Tag Archives: aves

Scene 266 – Sepulcrum

SEPULCRUM

LING

Reaching the Pentagon was easier than expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I dodged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have children,” he said quietly.

“So do I,” I noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I was facing the aves protecting their King.

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

They didn’t so much as blink.

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

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

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

Four more warhawks. Then the King.

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

Three.

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

Two.

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

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

And then there was only Soaring Eagle.

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

Then Turgay was there.

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

I didn’t stop. “This is exactly me.”

“You are not a killer, Ling.”

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

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

And I had killed them.

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

He didn’t.

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

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

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

She slashed me across the face without hesitation.

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

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

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

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

Wonderful.

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

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

She exceeded it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I found it.

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

Like I had.

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

And now the seam had widened. Just barely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any last words?” I asked.

She paused to consider, then opened her beak—

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

“I don’t actually care,” I said.

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

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

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

Elizabeth.

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

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

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

But I did know better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

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

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

But then…

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

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

I cursed and prepared to strike again—

My knees buckled.

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

And then I was kneeling.

Before Silk.

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

I looked up at her, horror on my face.

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

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

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

“You bitch,” I spat. “I’ll kill you.”

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

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

That meant there was only one other option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we were outside.

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

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

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

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

“No,” I said tiredly. “We couldn’t.”

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

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

“Like we were children, yeah.”

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

“Some would argue the housecat is the master.”

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

He shivered. “That can’t be true.”

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

I looked around the empty field.

“Where are we?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 266)

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

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

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Scene 240 – Fugam

FUGAM

ROBYN JOAN

“No,” I said, and turned to step off the roof.

“Honored Paladin, please, just hear us out!” Fimmtu, the crow anthro, cried. “You’ve been avoiding us for weeks! All we want is to talk.”

I floated a few feet off the edge of the roof, and turned to face him. “The fact that I’ve been avoiding you for weeks is a sign that I don’t want to talk. I have work to do. MC needs someone to spy on those kytons.” Probably shouldn’t have told him that, but oh well.

“Is that what you’ve been doing?” he asked as he stepped closer to the edge. He clearly wasn’t scared of heights; his wings might not give him flight as precise as my levitation, but he still had little to fear from a mere fifty-floor drop. “Spying on the colleges?”

That was the name Laura had coined for the new, power-based gangs. MC had thought it was clever and decided to spread it around, and the rest was history.

“I’m not interested in being recruited.”

“This isn’t about you joining anyone.”

I sighed. I understood what he meant. He wasn’t looking for a follower, he was looking for a leader. At least he had come alone this time. It was easier to talk to him without a flock of fliers watching.

“Fine,” I said, floating just outside of reach, arms crossed over my chest. “Speak.”

The ave paused for a moment. “…we may have found Ling.”

I blinked. “What?

“Maybe!” he insisted, holding up his claws in a placating gesture. “She’s not staying anywhere specific, and seems to be just wandering the city at random. But there are people after her, who are trying to find her to get her help.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That sounds familiar.”

He continued bravely on. “We can’t guarantee it’s her. But she wouldn’t have left the city, so it’s as good a chance as any. Watching Hawk has been letting us use the top floors of G’Hanir as a temporary base, so—”

“Wait, Watching Hawk?” I interrupted. “Haven’t heard of that one.”

“Oh.” His feathers ruffled, and I had a feeling he would have been blushing in embarrassment if he still had any exposed skin left. “That’s Delia. Remember, she was the leader of the warhawks? With Soaring Eagle gone, she’s taken over as Animal King.”

“All right, whatever.” Was that adverb-noun naming convention tradition now? “I assume that’s your offering. You help me find Ling, I help you with your little flight school.”

“College, actually.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “You know I’m not a fighter.”

His tone was subdued. “Yes, Honored Paladin.”

“I’ve never led anyone at all. This is probably going to end up with us all dead.”

“Yes, Honored Paladin.”

“All right,” I muttered grumpily, annoyed but still more interested than I would like to admit. I opened my eyes and stepped onto the roof, then strode across it, heading for the other side. “Follow me. We’re heading to G’Hanir.”

Once Fimmtu spread his wings and soared after me, I had a chance to get a better look at his wings. They were sleek with black feathers, and maybe ten or more feet wide from tip to tip. Even at that size, and even with hollow bones, I was surprised that they could still carry him at any speed.

He did have speed, though. He was faster than me, though neither of us was going at full tilt, and he had the ability to stop flapping and just glide for minutes at a time. That was a skill I was still lacking; you really need wings or some other broad, flat surface to glide for more than a couple seconds. I pretty much had to have my ability on at all times, or else I’d start falling.

That was another advantage of his. Since his power was morphing, he didn’t really need to do anything with it any more. It was so slow that it took days to make any sort of major changes—but on the plus side, those changes were permanent. His wings weren’t going to disappear or weaken if his reservoir ran out.

He did explain though, during one of our rest stops while we waited for my reservoir to replenish, that he could use his power to smooth over fatigue and exertion. So while I had much, much better maneuverability and control than him (and possibly speed), he could fly for most of the day without any problems, while I only had about an hour and a half before I needed to rest.

We were on the opposite side of the city when Fimmtu found me, but we were able to make very good time. It probably would have taken the entire day to reach G’Hanir if we had gone by car (maybe a third of that if we took the light rail), but by air it was only about two hours.

We eventually landed on one of the smaller buildings surrounding the massive ave ‘scraper. With a start, I realized it was one of the ones I had perched on the last time I was here, looking for Ling.

“Can we go through the front door?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

He shook his head. “We could, but it would be a bad idea. Lending us the top few floors is a favor; marching through the rest of the building would annoy the aves, and Watching Hawk might decide to change her mind. Besides, enemy spies watch the door.”

“They don’t watch the skies?”

“We’ve only been here a day,” he noted with one of those ave beak-smiles that was so hard to describe. “Give them a little more time. I’m sure someone will look up at the wrong moment soon enough.”

“Yes, well…” I nodded at the massive edifice in front of us. Even standing on the roof of a fifty-floor building, it seemed to stretch up out of sight. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to make that? I know vertical lift is difficult with wings.”

“There are plenty of thermals coming off the streets,” he assured me. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Not seeing any alternative, I sighed, slipped on my mask, and rocketed up towards the top of the tower.

It was easier than last time, probably because I actually knew I could do it. I did notice a surprising number of ledges that weren’t there last time, though, apparently recently installed to give fliers spots to land and rest if necessary. I didn’t need them, but at my leisurely pace, I was moving slow enough to spot the cameras dotting the platforms. Apparently my last break in had taught the aves the weakness of their security.

Speaking of my last break in, I couldn’t spot the window Akane and I had destroyed the last time I was here, even after a quick loop around the building. They must have replaced it already. Good thing, too. At this height, an open window would have rendered the entire floor practically uninhabitable.

I landed on the very top of the ‘scraper, above the tier I had crashed on last time. The door was where I remembered it, and I waited a few minutes for Fimmtu.

He wasn’t too far behind, and I was surprised to find that he wasn’t wearing a mask of any kind. The air was pretty thin up here, and he was getting a little wobbly, so I rushed him inside. There were some buffs to make high-altitude breathing easier, but nothing good enough to stay here for long. He needed fresh air, fast.

The second I closed the airlock behind us, I found a half-dozen guns pointed at us.

I raised my hand in shaky surrender—the other was around Fimmtu’s shoulders, supporting him—and tried to smile. “Easy there, boys and girls. We’re fliers, just like you. Fimmtu gave me the impression we were invited.”

It was crowded in the small space, and the guns didn’t make it feel any better. After a moment though, one of the men clad head to toe in black tactical gear nodded and lowered his weapon. The rest followed suit, and I nodded in thanks as I dragged my ave friend down the stairs.

The security guard who had signaled the all-clear to the others was only a few steps behind me. Once we reached the landing a couple flights down and had more room, I stopped and turned to face him.

“Thank you,” I told him honestly. “I know everyone’s on edge recently. I appreciate you trusting us.”

“Trust nothing,” a female voice from behind the face-concealing helmet quipped. “I knew you were coming. Just wish Pig had called when you were a few minutes away.”

I tabled the question of who ‘Pig’ was. “I saw cameras on the ledges, down below. There still aren’t any on the roof?”

The woman pulled off her helmet, revealing the lightly olive colored skin that I always thought of as the mark of Mediterranean ancestry and a pretty face marred by a scowl. “No, there aren’t. I keep trying to talk to Watching Hawk about it, but she’s been distracted recently.”

“Understandable.” As Fimmtu regained his senses and stopped leaning on me, I extended my hand to the guard. “Robyn Joan Clarke, at your service.”

“Teuta Merimangë,” she said as she shook my hand firmly. “Pleasure.”

It took me a second to realize where I recognized that name. “You’re an arach. A Lolth. One of the ones who disabled all the ‘sarians on the Ring, when Soaring Eagle needed to steal the toy box back.”

The passer raised an eyebrow as she broke off my grip. “You’re good. Good memory, good sources. That was what, two months ago? With everything that’s happened, I’m surprised you remember the name of some random merc who was on the scene.”

“I did some research, and your last name means ‘spider.’ It stuck in my memory.”

She laughed, white teeth flashing, and I had a feeling that those slightly enlarged ones in the front were probably hollow and connected to poison glands. “Yeah, not the most original name for a spider kemo, is it? But it’s as good as any other.” She headed towards the door. “C’mon, let’s get out of this boring stairwell. You need to meet your college.”

I followed her quickly, Fimmtu still dazed but not too far behind. “Are you a flier?”

She shook her head as she led us through the calm office space filled with cubicles I remembered from last time. It still amazed me how the fact that every cubicle had a good view of the broad windows made the room feel so much more open than those cramped offices most cultures used.

“I’m a teleporter,” she explained. “My range is incredible—ten miles and change—but I need an accurate photo of where I’m jumping, and it kicks me right in the ass every time I do it. My reservoir is slow to refill, too. I’m lucky if I can jump twice a day.”

“Keep at it,” I recommended. “The powers improve as you practice. They all start out hard to use, though I will admit yours is on the deep end.”

She smiled again. She had a nice smile. Most passers did, I found—it was easier to hide in plain sight when people liked you. “Thanks, I appreciate it. I know this must be overwhelming, suddenly being a celebrity.”

I smiled back. “Well, I’m used to people knowing who I am. The problem is, I usually deal with it by running away.” I shook my head sadly. “It’s stupid, but I’d probably feel better if I knew I had some way out of this. Like a trampoline under a tightrope walker.”

“We don’t have a trampoline, unfortunately,” the arach apologized, still grinning. “But this might make you feel a little better.” She dropped a small remote in my hand, with only a single button hidden behind a safety panel, like a detonator. It was labeled ‘Conference Room 9.’

“What is—” I blinked. “This can’t be what I think it is.”

“It is.”

“But—I thought—” I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t make any sense. I was up here before, I was in a position to know whether or not they have some sort of emergency override or whatever—”

“They didn’t,” she admitted. “But a lot of damage was done during the Rampage. Most of this level and several others had to be replaced. With the large number of fliers up here now, Watching Hawk thought the adjustments were only prudent.”

I carefully slipped the remote into my pocket. “Thank you very much.”

“You are very welcome,” she answered genuinely. “And while I’d love to talk to you a bit more about the powers and everything, but I think your apprentices will get mad at me if I take up any more of your time.”

