Monthly Archives: July 2015

Scene 231 – Locilus

LOCILUS

LING

Something strange had happened recently.

In my uncounted ages trapped in the toy box, I had no way of interacting with the outside world except for my limited sixth sense, allowing me to sense all the things around me that I could affect with my power—if only they had been within reach.

Turgay had come to tell me I had been in the box for eleven days, and that he was leaving the city with Soaring Eagle, but I had no idea when that was. A week ago? A day? An hour? There was simply nothing to mark the time.

But after Turgay left, something happened. It felt like five minutes later, but it had probably been longer.

The entire city started screaming.

I could hear them, a chorus of fallen angels, bouncing around inside my head like the echo in a bell. I could always hear the screamers we had captured, in the back of my mind, but I had learned to block it out.

But this… it was such a massive increase in the constant background noise, such a huge jump in the number of screamers, that I could only assume that the absolute worst had happened.

The entire city had been turned.

How? Why now? I had no idea. But I could even hear psychic screams echoing up from the lowers floors of the building I was trapped in. If any of them came up here…

Heh. What was I wishing for? Life, or death? Because I literally could not think of a worse situation than being trapped in the toy box, as it constantly tried and failed to repair the damage the calciophage was still doing to my bones.

But either way, it didn’t matter. Because within moments—or weeks, whichever—the screaming stopped.

All of it.

For the first time since this whole affair started at the beginning of the school year, there was peace and quiet inside my head.

It took me a minute to even notice. I had been living with it for so long, pushing it to the back of my mind for so long, that I was hardly even conscious of it anymore. It was only when it was gone that I realized how much I had grown accustomed to it.

It was like having every electronic device in your building unplugged and turned off, all at once. Suddenly, all sorts of things you barely even noticed—the distant thrumming of machinery, the subtle vibration of the walls, the whir of cooling fans—was just gone, leaving something empty in your head.

That wasn’t to say I wasn’t grateful the constant, undulating screams of the zombies were gone. It just took me a few minutes to get used to, that was all. Like taking off a really heavy backpack. Just need to… stretch a bit, get used to new found freedom.

I still had questions, though. How had Elizabeth finally infected the entire city? And how had we finally beat her? Because that was what had happened. I knew that well enough. I might be trapped in a state that might not legally be considered ‘alive,’ but I was still sharp enough to know how stories went. Derek and the others must have found a way to stop her.

The city wasn’t dead, either. That was one possible solution, that they had just killed everyone with some weird bomb or whatever, but I could still occasionally feel people at the edge of my perception, a few floors above or below.

No one came to my floor, however.

Until one day, they did.

I had no idea who it was. No idea if it were an ally or an enemy. I just felt a large bundle of matter wandering the room I was in, pausing briefly here and there. If they were aware of my presence, they showed no sign of it. They just kept whistling a jaunty tune—

Wait. I could hear the whistling. Had Turgay forgotten to turn off the radio on the toy box?

“H-help…”

The whistling stopped.

Help…”

“Hello?” a voice called out. Female. Twenty to thirty or so. “Someone there?”

“Over… here…”

The woman slowly edged over into my direction. I had a vague impression of something long and slender in her hands. A sword? Why would she have a sword? “If someone is making fun of me, it’s… it’s not funny!”

“Not…” I coughed uncontrollably as some shard of bone got stuck in my throat. Even as I was hacking up blood and feeling my muscles snap under my spasms, the sound of my helplessness at least convinced the woman that I was genuine.

“I’m going to go get help!” she promised. “Wait—”

No!” I spat, as loud as I could manage. I doubt it was too loud, but I at least managed to put urgency into the word. “Not… birds…”

“Why don’t you want…” There was a slight pause. “The aves did this to you, didn’t they?”

“Y-yes… open… open…”

“Okay, one second, let me get this sheet off.” Oh, there must have been some sort of sheet hiding the toy box from view. I had felt something, but I hadn’t been sure what it was. “This… is this the toy box?

“Open…”

But she was skeptical. “Look, I’m not a doctor, but these readings look bad, and you sound worse. I really, really think I should leave you in there. I can call Necessarius, or the Servants or something.”

That might actually not be a bad idea. Either one would take good care of me; the ‘sarians because I technically still worked for them, and the Servants because taking care of people was what they did.

But maybe it was just the pain, or the lack of sleep, or some unanticipated side effect of spending who knew how long inside the most advanced toy maker device in the world, but I wasn’t willing to accept any of those options.

I needed out of this coffin.

Out,” I insisted.

“But you’ll die!

Out.”

“I… I…” There was a long, long pause. I couldn’t breathe while waiting for her to make her choice. If not for the toy box keeping my body working as smoothly as possible, I’m certain my heart would have stopped.

“All right,” she whispered finally. “Please just… don’t die.”

No promises.

She opened the toy box.

The pain was unimaginable. Everything hurt. Like a trillion shards of glass were flowing through my veins, while my skin was set on fire and my eyes were clawed by wild animals and worse.

But I had lived with this pain. For at least eleven days, perhaps far longer.

The only difference now was that the toy box wasn’t fixing me.

I kept my sixth sense extended, feeling my broken body beginning to fall apart even as the box opened, allowing my tortured eyes to see light for the first time in weeks. Through the haze of pain, I saw a pretty young woman in a janitor’s uniform, staring down at me in concern.

The toy box was too far off the floor, and I doubted I would have been able to pull myself out by my own strength anyway. I needed this person’s assistance, at least for a few moments longer.

