Monthly Archives: October 2014

Scene 190 – Sociorum

SOCIORUM

DEREK

“You should have called me sooner,” I snapped into my phone, while I tried to get my shoes on one-handed. “Akane could have gone with you.”

“It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time,” Adam insisted on the other end. “Besides, I had the retinue and everything. And it was fine. There was no fighting at all.”

“But there could have been,” I insisted. Stupid shoelaces… “You were charging into an ave lab under the assumption that they were working with Lizzy—the Composer. She could have turned them all into screamers for all you knew.”

“There haven’t been any screamers since she came out.”

I was reminded of what Pale Night had said, about Elizabeth not using screamers now that she didn’t need to hide her identity. As usual, the enigmatic demon proved to know what she was talking about.

“Point. But—”

“Derek, you’re making me regret calling you at all.”

I sighed. “Fine. Do you have any leads left?”

“None,” he repeated from earlier. “Nothing but an empty lab. Alex and the ‘sarian CSI team are combing it for the third time right now, but I doubt they’ll find anything.”

There was a clicking sound through the phone, and then Laura’s voice. “Adam? Derek? You both there?”

“Yeah, we’re here,” I confirmed.

“MC got me up to speed and patched me through. Ling went looking for trouble with the aves, and now she’s missing, right?”

“And the aves packed up and headed off,” Adam added.

“Right. First place to check is G’Hanir. I doubt this particular group headed back there, but they might have reported in or something.”

I nodded, though neither of them could see me. “Or maybe they’ll have maps of safehouses or something. Good thinking.”

“That name sounds familiar,” Adam muttered. “But I can’t remember from where.”

“Ave domain,” Laura explained. “Really tall ‘scraper. Soaring Eagle and hers prefer to remain nomadic, so I’d be really surprised if they were there, but maybe we’ll get lucky.”

“I think I’m gonna call some people,” I said. “Have a few friends who might be able to find either Ling or the aves. Adam, why don’t you call Robyn and check out the domain?”

My roommate sounded hesitant. “You sure you want to involve her in this? I’m not sure she’ll be useful.”

“She can fly. That’s pretty useful.”

“She’s also a coward.”

I bit back an instinctive retort. He…had a point. Unfortunately.

“She’s gotten a lot better,” Laura noted. “She used to faint at the sight of blood.”

“True, but she’s still willing to abandon people rather than jump into a war zone,” I snapped back.

Most people are not keen to jump into war zones, Derek.”

“I’m not interested in debating this,” I sighed. “Adam, just have her scout for you. Don’t assume she’ll be any good in a fight.”

“Can do.” He hung up.

“I guess I should go grab Akane,” Laura added. “Flynn too, maybe? Depends on how his teaching is going these days. He might not have time.”

“Sounds good. I’ll call Akane, tell her to meet you.”

“No need.”

“Well, if she’s alone with Flynn, she might need some encouragement.”

I could almost see Laura shrugging on the other side of the line. “I think she’ll be willing to help find her roommate, but either way, it’ll be fine. She follows my orders.”

I blinked, pausing halfway through putting on my jacket. “She does? Since when?”

“I can’t pin it down exactly. Since the very first fight with Elizabeth, at least.”

That was really weird. Akane was a pretty independent person, except when it came to me. “Uh…because you’re our strategist? I guess?”

“Not sure it’s like that. I’m not talking just in combat, she obeys me on little things too.”

I shook my head to clear it. “That’s really not important right now. The point is to find Ling. Hopefully before the next Blackguard attack.”

“You’re right. I’ll be in touch after I meet up with those two.” The phone clicked as she hung up.

Okay, my turn. I could make all my calls from my room, but when dealing with warlords, it was better to do things in person. More polite that way. And it’s always a good idea to be polite to people you want favors from. Not to mention that they were all strong enough to squash my head into paste with their bare hands.

I headed downstairs—nodding to Emily on my way out—and hailed a taxi at the curb.

“Where to?” the cabbie asked in a bored voice.

“The Full-Moon domain,” I explained. “Need to talk to some lupes.”

The lupes had quite a bit of territory, of course, scattered around the city in clumps and bunches. Most of them didn’t get along with each other too well, and like the other cultures, they spent a lot of time in a state of civil war. Even the individual subcultures fought members of their own auspices quite often.

But no lupe would dare start a war in one of the Moonhomes.

In the shifting morass of lupe politics—which I paid precisely zero attention to—the five Moonhomes were left completely untouched. Named after the phases of the moon, they were the origin of the wolves and their culture. Attacking them would be like attacking the Statue of Liberty for the Americans, or Baekdu Mountain for the Koreans, or Zero Forge for anyone in Domina City. It just wasn’t done.

Therefore, while I wasn’t completely certain I’d find my friend Tecumseh there, I knew I’d at least survive long enough to ask someone where he was.

The Full-Moon was the domain of the Rahu, the warrior auspice. Tecumseh was a pretty high-ranking Hunter in the Lycaon tribe, following…

Wait, who did the Lycaons follow? I really should start paying more attention, but they just had so many subcultures and tribes and Alphas and so on and so forth, it was impossible to keep track.

It only took a couple hours to reach our destination—traffic was still ridiculously easy. Still, in hindsight, I probably should have taken the light rail.

“Anywhere specific you wanted to be dropped off?” the cabbie drawled.

“Here’s fine,” I assured her. I wasn’t sure where, exactly, Tecumseh would be in the neighborhood, so I didn’t want the cab waiting while I called him up and asked. I could walk a block or two.

“That’ll be two hundred dollars.”

“Okay—oh. Oops.”

The cabbie narrowed her eyes as she registered me reaching for my wallet and cursing. “You did not just make me drive two hours off my normal route without your wallet.”

“It’ll be fine,” I promised. “MC?”

“Yes, Mister Huntsman?” the fake voice responded from the dashboard radio. Cabs generally left one of the helper programs on at all times for liability, directions, that sort of thing.

“Transfer two hundred dollars to this cab to pay off my fair, please.” I thought about it. “And add a twenty percent tip.”

“Done. Will there be anything else?”

“That’s all, thanks.”

The cabbie quirked her eyebrow at me. “Look, I’m not complaining that you were able to pay me, but having all your accounts linked like that is a bad idea. Even through MC.”

I chuckled. “My accounts? No, you just got paid by Artemis Butler. Directly.”

As the driver stared at me in stunned silence, I winked at her and slipped out of the cab, still laughing quietly to myself.

Even if I had just ended up on Full-Moon Street by accident, I would have been able to immediately identify it as a kemo domain. Every ‘scraper in sight was covered in handholds patterned into the walls, allowing easy access for a culture that spent almost as much time climbing as walking. Windows above the first floor had mailboxes and locks, since they were the primary means of entry for their residents.

And, of course, there were lupes everywhere.

That sounds like an obvious point, but it wasn’t, not in recent weeks. Between the Composer and the fey, most people were staying inside, clutching guns and family members close.

But this was the home of the Rahu, the warrior wolves. They would not be intimidated.

Not to say that there was no sign of fear. They were still obviously on a war footing, with packs of heavily-armed anthros patrolling the streets, locks on every window and every door…

But even with such precautions, the domain felt so much more alive than anywhere else I had been recently. As the cab drove off, I took a few minutes to just absorb the constant bustle of a living city.

I had missed this.

But I couldn’t just stand around here all day; I needed Tecumseh’s help finding Ling, but first I’d need help finding Tecumseh.

Just grabbing a random lupe and asking for directions might work, or it might get me mauled by a werewolf. Asking MC wasn’t an option; Tecumseh was one of those annoying ones who had opted out of letting her track his GPS. Sure, she’d tell me anyway if I asked, but he’d be pissed.

Still, there were ways around that. I flipped out my phone and dialed MC.

“Where’s the nearest Lycaon recruiting station?” I asked without preamble.