That threw me off balance. “My… my what?”

“Your apprentices,” she repeated, stopping before a door to some sort of conference room. Presumably, number nine. Ah yes, there was the label, on a small plaque next to the door. “If the group is a college, then you are the teacher, and they your students.” She gave me a grin and a wink as she opened the door. “Show your apprentices what you can do, Magister Clarke.”

I was practically shoved into the room, Fimmtu once again a step behind me. I heard the door click shut, and had to make an effort of will not to turn to check if it was locked. Pupils or not, I didn’t want to show weakness in front of these people.

And what a group of people they were. I recognized many of them from the other times Fimmtu had tried to speak to me, but most were new. Baselines and aves and demons and trolls—three or four dozen people, crammed into this relatively small conference room, all to see me. How had this been set up so fast?

At least the avian preference for big windows made the room feel larger than it was. Akane and others I had spoken to said they found the view disconcerting at this incredible height, but everyone here was a flier. It would take more than a half-mile drop to make us blink.

I had no idea what to do.

I was not a leader of any stripe. I had never even taken charge of so much as a tiny little school project for class. I had no idea what these people wanted from me, let alone how or whether to give it. I was seriously considering running out the door, breaking it down if I had to.

Adapt or die.

That was what my father always said. His answer to every problem in the universe. It was why he had invented the toy maker; he had created the perfect device for adaptation. A device that could allow even Uncle Art, a man with more diseases than most epidemiology books, to survive for decades.

I wasn’t a leader? Fine. I’d become one. And this was a college, right? Even if being a leader might be difficult for me, I could at least pretend to be a teacher. I had enough experience with both leaders and teachers to fake some combination of the two. Probably.

I strode over to the table in the corner piled with refreshments, hopefully with what looked like a confident gait. “Apologies for being a little on the late side,” I managed as I poured myself a water. “Honored Fimmtu did not inform me you were all assembled. I would have hurried if he had.” I turned to face the crowd and leaned casually against the table as I sipped my water. “You have information for me, I believe?”

They all stared at me.

After a moment, a pair of twin kemos—not full anthros, just ears—spoke up. “I thought you were you were here to lead us, Honored Paladin.”

And yes, both of the twins spoke at once. A pod-brain, then, and a relatively young one at that. With the advent of telepathy, true pod-brains had become more common. Or, at least, less incredibly rare. Most of them learned within a couple days that talking in stereo creeped people out.

I raised a finger. “Magister.”

Both twins cocked their heads at me.

“Honored Magister is the term, I believe.” I sipped at the water more. Could they tell my hands were shaking? No, I had that under control. Wait, what about my smell? Some kemos and vampires had noses good enough to smell fear. “That lovely arach passer said that was the preferred term for the leader of colleges, though I will confess I haven’t had time to check.”

Remain calm. Don’t shake, don’t tremble. Don’t let them see.

“…that appears to be correct,” one of the giants, a troll girl with yellow skin and some sort of plastic bands on her arms asked. She would be a Mancal, a member of the troll scientist caste. “But the bird brought you here to lead us, not to exchange information.”

C’mon, I had watched Uncle Art lead my entire life, I could fake it well enough. “What is leading but exchanging information? I will confess, I am not sure what exactly what you want from me, specifically, but I am under the impression you want to learn to use your powers more effectively.”

Slowly, most of the people in the room nodded in cautious agreement.

“The best way to learn is by doing,” I insisted blithely. “Searching for one particular girl in the entire city will strain your abilities to the limit, force you to work together, and improve both your personal and team skills.”

“That seems a bit selfish of you,” another, a demon this time, grunted.

I shrugged as casually as I could. “I am taking advantage, I won’t try and hide it. But this genuinely is for your benefit as well, I promise.” I looked him straight in the eye. “I don’t see a need to lie to any of you. The truth is easier.”

How much easier would the fight against Elizabeth have gone, if I had been truthful with the others from the very start? Sure, with the screamers cured, the death toll was surprisingly low, but still far higher than I would have liked.

“So, what?” the pod-brain from before demanded, both mouths speaking as one again. “You want us to just fly out, scouring hundreds of miles of urban landscape to find one girl who doesn’t want to be found?”

“You’re the ones who said you knew where she was,” I noted. “I suppose I could go by myself, but that wouldn’t really teach any of you any lessons, would it?”

“This isn’t a lesson,” the demon insisted. “It’s just labor exploitation.”

“You want a lesson? Fine. We’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Seems fitting, seeing as we’re in the ave’s domain.” I pulled the remote out of my pocket with one hand—the other keeping a firm grasp on my drink—flipped off the safety, and pressed the button.

The windows slid open.

It was actually an interesting design. Not only did the door behind me lock solidly the second I pressed the button, but the large panoramic glass windows were careful to slide horizontally open, where they locked into place covering the windows of the rooms to our left and our right. It was likely a safety feature, a way to keep too many windows open at once. This high up, we could lose most of the air on the floor if we weren’t careful.

“I learned some things about being a mother from my sister,” I shouted over the howling winds as everyone else in the room grabbed desperately at the table (which was bolted to the floor) or each other. The winds would die down shortly, but at the moment they were strong enough to life even the giants off the floor. I, of course, simply increased my personal gravity and stayed firmly in place. “Sometimes you’ve gotta be harsh. And this is how the birds do it—fly or die. Kick you out of the nest and see if you survive.”

I walked up to the demon who had been mocking me earlier. He was clinging to the table, wild-eyed. He didn’t need to hold on for much longer; I’d be surprised if the gale-force winds lasted another minute.

I kicked him in the chest.

He went flying out the window the second his grip loosened, and not under his own power.

I pointed after him. “FLY!”

My various pupils looked hesitant, but they knew they didn’t have a choice. The podbrain was first, her twin bodies holding hands tightly, followed by the Manca and a young demon on a flying carpet.

By the time the winds had died down seconds later, everyone had already released their grip on the table, and was outside in the open air.

Except for me, of course.

I calmly finished my water, then set it down and grinned.

I was probably having more fun with this than was healthy.

With a whoop, I followed them into the clear blue sky around G’Hanir.

G’Hanir was the ave domain.

This was ours.

Behind the Scenes (scene 240)

Originally, this was quite a bit later (253), until I realized it fit better here.

Scene 231 – Locilus

LOCILUS

LING

Something strange had happened recently.

In my uncounted ages trapped in the toy box, I had no way of interacting with the outside world except for my limited sixth sense, allowing me to sense all the things around me that I could affect with my power—if only they had been within reach.

Turgay had come to tell me I had been in the box for eleven days, and that he was leaving the city with Soaring Eagle, but I had no idea when that was. A week ago? A day? An hour? There was simply nothing to mark the time.

But after Turgay left, something happened. It felt like five minutes later, but it had probably been longer.

The entire city started screaming.

I could hear them, a chorus of fallen angels, bouncing around inside my head like the echo in a bell. I could always hear the screamers we had captured, in the back of my mind, but I had learned to block it out.

But this… it was such a massive increase in the constant background noise, such a huge jump in the number of screamers, that I could only assume that the absolute worst had happened.

The entire city had been turned.

How? Why now? I had no idea. But I could even hear psychic screams echoing up from the lowers floors of the building I was trapped in. If any of them came up here…

Heh. What was I wishing for? Life, or death? Because I literally could not think of a worse situation than being trapped in the toy box, as it constantly tried and failed to repair the damage the calciophage was still doing to my bones.

But either way, it didn’t matter. Because within moments—or weeks, whichever—the screaming stopped.

All of it.

For the first time since this whole affair started at the beginning of the school year, there was peace and quiet inside my head.

It took me a minute to even notice. I had been living with it for so long, pushing it to the back of my mind for so long, that I was hardly even conscious of it anymore. It was only when it was gone that I realized how much I had grown accustomed to it.

It was like having every electronic device in your building unplugged and turned off, all at once. Suddenly, all sorts of things you barely even noticed—the distant thrumming of machinery, the subtle vibration of the walls, the whir of cooling fans—was just gone, leaving something empty in your head.

That wasn’t to say I wasn’t grateful the constant, undulating screams of the zombies were gone. It just took me a few minutes to get used to, that was all. Like taking off a really heavy backpack. Just need to… stretch a bit, get used to new found freedom.

I still had questions, though. How had Elizabeth finally infected the entire city? And how had we finally beat her? Because that was what had happened. I knew that well enough. I might be trapped in a state that might not legally be considered ‘alive,’ but I was still sharp enough to know how stories went. Derek and the others must have found a way to stop her.

The city wasn’t dead, either. That was one possible solution, that they had just killed everyone with some weird bomb or whatever, but I could still occasionally feel people at the edge of my perception, a few floors above or below.

No one came to my floor, however.

Until one day, they did.

I had no idea who it was. No idea if it were an ally or an enemy. I just felt a large bundle of matter wandering the room I was in, pausing briefly here and there. If they were aware of my presence, they showed no sign of it. They just kept whistling a jaunty tune—

Wait. I could hear the whistling. Had Turgay forgotten to turn off the radio on the toy box?

“H-help…”

The whistling stopped.

Help…”

“Hello?” a voice called out. Female. Twenty to thirty or so. “Someone there?”

“Over… here…”

The woman slowly edged over into my direction. I had a vague impression of something long and slender in her hands. A sword? Why would she have a sword? “If someone is making fun of me, it’s… it’s not funny!”

“Not…” I coughed uncontrollably as some shard of bone got stuck in my throat. Even as I was hacking up blood and feeling my muscles snap under my spasms, the sound of my helplessness at least convinced the woman that I was genuine.

“I’m going to go get help!” she promised. “Wait—”

No!” I spat, as loud as I could manage. I doubt it was too loud, but I at least managed to put urgency into the word. “Not… birds…”

“Why don’t you want…” There was a slight pause. “The aves did this to you, didn’t they?”

“Y-yes… open… open…”

“Okay, one second, let me get this sheet off.” Oh, there must have been some sort of sheet hiding the toy box from view. I had felt something, but I hadn’t been sure what it was. “This… is this the toy box?

“Open…”

But she was skeptical. “Look, I’m not a doctor, but these readings look bad, and you sound worse. I really, really think I should leave you in there. I can call Necessarius, or the Servants or something.”

That might actually not be a bad idea. Either one would take good care of me; the ‘sarians because I technically still worked for them, and the Servants because taking care of people was what they did.

But maybe it was just the pain, or the lack of sleep, or some unanticipated side effect of spending who knew how long inside the most advanced toy maker device in the world, but I wasn’t willing to accept any of those options.

I needed out of this coffin.

Out,” I insisted.

“But you’ll die!

Out.”

“I… I…” There was a long, long pause. I couldn’t breathe while waiting for her to make her choice. If not for the toy box keeping my body working as smoothly as possible, I’m certain my heart would have stopped.

“All right,” she whispered finally. “Please just… don’t die.”

No promises.

She opened the toy box.

The pain was unimaginable. Everything hurt. Like a trillion shards of glass were flowing through my veins, while my skin was set on fire and my eyes were clawed by wild animals and worse.

But I had lived with this pain. For at least eleven days, perhaps far longer.

The only difference now was that the toy box wasn’t fixing me.

I kept my sixth sense extended, feeling my broken body beginning to fall apart even as the box opened, allowing my tortured eyes to see light for the first time in weeks. Through the haze of pain, I saw a pretty young woman in a janitor’s uniform, staring down at me in concern.

