Tag Archives: Adonides

Scene 120 – Consequentia

CONSEQUENTIA

LAURA

“You would be the Highlander?”

Silver and gold, that stupid nickname. “Laura. And I’m busy.” I was trying to fix the hypnotism machine so that it didn’t kill people, but I wasn’t having much luck. Engineering is barely a hobby of mine. All I did the first time was fiddle with the settings.

“Ah…so this is the machine that killed my chamberlain.”

That got my attention. I abandoned the machine and turned to see a short and squat vampire, wearing what appeared to be a very weathered yellow fire fighter’s jacket over a black shirt and jeans. He had thick daygoggles, small fangs, and the dust-colored skin of a vampire who wasn’t white, but still didn’t spend enough time in the sun.

He smelled like smoke. Not just cigarettes, either. Even my weak baseline nose could detect a variety of different flavors. Woodsmoke, gunpowder, gasoline, and the mouth-watering scent of the barbeque.

“Mephistopheles,” I said, meeting his eyes as best I could, considering the goggles. “Noble of Cania. I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to see you.”

“I wanted to come pick up Adonides’ body personally.” He pulled out a cigarette and placed it in his mouth, but didn’t light it. “He—his corpse, that is—is it still here?”

“Yes, Noble Mephistopheles.”

“Bah,” he grunted, waving his hand. “Burning darkness, Highlander, don’t bother with that stupid title. Meph will do fine.”

“Then I expect you to extend me the same courtesy.”

“Eh?”

“My name is Laura.”

“Oh, yes, sorry.” He bobbed his head excitedly. “Just Laura. Got it.”

I sighed. “I’m sorry for your loss, Noble—Meph. I’ll admit I don’t know all that much about Canian culture, but I assume you plan to cremate him?”

The vampire nodded. “Feed him to the flames, yes. It is our way.”

“Any chance I can convince you to let me do an autopsy first? I was hoping I might be able to get some insight into the sleepers if I could get a closer look at his brain chemistry.”

The warlord quirked his head. “Honestly, I figured you had already done all that.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Ah…yes. When can I expect you to be done?”

“Tomorrow. The first of October.”

“Hm.” He frowned. “Well, that’s a Monday, so we might have trouble…” he shook his head. “No, it will be fine. Guland, if no one else, will be able to find time.”

“I’ll have MC send you a message when he’s ready,” I promised. “And I’ll be sure to be as respectful as possible.”

“That’s all I can ask, Highlander.”

I bit my tongue from snapping back, and simply smiled instead.

When he left, I assumed I’d be able to spend much of the rest of the day working on Adonides. But that wasn’t meant to be.

“Laura?” MC’s chocolate voice drifted out of the speakers. “Can you come to the West Training Room? It’s urgent.”

“Uh…okay.” That was where I had left Derek to discuss tactics with Flynn, under the assumption that the swordsman would be able to keep him mostly out of trouble. Had they injured each other during practice? Probably not; MC would have been more clear if it was an emergency.

I found the room again quickly enough. It was a large empty room with the walls and floor padded with red mats, and a hamper full of towels in the corner.

When I had left them, the boys were alone. This was the kids’ training room, and no one was letting their children out of their sight today. But Akane and Ling had shown up at some point, and seemed to be arguing with the boys. Akane was wearing Flynn’s earrings, which was surprising. I thought she had locked them away.

“Are you completely insane?”

Ling winced. Derek wasn’t yelling, but he didn’t need to. That disapproving look on his face was enough. “I didn’t mean—”

“I know you didn’t,” he interrupted. “No one ever means to do things like this.” He sighed and brushed his hair back. “But silver and gold, didn’t you stop and consider the implications?”

“I was helping a friend.”

“Which is noble, I’ll admit. But you should have called one of us. You didn’t have to shoulder this burden alone.”

The blonde delinquent sighed. “Derek, what would you have done if I had told you?”

He opened his mouth briefly, then closed it again.

“Told Butler,” Ling answered for him. “You would have told him without a second thought. I don’t know exactly what would have happened, but I wasn’t willing to take any risks with my friend’s life.”

Derek rubbed his forehead. “I…” he looked up at me. “Laura, help me out here.”

Everyone turned to me; our blond leader was the first one who had noticed me. I blinked a little at the sudden attention, but managed to shrug. “I’m not sure what to say. This is about the toy box, I take it?”

“Yeah, she—” He blinked in confusion. “Wait. How’d you know?”

“MC told me, after Lizzy went missing. We kept you out of the loop because we knew what you’d do.”

He plopped down on the mat with a sigh. “Am I the only one who didn’t know about this?”

I didn’t know,” Flynn muttered. Akane elbowed him in the ribs.

“Okay,” Derek muttered. “Fine. I still think you should have told me but…fine. Soaring Eagle has the toy box, and is probably going to start a war with Necessarius the second they think they have a chance. We’ll deal with that when it comes. What I need to know is how the hell Lizzy knew about it.”

Ling winced again. “Right…that was me. I needed help hiding Turgay, and I knew she had contacts—”

“Silver and—yeah, she has contacts, she probably hypnotizes them all.”

I nodded. “You know, that would explain it. I have noticed a bit of obsessiveness in her hires, but I hadn’t met enough to really think it was odd.”

Akane frowned. “A demon in a nice suit?”

“Nabassu? Yeah, he’s her butler. So to speak, I guess. Why?”

“Saw him earlier, along with another demon and a Jotuun. They all had powers.”

I sputtered. “She’s giving people powers? Intentionally?” My hand twitched towards my necklace. It had always been a possibility, of course, but since we hadn’t seen any more like ourselves, we had just assumed…

Akane nodded. “She also made it clear she was the source of our powers.”

I regained my composure quickly. “Right now, we just need the basics. What exactly could they do?”

The samurai took a deep breath to steel herself. “Right. Nabassu was a shifter, like the bats, but he could only make wings. The Jotuun flew under his own power. And there was a fat demon with super strength. At least, that’s what it looked like.”

“Wait, the big fat, red one?” Ling asked. Akane nodded. “Well, no worries there, then. Adam killed him after you left.” She shivered a little. “He’s very, very dead.”

That was a problem I understood. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Derek. I’m worried Adam’s sociopathy could cause problems.”

Derek just quirked his head. “What are you talking about?”

It actually made me feel better, in a way. Although I hadn’t really admitted it to myself, I had been worried he’d undergo a drastic personality shift now that Lizzy’s hypnotism was lifted. Good to know he was the same soft-hearted fool as ever.

“He’s killing people without the slightest signs of remorse,” I pointed out.

“But…screamers aren’t people,” Ling said with a confused look on her face. I didn’t bother correcting her. We had enough problems right now.

