Monthly Archives: May 2013

Scene 103 – Sumptu

SUMPTU

ARTEMIS

The fel threw herself at the strong metal mesh of her cage, snarling at us. Or trying to, anyway. Her mouth was open, but no sound came out, the wound that had severed her vocal cords years ago still visible as a scar on her furry throat.

“I told you, Artemis—she hasn’t settled down at all. She’s still clearly ‘aggressive.’ I don’t know why you expected her to revert.”

“It was just a theory,” I apologized, patting my friend on his shoulder. I looked down at him and smiled. He wasn’t too short, but I was tall, and he was hunched over with his fake age. “Weren’t you the one who told me to always tell you about my theories?”

Isaac rolled his eyes. “Because last time, it set me on the path to the toy maker.”

“Exactly. Sometimes you need a non-scientist to give you a fresh perspective.” I shrugged. “But if I was right every time, I’d be a scientist.”

He smiled a little. Just a little, though. We had far too much on our minds for humor.

“Admiral Ursler,” I addressed the old-looking ophidian woman who was patiently waiting a few steps behind us. “You have those numbers I requested?”

Like Isaac, Janelle Ursler used the toy maker to appear older than she actually was, but for her it was because no one would take her seriously otherwise. She was very young for an admiral. Not that I cared. I promoted my men based on merit, not age or position.

“Four biters,” she responded promptly. “One-hundred and twenty-eight burners. Five-hundred and three bats, nine-hundred and eighty bleeders, an even two-hundred skins, and nine-hundred and seventy two lasers.” She put the pad down. “That’s two-thousand, seven-hundred and eighty-seven total. That includes the ones gained in testing, accidents, and those lost due to accidents.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking the pad from her. “I appreciate the help.” We were short-staffed at the moment, so I had asked her to grab the data for me, even though normally someone of her rank would never have to play aide like that. “Now, what about your own report?”

“Sir,” she saluted crisply. “The Battle of Chronias was an utter failure. In addition to having the second-highest number of new screamers, we also had the highest number of deaths, and the second-highest amount of property damage. But even if that had all gone well, we still lost Zaphkiel.” She bowed—an interesting trick, with the massive tail that had replaced her legs. “I will accept any punishment you deem necessary.”

“None,” I said without hesitation, and the snake-kemo looked up at me in surprise. “You are an admiral. I know your skill on land is less than perfect.”

She worked her mouth silently, searching for something to say, before simply bowing her head again. “Thank you, sir.”

“I do have other questions, of course. First, how did Medina do?”

Ursler’s brow furrowed briefly, before clearing. “Oh, right, the Highlander.”

Now it was my turn to be surprised. “The…Highlander?”

She nodded. “Yes, one of my men moonlights as a bodyguard for Medina’s friend Lizzy. Apparently that’s her nickname for her.” The ophidian shrugged. “It kinda stuck with me.”

I waved my hand. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t matter. How did she do?”

“Pretty well, considering everything that went wrong. She got the Draculas whipped into shape quickly, and used them to take out the generators while the EMP had them disabled. After that, it was pretty much a turkey shoot.”

That was about what I had expected. All the reports I was getting praised Laura’s strategy; Victor and Maria would be pleased, at least. “That’s more than enough; I’m sure your written report will provide more detail.” I turned back to Kat, still thrashing about in her cage. She turned into a bat briefly and threw her herself against the double-layered mesh weakly a few times, before smoking back into a cat-girl. “What is the situation with the Northern Fleet?”

“The Rahabs are getting more aggressive—not something I would have thought possible. They probably think the screamers are weakening us.”

I snorted. “They are. The question is whether or not it will be a weakness the Rahabs can take advantage of. How many ships have we lost?”

“Just one so far, the Merchant Registry ship Eatonrun. Just a food supplier—as that ridiculous name implies—so there was minimal crew on board, and they all survived. We were also able to salvage most of the cargo, though the ‘habs stole enough of it to keep themselves going for a while.”

The Rahabs weren’t a culture, not really. They were just a gang, united by nothing but hatred. They were the last of the old gangs, in fact, largely because they kept to Whitecap Bay, where our forces were already spread thin.

But that was precisely what made them so dangerous. They didn’t have the numbers of any of the subcultures, but it didn’t take many men to sink a ship, if you knew what you were doing.

