Monthly Archives: July 2013

Scene 114 – Turbati

TURBATI

SIMON

“Hey guys,” I said as I slid into place next Yolanda and planted a kiss on her cheek. “What’s up?”

“We’re discussing the implications of Lizzy being outed as the Composer,” my sister said with surprising bluntness.

I snorted. “She’s not. End of story. Lizzy, the Composer? Ridiculous.”

Jelena shrugged. “Ridiculous or not, that’s what Necessarius is saying.”

“Yes, thank you both for summarizing the last ten minutes,” Pam snapped caustically.

I waved the waitress over—to my surprise, it wasn’t Lily. I had thought she had a shift right now. “Irish coffee, please.” As the giantess sashayed away, I turned my attention back to my friends. “The Big Boss is saying the Paladins personally fought the Composer, but I still can’t believe it.”

Yolanda perked up. “Wait, they were able to identify Lizzy on sight? That must mean they’re people we know! No wonder my uncle has been so tight-lipped…”

But Veda shook her head, ears turned down. “Lizzy’s pretty well known. Recognizing her doesn’t mean much.”

“Well that’s no fun,” my girlfriend said with an adorable pout. “Guessing who they are would’ve been interesting.”

My girlfriend…I was still getting used to that. This was the first relationship I had ever had that lasted more than a couple nights. I kept expecting her to tell me she had had enough, and was leaving.

“But it’s just like you said,” Delphie insisted. “This isn’t some random rumor. The ‘sarians have released multiple statements, all claiming the exact same thing. Butler’s going on the news tonight to confirm it. It just seems too much if they’re anything but a hundred percent sure.”

Our Glasyan started to speak, and I almost jumped out of my seat. Ever since the gargants, she terrified me. We had already assumed the fey could see or hear through her, but that incident had made it clear that they could do much more than that.

Luckily, Jelena didn’t seem to notice. “I think everyone needs to just wait and see. If she’s running, it means she’s guilty of something, right?”

Pam rolled her eyes. “Now you’re just being silly. You know better than that. Someone says they’re going to kill you, you run. Doesn’t matter whether you actual did what they’re accusing you of or not.”

“Let’s change the subject,” Seena said quickly, probably anticipating that the bland baseline was about to fall into another Darwinist rant. “Delphie, didn’t you say your sister’s daughter was coming over?”

“Her son,” the murid corrected. “Leon. He’ll be at my room when I get back.”

“Did you tell Zusa?”

“Ugh, I knew I forgot something…”

“Well, he’s just a kid, right?” Jelena asked. “So when he knocks on your door, she’s not gonna think he’s some kind of pervert and slam the door in his face.”

“But he is a pervert. He’s a worse skirt-chaser than his dad, and he’s still ten.”

Seena drummed her fingers on the table, a thoughtful look on her face. “But…didn’t Theo eventually marry your sister? Before he got killed, I mean.”

“Just engaged, but that’s my point. I have no hope of Leon ever settling down.”

Yolanda looked worried. “Zusa won’t…hurt him, right?”

Delphie thought about it. “I don’t know, normally I’d say no way…but he’s pretty aggressive, and she’s a Nosferatu. She’s got poison in those claws, I’m pretty sure, and he doesn’t have the buffs to survive that.”

“I can’t see her having poison,” Veda put in, as she finally pocketed her phone. “She’ll scratch him up a little, but he’ll be fine. Learn a lesson, too.”

“She has poison,” Kevin said, in a tone that made it clear he wasn’t guessing. “It’s painful, but just paralytic.”

The cherve nodded, her ears twitching. “See? He’ll be fine.”

“Maybe Kevin and I should head back early,” Steve mused, putting his arms behind his head. “Head him off, keep him from doing anything stupid.”

Jelena cocked her head. “I thought we just decided to let it be.”

The big baseline shrugged. “Pervert or not, I don’t think we should let a little kid get hurt if we can help it. How would any of your feel if it was your son?”

The Glasyan adjusted her daygoggles a little haughtily. “My son isn’t a skirt chaser.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it. If you found out one of your kids got hurt, would you care why?”

“Maybe,” I admitted. “Maybe not. But Leon wasn’t raised in an orphanage. His mother knows him.”

Steve looked like he wasn’t sure if I was agreeing with him or not, but continued anyway. “Right. She has more of a connection to him than most parents. She’s liable to kill anyone who tries to hurt him, whether he deserves it or not.”

Jelena sighed and turned to the murid. “Delphie, I met Melanie a grand total of twice. Is she gonna be irrational if Leon gets hurt?”

Delphie winced. “Ah…that depends. Honestly, probably not, but that’s not a chance you want to take.”

Steve stood up and placed some money on the table for his drink. “It’s decided, then. Kevin, let’s go.”

Seena spoke up. “You two are armed, right? Whoever’s responsible, there’s blood on the streets.”

The South-American grabbed his coat off his chair back as he stood. “Yeah, I got my Raaze, and Steve’s got some bigger stuff if we need it. Simon, you coming?”

I waved his question away. “I just got here. I can stay a bit longer.”

Both men shrugged, and headed off to the dorms. I belatedly realized they had forgotten to ask what Leon looked like, but it probably wouldn’t matter.

The conversation strayed to other topics, and eventually Veda started arguing with Jelena about some game Lizzy had helped voice. Something about how Lizzy was pigeonholed into only having parts with her exact personality—sweet and ditzy, mostly.

I was only paying attention with half an ear, but it did get me thinking. I wasn’t close friends with her or anything, but I did feel like I knew Lizzy pretty well. She had come to a couple of my birthday parties, given me some crappy gifts that I loved, but had fallen apart because they were made out of cheap materials.

I smiled a little. Yeah, she made mistakes like that all the time, but she was still a good person. Imagining her as the Composer was completely impossible. It just seemed goofy whenever I pictured it. What would she make the screamers do? Go shopping for her? Nine Hells, I couldn’t even—

My smile turned to a frown as a thought occurred to me.

