Monthly Archives: March 2015

Scene 213 – Merenda

MERENDA

LAURA

I was beginning to remember why I hated being outside Domina City.

It’s all the little things you take for granted that hit you hardest when you leave home. I knew not to expect to be able to call MC, or to have weapons within reach at all times. It was the loss of the rest that got to me.

Easy access to the internet. Mission boards for cash, roofs built to make jumping and traveling between them easier.

And, of course, no one here used the toy maker.

It made me shiver, just a little, every time I looked out onto the crowds filling the sidewalks like packed sardines, and not seeing a single modification. No anthros or giants standing out from the crowd, no demons with nothing more than horns or tails, no kemos with fur or animal ears.

I didn’t have any obvious toys myself, of course. A few internal buffs for poison and disease resistance, a cosmo to clear up a few blemishes and other scars of puberty, some other minor enhancements.

No one here had any of that.

Last time I left Domina City, I stayed in my room as much as humanly possible. I had heard horrible things about the outside, about racism and prejudice based on nothing but the way you were born, and I had no interest in seeing any of it for myself. That wasn’t really an option this time.

We found a place to eat right across the street from our hotel, a small one-story pizza kitchen with a bit of outdoor seating that reminded us of home. The waitress—a baseline girl with freckles—did a double take on seeing Robyn’s red eyes, but managed to cover up her surprise with a smile.

“What can I get for you today?”

Derek frowned at the menu, not liking what he saw. “I’m not sure… do you have any rat?”

The waitress opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “We don’t—this is a clean restaurant, sir.” She pointed at a certificate on the wall with a shaky hand. “Health inspector was here just last month. No rats.”

“What? No, I mean—”

I stomped on his foot as hard as I could.

“Apologies,” I said to the poor, confused girl as Derek cursed under his breath and nursed his foot. “He’s Canadian. We’ll just have one extra large pepperoni. And four waters.”

The waitress managed to plaster a reasonably friendly smile on her face, took our menus, and sashayed away.

“What was that about?” Robyn asked with a raised eyebrow. Akane was probably just as confused as her, but she was in sentinel mode, keeping her mouth shut and her eyes open, scanning the restaurant for potential threats. “They don’t eat rats?”

“Giant rats are a result of the toy maker,” I reminded her. They were an extremely simple result, of course—just tweak a few genes so they grew more than they were supposed to—but they still wouldn’t be seen outside Domina. “Out here, rats are just dirty little rodents. Maybe a little bigger than mice.”

“Makes sense,” Derek grunted. “Couldn’t you have warned me some other way, though?”

“Without using the phrase ‘they don’t eat rats?’ Probably not.”

“Fine, whatever.”

I made note of his odd behavior. Derek wasn’t one for sullenly ending a conversation. Maybe he was disturbed by this place more than I had expected.

“Let’s just take things one at a time,” I suggested. “For now, we can eat, and then go see a movie. There has to be a theater nearby.”

“There is,” the waitress assured me as she passed out our drinks. “On the other side of this block. Fastest way to get there is take a right out of our door, a right at the corner, then a right at the next corner. You’ll spot it soon enough.”

“We could have found it on our own,” Robyn muttered.

Robyn Joan Clarke,” Derek snapped, making her wince. “Seriously, your mom would smack you if she heard you talking like that.” He turned to our waitress with a smile. “Sorry. Thank you very much for the directions.”

The girl nodded, obviously more than a little confused, and moved away again.

“What is up with you?” Robyn snapped back once our waitress was out of hearing range. “Last time you got like this was that time I got drunk and licked Akane.”

“We’re representatives of the city right now. We have to be on our best behavior.”

“I thought the point was not to let them know… you know… that.”

He rubbed his forehead. “I know, it’s just… okay, that’s not it. I’m sorry, I’ve just been on edge. With everything that happened yesterday. I mean…” A pained look passed his face. “How many people died? Do we even know?”

“Less than would have if we hadn’t intervened,” I reminded him. “That’s all you need to know.” I reached over and placed my hand on his. “What’s done is done. Try not to worry about what could have been.”

Derek clasped my hand tightly and managed a smile, and—

“Wait, are you two dating now?” Robyn said, snapping us both back to the present. Derek released my hand. “I hadn’t heard anything about that.”

I sighed. “No.”

“Really? I thought you had that thing about no touching—”

“Robyn, just drop it,” I spat, more harshly than intended.

She gave me a look—not hurt so much as just confused. “Red dusk, you too? I wasn’t the one running around killing people! I just—” Her mouth slammed shut so fast I was pretty sure I could hear it click. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked away.

So. She was still having problems with killing Nabassu. I had very little idea of how to deal with this. My first kill had also been self defense, but more importantly it had been at a distance, with a remote explosive. It’s a bit easier to rationalize killing—at least for me—when there’s no recognizable corpse left behind. Derek and Akane both had their first kills when I was in North Outer, so I didn’t know how they had dealt with it. And Adam, of course, had taken to killing like a fish to water.

I’m not a people person in general, and helping someone get over murder guilt was far beyond what little armchair psychology I had gained from watching that one cop show with the psychologists.

As a city, Domina had never been especially fond of psychologists, psychiatrists, and anyone like them. Criminals and prisoners didn’t like people trying to psychoanalyze them, and then one of the therapists at the most successful mental hospital in the city went crazy, turned the place into a giant torture house, and ended up creating the fey, so that hadn’t exactly done the discipline any favors.

Still, Butler surely had some on staff. He had a crazy behavioral sociologist studying the effects of blues music on the flu virus (not the virus infecting people, just when it was floating around in the air), we could find someone Robyn could talk to about her problems.

After a few more minutes of awkward silence, the steaming pizza came out, and our still confused waitress put it on an ingenious little metal stand that kept it about half a foot off the table, where it didn’t take up as much room.

“Um,” Akane said, drawing the waitress’ attention. “Do you—” But she fell silent and looked away when the girl turned her attention on her.

I sighed. “Just tell the poor girl what you need,” I ordered firmly. “We’ve made her work hard enough today.”

Said waitress shook her head vigorously. “No, it’s fine! You all have done nothing wrong! I just—” She interrupted herself before she said something she shouldn’t, and plastered a smile on her face, before turning back to Akane. “What can I get for you?”

The swordswoman muttered something under her breath.

The waitress leaned forward. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Spiced parmesan,” she said, a little louder. “Please.”

There was a long pause.

“Huh?” The girl turned to Derek and I, perhaps sensing that we were in charge. “Is that… normal, where you come from?”

Oh, she was more clever than she looked. She had guessed we weren’t from around here. Hopefully she hadn’t realized precisely where we were from, but it wouldn’t matter too much.

“No,” I answered. “It’s not.” I eyed Derek. “At least, I’ve never heard of it.”

“No, you’re right, it’s Akane’s thing.” He smiled at the waitress as best he could. “If you could just bring out a shaker of garlic powder, we’d appreciate it.”

Akane looked like she wanted to say more—maybe ask for a different type of spice—but wisely kept quiet as the girl moved away. Rather than arguing with Derek, she just gave him a brief glare and switched back to sentinel mode, surveying the room carefully.

I raised my eyebrow at Derek. “What was that about?”

He shrugged. “We normally get pizza at Nervi’s. She’s more than happy to mix up this weird… Parmesan/garlic/pepper… I don’t know, there’s a lot of stuff—”

“Parmesan/garlic/hot pepper/oregano/basil/onion,” Akane interjected quietly.

Derek sighed. “Yeah, that. It’s easy if you’ve got a bunch of it on hand, of course, but you can’t expect some random restaurant to have all that, or be willing to mix it all up for you.”

His bodyguard resolutely ignored him.

We ate mostly in silence, though I was able to strike up a conversation with Robyn about the inadequacy of some of MC’s map and guide programs, and within twenty minutes or so, the pizza was completely gone.

After we left—leaving behind a big tip—we sort of stood around awkwardly out front for a few minutes.

“So…” Robyn said slowly. “Want to try that movie theater?” She shrugged. “I guess. No harm in just taking a look, right?”

No one had any particularly loud objections to that plan, so we ambled off in the direction our waitress had indicated.

I kept my eyes down as much as I could. Not our of fear of provoking anyone, I just… did not want to look at people. I wasn’t one of those anti-baseline freaks—obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t still be a baseline—but still. All the unaltered faces were a little disturbing.

I was so focused on keeping my head down, I almost didn’t notice that Derek had stopped right in front of me. I looked up to see a few blue wooden saw-horses blocking the sidewalk, and a large crowd trying to see what was going on.