“The Fenris Fort is two blocks to your west, at 6795 Full-Moon Street. It is the large gray armored building. Will there be anything else?”

“No, that should do it,” I confirmed, and hung up.

Walking two blocks only took a few minutes, where I continued to enjoy the feel of being in large crowds of people again. True, I generally wasn’t used to those crowds being composed almost entirely of lupes glaring at the out-of-place baseline, but I could live with that. If worst came to worst and someone felt like attacking me, I knew I could handle myself in a fight.

Fortunately, no one felt like starting fights when the Composer and her Blackguards were on the prowl, so I reached Fenris Fort without too much difficulty.

As MC had hinted at, it was a broad skyscraper armored against siege, with iron bars over the windows, armor plating at the lower levels, and carefully concealed arrow slits for shooting down at attackers. The entire building was a dull, unpainted gray, alternating between the darker steel plates and the much lighter concrete and sheetrock. There was something else odd too, but I couldn’t quite place it…

Ah.

There were no climbing holds.

It only made tactical sense, of course. No reason to make it easier for the enemy to scale your fortress. But still…it felt weird, seeing a kemo building without that familiar pattern of hand-sized indents spaced evenly about the face.

The flanking ‘scrapers had them, I noted, which made not having them on the fortress a little bit useless, since attackers could just climb up those buildings and jump. But, I supposed it would still help, if even a little. I shook my head, pulled open the broad steel door, and entered as if I belonged there.

I immediately found myself flanked by a pair of heavily-armed and armored wolf anthros.

The guards didn’t have their weapons raised, but they still glared harshly at me, their eyes narrow and their ears twitching. I didn’t have too many kemo friends, but I knew enough to be able to recognize that if they really didn’t like me, they’d be snarling, if not actively growling at me. They were just there to look intimidating, both for potential recruits and potential enemies. Pretty basic stuff.

“Welcome,” said a pretty young girl with silver hair and a pair of wolf ears sprouting from the top of her head. She was smiling at me from behind a desk at the other end of the room. “How can I help you?”

I ignored the guards and smiled back at the girl. “Hi. I’m looking for one of your Hunters, Tecumseh. To be honest, I’m not sure he’s here, but you probably have a way to contact him.”

“He was in a meeting with Knight Fenris last I checked.” Right, that was the leader of the Lycaons, Fenris Wolf. “Give me a second to see if they’re done.” She picked up the phone from the desk and dialed an extension.

Knowing this sort of thing could take a while, I sat down on the hard metal bench set in one corner of the drab concrete room. The guards glared at me for a few more minutes, but soon decided I wasn’t about to go crazy, and turned their attention back to the door.

Thankfully, the meeting finished up ten or fifteen minutes after I got there, with the two wolves coming down from a Spartan stairwell concealed behind a drab door.

“This is not over,” Tecumseh growled. “You can’t just close your eyes to this.”

The lupe behind him, a black-furred massive beast of an anthro, patted him on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, old friend. We simply have more to worry about than a crazy actress and her ilk.”

“She’s more than—Huntsman?” Tecumseh blinked at me. “What are you doing here?”

I stood slowly. “Looking for you. But if this is a bad time…”

“No…no, it’s fine.” He nodded to the black wolf. “Knight Fenris, if you don’t mind…”

The other anthro nodded. “Go right ahead. I need to check on some things anyway.”

The gray wolf walked over to me, the claws on his feet clicking on the floor. “Let’s talk outside.”

Right, the fortress was probably filled with bugs, both the Lycaon’s own surveillance and that of their enemies. This wasn’t too important to keep secret, but better safe than sorry.

Once we were in a cold alley next to the fortress, the lupe turned to me, a serious expression on his furry face.

“You wouldn’t have come down unless it was important. Explain.”

“One of the Paladins is missing.”

He narrowed his eyes, his long maw set in a firm line. “Which one?”

“Ling Yu. The little blonde Chinese girl. She’s our heavy hitter.”

“I thought Akiyama was your heavy hitter.”

“Different type. Akane’s power is super speed, Ling’s is telekinesis on stone. Spear versus wrecking ball.”

“Hmph.” The wolf’s fur rustled as he shifted his weight. “I’m assuming you already tried MC.”

“Ling left her phone behind.”

“Of course she did. You have anything of hers?”

I pulled out the shirt I had snatched from Ling’s room and placed in a plastic bag. It was some anime, Astro Boy or whatever.

Tecumseh opened the bag a little gingerly and sniffed it. “Hm. Unique enough. I should be able to track this.”

That surprised me. “Wait—you? Personally?”

“Got nothing else to do today. Besides, you helped me with my wife. This is the least I can do.”

“Well—I mean…thanks.” What else could I say? “The aves might be involved so if you smell them, it’s probably the right direction.”

“When did she go missing?”

“A few hours ago.”

“I’ll get on it immediately, and call if I find something.”

“Well…thanks.” I still couldn’t really wrap my head around how generous he was being. He’s always been a nice enough man, but still, most people of his rank didn’t have the time to go on hunts themselves. “I’m going to talk to a few more people, see if I can get some more boots on the ground for this.”

“Fair enough. I’ll call you a cab.”

The cab came within a few minutes; even though he and his Alpha were apparently having a tiff, Tecumseh was still practically a warlord in his own right. He had enough connections to do pretty much anything—which was why I had come to him in the first place.

But his behavior was still odd. Deciding to do this personally…I didn’t know what to make of it.

I had more important things to worry about right now. Like figure out who else I was going to ask for help.

Obould was already dealt with; I had called him on the way to Full-Moon Street, and he had boots on the ground within five minutes. Thor and Pale Night were probably off the table. Sure, they had both come to my meeting about the Composer, but they wouldn’t really care about Ling. I’d worry about them later.

Evangel McDowell had far too much on his plate right now, what with the vote of no-confidence against him—which he had already beaten once—and other political stuff like that.

Jasmine, Sinmara, and the warbloods were probably my next best choices. Jasmine was still annoyingly thick on the matter of Elizabeth, but she should be willing to help with something that didn’t involve her directly. Sinmara’s political connections would be a useful addition to my arsenal for this, and Dispater’s paranoia meant he had surveillance everywhere.

I exited the cab at Dis, the domain of the warblood vampires, right outside Dispater’s Iron Tower. If I was lucky, this might be the last stop I needed to make.

Unlike a lot of other vampire domains, Dis was not some small collection of skyscrapers without many lights. It was three entire blocks, side by side, originally intended as a military manufacturing district. As the city became more and more cut off from the outside world, creating tanks and selling them to some army or another became increasingly financially untenable. The place lay fallow for years until Dispater bought it all for a pittance. This was still a few years before the toy maker, so back then Dispater was just a baseline human looking for any advantage he could get.

And the Domina Industrial Sector was quite the advantage.

All the factories were still there. Old and dusty, rusted over in some places, but still mostly serviceable. It didn’t take long for the men and women who would eventually become the first warbloods to start building tanks and other massive arms.

The only problem was the same one the original owners had run into: Domina was a city, and an island. Tanks have only limited use in urban environments to start with—throw in thick, salty air wearing down the machinery that much faster, and it was impossible to store the things for any real length of time.

No one bought anything, and it seemed like Dispater was going to end up in the exact same spot as the previous owners: Sitting in a rusted fortress with empty pockets.

But then the toy maker was invented. And suddenly everything was different.

People still didn’t need tanks, that didn’t change. But a gun large enough to fit on a tank was suddenly usable, if only by a team of giant gunners. Tungsten-core ammo, once a useless extravagance, were suddenly in great demand for killing the first warlords.

Fifteen years later, the factories of Dis were still going strong. As I climbed out of the cab, the air was filled with the sound of iron and steel being welded, forged, and pounded into shape. The smoke was so thick it was like night, though thankfully not so dark that my mostly unaugmented eyes couldn’t find my way.

And in front of me stood the Iron Tower.