“Killing is an unfortunate necessity in life—”

I cut Derek off with a wave of my hand. “I know that. I made my first kill when we were six, remember?” Although I hadn’t killed a human until I was fifteen, and even that had been indirectly. “But Adam’s not a Dominite. This isn’t normal for him.”

Flynn blinked. “Wait, he’s not?”

“Came for AU,” Akane explained.

The swordsman snorted. “Well then yeah, Adam’s crazy. Didn’t you say he killed like a dozen ferrets at the bat thing?”

“Probably more,” I admitted. “That’s what made Kelly bring it to my attention, actually. And then the other day, he didn’t think twice about letting Adonides get killed.”

Flynn perked up. “Right, about that, Guland wanted to know—”

“I just came from a meeting with Mephistopheles. I think he’ll send your roommate over some time tomorrow.”

“Okay, yeah. That’s good. He’s been worried about it.”

“I’m still not convinced,” Derek insisted, bringing us back on topic. “Akane and I—silver and gold, even you, Laura—can seal off those feelings without any trouble, and you’re not calling us sociopaths.”

I sighed. “You’re missing the point. It’s exactly that: We seal them away. We’ve just had years of practice, so we don’t even have to think about it. Adam has not had years of practice. On his first day in the city, he killed a woman, without any apparent trauma. That’s not normal.”

“Is that what Butler meant?” Ling chipped in. “When he called him a ‘natural-born killer?’”

I had forgotten about that. “Probably.”

Derek struggled up from the floor. “Well, it’s not like we can do anything about it. We need him. We’ll keep an eye on him, and if he starts going crazy, I’ll try to talk him down.”

“Lily would be a better choice,” I noted.

He shrugged. “Sure, but she probably won’t be around.” He turned to Akane. “I’m not that confident I’ll be able to convince him of anything, though. So Akane, you’ll need to be ready if he decides to turn on us.”

The swordswoman didn’t seem to think anything odd about this; she just nodded and gripped the hilt of her sword. Well, everyone had to deal with betrayal eventually. Since I wasn’t exactly dangerous physically, I usually made sure I had blackmail material on any troublesome employers or allies—or just worked alone. Apparently Derek and Akane went the more traditional route.

“Just make sure Lily doesn’t find out about this,” MC’s voice warned from the speakers in the ceiling. “She’s convinced she can redeem him.”

I blinked at the implications. “Wait, she knew?”

“Of course. Why do you think she’s dating him? She thinks she can socialize him. And honestly, she seems to be right.”

“It’s Lily,” Derek said, grinning at my surprise. “She doesn’t do anything without some goal in mind.”

To deflect attention from my embarrassment, I changed the subject. “I think we’re done for the day. I’ll find Adam and get a debriefing from him later. Derek, were you still planning on doing that mission later?”

He groaned. “I completely forgot…but yeah. It’s just a couple night dogs; Akane, Flynn and I can handle it.”

Ling perked up. “I can help too.”

“Oh no,” Derek replied instantly, his face like stone. “You’re not coming on any missions unless screamers or those…uh…”

“Blackguards,” Akane supplied.

“Right. Unless Lizzy’s Blackguards show up.”

The little Chinese delinquent opened her mouth silently, then closed it, then opened it again. “You’re grounding me?”

Derek didn’t blink. “Yes.”

“Tezuka’s name, what right—”

Suddenly Derek closed the distance between the two of them, until their faces were millimeters apart. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he still had eight or ten inches on the tiny girl. She gulped and took a step back, but she still had to look almost straight up.

“You endangered quite a few people,” he hissed quietly. “In hiding the toy box you were forced to abandon us when the skins attacked, you got the aves at the lab killed, and you may have started a war between the arachs and the aves against Necessarius.”

He leaned down to Ling’s level until their eyes were inches apart.

“I have the right, Ling Yu, to act in the safety of this city. Grounding you from missions is less than a slap on the wrist. If this went public, you’d be fed to the ghouls. And if you were lucky, they might kill you first.”

He turned around and stomped out of the training room, Akane following him quickly, and Flynn a bit more hesitantly.

Ling fell to her knees.

I just left in the opposite direction, only noticing when I got back to the lab Clarke had given me that I was clutching the diamond ring on my necklace hard enough to slice open my palm.

Behind the Scenes (scene 120)

I was a little leery about bringing in Mephistopheles here, especially so soon after Soaring Eagle, but he was necessary for illustrating the fate of Adonides.

Scene 106 – Capta

CAPTA

ADAM

“What do you mean, gone?”

Ling glanced around, triple-checking to make sure no one else was listening. “Lizzy was helping Turgay with the toy box. Then she just got up and left, and wasn’t answering her cell. Then they sent twenty-five men after her, and now they’re missing too.”

I brushed my hair back from my forehead. “So…Turgay is in on the whole toy box thing?”

“Yes,” Ling spat. “But that is not important. The toy box has some weird field that screws with your head. MC and I think it must have messed with her sleeper programming.”

I shook my head. “We haven’t confirmed she’s a sleeper.”

“We haven’t confirmed she’s not, either,” the little delinquent insisted. “And it’s looking more and more likely that she is.”

Why was my life like this? What happened to the days when I was just going to inherit my father’s company, and that would be the end of it? Even after I got to Domina and all that changed, my life wasn’t that hard. Screamers come, shoot a bunch, go home. When did I get embroiled in some hypnotist’s conspiracy?

“Derek needs to know,” I insisted.

Ling just rolled her eyes. “You don’t watch enough TV. He’ll run off after her and make everything worse. No, we can handle this ourselves. Go back to the dorms, get our gear.” She slipped a key into my hand. “My armor is under my bed. Hurry.”

She turned away, dismissing me, and flipped out her phone again.

Also, since when had the brain-dead otaku been in charge?

I sighed and headed back to the table.

Lily turned to me, a questioning look on her face. “Something wrong?”

I did my best to smile. “Just…something’s come up. I need to head back to the dorm and get some things. You think you’ll be all right here?”

She knew I wasn’t being completely honest, I could see it in her eyes. But after a moment, she nodded. “I’ll hold down the fort. You go have fun, and come back safe.”

I kissed her goodbye, and headed for the dorm as fast as I could without actually running. The second I was out of the park and away from the prying eyes of my friends, I started sprinting.

Okay, so Lizzy has been kidnapped. What did that mean? If she was a sleeper, then she probably discovered something important and went to report to the Composer. Simple enough, but it didn’t make sense. For one thing, I think Ling would have mentioned something like that. The location of the toy box was important, sure, but probably not enough to warrant a sleeper outing herself.

Now what if she wasn’t a sleeper? She left for…something mundane. A breath of fresh air, maybe, or a break from the conversation. Then got grabbed when she stepped outside.

