Monthly Archives: August 2013

Scene 118 – Hiems

HIEMS

My name is…is…

I don’t remember.

Well, this is hardly off to a good start.

I have too many names, that’s the problem. Well, no, that’s not the problem. The problem is that none of them are mine. They’re just convenient lies and labels I adopt to interact with others.

On to the matter at hand. I waited patiently until I heard Akane walk out of the alley. I had half expected her to attack me, not that it would have done her any good. I would have just killed myself, and never used this face again. It would have been annoying for everyone involved, but far more so her than me.

Luckily, it hadn’t come to that. Bodies weren’t as expensive as everyone made them out to be, but they were hardly cheap either.

Once the Paladin was gone, I walked forward without fear, into the alley I had stopped her from scouting. I didn’t hear the alarm go off, but I knew it would be ringing below ground, in Elizabeth’s sewers.

Not that it mattered.

I lifted the manhole cover to the side, carefully lowered myself down, pulled it back into place over my head, and then simply let go of the ladder. I fell some ten feet; not far for an un-augmented human, and hardly even worth mentioning for me.

I landed inside a circle with a half-dozen of the Blackguards pointing automatic weapons at me. The morons. If they fired, they’d just end up shooting each other.

“Who are you?” Nabassu, the demon butler, demanded while leveling an SMG at me. I was curious where he got it so quickly, but not enough to ask.

Instead, I simply giggled girlishly and let the cloak fall to the ground, revealing my lithe naked form.

“I’m the Princess of Killing Sparrow, silly,” I said, with an apparently genuine childish grin on my face. “Who else would I be?”

The demon’s cheeks darkened, and his eyes flicked down to my chest a few times. Seriously, nudity was the ultimate combat advantage. Militaries really needed to start training their soldiers against it.

“Right this way, Lady Princess,” the butler said quickly, holstering his weapon and leading me further down the sewer. I followed, my bare feet splashing in the shallow river of sewage, unconcerned for my health. The cold didn’t bother me in the slightest, and if there any diseases strong enough to infect me they deserved to kill me.

We walked in silence for twenty-three minutes, and I pretended to not notice the guards checking out my rear the entire way. I just followed Nabassu, humming a childish ditty under my breath.

While I did that, I carefully eyed my escorts, trying to figure out their weaknesses. I couldn’t determine their powers, of course. I just didn’t know anything about how all that worked. But I was a fey, and therefore one of the foremost experts on toys in the city.

The butler demon had a few adrenal implants, judging by his abnormally fast heartbeat. It would kill him in a few years, but he’d have some pretty impressive reflexes until then. He was one to watch.

To my left and my right were a pair of male anthro crocodiles. Crocs didn’t really have their own subculture; they were still too rare, and generally stuck with the other lizards in the laces culture. Though their King, the ‘Gatorcroc,’ did have the ear of the lace King, Io.

The crocs on either side of me did their culture proud. Bulletproof and slashproof scales were the most obvious, but judging by the way they moved, they clearly had enhanced muscles and tendons as well—they’d have to, in order to support their denser bone structures. Their only weak point would be either their eyes, or if they were stupid enough to bite me with those giant jaws of their, their open gullets.

Behind me, however, were the ones I was worried about.

Three vampires girls, to all appearances triplets, with fangs that a Nosferatu would find unbearably large. The fangs, however, were just a distraction. Judging from the way they flexed their hands every once in a while (they tried to hide it, but I could tell), they had retractable claws. And if the fact that they occasionally scratched their wrists was any indication, they held a powerful poison. Assuming Elizabeth had a direct hand in their creation, each one was probably different. She was cunning like that.

I wasn’t worried about the poisons killing me. That was hardly something to fear. No, if they used the right kind of paralytic—which definitely sounded like Elizabeth’s style—I wouldn’t be able to destroy this body to my satisfaction. They’d be able to dissect it, study it, and eventually find ways to cause real damage to me.

If a fight broke out, it wouldn’t look good for me.

After a few minutes of walking and going through battle scenarios in my head, we reached a room. It wasn’t a big room; we were still in the sewers, after all. But it was large enough to accommodate the Composer and her throne.

The throne was made up of corpses, a dozen or more, all fresh and still oozing blood. They had probably been killed minutes ago. She had them arranged in the crude shape of a large chair, complete with a cushion, armrests, and a backboard. I couldn’t tell how she had forced them to keep the correct poses. Was she using some power, or was it something more mundane?

Elizabeth herself wasn’t much different than when I had last seen her a few hours ago, through the eyes of another homunculus. Her once-white dress was soaked red, with the brown of old, dried blood peeking through the fresher splashes of crimson.

She sat there, on her throne of corpses, her skin nearly the same color as her dress, and she looked…content. The lion in its den. The panther after the kill. Those golden eyes of hers, finally put in the correct context, were the cold and hungry light of a predator.

“My Lady Greene,” Nabassu said, bowing deeply as he stood aside to let me in. “The Princess of Killing Sparrow.”

Ah, Banphrionsa,” she said with a blood-flecked grin. “Iontach chun freastal ar deireadh aghaidh leat chun aghaidh. Chuala mé an oiread sin rudaí maith faoi tú.”

It was Irish, and unlike the crap I had learned out of an old English to Irish dictionary, it was very good Irish. I barely caught half the words.

I didn’t really know what to say, but that’s why we had crafted the capricious image of the fey in the first place: To have a fallback reaction ready at all times.

I giggled, as though not even bothering to stifle my amusement. “Your accent’s funny. Where’d you learn to speak Teanga?” ‘Teanga’ was simply the Irish word for ‘language,’ nothing more.

She raised an eyebrow. “Fine. English it is.”

I just grinned.

The monster rolled her eyes. “Childish or not, Honored Maiden, you and yours are still quite dangerous. So I’ll get right to the point.” She leaned forward and met my eyes with her own. “How would you like to work with me?”

I knew this was coming, of course. She wouldn’t have bothered to ask for a meeting if she was just going to kill or turn me.

But the Composer was not part of our mission. She did not improve the city in any way. She wasn’t like our monsters, which were designed to be defeated. No, she would gladly watch the city burn, and then complain that there was nothing else to do anymore.