That couldn’t be right. I mean, it just…

I searched my memory frantically, but couldn’t think of anything. It didn’t mean much, but…

I couldn’t think of a single malicious or selfish thing Elizabeth Greene had ever done. Not one. That was…

Impossible. No one was that perfect.

It was like Lizzy was a character invented by someone who didn’t really understand how complex people were.

I held Yolanda’s arm a little tighter, suddenly cold.

Necessarius’ accusations didn’t seem quite so unlikely after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 114)

Not completely satisfied with this one, but it came out well enough.

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Scene 113 – Negatio

NEGATIO

SEENA

“It’s in excessively poor taste,” I said, sipping my drink through the curled straw.

Yolanda shook her had, frowning. “I don’t know, Seena…Necessarius wouldn’t lie like that.”

“I’m with the demon,” Veda admitted. “I mean, I could understand them hiding it, or something like that. But flat-out naming a girl as the Composer seems way too serious to be some sort of propaganda.”

“But it’s Lizzy,” I insisted. “There’s no way she would hurt a fly. Steve, you’ve met her, right? Other than that gargant thing, I mean.”

The big baseline nodded. “I have. She’s needed a courier more than once. I can’t believe that she would be the Composer. It’s…” he shook his head. “It’s impossible to even consider.”

Delphie just sighed. “Guys, its a weird situation. We don’t know what’s going on. I mean, super powers are involved.”

“She’s got a point,” Jelena put in. “The prevailing theory on the internet is that the Composer is some sort of body-jumper, and Greene is just the latest victim.”

“I think I’d prefer if it really was her,” Pam mused. “I don’t like the idea of someone able to just jump into my body whenever they feel like it.”

I snorted. “Whatever happened to all that Darwinist crap about weeding out the weak?”

The baseline scowled. “Don’t do that. This is different.”

“Why? Because you can’t defend against it?”

“No, because it takes away free will. I have the same problem with those mind-control pheromones they’re working on.”

Delphie blinked. “Wait, the what?”

I ignored the murid. “And what, death doesn’t take away freedom?”

She met my gaze evenly. “Death is inevitable for everyone; moving around when someone dies—that is, killing them—is morally inconsequential. Mind control is not inevitable. It is a deliberate assault on the freedoms of another.”

Yolanda put her head on the table. “Velvet hell, can we please not get into another argument? Especially not the old Darwinist/Transhumanist one. It seems like all we do these days is argue.”

Our resident deer kemo just shrugged. “We live in difficult times. It’s to be expected that everyone will have a different idea how to fix it.”

The succubus waved her hand. “Let’s at least change the subject. Since Lizzy is the Composer—”

“She’s not,” Steve cut in instantly.

“…okay, fine. Since Lizzy is being mind controlled by the Composer or whatever, what does that mean? What will change?”

Veda checked something on her phone and answered without looking up. “It probably means the ‘sarians will shoot her in the face, and then she’ll jump to a new body.”

“Why are we even talking about this?” I muttered. “Let’s ignore the ridiculousness of Lizzy doing anything violent. It’s not our fight.”

“She’s your friend though, right?” Yolanda asked with a quirk of her head. “You have to think about this at least a little. What will you do if you see her again?”

“I…” I adjusted my daygoggles, stalling for time. “I…”

“Hey guys, look at this.” Veda leaned forward, showing her phone to all of us. I leaned forward, eager for any escape from the uncomfortable questions.

The small screen had a picture of a blood-drenched room, with what looked like bodies strewn everywhere, though it was hard to really tell at that size.

Jelena frowned. “I can’t even tell what that is. A murder scene?”

The cherve nodded. “Yeah, over in West Central. An inn got hit, and everyone’s dead.”

I narrowed my eyes, though I doubt anyone would have noticed. “I see where this is going. You think Lizzy did it?”

Veda shrugged. “You tell me. I think it’s that inn you said she likes—Thor’s Rest?”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Steve said with a barely-contained snarl. “It could easily be a coincidence.”

She shrugged again. “Maybe. But the Hammer himself was there.”

Kevin, who had thus far been completely silent, occupied with his drink, looked up in shock. “Mjolnir was there?”

“Apparently he moonlights as a bouncer, for whatever reason. He was killed too, his heart ripped right out of his chest.”

“Gods of men and darkness,” Pam whispered, a look of horror on her face that was mirrored by Kevin’s expression. “If she killed Thor’s Hammer…”

Kevin looked like he was about to throw up. “He was the strongest warrior the giants had. If he could be defeated…”

“Bleeding dusk, that’s not the point!” Jelena snapped, pounding her fist on the table hard enough to make our drinks jump. Thankfully, none of them fell over. “That stupid old titan was the only thing keeping the culture from descending into all-out war. He was dating a Jotuun, and his sister was a troll. With one murder, that’s all gone. The giants are finished unless someone starts damage control right now.”

“And she’ll be doing the opposite,” I noted with a sigh, familiar with the tactic to some point. The Mals taught that assassination wasn’t enough; you had to make sure the target’s death made enough of a splash so they couldn’t just be replaced. Lizzy…the Composer would make sure this didn’t go smoothly.

“Why do I have the feeling our lives are suddenly a lot more complicated?” Delphie said with a sigh. “Lizzy has always been a bit unpredictable, but now…”

“It’s not her,” Steve insisted. “Stop saying its her. Its not.”

I leaned back in my chair, staring up at the sky.

“Maybe, maybe not. But something is going to change, no matter what.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 113)

Short, yes. Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 112 – Mane

MANE

LAURA

I woke slowly, the sun’s first rays dappling the wall across from me. Derek was still asleep, breathing deeply and clutching me gently. I had managed to get him all the way on the bed before he drifted off last night; it wouldn’t do for him to get all his emotional healing done and wake up with a giant knot in his back because he slept on it wrong.

