Monthly Archives: June 2014

Scene 171 – Discentes

DISCENTES

BUTLER

It took an effort of will not to crush the phone in my grip. The mere thought of it hurt the weak bones in my hand. “What do you mean, they were ambushed?

Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Vovk didn’t show any signs of being intimidated. “Just what I said, sir. The Paladins were on the roof of their dorm for some reason, and Greene dropped in on them with…” There was a tapping sound, as he checked a pad. “…a Vanir giant named Oleander. He’s dead now.”

“Well, that’s some good news,” I muttered. The less of these…renegades we had running around, the better. “What about the Paladins? Any injuries?”

“Kelly said that Akiyama had a few minor injuries, but nothing worth mentioning.”

“Hm, good. Keep me posted.”

“Will do.” He chuckled. “I gotta admit, it’s a bit weird getting conscripted by someone I ordered around not too long ago.”

I frowned, trying to figure out who he was referring to. “You mean Huntsman?”

“No, Kelly. She was working directly under me before the retinue got formed. Did you forget that?”

I rubbed my forehead. “I did, actually.” I had a million things to do each day, interviews with warlords and generals, not to mention the paperwork. I could never remember some minor details of a reassignment that happened months ago.

But still, I wished I had. I prefer having a close relationship with my troops.

“Well, my boys and I were just in the area, and she grabbed us and started barking orders. Gave me a start. What’s her new rank, anyway?”

“Technically, she’s still a corporal. But she has broad discretion in recruiting for emergency situations.”

He laughed. “Oh, remind me not to tell my boys that. They thought she was a lieutenant at least.”

I smiled. At least someone in this city was enjoying themselves. “I’ll make sure to. Talk to you later, Nate.”

“Same, Artemis.” He hung up.

I sighed and settled back into my chair, letting my tired muscles rest, as I flipped my phone closed. I needed another session in the toy box soon; my body was already falling apart again. It seemed too soon. “Apologies for that.”

“No, uh…” Flynn Neilson coughed, and squirmed a little in the seat in front of my desk. “I understand. Duty calls, and all that. I can wait.”

Patience was a good quality in anyone. I quietly made a note of it on my computer.

“Just because you can wait doesn’t mean you should have to. Now, it’s been about a month since you started teaching self-defense classes for us. I’d like a report.”

He blanched. “I…uh…I’m not really prepared—”

“I prefer it that way.”

“And it just seems odd for someone like me to report to you directly—”

“Well, you do come highly recommended. I need to make sure you’re not just coasting on Akiyama’s reputation.”

He coughed again. “I’m—I wouldn’t—”

I smiled. “Flynn, please, relax.”

The boy took a deep breath, and nodded once.

“I’ve only heard good things about you,” I assured him. “I just want to hear your side of things.” I steepled my hands in front of me. “Now, tell me how the classes have been going. Start from the beginning.”

He took another breath. “Okay, I can do that. Okay.” Another deep breath.

Then another.

“Flynn,” I prodded gently.

“Right, yes. So, as you know, Akane got me the job after the skins attacked. Pretty sure she was trying to keep me out of trouble, but don’t tell her I said that.”

I smiled slightly. “You have my word.”

“Good. Right, okay. So, things started out pretty slow. You know, it was short notice and everything, so not all the parents gave permission, so it was a small class at first. It was a group of eight and nine year-olds from a soldiers’ day care, so it was mostly ‘sarians.

“I don’t teach anything major, like weapon skills, just a few simple unarmed exercises to get their muscles moving. Most of them enjoy it, though we did have one kid drop out because it was too boring for him.”

I nodded. That happened, and I encouraged it within my organization. Some people were not cut out for physical combat, and that was fine.

“But over a few days, the parents told their friends I was doing well, so I started getting more and more kids. Even a few stay-at-home moms and dads started bringing their kids, sometimes staying to watch. I didn’t get any complaints, so I guess they thought I was doing well.”

“And you?” I pressed. “How did you feel about it?”

He fiddled a little bit in his seat, and I heard a clicking sound. It took me a second to realize he was playing with his sword in its sheathe.

“I’ve always liked kids,” he said slowly. “I mean, I don’t have any family, so no little ones running around bugging me while I was growing up, but…” he shrugged.

“You didn’t answer my question,” I noted.

The young swordsman just smiled. “I was actually enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would, sir. The kids were great, I was getting a good workout and doing something important…I think it might be a dream job.”

“But then everything started going wrong.”

He nodded. “With the Composer…attendance has been dropping recently. Men and monsters, the day after the fey came out, one kid showed up for class. I’ve got five regulars now, but I’m not sure that’s enough.”

Men and monsters. That was my curse. Interesting, that he would use it.

But that wasn’t important right now. “I think that’s all I need from you at the moment, Mister Neilson. Unless you had anything else to add?”

“No, sir.”

“Good man. I think I’ll be calling you back in here in a few days, when I have a plan to get your students back. For the moment, just stick with the ones you have.”

I extended my hand to shake, and he did the same as he rose from his chair. He had a good, firm handshake, which should be expected of a swordsman.

Once he was gone, I just leaned back in my chair and sighed, both in contentment at being able to relax my broken body a bit, and in sheer frustration.

He really was a good young man. I had been a little leery about him at first, since the only people recommending him had been a girl clearly smitten and his roommate, but he was working out for the best. The fact that his classes were declining was not his fault, and I wouldn’t hold it against him.

But I had other things to deal with today. The fey were being unusually quiet, and my scouts hadn’t been able to find anything. But I couldn’t just sit around waiting for them to attack.

If they were really serious about reformatting into a culture, they’d submit the relevant paperwork to be officially recognized. Most people didn’t remember that particular law, but the fey were very good with details.

When I first wrote it, the six cultures had already been around for a few years, so there was no real need to actually make anyone come in and fill out all the paperwork. Dracul, Pale Night, Odin, and Zaphkiel did so anyway, but we didn’t make a big deal of it, and the other two cultures were dealt with in absentia. There hadn’t been any new cultures since, so again, anyone who had cared at the time would have forgotten by now.

But if the fey did go through the trouble, Necessarius would have to treat them as an official culture. And that meant giving them the same rights as everyone else.

That…could be problematic.

Well, for now, I’d just have to be satisfied with increasing our security, to make sure that no fey spies could sneak in. Right now, the thing I needed to deal with was the Composer.

Elizabeth Greene. I’d never expected it to be her, which really should have been a hint to someone as paranoid as myself. True, I had only met her once, in a very brief run-in over ten years ago, but that should have been enough.

Bah. Dwelling on the past wouldn’t help anything.

The important thing was that now that she had made her move, we could retaliate.

Because it was necessary.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 171)

This could have been a little better, but I still think it works.

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Scene 170 – Sero

SERO

KELLY

Medina looked up from her phone, her eyebrow arched. “You’re late.”

I resisted the urge to grind my teeth. She was right, after all. “Sorry.”

The pale-faced woman shrugged. “Whatever, you’re here now. Let’s get down to business.” She stood up and closed her phone with a snap. “Get that in an evidence bag. And into a cooler, if possible.”

It took me a second to realize what she was talking about.

It was a hand, sliced cleanly off at the wrist, lying on the roof in a small pool of blood.

The complexion didn’t look right to belong to any of the Paladins, but I still had to ask. “Who’s is this, exactly?”

