Monthly Archives: November 2015

Scene 243 – Tutus

TUTUS

DEREK

After a long discussion with Butler about what Io’s son was up to, Laura stayed behind to talk about the sewers, and how the disappearance of Obox-ob, the ekolid warlord, would affect the city’s plumbing. I couldn’t exactly contribute to that conversation, so I took a walk.

A few quick questions to the ‘sarian guards told me what I wanted to know, and it only took a few minutes to find the place I was looking for.

The prison.

I had never seen a prison before. Domina didn’t have any, in the same way oceans didn’t have baths. The entire city had been designed as a prison, and in many ways it still was one. Sure, ever since the screamers had appeared, Butler had been forced to create a large number of temporary holding cells, but those were more like cages for animals than anything. Regardless, I had tried to avoid those anyway.

Since this was a Necessarian prison, it was clean and orderly, with guards carefully placed where they could keep an eye on the prisoners, the entrances, and each other. Alarms and intercoms were always within arm’s reach, and cameras watched every inch, occasionally with gun turrets for muscle.

There was a small corner that acted as a waiting room, which had a pair of posters: One contained pictures of every single guard working here, and the other all the prisoners. If anyone tried to impersonate a guard or escape, they would have a hard time of it.

It felt like overkill, considering that there were only fourteen prisoners, but when you stopped and thought about it, the two hundred cells Butler had managed to put together on short notice would probably be filled very quickly. At our current rate, we had seven new prisoners per day. I had a feeling that rate was only going to increase.

“Honored Paragon,” the guard at the information desk greeted me, even making the effort to stand up and salute me through the bulletproof glass. “It’s a pleasure. You can go right in; no need to sign the book.”

I smiled and pulled the pen and pad towards me. “Nice trick. If I was an impostor, do you really think that would work?”

She shrugged. “Eh, maybe. We’ve got other ways of verifying your identity, anyway.” As she spoke, I followed the instructions on the pad and allowed it to scan my hand for fingerprints. “You know how it is.”

“I do,” I admitted as I finished the process. There were almost certainly a few more besides the fingerprint and signature that I couldn’t see. Thermal imagers in the walls, perhaps, maybe even some sort of X-ray backscatter device. “Where are the power suppressors?” They required line of sight, but I didn’t see them anywhere.

“You mean the silencers?” She grinned, and pointed up. I frowned and followed where she indicated, squinting, but didn’t see anything besides the lights in the ceiling. “They’re in the lights. Each individual emitter is pretty small, but altogether they work fine, and they’re easier to hide. Try it.”

I did as she suggested, attempting to use my power, but it didn’t work. Well, no, that wasn’t quite right. I could feel something happening, and could still sense my reservoir and everything, but I couldn’t conjure any shields, and my reservoir remained full.

I shrugged. “I guess I’ll just have to take your word on it.” I headed off, before stopping and stepping back to the counter. “The suppressors—silencers—are on a different circuit than the lights, right?”

She nodded. “They have their own power supply. With an individual backup for each that can last up to six hours.”

“Good. And who has the key to turn them off?”

“No one. They don’t turn off.”

That might be a problem when they needed maintenance, but until then it certainly sounded clever enough. “Thank you. Tell Clarke I’m impressed with his security arrangements.” I thought about it. “I mean, the Big Boss.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Vovk is the one in charge of the prison.”

That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Well, then pass my compliments on to him.”

Another nod, and I headed in.

Finding the cell in question wasn’t hard. In addition to being one of the only ones occupied, it was the only one with a visitor. Or rather, four visitors. Akane, Flynn, and her nephews Yuuki and Yuudai. I was still having a little bit of trouble remembering which name went to which.

The boys didn’t have any swords, and I was surprised to find that Akane had one. Her previous one, the one I’d bought her years ago, had been destroyed by Silk, and she still hadn’t gotten around to replacing it. Or I thought she hadn’t, anyway.

She turned as she heard me coming, the blue ribbon in her hair briefly getting caught on her shoulder. She fixed it without even noticing. “Derek. What are you doing here? You should be with Laura.”

“They started talking about sewers, so I left.” I stepped up to the cell. “Hello, Saki.”

She looked so much like Akane. The same shape of the face, the same tint of the skin. Even her annoyed glare was the same, her eyes tilted at just the right angle. Akane had said she looked like her mother, Murasaki, but I had never met any of Akane’s sisters, so I couldn’t make the distinction.

She didn’t say a word, just sat on her cot, knees pulled up to her chest, glaring at me like I had done her some personal disservice. The prison uniform that had been provided for her sat in a carefully folded pile on the floor. She was still wearing some ratty street clothes, dirty jeans and a tattered brown shirt with some faded band name scrawled across the front.

The cell itself was immaculate, with the exception of a few pieces of trash that probably represented things they had tried to give her, and that she had refused to take. The place simply hadn’t been occupied for long enough to become dirtied.

“How long has she been like this?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the girl. Everything I knew about the Akiyamas told me that she would be planning her escape. The question was, could she escape without her power? She didn’t appear to have the training necessary to slip through the bars or subdue the guards.

“Ever since she woke up,” Flynn said quietly, likely hoping she wouldn’t be able to overhear. “Akane and the boys have been trying to reach out to her, but she’s not responding. It seems like she still suspects it’s all some trick, and they’re not actually related.”

I frowned. “That makes no sense. Why would anyone go to such lengths to pretend to be her family?”

“She’s been on the street for her entire life,” he reminded me. “I’m not sure why her grandparents didn’t adopt her when her mother died, but I guess that could give you a pretty strong trust issues.”

That made me wonder. “Who raised her, then? If she was born in NHQ, she should have gone to one of Mary Christina’s orphanages. But if it were that simple, it wouldn’t have taken Akane so long to find her…”

Akane turned away from the cell and led us a few steps away, where we could talk in private, while Yuuki and Yuudai continued to try and reach their cousin. “She was sent to one of Zaphkiel’s orphanages in West Middle. Parents never told me why, and I’m not going to ask my mother.”

“Where in West Middle?”

“East of Maladomini, west of the Troll Bridge. But it burned down a year after she was moved there, anyway. That’s why it took so long to find her. No one was even sure if she had survived for the longest time.”

I peered back at Saki, who hadn’t moved an inch, and was eyeing her cousins with wary disdain. Even in this city, it seemed extreme that an eleven year-old could be so world-weary. It left a sick pit in my stomach, like a bad joke.

“Well,” I muttered. “She has to talk sometime.”

“Not really,” Flynn noted. “She’s mute.”

My head snapped in his direction. “Why didn’t you mention it? We can get Clarke in here—”

“It’s not physical,” Akane interrupted tiredly. She sounded like she had already had this conversation. With Clarke, most likely. “It’s the price of her power. She’s extremely strong—probably as strong as us, if not stronger—after only a day and change, but she can’t speak. At all.”

“Baftis says she thinks she might not be able to write, either,” Flynn noted. “She certainly won’t.” For the first time, I noticed a few pens and papers scattered around the small cell. “But obviously, that’s a lot easier to just fake.”

“I don’t know a Baftis.”

“The Mal’s only scientist,” Akane grunted.

“Noble Nyashk lent her to us as a show of cooperation,” Flynn elaborated. “She’s proven very adept at puzzling out the way the powers work. Clarke loves her.”

“Clarke loves everyone,” I noted. Or he pretended to, anyway. It was hard to tell how much of his personality was part of his ‘affable mad scientist’ act. I also made a mental note to thank Seena for the help. “But I’m guessing you’re impressed with her, too?”

Flynn nodded. “She’s been working on classifying the powers. Right now she’s got an interesting theory that the stoneshaping power that Ling had is actually the same as Robyn’s flight. Two different types of kinesis, controlling things, just with vastly different applications.”

“That seems like a stretch. If you’re going to define things that broadly, then maybe you and Akane are also the same. After all, you’re just controlling speed, right?”

Flynn shrugged. “I don’t know. But it goes with how everyone is describing how their powers feel. The speedsters all seem to feel the same as each other, while the kineticists—including Robyn Joan—are something else.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The speedsters all feel the same? It’s just you and Akane, right?”

“And—”

I whacked myself on the forehead. “And Yuuki and Yuudai, of course. Completely forgot.”

“And Sefu,” Akane noted.

