Tag Archives: Elizabeth Greene

Scene 332 – Infamem Hactenus

INFAMEM HACTENUS

AKANE

I landed on the street with one hand out for balance, activating my speed at the last second to absorb the force of the fall. I scanned the battlefield, trying to take in everything at once and then sort it into useful information.

The street was chaos. Ten minutes ago it had been crowded with foot traffic, an outdoor mall that had forced the ‘sarians to cordon off the street from cars. Merchants brought their wares out from the nearby skyscrapers, selling them at temporary stalls set up in the middle of the street. Such things were common throughout the city, and one could pop up almost anywhere.

Now, the street was choked with the bodies of those who had not been able to flee, the stalls either ripped apart or set on fire. Strange structures grew out of the asphalt, slashed walls and grasping hands. Blood was splattered everywhere.

And in the middle of it all, my kensei fought the Malcatari.

Months of training had served them well. My kensei used their speed in short, precise bursts, killing with strokes as fast as lightning and leaving them more than enough of a reservoir left over for an emergency. They had been tested time and time again against some of the most dangerous forces in the city, both in practice and true combat. They could fight nearly any opponent and win.

But the Malcatari were legion, outnumbering my kensei ten to one or more. And while Malcanthet herself had the tactical skills of a wet potato chip, she had clearly found someone more skilled than her at some point. Her soldiers fought carefully and efficiently, covering each other like professionals and working to keep from being caught off guard.

That alone wouldn’t have been enough to save them. There was a certain level of overwhelming force that strategy and tactics simply could not stand against. It didn’t matter how perfect their formation or how many angles they covered, a sword moving at several times the speed of sound would cut through a soldier like a scythe through wheat. There would be some casualties on our side as kensei overextended themselves, but the outcome of the battle should never have been in doubt.

Except the Malcatari had powers.

I watched as one of the soldiers planted his feet and thrust his hands up as if lifting something above his head. Suddenly a wall of asphalt rose out of the street, blocking the path of the kensei who was speeding towards him. She corrected at the last moment so she didn’t collide with it, but her charge was broken. The petrakinetic’s friends flanked my kensei around the wall and fired at her, and she had to speed away.

I saw another place his hands on a car, turning the entire thing to rust in seconds. The kensei hiding behind it was surprised to find his cover suddenly useless, and tried to run off. He was cut down by a hail of bullets before he could so much as take a step. On the other side of the street, a soldier used super speed to match a kensei, but his reservoir ran out unexpectedly and the kensei was able to counter and kill him. Fire blossomed from the hand of another Malcatari, which the kensei dodged, followed by a burst of electricity that slowed her down long enough for her to be overwhelmed. Not too far away from where I stood, a glowing orange shield blocked a super-speed sword strike.

I frowned. Stone, fire, electricity, rust, speed, shields, knives… these were all Elizabeth’s powers. The obvious ones, anyway. Had she allied herself with Malcanthet? She must have. Unless Malcanthet had managed to brainwash hundreds of people who had been in the city during the Rampage and then given them Malcanthet’s emblem to wear, which was doubtful.

I hadn’t actually seen Malcanthet yet, and I had no idea how she could possibly have survived, but when combined with Elizabeth, things started to make sense. Elizabeth decided to save Malcanthet in order to give the Malcatari powers and set them loose on the city. Only Malcanthet could control the Malcatari, of course, so that was really the only option that made any sort of sense.

I did another quick scan of the battlefield, hoping to spot Malcanthet, but I didn’t have time for a real search. My kensei were dying, and she probably wasn’t even here anyway. The Succubus Queen never got her hands dirty if she could help it.

I drew my sword and activated my speed.

I sheared through the arm of one soldier who was pointing a gun at a kensei with a dry reservoir. I moved past him, ignoring the slow spray of blood, to behead a woman who was shooting electricity out of her fingers. A man was shielding himself and his team with glowing orange force fields, but I slipped through a gap in the walls and stabbed him in the heart. The barriers disappeared, and my kensei fell upon the Malcatari as I sped away.

In seconds, I stood in the middle of the street, my gi stained red and my beautiful new sword dripping blood. I looked around again. The worst of the fires were out, but my people still needed help. I took a deep breath and waited a few moments for my reservoir to recover.

And so the sword-god reveals herself at last!

I turned to see Elizabeth striding out of a large black van, flanked by two more Malcatari. She was wearing a new dress, as white as ever but not yet stained with blood. She had a giant grin on her face, like she had just sprung an awesome surprise party on an old friend.

I was wondering when you’d show yourself,” she said, still speaking perfect Japanese, like she always did. She had been doing that to me for my entire life, trying to make me feel stupid and isolated.

I scowled. I wasn’t that shy little girl any more. “Come off it, Elizabeth. Speak English.”

She shrugged. “If that’s what you want, Kenkami. Doesn’t matter to me one bit.” She grinned broadly. “I have far more interesting things to concern myself with today.”

I glanced at the Malcatari flanking her. They wore the same black tactical armor as the rest of the soldiers, but they didn’t have any guns. In the context of the powers, that struck me as a bad sign.

“What did you have to do to get them on your side?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Nothing much. With Malcanthet dead, their brainwashing was easy to repurpose. Some empty platitudes about serving their Queen even in death, then my standard hypnotism package I use on all my blackguards.”

I tried not to let my surprise show. I had been assuming that no one but Malcanthet could control the Malcatari, and then worked backwards from that ‘fact.’ That was why I had assumed she must still be alive. But it would make more sense for Elizabeth to just take control of the entire organization. This way, she didn’t have to share.

“So is that it?” I asked. I waved back at the street. The fighting was mostly over, with my kensei just mopping up. “Give the Malcatari a power each and throw them at us just to see what happens?”

“Of course not,” she said with a grin.

I knew that. There was no way this was all the Malcatari. She probably had both reinforcements on the way and reserves she wouldn’t commit to this battle. So did I—I had fewer kensei, but they could get here faster. I just needed to keep her talking.

“I didn’t commit all my new toys here,” she said with an exaggerated eye roll. “How stupid do you think I am?” She grinned wider, if that was possible. “Unless… is that what you did? Throw all your kensei in the city at one problem?”

I chose not to answer. Best to let her think I was incompetent.

She threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, Red, how I’ve missed you!” Her grin turned predatory, and I could swear her golden eyes flashed with hunger. “I might even regret killing you. Briefly.”

“You can’t kill us,” I said. “Silk won’t allow it.”

“Oh, don’t you know?” she said, her voice dripping with mock concern. “You Paladins were only needed to stop the Rampage, help defend Domina from America, and found the guilds. Now that we’re done with all that, I can kill every single one of you.”

I frowned. Wait, how was that Silk’s plan? Adam stopped the Rampage, and anyone could have founded the guilds. Even our parts in the war against America could have been played by others if necessary.

“Sorry to cut this discussion short,” Elizabeth said, “but my friends are here.” A dozen more black unmarked vans skidded to a stop just behind her. She waved her fingers at me. “See you around, Akane.” She winked. “Or not.”

Dozens of Malcatari poured out of the vans, most armed but some not. They took up position, ready to fire at Elizabeth’s command. Before she had a chance to give the order, a dozen of my kensei sped to my side.

We stood there for a moment, two opposing lines glaring at each other, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

“You can’t win,” I said finally. “My kensei have the advantage. They’ve been practicing with their powers for far longer, and I’ll handle you.”

She gave me a mocking look. “Handle me? I don’t think it will be as simple as you seem to believe.” Then she grinned. “Besides, this fight isn’t quite as even as it looks. You see, I didn’t give my Malcatari one power. I gave them two—each.”

Then one of the Malcatari charged forward at super speed, wreathed in flames.

I cursed and jumped back to dodge. “Duelist strategy!”

My kensei quickly scattered to attack as many of the Malcatari as possible one on one. Despite the surprise of extra powers—which we hadn’t even known was possible—I was confident that they’d be able to overwhelm them soon.

Unless someone did something stupid, of course.

One of my kensei, a hot-headed young man named Victor, roared in rage and charged straight at Elizabeth. She didn’t even bother to dodge when he stabbed her in the gut with his sword. He blinked in shock, but she just grinned at him and grabbed his sword.

It immediately began to rust. In seconds, there was nothing left but red dust and a hilt.

“Better luck next time,” she said mockingly, and cut his head off with a single swipe of a glowing orange blade.

I screamed in rage and ran forward, sword out. I slashed at her throat, but she blocked it easily.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her eyes wide with false innocence. “Did you like that one?”

I roared again and unleashed a flurry of slashes, but she blocked each and every one. I wasn’t using my speed yet. I knew I should, but I was too angry to think straight. Which was probably the point.

Elizabeth riposted a blow, then countered with the sword in her other hand. She got me with a shallow slash on my arm—not particularly dangerous, but it hurt. The pain, however, shocked me back to my senses, and I tapped my speed just briefly to dodge a scissor-cut that would have taken my head off. I stepped back a few feet to reassess.

Both the kensei and the Malcatari were giving us plenty of room. No one wanted to get in the middle of our fight. It was like we were the one calm spot in the middle of an ocean of chaos, filled with fire and blood and stranger things.

I needed to disable Elizabeth. That would take the fight out of the Malcatari, give us time to mop them up. Cutting off her head was the obvious solution, but she was ready for it. Maybe I should start with her spine. Easier to get to.

Elizabeth wasn’t interested in waiting around. She casually grabbed the blade of a nearby kensei as she reared back to strike. The blade began to rust, and before my kensei realized what had happened, she was unarmed—and easy pickings for the Malcatari she was fighting. Luckily he was killed moments later by a different kensei.

All right. Attack Elizabeth’s spine, don’t let her touch my sword. If she destroyed it, I’d be essentially helpless. Besides, this was the Queen of Ravens, the sword that Flynn had made for me. I wasn’t interested in losing another weapon to a rust attack.

I rushed forward at super speed with a flurry of blows too fast for Elizabeth to keep up. She tried using her swords to block at first, but soon grew bored with that and switched to just using super speed to dodge. She could only speed her body instead of her mind, but when combined with her already excellent reflexes and instincts, she was easily able to dodge most of my attacks. The blows that did land were not debilitating, and healed in seconds.

I lowered my speed but pressed my attack, trying to keep her on the defensive long enough to give my reservoir a chance to recharge. Elizabeth immediately realized what I was trying to do and summoned her swords again, countering my every move with lightning speed. In seconds, I was on a defensive footing. I was knocked out of stance and she reached forward, eyes filled with glee, to grab my sword.

Which was what I had been counting on.

I moved my sword out of her grasp and shoulder-slammed her with a burst of speed. She was knocked ten feet back into a group of Malcatari. My kensei knew an opportunity when they saw one and quickly killed the off-balance soldiers, but retreated instead of attacking Elizabeth. They had learned that lesson.

Before she could get up, I sped forward and slashed at her ankles, causing her to howl in rage and pain. It wouldn’t keep her down forever, but it would do for now. I stabbed down at her face with my sword, but suddenly there was a glowing orange force field there, a small buckler attached to her arm. I had seen Derek do something similar a few times.

She used her other hand to send a burst of fire at me. It wasn’t much, but I instinctively fled, giving her ankles time to heal and her time to climb to her feet. She glared daggers at me. There was no mocking humor any more. Now, she was just filled with pure and burning hatred.