I was never quite sure what the tower’s original purpose was; it was here when Dispater first bought the place. But unless the original designer had actually intended the factories to serve as a fortress, the inclusion of a drab, needle of a tower stretching above the belching chimneys and molten forges made no sense.

Perhaps it had been intended as a fortress. Even in the beginning, before the warden was killed, the city was pretty bad. My parents might be blase about it all, but I could read between the lines well enough. Preparing for an attack wouldn’t be so strange.

“Huntsman? That you?”

I turned to see a vampire, perfectly baseline except for his marble-black eyes, carrying a couple bags of groceries in his arms and staring at me.

Arioch?” I asked, stunned. “You’re…but…” I opened my mouth, then closed it again, before finally finding my words. “Is the Iron Duke really so strapped for men that he’s willing to send his Avenger out to get groceries?”

Dispater’s champion rolled his eyes. “Don’t get me started. With everything that’s going on, the boss is getting more paranoid by the day. He won’t let anyone from outside the Iron Court get anywhere near him.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Even for groceries?”

“Even for groceries,” the dark-skinned man confirmed. “He’s worried about poison. And since I’m the least recognizable warblood nightstalker…” He shrugged. “He figures people won’t try and poison the food I’m buying.”

I rubbed my forehead with a sigh. “If they’re trying to poison his entire court, they’re going to spend five minutes on the internet to get pictures of everyone.”

“I know, I know, but no one is telling him that, because for a while there he wasn’t eating at all.”

I winced. “Elizabeth?”

The vampire shook his head sadly. “She got to him bad. He knew her, you know. Couldn’t imagine she’d be the Composer.”

“I know,” I muttered. “I’m the one who introduced them.”

Arioch adjusted the paper bags in his arms a little. “Anyway, I should take these up. You here for a reason?”

I waved my hand dismissively. “I…need help with something, but this probably isn’t the best—”

“No, no, come on up,” he insisted, as he walked past me. The large steel door slid open as he approached, the guards no doubt having seen him coming on the cameras. “You’re one of the ones he still trusts. He still feels like he’s in your debt from Shendilavri.”

Well, even though it made me a bit uncomfortable, I suppose disproportionate reward is better than disproportionate retribution. I took one of the bags from the warblood; it was heavy with frozen meats. “I guess I can at least see if he’ll talk to me. Hopefully, he can help me solve my problem real quick.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 190)

Ah, Dispater. I like how he and his culture turned out. Which is why I’m stopping this scene here; I want to draw it out a little bit more.

Scene 189 – Apsens

APSENS

ADAM

I rubbed my forehead. “What do you mean, you can’t find her?”

“Exactly as I said,” MC’s fake voice said calmly. “The GPS locator in Miss Yu’s phone claims she is in her room, and Miss Akiyama has confirmed she simply left it behind. Without her phone, I have no way of tracking her. I am sorry.”

Of course. Of course. When I had reached the location Ling had given me as the ave lab, I had waited an hour for her to show up, before barging into the warehouse and freaking out a couple of fels involved in some drug deal.

Although I couldn’t be completely sure, the fact that Ling herself wasn’t here made it pretty obvious that she had sent me on a wild goose chase on purpose.

I sighed. My first thought had been to call MC, but I hadn’t even considered the possibility that Ling would have ditched her phone. She was a ditz who spent most of her time watching anime! How could—

Oh. Right. On tv, people got caught all the time because they brought their phones with them when they were doing something they shouldn’t. I guess she had learned her lesson from all that.

Obviously, I couldn’t just give up, but where was I supposed to look? The ave lab we attacked the other day was surely abandoned by now, and since the birds were in hiding, there was no one else I could ask.

Unless…

“MC,” I said into my phone. “Goblins aren’t nomadic, right?”

“Most of the subculture is not, no.”

“Are the goblins from the other day still there?”

“I am sorry, I am not quite sure what you mean. Please clarify the question.”

Right, right, this wasn’t the real MC. Needed to quantify my requests a little bit. “Uh…the other day, you called me about the election while I was in front of a skyscraper with a goblin nest at the top. Are the goblins that Ling was speaking to then there now?”

“Not all of them, but most. Would you like me to call them?”

“No,” I said a little too fast. “No, just give me directions.” Before I hung up, I had another thought. “Oh, and can you call me a cab?” Normally, the traffic in this part of the city would have been bumper-to-bumper, but people were still worried due to the fey and Composer. They were filtering back into the streets little by little, but not enough to be a real travel impediment.

“Of course.” There was a short pause. “The cab will arrive at your location within five minutes. Will there be anything else?”

“That’s all, thanks.” I hung up feeling satisfied.

The cab showed up after only a minute or two, and after the driver confirmed my destination, we were off. As expected, it didn’t take too long to get to the building from the other day. Now the question was, how would I get to the actual goblins?

Well, hopefully I’d have a better idea of what to do once I was actually on the roof. For now, I just needed to take the elevator up.

The concierge of the apartment building gave me an odd look—I was still decked out in full kit, with armor and guns and everything—but otherwise ignored me as I crossed the lobby for the elevator. It was a surprisingly nice lobby too, with marble floors and professional upholstery. It looked like a nice hotel, not some cheap copy-paste apartment complex.

Still, I didn’t waste any time wondering about that. Ling would be fine for a little while, but once she got St. John’s location out of Turgay, she’d probably hare after him. That was the only reason I could think of that she would have sent me away. And while she was getting better, she still wasn’t a killer, and we had no idea what powers her old orphanmate had. Going after him on her own was a bad move.

After an excruciatingly long elevator ride—why were all the buildings in this stupid city fifty stories or taller?—I finally reached the top floor, and from there it was just a quick jog up the stairs to the roof.

I have no idea what kind of deal the goblins had made with the owners of the building, but it was immediately apparent that this wasn’t some temporary base.

Think…think of a playground. A really nice one, with suspension bridges and monkey bars and anything else you could climb on, all connected to nice, solid metal poles. Imagine this play structure as big as you can, a densely connected jungle of ropes and beams and climbing walls.

Now imagine this playground is on a rooftop, extending out into empty space for thirty feet in every direction.

It wasn’t hard to see why Ling had called it a nest. I hadn’t been able to tell the other day due to the sun being in my eyes, but I could easily imagine that from below, this building would like that it had a massive bird’s nest on the top, with twigs poking out in every direction.

I’m not a bad climber, I guess, but this thing was not designed for someone like me. Just from where I was standing, at the door back into the building, I could see a handful of spots where the only way to proceed was to jump ten or more feet. No wonder Ling had told me to stay downstairs.

“You lost?” someone asked from behind me.

I turned around to see a child, maybe ten years old or so, with emerald green skin and no hair, staring at me with large round eyes from on top of the little structure that contained the door back down. She was topless, though wearing a sport’s bra that she probably didn’t need.

“Actually, no,” I said as I turned to what I assumed was a goblin. “Can I speak to whoever’s in charge?”

“That would be me,” she responded without blinking. It was hard to tell if she was being honest or not. Sure, the toy maker could conceivably make you look like a child, but still…

She snapped her long fingers—likely designed for better gripping—to get my attention again. “Oy, baseline. You still with me?”

I shook my head to clear it. “Yeah, sorry. Were you here Friday? A friend of mine, a baseline named Ling Yu, came to talk to you guys.”

The green girl nodded. “Right, right. The one looking for the vampire.”

I did a double-take. “Uh, no. She was looking for an ave.” I glanced around, but if there were any other of the little demons around, I didn’t see them. “Is there someone else I could talk to?”

The goblin laughed. “Don’t sweat it, I was just testing you. Yeah, she came by, looking for Turgay. What’s it to you?”

Well, I could either come up with a plausible-sounding lie she wouldn’t believe anyway, or…

“I was supposed to help her find Turgay, but she sent me somewhere else. I’m worried she might be in trouble.”