It took me a second to realize who she was talking about. “You mean… that thief you caught?” I glanced around the small prison. “Isn’t he here somewhere? I remember you said something about the ‘sarians coming to get him…”

“No. I paid off his debt and hired him.”

“Oh.” I frowned. I knew she had a decent amount of money—I was the one paying her, after all—but she never really went out of her way to spend any of it. “All right. What are you having him do, anyway?”

She shrugged. “Remember that courier job you gave to me this morning?”

“Yeah, it was just delivering a letter, but—” I stopped as I realized the implications. “Wait, you gave that job to a thief? That’s crazy! He’s completely untested, we have no guarantees of his loyalty, and—”

“And he performed perfectly,” she interrupted calmly. “No problems.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Akane, you can’t… just hand something off to some random guy without any supervision. What if he had decided to take the package and run? Or gotten stopped by the ‘sarians, or—”

“It was a minimal-security operation,” she reminded me dourly. “It was just delivering a love letter from a paranoid idiot. Sefu had no reason to steal it, and no one else had any reason to stop him. You need to learn to trust a little.”

“Quite right,” a cheerful voice declared.

I turned to see my mother and Victor Medina, Laura’s father, walking over and smiling. Victor ruffled Yuudai’s hair as he passed; the boy brushed him off with a grin. Apparently, they had already met.

My mom gave me a quick hug. “Oh, it’s been too long, dearest. I think it’s been… a week? A very long week.”

I swallowed nervously. I… hadn’t seen them since capturing Elizabeth. Capturing her during the fey’s little Wild Hunt, that is. We had left the city without saying goodbye, or telling them what was going on, or anything of the sort. Sure, they were old friends with Butler, so they probably had a better idea of what was going on than I did, but still.

She released me before pulling Akane into another hug. She kept her eyes on me, though. “Seriously Derek, you make us worry too much. Akane was kind enough to bring her nephews over, and you couldn’t find time in your schedule to do the same?”

I sighed, and decided to dodge the question. “I don’t have any nephews, mom.”

Maria Huntsman ignored me, instead looking Akane up and down with a critical gaze. She clicked her tongue. “Silver moon and golden sun, you still look like a damned skeleton. You haven’t been eating enough. Derek, you’ve been pushing this girl too hard!”

I rubbed my forehead. “It’s been a very long week…”

“We should go to Veronica’s,” Victor suggested. “I think she needs help with the re-building, anyway. Apparently they did a lot of damage during the Rampage.”

That was a name I had heard bandied about for the MEE, for people who thought acronyms were silly. At least they hadn’t insisted on choosing a Latin word.

“Fine,” I said, though I wasn’t really in the mood. It was important to spend time with your parents. Everyone in this city knew that very well. “Akane, Flynn, you guys coming?”

They both nodded.

Yuuki, the older brother, looked at my mother, wide-eyed with faked innocence. “Can we come too?”

If she noticed that it was faked, she didn’t mention it. She just smiled and patted him on the head. “Of course! You two haven’t met Veronica or Obould yet, have you? It will be good for you. They’re nice people, with good food.”

As we turned to go, Yuudai, the younger brother lingered at Saki’s cell for a brief moment. “We’ll bring you back something, okay?”

His cousin just glared at him.

Behind the Scenes (scene 243)

The “curse” that Saki is under is not uncommon, just more obvious than most. Taking a penalty to increase your power (officially referred to as a “discord,” but no one in the city is aware of that term) is something that happens to pretty much everyone. For example, Derek has the power to create force fields, and technically could create the blades or knives Elizabeth used. However, his discord means his talent is limited to shields, which also means they are far more powerful than they would be if he tried to be capable of everything.

You’ll see other, stranger discords like Saki’s soon. A pyro who needs a wand to channel his power, a hydro who can’t manipulate water while dry, a shifter who automatically changes form based on light level. There are all sorts of drawbacks like which help turn the powers into something more unique than the stock ones we’ve been seeing so far.

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Scene 242 – Collegium

COLLEGIUM

LAURA

“We really should have seen this coming.”

Butler dropped a pad on the desk and resumed pacing. Silver and gold, I was never going to get used to that. “Yes, well, we didn’t. We’ll have to figure out how to move from here.”

“I think you two might be overreacting,” Derek said from his own chair in front of Butler’s desk. “Why can’t we just leave well enough alone and see what happens? It worked out fine last time.”

I rubbed my forehead. “…Derek, we currently have groups of people with similar powers banding together and forming gangs to fight each other. You should remember the last time gangs had a hold in this city. It took years to crush them. The Rahabs are still around.”

“It’s better to strike quickly,” Butler agreed. “Rip out the weed by the roots before it has a chance to get too established.”

Derek shook his head. “No, no, you guys are are looking at this wrong. They’re not like the gangs, they’re like the cultures. Groups of people with similar interests banding together for the common good.”

“You choose to be a part of a culture,” I reminded him. “Don’t want to be a demon? Pull off the horns and get some nighteyes. These, these… ” I searched for a word to describe them. “…colleges aren’t the same. They’re more like the old gangs, split along racial lines.”

“Okay, so they’re not cultures. But they’re not gangs, either. They’re just… people.” He turned to Butler pleadingly. “There’s no need for this to turn to violence, especially so quickly. If you treat them peacefully from the start, it will go a long way.”

The Big Boss sighed. “Fine. You have a point. I will give them a chance to prove themselves reliable and safe enough, rather than just bands of criminals. But I suspect you will be disappointed.” He started shuffling through the pads on his desk. “For now, let’s get a better idea of what we’re dealing with. Where’s that list?”

I pulled out my own pad and paged through it. “Here. There aren’t too many, as is to be expected.” It had only been a day, after all. “The Kytons control metal and prefer chains. A demon named Vucarik is leading them.”

Derek looked up. “Isn’t Vucarik the guy who lasted a couple hours deaf during the MEE? He was fighting against the entire city of zombies, and he survived longer than expected.”

I nodded. “Yes, but you’re missing something important. He didn’t just survive, he was actively fighting against them. Cut through them all like so much wheat. Judging by the cameras, he only got turned when he had the bad luck to get hit by some blood.”

“Other than that, not much is known about him,” Butler rumbled. “Mary Christina is looking into it. He will either be a valuable ally, or a blood-crazed psychopath.”

We all knew which one he thought was more likely.

“Anyway, what else?” Derek asked as he leaned over my shoulder to read the list. I tried very hard to ignore his close proximity, but it was more difficult that I would like to admit. “…Lilitu? Lilith started one of these college things?”

“Of course not,” I snapped, more angry at myself for my reaction to his closeness than anything he’d actually done. “The word means roughly ‘female spirit.’ They have the ability to turn incorporeal for a time. And they are all women.”

He leaned back, clearly a bit confused at my unexpected aggression, but he didn’t say anything about it. “…right, okay, I guess that makes sense. They have a leader, or are they like the Nosferatu and so on?”

“They likely have a leader somewhere,” Butler said. “But for now, we don’t know who that might be. She will be a top priority once she reveals herself. With their powers, these Lilitu could be more dangerous than Elizabeth in some ways.”

Derek chuckled mirthlessly. “I doubt that. But I see your point. For the time being, we need to just take advantage of what Silk has given us.”

“The anti-power device?”

“Elizabeth’s absence.” He shook his head, smiling. “Can you imagine how difficult this would be if we still had her running around attacking people?” He frowned. “Actually, we probably should have asked how long she’d be gone.”

“Long enough, I’m guessing,” I said, thinking back on the annoyingly helpful woman. “I have a feeling Elizabeth will find her way back here a few days after we have everything stabilized. It seems like the sort of thing Silk would do.”

Derek shrugged. “Probably. It’s hard to tell. For now, our only choice is to do our best.” He poked at my pad, though he couldn’t read it from his current angle. “What’s this last one? We only have three of these colleges to worry about right now, we should know as much as possible about all of them.”

I frowned and shook my head. “I haven’t the slightest idea. They were actually the first… college, but I don’t know anything about them.” I thought about it and shrugged. “Though, in fairness, they were only founded about four hours before the others.”

“Well, considering the timeline…” Derek trailed off with a smirk.

I rolled my eyes at the poor joke. “Anyway. As I said, we currently don’t know anything about these ones. We don’t know their powers, their organization, or their goals. All we know is that they call themselves Gravers. Their leader is a complete enigma.”