“One of the Blackguard’s,” Medina muttered, looking at a small blast crater closer to where we were, at the stairwell. “I doubt we’ll get anything useful off it, but you can never be too careful.”

“Got it. Sax? We have an ice box in the van, right?”

He nodded as he headed back down the stairs. “Our sandwiches will just have to get warm.”

In truth, it was my fault we were late. It had been about a month since I killed Chamo with his own drugged-up slaves, and I had been able to forget about it pretty easily amidst all the other crap that was going on.

But then yesterday, I had been ambushed by Inanna and her get, and all those memories I had worked so hard to fight down had come rushing back to the surface.

She was dead now too.

They weren’t idiots. They weren’t going to keep sending people after me, especially not armed with slaves controlled with the behavior programming my mother designed. But they wouldn’t give up, either. Belians were known for many things. ‘Mad dogs worrying at a bone’ was one of them.

“Kelly?” George asked. “You awake?”

I blinked and shook my head. “Yeah, sorry, just…caught up in my thoughts.”

The giant nodded once, his eyes scanning the horizon. “There’s not much for us to do here, is there?”

I looked around the rooftop. Clarke and Akiyama were arguing about something as Huntsman bandaged up his swordswoman for some minor injuries. Medina was taking pictures of various spots on the roof. And Anders…

“Medina?” I called. “Where’s Anders?”

“I sent him after Ling,” she explained without looking up. “She ran off after Elizabeth.”

I heard the sound of shifting metal as George adjusted his grip on his minigun. “Which direction?” he asked in a stony voice.

“George,” I whispered. “What’s wrong?”

He met my gaze evenly, but I couldn’t read the look in his eyes. It has a little past twilight, so I had my daygoggles off, but the light still peeking over the horizon was making it difficult for me to see.

“I just want to know where the Composer is,” he replied in a neutral tone. “Isn’t this all over if we catch her again?”

“It’s not that simple,” Alex muttered, leaving against the stairwell. “We had her, but she got away.”

“Yeah…” I turned to Medina with a frown. “How did that happen, anyway?”

“We’re still working that out. But it involved at least one of her Blackguards, we’re sure of that. He rusted a giant hole in that wall.”

“And then they cut a bloody path through their guards,” George added, in the same unreadable tone as before. He turned to the black-haired girl. “How did you survive, exactly?”

“Luck,” she replied in a similar tone. “I was sleeping in a shipping crate, and she was too lazy to crack open every one to see if there was anything interesting inside.”

“Hm.” The giant turned back to scanning the skies. “If she’s stupid, that means she can be tricked again.”

“Maybe.” Medina stood, arching her back a little to stretch it. “But I’d prefer not to try too hard to catch the tiger until we’re sure we can hold her.”

He snapped back to her like lightning. “You’re not trying to even catch her?”

“Right now, we’re just trying to survive her. The rest can wait.”

The giant growled, gripping his gun tighter. “Listen up baseline, if you’re not going to—”

“Specialist,” I snapped in a commanding tone I usually reserved for Belian slaves. Once I was sure I had his attention, I indicated a point on the roof far away from Medina with a jerk of my head. “Walk with me.”

He followed begrudgingly, which was good enough for me. Once we were out of earshot of the others, I wheeled on him.

“What in the bleeding dark was that?” I hissed. “I’ve never had a discipline problem with you. I’ve never heard of anyone having a problem with you. Where’d that come from?”

He didn’t meet my eyes. “Greene needs to die.”

“Yeah, no arguments here.” I bobbed my head until I found his eyes, forcing him to meet my gaze. “But Medina is the strategist. If she says it’s too risky right now, it’s too risky. End of story.”

The giant looked away again. “Whatever.”

“No, not ‘whatever.’ George, tell me what’s wrong.”

He gnashed his teeth. “I told you already.”

I did a double take. “Wait, you did?”

“Yes.” He leaned in a little bit disturbingly close. “I knew Mjolnir.”

“…ah.” I coughed. “I see.”

“Yeah.” He got a distant look in his eyes. “Did you know he was dating a Jotuun? One of the most important Aesir, and he was dating a Jotuun. Only for a couple weeks, but still. If that had continued…”

“That particular war has been over for a while,” I noted.

He nodded. “Sure. But this might have been enough to keep it from starting up again. Not to mention that his sister was a troll…”

I glanced around the rooftop. Medina didn’t seem to need any more help. “Why don’t you take the night off? Go back to the barracks, get a little bit of rest.”

“I don’t sleep,” he reminded me.

I nodded. “Of course not.” None of us did; we all had the Insomniac buff. “But just give yourself a chance to wind down a bit. We’ll collect you in the morning.”

The ogre looked like he was going to argue, then his shoulders sagged in defeat.

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Okay, I thought as my friend lumbered back down the stairwell. That was one problem gone. What was next?

Ah, right. Alex.

I sidled up to the angel, still leaning up against the stairwell with a distant look in his eyes, and took a spot beside him without saying a word.

“What do you want, Kelly?” he muttered. If not for my enhanced ears, I wouldn’t have been able to hear him.

I raised an eyebrow. “How’d you know it was me?” It wasn’t too dark, but it was too dark for an angel, and his nightvision goggles were sitting in his lap.

He wasn’t smiling, but he should have been. “I know you too well. What do you want?”

He could get like this at times. Not quite rude just…blunt. It usually only happened when someone close to him died, though. When I first picked him up from the orphanage, he had been like this because of the vampire assault. My presence hadn’t helped.

“Did you know any of her victims?”

He smiled thinly. “No, nothing like that. It’s just…” He sighed. “What are we even doing, Kel?”

That caught me off guard. “I’m…not sure what you mean.”

“I mean us, you and me…” He paused. “The retinue.” He waved his hand, blindly indicating the rooftop. “What good are we doing here?”

“We’re helping the Paladins,” I replied promptly. “These kids are strong, but they can’t do it alone. They need support.” I punched him lightly in the shoulder. “C’mon, angel, you know how this kind of thing works.”

“They need Sax,” he corrected. “They need a driver, that’s it.”

“Oh, and everything that happened with the skins was worthless?” I snapped back. “Or the bleeders?”

“Maybe not. But were WE needed for that?”

Ah. There it was.

I nodded. “Okay, I understand.”

He looked at me—well, in my general direction, anyway. “You do?”

“Yeah. You’re feeling useless.” Before he could retort, I placed my hand on his shoulder. “You specifically, I mean.” I smiled, even though I knew he couldn’t see it. “Not much use for a tracker when the Paladins can all sense a screamer from anywhere on the island.”

“…yeah,” he admitted slowly. “I guess that’s all it is.”

I patted Alex on the head. “Don’t worry yourself, dear heart.”

He scowled and brushed me off. “Stop it. We’re not kids anymore. You can’t do stuff like that.”

“Sorry,” I said, unable to keep the smile off my lips. Teasing him was too much fun. “I know where you’re coming from, but I don’t want you to worry about it.” I pushed off from the wall. “They can’t hear the Blackguards, you know. We got here too late, but we’ll need your skills soon enough.”

He didn’t say anything, but I just had to trust he would feel better soon. Besides, it was the truth. It wouldn’t be long before he was the most valuable member of the team. And even if he wasn’t, I wanted him close. He was one of the few people I trusted, truly trusted.

“I’m gonna go see what’s taking Sax so long,” I told Medina. “Don’t want that hand getting too warm.”

