Monthly Archives: December 2014

Scene 199 – Nihil

NIHIL

LAURA

October 30th. Tuesday. Nine days since Ling had gone missing.

Nine days and we hadn’t found so much as a hair.

All the evidence we had was the presence of the Blackguards. Fillip Ritter, Ziba Brannigan, and Mitchel St. John. MC had found Ritter’s apartment, but he was long gone by the time we got there, and General Brannigan had disappeared as well. Mitchel had been a real stroke of luck…but Derek had killed him, and his corpse hadn’t told us anything useful. He hadn’t had a phone on him, so MC couldn’t go by that, and he didn’t have any matchbooks or business cards or anything else that generally acted as a clue in this situation.

I wanted to be mad at Derek for killing him, but I knew he hadn’t had a choice. Alone, he might have been able to capture him, and with Akane it wouldn’t have even been difficult. But with me there…he couldn’t afford the luxury.

Which is why I was at NHQ right now, and had no plans of leaving any time soon. Noncombatants should stay out of combat. Any idiot knows that. So why had it taken me so long to actually do it?

Whatever, no use crying over spilled milk. It could have all gone worse. Right now, all we had to go on was my stupid seismograph—which told me nothing—and a bunch of scared birds who had no idea where their boss had gone.

Still, the aves were a better option than staring at a computer screen, waiting for a digital needle to jump. “MC, can you patch me through to G’Hanir?”

“Sure thing.” The monitor in front of me flickered briefly. “Aaand…done.”

A face appeared on my screen, a hawk anthro. Female, judging by the delicate curve to her features. She had dark brown feathers, a sharp black beak, and keen eyes. And I recognized her.

“Delia?” I exclaimed in surprise. “The leader of the warhawks? I assumed you were with your King.”

She snorted in annoyance. “I’ve been out of the loop, because of my capture. She thinks I might have flipped. Besides, I kinda had a really strong reaction to that Sauron Field or whatever…” She shrugged uncomfortably. “I, uh, might have tried to kill a few other aves who wouldn’t let me near it.”

“Yes, well…I don’t suppose you have any idea where Soaring Eagle is now?”

The ave narrowed her eyes. “No. I keep telling you people, I don’t know anything. Seriously, it was a miracle I was allowed back into G’Hanir. No one told me anything before they all left.”

I drummed my fingers on the desk, thinking. “But you’re in charge of the domain now, correct?”

She rested her chin on her hand. “Yeah, with the King gone, I was one of the highest-ranked Hunters left. Then Monday—not yesterday, last Monday—when the Blackguards press-ganged everyone to fight you guys, they killed a lot of people, including everyone above me. So…”

“Well, that’s one way to get a promotion.”

“Yeah. Not exactly my preferred one, though.” The warhawk sighed. “Anyway, we done? There’s a thousand things I have to do today.”

“No.” This was one of the most important aves still alive. She had to know something worth looking into. “You already told Necessarius about all the old labs, right?”

“Not that it did you guys any good. They were all cleared out by the time you got to them.”

“Yes, I am well aware. But…” I frowned, struggling to come up with something to ask. “How did she pick them?”

The hawk blinked at me. “Uh…what?”

“How did she choose the labs?” I pressed. I was on to something here, I could feel it. “Did she prefer out of the way locations, affordability, what? Did she have a favored agent? Anything like that?”

“Well, I mean…nothing special. Secluded spots, that kind of thing. She didn’t use an agent, she just checked to see—” Understanding dawned in her eyes. “She checked to see which buildings would be abandoned for a few weeks, and camped out there before moving on.”

“Perfect,” I practically purred. I was grinning now—we had something, we were close. “Anything else? Anything that can help narrow it down?”

“Uh…” the warhawk closed her eyes, concentrating. “She didn’t like short buildings…but she used them anyway, so that’s no help…uh, there was…ah! She tried to get buildings in abandoned sectors as much as possible. Ones recently hit bad by the Culture Wars, or—”

“Or screamers,” I finished. I should have known. The only reason more people weren’t moving to take advantage of all the empty real estate was because they were paranoid that the Composer may have left surprises behind. Obviously, Soaring Eagle didn’t have that problem.

“That’s all I can think of for now,” Delia babbled. “But I’ll call if I remember anything else.”

“Please do,” I said firmly, before cutting the connection. “MC? Can you—”

“Collate the data and find likely spots? Working…aaaand done. On the map now.”

I quickly rose from my chair and turned to the map in question, a large monitor built like a table. It showed a map of the entire city, including Whitecap Bay and all four Fusion Islands. In addition to the white lines marking the districts, there were now colored flags, presumably labeling the likely lab locations.

There were hundreds of them. Maybe even close to a thousand.

“Okay,” I muttered, trying not to let myself get discouraged. “MC? What’s your color coding here?”

“Red are the most likely locations. Secluded buildings in abandoned areas not scheduled to be inspected for months. Yellow are less likely, and green are only abandoned buildings, but still in inhabited areas.”

