Monthly Archives: January 2017

Scene 304 – Custos

CUSTOS

ADAM

“But why would she name her domain that?” I asked. “Or her company, whatever. Why risk being exposed?”

“It’s not much of a risk,” Lily said. We were across the street from Miomanta, at a small cafe. Hopefully they didn’t have any cameras pointed in this direction. “There are less than a dozen people in the world who would recognize that name. Malcanthet, myself, Sargeras, Pale Night, maybe Eisheth Zenunim…” She thought for a second. “Probably Naamah. She was always good at ferreting out secrets.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“If you’re counting the dead, Orcus and Malcanthet’s sister both knew, but I doubt Orcus told Obould—”

“Wait wait,” I said. “Malcanthet has a sister?

“Had,” she corrected. “Xinivrae, the Black Widow. You know her better as Soaring Eagle.”

I sat back, stunned. I hadn’t even considered what Soaring Eagle might have been before she became a kemo. I knew that people often transferred from the demons to another culture, but still.

“Anyway, here.” Lily slid something across the table. It was a small syringe filled with a clear liquid. “You’ll need this if we’re going to face Malcanthet.”

“What is it?”

“Something the Avernans and the Sibriex came up with. Long story short, it turns off your sexuality for about a day.”

I frowned. “It… what? Is that a thing?”

“Yes,” she said. “Sort of. Not really. It’s complicated. Look, the point is that Malcanthet won’t be able to seduce you if you use this.” She thought for a moment. “You might want to pretend to get seduced, though. She doesn’t like losing.”

Something clicked. “That’s the point of the name. It’s a game.”

Lily nodded. “She wants to see if anyone else is smart enough to figure it out. She’s always liked meaningless challenges like that. She likes being in control.”

I stretched out my arm, readying the syringe. “What can we expect, going in? Will she have a toy maker?”

“Not sure.” Lily took the syringe from me, tapped my vein, and jabbed me. I winced, but she knew what she was doing. The pain only lasted a second. “The destruction of Shendilavri made it difficult to piece together exactly what happened. But I’ve spoken to the Powers. They agree that—”

“Wait, which Powers?” I winced again as she withdrew the needle. I didn’t feel any change yet. She got a small bandage and applied it to my wound. “I know Obould and Dispater were there, but Derek doesn’t talk about it much.”

“Not the demon Powers. The succubus Powers.”

I stared at her.

She smiled. “Did you really think an entire culture would die so easily? They went underground. They remained safe, even as the city hated them. And soon, they will be able to reveal themselves again.”

I swallowed. It wasn’t really a big deal. But I had a feeling the rest of the city wouldn’t think of it that way. They’d probably react like if you found out your next-door neighbor was a Nazi.

“Naamah and her Daybringers searched the ruins as much as possible. They are quite convinced that Malcanthet only intended to leave the city for a short time. A few months, at most. It is unlikely that she had a toy maker with her.”

“And getting one outside the city would be nearly impossible,” I said. “I’d be surprised if there are a dozen in the country. All would be in military hands.”

Lily leaned back. “Yes. Malcanthet could seduce her way onto a military base, of course, but that would attract too much attention for only a minor benefit. I suspect that she is just making do with what she has.”

“And what does she have?” I asked.

“Pheromones, obviously,” she said. “Five years out of date, but still very effective. Especially when combined with her own skills in seduction. She’s also immune to most poisons, though the Avernans have invented a few since that would test her limits. Same with diseases. Not that we’d want to unleash a modded disease here…”

“She bulletproof?”

“Bullet resistant,” Lily said. She looked disturbed, but didn’t mention it. “She doesn’t have to worry about smaller calibers, but a hand cannon should be enough. I notice you don’t have your guns with you—”

“I’ll figure something out,” I said. “Steal one from one of her slaves.”

“The Riven won’t be armed with the kind of weapons you need. Malcanthet would never give her followers any weapons that could be turned against her.”

I sat back in my seat. “So, what? They’ll only have small caliber stuff?”

“And some odder things, as long as they can’t pierce her skin. Microflechette guns were her favorite. She was using the Reiner Gamma Crisis when she left, but I don’t know how many of those she had on hand. BOB doesn’t sell much outside of Domina.”

“I’m surprised they sell outside Domina at all.”

“People know quality.”

I smiled. I had a couple BOB guns. Butler had given me an Olympian Athena early on, but I had bought a few others since. The Reiner Gamma shot small darts tipped with poison. You could change the type of poison, so it was pretty common among monster slayers. I doubted Malcanthet’s men would be using sleeper toxin, though.

“Any chance you have a magic gas that will undo all her brainwashing?” I was joking. Laura and I had discussed Malcanthet’s brainwashing more than a bit, when we thought she might be the Composer. It was far too complex to be easily defeated.

Lily shook her head sadly. “No, nothing like that. My power might help, a little, but I can’t be sure.”

Her power. She didn’t talk about it much. “You’ve been practicing with it?”

She nodded. “As much as possible.”

I nodded. “Good. The more you practice, the stronger it gets. I think that might be Laura’s problem, she never pushes her ability to its limits.”

“I talked to her a bit about it. She organized a study, and she’s pretty sure the problem is actually the fact that it’s so easy to use—”

Someone sat down at our table.

Lily barely even blinked, but I jumped about three feet in the air. I got my knife out and brandished it. It was just the silly hunting knife my dad had bought me a few years ago, but it was the only weapon I had been able to find on short notice. Besides, six inches of cold steel was pretty intimidating.

Chris Clemens raised an eyebrow at the knife, but otherwise didn’t react. “Are you planning to do something dangerous, Master Adam?”

I thought for a moment, then sheathed the knife. “No. Not towards you, anyway. What are you doing here?”

“I followed you,” she said. “You were acting very suspicious. I am also interested in that device in your backpack.” She nodded at it. I had zipped up the backpack to keep from attracting attention. “Is it still on?”

“Yes,” I said. “Not that it matters. It needs line of sight to work.” The counter-song could work through some obstructions, but not many. We were still studying it. It seemed to be able to bend a bit, or maybe reflect off nearby objects. That meant that people usually didn’t block the effect, but putting it in a bag did.

Chris raised an eyebrow, but didn’t inquire further. “All right. So what are you doing here? You found your friend’s niece?”

“Yes,” I said. I nodded at the skyscraper. “She’s in there.”

“Why haven’t you gone in yet?”

“We’re planning our attack.”

She frowned. “There’s no need to attack, Master Adam. This is not Domina City. Go inside and tell the receptionist who you’re looking for.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“The building is a front,” Lily said before Chris could argue. “It is owned by a fugitive from Domina City.”

Chris sat up. “Fugitive? Then we need to alert the police.”

“No,” Lily and I both said instantly.

Chris scowled. “This isn’t time for jurisdictional—”

“Malcanthet will kill them,” Lily said. “She is a ruthless warlord, and the local police cannot handle her. We can. At least long enough to get Saki out.”

