Monthly Archives: November 2013

Scene 133 – Clades

CLADES

ELIZABETH

Screaming.

Not enough screaming. That was the problem.

It had been bugging me the entire fight, like…well, like sampling a new food and you can’t quite make out what’s missing. Is it garlic? Or perhaps salt? Or maybe even some hot peppers?

Screaming was what was missing from this dish.

My blade hesitated over Medina’s throat. I wanted to kill her—oh, how I longed to kill her—but this wasn’t as satisfying as it could be. Like my sister always told me: Savor your food.

Also, it was possible the Nine still needed her for their stupid plan. They might get mad if I killed her. I probably should have paid more attention when Lakerine was ranting at me. I knew they needed Huntsman—something about symbols and rallying the survivors and whatever—but the rest were less clear.

I tossed Medina at Akiyama, who had finally managed to grow the balls she needed to attack me, and opened up my illusion interface while they were distracted trying to untangle themselves.

The interface was basically a computer that only I could use, a cybernetic implant that put the information directly onto my eyeballs. To me, it looked like screens were floating in midair, but no one else saw anything. I mostly just used it to cheat on tests. But the Nine had occasionally hacked the database to give me information or yell at me or whatever. Maybe they’d put a copy of their plans in there.

My skull exploded.

Right. Anders and his stupid guns. Well, at least the damage had been so fast I didn’t feel anything. By the time I woke up a couple seconds later, my head was already completely reconstructed, and the pain gone.

I was still pissed.

I stowed away the interface with a thought (it was tied to my regeneration, so it reconstructed along with the rest of me) and rushed at the bland little baseline, howling for his blood.

Before I got within five feet, Huntsman was there, one of his glowing blue barriers attached to his arm in the shape of a shield. I struck with my own orange sword-shaped barrier, putting all the strength I had behind the blow. The annoying blond hero skidded back a step, but he kept his guard up, and his shield remained strong.

But he hadn’t had his song for long—his voice would not outlast my own.

I considered switching instruments to match his shields, but decided against it. Beating someone with their own instrument is fun and all, but I didn’t have very much experience with shields, and they’re not very lethal anyway.

Besides—nothing is more fun than the feeling of a blade slicing through flesh.

I advanced on Huntsman, knowing I couldn’t kill him but still planning to cripple one or two of his limbs, when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. The whore, Yu, had gained her feet and was charging me again.

Tch. They never learn. I could have used my own petrakinesis to grab her armor again, but instead I met her charge with my blade, which I was more familiar with anyway.

She blocked my first strike by crossing her arms in front of her face, so I whipped a kick at her unprotected side. Not even Akiyama would have fallen for that, but Yu’s only combat experience was against my chorus. Normally, chorus were as smart as other people, but I had…tweaked them. My chorus were only slightly smarter than the ground they stood on. It had problems, but it made them easier to control.

It had been my sister’s idea, actually. I had been planning to—

Bullets tore into my side, interrupting my chain of thought, and this time I screeched in pain as they left white-hot wounds behind. But I found my strength again and rallied, even as the wounds healed themselves without my conscious attention.

Anders reloaded his automatic weapon as fast as possible, but not fast enough. I readied my sword to slice off his hand—

But a ten-foot wide glowing blue force field suddenly blocked my way.

Huntsman.

I turned back with a snarl and let my blade fade, which freed up enough of my concentration to use my speed. In the blink of an eye, I had tackled the annoying monster slayer into a nearby wall.

Unlike Akiyama, my speed didn’t enhance my mind as well as my body. That meant I had less control over what happened while I was using it, but it gave me a huge power boost.

Before I could start beating on Huntsman properly, I felt a thin slice near my shoulder. I turned to see Akiyama speeding away. I hissed and started after her, but before I had a chance to retaliate, my arm fell off.

The entire limb, plus half my shoulder. Poof, gone. I stared dumbly at my arm, laying on the dirty alley floor.

Then the pain caught up to me.

I managed to keep from screaming, but only by biting down on my tongue so hard blood spurted out of my mouth. It only made the pain worse, but the tongue would heal, in time.

Sputtering in incoherent pain and rage, I threw a few knife-shaped barriers at the samurai girl. She deflected them easily enough, but she had to tap into her voice to do so, which gave me an opening.

Not for an attack, though. Instead, I grabbed my fallen arm and dodged to the side just in time to avoid another tackle from Yu. Stupid girl. Everyone knows you don’t try the same tactic more than once.

With the girls temporarily neutralized, I had a moment’s respite. Not long—Huntsman was already charging forward, and Anders was readying his pistol—but enough.

With a grunt of effort, I grabbed my severed arm and pressed the stump against my shoulder, hissing at the sudden sensation as the nerves reconnected.

The arm would have reattached on its own soon enough, and if that wasn’t possible for whatever reason my body would still have been able to flat-out grow a new one from nothing, but I didn’t have time for that. Reattaching it manually sped up the healing considerably.

And indeed, less than two seconds after I could move my fingers again, Huntsman had closed the distance and was throwing a punch at my face.

I took the punch—and the broken teeth it gave me—without bothering to dodge or block. The real attack was his other hand, grabbing my newly healed arm and trying to pull me into a hold.

I couldn’t use my speed. With him grabbing me, I’d just end up speeding him too. That was a desperation move.

And I wasn’t anywhere near desperate.

I hooked my foot around his ankle, tripping him. He was too good a fighter to let that force him to release me, so I got pulled down on top of him.

Of course, that was exactly what I had planned.

In the blink of an eye, I moved my knee into position and let gravity do the rest, driving the entire weight of my body sharply into his groin. With this, I would be free—

He didn’t let go.

And he didn’t seem to be in as much pain as he should be.

That’s when I identified the strange sensation under my knee.

He was wearing a cup? Who the hell does that? Who the hell runs around ready for a fight every second of every day?

I had to focus. Huntsman was bending my arm back, trying to break it, and things would only get worse from there. While I had the advantage when I was on top of him, wrestling simply was not my strong suit.

Sword fighting, however, was.

Using my free hand, I summoned a misty orange knife that I stabbed at his eye. He dodged, as expected, but he let up the pressure on my other arm, even if he didn’t let go. It wasn’t much, but it was was all I needed. I finally managed to wrench my arm free, and used a quick burst of my speed to increase the distance between us.