“Does the leader have a name?” Derek pressed.

Butler, having finally found his own pad, answered. “Grave.”

“Well, that sounds promising,” Derek muttered darkly. “No one ever calls themselves the Giver or Light or Life or whatever.”

“Actually, one of Lady Titania’s titles is the Lady of Light and Life.”

He rubbed his forehead. “She’s the… Summer Queen, right?”

I nodded. “The Queen of Earth and Light, the Matron Titania.”

“Wonderful.” He glared at Butler. “And you let them become an official culture.”

The lord of Necessarius weathered the glare without flinching. He had survived worse.

Derek sighed. “Whatever. There’s not much anyone can do but wait and see.” He pulled out his own pad. “For now, I’m more worried about Io.”

“Wait,” I interrupted with a frown. “I heard he died. Yesterday, was it?”

“Yeah. But his children—”

He was interrupted by the door slamming open.

“Sir!” a kemo in the armor of the CS squad said to Butler by way of greeting. His silencer, as people were calling the anti-power device, was on, and another two of his squad members were following close behind. “We have a bit of a situation.”

Butler raised an eyebrow. I noticed that he was leaning a bit on his desk. Due to the way his power worked, the silencers wouldn’t instantaneously revert the enhancements he made to his body to defeat his many physical maladies, but he would still notice their effect.

“This better be important,” he rumbled.

“It is,” the ‘sarian guard promised. He nodded to one of the others, and the door was opened again. This time, Akane and Flynn came in. Akane had a small Asian girl asleep in her arms. her face was even more unreadable than ever.

“A child?” Butler murmured, brow furrowed. “Explain.”

“Niece,” Akane muttered, before falling silent again.

Flynn continued for her. “This is Akane’s niece, Saki Akiyama. She has a very dangerous power that allows her to charm most people she comes in contact with. She needs to be contained until she learns she can’t use this on everyone she meets.”

“…you want to know where the silenced cells are?” I asked. “They should be in the new wing. Look for the signs of construction. Or better yet, ask someone. Pretty much anyone who works here will know where it is.”

Flynn blinked at me. “Laura? And Derek? What are you doing here?”

He had only just noticed? Well, Butler did tend to dominate the room. “I’m helping advise on a variety of different topics as a general consultant,” I explained. “Derek wandered in while looking for snacks.”

Derek rolled his eyes. “You’re a jerk.” He turned to Flynn. “I’m sure you had a better reason for being here—especially bringing a dangerous power into the heart of NHQ—than to ask a question any random worker could have told you the answer to.”

“They need permission.”

Everyone turned to the Big Boss, who had rumbled like a mountain.

“They are planning to put a child into a small, uncomfortable cell, where she will be guarded day and night for an indefinite period of time,” he continued. “They needed to make sure I wouldn’t have them shot.”

Flynn inclined his head. “Your attitudes toward children are well-known, sir.”

Butler sighed and turned away, looking at the wall. “These powers are still barely more than a day old, and our society has not had time to adjust. We have no laws in place to counter them, no rules on how long we may hold someone with a dangerous power.” He shook his head. “If we are not careful, we could end up with more filled cells than when the screamers were running around.”

“There might be an alternative,” I said. “Clarke is working on a variant of the silencer device that can be worn on the wrist, and will enable us to lock down one person’s power without affecting those around them. If we just—”

Butler raised a hand for silence, and my mouth clicked shut mid sentence.

“That is good news,” he admitted to the quiet room, still not looking at anyone. “And it bodes very well for the future. But as of this moment, that is simply not an option. We have to make do.” He finally turned to face his men, as well as Akane. “Put her away. Make her as comfortable as possible, then write up a report. I want one from each of you, as detailed as possible. I need to know what we’re dealing with here.”

The squad filed out slowly. Akane bowed deeply—careful not to drop the girl in her arms—before following them.

“Are you sure that was a good idea?” I asked in a warning tone.

“There was no other choice,” Butler noted. “Especially since the girl was awake the entire time, just waiting for an opening. Combined with what your Akane said, she is clearly too dangerous to leave wandering around right now.”

Derek smirked. “Akane didn’t say much.”

Butler waved his hand. “What Flynn said. Irrelevant.”

Derek turned serious again. “It’s unfortunate that she had to handle this herself, though. I realize no one expected things to turn out this way going in, but it would have been nice if Flynn could have handled it alone.”

“Or even her nephews,” I mused. “She treats them like kids, but they are almost as old as she is. And they have the same power.”

He nodded. “That’s definitely interesting.”

Very.” I turned my attention back to Butler, who was standing strong again now that the silencers had left the room. I wondered how much of his apparent weakness had been psychosomatic, or even an act. “Which is why we need to get a census done as soon as possible. Figure out how the powers relate to families and so on.”

“Agreed,” the man said with a nod. “I have Mary Christina performing an internal one of Necessarius as we speak. But that will take at least a few more hours, more likely days.” He tapped one of his pads. “For now, I’d like to talk more about Io, and his dragons.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 242)

Spoiler alert: Those devices Clarke is working on will become relevant later.

Scene 241 – Comburo

COMBURO

AKANE

I shuffled on my feet as Ileana pounded on the door to the vampire’s home, adjusting my borrowed sword. “Bad idea.”

The Nosferatu diplomat sighed. “Honored Paladin, please. This is going to be difficult enough without you sabotaging my efforts.”

“Should just go through the window. Surprise attack.”

“And if your niece isn’t a prisoner?” she demanded. “You’d be killing everyone who’s protecting her. Necessarius would come down on you hard for that, your status in the city non-withstanding.”

“Quiet,” Flynn, on Ileana’s other side, recommended sharply. “Someone’s coming.”

The door opened, squeaking unnecessarily like some cheap horror movie house. Judging by the way the hunchbacked Nosferatu peered out from behind the door, he had been watching far too many of those movies.

Hello?” the servant who thought himself as an Igor rasped in a low and dangerous voice. “Do you people… need anything?”

“Victor, it’s me,” Ileana said. “Go get Ferula. I’ve got two ‘sarian paladins who wants to talk to him.” She thought for a moment. “Actually, I guess he’d probably prefer us to come to him. Whatever you want.”

The man behind the door hissed. I was surprised to notice that his eyes appeared to be baseline, rather than nighteyes. “My name is Renfield—”

Our guide sighed. “For crying out loud man, Victor is a perfectly good vampire name.”

“Wouldn’t it be spelled with a ‘k’ in Romanian, though?” Flynn asked.

“That’s Russian,” I said. And a few other languages, but Russian was the obvious one.

‘Renfield’ scowled. “Fine.” He stepped aside, allowing us to pass through the doorway unhindered. “But the master is busy at the moment. You will have to wait in the hall.”

The interior of the house was about what I expected: Dark, gloomy, with lots of dust and grime everywhere and old paintings and banners lining the walls. It looked like no one had lived here for years, if not decades, which of course was the point. Everything here was probably only a few months old at the most, but there was a thriving business catering to vampires who preferred their domains to look suitably spooky.

“The master will be along shortly,” the hunchbacked man scowled as he left us, closing a pair of wide double doors behind him with a slam.

I glanced around the small waiting room. There was no food, which was not unexpected. It didn’t mix well with the ambiance, or more pointedly the dust floating everywhere. “Ileana. Dangerous?”

She shook her head. “I’ve been here before. Victor is annoying, but he does his job well. This is a genuine waiting room, not some sort of killing chamber.” She didn’t say it, but we all knew that if it did turn out to be a deathtrap, Flynn and I should be able to break out pretty easily. The walls likely had ears, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to mention that aloud.

“What about this Ferula character?” Flynn asked as he observed a vaguely disquieting portrait. It took me a moment to realize that the man in the painting appeared to be dead. “His rank, his personality? I know ferrets don’t have an actual organization, but there’s a rough hierarchy.”

“He’s not a Noble, if that’s what you’re asking,” Ileana began. “But he’s a pretty high-ranking nightstalker, so be polite. And then there’s his power, which I already mentioned.” She had implied he’d be able to keep up with us in speed. Again, she didn’t say that aloud, and it wasn’t time to ask more questions on that subject.

Before we could ask any other questions, the man himself barged into the room.