She always had been a sore loser.

She rushed forward at super speed, only to stop dead at the last second, a sword in each hand, and slash at me. I raised my blade to block, but that was what she had been waiting for. She dismissed her swords faster than I could blink and grabbed my blade with both hands. She grinned, and—

Nothing happened.

My sword didn’t collapse into rust. It didn’t even look tarnished.

I frowned. What?

She frowned and looked down at my sword. “What the hell?”

I ripped the sword out of her hands—costing her a few fingers in the process—and slashed at her again. She dodged back, fear, anger, and confusion in her eyes.

“What is that sword?” she demanded. “Where did you get it?”

I fell into a ready stance. “This is the Queen of Ravens, and it was forged for me personally.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Silk.”

I had no idea if she had anything to do with it, so I kept quiet.

Elizabeth howled in rage and ran away at super speed, bowling over kensei and Malcatari alike in her haste to get away. I followed, dodging through strange stone growths and bursts of flame to keep her in sight.

I knew I had to press my advantage while I had it. Her fingers were gone and would take a few minutes to regenerate, and she was still confused about my sword. So was I, but I was handling it better. If I could catch up to her now, I might be able to put a swift end to this.

She ran down the street, out of the battle zone. She dodged around cars and through pedestrians who hadn’t been smart enough to run away. She left broken bones and worse in her wake, likely trying to force me to stop and tend to them, but I ignored them. Right now, the only thing that mattered was the hunt.

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at me, cursed, and then ran at a nearby building. She ran straight up its sheer wall, her impossible speed allowing her to outrun even gravity itself. By the time gravity remembered where she was and tried to pull her back down to Earth, she was long gone.

I followed.

Running up a building was just like running down a street, but instead of the wind pushing against you, it felt like something pulling you. If you didn’t run fast enough, you could feel yourself growing heavier, falling back into the grasp of that impossible monster that had kept a tight grip on you your entire life. The only answer was to just keep running, and pray your reservoir didn’t run out.

Suddenly I was on the roof. Elizabeth stood in the center, next to a large air conditioner, staring at her half-regenerated fingers as if she could will them to heal faster. Maybe she could. Who was I to say.

I didn’t bother with any challenges, last chances, or one-liners. I just rushed forward at full speed, sword out, and slashed at Elizabeth’s neck.

She dodged, but not fast enough, and I got a good cut in at her artery. She instinctively raised one of her hands to staunch the wound, and I used the opening to stab her in the chest, right between her ribs. I ripped my sword out, the impossibly sharp blade tearing through her torso like cheese.

Elizabeth stumbled. I kicked her legs out from under her, then slashed down at her ankles. She cried out in pain and rage, bloody spittle flying everywhere, as the tendons were cut. If she were a normal person, she’d never be able to walk again. With her healing, I figured I had five minutes.

She rolled over onto her back and glared up at me with hatred. Her white dress was stained crimson with her own blood, and I was covered as well.

“You weak, useless little mortal,” she spat. “What is the point? Cut me, I will heal. Capture me, I will escape. And even if somehow you do hold me forever, until the universe itself runs dry, it doesn’t matter. You’ll all be dust anyway.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But here and now, this weak little mortal defeated you.”

I stabbed down at her heart.

She moved her hands in the way, as if to catch the blade, but it was useless. The blade pierced through one of her palms and cut a half-regenerated finger off the other hand. She screamed as the blade pierced her heart and the ground beneath her, pinning her to the roof like a bug in a glass.

I stepped back, breathing heavily. I kept a wary eye on her. She shouldn’t be able to escape using the powers I knew about, but I still didn’t want another burst of fire to the face.

I pulled out my phone. “Flynn? How are things on the ground? How many Malcatari are we dealing with?”

“Good,” he said. “We haven’t won yet, but the Malcatari have fallen into defensive positions. This fight is over and they know it. There were only a few hundred of them total, so we’re actually on about even footing, numbers-wise. We’re preparing for the final attack now. None of them have surrendered.”

Of course. None of Malcanthet’s brood ever surrendered. If we captured them alive, they’d probably just try to kill themselves.

“Don’t take any unnecessary risks, but get it done quickly,” I said. “I need a heavy-duty capture team up here.” I glared down at Elizabeth. Most of her wounds had healed, but that didn’t change the fact that she was pinned to the roof. “I’ve got her.”

“Copy that,” Flynn said. I could almost hear the smile in his voice. “See you soon.”

“See you soon.” I hung up and sat down cross-legged next to Elizabeth, just outside her reach.

She had stopped futilely struggling, and was now glaring at me. “I’m going to gnaw on your bones. I will kill everyone you have ever spoken to, your nephews first among them. By the time I’m done, no one will even remember you ever existed.”

I didn’t say anything.

She struggled some more, hissing at the blade in her chest. “This sword is an abomination. Silk never should have made it.”

“She didn’t,” I said. “A normal swordsmith did. Elrond, that guy who thinks he’s an elf.”

Elizabeth scoffed. “He might have shaped the metal and sharpened the edge, but it was my sister who created this thing. No human—’elf’ or not—could have done such a thing.”

I quirked my head. I knew I shouldn’t be talking to her, but I was curious. Besides, it was better than just sitting here waiting for her to try to escape. “You know what it is? Why it survived your rust attack?”

She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t?”

I shook my head.

Elizabeth laughed, though it turned into a hacking cough after a second. “Then I see no need to educate you.” She grinned with bloody teeth. “And one day, when it turns on you, I hope to be there to see it.”

She didn’t seem like she was taunting me. Or not just taunting me, anyway. She seemed to honestly believe what she was saying.

Before I could think of anything to say, I was interrupted by a shriek of tortured air.

I looked up, frowning. It sounded almost like something dropping in from orbit at a bad angle. But that couldn’t be right, could it?

I saw something come streaking down from high above. Some object, impossible to identify at this distance, trailing smoke and flame. It screamed through the air and slammed down in the northern portion of the city, far from where I was currently sitting. I could swear I felt the ground shake when it hit, but that had to be my imagination.

What was that? The para? Or worse, the ambassadors and their shuttle? Would any of them survive a crash like that? Lily had at least a decent chance, maybe the other warlords, but there was no way Eccretia or Adam could survive.

Then there was an explosion behind me.

I was blasted forward by a wave of heat and flame. I tapped my speed to get my feet under me and flipped around to see a massive smoking hole in the roof where Elizabeth had been lying. She had used her fire powers at full blast to destroy the very floor that she was pinned to. The edges were still aflame, and it was possible the whole building could catch.

I cursed under my breath and followed down the hole, pausing only to grab my sword from where it had been stuck in a wall by the force of the explosion.

Once again, the hunt was on.

Behind the Scenes (scene 332)

How did Elizabeth get so many Malcatari so deep in the city? The fact that Domina has opened its borders more following the treaty with America is part of it, as is the continued absence of MC for the moment. None of these Malcatari had ever been to Domina before, so no one was looking out for them specifically, and it was easy to keep Elizabeth hidden. Malcanthet was planning her assault on Domina since the moment she was exiled, so it wasn’t hard to adapt to these new circumstances.

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Scene 327 – Militum

MILITUM

ELIZABETH

I kicked the door open, surprising the dozen people in the room. Eleven guns were pointed at me before I had taken two steps.

I ignored them all. “Are you the Malcatari?”

Eleven guns roared, bullets from pistols and rifles shredding my flesh and breaking my bones. In moments, I had enough lead in me to fill a bucket.

Then they ran out of ammo, and stopped firing.

I waited patiently as my healing pushed the bullets out of my body and re-knit my bones.

The leader—the one who hadn’t pulled a gun on me—slowly stood up. “You are one of those creatures from Domina City.”

I snorted. “No, I’m the one who made those creatures in Domina City. I’m Elizabeth Greene.”

This didn’t get the reaction I felt it deserved. Instead of shock, awe, and horror, they just kind of looked at me funny.

“The Composer?” I said. “Ringing any bells?”

The gunmen just shook their heads. A few of them tried to reload without me noticing.

The leader just stalled for time. “We don’t know you, lady. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a pleasant conversation. What do you want?”

I looked around the room. Other than a few couches and a single table, there wasn’t much to see. It seemed like everyone had been eating when I came in. There was a big pile of cash on the counter, which I assumed was from some bank heist or mugging or however it was that criminals made money.

“Is this all of you?” I asked.

“There are others,” the leader said. “Did Malcanthet send you?”

I chuckled. “She’s dead, boy.”

One of the others shot me in the head. I ignored him.

To the leader’s credit, so did he. Everyone else looked nauseated watching me heal again, but he didn’t seem concerned. “We know our lady is still alive. Are you here to insult the Succubus Queen, or do you have something important to say?”

“You know where all the other Malcatari are?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“And does anyone else know?”

“My lieutenants.” I guessed that those were the other two men sitting at the table with him. “Why?”

I shrugged. “Wanted to make sure I wouldn’t lose anything important with your death.”

“Threats will get you—” He cut off as my glowing orange energy blade appeared in his throat. Throwing energy knives was difficult, since they took more energy to maintain the farther they were from me, but I had mastered the technique over the centuries.

The leader went down, and eleven guns snapped up again as everyone finished reloading.

I held up my hands before anyone could shoot. “Before you waste some more ammo, I have a proposal for all of you. You can’t kill me, and if you keep trying I’m just going to get fed up and kill you all.”

Everyone glanced at everyone else, but no one shot me. Good.

“Now, as I said, Malcanthet is dead.” There were angry mutterings, but I calmed them down with some gentle hand waves. “Your queen is dead. I’m sorry.” I was suddenly glad there weren’t any truthtellers in the room. “Artemis Butler has cremated her corpse, and Lilith herself is dismantling Miomanta. All the traitors who once lived there—the lesser guards and worker drones—have turned their backs on their queen.” I didn’t point out that this was mostly because Lilith had flushed the drugs out of their systems. This lot seemed to be continuing to use the prescribed drug cocktail. “Malcanthet’s legacy only lives on in you—her Malcatari.”

“Is there a point somewhere in all this?” one of them snapped.

With effort, I refrained from killing him. “You can stay here, waiting for orders that will never come, and let your queen’s legacy rot and die.” I smiled, displaying my sharp canines. “Or, you can come with me. Join me in revenge against that accursed city, and the monsters who murdered your queen.”

“What do you get out of this?” someone asked.

I gave him a look that was kind and pitying, instead of half a heartbeat away from brutal murder. “I get soldiers. I get revenge. But these are both things you want to give. You were never designed to go without a leader.” That was one of the reasons I had killed the only smart one in the group.

“All right,” said another. “Maybe we do need a leader.” He pointed an accusing finger at me. “But why do we need you? Why can’t we just find someone else? Someone who hasn’t killed one of us?”

“Because,” I said patiently. “No one else can give you powers.”

Shocked silence greeted my words.

“The same powers that the Dominites have?” one of the previous ones asked. I’d have to start learning their names soon.

“Close, but not quite,” I said. “You will have a more limited pool to choose from. But you will be able to choose, unlike the Dominites.”

They still looked hesitant. “What kind of powers can we have?”