We, however, were a few yards too far back to see anything other than a few blue-uniformed men and women patrolling the other side of the barricade. Lawmen, I assumed. But what were they protecting people from? I didn’t smell any gunsmoke, so it probably hadn’t been a firefight. Unless it had already been a few hours, but then why would they still be blocking the way?

Robyn was as curious as me, if not more. “I can—”

No,” Derek and I said at the same moment.

Our red-haired friend looked a little hurt. “It was just an idea.”

“It’s an idea that might get us lynched,” Derek retorted.

“Shot, maybe,” I mused. “No one lynches people any more.” They didn’t in Domina either, so I wasn’t sure why Derek though they might out here. “Akane, take a quick look.”

The swordswoman nodded, and in the space of a blink, she was gone and back. It was extremely doubtful anyone noticed, or had any idea what had happened if they had.

“Car crash,” she reported.

Derek rubbed his forehead. “Okay, okay, we’re not getting through here…” He looked around. “That alley over there. Maybe we can cut through to the other side of this mess.”

It took longer than it had any right to for us to shove our way through the crowd of gawkers, but most people let us by once they realized we weren’t trying to move to the front.

The alley wasn’t really anything special. Dirt and grime everywhere, trash in the corners, and a couple dumpsters next to the back door of what appeared to be restaurant. I could almost believe I was back in Domina, getting dragged into another disgusting monster lair, except the homeless man huddled against the wall was completely baseline. We had homeless baselines in Domina, of course, but most took the Cannibalism buff to make eating easier.

Robyn made a face as she stepped to avoid a puddle of something that was probably just rain water. “Ugh, this is worse than the alley with the brick-plated gargants.”

Derek snorted. “That was barely even an alley. I mean, it had a freaking park and—” He frowned. “Wait, you weren’t there.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Of course I was. Who did you think saved you idiots?”

He opened his mouth, blinking owlishly for a moment before speaking. “Oh. That makes sense. I mean, at the time, we just thought it was Lizzy, but in hindsight…”

But now I frowned too. “Wait. MC knew that Elizabeth was claiming credit.” Well, she had implied she was claiming credit, which let her dodge my power. “Why didn’t she mention anything?”

Robyn shrugged. “Because I didn’t tell her about the alley. Didn’t see the point.”

Akane gave her a look. “You didn’t want to explain why you stole the calciophage.”

“It wasn’t—I mean, I just—uh… hi.”

The last was spoken not to Akane, but to the large, broad-shouldered baseline man who had stepped up to block our path through the dingy little alley.

He was reasonably well-dressed, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans that, though cheap, were clean and new enough. He might actually have been a bit dirty and dingy, but in this alley, the mere fact that he had bathed some time in the last month made him seem a level above.

His nationality was a bit hard to pin down. His olive skin pegged him as Mediterranean, but at a couple inches over six feet tall and seemingly the same wide, he was bigger than anyone from that region I had ever seen. Of course, he was bigger than any non-giant I had ever seen period, so maybe that wasn’t the best point of comparison.

“Morning,” he practically growled as a greeting. His eyes were sharp and cold, and measured us up with cruel pragmatism.

I turned to look behind us, and my suspicions were quickly confirmed. Two more baseline men, smaller but still strong of arm, had blocked the way we had come. The homeless man was quite wisely pretending to be asleep.

“Let’s keep this easy, all right?” one of the men said calmly, as he and his partner produced large and dangerous combat knives. The bigger one remained unarmed, I noted.

Derek looked back and forth between the smaller pair and the not-giant, frowning.

“I’m confused,” he said slowly.

“It’s not hard,” the other knife-wielder wheezed in a high-pitched, nasally voice. “Money, now.”

Derek raised his hand to forestall any complaining. “No, no, I get that. You’re mugging us, you don’t want any trouble, money or your life, so on and so forth. I understand. I’m just wondering where the rest of you are.”

The first knife-wielder, the one with an African skin tone and an accent to match, raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“The rest of you,” Derek repeated. “Standard ambush tactics are to either attack from surprise—which you blew in order to request a surrender—or strike with some other overwhelming advantage, most commonly numbers. So…” He spread his hands wide, indicating the still-empty alley. “Where are you reinforcements.”

Nasal-voice hissed. A baseline human’s hiss is significantly less intimidating when you’ve been hissed at by ophidians with carefully crafted vocal cords made to produce a real hiss, not to mention the poison fangs to back up the threat. “Shut up! Just give us your money!”

Derek looked at me, then at the not-giant, then back at the pair with the knives. “So am I to understand you three are the extent of this ambush?”

The big guy growled out a word again. “Yeah, and we’ll be more than enough to—”

Akane shattered his knee with a single kick.

He bellowed like a gargant, tumbling to the grimy floor, but before he could recover the little Japanese girl was already in motion. She took his head in both hands and slammed her knee into it at full force, shattering his nose and causing him to rear back in pain.

Once again, she was ready. A series of lightning-quick jabs to his throat caused him to choke in pain, and when he tried to bring up his hands to fend off her attack, she ghosted behind him and kicked him hard in the small of the back.

The not-giant went tumbling forward, bloody face grinding against the dirty water of the alley floor, and he did not stir.

This all took less than twenty seconds, and the knife men, being obvious amateurs, spent half a minute gawking instead of moving to help their ally or just run away. Seeing their muscle hit the ground like a sack of potatoes seemed to galvanize them into action, though.

The African one was the first to move, slashing quickly and lethally at Derek’s throat. The blond monster slayer caught him easily by the wrist, twisted the offending limb—causing his opponent to cry out in pain, but keep a grip on the weapon—before wrenching the knife-wielder’s arm behind him and dislocating it from the shoulder with another expert twist.

As his second ally fell to the ground, nasal-voice was finally compelled to motion.

He may as well have not bothered. When he swung his knife, it was an awkward overhand stab that any idiot could have dodged. Derek did so, then jabbed the man in the side to cause him to double over in pain, kicked him in the back of the knees to send him to the ground, and grabbed the man’s skull in a way that would make it child’s play to snap his neck.

The idiot didn’t realize how much danger he was in, and tried to stab the arms that held him—not realizing, of course, that he could easily miss and kill himself.

Derek wasn’t in the mood for that much blood, so he grabbed the knife hand by the wrist, wrenched it—forcing his opponent to drop it—and then kicked nasal-voice in the back, sending him sprawling.

But nasal-voice didn’t know when to quit. He grabbed the knife from his fallen friend and charged at Derek, blade raised and face contorted with rage.

With a flick of his foot, Derek flipped the other knife up into the air, grabbed it, and threw it with lethal accuracy.

In the space of a blink, nasal-voice’s knife hand was pinned to the brick wall of the alley by a combat knife never designed for throwing. Akane couldn’t have done it better herself.

The man winced and hissed, before trying to pull the knife out of the wall with his free hand—

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” I warned. “You’ll do a lot of damage if you manage to pull that out, not to mention that right now its the only thing keeping you from bleeding to death. Even if you don’t pass out from the pain, you’d probably be dead pretty quick. Easier to just wait for an ambulance.”

He hissed at me again. “You bastards don’t know who you’re messing with—”

“We left you alive on purpose, you idiot,” I explained calmly. “Although, by all means, keep talking about how unbelievably dangerous you all are, and how you’ll hunt us down and kill us. It’s not like we’re in a position to kill all three of you with zero effort, right here and now.”

Finally showing some degree of wisdom, he shut his mouth.

I patted him on the shoulder as I walked by, stepping over his fallen friends. “Just wait for the cops, cool off in jail. Better than dying.”

A quick assessment confirmed that Derek and Robyn were ready to go, but Akane was staring at her white shirt in annoyance.

“What’s the problem?” Derek asked, knowing that under normal circumstances she would already be leading the way in case of any further ambushes.

“Blood,” the swordswoman muttered, presenting the red droplets on her otherwise pristine shirt.

I frowned. “Of course. And you don’t have any other clothes, do you?” She shook her head. “Didn’t think so.” I turned to the homeless man in the corner. “Hey you, there any clothing stores nearby? A bit on the cheaper end would be fine.”

The grimy man cracked open an eye, realizing that continuing to feign sleep would do him no good.

“There’s a McMullen’s nearby,” he said calmly, as if people asked him for directions every day. Maybe they did. “Once you come out the other side of this alley, it’s right across the street. Can’t miss it.”

