Tag Archives: Flynn

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 317 – Bellum Parat

BELLUM PARAT

AKANE

It was January 8th. The alien ship had been hovering in our skies for a full day now, ignoring all communications. It wasn’t in a geosynchronous orbit, though, so it had drifted away from Domina and was now somewhere over New York. But still, it was an unspeakable danger to anyone and everyone. Nothing could be left to chance.

So, we trained.

Another two of my kensei collapsed, the exhaustion of constant sword practice too much for them. From my perspective, they appeared to go from normal speed to moving in slow motion, taking minutes to fall to the ground.

I continued going through the forms with the remainder, until two more fell. That left only four left, out of a group of twenty. I wiped the sweat from my forehead, then motioned for everyone to stop. I made sure to wait until they had all turned off their speed until I did the same.

“Drink,” I said, pointing at a table filled with sports drinks. “Rest. We’ll start again soon.”

Everyone groaned, but reluctantly filed over to the table. I stayed back and let them go first. I needed to present a strong front and not look like I was taking advantage of my position. Besides, I wasn’t as tired as them. Overusing your power didn’t quite exhaust you physically, but it did exhaust you. Drain your reservoir too much, too fast, and it would regenerate slower.

We had also discovered that a reservoir would regenerate faster if you were well-rested and healthier. Between the speed training and the sword training, my kensei would be regenerating at a trickle soon. The drinks would help, but part of the point of this exercise was to push them to their very limits.

I didn’t push too hard, though. My own training had been harsh, and I remembered the nights I had lain awake dreaming of killing my instructor. I would prefer my kensei didn’t think of me that way. Some of the more advanced kensei took on the role of harsher teacher when necessary.

Thankfully, it rarely was. All of my students were tough, driven people. The truly lazy rarely survived long in Domina City, and the ones not up to par had given up shortly after I formed the kensei in the first place. I was left with a group of sharp blades, the best weapons I could ask for.

I looked down at the sword in my hand. It was a bokken, a wooden practice sword. I had been using it to practice and instruct, but it wasn’t a real weapon. I needed a new one soon. Flynn had promised a ‘surprise,’ which I was dreading a little bit. I wasn’t good at receiving gifts. I never knew what to say.

Just as I was about to order my kensei back to practice, the door to the gym opened and a crowd of ‘sarians walked in. They were dressed in simple exercise clothes, and there was a familiar face leading them.

“Adam,” I said in surprise. I walked over to him and met him halfway. “I thought you were still in New York.”

He smiled. “Came back today. There’s only so long I can listen to my parents freaking out.”

“Over the aliens, or Domina?”

“Both, unfortunately.”

I rolled my eyes. I knew a thing or two about problematic parents. “What about Lily? Did she stay?”

“She’s coming back with the ambassadors tomorrow.”

I frowned. “Are they leaving anyone behind?”

“Maybe. The changelings mentioned something about it, which made the fey say they were going to leave a few homunculi…” He sighed. “Politics. Not fun.” He shook his head to clear it. “Anyway. You’re training for the aliens?”

“The para, they’re called,” I said. “Derek heard it—”

“From Silk, I know,” he said. “Lily heard it from her, too.”

I raised an eyebrow. “She visited Lily?”

He pursed his lips. “That’s… her secret. Let’s just go with sort of for now.” He forced a smile onto his face. “But I didn’t come here to talk your ear off.” He jerked a thumb at the Necessarians behind him. “I was wondering if my boys could train with yours.”

I looked past him. The ‘sarians were an eclectic bunch, as always, with roughly equal numbers of each culture represented. I even saw a few that I thought were feyborn, but it was hard to say. No dragons, though.

A few of them in the back had large duffle bags that they had set on the ground. Those most be their famous backpacks.

“Your CS squads?” I asked.

He nodded. “I figured it was a good idea. Your kensei are one of the biggest guilds in the city. They’ll be on the front lines of any fighting.”

“Yes,” I said, looking at him curiously. “That’s why I’m training them. What’s your point?”

He smirked ruefully. “My point is that we don’t know what these para are capable of. They might have powers, or counter-song.”

I blinked in surprise. I honestly hadn’t considered that. No, more than that—it literally had not occurred to me. I had just assumed that powers were completely unique to Domina. I couldn’t remember if Silk said anything about aliens having powers. Probably not.

Finally, I nodded. “Fair. Good training for both groups.” I tapped my sword hilt against my chin. “The devices are not single-target.”

Adam frowned for a second, but then his face cleared. “Ah, I see—you want to have them pair off with the kensei, see if the kensei can practice disabling the devices. That’s not an option, like you said. One CS device will cover this whole room. I think we’ll have to split them into teams.”

I nodded. “Good. Prepare your men.” I turned and walked back over to my kensei.

It didn’t take long to set everything up. Adam and I had similar training styles; Derek had called in some of our old teachers to help Adam, back in the beginning. We had both done team exercises like this before, though never against another guild.

Were the CS squads a guild? They didn’t have any unifying power, just the opposite. Ah, whatever.

The first battle proved embarrassing for both sides. My kensei were almost useless without their powers, with one or two exceptions—most of them had never touched a sword before they got their speed. The CS squads, on the other hand, weren’t used to fighting against a coordinated force, and it showed. They circled up, backs to each other, like they were fighting animals. A few kensei got inside and did quite a bit of simulated damage before they were taken out.

Eventually, Adam called a stop. His boys had won, but they didn’t look like it. Half of them were out, and the survivors had their eyes down. They knew that they had messed up pretty badly. My kensei looked even worse. They stood in a line, straight-backed but not looking at anything, just waiting for punishment.

Before I could figure out what to say, the door opened again and Flynn poked his head in. He glanced at the two groups. “Is this a bad time?”

“No,” I said. I nodded to Adam, and he nodded in turn. He’d cover yelling at both groups.

I walked over to Flynn and stepped outside with him, into one of the identical hallways of NHQ. I smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “What is it?”

He grinned. “It’s done.”

I frowned. “What are you—” My eyes went wide. “The sword?”

He nodded and picked up a long, thin box that he had left next to the door. He held it out to me with both hands. “Here. Open it.”

I hesitated, but slowly reached out and lifted the top off the box. Inside, nestled in red velvet was a beautiful katana that seemed to shine in the light. It had a subtle curve to the blade and a very small guard above the hilt, which was wrapped in a silk braid. The silk was red as blood—or, more accurately, as red as the Akiyama name.

Hesitantly, I reached in and gripped the hilt. After a deep breath, I pulled the sword out in a single motion. The grip fit my hand perfectly, and the blade seemed to sing. Just a tiny bit, but I knew it was there.

“It’s wonderful,” I whispered. I adjusted my grip—still perfect.

“I was inspired by your stories of the Unmei no Kazi,” Flynn said.

I raised an eyebrow. “You went to Japan to dig up my family’s ancestral blade?” The name was based on the Akiyama family motto. Well, one of them. ‘You cannot question the winds of fate.’ Definitely one of the more pretentious ones.

He chuckled. “Well, now I feel inadequate. No, I didn’t do that. I wouldn’t have known where to start looking. I just meant I thought you should have a sword that would last. Something you could give to your children.”

My heart skipped a beat, but he didn’t seem to notice the implications. “I don’t know what to say.”

He winced a little. “Well… don’t praise me just yet. I wanted to let you name it yourself, but Elrond insisted.”

I frowned. “Elrond.”

“Yes, the guy who thinks he’s an elf. But he really is an excellent swordsmith, so he made this. Or, her, rather.” He nodded to the blade.

I held it up in front of me. I hadn’t been able to see before with the light shining off it, but it had an inscription.

Corvus Reginae,” I said.

“Elrond said it means ‘Queen of Ravens.’” Flynn shrugged, a little uncomfortable. “I have no idea if that’s accurate. My Latin class got attacked by dumpster dogs. But it certainly sounds good, right?”

I smiled. “It’s perfect. Thank you.” I pulled the sheathe from the box. It was plain black, except for a single long red line that ran along its entire length like a spine. Simple and elegant. I liked it.

Flynn smiled back. “I didn’t understand everything Elrond said, but the entire sword is made out of that amorphous metal stuff. It’s practically unbreakable, and shouldn’t need to be sharpened. Rust attacks will still kill it, though, so stay away from Elizabeth and anyone with that same power.”

I nodded. That was fair. From what Laura had told me about the way that power worked, anything would be susceptible to it. It wasn’t even rust, it was some sort of general-purpose decay. There were a few of them scattered around the city. I’d try to memorize their names and faces.

“It’s non-magnetic,” Flynn said. “No idea how that works, but there it is. That will make it immune to some of the kytons, but not all of them. Most of them don’t use magnetism, they use kinesis, which is…” He noticed the bored look on my face, and moved on. “Anyway. The point is that this will work against almost anything. With your speed, you could probably cut through a tank.”

I smiled. “I think I’ll avoid that. Don’t want to damage it.”

“I honestly don’t think that will be an issue. He used his power to passively enhance the blade during the forging process. He has a weird ability to—you’re right, not important. The point is, it’s very strong.”

