Monthly Archives: August 2014

Scene 180 – Impugnatio

IMPUGNATIO

LING

October 19th, Friday. The day after Adam and I had decided to investigate the ave outpost where scouts had reported seeing Mitchel.

The attack began at dawn.

Okay, maybe ‘attack’ was a little strong. It was just the two of us. And it’s not like we rushed in, guns blazing. They might just be a bunch of stupid birds, but we had counted ten of them, and there were probably more. We could probably take them, but it was easier to just sneak in.

The aves had rented, or otherwise managed to wrangle ownership of the entire ‘scraper, which wasn’t all that weird. It was converted from a standard central city store, so the bottom few floors had clearly once been clothing or book stores, while the upper levels had the remnants of ovens and refrigerators indicative of restaurants. It didn’t seem like our enemies had any use for all that extra stuff. Most likely, they had just grabbed the first building they could and moved in as fast as possible.

Outside, the place looked perfectly normal, except for a few pups keeping an eye on the entrance from a careful distance. Wait, no, what did the aves call their novices? Fledglings, that was it. They still looked mostly baseline, so they didn’t make anyone wonder why a bunch of aves were so interested in what was supposed to be an ordinary building.

Inside, the first floor was secured like an armored bunker. Plywood on the windows to reduce enemy visibility and reinforce the illusion that the ‘scraper was abandoned, piles of sandbags for cover, and a few carefully placed ammunition boxes in case of a siege.

There was a back door, boarded over and on the patrol route, but we didn’t go through that way. Instead, I chose a nice, thick wall made entirely of concrete, where someone had covered a large opening I assumed had been a display window. The aves wouldn’t have been the ones to do it; the concrete was too old, and they knew about Elizabeth’s power to manipulate concrete anyway.

Walking through the wall was like walking through a thick, slow waterfall of mud. I kept my eyes firmly shut and tried not to breathe as the cold man-made stone slipped over my flesh, shivering as I came out the other side and hopped down the last foot to the floor.

At my side, Adam let out a deep breath of his own, his hand like a vice. “Never,” he whispered, not wanting to alert the birds. “Never do that again.”

“Fine,” I whispered back. “Next time I’ll leave you on the other side.”

He adjusted the gun belts strapped across his back, probably checking to make sure they weren’t covered in concrete or something. “Just tell me where the bad guys are.”

I closed my eyes and extended my senses. I was still terrible with details, but I could at least tell the difference between the walls, the floors, and moving objects. The moving things would obviously be ave guards, so we knew what to avoid.

“This way,” I muttered, pulling the bland little man behind me. I winced at the sound his combat boots made on the bare concrete floor. “Couldn’t you have worn some other shoes?”

He shrugged. “This is all I’ve got.”

I sighed. “I’ll get you some Hisokana sneakers for your birthday.”

“My birthday was on Wednesday.”

I turned back to stare at him. “What? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Didn’t see the need. Besides, spent most of the day with Lily.”

I rolled my eyes. “I can imagine what you two were doing.”

He punched me lightly in the shoulder. “Don’t be an ass.”

At the edge of my awareness, I noted that one of the moving objects was suddenly standing still.

With an upheld finger, I indicated for Adam to shut up, which he did without complaint.

Had the guard heard us? Or had he just stopped for some other reason? He was five or ten feet away, separated from us by a single wall.

Then he stepped around the corner.

I cursed under my breath. He hadn’t seen us yet, but we only had seconds before—

Adam slipped behind him like a ghost, grabbed the ave’s head, and twisted.

Crack.

He pulled the corpse into the dark hallway with us and started stuffing it around a corner out of sight, where hopefully it wouldn’t be discovered right away.

The ave was a smallish man, only five or six inches taller than me, with a few modifications, but not to the massive extent I had come to expect from hanging around anthros like Turgay. He had sharp claws and feathers instead of hair, but otherwise he was a perfectly human-looking young man. He was…pale. Not blandly Caucasian like Adam, but some ethnicity I couldn’t put my finger on. One of the Nordic races, maybe?

“Is anyone coming?” Adam hissed.

I blinked as I was snapped back to the matter at hand. “I…what? No, I don’t think so.”

I did my level best to ignore what had just happened. And the fact that I was working with the kind of man who could kill someone without a second’s hesitation.

Velvet hell, I shouldn’t have to deal with this…

“Ling,” Adam said quietly. “C’mon, lead the way.”

Swallowing my anxiety, I nodded, taking us up the stairs without further incident.

As far as we could tell, floors two through four were barracks, sleeping quarters for the warhawks. I don’t know why they needed so much space; I only spotted a dozen, maybe two. They could easily have fit on one floor.

The reason wasn’t important. What mattered was that with the aves all spread out, it was hard to pass by them undetected. Not too hard, but it took more time than I would have liked to reach the fifth floor.

Fifth floor was the lab.

It was unmistakeable. There’s a peculiar scent a toy maker—or a toy box—gives off that is impossible to describe. There’s hints of burning flesh, the sharp tang of overheated metal, and some deep odor that almost smells like a swamp.

The place was set up about the same as the lab on the Ring, with simple temporary cubicles instead of anything more permanent. The windows were boarded up, leaving a few bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling as the only source of illumination. It didn’t look like a lab so much as a ghoul den, although maybe a bit cleaner.

The only sign that Soaring Eagle had spent any money on the place at all was the air conditioning system. There were a dozen large, freshly installed shiny vents spaced evenly around the room, stirring up the air as much as possible.

