Monthly Archives: December 2015

Scene 247 – Fama

FAMA

ADAM

November 18th, 2001. A Sunday. A beautiful, sunny day, if a bit chilly from the winter wind rolling off the ocean and around the city. This was the kind of day best spent in a cafe, preferably one with a nice windbreak, enjoying the fresh air.

Instead, I was in NHQ. And I planned to stay there for the foreseeable future.

I emptied the clip on my Sica, putting twelve holes in the torso of the target that was placed at the other end of the firing range. I had specifically chosen a small and out of the way range which I knew most people avoided, but there were still a handful of men and women scattered around. Like me, they all wore noise canceling headphones to keep from being deafened by the constant gunfire.

That was one of the reasons I had decided to come to a shooting range today. Sure, I needed to practice, as always, but this was one of the places that had held out longest during the MEE against the city of screamers. They had fallen in the end, of course, but their headphones had saved them from the initial attack, and they had survived the siege for hours.

These people treated me with respect, but not awe. They had been in my shoes. They hadn’t done as well as I had, but they had done well enough. They didn’t feel the need to bow and scrape before me.

Lily handed me my Caedes as the target was automatically changed. She wasn’t wearing headphones, but still seemed completely unconcerned by the noise. I knew she got new toys every couple days, but she shouldn’t be so blasé about it.

Well, it wasn’t like I could ask her any pointed questions considering the noise, so I just took the sub-machine gun and unloaded it at the target. The shots went wide—I wasn’t firing in bursts like I was supposed to, just holding down the trigger and letting it go. Fully half the bullets impacted into the sand backstop, but I still managed to scythe through the paper target.

Another gun in my hand. My Olympian Athena. Mid-range sniper rifle. This shooting range wasn’t really long enough to use it properly, but I could still practice a bit. I took a deep breath, then brought the scope up to my eye and fired as fast as possible.

I got the target in the shoulder. A horrible shot by most measures, but pretty good considering I was all but firing from the hip. I fired four more times the same way, with one missing the paper completely, two hitting the chest, and one getting a headshot purely by luck.

It went against pretty much every way you were supposed to use a sniper rifle, but I had learned that sometimes you had to use weapons in situations they simply weren’t designed for. Like when you’re being charged by a vampire and the only thing in your hand was a rifle.

I reached for the Sica again, then frowned as I noticed it hadn’t been reloaded. I looked at Lily, but she just shrugged, a small smile on her face, and strolled out without a care in the world. I sighed, gathered up my guns, and followed.

“Was there a reason for that?” I asked once we were out of the sound-proofed room and I had pulled off the headphones. This part of the shooting range was just a bog-standard gift shop with a nice wide window overlooking the city. “I thought you said you’d reload for me.”

“My sister called while you were shooting,” she explained, smiling. Oh, that smile. There should be laws against a smile like that. It still made me weak in the knees. “She needs your help with a few things.”

I sighed, knowing full well that arguing would just be delaying the inevitable. “All right, what exactly does she need? More tactics discussions?” Sure, she had been the one to lead me through the city, but MC still wanted detailed reports on how it had looked from my perspective.

“No, I think she’s done with that for now. She actually wanted you to talk to the CS squad.”

“Oh. Okay, I can do that.” The countersong squads were the anti-speaker soldiers, trained to use the devices we had gotten from Silk to neutralize powers, then move in and mop up any resistance. Everyone had them in some form or another, but the Big Boss knew it was important to make sure his were the best.

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about using anything obtained from that woman, though. Yeah, they seemed to be working well enough, but she was patient. She’d wait years to spring a trap if she had to, I knew it.

But that also meant that there wasn’t much use worrying about it. If she was really immortal, she could turn on us centuries after we were all dead of old age. Who knew how people like her thought?

As Lily led me upstairs to the CS training room, I began to wonder. Who did know how immortals thought? The fey. Sure, they weren’t hundreds of years old or anything, but their homunculi gave them an interesting perspective. Maybe I could talk to one of them about it.

They were technically a culture now, right? Though who knew what that whole Wild Hunt thing had to do with anything. I had heard Butler hadn’t even leveled any retribution fees at them, since they had helped fight Elizabeth—but they had donated money to help repair the damage regardless. So odd.

How would I even set up a meeting? I wasn’t a warlord. I wasn’t even a speaker. I was just a clay, with no toys and no powers. I had nothing to offer them, no reason they would even acknowledge my existence.

Lily’s swishing tail drew my eye as she walked up the stairs in front of me. While I was enjoying the view, a thought occurred to me. Hadn’t she mentioned something about having lunch with the fey? Of course, that was before they went even crazier than normal, but during the Wild Hunt, they didn’t attack her, so maybe…

“We’re here,” Lily said cheerily before I could ask. “MC?”

“Right here,” MC answered from one of the wall speakers. “The CS squad is getting changed in the room next door. They’ll be out in a moment—oh. Or they’ll be out right now, I suppose.”

The squad consisted of six men, two baseline, two kemos, and a demon and a vampire. They were dressed in full-body black tactical armor, a bit more formal and professional than I normally expected from Necessarius. They generally preferred a distinct lack of uniform.

But these men fell into line and saluted as smartly as any soldier I had ever seen, backs straight as arrows and eyes strong as iron. They were only a few years older than me, mid-twenties at the latest, but I was getting used to that. Dying young was very common in Domina City, especially for soldiers.

They remained sharply at attention for almost a full minute, and it took me a moment to realize what they were waiting for.

“At ease,” I ordered. They relaxed. Slightly. “What have you been told about the plan for today?” I made it sound like I just wanted to know how it looked from their perspective, but the fact was that I didn’t know at all. MC hadn’t had a chance to brief me.

“Sir!” One stepped slightly ahead of the others, one of the kemos. What culture was he? He didn’t have enough fur to really tell. Just the ears and some sharp teeth. Reminded me of a weasel, actually. Weasel kemos weren’t a real sub-culture, just one of the many kemo quasi-cultures.

Regardless of his choice of toys, he was clearly the leader of this little band. He wasn’t wearing any name tag or rank insignia, though. That might make things slightly difficult. Well, I could make do until MC gave me more detail.

“Sir, President Butler has given us direct orders.” I kept forgetting that Butler was the president of Domina. According to the outside world, the city was just another American territory, sitting in the same legal area as Washington DC. But Domina had been doing its own thing pretty much since the very beginning. “We are to train with you, learn how to fight powers and the Composer.”

I nodded. “Of course. Thank you.” The man recognized the dismissal, and stepped backwards into line with the others. “Now, do any of you know why you were sent to me, specifically?” This was a question I did know the answer to.

The leader frowned. “Because you fought the Composer and her Blackguards—”

“So did Huntsman,” I noted. “And Medina. Even Corporal Sanguinas or another member of the Paladins’ retinue would have done the job. Better, perhaps; at least they’re actually ‘sarians. Why were you sent to me instead of any of them?”

“Because they’re busy?” the demon asked hesitantly.

“True,” I admitted. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Lily, leaning against a nearby window, next to a rack full of training weapons. She looked… contemplative. I turned my attention back to the team. “But someone could have covered for any of them. Bringing the entire team in to train you might have been the best idea; in fact, I’m planning on doing that eventually. So why me? What makes me different than anyone else who has fought the Composer?”