Well, I didn’t have time to worry about that right now. The screamers were taking all of my attention. “Thank you, Ursler. Admiral Briggs is in the West Wing. I’m sure you two have many things to discuss.”

The ophidian performed that strange bow again and slithered off to find her southern counterpart. It was indicative of our small navy that we had a grand total of two admirals.

I turned my attention back to my friend. “Well? How bad is it?”

He rubbed his forehead. “Between the cages, feeding them, and all the precautions we have to take in order to keep our guards and aides from getting infected…” Isaac shook his head. “Too much. It costs far too much.”

“Domina isn’t equipped with prisons,” Mary Christina noted from a wall speaker. “The city is a prison. I’m not sure how much longer we can last like this. We’re going to have to start eliminating captured screamers soon.”

I leaned heavily on my cane. Killing enemy combatants or criminals was one thing. But the only thing these people were guilty of was getting infected. If we just started throwing them to the dogs, there would be riots. And the public would find out. The Paladins would notice when the screaming started to die down, and Derek at least wouldn’t let it stand uncontested. And he wouldn’t be the only one.

“I take it you still haven’t had any luck curing them?” I asked Isaac.

He gave me a sad little smile; we both knew he would have told me about something that important. “No progress whatsoever. I think the singers might be the key, but we don’t have any of those in custody.”

“I hope that’s not what you called us here for.”

I turned at the cheerful voice to see Victor Medina and Maria Huntsman striding up.

I felt a smile find its way onto my face, despite the grim situation. Those two reminded me of happier times. “I wasn’t sure you two would make it.”

The full-bodied woman shrugged. “We were in the area. And getting past your security sounded like fun.”

I had given the pair a set of alpha-level security badges pretty much at the same time as we created the security system in the first place. Not that it mattered. They insisted on sneaking in every single time. Sometimes they actually succeeded, but most of the time my men just pretended not to see them.

“Well, nevermind that now. I have an assignment for you two.” I saw the disturbed looks on their faces. “And before you ask, it doesn’t involve capturing a singer.”

“As long as it’s not capturing the Composer himself instead, I think we’ll manage,” Maria said with a grin.

“I need you to find Zaphkiel.”

Victor leaned against the cages, either not noticing or not caring about the screamers trying (and failing) to claw at him. “What do you need the Watcher for?”

“And why do you need us to find him?” Maria pressed. “I thought you were still on relatively good terms with him.”

“I am. But he’s a screamer now, and the Composer has him.”

Maria groaned. “Silver moon and golden sun, Artemis. Can’t you ever give us anything easy?”

“If this was easy, I’d just send your kids.”

Victor held up his hand. “Wait one second.”

“Don’t worry, I know you’re busy tomorrow. This can wait a few days.”

“That’s not what I meant. We’re not exactly humble, we know we’re good. But surely you can’t expect us to beat a warlord, let alone a screamer?”

I started walking away from the cages, limping a little, and the others followed. “Don’t worry about that. I just need you to find him. I’ll have someone else capture him.”

Maria still sounded confused. “Who?”

I grinned a little wolfishly. “His mother, of course.”

Victor quickly stepped in front of me, blocking my path. “You can’t get her involved. If the Mother Monster is turned—”

I raised my hand to quiet him. “Simmer down, Victor. She won’t get close to him. She hates violence, anyway.”

Mary Christina spoke up from the speakers. “Let’s just say that the most powerful monster in the city will make good bait.”

“I did most of her buffs myself,” Isaac noted at Victor and Maria’s apprehensive looks. “They’ll never catch her.”

I smiled. “And that’s why she’s good bait.

Behind the Scenes (scene 103)

Yes, Domina does not have any prisons whatsoever. It works on a more simplistic fine and penalty system that doesn’t involve long-term incarceration. The fact that most criminals get shot before any sort of official legal action takes place also keeps things easy.

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Scene 102 – Invenire

INVENIRE

DEREK

“Use…the sleepers,” I said slowly. I rubbed my hair back. Silver and gold, that was unnecessarily cryptic. Though considering the man had been dying when he passed along the message, maybe it was the best he could do. “How, exactly?”

“That’s what I thought at first,” Laura responded breathlessly, as she fiddled with some device hanging from the ceiling. “We haven’t had much luck with them so far. But if what Akane’s singer said is true, then buried somewhere in their brains is the location of the Composer’s lair.”

