Tag Archives: Derek

Scene 329 – Reconciliatio

RECONCILIATIO

DEREK

“Hello, Ling,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

She just looked up at me without expression. “Hello, Derek.”

We were in the AU dorms, and we were finally moving out. The school year didn’t officially end for a few more months, but considering how crazy everything was, we really should have moved out months ago.

Laura had decided that this was as good a time as any to call up Ling for a reunion. I just wished she had told the rest of us first.

I gestured at Ling’s room, across the hall. “Akane got all of your stuff together as best as she could. All your anime and games and whatnot.” I shuffled on my feet. “I’m not sure you still care about any of that any more.”

Ling was silent for a moment. “Thank you,” she said finally. “No, I should thank Akane.” She glanced around. “Where is everyone, anyway?”

“Akane is back at NHQ,” Adam said, carrying a box out of our room. He had even less stuff than I did, but there were a few odds and ends that he had left behind over the months. “She has the kensei and the CS training pretty hard, just in case the whole thing with the para goes south.”

“And Laura should be back soon,” I said. “She’s escorting the American president to Timaeus to talk to some of the merfolk, and then to New York.” I was worried about her, but I tried not to show it.

Ling gave me a thousand-yard stare that told me she could see right through me. “She took one of my gravers. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

I smiled. “She also has three of my Defenders. Between those four and Laura herself, she could probably conquer New York if she felt like it.”

Ling cocked her head. “Defenders? Haven’t heard of them yet. Are they new?”

I nodded. “Trying to keep them quiet for now. They’re people with force field powers, like mine, though some of them have blades instead of shields. Some of them have been training with the kensei, but mostly they’ve been working on their own.”

“I didn’t think you wanted to start a gang,” Ling said.

I shrugged. “Guilds are different,” I said lamely, not really believing it myself. “Or colleges or whatever we’re calling them.” I walked into my room and finally started packing things up. Ling followed. “Having people working together to figure out their powers just seems like a good idea to me.”

“I wasn’t disagreeing,” Ling said. I thought I saw the slightest of smiles on her lips, but it was gone before I could be sure of anything. “I’d be a hypocrite if I tried to chew you out for having a guild. I was just curious why you changed your mind.”

I winced. “Uh, well, it’s complicated.”

“His brain got stapled to like fifty other people during the siege,” Adam said. “Apparently it left an impression.”

I groaned. “You make it sound so horrible.”

“It kinda was. Laura looked like she had thrown her puppy into traffic.”

Ling glanced between us, frowning, before her face cleared. “Oh, the shield. I heard about that from my spies.” She rolled her eyes, some of the first real emotion I had seen from her today. “Before Butler got rid of them all. Anyway. You became a podbrain or something, right? Telepaths and shielders working together?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” I paused. “Most of my first recruits were from that group. I chose them because they were the strongest shielders around, but I wonder if the concert led us to trust us more.”

Adam gave me a look. “Concert?”

“Impermanent mutable telepathic metaconcert,” Laura said as she walked into the room. “That’s what Clarke has been calling it, anyway.” She smiled at me and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “Hey.”

I smiled back. “Hey yourself. Things go fine with Martinez?”

She nodded. “Yeah, he seemed to hit it off with the Atlanteans.”

“So his bodyguards didn’t shoot anyone?”

“He didn’t have any bodyguards,” she said. She shook her head. “I understand why he fired his previous one, but come on. I’m pretty sure it’s against the law for him to run around without some basic protection.”

“I’ve definitely seen him with Secret Service,” Adam said. “After the whole… thing with Silk, I mean.”

I frowned. “Really?”

“Sure. Those guys in black who follow him everywhere? Who did you think they were?”

I shrugged. I hadn’t really noticed them. That probably meant they were doing their jobs well, blending into the background.

“I know about them,” Laura said. “He had a few with him on the boat. But he went to meet the Atlantean delegates without them, which just seems odd. Even Mayor Konstantopoulos had bodyguards.”

I shrugged and gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “He seems like a casual man. Maybe he just ditches his guards whenever he gets the chance.”

Laura sighed. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“What thing with Silk?” Ling asked.

All three of us turned to her.

“What?” I asked.

“You said he fired a bodyguard after something with Silk. What, did he turn out to be Silk? Maybe using some sort of disguise power?”

Laura and I glanced at each other, then at Adam.

He kneaded his forehead. “It says something about the world that we live in that ‘some sort of disguise power’ makes more sense than the truth.”

Ling folded her arms across her chest. She still wasn’t smiling, or making jokes, or… doing anything like she normally would. There was a silence in the air, waiting for her playful banter, but she said nothing. The silence just hung there, empty as the grave.

“Right,” Adam said after a moment of awkwardness. “Now, I wasn’t actually there, but Lily told me everything—”

“Get to the point,” Ling said. Her tone was sharp and curt. It reminded me of when Akane gave orders to her kensei.

“Silk cloned herself,” Adam said. “Martinez’s bodyguard had been involved in some sort of cloning project to make the perfect soldier by copying him. I don’t know why anyone thought that was a good idea.”

Ling frowned. “So these clones… they’d be like American homunculi?”

“Uh, yeah. I guess. Why?”

Ling waved him on with her hand that was still flesh. “Later. Please, continue.”

“Okay. So Silk cloned herself like ten thousand times or however many cloning tanks they had.”

“How did they do it?” Ling said, some of her old geekiness poking through. “Did they use the toy maker? Did America finally make enough progress to do something useful with it? Did they use a toy box? Did the fey help them at all?”

Adam held up his hands. “I have no idea. I mean, I’d assume that the toy maker was involved, but it’s just a guess.”

“Logical deduction,” Laura said.

“Sure, or that. I’m pretty sure the fey haven’t made any deals with the US yet, but who knows with them.”

Ling nodded. “Of course. Please continue. So Silk cloned herself. What’s the benefit of that? Did the clones even have powers?”

Adam gave a sad chuckle. “Oh, yes. Immortality, the works. But the important thing is that she’s a podbrain. She linked all ten thousand minds together, and then they all just disappeared. Lily says one second they were there, the next they weren’t.”

Ling blinked. “A… ten-thousand body hive mind,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“…with powers.”

“Uh, yeah. I just said that like two seconds—”

Ling threw back her head and laughed.

Not a shy or small laugh, but a deep, belly-busting roar or humor. I had never heard her laugh like that even on her happiest day, and hearing it from the Lady of the Grave was downright stunning.

I took an involuntary step back. Had her brain finally snapped from all the stress it was under? With her power level, that could be… worrying. Was it my imagination, or was the building itself shaking with the force of her laughter?

“Ten thousand?” she screeched between laughs. “Ten thousand immortals, all working in unison… and nothing’s changed? Do you realize what that means?

I glanced at Adam. He was edging towards one of his guns, in a holster hanging from his bed. I wasn’t sure if I should stop him or not. I wanted to stop him—this was Ling, after all. We could trust Ling.

But could we trust the Lady of the Grave?

I decided to stall. “What does it mean?”

Ling had a wicked, cruelly delighted smile on her face. “It means that she’s God, and everything is going according to plan.”

I blinked. I wasn’t sure how to process that. “Uh…” I glanced at Laura for support.

She seemed unconcerned by Ling’s outburst, but the fact that she wasn’t stopping Adam from doing anything spoke volumes. “Silk didn’t plan for the para. That’s hardly a sign of an omniscient deity.”

Ling chuckled. “Maybe she didn’t plan for them before, no, but they’re definitely in her plan now. Unless you think that a woman with the power of ten thousand people—including teleportation—can’t kill one ship if she feels like it?”

Laura frowned.

“This explains so much!” Ling said, shaking her head. “Intervening when I was going to kill the president—”

I blinked. “Wait, when did that—”

“Teleporting me out of the Pentagon but not straight to Domina.”

Laura frowned. “I’m not sure how that has anything to do with—”

“And of course kidnapping MC.”