“You won, of course,” the vampire pointed out. “No one else has done that.”

“Huntsman has. And he did it with his bare hands, after his reservoir was drained so dry his body was starting to break.” I met each of their gazes in turn, one at a time. “Now. Why were you sent to me?

There was a long, long pause.

I sighed. “Honored Lily,” I called. “Would you care to enlighten them?”

“That’s not the proper form of address—” MC started from one of the speakers in the walls.

“Oh hush sis,” Lily interrupted as she ambled up beside me. “This is more important.”

The men weren’t excessively tall, but next to Lily, they may as well have been giants. I didn’t think too much about it, but she was barely five feet tall, while they all edged towards six. She said there were reasons she was so short, and I knew better than to pry.

Despite the height differences, though, she still seemed to tower over them. They shrank as she approached, not out of fear, just subtly relaxing in ways I could never have ordered—in ways I doubted they even noticed. They felt… comfortable around her. Safe.

She too met each of their gazes in turn, but while they had met my eyes with confusion and awe, they each bowed their heads to her in turn, a quick but unmistakable sign of respect. I wasn’t offended—or surprised, for that matter—but it was a stark contrast.

“I hate giving out the answers,” she mused aloud. “It defeats the point of testing. You’ll never learn if you don’t figure it out for yourself.”

“Honored—” one of the men started, but she cut him off with a single raised finger.

“I will give you one hint. A simple and easy one, so you don’t spend too much time chasing rabbits as the deer gets away.” She smiled gently, not the one she used on me, but a friendly, almost grandmotherly smile. Except younger. Did that make sense? Grandmotherly, but younger? “What is it that Adam and I have in common?”

I could see their brains working. Though her hint was confusing, it ruled out powers and toys—I had neither, Lily had both in abundance. It couldn’t be empathy, either; it was already well-known around the city that I was a sociopath, and that didn’t describe my girlfriend by any stretch of the imagination.

Though Laura had mentioned she was pretty sure I wasn’t actually, psychologically speaking, suffering from anything worse than a number of sociopathic tendencies. Overinflated rumor or not, you’d think that sort of thing would freak people out. But this was Domina City; sociopathy was a valid and valued skillset.

Finally, after looking at each other awkwardly to see if any of them had any ideas, the team gave up. “Sorry, miss. We just… have no idea what you mean.”

I sighed. “It is about survival.”

The squad looked confused, but allowed me to continue.

“I didn’t survive the MEE because I’m some unstoppable badass. I survived because surviving is what I do. When given a choice between deafening myself and turning into a zombie, I chose the former.”

Lily stepped forward. “Powers are varied and unpredictable. I’ve met people who can animate their own blood, shoot bone spikes, mind control the enemy, and make exploding butterflies. Training you to fight each and every one individually is impossible. So you are simply going to be trained to survive.”

The men nodded, a little hesitant, still not quite sure what we meant.

“Let’s start simple,” I said. “Verbal exercises. A kemo, no visible enhancements, with the power to make aluminum explode. How would you handle it? Begin.”

Despite their confusion, they caught on quickly. “Battlefield?” the leader asked.

“Indoors,” I improvised as I nodded in approval at the question. “Department store.”

“Keep him away from trash cans and soda machines,” the vampire murmured, almost to himself. “Anywhere you could find aluminum. Obviously we’d have the countersong up, so spread out, surround him in a wide net so that he can’t catch more than one in an explosion at a time, and tighten the noose until he’s in range of the devices.”

I nodded. “Very good. That would work. Now, what if the devices aren’t working for whatever reason?” I waved my hand. “Say you were at the barracks, sleeping, and they were too far away to get to fast enough.”

“We’d have them at our bedsides,” Leader-Kemo said. I really needed his name.

I smiled. “Good. That’s what I wanted you to think of. But still, your devices aren’t working. They were sabotaged somehow, or damaged during the fight. How would you handle him then?”

“Stay loose, on our feet,” one of the baselines piped up. “Like an enemy with grenades or any other explosive. Stay away from each other so we don’t lose too many in one hit. Don’t—” He frowned. “Wait. What’s the range on this power of his? Can he make stuff explode from a distance?”

“Excellent question,” I said with a grin. “Let’s say he can. Range about thirty feet, but he needs line of sight.”

“So he can make mines,” the demon grunted. “So need to keep an eye out for those…”

“Try and draw him out onto the street,” the leader added. “Or better yet, a field. Somewhere open, where we can see everything, and with minimal bystanders. Tight quarters favor explosives.”

“All excellent answers. But you’re missing something important. Does anyone know what it is?”

They stared at me blankly.

“He has no defensive abilities,” I reminded them. “So you can just shoot him in the head.”

The kemo frowned. “But sir, you said—”

“I asked how you would handle him. Not how you would arrest him or take him down non-lethally. As I understand your mission charter, you are to attempt such solutions if at all possible, but the safety of the civilians is top priority, and you have kill authorization at your discretion.” I smiled sweetly. “Isn’t that right?”

“Yes, sir,” the kemo muttered, a little annoyed.

“This is what I mean,” I insisted, serious again. “You have more training and experience with your weapons and each other than I ever will. But you need to alter your mindset, to figure out how to fight people with powers you can’t even imagine.”

The entire group nodded somberly.

“Now, let’s say there’s a girl who can turn invisible for a seemingly indefinite period of time…”

Behind the Scenes (247)

This went in a slightly different direction than originally intended, but I think it works.

Scene 246 – Reformatur

REFORMATUR

LING

Eight Years Ago

I bowed awkwardly before the throne. “Greetings, Noble Aka Manah. I am Ling Yu, formerly of the succubi.” I had practiced the lines a hundred times in the mirror. I was pretty sure I had spoken clearly.

The vampire eyed me with distaste from his seat, a deceptively complex piece of furniture made of what appeared to be woven strands of lead. “Yes, of course. I have heard much about you. You were one of the Riven, correct?”

“No, Honored Noble. I was a Widower, follower of Xinivrae.”

That made the elegant vampire raise one perfect eyebrow. He was perfect in pretty much every way, a fact that vaguely disquieted me in ways I didn’t understand. He didn’t even have any obvious vampire toys, other than the eyes. That was the current style for the daevas, the vampires who served as the counterpart to the succubi. “Malcanthet’s sister? I have heard rumblings that she plans to split off her own culture.”

“I wouldn’t know, Noble.”

“Hmph. Of course not.” He waved his hand. “Well, all are welcome in Damavand. I was simply curious.” He held out his hand, and a servant I hadn’t noticed gave him a file. He glanced over it, then frowned. “You were pregnant?”

I nodded. “Gave birth a month ago.”

The warlord eyed me with shock mixed with horror, his mask of perfection shattering like glass. “You—but you’re eleven… ” He shook his head. “Someone get this poor girl a room immediately. And then schedule her an appointment to have her succubus toys removed.” As I was led out of the room, I heard him muttering behind me. “Freaking Malcanthet…”

Within a few hours, I had been set up in a small but comfortable room in the upper levels of the skyscraper, the single building that contained the domain of the daevas. Unlike Shendilavri, Damavand was not the sole building on its block, and was just a normal skyscraper without anything particularly special about it.