Once my song faded, my head exploded.

Thrice-damned Anders! Why was he still alive? He was supposed to be killed by…anyone! He shouldn’t have even managed to survive the stupid pyro he ran into on his first day in the city!

I struggled to my feet—having fallen while my brain regenerated—only to be immediately tackled by something small and hard.

Yu. The little whore clearly didn’t know who she was messing with. She slammed me into the wall, but not very hard, all things considered. It was odd; even discounting her song, she should have been able to use more force. Was I missing something?

When I tried to throw her off, I happened to look into her eyes, and saw it.

She was conflicted. She didn’t know if she should kill me.

Oh, that was rich! Absolutely hilarious! Didn’t she know she didn’t have a chance if she didn’t get serious? Stupid little sports girl, thinking she could play with the big kids.

I laughed as I threw her to the side, just in time for Akiyama to charge me again. But this time I was ready for her; Yu had cheered me up considerably.

My blade was out and ready almost before I knew the samurai was there, and I deflected her strike with the ease that only comes from centuries of practice. Akiyama’s iron expression didn’t waver, but I grinned. At least one of us was having fun.

I think I’ll leave you alive,” I told her in my usual flawless Japanese. “That way, you can watch me kill your boyfriend.”

She gritted her teeth. “Shut up.”

Oh? Something wrong, Ken-chan?” My grin widened. “I think I’ll rape him to death, how does that sound?

“You heard the lady,” a rock-hard voice said from behind me. “Stop talking.”

An arm, muscled like an iron cable, wrapped around my throat. I didn’t even get a chance to react before my neck snapped like a twig, and I lost all feeling below my shoulders. I couldn’t even get enough power to my lungs to scream in rage and agony.

Huntsman dropped my limp body to the floor, and started stomping on my torso a few times. I could only feel it peripherally, but I could tell bones were snapping.

“She’s definitely paralyzed,” the man said in that same heartless tone as before. “Not sure for how long, though.”

I couldn’t shift my gaze to get a good look at them, but someone flipped me onto my side, then back again.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Medina agreed. “I think her reservoir might have finally emptied. She’s down and out.”

I watched Huntsman step over my body. “Let’s get her tied up. Adam, you have rope?”

Then I stood up and stabbed the annoying hero in the back.

“Reservoir?” I hissed into his ear, as I ground the blade to the side, eliciting a moan of pain from him, and the wonderful sound of dripping blood and gore from his belly. “My regeneration is not a song, not a power like my blades or my speed.” I grinned at his horrified allies, uncertain what to do in this situation.

Weak little humans. Grab their leader, and suddenly I had the entire group by the balls.

“Lizzy…” he managed, blood dripping from his mouth.

My grin faded. I jerked my glowing orange sword, and gore burst from his mouth.

Elizabeth. And don’t interrupt.” I settled down a little, the feel of blood splashing onto my skin calming me. “Where was I? Oh yes: I am immortal. This is a fact, truer than the dawn. That’s not hyperbole—I will outlive your sun by a billion years. You simply do not possess the ability to end my life.”

“Yeah, but we can slow you down.”

I blinked. What? That wasn’t Akiyama, Yu, Anders, or Medina.

In fact, it sounded like it came from above.

As if to confirm it, three cans fell from the sky. Before I could react, they exploded into sweet-smelling white smoke.

Gas grenades!

I tried to cover my mouth, but it was already far too late. The fact that I had smelled them meant I had inhaled too much. I began to feel groggy, and I wavered on my feet.

I fell, my blade dissipating before I hit the ground, comforted only by the knowledge that the others were falling as well.

Through bleary eyes, I tried to get a look at my assailant. Who had attacked me? I had thought our battleground was secluded enough that no one would notice…

Someone fell from the sky.

No. Not fell. It was too slow and controlled for that.

Someone was flying down from the rooftops.

She was wearing a large gas mask—the one I had bought for her, for her birthday—but even without that, the long red hair and matching outfit was enough of a hint.

She landed on my stomach heavily and dug her shoe into my collarbone. Although I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her grin.

“It’s been a while, Elizabeth,” she said cheerily, her voice only slightly muffled by the mask. “I think we need to talk.”

Robyn Joan Clarke.

Why now?

Behind the Scenes (scene 133)

Elizabeth isn’t very smart. That part was never faked. But the thing is, she doesn’t need to be smart. She’s a predator, she’s cunning. She just needs to play her strengths off of her opponent’s weaknesses. And as a thousand-year-old unkillable immortal with superpowers, she has a lot of strengths to play with.

Scene 132 – Duellum

DUELLUM

AKANE

Laura, Derek, and Ling had been arguing non-stop the past few days over whether or not Lizzy was the Composer, or if she was possessed or whatever in Musashi’s name we were dealing with. Laura thought it might be another sleeper trick, Derek was on the possessed side, and Ling just kept getting everything tangled up with morality questions.

Adam and I didn’t care about that. I’m not completely sure about his reasons—though I am sure I didn’t want to know what they were—but I knew mine.

She had hurt Derek. She was my enemy, and she was dangerous. It was like Miss Arrow said: Everything else could wait.

Right now, she had to die.

No hesitation. I cranked my speed up to half blast, fast enough so that I could dodge bullets but slow enough to still be able to use it for a minute or so.

A smile crawled across Lizzy’s face very, very slowly, and I rushed forward, praying I could catch her while she was still moving as slow as ice.

I didn’t, of course.

Suddenly, she was like lightning. Even compared to me, she was an invisible blur of motion. Before I even knew what was happening, there was an impact on my chest. It felt like being hit by a battering ram, and suddenly my back was crashing through the dead-end wall of the alley.

I coughed, spitting up blood and inhaling pulverized brick and sheetrock. My speed faded from the shock, though it had served its purpose.

Without it, the impact would have killed me.

Lizzy displayed her shiny white teeth. “You should get up, Ken-chan!” she said in her usual flawless Japanese. “I don’t want this to be BORING!

I ground my teeth and stumbled to my feet, using my sword as an improvised crutch.