My jaw dropped open. “Wait, what? She did what?

Ling raised an eyebrow. “Surely you know she’s missing.”

“Well, of course!” It wasn’t common knowledge, but the upper levels of Necessarius had been going crazy the past week trying to figure out what had happened and how to get her back. It wasn’t like her software had been deleted, her entire core processing unit was simply gone. A few trusted changelings had been brought in to look over everything, and they had declared that absolutely any hardware that contained any trace of her mind had disappeared into thin air. There were quite a few computers and paraphernalia left behind, but apparently that was just all her equipment. It was like a person disappearing from inside their car when they were driving. “But, I mean—”

“Why do you think she was kidnapped by Silk?” Laura asked.

“And how do you even know she’s missing?” I added. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Adam had gotten to his gun. Now that Ling seemed to have calmed down, he didn’t draw it or anything, but he stayed within reach.

“I can always talk to the real MC whenever I want,” Ling said. “I haven’t been able to since Leeno and Zero arrived, meaning she disappeared.”

“…okay,” I said. “I’ll buy that. But it’s still a bit of a jump to assume that Silk was behind it.”

“Well who else would it be?”

Laura sighed. “Let’s ignore the logic of that particular deduction at the moment. What’s your point? Why does it matter if she has a plan or not?”

Ling gave her a patronizing smile. “Oh, Laura. Surely you’ve thought about it. Laid up at night worrying about it. An uber-powerful immortal of unknown goals—who knows what she’ll do? She could teleport into Butler’s bedroom and kill him. Or teleport into your bedroom and kill you.”

I growled. “I’d like to see her try.”

Ling raised an eyebrow, then smirked. “…well. Maybe that would be harder than I’d have first thought. But still, the point stands that she can do an awful lot of damage if she felt like it. I already failed to kill her once, and I doubt I’d do any better on a second attempt.”

That sounded like a story I wanted to hear, but I didn’t interrupt.

Laura crossed her arms over her chest. “What is your point?”

Ling smiled. “If Silk is a god… if everything is going according to plan… then she doesn’t need to make such gross adjustments. We’re never going to wake up to find Silk or Nephorthees or whoever else they have standing over us, about to deal the final blow.” She spread her hands wide. “We are free.”

We were all silent as we digested the implications of this.

“That’s a weird definition of freedom,” Adam said finally.

“And who is Nephorthees?” I asked.

Ling smirked. “Silk’s assassin. She’s a spaceship.”

“What?”

Laura waved away my questions. “I think I can see some logic in what you’re saying, but there are some parts that don’t track. If she doesn’t care what we do, then why kidnap MC? Assuming, of course, you’re right about that.”

Ling shrugged. “MC is too powerful, too big an advantage. Depending on how the para handle software security, she might have been able to hack into their mothership through Leeno’s shuttle and blow up the whole fleet.”

“The changelings say that’s impossible,” Laura said.

I glanced at her. I was more than a little disturbed that she had asked something like that, but I squashed the feeling down. War was hard, and of course we had to consider every weapon available.

“That still doesn’t track,” I said instead. “How is her intervening to take out a dangerous player proof that she won’t intervene to take out a dangerous player?”

Ling sighed with a frown. Her good humor was fading, and she was slowly turning back into her new, dangerous persona. “Because she didn’t kill her. Now, I’ve never tried to kill an AI in real life, so who knows how hard it is. But I’m guessing it’s harder than kidnapping one.”

I glanced at Laura. How much should we tell her?

Laura just glared at Ling. “True. So you think that if she wants us out of the way, she’ll just kidnap us?”

“No, she—” Ling sighed. “MC is a special case. She is easily the most dangerous person in the entire city.”

“I thought she didn’t have any control over any military hardware,” Adam said. “She doesn’t have any drones or remote tanks or whatever.”

“She has information,” Laura said. “Far more dangerous.”

Adam looked like he wanted to argue, but kept silent.

“The point is, MC is far more dangerous to Silk than the rest of us.” Ling shrugged. “Oh, I have my gravers, Akane her kensei and now Derek his Defenders… but really, what happens if we’re killed or kidnapped? Our guilds will survive without us.”

Laura brightened at the opportunity to correct someone. “Historically, cultures need more time to become stable—”

Ling waved her off. “Guilds are different. There will still be petrakinetics without me, and they’ll want to train. There will be tachyists without Akane, there will be fragmatists without Derek. The guilds might change goals, but maybe not. It’s hard to say, this early on. My point is that if Silk saw the most dangerous person in Domina City—the AI threaded throughout the entire city, always watching and possibly immortal—and only kidnapped her, then there is no way the rest of us have anything to worry about.”

“You said she stopped you from killing Martinez,” Laura said.

I frowned. I still wanted more detail on that, but now was not the time.

Ling nodded. “Yes, she did. But she didn’t kill me or make me disappear or even leave me for the American authorities to arrest.” She paused to consider. “Although that was likely more for their benefit than mine. But she doesn’t consider us a real threat, just children who need to be pushed out of dangerous situations every once in a while.”

Adam snorted. “So your definition of freedom is that we’re too weak for anyone to care enough to stop us from doing anything.”

Ling smiled again, just briefly. “Exactly. And if she does show up to stop you, consider it a compliment.”

“I can do without that sort of compliment.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She smirked. “I’m feeling much better knowing that I don’t have to worry about her randomly deciding to obliterate my gravers.” She clapped her hands and looked around. “Now, we’ve got some work to do. And after that, who’s up for sandwiches down at Nervi’s?”

Behind the scenes (scene 329)

I mentioned before that guilds usually don’t care how you do things, but more what you do, which is why Robyn will accept anyone who can fly, no matter whether it’s with rockets or levitation. Derek went in something of the opposite direction here, not caring what people can do as long as they all have the same core power—creating force fields. This creates an atmosphere of shared circumstances while still giving them some flexibility with the different talents branching off that power. Shield-makers are the core of the Defenders, but he also has access to sword-makers (who train with the kensei occasionally), knife-makers, wall-makers, and more.

Ling also called herself a petrakinetic, Akane a tachyist, and Derek a fragmatist. Derek is more precisely an aspifragmatist, but fragmatist is the general term. Laura is a latheanakalist (general term anakalist), and Robyn Joan a barykinetic. Technically “kinetic” refers to the power and the term for its user would be kineticist (or petrakineticist or barykineticist), but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so it’s shortened. Artemis Butler, Isaac Clarke, and MC are all various types of morphers, or allagists.

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Scene 320 – Cadere

CADERE

ROBYN JOAN

I flew high above the city, far beyond warm updrafts or bothersome aircraft. I was so high that I needed a flight suit and my mask, and the cold still managed to seep into my body like a thousand knives.

Some of the members of my guild had tried to keep up with me, but eventually they were all forced to fall off. The winged members, like Fimmtu, had the lowest flight ceiling, but even the rockets and the other levitators simply didn’t have the reservoir to make the climb.

I liked it up here, alone. It was peaceful. Nothing but an endless sea of clouds. The alien ship had drifted away, so I could even ignore that particular bit of insanity. I could just float until my reservoir ran out—and these days, that took a very long time.

I closed my eyes and lay on my back like I was sleeping on the softest mattress in the universe. I had finally learned how to sleep like this, and it was becoming addictive. How could I go back to sheets and pillows after clouds and air?

I heard engines nearby. I resolved to ignore them, but they changed pitch and then held in place—someone was hovering, looking at me.

I frowned and opened my eyes. I should be above the flight ceiling of any helicopters or VTOLs. What could possibly—

Oh, right. The aliens.

I tried not to panic, and just look at the situation objectively. The alien craft was different from the ones we had seen already. It was much larger and utilitarian, shaped roughly like a bus without windows and with strange, glowing blue spikes in place of wheels. Those had to be the engines, the reactionless drives MC and Laura mentioned. They twisted and adjusted themselves every other second, likely fighting to keep aloft in this strange environment.