The second we had received the invitation last night, we had discussed the benefits of working with a an immortal raging psychopath. The decision was unanimous:

No way in hell.

However, we couldn’t just ignore her. We had to learn her ways, her weaknesses, sabotage and destroy her if we could. The Paladins would almost certainly be the ones to strike the killing blow, but we could at least make it easier for them.

I cocked my head to the side, as if considering her offer. “I don’t know…would we get some conductors of our own?” She had educated us on some of the simpler aspects of how the powers worked. I didn’t trust a word of it, other than perhaps the nomenclature. The conductors were the singers, the chorus the screamers, and the directors the speakers—the Paladins and Blackguards.

The predator narrowed her eyes. “Why would you need any? Surely your peataí are enough.”

I shrugged. “Surely.”

She waited for me to elaborate. I didn’t.

“You’re beginning to annoy me, Princess,” she growled after a moment of silence. “You won’t get any conductors, but I can put some chorus under your control.” Interesting that it was even possible. “Now—” she glared at me dangerously. “Are you with me or not?”

I chewed my lip, pretending to think about it, buying a little bit of time to prepare.

“Wellll…” I said as slowly as I could. “I think I’m going to have to say no.” I giggled. “Sorry, sweetness.” I managed to fix her with an innocent look. “Maybe we could renegotiate later?”

She opened her mouth and began to sing.

But I was ready for her. I initiated my self-destruct process, starting at my ears so I couldn’t be affected by her song. Within seconds, my blood was converted to a very specific acid, and seconds after that, it reacted with my carefully constructed flesh, and then—

I exploded.

I opened my eyes to find myself in a toy box. One of the very first toy boxes, actually. It wasn’t really anything like the ones we had sold to Necessarius in appearance. Instead of a shiny metal coffin, it was a vertical glass tube set into the ceiling and floor and filled with nutrient solution. The actual toy maker device itself made up the back of the tube, looking like nothing less than the spine of some strange mechanical beast. A few tubes and vents pumped air and water into the machine, which then processed them into something more useful.

There was a tap on the glass, and I could see a young woman, for all appearance the twin of the body I had just abandoned except with longer hair, standing outside the tube.

“Maiden Night,” she called, speakers inside the tube letting me hear her perfectly. “Are you all right?”

I took a deep breath through my face mask and nodded, then tapped the glass in a simple pattern. That was the signal that my mind remained my own. She pressed a button on the remote in her hand and showed it to me. With a firm thought, I thrust my mind into a nearby waiting homunculus, the powerful radio transceiver that made up its spine allowing me to act as though I was the body, rather than simply piloting it.

“I’m quite fine, Matron Night,” I answered with my new mouth. The names we were using weren’t our real names, of course. We didn’t remember those. They were just simple designations to make our lives a little easier. ‘Hey you’ got old pretty fast.

I was one of two maidens, the fey who piloted the younger homunculi. I was called Night because I piloted the Autumn and Winter bodies; Day confined themselves to Spring and Summer.

I glanced down at my new homunculus, frowning, and pulled at my blonde hair. “Wait, who is this?”

“The Princess of Dying Dusk,” she explained helpfully. “From the court of Day’s Western Spring.”

Our limits were all self-imposed, of course. I had piloted Spring bodies on occasion, when one of the others was busy or indisposed. So it wasn’t really that surprising to find myself in a new one. But still…I had grown used to Killing Sparrow.

“Why was there a Dying Dusk homunculus just lying around?” I asked. Each one generally only lasted a month or two at best. It was late September; there shouldn’t be any left outside of Autumn. Maybe one or two later-born Summers.

“To help sell the image of a war,” the Matron explained. “Matron Day was going to ask one of you to pilot it up to the surface and wreak a little havoc.” She shrugged. “Or just do it herself.”

We had to be flexible in what bodies we used. Despite our propaganda, there were not ninety-six fey, split between four seasons and four directions and day/night. Fifteen years ago, when our head psychiatrist decided to start playing with the bodies of his patients and staff using the toy maker, his experiments had been brutal and inefficient.

There were only six of us. Only six crazy little girls had survived out of a sanitarium filled with over two hundred.

We owed much to the man who’s name we refused to speak. We had been patients in his hospital, locked up in the isolation wing. None of us remembered much of our stay there, but what we had been able to piece together made it clear that we had definitely belonged there. The Nameless One had managed to cure us somewhere in his mad science, and for that we owed him our thanks.

But waking up connected to a device you don’t understand, while things that were once men screamed and roared around you…nothing made up for that.

“Anyway,” my companion started, as she sat on a nearby table. “What’s the word on Greene? You hit the suicide switch, so it clearly didn’t go well…”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. I don’t think she saw through the fey persona, but she got annoyed with it pretty quick. So at least she still underestimates us.”

Matron Night opened her mouth, then shut it, then spoke. “Crone Night wants to know if she even bothered offering you a job first.”

The radio transponders placed in the homunculi’s spines also worked perfectly for more mundane forms of communication. Normally, Crone Night would have asked the question so that both of us could hear it, but they were still a little leery about whether or not I was infected. When a disease can be transmitted by song, any level of paranoia is justified.

“She did,” I admitted. “A little bit too soon, in fact.” I waved my hand. “That all went as expected. More interesting was that I ran into Akiyama before the meeting.”

Night’s face scrunched up in annoyance—a look I recognized as what happened when too many people were shouting in your head.

I used the opportunity to continue on. “She didn’t realize it was me, of course. I got her out of there before she had a chance to think too hard on who would be meeting with the Composer.”

One of the others finally prodded the Matron to speak. “What was she doing there? Huntsman wouldn’t have sent her alone.”

I shrugged. “Couldn’t tell. She might have been on a scouting mission and decided to see if she could do some real damage in the process—you know she can get a little overenthusiastic.”

Night nodded. “And they might still be holding a grudge against Greene.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know about that. They might still think they can separate the Composer from Elizabeth.”

“They might be able to, actually. We can’t know for certain either way.”

There was a faint buzzing sound in my ear, as the others ended their radio silence with me. I guess they decided it was safe enough. Personally, I figured they should wait longer, but I was getting annoyed at being left out of the conversation, so I didn’t say anything.