He was tall and slender, as was the norm with vampires, with pale skin and straight black hair dipping a few inches down below his shoulder blades. His clothes, likewise, were bog-standard, including a high collar and a long flowing cloak.

Despite being a walking vampire cliché, he actually seemed genuinely happy to see us, smiling broadly as though we were old friends. “Welcome, welcome to my humble abode! Apologies for the rudeness.” He took my hand and kissed it as he bowed. “You would be Dame Akiyama, correct? A pleasure.”

“Not dame,” I managed. “Not a warlord. Just a paladin.”

He straightened, and nodded. “Yes, of course. Apologies, Honored Paladin. I’ve only had a few moments to dig up some basic information on you. For example…” He turned to Flynn and inclined his head. “I don’t know who this is.”

“Flynn,” he grunted by way of greeting, an expression I couldn’t read on his face. “Charmed.”

Ferula nodded again. “Likewise.” He turned back to me, black nighteyes twinkling. “Now, Miss Akiyama. I take it you are here for the girl? Saki Akiyama?”

“Yes,” I admitted, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Ileana looked very confused by this whole exchange. I wasn’t sure if that was a bad thing. “Are you going to make an issue of her safe return?”

The vampire shook his head. “Far from it. I found her several weeks ago, in the destroyed remnants of her orphanage. We still don’t know what happened. She doesn’t talk, and I was only able to coax out her name yesterday. I take it you are related to her.” He looked me up and down. “Sister, perhaps?”

“Niece. She’s mine. My eldest sister’s daughter.”

He nodded. “Of course, of course. And what was her mother’s name?”

“Murasaki.”

“Renfield,” Ferula ordered sharply without turning around. “Look up Murasaki Akiyama and her relation to Miss Akane.” As the servant left, our host bowed deeply. “I apologize for the precautions. But the safety of the child is the top priority.”

“I would accept nothing less,” I said evenly.

Before we could exchange any more pleasantries—forced or otherwise—Renfield burst back into the room. “Master Ferula! The girl is gone, and the window broken in! She must have been kidnapped!”

“What do you mean, kidnapped?” I demanded. I glared at the lord of the manor. “I thought she was here.”

“She was!” he insisted, apparently genuinely shocked. This was exactly where Laura would have been useful, in more ways than one. “Five minutes ago! Renfield! Call the guards, have them secure the exits.”

As the little hunchback ran off to perform his master’s bidding, Ileana raised an eyebrow at Ferula. “What guards? Unless you mean those two idiots with the claws who you somehow managed to coax into suits.”

He sighed. “Yes, I mean those two. They’re idiots, but they’re good men, with enough toys to take down vampires twice their size. It shouldn’t be too hard to—”

Renfield burst into the room.

“Bloody dusk, man!” his boss snapped. “You’re going to damage the doors if you keep doing that, and it’s coming out of your paycheck!”

“Sir, I figured out what happened!” he cried. “I checked the security footage while I waited for the guards to respond. They’re the ones who took the girl!”

This was getting out of hand very fast. “Tell me where they are.”

Renfield looked hesitant. “Well, uh, I’m not sure if they’re there now, but they have an apartment just a street to the north. Red Oaks apartment, number fifty four. But I’m sure they’re probably—”

Then Flynn and I were gone.

Luckily, we’re good at fast.

We were out the door, up the walls, and landing on the street in front of the apartment in question before Renfield could even finish speaking. As he was saying, our chances of finding the kidnappers at home were low, but we might get lucky and find some clues. Either way, it was our best lead.

Flynn and I burst through the door, and unlike what Ferula’s servant had done, we did so literally, sending wood splinters flying everywhere as we shattered it like so much kindling in a woodchipper. We didn’t even need our speed. When you’re a melee combatant in a world of guns, you learn to make a dynamic entrance to enhance an ambush.

The apartment was small, with just a bedroom/living room, a partitioned off kitchen area, and a door presumably leading to a bathroom. It was also reasonably clean for the home of two bachelors, with only a few clothes scattered around both beds.

The bachelors in question hissed, monstrous faces expanding to reveal fangs and all sorts of other unsavory things, baring the massive claws that Ileana had referenced just moments ago. They were longer than my knives.

They were clearly hostile, and the girl sitting on the floor in the center of the room too tempting for them to take hostage. We didn’t have time for diplomacy.

A split second later, I replaced my sword in its sheath, and the ferret behind me collapsed to the floor in a dull whumph. Flynn’s target followed suit a few moments later, his missing a hand as well as a head. He wiped down his knife. I still had his sword.

The girl shivering on the floor was about what I had expected, considering her mother. She was a skinny Asian girl, appearing slightly older than her eleven years of age, with her black hair bound into a long braid that went down to her waist. Her eyes were wide and fearful.

“It’s okay,” I whispered gently, kneeling down in front of her. “Saki, right?” A hesitant nod. “I’m Akane Akiyama. Murasaki’s sister. I’m your aunt. Did your mom ever tell you about me?” A violent shake of the head, and I felt my expression darken. “Oh, right… she died in childbirth. I’m sorry, I…” I sighed, and patted my niece gently on the head. “We’re gonna get you out of here safe and sound, I promise.”

“A-Akane?”

I turned, surprised, to see Ileana standing at the entrance, leaning against the door frame and breathing heavily. “Did you run here?”

“Yeah, I… whoo.” She gasped in great lungfuls of air. “Wow, I need to exercise more. Or… ah… you know, upgrade some of my toys.” She finally got a handle on herself. “Anyway. This is the girl, I take it?”

I nodded. “She’s definitely Saki. I’d know here anywhere.”

The Nosferatu diplomat raised an eyebrow. “I thought you never met her.”

“She looks just like her mother.”

Ileana looked like she was going to argue, but shrugged. “Fine, whatever. I’m just glad we could take care of this relatively easily.” She frowned at the corpses on the ground. “Still confused as to what in the dark happened, though.”

“There’s a long and unpleasant list of reasons someone might try to kidnap a child,” Flynn noted as he wiped down his sword. “Even this close to NHQ, the Nessians have a presence. I don’t need to elaborate on that.”

I nodded, silently thanking him for not doing so in front of Saki, at her age.

“But these two were good men,” Ileana insisted. “Idiots, but well meaning ones. Jumping from ‘Hey bro, let’s see what happens when we stick our claws in the outlet’ to ‘kidnapping a child and selling her to the Nessians’ is a pretty big leap.”

“Quiet,” Flynn snapped. “You’re going to upset her. All the details are things we can worry about later. For now, the safety of the child is the top priority.”

Ileana gave him an odd look, then turned to me, still frowning. “Honored Paladin, please humor me. Would you mind explaining what you’re feeling right now?”

I shrugged. I had been given weirder requests. “Elated that we found her safe and sound. A little worried that she’s not as safe as she could be. We need to take her to Necessarius as soon as possible. She’ll be safe there.” I nodded, half to myself. “She should be introduced to Butler himself. That would be for the best.”

Flynn was nodding as well, while Saki just sat in the middle of the room, her head down.

But I could see on Ileana’s face, she wasn’t sure. She was struggling with something. She was a diplomat, shouldn’t she be better at concealing her emotions?

No matter. If she tried to hurt my niece, I’d slice her apart before she could move an inch. I didn’t have enough family left to risk losing another, especially to some traitorous ferret who wanted her for who knew what.

Instead of taking any aggressive actions, she simply turned to my partner. “Honored Paladin. I have a question for you as well. What would you do if Akane tried to hurt Miss—young Saki here?”

Now it was his turn to frown. “What? She wouldn’t. Why would she?”

“Yeah,” I interjected. “What possible reason would I have to do that?”

Ileana held up a hand to forestall any more interruptions from my end. “Humor me. If Akane took up her sword and tried to attack Saki, what would you do?”

“But she’s not—”

Mister Flynn.”

“I’d stop her,” he snapped. “I’m not as good as her or as fast, so I wouldn’t be able to use nonlethal means. I’d probably have to kill her.”

My heart froze in my chest, but I found myself nodding. “Of course. That is the best possible response. Necessarius would agree with him completely; I doubt they’d even allow anyone retribution. Not that it matters, of course, since I won’t.”

Ileana still wasn’t looking at me. “But you love Akane, don’t you?”

Flynn glared. “Lady, you’re getting personal. I answered your question, now—”

“What if it was someone else?” Ileana pressed.