“The Sauron Field,” Adam muttered, frowning. “I had forgotten about that. You think all that is enough to keep the pheromones from doing anything?”

“Tezuka only knows,” I replied, scanning the room with sharp eyes. “Just try and stay away from the toy box itself, just in case.”

“No arguments here. So what exactly is your plan?”

“My…plan?”

My companion glared at me. “Yes, your plan. Please tell me we did not sneak in here without at least some sort of goal in mind.”

“Right. Of course.” I glanced around, not at all frantically. “Let’s…find Turgay.”

The lab turned out to be mostly abandoned, which I guess I really should have expected. Now that word had gotten out about the side effects, no one would want to stay here for longer than they had to.

Apparently, that included Turgay.

“There’s no one here,” Adam said flatly after our third pass through the room. “Unless you want to check in the toy box?”

I was getting frustrated too, but I managed to keep it pretty well hidden. “Sure. Just in case, right?”

He sighed, and motioned me to take the lead.

I hadn’t really had a good chance to look at the device last time—too busy crawling out of the thing and then watching Necessarius getting ambushed by a bunch of arachs—but it was about as I remembered. About the same size and shape as a coffin, maybe with slightly more rounded edges, a few air vents around the head and foot areas, and silver and shiny as a mirror.

The box was unlocked. No one was inside.

“Screw this,” I muttered, slamming the thing shut. Well, I tried to slam it shut, anyway. It had some sort of hydraulics or springs or whatever the hell it was, which kept it from falling shut on its own or closing too fast.

I kicked the stupid box as hard as I could. Then I spent about two minutes hopping around on one foot, cradling the other one and swearing under my breath. Had I broken any toes? It felt like I had, but I couldn’t tell.

“You done in there?” Adam asked from the other side of the curtain. He had wisely chosen not to come in with me, just in case. “We need to come up with a new plan.”

The pain in my foot was fading, and it didn’t come back when I gingerly put some weight on it, so I guess it wasn’t broken after all. Still, I winced a little as I stumbled out of the well-ventilated cubicle.

“Uh…why are you limping?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’re going back downstairs.”

He blinked. “We’re leaving? Just like that? Let’s at least grab one of these laptops, or something—”

“We’re not leaving,” I said firmly as I limped past him. “We’re just going downstairs.”

It took a minute for him to respond to that.

Then I heard the click of a fresh magazine being slammed into a gun.

“Right you are,” he said as he strode up to my side, sub-machine gun in hand. “Lead the way.”

That I did, stepping down the stairs a single floor, until we were at the door of the top-level barracks. None of the warhawks had noticed us yet, but it wouldn’t be long. We weren’t really trying to be stealthy any more.

The aves had seen Lizzy—Elizabeth—in action. They knew what kind of powers she had, and were prepared for someone with superspeed, or shields, or petrakinesis.

Or so they thought.

All it took was a single pulse of my sixth sense to be sure that while the walls and support structure of the building were made from more advanced materials, the first few floors were just concrete supported by rebar.

It wasn’t too hard to rip them apart.

I started with the floor we were on—not the parts we were actually standing on, but just the stuff within sight range. I placed my hands on the ground and sent a surge of power through it, tearing a crack from where I had placed my hands to the opposite wall.

The aves both on this floor and the one below, started squawking and screaming in fright, but I wasn’t done. My reservoir wasn’t nearly empty.

I took a deep breath and pushed harder, pulling the narrow crack into a ravine wide enough to see down to the floor below, and the aves staring up in fright as bits of concrete dust and a few spare floorboards rained down on them.

“Now that I have your attention,” I called out loudly. “I have some questions.”

A thin-framed girl with feathers in her hair, wearing pajamas printed with cartoon birds, stumbled out of a bed. “You…what?” She shook her head, trying to clear the sleep from it. “What do you want?”

“Who’s in charge here?”

“The director is gone for the night.”

I slammed my fist into the doorway, smashing a large crater through the concrete frame.

“I want to speak to whoever is next in command,” I yelled louder, trying to keep my voice strong. “I’m not afraid to kill if I have to!”

One of the warhawks next to the pajama girl grinned. “Yes you are.”

I did my best to glare at him. “No, I’m not.”

“If that were true,” he noted, his grin only widening, “you would have done it already.” He slowly drew a strange weapon from his back, something that looked like one of those three-pronged hand-held hoes you used for gardening, but sharpened.

No.

It looked like a claw.

“I don’t know what you want,” the warhawk said as he took a step closer. “And Soaring Eagle told us not to kill Paladins. But I don’t think I have to be afraid of you.”

Then a gun barked, the short, controlled report of a 4.5 millimeter Telum Caedes sub-machine gun.

The warhawk stumbled, then fell back, a half dozen red holes in his chest and a surprised look on his face.

He rolled when he landed, falling into the fissure I had made and onto the floor below.

“You don’t have to be afraid of her,” Adam confirmed. “Be afraid of me.”

His eyes…I want to say they were hard. And they were, kinda, but that wasn’t most of it. Mostly…

His eyes were apathetic. Uncaring.

He had killed a man with as much guilt as swatting a fly.

By the velvet-draped halls of Shendilavri, the Fourth Gate of Hell, how was this guy still on our side?

I brushed the feeling aside as best as I could, to deal with it later. I turned my attention to one of the aves, pretending like I had expected this development. “Yesterday, when you traded for your warhawks, a young man named Mitchel St. John made the delivery.”

The girl blinked. “What? That…independent contractor? Why do you want him?