“We can’t send our homunculi out anymore,” Maiden Day pointed out. “If she gets one of them, all the bodies we’re piloting at that moment will be infected.”

“Also unconfirmed,” Crone Day cut in.

“But not something we want to risk,” I retorted before my Day counterpart could. “We need to limit our interactions to monsters only. Don’t let anything vaguely human get within shouting distance of any of our bodies.”

There was a pause.

“I think it’s time to start recruiting,” Crone Night said at last.

Everyone else muttered in alarm, but Matron Day was the one who articulated herself fastest. “Where did that come from?”

“It’s time,” the Crone said again, more firmly. “We can’t control the monsters, not really. If we want to do anything useful, we’ll need actual people under us.”

“We can always make more changelings—” I started.

She cut me off in an angry tone. “Oh, now you’re just being silly. Changelings are experiments, and not particularly predictable ones. Can you imagine the Charlie Foxtrot if we trusted them with anything?” I could almost feel her shaking her head. “No, we need to recruit actual human beings.”

“We could try office drones,” Crone Day mused slowly. The way she segued into it made me think the two might have been planning this all along. “They don’t have the salaries to get the better gifts of the toy maker, and probably desire more interesting lives. Both are things we can provide.”

I cursed under my breath. This was spiraling out of control way too fast. I shook my head. “No, we can’t. They’ll find out the secret if we do. We can’t pilot enough bodies, with enough micromanagement, to convincingly portray ninety-six unique fey.”

When we could control who we interacted with, it was easy keeping up the illusion that there were nearly a hundred of us. We could pilot a number of homunculi each, and carefully switch between them for speaking roles.

But with direct underlings, that would get more complicated. Each fey would be expected to have her own minions, which would mean they would need to interact nearly simultaneously…

“Then we do away with the ninety-six,” Crone Night said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “And make do with six.”

No one spoke.

Maiden Day was the first to break the silence.

“Can…we do that?”

“No, of course not,” I snapped. “Without anonymity—”

“We won’t go around in our real bodies,” Crone Night assured us. “Just a more manageable number of homunculi.”

“We can’t,” my Day counterpart insisted. “What are we going to tell people? ‘We were lying to you this entire time?’ They’ll start asking questions, looking deeper into who and what we are.”

Crone Day sighed. “You’re being unreasonable. If we make the new homunculi look like the old ones, we can tell people that there were only six survivors of the war.”

I narrowed my eyes, although only Matron Night could see me. “That’s why you two suggested the war. You wanted a good cover for this.”

“…yes,” Crone Night admitted. “But the part about needing time to study the Composer was true too. Our espionage was really suffering with all the screamer attacks disrupting everything. For crying out loud, we didn’t even notice the toy box go missing!”

It was easy to spy when you could build yourself a new body whenever necessary. But with all that was going on, our efforts had been lacking for a while. One of the people we had been focusing on was Elizabeth Greene.

We had known for quite some time that Elizabeth wasn’t quite what she seemed, though we had been as surprised as everyone else when she turned out to be the Composer. We had started looking at her a few years ago, when I ran into Derek Huntsman and noticed his unhealthy fascination with the girl. From there, spying on her was easy, and we quickly noted the disturbing lengths her servants were willing to go to for her. Oh, sure, she thought no one noticed, but when you were already spying on her, it became easy to spot when she told her less-effective employees to go jump off a building.

But the city was full of petty monsters like that, and we hadn’t thought much of it. She wasn’t even on our list of potential Composers. Honestly, I thought that was a much bigger problem than the stupid toy box.

Matron Day snorted. “So, what, we just pick six of the courts and call ourselves survivors?”

“No,” Crone Day said. “We need to bring it down to one court. Present a unified front.”

“No one will believe it,” Matron Night noted. “From thirty-two to one? No way. They’ll start getting suspicious.”

I kneaded my forehead. “Are we really doing this?”

“We can’t keep this lie going forever,” Crone Night whispered soothingly. “Six women can’t pretend to be ninety-six. It’s just impossible. And we need to take a more active role here.”

I sighed. “Fine. Fine. How about…two courts? Night and Day, or whatever.”

Matron Night quirked her head at me. “Why two?”

I shrugged. “Lets us present a unified front while still pretending to be divided. Lets us preserve the Hecate Sisters dynamic, meaning minimal shifts in our personas. Hell, we’re already split appropriately. Why not?”

“I like that idea,” Crone Day muttered.

“Me too,” Matron Day agreed. “Very nice.”

Matron Night shrugged. “Well, if everyone is in favor, then I think we’re done for now. Let’s get a horde going for each of us, be ready to make a nice grand entrance. Agreed?”

Four voices murmured in assent.

We almost didn’t notice the missing voice, until Maiden Day spoke. “Wait. There’s one other thing.”

I sighed. Again. “What now?”

There was a pause, then she pushed forward. “We need names.”

The radio in my spine crackled with the force of the outcry.

“We said we would never!” Crone Night roared. “That was the deal!”

“Calm down!” I yelled back. “This is not a big deal. We can choose whatever names we like.”

“Oh?” she sneered. “Then tell me, what name would you choose?”

I paused, knowing what was about to happen.

But I said it anyway.

“For you? Cailleach.”

“See?” she cried. “That’s what the Nameless One called me.”

“Maybe it’s your name,” I shot back. “Did you ever think of that?”

Crone Day snorted. “They’re not real names, Maiden. They’re something he made up.”

I shook my head. “Then why don’t you come up with something better?”

She didn’t speak.

We all knew how this was going to end. The Crones yelled a bit more, but soon enough, they acquiesced.

And for the first time in fifteen years, we had names. Names given to us by a mad murderer, yes, but they were the only names we could imagine keeping.

My name is Maeve.

Behind the Scenes (scene 118)

I’m still a little worried that I didn’t explain the fey’s fake nature enough before this. This might not be the surprise it’s supposed to be. But I think it came out okay.

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Scene 117 – Sequi

SEQUI

AKANE

It took a few minutes of running along the wall before I felt my reservoir was replenished enough for another jump. It wasn’t a big one—I just leaped about ten feet to the nearest ‘scraper—but I was still leery. Jumping to the top of the wall had strained my reserves, and I had nearly fallen. I needed to practice that more. Later, and from lower altitudes.