“Of course I’d do the same. I’d just have a better chance of subduing them without the use of lethal force, so—”

“No. Not someone else trying to harm Saki. Akane trying to harm another child.”

Saki looked up, but I couldn’t read the expression on her face.

I could read Flynn’s well enough, though. “What!? Akane would never—”

“Answer the question, Honored Paladin! What would you do?”

“I don’t have to listen to this,” he growled, and started to stomp off. He ran straight into the door that Ileana had closed behind her, and then covered with an illusion.

She didn’t give him a chance to recover. “What would you do?

“I wouldn’t kill her!” Flynn snapped. “If she’s fighting someone, even a child, there’s obviously a good reason for it! I’d try to stop her, but I wouldn’t…” His anger gave way to confusion, matching my own expression quite well. “…kill her.” He shook his head. “I… I think I have a headache or something.”

“Thank you,” Ileana said graciously, bowing deeply to the confused swordsman. “That is all I need from you. Just rest for now.” The vampire straightened and turned her attention to the girl in the center of the room. “And you. Stop it. Right now.”

Saki, to my surprise, didn’t quaver in fear. Instead, she glared in open defiance.

“I’m an illusionist,” the Nosferatu noted, underlining the point by conjuring a few multicolored lights from her hand. “And a diplomat besides. I know what people look like when they’re being tricked. You’ve got some flavor of mind control going on there. Makes everyone want to protect you, put you above all else.”

Saki spoke. But she didn’t move her lips.

She moved mine.

“What do you want?” a voice much like my own came out of my throat, only angrier and more cynical. It hurt and scratched, like trying to talk with laryngitis. Flynn was staring at me like I had grown a second head.

Ileana didn’t look at me, she just kept her eyes on the girl. “Neat trick. And that’s a lot of power for anyone but the Paladins. Unless you managed to sneak in a few months of training in the last couple days, I’m guessing you’re one of those ‘cursed’ types. You get a big power boost in exchange for some sort of curse or other major downside. You lost your voice, I take it?”

“Clever little witch. What do you want?”

“I told you. I want you to stop this.” Ileana waved her hand. “All of this. Ferula and Victor took you in to keep you safe from the monsters roaming the streets. Ferula’s guards took you in to keep you safe from Ferula. And of course, Akane and Flynn killed them to keep you safe.”

Silence.

“I’m guessing there’s another downside here,” Ileana said. She nodded at me. “You’re not actually controlling her, not directly. You don’t control anyone. You just make yourself their top priority. And now you’re exploiting whatever mental link you have to tell Akane what you would like to say, and she of course says it for you.”

“Too clever for your own good,” I noted calmly, though inwardly I was screaming like a banshee. I needed time to absorb all this, but no one seemed interested in giving it to me. “I take it that’s why you weren’t affected?”

Ileana shrugged. “Same reason you needed protection in the first place. Self-centered people are harder for you to influence, and clever self-centered people will notice you trying. You can’t grab any random monster off the street and expect him to be your willing slave.”

“Your experience in manipulating perceptions likely played a part as well.”

A nod. “Probably.”

There was a pause as Saki waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t.

“Well, what now?” my niece said in my voice. “I have already released the man, and the woman will follow once I no longer need her to speak. But I will not be going with you, and I doubt they would allow me near Necessarius in any case.”

“First off, ‘the woman’ is your aunt.” Saki frowned, but Ileana continued. “I don’t really care if you believe me or not, but I owe it to her to be clear. Second, you know I can’t leave you out here alone. Either you’ll get killed, or you’ll build an army and try and take over the city.”

“I have no desire to go against Butler or any of the other warlords.”

“Butler isn’t a warlord—”

“Akane said the wrong word. I meant ‘leaders.’”

Ileana nodded. “Fair enough. But nomenclature aside, we can’t allow someone with such a dangerous power to just wander around the city, especially not Nosferatu territory. You already seem like you like being in control a little too much, and you’re eleven.”

“I’m not going with you.”

“Not five minutes ago, you wanted to go to NHQ,” Ileana noted. I had been waiting for her to bring that up; it had been bugging me too. “Probably wanted to suborn a few men in the organization, maybe get the Big Boss himself?”

Saki’s face was stone. “I’m not going with you.”

“How about we skip Butler then, hm? We can take you to Akane’s mother. You get to meet your grandmother. Or wherever your cousins, the boys, are staying. I can never remember their names, but no matter. How’s that sound?”

“I’m not—”

I felt myself stop talking mid-sentence.

Saki gaze snapped in my direction, her eyes wide and fearful for the first time. She moved her mouth, but no sound came out—not out of hers, and not out of mine.

At the same time, I felt something… I couldn’t quite describe. A hardening of the heart, if you were feeling poetic. But the point was that suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, while I still cared for my niece, I was able to look at the situation more objectively and understand where Ileana was coming from.

Saki had released me from her power. But then why did she look so confused?

Ileana was right. Saki was dangerous—both to herself and to others. We couldn’t bring her to NHQ, not without the constant worry that she would try to take it over for her own purposes. Unless…

Two kemos wearing the red and black armband of Necessarius walked in, wearing body armor, big backpacks, and carrying assault rifles. Well, whatever you called those ‘sarian Saint Euphemias the lawmen were always so fond of. Regardless, the men nodded to Ileana in greeting, then turned to me.

“We have another dozen men surrounding the building,” they assured me. “No one will get close without us knowing about it. What are your orders?”

I was in no position to give anyone orders at the moments; I still didn’t know what was going on.

The kemo seemed to catch the expression on my face. “Miss Ileana called us, Honored Paladin. She said she’d stall your—” His gaze briefly flickered over to Saki. “—the suspect. But whatever happens next is up to you.”

It finally dawned on me. “CS squad.”

He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

Butler was clever. He always had been; kids in Domina City were raised on fairy tales of his more impressive tricks and plots. So when Elizabeth’s sister had given Clarke (and every warlord in the city) an anti-power device, he had moved quickly to take advantage before anyone else even knew what was happening.

Mass production of the devices was one of his moves. The other was building teams of men and women who knew how to fight while carrying the bulky devices on their backs.

Now that I realized what had happened, I paid more attention to the backpacks they were wearing, and noticed the dishes and lenses on the outside of the packs and on the front of the armor. Those, of course, would be what was actually spreading the device’s effects around. For some reason, the effect was invisible, but still required line of sight.

A quick check confirmed that I couldn’t use my speed, either. The devices were not selective. They suppressed all powers within range, without exception.

But that was fine. I was a hardened warrior with years of combat experience. Saki was an eleven year-old girl who had stumbled into a surprisingly useful bit of power. Without anything supernatural evening the playing field, a fight between us would have been laughable.

Still, I didn’t threaten her. I just knelt down before her, meeting her angry eyes with my own calmer ones.

“We are taking you to NHQ,” I explained. “Where you will be put in a cage covered by these devices until you learn to control your power, so as to not be a danger to yourself or others. Is that understood?”

She glared at me, not saying a word. I wondered if she was still mute, or if she even cared enough to check. Saki had clearly inherited the Akiyama stubborn streak. So much for the easy way.

I reared back and slammed my forehead into her own.

My niece went down like a sack of potatoes.

I stood, rubbing my forehead, and turned to the four other people in the room, all staring at me in blank shock.

“She understands,” I said blithely. “Make sure you keep those suppressors on her.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 241)

This one went in an interesting direction, but I like it. Of course now I have more characters to keep track of… I’m just glad I managed to resist the urge to give the guards names as well.

Scene 240 – Fugam

FUGAM

ROBYN JOAN

“No,” I said, and turned to step off the roof.

“Honored Paladin, please, just hear us out!” Fimmtu, the crow anthro, cried. “You’ve been avoiding us for weeks! All we want is to talk.”

I floated a few feet off the edge of the roof, and turned to face him. “The fact that I’ve been avoiding you for weeks is a sign that I don’t want to talk. I have work to do. MC needs someone to spy on those kytons.” Probably shouldn’t have told him that, but oh well.

“Is that what you’ve been doing?” he asked as he stepped closer to the edge. He clearly wasn’t scared of heights; his wings might not give him flight as precise as my levitation, but he still had little to fear from a mere fifty-floor drop. “Spying on the colleges?”

