Tag Archives: Isaac Clarke

Scene 288 – Scuta

SCUTA

LAURA

Of all the people with shield powers in the city, not even Derek could deflect an artillery barrage. He might manage one shell, perhaps, but it would have knocked his reservoir all the way into the red, like when he caught that building. And yet, we needed some way of blocking them. It was inevitable the city would be shelled, and our point-defenses would barely catch a fraction.

I was proud of my solution.

I was also terrified of it.

We sat in one of the war rooms of NHQ. It was a large and fortified chamber with countless computer screens on the wall and a real-time tactical table in the middle. The table was updated on the fly by MC’s programs, using information from all over the city. Akane and Flynn were there, in addition to myself, Butler, Clarke, and about a dozen of their aides.

And, of course, the Shield Wall.

That’s what we were calling them, because it was just the only thing we could think of. Thirty-six shield-producers like Derek were sitting on the floor in a ring around the war table. Each one had someone standing behind them, hands on the shielders’ temples, concentrating as hard as they could.

Those were telepaths, the best and most trustworthy ones we could find in the city. They used their powers to connect the shielders to themselves and each other, creating a hive mind. It was like what the pod-brains used, but this time made up of seventy-two people.

“Shield Wall,” I said. “What is the status of the barrier?”

One of the girls spoke in a flat tone without opening her eyes. “Barrier is stable. Sectors A-17, A-18, B-29, and C-09 are under fire, but holding. Enemy fire has been reduced, and is virtually non-existent in all other sectors.”

This hive mind was an invaluable field asset, but I was worried about side effects, both long-term and short-term. What would happen when we tried to untangle them? They could all die, or just refuse altogether. Would the other members of the hive remember Derek’s secrets even after they were separated? Would Derek even be the same person?

I touched the ring on my necklace. I had just got him. I had waited nearly my entire life, and I had finally got that idiot to pay attention to me as a woman. Had I just killed him, all for some momentary tactical advantage?

I closed my eyes. No matter what happened, I would not apologize for saving this city.

I opened my eyes and managed a smile. “So the Dagonites took down the fleet.”

“White-Cap Bay is their territory,” Butler said. “The fleet was an insult.”

I scanned the war table. “They’ve still got more ships afloat than I’d like. MC, what’s the status of those?”

“They’ve repulsed the Dagonites,” she said, her voice coming through the wall speakers. “I’m not sure how. Maybe they got lucky and saw them in the water before they set the bombs, started shooting or something. I don’t know. They’ll have to retreat once the Dagonites regroup, but that will be at least a few hours.”

I nodded. “Shield Wall. How long can the barrier last at current attack rate?”

A different shielder spoke up, with the exact some dull tone. “Approximately three-point-seven hours.”

I frowned. “Cutting it a little close.”

Clarke looked up. “Could the Atlanteans help?”

I scowled. “Yes, they could. But they won’t. They think they’re safe on the damn ocean floor. I half hope one of the sinking ships squashes them.” I tapped at the war table, and it reconfigured to overlay the location of the Atlantean cities. “Nope, they’ll be fine. I guess I should be happy.”

“Besides, they’re busy fighting off the Rahabs,” Butler said. “Blame them if you wish the Atlanteans could join the fight.” He thought for a moment. “MC, call up the kelpie warlords. Ask them the exact path the ships would be forced to flee on.”

I raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t elaborate. How would this help us drive them off faster? Whatever.

I sighed and turned back to the board. “Demon Gate is holding strong.”

One of Butler’s aides—a demon, funnily enough—stepped forward. “The Erlking reports that the stoneshapers are invaluable. He thanks the Gravers for organizing this so quickly. He also says…” She checked her pads. “’Ripping apart their silly robots is far too much fun.’”

I frowned. “Robots? The US has robots?”

“Mechanized heavy battle armor,” Butler said.

“Oh. Echoes.” I shrugged. “Not robots, but whatever. I imagine they’re sending those at every gate?”

Butler nodded. “West Gate isn’t quite as successful as South, but the giants are holding strong. At last report, Odin said they managed to cut the army in two. They’re actually capturing soldiers alive.”

“Excellent. That will play well on the news.” I tapped East Gate, which showed an angry red scar reaching nearly a mile into the city. “What about the vampires? I’m still worried they let the enemy get too far in.”

Butler smirked. “That’s the perfect word. ‘Let.’ They knew that ambushing at the gate itself would be too costly, so they drew them to spread their forces thin, and are now striking at targets of opportunity. The enemy seems to be terrified and demoralized.”

I sighed. “There’s going to be a lot of property damage once this is over. They still haven’t finished repairing from the Rampage.”

“I’ll offer tax breaks to anyone who helps rebuild at reduced rates. I should extend that to the rest of the city…” He sighed. “Worries for another time. Right now, my bigger concern is North Gate.”

North Gate, also known as Beast Gate, Kemo Gate, and the Sprawl. It was a maze of tiny alleys and confused buildings, some of which had managed to partially collapse into each other over the years. The place barely had any streets, because the kemos of the area preferred to travel by rooftops.

We had expected that it would be easy to hold, but that was proving incorrect.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, as I observed the glowing red wound on the city. It was spreading farther and wider than it should. At least the vampires were keeping the intruders confined to a few single streets. “The kemos should never have let them run free like this.”

“Here, miss,” an aide said, as she handed me a pad.

I glanced through it. “Field report from Delia. She’s crediting the echoes.”

Butler sighed. “They were designed for urban warfare. Superheavy infantry, capable of breaching buildings and weathering moderately heavy fire. We should have seen this coming.”

I shook my head. “They shouldn’t even be able to get inside the buildings. What are the kemos doing, throwing rocks at them? Bottle them up and pour fire at them until they go away.” I read a bit more. “Ah, here’s the problem: A bunch of idiots tried to take them out hand-to-hand.”

“It worked in South Gate,” Clarke said.

“For the Erlking,” I said. “None of the kemos have that kind of raw physical power.” I paged through it a bit more. “Let’s see… yes, they fell back and started using ambush tactics, but by that point the invaders had a foothold.” I sighed. “The kemos are winning, but slowly and expensively.”

Another aide handed Butler a pad. “The Gatorcroc says he can drop a building on them, if necessary.”

I closed my eyes. “Does he even understand the phrase ‘collateral damage?’”

“Probably not.”

I thought about it. “Akane.”

She perked up. “Yes?”

“How fast can your kensei get to North Gate?”

“I can have ten men there in ten minutes.”

I nodded. “It will do. Send them. Tell them to focus on the echoes, then retreat to the warlords and request further instructions. They’re a fire team, we need them at hotspots the kemos can’t handle on their own.”

She nodded and stepped aside for some privacy as she pulled out her phone.

“We should have sent the kensei up earlier,” Butler said.

“You agreed to keep displays of powers to a minimum.”

“They should have been ready, though.” He turned back to the map. “But that’s not an issue any more. We need to figure out what to do with North Gate. They’re too dug in. The kemos will take heavy losses if they attack.”

“Bomb them,” I suggested. “Soften them up for the kemos to finish them off.”

He shook his head. “Not with the shield up. I don’t want to worry about them hitting it.”

I took a deep breath. “We have some people with invisibility. Not many, but—”

“Closest is an hour away.” He showed me a green dot on the map, moving towards North Gate. “She was supposed to be there half an hour ago, but she’s running late for some reason. We don’t have anything else in the area. All the civilians have evacuated.”

“If Obox-ob was around, we could surprise them through the sewers.”

“Still no sign of him. The only other thing that uses the sewers is…” He trailed off.

“The fey,” I finished.

Clarke looked thoughtful. “They did offer…”

“No,” Butler said sharply. “Only as a last resort. They promised to stay out of this unless we asked. I want to see if they can hold to that.”