Yes, that made more sense. Fit better with what we knew about sleepers, not to mention Lizzy herself. The only question was who grabbed her. Clearly not one of the subcultures. Everyone loved her, and even if they didn’t, it would take a whole lot to wipe out twenty-five soldiers to a man. Had they managed to radio anything back before they disappeared? Probably not, Ling would have mentioned it.

That left two possibilities: The fey or the Composer.

They were the only ones strong enough to pull this off. The fey kidnapped people all the time. Usually bums and other people no one would notice missing, but they were insane, and might not have realized people would search for Lizzy. It would be a Day and Autumn court. Once I figured out where the kidnapping actually took place, we would know precisely which, and we could stage a raid.

I was getting ahead of myself. Attacking the fey would be a very bad idea, and downright suicidal if they weren’t the ones who took her.

What if it was the Composer? Why would he take her?

I swiped my card on the front door of the dorms, rushed past Emily, and pounded the elevator button. It was slow coming, and the sudden stop screwed with my breathing, forcing me to suck down deep gasps of air. Emily looked at me a little funny, but I just stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for floor nine.

Right. What did the Composer want? Well, he had to get those singers and sleepers from somewhere. And Laura had said something about how he had spies close to us, so maybe the bastard was doing this on purpose. It all fit in with what the Composer had said to me through Zaphkiel—assuming that wasn’t just a lie.

The elevator doors opened, and I slid out, ran to my room, and collected my guns, as well as the dinky plastic plate armor to wear under my shirt Obould had given me. I already had my Sica, but I wanted a lot more than a pistol if we were going to fight a war.

Ling’s armor was a little annoying to find. She had managed to stuff so much under her bed, it took me a few minutes to pull out the suit. But it didn’t take more than ten minutes, all told, so there was no real loss. I made sure to lock the doors behind me and headed out.

The fey would be easy enough to eliminate as suspects. They didn’t really bother lying about their activities, or maybe they thought they couldn’t. Either way, I texted Ling, asking where Lizzy had been grabbed, explaining my theory about the fey as succinctly as possible.

If we were lucky, we might be able to buy back Lizzy before Derek got involved. If not, well, he had the most experience monster slaying. We’d have to bring everyone in.

Emily stared at me as I strode through the lobby fully armed and armored, but I ignored her. I had more important things to worry about.

If it was the Composer, we were in much bigger trouble. Even if we could find his lair, which was unlikely, we would probably arrive to find Lizzy dead or singing. If she was alive, she’d be a sleeper.

My phone rang, and I fished it out of my pocket. “Hello?”

“Adam,” Ling’s voice was urgent. “MC called Virtuous Dusk—that’s the court that would be active in that area. They said they haven’t grabbed any girls today, and I’m inclined to believe them.”

I swore under my breath. “That means it really is the Composer after all.”

She paused only for a moment. “Yeah. You gonna meet up with us?”

I had to think about it for a minute before deciding. “No. You tell the others everything, I’m going to meet up with the retinue. MC, where are they?”

“At the southern corner of the school,” her fake voice chipped in helpfully.

I turned around and started running; I had been heading for the park. “Tell them I’ll be right there.”

“Splitting up is never a good idea,” Ling warned.

“We’ll meet up at NHQ,” I promised.

“Still a bad idea.” Then she paused. “Wait, why will we be meeting there?”

The retinue’s van was in sight. “Because that’s where our captured sleepers are.” Then I hung up, since I didn’t have the breath to say more.

“Anders,” Kelly greeted me, a look of dull surprise on her face. “What’s going on? MC just said it wasn’t screamers.”

“Lizzy’s been kidnapped,” I managed between gasps for air. I needed to learn not to just run full-tilt, but to pace myself. Some breathing exercises would probably help, too. “By the Composer.”

“Blood and shadow,” the vampire cursed. She threw open the van’s door, and we both piled in. Jarasax already had the engine running, and hit the gas before I was even inside.

“NHQ, right?” the middle-eastern changeling asked. I managed to nod.

“George, what’s your ammo count look like?” Kelly asked as she checked her own magazines. I had already done so upstairs, so I just concentrated on filling my lungs.

“Enough to get the job done,” the ogre grunted. “But not as much as I’d like. If we get a chance, I’ll pick up more.”

“We probably won’t,” Alex noted. “How long does that reverse-hypnotism thing take?”

I shrugged. “Who knows? It might not even work.”

The van swerved suddenly as our driver was forced to avoid some traffic. The siren was off, so there wasn’t much we could do to help it. Hopefully MC would call the peacekeepers off. The last thing we needed right now was a speeding ticket.

“That’s hardly a comforting thought,” Kelly muttered, scratching at the device on her left arm absentmindedly.

“We’ll deal with that later,” I assured her. “I’m sure Laura will think of something. She probably slipped a GPS into her shoe or something, who knows.”

George looked at me a little sideways. “And what about you? What’s your plan?”

I shrugged. “Same as ever. Find the bad guys and fill them with lead.”

Jarasax barked out a laugh. “Somehow I think it’s going to be a bit harder than that.”

Kelly nodded. “We need to prepare. Worst case scenarios, let’s hear it.”

“The Composer turns the entire city into screamers with the loudspeaker system, and we have to fight our way to him deaf,” George said immediately.

“MC removed that possibility,” I reminded him.

The giant shrugged as best as he could in the confined space. “Then he has a bunch of those defensive, intelligent singers defending his base, none of them have the same powers, they all know exactly what they’re doing, and we have to fight our way to him deaf.”

“You’re a little hung up on the ‘deaf’ part,” Kelly noted.

George glared. “I was born deaf. Stayed that way until I was twenty-five.”

A bit of an uncomfortable silence fell. It was easy to forget that the giant was actually the oldest member of our little crew by a fair margin; at thirty-five, he was probably the only one besides me who had clear memories of a life before the toy maker, and I didn’t really count.

“We’ll have to fight a lot of screamers no matter what, I’m sure,” I pointed out, trying to get the conversation back on track. “Kelly, if you want to borrow one of my guns—”

“I’ll pick up a rifle at NHQ,” she promised. Her pistol wouldn’t have enough power to hold off hordes of enemies; she needed something with a higher fire rate.

“There are a few more problems,” Alex noted. “We’ll probably have to fight in another gang’s territory, and they’re hardly on good terms with us right now.”

“The Composer carves out little blind spots, remember?” Sax put in. “I don’t think it will be an issue.”

Little blind spots,” I reminded him. “And he seems smart enough to make sure we’ll have to step on as many toes as possible. No, we need to deal with them too.” I unslung my Athena and started checking it over. “Kill the leaders, and the rest will break.”

Kelly glared at me as the van rocked violently again. “Aim for the knees, Anders. On anything that’s not a zombie. We’re not starting a war just to save one girl.”

I sighed. They always insisted on doing things the hard way. But before I could formulate a proper response, the van screeched to a halt.

“We’re here,” Jarasax explained, as he stepped out and slid open the door. “C’mon, no time to waste.”

