Monthly Archives: September 2013

Scene 124 – Dictrictio

DICTRICTIO

AKANE

I arched my back as far as it would go, using my sheathed sword as a brace to let me bend more. “Ahh…much better.”

Adam chuckled. “Of course. How many kills is that?”

I frowned. “Not the killing. The exercise.”

He shrugged. “Semantics. When you exercise by killing people…”

I flicked one of my knives at his ear, where it sank into the soft sheetrock of the wall next to his face. “Dick. What’s with you?”

He didn’t seem to care about the knife, and just shook his head. “This entire city…no one believes Lizzy is the Composer. No one.”

Now it was my turn to shrug. “Not sure myself.”

The bland baseline sighed, stepping off the dumpster he was sitting on, careful to avoid the puddles of blood. “See, that’s exactly what I mean.” He yanked my knife out of the wall—it wasn’t one of the double-bladed ones Maria had given me for my birthday—and handed it to me. “I met Lizzy more than once, and I’ll be the first to admit she doesn’t seem like a likely suspect. But still…”

“Powers give people excuses,” I noted. “Body-swapping and shapeshifting. Illusions. Something no one has thought of.”

A surviving ghoul roared as it threw back the lid of the dumpster that Adam had been sitting on and swiped at him. He barely even turned around, just whipped out his pistol and spat a few rounds in the vampire’s direction. The cannibal gave one last keening cry before spitting up a mouthful of blood and collapsing into the dumpster.

“What is with these guys?” he muttered. I knew what he meant; it seemed like everyone with a bounty on their head was a ghoul. Not all of our kills today were ghouls or even vampires, but many were. It certainly made one wonder, but it was just one of those psychological tricks the mind plays on itself. Most ghouls weren’t murderers and most murderers weren’t ghouls, but they were the ones that stuck in your brain.

He shook his head and turned back to me. “I know there are a lot of alternatives available, but it still seems odd that this city,” he indicated the dozen or so slowly-cooling bodies surrounding us. “Wouldn’t just decide to kill Lizzy.”

“Better safe than sorry?”

“Exactly. I know individuals wouldn’t want to do it themselves, but they should see the logic in it.”

I leaned on my sword a little, like it was a walking stick. “Proof, maybe?”

Adam tilted his head. “They need proof?”

“No, this is proof. Her hypnotism or such.”

He nodded as he finally holstered his pistol. “Right, right. I see what you’re getting at. Like what she did with Derek, but probably not so extreme.” I felt a shiver at the mention of Derek’s condition, but ignored it. “She probably just implanted general feelings of admiration and trust for her.”

“Probably,” I admitted, following him out of the alley. “Hard to tell.”

The baseline pulled out his rifle, and I snapped back to alertness. Laura had told me to keep an eye on him, make sure he didn’t go crazy suddenly, which was why we were hunting alone together. I understood why she was worried, but I really didn’t think he’d just suddenly start killing random people.

Her worries proved unfounded—for now, at least. He was just cleaning his gun.

He glanced back. “You’ve been a bit jumpy all morning. What’s up?”

It didn’t take me long to find a credible lie. “Just…Lizzy.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I get it.” He glanced around. “Did you want to wait for the CSI guys, or just go straight to lunch?”

I glanced at my watch. It was two in the afternoon, so there was nothing else to do until history class at seven. And we had already called MC, so that was done too.

“Lunch,” I said after a moment. “Need to talk to them.”

Adam holstered his rifle again and frowned. “Talk to who?”

I didn’t answer, just led him down the streets.

We probably should have taken the light rail; it took about half an hour to walk to our destination. Not that we had anything else to do.

At least we didn’t run into any more assailants. Like Adam said, people still didn’t know exactly what to believe where Lizzy and the Composer were concerned, but they were staying off the streets until they were sure. Even the gang we had eliminated earlier had been hiding in a warehouse, not prowling the streets.

Even if I hadn’t been to the house a thousand times, it would have been easy to spot. The apartment building was guarded like a fortress, with two big demons at the front door, snipers on the adjacent rooftops, and a few more scattered around—and those were only the ones we could see. There were surely more, better hidden.

I was surprised that the demons at the door weren’t orcs. Judging by the stylized spear patches on their shoulders, they were actually hellions, demon soldiers. I knew they occasionally rented themselves out as mercenaries, but I had thought they still weren’t on very good terms with the other demons. The demon flag—a stylized demon skull—fluttered alone above the doorway, which was also odd. Normally, the culture flag was always displayed with the subculture’s flag directly below it.

“Obould inside?” I asked the guard on the left.

She looked me up and down with what seemed like violet dayeyes—the lack of a pupil was the only outward sign, so it could be hard to tell. I couldn’t remember ever seeing dayeyes on a demon before, but I didn’t say anything. There were much stranger things in this city.

The guard shrugged. “I think he’s arguing with the boss. Talk to his wife before you try and get between them.”

I nodded in thanks for the advice and stepped inside, Adam at my heels.

I’ve always loved the Arrows’ home. Unlike most apartment buildings, which sequester the tenants as far from each other as possible, Veronica had reorganized the interior so that the main dining room and nearby kitchen were only a few steps off from the lobby, past a few empty doorways. The stairs and mailboxes were in the other direction, so you didn’t have to interact with everyone else if you really didn’t want to, but most people took the opportunity anyway.

Even now, I could smell something fresh and buttery from the direction of the kitchen. Veronica had always cooked when she was upset, so I just followed my nose to find her.

“Akane!” The small Italian woman immediately crushed me in a bear hug that drove the wind out of my body. “I think it’s been months, dearie! Black hells, let me look at you.” She released me before I suffocated, then clicked her tongue in disappointment. “Are you forgetting to eat again?”

I shrugged out of her grip. “Been…busy.”

She just rolled her eyes. “Yes, Artemis has you running around the city, fighting zombies and whatnot. That’s no excuse. What would Maria say if I let you starve to death? Sit down.”

I followed her orders a little grudgingly, knowing it was useless to resist. Adam slid into the seat next to me, a bemused expression on his face. I glared, daring him to say something.

If he was planning to, he never got a chance. Veronica came back and plopped a couple steaming bowls of beetles in front of us. They might not be her famous butter crisps, but any of her cooking was enough to die for.

Steam had already softened the shells, so I flipped one of my combat spikes off my belt and started spearing the pebble-sized insects.

Really, Akane,” Veronica tutted again. “I have silverware you can use. Who knows where that thing has been?”

I glanced at the armor-piercing spike. “I clean it after…”

“Actually, we came here for a reason,” Adam interjected, even though he still probably hadn’t figured out exactly what that reason was. “Is Obould in? Akane wanted to talk to him.”

She just rolled her eyes. “Black…yes he’s in. He’s shouting at Knight Keller right now.”

I frowned. A warlord named Keller…had I heard that before? It didn’t sound all that familiar, but then I was never much better than Derek at keeping up with politics.

Veronica seemed to notice the look on my face. “He’s a new hellion Power. You know how those guys are. He rose to prominence about when the General took that hit with the sleepers.”

Adam looked up, and I noted that he was barely picking at his beetles. Veronica had given him chopsticks, but he didn’t seem to know how to use them. “Wait, the General? You mean the Power lost his…” he coughed. “The warlord lost his power base?”

“A lot of them died in the bombing,” she explained. “Most hellions are mercenaries, selling out their services. Sargeras lost some men, and a lot of trust. So yes, there was a power vacuum, but not in the way you would think.”

Which was when the warlord in question walked into the room.

Keller wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Honestly, I shouldn’t have expected anything. Demons aren’t exactly the most homogenous lot; they were the first culture, after all, mimicking the Honored Mother, Lilith. The problem with mimicking her is that she cares far more about trying out new toys than maintaining a consistent appearance, although she has settled down in recent years.

The warlord had reddish-black skin, mostly hidden under the military fatigues he wore. Other than a rifle strapped to his back and a pistol at his hip, he was relatively unarmed. No ammo pouches or grenades on a bandolier across his chest, no obvious knives.

He had a large, strong tail, which probably cost more than the rest of his toys combined. It was the same red as the rest of him, and ended in a small but sharp metal blade, apparently surgically attached to the bone.

His black horns were small and curved a little to the side, and were hard to see in his equally black hair. I knew people who had worn that style before, and most of them told me it got in the way of their hair too much. But Keller’s dark hair was cropped into a short crew cut, so I suppose he didn’t have that problem.

But the thing that struck me the most was the large black eye-patch he wore covering his left eye. His right eye was red and lacking a pupil; almost certainly a dayeye, considering the relatively low lighting in the room. If it were a normal eye, I would be able to see his pupil at this lighting.