The toy box was too far off the floor, and I doubted I would have been able to pull myself out by my own strength anyway. I needed this person’s assistance, at least for a few moments longer.

Pool… ” I managed. My voice felt slightly stronger. Maybe the toy box’s constant regeneration had actually been part of what made it so hard to talk. Most of my muscles felt stronger, now that they weren’t being perpetually modified and stabilized by the most high-tech device in the city.

Of course, with my sixth sense I could feel the shards and splinters of my bones slicing into my muscles even as I spoke. Now that the toy box wasn’t there to repair the damage, I was likely going to bleed out from horrific internal damage rather quickly.

But I had a plan. It was a horrible, stupid plan that started bad and ended worse, and I likely wouldn’t have a chance to complete even half of it, but I had been thinking about it for quite some time. It might work.

“Pool? What? What are you talking about?”

Assuming I could explain it to my helpful little janitor before I bled out.

Pool,” I said again. “Take… me…”

“Right! Okay, the pool! Yeah, I cleaned that earlier today, so I—I’m babbling. Just… stalling, I guess.” She took a deep breath. “Okay… right. Men and monsters, I’m pretty sure that this is going to hurt like you cannot imagine. Steel yourself, okay?”

She was right. Putting her arms under my body, picking me up, and moving me to her janitor cart (which she had thankfully had the foresight to empty first) hurt more than anything in the universe.

But I had been dealing with that kind of pain for a long time now. I just bit down on my tongue with my toothless gums and fought to keep from screaming.

It was over in a moment—or a year. I was still having trouble telling the difference. But the point was that soon enough, my erstwhile ally had carefully hidden me under janitorial supplies, and was wheeling me towards the pool on this same floor. I could still feel it, with my sixth sense, even if it was the only thing besides my own body I could feel.

And my body was failing. I had known that was going to happen, of course, but the really depressing part was that it wasn’t happening as fast as I had expected. That might seem like an odd thing to complain about, but the point is that while I was bleeding internally, my muscles were strong. I had expected to die about five minutes after being pulled out of the box. If I had just had the janitor cart the box, with me in it, to the pool, I’d have a much higher chance of success. It was frustrating, realizing that I might die because of a minor mistake I made.

But, by the time I realized all that, we were in the same room as the pool, so it was far too late to turn back. I extended my senses, but I couldn’t tell if the concrete basin was filled with water or not. My power was limited when it came to sensing solids, but I flat-out couldn’t sense liquids.

“What are you doing here?” a sharp voice asked.

Crap. A guard. We were only fifteen feet from the pool, but he was in our way. Well, something was standing in our way. It was probably him, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure.

“Cleaning, sir,” the janitor replied cheerfully, with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “It’s my first day on the job. After everything that happened—”

“After everything that happened, we don’t want anyone in here until they’re properly vetted,” the guard snapped. “We don’t know who you are or what you can do. You can go, you might get a call in a few days if we haven’t fired the idiot who hired you.”

“But… sir, I’ve already been here five hours today, if you’ll just let me finish my shift—”

No, you go now. Leave the cart where you found it.”

There was a pause. I had no idea how long it was.

“Didn’t you hear me? I said leave—”

I heard the dull thump of a body hitting the ground.

Then, there was light shining down from above. I squinted at the janitor’s terrified face as she pulled the supplies off my head.

“I knocked him out,” she hissed. “Whatever you’re going to do—”

“All warhawks, to the pool!” that same sharp voice snapped, from about floor level. “Intruder alert! Repeat, all warhawks to the pool!”

My ally was knocked aside. I heard a scuffle, then a loud splash. My sixth sense helped confirm what I had heard: She had been knocked into the pool. Which, apparently, did have water in it after all.

I could sense more warhawks coming. I needed to figure out a way out, before—

“Skies above, what the—” Too late. The guard had decided to see what the janitor had been doing with the cart, and had found me. I saw him speak into his radio again. “We’ve got some kind of bio-hazard at the pool. Looks like a person, maybe.”

“Copy that,” the radio chirped. “Stand by. We’ll dispose of it when we get there.”

Velvet hells, I did not come this far to die to a bio-hazard team.

I threw all my weight—what little of it remained—against the wall of the janitorial cart, which actually managed to topple it on its side, to my surprise. It hurt like a mother, and rolling out amid all the spilled tools was worse, but I grimaced and bore it.

“Uh, command, bio-hazard has… escaped from containment. Alive, but barely.”

“Is it doing anything?”

I turned my attention to the pool. I kept my eyelids firmly shut, honestly worried that my eyeballs might fall out of my head if I wasn’t careful, and just extended my awareness through my stonesense.

Fifteen feet to the edge of the pool. I started crawling, doing my best to ignore the sharp shards of calcium in clumps where my bones used to be. Constant, agonizing pain, but I could deal with it.

“Bio-hazard appears to be crawling away, command.”

“Well, stop it.”

I felt something step on my right arm, and howled in pain. In a sheer instinctive, animal reaction, I spasmed away, trying to free myself as quickly as possible.

And suddenly, my arm didn’t hurt anymore. Sure, there was a throbbing pain in my shoulder, but, I couldn’t feel—

“That’s just not right…” the guard muttered.

Oh.

I confirmed it with my stonesense; yes, I had just ripped off my own right arm. And the really sad part was that even knowing that, it still hurt less than had before. One bloody, torn stump was nothing compared to an entire arm filled with nothing but shards of pain.

All I could do was continue. Continue crawling forward, scrabbling forward with my one remaining limb, getting closer and closer to salvation. I didn’t quite have to reach the pool itself; while the floor I was on now was just painfully textured plastic, the lip of the pool was tile. I could affect that—

There was a wet sound, as if someone had stepped in something soggy.

Then my leg started screaming in even more pain than before.

I resisted the urge to follow suit, knowing it would just make my throat bleed even more. The guard had stepped on my lower leg, pinning me in place. I tugged lightly, but no use. I was definitely stuck.

I was five feet away. Less, even. But it might as well have been five miles.

With my expanded stonesense, I could feel that more guards were coming. The janitor appeared to be knocked out cold—or dead—judging by her conspicuous stillness. It was over. Weeks or months of waiting and planning, ended here and now.

But I was so close.

Steeling my heart and my resolve, I put every last ounce of strength into my body, and made one last push.

My left leg was torn off at the kneecap.

The guard cried out in surprise and disgust.

A dozen more warhawks rushed the room.

And my fingers brushed the tile edge of the pool.

“Don’t move!” someone called, presumably while pointing a gun at me.

I smiled. For what felt like the first time in my entire life.

And then the pool exploded, the concrete bursting out in a thousand directions, a million great stone hands and tendrils and blades, attacking every ave within range, and searching for more when those were all killed in a heartbeat.

All my time in the toy box, with nothing to do but try to affect stone far out of range, had massively increased my power level. Like constant, unending training, underlined with a pain that would make God himself weep.

The aves died.

Every single one in the building, from top to bottom, crushed and sliced and stabbed.

The janitor died. The boy on the first floor, looking for his brother, died. The kids wandering the third floor, hoping to become new fledglings, died. The scientists and experimental subjects on the second floor, playing with new found powers I was unaware of, died. The building itself died.

Everything died.

Everything.

Behind the Scenes (scene 231)

Saturday November 3rd, for context.

Scene 192 – Proelium

PROELIUM

AKANE

“She’s what!?” I nearly shrieked into my phone, as I tried to get changed into my battle clothes in the back of the ‘sarian van. One of the benefits of being a Paladin: I could apparently commandeer a vehicle from Necessarius whenever I needed it. The Big Boss would get mad if we did it too much, but I think he’d agree this time was justified.

“Just what I said,” MC snapped. “Robyn Joan is pinned down in G’Hanir. I don’t know exactly what happened, but she stole a phone from somewhere and called me.”

It must be serious—MC never snapped like that. I guess the fact that it was her sister who was in danger was pressing on her. Half-sister, whatever.

“Sorry. Just…when you said ‘Trouble, come to G’Hanir,’ I figured someone had found Ling.” How was Robyn the one in danger? She wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of anything that looked sketchy. Derek might call it cowardice, but it did keep her safe.

“Look, just hurry,” MC pleaded in my ear. “Adam and the retinue are there, but they can’t do too much. She’s on one of the top floors—somewhere around one hundred and fifteen.”

I managed to wiggled into my jeans. In the front seat I noticed that Flynn was watching the road in front of us very closely. Our driver didn’t seem to care either way.

“Why doesn’t Robyn just jump out the window?”

“How should I know? I can’t find her cell, and she lost whatever phone she used to call me. I’m guessing the windows that high were never designed to be opened.”

And they’d be too strong to break, considering the wind speeds they were designed to handle. If we were lucky, the aves would blast open one during the fight, and Robyn would have escaped before I even got there.

Yeah, and if wishes were fishes we’d all eat for free.

“Sword,” I said, as I pulled my top on. Flynn handed it back without looking.

“What was that?” MC asked.

“Talking to Flynn. We’re almost there. Anything you can do to help?”

“Not really. The aves haven’t trusted me since they stole the toy box, so they’re on their own system. I can’t really interfere with anything for you.”

Yeah, I had expected about as much. It was never that easy. “What about Derek and Laura? Where are they?”

“Derek’s glad-handing warlords, Laura is on her way back to NHQ right now to help me look over some data.”

Great. Derek would be perfect in this situation. His shields would be more than enough to handle whatever the aves could throw at us. But it was more effective to have him elsewhere, trying to work with the warlords to actually find Ling. I could rescue Robyn on my own.

The van screeched to a stop, and our driver glanced over the scene with a practiced eye. “Your retinue is over there,” he said, pointing. “I’m gonna peel out, give them one less target.”

“Fine,” I said curtly, as I slid open the door that was facing away from the ave domain. “Flynn.”

G’Hanir didn’t take up the entire block or anything like that, but it definitely had a big chunk of it. Enough so that it could sit some twenty feet back from the street, giving itself a nice entrance area lined with flowers and trees.

While the ‘scraper itself was dominated by the massive tower stretching up almost out of sight, it also had a few shorter sections surrounding it that only went up a third or half of the way. It looked like nothing so much as a number of buildings fused together. Which might be what had happened, I wasn’t sure.

The light tan color of the building almost made it look like natural sandstone, as though this was some beach-side tower carved out of living rock by the crashing waves. The fact that the lower levels appeared to actually be sandstone (or at least covered in it for the sake of the effect) helped sell the illusion.

Flynn followed me out of the van, which immediately sped off as promised, and we both hustled over to the retinue, who were hiding behind their own vehicle with their guns out. Nobody seemed to be shooting in either direction yet, but it was best to be careful.

“Status?” I spat as I slid into place next to Adam.

Kelly was the one who answered. “They stopped shooting a few minutes before you showed up.” Now that she mentioned it, I could see a few bullet scars in the nearby concrete, not to mention the retinue’s own cast-off shell casings from their return fire.

“Good?” I asked.

“Maybe,” the Belian muttered, scratching her fixer. “But I don’t like it. It might mean they caught Robyn, and don’t need to worry about us any more.”

Alex shook his head. “They would have retreated inside and started fortifying the first floor if that was the case.”

He was right. The aves were positioned outside the building proper, hiding behind pillars and trees for cover. That was an offensive deployment. If they didn’t care about killing us, they wouldn’t have left the safety of their domain.