At least one broken rib, probably quite a few more. The blow had been mostly to my left side, so nothing too important was damaged, and the blood from my mouth seemed to be something minor, not from a punctured lung.

One punch. She had done all that with one punch. I seriously doubted my survival was intentional; it seemed like she had just hit me, without considering where would do the most damage.

That was good. That meant she wasn’t perfect. I could beat her.

But…

I hesitated for a moment.

What if it really was her?

Lizzy, my old friend, the silly girl blind to Derek’s affections…what if she was still in there?

Could she have…thrown off the Composer’s aim somehow? Increased my chances of survival?

I couldn’t assume that. I just couldn’t. If I was wrong—or even if I was right, really—she’d kill me.

But…

What if?

Suddenly, a blood-red blur was rushing towards me, and I didn’t have time to think anymore. I had enough speed to dodge by a hair’s breadth, and the Composer crashed into the wall I had been laying against a moment before.

She turned to me, grinning with those too white teeth. “Come ON, Ken-chan! FIGHT ME!

Well, the gratuitous Japanese was definitely the same Lizzy I had always known, if not the tone. I ground my teeth. “Stop talking!

I pushed my hesitation aside and dashed forward at normal speed, keeping my power in reserve. My reservoir wasn’t replenished yet; I needed to make sure I had enough to dodge again if I had to.

Luckily, the Composer seemed to relish the idea of a head-on fight. She grinned, golden eyes glittering, and summoned a glowing orange force field in the shape of a sword—an exact mirror of my own katana, if I wasn’t mistaken.

Last time, this had taken me by surprise, but I was prepared now. I moved like in kendo class, whispering around her blade and to her heart. I struck from the right, with the wall to the left. She was backed into a corner, and wouldn’t be able to dodge effectively.

But she didn’t have any intention of dodging. She batted my sword away with her own, a move that most swordsmen would never think of, since it would damage their weapon as well. But she didn’t have to worry about damaging her sword, did she? It wasn’t real, it was just a chunk of energy. Even if it could break or dull, she could always just create a new one.

This would require a change in strategy, but that was something to worry about later.

The Composer wasn’t content to just block my attack. The second our blades touched, I tried to pull back, and she took advantage of the opening by rushing with her shoulder. I dodged to the right, away from the wall, letting the woman in the blood-drenched dress flash past me.

But…

Wait.

She was fast, yes. But she was human fast. It wasn’t the ridiculous lightning speed of a power. And she still had the sword in her hand.

So she had multiple powers…but could only use one at a time?

I could work with that.

Almost too late, I realized that she was trying to ghost behind me for a killing blow. I tapped my reservoir just enough to face her and slide past her blade, before feinting at her face. She brought her sword up to block, which was exactly what I expected, and I used the opening to kick her in the stomach, knocking her back a few feet.

Energized by my victory, I rushed forward—

Only to have my attack easily deflected by the Composer’s blade.

She gave me a tight-lipped smile. “You’ll need more than THAT!

I ignored her taunting and jumped back a few steps. When she didn’t follow, I flipped out a knife at superspeed and flicked it at her eyes. She deflected it easily, but I had expected her to. It was a distraction, to cover my own rush forward.

But she didn’t fall for it. The Composer’s sword blocked my own with the same lazy grace as before, keeping up with my thrusts and slashes with ease and contempt. That smug grin was still on her face; she knew I couldn’t touch her.

Then again, I wasn’t fighting alone, now was I?

I dodged to the side right as Ling tackled the blood-drenched woman from behind, letting the pair fly past me and into another wall. Ling’s armor would keep her safe, but the Composer had no such protection.

Before I could take advantage of our enemy’s incapacitation, Ling came flying back at me, and I had to dodge out of the way as she nearly bowled over Derek and Adam. I readied my sword and turned back to the blood-drenched woman who had thrown her, watching with rising dread as she stood up as though nothing had happened.

No. Wait. Her neck was at an odd angle, like a snapped twig.

But even as I stared, she moved her neck back into position with a crack and a grimace. She rolled her head around a bit, testing the joints and finding everything satisfactory.

Right. Healing.

But how good was it, really? She had to have a reservoir, like us. We just had to keep pounding her until it ran dry.

“Ling Ling Ling,” the girl wearing my friend admonished. “You really should know better. Weren’t you the one who said the ones who rush in first to attack the big bad always getting injured or killed?”

The little otaku extricated herself from the rubble of her landing with difficulty and glared at the Composer. “Yeah. But it has to be done.”

The Composer rolled her golden eyes. “I will never understand you people and your stupid morality.” She shook her head. “Every day, she’s screaming in my head about right and wrong and good and evil and SHUT UP!” She rubbed her forehead with her sword hand, which made me notice it was empty. She had dismissed her sword. “So annoying.”

Wait. Screaming in her head?

I felt a thin hand on my shoulder, and turned to see Laura staring at the creature with calculating eyes.

“Lizzy might still be in there,” she whispered. “You need to keep the Composer busy, while Derek and I try and rouse our friend.”

I nodded. I could do that. I wasn’t sure how long I could last, but even if Ling and I couldn’t overpower her healing, we should at least be able to stay alive long enough to let Laura talk.

I turned to the little blonde delinquent. “You ready?”

She tapped her arms together, and I could hear the stone plates in armor click. “Ready.”

No hesitation.

I rushed forward at speed, slashing at the Composer’s legs this time. She backflipped out of the way, and upon landing immediately blocked Ling’s punch with her sword. With Ling distracting her, I stabbed at her back, but the blood-drenched woman summoned a second sword, which she used to deflect my attack without even looking.

Ling tried another tactic, stepping back and placing her hands on the ground. The concrete under the Composer’s feet writhed like liquid, and her shoes began to sink.

She dropped her swords (which faded into mist) and sped away at super speed, specifically aiming at me. I had anticipated this, though, and cranked my own speed up to full enough to dodge her attack.

As well as to take the opportunity to slash at her as she ran past.

I didn’t really expect it to work. I figured she’d dodge, or maybe drop the speed to summon the swords again.

Instead, I felt my blade slice through flesh and grind against bone, and heard a roar of outrage from the woman who looked like Lizzy.

She let her speed go maybe ten feet from me, and I watched as she cursed at the wound in a language I didn’t understand.