“Thank you,” I said genuinely, then handed him two hundred dollar bills to make sure he knew I meant it. “I’d recommend getting out of here, in case these guys do have friends.”

The man eyed the money with suspicion, then surprise, then nodded. “Will do. You kids have a good day, now.”

“Likewise,” Derek said with a smile.

Behind the Scenes (scene 213)

Fascinating, isn’t it, how they just manage to stumble into an ambush like that?

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Scene 212 – Novus

NOVUS

ROBYN JOAN

I had never killed anyone before last night. I hadn’t really killed any thing, either. Nothing bigger than a spider, anyway. When I was a kid, following Derek and Akane around one day had been more than enough to teach me I didn’t respond well to the sight of blood.

But last night, during the fey’s Wild Hunt or whatever they wanted to call it, I had killed Elizabeth’s butler, Steven Nabassu. Just slammed him into the ground from about a hundred feet up.

I mean, I had no choice. It was self-defense, kill or be killed, all those perfectly reasonable justifications for killing someone. Uncle Artemis hadn’t given me a trial, hadn’t even considered the possibility. Just another enemy casualty, nothing to get worked up about.

But I had killed someone.

I could still remember the look in his eyes as he died. Still sharp and calculating, as though he expected to survive slamming into the ground at a hundred miles per hour, and needed to plan his next move.

But he hadn’t had a next move. He’d never have to think about anything else, ever again.

Red dusk, I was not equipped to deal with this. How had this all happened? Because I randomly received a power by some whim of the universe, or because Lizzy thought it would be funny or something like that? I was a coddled little rich girl, the girl who’s father built NHQ purely to keep her safe. How had I been forced to kill?

That was the nature of Domina City, I supposed. No matter how long you tried to fight it, it turned everyone into a killer sooner or later.

Or it killed you.

“Robyn?” Laura asked from the seat next to me. “Something wrong?”

I shook myself out of my reverie and managed to fake a smile. “Nothing much. I just don’t like the plane.”

From the row across from us—a small, private jet like this only had two rows of seats, facing each other—Derek grinned at me. “Sorry, but we can’t exactly let you fly to New York yourself. I think people might notice.”

“Hmph.” I turned to the window, watching the clouds drift by in the early morning sun. If I could just be outside, flying through the clouds myself, that might help settle my nerves a bit. But I couldn’t. Oddly, the fact that I couldn’t hear the screamers any more was also annoying me. It had been a constant drone in the back of my head for so long, and now I almost missed it. “Why isn’t the other guy here?”

“Adam?” Laura asked.

“Him too,” I admitted. “But no, I meant that teacher. Flynn, I think.”

Astounding. I wasn’t even looking at her, and yet I could feel Akane tense at the mention of his name. She had it bad.

“They’re both injured,” Derek pointed out. “Flynn was put in the toy box, so he’s probably healed up by now, but Adam’s a clay, so he’ll take a lot longer. Your dad just wanted them nearby for observation.”

“Plus, those two flew under the radar during the fight,” Laura noted. “Nobody got pictures of them, or didn’t realize they were important. It’s not imperative to get them out of the city, since they’re not going to be bombarded by a media circus the second they step outside.”

Derek nodded. “Adam said something about not wanting to go home, too.”

That made me frown. “Oh yeah, he’s from here.”

“The state,” Akane said simply.

I stared at her blankly. “What?”

“New York is a city in New York State,” Laura explained. “I didn’t get all the details, but Adam said something about a home in the countryside, rather than in the actual city itself. I’m not sure if he also has a home in the city.”

“Two houses? Really?”

The sharp-faced Spanish girl shrugged. “Things outside Domina aren’t always as expensive, and land outside a city is always cheaper. Like, ten or twenty times cheaper.”

“Interesting.” I turned back to the window. “Still, it seems odd. Did he say what his parents did for a living?”

It was Derek’s turn to speak up. “Not really. I got the impression it was some sort of paperwork stuff. Banking, maybe.”

“Uhn.” That wasn’t too profitable inside Domina, since MC’s ‘little sisters’ could easily do a lot of that kind of thing for free. Still, I knew from our long discussions on the topic that those were some of her hardest programs to write. I imagined it wouldn’t be too hard to convince someone to pay you a lot of money to navigate that legal morass.

Akane checked her phone, then frowned at the lack of a signal. “How long do we have to stay away?”

“A month at the most,” Laura said offhandedly. “Probably more like a week. Depends on how long everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”

“Interesting way of putting it,” I said with a raised eyebrow. “You got something against the media, or just this circus specifically?”

“Nothing special. They just caused me some annoyance while I was doing consulting work in North Outer.”

“Who’d you consult for, anyway?” Derek asked. “I don’t think you ever said.”

“The usual. A few minor companies who needed security help, once a rich old cane who had pissed off a fey enough for her to send a deathmarked at him. Oh, and a minor branch of BOB.”

I turned back to the window, losing interest in the talk of guns and monsters. “Sounds thrilling.”

“It was interesting enough,” Laura admitted, completely failing to pick up on my sarcasm. “Safer than fighting the screamers, that’s for sure. But I think I prefer working with your dad, more than anything else.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, not turning back from the window. “MC told me about that. You were like, a visiting resident, or whatever the doctor term for it is. Pretty impressive, considering you just started college.”

“Formal titles weren’t really important.”

I guess she was right. Dad had never cared about that kind of thing.

“But yes, I was given the opportunity to try… anything I wanted. The screamers were at the top of the list, of course, since I was immune to infection, but I also helped him with some of his toy maker research. He kept the good stuff to himself, though, such as the whole thing with the heart—”

“Land ho,” I interrupted as the plane banked, giving me a wide view of the city outside my window. I narrowed my eyes, judging the distance with the ease of practice even in an unfamiliar situation. “Looks like ten, fifteen minutes off.”

Sure enough, the pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom as Laura and Derek rushed over to the windows to look outside. “All right ladies and gentlemen—gentleman. We’ll be touching down in New York city in less than twenty minutes. We’ll be landing in JFK International Airport, in Queens.”

It was strange, seeing a city from the outside. I had never left Domina, and only visited the Fusion Islands once, so being able to see all the skyscrapers, all the steel and glass seemingly rising straight from the smooth water of the bay…

I couldn’t quite find words for it. Beautiful? Yes, it was that, but what… majestic? No, no, too strong a word. It was…

It was grand.

Yes, that was the word. It was a beautiful, shining monument to human ability and ambition. A thousand towers stretching into the sky, daring God and gravity to tear them down.

Was it the murder that made me poetic, or was seeing a city skyline properly for the first time really that moving?

It didn’t really matter, and honestly, I didn’t have a very long time to dwell on it anyway. It was only a few more minutes before my gut fell into my shoes as we started our dive, and a few moments after that, our wheels hit the runway. Derek looked a little green, which I should have expected. This was his first time flying, and he was probably afraid on top of that. Men like him don’t like the lack of control that comes with flying.

I wasn’t particularly fond of the lack of control either, but at least I could jump out and fly down on my own if something went wrong. Seriously, why didn’t everyone else get flight?

“All right everybody,” our pilot drawled over the intercom once the plane coasted to a complete stop. “We have officially landed. Please be sure to leave all weapons behind.”

Derek frowned. “What? I didn’t hear about this.”

What did he care? Was he even armed?

“Most countries aren’t fond of people running around with weapons in plain view,” Laura explained as she unbuckled her pistol and laid it on the seat next to her. “And concealed is worse. We don’t have licenses for our guns, so they have to stay.” She nodded at Akane’s sword. “Technically, swords and knives might not be illegal, but let’s leave the obvious stuff behind, just in case.”

The three spent a few minutes arguing over whether Akane’s knives were too obvious, but I mostly just ignored them. I had two switchblades in my boots, but that was it. I’d be fine.

As we got off the plane—after Akane removed her sword, three hunting knives, a belt of throwing blades, an armor-piercing spike, and a pair of khukris—the pilot’s voice sounded again.

“Oh, and if anyone asks, you guys are Canadian!

Laura closed the door behind us before anyone could ask why.

With no other way to go, we strolled forward, down a strange hallway that terminated right at the plane’s door. It was probably some sort of adjustable structure; I really doubted our pilot was good enough to bring us right up to the edge.

Customs was a joke; they asked us if we were here for business or pleasure (pleasure), if we had any foreign vegetables (no), and then we were through. I hoped it would have been more thorough if we had any actual baggage. As it was, Uncle Artemis had given us ten thousand dollars in cash—trusting Derek and Akane to be able to protect it—and told us to buy whatever we needed.

