Monthly Archives: October 2013

Scene 128 – Culpa

CULPA

LING

Within the last few days, I had started to realize something unsettling about myself.

I am a murderer.

I’ve done things I’m not proud of before. Sometimes I was forced into them, usually not. One of the reasons I had gotten into anime in the first place was as an excuse to stay in the orphanage, to not have to deal with the mistakes I had made.

“Ling,” Akane said, elbowing me in the ribs. “Pay attention.”

“Sorry. Yesterday’s History class was a trap, right? The teacher tried to kill you?”

Derek managed a weak grin. “Yeah. The professor was a sleeper.” He shook his head. “Or one of those Blackguards. Or Lizzy herself, in a new body. I don’t know.”

“He sounded like he knew us pretty well,” Laura mused. “And he called me Highlander. I think it was the actual Composer.”

“Proof that it’s a body-jumper, then?” Adam asked. He was standing a few feet away, fingers drumming on one of Clarke’s lab stations. His nervousness was probably because he was feeling guilty over not being there to help.

The others all nodded at his assessment, but I shook my head. “Are you crazy? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Derek raised an eyebrow. “You seem pretty certain for someone who wasn’t there. Care to enlighten the rest of us?”

I sighed. It was so simple, how could they not see it? “In anime—” I swallowed my words as everyone stared daggers at me. I started again. “She’s a psychopath. MC said those bodies Derek found rotting in the sewer were killed by someone’s bare hands.”

“She got Zaphkiel,” Laura interjected. “He’d be strong enough to do that.”

I shook my head. They weren’t listening to me. “That’s not the point. The Hammer died the same way.”

Adam cocked his head. “The…Hammer?”

Ugh, right, he wasn’t a Dominite, he wouldn’t know. “Mjolnir. A very high-ranking Thor.”

Akane stared at me. “Wait, Mjolnir, the Hammer of Thor, the man who single-handedly stopped the Battle of Hathsin, is dead? Musashi’s shattered tomb, when did that happen?”

“The night we found the Composer’s lair,” Laura explained, a frown creasing her features as she began to follow my logic. “Him and an entire bar. But that’s just a coincidence. I hardly think it means anything. The Hammer had lots of enemies.”

I rubbed my forehead as though I could knead out my growing headache. “Law of conservation of detail. They wouldn’t have been killed in the exact same way if it wasn’t the same person.”

“Are you even listening to yourself? You sound like a conspiracy theorist.” Derek sighed. “C’mon, Ling, there is such a thing as a coincidence.”

“Humor me.”

He waved his hand and rolled his eyes. “Fine. But she still could have had Zaphkiel do it.”

“Doubtful,” Laura admitted a little grudgingly. “An archsaint is the kind of thing that attracts attention.”

“You don’t say,” Derek snarked. “I would have thought a six foot tall angel—who might be glowing, I should add—would be stealthy.”

Laura acted like he hadn’t spoken. She turned to me. “But I’m not sure I see your point.”

She killed those people. With her bare hands, when she apparently has swords and petrakinesis and who knows what else. She wanted to feel their blood on her hands.”

“Why would she?” Derek asked, with a single arched eyebrow. He clearly didn’t think my theory had much merit. “What purpose does it serve? Unless you’re confusing her with Elizabeth Bathory, I don’t see why anyone would do that.”

“She’s evil. She doesn’t need a purpose.”

Laura sighed again. “Ling…there is no such thing as evil.”

I didn’t bother arguing. This was not something you could argue about in Domina city. Here, killing wasn’t treated the same way as it was elsewhere. Here, it was a lot easier for people to empathize with serial killers and all other manner of nasties. Harder to just label them as evil and move on.

I understood that the outside world called Domina the ‘City of Murder,’ and with good reason. Every single person in the city has seen friends and family die. Every single person has killed something—maybe not another human being, but definitely something that can kill them back.

I know that. I’ve accepted that. Love and shadows, my first kill was when I was seven, and me and a few other orphans were sent to kill a wild boar for dinner.

But knowing I was a murderer was something else altogether.

The screamers were people. People suffering from a disease, which might be curable. Loga’ha’shanar proved that. Why didn’t I think of it then?

“Ling, stop daydreaming!”

I blinked to find Laura’s angry face inches from my own.

I shook my head. “Sorry, what?”

“I was just saying how there’s no such thing as a person who is pure evil.”

I gave Derek a wry look. “And what do you have to say about that?”

He shrugged. “Everyone has a little good in them. That doesn’t mean you should go around giving rapists and murderers hugs. But the point is that people have better motivations than because they’re evil.”

I sighed and leaned back on Clarke’s lab stool. Laura pulled back as well, straightening up and stepping backwards to Derek. “I don’t think you understand. It’s like…” I frowned, searching for the words. “You know how after a tough fight, you get a rush of endorphins from the kill? Imagine…being addicted to that.”

Derek met my gaze levelly. “You mean serial killers are like chem-heads, willing to do anything for their next fix?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly right.”

He rolled his eyes. “That’s the plot of Paranoia Agent!