“I’ll go,” I muttered, readying my speed.

But Flynn placed a gentle hand on my shoulder, and I stopped.

I was also suddenly very aware of the earrings I was wearing.

“You shouldn’t go in alone,” he insisted.

I rolled my eyes. That was the reason he had stopped me? “I’ll be fine.”

“You will be—by cutting a bloody path through the entire building. Let’s see if we can end this with minimal death.”

Okay, that was a slightly better point. But Robyn was in trouble, and we didn’t have time to sit around negotiating with the birds.

“Make it quick, or I’ll make it quick.”

“Let me handle this,” Kelly muttered. She stepped out of cover, arms raised, and laid her rifle on the ground where the aves could see it. She didn’t drop her sidearm, though.

“Don’t come any closer!” one of them squawked. Male, judging by his voice, but that was all I could say for sure. I couldn’t even tell which one was speaking; none of them were popping out of cover to make themselves seen.

The vampire obediently stopped. “No problem, we don’t want trouble. We just want our friend back.”

“Your friend was caught sneaking around our domain! We’re fully within our rights to kill her!”

“And we’re fully within our rights to lay siege to your domain in order to prevent that,” Kelly countered. She was stretching the letter of the law quite a bit, but she was right, we weren’t doing anything against Necessarian laws. Technically. “Is there a warlord I can speak to? I want to end this without violence.”

There was a brief pause before they answered. “They’re out.”

“Okay,” she said without missing a beat. “That’s fine, I can talk to you instead. Let’s keep this simple: What do I need to give you to get my friend back alive?”

“We—” his voice cut off suddenly, and I heard excited babbling from the ave lines. Clearly, the grunts were trying to figure out terms their warlords would have agreed to.

But when the voice returned, it was to ask something unexpected.

“You Drakela Sanguinas?”

Although the vampire was wearing her daygoggles, I could somehow tell she was blinking in surprise. “Uh…yeah. Why?”

“Balan’s got a price on your head.”

They opened fire.

Kelly moved faster than I could have believed possible, jumping back behind the cover of the van as bullets scored the spot she had been standing an eye blink before.

“Blood and shadow,” she muttered under her breath as she unholstered her pistol, a sleek ‘sarian model I didn’t recognize. “I left my rifle out there.”

Adam gave her a sideways look. “Who is this Balan, anyway?”

“One of the Belian Nobles. Not sure why he put out a bounty on me, though.”

“You think it’s a mistake?”

“Correction: There are a number of reasons he’d want me dead, and I’m not sure which one he used as an excuse to put out the notice.” She frowned. “It’s odd the aves have heard about it, though. He was never one for consorting with other cultures.”

Flynn shook his head. “That’s not the point right now. Can you guys lay down covering fire while Akane and I head in?”

We all turned to stare at him.

“This isn’t training or monster slaying, baseline,” Alex insisted. “You go into combat with a sword against guys with guns, they’ll chew you up. There’s a reason I hang back during firefights.”

But the swordsman’s eyes were hard. “Akane should have someone to watch her back.”

I was oddly pleased that he had said should have not, needs. It was nice to know he didn’t think I’d be in any real danger on my own; he wanted to give me enough breathing room to fight through the building without killing everyone inside.

However, while the thought was nice, it didn’t change the fact that Alex was right. A baseline swordsman, without so much as a throwing knife to get some range, wouldn’t survive if the aves had any competence whatsoever.

Instead of arguing about it, I just activated my speed and sped out of cover.

I circled around, behind the van, so that hopefully the guards wouldn’t see me. I was only tapping my reservoir at about ten percent; enough to give me a good boost to running speed and time to draw on more power if I got into danger, but not enough to dodge bullets.

Luckily, the aves suppressing my friends were stupider than I thought, and hadn’t set up anyone on their flank to watch for someone trying to sneak by. Between the weird things my power did to sound and the thunder of their guns, they didn’t even notice me.

There were only a dozen birds, none of them paying attention to anything besides what was right in front of them. I could have killed them all without even using my speed. But my friends were relatively safe where they were, and I wanted to avoid killing as much as possible. Sure, the aves had done some things recently I didn’t approve of, but that didn’t mean I could just start slaughtering them all.

Somewhat reluctantly, I moved on, ghosting through the lobby and into the emergency stairwell before letting my speed fade. My reservoir wasn’t even halfway empty yet, but I had to be careful here.

In this case, the aves’ poor relationship with Necessarius worked to my advantage. If a ‘sarian inspector had checked out the building recently, the emergency door would have an alarm on it. Luckily, they hadn’t, so it didn’t, and I was able to start up the stairs without worrying too much about being found.

I went up as many floors as I could, taking full advantage of the fact that the birds would be more concerned with guarding the elevators than the stairs. After all, who in their right mind would run up a hundred floors?

Unfortunately, due to the way the ‘scraper was built, I couldn’t go any higher than floor one hundred, but it was probably for the best. I might be one of the healthiest people on the planet, but even I can’t go straight into a fight after jogging up a hundred floors.

While I was catching my breath, I finally managed to identify something that had been nagging at me: A slight echoing sound bouncing through the stairwell that wasn’t coming from me. This close, without any distractions, it was obvious what it was.

Gunfire. A few floors up, so I couldn’t tell how many people were fighting, but it was definitely there.

That was a good sign. It meant Robyn was still alive. It would be nice if she had escaped on her own, but wishes and fishes.

I flipped out my phone and punched the button for MC. “I need to talk to the real one,” I said without waiting to hear the fake one speak.

“I’m already here,” she replied instantly. “Let’s see, GPS puts you on…floor a hundred?”

“Yeah. Gunfire a few floors up. I’ll leave the phone on.”

“You really need to get a hands-free headset one of these days, dearest.”

“They’re too expensive.”

“They’re two hundred dollars and you have over ten thousand just sitting in your bank account.”

“Maybe later.” I slipped the phone into the breast pocket of my shirt and buttoned it over to keep it from falling out. I heard a rush of static that sounded like a sigh, but MC didn’t say anything else.

I opened the stairwell door carefully, but I needn’t have worried. The office space I entered, a basic arrangement of cubicles with some very nice window views, was completely empty of any living souls. All the aves were probably either fighting or hiding.

At least navigating the place was easy enough. Everything was arranged in a neat grid, and other than the odd toppled chair from someone’s overexcited flight, there weren’t any obstacles in my path whatsoever. Not like vampire domains, which varied between ‘pitch black’ and ‘slightly less pitch black,’ or the Heavens, which were the exact opposite.

Robyn wasn’t on floor one fifteen, I was certain of that. Judging by the gunfire, it was more like five or six floors above my head. I could run up there in a single burst of speed, if I felt so inclined.

When I opened up the stairwell in question—one that started on this floor and went up the next twenty or thirty floors—the gunfire was so loud I had to shut the door immediately. It was like thunder, crashing around inside that concrete shaft. Being in there would be like being inside a steel drum.

I couldn’t see any other option, though. This was the only stairwell up, other than the elevator, and I was not going to sit in a metal box that would cheerily announce to my enemies when I arrived on their floor, ready to get shot. If—

Wait. That might actually work.

I rushed over to the elevator and pressed the call button, almost bouncing in excitement. After a second of waiting, I realized the aves might have some way of telling that someone was calling an elevator on this floor, and dodged inside a cubicle before security showed up.

I needn’t have worried, though. Either the birds didn’t have a very good internal security system or the guards were just busy. The point is that the doors opened with a soft ding without anyone running up ready to shoot me.

I stepped inside the elevator gingerly, but held my hand over the opening where the doors had slid in to keep them opening.

This was the tricky part. I probably should have scouted ahead first, but I didn’t have time for that now. I’d just have to wing it. Judging by the sounds I was hearing from above—

Oh, right. Duh.

“MC?” I asked quietly. “I’m on floor one hundred right now, in a stopped elevator. Can you figure out where the gunfire is coming from?”

“Hm…” I heard from my pocket. “It looks like…floor one zero eight. I think. I can’t give you much better than a fifty percent chance on that. I’ve only got one sound triangulation program, and she doesn’t get used much. Hasn’t really been put through the wringer, you know?”

“That’s fine,” I assured her. I tapped the number for floor one zero eight, then slipped out the elevator and headed back to the stairwell and waited.

It didn’t take long for my plan to bear fruit.

The gunfire slowed, just for a moment, most likely when the aves saw the elevator doors opening behind them. When that happened, I immediately cranked up my speed and charged up the stairwell to floor one hundred and eight.

I had two choices: Wait behind the door for my reservoir to replenish, or barge out and hope I wasn’t too badly outnumbered. The choice seemed obvious—having more speed to work with was my only advantage—but it wasn’t quite that simple. If I waited too long, the aves would realize the elevator was a trick, and might start looking for me in other places.

Bah. I was never one for waiting around anyway.

I tapped my reservoir again, tapping into my full speed for a fraction of a second, and kicked the door in with all my might.

The large steel door, designed to survive fires and minor explosions, blew off its hinges like it was shot from a gun. As I brought my speed down to more efficient levels, I saw my improvised missile blast through a couple cubicles before smacking against the large window against the opposite wall. It didn’t break through, unfortunately; these things really were heavily reinforced.

I took in the entire room, still moving in slow motion, with a single glance. None of the aves had been killed by my stunt, it seemed—only one had been in the line of fire, and it looked like he had managed to spring out of the way with avian reflexes.

The rest of the birds were still aiming their guns at the open elevator, only slowly turning in my direction. There were three on the other side of the room, likely still hunting for Robyn, but they were coming around to face me as well.

All eyes on me. Perfect time to escape, Robyn. Don’t miss this chance.

She was a clever girl. She’d be fine.

Now I just had to escape.

No time for mercy. I sped forward, beheading the three aves closest to the elevator on a single pass. That gave me a small blind spot in their ranks, a chunk of overturned cubicles I could use as cover. They’d find me in less than a minute, but I just needed a spot to catch my breath and recharge my reservoir.

I never got that chance.

Something tripped up my legs, sending me sprawling in front of the elevator. I quickly slipped inside before peeking out, but I didn’t see anything I could have stumbled—

Someone was coming.

From the other end of the room, where the other aves were, two large men ambled up, as cool as you pleased.

One was a thin, reed-like man with bright violet hair, but otherwise baseline. He had a broad grin on his face, like a shark before the kill. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

Not like the other man.

“Heya, Red!” General Brannigan, general of Necessarius, called over to me. “It’s been a while! I think we had a chat before the bats, right?”

Violet-hair chuckled. “Don’t play with your food, Zapp. It’s unbecoming.”

Renegades. Blackguards. Whatever you wanted to call them. I should have known they’d be here. And Brannigan? We had suspected he was one for a while, ever since Elizabeth was outed and we started paying closer attention to anyone who called Laura ‘Highlander.’ But we had assumed that if a ‘sarian had been turned, things would be a lot worse.

Well, it looked like things were about to get a lot worse.

“C’mon out, Akiyama,” violet-hair cooed. “We just want to plaaay…”

“Who’s playing with their food now?” a third voice, slightly annoyed, noted. “Grab her if she tries to rush me, but that’s it.”

No. It couldn’t be. I looked out—

It was. Mitchel St. John. The guy Ling had been looking for. The orphan I had fought on the rooftop, and removed his—

—hand?