“Does it matter?” someone else asked, annoyed. “Whatever we get, the Dominites will already have. It’s like trying to fight the army with guns. Yeah, we’ll have guns, but they’ll have so many more.”

Murmurs of agreement greeted this announcement. I noticed several of them giving me calculating looks, like they were trying to figure out if they could disable me and escape.

“I am not some one-note conductor,” I said. “I am a composer. I am not offering you a power. I am offering you your pick of two powers—each.” I smiled wickedly. “Perhaps more. Whatever it takes to wipe that city off the face of the planet.”

There was a pause.

The Malcatari glanced at each other. Several began to lower their guns.

“Can you give us a minute?” one of the lieutenants asked.

I managed to smile. “Of course. Take all the time you need.” But if they needed more than five minutes, I’d kill every single one of them and find another group to conquer. How hard was it to agree to serve the invincible immortal?

All eleven survivors clustered around the table, whispering furiously. I rolled my eyes and leaned against the wall. Such children. How had Malcanthet ever put up with this? Once I started hypnotizing them, the first thing I was going to do was make them more assertive. After the standard loyalty brainwashing, of course.

After four minutes and thirty-six seconds by my internal clock, they finally broke their little huddle and turned to face me.

“We have made our decision,” the lieutenant said.

“And?” I said, trying not to let my impatience show.

The lieutenant hesitated just for a moment, then knelt before me, eyes downcast.

All the others followed suit.

“We pledge allegiance to you, Elizabeth Greene,” he said.

I slowly smiled. “Excellent. Now, where are the other Malcatari? We will need their help before this is done.”

They glanced at each other.

I rolled my eyes. “Tell me you’re not all there is.”

“No, of course not,” he said quickly. “It’s just… it may take some time.”

“What, did you lose their phone numbers?”

“No, it’s just… there are so many.”

I frowned. “How many can there be? Malcanthet was only operating outside Domina for six years, and Miomanta wasn’t that big.”

“There were only a hundred in Miomanta, this is true,” he said, still keeping his gaze lowered. Humility was a trait I was fond of in minions. “But she trained us in recruitment, in the use of her purifying drugs. New recruits were only brought to Miomanta for the queen’s final blessing, and then sent to live in hiding. We have many brothers and sisters scattered around the entire country.”

“How many?”

“Thousands,” he said, still looking down. “Maybe tens of thousands.”

I felt a slow smile spread across my face.

It had been far too long since I had an army of thralls.

Behind the Scenes (scene 327)

This takes place on Monday, January 14th, four days after the para decided to contact Domina City.

Scene 315 – Furorem

FUROREM

ELIZABETH

I gripped the rock above my head. My hand was almost skeletal, the skin scorched off, my regeneration barely able to keep it in one piece. But I pulled myself up anyway, farther up the rock wall. It was easier than it should have been, since my legs were burned away. They would regenerate in time, but for now the lack of them halved my body weight.

Nothing hurt. Not yet. But that would come soon. Right now I didn’t have any nerves to hurt with, but I could already feel them itching. Regenerating.

I reached up with my other hand. Half the tendons were gone and the bones were visible and scorched black, but I found a place to grip. I waited a second, long enough to regain some strength, and pulled myself up farther.

The temperature went down a degree. Maybe not even that. But step by step, I was pulling myself out of the volcano. With every move, the heat abated, just a tiny bit, and I healed that much faster.

I didn’t look back, at the lava lake far below. Instead I reached up and pulled myself higher again.

This was all Derek Huntsman’s fault.

I had blamed Adam Anders at first. He was the one who knocked me into the liquid nitrogen, after all. And I would have my revenge on him, yes I would. I simply hadn’t decided whether to drown him in lava or nitrogen.

But Huntsman was the ultimate cause. Huntsman was the one my sister was so taken with, the one who her every plan revolved around. Every plan in Domina City, anyway. Her little hero. Pah.

Hate for him was what drove me forward. Every time I reached up to grab a new handhold, I imagined it was his neck. As I pulled myself up, I imagined pulling him down. I imagined him burning forever in the lava lake, like I had. A jumbled mess of pain and numbness, as nerves burned off and tried to regenerate at the same time.

Of course, he didn’t have regeneration. Would my sister give it to him, if it was the only way to save him? Or would she let him die and pick a new pawn, someone I held no grudge against?

I had no idea. I wasn’t sure I cared.

Just keep moving. One hand, then the other.

Just… keep… moving.

Standing on the lip of the volcano’s edge, the chill breeze blowing against me like the beautiful blood splatter of an innocent, I finally gave in. I collapsed to my knees, breathing deep the cold, clean air. Not that it was actually clean. But at least there was more air than ash out here.

I wasn’t sure how long it took me to climb out of the volcano. Hours? Days? I had been trapped in the lava for a length where time had no meaning, so it was impossible to say. Hard to keep an eye on the clock when your brain keeps turning to ash.

Now that I had a chance to rest, my AR interface had a chance to repair itself. Information overlayed my vision, simple things like temperature and current body state, not to mention time and date.

January 7th. A Monday. I had been stuck in that volcano for a little over two months.

I breathed deep. It could have been worse. It could have been much, much worse.

Once I was fully healed, I struggled to my feet. I looked around, but couldn’t see much. The volcano was in the middle of a short mountain range, and I didn’t see any signs of civilization. I didn’t much care to speculate why. Maybe my sister had intentionally dropped me as far from people as possible. Maybe the weak little mortals were just naturally scared of volcanoes. It didn’t matter.

I checked my internal GPS to get my bearings. Besceriul’s software was so much more intuitive than anything the mortals had ever come up with, so I was able to find a nearby town easily. I pointed myself in that direction and started running. Once I was sure I wasn’t going to stumble and fall, I crouched down, jumped, and activated my speed at the exact right moment.

I wasn’t like Akiyama. My mind was not sped with my body when I used my power. While it had its disadvantages, it did make me so much stronger than I should have been. When I combined a full-force jump with as much speed as I could muster, I ended up leaping hundreds of feet into the air, covering almost half a mile of horizontal distance.

And then I splashed.

I was too high up, and I came down too fast. Blood and gore and bits of bone splattered across the rocky mountainside like a spilled casserole. There was little left but a long red streak on the stone. It would take an expert to even confirm that it had once been human.

The regeneration was always the worst. My brain had been smashed on landing, so I had only felt a brief instant of pain before everything went black. But my brain was one of the first things to regenerate, since it was high priority, so in moments I could feel muscles and bones recovering from impossible wounds.

I screamed, not caring who heard. The few animals that hadn’t been driven away by my landing fled at that. Good. I had enough trouble with mindless mortals, I didn’t need to add mindless animals to the list.

In a few minutes, I was fully healed. I grimaced and rose to my feet, then took off running again. Then I jumped again.

And I splashed again.

I don’t know how many times the cycle repeated. A dozen times? Fifty? More than ten, certainly, and less than a hundred. It was just a constant blur of pain and regeneration. There was nothing else in the world except for that.

That and my hate.

I would punish Huntsman for everything he had done to me. This, the lava, every indignity. Every scream was a cry of rage, every growl a warning from one predator to another. Everything would be paid back in full.

It took hours, but I finally reached the town. I walked the last half mile, since landing in the middle of town would have caused problems. It was a small fishing village. It wasn’t the largest one on the island, but it had been the closest.

People looked up when I walked into town. Some of them ran off to find the mayor or village elders or shaman or whatever. I doubted they had a single visitor a week, so they didn’t have anything prepared for guests or enemies.

A middle-aged man with olive-colored skin ran up. I was in the Philippines, so I assumed he was a native. I didn’t pay enough attention to race and skin color and other stupid things like that to be sure. That was one thing Domina City got right. Skin color was easy to change, even without the toy maker. Who cared? Everyone still bled the same.

“Hello,” the man said. From that one word, I could tell his English was absolutely terrible. “I—”

“I speak Filipino,” I said in Filipino. It was as easy as blinking. “Or Bikol or Sambal or Tagalog. Whatever you prefer.” I scanned the village. Some kids were looking at me with wide eyes, but their mothers were pulling them inside.

The man relaxed visibly. “Thank you,” he said graciously in Filipino. He still had a slight accent, but it was barely noticeable. “My son is going to get you some clothes. We can discuss what you need after that.”

I looked down at myself. I was naked. I hadn’t even noticed. The lava, of course, must have burned it all off. Or was it burned off when my sister melted me out of that stupid ice cube? Eh, it didn’t matter.

The man smiled at me. He seemed anxious to please. Perhaps he was always like this with strangers. Or maybe he was used to warlords wandering in like they owned the place, shooting everyone who resisted. This was one of those perpetual warzones, right? Like Hawaii and Antarctica? Or was it the other way around, and these were the peaceful ones? Ugh, for once I was actually wishing that I had paid attention during Lakerine’s lectures.

In a few moments, a young man ran back to us, carrying a bundle of brown cloth. He handed it to me, smiling. I took it and unfolded it. It was just a robe. Eh. Wouldn’t be fun in this heat, but I guess they couldn’t be sure anything else they had would fit me.

“Did she say who she was?” the man said to his father in the Albayanon language. It was clearly his native tongue. “What she’s doing here?”

“No and no,” I said in the same language. I slipped on the robe as they stared at me in surprise. Hm, good quality. Not itchy at all. “My business is my own, and I will leave as soon as I am able. You have nothing I want.”

The men glanced at each other, but the father was the one who spoke. “Can we offer you some lunch before you go? The closest city is some distance.”

“You can offer,” I said. “I will not take it.” I cocked my head and peered at the water. “Those fishing boats of yours—do any of them have motors?”

“Several,” he said. “A few are undergoing repairs at the moment, however. Would you like to borrow one of the functional ones? The city is only a few hours away. In fact, my son would be happy to take you.”

“That will not be necessary,” I said. “I will drive it myself.”

He frowned, but managed to get a smile back on his face quickly. “Perhaps we could come to some kind of arrangement—” He stopped. Gurgled. Then he stared at the glowing orange sword that I had just shoved through his chest.

“This arrangement will suit me just fine,” I said.

I dismissed the blade, and the man collapsed in a heap. Blood started pooling, and I smiled. I took a deep breath. Oh yes, I had missed this.

His son was standing stock still. “You… what have you done?

I grinned wolfishly, then slashed his throat with claw-blades. They were like long fingernails, but made of energy blades. They weren’t useful most of the time, but that closeness… that feeling of the blood gushing out from under my fingers. Mm. There was nothing like it in the world.

The son clutched at his throat and stumbled back, eyes wide with horror. He tried to shout something but more blood just spurted from under his fingers. He collapsed to the ground, then fell over.

Someone screamed. I saw a young girl by the wall of the nearest building. I tossed a knife at her and her head snapped back, cutting off her scream. I didn’t spare her a second glance. I just marched forward, claws out, heading for the boats.

A bullet hit my shoulder. I hissed in pain, but didn’t drop or take cover. Instead I cast my eyes around, looking for the culprit. There—a young man with a rifle. Probably for hunting game. I doubted he had ever shot a human before. He looked hesitant to fire again.

His mistake.