Pool… ” I managed. My voice felt slightly stronger. Maybe the toy box’s constant regeneration had actually been part of what made it so hard to talk. Most of my muscles felt stronger, now that they weren’t being perpetually modified and stabilized by the most high-tech device in the city.

Of course, with my sixth sense I could feel the shards and splinters of my bones slicing into my muscles even as I spoke. Now that the toy box wasn’t there to repair the damage, I was likely going to bleed out from horrific internal damage rather quickly.

But I had a plan. It was a horrible, stupid plan that started bad and ended worse, and I likely wouldn’t have a chance to complete even half of it, but I had been thinking about it for quite some time. It might work.

“Pool? What? What are you talking about?”

Assuming I could explain it to my helpful little janitor before I bled out.

Pool,” I said again. “Take… me…”

“Right! Okay, the pool! Yeah, I cleaned that earlier today, so I—I’m babbling. Just… stalling, I guess.” She took a deep breath. “Okay… right. Men and monsters, I’m pretty sure that this is going to hurt like you cannot imagine. Steel yourself, okay?”

She was right. Putting her arms under my body, picking me up, and moving me to her janitor cart (which she had thankfully had the foresight to empty first) hurt more than anything in the universe.

But I had been dealing with that kind of pain for a long time now. I just bit down on my tongue with my toothless gums and fought to keep from screaming.

It was over in a moment—or a year. I was still having trouble telling the difference. But the point was that soon enough, my erstwhile ally had carefully hidden me under janitorial supplies, and was wheeling me towards the pool on this same floor. I could still feel it, with my sixth sense, even if it was the only thing besides my own body I could feel.

And my body was failing. I had known that was going to happen, of course, but the really depressing part was that it wasn’t happening as fast as I had expected. That might seem like an odd thing to complain about, but the point is that while I was bleeding internally, my muscles were strong. I had expected to die about five minutes after being pulled out of the box. If I had just had the janitor cart the box, with me in it, to the pool, I’d have a much higher chance of success. It was frustrating, realizing that I might die because of a minor mistake I made.

But, by the time I realized all that, we were in the same room as the pool, so it was far too late to turn back. I extended my senses, but I couldn’t tell if the concrete basin was filled with water or not. My power was limited when it came to sensing solids, but I flat-out couldn’t sense liquids.

“What are you doing here?” a sharp voice asked.

Crap. A guard. We were only fifteen feet from the pool, but he was in our way. Well, something was standing in our way. It was probably him, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure.

“Cleaning, sir,” the janitor replied cheerfully, with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “It’s my first day on the job. After everything that happened—”

“After everything that happened, we don’t want anyone in here until they’re properly vetted,” the guard snapped. “We don’t know who you are or what you can do. You can go, you might get a call in a few days if we haven’t fired the idiot who hired you.”

“But… sir, I’ve already been here five hours today, if you’ll just let me finish my shift—”

No, you go now. Leave the cart where you found it.”

There was a pause. I had no idea how long it was.

“Didn’t you hear me? I said leave—”

I heard the dull thump of a body hitting the ground.

Then, there was light shining down from above. I squinted at the janitor’s terrified face as she pulled the supplies off my head.

“I knocked him out,” she hissed. “Whatever you’re going to do—”

“All warhawks, to the pool!” that same sharp voice snapped, from about floor level. “Intruder alert! Repeat, all warhawks to the pool!”

My ally was knocked aside. I heard a scuffle, then a loud splash. My sixth sense helped confirm what I had heard: She had been knocked into the pool. Which, apparently, did have water in it after all.

I could sense more warhawks coming. I needed to figure out a way out, before—

“Skies above, what the—” Too late. The guard had decided to see what the janitor had been doing with the cart, and had found me. I saw him speak into his radio again. “We’ve got some kind of bio-hazard at the pool. Looks like a person, maybe.”

“Copy that,” the radio chirped. “Stand by. We’ll dispose of it when we get there.”

Velvet hells, I did not come this far to die to a bio-hazard team.

I threw all my weight—what little of it remained—against the wall of the janitorial cart, which actually managed to topple it on its side, to my surprise. It hurt like a mother, and rolling out amid all the spilled tools was worse, but I grimaced and bore it.

“Uh, command, bio-hazard has… escaped from containment. Alive, but barely.”

“Is it doing anything?”

I turned my attention to the pool. I kept my eyelids firmly shut, honestly worried that my eyeballs might fall out of my head if I wasn’t careful, and just extended my awareness through my stonesense.

Fifteen feet to the edge of the pool. I started crawling, doing my best to ignore the sharp shards of calcium in clumps where my bones used to be. Constant, agonizing pain, but I could deal with it.

“Bio-hazard appears to be crawling away, command.”

“Well, stop it.”

I felt something step on my right arm, and howled in pain. In a sheer instinctive, animal reaction, I spasmed away, trying to free myself as quickly as possible.

And suddenly, my arm didn’t hurt anymore. Sure, there was a throbbing pain in my shoulder, but, I couldn’t feel—

“That’s just not right…” the guard muttered.

Oh.

I confirmed it with my stonesense; yes, I had just ripped off my own right arm. And the really sad part was that even knowing that, it still hurt less than had before. One bloody, torn stump was nothing compared to an entire arm filled with nothing but shards of pain.