The hellion Power glared at me as he stepped into the kitchen, Obould a few steps behind. I glared right back. I fought Asmodeus when I was thirteen years old, before the Nosferatu poisoned him. I wasn’t scared of some upstart hellion.

Obould didn’t seem to notice our presence. “Black hells Juan, don’t walk away from me! We have more to discuss!”

I hadn’t seen the orc this upset in…ever, actually, but the hellion clearly wasn’t aware of the trouble he was in. He hadn’t broken our gaze.

“Are you…Akiyama?” he asked after a moment, still ignoring Obould. He had a small country drawl that I couldn’t quite place. That accent wasn’t from Domina, but that was as much as I could tell.

I narrowed my eyes. Derek and I might be a little famous, and I can handle it better than him, but I still don’t like it when random people know my name. “Yes. You?”

He grinned, displaying eight prominent fangs—four on the top and four on the bottom, in doubles. That was a style I hadn’t seen before. “Knight Juan Keller, Power of the Twilight Reavers.”

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Twilight Reavers’ was a little bit out there, even for a mercenary gang.

Juan,” Obould said with more force, finally drawing the hellion’s attention. “I want you to remove your men from my home immediately. My family and friends have a right to privacy that you are trampling over in the name of security. Necessarius already offered me protection, and when I turned them down, they left me alone.”

“You may not have noticed,” the eye-patch wearing man drawled. “But there are more than hellions out there—and more hellions than just mine. I managed to convince them of the threat. I’m sure you’ll come around.”

The orc snorted. “Your ‘evidence’ doesn’t impress me. Veronica, get me my shotgun.” It was testament to Obould’s easy-going nature that he didn’t just keep the weapon on hand, or at least in easy reach.

“Ling Yu’s orphanage is gone,” the hellion said, turning back to me. “One of the orphans, a young man named Mitchel St. John, decided to set it on fire. No survivors. Except St. John, of course. The peacekeepers are still looking for him.”

If I was supposed to recognize that name, the warlord was in for a disappointment. Ling didn’t talk much about her orphanage, other than how she never had enough privacy.

But he wasn’t done.

“Your mother, along with Maria Huntsman and Victor Medina, were shot at by two young women who didn’t even own firearms—we still don’t know where they got the guns. This was in NHQ, so the girls were put down quickly, but your mother still suffered some minor injuries.”

Adam blinked. “Wait, I thought your mom was dead?”

We both ignored him, and Keller continued.

“Your friend Seena Lancaster’s group—including Zusa Pham, Veda Korrapati, Yolanda McDowell, Jelena Aune, Delphie Murinae, and Pam—were attacked by a trio of kemos of unclear subculture. Miss Aune proved an unexpectedly competent marksman, and used Miss Pam’s gun to fight off the assailants with only minor injuries all around.”

I swallowed. I was starting to see the pattern.

“Simon Lancaster’s roommates were likewise attacked, though by who is less clear. Kevin Irwin is dead, and Steve Gillespie remains in a coma. He is expected to come out within a week.

“The Lancasters themselves have become involved with something at the Mal domain. Details are still unclear, but it’s been building up for a while. Of course, you already know about the attack on Miss Yu’s friend Turgay Corvi.

“Finally, someone attacked Mister Anders’ girlfriend,” he nodded at Adam, who sat up a little straighter, finally paying attention. “But several people leapt to her defense, and she is fine. Although I understand she’s a bit traumatized, psychologically.”

I wiped off my combat spike and carefully slipped it back into my belt. “The Composer.”

“Yes,” Keller said bluntly. “I think she’s attacking anyone close to the Paladins.”

“You know?” I asked, surprised.

He shrugged. “Fought with you against the skins. I’m not surprised you don’t remember; I only had three Reavers with me.”

I nodded, and motioned for him to continue.

“The incidents I mentioned are only the ones I’m certain about. There are other people, not as close to any of you, who were also attacked, but that could just be random violence. This…is not.”

“None of these people know we’re Paladins,” Adam insisted. “Except for Lily, of course.”

“And Derek’s parents,” I added.

The baseline glanced at me, but nodded. “Yeah. Except for them. What’s the point in attacking any of these people? And why hasn’t the retinue been attacked?”

“He thinks the Mals were planning something,” Obould interjected with a snort, showing his opinion of that.

“There are too many coincidences here,” Keller insisted. “The Lady of the Plague was killed as well, at approximately the same time her sister was attacked.”

What did she have to do with anything? “The murid Alpha?”

That single dayeye blinked in surprise, then he nodded. “Ah, yes, she’s a bit private, isn’t she? Plague’s birth name was Melanie Murinae. She was Delphie’s sister.”

By Musashi’s carved oar, when did that happen? I wasn’t really close to Delphie—it had taken me six months to notice when she became a kemo—but she would have mentioned that her sister was a warlord, right? Derek and I had taken a mission or two from Plague over the years. You’d think it would have come up.

I made a mental note to have a chat with Delphie soon. Was she the Alpha of the murids now? That wouldn’t end well. The culture had been having enough problems with Plague’s iron will helping them along. Delphie was more like a dry noodle.

Obould snarled, and I found myself glad Veronica hadn’t retrieved the gun yet. “More coincidence. Plague was a warlord. We attract assassins. This was not exceptional.”

“I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this,” Keller said mildly. “If you don’t want to believe me, I understand, but why are you so hostile?”

That actually turned out to be the right thing to say, surprisingly enough. Obould tended to be emotional—not angry, but still emotional—and I wouldn’t have expected an appeal to his rational side to work.

The orc brushed his hair back and sighed. Veronica trotted up with a shotgun, which he waved off. “Sorry. But it’s true. I’m just…” he shook his head. “The Lady of the Plague was not very powerful. I’m not seeing conspiracy, just bad luck.”

The hellion heaved a sigh of his own. “That’s exactly what MC said.”

Adam finally spoke up. “Wait, she did? You’d think a dozen or so simultaneous attacks would be suspicious.”

“They weren’t simultaneous,” the demon grumbled back. “That’s why I’m having trouble getting some people to believe me.”

Ah. Yes, that made more sense. The way Keller had presented it, I had assumed…

But no, MC and Obould were right. This was Domina City. How many people had been attacked or killed in the past few days? What made the fact that most of our friends were in that number anything of note?

“Needed to talk to Obould,” I said, finally realizing the orc might actually appreciate the interruption. “Alone.”

Obould glanced at me with his marble-black eyes, then nodded. “That’s right. So I need you to remove all you Kellions from the building.”

Adam snorted with laughter. “Kellions?”

The warlord in question rolled his eye. “Reavers, please.”

“I really don’t care what you call them,” the orc huffed. “Just get them out of here.”

Keller sighed, and removed a cell phone from one of his pouches. “Pull everyone back at least thirty yards,” he drawled into it as he headed towards the door. “Yes, everyone. Yes, her too.”

The second the door shut behind the hellion, Obould turned back to me. “Thank you for that, Akane. His recent increase in power has gone to his head, I fear. He thinks because a few people have been killed, he can dictate my security.” He pulled up a chair and sat down; Veronica slid into the seat next to him. “He is a man of his word, though. We can speak freely.”

Although I was a little surprised at the abruptness the hellion had left after all the fuss he was making, I had come here for a reason. And I supposed he’d be back once we left.

I sat for a moment, trying to find the best way to phrase my question. “About the Composer—”

“Elizabeth Greene is the Composer,” the orc warlord said calmly without a hint of doubt in his voice. “I suppose she could be possessed, but that’s not really the point.”

How was he so sure? I wasn’t sure, and I had actually seen her. “But—”

To my complete surprise, it was Veronica who cut me off. “No. No buts. If you see her, you kill her. Dice her into cubes if you can, then set the cubes on fire.”

I stared at the hard-eyed baseline woman. Veronica—Dame Veronica, wife of the orc Power—stared back without fear. For the first time in the seven years I had known her, I was reminded that technically the slender Italian woman was a warlord in her own right. Even just being married to a warlord painted a target on her back; while she had gained the title through marriage, she had definitely earned it.

But she was still so sure…

“I’ve known Lizzy for seven years,” I insisted. “I can’t just kill her—”

“I’ve known her longer than you,” Veronica noted. “Since she, Derek, and Laura were five years old.” She smiled, and her gaze became unfocused. “They’d come over after school and beg for treats.” The smile suddenly disappeared. “Then one day, when they were eleven, a couple days after the first day of middle school, Derek comes in here crying. Says Laura had moved to the other side of the city.”

I stayed silent. I had heard Derek’s side of this story a few times, but never anyone else’s.