Hm. “Remove all yellow and green flags.” Over half of the markers disappeared, but there were still a lot left. We needed to narrow it down more. “Okay…if any are within, say, five blocks of previous lab sites, remove them.” A bare handful disappeared. “Any ideas?”

“There are only a dozen red possibilities in screamer areas,” she noted, and twelve of the flags turned black. “That’s the best I can do.”

I nodded. “No, that’s good. Organize a couple strike teams—silver and gold.”

“Laura?” MC asked. “What’s wrong?”

“We have to attack as many of them as possible at the same time,” I muttered. “Or Soaring Eagle could hear about it and start moving her lab around.”

“But we already knew she would do that. That’s how she’s been staying ahead of ‘sarian inspectors.”

“Yeah, but if she figures out what parameters we’re searching under, she could move to a basement or somewhere else non-optimal.” Word was that the Animal King had a phobia of underground, which is why I hadn’t even considered it until now. But if we made her desperate enough…

“Then we won’t let her figure it out,” MC said firmly. “It won’t be hard. I’ll have a dozen elite squads in a few days, we can hit all the black sites at once. I’ll talk to Butler, see if he has ideas on who to tap for this.”

“I don’t like rushing in blind…” I rubbed my forehead. “But it’s better than nothing. Can you call Derek? Get him over here? I want to hear his opinion on all this.”

“Done. Sent him a text.”

“Thanks.” I sighed. “At least this feels like progress.”

“It is,” she insisted. “Trust me. In a few days, we’ll be closer to finding Ling. Maybe even have her safe and sound again.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 199)

A bit on the short side, but it flowed well.

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Scene 198 – Indago

INDAGO

ADAM

I rubbed my forehead. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think I hate angels.”

Kelly nodded, her eyes firmly closed even under her daygoggles. “Yep.”

Alex glared at us. “Is this really the time?”

Kelly and I both replied at the same moment. “Yes.”

Angels, as I had discovered during the incident at Chronias, liked light. A lot. Their dayeyes gave them perfect sight at light levels that would be literally blinding for baselines. Scrambling around the abandoned Illuminated Heaven had been extremely annoying, to say the least.

Turns out it was even worse when the angels were actually around.

In our search for Ling, Alex had taken us to Lunia, the Silver Heaven, home to Barachiel the Messenger. Not that we thought they had her, or anything. No, it was just that Alex still had some friends among the non-‘sarian angels, and she thought they might be able to help.

It was still mid-afternoon, so the outside of the Heaven used an tree-like array of mirrors and lenses to refract and direct the sunlight into aesthetically pleasing shapes. My eyes weren’t exactly designed to handle all that light, but it still looked pretty impressive, like a tree made from light, glowing from every branch and leaf.

Inside? Everything was glowing. And I mean everything.

The floors glowed. The walls glowed. The speakers installed in the corners glowed. The cubicles and computers and freaking paper glowed. I had to wear daygoggles just to get by without tripping over my own feet.

“I do apologize,” the androgynous angel guiding us said with blatantly feigned humility. “We are just not used to entertaining blinders—I mean, those still burdened with baseline eyes.” He/she smiled winningly. “Perhaps one of the heretic Hosts with Necessarius would better serve your needs?”

“The sexless racist has a point,” I grunted, gaining some small pleasure from the brief angry look on the angel’s face. “Why do we need to deal with these guys, exactly?”

“Not all angels who break with the saints join Butler,” Alex said as she led us down the hallway, past angels working away at their desks. What was the worker caste? Jegu…no, wait, castes were named after times of day. The Names were what I was thinking of. Now what was that Name… “The records here will be able to tell us where some of my old friends are.”

Our guide huffed. “I doubt very much that the Silver Archives will be of much use to you. Yes, we note where the Fallen claim they are going as well as their contact information, but it is not as though we keep track of what they are doing, or even make any real effort to confirm their information.”

“You don’t,” Alex admitted. “But Pistis Sophia does. Which is why we’re here for the Crystal Archive, not the Silver.”

The Lunian angel stumbled. “I—you—you know about that?”

“For the rest of us,” I grumbled, as I felt my way along the wall. “Care to explain?”

“Barachiel, Lord of Lunia, is the Messenger,” Jarasax explained, while Alex and our guide glared at each other. “He records contact information and so on. Pistis Sophia is the angelic spymaster—”

“The Lady Ascetic is not something as uncouth as a spy—”

“Save it,” I cut off the angel. I nodded at the changeling, indicating he should continue.

He just shrugged. “Right. Well, that’s about it. Pistis Sophia sends out spies to keep tabs on everyone, especially angels who leave the culture. All the really good stuff will be locked up in Solania, the Crystal Heaven, but there will be notes on the Silver Archive’s own data stored somewhere nearby.”

“The basements,” Alex added, opening a door to a stairwell leading down to underline the point. “Angels are big on keeping the underhanded stuff literally underground.”

