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—”
“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.