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.
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 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.
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?”
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.