The toy box beeped.
It whirred and clicked, delicate machinery I didn’t understand withdrawing into recesses within the shell. In just a few moments, the device sent a report to the stolen phone in my hand. The light of the screen brightened the interior of the high-tech coffin considerably, and it hurt my eyes to look at it. Not enough to trigger repair, thankfully.
I held the phone in my hand, tapping the keys with my thumb. A quick scroll through the report confirmed that everything was in working order, and that I could leave at any time without issue.
I pressed a key on my phone, and the box hissed with pneumatic steam as it creaked open. It could only open so far, though, and I had to crawl out of the small opening with my own strength, using only my left arm and right leg.
The box was entombed in concrete. Buried under the broken ave outpost as surely as if someone had poured cement over the top. I had made a bubble around it, just a small one, and the box itself could cycle the air. I had needed to hide from my many enemies while I recovered from the calciophage and worse.
But now it was done. I checked the date on my phone. It wasn’t getting a signal, of course, but it could at least keep track of the date. Today was December 12th, a Wednesday. Thirty-nine days after I had first crawled out of the toy box, and taken my revenge on the aves who had captured me.
Oh, they were dead, that part wasn’t in question. I could feel their corpses, entombed in the concrete, by extending my sixth sense as easily as I opened my eyes. The question was whether or not these birds had deserved it. Had they even known I was here?
That wasn’t important right now. I turned to the toy box, looking it over, my right arm hanging stiffly at my side. When I had initially brought the building down and managed to have the foresight to hide myself in the box with a bunch of concrete, it had projected that it would take at least two months to fix me. That I’d wake up in the new year, at the earliest.
Well, I wasn’t going to complain about waking up early. Maybe the fact that it had actually been able to put me to sleep this time, since I didn’t have to worry about the calciophage eating my bones, had accelerated the process. I needed to remember this restful state. Now that I had the Insomniac gland, I wasn’t ever going to be able to sleep again.
For now, I needed to get out of here. I turned, using my left leg as a pivot—
No. No, I didn’t need to treat it as a stiff peg leg. I wasn’t a cripple, not any more.
I took a deep breath and concentrated, feeling beneath my skin and muscle. Once I found what I was looking for, I reached down to my leg, and…
Took a step.
I stumbled and fell to the ground, nearly bashing my face because I only had my left arm to catch my fall. But no. I wasn’t going to let that happen. Another deep breath, another moment of concentration, and I slowly, ever so slowly, pushed myself back up to my feet—with both arms.
It was slow and awkward, like using a fork to eat soup, but I was doing it.
I was on my feet. I could have cheated, just levitated up, but no. I needed to do this right. To make sure my body worked the way it was supposed to. If I had to spend another couple days in the damn box, then fine. As much as I hated the thing, I would do whatever I had to.
I took a deep breath, then another, then fell into a basic karate stance. It was pretty much the only one I knew, and it probably wasn’t even right, but it would work. I just needed to stretch my limbs.
I punched with my left hand. Perfect. A quick, sure strike, with no pain to speak of. A couple more to ensure that all the joints were staying attached where they were supposed to, muscles stretching and contracting correctly.
Then I moved to my right—
I almost ripped it off my shoulder.
I hissed and grabbed at the connection point. Too much strength. Far too much strength. I needed to tone it down, learn to use it normally, or I’d need a new limb before the end of the day. Keep calm and… punch.
More pain. My time dealing with the calciophage made shoving it to the back of my brain easy enough, but it didn’t change the basic problem. I was still punching too hard. My damn arm would fly off if I wasn’t careful.
I focused on my sixth sense, through my body and into the ground. It had already been on—it was always on now, I was good enough at using it that I saw no need to ever turn it off—but I concentrated. Concentrated on my own body, on my own new limbs. My arm, my leg. Concentrate.
A good strong punch, enough to knock a man’s teeth out.
But not enough to hurt me.
I smiled grimly. It felt like decades since I had last smiled.
I punched a few more times, making sure I had the force right, making sure that the first time wasn’t a lucky fluke. Once I felt satisfied with my performance, I moved on to kicks. They should have been harder than the punches, and I was expecting to fall over at least once, but it was easy. A few kicks with my left leg were enough to confirm that the lessons I had learned with my arm had carried over.