I smiled to myself. He looked so peaceful like this; it was a shame to wake him. Sure, he still smelled like a sewer, since he had never gotten a chance to shower, but it’s surprising how easy that is to get used to.

I decided to just let him sleep; he’d rise on his own soon enough. There was some hair in his face—I went to carefully brush it out of the way.

His arm immediately jerked and gripped my wrist like an iron vise.

Okay, not so cute anymore.

“Sorry,” he said after a moment, releasing me. He hadn’t even opened his eyes. “Force of habit.”

“Where do you pick up a habit like that?

He chuckled softly, and started tracing patterns on my belly through my shirt. “Sleeping in a rat warren, that’s where.” He sighed. “No way out until the Necessarians showed up with fire support. We didn’t really have a choice.”

I frowned, though he couldn’t see me. “You and Akane?”

He nodded, and pulled himself a little higher up, sharing the edge of the pillow. Although I was using them as a backrest, rather than as pillows, so we still weren’t quite even. “That was almost five years ago. MC had just started taking over the communications system. We were some of the first to talk to her.”

“And…did Akane try anything?”

“Hm? Like what?”

“Like…trying to cuddle you or something.”

He shrugged. “A little. It was cold.”

“Right. Was that her excuse, or yours?”

“Oh, mine, I guess. She kept joking around, talking about going to a hotel after we got out.” He sighed. “I really wish she wouldn’t screw around with me like that. It gives me headaches.”

Ever so slowly, the pieces began to fall into place.

I chose my words carefully. “So…you get headaches whenever a girl hits on you?”

He nodded.

I remembered his behavior during his party yesterday. “And that includes hugs and so on, right?”

He nodded again, his eyes still closed. “Yeah, any time a girl starts screwing with me, my head just starts splitting.”

“Okay…” I bit my lip. “But…you don’t have a headache right now. Right?”

He snuggled a little closer. “Nope. Probably because its you.”

I had a feeling that wasn’t it. “What about last night, when the girls were propositioning you? You have a headache then?”

“Hm. Now, that you mention it, no.”

As I thought. Of course, they might actually have been joking that time, so it might not be the best example. “And…you said part of Lizzy’s—I mean, the Composer’s—hypnotism was that you ignored all girls other than her, right?”

Derek’s grip on me loosened.

He stopped tracing my stomach through my shirt.

There was a very, very long pause. I think it went on for ten minutes.

“Derek?” I said quietly.

He suddenly jerked upright, eyes wide open and staring at me.

“They weren’t joking,” he said with forced calm.

“That’s…right,” I replied slowly. “So?”

“No! They were never joking!” His turned away and started pulling at his hair. “The time in the rat warren, and when they tried to kiss me…oh God.” He stared at me, his eyes wild. “Remember when I was chewing out Ling after the whole skins incident? She actually tried to seduce me!

“Uh, yeah,” I noted with a raised eyebrow. “That was kinda obvious to everyone who is not you.”

“Silver and goddamned gold,” he whispered. He tried to slide off the bed, but ended up tripping over his own feet and landing face first with a loud thump.

I winced. “You all right there?”

He picked himself up slowly. “Yeah, I’m…” Then he started, as though he had just realized something. He rushed back over and grabbed my shoulders. “Oh God. Laura! I woke up with Akane naked in my bed!”

I blinked. “Wait, you what—

I threw a naked girl out of my room! Why would you let me do that!?”

“What the hell are you blaming me for? I wasn’t there!”

He started shaking me. “What the hell am I going to do? I can’t deal with this!” He let me go and resumed pulling at his hair. “Silver and…when we first met, Shana tried to…and Emily came up to my room the first night…not to mention the Narutaki twins…”

I opened my mouth, but then closed it again, unable to find the words. How many girls had tried to seduce him over the years?

“I need to…silver and gold, silver and…” he stumbled towards his dresser and fished out his wallet from where he kept it buried under his underwear. “Flowers. Girls like flowers, right? I’ll buy them flowers.”

I cocked my head. “…everyone?”

“Yeah,” he said nervously. “Okay, there’s Fuka and Fumika and Akane and Emily and Haruhi and Alice and Garona—”

“Stop,” I advised, grabbing his hand as he reached for a pad, probably to start making a list. “Just…stop. Most of those girls have boyfriends now. Sending them presents is just going to cause problems.” I frowned. “Wait, back up. Garona hit on you?”

He nodded, a little shakily. “I…think so. This one time when I was fourteen, I did a sewer delve and she kept trying to help me shower after.”

I rubbed my forehead. I hadn’t realized the assassin’s tastes ran in that direction. “That’s…”

Derek started towards the door. “I need to go apologize to Akane and Ling.”

I rushed ahead and blocked his way. “No, no you do not.” I had a feeling that if he went over there right now, he’d end up in a threesome. He didn’t have any experience with romance and intimacy at all.

“Out of my way, Laura,” he insisted, and tried to push past me. “I need to do this.”

As he shouldered past me, I caught a whiff of the sewers again…which gave me the perfect excuse. But I couldn’t just say it outright; it would be too obvious it was a diversionary tactic.

Instead, I shrugged and moved out of the way. “Your funeral. Somehow I don’t think you’ll be well-received, smelling like that.”

He stopped, his hand on the doorknob. He sniffed his shirt a little.

“Take a shower first,” I advised. “Then come back here and we’ll talk about what to do next.”

Derek frowned, but nodded slowly and grabbed his towel from the closet. I followed him out of the room, just to make sure he really did go towards the bathrooms. He had never been one for duplicity before, but now it was hard to tell.

Once I saw him disappear into the bathroom at the end of the hall, I went back inside his room and sat on the bed.

Silver and…

I had maybe twenty minutes to come up with a plan to stop him from breaking Akane’s heart.

This was not shaping up to be a good day.