“Well, he didn’t know why she had left, but once I gave him some cookies, he got to talking, and he started to feel better. Eventually, we got past Laura…” she sighed. “And he started talking about Lizzy. Just nonstop. About how utterly, unbelievably perfect she was. About her eyes and her hair and her skin and that stupid white dress. He wouldn’t shut up about her.

“Now, Derek was always fond of Lizzy as a playmate. She brought lots of friends around, as I understand it, and you know he’s never been good at that part. But it was downright odd the way he was in love with her so suddenly. I had seen them not three days previously, so I knew that this was not a gradual thing. He had just fallen for her, like a switch was flipped.”

She let the silence stretch a bit.

“Why didn’t you say something?” I asked, trying to fill the heaviness with words.

Miss Arrow shrugged, and her husband put his arm around her. “Told Derek, but he just brushed it off. Told Victor and Maria, and they did the best they could to keep the two apart, but that wasn’t much. And while Obould and I kept an eye on both of them, the orcs have always been a small subculture, and we honestly had better things to do. I figured it was something weird with Derek, not anything malicious on her part.”

Adam shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t believe that no one saw this coming. I’m new, I have an excuse. But…no one else?”

“We knew her since she was five years old,” Veronica emphasized. “It seemed impossible that she would be able to hide any…negative personality traits for that long, or that she’d be able to do something like this even if she had the desire. It didn’t even occur to us.”

“Powers,” I noted mildly.

Obould grimaced. “Well, yeah, it seems obvious now.”

“But supernatural powers were a little outside context for us,” his wife added. “Who would think of that?” She sighed again. “I just want this nightmare to be over.” She clasped my hand in an iron grip, gazing at me with those hard eyes.

“So no hesitation, Akane. No mercy. Kill her dead. If you feel guilty after, we can have a funeral. But Elizabeth Greene has to die.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 124)

I was more than a little leery, killing off Kevin and Plague like this. It’s usually a bad idea to kill named characters off-screen. But I have too many death scenes as it is, and I need to keep the story moving.

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Scene 123 – Adstutia

ADSTUTIA

SEENA

Simon kept twitching at every shadow, as though someone might jump out and attack us at any moment. It would have been sad if not for those massive light amplification goggles on his face. They made him look absolutely ridiculous, so it was hard to take him seriously.

At least the traps started to thin out as we headed back downstairs. They weren’t really dangerous, since they were mostly designed to teach the kids how to avoid traps, but Simon took forever to get through even the simplest of them. I had a ball on a string I could use to trigger the traps safely, but he needed the exercise. I made a mental note to get him a toy voucher for some dexterity buffs our next birthday. Or maybe a gym membership.

“How much farther?” he panted, as he limbo-ed under a chest-height tripwire.

“Not too far,” I promised. “They’re probably at the bar just—ah, here we are.”

The three assassins we were looking for were easily spotted, as they were sitting at the only table with a light, albeit a dim one. Still, in the peaceful darkness of the rest of Maladomini, they may as well have set out a flare.

Frank, Laura Grand, and Serena were passers, people who appeared baseline despite belonging to a culture. Although technically the word could be used to refer to people like Delphie, who stuck to internal toys, it was usually used more in this context. These three didn’t have any obvious toys intentionally so that they could blend in better.

It was easier to assassinate people that way.

Most Mals preferred a more traditional sort of assassination. Slip into a building in the dead of night, sneak past the guards, and slit the target’s throat while they were sleeping. These three were of the more subtle variety, who would bump into a target on the street. Then, four hours later, the victim would die without ever realizing they had been poisoned in that brief collision.

The three didn’t always work together like this, but it wasn’t their first time. They chatted together amiably, not a care in the world.

“You’re completely missing the point,” the tall and blonde Serena insisted.

The short, brown-haired Grand waved her hand dismissively. “I understand the point quite well. You’re the one who keeps adding on unrealistic restrictions.”

Frank, the quiet one, just rolled his eyes and didn’t interrupt.

Serena wasn’t quite so mature. “It’s just the opposite—I’m trying to add realistic restrictions, to reasonably simulate the situation.”

“You really think its realistic to assume these people won’t be willing to kill?”

“Yes, actually, I do. Clearly you haven’t done enough research.”

Grand sighed. “Fine. Fine. If we assume no one will kill…” she shook her head morosely in defeat. “Batman would win. Superman would spend too much effort holding back, and Bruce could use to opening to floor him.”

Serena grinned and spread her hands wide. “Was that so hard to admit?”

The shorter girl punched her friend playfully in the shoulder. “Don’t be a dick.”

Frank peered out of their little oasis of light. “Company.”

That was our cue. “Hello again, guys.”

“Hey, Lancaster,” Grand greeted me with some warmth. “Who’s the demon?”

“This is Simon, my brother.”

She whistled softly. “Deep night, you didn’t mention he was a cutie.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sorry if I don’t go around talking about my brother that way.”

“Well, you should. Advertise him a little more.” She grinned at Simon. “Puteţi veni în camera mea de mai târziu, dacă doriţi să.”

Simon met her gaze levelly. “Nu, mulţumesc,” he replied flawlessly. He switched back to English right away, though. “If you really meant that, you would have said it in a language you knew I understood.”

Grand blushed deeply, and hid her embarrassment in her mug of coffee.

I looked at my brother sideways. “Since when do you speak Romanian?”

“Since you joined the Mals. What, you don’t?”

“Well, I’ve been learning a bit here and there, but I haven’t really had time for full lessons.”

“You really should take the time. Aren’t you supposed to be teaching classes in Romanian?”

“No, I’m supposed to be teaching classes on Romanian—”

“Guys,” Serena interrupted. “Please, let’s get to the point. What are you doing here?”

Nine Hells, I shouldn’t have let myself get off topic like that. I fished around in my pocket and pulled out the general’s signet ring. “I have orders from General Abigor. The attack on the retinue is called off.”

The three gave me a puzzled look, then just shrugged. “Fine,” Grand said.

I blinked. “Really? Just like that?” I had half-expected them to draw weapons.

Serena chuckled. “Why not? We can always kill them later. Defying an order would be a bloody lot worse than letting them run around for another day or so.” She gestured to the waiter for a couple more stools. “Sit down. Tell us the whole story.”

After ordering a few drinks (and turning down the light to a level that was more comfortable for me), it all came out. How the Queen-Mother of Killing Sparrow had told me about the attack, and how I had spent the last month frantically searching for any scrap of information to confirm it. They knew that part already; I had confronted them about it earlier once I had enough evidence, and they hadn’t tried to hide it for even a moment. They were surprised at Abigor’s reaction, though.

“He’s always had some problems with the ‘sarians,” Serena said slowly. “Bileth implied the whole thing was his idea.”

My mind slowly spun its gears. “I hope this wasn’t all a red herring. What if he’s sending out another team right now?”

Grand shrugged. “Then the retinue dies. Does it really matter?”

I wouldn’t have been able to believe my ears—except they had said similar things last time. They were all members of the Kongeegen party, the social Darwinists. Actually a lot of Mals were, they were just more open about it. “It will start a war with Necessarius. A war we cannot win.”

Serena waved her hand dismissively. “By the night, stop your preaching. The generals know what they’re doing. If they want the retinue dead, its all for the best.”

“Stop and think for a minute,” I insisted. “It wouldn’t just start a war, it would weaken the war against the Composer. What possible reason could there be behind that?”

“Weed out the weak,” Frank answered instantly. “Natural selection.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Simon quietly put his head in his hands. I knew his views on this subject. Mine were a little bit more open, mostly because in a culture of assassins, you have to get used to hearing stuff like this. Not to mention Pam could get a bit loud about her beliefs when monsters showed up.

“Ignoring the pros and cons of social Darwinism, don’t you think its in everyone’s best interest to unite against something that’s trying to destroy all of us?”

“You’re missing the point,” Grand insisted, jabbing her finger in my direction for emphasis. “This ‘Composer’ is still hypothetical. We have no way of knowing that there is anyone behind these zombies at all. If there isn’t, then its just like any other weather pattern. Let everyone fend for themselves.”

I narrowed my eyes, not bothering to point out that the Paladins had discovered her identity. I had barely believed it; these three would never trust anything Necessarius said. “You have any kids?”

“Five,” she replied instantly. I couldn’t tell if she knew where this was going. “Two boys and three girls.”

“I have two,” I said, nodding in camaraderie. “A boy and a girl. Simon, you have two boys, right?” He nodded, and I turned back to the assassin. “I take it you put them in an orphanage, like we did?”