“Are we really planning to listen to something a singer said?” Adam asked, as Lily cleaned up the burn on his shoulder. Zaphkiel had got a few good hits in as he was escaping. “It could have been the Composer spreading false information.”

“I thought he was shooting at you the whole time,” the little demon girl noted, as she grabbed some bandages. “Maybe he was distracted, and the singer was able to break free for a minute.”

Adam winced. “We don’t have any reason to believe he can’t pilot multiple screamers—or singers—at once. He’s proven to be holding back before.”

Laura waved her hand dismissively. “This is the first lead we have. Yes, it might be a trap. But we don’t have a choice.”

He shook his head. “No, there’s still that blind spot, remember? Did anyone do something with that?”

“Blind spot disappeared a little while ago,” MC commented from one of the wall speakers. “The Composer seems to move around a lot.”

“Which is why we need to jump on this as soon as possible,” Laura insisted. “Soon, the sleepers won’t know the way.”

Before Adam could get another word out, the doors to the lab burst open. “I did it! I finally did it!”

It was Doctor Clarke, in full surgical scrubs, holding something in his hands. He was ecstatic, jumping around like a kid at Christmas. It was at times like this that I was reminded he wasn’t much over fifty, and in the peak of his health, not the decrepit old man he pretended to be.

Laura sighed. “What is it, Doctor? We’re in the middle of something here.”

But the man wouldn’t be brought down that easily. He settled down a little, but he was clearly leashing his jubilation rather than squashing it. He had a childish grin on his face; yes, ‘kid at Christmas’ was the perfect analogy.

Look, look!” he said, showing her something in his hand. We all leaned in close…

It was a heart. A human heart.

Laura blinked. “You…you did it? Seriously?”

Ling backed up. “I think I need to puke.”

“There’s a trash can in the corner,” Clarke said off-handedly. “But I finally did it! I finally managed to create a fully functioning human heart!

I frowned. “So organ donation…”

“Is now completely unnecessary!” he cried. Then he backpedaled. “Well, not completely unnecessary. The heart is a relatively simple organ, for all its importance. But this is a massive step forward.”

Laura poked the mass of muscle very lightly with a finger. “You haven’t tested it yet, I take it?”

No, no.” Clarke jumped, nearly dropping the heart in the process, as a thought occurred to him. “That reminds me! Lily, whenever you’re ready, we can start the surgery.”

“We’re in the middle of something here,” she reminded him. “Planning for tomorrow. I’ll be in…say…Monday? The heart can keep until then. And it will give you time to make spares.”

The scientist nodded happily. “Of course, of course. It will be good practice. If we can replicate your heart, we can replicate anyone’s. I’ll leave you to it.” He headed out the same way he came in, literally giggling.

Ling frowned as she stepped forward again. I hadn’t heard her retching; it seemed she had managed to keep her dinner down. “Why can’t we tell him what we’re really doing, again?”

“Only the people in this room have been cleared,” Laura reminded her. “And trying to get a blood sample from Doctor Clarke would raise too much attention.”

The little Chinese girl rolled her eyes. “Yeah, thanks for that.” She glared at Adam. “Did you really have to go that far?”

He shrugged, unconcerned, as Lily finished his bandages. “It worked out in the end. Although I still think we should bring Lizzy in—”

“No,” Laura and I said at once. We looked at each other, and she nodded to allow me to continue, which I did. “No. We’re not getting her involved in this. She’s…” I shook my head to clear another migraine. “We’re not going to suck her into this. Not to mention you already failed getting a blood sample from her…what? Five times?”

Twice,” he corrected. “Including the time with Ling. It’s just bad luck. I can get it next time.”

“It would draw too much attention,” I insisted. “And it’s irrelevant anyway.” Not to mention he seemed to have bad luck getting these samples in general. He had mentioned he had tried to get some from Simon and his new girlfriend, but been interrupted by a gargant attack.

He threw up his hands in defeat, wincing at his wounds a little. “Fine. Then can someone tell me why my girlfriend is getting a heart transplant?”

Lily frowned. “Didn’t I tell you Doctor Clarke was using my cells as seeds for his project?”

Adam grimaced again as she tightened his bandage. “Nope.”

The slender horned girl shrugged. “Well, he is. It’s no big deal.”

He seemed ready to retort, but I changed the subject before he got a chance. “So how are we going to get the location from the sleepers? You still haven’t explained that.”