All I could do was continue. Continue crawling forward, scrabbling forward with my one remaining limb, getting closer and closer to salvation. I didn’t quite have to reach the pool itself; while the floor I was on now was just painfully textured plastic, the lip of the pool was tile. I could affect that—

There was a wet sound, as if someone had stepped in something soggy.

Then my leg started screaming in even more pain than before.

I resisted the urge to follow suit, knowing it would just make my throat bleed even more. The guard had stepped on my lower leg, pinning me in place. I tugged lightly, but no use. I was definitely stuck.

I was five feet away. Less, even. But it might as well have been five miles.

With my expanded stonesense, I could feel that more guards were coming. The janitor appeared to be knocked out cold—or dead—judging by her conspicuous stillness. It was over. Weeks or months of waiting and planning, ended here and now.

But I was so close.

Steeling my heart and my resolve, I put every last ounce of strength into my body, and made one last push.

My left leg was torn off at the kneecap.

The guard cried out in surprise and disgust.

A dozen more warhawks rushed the room.

And my fingers brushed the tile edge of the pool.

“Don’t move!” someone called, presumably while pointing a gun at me.

I smiled. For what felt like the first time in my entire life.

And then the pool exploded, the concrete bursting out in a thousand directions, a million great stone hands and tendrils and blades, attacking every ave within range, and searching for more when those were all killed in a heartbeat.

All my time in the toy box, with nothing to do but try to affect stone far out of range, had massively increased my power level. Like constant, unending training, underlined with a pain that would make God himself weep.

The aves died.

Every single one in the building, from top to bottom, crushed and sliced and stabbed.

The janitor died. The boy on the first floor, looking for his brother, died. The kids wandering the third floor, hoping to become new fledglings, died. The scientists and experimental subjects on the second floor, playing with new found powers I was unaware of, died. The building itself died.

Everything died.

Everything.

Behind the Scenes (scene 231)

Saturday November 3rd, for context.

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Scene 230 – Volatus

VOLATUS

ROBYN JOAN

“Huh.” I put the binoculars down and sat back on the edge of the rooftop. I had been using the perch to spy on Akane and her nephews, but unfortunately I didn’t have any ability to hear what was going on down there. She apparently caught a thief, said something to the ‘sarians sent to investigate… and now they were walking off together?

Whatever. I guess I could ask her later. For now, MC had asked me to return to NHQ for help with something or other. She hadn’t given much detail, but it was probably something small. Maybe my dad had finally perfected that high-altitude lung I had been asking about.

I tucked my binoculars into my pouch even as I walked. This was a relatively short building, just a couple dozen floors or so, so there was no need for that oxygen mask Lizzy—Elizabeth—had gotten me. It was surrounded by taller ‘scrapers, which would normally make roof hopping a pain in the ass, which was part of why I had chosen it.

I stepped off the edge of the roof without hesitation, immediately and effortlessly floating up to the top of the next building forty or fifty feet straight up. It barely even made a dent in my reservoir, and once I landed, it was full again only moments later.

“Pure levitation, huh?” a friendly voice called out. “That’s cool.”

While trying to keep my heart from bursting out of my chest, I slowly turned to see the speaker. He was a shirtless ave anthro, a crow if I wasn’t mistaken, covered from head to toe in big black feathers with an equally black beak. His arms ended in sharp talons, and his feet were much the same. It was a rather impressive amount of modification, though maybe less so when your father was the one who invented the toy maker.

Except for his wings.

Massive black-feathered wings, folded up behind his back, where they rose above his head.

Adam had mentioned the aves had a few wing designs. This was far and above what they had managed previously. Everything else was just a pitiful, feeble attempt at brute-forcing the growth of a delicate and complex appendage that nature had never intended for human use.

This was not the twisted, twitching mess he had described. I hadn’t even seen the wings unfold, but I knew that they would let this ave fly. Call it intuition.

“I think they’re calling my power morphing,” he explained, answering the question I was too awestruck to actually ask. “Slow but permanent physical changes.” His wings twitched, and he grinned in that odd way that ave anthros did. “Took me a while to get these working. I haven’t slept since Greene got put on ice.”

“But that…” I shook my head. “That still shouldn’t be enough time. Growing fully functional wings out of nothing is—”

“Not out of nothing,” he corrected. “I was part of the test trials for the wings. So I had something to build on.” He shrugged, feathers rustling. “Even if it was just a flawed and broken design, I was able to fix it and improve it with my powers.”

“And… you’ve flown?” I pressed. “You’ve actually flown around?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, grinning again. He actually winked. “Just a little.”

“I…” I shook my head. “I don’t know what to say.”

“An introduction would be nice.”

I smiled now too, and bowed with mock formality. “Robyn Joan Clarke, at your service. Paladin of Domina City, serving under Paragon Huntsman.” Derek might be pretending that he still wasn’t a warlord, but I knew better.

He bowed as well. “And I am Fimmtu Væng. Formerly a Hunter of Soaring Eagle, now making my own way in the world.”

“…didn’t she flee the city when Necessarius started closing in?”

That small grin was back. “Hence the formerly.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “While I do find your wings interesting and everything, I’m a bit curious as to what you’re doing here.” I narrowed my eyes. “I doubt it was a coincidence you just so happened to be on this rooftop.”

Fimmtu blinked. “Wait, I didn’t… ” I scratched his head, wincing. “Sorry, sorry, I had this whole… thing planned, and then I screwed it up by forgetting to do it…”

“Skip to the end,” I snapped, annoyed again.