I dropped my claws and activated my speed, covering a hundred feet in half a second. The man yelped in surprise and tried to bring the gun around, but I grabbed it and tossed it aside. He tried to punch me, but I blocked that as well, then stabbed my energy claws deep into his eyes. He screamed in pain, and I twisted. His screams cut off, and I tossed him aside.

There were more screams, more gunshots. But nothing close. I had a free path to the boats. I wouldn’t even need my speed.

I glanced back. People were running, screaming. I saw people with guns looking around the village entrance, confused. They didn’t know where I had gone. They might not even know what the problem was. Maybe they were expecting a wild animal attack.

There had to be at least a few hundred people in this village. I could leave, and they would never find me. Likely wouldn’t even give chase.

I grinned and turned back.

I had time to kill.

Behind the Scenes (scene 315)

This one got moved around a few times as I tried to find the perfect place for it.

Scene 234 – Mercor

MERCOR

LAURA

Everything about Silk disturbed me greatly.

I had thought I was used to Elizabeth. A cackling monster, a walking bloodthirsty stereotype hiding under an extremely convincing facade of friendliness and stupidity.

So when her sister strolled up, all smiles and as helpful as could be, I was more than a little wary. It was a trick. It was obviously, undoubtedly a trick. There was nothing else in the entire world it could be.

But every word she spoke passed my lie detection ability with flying colors. And unlike Elizabeth, she wasn’t dodging the questions or twisting the words to confuse the issue. As far as I could tell, she was just actually, genuinely telling the whole and absolute truth.

It rubbed me entirely the wrong way.

Who had ever heard of an enemy who just walks into your base, takes out your heavy hitter, and cheerfully gives you everything you could possibly want? Okay, not everything, but far, far more than I would have expected.

She claimed she wasn’t our enemy, and she seemed perfectly friendly. But every single instinct screamed at me not to trust her. To pull out my gun and shoot her, then lock her away somewhere and throw away the key.

But I had seen her casual defeat of Akane. I had very little doubt that she would be able to take out everyone in NHQ without much more difficulty.

As our little party walked through the halls of Necessarius, minor soldiers and functionaries dodged away from us like rats before a flame. Doors slammed in our wake, dropped papers people were too slow to collect abandoned… the rumors would be flying thick and fast, but no matter what the truth was, everyone knew better than to get in our way.

Silk slid up to me with a smile. “Something wrong, Highlander? You seem distracted.”

Her voice… her voice was exactly like Lizzy’s. Elizabeth’s. Warm as melted chocolate. But there was something else there. Something genuine, perhaps? Or was she just a better actress than her clone?

“I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth.

She tsked lightly. “Now, now, a truthteller shouldn’t lie.” She winked with a good-natured golden eye. “Old saying from my home galaxy.”

I had a feeling she was trying to draw me into a conversation, giving me hints she knew I’d latch on to. “That’s nice.”

“I understand that my presence is unsettling,” she admitted slowly. “But I wanted to be sure not to mislead you all in any way. And while my face does have an upsetting association with Elizabeth’s, it is mine. It was important I bear it.”

I grit my teeth. “That’s nice.”

“And as for your relationship with the little hero—”

Look,” I interrupted, still not turning in her direction. “I kept my mouth shut during our little interview. But I don’t trust you, and we’re giving you the most dangerous person on the planet. So just shut up before I decide to chain you up and use you for target practice.”

Silence.

Then, after a moment, there was a gentle hand on my shoulder. Silk didn’t say anything though, just gave me that brief touch of encouragement and then increased her pace to meet up with Doctor Clarke and Butler a few feet ahead.

Once again, her actions didn’t make much sense. She must have been manipulating me, but it certainly felt genuine, like a friend accepting that I needed some personal space and granting it. Though that was the point, I suppose.

It wasn’t much longer before we reached the cold room, one of Clarke’s specialized labs under the fortress itself. Normally, this was where he kept monsters and limbs with odd toys or mutations on ice, where he could study them at his leisure. It also had a small chemical factory attached, but nowhere near as large scale as Zero Forge, or even the sulfur foundries of Dis.

Now, it played host to Elizabeth Greene.

She had been dragged over from Zero Forge complete with the liquid nitrogen vat Adam had dropped her into. No one had wanted to risk pulling her out for even a second. Once we got her here, though, we had some other options.

Now, while the vat was still there, we had cooled it enough so that the nitrogen was now a solid block. As I had done every time I came down here previously, I immediately crossed over to the nearest control panel and double-checked the numbers. Nitrogen melted at 63.15 degrees Kelvin, and boiled into gas at 73.355 Kelvin. We were keeping it as cold as possible.

As always, the instruments read it as holding solid at 27.9 degrees above absolute zero. I would certainly have preferred for it to drop about twenty-seven degrees, but this was the coldest we could reasonably keep it. Even like this, no one could get within ten yards of the thing without getting frostbite.

Adam peered through the mists caused by the unspeakable cold, trying to get a good look at the vague shape in the mist. “I see… something.” His breath fogged as he spoke. “Please tell me that’s her.”

“I have a camera that can give us a clearer picture—” MC began, even as she sent the feed to the display I was standing next to.

Silk didn’t even look at it. “It’s her,” she insisted, stepping forward and placing her bare hand on the metal side of the vat as she gazed past it into the ice. It should have ruptured her skin as all her blood froze and burst her veins, but she didn’t even seem to notice. “You finally managed to slow her down, tin man.”

Adam crossed his arms over his chest and glared in her direction. “Was that referring to me? I do have a name, you know.”

Silk strode back out of the mist, apparently none the worse for wear despite entering an area only a few dozens degrees warmer than deep space in nothing but a thin black dress. In fact, she was grinning.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said to Adam, still smiling. “In recognition of your impressive achievements regarding my sister, I will grant you one wish.” Her golden eyes twinkled like stars. “Just name your price. I will not give you anything, but merely asking will not use up your wish.”

I frowned. Every stupid story I had ever heard about genies and the consequences of dealing with them was springing to mind. Depending on what Adam asked for, she could screw with us in a million ways and more. I glanced at him.

He just chuckled. “So, what, if I asked for a billion dollars, you wouldn’t be offended?”

“Of course not,” the tall woman, cloaked by the mists of the machine, replied smoothly. “Is that your wish?”

Adam blinked. “You… could do that?”

Please. That’s not even mildly difficult.” She nodded at Butler. “Hunter could do it. Though it would put a larger dent in his coffers.”

There was a pause.

“And… what if I asked to no longer be a clay? To be made able to use the toy maker?”

“Is that your wish?”

“If… I wanted to be… ” He seemed to be thinking as hard as he could, to come up with something that would offend her. I had a few ideas, but he didn’t have the same mind for cruelty I did. “…immortal. Like you and Elizabeth.”

Silk did not so much as blink. “Is that your wish?”

Another, much longer pause.

“Can I think about this?” Adam asked quietly.

Silk nodded politely. “This offer does not expire. Take as long as you like.”

A little shaken, Adam nodded in thanks.

“Miss Medina,” Butler grunted. “Let’s please get this done.”

I coughed. “All right. There are four passkeys that will need to be put in simultaneously. I have one, MC has another, and Butler and Doctor Clarke have the others. It should take about half an hour to fully thaw her out. Most of the equipment will be fried in the process, though.”

Silk clicked her tongue. “Oh, you people insist on complicating everything. Let me handle it.”

“Handle it? What do you mean, handle—”

Fire belched forth from her hand.

Even though I was only standing a couple feet away from the white-hot flame, I could barely feel more than the slightest tinge of heat. The mist in the room fled away from the golden woman, with the cone of fire stretching in front of her like a dragon’s breath, but that was all.

Except for the effect on the target, of course.

The metal vat filled with nitrogen ice, one of the coldest materials we could conceive of, melted before Silk’s onslaught like an ordinary ice cube tossed into a bonfire. In less than a second, the vat was gone. Not even liquid, gas, already steaming away into nothingness though the vents in the ceiling as I watched. I covered my mouth and stepped back in case the metal got into my lungs.

In moments, the only thing indicating that the block had ever been there were a few small black flakes of ash, spinning gently in the slight breeze of the room. Even now, they were beginning to float down to the floor.

But before they had the chance to hit the ground, they began to move.

They clumped together as if drawn by a magnet, creating a tiny black ball of ash. Within moments, that ball began expanding and gaining color. Faster than I had ever seen before, I saw the white of bone, the red of muscles, and finally the bronze, all building on top of each other like a three dimensional painting, being made layer by layer.

And then, there was Elizabeth Greene, standing naked in the center of the cold room.

She saw Adam, and she immediately stepped forward, her face contorted with rage.

“Elizabeth,” Silk said calmly.

The naked girl stopped dead.

She turned, ever so slowly, to see her twin standing there, as coolly as if they had just run into each other at the convenience store. Seeing them standing next to each other, it was easy to tell the difference between the two—and not just because of the clothes. Silk stood with the regal bearing of a goddess, an entity who knew from experience that she had nothing to fear. Elizabeth was half-crouched like a wild animal, ready to attack at any moment.

“Silk,” the naked girl whispered softly in shock. To my surprise, she immediately fell out of her attack stance, clasped her hands in front of her, and bowed her head before her obvious superior. “Geesmasni Iar, Dagrienpa ojpa’Silk. Itenpa leis Ipa sangli—”

Gel,” her sister answered.

Elizabeth blinked in disbelief. “Gel?

Gelmasni,” Silk amended.

D-dagrienpa,” Elizabeth said, pointing at Adam. “Ipa sangli—”

I kalb-dra gel.” Silk snapped her fingers, and before Elizabeth could object any further, the naked golden woman was gone. Just disappeared, as easy as… well, as easy as snapping your fingers, I suppose.

There was a long, long pause.

“…what just happened?” MC said after a moment.

Silk sighed. “She wanted permission to kill you all. I said no, and when she insisted, I teleported her under Mount St. Helens. It will take her a while to crawl her way out of there.”

“Was that your plan this entire time?” Butler demanded.

Silk made a face. “Well, I was hoping for both of us to walk out of here peacefully, but I will not pretend that I did not anticipate this ending.” She nodded to him in thanks. “Suffice it to say, you will not be dealing with Elizabeth Greene or her renegades any time soon. Good day.”

And then she was gone, leaving only a quiet riff of song to mark her departure.

Everything about Silk disturbed me greatly.

Behind the Scenes (scene 234)

Once again, the language Silk and Elizabeth use here is one I invented, so don’t bother trying to translate it. Though for the record, “Dagrienpa” is a female-only honorific that translates roughly to “Honored.” The male version is Dagriensa. Oh, and “gel” (“no”) is pronounced with a hard g.

Scene 226 – Nulla Fabrica

NULLA FABRICA

ADAM

Zero Forge didn’t really look much more impressive the second time around, on the outside at least. Peering at it from atop a building across the street, the only difference I could see at all was that there were almost a hundred screamers patrolling the entrances. None of them had guns or even knives, but somehow that didn’t make me feel better.

“Any info on their powers?”

MC’s response was prompt. “Not all, but the ones I do know are all violent. That cane by the junk heap has super strength, the feyborn by the door has pyrokinesis… that kind of thing.”