She nodded. “Good idea. I was wondering.”

I went down the stairs, but once I was actually inside the building, I called the elevator. I didn’t want to walk down a couple dozen flights of stairs, and that hand had been rotting on the roof for long enough.

The elevator stopped at a couple floors to let people on, but the second they saw the red and black ‘sarian emblem on my sleeve—or perhaps the fixer on my arm—they decided they could wait for another one, which suited me just fine.

I passed through the lobby without incident, the guard girl or whatever she was supposed to be still reading her magazine without a care in the world. The only problem was I didn’t see Jarasax outside.

With no other choice, I turned back around and walked back into the dorm and up to the little office. “Excuse me.”

The girl looked up at me slowly, a look of apathetic confusion in her eye, as if a nearby potted plant had tried to get her attention. “What?”

“Did you see a Middle-Eastern man walk out a few minutes ago?”

She gave me a good, long look.

“What do Middle-Easterners look like?” she drawled slowly. “Are those the yellow ones?”

I sighed. Of course. One of the side effects of ethnic barriers disappearing was that the younger generation often had no awareness of ethnicity at all. “Dark tanned skin.”

“Oh, you mean the guy with the gun?” She pointed lazily back the way I had come, towards the elevators. “He was in the bathroom.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said, and started in that direction.

“But then he went outside,” the girl added, in that same lazy tone as before. “I think I heard him messing with his keys.”

I sighed. Why couldn’t she have led with that? Well, better late than never. “Thank you. Anything else I should know?”

“Probably,” she noted. “But nothing that I know.”

Blood-soaked night, this girl was annoying. Whatever, not my job to worry about her. I managed a fake smile and bid her good night.

Once I was outside again, I headed around the corner past the cordoned-off corpse of the fallen giant, to where the van was last parked. It wasn’t there any more, of course, or I would have seen it when I first came out, but it was a place to start.

To my surprise, I found the van, not a hundred feet from where it had been parked before.

“Sax?” I called when I got close enough. “What’s going on? Why’d you move?”

He looked out the open window, blinking. “Had to. You can’t stay parked in front of the entrance to a building.”

“You’re not going to get a ticket in a Necessarian van,” I reminded him. “And if you did, you wouldn’t have to pay it.”

He blinked again. “Uh…yeah. I guess.”

I scratched at my fixer, frowning. “What’s up with you? You’ve been kinda out of it lately.”

The brown-skinned man shrugged…before stopping halfway through the motion. “I guess you deserve an answer.”

Now it was my turn to blink in confusion. “Uh, yeah, I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure what you mean.”

“C’mon, Kel, we’ve known each other long enough.” He smiled grimly. “In the current climate, what could possibly have a changeling distracted?”

The…climate? What, was he upset that he didn’t have a couple cold-weather buffs?

Oh. Wait. The political climate.

I sighed. “This is about the fey.”

His smile thinned, and didn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah. That’s it.”

“And Eccretia’s reappearance, I’m guessing.”

“Well, that certainly is on my mind, but I only met her like, twice. I’m not really concerned about her.”

I leaned my back against the van, looking up at the darkening sky.

Everything looks so…different with nighteyes. The exact process is beyond me, but I do know it doesn’t actually change our eyes on a fundamental level. I don’t have infra-vision or the ability to see heat or whatever that green stuff is that Alex uses. I just have the ability to see using even the absolute smallest amount of light as if it were as bright as day.

This had the side effect that I hadn’t seen the stars in almost fifteen years.

They were just too drowned out by their own light. It was like someone with baseline eyes trying to look at the sun. Sure, individually each star wasn’t that bright, but all together and combined with the dim light’s of the city’s nightlife…it all added up to no stars at all.

I turned my gaze back earthwards, but I still didn’t look at my old friend. “I’m sure I can’t say anything to you that you haven’t heard a thousand times, or already thought up on your own.”

“Probably not,” he admitted slowly, a little wary about the direction the conversation seemed to be headed.

“I’m not going to lecture you one way or another. Leave them alone, go take the fight to them…whatever. You’ve already weighed your options, and you’re still here.”

He stayed silent.

“But you’re distracted. And that interferes with our mission. So I’m going to say this once, and then we’re going to go back upstairs, and you’re going to spare no more thought to those naked bitches.”

I heard him chuckle, but he didn’t say anything else.

It took me a minute to marshal my thoughts.

“I had a good life as a Belian. A great life, even. Free food, free room, all the sex and drugs I could ever want…” I closed my eyes, trying not to sink into the memories. “My life was absolutely perfect.

“But after Shendilavri, things…changed. My dad was dead, my mom missing, probably dead too, and a lot of the rest of the senior members of the culture were about the same. We had no Nobles left, and only a scant handful of nightstalkers.

“I could have taken over the culture. Right then and there. Wouldn’t even have been hard. My mom had…” I nearly choked, my tongue suddenly far too thick in my mouth. “…she had laid the foundation since the start.”

There was a long pause.

“You could have taken over,” Jarasax prompted. “But you didn’t.”

I nodded. “I left. I’d like to pretend it was for something honorable, but I just didn’t want the responsibility. So I crawled my way to the Big Boss, begged for him to let me join up. You know what he said to me?”

“’All are welcome,’” Sax quoted quietly. “’Anyone and everyone. Just remember that you are not what you were. You are necessary, and nothing more.’”

“Yeah,” I whispered, smiling. “That’s what he said.” I sniffed and wiped my face. “Grab that cooler. There’s a hand on the roof waiting for it.”

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 170)

I always like Kelly’s scenes. I think she comes out pretty well.

Scene 169 – Perierat

PERIERAT

ADAM

I knocked on the door with my left hand; my right arm was occupied with holding Ling tight around the shoulders. I was a little worried about how this looked, but I didn’t have time for that now.

The door opened quickly, Lily looking at me in confusion. “Adam? What are you doing here?” Her crimson eyes darted to Ling. “With her?”

I shrugged awkwardly, which had the unintended effect of causing Ling to nestle into my chest. “Uh, it’s a long story. She needs someone to talk to. Can we come in?”

Lily took another long, hard look at the girl in my arms, but slowly nodded and stepped aside to let us past, without taking her eyes off the little blonde delinquent for a second.

“I wasn’t sure you’d even be here,” I admitted, as I sat Ling down on Lily’s bed, the only part of the apartment not covered in boxes and other assorted junk. Lily had the Insomniac gland, so she didn’t actually need to sleep. She mostly just used this place to store the various odds and ends she had collected over the years.

“Work canceled,” she said bluntly, as she closed the door with a soft click. “Between the Composer and the fey, no one is really going anywhere. Little call for me.”

I frowned at the girl, almost a full foot shorter than me—and I’m not too tall myself. “But the fey haven’t attacked. Why is everyone still running scared?”

She smiled a little, which made me happy. I had been worried bringing Ling here had broken some unspoken taboo. “The fey always make appearances. I would have thought you’d have noticed.”

I shrugged. “Been busy.” Derek had said about the same, though.

“Well, it’s a little disconcerting for them to just suddenly disappear, so everyone’s a little on edge. I talked to that Maeve girl, but she was very tight-lipped.”

That made me do a double take. “Wait, you talked to her? When?”