Judging by the room I was now in, it was a refurbished hotel, probably bought a few years ago when the daevas were first beginning to organize into a true culture. It was a good plan, especially for a non-aggressive culture, which didn’t have to worry about fortifying as much. The lights were a bit old, but they still worked, even if I had to jump to hit the switch.

There was a knock on the door, and I pulled it open with only some slight hesitation.

A different woman from before, a pretty young woman with fiery red hair and marble-black nighteyes, smiled down at me. She was only a couple heads taller, which meant she was short by most reasonable standards. I assumed she was another chamberlain. I thought the word meant ‘servant,’ or something. She had something held in her arms, a box of something I couldn’t identify from this angle. “Miss Ling. I hope you’ve had a chance to clean up? Perhaps even take a shower?”

I nodded once, not saying anything.

“Good.” She stepped around me smoothly and placed the box on the bed. It turned out to be filled with clothes. Not luxurious clothes, but nice enough to make me sit up and take notice. “I will help you change out of those rags. Your toys will take longer to remove, but it is a step in the right direction to making you look less like a succubus.”

I looked down at what I was currently wearing. It was a pretty standard succubus bra and panty pair in black, though I didn’t really need the bra yet. In Shendilavri, the outfit hadn’t earned me so much as a second look, but thankfully I had grabbed a robe to wear over it before fleeing the domain. That was in a heap on the bathroom floor now.

The outfit the chamberlain produced was something else altogether. It was made of some long, flowing black material in multiple layers, a conservatively cut floor-length straight skirt and sleeveless top, with a silky see-through layer that gave it a hint of sultriness.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was an Indian dress, imported directly from Mumbai. It actually belonged to one of Aka Manah’s younger daughters. Thankfully, we were close enough in size that it hadn’t been difficult to adjust.

I frowned as I spun in the mirror. “It feels constricting.” If I had known it was a gift from my new warlord, I wouldn’t have been so rude.

Luckily, the chamberlain understood. She knelt behind me so as not to obscure me in the mirror and hugged my shoulders gently. “You’ll have to get used to wearing real clothes, little one. The succubi might prefer remaining a step and a half away from nude, but the rest of the city needs to see you in something more substantial.”

I nodded, a bit glum, but obedient. When I had left, I had known I’d have to make sacrifices.

The chamberlain stood and patted me on the head. “Now, I’ve already called your matron. She should be here in an hour or so—”

“What?” The shock shook me out of my reverie. “No, you can’t! She’ll take me back!”

“Back to your orphanage? Good! It’s not too far from here, so you can come visit whenever you like, but the domain of the daevas is still not the place for children. Not even the warlord’s younglings live here.”

“But the entire reason I joined the succubi was to escape that place!”

She frowned, then knelt down in front of me to meet my eyes. “Miss Ling. If there is something seriously, genuinely wrong with that orphanage, if your matron is doing… things she shouldn’t, please, tell us. You won’t have to go back, I promise.”

I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again, frowning.

My matron had always been loud and overbearing… but then, so were Xinivrae and the other succubus warlords. She never seemed to care about what I did except when I did something wrong, but with the number of kids in the orphanage, I guess she didn’t have a choice.

The chamberlain smiled, recognizing the resigned look on my face. “Yes, I suspected as much. Don’t worry, little one, that’s normal. We only learn how much we need our parents after they’re gone.” Her face darkened briefly. “One way or another.”

I shuffled in the dress. “…aren’t you going to ask?”

Now the vampire looked genuinely confused. “Ask what?”

“Ask why I left the succubi.”

She chuckled. “I’m more interested in why you thought it was a good idea to join in the first place.” Her smile lessened, but did not fade completely. “But seriously, take your time. Aka Manah would like to know, yes, for his records if nothing else, but you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

I nodded, once, but didn’t say anything.

The chamberlain stood and took my hand. “Now, come along. You need a tour.”

Damavand wasn’t much, all things considered. It was, in most ways, the same as any other random skyscraper, except that most of the windows were blacked out and no one bothered to turn on the lights.

But she still led me around the entire domain by the hand, carefully and patiently explaining anything I might have questions on. We started out in the Akoman sector, with its many libraries and reading cubbies, dark computers designed for vampire eyes scattered around. The paintings and drapes hung on the walls depicted famous libraries and people who I was told were great scholars. Da Vinci, Newton, so on.

The chamberlain pointed out the moment we left the scholar quarter, and pointed out the subtly different color of the carpet—which was very difficult to identify in the gloom—as evidence of it. The Nanghait sector was much the same as the Akoman, just with less books and more computers, most of which were manned by quiet vampires who smiled at us as we passed.

I stopped dead at the entrance to the Sawarl sector, a massive black pair of double doors covered in depictions of torture and pain, but the chamberlain just patted me on the head and pushed me forward. The oppressors’ quarter was, as one might expect, even darker than the rest of the domain, and what little I could see through the gloom hinted at chains and spikes on the wall. My guide assured me that I was in no danger, but hurried me through all the same.

Leaving Sawarl—through a pair of doors identical to the first—we came out in a hall with walls of pure white, kept clean and sanitary, reflecting the minimal light from the illumination strips in the ceiling like mirrors. There was no carpet, just dull white linoleum, unscratched and unblemished. The chamberlain told me that this was the sector reserved for the Zariz, the spies, and that they wouldn’t like me finding out their secrets. We didn’t see a single soul as we passed through, or indeed anything but the dull white walls and floors.

Tauriz, the warrior sector, was the first place we actually ran into people. Oh, we had seen a few everywhere but Zariz, but they had just smiled and nodded and been on their way. The Tauriz though, they greeted my guide like old friends, shaking her hand, hugging her, and nearly crying with sheer joy at her presence.

They were still warriors, though. Most of them wore body armor, and all of them wore weapons, from simple knives and swords to handguns and rifles. One of them, when he noticed me, picked me up with great battle-scarred hands and placed me on his shoulders, where I stayed for nearly an hour as the chamberlain slowly guided me through the subculture, pointing out barracks and armories, punctuated by helpful additions from the jubilant warriors.

It was all a bit of a blur, but eventually my ride plucked me off his shoulders and deposited me on the ground, patting me on the head jovially. I waved goodbye as the chamberlain pulled me away, not understanding the meaningful nods she exchanged with the leader of the crowd of soldiers.

I realized the second we left the warrior quarter. My guide quickly explained that the lights in this sector were left on for the ambassadors from other cultures the Indar might wish to entertain. Here—like the rest of the domain, but it was easier to tell here—everything was draped in silks, with the walls and ceilings covered in designs inspired by Indian architecture. It took me a moment to realize that we had reached the lower floors of the skyscraper, probably so that diplomats didn’t have to climb a million stairs.

Diplomats such as my matron.

“Mamma!” I managed when I saw her. Her skin might be olive-green and her eyes marble-black today, but when the person responsible for disciplining you if you didn’t go to bed on time liked changing her toys every few days, you learned how to identify her despite her outward appearance.

She stomped forward, glowering over me, using the full weight of her impressive height to underline her authority in a way that seemed to fill the entire room.