I peered closer at the second girl, the pyro. It had only been a couple days since the fey unveiled their new culture at the Wild Hunt, so I hadn’t seen more than two of their feyborn. She didn’t look like much, other than the fact that she had pointed ears, but I had a feeling she had more impressive toys underneath.

Plus, you know, the fire powers.

I sighed and took a step away from the edge. “I have no idea how I’m supposed to get in there. I take it there’s no sewer entrance this time.”

“Nope. Unless you can squeeze through a pipe the size of a softball, you’re not getting in that way. And Elizabeth cut all my connections, so I can’t even turn on a couple lights or machines as a distraction.”

That familiar feeling was coming, the tickling at the back of my mind that meant my subconscious had an idea. “Wait… you can control stuff in Zero Forge?”

“Normally I can control everything in Zero Forge. It’s a safety precaution. Everything short of the doors—and even a couple of those—I can play with as much as possible. Of course, there are manual overrides to cut me out of the system, and she’s already thrown every single switch.”

“But I can… unthrow them, right?” I waved my hand. “You know what I mean. I can run in there and turn your connections back on.”

“Nope, sorry,” she apologized. “When I say cut, I mean, cut. The lines are physically severed. It’s a salt the earth defense policy.”

I cursed under my breath. “Of course. This city never does anything the easy way, does it?”

“Not as long as I’ve been around, no.”

This was too good an idea to give up, though. Most of the infrastructure was still in place; the only thing keeping us from controlling the Composer’s entire lair were a couple cut wires.

“I know a bit about wiring…” I said slowly. “If I have the proper tools, I might be able to fix it. I’d basically just have to braid the lines together.”

“Well… it’s a bit more complicated than that, but you’re right, you could do it. Only problem is that there are over two hundred severed lines, all deep in hostile territory. No matter how fast you are, you’ll get spotted. And that’s assuming she hasn’t posted guards, which I doubt.”

“But if I get the first one, you can use the machines to defend me on the way to the second.”

Her text was blunt and to the point. “Nope. No defenses in Zero Forge. No turrets, no drop-doors, no pop-up barricades. There isn’t even an armory, though I think they’ve got a couple rifles in a locker.”

I wasn’t willing to let this one go so easily. “You could move the machinery or something.”

“Not really. Most of the stuff is stationary, and what isn’t is just on unpowered wheels and has to be pushed.”

“Well, now you’re just intentionally being difficult,” I grumbled.

“Yes, actually. We wanted to make sure no one could take complete control of Zero Forge just by some mild hacking.”

“But what if you—” I stopped as a thought occurred to me.

“Adam? You still alive?”

“What? Yeah. Where’s the nearest changeling outpost?”

“Changelings? Uh… there’s a Hate-Forged Flames base a couple blocks south… wait, there’s also a Chapel’s Singers outpost just a couple buildings to the west.” A GPS marker popped up on my eyepiece. “But what do you need changelings for?”

“Nothing,” I quipped vaguely, having way too much fun to give her a more detailed answer. “I don’t need changelings for anything.”

About forty-five minutes later, I was on top of a different building with a similar view of the Zero Forge, and a large black briefcase at my side. Thankfully, the outpost had been empty, so it hadn’t taken too long to retrieve what I was looking for.

“You’re being unnecessarily obtuse,” MC texted, clearly annoyed. “What’s the plan?”

I opened the briefcase, carefully giving the eyepiece a good view.

“…ah. Clever,” she admitted. “Yes, that could work.”

“Point me to the first break,” I ordered as I tweaked the devices I had taken from the changeling compound to the proper frequency. “Preferably one that’s only lightly guarded.”

“I don’t have cameras yet. But I think… north-west corner.” A new GPS beacon appeared.

The entrance MC had selected for me was just a dull service entrance with a loading dock and a steel door, guarded by a single angel. Even though his mouth was open in the same eternal scream as the other zombies, he seemed… almost bored. He was just pacing in front of the door, not really paying enough attention.

I could have sniped him with my Athena without difficulty, but I never had managed to find any silencers, so doing that would bring every screamer in a hundred yards down on my head. I could always backtrack to a gun store, but I wanted to gain at least a small foothold in the Composer’s base before retreating.

I rappelled down the side of the building—the Chapel’s Singers had a lot of cool adventuring gear, and I had grabbed some of the less bulky stuff—careful to keep out of sight of the angel. It was still midday, which meant his eyes were going to be far better than mine, but there was really no way around that short of waiting six hours for the sun to go down.

Still, there were enough parked trucks and so on that I could sneak up on the entrance pretty easily. Now I just had to take him out without him raising an alarm. I just waited until he was pacing away from me, snuck up behind him, and snapped his neck with a twist. Just like Derek taught me.

One advantage of fighting screamers was that they were all, well, screaming. If they had any way to talk to each other, I hadn’t seen it, and they certainly didn’t notice when one voice went missing out of the constant screechy chorus.

Though something I hadn’t expected (but MC reminded me) was that when fighting intelligent enemies, it’s important to hide the bodies before somebody stumbles on them. And corpses are fricking heavy. Seriously, it took me like ten minutes to lug that stupid daybreaker into a nearby truck that happened to be open.

But I did it, and soon was officially inside Zero Forge, having bypassed the door with one of those automatic lock picks I found in the changeling outpost.

“Okay, I’ve found the break,” I said aloud for MC’s benefit, as I sat down in front of a large red lever labeled ‘Emergency network shutoff’ in the drab gray entrance corridor. “What now?”

“Well, first off, move ten feet farther down the hallway. That’s where the physical break is, but the wires aren’t close enough to the surface to be useful.”

I cursed under my breath, got up, picked up the briefcase, and took another ten steps, scowling the entire way. “What am I looking for? Somehow, I doubt this one will be labeled as well as the lever.”

“See the machine in front of you?”

There was some sort of device nestled in an alcove, a pumping thing with lots of dials and meters and warning labels, letting off small bursts of steam every few seconds. “…yeah. What the hell is it?”

“Coolant rinse regulator. Don’t worry about that. Look behind it, where it connects to the wall.”

I peered at the spot indicated, finding the three-inch wide pipe running from the wall to the machine pretty easily. I was very careful not to touch any part of the thing. The ice dripping from it made me nervous. “Sure. Can you see it?”

“Barely. Take a knife, jam it into the seam, and cut up about two feet.”

It took about two full minutes of sweating and cursing, but I managed it. “Now what?”

“Pry off the sheetrock. To the left, please.”

I did so, once again having quite a bit of difficulty trying to struggle with avoiding the machine while working on something almost out of reach, but I eventually managed to messily tear off a large chunk of the sheetrock, exposing the inside of the wall.

It was mostly pipes, cobwebs, and electrical wires, but there was also a large black ribbed plastic tube with ‘Network connection cables’ stenciled on the side. The plastic was of the thinner type though, rather than the hard heavy-duty industrial material.

“I see it,” I confirmed. I readied the knife. “Want me to cut it open?”

“What?” she texted, then added more before I could respond. “Oh, right, it’s covered in a plastic sheath. I thought we hadn’t gotten around to that upgrade. No, don’t worry about it. It’s covering a steel pipe anyway.”

I rubbed my forehead. “If it has a steel cover, why does it need the plastic?”

“Insulation from stray electricity. Also, it makes it easier to distinguish from the other pipes. You’d be surprised how many people cut through those when they thought they were fixing the plumbing.”

“I… can imagine.”

“Sure. Anyway, get one of those things out. Quickly, screamers might be by any minute.”

I returned my attention to the briefcase, setting it flat on the ground and opening it carefully before pulling out one of the small devices held in the pre-cut foam casing.

The thumb-sized gadget look sort of like a small stack of quarters with antennae coming to the top; it was a squat cylinder, with one side flat and magnetized and the other a very small digital readout and some buttons.

It was a wireless transceiver, a bug designed to provide a hacker with access to a system that normally couldn’t be touched from the outside. It just had to be tuned to the right frequency, and we were good to go.

“608742 is your frequency, right?” I asked, just to make sure.

“Yes,” she responded, and if I hadn’t known better, I could swear I could hear her clipped and annoyed tone. “Now press it against the plastic casing.”

I did as she asked, feeling a bit silly holding it there. “I hope you have a better plan than me just sitting like this forever.”

“Hush. Of course I do. It can’t even make a connection like this; it needs more direct contact.”

“Then what do you expect me to—”

The small device jumped out of my fingers, burrowing through the plastic casing with a quick and sharp acrid burning smell.

“What the—”

“Look away,” the hacker advised. “I’m activating the thermite.”

It took me a second to realize what she meant.

I spun around as fast as I could the second I figured it out, though.

The thermite wasn’t hot enough for me to feel from a couple feet away, or bright enough to see with my back turned, but I could smell that unique stench of molten slag. The entire Forge was suffused with it, of course, but that was just a background level. This was like a sudden and concentrated assault on my nostrils.

When I turned back around, the transceiver had melted past the plastic casing and buried itself in the metal pipe, presumably cutting through to the network cables and making a firm connection.

“Done,” MC confirmed. “Nothing interesting on this network though, other than the cameras. I’m going to need more in order to do anything.”

“Fine. Point me towards the next one.”

As it turned out, the inside of Zero Forge wasn’t actually very well guarded. I suppose it had something to do with all the cramped machinery and industrial devices scattered around, making it impossible to find a real patrol path. And while MC insisted it was perfectly safe, I knew I was a little worried about all the vats of molten metal everywhere. Some of it, the stuff being molded on conveyor belts, was close enough to singe the hairs on my arms.

My hacker ally also claimed that part of the problem was that the entire factory was unspeakably loud; what few guards there were couldn’t hear me if I was five feet away from them. Obviously I couldn’t tell that right now, but I could at least remember last time I was here, and I did recall it being pretty loud.

Still, by the time the tenth transceiver finished burrowing its way into the pipe, I was starting to get a little annoyed. Yes, the lack of guards was nice, but we weren’t making much more progress.

“Is there anything here that can help me fight Elizabeth?” I muttered. “A liquid nitrogen sprayer or something?”

“I told you there are no defenses. Besides, why would there be a liquid nitrogen sprayer?”

“I don’t know, putting out fires or something.”

“That would be a massive and expensive case of overkill. You don’t need that much power to extinguish a fire.”

I waved my hand at one of the nearby vats of molten steel. “What about that? Somehow, if that spills, I don’t think one of those little hand-held extinguishers is going to do much to slow it down.”

“It has a cap on it, and more safeties than you can shake a stick at. It’s not gonna spill.”

“I can feel the heat from here!”

She was starting to get exasperated, I could tell. “Look, this wasn’t my idea. I said you should find a safe place and wait for Derek. You’ve already done a great job getting me back into the network—you’re not expected to personally fight the entire city.”

Stupid uptight little ro—

With a sigh, I shoved the darker thoughts to a corner of my mind. What was the use? Mentally cursing at my only ally was going to do precisely nothing to solve the situation.

And she was right, of course. I hadn’t been much use the last couple times we had fought renegades, which is what these guys basically were. I didn’t even have the slightest plan, other than getting MC connected again. Which I had done. So… what now?

She couldn’t actually help me fight an entire building of screamers and the Composer. Sure, the place was empty right now, but I knew they’d come running if Elizabeth called. The most violent thing MC could do was turn on a conveyor built unexpectedly, or move the cap off an empty chemical vat. Yeah, that would surely help me defeat a crazy immortal and her four hundred million minions.

