Monthly Archives: February 2015

Scene 208 – Motus

MOTUS

AKANE

I recognized Derek’s plan immediately. It was one we had used on gangs of street thugs several times. While he was busy fighting the champion, I’d handle the support. Simple enough.

Except we didn’t know enough about the vampire triplets to know if the tactic was even viable. They had somehow made a dozen Mals commit suicide; I didn’t want to get anywhere near them. At least Flynn was out of this fight due to an injury he received while fighting the fey monsters.

But orders were orders, even if they were merely implied. My path was clear.

I cranked my speed up as high as it would go, slowing the world to a crawl, and rushed past Elizabeth to attack the triplets.

They weren’t there.

Neither was anyone else.

The entire crowd had just…disappeared.

I wheeled back around, but Derek and the others were gone too. The entire street—which up until a second ago had been packed with men and monsters—was completely, absolutely, bare.

Not only was the crowd gone, but there was no noise. The constant din of the city, the distant car alarms and gunshots that provided a steady undertone to anything and everything, was gone.

Just…gone.

Okay, I needed to stay calm. If I assumed this had something to do with how the Mals had committed suicide, then panicking would probably just end my life faster.

First things first, I sheathed my sword. Call me stupid, but I figured that if I wasn’t waving the thing around, I had a better chance of not being made to stab myself with it.

Next was…

Next was what?

How should I know what was next? I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. The fact that I wasn’t dead yet seemed like a good sign, but I had no way to know for sure. If this was some kind of illusion, my body was probably lying helpless in the real world. Derek and Adam would be trying to protect me, but against Elizabeth and four of her Blackguards, what could they do? I could be only moments away from death I could—

I took a deep breath.

No time to panic.

My dad had always said that meditation was good for the soul. And when you feel angry, or scared, that’s when you need it the most.

I drew my sword, slowly, savoring the sound of it sliding out of its sheathe. Eyes closed, I held it in front of me with two hands, in the most basic of stances.

Deep breath. In, and out. Deep breath…

Everyone meditates a different way. My dad was pretty traditional: Sit down on the ground with your legs crossed, and concentrate on emptying your mind.

That had never worked for me.

I took a step forward and slashed, a simple diagonal downward attack that I had done a thousand times. A second step and a follow-up strike, bringing the blade up high again. Then another diagonal slash…

Spin, a hundred and eighty degrees, a full about-face. Slash, stab. Step forward, slash again.

Spin again, this time just to the side. Step back once, step back twice, then step forward, riding the stab. Slash the blade out—

And suddenly a vampire, blood dribbling from her mouth, was in front of me.

Bitch,” she whispered. “How’d you know I was here? I had you trapped in a dreamworld.”

“Didn’t know,” I admitted. I brought the sword around again, slicing deeper into the wound in her gut I had already made. “Just exercising.”

The vampire’s marble-black eyes rolled up into her skull as she fell over. “Bitch.”

Then everything came rushing back.

The crowd, the monsters, the blood on the ground, the Composer battling Derek and Adam, and Brannigan staring at me in shock.

The sound came back a second later.

It hit me like a wave. Like a physical wave of force. The screaming crowd, the roaring monsters, even the background noise of the city…it all came rushing back, all at once.

I stumbled, nearly slipping over the corpse of the Blackguard vampire I had just killed. Brannigan looked like he wanted to rush forward and see if he could heal her, but realized that was a bad idea. I didn’t know how strong he was, but I doubted he could bring back someone with her guts spilled across the sidewalk.

But he did remind me of an important detail: He was a healer, and he needed to die.

I readied my sword and prepared to rush forward—only to find I couldn’t move.

What in Musashi’s name—

No, I could move, but only barely. It felt like someone was physically holding me back. Telekinesis, maybe? I glanced at Ritter, but he was still dead on the street a few yards away. Besides, with his power, I could feel a physical force attacking me. This felt more like…

More like my own muscles were fighting against me.

I turned my head to see one of the vampire triplets with her hands held out in my direction, and eyes closed in concentration. She looked pale, paler than five minutes ago I mean, and the third triplet was still on the ground screaming.

Oh. They were podbrains. Like those demons from the alley. Interesting.

It also explained a lot, like how they had made the Mals commit suicide. The first triplet traps them in a dreamworld, and the second takes control of their bodies while they’re distracted.

But that meant she couldn’t fight me for too long while I wasn’t distracted. I released one hand from my sword, hoping that her control would slip a little if she couldn’t see what I was doing. I reached for a knife; I only needed a second of speed—

My shoulder screamed in pain.

I stumbled again, cursing as I dropped the knife I had been going for. At least I kept a grip on my sword.

But my shoulder was still throbbing. Clarke had rebuilt the thing completely, put me in the toy box and knit the shattered shards of bone together piece by piece, but it still hurt. How could it not? Nine days ago, my shoulder had hit a window so hard it exploded.

I didn’t have time for this. I needed to concentrate, to finish off this second vampire before someone decided to take advantage of my helpless state. Derek and Adam still had the Composer busy, judging from the sounds behind me, but what about Brannigan? Was he fighting them too? But there was still the third vampire to contend with…

Then there was the echoing crack of a gunshot, and the podbrain who was concentrating on me fell to the ground, little more than a bloody mess where her head used to be.

My body was my own again. I used the newfound freedom to glance over to where the shot had come from. As far as I could tell, considering the light differences making it hard to see too far, it had come from the cafe where Laura and the other noncombatants were holed up. Clearly she had found at least one combatant. One with what seemed like an Olympian Nike, judging by the amount of damage the shot had caused. Goddess of victory indeed.

I didn’t know what the third podbrain’s power was, and I wasn’t in the mood to find out. She was still weeping on the ground; without a shred of hesitation, I zipped forward and sliced her head off, not even waiting for her body to start to fall before looking around for new targets.