Laura patted the strange device she was working on. It looked like a large robotic arm, coming down from the ceiling, but instead of tools on the end there was a place to look into, like at the eye doctor’s.

“This is something Moradin cooked up a while ago. He designed it to help people remember their dreams. MC figured out a way to tweak it a little.” She grinned, and she suddenly didn’t seem quite as intimidating as people always claimed. Making progress on a project always did that to her. “Now you could call it a reverse hypnotism machine.”

I kept myself from raising a skeptical eyebrow by a force of will. I didn’t want to ruin this for her. “So…it will make the sleeper run his orders in reverse?”

She sighed, and her face went hard again. “No, of course not. But it will let him remember what happened, which should lead us to the Composer’s lair.”

“Why didn’t you already?” Akane asked from the corner, where she was keeping an eye on everything. She was insistent that the singer had been telling the truth, though she couldn’t say why. She probably saw something in his eyes that she couldn’t quite explain. I know from personal experience that there is a light in a dying man’s eyes that can reveal his entire character.

Laura coughed uncomfortably. “Well…yes. I haven’t done it yet for much the same reason Moradin let the project die. There are…side effects.”

Ling smiled knowingly, like she always did when a ‘plot twist’ came up. “Insanity? Hallucinations?”

“Well…yes,” Laura admitted. “But those are easily treatable. The problem is a bit more serious.”

I frowned. “What is it?” It must be serious, for her to beat around the bush like this.

Laura stuttered a little, hesitating even more, so MC stepped in.

“Their head explodes,” she said flatly. “A day or so after the treatment.”

Technically, just their brain explodes,” Laura corrected quickly. “The rest of the skull is fine.”

Lily looked up. “Wait, I’ve heard about this. Isn’t that exactly the sort of thing the Banyan party is trying to outlaw with the Mental Health and Safety bill?”

Laura looked uncomfortable. “Well…yes. But the law hasn’t been passed yet. The Kongeegen are blocking it, with the Iluvatar leaning towards passing it, and the Granit leaning towards not. But right now, it’s still between the Banyans and the Kongs.”

I glared at her, ignoring the political talk. “We are not killing someone.”

“Better than the Composer,” Akane muttered.

“She’s got a point,” Adam put in. “One life to stop this guy? Cheap at ten times the price.”

I stood firm. “The point is to not become monsters in order to stop a monster.”

“I’m already a monster!” Lily said cheerfully, though I saw a shadow in her eyes. She didn’t like this any more than I did.

I sighed. “Not the time.” I turned to Laura again. “If we had a volunteer, then maybe—

“Adonides already jumped at the call,” MC interrupted. “He offed a couple of his friends while he was under, and he’s chomping at the bit for some redemption.”

I silently counted to ten. Why were we even having this discussion?

“Derek,” Laura said as she stepped forward. Her hand edged to her necklace, but she stopped herself. “This isn’t like killing some random civilian for a one-in-a-million shot at finding the Composer. This is a very good chance, and Adonides knows how it will end.” She met my gaze, her black eyes unwavering. “I know you can stop this if you have a mind to. So I’m asking you, please, let us do this.”

I didn’t break the gaze. I didn’t say a single word.

Eventually, she broke eye contact, stepping back again, trying not to make it too obvious she was avoiding looking at me.

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Just…give me two days to think about it, okay? Can it wait ’til Sunday?”

Laura looked up and frowned. “It really shouldn’t…but I understand. Sunday.” She pushed a button, and the machine recessed back into the ceiling. “But we need to be ready at first light, Sunday morning. No delays.”

I nodded. “No delays.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 102)

It’s been seventeen days since the skins attacked, which means the “freshest” known sleepers are that old. Actually a little bit older, but still.

Scene 101 – Caelo Cecidisse

CAELO CECIDISSE

DELPHIE

“So,” I said bluntly. “Heaven has fallen.”

“Just the one,” Pam grunted.

“And it will be back up soon,” Yolanda added insistently. “It’s only been…six hours? Six hours or so, and they’ve already started rebuilding. The Draculas and the ‘sarians were able to take care of everything.”

Pam chuckled darkly. “Vampires helping rebuild a Heaven. Never thought I’d see the day.”

I scratched behind the ears of the mouse cradled in my lap. “Well, I’m sorry that I think one-seventh of the angels being dead or screaming is worth worrying about. Clearly I’m just overreacting.”