“He’s one of the Composer’s Blackguards,” Adam said flatly before I could come up with a decent lie.

That idiot. I knew he sucked at lying, but couldn’t he just let me do it?

The girl swallowed visibly. “He…uh…that can’t be right. That’s not—”

“I don’t care what he told you, or where he came from or any of that,” I interrupted. “I just want to know where he is right now.”

The ave shook her head quickly. “I don’t know. He didn’t say.” She winced. “Are…are you sure he’s a Blackguard? I’ve known him for a long time, and I don’t think—”

Adam fired a shot over her head.

Her mouth shut with an audible snap.

“She said she wasn’t interested,” he reminded her.

“Apologies,” she managed.

I rubbed my short hair back out of my eyes. This was getting out of hand fast. “Okay, I just…how did you get in touch with him in the first place? Why did you send an outsider anyway?”

She cocked her head at me, suddenly looking very birdlike. “We sent an outsider so that a fight wouldn’t break out. There’s quite a bit of bad blood between our culture and Necessarius right now. Using Mitchel was an effort to avoid all that.” She shrugged. “And as for how I found him, I’ve known him for a few years. I called his cell.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What?”

“His cell? You know, his phone?”

“Ling,” Adam muttered, hopefully quietly enough that the birds couldn’t hear. “Please tell me we didn’t raid an ave lab before you tried calling him.”

I glared back. “That wouldn’t have worked. It would have just tipped him off.”

“You know what I mean. You could have asked MC to try and track him. Why didn’t you?”

“We spent all of yesterday planning this together!” I hissed. “Why didn’t you think of it?”

The sociopath turned back to the woman we had been speaking with. “What’s your name?”

“Jenna Strigi.”

I blinked. Oh, I had met her before. At the lab on the Ring. I guess I had forgotten because of everything else that had happened that day.

“Strigi. You say you don’t know where St. John is. Are you sure? You don’t know where he might hang out, or who might shelter him?”

Jenna shrugged again. “No one that I know of. Something happened to his orphanage—”

“He burned it down,” I spat.

Adam gave me a glare. “Ling,” he admonished. “Let her speak.”

“He didn’t do that,” the ave insisted, only a small quiver in her voice. “He would never do anything like—”

“Miss Strigi,” Adam interrupted. “I really don’t think this is the time for that argument. You two can hash it out later, when you’re somewhere my friend can’t rip the floor out from under your feet if she gets pissed at you.”

Jenna nodded, slowly. “But…I really don’t know where Mitchel would go. I offered him a bunk here, but he said he already had someplace.”

I tsked under my breath. “Another dead end. Great.”

Adam sighed and lowered his gun, though he didn’t holster it. “When is your boss gonna be back? Maybe he’d have a better idea.”

“Director Corvi should be back in the morning.”

“Okay, that’s—” he blinked. “Wait…Corvi? Turgay Corvi? The guy who sells ammo out of a warehouse at the edge of the Middle city?”

I looked at him sideways. “Uh…yeah. I told you we were here for Turgay.”

He ran his fingers through his hair in consternation, cursing under his breath. “You didn’t mention he was the guy in charge! This…this changes…”

My train of thought slowly synched up with his. “…the director would be in charge of dealing with an outsider like Mitchel. Combine with the fact that they already knew each other, and Turgay would definitely know where he was staying!” I turned back to the ave spokeswoman. “Where is Turgay right now?

She flinched back. “I…uh…I’m not sure. He said something about getting a roost with the skyrats…”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Skyrats?”

“Goblins,” I explained. “They like jumping between buildings, high places, all that.” I frowned at Jenna. “I’m surprised they’re not closer to the aves as a rule, actually.”

She winced. “Well, you see…Soaring Eagle and the Erlking apparently had some sort of falling out. Our cultures try to avoid each other these days.”

“Fair enough.” I jumped down through the hole I had made in the floor, using my armor to slow my descent. “C’mon, Adam. We’ve got some demons to visit.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 180)

Sneakers in Domina are a bit more literal than elsewhere. They’re shoes for sneaking.

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Scene 179 – Traditionem

TRADITIONEM

AKANE

TWELVE YEARS AGO

“Akiyama was a samurai house for a very long time,” my father explained as he carefully sharpened his sword, grinding it slowly on a small whetstone he had placed on the floor. “From the first days of the Edo period until the Meiji Restoration. Can you say that?”

“Edo and Meiji Restoration,” I repeated dutifully, a little annoyed. I was almost seven years old, I could pronounce his weird words just fine.

The wet grinding continued. “Do you remember how the house fell?”

I struggled to remember. “When the…Togu…Tokugawa sho…sho…”

“Shogunate.”

“When the Tokugawa Shogunate fell, we fell with them.” He had said something about…oh, right. “Kensei Akiyama fought to keep both houses alive, but in the end, only ours remained.”

“That’s right. And how did the Tokugawa fall?”

“In the 18th century—”

“19th, honey.”

“No, it was the 18th!” I insisted. “It was 1868, I remember!”

“And that’s the 19th century,” he said gently, as he continued to slide his sword against the stone. “The first century was 00.”

What? That didn’t make…did it make sense? I didn’t think so, but it was hard to…tell. I wasn’t good with math.

“What happened in 1868, Red?” my father prompted, as he finished sharpening his sword and pulled out a soft towel to clean it off.

“Um, they…” it took a minute, but I found my words. “An alliance of…d…d…daimyo and Emperor Meiji overthrew Tokugawa and restored the emperor to the throne.”