Now, I had to be quick. Lizzy was already out of sight, and I could barely keep an eye on her demonic follower. I think the only reason I was able to follow as closely as I did was because he was relatively new; he had to rest more often than me to let his reservoir fill.

Luckily, Domina was still Domina, and I was able to keep out of his sight pretty easily without even trying, simply because of all the different building heights. He didn’t seem to understand how my power worked, either. He certainly wasn’t acting like he knew I could follow him.

He made another jump, this time across an entire street and up a couple stories to land on another skyscraper. It wasn’t a leap any normal person could make, and his destination building didn’t have the built-in handholds to make climbing easier. It was the tallest ‘scraper around, too, so merely jumping to it from a nearby one would normally be impossible.

Of course, I wasn’t normal.

I could have jumped straight to the top, but that would have resulted in me facing at least one guy with powers, and with a drained reservoir to boot. So instead, I leapt straight across to the building itself, about ten floors below the roof.

When I said it wasn’t designed for climbing, I wasn’t kidding. It didn’t even have windowsills. The only place to grab onto was the tiny recesses the windows themselves sat in. It was less than half an inch, and even a kemo with full climbing claws might have trouble hanging on.

But once again, my power proved its worth. Physics got a little…bendy when I used my power, which was one of the reasons I could jump so far. It was like it took gravity a few seconds to catch up to me.

I didn’t have my speed cranked up anywhere near as high as it would go, but it was enough to give me the leeway I needed to use the windows as handholds. I steadied myself on the miniscule ledge and jumped up to the next one, gripping the edge of the next floor’s window with my fingertips. Then I scrambled to my feet and repeated the process, until I was finally at the roof.

I didn’t pull myself up, though. I didn’t want to give myself away. Instead, I let go of my speed and just dangled from the roof by my fingers, waiting for my reservoir to replenish. It was difficult, but years of training gave me the strength to keep from falling even without the help of my power.

The second my reservoir was full, I cranked my power up as high as it would go, peeked over the edge of the roof, and saw…

Nothing.

No, wait, there was the demon, flying north to another building.

Dammit. I let my speed go and scrambled onto the roof, making sure I kept Lizzy’s demon in sight. He was jumping farther than before; using the height of this building and his wings, he could glide halfway across the district. It would be hard for me to follow.

That gave me pause. It was the exact sort of tactic he would use if he knew he was being tailed.

I shook my head. No, he was probably just being paranoid. He knew we would want to follow him, so he made sure to be careful, just in case. He wasn’t actually certain.

Not important right now. I could lose him if I wasn’t paying attention.

I waited for him to waft to the ground—and it definitely was the ground, I watched him drift between two buildings—and leapt after him, using my speed for a brief moment on takeoff to improve my distance. Unlike the demon, I aimed for a ‘scraper about three or four buildings away from his destination.

I made sure to activate my speed at full power a split second before I landed. I threw up a huge cloud of dust and grit and dented the roof a little, but nothing (including me) broke, so it came out all right. I didn’t know how exactly I was able to use super speed to pull of tricks like that, and I didn’t really want to know. I just did what felt right, and somehow managed to absorb the impact or outrun inertia or whatever.

I brushed off my pants and scanned the alley below me, confirming that it was empty of any hostiles—or anyone at all, really. It was perpendicular to the one Lizzy’s demon had gone into, and hopefully far enough away so that he wouldn’t hear me. I dropped down the ten stories carefully, glanced around again to confirm I was alone, and stalked towards the corner of the alley, where I should be able to see the demon and his destination.

I could hear raised voices, not far from where I was. I pressed my back against the brick wall, edged towards the corner, and…

A hand covered my mouth from behind and pulled me back.

“Shh!” a woman hissed, as I started to struggle. “The Blackguards will hear you.”

I slowly stopped thrashing, realizing this wasn’t an attack, but the woman didn’t remove her hand.

“Something wrong?” the voice came from the other alley, perhaps ten feet in front of us. I hadn’t realized they were so close.

“I thought Akiyama was tailing me,” a smooth, cultured voice I recognized as the demon’s replied. There was a pause. “I suppose I was mistaken. Let’s go.”

I heard the grunt of someone moving something heavy, then the metallic scraping and thump of a manhole cover being moved aside. Then the sound of boots on a metal ladder, and the sound of the manhole cover being slid back into place.

Only then did the woman who had ambushed me remove her hand.

I whirled on her, hand on my sword. “Explain. Now.”

If I was forced to describe her, I would simply have said average. But in all fairness, all I could see of her was a pale face and thin mouth framed by short-cropped black hair; the rest of her was covered by a large hooded cloak. Not the most inconspicuous of disguises, but it would conceal her identity well enough.

“Apologies, Honored Paladin,” the woman whispered. “There was no time to explain.” She pointed a slender hand at the alley I had been about to walk into. “The Lady Greene has sensors in the ground. You would have set off the alarm.”

I frowned. This wasn’t looking good. “Here?”

The woman shook her head. “Only the one alley, closest to the entrance of the Endkeep.” She smiled slightly. “I suspect she tried a wider sensor net at her old lair, and ended up with more information than she knew what to do with.”

Sensor overload. Yeah, that happened. Especially since she seemed to like the sewers; she’d just end up knowing the migratory patterns of a bunch of monsters. Our approach had probably gotten buried under all that.

But I didn’t take my hand off the hilt of my sword. “How did you know?”

She shrugged. “I’ve lived here a long time. And I was watching when she moved in this morning. I just paid attention, that’s all.”

I weighed my options carefully. It didn’t seem like the strange woman was lying, but she was still far too mysterious for my tastes.

I shook my head. It didn’t matter who she was.

“Thank you…for the help,” I said with some difficulty. “Bye.” I turned back to the alley, ready to jump into the sewer and attack.

“There are at least a dozen Blackguards down there, Honored Paladin,” the woman noted. “And they will know you are coming. I don’t recommend going alone. Or at all.”

I turned back to her, struggling to keep my face under control, and waited for her to elaborate.

She shrugged again. “The five of you could probably take them out. But by yourself, you’d just get killed. And that’s assuming Elizabeth hasn’t made any more of the Blackguards since I last checked.”