I smiled, then waved the blade through the air again. “I swear I can hear it singing. Hungry for blood?”

He nodded, but looked a little uncomfortable.

I frowned. “What?”

He hesitated. “Elrond… did some impractical things while he was forging it. Her. Whatever. Uh, do you want me to refer to the sword as a person, or—”

“Flynn,” I said tiredly.

“Right. Well. Elrond…” He took a deep breath. “He used some of Elizabeth’s blood. Don’t ask me how he got it, I have no idea. But he integrated it into the blade. Maybe just used it for cooling. But… yeah.” He trailed off.

I stared. “What?

“He seemed to think it would help.”

I brushed my hair back. My hand fixed my ribbon on automatic. “I think I need to meet this ‘Elrond.’ Soon.”

Flynn sighed. “I thought you might say that. I should warn you, though. He’s… odd.”

I smirked. “Crazy.”

“Yes,” Flynn said glumly. “Half the days he thinks he’s in a fantasy world, with dragons and elves and dwarves.”

“We have dragons now.”

“Don’t remind me. This freaking city…” He shook his head. “I’ll take you to him if you want, but I think you’ll regret it. I doubt you’ll get anything more useful than a headache out of the meeting.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Fair enough. Can’t say I didn’t warn you.” He forced a smile on his face. “Anyway, let’s get back inside. You have a class to teach—assuming they haven’t killed Adam and escaped by now.”

I smiled as well and opened the door.

Inside, everyone was on the ground groaning. A few of the CS devices were smashed and one sword was embedded in a wall, but for the most part the destruction was minimal. A few people were curled up into balls, but most were just lying on their backs or their faces, too tired to move.

Adam stood by the table, nonchalantly sipping a sports drink.

“Hey,” he said with a smile. “That a new sword?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 317)

One of the oddities of the guilds is that they are more interested in what you do than how you do it. So both magnetism manipulators and metallokinetics are welcome in the kytons, just as all types of fliers are welcome in Robyn’s guild.

Scene 258 – Draco

DRACO

AKANE

I strode up to the office building, Flynn a half-step behind me, and nodded at the guard at the door. He stepped aside, pulling open the door next to him, and gave me a small bow without saying a word.

Inside, the walls were stripped bare, the carpets ripped out, and all the furniture removed. There was a bit of dust and dirt, but surprisingly little trash; the new inhabitants must have taken at least some time to clean up after they kicked out the ghouls who were squatting.

We passed dozens of guards, armed with machine guns and rifles and all manner of carefully lethal weaponry on display. Unlike most cultures or companies, they weren’t using a few, uniform weapons. They were all allowed to choose whatever they wished.

Speaking of which, the guards themselves were similar to the weapons they bore. While many of them just had the basic vampire package, I saw representatives of every vampire subculture. The Nosferatu and ghouls were easiest to spot, but there were also Canians in their fire jackets, Belians with their fixers on their arms, and even a few Nessians.

Eventually, we found the center of the floor, a large and open room that had likely originally been intended as a conference or breakfast room of some type. Other than a few tables and chairs, there wasn’t any more here than anywhere else.

It was occupied, of course.

“Miss Akiyama,” Kelly, the ex-Belian who led the retinue, said with a slight bow. “Thank you very much for coming.”

I bowed as well, as Adam and Flynn exchanged a quick bro-hug, with lots of back-slapping. “Of course, Corporal. Anything for a friend.”

She frowned at my waist. “Where’s your sword?”

“Right here,” Flynn grunted as he returned to my side.

Kelly glanced at the man—and the sole blade at his side—for a moment, before shrugging. “Well, if you don’t want to go buy a new one, I’m not going to make you. For now, I’d just like to introduce you to someone.” She turned to the man in the chair. “Akane Akiyama, Magister of the Kensei, I would like to introduce Dracul de Moarte, Noble of the Draculas.”

The man wasn’t anything really exceptional, for a vampire. He had the black hair and pale skin they found attractive, but other than that he didn’t look particularly monstrous. His fangs were hidden behind his lips and a small smile, his long-sleeved shirt concealed his whip-like muscles. He wasn’t even armed. All in all, he looked just like any other vampire you would run into on the street.

Except for his eyes.

Beautiful, gorgeous eyes, a rich sapphire blue, a rare and enchanting color even in the era of the toy maker. But despite their allure, their color wasn’t the most important part. Not directly, anyway.

Vampire nighteyes were pure black, something related to the pupil expanding as part of the nighteye process. Angelic dayeyes were the opposite, with the iris expanding and the pupil shrinking, resulting in an eye that seemed nothing but color.

The Dragon had both.

In a city where surgery was everyday and reshaping your entire body was only slightly more difficult, the Dragon was one of only two people who had successfully combined dayeyes and nighteyes. The Kellions had cheated by making one eye day and the other night, but this was different. This was true fusion, true synthesis, something that only the Mother Monster herself had ever managed to pull off.

Dracul had godeyes. The perfect eyes, capable of seeing in virtually any light level. From so pitch black baseline eyes would swear there was no light at all to bright enough to knock a vampire unconscious, it didn’t matter. He could see everything.

There were no shadows in his eyes. No bright spots or glare. Perfect sight.

“Honored Magister,” the Dragon said warmly. He indicated a chair that one of his men had produced—a simple cheap plastic folding chair, but no worse than the one he was sitting in. “Please, take a seat. Corporal Sanguinas has been telling me all about you.”

I sat, slowly, with Flynn taking up position behind me, and forced myself to speak. “I thought we came here to discuss business. Two of our own are missing. Alex Gabriel and Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters.”

“Skipping the formalities, I can understand that.” He waved off a waiter who had been approaching with something that looked like red wine, but almost certainly wasn’t. “The Corporal tells me she suspects that Belians were behind the kidnapping.”

“That is the working theory,” I said.

“Unfortunately, I can’t just order them to explain themselves,” the vampire said with that small smile of his. “I might be leader of all vampires in name, but it is more complicated than that.” He shrugged. “Besides, the Throne of Abriymoch has been empty ever since Belial died. It makes dealing with them harder than it has to be.”

It took me a moment to parse what he meant. “You think one of the Nobles is acting alone.”

“Or pretending to act alone,” he said. “It’s one of their favorite tricks. A minor loophole in the retribution laws. They all decide on a course of action, one of them carries it out, and pays the fees if things go sideways.” He shook his head. “Sooner or later, Butler is going to get tired and authorize a killing instead of a minor fee.”

I ignored that. “But you know where they would take captives.”

“There are a number of places—their power has waned drastically since Shendilavri, but they still shouldn’t be underestimated. Safehouses, outposts, a couple hidden fortresses… not to mention Phlegethos itself.”

“They wouldn’t take them to Phlegethos,” Kelly said. “Too dangerous. Too many secrets for them to ferret out if they escape. If they hit the pheromone slave override, then the entire Belian standing army would switch off like a light.”

That was something to keep in mind.

Dracul nodded. “I agree. Belial’s lieutenants are scared and confused, but they’re not stupid. They didn’t keep their positions these past few years by taking unnecessary risks. No.” He held out his hand, and one of his men dropped a file into it. “They’ll take them the same place Belians always take things they want kept, but forgotten.”

Kelly closed her eyes. “Blood and shadow, no.”

“You knew this was coming,” the Noble said mildly. “You don’t get to act surprised.”

“I was hoping I was wrong,” she grumbled.

Adam stepped up. “For those of us who didn’t grow up in this city…”

“I don’t understand either,” Flynn said.

“The fortress of the half-succubus,” Kelly said quietly. “The Venus-Star, the Lady of the Heavens, She of the Divine Drink.” She sighed. “It is called Jealous Heart, founded by Inanna, but is now ruled by the Noble Ishtar.”

She closed her eyes.

“My ex-girlfriend.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 258)

I actually really like this scene, but it’s even shorter than normal.

break

Scene 244 – Esca

ESCA

AKANE

Veronica crushed me in a bear hug that put Maria’s to shame.

“You should have come by sooner!” she cried, apparently unaware that I couldn’t breathe. “Why didn’t you tell me you finally found your nephews?”

I struggled to get my face out of her chest, but to no avail.

“Let the poor girl go,” Derek’s mom chided. “She can’t help clean this place up if you smother her to death.”

Thankfully, Mrs. Arrow complied, and I suddenly found I could breathe again, though I had to lean against the wall for a moment.

We were in the Arrow apartments, specifically the first floor kitchen where Veronica served meals. Last time I had been here, the place had been under guard by the Hellions and some other demon clans, trying to protect Obould from the Composer despite his protests. Mrs. Arrow had done her best to ignore them all and continue making her famous meals.

Now, there were more demons than last time, but most of them weren’t guarding. They were scattered around the apartment, helping to clean up the massive mess made by the MEE—and Veronica Arrow’s personal rampage.

The clean white walls of the kitchen were covered in dust and dirt produced by the massive rents and tears that dug down to the sheetrock. The pictures of friends and family—including myself—carefully framed and hung at eye height had been thoughtlessly knocked down, the glass shattered and scattered across the floor carelessly. The oven appeared to have been actively attacked, with massive dents and gouges as if it had been struck repeatedly with an axe.