“Uh-hm. Who did they overthrow?”

I frowned. “The…Tokugawa Shogunate.”

He smiled down at me. “No, who.”

Oh, who! “Yoshinobu Tokugawa, fifteenth Shogun of Tokugawa.”

“And what was the war called?”

“The War of the Year of the Dragon.”

My father finished cleaning his sword, sheathed it, and then gently bopped me on the head with it. “In Japanese, please.”

I rubbed my head. It hadn’t hurt, not really, but still. “The Boshin War.”

He patted my head, grinning. “Very good.”

I moved his hand away. “Why do I have to learn all this? What does it matter?”

“If you know how our house fell, you’ll be able to prevent it from happening again,” he insisted.

“But we’re still…fallen.”

“For the time being. Now, why did the daimyo unite against Yoshinobu Tokugawa?”

I groaned. He wouldn’t be asking such a hard question if I hadn’t talked back.

“Um…because Yoshi was mean?”

My father smiled a little. “Red…”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I knew this one. He had drilled it into my head enough that I should be able to read it back without trying. But I couldn’t just…

I cracked open my eye. “…taxes?”

Another smile. “Partly. What else?”

“Uh, um…the…” I gained confidence as I spoke. “The arrival of foreign powers on Japanese soil for the first time.”

“Not quite the first,” he admonished. “And which foreign powers?”

I blinked. “Um…all of them? They weren’t very nice.”

He bopped me on the head. “Not every country sent ships to Japan, Red.”

Okay, there was… “America, and…” I bit my tongue. “…Germany?”

“America, France, and Great Britain.” He stood, moving away from the whetstone. “I think that’s enough history for now. How about sharpening?”

I nodded eagerly. I was good at sharpening things. Much better than memorizing stupid history facts.

My father pulled one of his wakizashi out of the sword rack. “Here. Try with this one.”

I took the short sword from him carefully, mindful of the edge like he had taught me. I slowly slid it over the whetstone in slow, even motions.

“No, you’re not putting enough pressure on it. It will take forever that way.”

“But if I push too hard, it will break.”

He smiled and ruffled my hair. “Then don’t push too hard. Just a little bit.”

“Akio, what the hell are you doing!?

At my mother’s voice, my dad jumped. “Musashi’s broken sword, Yasu, you scared me.”

She sighed. “Would you please stop mimicking Maria and Victor?”

“Mimicking them how?”

“I mean that weird…curse thing they do.”

“Theirs isn’t the same.”

“You know what I mean. Not normal.”

I tugged on his shirt. “Daddy, who’s Maria?”

He blinked down at me. “Oh, you still haven’t met them?” He glanced at mother—glowering at us—and smiled down at me. “I’m afraid your mother doesn’t like them very much.”

“Akio,” she managed through clenched teeth. “Your friends’ speech habits aren’t the point here. Why are you having her play with knives again?

He looked hurt. “It’s not a knife, it’s a wakizashi. It’s the traditional companion sword to the katana—”

“I don’t care what it’s called! Can you not see why I wouldn’t want our daughter learning how to…what are you even doing?”

“We’re sharpening it!” I chirped happily.

My mother gave me a long look before turning back to dad. “Little girls shouldn’t be learning things like this.”

Dad looked pained. “Yasu…please, she’s an Akiyama, she needs to—”

“Don’t you dare,” she spat. “We only have one daughter left, I’m not letting losing her too.”

Dad recoiled as if he’d been slapped. “You can’t—you can’t still be blaming me for—”

Mother stomped forward angrily, getting right up in his face. I think both of the adults had forgotten I was even there. “Yes, I can! Shiro died trying to impress you—”

He looked bewildered. “She jumped into a burning building, trying to save people! That is a good, and honorable death that we should be proud—”

“And Midori got killed for starting a fight with those…vampires!

Now my dad was starting to get angry too. “She was defending her children, and she died defending them. How can you blame me, or her, for something like that!?

“And Murasaki died eleven days ago. You couldn’t even wait two weeks to start brainwashing our last daughter again!?”

“Murasaki died in childbirth! How in Musashi’s name can you blame that on me?”

“That’s not what I meant—”

“That’s always what you mean!”

I scooted back away from them slowly so that they wouldn’t notice. They had fought every once in a while before, but once Shiro died, it had started getting worse.

It used to be no big deal. Midori would pull us all into the kitchen and start making us something or other, and we’d all get distracted long enough for them to finish. But after Shiro, Midori started getting involved, taking mother’s side and leaving me and Murasaki alone. Neither of us could cook to save our lives, so we had always ended up just sitting on our hands, trying not to listen.

Then Midori had died, and for a few months the entire apartment was dead silent. Our parents barely even looked at each other, leaving me to help Murasaki and her swelling belly waddle around.

But now…

“How many people have you killed for Butler?” My mother demanded. “Do you even know?

“What does it matter?” Dad snapped back.

“That question says it all, really.”

Dad had left his sword, Karasu the Raven, next to the whetstone we had been using before my mother found us. I snatched it up and ran to the bedroom I had shared with my sisters.

The sword was the only thing that hadn’t changed.

Behind the Scenes (scene 179)

Not completely comfortable with this one, but I think it works.

break

Scene 178 – Misericordia

MISERICORDIA

AKANE

The nephew of the dead ghoul I had killed almost three months ago had found me. It was far from impossible; the bounty, and my collection of it, was a matter of public record. You could ask for that kind of thing to be made private, but I had never cared.