“And then what?” Chris asked, eyes narrow.

“Then we discuss things with the delegation,” Lily said. “We’ll figure it out from there.”

Chris looked annoyed. “Is this always how you solve your problems? Run in half-cocked and hope for the best?”

I chuckled. “Pretty much. Malcanthet is just a demon. She’s easier to handle than most of the stuff I’ve seen in the past few months.”

Chris turned to me. “And what, exactly, have you been doing these past few months?”

I smirked. “You know me, Chris. Nothing exceptional. Just some light exercise.”

She glared, but I didn’t break. After dealing with a warlord or two, baselines just weren’t intimidating.

“Fine.” She put something on the table and slid it across to me. When I picked it up, I was surprised that it was a pager. Who used pagers any more? “Just hit that button, and we’ll come in guns blazing.”

I frowned. “Who did you bring?”

“Almost everyone.”

“How many total?” Lily asked.

“Twelve.”

Lily and I shared a glance. Twelve wouldn’t be enough if Malcanthet decided to make a fight of it. I had read enough about the Succubus Queen to know that she was paranoid. I had no idea how many soldiers she had, but they would be numerous and fanatically loyal.

And that was assuming Saki hadn’t gotten control of them.

“We’ll try stealth first,” I said. “I’ll go in alone—”

“Alone?” Chris demanded. “No, I’ll go in with you, and—”

“And get us both caught and killed,” I said. “You have no idea what you’re walking into. I do. You don’t know what Saki looks like, or what she’s capable of. I do, and I do. You don’t have a CS device. I do.”

Chris frowned. “Now, wait here. My job is to keep you safe. I’m not about to—”

“It’s not a discussion.” I opened up my backpack, revealing the CS device. “Lily, have you found an entrance?”

Chris looked surprised at my defiance, but Lily didn’t pay attention to her. She peered at Miomanta. Her eyes were far, far better than mine. I’d probably need binoculars to see half as well as her. “Third floor. There’s an open window. Only a crack, but it should be enough.” She blinked, and turned her focus back to me. “What’s your climbing skill? On the kemo scale.”

“Oof. I never actually took the test. I think Kat said I was about a six? But she only saw me climb anything once or twice.”

“Hm.” She turned back to the building. “Should be enough. It doesn’t look like a very hard climb.”

“All right.” It was only three floors. I could do this. I stood. “Chris, you have a spare gun I can borrow?”

She chuckled. “No. Your parents would cut off my head if I gave you a gun.”

I rolled my eyes, but didn’t see the need to argue. I’d just get one inside. “Fine. I’m going. With luck, I’ll be back soon with Saki.”

Suddenly, everyone in the cafe turned around and pointed guns at us.

Chris nearly jumped out of her seat. Her hand went to her own gun, but I stopped her. I shook my head, and she nodded. One of the cafe patrons stepped up and grabbed the gun before she could change her mind. Another took the pager and carefully removed the batteries. We were on our own.

Lily didn’t look surprised so much as disappointed. “The Riven, I assume?”

One of the patrons smirked. “Of course.”

We should have known. Why would Malcanthet allow a cafe to exist freely right across from her domain? She wouldn’t. Of course she wouldn’t. She would buy or seduce every single person who ever stepped foot in the place.

The Succubus Queen did so like being in control.

Behind the Scenes (scene 304)

I’m always hesitant about setup scenes like this, but you can’t have all action, all the time.

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Scene 303 – Lutum

LUTUM

ADAM

“Who are you?”

The man in front of me was Asian, but I wasn’t familiar enough to say exactly which ethnicity. He had a sharp face and eyes like daggers, his hair cropped as short as possible without actually making him bald. He wore a nice shirt and a tie, with a detective’s shield on his belt. On his right hip he had a gun that I recognized as a ‘sarian St. Jude. It was a good gun, but I was surprised they let him use it on duty.

His entire right side was covered in tattoos. Right now I could only see his hand and face, but when I had walked into the locker room, he had just been putting his shirt on. His right arm and chest were a map of ink. The tattoos weren’t abstract like Lily’s, either. I hadn’t gotten a good look at them, but there were lions, bears, wolves, demons, vampires… I felt like it was a map of Domina’s history.

“I said, who are you?” The man put his hand on his gun. “Don’t make me ask again.”

“I’m Adam Anders, from Domina City. We need your help.”

Ryan Hearing narrowed his eyes. “Anders. You’re the new clay, right?”

I started. “You’ve heard about me?”

“MC keeps me informed about some things. Clays are one of them.”

“There aren’t many of us,” I agreed. “We need to stick together.”

“I didn’t say that,” he snapped. He didn’t take his hand off his gun. “Now tell me what you want so you can leave. I’m off duty.”

“We—”

“Who is this we you keep mentioning?”

I sighed. “She’s right around the corner. She didn’t want to come into the men’s room.”

“We’re the only ones in here,” Hearing called. “May as well come in.”

Lily stepped into the locker room. “Hello, Ryan.”

He blinked. “Lily? You—I—you’ve left the city?”

“Not for long,” she said.

“Right, of course…” He sighed and rubbed his head. He took his hand off his gun and relaxed a bit. Well, he shifted from aggressive to apprehensive, which was good enough. “Sorry. What’s this about, exactly?”

“A fugitive has gone missing,” I said. “We think she might have slipped onto one of the ambassador boats, tried to escape to America.”

“Oh. Is that all? Come on.” He led us out of the locker room and deeper into the precinct.

The precinct wasn’t packed, but it wasn’t empty either. There were at least a dozen cops, sitting around and glaring at us suspiciously. Lily had hidden her horns and tail again, so they couldn’t know we were from Domina. I had even hidden my CS device in my backpack again, though it was still on. They just seemed on edge.

Hearing ignored them all and led us to a tiny office far from the entrance. It was more of a closet than an office. It didn’t even have a window. In fact, it looked a lot like a re-purposed file room. But Hearing had managed to get a desk inside somehow. He turned on the computer and clicked around for a few moments.

“Here we are,” he said. “Video of the procession.”

I stood behind his chair, where I could get the best view. There were a dozen different views going at once. They were all in color, and in high-definition too. Well, relatively high definition. “This is the whole thing from start to finish?”

He nodded. “I managed to convince the captain it was a good idea. Now, what are you looking for?”

“A small Japanese girl,” Lily said. “Probably trying not to draw attention to herself.”

Hearing thought for a moment, then clicked around. Most of the videos disappeared, leaving just one taking up the whole screen. It was pointed at the ambassador’s ship on the docks. Hearing wound it back to the beginning, showing the boat arriving in the first place.

“How likely is it that she’d jump off the boat before it docked?” Hearing asked.

I glanced at Lily. She shrugged.

“If I had to bet, I’d say not very likely,” I said. “She likes comfort. Not the type to jump into freezing water if she didn’t have to. But she might have felt she had no choice. There would be a lot of eyes on that boat.”