I gulped. Last time she had been like this had been the time I set the washer on fire. On purpose. It… had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Then she reached forward and drew me into a hug.

I was reminded of the last time I had seen her, a month ago. She had found me in the hospital when I was giving birth, and had stayed by my side the entire time without saying a word. And then, when it was done, she had kissed me on the forehead with tears in her eyes and just left.

Later, I found out I hadn’t needed to run as far as I thought. She could have found me whenever she wanted, but chose not to out of respect for my privacy. Ironic, considering the reasons I had left in the first place.

“Please extend my thanks to your Noble, Honored Nightstalker,” my matron said with a prim nod to my guide. “I greatly appreciate being informed of the whereabouts of one of my lost children.”

“I shall, but I am not a daeva, or even a vampire.”

My matron looked her up and down with a frown. “…all right. Then what are you doing here? I have little patience for games at the moment.”

She chuckled. “As I understand it, Mamma Gkika, you have a reputation for never having patience for games. But there is nothing wrong with that. I was simply in the area, and asked dear Aka Manah if I could show his newest nightrunner around the domain.” She curtsied. “But I am, as I said, not a vampire. I am simply Lily.”

The effect that this statement had on my matron was electric. Her face went through a dozen expressions at once, most of them some flavor of shock and surprise, until she managed to settle on a sort of understated reverence.

She bowed deeply. “I apologize, if I had known—”

“Oh, stop that,” Lily said, waving her hand. “I hate people bowing and scraping.”

My matron straightened, but still looked subdued. “I… hadn’t realized you were a vampire—I mean, that you had taken on some vampiric toys. I assumed you were still—”

“Yes…” my guide murmured, looking over her hands. “I’m not sure I like this package. I’m thinking of going back to demon for a while. Hm… should probably play around as a kemo first, though. Haven’t done that in forever…”

“Yes, lady.”

A sigh. “What did I just say about bowing and scraping?”

“Yes, lady.”

The vampire who wasn’t a vampire rolled her black eyes and knelt down in front of me. “Miss Ling. You’re a good girl, despite what Malcanthet and hers have tried to do to you. Aka Manah and his daevas will be good for you, help you re-acclimate to society.”

I had no idea what the word ‘re-acclimate’ meant, but decided to just stay quiet.

“But you need to stay with your matron,” she continued. “Damavand is no place for a child. In time, you can move in here for real. But I think you’ll end up moving away from the daevas entirely.” She finally noticed the blank look on my face and sighed. “The point is, follow your dreams. Don’t feel locked down, all right?”

I nodded, not sure what else to do.

“Good.” She patted me on the head one last time before standing and turning to my matron. “I will speak to the Noble, let him know you took her home. The dress is a gift, but make sure she takes care of it. It should be able to last a year or so.”

My matron nodded once. “Thank you, lady.”

Lily rolled her eyes again, but this time there was a smile on her lips as well.

Behind the Scenes (scene 246)

Flashbacks take forever for me to write. Ling scenes also take forever to write. Ling flashbacks, therefore, always kill me.

Scene 245 – Sanctus

SANCTUS

KELLY

It had been months since I saw Kat. Months since I even thought of her. In Domina city, you learned quickly to forget about the dead as soon as possible. Dwelling on the past didn’t do anyone any good.

But sometimes the past came back.

I had forgotten that the screamers weren’t actually dead. Genuinely, seriously forgotten. A lifetime of repression made it easy for me to bury any uncomfortable truths in the back of my brain. The bats were one of the first batches of screamers we had managed to capture in large numbers, but that was just a datum to be filed away as something Clarke or Butler might want to know.

I had never considered the possibility that Kat might rejoin us one day.

I nearly jumped as the fel dropped down in front of me from out of sight, black mist clinging to her form as the last vestiges of her temporary transformation. She had been doing that a lot, shifting to bat form for a second or two in order to get a couple of wingflaps to slow a fall or gain a few extra feet on a jump or whatever. She was a bit disappointed in her power, but she was making the most of it.

Shaking myself out of my daze, I focused on her dancing fingers. The power package hadn’t repaired her throat, it seemed. Hardly unexpected, but certainly a pity. A few annoying diseases and ailments had cleared up after the MEE, though it was hard to tell what was from the package and what was screamers with healing powers plying their trade.

“Sorry,” I said. “Can you repeat that?”

She did, fingers flashing faster than before, a sure sign of annoyance.

I frowned. “Are you sure you’re not overreacting? How long has it been?”

More fingers dancing in the daylight.

“What? No, not enough. Call me when it’s been half and hour at absolute minimum.”

Her signing took on an angry, aggressive energy.

“Kat, Alex is our tracker. If we raised a fuss every time he disappeared for five minutes, we’d never get anything done!” More signing, but I interrupted her with a wave of my hand. “Five minutes, fifteen, whatever. You get the point. You have no proof he’s missing instead of just haring off after some interesting tracks.”

She signed a gesture that you’d didn’t need to know sign language to understand.

I rolled my eyes. “Age or IQ?”

Before Kat could find an outlet for her rage, a massive hand dropped onto her shoulder. The man it belonged to, the ogre George, smiled fondly. “It’s like not a day’s passed. Just like old times.”

“Almost,” I muttered, turning away and clambering back into the van. It shook as the two of them joined me, and then Jarasax started the engine and set off. I pulled out my phone and texted Alex as we did. Wherever he was, he would know to meet us at our destination.

The Composer was gone and the threat of screamers completely eliminated, but that didn’t mean the retinue’s job had disappeared entirely. Sure, we didn’t protect the Paladins directly as much any more, but the Big Boss had wanted us to keep an eye on some things that were cropping up.

It was November 11th, a Sunday, and just a hair over a week since the city had gone crazy and subsequently been brought back to sanity by putting Elizabeth on ice. Things had returned to normal surprisingly quickly, all things considered, though people playing with their new powers had made things chaotic for a couple days there.

In the middle of the crowded street, the asphalt bubbled, burst up, and exploded, revealing a roaring giant with the black skin and fiery red hair of a Muspel. He turned to us and gestured, causing the street under the van to buckle and bend, sending us tumbling over to the side.

This was actually pretty normal. He was just using powers on us instead of guns.

The first attack put the van on two wheels, but Sax drove on gamely while the rest of us clutched various hand-holds with white knuckles. Not for the first time, I blessed the Sax’s foresight at installing four-wheel drive.

The second strike, however, hit us when we were still trying to stay balanced, and knocked the entire van over, causing it to grind against the street with a whining screech of tortured metal, skidding for ten or twenty yards before finally coasting to a stop.

Small blessings: The left side was on the street, which meant the right side was pointing at the sky, so I could open my door unhindered. I slammed it open and immediately fired two shots from my Saint Jude.

The Muspel saw me coming though, and created a wall of stone out of the ground to block my shots. I cursed under my breath and fired a couple more times, knowing it was useless, but hopefully it would keep him occupied for long enough.

And it did. I heard George grunt behind me, even his massive strength struggling to bring his minigun to bear in this situation. I continued firing until I was out of ammo, then turned to check on George’s status. He had the gun out, obviously, and was getting the ammo belt ready, and…

Was the gun… glowing?