But that wasn’t the point. If he had shown up at the dorms, or my mom’s place, that would have made sense. But he just stumbled upon me at a cafe we had chosen at random? How did that happen?

I didn’t have time to worry about that now. At my side, Flynn was ready to fight, but hadn’t drawn his sword yet. Laura had already gotten out of the line of fire, which was good. And I could trust Lily to get what few other customers there were out of range. Even the guy installing a speaker on the corner had disappeared.

Good. That meant I just had to focus on the vampire. I wasn’t very good with too many distractions during combat. Such as the fact that this idiot was going to make me miss my meeting with Yuuki and Yuudai.

No, focus.

He had a grenade in his hand, the pin pulled but the level still depressed. With my speed, I should be able to get it off him and throw it somewhere, but I didn’t know where. I wasn’t completely certain, but it looked like a frag grenade, which meant lots of shrapnel to shred anyone that happened to be within the blast radius. Depending on the manufacturer, that could be anywhere from thirty feet to a hundred.

Or five feet, I guess, if he was using one of those McDowell party poppers. Those things used a shaped blast—cut the range to nothing, but they could cut through tank armor like cheese. Of course, no one really used tank armor in Domina. Except Dispater, I guess…

“I followed the demon,” Algol explained, that sad little grin/grimace still on his face. “I saw you meet up with her outside your dorms one time, so I decided if I stuck close to her, I’d find you when you’re vulnerable.”

“Are you an idiot?” Laura asked incredulously. “Lily’s not a demon.”

The vampire blinked. “What? Yes she is, what else would she be?”

“Laura,” I hissed. “Go. Please.” I did not need her in danger.

She opened her mouth to retort—though whether to me or Algol, I have no idea—before nodding and slipping into the building, presumably where Lily had everyone safe.

Algol shook his head. “Whatever, I don’t care.” He turned his attention back to me. “All I care about is you.”

“Justified,” I noted.

He nodded. “Yes, it is, I’m glad you—”

“No. Killing your uncle.”

The vampire ground his teeth—which I saw with some surprise were NOT sharpened into fangs—and gripped the grenade tighter. “For dark’s sake, he stole centerfold pictures! That’s all! I hardly call that enough to earn him a dead or alive bounty!”

“Tried to kill me. Probably more.”

Algol spat, venom in his eyes. “That’s what they all say. Not that I care—AAAGH!”

He had tried to distract me by talking, but I had noticed his grip on the grenade loosening, his arm tensing to throw.

So I had moved forward at super speed and sliced off his hand.

The vampire fell to the ground screaming, clutching the bloody stump of his hand as it pumped blood in quantities far too great for his body to handle.

I handed the…uh, hand, off to Flynn. He’d make sure to keep a nice tight grip on it while we waited for a disposal unit.

Using the tip of my sword, I brought the young vampire’s chin up, forcing him to look at me.

His black eyes were hard and defiant, despite the pain. He knew he couldn’t do anything else to hurt me, but he didn’t care. Hate was the only weapon he had left, and he’d use it as best as he could.

It would be easiest to just let him bleed out. No need to worry about him coming back for vengeance, or even anything so messy and crude as killing him myself.

All I had to do was wait.

“Laura,” I said quietly. “Ambulance please?”

She nodded, pulling out her phone.

“Flynn,” I added. “Lily.”

I heard him rush off to find the girl. She’d have first-aid materials to stop the bleeding.

I could have just let him die.

But…

I had a nephew too.

Behind the Scenes (scene 178)

Yow, short. Well, there was really nothing else to do here, expect maybe add a couple pages of filler, with Akane struggling over the decision or whatever.

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 177 – Talionis

TALIONIS

LAURA

“Akane, Flynn,” I nodded as introduction to both of them. “Where are the others?”

“I haven’t seen Robyn,” she admitted, stepping back out of some fighting stance she had been showing Flynn. “Ling ran off, and I sent Adam after her.”

I looked at her curiously. “Why didn’t you just grab her?”

The swordswoman shrugged. “Adam was the reason she left. He brought some bad news.”

“But…” I sighed. “Fine, whatever. You two ready for lunch?”

“Yeah.” She picked up her sword bag and slipped it over her shoulder; behind her, Flynn mirrored the action. “Wasn’t Derek coming?”

“He’s still with the First Response Battalion.” At their blank looks, I elaborated. “A new crew Butler put together for us. A step up in size from the retinue, but a step below calling down the whole might of Necessarius. Anyway, we found a crime scene, and he wanted to keep an eye on them for now.”

That man couldn’t delegate to save his life. As long as there was a chance of danger, he wouldn’t let them out of his sight. But still, I figured it was better to let him go crazy for a little while. Give him a chance to see the battalion in action. Maybe they’d earn some confidence from him.

As we left, I forced a smile. “Where’d you two want to eat? Personally, I’m not really in the mood for Nervi’s today.” Too much red meat in my diet recently.

Akane thought about it as we passed through the checkpoint. “I dunno…there’s that cafe near the dorms. Maybe we’ll run into Ling and Adam, too.”

Flynn looked contemplative. “You mean that one we went to after the alley crawlers, right?”

She nodded.

Oh, I remembered that one.

It was one we had gone to with Elizabeth.

“Let’s try somewhere new,” I suggested. “There’s a pizza place on the south end of Acheron.”

“You mean the one that just opened up in Thuldanin?” Flynn asked, a cynical look on his face. “I heard about it, but I’m not sure I want to eat any food Laduguer had anything to do with.”

