Monthly Archives: February 2016

Scene 256 – Quaesitum

QUAESITUM

LAURA

“Thank you. Bye.”

Derek looked up. “What’d Kelly say?”

I glared down at him. “She said you need to get off my lap.”

He returned his attention to his game. “I doubt it.”

“To be more specific, I need to investigate a few things at Nishrek. Alex and Jarasax have gone missing, and while the rest of the retinue and Adam deal with that, she wants me to pick up where they left off. There’s been a couple murders.”

“Hrrm…” He still didn’t move.

“Specifically, the orcs said they were killed by a gargant.”

He paused his game. “The fey were involved in this?”

“Maybe. Nobody had a chance to review the security footage yet.”

“If the fey randomly murdered a few people, we can demand retribution.”

“Which they will pay,” I said.

“True.” He finally slid off my lap, stretching once he was off the bed and on his feet. “How far is Acheron from here? I can never remember.”

‘Here’ was NHQ, a small private room off the barracks, reserved for officers. It was still austere and Spartan, but it was never designed for more than sleeping anyway. Our dorms back at AU would have been marginally more comfortable, but it wasn’t worth running back and forth every day.

“It’s actually a bit on the far side,” I said. “A couple hours by car, with all the traffic and everything.” Necessarian sirens would only help so much. “Nishrek actually has a helicopter pad, if we want to do this the fun way.”

He looked surprised. “We have choppers again? Since when?”

“Since we’ve been on good terms with the aves,” I said. “After Soaring Eagle fled, one of her subordinates took over. Delia has been quite helpful, and is leasing us a few of their choppers and VTOL craft.”

“All right then,” he said cheerily. “Let’s go.”

“First, change your shirt.”

He looked down. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“It has holes.”

“Only small ones!”

“Still.” I tossed him a simple black tee from the footlocker. “That will work.”

He rolled his eyes. “Fine. But you need to change too.”

What?” I placed my hand on my chest—or, more specifically, on the beautiful gray embroidered long-sleeve shirt I was wearing. “My clothes are fine. I could get into a ball with these.”

“And we’re investigating a murder,” he said. “At Nishrek.” He rooted around in the footlocker and found a bland white tee and a simple fake leather jacket. “Here. This should be just right.”

I sighed. He had a point.

After we finished changing, it only took twenty minutes to get to the Fifty Battlefields, with more of that spent finding a helicopter pilot than actually flying. MC had her remote piloted drones, of course, but those weren’t equipped to hold human passengers.

Once there, I didn’t waste any time. I headed straight to the security room, dragging around the protesting devil the whole way.

“Honored Paragon, there is no need to keep the Battlefields on lock down,” Bahgtru begged. “The threat has passed, and the scene investigated! Of course, we will comply with Necessarius in any way you need, but this is simply unnecessary.”

There were about a dozen orcs guarding the security room, which increased my respect for the man a bit more. Of course, it would help if there had been guards from the beginning, but that was beside the point.

The room itself was underground, like most of the behind-the-scenes parts of Nishrek. Not particularly deep underground, just a floor or two below street level. There was nothing cold concrete walls, illuminated by dull red nightlights and dotted with doors.

The security center was the third on the left, and inside were banks and banks of monitors, providing as many views as possible for the hundreds of cameras of Nishrek.

The girl in the chair—orc, of course—spun around when we came through the door, but relaxed when she realized who we were. “You scared me, boss. These the ‘sarians who need to see the footage?”

“Yes,” I said, glossing over the precise details of our relationship with Necessarius. “That’s what we’re here for. But first, would you mind going over that kidnapping one more time? Just real quick.”

She nodded. “Well, like I told the vampire, I wasn’t here when the angel and the changeling were. I was out getting coffee, and Bahgtru was coming to find me. When we came back, they were gone, and their phones were on the floor.”

All true. “You didn’t kidnap them, or aid in the kidnapping in any way, shape, or form?”

She frowned. “Uh, no. No ma’am, I did not.”

I turned to the devil. “Bahgtru. Did you kidnap Alex Gabriel or Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters, or aid in the kidnapping in any way, shape, or form?”

He gave me an odd look. “No. What’s this about? Fi—the angry vampire already interrogated us pretty thoroughly. We told her everything we know. I thought you said you weren’t here for that?”

“Just following up.” Both were telling the truth; I could leave the rest to Kelly. I turned to the monitors. “Why don’t you show me the footage from last night? The murder itself. You said it was a gargant.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the security tech said as she tapped swiftly at the keyboard. “Got it clearly on three separate cameras. The actual murder is just a tad offscreen, though, so it’s still not clear precisely what happened—”

“Please,” I interrupted. “Just show me.”

“Uh, right.” She tapped a few keys, and the screens changed.

Derek leaned forward. “I don’t see anything. Your cameras have night vision, right?”

“These ones do,” she said. “Vampire-style, increased light sensitivity. We have some infrared ones scattered around, but the gargant didn’t get caught on those.” She tapped the keyboard again. “But the point is, that’s it.”

“I don’t see anything,” he said. “Are you sure—”

Then the thing on the cameras moved.

It wasn’t that the camera couldn’t see in the dark. It was just that the gargant was so big, they couldn’t get a good angle to make out any details. I saw dark hair covering every inch of its body I could see, and a writhing, heaving back, but the limbs remained out of sight…

“Do you have audio?” I asked.

She nodded and moved her hands over the keyboard again.

Suddenly the room was filled with heavy, labored breathing, like from some massive animal almost too big to support its own weight—it was a sound you learned to associate with gargants pretty quickly.

But they weren’t the only ones that made it. “You sure this isn’t just a sasquatch or yeti?”

“Hair color is wrong for a yeti,” Derek said.

“And yes, we are sure,” the tech added. “You’ll see in a second.”

Gunfire. Short, quick bursts, too regular to be accidental.

“Some kind of specialized weapon with a burst-fire mode,” I said. “A pistol?” More gunfire, this time not in the same bursts as the first. “Two guns. Different make. I think the other one’s a pistol too, though.”