Her eyes were very narrow slits now. She had figured it out, but she had to let everything play out anyway. “Yeah.”

“What if the orphanage was attacked by screamers?”

“I’d stop it.”

I ignored the fact that she was bending the rules of social Darwinism a little bit. “You’ve never fought screamers before. Besides, you could be on the opposite side of the city. You gonna sit outside the window for the rest of their lives?”

“Don’t talk to me about them, Lancaster. I can—”

“What if the retinue could save them?”

“Deep night,” she cursed. “The Paladins are still gonna be around. And don’t you dare try and use slippery slope fallacy on me. The generals love the Paladins.”

I nodded in agreement on both counts. “True, true. But the Big Boss assigned them the retinue for a reason. What if they’re not fast enough without trusted companions watching their backs?”

This, more than anything else, was what I knew I had to hinge my argument on. Sometimes it was hard to feel strongly about children you had given up—I know sometimes I found myself forgetting the names I had given to my babies before handing them off.

But these three were soldiers, through and through. They knew you need someone you trusted watching your back, always. That was just how it worked.

Not that it mattered. Frank just shook his head. “The generals want them dead, they die. Move on.”

Yes, being a soldier meant having someone watch your back, so they could sympathize with the Paladins and the retinue. But the other half was following orders—and they were very, very good at that part.

Arguing with them was a waste of time, anyway. We might be a small subculture, but the generals would be able to find someone else willing to take the mission while we were dealing with them. That was probably why Abigor had sent us down here in the first place.

“C’mon,” I said, grabbing Simon’s arm. “We have to go.”

He raised an eyebrow as I pulled him out of earshot. “Look, I know you want to help the retinue, but I don’t think we have any chance of convincing your warlords to change their minds.”

“I agree,” I admitted. “But what do you think will happen if the fey find out that the retinue is in danger, even after I was warned?”

He didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to.

Sooner or later, everything in Domina ended in blood.

Behind the Scenes (scene 123)

I would just like to remind everyone that the views expressed by the characters do not necessarily mirror the views of the writer.

Scene 122 – Abdo

ABDO

SIMON

I pinched my forehead in frustration. “You want to infiltrate Maladomini.”

Seena grinned shakily. “Well…yeah. It shouldn’t be that hard. I already have access and everything.”

“For yourself,” I noted. “Not anyone else.”

She shrugged. “You’re my brother, they’ll make an exception.”

“They won’t let me into the conference room,” I warned. “You’ll be on your own for the important parts.”

She shook her head. “Simon, you’re just backup. Hopefully, I can convince them to call off this attack without resorting to violence.”

I sighed. “Yeah, an assassination on the retinue. Have to stop it, I understand. If it’s even real.”

Now it was her turn to sigh. “Simon…”

“No,” I said firmly. “You’re not dodging this. A fey tells you to stop an assassination, and you don’t think twice about it?”

“Of course I did,” she snapped back. “I do learn from my mistakes, you know. What do you think I’ve been doing the past twenty days?”

I waved my hand in the general direction of AU, where we had met with Adam Anders. “Robyn didn’t know anything about it. Anders didn’t know anything about it.”

She shook her head. “It’s legitimate, that much is for sure. And tonight is when it happens. We have twelve hours to stop the mission.”

“Neither one of us is equipped to stop a Mal assassination team.”

“Physically, no. Which is why it’s us going in. Killing the team would just make the generals mad. We need to convince them to stop.”

I stepped out of the alley we were hiding in and peeked around the corner. I could see Maladomini from here. It was just a few blocks away, and looked no different from the ‘scrapers surrounding it. The vampiric assassins’ domain was not a secret, but they still didn’t like to advertise their presence.

“You got a plan for that?” I asked, turning back to my sister. “Because I really don’t think ‘a fey suggested it’s a bad idea’ will go over well.”

She grinned, her fangs gleaming. “Oh, I’ve got a plan.”

Somehow, that didn’t fill me with confidence.

But it’s not like I was going to let her go up alone, and she wasn’t willing to back down, so I was forced to follow her into Maladomini, sure that we would end the day with the entire culture out for our blood.

Getting inside the building was easy enough. Seena was a member, after all, and a pretty high-ranked one to boot. Getting around was significantly tougher, and not just because I had to use night-vision goggles to see.

We had to stop every five feet or so for Seena to disable traps. She promised they weren’t lethal, and that they were designed to be easy to avoid if you knew they were there, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Besides, I wasn’t exactly athletic. Just because a Mal could be expected to dodge it didn’t mean I had any chance.

“Move faster,” she admonished. “We don’t have time to wait.”

I gritted my teeth as I carefully ducked under a row of penny-sized holes in the wall that she had said would shoot out sleeper darts at the slightest provocation. “I’m sorry if I’m not willing to take unnecessary risks in this place.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine. “And when the retinue gets killed, its on your head.”

“I’m not the one who put it off for a month.”

“And I’m not the one taking forever on traps designed for children.”

I finally got past the trap and glared at my sister through my bulky goggles. They were vampire-style night vision, so they worked by amplifying light rather than turning everything green. And since the entire place was built for vampires, I could see perfectly fine.

“Whatever. Just tell me your plan.”

“We’ll corner Abigor, make sure he knows it’s not an assassination. Then we talk him down. At least into delaying the mission long enough for a more permanent solution.”

That…actually wasn’t a horrible plan. Abigor had recruited Seena personally, so he’d be the most amenable to listening. We’d have a better idea of what to do once we knew why they wanted to do this in the first place. Assassinating a Necessarian squad didn’t make much sense, and targeting the Paladins’ support was even stranger. Hell, maybe they had already called it off, now that the Composer was outed.

Ugh. I didn’t want to think about all that. “How far are we from his rooms?”

My sister scrunched up her face as she struggled to remember. “Not far…I’m more worried that he won’t be there. We’ll be in trouble if we have to search for him.”

“Well, you’re half right,” a calm, cultured voice mused from behind us. We spun on our heels to see a black-skinned bald vampire smiling at us. “You don’t have to search for me…but you are in trouble.”

Seena swallowed, but still managed to bow stiffly, a gesture I mimicked with only some delay.

“Noble Abigor,” she whispered, confirming my suspicions. “I was hoping to speak to you.”

The warlord waved his hand airily. “Deep night Seena, please, I’ve told you. If you insist on using an honorific, I’d prefer you stick with ‘general.’ Feels like I’ve actually earned that one.”

She nodded. “Yes, General Abigor. Sorry, sir.”

He turned to me. “And who is this nice young demon? A…sibriex, if I’m not mistaken? Although I suppose you could be a tall goblin.”

“Sibriex, sir,” I confirmed curtly. He almost certainly knew me as Seena’s brother on sight. I wasn’t in the mood for this kind of game, but I didn’t have much choice. We needed to humor him.

But if I hadn’t known better, I would have assumed he was happy to see us. He grinned a smile that reached well into his eyes and revealed his shiny white teeth. Honestly, he looked just like our patron, when we returned to the orphanage unexpectedly for a visit.

Seena, however, might have been carved from stone. I already knew better than to let my guard down, and her reaction just confirmed it.

“Now,” the jovial warlord said as he leaned against the wall. “What can I help you with?”

“We need to stop the attack on the retinue, sir,” Seena said without preamble. “Please.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What attack?”

She grimaced. “Sir, we don’t have time for this.”

But he frowned right back. “Dearest, you know I wouldn’t lie to you. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Seena looked confused, so I jumped in. “There’s going to be an attack on the Paladins’ retinue, Lord Noble—I mean, General. We’re here to try and convince you to stop it.”

His frown deepened. “A Mal attack? That’s ridiculous. We have no desire to fight Butler.”

I couldn’t help myself. “Didn’t the culture start when Baalzebul assassinated a ‘sarian prisoner?”

The vampire’s gaze turned colder than ice, and I quickly remembered exactly what I was dealing with. Not the warlord of some tiny little bloodline no one had ever heard of, but the master of one of the deadliest subcultures in the city.

“That was to avert a war, not start one,” he snapped. “Learn your history, boy.”

“Apologies,” I said swiftly. “That was a little before my time.”

The general dismissed me by turning back to Seena. “Are you sure this isn’t just a rumor? What proof do you have?”

“I managed to find out who is being sent. Even talked to them. They didn’t seem to realize it was a secret. It was Frank, Laura Grand, and Serena.”

Abigor rubbed his forehead and sighed. “Those three…this might be bad. The only reason to send those three on a mission together is if you want someone who doesn’t ask too many questions. Did they say who gave the order?”

“Bileth.”