“Dinm-ki balhon…” she muttered. “Ubbil-polar!” She glared daggers at me, even though the wound was healing even as I watched, and I almost took a step back from the force of her presence. “I’LL KILL YOU FOR THAT!

I grit my teeth. C’mon, where was—

“Stop this!” Laura called firmly from behind me. “Stop fighting!”

That was her plan? Seriously? If it was that easy, Lizzy would have broken free on her own, without our help. I don’t know what I was expecting from ‘Derek and I will try and rouse our friend,’ but I assumed that they had some sort of idea that actually had a chance of working.

The Composer didn’t seem particularly impressed either. The thing wearing Lizzy’s body raised a lazy eyebrow at her Laura. “Eh? Are you even crazier than usual today? Why would I do that?”

Laura blinked. “I…what?”

The golden woman spread her arms wide. “Killing is what I am! It’s in my blood and in my soul!” She grinned again. “And I wouldn’t have it any. Other. Way.”

The European woman seemed at a loss for words for the first time in her life. She shook her head. “I…Lizzy, I—”

Boom. The Composer rushed past me at super speed, grabbed Laura by the neck, and slammed her into the wall.

“MY NAME IS ELIZABETH!” she roared, inches from Laura’s stunned face.

I rushed forward to attack from behind, but the woman backhanded me with a super speed slap, sending me flying into the opposite wall. Thankfully, my power saved me from the worst of the impact, but it still hurt.

“My name is not Lizzy!” the Composer roared again, snarling at Laura. “Or Liz, or Lizzers!” Ling rushed her head-on; she just flicked her hand, sending the girl’s armor—and the girl inside—flying back. “I brought this city to its knees! I killed the Hammer of Thor, and sent the fey fleeing into the wind!” Derek tried to sneak up behind her, but she blocked him with another of those glowing orange barriers, and he backed away warily. “I have destroyed a million civilizations, and this world will be ONE MORE!” She turned to me, murder in her eyes. “I am Elizabeth Greene! Remember that name.”

Laura was on the ground now, rubbing her throat. “But…no…that’s…you’re possessed…”

The Composer glared down at her. “What are you babbling about now?”

“It’s a trick,” Derek insisted, looking for an opening around the barrier. “It can’t be her.”

The woman looked at him, bewildered, then turned to each of us, that same confused look on her face the whole time, until turning back to Derek.

After a minute, she laughed. It was the same gentle, bell-like sound as always, made somehow horrifying coming from this blood-drenched woman.

“All this time, you thought…what?” She shrugged her shoulders, still grinning. “What? That I was possessed by a body-jumper? Programmed, like the sleepers?” She laughed again. “Oh, I wish I had known! I could have had so much fun with this! But no. No more tricks, no more lies.”

She grabbed Laura by the throat again, dragging her up the wall until her face was level with her own, which also put Laura’s feet a few inches off the ground.

“I am Elizabeth Greene,” she said calmly, a slight smile on her blood-flecked golden face. She adjusted her chocolate-brown hair slightly. “I am the girl who grew up with you, who watched you moon over Derek, the girl who helped you steal cookies from your father.”

Using her free hand, she summoned another of those glowing orange swords, and held the tip against Laura’s throat.

I should stop her. But I found I couldn’t move. Terror and horrific fascination kept me rooted to the spot.

“And I am the girl who is going to kill you.” Her smile grew into a too-wide grin. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for thirteen years.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 132)

You’ll notice that Elizabeth didn’t refer to her status as the Composer in her little boast. That will be important later.

Scene 131 – Insidiae

INSIDIAE

LAURA

It was October the fourth, a Thursday. Five days after we discovered the Composer’s identity, four days after her attack on the ave lab, three days after the ambush at Derek’s History class, and two days after Adam brought thirty pounds of boar meat to the dorm room instead of Maria’s house like he was supposed to.

We had skipped class today and yesterday, for obvious reasons, and I don’t think anyone expected that to change any time soon. We had been sticking together as much as possible, but we were beginning to grate on each other. We had only really been coming together for missions; although no one had said anything, everyone was well aware that we could only put up with each other for so long.

Ling talked too much for Akane and I to feel comfortable, and we disapproved of her lifestyle philosophy enough that she was beginning to notice. Adam was fraying at the edges a little, but that was more because he hadn’t really had any free time to spend with Lily than personality clash. Of course, we were all still on edge around him, with the whole sociopathy thing. Derek was watching him like a hawk, and if his roommate stepped out of line, Derek wouldn’t hesitate to put him down. Regret it later? Probably. But he’d do it.

Speaking of Ling’s lifestyle, watching her try and convince Derek to practice wrestling with her got annoying pretty quickly.

“You can always practice with me,” Adam piped up as we walked down the street. It wasn’t really clear which of the pair he was talking to.

Ling, at least, decided he was addressing her, and grimaced. “I’d rather not. You’re guns, not hand-to-hand. You have enough to learn already; I don’t want to add more.”

That last part, of course, was a lie. I squeezed Derek’s shoulder, signaling that my ability had triggered, though I’m sure he had figured it out already.

“Both of you stop,” he said tiredly. “We still haven’t figured out where we’re going for lunch.”

“Not here,” Akane muttered. “You idiots walked into a dead-end alley.”

I looked at her sideways. “So did you.”

Derek rubbed his forehead. “Ugh, I wasn’t paying attention. Let’s just go to Nervi’s.”

“Or, you could stay here,” a voice called from the end of the alley.

I snapped my head around to see three men and three women of various cultures blocking the dead-end alley. An ambush. Lizzy? Maybe, considering the mixed nature of our assailants. Something to worry about later.

Assets:

Ling, Akane, Derek, and Adam. Cramped alley—which seemed to have been chosen to keep us isolated—might be to our advantage. Ling was wearing her armor under her clothes, Akane had her sword, and Adam had all his guns. Derek, of course, was dangerous with his bare hands, but I’d be nothing but dead weight. And Ling had been having moral issues recently, so she might have trouble killing.

Goal: Escape, prioritizing Derek’s life. Akane could leap out with him, and Ling could effectively fly, so Adam and I were the only problems.

