“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.”
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—
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.