Brannigan was a little bit too far away, past Adam and Derek fighting with Elizabeth, and my reservoir hadn’t replenished sufficiently to reach him. I guess I needed to help Derek, then, since there was no way I could dodge around the swirling whirlwind of glowing orange blades that was Elizabeth Greene.

And she was a whirlwind. Not literally, of course, but as close as a swordsman can get. She moved like lightning, using one sword to fend off Derek from getting too close while using the other to harry Adam and keep him from fleeing to a range he felt more comfortable with. She moved so fast, switching between offense and defense, between parrying Derek’s shield bashes to striking at Adam’s poorly-armored limbs, that she really did look like a whirling dervish.

I needed to help. If I jumped into the fray, that would give Adam the leeway he needed to fall back and shoot her. It wouldn’t kill her, but at least it would actually slow her down enough to do something.

Before I had a chance to close the distance, however, the choice was taken out of my hands.

Something slammed into the street in front of me, hitting with enough force to throw up a cloud of dust and shattered asphalt. I coughed, waving my hand in front of my face in a futile effort to clear the air so I could see what was going on. My hand didn’t help, but in a few moments, the wind shifted, revealing…

Robyn Joan Clarke, sitting in a small crater in the street and breathing heavily.

It took me a second to realize she was covered in more red than usual.

I scanned the impact site, searching for clues—and quickly found them. A scrap of a silk suit there, a scattering of red flesh around the crater…it was obvious what had happened.

Robyn had used her power in the same way as back in G’Hanir, stacking a few gravities on top of each other and forcing Elizabeth’s demon butler into the ground at speeds he simply was not equipped to deal with.

Nor was she, now that I thought about it. Her legs were likely broken, and she’d be lucky if that was her only injury. But why wasn’t she screaming? It had to hurt, and I doubted she had any reasonable painkiller buffs. Plus, there was the fact that she grew faint at the sight of blood…

She threw up on her own feet, then collapsed onto the street with a dull thump.

Ah. Delayed reaction. Shock, probably. Right, she’d keep for the moment. Now onto the Composer—

Elizabeth’s glowing orange blade erupted out of Adam’s chest.

“Silly little boy,” the monster shaped like my childhood friend hissed, grinning broadly from ear to ear. “Never let your guard down around an enemy.”

She pulled out the blade, kicking Adam aside carelessly.

“Now…who’s next?

Behind the Scenes (scene 208)

The podbrains (Andreea, Eugenia, and Rodica Dalca) are actual triplets. That was part of the reason they were chosen for the experiment. Andreea is the one with the illusion powers, Eugenia the one with the ability to control bodies, and Rodica has a powerful variant of telepathy that links the three together very effectively.

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Scene 207 – Desciuit

DESCIUIT

LAURA

Assets:

Akane, Derek, and Adam. The changeling warlord, Eccretia, might be of some use as well. The two bodyguards she had left behind—Domothon and Ferenil, I believe—would be best left where they were for defense. Yolanda could be useful, but with her boyfriend passed out on the floor, she wouldn’t be able to focus on the fight anyway. She was better suited to looking after him right now. Robyn was unknown. Last time I saw her, she was being pursued by Elizabeth’s butler. She might already be dead.

Goal: Keep the Composer from infecting or just plain killing the civilians. Kill as many renegades as possible.

Secondary goal: Shoot Elizabeth in the face a few times. We might not be able to kill her, but inflicting enough pain should force her to retreat. Plus, it was satisfying.

Akane had already managed to kill Fillip Ritter, so that was one problem down. Teleporter or not, the big baseline would soon follow. But there was no way they were all Elizabeth had on hand. She had to be keeping a few more in reserve…

We needed to draw them out.

I couldn’t give Akane and Derek instructions directly, since they didn’t have earbuds. Calling them would just distract them and get them killed. At least the fey had turned off their jamming at some point. Needed to…

“Yolanda,” I said curtly to the blonde demoness crying over her boyfriend. “What weapons do you have? Besides the 89/12.”

She bit her lip, thinking. “Well, except for a pair of 89/2 Combat Gloves…”

I stared at her. “Silver and gold, what good are those things?”

She shrugged uncomfortably. “I dunno, mom always said…” She shook her head violently. “Not important.” She brought her backpack around to her front and started rustling around in it. “Two party-poppers, a 90/3.0 pocket sniper, some spare rockets for the 89/12—”

“Wait, back up. You have a sniper rifle?”

The demon looked up at me, wincing. “Well, I mean…yeah. But it’s useless. It’s a three millimeter caliber. That’s like, a dart gun. Plus it has the stopping power of a BB gun—”

“It’ll work,” I promised, holding out my hand. “Give it here.”

She did so grudgingly, handing me a small black plastic box, maybe six inches wide, deep, and tall, with a handle on top.

“Changelings!” I called to our guards. “Which of you is the better shot?”

“I am,” the dark-skinned guard said curtly. “But I’m not going to fire into a melee—”

“You don’t have to.” I handed him the cube. He blinked in surprise, but started unfolding it, clicking the pieces into a gun shape. “I need to get Seena’s attention.”

He nodded. “Right, yeah, shooting her with this will work. It’s weak enough that even a baseline would survive. Honestly, the biggest danger is that she won’t even notice. But wait, what about her cell phone?”

“I tried it earlier, no response. I think it got smashed in the fighting.”

“Of course it did. What happens after I shoot her?”

I collected a whiteboard from behind the counter, just a small little thing they used to display the daily specials. Finding a marker didn’t take much longer. “Then she looks over here, and follows my instructions.”

As I scrawled as quickly as I could while keeping my handwriting somewhat legible, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the blonde frowning at something outside.