Our guide, annoyed, muttered to himself angrily. “It is symbolic, representative of how we are above such things and—”

It took about twenty minutes to find the right room. I had no idea where we were going; we took so many different turns I don’t think I could have found my way back up if my life depended on it. How Alex knew the way, I’ll never know. Then again…there was that angelscript stuff that was invisible to baseline eyes. Maybe she was just following the signs?

However she did it, we eventually found ourselves in front of a thick metal door at the end of a long hallway. The first thing I noticed about the door was that while the hall was as stupidly bright as the rest of the domain, the door didn’t have any of those glowing strips on it. It was still glowing a little, but that was all reflected light; the difference was hard to spot, but with the daygoggles, I could see it. I imagine the angels saw it as painfully obvious.

“That’s the Silver Archive, or whatever?”

Our guide sighed deeply. “No, that’s the door to the Silver branch of the Crystal Archive. Often referred to simply as the Silver Crystal.” He/she produced a key—glowing, of course—from his/her loincloth, and opened the door to a white room.

It took me a second to realize, despite first appearances, the room wasn’t glowing any more than the door was. All the light was just from the hallway. Stepping inside, I could actually see shadows hiding behind the waist-high counters. The first time I had seen shadows since I got to Lunia.

“You have one hour,” our guide warned, standing at the door warily, but not coming in. “Act quickly.”

“Start in ‘G,’” Alex suggested, pointing at a particular counter. “Grigorii Gabriel.”

I wandered over to where she had indicated, opened the drawer, and started shuffling through files. It didn’t take me long to realize I would be of no help.

“These are all written in angelscript,” I noted. “I can’t even see the words.”

The ‘sarian daybreaker cursed. “Day and dawn…and of course, even if you could see them, it’s written in angelic script, so you wouldn’t be able to read it…” It took me a second to remember that angelscript was the invisible ink stuff, while angelic script was the code they used based off Hebrew. Why were the names so similar?

“I can read angelic script,” Kelly piped up. “But I can’t do much if I can’t see it.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Black lights reveal invisible ink, right?”

“Lights don’t work in here,” our guide called from the door. “There’s a strong dark zone.”

“Uh…” I turned to Alex. “Dark…zone?”

“It’s a low-level electromagnetic field, tuned to fry lights,” Kelly said before the angel could answer. “Vampires use them sometimes. They have an annoying tendency to fry other stuff too, though.”

The angel at the door huffed. “Please. We are not some nightspawned wretches tossing out darklights like grenades. The field is very carefully tuned. Only lights are affected.”

“Sure they are,” George said, checking his phone. “That’s why my military-grade brick smells like burnt silicon.”

I went to check my own phone, but Kelly stopped me. “Don’t. It will have a better chance of surviving if you don’t mess with it.”

I sighed. “Fine. What’s your suggestion for these files?” I waved them around. “I don’t think Alex can check them all alone.”

The angel in question took the papers from my hand. “I don’t need more than a few names. Grigorii should be enough…assuming he’s even still alive.”

“What’s so special about this guy?”

“He’s a freak of nature, for one thing. Crazy bastard is a hermit squatting on one of the Fusion Islands. Don’t know which one.”

“Fusion Islands—you mean the four islands with the city’s primary fusion generators?”

The angel raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. Are there any others? But from there, he keeps an eye on everything. He’s a bit of an information broker, except he never sells any information. Very odd.”

“So he might know something,” Kelly finished. “Worth a shot, at least.”

“Okay, that all…kinda makes sense,” I said slowly, looking back and forth from the vampire to the angel. “But why will he help us?”

Alex flipped through the file without looking up. “His sister is Adele Lucifer, that ‘sarian angel who helped with the bats. She can probably convince him it’s in his best interests to help.”

“Couldn’t we have just asked her where he is?”

“She doesn’t know. Like I said, he’s a hermit.”

“But you know now, right?” Kelly asked. “It’s in the papers, I mean? So we can go now?”

The angel scanned through the file quickly. “North Fusion island…in a cave on the eastern shore? No wonder Adele could never find him. He was always claustrophobic before.”

“So that’s everything?” the vampire demanded, scratching the device on her arm.

“Yep!” the ‘sarian angel said with a cheerful smile. “I think we might finally have a lead!”

“Good,” Jarasax grunted from the hallway, where he was checking his phone. “Because Medina just texted me. Huntsman killed St. John.” He nodded at Alex. “You better hope this lead pans out, because it’s the only one we’ve got left.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 198)

Angels bearing the Name “Jegudiel” are the workers of angelic society. They are the bureaucrats, the builders, the lawyers, and the paper-pushers. Thankless jobs, but essential.

The other Names are Gabriel (warriors), Lucifer (teachers), Michael (protectors), Raphael (doctors), and Uriel (hunters). The teachers should have the Name Samael, but the Archsaints weren’t exactly experts on Christian theology.

break

Scene 197 – Aerugo

AERUGO

DEREK

Sunday. Ling had been missing for a full week.

And we still weren’t an inch closer to finding her.

Between Obould’s orcs, Dispater’s warbloods, Necessarius, and Tecumseh…we should have found something. A scrap of clothing, a scent of perfume, something.