“My kit has been tracking you, Robyn Joan,” he answered swiftly. “We wanted to meet the flier of the Paladins.”

“Your kit?” I asked with a frown. Wasn’t that a word for a baby fox or something?

“My kit,” he confirmed, sweeping his arm majestically.

The roof was flat and empty. What was he—

Then they appeared.

Aves, baselines, vampires, demons, and angels… even a couple giants. Dozens of people, of every culture and subculture you cared to name, all appeared at the crow’s call.

Every one of them flew up from below my sight range.

Some of them had wings. The aves and angels tended to have feathers, while most of the demons and vampires had leathery bat-wings. Some of them stayed firmly in place when they landed, like Fimmtu’s, but most smoked out of existence once they were no longer needed.

Most, however, had strange powers that I wouldn’t have thought to equate with flight. I saw a giant—a troll, it looked like—with flames sputtering out from her hands. A primitive and simple rocket, using some type of pyrokinesis. A baseline had steel bands wrapped tightly around his arms, and I realized with a start that he was using the same trick as Ling, levitating something he could control—metal, in his case—to levitate himself. One young demon appeared to be sitting on a flying carpet.

Others levitated with no visible propulsion, like me. Control of personal gravity. I was surprised to find myself feeling a bit of prideful arrogance, as if they were the only real fliers here.

“These are all the fliers I’ve been able to collect,” Fimmtu explained happily. “Everyone here wants what I want.” He smiled at me with that ave smile again. “To meet you, Robyn Joan Clarke.”

Despite the fact that everyone was all smiles, I was starting to get a bad feeling. They were… too friendly. Far too friendly for people I had never met. “Why? What do you want from me?”

“Nothing much,” the anthro insisted, holding up his claws in a placating gesture. “Just the opportunity to learn from your experience. You have had your power for longer than everyone here combined. We simply want you to try and teach us.”

This… was starting to feel like they were trying to induct me into a cult. A cult I would be leading, I guess, but still, it just felt… off. “Flying isn’t hard. You all seem to have figured it out well enough. What do you need me for?”

Fimmtu fumbled slightly. He didn’t seem like a very experienced public speaker. “Need? We… I…” He took a deep breath. “We don’t need anything from you. We want to form a community of fliers. A school, or college, I guess you would call it.”

“Look, I’m… flattered. But I have other things to worry about right now. I’m sorry, but I’m sure you guys will get on just fine without me.” I nodded politely at the group, and headed for the edge of the roof.

“You’re still looking for Ling Yu, right?”

I stopped dead, one foot over the edge.

I turned back around. “…yes. How did you know that?”

The ave swallowed. “It wasn’t hard to figure out. Once her roommate was outed as a Paladin, everything just sort of… slipped into place. But that’s not the point.” He steeled himself. “We can help look for her.”

“Do you know where she is?” I demanded, eyes narrow.

“No, of course not—”

“Then what use are you?”

The crow anthro was starting to get frustrated. “Skies above, we’re just trying to help! Are you really telling me that you honestly can’t see the benefit in having another dozen pairs of eyes scouring the city for her?”

“Look buddy,” I snapped back. “I don’t know you. I don’t know any of these people. I’m sorry, but I have no reason to trust you farther than I can throw you.” I stepped off the edge. “If you find Ling, or anything else you feel is important, report it to MC.”

I flew off at top speed, hoping I would prove faster than them.

They didn’t even bother following.

Behind the Scenes (scene 230)

“Kit” can mean several things. One meaning is “a group of pigeons.”

Scene 229 – Celeritas

CELERITAS

AKANE

“You two need to try this,” I insisted, handing both boys a small wrap each. “Nervi makes the best sandwiches.”

“This isn’t a sandwich, it’s a wrap,” Yuuki said.

“Well, he also makes good wraps,” I insisted, as I led us over to an unoccupied table. I found myself slightly giddy over the fact that the open-air dining area was actually crowded. There were people here, outside again. The city was beginning to feel normal again.

Yuudai, the younger of the two brothers, shrugged and sat down. “Sandwich, wrap, it smells good.” He took a big bite, and chewed thoughtfully. “What is this? Dog?”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I chided him, even as Yuuki took his own seat. “And this is an abyssal leapeater wrap.”

Yuuki sniffed at the item in his hands with some suspicion. “I thought abyssals were poisonous.”

“Acidic, actually. But it comes off during the grilling.”

The elder boy arched an eyebrow at me, but seeing as how his younger brother was enthusiastically eating his own food with such obvious relish, he sighed and gingerly took a bite. After a moment, he swallowed, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I can’t identify the sauce…”

“No sauce. That’s the acid.”

He whipped his head in my direction, panic in his eyes. “You said it burns off!”

“Yes, and leaves behind flavor. Like cooking with wine.”

Yuudai swallowed, peering at his wrap. “Where did they get the meat, anyway? Eve says abyssals are pretty rare.”

I bit into my own wrap. The strange, smoky flavor that you could normally only get with a very special type of oven was exactly as I remembered it. “Who’s Eve?” I asked, after I finished swallowing my bite—it wouldn’t do to provide a bad example for the boys. “That girlfriend of yours?”

He nodded eagerly. “Eve Am, that’s her. She’s just a nice demon girl.”

“No specific subculture?”

“Nope. Just some horns and a good strong tail.” He nodded at the waitress, sashaying around the tables. “Like that girl, there.”

I grinned slightly. “That’s not a demon, that’s Lily.”