“It’s not that bad,” Zusa cut in. “I mean, most of the Chronians got away, right?”

Seena snorted. “Does it matter?”

Simon rubbed his forehead, between the horns. “Nine Hells sis, not you too…”

The Mal threw up her hands. “What? They assassinated my boss, and I’m not allowed to be a little pissed at them?”

“He wasn’t your boss yet,” I noted absently. I really didn’t want to get dragged into another rehash of the Twilight War. At least there weren’t any angels around, so it probably wouldn’t get physically violent.

“He was one of the better men in the city, and he got killed for no better reason than because he’s nocturnal.”

Veda quirked her head. “He was also the warlord of the Mals. He was an assassin, dearest. Maybe a moral one, but he definitely wasn’t innocent.”

Seena sipped her coffee. “Yeah, yeah. That’s what everyone says.”

“Probably ’cause it’s true.”

“Shove off, Headlights,” Jelena muttered. “A lot of people at this table have lost friends to angels.”

Zusa frowned. “That doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate the cycle of hatred. People are dead. Can’t we just call it a tragedy and ignore everything else?”

“Maybe once vamps stop getting killed in the street.” She shook her head. “Seriously, I think if I saw the Composer today I’d give him a medal.”

Yolanda glanced between the two, concerned. “You guys usually don’t get involved. What up?”

“There was an attack when I was still being held by the fey,” Jelena explained. “Mostly hit the Belians, but also the daevas and the ghouls.” She took another swig of coffee. “The cute Akoman I had my eye on got killed by some glowling you hadn’t even earned his knives.”

Pam spoke up. “You were gonna date a daeva?”

“Maybe,” the Glasyan muttered. “Never gonna know now.”

Something tugged at my subconscious, and I sniffed, trusting my enhanced olfactory senses to explain the situation. They didn’t disappoint.

I reached forward—careful not to dislodge the mouse in my lap—grabbed Jelena’s ‘coffee’ and sniffed it. “Fur and fang, what the hell is this?” It was clearly alcohol, but not of a kind I had ever seen.

Jelena snatched it back, spilling a little in the process. I swear the table started to sizzle where the liquid hit. “It’s just rum, Mom. No big deal.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I’ve smelled rum before, and—”

Seena hiccuped. “Seaweed rum. Got some as a thank-you gift from that Dagonite we rescued last week. Eric.”

I shivered. Just remembering the events of seven days ago made my heart race, and not in the good way. Caught between two gargants was not the way I expected to go.

Of course, thinking about my friends drinking seaweed rum wasn’t really helping my nerves any. “Ah…tell me you guys at least watered that down with something.”

Seena nodded sagely. “Yes. Rum.”

“Whelp, I guess I know what I’m getting you for Christmas,” Simon said bitterly. “I’ll pay to repair your alcohol-induced blindness.”

His sister winced, but still took another swig. “It’s not that bad…”

The sibriex fixed her with an icy glare. “Yes, it is.”

Yolanda stared at her boyfriend. “…am I missing something here?”

Seena adjusted her daygoggles, annoyed at having to explain. “Our mother was an alcoholic.” She shrugged. “Also, we were born blind. I’m pretty sure that’s unrelated, but I dunno.”

The little blonde demon bit her lip. “So you were blind for the first…” She squinted as she did some quick math in her head. “Three years of your lives?”

“Seven,” Simon corrected. “Toys like that weren’t available right off the bat, you know.”

She blushed. “I-I’m sorry! I didn’t—”

Zusa patted her hand in a friendly manner. “Most of us didn’t pay too much attention to what was going on when we were kids. I’m sure Simon understands.”

The sibriex didn’t say anything.

“I said I’m sure Simon understands.”

He suddenly winced and grabbed his leg under the table. “Ow! Why’d you kick me?”

The Nosferatu just smiled innocently. “Oh, no reason. You’re just being an ass again.”

“What—hey, I was just thinking.” He rubbed his leg, or more specifically his ankle. “This whole thing just reminded me of Jacob.”

“That would be…” I tapped my finger on the table. “I can’t remember. Was he one of the ones in the shootout at the beginning of the semester?”

Simon shook his head. “No, that was David. Jacob died years ago. I don’t think you ever met him.”