I flexed the fingers of my right hand. It was amazing how easy it was, how simple. I kept expecting something to go horribly wrong, like for a finger to fall off of to take a step and leave behind my foot.
It was time to go outside.
I turned to the wall that I knew with my stonesense was the thinnest. My reservoir might be as deep as an ocean now, but it still wasn’t limitless, and I had other things to spend my power on. I didn’t want to deplete it unnecessarily.
I walked towards the broken slab of concrete, what had probably once been a floor of a lab or something similar. It barely took a thought to mold it. I didn’t even have to slow my stride as I stepped through the tunnel I was making. I opened it in front of me even as I closed it behind me, molding away dust and dirt as easily as concrete and stone.
And then I was through. Walked through fifteen feet of rubble as easily as some tall grass.
I blinked in the light; it was morning. I had known that intellectually, of course. My phone had said 0700 when I woke up. It just hadn’t really clicked that it meant I’d have to readjust my eyes to the brightness.
But even as I was squinting in the sun, my stonesense was clear and strong. I could feel every ounce of concrete in a hundred yards, and had a pretty good idea of everything touching it. My sense for things I couldn’t affect was still poor, but I could vaguely tell the difference between cars and trees and people.
There wasn’t really anyone around, as far as I could tell. It was one of the reasons I had decided to leave now, from this direction. There was some movement in a nearby alley—likely either ghouls or dumpster dogs—but the streets were almost completely empty. Even the nearby buildings didn’t seem to have many people in them.
Part of that would be because of the hour—dawn was just an hour or so back—so vampires had gone to sleep and diurnals weren’t quite up yet. But it still felt lifeless. As if people were avoiding this place on purpose.
That might be because of my tomb.
I hadn’t spared the juice when I destroyed the ave outpost. I had poured out every last drop of my power to animate every single shred of concrete I could, bringing the entire ‘scraper down and shredding the inhabitants in the process.
Now, it looked like a big mound of rubble, but smooth like clay in seemingly random places. Massive spikes of concrete twenty or thirty feet long burst out here and there, like some huge violent porcupine was trying to escape from underneath.
I hadn’t done any of that on purpose to scare people away, but that seemed to be the effect. I could sense a few spots here and there were people had tried to dig into the rubble, but none of them had gotten far before giving up. I supposed the whole thing was too intimidating for no promise of reward.
There was no screaming.
It had been… months? Since I last heard the screams of Elizabeth Greene’s zombies. That didn’t sound right, but that’s what it was. It was still weird not having that constant droning noise in the back of my head, like suddenly turning all the appliances in your apartment off at warning. I wasn’t complaining, not by any means, it was just… odd.
But this wasn’t time for any of that. I looked down at myself. I was wearing shorts that ended about four or five inches above my knees, and my shirt was a dirty sleeveless undershirt a few sizes too small. I needed new clothes, if only to hide my new arm and leg. Those would attract attention.
I could go to a shop, but if word got back to MC—
My head snapped around, towards the voice. A ghoul of some type was slinking out of a nearby alley, cringing at my glare. He was wearing a blanket. He must have been asleep and still a moment ago, that’s why I hadn’t been able to distinguish him.
“What?” I demanded, wincing only slightly at the slight grinding sound of my new bones as I worked my jaw. I’d need to fix that later. “What are you looking at? It’s just a Halloween costume.”
“…Halloween was a month and a half ago.”
“What do you want?”
He flinched again. “Nothing! Nothing, I promise. I just… have a question.”
“Spit it out.”
He swallowed, and glanced at the destroyed ‘scraper behind me, though his daygoggles made it a little hard to tell. “I just… I thought… did you come out of there? Out of the Grave, I mean?”
Is that what they were calling it? I preferred tomb. “Yes.”
The ghoul swallowed. “So… you’re her, then? The Lady of the Grave?”
“I’m a lady, and I came out of a grave,” I growled. “Call me what you want.”
He nodded nervously. “Y-yes. It’s just… I wasn’t placed here at random, I was given specific instructions in regards to what I should do should anyone appear. I didn’t actually expect anything to happen, and I don’t think the acolyte really did either, but—”
“What,” I said with narrow eyes. “Are you supposed to do?”
“Test you,” he said finally.
Then he swept his leg forward, and the concrete flowed with it, rolling forward like a wave.