He had both hands. I could see them clearly, holding the rifle he had slung across his chest. The rifle wasn’t one I recognized, but it was probably another Hellion—

His choice in firearms was not important right now. How in Musashi’s name did he get a new hand? He couldn’t have stolen it from NHQ, and the toy maker wasn’t good enough to create a functioning hand out of whole cloth yet.

“Akane,” the green-haired freak called out, in a tone he probably thought was friendly. “Let’s be reasonable about this. Fillip’s telekinesis is stronger than your speed. Ziba can heal people—I’m sure you noticed what he’s done for the hand you took from me—and I’m quite well armed. Just give up.”

Brannigan was a healer? That was a problem. If nothing else happened here, I needed to take him out of the game. If he could restore Mitchel’s hand, who knew what else he could do.

But I couldn’t just rush out. Violet-hair—Fillip—seemed confident he could handle me, and it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out who I’d go after first. If I could get in contact with Robyn, this would go much more smoothly.

“How about this?” Mitchel called. “I’ll let Clarke’s girl go. She’s a flier, right? Fillip will blast out one of the windows, and she can run on home. All you have to do is come with us.”

…was he seriously trying to recruit me? Where did that come from? The Composer’s minions hadn’t done anything but try to kill us since this whole mess started. Sure, some of Elizabeth’s tactics didn’t make sense, but they were still consistent, just not fighting at her full strength. This abrupt left turn just seemed…weird.

The most likely answer was that it was a trick. They kill or capture both of us when we expose ourselves. Then they could drag us back to the bronze bitch for hypnotism or indoctrination or whatever.

Obviously, surrender wasn’t an option. But I had to keep them distracted until I could figure out where Robyn was.

“Why?” I called. “You’ve got ‘sarians. You’ve won.”

Mitchel clicked his tongue. “We’ve got one ‘sarian, and a stupid one at that.”

“Hey!”

“Oh, shut up Zapp, you’ve lost every battle you’ve ever fought. How’d you even get to be a general, anyway?”

“I’m a tank commander, that’s how. Only problem is, no one uses tanks here! I still haven’t gotten used to all your crap.”

Wait, there was something important there. I peeked out of my hiding spot to see the pair glaring at each other, while Fillip kept a wry eye on me.

“Outsider?” I asked.

Brannigan turned to me in mild surprise. “Yeah. Got kicked out of the army for blowing up an enemy base that had diplomatic ‘hostages.’” He used air quotes around the word hostages. “They were working with the enemy. I kept enough alive for interrogation, that’s all that matters. But the joint chiefs didn’t see it that way.”

Made sense for him to be snatched up by Necessarius, then. That was the kind of thinking Butler liked. At the same time, Mitchel had to be understating his track record—the Big Boss wouldn’t keep someone around who failed constantly.

Still, I needed to keep him talking. “And Elizabeth?”

The man shrugged. “Met her during a minor diplomatic dinner. We got to talking, and I liked what I heard.”

That would be when she brainwashed him. Either she had pulled him somewhere and done it right then and there, or convinced him to meet her later without his guards.

On the plus side, she barely ever went to any of those functions. That might explain why she hadn’t converted more of Necessarius: She just hadn’t been able to get anyone important alone without arousing suspicions. Generals and other higher-ups in the organization were allowed to keep their own doctors, as long as they sent the results back to NHQ, so it would have been child’s play to hide anything that would have given them away. For the grunts, various forms of sleeper agent testing were commonplace and mandatory. We could thank Malcanthet for that.

In the opposite corner of the room, I thought I saw a flash of red.

Robyn.

I couldn’t see much, but she was clearly still alive. Now I just needed to find a way to get us both out of here while staying that way.

“Okay,” I said slowly, an idea forming in my mind. “I’ll go.”

Mitchel narrowed his eyes. “You will, will you?”

“Yes. But the window first.”

“Hm…” The renegade knew better than to trust my abrupt about-face, just as I knew better than to trust his. But I had him backed into a corner. “That sounds fair enough. Fillip.”

The violet-haired Blackguard whipped his hand at one of the windows, and I could see the heavily reinforced glass start to shatter under the pressure.

That’s when I made my move.

The second Mitchel had given his ally the order, I had started tapping my reservoir, just enough to give me more time to react. And when Fillip’s attention was focused on the window—instead of me or Robyn—I cranked it up as high as it could go and rushed across the room.

Although it rankled me, I didn’t slash the Blackguards as I passed. I needed every spare second I could get, so I couldn’t afford to waste time with them. I still needed to kill Brannigan—preferably all of them, but definitely him—but that wasn’t the point of this.

I found Robyn, seemingly frozen in place due to my speed, peeking over the edge of an overturned cubicle. I tackled her, spreading my speed to her as much as I could, and dragged her into a nearby open door even as she yelped in surprise and fear.

In the room, which was some kind of office for the floor supervisor or whatever, I pulled my crimson-haired friend to the side of the door, out of sight of everyone outside, and placed my hand firmly over her mouth.

Then I realized my speed had already run out without me noticing.

When had that happened? I had never gone that fast for that long before, so I wasn’t quite sure exactly when it had run out. My intent had been to move fast enough so that I appeared to just disappear right in front of the renegades, but now I wasn’t sure that had worked.

“What the—where’d she go?”

“Not out the window,” Brannigan noted.

“Yes, Zapp, I can see that. Fillip, did you sense her?”

“Nope. She got us, boss. Rabbited when I was distracted.”

“Tezuka damn it…fine. Spread out, search for Clarke. Birds, keep men on the stairwell and elevator.”

A new voice, one I didn’t recognize, spoke up hesitantly. “B-but we’re not soldiers! I mean, we have pistols, but you can’t expect us to fight—”

There was a sudden sharp snap, followed by the dull thump of a body hitting the floor.

“Who’s second in command?” Mitchel demanded.

“I-I am.”

“Congratulations on your promotion. Now get some guards.”

“Y-yes sir!”

Robyn slowly pulled my hand from her mouth. “You got a plan?” she whispered.

“Escape.”

“Sound plan,” she muttered dryly.

“Think we also need to kill Brannigan.”

“Which one is that?”

“The ‘sarian. He’s a healer.”

She looked at me sideways. “So? Doesn’t the Geneva Convention say something about killing medics?”

I shook my head. “Too dangerous. He fixed Mitchel’s hand. He’s a healer, not a medic. He needs to die.”

My red-headed friend looked at me strangely, before shrugging. “Eh. Never really cared much about Geneva anyway.”

Good to hear, but we still didn’t have a way out of this, let alone a way to take out the Blackguards at the same time. Mitchel’s line about Fillip ‘sensing’ me wasn’t exactly putting me at ease, either. I had a feeling he’d be ready if I tried anything again.

The aves were probably the weak point, but there were only two exits, both on the other side of the room. I’d still have to go through the telekinetic to get out. Not to mention that Brannigan was standing next to him, and I didn’t have a gun.

“You armed?”

Robyn shook her head, which was expected. Musashi’s sword, I doubted it would have done any good even if she did have a gun. If Fillip could handle me at full speed, he could handle a few measly bullets.

But…he hadn’t handled me, right? I had managed to speed past without him noticing. So if I just…

“Your reservoir full?”

This time Robyn nodded. “I can carry the both of us, no problem. You probably won’t enjoy it, though.”

If I had to, I could just jump on my own and use my power to absorb the landing, but hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. I didn’t think I had ever tried to absorb a terminal velocity fall, and I didn’t want to test it right now.

“You said something about super strength.”

She looked confused for a moment, before nodding again. “Oh, right, right. Yeah, I can stack a few gravities on top—”

“They’re over here!” an ave called from about two feet away. “I found them!”

Musashi’s—no time to explain. I pulled her close and cranked up my speed as high as it would go, hoping she would understand what to do.

I rushed towards the window, the window Fillip had started to break, with Robyn still pulled close. I slammed the full weight of my body into the weakened glass, knowing full well it wouldn’t be enough to break it.

But Robyn had caught on to what I was trying.

The second my shoulder hit the glass, I suddenly weighed ten times as much as I had the moment before. The window was over-engineered to the point of absurdity, but I doubt there’s anything in the world that could withstand the force of two girls weighing over a thousand pounds each slamming into it faster than the speed of sound.

That includes my shoulder.

Even as the window was wrenched free of the frame, I screamed in wordless pain as my entire shoulder exploded. Just popped like a paint balloon, sending blood and something small and hard—splinters of bone—everywhere.

Now we were falling hundreds of feet through the air, my heart was pounding harder than a drum, and I was leaving a trail of blood in the sky like a plane trying to write designs with its exhaust trails.

I didn’t have much time. Adrenaline was keeping me focused at the moment, but I didn’t have long before the full force of the pain or the blood loss made me pass out. I couldn’t survive a landing like this, not on my own. So I clutched Robyn even closer.

She shouted something at me, but I couldn’t hear her over the roaring sound in my ears. Whether that was the sound of too much blood leaving my body or just the wind, I had no idea, but it didn’t really matter. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything anyway.

My last thought as darkness claimed me was that my life was in the hands of a coward who grew faint at the sight of blood.

Behind the Scenes (scene 192)

The Necessarian inspections mentioned near the beginning of this scene are entirely voluntary regulations that companies and cultures can choose to follow or not. However, if they choose to do so, they get some tax breaks, and many have found that customers are more willing to buy from companies that are certified by Necessarius.

Scene 180 – Impugnatio

IMPUGNATIO

LING

October 19th, Friday. The day after Adam and I had decided to investigate the ave outpost where scouts had reported seeing Mitchel.

The attack began at dawn.

Okay, maybe ‘attack’ was a little strong. It was just the two of us. And it’s not like we rushed in, guns blazing. They might just be a bunch of stupid birds, but we had counted ten of them, and there were probably more. We could probably take them, but it was easier to just sneak in.

The aves had rented, or otherwise managed to wrangle ownership of the entire ‘scraper, which wasn’t all that weird. It was converted from a standard central city store, so the bottom few floors had clearly once been clothing or book stores, while the upper levels had the remnants of ovens and refrigerators indicative of restaurants. It didn’t seem like our enemies had any use for all that extra stuff. Most likely, they had just grabbed the first building they could and moved in as fast as possible.

Outside, the place looked perfectly normal, except for a few pups keeping an eye on the entrance from a careful distance. Wait, no, what did the aves call their novices? Fledglings, that was it. They still looked mostly baseline, so they didn’t make anyone wonder why a bunch of aves were so interested in what was supposed to be an ordinary building.

Inside, the first floor was secured like an armored bunker. Plywood on the windows to reduce enemy visibility and reinforce the illusion that the ‘scraper was abandoned, piles of sandbags for cover, and a few carefully placed ammunition boxes in case of a siege.

There was a back door, boarded over and on the patrol route, but we didn’t go through that way. Instead, I chose a nice, thick wall made entirely of concrete, where someone had covered a large opening I assumed had been a display window. The aves wouldn’t have been the ones to do it; the concrete was too old, and they knew about Elizabeth’s power to manipulate concrete anyway.

Walking through the wall was like walking through a thick, slow waterfall of mud. I kept my eyes firmly shut and tried not to breathe as the cold man-made stone slipped over my flesh, shivering as I came out the other side and hopped down the last foot to the floor.

At my side, Adam let out a deep breath of his own, his hand like a vice. “Never,” he whispered, not wanting to alert the birds. “Never do that again.”