Behind the Scenes (scene 112)

I had waaay too much fun with this one. I’ve been planning this since the scene Laura kissed him—or, more accurately, since the scene where Ling and Akane tried to kiss him and he thought they were being mean.

Scene 111 – Stragis

STRAGIS

“Lizzy? That you?”

I shook my head to clear it and smiled at the bouncer for the bar. “Yes. Sorry. I have a really bad headache.”

The giant nodded. “You look like hell ran you over. What happened?”

I frowned, bit my lip, and shook my head. “I’m…not sure. It’s all very…fuzzy.”

“You need coffee,” he declared. “Ronnie!” he called to the bartender. “Get some caffeine for the lady. On me.”

I smiled at him again. “I can’t thank you enough.”

He grinned toothily. “No problem, little one.”

The big Thor was one of the few people who could get away with calling me that. Not just because he was bigger than me, but because he didn’t mean it as an insult. He was a good man, although everyone said he was hard to approach.

While he was distracted, one of the patrons tried to sneak past the torches marking the exit of the bar; Mjolnir noticed immediately.

“Hey!” He stomped over and grabbed the man by the collar, pulling him back inside. “Settle your tab first, Greg.”

The man grumbled, but slinked over to the bar, likely hoping he’d have better luck convincing Ronnie to let him off easy.

“Busy night?” I asked, glancing around the room. Thor’s Rest wasn’t exactly huge, but it was decent sized, and over half the tables were taken. I spent a lot of time here, so I was well aware that there were usually less people. Maybe the residents from the rooms upstairs were down for dinner. The patrons were a pretty even mix of cultures. With someone like that as the bouncer, you learn pretty quick to leave racism at the door.

Mjolnir shrugged. “Not too bad. Enough to keep us working, not so much that we’re overwhelmed. Just about perfect.” He grinned. “It was a good night before you got here. Now it’s a great night.”

“Your coffee, Lizzy,” Ronnie called, carefully placing a steaming mug on the tabletop. “You can wash some of that dirt off in the back, if you like.”

I grimaced. “I’m sorry. I must look terrible.”

The bartending vampire waved my complaint away. “Nonsense. You look as beautiful as ever. Why, if I weren’t married, I’d be trying to drag you back to my room.”

“I think I’ll stick with the coffee for now.”

He laughed. “See, that’s why I like you, Lizzy. You have a good sense of humor.”

I drained the mug as slowly as I could, nursing it over the course of about fifteen minutes. Six men and three women tried to shoulder past Mjolnir during that time, but he made sure they all stayed inside, where they decided that arguing with Ronnie was a better idea than having the Hammer of Thor after them.

One of them, Greg I think, was the one who noticed the broadcast. “Hey, they interrupted the game.”

I looked up at the nearest television to see that female reporter sitting at a news desk, ready to speak. The line at the bottom of the screen proclaimed ‘SPECIAL REPORT.’

“Hello,” the woman began. “I’m Eliza Cassan, reporting live. Moments ago, I was given a memo from Butler himself, regarding the ongoing search for the source of the screamers. In a daring raid, the Paladins have finally managed to ascertain the identity of the Composer.”

The entire bar murmured with apprehension, but Mjolnir just grinned. “About damn time. Maybe we can actually fight back now.”

Then my face appeared on the screen, in a window off to the side. All sound in the bar ceased, except that coming from the television. A glass shattered when Ronnie dropped it to the floor. No one reacted.

“This woman, Elizabeth Greene, is the Composer,” the newswoman proclaimed in that same dry tone she used for everything else. “She is to be considered extremely dangerous, and should not be approached under any circumstances. If you find her, contact MC and leave the area immediately. That is all.”

Eliza and the newsroom blacked out, but my picture grew to fill the whole screen. It was a very nice picture, cropped from one of the group photos we took on Akane’s birthday. You could see Laura’s black hair at the edge.

Greg got off his stool very slowly. Everyone else around me did the same. They were all the ones who had tried to get out without paying. Did they think they’d get some sort of bounty?

“Now, don’t make any sudden moves and nobody gets hurt,” he advised me, as he slowly drew his gun. I could hear the other delinquents doing the same around me.

Mjolnir stomped up with a scowl. “Put those away, you morons. There’s been a mistake.” The men stepped away from the giant, but didn’t lower their weapons. The bouncer just rolled his eyes. “This girl is an old friend. She wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“And she’s been sitting here the past quarter hour,” Ronnie pointed out. “The Composer was found out a few minutes ago. It can’t be her.”

I favored him with my best smile. “Thank you for your vote of confidence.” I slid off the stool, careful not to make any sudden movements, and raised my hands to show everyone I was unarmed. “As long as no one gets violent, I don’t see any reason this can’t end peacefully.”

“See?” Mjolnir said, punching Greg lightly on the shoulder. The smaller man had to struggle to keep his feet. “If she were the Composer, you think she’d let you point guns at her?”

The men slowly, grudgingly lowered their weapons.

I smiled at them each in turn as they holstered their guns. “He’s right, of course. If I were the Composer, I would do this.”

Then I formed my hand into a point, stabbed Mjolnir in the back, and ripped out his heart.

The giant gurgled, blood bubbling out of his mouth, and fell to the ground with enough force to shake the entire room, gore splashing up from the gaping hole in his back.

I dropped his heart next to him and squished it beneath my foot. Blood spurted.

One of the patrons made a dash for the entrance the bouncer had been guarding. I waved my bloody hand, and the fires jumped out of their braziers, creating a wall of flame, preventing anyone from escaping.

There was a reason I had come to this bar, specifically.

I licked my fingers carefully, making sure to savor every drop. Once I was done, I turned my eyes to the patrons of the bar, staring back at me in terror.

I grinned, revealing perfect white teeth, now stained crimson.

“If I were the Composer, this is exactly what I would do.”