“Oh, of course we could,” a pleasant female voice said. Every gun in the room immediately turned to point at Maeve, who was standing at the door, smiling. “If you ask, Mister Butler, we’ll stay hidden until this city is nothing but cold ash in the wind. But we would like to offer you some other options.”

Behind her, one of her Princes walked in, holding a small plastic box in her arms. It was the winged girl from the Wild Hunt, Aitil Péine. She blinked in the light—harsh to her nighteyes—but otherwise just stood quietly next to her Princess.

“Lady Maeve,” Butler said, a little stiffly. “To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Maeve smirked. “Just doing my duty for the city, Mister Butler.” She nodded at her Prince.

Aitil strode up and plopped the box on the war table, before opening it up to reveal… a radio. A radio with perhaps a larger antenna than normal, but nothing else particularly remarkable about it. I had built better radios than that.

There was a pause.

“I’m not playing along, Maeve,” Butler growled. “Explain.”

“It looks like the radios the US uses,” I said.

Maeve smiled. “I’m sure MC has already hacked the enemy communications.”

“Of course,” MC said from the speakers. “Though honestly it’s not very useful at the moment. The battlefield is nearly small enough that everyone can see what is happening. Several ambushes have been foiled, but—”

“Mary Christina,” Butler said, admonishing her. He turned back to Maeve. “Continue. Please.”

“This is something else. It is tied to their explosives.”

The room was silent. I thought I heard someone choking in surprise.

I blinked. “You managed to hack their bombs? How is that possible?”

She smiled. “Some of our feyborn have that invisibility. Such a useful talent. We simply had them slip into the camp and make a few adjustments to the equipment. Not everything has a remote trigger, of course, but those that don’t should go up in a chain-reaction when the rest blow. The base camp will be destroyed, and all that will be left is to hunt down any stragglers.”

Butler narrowed his eyes and loomed over her. “What is the price?”

Maeve smirked. “You’ll owe me a favor?”

“No,” Butler said instantly. “Name a firm, specific price, or the deal is off and you have to replace a homunculus.”

“Speaking of homunculi, did you know that there are a few scattered among the enemy troops? Very interesting—”

“Your price, fey.”

Maeve’s smile finally faded. “We want to go to New York.”

Butler rocked back on his heels. “I see.”

“I don’t,” I said. “Even assuming your homunculi can operate that far from your real bodies, what would you want there?”

“Legitimacy,” Butler said.

Maeve nodded. “Once this little war is over, one way or another, negotiations will need to occur. Many warlords will wish to send their ambassadors to represent the greatest cultures of the city, and Butler will of course agree. We just want to be remembered as one of those great cultures.”

“Instead of a bunch of insane monster makers.”

Maeve smirked. “Do I look insane, Honored Paladin? Does my dear Aitil look like a monster?” She shook her head. “Did you ever consider that perhaps the fey have moved on from their darker origins?”

None of that was a lie—but then, none of it was really a statement of fact, either.

“What about the gargant?”

Maeve raised an eyebrow. “What? I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The one at Acheron.”

Maeve’s smile disappeared.

“That is not relevant to this discussion.”

“You have a gargant hunting down people like dogs, and it seems to have a power—”

“Laura,” Butler said. “Now is not the time.”

I scowled, but stepped back.

“So,” Maeve said, as if nothing had happened. “Do we have a deal? The radio for the position?”

“No,” Butler said. “We have a deal—if this works. I’m not promising you anything in exchange for a broken radio.”

She smirked. “Come now Butler, give us some credit. Funny as that would be, it would gain us nothing in the end. The bombs will explode. Anything that happens after that, I cannot guarantee. So, deal?” She held out her hand to shake.

Butler stared at it for a moment like it was a poisonous snake, before grudgingly shaking it.

“Deal,” he said tiredly. “Miss Medina. If you would.”

I nodded. “MC, order any troops near the enemy base camp to retreat.”

“Done,” she said. “There weren’t many.”

“All right,” I said. I picked up the radio, looked at it for a moment, and then found that the ‘talk’ button had been crudely taped with red duct tape as a label. Its purpose was obvious. I took a deep breath, then pressed the button.

I imagined I could feel the shaking from here.

“Reports coming in,” one of the aides said immediately, hand to her earbud. “Big explosion at the gate… lot of smoke and confusion… enemy echoes seem to be down… no friendly casualties reported.”

“Tell the kemos to send in the best they have,” I said. “Retake that gate immediately, and hold it. Everything else is secondary.”

Maeve clapped her hands, just once, to get everyone’s attention.

“Well, that was fun,” she said cheerily. “Who’s up for Chinese?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 288)

One of the interesting things about writing these war scenes is the power difference. America could wipe Domina City off the map, shield or no, and there’s nothing anyone could do about it. But the thing is, with their powers and toys and sheer bull-headed stubbornness, Domina can defeat any army America sends at them. They outnumber the enemy at least ten to one, and that’s before civilian militias come into play.

So the biggest difficulty here is finding ways to justify keeping things difficult for the city. I’m proud of the echoes, but most higher-level warlords can beat one in a fair fight (though there are far more echoes than there are warlords of that level). So what other advantages does America have? Short of giving up and nuking the place, of course.

Scene 234 – Mercor

MERCOR

LAURA

Everything about Silk disturbed me greatly.

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

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

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

It rubbed me entirely the wrong way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grit my teeth. “That’s nice.”

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

Now, it played host to Elizabeth Greene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam blinked. “You… could do that?”

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

There was a pause.

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

“Is that your wish?”

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

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

Another, much longer pause.

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

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

A little shaken, Adam nodded in thanks.

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

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

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

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

Fire belched forth from her hand.

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

Except for the effect on the target, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elizabeth,” Silk said calmly.

The naked girl stopped dead.

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

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

Gel,” her sister answered.

Elizabeth blinked in disbelief. “Gel?

Gelmasni,” Silk amended.

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

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

There was a long, long pause.

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

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

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

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

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

Everything about Silk disturbed me greatly.

Behind the Scenes (scene 234)

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

Scene 233 – Silk

SILK

DEREK

“I still think you should be more aggressive with the power lists,” I said firmly.

“My stake in this isn’t quite the same as the rest of you,” Adam said from his spot leaning against one of the walls in the exercise room. Well, former exercise room. All the mats had been removed for some reason or another, so now there were just bare concrete floors. “But I agree with Derek. People will feel much safer if they know MC has access to an entire database of powers.”

“Now there’s an idea,” Robyn Joan agreed with a nod. She was still playing some childish game that involved poking Akane in the shoulder, as if to see how long it took for Akane to get annoyed and attack her, but I could tell she was paying attention regardless. “Package it as MC’s thing, and that will help with public relations.”

Butler shook his head. “No. That will just earn us too many enemies.”

I sighed. “I’m not saying steal the things, I’m just saying offer to buy them for a reasonable price, rather than simply asking—” My phone rang. “One second.” I checked it; it was Kelly. “Yeah, I should probably take this. It’s the retinue.”

The Big Boss nodded, waving his hand magnanimously, and resumed pacing the room, as if he was testing out his legs. Even though I had been with him most of the day, it was still really weird seeing him walk around without his cane.

Laura checked her own phone. “Huh, I wonder why they didn’t call me…”

I shrugged as I flipped my phone open. “Who knows. Kelly? What’s going on?”

“South Gate!” she yelled into my ear, making me flinch away. “She’s at South Gate!”

“What? Who’s at South Gate?”

“I… I don’t know, just—” Gunfire sounded from her end of the line. “Futu-i! Everybody’s—” I could barely hear her over the sounds of combat. “Everybody’s shooting!”

“Kelly, calm down, who’s firing at you?”

No one! They’re firing at—”

The line went dead.