“Yolanda,” I said curtly, getting her attention. “If the tactical situation is changing, I need to hear it. What’s happening?”

“Oh, well…nothing, I guess. Nothing you need to worry about, I mean. People are just taking pictures and stuff with their phones.”

I stopped writing mid-sentence. I hadn’t thought of that. I hadn’t really considered the tactical implications of a crowd of people, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that civilians would be doing much other than running for dear life.

No matter which way this went, our identities weren’t going to be secret much longer.

It had been inevitable, I knew, and in fact we had been considering going public before this. Still, I wished it was a situation we had more control over.

Another flash of light caught my attention. Elizabeth had broken her sword on Derek’s shield. She roared in rage and cast it aside, dodging past Akane to try and rip the man apart with her bare hands.

We didn’t have time to waste on stupid things like publicity. I finished my message on the board, and nodded to Ferenil. “Do it.”

The golden-haired changeling nodded, raised the rifle to his eye, paused briefly, and fired.

The explosion the gun provided upon shooting was not the distinctive, echoing crack of a firearm, so much as a muffled whumph more typically associated with the rush of air from slamming a door in a small room.

But it did the trick. I saw Seena, on the ground just a few yards outside the light of the streetlamps, flinch and look around in our direction.

Her eyes found the whiteboard I was holding in front of me very quickly; she squinted slightly, then nodded, and turned to the girl on the ground next to her. I couldn’t tell who the second person was, and it didn’t really matter. She had received my message.

“How long until something happens?” Domothon asked as Ferenil swapped out the flimsy McDowell weapon for the Olympian Nike sniper rifle he had been using earlier.

“A minute or two,” I snapped, scanning the battlefield carefully. “Now stay sharp. And don’t shoot our reinforcements on accident.”

The pale-skinned changeling muttered a curse under his breath as said reinforcements started appearing. “What about shooting them on purpose?”

I couldn’t really blame him for wanting to. Seena’s Mals were leaking out of their hiding places, sneaking towards the bright light of the streetlamps carefully and quietly. From our angle, we could see them easily, but hopefully Elizabeth couldn’t.

Ah, and it appeared we were in luck—Eccretia, wherever she was, had taken the hint. I could see her changelings aligning in nearby stores and windows, waiting for the signal to strike. In hindsight, I should have asked Domothon to call her, but her phone was probably broken too. And it had all worked out.

It was a classic two-pronged assault with multiple victory conditions. If the other renegades showed up, that was great, and we could take them out. If they didn’t, we could capture Elizabeth again. Maybe drop her in a volcano or something this time.

Just a few more seconds. There were over a dozen vampires, and they were almost inside the circle of light. That would be the ambush, and Akane would be smart enough to get Derek and Adam out.

The circle of assassins tightened, tightened…come on, just a few steps more…

They stepped into the light, paused for a moment, and then every single one of the Mals, to a man, put their guns into their mouths and pulled the trigger.

Fifteen vampires fell dead to the ground, timed so closely together it sounded like one simultaneous whumph.

Elizabeth turned to regard the scene with a raised eyebrow, then sighed. “Did you have to? You could have let at least a few in. Takes all the fun out of it, if they kill themselves.”

“Apologies, Lady Greene. Your freedom was more important than your happiness.”

The speaker, a vampire girl, strode into the light from the streetlamps with a wince. She had overly large fangs that jutted out from under her lips, and wore her long hair tied up in a bun, held in place with what appeared to be chopsticks, but I had a feeling were knives.

Then two more identical girls entered the light behind her, with General Brannigan just a few steps in their shadows.

They looked like triplets, but I had a feeling they weren’t. Something about the way they moved was…off, almost like…

Ah. Almost like they were one person in three different bodies.

Another podbrain. Wonderful. Apparently the demon girls from the alley ambush weren’t enough. And worse yet, it looked like at least one had a very dangerous ability.

Mind control. And strong enough to force fifteen experienced soldiers to commit suicide. This wasn’t going to be fun.

But wait, there had to be a limit. Otherwise Elizabeth would never have had to resort to hypnotism. If we could find that weakness, and exploit it—

“Whatever,” the Composer muttered. “I was getting bored anyway.” She turned her attention to Derek. “Huntsman. I now hold this entire crowd hostage. Fight me alone, or they all die.”

No, don’t be stupid

My childhood friend stepped forward, pushing Akane and Adam back. “Fine by me.”

I sighed. Oh, yes, there was no way this could go wrong for us.

Silver and gold, it was a miracle that idiot had survived this long.

Behind the Scenes (scene 207)

Mostly just a setup scene.

Scene 206 – Rector

RECTOR

SIMON

Yolanda’s hands shook as she fussed over the bloodmaker bandages wrapped around my chest. “Just hold on, you’re going to be fine…”

“You’re right, I am,” I assured her. “That stim did the trick. My bones are knitting even as we speak.”

She glanced behind her, out the door of the cafe that was being guarded by Eccretia’s changelings. “I’m not…not so sure. All those monsters outside—”

“Derek and Akane are professional monster slayers,” I reminded her soothingly. “Plus Anders is good with those guns, right? Between them and the changelings, the fey don’t stand a chance.”

“Seena and Eric followed the fey-girl into a building,” Steve said, his habitual grin a little strained. “That means they’ll have this wrapped up nice and quick.”

One of the changelings at the door—Domothon, I think—shook his head. “Monsters are the least we have to worry about now. Noble Nyashk is strong, but she’s not a fighter. And Eccretia won’t last long either.”

I grunted in pain as I readjusted myself where I was lying on the ground. “Somebody needs to explain why people are calling my sister a warlord. And why she has a tail, while we’re at it.” Before the changeling could answer, my brain caught up with the rest of what he had said. “Wait one second. What do you mean by ‘least we have to worry about?’”