Hearing nodded, and let the video progress. We watched Servants tie up the boat, the ambassadors step out and wave at the crowds, leave…

And half an hour later, someone slipped off the boat. The crowds had long since disappeared. There were probably still some people watching the boat, but not enough to dissuade her. She glanced around, then ran off in a different direction.

“Can we zoom in or something?” Lily asked.

“Doubtful,” I said.

“This is the best zoom I can get you,” Hearing said. “She looks Asian, though.”

I looked closer. “She’s not wearing her prison jumpsuit. Make sense. She probably managed to ditch it before she even got on the boat. Can’t tell if she still has the bracelet or not, though.”

“Can you track her?” Lily asked.

Hearing nodded and clicked some more. A new video popped up. He adjusted the time and let it play. We waited a moment before Saki ran across the screen.

“I can get to all of the police cameras in the city,” Hearing said. “But I can’t access private cameras. Besides, a lot of the police cameras are broken in the poorer sections. Sooner or later, we’re going to lose her.”

“You think she’s heading towards the projects?”

Hearing gave me a look. It seemed like he didn’t know I was a native New Yorker. “Yeah, maybe. That’s what I would guess.” The video changed again. “See, right here. If she hops on this bus, she can—”

Saki ignored the bus. Instead, she kept running, past a subway entrance and down a nicer street towards a business neighborhood.

“…huh,” Hearing said. “Odd.”

“She probably doesn’t have any money,” I said.

He nodded. “True.”

“Am I missing something?” Lily asked.

“The best option would be for her to take a bus or a cab to wherever she’s going,” I said. “Failing that, a subway. But those things cost money. So it looks like she’s just going to try running.”

“Can she do that?” Lily asked. “Run to wherever she’s headed?”

“Not easily,” Hearing said. “New York is smaller than Domina, but it’s still pretty big. It also has some very confusing streets, and I doubt she wants to cross any of the bridges on foot. It pretty much depends on where she’s going.”

“It looks like she’s heading towards the business district,” I said. “See? If she had turned here, it would have taken her farther away. She’s definitely heading in that direction.”

Hearing frowned. “That’s pretty close to the UN.”

I nodded. “Seems an odd choice. Getting that close to people who will be on the lookout.”

“I didn’t see any toys on her, but…”

“She doesn’t have any,” I said. “No obvious ones, anyway. She has a few minor internal enhancements. Disease resistance, digestive efficiency, that sort of thing.”

“No cosmos or anything?”

“None.”

“Hm.” Hearing looked back at the screen, tracking her progress through the streets. She tried not to attract attention to herself, waiting patiently at crosswalks and not running. Not where people could see her, anyway. “She clearly knows where she’s going. Has she been to New York before?”

I shook my head. “Not that I know of.”

“Definitely not,” Lily said. “She’s never left Domina before. Barely even left her home district. This is a major change for her in every way.”

Hearing frowned. “Not good.”

Rather than asking, I thought about it. “…she knows where she’s going. She has a specific goal in mind.”

Hearing frowned. “Which implies that someone told her about a safe place. Which means someone is helping her.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Tell me this isn’t a full conspiracy.”

“It could be something benign,” Hearing said. “Some friend who moved out here and told her where to find him.”

“Or her,” I corrected automatically.

“Or her. Old family friend, maybe?”

“No,” I said. “Most of her family is dead. Same with friends. Her aunt is the one who tipped us off about this.”

Hearing raised an eyebrow. “Really? I thought you said she was a fugitive.”

“Her aunt is also the one who brought her in.” I shrugged helplessly. “Things have been kinda crazy recently.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard the rumors.” He glanced at Lily before turning his attention back to the screen. “You’ll have to tell me the full story sometime.”

“Sometime,” Lily agreed. “Though most of it should come out at the talks anyway.”

“Sure. I—oh. Here’s something.”

We all leaned forward, which probably wasn’t necessary. The screen was plenty big. It showed Saki waiting outside a building, glancing around suspiciously. After a few moments, the door opened and she slipped inside.

“Looks like an office building,” I said.

Hearing minimized the video and clicked through some menus. “It is… it’s all owned by one company. Radiant… Mee-oh? My-oh? Miomanta. Radiant Miomanta. They’re a temp agency. Pretty standard.”

I nodded. “All right. Maybe the security guard or someone is an ex-Dominite. Is there any way you can look that up from here?”

He shook his head. “That’s all private. There are ways, but it would be easier to just walk in.”

“What, and ask if they’re sheltering a dangerous fugitive?”

“Might work. They might not know who she is and what she’s done.” He paused. “What has she done, anyway?”

“Killed some people,” I said. I was a bit distracted looking at the screen, reading the company information. He was right, it all looked pretty standard. “Then we caught her, and when she escaped she killed a few more.”

“…how old is this girl?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure. Fifteen, I think? I’d have to ask Akane to be sure.”

“Well, someone dangerous like that, you might be able to convince the locals to give her up.”

“If not, we might have to siege the building.”

He chuckled. “You’re jumping ahead a bit too fast. New York isn’t used to that sort of thing. More likely, they’ll demand a warrant, and she’ll flee while you’re supposedly distracted. That will give you an opening to grab her.”

“Good, good.” I doubted it would be that easy, especially if she had managed to get her bracelet off. “Any chance we can actually have that warrant?”

“I would really prefer not to bring the local police into this.”

“Fair enough. They wouldn’t approve of letting a foreign country arrest a minor.”

“Technically Domina isn’t a foreign country yet.”

I smirked. “Fine. When’s the last time a Dominite criminal was extradited from America? Or vice versa?”

He sighed. “Fair enough. Just try not to start an international incident. Or an inter-city incident. Whatever. With the ambassadors here, this is the worst time to be causing trouble.”

“One could argue it’s the best time to cause trouble, since they’re here to fix it.”

One would be wrong.”

I smiled, then turned to Lily. “You ready to go raid Radiant Miomanta?”

She didn’t look ready. She looked frozen like a statue, eyes staring straight ahead at the computer screen.

“Lily?” I said, rubbing her shoulder. “What is it?”

“Miomanta,” she said.

I frowned. “Yeah? What, is it a Dominite company?” I glanced at Hearing, but he shook his head.

“After a fashion,” Lily said, still stock still. “It’s an obscure word. I’m not surprised neither of you have ever heard of it. Even among demons, I think only Pale Night and Sargeras would remember her plans. She never got it off the ground before everything happened…”

“Lily, what is it? What’s Miomanta?”

“She was going to make a second domain,” Lily said. “A satellite site, separate from Shendilavri.”

My heart skipped a beat. I had heard so many stories, from Derek and Akane and everyone else…

Lily looked at me with fearful eyes.

“I think we finally found Malcanthet.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 303)

I have been planning on the confrontation with Malcanthet since the very beginning. I think it might have been the first thing I came up with after the demon culture.