END BOOK ONE

Scene 110 – Solacium

SOLACIUM

DEREK

We got a meeting with Butler within twenty minutes; he had apparently been in the area, maybe even waiting for our report. We gave it to him, leaving nothing out. Or rather, they gave it to him. I didn’t say much, and I don’t really remember what happened. I just remember that by the time we finished, the sun was almost completely gone, and we were back at the dorms.

I really needed that shower.

I stumbled through the lobby, ignoring my friends’ attempts to guide me by the arm. I didn’t jerk out of my fugue until I bumped into Emily, standing between me and the elevators.

“Whoa there,” the RA said in a friendly tone, holding me at arm’s length. “You alright?” She frowned, looking me up and down. “You smell like a sewer. What were you up to?”

I sighed, some of my wits returning to me. “I…it’s not important. I need to shower.”

“He’ll be fine,” Ling promised with a smile, grabbing my hand. “I’m sure I’ll be able to get him very clean.”

It took all my willpower not to jerk away. Was she serious? It was a nice offer, but more creepy than anything. Where did all this come from?

But Akane grabbed my other hand and glared at Ling. “No. He’s not going anywhere with you.” She didn’t say anything else, and Ling just rolled her eyes.

“I…I…” I managed to get to the elevators (Laura and Adam were holding them open for us) with the girls still attached. We sped up to the ninth floor without delay, Ling making incredibly obvious ‘subtle’ suggestions and Akane denying her with monosyllabic stoicism. Neither of them released me.

Silver and gold, what was going on? Since when were they actually interested in me?

By the time we reached my floor, I had broke into a cold sweat. I couldn’t move. What was I supposed to do? It’s not like I could just ignore them, and even though I did like them both, kinda, this was really not the time to be making that kind of decision. Adam and Laura quickly tired of waiting, and headed off without us.

Rather than answering their flirting, I just kept my mouth shut and stumbled out of the elevator. I managed to reach my door without doing anything too stupid, to find Adam coming out.

“I’m going to be staying with Lily tonight,” he informed me. “I’ll be back tomorrow for lunch.” He hefted his backpack over his shoulder—I had no idea why he needed his guns, but decided not to ask—and headed back to the elevators. I seized on the opening he had given me.

“Ah, sorry girls, I think I just need to sleep. It’s been a long day.” I disentangled myself, ignoring their increasingly loud protests, and slipped into my room. Thankfully, Adam had left it unlocked. “Have a nice night.” I locked the door behind me.

And turned around to see Laura laying on my bed.

She was on her back, propped up on the pillows, reading one of my monster magazines as though she belonged there. I had my bed set up so that the pillows were next to the window; that way, I didn’t have to turn around to see an intruder. It also meant that Laura didn’t have to turn to speak to me. Some distant part of my brain noted that I would probably need to wash my sheets to remove the smell of the sewer.

“You sure are popular,” she said calmly, wiggling her bare toes. She flipped the page, as though she were actually reading it.

I swallowed. “I guess…they’re trying to make me feel better.” I shook my head vigorously. “But it’s just confusing me more. I don’t need flirting right now.”

“I’m well aware of that.” She put the magazine down on the short dresser in arm’s reach. “I know what it’s like to lose someone you love.” She gave me a level gaze, though I noticed that her hand inched towards her necklace before she could stop herself. “I know exactly what you need right now…and I’m willing to give it.”

It took me a second to realize what she meant. A beautiful girl sitting on my bed in a locked room…her face was calm. She was prepared.

I stepped forward slowly…then I took another step and another. And then I was there, and she was close enough to touch.

Laura smiled sadly—pityingly, really.

She was right. I needed this.

I collapsed on top of her, my head in her lap, and cried.

I don’t know how long I cried. I don’t know when I ran out of tears, but I kept crying anyway. There was nothing else in the world except for Laura, gently brushing my hair and whispering that everything would be all right.

Behind the Scenes (scene 110)

Yes, very short, I know. But it was originally supposed to be part of scene 108 (Apocalypsis) until I realized that it made no sense for pacing purposes. Even short as it is, it works better here.

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 109 – Fugae

FUGAE

ROBYN JOAN

My name is Robyn Joan Clarke. My father is Doctor Isaac Clarke, and my mother is Janet Gertrude. I never understood why she kept her maiden name, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I had an older brother, David, but he died a while back.

I sat on top of a skyscraper, not far from the entrance to the sewer the Paladins had dived into. I had a good angle from here, and could see everything clearly with my binoculars. But at forty floors up, no one would notice me unless they were looking very hard.

It had been over four hours, and I was starting to get worried. Cell service was virtually impossible to get in the sewers; you’d need to be right next to an opening to the surface to get any reception. For all I knew, they could all be dead by now. But Derek and Akane were experienced dungeon-delvers, and Laura had a keen sense of direction. They should all be fine.

I’ll admit I was a bit worried about Adam and Ling, though for different reasons. Adam could handle himself in a fight; disturbingly well, in fact. But if they ran into a singer, it was all over for him.

Ling, on the other hand, was not a fighter. Oh, she did well enough against the screamers, but they were so stupid they hardly counted. The kind of monsters you ran into in sewers would take more than a few improvised soccer tricks to kill.

My headset chirped with the real MC’s voice. “Robyn? You there?”

I tapped the device to activate it. “Yes, what is it?”

“Long story. Short version: Lizzy came out of the sewers two miles northwest. Find her, follow her, don’t let her see you.”

The eye screen on my headset lit up with a map and a destination marker, indeed a little over two miles away from my current position. I guess the lair was just a lot further underground than they thought.

I frowned though, disturbed at the unspoken implications of MC’s statement. If I wasn’t supposed to be seen by Lizzy, that almost certainly meant she was a sleeper, and anything she heard or saw would be reported back to the Composer.

That was by far the worst case scenario. I wasn’t the greatest of friends with her, but I still didn’t want to see her brainwashed and forced to spy on the people she cared about.