That was the name Laura had coined for the new, power-based gangs. MC had thought it was clever and decided to spread it around, and the rest was history.

“I’m not interested in being recruited.”

“This isn’t about you joining anyone.”

I sighed. I understood what he meant. He wasn’t looking for a follower, he was looking for a leader. At least he had come alone this time. It was easier to talk to him without a flock of fliers watching.

“Fine,” I said, floating just outside of reach, arms crossed over my chest. “Speak.”

The ave paused for a moment. “…we may have found Ling.”

I blinked. “What?

“Maybe!” he insisted, holding up his claws in a placating gesture. “She’s not staying anywhere specific, and seems to be just wandering the city at random. But there are people after her, who are trying to find her to get her help.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That sounds familiar.”

He continued bravely on. “We can’t guarantee it’s her. But she wouldn’t have left the city, so it’s as good a chance as any. Watching Hawk has been letting us use the top floors of G’Hanir as a temporary base, so—”

“Wait, Watching Hawk?” I interrupted. “Haven’t heard of that one.”

“Oh.” His feathers ruffled, and I had a feeling he would have been blushing in embarrassment if he still had any exposed skin left. “That’s Delia. Remember, she was the leader of the warhawks? With Soaring Eagle gone, she’s taken over as Animal King.”

“All right, whatever.” Was that adverb-noun naming convention tradition now? “I assume that’s your offering. You help me find Ling, I help you with your little flight school.”

“College, actually.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “You know I’m not a fighter.”

His tone was subdued. “Yes, Honored Paladin.”

“I’ve never led anyone at all. This is probably going to end up with us all dead.”

“Yes, Honored Paladin.”

“All right,” I muttered grumpily, annoyed but still more interested than I would like to admit. I opened my eyes and stepped onto the roof, then strode across it, heading for the other side. “Follow me. We’re heading to G’Hanir.”

Once Fimmtu spread his wings and soared after me, I had a chance to get a better look at his wings. They were sleek with black feathers, and maybe ten or more feet wide from tip to tip. Even at that size, and even with hollow bones, I was surprised that they could still carry him at any speed.

He did have speed, though. He was faster than me, though neither of us was going at full tilt, and he had the ability to stop flapping and just glide for minutes at a time. That was a skill I was still lacking; you really need wings or some other broad, flat surface to glide for more than a couple seconds. I pretty much had to have my ability on at all times, or else I’d start falling.

That was another advantage of his. Since his power was morphing, he didn’t really need to do anything with it any more. It was so slow that it took days to make any sort of major changes—but on the plus side, those changes were permanent. His wings weren’t going to disappear or weaken if his reservoir ran out.

He did explain though, during one of our rest stops while we waited for my reservoir to replenish, that he could use his power to smooth over fatigue and exertion. So while I had much, much better maneuverability and control than him (and possibly speed), he could fly for most of the day without any problems, while I only had about an hour and a half before I needed to rest.

We were on the opposite side of the city when Fimmtu found me, but we were able to make very good time. It probably would have taken the entire day to reach G’Hanir if we had gone by car (maybe a third of that if we took the light rail), but by air it was only about two hours.

We eventually landed on one of the smaller buildings surrounding the massive ave ‘scraper. With a start, I realized it was one of the ones I had perched on the last time I was here, looking for Ling.

“Can we go through the front door?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

He shook his head. “We could, but it would be a bad idea. Lending us the top few floors is a favor; marching through the rest of the building would annoy the aves, and Watching Hawk might decide to change her mind. Besides, enemy spies watch the door.”

“They don’t watch the skies?”

“We’ve only been here a day,” he noted with one of those ave beak-smiles that was so hard to describe. “Give them a little more time. I’m sure someone will look up at the wrong moment soon enough.”

“Yes, well…” I nodded at the massive edifice in front of us. Even standing on the roof of a fifty-floor building, it seemed to stretch up out of sight. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to make that? I know vertical lift is difficult with wings.”

“There are plenty of thermals coming off the streets,” he assured me. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Not seeing any alternative, I sighed, slipped on my mask, and rocketed up towards the top of the tower.

It was easier than last time, probably because I actually knew I could do it. I did notice a surprising number of ledges that weren’t there last time, though, apparently recently installed to give fliers spots to land and rest if necessary. I didn’t need them, but at my leisurely pace, I was moving slow enough to spot the cameras dotting the platforms. Apparently my last break in had taught the aves the weakness of their security.

Speaking of my last break in, I couldn’t spot the window Akane and I had destroyed the last time I was here, even after a quick loop around the building. They must have replaced it already. Good thing, too. At this height, an open window would have rendered the entire floor practically uninhabitable.

I landed on the very top of the ‘scraper, above the tier I had crashed on last time. The door was where I remembered it, and I waited a few minutes for Fimmtu.

He wasn’t too far behind, and I was surprised to find that he wasn’t wearing a mask of any kind. The air was pretty thin up here, and he was getting a little wobbly, so I rushed him inside. There were some buffs to make high-altitude breathing easier, but nothing good enough to stay here for long. He needed fresh air, fast.

The second I closed the airlock behind us, I found a half-dozen guns pointed at us.

I raised my hand in shaky surrender—the other was around Fimmtu’s shoulders, supporting him—and tried to smile. “Easy there, boys and girls. We’re fliers, just like you. Fimmtu gave me the impression we were invited.”

It was crowded in the small space, and the guns didn’t make it feel any better. After a moment though, one of the men clad head to toe in black tactical gear nodded and lowered his weapon. The rest followed suit, and I nodded in thanks as I dragged my ave friend down the stairs.

The security guard who had signaled the all-clear to the others was only a few steps behind me. Once we reached the landing a couple flights down and had more room, I stopped and turned to face him.

“Thank you,” I told him honestly. “I know everyone’s on edge recently. I appreciate you trusting us.”

“Trust nothing,” a female voice from behind the face-concealing helmet quipped. “I knew you were coming. Just wish Pig had called when you were a few minutes away.”

I tabled the question of who ‘Pig’ was. “I saw cameras on the ledges, down below. There still aren’t any on the roof?”

The woman pulled off her helmet, revealing the lightly olive colored skin that I always thought of as the mark of Mediterranean ancestry and a pretty face marred by a scowl. “No, there aren’t. I keep trying to talk to Watching Hawk about it, but she’s been distracted recently.”

“Understandable.” As Fimmtu regained his senses and stopped leaning on me, I extended my hand to the guard. “Robyn Joan Clarke, at your service.”

“Teuta Merimangë,” she said as she shook my hand firmly. “Pleasure.”

It took me a second to realize where I recognized that name. “You’re an arach. A Lolth. One of the ones who disabled all the ‘sarians on the Ring, when Soaring Eagle needed to steal the toy box back.”

The passer raised an eyebrow as she broke off my grip. “You’re good. Good memory, good sources. That was what, two months ago? With everything that’s happened, I’m surprised you remember the name of some random merc who was on the scene.”

“I did some research, and your last name means ‘spider.’ It stuck in my memory.”

She laughed, white teeth flashing, and I had a feeling that those slightly enlarged ones in the front were probably hollow and connected to poison glands. “Yeah, not the most original name for a spider kemo, is it? But it’s as good as any other.” She headed towards the door. “C’mon, let’s get out of this boring stairwell. You need to meet your college.”

I followed her quickly, Fimmtu still dazed but not too far behind. “Are you a flier?”

She shook her head as she led us through the calm office space filled with cubicles I remembered from last time. It still amazed me how the fact that every cubicle had a good view of the broad windows made the room feel so much more open than those cramped offices most cultures used.

“I’m a teleporter,” she explained. “My range is incredible—ten miles and change—but I need an accurate photo of where I’m jumping, and it kicks me right in the ass every time I do it. My reservoir is slow to refill, too. I’m lucky if I can jump twice a day.”

“Keep at it,” I recommended. “The powers improve as you practice. They all start out hard to use, though I will admit yours is on the deep end.”

She smiled again. She had a nice smile. Most passers did, I found—it was easier to hide in plain sight when people liked you. “Thanks, I appreciate it. I know this must be overwhelming, suddenly being a celebrity.”

I smiled back. “Well, I’m used to people knowing who I am. The problem is, I usually deal with it by running away.” I shook my head sadly. “It’s stupid, but I’d probably feel better if I knew I had some way out of this. Like a trampoline under a tightrope walker.”