“They’re firing at me,” a cool, friendly voice like milk chocolate said from behind me.

I turned slowly, not willing to believe I recognized the voice.

It was Lizzy. Not… I mean… Lizzy. Not Elizabeth, the Composer we had on ice back at the Zero Forge. Not the predator, the enemy, who we had fought and died against these past few months.

This was Lizzy. The girl I had grown up with, who I had gone to school with. The stupid girl with the beautiful smile—

Wait.

Her smile… was different.

I couldn’t quite put my finger in it. Something… warmer? No, no, not the smile itself, but her face. There were creases, subtle smile lines etched onto her face, all the way up to her eyes.

And her eyes were different as well. Smarter, sharper. Not the dangerous, animal cunning of the Composer, but a twinkling intelligence, similar to what Doctor Clarke had.

No time to think about that. “Akane,” I spat.

I didn’t need to say another word. She sped forward faster than I thought possible, leaving behind nothing but the blue blur of her ribbon, her blade launched at our unexpected quest with the speed and precision of a lightning bolt.

It didn’t matter.

The bronze-skinned girl caught the blade with one hand, with all the apparent effort of leaning lightly against the wall.

“First,” she said with a friendly smile, her voice like warm honey. “You need to understand that I am not my sister—in temperament or power.”

The sword began to rust, like a thousand years of decay happening in a moment. Before anyone even knew what was happening, she had snapped the blade off at the hilt.

And then Akane was flying through the air, and the wall next to us exploded in dust. My heart skipped a beat for a moment, until she reappeared, glaring daggers at her opponent.

Elizabeth’s lookalike—and I knew now, whatever else she was, she was not Elizabeth Greene—clicked her tongue. “Red, please. Don’t give me that look. I am sorry, but you needed a new sword, and you know it.”

Uh… what?

Not!Elizabeth smacked herself lightly on the head. “Ah, but where are my manners? Please, all of you, sit, sit!” She motioned for us to do so. “We have much to discuss.”

I raised an eyebrow. There were no chairs here—

But even as I wondered what she meant, a couch slid out of the floor. A large, three-person couch, the kind you’d see in a family living room. Molded out of the concrete as easily as if it were clay being shaped by a master.

Then pillows and cushions appeared. Frilly white pillows and cushions, like you’d find at a grandmother’s house. Just popped into place an inch or so in the air and flopped down.

When I turned back to the woman, she was making herself comfortable in a concrete armchair with similar furnishings. Noticing that we weren’t sitting, she smiled with good cheer. “Well, you don’t have to, I suppose.”

A little awkwardly, we all gingerly sat on the surprisingly comfortable couches. A second had risen up when I wasn’t paying attention. Akane, Laura, and I took one, while Adam, Robyn, Clarke, and Butler squeezed into the other.

“Everyone comfortable?” Elizabeth’s doppelganger said cheerily. “Good. As I said at South Gate before the bullets started flying, I am here for my sister.” She folded her hands in front of her. “Obviously, I do not expect to receive her for free. I am willing to negotiate a trade.”

“What kind of trade?” Butler demanded.

She smiled. “Patience, my dear hunter. Let’s start with introductions, shall we?” She indicated herself. “I am called Silk. Elizabeth Greene is, for lack of a better term, my little sister. I do apologize, but she is necessary for my plans, and I will require her to be returned to me.”

Laura narrowed her eyes. “It was you. You were the one she was answering to, all this time.”

“That one does not answer, Highlander. I loosed her like a poorly trained dog, trusting that she would do what she did best. And in the end…” She spread her hands wide. “Everything worked out perfectly.”

“You… meant for the Rampage to happen?”

Point of order,” Clarke interrupted. “I thought we were calling it the MEE?

Silk ignored him. “Yes. The end purpose of this city was always for everyone to receive a song—a power, as you call them. It was either that or send every single one of you into a black hole and then fish you out again.” She made a face. “It’s more annoying than it sounds.”

“You… built this city.”

I glanced at Laura. “What? She can’t be much older than us!”

Laura just gave me a look.

“Little hero,” Silk said gently. “As your Highlander is silently reminding you, my sister is immortal. Our personal appearances mean absolutely nothing. She is right. I did build this city. Or rather, cause it to be built by carefully manipulating world affairs.”

“Why?” Laura demanded. “I don’t mean the Rampage. You could have done that anywhere.”

“I needed a closed circle. Besides, this city has had other uses.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Silk sighed. “I am very, very, very old. I simply wish to improve the quality of life of every single person in existence. There will be some pain along the way, but things are looking up, I promise.”

I glanced at Laura. She wasn’t showing any sign that Silk was lying.

“Why now, then? Why not hundreds or thousands of years ago, or however old you are?”

Silk smiled. “An excellent question! It could be said that I am from a dark and distant land—”

“You’re from the future,” Laura said.

We all stared at her, before slowly turning to Silk.

She was smirking. “I was getting to that.”

“I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while,” Laura said. “I knew it was the only thing that made sense. Doctor Clarke and I have been researching the powers ever since the start, you know. We knew that they were either technology from an extremely advanced civilization, or magic.”

Silk nodded. “Quite right, Highlander, quite right. Though I should note that where I’m from, we crossed the Singularity so long ago that the word ‘technology’ does not quite apply any more.”

“Well, I wanted to be clear for everyone else.”

“Fair enough.”

I raised my hand with a meekness that surprised even me. I was just getting so overwhelmed by everything, that I couldn’t help it. “Uh, excuse me? This is all coming a little… fast. When exactly did you come from?”

Far,” Silk said firmly. “I was born millions of years from now, and came back from a time even farther.” She met my eyes. Staring into her golden orbs, I understood, to the core of my being, how unspeakably different she was from her sister. Elizabeth’s eyes held nothing. Silk’s held everything.

How old are you, though?” Clarke asked, breaking the moment.

She turned her attention to him and smiled. “My dear doctor, my life has been exceedingly complicated, and there are many possible ways I could answer that question. Suffice it say that at the youngest estimation of my age, I am older than every single human being in existence combined.”

Laura blinked. “There… there are fifty billion people in the solar system. And that’s assuming the census is accurate. It’s probably more like seventy billion.”

“Yes,” Silk acknowledged, smiling calmly.

But Laura wouldn’t let this go. “If the average age is twenty—”

“It’s twenty-four, actually.”

“…you’re nearly one point two trillion years old?”

Our golden guest chuckled. “Of course not. I am far older than that.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense! The universe itself is estimated to only—”

“Laura,” I interrupted, placing a hand on her shoulder to calm her. She glared at me, but let me speak. “Just let it go. There’s no way to prove or disprove her assertion. Trust her, or don’t.”

She leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms over her chest.

“I have another question,” MC piped up from the wall speakers. “When did you get here?”

Silk nodded. “Good question. The answer has two parts—”

“Thirty-one years ago,” Laura muttered. “In 1970.”

Silk chuckled. “Oh, you are a clever one, aren’t you? But no credit if you don’t show your work…”

“1970 is when all the big changes started,” Laura noted. “The Chinese and African Diasporas, the second American Baby Boom, followed by the Mexican, Canadian, and European Baby Booms, Domina City, the space colonies, perfectly efficient electrical engines…” She narrowed her eyes. “I imagine you either got here right before Apollo 13 launched, or soon after. Then you sabotaged the flight, and used it to whip up American and Soviet interest in space again.”

Another nod. “Correct, except for one minor detail. I did not sabotage Apollo 13. I didn’t save the astronauts, either; both of those would have happened regardless. What I did do was use the event to, as you noted, trigger the Second Space Race. In the original timeline, Apollo 13 was largely the death knell for space travel for a century or so.” She shrugged. “Too much danger for too little benefit.”

