“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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…
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.