The pale, golden haired changeling looked at me oddly. “Uh, the Composer? She’s not known for leaving survivors.”

Everyone hiding in the cafe stared at him in shock. “What!?

He flinched back from the outburst. “Didn’t I mention that? Greene is fighting the fey-girl.” He looked out the window. “Ny—Seena is down—” My heart skipped a beat. “—but she’ll survive. Just needs a new tail.”

Laura appeared from somewhere behind me, where she had been scrounging through the cafe for supplies. “I need your radio. I have tactical information your warlord needs.”

The other changeling, Ferenil, raised a finger. “Point of order, she’s technically not a warlord. That’s—”

Laura gave him a glare almost as good as one of Derek’s.

“—a sore…point…” the dark-skinned changeling trailed off, then sheepishly handed her his radio.

“Eccretia,” Laura barked into the device immediately. “Can you hear me? I have intel for you.”

“Medina?” the not-warlord’s voice crackled over the speaker. “How did you get this channel? If you tortured my men—”

“And I thought I had trust issues,” Laura muttered. “No, they gave it to me. They’re both still alive. You’re planning to fight Elizabeth, I take it?”

There was a slight pause on the other end, then Eccretia was all business. “Yes. You got advice?”

“Don’t let her get in close. She’s a horror with those swords. She has a number of other powers as well, but the swords are her favorite. She’ll probably use super-speed too. Two things about that: First, her mind isn’t sped up with the rest of her, so she can pretty much just run in a straight line. Second, she can only use one power at a time, so the swords will disappear right before she uses the speed.”

“One power at a time…” Eccretia mused. “Wait, that means her healing—”

“Is always in place,” Laura interrupted. “Always. It works differently than other powers, I don’t know why. Not even cutting off her head will kill her, though it will slow her down for a few minutes.”

“Hmph. Well, that’s some good news. Any way of taking her down permanently?”

“Not that I’ve found. But extreme cold seems to be harder for her to heal. You have any liquid nitrogen on you?”

To my surprise, I heard the woman on the other end of the line chuckle. “I’ve got some solid nitrogen shrapnel rounds for my Blue Knight. You think those will do the trick?”

“Really?” Great, now Laura was curious. “Nitrogen melts at negative two-hundred and ten degrees Celsius. How are you keeping them cold?”

Before the changeling could answer, I spoke up. “I think there’s more important things to worry about, don’t you?”

Laura shook herself out of her fugue. “Right, sorry. Eccretia, I need—”

The sound of gunfire burst from the radio, followed a split second later by the real thing echoing down the street.

“She’s engaged the enemy,” Domothon reported, peering in the direction of the fey from earlier. “Both fey are down, but the boss is putting up a fight.”

“Silver and gold,” Laura cursed, tossing the radio back to Ferenil. “I need to call Derek, he might be able to do something. Where’s my phone?”

Something dawned on me. “Wait one second. How did you know all that stuff about the Composer, anyway?”

“I worked with Necessarius,” she muttered distractedly. “Now shush.” She had found her phone, and was dialing. Then she cursed and tossed it aside. “The fey jammers are still up! What is wrong with those idiots?”

Then the lights in the street went on.

Even a complete idiot could tell something big was about to happen.

“Steve, drag me closer,” I begged. “I need to see this.”

The big baseline moved to help, but my girlfriend tried to stop him. “No! Your wounds—”

“Please,” I whispered. “I need to make sure my sister is okay.”

Yolanda stared at me for a second, before nodding once and moving aside.

Steve was a big guy, but he wasn’t used to carrying living packages, and especially not wounded living packages. I survived being carried to the window, where I could see the entire street, but I had to bite my tongue hard enough to make it bleed just so that I didn’t scream in pain.

Although it probably wouldn’t have mattered. A bunch of vampires in the crowd—including my sister, on the ground near the winged fey—cried out in pain as soon as the lights came on.

“Sorry for the light. Need to be able to see what we’re doing.”

Derek Huntsman, with Akane Akiyama right behind him.

I don’t think I had ever been so happy to see my best friend and his bodyguard. Between them and Eccretia, Lizzy might just retreat.

But her reaction dashed that hope instantly.

Huntsman.”

It was the way she said it. Not fear, not even simple wariness of a powerful enemy, but pure hatred, colder than ice, almost matched in intensity by her angry glare.

“You are a cockroach,” she hissed, as she slowly fell down into a fighting crouch. “You keep popping up in the most annoying places.”

She wasn’t going to run. She was going to kill Derek, here and now. That was the only way this could end.

Maybe the rest of us could escape. Yes, that was it, I needed to talk to Laura, organize some kind of retreat while the Composer was distracted…

But I couldn’t move.

I had to watch this.

I owed it to him to at least watch him die.

But Derek didn’t seem to see it that way. Judging by the grin on his face, he seemed to be under the impression that this would be a fair fight. He fell into some wrestling stance or another, palms open and ready.

“Let’s hurry this up. There are some cartoons I want to watch later.”

I rolled my eyes. Yes, antagonize the voice actress turned homicidal maniac. That couldn’t possibly cause problems down the line.

The Composer screamed a wordless battle cry and rushed forward, her blazing orange swords held at her sides.

And then Akane was there.

I didn’t even see her move, but she was there, deftly blocking Lizzy’s sword with her own, then dodging the second.

Elizabeth spat out a curse in a language I didn’t understand and jumped back, disengaging from the duel. “NABASSU!”

A demon in a sharp suit dropped out of the sky, the bat-like wings on his back disappearing into smoke as he touched the ground. His cargo was a tall, thin man with violet hair and an evil grin. Both were unarmed, but Derek and Akane were still outnumbered.