I was surprised that the shuttle was painted dozens of different colors. There were stripes and swirls, whorls and arcs, like a rainbow painted by an insane savant. I was used to spacecraft being a simple uniform steely gray, with maybe the country’s flag painted somewhere small. The US often painted theirs white, but that was about the extent of it.

The ship floated about a hundred feet away—more than close enough to see them, but far enough that they wouldn’t actually hit me. I couldn’t see inside and I had turned off my radio, so they had no way of communicating with me. I considered turning my radio back on, but decided against it. Floating in the stratosphere just wasn’t the best place for first contact.

Instead I just waved them to follow, then cut my flight. I fell leisurely through the air, picking up speed as I passed through the cloud layer. Once I was through, I turned over and looked down. I wasn’t quite on target, but I didn’t need to course-correct quite yet. Give my reservoir time to recharge.

I glanced over my shoulder. The alien shuttle was following me, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t free-falling. All the engines were still lit up, if not as bright as before. Maybe they weren’t as confident in their engines as I was with my flight.

Speaking of which, what did they think of someone flying around unaided? I obviously didn’t have wings or a jetpack. Unless they had the technology to do something similar, I was probably a complete enigma.

Or unless they had powers too.

That thought was like opening my eyes for the first time. Suddenly I could feel… something from the shuttle. Something beyond hearing, beyond thought. It wasn’t the same as the screamers or even the singers, it was just… a feeling. More than anything else, it reminded me of the silence before a performer began to play.

Or sing.

Could the para have powers? Other than Elizabeth and Silk, we didn’t know where the powers came from. What if the aliens could do the same sorts of things we could? Our biggest advantage would be gone in a heartbeat.

They might be able to hit me with a countersong and knock me right out of the sky.

My heart sped up, and I had to resist the urge to activate my power and fly as far away from the shuttle as fast as I could. If they were going to do that, they would have already. Besides, the range on those things wasn’t that great. If I fell, I’d fall out of range and be able to keep flying. Probably.

I activated my power, but not to flee. Instead, I corrected my course, heading towards NHQ. There were plenty of places in the city with landing pads big enough for the shuttle, but I wasn’t going to take this thing anywhere else. If nothing else, they had the anti-air guns to blow them out of the sky if they turned hostile.

…they had AA guns.

I couldn’t actually see them at this distance, but I swore I could feel the guns targeting us. With my radio turned off, I had no IFF transponder, so they probably thought I was a missile or drone. They might be trying to contact the shuttle, but I doubted anyone onboard spoke English…

After ten seconds of cold fear—ten seconds too many—I hit my radio, turning it back on, and called my sister on her private line. “MC! It’s me! I’m bringing the ship in peacefully! Don’t shoot!

“Robyn?” She made a sound like a sigh. “Dammit, Robyn, stop turning your radio off!” There was a pause. “There. AA guns standing down. Please take them onto landing platform four. It’s the northernmost one.”

“Got it.” I paused. “You wouldn’t have really shot, would you?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. We were having trouble contacting them, and if we couldn’t get a stable line of communication by the time they got too close… yeah, we might have shot. How did you manage to talk to them, anyway?”

“I just waved for them to follow me.”

Static crackled with her sigh. “Of course. I suppose that bodes well for the future. Derek and Akane are preparing a greeting party. I’ll tell them that the aliens seem non-hostile, for now. Unless they shot at you a few times and you failed to mention it?”

“No, of course not. But, um…”

“What?”

“I think someone on that shuttle has a power. Maybe.”

There were a full five seconds of silence as she processed that. “What? How could they—how could you know that?”

“I just… feel something from the shuttle.”

“Hm,” she said, clearly not convinced. “Well, I don’t feel anything.”

“You still haven’t figured out what your power even is,” I said. Silk had given her one, but she hadn’t been able to activate it yet. She could feel her reservoir, but that was it. “Plus, you’re in the city, surrounded by millions of people with powers. I’m up here alone. Less distractions.”

“Maybe. Look, just bring them in slow, all right? We want to be able to hit them easily if they do anything weird.”

It took about twenty more minutes to bring the alien shuttle in to land. I took it nice and slow, as requested, and came in at a steep angle. I wasn’t giving them a tour of the city in case they did turn out to be hostile. A couple of my better fliers got close at one point, but I waved them off. Probably better to keep the number of people involved to a minimum. We’d need those fliers if the ship decided to start shooting in the middle of the city.

I landed on platform four as requested, my boots touching down as lightly as a feather. A moment later, the platform shook, but not too bad. I turned around to see that the shuttle had deployed landing gear, and its thrusters were powering down. Quite the show of faith on their part, unless they could power up again a lot faster than we thought.

I glanced towards the rooftop entrance to NHQ. Derek and Butler were walking out, side-by-side, with Akane and her kensei marching behind them. There were a few subtle movements on the other platforms and rooftops that told me Laura had us surrounded by gunmen and snipers. Clever. The swordsmen are the obvious threat, so anyone would look around and probably spot the snipers. But with their super speed, the kensei were the real threat.

Everyone was wearing the skintight black quarantine suits that the Glasyans had made. They still weren’t perfect, but they were much easier to move around in than normal quarantine suits. At least the kensei would be able to fight if necessary. They even had large faceplates so we could identify each other.

I walked over to Butler. “Hey, Uncle. Where’s my father?”

“Downstairs with Miss Medina, watching through the cameras,” he said. “I felt it was safer to keep from putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. Not to mention, put this on.” He gestured to Derek, and he handed me a rolled-up q-suit. “We can’t be too careful.”

I frowned, but started putting it on over my flight clothes. The flight suit would actually act as a halfway decent hazmat suit on its own, but I knew Butler wouldn’t let me get away with that. Better to avoid the argument. “I’m pretty sure whatever that shuttle is using for power could vaporize the entire building if they decided to self-destruct.”

Butler sighed. “Yes, Medina said the same thing. Regardless. This is still safer.”

I smirked as I put the helmet on. “I think you just don’t want my dad ruining this by acting like a kid in a candy store.”

He smiled. “That was part of it, true.”

“If anything goes wrong, I’ll shield Butler and get him out,” Derek said. “Robyn, your job will be to fly as far as you can. One of the outposts at the Gates would be best. Think you can manage that?”

Was he being sarcastic? No, he was just being honest. He needed a genuine answer.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised. “Though I don’t think these guys are hostile.”

Derek looked past me, at the shuttle. “They haven’t come out yet. That worries me.”

I shrugged. “Maybe they’re just being polite? We’re obviously busy.”

“Hm. Maybe.” He nodded at Akane. “Keep to formation, but be ready to rush at a moment’s notice. And remember to try to be nonlethal if at all possible. We still have much to learn here.”

Akane nodded, which caused the blue ribbon in her hair to get tangled up in front of her face. Inside the helmet, she couldn’t fix it. That reminded me, all her kensei had red ribbons of varying length. Was that some indicator of rank, or just personal preference?

Our little procession continued forward, stopping some twenty feet from the shuttle. We waited for a moment, and then the shuttle’s side cracked open, deploying a simple ramp. For some reason I had expected something more high-tech, like unfolding moving stairs.

Two people came down the ramp.

At first, I thought that we had been duped. That they were human, and that this whole thing had been some bizarre scheme to trick us into thinking it was an alien invasion. My mind went to all sorts of theories—aggressive ad campaign, foreign government attacking us, anything. But then my eyes finished processing what I was seeing, and I realized that they definitely weren’t human.

Their basic shape was about right. One head, two arms, two legs. The one on the left had two eyes, a mouth, two slits that were probably nostrils, and wide ears shaped like the sharp wings of a butterfly. The one on the right was wearing some sort of expressionless mask or helmet.