Scene 302 – Mora

MORA

RICHARD

“Delayed?” I asked. “What do you mean delayed?”

“I mean the meeting is not going to take place yet.”

I sighed. “Yes, thank you, I know. I mean why is it delayed?”

The Dominite man gave me a look, but I weathered it. I was just happy he wasn’t obviously modified by the toy maker. As far as I could tell, he was completely human. He wore a nice black suit and said he was from Necessarius. I hadn’t seen any of the other ambassadors or their people yet. Well, I had seen them during the procession, but I hadn’t actually met with any of them.

“There is a minor issue that needs to be resolved,” the man said. “Until that happens, several of the delegates will be distracted. It is best to simply wait.”

“How long will it be?”

“Unclear. Perhaps a few hours.”

“I thought Butler was good about being on time,” I said.

“He is. Unfortunately, he is not here, and we are not as experienced in dealing with unexpected emergencies.”

I sighed, and nodded in dismissal. He bowed and left.

I was sitting in the conference room in the UN building. It was supposed to be filled with delegates from all nations and Domina City, but instead it was just me.

I still didn’t know how the UN would react to Domina City. Most of the representatives liked me, but mostly because I acted like a fun idiot. They could usually get whatever they wanted out of me. So what did they want in this situation? Did they want Domina to remain under American jurisdiction, or did they want it to become a free country? Either one would set a difficult precedent.

I groaned and leaned my forehead against the oak table. This had been easier when we were fighting. Body modification and superpowers were weird, but at least I understood them more than politics. I had spent most of my life reading comic books. I knew how all that worked.

The door opened, then shut quietly. “Mister President?”

“Miss Silk,” I said, my voice muffled. I refused to raise my head from the desk. “The meeting has been delayed.”

“Yes, I heard. Unavoidable circumstances, I am afraid.”

I waved my hand, still not raising my head. “I don’t even know what the circumstances are. The Necessarius guy—”

“Necessarian, sir.”

“Sure, Necessarian. He wouldn’t even tell me what was happening!” I sighed. That made my lips brush the desk more, and I got the taste of oak in my mouth. Or the varnish, I guess. “I should have pushed him harder.”

“As I understand it, the situation involves an escaped fugitive.”

I paused.

I sat up.

I didn’t wonder how Silk had heard that. She had her ways. Sometimes she was a better spy than anyone the CIA gave me. She was good enough that I had ordered a triple-strength background check on her, but no one had found any discrepancies.

Where was I? Oh right, sitting up!

“A Dominite fugitive on US soil,” I said. “That sounds like the sort of thing they should have warned us about.”

“Most likely, sir,” Silk said.

“Can we use that in the negotiations?”

“Perhaps. It depends on whether they catch her, how they do it, and whether they share that information without being prompted.”

“Right,” I said. “Politics.”

Silk smiled. “You’re a politician, sir.”

“Not by choice.” I sighed. “Okay. We probably should avoid pissing off the people with superpowers.” We didn’t know the extent of those powers, which was why I was being careful. Hopefully we could tease out more details. Then we’d know when it was safe to piss them off. “We’ll delay as they asked. No snide comments or anything. But make sure you put ‘talk about fugitive’ on the list.”

“Yes, sir.”

I leaned back in my chair. “What else is on the agenda for today?”

She adjusted her glasses. “Well, the UK wanted to talk to you about trade tariffs, but I think they’re just trying to dodge the proper channels because they know you’ll be easier to convince.”

I sighed. Politics.

Why did I even take this job?

Behind the scene (scene 302)

Short, yes, but it’s important to show what Martinez is up to. Besides, it breaks up the scenes nicely.

Scene 301 – Domum

DOMUM

ADAM

The plane landed smoothly, but I still felt like throwing up. I didn’t like flying, and I was pretty sure the tiny little private jet was worse than most. It shook like a leaf for most of the flight. I waited until it had finally coasted to a stop on the runway before getting up and heading for the door. Then I paused, grabbed the glass of Scotch I had left behind, and downed it in one gulp. I had found the bottle next to the seat, and I wasn’t about to let the glass go to waste.

I felt a bit wobbly, but that was probably the nausea more than the alcohol. I steadied myself against a chair, shouldered my bag, and opened the door.

I immediately considered turning around and asking the pilot to fly off again.

“Hey, Adam!” my mom called from the bottom of the stairs. She waved enthusiastically. “Come on down!”

Not seeing any escape, I sighed and walked down the stairs. I felt like I was walking to my execution.

My mom tackle-hugged me the second I hit the ground. “Oh, it is so good to see you again, sweetheart! It’s been ages!” She pulled back. “You said you were coming home for Christmas! And then there was the police action—”

“It was a war, Sophia,” my father said. He stood imperiously in his immaculate suit. He looked me over. “You look… well, Adam. Healthy.”

I winced. I knew what was coming next. “Thank you, sir.”

He broke into a big grin and pulled me into a hug that drove the air out of my lungs. “It’s good to have you back.”

“Can’t… can’t breathe…”

He let me go after a moment. He was still looking at me, a curious expression on his face. “Something about you has changed, but I can’t tell what.”

“I’ve been getting exercise,” I said. I forced myself to stand up straight instead of cringing. “Maybe that’s it.”

“Maybe…” He raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t involved in the war, were you?”

I smiled. “I spent the entire thing in the middle of the safest room in the city, dad. Nobody got within ten miles of me.” Of course, maybe if I had been able to go out with my boys, I could have done some good. Laura had insisted on keeping the CS squad near the Shield Wall in case they turned against us. That had proven unnecessary.

And I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell my parents about my monster hunts or anything about the Composer. I wasn’t crazy.

“Sirs? Ma’am? We should get off the tarmac. Other planes will need the runway soon.”

Chris Clemens stood behind my parents, as calm and composed as ever. She wore a sharp suit just like my father, but a little less expensive. There were a few stiff parts of the suit which, after months in Domina City, I could recognize as Kevlar or ceramic plating. At her side was a pistol in a holster. I couldn’t see the entire gun, of course, but I recognized it as a Heckler and Koch USP Compact semi-auto. There were a few of them inside the city, though most bodyguards used either a Telum Sica or a Hellion 88-006 Semi.

Chris was my father’s head of security, and had been dealing with the eccentricities of my parents for longer than I had been alive. She was also the one who had been suspicious of what I was doing in Domina City, even before the war.

She was watching me carefully, but I remained calm. I had fought a gargant not two days ago. I could handle a couple suspicious looks.

“Excellent idea, Chris!” my father said. “Pull the car around, let’s get home.”

“Already done, sir.” Even as she spoke, a sleek black SUV rolled to a stop in front of us. It wasn’t actually on the tarmac, but I was still pretty sure driving back here was illegal. My parents had probably bribed someone to let us in. Or maybe that was just my inner cynic talking.