The noble closed his eyes. “Of course. He’s been talking about making more overt alliances with the ‘sarians for almost a month now.”

I held up my hand. “Wait one second—you think he’s trying to kill the retinue…because he likes Necessarius?”

To my surprise, he laughed. “Oh, I like you. You wouldn’t last three seconds here, but I still like you.” He patted me on the shoulder like an amused uncle. “He was trying to throw us off his trail, make it seem like he’s the last one who would want this, so he must be the target of a frame up.”

“But…if the people given the mission know—”

“Double bluff. It looks like someone was trying to frame him. After all, if he had really done this, he would have done a much better job of covering his tracks, right?”

My head hurt. This is why I prefer the sibriex. No politics, just play with the toy maker. Well, except for when I discovered a horrifying abomination in our server room…

“What now, general?” Seena asked. She didn’t seem to be having any trouble following all this, which wasn’t unexpected. She’s never had a great mind for politics, as evidenced by her dealings with the fey. She was probably dealing with this the same way she did everything else: Ignore it and let someone else handle the problem.

“Now, we need to talk to Bileth,” Abigor proclaimed. “Or, rather, I do. You two need to find those three morons before they kill something.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out something that looked like a signet. “This should convince them you’re speaking with my authority. At least, long enough for me to talk to them in person.”

Seena took it carefully and respectfully. “What if it doesn’t?”

Abigor seemed to assume she was planning something violent; I knew my twin better. It was an honest question. “Don’t try to kill them. They’re valued members of the culture, not to mention you’d be dead before you can blink. Just talk to the guards, get the exits barred and so on. That should slow them down, at least.”

“C’mon,” I said, grabbing my sister by the arm. “Let’s get this done.” I nodded to the warlord. “Thank you, general. Sorry if I was disrespectful.”

He grinned, baring his sharp fangs. “Oh, you’d know if I thought you were disrespectful.”

With those cheery parting words, we went down to meet the assassins.

Behind the Scenes (scene 122)

Imperfect, but it’s definitely designed to be part of a pair.

Scene 121 – Accidia

ACCIDIA

ADAM

“Did you hear? That VA who does Twilight Sparkle is the Composer.”

“Yeah, I heard, and it’s ridiculous. I’ve met Lizzy; she wouldn’t hurt a fly. My grandma is more likely to be the Composer.”

“Isn’t your grandma an assassin?”

“Yeah, and dead.”

It was Monday, the first of October. It had only been two days ago that we finally ascertained the identity of the Composer, after cornering her in her own lair. Necessarius told the press, and an announcement was made that very same night.

But still, no one believed it.

Part of the problem was probably that there were no eyewitnesses coming forward. The Paladins couldn’t come forward because we wanted to keep our identities hidden—though Derek and Laura were discussing that a bit—and the retinue hadn’t actually seen Lizzy. The aves had, during the attack on their lab, but they weren’t in a position where they were willing to help the ‘sarians.

I stayed out of it. I had only been in the city a little over a month; I was still new. Everyone kept going on about political crap I didn’t understand, citing this incident or that massacre I had never heard of as reasons why Butler would or wouldn’t flat-out lie to the public.

“Anders, right?”

I turned, surprised someone recognized me. I was in chemistry, a class I hadn’t made many friends in. I was never that good in chemistry in the first place, and the professor planned his lessons assuming all his students had a rudimentary knowledge of how the toy maker functioned, so I was falling behind as I kept having to look up new terms that everyone else just understood. What the hell was the Reed-Osborne Procedure, and what did it have to do with cancer?

I shook my head, breaking out of my fugue. The woman speaking to me was about my age, with a long red braid of hair that went down to her waist, and matching crimson eyes. She was wearing a dark red jacket open at the front, over a long sleeved black shirt.

Before I came to Domina, I would have been surprised at anyone having such a ridiculous amount of red. Now, I was just glad she had decided to skip the red skin cosmo.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” I said.

She grinned, displaying pearly white teeth. “Right, sorry. I’m Robyn Joan Clarke. I’m a friend of Derek and Laura’s.”

I held out my hand; she seemed a bit surprised, but shook it. “Pleased to meet you, I’m Adam Anders. But then, you already knew that.”

She grimaced a little, acknowledging her mistake. “Sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

“No hard feelings.” I unzipped my backpack and started searching for the flash drive with my homework on it. It wasn’t ‘done’ so much as ‘filled out,’ but it was better than nothing. “Was there something you needed?”

“Yeah, actually. I want to talk to you about the Composer.”

I froze.

“Why me, specifically?” I managed with what I thought was admirable calm.

She sat on my desk, cheerfully blocking my vision. “Because you’re a Paladin, silly.”

I avoided narrowing my eyes by an effort of will. Instead, I just reached slowly for the briefcase filled with my guns, which I kept next to my foot. “Now you’re being silly. I just came to the city for school. How could I be a Paladin?”

Derek or Akane, I could understand. They were the vanguard of every fight and were somewhat famous on their own, so someone had to recognize them eventually. But I was in the back with the retinue. The only ones who would know my identity would be the Composer and her minions.

Perhaps that theory floating around about possession and body jumping wasn’t so far-fetched after all.

Robyn sighed. “Anders, stop being so melodramatic. I can see you reaching for your guns—”

I didn’t hesitate. I had managed to get the case unlocked, but hadn’t opened it yet. I undid the latch, let the case fall open, and pulled out my Sica. 4.5 mm wasn’t much, but it should work perfectly well on a baseline. I kept the pistol hidden behind the girl’s body, careful not to let any of my classmates see. Luckily, I was in the back corner, and no one paid much attention to me anyway.

Robyn, however, noticed. I’m not sure what I expected her to do, but she just narrowed her eyes at my weapon.

“Careful with that. You could hurt someone.”

I flipped off the safety.

She just rolled her eyes. “Red dusk, I said stop being so melodramatic.”

“What do you want?

“Exactly what I said. I want to talk to you about the Composer.” She glanced around. “But this is hardly the place for it. Let’s go outside.”

I ground my teeth. “I have class.”

She scooted off the table. “C’mon. You can even keep the gun pointed at me if it makes you feel better.”

I bit my lip as she sashayed away, then cursed under my breath, put the gun back in the case, and followed the girl outside. I made sure to grab my stuff, since I had a feeling I wouldn’t be coming back.

I also loosened one of the knives I kept in a wrist-sheath, hidden by the long sleeves of my sweatshirt.

I wasn’t going to run around with a gun in my hand, but I wasn’t stupid, either.

When I exited the classroom, Robyn didn’t say a word, just led me outside into the bright early morning sun. She took a sharp turn, stepping into a dark alley between the buildings, and I took a moment to pull out my Sica again, make sure the safety was on, and stuff it into the front of my pants.

To my surprise, when I followed her, I found two more people waiting for me. Well, no, I expected more people, since I was half-certain she was leading me into an ambush. What I didn’t expect was to recognize one of them.

“Simon?” I said to the lean demon with mottled purple skin. “What are you doing here?” I nodded to the vampire next to him—presumably, she was the reason we were meeting in the shade. She wasn’t wearing any daygoggles, though it was impossible to know if she had forgotten them, or if she just wanted to be able to see without obstruction. “And who’s this?”

“This is my sister, Seena,” he answered curtly, and the midnight-skinned woman extended her hand to shake. I took it, remembering vaguely that either Simon or Yolanda had mentioned he had a twin sister. They certainly didn’t look like twins now.

“I’m going to be blunt,” the demon started. “We’ve been hearing weird things.” He said it as though the rumors hadn’t already spread across the entire city. “Apparently the Paladins found the Composer?”

I glanced briefly at Robyn, and the slight shake of her head confirmed it: However she knew about our identities, she hadn’t shared it with the twins. Maybe she was somewhat trustworthy after all.

Maybe.

“I’ve heard…rumblings,” I admitted slowly, not quite certain what role I was supposed to be playing here. “And Lizzy is nowhere to be found. I can only assume the situation is exactly as Necessarius claims.”

The vampire spat on the ground with surprising vehemence. “Nine Hells! We need more than rumors!

But I was a little distracted. Wasn’t ‘nine hells’ a demon curse? True, I wasn’t really sure how that all worked, but still…

When I noticed Simon giving me an odd stare, I recovered quickly. “I don’t know what else you want. But I know if I see Greene in a dark alley, I’m going to shoot first and ask questions later.”

“This isn’t about Lizzy,” Seena insisted. “It’s about—” She stopped suddenly, before she said too much.

I sighed. This damn city. Everyone had their own secrets. “Look, I don’t care. I just have to ask: Has Lizzy asked you for help?”