I cocked my head. “Blackguards.”

She chuckled a little. “Of course. The opposite of the Paladins, the Blackguards. What else would they be?”

I sighed. I didn’t have time for this. I walked past her, towards the street and away from the lair.

“They’ll be gone by the time you’re back with your friends,” she noted. “They suspect you followed Nabassu, and they won’t risk it. They’ll pack up and find a new lair.”

I turned and glared at her.

The cloaked woman grinned. “And even if you were willing to throw a few dozen lives away by calling in Necessarius—which you’re not—the only ‘sarians nearby are completely green. They wouldn’t even scratch the bad guys before getting slaughtered.”

“You know too much,” I said quietly.

She smiled a little sadly. “That’s the truth.”

I eyed her carefully, but as far as I could tell, she was completely baseline. Of course, she could have had eight arms hidden under that cloak and I wouldn’t have noticed.

I met her gaze. “Who are you?”

Her smile returned, sadder than before. “No one important, Akane Akiyama.” She turned away. “Go back to your master. He needs you, as always.”

I considered attacking her while her back was turned. Even just tackling her to the ground and ripping the cloak off her would give me something to work with, some idea of who she was.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I walked away, towards the Necessarius post across the street, to requisition a car to get back to my friends.

Behind the Scenes (scene 117)

A bit more about Akane’s powers, and the city itself.

Oh, and about creepy cloak lady: She’s going to be explained in the next scene. One less mystery to worry about.

Scene 116 – Proditor

PRODITOR

ADAM

“Miss?” a young woman asked quietly, as she walked up to us, a cell in her hand. “You have a phone call. Your sister.”

Lily frowned. “Why wouldn’t she call on…” she started patting herself down, then closed her eyes and cursed under her breath. “I think I left my phone at your place,” she said to me.

Not entirely unexpected. Lily had been waiting in my room last night, but when Laura told us how she thought Derek had needed some alone time, she had rushed out so fast she left a blur. And I wasn’t far behind, although since I took the elevator and she took the stairs, I still got down to the lobby first. I guess we left some stuff behind.

The woman with the phone had a tattoo on her left shoulder, a circle of vines or something around the Latin words ‘Cervientes Autem Civitati Domina.’ ‘Serving the City of the Lady,’ if my Latin wasn’t too rusty. That explained why she was playing messenger, at least.

Lily took the phone with a sigh. “Sorry about that, I know you don’t like using the Servants. I left my—” she frowned again. “What? You—but you know I can’t…” there was pause. “Right. He’ll be there in a sec.” She hung up, handed the phone back to the woman with a nod, and headed south at a jog.

I followed her quickly, barely registering the messenger bowing slightly as she turned away. “Wait, what’s the problem?”

“Lizzy is attacking the lab. The ave lab where they’ve got the toy box,” she said. She glanced around, looking for something, and dashed off towards the south gate, which was barely in sight. “You have to help them.”

I cursed and followed. I had really hoped I’d never have to deal with that lab myself, but I hadn’t had high hopes on that front. That Turgay was an idiot—stealing from Necessarius was the stupidest thing I had ever heard of—but he didn’t deserve to die.

And he would, I had no illusions about that. We still didn’t know much about the Composer, but ‘ridiculously dangerous’ was on the short list.

“Hang back once we get there,” I instructed her as we rushed past a man installing some speakers under the eave of a building. “She still might be able to turn people. We don’t want more potential victims than necessary.”

She glanced back, but kept running. “What about you?”

“I’ll be fine,” I lied smoothly. “Just worry about yourself.”

“I was gonna stay back anyway,” she promised. “Just keep yourself safe.”

South gate was already open, thankfully, so I didn’t have to wait for the mechanisms to slowly grind away. Lily stopped there, kissed me quickly, and told me the lab was to the left.

Then she was gone, and I was on my own.

I took a deep breath, drew my Caedes, and stepped through the gate.

I never would have found the place, even with Lily’s quick directions, under normal circumstances. Everything on the docks looked about the same to me, and the aves were pretty good at hiding their tracks.

But they weren’t in the lab any more.

To my left, a shipping container had the doors blown off, and the Ring around it splashed bright red with blood. Maybe a dozen aves, led by an anthro I assumed to be Turgay, huddled around the area, tending to the wounded. The concrete of the Ring was molded into odd shapes and hills, forcing the containers into disarray. Ling’s handiwork, no doubt. And also the reason the birds weren’t inside.

However, I quickly stopped paying attention to the aves, as I finally realized what was happening before my very eyes.

Ling and Lizzy were fighting.

And Ling was losing. Horribly.

She was covered in blood and dirt, a hundred small slices in her clothes hinting at the cause of that. There was a very long and deep slash across her face that was bleeding profusely; she wouldn’t be able to stand much longer, even in optimal conditions.

As I watched, the little Chinese girl molded the concrete in front of her into a wall—faster than I had ever seen before. The wall was thicker and taller than normal, too. Any screamer would pound against it uselessly, gaining Ling valuable time.

Lizzy wasn’t a screamer.

The bronze Amazon just laughed and blurred—she had super speed??—over the wall, landing on Ling and crashing her heavily to the ground.

Ling rose a couple inches, likely using the armor she wore under her clothes, and it seemed like she might gain the advantage again. But Lizzy laughed again, and without doing anything I could see, Ling smashed into the ground once more.

It didn’t take me long to figure out what had just happened. Lizzy had Ling’s power as well, and had used it against her.

We needed to finish this fast. No time to think. So I raised my submachine gun, aimed carefully, and opened fire.

Lizzy whipped her head in my direction the second my Caedes began to roar. A few bullets hit her in the torso, but before my storm of lead could do any real damage, she interposed a shield between us. It was just like one of Derek’s shields, except it was an angry orange instead of royal blue. It looked almost like it was on fire, although the breeze caused the faint mist to drift everywhere instead of merely up.

She dodged away, leaving the barrier up, which I took as a good sign. Derek’s shields could be broken with enough effort, and clearly the same was true for hers. And the mere fact that she was using a shield made it clear that whatever regeneration she had, it wasn’t perfect. She was probably worried about what would happen if her reservoir ran out while I was still shooting at her.

