to use one of these to turn on a light switch.”
Akane shrugged. “Kill them before then, then.”
Derek shook his head. “No. No killing unless absolutely necessary. We can capture them, like the others.”
“No time, like Ling said,” Akane admonished with a frown. “On the clock here.”
“Then we’d better move fast.” His tone brooked no argument. He headed forward, into the crowd of blind, violent screamers, and we reluctantly followed.
It became clear that we didn’t even need to fight. Most of the zombies had dayeyes, and thus were completely nightblind, so all we had to do was be a little careful to keep out of their way. The majority of the civilians had apparently managed to keep away from the singers, which was definitely a good sign. Without a source of fresh bodies, this battle would just take time.
Time we didn’t have, unfortunately.
“Singers are in the middle,” Akane noted after a minute of moving very cautiously through the screamers, avoiding their flailing limbs by inches. “If we can kill them, this gets much easier.”
“Unless Derek insists we can’t kill them,” I muttered drily.
“We wouldn’t be able to carry them out,” Derek replied. “And with the package, nothing short of killing will keep them down for long. A few dozen deaths for a few thousand lives is an acceptable trade.”
That’s what he said, anyway. But the firm set of his shoulders and frustrated look in his eyes made it clear that he didn’t like the idea.
“Akane, scout ahead,” he ordered tersely, likely to distract himself.
She sped off without a word, while we followed at a slower pace. Stopping was out of the question; the zombies were easy enough to avoid while moving, but if we stayed in the same place they’d pile on us in seconds.
“Counted about a dozen,” the swordswoman informed us as she blurred to Derek’s side. “Probably more.”
Derek nodded. “Let’s kill them quickly. If we’re lucky, the screamers will be cured.”
It was a long shot, and everyone knew it, but there was still the chance.
But then the lights turned on.
I shielded my face against the sudden glare, but even half-blind I could tell what was going on. Every building along the street, every streetlight…the entire horde was suddenly bathed in light. On the other side of the street, opposite of where we came, I saw screamers maintaining a number of portable generators, which were probably hooked up to everything else.
And suddenly, the screamers could see us.
A trap. Wonderful. Should have known it was too easy.
Behind the Scenes (97)
I did actually research lasers and so on, but there’s only so much you can do in this situation. Physicists give you weird looks when you tell them you need to know how light would act when weaponized using fosikinesis.