“ROBYN!” Derek called.

And then Robyn Joan Clarke dropped out of the sky.

She didn’t have wings. Or…or a jetpack, or a parachute, or a zipline, or a miniature plane, or anything else that would let a human being drop out of the sky like that. She just…floated down, easy as you please, carrying Adam Anders in her arms.

Robyn didn’t have any weapons that I could see—not surprising; she got shaky in fights—but Adam was covered in enough guns to arm a small squad. I wasn’t an expert like Yolanda, but I was able to identify the rifle slung over his left shoulder as an Olympian Athena, and the massive shotgun in his hands as the famous ‘sarian St. George. The pistol and submachine guns on his hips were simple and functional…probably Telum, then.

Adam brought up his shotgun and fired without hesitation, ignoring Elizabeth for her renegades. I think he was aiming at the demon who could fly, but it was hard to tell.

Because his shot twisted in mid air and hit the ground instead.

The violet-haired man grinned even wider in the bright glow cast by the streetlights. “That all you got, little baseline?”

Laura stepped up next to me, muttering to herself. “Akane needs to handle Ritter, at least for the moment. Once he’s distracted, Adam can kill Nabassu. Robyn won’t be useful…” She cursed and tapped buttons on her phone angrily. “Silver and gold, why can’t you idiots have earpieces?”

Both of them moved into action, almost as if they had heard her. Akane moved around violet-hair in a flanking maneuver; he flicked his hand at her—

And suddenly she was five yards away, while the ground she had been standing on exploded.

How had she moved that fast? I hadn’t even seen it! Maybe…she was another of the fey’s new pets? But no, that didn’t make sense, they had always hated the fey…

As Laura had said, while Akane kept violet-hair distracted, Adam fired again at the demon, filling the air with high-velocity pellets.

It worked, but not in the way he had intended. The man Akane was fighting waved his hand, sweeping aside the projectiles with a grimace.

But it distracted him.

Only for a moment, but long enough for Akane to rush forward—how was she moving that fast?—and cut him in two—

But no, he caught her in time, bringing both hands around to grab her with some invisible force, some kind of telekinesis, and throw her charge off target.

Elizabeth herself was staying in the background, blades gone, watching the fight intently with narrow eyes. It made me nervous. This was the first time I had ever seen her fight, and even I knew this was out of character for her. What was she planning?

Whatever it was, Robyn didn’t seem interested in finding out. Now that Adam was firmly on the ground, she took off—just shot off like an arrow from a bow, straight up, with no visible means of propulsion—trying to get out of a fight she had no training for.

The demon had other plans.

He crouched down, those bat-like wings appearing on his back in a puff of mist, and launched himself after Clarke’s daughter like a lion after a gazelle.

They flew off out of sight, but I could guess what was going to happen.

The gazelle rarely wins the fight against the lion.

But what in all Nine Hells was going on? I had heard on the news about the Composer’s Blackguards, the opposite of the Paladins. Was that what was going on here? Lizzy and her Blackguards showed up, so Derek decided to fight them? But how the frick could Robyn fly?

Derek lunged forward, past Akane and violet-hair, aiming at Elizabeth herself. I found myself briefly hoping that he didn’t have to kill her—she was obviously just a puppet of some kind—but I knew Derek would do what he had to, one way or another.

She didn’t seem particularly interested in letting him get too close, though. In the space of a blink, she had dodged to the other side of the impromptu battlefield, apparently trying to use her super speed to escape.

Her way was blocked by monsters.

The infernal dromo, both deathmarked, a venom-touched bloodbear I hadn’t noticed earlier, and more crowding behind.

I turned in shock to my sister, still lying on the ground near the edge of the light provided by the streetlamps, grinning through the pain at the Composer’s frustration. The fey girl, Aitil or something, lay with her head in her lap, breathing slowly.

Well. I guess the fey weren’t completely inhuman after all. Some empathy remained.

I turned my attention back to Elizabeth, as she turned her attention to Derek, who was still charging at her. She had a couple seconds, but she had nowhere to run. She’d summon her swords, and then—

Instead, she threw back her head and howled a name.

A name I recognized.

“GILLESPIE!”

Next to me, I heard the dull whoosh of displaced air. I turned to see nothing but a fading cloud of red mist where my roommate had been moments before.

No, it couldn’t—

Then he reappeared in an explosion of crimson mist, two feet above and behind Derek, aiming a kick straight at his head.

Derek didn’t see the attack coming—how could he?—and got hit with a powerful kick with almost two hundred pounds of muscle behind it. He was an experienced fighter, though; he rolled with the blow, bouncing along the ground for a few yards before he found his feet again.

He kept his eyes on Steve, ready for him to make the next move.

And Steve…

He looked the same as ever. A broad, sappy grin on his face, a friendly twinkle in his eye…

But he had a power.

And he had answered the Composer’s call.

My roommate was a Blackguard. That was the only logical explanation. How long? How many chances had he had to kill me? Oh Nine Hells, Nine Gates, and Nine Keepers, had he been the one to sabotage my Balor reconstruction?

No, no, that was extremely unlikely, and not important right now anyway. What was important was that three of my baseline friends were fighting three super powered puppets of a zombie making sociopath.

I turned to the changelings who were guarding the door. “Is there any way—”

“Not without hitting Huntsman or Akiyama,” Domothon muttered angrily, his rifle already up and tracking. “And I am not shooting until those two are clear.”

My girlfriend was next. “Yolanda. Please tell me you have something.”

She pulled a gun out of her backpack sheepishly. “MD89/12-Gauge,” she identified it. “Fires custom-made rockets. Completely useless.”

“May as well toss a grenade,” Domothon agreed. “Least it would be cheaper.”