As we all tumbled out, I glanced around. “I don’t see Maria’s car. The others probably aren’t here yet.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Kelly noted, stepping past me and towards the skyscraper that held one of Doctor Clarke’s main labs. “We can get started without them.”

MC had told the guards we were coming, so we just had to quickly flash our passes and we were through. One of the benefits of being on the…anti-Composer squad? I just realized that I wasn’t even sure if our team, beyond the Paladins, even had a name.

I pushed that out of my mind. We had much, much more important things to worry about. One of the lab techs greeted us at the door and escorted us deeper inside. I had been to this place a dozen times already, but I still could never find my way around. I don’t know if the maze-like passageways were an intentional security measure, or if the architect had just been crazy.

“Sorry for all this,” the tech, a young man, apologized. “Doctor Clarke designed the building to ‘stimulate visitor’s minds.’ It takes a while to get used to.”

Ah. So crazy it was.

He led us to one of the side labs, the one we had been in the other day when Laura explained her strange plan. There was only one other person there.

“Adonides?” I asked the vampire, strapped down to a table and connected to strange devices I didn’t understand. “You doing all right?”

He nodded, a little shakily. “I…fine.” If Guland was to be believed, he was never very good with English, and adding fangs had just made his accent go from bad to worse.

I struggled to come up with something to say, something that would make him feel better about the risk he was taking, but I couldn’t think of anything.

Instead, I found my brain considering what would happen if this didn’t work. Would we try another sleeper? Perhaps we could try one of the laser singers from the other day. Would…he be dead?

I pushed that thought out of my mind. It wasn’t that it was too painful; quite the opposite. It provoked cold, rational thoughts considering what our other options would be.

We could deal with that later. Right now, there was only what was in front of us.

I heard the door open behind me, and turned to see the others. Just the Paladins; they had wisely left Flynn and the others behind.

Ling rolled her eyes. “See? I told you they’d be here.”

Laura pushed past the others to the Canian strapped to the table. She didn’t say a word, just checked her instruments with a frown on her face.

Derek stepped forward. “We need to hurry—”

The hard-faced girl shut him up with a wave of her hand. “Another five minutes won’t hurt, and rushing things will. Give me time.”

I edged away from the table and joined Kelly, leaning against the wall. The Belian was scratching the device on her arm again. I had tried to ask her what it was once, but Alex had given me a look that told me to keep my mouth shut.

The angel in question was strapping dozens of knives to her body in easy-to-use sheaths. Apparently they were ‘dayknives;’ mirrored blades designed for quick attacks, especially useful when the enemy was blinded.

That reminded me. “Don’t you two need guns?”

Alex shrugged. “We’ll be fine.”

But Kelly nodded. “You’re right. I’ll grab us a couple Saint Adrians.” She headed off, presumably in the direction of the armory, ignoring Alex’s frown.

“Be quick,” Laura called after her. “I’m nearly ready.”

It didn’t take long for the vampire to hurry back. She handed Alex a rifle with a big magazine and a few spares, keeping the same for herself. By the time that was all over, Laura had finished whatever arcane ritual with the instruments she deemed necessary.

She pulled the device down from the ceiling, the same one she was working yesterday. She pushed a button to adjust the table, bringing the Canian closer to vertical, giving a better angle for the device, which still looked like something from the dentist’s office.

“Just relax,” the sharp-faced girl assured him. “This won’t hurt.”

“Mă îndoiesc că,” he muttered, but put his eyes on the rubber rests anyway.

Laura laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, nodded to Derek, flipped the switch…

And nothing happened.

We waited a few more moments.

Then we started looking at each other, confused.

“Is…it on?” Alex asked hesitantly. “I mean, maybe you left the lens cap on or something.”

“No…” Laura muttered, frowning. “Everything is green. It should be—”

And then Adonides started screaming.

Behind the Scenes (scene 106)

This scene could have gone better, but I think I like it.

Scene 66 – Cutis

CUTIS

DEREK

I woke up when the screaming started.

It took me a minute to shake the sleep from my head, longer than usual. The interference from Butler’s captured zombies made it hard to identify new ones, but I could hear them coming from the North, probably past NHQ. I glanced at the clock; it was six in the morning. Not that bad at all.

I shook Adam awake quickly, and he immediately started getting ready. It was lucky he was even here. He had been going out with Lily most nights, doing who knows what. I don’t think she had an apartment, so it wasn’t that, but it still meant he only slept in our room about half the time.

We were ready in a few minutes, and when I opened the door Akane was waiting in her Minerva silk, looking frazzled. Ling, however was nowhere to be found.

“Where’s—”

Akane shook her head. “Don’t know, don’t care, let’s go.” She headed for the elevators before I could say anything else.

I shrugged at Adam a little weakly. “She’s never been a morning person.”

We went downstairs, collected Laura and the retinue, and headed north. Like last time, the van was mostly quiet. It was strange how empty it felt without one little fel who didn’t even speak.

“We’re going to have some help on this one,” Kelly said after a few minutes of driving. I noticed that she was scratching her fixer a little. “The General’s hellions and the Hammer’s Aesir will provide support.”

I was surprised. The two were hardly enemies, but they had never worked together either. “That’s wonderful news. How’d they manage it?”

“The Big Boss managed to convince pretty much everyone last night that an alliance was the only hope for survival. This is a test run.”

Adam frowned a little. “Okay, now…the Aesir are giants, right?”

“The first giants, actually,” George rumbled. “Though there is a little bit of argument on that.”

“Right. But I don’t think I’ve heard of the hellions.”

I chuckled. “Even I know that. They’re one of the first demon subcultures.” When he stared blankly at me, I elaborated. “They’re demon soldiers. Sargeras is in charge of…Laura, which Legion is he in charge of?”

The Legion,” she replied, without looking up from her phone. She seemed to be studying a map. “Also known as the Army. Their emblem is a red wasp.”

“Oh, right,” I muttered. “I forgot how unimaginative the General is.”

“And the Aesir?” Adam asked.

She just shrugged. “The standard mythological symbol. The threefold triangle, I think it’s called.”

“We’re here,” Jarasax said as he pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript ‘scraper. “Time to meet the neighbors. Watch your step, it’s a little bit icy.”

We piled out into a small square already crowded with armed men. On the left there was a Legion of demons, well-equipped with the latest anti-personnel weapons and with red wasps stitched on their shoulders. On the right was a clan of giants, carrying oversized guns and emblazoned with the threefold triangle Laura had mentioned.

A hellion and an Aesir were arguing in the empty space between the two camps, next to a fountain. That was the most important place to be at the moment; I walked up, with Laura following. Everyone else stayed behind, probably to check their weapons and such.

“We can’t send them in now,” the hellion was saying as I strode up. “We don’t even know what the screamers’ power is. We need more intel.”