“Fair enough,” I said slowly. “How about Sweet Reason, over in Mercuria?”

Akane gave me a sideways look. “Really?”

Okay, she had a point. Going to a Heaven would be a bad idea for a few reasons.

“You’re over thinking this, ” Flynn suggested. “There’s a cafe right here.” He indicated a sparsely populated outdoor restaurant. It was designed to serve fifty or more people at a time, but there were only five or six.

Silver and gold, every time I thought the city was starting to recover, I turned around to find everyone still huddled down for the storm. It wasn’t because of this morning’s incident at the apartment, either, since we hadn’t released any news on that yet. It was just a general fear, a knowledge that more was wrong with the world than usual.

If Akane and Flynn noticed, they didn’t say anything, which was probably for the best. I didn’t feel like discussing the sociological ramifications of an entire city being under constant siege. Akane just gave her totally-not-boyfriend a sideways look.

“Here?” she asked. I wasn’t sure if her incredulity was due to the abandoned nature of the place or the fact that it served Japanese food.

Flynn just rolled his eyes at both of us. “I figured a familiar face would be the most important thing.”

That would be when we noticed Lily waiting tables.

“You’re still doing this?” I asked when we got close enough. “I assumed you were busy with other things.”

The small, horned girl just smiled guilelessly. “Most of the waiters at my jobs are calling in,” she explained. “Someone has to wait the tables.”

“Doesn’t have to be you,” Akane noted.

Lily just shrugged. “Maybe. But we can chat later. Why don’t you three just take a seat, and we’ll have you served in a minute, okay?”

I nodded, pulling the other two over to a nearby table. There was no arguing with Lily when she was in her ‘help anyone and everyone’ mode. Besides, I really was hungry.

“So what exactly is this thing Derek was keeping an eye on?” Flynn asked once we had secured seats sufficiently far from the other patrons. “Knowing him, it could be someone tripped and skinned their knee.”

That made me smile. He wasn’t that bad, but it certainly felt like it at times. “No, it’s actually pretty serious.” I sipped at the water Lily placed in front of me. “Someone attacked an apartment this morning. Derek and I were the ones to find it. Now he’s keeping an eye on the ‘sarians.”

Flynn frowned. “An apartment? What were you two doing in the middle city?”

“It was a central apartment,” I corrected. “Just a little one over by…” I tried to remember. “Arborea, I think. Still, it was pretty bad. A complete slaughter.”

“Ugh. Another Bloody Thirteen?”

I groaned. “I hadn’t even thought about that. There could be more massacres that we haven’t found.”

“Well,” the swordsman muttered, clearly a little perturbed that he had been the first one to think of the worst possibility. “We can still hope it’s just the one.”

“We can hope,” I agreed. I turned to the menu, scrolling down a little. “But for now, we should eat. I’m getting the white rice with steamed veggies. What about you guys?”

“Some bass for me,” Flynn said immediately. He was looking at the menu a bit hungrily. “They’ve got some in a teriyaki glaze.”

Akane shrugged. “Pojo. I guess.”

I rolled my eyes. “Just get the chicken. It costs half as much, and you won’t be able to tell the difference.”

“Chicken prices have gone up,” Lily said from behind me as she stepped into my field of vision. “With the blockades and everything.”

Akane blinked. “Blockades?”

“On Shaohao and the other space stations,” the waitress elaborated. “They’re not getting any food from the ground, which means they don’t have any of the good stuff to shoot down to us. Unless Butler decides to start trading by ship or plane, which I doubt will happen. The point is, for now at least, pojoes are cheaper than chickens.”

The swordswoman shrugged. “Then I’ll get the pojo, like I said.”

Lily tapped in her pad. “Teriyaki?”

“No, dry.”

“Okay…and striped bass in teriyaki for the teacher…” Flynn smiled a bit at being called a teacher. I had forgotten about that. I guess it was working out for him. “…and what did you want, Laura?”

“White rice and veggies.” I handed the menu back to her.

She grasped the device with her tail, wrapping around it a few times. “I’ll be right back—oh, sir!” There was another customer, a few tables away, sitting down. “Give me a minute, I’ll be right with you!”

The new guy was a vampire, though I couldn’t tell what specific culture. Other than the nighteyes hidden under daygoggles, he seemed baseline, if a bit pale.

It didn’t take long for Lily to come back with our food. Flynn and mine were common enough to be prepared ahead of time, and pojoes didn’t even need to be cooked if you killed them right.

“How have things been going?” Flynn asked as he flipped out one of his knives and started slicing into his fish. “With Lizzy—”

“Elizabeth,” Akane said firmly.

“Er…yeah. With Elizabeth and the renegade speakers and all that. The news has been kinda quiet.”

I pulled out my own knife—the only one I had—and started carefully eating rice. “Not good. Not quite…bad either, but definitely not good. We killed a few when we captured her—”

“I heard about that. Everyone was talking about it.” He took a small bite of fish. “Wasn’t it the first fight between the Paladins and the Blackguards?”

“Second,” Akane corrected. “The first was on the Ring.”

I nodded. “Right. We killed one there—” I had forgotten about that entire fight. “—and a handful more in the alley ambush, and then Akane got the flier on the roof on Monday.”

The swordsman looked contemplative. “Well, that’s not great, but it could be worse, right?”

“Probably,” I admitted. “But the big problem is that Elizabeth seems to be able to create new Blackguards whenever she wants, at least going by some of the things she’s said. We can’t.”