“Yesterday,” she replied nonchalantly. “I went over to her place for tea. Of course, it was a bombed-out ruin due to her little trick with that homunculus, but she stuck around long enough to make me think they’re planning something big.”

I held up my hand. “Back up. You…were planning on having tea. With one of the fey.”

She nodded. “I do it all the time.”

I looked to Ling for support, since I was failing to articulate just how batshit insane that was.

The Chinese girl shrugged. “The fey have always been quite friendly and open. I got invited by…” she chewed her lip. “The Matron of Eternal Silver, I think it was, a few years back.” She shrugged again. “Getting in touch with them isn’t hard. Making deals with them, and giving them things you shouldn’t, is the problem.”

“Okay, whatever. That’s not why we came here.” I looked my girlfriend in the eye. “Lily, I was wondering if you could talk to her a little.”

Her face was neutral. Extremely neutral. “About what?”

“She’s having trouble…” I coughed, suddenly embarrassed. “…with some of the more unsavory aspects of her job.”

Lily glanced over at my friend. “Is that so.”

“Uh, yeah. I mean, she tried to explain it to me, but I’m not exactly the best person to talk to about something like this.”

There was a pained look on her face for a moment, so brief I though I imagined it. “Yes, of course.” She took a deep breath. “I’m just not sure I’m up for this.”

Ling blinked slowly. “What’s the problem? You’re good at understanding, right?” She reached out to grasp Lily’s hand.

To my surprise, my girlfriend sidestepped away to avoid being touched.

“I should rephrase that,” she said quietly, her face still a stony mask. “I’m not sure I’m up for talking to you.”

Now it was my turn to blink like a deer caught in headlights. “Wait, what’s the problem with Ling? What has she ever done to you?”

“Nothing,” she admitted. “It’s what she is.”

Ling made a small eep of surprise and fear.

Lily smiled grimly. “Ah, now you understand.”

“Uh, I still don’t,” I noted. “Obviously your problem isn’t that she’s a Paladin, or that she’s a girl, or…” I frowned. “Is this a race thing? Is it because she’s Chinese?”

Lily laughed musically, which I really should have expected. The country you’re from is pretty much completely irrelevant in a city where you can change skin color on a whim. “No. Not that.” That brief smile went hard again. “Not something so…minor.”

“This was a mistake,” Ling whispered. She got up and headed for the door. “Thank you for your time, Honored—”

“I need to know what the hell is going on here,” I interrupted, grabbing the short little delinquent by the arm to keep her from running out on me. I turned back to my girlfriend. “Lily, you’re one of the most compassionate people I know. You keep insisting on humane treatment for the screamers, even. What makes Ling any different?”

Lily gave the girl in my grip a sideways look. “Do you want to tell him, or shall I?”

Ling looked away.

“This girl has only been baseline for the last couple years,” Lily explained patiently. “Before that, she was a daeva for five years.”

I frowned. “Daevas are…those vampire prostitutes, right?” I shook my head. “I mean, not prostitutes, but you know what I mean. The vampire version of the succubi.”

Ling twitched.

“That’s quite an apt summary,” Lily purred, her gaze locked on Ling, who was looking anywhere but my girlfriend’s eyes. “In fact, the daevas were a very small culture until Malcanthet started going crazy, driving away her housemen.”

“What do you—” It took me a second to realize what she was saying.

I looked at Ling in confusion. “You…used to be a succubus?”

“Only for a year,” she whispered. “I got pregnant right after I got the package, and they didn’t want to do any modifications while I was…” she trailed off, then looked me in the eye. She seemed close to tears. “I was never a succubus, not really. It was just a mistake that snowballed—”

“A mistake. Yes, I’m sure,” Lily said mildly. “That’s quite similar to what Malcanthet said, last time I saw her some five years ago.”

Ling flinched as though she had been slapped.

“I have no interest in touching anything that has anything to do with Malcanthet,” Lily managed in an even voice. I turned my attention back to her, and realized she was clenching her fists so hard her nails were making her palms bleed. “Take the whore somewhere else.”

Rage blossomed on Ling’s face, she turned to face her accuser, the building shook—

And then she stopped, like a puppet with its strings cut.

“Why bother?” she muttered. “I’m leaving. I’ll be outside when you’re ready, Adam.” She shambled through the door, pulling it closed behind her.

I turned to Lily angrily. “Was that really—”

She threw herself into my arms before I could finish speaking.

“Mother of fire…” she whispered. “That poor girl.”

I wrapped my arms around her. “If you feel that bad, you can talk to her—”

“No!” she hissed, burying her head deeper into my chest. Her horns hurt a little, but now wasn’t the time to bring that up. “No. I—I can’t deal with a succubus, Adam, I just can’t.”

I rubbed her head. “She’s not a succubus any more, you know that.”

“I know, I just—” She sniffed. “I can’t.”

“Okay. It’s fine, all right? It’s okay.” I gently pulled her off my chest, so I could look at her face. She wasn’t crying, not yet, but it was close. “We’ll deal with this some other way.” A thought struck me. “What about your sister? Can she help?”

She bit her lip in that adorable way she did, and nodded slowly. “I don’t think personally, but she’ll at least know of someone.”

“Okay, that’ll work.” I kissed her lightly on the lips. She felt colder than normal. “I’m just going to walk Ling home, and then I’ll be back, okay?”

She smiled. “I think…I’ll be fine. Just expect a call.”

I nodded. “That’s fine.” I kissed her again, a little longer this time. “Either way, I’ll see you soon.”

I left quickly, since I was worried Ling might have ran off in the past few minutes, but luckily my fears were unfounded. She was still waiting at the door.

I smiled. “Ready to go back?”

She nodded, not saying a word, and we started walking in the direction of the dorms.

“Lily is going to make a few calls, see if she can find someone to talk to you,” I promised. “Until then, no more running off on your own, okay? It’s too dangerous. Actually, no running off on your own even after we get you someone. Seriously, you’re the geek, you should know better.”

She smiled a little at that. “I suppose you’re right.” She breathed out a sigh. “Won’t happen again.”

I nodded. “Good. We’re outnumbered enough as it is.”

“Inverse ninja law,” she quipped. “As long as they outnumber us, we can’t lose.”

I grinned. That was actually a reference I understood.

We spent maybe ten minutes walking in silence through the steadily darkening night, just enjoying the chill air. But eventually, I realized something was bugging me.

“Ling, I was wondering…”

She eyed me warily. “Yes?”

“You got rid of the nighteyes a year ago—”

“Two.”

“Okay, and you were a vampire for five years…”

“Uh-huh.”

“And before that a demon for one.”

“That’s what I said.”

I double-checked the math in my head, then triple checked it. “That means you got pregnant when you were ten?

Ling’s face was impassive. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 169)

Just to be absolutely clear: This is not the norm for the city. At all. Getting pregnant at fourteen is pretty odd, but other than a few glares, it’s not treated as a big deal unless one of the pair is older. Any earlier than that and the law gets involved. In Ling’s case, Necessarius didn’t get there in time. Her boyfriend was scattered over half the city before they even had anyone assigned to the case.

Domina City does not take kindly to anyone who does anything to children.

Scene 168 – Vindictam

VINDICTAM

LING

Mitchel was gone. The monster who had butchered my orphanage had been right in front of me, and I hadn’t been able to do anything.

Screw that.

I ran to the edge of the roof, hesitated for the barest of moments, and jumped off, ignoring the surprised cries of my friends.