“Hm. Who else died in that one? The shootout, I mean? It was in vamp territory, so…”

“Orbek,” Seena noted, sipping at her drink again. Simon frowned and snatched it away from her. She grimaced, but didn’t protest. “I think you remember him. Young orc with fighting claws? Some Levisans snipped them off with bolt cutters. David killed most of them, but…” She shrugged. “All he had was a pistol. He got killed pretty quickly.”

Simon sniffed the drink and winced. “Ugh, Nine Hells, how can you—nevermind. I thought you didn’t know how David died.”

His sister shrugged. “Malach told me.”

Pam blinked. “That’s an angel name.”

It was also a name I recognized. “He’s still sweet on you?”

The vampire assassin shrugged and slumped against the tabletop. Her answer was muffled by her arms. “I guess. He didn’t try and kill me, anyways. He just thought I might want to know how a friend of mine kickstarted the Twilight War.”

“Again,” Jelena deadpanned.

“Again,” Seena corrected, with a small pained smile. “Though the war kinda lost steam with the Composer and everything.”

“I wonder if that was the point?” Pam mused, leaning back in her chair and staring up at the sky. “Everyone’s been wondering about the Composer. None of his actions make sense.” She shrugged. “Maybe he’s trying to be an enemy for us to fight, to unite against.”

“Spare us the Social Darwinism,” Seena grunted. “Over three thousand people are dead. Plus Chronias.”

Pam leaned forward again and shook her head. “No, that’s exactly my point. Only a few hundred people are dead. Three thousand are screaming—and if there’s a cure out there, then suddenly the deaths are barely a blip on the radar.”

Simon closed his eyes. “Pam, you…” he shook his head. “I’ve heard that argument before, but I just don’t buy it. There’s too much chaos and destruction.”

The plain baseline shrugged. “Well, yeah. It wouldn’t be much of a threat if he didn’t do any damage at all. But it’s still less than the angels and vampires would do if they had a chance.”

Yolanda gripped her boyfriend’s arm to get his attention. “You know…my uncle did say they were worried that the next Twilight War would drag the whole city into it. Maybe that’s related?”

“I think you’re all thinking about this too short-term,” Veda said slowly, not looking up from her phone. “Zaphkiel sponsored a lot of orphanages, and he made sure the kids were raised right. No brainwashing them with angelic propaganda, just letting them grow up. Who knows what will happen now, with him out of the picture?”

The mouse in my lap perked his head up, probably hearing something I couldn’t, and leapt off my lap. I ignored it, in favor of pondering the implications of the cherve’s statement. “So you think maybe this had something to do with toppling the Watcher from his position as leader?”

“Erathoal is in charge of education,” Jelena muttered. I was surprised she had been paying attention. “Maybe he wants more propaganda?”

It was a sign of how drunk the vampire was that I had to explain politics to her. “The Arch-Saints don’t fight amongst each other, you know that.” The angels in general were pretty good about keeping out of civil wars, but they weren’t perfect. The Hebdomad, however, were close friends, and had founded the culture together. I couldn’t imagine them turning on each other.

Simon leaned back in his chair, as if exhausted. “Nine Hells, its obvious. Why didn’t I think of it before?”

Other than the drunk girls, we all stared at him skeptically. Think of what?

He shook his head. “Don’t you see? This isn’t about politics or propaganda or whatever. Remember the bats? They spread the fastest, because it was a vampire domain.”

Pam frowned. “Yeah, so?”

“So?” the demon shook his head again. “So this attack was to weaken the angels, the natural enemy of the vampires, and the ones most capable of fighting them. So that when the Composer starts sending them to infect the city, there’s less resistance.” He gripped Yolanda’s hand gently.

I closed my eyes as I figured it out. “He’s preparing for his end game.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 101)

This…could have gone better.

Oh, and the Dagonite just delivered the rum to Seena and Jelena today. It took him a while to find them.

Scene 100 – Lux

LUX

?

I ignored the pain in my hand, the pain in my eye. I had a few toys to dull it, but mostly I just gritted my teeth and bore it. I had been a soldier since I was fifteen years old. I had taken worse hits than a knife to the eye.

The samurai girl, Akiyama, sidestepped my charge easily enough, and then increased the distance by a few more paces. She wasn’t using her power; she was being cautious. She didn’t know what I was capable of.

Worked for me.

