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.