I blinked. “Wait, no—”

“Oh, I remember that one now,” Akane perked up. “And didn’t I see it on your shelf?”

I blushed furiously, wishing I could disappear. I hadn’t meant to do that, it had just come out.

“It-it doesn’t matter,” I stuttered awkwardly. “You understand the point—”

“That you watch too much anime?” Derek grinned.

“No, I—”

“It doesn’t really matter how much she watches,” Laura put in. “Just that she keeps trying to find life lessons in them.”

I ground my teeth together, and stood up from the stool. “I don’t appreciate being mocked.” I might not be as bad as Akane, but nobody likes being treated like a little kid.

Derek, at least, looked contrite. “Hey now, we’re not mocking you—”

I stomped my foot on the concrete floor, barely noticing that it made the whole room shake. “Velvet hell, you’re not! I’ve been dealing with this crap my entire life, I think I know—”

“Ling,” Laura said soothingly, her hands outstretched to placate me. “Calm down.”

I narrowed my eyes. I wasn’t joking when I said I had taken abuse forever. Every time I tried to compare anime to real life, I got that…that look. The ‘Is she serious? She can’t be serious’ look. And eventually it would evolve into the ‘She’s doing it again, she needs to shut up‘ look.

The Paladins were no different.

Dress them up as pretty as you like, give them fancy toys and flowery titles, but human beings are still human. The kind of species that can make a city where murder is a fact of daily life.

I should—

Wiry warm arms, wrapped in soft silk, hugged me from behind.

And it was gone. Like someone had flipped a switch. The rage was…

No, not gone. But definitely quieted. Sleeping, for the moment, rocked gently to unconsciousness by the kind embrace.

“I’m not good at talking,” Akane whispered in my ear from behind. She squeezed me tighter. “So this is all I can do. Now look around you.”

I looked. I saw Laura, her expression colder than ice. I saw Derek, crying, just a little, but still only half a step away from a combat stance. Then Adam—

The bastard had his gun out! Just the pistol, and it wasn’t pointed at me, but the watchful look in his eyes told me exactly what he was prepared to do. The rage boiled over again—

“Ling,” Akane said firmly. “Look down.”

And I did, finally realizing what had everyone so worked up.

The concrete in a circle around my feet was roiling, dipping and peaking like the sea at storm.

As soon as I realized what I was doing, it quickly slowed and then stopped, leaving a good round chunk of the lab floor frozen into a non-uniform shape.

I realized my reservoir was nearly empty, but I was well aware that I could have done a lot of damage with what was left. As I took a few long, deep breaths, it started to fill again, and the process calmed me somewhat.

I patted Akane’s arm. “Thank you.” She withdrew slowly. I took another deep breath. “I just…” I couldn’t lie, not with Laura listening. But I didn’t want them to know about my past. Things that had been done to me, things I’d done…

Things I’d been.

“I’ve been weighed down with guilt over the screamers,” I said finally, going for a half-truth. “It just finally made me snap.”

“That’s understandable,” Laura agreed with a sad smile. Without looking away from me, she reached over and squeezed Derek’s shoulder. “Isn’t that right?”

He looked at her briefly—probably confused at her sudden contact—before turning to me and saying a little woodenly “Yeah, exactly.” Then he seemed to regain his composure. “I’d save every single one of them if I could. But that’s just not possible. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Adam chuckled. “I figured you more for a Kirk.”

The blond man raised an eyebrow. “Who?”

“Captain James Tiberius Kirk? You can’t tell me you don’t know—” He looked at all of us, horror growing on his face. “Dear God. None of you?” He shook his head. “This crazy city…”

Derek snorted. “This from the man who hasn’t seen Vampire Carmilla Saizou.”

“I’ve only been in this city for a month, and I’ve been a tad busy.”

“You’ve found time to bang Lily,” Laura noted. She was still looking at me, though. Why?

“Yeah, well I find spending time with her more important than watching a crappy anime.”

Derek was indignant. “It’s not crappy!”

“Yes it is,” Laura insisted with a roll of her eyes. “That’s what makes it good.”

I sighed. Weren’t we supposed to be having a strategy meeting?

Behind the Scenes (scene 128)

This did not go anywhere near where I intended.

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Scene 127 – Novum Inferna

NOVEM INFERNA

SEENA

Bileth made a mistake. He assumed that, as a sibriex, my brother would have a powerful set of toys. He abandoned me after throwing me against a wall, going after the demon he assumed to be a greater threat.

I didn’t have any more actual combat experience than my idiot brother, but I did have some training under my belt. If I could take the Noble by surprise, I might have a shot. But my head was still ringing from when I got thrown into a wall, and I was having trouble seeing straight.

Which way had Bileth gone? Left? No…right. Nine Hells, I couldn’t—

A scream pierced through the fog in my mind like a knife.

It was louder than I had ever heard before, and with a wet gurgle, like the screamer had blood in his throat., but I still recognized it.

My brother was in trouble.

