“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.”
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.