“She’s what!?” I nearly shrieked into my phone, as I tried to get changed into my battle clothes in the back of the ‘sarian van. One of the benefits of being a Paladin: I could apparently commandeer a vehicle from Necessarius whenever I needed it. The Big Boss would get mad if we did it too much, but I think he’d agree this time was justified.
“Just what I said,” MC snapped. “Robyn Joan is pinned down in G’Hanir. I don’t know exactly what happened, but she stole a phone from somewhere and called me.”
It must be serious—MC never snapped like that. I guess the fact that it was her sister who was in danger was pressing on her. Half-sister, whatever.
“Sorry. Just…when you said ‘Trouble, come to G’Hanir,’ I figured someone had found Ling.” How was Robyn the one in danger? She wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of anything that looked sketchy. Derek might call it cowardice, but it did keep her safe.
“Look, just hurry,” MC pleaded in my ear. “Adam and the retinue are there, but they can’t do too much. She’s on one of the top floors—somewhere around one hundred and fifteen.”
I managed to wiggled into my jeans. In the front seat I noticed that Flynn was watching the road in front of us very closely. Our driver didn’t seem to care either way.
“Why doesn’t Robyn just jump out the window?”
“How should I know? I can’t find her cell, and she lost whatever phone she used to call me. I’m guessing the windows that high were never designed to be opened.”
And they’d be too strong to break, considering the wind speeds they were designed to handle. If we were lucky, the aves would blast open one during the fight, and Robyn would have escaped before I even got there.
Yeah, and if wishes were fishes we’d all eat for free.
“Sword,” I said, as I pulled my top on. Flynn handed it back without looking.
“What was that?” MC asked.
“Talking to Flynn. We’re almost there. Anything you can do to help?”
“Not really. The aves haven’t trusted me since they stole the toy box, so they’re on their own system. I can’t really interfere with anything for you.”
Yeah, I had expected about as much. It was never that easy. “What about Derek and Laura? Where are they?”
“Derek’s glad-handing warlords, Laura is on her way back to NHQ right now to help me look over some data.”
Great. Derek would be perfect in this situation. His shields would be more than enough to handle whatever the aves could throw at us. But it was more effective to have him elsewhere, trying to work with the warlords to actually find Ling. I could rescue Robyn on my own.
The van screeched to a stop, and our driver glanced over the scene with a practiced eye. “Your retinue is over there,” he said, pointing. “I’m gonna peel out, give them one less target.”
“Fine,” I said curtly, as I slid open the door that was facing away from the ave domain. “Flynn.”
G’Hanir didn’t take up the entire block or anything like that, but it definitely had a big chunk of it. Enough so that it could sit some twenty feet back from the street, giving itself a nice entrance area lined with flowers and trees.
While the ‘scraper itself was dominated by the massive tower stretching up almost out of sight, it also had a few shorter sections surrounding it that only went up a third or half of the way. It looked like nothing so much as a number of buildings fused together. Which might be what had happened, I wasn’t sure.
The light tan color of the building almost made it look like natural sandstone, as though this was some beach-side tower carved out of living rock by the crashing waves. The fact that the lower levels appeared to actually be sandstone (or at least covered in it for the sake of the effect) helped sell the illusion.
Flynn followed me out of the van, which immediately sped off as promised, and we both hustled over to the retinue, who were hiding behind their own vehicle with their guns out. Nobody seemed to be shooting in either direction yet, but it was best to be careful.
“Status?” I spat as I slid into place next to Adam.
Kelly was the one who answered. “They stopped shooting a few minutes before you showed up.” Now that she mentioned it, I could see a few bullet scars in the nearby concrete, not to mention the retinue’s own cast-off shell casings from their return fire.
“Good?” I asked.
“Maybe,” the Belian muttered, scratching her fixer. “But I don’t like it. It might mean they caught Robyn, and don’t need to worry about us any more.”
Alex shook his head. “They would have retreated inside and started fortifying the first floor if that was the case.”
He was right. The aves were positioned outside the building proper, hiding behind pillars and trees for cover. That was an offensive deployment. If they didn’t care about killing us, they wouldn’t have left the safety of their domain.
“I’ll go,” I muttered, readying my speed.
