Monthly Archives: October 2015

Scene 238 – Arcana

ARCANA

SEENA

“Noble Nyashk!” the fey with the shoulder-length black hair cried joyfully. “So wonderful of you to join us! Would you like a seat?”

“…I’ll stand, thank you,” I said thickly. A young kemo with blue fur offered me something in a delicate wine glass; I brushed it away. “I’m here to see Veda.”

The fey domain, their demesne or castle or whatever, didn’t have a name that I was aware of. Mab—the Unseelie Matron who owned the place and was now smiling at me—probably had some unpronounceable name for it based on some obscure Irish myth, but I didn’t care enough to ask.

The demesne was underground, which was only to be expected, with the only entrance from the surface that I knew of a small service tunnel from the nearby sewers. The entrance, directly behind me, was a long metal walkway over the water, covered in a thick layer of frost like a freezer.

I stood now in some sort of receiving hall, a mid-sized concrete chamber with a cold mist swirling in the air. The floor was a soft white carpet probably meant to look like snow, and the walls had grills for the hidden fans that kept the place below freezing.

There were a few other exits from the room, apparently unguarded, likely leading deeper into the domain. The only other features of note were the dim lights in the ceiling (off now, since we all had nighteyes) and the variety of chairs and couches scattered around, all carved carefully from living ice.

My warlord buffs were impressive, and made the arctic temperatures feel only barely chilly, but you can understand why I declined to sit.

The girlish fey tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Veda, Veda… can’t say that rings any bells.”

“Razvan,” I ordered.

One of my bodyguards stepped forward and fired, shooting at one of the grills in the wall. The device screeched in protest as the bullets chipped off pieces of the spinning blades, which quickly lodged in sensitive areas and ground to a halt.

The fey-slave, or whatever they were called these days, flinched away from the display of force, but Mab wasn’t impressed. “Vandalism is not going to help you,” she said chidingly. “Do you know what prince she serves under?”

That did help, actually. Back at the Wild Hunt, when Veda had introduced herself, she had… well, she had introduced herself. I couldn’t remember what name she had used, but the title was simple enough. “She is the Prince of Night’s Southern Autumn. She was the announcer for the Wild Hunt, with the Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn.”

The fey blinked her black nighteyes in something that almost looked like surprise. “Oh, you mean Aitil Péine? Why didn’t you say so? Yes, she’s here. She lives in the Killing Sparrow quarter of the demesne.”

“Thank you,” I managed with forced politeness. “Would you please take us there?”

“I could, but she is not there at the moment. She is in the Forgotten Dawn quarter.”

It took me a second to recall what that meant. I had been reading up on the fey quite a bit these days, all things considered. “That would be… Night’s Eastern Spring?”

Mab beamed. “Correct! You see, the demesne is constructed in a natural pattern—”

“That’s not really important at the moment,” I interrupted. “Can you just take us there? Or tell her to meet us here, or something?” On second thought, having her meet us here was a bad idea. Walking through the fey domain would provide us with invaluable information on the way they had formatted their ‘culture.’ I shouldn’t have suggested anything else. I still wasn’t thinking like a warlord, even after everything.

“Sure!” Mab chirped. “Bláth Sioc will take you to her.”

Luckily, the fey were still crazy.

Mab disappeared down one of the hallways with a vague wave goodbye, leaving us behind. The blue-furred kemo—well, he wasn’t actually a kemo, I guess—who had offered me a drink bowed politely. “This way, Noble Nyashk. If your guards could stay behind, I’m sure Matron Mab would be most appreciative.”

Marcel, my other bodyguard, stepped forward with a frown. “We’re not going to—”

I silenced him with a raised hand. “It’s fine. Just stay here and make yourselves comfortable.” That was code for ‘watch the warlord.’ They’d follow Mab down the other hallway and report on her movements.

Bláth Sioc bowed again, and led me down the hallway that his Lady had not taken. It was about the same as the waiting room—cold, with every available surface covered in frost—except there was no carpeting on the cold concrete floor. That was fine with me, but still something I found interesting.

After a dozen or so twists and turns over a relatively short walk, clearly meant to confuse newcomers as much as possible, we finally exited the hallway, and I realized we were in the demesne proper.

Now that I saw it, I felt silly for calling the waiting room a part of the domain. Oh, it was, but it was like a restroom in NHQ. It was not intended to be anything impressive; it was just a minor, functional room.

This was not a minor room.

This was clearly intended to be impressive.

And by all Nine Hells and the Black Gates that guarded them, it worked.

We came to an open area the size of football field, stretching nearly out of sight both left and right. We were in a corner, and across from us the walls were so distant that they were just featureless blurs. If there were any tunnels like this one, I couldn’t see them.

And then there was the pit.

A deep black pit that started ten feet from where I stood. No, that was the wrong way to describe it. Rather, the massive, square pit the size of a football field was ringed by a lip of stone ten feet wide. It was deep enough that I couldn’t see the bottom, but I could hear the splash of water and sirens’ songs. Was there a tunnel to Whitecap Bay down there?

But while the bottom of the pit was too distant even for my enhanced eyes to see, the walls of the hole were another story. The walls were sloped sharply, like an upside down pyramid, and would eventually create a sharp point at the bottom if taken to their logical conclusion.

The walls had windows carved in them, and even a scattering of wooden walkways constructed to lead from one to another. There weren’t too many people trotting on the scaffolding, but enough to confirm that that was their purpose, and to divine the meaning behind the windows themselves.

It was a city, where the fey-blessed could live and work. It really was like an inverted pyramid. After the hole was dug—however they managed that miracle—they must have started carving out rooms from the walls.

