Monthly Archives: June 2013

Scene 107 – Cloacae

CLOACAE

AKANE

After the Canian had started screaming, it didn’t take us long to realize the problem was simply that he was tied down and freaking out. So we let him go and followed him when he ran. Which was…here.

Shendilavri.

It was a broken place, even five years later. No one wanted to get near anything the Succubus Queen had touched. Oh, the surface looked clean enough, the fallen ‘scraper had been cleaned up within a few months, and a nice big automated factory churning out shoes was built.

But in the sewers, where Adonides had led us, it was another story entirely.

It was a big sewer, even for Domina, so it was like a green, smelly river with two equally smelly banks on either side. Christmas lights—long since burned out—twined around the bridges like vines, probably meant to light the way in the gaudiest way possible. Hedonistic artwork covered the walls, only barely decayed by half a decade of humidity and filth.

We had left the Canian at the entrance, with the retinue. Other Necessarian forces would be arriving soon, and they’d be able to follow us down, but right now we needed someone watching our backs.

I was in front, my sword out, with Adam just a few steps behind me. Laura was in the middle, with Derek and Ling bringing up the rearguard.

I thought it was a little silly bringing Adam and Laura along, but Derek wouldn’t budge. Adam’s guns would be invaluable in this enclosed space, and he already had his headphones on, just in case. Laura was here both in case Lizzy needed a medic, and because she had a much better sense of direction than the rest of us.

He had a point on that last one. He and I had gone sewer-diving before, of course, but we got lost a lot. If there was a way to avoid that, I was all for it.

We hadn’t seen any enemies yet, which wasn’t really that odd—we weren’t far from the entrance—but it still had me on edge.

Adam stopped, a confused look on his face, and the rest of us followed suit.

“Something wrong?” I whispered.

He frowned. “I think I heard something…scratching, I think.”

I nodded. Rats would be extremely common down here. It was a good sign, actually. If there were screamers, they would probably have already killed off any competition.

Of course, with those headphones of his, Adam hardly had the best hearing in the group. It could have been just a burst of glitchy static, but it was best to be careful anyway.

But he quickly turned out to be correct—I could hear something up ahead, past the bend in the passage.

I signaled the others to stop and sped forward, fast enough that I would be a blur to anyone watching. I peeked around the corner, cursed, and fled back.

“Report,” Laura snapped a little bit harshly. She looked on edge, which was surprising. Was that because she didn’t like being on the front lines, or because she was worried about Lizzy?

Either way, I complied without hesitation. “Clawed jumper swarm ahead. Big one. And where there are jumpers…”

“There are leapeaters,” Derek finished. He brushed his hair back in frustration. “Wonderful.”

Adam started loading some type of shot into his St. George as the scratching sound grew louder. He was learning; that was perfect against swarms. “Anyone going to tell me what clawed jumpers are?”

“Evil frogs,” Ling replied, limbering up.

Adam rolled his eyes. “Anyone else?”

Then a swarm of evil frogs rounded the corner.

Each one was pretty big, for a frog; about the size of a fist. Both their hind- and fore-legs ended in sharp claws, both for defense and to help them latch onto things. They were all purple with big black eyes, and they advanced forward like a rolling carpet, each individual amphibian jumping a few feet at a time.

The claws, however, were only an annoyance. The real danger was that they were extremely poisonous. They secreted a dangerous toxin through their skin, which was absorbed by touch. While the dose you would get from a single frog was only enough to make you queasy, there were dozens in a swarm, which was enough poison to kill you in minutes.

Well, there were dozens in a normal swarm.

This one had a couple hundred.

I stepped back, my mouth set in a grim line, and Adam took the opening I gave him to fire his St. George. The shotgun roared, echoing around the sewer loud enough to hurt my ears and belching forth flame, taking out ten or more of the little monsters. The second I heard him eject the spent shell, I activated my speed and rushed forward.

Normally, of course, a sword is all but useless against a swarm. A bunch of tiny foes, all close to the ground and biting at your legs is simply not the type of enemy a blade is designed for. Jumpers are a little bit easier. Since they spend half their time in the air, it gives you a perfect opportunity to slash them. The only problem is that they’re probably faster than you are, so you need superhuman reflexes to be able to consistently fight them.

Luckily, I had super speed.

Half a dozen frogs leaped towards me as if in slow motion, almost like they were just waiting for me. I didn’t disappoint; I slashed each one in half quickly and efficiently, then fell back. I had enough left in my reservoir to kill dozens more, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I had suffered jumper poison once, and it wasn’t an experience I intended to repeat.

Derek stepped in front of me as more frogs jumped, catching them on the glowing blue shield he had on his arm. I wasn’t really quite sure how that worked; its not like he could strap it to his arm or anything. Regardless, he was able to wield it like a normal shield, using it to fend off the jumpers and throw them back in the direction they came.

“Back up,” Adam barked behind us. His tone made his intentions clear, so we did so quickly. The bland man raised his shotgun towards the opening we had created and pulled the trigger, sending another echoing burst of flame into the swarm. He cursed as the gun nearly bucked out of his arms, but he managed to hold onto it.

Over half were gone now, either sliced in half or burned beyond recognition. The rest jumped into the artificial river flowing through the sewer. No one saw any need to stop them.

I heard a sound behind me, and turned to see Ling shrugging off Laura’s restraining hand angrily. “What the hell? I could have helped.”

“You would have brought the roof down on our heads,” the sharp-faced girl said bluntly. “Or gotten poisoned.”

“You’ll have your chance in a minute,” Derek noted. “The leapeaters will be here any second.”

Adam sighed as he loaded another shell. “I know I’m going to regret this…but what are leapeaters?”