My diminutive friend shrugged. “Okay. Give me a minute to get the exact location.”

Who says honesty is for suckers?

The goblin girl leaped past me, flipped around a horizontal bar, climbed up a wall, jumped to a hanging rope, until she was out of sight.
So. Goblins were good at climbing. That…was something to remember.

It didn’t take too long for the emerald-skinned girl to come somersaulting back. When she was right side up again, she handed me a flash drive.

“The same thing we gave Ling,” she explained. “Her bird’s itinerary.”

I took the device, but eyed it a little warily. “How’d you get this?”

“Corvi gave it to us. He was trying to schedule a meet between Soaring Eagle and the Erlking, so he wanted us to know his exact schedule.”

“Erlking, Erlking…” That name was familiar, but not from Domina City. “Isn’t that the name of some mythological elf? Wait, no, there was hunting involved…”

The goblin waved her hand. “You know how myths are. It’s impossible to sort everything out. But the point is, our Erlking is the Power of the goblins. He and Soaring Eagle have had some disagreements over property before.”

I frowned. “How many people has she stolen from?”

She barked out a short laugh. “No, nothing like that. Most people let goblins squat on their roofs, though for big stuff—” She waved her hand to indicate the massive structure covering the roof. “—we need to pay rent. But the aves use their roofs, so…” She shrugged. “Just lots of trouble all around that could have been avoided with a little more talking on both sides.”

“I understand that,” I muttered. “But I hope that all works out in your favor. If you don’t mind, I’ve got to…” I gestured to the door.

“Of course, of course, you do what you have to do.” She smiled up at me. “But you come back and visit some time, okay?”

I nodded genuinely. The goblins seemed fun. Besides, we might need their help against Elizabeth’s Blackguards. No harm in being nice.

As I waited in the elevator back down, I plugged the flash drive into my phone—thank you Derek, for making me get one with the right port—and started looking through it. It was exactly like she had said; the ave’s schedule, formatted in a way that let it sync with a few common scheduling apps, including one I had.

Okay, right now he was supposed to be in…West Central? The edge of it, sure, but still, that seemed like an odd place to have a lab.

But looking closer, it was in the exact opposite direction Ling had sent me, so maybe it was the right spot after all. Either way, it shouldn’t take too long to get there by light rail.

I knew I should probably call the others, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to bother them. Derek and Laura had been kidnapped a few days ago, and were still dealing with the fallout of that. Trying to get access to the dorm’s CCTV network, discussing what they had discovered with Jarasax and some ‘sarian fey experts, stuff like that.

Akane would probably be a good choice normally, but she was having a lot of fun with Flynn—no matter how much she tried to deny it—and I didn’t feel right interrupting that. Besides, they were probably in the middle of NHQ by now. It would take them a bit too long to get here.

But what about…

I pulled out my phone again and dialed one of the numbers on my speed dial. She picked up by the second ring.

“Anders?” Kelly asked. “Something happen?”

“Hopefully I’m just being paranoid, but I’m having trouble finding Ling. We were gonna raid an ave lab, and she sent me to the wrong location. If you’re available, some backup would be nice.”

There was a slight pause, during which I could hear the muffled sounds of her discussing the situation with the rest of the retinue. But she was back in a minuter or two. “Sure. Do you have a location?”

“Yeah.” I gave her the address in West Middle. “You want to meet there, or you pick me up?”

“One sec…no, you’re a bit too far away. We’ll meet you there. You’re taking the rail, right?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Good, a taxi would be murder. We’ll be about a block away from the building. I’ll send you the exact spot once we’re there.”

As I thought, it didn’t take more than half an hour to get to the edge of West Middle from the disused warehouse in the South. From there, it was a simple matter to follow the GPS on my phone to the retinue’s van, parked out of sight of the suspected ave lab.

I glanced around the vehicle as I slid the door closed behind me. “Where’s Alex?”

“Scoping out the lab,” Kelly explained, as she scratched the device on her arm.

“Good thing, too,” George rumbled. “He’s been depressed recently.”

That made me frown in confusion. “Why?”

The giant shrugged as he cleaned his massive Gatling gun. “He’s the tracker, and there hasn’t been anything to track. He just feels useless.”

“He’ll be reporting back soon,” Kelly promised. “Just wait a few minutes.”

Jarasax didn’t give me time to settle in for a wait, though. “Is it true that Huntsman and Medina got kidnapped?”

I shrugged awkwardly. “Well, kinda. They escaped within the hour.”

“Gods of men and darkness,” he muttered angrily. “And the Big Boss still won’t let us confront the fey? This is getting ridiculous.”

“I thought you didn’t have anything personal against them.” Which even I knew was pretty weird, coming from a changeling.

“I didn’t. They seem to be insisting on changing that.”

Kelly’s phone vibrated, saving me from having to formulate some kind of response. “What’s it look like?” A pause. “What? Are—yeah. Give us a minute.” The vampire snapped her phone shut, a confused look on her face.

“What?” I prompted. “Did the aves invite her in for tea?”

“He didn’t see anyone guarding the lab. At all.”

Sax looked at his friend and superior sideways. “Well, they’re not going to be obvious—”

“Alex knows what to look for,” Kelly muttered dismissively, her brow still furrowed in concentration. “If he says there are no guards, there are no guards. We need to investigate.”

George looked up. “What, all of us?”

She shrugged. “If it’s a trap, we’ll have a better chance of breaking out of it that way.”

No one could argue with that logic, so we all piled out of the van, checked our weapons, and marched straight up to the dilapidated building that seemed to be an ave lab. Alex joined up with us halfway down the street.

Even I could see that the angel was right. Not only were there no obvious aves, there didn’t seem to be anyone at all. There were a few abandoned storefronts, a couple silent apartment buildings, but no living soul in sight.

“This isn’t normal,” Alex hissed, eyes darting around like nervous insects.

“People are scared, staying inside,” I suggested.

But the angel shook her head. “No one’s peeking out from the windows. Half the doors aren’t even locked. Something is very wrong here.”

“We’ll deal with it later,” Kelly muttered still distracted by something I suspected wasn’t the mission at hand. “The lab comes first.”

As Alex promised, the front door of what was supposed to be a secret lab wasn’t even locked. There was a broken padlock tossed away casually inside, but it looked to be a few days old—likely from when the aves first started squatting in this abandoned building.

But while there were a few shed feathers and forgotten ammo boxes hinting that the birds had indeed been holed up here, that was it. There were no aves, or anyone at all, to greet us in the lobby.

“Okay, I’m starting to agree with the angel,” I muttered, thoroughly disturbed at this point. I kept my Caedes level as I swept the room, but I was sweating. Give me an open fight, and I’m fine. Horror-movie scenarios are something else altogether. “Let’s hurry this up.”

No lights were on that I could see, though I could hear the distant hum of some machinery. A dark and empty corridor loomed ahead of us, looking far too dangerously creepy for my taste.

“Let’s go,” Kelly said curtly, her marble-black nighteyes narrowed. “I’ll take point. George, behind me. Alex and Sax in the middle. Anders, you got rearguard.”

We all chorused our grudging acceptance. It was hard to argue with the only person who could actually see anything.

Under the vampire’s guidance, we slowly swept the first floor, finding nothing whatsoever in the first dozen rooms other than trash and an overturned chair or two. Doors were left open, bunks unmade, and clothing was left littered on the floor. George even found a floor safe, still filled with a thousand dollars in cash.

By the time we reached the machines we had felt vibrating through the building—a bank of mostly-empty refrigerators and freezers—it was clear that there was nothing of note on this floor.

“Looks like they left in a hurry,” I muttered. “Maybe they fought Ling and ran?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Alex mused, rubbing her hands along the floor and scrutinizing it with her light-amplification goggles. “But I’m not seeing any signs of her power. None of the concrete is warped, none of the walls have holes in them…Saints above, I don’t think there was a fight at all. Anyone seen any spent shell casings or blood that I may have missed?”