The beautiful oak table and chairs had been reduced to kindling, but those had already been replaced, albeit with temporary cheap plastic ones. There were a couple Kellions (judging by the emblems on their shoulders) sitting down eating, but they hastily stood when they realized who we were.

Derek waved them off. “Please, don’t get up on our account.” He took in the destruction with a critical eye. “It’s not quite as bad as I expected. But I thought when Elizabeth turned the city, most people retained their minds enough to not just destroy anything in sight. Were you one of the exceptions?”

The big Italian woman shook her head. “No. Well, we don’t have cameras, so it’s hard to be sure. But as far as we can tell, it’s just that I wouldn’t stop trying to use my new found ability.” She shrugged. “I can’t control it, so this is what happened.”

Yuudai looked at her, wide-eyed. “Mama Arrow, you did all this?”

She smiled fondly at the boy. ‘Mama’ was a title usually given to the matrons of orphanages. You know, when it wasn’t being used for actual mothers. “You would be… Yuuki, correct? The younger of the pair?”

“I’m Yuuki,” the boy in question corrected from my side. “The older. That’s Yuudai.”

She nodded in apology. “Well Yuudai, yes, I did do all this.” Her smile turned sad. “Quite a few people did things… that they would later regret. During the Rampage, I mean. All things considered, I am lucky most of my home survived intact.”

“Too true,” Maria said, patting her old friend on the shoulder as she and Victor walked by and put their bags on the table, ignoring the demons eating there. “But the best thing to do is move past it, and start working on fixing things.”

They might be ignoring the demons, but the demons seemed well aware of who they were, and weren’t interested in getting in anyone’s way. They suddenly found that they had other, very important things to do, and fled with their food as fast as their legs could carry them.

The pair and Veronica didn’t seem disturbed by the sudden exodus, if they even noticed, and Victor spoke after shuffling through his bag for a moment. “All right, I’ve got some white paint here, but that’s for later. Anybody got spackle compound for the walls?”

One of the women who was working—and hadn’t fled—reached around a corner and pulled out a small container. She was a hag, of all things, judging by the fresh needle marks on her arm, but she seemed surprisingly together for a drug-addled loon. “Here. Probably not enough for everything, though.”

Victor took it without even looking at her. “Thanks. Maria, you have the tools, right?”

“You said you had them.”

“Yes, for painting, but I mean—”

“I didn’t know what else we needed. How would I?”

“I don’t know, you seemed to know what you were doing!”

I rolled my eyes and patted my nephews on the shoulders. “This can go on for a while. Why don’t you two go upstairs and try to find Obould? He should be in his office. It’s labeled.” I pulled them away from the shouting and pushed them towards the stairs around the corner.

As the boys left, I turned to see Flynn standing before me. When I jumped, he shrugged. “Sorry. Thought you were leaving.”

“So you decided to follow me?” I asked, a little skeptical. What, was he a stalker now?

“Rather than stay and watch Derek’s parents yell at each other? Yes, actually.” He looked over his shoulder and frowned. “Actually, that hag creeps me out. Never thought seeing someone normal instead of giggling and insane would be so weird.”

Is she a hag?” I asked. “I saw the needle marks, but she could be from another clan…”

“She has a jacket with the hag emblem,” he explained.

Again, that wasn’t iron-clad proof of her subculture, but it took a very, very stupid person to wear the hag symbol openly. Even most hags, drugged out of their minds, weren’t that stupid. Usually.

But this girl wasn’t drugged out of her mind. She seemed… intelligent. Lucid. Her eyes were sharp, and her mind was clear. I felt like I was missing something very important about the whole situation.

I shook my head. That was a problem for another time. “Let’s go down to the cellar. Get some food Mrs. Arrow can make to interrupt the arguing.”

He followed me to the small door that led downstairs. “Are you sure she can? I mean, I’m not sure her oven is working.”

“No idea,” I said as we headed into the dark cellar. There was a light switch around here somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. It was a small room, mostly too small; leaving the door open would illuminate things well enough. “But that oven of hers was a gift from Dispater. It’s tougher than it looks.”

Flynn started gathering up cans seemingly at random. “If you say so. If nothing else, she can throw something in the microwave.” He frowned at one of the cans he was holding. “…what is Atlantean god-crab?”

“Giant crabs,” I explained as I carefully selected a few items of my own. “Fey-modified, of course. They’re at the bottom of the bay, so we don’t see them much.” But Mrs. Arrow would have the connections necessary to get a hold of them—the bigger question was why. “Here. Take this.”

He hefted the covered plastic bucket I handed him without complaint. “This thing has water in it? Some kind of fish, I’m guessing?” He sloshed it around a little before nodding to himself. “No… more crabs. They alive?”

“Kinda. They’re hibernating.”

“Crabs hibernate?”

“I’m not sure. These are fey coral-sleepers. They sit still for days or weeks waiting for something to happen by. They might have been modified to hibernate so that they could go without food forever.”

Flynn frowned again as he hefted the bucket. “This feels kinda light for its size, but it feels completely full, too. These some of those helium fish that float or whatever?”

I chuckled. That was one of the fey’s more public failures. Most of their failures either never left their labs or did enough destruction once outside that the fey didn’t care. The helium fish had just been embarrassing.

“No.” I checked the label. “That’s fifty pounds. Sounds about right.”

“It’s—” He stared at the bucket in his arms in shock. “This is fifty pounds? That can’t be right! It feels like…” He bounced it in his arms, trying to gauge the weight. “…twenty? No, closer to thirty, I think.”

“The power package increases your physical attributes,” I noted as I led the way back up the stairs and out of the dank, cramped cellar. “Strength, agility, toughness. Not much, but enough to be noticeable.”

“I didn’t hear anything about this!” he cried, seemingly unaware that he was hefting the fifty-pound bucket up the stairs without any difficulty whatsoever. “When did you figure all this out?”

“Way at the beginning. The first night, when Laura made us test our powers. Wasn’t it part of the ‘sarian announcements after the MEE?” I had been in New York at the time, and hadn’t cared enough to look it up online after.

“Well, I didn’t see it, I was so busy with everything, and I figured I knew everything I needed to know about the powers anyway…” He shook his head. “It seems like people would be making a bigger deal out of this.”

“You mostly hang out with the Paladins,” I noted as we walked into the kitchen. I placed my armful of canned goods on the scarred countertop next to the oven. Flynn followed suit with the bucket of crabs. “We got all of that out of our systems before the worm hunt.”

Maria and Victor, it seemed, had likewise gotten something out of their systems, and had stopped arguing, and were now having a pleasant conversation in the corner with the hag. I made a mental note to keep an eye on her.

Derek was speaking with Victoria near one of the walls, apparently discussing the damage to the walls. He didn’t notice us come in, but she did, and walked over to us with a smile.

“Very good job, you two. Ooh, and you brought the butter too. Good.” She ruffled my hair, making my beads click. “You always forget the butter.”

I smoothed my hair back into place as she turned to remove the lid from the bucket and inspect the crabs. “That was once, and I was twelve.” If I recalled correctly, she hadn’t even given me a list, just told me ‘go get the stuff for dinner.’

She ignored my protests, and just started pulling crabs out. “Flynn, could you be a dear and get me the pot? The big one, of course.”

Flynn raised an eyebrow at me. He had never been here, so he had no idea where she kept anything. I rolled my eyes and led him down the pantry, the hallway behind the kitchen where the Arrows stored all their kitchen hardware. Finding the crab pot didn’t take long, and we went to fill it up at the sink.

Which didn’t work.

“Oh, right,” Veronica said mournfully. “I cut a few of the pipes during the Rampage.”

“You can just use the water the crabs came in,” Maria suggested.

Mrs. Arrow sighed. “Maria, this is why none of your food is edible. That water has been home to a few dozen crabs for a couple months. It is not fit for drinking at the moment. It probably won’t kill us after it’s brought to a boil, but it will taste terrible.” She turned back to us. “The bathroom sink still works. Get it there.”

I hefted the pot, Flynn following, and found the bathroom in question down the hall and to the left. Getting it into the sink was a pain, and we ended up splashing more water onto ourselves than into the pot, but we finally managed to collect a respectable amount of liquid, and returned to the kitchen.

By that point, Yuuki and Yuudai were back, and they had brought Obould with them.

Obould smiled at us as we walked in. “Oh, you’re helping with the food? That’s not necessary, I could have handled it just fine.”

“Last time you said that, dinner was three hours late,” Derek said idly as he tapped something on his pad. No wait, it wasn’t his pad, it was Veronica’s. He handed it back to her and she nodded in thanks, placing it on the counter where she could read it while cooking.

Obould didn’t seem offended. “But it was a good meal, you have to admit.”

“Either way,” I said as Flynn and I placed the pot on the oven-top stove. “Here is your water, Mrs. Arrow. Did you need anything else?”

She smiled, trying to focus on me and the cookbook on her pad at the same time. “Bless you, no. You’ve done enough. I would like someone to set the tables…” She trailed off, glaring at her husband. He completely failed to take the hint.