Chris opened the trunk and moved to take my bag. I kept tight hold of it. “I’d rather keep this with me, thanks.”

She frowned, but again, I didn’t let anything show on my face. There wasn’t really anything incriminating in the bag, or at least not anything obvious like guns. I just wanted to keep it with me.

She sighed softly, nodded, and closed the trunk. She moved to open the door to let me, in, but I opened it myself before she could.

I didn’t know why I was antagonizing her so much. She was just rubbing me the wrong way for some reason.

I sat in the back row of seats, while my parents sat in the middle row. Chris took shotgun, since someone was already driving. Once all our seat belts were fastened, he drove off immediately. Probably a little worried about being caught out here.

My mother turned around in her seat to smile at me. “So, how’s school?”

I was ready for this question. “It’s fine,” I lied. “A little boring right now, since it’s all GE classes. But I’ve got good friends and everything.”

“And the war didn’t disrupt anything?” my father asked.

“Not much,” I said. Not much more than they were already disrupted by Elizabeth, anyway. I wasn’t even sure if anyone was still going to classes. Flynn had mentioned something about meeting with AU teachers, but I had no idea what that was about. “The invaders were mostly stopped at the gates. None of them ever got past the outer ring.”

My father frowned. “Really?”

I nodded. “I didn’t really pay attention to the full strategic scope of the battle, but it’s pretty obvious. The city wall wasn’t breached, so the Americans were stuck at the gates. Everyone was prepared for that, so they got pushed back pretty easily. There were a few spots they were allowed to advance, but only to pull them into ambushes.”

My parents shared a look. It took me a second to realize that it was because I had said ‘the Americans.’ Like I wasn’t one of them. Whoops.

“Well, I’m glad you weren’t hurt,” my mother said. “I was going to say that you don’t have to go back if you don’t want to, but you don’t seem worried about it.”

I shrugged. “I don’t think there’s gonna be a second invasion. That’s what the ambassadors are here for.” I checked my watch. “I might have beaten them here. They were coming by boat. Not enough planes.”

“Do you know anything about them?” Chris called from the front. She normally didn’t intrude on our conversations.

I answered anyway. “Only Eccretia. I’ve heard of the others, of course.”

My father made a face. “What kind of name is Eccretia?”

“A changeling name,” I said. “She was a slave under the old fey, and wasn’t allowed a name. So when she got free, she chose a new name. She was one of the first, fifteen years ago.” I couldn’t remember the names of the other two founders. I remembered that they founded the Forgotten Names and the Firstborn, but I couldn’t remember the people themselves. Eccretia, of course, founded the Never-Known Thieves.

I was so lost in my thoughts I didn’t notice how quiet the car was.

“Slave?” my mother asked quietly.

“That was the old fey,” I said. “The new fey are much better about that.”

My father shook his head. “And who are these… fey?”

“Oh, they’re crazy. They think they’re Celtic fairies.” I shrugged. “Well, the Ladies do. The normal feyborn aren’t so out of touch with reality. They sent a rep to this thing, I’m sure we’ll be able to see her on the news.”

The car fell silent again.

And again, my mother was the one who broke it. “Adam… people don’t really use the toy maker, do they?”

I smirked. “Mom, that’s like asking if people wear clothes. Yes, they do, but it’s… broader than you’re thinking.”

The car rolled to a stop. We were here. I immediately jumped out, my shoes crunching on the gravel of the driveway. I looked up at the mansion that I had lived in for most of my life.

By the standards of most mansions, it was medium-sized. It was a three-story building barely wider than it was tall, giving it a bit of a square look. The building itself was earth tones, with large stone pillars creating a short entry area before we actually reached the front door. The lawns were green and manicured despite the season, but the dozens of trees were all bare of leaves. My mother was very proud of those trees, but refused to get evergreens. I had no idea why.

We weren’t quite at the edges of the city, but we were definitely far away from the tallest buildings. This kept our house from being overshadowed. This small spot of land probably cost more than most people made in a lifetime, but I was used to it. Or I had been used to it. After spending so much time in Domina City, I just found myself annoyed. It took me a second to realize it was because there weren’t enough skyscrapers around.

My parents caught up with me quickly. “Adam,” my mother said. “How should I put this?”

I frowned, turning to her. I had no idea where she was going with this. “What? What’s wrong?”

She sighed. “Are you… modified? With the toy maker?”

I scowled. “No.” I turned away and walked towards the house.

“It’s okay if you are!” she said quickly, running after me. “Sweetie, you know we love you no matter what—”

Lutum informis,” I said.

“I… formless clay?”

“That’s what I am,” I said, not looking at her. A maid bowed as I started to enter the front door. I had forgotten it was cleaning day. I stopped before going in. If the floor was still wet, I didn’t want to track footprints all over. “I have a disorder. I can’t use the toy maker.”

“Master Adam, I’ve read up on the toy maker,” Chris said. “Being immune to it would be like being born without DNA.”

“One in a hundred million, I think the number was,” I said. I grinned ruefully. “There are four in Domina City. I just got unlucky.”

My father raised an eyebrow. “So you would have been modified if not for this… disorder?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. There’s nothing wrong with being baseline.” Chris perked up. Yeah, I had slipped that in for her on purpose. “I might have just gotten something basic. Improved healing, poison resistance. That sort of thing.”

“The toy maker is illegal,” Chris said sternly.

I rolled my eyes.

I wasn’t sure if my father noticed, but he answered Chris’ question anyway. “I suspect that’s part of what the ambassadors are here for. To iron out those laws so that Domina doesn’t have to worry about a large fraction of their population being arrested.”

I laughed.

“What?” my father asked. “What is it?”

“Dad, it’s not a large fraction,” I said. “Everyone in the city uses the toy maker. Everyone. There are exactly four people who don’t. Not one more. Remember what I said about clothes? Even the changelings use it, though pretty much just for healing.”

My parents looked nonplussed. Chris just frowned. “But that doesn’t make sense. You said—well, you implied—that baselines were a significant force in the city.”

I shrugged. “More like people who look baseline. Everyone is modified in some way. Every single one.”

They looked like they were having trouble with that, but they didn’t say anything. I guess with Soaring Eagle and the war, they knew enough of this not to be too surprised.

“The house is ready now, Mister Anders,” the head maid said. The rest of them were already filing out behind her. “Sorry we couldn’t get it done in time.”

My father smiled. “It’s fine. We should have warned you. See you next week.”

She nodded and left, carrying a mop and a bucket of cleaning supplies.

I watched her go, then frowned. I felt paranoid, like she might be trying to betray us. But that made no sense at all. I had been away from home for too long.

I stepped inside. The mansion’s foyer was a large open space with lots of wood paneling and a glittering chandelier hanging overhead. I had grown up here, and had gotten used to it, but now I couldn’t stop thinking that in Domina ten people would be able to live in this one room. Hell, even in New York, costs of living were about the same. Had I really been ignoring all that my entire life?