Laura had been using a seismograph to monitor the city, maybe find some odd earthquakes from Ling struggling against her captors, but that had just led to a bunch of dead ends. Especially loud machinery and oddly large explosions, but no little Chinese girls kidnapped by the aves.

“She has to still be on the island,” Laura muttered at my side as we walked down the street, past a maintenance man installing a speaker on the corner. “No one’s left the city recently.”

I thought about it. “What about—”

“I already thought of the space cannons. Each package is thoroughly screened before being fired. Besides, a human wouldn’t survive the launch anyway.”

“Good to know,” I admitted. “But not what I meant. What about the Dagonites and so on?”

But she just shook her head. “Unlikely. Soaring Eagle has never had any allies with them, and Butler apprised them of the situation early on. It’s doubtful she found any friends there.”

“She doesn’t have the money to bribe anyone?”

“Not last time we checked. Though Lizzy—Elizabeth—always had some gems squirreled away for a rainy day.”

“I thought Necessarius got that when they went through your room and searched her bank accounts.”

“Everything they could find, sure, but I doubt that’s everything she had.”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “This would be easier if we knew how close the two groups were. If Soaring Eagle is a Blackguard, then Ling’s dead, and this whole thing is just us chasing our tails.”

“I don’t think so. I think the Composer would have made some kind of announcement if Ling was dead already.”

Now it was my turn to shake my head. “She managed to hide for years. Somehow, I feel like whatever her flaws, ego isn’t one of them. She’s not the type to just pop up and gloat.”

“Pretty sure that’s my cue,” a voice I recognized called from behind.

We both turned to see a young man with the ruddy red skin of some type of islander and garish green hair grinning at us as he stepped out from an alley some fifty feet behind us.

Mitchel St. John. Ling’s orphanmate.

One of Elizabeth’s Blackguards.

I immediately pulled Laura behind me, and heard a click as she readied her pistol. She couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with the thing, but she might be able to distract him.

“Oh, is that any way to greet an old friend?” the man called mockingly as he stepped closer. “After I went to all the trouble of finding you, too!”

“Any particular reason you were looking for us?” I asked. “Or just the standard ‘let’s spy on the heroes and kill them if they do anything iffy’ plan?”

He shrugged. “Eh. That’s about it. The Lady Greene is a little annoyed by Akane and that other one showing up at the birds’ nest, but mostly it’s cuz I had nothing better to do.”

“Oh, that makes me feel wonderfully important.” Behind me, Laura tapped me on the shoulder in a short pattern I recognized; she was saying there was no one else around. That was good and bad; no reinforcements for the renegade, but none for us either.

I just needed to keep him talking long enough for Laura to get a text off to MC. We were on some unimportant side street I didn’t even know the name of, but we probably had allies within a couple blocks. They’d come running when called.

“You are important,” Mitchel insisted. “Did you know the mistress has given us specific orders regarding you?” He smiled magnanimously. “You’re the only five people in the city who have that honor!”

I raised my eyebrow. “And what are those orders?”

He grinned and raised a finger to his lips. “Shhh. It’s a secret.”

My eye twitched. “I’m beginning to see why Ling hates you.”

He shrugged. “Not too long ago, that would have thrown me into a frothing rage. Now…”

He rushed forward, covering fifty feet so fast I could almost swear he had superhuman speed. I barely managed to dodge out of the way, dragging Laura with me, and land painfully on the asphalt.

Mitchel grinned at me again. “Now it drives me into a cold rage.”

The renegade lunged forward again, but I threw up a glowing blue shield in front of him, stopping him in his tracks.

For about two seconds.

He grinned—I was starting the hate that smile—and placed his hand on the shield, only for it to dissolve under his touch effortlessly.

Crap.

“Mistress Greene calls it ‘rust,’” he said, looking over his hand as though searching for damage. Behind me, I heard Laura scooting away; good girl. “I can accelerate the rate of decay for non-organic matter. In other words, I make things get really old, really fast. Turns out that includes your shields. Who knew?”

Idiot, I thought to myself as I slowly climbed to my feet. If he had any brains at all, he wouldn’t have explained it to me. He should have let me assume he could do that to anything, so that I’d be flinching away from his touch during the fight.

I briefly considered whether or not it was a double-bluff, before dismissing it. Unlike his boss, Mitchel seemed to like to show off. That was the entire reason he had revealed himself. He wanted me to know what he was capable of. He wanted me to be impressed.

I kept my face neutral, hiding my fear. I was Derek Huntsman. I would not be intimidated just because someone took away my cool new power. I had fought gargants unarmed before, a renegade would be nothing.

“Good for you, you can negate my shields,” I deadpanned, masking my fear. “But your power can’t hurt me. Which means this is a hand-to-hand fight.”

Mitchel grinned even wider, revealing sharp teeth. “Oh, I’m hardly worried about that. I’ve fought vampires with these hands, you know.” He rushed forward, throwing a punch at my face with the speed and force of a bullet.

I stepped aside, letting it fly past me, and tripped him before he could recover, sending him sprawling to the ground.