I sighed and turned to my nephews. “Past the stairs is the dining room,” I explained, in a louder voice than normal. “You’ll find all the plates and place-mats and silverware in the cupboards. Help Knight Obould set everything out.”

The knight in question looked up, blinking owlishly. Odd, he wasn’t squinting. The kitchen light wasn’t exactly glaring, but it was certainly there, and someone with naked nighteyes should have found it annoyingly bright. A couple of the other orcs we had seen scattered around were wearing their daygoggles.

But that was a mystery to be solved later. The orc Power frowned, confused, as Yuuki and Yuudai led him towards the dining room, understanding my request even if he didn’t. That would keep all three of them out of trouble for half an hour or so.

“Thank you for that,” Veronica said graciously as she started placing crabs in the warming pot. “You know how he can get. He’s been distracted by that gargant.”

Derek, speaking with his mother, frowned and looked up. “What gargant? I thought the fey weren’t attacking any more.”

“There are still a couple, here and there. The strikes are seemingly random, but they also have a surgical precision that you don’t often see with the fey. Enter a shop, kill everyone inside, remove everything of value, and leave. Cameras fried before they even get within sight.”

He considered. “You’re right, that doesn’t sound like the fey, new or old. Are you sure—”

“They’ve taken credit,” she interrupted. “Paid retribution fees and everything. But they can’t keep this up for long. It’s only been a day, and there are already murmurings of discontent. Butler’s going to start demanding they pay their retribution in blood rather than cash soon.”

“Wait, it’s only been a day?” Flynn asked as he took a seat. I followed suit. The plastic chairs were hard and uncomfortable, but I had dealt with far worse. “How does he know it’s a gargant? That sounds like some dangerous new power, to me.”

“The bodies were killed in the same way as the ones from when the fey announced their changes.” She turned away from the pot for a moment, and seeing everyone’s blank looks, elaborated. “Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves organized a band of adventurers and monster slayers to head into the sewers, and they were slaughtered to a man. It’s still not clear exactly what killed them, but it’s the same as now.”

“And since there appears to be only one, it’s only logical to assume a new gargant,” Derek mused. “What exactly have they been taking?” He shook his head before she could answer. “No, right, you said everything.”

“Clearly meant to cover their tracks, hide their true goals.”

“Right. Well, what kinds of places were attacked?”

“That’s the thing. There’s no pattern—which, admittedly, makes it sound more like a fey ploy. There have been three restaurants, four banks, two gun shops, and even the Graveyard, of all places—”

“Graveyard?” Derek and I interrupted at the same time. We glanced at each other, and he continued. “Haven’t heard of that one. Some sort of bar or club, I’m guessing?” There were no graveyards in Domina City. There had just never been room. Generally, the dead were either dissected by companies for research, eaten by ghouls, or cremated. We had the Halls of the Dead, of course, but those were just names carved into the walls.

Veronica glanced at Maria and Victor, who just shrugged, before turning back to us. “Sorry, I assumed you knew. The Graveyard is what they’re calling…” She paused, trying to find the right words. “…Ling’s tomb.”

“Her WHAT?” Derek jumped up, knocking over the cheap chair in the process, and I was only a half moment behind him. “Ling’s dead!?” He took a deep breath. “That’s not… I mean, we knew that was a possibility.” His eyes turned hard. “But when was she found? And silver and gold, how does she have a tomb?

“Guys, you know this,” Flynn said gently. “That ave lab she destroyed right as Silk came.”

I blinked, feeling some of the shock washed away by understanding. I had heard about that, a lab completely and utterly destroyed by massive concrete spikes, bursting out of the ground and the building itself in impossible ways. “I thought they hadn’t found Ling’s body. Or even confirmed that it was her.”

“It had to be her,” Derek muttered, distracted, as he righted his chair and sat back down. “No one else has that kind of level of power yet. But other than that, you’re right. Last I checked, the ‘sarians digging there hadn’t even found the toy box.”

“Well, they found it,” Victor said quietly. “Entombed in concrete, with a twisted corpse inside. It was too… broken to identify, but Isaac confirmed Ling’s DNA. She must have tried to retreat to the box after destroying the lab, but it was too late.”

“The toy box was nonfunctional?” I asked, frowning. Those things were supposed to be indestructible. The originals, at least. They were covered in enough amorphous metal to deflect a small nuke.

“No, it was still working. Still on, I think, but the body…” He looked away. “There are some things even the toy box can’t fix.”

The room fell silent as everyone gave Derek and I some peace.

After a few minutes, Mrs. Arrow banged the side of the pot, sending out a chime. She smiled slightly. “There will be time enough for tears and depression later. For now, it’s time to eat.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 244)

Veronica’s lack of control is one of the more common discords.

And as for the physical ability increase that comes as part of the power package: It’s additive, not multiplicative. So you’re not going to find giants doubling in strength; for them, the increase was such a small part of their total strength that they likely didn’t even notice. Butler, on the other hand, noticed it immediately, since he was always so weak beforehand.

Scene 243 – Tutus

TUTUS

DEREK

After a long discussion with Butler about what Io’s son was up to, Laura stayed behind to talk about the sewers, and how the disappearance of Obox-ob, the ekolid warlord, would affect the city’s plumbing. I couldn’t exactly contribute to that conversation, so I took a walk.

A few quick questions to the ‘sarian guards told me what I wanted to know, and it only took a few minutes to find the place I was looking for.

The prison.

I had never seen a prison before. Domina didn’t have any, in the same way oceans didn’t have baths. The entire city had been designed as a prison, and in many ways it still was one. Sure, ever since the screamers had appeared, Butler had been forced to create a large number of temporary holding cells, but those were more like cages for animals than anything. Regardless, I had tried to avoid those anyway.

Since this was a Necessarian prison, it was clean and orderly, with guards carefully placed where they could keep an eye on the prisoners, the entrances, and each other. Alarms and intercoms were always within arm’s reach, and cameras watched every inch, occasionally with gun turrets for muscle.

There was a small corner that acted as a waiting room, which had a pair of posters: One contained pictures of every single guard working here, and the other all the prisoners. If anyone tried to impersonate a guard or escape, they would have a hard time of it.

It felt like overkill, considering that there were only fourteen prisoners, but when you stopped and thought about it, the two hundred cells Butler had managed to put together on short notice would probably be filled very quickly. At our current rate, we had seven new prisoners per day. I had a feeling that rate was only going to increase.

“Honored Paragon,” the guard at the information desk greeted me, even making the effort to stand up and salute me through the bulletproof glass. “It’s a pleasure. You can go right in; no need to sign the book.”

I smiled and pulled the pen and pad towards me. “Nice trick. If I was an impostor, do you really think that would work?”

She shrugged. “Eh, maybe. We’ve got other ways of verifying your identity, anyway.” As she spoke, I followed the instructions on the pad and allowed it to scan my hand for fingerprints. “You know how it is.”

“I do,” I admitted as I finished the process. There were almost certainly a few more besides the fingerprint and signature that I couldn’t see. Thermal imagers in the walls, perhaps, maybe even some sort of X-ray backscatter device. “Where are the power suppressors?” They required line of sight, but I didn’t see them anywhere.

“You mean the silencers?” She grinned, and pointed up. I frowned and followed where she indicated, squinting, but didn’t see anything besides the lights in the ceiling. “They’re in the lights. Each individual emitter is pretty small, but altogether they work fine, and they’re easier to hide. Try it.”

I did as she suggested, attempting to use my power, but it didn’t work. Well, no, that wasn’t quite right. I could feel something happening, and could still sense my reservoir and everything, but I couldn’t conjure any shields, and my reservoir remained full.

I shrugged. “I guess I’ll just have to take your word on it.” I headed off, before stopping and stepping back to the counter. “The suppressors—silencers—are on a different circuit than the lights, right?”

She nodded. “They have their own power supply. With an individual backup for each that can last up to six hours.”

“Good. And who has the key to turn them off?”

“No one. They don’t turn off.”

That might be a problem when they needed maintenance, but until then it certainly sounded clever enough. “Thank you. Tell Clarke I’m impressed with his security arrangements.” I thought about it. “I mean, the Big Boss.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Vovk is the one in charge of the prison.”

That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Well, then pass my compliments on to him.”

Another nod, and I headed in.

Finding the cell in question wasn’t hard. In addition to being one of the only ones occupied, it was the only one with a visitor. Or rather, four visitors. Akane, Flynn, and her nephews Yuuki and Yuudai. I was still having a little bit of trouble remembering which name went to which.

The boys didn’t have any swords, and I was surprised to find that Akane had one. Her previous one, the one I’d bought her years ago, had been destroyed by Silk, and she still hadn’t gotten around to replacing it. Or I thought she hadn’t, anyway.

She turned as she heard me coming, the blue ribbon in her hair briefly getting caught on her shoulder. She fixed it without even noticing. “Derek. What are you doing here? You should be with Laura.”

“They started talking about sewers, so I left.” I stepped up to the cell. “Hello, Saki.”