“First is an Olympian Hermes,” Bahgtru said. “Second is a…” He checked a pad. “Crisis 04181976. Sorry, I should have checked for more detail on that, but I’m not the one who found them…”

“Reiner Gamma Crisis,” I said. “The colony on Luna collapsed when the prisoners revolted in 1976. That’s a microflechette pistol, though. Using it on something that big is an odd choice, to say the least…”

One of the guards coughed. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but the Reiner Gamma uses poison. Pretty strong stuff. Normally not enough to take down a gargant, but they emptied a couple clips at it, so it should have worked.”

I frowned. “You found empty magazines on the corpses?”

The guard nodded. “I did, ma’am. When I was helping that angel who got kidnapped. Uh, before the kidnapping. Found both guns, too. The Hermes was also empty.”

“Hm.” I turned back to the tech. “Continue.”

The woman had paused the video while we were talking, and pressed play at my signal.

The gunfire continued, as expected, but I also heard yelling—at least two separate voices, maybe more. And it wasn’t in English, but I couldn’t quite pick out what language it was. German? No…

“Can you isolate and enhance that?”

The girl shook her head. “We just don’t have the equipment for that sort of thing. MC probably can, though. But wait, we’re coming to the good part.”

There was an explosion.

I turned to Bahgtru with a frown. “There was no sign of an explosion—”

“Shh!” the security tech hissed. “Right here!”

The thing blocking the camera moved out of the way, just for a moment. Just long enough to reveal a short baseline man, clearly one of the victims we had found on the first floor, standing in front of his enemy with his hands glowing orange. He brought his hands together, and there was that explosion noise again, though it didn’t seem to do any actual damage.

The gargant roared in pain and fury—enhanced ears, no doubt, made the cheap little sound effect much more annoying for it than for us. Then it lunged forward, obscuring our view again—and the baseline screamed, only for his cry to be cut off quickly and lethally.

A few moments later, the gargant moved out of camera range, dragging the corpse with it.

“That’s odd…” I muttered. “It killed them all in different places, and then put their corpses in a big pile?” There had been twelve victims in total. All still in one piece, minus the part where their hearts had exploded out of their rib cages. “None of them were chewed on or eaten… do we have any better angles?”

“No. This was the best by a mile.”

“Of course it was.” I touched the ring on my necklace. “While this could be an excessively bestial sasquatch, I think you’re right, it’s a gargant. Something fey-made, but… intelligent?” I shook my head. “They’ve made cunning monsters before, but this seems like something else.”

“What if they found a way to remote-pilot one?” Derek said. “You’re right. A normal gargant, even if it could be trained not to eat meat—or maybe it’s just an herbivore, they’ve got a couple of those—wouldn’t toss them all in a pile like this.”

“Dogs have been trained to do more complicated tricks,” the devil said.

Derek frowned. “…true.”

“That’s not it,” the tech and I said at the same time.

We looked at each other, and I nodded and made a sweeping motion with my hand, conceding her the floor.

She blushed at the sudden attention. “Uh… right! Anyway, the important part, the sign of intelligence, isn’t the fact that it cleaned up after itself, or even the weird way it killed everyone. It’s that it managed to keep its back to our cameras the entire time it was in Nishrek.”

There was a pause as everyone let that sink in.

“Yeah,” Derek said after a moment. “Yeah, that’s a sign of intelligence, all right.”

“We’ll call the fey later, demand answers,” I promised. “But it will go better if we know what questions to ask.” And if I was the one asking the questions. “What about the victims? We know two of them had BOB guns. Anything else linking them?”

Bahgtru shook his head. “All the other guns were unused, and were a variety of models and brands. A few Telums, a Colt, an H3 Dawn, and so on and so forth. Nothing really interesting, except for a smoke grenade that they didn’t get a chance to prime.”

“And we can’t analyze that speech quite yet,” I said, mostly to myself. I did need to remember to download a copy of the audio at some point, though. “What about culture? What culture were they?”

“Baseline,” the orc said instantly. “They were all completely unmodified.”

I frowned. “…okay.” I really needed to have MC translate Alex’s notes from angelscript. I made a mental note. “That seems like an odd coincidence. Let’s move on to how they died. Has there been any luck on figuring out the exact cause?”

Derek handed me a pad. “The CSI guys gave me this when we got here. It’s all their notes, including a live update feed from the coroner. She got the bodies a few hours ago.”

Why hadn’t they given this to me in the first place? Whatever.

I scrolled through it… then frowned and backed up.

“That can’t be right,” I muttered.

“What?”

“According to the coroner’s preliminary report, none of them ever used the toy maker. At all.” I double-checked her findings. “No exterior modifications of any kind, and she hasn’t found any of the brushstrokes that would indicate they had some and removed them.”

“So?” Derek asked. “Lots of people don’t have cosmos or anything obvious.”

I shook my head. “This is an in-depth autopsy. She should have seen something.”

“Has she reached the internals yet?”

“She’s working on it.” There was a video. “Yeah, cracking open the rib cage now.”

“Assuming she doesn’t find anything, that only has one possible answer.”

I looked up and rolled my eyes. “They are not clays. Do you have any idea how rare those are? Last I checked, we had a grand total of four in the entire city.” I thought about it. “Actually, I think Ryan Hearing left.”

Derek sighed. “Forest for the trees…”

I glared. “Just tell me what I’m missing.”

“There’s one other group that doesn’t use the toy maker,” he said. “Not can’t, just don’t.”

What was he…

Oh.

Oh dear.

“Yeah,” he said with finality. “Them.”

Bahgtru looked between the two of us. “What? Who are you talking about?”

“People from outside the city,” I growled.

Especially spies.

Behind the Scenes (scene 256)

I might be drawing this out longer than necessary, but I keep forgetting to bring up these plot points, so I’m doing them now.

break

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Scene 255 – Subpetiae

SUBPETIAE

ADAM

“You should have told me,” I said.

Kelly didn’t look at me. “This I my problem, not yours.”