The Aesir—a Thor, if the hammer sigil on his shoulder was any indication—waved a massive hand airily. “We don’t need them at all. Either send them in now and let them die, or force them to stay back. We don’t need to change our strategy to match a bunch of crazy vampires.”

“What seems to be the problem here?” I asked.

Both leaders turned to look at me, apparently surprised I was here. It was the hellion who spoke. “You’re the Paladins, I take it?”

I nodded. “I’ll be personally leading a small strike force. This is Laura. She’s strategy.”

The demon frowned. “Well, I’m not sure we need help…”

“You’re arguing,” I pointed out. “That means you need help.”

He shrugged. “Fair enough.” He scratched near his large horns. “The problem is that a couple Canians have shown up, and we don’t know quite what to do with them.”

Laura grimaced. “Who’s leading them?”

The giant barked out a laugh. “Leading? Leading Canians? If that’s your question, I’m not sure you should be in charge of strategy, little girl.”

She glared daggers at him, enough to make him swallow visibly.

“There’s always a leader, Honored Titan,” she said calmly. “Even if it’s just the one who happens to be in front. Where is the one who speaks for them?”

The giant pointed without saying a word.

“Thank you,” she replied scathingly, and walked off in the direction he indicated—farther down the no-man’s-land between the two armies. I nodded at the men and quickly followed her.

The Canians was closer to the screamers than the demons and giants, but still far enough away so that we couldn’t see the zombies. They seemed to be mostly confined to a street about ninety degrees to the staging area, blocked in by a barricade of cars. That’s also about when I noticed that the streets were relatively undamaged. Even the intermittent patches of frost were undisturbed. Did that mean their power was something non-destructive, or had they just not come this way yet?

Not important at the moment. The Canian leader was talking to someone, surrounded by perhaps two dozen of his men. The second man was clearly not a Canian; he didn’t have daygoggles or a flamethrower, for one thing. He seemed mostly baseline, of some South American ethnicity I couldn’t identify. He was arguing with the Canian pretty vehemently, but the pyro didn’t seem all that concerned. As we got closer, the crowd parted to allow us through, and I got a good look at the speakers.

I blinked. “Flynn?

He started. “Derek? Oh, of course you’d be here…”

“Yeah, but what about you? You’re not a Canian.”

The swordsman just shrugged. “My roommate is.” He indicated the pyrovamp he had been arguing with. “This is Guland.”

“Pleased to meet you, Honored Nightstalker,” I said diplomatically. “Are you the one who led these Canians here?”

He grinned around his cigar—a safe cig, if the smell was any indication—and nodded. “Meph didn’t want to come down himself. The Nessians are getting violent again. So I called up a couple of my kithmates, and they called a few more, and…” he grinned a little wider. “Here we are.”

Laura didn’t seem to care. “You need to stay back and wait for orders. You’re upsetting the plan.”

Guland’s fuel pack started to shriek as gas began to leak out. He reached back and adjusted a valve, quieting it, without even looking. “It’s not our job to take part in any plans, Mrs. Paladin.” He hefted his flamer. “We’re just here to burn things.”

“If you don’t at least have some idea what you’re getting into, you’re just going to get killed or infected,” Flynn pointed out. “Nobody’s asking for you not to fight, just cooperate a little.”

One of the other Canians, a shorter white boy with smoke-stained skin, spat on the ground in disgust. “Ca şi Iad. Ei toţi ne urăsc. Am putea foarte bine uita doar despre ele. Ei nu vor fi nici un ajutor.”

“He’s right,” Guland insisted, though damned if I knew what his friend had said. Languages were Lizzy’s department. “Worse, they’ll probably throw us on a suicide mission. We’re useful. Let us fight.”

“We’re going to,” Laura promised. “But you clearly don’t want to die, right?”

The pyro’s eyes narrowed. “That a threat, Mrs. Paladin?”

She met his gaze evenly. “Far from it, Honored Nightstalker. But right now you have two choices: You can rush the screamers in a kamikaze strike, or stay back with us and help us with building up our strategy. That way, when you do attack, you can be certain its not a suicide mission.”

He shifted the cigar around again. “And if it is?

The Spanish woman just shrugged. “Then you either take it, or you leave. Either way, you get to choose whether you live or die. No one can force you to do anything.” She smiled grimly. “But you won’t be getting any support if you go in alone.”

The Noble—at least I think he was at actual warlord level, it can be hard to tell—turned to the vampire who had spoken earlier. The smoke-stained pyro in question shrugged in defeat. “Se pare de bun cu mine, domnule.”

Guland sighed. “Fine. Fine.” He raised his voice. “Everybody, back up! We’re playing nice with the other kids on this one.”

The other vampires murmured in annoyance, but obeyed, holstering their flamers for the moment and returning to the demon and giant camps.

As we returned, the hellion raised an eyebrow. “That was fast. I figured it was a toss-up on whether they’d run off or you’d shoot them.”

“We didn’t have enough ammo,” I quipped. “So we settled for recruiting them instead.”

“We have more ammo,” the Aesir grumbled, glaring at the pyros in annoyance. “If you need it.”

I smiled a little weakly. “I think we’ll be fine.”

“Suit yourself. So what is the plan?”

“I’ll go in first with two of the other Paladins.” Akane was already walking up…which was when I remembered Ling wasn’t here. “Ah…one of the other Paladins. Laura will stay here and coordinate everyone. The others will act as a fireteam.”

“When you go in, be sure to call back with details on their powers as soon as possible,” Laura advised. “We can’t really do anything until we figure that out. Don’t want a repeat of the bleeders.”

“MC,” Akane said. All these people she didn’t know were clearly making her nervous, but I got the message and flipped out my phone.

“MC? You’ve got something for us?”

“Not much, sorry. There were singers before, but they’re out of sight now. And whatever spec the screamers have, it’s not something flashy.”

I frowned. “Well, if we’re lucky, we can still get to the singers. Akane and I will scout ahead, try and get more information.” That reminded me. “Oh, and call Ling for me, would you?”

“She’s not there?” MC asked, incredulous. “Yeah, I’ll ping her right now.”

“Thanks.” I hung up and turned to Akane. “Ready?”

She nodded, and off we went, with Akane conspicuously avoiding looking at Flynn. The barricade of cars was actually surprisingly difficult to bypass. Someone—the giants, probably—had physically thrown the vehicles together about three high until they blocked the entire way. Unless the screamers sensed enough people on the other side, they’d look for an easier path.

Luckily, we were smarter than the zombies. It took some doing, but we managed to clamber up to the top of the barrier quickly enough and get a good look around.

The street that greeted us was surprisingly empty. Well, it was full enough by most normal standards, with more people milling around than you could count, but for screamers that was positively empty. Normally, the horde was so massive you couldn’t even see the street beneath their feet.

