Monthly Archives: May 2016

Scene 269 – Sollemne

SOLLEMNE

DEREK

A party felt like a stupid idea.

But we needed this, dammit. After months of stumbling from crisis to crisis, we needed something that didn’t involve monsters or assassinations or superpowered goddesses from the future.

More people had come than I expected. In addition to the rest of the Paladins and the retinue, five of Akane’s kensei—plus both her nephews—had come, and were chatting amiably with the half-dozen scientists Laura had brought. It seemed like they had met before at NHQ, and were now discussing some old missions. Akane had more kensei, but they seemed to mostly be busy right now.

The real surprise was that Simon, Seena, and all their friends had come as well. I recognized Simon’s girlfriend and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and her bodyguards (who had been polite enough to leave their guns at home), but the last girl, who Seena had called Veda, was unfamiliar. She wore a big concealing cloak and seemed to be avoiding me, which usually meant that I had tried to kill her at some point. Oh well, as long as she didn’t start something, it was fine.

“Nice party,” Adam said with a smirk as he walked up, Lily on his arm.

She elbowed him in the ribs. “Be nice.”

He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”

“I know this might seem like a bad time to throw a party—”

He laughed. “You kidding? It’s the perfect time. I grew up in New York high society. Most of the best parties were when there was some crisis that everybody was trying to distract themselves from. But this…” He winced. “At least the food’s nice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It looks like people are having a good time.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“They are,” Lily said, half to me and half to Adam. “They’re not just putting on a show. They’re genuinely enjoying themselves.”

“Except for the retinue.”

I glanced over at the group. They were easy to spot, due to George being the only giant on the roof. George was eating something mechanically, and Kat was doing something on her phone. Jarasax actually seemed to be having an animated conversation with one of Eccretia’s bodyguards, but Alex…

Alex looked like a zombie. I wasn’t sure he was even conscious of where he was.

After everything that had happened with Kelly, it was probably a miracle he even got out of bed in the morning. Actually, considering that he didn’t sleep, it might be that he just hadn’t gone to bed after all this happened.

Kelly… Fierna… had released a statement to the rest of the city, declaring the Belians and Phlegethos hers. There had been talk of war, but right now she seemed to be busy purging her house of discontent. None of the other vampires, or Necessarius, wanted to deal with her.

“It’s a miracle she didn’t kill him,” Adam said quietly. “That’s gotta be freaky.”

I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t mentioned what I had overheard, and didn’t see a need to do so now. I shouldn’t have heard it in the first place. Should have just left when I had the chance, no need to stay…

“You have that look in your eye,” Lily said wryly.

“What look?”

“The look you get when you’re blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault.”

I sighed. “I don’t need you to mother me, Lily.”

She raised her hand, forestalling the point. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just saying this as a friend, Derek. Whatever it is, let it go. You did everything you could, and it would have turned out worse if you weren’t there.”

I rolled my eyes. “You don’t even know what it is.”

She smirked. “You always do everything you can, and it always turns out better from your presence. You really aren’t a hard one to read, little hero.”

Please don’t start calling me that.”

She laughed, and pulled Adam away. “Come on. Nervi’s set up some of her pumpkin roast. Have you tried it yet?”

I shook my head as they walked away, and nearly ran headlong into Laura, who was walking up with a couple drinks. Sodas, thankfully. Good thing Nervi didn’t cater alcohol—I would have drank most of it already.

“This one is yours,” Laura said without missing a beat, handing me a can of Cerean something or other. The logo was stylized, I couldn’t tell what it said. The only reason I knew it was from Ceres was because their cans are always rectangles.

I took it, but frowned at the more normal can in her hand. “Shouldn’t we switch?”

She shrugged, taking a swig. “That was the last one.”

She had been trying to get me to try some Cerean brand for a while now. I guess this was it. I cracked open the lid, slightly annoyed at the lack of fizz (carbonation was a horrible idea when shooting giant packages through space) and sipped at it. It tasted light and fruity.

Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”

“No, I do, I just—” I stopped. “I don’t know why I even thought of lying to you.”

She took my arm lightly and led me to one of the groups. Scientists, I was pretty sure, but most of Akane’s kensei had left their swords at home, so it could be them. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse. Try overhearing a man telling his wife where he was last night, and realizing every word is a lie.”

I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”

“Blackmailed him later,” she said pleasantly. “That was fun.”

Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.

“Derek, these are some of the Clarke’s researchers. You’ve probably met them all before at some point or another.”

“I know I’ve met you,” I said, indicating a kemo with bat ears. Those were rare. I couldn’t even remember what the subculture was called. Well, microculture. “You’ve helped patch me up once or twice.”

She nodded. “I have a degree in medical applications of the toy maker. One of my main projects is to study our Honored Mother, to make sure her newest toys can be added safely.”

“You know she doesn’t like being called that,” one of the men warned.

The bat kemo smiled slightly. “I know. She tells me it every day.”

“What about the rest of you?” I asked, steering the topic onto grounds I felt more comfortable with. “What do you all do with Clarke? Are any of you working with him on…” I frowned, and turned to Laura. “What’s that thing he’s working on these days?”

“The heart,” she answered. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation. He almost cracked it before the Rampage, and now he basically has.”

The male researcher, the black man who had warned about the Mother Monster, snorted. “Yeah, using his power he’s cracked it. But that’s cheating. What happens if he dies, or if he’s just busy and we can’t find another exomorpher? He needs to focus more on the toy box itself, not playing with his power.”

“I’m still catching him morphing his skin when he thinks no one is looking,” Laura said. “It’s going to take a bit longer for the novelty to wear off.”

“Are people like Clarke that rare?” I asked. “With that power, I mean.”

The researcher thought about it. “A little. No one here has it, but there are more than a few scattered around NHQ. But that’s not the point. We don’t understand these powers, and shouldn’t be trusting them. What if Silk comes back and snaps her fingers, turning them all off?”

I glanced at Laura, who didn’t look as concerned as she should have. The man had a point. Silk had given us a way to disrupt powers, who knew what else she could do. I still didn’t trust her, no matter that Laura had been pointing her power at her the entire time. For all we knew, she had some way to dodge that ability.

“Excuse us,” Laura said as she tugged on my arm, pulling us away from the group. “Speaking of Clarke, his daughter just landed.” She was right, Robyn had just floated down, carrying a case of beer. Still, the second we were out of earshot, she quietly said “You had that look on your face.”

I sighed. “Everyone is noticing looks on my face tonight. What is it this time?”

She smirked a little, but quickly turned serious. “That look when you’re worrying about something you shouldn’t.”

“Is that the same as my ‘everything is my fault’ face?”

“No, of course not.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I am worried about Silk.”

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do about her.”

Before I could retort, we were within a couple steps of Robyn, and Laura was all smiles for her. “I thought you had decided to skip.”

She managed a small smile of her own. “Nope. Just grabbing some beer.” She hefted the six-pack.

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a good idea?”

She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”

“Yes.”

No,” Laura cut in. She gave me a look. “If I can’t drink, you can’t drink. That was the deal.”

“I said that when I thought there wouldn’t be any alcohol here at all,” I grumbled.

Robyn looked between us. “Why can’t you drink?” Her eyes twinkled with amusement. “Are you pregnant?

What?

“Of course not!” Laura added. “Silver and gold, when would we even had time to do that?”

I glanced at her. “That’s why you think it’s improbable? Just timing?”

Robyn snorted. “Please, if this city wasn’t constantly in danger, you two would never leave the bedroom.”

I felt myself go beet red, but Laura didn’t seem surprised at all. “Don’t exaggerate. Technically, we’re not even dating.”

“Technically nothing!” I squeaked. “We’re not dating! Period!”

She gave me a sidelong glance.

I thought back to the last month or so. Farther back, actually, all the way to the reveal of Elizabeth’s identity. About the amount of time we had been spending together, the lunches and dinners we had taken alone, without anybody else around, and all the other girls I had been turning down.

“Crap,” I muttered.

Robyn smirked. “I know a nice jewelry store if you need to apologize.”

I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

Laura was amused as well, but she kept a better lid on it. “No need for jewelry, I promise. The look on your face is apology enough.”

“Glad you find my pain funny.”

She just smiled. “Come on. You need to meet some people.” She pulled me away.

“Robyn, share,” I called back. “Don’t drink all of that by yourself.”

She flipped me off with a winning smile.

We walked across the roof, weaving through the crowd, and I tried to find the words. “I’m… sorry. That I didn’t notice we were dating.” Then I chuckled. “I think that might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.”

“I’m sure you’ve said worse.” She squeezed my arm tighter, laying her head on my shoulder briefly. “And I knew you were being an idiot, but didn’t say anything. It’s as much my fault as yours.”

“That’s not true and you know it. A little your fault, sure, but I think this is a time I really do deserve the lion’s share of the blame.” I blinked as a thought occurred to me. “Do our parents know?”

“I haven’t mentioned it to them, but that doesn’t mean much. Thieves are good at figuring things out, especially when they’re close friends with Butler.”

I groaned. “Butler knows.”

“Of course he does. Clarke doesn’t, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does, actually.” We slipped into the edge of the crowd of swordsmen and swordswomen at the corner of the roof. “Akane! How are you enjoying the party?”

At the center of the group, Akane sat on a table, sipping a drink and smiling. I couldn’t remember the last time I really, truly saw her smile, but here she was.

She raised the drink in my direction. “Derek. Good party.”