“Evil birds,” Ling said with an admirably straight face.

Derek coughed in a way that was certainly not covering up a laugh.

The bland man glared. “Any useful information?”

Laura smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Lighten up a little.” The smile faded. “Silver and gold, we all need a laugh.”

Everybody sobered up a bit at that. Whether we needed it or not, this wasn’t the place to be making jokes. Even if Lizzy hadn’t been harmed by the Composer, the monsters roaming around were dangerous enough by themselves. She wouldn’t hurt a fly, but unfortunately that wouldn’t stop them from hurting her.

“Leapeaters are featherless ostriches,” Derek admitted. “Territorial and aggressive. They’re immune to jumper poison, and eat them.” He shrugged. “They’re the fey’s cleanup crew.”

Adam looked around at all our serious faces and raised an eyebrow. “Ostriches? Really?”

“Normal ostriches are dangerous,” Laura pointed out. “Though they aren’t very aggressive. Leapeaters are buffed, both in strength and aggression. Stay back and let Akane handle them.”

Adam slowly lowered his shotgun, finally realizing we were telling the truth. He shook his head in befuddlement. “Ostriches…”

Derek chuckled. “Hardly the strangest monster. Remind me to tell you about the fire-breathing chickens one day.”

I smiled at that as well. Now I was getting hungry for some. If you killed pojoes just right, you didn’t even have to cook them first.

Ling frowned, stepping away from the rest of us and cocking her head. “That’s weird. I don’t hear them.”

She was right. Normally, leapeaters are easy to hear coming. They have this sort of barking squawk when they’re hunting. It’s very distinctive, and they use it constantly.

“That’s a good sign,” Adam said. He was wrong, of course; he didn’t have enough experience fighting monsters. Leapeaters always followed jumpers. “But if there are monsters, does that mean the fey are the ones who took her?”

Derek opened his mouth to retort, then closed it again, looking contemplative. He glanced at me.

I knew what he was thinking. Wild monsters are quite common. If a fey loses control of one of her creations, she doesn’t even try to catch them. And sewers were the natural environment of jumpers; they like wet places.

But if there weren’t any leapeaters chasing them, that could mean they were brand new, released by a fey specifically to guard this passage. Unless the fey set some of the birds after them, they’d be able to survive down here indefinitely. Jumpers breed true, but leapeaters don’t; without a few minor alterations shortly after birth, they’re just featherless ostriches.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Laura noted without much emotion. “Let’s keep moving.”

As we continued down the passage, I kept expecting the leapeaters to attack us at any moment. But they didn’t. There was only the soft sound of rushing water, as well as distant dripping sounds. The normal sounds of a sewer.

It was unnerving me more than I care to admit.

“How much farther does this thing go?” Adam muttered after a couple hours. He had stripped off his sweat-stained shirt, but had wisely kept on the armor he wore underneath. It might be a bit cheap, but it was much better than nothing. He had tried to take his headphones off, but we had all told him that was a bad idea.

“This system goes under the entire district,” Laura said, consulting the map on her pad.

Adam wiped moisture from his forehead. “What are the chances we took a wrong turn somewhere?”

“None,” Derek answered immediately. “Akane and I might not be as good a tracker as Alex, but sewers are easy. There’s only one used path, and we’re on it.”

Adam stared at us both. “How is a sewer easy?”

I snorted. “Moisture on the ground.”

He looked at the wet concrete beneath our feet. “There’s moisture everywhere.”

I rolled my eyes. “People have been through here in the past few days. Seen a good amount of traffic. The side passages don’t have any of the right signs.” I shrugged and turned my eyes forward again. “Ask Alex to teach you. We don’t have time now.”

“Blood,” Derek noted, dropping into a crouch.

Musashi’s sword, he was right. I was in front, but I had missed it because of Adam’s questions. There was indeed a watery runnel of blood flowing under my feet, from the corner in front of us.

I drew my sword. “How fresh?”

“Hard to tell,” he muttered. “Alex would probably know, but…”

I understood. With the water keeping the blood from clotting, it was impossible for amateurs like us to estimate how fresh it was. Or, indeed, whether the source was human or something else.

Confronting an injured, angry monster was hardly ideal, but my speed was still useful here. I sped forward, around the corner…and immediately stopped.

Cursing again, I let my speed go and stepped back into the view of the others. “Dead.”

As they joined me, I shook my head and stared at the corpse, sitting on the ground with his back to the wall, a large and bloody wound in his chest. He was a Nosferatu, with thick armor and big claws. Probably one of Halifax’s brood; he looked a lot like him.

The vampire was very dead, though I wasn’t sure for how long. Probably less than a day—it didn’t look like anything had started eating him yet.

“What’s a ferret doing down here?” Ling asked, poking the body lightly with her boot. He slumped to the side, and she jumped back in fright.

“The Nosferatu were important participants in the Battle of Shendilavri,” Derek explained. “They sometimes come down here to pay their respects to the dead, or just see what’s left of the battle.” He shrugged. “It’s a tourist trap for them, basically.”

“I hear Obox-ob has been making inroads into the region,” Laura noted. “Or he was, a couple months ago. No one’s really heard much from him since, but maybe he did this.”

“How long?” I asked, after Derek finished muttering a quick prayer. I pretended not to hear the exact words; he was always a bit embarrassed by his choice of religion.

The blue-eyed man blinked, then nodded. “Ah…I’m not sure. Laura? You’d probably know better than me.”

She crouched down next to the corpse and studied it closely. Ling, I noticed, had turned away. She had killed dozens of screamers, maybe hundreds. This was squicking her out?