“Fine,” I whispered back. “Next time I’ll leave you on the other side.”

He adjusted the gun belts strapped across his back, probably checking to make sure they weren’t covered in concrete or something. “Just tell me where the bad guys are.”

I closed my eyes and extended my senses. I was still terrible with details, but I could at least tell the difference between the walls, the floors, and moving objects. The moving things would obviously be ave guards, so we knew what to avoid.

“This way,” I muttered, pulling the bland little man behind me. I winced at the sound his combat boots made on the bare concrete floor. “Couldn’t you have worn some other shoes?”

He shrugged. “This is all I’ve got.”

I sighed. “I’ll get you some Hisokana sneakers for your birthday.”

“My birthday was on Wednesday.”

I turned back to stare at him. “What? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Didn’t see the need. Besides, spent most of the day with Lily.”

I rolled my eyes. “I can imagine what you two were doing.”

He punched me lightly in the shoulder. “Don’t be an ass.”

At the edge of my awareness, I noted that one of the moving objects was suddenly standing still.

With an upheld finger, I indicated for Adam to shut up, which he did without complaint.

Had the guard heard us? Or had he just stopped for some other reason? He was five or ten feet away, separated from us by a single wall.

Then he stepped around the corner.

I cursed under my breath. He hadn’t seen us yet, but we only had seconds before—

Adam slipped behind him like a ghost, grabbed the ave’s head, and twisted.

Crack.

He pulled the corpse into the dark hallway with us and started stuffing it around a corner out of sight, where hopefully it wouldn’t be discovered right away.

The ave was a smallish man, only five or six inches taller than me, with a few modifications, but not to the massive extent I had come to expect from hanging around anthros like Turgay. He had sharp claws and feathers instead of hair, but otherwise he was a perfectly human-looking young man. He was…pale. Not blandly Caucasian like Adam, but some ethnicity I couldn’t put my finger on. One of the Nordic races, maybe?

“Is anyone coming?” Adam hissed.

I blinked as I was snapped back to the matter at hand. “I…what? No, I don’t think so.”

I did my level best to ignore what had just happened. And the fact that I was working with the kind of man who could kill someone without a second’s hesitation.

Velvet hell, I shouldn’t have to deal with this…

“Ling,” Adam said quietly. “C’mon, lead the way.”

Swallowing my anxiety, I nodded, taking us up the stairs without further incident.

As far as we could tell, floors two through four were barracks, sleeping quarters for the warhawks. I don’t know why they needed so much space; I only spotted a dozen, maybe two. They could easily have fit on one floor.

The reason wasn’t important. What mattered was that with the aves all spread out, it was hard to pass by them undetected. Not too hard, but it took more time than I would have liked to reach the fifth floor.

Fifth floor was the lab.

It was unmistakeable. There’s a peculiar scent a toy maker—or a toy box—gives off that is impossible to describe. There’s hints of burning flesh, the sharp tang of overheated metal, and some deep odor that almost smells like a swamp.

The place was set up about the same as the lab on the Ring, with simple temporary cubicles instead of anything more permanent. The windows were boarded up, leaving a few bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling as the only source of illumination. It didn’t look like a lab so much as a ghoul den, although maybe a bit cleaner.

The only sign that Soaring Eagle had spent any money on the place at all was the air conditioning system. There were a dozen large, freshly installed shiny vents spaced evenly around the room, stirring up the air as much as possible.

“The Sauron Field,” Adam muttered, frowning. “I had forgotten about that. You think all that is enough to keep the pheromones from doing anything?”

“Tezuka only knows,” I replied, scanning the room with sharp eyes. “Just try and stay away from the toy box itself, just in case.”

“No arguments here. So what exactly is your plan?”

“My…plan?”

My companion glared at me. “Yes, your plan. Please tell me we did not sneak in here without at least some sort of goal in mind.”

“Right. Of course.” I glanced around, not at all frantically. “Let’s…find Turgay.”

The lab turned out to be mostly abandoned, which I guess I really should have expected. Now that word had gotten out about the side effects, no one would want to stay here for longer than they had to.

Apparently, that included Turgay.

“There’s no one here,” Adam said flatly after our third pass through the room. “Unless you want to check in the toy box?”

I was getting frustrated too, but I managed to keep it pretty well hidden. “Sure. Just in case, right?”

He sighed, and motioned me to take the lead.

I hadn’t really had a good chance to look at the device last time—too busy crawling out of the thing and then watching Necessarius getting ambushed by a bunch of arachs—but it was about as I remembered. About the same size and shape as a coffin, maybe with slightly more rounded edges, a few air vents around the head and foot areas, and silver and shiny as a mirror.

The box was unlocked. No one was inside.

“Screw this,” I muttered, slamming the thing shut. Well, I tried to slam it shut, anyway. It had some sort of hydraulics or springs or whatever the hell it was, which kept it from falling shut on its own or closing too fast.

I kicked the stupid box as hard as I could. Then I spent about two minutes hopping around on one foot, cradling the other one and swearing under my breath. Had I broken any toes? It felt like I had, but I couldn’t tell.

“You done in there?” Adam asked from the other side of the curtain. He had wisely chosen not to come in with me, just in case. “We need to come up with a new plan.”

The pain in my foot was fading, and it didn’t come back when I gingerly put some weight on it, so I guess it wasn’t broken after all. Still, I winced a little as I stumbled out of the well-ventilated cubicle.

“Uh…why are you limping?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’re going back downstairs.”

He blinked. “We’re leaving? Just like that? Let’s at least grab one of these laptops, or something—”

“We’re not leaving,” I said firmly as I limped past him. “We’re just going downstairs.”

It took a minute for him to respond to that.

Then I heard the click of a fresh magazine being slammed into a gun.

“Right you are,” he said as he strode up to my side, sub-machine gun in hand. “Lead the way.”

That I did, stepping down the stairs a single floor, until we were at the door of the top-level barracks. None of the warhawks had noticed us yet, but it wouldn’t be long. We weren’t really trying to be stealthy any more.

The aves had seen Lizzy—Elizabeth—in action. They knew what kind of powers she had, and were prepared for someone with superspeed, or shields, or petrakinesis.

Or so they thought.

All it took was a single pulse of my sixth sense to be sure that while the walls and support structure of the building were made from more advanced materials, the first few floors were just concrete supported by rebar.

It wasn’t too hard to rip them apart.

I started with the floor we were on—not the parts we were actually standing on, but just the stuff within sight range. I placed my hands on the ground and sent a surge of power through it, tearing a crack from where I had placed my hands to the opposite wall.

The aves both on this floor and the one below, started squawking and screaming in fright, but I wasn’t done. My reservoir wasn’t nearly empty.

I took a deep breath and pushed harder, pulling the narrow crack into a ravine wide enough to see down to the floor below, and the aves staring up in fright as bits of concrete dust and a few spare floorboards rained down on them.

“Now that I have your attention,” I called out loudly. “I have some questions.”

A thin-framed girl with feathers in her hair, wearing pajamas printed with cartoon birds, stumbled out of a bed. “You…what?” She shook her head, trying to clear the sleep from it. “What do you want?”

“Who’s in charge here?”

“The director is gone for the night.”

I slammed my fist into the doorway, smashing a large crater through the concrete frame.

“I want to speak to whoever is next in command,” I yelled louder, trying to keep my voice strong. “I’m not afraid to kill if I have to!”

One of the warhawks next to the pajama girl grinned. “Yes you are.”

I did my best to glare at him. “No, I’m not.”

“If that were true,” he noted, his grin only widening, “you would have done it already.” He slowly drew a strange weapon from his back, something that looked like one of those three-pronged hand-held hoes you used for gardening, but sharpened.

No.

It looked like a claw.

“I don’t know what you want,” the warhawk said as he took a step closer. “And Soaring Eagle told us not to kill Paladins. But I don’t think I have to be afraid of you.”

Then a gun barked, the short, controlled report of a 4.5 millimeter Telum Caedes sub-machine gun.

The warhawk stumbled, then fell back, a half dozen red holes in his chest and a surprised look on his face.

He rolled when he landed, falling into the fissure I had made and onto the floor below.

“You don’t have to be afraid of her,” Adam confirmed. “Be afraid of me.”

His eyes…I want to say they were hard. And they were, kinda, but that wasn’t most of it. Mostly…

His eyes were apathetic. Uncaring.

He had killed a man with as much guilt as swatting a fly.

By the velvet-draped halls of Shendilavri, the Fourth Gate of Hell, how was this guy still on our side?

I brushed the feeling aside as best as I could, to deal with it later. I turned my attention to one of the aves, pretending like I had expected this development. “Yesterday, when you traded for your warhawks, a young man named Mitchel St. John made the delivery.”

The girl blinked. “What? That…independent contractor? Why do you want him?

“He’s one of the Composer’s Blackguards,” Adam said flatly before I could come up with a decent lie.

That idiot. I knew he sucked at lying, but couldn’t he just let me do it?

The girl swallowed visibly. “He…uh…that can’t be right. That’s not—”

“I don’t care what he told you, or where he came from or any of that,” I interrupted. “I just want to know where he is right now.”

The ave shook her head quickly. “I don’t know. He didn’t say.” She winced. “Are…are you sure he’s a Blackguard? I’ve known him for a long time, and I don’t think—”

Adam fired a shot over her head.

Her mouth shut with an audible snap.

“She said she wasn’t interested,” he reminded her.

“Apologies,” she managed.

I rubbed my short hair back out of my eyes. This was getting out of hand fast. “Okay, I just…how did you get in touch with him in the first place? Why did you send an outsider anyway?”

She cocked her head at me, suddenly looking very birdlike. “We sent an outsider so that a fight wouldn’t break out. There’s quite a bit of bad blood between our culture and Necessarius right now. Using Mitchel was an effort to avoid all that.” She shrugged. “And as for how I found him, I’ve known him for a few years. I called his cell.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What?”

“His cell? You know, his phone?”

“Ling,” Adam muttered, hopefully quietly enough that the birds couldn’t hear. “Please tell me we didn’t raid an ave lab before you tried calling him.”

I glared back. “That wouldn’t have worked. It would have just tipped him off.”

“You know what I mean. You could have asked MC to try and track him. Why didn’t you?”

“We spent all of yesterday planning this together!” I hissed. “Why didn’t you think of it?”

The sociopath turned back to the woman we had been speaking with. “What’s your name?”

“Jenna Strigi.”

I blinked. Oh, I had met her before. At the lab on the Ring. I guess I had forgotten because of everything else that had happened that day.

“Strigi. You say you don’t know where St. John is. Are you sure? You don’t know where he might hang out, or who might shelter him?”

Jenna shrugged again. “No one that I know of. Something happened to his orphanage—”

“He burned it down,” I spat.

Adam gave me a glare. “Ling,” he admonished. “Let her speak.”

“He didn’t do that,” the ave insisted, only a small quiver in her voice. “He would never do anything like—”

“Miss Strigi,” Adam interrupted. “I really don’t think this is the time for that argument. You two can hash it out later, when you’re somewhere my friend can’t rip the floor out from under your feet if she gets pissed at you.”

Jenna nodded, slowly. “But…I really don’t know where Mitchel would go. I offered him a bunk here, but he said he already had someplace.”

I tsked under my breath. “Another dead end. Great.”