My reservoir was replenished now, and I still had my armor on. I might not have a lot of practice flying, but I still remembered that time Akane threw me out the window. Slowing my fall wasn’t difficult.

I went off running the second my feet hit the ground. I didn’t really have any idea where they were, but I did have a vague direction to go on.

The secondary aspect of my ability, the sensing, wasn’t really useful most of the time, but I had felt something when they disappeared a few minutes ago. I had been practicing with it a bit more, so my range was vastly improved, but detail was not. It was just a tug on my perceptions, to the north.

Maybe they had gone that way. Maybe they hadn’t. But it was better than sitting in my room for the next few hours, wishing I could have grabbed Mitchel.

So I ran north as fast as I could, doing my best to ignore the little voice in my head saying I was going the wrong way.

And I was going the wrong way. I had to be. We were directly south of NHQ—the only thing to the north was Butler’s fortress. There was no way Elizabeth’s base was there. Sure, it was common for the villain to be closer than anyone expected, but come on, it was Necessarius. They didn’t let people camp out under their noses.

My phone rang. I reached into my pocket and silenced it without looking. I knew who would be calling.

Akane would be after me soon, I knew, but I didn’t have the breath to spare to answer the phone and explain myself. I guess I should have asked her to come with me before jumping off the roof, or…I don’t know, I should have done something.

But then I felt something at the edge of my senses, and my train of thought came to a screeching halt.

It’s…hard to describe running around with my…earth-sense turned up as far as it will go. Sort of like the entire city was covered in thick, dense fog. What good is having the ability to sense everything around you when you can’t tell the difference between a tree and a person?

Unless the thing you’re sensing is in the air.

There was a big blob of solid matter, too big to be a bird, maybe a hundred feet ahead of me, landing on the roof of a building. It couldn’t be Robyn Joan, either, since she would be behind me. And considering what Akane had said about her refusal to put herself in danger, I doubted she would be after me anyway.

My first instinct was just to grab my armor and levitate to the roof as fast as I could, but that be suicide. I was getting better at fighting…and killing, but I couldn’t handle Elizabeth, let alone Mitchel and that demon, all at the same time. Not to mention I couldn’t tell if they had already met up with others yet or not.

I’d have to be subtle about this. Sneaky. I could be subtle, if I had to. I mean, I had never found a reason to try, but I was sure I’d be able to pull it off. I wasn’t like Akane, burning down half the buildings I walked into.

After taking a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, I used a levitation-assisted jump to land on the fire escape, five floors up. It rattled a bit, but not too much; I still had the element of surprise.

Probably.

Still, I made the effort to creep up the next ten floors as slowly and quietly as I could, using what little reserves of patience to keep from screaming aloud and just running up the fire escape.

It took almost half an hour to go a distance that could have been done in under five minutes, but finally, I reached the roof. Clinging to the ladder, I poked my head over the balcony…

There was no one there.

No one at all.

Velvet—I mean, by Tezuka’s name, I had taken too long. I vaulted onto the roof, then immediately sat down cross-legged and closed my eyes.

I extended my senses as far as they could go, but no luck. I felt a few things moving around in the building below me, but they probably weren’t Mitchel and the others. There was nothing in the air, as far as I could tell, and whatever subtle clue that had led me in this direction in the first place was gone.

I screamed in fury and smashed my fist against the roof, barely noticing the resultant crater.

He had been in my sights. Less than a hundred feet away, and I let him go because I was too cautious. Fortune favors the bold! I knew that. That was my guiding principle in soccer, why had it failed me now? Was it just because I hadn’t been playing recently, so I had fallen out of practice?

Or was it because I was afraid of killing someone?

Because I would have killed him. I knew that. He was down a hand, weakened by loss of blood, and I would have had the element of surprise. It would have been my best chance.

But I didn’t want to kill anyone. Heroes don’t kill people.

Derek kills people, a small part of my mind whispered.

Yeah, but—

I didn’t have an answer for myself.

I broke down crying.

“Ling?”

I sniffled, and turned to see Adam clambering onto the roof.

“What are you doing here?” He was the last one I expected to come after me. Well, after Laura.

“Akane and Robyn got into an argument about that one Blackguard’s hand,” he explained. “So Laura sent me instead.” He looked a little annoyed, though I couldn’t tell if it was because he was being ordered around or because it took so long to find me. “Have you been crying up here this whole time?”

I wiped my nose. “No, I just…” I sniffed again. “I thought I had him, and I didn’t.”

The plain-faced man raised an eyebrow. “And that made you start crying?”

I rolled my eyes and looked away. “You wouldn’t understand.”

To my surprise, he sat down next to me. “I don’t know, I might. You grew up with this guy, right? And now you feel like he betrayed you?” When I opened my mouth to object, he held up a hand. “Sorry, he did betray you. Is that about it?”

I pulled my legs closer to my body. “There’s a bit more, but yeah. I’ve never been so angry at anyone before.”

He leaned back. “I have a cousin—three, actually, but this is the one my age—and we used to be really close. Thick as thieves, my mom used to say.”

I didn’t interrupt, even though that wasn’t really anything like my relationship with Mitchel. Let him have his rant.

“When we were fifteen, he…” Adam paused. “Well, the details aren’t important. Let’s just say that I think it’s a good thing I wasn’t as well-armed then as I am now.”

That made me smile, just a tiny bit.

“My point is, I understand being betrayed by someone you trusted—” when I opened my mouth to object, he quieted me with a raised hand again. “—even if all you trusted was for them to be too cowardly to betray you.”

Okay, yeah, that described my relationship with Mitchel pretty well.

“But one thing I don’t understand is the crying. Betrayal, in my experience, leads to anger. And that’s what you’ve been doing ever since you found out he burned down your orphanage. Stomping your feet, grinding your teeth, swearing revenge and so on. Seemed healthy and normal, to me.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, and I looked up to see him with a serious expression on his face.

“What changed?”

“I…” I closed my eyes and looked away. “You wouldn’t understand.”

He sighed. “Yeah, well, maybe not, but there’s no way I’ll understand if you don’t tell me.”

I fidgeted a little. “I don’t want to kill him.”

“Um…what?”

“It’s not about Mitchel,” I corrected myself. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I’ve never had to kill another human being, and I kinda want to keep it that way.”

“The screamers don’t count?”

“No! I mean…” I sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure.”

“Ah…” he said. “That’s why you’ve been asking about the conditions of the captured screamers, suggesting non-lethal ways of getting rid of them, all that. You’re worried they might be people.”

I nodded.

“I’ll admit, I can’t really empathize with you. Whether by choice or not, the screamers—and the renegades—are the bad guys. We have to be willing to kill them.”

“I know,” I whispered.

“The Blackguards at least seem simple enough. Most of them are clearly enjoying themselves. I wouldn’t spare too much thought over them.”

I winced. “You still don’t get it. It’s not whether these guys, specifically deserve to die, it’s whether or not that gives me the right to kill them.” I sniffled, and brushed my hair out of my eyes. “Tezuka’s broken pen, never mind. I’m in the wrong city to be asking questions like this.”

He put his arm around my shoulders. I didn’t look up. The last time a boy had done that to me, I had looked into his eyes and…things had led places I did not want to go with Adam.

Thankfully, that wasn’t what he had in mind. “Ling, do you know what a pacifist is?”