Our powers were at roughly equal development, I think, but I was still at a massive disadvantage. There was barely any light; I was forced to use what little starlight leaked through the clouds. The screamers—or chorus, as the Composer called them—were far too weak to even manage that.

But that wasn’t the real problem.

The problem was that I wasn’t trying to kill her.

The Composer had strongly encouraged killing the Paladins at the first opportunity, so long as it was a ‘fair and honorable fight’ (complete with air quotes), but I knew better. I had worked hard to get that creature to trust me, to convince it that I would be more useful without the failsafes the others had.

All screamers and singers started out as ‘defensive,’ but if they tried to go against the Composer’s wishes, even for a moment, they switched to ‘aggressive,’ which was basically autopilot. Due to some fast talking when I was first captured, the Composer had removed (or perhaps simply never added them in the first place) the normal hypnotic blocks he put in all his creations. That meant I had free will. Mostly, anyway.

I needed to keep the Paladins alive. I needed them to find out what the Composer was up to, what his plans were. Sure, I had some idea; the bastard didn’t make any effort to hide his bloodlust. But there was someone else pulling the strings here, keeping the Composer from going too crazy, and I wanted to know who. And stop them.

I wasn’t in a position to stop the Composer. I didn’t know who he was—men and monsters, I didn’t even know his real gender. I didn’t have most of the hypnotic blocks, but I still had the one that made it impossible to identify him. Whenever I met him in person, he looked different, his image twisting and writhing before my very eyes. It gave me a headache.

Akiyama dashed forward at super speed again, and I barely got my screen up in time.

I couldn’t afford to be distracted. Right now, I needed to figure out how to get both of us out of this alive.

My reservoir was mostly spent; with the current level of ambient light, I could barely do more than a single screen before I had to wait for it to replenish.

Luckily, the swordswoman didn’t know that, and dodged to a few feet away, watching me warily. If she attacked now I wouldn’t be able to stop her, but she didn’t know that.

I did have some advantages over her, though. I could give orders to the screamers, tell them where to find her and to attack. I was hesitant to do that though, not least because it wasn’t the direct, fine-tuned command that the Composer had. He had simply left a standing order for them to obey me, and using the link we all shared, I could issue instructions. But I couldn’t take direct control, which limited my options. Orders or not, they were still stupid.

Sure, I could make the singers attack all at once, but they’d just end up killing her. But if I tried to communicate, I risked the Composer finding out. No, I needed to disengage as quickly as possible. Merely demonstrating my intelligence should be enough to set the Paladins on the right path. Probably.

Before she got the nerve to strike again, I dashed forward, making sure to keep her outside of my blind spot. I feinted with the knife, and when she instinctively raised her sword, I struck her wrist with my other hand hard enough to crack bone.

She didn’t drop her weapon—she was experienced, to be sure—but her strength was greatly diminished. Her wrist probably wasn’t actually broken, but it definitely hurt like hell. She wouldn’t be able to use that hand for a while.

Perfect. Now I just needed to disable one of her legs. Even at super speed, she wouldn’t be able to follow me on a sprained ankle. And it did need to be sprained, not broken. The screamers would get her if her injuries were too bad, and the Composer would notice if I ordered them to hold back.

“Over here! I see them!”

I glanced towards the source of the shouting and cursed. It was a vampire, about fifteen feet away, wielding what looked like a tranquilizer rifle. I couldn’t see his emblem well enough to identify his subculture, but there were more behind him, neutralizing the screamers with military efficiency.

This was the last thing I needed right now. If I was captured, nothing good would come of it. I was under no illusions that the Composer would cheerfully kill me if I became a liability. And I was pretty sure he could take direct control of me, even without the hypnotic blocks, so he’d probably make me commit suicide.

But maybe…

Yes, I could use this to my advantage. I opened the link to the other singers, gave the order, and waited. A heartbeat later…

Day broke.

The angelweight had been quite effective, at first. Screamers and singers weren’t smart enough to find the Grace bracelets, put them on, and activate them. I was, of course, but I wasn’t an angel, and even if I was, Necessarius would have gotten very suspicious if they noticed that the entire horde were wearing the things.

But a solution had presented itself very quickly: The angelweight didn’t stay in the air as long as they thought. It only lasted about half an hour. The effects lasted much longer, true, but it was a simple matter to administer the Grace to everyone affected when the ‘sarians weren’t looking, and then simply order them not to use their dayskins.