Adam sighed and lowered his gun, though he didn’t holster it. “When is your boss gonna be back? Maybe he’d have a better idea.”

“Director Corvi should be back in the morning.”

“Okay, that’s—” he blinked. “Wait…Corvi? Turgay Corvi? The guy who sells ammo out of a warehouse at the edge of the Middle city?”

I looked at him sideways. “Uh…yeah. I told you we were here for Turgay.”

He ran his fingers through his hair in consternation, cursing under his breath. “You didn’t mention he was the guy in charge! This…this changes…”

My train of thought slowly synched up with his. “…the director would be in charge of dealing with an outsider like Mitchel. Combine with the fact that they already knew each other, and Turgay would definitely know where he was staying!” I turned back to the ave spokeswoman. “Where is Turgay right now?

She flinched back. “I…uh…I’m not sure. He said something about getting a roost with the skyrats…”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Skyrats?”

“Goblins,” I explained. “They like jumping between buildings, high places, all that.” I frowned at Jenna. “I’m surprised they’re not closer to the aves as a rule, actually.”

She winced. “Well, you see…Soaring Eagle and the Erlking apparently had some sort of falling out. Our cultures try to avoid each other these days.”

“Fair enough.” I jumped down through the hole I had made in the floor, using my armor to slow my descent. “C’mon, Adam. We’ve got some demons to visit.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 180)

Sneakers in Domina are a bit more literal than elsewhere. They’re shoes for sneaking.

Scene 119 – Aquila Volantis

AQUILA VOLANTIS

LING

I woke up laying on my back with a throbbing pain in my—

Wait…

Actually, there was no pain. At all.

What?

Lizzy had given me a pretty bad beating. I had at least a couple fractured ribs, about a dozen stab wounds from her barrier-blades, and was missing more blood than I’d like to think about. So why wasn’t I in pain?

Oh crap.

Was I…dead?

I tried to sit up quickly—and immediately banged my head on something about two inches above my face.

Okay, so probably not dead.

I heard muffled voices from outside…wherever I was. I felt around with my hands. Judging by the shape…it was a coffin. I was inside a coffin?

I almost pounded on the lid and shouted to get the attention of whoever was outside, but quickly thought better of it. People who put living bodies in coffins are not the type you want to give any more of an advantage than necessary. I’d need to take them by surprise.

I extended my sixth sense, the one granted by my power. It didn’t give me a lot of detail, just enough to make out very vague shapes, but it was enough to determine that I was in a coffin on the ground, surrounded by people.

Well, probably people. Tall and skinny bundles of solid matter. They could have been trees for all I knew; like I said, my sense is not terribly specific.

The floor was concrete—that I was absolutely certain of. It was outside my range to affect, of course, since I wasn’t touching it, but once I got out of the box I’d be instantly armed.

The coffin was vibrating slightly at irregular intervals, probably caused by people speaking outside. It was impossible to tell how many there were, but it had to be more than a few. I had a feeling they were going to open the coffin soon. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but I had to be ready for the opportunity.

One of the people I could sense moved a bit closer. Good, they were going to open it. I tensed myself, ready to spring…

“Ling? You awake in there?”

I banged my head on the lid again, as I jumped from surprise.

They hadn’t opened the coffin. The voice had come from a speaker grille just next to my ear. And it was a voice I recognized.

“Guy?” I asked, rubbing my head again. “That you?”

“Yeah Ling, it’s me. How are you doing?”

“Feeling claustrophobic. Where am I?”

“Inside the toy box.”

Oh. That explained a lot. Such as why nothing hurt. Well, nothing but my forehead, but I realized even that pain was fading faster than I would normally expect. Now that I was paying attention, it did feel familiar. I had been in one of Clarke’s boxes before, to get rid of most of my toys, but those copies were open-air. “I think I’m done in here. Can you let me out?”

There was no response, and I had a much stronger flash of claustrophobia. They could lock me in here forever, performing experiments on me…

Then the lid opened, briefly blinding me as daylight flooded in.

“Rise and shine, sleepy head,” Turgay said with a chuckle. From what I could see of his silhouette, he seemed to realize I was being blinded by the sun. “Oops, sorry about that.” He threw some sort of blanket over the box, dimming the light to almost nothing. “Take your time. You’ve been in there a few hours.”

Despite his advice, I got out a fast as I could, nearly tripping over my own feet in the process. I threw the blanket aside quickly, blinking a little as I adjusted to the light. Normally I probably wouldn’t be so hasty, but I had noticed blood stains on the cloth, and didn’t want to be under it a second longer than I had to. Thankfully, Turgay had a robe ready, which I used to cover my naked body before anyone noticed.

I realized soon enough that we were still on the Ring, though I had been carried over to the ruins of the ave lab at some point while I was unconscious. The toy box itself was sheltered as best as possible in one of the shipping containers that was the least jostled from my fight with Lizzy, and the ave techs scrambled everywhere, doing things I didn’t understand.

Looking around, I belatedly noticed a small crowd around us, trying to see what all the fuss was about, being sent away by ‘sarian troops. The few warhawks who had survived Lizzy’s rampage were handcuffed to each other while the ave techs tended to their wounds.

“Nice to see you survived,” a dull voice commented from the side.

I turned to see Adam, heavily bandaged and being tended by Lily, sitting on the concrete a dozen feet away. His wounds couldn’t have been too bad; if he was in any real danger, he would have been put in the toy box before me. Sure, he was a clay, but it would still help a little. Lesser toys would have been able to keep me alive while I waited for him to finish.

Lily, for her part, was pointedly not looking at the pile of corpses a dozen yards behind her, consisting mostly of ave warhawks and a few unlucky dockworkers. Considering her issues with violence, I was surprised she was even out here at all.

I frowned as I realized who was missing. “Where’s Akane?”

“She went chasing after Lizzy. Came back an hour or so ago, but left again when Necessarius showed up.”

That made sense. She probably wanted to give Derek a report in person. “Anything interesting happen while I was out?” I waved my hand at the assembled troops. “Other than the obvious, I mean.”

He shrugged, and winced as he pulled at his wounds. “Nothing much. The birds fussed over the box a lot, taking readings and such. No one else is allowed within ten feet, probably because of that Sauron Field thing.”

I glanced at the device I had just stepped out of. “I feel fine. I don’t feel any desire to protect it, or control it or whatever I’m supposed to be feeling.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” Turgay asked as he placed a stethoscope over my heart. “You and I are immune. I have no idea why, but I have a few theories. I’ll need to run some tests to be sure.”

I wasn’t entirely convinced he knew what he was doing. “Aren’t you worried about everyone else in the area being affected?”

“It works off pheromones. Out in the open like this, it’s nothing to worry about. The ten-feet thing is just a precaution.”

I sat down on the box a little gingerly. Sure, it was the most valuable item in the entire city, but I was tired, and there was nowhere else to sit. “When’s Clarke coming down to collect this thing?”

My ave friend shrugged his feathery shoulders. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt, and I realized a little belatedly that all those feathers must be pretty hot in the sun. “Probably never. He’s already got a toy box to play with; he doesn’t care about this one. Butler, on the other hand, will probably be down in an hour or so. I heard the ‘sarians mentioning that that’s when they’d be able to leave.”

“Then we have more than enough time.”

I jumped off the box at the new voice, and turned to see…

A tall, thin ave anthro, possessing even more toys than Turgay. She had a black hooked beak, beady black eyes, and dusky gray feathers on her head. The feathers darkened to black as they reached her shoulders, then turned sharply to white slightly below her breasts. If she still had breasts, anyway—it was hard to tell.

Her only clothing was a small loincloth around her waist and a wrap around her chest. She wasn’t even wearing shoes, since her feet and hands were strong orange bird feet, tipped with wickedly sharp black talons.

Soaring Eagle, Animal King of the aves.

“Dame Alpha!” Turgay exclaimed. “You’re early!” He bowed a little awkwardly, which drew the attention of everyone else as well. The aves all bowed, the injured warhawks struggling to their feet in order to do so, but the Necessarians just glared, hands on their weapons.

“Honored Hunter,” the woman said smoothly, her voice lilting and musical, but with an iron underneath. Or was I just imagining the strength in her voice, since I knew how dangerous she was? “Thank you for your assistance in this matter. I will handle things from here.”

My orphan-mate swallowed. “Ah…” he glanced around at the trigger-happy troops. “I’m not sure I understand, Dame Alpha.”

The King fixed him with a very slow and deliberate gaze. “I have made a deal. There will be no problem.”

One of the ‘sarians, who I assumed to be the leader, stepped forward. “I didn’t hear anything about this. You’ll have to stay put while I call my CO.”

“There seems to have been a misunderstanding,” the ave replied after a moment. “My deal was not with Necessarius.”

Then all the soldiers fell to the ground, like puppets with their strings cut.

They had all been distracted by the arrival of Soaring Eagle, and had stopped paying attention to the crowd.

That was a mistake.

The supposedly innocent civilian gawkers swept forward with military efficiency, quickly disabling the few remaining ‘sarians with poison fangs and claws. They were probably just paralyzing them, but I still felt sick watching. I knew they weren’t dead, but they certainly looked that way.

I would have tried to intervene, but I felt Turgay’s claws on my shoulder, holding me back. I didn’t need much more incentive than that to stay out of it; I wasn’t really all that good of a fighter. I’d never be able to take everyone.

Adam seemed to believe otherwise, as he tried to rise and grab a nearby gun, but instead started swearing and wincing as his bandages darkened with blood. He had pulled his wounds.

Lily, for her part, was off in a corner retching. At least I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with violence.

There was no way out of this. The King had won.

“And what about these two?” one of the assailants asked as she walked up, indicating Adam and myself.

“Leave them be,” Soaring Eagle said. Then she met my gaze with those black eyes of hers. “But if they try to make trouble, kill them.”

I ground my teeth in frustration. “Is this really the time to be playing this kind of game? There are more important things to worry about. Like, I don’t know, the super-powered murderer running around the city?”

Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “If I wanted advice, I wouldn’t get it from one of your kind.”

I blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Leave the adults to their work, whore.”

It took me a second to figure out what she had said. I guess…I guess I hadn’t really expected her to know who I was, or even anything about me. But once it clicked into place…

I screamed and threw a punch, intending to break her smug little beak. Thankfully, Turgay figured out what I was planning before I did, and tackled me to the ground. It was a good thing they had removed my armor when they had put me in the box; if I still had it, I would have done some real damage.

As it was, Turgay held me back well enough that Soaring Eagle simply looked down on me with disdain, not even bothering to have me shot.

I calmed down after a minute or so, but by that time the aves and their allies—except for Turgay—were already leaving, carting the toy box away in a small truck. We were left alone with a bunch of unconscious Necessarians, Adam and Lily, and the same pile of dead bodies from before.

“You all right?” my friend whispered into my ear as I stopped struggling.

I sighed and nodded, then relaxed a bit in his feathered arms. It was a strange feeling, especially since it made me remember the last time he had held me.

“I thought no one knew,” I said quietly after a moment.

“Sele has…ways of uncovering information. Considering the company she keeps, that’s hardly unexpected.”

“Speaking of which,” Adam said as he limped towards us, half supporting, half being supported by Lily. “Who were those guys? They didn’t look like aves.”

“I recognized the leader,” Turgay muttered a little bitterly. “Teuta Merimangë. An arach.”