Of course I had. I was good at ignoring things.

“Your room should be clean,” my mother said. “We didn’t do anything to it, and I’m sure the maids dusted.”

“Thanks,” I said. I walked over to the kitchen, which was just off the foyer. “But I’m pretty hungry.” I put my bag on the island and sat down. “I’d just like something with real beef. A hamburger or something.” Anything would do, as long as I could guarantee it wasn’t made from rat or dog. Or worms. Lily had showed me a mealworm place the other day. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either.

“Of course,” my mother said, slipping behind the counter and opening up the griddle. “I got some patties yesterday. We were going to have a barbecue tonight, but I would be happy to make you something right now.”

“I’ll help,” my father said.

I frowned. My parents never cooked together. They could both cook, they just tended to get in each other’s way. Why were they being so nice?

“Can we put the news on?” I said. “I want to see what the ambassadors are up to.”

They both stiffened.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” my mother said carefully.

Ah, that was it. They wanted things to seem normal, to remind me of home away from Domina City. They might even be trying to get me to stay here rather than going back. Yep, I could see a few brochures for local colleges stacked up next to the fridge.

Whatever, they couldn’t stop me even if they wanted to. In the worst case scenario, I could get on the boat with the ambassadors. Eccretia would let me, if no one else.

“I just want to know what’s happening,” I said.

Chris glanced at my parents, then tossed me the remote. Before they could say anything, I turned on the kitchen tv and switched to the news. I doubted the channel actually mattered. This sort of thing would be on every station.

I was right. The local news was showing the ambassadors walking down the street, like what they had done when they left Domina. They even had their flags out.

My father frowned. “What are those flags?”

I smiled. “Think of them as states. Sort of. In order, we have the demons, the vampires, the angels, the kemos, the giants, the fey, the changelings, the merfolk, the dragons, and…” I frowned. “That’s Necessarius in back.” I didn’t recognize the flag-bearer, though. He didn’t seem to be anybody important, just some random guard. Where was the ambassador?

“Kemo?” my mother asked.

“It’s Japanese,” I said. “Means something like ‘animal-like.’ The White Cat was one of the first, he’s in front.” The answer was mostly autopilot. I was too confused about the ‘sarians. Who would they have sent? Not Butler, obviously, and sending Clarke would have been suicidal. Derek? Or maybe Laura? I hadn’t even thought to ask them. I had just told them I was leaving the city for a few days, and that was all we had said on the matter.

“You said merfolk,” my father said. “Which—”

“Third from the back. Before the dragons.”

“…they don’t look like mermaids.”

“Yeah, well, they are.” I didn’t know much about the Dagonites and the Atlanteans, but I knew Butler wouldn’t have let the twins come if he thought they wouldn’t be good representatives of their culture. I hadn’t seen their mermaid forms yet, but I was sure they were impressive. “But the ‘sarians…”

“You said the ones in the back were Necessarius,” Chris said. She had that hard, watchful look in her eyes. “That’s the gang that controls the city, right?”

“Close enough.” I was getting worried. I hadn’t thought about who Butler would send. Derek and Laura were both a little… difficult for ambassadors. But what other options were there? Politics would get in the way too much. That Banyan senator had been making noise recently, and of course the Kongeegen had tried to make a fight of it. I was most worried about a Granit getting the job. They were the imperialists; they were usually disturbingly sane, so they were more likely to influence this whole event. But Butler might not have had any other choice. Would the Iluvatar have even been willing to send someone? The only member of the party I knew was McDowell.

The doorbell rang, interrupting my fevered imaginings.

My parents both frowned. “Who could that be?” my father asked. “I don’t have any meetings scheduled.”

Chris put her hand on her gun. “I’ll look into it.” She walked away, and I was impressed by how quietly she was able to move.

My paranoia flared. If this was something to do with me, something from Domina, she’d get blindsided. I didn’t have any enemies that I knew of, but still. I glanced around the kitchen. No actual weapons, of course, but the knives were sitting in the center of the island, well within my reach. My parents would ask too many questions if I tried to grab them now, but I got ready.

“…she says she knows you, Master Adam.”

I frowned as Chris returned, leading someone into the kitchen. Who could it be? One of the ambassadors’ entourages, obviously, but I didn’t know most of them. Besides, no one knew I was taking the opportunity to come here and—

I blinked. “Lily?”

She smiled. “Hey, Adam.”

I leaped off my chair and hugged her, before giving her a quick kiss. “How did you—what are you—” I looked her up and down. She looked almost baseline. Her tail was hidden somehow, and she had a cute little beret that subtly covered her horns. She was smiling with a closed mouth, hiding her fangs, and none of her tattoos were visible. They were the kind Derek had, the ones you could control, so she had probably just willed them away. She couldn’t hide her red eyes, but those weren’t a big deal.

“I wanted to surprise you!” she said, bouncing on her feet. “I came on the boats. We made good time, so I thought I’d stop by before the meetings. We have a few hours, since they want to make sure everyone is comfortable.”

I heard my father clear his voice behind me.

I spun around. “Oh, right! Mom, Dad, this is my girlfriend, Lily.”

“Girlfriend?” my mother asked, looking her up and down.

Lily smirked. “I’m older than I look, Miss Powers.”

My father didn’t look convinced. “You’re at least eighteen, right?”

Lily laughed. “Mother of fire, yes! I’m twenty-six.” She shook her head, bemused. “It’s been a long time since someone didn’t know how old I was.”

“Twenty-six?” my mother said. Were they just going to parrot things all night?

“Yes. I promise. I am a fully legal adult.”

“Oh.” They relaxed, just slightly. My mother tried to smile. “Why don’t you sit down? We were making hamburgers.”

“Sure, of course.” We both sat down, and Lily smiled at them both like a beacon. “What kind of hamburgers?”

“Whatever kind you want,” my mother said. “We have all the condiments right here.”

Lily opened her mouth—likely to say something about the kind of meat—and I interrupted. “Beef, Lily. They’re beef hamburgers.”

Lily smiled. “I’m sure I will love them.”

My father cleared his throat. “So, Miss, uh—”

“Lily,” she said. “Just Lily.”

“Right. You are from Domina City, correct?”

“Of course. Born and raised.” Her smile turned sad. “Well, raised, at least. My mother left very early on. It’s possible we came from somewhere else.”

“Oh, you poor baby!” my mother said.

“It was a long time ago. Please, Mister Anders. You seemed to be leading to a question.”

“Yes, I just…” He sighed. “I think I’m going to just come out and say it.”

“I appreciate directness,” she said with a smile.

“Do you use the toy maker at all?”

Lily froze, stunned. She glanced at me. I chuckled.

Lily threw back her head and laughed.

My parents jumped as she gave a great, belly-aching laugh, shaking so hard that I had to grab her to keep from falling off her chair. She laughed so hard that tears started leaking from her eyes, and she looked like she was in pain.