“Too little benefit?” Robyn asked, wide-eyed. “I have a list as long as my arm of all the benefits of space travel. I mean, even ignoring the technological advancements, the metals in the asteroid belt alone…”

Silk chuckled. “You don’t have to convince me, Princess. I was quite surprised when I realized what was going to happen, and took swift steps to correct such an obvious mistake.”

That made me raise an eyebrow. “You realized what was going to happen. Meaning you didn’t know until you landed?”

“Yes. History is beautifully detailed in the time I was born, but it had still been millions of years. Details were lost.” She shrugged. “Actually, I believe the problem was that it was simply glossed over. Even man’s first flight was little more than a footnote in the history books; we were never required to learn about the precise details of a single disastrous space flight. There were, to put it bluntly, more important things to worry about.”

“And the second part of your answer?” MC prompted.

Silk nodded. “Yes, thank you for reminding me. I arrived on Earth in 1970—April 15th, to be precise—but arrived in this timeline in 1969. It took a year to reach Earth.”

Where did you arrive?” Clarke asked. “In this timeline, I mean.”

“Andromeda,” Silk quipped. She shrugged. “The closest galaxy to the Milky Way, if you didn’t know. Stopped by a couple pre-industrial worlds and dropped off some things to help them along, but I knew I’d be able to make the most difference on Earth.”

I wanted to say something about faster than light travel being impossible, but, honestly, didn’t see the point.

“Let’s get down to the details,” Butler said before Laura had a chance to ask any more questions. “What exactly is it you are offering?”

“A countersong,” Silk replied instantly, turning her golden gaze on him. “Yes. I can provide my dear doctor,” she nodded at Clarke, “with the blueprints for a small device that uses a harmless form of radiation to shut off any powers within a limited radius. The radiation is invisible, but blocked by anything solid enough to block light.”

Clarke leaned forward, frowning. “How—”

Butler silenced him with a raised hand. “Sounds wonderful. What’s the catch?”

“If I give you this device, I will also give it to every warlord in the city.”

There was a long, long pause.

“It’s still worth it,” MC insisted from her wall speakers. “Even if it is only used for temporary holding cells, we need some way to shut down powers. There’s just such a broad base of them, it would be impossible to account for them all.”

“For the record, I agree completely,” Laura added.

Butler closed his eyes in resigned defeat. “…fine. I see no other option.” He snapped his eyes open and glared at the woman sitting across from us. “But I had better not regret this.”

Silk met his gaze without fear. “I make no promises. The device will work as advertised, and I have already told you of the catch. That is all.” She turned to the rest of us. “Any last questions?”

We all turned to each other, but no one spoke up. “It looks like—”

“Wait,” Laura said suddenly. “Elizabeth hypnotized Derek.”

A brief flash of annoyance crossed Silk’s face. But was it annoyance at Laura, at Elizabeth, or at me for breaking free from the hypnosis? “Yes, she did. What of it?”

“He’s still hypnotized.”

I shuffled in my seat. “Just a few headaches. Nothing major.”

“Yes, about that… ” The woman shrugged. “He’ll recover soon enough. Depends on a number of factors, but it will work best if he discovers the solutions on his own. If I explained exactly how to do it, it would likely slow the process dramatically. If he’s still not cured within a year, call me.”

Laura frowned. “…call you? How?”

“Literally,” she insisted. “Call out ‘Silk, I wish to speak with you,’ within range of any electronic device in the city with a microphone. I will hear.”

That was more than a little disturbing.

“Now, if there are no further questions… ” Silk stood, her chair molding back into the concrete floor smoothly and seamlessly, the pillows disappearing as well. “I think it is time we thaw out my sister.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 233)

I rewrote this scene at least three times, cutting out more and more every time. Silk was willing to give them basically any information they wanted, so they really should have asked more. On the precise nature of the screamers and the Composer, the relationship between Silk and Elizabeth, and what exactly they are, that looks so close to human but isn’t. I’ll have to find a way to add those later; it just didn’t work here.

Scene 228 – Varietas

VARIETAS

LAURA

Everyone in the city—except for Adam, who had never been exposed to Elizabeth’s song—had a power now. Almost five hundred million men, women and children were now endowed with superhuman abilities.

That included Doctor Isaac Clarke.

“It’s amazing!” he shrieked for the umpteenth time. “I can mold flesh like clay! Just like the toy maker is supposed to be able to, but literally, in my hands!

I rubbed my forehead. “Yes, I know. But it’s still not as precise and useful as the actual toy maker. What we need to do is more tests, so we can figure of the exact limits of your ability, and how that might be used to—Clarke, what are you doing?”

He was passing his hand back and forth over his arm, the wrinkles smoothing out slowly. Then, as he grinned like a kid in a candy shop, the wrinkles started to come back. “Look! I’ve already mastered my own skin!

“Yes,” I deadpanned. “I can see that. Your flesh-molding abilities now rival a couple Botox injections. Can we get to the matter at hand?”

The old-looking man nodded with what appeared to be genuine seriousness. “You’re right, of course.” He checked a pad. “Now, Adam’s blanket wasn’t anything too expensive, so replacing it wouldn’t be too difficult, but I think he deserves a bit of an upgrade—”

My headache was getting worse. “What are you talking about?”

Clarke frowned at me. “Mister Anders’ blanket. Lily shredded it when they fought in the dorms. Did you even read the after-action report MC wrote up?”

I counted to ten before answering.

“Yes,” I said with what little patience I could muster. “But I meant we needed to test your ability.” I turned to the nearby toy box, with a sedated dumpster dog inside. The device came with a powerful scanner that rivaled some MRI’s in detail, and surpassed most of them in speed. “Let’s start with something simple.” I turned back to Clarke. “Change the color of its—Clarke!”

He was playing with his wrinkles again. He jumped like a kid with his hand in a cookie jar when I caught him. “What?

I sighed. “Screw this. Butler actually needs my help. Just try and remember to turn on the recorder if you start modifying the dog, okay?” I stomped out of the lab before he had a chance to say something stupid again.

Finding Butler’s office took longer than I would have liked to admit; I didn’t have reason to go there much. But the guards at NHQ were friendly and knew me well, so after a few rather embarrassing wrong turns, I arrived outside the solid steel door of his office.

I knocked once.

“Come in,” his gruff voice called. I turned the handle and stepped inside with trepidation.

The office was exactly as I remembered it from last time I had been here, a week or month or so ago. Simple, with the bare essentials. Just a strong desk, a good computer, and some chairs, without even a window to break up the monotonous gray walls. The desk had a few pictures of Lily at various ages, as well as one of Mary Christina, but otherwise the room was conspicuously devoid of personality.

It was a lot like Butler in that way: Cold, pragmatic, but with a few hints of a heart if you paid attention. Exactly as I remembered it.

Except for one difference.

Butler was pacing in front of his desk, reading a pad.

And he didn’t have his cane.

Artemis Butler had always had a very strong presence, despite his many physical disabilities. He was tall, broad, and strong, even though his bones were brittle and weak. He couldn’t stay standing for long, but when he made the effort, he could easily loom over nearly anyone, even giant warlords. But everyone knew about his weaknesses, knew why he leaned so heavily on his cane. In a physical fight, most children could beat him.

Not any more.

In that after-action report MC compiled, she theorized that the powers everyone received were based on conscious or subconscious desires. Some were harder to puzzle out than others—Akane’s speed eventually made sense when you realized she just wanted her sword to be useful, but what would a petite soccer player want with the ability to control earth and stone?

But others made perfect sense at a glance. Derek wanted to protect people, he got shields. Robyn Joan wanted freedom, she got levitation. I wanted to know when people around me were lying, and that’s exactly what I got.

Artemis Butler wanted to have a body as strong as his soul.

