“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.”
“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.”
“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.