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?”
“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.
“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.’