“Auntie Akane was just telling us about the first time you two fought a gargant,” one of the younger swordsmen explained. One of her nephews, obviously. Yuuki, I was pretty sure. “Was it really a full-sized blind-rammer?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Oh, don’t remind me of that disaster. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t bring the whole building down on us.”

“And somebody forgot to buy insurance,” Akane said, still smiling.

“And I forgot to buy insurance,” I said. “So we were liable for the damages.” I shook my head. “I think we spent the whole next year paying that one off.”

“She also claims you managed to kill a deathmarked,” another kensei said. This was the other nephew, Yuudai.

“We crushed it in a car compactor. It’s dead.” I swallowed. “Pretty sure.”

Sometimes I still had dreams of that thing coming after us.

Laura tugged on my arm before the silence could get too awkward. “We’ll let your boss regale you with her old war stories, kids. Mister Huntsman and I need to speak with Noble Nyashk.”

I knew an out when I saw one, and gave polite nods to them as we left. I was actually a little surprised when she pulled us towards Seena and her group, which included her brother and his girlfriend, the changeling warlord and her bodyguards, and the hooded woman.

“Noble Nyashk,” Laura said by way of greeting. “I’m pleasantly surprised that you came.”

“Dame Laura,” Seena answered in kind. “I got your invitation. It seemed downright criminal not to put in an appearance.”

“How is your new job treating you?”

She sighed. “I’m one of two warlords trying to hold the Mals together, and the other one is Zepar. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure the culture is going to survive the winter.”

“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “People always need assassins.”

“Our methods are going out of style. People prefer more subtlety than knives in the dark. Contracts are starting to dry up.” She shrugged. “But powers change the game. We’ll see, we’ve had some recent successes.”

“What’s your power, by the way?” I asked.

She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”

“Mine’s one of the stock vampire ones,” Simon said before things could get awkward. He held out his scarred hand, and shadows writhed in his hand. “I can make darkness. Shadows deep enough that even a vampire can’t see through them. Cool, huh?”

“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.

She shrank at the attention. “It’s… weird. I kind of… turn into electricity?”

I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”

“No, I don’t have enough control for that. I’m just… electricity. It kinda works like teleportation, but I have no control over where I end up, I just kind of randomly rematerialize somewhere within ten feet of my starting point.” She shrugged. “Like I said, it’s weird.”

Laura, however, looked thoughtful. “There might be something more to that. Maybe you can stop by NHQ tomorrow morning, we can run some tests.”

Yolanda shivered. “I’m not big on tests.”

“Exercises, then. No needles.”

“…okay.”

“I fix things,” one of Eccretia’s bodyguards said. Ferenil, I think.

His boss glared at him. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”

“I reverse time!” the other man, Domothon, said.

Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” I said. “Reverse time, and keep your mouth shut this time.”

He winced. “I just did. It was out of reach.”

I blinked. “…five seconds is out of reach?”

“Yes,” he grumbled. “And it takes forever for my reservoir to recharge. I mostly just use it in emergencies, like when I get shot.”

Ferenil slapped him across the face.

“Gods of men and darkness, what was that for!?

“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”

Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.

“I’m guessing you don’t feel like sharing, Honored Paragon,” I said to change the subject.

Eccretia scowled. “No. I might as well at this point, but I’m not going to. I’m sure you understand. You all hid your powers for as long as possible.”

I shrugged. “We were considering coming out for a long time. Elizabeth forced our hands.”

“Robyn hid it from us for a while,” Laura added. “We only found out when she saved us from an ambush.” She shook her head and took a sip of her soda. “Irresponsible. Understandable, but irresponsible.”

“It all worked out in the end. And besides, she was helping us.” The others looked at me blankly. “MC knew,” I explained. “Robyn acted as her scout. So she saved our lives a few times.” I tried not to grind my teeth. “…but she could have done better.”

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Miss Korrapati,” Laura said to the girl in the hooded cloak. “What’s your power? My first guess would be speed, or perhaps shapeshifting.” She shook her head. “No, any form of identity concealment wouldn’t need the hood, of course…”

The girl shuffled on her feet. “Kinesis. You know, moving things with my mind? Small things, mostly. I’m a tinkerer, so it helps me build things.” She shrugged. “Simple, but nice.” She chuckled. “Better than this friend of mine. He got one of those vampire draining things. He refuses to use it, so he’s basically powerless.”

“What does he drain?” I asked.

“Life.”

“Ah.” Yes, that would be hard to use ethically.

“I’m sure he could find a use for it,” Laura said, smiling pleasantly. “Has he tried draining animals?”

The hooded girl shook her head. “Only works on humans, as far as he can tell.”

I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”

“Lots of powers are,” Laura said. “One of the ‘sarians at NHQ can’t use her telekinesis unless she’s wearing leather gloves. Pretty powerful when she has the gloves, though.”

While I frowned in confusion, everyone else nodded. I guess they all had more interaction with weird powers than me. I mostly just knew the Paladins and Akane’s kensei.

I opened my mouth to say something, but Simon looked at something behind me. “Who’s that waving at you?”

“Hm?” I turned to see George the giant waving from across the rooftop. “Oh, that’s the retinue.” I paused, thinking. “I don’t want to just leave you guys—”

They waved us off. “No, it’s fine, just go.”

I nodded in thanks then peeled away, Laura still on my arm as we navigated the crowds.

“Be careful,” I told her quietly.

She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”

“Just in general. We don’t want to depress them any more than they already are.”

She looked like she had a retort ready for that, but didn’t say anything as we walked up.

“George,” I said with a smile. “What’s up? You enjoying the party?”

He smiled weakly. “Best as I can, sir. Best as I can. I was just wondering if you had any specific plans for us during the battle.”

I winced. “You don’t need to be involved.”

“With all due respect, sir, working makes us feel better.”

Kat and Jarasax nodded. Alex hadn’t so much as acknowledged our presence.

“All right…” I thought for a moment, before turning to Laura. “Vampire domain?”

She nodded. “Best place to put them. Alex will be most useful there, and the rest are used to working in those sorts of conditions. We’ll stick you on East Gate.”

I frowned, then leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Where are the Belians going to be, again?”

She stiffened, then cursed under her breath. “Of course. West Gate, then, with the angels.”

George nodded. “Probably for the best.”

I gave Alex a look. “You fine with that?”

He shrugged. “The Saints have forgiven the ‘sarian angels. Mostly.”

“Not what I meant.”

He turned away. “Yeah, well, it’s the most pressing matter. I’ll live.”

I sighed, and turned to the kemo of the group. “Kat. How is your power treating you? It must be hard, since you didn’t get one that matches your personality.”

She shrugged, and signed something.

“She’s been going to a support group for the bats and bleeders and so on,” George translated. “She’s doing okay.”

She signed something else.

“The biters have it worse.”

I nodded. Yeah, that was a weird one. The skins and the bleeders too, but at least they didn’t have that permanent morphing thing. That wasn’t going to be fun if it wasn’t what you wanted, deep down.

“And you, George?” Laura asked. “What’s going on with you these days? I know the giants are still having some difficulties without the Hammer, but war hasn’t broken out yet.”

He waved a massive hand. “I barely pay attention to the culture any more. Yeah, what’s happening to them sucks, but they’ll survive. I’ve got my own stuff going on.”

“Which is?”

“Well, besides the retinue, uh…” He thought for a minute. “Been pretty big on online gaming recently.”

“Need to do something with all that free time,” Jarasax said with a smile.

“Isn’t the Big Boss sending you on missions?” I asked. “Helping the CS-squad, that sort of thing? You have the most experience with powers, so I just assumed you’d be part of it. Maybe get folded in completely.”

Sax shook his head. “We were, but with… everything that’s happened, we’re kind of on enforced leave right now.”

I winced. “That might not be the best idea.”

George nodded. “I’d feel better if we were working regularly.”

“I’m sure if you explain the situation, he’ll be happy to put you on more missions.”

“Now isn’t the time for it, though,” Laura said. “With war just around the corner.”

“They haven’t attacked yet. May as well get this settled, instead of just waiting around forever.”

“Guys…” Sax said, jerking his head at Alex.

The poor angel looked like his brain was shutting down. This was simply not something he wanted to think about.

“…another time, then,” Laura said. “We’ll see you around.” She led me away.

“Well, at least that wasn’t a complete disaster,” I muttered.

“It could have been worse,” she agreed. “I have no idea how, but it could have been.”

“Yeah…” I shook my head. “Poor bastards. I think they might be looking forward to the war a little too much.”

She winced. “You don’t think they’ve gone suicidal.”

“Alex is the only one I’m really worried about.”

“…but the rest are spoiling for a fight.” She nodded. “They want to do something. Maybe you’re right about them needing more jobs. I’ll talk to Butler tomorrow. See if he can’t find something for them to do.”

“Maybe we can—” I frowned as I realized she was leading me to the stairs. “Were are we going?”

“Downstairs.”

“Yes, I got that.”

She squeezed my arm and laid her head on my shoulder. “I meant back to the dorms.”

“What do you—oh.” Huh.

That was…

Huh.

She chuckled. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”

She smiled. “Maybe. But flustered is cuter.”

I opened the door for her. “After you.”

Her eyes twinkled, and she laughed as we left the party.

Behind the Scenes (scene 269)

I had a huge romance arc for Derek and Laura planned. A long arc revolving around the remnants of his mind control, their interactions as children, and the reason she left South Central in the first place. I decided to go with a simpler option, keeping it mostly offscreen, because it just wasn’t working. Too reliant on cliches and so on.

break

Scene 268 – Praeparatio

PRAEPARATIO

LAURA

“We need to prepare,” I said.