I’m not much of a fighter, but I’ll be damned if I let the last family I had left die at the hands of some brainwashed vampire.

Simon wasn’t far; just a few yards away, pinned to the floor by Bileth. The screaming stopped suddenly, and my brother went limp a moment later—probably passed out from the pain. Bileth hesitated, poised to stab him with a wrist spike. Was he having second thoughts?

I couldn’t risk it. Without making a sound, I tackled the warlord at a dead run, yanking him off the demon and rolling to a stop a few feet away.

Bileth snarled and elbowed me in the gut; it felt like getting hit by a freight train. I doubled over, trying to keep the contents of my stomach down, and he turned to take advantage of my weakness with those spikes of his.

Once again, Zepar managed to step in. Using his ridiculously strong tail, he grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the way, while at the same time backhanding the blue-skinned warlord in the face.

Our master of poisons was knocked off balance by the strike; Zepar had always been more physically powerful than him. But if he managed to get a hit in, his poisons would make short work of my ally.

I reacted as quickly as possible, but the warlords were still faster. While I was just starting another tackle, they were already ten feet away, with Zepar dodging Bileth’s lightning strikes one after another.

Fine, I could see I wouldn’t be much help there. Besides, there was someone else who could better benefit from my talents.

I ran over to my brother, lying on the floor in a puddle of his own blood. My heart was already hammering like a drum, as though it might break out of my chest at any second, and seeing him hurt—actually seeing it, rather than just understanding peripherally that he was in danger—only made it worse. A small whimper escaped my lips.

But before I could kneel down and check his pulse, I got hit in the face by a truck.

That’s what it felt like, anyway. Like when Bileth had thrown me into the wall earlier. There was enough force behind the blow to rattle my brain, and I tasted blood in my mouth—though whether I had bitten my tongue, lost a few teeth, or just swallowed some blood from the seething mass of pain that used to be my nose, I had no idea. All three, probably.

But where had it come from? Bileth and Zepar were still behind me, fighting, which left only Abigor. But where was he? I hadn’t seen him hit me, and I still didn’t see him anywhere. He was fast, but he wasn’t that fast.

I saw something…on the floor. Dust, suddenly moving out of the way, like…

Like invisible footsteps?

Another strike, this time to my gut. I doubled over, spewing out blood, and…

And there it was.

I could see, through bleary tear-stained eyes, my blood clinging to something invisible, to all appearances just hanging in the air.

That wasn’t something the toy maker could do.

Abigor was a Blackguard. A minion of the Composer.

A minion with a power.

The Noble suddenly faded back into the visual spectrum, fluttering hazily like a mirage working in reverse. There was a grim smile on his face—he knew I had figured it out, and wanted to show me his new trick.

“How do you like it?” he asked, sounding genuinely interested in my answer. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to figure it out on your own, but I wanted to show you my new trick.”

I blinked. Okay. He underestimated me. I was supposed to use that to my advantage and stuff, but mostly I was just insulted. I mean, how stupid did he think I was?

Stupid enough, apparently. He didn’t even bother turning invisible again before performing a massive round house kick to the side of my head, knocking me off my feet and sending me sprawling to the ground, my brain rattling too much for me to see straight.

Whether he was underestimating me or not really didn’t matter. He was still about a thousand times stronger and faster than me, and maybe a million more times more experienced at killing.

I didn’t have a chance here. I couldn’t kill Abigor if he stood still and let me. But Simon was in trouble. My little brother was dead or dying. I had to get up. But all I could taste was blood, and my head was ringing like a bell.

Distantly, as though from another room, I heard footfalls, coming towards me from behind. Abigor, then, ready to finish me off. I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything past the splitting pain in my skull, though I suppose it wouldn’t matter in a moment.

Something landed in front of me.

I blinked, trying to clear my blurry vision. Had…Abigor stepped in front of me? To try to taunt me one last time, or something?

But no, it wasn’t a leg. It was small, and thin, and white. Lying in a pool of dark liquid, with something clear dripping from the tip…

It was one of Bileth’s wrist-spikes.

In an instant, adrenaline flowed through my veins like fire. My vision cleared, or at least became somewhat less blurred, and I was able to confirm that it was one of the blue Noble’s spikes, broken off and lying in a small pool of blood. Bileth himself was nowhere to be found, for which I was grateful.

I literally could not hear a single thing other than my jackhammering heart, beating so loud I felt like I was sitting inside a drum. I was terrified it would pop at any second, and this miracle would turn out to be for naught.

So I didn’t hesitate.

I didn’t consider the possibility that the horrendously powerful poison in the spike might get into one of my many cuts and kill me in under a second.

I didn’t consider the possibility that the poison might become inert and non-lethal when left in the open air for too long.

I didn’t consider the possibility that Abigor the Bellows might have taken the precaution to immunize himself to his ally’s poisons.

And most of all, I didn’t consider that a Noble of the Mals could kill me before I took a single step in his direction.

That’s what adrenaline is for, really. It’s for suppressing your higher brain functions, because those functions slow you down and get you killed in a combat situation. No sane person would ever do what I was doing now, not if they had time to stop and consider everything.