It also became clear that whatever their power was, it wasn’t directly dangerous. They were destroying everything in sight; bashing in windows, stomping on appliances and so forth, but they were doing it all with their bare hands. They didn’t even have the intelligence to pick up weapons.

They were still screaming, of course, so I couldn’t really say anything to Akane, but we both knew what to do. We knew what their power wasn’t, it was time to figure out what it was.

We slid down on the zombie side of the barricade as quietly as possible, though with the toneless shrieking, I doubt it particularly mattered either way. There weren’t any within twenty feet or so of the barrier, but they’d notice us quickly.

I held my hand out to Akane, and she placed her Colt in it. True, I wasn’t very good with guns (not to mention my moral leanings on the matter), but I wasn’t going to tackle a superpowered zombie until I had some idea of what it was capable of. So I squared my shoulders, planted my feet, and took aim using both hands to hold the gun.

Then I fired.

The closest screamer stumbled back, stunned, before regaining its balance and resuming its wordless chorus. Of course, now it was aware of us, as were a few more nearby ones. They rushed forward as one, their undulating pitch making it difficult to think.

Okay, they were bulletproof. But I couldn’t tell how. They weren’t morphers, like the biters; in the early dawn light, it was easy to tell that they at least looked normal. Was it possible they had some sort of ability that let them deflect the bullets? Metal control, or something?

That was something to think on later. For now, we had to run. We couldn’t go back the way we came; we’d just end up leading the horde past the barricade.

We ducked into a nearby ‘scraper, jumping through the shattered ground-level window. The lowest store was just clothing, with all the racks knocked over and the shirts ripped up, but the next ones up were a few food places. That format popped up a lot, with food being cooked upstairs and eaten downstairs while people browsed.

We were ahead of the screamers for now, but I knew they’d catch up sooner or later. The way to prevent that was obvious.

So as we reached the third floor, I tossed a grenade over my shoulder.

Akane glanced back as she heard the grenade bounce, cursed, and sped up the stairs at superspeed. I don’t know why she was so worried. It wasn’t like it was a big grenade.

It exploded behind me a little too close for comfort, but I just popped a shield and didn’t feel so much as a flash of heat. The zombies howled in outrage before reverting to their emotionless screams. It was only when I reached the fourth floor—where Akane was glaring at me—that I turned to look at my handiwork.

The entire stairwell was on fire.

I had intended for the grenade to just take out a dozen steps or so. Just enough to make a hole too big for the screamers to jump over. But that’s the problem with incendiaries: They rarely just burn what you want them to. The fact that this building wasn’t quite up to code didn’t help either.

On the positive end of things, I could see a few zombies on fire, writhing in pain. So it seemed like the Canians would be useful after all.

“Should’ve at least used a frag,” Akane admonished.

I shrugged. “Probably. Too late now, though.” We needed to jump to the next ‘scraper before the fire gutted this one completely. Fortunately, it was a relatively short building, at only ten stories.

Unfortunately, that meant the next one over was too high to jump to.

The shortest adjacent building wasn’t that high, only about fifteen stories, but that’s still way too big a difference to jump. Even jumping down would have been a problem. But smoke was already billowing out of the stairwell, and this ‘scraper wouldn’t last much longer. Not to mention that the screamers might be attracted by the smoke. Were they smart enough to make that connection?

“I can jump that high,” Akane muttered, eying the distance. “But not while carrying you.”

Oh right, physics got a little bent when she activated her speed. Unfortunately, mine was useless here.

I frowned. Well, my ability might work. I hadn’t really thought about it, but my barriers could by either stable, floating in the air without moving, or mobile, and could be carried around. If I could…

I held out my hand and concentrated. This would be a little difficult, but I thought I could manage it.

I made the first shield about six inches wide and placed it face down a couple feet away from the edge and higher in the air. Then I made an identical one a few feet from that, and then another and another until I had a crude staircase up to the next roof. It looked good, but my reservoir was draining fast, and I wasn’t even sure it would support my weight.

Akane stared at me. “Don’t tell me—”

“Then I won’t,” I quipped, and jumped onto the first shield.

It held, mostly, though I could only fit one foot on it. The small part of my mind that kept track of them noted that the shield was weakening rapidly; they wouldn’t last more than a few seconds each.

It was difficult getting to the next one, and I was beginning to regret placing them so far apart. I had to stretch, balancing on one foot, until I could get my free leg up to the right level and leverage myself up. It got easier, but only barely.

I released each shield as I finished with it, lessening the rate my reservoir was draining, but I was still worried. Creating new shields cost more than maintaining existing ones, so I couldn’t just start over when I was in the middle of it. I just had to hurry.

I reached the next rooftop with maybe ten seconds to spare and had to resist the urge to collapse in the early morning sun. Straining the boundaries of my power was a workout, but not a physical one. It was hard to explain.

As I was still catching my breath, a blur arched over the short balcony marking the edge of the roof and landed a few feet away from me, throwing up a small cloud of dust and gravel. It quickly resolved itself as Akane, none the worse for her experience, and glaring daggers at me.

“Couldn’t you at least have tested that a little more?”

I bit back an angry retort. I get a bit defensive when I’m questioned, but she hadn’t meant much by it.

I flipped out my phone before I said anything I’d regret. “MC? We still don’t know what the screamers can do, but they’re bulletproof, and fire works on them. Tell Laura to send in the Canians.”

“Wait, Akane set another ‘scraper on fire?”

Where the hell was she getting her information? There weren’t any open-source cameras nearby. Well, I guess it was possible that the shop owners had decided to give her full access to theirs. That happened sometimes.

“Well, kinda, but it wasn’t quite on purpose.”

“Oh, that makes it so much better.”

“Hey, if you think you can do better than come down here yourself.”

There was a short pause. “Laura says figure out their specs, then fall back. She’s sending in the Canians now. Try to stay out of their way.” She hung up.

Wonderful advice. I slipped my phone away with a sigh. We weren’t even close to done here.

I spied a small plume of smoke from further to the west. That would be the pyrovamps, no doubt, coming at the screamers from a different side. I nodded to Akane, and we headed over to look, roofhopping to get there. Luckily these were close enough in height that they had ziplines and ladders set up, so we didn’t have to try riskier methods again.

We didn’t see any zombies as we traveled, but that made sense, with the Canians attracting so much attention. It also meant that we needed to get to them fast, before they were overrun.

They turned out to be holed up next to the second to last ‘scraper on the street. It was some sort of gardening store, which was probably where they got all the sandbags they had piled in front of them as makeshift barricades. They had probably used one of the back doors as a shortcut into the street. If there was a more obvious way through—like a road unblocked by piled cars—the screamers would undoubtedly have found it first.