“Noble Nyashk?” my guide asked pleasantly. “Is something wrong?”

I shook my head. “No… nothing. Can we see the Forgotten Dawn quarter from here?”

He nodded. “Yes, of course. It’s right there.” He pointed to a point across the pit, near the top. I frowned, realizing that he was indicating the east wall of the pyramid. Was that intentional? Mab had been saying something… gah, I should have paid more attention.

“We can just walk over there, right?” I asked. “You don’t need to have wings?”

Bláth Sioc smiled. “Most of us do not have wings, Honored Noble. Prince Péine, while not quite unique in that respect, is still exceptional. They are still in extremely early stages, you understand, and cost a lot of time and money to maintain.”

I nodded. Made sense.

“Now please, follow me, and stay away from the edge. You might be able to survive the fall, but I really don’t want to find out on my watch.”

I smiled as I fell into step behind him. “I promise I’ll watch my step.” I peered over the edge, once again hearing the sound of water splashing deep below, followed by laughter. “Are those sirens down there?”

“Of course. The Unseelie court has had a positive relationship with a number of the Whitecap Bay cultures since the end of the war. This is one of the few places we can interact with them on their terms, since we can’t exactly go hang out on the Ring in plain sight.”

I smiled at the thought of it. There would be riots.

“As I understand it, the Princess of Wind and Frost has a particularly good relationship with the sirens. She might be down there now, you could meet her later.”

Wind and Frost was… Maeve. The one who had recruited Veda and killed Delphie. Failed to save her. Whatever. “I think I’ll pass on that, actually.”

“As you wish. If memory serves, she is the one who recruited and modified Prince Péine, so I assumed you would enjoy the chance to speak with her. And I personally find her quite charming. She is a delight.”

Huh. Honestly hadn’t expected that. The fey had been sniping at each other for so long, I had just assumed that their followers would be the same. Maybe Bláth Sioc served the Unseelie as a whole, rather than one of the individual Ladies?

We really did need more intelligence. Hopefully, Marcel and Razvan would have luck on that front. I couldn’t afford to be distracted from my goal right now.

It didn’t take long to reach the east side of the pit, where the furry little fey-blessed showed me a door in the wall, which hid a set of stone stairs spiraling down. We only had to go down two floors before getting off at Forgotten Dawn.

I found Veda the second I opened the door.

She looked the same as she had the day she had announced the Wild Hunt, an event that had been interrupted by the Composer. Honey-brown skin, brown hair, and onyx black nighteyes. Even her three pairs of translucent insect wings had been repaired.

She wasn’t wearing the dress from that night though. Instead, she had on a pretty basic black t-shirt, with most of the back missing to make way for her wings. It had to be cold in this environment, but she showed no signs of it. Only to be expected, I guess.

The feyborn Prince nodded to me. “Noble Nyashk.”

“Cut the crap, Veda,” I snapped. “You have a lot of explaining to do.”

Veda turned to my guide. “Thank you, Bláth Sioc. I can handle it from here.”

The blue-furred man bowed and left without another word.

Now that I had a moment to calm down, I noticed that the room we were in was surprisingly small and austere. Everything was bare stone, with the wall with the window angled due to the inverted pyramid shape of the hole outside. Other than a cabinet in the corner, a table, some chairs, and a rug on the floor, the room was completely empty.

“What is this place?” I asked. “I was under the impression it was Forgotten Dawn’s audience chamber, not… a broom closet.”

“It is. The audience chamber, that is. Or, I suppose it’s more of a meeting room. A simple little spot we can use to talk to each other. Nothing so large or ostentatious as the ones we show to outsiders.” She smiled and indicated I should sit; I did, hesitantly. She crossed to the cabinet. “Would you like some wine?”

“No thank you,” I declined graciously. Though with my new metabolism, I could knock back a couple dozen bottles before I started to feel the effects. Outside the window, I caught another peek at the massive construction. “When did the fey have time to build this place, anyway?”

“They’ve been around pretty much since the beginning, you know,” she reminded me. “Since shortly after the angels were formed.” She thought about it. “That’s… what? 1986? So yeah, they’ve had fifteen years or so.”

That still seemed like a lot of work to finish in fifteen years, especially in secret. But I suppose having an army of slaves and a complete lack of morals helped speed the process along nicely.

Regardless, that wasn’t why I had come. “Veda, I’ve got a lot of questions for you.”

My transformed friend nodded as she poured herself some wine. “Understandable.”

“All right, let’s start simple. Why’d you join the fey?”

“I needed a patron, and Delphie needed a rescue,” she said blithely. “It was a simple exchange, and one I was happy to make.” A dark look passed her face, and she took a sip of her wine as she sat down. “Though I’ll admit it was more painful than anticipated.”

“And where is Delphie now?”

“Dead. She did get half her face burned off, after all. Lady Maeve did her best, of course, but it was too little, too late. In addition, the acid was poisonous.”

“If your reason for being here is gone, you should leave.”

“My reason is not gone,” she said. “Weren’t you listening? I was looking for a patron. I was a powerless kemo of a quasi-culture so small we literally did not have a single warlord to our name. I wanted this.” She eyed me over her glass. “As a warlord yourself, I would think you’d understand.”

I sighed. “Fine. You’re ambitious. I get it. Tell me what was up with that Wild Hunt.”

“No.”

I blinked. “No?”

“No,” Veda repeated. “I think, if everything had gone as planned, I would have explained. But with the Composer interrupting and then giving everyone in the city powers…” She sighed. Things are a bit too crazy at the moment.”

“Too crazy to explain for five minutes?” I snapped. “Come on! It can’t be that complicated!”