I thought that sounded like a very interesting experiment.

I followed her quickly, past Ling and her wall (the barrier had dissolved), to the edge of the Ring to the right of the gate. The second I had a clear shot, I took it. Lizzy got another barrier up, but as I had expected, it was centered on her torso.

Her legs, while not completely undefended, were still less protected. A few bullets got her in the ankle, and she dropped to her knees with a cry of rage. The downside of my tactic was that now the barrier covered her completely, and I could see her ankle healing. She’d be able to stand soon.

Before she had a chance, Akane sped behind her and stabbed her through the heart.

The samurai girl’s face was half-covered in blood, and there was a nasty gash on her forehead. I guess Lizzy had tried to take her out first, and had thought she succeeded.

The Composer cried out in pain and dropped the shield, but she wasn’t done yet. She twisted around, ripping the sword out of her with the motion. She stumbled a moment, but the wound was already healing. She grimaced in pain, then summoned another barrier.

But…

This one wasn’t a shield.

In her hand, there was suddenly a glowing orange sword leaking mist, a mirror to the katana in Akane’s own grip. The Amazon grinned, blood from previous kills on her teeth, and fell into what even I could tell was an advanced sword stance.

Akane seemed stunned, and in normal circumstances, Lizzy probably would have used that hesitation to kill her already. But instead she was taking advantage of the lull to let herself heal.

I couldn’t get a shot off; they were too close. I switched to my pistol as I ran closer, but before I got a chance—

Something unexpected happened.

What I expected was for one of the girls, probably Elizabeth, to dash forward and start the fight proper.

Instead, a giant landed next to Lizzy.

He wasn’t really that big for a giant. Maybe six feet, with a bit of width on him. He was some flavor of South-American, which lead me to believe he wasn’t one of the Aesir—those guys were mostly white. What were the other ones? The Jotuun? That sounded right.

But he had definitely fallen out of the sky, right next to the Composer, in a way that reminded me of the day we had seen her fly after killing the gargants with the calciophage.

He had a power.

Elizabeth laughed and let her sword fade. Akane probably should have struck then, but instead she walked backwards to stand next to me.

“Surprised?” Lizzy asked mockingly. “Come on Adam, didn’t you wonder why I never gave you powers?” She grinned. “Hint: It’s not because I can’t.”

Another shape landed on the Composer’s other side. This one was a demon with red skin and a tail, clad in an immaculate suit and tie. As he landed, I saw batlike wings on his back vanish into smoke. A shifter, then.

“We need to go, Mistress Greene,” the demon said calmly. “There are too few allies here.”

She sighed, annoyed. “Yes, thank you, Nabassu, for pointing that out in front of the enemy.” She tilted her head at the giant. “Oleander will carry me. Let’s go.”

The Jotuun did as was suggested, scooping the blood-soaked girl into a princess carry and leaping into the air.

“HEY!” Akane cried, dashing forward far too late.

The demon, Nabassu, bowed quickly, smoked in his wings, and used them to leap onto the wall, a hundred feet high, with only a few quick beats.

“I’m sorry,” he called down, to all appearances genuinely contrite. We could barely hear him. “But we don’t have time for a chase scene at the moment.”

“STOP!” Akane looked like she was getting ready to jump, but the demon just leapt off the wall, out of sight, presumably flying away.

“Akane,” I cautioned, putting hand on her shoulder.

She brushed me off. “I’m going.”

I shook my head. “I think that might be harder than you’d like.”

The swordswoman finally noticed the same thing I had.

There was a third minion of the Composer on the battlefield.

A massive red-skinned demon, maybe eight feet tall and four wide, strode through the gate. He was shirtless, revealing a fat belly and limp muscles, but I knew better than to underestimate him. Maybe it was some dangerous gleam in his violet eyes. Maybe it was just a gut instinct.

Or maybe it was the massive axe slung over his shoulder.

The handle was five feet long and four inches thick. The head was a massive steel affair, shaped more like a wedge than a traditional axe. The flat end was two feet wide on the long side and another foot on the short, and slowly tapered into a sharp edge on the other side. Both the blunt end and the blade were splashed with something red that could have been rust, but was almost certainly blood.

The whole thing had to weigh a hundred pounds.

The fat demon lifted it as if it were made of tissue paper.

He grinned, revealing a mouth overcrowded with far too many sharp fangs, and pushed hard on the gate with his free hard. The mechanisms in the door screamed in protest, and I heard the sounded of gears and pistons breaking, but the massive gate slowly slammed shut.

“You’re trapped,” the beast said in a voice like a meat grinder. “Nowhere to run.”

He was right. There was nothing we—

No. I was trapped.

Akane was not.

“Follow Lizzy,” I muttered to her out of the corner of my mouth.

Her head snapped in my direction in shock. “But—”

“Follow her,” I insisted. “Call the others if you can. I think I can handle this guy.”

She shook her head. “No. Not leaving you alone.”

“Derek would give the order if he were here,” I pointed out. “Now go.”

She glared at me, well aware I was manipulating her, but then nodded. What I said was true and she knew it.

The swordswoman turned to the wall, crouched down, took a deep breath, and leaped, nearly straight up, landing on the top of the wall, a hundred feet off the ground. I couldn’t really tell, but it looked like she wobbled near the top. Luckily, she found her balance again soon enough, and started running along the wall.

I shook my head. Her reservoir was probably completely empty right now, but that was still damned impressive. These guys were getting scary strong.

The demon laughed. “Your pet director abandoned you, baseline.” He grinned. “You had a chance before. Not now.”

I holstered my Caedes and slowly drew my Saint George. “Any chance you’ll tell me what your power is?”

He laughed again, and spun his axe over his head a few times. “You can’t tell?”

I shrugged, stalling for time as I loaded my last god slayer. “Call it a dying man’s last wish.”

Elizabeth’s pet demon roared with laughter at that. “Oh, I like you.” He grinned. “Very well. I am Molydeus, born George Nabassu, and my power is super strength.”

I smiled pleasantly. “See? Is it so hard being a little bit polite?”

Then I shot him in his grinning mouth.

The round punched past his teeth easily enough, but apparently the back of his throat was made of sterner stuff—or perhaps the rocket just ran out of fuel. I had been a little worried it would punch right out the other side.