But Flynn placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, and I stopped.
I was also suddenly very aware of the earrings I was wearing.
“You shouldn’t go in alone,” he insisted.
I rolled my eyes. That was the reason he had stopped me? “I’ll be fine.”
“You will be—by cutting a bloody path through the entire building. Let’s see if we can end this with minimal death.”
Okay, that was a slightly better point. But Robyn was in trouble, and we didn’t have time to sit around negotiating with the birds.
“Make it quick, or I’ll make it quick.”
“Let me handle this,” Kelly muttered. She stepped out of cover, arms raised, and laid her rifle on the ground where the aves could see it. She didn’t drop her sidearm, though.
“Don’t come any closer!” one of them squawked. Male, judging by his voice, but that was all I could say for sure. I couldn’t even tell which one was speaking; none of them were popping out of cover to make themselves seen.
The vampire obediently stopped. “No problem, we don’t want trouble. We just want our friend back.”
“Your friend was caught sneaking around our domain! We’re fully within our rights to kill her!”
“And we’re fully within our rights to lay siege to your domain in order to prevent that,” Kelly countered. She was stretching the letter of the law quite a bit, but she was right, we weren’t doing anything against Necessarian laws. Technically. “Is there a warlord I can speak to? I want to end this without violence.”
There was a brief pause before they answered. “They’re out.”
“Okay,” she said without missing a beat. “That’s fine, I can talk to you instead. Let’s keep this simple: What do I need to give you to get my friend back alive?”
“We—” his voice cut off suddenly, and I heard excited babbling from the ave lines. Clearly, the grunts were trying to figure out terms their warlords would have agreed to.
But when the voice returned, it was to ask something unexpected.
“You Drakela Sanguinas?”
Although the vampire was wearing her daygoggles, I could somehow tell she was blinking in surprise. “Uh…yeah. Why?”
“Balan’s got a price on your head.”
They opened fire.
Kelly moved faster than I could have believed possible, jumping back behind the cover of the van as bullets scored the spot she had been standing an eye blink before.
“Blood and shadow,” she muttered under her breath as she unholstered her pistol, a sleek ‘sarian model I didn’t recognize. “I left my rifle out there.”
Adam gave her a sideways look. “Who is this Balan, anyway?”
“One of the Belian Nobles. Not sure why he put out a bounty on me, though.”
“You think it’s a mistake?”
“Correction: There are a number of reasons he’d want me dead, and I’m not sure which one he used as an excuse to put out the notice.” She frowned. “It’s odd the aves have heard about it, though. He was never one for consorting with other cultures.”
Flynn shook his head. “That’s not the point right now. Can you guys lay down covering fire while Akane and I head in?”
We all turned to stare at him.
“This isn’t training or monster slaying, baseline,” Alex insisted. “You go into combat with a sword against guys with guns, they’ll chew you up. There’s a reason I hang back during firefights.”
But the swordsman’s eyes were hard. “Akane should have someone to watch her back.”
I was oddly pleased that he had said should have not, needs. It was nice to know he didn’t think I’d be in any real danger on my own; he wanted to give me enough breathing room to fight through the building without killing everyone inside.
However, while the thought was nice, it didn’t change the fact that Alex was right. A baseline swordsman, without so much as a throwing knife to get some range, wouldn’t survive if the aves had any competence whatsoever.
Instead of arguing about it, I just activated my speed and sped out of cover.
I circled around, behind the van, so that hopefully the guards wouldn’t see me. I was only tapping my reservoir at about ten percent; enough to give me a good boost to running speed and time to draw on more power if I got into danger, but not enough to dodge bullets.
Luckily, the aves suppressing my friends were stupider than I thought, and hadn’t set up anyone on their flank to watch for someone trying to sneak by. Between the weird things my power did to sound and the thunder of their guns, they didn’t even notice me.
There were only a dozen birds, none of them paying attention to anything besides what was right in front of them. I could have killed them all without even using my speed. But my friends were relatively safe where they were, and I wanted to avoid killing as much as possible. Sure, the aves had done some things recently I didn’t approve of, but that didn’t mean I could just start slaughtering them all.