“Or you could just wait,” Laura noted, her tone unconcerned, but her eyes sharp and watching. “They’re not dead yet.”

Even as I watched, Steve teleported—teleported, I was never going to get used to that—behind Derek, but this time the blond monster slayer was ready. He dropped down, dodging the first kick, then reached up and grabbed my roommate’s leg. Before Steve could react, Derek was flipping him over backwards, sending him sprawling to the street.

Steve might have crazy super powers and be built like a truck, but he had never been a fighter. Derek was.

While Steve was still dazed and disoriented from the unexpected counterattack, Derek pressed the advantage, stomping hard on Steve’s knee—breaking it with a crack loud enough to be heard over the Blackguard’s sharp scream—and grabbing his opponent’s shirt with one hand while punching him in the face with the other.

Apparently, the Composer did not like seeing her toys broken. She ground her teeth in rage and rushed forward, glowing orange swords leaking mist as they swung at Derek’s head.

And suddenly Akane was there, blocking one of the blades.

Just there. She crossed ten yards in the space of a blink, leaving Adam alone with violet-hair…

Who fell apart, cut diagonally in half.

What?

Before I could make sense of what was happening in front of me, I realized that Akane had only blocked one of Elizabeth’s blades. The other was still heading straight for Derek’s—

He blocked it.

With a glowing shield that appeared on his forearm, leaking blue mist.

Wait.

The Composer spat a curse in some language or another and dodged back again, her blades fading as she put some distance between her and her opponents using super speed. Steve teleported next to her, sporting a broken nose and what looked like a cracked jaw, and immediately collapsed on the street due to his knee.

Wait one second here.

The shield on Derek’s arm shrunk until it was about the size of a small buckler, which wouldn’t interfere with his movements so much. He fell into another combat stance, hands open and ready to grab, while Akane returned to his side at super speed. Adam took his place behind the swordswoman, checking his SMG.

This wasn’t—

“He used a power—” I heard Yolanda mutter. “But that means—”

The changelings guarding the door had dropped their guns in shock, and next to me I think Leon might have actually fainted.

Derek had a power. That he was using against the Composer.

That meant he—and Akane and Robyn Joan—were the Paladins who had been fighting the screamers this entire time.

That explained a lot.

However, it seemed like my weakened body had decided this was the last straw. I felt a sharp pain in my head, my girlfriend’s voice calling something unintelligible, and then everything went black.

Behind the Scenes (scene 206)

There’s a lot going on here, and I’m not sure Simon’s viewpoint is the best one.

Scene 205 – Prædandum

PRÆDANDUM

SEENA

I had a massive headache.

I groaned as I picked myself up the floor, rubbing the side of my face that had landed on some scrap metal. Heh, if I didn’t have my warlord buffs, falling on that probably would have killed me.

Okay, thinking about that wasn’t making my headache any better. First, I needed to get my bearings. A quick glance around the room confirmed that Veda was long gone, and it also elicited another pang from my skull.

What in all Nine Hells had she shot me with? There hadn’t been any muzzle flare, just a weird, screechy noise. I could see the gun where she had abandoned it, the hastily-applied duct tape still smoking from dangerous overheating—

Still smoking. That meant I hadn’t been out for long. I might still be able to catch her!

I rushed out of the room at top speed, only pausing briefly at the door to nurse my headache. If I could just find her again—

I nearly tripped over Eric as I ran to the stairs.

“Eric!” I cried, skidding to a stop and plopping down next to him. “What are you doing? Did you see V—the fey?”

He blinked twice.

Nothing else.

“Uh,” I said slowly. “Okay, so…” I saw what looked like a snake bite on his neck. Some kind of paralysis poison, I guess. “Right. Blink once for no, twice for yes.”

He blinked twice.

“Right, good. Did the fey pass by here?”

Two more blinks.

“Did she go up or down?”

Glare.

“Sorry, sorry…did so go up?”

One blink.

“Okay, so she went down.”

Two blinks.

What else could I ask? I couldn’t think of any decent yes/no questions, and there was no way to know if he had seen anything more. It’s not like I could just ask

Oh. Duh.

“Is there anything else you can tell me?”

Another two blinks.

Wonderful. Now I had to figure out what he knew. “Okay, how about—”

A whistling sound from outside interrupted me.

I moved over to the window to see a massive crowd outside, just filling the intersection, hemmed in by monsters on every side.

And Veda, standing in front of the very building I was in right now.

I didn’t wait. I ran down the stairs as fast as my legs would take me.

I heard her yelling something to the crowd, but I couldn’t tell what. I heard the effect, though—more screaming, the sort of raw, animal scream that can only be made by a fleeing mob.

Then I heard the clapping.

And when I reached the door, I saw Elizabeth Greene.

One of my oldest friends. The girl all the boys—especially Derek—had drooled over. The sweet, innocent girl who wouldn’t even go to action movies, because she couldn’t stand to see people get hurt. The girl who handed out cheap presents like candy, and voiced a few minor characters in anime and cartoons.

The girl accused of being the Composer.

And there she was, covered in blood.

I recognized the dress she was wearing. I had bought her the dress. It had once been a fluffy white thing, designed for our warm and humid summers, but now there were only a few splotches of off-color white here and there. The rest…was just blood.

And she was grinning from ear to ear, her golden eyes glittering like stars in the night.

I had never seen eyes that dangerous. I was the warlord of a culture of assassins, and I had never seen eyes like that.

I’ve met sociopaths before. Tons of them. They tend to do well in Domina City, and even better in the Mals. A lack of empathy is a powerful weapon for an assassin.

Sociopaths have cold eyes. Not cold like ice, cold like the ocean. Not hard and dangerous, but soft and dangerous. Uncaring. They didn’t kill you because they enjoyed it, just because you were in their way.