“No less than an hour,” Laura noted, sticking her finger into the large chest wound. She sniffed the blood on her digit and nodded. “An hour minimum.” She stood up, walked over to the sewer, and stuck her hand in briefly. Then she nodded again. “Five hours max. The mudfish haven’t smelled him yet.”

Derek nodded, eyes hard. “So…about when Lizzy went missing.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” she admonished. Then she grimaced. “But, yes. Most likely.”

Adam frowned. “Maybe he followed her kidnapper into the sewer?” He looked at the wound a bit closer. “What killed him, anyway? This doesn’t look like a monster’s handiwork.”

“A human hand,” Laura said bluntly. “Or at least, something the rough size and shape of a human hand.” She pointed to the wound, where on closer inspection it was clear the the ribs had been broken outward or simply pushed aside. “Someone thrust their hand under the ribcage and ripped out the heart.”

Ling stumbled over to the sewer and threw up.

I rolled my eyes. Seriously? I had watched her squash a man’s skull like a tomato. How was this worse?

She wiped her mouth and smiled weakly, still trying to avoid looking at the corpse.

“Sorry,” she said quietly. “First time in a sewer.”

I nodded in sudden understanding. It got everyone the first time.

“We’re wasting time,” Derek muttered. “Ling, your stomach settled?” When she nodded, he mimicked the gesture. “Good, good. I think we’re getting close. Be on your guard.”

As it turned out, we weren’t close. At all. After two more hours and three more (much smaller) jumper swarms, it seemed as though we had walked under the entire district. I’ve done some long jobs before, but this was getting ridiculous.

Luckily, while mentally we were exhausted, physically we were fine. That was one of the benefits of the package; increased endurance.

“I need to stop,” Adam muttered, sliding to the floor. “Just…give me a minute.”

Ah. Right.

He had it harder than the rest of us, even without the power difference; he was still wearing all four of his guns, and maybe ten pounds of spare ammo, plus that armor. It was a wonder he hadn’t collapsed sooner.

Laura carefully sat next to him and handed him a water bottle, which he drank from greedily. I kept an eye on the Spanish girl. She had the package, sure, but she also wasn’t as fit as the rest of us. But still, she seemed fine, or at least she did after she took a few gulps from her own bottle.

After ten minutes or so, they both scrambled back to their feet.

“Good,” Derek said with an encouraging smile. “It’s not much farther.”

Adam just glared. “You’ve been saying that for four hours.”

Our leader just shook his head. “This time I’m sure. The path leads off the main sewer now.” He indicated one of the dark side passages that popped up periodically. My trained eyes could indeed see that the trail led that direction. “I think we’re getting near the lair.”

Adam grumbled, but nodded, and took out his Caedes, just in case. I drew my sword, Ling cracked her knuckles, and even Laura pulled out her gun.

I wasn’t afraid. I was never afraid. Derek was leading us; he wouldn’t make any major mistakes. This was going to end with at least a few questions answered.

Derek smiled. “Good. Be ready for anything. A horde of screamers, a fey and her monsters…whatever. We can take it.”

He led the way into the dark tunnel, and whatever lay beyond.

Behind the Scenes (scene 107)

I think I managed to get the proper dungeon-crawling vibe here.

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Scene 106 – Capta

CAPTA

ADAM

“What do you mean, gone?”

Ling glanced around, triple-checking to make sure no one else was listening. “Lizzy was helping Turgay with the toy box. Then she just got up and left, and wasn’t answering her cell. Then they sent twenty-five men after her, and now they’re missing too.”

I brushed my hair back from my forehead. “So…Turgay is in on the whole toy box thing?”

“Yes,” Ling spat. “But that is not important. The toy box has some weird field that screws with your head. MC and I think it must have messed with her sleeper programming.”

I shook my head. “We haven’t confirmed she’s a sleeper.”

“We haven’t confirmed she’s not, either,” the little delinquent insisted. “And it’s looking more and more likely that she is.”

Why was my life like this? What happened to the days when I was just going to inherit my father’s company, and that would be the end of it? Even after I got to Domina and all that changed, my life wasn’t that hard. Screamers come, shoot a bunch, go home. When did I get embroiled in some hypnotist’s conspiracy?

“Derek needs to know,” I insisted.

Ling just rolled her eyes. “You don’t watch enough TV. He’ll run off after her and make everything worse. No, we can handle this ourselves. Go back to the dorms, get our gear.” She slipped a key into my hand. “My armor is under my bed. Hurry.”

She turned away, dismissing me, and flipped out her phone again.

Also, since when had the brain-dead otaku been in charge?

I sighed and headed back to the table.

Lily turned to me, a questioning look on her face. “Something wrong?”

I did my best to smile. “Just…something’s come up. I need to head back to the dorm and get some things. You think you’ll be all right here?”

She knew I wasn’t being completely honest, I could see it in her eyes. But after a moment, she nodded. “I’ll hold down the fort. You go have fun, and come back safe.”

I kissed her goodbye, and headed for the dorm as fast as I could without actually running. The second I was out of the park and away from the prying eyes of my friends, I started sprinting.

Okay, so Lizzy has been kidnapped. What did that mean? If she was a sleeper, then she probably discovered something important and went to report to the Composer. Simple enough, but it didn’t make sense. For one thing, I think Ling would have mentioned something like that. The location of the toy box was important, sure, but probably not enough to warrant a sleeper outing herself.

Now what if she wasn’t a sleeper? She left for…something mundane. A breath of fresh air, maybe, or a break from the conversation. Then got grabbed when she stepped outside.

Yes, that made more sense. Fit better with what we knew about sleepers, not to mention Lizzy herself. The only question was who grabbed her. Clearly not one of the subcultures. Everyone loved her, and even if they didn’t, it would take a whole lot to wipe out twenty-five soldiers to a man. Had they managed to radio anything back before they disappeared? Probably not, Ling would have mentioned it.