Note I said next to the building. Any other group would find it far easier to set up inside, but these were Canians. Each and every one was equipped with some form of flamer, from the little Romanian guy and his pistol with incendiary bullets to Guland, with his massive fuel condenser and attached flamethrower.

I used my shield stair trick to walk down into the short alley between the two ‘scrapers. Akane landed next to me, glaring, but I ignored her. It had worked, hadn’t it?

“Guland!” I called, walking forward. “Any news?”

He turned back and grinned before roasting a few more zombies, who ran off squealing in pain. “Not much. The fires are keeping ’em off us, but I don’t think it’s killing them.”

Taking a closer look, I realized he was right. The smoke we had spotted were the screamers themselves, but they weren’t burning as much as they should. After a minute or two, the flames died and the screamer just came back for another run, usually with their burned clothing falling off. A few were staying down, sure, but not nearly enough.

“This doesn’t make sense,” I muttered. “You been able to tell what their power is?”

“Nope. They’ve just been rushing us, as you can see.” He let out another burst from his flamethrower. It was one of the saner, long-range types, which actually fired streams of burning liquid a few hundred yards. Some of the Canians insisted on using short-range versions, which just coughed out clouds of incendiary mist. It can be helpful at times, but it usually isn’t.

“I can check,” Akane whispered. “Quick.”

I thought about it for a moment. That was probably the best idea, since it would let her get a good slow-motion look at what they were doing, but it was hard to tell. What if they had some weird power that screwed with inertia or whatever, and forced her speed to backfire? Except that wouldn’t have helped them against the fire…

Bah. We needed intel. I nodded to her, and she blurred off.

“Hold your fire,” Guland called to his men. “Don’t hit the paladin.”

They didn’t stop entirely, of course—Akane wouldn’t be able to hold off even a tenth of the screamers by herself—but they did clearly make an effort to avoid the area she was running around in. It was hard to tell what was going on, since mostly it just looked like she was running up to them and blurring away without doing anything, but I trusted her enough to know better.

She repeated the pattern nearly a dozen times—move in at normal speed, move out at super speed—before she sped back to my side, and the Canians resumed shooting everything in sight (as opposed to merely most everything).

I raised an eyebrow at her.

“Skin,” she said with a shrug. “They harden their skin.”

I blinked. “Enough to deflect bullets?”

“Enough to deflect my sword.” That was actually more impressive. We hadn’t gotten around to actually testing it in a lab or anything, but it was pretty clear that at full speed her blade had more force behind it than most firearms. If these screamers were that tough, we had a real problem on our hands.

“What about their reservoirs? Were you able to deplete them?”

She shook her head. “But they can’t be very deep. Mine isn’t.”

That seemed to be the way powers worked. It was give and take. If you wanted more power, you got a smaller reservoir. If you wanted a bigger reservoir, you got less power. That was the trap Laura had fallen in. She wanted—or had been given—the power to detect lies all the time. So she ended up with a very weak power that she could use literally every second of the day. Worse yet, it didn’t seem to improve with use, unlike the rest of ours. It was still as useless as it was the first day we got them.

With such a strong power, these…skins had to be burning through their resources quickly. The only problem was they were retreating when that happened, so we didn’t get a chance to inflict real damage on them.

“We need to focus fire on one at a time,” I explained to Guland. “We should be able to outlast their power pretty easily.”

He nodded. I doubted he understood everything we were talking about with the powers, but at least he realized we knew more than him on this subject. “We just need to wait for Adonides. We’ll want everyone for this.”

That’s when I noticed the Romanian vampire was missing. I frowned. “Where is he? It’s not like there’s anywhere to go.”

The lead Canian just shrugged.

I sighed. “Fine. I’m going to call MC. One second.”

She answered immediately. “Derek? Jig back nowlike.”

“Uh…what?”

“The horns and hammers have gone out, plugging each other in the byway. Hell’s gonna fin, they can spawn mooks faster. Bathory either which.”

I did not spend enough time on the internet for this. “Just…calm down and speak English.”

There was a brief pause where I could imagine her taking a deep breath. “Warfield shot Johnsson, then the Aesir started shooting the hellions. You need to come back ASAP. You’re the only one who might be able to stop this.”

I cursed. “What’s Laura saying?”

“I don’t know. She shot Warfield in the chest and is trying to hold everyone apart, but not much luck there.”

I glanced around. The Canians were holding pretty well, and now that we knew how to defeat the screamers, they should be able to last. “Okay, we’re coming back.”

I turned to Guland. “The hellions and Aesir have gone crazy. Don’t do anything yet, just hold the line.”

He nodded. “Simple enough. We’ll call if something goes sideways.”

I patted him on the shoulder as we left. He was a good man, despite being a pyromaniac. I’d be really upset if he got turned.

We managed to reach the staging ground quickly by dodging through the ‘scraper the vampires had come through, but it wasn’t fast enough.

The place was a warzone. Both sides had already set up primitive fortifications, and were unloading cases of ammunition at each other. The hellions were mostly using assault rifles, while the Aesir were using large gatling guns, and a few were scrounging up missile launchers. There didn’t seem to be very many casualties; there weren’t that many corpses, anyway. I spotted the Aesir leader in the center no-man’s-land, minus a head, and some ten yards away the retinue, along with Adam and Flynn, were protecting Laura.

I summoned a large shield and ran over, skidding to a stop next to the upended car they were hiding behind. No one shot me in the process, which I took as a good sign. It seemed like both sides retained the presence of mind not to just shoot everything in sight.

“What the hell happened?” I hissed, as Akane blurred in next to me. “I thought everything was going fine.”

“The hellion just pulled out a shotgun and blew the Aesir’s head off,” Laura muttered, confusion in her eyes. “It was the strangest thing. It was like he wasn’t even aware he was doing it.”

Huh. “The Composer can control screamers, right? Maybe he suppressed it for long enough to get into a good position, or something?”

George shuddered. “That’s not a fun thought.”

“And not something we can deal with right now,” Adam cut in. “What’s the plan?”

Before I could answer, my phone rang. Not MC’s tone, just my default old-fashioned telephone ring. I picked it up, confused. “Hello?”

“Paladin?” Guland’s panicked voice greeted me. “Adonides went crazy! He started shooting everyone just as the screamers rushed us! We’re falling back, but we do not have the zombies contained.”

I cursed. “Belay that. You’ll just be fuel on the fire over here. Can you find a redoubt?”

Negative. We had to dump most of our flamers, we’re just running now. If we try and hold them, we’ll be slaughtered.”

I lowered the phone to explain the situation to the others, when I noticed that Laura was already on hers. Apparently MC had hooked her into the conversation. I put the phone back to my ear just she started talking. “Fall back to the staging area. We need all of them in one place.”

“Fair enough, Mrs. Paladin. Can you cover us as we come in?”

She glanced around. “Doubtful. Just get as close to us as you can. We’ll be at the south end. Derek will shield you as you cross.” She hung up.