Sax shook his head. “Nothing.”

“I didn’t smell any blood, either,” Kelly added in an offhand manner. She still seemed distracted by something. “Though the toy box might be masking that.”

My head snapped up. “Wait, you can smell the toy box? Here?”

She frowned. “Well, not on this floor, but it’s a pretty unique smell—”

“If anything happened, it happened around that stupid box,” I insisted. “Take us there.”

“Uhn. Sure.”

What was with her today? It was like she was drunk or something.

“Kel, you mind if I take a look at your fixer?” Alex asked as we walked. The vampire extended her arm without slowing down, and the angel took a moment to peer at it closely, before smiling at her friend and returning to the center of the group. Kelly didn’t say anything, just lowered her arm and brought her rifle level in front of her again.

I tapped Alex on the shoulder—knowing Kelly had ears that would hear anything I cared to whisper—and gave her a questioning look. The angel just shrugged. It seemed like Kelly was just acting weird, and it had nothing to do with the device that was always hissing on her arm, pumping who knew what into her bloodstream at regular intervals.

The abandoned lab only got creepier as we moved upstairs. The graffiti on the walls looked like arcane runes under the half-light Alex was emitting from her palms, and I nearly jumped when I stumbled over a discarded soda can and thought it was a land mine.

Maybe it was just a side effect of the discarded boxes of ammo, but it felt like walking through an old battlefield. It shouldn’t have—as Alex had pointed out, there were no signs of battle anywhere. But it still had that…feeling.

Feeling or no, we managed to get to the fifth floor without incident, which was when Kelly lost the scent of the toy box.

“It’s definitely on this floor,” she murmured. “But it’s spread around, diluted. I can’t pinpoint the source.”

“They use fans because of that Sauron Field thing,” I reminded her. Or told her. I wasn’t sure if she knew all that already. “Let’s find the center of the floor.”

Everyone—except Kelly, who was still distracted—gave me an odd look. Alex was the one who voiced their concerns. “Why the center?”

I shrugged. “That’s where I’d put it. Defensible location.”

“Fair enough,” Sax admitted. He looked around the room we were in, a small lobby a few doors off the stairwell. “Should be…this way, c’mon.”

It only took a few minutes to weave through the maze of corridors to find the room we were looking for, but it wasn’t what I expected.

“The door’s too flimsy,” Sax muttered, identifying the problem I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on. “This cheap thing wouldn’t hold up against an unarmed baseline.” He knocked on it; it was hollow. “No way the toy box is in here.”

“Yes, well,” I grumbled, not wanting to admit I was wrong. “Let’s at least take a look inside and see what we see.”

I opened the door—

And immediately brought my Caedes snapping up. I stepped back as I heard Sax and Kelly readying their own guns, giving them a clear line of fire.

This room wasn’t empty. It was a cluttered office, with stacks of papers and dirty clothing in heaps. While the ramshackle nature of the place made it hard to tell for sure, the abandoned power cords on the desk, still plugged into the wall socket but nothing else, led me to believe they removed everything of value when they left.

But that’s not what made us draw our guns.

The room had an ave anthro in it.

An ave with wings.

He was facing away from us, hunched over on the floor, and I couldn’t quite tell what he was doing. His wings, though…those were in plain view.

They looked old, or more likely incomplete, with far too many black feathers missing to be healthy. They were small, definitely too small to let a human fly—even an ave with hollow bones. But they twitched and flexed every few moments, the remaining feathers rustling.

The aves hadn’t perfected wings. But they were a hell of a lot closer than anyone had thought.

“…Honored Hunter?” Sax called out a little hesitantly.

The ave’s head snapped up, and he spun on the heels of his bird feet before falling on his butt. “Paladins?” He struggled to raise his claws in a defensive stance, but just fell again.

“I’m a Paladin,” I confirmed. “This is the retinue, from Necessarius. We’re not here to hurt you.” Unless it turns out you killed Ling, I didn’t add. “Now, let’s start simple. Who are you?”

The ave anthro—a crow or raven, I wasn’t sure, something with lots of black—sniffled a little, and wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m Fimmtu Væng.”

At my side, George lowered his massive pistol slightly in surprise. “Your name is Fifth Wing?”

The crow smiled slightly, or as well as he could with that beak. “Fifth son of the Væng family.”

“Still, that’s hardly a standard Icelandic name…”

“Mom was Norwegian. Dad a Soviet.”

The ogre looked like the ave had just grown an extra head. “How does that explain anything?

The ave smiled again. “You can just call me Pigeon. Everyone does.”

I glanced at the others. The looks on their faces made it clear they didn’t know why a crow was called Pigeon either.

“All right Pigeon…” I indicated the room, and the empty building as well. “What happened here?”

‘Pigeon’ sniffled and looked away. “She…killed everyone.”

“We found no bodies,” Alex cut in. “And no signs of battle.”

The ave stared at her like she was crazy. “What, are you blind? They’re—oh.” He nodded to himself. “I guess that makes more sense.”

I sighed. “Look buddy, we need some actual answers here. If you’re not going to be helpful—”

“No, no! Sorry, I’m…” he shook his head. “Okay. The aves all left. Soaring Eagle ordered a full evacuation.”

Soaring Eagle had been here? No, probably not. She probably just called and set down an executive order not to fight an angry Paladin.

“But while we were packing up the toy box, the Composer showed up—”

George took an angry step forward. “What.”

Pigeon gulped. “Look, most of us had no idea! I mean, we had been working with St. John for a while, and then we heard he was a renegade, and when we tried to throw him out Greene showed up—”

“We’re not blaming you.” I placed my hand on George’s shoulder; his muscles were taut with barely-suppressed rage. I gave the ogre a look. We could kill this guy after we got our information. “We’re not.” I turned back to the ave. “Just tell us what happened today.”

He nodded. “Yeah, yeah, well like I said, we were packing up, and then she just appeared out of the blue, wearing this pretty white dress.”

A distant part of my brain noted that she had finally gotten a replacement for the blood-drenched one she had been using since she came out. Actually, hadn’t it been blown off by a grenade last time? Was that the only reason she had gotten a new one?

“She talked to Guy about something—I don’t know what, don’t ask—and then started cackling. It was the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Jarasax looked confused, but he tried to keep his voice gentle. “What happened next? Did she interfere with the evacuation?”

“No,” the ave muttered glumly. “The opposite. She said she’d help by giving us more time. Then she left.” He shivered. “About ten minutes later, people started screaming.”

I blinked. “Screamers? Here?”

He shook his head violently. “Not that kind of scream.”

“…ah.”

That was why the street had seemed abandoned.

“Do you know how many people died?” Sax asked quietly.

The ave shook his head again. “Everyone on the street. Luckily, we chose this area because it was already kind of abandoned from the weapons test a few months back, but still…”

“I guess I should call in a cleanup crew,” Kelly muttered, pulling out her phone as she walked off. “You guys handle the bird.”

What was with her today? Actually, it wasn’t just today. She had been distracted for a while now, it was just worse all of a sudden.

Once I was sure Kelly was out of earshot, I turned to Alex. “Any ideas?”

The angel shrugged. “We can take a look at the crime scenes, but the cleanup crew can do that better than us. Better to just wait.”

“I meant about Kelly.”

“Oh!” She glanced back the direction her friend had gone with a frown. “I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her this bad since she first found me at the orphanage. It’s like she’s going through withdrawal again.”

Oh, right, Belians were drug addicts. Well, primarily addicted to combat drugs apparently, but still. Had she started using again?

“I don’t think it’s that,” Sax cut in, answering the unspoken question he had seen on my face. “I might not have known her as long as you, Alex, but she’s not going to relapse. I think she’s just distracted over the Belians.”

Alex shrugged again. “Maybe. I agree that she wouldn’t relapse, but it seems odd that she’d be weird today. The ambush was weeks ago.”