That left two possibilities: The fey or the Composer.

They were the only ones strong enough to pull this off. The fey kidnapped people all the time. Usually bums and other people no one would notice missing, but they were insane, and might not have realized people would search for Lizzy. It would be a Day and Autumn court. Once I figured out where the kidnapping actually took place, we would know precisely which, and we could stage a raid.

I was getting ahead of myself. Attacking the fey would be a very bad idea, and downright suicidal if they weren’t the ones who took her.

What if it was the Composer? Why would he take her?

I swiped my card on the front door of the dorms, rushed past Emily, and pounded the elevator button. It was slow coming, and the sudden stop screwed with my breathing, forcing me to suck down deep gasps of air. Emily looked at me a little funny, but I just stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for floor nine.

Right. What did the Composer want? Well, he had to get those singers and sleepers from somewhere. And Laura had said something about how he had spies close to us, so maybe the bastard was doing this on purpose. It all fit in with what the Composer had said to me through Zaphkiel—assuming that wasn’t just a lie.

The elevator doors opened, and I slid out, ran to my room, and collected my guns, as well as the dinky plastic plate armor to wear under my shirt Obould had given me. I already had my Sica, but I wanted a lot more than a pistol if we were going to fight a war.

Ling’s armor was a little annoying to find. She had managed to stuff so much under her bed, it took me a few minutes to pull out the suit. But it didn’t take more than ten minutes, all told, so there was no real loss. I made sure to lock the doors behind me and headed out.

The fey would be easy enough to eliminate as suspects. They didn’t really bother lying about their activities, or maybe they thought they couldn’t. Either way, I texted Ling, asking where Lizzy had been grabbed, explaining my theory about the fey as succinctly as possible.

If we were lucky, we might be able to buy back Lizzy before Derek got involved. If not, well, he had the most experience monster slaying. We’d have to bring everyone in.

Emily stared at me as I strode through the lobby fully armed and armored, but I ignored her. I had more important things to worry about.

If it was the Composer, we were in much bigger trouble. Even if we could find his lair, which was unlikely, we would probably arrive to find Lizzy dead or singing. If she was alive, she’d be a sleeper.

My phone rang, and I fished it out of my pocket. “Hello?”

“Adam,” Ling’s voice was urgent. “MC called Virtuous Dusk—that’s the court that would be active in that area. They said they haven’t grabbed any girls today, and I’m inclined to believe them.”

I swore under my breath. “That means it really is the Composer after all.”

She paused only for a moment. “Yeah. You gonna meet up with us?”

I had to think about it for a minute before deciding. “No. You tell the others everything, I’m going to meet up with the retinue. MC, where are they?”

“At the southern corner of the school,” her fake voice chipped in helpfully.

I turned around and started running; I had been heading for the park. “Tell them I’ll be right there.”

“Splitting up is never a good idea,” Ling warned.

“We’ll meet up at NHQ,” I promised.

“Still a bad idea.” Then she paused. “Wait, why will we be meeting there?”

The retinue’s van was in sight. “Because that’s where our captured sleepers are.” Then I hung up, since I didn’t have the breath to say more.

“Anders,” Kelly greeted me, a look of dull surprise on her face. “What’s going on? MC just said it wasn’t screamers.”

“Lizzy’s been kidnapped,” I managed between gasps for air. I needed to learn not to just run full-tilt, but to pace myself. Some breathing exercises would probably help, too. “By the Composer.”

“Blood and shadow,” the vampire cursed. She threw open the van’s door, and we both piled in. Jarasax already had the engine running, and hit the gas before I was even inside.

“NHQ, right?” the middle-eastern changeling asked. I managed to nod.

“George, what’s your ammo count look like?” Kelly asked as she checked her own magazines. I had already done so upstairs, so I just concentrated on filling my lungs.

“Enough to get the job done,” the ogre grunted. “But not as much as I’d like. If we get a chance, I’ll pick up more.”

“We probably won’t,” Alex noted. “How long does that reverse-hypnotism thing take?”

I shrugged. “Who knows? It might not even work.”

The van swerved suddenly as our driver was forced to avoid some traffic. The siren was off, so there wasn’t much we could do to help it. Hopefully MC would call the peacekeepers off. The last thing we needed right now was a speeding ticket.

“That’s hardly a comforting thought,” Kelly muttered, scratching at the device on her left arm absentmindedly.

“We’ll deal with that later,” I assured her. “I’m sure Laura will think of something. She probably slipped a GPS into her shoe or something, who knows.”

George looked at me a little sideways. “And what about you? What’s your plan?”

I shrugged. “Same as ever. Find the bad guys and fill them with lead.”

Jarasax barked out a laugh. “Somehow I think it’s going to be a bit harder than that.”

Kelly nodded. “We need to prepare. Worst case scenarios, let’s hear it.”

“The Composer turns the entire city into screamers with the loudspeaker system, and we have to fight our way to him deaf,” George said immediately.

“MC removed that possibility,” I reminded him.

The giant shrugged as best as he could in the confined space. “Then he has a bunch of those defensive, intelligent singers defending his base, none of them have the same powers, they all know exactly what they’re doing, and we have to fight our way to him deaf.”

“You’re a little hung up on the ‘deaf’ part,” Kelly noted.

George glared. “I was born deaf. Stayed that way until I was twenty-five.”

A bit of an uncomfortable silence fell. It was easy to forget that the giant was actually the oldest member of our little crew by a fair margin; at thirty-five, he was probably the only one besides me who had clear memories of a life before the toy maker, and I didn’t really count.