The one on the left had tangerine-colored eyes, all one color, though I could see them darting around, trying to take in everything at once. He had blue-green skin that, on a second glance, was actually made up of tiny scales like a lizard or a snake. Not much of his skin was uncovered, though. He was wearing something that looked like my flight suit, but covered in a rainbow of colors. He didn’t have any hair, but I couldn’t tell whether he had shaved his head or if the species just didn’t have hair.

His companion, on the right, seemed female to me. She had bumps under her flight suit that were probably breasts, but it was impossible to say for sure. She had the expressionless mask, and her flight suit was a dull gray. It contrasted sharply with the man and the ship. These people clearly liked colors, so what did it mean to have no color? Was she his boss?

The one on the left stepped forward. “Hello,” he said.

I blinked and glanced at Uncle Arty and Laura. They were both surprised, but they hid it better than me.

“You speak English?” Butler asked.

The para smiled. It was a surprisingly human gesture, though there seemed to be something off about his teeth. “Got it on my first try! Yes, I speak English.” He tapped the side of his head. “Language implant. Our Greyminds have been studying your communications for a few weeks.” He nodded his head slightly. “I am Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. You may call me Leeno.” He indicated the woman next to him. “This is Zero.”

“Bodyguard?” I asked.

He shrugged. Again, so human. “Something like that.”

“I am Artemis Butler,” Uncle Arty said. “Butler will do just fine.”

“And I am Derek Huntsman,” Derek said with a small bow. “Derek will do.”

Butler gestured behind him. He was indicating the roof exit, but I could tell he was also subtly reminding him of the armed guards. “Why don’t we go inside? It’s cold up here, and I do not like shouting over the wind.”

“Will we have to undergo some sort of quarantine? Perhaps wear suits like yours?”

“We did preliminary scans, and we are reasonably certain that you and your ship are clean. But we would like to take a few simple precautions, just to be safe for everyone. Including you two.”

Leeno smiled. “I think we’ll be fine, but we will of course cooperate. Zero and I both have nanite-immune systems that can survive virtually anything.” He glanced at me. “But I think we’re missing one introduction. Who is this… lady?”

I smiled at that. “Yes, I am female. My name is Robyn Joan Clarke. Robyn is fine.” I nodded at Zero. “I assume this means you’re female as well?”

She turned that mask to me, then nodded, once. She didn’t say a word.

We all filed dutifully downstairs, and Uncle Arty led us into one of his meeting rooms. They were mostly used for internal stuff, employee meetings and that sort of thing. Most cultures didn’t like entering NHQ unless they had to. Apparently it felt too much like getting trapped inside a fortress.

This one had been modified to be airtight, with a simple airlock improvised out of plastic sheets and an air conditioner. We’d still be inside with them, but this would reduce the damage if something did go wrong.

There was a single long table, about a dozen chairs, and a smaller side table with some refreshments. The kensei waited outside, but I had no doubt that MC and the others would be watching on the cameras. If something went wrong, the room would be pumped full of sleeping gas, followed by kensei in masks. We were as safe as could be.

“Would you like some water?” Butler asked as everyone took their seats. “We decided against food, since we weren’t sure of compatibility, but the water should be fine.”

“I have a filtration unit installed,” Leeno said. He seemed a bit confused at the wheels on his chair, but returned his attention to Butler after a moment. “There might be some microbes that could hurt me, but the filter will handle them.”

“Interesting,” Butler said. He pulled out a chair and sat down at the head of the table. “I am fascinated about the differences—and similarities—between our species. Imagine what we could do if we worked together.” He took out a pad and tapped at it. The q-suits were designed to work with touch screens. “Now, let’s start simple. I’m sorry, but I have to be blunt. Are your people here for war?”

Silence.

We all looked over at Leeno. His face was blank, and he was staring off into space without blinking.

“…Mister Leeno?” Butler said.

Zero had been sitting there stiffly, but she leaned forward and waved her hand in front of Leeno’s face. No reaction. She looked at us and shook her head.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Can you please just talk? Or do you not speak English?”

Zero shook her head, then nodded. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her frustration. It was hard to talk with just yes and no responses. She put her hands on the table, and they were shaking with either anxiety or fear. Also, she only had three fingers on each hand. I hadn’t noticed that before.

After a moment, she hesitantly raised her hands and started signing.

I blinked. “…is that kemo battle sign?”

“I guess if you can program a spoken language, you can program a signed one,” Derek said, watching closely. “Whoa, slow down, I’m pretty rusty.”

“Why kemo, though? The angels have a more complex one.”

“Yeah, and it definitely requires five fingers on each hand. In kemo sign, you can get away with three. Or even one, in a pinch.” He frowned, watching closer. “She keeps signing ‘two hundred’ for some reason, I don’t understand.”

Zero’s shoulders slumped, and she signed something else.

Derek nodded. “Okay, got it. ‘Leeno’ literally means ‘two hundred.’” Pause. “Or, uh, not literally. But anyway, that’s what she’s using. So…” He watched her continue signing for a moment longer. “Okay… right. Leeno is apparently just thinking. Really, really hard. This has happened before, last time he was out for a few hours.”

Hours?” I said. “Is this normal for your people?”

Zero shook her head.

“Great,” I muttered under my breath. “Our ambassador is defective.”

Zero signed something else.

“Robyn was being facetious,” Derek said, giving me a glare. “Neither of you are defective. You’re just… unexpected.”

“And this gives us an unexpected few hours,” Butler said, rising from his chair. “I’ll call a full meeting. I’m sure all the cultures and guilds would prefer to be in the loop on this. We weren’t able to do so before, with the sudden arrival, but by now I’m sure my inbox is filled with questions.”

“Laura can also finish her scans, and we can figure out if this quarantine is necessary,” Derek said.

Butler raised his voice a little. It was unnecessary, but it was a common habit. “Mary Christina, how many warlords have contacted me about the para?”

Silence.

I frowned. Something was wrong. Sure, she couldn’t pay attention to everything at once, but this was first contact with an alien species. If there was one thing in the city she’d be paying attention to, it was this.

“Mary Christina?” Butler said again.

“MC?” I said. “You there?”

“I am here, Miss Clarke,” a flat, artificial voice said.

I just sat there for a moment, stunned. I never had to talk to her programs. I hadn’t even heard them in months, at the least.

The door burst open, and one of my dad’s aides stumbled in, breathing heavily. At least she was wearing a q-suit.

Zero immediately jumped up and pointed an arm at her. Something popped out that looked like a tiny gun turret.

“Lingshen!” Butler barked. “Stand and report!”

Lingshen glanced at Zero, then forced herself to stand at attention. “It’s—it’s MC, sir.”

“Yes, we noticed as well. What happened? Is there something wrong with her connections? Are we under attack?”

“No sir, it’s…” She swallowed her anxiety. “Sir, she’s gone!

Behind the Scenes (scene 320)

The para language chips also include the more physical parts of language, like smiles, shrugs, and so on. It can be kinda creepy having your body automatically act in a way you didn’t intend, but it’s better than people wondering why the hell you keep touching your nose and pulling on your ear. There is some crossover, though, so it’s not all like that. Most of the things para do with their mouths (smiles, frowns, kissing, etc) is the same as humans.

break

Scene 314 – Advena

ADVENA

DEREK

I woke up in my dorm room. I glanced at my clock. 0558—two minutes before my alarm. I waited for it to beep, then turned it off instantly. I didn’t want to wake up Laura.

I glanced at her. She was still sound asleep, clutching one of my pillows to her chest like a teddy bear. I smiled. She had been doing that since we were kids. Of course, if I brought it up, she was liable to throw it at my head.

I stood, stretched, and checked the calendar. It was Monday, January 7th. The ambassadors were still in New York, sussing out the last details of the peace treaty. Adam was still there too. He said he wanted to keep an eye on Saki in prison, but I knew he wanted to be close to Lily. She was going through a lot.