Derek just smiled. “I am preparing.”

“I meant going over battle plans and searching for weaknesses in our defense. Not eating sandwiches.”

“But they’re good sandwiches.”

I rubbed my forehead and counted to ten. “Derek, the most powerful military in the solar system has declared war on us. We do not have time for sandwiches.”

“Don’t forget Fierna,” Akane said as she pulled up a chair and sat down. She had been a bit annoyed ever since her capture by the Belians and subsequent release. She didn’t like losing, but then, who did?

I sighed. “Yes, and there’s also Fierna and that whole storm. On the plus side, I think this means the Belians will help us defend the city.” I rolled my eyes. “Now we just need to get the other hundred cultures behind us.”

Derek took a bite of his sandwich and frowned. “I fwoght thwat wath—”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

He swallowed. “I thought that was going well? You said even the Acheroni warlords are getting behind the defense. Silver and gold, even Wee Jas and Hextor are helping, right? Who else is there?”

“There’s a lot. For Acheron, the Cabal Macabre and Scourgehold are the exceptions, not the rule. Besides them and Nishrek, no one is helping in the slightest. They’re just boarding up their own doors, hoping to wait it out.” I made a face. “I was hoping this would finally force those idiots at Tintibulus to work with Clarke, but that looks like it’s not in the cards.”

Akane snorted derisively. I ignored her.

“But we got the angels,” Derek insisted. “And most of the vampires. The ones who listen to the Dragon, anyway.”

“Which is barely half. The ghouls, Levisans, Mammonites, Nessians, and Nosferatu are all ignoring his calls to unity. Not to mention smaller subcultures like the skulls, who want nothing to do with all this.” I shook my head. “The kemos are worse. We got the lupes and about half the ursas, but that’s about it.”

“And the giants are still dealing with the aftermath of Mjolnir,” he mused, before munching on his sandwich again. It did smell really good.

“Everyone’s doing their best,” I said, trying to ignore the food. “It’s just not enough.”

“So we might actually lose,” Akane said quietly.

“It’s a real possibility,” I admitted. “Even if we don’t, a whole lot of people are going to die. Oh, and if we somehow do manage to win, there’s always the chance that this will piss them off enough that they’ll just shell us from the mainland.” I smiled weakly. “We have no defense against anything like that. Nothing that will last long, anyway.”

Everything was quiet for a moment.

“Well,” Derek said as he tossed down his empty sandwich wrapper. “That settles it. We’re having a party.”

I blinked. “We’re what?”

He spread his hands wide. “It’s a beautiful day—”

“It’s cold as Maeve’s house, not to mention the whole announcement of war—”

“And we are strapping young individuals who need something to take our minds off everything—everything like the war.” He strode over and pulled me out of my chair with a smile. “Come on, let’s get back to the dorms. We can call people, get something started.”

I sighed as he pulled me across the street towards the campus. I could see it from here; despite being the middle of the day during lunch time, AU was completely abandoned. I couldn’t even remember the last time I went to class, with everything happening. “Derek, no one is going to want to have a party today.”

“Sure they will! We’ll have it on the roof, maybe just after dusk. Miss Nervi can cater.”

I glanced back at his bodyguard. “Akane, help me out here.”

She was checking her phone. “Have to go. Flynn needs me.” She flipped the phone closed. “Call me later. I think my kensei would like it.” With that, her body blurred slightly as she activated her speed, and jumped to the top of the nearest building—roughly a hundred feet straight up.

It bothered me a little that neither Derek or I so much as blinked at this. “See?” he said. “Akane thinks it’s a good idea!”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I’ll go along with it, if only to prove you wrong. But the second Butler calls, we’re out. Understand?”

“Laura,” he said, eyes twinkling. “They’re not going to attack today. I don’t know crap about large-scale armies and all that, but I’m pretty sure it will take more than a few hours to get an army mobilized.”

True, but they could have delayed the announcement until right before they were ready…

We reached our dorm, Derek holding the door open for me politely. “I don’t want a huge thing, but I also want more than the usual crowd. There’s the Paladins, the retinue—especially Alex, he deserves a party more than anyone—and Akane’s kensei. Anyone else?”

I thought about it as we walked to the elevator, past Emily lounging in the booth like always. “There are some scientists from NHQ who could use a day off. Not Clarke, don’t worry. His idea of a fun time involves too many syringes.”

Derek grinned and pressed the button for our floor. “Point. What about Adam’s friends? He have anybody in NHQ?” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, the CS squad. They’d be good, right? They need a break, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure,” I said as the elevator began to rise. “Unfortunately, they’re still needed. There are too many dangerous people with powers running around. We need more of those men, not less.”

“Why don’t they just make more of those… countersong devices, or whatever they’re calling them?”

“Butler wants to make sure everyone who has one is completely trustworthy, not to mention competent.”

He grinned. “It’s not like they’re some ‘sarian secret. The blueprints got published on Fundie. Silk was as good as her word on that, at least.”

Yes, she did seem to keep her promises. I was still worried about her motives. Too many unanswered questions, too many things that could not be true. Trillions of years old? Destroying stars would only slow her down? She wasn’t an enemy, she was a goddess. You couldn’t fight a goddess.

Derek didn’t seem to notice my mind wandering. “Well, whatever, Adam probably treats those kids like subordinates rather than friends anyway. Inviting them would probably be awkward anyway.”

“Probably.”

The doors opened on Derek’s floor, and we piled out. The walls still showed damage from the Rampage, both from a few uncontrolled powers and from Adam’s guns. The worst of it—like a few doors that had been broken down—had been repaired, but for the rest there were just more important things to do. Who cared about a few scratches and bullet holes?

Derek’s room was reasonably tidy, as always. He hardly ever spent any time in here these days, anyway, which helped. I was pretty sure Adam wasn’t even sleeping here any more, judging by his untouched bed.

Derek walked over to his laptop, opened it up, and started typing. “I’ll send you a copy of the invite, which you can send to the NHQ scientists. Same with Akane. Tonight at ten o’clock sound good?”

I shrugged. “Should work. What about Nervi’s catering?”

“Oh, she’ll deliver at any time.” He paused. “Hm… is it wrong to invite Simon and Seena?”

“Uh, no. Why would it be?”

“Well, Seena’s a warlord now. She has stuff to do.”

“Then she won’t come. Still nice to invite her.”

“Fair enough.” He tapped some keys. “Invites sent.”

“Of course, with such short notice, I doubt anyone will come.”

He just rolled his eyes. “What, because we’re all so busy right now? Except for Seena, I think we’re all pretty much just waiting for the ships to show up on the horizon. May as well wait together.”

I sighed and sat on his bed. “Maybe. But they could attack at any moment. We should—”

“We are prepared,” he said, turning away from his laptop to look at me. “You’ve given Butler your plans, and he’s using them as a guide. I have my role ready and understood, and even Adam knows his place in all this. Once the attack starts, yes, we will be needed, but right now we’d just get in the way of the people who do need to prepare.”

I groaned and flopped back on his bed. “You make entirely too much sense for someone who is suggesting we have a party while the world goes to hell.” I blinked. “Oh, speaking of which, Aramazd called, and he’s donating some toys to the attack.”

Derek frowned. “Who?”

“The new Power of the sibriex. He took over after Nhang got his head blown off by the Mals.”

He looked thoughtful. “…that wasn’t under Seena’s direction, was it?”

I considered. “I don’t think so. I know the Mals paid retribution, so whoever it was would be a matter of public record, but why would Seena kill Nhang?”

He rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know. Her life’s gotten a little weird since she became Nyashk. Or before, I guess.” He turned back to his laptop. “One second, I’ll look it up.”

“Is it really that important?”

“I guess not,” he said with a shrug, stepping away from the computer and stretching. “Nhang was never really popular anyway. I hear the ‘sarians barely charged anything, and the sibs didn’t complain.”

“I heard it was a class-1 fine,” I said. That was the biggest fine they could give.

He just rolled his eyes and smirked at me. “You know they could have done worse. Should have done worse, for a warlord and a Gatekeeper of Hell. Any other Power, and the culture would have demanded blood.”

Perhaps. Narek was—had been—a bit unique among the Gatekeepers in that no one really liked him. He was more the head nerd than an actual warlord or leader. Even Malcanthet had the Riven, her willing followers. For a certain definition of ‘willing,’ anyway.

“Anyway,” he continued. “The point is that partying here isn’t going to leave us any less prepared than if we hang out at NHQ. We’ll keep our phones on, all that. Butler will be able to call us when the invasion starts.”

“That’s comforting.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 268)

This is another attempt to avoid showing too much planning on either side before the war. Still not sure if I’ll show the party, since I’m not that great at that sort of thing.

Scene 267 – Advena

ADVENA

LING

Kansas. Silk had teleported us to Kansas. Why Kansas?

The farmer peered down from his seat in the tractor. “Miss, is your friend okay?”

I patted Turgay—covered in a tarp we had found—and smiled, careful not to show my teeth. I could kill this man if I needed to, but my power was still recovering, and my fleshy bits still sore and even torn in places. “He’s just sensitive to the light. We drank way too much last night.” I looked around. “Can you point us to the nearest city?”