He frowned. “Who—” Then the light dawned. “Lily!? The Lily? Eve goes on and on about her! Why’s she just waiting tables? Shouldn’t she be, uh…” he faltered, not really sure what someone like her was expected to do.

“She likes it,” I explained. “Likes interacting with people on a casual basis like this.”

“Besides,” Yuuki cut in. “What else would she be doing? Sitting in the middle of Necessarius with the Big Boss?”

Yuudai’s frown returned. “She’s a ‘sarian.”

I shrugged. “Not really. Kinda. She’s doesn’t like killing, so she doesn’t approve of their methods, but she respects them, especially Butler.” I smiled, remembering the argument I had walked in on earlier today, shortly after we got back. “He actually tried to get her to move into MC’s bunker, after this whole debacle.”

“Oh.” The little boy—much smaller than his brother, even though he was only a year younger—shook his head. “But you didn’t answer my question! Abyssal meat is rare. Where do they get it?”

“Oh, sorry.” His question had completely slipped my mind as I focused on his girlfriend. “Mostly, Ezio—and his mother, who runs another place—gets it from people like me. Monster slayers. Abyssal leapeaters don’t quite breed true, so it’s not like you can farm them.”

“I forgot you said you’re a monster slayer,” Yuuki muttered around a mouthful of food. I glared at him, and he had the good grace to swallow before continuing. “You’re in some gang, right? Huntsman’s?”

“Gang might be stretching it. It’s just the two of us.”

He put the wrap down in surprise. “Really? Because I looked around on Fundie a little, and apparently he’s actually pretty well-known. Or is that a different Huntsman?”

“No, it’s the same,” I admitted. “It’s a small group, but we do good work.”

“Huh. I guess I should have expected that from the Paladins.”

I paused mid-bite. “…right. I forgot that you would know about that now.”

“The whole city knows!” Yuudai chirped happily. He was grinning from ear to ear. “It was a lot of fun for us, too! We got to point at the tv and say ‘That’s our aunt!’”

You said it,” Yuuki murmured, blushing into his wrap. “I just tried to stay out of it all.”

I smiled, but didn’t say anything, knowing full well what it was like to be embarrassed like that.

After ten or twenty minutes, we finished up our food and headed down the street.

“So what did you two want to do next?” I asked as I adjusted my sword bag over my shoulder. “There are shops around here, but also a public library, some cafes, AU—”

“AU is the school you go to, right?” Yuuki interrupted. “The college, I mean.”

I shrugged. “Well, technically yes, but we haven’t been going recently.”

“Because of the Composer.”

“Exactly.” I thought about it. “I suppose we should start attending again, but it’s a little hard to care, all things considered. We already have very steady, well-paying jobs. We were pretty much only going to keep Derek’s mother happy.”

“He has a mom?” Yuudai asked with wide eyes. “Like, an actual mom?”

I ruffled his hair. “So do I! Your grandmother, in fact.” My smile faded. “I suppose you’ll want to meet her sooner or later.”

Yuudai looked a bit confused at that, but Yuuki seemed to recognize the expression on my face. “You don’t get along with her?”

“She is just… a very trying woman,” I managed diplomatically. “She never really got used to living in a city of criminals. And she’s inside NHQ’s radius, so she’s perfectly safe, meaning she doesn’t really understand how people need to fight to survive.”

“But she’d want to meet us, right?” Yuudai pressed. “Why wouldn’t she?”

I grimaced. “She’s… delicate, in some ways. She doesn’t like being reminded of what she’s lost.”

Yuuki frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I remind her too much of your grandfather.” I lifted my sword, still in its bag slung over my shoulder, to emphasize my point. “And I’m afraid you two might remind her too much of your mom.” I ruffled Yuudai’s hair again, smiling at his green eyes. “You both look just like her.”

“Oh,” the younger boy said, clearly disappointed. “That’s… I mean, I’m happy we look like her, but if it causes problems, we could get some cosmos…”

I whacked him on the head.

“Hey!” he cried, his upper lip quivering as if he was about to cry. “What was that for?”

“If you want to use the toy maker, that’s fine,” I informed him sternly. “But you don’t need to change just because you want someone else to like you. That just leads to those fourteen year-old girls with D-cups.”

Yuudai settled down a bit, and Yuuki rubbed him on his head where I had hit him. “You’ve got a point,” the elder brother admitted.

“Besides, you especially don’t need to change yourself to make that woman like you,” I muttered darkly. “She’s going to find something to hate. Honestly, your appearances are pretty low on the list.”

“I… see…” Yuuki said slowly. “Well, how about you—”

A man ran out of the shop in front of us at breakneck speed, nearly bowling the three of us off our feet.

“Musashi’s broken oar,” I muttered. “What was that?”

The shop clerk, a young boy about Yuudai’s age, came out of the shop as if in answer to my question. “Stop! Thief!”

“Huh,” Yuuki muttered. “I wonder if there will be a reward.”

I smacked him lightly upside the head again. “Doesn’t matter.”

Then I sped off.

It felt weird, being able to use my power in front of the dozens or hundreds of witnesses, and not have to worry about anybody finding out. They all knew by now. They might not have made the connection between me and the Paladin with super speed, but there was nothing exceptional about having a power.

Though, to be perfectly fair, I probably could have caught up with the shoplifter even without my power. I’m pretty fast all on my own, and he wasn’t too far away when I started running. This also meant that when using my speed, I was able to catch up to him in barely a heartbeat, and quickly get in front of him.