But that is what adrenaline is for.

Because the poison didn’t get into one of my cuts and kill me.

Because the poison wasn’t inert.

Because Abigor had not immunized himself.

And most of all, because he was so arrogant that he didn’t try to stop me until it was far, far too late.

The white bone spike pierced the warlord’s midnight flesh with difficulty, like working with hard leather. I pushed as hard as I could, the ragged broken end nearly slicing open my own hand, in an effort to spear my renegade master’s dark heart.

I missed the heart by almost six inches. Didn’t hit a single vital organ.

But Bileth’s poisons were ever so effective.

The vampire who had first recruited me into the Mals gurgled, a surprised look on his face, and reached towards me with one hand.

His claws reached my face. He even managed to draw three long, shallow scratches in my cheek that bled lightly.

Blood dripped from his mouth.

Abigor the Bellows, first nightstalker recruited by the Noble Baal the Executioner, General of the Black Arm of Maladomini, and later one of the three Nobles who succeeded the Executioner, slid to the ground like a sack of flour. I tried to hold him up, but he was too heavy, and he slipped from my grasp to thud heavily on the floor.

After a second of just staring, I realized he wasn’t breathing. I checked his pulse hesitantly. There wasn’t one.

I barely managed to keep from puking on the corpse.

I missed by about four feet, and for the next few minutes didn’t care about anything except emptying my stomach of anything and everything.

My heart started to slow as the last dregs of vomit burned my throat. I took deep, shuddering breaths that burned my mouth and nose, too shocked to even be grateful for my survival.

“Ah…Lady Lancaster?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of the soft voice from behind me. I whipped around, Bileth’s broken spike still clutched in my fist, ready to fight.

But it was just Zepar, looking absolutely terrified. Terrified of…me? No, he was probably just freaking out that two of his closest friends turned out to be renegades. But still, I managed to unclamp my hand and let the spike clatter to the floor, hoping it would make him a little bit more relaxed.

“Sorry,” he apologized hurriedly. “It’s just…are you all right?”

This was our Noble now. The sole warlord of the Mals. When there were three of them, they had each been able to fill certain roles. Abigor had been the muscle, Bileth the poison, and Zepar the stealth. But now…now the assassins would have to follow this cringing, dusk-skinned vampire into the future.

We were dead.

“I’m fine,” I lied, as I wobbled to my feet. “Just need a second.”

“I just thought…you might want to know…your brother is calling for you.”

“He’s wha—Simon!”

I rushed over to my brother’s side immediately, nearly tripping and breaking my neck in his blood. He was alive, I could hear him breathing…but for how long?

There was a bandage, already soaked through with blood, wrapped a bit crudely around his neck. Zepar’s work, no doubt. I started fussing with it, trying to tighten it up and move it to a more efficient position.

“Hey sis,” my brother muttered, without opening his eyes. “The guy with the tail killed the other two?”

I opened my mouth to correct him…then thought better of it. “Yes.”

“And…he hasn’t turned on us yet?”

I felt something hard grip my gut. Of course, it was always possible he would decide to finish us off now…he couldn’t be one of the Composer’s men, but there were still good reasons to kill witnesses. “I…yes. He hasn’t turned on us.”

“Good.” He let out a sigh. “I think I’m just going to lay here, okay?”

“Okay,” I said with a smile, patting him on a patch of his mottled purple skin that wasn’t completely wet with blood. “That’s fine. We’ll get you patched up soon enough.”

A phone rang.

Five simple beeps, then a pause, then five more beeps.

Turning, I saw Zepar blinking down at his phone’s small screen in confusion. “It’s…MC.” He looked at us. “Should…should I answer it?”

“No, I’m sure it will answer itself,” Simon managed to snark, albeit with a bit of a bloody gurgle. I put some more pressure on him with my hand, to remind him not to try and talk in his state.

My bloodied Noble brought the phone to his ear hesitantly, as though afraid it would bite him. “Hello?”

Turns out it was on speaker; the vampire winced and held the phone out in front of him as MC’s casual tones blared out.

“Zepar? That you? I can’t get a hold of Abigor or Bileth.”

“They’re…” his eyes twitched to the corpses of his fellow warlords. “…indisposed. What’s wrong?”

“Do you any teams near AU you can use for cleanup duty? I need someone there five minutes ago, and there are no ‘sarians or hellions in the area.”

Zepar looked like he was about to say something stupid, like ‘Then why didn’t you call five minutes ago?’ but thought better of it. “Yeah, a couple. What’s the issue?”

“The Composer converted an entire classroom to sleepers, and they’re running around killing people. Minimal deaths at the moment, but we need this contained now. We’ll pay double your standard rate.”

“Text me the address. I’ll send the order immediately.”

“Thanks, bye.” The connection cut off with a click.

My warlord closed his phone with a snap, and sighed.

“I’ll have medics up for your brother in a moment,” he promised, as he turned to leave. “I have to take care of this first.”