“Call me crazy, but I kinda want to know if two of my friends get kidnapped!”

“Stop waving your gun around,” she said, scratching at the device on her arm. “Didn’t they teach you basic safety at that stupid firearms class of yours? Seriously.”

I rubbed my forehead as I holstered my Sica. “…look. I understand the whole ‘don’t get people involved’ thing. Really, I do. But trying to do everything yourself is just going to get those two killed.”

She gave me a sour look. She knew I had a point, but didn’t want to admit it. “How did you even find out about this, anyway? Clarke’s daughter tell you?”

“In a manner of speaking. MC, not Robyn.” Their relationship was… odd.

Kelly sighed. “Fine. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep this under wraps for long. But I was hoping to finish this up before we had to call anyone in.”

“Start at the beginning. Do you have any clues as to who took them?”

“No,” she said. “But I still know who.”

I blinked. “Uh, okay. Who?”

“The Belians.”

Oh. Oh dear.

Kelly’s eyes were hidden behind her daygoggles, but I could easily imagine the murderous fire that filled them. She was an ex-Belian, and while I had never gotten any details on why she had left her culture, it was clear she wasn’t on good terms with them.

“If you know who took them, we can get some ‘sarians and raid the place.”

She shook her head. “Not enough evidence, and they’d just kill the captives before we could get through. We need something more subtle. Kat and George are watching their outpost now. We’ll know when they try to move, and we’ll hit the convoy.”

I held up my hand to forestall her explanation. “Wait a second, back up. You said you don’t have enough evidence. What evidence do you have? How do you know they did this? Should we be looking elsewhere?”

“For the past few months, lesser Belian Nightstalkers have been ambushing me,” she said as calmly as if we were discussing today’s rather mild weather. “I have, of course, been fighting them off. They must have decided to go for my friends instead.”

“That’s it?” I asked incredulously. “That’s all your evidence?”

“Yes.”

“At least tell me that you confirmed that they were at Nishrek! That they had the opportunity to pull off this little kidnapping.”

“No. Not confirmed.”

I sighed. “Well, no wonder you’re trying to do this by yourself.” If she called Necessarius, they wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing. I couldn’t even call in a couple CS squads, not with this. “How do you even know you have the right outpost?”

“It’s the only one remotely nearby,” she said without emotion.

“Of course it is. And those two have it on stakeout, right?”

A nod.

“Good. Then it will give us a chance to search out other leads.” We were standing next to the van, which was parked on the side of the street. I opened up the door and slipped behind the wheel.

What are you doing?” she demanded.

“We need to drive,” I said. “I used to drive big vans like this all the time, whenever my dad needed an extra hand at his shipping business.” Actually, those vans were a little bigger, which would make this even easier, right? “C’mon.”

Kelly sighed and got in the other side as I started the van. The electric engine purred to life as she buckled in. “Where are we going? Do you even know? This isn’t exactly a part of the city you know well.”

“But you should, right?” I said. “You have a good idea of where else to look. Other Belian nests—”

“Like I said, there aren’t any nearby. Besides, that would tip our hands.”

I nodded as I eyed the road, looking for a break in traffic. “Fair enough. But what about other cultures that might have taken them?”

“There is no one else.”

I couldn’t look at her as I focused on merging into the busy street—someone honked at me, but someone was always honking—but I sighed. “Kelly, please stop and think. Everyone has multiple enemies, and the retinue have more than most. Who else could it have been? The fey, finally grabbing a wayward changeling? The angels, taking an opportunity to kidnap a traitor? Explore the other options.”

Laura was silent for about a block.

“Not the fey,” she said finally. “There were no signs of monsters. Their new Chosen or Princes or whatever could have done it without leaving a trace, I suppose, but that’s an awful lot of effort to waste on one little changeling.”

I nodded. “Good, good. What else?”

“The angels are unlikely for the opposite reason. Alex has always been on good terms with them, despite leaving for Necessarius. Some rogue Host could be going around hunting traitors, but I haven’t heard of any such thing.”

“Neither have I,” I said. That was the two obvious suspects down. “What about something random? Maybe someone in Acheron just grabbed two unprotected men when they saw the opportunity. What’s that club next door?”

“The Club Macabre, owned by Wee Jas. But we already asked her. She said she had nothing to do with it, and I’m inclined to believe it.” I could tell by her tone that she was considering my questions carefully, but I couldn’t turn to look. “Hextor or Bane would be happy to pull a random kidnapping, but not from Nishrek. They need to stay on good terms with Gruumsh. No, everyone in Acheron needs to stay on good terms with him.”

“Maybe we should stop by, crack a few skulls, just in case.”

“No, I already used Robyn Joan to scout them out,” she said. “Before I sent her home. They’ll be ready for any further intrusions, and they won’t be happy. No, Acheron is cleared. We need to focus on other possibilities. Take a right up here.”

I followed her instructions, taking a right at the next intersection. “All right. Who else is there?”

“The giants,” Kelly said instantly. “The ogres, to be specific. George left them on good terms, or I thought he did, but the entire culture has been in turmoil ever since Mjolnir died. Mostly between the Thors and the trolls, but it’s been spilling over to the rest. Including the ogres.”

“Wasn’t George the favored of the King or whoever?”

“Gordok, yes. But his is a small tribe, despite his claim to the title of king. Another right here. The ogres aren’t particularly unified, and the Gordoks pissed off a lot of the more violent ones.” I turned my head briefly, to see her scratching the device on her arm with a thoughtful expression on her face. “The gronn? Maybe, Gruul has been making some noise lately…”

“What about Kat?”

Kelly looked at me sideways. “What about her?”

“We’ve gone through your enemies, Sax’s, Alex’s, and George’s. What about Kat’s?”

“Kat doesn’t have enemies,” she scoffed. “No dark secrets in her past, nothing more interesting than losing her parents at a young age. She’s a fel who decided to get nighteyes, and then later decided to become a full anthro. That’s all there is to it.”