I frowned, trying to remember. “I’m—I think so. That was some anti-war political party in America?”

He smiled. “Close enough. I can’t really help you out with this. But I think talking to our city’s resident pacifist will be a step in the right direction.”

I wiped my nose. “Whatever. Worth a shot.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 168)

I always have trouble writing from Ling’s perspective. I’m not sure why. Still, I think this came out well.

Scene 167 – Culmine Tecti

CULMINE TECTI

AKANE

Flight.

We had forgotten she had access to freaking flight.

If I had remembered, I could have kept a better eye on the edge of the roof. Or, better yet, Derek wouldn’t have decided to talk up here at all. Musashi’s sword, everyone knew he liked rooftops. We definitely should have realized that meant she’d remember it too.

No time to worry about any of that now. We had two opponents: Elizabeth—wearing a blood-stained white dress not unlike the one she had the day we found her in the sewers—and the Vanir. In theory, it was a fair fight, but Derek and I still had to protect Laura.

The odds would start looking a lot better if I could kill the giant.

I sped forward just a few ticks under top speed, hoping to catch them by surprise.

But Elizabeth was faster.

She dodged around my sword like a ghost, before kicking me in the back and making me stumble dangerously close to the edge.

I heard the slight thrum of a force field, and turned to see that there was a glowing blue shield blocking Elizabeth from attacking me.

She hissed and turned to Derek. “Stop doing that!”

“Sure,” he replied calmly. “Just kill yourself, and we won’t have to fight any more.”

Elizabeth screeched in rage and rushed forward, a pair of glowing orange swords suddenly in her hands. Derek summoned a buckler shield on his arm, fending her off swiftly.

Okay, while the Composer was distracted, I could handle her Blackguard. I turned to see…

He was gone.

Great. Should have seen that coming. He was a flier; his range of movement was too broad for me to take my eyes off him and expect to still be able to keep track of him.

Think think think…would he run away? Maybe, if there were more of her minions nearby that he could go collect. He wouldn’t worry too much about leaving his boss outnumbered, since she was frustratingly immortal and everything.

But wait. She hadn’t actually given him any orders. I would have heard if she did. Combined with the slavish devotion the Blackguards had already displayed, and…

He wouldn’t go far.

I sheathed my sword and jumped over the side of the building, trusting my instincts.

They didn’t fail me. The giant was standing on the slender ledge, holding on with one hand and trying to pull out his phone with the other. Calling for reinforcements, most likely. I guess they had just gotten lucky when they found us here, rather than it being anything planned.

I didn’t even bother turning on my speed. I didn’t need it for this. I just grabbed the Vanir’s shirt and yanked, hard. He managed to keep his footing, but only barely, which had the side effect of pulling me closer to the building.

Now that I was within reach of the wall, I spun around, placed my feet against the skyscraper, and jumped off with all my might while still gripping the Blackguard’s shirt.

He yelped as he got yanked off his perch, dropping his phone in the process. That had been the point of the little stunt; him falling was just a bonus.

Of course, he could still fly. He activated his power, arresting his fall as suddenly as if he had hit the ground, and coughing up blood from the unintended strain on his system.

Merely stopping in mid-air probably wouldn’t have done that, even with the sudden inertia.

But I still had a death grip on his shirt.

Before he could toss me off, I wrapped my arms around his throat and started squeezing. I needed both hands to hold on; I couldn’t spare one to grab a knife. My sword was completely out of the question.

Even with his massive strength, my angle was too good, so we just thrashed about in mid-air for a few minutes while I crushed his windpipe. I don’t know if he wasn’t thinking straight or if he just didn’t have any combat experience, but he never did try to bash me into one of the nearby buildings.

Eventually, he grew limp, and we started to fall.

I had been prepared for this the second I jumped off the roof, and my senses hadn’t fled me in the past few minutes. I released the giant’s neck, clambered over to his front, and jumped off his chest with my speed at full blast for just a second.

Except he wasn’t quite dead yet.

He grabbed my ankle in a death grip just as I pushed off, and I yelped in surprise.

I should have had enough momentum to break free, but he was a giant, and his fingers were like steel. I felt a crack in my knee, but that wasn’t my biggest problem. The Vanir wrapped his arms around my chest from behind in a bone-crushing bear hug, and suddenly we were dropping like a stone.

It was something Robyn had explained. Her power—and this guy’s, apparently—was not actually flight. It was the ability to manipulate gravity, like what Ling could do with stone, but only for themselves. What they normally did was ‘fall’ up.

Right now, he had stacked a few gravities on himself so we were accelerating towards the ground at terminal velocity.

No sane man would do such a thing. Even if he had a slight chance to survive, it wasn’t much. Apparently, the talk about Elizabeth’s minions being suicidally loyal wasn’t quite so far-fetched as it had sounded.

As the wind rushed past my face at blistering speeds, I struggled vainly in his grip. His arms were wrapped around me like steel vises, and again, I didn’t have any of my knives in my hand. If I could only get to one of them…

This was going to be close.

I cranked my speed up to about half blast, using the extra seconds it gave me to get my knife out. The only one I could reach was one of the double-sided throwing knives Maria had gotten me, so I slashed my hand open pretty good, but it was worth it.

As I let my power go, I started cutting at the giant’s wrist, causing him to grunt in pain and squeeze harder.

I had been hoping the pain would shock him into releasing me, but I hadn’t been counting on it. The real reason I needed the knife was to cut his tendons.

And just as I predicted, the taught tendons keeping his grip tight snapped like rubber bands under my razor-sharp knife. The unexpected lack of resistance caused the giant’s arms to pop open, and I kicked away from him as quickly as I could without using my speed.

I also made a mental note to never get mad at someone for buying me a sharpening kit again.

But I wasn’t done yet. I had lost track of my position during the mid-air struggle, and it was dark enough that I had trouble seeing. I didn’t have much left in my reservoir. If I misjudged my distance from the ground—

With a blink, I realized where I was.

NOW!

I used every last ounce of power I could squeeze out of my reservoir when my feet were mere inches from the ground, landing three-point style with a knee to the asphalt and a hand out to steady myself. The road shattered into a cloud of choking, blinding dust a heartbeat later, which worked out pretty well for me. It was about twilight, so there weren’t too many people around, but enough that I didn’t want them to see my face.

I stumbled over to the dorms under the cover of the cloud, since I didn’t have enough power to jump back to the roof, cursing as I wrapped up my slashed hand.

As I entered the lobby, Emily looked up from her book with a quirked eyebrow.

“Are you okay? I heard something outside.”

“Fine,” I managed.

She shrugged and went back to reading.

I rode the elevator up, taking deep breaths to try and bring my pulse to something normal. The stairs might have been faster, but I needed a minute to rest. I’m more used to near-death experiences than I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I can just bounce back from them like nothing happened.

I got off on our floor, and ran over to my room. Thankfully, the others were still here, chatting in Derek and Adam’s room.

Robyn looked up when I ran in. “Akane? What’s wrong?”

“Elizabeth’s on the roof,” I said without preamble.

No one hesitated. Adam, Ling, and Robyn all immediately rushed past me towards the stairs, running up them at breakneck pace.

I wasn’t far behind, but I was behind. I still needed a moment.