Lizzy’s eyes weren’t soft and uncaring. They didn’t have the hardness that comes from repressing your emotions, either. They were alive. Alive with light and music and emotion. She knew exactly what she was doing.

And she loved it.

This was the Composer. I knew that now. How could she be anything else?

“An interesting plan, fey-slave,” she noted with a chuckle, presumably referring to something Veda had said. “Not as hands-on as I would prefer, but…” Her grin widened, if that was possible, and suddenly there were two glowing orange swords in her hands, leaking mist like fire. “But that’s what I’m here for.”

No hesitation.

I wasn’t armed, but it didn’t matter. My warlord buffs would be more than enough. I rushed forward as fast as lightning, not trying for anything fancy, just tackling her bodily.

She dodged to the side, avoiding my attacks while simultaneously swiping at my torso with one of her blades, and at my tail with the other. The hit to my chest burned as though it was on fire, the smoky sword cutting deeper than I would have liked or had expected and sending shocks of pain through my body.

Oddly enough, my tail didn’t hurt. It should have. I had quite a few nerve endings there, and it was quite a bit less durable than my chest and—

My tail was gone.

Not all of it, but a full foot from the tip, just gone. Lopped off like a dandelion.

Now it started hurting.

I tumbled to the ground screaming as my legs gave way in the middle of my charge, clutching at my bleeding stump of a limb.

A foot kicked me, flipping me over onto my back, but I couldn’t do anything beside desperately try to endure the pain as Lizzy look down at me with disdain.

“Pathetic,” my old friend muttered. “This is the new warlord of the Mals? I was hoping for some fun. You’re just a weak little girl.” Then she grinned, pulling back her sword to strike. “Or rather, you were.”

She was tackled before she could cut out my throat.

I had a handle on the pain now. My whole body was going numb, though I couldn’t tell whether it was from shock or willpower, so I was able to contort my body around to see who had just saved my life by attacking the most dangerous woman in the city.

Veda.

She had slammed into Lizzy at full speed, even her lightweight frame packing quite a punch at that velocity. The pair tumbled almost a dozen yards down the street, civilians and monsters alike fleeing before them. By the time they skidded to a stop, they had a nice, clear arena to fight in, surrounded by gawkers either too stupid to run or just incapable of escaping through the thick crowd.

Veda dusted herself off quickly, but I could see her wincing at her wounds. She didn’t have anything too bad, thankfully; a few scrapes on her knees and arms, plus her entire body covered in dirt, gravel and blood, but her wings were still intact.

Lizzy’s wounds were about the same, though with a nasty gash above the eye. They were even, if nothing else, and if Veda could take advantage of that head wound…that…was…closing up even as I watched…

Veda, along with the entire crowd, just stared as Lizzy brushed herself off, revealing a few more wounds that were almost done healing themselves. Blood flowed backwards into the wound, skin knit, and she was left without even a scar from her rough tumble.

“Now,” the Composer said as she summoned her swords again, grinning like a wolf. “Aitil Péine, was it? Some obscure reference to some random comic book, I assume?” She laughed wickedly. “The fey are getting soft. Since when did they name their furniture?”

Veda let out a strange, keening war-cry that probably wasn’t possible with a baseline throat, and flew at her opponent so fast she wasn’t even a blur.

Elizabeth was faster.

I barely had time to register the glowing orange swords disappearing as the bloodstained woman blurred with speed no human being should be capable of. Suddenly, Veda was impacting the nearest wall in a cloud of dust.

The fey girl stumbled out of the crater she had made, but even with my minimal combat expertise, I could tell that the one blow had finished her. Whatever her mistresses had done to her skeleton had kept it from shattering under the impact; she seemed mostly in one piece, and all her limbs still bent the right way.

Except for her wings.

Her perfect, miraculous wings were twisted and crumpled like discarded paper. As she pried herself out of the wall, one of the wings was stuck, and torn in half as she carelessly tried to pull too hard. She cried out in pain, falling to the ground in shock.

Lizzy didn’t give her the chance to recover.

Suddenly, the Composer was just there, standing in front of her with a demonic grin on her face and a glowing sword in her hand. She swung at Veda’s neck—

Gealach Tapaidh tackled her from the side.

“Stop doing that!” the golden-haired woman cried as she swiped at the new feyborn, only for him to dodge the clumsy blow. “Stupid slime, just LET ME KILL PEOPLE!”

She brought around her other sword, with far more speed and skill than the first. The Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn would not be able to dodge, not at that range.

So he blocked.

His own sword, a powerful broadsword with what looked like Gaelic runes scrawled up and down the blade, deflected her strange weapon with ease. Pretty impressive, considering how it had sliced through me like bread. I didn’t know what his weapon was made of, but it definitely wasn’t base steel.

Elizabeth screamed in rage, striking at him with a flurry of blows that would have turned me into a pureed mush. The feyborn was far better than me, though, and blocked each strike with calm, lightning efficiency. He was forced into what even I could tell was a defensive stance, and slowly backed up as he deflected the wild attack, but he was still in control. All he needed was to stay alive until something tipped the odds in his favor.

Then, as he was stepping back, his foot found a loose rock.

He slipped, and fell.

The Composer was on him like fire on dry tinder, both swords plunging down into his chest like the fangs of a snake.

The fey coughed up blood, struggled on the blades for a moment, then lay still.

“Blind moron,” Lizzy growled as she yanked out her swords, making the body jerk again. “You might have actually had a chance if your eyes worked.”

Oh, right, he had dayeyes, and it was already too dark for even baseline eyes to see reliably. Wait, he was fighting almost completely blind? Nine Hells and Nine Gates, she was right. He must be an absolute monster when in top condition.