She looked so much like Akane. The same shape of the face, the same tint of the skin. Even her annoyed glare was the same, her eyes tilted at just the right angle. Akane had said she looked like her mother, Murasaki, but I had never met any of Akane’s sisters, so I couldn’t make the distinction.

She didn’t say a word, just sat on her cot, knees pulled up to her chest, glaring at me like I had done her some personal disservice. The prison uniform that had been provided for her sat in a carefully folded pile on the floor. She was still wearing some ratty street clothes, dirty jeans and a tattered brown shirt with some faded band name scrawled across the front.

The cell itself was immaculate, with the exception of a few pieces of trash that probably represented things they had tried to give her, and that she had refused to take. The place simply hadn’t been occupied for long enough to become dirtied.

“How long has she been like this?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the girl. Everything I knew about the Akiyamas told me that she would be planning her escape. The question was, could she escape without her power? She didn’t appear to have the training necessary to slip through the bars or subdue the guards.

“Ever since she woke up,” Flynn said quietly, likely hoping she wouldn’t be able to overhear. “Akane and the boys have been trying to reach out to her, but she’s not responding. It seems like she still suspects it’s all some trick, and they’re not actually related.”

I frowned. “That makes no sense. Why would anyone go to such lengths to pretend to be her family?”

“She’s been on the street for her entire life,” he reminded me. “I’m not sure why her grandparents didn’t adopt her when her mother died, but I guess that could give you a pretty strong trust issues.”

That made me wonder. “Who raised her, then? If she was born in NHQ, she should have gone to one of Mary Christina’s orphanages. But if it were that simple, it wouldn’t have taken Akane so long to find her…”

Akane turned away from the cell and led us a few steps away, where we could talk in private, while Yuuki and Yuudai continued to try and reach their cousin. “She was sent to one of Zaphkiel’s orphanages in West Middle. Parents never told me why, and I’m not going to ask my mother.”

“Where in West Middle?”

“East of Maladomini, west of the Troll Bridge. But it burned down a year after she was moved there, anyway. That’s why it took so long to find her. No one was even sure if she had survived for the longest time.”

I peered back at Saki, who hadn’t moved an inch, and was eyeing her cousins with wary disdain. Even in this city, it seemed extreme that an eleven year-old could be so world-weary. It left a sick pit in my stomach, like a bad joke.

“Well,” I muttered. “She has to talk sometime.”

“Not really,” Flynn noted. “She’s mute.”

My head snapped in his direction. “Why didn’t you mention it? We can get Clarke in here—”

“It’s not physical,” Akane interrupted tiredly. She sounded like she had already had this conversation. With Clarke, most likely. “It’s the price of her power. She’s extremely strong—probably as strong as us, if not stronger—after only a day and change, but she can’t speak. At all.”

“Baftis says she thinks she might not be able to write, either,” Flynn noted. “She certainly won’t.” For the first time, I noticed a few pens and papers scattered around the small cell. “But obviously, that’s a lot easier to just fake.”

“I don’t know a Baftis.”

“The Mal’s only scientist,” Akane grunted.

“Noble Nyashk lent her to us as a show of cooperation,” Flynn elaborated. “She’s proven very adept at puzzling out the way the powers work. Clarke loves her.”

“Clarke loves everyone,” I noted. Or he pretended to, anyway. It was hard to tell how much of his personality was part of his ‘affable mad scientist’ act. I also made a mental note to thank Seena for the help. “But I’m guessing you’re impressed with her, too?”

Flynn nodded. “She’s been working on classifying the powers. Right now she’s got an interesting theory that the stoneshaping power that Ling had is actually the same as Robyn’s flight. Two different types of kinesis, controlling things, just with vastly different applications.”

“That seems like a stretch. If you’re going to define things that broadly, then maybe you and Akane are also the same. After all, you’re just controlling speed, right?”

Flynn shrugged. “I don’t know. But it goes with how everyone is describing how their powers feel. The speedsters all seem to feel the same as each other, while the kineticists—including Robyn Joan—are something else.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The speedsters all feel the same? It’s just you and Akane, right?”

“And—”

I whacked myself on the forehead. “And Yuuki and Yuudai, of course. Completely forgot.”

“And Sefu,” Akane noted.

It took me a second to realize who she was talking about. “You mean… that thief you caught?” I glanced around the small prison. “Isn’t he here somewhere? I remember you said something about the ‘sarians coming to get him…”

“No. I paid off his debt and hired him.”

“Oh.” I frowned. I knew she had a decent amount of money—I was the one paying her, after all—but she never really went out of her way to spend any of it. “All right. What are you having him do, anyway?”

She shrugged. “Remember that courier job you gave to me this morning?”

“Yeah, it was just delivering a letter, but—” I stopped as I realized the implications. “Wait, you gave that job to a thief? That’s crazy! He’s completely untested, we have no guarantees of his loyalty, and—”

“And he performed perfectly,” she interrupted calmly. “No problems.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Akane, you can’t… just hand something off to some random guy without any supervision. What if he had decided to take the package and run? Or gotten stopped by the ‘sarians, or—”

“It was a minimal-security operation,” she reminded me dourly. “It was just delivering a love letter from a paranoid idiot. Sefu had no reason to steal it, and no one else had any reason to stop him. You need to learn to trust a little.”

“Quite right,” a cheerful voice declared.

I turned to see my mother and Victor Medina, Laura’s father, walking over and smiling. Victor ruffled Yuudai’s hair as he passed; the boy brushed him off with a grin. Apparently, they had already met.

My mom gave me a quick hug. “Oh, it’s been too long, dearest. I think it’s been… a week? A very long week.”

I swallowed nervously. I… hadn’t seen them since capturing Elizabeth. Capturing her during the fey’s little Wild Hunt, that is. We had left the city without saying goodbye, or telling them what was going on, or anything of the sort. Sure, they were old friends with Butler, so they probably had a better idea of what was going on than I did, but still.

She released me before pulling Akane into another hug. She kept her eyes on me, though. “Seriously Derek, you make us worry too much. Akane was kind enough to bring her nephews over, and you couldn’t find time in your schedule to do the same?”

I sighed, and decided to dodge the question. “I don’t have any nephews, mom.”

Maria Huntsman ignored me, instead looking Akane up and down with a critical gaze. She clicked her tongue. “Silver moon and golden sun, you still look like a damned skeleton. You haven’t been eating enough. Derek, you’ve been pushing this girl too hard!”

I rubbed my forehead. “It’s been a very long week…”

“We should go to Veronica’s,” Victor suggested. “I think she needs help with the re-building, anyway. Apparently they did a lot of damage during the Rampage.”

That was a name I had heard bandied about for the MEE, for people who thought acronyms were silly. At least they hadn’t insisted on choosing a Latin word.

“Fine,” I said, though I wasn’t really in the mood. It was important to spend time with your parents. Everyone in this city knew that very well. “Akane, Flynn, you guys coming?”

They both nodded.

Yuuki, the older brother, looked at my mother, wide-eyed with faked innocence. “Can we come too?”

If she noticed that it was faked, she didn’t mention it. She just smiled and patted him on the head. “Of course! You two haven’t met Veronica or Obould yet, have you? It will be good for you. They’re nice people, with good food.”

As we turned to go, Yuudai, the younger brother lingered at Saki’s cell for a brief moment. “We’ll bring you back something, okay?”

His cousin just glared at him.

Behind the Scenes (scene 243)

The “curse” that Saki is under is not uncommon, just more obvious than most. Taking a penalty to increase your power (officially referred to as a “discord,” but no one in the city is aware of that term) is something that happens to pretty much everyone. For example, Derek has the power to create force fields, and technically could create the blades or knives Elizabeth used. However, his discord means his talent is limited to shields, which also means they are far more powerful than they would be if he tried to be capable of everything.

You’ll see other, stranger discords like Saki’s soon. A pyro who needs a wand to channel his power, a hydro who can’t manipulate water while dry, a shifter who automatically changes form based on light level. There are all sorts of drawbacks like which help turn the powers into something more unique than the stock ones we’ve been seeing so far.

Scene 242 – Collegium

COLLEGIUM

LAURA

“We really should have seen this coming.”

Butler dropped a pad on the desk and resumed pacing. Silver and gold, I was never going to get used to that. “Yes, well, we didn’t. We’ll have to figure out how to move from here.”

“I think you two might be overreacting,” Derek said from his own chair in front of Butler’s desk. “Why can’t we just leave well enough alone and see what happens? It worked out fine last time.”

I rubbed my forehead. “…Derek, we currently have groups of people with similar powers banding together and forming gangs to fight each other. You should remember the last time gangs had a hold in this city. It took years to crush them. The Rahabs are still around.”

“It’s better to strike quickly,” Butler agreed. “Rip out the weed by the roots before it has a chance to get too established.”

Derek shook his head. “No, no, you guys are are looking at this wrong. They’re not like the gangs, they’re like the cultures. Groups of people with similar interests banding together for the common good.”

“You choose to be a part of a culture,” I reminded him. “Don’t want to be a demon? Pull off the horns and get some nighteyes. These, these… ” I searched for a word to describe them. “…colleges aren’t the same. They’re more like the old gangs, split along racial lines.”