“We’ll have to fight a lot of screamers no matter what, I’m sure,” I pointed out, trying to get the conversation back on track. “Kelly, if you want to borrow one of my guns—”

“I’ll pick up a rifle at NHQ,” she promised. Her pistol wouldn’t have enough power to hold off hordes of enemies; she needed something with a higher fire rate.

“There are a few more problems,” Alex noted. “We’ll probably have to fight in another gang’s territory, and they’re hardly on good terms with us right now.”

“The Composer carves out little blind spots, remember?” Sax put in. “I don’t think it will be an issue.”

Little blind spots,” I reminded him. “And he seems smart enough to make sure we’ll have to step on as many toes as possible. No, we need to deal with them too.” I unslung my Athena and started checking it over. “Kill the leaders, and the rest will break.”

Kelly glared at me as the van rocked violently again. “Aim for the knees, Anders. On anything that’s not a zombie. We’re not starting a war just to save one girl.”

I sighed. They always insisted on doing things the hard way. But before I could formulate a proper response, the van screeched to a halt.

“We’re here,” Jarasax explained, as he stepped out and slid open the door. “C’mon, no time to waste.”

As we all tumbled out, I glanced around. “I don’t see Maria’s car. The others probably aren’t here yet.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Kelly noted, stepping past me and towards the skyscraper that held one of Doctor Clarke’s main labs. “We can get started without them.”

MC had told the guards we were coming, so we just had to quickly flash our passes and we were through. One of the benefits of being on the…anti-Composer squad? I just realized that I wasn’t even sure if our team, beyond the Paladins, even had a name.

I pushed that out of my mind. We had much, much more important things to worry about. One of the lab techs greeted us at the door and escorted us deeper inside. I had been to this place a dozen times already, but I still could never find my way around. I don’t know if the maze-like passageways were an intentional security measure, or if the architect had just been crazy.

“Sorry for all this,” the tech, a young man, apologized. “Doctor Clarke designed the building to ‘stimulate visitor’s minds.’ It takes a while to get used to.”

Ah. So crazy it was.

He led us to one of the side labs, the one we had been in the other day when Laura explained her strange plan. There was only one other person there.

“Adonides?” I asked the vampire, strapped down to a table and connected to strange devices I didn’t understand. “You doing all right?”

He nodded, a little shakily. “I…fine.” If Guland was to be believed, he was never very good with English, and adding fangs had just made his accent go from bad to worse.

I struggled to come up with something to say, something that would make him feel better about the risk he was taking, but I couldn’t think of anything.

Instead, I found my brain considering what would happen if this didn’t work. Would we try another sleeper? Perhaps we could try one of the laser singers from the other day. Would…he be dead?

I pushed that thought out of my mind. It wasn’t that it was too painful; quite the opposite. It provoked cold, rational thoughts considering what our other options would be.

We could deal with that later. Right now, there was only what was in front of us.

I heard the door open behind me, and turned to see the others. Just the Paladins; they had wisely left Flynn and the others behind.

Ling rolled her eyes. “See? I told you they’d be here.”

Laura pushed past the others to the Canian strapped to the table. She didn’t say a word, just checked her instruments with a frown on her face.

Derek stepped forward. “We need to hurry—”

The hard-faced girl shut him up with a wave of her hand. “Another five minutes won’t hurt, and rushing things will. Give me time.”

I edged away from the table and joined Kelly, leaning against the wall. The Belian was scratching the device on her arm again. I had tried to ask her what it was once, but Alex had given me a look that told me to keep my mouth shut.

The angel in question was strapping dozens of knives to her body in easy-to-use sheaths. Apparently they were ‘dayknives;’ mirrored blades designed for quick attacks, especially useful when the enemy was blinded.

That reminded me. “Don’t you two need guns?”

Alex shrugged. “We’ll be fine.”

But Kelly nodded. “You’re right. I’ll grab us a couple Saint Adrians.” She headed off, presumably in the direction of the armory, ignoring Alex’s frown.

“Be quick,” Laura called after her. “I’m nearly ready.”

It didn’t take long for the vampire to hurry back. She handed Alex a rifle with a big magazine and a few spares, keeping the same for herself. By the time that was all over, Laura had finished whatever arcane ritual with the instruments she deemed necessary.

She pulled the device down from the ceiling, the same one she was working yesterday. She pushed a button to adjust the table, bringing the Canian closer to vertical, giving a better angle for the device, which still looked like something from the dentist’s office.

“Just relax,” the sharp-faced girl assured him. “This won’t hurt.”

“Mă îndoiesc că,” he muttered, but put his eyes on the rubber rests anyway.

Laura laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, nodded to Derek, flipped the switch…

And nothing happened.

We waited a few more moments.

Then we started looking at each other, confused.

“Is…it on?” Alex asked hesitantly. “I mean, maybe you left the lens cap on or something.”

“No…” Laura muttered, frowning. “Everything is green. It should be—”

And then Adonides started screaming.

Behind the Scenes (scene 106)

This scene could have gone better, but I think I like it.

Scene 105 – Absens

ABSENS

LING

I frowned once I was away from the others. Laura and Derek were still farther afield, while the happy couples stayed at the table.

“Okay, slow down,” I said into the phone. “What in Tezuka’s name happened?

“She’s gone,” Turgay replied flatly. He had tried to give me all the details first, like he always did when he got nervous, but at least now he understood to just give me the end.

I shook my head to clear it. “Right, okay…is there any reason for her to just leave?”

“Not that I can think of. We were just sitting there, talking about the…item. I was arguing with one of the scientists about it—they’re getting really possessive, it’s creepy, and actually—”

“Back to Lizzy,” I prodded him.