Somewhat reluctantly, I moved on, ghosting through the lobby and into the emergency stairwell before letting my speed fade. My reservoir wasn’t even halfway empty yet, but I had to be careful here.
In this case, the aves’ poor relationship with Necessarius worked to my advantage. If a ‘sarian inspector had checked out the building recently, the emergency door would have an alarm on it. Luckily, they hadn’t, so it didn’t, and I was able to start up the stairs without worrying too much about being found.
I went up as many floors as I could, taking full advantage of the fact that the birds would be more concerned with guarding the elevators than the stairs. After all, who in their right mind would run up a hundred floors?
Unfortunately, due to the way the ‘scraper was built, I couldn’t go any higher than floor one hundred, but it was probably for the best. I might be one of the healthiest people on the planet, but even I can’t go straight into a fight after jogging up a hundred floors.
While I was catching my breath, I finally managed to identify something that had been nagging at me: A slight echoing sound bouncing through the stairwell that wasn’t coming from me. This close, without any distractions, it was obvious what it was.
Gunfire. A few floors up, so I couldn’t tell how many people were fighting, but it was definitely there.
That was a good sign. It meant Robyn was still alive. It would be nice if she had escaped on her own, but wishes and fishes.
I flipped out my phone and punched the button for MC. “I need to talk to the real one,” I said without waiting to hear the fake one speak.
“I’m already here,” she replied instantly. “Let’s see, GPS puts you on…floor a hundred?”
“Yeah. Gunfire a few floors up. I’ll leave the phone on.”
“You really need to get a hands-free headset one of these days, dearest.”
“They’re too expensive.”
“They’re two hundred dollars and you have over ten thousand just sitting in your bank account.”
“Maybe later.” I slipped the phone into the breast pocket of my shirt and buttoned it over to keep it from falling out. I heard a rush of static that sounded like a sigh, but MC didn’t say anything else.
I opened the stairwell door carefully, but I needn’t have worried. The office space I entered, a basic arrangement of cubicles with some very nice window views, was completely empty of any living souls. All the aves were probably either fighting or hiding.
At least navigating the place was easy enough. Everything was arranged in a neat grid, and other than the odd toppled chair from someone’s overexcited flight, there weren’t any obstacles in my path whatsoever. Not like vampire domains, which varied between ‘pitch black’ and ‘slightly less pitch black,’ or the Heavens, which were the exact opposite.
Robyn wasn’t on floor one fifteen, I was certain of that. Judging by the gunfire, it was more like five or six floors above my head. I could run up there in a single burst of speed, if I felt so inclined.
When I opened up the stairwell in question—one that started on this floor and went up the next twenty or thirty floors—the gunfire was so loud I had to shut the door immediately. It was like thunder, crashing around inside that concrete shaft. Being in there would be like being inside a steel drum.
I couldn’t see any other option, though. This was the only stairwell up, other than the elevator, and I was not going to sit in a metal box that would cheerily announce to my enemies when I arrived on their floor, ready to get shot. If—
Wait. That might actually work.
I rushed over to the elevator and pressed the call button, almost bouncing in excitement. After a second of waiting, I realized the aves might have some way of telling that someone was calling an elevator on this floor, and dodged inside a cubicle before security showed up.
I needn’t have worried, though. Either the birds didn’t have a very good internal security system or the guards were just busy. The point is that the doors opened with a soft ding without anyone running up ready to shoot me.
I stepped inside the elevator gingerly, but held my hand over the opening where the doors had slid in to keep them opening.
This was the tricky part. I probably should have scouted ahead first, but I didn’t have time for that now. I’d just have to wing it. Judging by the sounds I was hearing from above—
Oh, right. Duh.
“MC?” I asked quietly. “I’m on floor one hundred right now, in a stopped elevator. Can you figure out where the gunfire is coming from?”
“Hm…” I heard from my pocket. “It looks like…floor one zero eight. I think. I can’t give you much better than a fifty percent chance on that. I’ve only got one sound triangulation program, and she doesn’t get used much. Hasn’t really been put through the wringer, you know?”
“That’s fine,” I assured her. I tapped the number for floor one zero eight, then slipped out the elevator and headed back to the stairwell and waited.
It didn’t take long for my plan to bear fruit.