At least Malcanthet was confirmed dead. I was tempted to ask for Adam to send us her head in a box, but I had to have faith in his judgment. If he said she was the one who had died in that fire, I had to believe him. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any DNA or dental records for her, so we’d never know for sure. And even if—though, even though—she was dead, there were still the Malcatari to worry about. None of them had been captured. The Riven didn’t know anything about their numbers or safehouses, so they could be anywhere by now.

I sighed and shook my head. I kept getting wrapped up in my thoughts. The city was mostly fixed from the Rampage and the war. Most of the cultures were relatively quiet, and trade with America would bring new prosperity.

It wouldn’t last, of course. It never did, not in Domina City. But for now, I just wanted to enjoy it.

I jogged up the stairs to the roof and started my morning work out. It was still dark, not to mention cold as ice. Every breath felt like knives in my lungs. But that kind of thing was good for you. Kept you sharp, alert.

It used to be that Akane came up here to exercise too. Nowadays, she spent all her time at NHQ. Butler had even talked about setting her up with her own wing for the kensei, rather than making them stay in the old training rooms. It was good. Great, even. But still, I didn’t like change. I missed the days when it was just the two of us, fighting monsters and struggling in school.

It was a stupid wish. Not only was it impossible, it was wrong. Incorrect. Those days fighting beside Akane had been hard at the best of times, and I had lost a lot of good friends. I still had nightmares about friends being eaten whole by gargants, or crushed under a croaking wave of poisonous jumpers. I had grown used to them, but just a few nights ago I had woken up screaming. I had been remembering the time Mohamed’s sister had all her flesh melted off by an invisible gas.

Things were better now. Not just for me, for the entire city. I had a small but growing gang of hirelings who handled most of the actual monster slaying, and it was safer since they had powers and better resources. Akane had her kensei, Adam had his CS-squad, Laura her work with Clarke. Even Robyn seemed to be doing better. I wasn’t sure what the story was with her fliers, but she seemed happy enough.

This was better. It really was.

Then why did I feel like I was going to die of boredom?

I sighed and continued my exercises. I needed to take Laura out to a movie or something. Hadn’t Lord of the Rings just been released on the mainland? Things were always delayed here, but maybe the treaty could speed that up.

There was a deep, echoing boom that seemed to shake the very air. I glanced up, but didn’t see anything, so I continued my exercises. It was probably some flier playing with their powers. Maybe that was what a sonic boom sounded like.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

I spun around, falling into a fighting stance to face my opponent.

It was Elizabeth—no, Silk. The elegant silk dress, blowing gently in the breeze, was only the first clue. Her face was soft and sad in a way that Elizabeth had never been able to fake. She stood on the roof as if she had been there the entire time, and was looking up into the sky as though something terrible was happening up there.

I followed her gaze. I didn’t see anything.

“What?” I asked. “What wasn’t supposed to happen? The treaty?”

She turned to me a smiled. “Oh no, the treaty is proceeding wonderfully. Exactly the right number of mistakes and concessions on both sides. Domina and America will both come out the stronger for it.” Her smiled faded. “If they survive.”

“Survive what—”

My phone rang. Laura’s ringtone.

I picked it up reflexively. “What’s going on?”

“Get down here right now,” she said, her tone iron and urgent. “We need to be at NHQ five minutes ago.”

“Laura, Laura, slow down. What’s happening?”

“There’s a ship, Derek!”

“From Lemuria, or Ceres?”

“From somewhere else! It’s an alien ship!”

I felt my heart stop beating. I glanced at Silk. She just nodded.

“How—what—”

Laura heard me and thought I was talking to her. “It looks like a small scout ship. We’ll figure out the rest later. Just get down here!” She hung up.

I stared at the phone for a minute, then looked at Silk.

“They are called the para,” she said. “And they should not be here.”

I swallowed. “They’re aliens.”

“Yes. From three-thousand light years away, to be precise. That means it should have taken them three-thousand years to get here. Not two-thousand eight hundred.”

I paused as I tried to sort that out in my head. Space was not my area of expertise. “In the original timeline, it took them longer?”

“Yes. But that’s not the issue. They were traveling at the speed of light using their fastest means of propulsion. They were scheduled to arrive in a little over two hundred years. It is impossible for them to get here earlier.” She met my eyes. “I’m not sure you’re ready.”

I stood tall. “We’ll fight. We’ll survive.”

Silk frowned. “That’s the problem. I was hoping that this time, it could end without bloodshed. But your society has not advanced enough yet.” She sighed. “Though neither has theirs.”

“So we have options,” I said. “Other than fighting.”

There was another boom, this time loud enough to knock me to the ground and make the whole ‘scraper shake.

I flipped onto my back and looked up. The clouds were parting, and a massive ship was coming through. It was wedge-shaped and large enough to cast a shadow over the entire city. It had a dozen glowing white engines on its underside, each of which must be large enough to hold a building. Oddly, it was painted in a random rainbow of colors, symbols and signs that I couldn’t understand.

“You have options,” Silk said, looking at the ship hovering over the city. “But I doubt you’d like any of them.” She looked down at me sadly. “Good luck, little hero. I am afraid that you will sorely need it.”

Then she disappeared, right in front of my eyes.

The ship remained. I saw tiny specks, like smaller ships being launched from the main.

I took a deep breath and jumped to my feet. I watched the ships for a moment, then nodded to myself and walked over to the stairs down.

The time for boredom was over.

Behind the Scenes (scene 314)

Yes, I had the para planned out the whole time. They are thematically parallel with Domina in many ways, as you’ll see soon.

Scene 292 – Reneo

RENEO

DEREK

We opened our eyes.

Seventy-two pairs of eyes surveyed the room. We looked over the Necessarians, who were holding their guns a bit too close. Dozens of them, far too many to fight. Too many of our bodies were weak and needed to be protected, and we did not know what powers the Necessarians had.

The only course of action was obvious.

I fell forward, like a puppet with its strings cut. I had to take great gasping breaths of air as I trembled on the floor on my hands and knees. I heard someone throw up, but I was too focused on keeping my own stomach under control to look.

“Derek?” Laura slid down in front of me. “Hey, it’s me. You okay? How are you feeling?”

I groaned. “Like my brain got stretched out to cover seventy-two people at once.”

She lifted up my chin, forcing me to look at her. Her hair was damp with sweat, and her eyes lined from lack of sleep. She had been running herself ragged. She probably hadn’t gotten a single moment’s rest since the American ships first launched.

She was still beautiful.

How had it taken so long for me to notice? I was going to wring Elizabeth’s neck if I ever saw her again.

Laura held up three fingers. “How many—”

“Three.” I sighed. “Now two. And three, but a different three.” I grabbed her hand before she could continue, and forced a smile on my face. “I’m fine. I think I just need rest.” I heard more retching from behind me. “And maybe some crackers.”

Laura pulled me to my feet carefully, keeping an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t dizzy. “What do you remember from the hive?”

I shook my head. “Not much. Bits and pieces, but I don’t think my brain is equipped to handle the memories. The fact that we’re not all blown up makes me think that it worked, though.” I grimaced as my stomach rebelled again. “…crackers?”

“Over here.” She led me out of the room, down a side hallway I didn’t recognize. It was different than the one we had come in from.

“How did the battle go?” I asked. I checked my phone. “Is it really the same day?”

She nodded. “We held them off long enough for Butler to arrange a cease-fire. The American president seems like a coward, so it wasn’t that hard. He didn’t want more deaths on his conscience.”

“How many?”

“Not important right now.”

“Laura—”

Derek.” She gave me a hard glare. “The war is over, the American forces in retreat, and the cultures are tending to their dead. We can worry about everything else later. You’ve already done more than enough today. You literally saved the entire city—you can worry about philosophically saving it later.”

I grumbled, but we had found the vending machines, and Laura was collecting a few bags of crackers from it. We didn’t have to pay, of course. This was NHQ, and MC controlled the vending machines. She kept track of debts and payments and so on for everyone.