“Right, sorry. Anyway, she just got up and left. I didn’t think much of it at the time, since she wasn’t really involved in the conversation, but that was an hour ago, and I haven’t been able to get a hold of her.”

I took a deep breath and sent my awareness into my surroundings, feeling the soil and grass beneath my feet. Not that I thought it would help find Lizzy, of course. The range was only a little more than ten feet. I just found it…soothing.

Now, what was the right response in this situation? Send out a search party? Yes, of course. But if she was kidnapped, then it would be dangerous. Sending in the wrong people would just be adding fuel to the fire.

“Has anyone gone looking for her yet?”

“A few of the new soldiers,” Turgay said quickly, purposefully avoiding the word ‘warhawks’ in case someone was listening. “With baselines for scouts.”

Of course. The aves were still getting heat for stealing the toy box, so they were having trouble mixing with the rest of the city. They stood out far too much.

Turgay continued. “We haven’t heard anything back from them yet, and they missed their check-in.”

Well, they were clearly dead. But that wouldn’t be something he wanted to hear. “How well-trained are they? Maybe they just forgot.”

“The security chief is pretty sure that wouldn’t happen. And he won’t let me call them, in case they’re in danger and it gives away their position.”

I knew that made sense from my time with Derek and the ‘sarians. But Turgay wasn’t a military man; I could hear the frustration in his voice. He thought that was a stupid reason to delay.

I frowned. I couldn’t involve Derek and the others, not yet. Even discounting the party, this was hardly the time or the place. Lily hated violence, Flynn was still a burden, the parents were just a couple of thieves, and Simon and Seena had their own allegiances. Not to mention that Derek would jump after that girl like a hound after a hare…no. I needed to work this out on my own.

“How many soldiers did you send out? Including the fle—baselines, I mean?”

“Twenty-five.”

I blinked. More than I expected. “Okay, then something is definitely wrong. At least one of them would be able to call back. You got GPS or whatever on them?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Send out five more and wait.”

There was a pause of about a minute on the other end, where I could hear my childhood friend talking. Actually, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was barking orders.

“We sent another twenty-five,” he said finally, a little breathlessly. “That should be enough.”

That was about when I asked the question I should have asked the moment I understood what was going on. “Why exactly was Lizzy there with you?”

There was a pause.

“If you choose now to start hiding things…” I warned.

“Fine, fine,” he said hastily. “Don’t worry. I just needed to figure out how to word it. It’s just…the item emits this field. We’re calling it the Sauron effect. Anyone within a certain radius slowly goes insane with greed for it. You, me, and Lizzy are the only ones who seem immune. That’s actually why I asked her to meet me, I needed to test that.”

I swallowed as he trailed off. “What,” I said very, very carefully, “is the first thing I told you about the fantasy genre?”

“Uh…” he racked his brain for the answer. “The kid with the sword is the hero?”

“That was number two,” I reminded the ave, resisting the urge to reach through the phone and strangle him. “What was number one?

He paused. “…if it makes you want to touch it, don’t touch it?”

“Close enough. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that your little toy screwed with Lizzy’s brain somehow, so I am officially taking this out of your hands. MC, you there?”

There was a long pause, during which Turgay tried to speak. “Wait—”

“I know you can hear me,” I said, grinding my teeth. “MC, I have information regarding the whereabouts of the toy box.”

“Right, sorry, I’m here,” the operator’s real voice chimed in a moment later. “I wasn’t before, but I have a couple programs lurking on a few—very few—phones to tell me when a couple words are used…”

“Yes, yes, you’re a champion of the privacy act,” I interrupted before she could really get into a rant. “Lizzy was driven insane by the toy box. Where would she go?”

“She was immune,” Turgay insisted. “And I don’t like involving MC—”

“There’s a very real possibility she’s one of the Composer’s sleepers,” I cut in. I still couldn’t believe it, but it was always the ones you least expected. Besides, it was good to get the worst case out of the way first. “It probably interacted with the—what’d you call it?”

“Sauron effect,” the ave muttered glumly. “And I suppose that’s possible. But Ling, MC is going to call Necessarius…”

“Not if you don’t want me to,” the woman promised. “Though I really think this is beyond your pay grade at this point.”

There was a pause as Turgay considered his options.

“Fine,” he sighed. “But don’t blame me if there are unexpected consequences.”

“I’ll call up the retinue right away,” MC said quickly. “Turgay, text me the GPS codes. And Ling, what are you going to do about the other Paladins?”

I frowned. Nothing had changed; telling them would be a bad idea.

But…

“I’m just going to tell one,” I decided quickly. “One minute.”

I closed my phone and returned to the table as fast as possible without looking hurried.

“Excuse me, I need to borrow your boyfriend for a moment,” I apologized to Lily. “Adam, let’s talk.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 105)

A bit short, perhaps, but I think this still went well.

Scene 104 – Amicitia

AMICITIA

LAURA

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEREK!” we all cried.

He grinned. “I thought we were doing this later?”

I shrugged. “Maria and Dad had something come up, so we decided to do it early.”

“Besides, this is payback for my party,” Akane put in, playfully punching him in the shoulder. “Now you know how it feels.”

Ling smiled, shifting her present under one arm. “Hardly the same thing.”

“Come on,” I said, pushing past Derek and out of his room. “They’re waiting down at the park.”

He glanced around, a small frown beginning to form. “Where’s Lizzy?”

“Sorry, that’s my mistake,” Flynn apologized. “I forgot to tell Ling until the last minute, and she wasn’t able to get a hold of her.”

“She’s in the middle of something with Turgay anyway,” Ling added.

I bit my lip. “Have we met Turgay?”