“We don’t have a trampoline, unfortunately,” the arach apologized, still grinning. “But this might make you feel a little better.” She dropped a small remote in my hand, with only a single button hidden behind a safety panel, like a detonator. It was labeled ‘Conference Room 9.’

“What is—” I blinked. “This can’t be what I think it is.”

“It is.”

“But—I thought—” I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t make any sense. I was up here before, I was in a position to know whether or not they have some sort of emergency override or whatever—”

“They didn’t,” she admitted. “But a lot of damage was done during the Rampage. Most of this level and several others had to be replaced. With the large number of fliers up here now, Watching Hawk thought the adjustments were only prudent.”

I carefully slipped the remote into my pocket. “Thank you very much.”

“You are very welcome,” she answered genuinely. “And while I’d love to talk to you a bit more about the powers and everything, but I think your apprentices will get mad at me if I take up any more of your time.”

That threw me off balance. “My… my what?”

“Your apprentices,” she repeated, stopping before a door to some sort of conference room. Presumably, number nine. Ah yes, there was the label, on a small plaque next to the door. “If the group is a college, then you are the teacher, and they your students.” She gave me a grin and a wink as she opened the door. “Show your apprentices what you can do, Magister Clarke.”

I was practically shoved into the room, Fimmtu once again a step behind me. I heard the door click shut, and had to make an effort of will not to turn to check if it was locked. Pupils or not, I didn’t want to show weakness in front of these people.

And what a group of people they were. I recognized many of them from the other times Fimmtu had tried to speak to me, but most were new. Baselines and aves and demons and trolls—three or four dozen people, crammed into this relatively small conference room, all to see me. How had this been set up so fast?

At least the avian preference for big windows made the room feel larger than it was. Akane and others I had spoken to said they found the view disconcerting at this incredible height, but everyone here was a flier. It would take more than a half-mile drop to make us blink.

I had no idea what to do.

I was not a leader of any stripe. I had never even taken charge of so much as a tiny little school project for class. I had no idea what these people wanted from me, let alone how or whether to give it. I was seriously considering running out the door, breaking it down if I had to.

Adapt or die.

That was what my father always said. His answer to every problem in the universe. It was why he had invented the toy maker; he had created the perfect device for adaptation. A device that could allow even Uncle Art, a man with more diseases than most epidemiology books, to survive for decades.

I wasn’t a leader? Fine. I’d become one. And this was a college, right? Even if being a leader might be difficult for me, I could at least pretend to be a teacher. I had enough experience with both leaders and teachers to fake some combination of the two. Probably.

I strode over to the table in the corner piled with refreshments, hopefully with what looked like a confident gait. “Apologies for being a little on the late side,” I managed as I poured myself a water. “Honored Fimmtu did not inform me you were all assembled. I would have hurried if he had.” I turned to face the crowd and leaned casually against the table as I sipped my water. “You have information for me, I believe?”

They all stared at me.

After a moment, a pair of twin kemos—not full anthros, just ears—spoke up. “I thought you were you were here to lead us, Honored Paladin.”

And yes, both of the twins spoke at once. A pod-brain, then, and a relatively young one at that. With the advent of telepathy, true pod-brains had become more common. Or, at least, less incredibly rare. Most of them learned within a couple days that talking in stereo creeped people out.

I raised a finger. “Magister.”

Both twins cocked their heads at me.

“Honored Magister is the term, I believe.” I sipped at the water more. Could they tell my hands were shaking? No, I had that under control. Wait, what about my smell? Some kemos and vampires had noses good enough to smell fear. “That lovely arach passer said that was the preferred term for the leader of colleges, though I will confess I haven’t had time to check.”

Remain calm. Don’t shake, don’t tremble. Don’t let them see.

“…that appears to be correct,” one of the giants, a troll girl with yellow skin and some sort of plastic bands on her arms asked. She would be a Mancal, a member of the troll scientist caste. “But the bird brought you here to lead us, not to exchange information.”

C’mon, I had watched Uncle Art lead my entire life, I could fake it well enough. “What is leading but exchanging information? I will confess, I am not sure what exactly what you want from me, specifically, but I am under the impression you want to learn to use your powers more effectively.”

Slowly, most of the people in the room nodded in cautious agreement.

“The best way to learn is by doing,” I insisted blithely. “Searching for one particular girl in the entire city will strain your abilities to the limit, force you to work together, and improve both your personal and team skills.”

“That seems a bit selfish of you,” another, a demon this time, grunted.

I shrugged as casually as I could. “I am taking advantage, I won’t try and hide it. But this genuinely is for your benefit as well, I promise.” I looked him straight in the eye. “I don’t see a need to lie to any of you. The truth is easier.”

How much easier would the fight against Elizabeth have gone, if I had been truthful with the others from the very start? Sure, with the screamers cured, the death toll was surprisingly low, but still far higher than I would have liked.

“So, what?” the pod-brain from before demanded, both mouths speaking as one again. “You want us to just fly out, scouring hundreds of miles of urban landscape to find one girl who doesn’t want to be found?”

“You’re the ones who said you knew where she was,” I noted. “I suppose I could go by myself, but that wouldn’t really teach any of you any lessons, would it?”

“This isn’t a lesson,” the demon insisted. “It’s just labor exploitation.”

“You want a lesson? Fine. We’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Seems fitting, seeing as we’re in the ave’s domain.” I pulled the remote out of my pocket with one hand—the other keeping a firm grasp on my drink—flipped off the safety, and pressed the button.

The windows slid open.

It was actually an interesting design. Not only did the door behind me lock solidly the second I pressed the button, but the large panoramic glass windows were careful to slide horizontally open, where they locked into place covering the windows of the rooms to our left and our right. It was likely a safety feature, a way to keep too many windows open at once. This high up, we could lose most of the air on the floor if we weren’t careful.

“I learned some things about being a mother from my sister,” I shouted over the howling winds as everyone else in the room grabbed desperately at the table (which was bolted to the floor) or each other. The winds would die down shortly, but at the moment they were strong enough to life even the giants off the floor. I, of course, simply increased my personal gravity and stayed firmly in place. “Sometimes you’ve gotta be harsh. And this is how the birds do it—fly or die. Kick you out of the nest and see if you survive.”

I walked up to the demon who had been mocking me earlier. He was clinging to the table, wild-eyed. He didn’t need to hold on for much longer; I’d be surprised if the gale-force winds lasted another minute.

I kicked him in the chest.

He went flying out the window the second his grip loosened, and not under his own power.

I pointed after him. “FLY!”

My various pupils looked hesitant, but they knew they didn’t have a choice. The podbrain was first, her twin bodies holding hands tightly, followed by the Manca and a young demon on a flying carpet.

By the time the winds had died down seconds later, everyone had already released their grip on the table, and was outside in the open air.

Except for me, of course.

I calmly finished my water, then set it down and grinned.

I was probably having more fun with this than was healthy.

With a whoop, I followed them into the clear blue sky around G’Hanir.

G’Hanir was the ave domain.

This was ours.

Behind the Scenes (scene 240)

Originally, this was quite a bit later (253), until I realized it fit better here.

Scene 239 – Somniatus

SOMNIATUS

LING

Nine Years Ago

I touched the horns on the top of my head gingerly. “Are you sure they’re still supposed to hurt? I don’t think they should still hurt…”

The senior succubus guiding me through the halls of Shendilavri patted me on the back. “Don’t worry about it, little one. It always hurts the first time.” She chuckled at some private joke. “But it will fade, in time. For now, we need to find you a matron devil to train you and protect you before you’re ready to become a part of the culture for real.”

My heart fell. “You mean… I’m not a part of the culture yet?”

She noticed my consternation and pulled me into a quick hug as we walked. “You’re just a little young and inexperienced, that’s all. A seed that needs water and light to grow.” She gestured at our surroundings. “Spend some time here, and you’ll grow into a fine Riven.”

‘Here’ was, as noted, Shendilavri, specifically Rivenheart, the center of the succubus domain in more ways than one. The building itself was nothing special, just a drab gray concrete hab block, but the Queen had ordered her followers to spruce it up a bit.