“Okay, so they’re not cultures. But they’re not gangs, either. They’re just… people.” He turned to Butler pleadingly. “There’s no need for this to turn to violence, especially so quickly. If you treat them peacefully from the start, it will go a long way.”

The Big Boss sighed. “Fine. You have a point. I will give them a chance to prove themselves reliable and safe enough, rather than just bands of criminals. But I suspect you will be disappointed.” He started shuffling through the pads on his desk. “For now, let’s get a better idea of what we’re dealing with. Where’s that list?”

I pulled out my own pad and paged through it. “Here. There aren’t too many, as is to be expected.” It had only been a day, after all. “The Kytons control metal and prefer chains. A demon named Vucarik is leading them.”

Derek looked up. “Isn’t Vucarik the guy who lasted a couple hours deaf during the MEE? He was fighting against the entire city of zombies, and he survived longer than expected.”

I nodded. “Yes, but you’re missing something important. He didn’t just survive, he was actively fighting against them. Cut through them all like so much wheat. Judging by the cameras, he only got turned when he had the bad luck to get hit by some blood.”

“Other than that, not much is known about him,” Butler rumbled. “Mary Christina is looking into it. He will either be a valuable ally, or a blood-crazed psychopath.”

We all knew which one he thought was more likely.

“Anyway, what else?” Derek asked as he leaned over my shoulder to read the list. I tried very hard to ignore his close proximity, but it was more difficult that I would like to admit. “…Lilitu? Lilith started one of these college things?”

“Of course not,” I snapped, more angry at myself for my reaction to his closeness than anything he’d actually done. “The word means roughly ‘female spirit.’ They have the ability to turn incorporeal for a time. And they are all women.”

He leaned back, clearly a bit confused at my unexpected aggression, but he didn’t say anything about it. “…right, okay, I guess that makes sense. They have a leader, or are they like the Nosferatu and so on?”

“They likely have a leader somewhere,” Butler said. “But for now, we don’t know who that might be. She will be a top priority once she reveals herself. With their powers, these Lilitu could be more dangerous than Elizabeth in some ways.”

Derek chuckled mirthlessly. “I doubt that. But I see your point. For the time being, we need to just take advantage of what Silk has given us.”

“The anti-power device?”

“Elizabeth’s absence.” He shook his head, smiling. “Can you imagine how difficult this would be if we still had her running around attacking people?” He frowned. “Actually, we probably should have asked how long she’d be gone.”

“Long enough, I’m guessing,” I said, thinking back on the annoyingly helpful woman. “I have a feeling Elizabeth will find her way back here a few days after we have everything stabilized. It seems like the sort of thing Silk would do.”

Derek shrugged. “Probably. It’s hard to tell. For now, our only choice is to do our best.” He poked at my pad, though he couldn’t read it from his current angle. “What’s this last one? We only have three of these colleges to worry about right now, we should know as much as possible about all of them.”

I frowned and shook my head. “I haven’t the slightest idea. They were actually the first… college, but I don’t know anything about them.” I thought about it and shrugged. “Though, in fairness, they were only founded about four hours before the others.”

“Well, considering the timeline…” Derek trailed off with a smirk.

I rolled my eyes at the poor joke. “Anyway. As I said, we currently don’t know anything about these ones. We don’t know their powers, their organization, or their goals. All we know is that they call themselves Gravers. Their leader is a complete enigma.”

“Does the leader have a name?” Derek pressed.

Butler, having finally found his own pad, answered. “Grave.”

“Well, that sounds promising,” Derek muttered darkly. “No one ever calls themselves the Giver or Light or Life or whatever.”

“Actually, one of Lady Titania’s titles is the Lady of Light and Life.”

He rubbed his forehead. “She’s the… Summer Queen, right?”

I nodded. “The Queen of Earth and Light, the Matron Titania.”

“Wonderful.” He glared at Butler. “And you let them become an official culture.”

The lord of Necessarius weathered the glare without flinching. He had survived worse.

Derek sighed. “Whatever. There’s not much anyone can do but wait and see.” He pulled out his own pad. “For now, I’m more worried about Io.”

“Wait,” I interrupted with a frown. “I heard he died. Yesterday, was it?”

“Yeah. But his children—”

He was interrupted by the door slamming open.

“Sir!” a kemo in the armor of the CS squad said to Butler by way of greeting. His silencer, as people were calling the anti-power device, was on, and another two of his squad members were following close behind. “We have a bit of a situation.”

Butler raised an eyebrow. I noticed that he was leaning a bit on his desk. Due to the way his power worked, the silencers wouldn’t instantaneously revert the enhancements he made to his body to defeat his many physical maladies, but he would still notice their effect.

“This better be important,” he rumbled.

“It is,” the ‘sarian guard promised. He nodded to one of the others, and the door was opened again. This time, Akane and Flynn came in. Akane had a small Asian girl asleep in her arms. her face was even more unreadable than ever.

“A child?” Butler murmured, brow furrowed. “Explain.”

“Niece,” Akane muttered, before falling silent again.

Flynn continued for her. “This is Akane’s niece, Saki Akiyama. She has a very dangerous power that allows her to charm most people she comes in contact with. She needs to be contained until she learns she can’t use this on everyone she meets.”

“…you want to know where the silenced cells are?” I asked. “They should be in the new wing. Look for the signs of construction. Or better yet, ask someone. Pretty much anyone who works here will know where it is.”

Flynn blinked at me. “Laura? And Derek? What are you doing here?”

He had only just noticed? Well, Butler did tend to dominate the room. “I’m helping advise on a variety of different topics as a general consultant,” I explained. “Derek wandered in while looking for snacks.”

Derek rolled his eyes. “You’re a jerk.” He turned to Flynn. “I’m sure you had a better reason for being here—especially bringing a dangerous power into the heart of NHQ—than to ask a question any random worker could have told you the answer to.”

“They need permission.”

Everyone turned to the Big Boss, who had rumbled like a mountain.

“They are planning to put a child into a small, uncomfortable cell, where she will be guarded day and night for an indefinite period of time,” he continued. “They needed to make sure I wouldn’t have them shot.”

Flynn inclined his head. “Your attitudes toward children are well-known, sir.”

Butler sighed and turned away, looking at the wall. “These powers are still barely more than a day old, and our society has not had time to adjust. We have no laws in place to counter them, no rules on how long we may hold someone with a dangerous power.” He shook his head. “If we are not careful, we could end up with more filled cells than when the screamers were running around.”

“There might be an alternative,” I said. “Clarke is working on a variant of the silencer device that can be worn on the wrist, and will enable us to lock down one person’s power without affecting those around them. If we just—”

Butler raised a hand for silence, and my mouth clicked shut mid sentence.

“That is good news,” he admitted to the quiet room, still not looking at anyone. “And it bodes very well for the future. But as of this moment, that is simply not an option. We have to make do.” He finally turned to face his men, as well as Akane. “Put her away. Make her as comfortable as possible, then write up a report. I want one from each of you, as detailed as possible. I need to know what we’re dealing with here.”

The squad filed out slowly. Akane bowed deeply—careful not to drop the girl in her arms—before following them.

“Are you sure that was a good idea?” I asked in a warning tone.

“There was no other choice,” Butler noted. “Especially since the girl was awake the entire time, just waiting for an opening. Combined with what your Akane said, she is clearly too dangerous to leave wandering around right now.”

Derek smirked. “Akane didn’t say much.”

Butler waved his hand. “What Flynn said. Irrelevant.”

Derek turned serious again. “It’s unfortunate that she had to handle this herself, though. I realize no one expected things to turn out this way going in, but it would have been nice if Flynn could have handled it alone.”

“Or even her nephews,” I mused. “She treats them like kids, but they are almost as old as she is. And they have the same power.”

He nodded. “That’s definitely interesting.”

Very.” I turned my attention back to Butler, who was standing strong again now that the silencers had left the room. I wondered how much of his apparent weakness had been psychosomatic, or even an act. “Which is why we need to get a census done as soon as possible. Figure out how the powers relate to families and so on.”

“Agreed,” the man said with a nod. “I have Mary Christina performing an internal one of Necessarius as we speak. But that will take at least a few more hours, more likely days.” He tapped one of his pads. “For now, I’d like to talk more about Io, and his dragons.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 242)

Spoiler alert: Those devices Clarke is working on will become relevant later.

Scene 241 – Comburo

COMBURO

AKANE

I shuffled on my feet as Ileana pounded on the door to the vampire’s home, adjusting my borrowed sword. “Bad idea.”

The Nosferatu diplomat sighed. “Honored Paladin, please. This is going to be difficult enough without you sabotaging my efforts.”

“Should just go through the window. Surprise attack.”

“And if your niece isn’t a prisoner?” she demanded. “You’d be killing everyone who’s protecting her. Necessarius would come down on you hard for that, your status in the city non-withstanding.”

“Quiet,” Flynn, on Ileana’s other side, recommended sharply. “Someone’s coming.”

The door opened, squeaking unnecessarily like some cheap horror movie house. Judging by the way the hunchbacked Nosferatu peered out from behind the door, he had been watching far too many of those movies.