After a few minutes, she settled down to a quiet giggle. She leaned against me, and I could still feel her shaking.

“Yes,” I said with a smile. “She uses the toy maker.”

My parents looked like they had been hit by a truck. Chris stood quietly in the background, her hand on her gun. She didn’t react otherwise.

“You don’t…” my father gestured at the tv. “You don’t look like them.”

Lily smiled and hopped off her seat. She pulled off her hat, revealing her horns. Then she adjusted her shirt and pants, freeing her tail from where it had been wrapped around her waist. She stretched, grinning broadly enough that her sharp teeth were visible. Patches of her skin slowly turned black, tattoos fading into sight. She used a pattern I hadn’t seen on her before, a sort of tribal design and aesthetic. They didn’t seem to mean anything specific.

“Ah…” she sighed in contentment. “That feels better.”

My parents had backed away. Just a few steps, but still. Chris had a strong grip on her gun now, but she still hadn’t drawn it. I palmed one of the smaller knives from the block while no one was looking.

“You’re… you’re a…” My father waved wildly at the tv. He took a closer look, then pointed. “One of those.” He was pointing to Sargeras and his delegation.

Lily chuckled. “I am not a demon.”

“You have to admit you look like a demon, sweetie,” my mother said. Even the endearment sounded strained. Scared.

“Cultures are not set in stone,” Lily said. “Someone can look like a vampire and join the kemos. Or look like an angel and join the demons. They will get mistaken for the wrong culture, but they just have to accept that.”

“So what culture are you?” Chris asked.

Lily smiled. “None. I am what I am.”

There was a pause.

“Adam?” my mother said. “I need to get these burgers started, but why don’t you and your father—”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

“One second,” I said. “I have to take this.”

Chris looked suspicious. “Who is it?”

“My sister,” Lily said.

I flipped open the phone. “MC?”

“Adam? Can you hear me?”

Good, it was the real one. “Yeah, I can hear you. What’s up? Did you want to talk to Lily?”

There was a pause. “She’s there with you? She’s supposed to be with the ambassadors.”

“Well, she’s here.”

I could imagine MC sighing on the other side. “Fine, whatever. Not important. I just got off the phone with Akane. It’s your CS prison. All the prisoners escaped while people were distracted by the procession. Some sort of EMP killed the counter-song for a few minutes.”

I cursed under my breath. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“This isn’t a courtesy call, hero. Akane thinks Saki might have hitched a ride to New York.”

Shit.

“One second,” I said. “Putting you on speaker.” I put the phone on the island and pressed a button. “Okay, we’re good.”

“Lily?” MC asked, her voice a little scratchy because of the way the speaker was obscured. “You there?”

“Yeah,” Lily said. “What is it?”

“Saki.”

I was already picking up my bag from the floor. I started to unzip it as they spoke, revealing a metal device with straps so it could be worn on the back.

Lily didn’t ask unnecessary questions. She made the connections instantly. “I didn’t see her when I was with the ambassadors.”

“Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yes.”

“She might have been avoiding you,” I said. I started to strap the device onto my back. It weighed almost ten pounds, but I had gotten used to wearing it.

“I would have thought that she’d seek her out on purpose,” MC said.

“Maybe,” I said. I double-checked the straps. The last thing I wanted was for it to flop around or fall off at the worst moment. “But she’d either go looking for her or avoid her like the plague. Lily wouldn’t just run into her by accident.”

“Fair enough.”

There was a switch on the top of my pack. I couldn’t see it, but it was able to reach over my shoulder and flip it. “Lily, you mind checking whether this thing is working?”

She closed her eyes for a moment, before opening them and nodded. “It’s working.”

“What is it?” my mother asked.

“What’s going on?” my father added.

“It’s called a CS device,” I said. “As for what’s happening…” I paused. Butler had given me a package on current intelligence reports, but I had skimmed it. I couldn’t remember if people outside of Domina knew about powers or not. “It’s complicated. The short version is that my friend’s niece has run away. I need to bring her back. I’m the only one who can.”

“…all right,” my father said after a moment. My mother gave him a glare, but he ignored it. “You do what you gotta do.”

I resisted the urge to grin like a wolf. My father was big on personal responsibility. Admirable and everything, but it sometimes blinded him. He hadn’t even bothered to ask why I was the only one who could do it.

“I’m coming too,” Lily said.

“What?” MC and I said together.

Lily’s eyes were strong. “She’s my responsibility.”

“You’ve never even met her!” I said.

She met my eyes levelly. “She is still mine.”

I sighed. It was impossible to argue with her when she got like this. “All right. But you have to be careful, okay? I don’t want you in the middle of a fight.”

She nodded, but I still felt a twisting in my gut. She was the only pacifist in Domina City, and I was bringing her into a hunt for a girl who could enslave random people to kill for her. This could go very badly, very quickly.

“I’m not sure about this,” MC said from my phone.

“If you have someone else in the area who could help, I’m all ears.”

MC remained silent. Necessarius did have people in the area, but they would all be ghosts. This simply wasn’t important enough to call them for help.

“That’s what I thought,” I said. “Now, is there any chance any of the ambassadors brought spare CS bracelets?” They were small devices that clipped on the wrist. They were supposed to suppress powers, but we hadn’t tested them enough yet.

“Unlikely. But Saki might still be wearing hers. There was a pulse that shorted it out temporarily—that’s how she escaped—but it might be working again by now.”

I frowned. “Really? I would have thought she would bash the thing off first chance she got.”

“They’re sturdy.”

“Okay…” I thought about it. “That changes the game a bit.”

“Have you called the ambassadors?” Lily asked. “Told them who to look for?”

“Yes. They haven’t seen her. Either she hid well or she suborned them.”

I frowned. The best move would be to go to the ambassadors with my CS pack and see what they said. But I didn’t want to disrupt their meeting. “Is there any way you can track the bracelet?”

“No.”

I sighed. “All right. If we have no leads—”

“There’s one lead,” MC said. “There’s someone from Domina in New York.”

It took me a second to parse that. “Wait—a ghost? You want us to talk to a ghost?”

“No, just an ordinary person.” She sounded a bit annoyed at the presumption that she would out a ghost for this. “Ryan Hearing moved here a few months back. He’s working in a local police department now.”

“Hearing, Hearing…” I murmured. “Where have I heard that name before?”

“He’s a clay,” Lily said. “Left right after you reached Domina, I believe.”

“…oh.” I didn’t know how to react to that. I hadn’t met any of the other clays. Well, besides Butler himself, but he didn’t count. “So, what, you think I should go talk to him? Common interests and whatnot?”

“Sure,” MC said. “It’s the best lead at the moment.”

I rolled my eyes. “How is that a good lead? I’d have as much luck asking my parents.”

They were standing there, looking a but shell-shocked at everything that was happening. Chris, on the other hand, looked contemplative.