Regardless, the secondary explosive activated, and high-velocity uranium shrapnel bounced around inside his mouth.

The result was that his skull became nothing but a fine red mist covering ten yards in every direction. As I was standing about five feet away, I probably got the worst of it, and was completely drenched in crimson life fluid. I sputtered a few times to get the taste off my tongue, but it just seemed to make it worse.

The demon’s headless corpse teetered for a moment before falling, splashing into a pool of its own blood. His axe seemed to shake the entire Ring as it landed on its head, handle horizontal. Turgay took that as his cue to run over, slipping in the blood that was still covering everything.

“Did…we win?”

“Hardly,” I muttered, still sputtering. I suppressed the urge for the moment. “Akane’s out there chasing Lizzy, we’re trapped here…” I blinked, cursed, and ran over to Ling.

She was still breathing, but she was lying in a pool of her own blood, and her pulse was decidedly weak.

The anthro joined me quickly. “I can get a stretcher,” he said, and I saw him give the other aves some kind of signal. “This isn’t all that bad, and we have one of the most advanced medical devices in the city with us. She’ll be fine.”

I sighed. “Good.”

Without any immediate purpose to keep me going, I collapsed onto the concrete, still wet with the blood of both friends and foes, and was asleep within seconds.

Behind the Scenes (scene 116)

Elizabeth has a number of powers, but the orange sword/shields are both the same: Fragmatism, the power to create force fields. She has two talents: Machafragmatism (the sword) and aspifragmatism (the shields, the same talent Derek has).

Also, Adam references the incident with the calciophage again as though Lizzy was the one who did it. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, it was actually Robyn, but the other Paladins haven’t quite realized that.

Scene 115 – Timor

TIMOR

LING

“Why in Musashi’s name did she kick us out of our rooms?” Akane muttered, pulling her jacket a little tighter. She had settled down a little after being rudely waken up by Laura pounding on our door, but she was still pissed.

I sighed. “She didn’t kick us out. She was right: We need to figure out if Turgay’s okay, and he isn’t answering his cell.” I felt wretched about that. I find out the girl I introduced him to is evil—or possessed or whatever—and don’t even bother to call and mention it? Tezuka, what was wrong with me?

“She could have gone herself.”

I looked at her a little sideways. “She’s never met Turgay.”

“Neither have I.”

“You’re my bodyguard, remember?” That wasn’t me being snarky; Laura had actually ordered Akane to escort me to Turgay’s secret lab.

And Akane had done it without a word of dissent. That made me curious. Well, okay, she was dissenting now, so maybe I was just giving this too much thought.

It had already been about an hour since we had left our room. Turgay’s lab was apparently outside the wall, at the southern docks. We had taken two light rails to get here, but had to walk the last couple blocks on foot.

Around us, the city was like a ghost town, even though it was early in the morning, when normally there were a good number of people around. Baselines, mostly, but lots of non-vampires and angels used this time to get work done.

Not today. The streets were completely deserted. What few people we saw were well-armed and traveling in groups. The cultures’ domains were sealed up like fortresses, with very few people entering or leaving. No one was taking any chances.

The news about the Composer’s identity had a lot of people scared. Before, it had just been this distant enemy, possibly fictional. Now that she had been outed, people were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Many people were confused too. As a moderately successful voice actress, Lizzy wasn’t anything like a household name, but she was definitely known among certain circles. She had a well-deserved reputation as a kind, if ditzy, young girl. Most people who knew her personally assumed it must be some kind of mistake.

I would have thought that too, if I hadn’t been there last night.

Whatever was riding around in that girl’s body was evil and dangerous, I had no illusions about that. But it was still difficult to believe. The girl I had been spending time with these past few weeks couldn’t be the Composer. Something had to be going on.

“This is really weird,” Akane muttered. “No one is eying me.”

I raised an eyebrow. She’s not hard on the eyes, by any means, but she isn’t the type to expect to turn heads as she walks down the street. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Normally people notice the way I walk,” she said quietly. “The bullies take confidence as a challenge, so they look me over to see if they can take me.” She shrugged. “If I’m in a bad mood, I let them think that they can.”

“Ooookay.” It took me a minute to work through that. “So you’re mad because no one wants to pick a fight?”

“Yeah.” She frowned, and shook her head. “It’s weird.”

Then I realized the implications. “Ah. Of course. You’re still upset over Lizzy.”

She didn’t say anything, and we walked in silence for another block or so.

“I’ve known her for eight years,” she said finally, as we passed a gun shop with three heavily-armed men guarding the entrance. The rest of the ‘scraper was probably pissed about the impact that was having on their sales. “I’ve never been exactly friends with her, but…” she shook her head. “This is all too much to swallow. Was the Composer always there, watching and pulling the strings? Or did she only drop by every once in a while, like to hypnotize Derek?”

“It’s impossible to know for sure,” I admitted. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.” I brightened a little. “Though at least now that the hypnotism is gone, Derek’s finally started to notice us.” I grinned and elbowed her lightly in the ribs. “Wanna make a fight out of it?”

The swordswoman just glared at me. “One of our closest friends was brainwashed for…what? Over a decade? And you want to turn his affections into a game.”

My grin faded. I had to admit, teasing him had been more fun when I didn’t understand why he was refusing my advances.

I wasn’t going to stop, of course. That’s just not who I am. Especially now that I was pretty much the only one in the running. But I could be a little more tactful about it.

“Yeah,” I said slowly, covering my embarrassment with a cough. “Ah…sorry about that. I wasn’t thinking.”

After a few more minutes of silence, we reached the wall. Thankfully, we had told MC to expect our arrival, so we didn’t have to wait twenty minutes for the stupid gate to creak open. We just slipped through the small crack and out the other side without any trouble.

The docks of Domina were a bit weird. At each of the four compass points, there was a long, traditional dock right outside the gate, over a hundred yards long. It was solid concrete and rebar, supported from underneath by powerful concrete columns that reached all the way to the bottom of Whitecap Bay. This was where the rare visitors to the city docked, and where the barbecues were located. They were completely abandoned today, which was not unexpected.