I dropped back through the door seconds before he started firing, clapping my hands over my ears in a vain attempt to block out the thundering roar of a 7.62 mm XM134 on full auto. Where the bullets impacted, they exploded—not just threw up clouds of dust and debris, but actually exploded in fire and light. Small explosions, certainly, but enough to provide a nice big boost to the weapon’s firepower.

I still wasn’t used to that. George’s power let him… ‘enchant’ objects, to imbue them with various enhancements for a short time. It had taken him forever to even figure out what his power was. Eventually, we had given up and just called up the security footage from the MEE. It had still taken a while to figure out, but that had certainly helped.

But the fact that he hadn’t known about it until a couple days ago meant that most of the city had been using their powers for twice as long as him. Since powers improved with use, that meant that everyone was twice as strong as him. Oh, you got into diminishing returns pretty quickly, but we hadn’t really reached that point yet.

Looking through the cracked glass of the front window, I could see that the Muspel stoneshaper weathered the storm of enchanted bullets well, stepping back and building thicker and thicker walls with the material of the street as he went. Either George’s reservoir or his ammo would run out soon, and I had a feeling our enemy had another trick up his sleeve when that happened.

Kat was setting up her sniper rifle, but despite the Apollo Crisis being more accurately described as an anti-tank gun, I wasn’t sure it was going to be useful in this situation. Locked inside this van, she didn’t have the mobility to aim properly.

Jarasax and I had powers too, but they didn’t have any sort of range on them; certainly not better than our guns. Even as I was pulling out my Saint Euphemia, he was checking the mag on his Hellion machine gun.

If we were lucky, the enemy would get close enough that we could unload everything at once and overwhelm his defenses. More likely, he was going to circle around and bury us, van and all.

I heard a crunch behind me, and turned to see a hand punching through the back door and prying it open, revealing a grinning croc anthro with a toothy maw as long as my arm.

Or maybe the Muspel was just distracting us while his allies moved into position.

Kat couldn’t bring her massive gun to bear, so I turned the Euphemia I had in my hands on him, pulling the trigger and spitting a four-round burst of lead at his chest, the weapon roaring loud enough in the confined space to drown out even George’s minigun.

The anthro’s grin didn’t falter, and he took the bullets to his thick green crocodile scales without complaint. After a moment, the clip was empty, and he was none the worse for wear.

Powers. This was getting annoying.

Kat, however, didn’t hesitate. She lashed out at the lace with a double-footed kick from the floor of the van (well, the wall, which was now the floor), sending the croc stumbling back more in surprise than anything. When he roared in fury and tried to swipe at her, she disappeared into black mist, reappearing moments later as a small bat that slipped behind him while he was confused. Before he could do much more than frown in confusion, she had returned to normal behind him, and clawed at his back, trying to find a weak point in his armor.

Once again though, that didn’t do much good. Between his thick scales and whatever defensive power he was using, her claws couldn’t so much as draw blood. It did serve to cause him to spin around and engage her, however, distracting him quite neatly, and give me enough freedom to exit the van and attack him.

This time, I didn’t use my Saint Euphemia. The Saint of Peace was powerful and dangerous, but designed more for crowd control and military use, with its well-known four-round burst designed to conserve ammo and accuracy. My Saint Jude wasn’t much better—patron saint of lost causes he might be, but 4.5 mm simply wasn’t working on this one.

Instead, I simply stepped forward, placed my hand on his back, and closed my eyes.

Time froze as my perceptions shrank, and in moments the only thing in the whole world was the croc in front of me. I could feel every artificial scale, every boosted muscle, every augmented bone. I could see the brushstrokes of the toy maker, from the organic but haphazard growth caused by the traditional device, to the brute-force shaping that came from his time in the toy box itself.

I could also feel his nerves. A delicate tracery of lightning, running through his entire body. Bunches and clusters branched out here and there, a few of them altered slightly by his modifications, but mostly left untouched.

I found a cluster near his spine and poked it.

His screams brought me back to the world.

The massive anthro spasmed and bellowed, stumbling around like a drunk, or perhaps more accurately like a man with a knife in his back. He twitched and writhed like a madman, trying to reach back and grab his spine as if that would help.

Kat looked at me as she stepped back, a questioning look in her eyes. I shook my head. My reservoir was empty, and while my pain touch was powerful, I had yet to actually kill anything bigger than a mouse with it. The croc might be out of the fight temporarily, but we still didn’t have anything that could actually kill him.

Then his head fell off.

I didn’t even notice at first. I just realized that his bellowing stopped, and then heard the dull thud of his crocodile head hitting the ground. His corpse slumped to the street a moment later, blood pooling out beneath it.

I pulled out my Euphemia again and scanned the area. Hopefully this was some unexpected new ally, but you never knew…

“Is that the thanks I get?”

I spun around to face the voice—a cheery, amused, male voice—to find a young Greek man leaning against the side of the van, grinning at me. He definitely had not been there a minute ago. Not even a second ago.

He was a little short, maybe a couple inches over five feet, with glittering black eyes and short-cropped black hair. He had a blood-red ribbon tied around his forehead like a bandana in what seemed to be a decorative fashion, and was dressed in loose jeans and a similarly-fit white t-shirt, presumably to retain full range of movement.

The thing that drew the eye, though, was the sword at his side.

It was a simple katana, nothing particularly special judging by the unadorned hilt and sheathe, but he wore it well. His calm and relaxed stance, on closer inspection, was a quiet lie; he had the hilt in reach and ready to be drawn at any moment.

Swords were not uncommon in Domina City, but they were typically used for fighting fey monsters—things without the ability to shoot you. Sure, the croc hadn’t had a gun, but that was still a situation a good swordsman avoided. He must have a power to even the playing field. Or he was an idiot.

“Thanks,” I said curtly. There was time to worry about this one later. “But we still need to deal with the Muspel.”

He shook his head. “Already dealt with.”

Frowning, I realized the sound of George’s minigun was gone. He must have stopped when I was in my power trance. I turned around to see that the ogre was gone from his position on top of the overturned vehicle; a quick glance inside confirmed he wasn’t there either.

Kat and I walked around the van to find the giant standing a few yards away from the van, his minigun sitting on the ground next to him, chatting amiably with the half-dozen men and women that surrounded him.

They were all wearing katanas, and dressed in a similar style to the first one, with focus on mobility rather than fashion. With a start, I also realized that they all had red ribbons in their hair. The four girls all wore ponytails with the ribbon tied in place (a fashion one of the men mimicked), while the men, with their shorter hair, wore them as bandanas.

One of the girls, a tall and skinny black woman, said something with a smile, and George gave a bellowing laugh. The others grinned at that, though I couldn’t really hear what they were actually saying.

“What’s going on here?” I asked as I strode up, annoyed at being kept out of the loop. “And where’s Jarasax?”

“Here, Kel,” he answered promptly from behind me. He had a cooler in his hands. “Was just getting this from the van. I thought we might have lunch.”

I stared at him. “Now?

He shrugged. “I already called NHQ. A cleanup crew will be here in ten or twenty minutes to right the van and collect the bodies. Until then, we might as well relax a bit, you know? No harm.”