The blonde delinquent shrugged. “Adam has, and Lily already knew him. I don’t think the rest of you have.”

We finally managed to reach the elevator—with nine of us, it was much harder than it had any right to be—and headed downstairs without any more incident.

“How’s that new job treating you, Flynn?” Derek asked before the silence had a chance to become uncomfortable.

“Good actually,” the swordsman admitted. “The kids are great, and it gives me something to do.” He grinned a little. “I’m not like you guys; with my skills, I really shouldn’t be wandering the streets looking for monsters to slay.”

“Got that right,” Akane muttered, her beads clicking as she pushed her hair back. I noticed that she was wearing the onyx earrings Flynn had bought her for her own birthday earlier in the month. Good for her.

Adam frowned as the elevator doors opened. “You’re…teaching ‘sarian kids sword fighting, right?”

We all piled out into the lobby, past Emily, who was still reading one of her magazines. “General self-defense,” Flynn corrected. “These are eight and nine-year olds. Too early for swordplay.”

Akane shrugged as we walked out the front doors. “I started when I was five.”

“You’re hardly normal,” Lily pointed out with a giggle. “Most kids aren’t from samurai houses.”

“Don’t be mean,” Derek chided.

“Technically, it was a ronin house at the time,” the swordswoman muttered. When she realized she had spoken aloud, she blushed and turned away.

Seena rolled her eyes under her daygoggles and patted her friend on the shoulder. “You’re among friends. Why are you still all meek?”

Simon smiled. “Probably this one here,” he said, indicating Flynn with a nod of his chin. When Akane glared at him, he held up his hands. “Whoa, I’m not judging. I’m just saying.”

I rolled my eyes. “They’re waiting for us at a park a couple blocks north. Come on.”

Everyone dutifully followed, but Adam was hesitant. “It’s getting a bit cold. Is this really the best time for a picnic?”

“We can move inside if we have to,” I pointed out. “Right now, this is the plan.”

Adam grumbled a bit, but didn’t say anything else.

There was a bit of an uncomfortable silence for the next few minutes, as we walked out of the campus, to Kagurazaka Park. Luckily, that didn’t last too long.

“Kids! Over here!”

Maria had already secured a table and laid out everything. My dad was nowhere to be seen.

“Victor will be back soon,” the plump woman explained as she started pulling the presents we had given her earlier out of a bag and placing them on the table. “Come, sit, sit.”

We did as we were asked, crowding around the big concrete table set on the grass. There were a few, scattered around. It wasn’t the most comfortable seat in the world, but it was better than using anything lighter. People would just steal the tables.

“Who else are we waiting for?” Derek asked once we got the seating arrangement worked out. I ended up next to him, mostly to make sure that Akane sat next to Flynn instead. A little juvenile, but they were acting like twelve year-olds, so we didn’t have a choice. Not to mention we still needed to keep her away from Simon.

“Robyn’s not coming,” I admitted. “She’s busy again.”

Akane shook her head. “After my party, she promised to make time.”

I shrugged. “Guess she didn’t. It’s no big deal, though.”

Derek grimaced as he accepted a soda from his mother. “She’s been like this since we were kids. She’s terrible with schedules.”

“You shouldn’t talk about people when they’re not here,” Maria admonished lightly, as she passed sodas around to everyone else. “Besides, with Isaac as that girl’s father, I think it’s a miracle she remembers to eat.”

Derek sighed, recognizing the hypocrisy but wisely choosing not to mention it.

“Where is Dad?” I asked, trying to deflect the conversation back to kinder subjects. The two were normally attached at the hip; if he was off alone, it had to be for something important.

“Just getting some more sodas,” Maria lied smoothly.

Ever since I had got my power, I had noticed them doing that a lot.

“I think we have enough,” I said as calmly as I could, nodding to the cooler chest. At the same time, I tweaked Derek’s kneecap through his jeans. That was the signal. He should be smart enough to not immediately act on it.

“So long as he actually buys them, I guess there’s no harm in getting more,” the blond man admitted. “There are a lot of us, after all. Though I hope he’s not too late.”

“Not too late at all,” my dad called from the direction of the street. He had four cases of soda cans in his arms. How many were in each? Twenty-four? Couldn’t remember. More than we needed, anyway. “Sorry, the line was long.”

And that was another lie.

You understand on a general level that your parents lie every once in a while. It’s quite another to know that they do it all the time.

I sighed, and made sure to tweak Derek’s knee again, though he had probably figured it out for himself. It wasn’t fair, really. Parents shouldn’t keep big secrets from their children. Okay, maybe that wasn’t true, but I had a sneaking suspicion these lies had to do with Butler, and in turn the screamers. That was something we needed to know.

Maria clapped her hands. “Now that everyone’s here, we can start presents!”

Everyone started; Adam nearly choked on his soda.

“Now?” he asked. “I thought the plan was lunch first?”

“Well, we forgot the food,” she lied with a wink (and I tweaked Derek’s kneecap again). “So I guess those sodas are all we’re getting.”

“Here, do ours first,” my father said, pulling a poorly-wrapped box out from under the table. Derek took it carefully—he had probably already figured out that it was some sort of weapon; only an idiot would shake the thing to see what was inside.

As he finished unwrapping it, he smiled and pulled out the item. “Six frag grenades. How thoughtful.”

“And a bandolier for them and others,” Maria pointed out.

“Thank you so much,” the blond man said graciously, as he carefully put them back in the box and into the middle of the table where everyone could see. “But where did you find them? Most stores haven’t gotten their stock in yet, for some reason.”

“Katarina’s Explosives,” my father lied smoothly. I think my had reached out to tweak Derek’s knee before he even started talking. “Just good luck, I suppose.”