Secondary goal: Capture the enemy alive, find out who they were working for. Two kemos, a giant, and three demons wouldn’t play nice normally. But the fact that they were clearly used to fighting side by side was more of a tactical problem than a strategic one at the moment.

The kemos were a pair of crocs or gators, fully anthropomorphic and covered in thick scales. Probably bullet-proof, and I wasn’t sure if Adam had anything armor-piercing left.

The giant seemed to be a troll, judging by his orange skin, so he probably had hidden claws. He was seven feet tall and had the lean, wiry look of someone with whip-strong muscles.

The three demon girls looked like triplets, though I doubted that was actually the case. Other than red eyes and short horns, they didn’t have any toys—except for the thick, powerful tails whispering out from under their skirts.

Solution: Obvious.

“Akane takes the laces,” I said quietly, just loudly enough for the others, now clustered around me protectively, to hear. “Adam shoots the troll, and Ling and Derek handle the demonesses. I’ll stay in the back, since I’m the weak link.”

“Kill yours quick,” Derek advised Adam. “Trolls tend to be a horror in melee.”

“You ladies done chatting about your periods?” one of the crocs called. His long, toothy snout made it look like he was always grinning, but I could tell that he really was now. “I’ve got things to do after I eat you.”

I glanced over at Adam. Covered by Derek, he had managed to slip on his bandolier. He pulled out his Caedes, checked the SMG’s chamber, and nodded.

“Go,” I whispered.

Akane sprung forward like lightning, moving so fast all I could see was a faint blue smear, the same color as Derek’s shields, that was the ribbon in her hair.

She sliced the first croc so fast he didn’t notice at first. It was only when he turned to strike her that his top half fell off, and blood began fountaining from the wound.

Our little swordswoman didn’t stop or slow down, but the trick didn’t work twice. The second kemo exploded into a cloud of green smoke, which Akane’s sword sliced through harmlessly.

I expected the smoke to coalesce into a new form, like the bats and other shifters, but it didn’t. It simply reverted back to the kemo’s normal shape.

But Akane was off balance now, and her reservoir dry.

The croc dodged her next strike by dropping down, then quickly backstepped to avoid her flurry of stabs. The second he sensed an opening, he whispered forward and drew a long gash across her face with his claws.

Adam’s SMG roared out a rapid thunder right next to me, and I clapped my hands over my ears, wishing I had remembered earplugs. Bullets tore into the troll, ripping bloody chunks out of his flesh and knocking him back—back, but not down. Once the clip was exhausted, the giant just grinned.

There was a light patter of something metal clicking against concrete; it took me a second to realize they were the slugs, getting pushed out of the troll’s body as his wounds healed.

Shit. Not another one.

Adam had the same reaction, though with more swearing. He dropped his Caedes without a second thought and whipped out his Saint George, barely even bothering to aim before pulling the trigger.

I expected another of those earth-shaking god slayers, but apparently he had something else in the chamber. The massive shotgun belched out a burst of fire, a thin cone that only barely missed frying the other combatants as well.

The troll howled in agony, but rushed forward, trying to ignore the damage by sheer willpower. His orange skin caught fire, but only briefly. It was like with the skins. Something about the healing or shifting process seemed to interrupt combustion. Was that intentional, or just a coincidence?

Either way, Adam dodged to the left, out of the troll’s line of attack. I dodged right a bit belatedly, and he almost managed to grab my wrist. Other than a bad scratch, I got away clean, but he sensed weakness, and knew better than to leave it unexploited.

He rushed me again, his toothy maw grinning and throwing drops of drool everywhere in anticipation of the kill. I reached for my gun—silver and gold, why didn’t I have it out already?—but fumbled the strap on the holster, wasting valuable seconds.

I felt hot, smelly breath on my face. I looked up to see he had closed the distance, and had his clawed hand in a backswing, already accelerating forward again…

Something tackled him from the side, throwing him off his attack vector and hurtling into the brick wall I was standing next to.

The wall caved in with a crash, sending red dust everywhere and leaving a gaping hole in the side of the building. I could see startled people on the other side, but my attention was mostly on the giant, lying in a writhing ball on the floor.

He was wrestling furiously with Derek—obviously, the one who had tackled him in the first place. Goddamned idiot. He should have just used a shield.

I turned back to the others; Derek could handle himself well enough. With my pistol, I might actually be able to contribute to this fight.

The three demoness triplets hadn’t moved, as far as I could tell, while Adam and Akane dealt with the kemo. Suspicious, but right now I was thankful for the respite.

The lace certainly knew how to use his power effectively. He could dodge her un-augmented sword strikes easily, only shifting to mist to counter her power. Adam couldn’t shoot much, not while our swordswoman was in melee with the croc, and the few shots he did fire were easily avoided.

The lace wasn’t attacking, which was a good thing, at least. But Adam would have to reload soon, and the balance of the fight would shift quickly—perhaps lethally.

I widened my stance, raised my Occisor with both hands, aimed, and fired.

The Occisor is a kid’s gun. Sure, it’s 6.0 mm, which is a pretty good caliber, but it doesn’t have the stopping power or penetration to handle anything armored. The scaled kemo would be able to shrug it off with nothing worse than a bruise.

But he didn’t know that.

Tungsten-core rounds, Avernan diamond darts, poison…there were a thousand things and more my dinky little gun could be loaded with that would make it a nightmare for anyone less than a warlord.

It wasn’t, of course.

But he still shifted to mist, allowing the bullet to pass through him harmlessly rather than risk taking it head-on. More importantly, a split second later when he solidified again, Akane and Adam were ready.

Akane jumped back to give our gunman more space, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. He sighted down his massive 6-gauge, grinned, and fired.

The Teflon-coated armor-piercing slug hit the croc in the forehead, slightly above one eye, and wasn’t slowed for even a moment by the thick scales. A fist-sized chunk of skull exploded in a burst of red mist, splattering the nearby walls.

The anthro teetered for a moment as his body tried in vain to stay upright without input from his brain, but it didn’t last. He fell to the side, landing on the dirty alley floor with a dull thump.

After a moment, with the sounds of the battle between Derek and the troll behind us still ongoing, the demon girls finally reacted.

“I liked him,” the one on the far left said, staring down at the croc’s corpse through half-lidded eyes.