I looked between the angel, the changeling, and the ogre, but none of them seemed about to elaborate. “Ambush?”

“We got ambushed by Belian chem-slaves a while ago,” Alex said with a wave of her hand. “No big deal. Kelly lured them away and dealt with them.”

I frowned. “Was there any fallout from that? Maybe they attacked again or something.”

“Not that I noticed.”

“Well…” Sax said slowly. “She did get a call this morning. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but…”

I nodded. That had to be it. “They probably threatened her with something or other.” I put a hand on Alex’s slim shoulder. “Can you keep an eye on her? Maybe it’s not my place to ask—”

“It’s fine,” she assured me. “I can handle her.”

With a polite cough, Pigeon reminded us he was still present.

“If you don’t mind…I’m gonna go before any more ‘sarians get here,” the ave said with a small sniffle. “Excuse me…”

“One thing before you leave,” I insisted as I grabbed his arm before he could walk past me. “We need to know where the aves went. My friend Ling is with them.”

Pigeon blinked in surprise. “Ling was here? Are you sure?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Yes. Very.”

“Well, I didn’t see her during the evacuation. Not her corpse either,” he added quickly. “If you’re worried about that.” He shrugged helplessly, his wings flexing slightly as he did. “Sorry, buddy. She’s a friend of mine too. If I knew where she was, I’d tell you.”

Great. Back to square one.

Maybe it was time to call Derek and Laura.

Behind the Scenes (scene 189)

Considering how long this one was, I’m still not completely satisfied with it.

break

Scene 188 – Praeda

PRAEDA

LING

Sunday morning. I had found out where the new main ave lab was—and where Turgay would be—on Friday. The reason I had waited this long was simply because, according to what Guy told the goblins, he had been on tour with Soaring Eagle until today. Touring what? Who knew. The other labs, I guess.

I didn’t know how many the aves had scattered around the city, but this was clearly one of the better ones. Guards—without any obvious ave toys—patrolling nearby rooftops, lots of abandoned storefronts, so minimal number of outside observers…it was easy to see why they had picked this place.

The lab itself was about the same as the previous one, at least on the outside. Big, dilapidated skyscraper probably slated to be torn down soon, easy enough to bribe a few building permits into their talons.

I had sent Adam to a spot in the exact opposite direction.

It was a dick move, I know, but it was going to be hard enough getting any information out of Turgay. This called for diplomacy, not guns, and having one less witness around to see whatever super-secret stuff he was working on would be a point in my favor.

On that note, rather than sneaking through a back wall, I just walked right up the street, hands held high.

A homeless baseline, sitting at the street corner, stared at me like I was crazy. Considering he was sitting next to a cardboard sign that said ‘DONATE TO FIGHT AGAINST BUTLRS COMMUNIST REGIME,’ I think nothing more needs to be said.

“What in McCarthy’s name are you doing?” he growled, shifting under his dirty old blanket.

I stopped and lowered my hands, but I made sure to keep them in sight. “I need to speak to your Alpha.”

The homeless man just stared. “My what?”

“Your Alpha. Your warlord. Your leader.”

“My leader’s been dead for a while, girly.” He rattled a mostly-empty cup. “But any donations would be appreciated.”

I closed my eyes and sighed. “Please, I’m trying to be polite, here. If you insist on being useless, I’m going to get angry.”

“Get as angry as you want. That’s never resurrected anybody before.”

I leaned in close to his face, close enough to smell the musk of booze and dirt and other things I didn’t want to identify.

He just glared.

“It’s faint,” I admitted. “But I can still smell your aftershave. ‘Ancient Herb,’ is it? Not my favorite.”

The ‘homeless man’ closed his eyes with a sigh. “Skies above, I still can’t get rid of that stupid stink.”

“Something to keep in mind for next time,” I noted as I pulled back away from his face. “Tezuka, my nose is pretty much completely baseline, and I still noticed it. A kemo should be able to smell it from a block away.”

“We don’t really go for the scent buffs,” he muttered, fishing around in a nearby ratty-looking pack for what appeared to be an old broken radio. He brought the device to his lips. “Yeah, I’m made. She wants to talk to someone in charge.”

“Roger that,” the radio crackled. “Once she’s inside, switch out for debriefing.”

“Yeah, yeah…” he stowed the device again. “Just walk up to the front door. They probably won’t shoot you.”

“Thank you kindly,” I said with a nod, resuming my forward march with my hands raised again. Behind me, the passer muttered something darkly, but I didn’t get shot in the back, so I didn’t care.

The door opened as I approached it, and I heard the sound of something heavy being moved out of the way. An ave I didn’t recognize, a middle-aged man with yellow owl eyes, peered at me suspiciously.

“You’re Ling Yu?” he asked, a bit surprised. He looked at me up and down. “I assumed you would be at least a little taller.”

“Yes, I’m Ling. How’d you know?”

“I have pictures of the director’s known acquaintances. You’re basically it.” He sighed and stepped back. “C’mon in, I guess.”

I nodded in thanks as I stepped in, pretending not to notice the two warhawks flanking me armed with some flavor of assault rifle. “Thank you. Is Turgay here, by any chance? I talked with the goblins a few days ago.”

He led me down the hall. The warhawks, thankfully, did not follow. “Yes, he is, actually. Though if he knew you were coming, he didn’t mention it to me.”

I looked at him closer. “What, you his secretary or something?”

The ave huffed. “No, I am one of the project heads working under him. I’m trying to crack macro-scale MBG.”

It took me a second to parse that out. “Wait…you mean growing arms, and stuff?”

“Yes.”

“How’s that going?”

“About as well as you’d expect.”

“Oh. That’s too bad.” I guess they hadn’t gotten the wings working yet, after all. I thought the girl at the other lab had mentioned something about nearing clinical trials, though.

The building clearly hadn’t been cleaned in at least a year—there was dirt everywhere, trash in the corners, and graffiti from whatever meaningless gangs or minor clans had holed up here last. We passed quite a few closed doors, and a number more glaring warhawks, before walking up three flights of stairs, then down a hallway, down two flights, another hallway, up three flights…

If the ave was trying to get me lost, he was failing utterly. My sixth sense let me know the location of every wall and floor in the ‘scraper. I knew exactly where we were, and could have found my way back to the entrance with my eyes closed.

Before I could start getting angry at the unnecessary delays, however, we had reached our destination. A small, nondescript door that was nonetheless the most decorated one in the entire building. It wasn’t much, just a small plaque that said ‘director’ nailed to the front.

Based on my reckoning, we were at nearly the exact center of the fifth floor. Was there any particular significance in that, or just coincidence? Hm…well, I supposed putting him at the center would make him more difficult to assassinate…

The ave who had led me here rapped on the door with his knuckles. “Corvi? Yu is here.”

The voice that drifted through the closed door sounded confused. “I’m what?”

I rolled my eyes. “Lay off it, Guy. That joke wasn’t funny when we were kids, it’s not funny now.”

There was a scrambling sound on the other side, and after a moment the door swung open to reveal Turgay blinking at me.

“Ling? You’re…you…” He blinked again. “What are you doing here?”

“I think you know,” I muttered as I barged into the office. “You’ve been—”

I stopped, unable to find the words.

Because sitting right inside Turgay’s office, as calm as you please, was Soaring Eagle.

I’ve never been very good with animals, so I didn’t know exactly what species of eagle she was emulating, but it was clearly a different one from Turgay. He was obviously a bald eagle—black plumage, with the exception of the white feathers covering his head. She was something with a black hooked beak, beady black eyes, and dusky gray feathers on her head. The feathers quickly darkened as they went down her body, until they were black by the time they reached her shoulders. While I couldn’t see right now, I remembered that the feathers suddenly switched to white at about mid-chest level.

