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.