“Ryan is a good lawman,” MC said. “Ex ‘sarian, first-rank detective. He earned the Medal of Service from the Servants. Twice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? And Butler let him leave?”

“You know that’s not how Butler works,” she chided me.

“Okay,” I sighed. “Okay. So, what? You think he just happened to be paying close attention to the ambassadors, and might have seen a little girl run off?”

“Yes,” MC said. There was no doubt in her voice.

“…all right. Send me his address.”

“I can do better than that. Sending you his current location. I’m also warning him you’re coming. He can be a little jumpy.”

“Of course.” I checked my screen. A GPS transponder popped up, pointing me in what I assumed was Hearing’s direction. “Thanks a bunch. I’ll buy you a drink when we get back.”

Static hissed over the connection, like a sigh. “You know I don’t drink.”

I hung up. Not much else to say.

“Well,” I said, turning to my parents. “Time to go. We’ll be back.”

“Wait!” my mother said before we could leave. “What was that?”

“I told you,” I said. “Friend’s cousin has gone missing.”

“It doesn’t sound like she’s missing,” my father said. He was eyeing my pack, but didn’t say anything about it. “It sounds like she ran away.”

“Or escaped,” Chris said.

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t worry about it. This is really just a favor for a friend.” I opened the door for Lily, then waved goodbye. “We’ll be back soon. We don’t want to miss the ambassadors meeting with the president.”

Behind the Scenes (301)

I’ve been waiting to add Ryan Hearing since pretty much the very start of the series. I also have the other clay waiting in the wings, but no plans to add her quite yet.

break

Scene 300 – Neptis

NEPTIS

AKANE

I checked my watch. It was ten o’clock, which meant that the ambassadors should be leaving right about now. Most of the city was clustered around South Gate, seeing them off. Laura called it a ‘historic day.’ Everyone wanted to be a part of it, even if only in some small way.

Which meant that the ‘sarian prison was short-staffed.

Which meant that when the power went out and the CS devices died, it hadn’t been hard for the prisoners to escape.

Including my niece.

I stared at the empty cell, as if she would reappear if I waited long enough. That’s what her mother would have done. I had seen Murasaki sneak out of the apartment to go meet up with boys, only to come back later, apologize to our parents, and accept her punishment.

But Saki was not her mother. I was just beginning to realize that. I had been treating her too much like she was. Saw things that weren’t there. Guilt. Shame. Honor. Dignity.

Murasaki would never have killed three guards on the way out.

I turned away from the empty cell to look at the corpse on the ground. He had a gun in his hand and a big smile on his face. The cameras had been fried by the EMP, but it was obvious what had happened. Saki had asked him to kill himself, and he had.

That was her power. People loved her. They loved her far, far more than was the slightest bit logical. They wanted what she wanted. Wanted to help her, to provide for her. To kill for her. I hadn’t seen her cause a suicide before, but this wasn’t her first kill. Not by a long shot.

The sad thing was that this was all random luck. An accident. An EMP had gone off too close to the prison during a fight between a few kemo clans. I had people interviewing them right now, but didn’t expect them to find anything.

“Honored Paladin,” someone said. It was one of Adam’s counter-song guys. I couldn’t remember his name. We had met before. He was the Dagonite who didn’t look like a Dagonite. “Two of the prisoners were recaptured.”

“Which ones?”

“The pyro and the mind-reader.”

I raised an eyebrow. The pyro was no surprise, but I would have expected the mind-reader to be better about staying under the radar.

“Ten left,” I said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Leads?”

He shook his head. “Nothing concrete. One’s a hyrdokinetic, so I’ve got some friends keeping an eye on the bay, but I don’t think he’s stupid enough to try that. Other than that, nothing. With everything still confused from the war, they could be on the other side of the city by now.”

“Call the ‘sarians,” I said. “The lawmen.”

He nodded. “Right, they’ll be more equipped to deal with this.”

“Work with them.”

He flipped out his phone. “Will do, ma’am. I’m sure the detectives will be here soon. They’ll probably want to interview you.”

I nodded and walked away. I tried not to look at the bodies on the ground. Didn’t want to see what she had done. I forced myself to look anyway. Needed to see it.

I stopped. One of the bodies had something in his hand. Not his gun hand, his other hand. It looked like a piece of paper, crumpled up in his fist. I bent down and pried his hand open to get a better look at it.

The Dagonite rushed over. “Honored Paladin, you shouldn’t contaminate the scene—”

“Quiet.”

He stopped instantly. I wasn’t even looking at him, but I could feel him twitch as I pulled out the paper and unfolded it.

I cocked my head. It was a flier for a party. Just a basic New Year’s party, nothing special. There were thousands across the city right now. This seemed to be one of the smaller ones, just a hundred people or so. Barely big enough to warrant the flier.

I handed it to the Dagonite. He frowned as he read it. “I… don’t understand, ma’am.”

I grunted and stood. “Thought it was important. Wasn’t. Send someone to the party, though.” It would be weird for escaped prisoners to run off to a New Year’s party, but it was the closest thing to a lead we had right now. It was either this or twiddle our thumbs and hope someone decided to turn themselves in.

“Ma’am, do you know what ‘Portam Daemonia’ means?”

I turned back. He was looking at the flier, a thoughtful expression on his face.

He noticed me looking. “I know I’ve heard the name before,” he said. “It’s somewhere in demon territory, right?”

“It means ‘Gate of Demons,’” I said. “It’s South Gate.”

He blinked. “…oh.” He brightened. “OH!”

I frowned. “What is it?”

He showed me the flier again, this time pointing to a single line on the bottom.

‘Since Portam Daemonia is occupied, this year the party will be held at the Monarch Hotel.’

It took me a second to parse what he was trying to show me. “The Gate is occupied because of the ambassadors leaving.”

The Dagonite was bouncing on his feet. “And the guards would have known that! So a prisoner sees this flier, asks what it means, and is told what’s going on! The prisoners escape, and head to South Gate to escape the city!”

I paused. “Lot of coincidences in that story.”

“Plausible ones, though.”

“Not all of the prisoners can pass for baseline.”

“Some can, though.”

Including Saki. Saki would be able to get onto the boat easily, and once in New York, evading the police would be child’s play, since they wouldn’t have CS squads. Especially since they wouldn’t be actively looking for her. In fact, even if they did have counter-song, it would be useless to them unless…

“Call those detectives,” I said as I pulled out my phone. “Get them here. Tear the place apart, follow any lead they find.” I started walking towards the doors.

“Okay!” he called after me. He didn’t bother asking me what I was doing.

I was calling MC. The real one. And then maybe I’d call my nephews and the kensei for a little backup.

Behind the Scenes (scene 300)

The ex-Dagonite is Eric, by the way. I’m trying to focus the story back on the core cast and the main problems the city are facing, so he’s not going to be all that important. The whole thing with Leon and the murids isn’t going to intersect.