Laura opened a bag of crackers and handed it to me. Once I started eating, she started talking, knowing I wouldn’t be able to answer. “People died, yes. That’s what happens in Domina City. But the casualties were minimal, and most of the damage was limited to property. Right now, pretty much everyone is partying, and the city is safe.”

I swallowed a mouthful quickly. “What do you mean, pretty much everyone?”

She sighed. “Derek…”

“Laura.”

She touched her necklace, then let it go and rolled her eyes. “Fine. The outer city was hit, but central was completely untouched. They couldn’t even hear the gunfire. They barely stopped fighting each other during the war, and now things are worse since all the ‘sarians and hellions are partying.”

“Asmodeus.” The central city was his primary hunting ground.

She sighed. “Yes. As well as the Nosferatu, Doresain, and pretty much anyone else who has a domain nice and far away from the war.” She rolled her eyes. “The Canians helped with the war, but now they’re having a party. So they’re probably going to burn their entire street to the ground.”

“Then let’s go talk to them.”

No.” She stepped in front of me and put her hand on my chest. “We have people handling that. Not all of Necessarius is drunk right now. You need rest. The city can survive without you for eight hours.”

I frowned, but didn’t push her aside. “Mephistopheles respects me.”

“And he also respects the ‘sarians we sent to talk to him,” she said. “We’ve got this. Gosling knows what he’s doing. He’s the one who handled that scandal with the Canians and the troll a little while back.”

The name did sound familiar. “Okay, then the Nosferatu will probably—”

“We have people for that too. And the ghouls, and the Nessians, and the hags and the kemos and the trapped American soldiers.” She tried to smile. “It’s a city, Derek. Not a sad puppy. It can take care of itself.”

I looked her deep in the eyes for a moment, trying to stare her down.

After a moment, I closed my eyes and nodded.

“Fine,” I said after a moment. “I get it, I’ll do it. Rest, relaxation, all that annoying stuff.” I looked at the crackers in my hand. Why was I even eating these? My stomach was fine now. “Just tell me one thing. Butler got a cease-fire. In exchange for what?”

Laura smirked. “In exchange for a diplomatic meeting in New York on New Year’s Day.”

I started. “That’s in a week! We need to—”

She rolled her eyes and entwined her arm with mine. “We need to do nothing.” She pulled me away from the vending machines and towards the elevator up to ground level. “None of the Paladins or the retinue are going to be involved in this.”

“Why are we using the elevator? It’s just one floor.”

“Because I don’t want you using the stairs right now.” She pressed the button. “Anyway, the cultures will send one ambassador each, including Necessarius. Most haven’t been decided yet, but it’s not us.”

The elevator opened, and we piled in. “Which ones have been decided?”

“The dragons and the giants.”

I was still getting used to dragons being real, and more than just Io. “Who are they sending?”

“The dragons are sending Tamara, the Mercy.”

I thought for a moment. “…which subculture is she in charge of?”

“The Compassionate Healers.”

“Right.” The elevator doors opened again, and we piled out onto the first floor. “What about the giants? Nicholas, or maybe even Thor? His mom would probably be a better choice.”

Laura took a deep breath. “They’re sending Skrag.”

I blinked. “Skrag the Slaughterer?

“Yes,” she said glumly as we walked out onto the street.

“But—but—he’s Skrag! What is Odin thinking?”

“He’s thinking that the ogres are the closest thing that the giants have to a neutral party.”

“Yeah, because everyone hates them equally!”

“True, but Skrag is highly respected.” She shrugged. “As much as he can be, anyway. He was the only real choice.”

“Gordok,” I said instantly.

“Gruul would riot,” she said. “And the trolls wouldn’t be far behind. Gruul himself is obviously not on the table, the trolls would never agree on who to send, the Muspels and Nifs still dislike the Aesir ambassador after that stunt at Surtr’s birthday party, and the Aesir would never trust the Jotuun ambassador. So yes, Skrag really is the only option.”

I groaned. “I hate this city.”

She pulled me closer as we walked to a cab waiting at the sidewalk, and I received a whiff of her perfume. “Is that so?” she asked, smiling.

I smiled back. “Well, only sometimes.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 292)

We’re doing a lot of short ones right now, but the longer ones are coming back soon.

In other news, if you are an American citizen, please vote in the upcoming election.  Even if you feel like you are in a “safe” state or district where your vote doesn’t matter.  Democracy only works if people exercise their right to vote.

Scene 269 – Sollemne

SOLLEMNE

DEREK

A party felt like a stupid idea.

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

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

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

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

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

He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”

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

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

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

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

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

“Except for the retinue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What look?”

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

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

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

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

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

Please don’t start calling me that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”

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

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

I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”

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

Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, of course not.”

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

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

She gave me a sidelong glance.

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

“Crap,” I muttered.

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

I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

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

“Glad you find my pain funny.”

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

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

She flipped me off with a winning smile.

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

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

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

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

I groaned. “Butler knows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is your new job treating you?”

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

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

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

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

She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”

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

“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.

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

I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”

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

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

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

“Exercises, then. No needles.”

“…okay.”

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

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

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

Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”

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

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

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

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

Ferenil slapped him across the face.

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

“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”

Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.

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

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

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

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

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

There was a moment of awkward silence.

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

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

“What does he drain?” I asked.

“Life.”

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

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

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

I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be careful,” I told her quietly.

She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George nodded. “Probably for the best.”

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

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

“Not what I meant.”

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

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

She shrugged, and signed something.

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

She signed something else.

“The biters have it worse.”

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Downstairs.”

“Yes, I got that.”

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

“What do you—oh.” Huh.

That was…

Huh.

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

“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 269)

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

break

Scene 268 – Praeparatio

PRAEPARATIO

LAURA

“We need to prepare,” I said.

Derek just smiled. “I am preparing.”

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

“But they’re good sandwiches.”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

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

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

Akane snorted derisively. I ignored her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything was quiet for a moment.

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

I blinked. “We’re what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, no. Why would it be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek frowned. “Who?”

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

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

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

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

“Is it really that important?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s comforting.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 268)

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

Scene 252 – Discessum

DISCESSUM

DEREK

This was shaping up to be a weird day.

I wasn’t exactly close with Kelly. She and the retinue had always stayed in the back with Adam, away from the screamers, and I hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to her off the job.

I didn’t know much about her, but I hadn’t thought I needed to. Sure, her name was obviously fake, but she was an ex-Belian, so that wasn’t a surprise. The fixer on her arm was more than a little disturbing as well, but not too much. The device monitored her blood and pumped counteragents that neutralized the drugs in her system; while the chemical fixer was common, the device of the same name was only necessary if you had drug producing glands. I had always wondered why she hadn’t just had those glands removed, but had resolved not to think about it.

Then we got dragged in front of the Belians, and she had ripped off the fixer.

Now, she sat on the Obsidian Throne of Abriymoch, claiming to be Fierna, daughter of Belial the Lord of Secrets, Noble of the Fourth Crypt. She was naked except for a seductively draped fur-lined cloak, and lounged on the oversized throne as easily as if it were a seat by a pool.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” she proclaimed. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The right of blood was obvious—she had killed her way to the top. I was less certain about the shadow one. That was something about fear, or political skill, about how her reputation was broad and deep like a shadow, or something. Or maybe it was just about knowing lots of secrets. Belial had been the Lord of Secrets, after all.

This was too much, too fast; everyone knew Fierna was dead, and I couldn’t think of anything Kelly had ever done to make me suspect otherwise. If I said anything, asked any questions, it might be taken as a challenge, and despite my earlier bluster, Adam and I couldn’t take the whole damn domain by ourselves. I didn’t know what to do.

The Nobles, however, seemed to have some idea. One of them, the one with the long and forked tongue and the strangely bulbous joints, started speaking despite the fact that he was still kneeling on the ground. “I do not doubt Noble Fierna’s right to our culture,” he said, his voice a little quiet. “But I do doubt this woman’s claim that she is our lady.” His voice gained strength, and he rose to his feet. “She is just some random ‘sarian traitor. You can still see the scars of the fixer on her arm. In time, she will—”

Kelly’s hand snapped out, stiff and flat as a knife but as fast as lightning.