Since to my perspective, it looked like he was moving in slow motion, it was easy to size him up. He was a young baseline African man—not just black, African. The horizontal spike piercing his chin made it pretty obvious. Though I suppose he could have just been a run of the mill black kid interested in his people’s history, the sharp cut of his jaw and the weathered look of his skin made him seem like someone who had experience in an actual tribal lifestyle.

Tucked under his arm was one of those bulk boxes of nutrient bars. The kind of thing you ate as a snack on the go. There would be about fifty in the box; more than enough to feed a young boy for a couple weeks.

I met his eyes. They were strong, but desperate. He was clearly hungry, almost certainly homeless, and probably too busy saving up for a Cannibalism buff to be able to afford to buy food.

Then he blinked, almost too quickly for me to notice.

Wait, did he just—

Then his eyes narrowed and focused on me.

Oh crap

I didn’t even have time to draw my sword. All I knew was that suddenly, he was moving at normal speed—except he wasn’t, not really.

He was just moving at the same speed I was.

He had the good sense to drop the box. To all appearances, it just hovered in midair; it would fall eventually, but at the rate we were moving, that was going to take a minute. Unburdened, he stepped swiftly inside my guard and punched once, twice, straight at my face.

Shocked as I was, my combat instincts kicked in quickly, and I was able to easily dodged his attacks just by taking two steps back.

He kept on the offensive, moving like a boxer—light on his feet, throwing lightning-fast punches with unerring accuracy.

I could probably beat him in a moment if I went on the offensive, but I was hesitant. Partly because I was worried I’d do far too much damage to him—he was just a thief, he didn’t deserve to die, but I wasn’t used to having to hold back—but also because I knew that I could easily outlast him. My reservoir was undoubtedly far deeper than his own; I had barely even tapped into mine, but assuming he was at about the same level I was in my first couple days, he’d be spent soon.

But if he realized that I was trying to wait him out, he might go full power long enough to do some serious damage to me. Stronger than him or not, if he was quick, especially if he had a blade, he could very well kill me.

I wasn’t going to let that happen.

I dodged the first of his one-two punches, then dove forward into the second, tapping a little bit more speed in order to dodge the blow by a hair’s breadth. He was too shocked by the odd maneuver to recover fast enough.

Not that it mattered. I was inside his guard, and faster than him. Before he had a chance to draw more power from his reservoir, I punched him hard in the gut, causing him to double-over in pain. Rather than calling that the end of it, I tripped him up with one foot, sending him sprawling to the ground, and then put my foot on his chest, pinning him with the full weight of my body.

I returned to normal speed—the thief following suit a moment later, when a little bit of thrashing confirmed that he still couldn’t escape—and looked over my shoulder at the kid from the store. “Necessarius.”

He blinked, then nodded and fished out a phone to call MC.

Then the applause started.

Now it was my turn to blink in surprise. Now that I had a moment to stop and look around, I realized that the sidewalks were packed with people—people who were now smiling and clapping in appreciation for my swift take down of the thief.

I blushed and shuffled my feet. I didn’t really deserve any praise like this…

I really didn’t.

Because the second I let down my guard, the thief took advantage.

Suddenly I was on the ground, flat on my back, and he was standing above me, anger in his eyes. Thankfully, he wasn’t in the mood for revenge. He just stooped down and picked up his box at super speed and ran off—

Only to get tackled bodily to the ground.

It happened so fast that I barely saw it happen. It was someone else with speed, no question; no one else would have been able to move that fast. I rose to my feet to see the thief’s face being pushed into the concrete by the man sitting on his back…

It was Yuuki.

He grinned when he noticed me staring at him in shock, but didn’t let up on the criminal.

“You have… super speed?” I asked dumbly.

The grin widened. “I couldn’t think of a way to tell you. I guess this works, huh?”

A distant part of my brain noted that Laura would find this very interesting. The implications of two members of the same family having the same power were staggering. But at the moment, I didn’t care about that. I just cared that my nephew had successfully taken down a criminal. Easily taken down a criminal, in fact.

I stepped forward and tussled his hair again. “Good job,” I said, putting as much gratitude into those two words as I could. It seemed like it worked, because he blushed in embarrassment and turned away, pretending to be focused on the captive.

Yuudai suddenly sped up to my side. I nearly jumped out of my skin. He had speed too? “The shop keeper says the ‘sarians are gonna be here in a couple minutes.” He eyed the African man, who had largely stopped struggling. “What’ll they do with him?”

“Well, that depends,” I mused. “Best case scenario, he just pays for the food, plus the penalty on top.” It was what, double the item’s price these days? No, wait, I think the penalty was just the item’s price, but then you also had to pay for the item, so it came out to double. More if he was a repeat offender. “Of course, I doubt he’d have stolen food if he could pay for it, so he’ll likely have to work it off.”

Utumwa,” the man spat viciously.

I glared at him, and mustered the fortitude to speak more than a couple words. “I don’t understand… whatever language that is, but I’m guessing it was an insult. It will be a day’s work. Just do it, no complaining.”

“Easy to preach hard work when you’re not the one starving.”

I picked up the box he had dropped and turned it over in my hands, looking for a price label. “Thirty dollars? You couldn’t scrounge up thirty dollars?”

He scowled. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“What, no one would hire you? Those fighting skills didn’t grow out of thin air. Even before the MEE, you could have found a job as a boxer or a hit man or a trainer. Now, with your speed, you should be even more in demand.”