I scratched the fixer pumping and hissing on my arm. The damn thing had been itching worse than usual ever since the MEE. Considering that I had nearly ripped the thing off during my rampage, doing a lot of damage to my arm in the process, I guess that wasn’t unexpected. “Let’s start simple.” I turned to the swordsfolk. “Who are you people?

The tall black woman bowed, and spoke with a posh British accent. “We are the kensei, Honored Nightstalker. Dame Akiyama sent us when she heard of the Muspel’s attack. We weren’t far.”

“Akiyama?” I blinked as I realized where I had seen ribbons like that before—albeit, a deep royal blue rather than a rich blood red. “Akiyama has minions? Blood on the ground, when did that happen?”

The one with the British accent smiled slightly. “’Followers’ is generally the more polite term. And it was recently. After the Rampage, obviously. Perhaps you met Paladin Sefu? He was the first.”

One of the others, the boy with the ponytail, frowned. “I thought it was Flynn.”

“Flynn outranks Sefu,” another girl said. “But Sefu still came first, if only by a day.”

This was all happening too fast. I might have only known Akane Akiyama for a few months, but I had always gotten the very strong impression that her shyness was anything but an act. She could barely summon the strength to talk around new people; how had she been able to assemble an army?

“What about Huntsman?” I asked, finally able to sort my thoughts into some kind of order.

The British one quirked her head. “Who?”

I sighed. Oh dear, this might get tricky. “It’s—he’s—where’s Akiyama? Is she here? I would like to speak to her about…” I gestured weakly at the men and women. “This. She has super speed, she should have beat you here.”

At that, they all chuckled lightly.

“What?” I asked defensively. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” the spokeswoman assured me, trying and failing to suppress a smile. “Please don’t worry about it. As for Dame Akiyama, I’m afraid she’s not here right now. Her sword is broken, and she is still waiting on a new one. Besides, she said she wanted to see how I handled this without her.”

Well, Akiyama had the ability to delegate. That put her a step ahead of Huntsman, who was hesitant to let hirelings perform even the simplest milk runs without him. In fairness, that one time Anders took us on a milk run, it turned into a gargant hunt, but still.

“Wait, back up,” George, at my side, finally spoke. I had a feeling he had asked all the same questions I had up until now, and had wanted me to get it out of my system. “She’s waiting on a new sword? Can’t she just buy one?” Sword shops weren’t exactly on every street corner, but they were easy enough to find.

The British… kensei—I really should ask her name—shook her head. “She says someone is insisting on forging one for her. Obviously, it will take slightly longer.”

“Obviously,” I conceded. I glanced around. “Well, I don’t see a reason to keep you. Just—”

“NOBODY MOVE!”

“Maybe hold on a few more minutes,” I amended.

We all turned to see two Necessarian armored jeeps skidding to a stop in perfect barricade formation, broad side towards us for defensive purposes. Six well-armed men and women piled out of each vehicle and took up positions behind them, rifles ready and body armor gleaming.

“Let me handle this,” I muttered to the kensei, who nodded. “Don’t make any sudden moves.” I turned to the ‘sarians, raising my empty hands above my head. “I am Corporal Drakela Sanguinas! The situation here is under control!”

There was some slight hesitation from the impromptu barricade, but the guns didn’t waver. After a moment, a young man festooned with enough weaponry to equip half the damn squad by himself clambered over the vehicles to face us.

He was wearing a mask with big bulky goggles—honestly, it was getting cold enough that the mask wasn’t that surprising—but I still recognized him. “Wait, And—”

Adam Anders silenced me with a sharp motion across his throat. Understanding he didn’t want to talk in front of others, I strode forward to meet him, brain working in overdrive as I tried to figure out what was going on.

Once we were within a couple feet, he pulled down his ski mask and smiled ruefully. “Sorry about that, but—”

“You don’t want to be recognized,” I finished. It wasn’t that hard to figure out. He, unlike the rest of the Paladins, had never had to deal with being potentially recognized before. They were all well-known in their own circles, but he was a nameless outsider.

Until he single-handedly saved the entire city from madness, that is.

“I take it fame isn’t treating you well, then?”

He chuckled darkly. “Remind me to apologize to my parents for all the things they did to keep the paparazzi off my back. I haven’t even been able to go back to my dorm; they camped it out. I’ve been sleeping at NHQ.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Not Lily’s?”

“She doesn’t sleep, so that place isn’t exactly… conductive to sleeping.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, at least I don’t get bothered by a million people when she’s around.”

“Yeah, they’ve always been willing to give her a wide berth,” I noted. “It’s a sign of respect. Anyway.” I turned my attention back to the matter at hand. “I have no complaints about you playing around with Necessarius. Good training, if nothing else. I take it you’re leading this band of fools?”

He nodded. “For the moment. With all the recent casualties, the officer corp is in tatters. Vovk is having me shore it up wherever he can.”

Vovk was in charge of that? How many had we lost that a lieutenant colonel was personally organizing grunt teams?

Well, hopefully it was just one of the old wolf’s quirks. He had always been a bit of an odd one.

“I guess I appreciate your help,” I admitted. “Anything you need?”

“Just the basic stuff. Who were these guys?”

“Uh…” I frowned. “Actually, I have no idea. They just randomly attacked.”

“Wonderful,” Anders muttered. “That’s gonna be a paperwork nightmare.”

They actually had him doing paperwork? I probably shouldn’t be surprised. The Big Boss liked everything all neat and tidy, and MC even more so. Clearly though, he didn’t have much familiarity with it yet. “Actually there’s a check-box for ‘random unprovoked attack.’ Check under the ‘motives and demands’ section.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “I swear, this freaking city… Well, better than the alternative, I suppose. Why don’t you call some giants down here while I sort the rest of this out.” He turned back to the squad he had brought with him. “Kowalski! Establish a perimeter and contain that crowd!”

The ‘sarians nodded and set to it, moving away the watchers who had already started appearing to see what was going on.

I smiled. “You’re surprisingly good at this, for only being on the job for a couple days.”

“Four days. And besides, I’ve been around ‘sarians enough the past few months to know how they do things.”

“Fair enough.” He headed over to the kensei as I pulled out my phone to call MC.

Behind the Scenes (245)

Ah, the kensei. Been waiting to introduce them forever.

Scene 244 – Esca

ESCA

AKANE

Veronica crushed me in a bear hug that put Maria’s to shame.

“You should have come by sooner!” she cried, apparently unaware that I couldn’t breathe. “Why didn’t you tell me you finally found your nephews?”

I struggled to get my face out of her chest, but to no avail.

“Let the poor girl go,” Derek’s mom chided. “She can’t help clean this place up if you smother her to death.”

Thankfully, Mrs. Arrow complied, and I suddenly found I could breathe again, though I had to lean against the wall for a moment.

We were in the Arrow apartments, specifically the first floor kitchen where Veronica served meals. Last time I had been here, the place had been under guard by the Hellions and some other demon clans, trying to protect Obould from the Composer despite his protests. Mrs. Arrow had done her best to ignore them all and continue making her famous meals.

Now, there were more demons than last time, but most of them weren’t guarding. They were scattered around the apartment, helping to clean up the massive mess made by the MEE—and Veronica Arrow’s personal rampage.