“Fine,” I muttered with a sigh. “Find me a route out of here. I think I’m heading back to that Chapel’s Singers outpost. Maybe check out that Hate-Forged Flames base you mentioned.”

She put a marker on my eyepiece, and I started walking. “Just so you know, I think you’re doing the right thing. I know it feels like giving up, but—wait, I’ve lost a couple cameras.”

I frowned. “The transceiver blew?”

“No, just a couple cameras… one second.”

Then I turned a corner and almost ran straight into Elizabeth Greene.

She had a presence about her, always has, a strong awareness of her own body. She still had bronze skin, chocolate hair, and gold eyes. She still had a tall and imposing figure, only enhanced by a rather magnificent corset under a surprisingly subtle white sundress.

And just like last time I saw her, she was covered in blood.

Her hands were by far the most stained, caked in the rusty brown flakes of old blood, as well as dripping—literally dripping—with the results of newer murders. Her white dress had bits and splotches here and there, but not as much as the last time I had seen her; she must have changed recently.

She was singing.

Obviously, I couldn’t hear her, so to me she just looked kind of silly with her mouth hanging open, and I couldn’t really tell the difference between her endless song and the zombies’ eternal screams.

All I knew was she had found me.

She grinned, exposing perfect pearly white teeth flecked with blood.

I whipped out the gun I had closest to hand, the Occisor Mk 3, and shot her right in the head. I missed, of course—firing from the hip was a hell of a lot harder in real life than in the movies—both with the first shot and the second. But the third round got her in the eye, sending her flinching back a step long enough for me to take aim and fire three more bullets straight into her skull.

Massive chunks of her head blew off, enough that I could even see the gray matter of her brain beneath the blood and shattered bone. She was down for the count.

I ran.

I’m not ashamed of it. I knew my limits, and I couldn’t beat the Composer like this. On a good day, with my hearing intact and an entire armory at my disposal? Maybe. But not deaf with only a couple decent guns and a single god slayer.

“MC!” I spat. “I stopped the singing! How are the screamers?”

The words arrived on my eyepiece almost before I could finish asking. “Still screaming.”

“OF COURSE THEY ARE!” I made the mistake of craning my head back to look behind me, and saw Elizabeth, already almost done regenerating. I turned my attention back to the twists and turns in front of me.

“You used the Occisor, right? Try the St. George. You said you had some anti-infantry steel shot left.”

I holstered my pistol as I ran, cursing every god I could name, and struggled to pull the massive shotgun off my back without tripping and breaking my neck. Okay, now I had it out, now I needed to flip off the safety, check the chamber—

Then Elizabeth was in front of me. Alive and whole, if covered in blood and with a dangerous hunger in her eyes. How had she gotten around? She must know this place better than me.

I didn’t have time to think about anything. I just brought up my St. George, flipping off the safety in a single motion, and fired straight at her torso.

I had a number of different ammo types for the ‘sarian shotgun. The god slayers were my favorite, but they were expensive, so I never kept them loaded at all times. Normally I kept the standard slugs, but there was also the anti-infantry shot and the anti-armor slugs to consider.

As it turned out, I still had it loaded with the dragon’s breath rounds.

The second I pulled the trigger, dozens of small ceramic beads loaded with pyrophoric dust were propelled down the barrel, smashing into each other and shattering, releasing their contents and igniting on contact with the air.

The result was that a massive cone of flame belched forth from my weapon, engulfing the charging woman in a burning cloud that would scorch her to the bone. All that was left was a tall flaming pyre, as if I had set a scarecrow on fire.

But she was immortal.

A burning hand reached forward, narrowly missing my neck and singeing my face. She stretched forward with her twisted claws blindly, which I barely managed to avoid by dropping to the ground. But her eyes would regrow quickly, and I doubted it would improve her mood.

I picked up my shotgun and ran, on all fours for a moments before regaining my feet and flat-out sprinting.

“MC, I need an out,” I hissed. “Something. She’s not gonna give up until she’s wearing my guts as a hat!”

“Yeah… you probably shouldn’t have shot her with dragon’s breath.”

It was an accident! And now is not the time anyway!”

“I don’t have any ideas! She can’t fly, try going up?”

I didn’t bother to mention that I couldn’t fly either; it was still a better plan than I had at the moment, which was ‘run around aimlessly until she catches and kills you.’ At least MC gave me somewhere to run to.

Finding a ladder up proved to be easier than expected. I scaled the metal thing quickly, scraping my elbows in my haste, but decided that was far better than the alternative.

The ladder brought me up to the first level of scaffolding, overseeing the majority of the factory floor. From this position, I could see more vats of molten metal being capped, glowing red-hot bars and other metal parts, not to mention all the conveyor belts running every which way.

“I have an idea,” I muttered. “MC, show me the quickest way to the south side of the Forge.”

“The scaffolding doesn’t extend there, you have to get down and go through the doors.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw gouts of flame flying left and right. Elizabeth, taking out her rage on inanimate objects. But she’d find me sooner or later; I was in plain sight up here. I could go down, but then I’d just get crushed by something she threw some fire in my direction.

Besides, for my plan to work, I needed her to follow me.

“There has to be something,” I insisted as I started running for the wall that partitioned the north and south halves of Zero Forge. “Don’t materials get carried from one side to the other?”

“…yes. But it’s just a couple small conveyor belts!”

“You said you control the conveyor belts!”
“Not all of them!”

I felt the platform I was on shake, and glanced back to see Elizabeth, nearly naked but healthy as could be, glaring at me with murder in her eyes from a hundred feet away.

“MC, do it!

“Fine!”

A blinking dot appeared on my eyepiece map.

I followed it without a single moment’s hesitation, dodging the things my pursuer was throwing at me—either glowing orange force-field knives or fire, I couldn’t really tell. I just knew I needed to get away.

As expected, the GPS locator brought me to a small conveyor belt, maybe a foot wide, made of a fine metal mesh and covered in red-hot tiny machine parts that it was slowly taking towards a square hole in the wall.

I jumped on it without so much as a pause, only taking the time to knock off the hot bits of metal before they could burn me after I knew I wasn’t going to fall off.

I turned to see Elizabeth closing, murder on her face.

“Hit it.”

Suddenly, the engine was kicked into overdrive, and I was being driven feet-first at that tiny hole in the wall at a hundred miles an hour.

I almost jumped off. It would have killed me, of course, but I almost did it. I’ve never been afraid of cramped spaces, or speed, but in this particular situation, anyone in the world would have their heart jack-hammering in their chest.

Then I was in.

Then darkness. All I could feel was metal walls, zipping by inches away at lightning speed.

Thankfully, it didn’t last long. A moment later, I was out in the light again, and the conveyor belt was slowing down as fast as was safe.

The south side of Zero Forge wasn’t lit quite the same way as the north. Both had the same cool halogen lights set into the ceiling, of course, but for the north, most of the light actually came from the molten metal being shipped and shaped and hammered. It created a lot of light, but most of it was shifting at all times, which meant lots of flickering shadows, like torchlight.

This side was different. The vast majority of it was room-temperature or colder chemical work, and despite what movies claim, most of those don’t glow. The only light was from the ones in the ceiling, which glowed gentle white-blue. The result was a cool and gentle feel to the entire massive warehouse-like factory that seemed quite at odds with the dangerous nature of the work here.

“Reverse it!” I cried, referring to the conveyor belt that I was even now jumping off of. The second my feet hit the scaffolding, I took off running.

“Done,” MC texted. “I’m also working on your plan, but it will take a second. I have to disengage literally over a hundred safeties.”

I almost asked what she was talking about, until I realized that she had just managed to deduce my plan on her own. Good, that saved me time from having to explain it. Still, if it took too long, I’d be dead. And if Elizabeth figured it out, I’d be dead.

“I’ve also locked all the exterior doors. There are a couple screamers still inside, but that’s gonna keep most of them out.”

“Until they use super strength to break the doors down.” I remembered Yolanda’s friend Steve. “Or just straight-up teleport.”

“Well, on the plus side, I think Elizabeth wants to kill you personally now. She might not let the screamers do the job for her.”

Great,” I muttered sarcastically, though I knew it really was good news. Even if it just delayed my imminent demise by a minute or two, that might be enough to enact our plan. Of course, we had no guarantee that it would work, in any manner of the word, but it was better than just crossing our fingers and hoping she went away.

Whether she realized I was being sarcastic or not, she responded with assurances quickly. “Just need another minute or two. I’ve bypassed the safeties and the pumps are working.”

“Good, I—”

The scaffolding shook.

Once again, I turned to look behind me. Once again, Elizabeth was there, angry.

The wall behind her, the one with the small hole for the conveyor belt, no longer had a small hole. It had a huge one, a ten foot wide and tall crater in the solid steel barricade that partitioned the two sections of the Forge. The edges of the hole were ragged and the color of old blood, and I smelled something on the air.

Rust. She had rusted her way through.

But she couldn’t possibly have much power left after a move like that. She wouldn’t be able to use her speed, or any of her other powers for another minute or so. Lucky for me; that was the same amount of time until MC was ready.

The only problem was that Elizabeth could still kill me with her bare hands, and she was already stalking forward with a will.

Once again, I ran, quickly ducking off the straightaway and onto the network of twisting and turning scaffolding designed to give good views of the capped vats of chemicals below. Other than the railings, the metal walkways were pretty bare (the only exceptions being the monitoring computers above the vats), so I knew I couldn’t really hide.

I still didn’t expect her to grab me so quickly, though.

She kicked me from behind, sending me sprawling forward on my face and cutting myself in a few places on the metal grating. I managed to keep a grip on my shotgun through sheer luck, and tried to load a round into it.

Elizabeth casually kicked the ammo out of my hand.

I had more, but the message was clear: She wouldn’t give me time to use it.

“MC,” I whispered. “Really pressed for time here.”

A text appeared on my eyepiece immediately. “Try to keep her in that general area. I’m trying to get it off. One minute, maybe less.”

Okay, I could hold on for one minute.

I flipped onto my back, where I could see my foe approaching. The bronze-skinned monster was almost completely naked, with only a few burned scraps of clothing still clinging to her form, but she obviously didn’t care—and honestly, neither did I. It takes a pretty unique person to think someone trying to kill them is sexy.

More importantly, she was stalking forward slowly, warily, even as she was still singing. I couldn’t tell how much of it was her being genuinely cautious and how much was just her playing with her food, but either way I was grateful. I just needed a momentary distraction, so I could get a gun out.

“Plan: Elevator,” I hissed.

The Composer raised an eyebrow at me. There was a brief pause, and I was afraid that MC hadn’t understood the reference.

But then Elizabeth’s head snapped around, gazing at some distant corner of Zero Forge, where I was guessing she had just heard an explosion or something.

It wasn’t much but it gave me a second to load a round into my St. George, and bring my Caedes up to attack. She noticed the latter move, but by the time she was stepping forward, it was already too late.

I fired my submachine gun at point-blank range to her chest.

The Telum Caedes is hardly the most powerful gun on the market, but at that range, pretty much anything is going to make you sit up and take notice. She stumbled back, gripping the safety rails in an attempt to stay upright, and glared at me even as her healing started to push the bullets out of her gut.