There was no need for that any more.

Every single infected angel initiated a daybreak at once, bathing the entire street white. Even with my hands over my closed eyes, everything was just one massive blob of white that scorched my eyes.

The vampires were far worse off. Their screams of pain momentarily drowned out even the screamers, until they fell unconscious seconds later. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a few were actually killed from the shock, and I’m sure a large number were permanently blinded. Well, as permanent as anything is when the toy maker is involved.

As I ran as far from Akiyama as I could, I ordered the rest of the singers to retreat as well, with the screamers protecting us. The Composer had claimed that there was a limited window in which killing a singer would cure the screamers they had turned, but I knew he wasn’t telling me everything. I could feel him doing something to the screamers when they were ones I had personally turned—I just couldn’t tell what. I didn’t have enough experience with it yet.

A voice resounded in my mind suddenly. “We’re retreating. Now.”

I almost replied out loud (I wasn’t used to the telepathy thing yet), but thankfully my mouth was too occupied singing. It was the strangest thing. It was like there was a switch in my head I could turn on and off that controlled the singing. I didn’t have to think about it at all. It was just like turning on a hose.

“What’s the problem?” I thought back.

“No problem. That’s the point. I got what I came for.”

“Which…was?”

“The warlord.”

It took me a second to figure out what he was talking about. When I did, it hit me like a ton of bricks. “Wait, the warlord as in Zaphkiel? The Watcher?”

“Yes. Now stop talking. I have to concentrate on piloting him. Return to the meeting point. Feel free to sacrifice as many chorus and conductors as you need to to escape.”

The presence faded from my mind, and I had a chance to think again.

If the Composer had managed to turn a warlord, that was either very bad or game over, depending. I didn’t think the Saint would ever willingly cooperate, so at least that meant he would be locked into ‘aggressive,’ and therefore stupid. That was the worst possibility out of the way.

But there were many, many things the Composer could do with a warlord’s body, resisting or not. And the Paladins hadn’t made any real gains here. The captured screamers would just be another drain on their resources, and wouldn’t get them any closer to finding his base.

But…I knew where his base was.

I couldn’t tell them explicitly where it was. Even ignoring the fact that the Composer would kill me, he’d just pack up and move locations. Probably cover his tracks better the next time around. Even though he was distracted right now, he’d soon catch wind if I left a note or whatever. Not to mention that there was no guarantee the right people would get it.

If I could get close to Akiyama without her killing me…no, no the Composer would wonder why I wasn’t running away, would pay more attention, and would be able to hear me tell her the secret. And then, again, everything would become moot.

Then she was in front of me.

She was mostly blind from the daybreak. She had been forced to fight her way through a couple hundred screamers—all of whom could see perfectly—and was covered in their gore. Finding any specific singer in the horde was completely impossible.

But here she was.

Also, as a side note: Girls should not look that good drenched in blood.

Her eyes still watering, she raised her sword above her head (causing her wet silk armor to cling very closely to her chest), ready to chop me in half.

I didn’t have time to think. If I knew her, she would activate her speed on the downward swing, and I would be in two pieces before I could blink. I don’t know if, with hindsight, I would have done something differently with more time to think about it. It wasn’t that stupid of a move, in all honestly.

I just took a step back.

Instead of slicing me in half, the samurai’s sword cut a long, deep gash in my front. I could feel my organs beginning to push themselves out of my gut, I could feel blood soaking my clothes.

And, most importantly, I could feel the Composer’s gaze leave me, as it became clear I wasn’t going to kill anyone.

I would never have a better chance. I ignored all the pain screaming at me, I ignored the fact that I barely had enough blood left in my body to stand. I threw myself forward, into Akiyama’s stunned arms. Luckily, she was too surprised to get her sword up again; instead she just caught me.

“The sleepers,” I managed to gurgle into her ear. “Know the way. Don’t trust anyone…”

I’m not really sure how long it took me to die. It felt like years, centuries. Oh, my body died within a few minutes. Akiyama was too good with a sword for anything else. But I…lingered for much longer. Was it just fading electrical signals in my undamaged brain? Or perhaps something else?

I guess I’ll never know.

Behind the Scenes (scene 100)

In all fairness, Laura would have figured this out with or without the clue; the singer’s little hint just sped up the timetable a little.

Now we get to see what kind of safeguards the Composer has in place for this kind of eventuality.