Adam frowned. “Spider kemos?”

I felt my ave nod. “A Lolth, to be specific. Not the pleasant ones. Soaring Eagle has struck a deal with both them and the Minervas, getting information and support in exchange for some high-level toys that they’ve wanted for a while.”

“Like…what? Silk glands?”

“Well, they’ve already got those, though the toy box can improve them. No, they want multiple arms, multiple eyes—the real spider stuff.” He shrugged. “Part of my job as director was to coordinate research on side projects like that.”

“How are arms more spider-like than…” Adam shook his head. “Nevermind. Let’s just go, all right? Butler will want to know about this.”

“Give me a few more minutes,” I whispered, nestling deeper into Turgay’s warm embrace.

I doubted I’d see him again after this.

Behind the Scenes (scene 119)

I think this one came out pretty well, all things considered.

Scene 115 – Timor

TIMOR

LING

“Why in Musashi’s name did she kick us out of our rooms?” Akane muttered, pulling her jacket a little tighter. She had settled down a little after being rudely waken up by Laura pounding on our door, but she was still pissed.

I sighed. “She didn’t kick us out. She was right: We need to figure out if Turgay’s okay, and he isn’t answering his cell.” I felt wretched about that. I find out the girl I introduced him to is evil—or possessed or whatever—and don’t even bother to call and mention it? Tezuka, what was wrong with me?

“She could have gone herself.”

I looked at her a little sideways. “She’s never met Turgay.”

“Neither have I.”

“You’re my bodyguard, remember?” That wasn’t me being snarky; Laura had actually ordered Akane to escort me to Turgay’s secret lab.

And Akane had done it without a word of dissent. That made me curious. Well, okay, she was dissenting now, so maybe I was just giving this too much thought.

It had already been about an hour since we had left our room. Turgay’s lab was apparently outside the wall, at the southern docks. We had taken two light rails to get here, but had to walk the last couple blocks on foot.

Around us, the city was like a ghost town, even though it was early in the morning, when normally there were a good number of people around. Baselines, mostly, but lots of non-vampires and angels used this time to get work done.

Not today. The streets were completely deserted. What few people we saw were well-armed and traveling in groups. The cultures’ domains were sealed up like fortresses, with very few people entering or leaving. No one was taking any chances.

The news about the Composer’s identity had a lot of people scared. Before, it had just been this distant enemy, possibly fictional. Now that she had been outed, people were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Many people were confused too. As a moderately successful voice actress, Lizzy wasn’t anything like a household name, but she was definitely known among certain circles. She had a well-deserved reputation as a kind, if ditzy, young girl. Most people who knew her personally assumed it must be some kind of mistake.

I would have thought that too, if I hadn’t been there last night.

Whatever was riding around in that girl’s body was evil and dangerous, I had no illusions about that. But it was still difficult to believe. The girl I had been spending time with these past few weeks couldn’t be the Composer. Something had to be going on.

“This is really weird,” Akane muttered. “No one is eying me.”

I raised an eyebrow. She’s not hard on the eyes, by any means, but she isn’t the type to expect to turn heads as she walks down the street. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Normally people notice the way I walk,” she said quietly. “The bullies take confidence as a challenge, so they look me over to see if they can take me.” She shrugged. “If I’m in a bad mood, I let them think that they can.”

“Ooookay.” It took me a minute to work through that. “So you’re mad because no one wants to pick a fight?”

“Yeah.” She frowned, and shook her head. “It’s weird.”

Then I realized the implications. “Ah. Of course. You’re still upset over Lizzy.”

She didn’t say anything, and we walked in silence for another block or so.

“I’ve known her for eight years,” she said finally, as we passed a gun shop with three heavily-armed men guarding the entrance. The rest of the ‘scraper was probably pissed about the impact that was having on their sales. “I’ve never been exactly friends with her, but…” she shook her head. “This is all too much to swallow. Was the Composer always there, watching and pulling the strings? Or did she only drop by every once in a while, like to hypnotize Derek?”

“It’s impossible to know for sure,” I admitted. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.” I brightened a little. “Though at least now that the hypnotism is gone, Derek’s finally started to notice us.” I grinned and elbowed her lightly in the ribs. “Wanna make a fight out of it?”

The swordswoman just glared at me. “One of our closest friends was brainwashed for…what? Over a decade? And you want to turn his affections into a game.”

My grin faded. I had to admit, teasing him had been more fun when I didn’t understand why he was refusing my advances.

I wasn’t going to stop, of course. That’s just not who I am. Especially now that I was pretty much the only one in the running. But I could be a little more tactful about it.

“Yeah,” I said slowly, covering my embarrassment with a cough. “Ah…sorry about that. I wasn’t thinking.”

After a few more minutes of silence, we reached the wall. Thankfully, we had told MC to expect our arrival, so we didn’t have to wait twenty minutes for the stupid gate to creak open. We just slipped through the small crack and out the other side without any trouble.

The docks of Domina were a bit weird. At each of the four compass points, there was a long, traditional dock right outside the gate, over a hundred yards long. It was solid concrete and rebar, supported from underneath by powerful concrete columns that reached all the way to the bottom of Whitecap Bay. This was where the rare visitors to the city docked, and where the barbecues were located. They were completely abandoned today, which was not unexpected.

The weird part was the Ring; a twenty-yard wide concrete belt circling the entire city. This was where most of the baseline fishermen lived and worked, in shacks and lean-to’s built right up against the wall. They were easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look, since they were the same dull gray color as the wall itself, and buried between stacks of abandoned shipping containers people used as restaurants and shops.

Although I said ‘baseline,’ most of the people here had a few toys to make it easier to live exposed to the elements. People who preferred a warm roof over their heads instead of a dingy little shelter that barely kept out the rain generally commuted.

I couldn’t see Turgay’s lab anywhere. I don’t know what I expected; it wouldn’t be outdoors, obviously, but there was really no idea where to start. I wish he had given me better directions.

I heard the squeaking sound of a metal door opening and turned to see a girl in a lab coat standing outside an open shipping container, set in a long row with a bunch of others. She waved us over, and we came with little hesitation.

Once we were closer, I saw feathers in her hair, and any doubts about whether or not this was the right place disappeared.

“I’m Jenna Strigi. You’re…Ling?”

I swallowed. I wasn’t very worried, but it was still a secret lab researching one of the most important objects in the city. I was allowed to be a little apprehensive.

“Ah…yeah. I’m Turgay’s orphan-mate,” I indicated Akane. “And this is—”

“Her bodyguard,” Akane finished. Her face was set in stone; if she was joking, I sure as Tezuka couldn’t tell. Was she really taking Laura’s suggestion that seriously?

Jenna, however didn’t seem to find anything in the least bit odd about that. “Of course. Come in.” We did, and she closed the door behind us with a loud clang.

It was nicer than I had expected; they had knocked down most of the walls of the containers to free up space, and used white-painted plywood when they needed privacy. I liked the design. It had a very comfortable, homey feel to it. But I knew from Turgay that most aves didn’t like confined spaces—after all, the reason they joined the subculture in the first place was usually because they wanted to fly. This probably wouldn’t be a very fun place to work for them.

“I’ll fetch the Director right away,” Jenna promised. “Stay here.” As she walked off deeper into the complex, the heavily-armed aves on either side of us drew meaningful mechanical noises from their guns. I could take a hint, and made sure not to look at them.

Akane, however, decided to take her sword out of her bag and holster it at her waist. It was a testament to the guards’ training that they managed to restrain themselves from shooting.

I grinned at them a little weakly.

“Ling?” I glanced up to see Turgay striding forward, a concerned look in his eyes. He was the only anthro around; he looked like practically royalty. Everyone else had only one or two toys, and looked like they were trying to mimic him.

“Ling, what are you doing here?” He hugged me fiercely, then glared at me sharply. “You weren’t supposed to come unless there was an emergency.”

After Lizzy went missing yesterday, Turgay had been forced to give the location of the lab to MC. While she hadn’t told me explicitly where it was until today, I had been able to guess pretty well based on the sewer entrance we had used when we were tracking Lizzy.

“It is,” I insisted. “Guy, is Lizzy here?”

He frowned. “No, of course not. I assumed you found her. She’s not still missing, is she?”

I rubbed my forehead. “It’s…complicated. Is there somewhere we can sit down?” Now it was my turn to frown. “Actually, Jenna said she was going to go fetch the Director, maybe we should wait…”

“No,” he assured me. “That’s me. I’m the Director.” He grinned at my shock. “Come on, I have seats in my office.

His ‘office,’ as I had expected, was just a slightly larger area deeper in the complex, cordoned off with plywood walls and a thick sheet for a curtain.

I sat down in a dinky little folding chair and glared at him. “You didn’t mention that you were in charge down here.”

He shrugged. “You didn’t ask.” As though that settled anything.

Whatever, not important. I needed to figure out a way to explain everything without…

You know what? Screw being sensitive. This guy was the leader of a secret, illegal project studying stolen technology that brainwashes anyone who spends too much time around it.

So, I just looked him straight in the eye and said “Lizzy is the Composer.”

He frowned and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, we heard about that during our last status update, but I can’t believe it. Are you sure?”

“Positive,” I said firmly. I waved my hand. “There might be demonic possession or some weird power involved, but the point is is that whatever is driving around in Lizzy’s body is unbelievably dangerous.”

“Immortal,” Akane noted.

I nodded. “That too. Laura shot her face off, and she just laughed.”

“Laura shot her own face off?”

“No, Lizzy’s.” I sighed. I could tell he didn’t believe me, even though I didn’t have all that much experience reading anthros. “Look, just…stay away from her, all right? Call Necessarius if you see her.” I stood to leave, and Akane rose as well.

Turgay shook his head. “Lizzy has given us quite a bit of help. I’m not going to just throw her out in the cold if she comes calling.”

“She could kill you all,” Akane said bluntly.

Before the anthro had a chance to answer, his plywood wall—the one facing the door—exploded inwards as the body of one of the warhawks was thrown through.

“No, I will kill them all.”

I knew what I’d see before I even turned.

And there she was, in all her glory. Elizabeth Greene. Still over six feet tall with skin like a bronze goddess. Still in the white dress from last night—now stained completely crimson, with darker patches underneath the still-wet blood, indicating older battles. She was barefoot, and stood with one foot in the shattered ribcage of a warhawk on the floor, laying unmoving in a puddle of ever-widening blood. Behind her, the other two guards were little more than red splashes against the walls.

In her hand she held Turgay’s assistant Jenna by the throat, as casually as if she weighed nothing more than a bag of groceries. But judging by the way the ave woman was struggling, there was nothing casual about the strength of her grip.

Everything about Lizzy was different, from the haughty way she stood to the cruel smile, to the natural way the blood of her enemies looked, splashed upon her skin. She looked like an entirely different person, pretending to be Elizabeth Greene.

The only things unchanged were her eyes. Still the same, unflinching gold, nearly glowing in the dim light of the illumination strips on the ceiling.

Her eyes were the same as always. But in the context of everything else…

They weren’t kind eyes anymore. These were the eyes of a hunting panther, watching her prey from the shadows.

“Hey, Ken. Ishi,” she said. The monster grinned, her pearly white teeth accentuating the blood splashed on her face even more. “Prepare to die.”

Behind the Scene (scene 115)

The “Ken” refers to Akane again (Sword), while the “Ishi” refers to Ling (Stone).