We had raided a barn—this guy’s barn, probably—for clothes, but there hadn’t been any transportation we could use. The car with the Kansas license plates had been too rusted over to start. Right now, our only choice was to walk until we found something that could get us back to Domina.

I wasn’t sure if I would go, once we found that plane or boat or whatever. I still felt sick and dark in the soul. But I could at least go looking. Turgay had information that the city needed. If nothing else, he could tell them to not bother sending assassins after Soaring Eagle.

The farmer looked skeptical at my explanation, but shrugged and pointed off to the west. “Sure. Kansas City is that way.”

I bowed politely. “Thank you kindly. Come on, Guy.” We started walking.

“You’re gonna hitch the entire way?” the man behind us asked incredulously.

Actually, I had been planning to walk, but whatever. “Yes, why?”

“It’s like a hundred miles!” He shook his head and sighed. “Give me ten minutes, and I’ll drive you idiots in myself.”

I shook my head. I really didn’t want to give this man more of a chance to see Turgay under the hood. He seemed like a nice man, and I didn’t want to have to kill him. “Oh no, that’s not necessary. I’m sure you’re very busy—”

“A couple hours out of my way isn’t gonna hurt anything.” He waved his hand at the empty fields of dirt. “Not like I have much to do right now, anyway. Just turning the soil.” He turned the tractor back towards his house. “I’ll be back in a minute. Just need to get the car and tell the hubby what’s happening.”

Well, it took him about half an hour to come back, not ten minutes, but it wasn’t like we were going anywhere. If he did call the cops anywhere in the meantime, I didn’t notice, and I’d be able to handle them anyway.

His car turned out to be a dusty old blue pickup with the distinct acrid stench of a gasoline engine, rather than the pure electric ones we used in the cities. The farmer smiled as I wrinkled my nose.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “But we keep the gas-guzzler around for long-distance travel. The electric biddies are nice, but they just don’t have the range. I don’t want to have to charge up again when I’m in the city, you know?”

I nodded as we both piled in. Turgay still hadn’t made a sound, but at least he seemed to be moving on his own now. “I guess I understand that. Sort of.” I shrugged and smiled slightly. “I grew up in a city. Being out here, away from tall buildings, freaks me out.”

The farmer chuckled and changed gears, slowly picking up speed on the dirt road through his property. “Yeah, that’s my problem. Well, opposite, but you know what I mean. I just need open space, you know? Cities feel closed off and small.”

I smiled at that, more genuinely this time. Domina was a lot of things, but small wasn’t one of them. At a hundred miles in diameter, all packed solid with various urban structures, it was probably the largest city in human history. Well, Ceres up in the asteroid belt might be bigger, but I couldn’t remember.

“Your dirt is sweet, by the way,” I said by way of conversation. It just sort of popped out.

He chuckled. “I’m not gonna ask how you noticed that, but yeah. There’s sugar mixed in with the soil. It’s important for the genetically modified crops. Basically, they were made to need lots of sugar to grow, to make it impossible for them to grow wild and uncontrolled.”

“I know a little about that.” Not much, but a little. Domina City used some of the super high-yield modifications for our crops. My matron liked to grow pumpkins big enough for kids to crawl inside after we finished carving them for Halloween. “Do you focus more on size, or efficiency?”

“Efficiency,” he said, pleased that I understood at least a little of what he was talking about. “You gotta take care of the soil, or it will dry up like a well. Of course, no matter how efficient your super-corn is, it’s gonna suck up all the nutrients eventually, but that’s what crop rotation is for.”

“What about blight?” I asked. This was a question that I had no idea of the answer to. Domina didn’t really have to worry about crop blight, since our own fields were so small and they weren’t really our primary food source anyway. But I knew it was still a problem for real farmers outside the city.

He sighed. “That’s been a problem. The blight’s been getting stronger recently. That’s why it’s important to have more than one type of crop. But it’s starting to jump species.” He shook his head. “When a field gets blighted, you gotta burn it, and hope it doesn’t infect anything else. I hear they’re actually starting to invent new types of crops, making new species to stay ahead of the blight. Corn crossed with wheat or whatever. I dunno, I’m not sure that’s gonna work, but my husband is confident that he can make the new cash crop. There are lots of people like him, so someone will figure it out.”

I had to admit, I was starting to get a little bored of this conversation, but I still had to bring it up. “What about blight eaters?”

The farmer looked away from the dirt road for a moment to raise an eyebrow at me. “Excuse me?”

“Animals that eat the blighted crops,” I explained. “They eat the healthy crops too, of course, but if you’re already planning to burn the whole field, that’s not a big deal. Then you eat the blight eaters. Or feed them to something else and then eat that. Repeat as necessary.”

He was considering the idea, I could tell, but he still looked hesitant. “No, we don’t use anything like that. And I don’t see how it would work. Animals don’t eat blighted crops. Even locusts avoid it, most of the time.”

“You can modify the animals,” I pointed out. I didn’t actually know what they used for modifications out here, but they clearly had something. Maybe just a weaker version of the toy maker? “Make animals that can eat the blight. It’s not that hard.”

“It’s very hard,” Turgay said from behind us. I turned to see him sitting up in the back seat, tarp still pulled low over his face. I could see hints of his beak through the shadows, but hopefully the farmer wouldn’t be looking so hard. “Modifying an animal’s diet isn’t easy, and making it so that they can eat blighted crops without just dying is even harder. Even rats usually can’t do it.”

“But rats can do it,” I countered. That was how we dealt with blight in Domina: Open the gates and let the rats in. “Then they run off and get eaten by something else, so on so on until they end up on your plate. Circle of life.”

“You skipped the part where they walk over to the healthy fields and eat everything there,” the farmer said. “I don’t think that’s an actual plan.”

I shrugged. “Fences.”

“That’s a lot of land to fence off, and besides, rats can dig right through those.”

“Use a sonic fence,” Turgay suggested. “Pointed inward. It emits a tone that drives rats back, but leaves humans unharmed.” He thought for a moment. “Even if humans are harmed, you can just have the workers wear noise-canceling headphones.”

We finally came off the dirt road onto a real asphalt one. I assumed that meant we were leaving the farmer’s property. “Hm… that’s an idea, but those sonic things are expensive. And I fix tractors. I don’t know how to set one of those things up. I’d have to hire someone.”

“Is all that more expensive than losing an entire field with no way to recoup the losses?” I said.

“No… no, I suppose you’re right.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, it’s an idea, I’ll give you that. I’ll bring it up when I get back home. Not sure that anybody’s going to like the idea of eating rats, though.”

I kept my mouth shut. Rats were probably one of the most common meats in Domina, right after dumpster dogs. What else were we going to eat, beef? It cost something like a hundred bucks a pound just to get it raw.

The next hour or so passed in pleasant silence, or rather no talking. Our escort did put some country music on, but he left it low enough that it was just background music rather than blaring. It wasn’t a song I recognized, but of course it wasn’t.

He seemed a nice enough man, and knew better than to pry for details about our lives, which I appreciated. Turgay settled back into his seat, wrapped in his tarp and keeping nice and quiet to reduce the chance of his beak or feathers being seen. All in all, it was a rather pleasant drive through a sunny countryside, full of fields empty for the winter with a handful of exceptions.

It took me a while to realize that we had reached the city. There was no wall around it, no clearly marked borders. I had been to the Dagonite domains before—not to mention had seen this sort of thing on my way to the Pentagon—but it still annoyed me. The city just sprang up like weeds, with no rhyme or reason, growing taller and taller as we reached the center.

Traffic started to get bad as we edged deeper into the city. That reminded me of home, but I had a feeling that our driver wouldn’t exactly feel nostalgic.

“You can let us off here,” I said. We were in stop and go traffic, so we could literally get off anywhere. “I think that freeway entrance up ahead leads out of the city.” That’s what the sign seemed to imply, anyway, but I wasn’t exactly used to reading street signs like that.

The farmer blinked, then smiled. “I completely forgot to ask where you’re going! I was just heading to the hardware store like always. But yeah, I can let you off here if you’re sure. Where exactly are you headed, anyway?”

“The airport.”

He frowned. “That should be at the edge of the city, right? Big open fields?”

I shrugged. “No idea. We’ll figure it out.” I shook his hand firmly. “Thank you very much for the help, sir.”

He frowned down at my gloved right hand, likely noticing that it seemed suspiciously rock-solid for something supposedly made of flesh. I withdrew quickly.

He still managed a smile, and didn’t press. “Well, don’t let me keep you. You kids get home safe.”

I nodded and stepped out of the truck, Turgay doing the same from the back.

We found ourselves in a world gone mad.

Everything about this city was wrong. The ‘scrapers weren’t even really skyscrapers, not really. Oh, there were tall buildings, forty or even a hundred stories tall, but most were more like twenty, and there were plenty of short five or ten story buildings as well. I even saw some one story buildings. What was even the point of building them that short?

The cars were all of designs I didn’t recognize, more metal than plastic on their frames. I suppose that just made sense, since they didn’t have to deal with the sea air rusting everything, but it was still odd from my perspective. Even if a lot of Domina companies just randomly thought it fun to make outlandish design choices, it was still more familiar to me. I would have felt more comfortable if I saw at least one car with a hovercraft booster fan on the back.

And of course, there were the people.

They were… white and black and brown, and that was it. No purples or reds or yellows, not even any snow white or jet black colors. Even the hair was depressingly mundane, without any pink or blue or anything even slightly interesting.