Either way, all four of us burst onto the roof within a couple minutes, to find the situation about as we had expected. Laura was cowering behind Derek, who was protecting her with a wide, glowing blue shield on his arm. Elizabeth was grinning like the madwoman she was as she struck the shield again and again with those orange blades. When she spotted the rest of us, she giggled.

“Good! I was getting bored with these two!” She licked her lips. “Too easy!”

Wait, if it was so easy, why were they still alive?

Before I had a chance to contemplate that thought, she rushed forward.

Again, she wasn’t using her super speed here—though even without supernatural assistance, she was fast. She could only use one power at a time, and she already had her blades out. If I hadn’t tapped into my own speed for a split second, I wouldn’t have been able to dodge in time.

She brought her blades forward in a scissor motion, which I managed to avoid by a hair’s breadth. The blood-soaked girl didn’t seem angry, though. If anything, she seemed more excited than before, her perfectly white teeth shining through all the blood.

If she had a follow-up move, she never got a chance to use it. Ling placed her hands on the roof, causing the concrete to mold up and wrap around the Composer’s ankles, arresting her momentum, and her swords disappeared a moment later. Elizabeth gave our resident delinquent a death glare, and the girl suddenly went flying off the roof.

Right, she had all our powers. Ling would be fine, she could fly. In theory.

Well, apparently no one had ever bothered to tell Robyn that, because she immediately dove off the roof after my roommate, leaving Adam and myself to deal with our greatest enemy alone.

The stone manacles Ling had created slid back into the structure of the roof even as we attacked. I sliced off one of her arms and Adam shot her in the gut with his pistol, but by then our advantage was gone. Although Elizabeth shrieked in pain and rolled away with her severed limb, I knew she had won this round. How couldn’t she have? Sure, we hurt her, but she was reattaching her arm even as I watched.

Okay, no more playing nice.

I nodded to Adam, and he started to retrieve his Caedes. I don’t know if Elizabeth recognized out plan or just recognized that we had a plan, and needed to be stopped, but she summoned her swords and charged forward again, trailing orange smoke like a fiery comet.

But again, she couldn’t use her speed at the same time as her blades, so I was able to block both without undue difficulty.

She cackled and dove forward, driving me back in desperate defense. Even tapping into my speed, she was overwhelming me.

It didn’t make any sense. Using two swords at once went against every style of swordsmanship known to man. And yet here she was, bringing her blades in at impossible and unexpected angles, forcing me to improvise on the spot.

I’m usually good at improvising. Against a monster, a dumpster-dog or a leapeater or whatever, I can roll with the punches, adjust my strategy, and come out on top. How was she so consistently outclassing me?

Maybe it was just what Ling said. Elizabeth was an animal, an angry, cunning animal like the monsters I was used to fighting, but in a human body and with supernatural weapons. I just didn’t have any experience fighting something like this.

But thankfully, Adam finally managed to get his gun out.

He just pointed the SMG at Elizabeth and pulled the trigger, despite the fact that she was between the two of us. I tapped into my speed and was safely behind him before the first bullet left the chamber, but still, it was a little annoying.

She screamed, more in rage than pain, as bullets tore into her side. She let the swords fade into mist again and ran away at super speed, dodging behind the entrance to the stairwell and out of the line of fire.

There was a metallic click; I turned to see Adam in the act of reloading, the spent clip on the ground. The only problem was, it was a sound anyone in the city would recognize…

As expected, Elizabeth dodged out to take advantage.

What wasn’t expected was how she took advantage.

She reached down to the floor and scooped up a fistful of concrete, using Ling’s power to mold it as easily as mud. But when she chucked it at my head, I was sure it was once again heavy and solid stone.

I was so surprised, I didn’t even think to use my speed, which I suppose was the point. Her aim was dead-on, too. I wouldn’t easily survive a blow to the skull, and even if I did I’d be out of this fight.

The stone bullet pinged off a misty blue shield that appeared out of thin air.

Oh, right, Derek was still here.

Apparently Elizabeth had forgotten too, because she growled and rushed towards him, blades appearing out of thin air.

I interposed myself between the two, blocking a couple of her strikes with some difficulty.

The girl I grew up with grinned at me. “You can’t keep this up forever, Ken-chan,” she said mockingly in perfect Japanese.

I grit my teeth. “Maybe. But I don’t have to.”

Then Adam shot her again.

She screamed, and dodged for behind the entrance to the stairwell, but this time I knew where she was heading, and didn’t hesitate. I activated my speed, meeting her in her supposed refuge. I slashed her diagonally twice at speed, in an X-pattern, causing her to fall into four uneven pieces.

I heard a sound behind me and wheeled around, but it was only Robyn, landing back on the roof with a sour-faced Ling in her arms.

“Quick,” Laura ordered. “Scatter the pieces. It won’t stop her, but it will slow her down for a moment.”

That would be when a couple grenades dropped at my feet.

I didn’t hesitate. I cranked my speed up as high as it would go, tackling Laura—who was closest to the explosives—and dragging her behind cover. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Derek pulling Adam and Ling together and covering them in a dome shield, while Robyn flew straight up.

Then the grenades exploded.

Oh, and they were magnificent. High-yield frag grenades, sending dust and red-hot shrapnel everywhere. The smoke enveloped Derek’s shield, mixing together with the azure mist in a way that I could only describe as elegant. The clash between the gritty black and brown of the explosion, with the noble blue of the shield…

Beautiful.

This was something that could only be appreciated with super speed. The raw, unchained fury of an explosion simply passed too quickly for normal eyes to comprehend it. I had tried, most of my life, truly tried, and while I had always enjoyed watching explosives, there had always been something…I don’t want to say missing. But it felt like looking at a painting in the wrong light. I wasn’t getting the full view.

And then I got super speed, and everything fell into place.

Beautiful.

But those grenades hadn’t just come from nowhere, and Elizabeth wasn’t the one who had dropped them. Leaving aside the fact that she just wasn’t the type to use them, I would have spotted them on her during our fight.

So who could have—

I heard something. Just a small, metallic click from a few inches behind me, but it was a sound I recognized.

The sound of the safety being flipped off a gun.

I barely had time to activate my speed, burning up the last few dregs of power in my reservoir, just enough to dodge the three-millimeter round that had been aimed dead-center at my skull.

Three millimeter didn’t sound like much, and it wasn’t. Musashi’s gravestone, even if it had hit me, at that range, I still had a slight chance of surviving. It was a tiny bullet, and the gun my assailant was using didn’t have the power to give it any real penetration.

But the dinky little Hellion revolver wasn’t designed for power, or intimidation, or anything like that. It was just a cheap little disposable thing, probably cost less than fifty bucks. Perfect for someone who didn’t have much money.

Like an orphan on the run.

“Mitchel?” I turned to see Ling, still at Derek’s side, blinking at the man holding the gun on me.

The man himself was…weird. Not sibriex levels of weird, but still. He had the ruddy skin of an islander, clashing with neon green hair. Other than that, he didn’t seem to have any obvious toys.

He grinned. “Hey, Ling. Ready to go?”

She blinked again. “What are you—” she suddenly glared, and ground her teeth. “Velvet hell, get away from her.”

“Is that really any way to greet an old orphanmate?”

The ground around Ling’s feet roiled with her rage. “You mean the orphanage you burned to the ground?

The man raised a single finger, while keeping the revolver leveled at my head. “In point of fact, it was the demon triplets who burned the place down.”