“He was funny,” the middle sister agreed. Something was wrong with her, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“I suppose I’ll have to kill you now,” the third sighed. “Fighting gives me headaches. I was hoping they could deal with you.”

All three girls fell into identical fighting stances, tails raised and ready, and it hit me.

They were one mind. One mind in three bodies.

Not literally, of course—though with powers, I wasn’t ruling anything out. But some people, like Malcanthet and Belial, had experimented in improving efficiency in their slaves by using brainwashing to convince a small group that they were a hive mind. As I understood it, there hadn’t been appreciable gains until they started using pheromones to coordinate the bodies. They still weren’t actually one person in multiple bodies, but they managed to fake it enough to be dangerous.

But at the same time, there was an easy counter.

“Just try and kill one,” I advised my allies. “Then the other two will break.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Adam agreed. “Which—”

He screamed as lightning tore through him.

Blue sparks arced around his body, following his high-pitched, animal yell, and left behind angry white burns.

I cried out in alarm, but quickly squashed my terror in favor of remembering my first-aid training. First rule of dealing with electricity: Cut off the power. Which girl was—

I blinked, surprised to find that one of the demons seemed to be creating the lightning, just holding it between her hands, while one of the others was causing it to arc into her hands, and then into Adam.

A power combo. Min-maxing their advantages, as Ling would say. Clever.

The lightning cut off, and Adam staggered, but managed to keep his feet. He coughed, sputtering up blood. He really should just bow out, but there was hate in his eyes. Ironically, it made him look more human than normal. Anger in combat is to be expected. But Adam…Adam usually didn’t show any emotion when he fought. No remorse, no rage. Creepy as all get out.

The baseline raised his shotgun shakily, and I was suddenly reminded of the last time I had seen someone electrocuted.

Their gun had exploded in their hands.

Why hadn’t the same thing happened to Adam? He was covered in guns and ammo just waiting to cook off. Was it just random luck? Did supernatural lightning work differently than real electricity? Or had the girls somehow intentionally avoided anything explosive?

It didn’t matter. We couldn’t take any chances. I stepped in front of him before he could fire and shoved him back, hoping he would get the message.

The third girl moved her hands into the same position as the lightning demon. But instead of crackling electricity jumping between her fingers, roaring orange flame spun out of nothingness.

A pyrogenist, an electrogenist, and an electrokineticist. Fun times.

Adam seemed to have realized the danger; he jumped back a few steps and started shedding his guns onto the floor. But like Ling had said earlier, he wasn’t hand-to-hand. He was mostly out of this fight.

Speaking of, where was Ling? I had lost sight of her when the troll charged. She was what we needed here. Lightning wouldn’t be able to do much against a concrete wall.

The pyro’s flames suddenly shot toward Akane, who was able to dodge easily enough. They bent and snaked after her, but…

But it wasn’t the pyro who was controlling the flames.

It was the second demon.

The one who had aimed the lightning.

Of course. The same combo as before, just more than expected. The other two create the weapons—fire and lightning—while the middle sister manipulated and aimed it.

But still…she had two powers? Or just one, the general power to manipulate energy?

AGH, we still didn’t know anything about anything.

Before I could dwell on the problem too much, I heard a sharp snap from behind me. I turned to see Derek throwing off the corpse of the troll, the latter’s neck at an impossible angle. He thrust out his hand, and a misty blue shield popped into existence in front of me, blocking a lightning bolt I hadn’t even noticed.

“When are the ‘sarians getting here?” he growled.

“I haven’t had a chance to call,” I admitted. Besides, trying would have made me too tempting a target. And the retinue had been called away about an hour ago, so they were out too. “So whenever they notice the fight.”

“Silver and…fine. We need to finish these three off quickly, then. Where’s Ling?”

“No idea.”

“Wonderful. And Adam’s—”

“Out of the fight, basically.”

“So it’s three on three.”

“Two on three. I’m not going to be useful.”

He closed his eyes briefly. “Fine.” He turned to Akane. “Start with the one doing the aiming.”

She blurred forward instantly, but the demons saw her coming. A cone of lightning-tinged flame erupted from the center girl’s hands, fed by her sisters to either side. I could feel the heat from fifteen feet away, and the ozone made my hair crackle with static electricity.

Akane couldn’t dodge; the fire filled the entire alley. So she just dove right in.

I had to grab Derek to keep him from doing something stupid. He almost followed her, but my hand on his arm held him back.

I wasn’t sure if our swordswoman could survive this, but I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity she had provided. I nodded to Adam, and he picked up his Caedes and started shooting at the lightning girl, filling the air with thunder and the smell of gunsmoke.

Then Ling dropped down from the roof onto the pyro.

She landed heavily, crashing the demon to the ground and shattering the concrete with the impact.

Adam’s bullets found their mark at nearly the same time, dropping the psycho-electro with a few dozen well-placed pieces of lead.

As her power sources were suddenly cut off, the middle demon grabbed her head and started screaming.

It was heartbreaking. I could almost hear her vocal cords straining, as whatever link she had to the others snapped back and took her mind with it. She clawed at her own face, drawing blood and—

The screaming cut off as suddenly as it started, as Akane sliced her head off.

I slowly lowered my hands from my ears as the corpse hit the ground with a wet thump. Once I was certain all three were dead—it didn’t take long to be sure, not in their states—I turned my attention to Akane.

She looked all right, mostly, just a few singes to her hair and extremities, but I was worried about internal damage the lightning may have caused.

I fished around in pocket for my phone, resisting the urge to sink to the ground in exhaustion. I hadn’t been the one fighting, after all.

“Rest a bit, guys,” I advised as I put the phone to my ear. “Necessarius will be here shortly.”

Then my phone exploded.

I screeched in pain as bits of hot metal and plastic embedded themselves in my face and hand. Big pieces, too; the explosion hadn’t been that big, so there weren’t too many pieces.

But it still hurt like hell, and I nearly had to swallow my tongue to keep from ripping my vocal cords with my screams. Still, I managed it, and the pain became manageable within a few moments.

“Aw, now that’s too bad. I love it when you scream.”

I turned to look behind me, to find the source of the voice.