“Wait,” Kelly said with a frown. “Why do you want us to cross to the other side? We’re safe enough here, and the screamers might convince the hellions and Aesir to pull their heads out of their asses.”

“It won’t,” Laura replied firmly. “You can count on that. And we need them all in one place.”

What did that mean? Well, I doubted she’d tell me, so I just nodded as if I understood. She was better at strategy than me. “Is everyone ready? I can shield us, but you need to stay as close to me as possible.”

Akane blurred off ahead—one less person to worry about—and the rest nodded. Jarasax and George looked worried, but Kelly, Adam, and Laura seemed to have confidence in my abilities. Well, I don’t think Kelly did, but she was ready for whatever came regardless.

“Let’s go,” I said decisively, and we went.

We dove headfirst into the hail of gunfire, Laura and I in the middle of the press of people. I raised a full shield immediately, but I could feel my reservoir depleting far too quickly for my taste. It was about a fifty yard run; our only hope was that both sides realized shooting us would bring the full might of Necessarius down on their heads.

Luck seemed with us, and the hail lessened until only a few misfires here and there plinked against my barrier. I still urged my friends on faster; I didn’t really want to find out what would happen if it failed.

Akane waved to us from behind the van, and we joined her just moments before my shield died.

“They’re crazy,” she said. “Saw their eyes. Blank, dead. Don’t know what they’re doing.”

Laura frowned. “All of them?”

The swordswoman shook her head. “No. But a few leaders.”

Laura sighed deeply. “Some sort of mind control. Wonderful. Not unexpected, but still.” MC called, and she picked up quickly. “Yes? Good, perfect. What about the Canians? Good, wait until they reach us.” She hung up and turned to me. “The pyromaniacs will be here soon. Get ready to shield them.”

I frowned at her. “What are you planning?”

“Just get ready to shield them.”

This did not bode well. But I had little choice; the Canians were rounding the corner, and the crazed demons and giants were already opening fire on them. At least they were clustered together, which made it easier to fit a barrier around them. But there were still almost a dozen (including an unconscious one Guland was carrying, which I assumed was Adonides), and unlike before the gunfire wasn’t slowing down. I didn’t know if I could hold it.

“George, Adam. Lay down some suppressive fire,” Laura ordered tersely.

They obeyed quickly enough, their guns distracting our erstwhile allies long enough to let the Canians survive the run. A few rounds hit the van, but they mostly left us alone. Shooting them had made them angry, but they still weren’t idiots.

It turned out to be mostly unnecessary anyway, since the screamers followed close behind. The hellions and Aesir quickly ignored the pyros in favor of the more dangerous and easier to hit target in front of them. The zombies didn’t seem to be taking much damage, but they were slowed.

My barrier fell almost thirty seconds before the Canians reached us, but luckily no one noticed fast enough to take advantage. “Paladin!” Guland cried, throwing the Romanian vampire to the ground roughly. A few of his men were injured, but none serious. “Burning blood, what is going on here? Why are they still shooting each other?

“We’ll explain later,” Laura cut in before I could respond. She turned to me. “How’s your reservoir?”

“Filling quickly,” I replied. “Why?”

“Let me know the second it’s full,” she said, not answering my question. She pulled out her phone. “MC, what’s the timing? Good. We just need a few minutes.” She huddled closer to me. “Everyone crowd in close. We all need to be covered by Derek’s shield.”

Well, I had figured out that she needed my power, but I still didn’t know precisely what. Judging from Laura’s side of the conversation with MC, reinforcements were coming, and we were the distraction. Fair enough, but I’d like a better explanation from her.

“I’m not sure about this,” George muttered. He was on his hands and knees, and still taking up the most space. But we’d be fine; the eight Canians that were left didn’t seem to have a problem literally piling on top of each other, so everyone was mostly within my area of affect. It would be a big shield though, and I wasn’t sure how long I could hold it. Hopefully they wouldn’t shoot at us too much.

“Isn’t there a better way to do this?” I muttered, as Adonides drooled on my foot a little in his unconscious state.

“Yes,” Laura said tiredly. “But there’s no time, and the van’s not reliable. Start the shield the second you hear whistling.”

I frowned. “Wait, whistling? What are you—”

But she wasn’t listening; she was on her phone again. “MC, go for it.”

I heard a shrill whistling, coming from almost directly above us, and put up my barrier as fast as I could, covering the retinue, the Canians, and of course all four of us Paladins.

Then the sky fell.

Bombs rained down, exploding shortly before they hit the ground, creating massive clouds of dust and fire. Nearly a dozen in all, on the entire square. I could hear the bombers overhead, and they clearly didn’t have time to sort out friend from foe. They did seem to be concentrating away from us, but even though nothing hit within a dozen yards, merely the collateral damage could have easily killed us.

After a minute or two, it stopped, and I lowered my shield with a sigh. “All right, first we need to see if any demons or giants survived—”

As I heard the whistle again, I only barely got my shield up in time.

More bombs fell. How many, I have no idea. A hundred, a thousand, it all blurred together as my brain got played like a drum. Dust and ash flew everywhere, until the outside of my barrier was completely black.

My shield failed soon enough, but the barrage continued. Nothing landed on us, but the chunks of flying concrete dislodged by the assault were dangerous enough. I couldn’t see anything; I could feel dust scraping at my eyelids and didn’t dare open them. But I already had a few injuries—cuts on my left side, and a bruise where something large had hit me in the shoulder.

After what felt like an eternity, the world stopped shaking. I opened my eyes with difficulty, the caked dust and shattered asphalt trying to hold them closed.

There wasn’t much left. The square was completely destroyed, the entire street pulverized. Most of the surrounding ‘scrapers were on fire or crumbling to the ground, and at least one was already flattened.

I turned and saw that Laura was trying to talk to me. My ears were still ringing, so I couldn’t hear her, but she seemed to be trying to justify her actions. I turned away. I wasn’t interested.

There was some movement in the demon and giant camps, but not much. A few of them had apparently had the presence of mind to hide under sandbags or other cover. It didn’t seem to have done them much good.

I saw someone standing up, and felt a shred of hope—until I saw that the person was between the two camps, where the screamers had been.

The zombie stumbled a little, clearly injured, but tried to drag himself forward anyway. More rose, trying to do the same. It was unclear how many had survived, but far more than hellions or Aesir. Had this all been for nothing? This entire exercise, a complete waste?

I groaned as something else occurred to me.

We still didn’t know where Ling was.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 66)

Why did the skins suddenly recover when they were set on fire? Simple: They turned on their powers, and suddenly they weren’t flammable anymore. Of course, other parts of them—such as their clothing, and the fuel still on their skin—still were, but they usually managed to smother those simply by spasming on the ground before their reservoirs ran out.

 

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.