“It’s not,” she admitted, as she swirled the wine in her glass. “It’s just… with the powers, and whatever happened with that Elizabeth look-alike, and Soaring Eagle fleeing the city, and the colleges, everything is just too jumbled up right now. It’s not that the Wild Hunt is too complicated to explain. It’s just too irrelevant to explain right now. There are simply other things to worry about.”

“Like these colleges you mentioned?”

The fey Prince nodded. “Exactly. You’ve heard of them, I take it?”

I shook my head.

“Oh.” She pulled another glass from somewhere, and poured out some wine for me. “This might take a while.”

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Scene 237 – Interrogatus

INTERROGATUS

SIMON

“How in all Nine Hells did you keep this secret for so long?” I demanded.

Derek rubbed his forehead. “Simon, I’ve got a huge headache right now, and a million things to do. Can we please put this off just for a couple more days? At least until I figure out this thing with Io.”

On the other side of the small Necessarius training room, Pam—Eccretia—was paring her nails at a table, flanked by those guards of hers. “He’s right, Lancaster. He’s got a looong list of problems right now, and you’re pretty low on it.”

I whipped my hand in her direction, as if throwing something at her. Instantly, her head was enveloped in an inky black cloud that blocked her vision, causing her to curse violently and claw at it without success.

Her bodyguards, the pale and dark-skinned golden-haired Domothon and Ferenil, respectively, raised their guns in my direction, slightly bored.

I took the hint and snapped my fingers, dispelling my darkness. The motion had tugged at a few of my scars unpleasantly, so I was already regretting the action. Next to me, Yolanda recognized the look on my face, and put her hand on my shoulder for comfort.

“Childish,” Eccretia snapped, eyes sharp and dangerous. “You should be thankful that I am mature enough not to use my power every time I am annoyed.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, not looking at her. “I’m sorry, all right? I got carried away.” I turned my attention back to Derek. “The point is, why didn’t you tell us you were a Paladin? Fighting to save the city from zombies? What’s there to be ashamed of about that?”

My old friend seemed mildly amused by my antics, but ignored it in favor of the matter at hand. “I wasn’t ashamed, it was just…” He shook his head. “We wanted to retain our normal lives as long as possible. Didn’t want to be recognized everywhere we went.”

“But Aunty Akane said you guys are monster slayers,” Yuudai, the younger of the swordswoman’s two nephews, chirped cheerfully from his spot at another nearby table. Apparently Derek had been watching them practice before I barged in. “Were you ever normal?”

Derek smiled. “We were a little normal.”

I laughed at that. “Buddy, when you were twelve you marched on Rivenheart with Orcus and Dispater. You were never normal.”

His cheeks flushed slightly with embarrassment. “…I was fourteen, actually.”

Eccretia smirked. “There’s nothing wrong with getting a late start.”

Domothon gave her a look. “Not everybody founds a clan at age four.”

Yolanda stared at her. “You were four?

Eccretia just shrugged. “Who knows? I was the size of a four year-old, so that’s the body Clarke gave me. For changelings, our legal ages are pretty much just educated guesses. I was probably already an adult before the fey got a hold of me, but it doesn’t really matter.”

“No,” I said, mostly to myself. I kept letting myself get sidetracked. I pointed my finger at Derek. “Why keep all this a secret? We could have helped you with all sorts of things.”

“I have never taken you into a battle, Simon, and I wouldn’t have started with freaking zombies—”

“Not that. You know, school stuff. Or I could have brokered a deal between the sibriex and the ‘sarians, to work on some sort of cure or whatever.”

“You have read the Necessarians’ statement regarding their conversation with Elizabeth’s sister, right?” Eccretia asked from her corner of the room. “In hindsight, I highly doubt having a few extra hands studying the screamers would have helped.”

“But they didn’t know it at the time,” I snapped back. “And then there’s Seena. Did you know the Mals were plotting to assassinate the retinue? She could have run interference if we were kept in the loop.” Okay, we ran interference anyway, but that required nudging by a fey, which was never an enjoyable process.

Derek sighed. “What do you want me to say? I am sorry. I know it wasn’t the smartest move, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We were trying to keep everyone safe. We didn’t want the Composer targeting people close to us.”

“Well, it turned out the Composer was the girl you had been crushing on for almost ten years—”

“Yes, yes, I know. I said seemed.”

“Well, at least you admit you were wrong.”

“Okay, this has gone on long enough,” Eccretia muttered, standing. “Lancaster, you don’t have a leg to stand on, and you know it. Let’s start with the fact that you found out that there was an attack being planned against the retinue, and didn’t tell anyone. Then there’s your little decision to become a warlord, and how that turned out—”

The older of Akane’s nephews, Yuuki, I think, finally stopped exercising, interrupting the changeling by walking in front of her on his way to the water cooler. “You tried to be a warlord? Is that what happened?”

At the reminder of the failed Balor Reconstruction, I became aware of the pain in my scars, the ache that I normally kept buried in the back of my mind. I ignored the kid—who wasn’t much younger than I was, honestly, and focused on Eccretia. “Excuse me, but what in the Hells are you even doing here? Shouldn’t you be at your domain, I don’t know, hacking or something?”

“I’m here to discuss some things with Akiyama.” At Yuuki’s surprised look, she corrected herself. “Akane Akiyama, sorry. I have some questions about her and her new hire, the baseline she has training these two. He is extremely suspicious, and her employment of him even worse.”

It took me a second to realize precisely what she had just said. “Wait, you’re checking up on her solely for hiring some guy?”

“It’s slightly more complicated than that.”