Elizabeth Greene, stepping through the hole in the wall Derek and the troll had created. Still wearing the same white dress as before, stained completely red with blood. There were a few flesh splashes, which I assumed came from the inhabitants of the building she had just come through.

She stepped on the troll’s corpse without a glance, discarding it without so much as a second thought.

“I am a little disappointed you killed my directors,” she mused, grinning with those too-white teeth. Her golden eyes lingered on each of us in turn, and her grin widened. “But then, that just leaves more for ME!

Behind the Scenes (scene 131)

I had a lot of trouble with this one, but I think it sets up the next scene well enough.

Scene 130 – Carnifex

CARNIFEX

KELLY

“Blood and shadows, Anders, are you all right?”

The bland little sociopath glared at me from his seat on the sidewalk, where he was clutching his foot. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just need a minute.”

There was something next to him, a paper-wrapped irregular shape that smelled of ice and blood. “What’s that?” I asked conversationally, really hoping it wasn’t a person.

He grunted. “The boar meat Derek asked me to get. I dropped it on my foot.”

I sighed. Well, I should have expected that. Better than the alternative. “Don’t just sit there moping. C’mon.” I grabbed the meat and tucked it under an arm. “Get up and get going. Where were you headed?”

He eyed me a little warily, but climbed to his feet slowly. “Back to the dorms. It’s about three blocks north, I think.”

“We’ll walk, then.” I had been planning to call Sax, but it would be faster on foot.

After a minute or two of limping slowly along. “What do you think about the Composer?”

“Other than the fact that we should shoot her in the face the next time we see her? Not much.”

“But…you know it’s Lizzy.”

I looked at him sideways. “Well, yeah. Obviously. You guys were the ones who told us. You sure you’re feeling all right? Did you hit your head or something?”

“What? No, I’m fine. It’s just…” he shrugged. “Everyone seems to be thinking Lizzy can’t possibly be the Composer.”

“Well, I’m sure there could be a reasonable explanation. Possession or whatever. But better safe than sorry, right? Kill her and be done with it.”

“That’s what I was saying. But it seems like everyone else is worried about the moral implications of killing an innocent.”

I snorted. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. This is Domina City. At Shendilavri, Necessarius bombed a building filled with innocent captives. Not to mention that most of the enemy were brainwashed. At the Second Battle of the Ginnungagap, Mjolnir himself gave the order to kill everyone, rather than sort out who were spies and who were not. Blood and shadows, back at the beginning, before the toy maker, Eden was burned down in the riots.”

Although Adam’s knowledge of local history was probably worse than the average five-year-old’s, he didn’t seemed surprised by any of this. “So why make the distinction now, when it matters the least?”

“Exactly. One innocent life against the possibility of getting rid of the Composer for good? Cheap. Even bleeding hearts like Senator McDowell should agree.”

“You know…I haven’t really been paying attention to any of that. What are Congress and all of them saying?”

“Oh, just dithering around, as usual. This isn’t really their jurisdiction, so its just a few individuals here and there issuing statements.”

“Well…what are their statements?”

I shrugged. “Who cares? They’re just puffing themselves and acting indignant to get voters on their side. They don’t really matter.”

He was silent for a few moments. I guess he was mulling over what I said, I don’t really know. The government isn’t as important in Domina as it is elsewhere. Maybe he hadn’t realized that before.

“Kelly…” he said slowly. “Remember before, when it looked like the fey were trying to ally with the Composer?”

“Back in August?” He nodded. “Yeah, I remember. The burners were looking for the Princess of…” I bit my lip. “…Killing Sparrow, I think. Why?”

“Didn’t you say Kat had found out they were more organized than expected?”

What was he talking about? It took me a second before I remembered. “Oh right, that sound file. Yeah, that’s what it sounded like, but they haven’t done anything since, so that’s clearly just a false alarm.”

“Yeah, but what if it wasn’t? Now they know who she is. If the fey join the Composer—”

“They won’t. Seriously.” I chuckled. “You might as well ask whether the rats are going to join her. The fey aren’t really people, not anymore. They don’t think like that.”

“Okay, fine. What about everyone else?”

I switched the boar meat to my other arm. It wasn’t that it was getting too heavy, it was just that the cold was finally getting to me. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve seen those guys with powers. Renegades, I think they’re being called.” He waved his hand. “Blackguards, whatever. Point is, she’s clearly recruiting.”

“Probably just more hypnotism,” I muttered. I wasn’t sure why I thought that would make me feel better.

“Were the…crap, who were they? The Nessians. And the…” he trailed off.

Oh. “You’re talking about the cultures that sided with Malcanthet, at the Battle of Shendilavri.”

The baseline winced. “Look, if its something you don’t want to talk about—”

“I was there,” I cut him off bluntly. “I fought against Orcus and his army. I killed orcs and warbloods and anyone else who tried to breach the fortress. Anyone who tried to rescue their Mother Monster” I closed my eyes and sighed. “I helped tried to break her. Personally. It’s a bit of a blur but…”

He stayed mercifully silent.

“Do you know what a Belian is, Anders? Other than being chem-heads, I mean.” I asked quietly. He shook his head, and I smiled a little. “Didn’t think so. That’s the part most people know.” I went to scratch the fixer on my left arm, but I was still holding the boar under my right. I almost dropped it.

“Whoa, there.” Adam jumped forward, but it was fine. “Ah, if you don’t want to—”

“There are toys that secrete chems,” I said. “Glands, I mean. Not the real high-level stuff, but the lower-end combat boosts. Buffout, hydra, jet, psycho…” I smiled. I wished those memories were bad ones. It would be easier to stay clean. “Most Belians are high on at least two or three at a time.”

“But a culture like that…couldn’t function,” Adam said slowly. “That’s what happens to gangs outside Domina, you know. If the leader is hooked on his drugs too, he’ll get caught sooner rather than later.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, that’s what happens with the microcultures. Some idiot pumps himself up with psycho or slasher, decides he’s going to start a rival gang with his buddies. The Nobles usually let them go; they’re doing everyone a favor by getting themselves killed.

“But…” My good humor faded. “Not all of the chems have detrimental mental side effects. Mentats provide a boost in brain activity—just a small boost, but it’s enough.”

“And that’s what the warlords are hooked on,” he breathed.