Within twenty minutes of stepping off the plane, we were outside the airport, blinking in the sunlight, made harsh by too long spent indoors. The place didn’t look like much, but then it was the airport. Laura assured us that the city proper was far more interesting, and waved down a taxi.

The taxi was the first official difference I noticed. Oh, on the surface it was normal enough. Yellow car, light on the top said if it was in service or not, rude cabbie, and a meter detailing our fare.

But there was no speaker grille to talk to MC.

A little thing. A very little thing, so small I wasn’t even sure the others had noticed. But to me…

That was when it hit me that we were outside Domina city.

Yeah, it sounds stupid. But for the past five years, no matter where I went, I could always call MC. Maybe I couldn’t get in touch with the real her, but there was always a friendly program with her voice standing by, ready to help. It was normal, and expected.

And it didn’t exist here.

Every street we passed just underlined what I already knew. People were bundled up for the cold, begging for money on the corners, hawking wares from street stalls… it was one of the most surreal car rides of my entire life, and it took me almost half an hour of driving to figure out why.

They were baseline.

Every single one.

There were no horns, or animal ears, or strange skin colors. Even odd hair colors were rare, and were definitely dyed rather than the result of a cosmo. There were no giants, striding through the crowds and trusting their size to clear a path. There were no kemos, prowling in packs and growling or hissing at anyone who looked at them funny. No demons going about their business. No vampires adjusting their daygoggles in the harsh glare. And no angels, watching the vampires warily.

Red dusk, I had been here less than an hour, and this place was already freaking me out.

“Hey,” I said to our cabbie, as we pulled into the hotel loading area. “Does the name ‘Pale Night’ mean anything to you?”

The man parked, and gave me a confused look. “Um… no? Why?”

I managed to force out a smile. “No reason.”

Derek gave me a glare from the front passenger seat as he paid the man, and then we all piled out of the taxi and onto the sidewalk in front of the sliding glass doors that led into the hotel itself.

Sliding glass doors, that opened automatically at our approach. On their own, nothing exceptional. But without any guards nearby, watching to make certain we weren’t threats? No bullet-proof security shutters in the ceiling to be pulled down in case of an attack? No turrets in the ceiling, or even in recessed wall panels?

It felt like we had stepped into a foreign country.

Derek smiled at the pretty baseline girl at the desk. “Hi. We need one room, at least two double beds, for… a week.”

The woman typed something into her desktop computer. “That will be… nine hundred dollars.”

Derek reached into his backpack for the money, but Laura stopped him. She smiled at the clerk. “Is there any way we can get a room close to the ice machines? We can pay a little extra if we have to.”

The blond monster slayer glared at his childhood friend, but she shook her head sharply, forestalling any argument.

If the girl found anything odd with the request, she didn’t mention it. “Well, we do have that room booked right now, but that’s just a standard booking—they didn’t request it specifically, and haven’t checked in yet.” She smiled winningly. “We can move you there, but there will be a ten percent relocation fee.”

That was bull—wait. It sounded stupid, but maybe that was actually how they did things here? I heard there were all sorts of bureaucratic tangles out here. Probably had something to do with the rat’s nest they called a government.

Laura didn’t even blink; she just slid a fifty dollar bill across the desk. “How about a five percent relocation fee, paid directly to you?”

The money disappeared so fast that even my enhanced eyes had trouble spotting it.

The girl’s smile didn’t waver for a second. “Very well, nine hundred dollars for the room next to the ice machines. What kind of card would you like to use?”

“Cash,” Derek grunted, peeling out nine hundred-dollar notes. “Assuming that won’t be a problem.”

“No problem at all. And for the names… John and Jane Smith, I presume? Along with Emily and Lily Williams?”

My head snapped up at that. “What? No, not Lily! I’m not Lily, I’m—”

Laura elbowed me in the ribs, driving the wind out of my lungs.

“Apologies for my friend,” she said sweetly. “It was a long flight. What’s our room number?”

As we received the key card for room 999 and piled into the elevator, the angry little Spanish girl glared at me.

“She doesn’t actually think your name is Lily, you idiot! She was just picking four of the most common names she could think of!”

I rubbed my aching sides. “Wait, so she knows we’re here… you know, in hiding?”

“We’re not in hiding,” Derek grunted. “It’s perfectly legal and above board.”

“Except for the bribes.”

Derek ignored her. “But if it got out that we’re Dominites, things would get a little annoying. Hence, the hostess offering her discretion.”

I frowned as something occurred to me. “Wait, bribes? Plural?”

Laura rolled her eyes. “That’s what the business with the names was for. Offering her discretion, for a price. Another fifty did the trick.”

“You burned through a thousand dollars in less than an hour!” I hissed. “Uncle Ar—the Big Boss isn’t going to float us any extra cash if you go through it all in half a day!”

Laura wasn’t impressed by my raving. “We’re not going to be spending as much, now that we have the room.” The door opened with a ding. “Besides, I’m sure ‘Uncle Artemis’ would give us another million if we needed it.”

I kept my mouth shut until we reached the room, which turned out to take quite a while. The ice machines—and therefore our room—was at the end of a series of long, twisty hallways. After ten minutes of walking, I had no idea why Laura had requested this specific room, and was about to tell her what I thought of her selection.

Then we rounded the last corner, and it all made sense.

The ice machines were right next to the emergency stairwell.

Which meant our room had an escape route.

Simple, effective, and likely to draw less attention than simply asking outright for a room near the stairs. It had all the hallmarks of one of Laura’s plans. Why’d I ever doubt her?

Inside the room was nice, if you liked big fluffy beds—which I did—and a television that looked about twenty years old—which I didn’t. There wasn’t anything to unpack, so we all just wandered around the room for a few minutes, getting acclimated to a larger space than we were used to as college students.

I tapped on the glass door leading to the balcony. “Fancy.”

Akane looked at me. “Even I know a balcony is hardly fancy.”

“No, not that. Bulletproof glass instead of bars!”

Laura sighed. “Robyn… it’s not bulletproof glass.”

I blinked. “It’s not?” I opened the door and went out, staring down at the street nine floors below. “Oh, I guess that makes sense. Saving money by giving the lower-risk floors slightly weaker security. No one’s really gonna climb nine floors up to break through a window.” I leaned all the way over the metal railing, putting myself in a position so precarious it would have been impossible to maintain my balance if I wasn’t cheating with my power. “I wonder what the cut off is.”

“There is no cut off,” Laura said in a deadpan voice. “There’s no bulletproof glass, anywhere in the building.”

“No, I got that. But the—”

“There are no bars on the windows, either.”

I pulled myself back from the edge and frowned at her. “What? Not even on the first five floors?”

“Not even on the first floor,” she insisted. “Here, it’s a rare thing to find someone trying to break into a hotel room. Especially from the window.”

Derek nodded sagely. “It’s only to be expected. Domina has a very paranoid response to outsiders, as we all know. What I’ll bet you didn’t know is that some of the worse hotels actually have betting pools on which of their guests will survive the night—”

“They have less crime period!” Laura snapped. Then she corrected herself. “Well, less violent crime. I mean, there’s some…” She sighed. “It’s just a different culture—society. Here, it’s not normal for teenagers to be hired to rob hotel rooms as a part-time job.”

There was an awkward silence for a few minutes, as no one really had a response to that.

“So what’s the plan?” Akane muttered. “Wander around in a strange city—with no guide and no weapons—for a week or so while the media circus dies down?”

Laura and Derek looked at each other.

“Red dusk,” I muttered. “Please tell me we didn’t come here with no plan at all?

Laura coughed delicately. “Well, I mean… we could watch tv…”

“We are not watching tv for a week or more.”

“No sword, so half of my exercises are moot,” Akane added. “No other weapons, so no doing missions.”

“Normal people do not do missions,” Laura reminded her.

“What do normal people do?” Derek wondered. “Surf the internet?”

Laura sighed. “Our phones aren’t configured correctly. We can’t access their wi-fi, assuming we’d even be allowed.”

“Go… see a movie?”

“Don’t know where a theater is, and can’t look it up without internet.”

Our nominal leader rubbed his face. “Let’s just… go take a look around, all right? Maybe we’ll find something interesting, or food or something.”

The rest of us shrugged. Better than sitting here doing nothing, at least.

Behind the Scenes (scene 212)

Another of those set-up scenes.

Scene 211 – Misertus

MISERTUS

LING

I hadn’t slept since I first woke in the toy box.