Hello?” the servant who thought himself as an Igor rasped in a low and dangerous voice. “Do you people… need anything?”

“Victor, it’s me,” Ileana said. “Go get Ferula. I’ve got two ‘sarian paladins who wants to talk to him.” She thought for a moment. “Actually, I guess he’d probably prefer us to come to him. Whatever you want.”

The man behind the door hissed. I was surprised to notice that his eyes appeared to be baseline, rather than nighteyes. “My name is Renfield—”

Our guide sighed. “For crying out loud man, Victor is a perfectly good vampire name.”

“Wouldn’t it be spelled with a ‘k’ in Romanian, though?” Flynn asked.

“That’s Russian,” I said. And a few other languages, but Russian was the obvious one.

‘Renfield’ scowled. “Fine.” He stepped aside, allowing us to pass through the doorway unhindered. “But the master is busy at the moment. You will have to wait in the hall.”

The interior of the house was about what I expected: Dark, gloomy, with lots of dust and grime everywhere and old paintings and banners lining the walls. It looked like no one had lived here for years, if not decades, which of course was the point. Everything here was probably only a few months old at the most, but there was a thriving business catering to vampires who preferred their domains to look suitably spooky.

“The master will be along shortly,” the hunchbacked man scowled as he left us, closing a pair of wide double doors behind him with a slam.

I glanced around the small waiting room. There was no food, which was not unexpected. It didn’t mix well with the ambiance, or more pointedly the dust floating everywhere. “Ileana. Dangerous?”

She shook her head. “I’ve been here before. Victor is annoying, but he does his job well. This is a genuine waiting room, not some sort of killing chamber.” She didn’t say it, but we all knew that if it did turn out to be a deathtrap, Flynn and I should be able to break out pretty easily. The walls likely had ears, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to mention that aloud.

“What about this Ferula character?” Flynn asked as he observed a vaguely disquieting portrait. It took me a moment to realize that the man in the painting appeared to be dead. “His rank, his personality? I know ferrets don’t have an actual organization, but there’s a rough hierarchy.”

“He’s not a Noble, if that’s what you’re asking,” Ileana began. “But he’s a pretty high-ranking nightstalker, so be polite. And then there’s his power, which I already mentioned.” She had implied he’d be able to keep up with us in speed. Again, she didn’t say that aloud, and it wasn’t time to ask more questions on that subject.

Before we could ask any other questions, the man himself barged into the room.

He was tall and slender, as was the norm with vampires, with pale skin and straight black hair dipping a few inches down below his shoulder blades. His clothes, likewise, were bog-standard, including a high collar and a long flowing cloak.

Despite being a walking vampire cliché, he actually seemed genuinely happy to see us, smiling broadly as though we were old friends. “Welcome, welcome to my humble abode! Apologies for the rudeness.” He took my hand and kissed it as he bowed. “You would be Dame Akiyama, correct? A pleasure.”

“Not dame,” I managed. “Not a warlord. Just a paladin.”

He straightened, and nodded. “Yes, of course. Apologies, Honored Paladin. I’ve only had a few moments to dig up some basic information on you. For example…” He turned to Flynn and inclined his head. “I don’t know who this is.”

“Flynn,” he grunted by way of greeting, an expression I couldn’t read on his face. “Charmed.”

Ferula nodded again. “Likewise.” He turned back to me, black nighteyes twinkling. “Now, Miss Akiyama. I take it you are here for the girl? Saki Akiyama?”

“Yes,” I admitted, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Ileana looked very confused by this whole exchange. I wasn’t sure if that was a bad thing. “Are you going to make an issue of her safe return?”

The vampire shook his head. “Far from it. I found her several weeks ago, in the destroyed remnants of her orphanage. We still don’t know what happened. She doesn’t talk, and I was only able to coax out her name yesterday. I take it you are related to her.” He looked me up and down. “Sister, perhaps?”

“Niece. She’s mine. My eldest sister’s daughter.”

He nodded. “Of course, of course. And what was her mother’s name?”

“Murasaki.”

“Renfield,” Ferula ordered sharply without turning around. “Look up Murasaki Akiyama and her relation to Miss Akane.” As the servant left, our host bowed deeply. “I apologize for the precautions. But the safety of the child is the top priority.”

“I would accept nothing less,” I said evenly.

Before we could exchange any more pleasantries—forced or otherwise—Renfield burst back into the room. “Master Ferula! The girl is gone, and the window broken in! She must have been kidnapped!”

“What do you mean, kidnapped?” I demanded. I glared at the lord of the manor. “I thought she was here.”

“She was!” he insisted, apparently genuinely shocked. This was exactly where Laura would have been useful, in more ways than one. “Five minutes ago! Renfield! Call the guards, have them secure the exits.”

As the little hunchback ran off to perform his master’s bidding, Ileana raised an eyebrow at Ferula. “What guards? Unless you mean those two idiots with the claws who you somehow managed to coax into suits.”

He sighed. “Yes, I mean those two. They’re idiots, but they’re good men, with enough toys to take down vampires twice their size. It shouldn’t be too hard to—”

Renfield burst into the room.

“Bloody dusk, man!” his boss snapped. “You’re going to damage the doors if you keep doing that, and it’s coming out of your paycheck!”

“Sir, I figured out what happened!” he cried. “I checked the security footage while I waited for the guards to respond. They’re the ones who took the girl!”

This was getting out of hand very fast. “Tell me where they are.”

Renfield looked hesitant. “Well, uh, I’m not sure if they’re there now, but they have an apartment just a street to the north. Red Oaks apartment, number fifty four. But I’m sure they’re probably—”

Then Flynn and I were gone.

Luckily, we’re good at fast.

We were out the door, up the walls, and landing on the street in front of the apartment in question before Renfield could even finish speaking. As he was saying, our chances of finding the kidnappers at home were low, but we might get lucky and find some clues. Either way, it was our best lead.

Flynn and I burst through the door, and unlike what Ferula’s servant had done, we did so literally, sending wood splinters flying everywhere as we shattered it like so much kindling in a woodchipper. We didn’t even need our speed. When you’re a melee combatant in a world of guns, you learn to make a dynamic entrance to enhance an ambush.

The apartment was small, with just a bedroom/living room, a partitioned off kitchen area, and a door presumably leading to a bathroom. It was also reasonably clean for the home of two bachelors, with only a few clothes scattered around both beds.

The bachelors in question hissed, monstrous faces expanding to reveal fangs and all sorts of other unsavory things, baring the massive claws that Ileana had referenced just moments ago. They were longer than my knives.

They were clearly hostile, and the girl sitting on the floor in the center of the room too tempting for them to take hostage. We didn’t have time for diplomacy.

A split second later, I replaced my sword in its sheath, and the ferret behind me collapsed to the floor in a dull whumph. Flynn’s target followed suit a few moments later, his missing a hand as well as a head. He wiped down his knife. I still had his sword.

The girl shivering on the floor was about what I had expected, considering her mother. She was a skinny Asian girl, appearing slightly older than her eleven years of age, with her black hair bound into a long braid that went down to her waist. Her eyes were wide and fearful.

“It’s okay,” I whispered gently, kneeling down in front of her. “Saki, right?” A hesitant nod. “I’m Akane Akiyama. Murasaki’s sister. I’m your aunt. Did your mom ever tell you about me?” A violent shake of the head, and I felt my expression darken. “Oh, right… she died in childbirth. I’m sorry, I…” I sighed, and patted my niece gently on the head. “We’re gonna get you out of here safe and sound, I promise.”

“A-Akane?”

I turned, surprised, to see Ileana standing at the entrance, leaning against the door frame and breathing heavily. “Did you run here?”

“Yeah, I… whoo.” She gasped in great lungfuls of air. “Wow, I need to exercise more. Or… ah… you know, upgrade some of my toys.” She finally got a handle on herself. “Anyway. This is the girl, I take it?”

I nodded. “She’s definitely Saki. I’d know here anywhere.”

The Nosferatu diplomat raised an eyebrow. “I thought you never met her.”

“She looks just like her mother.”

Ileana looked like she was going to argue, but shrugged. “Fine, whatever. I’m just glad we could take care of this relatively easily.” She frowned at the corpses on the ground. “Still confused as to what in the dark happened, though.”

“There’s a long and unpleasant list of reasons someone might try to kidnap a child,” Flynn noted as he wiped down his sword. “Even this close to NHQ, the Nessians have a presence. I don’t need to elaborate on that.”

I nodded, silently thanking him for not doing so in front of Saki, at her age.

“But these two were good men,” Ileana insisted. “Idiots, but well meaning ones. Jumping from ‘Hey bro, let’s see what happens when we stick our claws in the outlet’ to ‘kidnapping a child and selling her to the Nessians’ is a pretty big leap.”

“Quiet,” Flynn snapped. “You’re going to upset her. All the details are things we can worry about later. For now, the safety of the child is the top priority.”

Ileana gave him an odd look, then turned to me, still frowning. “Honored Paladin, please humor me. Would you mind explaining what you’re feeling right now?”