I nodded. “Yeah. Thankfully, people can’t use both the mental and physical boosters at the same time without lethal side effects.” Most people, a voice whispered in the back of my mind. I ignored it. “But with the lower-tiers strung out on everything you can think of, they’re ridiculously easy to manipulate. Basically just zombies.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I see your point.”

“It’s like what the Composer was trying to do with the fey. Why bother trying to grab individuals, when you can grab the guy at the top, and that nets you everyone under him?”

“Belial was one of Malcanthet’s sleepers.”

I laughed. “I wish. No, he had too many chems in his system for that. Pumping anything else into him probably would have killed him. She just seduced him the old-fashioned way.” I grinned grimly. “She’s not called the Queen of the Succubi for nothing, you know.”

“So what, that’s it? We’re going to be fighting a bunch of Belians and Nessians and succubi and—what are vampire succubi called?”

“Daevas.”

“Right. So Lizzy’s just going to grab their warlords, or they’re going to come to her, whatever. And we’re going to have to deal with a million Blackguards against our five little Paladins.”

I thought about it. “I don’t know…the ones you fought before didn’t seem to be from any particular subcultures. Maybe she’s recruiting from the dregs, rather than going straight for the top.”

“Why would she do that? The smart thing is to try for the warlords. Hell, she could do both.”

“Well, Laura did mention she was a moron.”

“I assumed that was part of her cover.”

“Maybe, maybe not. We’ll have to see.”

He seemed to expect me to say more, but I didn’t. He coughed to break the silence. “Look, Kelly, about…Shendilavri and the Belians and everything—”

“We’re here,” I interrupted, slipping into the dorm building—which a resident was helpfully holding open—before he could ask me any questions I didn’t want to answer.

Behind the Scenes (scene 130)

This is another of those I’m not entirely sure about. But still, I think it worked out okay.

Scene 129 – Cibus

CIBUS

ADAM

Our little strategy meeting petered out after a while, when it became clear everyone was just chatting. Ling went off somewhere, while the others went home.

I was sent to collect lunch.

“Why didn’t Huntsman come himself?” the butcher, a barrel-chested man with baseline eyes but what appeared to be vampire fangs, asked suspiciously. “That’s what he’s always done before.”

“Look man, I don’t really know,” I apologized tiredly. “I’m new in the city. He probably just wanted me to get to know the area more or whatever.”

The…vampire? Are they even vampires without the nighteyes? He looked at me suspiciously for a few moments more, before shrugging. “I guess if you’re willing to pay, I’m willing to sell. Besides, only an idiot would get on Huntsman’s bad side.”

“Good thing that’s not what I’m doing, then.”

The butcher barked out a laugh, then started tapping at a nearby pad, probably looking up Derek’s order.

“I was curious,” I said after a few minutes of silence. “Why he sent me here to get his lunch.”

“What do you mean?” the man replied without looking up from the pad.

I waved my hand around to indicate the butcher shop, which consisted of nothing but a wooden counter blocking the way to the back room, where the meat was presumably stored. “I mean…there are sandwich shops and fast food places and so on. This seems too much for lunch.”

He stopped tapping at his pad long enough to eye me warily. “This isn’t really a lunch shop, baseline.”

“That’s exactly my point. Don’t you sell in bulk?”

“Kinda. A few pounds at a time minimum.”

“Right. And that’s not exactly what two or three people can eat in one sitting.”

The butcher chuckled, then turned back to his pad. “I see the misunderstanding now. He’s buying meat for his mom, for a whole week. About twenty pounds at a time.”

“Oh.” That made a lot more sense. I wasn’t really sure if twenty pounds was a lot for one week or not, but I had asked enough stupid questions.

After what seemed like an eternity, the shop owner grunted. “Found it. He wants…” he peered closer at the pad. “A boar. You mind coming back and helping me?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” I slipped behind the counter. “A whole boar, or what?”

“A whole one,” he confirmed, leading me through a few hanging strips of plastic that acted as a door, and into a much colder area of the shop. “Normally he just asks for a rat. Special occasion?”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s…been a rough couple of days.”

The vampire who might not have been a vampire nodded. “Yeah, I hear ya. All that crap about Lizzy getting pinned as the Composer…” he shook his head. “I don’t know what to make of it.”

“So you don’t think it’s really her?” I asked as he tugged open a large steel door, blasting me in the face with a burst of cold air. Luckily, we were heading into winter, so I was already wearing warm clothes.

“I only met the girl once,” he admitted as he stalked inside. I followed him, figuring he needed me to carry something heavy. “But she seemed sweeter than sugar. It makes more sense that the real Composer is setting her up.”

I didn’t bother trying to change his mind. I had tried that with a couple people, like Yolanda from my gun class. It hadn’t worked in the slightest.

“Here we are,” he grunted, as he lifted a paper-wrapped object that seemed half his size. “Thirty pounds of boar, freshly killed.”

I held out both my arms and accepted it with an oof of effort. It felt like more than just thirty pounds. “Boar, huh? Is that imported?”

The butcher stared at me oddly for a minute. “Are you…right, you’re not a native.” He shrugged and headed back to the front, closing the freezer behind him. “You have to kill boars the second you see them. They breed faster than rats, and they’re more aggressive, too.”

I grunted. Hadn’t seen that one coming. I had heard something like that from my aunt in Texas, but…I guess I just never thought it would be a problem here. Wasn’t it too cold for them here?

Whatever. I thudded the meat onto the counter and fished out my wallet.

“I’m not going to be able to carry this by myself,” I muttered after I finished paying.

“Huntsman has a car.”

“It’s his mom’s, but yeah, I’ll call…” I patted my pockets. “Crap, I must have left my cell somewhere.” NHQ, maybe?

“You can use mine.”

“Nah, it’s not that far. I’ll just walk.” I hefted the frozen meat again, wobbling a little unsteadily. “Thanks for the food.”

The vampire looked a little worried as I left, but he didn’t follow me or try to stop me, so I guess he thought I was fine.

I wasn’t, of course. I dropped the thirty-pound meat on my foot about twenty feet down the street.

Behind the Scenes (scene 129)

The boars, of course, are modified by the fey.

Extra update Wednesday.