I shook me head to clear it. That was something to worry about later. Every minute I delayed, the girl got farther away. The sun was already beginning to sink towards the horizon; once night fell, I’d have a hard time finding her.

“Robyn Joan Clarke,” a voice called from behind me.

Surprised, I turned to see…Obould, the orc Power, standing next to the stairwell. Huh. That was strange; he normally preferred to stay home in his lab. He looked serious, more so than I had ever seen him.

“Honored Devil,” I said smoothly, while racking my brain for a way out of this situation without revealing too much. “Wonderful to see you again. Ah…what are you doing up here?”

He met my gaze evenly. “Don’t follow her, Honored Paladin.”

I cocked my head in what I’m sure looked like a genuine gesture of confusion. “Follow who?”

“Elizabeth Greene. She is the Composer.” He frowned. “Or…she is possessed by the Composer. I’m not clear on that.”

This time I didn’t have to fake being skeptical. “Lizzy? The Composer? Where’d you get that idea?”

“I began suspecting a few weeks ago, when Adam failed to get her blood sample,” he admitted. “That’s when I realized she is significantly more careful about her words around Laura—almost as if she knew about her ability.” He shrugged. “And it was confirmed when I overheard the other Paladins telling MC.”

I blinked. “You overheard them? How?”

He grinned, baring his fangs. “I hacked the network.”

“YOU WHAT?” MC shrieked in my ear. I had to rip the headpiece off to avoid being deafened, but she managed to switch it to speaker mode remotely. “When the hell did that happen?”

“Well,” Obould mused. “Most of it was Garona, with some help from Veronica and me. It was a group effort, really.”

“HOW DID YOU HACK MY NETWORK?”

Even though he was wearing daygoggles, I could tell the orc was rolling his eyes. “Calm down. Garona snuck into the Cathedral. With a hardline, she was able to upload a hack we wrote, and suborn one of your spy programs.”

The ‘sarian hacker cursed under her breath. “Which one? LS0099827? I’ll bet it was her, she’s been glitching on me for months…”

Obould cleaned his tooth with his tongue, thinking. “It was…I’m not sure. Little Sister…17? No, it ended in a nine. Anyway, it was five years ago, right when you were starting up. It’s been there for a long time.”

There was a long, long pause, and I could easily imagine MC taking deep breaths and counting to ten. “Okay, I need to know exactly what this hack does.”

The orc shrugged. “Garona will have to tell you. I didn’t contribute much.”

“You can do all this later,” I pointed out. “Right now, I have to go find Lizzy.” Despite what Obould had said, I was still skeptical about her status. Lizzy, the Composer? It just seemed too silly. Besides, it’s not like I was going to walk up to her and ask.

“No, Robyn, you can’t,” the warlord insisted, stepping forward and grabbing my arm. “She’s extremely dangerous, and we know too little about her powers.”

I shrugged him off. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Knight Obould.” I didn’t like how familiar he was getting. Really, we only knew each other peripherally. “I’ve been scouting for MC since this whole thing started.” I snorted as the pieces fell into place. “Of course, you already know that.”

He shrugged a little helplessly. “Well…yes. Although I don’t quite understand why you never told the others.”

I just glared at him. “Didn’t see the need.”

He rubbed his horns and sighed. “Look…I realize I can’t actually physically stop you. But you’d have enough trouble finding her during the day. By the time you get over there, it will be dark, and she’ll be in a perfect position to ambush you.”

“I can take care of myself. Even at night.”

“Really?” he cocked his head. “I thought those red eyes were just cosmos.”

He was right, of course. My eyes—and my hair, for that matter—were colored red, but were not improved in any way. I was as nightblind as any other baseline.

But I had gone to far to back down now. And besides, we really did need intel on Lizzy or the Composer or whoever.

Obould could clearly see the determination in my eyes, so he just shook his head. “I give up. MC, help me out here?”

“One sec,” she muttered in an annoyed tone. “I’m yelling at your sister-in-law.”

I tossed the orc the headset, and he caught it in reflex.

“Don’t follow me, Honored Devil,” I advised, as I stepped backwards off the roof of the building. “I’m a little better at this than you.”

I only fell a few feet before I activated my power, reversing gravity for me and me alone. Suddenly I wasn’t falling down anymore, but rather up, head angled towards Lizzy’s last known location. As I rose, I slipped on the gas mask she had bought me recently. It was designed for…well, gas, but it worked pretty well for high-altitudes as well.

Once I was above the clouds and comfortably away from prying eyes, I changed my angle to be almost completely horizontal. I also increased my speed, simply by stacking a few more gravities on me, making me ‘fall’ faster in the direction I desired. My reservoir depleted very slowly; I had enough for a little over an hour at this speed.

I knew most of the others had wondered why they had gotten their particular powers. Not Derek, of course—it was perfectly obvious why he got the power to protect people. But the others were more confused. What did Laura have to do with lies, or Akane with superspeed, or Ling with controlling earth and stone? You could see reasons for them if you squinted, but still, it was odd.

Me, I was confused as to why everyone didn’t get flight.

Flying is the most exhilarating experience in the world. I’ve known that ever since I was a kid, when I snuck onto one of the airplane sims at the aerospace museum. It was primitive and clunky, but I went there every single day, at least until it burned down in a gang war.

But flying without a plane…with nothing between you and the air, seeing the clouds unfold beneath you like a white ocean…well. I could understand why the aves were going to such great lengths to get wings.

Obould had asked me why I hadn’t told the others I was like them. I had lied. I had a reason; a very simple, very selfish one.

I wanted to keep flying for as long as I could. I wanted to feel empty air around me, taste the wind through my hair. I knew that when they eventually found out, I wouldn’t be MC’s mysteriously competent scout anymore. I would be a Paladin, with all the duties and responsibilities that implied.

Is it any wonder I chose flying over that?

Behind the Scenes (scene 109)

And now we finally meet the fifth intended Paladin.