As I scrambled to my feet, I fired another burst, one-handed so I could hold my shotgun in the other. Not as many hit, but I just needed to keep her off me until—

And then she was on me.

Pinning me to the hard metal grate, with her knee grinding painfully into my back, she leaned down and put her mouth close to my ear. I assumed she was whispering something, but I had no idea what. Had she not noticed I was deaf, or was she just ranting for her own benefit?

“MC,” I managed to grunt out. “Now.”

“I can’t!” she texted. “I’m going as fast as I can, but the emergency pneumatics can only be activated from the control panel above the vat!”

The control panel that was sitting on the safety rail about two feet away from me, literally within arm’s reach. It may as well have been on Shaohao Station for all the good it did me.

Elizabeth grabbed my neck, squeezing like a vise with her iron grip. The world started to go black…

And then her grip loosened.

I didn’t waste time pondering my good fortune. I just immediately bucked my unwelcome rider, scrambled forward, and turned my St. George on her with my back to the opposite railing.

It didn’t take long to figure out what MC had done. The control panel was sparking; she must have found a way to overload it remotely, activating the emergency pneumatics and speeding up the process.

Because large chemical storage vat 090, situated directly below a gap surrounded by the walkways so that the engineers could observe it directly from above, was open. Completely uncapped, the contents open to the air.

And it was filled to the brim with liquid nitrogen.

Elizabeth Greene turned to face me, her back to the railing that was the only thing keeping her from falling into one of the only things cold enough to slow her down, and stared at me in complete and utter shock.

Not fear. Just shock.

She honestly hadn’t thought I could do this to her.

Eh. Not as satisfying as fear, but I’d take it.

“See you later, Lizzy,” I quipped, and fired.

My last Necessarian god slayer, which I had loaded into the St. George just moments before, flew forward right on target, aimed straight for her chest. What happened next, I didn’t fully understand until I reviewed the security tapes later.

Her first mistake: She didn’t dodge.

Elizabeth was an immortal. There was nothing in the world that we knew of that could permanently damage her. Therefore, her first instinct would never be to dodge. Why would it? She could heal from any wound, not to mention she had shields like Derek’s.

Which brings me to her second mistake: She put up a shield.

A glowing orange shield, leaking mist like dry ice, appeared in front of her. I had seen her shields before; they had stopped my Caedes and a few other guns.

But it wouldn’t stop a god slayer.

The rocket-propelled round punched through the strange barrier like it was made of cheese. The force of the impact ignited the secondary charge, setting off a shaped blast that propelled shrapnel into the Composer’s body hard enough to knock her back over the railing, sending her falling into the vat below.

And finally, her third mistake: She tried to kill me one last time.

She could have grabbed a railing, or maybe rusted the vat, or put a shield under her feet or something to save herself. But once again, she was an immortal. She wasn’t used to having to save herself.

Instead, she threw a few glowing orange knives at me.

She missed. Completely. I didn’t even have to dodge.

Then she was in the nitrogen, splashing the liquid everywhere. It was far enough down that I didn’t have to worry about getting any on me, but I still winced as I saw splotches of it flash-vaporizing on the ground, as the room-temperature floor was enough to turn it instantly to steam.

After a few moments, the thrashing slowed, then stopped. A moment after that, the cap slowly began to shift back into place.

I let out a deep breath I hadn’t realized I was holding, clicked the safety back onto my St. George, and holstered it. “Good work, Mary Christina.”

Even just in text, I could read her wry tone. “You only get to call me that once.”

“I think I’ve earned it.” I breathed deeply, trying to bring my heart rate down to a level that didn’t feel like it was going to physically jump out of my chest. “I need a route out of here. Back to that Chapel’s Singers outpost. Then figure out what to do about… ” I sighed. “…everything. Any chance you can call Derek yet?”

“I doubt it.” A brief pause, then: “Oh. Yes. Satellites are back up. I wonder when that happened. I’ve been so focused on Zero Forge for the past hour, I wasn’t even checking.”

I blinked. “What? Really?”

“Well, I haven’t actually called him yet. I’m just gonna look around the city, find you a way home, then we’ll deal with that.”

I nodded. “Sounds goo—”

IT WORKED

I frowned. “What?”

“Killing Elizabeth! Freezing her, whatever, it WORKED! ALL THE SCREAMERS ARE SANE AGAIN!”

I…

Had no idea how to respond to that.

I had just written every single one of them off as dead, that I…

My legs gave way.

Suddenly I was lying on the hard metal walkway, one of my guns jabbing uncomfortably into my side.

I wanted to get up. I wanted to go outside, and see what I had wrought. See people I had assumed gone forever, happy and alive.

But I couldn’t stop crying.

I had beat the odds. Literally four hundred million to one, and I had survived. Better than survived, I had won. By any sane definition of the word, I was the victor of the fight between the entirety of Domina City and Adam Anders.

And I couldn’t stop crying.

Behind the Scenes (scene 226)

I always have trouble writing about Zero Forge. I hope this came off well.

Scene 221 – Effugere

EFFUGERE

ELIZABETH

TWO DAYS AGO

I grinned. “The Paladins have left the city.”

The ‘sarian torturer, Doctor Henry, frowned at me. He did that a lot—he didn’t like how little sense my anatomy made to him. Stupid backwoods yokel. “What? How could you possibly know that?”

“I can sense them,” I explained casually, enjoying the shock on his face. I couldn’t tell if the shock was from what I was telling him or just that I was telling him anything at all, though. “Anyone who has heard the Song can sense the general presence of anyone else who has heard the Song.” I shrugged as best I could, considering I was strapped to the steel wall of the warcage. “Range is a hundred miles and some spare change.”

He opened his mouth for some snappy retort, before closing it thoughtfully. “…a hundred miles and change. Domina City is a hundred miles in diameter.”

“Plus Whitecap Bay,” I noted. “Which is why I avoided the place.”

“That’s why you chose Domina? So you’d always be able to sense the screamers and the speakers anywhere on the island?”

“Well… yes and no.”

He waited for me to continue.

It’s always so delicious when you have something someone wants, and they have to actually come out and ask for it.

He bit the inside of his cheek before he managed to get the words out. “…what exactly do you mean by that? Is that not why you chose this city?”

I did my little half shrug again. “Kinda. More specifically, it’s the reason we built this city.”

“That’s impossible. You’re not even twenty.”

I laughed out loud. “Oh come on! You’re not going to seriously make the mistake of trying to gauge an immortal’s age by her face, are you?”

The doctor cursed under his breath. “Fine. Thirty years ago, you had Domina City built to provide the perfect playground for you and the Paladins, where you could sense each other from anywhere on the island.”

I nodded… then frowned. “Okay, no, that’s my mistake. Kind of… misleading word choice. Composers can sense anyone who has heard the Song within a one-mile radius. Directors can only sense chorus and conductors.”

“You mean speakers, screamers, and singers.”

“Call them whatever you like. I don’t care.”

The Necessarian selected a few tools from a rack. One was a very interesting device that looked like a cross between a blowtorch and a small hose. The hose probably spit out liquid nitrogen; he wanted to see how I dealt with fire and ice at the same time.

I didn’t flinch as he brought the torture implement closer—it would hurt, but it wouldn’t kill me, so I really did have nothing to fear—but he paused before switching it on.

“You didn’t build this city to be your playground,” he said slowly. “You’ve been far too restrained for the past twenty years or so for that. The screamers and the Paladins… they were an experiment.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, yes, congratulations, go get a cookie. But the interesting part is this:” I leaned in as close as I could, considering my position. “What is the experiment?”

He met my gaze without fear—which just proved he was an idiot. “I suppose you’re going to tell me?”

Pulling back, I snorted derisively. “Hardly. Not like I even know. Something about… something. And stuff. I dunno, there were some rules I had to follow and a bunch of stupid stuff like that. I stopped asking questions a couple centuries back.”

“So there is someone pulling your strings.”

Duh. Do you think this stupid city would still be in one piece if I was allowed to do whatever the hell I wanted?”

“And you want me to figure out their goals for you.”

I laughed again. “What gave you that idea?” I chuckled, and shook my head to throw a lock of hair out of my eyes. “No, no, I don’t care what their goals are. Knowing her, it’s something stupid, anyway.”

Henry had put the nitrogen/blowtorch thing down, and had a genuinely confused expression on his face. “Then why are you telling me all this? What’s the point?”

That made me grin as wide as possible, baring my too-sharp teeth. “Isn’t that obvious? It’s so much more fun to kill people when they know they have information their friends need.”

He realized how close he had gotten to me, and slowly started backing towards the door.

Yes,” I hissed, still grinning like a cannibal. “That’s the look I wanted to see, good doctor. The look of the cow at the slaughterhouse, who has realized why he’s been fattened up.”

“All your Blackguards are dead,” he muttered in a shaky voice. He clearly didn’t believe it.

“You’re right,” I admitted, to his surprise. I sighed in mock disappointment. “Every single one I gathered over the years is dead and gone. I overplayed my hand recently. Let too many of them get within sword range of Akiyama.” I grimaced. “Strategy has never really been my strong suit.”

He swallowed; he knew better than to relax. “Then you can’t escape.”

“Oh? Tell me, good doctor… didn’t you ever notice that I have some of the same powers as the Paladins?”

He frowned, thought for a moment, then opened his mouth to answer.

“I have some of my Blackguards’, as well.”

Then I placed my bare palm on the steel wall, and felt it rust away beneath my touch.

Doctor Henry tried to run.
I love it when they try to run.

Behind the Scenes (scene 221)

I debated for a long time whether to include this one or not. In the end, I decided that it does fit, despite being short.

Scene 209 – Venator

VENATOR

DEREK

“Akane, stay with Adam,” I ordered, my voice thick. She’d pull him somewhere out of the way, keep him safe. “I’ll handle the Composer.”

Handle me?” Elizabeth said, giggling like a loon, her blood-drenched dress ruffling in the night breeze. “Little Huntsman, you and the freak together could barely keep up with me. And now…”

She flicked the lighter in her hand—where did that come from?—and a bolt of fire zipped past my ear, into a ‘scraper behind me. What was she…

Then the building exploded.

Every window in the first floor belched forth fire and smoke, enough to completely vaporize every wall and support beam on the inside. It was too much for that little flame; she must have planted explosives in there beforehand. Or maybe the fey did, and she was just taking advantage.

It didn’t matter how. The important thing now was that the building was falling towards me, like some massive gray tree felled by a lumberjack with a grudge.

“…now, you have other things to worry about.”

Silver moon and golden sun, what was I supposed to do in this situation? The structure was easily fifty feet across and a couple hundred tall. I couldn’t dodge—or maybe I could, but the panicking civilians with no where to go would still get squashed. I couldn’t—I couldn’t—

My mind was locked into panic mode.

My body was not.

I moved instantly into horse stance, instinctively spreading my legs to a wide but stable position, grabbed every drop of power in my reservoir, and—

Not a millisecond too soon, the falling skyscraper crashed onto my glowing blue shield.

At fifty feet wide, it was easily the biggest shield I had ever created. It hovered ten or twenty feet above my head, raining down soft wisps of azure mist onto both me and the awestruck bystanders.