And that’s exactly what he got.

I still wasn’t clear on what precisely his ability was. It seemed to be like what the biters had. Some slow morphing ability that required a lot of time and effort to make any changes, but little to no energy to keep it going once it was done. In fact, I had a theory that it might be the same as Doctor Clarke’s ability, just limited to internal changes only, rather than extending to being able to change others.

The point was that after dozens of surgeries, countless different types of medication, and weekly sessions in the toy box for a decade and a half, Butler had finally conquered the diseases he was born with. Diseases that the doctors had told his mother would keep him from ever living past age three.

It would take more than multiple terminal diseases to kill Artemis Butler.

He smiled slightly when he noticed me. “Laura, a pleasure to see you. Isaac finally drove you off?”

“Yes, sir,” I said carefully. “I thought I could do better here.”

He sighed. “Yes, well, I do hope so, though I honestly don’t think you’ll have much more luck than I did.”

“Why don’t you summarize the situation for me?” I asked as I scooted into a chair in front of his desk. I was hoping the move would force him to sit in his own chair out of courtesy; I was a little freaked out, seeing him walking around so blithely, and I felt a strange need to have him sitting down, as if his miraculous recovery could fail at any moment.

If he noticed the gesture, he didn’t say anything, and it didn’t work. He remained standing.

“To start with, Adam did minimal damage in his fight through the city.” He tapped the pad. “About a hundred deaths over two days, mostly from fall damage, gunshot wounds, and complications due to leaving those untreated. The city actually had a much lower death rate than normal, since no one was fighting each other.”

I winced. “That’s a little sad.”

“Well, it’s no secret that mind control keeps people safe,” he said flippantly. “That doesn’t make it a viable option.”

“Fair enough. What about infrastructure damage?”

“Basically nonexistent. Broken windows, a few firebombed cars here and there…” He frowned at the screen. “Hm. Well, the total cost seems large, but we’re a large city. The damage was almost entirely superficial, even though there was a lot of it. We can be fully repaired in under a week.”

“Which means it will probably actually take a year or so,” I said with a sigh.

The massive man smiled. “Perhaps. But the rebuilding is already underway. I think you’re underestimating how much people want to fix what they did during the event.”

I nodded, latching onto the subject. “Right, the people. Everyone has a power now. Has there been any attempt at a census?”

“Right now, we have the ‘sarians just asking people what there power is any time they need to see ID, such as when they hand out relief supplies. If the person answers, a note is made. If they don’t, there’s no fuss.”

“We’re going to need something more organized, and fast.”

“I agree, but I already asked the Servants to help, and they refused, citing privacy concerns. Though they did agree to do an internal census—that should be on my desk by tomorrow—they don’t want to force anyone else.”

I touched my necklace, thinking. “Some of the cultures will do the same, but I doubt all. The orcs will happily hand over their data, as will most of the hellion legions, but they might want money for it. The Draculas will definitely do the internal census, but it’s fifty-fifty if they offer the info.”

Butler waved his free hand. “We don’t need to go through a list of every culture.”

“Right, right,” I agreed with a nod. “For now, we just need to keep in mind that they’ll fall into three categories:” I ticked them off on my fingers. “Those who will do their own internal census and give them to Necessarius for free—or for cheap enough there’s no difference. Those who will do their own internal census and refuse to give them to Necessarius, and those who won’t do a census at all.”

“Most of the cultures are going to fall into the second group,” he noted. “Only minor pseudocultures without any internal structure are going to fail to even try to make a list of everyone in their command with powers.” He stopped, then shrugged, as if admitting a point to himself. “And the Nosferatu and daevas, I suppose.”

“And the Satanists,” I noted. They were big on personal freedom and anarchy. That had backfired a bit, in that it meant they had no one in a position of power to keep the Beast from taking control of the culture, but he was a true believer in the cause. He was just more violent than most people felt comfortable with.

Butler sighed. “I just said we’re not going to list off every culture.”

“Okay, sorry. Let’s try a different tact. The biggest change we have to worry about right now is…” I thought for a moment. “I have no idea what it is.”

The master of Necessarius shook his head and placed the pad on his desk. “We simply do not have enough information yet. We need to to wait a few more days to see what happens.”

I winced. “You mean we have to wait until something goes wrong.”

“Most likely, yes.”

I closed my eyes. “Because it is necessary.”

“Because it is necessary,” he agreed quietly.

Behind the Scenes (scene 228)

I realize this is a bit on the short side, but there’s not too much to say. Most of it needs to be shown more directly.

Scene 210 – Reliquus

RELIQUUS

ARTEMIS

“Well, no one can say you haven’t had a productive day,” I admitted, eyeing the dirty band of Paladins—along with Lily and Flynn—sitting in my office. I checked Kelly’s report again. “Derek, I was under the impression that some of you were quite badly injured.”

Adam grunted from his spot lounging in a chair never designed to be comfortable. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

Lily glared at him as she checked his bandages again. “Bad enough.”

Derek grimaced. “Not bad enough for a report. I’ve got some bandages on my wounds and some fresh blood in my veins. I’ll last long enough.” Adam nodded; he clearly felt the same.

I sighed. “The emergency is over, young Huntsman. That means it is time to rest.” I checked the file and made a note of the medic who had given him a stimulant. He was unconscious after the fight with the Composer, and should have stayed that way long enough to heal.

But he just shook his head stoically. “I was the only witness to a lot of the important stuff. I need to give my report before the details start getting fuzzy.”

Ah, that man. All the stubbornness of his mother, combined with the black and white heroism of his father. Pretty impressive, considering he never met the latter.

Yes, he was definitely going to kill me one day.

But that wasn’t important right now. “Fine. Let’s start simple.” I tapped through the pad in my hands. “Elizabeth Greene is secured in a warcage built by Dispater himself, and guarded by a multi-cultural team comprised of Tecumseh’s lupes, the Thors, a number of ursas, fully half of Hanesdottir’s cans, the Andros, the warbloods, Obould’s orcs, a number of hellions from different Legions, and even a few Muspels sent by Dame Sinmara.” I put the pad aside. “And my own Necessarians, of course.”

Laura leaned forward. She was in the best shape of the whole group, which was only to be expected. The strategist would spend the majority of her time in relative safety. She still had quite a bit of dust in her hair that she hadn’t managed to brush out yet, though. “I talked to Titivilus. They’re going to be building a ceramic warcage to enclose the steel one, as fast as possible.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “I thought St. John was the one who got her out last time. Isaac still has his corpse on ice.”

The girl shrugged. “She might have more renegades with rust powers. I hope we got them all, but I don’t want to risk it. Do you?”

“No, I think you have quite the right idea,” I agreed somberly. “I’ve also had the entire cage rigged with enough explosives to vaporize a mountain. If she escapes again, that might slow her down.”

Laura made a small tsk sound. “That won’t stop her. What about that liquid nitrogen I asked for?”

“On its way. Zero Forge has enough on hand, but it’s going to take a day or two to get it all moved. They also tell me they need it for building superconductors and some other similar high-tech computer parts.”

“Tell them to get over it, this is more important.”

I smiled. “Yes, I did. Well, not in quite so many words, but…”

“Well then,” Derek grunted. “If that’s all—and if you don’t mind, of course—I think it might be time to call in Doctor Clarke after all.”

“Oh, now he calls for the doctor,” Mary Christina muttered from the wall speakers.

I waved my hand, still smiling a little. “Yes, yes. Just get some orderlies from the medical wing over here.”

Once the entire group was moved over to the white-walled hospital, it became apparent that their injuries were both better and worse than we had feared.

The only ones who had been stabbed were Derek and Adam, and while Elizabeth had missed anything too vital, Adam still needed bed rest for a few days. Derek’s wounds were actually worse—he had extensive internal damage that Isaac couldn’t quite identify the cause of—but putting him in our toy box would sort him out within a few hours.