Scene 108 – Apocalypsis

APOCALYPSIS

DEREK

“Lizzy?”

She looked almost as shocked as we were. “Derek? Everyone? I…” her mouth worked silently before she managed to get more words out. “I didn’t think you would come! I was locked up…”

She somehow managed to look beautiful, despite her harsh turn of affairs. Oddly enough, while her skin was covered in dirt, blood, and a grisly mix of the two, her white dress was nearly pristine. I guess the fey gave her a new one for some reason.

My head started to ache, but I just ignored it. “Are you all right? How did you get free?”

She gestured vaguely to what looked like an operating table in the corner of the small room. It was empty, and the straps undone, but it was covered in blood. “I got out when…I’m fine. I mean, physically.” She started trembling. “Things…were done…”

I holstered my Occisor and pulled her close. It was the first time I had ever hugged her, I think. I tried not to enjoy it; this was hardly the time for such things. “It’s all right. You’re safe now.” I looked into her golden eyes, wide with fear. “We need to know: Was it the fey who did this? Or the Composer?”

She just trembled harder.

I would have continued holding her, but I had a job to do, and I was getting a headache. Why now?

I stepped out of Lizzy’s embrace and aimed her at Laura. She glared daggers at me, but hugged the weeping girl in white without complaint.

I headed forward, ready for trouble. There was only one other exit from the cold little torture chamber, directly across from the one we had used. While I couldn’t hear any screamers nearby, I was still worried about monsters. I should probably quiz Lizzy more so that I’d have some idea what I was dealing with, but decided against it. I could feel more headaches coming on even as I thought of it.

“Derek,” Akane called as I reached the doorway (empty of any actual doors). “I’ll come.”

I shook my head, both at her and Adam behind her. “No, stay here. They could be back any moment.” She frowned, but nodded, and grabbed Adam’s arm when he started to protest.

The path quickly led into a t-shaped intersection. I tried to follow the tracks on the ground, but my headache got worse when I tried.

Ugh. Of all the days…

On a whim, I turned to the right, towards the steady sound of dripping water. I could see a light on the left path, behind me, which likely led up to the surface. But whether fey or the Composer, I had a feeling this one liked the dark places, and would flee down rather than up. Call it an educated guess.

There was a faint sheen of water on the floor, flowing from the direction I was heading, and my feet made small slapping noises as I stepped. This whole area was probably some kind of sewer maintenance or treatment plant, re-purposed into a lair.

I only had to walk for a few minutes before the smell hit me.

It was the sweet, cloying scent of rotting meat, one I knew too well from dungeon delves like this one. I held out my hand for a face mask without thinking, before remembering Akane was back with the others. I chuckled at my silliness, which made me feel a bit better, and drove away a little bit of the anxiety over what lay at the end of the tunnel. The smell was still stifling, but I managed to keep it at bay by covering my face with my hand.

It only took two more minutes to find the source, and it was as I feared.

Human corpses, thrown haphazardly in a pile and shoved against the end of the corridor. Dozens of them, all tortured and mutilated nearly beyond recognition. They were fresh; they hadn’t had time to bloat, but that just made it worse. Someone can kill this many in a day?

Some small part of my brain noted that they were almost exclusively baseline. Did that mean it was the fey after all? Maybe these were escaped changelings, reclaimed and punished?

Water leaked between the corpses, and I belatedly realized that they were holding back the flow. It wouldn’t be very strong even without them blocking the way, but it was the cause of the smell. Unlike the Nosferatu from earlier, these ones were exposed directly to the mudfish and similar organisms of decay that lurked in the water.

I still couldn’t figure out what this corridor was for, though. This was definitely the end; the wall was solid and unforgiving. What possible reason could there be to have water flowing from here?

I steeled myself and moved the corpses aside, murmuring prayers and apologies as I did. It was slow going, not just because there were so many of them, but because they were in so many pieces, and I didn’t want to disturb them any more than I had to. Not to mention that it was taking some effort to avoid the mudfish. I was probably getting covered in smaller creatures feasting on the corpses. I made a mental note to take a long, hot shower later.

Eventually, I managed to pull enough aside—created a rotting slurry of half-decayed body parts and blood in the process—to expose the source of the flow.

It was a crack.

There was a small crack in the wall, maybe a foot wide. Water was bursting out of it at a pretty decent pace, maybe…call it a gallon a minute. One of the pipes embedded in the wall had probably burst during one of the colder nights recently.

Someone had used several dozen corpses for nothing more than to plug a hole.

I’ve seen terrible things in my life, a few worse than this. But even so, I had to take a deep breath to keep from throwing up. Immediately, I cast about for answers. What kind of person could—

The migraine came back, a thousand times stronger than before, and light flashed before my eyes. I was afraid I was going to lose consciousness, but I kept my grip, though I did fall to my knees.

What in the—I shook my head; I had periodic headaches pretty much my entire life, but never this hard and this close together. I had to get back to the others. I—

It hit me again, though not as strong. I was able to bear through it easier.

That sold it. I had to get back. Heartbreaking as this grisly scene was, I couldn’t do anything for the dead, and if I passed out where my friends couldn’t find me, nothing good would come of it.

I managed to make it back to the room where we found Lizzy with nothing more than one more small spike of pain, to find it exactly as I left it. Akane stood off near the entrance, sword drawn, with Adam close by with his Caedes. Ling was picking at the empty torture table, still slick with blood, apparently trying to figure out what to do with it. And Laura still held Lizzy in her arms—

The migraine came again at full strength, and again I was forced to my knees. I blearily noted that everyone rushed over to my side, but Lizzy was at the forefront.

“Derek?” she asked gently. “What’s wrong?”

“Headache,” I managed. “Just…need a doctor.”

“The retinue—” Ling started, but Lizzy waved her off. They were too far away anyway.