The gunfire slowed, just for a moment, most likely when the aves saw the elevator doors opening behind them. When that happened, I immediately cranked up my speed and charged up the stairwell to floor one hundred and eight.
I had two choices: Wait behind the door for my reservoir to replenish, or barge out and hope I wasn’t too badly outnumbered. The choice seemed obvious—having more speed to work with was my only advantage—but it wasn’t quite that simple. If I waited too long, the aves would realize the elevator was a trick, and might start looking for me in other places.
Bah. I was never one for waiting around anyway.
I tapped my reservoir again, tapping into my full speed for a fraction of a second, and kicked the door in with all my might.
The large steel door, designed to survive fires and minor explosions, blew off its hinges like it was shot from a gun. As I brought my speed down to more efficient levels, I saw my improvised missile blast through a couple cubicles before smacking against the large window against the opposite wall. It didn’t break through, unfortunately; these things really were heavily reinforced.
I took in the entire room, still moving in slow motion, with a single glance. None of the aves had been killed by my stunt, it seemed—only one had been in the line of fire, and it looked like he had managed to spring out of the way with avian reflexes.
The rest of the birds were still aiming their guns at the open elevator, only slowly turning in my direction. There were three on the other side of the room, likely still hunting for Robyn, but they were coming around to face me as well.
All eyes on me. Perfect time to escape, Robyn. Don’t miss this chance.
She was a clever girl. She’d be fine.
Now I just had to escape.
No time for mercy. I sped forward, beheading the three aves closest to the elevator on a single pass. That gave me a small blind spot in their ranks, a chunk of overturned cubicles I could use as cover. They’d find me in less than a minute, but I just needed a spot to catch my breath and recharge my reservoir.
I never got that chance.
Something tripped up my legs, sending me sprawling in front of the elevator. I quickly slipped inside before peeking out, but I didn’t see anything I could have stumbled—
Someone was coming.
From the other end of the room, where the other aves were, two large men ambled up, as cool as you pleased.
One was a thin, reed-like man with bright violet hair, but otherwise baseline. He had a broad grin on his face, like a shark before the kill. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
Not like the other man.
“Heya, Red!” General Brannigan, general of Necessarius, called over to me. “It’s been a while! I think we had a chat before the bats, right?”
Violet-hair chuckled. “Don’t play with your food, Zapp. It’s unbecoming.”
Renegades. Blackguards. Whatever you wanted to call them. I should have known they’d be here. And Brannigan? We had suspected he was one for a while, ever since Elizabeth was outed and we started paying closer attention to anyone who called Laura ‘Highlander.’ But we had assumed that if a ‘sarian had been turned, things would be a lot worse.
Well, it looked like things were about to get a lot worse.
“C’mon out, Akiyama,” violet-hair cooed. “We just want to plaaay…”
“Who’s playing with their food now?” a third voice, slightly annoyed, noted. “Grab her if she tries to rush me, but that’s it.”
No. It couldn’t be. I looked out—
It was. Mitchel St. John. The guy Ling had been looking for. The orphan I had fought on the rooftop, and removed his—
He had both hands. I could see them clearly, holding the rifle he had slung across his chest. The rifle wasn’t one I recognized, but it was probably another Hellion—
His choice in firearms was not important right now. How in Musashi’s name did he get a new hand? He couldn’t have stolen it from NHQ, and the toy maker wasn’t good enough to create a functioning hand out of whole cloth yet.
“Akane,” the green-haired freak called out, in a tone he probably thought was friendly. “Let’s be reasonable about this. Fillip’s telekinesis is stronger than your speed. Ziba can heal people—I’m sure you noticed what he’s done for the hand you took from me—and I’m quite well armed. Just give up.”
Brannigan was a healer? That was a problem. If nothing else happened here, I needed to take him out of the game. If he could restore Mitchel’s hand, who knew what else he could do.
But I couldn’t just rush out. Violet-hair—Fillip—seemed confident he could handle me, and it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out who I’d go after first. If I could get in contact with Robyn, this would go much more smoothly.
“How about this?” Mitchel called. “I’ll let Clarke’s girl go. She’s a flier, right? Fillip will blast out one of the windows, and she can run on home. All you have to do is come with us.”