The clean white walls of the kitchen were covered in dust and dirt produced by the massive rents and tears that dug down to the sheetrock. The pictures of friends and family—including myself—carefully framed and hung at eye height had been thoughtlessly knocked down, the glass shattered and scattered across the floor carelessly. The oven appeared to have been actively attacked, with massive dents and gouges as if it had been struck repeatedly with an axe.

The beautiful oak table and chairs had been reduced to kindling, but those had already been replaced, albeit with temporary cheap plastic ones. There were a couple Kellions (judging by the emblems on their shoulders) sitting down eating, but they hastily stood when they realized who we were.

Derek waved them off. “Please, don’t get up on our account.” He took in the destruction with a critical eye. “It’s not quite as bad as I expected. But I thought when Elizabeth turned the city, most people retained their minds enough to not just destroy anything in sight. Were you one of the exceptions?”

The big Italian woman shook her head. “No. Well, we don’t have cameras, so it’s hard to be sure. But as far as we can tell, it’s just that I wouldn’t stop trying to use my new found ability.” She shrugged. “I can’t control it, so this is what happened.”

Yuudai looked at her, wide-eyed. “Mama Arrow, you did all this?”

She smiled fondly at the boy. ‘Mama’ was a title usually given to the matrons of orphanages. You know, when it wasn’t being used for actual mothers. “You would be… Yuuki, correct? The younger of the pair?”

“I’m Yuuki,” the boy in question corrected from my side. “The older. That’s Yuudai.”

She nodded in apology. “Well Yuudai, yes, I did do all this.” Her smile turned sad. “Quite a few people did things… that they would later regret. During the Rampage, I mean. All things considered, I am lucky most of my home survived intact.”

“Too true,” Maria said, patting her old friend on the shoulder as she and Victor walked by and put their bags on the table, ignoring the demons eating there. “But the best thing to do is move past it, and start working on fixing things.”

They might be ignoring the demons, but the demons seemed well aware of who they were, and weren’t interested in getting in anyone’s way. They suddenly found that they had other, very important things to do, and fled with their food as fast as their legs could carry them.

The pair and Veronica didn’t seem disturbed by the sudden exodus, if they even noticed, and Victor spoke after shuffling through his bag for a moment. “All right, I’ve got some white paint here, but that’s for later. Anybody got spackle compound for the walls?”

One of the women who was working—and hadn’t fled—reached around a corner and pulled out a small container. She was a hag, of all things, judging by the fresh needle marks on her arm, but she seemed surprisingly together for a drug-addled loon. “Here. Probably not enough for everything, though.”

Victor took it without even looking at her. “Thanks. Maria, you have the tools, right?”

“You said you had them.”

“Yes, for painting, but I mean—”

“I didn’t know what else we needed. How would I?”

“I don’t know, you seemed to know what you were doing!”

I rolled my eyes and patted my nephews on the shoulders. “This can go on for a while. Why don’t you two go upstairs and try to find Obould? He should be in his office. It’s labeled.” I pulled them away from the shouting and pushed them towards the stairs around the corner.

As the boys left, I turned to see Flynn standing before me. When I jumped, he shrugged. “Sorry. Thought you were leaving.”

“So you decided to follow me?” I asked, a little skeptical. What, was he a stalker now?

“Rather than stay and watch Derek’s parents yell at each other? Yes, actually.” He looked over his shoulder and frowned. “Actually, that hag creeps me out. Never thought seeing someone normal instead of giggling and insane would be so weird.”

Is she a hag?” I asked. “I saw the needle marks, but she could be from another clan…”

“She has a jacket with the hag emblem,” he explained.

Again, that wasn’t iron-clad proof of her subculture, but it took a very, very stupid person to wear the hag symbol openly. Even most hags, drugged out of their minds, weren’t that stupid. Usually.

But this girl wasn’t drugged out of her mind. She seemed… intelligent. Lucid. Her eyes were sharp, and her mind was clear. I felt like I was missing something very important about the whole situation.

I shook my head. That was a problem for another time. “Let’s go down to the cellar. Get some food Mrs. Arrow can make to interrupt the arguing.”

He followed me to the small door that led downstairs. “Are you sure she can? I mean, I’m not sure her oven is working.”

“No idea,” I said as we headed into the dark cellar. There was a light switch around here somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. It was a small room, mostly too small; leaving the door open would illuminate things well enough. “But that oven of hers was a gift from Dispater. It’s tougher than it looks.”

Flynn started gathering up cans seemingly at random. “If you say so. If nothing else, she can throw something in the microwave.” He frowned at one of the cans he was holding. “…what is Atlantean god-crab?”

“Giant crabs,” I explained as I carefully selected a few items of my own. “Fey-modified, of course. They’re at the bottom of the bay, so we don’t see them much.” But Mrs. Arrow would have the connections necessary to get a hold of them—the bigger question was why. “Here. Take this.”

He hefted the covered plastic bucket I handed him without complaint. “This thing has water in it? Some kind of fish, I’m guessing?” He sloshed it around a little before nodding to himself. “No… more crabs. They alive?”

“Kinda. They’re hibernating.”

“Crabs hibernate?”

“I’m not sure. These are fey coral-sleepers. They sit still for days or weeks waiting for something to happen by. They might have been modified to hibernate so that they could go without food forever.”

Flynn frowned again as he hefted the bucket. “This feels kinda light for its size, but it feels completely full, too. These some of those helium fish that float or whatever?”

I chuckled. That was one of the fey’s more public failures. Most of their failures either never left their labs or did enough destruction once outside that the fey didn’t care. The helium fish had just been embarrassing.

“No.” I checked the label. “That’s fifty pounds. Sounds about right.”

“It’s—” He stared at the bucket in his arms in shock. “This is fifty pounds? That can’t be right! It feels like…” He bounced it in his arms, trying to gauge the weight. “…twenty? No, closer to thirty, I think.”

“The power package increases your physical attributes,” I noted as I led the way back up the stairs and out of the dank, cramped cellar. “Strength, agility, toughness. Not much, but enough to be noticeable.”

“I didn’t hear anything about this!” he cried, seemingly unaware that he was hefting the fifty-pound bucket up the stairs without any difficulty whatsoever. “When did you figure all this out?”

“Way at the beginning. The first night, when Laura made us test our powers. Wasn’t it part of the ‘sarian announcements after the MEE?” I had been in New York at the time, and hadn’t cared enough to look it up online after.

“Well, I didn’t see it, I was so busy with everything, and I figured I knew everything I needed to know about the powers anyway…” He shook his head. “It seems like people would be making a bigger deal out of this.”

“You mostly hang out with the Paladins,” I noted as we walked into the kitchen. I placed my armful of canned goods on the scarred countertop next to the oven. Flynn followed suit with the bucket of crabs. “We got all of that out of our systems before the worm hunt.”

Maria and Victor, it seemed, had likewise gotten something out of their systems, and had stopped arguing, and were now having a pleasant conversation in the corner with the hag. I made a mental note to keep an eye on her.

Derek was speaking with Victoria near one of the walls, apparently discussing the damage to the walls. He didn’t notice us come in, but she did, and walked over to us with a smile.