“Hm. No enemies at all? Really?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kelly shrug. “Oh, she has a few. But mostly individuals, family members of people she’s had to kill. She’s served Necessarius for a while, so they take the brunt of the hate that would otherwise be directed at her. Plus, it’s surprisingly hard to provoke someone into a murderous rage if you’re mute.”

“Right.” I decided to table that issue for now. “Let’s get back to you. Besides the Belians, who else would want to kidnap your subordinates just to get to you? Vampires, demons, anyone? Someone who likes kidnapping?”

“Belians are still at the top of that list,” she said. Then she thought about it. “…the Nessians, maybe? That would be a daring move, but if they can hide anywhere, it’s Acheron. They might have thought it was better than their usual haunts.”

“Okay, so we have a list of suspects,” I said as I merged left. “What about motive? Or more specifically, motive and opportunity together. Why choose now to grab them? And assuming they are your enemies, why not just grab you?”

“I was in the center of Nishrek, surrounded by orcs, including Gruumsh’s own son. On the other hand, Alex and Sax were in the security room, alone, with no one to protect them from—” She stopped talking.

I risked a glance over to see a frown of confusion on her face. “What?”

“We never did get a look at that security footage,” she said quietly. “There aren’t cameras in the actual room, and I was so convinced it was Belians, I didn’t even think about it. But we were investigating a couple murders. Could this whole thing have been just to keep us from delving too deeply into that?”

“Call Laura the second we get wherever we’re going,” I said. “We’ll—”

“We’re here. Park right there.”

I blinked in surprise, but still managed to maneuver the van into the designated spot. We stepped out, and I frowned up at what appeared to be a perfectly normal office building, maybe a hundred stories tall. Probably a bit less.

“What’s this? Someone’s domain?”

“No,” Kelly said as she pulled out her phone, presumably to call Laura. “It’s just an empty office building. He’s rented it out temporarily while he’s in the area; it used to be owned by a vampire company, so it suits his needs.”

Who’s needs?”

“We’re hunting vampires,” she said. “So it only makes sense to go straight to their boss.”

I swallowed. “The Dragon.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 255)

This is the first time the Dragon has shown up in a long, long time, but we’re still going to have to wait just a little while longer.

Scene 254 – Scultator

SCULTATOR

ROBYN JOAN

“Clarke,” Kelly snapped in my ear. “Have you found them yet?”

I ground my teeth and resisted the urge to tear off the earpiece. “No, nothing new since you asked five minutes ago. Calm down, Corporal. It’s been less than a full day. These things take time, and that’s all there is to it.”

Alex Gabriel and Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters had gone missing from Nishrek ten hours ago, late at night on November the 27th—a Tuesday, if that mattered. It was early Wednesday morning now, and I had been flying around Acheron pretty much the entire time. I had a lesser version of the Insomniac buff, so I didn’t need as much sleep as others, but I was still getting tired.

I heard the vampire take a deep breath. “…apologies. It’s been a long night for everyone. George and Kat aren’t having any more luck than you, I was just hoping, from your elevated position…” She paused. “Come on down. We’ll talk in person.”

I scanned the buildings below me, and quickly found the distinct architecture of Nishrek. I didn’t land there, though. Instead, I aimed next door, at a ‘scraper covered in neon lights and signs advertising all manner of attractions. They were off now, since they were just a waste of power in the light of day, but the building would still be inhabited.

I slowed to land on the roof with a minimum of dust kicked up, but I needn’t have bothered. Kelly had her daygoggles on to protect against the rising dawn. They were more than thick and strong enough to protect against a bit of dust as well.

She didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “Anything?”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but no. I told you before: There’s only so much I can do from the air. Unless you tell me who took them, I’m basically just flying around at random, hoping I spot them out in the open.”

“The identity of the kidnappers is irrelevant,” the vampire growled.

I blinked, and pulled off my flight goggles to emphasize the point. “Wait, you actually know? You know who grabbed them, and you didn’t think to tell me? This changes everything! I might not be a good tracker, but I’m a damned good scout. Just point me towards the enemy.”

“No.”

I stared. “What?”

“No,” she repeated. “I am not sending you into that viper’s den.”

“Then why am I even here?”

“Because MC called you,” she said, and I could tell her eyes were narrow even under her goggles. “I had no interest in involving outsiders. This is a problem for the retinue. George and Kat haven’t made much progress, but they have made some.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “So calling me nonstop for ten hours, demanding constant status updates, that was all…” I threw up my hands. “What, a trick meant to convince me you needed me?”

She at least had the grace to look away. “Not quite. You have helped us confirm that they are not in Acheron. That, by itself, is invaluable.” She turned strong again. “But your services are no longer required. Go home, Miss Clarke.”

I ground my teeth in frustration… then blasted off the roof with all the strength of my power, sending up a huge cloud of choking dust and grit in the process.

She didn’t want my help? Fine. I’d just find them myself first.

The vampire had said ‘pit of vipers.’ That meant the lace domains were the logical place to start looking, especially the ophidians—the snake kemos. She could have been speaking metaphorically, but it was my only lead. The giant and the fel would have disabled the GPS devices in their phones hours ago. MC wouldn’t be of much use here.

Wasn’t it their job the protect the Paladins? They should be following my orders, I was pretty sure. Damned vampire, trying to do everything herself.

I checked my phone, trying to find the nearest ophidian domain. There was one surprisingly close by. Kemos tended to fight over territory a bit more than the other cultures, so who owned what varied almost day by day. I just got lucky that there was something only a few blocks from Acheron.

It didn’t take long to find the domain, such as it was. It was just a couple short ‘scrapers next to each other, with some ophidian labels hastily painted over whatever the old signs had been. I felt like this used to be cane territory, but I really didn’t care enough to check.

I landed on the roof, as always, after glancing around and confirming that there weren’t any cameras anywhere within sight. And then I—

And then I realized I had no idea what to do next.

I couldn’t break into a domain based on a couple stupid guesses. They’d shoot me, for one thing, and even if I survived, Uncle Art would make me pay retribution. Not to mention that even if I found the angel and the changeling, I probably wouldn’t be able to carry them out.