It barely took a thought to squash the amateur attack, to push it down and smooth out the street again. The ghoul didn’t seem surprised, and didn’t hesitate for a moment. He switched to horse stance, a broad and solid stance, and lifted up with his arms. I felt the ground under my feet beginning to move, but I countered it before it had a chance to really begin.
The ghoul took a step back, but it was a tactical move, not an expression of surprise. He reached down to the floor and scooped up two massive handfuls of asphalt as easily as grabbing mud. But when he threw the handfuls, I knew they would be hard as stone again, accelerated with all the force he could muster.
I still didn’t move. With a thought, I brought up a wall in front of me, formed out of the same street that he was attacking me with. His missiles impacted with a solid pair of cracks, and I could see the damage they had done quite clearly with my stonesense. They probably would have killed me if they had hit.
I smoothed the road back down, still not moving an inch, and even got the part the ghoul was standing on ten feet away, where he had ripped out the asphalt. He danced back to avoid the ripple in the ground, afraid I might be attacking him, but I wasn’t.
I checked my reservoir. Lower than I’d like, but not dangerously so.
“Anything else?” I demanded.
He dropped to one knee.
“No, my lady,” he said quietly. “I apologize for the rudeness, but I had to be sure.”
“Whatever. I’m leaving now.” I turned to walk away.
“Ah, my lady, wait!” I heard him struggle to my feet behind me. “Don’t you want to meet your college? Knight Alexander would be honored beyond words for a chance to receive instruction from you—”
“Then Knight Alexander is an idiot,” I growled. “Go home, little ghoul.”
Maybe he did as I ordered, maybe he didn’t. But either way, he seemed to have enough of a brain not to chase after me. He was probably worried I’d bury him under the street. He’d survive, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.
The truth was, I had a million questions and more. The fact that he had a power, and his references to some sort of college of like-minded people, intrigued me. This couldn’t be why the screaming stopped, right? They killed Elizabeth, and all her screamers woke up? She must have created at least one more type, stoneshapers like me, while I was away.
But whether they had actually managed to kill the immortal killing machine or not, I had other things to worry about right now. Getting out of the city and figuring out where to go next was top of that list.
No, no, I was thinking too far ahead. The most important thing right now was clothes. Pants and a long-sleeved shirt, or something like that. It was the middle of December, so it was pretty cold, even with the host of temperature regulation buffs I had given myself in the toy box. I wasn’t going to die of exposure, but if it started snowing, I wasn’t going to be happy.
Speaking of which, why hadn’t it started snowing already? There wasn’t even any ice on the street, as far as I could tell—anything from overnight seemed to have melted in the morning sun. How close was I to Canian territory? Maybe they had come through with snow blowers recently. Or maybe it just hadn’t been snowing for some reason.
Still, snow or no snow, I needed clothes fast. I figured I had about an hour before more people started showing up for the day shifts at the various office buildings surrounding me. Domina might be a city where the insane was commonplace, but if even a single person posted a picture of me on Fundie or asked MC who I was, my life was going to become much more difficult.
I’d find a shop. Central didn’t have anything big like Middle did, but they had to service the corporate offices and server farms around here somehow. I should be able to find a clothing store, or failing that—
…I could just find some clothes on the street?
Lying right there on the sidewalk of a smaller street heading off the main, were some clothes. Not much, just a short-sleeved shirt and some pants, but still, clothes. They looked like they had been discarded in a hurry, like someone had ripped them off at a run and just tossed them aside.
Weirder things had happened, but I carefully probed the clothes first with my stonesense, then by lifting up the sidewalk under them. I didn’t find any traps or tripwires, and nothing exploded, so maybe it really was exactly what it looked like.
I picked up the pants, a simple pair of blue jeans, and slipped them on right over my tight shorts. They were basically underwear already anyway. I slipped off the shirt I was wearing quickly—my life as a succubus and a daeva made it easy to ignore my own nudity when I had to—and pulled the black silk replacement on. Both the pants and the shirt were roughly the right size, luckily, but while the jeans covered my left leg pretty easily, the shirt’s sleeves were too short—
There was something else, that had been hidden under the shirt.
A very long black glove that appeared to be long enough to reach all the way up to my shoulder. I picked it up, hesitant, and slipped it on only to discover that it was made of the finest silk, not the cheap mass-produced stuff the Minervas made, but the slow and perfect Lolth silk.