“No, but seriously, whatever happened to all that personal freedom crap you’re always spewing?”

Yolanda tugged at my arm. “Simon, calm down…”

I ignored her, though a distant part of my brain knew that was a bad idea. “In case you didn’t realize it, Honored Paragon, you are in Necessarius territory. The Necessarius territory. Did you seriously come here to play police state?”

She glared at me. “Please listen to your girlfriend, Honored Devil. This is not your concern. If your sister were here, she’d agree with me.”

When I opened my mouth to retort—loudly—Derek stopped me with just a frown and a quick word.

“Where is Seena, anyway?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 237)

Why do the short ones always take so long?

Scene 236 – Privatus

PRIVATUS

ROBYN JOAN

I walked into the bathroom of the ‘sarian outpost backwards, using my rear to bump open the door so that I didn’t get my dirty hands on everything. It was just soot from reaching into an old chimney where I dropped my phone, but still, I didn’t want to give the cleaning staff any more trouble.

I knew from experience that soot was hard to wash off, especially the greasy kind. I turned on the sink with my elbow, starting washing up, glanced down at my hands—

They were drenched with blood.

I shrieked and jumped back, only to discover that it was just a trick of the light. It was just the soot and water. But just… for a moment there, I thought…

“Having trouble?”

I wheeled around to see Elizabeth Greene, leaning against the door as calmly as if nothing had ever happened, smiling like an old friend, her gold eyes glittering like stars. Her dress was too high-end for a bathroom, even a nice one like this. Black silk had no place—

Wait. Black silk?

“…Miss Silk?” I asked hesitantly.

“Just Silk will do fine, Princess.”

I swallowed anxiously. A dim and stupid part of my brain noticed that the water was still on behind me, but I couldn’t spare the attention to turn it off. “…how do I know it’s really you, and not Elizabeth?”

“She knows the penalties for impersonating me,” the she said blithely. “But on a more immediate note… ” She waved her hand, and the faucet squeaked shut. “That is not a form of kinesis she possesses. Is that sufficient proof of my identity?”

“Not really,” I admitted. “But it will have to do. I don’t really have any other way of testing you.”

She smiled. “True.”

“Well, then let’s get right to the point. Why are you here?”

“To speak to you, of course. Why else?”

Her cheerful bluntness was both unbalancing, and frustratingly vague. “Speak to me about what?

“About anything,” she said. “But let’s start with what’s bothering you right at this moment. You’re still upset over killing the butler demon Steven Nabassu.”

My blood chilled in my veins. “How can you possibly know that?”

“It’s written all over your face,” she said calmly. “I’ve more than a little experience with guilt, both mine and that of other people. I can recognize someone haunted by the wrong kinds of visions.”

I felt a lump in my throat. “Visions?”

“Visions,” she repeated. She eyed my hands, and the sink. “Judging by the way you jumped… the hands drenched with blood one? It’s pretty common. The neurological processes behind it are actually quite interesting—”

“I’m not interested in your ramblings,” I interrupted with a snap. “Will you please leave?”

The woman stopped smiling, and the expression on her face turned sad. “You need help, little Princess.”

“I’m fine.”

“You live in a city of killers, and are having guilt problems with killing. You can’t go to your friends. None of them are going to understand.” She shrugged, her clothes rustling softly on her shoulders. “You could speak to one of your sisters, I suppose. Both are good listeners. But both my cute little monster and that miraculous child have their hands full right now, and you know it.”

I just glared at her. Maybe she’d go away eventually.

She didn’t seem inclined to do so, however, instead just arching an elegant eyebrow at me. I belatedly remembered what she had said about her age. If she was anywhere near as old as she claimed, a few minutes of the silent treatment from me wasn’t going to do much.

“Fine,” I muttered with a sigh. “Whatever. We can talk. Let’s start with this: Why are you so insistent on helping me, anyway? I thought Derek was your favorite.”

Silk smiled wistfully. “Ah, that man… you don’t see heroes like that every day. None of the doubt, none of the moral ambiguity. Just the simple knowledge of what is right, and the courage to do so.” She grinned. “A little bland, perhaps, but ever so useful.”

“Useful,” I noted. “Isn’t that what you called Lizzy?”

She frowned. “Elizabeth is useful like a poison, or an act of arson. The little hero—or you and the rest, for that matter—is useful as an ally.” She shrugged. “A junior partner, admittedly, but still.”

I glanced at the door. Somebody should have come in to interrupt us by now. How much longer was I going to have to listen to this?

Silk sighed again. “Robyn Joan Clarke, I realize I am not exactly your closest friend for understandable reasons. But you do need help.” She waved her hand. “This is my fault. Let’s bring the conversation back to you. Tell me how you felt, killing Nabassu.”

“Red dusk, are we seriously doing this?” I demanded. “A freaking psych-eval in the middle of a Necessarius bathroom? I don’t have time for this sort of thing.” I stepped forward to push past her.

She just shrugged nonchalantly. “If you don’t like the bathroom, we can try somewhere else.” She snapped her fingers—

And suddenly we were in a psychiatrist’s office.

It was a warm, well-furnished office, with a few big leather chairs and a huge leather couch. Paintings of landscapes lines the walls, and the wide picture window showed a vista I didn’t recognize, some beautiful coastline. There was a big oak desk, poorly organized, with a computer monitor and pictures of smiling children scattered on its surface.

“W-what just happened?” I demanded. “Did you teleport me?”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “Less than a minute after I stepped into the bathroom. Right when I turned off the faucet. I used an illusion to keep the appearance of the bathroom so as to not disturb you, but we were about to be interrupted, so it was the only option.”

“W-where are we?”