“I’ve fought vampires too,” I noted. “Mine were warlords.”

He spat on the ground, before coming back to his feet, cracking his neck. “Right, right…I forgot you used to be a wrestler. Killed a couple kids, right?” He fell into an advanced karate stance. “Well, I’m not a kid, Huntsman.”

I didn’t bother correcting his misconceptions; I just pushed down my fear and concentrated, observing his posture.

To my surprise, he actually appeared to know what he was doing. There were no obvious weaknesses in his guard, and the muscles of his arms—all I could see with his short-sleeved black shirt—were taut as steel cables.

“You mind if I take my jacket off?” I asked after a moment. It was a bit cold out, but we’d both be sweating soon enough. And maybe I needed to buy a second to psych myself up.

Mitchel swept his hand out. “Of course. And, even though you didn’t ask, I won’t attack while you’re doing that!”

“How kind of you,” I muttered as I started to pull off my jacket. “You’ll forgive me if I assumed you’d be a bit more…underhanded.”

“What? Just because I’m working for someone with plans that involve murder and bloodshed, I have to forgo all honor?”

“Actually, no. I meant because I thought you were smart.”

I threw my jacket in his face and rushed forward as he struggled with it, hitting him with a quick one-two punch to the gut.

“Tezuka—” he spat, before spinning to the side and throwing aside the jacket. His grin was gone now, and his eyes were filled with hatred. “I thought you were the hero of this story. Honor, chivalry, all that.”

“Different kind of honor,” I insisted.

“What does that even mean?

“It means I can do this,” I swept his legs out from under him, sending him sprawling to the ground. “And this.” I followed up with a stomp to his head, which could have killed him if it connected.

But he was done playing around. He rolled out of the way of my foot and backflipped back onto his own feet, before expertly blocking my lightning-fast punch to his face.

“This is all you’ve got?” he asked with a laugh. “I mean, c’mon, this is kinda sad.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? You really want me to try harder?”

His grin disappeared. “Wait, I—”

I moved inside his reach, sending another punch rocketing towards his face, but he blocked it as he backstepped—which I had intended. With my other hand, I struck at his throat. I couldn’t get enough power to break anything, but it still made him cough with the effort of breathing.

He tried to counterattack, drawing in as deep a breath as possible before stepping forward while performing a powerful double-palm to my chest, but he had left himself too open. I sidestepped him easily, wrapped my arm around his throat, and kicked him in the back of the knees all in one motion.

The Blackguard went down. Not too hard, he could have easily recovered…except that I still had my arm around his throat.

No hesitation. Before he could struggle out of my hold, I took his head in both hands and twisted it.

Crack.

I let the corpse fall to the ground like a rag doll and took a deep breath, trying to steady my shaking hands.

Silver and gold, why was it still like this? Every time it was the same. The same nameless dread, fear of…I didn’t even know what. Death, obviously. But what else? Failure?

I had fought in thousands of battles. That wasn’t an exaggeration in the slightest. Literally thousands. Why did I still shake like a novice every time? It was going to get me killed one of these days, I knew. If Mitchel had been smart enough to attack while I was taking off my jacket…

I shivered. Didn’t want to think about that.

I heard footsteps on the street behind me, and turned to see Laura, with my jacket draped over her arm.

“You okay?” she asked, watching me closely.

“Yeah,” I said with a nod, smiling at her kindness. Then I winced. “Got a headache now, though.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’ve been getting those a lot.”

“What? I…I mean, yes, I am, but I didn’t tell you that.”

“I noticed. It’s hard not too.” She quirked her head. “You think it’s a remnant of Elizabeth’s brainwashing.”

Rubbing my forehead didn’t really help with the headaches, but I did it anyway. “Yeah, it’s the only thing I can think of. It’s just so specific, and always around you, so it has to be that.”

My old friend frowned. “That is worrying. MC can find you a psychiatrist, if you like—”

That made me laugh. “In the state the city’s in? No, I don’t need a shrink who would be a spy for any of a half dozen people. I’ll manage.”

“Well, it’s your call.” She turned her attention to Mitchel’s corpse. “At least we know how she escaped the warcage.”

“What?” I thought about it for a second. “Oh…yeah. I guess his ability would cause rust, huh?”

“He did call it rust. I thought it was obvious.”

I shrugged. “I was mostly thinking about how it made my shields useless.”

“Hmph. I suppose you did have other things on your mind.” She knelt down next to the corpse, and checked his neck for a pulse. “And I guess you didn’t really have an option to capture him alive.”

“Yeah, he was tougher than I—” I smacked my hand against my forehead.

That’s what she meant. With Mitchel dead, we were out of leads.

Again.

Behind the Scenes (scene 197)

I have a bad habit of having waay too many characters, which leads to the very bad habit of enjoying killing them off, since that means fewer to worry about.

Scene 196 – Colpa

COLPA

AKANE

Saturday.

Almost a week since Ling had disappeared.