“Very good job, you two. Ooh, and you brought the butter too. Good.” She ruffled my hair, making my beads click. “You always forget the butter.”

I smoothed my hair back into place as she turned to remove the lid from the bucket and inspect the crabs. “That was once, and I was twelve.” If I recalled correctly, she hadn’t even given me a list, just told me ‘go get the stuff for dinner.’

She ignored my protests, and just started pulling crabs out. “Flynn, could you be a dear and get me the pot? The big one, of course.”

Flynn raised an eyebrow at me. He had never been here, so he had no idea where she kept anything. I rolled my eyes and led him down the pantry, the hallway behind the kitchen where the Arrows stored all their kitchen hardware. Finding the crab pot didn’t take long, and we went to fill it up at the sink.

Which didn’t work.

“Oh, right,” Veronica said mournfully. “I cut a few of the pipes during the Rampage.”

“You can just use the water the crabs came in,” Maria suggested.

Mrs. Arrow sighed. “Maria, this is why none of your food is edible. That water has been home to a few dozen crabs for a couple months. It is not fit for drinking at the moment. It probably won’t kill us after it’s brought to a boil, but it will taste terrible.” She turned back to us. “The bathroom sink still works. Get it there.”

I hefted the pot, Flynn following, and found the bathroom in question down the hall and to the left. Getting it into the sink was a pain, and we ended up splashing more water onto ourselves than into the pot, but we finally managed to collect a respectable amount of liquid, and returned to the kitchen.

By that point, Yuuki and Yuudai were back, and they had brought Obould with them.

Obould smiled at us as we walked in. “Oh, you’re helping with the food? That’s not necessary, I could have handled it just fine.”

“Last time you said that, dinner was three hours late,” Derek said idly as he tapped something on his pad. No wait, it wasn’t his pad, it was Veronica’s. He handed it back to her and she nodded in thanks, placing it on the counter where she could read it while cooking.

Obould didn’t seem offended. “But it was a good meal, you have to admit.”

“Either way,” I said as Flynn and I placed the pot on the oven-top stove. “Here is your water, Mrs. Arrow. Did you need anything else?”

She smiled, trying to focus on me and the cookbook on her pad at the same time. “Bless you, no. You’ve done enough. I would like someone to set the tables…” She trailed off, glaring at her husband. He completely failed to take the hint.

I sighed and turned to my nephews. “Past the stairs is the dining room,” I explained, in a louder voice than normal. “You’ll find all the plates and place-mats and silverware in the cupboards. Help Knight Obould set everything out.”

The knight in question looked up, blinking owlishly. Odd, he wasn’t squinting. The kitchen light wasn’t exactly glaring, but it was certainly there, and someone with naked nighteyes should have found it annoyingly bright. A couple of the other orcs we had seen scattered around were wearing their daygoggles.

But that was a mystery to be solved later. The orc Power frowned, confused, as Yuuki and Yuudai led him towards the dining room, understanding my request even if he didn’t. That would keep all three of them out of trouble for half an hour or so.

“Thank you for that,” Veronica said graciously as she started placing crabs in the warming pot. “You know how he can get. He’s been distracted by that gargant.”

Derek, speaking with his mother, frowned and looked up. “What gargant? I thought the fey weren’t attacking any more.”

“There are still a couple, here and there. The strikes are seemingly random, but they also have a surgical precision that you don’t often see with the fey. Enter a shop, kill everyone inside, remove everything of value, and leave. Cameras fried before they even get within sight.”

He considered. “You’re right, that doesn’t sound like the fey, new or old. Are you sure—”

“They’ve taken credit,” she interrupted. “Paid retribution fees and everything. But they can’t keep this up for long. It’s only been a day, and there are already murmurings of discontent. Butler’s going to start demanding they pay their retribution in blood rather than cash soon.”

“Wait, it’s only been a day?” Flynn asked as he took a seat. I followed suit. The plastic chairs were hard and uncomfortable, but I had dealt with far worse. “How does he know it’s a gargant? That sounds like some dangerous new power, to me.”

“The bodies were killed in the same way as the ones from when the fey announced their changes.” She turned away from the pot for a moment, and seeing everyone’s blank looks, elaborated. “Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves organized a band of adventurers and monster slayers to head into the sewers, and they were slaughtered to a man. It’s still not clear exactly what killed them, but it’s the same as now.”

“And since there appears to be only one, it’s only logical to assume a new gargant,” Derek mused. “What exactly have they been taking?” He shook his head before she could answer. “No, right, you said everything.”

“Clearly meant to cover their tracks, hide their true goals.”

“Right. Well, what kinds of places were attacked?”

“That’s the thing. There’s no pattern—which, admittedly, makes it sound more like a fey ploy. There have been three restaurants, four banks, two gun shops, and even the Graveyard, of all places—”

“Graveyard?” Derek and I interrupted at the same time. We glanced at each other, and he continued. “Haven’t heard of that one. Some sort of bar or club, I’m guessing?” There were no graveyards in Domina City. There had just never been room. Generally, the dead were either dissected by companies for research, eaten by ghouls, or cremated. We had the Halls of the Dead, of course, but those were just names carved into the walls.

Veronica glanced at Maria and Victor, who just shrugged, before turning back to us. “Sorry, I assumed you knew. The Graveyard is what they’re calling…” She paused, trying to find the right words. “…Ling’s tomb.”

“Her WHAT?” Derek jumped up, knocking over the cheap chair in the process, and I was only a half moment behind him. “Ling’s dead!?” He took a deep breath. “That’s not… I mean, we knew that was a possibility.” His eyes turned hard. “But when was she found? And silver and gold, how does she have a tomb?

“Guys, you know this,” Flynn said gently. “That ave lab she destroyed right as Silk came.”

I blinked, feeling some of the shock washed away by understanding. I had heard about that, a lab completely and utterly destroyed by massive concrete spikes, bursting out of the ground and the building itself in impossible ways. “I thought they hadn’t found Ling’s body. Or even confirmed that it was her.”

“It had to be her,” Derek muttered, distracted, as he righted his chair and sat back down. “No one else has that kind of level of power yet. But other than that, you’re right. Last I checked, the ‘sarians digging there hadn’t even found the toy box.”

“Well, they found it,” Victor said quietly. “Entombed in concrete, with a twisted corpse inside. It was too… broken to identify, but Isaac confirmed Ling’s DNA. She must have tried to retreat to the box after destroying the lab, but it was too late.”

“The toy box was nonfunctional?” I asked, frowning. Those things were supposed to be indestructible. The originals, at least. They were covered in enough amorphous metal to deflect a small nuke.

“No, it was still working. Still on, I think, but the body…” He looked away. “There are some things even the toy box can’t fix.”

The room fell silent as everyone gave Derek and I some peace.

After a few minutes, Mrs. Arrow banged the side of the pot, sending out a chime. She smiled slightly. “There will be time enough for tears and depression later. For now, it’s time to eat.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 244)

Veronica’s lack of control is one of the more common discords.

And as for the physical ability increase that comes as part of the power package: It’s additive, not multiplicative. So you’re not going to find giants doubling in strength; for them, the increase was such a small part of their total strength that they likely didn’t even notice. Butler, on the other hand, noticed it immediately, since he was always so weak beforehand.