“Hawai’i. The island of Lāna’i, to be specific. Doctor Iona’s office.”

“Who? Wait, no, we’re where?

“I told you, Hawai’i,” she said again, taking a seat in one of the leather armchairs, already positioned close to the couch. “One of the American states? Please tell me you were paying at least some attention to world geography. Domina is still technically a part of the United States, after all.”

“But, we—how did we—”

“Teleportation. You’re the one who said it first, I assumed you understood how all that worked.” She rested her chin on her hand. “Have you met a teleporter yet? Do I need to give you a more detailed demonstration?”

I shook my head swiftly. I was disoriented enough as it was, I didn’t need to be jumped around the planet a few more times. “No! I mean… no. I just… I was just surprised, that’s all. I wasn’t expecting any of this.”

“What were you expecting? There are hardly any usable offices in Domina City itself.”

That was what she thought I was upset about? The friendly, understanding look on her face nearly made me pull my hair out. “White dawn and red dusk—the location of the office you teleported me to is not the point! I meant that when I walked into the bathroom, I wasn’t expecting a thrice-damned psych-eval!

Silk sipped quietly at her wine. Where in the burning skies did she get wine? “Anything else troubling you?”

“Yes, YOU!” I crushed the empty air, as if wringing her neck in my hands. “You… just come out of nowhere, looking exactly like one of my oldest friends, except she turned out to be evil, so you’re more than a little suspicious, and yet everybody just does what you say!”

She just smiled.

I started pacing. “Lizzy… Lizzy was annoying in her own way. She was a complete idiot, but she was still perfect. So perfect you couldn’t get mad at her for anything, because she wasn’t actually perfect, she was just so pretty and nice it was unreal! Which I guess it was, literally. But you, you’re so smug, and haughty and….” I searched for the word. “Royal. That’s the word I was looking for. Royal. And it is annoying, and you clearly know it is annoying, and you’re just too smug!

“And does that make you feel…” Silk gestured with her glass. “Weak? Impotent?”

“It makes me feel angry! Like I should wipe that smug grin off your face!” I could feel my teeth grinding, and a distant part of my brain filed away the fact that I’d need my teeth fixed again soon. “But that’s the problem! You’re right. You are strong enough to beat me in a fair fight. Maybe in any fight! So yes, I do feel weak, and impotent, and frakking scared!” I threw up my hands. “And that just pisses me off even more!

“Is that how you felt,” she asked quietly. “When you fought Steven Nabassu?”

YES! I—” I realized what I had just said. “No, I mean, I…” I needed to collect my thoughts. “I didn’t… I was just…” I remembered the fight. I remembered being chased by someone stronger, faster, and more experienced than me. I remembered being scared, in a way I had never before in my life. Every other time I had ever been scared, I had always had places to run to. NHQ, Derek and my friends, and with flight, just anywhere at all.

But with Nabassu flying after me, I hadn’t had anywhere to run. There was nowhere I could have gone that he would not follow, and call in an unkillable monster to kill me. I was a rat being chased by a cat, who realized she was being followed into her nest.

Rats get violent when they’re cornered.

I felt my knees give out. I was vaguely aware of something soft under my head as I cried, the numbness I had been building up the last few days washing away all at once like sand on a beach.

And that’s all the numbness was, really. Sand trying to hold back the tide. The fortification holding back my emotions had never had any strength to it; I had just pretended it did so that I didn’t have to deal with what I had done.

I had killed a man.

Brutally. Violently.

Had it been self defense? Most certainly.

Had he deserved it? Maybe. He could easily have been an innocent, brainwashed victim, little different from Derek except in scale.

But it had been a battle, kill or be killed. That was the law of Domina City, and had been for longer than I had been alive.

But I wasn’t like the others. I didn’t grow up on the streets, or an orphanage. I wasn’t like Derek, who had killed three kids when he was in middle school, or like Akane, who followed him into monster slaying shortly after. Not even like Laura, who sat far away from the action and gave tactical advice, or Ling, who at least knew how to kill animals.

I was Robyn Joan Clarke. Isaac’s little princess. The first time I was ever in danger, in real danger, my father had built a castle to protect me. A beautiful fortress, where I could run and play in utter safety.

That was the source of Necessarius Headquarters. A scared little girl and a father with too much power.

After a few minutes, I finally settled down and stood up, pushing away from Silk and the couching, sniffling and wiping my tears.

“This was a good first session,” Silk assured me. I didn’t even look at her. “Very good. Also a good stopping point. I think you need to a few days to mull over everything. How about we do this again, same time next week?”

“Go screw yourself.”

“Good. I’ll see you then.”

I blinked, and suddenly I was back in the bathroom.

In front of me, a woman with bat ears turned around and yelped. “Sorry! You just startled me. Where’d you come from?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 236)

One of the side effects of having Robyn as a background character for so long is that upon being promoted to main status, she needs to get a lot of development rather quickly.

Scene 235 – Gladius

GLADIUS

AKANE

“Sefu,” I said by way of greeting, as I entered the small training hall. “How goes it?”

“Well,” he assured me. He nodded at my nephews, currently balancing on a series of large poles. The poles were about head height, and padded; they were clearly intended to be used as simple punching bags. But he appeared to have found another use for them.

I nodded in appreciation. My father had done something similar. This sort of exercise was a great way to teach the basics of balance and control of your own body. “When will you start making them jump between the poles?” If that stage of the exercise had a formal name, I didn’t know it.

“Soon. They can already do it at speed, but even there they are having trouble. It will be some time before they can do it without their powers.” He glanced away from the boys’ efforts, and frowned at me as if noticing my expression for the first time. “Are you all right? You look… worn.”