And it did reach all the way up to my shoulder, hiding my entire right arm perfectly. Even the elbow bent at the right place, and I had a feeling that if I still had any real feeling in that arm, it would have breathed like air.
Akane and Adam would have dismissed it as coincidence. Probably Derek, too. Laura would have thought about it a bit, before deciding that it didn’t matter as long as it wasn’t hurting her.
But I had watched too much tv for any of that. Stuff this convenient always came with strings attached. Enemy action, payment for services rendered from a mysterious benefactor… there were all sorts of explanations. None of them were random. The universe was rarely so lazy.
I needed to process this. But… whether an ambush or something else, someone expected me to pick these up. They then expected me to do something else. I needed to figure out what that was, so that I could throw off their plan, whatever it was. So if they thought I would go straight, I should go left… but what if they anticipated that…
Okay, I could already see that this was going to get ridiculous very quickly. I was going to drive myself crazy if I tried to outmaneuver someone I had never met, and who might not actually exist. Faced with no other option, I just continued walking down the street, trying not to wince every time I heard distant gunfire.
I walked a few blocks, not quite sure where I was going. I knew that I needed information, but I also knew that I couldn’t go to any of my friends. The Paladins and the retinue would just confine me to NHQ for my own safety—escaping wouldn’t be too hard, but I didn’t want to have to kill ‘sarians if I didn’t have to.
My orphanage was dust and ash, with the few people who had graduated before me out of reach. The daevas might help if I asked, but more likely they’d just call Butler. Even Lily wasn’t an option. She hated me. I had known the rumors about her compassion were exaggerations, but it had still hurt to get shunned like that by her, of all people.
Who else was there? In the absolute worst case scenario, I could go to the fey, but I wasn’t that desperate yet. Maybe I should have taken up that ghoul’s offer. At least pumped him for a little bit of information. Tezuka’s name, why did I always think of these things only after.
Even slipping into an internet cafe and checking Fundie wasn’t really an option. MC would track me in half a second. The stolen phone I was using had all the good options password protected, and my hacking skills were best described as nonexistent.
How did people get information before the internet? Somehow, I didn’t think hanging out in a bar or at an inn would work as well as it did in anime. I couldn’t stay in a bar for long anyway; I looked too young. They’d want an ID, which I didn’t have.
Whether for internet or overhearing conversations, a cafe was probably my best bet. I just needed to stay out of Central, where the Paladins and Lily spent most of their time. This area might actually have more than normal, to service the businessmen and the like—
“This is Eliza Cassan, with a special report.”
I was passing an electronics store. Cell phones and laptops, it looked like. Portable things that the working man liked. For some reason, there was a television in the window, tuned to the local news station. That was a bit odd, but far from unheard of. It was convenient for people who didn’t have space in their homes. After all, cell phones still weren’t very good at streaming video like this.
“Just moments ago, this studio received a call from Artemis Butler himself,” she continued. “It appears that the president of the United States is giving a national address at the moment, and it is relevant to the interests of this city.”
What? Since when did we pipe in direct news feeds from America—or anywhere else, for that matter? Even second and third-hand news from the outside world was a little hard to come by. Our internet didn’t connect to them directly, and no one really cared enough for the reporters to investigate more than the bare minimum.
But if the Big Boss thought it was important…
The scene shifted, to a view of a man standing at a podium in front of a flag with red and white stripes. There were flashes every couple of seconds, and I belatedly realized that the man was standing in front of a crowd of reporters, and they were all taking pictures constantly.
“My fellow Americans,” the man said in a slow and calm voice. “Thirty years ago, Domina City was founded as part of a cooperative effort on the part of several nations—including our own. The goal was to give prisoners jobs and lives, and to see if they could be trusted with colonization, including our blossoming space program.
“The undertaking was a complete and utter failure. The criminals overran the city within months, if not weeks, and communication was lost not soon after, with the last word being a hurried call from the warden as his office was raided.
“At the time, we had neither the will nor the manpower to retake the island. There was simply no need. We—and many other nations—simply continued sending them new prisoners, and the gangs that controlled the city retained enough sanity not to disrupt that supply line.