How long had that been? Weeks? Months? Hours? I had no way of knowing. No way of marking the time while trapped inside the box, no way of knowing anything but the constant, agonizing pain that filled every single moment.

All I could do was extend my awareness as far as possible, try to focus on something other than the pain.

I couldn’t actually affect anything, of course. But my sixth sense was… sharpening. Only barely, but still. Over time, the details of my own body became more and more clear, until I could count the individual shards that made up what used to be my skeleton.

I could feel other things, too. Outside my body, and outside the toy box. Sometimes I could feel things moving at the edge of my perceptions. Too far away to get even the most general shapes, but I assumed they were people, or something alive.

Mostly, I just lay in the toy box, waiting.

Waiting and trying to use my power.

I could feel every single inch of concrete within a hundred yards. The wood-paneled pillars nearby, the floors above and below, and even a couple nearby buildings. I could feel them, as easily as if I was running my hand over their bare surfaces. I could almost see them sometimes.

Sometimes, but not always. Usually, they were just a presence. Sixteen pillars on this floor. Fifteen above, fifteen below. What was unique about this floor? And why wasn’t the floor made out of concrete? Was it an addition, some extra level off the books?

There was a pool nearby, or a pool-shaped concrete floor at least, one floor down and a bit off to the side. I had no idea what it was doing here, and I didn’t care. All I knew was that that was my target. It was the biggest chunk of concrete in the area. If I could do something with it, I had won.

No matter how much I tried, though, no matter how far I extended my sense or pushed my limits, I just could not make the concrete move. I couldn’t lift it, break it, twist it or shape it. The first rule of my power still held true: I had to be physically touching earth and stone to be able to affect it.

I screamed once again, cried out in agony as I burned through every drop in my reservoir in an attempt to do SOMETHING.

But nothing happened. Nothing but my heart tearing a little more from the added strain, nothing but my vocal cords shredding like wet tissue paper. Nothing but the toy box, chugging away and repairing the damage as best it could, bringing me back to this never ending hell of perfectly balanced life and death.

Heh. Turns out pain made me poetic. Who knew?

And I was downplaying my own achievements. Very little was happening, it was true. But every time the toy box finished repairing me, and I started fighting again, my reservoir was a little deeper, my power a little stronger.

Not much. Just a hair deeper, and just a hair stronger.

But still.

Deeper, and stronger.

Eventually, I would have enough power to break out of this prison. It might take a while, but I had time and to spare. Velvet hell, I might technically be immortal as long as the stupid box was plugged in.

Wait.

I felt something.

Something was moving closer, for the first time since… however long I had been in here.

I focused on it, trying to get a clearer picture. Yes! Tall, thin… it was a person, almost certainly! I just needed to get their attention.

But what was I supposed to do? Pounding on the inside of the box was useless; I wasn’t sure if it was actually soundproof, but it was close enough so that my weak, broken fists couldn’t be heard from the outside. Trying would just send more shocks of pain through my body—I knew that from experience.

“Ling,” a small speaker grill rasped. “Can you hear me?”

I jumped, sending my entire body into pain-induced spasms and causing a few of my muscles to rupture again.

The pain was indescribable, but I had gotten used to that. I just kept my lips firmly shut for a few moments to keep from screaming. Doing that would just cause me more pain.

“Are… you asleep?” the mystery voice asked.

“A… wake…” I managed to rasp without any of my vocal cords snapping. “What—”

“Oh, skies above… I’m sorry I haven’t been able to come see you. Soaring Eagle has been trying to disentangle us from the Composer, but it was slow going.”

“Who—”

“It’s… it’s me, Ling. It’s Turgay. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

“No… ears…”

“Oh, your ears are damaged? Right, I guess that makes sense.”

Yeah, and that was extremely illuminating. Thanks, Guy. It’s not like I’ve been sitting here for who knows how long, with no idea how I got in this situation in the first place. “What… what—”

“What happened? Well… how much do you remember?”

I didn’t bother answering.

“Uh… right. You’re not in a position to… right. Well, during your meeting with Soaring Eagle, you ran into Mitchel, so Sele had to keep you from reporting that she was working with the Composer.”

I remembered that much. But what did she hit me with?

“That would have been all fine and good, but, um…”

He was dodging the subject. He only did that when it was something he knew I wouldn’t like to hear.

Guy.”

“She hit you with the calciophage,” he admitted. “It was the only thing she had on hand.”

The calciophage. The bone-eater. It was designed for use against some types of gargant; hit them with it, and their bones would weaken, and within moments they would be crushed under their own body weight.

Yeah. That sounded about right.

“We put you in the toy box when Mitchel wasn’t looking, and it’s keeping you alive, but… this is beyond us. Us scientists, I mean. We don’t have any disease experience, so we can’t cure this.”

“But… But…”

“Butler?” There was a slight pause, during which I could imagine him shuffling his feet uncomfortably. “That’s… a bad idea. For more reasons than one.”

“My… life…”

“I’m sorry, Ling. I can’t do it. I honestly can’t. I’ve tried talking to Sele, but…” He sighed. “She’s set in this. She knows it’s only a matter of time before Butler finds her, and she doesn’t want to do anything to accelerate that.”

I didn’t say anything, just sort of… glowered at him as best I could, considering I was in enormous pain, trapped in a box, and he couldn’t even see my face in the first place.

He seemed to get the message, though, because he sighed again. “I’m sorry. And I’m also sorry I haven’t been by to see you since you were captured. But I knew I needed to talk to you before I left.”

Wait, left? Left where?

“Necessarius has started attacking a number of our old labs, as well as sites we considered before choosing this one. They’re searching for us in our most likely hiding spots, which we predicted.”

He took a deep breath.

“Because of that, Soaring Eagle is leaving the city, and taking me with her.”

What? “Nev… er…”

“I’ve never left the city? Yeah, I know. And hiding a dozen ave kemos isn’t gonna be easy outside Domina. But Sele has a plan. She always has a plan.”

“He’ll… find…”

“Butler’s reach doesn’t extend outside this city. We’ll be fine.”

No, I wasn’t talking about Butler.

Derek would find them.

If I died—or even if I didn’t, honestly—Derek would be livid. Like Turgay had said, it was difficult for anyone modified by the toy maker to hide outside the city, and that went tenfold for anthros. MC and Laura would find them, and Derek would hunt them down, with all the support the Big Boss could covertly give him.

But I couldn’t say that. Even if I wanted to, which I didn’t, I literally couldn’t get the words out. It was hard to tell, but I knew my teeth were completely gone, though I couldn’t tell if they had been dissolved by the calciophage or if they had simply fallen out of my shattered jaw.

What few words I had, I needed to use sparingly. “How… long?”

“Um… forever? I mean, I’d really like to come back, or never leave in the first place, but I doubt Butler’s ever gonna let our crimes go. Even if he dies, his successor probably won’t be all that friendly to us, either.”

“No… me.”

“Oh! Oh, you mean how long have you been in the box? Right, there’s no clock or anything in there. Probably has something to do with the fact that that fey only ever used it for their homunculi, so it wasn’t really—”

Guy.”

“Right! Okay, you were captured on Sunday… October 21st? That right?” A slight pause, which presumably involved him checking his phone. “Yeah, that’s right. And it’s the 1st of November now. A Thursday.”

That was… both better and worse than I had expected. I didn’t know if I had been hoping for more time or less, but eleven days was somewhere right in the middle there. My power had grown quite a lot in just eleven days, that was at least one thing to be proud of.

Turgay continued. “There was some weird stuff last night. The fey tried to replicate the Wild Hunt—it’s some Irish myth or whatever, I don’t know the details—but got interrupted by the Composer. The rest of the Paladins captured her again, and maybe even killed all her Blackguards, but no one’s really sure.”

Ah, that explained a lot. Such as why Soaring Eagle was suddenly in the mood to leave the city. When Elizabeth escaped again—and she would—she’d be pissed. She’d be especially angry at the aves, who had refused to help her both times while she was incarcerated. Getting as far away as possible definitely looked like a good idea.

“Take—”

“No.” He didn’t even wait for me to get more than one word out. He knew what I wanted. “We can’t take you, Ling, we just can’t. Even ignoring the logistics of moving a critically injured person, we’re in enough trouble as it is. If we take the toy box out of the city, Butler will hunt us to the edge of the star system. Besides, by leaving it here, the aves we leave behind can still do their research.”

Wait, edge of the star system? Were they planning on going off world? They had to be insane! Most of the space colonies had treaties with Domina, and with Necessarius specifically. Even looking for a spaceship would send up a million red flags. They couldn’t possibly be that stupid.