The weird part was the Ring; a twenty-yard wide concrete belt circling the entire city. This was where most of the baseline fishermen lived and worked, in shacks and lean-to’s built right up against the wall. They were easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look, since they were the same dull gray color as the wall itself, and buried between stacks of abandoned shipping containers people used as restaurants and shops.

Although I said ‘baseline,’ most of the people here had a few toys to make it easier to live exposed to the elements. People who preferred a warm roof over their heads instead of a dingy little shelter that barely kept out the rain generally commuted.

I couldn’t see Turgay’s lab anywhere. I don’t know what I expected; it wouldn’t be outdoors, obviously, but there was really no idea where to start. I wish he had given me better directions.

I heard the squeaking sound of a metal door opening and turned to see a girl in a lab coat standing outside an open shipping container, set in a long row with a bunch of others. She waved us over, and we came with little hesitation.

Once we were closer, I saw feathers in her hair, and any doubts about whether or not this was the right place disappeared.

“I’m Jenna Strigi. You’re…Ling?”

I swallowed. I wasn’t very worried, but it was still a secret lab researching one of the most important objects in the city. I was allowed to be a little apprehensive.

“Ah…yeah. I’m Turgay’s orphan-mate,” I indicated Akane. “And this is—”

“Her bodyguard,” Akane finished. Her face was set in stone; if she was joking, I sure as Tezuka couldn’t tell. Was she really taking Laura’s suggestion that seriously?

Jenna, however didn’t seem to find anything in the least bit odd about that. “Of course. Come in.” We did, and she closed the door behind us with a loud clang.

It was nicer than I had expected; they had knocked down most of the walls of the containers to free up space, and used white-painted plywood when they needed privacy. I liked the design. It had a very comfortable, homey feel to it. But I knew from Turgay that most aves didn’t like confined spaces—after all, the reason they joined the subculture in the first place was usually because they wanted to fly. This probably wouldn’t be a very fun place to work for them.

“I’ll fetch the Director right away,” Jenna promised. “Stay here.” As she walked off deeper into the complex, the heavily-armed aves on either side of us drew meaningful mechanical noises from their guns. I could take a hint, and made sure not to look at them.

Akane, however, decided to take her sword out of her bag and holster it at her waist. It was a testament to the guards’ training that they managed to restrain themselves from shooting.

I grinned at them a little weakly.

“Ling?” I glanced up to see Turgay striding forward, a concerned look in his eyes. He was the only anthro around; he looked like practically royalty. Everyone else had only one or two toys, and looked like they were trying to mimic him.

“Ling, what are you doing here?” He hugged me fiercely, then glared at me sharply. “You weren’t supposed to come unless there was an emergency.”

After Lizzy went missing yesterday, Turgay had been forced to give the location of the lab to MC. While she hadn’t told me explicitly where it was until today, I had been able to guess pretty well based on the sewer entrance we had used when we were tracking Lizzy.

“It is,” I insisted. “Guy, is Lizzy here?”

He frowned. “No, of course not. I assumed you found her. She’s not still missing, is she?”

I rubbed my forehead. “It’s…complicated. Is there somewhere we can sit down?” Now it was my turn to frown. “Actually, Jenna said she was going to go fetch the Director, maybe we should wait…”

“No,” he assured me. “That’s me. I’m the Director.” He grinned at my shock. “Come on, I have seats in my office.

His ‘office,’ as I had expected, was just a slightly larger area deeper in the complex, cordoned off with plywood walls and a thick sheet for a curtain.

I sat down in a dinky little folding chair and glared at him. “You didn’t mention that you were in charge down here.”

He shrugged. “You didn’t ask.” As though that settled anything.

Whatever, not important. I needed to figure out a way to explain everything without…

You know what? Screw being sensitive. This guy was the leader of a secret, illegal project studying stolen technology that brainwashes anyone who spends too much time around it.

So, I just looked him straight in the eye and said “Lizzy is the Composer.”

He frowned and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, we heard about that during our last status update, but I can’t believe it. Are you sure?”

“Positive,” I said firmly. I waved my hand. “There might be demonic possession or some weird power involved, but the point is is that whatever is driving around in Lizzy’s body is unbelievably dangerous.”

“Immortal,” Akane noted.

I nodded. “That too. Laura shot her face off, and she just laughed.”

“Laura shot her own face off?”

“No, Lizzy’s.” I sighed. I could tell he didn’t believe me, even though I didn’t have all that much experience reading anthros. “Look, just…stay away from her, all right? Call Necessarius if you see her.” I stood to leave, and Akane rose as well.

Turgay shook his head. “Lizzy has given us quite a bit of help. I’m not going to just throw her out in the cold if she comes calling.”

“She could kill you all,” Akane said bluntly.

Before the anthro had a chance to answer, his plywood wall—the one facing the door—exploded inwards as the body of one of the warhawks was thrown through.

“No, I will kill them all.”

I knew what I’d see before I even turned.

And there she was, in all her glory. Elizabeth Greene. Still over six feet tall with skin like a bronze goddess. Still in the white dress from last night—now stained completely crimson, with darker patches underneath the still-wet blood, indicating older battles. She was barefoot, and stood with one foot in the shattered ribcage of a warhawk on the floor, laying unmoving in a puddle of ever-widening blood. Behind her, the other two guards were little more than red splashes against the walls.

In her hand she held Turgay’s assistant Jenna by the throat, as casually as if she weighed nothing more than a bag of groceries. But judging by the way the ave woman was struggling, there was nothing casual about the strength of her grip.

Everything about Lizzy was different, from the haughty way she stood to the cruel smile, to the natural way the blood of her enemies looked, splashed upon her skin. She looked like an entirely different person, pretending to be Elizabeth Greene.

The only things unchanged were her eyes. Still the same, unflinching gold, nearly glowing in the dim light of the illumination strips on the ceiling.

Her eyes were the same as always. But in the context of everything else…

They weren’t kind eyes anymore. These were the eyes of a hunting panther, watching her prey from the shadows.

“Hey, Ken. Ishi,” she said. The monster grinned, her pearly white teeth accentuating the blood splashed on her face even more. “Prepare to die.”

Behind the Scene (scene 115)

The “Ken” refers to Akane again (Sword), while the “Ishi” refers to Ling (Stone).