No one had any fangs, or claws, or scales or feathers or horns or even daygoggles. There were no giants shoving their way through the crowds, no goblins leaping around the fire escapes, and no kemos clambering up the walls. For crying out loud, no one was even armed.

“This place freaks me out,” Turgay muttered from under his tarp as the crowd pushed him from behind. No one had noticed anything odd about him yet, but I knew it was inevitable. His tarp would come off and start a riot any minute.

“Come on,” I said, pulling him towards an empty alley. “Let’s get on the roofs, get a better view.”

Clambering up the fire escapes was more annoying than it should have been. I was able to levitate up without any difficulty, lowering the ladder for Guy, but why was that even necessary? There should have been some chain or something to pull it down from the ground. Stupid Kansas.

Still, we got to the roof of the annoyingly short building easily enough, giving us a nice wide panoramic view of the city, without any of those pesky people annoying me just by their presence. It wasn’t their fault or anything, but still. They were annoying.

“Took you idiots long enough.”

We both wheeled around to see a woman, with bronze skin and jet-black hair, sitting on a nearby air conditioner with a completely bored expression on her face. She had her legs crossed, and she was wearing dark jeans and a loose t-shirt.

“…who are you?” I asked after a moment, when it became clear that she wasn’t going to attack us. Not right away, at least.

“You can call me Nephorthees,” the woman said, raising her hand as if to tip her hat, despite not actually wearing one. “Silk sent me. Said you might need a little bit of help today. Something something war this, war that.”

We didn’t have time for this. “Yes, a war is coming to Domina city! We need—”

“Oh, already?” Nephorthees said, yawning. “I thought it was later. Maybe I really should start reading those stupid memos she sends out.” Another yawn. “Anyway, you’re not getting back to your city just yet.”

I fell into a fighting stance. “You think you can stop us?”

She quirked her head and eyed my stance critically. “Spread your feet out more. Someone with your powers needs raw strength more than speed. You need to be solid as a rock, or people will bowl all over you.”

I tried not to blush as I followed her advice. “F-fine! We’re still getting past you!”

“Yeah, no you’re not.” She didn’t look any more interested than a couple minutes ago. “Even if you could somehow manage that, the chances of you getting a flight to New York, then a boat to your little island, are laughably small.”

Then she was behind me. Between blinks, she just disappeared from in front of me and was suddenly there behind me. I could feel her presence, but before I could wheel around and attack, she had kicked me in my rear and sent me stumbling forward.

By the time I turned, she was gone again.

“I can teleport,” she said calmly. I turned to see her sitting in the same spot as before, calm as can be. “You can’t. That basically means I win, end of story. Even if you manage to escape me, I know where you’re going.”

I wanted to fight, but I knew when I was outmatched. “Fine. What do you want?”

Next to me, Turgay put a claw on my shoulder. I ignored the attempt at comfort.

Nephorthees didn’t seem to care one way or the other. “I told you. I want to help.”

“Help how?

She smiled thinly. “By helping you assassinate a few key players before this little war of yours even gets started.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 267)

Ling’s scenes always take so long, and I have trouble with Turgay. But she works well with Nephorthees, so the next one with them will be nice and smooth.

Scene 266 – Sepulcrum

SEPULCRUM

LING

Reaching the Pentagon was easier than expected.

It wasn’t that far, all things considered, and sneaking onto a train headed in the right direction had been child’s play. From there, all I had to do was walk right into the base, crush the guards trying to stop me, and rip open the titanium bunker with claws of concrete and a small earthquake.

“I am Grave,” I said to Soaring Eagle. “And I am going to bury you.”

“What are you waiting for?” the nearby elderly Asian—Japanese, maybe—woman in a crisp military uniform snapped at her guards. “Now!

Finally finding their brains and overcoming their shock, they opened fire.

They weren’t guns I recognized. Some company we didn’t have in Domina. Then again, we only had a bare handful of outsider guns imported anyway. They were handguns, though, and big ones. These clearly weren’t just for defense—they were for putting me down.

I could survive them without too much difficulty. The concrete that made up my bones was mostly bulletproof, and I could repair any damage they did cause. The problem was, I couldn’t repair my flesh in the same way.

So I dodged.

People make such a big deal about dodging bullets, but it’s not that hard. Oh, dodging a bullet is impossible for anyone without the highest-level reflex buffs, or Akane’s super speed. But dodging a guy pointing a gun at you was easy enough.

I grabbed my bones and jerked myself to the side, a direction my assailants wouldn’t have been able to anticipate me moving. Their first shots missed, the thunder and gunsmoke filling the small space with a ringing and a lingering acrid stench.

I lunged forward, my feet barely touching the ground—just enough to save my reservoir a bit of power—and plunged my right arm, the one made of stone, into the heart of the first guard. He gurgled, and fell, but the other three didn’t let up. I interposed their friend’s corpse between me and them, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before their bullets started punching through his dead meat.

I charged again, but my target anticipated that, and stepped back. I should have known the same move wouldn’t work twice; these men were not screamers. They had brains, they could think and learn and reason.

On the other hand, I had never seen a screamer trip over some debris.

I was on him like a flash, tossing the corpse I was holding at another guard like a rag doll, and slamming the blade of my hand into the throat of the one on the ground, nearly beheading him with a single strike.

Gunshots impacted my back, where my spine would have been if I still had one. Well, I had one, made of stone as a mimicry of the original artifact, but it would take more than mere bullets to pierce that armor. The bullets embedded in the stone, but a mere thought pushed them back out the holes they had caused in my flesh, and I bandaged the wounds with a flexible layer of concrete.

I turned to see the man staring at me in shock. He had completely failed to anticipate what might happen if I survived, and had gotten too close to ensure what he thought was a killshot. Amateur.

Another strike to the heart, and he was no more.

The last guard had his gun pointed at me, but he didn’t fire.

He was sweating visibly, but his hands were not shaking.

“I have children,” he said quietly.

“So do I,” I noted.

“Then you understand why I want to leave here alive.”

I stepped forward. He didn’t waver, though he did swallow a lump in his throat.

“I just need to kill the whore,” I said, in what I had intended as a reassuring tone, but instead came out cold as ice. “No one else here needs to die. No one else here needs to get in my way.”

He closed his eyes. “Forgive me,” he whispered. I had no idea who he was talking to.

It hardly mattered. He opened fire a split second after his eyes opened, but I was already moving. I swore I could feel the bullet breeze past my skull, but that was probably just the adrenaline talking.

I grabbed his gun arm—with my left hand—and twisted it out of his grip as he screamed for mercy. I broke the wrist, then tossed aside the gun like the trash it was. He was no more threat today.

And then I was facing the aves protecting their King.

“Warhawks,” I said. “I offer you a simple choice: Surrender and live, or fight for a lying whore and die.”

They didn’t so much as blink.

They were all unarmed—likely pretending that they were Soaring Eagle’s friends and allies instead of just her most loyal bodyguards—but they were some of the most powerful aves in existence. Two ran forward like greased lightning, slashing at me with sharp talons from both sides at once.

But despite their speed and strength, they were still aves. They had hollow bones.

I didn’t even bother with anything fancy. The second they got too close, I just backhanded them both. It was dull and unoriginal and if I had a martial arts teacher he would be rolling over in his grave, but it sent the birds smacking into the walls at speeds their frail skeletons couldn’t possibly handle. They crumpled like tissue paper.

Four more warhawks. Then the King.

One charged me from the front while the other tried to ghost me from behind. I tanked the one in front, grabbing her talons as she tried to slash me and crushing the bones with a bare modicum of effort. When she screamed, I reared back and kicked her in the chest, sending her into the wall even harder than the first two.

Three.

I turned to the ghost and backhanded him across the face, shattering the delicate bones behind his beak. I threw him at the ceiling, then caught him and threw him again, and in a moment there wasn’t much left of him but blood and broken bones.

Two.

One of the aves tried to grab one of the fallen guns and point it at me. A futile effort; they were never designed to be used by someone with talons. I casually squashed his head into the floor as I walked by.

The last threw a knife at me. It impacted in my chest, but other than a deep cut to my flesh, there was no damage. A moment’s concentration papered over that as well, stopping the bleeding. I caught the blade with my right hand as it fell, then left a small amount of concrete on it. I threw it with full strength, using my power to increase both its speed and accuracy. The knife-thrower fell over dead, a fist-sized hole where his heart should be.

And then there was only Soaring Eagle.

I stepped forward, savoring the moment more than I should. The hawk-eagle anthro shook, taking a step back at my advance, but ultimately knowing that there was nowhere she could run. She had trapped herself quite neatly.

Then Turgay was there.

“Ling,” he said firmly. “You need to calm down. This isn’t you.”

I didn’t stop. “This is exactly me.”

“You are not a killer, Ling.”

Part of me wanted to agree with him. It really, really did. Part of me wanted to hold him close and cry into his chest, to call up a ‘sarian and offer myself up to the Big Boss for mercy. Part of me wanted to just forget everything.

But there were ten bodies in this room alone, and a dozen more outside. These people weren’t like the screamers, diseases in the shape of men. These were intelligent people who still had their minds and souls.

And I had killed them.

Everyone in Domina City is a killer, Guy,” I said. “Just took me a bit longer than most to get with the program. Now move.”

He didn’t.

I grabbed him by the shoulder and threw him into a wall.

Not as hard as the others, but hard enough that I heard bones snap. He’d survive, but out here, without the toy maker, it would take significantly longer. Weeks, at least. Maybe even months.