“We’re going to America, Ling. The president has offered us asylum.”

Oh. That made a lot more sense. I guess he had just been exaggerating, then.

There was a long pause, so long I almost thought he had left.

“I’m sorry, Ling,” he whispered so quietly I barely heard him. “But this is goodbye.”

And then he was gone.

Just like that, he turned around and left one of his oldest friends, dying in a box.

I felt my heart break again, and this time it wasn’t something that could be fixed so easily.

Behind the Scenes (scene 211)

I knew from the start that I wanted Ling in this situation, so I knew I had to prepare to write for her from a very odd perspective. But it’s still hard. She’s gonna get flashback scenes soon, those will be easier.

Scene 210 – Reliquus

RELIQUUS

ARTEMIS

“Well, no one can say you haven’t had a productive day,” I admitted, eyeing the dirty band of Paladins—along with Lily and Flynn—sitting in my office. I checked Kelly’s report again. “Derek, I was under the impression that some of you were quite badly injured.”

Adam grunted from his spot lounging in a chair never designed to be comfortable. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

Lily glared at him as she checked his bandages again. “Bad enough.”

Derek grimaced. “Not bad enough for a report. I’ve got some bandages on my wounds and some fresh blood in my veins. I’ll last long enough.” Adam nodded; he clearly felt the same.

I sighed. “The emergency is over, young Huntsman. That means it is time to rest.” I checked the file and made a note of the medic who had given him a stimulant. He was unconscious after the fight with the Composer, and should have stayed that way long enough to heal.

But he just shook his head stoically. “I was the only witness to a lot of the important stuff. I need to give my report before the details start getting fuzzy.”

Ah, that man. All the stubbornness of his mother, combined with the black and white heroism of his father. Pretty impressive, considering he never met the latter.

Yes, he was definitely going to kill me one day.

But that wasn’t important right now. “Fine. Let’s start simple.” I tapped through the pad in my hands. “Elizabeth Greene is secured in a warcage built by Dispater himself, and guarded by a multi-cultural team comprised of Tecumseh’s lupes, the Thors, a number of ursas, fully half of Hanesdottir’s cans, the Andros, the warbloods, Obould’s orcs, a number of hellions from different Legions, and even a few Muspels sent by Dame Sinmara.” I put the pad aside. “And my own Necessarians, of course.”

Laura leaned forward. She was in the best shape of the whole group, which was only to be expected. The strategist would spend the majority of her time in relative safety. She still had quite a bit of dust in her hair that she hadn’t managed to brush out yet, though. “I talked to Titivilus. They’re going to be building a ceramic warcage to enclose the steel one, as fast as possible.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “I thought St. John was the one who got her out last time. Isaac still has his corpse on ice.”

The girl shrugged. “She might have more renegades with rust powers. I hope we got them all, but I don’t want to risk it. Do you?”

“No, I think you have quite the right idea,” I agreed somberly. “I’ve also had the entire cage rigged with enough explosives to vaporize a mountain. If she escapes again, that might slow her down.”

Laura made a small tsk sound. “That won’t stop her. What about that liquid nitrogen I asked for?”

“On its way. Zero Forge has enough on hand, but it’s going to take a day or two to get it all moved. They also tell me they need it for building superconductors and some other similar high-tech computer parts.”

“Tell them to get over it, this is more important.”

I smiled. “Yes, I did. Well, not in quite so many words, but…”

“Well then,” Derek grunted. “If that’s all—and if you don’t mind, of course—I think it might be time to call in Doctor Clarke after all.”

“Oh, now he calls for the doctor,” Mary Christina muttered from the wall speakers.

I waved my hand, still smiling a little. “Yes, yes. Just get some orderlies from the medical wing over here.”

Once the entire group was moved over to the white-walled hospital, it became apparent that their injuries were both better and worse than we had feared.

The only ones who had been stabbed were Derek and Adam, and while Elizabeth had missed anything too vital, Adam still needed bed rest for a few days. Derek’s wounds were actually worse—he had extensive internal damage that Isaac couldn’t quite identify the cause of—but putting him in our toy box would sort him out within a few hours.

Flynn had quite a few bites and slashes from the fey’s monsters. They hadn’t used poison, apparently, but he still needed more than a few bandages. He waved off treatment, insisting he had stim packs back at his dorm.

Laura had a few scrapes and bruises, but she hadn’t been involved in the actual fighting, so she was mostly fine. Akane’s shoulder was fractured again, but that could be repaired quickly enough. Lily, of course, was completely unharmed. The fey never attacked her, and it wasn’t clear if the Composer had even noticed she was there.

The real problem was Robyn Joan.

Physically, Isaac’s daughter was fine. Her ankles were pretty badly sprained from her meteor move—it was a miracle she hadn’t snapped her legs—but she had already been given something for that, and she’d be fully healed in a few hours at the most.

No, the real problem was something we couldn’t fix with the toy maker.

She sat on a cot, legs pulled up to her chest, staring off into space. She nodded or shook her head whenever anyone asked her a question, but otherwise didn’t react, and according to Akane, she hadn’t said a word since she killed Elizabeth’s butler.

“So what happened to the fey after I collapsed?” Derek asked, shrugging off Isaac’s attempts to remove his bandages. “Tell me there wasn’t another fight.”

“You really shouldn’t be wasting time,” Isaac insisted. “Just jump in the toy box—”

“Five minutes won’t kill him,” I assured my old friend. “Besides, if we don’t tell him now, he’s going to twitch and spasm with worry while he’s in there, making it take twice as long.”

Isaac sniffed with disdain, but took a step back from the young man.

“All the fey monsters self-destructed once you contained Elizabeth,” I explained. “No explosions or anything, they just died. The Princes themselves fled.”

The blond boy blinked. “Really? Why?”

“According to Kelly’s report, they were also helping against Elizabeth. Or at least, not hindering your efforts. Is this true?”

He nodded. “Yeah, they stopped fighting us when she showed up. But where was the retinue—”

“On the other side of the intersection, fighting the other monsters.”

Derek sighed. “How many of those damn things did the fey bring for their stupid Wild Hunt?”

Mary Christina piped in from the speakers. “Hard to say. You know the really weird thing? That’s the only place they did it. They didn’t try and start the Hunt anywhere else simultaneously.”

Derek opened his mouth, then closed it again, frowning as he tried to digest the implications.

Laura caught on faster. “When they announced the reformatting of the culture, they did that everywhere at once. What was different this time?”

“Well, they did choose to attack two warlords having coffee with all the remaining Paladins,” Mary Christina noted. “Surely that means something.”

Derek grunted and looked away.

At his side, Laura sighed and answered for him. “Several fey have expressed an interest in Derek and Akane before. I guess that at least one of those girls survived their little war.”

“Your parents were witnesses to the signing,” I mused as I leaned a bit more heavily on my cane. “I suppose that could have had more than a little to do with it.”

“Who knows?” Adam muttered from his spot on a nearby table, where Lily was helping oversee the lab techs who were changing his bandages. “Every time I think I understand those guys, they turn around and do something crazier.”

Derek blinked at him. “My parents?”

“No, you idiot, the fey.”

“Oh.” The blond monster slayer nodded. “I’ll give you that, at least.” He turned to me, frowning. “I don’t pretend to know what they’re thinking. And we were mostly occupied fighting their monsters, so we can’t help with their princesses or whatever.”

I waved my hand. “Don’t worry your head about that. Others were right in the thick of it, and I am already in negotiations with Nyashk and Eccretia to get copies of their reports.”

Adam stared as best as he could, considering his position on the table. “These idiots are negotiating with information like that?”

All I could do was shrug. It was painful, but then, so was everything. “It is far from uncommon. The Mals were first founded when Baal bought some information from me and put it to good use, after all. Besides, it’s mostly a diplomatic formality. I’ll have everything I need by tonight, at the latest.”

Derek nodded. “Okay, so everything from last night is wrapped up, at least for the moment. But there’s still Ling to consider. Elizabeth didn’t mock me about her, so I’m guessing she doesn’t know she’s captured. Do we have any more leads?”

“I did tell you about that blind angel, right?” Adam called.

Before Derek could do much more than frown in confusion, Laura shook her head. “No, that was me. Alex sent me Grigorii’s information, and MC and I collated it.”

“We’ve narrowed down Ling’s most likely location to six ave labs,” Mary Christina chirped. “It didn’t take long to find five good teams to send. Assuming the aves have her, we’ll find her before dawn.”