Unlike last time, she was wearing a flowing silver gown with a high neckline, long enough to hide her orange bird feet and sharp black talons. Or, it would be long enough to hide her feet, if she didn’t have one of her legs resting on the other knee, with the foot poking out.

“Hello again, whore,” she said, her sweet voice belying her harsh words. “I hear you destroyed one of my labs.”

I managed to keep from tackling the smug King, but only barely. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Hm, I’m sure you can say that about much of your life.”

This woman…was she trying to piss me off?

The ave anthro picked up an oddly-shaped coffee mug from Turgay’s cluttered desk, and took a delicate sip from the serving spout. I guess that was necessary when you don’t have lips or cheeks.

“Why don’t you have a seat, little imp? Turgay, clear the junk off one of these chairs for her.”

My friend moved quickly to obey his warlord, but I just narrowed my eyes. “Don’t call me ‘imp.’ I’m not a demon any more.”

Soaring Eagle did that weird beak-smile that is impossible to describe. Sort of letting the beak misalign a little…no, it’s impossible to explain. It was an ave smile, and that’s all there was to it. “You’ll always be a demon. A daughter of the Dame Meretrix.”

I blinked at that. ‘Meretrix’ was Latin for ‘courtesan,’ and was one of Malcanthet’s old titles. Most of her other ones were less polite.

“Well, I disagree. And I was never Lupa’s hound anyway.” Lupa was one of those others.

“Fine.” There was that grin again. “Sit down, little page.”

Don’t attack the ave King, don’t attack the ave King…

I sat in the cheap folding chair Turgay had found, trying my best to contain my anger and fear. I would not be intimidated by this woman.

“So,” the most powerful ave in the city, who had nearly started a war with Necessarius, said sweetly. “What are you here for, whore?”

Fine, she didn’t want to play nice? I could do the same. “You’ve been working with a known Blackguard. Mitchel St. John.”

She sipped from that strange mug again.

I stumbled on. “I know this particular Blackguard. He burned down my orphanage and killed my family. I need—I demand you tell me his location at once.”

“Hm,” Soaring Eagle murmured. “Turgay, this coffee is terrible. Too sweet. I said I wanted it black.”

My friend bowed. “Ah, I’m sorry—I had already sweetened the entire pot, and—”

“Irrelevant,” the King interrupted. “Whore. St. John has been a boon to this culture. It will take more than the word of a succubus to make me hand him over. Do you have some sort of proof that he is what you claim? Or perhaps a retribution notice from Necessarius?”

My teeth ground together unwillingly. “No and no.”

She shrugged her black-feathered shoulders. “Then I’m afraid I can’t help you.” She put the coffee mug down, stood up, and started doing minor warm-up exercises, rotating her neck and arms. “Rest assured, once we’re gone, we’ll call the ‘sarians, let them know where you are.”

I blinked. “Um, what?”

She smiled another ave smile. “We can’t have you reporting the location of our lab, can we? We’ll just tie you up for a day or so.”

I leaped out of the chair, taking a few steps back and falling into a fighting stance. I had my armor on under my clothes, and there was still concrete around, even if not as much as the other lab. “I’d like to see you try, terror.”

The Animal King just laughed. “Oh, can’t you take a joke? If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done it already.”

I didn’t relax. “Unless that means you’re giving me Mitchel after all, I don’t think we have anything else to talk about.”

The ave shrugged. “Well…more like I was just stalling for time.”

I heard the door open behind me.

“Hello, Ling. I hear you’ve been looking for me.”

I turned to see a ruddy-skinned young man, with garish green hair and a smile too wide for its own good.

“Mitchel,” I hissed. I glanced back at Turgay. “What is he doing here?”

My old friend winced. “Uh, you see—”

I blinked as I realized something. “Wait, your hand.”

Akane had cut off Mitchel’s hand when he tried to shoot her. But now…

He definitely had two, healthy hands, like nothing had ever happened. The toy maker could sometimes reattach severed limbs, but you needed both parts. And his hand was still locked up in NHQ.

Wasn’t it?

“St. John,” Soaring Eagle muttered angrily from behind me. I turned to see that her eyes matched her voice. Despite her playful tone when talking about Mitchel, it was clear she wasn’t actually particularly fond of him. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be helping with the evacuation.”

“Your flying pig said it was fine,” the Blackguard insisted with a disarming smile, before turning to me with a twinkle in his eye. “Besides, I’ve never been one to keep a lady waiting.”

My hand balled into a fist without my conscious will. Or, to be more specific, I used my power to ball up the stone plates in the glove; the rest of the hand was just along for the ride.

Mitchel,” I spat. “Any last words?”

He tapped his chin in mock thoughtfulness. “Hm…yes, actually.” He raised one finger. “’You shouldn’t have involved Soaring Eagle.’”

I frowned. “Wha—”

Something poked me in the side.

Blinking in surprise, I looked down to see a small feathered dart, like the kind you’d load into a tranquilizer gun, embedded in my side, pinning my shirt to my flesh, right between the armor plates. The plates were held together with Kevlar, so a normal dart shouldn’t have been able to—

Then I felt weakness spreading from the point of impact like a cold shock.

Then my rib cage started to cave in.

The English language does not have words for the kind of pain I was going through. The feeling of having bones weaken until they shattered under their own weight, a trillion white-hot knives spinning around inside my body, as the infection spread, and even the pumping of my own heart started doing damage…

I tried to scream, but only a wet noise came out. I stumbled, then fell to my knees, which cracked like eggshells, before collapsing in a twitching heap on the ground, moaning in a pathetic attempt to vocalize my pain.

“I didn’t want it to come to this,” Soaring Eagle muttered. “I figured as long as you didn’t see St. John, you wouldn’t have anything to take to Butler, and…” she sighed.

“What’d you shoot her with, anyway?” Mitchel asked, though I could only see his boots from my position on the floor. It was getting harder to pay attention as the pain worsened, but his voice had always been…grating.

“The calciophage. More bad luck on her part, I’m afraid. I knew I couldn’t fight her hand-to-hand, and it was the only other weapon I had.”

I felt something brushing my hair. A talon? Turgay, then.

But then the person shifted, and I saw that it was Soaring Eagle, looking down at my broken body with pity.

“I am sorry, Honored Paladin,” she whispered. “But there is no cure for the calciophage. This will be excruciatingly painful—but it will also be over soon.”

I passed out before I could hear anything else.

Behind the Scenes (scene 188)

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the kemos, in relation to the Animal Kings and the warlords. This seems as good a time to explain it as any.

What you need to understand is that the kemos are not a culture; they are a superculture, with the various animal types existing as cultures below them. While the three founding kemo cultures (fels, lupes, and ursas) have millions of members each, most of the other ‘cultures’ are small enough to be more comparable to subcultures. The aves are one such culture. They are, in fact, small enough that one person (Soaring Eagle) is able to rule the entire culture. These people are known as Animal Kings, with the warlords (Alphas) below them.

Oh, also, just like each culture has a different name for their honored, deviants, and warlords, they have names for their novice members. For demons, it’s ‘imps’. For baselines, they have recently started using ‘pages.’

Scene 187 – Occultatio

OCCULTATIO

SIMON

Yolanda brushed my arm gently, unintentionally tugging at the countless scars. “Are you sure?”

I did my best not to wince. “Yeah. Look, you can if you want, but I don’t want to go back up just yet.” I suppressed a shiver. “I don’t want to see anyone right now.”

“Then I’m staying too,” she promised, snuggling closer on the bed.

While I appreciated the sentiment—and her presence—I didn’t want her to have to do anything like that. She had her own life to live, and I wasn’t going to die any time soon. “You need to at least go to school. You’ve already missed an entire week because of me, right?”

“Oh, please. No one’s going to school any more. Between the Composer and the fey, most of the classes are canceled, and the rest are empty.”

I smiled at that. “Is it ironic that while everyone else is dodging school because of the fey, you’re actually seeing one on a regular basis?”