“Any last words, Xinivrae?” I growled at the bird in front of me.

She slashed me across the face without hesitation.

Her talons scored deep furrows in the stone I was using as bone. I fixed it immediately, of course, but she still took a significant chunk of my flesh with it. I guess it was supposed to hurt, but after my time in the toy box, pain wasn’t really anything I could summon the will to worry about.

But I could worry about those claws. They were more dangerous than the guns the guards had been using; I should have known that a warlord wouldn’t walk around without some high-level buffs.

Before I could retaliate, she hopped back swiftly out of reach, falling into an unarmed attack stance that I had seen Derek use more than once. I still had no idea what it was called, but I had seen him snap a man’s neck in that stance.

“Dad insisted we both take self-defense classes,” the ave said by way of explanation. “Malcanthet never got past yellow belt, even though she was sleeping with the instructor. But I actually paid attention.”

Wonderful.

I didn’t waste any more time on fancy declarations. I just moved, moved at a speed that I knew she could never match, as I was using my power to throw myself forward, rocketing forward like a missile.

I was right. She couldn’t match my speed.

She exceeded it.

Watching a warlord fight wasn’t like watching a normal fight. Even without any training or real experience, someone like me could watch a real fight and have some understanding of what was happening, could keep track of what was going on.

Keeping track of Soaring Eagle’s fighting was like trying to keep track of lightning.

I felt the impacts on my body, punches and scratches and gouges. But by the time I reacted, by the time I counterattacked, she was long gone, and striking from the other side. Fighting a ghost would have been easier.

But still, I would not be defeated so easily. She was a warlord? Fine. I was something else. Something more. Ling Yu couldn’t defeat Soaring Eagle, but the Lady of the Grave could. I had a promise to keep, after all.

I rolled forward, ignoring the flesh she was slicing off me even as I did. She dug her talons into my back, aiming at my spine, but not even she could cut through it—it was harder than diamond at the moment, as I pressed as much power as I could spare in that spot.

Cutting power aside, the pain was beginning to bother me. In the same way that bright light bothered someone with baseline eyes, but still. She was trying to rip my entire spinal column out of my back. I needed to figure this out before she did. Stone skeleton or not, I was pretty sure that would kill me.

And then I found it.

A small seam in the titanium floor. Barely even a seam. It was folded over and stapled down, and would barely even be visible from the other side—assuming you had somehow managed to burrow underneath the bunker.

Like I had.

I hadn’t been able to do much to prepare this contingency, not without showing my hand. But during my earthquake, when I ripped the door off the bunker, I had also been careful to hit this specific spot a few times.

And now the seam had widened. Just barely.

But enough for me to thin one of my stone fingers to the thickness of a spaghetti noodle, and slip it through.

Enough for me to touch the earth and stone on the other side.

I triggered another earthquake the moment I had the chance. I grabbed all the dirt around the bunker and formed it into giant hands, shaking the titanium box like a tin can. Soaring Eagle was bucked off. She nearly took my spine with her, but in the end she gave before I did. I spared a tiny amount of power to put my skeleton back into place, then turned my attention back to my foe.

Despite the shaking room—which was rapidly draining my reservoir—her incredible buffs allowed her to keep her feet, even though every single other person besides me was on the ground. She locked eyes with me, glared, and charged forward with talons still wet with my blood.

A massive tentacle of stone reached through the open door and wrapped around her legs.

I stopped the shaking the absolute instant I knew I had her trapped. I withdrew my hand from the floor and rose, wincing at pain so severe even I couldn’t just ignore it. I limped forward, my right leg damaged by her attacks, and placed my hand on a nearby extension of the tentacle, placed there so that I could control the larger one.

Soaring Eagle was suspended in the air, the stone wrapped around her wrists and ankles keeping her spread out in an x formation. She struggled briefly, futilely, but quickly calmed down, knowing it was better to conserve her strength in case I made a mistake.

“Any last words?” I asked.

She paused to consider, then opened her beak—

A tentacle of stone burst out of her heart, showering the room with gore.

“I don’t actually care,” I said.

I manipulated the tentacle a bit more, making absolutely sure that her heart was completely destroyed. You always make sure they’re dead. So many problems have been caused by people not double-checking their kills.

“And thus dies Soaring Eagle,” a voice said from behind me. “Founder and Animal King of the aves, formerly Xinivrae, the Black Widow, the Exile, youngest sister of Malcanthet the Succubus Queen.”

I wheeled around, stone tentacles rising over my shoulder, to see—

Elizabeth.

Tall, bronze-skinned, golden-eyed Elizabeth Greene, standing there as pretty as you please.

Rather than the beautiful dresses I normally saw her in—albeit normally bloodstained ones these days—she wore a crisp and sharp black business suit with a stunning royal blue tie that even my amateur eye could tell was of superior material.

Instead of either a false vapid expression or a cruel and animal grin, she wore a quietly confident smile, the exact kind you’d see on any businesswoman about to close a clever deal. If I didn’t know any better, there would be absolutely nothing suspicious about her.

But I did know better.

I formed my hand into a blade again. “This isn’t going like last time.”

“Calm yourself, my lovely little girl.” Even her voice was different. Stronger, calmer, friendlier. “There have been developments since you were afflicted with the calciophage. I am not who you think I am.”

“Is this the part where you claim the whole thing was a misunderstanding?” I said.

“Of course not,” she said smoothly. “My sister is a petty little monster who would kill you with her teeth if given half a chance.” She spread her arms wide. “You are exhausted and spent from your contest with the Dame Soaring Eagle. If they were awake, Hoshi or Martinez could capture you by themselves.”

I looked around, surprised, to find that the general and the president were snoozing on the floor without a care in the world.

“Couldn’t you have done that earlier?” Turgay demanded from his spot on the floor. He didn’t look as injured as I had thought, but he definitely wasn’t going to be dancing a jig any time soon.

“I did,” Elizabeth replied with that same calm confidence. “They’ve been asleep since only a few moments after the door was ripped off. They saw no direct evidence of any supernatural powers, or even warlord-level buffs.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said, his voice thick. “Couldn’t you have put all the guards to sleep? You would have saved their lives, turned it into a one-on-one fight between Ling and Sele. Not this… ” He gestured. “Slaughter.”

“There are several reasons, the most prominent being that I try very hard not to interfere unless I have to.” She indicated the snoozing forms. “They are, to put it bluntly, too important to die here. The guards had their own roles they could have played, but in the end, this is how the story went. That’s all there is to it.”

“I’m not an idiot,” I said. Growled, more like.

The golden woman arched an eyebrow. “What engendered that statement?”

“You’re obviously not Elizabeth. Obvious for about a million reasons, not even getting into you mentioning your sister. I’m not an idiot. I noticed. Now’s the part where you tell me who you are.”

She smiled winningly. “As usual, you prove yourself to be smarter than you pretend. I know everyone acts like you’re a fool, but you really should use that marvelous brain of yours more often.”

I ground my teeth hard enough to leave a thin film of dust in my mouth. “Just answer the question.”

The girl who looked like Elizabeth bowed. “I am known as Silk. Elizabeth is my clone, and is often referred to as my little sister. She is also a pawn in a long and complex plan of mine, which involved the creation of someone like you.”

I clenched my fist. “You did this to me?”

“I set up a variety of situations that could lead to someone of your power existing,” Silk corrected, her tone patronizing like a teacher. “Keeping the toy box in play was one of the more important variables, and the fact that you were immune to the Sauron Field meant that you were always one of the more likely candidates.” She gestured at the only ave anthro still alive in the bunker. “But Turgay was another.”

The bald eagle blinked. “What? I don’t have a power.”

“An easy enough fix.” She sang a few brief and alien notes. “There.”

Turgay clutched his head. “Ooh… what the… ”

“You now have a song,” Silk said genially. “Summoning non-living objects, if I’m not mistaken. That’s an odd one—make good use of it. It can be extremely powerful if you stretch it to its limit.”

“I… I think I need to take a minute… ”

“Probably for the best.” Silk waved her bronze hand, and all my stone tentacles withdrew back out the door, presumably sinking into the earth out of sight.

“I’m not sure whether to thank you for that or kill you,” I muttered. I straightened, looking the her in the eye She was much taller than me. “But I do know that you just admitted to turning me into a monster. Is there any reason that I shouldn’t kill you right here and right now?”

She shrugged. “I wouldn’t blame you. Your creation was for the greater good, of course, but you’re hardly in a position to see that. I understand you have quite a bit of rage you need to burn off. But you should be heading home soon.” She nodded at Turgay. “You too, little eagle. You have no reason to remain outside the city for much longer.”

The ave blanched. “I can’t! They’ll kill me!”

“They’ll be quite forgiving, considering recent events.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Why? What did you do?”

“You were there,” she pointed out. “When Richard declared war on Domina City.” She reached down to the president and brushed some hair out of his face. “Well, legally speaking it’s not a war, but you know what I mean. He’s sending an entire brigade after your city.” She sipped from a delicate wine glass that definitely hadn’t been in her hand a minute ago. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?”

I formed my hand into a blade and stalked towards the unconscious president. “Cut off the head—”

“And you create a martyr for a very large and dangerous country,” Silk interrupted. “Domina cannot face the full might of the United States military; it’s simply not possible. Even excluding nukes. Besides, he has other work to do.”

“I don’t like dancing along to someone else’s tune,” I growled.