Also, they’d shoot me. That one kinda stuck in my mind.

So what was I doing here? Ah, yes, I wasn’t looking for the kidnapped or the kidnappers at the moment, I was looking for the rescuers. If I could just find Kat and George, I could bypass Kelly and help them directly.

George would be hiding somewhere, not too far but not very close, either. An ogre simply stood out too much. Kat, on the other hand, could be anywhere, including inside one of the buildings. She was specced for stealth, even before she gained the ability to turn into a bat.

I floated up above the rooftop for a moment, putting myself in clear view of all three buildings and the streets below. Not for long, but long enough that if either of the pair were paying the slightest bit of attention, they’d notice.

Once I decided it was long enough, I flew over to the other side of the street and started scanning for the retinue’s van—before before realizing that they wouldn’t be using that. Far too conspicuous. No, the van would be parked somewhere nearby, out of sight, and George would be watching from—

Um.

I spotted a dozen different vantage points at street level that provided a perfect view of the domain, while giving sufficient cover from any ophidian guards. Three of these points were occupied, but not by George. Just a few canes and an orc.

I was missing something important. I hated when that happened.

The easiest answer was that ‘pit of vipers’ hadn’t actually meant anything, and I had sent myself on a wild goose chase. But I couldn’t exactly fly back to Kelly and ask her for clarification. There was always MC, but she had her hands full. Unless it was something easy like GPS coordinates, I tried not to bother her.

I landed on a roof—not one of the ophidian ones—and paused to think. Kelly knew who had taken her teammates. Well, she strongly suspected. If she knew, she wouldn’t have bothered having me double-check Acheron. Or… maybe she would. Was she that thorough? Maybe.

Anyway. Someone who’s not in Acheron, and who would want to kidnap an angel and a changeling in the Paladin’s retinue. Definitely not the Composer. Whether or not Silk still had her contained or not, this just wasn’t her style. Not enough murder, and she had never cared about the retinue before.

While I was at it, likely no one directly connected to any of the Paladins. She would have called all hands on deck if that were the case. That didn’t narrow it down a lot, unfortunately. Derek and the others largely stayed out of politics.

So someone competent enough to infiltrate Nishrek—wait, no. Nishrek was a bloody sieve. Anyone could just walk in the damn place. You didn’t have to be some criminal mastermind to get in there. Gruumsh enforced his peace with retribution, not security cameras and guards. What if—

I heard someone land on the roof behind me.

I wheeled around, simultaneously floating a few feet off the edge, preparing to accelerate as fast as I possibly could if the worst should happen. Fighting the screamers had made me very good at running away.

“Fimmtu?” I said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

The ave anthro inclined his head. “I was worried after the event with the kytons, Honored Magister. You weren’t answering your phone, and I feared the worst. I asked MC for your location, and she was kind enough to give it.”

Oh, right, I had a million missed calls from him. I had the thing on silent, and hadn’t bothered to call back. “I’m helping a friend find someone.”

He quirked his head. “Ling? We were helping you with that.”

“No, a couple members of the Paladins’ retinue have been kidnapped.”

“Oh. Oh dear.” He straightened. “I would be happy to help, if you’d have me. I don’t know where the rest of the college went, though.” He grinned sadly, in that weird way ave anthros had. “Possibly still in hiding from the chain-wielders.”

I shook my head. “It’s fine, I don’t need—”

Don’t need any help. Don’t need to put you in danger. That was what I had been about to say.

That was exactly what Kelly had been doing.

“…all right,” I said grudgingly. “You can help.”

Another ave grin, this time genuine. “Great! Where do we start?”

I gave him a sad smile of my own. “Well, that’s the tricky part…”

Behind the Scenes (scene 254)

I know we’ve got a couple short ones right now, but we’re moving forward.

Scene 253 – Migratio

MIGRATIO

LING

FIVE YEARS AGO

“You don’t have to do this,” Aka Manah begged.

“It’s already done,” the doctor said.

“Ling…” the warlord whispered sadly.

I hopped off the chair, then nearly lost my balance as dizziness took me. Laying down drugged on a table for a couple days wasn’t something you could bounce back from in half a second.

Thankfully, the warlord’s wife was there to catch me. She was wearing all black, as she had been for weeks now, and her face was an impassive mask. She helped me to my feet, but didn’t say a single word.

Damavand was dark again.

That had very little to do with the fact that I had removed my nighteyes.

I took a deep breath to regain my composure and overcome the dizziness, then bowed to the warlord. “Thank you, Noble Aka Manah, for the hospitality you have shown me these past several years. I can never properly repay you.”

The vampire closed his black eyes. “It’s… it’s fine, little one. I promise it’s fine.” He managed a weak smile. “You are welcome in my domain whenever you feel the need. Please, come back to visit every once in a while.”

I nodded. “I will, Honored Noble, I will.” I swallowed my anxiety and looked around with newly baseline eyes. Everything was so dark and cold. It had been so long since I had seen true darkness. “…which way is the exit?”

Aka Manah stepped aside. “Over here.”

His wife put her hand on my shoulder and started walking me in that direction without saying a word. I didn’t argue. The faster I got out of this crypt, the better. Luckily I hadn’t been living here, so I didn’t have to go through the extra step of packing up a room.

As we passed through the too-dark hallways, daevas saw us coming. Instead of smiling and waving and saying hello, they all dodged out of our way as fast as their legs would carry them. Doors slammed as quietly as possible, but didn’t stop the whispers from drifting out, rumors and hearsay mixing together into some unidentifiable mush.

We passed one door, cold and silent, still decorated with the stars and glitter Riya and I had managed to find in the basement. No one was hiding behind that door, no light or sound came from behind it.

I would rather have the whispers than the silence.

After what seemed like an eternity and a half, the Noble’s wife walked me out into the night air outside the domain itself, past well-armed guards in sharp suits. There was a sleek black car parked at the curb, waiting for me with its engine on but its lights off.