Worn. That was a good word. Yesterday, I had discovered Elizabeth had an identical twin sister, lost my sword, sat through a looong interview with her, and then watched her casually remove her sister from our custody, all without being able to raise a hand against her. Yeah. I was worn.

“Yesterday was… an interesting day,” I managed. I was far from comfortable enough with this man to discuss my emotions with him. Sure, I was letting him help train my nephews, but we were in the middle of NHQ. No one in their right mind would hurt children in Butler’s own fortress.

“Morning, Sefu. I got that—oh.”

I turned to see Flynn standing at the entrance of the room, a box under one arm and his sword in the other. He seemed surprised to see me. “Akane. I thought you would still be with Derek, handling the fallout from that… thing with Elizabeth’s sister.”

I just shook my head. “That’s theirs to clean up. I can’t help.” For once, I was happy I had no stake in this. I had a feeling the city was not going to be happy when they found out we had given Silk her sister without a fight. MC and Laura might be able to spin it, but I doubted it.

Flynn placed the small box on the nearby table, next to a small water cooler. “Well, here’s those throwing knives you asked for.”

Intrigued, I walked over and opened the box to discover a large number of small, aerodynamic blades weighted for throwing—but padded, and not sharp.

“Practice knives,” I murmured.

My… employee? Was that what he was? Sefu strode up beside me and nodded. “That’s right. Those will still hurt when they hit, but they won’t kill. Especially if the boys are moving at speed. Good to start with.”

Flynn indicated the large, empty room. “You know Akane, I’m glad I caught you. I was meaning to talk to you about this ever since I met Sefu.”

When did they meet, anyway? Yesterday, when I brought the boys and their teacher back to NHQ? That would have been slightly before Silk’s arrival, I supposed. “What about?”

“This is a pretty big room for just two kids and their teacher,” he began slowly.

I raised an eyebrow. “You trying to move us somewhere smaller?”

“Quite the opposite, actually. I want you to consider taking on more students.”

I glanced at Sefu, but he just shrugged. “This is the first I’m hearing of it.”

“Is there even a particularly large demand for this sort of instruction?” I asked. Swordsmen weren’t exactly common, as he knew well. We weren’t quite rare, but swords were just automatically less useful than guns in most situations.

But Flynn wasn’t about to let it go so easily. “You’d be surprised. There are a decent number of people with varying types of super speed. That makes swords a lot more useful against guns than they were a few days ago. They’re going to need training.”

“We’re getting more students?” Yuudai asked, suddenly standing next to me.

I tousled his hair. “I think two are enough of a handful for now.”

“I understand it’s a big commitment to make,” Flynn said. “But I want you to think about it. Four hundred million people with powers need to be controlled in some way. Training speedsters in how to use their abilities, and what to use them for, could go a long way to keeping the peace.”

Now it was Sefu’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “What, like some sort of power-based culture?”

Flynn shrugged. “Maybe. Call it whatever you want. Just think about it.”

“…I will,” I promised. “If you’ll help me with my problem first.”

“Uh, sure. What problem? Is this about Ling’s attack on the ave lab yesterday?”

Necessarius had found the ruins of the ave lab where they had been keeping Ling yesterday, just minutes before Silk showed up. We weren’t completely certain she had been the one to destroy it, but the fact that every piece of stone and concrete in the lab was ripped and molded like clay to kill everyone in the building was likely beyond anyone else’s abilities. We didn’t find Ling, though, or the toy box.

“No,” I assured him. “It’s about Saki. My niece.”

“You have a niece?” He frowned at Yuuki, who had also sped over in the blink of an eye. “You guys have a sister? I didn’t hear anything about that.”

Yuuki shook his head as he collected some water from the cooler, handing his little brother a cup first. “She’s our cousin. Aunt Murasaki’s daughter.” He glanced at me. “I didn’t know she was still alive, though.”

Yuudai grinned. “We also didn’t know Auntie Akane was still alive, and she’s been running around the city as a famous monster hunter.”

“The point is,” I interrupted before the conversation could get away from me too much. “That MC was finally able to find her. She’s involved with the ferrets, though, and I doubt very much it’s willingly.”

He looked skeptical. “How old is she?”

“Eleven.”

Flynn nodded. “Okay, yeah, I think you have it right. Time for a rescue.” Then he stopped and thought about it. “You don’t need me, though. Talk to Butler. You know how he treats children. He’ll send an army if you ask.”

“We don’t know the circumstances,” I reminded him. “We should at least scout first.”

“All right, I think I can do that,” Flynn said thoughtfully. He looked up as he realized something. “You’ll also need a sword.”

Yuuki looked at me sideways. “Something happened to your sword? I was meaning to ask why you didn’t have it with you.”

I grimaced. “It was destroyed yesterday.”

Yuudai’s eyes went wide. “When the Composer’s lookalike came by?”

With a sigh, I nodded. “Yes. I attacked her, and she… rebuffed me.”

“We can stop by a store on the way,” Flynn suggested.

But I shook my head. “No. I want my next sword to be done right, not just grab a cheap mass-produced one for the sake of convenience. Getting a new one will take at least a few hours—longer, likely, since I’m probably going to get one custom built.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So you’re fine with going into a Nosferatu nest with nothing but your knives?”

“…yes,” I said after a moment’s hesitation. “It’s not preferred, but in theory, we shouldn’t have to even fight anyone.”

“You can use mine,” Sefu offered, picking up a sheathed katana from under the table. He handed it to me, pulling it out of the sheath just a little as he did so, and I could smell the strong scent of new oils. “I just bought it today.”