…was he seriously trying to recruit me? Where did that come from? The Composer’s minions hadn’t done anything but try to kill us since this whole mess started. Sure, some of Elizabeth’s tactics didn’t make sense, but they were still consistent, just not fighting at her full strength. This abrupt left turn just seemed…weird.
The most likely answer was that it was a trick. They kill or capture both of us when we expose ourselves. Then they could drag us back to the bronze bitch for hypnotism or indoctrination or whatever.
Obviously, surrender wasn’t an option. But I had to keep them distracted until I could figure out where Robyn was.
“Why?” I called. “You’ve got ‘sarians. You’ve won.”
Mitchel clicked his tongue. “We’ve got one ‘sarian, and a stupid one at that.”
“Oh, shut up Zapp, you’ve lost every battle you’ve ever fought. How’d you even get to be a general, anyway?”
“I’m a tank commander, that’s how. Only problem is, no one uses tanks here! I still haven’t gotten used to all your crap.”
Wait, there was something important there. I peeked out of my hiding spot to see the pair glaring at each other, while Fillip kept a wry eye on me.
“Outsider?” I asked.
Brannigan turned to me in mild surprise. “Yeah. Got kicked out of the army for blowing up an enemy base that had diplomatic ‘hostages.’” He used air quotes around the word hostages. “They were working with the enemy. I kept enough alive for interrogation, that’s all that matters. But the joint chiefs didn’t see it that way.”
Made sense for him to be snatched up by Necessarius, then. That was the kind of thinking Butler liked. At the same time, Mitchel had to be understating his track record—the Big Boss wouldn’t keep someone around who failed constantly.
Still, I needed to keep him talking. “And Elizabeth?”
The man shrugged. “Met her during a minor diplomatic dinner. We got to talking, and I liked what I heard.”
That would be when she brainwashed him. Either she had pulled him somewhere and done it right then and there, or convinced him to meet her later without his guards.
On the plus side, she barely ever went to any of those functions. That might explain why she hadn’t converted more of Necessarius: She just hadn’t been able to get anyone important alone without arousing suspicions. Generals and other higher-ups in the organization were allowed to keep their own doctors, as long as they sent the results back to NHQ, so it would have been child’s play to hide anything that would have given them away. For the grunts, various forms of sleeper agent testing were commonplace and mandatory. We could thank Malcanthet for that.
In the opposite corner of the room, I thought I saw a flash of red.
I couldn’t see much, but she was clearly still alive. Now I just needed to find a way to get us both out of here while staying that way.
“Okay,” I said slowly, an idea forming in my mind. “I’ll go.”
Mitchel narrowed his eyes. “You will, will you?”
“Yes. But the window first.”
“Hm…” The renegade knew better than to trust my abrupt about-face, just as I knew better than to trust his. But I had him backed into a corner. “That sounds fair enough. Fillip.”
The violet-haired Blackguard whipped his hand at one of the windows, and I could see the heavily reinforced glass start to shatter under the pressure.
That’s when I made my move.
The second Mitchel had given his ally the order, I had started tapping my reservoir, just enough to give me more time to react. And when Fillip’s attention was focused on the window—instead of me or Robyn—I cranked it up as high as it could go and rushed across the room.
Although it rankled me, I didn’t slash the Blackguards as I passed. I needed every spare second I could get, so I couldn’t afford to waste time with them. I still needed to kill Brannigan—preferably all of them, but definitely him—but that wasn’t the point of this.
I found Robyn, seemingly frozen in place due to my speed, peeking over the edge of an overturned cubicle. I tackled her, spreading my speed to her as much as I could, and dragged her into a nearby open door even as she yelped in surprise and fear.
In the room, which was some kind of office for the floor supervisor or whatever, I pulled my crimson-haired friend to the side of the door, out of sight of everyone outside, and placed my hand firmly over her mouth.
Then I realized my speed had already run out without me noticing.
When had that happened? I had never gone that fast for that long before, so I wasn’t quite sure exactly when it had run out. My intent had been to move fast enough so that I appeared to just disappear right in front of the renegades, but now I wasn’t sure that had worked.
“What the—where’d she go?”