“Wait,” I called after him. “What about Abigor’s plan to assassinate the retinue?”

The vampire smiled thinly. “It was my plan, Lady Lancaster.” Before I could find words to answer, he shook his head. “But I will inform the men it is canceled. We have far more important things to worry about right now.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 127)

Plots and plots and plots.

Scene 126 – Dolus

DOLUS

DEREK

I stepped into History class in a daze, only half awake. Classmates—especially the girls—greeted me, asked how I was doing, and if I needed a sympathetic shoulder. Especially the girls. They were not subtle about how they planned to ‘help.’

How had I not noticed this for so long?

Adam and Akane weren’t here with me. They claimed they were following up on a lead, but I had overheard Laura on the phone. She had told both of them—and Ling—to stay away from me for a while, and ordered Akane to keep an eye on Adam.

Lizzy, of course, was nowhere to be found, but I barely registered her absence. I just slid into my seat, not really sure what I was doing.

What was the point? My brain had been wrapped around a pretty girl’s little finger for eight years or so. Silver and gold, I had no way of knowing what parts of my personality were real, and which were just programmed in.

“Scoot over,” a firm voice instructed. “I’m sitting next to you.”

I blinked out of my fugue and was astonished to find Laura standing next to me.

“Don’t you have class?” I managed dumbly.

She rolled her eyes and tried to slide into my seat (which was the last one on the end), forcing me to scoot over or be sat on. “Nothing gets past you, does it?” She started emptying her bookbag, pulling out a laptop and logging onto the local wifi.

After it became clear she wasn’t going to say anything else, I broke the silence. “This is the part where you explain what you’re doing here.”

She grinned, not looking away from her screen. “I was worried you didn’t have any snark left in you.”

“That wasn’t snark. I was just asking a question.”

“It was snark.”

I rubbed my forehead, not in the mood for witty banter. “Just answer the question, please.”

“Akane and Adam are busy,” she lied without blinking. Or maybe it was technically true; I imagine whatever random task she had set them on was keeping them occupied. They wouldn’t just be sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. “I came to make sure you didn’t bang the first girl who made eyes at you.”

I felt myself blushing furiously, but did my level best to ignore it. “I’m not that bad.” I thought for a moment. “She would have at least have to buy me dinner first.”

Now she did turn to face me, grinning from ear to ear. I found myself suddenly aware of the fact that a beautiful woman was sitting inches away from me. Had she always been this pretty?

Finally. Real sarcasm. In that case, you will be happy to hear that Doctor Laura expects you to make a full recovery.”

The smile I had felt growing on my face faded. “Laura,” I began seriously. “About Lizzy—”

No,” she put her finger on my lips, and suddenly my blush was back. “Not today. We’ll deal with it eventually, but for today, she’s deader than Disco.”

“Disco has come back three times in the past thirty years. Pick a different analogy, please.”

“Deader than Butler/Clarke slash fiction?”

“Now you’re just doing it on purpose—wait, what?

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”

Horrific images rose unbidden in my mind, making me shiver. “Don’t people only write those things for when their favorite anime characters don’t hook up at the end?”

The girl barked out a laugh. “They do it for everyone and everything, if you have half a mind to look.” She patted me on the head, like you would a child. “It’s cute that you don’t know that.”

“But…but…”

“But Butler’s condition makes it impossible? Like that stops anyone.”

“I was going to say Clarke is married. But how is Butler’s whole…thing relevant?”

She cackled. Actually cackled. At least one of us was having fun. “If you have to ask…”

The bell rang before I could retort, which I suppose I should have been grateful for. The old cane walked in, his floppy ears twitching a little, and plopped a laptop on his desk.

“This guy is usually pretty boring,” I whispered to Laura. “And he refuses to touch current events. But he knows what he’s talking about. Just have to fight off sleep long enough to learn.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Like Professor Binns?”

“Ugh, no, not that bad. Just…pay attention, okay?”

I’m not the one I’m worried about. Haven’t you skipped this class half a dozen times for…” she trailed off, realizing she had been about to bring up things she had deemed best left undisturbed.

The awkwardness didn’t last long.

“Mister Huntsman!” the professor called in an attention-grabbing voice. “What, exactly are you talking about that is more interesting than my class?”

Normally, I would have been able to keep my mouth shut, apologize, and we could have all moved on. But I was tired, emotionally and physically, so it just slipped out.

“Anything,” I said.

The entire class rippled with laughter, and the cane turned red as a beet with rage.

“Mister Huntsman,” he said very slowly after the laughter subsided, drawing out both words as much as possible. Something about the way he spoke—the hiss-like sound of the s’s—made me realize that I might be in serious trouble.

Adrenaline burned away my exhaustion, and I wryly noted that if that had happened five minutes ago, I wouldn’t be in this mess.

“I would recommend you apologize, Mister Huntsman,” the cane continued, his voice dangerously close to a growl. “We wouldn’t want something to happen to you or the Highlander.”

I do not react to threats well, a fact enemies have taken advantage of more than once. But when I opened my mouth to snap back a challenge, Laura grabbed my arm with such a strong grip that her fingernails drew blood.