Flynn had quite a few bites and slashes from the fey’s monsters. They hadn’t used poison, apparently, but he still needed more than a few bandages. He waved off treatment, insisting he had stim packs back at his dorm.

Laura had a few scrapes and bruises, but she hadn’t been involved in the actual fighting, so she was mostly fine. Akane’s shoulder was fractured again, but that could be repaired quickly enough. Lily, of course, was completely unharmed. The fey never attacked her, and it wasn’t clear if the Composer had even noticed she was there.

The real problem was Robyn Joan.

Physically, Isaac’s daughter was fine. Her ankles were pretty badly sprained from her meteor move—it was a miracle she hadn’t snapped her legs—but she had already been given something for that, and she’d be fully healed in a few hours at the most.

No, the real problem was something we couldn’t fix with the toy maker.

She sat on a cot, legs pulled up to her chest, staring off into space. She nodded or shook her head whenever anyone asked her a question, but otherwise didn’t react, and according to Akane, she hadn’t said a word since she killed Elizabeth’s butler.

“So what happened to the fey after I collapsed?” Derek asked, shrugging off Isaac’s attempts to remove his bandages. “Tell me there wasn’t another fight.”

“You really shouldn’t be wasting time,” Isaac insisted. “Just jump in the toy box—”

“Five minutes won’t kill him,” I assured my old friend. “Besides, if we don’t tell him now, he’s going to twitch and spasm with worry while he’s in there, making it take twice as long.”

Isaac sniffed with disdain, but took a step back from the young man.

“All the fey monsters self-destructed once you contained Elizabeth,” I explained. “No explosions or anything, they just died. The Princes themselves fled.”

The blond boy blinked. “Really? Why?”

“According to Kelly’s report, they were also helping against Elizabeth. Or at least, not hindering your efforts. Is this true?”

He nodded. “Yeah, they stopped fighting us when she showed up. But where was the retinue—”

“On the other side of the intersection, fighting the other monsters.”

Derek sighed. “How many of those damn things did the fey bring for their stupid Wild Hunt?”

Mary Christina piped in from the speakers. “Hard to say. You know the really weird thing? That’s the only place they did it. They didn’t try and start the Hunt anywhere else simultaneously.”

Derek opened his mouth, then closed it again, frowning as he tried to digest the implications.

Laura caught on faster. “When they announced the reformatting of the culture, they did that everywhere at once. What was different this time?”

“Well, they did choose to attack two warlords having coffee with all the remaining Paladins,” Mary Christina noted. “Surely that means something.”

Derek grunted and looked away.

At his side, Laura sighed and answered for him. “Several fey have expressed an interest in Derek and Akane before. I guess that at least one of those girls survived their little war.”

“Your parents were witnesses to the signing,” I mused as I leaned a bit more heavily on my cane. “I suppose that could have had more than a little to do with it.”

“Who knows?” Adam muttered from his spot on a nearby table, where Lily was helping oversee the lab techs who were changing his bandages. “Every time I think I understand those guys, they turn around and do something crazier.”

Derek blinked at him. “My parents?”

“No, you idiot, the fey.”

“Oh.” The blond monster slayer nodded. “I’ll give you that, at least.” He turned to me, frowning. “I don’t pretend to know what they’re thinking. And we were mostly occupied fighting their monsters, so we can’t help with their princesses or whatever.”

I waved my hand. “Don’t worry your head about that. Others were right in the thick of it, and I am already in negotiations with Nyashk and Eccretia to get copies of their reports.”

Adam stared as best as he could, considering his position on the table. “These idiots are negotiating with information like that?”

All I could do was shrug. It was painful, but then, so was everything. “It is far from uncommon. The Mals were first founded when Baal bought some information from me and put it to good use, after all. Besides, it’s mostly a diplomatic formality. I’ll have everything I need by tonight, at the latest.”

Derek nodded. “Okay, so everything from last night is wrapped up, at least for the moment. But there’s still Ling to consider. Elizabeth didn’t mock me about her, so I’m guessing she doesn’t know she’s captured. Do we have any more leads?”

“I did tell you about that blind angel, right?” Adam called.

Before Derek could do much more than frown in confusion, Laura shook her head. “No, that was me. Alex sent me Grigorii’s information, and MC and I collated it.”

“We’ve narrowed down Ling’s most likely location to six ave labs,” Mary Christina chirped. “It didn’t take long to find five good teams to send. Assuming the aves have her, we’ll find her before dawn.”

“Five,” I noted. “Why not six?”

“The retinue is the sixth.”

“Bah,” I grunted. “No, they’re not. They’re injured too. Assemble a sixth team, send them all out simultaneously when they’re ready. The aves are diurnal, so night is the best time.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” she said with only the barest trace of smugness.

“That should be everything for now.” I nodded at Isaac, and he moved over to the toy box, making last-minute adjustments. “Derek, get in the box and try not to move. Everyone else, just rest up.”

“There is still the matter of publicity to consider.”

I was surprised at who spoke. Robyn Joan, still in the same position she had been in a few minutes ago, only with sharp eyes staring at me. I had assumed we’d have to call in a psychiatrist before we’d even be able to move her.

“Everyone saw Derek use his shields,” she continued, voice dead. “Akane’s speed and my flight might be written off as advanced toys of some type or another, but no one can mistake his shields for anything but a power. And he’s well-known enough that it won’t take long before someone recognizes him from the pictures.”

I noted Mary Christina didn’t say anything; her attention was probably too focused on getting that sixth team ready.

I sighed. I had known from the start that this ridiculous cover up wasn’t going to last long, but I hadn’t really cared enough to insist the Paladins go public. I should have taken better precautions, asked Mary Christina to keep a lid on any viral videos like this. At the very least, I should have come up with a real plan for what to do when their identities were inevitably exposed. If I had a few days to plan—

Wait. Was it really that simple?

“You need a vacation,” I insisted. “All of you do, actually. We can hold the Composer long enough to let you rest for a week or so.”

Everyone—lab techs included—turned to stare at me.

“Uh, pardon my rudeness,” Derek said slowly. “But… what? Where’d that come from?”

“If you all stay here for the next week, your lives are going to be a circus. Everyone’s going to want to meet you, and ask you questions you won’t know how to answer.” I had enough similar experience to attest to that. “You need a few days somewhere where you’re just ordinary people. A few days to breathe.”

“A few days to give you time to come up with a real plan,” Laura said, grinning.

I nodded slightly, conceding the point. No need to hide it.

“But where would we even go?” Robyn Joan asked. “Everyone in the city will know our faces soon. I doubt even the Dagonites will be completely out of this one.”

“Then don’t stay in the city,” I pointed out. “You can take a plane to New York.”

Leave Domina City?” Derek demanded, aghast.

But Laura was nodding thoughtfully. “Yes… close enough so that you can easily extract us if something goes wrong, but it’s still disconnected from Domina, so no worries of anyone recognizing us. And we won’t cause a scene, since we’re all baseline.”

“I guess I can’t go, then,” Lily said a little glumly.

Laura waved her hands in a panic. “No, that’s not what I meant! You’ll be fine! We’ll just get you a hat, some big glasses, and you can hide the tail—”

“Actually,” Adam cut in. “I was going to stay here.” He looked his girlfriend in the eyes. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer you stay with me.”

She smiled and nodded vigorously.

“While in some ways that makes logistics easier, the point is for all the Paladins to leave,” I noted.

He shrugged. “I don’t have a power. Will anyone even care about me? Besides, I have a forgettable face. My most distinguishing feature is my guns; I won’t carry them around for a few days.”