“Not out the window,” Brannigan noted.
“Yes, Zapp, I can see that. Fillip, did you sense her?”
“Nope. She got us, boss. Rabbited when I was distracted.”
“Tezuka damn it…fine. Spread out, search for Clarke. Birds, keep men on the stairwell and elevator.”
A new voice, one I didn’t recognize, spoke up hesitantly. “B-but we’re not soldiers! I mean, we have pistols, but you can’t expect us to fight—”
There was a sudden sharp snap, followed by the dull thump of a body hitting the floor.
“Who’s second in command?” Mitchel demanded.
“Congratulations on your promotion. Now get some guards.”
Robyn slowly pulled my hand from her mouth. “You got a plan?” she whispered.
“Sound plan,” she muttered dryly.
“Think we also need to kill Brannigan.”
“Which one is that?”
“The ‘sarian. He’s a healer.”
She looked at me sideways. “So? Doesn’t the Geneva Convention say something about killing medics?”
I shook my head. “Too dangerous. He fixed Mitchel’s hand. He’s a healer, not a medic. He needs to die.”
My red-headed friend looked at me strangely, before shrugging. “Eh. Never really cared much about Geneva anyway.”
Good to hear, but we still didn’t have a way out of this, let alone a way to take out the Blackguards at the same time. Mitchel’s line about Fillip ‘sensing’ me wasn’t exactly putting me at ease, either. I had a feeling he’d be ready if I tried anything again.
The aves were probably the weak point, but there were only two exits, both on the other side of the room. I’d still have to go through the telekinetic to get out. Not to mention that Brannigan was standing next to him, and I didn’t have a gun.
Robyn shook her head, which was expected. Musashi’s sword, I doubted it would have done any good even if she did have a gun. If Fillip could handle me at full speed, he could handle a few measly bullets.
But…he hadn’t handled me, right? I had managed to speed past without him noticing. So if I just…
“Your reservoir full?”
This time Robyn nodded. “I can carry the both of us, no problem. You probably won’t enjoy it, though.”
If I had to, I could just jump on my own and use my power to absorb the landing, but hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. I didn’t think I had ever tried to absorb a terminal velocity fall, and I didn’t want to test it right now.
“You said something about super strength.”
She looked confused for a moment, before nodding again. “Oh, right, right. Yeah, I can stack a few gravities on top—”
“They’re over here!” an ave called from about two feet away. “I found them!”
Musashi’s—no time to explain. I pulled her close and cranked up my speed as high as it would go, hoping she would understand what to do.
I rushed towards the window, the window Fillip had started to break, with Robyn still pulled close. I slammed the full weight of my body into the weakened glass, knowing full well it wouldn’t be enough to break it.
But Robyn had caught on to what I was trying.
The second my shoulder hit the glass, I suddenly weighed ten times as much as I had the moment before. The window was over-engineered to the point of absurdity, but I doubt there’s anything in the world that could withstand the force of two girls weighing over a thousand pounds each slamming into it faster than the speed of sound.
That includes my shoulder.
Even as the window was wrenched free of the frame, I screamed in wordless pain as my entire shoulder exploded. Just popped like a paint balloon, sending blood and something small and hard—splinters of bone—everywhere.
Now we were falling hundreds of feet through the air, my heart was pounding harder than a drum, and I was leaving a trail of blood in the sky like a plane trying to write designs with its exhaust trails.
I didn’t have much time. Adrenaline was keeping me focused at the moment, but I didn’t have long before the full force of the pain or the blood loss made me pass out. I couldn’t survive a landing like this, not on my own. So I clutched Robyn even closer.
She shouted something at me, but I couldn’t hear her over the roaring sound in my ears. Whether that was the sound of too much blood leaving my body or just the wind, I had no idea, but it didn’t really matter. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything anyway.
My last thought as darkness claimed me was that my life was in the hands of a coward who grew faint at the sight of blood.
Behind the Scenes (scene 192)
The Necessarian inspections mentioned near the beginning of this scene are entirely voluntary regulations that companies and cultures can choose to follow or not. However, if they choose to do so, they get some tax breaks, and many have found that customers are more willing to buy from companies that are certified by Necessarius.