“Well,” the bloodstained woman said blithely. “Is that everyone willing to fight back? I’ve been told I’m not thorough enough, so I want to make sure I get everyone at once before—”

She fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

Veda struggled to her feet from where she had crawled up to the Composer below her sight range. She wiped her mouth, eyes hard and victorious. “The paralysis will keep her out for an hour.” She stumbled over to me. “Noble Nyashk, I’ll call off my monsters, please bring some of your men down—”

A glowing orange blade erupted out of her chest.

Elizabeth Greene, fully recovered in less than ten seconds, tossed my reconstructed friend aside like a rag doll.

“This is starting to become less than fun,” she growled. She glared at the crowd, as though trying to decide who to kill next, and I took the opportunity to slide across the street—biting my tongue to keep from moaning in pain—towards Veda.

I don’t know if Eccretia realized what I was trying to do or if fate just nudged her in the right direction, but she opened fire on the Composer with one of those Blue Knight guns, causing Lizzy to scream in rage and launch herself at the changeling warlord. I saw my friend take cover behind the dromo from earlier, but that wouldn’t last forever.

As I suspected, Veda was still alive, though her breathing was shallow. The wound on her chest had largely sealed up; no doubt she or my brother would be able to describe how that worked in great detail. All I knew was that she wasn’t likely to bleed out any time soon.

“Veda,” I hissed into her ear. “You awake?”

“Yes,” she muttered, so quietly I could barely hear her. “We both are.” It took me a second to realize she was referring to her partner, the princeling with the dayeyes. “But if she realizes that, it won’t last.”

“Right, I understand.” I glanced up at the fight; Eccretia was holding her own, but Lizzy was making good use of her healing ability. She dodged in order to turn wounds that would have been crippling into merely debilitating ones. And those, of course, healed up in moments.

Eccretia couldn’t keep this up for long.

I turned back to my downed friend. “The monsters. How do you control them?”

“Pheromones.”

“And you can use those without moving?”

“Of course.”

“Then can’t you order them to only attack Lizzy?”

“No,” she said, and my heart fell. “They’re dumb animals. They aren’t smart enough to distinguish individuals. Their orders are given based on scent, and location. As in ‘kill everything in this building except things that smell fey.’”

Wait, that didn’t sound right… “But what about for assassinations, or captures or whatever? How does that work?”

Veda’s eyes snapped open in surprise. “You’re right! If you hit her with target pheromones, we can order the monsters to attack her! And she won’t be able to just heal them away like the poison I bit her with!”

I nodded eagerly. Now we had a plan. “Right, great. Where do I get these target pheromones?”

She winced. “You need to chop off my arm.”

“Wait, what?”

She squirmed a little on the street. “The gland is on my wrist. I’ll set it to secrete a liquid version of the pheromones, then you just need to wipe Lizzy with it.”

I tried to scratch my head in exasperation, but only succeeded in pulling my chest wound and making me wince in pain. “Ow…okay, but do I have to cut off your arm? Why not get a towel or something?”

“Not potent enough. They’re designed to dissipate quickly if not used on someone, so that they can’t be used against us.”

“Right, yeah, that’s fair.” I looked around for something sharp, trying not to think about cutting off my friend’s limb. She’d be fine, her bosses had literally the best medicine in the entire city…

But even Clarke had barely gotten the heart working. The fey wouldn’t have the ability to regenerate limbs yet, right?

“Seena,” Veda hissed. “What’s taking so long? We don’t have much time!”

She was right. Eccretia was losing. She might be one of the most powerful baselines in the city, used to fighting against overwhelming odds, but she was still baseline, and Lizzy was something she had never trained to fight.

Then the lights came on.

All at once, the streetlights around the impromptu battlefield were switched on, nearly blinding me, and eliciting screeches of pain from other vampires as well.

“Sorry for the light,” a strong male voice called. “Need to be able to see what we’re doing.”

And there, striding through the mob like an explorer through waist-high grass, was Derek Huntsman. He had a few cuts and bruises, plus his face and clothes were splashed with monster blood, but for the most part he had survived in one piece. Akane followed a few steps behind, the blue ribbon in her hair far more vivid than usual, considering it was the only part of her not wet with blood.

Next to me, Veda chuckled. “Oh, good. I get to see him fight before we all die. At least that worked.”

I glanced at her. “You did this?”

“I can’t give the monsters specific targets, but I can tell them to stand down.”

Before I could formulate a proper response, someone else spoke.

Huntsman.”

Elizabeth had her blades out again, and was staring at the man who had been in love with her since we were kids with naked and undiluted hatred. If looks could kill, she wouldn’t need the swords.

“You are a cockroach,” she hissed, as she slowly fell down into a fighting crouch. “You keep popping up in the most annoying places.”

Eccretia, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, was taking the opportunity to retreat, and presumably find a better tactical position.

Derek fell into his own fighting stance, a simple open-palmed one that even I recognized as being one of the most basic. He didn’t think he could beat an immortal with martial arts, did he?

“Let’s hurry this up,” he said, grinning mockingly. “There are some cartoons I want to watch later.”

Elizabeth screamed and roared forward, trailing orange mist like a blazing demon.

Behind the Scenes (scene 205)

For the record, Aitil’s and Gea’s names are not references to “some random comic book.” Aitil Péine means “juniper pine,” while Gealach Tapaidh literally means “moon quick,” and might be translated by someone poetic as either “quick as the moon” or “moon’s quickness.” Maeve and Aurora just liked the sound of the names, that’s all.

Also, for the sake of nipping some of the more rampant speculation in the bud, the “Gaelic runes scrawled on the blade” of Gea’s sword is simply his full name and title. An extremely powerful Seelie Maiden with a rather childish sense of humor might compare it to a boy’s mother writing his name on his underwear.