“Perhaps,” I muttered, wheels in my brain turning as I considered his request. “It would also be better if Ling had a few familiar faces around, once we rescue her. I doubt she will be in a mood to go flying off to a strange city after what she’s been through.”

“If I could interject,” Derek said, doing just that. “Why don’t you want to go to New York, Adam? You’re from there, don’t you want to see your parents?”

“A bit. But I really don’t want to explain what I’ve been doing the past few months. Besides.” He patted his stomach with a wince. “I’m still injured, and I can’t be magically fixed like you. It’s easier this way.”

“He’s right,” Isaac added. “He could travel, if he had to, but this is hardly an emergency. He will do better, here, where I can keep an eye on him.”

“Then it is settled,” I declared. “Laura, if you would, help Mary Christina with the final organization for the assault teams. Derek, get in the damn toy box before your guts start falling out. Everyone else, pack your bags. You’ll leave for New York tomorrow morning.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 210)

This is one of those set-up scenes that doesn’t really contribute much on its own.

Scene 151 – Atria Mortuorum

ATRIA MORTUORUM

AKANE

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO

My father rubbed my head lightly. “It’s going to be okay, Red. Dry your tears.”

I sniffled, trying as hard as I could to pretend there were no tears. Dad wasn’t crying, so I couldn’t either.

On the other hand, Mom was weeping and blubbering on the floor, hugging Murasaki so tightly my sister was going blue in the face. Midori managed to separate them, and Mom immediately latched onto her instead.

Murasaki rubbed her eyes and looked down at me, before turning to Dad. “Why do you keep saying that? Shiro is…” she started crying again, unable to speak.

I tugged on Raven, the sword hanging at my father’s side, in order to get his attention. “Daddy, why can Murasaki cry and I can’t? You told me not to cry…”

“Because he hasn’t given up on you yet,” Midori spat bitterly, still holding our weeping mother in her arms. She glared at me with the bright green eyes that had earned herself her name. “He still thinks you can earn his sword one day, even though it killed Shiro—”

“That’s enough,” our father said firmly. “I know you are upset, but I am in no mood to take the blame for this.” I belatedly noticed a quaver in his voice.

Was he barely holding on?

“I’m eighteen years old, Dad!” Midori shouted, disentangling herself from our mother and striding up to our father. “I’ll blame whoever I choose! You’re the one who—”

“Midori, that is quite enough,” Mom’s soft voice floated through the air. We all turned to see her slowly regaining her feet, wiping her tears away as gracefully as she could. “If you have something to say to your father, you can do so later.” She indicated the room with her hand. “You are embarrassing us.”

It didn’t seem like it. The Hall of the Dead was crowded with grieving families, come to visit the names engraved on the walls. But no one was paying attention to us. Why should they? We were far from the only crying family, and I could hear shouted arguments echoing from the floors above and below.

I decided to ignore my mother; she did tend to be worried about appearances too much, so this was nothing new. Instead, I turned my attention to the wall—granite, I think—we were standing in front of.

Every person had four lines dedicated to them. The first was their birth name, then indented underneath was their nickname or title, and then indented under that were their dates of birth and death, and finally a few words about the person.

I loved this place. There were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of names on this floor alone, and it was only floor ten out of fifty. The Halls recorded all the dead since the Zero Forge was first lit, every soul who died on Domina’s soil or seas immortalized in stone.

Immortalized was a new word. My Dad was the one who taught it to me.

I liked it. Immortalized.

‘Shiro Akiyama,’ my sister’s engraving read. Then the single character of her first name, and the two of our family name. Then the dates—born December 4th, died February 5th. She was fourteen years old when she died. It seemed like forever to me, but everyone else was going on about how young she was.

I read the last line aloud. “’She died smiling.’”

My father patted my head again. “Yeah. There wasn’t…” he momentarily gripped my hair hard enough to hurt, but I didn’t cry out. I don’t think he even noticed what he was doing, but either way his grasp quickly loosened. “There wasn’t much of her left, after the explosion. But they found her head. And she was smiling.”

“I suppose that is all anyone can ask,” a thick, breathy voice declared from behind us.

We all turned to see a man about Dad’s age, wearing a white lab coat and standing in front of the wall with a woman and two children, a boy and a girl. The girl looked about my age, but the boy was way older, like ten.

“Isaac,” Dad said with a smile. “Thank you for coming.”

Always a pleasure, Akio. Even at times such as this.”

Mom wiped her face again. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said to the woman at the man’s side. She extended her hand. “Yasu Akiyama.”

“Janet Gertrude,” the woman replied, shaking my mother’s hand. “This is David,” she patted the boy on the head. “And Robyn Joan. You’ve already met my husband, Isaac, I believe?”

Mom smiled as best she could and shook the man’s hand. “Doctor Clarke? No, we haven’t met, but I’ve heard so much about you.”

He grinned in return. “Likewise, my dear.”

I shied away from the new family, gripping the sword belted at my father’s side for comfort. I’m not good with new people, and these ones had just come out of nowhere…

“I’m touched you invited us,” Miss Gertrude said with a sad smile. “I know this is a tough time, and you need friends to get through it.” She glanced around. “Speaking of which, is anyone else coming?”

“I invited Maria and Victor, but they’re always pretty busy.” Dad adjusted Raven a little bit. I guess all my pulling on it was uncomfortable for him. “Artemis, of course, couldn’t make it.”

“That’s quite a few people, Akio. Were you planning a funeral after all?

My father smiled sadly. “No…no, unfortunately not. We don’t have the time or money for something like that.” He gestured at the wall. “Musashi’s sword…if the engraving wasn’t free, we might not have even been able to afford this much.”

Quite right, quite right,” the doctor muttered, shaking his head. I noticed his daughter staring at me, and looked away. “The same thing happened with my first wife. We had our differences, but I would have preferred…” he trailed off, a pained look on his face.

There was a long, awkward silence, punctuated only by Murasaki sniffling off to one side. At Miss Gertrude’s silent urging, the Clarkes turned to the wall, studying the names engraved with such care.

I tugged lightly on Dad’s pant leg to get his attention.

He rubbed my head, smiling down at me, but I could still see that pained expression on his face. “What’s wrong, Red?”

“It’s just…” I whispered, not wanting to disturb the silence for some reason. “…about what Doctor Clarke said…”

He frowned. “What exactly—?”

“What’s a funeral?”

My father blinked owlishly. “What?”

“That thing Doctor Clarke mentioned. What’s a funeral?”

“I’m—you…you can’t possibly…” he trailed off, staring down at me as if I had suddenly grown a second head.

I bit my lip. “Is it something bad?”

That pained smile came back again. “No…no, of course not.” He patted my head again. “A funeral is just…a sort of party for someone who has died. You invite over everyone who was close to them, and spend a few hours telling stories about when they were alive. That’s all.”

I thought about it for a second. “But…that doesn’t make any sense.”

His eyebrow quirked upwards, and he smiled a little more genuinely. “Oh? How so?”

“If people spent that much time on everyone who died, there wouldn’t be time for anything else.”

My father’s smile disappeared like a rat down a hole.

“Yes,” he said very, very quietly. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 151)

Yes, Midori has green eyes. No, they are not a toy, she was born with them, and she is fifteen years older than the toy maker. Normally, such a thing would be nearly impossible for a pure Japanese girl, which confused her parents to no end. However, a paternity test confirmed that Akio was her father. It was just one of those random quirks of genetics.

Oh, and Akane is about six months away from being 6 years old here. Midori is three days past 18, and Murasaki is almost 13.

Scene 103 – Sumptu

SUMPTU

ARTEMIS

The fel threw herself at the strong metal mesh of her cage, snarling at us. Or trying to, anyway. Her mouth was open, but no sound came out, the wound that had severed her vocal cords years ago still visible as a scar on her furry throat.