“I just said I—”

“I know,” he interrupted. “But you can use it for today. Once you’ve rescued your niece, you can look into having one forged brand-new.”

He had a point. Despite my bluster, I would feel far more comfortable fighting hordes of monsters with some kind of sword. I bowed slightly as I took the weapon. “Thank you very much.”
“So,” Flynn said as we headed towards the exit. “Where is this place they’re keeping her, anyway? The Nosferatu domain?”

I nodded. “Near the edge.”

It didn’t take us too long to get to ferret territory. It was only about five to ten miles southeast of NHQ itself. Of course, traffic would have been terrible, so rather than grab a taxi or what have you, we went roof hopping

It was much easier when you had super speed.

I soared through the air, jumping straight across the street without a care in the world. Next to me, Flynn grinned, turned his attention to our landing zone, and suddenly there was a subtle blur about his features as he activated his power to account for the impact.

I waited a moment longer to activate my own speed; I had more experience, and knew to conserve my energy as much as possible. I activated my power about a foot away from the roof, while Flynn did so about twenty away. My reservoir barely had a dip in it, while his was mostly empty.

“Sorry,” he said as the dust cleared. “I think I need to rest.” He grinned. “You’re clearly better at this than me.”

I shrugged with as much modesty as I could muster. “Well. I have had more experience.”

He nodded. “Of course.” He flexed his hand. “I’m still getting used to the mere idea of having a power, let alone learning how to use it effectively.” He looked up, grinning again. “Early on, did you ever use it on accident? You’re just cooking in the dorm kitchen, and then you drop a plate, and suddenly you’re moving at super speed to catch it?”

“Sure, all the time,” I admitted. “But most of that was on purpose. The accidental stuff was when I’d be waiting for a pot to boil, and then I’d realize I was at super speed, as if I somehow thought that would make it go faster.”

He blinked, then laughed. “I think that happened to me, and I didn’t even notice!” He chuckled and shook his head. “The city’s gonna get a lot stranger, before everyone gets a grip on these powers.”

“Give it a few days. Once people have a better idea of what they can do, they’ll start trying to exploit them. Like Sefu, stealing from that store.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He strode up to the edge of the roof. “It’s a good thing we’re doing this now, then. If we waited too long, the ferrets might be better equipped to stop us.”

“They might be anyway,” I warned. “They might not have any single reigning warlord, but they have a lot of mid-power ones like Cinder and Halifax.” We should be able to fight off a few vampires of that level, but we didn’t want to have to.

That was also why we were doing this in the morning. This was effectively the middle of the night for them; only the ones with the absolute strangest schedules would still be awake at this hour. That should make this rescue easy enough.

I joined Flynn at the edge of the roof, nodded at him, and we both slipped until the shadecloth stretched between buildings, and dropped down to the street thirty floors below.

The Nosferatu were clearly surprised by our sudden entrance, but despite their dangerous and inhuman appearances, they were not actually unthinking monsters. They knew better than to just attack anyone strong enough to do something like that.

Good. That would make this easier.

“I am looking for Ileana, a diplomat of the Nictuku,” I explained in a calm, carrying voice. “If anyone knows where she is, or can contact her for me, there is a modest reward.”

I stood there as I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The light leaking in through the edges of the poorly-maintained shadecloths wasn’t much, but it was enough to let me see how many people were around.

The vampires gave us a wide berth, but I could hear them whispering to each other. Ileana was working with Necessarius a lot these days, but she still lived only a few doors from where we landed. According to my sources, she should be here now. Maybe she could have gone off to a restaurant or something, but she wouldn’t be far.

When no one came forward with any information, I nodded to Flynn, and we sauntered off in the near-complete gloom caused by the sunshades far overhead, blocking out even the bright morning light.

Ileana’s apartment wasn’t really anything special, just a small one room, one bath hole in the wall on the third floor of a pretty standard cold gray concrete apartment complex. It was cold this time of year, since the landlord hadn’t spent the effort on heating, but Nosferatu normally had enough toys so they didn’t have to worry about that much.

“You know it’s not going to be as easy as knocking on her door, right?” Flynn asked.

I sighed and nodded. I had more than enough experience with how these things went to know that. Still, if nothing else, we’d be able to find some clues to her whereabouts here. I raised my fist and knocked on the wooden door twice.

It opened immediately.

“Yes?” the woman asked politely as she glanced between us. She was same the pale-skinned vampire I remembered from the bats incident. Her black hair was slightly tousled, but it didn’t seem like we had woken her up. “Is there something I can help you with?”

I just blinked in surprise. It… just seemed too easy.

Ileana turned her attention to Flynn and raised an eyebrow. “…she okay?”

“Uh, yeah. We just didn’t expect you to actually be here.”

“Ah,” she said with a nod. “Thieves. Got it.”

“No—” I began, stepping forward before she could close the door.

I smacked right into the closed door with my face.

I frowned, nursing my injured nose. The door was still open. But I had hit something

Then, before my very eyes, the open door and Ileana both blurred like a mirage, only to be replaced moments later by a very solid and very closed door.

What in Musashi’s name…

“An illusion,” Flynn murmured, running his hand over the door to make sure it was the real thing. “Very clever. I’ve seen a couple, but this is still impressive.”

I glared at him with an unspoken question.

“It’s a power,” he explained. “Ileana’s, I presume. She can make you see things that aren’t there. But she must be close.” He knocked on the door again. “Honored Nightstalker? We’re from Necessarius. We’re not thieves, we promise!” He fished his Beta-level security pass out of his pocket and held it in front of the peep hole. “See?”

