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.
“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.”
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?”
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.”
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.