On Monday, I had stormed G’Hanir to rescue Robyn and find clues about Ling. Instead, I found a few renegades and shattered my shoulder bad enough that I spent two days in the toy box after Robyn managed to drag my mostly-dead body to her father.

It was Saturday now, and I had nothing to show for it.

Derek had the orcs, the warbloods, even Tecumseh himself, all running around the city searching for our missing paladin, but they hadn’t found anything. No sign of Mitchel St. John, no sign of General Brannigan, no sign of Soaring Eagle or her honor guard.

No sign of my roommate.

Why had she been kidnapped? None of this made any sense. Turgay was one of her best friends, and while she had some friction with Soaring Eagle, it shouldn’t have been enough to cause this. The fact that she had intentionally misled Adam on the day she was captured was another oddity, but that one made more sense. He did tend to be trigger-happy.

Laura said it probably had something to do with the renegades. That she had seen something they didn’t want her to see.

In which case, she was almost certainly dead.

Musashi’s sword, I had had them. I had three of those stupid Blackguards in my sights, and I let them go. I didn’t just let them go, I ran away from them. I ignored multiple opportunities to kill or capture them. I…

I had failed.

“Um…hello? Are you still here?”

I blinked and shook my head, bringing myself back to the present. “What? Yes, I’m here.”

Yuuki looked uncomfortable, squirming in his seat. “I was just wondering why you called me out here.”

I smiled gently. “It’s a rough time. I just wanted to spend some time with my nephew. Is that all right?”

“Yes, Honored Paladin.” He didn’t know I was one of the Paladins. He was just being polite.

“There’s no need to be formal. Just Akane will do.”

“Yes, Honored Akane.”

I smiled as best as I could. “Please tell me that joke was intentional.”

He shuffled a little bit more. “Maybe.”

“Yuuki, it was your idea to have lunch together at some point. Not that I’m complaining. I’m just saying…” He stared at me blankly, and I sighed. “I don’t know what I’m saying.”

He apparently didn’t either, because he was silent for a few minutes.

But not for long.

“Yuudai wants to become a demon.”

I had been reaching for my drink; I stopped and considered what he had said. “Okay…any specific subculture?”

My nephew shook his head.

“Well…the demons are a good starting point, I suppose. They tend to respect your wishes if you choose to change cultures later, or even go back to being baseline—”

“That’s not the problem.”

“Then what is?”

Yuuki looked even more uncomfortable than before.

I sighed. “Yuuki…”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up,” he said quickly. “I mean, you’ve clearly got a lot on your mind, and we haven’t know each other for too long and…” He swallowed visibly. “I should go.”

He got up to leave, but Lily appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and forced him back into his seat. “None of that, little one. I’m not letting you leave your aunt with the bill.”

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “He doesn’t have to stay if he doesn’t want to.”

She gave me a sideways look. “Kids never want to stay. That’s why you’ve got to remind them—” her grip on his shoulder tightened. “—that it’s a better idea to explain their problems to their elders.”

Elder? I was only three years older than him.

But she was right, as usual. Age has little to do with number of years. I was the last family these boys had; I needed to act like it.

“Yuuki, she’s right. Just tell me what’s wrong, and I’m sure I can help.” I shrugged. “And if not, Lily’s right here.”

The waitress snapped her tail in the air. “Don’t drag me into this, Akane.”

“His brother’s thinking of becoming a demon,” I pointed out. “Doesn’t that kind of make him your problem?”

The red-eyed girl sighed. “Yes, but that doesn’t mean I can help with every single—” She closed her eyes and slid into the seat next to me. The cafe was empty enough that she could do that without worrying about getting behind on her orders. “Sorry. Long day. You’re right—I can help with this one.”

I turned back to my nephew, all smiles, and waited for him to continue.

He looked even more uncomfortable than before, if that was possible, but did manage to find his words after a moment.

“Yuudai’s been…scared.”

“Someone’s after him,” I muttered. It wasn’t a question. “Was it a ghoul? There’s this one—”

“No, no!” Yuuki shook his head violently. “It’s no one specific! It’s just…he, you know…” The teenager shrugged. “He doesn’t feel safe in the orphanage. He doesn’t really feel safe anywhere. Because of all the crazy Composer stuff going on.”

I was confused again. “What does that have to do with becoming a demon?”

“Not everyone is you, Akane,” Lily said with a sad smile. “Not everyone can fight off a half-dozen ghouls with nothing but a sword. Most people need some pretty hefty toys.”

“No, he just said there was no one specific.”

She rolled her crimson eyes. “That’s not the point. He’s scared, and he wants power.”

I turned back to Yuuki. “Is that true?”

He nodded.

Lily smiled at him encouragingly. “So he found a toy engineer who will mod him without asking too many questions.”

Another nod.

“But now he needs money. He either stole from someone, or is planning to.”

“Yes, Honored Devil.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m not a demon.”

My nephew looked up in surprise. “You’re not? But you’re…” He looked her up and down, obviously noting her horns and tail. “You’re…”

“You boys are trying to get toys, and you don’t even know who Lily is?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “What are they teaching you in school these days?”