“I told you, Artemis—she hasn’t settled down at all. She’s still clearly ‘aggressive.’ I don’t know why you expected her to revert.”

“It was just a theory,” I apologized, patting my friend on his shoulder. I looked down at him and smiled. He wasn’t too short, but I was tall, and he was hunched over with his fake age. “Weren’t you the one who told me to always tell you about my theories?”

Isaac rolled his eyes. “Because last time, it set me on the path to the toy maker.”

“Exactly. Sometimes you need a non-scientist to give you a fresh perspective.” I shrugged. “But if I was right every time, I’d be a scientist.”

He smiled a little. Just a little, though. We had far too much on our minds for humor.

“Admiral Ursler,” I addressed the old-looking ophidian woman who was patiently waiting a few steps behind us. “You have those numbers I requested?”

Like Isaac, Janelle Ursler used the toy maker to appear older than she actually was, but for her it was because no one would take her seriously otherwise. She was very young for an admiral. Not that I cared. I promoted my men based on merit, not age or position.

“Four biters,” she responded promptly. “One-hundred and twenty-eight burners. Five-hundred and three bats, nine-hundred and eighty bleeders, an even two-hundred skins, and nine-hundred and seventy two lasers.” She put the pad down. “That’s two-thousand, seven-hundred and eighty-seven total. That includes the ones gained in testing, accidents, and those lost due to accidents.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking the pad from her. “I appreciate the help.” We were short-staffed at the moment, so I had asked her to grab the data for me, even though normally someone of her rank would never have to play aide like that. “Now, what about your own report?”

“Sir,” she saluted crisply. “The Battle of Chronias was an utter failure. In addition to having the second-highest number of new screamers, we also had the highest number of deaths, and the second-highest amount of property damage. But even if that had all gone well, we still lost Zaphkiel.” She bowed—an interesting trick, with the massive tail that had replaced her legs. “I will accept any punishment you deem necessary.”

“None,” I said without hesitation, and the snake-kemo looked up at me in surprise. “You are an admiral. I know your skill on land is less than perfect.”

She worked her mouth silently, searching for something to say, before simply bowing her head again. “Thank you, sir.”

“I do have other questions, of course. First, how did Medina do?”

Ursler’s brow furrowed briefly, before clearing. “Oh, right, the Highlander.”

Now it was my turn to be surprised. “The…Highlander?”

She nodded. “Yes, one of my men moonlights as a bodyguard for Medina’s friend Lizzy. Apparently that’s her nickname for her.” The ophidian shrugged. “It kinda stuck with me.”

I waved my hand. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t matter. How did she do?”

“Pretty well, considering everything that went wrong. She got the Draculas whipped into shape quickly, and used them to take out the generators while the EMP had them disabled. After that, it was pretty much a turkey shoot.”

That was about what I had expected. All the reports I was getting praised Laura’s strategy; Victor and Maria would be pleased, at least. “That’s more than enough; I’m sure your written report will provide more detail.” I turned back to Kat, still thrashing about in her cage. She turned into a bat briefly and threw her herself against the double-layered mesh weakly a few times, before smoking back into a cat-girl. “What is the situation with the Northern Fleet?”

“The Rahabs are getting more aggressive—not something I would have thought possible. They probably think the screamers are weakening us.”

I snorted. “They are. The question is whether or not it will be a weakness the Rahabs can take advantage of. How many ships have we lost?”

“Just one so far, the Merchant Registry ship Eatonrun. Just a food supplier—as that ridiculous name implies—so there was minimal crew on board, and they all survived. We were also able to salvage most of the cargo, though the ‘habs stole enough of it to keep themselves going for a while.”

The Rahabs weren’t a culture, not really. They were just a gang, united by nothing but hatred. They were the last of the old gangs, in fact, largely because they kept to Whitecap Bay, where our forces were already spread thin.

But that was precisely what made them so dangerous. They didn’t have the numbers of any of the subcultures, but it didn’t take many men to sink a ship, if you knew what you were doing.

Well, I didn’t have time to worry about that right now. The screamers were taking all of my attention. “Thank you, Ursler. Admiral Briggs is in the West Wing. I’m sure you two have many things to discuss.”

The ophidian performed that strange bow again and slithered off to find her southern counterpart. It was indicative of our small navy that we had a grand total of two admirals.

I turned my attention back to my friend. “Well? How bad is it?”

He rubbed his forehead. “Between the cages, feeding them, and all the precautions we have to take in order to keep our guards and aides from getting infected…” Isaac shook his head. “Too much. It costs far too much.”

“Domina isn’t equipped with prisons,” Mary Christina noted from a wall speaker. “The city is a prison. I’m not sure how much longer we can last like this. We’re going to have to start eliminating captured screamers soon.”

I leaned heavily on my cane. Killing enemy combatants or criminals was one thing. But the only thing these people were guilty of was getting infected. If we just started throwing them to the dogs, there would be riots. And the public would find out. The Paladins would notice when the screaming started to die down, and Derek at least wouldn’t let it stand uncontested. And he wouldn’t be the only one.

“I take it you still haven’t had any luck curing them?” I asked Isaac.

He gave me a sad little smile; we both knew he would have told me about something that important. “No progress whatsoever. I think the singers might be the key, but we don’t have any of those in custody.”

“I hope that’s not what you called us here for.”

I turned at the cheerful voice to see Victor Medina and Maria Huntsman striding up.

I felt a smile find its way onto my face, despite the grim situation. Those two reminded me of happier times. “I wasn’t sure you two would make it.”

The full-bodied woman shrugged. “We were in the area. And getting past your security sounded like fun.”

I had given the pair a set of alpha-level security badges pretty much at the same time as we created the security system in the first place. Not that it mattered. They insisted on sneaking in every single time. Sometimes they actually succeeded, but most of the time my men just pretended not to see them.

“Well, nevermind that now. I have an assignment for you two.” I saw the disturbed looks on their faces. “And before you ask, it doesn’t involve capturing a singer.”

“As long as it’s not capturing the Composer himself instead, I think we’ll manage,” Maria said with a grin.

“I need you to find Zaphkiel.”

Victor leaned against the cages, either not noticing or not caring about the screamers trying (and failing) to claw at him. “What do you need the Watcher for?”

“And why do you need us to find him?” Maria pressed. “I thought you were still on relatively good terms with him.”

“I am. But he’s a screamer now, and the Composer has him.”

Maria groaned. “Silver moon and golden sun, Artemis. Can’t you ever give us anything easy?”

“If this was easy, I’d just send your kids.”

Victor held up his hand. “Wait one second.”

“Don’t worry, I know you’re busy tomorrow. This can wait a few days.”

“That’s not what I meant. We’re not exactly humble, we know we’re good. But surely you can’t expect us to beat a warlord, let alone a screamer?”

I started walking away from the cages, limping a little, and the others followed. “Don’t worry about that. I just need you to find him. I’ll have someone else capture him.”

Maria still sounded confused. “Who?”

I grinned a little wolfishly. “His mother, of course.”

Victor quickly stepped in front of me, blocking my path. “You can’t get her involved. If the Mother Monster is turned—”

I raised my hand to quiet him. “Simmer down, Victor. She won’t get close to him. She hates violence, anyway.”

Mary Christina spoke up from the speakers. “Let’s just say that the most powerful monster in the city will make good bait.”

“I did most of her buffs myself,” Isaac noted at Victor and Maria’s apprehensive looks. “They’ll never catch her.”

I smiled. “And that’s why she’s good bait.

Behind the Scenes (scene 103)

Yes, Domina does not have any prisons whatsoever. It works on a more simplistic fine and penalty system that doesn’t involve long-term incarceration. The fact that most criminals get shot before any sort of official legal action takes place also keeps things easy.