“Fifteen years ago, a prisoner named Doctor Isaac Clarke perfected a biological manipulation device, which he named the toy maker. He tested this by giving a young girl devil horns, and broadcast the information and schematics across the scientific community.
“America led the charge to criminalize use of the toy maker, though exceptions were made for military use. We were, with great difficulty, able to communicate with the doctor, who agreed to abide by the new laws. Due to the unstable status of the city, little more thought was given to it.”
He took a deep breath, and I slowly realized how difficult this must be for him. This wasn’t a quick update on a war or minor shootout. He had something important to say, and he hadn’t even gotten to it yet.
“It has long been my dream to bring peace to that broken city,” he said, his voice rising in strength. “But it has always been deemed too dangerous, not worth the risk. As long as the prisoners sit there quietly, the entire world has been content to ignore it.”
He stepped aside, and the flag-curtain behind him parted to allow someone in a hooded cloak through. They stepped up to the president, face carefully hidden as much as humanly possible.
“Several months ago, a survivor fled the city,” the president explained. “She told a very different tale than the one we knew. Instead of roving bands of impossible to control gangs, there were massive cultures, led by dictators with more soldiers than some nations. Instead of small arms, harmless to any organized army, they possess weapons that could threaten us if used properly—a surprise strike could take out New York. Bring the towers tumbling down like dominoes.”
Another deep breath.
“And instead of a city where they at least pretend to uphold the law, we have one where the worst nightmares of fifteen years ago walk the streets in broad daylight.”
The woman pulled down her hood.
And revealed a hawk’s head, with gray feathers and golden beak. Large, darting golden eyes scanned the room, reveling in the shocked and appalled gasps of the reporters in the audience, blinking in the sudden increase of camera flashes.
“This young woman is named Sele,” the president said loudly, over the turmoil. “She has been modified by the toy maker to look like this. She is not the only one. There are a half dozen more of her closest friends who fled with her.”
Her damned warhawks. I felt my fist clenching tight enough to crack stone.
“Sele has warned that Domina City is no longer content to sit idly by, taking the prisoners and supplies we send to them. They are gearing up for something more. An attack on American soil, with no provocation whatsoever. She fled when it was discovered that she planned to warn us.”
What? What in the velvet-draped halls of Shendilavri was he babbling about? …oh, of course. Lupa had spun up a little fairy tail for him so that she could kill off everyone who had driven her out. Cute.
“We must strike first, and strike hard. These people have had fifteen years to use this hellish device to come up with all manner of plagues and diseases that they plan to unleash on us. I have seen the reports, written by the scientists in charge of these projects. I am not a religious man—but if sin could have a physical form, a plague that makes everyone burst into flame in sunlight might be it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Oh right, that thing the angels had tried to make for use against the vampires. I thought that didn’t work. Even if it did, what reports and scientists would he have seen to convince him that it was an imminent threat—
I closed my eyes. The Granit. The Imperialist party. They… actually had been developing that sort of thing, for exactly the reasons he had just said. Oops. Was kinda regretting voting for that Ozoliņš lady last time…
“As we speak, I am forming a large task force, several battalions strong, to take Domina City and bring it back into the rule of law. They will liberate the people of these gangs of monsters controlling them, and restore the colony to its rightful place in our great nation.”
The view switched to a reporter I didn’t recognize, and it took me a second to realize that it was still the feed from outside the city. Some dark-skinned baseline woman was pretending to look all grim.
“That was President Richard Martinez, live from the Pentagon, detailing a new military action against the prison-island located off the coast of the state of New York. We now go to our panel of experts, who will discuss whether such a drastic action is truly necessary.”
The view switched back to Eliza Cassan before they got to the experts.
She was saying something. Something about safety, and trusting Necessarius or maybe the nicer warlords, I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention. None of that mattered anymore. Not Butler, not his mouthpieces in the media, not even the city itself.
I had Soaring Eagle’s location. I had a target.
The Pentagon. I had no idea where that was, but it sounded important. The kind of thing that people outside the city would know where it was. All I had to do was ask someone once I was outside.
I turned around and started marching towards the west gate… before reconsidering, and heading back in the direction of the ghoul from before.
I had a whore to kill, and an old friend to rescue.
I’d need at least a little help.
Behind the Scenes (scene 263)
Ling doesn’t have quite enough information to understand the source of her luck, since she’s been out of contact for months.