“What? No! The retinue—”

I waved off her explanation. “Don’t care. As long as you’re not dealing with her, I’m sure everything else will sort itself out.” I took a step back, leaving an open path for them to leave. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I would like to speak to Miss Clarke alone.”

The siblings looked at each other, shrugged, and walked out with a nod to Robyn. I had no idea if they had gotten what they wanted, and again, didn’t really care. It wasn’t until I was sure they were gone that I turned to the redhead.

“I don’t know what that was about. But I’m sure you haven’t failed to notice that we are in a dark alley.”

The red-eyed woman nodded serenely. “True, true. But I’m not Lizzy.”

“Are you working with her?”

“No.”

God dammit, the one time Laura’s power would have been unambiguously useful… “How do I know I can trust you?”

She sighed. “Look Anders, I really did just want to ask you a few questions. I ran into the twins on the way here, and they’re freaking about Lizzy just as much as everyone else. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone, give them some independent corroboration for the ‘sarian story.”

I left my pistol in my waistband, but pulled my Saint George out of the case, enjoying the fleeting look of concern that passed over the woman’s face. I already had a god slayer loaded, so I just flipped off the safety and pointed it at her. “Ask your questions.”

She frowned. “Fine. Hard way it is.” She looked me square in the eye. “Is Elizabeth Greene the Composer?”

I don’t know what I expected—some kind of supernatural force, bending me to answer? But it didn’t feel any different than any other question, so I simply answered. “As far as I could tell, yes. Or rather, the Composer looked and acted an awful lot like Elizabeth Greene before Laura blew her head off.”

Her crimson eyes narrowed. “So the immortality part is true.”

I shrugged, careful to keep the dragon slayer pointed at her. “She can heal, that much is certain. But she ran away, so it can’t be perfect.”

The woman tapped her chin. “Yes, I’d imagine you’re right. She probably has a limited reservoir, wouldn’t want that running out at the wrong time.”

“Now it’s my turn.” I raised my gun a bit higher, pointing at her head. “Who are you, and how do you know so much?”

“I’m MC’s mysteriously competent scout,” she admitted distractedly.

I blinked. “What?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice? I’ve been doing scout work on the screamers since this whole mess started. I can get far closer than any of the ‘sarians, so I’m invaluable.”

I shook my head. “Wait, you can get close to the screamers? Why? How?”

Robyn Joan Clarke sighed. “Is it really not obvious? Next you’re going to tell me you haven’t figured out who my father is.”

“Uh…” I wracked my brain. Who did I know who was old enough?

She walked past me, brushing aside my shotgun dismissively. “If you can’t even answer that, then I don’t know why I’m still talking to you.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 121)

The lessons on gun safety Adam received from Laura and Derek were laughably incomplete. Other than telling him how to find the safety, they assumed he knew everything else. After all, they had been taught the basics—such as never pointing a gun at something you don’t intend to shoot—since they were five years old. The idea that someone wouldn’t understand such things implicitly is completely alien to them.

Which is why Adam doesn’t immediately realize why putting a firearm next to his reproductive organs is a horrible idea.

Scene 120 – Consequentia

CONSEQUENTIA

LAURA

“You would be the Highlander?”

Silver and gold, that stupid nickname. “Laura. And I’m busy.” I was trying to fix the hypnotism machine so that it didn’t kill people, but I wasn’t having much luck. Engineering is barely a hobby of mine. All I did the first time was fiddle with the settings.

“Ah…so this is the machine that killed my chamberlain.”

That got my attention. I abandoned the machine and turned to see a short and squat vampire, wearing what appeared to be a very weathered yellow fire fighter’s jacket over a black shirt and jeans. He had thick daygoggles, small fangs, and the dust-colored skin of a vampire who wasn’t white, but still didn’t spend enough time in the sun.

He smelled like smoke. Not just cigarettes, either. Even my weak baseline nose could detect a variety of different flavors. Woodsmoke, gunpowder, gasoline, and the mouth-watering scent of the barbeque.

“Mephistopheles,” I said, meeting his eyes as best I could, considering the goggles. “Noble of Cania. I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to see you.”

“I wanted to come pick up Adonides’ body personally.” He pulled out a cigarette and placed it in his mouth, but didn’t light it. “He—his corpse, that is—is it still here?”

“Yes, Noble Mephistopheles.”

“Bah,” he grunted, waving his hand. “Burning darkness, Highlander, don’t bother with that stupid title. Meph will do fine.”

“Then I expect you to extend me the same courtesy.”

“Eh?”

“My name is Laura.”

“Oh, yes, sorry.” He bobbed his head excitedly. “Just Laura. Got it.”

I sighed. “I’m sorry for your loss, Noble—Meph. I’ll admit I don’t know all that much about Canian culture, but I assume you plan to cremate him?”

The vampire nodded. “Feed him to the flames, yes. It is our way.”

“Any chance I can convince you to let me do an autopsy first? I was hoping I might be able to get some insight into the sleepers if I could get a closer look at his brain chemistry.”

The warlord quirked his head. “Honestly, I figured you had already done all that.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Ah…yes. When can I expect you to be done?”

“Tomorrow. The first of October.”

“Hm.” He frowned. “Well, that’s a Monday, so we might have trouble…” he shook his head. “No, it will be fine. Guland, if no one else, will be able to find time.”

“I’ll have MC send you a message when he’s ready,” I promised. “And I’ll be sure to be as respectful as possible.”

“That’s all I can ask, Highlander.”

I bit my tongue from snapping back, and simply smiled instead.

When he left, I assumed I’d be able to spend much of the rest of the day working on Adonides. But that wasn’t meant to be.

“Laura?” MC’s chocolate voice drifted out of the speakers. “Can you come to the West Training Room? It’s urgent.”

“Uh…okay.” That was where I had left Derek to discuss tactics with Flynn, under the assumption that the swordsman would be able to keep him mostly out of trouble. Had they injured each other during practice? Probably not; MC would have been more clear if it was an emergency.

I found the room again quickly enough. It was a large empty room with the walls and floor padded with red mats, and a hamper full of towels in the corner.

When I had left them, the boys were alone. This was the kids’ training room, and no one was letting their children out of their sight today. But Akane and Ling had shown up at some point, and seemed to be arguing with the boys. Akane was wearing Flynn’s earrings, which was surprising. I thought she had locked them away.

“Are you completely insane?”

Ling winced. Derek wasn’t yelling, but he didn’t need to. That disapproving look on his face was enough. “I didn’t mean—”

“I know you didn’t,” he interrupted. “No one ever means to do things like this.” He sighed and brushed his hair back. “But silver and gold, didn’t you stop and consider the implications?”

“I was helping a friend.”

“Which is noble, I’ll admit. But you should have called one of us. You didn’t have to shoulder this burden alone.”

The blonde delinquent sighed. “Derek, what would you have done if I had told you?”

He opened his mouth briefly, then closed it again.

“Told Butler,” Ling answered for him. “You would have told him without a second thought. I don’t know exactly what would have happened, but I wasn’t willing to take any risks with my friend’s life.”

Derek rubbed his forehead. “I…” he looked up at me. “Laura, help me out here.”

Everyone turned to me; our blond leader was the first one who had noticed me. I blinked a little at the sudden attention, but managed to shrug. “I’m not sure what to say. This is about the toy box, I take it?”

“Yeah, she—” He blinked in confusion. “Wait. How’d you know?”

“MC told me, after Lizzy went missing. We kept you out of the loop because we knew what you’d do.”

He plopped down on the mat with a sigh. “Am I the only one who didn’t know about this?”

I didn’t know,” Flynn muttered. Akane elbowed him in the ribs.

“Okay,” Derek muttered. “Fine. I still think you should have told me but…fine. Soaring Eagle has the toy box, and is probably going to start a war with Necessarius the second they think they have a chance. We’ll deal with that when it comes. What I need to know is how the hell Lizzy knew about it.”

Ling winced again. “Right…that was me. I needed help hiding Turgay, and I knew she had contacts—”

“Silver and—yeah, she has contacts, she probably hypnotizes them all.”

I nodded. “You know, that would explain it. I have noticed a bit of obsessiveness in her hires, but I hadn’t met enough to really think it was odd.”

Akane frowned. “A demon in a nice suit?”

“Nabassu? Yeah, he’s her butler. So to speak, I guess. Why?”

“Saw him earlier, along with another demon and a Jotuun. They all had powers.”

I sputtered. “She’s giving people powers? Intentionally?” My hand twitched towards my necklace. It had always been a possibility, of course, but since we hadn’t seen any more like ourselves, we had just assumed…

Akane nodded. “She also made it clear she was the source of our powers.”