I bowed to my guide, and she did the same, her face stiff with restraint. Taking another deep breath, I turned to the car, and the driver immediately popped out and opened the door for me. I smiled at him, just a little awkwardly, and slipped inside without a word to anyone.

It was a beautiful interior, with plush fake-leather seats and racks of drinks for the passenger. It was less a glorified taxi and more a short limo, but I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate it. I just pulled my legs up to my chest and sat, not even bothering to put my seatbelt on.

If the driver noticed my lack of concern for my own safety, he didn’t mention it. He just piled in behind the wheel and started driving, maybe a little bit slower than what you would normally expect.

The night was dark. For the first time in two years, the night was dark. There was the red glow of nightlights held by baselines—soft enough to not disturb the vampires—but it was still dark in ways that I had almost forgotten. Deep shadows that could hide any monster or ambush, faces with details obscured… the world of vampires was a world without shadows. Now I was stuck in one where everything was shadowed.

By Tezuka’s pen, I should have thought this through.

After what felt like years, we finally reached the orphanage. My matron was outside, wearing skin with a Chinese cast to it. Last I had seen her, she had been white. Irish, to be more specific.

She wrung her hands, trying and failing not to appear nervous as the car slowed to a stop in front of the short apartment block. She couldn’t see inside the car—the windows were tinted—but that didn’t stop her from trying.

I sat there, unmoving.

“Miss,” the driver said quietly after a moment. “You need to get out, miss.”

My throat felt as dry as sandpaper when I spoke.

“Why?”

He sighed. “Your matron is here. I’m not equipped to deal with this. Please, just get out of the car. She’ll make sure everything is all right.” He shifted in his seat. “Well… it will be better, at least.”

I sat for another minute.

“Thank you for the ride,” I said quietly as I opened the door and tumbled out.

My matron was there in a moment, pulling me off the road and onto the sidewalk. She waved briefly, and the car took the hint, driving off slightly faster than was socially acceptable. Neither of us paid any attention.

“Ling, what happened?” she demanded. “Damavand called a few days ago to say you were getting your toys removed, but they didn’t say why.” She knelt before me on the sidewalk, peering into my eyes. “You’re baseline again… outwardly, at least. But why? They didn’t kick you out or something absurd like that, right?”

“I left,” I mumbled.

“Yes, sweetie, I got that.” Her gaze was hard as stone. “Why.”

I couldn’t…

I couldn’t say it.

If I didn’t say it, then none of this was real. Then it was just a bad dream. I’d wake up tomorrow night to a world without shadows, and all of this would be forgotten. Dismissed and tossed aside as nothing but an echo.

“Ling?” my matron whispered.

“Riya died.”

She started. “The… warlord’s daughter? But—how? She’s deep in the domain, perfectly safe.” She frowned, not quite looking at me anymore, trying to think. “He babies her too much, if anything. And she has access to some of the best medicine in the city—”

“I killed her.”

A blink. “You what—”

“I wanted to go into the lab but she didn’t want to but I really wanted to and I made her—”

“Hey, shh, none of that.” She pulled me close, burying my face in her chest. It was wet and stuffy and how long had I been crying? “Shh, it’s okay, sweetheart. It’s not your fault, little one. Everyone makes mistakes.”

“But I picked the lock and dragged her over to the cage with the dog and it’s my fault—”

None of that,” she insisted. “Did Aka Manah say it was your fault?”

“…no.” He hadn’t even gotten mad at me. He had tried to get me to stay.

“Then it’s not your fault. He is the Noble of Damavand, and his word is law. If he says it wasn’t your fault, then it wasn’t your fault.” She pulled away, so that she could look at my face, and wiped away my tears. “It’s as simple as that.”

I sniffed. “…she’s still dead.”

“Yes,” she admitted with a sad smile. “Yes, she is. But that is a tragedy, not a crime. Do you understand the difference?” She scanned my face, trying to pick out every tiny emotion. “This is something horrible, which you must move past. But that is all.”

“But I—”

“But nothing.” She shook her head. “People die every day, little one. You must accept that. You can’t save everyone.”

Slowly, I nodded. She smiled, stood, and took my hand, leading me into the orphanage where I had spent most of my life.

I knew she was right. You can’t save everyone—not even from your own mistakes.

The only thing you can do is save yourself.

Behind the Scenes (scene 253)

I got more attached to Riya than is healthy, considering I knew this was coming the entire time. It’s a problem I have.

Scene 252 – Quaerere

QUAERERE

ROBYN JOAN

It had been a little over three weeks since I took over as magister of the flier college. Technically speaking, we hadn’t made any progress. We hadn’t found hide nor hair of Ling, hadn’t so much as found someone who admitted talking to her.

On the other hand, we were having loads of fun.

“Tekhiko!” I called. “Watch your backdraft! Justine, help Reinhold get his carpet untangled!” Floating in the center of the swarm, I raised my voice. “Let that be a lesson for the rest of you! When you’re flying at night—or vampires, during the day—your vision will be impaired, and you need to be careful!” I frowned at another of my pupils. “Orla, I saw that!

I knew I couldn’t keep this up. Being a teacher was surprisingly easy, but despite the name ‘magister,’ I wasn’t actually supposed to be a teacher. I was supposed to be a warlord, leading these men and women to glory and riches.

I wasn’t acting like Uncle Art, I was acting like my mom. She was the teacher of the family. When I was a kid, stuck in NHQ for reasons I didn’t understand, I had spent half my time watching her go over her lesson plans and listening to her stories about her classes. The other half was spent trying to sneak out of the Necessarian blockade.

Both were proving useful here, but unless I started learning what the lessons Uncle Art had to teach, it would all be for nothing.

“Miss Clarke!” one of the others called. He was an orc, and one of the pure gravity controllers, like me. The fact that he didn’t use a more formal title was a bad sign, but not an unexpected one. He pointed at the horizon. “Enemy fliers coming in from the west! They have their guns out.”

I squinted in the direction he had indicated, but couldn’t see anything. Still, I had to trust his judgment. “Sascha! Where are you?”

