I woke up laying on my back with a throbbing pain in my—
Actually, there was no pain. At all.
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?
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.