“Then you should have starved to death in your crib,” she said, a little sadly, as she sipped at her wine. “My lovely little girl, everyone dances to a tune someone else is playing. Even me. The trick is to put your own spin on the dance, make it memorable.”

I smiled.

“You know, you’re right,” I admitted. “Thank you, Miss Silk.”

Then I formed my arm into a whip with a sharp blade at the end and thrust it at Elizabeth’s sister as fast as I could. It was time to find out how good Silk’s immortality was. Maybe she didn’t even have immortality, or healing, or whatever power Elizabeth used to survive being shot in the head. I might be able to end this right here and right now.

But then…

Then suddenly my whip was my arm again, back at my side.

The woman hadn’t done anything. She hadn’t blinked or so much as twitched an eyebrow.

I cursed and prepared to strike again—

My knees buckled.

No, that’s not right. For one thing, I didn’t have knees any more, I just had a section of my legs I bent more often. But the rock I had used to replace my bones and left leg suddenly wasn’t obeying me. I felt my knees bend, my entire body bend, and then—

And then I was kneeling.

Before Silk.

I tried to resist, but I couldn’t. I almost thought she had turned off my powers somehow, but I could still feel the stone, and all the other solids in the room. I tried to manipulate the concrete of my bones, but something else had control.

I looked up at her, horror on my face.

“Do not mistake me for this frail mortal body,” she said in a calm tone, swirling the wine around in the glass as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “Do not mistake me for this meaningless name. I am older and more powerful than you can imagine. I have seen entire galaxies born, watched them grow, and finally die of old age. I have lived a trillion lives for a trillion years, and made the entire universe spin at my merest whim. I know the seven words to make entire worlds worship you, and the one that will make even the bravest man flee for his life. You, little Ling, are no more a threat to me now than the day you were born.”

She was not angry. She was not gloating, or smug, or self-confident. She simply was.

But I had to do something. I couldn’t just let her get the last word in. So I gritted my teeth until the stone cracked, and fell back to something I’d been finding more and more useful these days: Anger.

“You bitch,” I spat. “I’ll kill you.”

She didn’t so much raise an eyebrow. “My lovely little girl, words are meaningless without action to give them weight.” Suddenly I felt her control disappear, and my body was my own again. “Now… what actions will you take?”

I stood slowly. For all my bluster, I knew I couldn’t take her. She wasn’t like Elizabeth. She wasn’t hiding behind a mask—she didn’t need a mask. Immortal or not, her complete and total control of her surroundings made it perfectly clear that fighting her would be useless.

That meant there was only one other option.

I bowed my head. “Apologies, Dame Silk. It has been a very… difficult few months.”

Don’t piss off gods. That was a pretty basic piece of advice that I never thought I’d need.

Said god smiled broadly. “See? I knew you were smarter than you let on. Red didn’t stop trying to kill me until I broke her sword.” Silk sighed. “She loved that sword, but she needed a new one anyway.”

It took me a second to parse what she had said. “Wait, Red—Akane? You met Akane?”

“And the rest of the Paladins, plus Butler and Clarke,” she said. “They had Elizabeth in custody, and I took her off their hands in exchange for quite a bit of information. She won’t be troubling you again for some time.” Her gaze turned distant. “But now it’s time for you to go.”

I shook my head. “No, wait, I have questions—”

“More guards are coming,” she said. “I am fully aware you can cut through them like wheat, but there has already been more killing than I should have allowed.” She reached forward and grabbed my hand—the one still made of flesh—as well as Turgay’s. “Let’s just skip that part.”

And then we were outside.

Just… in a field, without a building in sight. Or Silk, for that matter.

Turgay collapsed on the ground. “What in the empty skies was that?

I swallowed a bit of bile. “That was our glimpse at a much, much, much larger plan than anything we ever expected to be a part of.” Everything I had done today had advanced Silk’s agenda. I had no idea what that agenda was, but I still knew that for a fact.

“But why tell us?” Guy demanded. “Why speak to us at all? We could disrupt—”

“No,” I said tiredly. “We couldn’t.”

The ave anthro struggled to his feet, wincing at his bruises. I had thought I had broken his shoulders, but apparently not. “Once we get back to Domina, we can warn them exactly what’s coming.” He seemed to realize that we didn’t know what was coming. “Or… we could stay here, and sabotage it from this end! Anything to throw her plan off!”

“We can’t throw her plan off, Guy,” I said. “Didn’t you notice? How she spoke to us?”

“Like we were children, yeah.”

“No,” I said sadly. “Like we were animals. She wasn’t talking to us, she was talking to herself, and we happened to be in the room.” I shook my head. “We have about as much power over her as a housecat has over its master.”

“Some would argue the housecat is the master.”

“It’s not,” I said bluntly. “If the master decides the cat is too much of a nuisance, the cat dies. Anything before that is just the master deciding to humor a pet.” I looked him in the eye. “That’s all we are to her. Pets.”

He shivered. “That can’t be true.”

I shrugged. “Believe what you will.” I sighed. “We can go home, stay here, split up or stay together. I don’t really care any more. But no matter what, there is one important thing we have to determine.”

I looked around the empty field.

“Where are we?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 266)

This is one I’ve been working on for forever. It’s gone through about a million different iterations, and I’m still not completely satisfied with it.

Silk is a difficult character to use, because she’s just so stupidly powerful. It appears as though she could easily solve the plot by herself, so I’m trying to underline her mysterious goals and methods.

Scene 265 – Saxum

SAXUM

RICHARD

“You can’t declare war on Domina City!”

“That’s right, you need Congressional approval!”

“Pretty sure it’s not a war. Domina is technically still a part of the US—”

“Oh shut up, Grain! We know you’ve been begging for this for years!”

“I want to save the city, not burn it to the ground—”

“ENOUGH!” I roared.

To my surprise, the dozen or so senators and representatives on my computer instantly shut up. Maybe because I never snapped like that. Heh, I needed to remember that trick.

I was in a video conference call with the congresscritters relevant to the attack on Domina City. Thankfully, there weren’t many of them. Dealing with this group was like herding cats. If I had the entire Congress on my hands, it would be like herding… lions. Loud, angry lions who weren’t actually dangerous because they were declawed… okay, that got away from me a bit at the end.

“Let’s just talk this over,” I said. “Calmly.”

“We still need to discuss why,” Representative Graham said. “You’re asking for five battalions and a small carrier group for one city that hasn’t done anything to anyone outside their borders.”

“It’s what they are doing inside their borders that worries me,” I shot back. “It’s practically a third world country. From what Sele has told me, it’s worse in many ways. This toy maker is used to make monsters and worse, people are kidnapped off the street at random… we need to fix this.”

There was a pause as they considered my words. They didn’t actually want to fight me on this. They were just annoyed that I had gone forward without consulting them.

“They have allies in space,” Senator Lindsay said. “That will make things complicated.”

Of course. My predecessors had used the space colonies as convenient punching bags and scapegoats, blaming them for everything from rising energy prices to strange weather patterns. Why couldn’t they have just taken up golf, or some other normal hobby?

Senator Kines, the former general, stroked his chin. “We don’t know what the space colonies are capable of. They have full manufacturing capabilities; they can make pretty much whatever they want. If they decide to assist Domina in full force, I’m not sure we can stop them.”

Of course we couldn’t stop them. Our military was the most powerful on Earth—emphasis on. We had like, three spacecraft, and they were all unarmed shuttles. Even our air force wasn’t that great. It was still the best in the world, but only barely, and even that was more of a weight of numbers thing. It couldn’t defend against Ceres deciding to chuck rocks at us.

“We have tank support, though,” Representative DaSanto said. “Surely that will give us an incredible advantage.”

Kines snorted. “Tanks are basically useless in a city, and that city has a giant wall around it, with only four gates. Getting them in would be a pain in the ass for very little benefit.” He sighed. “I hate to say it, but I think we’ll need to rely on the Navy for this one. Once they control the waters, our lives will be much easier.”

I didn’t comment on the stupid rivalry. He’d just throw a hissy-fit like last time. “If we were willing to level the city, we could just park some artillery on the east coast and shell them. We want to liberate them. With any luck, we won’t have to fight any but a few of the worst gangs.”

Griggs smiled sadly. “If it’s that easy, just infantry will work. But it’s never that easy.”

I chuckled. “You’re right. I think—”

The feed cut out, the windows with the faces of my allies replaced by a dozen error messages.

“Hello?” I said hesitantly, as if that would actually help fix it. “Can you hear me?”

The door to my temporary office opened, and Sele, the woman who looked like a hawk eagle, came out. Her guards, also similarly modified into various bird forms, flanked her imperiously.

“Mister President, someone cut the internet and phone lines. The entire building is dead to the outside world.”

I scoffed. “This is the Pentagon. What about the backups?”

“Dead. And the backup backups.”

I almost asked about the backup backup backups, but restrained myself. See? I could totally be serious when the situation called for it. “There’s no way this was an accident. Do we still have internal communications?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get me a general. Whoever is in charge at the moment.”

“That would be me, Mister President,” General Hoshi said as she walked through the opposite door, flanked by several guards of her own. “I have men looking into the source of this attack, but for the moment I am assuming it is an attempt on your life. You need to get to safety.”

“An assassination attempt at the Pentagon?” I asked incredulously.

“People have done worse,” Sele said.

“But perhaps not stupider,” Hoshi said calmly. “This will be resolved shortly. Just—”

Her radio crackled to life. “Sir! We found it!”

She plucked it off her belt. “Found what? The break?”