“Highlander,” she whispered, her voice betraying the fear she refused to show on her face. “Highlander.”

What was she talking—

Oh. Highlander.

How had the cane known that nickname?

I stood and turned my attention back to the creature pretending to be my History professor. “Elizabeth.”

It grinned. “Something like that.”

Laura pulled out her gun as swiftly as possible, but fumbled it and almost dropped it.

The cane just grinned even wider, opened its mouth, and spoke. I didn’t understand the words, but they made my heart skip a beat nonetheless.

Jeren’n sangali’nar Derek Huntsman. Jeren’n sangali’nar Laura Medina.”

And the classroom exploded.

What seemed like half of my classmates started screaming in pure, animal rage and rushing towards us, leaping up the stadium seats and over those horrified students who weren’t driven insane.

Sleepers. Silver and gold, they got half the goddamned class.

The nearest one was a slender baseline girl with pink hair, who had decided to sit only a few seats away from me. She snarled, leaped out of her chair, and jumped at me.

Terror gripped my heart, and the adrenaline just made it worse. Time seemed to slow, and I was able to make out every detail in under a second. Her eyes, burning with rage. Her wide open mouth, with drool-flecked teeth bared. Her outstretched arms, ready to tear at my eyes or other sensitive parts.

My mind was frozen, paralyzed by fear.

But my body was not.

I couldn’t get my feet free of the desk, but thankfully I’m dangerous enough without them. I grabbed her wrists while she was still in midair and flung her to the right, towards the front of the classroom and right into the face of another of the sleepers.

Behind me, a boy shrieked in alarm as his friend whaled on him with a rifle. I guess that was some good news. Not the pistol-whipping, I mean. Obviously, this batch of sleepers was too stupid to use guns.

Next to me, I heard Laura curse and drop her Occisor again. And of course, mine was at home.

Okay, maybe we weren’t smart enough to use guns either.

Well, I had my reasons for avoiding firearms, and I wasn’t going to compromise my principles for something silly like my impending death. Besides, I had other options. By now I had my feet free. I stood on the little single-person desk, well aware of how precarious my position was.

The sleepers figured it out too, proving that they weren’t completely braindead. A kemo to my left—who had been sitting next to the girl I threw earlier—grabbed my ankle to pull my feet out from under me.

I didn’t feel like being torn apart by an angry horde at the moment, so I kicked him in the face with my free foot. He snarled and released my ankle to try and fend off the blow, so I used the opportunity to jump onto his chest, pinning him to the floor. His head struck the hard tile, knocking him out cold.

One down. Fourteen to go.

I heard the thing pretending to be my professor make a yipping laugh, like a hyena, that pierced through all the roars of his slaves.

Right. Fifteen to go.

At least I was in a better position. Arms scrambled to circle around my throat, but I was in a fighting stance now, and had more than enough leverage to grab the assailing limbs and fling my attacker bodily over my head and into the stadium seats in front of me.

But there were still more. I could handle them all by myself, but…

I spun around as a pistol barked—once, twice. Laura was getting dragged away from me by the mob, and trying to wrestle her gun away from a demon with long black horns. Trying and failing. She had missed with both shots.

I didn’t hesitate. I immediately grabbed the two nearest sleepers and smashed their skulls together. Works just as well as in the movies. Well, not exactly, but they went down, and that was what was important.

The rest were surprised enough by my sudden attack that I was able to just toss them aside like rag dolls, and in an instant, I was at Laura’s side.

“We need to get out of here,” she hissed.

I punched the closest sleeper square between the eyes, and he went down like a sack of bricks. “An astute, observation, my dear.” Another punch, another downed opponent.

“We don’t have time to chat. If we don’t run—”

I chucked a sleeper as far as I could aiming for the cane in the lecture pit. He dodged, but at least my human missile crashed into his laptop. It looked expensive.

“—If we don’t run, we’re not getting out of this.”

“Nonsense,” I scoffed. “I can handle a dozen or so brain dead zombies.”

I don’t make it obvious, but the truth is, I am extremely religious. There is a god. Or gods, or some grand will of the universe.

People laugh, but I know it for a fact. How?

Because when I say stuff like ‘I can handle a dozen or so brain dead zombies,’ one of the zombies in question pulls out a machine gun.

I tackled Laura to the ground a split second before a screaming hail of bullets tore apart the space we had been standing. I got a few deep scratches from the edges of the chairs, but it was better than the alternative.

But how had the sleepers gotten so smart, so fast? Unless they were just faking earlier…

“Derek,” Laura whispered into my ear. “We have to go now.”

She was right, of course. In my extremely humble opinion, I could handle fifteen armed opponents by myself. But not while protecting her. Despite all her strategic talents, she wasn’t a fighter.

Still, I shook my head. “I’m not leaving everyone else.”

“Silver and gold, think things through for once—behind you!”