“Oh yeah, I was kinda wondering about that.” He grinned. “I guess that means I don’t get super speed? Unless I join the other side, I guess.” Akane glared at him, and he grinned wider, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. “Just joking, just joking.”

“Go easy on the death glare, Akane,” I advised. “You might scare him away.”

“So you ARE Akane?” I heard from behind me. “The swordswoman Akane?”

We all turned to see the drake who had sat down a few minutes ago staring at us.

“Yes,” Akane managed. “Why?”

The vampire pulled off his daygoggles, squinting in the morning light, to get a better look at her. “You’re Akane…Aki…moto? Akimoto?” He shook his head. “No, that’s not right.” He fished around in his pocket, presumably for a phone. “I have it written down, one second…”

“Akane Akiyama,” she said bluntly. “Why?

“I’ve been looking for you,” he explained, a little hesitantly. “My name is Joshua Algol.”

The swordswoman just shook her head, the motion making the beads in her hair click again.

“My uncle was the ghoul Nathaniel Algol,” he elaborated. When Akane still didn’t react, he continued. “He died almost three months ago, in an alley off Abigail and Celestia.”

Suddenly, Akane leaped back, knocking over her chair and drawing her sword in a single motion. Flynn mimicked her, though a bit slower, and I at least had the presence of mind to get out of the way.

That’s also when I noticed the vampire was holding a grenade.

“You killed my uncle,” he said, a sad little smile on his face. “I guess that means now I have to kill you.”

I closed my eyes. Silver and gold, Akane. Why did she always attract the crazy ones?

Behind the Scenes (scene 177)

Might have taken a little too long to get to the point on this one.

Scene 176 – Monitionem

MONITIONEM

ADAM

Okay, so I probably shouldn’t have told Ling about her Blackguard arch-nemesis or whatever helping the aves. I get that. But what else was I supposed to do? Better she hear it from a friend, right?

Akane apparently felt otherwise. “Adam, next time keep your mouth shut!

I glared at her. “She would have heard sooner or later.”

“Yeah, but we could have…” she ran her hand through her hair, making her beads click together. “Musashi’s sword, just go after her!”

I did a double take. “What, why me? You’re the one with super speed!”

“Your problem, you’re the one who fixes it. Go!”

“Fine, fine,” I grumbled, heading out the door after Ling. I couldn’t help that think Akane was more concerned with getting me out than actually stopping her roommate from doing something stupid.

Now that I thought about it, she might actually have a point. Did Ling even know where any ave bases were? What, was she just going to wander around until she found one? Thankfully, I found her only about a block away from the martial arts studio, stopped at a ‘sarian checkpoint. One of those goat-demons was arguing with her.

“Miss, please,” she said in a placating tone. “I just need to know where you’re going.”

“This is bullshit!” the diminutive blonde nearly shrieked. By some stroke of luck, she had hit the checkpoint at a traffic lull, so there was no one except for the soldiers around to hear her make a fool out of herself. “I can go wherever the Hells I want!”

“Miss, with all due respect, I’m just following orders.”

“Look, I may not be up to date on the exact letter of the law, but I do know you can’t ask me questions like that! You can stop me if you think I’m dangerous, and that’s it.” She waved her alpha-level security pass. “So either charge me with something or swipe me through.”

The demon looked pained. At least, I think she did. She had fur and everything, so I had a bit of trouble reading her face. “Miss, you don’t understand. I was ordered to find out where you, specifically, were going.”

There was a slight pause.

Then Ling said in a very low voice “What.”

The ‘sarian was clearly aware she had just wandered into a minefield. “Miss—uh, Honored Paladin—”

Before things could escalate too quickly, I stepped into view of both women. “Ling, let me see if I can help.”

She glared at me. “I can handle this.”

I didn’t back down, or even acknowledge her assertion. I just turned to the demon. “Where’s your CO? Bring him out.”

Credit where it’s due, despite the girl knowing full well Ling could kill her and get away with it, she didn’t jump at the opportunity to pass responsibility off to some random stranger. She stood her ground. “Sir, please, this is an internal manner. Wait in line, we’ll have things sorted shortly.” She swallowed visibly. “One way or another.”

I didn’t bother arguing. I just flipped out my own alpha-level security pass.

The guard gave a small eep. “Uh…so sorry, sir—um, Honored Paladin.” I couldn’t be sure with all the fur, but I think she was sweating. “Please, just…wait one moment.”

She scurried off, her long tail wrapped around her body like a security blanket, leaving the two of us alone with a baseline and a heavy-set man who looked like a giant. Which were the South-American ones? Jotuun? I think that was right…

“I told you I’d handle it,” Ling muttered angrily, not looking at me.

“I’m sure you could have,” I assured her. “But in your current mood, I think that would involve too much destruction.”

She winced, but the gesture was gone so fast I thought I might have imagined it. “…maybe. But no one would have actually died.”

“You need to be more careful.”

The blonde girl rolled her eyes. “Please. I think I can take a tongue-lashing over destroying one little checkpoint.”

I noticed the ‘sarians subtly loosen their guns in their holsters.

Still, I kept my attention on Ling. “That’s not what I mean. You’re looking for the aves. Do you know where they are?”

“Yes,” she replied, to my complete surprise. “At least, I have a general idea. There’s this one intersection where Turgay always seems to find me. It should be around there.”

“Hm.” It wasn’t as good as an address, but she probably would be able to find them with that. They had a lab and everything, so there were only so many places they could set up shop. “And then what?”

She gave me a look. “What do you mean, and then what? Then I figure out where Mitchel is.”