She was silent for a moment, thinking. “…I don’t think so. No, I’m pretty sure that’s not irony.” I felt her shrug. “Besides, I don’t see Titania on any kind of schedule.”

That was true. The Queen had only come by once since I woke up on Monday. She stopped by a couple days ago to double-check my wounds and see to a few projects among the succubi.

Eisheth Zenunim, the warlord doctor, had been a more permanent fixture. She checked on me twice a day, once in the morning and once at night, to make sure I was healing smoothly. And internally, I was. My bones were knitting together nicely, my new organs were showing no sign of rejection, and the old ones were taking the repairs well.

But on the outside, I still looked like I had lost a fight with a blender.

I knew I needed to get over it. Life and hope and all that. Besides, I had a beautiful girlfriend who didn’t care what I looked like.

But…

Still.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked quietly, as she traced circles on my bare chest with her finger. It took an effort of will not to wince.

After a moment, I came up with a believable lie. “My sister. I went through the balor reconstruction to make sure she stayed safe and…” I shrugged helplessly. “Now I’m not sure if she is.”

“Liar,” she whispered. “But that’s still a good point. And you know the easiest way to check is to go back up to the surface.”

Though I was happy she hadn’t asked what I was lying about, I still shook my head at her suggestion. “No.”

“You look fine—”

“My vanity is only a small part. More importantly, I’m worried about Nhang.”

She sat up in the bed. “He did try to kill you, yes.”

“Well, not really. He disposed of a failed experiment.” I shrugged, tugging at my scars again. “Hopefully that means once I convince him I’m not going to call in Necessarius to oversee retribution, he’ll be content to leave me alone.”

“Maybe,” she muttered, as she slid off the bed and started looking for her shirt. “But he might not be satisfied with that.”

I smiled—and nearly winced again as the motion tugged at the scars on my face. “You were the one trying to get me to go topside not five minutes ago. You’ve changed your mind already?”

She gave me a mock glare. “I don’t mean that. I just mean be careful about parading in front of your old Power. Get in touch with Seena and the others first, that kind of thing.”

That got me thinking along rather dark paths. “The others…who else is left? Jelena and Zusa are dead, Kevin is dead and Steve’s in a coma—”

“Pretty sure Steve came out of the coma. Probably still in the hospital, though.”

“Still. Veda’s…gone, and I doubt Delphie is still alive. So, what? That’s pretty much just Seena left, right?”

“There’s Eric,” she reminded me as she slipped her top back on. “Not to mention Derek, Adam, and Laura.”

“Did you even meet Laura?”

“No, but you guys have mentioned her.”

“Well, she and Derek are busy all the time doing whatever. And Adam is kinda…weird.”

She smacked me lightly on the shoulder, sending arcs of pain through my scars. “He’s not a Dominite. Be nice.”

“That’s not what I mean. During that gargant attack, I think he was coming at us with knives.”

My girlfriend looked at me sideways. “You sure? That seems unlikely. If he wanted to kill us, he would just use his guns.”

“Look, I don’t get it either. I’m just telling you what I saw.”

“Well, whatever. If you don’t want to talk to Adam, there’s still all the others.” She paused, considering. “And Pam.”

Unable to stop myself, I made a face. “Eugh. No thanks.”

She glared. “What’s wrong with Pam?”

“You mean besides the fact that she’s a changeling who’s been lying to us for as long as we’ve known her?”

“In fairness, we’ve only known her since school started. You can’t expect her to just open up to a randomly-assigned roommate.” She gave me a level look.

Right, got the point. If I made an issue of it, we were going to have an argument about how it related to her secrets.

“Besides,” the succubus continued as she pulled on her pants. “She’s a changeling warlord. Or…” she cocked her head to the side. “Do changelings have warlords?”

I shrugged, then winced. Stupid scars. “I think so. Everyone on Fundie was calling them ‘Paragons,’ so…yeah. Don’t know what the changelings themselves are saying.”

“They’re all hackers. Aren’t they online most of the time?”

“Probably, but if they do, they don’t tell people they’re changelings.”

“Understandable. But whether Pam is called a warlord or what, she’s still one of the founders of the clans, and your friend.”

“Hmph,” I grunted.

How Yolanda managed to ignore such a well-thought out argument I’ll never know, but she just continued as if I hadn’t said anything. Or, uh, made any noise. “Plus, she had a crush on you.”

That made me sit up. “Wait a second. She did? All she did was glare at me.”

“Well, she glared at everyone. But, yeah. She actually told me, after we got together, when I noticed her glaring at me.”

I strode up from the bed, ignoring my screaming scars, to lay my hand on her shoulder. “She didn’t threaten you, did she?”

The blonde demon placed her hand on my cheek and smiled up at me. “No, sweetie. She just explained why she didn’t like me. She’s not the type to hold a grudge.”

As she started scrounging around the room for her discarded jacket, I considered it. “Pam isn’t really the type to let her emotions get in the way at all,” I mused.

“Yep,” Yolanda confirmed.

“So why do you think she’ll shelter me from Nhang?”

I kinda expected that to set her back on her heels a bit, but she didn’t even blink. “Because it costs her next to nothing, and puts you in her debt.” She smiled at me from across the room where she had finally found her jacket. “I know you don’t like politics, but this is pretty basic diplomacy.”

“Unless of course, dearest Eccretia has already been contracted by your enemies,” a new voice, warm like honey, pointed out. “In which case she would kill you on sight.”

“Lady Titania!” Yolanda shrieked, before blushing and bowing her head deeply. “I…I…”

“Oh, hush, little demon. I’m not here to disturb your love nest.” The fey Seelie Queen turned to me. “I just need to check on your man again.”

I sat down on the bed again, having gone through enough of the matron’s administrations to know what to do. The beautiful fey—in a gorgeous yellow and white sundress woven with gold—produced a stethoscope from somewhere and started listening to my heartbeat.

“So, uh,” I said a little slowly, but when she didn’t stop me I continued on. “Pam—I mean, Eccretia—has been contracted to kill me?”

The Queen of Earth and Light looked at me with surprise. “What ever gave you that idea?”

“Um, you did. Just now.”

“Oh, that.” She smiled, continuing her tests. “No, lucky for you, you don’t have too many enemies left, and none with the money to hire dearest Eccretia.”

“Narek Nhang might,” I noted. “He’d also be in a position to know I know her.”

The fey laughed. “Nhang? That’d be a trick. Besides, even aside from the obvious problem, I doubt he would have the money to spare. Dearest Eccretia is far from cheap.”

I blinked. “Wait, you said something important.”

Everything I say is important, Honored Devil,” she reminded me. Then she quirked her head, looking at the scars on my chest. “Did you know the scar above your heart looks exactly like Artemis in this light? Yolanda, come look at this—”

“No, what I mean is you said there was some obvious reason Nhang couldn’t hire Eccretia. Do they hate each other or something?”

“I suspect so,” she nodded solemnly as she wrapped up the stethoscope. “Silly little changelings hate the toy maker and everything to do with it. But mostly, he can’t hire her because he’s dead.”

My heart stopped in my chest.

“I’m sorry,” I choked. “What was that?”

“He’s dead,” Titania repeated, cheerfully oblivious to the effect those words were having on me. “Killed by Noble Nyashk, of the Mals. Retribution has been paid and everything.”

“But…I…”

The fey, finally noticing something was wrong, frowned at me. “Oh, dear, did you want to kill him yourself?” She patted me on the head in a motherly fashion. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll make plenty of other enemies who will be happy to wait around to be killed by you.”

With only a few more words, Titania left, as easily as flicking off a light in a room.

For my part, I was still too stunned to move. After a few minutes, Yolanda sat down next to me and leaned against my shoulder.

She didn’t say anything, but I knew what she was thinking.

I was losing excuses not to go back up to the surface.

Behind the Scenes (scene 187)

This came out better than I expected.