“Here,” she said from five feet behind me. I wheeled around to see the kemo pod-brain floating there serenely, holding hands tightly, as always. Sascha was a levitator, like me, and could only affect herself, but Kora’s telepathy linked them tightly enough that Sascha’s ability worked on both of them, so long as they were holding hands. At least they had finally stopped speaking in stereo.

“Get closer, please” I asked. “But not too close. See what Platon can see, and report back.”

The twins nodded and floated forward, Platon—the orc—following behind them quickly. So long as he kept his eyes somewhere other than the girls’ rear ends, he should be able to give me a good picture of what we were dealing with.

“Everyone else!” I called. “You all know that this is going to be dangerous! If you don’t want to fight, head out now!”

No one left, instead choosing to circle around me. Most of the winged fliers, like Fimmtu and Whiteheart, had to land on the nearest roofs, as without the warm thermals of the day, they couldn’t hover. Honestly, they could rarely hover even then. The rest of us floated down to the rooftops as a courtesy to them. Besides, we needed to preserve our reservoirs.

It only took a few minutes for the enemy fliers to come into sight, before the twins and Platon could return. Oddly, it almost looked like most of them weren’t fliers. There were only six of them, and they all flew in standing on small round discs of metal. Unless they all had the ability to control metal—which, I had to admit, was far from impossible—it looked like one of them was providing lift for the rest.

I floated up to meet them, the others remaining carefully hidden.

“Hello,” I greeted the kemo leading them. “Should I address you as Honored Hunter or Honored Magister?”

“I am Wahil,” the werewolf growled with a voice like gravel. “Acolyte of the kytons.”

Acolyte? I hadn’t heard that one before. I guess it was a lesser title, like how the vampires had Nobles at the top, nightstalkers in the middle, and then ordinary ones at the bottom.

I had, however, heard of the kytons. Chain-wielders with the ability to kinetically manipulate metal. I didn’t know anything about their limits or disposition, though. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that I might run into them.

I had very little doubt they could kill me before I could run.

“I am Robyn Joan Clarke,” I replied pleasantly, masking my fear with friendliness. “Magister of—” I verbally stumbled. Well, this was embarrassing. We didn’t even have a name yet. “—of these fliers. Did you just stop by to say hello, or did you have another reason for being here?”

The kemo glared at me with yellow eyes. On a closer look, ‘werewolf’ didn’t describe him accurately. He was an anthro of some description, no question, but while his fur and elongated snout made him look like a lupe, I wasn’t sure that was actually what he was. The fur was wrong, too short, and he had short but sharp claws.

A wolverine, maybe? I couldn’t remember the name for them. There was a ‘g’ in there somewhere. Whatever it was, I knew that they were a quasiculture, a smaller and less influential brand of kemo than even the murids. They were more on the level of the cherves, and had largely been folded into the lupes. Though technically wolverines were more related to the visons, but—

Whatever his precise subculture or whatever you want to call it, the acolyte was in no mood to make small talk. “You and yours have been spying places you shouldn’t be, Magister.” The lack of the honorific itself was clearly intentional. “I am here to make you stop.”

“One way or another?” I said, trying to ignore the pounding in my chest.

“I am to ask,” he said. “Once.”

Okay, there was still a chance to keep this from blowing up in my face. “Well, we both want to keep this from getting violent. So why don’t you tell me exactly where you don’t want us to go, and we can agree to leave you alone?”

The wolverine growled. It had been a while since a kemo growled at me. I had forgotten the bone-chilling terror that came with it. “The location of the kyton academy is hidden, Magister. Tricks will not gain you our secrets.”

Is that what it looked like I had been doing? I had just honestly thought that was the best way to resolve the situation. Red dusk, I was bad at this.

“The only other option is for us to call off the search completely,” I recovered quickly. “We are looking for someone important; we must keep looking until we find her.”

“The kytons are not the only ones you have disturbed,” the anthro warned. “Merely the first to come after you. The others will likely not be so kind as us. The ekolids, especially, have only barely established their new nest above ground. They are not pleased that you have found it.”

I had been trying to forget about that disgusting hive we had stumbled upon, but I guess the bug-demons didn’t see it that way. Maybe we should have stuck around to talk to them and reach an agreement, rather than flying away like thieves in the night.

Still, I didn’t have a choice. I straightened, floating slightly higher in the process to give myself the impression of extra height. “I’m sorry, but you have my answer. The only way to make us stop is to help us find Ling Yu. Then, there will be no need for more scouting missions.”

The kyton quirked his head. “Ling Yu the Paladin?”

I nodded.

He sighed. “That is a good reason.” His eyes turned hard. “But I have my orders.”

The second he finished speaking, I heard a yelp from behind me, and saw Tekihoko, the pyro, getting swiftly entwined by thick chains that appeared to be moving under their own power. A number of the other fliers were being similarly restrained.

The kytons liked chains. How had I not seen this coming?

“A simple trade,” the anthro in front of me explained, his voice as calm as if we were discussing our tea preferences. “We release the members of your college in exchange for your promise that you will cease your search, at least through the territories you have already passed through.”

I ground my teeth, and belatedly realized that I had floated back away from the intimidating man without noticing. “You think it’s that easy? You think you can threaten me and just walk away?”

“Yes,” he said bluntly. “You are not a warlord, Robyn Joan Clarke. You can’t fight us now, and you won’t be able to fight us tomorrow. Just agree to the terms, and none of your people have to die.”

“I am a Paladin, you moron, I can call—”

“You won’t,” he interrupted, his tired and bored tone unchanged. “You know that if you do that, the kytons and the ekolids will declare war on you, along with anyone else you managed to annoy in the process.” He shrugged. “You’ll probably win, in the end. Even if it’s just the Paladins themselves, without Necessarius or Akiyama’s kensei getting involved, you’d probably win.” His eyes turned cold. “But how many of the members of your college would be killed in the process?”

I looked behind me, at the fliers chained to various objects on the roof.

I looked back at the man in front of me.

I needed… I needed…

Platon figured out what I needed before I did.

“Orla!” he called. “Now!”

