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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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—
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.”
“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.
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.
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.