I regained my composure quickly. “Right now, we just need the basics. What exactly could they do?”

The samurai took a deep breath to steel herself. “Right. Nabassu was a shifter, like the bats, but he could only make wings. The Jotuun flew under his own power. And there was a fat demon with super strength. At least, that’s what it looked like.”

“Wait, the big fat, red one?” Ling asked. Akane nodded. “Well, no worries there, then. Adam killed him after you left.” She shivered a little. “He’s very, very dead.”

That was a problem I understood. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Derek. I’m worried Adam’s sociopathy could cause problems.”

Derek just quirked his head. “What are you talking about?”

It actually made me feel better, in a way. Although I hadn’t really admitted it to myself, I had been worried he’d undergo a drastic personality shift now that Lizzy’s hypnotism was lifted. Good to know he was the same soft-hearted fool as ever.

“He’s killing people without the slightest signs of remorse,” I pointed out.

“But…screamers aren’t people,” Ling said with a confused look on her face. I didn’t bother correcting her. We had enough problems right now.

“Killing is an unfortunate necessity in life—”

I cut Derek off with a wave of my hand. “I know that. I made my first kill when we were six, remember?” Although I hadn’t killed a human until I was fifteen, and even that had been indirectly. “But Adam’s not a Dominite. This isn’t normal for him.”

Flynn blinked. “Wait, he’s not?”

“Came for AU,” Akane explained.

The swordsman snorted. “Well then yeah, Adam’s crazy. Didn’t you say he killed like a dozen ferrets at the bat thing?”

“Probably more,” I admitted. “That’s what made Kelly bring it to my attention, actually. And then the other day, he didn’t think twice about letting Adonides get killed.”

Flynn perked up. “Right, about that, Guland wanted to know—”

“I just came from a meeting with Mephistopheles. I think he’ll send your roommate over some time tomorrow.”

“Okay, yeah. That’s good. He’s been worried about it.”

“I’m still not convinced,” Derek insisted, bringing us back on topic. “Akane and I—silver and gold, even you, Laura—can seal off those feelings without any trouble, and you’re not calling us sociopaths.”

I sighed. “You’re missing the point. It’s exactly that: We seal them away. We’ve just had years of practice, so we don’t even have to think about it. Adam has not had years of practice. On his first day in the city, he killed a woman, without any apparent trauma. That’s not normal.”

“Is that what Butler meant?” Ling chipped in. “When he called him a ‘natural-born killer?’”

I had forgotten about that. “Probably.”

Derek struggled up from the floor. “Well, it’s not like we can do anything about it. We need him. We’ll keep an eye on him, and if he starts going crazy, I’ll try to talk him down.”

“Lily would be a better choice,” I noted.

He shrugged. “Sure, but she probably won’t be around.” He turned to Akane. “I’m not that confident I’ll be able to convince him of anything, though. So Akane, you’ll need to be ready if he decides to turn on us.”

The swordswoman didn’t seem to think anything odd about this; she just nodded and gripped the hilt of her sword. Well, everyone had to deal with betrayal eventually. Since I wasn’t exactly dangerous physically, I usually made sure I had blackmail material on any troublesome employers or allies—or just worked alone. Apparently Derek and Akane went the more traditional route.

“Just make sure Lily doesn’t find out about this,” MC’s voice warned from the speakers in the ceiling. “She’s convinced she can redeem him.”

I blinked at the implications. “Wait, she knew?”

“Of course. Why do you think she’s dating him? She thinks she can socialize him. And honestly, she seems to be right.”

“It’s Lily,” Derek said, grinning at my surprise. “She doesn’t do anything without some goal in mind.”

To deflect attention from my embarrassment, I changed the subject. “I think we’re done for the day. I’ll find Adam and get a debriefing from him later. Derek, were you still planning on doing that mission later?”

He groaned. “I completely forgot…but yeah. It’s just a couple night dogs; Akane, Flynn and I can handle it.”

Ling perked up. “I can help too.”

“Oh no,” Derek replied instantly, his face like stone. “You’re not coming on any missions unless screamers or those…uh…”

“Blackguards,” Akane supplied.

“Right. Unless Lizzy’s Blackguards show up.”

The little Chinese delinquent opened her mouth silently, then closed it, then opened it again. “You’re grounding me?”

Derek didn’t blink. “Yes.”

“Tezuka’s name, what right—”

Suddenly Derek closed the distance between the two of them, until their faces were millimeters apart. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he still had eight or ten inches on the tiny girl. She gulped and took a step back, but she still had to look almost straight up.

“You endangered quite a few people,” he hissed quietly. “In hiding the toy box you were forced to abandon us when the skins attacked, you got the aves at the lab killed, and you may have started a war between the arachs and the aves against Necessarius.”

He leaned down to Ling’s level until their eyes were inches apart.

“I have the right, Ling Yu, to act in the safety of this city. Grounding you from missions is less than a slap on the wrist. If this went public, you’d be fed to the ghouls. And if you were lucky, they might kill you first.”

He turned around and stomped out of the training room, Akane following him quickly, and Flynn a bit more hesitantly.

Ling fell to her knees.

I just left in the opposite direction, only noticing when I got back to the lab Clarke had given me that I was clutching the diamond ring on my necklace hard enough to slice open my palm.

Behind the Scenes (scene 120)

I was a little leery about bringing in Mephistopheles here, especially so soon after Soaring Eagle, but he was necessary for illustrating the fate of Adonides.

Anniversary Newspost 2013

Today marks the second anniversary of Domina City. It’s been a turbulent year, due in no small part to my attempts to monetize the website without the slightest idea of what I was doing. The site crashed twice, had to be moved, and I found myself unable to make use of the Project Wonderful ads.

Still, the story itself is still going strong, and that’s what matters. As of the time of this writing, I am working on polishing off scene 218 (which is a Laura scene, for the record), so we have at least two more years to go. While I could finish the story at about scene 230 or so, it would be a cliffhanger ending, and I don’t think it would be very satisfying. 400 or even 500 is more likely.

In other news, Domina is not the only thing I have been working on. In addition to a few fanfic projects (which may have brought some of you here in the first place), I am also finishing up the first book of another original fiction series. This time, I think I’ll go through a publisher rather than attempting to self-publish.

As always, thanks to everyone who reads and enjoys Domina City. There’s an extra update today, even though it’s not a Wednesday, as a little anniversary present to everyone. Thanks again, and keep reading.

Scene 119 – Aquila Volantis

AQUILA VOLANTIS

LING

I woke up laying on my back with a throbbing pain in my—

Wait…

Actually, there was no pain. At all.

What?

Lizzy had given me a pretty bad beating. I had at least a couple fractured ribs, about a dozen stab wounds from her barrier-blades, and was missing more blood than I’d like to think about. So why wasn’t I in pain?

Oh crap.

Was I…dead?

I tried to sit up quickly—and immediately banged my head on something about two inches above my face.

Okay, so probably not dead.

I heard muffled voices from outside…wherever I was. I felt around with my hands. Judging by the shape…it was a coffin. I was inside a coffin?

I almost pounded on the lid and shouted to get the attention of whoever was outside, but quickly thought better of it. People who put living bodies in coffins are not the type you want to give any more of an advantage than necessary. I’d need to take them by surprise.

I extended my sixth sense, the one granted by my power. It didn’t give me a lot of detail, just enough to make out very vague shapes, but it was enough to determine that I was in a coffin on the ground, surrounded by people.

Well, probably people. Tall and skinny bundles of solid matter. They could have been trees for all I knew; like I said, my sense is not terribly specific.

The floor was concrete—that I was absolutely certain of. It was outside my range to affect, of course, since I wasn’t touching it, but once I got out of the box I’d be instantly armed.

The coffin was vibrating slightly at irregular intervals, probably caused by people speaking outside. It was impossible to tell how many there were, but it had to be more than a few. I had a feeling they were going to open the coffin soon. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but I had to be ready for the opportunity.

One of the people I could sense moved a bit closer. Good, they were going to open it. I tensed myself, ready to spring…

“Ling? You awake in there?”

I banged my head on the lid again, as I jumped from surprise.

They hadn’t opened the coffin. The voice had come from a speaker grille just next to my ear. And it was a voice I recognized.

“Guy?” I asked, rubbing my head again. “That you?”

“Yeah Ling, it’s me. How are you doing?”

“Feeling claustrophobic. Where am I?”

“Inside the toy box.”

Oh. That explained a lot. Such as why nothing hurt. Well, nothing but my forehead, but I realized even that pain was fading faster than I would normally expect. Now that I was paying attention, it did feel familiar. I had been in one of Clarke’s boxes before, to get rid of most of my toys, but those copies were open-air. “I think I’m done in here. Can you let me out?”