I sighed, because I had a feeling that if I let them keep talking, I wouldn’t like what I heard. “Can we move on, please? I think I’m next.”

A little bit miffed, Maria pulled out a small box wrapped in bright paper; Derek accepted it without a word.

He blinked when he got it open. “A watch?”

“Waterproof and durable enough to withstand even what you can throw against it,” I promised. “I remember you said you stopped wearing them because they kept breaking. This shouldn’t have that problem.”

He smiled warmly, his azure eyes twinkling. “Thank you.” He carefully put it on, checking to make sure the time was right (it was, of course). “I’ll be sure to keep it with me always.”

Before things got too awkward—that was always a problem with Derek, he had this way of creating dramatic silences—Maria grabbed another present from the pile, a flat one. “This one is from Ling, I believe.”

Across from us, the blonde delinquent nodded.

It turned out to be a jacket. Not a great jacket, not leather or anything like that, but still nice. It would last a long while. Derek wasn’t really a clothes man, but he smiled and thanked her nonetheless.

Flynn’s gift was a flash card with some violent roleplaying game I had never heard of—I prefer strategy. Derek apparently had, and had been anxiously anticipating it. The two promised to play against each other later.

Surprisingly, Adam and Lily’s present was similar, except the drive was a dating sim instead. Lily seemed to think the entire idea was hilarious.

Obould and Veronica had sent a gift card to one of Derek’s favorite restaurants, one of those live shrimp places. Lizzy (via Ling) gave him a very nice outfit, a suit and tie which might have been made from real silk. That girl had too much disposable income.

Simon and Seena went the obvious route, and gave him a toy voucher. He didn’t really buy toys, but it would cover healing and so on as well. It was a thoughtful gift, though an unnecessary one. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know we got free healing as Paladins.

After Robyn’s gift (a map of the city alleys that she seemed to have made herself) we were done. I asked Derek in a whisper why Akane hadn’t gotten him anything, and he just said he refused any and all gifts from her on general principle. And then my dad got the cake from the car, and my mind was elsewhere.

As usual, Gloria Nervi had outdone herself. I was glad that hadn’t changed while I was hiding in the north. The ghoul always claimed that cakes were beneath her dignity as a chef, but I had no idea if that was an obscure Italian thing, some baker/chef rivalry I didn’t know about, or just a lie.

But she always made an exception for Derek Huntsman.

People do that quite a lot.

It was a beautiful cake, nearly as wide as the table, and covered in light brown frosting. The words ‘Happy Birthday’ were written on the top with blue icing—the same shade of blue as Akane’s ribbon.

In all honesty, the cake looked a bit plain. But it tasted divine. It had the perfect amount of sugar density, and the cake itself was as light as an angel’s breath.

Despite its size, everyone’s first servings went very quickly. I was picking through my second slice when my dad started talking.

“So Derek,” he began. “Any plans for today?”

The birthday boy shrugged. “Catch up on some reading. Not much else.” The second was a lie, and I’d have known even without my power. He was still stewing over the hypnotism plan. And he would say yes eventually, but he wouldn’t like it.

“What about the rest of the week, then?” Maria asked casually. A little too casually.

Derek noticed it too; he swallowed carefully before speaking. “A few more missions. Just making money and such. Why the sudden interest?”

“No reason,” my father lied through his teeth. “We were just—”

I got up and left. I couldn’t take it any more.

I heard people calling after me, and I heard Derek tell them to calm down, then follow me at just less than a run.

I waited until we were far away from the rest of the group, definitely out of earshot, before speaking.

“Every word out of their mouths is poison,” I whispered, trying as hard as I could not to cry. This was all my power gave me? I would give it up in a heartbeat, if I could. “They lie, and lie, and lie…”

“Not everything,” he said, quietly. “Not everything, right?”

I blinked away tears that I refused to shed, not willing to turn and face him. “Maybe. Or maybe that’s just what’s slipping past my filters.”

Derek shifted on his feet. “It’s possible…nothing. Nevermind.”

I closed my eyes. “It’s possible they’re doing it on purpose. Testing my limits.” Which just made it worse.

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “That’s what I was going to say.”

I started crying.

I wasn’t sobbing. My shoulders weren’t shaking. I wasn’t facing him, so he shouldn’t even have been able to tell.

But he figured out what was happening anyway, and walked over to my other side so he wouldn’t have to turn me to face the others, and pulled me close.

It was strange, and I couldn’t figure out why. It was the same as the last time I remembered, when we were eleven years old. He was still warm, and powerful, though perhaps a little bit less warm, and a little more powerful. It was comforting, but there was something wrong…

That was it.

I hadn’t been hugged by anyone for seven years. Not since this idiot, the night before we started middle school. I hadn’t let anyone so much as touch me if at all possible. Not even my own stupid father.

Then I started sobbing.

He whispered into my ear that it would be okay, kept whispering for however long it took for my tears to stop flowing, and dry in tracks on my cheeks.

I don’t know how long it was. But it was too soon when Derek said “Everyone’s waiting for us.”

That. Moron. I was seriously considering shooting him in the face. I wasn’t a tsundere like Akane; I honestly would be doing the world a favor to take this crazy bastard out of it. Seriously, who tells a crying girl her time’s up?

“Um, Laura?” he whispered. “It’s just that hugs give me headaches, and…”

I frowned. “Headaches? Really?”

“Yeah. And we should probably go back soon anyway—”

“Then we can stay like this a little while longer,” I declared quietly.

Headaches. Not quite as final as a bullet to the brain, but a fitting punishment for now.

Behind the Scenes (scene 104)

The next birthday is Adam’s, in eighteen days.