Now, despite its humble beginnings, the Fourth Gate of Hell, the Lover’s Gate, was a beautiful and inviting place that felt like home. Thick carpets lined the floors, and beautiful velvet banners were hung on the walls, depicting all sorts of romance scenes. Even the windows were kept clean to allow the sunlight to shine through, despite the thick salty air that tried to encrust everything this close to South Gate.

South Gate had nothing to do with the Gates of Hell. When I was younger, it had taken me a long time to realize that, and my life had been confusing for a while.

“So if you’re not going to be my matron, then who will?”

The blue-skinned woman thought for a moment. “Not sure. Catherine, maybe, though Nevan could be available too. It all depends on who has room to take on another new follower.”

I nodded. I had expected this. I knew the succubi worked on the master-apprentice system, though most cultures didn’t. “But you don’t? Have room, that is?”

She laughed out loud. “No, child, I don’t. Not by a long shot.” She opened a door at the end of the sun-dappled hall, still smiling. “Now, you just wait here while I go get them. It might be a while. That’s part of the test.”

I looked at the women already in the room. “Are they, too?”

“What are you—AGH!” My guide jumped nearly three feet in the air. “H-honored Devils! I didn’t know you were… here…” She bowed low, so low her back was completely horizontal. “Please forgive my intrusion, Dame Malcanthet.”

At mention of that name, I took a closer look at the succubi in the room.

The one at the head of the briefing table, the one my superior was bowing nervously to, was an inhumanly beautiful woman with long black hair, accented by a single stripe of white. Her horns were simply two small nubs, and her dress a draw-droppingly elegant black thing that seemed to be painted on—and without much paint, either.

“Rise, Georgina,” the Queen of the Succubi ordered, the hint of a playful smile on her lips. “It is my mistake. I changed the meeting room at the last minute.” Her deep, red eyes fixed on me. “Who is the girl? A new Riven?”

“Yes, Dame Malcanthet.”

“A little young for a succubus,” the woman on the Queen’s left noted. She was also strikingly beautiful—of course she was, they all were—though of a slightly different form than Malcanthet. Her pointed ears and sharp claws, combined with the gnarled horns sprouting gracefully from her brow, gave her a more demonic appearance than any I had seen. Her eyes were also golden, and seemed to see right through me.

The succubus across from her, the one with pale, almost white skin and long blonde hair, shrugged. “She came to the culture willingly, didn’t she? What does her age matter?”

“It matters if the Big Boss decides to carpet-bomb us for pedophilia,” golden-eye snapped. She turned to Malcanthet. “Dame Meretrix, I strongly recommend you get rid of this girl, for everyone’s safety, including hers.”

I felt my heart stop in my chest. Everything I had worked for… gone, just like that?

“Don’t be a fool!” the blonde one snapped. “Just keep her out of the way until she is of age, and then—”

“Out of the way where? In a box in the basement?”

“You know full well that’s not what I—”

“Shami-Amourae,” the Queen interrupted, and the blonde one fell silent instantly. “Do not be baited.” She turned to the one with the sharp golden eyes. “Xinivrae. Don’t bait her in the first place.”

Shami-Amourae, the Lady of Delights, bowed her head. “Apologies, Honored Sister.”

Xinivrae, the Black Widow, mimicked the gesture. “Yes, Dame Meretrix, apologies. You know how I feel about Butler, Honored Sister. I should not have used this opportunity to try and force the issue.”

“Correct,” Malcanthet noted regally. Her gaze turned to the last succubus at the table, a demon who appeared in a relatively innocuous guise as a voluptuous red-haired woman with pointed ears. I wondered if that was what she had originally looked like, but dismissed it as irrelevant. “Lynkhab. You have been even quieter than usual. What are your thoughts on this?”

The woman looked up. “I am wondering, Honored Sister, if you set this up to prove a point.”

The other two women blinked in surprise, then turned to glare at their elder.

The Succubus Queen was unfazed, and simply addressed the two of us who had invaded this meeting. “Thank you for your help, both of you. Georgina, please take Miss Ling Yu to Eluvia’s Arch. It will be good place to learn more of the culture’s history while she waits for a matron.”

“Yes, Dame Malcanthet,” my guide assured her hurriedly. She grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me backwards out of the room so fast I nearly fell to the ground. “Hurry up, girl!” she hissed into my ear. “Be glad the Honored Devil isn’t in a bad mood!”

Once we were outside the conference room, and by outside I mean she had dragged me down the twisting hallways of velvet and silk until we were about a dozen turns away, she finally took a deep breath and leaned against the nearest wall. “Velvet hells, that was too close.”

I observed her, frowning. “What’s the problem? Dame Lynkhab said it was all the Queen’s idea in the first place for us to show up. Why would she be mad?”

“We weren’t supposed to know it was a setup,” she murmured. “No one was. The girls were supposed to learn their lesson and we’d be on our merry way. They’re gonna be mad she tried to play them, and Malcanthet doesn’t like us to see her fighting.”

I quirked my head. “…because she is the Gatekeeper of Love?”

A nod. “Yeah. It’s unbecoming for her to be anything but perfect. And if we had happened to see her as anything less than perfect… ” She shuddered. “Let’s just say that you wouldn’t need to worry about finding a matron any more.”

This was all going way over my head, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Instead of trying, I just composed a quick mental prayer of thanks to the Mother Monster and moved on to safer topics. “What about this arch she told you to take me to?”

“Eluvia’s Arch,” my superior said with a nod, regaining her composure. “Yes, it’s a stone arch in one of our interior gardens. It is the symbol of the history of our culture, and it will be a good place to learn.” She frowned. “Unless… how old are you, girl?”

“Ten.”

She made a face. “That is pretty young. Maybe Dame Xinivrae had a point about your eligibility. Either way, you’re definitely too young to see what people like to do under that damned Arch.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, which I suppose was the idea. I simply remained silent, allowing her to fill in the silence.

My guide was still considering. “Hm… perhaps the Fields of Harmony.” When she noticed the confused look on my face, she continued. “Another indoor garden, this one actually for food. It uses hydroponics and other space-saving techniques, of course.”

“Of… course,” I managed, as if I actually knew what she was talking about. “Do you think I’ll be able to find a matron there?”

She paused, considering. “You know, that’s actually a very real possibility. I didn’t even think about it. Deminsha and her step-sister like to hang out there. And Kaito, but he’s an incubus, so hardly a good match.”

I frowned. “Why not?”

“Because he’s… an incubus. And you’re a succubus. Well, a succubus imp anyway.” She grimaced. “Velvet hells, I’m going to have to give you the whole birds and the bees talk, aren’t I? I’m gonna find whoever was in charge of your orphanage and strangle them.”

I flushed with anger. “I know about all that!” I was ten years old. I wasn’t a kid any more. Of course, the matron of my orphanage hadn’t been the one to tell me. I had managed to trick one of the older kids into entering his password when he didn’t think I was paying attention, and then used it and its advanced privileges to look up everything myself. It was what had led me to Shendilavri in the first place.

“I also know that it’s not always birds and bees,” I continued. “Sometimes birds like birds and bees like bees. And Malcanthet’s followers are known for broader tastes than the rest of the city.” That last part was quoted directly from an online article. “Would I be any safer with a succubus than an incubus?”

“Well,” my guide muttered, looking away. “He’s a Gancanagh anyway. Best to steer clear of him regardless.”

That word was genuinely unfamiliar to me, and I had a feeling she wouldn’t explain it if I asked. Besides, I still didn’t like dealing with older men. If she didn’t want me apprenticed to an incubus, I wouldn’t complain.

But I did need to be apprenticed to someone. And after that confusing and frightening meeting with the culture’s warlord, I thought it was best to find someone who could protect me in this strange new life I had dragged myself into. And sooner rather than later.

Finally, after what felt like hours of walking in silence—but was likely no more than ten or twenty minutes—we reached a metal door at the end of a short corridor. It was labeled ‘side entrance,’ and bright light spilled out from under it, accompanied by the sounds of laughter and the gentle smells of earth and plants.

My guide placed her hand on the doorknob before turning to me.

“This is it,” she said seriously. “Your first real introduction to the culture of Rivenheart. If you have any second thoughts, now is the time to voice them. After this, there’s no going back. Not easily, anyway.”

I had second thoughts.

I didn’t voice them.

Instead, I simply nodded once.

My guide nodded as well, and then opened the door.

Behind the Scenes (scene 239)

This takes place in 1992.