There was no response, and I had a much stronger flash of claustrophobia. They could lock me in here forever, performing experiments on me…

Then the lid opened, briefly blinding me as daylight flooded in.

“Rise and shine, sleepy head,” Turgay said with a chuckle. From what I could see of his silhouette, he seemed to realize I was being blinded by the sun. “Oops, sorry about that.” He threw some sort of blanket over the box, dimming the light to almost nothing. “Take your time. You’ve been in there a few hours.”

Despite his advice, I got out a fast as I could, nearly tripping over my own feet in the process. I threw the blanket aside quickly, blinking a little as I adjusted to the light. Normally I probably wouldn’t be so hasty, but I had noticed blood stains on the cloth, and didn’t want to be under it a second longer than I had to. Thankfully, Turgay had a robe ready, which I used to cover my naked body before anyone noticed.

I realized soon enough that we were still on the Ring, though I had been carried over to the ruins of the ave lab at some point while I was unconscious. The toy box itself was sheltered as best as possible in one of the shipping containers that was the least jostled from my fight with Lizzy, and the ave techs scrambled everywhere, doing things I didn’t understand.

Looking around, I belatedly noticed a small crowd around us, trying to see what all the fuss was about, being sent away by ‘sarian troops. The few warhawks who had survived Lizzy’s rampage were handcuffed to each other while the ave techs tended to their wounds.

“Nice to see you survived,” a dull voice commented from the side.

I turned to see Adam, heavily bandaged and being tended by Lily, sitting on the concrete a dozen feet away. His wounds couldn’t have been too bad; if he was in any real danger, he would have been put in the toy box before me. Sure, he was a clay, but it would still help a little. Lesser toys would have been able to keep me alive while I waited for him to finish.

Lily, for her part, was pointedly not looking at the pile of corpses a dozen yards behind her, consisting mostly of ave warhawks and a few unlucky dockworkers. Considering her issues with violence, I was surprised she was even out here at all.

I frowned as I realized who was missing. “Where’s Akane?”

“She went chasing after Lizzy. Came back an hour or so ago, but left again when Necessarius showed up.”

That made sense. She probably wanted to give Derek a report in person. “Anything interesting happen while I was out?” I waved my hand at the assembled troops. “Other than the obvious, I mean.”

He shrugged, and winced as he pulled at his wounds. “Nothing much. The birds fussed over the box a lot, taking readings and such. No one else is allowed within ten feet, probably because of that Sauron Field thing.”

I glanced at the device I had just stepped out of. “I feel fine. I don’t feel any desire to protect it, or control it or whatever I’m supposed to be feeling.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” Turgay asked as he placed a stethoscope over my heart. “You and I are immune. I have no idea why, but I have a few theories. I’ll need to run some tests to be sure.”

I wasn’t entirely convinced he knew what he was doing. “Aren’t you worried about everyone else in the area being affected?”

“It works off pheromones. Out in the open like this, it’s nothing to worry about. The ten-feet thing is just a precaution.”

I sat down on the box a little gingerly. Sure, it was the most valuable item in the entire city, but I was tired, and there was nowhere else to sit. “When’s Clarke coming down to collect this thing?”

My ave friend shrugged his feathery shoulders. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt, and I realized a little belatedly that all those feathers must be pretty hot in the sun. “Probably never. He’s already got a toy box to play with; he doesn’t care about this one. Butler, on the other hand, will probably be down in an hour or so. I heard the ‘sarians mentioning that that’s when they’d be able to leave.”

“Then we have more than enough time.”

I jumped off the box at the new voice, and turned to see…

A tall, thin ave anthro, possessing even more toys than Turgay. She had a black hooked beak, beady black eyes, and dusky gray feathers on her head. The feathers darkened to black as they reached her shoulders, then turned sharply to white slightly below her breasts. If she still had breasts, anyway—it was hard to tell.

Her only clothing was a small loincloth around her waist and a wrap around her chest. She wasn’t even wearing shoes, since her feet and hands were strong orange bird feet, tipped with wickedly sharp black talons.

Soaring Eagle, Animal King of the aves.

“Dame Alpha!” Turgay exclaimed. “You’re early!” He bowed a little awkwardly, which drew the attention of everyone else as well. The aves all bowed, the injured warhawks struggling to their feet in order to do so, but the Necessarians just glared, hands on their weapons.

“Honored Hunter,” the woman said smoothly, her voice lilting and musical, but with an iron underneath. Or was I just imagining the strength in her voice, since I knew how dangerous she was? “Thank you for your assistance in this matter. I will handle things from here.”

My orphan-mate swallowed. “Ah…” he glanced around at the trigger-happy troops. “I’m not sure I understand, Dame Alpha.”

The King fixed him with a very slow and deliberate gaze. “I have made a deal. There will be no problem.”

One of the ‘sarians, who I assumed to be the leader, stepped forward. “I didn’t hear anything about this. You’ll have to stay put while I call my CO.”

“There seems to have been a misunderstanding,” the ave replied after a moment. “My deal was not with Necessarius.”

Then all the soldiers fell to the ground, like puppets with their strings cut.

They had all been distracted by the arrival of Soaring Eagle, and had stopped paying attention to the crowd.

That was a mistake.

The supposedly innocent civilian gawkers swept forward with military efficiency, quickly disabling the few remaining ‘sarians with poison fangs and claws. They were probably just paralyzing them, but I still felt sick watching. I knew they weren’t dead, but they certainly looked that way.

I would have tried to intervene, but I felt Turgay’s claws on my shoulder, holding me back. I didn’t need much more incentive than that to stay out of it; I wasn’t really all that good of a fighter. I’d never be able to take everyone.

Adam seemed to believe otherwise, as he tried to rise and grab a nearby gun, but instead started swearing and wincing as his bandages darkened with blood. He had pulled his wounds.

Lily, for her part, was off in a corner retching. At least I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with violence.

There was no way out of this. The King had won.

“And what about these two?” one of the assailants asked as she walked up, indicating Adam and myself.

“Leave them be,” Soaring Eagle said. Then she met my gaze with those black eyes of hers. “But if they try to make trouble, kill them.”

I ground my teeth in frustration. “Is this really the time to be playing this kind of game? There are more important things to worry about. Like, I don’t know, the super-powered murderer running around the city?”

Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “If I wanted advice, I wouldn’t get it from one of your kind.”

I blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Leave the adults to their work, whore.”

It took me a second to figure out what she had said. I guess…I guess I hadn’t really expected her to know who I was, or even anything about me. But once it clicked into place…

I screamed and threw a punch, intending to break her smug little beak. Thankfully, Turgay figured out what I was planning before I did, and tackled me to the ground. It was a good thing they had removed my armor when they had put me in the box; if I still had it, I would have done some real damage.

As it was, Turgay held me back well enough that Soaring Eagle simply looked down on me with disdain, not even bothering to have me shot.

I calmed down after a minute or so, but by that time the aves and their allies—except for Turgay—were already leaving, carting the toy box away in a small truck. We were left alone with a bunch of unconscious Necessarians, Adam and Lily, and the same pile of dead bodies from before.

“You all right?” my friend whispered into my ear as I stopped struggling.

I sighed and nodded, then relaxed a bit in his feathered arms. It was a strange feeling, especially since it made me remember the last time he had held me.

“I thought no one knew,” I said quietly after a moment.

“Sele has…ways of uncovering information. Considering the company she keeps, that’s hardly unexpected.”

“Speaking of which,” Adam said as he limped towards us, half supporting, half being supported by Lily. “Who were those guys? They didn’t look like aves.”

“I recognized the leader,” Turgay muttered a little bitterly. “Teuta Merimangë. An arach.”

Adam frowned. “Spider kemos?”

I felt my ave nod. “A Lolth, to be specific. Not the pleasant ones. Soaring Eagle has struck a deal with both them and the Minervas, getting information and support in exchange for some high-level toys that they’ve wanted for a while.”

“Like…what? Silk glands?”

“Well, they’ve already got those, though the toy box can improve them. No, they want multiple arms, multiple eyes—the real spider stuff.” He shrugged. “Part of my job as director was to coordinate research on side projects like that.”

“How are arms more spider-like than…” Adam shook his head. “Nevermind. Let’s just go, all right? Butler will want to know about this.”

“Give me a few more minutes,” I whispered, nestling deeper into Turgay’s warm embrace.

I doubted I’d see him again after this.

Behind the Scenes (scene 119)

I think this one came out pretty well, all things considered.