“Five,” I noted. “Why not six?”

“The retinue is the sixth.”

“Bah,” I grunted. “No, they’re not. They’re injured too. Assemble a sixth team, send them all out simultaneously when they’re ready. The aves are diurnal, so night is the best time.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” she said with only the barest trace of smugness.

“That should be everything for now.” I nodded at Isaac, and he moved over to the toy box, making last-minute adjustments. “Derek, get in the box and try not to move. Everyone else, just rest up.”

“There is still the matter of publicity to consider.”

I was surprised at who spoke. Robyn Joan, still in the same position she had been in a few minutes ago, only with sharp eyes staring at me. I had assumed we’d have to call in a psychiatrist before we’d even be able to move her.

“Everyone saw Derek use his shields,” she continued, voice dead. “Akane’s speed and my flight might be written off as advanced toys of some type or another, but no one can mistake his shields for anything but a power. And he’s well-known enough that it won’t take long before someone recognizes him from the pictures.”

I noted Mary Christina didn’t say anything; her attention was probably too focused on getting that sixth team ready.

I sighed. I had known from the start that this ridiculous cover up wasn’t going to last long, but I hadn’t really cared enough to insist the Paladins go public. I should have taken better precautions, asked Mary Christina to keep a lid on any viral videos like this. At the very least, I should have come up with a real plan for what to do when their identities were inevitably exposed. If I had a few days to plan—

Wait. Was it really that simple?

“You need a vacation,” I insisted. “All of you do, actually. We can hold the Composer long enough to let you rest for a week or so.”

Everyone—lab techs included—turned to stare at me.

“Uh, pardon my rudeness,” Derek said slowly. “But… what? Where’d that come from?”

“If you all stay here for the next week, your lives are going to be a circus. Everyone’s going to want to meet you, and ask you questions you won’t know how to answer.” I had enough similar experience to attest to that. “You need a few days somewhere where you’re just ordinary people. A few days to breathe.”

“A few days to give you time to come up with a real plan,” Laura said, grinning.

I nodded slightly, conceding the point. No need to hide it.

“But where would we even go?” Robyn Joan asked. “Everyone in the city will know our faces soon. I doubt even the Dagonites will be completely out of this one.”

“Then don’t stay in the city,” I pointed out. “You can take a plane to New York.”

Leave Domina City?” Derek demanded, aghast.

But Laura was nodding thoughtfully. “Yes… close enough so that you can easily extract us if something goes wrong, but it’s still disconnected from Domina, so no worries of anyone recognizing us. And we won’t cause a scene, since we’re all baseline.”

“I guess I can’t go, then,” Lily said a little glumly.

Laura waved her hands in a panic. “No, that’s not what I meant! You’ll be fine! We’ll just get you a hat, some big glasses, and you can hide the tail—”

“Actually,” Adam cut in. “I was going to stay here.” He looked his girlfriend in the eyes. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer you stay with me.”

She smiled and nodded vigorously.

“While in some ways that makes logistics easier, the point is for all the Paladins to leave,” I noted.

He shrugged. “I don’t have a power. Will anyone even care about me? Besides, I have a forgettable face. My most distinguishing feature is my guns; I won’t carry them around for a few days.”

“Perhaps,” I muttered, wheels in my brain turning as I considered his request. “It would also be better if Ling had a few familiar faces around, once we rescue her. I doubt she will be in a mood to go flying off to a strange city after what she’s been through.”

“If I could interject,” Derek said, doing just that. “Why don’t you want to go to New York, Adam? You’re from there, don’t you want to see your parents?”

“A bit. But I really don’t want to explain what I’ve been doing the past few months. Besides.” He patted his stomach with a wince. “I’m still injured, and I can’t be magically fixed like you. It’s easier this way.”

“He’s right,” Isaac added. “He could travel, if he had to, but this is hardly an emergency. He will do better, here, where I can keep an eye on him.”

“Then it is settled,” I declared. “Laura, if you would, help Mary Christina with the final organization for the assault teams. Derek, get in the damn toy box before your guts start falling out. Everyone else, pack your bags. You’ll leave for New York tomorrow morning.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 210)

This is one of those set-up scenes that doesn’t really contribute much on its own.

Scene 209 – Venator

VENATOR

DEREK

“Akane, stay with Adam,” I ordered, my voice thick. She’d pull him somewhere out of the way, keep him safe. “I’ll handle the Composer.”

Handle me?” Elizabeth said, giggling like a loon, her blood-drenched dress ruffling in the night breeze. “Little Huntsman, you and the freak together could barely keep up with me. And now…”

She flicked the lighter in her hand—where did that come from?—and a bolt of fire zipped past my ear, into a ‘scraper behind me. What was she…

Then the building exploded.

Every window in the first floor belched forth fire and smoke, enough to completely vaporize every wall and support beam on the inside. It was too much for that little flame; she must have planted explosives in there beforehand. Or maybe the fey did, and she was just taking advantage.

It didn’t matter how. The important thing now was that the building was falling towards me, like some massive gray tree felled by a lumberjack with a grudge.

“…now, you have other things to worry about.”

Silver moon and golden sun, what was I supposed to do in this situation? The structure was easily fifty feet across and a couple hundred tall. I couldn’t dodge—or maybe I could, but the panicking civilians with no where to go would still get squashed. I couldn’t—I couldn’t—

My mind was locked into panic mode.

My body was not.

I moved instantly into horse stance, instinctively spreading my legs to a wide but stable position, grabbed every drop of power in my reservoir, and—

Not a millisecond too soon, the falling skyscraper crashed onto my glowing blue shield.

At fifty feet wide, it was easily the biggest shield I had ever created. It hovered ten or twenty feet above my head, raining down soft wisps of azure mist onto both me and the awestruck bystanders.

Then the strain hit me.

I fell to one knee, cursing under my breath, holding my hands above my head as though physically keeping the shield in place. It certainly felt like I was doing it physically. The weight of the shield pressed on my entire body, compressing my spine and making me break out into a cold sweat.

At least the civilians realized I couldn’t protect them forever. They scrambled to escape from the crash zone, clambering up buildings and even riding away on the fey monsters that had been fighting them only ten or twenty minutes before. A distant part of my brain noted the oddity of the monsters’ behavior, but this was not the time to focus on that.

Because my reservoir was empty.

Not emptying, empty. It simply hadn’t been deep enough to keep a shield this large going for more than a second or two. I didn’t even know how I was keeping the thing in place now, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The pressure was increasing. I had to do something soon, but I couldn’t just drop it. Killing myself wouldn’t do anyone any good, and Elizabeth had already casually strolled out of the crash zone. If I could somehow get both of us at the same time, that might be worth it, but otherwise…

Wait. Maybe…I squinted my eyes, trying to confirm what I thought I had seen. Maybe…

Yes! I had a plan! And it didn’t involve dropping a couple hundred tons of concrete and rebar on my head!

It was simple, really: I tipped my shield at an angle, causing the massive weight to simply slide off it.

And land directly on top of Elizabeth Greene.

It was a close thing, but my eyes were good. The bystanders had been giving the Composer a wide berth, so she was the only one in the crash zone. Well, her and a few monsters, but that was definitely an acceptable price to pay.

I collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily, not even caring that every gasp of breath filled my lungs with the concrete dust billowing up from the crash like smoke from an explosion. I didn’t have time to find fresh air. I needed to recover as quickly as possible, before—

The skyscraper exploded.

Well, okay, not really, but it certainly looked that way at first. A good ten-foot section of the well burst out violently, sending shards of concrete and rebar out like shrapnel from a frag grenade, while pushing back the existing dust in such a wide radius that it created the illusion of a much larger explosion.

Elizabeth Greene strode out of the hole in the ‘scraper, none the worse for wear.

Well, not completely. Her white dress, previously stained dark red, was now nearly black from dust and grime mixed in with the blood. Her bronze skin was gray, covered as it was in pulverized concrete, and her hair wasn’t much better. Her arm was broken in multiple places, but even as I watched she pulled it back into place and let it heal itself.

The only thing unchanged were were eyes. Gold, predatory eyes, narrowed in raw and unfiltered hatred.

“You are fast taking the fun out of this, Huntsman,” she hissed, her voice carrying far in the cold, dust-filled night air. A nearby streetlamp, one of the few that had survived the building’s impact, cast diffuse light on the scene. “I am going to enjoy cutting you into sashimi.”