Ling didn’t calm down. “But you let them in.”

He just shrugged.

She roared in fury and charged forward, arrested only by Derek bodily tackling her. Even that almost didn’t work; she was still wearing her armor, and used her power to drag both of them closer to her foe.

Mitchel just smiled sadly. “You’re being a bit silly, Ling. Come along, Nabassu will be back for us soon.”

I glanced over at where the grenades had been dropped. Just as I suspected, Elizabeth’s remains were gone. Damn. One of her minions must have grabbed her while we weren’t paying attention.

Ling had finally given up struggling with Derek—likely because her reservoir had run dry—and glared up at her erstwhile friend from the floor. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

He just smiled, like he was dealing with a silly child. “Yes, you are.”

“No, she’s not,” I insisted, standing up.

“Oh, I had almost forgotten about you!” Mitchel said with a laugh. He turned the gun back to me.

Then his hand fell off, sliced cleanly at the wrist.

While Ling had kept him distracted, my own reservoir had replenished.

He stared dumbly at the stump for a second, before his beating heart started pumping blood from the wound.

“Oh God,” he whispered in horror. “Oh God oh God oh God—”

“Peace,” a calm cultured voice said, accompanied by Elizabeth’s demon butler from the Ring dropping down from the sky. “We have a healer. You’ll be fine.”

Mitchel didn’t look fine. His face was rapidly losing color, and I suspected the only reason he wasn’t screaming his lungs out was because he was still in shock.

“Wait right there,” Derek insisted firmly. “You’re not going anywhere. Akane.”

I nodded, taking the word for the order it was, and readied my sword and my power if he tried anything funny.

The demon, looking distinctly out of place in his sharp suit on the dirty rooftop, bowed formally.

“Apologies, Honored Paladins, but I will not be able to stay and chat.” He stepped forward, hooked his arms around Mitchel’s chest from behind, and brought out his leathery wings in a puff of smoke. “We must be off.”

Derek grinned. “You think you can fly faster than Akane can jump?”

“I don’t need to,” the demon said calmly.

And smoke exploded everywhere.

“Gas grenade!” Derek cried. “Akane, grab them!”

I rushed to the spot the pair of Blackguards had been when the smoke appeared, but to no avail. By the time the smoke cleared a few moments later, they were long gone.

Something didn’t make sense. I had used super speed. What was Mitchel’s power, that he could disappear both of them so quickly? Some form of teleportation? We hadn’t seen that yet, but it was a possibility. But if that was the case, then why had he needed the demon at all?

As Robyn landed back on the roof—after any chance of her getting involved in a fight was gone, I noted—I turned to her with a frown. “See where they went?”

She shook her head. “They were only out of view for a second or two before the wind shifted, but I still lost them.”

Laura sighed. “And we’re back to square one. Great.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 167)

The gun Mitchel uses here is a Hellion 87-609 Six, for the record. It’s designed as a holdout gun, a tiny little last-ditch defense when you’ve been captured and all your bigger guns taken.

Scene 166 – Remotus

REMOTUS

DEREK

I liked roofs. The taller the better. Quiet, peaceful. Just somewhere to be alone. No running into a naked neighbor in the bathroom, no giggling girls in the hall making ham-handed advances.

Just…peace.

“Derek, why’d you drag us up here?”

Right. normally I came up here for peace. Today, it was something different.

“I dragged you up here to talk,” I told Laura. “I dragged Akane up here for guard duty.” I nodded to her. “If you don’t mind.”

She didn’t hesitate, just sped back over to where she could keep an eye on the door that provided access to the roof.

Laura just eyed me warily. “What is so important that you couldn’t say it in front of the others?”

I took a deep breath.

“Laura,” I said, looking deep into her eyes. “Are you all right?”

She blinked. “Uh…yeah. Why?”

“You spent almost two weeks torturing someone who you considered a close friend for most of your life. Call me crazy, but I think that’s something that bears looking into.”

She touched her necklace briefly, looking away. “It’s no big deal. Science demanded I do it.”

“Science could have had someone else do it,” I retorted. “Doctor Henry, or that girl who’s always hanging around him, what’s her name—”

“Chao.”

“Right, her. Either one of them could have done it. I don’t think either of them ever even met Lizzy.” I bit my tongue, and quickly corrected myself. “Elizabeth.”

Lizzy wasn’t real. That girl had never even existed.

Laura still wouldn’t meet my gaze. “Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”

I stepped closer. “No, it did not have to be you. Can’t you delegate at all?”

Her eyes met mine in a flash of anger. “This from you? The man who personally wrestles to the ground every monster he meets? With your skills and connections, you should be at the top of a slayers’ guild, not out in the field! But no, SOMEBODY MIGHT GET HURT!”

I took an involuntary step back. “That’s…that’s different. New slayers need a firm hand guiding them to make sure they stay safe—”

“I’m not talking about the newbs, Derek! Most of the people you contract are almost as experienced as you, and you still hold their hands. Silver and gold, when you helped assault Shendilavri, you insisted on fighting the assassins after the warlords yourself!”

Now it was my turn to do a double-take. “Wait, how did you know—” I grimaced, and turned to my swordswoman. “Akane!”

She waved lazily. The message was clear: She wasn’t getting involved.

I turned back to Laura. “Anyway, I don’t always do that. I let Adam and the retinue face that gargant alone.”

She snorted. “Yeah, you let some of the most experienced soldiers in the city, and a psychopath, go alone on what you assumed would be a milk run. Real show of trust there.”

I was losing the upper hand in this conversation. “Again: Not the point. The point is you had an emotional investment in the victim—”

“Test subject.”

“Whatever! And that could easily have clouded your judgment! It’s a thrice-damned miracle she didn’t exploit that, and kill you.”

She just scoffed and looked away, but this time out of disgust instead of embarrassment. “Please. I was in complete control the entire time.”

“Sure,” I said dryly. “In complete control of the immortal with superpowers, who has since proven she could have escaped whenever she felt like it. I’ll buy that.”

She ground her teeth. “You would have done the exact same in my position, and you know it.”

“Not true.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’d have let me or Clarke do the cutting while you just hovered around keeping an eye on things.”

I winced. That actually did sound like what I would do. “Look, let’s both just calm down and get back on point.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, what is the point?”

“That I was worried about you, dammit!”

Again, she took a step back, and her hand went to her necklace. “You…were?”

“Well, yeah, what did you think would happen if you disappeared for almost two weeks?”

Laura averted her gaze. “You didn’t seem to care when I disappeared when we were kids.”

I resisted the urge to grind my teeth. “That was different. That was—”

I stopped talking.

Wait, what was different?

True, when we were kids Victor had still been around, and had been able to explain what was going on—as best as he could, anyway—but I didn’t remember actually caring.

But wait, I did care, I just…

Silver and gold, what was wrong with my head

“Derek?” Laura asked, moving closer. She put her hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right? You don’t look so good.”

“Don’t worry, sweetie. It won’t matter soon.”

I spun around to find the source of the voice. Not Akane, still guarding the stairwell.

A bronze-skinned girl, wearing a dress that was brown with old blood.

She stood on the edge of the roof, grinning from ear to ear, next to a giant of some sort of South American ethnicity. Probably a Vanir, then.

I felt my jaw tighten.

“Elizabeth.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 166)

Short, but important, and not just because of the end.

Extra update Wednesday.