“Derek. Derek, look at me.” Her voice was soft as she held my head and forced me to look at her. My vision was turning blurry; it was like I was at the end of a long, dark tunnel, with only her golden eyes on the other end. “Look at me Derek. Listen to me. Look at my dress…”

I felt something snap. Something in my mind broke, as something…something smashed against it. My soul? Or just sheer weight of evidence?

But something snapped.

And then everything made sense.

Hypnotism. Gods-damned hypnotism.

I was a sleeper. Or something close to it.

And that little white dress was the trigger.

I pushed her away as hard as I could, utterly revolted. Now she looked shocked. She tried to crawl forward but I stopped her with a barrier and scrambled over to Laura, the closest of my friends.

Lizzy looked pained. Even now, I couldn’t see it. Her eyes looked the same as they always did: Gold and beautiful and innocent as a dove.

“Derek,” she whispered, sounding hurt. She stood up; in my short flight to escape her, I had come out on the unprotected side of my barrier. There was nothing between the two of us now. “What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

“Everything she says…” I whispered. I managed to scramble to my feet. How had I not seen it before? “Laura, it’s all…lies.”

Laura stared at me quizzically. “Are you insane? It’s Lizzy. If she’s a sleeper, we’ll handle it. Besides, my power has been on the entire time. She can’t—”

“I never thought to analyze her words more carefully,” I said quietly. “Never thought to notice that she speaks almost entirely in questions and half-truths.”

I gave Laura an iron look.

“The kind of wording that slips right past your ability.”

My old friend blinked slowly, trying to think back.

Lizzy, for her part, looked like I had slapped her across the face. “You…we’ve known each other since we were kids!”

I didn’t let up. Everything was starting to fall into place. “Then why are you covered in blood, but you aren’t wounded?

The golden girl looked like she was about to cry. “Derek, please, I don’t know what’s going on—”

Then her head exploded.

I turned to see Laura, still standing not three inches away from me, with her Occisor raised and smoking. She was crying silently, tears spilling down her cheeks, but her face was hard. She turned her head and looked me in the eyes without blinking.

Lie,” she said levelly.

I would have thanked her—she had the right idea—but someone else beat me to the punch.

“Oh, thank you so much for that. I had this click in my jaw that just would not go away.”

I turned to the speaker…

And saw Elizabeth rising from the floor as though nothing had happened.

No, not nothing. That familiar vapid, ‘I don’t know what’s going on but I’m fine with that’ look on her face was gone completely. In its place was a smile wide enough to reveal every single one of her shining teeth. It was the smile of a torturer, of a killer as blood splashes on his skin.

It was the smile of our enemy.

Her eyes weren’t innocent anymore. They held the cold, predatory gleam of a hunter lurking in the dark. The way she stood, the way she moved…everything she did reminded me of nothing so much as a panther, ready to pounce.

“That’s a nice gun,” she hissed. “But it will take more than that…to kill a composer.”

I stumbled back in shock. I had assumed… “You’re supposed to be a sleeper.”

The smile got wider, if that was possible, and the thing that called itself Elizabeth Greene licked her lips. “Yesthat’s it. I wanted to see it.” She giggled, not the warm, honey-like sound of my old friend Lizzy, but the cruel chuckle of a hyena. “I wanted to see that FACE! I wanted to see you when you realized it!” She laughed again, a piercing, echoing sound. “Now, SCREAM FOR ME!”

She rushed forward, a look of naked, gleeful bloodlust on her face—

Her head exploded again.

This time, she didn’t fall, though she did stumble back, and I could see her skull restructuring itself, broken bits of brain and bone reversing course, flying back through the air to slot into place as if nothing had happened.

She shook her head quickly, then glared daggers of hate at Laura. “MEDINA! You’re next, just wait your turn—”

Laura fired again. Adam had finally managed to find his wits as well, and joined in with his SMG, filling the small room with the smell of gunsmoke and the deafening roar of automatic fire.

Whatever regeneration Elizabeth had, it clearly wasn’t perfect. She shrieked in pain and rage and fled to the intersection I had just come out of. Unlike me, she fled left.

Ling and Adam followed swiftly, but there was a great crash, and a large part of the ceiling came down, nearly burying them. I could see daylight filtering down, but we would never climb over that in time to catch her.

“Let it go,” I said tiredly, sinking to the floor. “Let it go.” I took a long, deep breath. “We have other things to do.”

“Body jumping,” Akane muttered, a shocked look on her face. “That’s it, right? The Composer can possess people or whatever.”

Laura holstered her gun and wiped away her tears. “Probably. But if she’s been dodging my power this entire time, Lizzy must be one of her favorite hosts.”

“We need to follow her,” Adam insisted, looking at the rock-filled corridor. “Ling, can you get us through here?”

“Yeah,” she muttered. “But she didn’t set off explosives or whatever. She used a power like mine to bring the roof down. I could feel her rip at the concrete.”

Laura cursed. “This just keeps getting better and better. Start making a hole, but take your time. We’re not following.” She pulled out her cell. “Kelly? Lizzy is possessed by the Composer. Don’t engage; she might have all the powers. Just follow her.”

I couldn’t move.

Seven years I had been pining over this girl…and why? Because some…demon or whatever thought it would be advantageous.

Sure, Lizzy was still in there somewhere. Unless it had killed her…

No. Lizzy was still in there somewhere. The love might not have been real at first, but seven years doesn’t just disappear over night. I…I…

Silver and gold, I didn’t know what to do.

Laura shook my shoulder. “Can you hear me? I said we need to go.”

I blinked. Everyone was standing around me, waiting.

“Go where?”

“To talk to Butler,” Laura said, offering me her hand. “He wants a full report, in person.”

I took her hand and pulled myself to me feet.

Butler. Yeah. Maybe he’d have some answers.

Behind the Scenes (scene 108)

Sorry nothing interesting is going on in this scene. I just needed a bit of a break from all the heavy writing.