I shrugged. I had been given weirder requests. “Elated that we found her safe and sound. A little worried that she’s not as safe as she could be. We need to take her to Necessarius as soon as possible. She’ll be safe there.” I nodded, half to myself. “She should be introduced to Butler himself. That would be for the best.”

Flynn was nodding as well, while Saki just sat in the middle of the room, her head down.

But I could see on Ileana’s face, she wasn’t sure. She was struggling with something. She was a diplomat, shouldn’t she be better at concealing her emotions?

No matter. If she tried to hurt my niece, I’d slice her apart before she could move an inch. I didn’t have enough family left to risk losing another, especially to some traitorous ferret who wanted her for who knew what.

Instead of taking any aggressive actions, she simply turned to my partner. “Honored Paladin. I have a question for you as well. What would you do if Akane tried to hurt Miss—young Saki here?”

Now it was his turn to frown. “What? She wouldn’t. Why would she?”

“Yeah,” I interjected. “What possible reason would I have to do that?”

Ileana held up a hand to forestall any more interruptions from my end. “Humor me. If Akane took up her sword and tried to attack Saki, what would you do?”

“But she’s not—”

Mister Flynn.”

“I’d stop her,” he snapped. “I’m not as good as her or as fast, so I wouldn’t be able to use nonlethal means. I’d probably have to kill her.”

My heart froze in my chest, but I found myself nodding. “Of course. That is the best possible response. Necessarius would agree with him completely; I doubt they’d even allow anyone retribution. Not that it matters, of course, since I won’t.”

Ileana still wasn’t looking at me. “But you love Akane, don’t you?”

Flynn glared. “Lady, you’re getting personal. I answered your question, now—”

“What if it was someone else?” Ileana pressed.

“Of course I’d do the same. I’d just have a better chance of subduing them without the use of lethal force, so—”

“No. Not someone else trying to harm Saki. Akane trying to harm another child.”

Saki looked up, but I couldn’t read the expression on her face.

I could read Flynn’s well enough, though. “What!? Akane would never—”

“Answer the question, Honored Paladin! What would you do?”

“I don’t have to listen to this,” he growled, and started to stomp off. He ran straight into the door that Ileana had closed behind her, and then covered with an illusion.

She didn’t give him a chance to recover. “What would you do?

“I wouldn’t kill her!” Flynn snapped. “If she’s fighting someone, even a child, there’s obviously a good reason for it! I’d try to stop her, but I wouldn’t…” His anger gave way to confusion, matching my own expression quite well. “…kill her.” He shook his head. “I… I think I have a headache or something.”

“Thank you,” Ileana said graciously, bowing deeply to the confused swordsman. “That is all I need from you. Just rest for now.” The vampire straightened and turned her attention to the girl in the center of the room. “And you. Stop it. Right now.”

Saki, to my surprise, didn’t quaver in fear. Instead, she glared in open defiance.

“I’m an illusionist,” the Nosferatu noted, underlining the point by conjuring a few multicolored lights from her hand. “And a diplomat besides. I know what people look like when they’re being tricked. You’ve got some flavor of mind control going on there. Makes everyone want to protect you, put you above all else.”

Saki spoke. But she didn’t move her lips.

She moved mine.

“What do you want?” a voice much like my own came out of my throat, only angrier and more cynical. It hurt and scratched, like trying to talk with laryngitis. Flynn was staring at me like I had grown a second head.

Ileana didn’t look at me, she just kept her eyes on the girl. “Neat trick. And that’s a lot of power for anyone but the Paladins. Unless you managed to sneak in a few months of training in the last couple days, I’m guessing you’re one of those ‘cursed’ types. You get a big power boost in exchange for some sort of curse or other major downside. You lost your voice, I take it?”

“Clever little witch. What do you want?”

“I told you. I want you to stop this.” Ileana waved her hand. “All of this. Ferula and Victor took you in to keep you safe from the monsters roaming the streets. Ferula’s guards took you in to keep you safe from Ferula. And of course, Akane and Flynn killed them to keep you safe.”

Silence.

“I’m guessing there’s another downside here,” Ileana said. She nodded at me. “You’re not actually controlling her, not directly. You don’t control anyone. You just make yourself their top priority. And now you’re exploiting whatever mental link you have to tell Akane what you would like to say, and she of course says it for you.”

“Too clever for your own good,” I noted calmly, though inwardly I was screaming like a banshee. I needed time to absorb all this, but no one seemed interested in giving it to me. “I take it that’s why you weren’t affected?”

Ileana shrugged. “Same reason you needed protection in the first place. Self-centered people are harder for you to influence, and clever self-centered people will notice you trying. You can’t grab any random monster off the street and expect him to be your willing slave.”

“Your experience in manipulating perceptions likely played a part as well.”

A nod. “Probably.”

There was a pause as Saki waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t.

“Well, what now?” my niece said in my voice. “I have already released the man, and the woman will follow once I no longer need her to speak. But I will not be going with you, and I doubt they would allow me near Necessarius in any case.”

“First off, ‘the woman’ is your aunt.” Saki frowned, but Ileana continued. “I don’t really care if you believe me or not, but I owe it to her to be clear. Second, you know I can’t leave you out here alone. Either you’ll get killed, or you’ll build an army and try and take over the city.”

“I have no desire to go against Butler or any of the other warlords.”

“Butler isn’t a warlord—”

“Akane said the wrong word. I meant ‘leaders.’”

Ileana nodded. “Fair enough. But nomenclature aside, we can’t allow someone with such a dangerous power to just wander around the city, especially not Nosferatu territory. You already seem like you like being in control a little too much, and you’re eleven.”

“I’m not going with you.”

“Not five minutes ago, you wanted to go to NHQ,” Ileana noted. I had been waiting for her to bring that up; it had been bugging me too. “Probably wanted to suborn a few men in the organization, maybe get the Big Boss himself?”

Saki’s face was stone. “I’m not going with you.”

“How about we skip Butler then, hm? We can take you to Akane’s mother. You get to meet your grandmother. Or wherever your cousins, the boys, are staying. I can never remember their names, but no matter. How’s that sound?”

“I’m not—”

I felt myself stop talking mid-sentence.

Saki gaze snapped in my direction, her eyes wide and fearful for the first time. She moved her mouth, but no sound came out—not out of hers, and not out of mine.

At the same time, I felt something… I couldn’t quite describe. A hardening of the heart, if you were feeling poetic. But the point was that suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, while I still cared for my niece, I was able to look at the situation more objectively and understand where Ileana was coming from.

Saki had released me from her power. But then why did she look so confused?

Ileana was right. Saki was dangerous—both to herself and to others. We couldn’t bring her to NHQ, not without the constant worry that she would try to take it over for her own purposes. Unless…

Two kemos wearing the red and black armband of Necessarius walked in, wearing body armor, big backpacks, and carrying assault rifles. Well, whatever you called those ‘sarian Saint Euphemias the lawmen were always so fond of. Regardless, the men nodded to Ileana in greeting, then turned to me.

“We have another dozen men surrounding the building,” they assured me. “No one will get close without us knowing about it. What are your orders?”

I was in no position to give anyone orders at the moments; I still didn’t know what was going on.

The kemo seemed to catch the expression on my face. “Miss Ileana called us, Honored Paladin. She said she’d stall your—” His gaze briefly flickered over to Saki. “—the suspect. But whatever happens next is up to you.”

It finally dawned on me. “CS squad.”

He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

Butler was clever. He always had been; kids in Domina City were raised on fairy tales of his more impressive tricks and plots. So when Elizabeth’s sister had given Clarke (and every warlord in the city) an anti-power device, he had moved quickly to take advantage before anyone else even knew what was happening.

Mass production of the devices was one of his moves. The other was building teams of men and women who knew how to fight while carrying the bulky devices on their backs.

Now that I realized what had happened, I paid more attention to the backpacks they were wearing, and noticed the dishes and lenses on the outside of the packs and on the front of the armor. Those, of course, would be what was actually spreading the device’s effects around. For some reason, the effect was invisible, but still required line of sight.

A quick check confirmed that I couldn’t use my speed, either. The devices were not selective. They suppressed all powers within range, without exception.

But that was fine. I was a hardened warrior with years of combat experience. Saki was an eleven year-old girl who had stumbled into a surprisingly useful bit of power. Without anything supernatural evening the playing field, a fight between us would have been laughable.

Still, I didn’t threaten her. I just knelt down before her, meeting her angry eyes with my own calmer ones.

“We are taking you to NHQ,” I explained. “Where you will be put in a cage covered by these devices until you learn to control your power, so as to not be a danger to yourself or others. Is that understood?”

She glared at me, not saying a word. I wondered if she was still mute, or if she even cared enough to check. Saki had clearly inherited the Akiyama stubborn streak. So much for the easy way.

I reared back and slammed my forehead into her own.

My niece went down like a sack of potatoes.

I stood, rubbing my forehead, and turned to the four other people in the room, all staring at me in blank shock.

“She understands,” I said blithely. “Make sure you keep those suppressors on her.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 241)

This one went in an interesting direction, but I like it. Of course now I have more characters to keep track of… I’m just glad I managed to resist the urge to give the guards names as well.