After a long moment, the door finally creaked open, revealing a girl very similar to the illusion from moment’s before, only more disheveled and wearing flannel nightclothes. I hesitantly reached out and touched her shoulder to confirm she was real; unless she could fool my sense of touch, she was.

“…sorry about that,” she said nodding mostly in my direction. “I didn’t see you there, Honored Paladin.”

I quirked my head. “You remember me?”

“From the bats? Yes, I do. You were with Huntsman on the front lines, right? You and that Chinese girl.” I tried not to flinch at the reminder of Ling and her disappearance. You learned to deal with these things in Domina City, but still…

There was an awkward pause while I was too caught up in my memories to properly answer, but Flynn stepped in before things could get out of hand. “…can we come in? We just need some minor information about the area, and you seemed like the logical choice.”

Ileana nodded and stepped aside, allowing us into her apartment.

It wasn’t much more impressive inside than out. The walls and floors were built with nothing but the same cold concrete as the rest of the structure. There was a bed in the corner, a rug on the floor, and some posters on the walls, but not much else.

Ileana quickly crossed over to her bed and sat down. There wasn’t anywhere else to sit, so we just remained standing. “Well, what did you need?”

“My niece,” I said swiftly and stiffly, trying to power through the situation by sheer force. “Captive nearby. Held by Cinder’s man. Japanese baseline, eleven years old. Green eyes. You know her?”

“Yes, actually,” she said, seemingly a little taken aback. “You sure she’s captive, though? I mean, I didn’t really interact with her at all, but Ferula knows better than to mess with kids. Especially this close to NHQ.”

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Flynn explained. “Anything you can tell us about the whole situation would be most appreciated.”

Ileana scratched her chin. “Well, Ferula isn’t really too powerful. He controls pretty much just this one block, and there’s nothing here really worth controlling. He was fighting Necessarius—just basic territory disputes, barely even any death—for the last year or so, but then Hearing moved away.”

“Hearing?” I asked.

“Ryan Hearing. The highest ranking ‘sarian on the block. Nothing really impressive, but good in a fight. Ferula liked sparring with him. After Hearing left the city for some inheritance thing in New York, Ferula didn’t really know what to do.”

Flynn was skeptical. “So, what, he kidnapped a child to get the attention of the Necessarians again? Just to play around? I have a hard time believing anyone could be that stupid.”

“Look, I don’t know,” Ileana insisted. “I just stopped by a week or so ago to talk to him about the blood bank on the corner, and I spotted a little Asian girl with really bright green eyes.” She turned her attention to me. “Really bright. They a cosmo? At her age, it seems odd.”

I smiled thinly. “Natural. From her mother.”

“Huh. Okay, well, the point is that the girl didn’t seem restrained, and Ferula didn’t try to keep me from seeing her or anything. If she’s in a cage, it’s a gilded one.” She stopped and thought about it. “…well. Relatively speaking. Nothing that man owns can be called gilded.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Ferula himself looks mostly normal, like Cinder,” she cautioned. “But he likes poison, and he’s got lots of sharp teeth and a jaw like a steel vise. If you fight him, stay out of arm’s reach as much as possible.” Her eyes lingered on our swords. “…relatively speaking.”

“Guns?”

“They have an armory, but he and his guards will use their claws and teeth as much as possible.”

“How many?”

“Guards? Two dozen, max.”

I snorted. I could kill two dozen guards by myself. “Thanks.” I turned to go.

Flynn grabbed my arm before I could go two steps. “Not quite.” He turned back to the girl perched on her bed. “What’s his power?”

Oh. Right. That was something we had to worry about now. Yeah, that was going to take getting used to. I had spent the last few months as the biggest kid on the block, with an ability that almost no one else in the world had. That was all gone now.

“…it’s complicated,” Ileana answered slowly. “I don’t know what Clarke would call it. But Ferula has been referring to it as vampirism. The ability to consume blood and turn it directly into strength.”

That was a new one.

“I don’t really know how it works. All I know is that when he drinks blood, he can move insanely fast, faster than some people with super speed. And he gets tough and strong, too.” She shrugged. “Not sure what else to tell you. But a good number of vampires have a power like it, at least among the Nosferatu.”

Flynn rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, that one is gonna be fun to deal with. Well, if we’re lucky, we can manage to come to a diplomatic solution.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “That means no drawing your sword until things go south.”

“Inevitable,” I noted. Neither of us were diplomats. Flynn was better than me, but that really wasn’t saying much.

Ileana pushed herself off her bed. “Then let me come with you.”

I just stared at her.

“You know it’s a good idea,” she insisted. “Think about it. I’m a trained Nosferatu diplomat, with experience with the vampire in question. If you go in there, it’s going to be a bloodbath. And not the good kind.”

Only a vampire could reference the ‘good kind’ of bloodbath with a straight face. “…fine. But Saki is priority one.”

My companion nodded. “If something goes wrong, grab the girl and hide. Can you use your illusions to become invisible?”

She shrugged a little uncomfortably. “Not really, but I can make something to hide behind.”

“Good. Do that. Obviously, if everything goes according to plan, it won’t come to that, but…”

“Things never go according to plan,” I finished, as I turned for the door.

I heard the swordsman sigh behind me. “Ain’t that the truth.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 235)

Consumption (the power that Ferula calls vampirism) can work using a variety of different substances to consume, just like how kinetics can move a variety of different materials. Vampires just tend towards blood, for obvious reasons. As a (very) rough rule of thumb, the more rare and difficult it is to obtain the substance in question, the more power the consumer gains from it. So blood-consumers gain more power than water-consumers, flesh-consumers gain more power than blood, and gold consumers gain more power than flesh.