He waved his hands frantically. “No, I mean—”

“Focus, kiddies,” Lily said firmly. “Who does Yuudai owe money to?”

Yuuki shook his head. “No, no one yet, he’s just…getting desperate.”

Lily scratched her chin. “Someone might make him a bad offer soon.” She nodded at me. “That’s how the aves recruit, not to mention a lot of others. Find someone desperate, offer them everything, in exchange for loyalty. Works pretty well.”

That got me thinking. Maybe the renegades worked the same way. Sure, we knew Elizabeth had that hypnosis power, but some of the Blackguards seemed in control of their faculties. Maybe she combined the two methods.

But Yuuki just shook his head again. “It’s not like that. He hasn’t even seen a tech yet. He just met this girl, who’s talking to him about toys and stuff, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen, you know?”

Oh. Well, I had heard this story before. “Boys like to impress girls, but he’s a good kid. Don’t worry too much about it.”

He nodded. “I guess I’m just paranoid. Sorry for wasting your time.”

“It’s not a waste of time,” I insisted. “We barely know anything about each other, there is nothing wrong with spending a meal to catch up. For example—how’s school?”

He snorted. “Lousy. Half the students have run off. The teachers almost did too, until the ‘sarians started posting guards everywhere.”

I had heard about that. When Flynn wasn’t teaching his shrinking class of kids, he was doing a little bit of that kind of work. I didn’t like it, but I guess it was better than when he was running around with the retinue.

“But you’re still going, right?” I pressed. “It’s not too long ago a free education in this city would have been impossible.”

“Yes, of course…” he muttered, not looking at me. “I’m not an idiot.”

I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t make an issue of it. “Look, I’m not your mother. I’m not going to force you to do one thing or not do another. Just make sure Yuudai thinks it over before doing anything extreme, okay? And I will talk to him if you want me to.”

My nephew nodded. “Okay. If you think it’s best.”

“It is,” I said with more conviction than I felt. “You should know, telling kids what not to do doesn’t always help.”

But I couldn’t help but feel that maybe this was one of those things I needed to be paying more attention to.

Before it went the same way as Ling.

Behind the Scenes (scene 196)

Another of those I’m not so sure about. I have trouble with Akane’s nephews.

Scene 195 – Incarceratus

INCARCERATUS

LING

I woke up laying on my back with a throbbing pain in my—

I screamed.

A throbbing pain in my everything. And screaming just made it even worse. Everything hurt. Like a trillion shards of glass were flowing through my veins, while my skin was set on fire and my eyes were clawed by wild animals and—

I tried to move, to find out where I was, but that just made the pain worse, like the time I broke my arm in three pieces, but kept trying to move it.

But this was worse. So much worse. Every time I twitched, my veins screamed in protest, and my flesh shivered in agony.

Where was I? It was dark, completely dark, so dark that I wasn’t even sure I wasn’t blind. I tried feeling around my surroundings, but that didn’t help. I couldn’t even tell if I had managed to touch anything, all I could feel was the pain.

I was beginning to panic, but I needed to calm down. I could taste blood in my mouth, from when I had screamed—or tried to scream, rather—and ruptured something important in my throat. I could feel something pooling in my esophagus, but all I could do was hope I wouldn’t drown in my own blood.

This reminded me of something that had happened before, but I was still in too much pain and too disturbed to remember exactly what. I did remember one thing, though: My power was very useful in this situation. Not the power itself, but rather the sixth sense that allowed me to sense solid matter that I could affect with my power.

I extended it slowly, instinctively assuming the pain would flare up again, but it seemed I had nothing to worry about on that front. Using a power apparently put little enough strain on a body that whatever horrific wounds I had didn’t scream in protest.

I was in…a box, maybe. A coffin? No, I couldn’t jump to conclusions. My sense was ridiculously nonspecific; I could tell I was surrounded by some thin material that I couldn’t affect with my power, but that was all I could be sure of. Even the shape—a rectangular box—was uncertain.

Okay, I was in a box, bag, whatever. That…was not a good sign, but I had to press on. I extended my awareness, searching the floor. It wasn’t concrete, or stone, or anything else I could use my power on, which probably meant I was inside a building, on an upper floor. I could feel some concrete pillars nearby, but they seemed like they were…wrapped in felt. That probably just meant they were covered in wood paneling or something else my power couldn’t affect.

There were no people around, at least as far as I could tell. My sense might be nonspecific, but there weren’t any tall, thin bundles of solid matter around, which was generally how I identified people.

Okay, I was in horrific pain, in a box. That…made no sense to me. I needed to backtrack a little. Now that I wasn’t moving, the pain had faded to a manageable—but still absolutely epic—ache, and my thoughts were becoming more clear. What was the last thing that had happened to me?

I was at a meeting with Soaring Eagle.

And I had seen Mitchel.

As my heart began to beat faster in response to my rage, my pain increased as well. Even as I choked back another scream, I forced my pulse to slow, with a breathing exercise that hurt almost as much as the heartbeat itself.

