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?”
“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.”
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—”
“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.”
“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 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.