He looked away.

“Honored Paladin?” a voice called from behind me. I turned to see the shivering young clerk, and two large and furry kemos, both with the Necessarian red and black band on their shoulders. “They’re here for the thief. They’ll take him in for processing.”

“Wait,” I said, as the ‘sarians moved forward. There was… an idea, tickling at the back of my brain. Obviously, there was something the thief wasn’t saying. Something that made his life harder than it should be. But whatever it was, he was fast, and quick on his feet. “How much?”

The kemos looked at each other, then at me. The one on the left, the one with vaguely ursine features, spoke. “You mean his penalty? Sixty-six dollars, including tax. But you can’t buy his debt. That’s slavery, and you of all people should know how the Big Boss feels about the slave trade—”

“Not buying his debt,” I said firmly. “Paying it. Puts him in the free and clear.” I pulled out my wallet.

There were six dollars in it.

Oh, right, I had left all my money behind when we left the city, and what little I had picked up when we got back was spent at Nervi’s place, on the sandwiches. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t need to have more cash on me.

“Um… I have money at my dorm. If you’ll just let me run back—”

“No need,” the ‘sarian on the right assured me quickly. “We know who you are.”

“Normally, we’re supposed to take him into custody while you get the money,” his companion noted. “But since it’s you, we can take your word on it.” He pulled out a pad, tapped on it for a moment, then proffered it to me. “Please read it, and sign at the bottom.”

It was basically just a bill, stating that I would pay the sum at the next available opportunity. I signed it, the lawmen left, and the street slowly settled back down into a normal routine.

“Yuuki, get off him,” I ordered once the shock of the whole event had worn off and I had a chance to think again. My elder nephew did as I suggested a little ruefully.

I eyed the thief as he slowly clambered to his feet, still glaring at me. “I hope you don’t think this puts me in your debt.”

“No,” I agreed, handing him back his stolen box of nutrient bars. He took it a little suspiciously. “Your debt is paid. You’re free.” I shrugged. “But… maybe I have a job? You don’t have to take it.”

He narrowed his eyes. “A paying job?”

“A paying job.”

“And no assassinating people?”

“No assassinations. Maybe killing, but no assassinating.”

The baseline looked at me a good, long while, trying to size me up, determine my motive.

“Sefu,” he said finally, holding out his hand to shake.

I smiled, and took it. “Sefu. I’m Akane Akiyama.”

Behind the Scene (scene 229)

This is one of those that builds up to something important, rather than being important itself.

Scene 228 – Varietas

VARIETAS

LAURA

Everyone in the city—except for Adam, who had never been exposed to Elizabeth’s song—had a power now. Almost five hundred million men, women and children were now endowed with superhuman abilities.

That included Doctor Isaac Clarke.

“It’s amazing!” he shrieked for the umpteenth time. “I can mold flesh like clay! Just like the toy maker is supposed to be able to, but literally, in my hands!

I rubbed my forehead. “Yes, I know. But it’s still not as precise and useful as the actual toy maker. What we need to do is more tests, so we can figure of the exact limits of your ability, and how that might be used to—Clarke, what are you doing?”

He was passing his hand back and forth over his arm, the wrinkles smoothing out slowly. Then, as he grinned like a kid in a candy shop, the wrinkles started to come back. “Look! I’ve already mastered my own skin!

“Yes,” I deadpanned. “I can see that. Your flesh-molding abilities now rival a couple Botox injections. Can we get to the matter at hand?”

The old-looking man nodded with what appeared to be genuine seriousness. “You’re right, of course.” He checked a pad. “Now, Adam’s blanket wasn’t anything too expensive, so replacing it wouldn’t be too difficult, but I think he deserves a bit of an upgrade—”

My headache was getting worse. “What are you talking about?”

Clarke frowned at me. “Mister Anders’ blanket. Lily shredded it when they fought in the dorms. Did you even read the after-action report MC wrote up?”

I counted to ten before answering.

“Yes,” I said with what little patience I could muster. “But I meant we needed to test your ability.” I turned to the nearby toy box, with a sedated dumpster dog inside. The device came with a powerful scanner that rivaled some MRI’s in detail, and surpassed most of them in speed. “Let’s start with something simple.” I turned back to Clarke. “Change the color of its—Clarke!”

He was playing with his wrinkles again. He jumped like a kid with his hand in a cookie jar when I caught him. “What?

I sighed. “Screw this. Butler actually needs my help. Just try and remember to turn on the recorder if you start modifying the dog, okay?” I stomped out of the lab before he had a chance to say something stupid again.

Finding Butler’s office took longer than I would have liked to admit; I didn’t have reason to go there much. But the guards at NHQ were friendly and knew me well, so after a few rather embarrassing wrong turns, I arrived outside the solid steel door of his office.

I knocked once.

“Come in,” his gruff voice called. I turned the handle and stepped inside with trepidation.

The office was exactly as I remembered it from last time I had been here, a week or month or so ago. Simple, with the bare essentials. Just a strong desk, a good computer, and some chairs, without even a window to break up the monotonous gray walls. The desk had a few pictures of Lily at various ages, as well as one of Mary Christina, but otherwise the room was conspicuously devoid of personality.

It was a lot like Butler in that way: Cold, pragmatic, but with a few hints of a heart if you paid attention. Exactly as I remembered it.

Except for one difference.

Butler was pacing in front of his desk, reading a pad.