“No, sir! The assailant!” There was gunfire in the background. “We need backup!”

“Lieutenant, calm down. How many are there?”

More gunfire. “There’s—shit!” There was an explosion. “Just one, sir!”

The general blinked like an owl. Probably not a good idea to mention that. “One?”

“She’s—AAAGH!” Anything else he was going to say was terminated by a very large and very fatal-sounding splat.

It made me sick to my stomach, but General Hoshi had dealt with worse, and I was fully confident that she’d be able to find an answer to this problem that didn’t involve detonating half the building again.

But before she had a chance, the radio crackled to life again, and an unfamiliar voice came out. It was unmistakably female, but it was a very deep voice, like the speaker had been gargling with gravel.

“I am here for the whore.”

I scrunched up my face. “…what?”

“That’s a new one,” Hoshi said slowly. “Mister President, don’t take this the wrong way—”

“I’ve never been called a whore,” I said, distracted. “Not even that time I dressed up as a hooker for Halloween.” I generally got oh so clever dick insults used on me instead. Who the hell thought Dick was a good nickname for Richard? “I’m not sure she’s here for me.”

“She’s here for us,” a new voice whispered.

We all turned to see another of Sele’s retinue, the bald eagle who was always twitching like a scared rat, coming out of the same room Sele had been in a few moments before. His eyes were wide as dinner plates, and he had to lean against the wall for support. Watch the claws, buddy. We just got the whole place repainted.

“It’s her,” he insisted. “She’s come for revenge.”

“Ling Yu is dead,” Sele insisted. “I’m sorry Turgay, but she is. The calciophage ate her bones. Not even the toy box can fix that.”

The sound of more gunfire erupted from the general’s radio. “I think I have her, sir!” a soldier whispered. “Just let me—AAGH!” What followed was a few minutes of… ripping and tearing noises, punctuated every few moments by screams of raw terror.

“Tell your soldiers to stand down,” that voice said again, with the kind of cold and dispassionate calm that only the worst and most dangerous killers could manage. “I am here for the whore. No one else.”

“C-can I try?” the bald eagle, Turgay whispered, holding out his hand—talons—to Hoshi. “I don’t know if she’ll listen to me.” His beak… quirked oddly, and I had the strong impression that he was smiling sadly. “But I know she won’t listen to you.”

“Young man, I’m not about to—”

“Hoshi,” I interrupted tiredly. “Let him try.” More gunfire from the radio. “At least let him try.”

She still looked hesitant, but after only a moment handed the radio over to the bird.

He nodded in thanks, then held the thing in both hands and slowly brought it up to his beak. “Ling? Ling, can you hear me? It’s Turgay.” She swallowed visibly. “Ling, please talk to me. I want to talk to you.”

“Ling Yu is dead,” the voice said coldly.

The bird wasn’t buying it. “Ling. This isn’t you. You’re not a killer.”

More gunfire. More screams.

My guards strode up protectively. “General, is there a safer place we can take the president?”

She shook her head. “This is a reinforced titanium bunker. It rivals the one underneath the White House. There’s no place better for her to be.”

“Is there any concrete?” Sele demanded.

I frowned. “What? What does that have to with anything?”

“Just answer the question,” she said, looking at the general. “Is there any concrete, stone, anything of that sort involved in the construction of this bunker? Anything at all. It’s important.”

Hoshi looked as confused as I felt, but answered regardless. “Uh, no.” She stomped her foot, producing a ringing sound muted by the thick carpet. “Even the floor is titanium. This was built when North Korea was still an independent country, and they were trying to build that weird tunneling machine. This is proof against everything up to a nuke.”

More screams sounded through the radio. No gunfire, though.

“Ling,” Turgay whispered. He was close to tears. “These men have done nothing to you. You’re not Butler. You’re not even Derek. You are not a killer. Please. Just turn around and go home!”

The wall clanged.

“What was that?” I babbled.

Turgay visibly swallowed. “Ling, don’t—”

Another clang.

This time, I could see the pictures on the wall shake.

“This will have consequences you cannot foresee,” the bird hissed into the radio. “And that’s assuming you survive! Don’t throw everything away just for some meaningless revenge! Please!”

Clang.

There was a dent in the wall.

It seemed to be the size of a fist.

My bodyguards and Hoshi’s had their guns trained on the dent, on the spot where this… person would come through. Assuming it was a person after all, and not just some human-shaped monster being led around by this Ling girl.

Clang.

The entire bunker shook.

Sele had told me about warlords, such as herself. The princes and princesses of the toy maker. She hadn’t gone into much detail, but I had been able to read between the lines. The cosmetic enhancements were secondary. It was the physical ones we shouldn’t underestimate. That kind of thinking led to your skull getting squashed like a tomato.

But jokes aside, punching through titanium with your bare hands simply was not possible.

Silence.

I blinked. Looked around at everyone else, the general and our guards and the birds. Everyone else seemed to be just as confused as I was. Had she really stopped so easily? Or maybe the guards outside had managed to kill her.

“…Ling?” Turgay whispered into the radio.

The entire bunker shook like an earthquake. Suddenly, it was like we were inside a box being shaken by a kid trying to figure out what his new Christmas present was. We were all thrown to the ground, along with anything on any desks or walls. Glass shattered somewhere, and I felt a heavy oak desk slam me in the gut. Ooh, that one was gonna be hard to explain to the wife.

Then, the shaking stopped.

It took me a moment to realize it; I was too dizzy to see straight. But years of drunken nights had given me a near superhuman ability to operate even when my brain wasn’t working quite right, and I managed to struggle to my feet.

There were people, standing in front of where the door should be. Now, there was just a vague blackness; the door was either open, or the assailants had ripped it off its hinges. There were five, maybe six of them. That explained a lot. Turgay’s friend had help—

Oh. Wait. My head was clearing now. There was only the one girl. I had been wondering why they all looked identical.

She was smaller than I expected. Much smaller. Five feet tall at the most, with the proportions of a frail doll. She looked Chinese—though the name was a big hint—but her hair was bleached blonde.

She wore a simple pair of blue jeans, white sneakers, a tight black t-shirt, and a long black glove that covered her entire right arm. She kept clenching her fist over and over, as if just waiting for someone to use it on.

There was no way a little girl like this ripped through a fortified titanium bunker. Not by herself. It simply wasn’t possible.

But the look on her face…

This was a girl who had fought the world and lost. Multiple times. The world punched her down, and sooner or later she popped back up, ready for another fight. Someone who had lost friends and family and more.

This little girl couldn’t have done this. But with a face like that, I was willing to believe it.

“I am here for the whore,” she said, her voice like gravel.

Some of the rubble of broken furniture shifted, and Turgay slowly rose, talons held up in a supplicating motion. “Ling, let’s just talk this through, all right? You keep saying whore. But there’s no one here who’s called that.”

“I had a lot of time to think, in that box,” the girl mused aloud. I could hear hints of friendliness and honesty in her voice. She had been a normal girl, once, but there wasn’t much of that left. “About your boss. About why she seemed familiar, and about the way she spoke.”

The bald eagle blinked those giant eyes. “What? What are you talking about?”

“I’ll skip the pleasantries. Your boss is a girl who was cast out of her culture for being too extreme even for the Whore-Lord. The woman who murdered her husband, and then hundreds more.”

Turgay shook his head. “That’s not possible, she died years ago—”

Her eyes were as hard as stone. “Xinivrae, the Black Widow, sister of Malcanthet the Succubus Queen.”

Behind us, more rubble shifted, and Sele rose from the wreckage, back straight and bearing strong. I might have absolutely no idea what the hell was going on—not an unusual situation for me to be in—but she met the accusation head-on.

“I was cast out of Shendilavri,” she said quietly. “I am no longer a succubus. I have not been a succubus for almost fifteen years.” She puffed up her chest. “I am Soaring Eagle, Animal King of the aves. I built the culture with my own hands. Xinivrae and the Widowers are long dead and gone.”

“I am not here to argue identity,” Ling growled. “I’m just here to kill you.”

“How did you survive the calciophage?” Sele demanded. “Your skeleton should be completely gone. Even with the toy box, merely holding you together was the extent of its abilities. Regrowing new bones should have been impossible.”

“It was,” the little girl said. “Clarke might have been able to find a way, but I wasn’t Clarke. I had to find an alternative way to replace my bones, and the arm and the leg that were ripped off in my escape.”

She grabbed the glove on her right arm with her left, and pulled it off.

It took me a second to realize what it was.

It was stone.

The entire arm was some mixture of rock and concrete, animated by some fel process that I couldn’t possibly understand. All I knew was that it moved, twisted and flexed and twitched exactly like a real arm. It was just made of stone.

“My entire right arm,” the girl said calmly, even as Sele, Turgay, and the other birds recoiled in horror. “My entire left leg. Every single bone in my body, from the fingers and toes in my remaining hand and foot to my skull and even my teeth.” She grinned dangerously, and I did indeed realize that her teeth were made of the same color stone as her arm. “I survived, whore, despite your best efforts. And now I’m here to kill you.”

“Ling… ” Turgay whispered.

“Ling Yu is dead,” she said again. Her grin widened. “But I have some new friends who came up with a new name for me. Based on the tomb I made of that outpost where you left me behind.”

She flexed her stone hand—and it shifted into a blade even as I watched.

“I am Grave,” she said simply. “And I am going to bury you.”

Behind the Scenes (265)

Richard Martinez is one of those characters who developed his own voice despite my best efforts.