I turned to see that another sleeper—the one with the rifle from earlier—had figured out we were still alive. He leveled the big, blocky weapon in our direction and fired, his face a mirror of the vague, directionless rage all the other sleepers shared.

Laura’s Occisor barked once, twice, and the rifle went wild, stitching a line in the walls and ceiling as the owner’s death throes threw it completely off target. A small part of my brain noted that it was still closer to the mark than Laura.

Because she wasn’t the one who had shot the sleeper twice in the head.

I wouldn’t use a gun to save my life. To save Laura’s was something else altogether.

I turned back to see the slender Spanish girl was still on her back, struggling against a…Dagonite? Seriously, a Dagonite? Why hadn’t I noticed him before?

I didn’t have time to think. He had a knife, and Laura wasn’t that strong, even with the power package. I shot him once in the forehead, instinctively preserving my limited ammunition. The poor hypnotized razor was covered in thick scales, but it wasn’t enough to deflect a 6.0 caliber bullet at close range.

Laura threw the corpse off hurriedly, while I got another nearby sleeper in the knee. “Now, Derek. No time to debate.” She scrambled to get up, eyes on the nearest door, but I grabbed her shoulder.

“There are fifteen innocent souls in this room,” I said firmly, intentionally not counting the sleepers. If we found a way to save them, that was great. But we had to assume they were lost.

Laura fixed me with that steel-chilling stare of hers. “I don’t have time to put this lightly: If we stay to help these people, we will die. And we are too important to die.”

I hate this part.

I haven’t had to deal with it too much. Most of my jobs are simple enough—go here, find the monster, kill it or capture it. No worries about moral concerns along the way.

But sometimes…

Sometimes, this happened.

Sometimes I had to make choices that made me sick to my stomach. The difference between the right choice and the correct choice…

When I was younger, I had thought I could wrestle any problem into submission. Ironically, that attitude eventually got me kicked off the wrestling team, and I was forced to confront the fact that not everyone can win, every time. Sometimes, someone has to die so that others may live.

I had learned that lesson long ago. I didn’t like it, but I understood it. If a doctor has a choice between spending a billion dollars on a single organ transplant, or using that money to buy new machines and fund research for the hospital, he had to go with the latter option. One life for many is not a choice, it is an obligation.

It was the reason I had let Laura kill Adonides. It was a hard lesson, but we’d do it. As Butler said, it was necessary.

But I had never had to choose between saving myself and saving others. That…that was a new feeling.

Morally, the answer was obvious. If you have a choice between yourself and others, you always choose the others. You must always assume that you are the least important person in the room. It’s just the only way to avert selfish human nature.

But what if you are the most important person in the room?

What if by saving yourself now, you can save countless others later?

That answer was also obvious.

But I didn’t think I had it in me.

“Derek,” Laura hissed again. Something in her voice made me look down at her.

Her eyes were wet with unshed tears.

Of course. I wasn’t the only one who hated this.

“We have to go,” she whispered as gently as she could.

I came to a decision.

I still don’t think I could ever sacrifice others to save myself, even when it’s the right thing to do.

But I could do it to save my friends. To save Laura.

See? Selfish after all.

It was just a stupid trick, making my brain think I was doing the right thing instead of the necessary thing, but it worked. My body started moving.

I dragged Laura away from the seats and threw her over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry, heading for the nearest door. It was closed and likely barred from the other side, so I didn’t slow down. I slammed into it at a full run, leading with my shoulder that didn’t currently have a girl on it.

I heard two cracks—one from the door, and one from my shoulder—but I didn’t have time to slow down. All I knew was that we were free, and there were startled faces outside the classroom.

Were they sleepers? Students? Alien invaders from the planet Irken? I had no idea. I just ran, trying to ignore what may have been a broken shoulder, and thankful the classroom was on the first floor.

I didn’t look back. Not for one second.

I didn’t need to see the people I had left at the tender mercies of the Composer and her minions.

But I could imagine it well enough.

Behind the Scenes (scene 126)

The activation phrase is in a language I made up, so don’t bother trying to translate it.

Scene 125 – Alta Nocte

ALTA NOCTE

SIMON

I would like to note that when we left the three passer assassins behind, I thought we knew what we were doing. I followed Seena as she ran through the halls, triggering traps left and right with a ball on a string so that they were expended before we reached them.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan. Find the bad guys, make them stop. Sure, the question of who exactly the bad guy was was getting a little wiggly, but still. It would be simple enough to figure out once we got them all in a room together.

When we reached the penthouse level—after running up nearly thirty flights of stairs, I might add—at first I thought our problems were solved. There were three vampires in the wide room, and they seemed to be talking amicably.

Emphasis on seemed, of course.

Besides the black-skinned Abigor, there were also two vampires, one with dark blue skin and the other deeply tanned. These, presumably, would be Bileth and Zepar, the other two warlords of the Mals.

I started to step forward, to announce our presence and maybe finally get to the bottom of everything, but Seena barred my way with an outstretched arm.

That’s when the generals exploded into motion.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not a fighter. The biggest fight I ever got in was when Seena and I killed a nest of rats—and after that little debacle, our patron knew better than to make us do something like that again.