The Noble’s head fell off, and his body collapsed to the ground a moment later.

I recognized the hungry look in Kelly’s eyes. It was the naked bloodlust that I had seen on Elizabeth’s face too many times. In this case, I would assume it was the result of the drugs in her system. Psycho and buffout, particularly, caused such reactions as a side effect of their strength increases.

With visible difficulty, she wrestled the feelings down. “Gaziel was well aware of who I am,” she explained patiently, ignoring the horrified looks we were all giving her. All of us except the Nobles flanking her throne, that is. They kept their heads obediently bowed. “He sent Chamo to recruit me, and when I responded to that rudely, sent Inanna to punish me.”

“Kel—Honored Noble,” I said, correcting myself mid-sentence as I stepped forward. “Forgive me for being… confused.”

She raised an eyebrow elegantly. “About what?”

About everything, but I didn’t say that. “About—”

I was interrupted by a tug on my leg.

Surprised, I looked down to see Alex, crying enough silent tears to fill a lake. The angel shook his head. “She can’t let us go,” he whispered. “Gazra will be on her side no matter what happens, but Balan and Bathym control the majority of the nightstalkers. Even with the sclavi, she can’t fight them all.”

“What are you saying?” I hissed back.

“Throw yourself on her mercy. It’s the only way she can save us.”

I frowned. I… was not fond of that idea. I was a paladin, technically a warlord, and more importantly, a Huntsman. I was not going to grovel before a drugged-up warlord, no matter who it was. I’d just have to—

“Apologies for the insolence, Honored Noble,” Laura said with a slightly stiff bow as she rose to her feet. I hadn’t even realized she was awake. “Knight Derek is a soldier, and not good with words.”

“Laura,” I hissed. “What are you doing—”

She shut me up with a glare.

Of course. I knew what she was doing—saving my ass.

“Speak, then, Highlander,” Kelly drawled. She definitely had that royal apathy down pat.

Laura winced at the nickname. “Please, Noble Fierna. That is the Composer’s name for me.”

The vampire nodded slowly. “Apologies, Dame Laura.” She extended her palm, as if offering us something. “Please, continue your defense. You have trespassed in my domain. Why should I allow you and yours to leave it alive?”

I kept my power at the ready, prepared to throw up a shield if things got messy. While the Nobles around the throne seemed content to stand around their warlord with heads bowed, the nightstalkers lining the rest of the room were less composed. Even if the slaves didn’t come into it, I wasn’t sure I could fight all of them at once if they decided to stop playing around.

Laura didn’t so much as blink. “We brought you home, Honored Noble. Allowing us to go home seems like a basic courtesy.”

Kelly smiled slightly, and I could see her fangs poking out of her mouth. She was enjoying this far too much. “Ah, but you did not intend to bring me home. You did, however, intend to trespass. To steal back more trespassers, in fact.”

“They were kidnapped, not trespassing.”

“Are you sure about that?” she asked with a smirk. She turned to one of the lesser vampires lining the hall. “Kiara, I believe? Please tell me what happened when you encountered the angel and the changeling at Avernus.”

The girl looked hesitant, and bit her lip—a bad idea, considering her fangs. “We, uh, we tried to talk to them. And they attacked us. I think it might be on video, maybe, but I’m not sure if they—”

“That’s quite enough, dear, thank you,” Kelly interrupted with a surprising amount of warmth. Kiara seemed to agree; she looked like she didn’t know how to react to a Belian Noble being nice.

I tapped Laura on the shoulder. She looked me in the eye, frowning, before she understood what I was trying to say. She nodded and turned back to Kelly. “What do you want for them?” she asked evenly.

Them?” the newborn… reborn Noble laughed. “You are my prisoners just as much as the angel and the giant, dear children.” She leaned forward, that fur cloak of hers not quite slipping off her shoulders. “I have plans for you, and you still have not given me a good reason to release you.”

There was a click from behind her, and a massive shotgun poked her in the ear.

“I’ve got one,” Adam said levelly, his mouth set into a grim line that matched his eyes. “You should have hidden my guns farther away. Now let everyone go, and you get to keep your stupid kingdom of slaves.”

Kelly didn’t seemed perturbed by the Necessarian Saint George—almost certainly loaded with a god slayer—pointed at her skull. “Oh, you clever little psychopath. You are good. I didn’t even notice you move.”

“Sociopath, technically,” was his only response.

Some shadow of the old Corporal Sanguinas returned as she shrugged. “Well, those two terms have become so muddled over the years that it’s hard to tell when and where they apply. The medical community doesn’t even use them anymore, they’ve become too diluted—”

One of the Nobles, the one with a soft and gentle face sharply at odds with his power and position, cleared his throat. His boss turned to him with a frown, and he gave her a look I couldn’t interpret.

She definitely understood it, though, as she sighed and turned her attention back to Laura. “I tire of this game. Honored Paragon, you may leave with your lover and your pet murderer.” It took me a second to realize the ‘lover’ part referred to me; I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment, but wisely kept my mouth shut. “The angel, the giant, the changeling, and the kemo all stay with me.”

“And what of Akane?” Laura demanded, eyes narrow. “Gaziel said she was under guard in your hospital. What will happen to her?”

Kelly waved her hand blithely. “What do I care? It’s too much effort to go collect her. She stays.”

Laura’s hand went to her necklace, but she managed to remain calm. “She is the magister of the kensei. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? The samurai warriors with super speed? Some are already calling her kenkami.”

“Sword-god,” Kelly translated with a chuckle. “Cute. But what of it?”

“If you don’t release her, they will come for you,” Laura said.

“And if you don’t release the others, we will come back,” I added, stepping up next to Laura.

I heard a crack from Kelly’s direction. Someone had handed her a glass of wine at some point, a deceptively delicate goblet that was actually a thick and durable chunk of carved crystal, designed for warlords. She had still managed to put a large crack in it, from which black wine was now leaking.

Another slave stepped up and replaced the damaged glass with a new, full one. Kelly took it without a word, her narrow black nighteyes focused solely on me.

“Derek Huntsman,” she said quietly, her voice low and dangerous like the first rumblings of an earthquake. “You are an annoying one, aren’t you? How is it, Honored Paragon, that you manage to find all sorts of warlords and future magisters by just stumbling through life? How is it that a random boy from South Central manages to attract the attention of Elizabeth Greene herself?”

It seemed best not to answer.

She sniffed. “No matter. However you do it, you do have a surprising number of allies. Even if the Cripple doesn’t side with you, there are many others who would.” She made a face. “I might even have to talk with Dracul again… ugh.”

Laura and I remained silent. Adam’s Saint George remained level, though I knew he’d be straining to keep it that way. If Kelly decided to act like a Belian after all, to attack without thought of the consequences, Adam likely wouldn’t be able to kill her.

But she didn’t.

“Gazra,” she ordered. “Fetch Ogrémoch, tell him to check on the kenkami’s progress. If she’s well enough to leave, allow her to. If not, throw her out. She is no longer welcome in Phlegethos.”

The pretty-faced vampire from earlier bowed low and left.

“Everyone else, out. Everyone except for our guests.” The two remaining Nobles stepped quickly, walking down the aisle past the still-startled nightstalkers, but the rest were more hesitant. Kelly waved her hand impatiently. “Everyone. That includes the sclavi. OUT!”

This last was a sudden shout loud enough to hurt my ears, and enough to make the rest of the vampires hop to action, fleeing from the royal audience chamber as fast as their legs would carry them.

Once they were gone and the thick concrete doors closed behind them, the Noble pointed at poor George, still nailed to the wall. “I suggest someone help the giant down. His buffs are impressive, but that must still be painful.”