And he didn’t have his cane.

Artemis Butler had always had a very strong presence, despite his many physical disabilities. He was tall, broad, and strong, even though his bones were brittle and weak. He couldn’t stay standing for long, but when he made the effort, he could easily loom over nearly anyone, even giant warlords. But everyone knew about his weaknesses, knew why he leaned so heavily on his cane. In a physical fight, most children could beat him.

Not any more.

In that after-action report MC compiled, she theorized that the powers everyone received were based on conscious or subconscious desires. Some were harder to puzzle out than others—Akane’s speed eventually made sense when you realized she just wanted her sword to be useful, but what would a petite soccer player want with the ability to control earth and stone?

But others made perfect sense at a glance. Derek wanted to protect people, he got shields. Robyn Joan wanted freedom, she got levitation. I wanted to know when people around me were lying, and that’s exactly what I got.

Artemis Butler wanted to have a body as strong as his soul.

And that’s exactly what he got.

I still wasn’t clear on what precisely his ability was. It seemed to be like what the biters had. Some slow morphing ability that required a lot of time and effort to make any changes, but little to no energy to keep it going once it was done. In fact, I had a theory that it might be the same as Doctor Clarke’s ability, just limited to internal changes only, rather than extending to being able to change others.

The point was that after dozens of surgeries, countless different types of medication, and weekly sessions in the toy box for a decade and a half, Butler had finally conquered the diseases he was born with. Diseases that the doctors had told his mother would keep him from ever living past age three.

It would take more than multiple terminal diseases to kill Artemis Butler.

He smiled slightly when he noticed me. “Laura, a pleasure to see you. Isaac finally drove you off?”

“Yes, sir,” I said carefully. “I thought I could do better here.”

He sighed. “Yes, well, I do hope so, though I honestly don’t think you’ll have much more luck than I did.”

“Why don’t you summarize the situation for me?” I asked as I scooted into a chair in front of his desk. I was hoping the move would force him to sit in his own chair out of courtesy; I was a little freaked out, seeing him walking around so blithely, and I felt a strange need to have him sitting down, as if his miraculous recovery could fail at any moment.

If he noticed the gesture, he didn’t say anything, and it didn’t work. He remained standing.

“To start with, Adam did minimal damage in his fight through the city.” He tapped the pad. “About a hundred deaths over two days, mostly from fall damage, gunshot wounds, and complications due to leaving those untreated. The city actually had a much lower death rate than normal, since no one was fighting each other.”

I winced. “That’s a little sad.”

“Well, it’s no secret that mind control keeps people safe,” he said flippantly. “That doesn’t make it a viable option.”

“Fair enough. What about infrastructure damage?”

“Basically nonexistent. Broken windows, a few firebombed cars here and there…” He frowned at the screen. “Hm. Well, the total cost seems large, but we’re a large city. The damage was almost entirely superficial, even though there was a lot of it. We can be fully repaired in under a week.”

“Which means it will probably actually take a year or so,” I said with a sigh.

The massive man smiled. “Perhaps. But the rebuilding is already underway. I think you’re underestimating how much people want to fix what they did during the event.”

I nodded, latching onto the subject. “Right, the people. Everyone has a power now. Has there been any attempt at a census?”

“Right now, we have the ‘sarians just asking people what there power is any time they need to see ID, such as when they hand out relief supplies. If the person answers, a note is made. If they don’t, there’s no fuss.”

“We’re going to need something more organized, and fast.”

“I agree, but I already asked the Servants to help, and they refused, citing privacy concerns. Though they did agree to do an internal census—that should be on my desk by tomorrow—they don’t want to force anyone else.”

I touched my necklace, thinking. “Some of the cultures will do the same, but I doubt all. The orcs will happily hand over their data, as will most of the hellion legions, but they might want money for it. The Draculas will definitely do the internal census, but it’s fifty-fifty if they offer the info.”

Butler waved his free hand. “We don’t need to go through a list of every culture.”

“Right, right,” I agreed with a nod. “For now, we just need to keep in mind that they’ll fall into three categories:” I ticked them off on my fingers. “Those who will do their own internal census and give them to Necessarius for free—or for cheap enough there’s no difference. Those who will do their own internal census and refuse to give them to Necessarius, and those who won’t do a census at all.”

“Most of the cultures are going to fall into the second group,” he noted. “Only minor pseudocultures without any internal structure are going to fail to even try to make a list of everyone in their command with powers.” He stopped, then shrugged, as if admitting a point to himself. “And the Nosferatu and daevas, I suppose.”

“And the Satanists,” I noted. They were big on personal freedom and anarchy. That had backfired a bit, in that it meant they had no one in a position of power to keep the Beast from taking control of the culture, but he was a true believer in the cause. He was just more violent than most people felt comfortable with.

Butler sighed. “I just said we’re not going to list off every culture.”

“Okay, sorry. Let’s try a different tact. The biggest change we have to worry about right now is…” I thought for a moment. “I have no idea what it is.”

The master of Necessarius shook his head and placed the pad on his desk. “We simply do not have enough information yet. We need to to wait a few more days to see what happens.”

I winced. “You mean we have to wait until something goes wrong.”

“Most likely, yes.”

I closed my eyes. “Because it is necessary.”

“Because it is necessary,” he agreed quietly.

Behind the Scenes (scene 228)

I realize this is a bit on the short side, but there’s not too much to say. Most of it needs to be shown more directly.