I needed to channel Laura. Getting all angry in this situation would solve exactly nothing, and might actually kill me.

Cold, logical, and precise. That’s what I needed to be.

I couldn’t remember exactly what had happened with Mitchel. I had been…attacked? By Soaring Eagle, maybe? I was getting a headache, and while it wasn’t anywhere near as painful as the rest of my body, it still hurt.

Wait, no, I understood the problem now—I had skipped a step. First: Figure out your current situation. If my memories were more clear, maybe it would be obvious, but I couldn’t rely on that.

I was rambling, mentally. Needed to focus.

In horrific pain, in a box, no one around, nothing close enough to use my power on. Now was the time to take a closer look at myself. I tapped into my awareness again, but this time I set my senses on my own body.

My sixth sense was far more acute when I was peering at my own flesh and bones, and I didn’t know why. Oh, it wasn’t as good as my ability to sense things I could actually affect with my power, but it was good enough to give me an accurate, if not particularly detailed, picture of my body.

Even then, it took me more than a minute to realize exactly what I was sensing.

I was broken.

Every bone in my body, from my skull to my smallest toe, was shattered. Bent and twisted, with bits and shards stabbing into the surrounding flesh. In most places, they were still in approximately the right shape, little clumps of splinters pretending to be functioning bone.

But the human body is rarely good with ‘approximately.’ Every time my muscles flexed, they pressed and moved the slush that used to be my bones. My legs were already deformed, caved in under their own weight, and I felt as though the only thing keeping my rib cage from following suit was my heart, still pumping strong despite all the abuse.

Which it shouldn’t be. My biology and anatomy grades were laughable, but I knew that a human being cannot survive with a skeleton that looked like something that had come out of a blender. How was I still alive?

Had I been rescued? If Necessarius had found me, they might have brought me to Doctor Clarke, put me in—

Put me in the toy box.

Oh no. No no no no…

Now that my mind was more clear, there was no mistaking it. This was the toy box, and not one of the copies the ‘sarians had built. Those were open-air, while even my limited sixth sense could tell that this one wasn’t. This was the actual, original device.

The one the aves had.

The aves had nearly killed me—just the tiniest breadth of a hair away from actually killing me—and put me in the toy box to save my life.

But why? For what purpose? Maybe…as some sort of ransom, or bargaining chip?

Or as a lab rat.

By the velvet-draped halls of Shendilavri, the Fourth Gate of Hell, I would not. I would not be some mad bird’s experiment, to be poked and prodded and cut until I was of no more use.

I was Ling Yu. I left Shendilavri, and Damavand, and I fought my way through the screaming hordes of Elizabeth Greene.

I was no one’s lab rat.

It didn’t take long to find the only solution left to me. Escape was impossible. Rescue unlikely, and would take too long anyway.

Suicide was the only answer.

I had to act quickly. I had screamed when I first awoke, and though I didn’t know how soundproof the box was, an ave would be coming sooner or later.

Though every part of my body screamed in protest, I struggled to bring my hand to my chest. It was a long shot, but with my body in its current, broken state, I might be able to tear open a hole in my gut, and bleed out relatively quickly. It was a painful option, but the only one I seemed to have.

It didn’t work.

Not for lack of trying. But while my chest was weak, barely stronger than the flesh of a newborn kitten—if that—my hand had deteriorated as well. I could move the fingers, or the tubes of blood and tortured muscle that used to be fingers, but not with any strength. I may as well have been staring at a stone wall, for all the damage it did.

But it still hurt.

I screamed, blood gurgling in my throat, as my hand felt as though it was on fire. No, worse than that. It had already felt like fire—now it felt like a thousand ants had found my hand, cooking in a bonfire, and started ripping off pieces to take home.

I could feel every splinter of bone, sawing through flesh with a diabolical will, as though my entire hand would collapse into chunks of meat at any moment—

I stopped, gasping for air, and tasting blood on my tongue as my painful, labored breathing made me spit up the liquid that had pooled in my throat.

All that pain, and nothing to show for it but blood.

For a moment, a brief moment, I began to hope that I would drown, here in this box, my own blood filling my lungs and ending my life.

It was not to be, of course. This was the toy box, and whatever arcane processes it used, were able to dissolve the blood in my throat, likely to redistribute the biological matter somewhere else more useful.

Or not. I knew little about the toy maker, and far less about the toy box. All I knew, right here and right now, was that it was keeping me alive.

Barely. It was keeping my heart and other vital organs strong, but whatever had happened to my bones, the toy box didn’t possess the power to cure it. Only hold it at bay, keep it from killing me completely.

Keep me from killing me, too.

Way back on the Ring, when I had been placed in the box after fighting the renegades, I had thought at first that the box I was in was a coffin, and I was doomed to remain awake when I was left out for the ghouls to feast on.

No ghouls were here, but maybe I hadn’t been quite so far off the mark as I had thought.

Why was no one coming?

Behind the Scenes (scene 195)

Well, at least Ling’s doing fine. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was worried for a minute there.

And this is Friday, by the way. Friday October 26th.