‘The giant.’ Not George or even ‘the ogre.’ She was still acting like Fierna.

But we had little choice. Jarasax and I—the changeling had been faking unconsciousness for most of the conversation—stepped over to the wall and started pulling stakes out of George’s limbs, carefully removing him from his position, spread-eagled on the wall like some grisly trophy.

It took both of us to catch him, and even then he was too heavy for us to keep upright. It was more like we kept him from dropping too quickly. He still fell to his knees, but at least slow enough that they didn’t crack on the hard concrete floor.

He was definitely in a lot of pain, but Kelly was right. He was made of stern stuff, and his wounds weren’t bleeding as much as they should. He couldn’t fight, but he should be able to walk out of here with help. Adam came over to help, apparently realizing he wasn’t doing much good covering the warlord.

“Is that silly angel still crying?” Kelly asked in a bored drawl.

I turned to see Alex, still curled on the floor in the fetal position, silently weeping. Laura ran her hand through his hair, whispering something that didn’t seem to have any effect. Wincing, she turned to the throne. “Yes. I’m not sure why. He might be in shock.”

“Bah,” Kelly said with a wave of her hand. “He just wants a fight. I’ll kick him around a few times and he’ll leave.”

I blinked. How did she come to that conclusion? This was the problem with dealing with drug-addled minds. “What? No! You can’t do that!”

“I’m doing him a favor.”

“No, I mean—”

She nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right. Duels shouldn’t have witnesses. Leave.”

I tried to step forward, ready to pound something like sense into her, but George collapsed again the second I let him go. Cursing, I glanced between the giant and the angel, before Laura sidled up beside me.

“We can come back,” she whispered. “Try and talk her down. But George needs to be moved.”

Frustrated but not seeing another choice, I nodded. I slipped under George’s arm again, the three of us pulling his massive bulk towards the doors, which Laura opened as we reached them. She was careful not to close them all the way behind us, leaving them open just a crack.

We put George down on a table we found maybe ten or twenty yards down the tapestry-lined corridor, and left Adam and Jarasax to tend to him. Laura and I returned to the royal audience chamber to save Alex. Laura peeked through the crack in the door… before waving me over, motioning me to silence.

What I saw was not what I expected.

Alex sat up on the floor just a few feet from the door, with Kelly in front of him, carefully wiping the long tracks of moisture from his ivory cheeks.

“Fi,” the angel whispered, new tears welling up already. “C’mon, don’t… don’t do this… ”

The vampire smiled sadly, all traces of her previous arrogance and apathy gone. “It is done.”

“Then… I’ll stay! I’ll stay with you! I can—I can—”

She interrupted him with a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Don’t you dare,” she said, her voice quiet and filled with barely restrained tears. “You know how much effort Mom went to in order to keep you out of Dad’s clutches. Don’t throw that all away now.”

“But you’re—”

Kelly placed a finger on his lips, still smiling that sad smile. “No. I am a vampire, and you are an angel. That is the end of our story, dear heart.” Tears started to well up in her own eyes, but she blinked them away. “But—but I would like to hear it.”

Alex frowned, not even bothering to hide the tears running down his cheeks again. “H-hear what?”

“My name,” she whispered. “My real name. The one Mom gave me.” She was blinking rapidly, trying and failing to keep the tears from coming. “You’re the last one alive who knows it, and I just want to—”

Now it was the angel’s turn to comfort the vampire. He pulled her close in an embrace. “Shh… shh, it’s all right. I promise, everything is going to be all right.”

Then he whispered something in her ear, too quietly for the rest of us to hear.

Kelly laughed, a sorrowful giggle full of heartbreak, and hugged the angel closer. “Thank you, Alex.” Then she smiled. “I mean… Ilarion Marinov.”

Alex laughed, sniffing away his tears. “You know I’ve always hated that name.”

“I know Ill, I know.”

The vampire and the angel touched their foreheads together, crying softly and quietly.

I glanced at Laura, giving her a questioning look. She looked almost as uncomfortable as I felt, but still gave me a glare. The message was clear: Just be quiet and give them their space.

“I need you to be strong, little one,” Kelly said, not moving her forehead from Alex’s own. “Stronger even than your days at the orphanage.”

Alex cried some more, but managed a smile. “The orphanage wasn’t so bad, you know?”

“I know Ill, I know.” She closed her eyes. “But this… this will be.” She took a deep breath. “They’ll be coming for you soon. You and anyone else associated with me. All four of you need to be pull together and protect each other, but they’ll be looking to you for help.”

“Sax—”

“Sax is not a leader, and has no interest in becoming one. If you let him lead, he’ll just follow whatever his mother tells him to do. You have to take over, little one. You can’t come to me, asking for help. Not this time.”

Alex nodded. “The angels will be coming after you. Once we fight off the vampires, I can talk to them. Zaphkiel can—”

“Oh, dear heart,” she said quietly, not opening her eyes. “The angels will be coming after you, too.”

Alex stared in mute horror, before nodding slowly. “I… I suppose you’re right.” He closed his eyes. “They won’t be able to do anything overt, but Pistis Sophia will send her best. Her Initiates at least, and maybe even Drusulai himself.” He blinked back tears again. “But you will have to deal with Raziel, and almost certainly Evansheer.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she said, finally opening her eyes again. Tears were streaming down her cheeks now as well, but she ignored them. “I’ll be fine. Zaebos and Zapan have done their jobs too well. We have many, many sclavi to use in a fight. Once I let them study my toys a little, we may even be able to gives the slaves back their sanity.”

“But Fi—”

She didn’t let him even start. “But that is all my problem,” she said firmly, her marble-black eyes strong. “This is my culture, Honored Daybreaker. My inheritance, the only gift I ever received from that bastard father. I will deal with it. Alone.”

“You know you don’t have to.”

“Yes. I do.” She kissed his forehead again. “Stick close to Huntsman and Medina. Those two are going to do good work.” She looked him up and down. “Are you strong enough? I don’t want this to kill you.”

He dried his tears and nodded. “Ready and waiting, Noble Fierna.”

She shook her head. “I hate that name.” She sighed and stood. “Incoming.”

I pulled Laura out of the way a split second before Alex was thrown through the doors, slamming them open with a boom and crashing into the back wall like a cannon.

Kelly—no, Fierna—strode out of the throne room, eyes wild, laughing with mad bloodlust. “Is that all the angels of Necessarius have to offer? I’ve fought dumpster dogs with more spirit in them!”

Her voice echoed in the concrete corridor, and at the far end I could see several nightstalkers and their sclavi watching the fight with interest. George, Adam, and Jarasax seemed to have gotten out of the way already.

The Noble strode up to the angel, picked him up casually with one hand, and tossed him a dozen yards down the corridor, where he skidded to a stop at the feet of the other vampires. “This one is boring. Send him away with the others.”

Her minions moved quickly to obey, picking the broken angel up roughly and hauling him down a corridor I knew led to the front doors of the domain. Fierna gave one last barking laugh at the sight, then turned back to her throne room.

And froze at the sight of us, standing silently next to the double doors.

Several emotions warred on her face. Surprise, rage, disgust…

Before finally settling on something like resignation.

She patted me on the shoulder. “Take care of him, Honored Paragon,” she whispered. She kept her face neutral. “Consider it an official request—from one warlord to another.”

I nodded, once.

She nodded in turn. “Thank you.” Her grip on my shoulder tightened, and then she flung me down the corridor as well, hard enough to fly almost to the corner. It was a dangerous throw, and if I had hit a wall it could have killed me, but she was careful. Landing hurt, but I was good at taking falls.

“Take your boyfriend and leave, baseline!” Fierna yelled at Laura as she stalked back towards her throne. “I have better things to do with my time than play with newborn warlords with over-inflated egos!”

Behind the scenes (scene 262)

I’m honestly surprised this came out as well as it did, but I like it.

This isn’t quite the end of Kelly’s arc, but we’re definitely past the climax.