I had certainly never seen warlords fight.

The amount of money a warlord spends on his body is truly ridiculous. The toy maker isn’t perfect; you start getting diminishing returns after a while, and side effects do crop up when you pile a hundred toys on top of each other. Eventually, you’re spending thousands of dollars every month just to keep a few steps ahead of the cancer and worse.

But seeing this, seeing these three men doing battle…

For the first time in my life, I wanted to be a warlord.

Abigor’s arm was suddenly a horizontal blur, and the air shrieked with the speed of his strike. The dark-skinned warlord I assumed to be Zepar was gone, in less time than it took to blink. At first I thought he had been smacked away, but on closer inspection he was on the opposite side of the room, crouched low in a fighting stance. He had dodged.

But then the blue-skinned Bileth was next to him, a white spike of bone jutting out from his wrist. In the brief moment I saw it, it was clear that it was a weapon that had been concealed in his wrist. An assassin’s blade, hidden in the Noble’s own body. It was probably poisoned as well.

He stabbed at Zepar with all the speed he could manage, but a forked tail I hadn’t noticed before wrapped around his arm and pulled off his aim. Then Zepar kicked his brother warlord in the chest, releasing his arm and using the tail to drag himself backwards, increasing the distance between them even more.

I expected Abigor to leap at the opportunity to finish off one or both of them while they were distracted, but he seemed to notice us out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly, I was on my back, the midnight warlord on top of me with his hands around my throat.

“I want you to understand,” the vampire said calmly, in a way that struck me as extremely odd considering the situation. “That this is not about you. It is about Mister Huntsman.”

Seena tried to club her boss in the back of the head with something large that I couldn’t identify. A chair, maybe? But Bileth showed up out of nowhere and threw her into the penthouse, out of my field of vision.

I found it a little difficult to care. My vision was swimming, and spots dancing before my eyes. I scratched at Abigor’s back with my fingernails, but I might as well have been politely asking him to stop for all the good it did.

“You see, Lady Greene does not like Mister Huntsman,” he continued. I realized he could have killed me at any time, but wanted me to hear this first. “But she cannot use her directors—those with powers—on him; he is too strong.”

I found myself wishing he would just skip to the killing. He had this sort of…screech to his voice that you didn’t notice right away, but was getting really annoying. As everything faded, that screech was the only thing that stayed strong.

“So she—”

Suddenly, the hands around my throat were gone, and I was gasping in great gulps of air.

I coughed, trying in vain to clear the swelling in my throat, and looked up to see Zepar, apparently uninjured, pinning Abigor to the wall.

Wait, if he wasn’t hurt, couldn’t he have saved me earlier? The dick was probably waiting for the most dramatic moment. Well, he was on our side for the moment, so I guess I had to forgive him. But we’d be having words later.

I cast my gaze around looking for my sister, but I couldn’t see much, since my night goggles had been knocked loose in the scuffle. There was a dim glow filtering in from somewhere, painting everything in faint silver dust, but it wasn’t enough to identify more than vague shapes.

Still, I had to move. Zepar seemed to have Abigor under control, judging by the grunts coming from that direction.

I dove deeper into the room, away from the writhing bodies in the entrance and listened intently for any signs of Seena or Bileth. I didn’t hear anything, which was something I really should have expected. They were assassins, after all. Hardly known for loud, boisterous fights.

But then I saw something. To my left, behind a round pillar. Just a flickering shadow. But then…

Then the shadow rushed forward like lightning, and I found myself on my back for the second time in as many minutes.

Normally, I thought, remembering the last time I’d seen Yolanda, I’d enjoy this more.

At least Bileth didn’t feel the need to rant at me. He just hissed, baring overlarge fangs dripping with slime, and bit down on my neck.

I howled with pain as his vice-like jaw clamped around my throat. Even the adrenaline in my system couldn’t mask the horrific pain of his teeth sliding through skin and muscle, grinding against bone.

And there was something else too, at the edge of my awareness. A slow burning sensation, spreading from the wound to the rest of my body, setting my nerves on fire in it’s wake.

Poison. Poison I recognized, actually. A nerve stimulant called ghoul rot. The Avernans had developed it, then sold it to Doresain, king of the ghouls.

Ghouls liked their prey to die screaming.

It wasn’t fatal, but it might as well have been. I was so busy screeching like a banshee, loud enough to make my vocal cords bleed, that I couldn’t defend myself other than by thrashing wildly.

My last thought, as Bileth nar-Baatezu, Noble of Maladomini, raised his wrist-spike to skewer me in the heart, managed to break through the pain. My last act, my dying moment, was to expend all the energy I had left, force myself to ignore the pain for one moment, stop screaming, and speak six words:

“Wouldn’t a knife have been easier?”

I only had the briefest moment to see a look of utter confusion on the vampire’s face before I passed out.

It was a pity. I was interested in his answer.

Behind the Scenes (scene 125)

I’m a little worried about how the pacing is going here, but I think it’s coming out alright.