I fell into a fighting stance. “Let’s see, huh?” Then I blinked and stared at my arm, at the spot where I typically conjured one of my shields, the kind I could carry around with me or attack to my arm.

It wasn’t there.

What? I concentrated harder, but my only reward was an increase in the coppery taste already in my mouth.

“Aw, what’s wrong?” Elizabeth said mockingly, grinning from ear to ear. “Is the little director having trouble with his Song?” She giggled. “You overspent yourself on protecting the rats, you stupid little hero. Your reservoir’s gonna take hours to recover. You taste that blood in your mouth? That’s from your organs liquefying, trying to supply power anyway.”

I glared at her even as she slowly stalked forward. “I don’t need it.”

She burst out laughing. “What? You don’t need a power to fight a composer? Oh, you really are insane, aren’t you?” She giggled again as she summoned those glowing orange swords of hers. They left orange streaks in the air, like the mist was clinging to the dust for a moment before dissipating. “Well, sure. Let’s see what you’ve got!”

The Composer rushed forward, closing ten feet in the space of two heartbeats, her eyes alive like fire, her blades held back at her sides for easier running, and her grin so wide I thought her jaw might fall off.

She swiped with the right blade first.

I dodged.

Dropped down to one knee, letting the sword miss me by inches. Before she could recover and counterattack with the second hand, I grabbed the wrist in question, held it away from me, moved inside her guard, and kneed her as hard as I could in the gut.

She stumbled back, hissing wordlessly, but before she could recover, I followed through with a massive kick to her sternum. It was something of a clumsy blow, but the risk proved worth it when she was sent sprawling on the ground.

“I was on the wrestling team,” I called out to her. “Back when we were kids. Signed up near the end of elementary school, you remember that?”

“STOP TALKING!” She tried to take advantage of my perceived complacency, but despite my casual demeanor, I was watching her very closely. When she tried to slash me from the ground, she telegraphed her strike. I moved inside her range again, grabbed her arm, planted my foot on her shoulder—yes, shoulder—and twisted the offending limb behind her back, breaking it, while simultaneously shoving her face into the street with my foot. She screamed in rage and pain, but her cries were muffled by her position.

“In my first practice match, one of the middle school kids—there was only one practice room for all ages, you know—challenged me. Decided to take the newcomer down a few pegs.”

Using her other arm, Elizabeth tried to roll away. But I grabbed one of her legs in both hands and snapped it, bending it backwards at the knee.

“The older student said some things I didn’t like,” I continued as her screams subsided for the moment. “You know how bullies like that are all trash talk. Said some things about my mom, about Akane. But you know the thing that really riled me up?”

Once again, Elizabeth tried to dodge away, this time by using her super speed to run past me, a direction she probably assumed I wouldn’t anticipate. But I had fought fey before, I knew how immortals thought. It probably would have worked anyway, but her broken leg slowed her down. Slowed her down enough for me to grab her neck—grinding my teeth when my shoulder nearly dislocated from grabbing something moving forty or fifty miles per hour—and slam her down into the street again with all the force I could muster.

“The thing that really riled me up was when he said things about you.”

Elizabeth wasn’t interested in reminiscing. From her position on the ground, she planted both legs—the one I had broken had healed enough by now—and shoved me off her. I kept my feet, but she was free now. Rather than fleeing again though, she howled in rage, summoned her swords, and came at me again.

“That guy died, you know.”

I dodged her first sword strike, then the second. She was angry, and making mistakes, but she was still far too good a swordswoman for me to get close. The first time had been mostly luck and good timing.

“Two of his friends, who were watching, tried to help him.”

Elizabeth switched up her tactics, moving from broad slashes to lightning-quick jabs. One of those would get me soon. I couldn’t dodge forever; she was backing me up against the wall of the fallen ‘scraper.

“They died too.”

I tried to feint under her guard again and get a few quick blows in, but her earlier berserk rage had cooled, and she was being much more careful now. One false move would get me skewered.

“I got thrown off the wrestling team, of course. I paid my retribution fee and started slaying monsters.”

“What do I care?” the Composer snarled, as she pushed her attack with renewed vigor. “What should I care about a bunch of mortal brats!?” She hopped back, giving herself more space. “I am ELIZABETH GREENE! The homicide, the GENOCIDE! Ender of men and worlds! You are just a stupid nameless HUMAN!” She charged forward, both blades held before her, ready to run me through.

I let them.

The Composer blinked, in genuine surprise, as her glowing orange blades punctured my gut, cut through my organs, and burst through the other side.

Wrong,” I hissed, as I grabbed her delicate throat and squeezed, crushing bone. “I am Derek Huntsman.”

I kicked her in the chest, sending her sprawling to the ground—and disrupting her concentration enough that her blades faded into nothingness—before stomping over and systematically breaking both her legs.

“I am the first Paragon of Domina City!” I yelled over her screams. “The first man to fight Tecumseh to a draw!” She tried to summon a single sword; I stomped on her wrist and broke her hand. “The man who faced down Asmodeus, and Thor, and and the Beast himself!” She tried to summon a blade with her other hand; before it could finish materializing, I grabbed the offending limb, planted my feet on her body for leverage, and ripped the entire arm off her body, the sound of tearing flesh and breaking bone nearly drowned out by her blood-curling screams.

“I fought Cinder, and Halifax!” I cried as I tossed the bloody limb away carelessly. “I turned down offers from Dispater, and Obould and Io and the Erlking! I was a legend by the time I was fifteen years old!”

Elizabeth tried to crawl away feebly, using the arm that was still attached to her body, gritting her teeth against the pain of a broken wrist and hand that had barely even started healing.

I leaned down close to her ear, even as I placed my hand carefully on her back, on the spot where Laura had showed me the base of her abnormally weak spine would be.

“I am Derek Huntsman,” I whispered. “Remember that name.”

Then I thrust my hand into her back, through the dress, and physically ripped out her spine.
It wouldn’t have worked on a human. Most of our fight wouldn’t have worked on a human, actually. But Elizabeth wasn’t human. Laura had been quite clear on that. She still didn’t know what she was, but she was frail. Her bones were weak, as though designed by someone who knew she would have healing abilities. Why go to all the extra effort to strengthen her skeleton when lighter bones were faster, and she could heal away any injuries anyway?

It took a minute, but I eventually finished ripping the spine out of the body, taking Elizabeth Greene’s skull with it. It was like some grisly, blood-drenched trophy on the end of a stick, but I knew it wouldn’t last if I wasn’t careful.

I tossed the spine and head to Akane. She had appeared about halfway through the fight, but wisely decided not to interfere. “When Necessarius gets here, put that on ice. Liquid nitrogen, I think Laura said was best, but if there isn’t enough of that, a frozen warcage might slow her down. She starts healing, snap a few vertebrae.” Speaking of Laura, she was walking up, flanked by two changelings—

And Simon (limping along with his girlfriend’s help), Seena, the winged fey (being supported by Seena), that Dagonite, Delphie’s nephew Leon, and Eccretia. All looking at me, as shocked as if…

Well, as shocked as if they had just watched one of their oldest friends dismember one of their other oldest friends with his bare hands.

Silver and gold, this was not going to be fun to explain to anyone.

I sighed. First things first. “Eccretia. You mind keeping an eye on this?” I indicated the headless, spineless corpse of the Composer. “I don’t think she’ll heal from it, but you never know.”

The changeling warlord nodded. She didn’t say anything, but Laura’s bodyguards moved forward to police the body. Good men.

Laura nodded to something behind me. “There’s also him to consider.”

I turned to see what she was talking about.

Oh. It was Ziba Brannigan, the Blackguard ‘sarian general. He was on his knees on the street, staring at his boss’s corpse in dull shock. He wouldn’t be any danger any time soon. But still, with that healing ability of his…

I sighed. “Flynn, if you would.”

Flynn came up behind the last Blackguard and sliced his head off with a single stroke.

I smiled—well, grimaced, really, my everything hurt too much to really smile—at the swordsman. “How’re your wounds?”

He clutched his side with a shrug. “Slapped some bandages on it, popped enough stims to pickle a gargant. I’ll live long enough to get to Clarke.”

As I nodded approvingly, Laura strode forward purposefully. “We should burn Brannigan’s body, just in case. He’s a healer, after all.”

I blinked, then nodded. “Right. Yeah, sure. You guys do that. I’m just gonna sit down for a minute, okay?”

I don’t remember anything after that. Laura later told me that I was unconscious and snoring before I even hit the ground.

Behind the Scenes (scene 209)

This is another of those I’ve been waiting for for a long time.