Orla of Westfall was one of my fliers, a girl from the disastrous battle of the Western Gate years ago, when one of the old gangs had tried to escape Butler’s purges aboard a dreadnought they had managed to steal from somewhere. They had died to the man, but apparently some of their children had survived.

That wasn’t really important at the moment. She had never shown any grudge against Butler or his armies, and especially not towards me. She might have a mischievous streak, but it was mostly easy to keep reined in.

No, the important thing was how she flew.

She did it by levitating metal. In other words, controlling it.

With a wave of her hands, the short girl broke all the captured fliers free of their restraints. Knowing better than to stick around, they all flew straight up, far out of reach of the kytons and their chains.

I followed quickly, and a glance downward told me that the wolverine lupe was doing the same. I didn’t know how many of his men had the level of control required to fly, and I wasn’t interested in finding out.

“Everybody, SCATTER!” I called.

They spread out like an explosion, zooming away as fast as they could in every direction. In seconds, we were alone. Just me and the kemo. The rest of his men had remained down below; he likely had needed the extra power saved by leaving them behind to catch up with me.

“No hostages,” I noted.

“Cute,” he growled. “But I still have you.”

I smiled, trying to hide my apprehension. Surely he couldn’t hear my heart, pounding away like a jackhammer inside my ribcage, right? “It’s not that easy, and you know it. If I go missing, my college will come looking for me, and you’re right back to where you started. Even worse, since they have some idea of where your base is.”

I had no idea if the fliers would actually react that way. My relationship with them was still weird and undefined. But it certainly sounded good. It was the kind of thing a warlord was expected to say.

The kyton narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps. But if I torture you to death and scatter your remains across the district, they will perhaps receive the message, and back off from this foolhardy quest of yours.”

I scoffed, trying as hard as I could to bury the part of my soul that was screaming in terror. “Please. I am Robyn Joan Clarke. Daughter of Isaac Clarke. My dad had NHQ built purely to keep me safe.”

“But you’re not in NHQ right now,” he said quietly. “Are you?”

In a few seconds, my heart was going to pop and save this guy the trouble of killing me. But he was a predator, and you don’t show weakness to predators. “True enough. But then my father and my uncle will bring down the full might of Necessarius on your little college.” I smiled sweetly. “Your magister might find that a little counter-productive to the whole ‘Keep the base secret’ thing you’ve got going on.”

“…perhaps,” he said hesitantly. Then he rallied. “But perhaps if I kill you, and the rest of your college, there will be no one to speak out against me.” He grinned toothily. “Yes, that will work nicely.”

I was actually genuinely unimpressed. “Seriously? That’s your plan? Hunt down a couple dozen fliers, many of whom have probably already uploaded this little altercation to Fundie? You can’t seriously be that stupid.”

“My kytons are hunting them as we speak,” he countered. “They will be recaptured before the hour is done.”

“Yeah, sure, if you say so.” I was more than a little worried for them, but I was still willing to bet on the fliers before the kytons. “But that’s a lot of risk and murder for a problem that could be solved with some simple negotiation.”

He produced a gun from somewhere. “Here is your negotiation: Surrender or die.”

I sighed. “Really? Are we really doing this?”

He kept the pistol, a small Hellion model if I wasn’t mistaken, aimed at my head.

“Fine.” I raised my hands slowly. “I—”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

The kyton blinked in surprise.

“Uh…” I said. “You mind if I…”

He waved his hand. “No, of course, I understand…”

“Thanks.” I flipped out the phone. “MC? This had better be important. I’m kinda in the middle of something.”

“Robyn!” she cried in my ear. “Are you okay? How are you?”

“What? I’m fine. I’m…” I looked over at the kyton with the gun. “…why do you ask?”

“Alex and Jarasax have been kidnapped.”

I frowned. Who…

Wait. Alex was the angel who followed around the Belian. And Jarasax… didn’t he have something to do with Lily? She had mentioned him a couple times, I thought. He was a changeling, I was pretty sure.

They were both members of the retinue.

I took a deep breath. “What do you need me to do?”

“Same thing as with the screamers,” she promised breathlessly. “I just need eyes. Search the area, find clues, find them. They haven’t been gone long.” There was a pause, and I could imagine her taking a deep breath of her own. “Please, sister. We need your help.”

I winced. She knew I couldn’t resist her when she called me sister. “Okay, okay, fine. I’ll do it. I’ve got some people—” No, actually, I didn’t have any people I could put on this. They had all flown away. “…I’ll handle it myself. Where is it?”

“Nishrek. In Acheron.”

“…I hate that place.”

Everyone hates that place. But it’s where they disappeared.”

Rubbing my forehead, I nodded. “Right, got it. I’ll go. Tell them to expect me shortly. How far am I right now?”

“About an hour by flight.”

Really? I must have really gotten mixed up. It was easy to end up flying farther than expected when all the buildings looked the same from above. “Okay, I’ll be there as soon as I can. Tell Kelly to meet me there.”

“She’s already there.”

I nodded. “Perfect. See her soon.”

“Bye.” The line clicked dead.

“Sorry,” I said to the kyton. “I have to go. Necessarius emergency, you know how it is.”

He glared. “You really think I’m going to just let you fly away?”

I shrugged. “Maybe?”

Then I shut off my powers, and suddenly I was freefalling from a thousand feet in the air.

The kyton cried out in alarm and tried to follow, but I re-activated my power and stacked another couple gravities on me, falling faster than he could fly with that limited metal scooter thing he was levitating everywhere.

The second I passed a building, I shot around the corner, circling it halfway and then dodging around another and another. I heard the kyton howling in rage behind me, then a smash of glass. He must have run into the side of a ‘scraper.

I didn’t dare look behind me to check, though. I just kept flying a distracting pattern for ten or twenty minutes, then, when I was finally convinced that he had abandoned the chase, turned east towards Acheron.

The domain of the traitors.

I could already tell that this would be a fun mission.

Behind the Scenes (scene 252)

This took far, far longer than it had any right to.