Then the strain hit me.

I fell to one knee, cursing under my breath, holding my hands above my head as though physically keeping the shield in place. It certainly felt like I was doing it physically. The weight of the shield pressed on my entire body, compressing my spine and making me break out into a cold sweat.

At least the civilians realized I couldn’t protect them forever. They scrambled to escape from the crash zone, clambering up buildings and even riding away on the fey monsters that had been fighting them only ten or twenty minutes before. A distant part of my brain noted the oddity of the monsters’ behavior, but this was not the time to focus on that.

Because my reservoir was empty.

Not emptying, empty. It simply hadn’t been deep enough to keep a shield this large going for more than a second or two. I didn’t even know how I was keeping the thing in place now, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The pressure was increasing. I had to do something soon, but I couldn’t just drop it. Killing myself wouldn’t do anyone any good, and Elizabeth had already casually strolled out of the crash zone. If I could somehow get both of us at the same time, that might be worth it, but otherwise…

Wait. Maybe…I squinted my eyes, trying to confirm what I thought I had seen. Maybe…

Yes! I had a plan! And it didn’t involve dropping a couple hundred tons of concrete and rebar on my head!

It was simple, really: I tipped my shield at an angle, causing the massive weight to simply slide off it.

And land directly on top of Elizabeth Greene.

It was a close thing, but my eyes were good. The bystanders had been giving the Composer a wide berth, so she was the only one in the crash zone. Well, her and a few monsters, but that was definitely an acceptable price to pay.

I collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily, not even caring that every gasp of breath filled my lungs with the concrete dust billowing up from the crash like smoke from an explosion. I didn’t have time to find fresh air. I needed to recover as quickly as possible, before—

The skyscraper exploded.

Well, okay, not really, but it certainly looked that way at first. A good ten-foot section of the well burst out violently, sending shards of concrete and rebar out like shrapnel from a frag grenade, while pushing back the existing dust in such a wide radius that it created the illusion of a much larger explosion.

Elizabeth Greene strode out of the hole in the ‘scraper, none the worse for wear.

Well, not completely. Her white dress, previously stained dark red, was now nearly black from dust and grime mixed in with the blood. Her bronze skin was gray, covered as it was in pulverized concrete, and her hair wasn’t much better. Her arm was broken in multiple places, but even as I watched she pulled it back into place and let it heal itself.

The only thing unchanged were were eyes. Gold, predatory eyes, narrowed in raw and unfiltered hatred.

“You are fast taking the fun out of this, Huntsman,” she hissed, her voice carrying far in the cold, dust-filled night air. A nearby streetlamp, one of the few that had survived the building’s impact, cast diffuse light on the scene. “I am going to enjoy cutting you into sashimi.”

I fell into a fighting stance. “Let’s see, huh?” Then I blinked and stared at my arm, at the spot where I typically conjured one of my shields, the kind I could carry around with me or attack to my arm.

It wasn’t there.

What? I concentrated harder, but my only reward was an increase in the coppery taste already in my mouth.

“Aw, what’s wrong?” Elizabeth said mockingly, grinning from ear to ear. “Is the little director having trouble with his Song?” She giggled. “You overspent yourself on protecting the rats, you stupid little hero. Your reservoir’s gonna take hours to recover. You taste that blood in your mouth? That’s from your organs liquefying, trying to supply power anyway.”

I glared at her even as she slowly stalked forward. “I don’t need it.”

She burst out laughing. “What? You don’t need a power to fight a composer? Oh, you really are insane, aren’t you?” She giggled again as she summoned those glowing orange swords of hers. They left orange streaks in the air, like the mist was clinging to the dust for a moment before dissipating. “Well, sure. Let’s see what you’ve got!”

The Composer rushed forward, closing ten feet in the space of two heartbeats, her eyes alive like fire, her blades held back at her sides for easier running, and her grin so wide I thought her jaw might fall off.

She swiped with the right blade first.

I dodged.

Dropped down to one knee, letting the sword miss me by inches. Before she could recover and counterattack with the second hand, I grabbed the wrist in question, held it away from me, moved inside her guard, and kneed her as hard as I could in the gut.

She stumbled back, hissing wordlessly, but before she could recover, I followed through with a massive kick to her sternum. It was something of a clumsy blow, but the risk proved worth it when she was sent sprawling on the ground.

“I was on the wrestling team,” I called out to her. “Back when we were kids. Signed up near the end of elementary school, you remember that?”

“STOP TALKING!” She tried to take advantage of my perceived complacency, but despite my casual demeanor, I was watching her very closely. When she tried to slash me from the ground, she telegraphed her strike. I moved inside her range again, grabbed her arm, planted my foot on her shoulder—yes, shoulder—and twisted the offending limb behind her back, breaking it, while simultaneously shoving her face into the street with my foot. She screamed in rage and pain, but her cries were muffled by her position.

“In my first practice match, one of the middle school kids—there was only one practice room for all ages, you know—challenged me. Decided to take the newcomer down a few pegs.”

Using her other arm, Elizabeth tried to roll away. But I grabbed one of her legs in both hands and snapped it, bending it backwards at the knee.

“The older student said some things I didn’t like,” I continued as her screams subsided for the moment. “You know how bullies like that are all trash talk. Said some things about my mom, about Akane. But you know the thing that really riled me up?”

Once again, Elizabeth tried to dodge away, this time by using her super speed to run past me, a direction she probably assumed I wouldn’t anticipate. But I had fought fey before, I knew how immortals thought. It probably would have worked anyway, but her broken leg slowed her down. Slowed her down enough for me to grab her neck—grinding my teeth when my shoulder nearly dislocated from grabbing something moving forty or fifty miles per hour—and slam her down into the street again with all the force I could muster.

“The thing that really riled me up was when he said things about you.”

Elizabeth wasn’t interested in reminiscing. From her position on the ground, she planted both legs—the one I had broken had healed enough by now—and shoved me off her. I kept my feet, but she was free now. Rather than fleeing again though, she howled in rage, summoned her swords, and came at me again.

“That guy died, you know.”

I dodged her first sword strike, then the second. She was angry, and making mistakes, but she was still far too good a swordswoman for me to get close. The first time had been mostly luck and good timing.

“Two of his friends, who were watching, tried to help him.”

Elizabeth switched up her tactics, moving from broad slashes to lightning-quick jabs. One of those would get me soon. I couldn’t dodge forever; she was backing me up against the wall of the fallen ‘scraper.

“They died too.”

I tried to feint under her guard again and get a few quick blows in, but her earlier berserk rage had cooled, and she was being much more careful now. One false move would get me skewered.

“I got thrown off the wrestling team, of course. I paid my retribution fee and started slaying monsters.”

“What do I care?” the Composer snarled, as she pushed her attack with renewed vigor. “What should I care about a bunch of mortal brats!?” She hopped back, giving herself more space. “I am ELIZABETH GREENE! The homicide, the GENOCIDE! Ender of men and worlds! You are just a stupid nameless HUMAN!” She charged forward, both blades held before her, ready to run me through.

I let them.

The Composer blinked, in genuine surprise, as her glowing orange blades punctured my gut, cut through my organs, and burst through the other side.

Wrong,” I hissed, as I grabbed her delicate throat and squeezed, crushing bone. “I am Derek Huntsman.”

I kicked her in the chest, sending her sprawling to the ground—and disrupting her concentration enough that her blades faded into nothingness—before stomping over and systematically breaking both her legs.

“I am the first Paragon of Domina City!” I yelled over her screams. “The first man to fight Tecumseh to a draw!” She tried to summon a single sword; I stomped on her wrist and broke her hand. “The man who faced down Asmodeus, and Thor, and and the Beast himself!” She tried to summon a blade with her other hand; before it could finish materializing, I grabbed the offending limb, planted my feet on her body for leverage, and ripped the entire arm off her body, the sound of tearing flesh and breaking bone nearly drowned out by her blood-curling screams.

“I fought Cinder, and Halifax!” I cried as I tossed the bloody limb away carelessly. “I turned down offers from Dispater, and Obould and Io and the Erlking! I was a legend by the time I was fifteen years old!”

Elizabeth tried to crawl away feebly, using the arm that was still attached to her body, gritting her teeth against the pain of a broken wrist and hand that had barely even started healing.

I leaned down close to her ear, even as I placed my hand carefully on her back, on the spot where Laura had showed me the base of her abnormally weak spine would be.

“I am Derek Huntsman,” I whispered. “Remember that name.”

Then I thrust my hand into her back, through the dress, and physically ripped out her spine.
It wouldn’t have worked on a human. Most of our fight wouldn’t have worked on a human, actually. But Elizabeth wasn’t human. Laura had been quite clear on that. She still didn’t know what she was, but she was frail. Her bones were weak, as though designed by someone who knew she would have healing abilities. Why go to all the extra effort to strengthen her skeleton when lighter bones were faster, and she could heal away any injuries anyway?

It took a minute, but I eventually finished ripping the spine out of the body, taking Elizabeth Greene’s skull with it. It was like some grisly, blood-drenched trophy on the end of a stick, but I knew it wouldn’t last if I wasn’t careful.

I tossed the spine and head to Akane. She had appeared about halfway through the fight, but wisely decided not to interfere. “When Necessarius gets here, put that on ice. Liquid nitrogen, I think Laura said was best, but if there isn’t enough of that, a frozen warcage might slow her down. She starts healing, snap a few vertebrae.” Speaking of Laura, she was walking up, flanked by two changelings—

And Simon (limping along with his girlfriend’s help), Seena, the winged fey (being supported by Seena), that Dagonite, Delphie’s nephew Leon, and Eccretia. All looking at me, as shocked as if…

Well, as shocked as if they had just watched one of their oldest friends dismember one of their other oldest friends with his bare hands.

Silver and gold, this was not going to be fun to explain to anyone.

I sighed. First things first. “Eccretia. You mind keeping an eye on this?” I indicated the headless, spineless corpse of the Composer. “I don’t think she’ll heal from it, but you never know.”

The changeling warlord nodded. She didn’t say anything, but Laura’s bodyguards moved forward to police the body. Good men.

Laura nodded to something behind me. “There’s also him to consider.”

I turned to see what she was talking about.

Oh. It was Ziba Brannigan, the Blackguard ‘sarian general. He was on his knees on the street, staring at his boss’s corpse in dull shock. He wouldn’t be any danger any time soon. But still, with that healing ability of his…

I sighed. “Flynn, if you would.”

Flynn came up behind the last Blackguard and sliced his head off with a single stroke.

I smiled—well, grimaced, really, my everything hurt too much to really smile—at the swordsman. “How’re your wounds?”

He clutched his side with a shrug. “Slapped some bandages on it, popped enough stims to pickle a gargant. I’ll live long enough to get to Clarke.”

As I nodded approvingly, Laura strode forward purposefully. “We should burn Brannigan’s body, just in case. He’s a healer, after all.”

I blinked, then nodded. “Right. Yeah, sure. You guys do that. I’m just gonna sit down for a minute, okay?”

I don’t remember anything after that. Laura later told me that I was unconscious and snoring before I even hit the ground.

Behind the Scenes (scene 209)

This is another of those I’ve been waiting for for a long time.