I didn’t ask the obvious follow-up question about what she’d do with him, since she still had an aversion to killing. “The aves already got attacked once—by Elizabeth herself, you’ll remember.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So they’re prepared. Prepared for someone with your power—and more, in fact. And you’re still not the most experienced fighter.”

Ling looked away. “Yeah, well, I guess I’ll improvise.”

Before I could point out the problem with that statement, the goat-demon came back with her superior.

“I have been informed of the situation,” the black man, somewhere in his early thirties, said without preamble. He eyed Ling. “I am sorry, but my orders are signed by the Big Boss.” He held out a pad for us to see.

“’Any time the Paladin Ling Yu attempts to pass through a checkpoint of Necessarius, she must provide her destination before being allowed to continue. If she states she will do anything illegal, or the questioning officer believes she is lying, she is to be detained.’” Ling ground her teeth. “Wonderful. What brought this on?”

I thought about it. “When’s the last time you passed through a ‘sarian checkpoint?”

“An hour ago, when Akane called me here!” She glared at the goat-demon, who shrank behind her boss. “This bird-watcher asked me where I was going, I said training, and that was it. I thought she was just making small talk!”

“No, I mean before today.”

“Uh…a while ago. I mean, I come in with Akane every once in a while, but I guess…” She tapped her arm, her nails clicking against the armor plating hidden under her long sleeves. “After the skins.”

“Well, then it’s a mystery for the ages,” I deadpanned. “Can’t think of a reason why Butler would want some way to track your location after that.”

Ling winced, but didn’t speak.

“Okay, hang on, I’m confused,” the other baseline ‘sarian piped up. “If he wanted to track her, why not just ask MC? She’d never even know, and it’d work better than asking her.”

Huh. That was actually a pretty good point…

“I pull the GPS out of every phone I buy,” she muttered, not looking at anyone. “First thing I do.”

Oh, right. “Because of the—”

The former succubus glared at me, silencing me before I could mention that fact. “Yes. Because of that. I don’t like people knowing where I am.”

The Necessarians looked at her like she had grown an extra head. “You don’t trust MC?”

She glared at them as a group. “You just admitted she can track anyone whenever you want.”

The CO didn’t seem to know quite what to say. “But it’s MC.”

Ling waved her hand helplessly. “I don’t know. It’s just…I know she won’t do anything bad with it, but what about Butler? Or—” Then she stopped. “Why am I talking with you people about this? Get out of my way before things get violent.”

I rolled my eyes. We had everything we needed, so there was no need to draw this out any longer. I sighed. “I’ll make this easy on both of us.”

She blinked. “Wait, you’re not—”

“She wants to attack the aves, who she believes are working with the Blackguards,” I explained to the ‘sarians, who looked as awkward as if they had just wandered into a sibling spat. “However, I’m going to take her home instead.”

“That’s all we needed,” the CO said before Ling could vent her obvious frustration. He swiped her card across the reader with almost indecent haste, and did the same with mine when I handed it to him. He held out both cards with a strained smile on his face. “Have a nice day, Honored Paladins.”

Ling snatched her pass back angrily, before stomping through the checkpoint, causing minor earthquakes with every step. I followed quickly, before she had a chance to get mad and really use her powers.

“You should have let me handle it,” she reiterated once we were out of sight of the soldiers.

“Either nothing would have gotten done or something very bad would have. This was the best for everyone.”

“Whatever. I’ll see you later.” She started to walk off in another direction.

“Dorms are this way,” I reminded her.

She stopped and glared at me. “You can’t seriously have meant what you were saying back there.”

I shrugged. “I always mean what I say.”

“Whatever, I don’t care. I’m going after the aves, and you can’t stop me.” She started walking away again.

“You’re too weak,” I said quietly.

She stopped dead in her tracks.

“You are not a killer,” I reminded her. “You’ve said so yourself. You can’t intimidate five or ten warhawks on your own—and that’s assuming there aren’t any Blackguards. Leave this one to Butler.”

I’m not really sure what I expected her to do. Normally, she’s not the type to scream and yell, but this had been a bad day for her. If she decided to attack me, I had to be ready to dodge away.

“You’re right.”

Whatever I expected, her agreeing with me definitely wasn’t it.

“I’m not good at fighting,” she mused. “I don’t like it, I’m not good at it, and I’m horrible at killing.” She turned to me. “But you aren’t.”

I frowned. “Wait, what?”

“You picked up a gun on your first day in the city, and killed a woman like you were snipping the head off a flower.”

I…had I? I mean…I guess I hadn’t really thought about it. Hadn’t really considered the implications of a pampered rich kid being able to fight on an even level with a couple monster slayers.

Butler had called me a ‘natural-born killer,’ but I hadn’t really thought about what he meant. Maybe I…

Then Ling smiled.

It wasn’t her usual smile. That one was either a shy, slender thing peeking out from behind a wall, or a giggly and honest laugh that accompanied talking about her favorite anime.

This was a cold, confident smile, the smile of a crocodile or a panther before the kill.

Since when the hell could she smile like that?

“I’m not a killer,” she said, but I was beginning to have my doubts about that detail. “So why don’t you come with me?”

Ah.

Well.

I felt myself grinning involuntarily.

I suspected it was an exact match for her own.

Behind the Scenes (scene 176)

“Bird-watcher” is an insult to bulezau (goat-demons), referencing their leader, the former ave Pazuzu. This whole incident might have gone more smoothly if someone else had been the one stopping Ling.