Tag Archives: Kelly Sanguinas

Scene 261 – Quod Primogenita Vendidisset

QUOD PRIMOGENITA VENDIDISSET

FIERNA

I am Fierna.

I am power.

For years, I shackled myself. Begged that cripple who thought himself a warlord to chain me, to weaken and hobble me. For years, that damned device cursed me, held me back, denied me what was mine by right.

Even now, I could feel it. Years of poison did not fade in moments. But oh… it was fading. Burning away like ice before a flame. With every moment, my power grew. With every moment, what was mine slowly returned.

I was thrown roughly against the cold stone floor.

“My sclavi found this one with the others,” a female voice said.

“She looks like a ghoul worked her over. Did she resist?”

“No. The sclavi were simply not careful when they carried her here.”

Old instincts were surfacing, like a blade slowly being sharpened after disuse. For the moment, I merely peered around myself, trying to determine where I was. At the moment, my strength was not fully returned, and it was all I could do.

But my blood was quickening. My power would come to me soon enough.

There were many shivering sclavi, standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor, guarding the entrances and simply acting as servants for the well-dressed vampires scattered around. There were several baselines, bound together in chains. They were unconscious, and irrelevant. There was a giant, pinned to the wall with spikes. Also irrelevant.

And there was an angel, staring at me with wide eyes from his spot on the floor just a few feet away. He was mouthing words, but what, I couldn’t say. I peered closer, trying to divine his meaning, but had little luck.

He seemed to be saying ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Oh good, the baselines are waking up.”

“What do we do with the vampire?”

“We’ll get to her in a moment.”

Strong hands grabbed me and dragged me to the rear of the room, where I could be stored until they were done with whatever minor thing they were doing.

“You there, baseline. What’s your name? What made you think attacking Phlegethos was a good idea?”

Phlegethos. I knew that name. The Heart of Darkness, the Seat of Despair. Sitting in Northwest Middle, it was the last spark of power of an old, dying culture, waiting for a lord that was dead and gone.

I knew Phlegethos. I knew it.

I had recovered enough to crack open my eyes and get a better look around the room. The floor was cold concrete, but the walls were lined with tapestries and paintings. There were a few lights in the ceiling, barely more than dying candles, dim enough to give baselines the vaguest impression of what was happening, but bright as day to vampire eyes.

The room itself was wide and long, large enough to park five or ten cars. It was clearly an audience chamber, a gesture of the ruler’s might and abilities. The effect was undercut by the fact that the throne at the end of the blood-red carpet was empty.

Four vampires sat on short chairs flanking that throne, a massive chair-shaped edifice of blackest obsidian. All four were distinct in their suspicious lack of distinction; they all had ivory skin and raven-black hair, fitting the vampire definition of beauty. They would have more unique toys hidden under those loose robes of theirs.

There were a scattering of other vampires in the room, in addition to the dozens of sclavi. The slaves, of course, were mostly dull-eyed with the drugs used to keep them under control, but the nightstalkers were sharp and dangerous.

“I am Derek Huntsman, Honorless Bloodsoaked,” a strong male voice called out. “And this man next to me is Adam Anders.”

The effect of the baseline’s words was electric. All the nightstalkers recoiled away from the blond man standing before them with his hands bound, and even more when his bland little friend struggled to his feet as well.

I felt like I should know who these two were. It was tickling at the back of my mind, but the power stirring in my body made it hard to think. Nights, it made it hard to do anything but just revel in my own strength. Why had I ever given this up? Why had I ever thought that would be a good idea?

Everyone in the audience chamber was staring at the blond and his friend, ignoring everyone else in the room, including the other two baselines still on the ground.

Everyone, that is, except for the angel. He was still mouthing words at me, now with tears dripping down his cheeks. ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Huntsman,” one of the Nobles flanking the throne, Bathym, hissed as he leaned forward, his black talons hidden in his robes. “It is… unfortunate that you are here. But the laws of Necessarius are clear. You broke into our domain. They will not rescue you from our wrath.”

“You kidnapped several ‘sarians. They will demand compensation for that.”

Bathym grinned in that annoying way he had, showing his fangs poking over his lower lip, but nothing else. “That is too bad, Huntsman. But the Belians remain a rich culture. We have more than enough money to pay retribution for a self-defense case.”

The baseline shrugged. “Perhaps. I guess we’ll just have to fight our way out of here.”

Bathym laughed loudly at that, though no one else so much as cracked a smile. “Oh, you are a confident one, Honored Paragon. But we are hardly helpless.” His black eyes turned hard. “We know what you are capable of. You are vastly outnumbered, and your clay is unarmed. Not to mention you must keep your friends safe. You are not getting out of this alive. You have no trump card.”

“Well, there is me.”

My power had not returned to me. Not completely. It would take hours, perhaps even days, before all traces of that vile chemical was purged from my system.

But I did not need physical power to deal with these wretches.

“Go back to sleep, nightstalker,” Balan, the warlord with the massive eyebrows and the tufted beard, said wearily. “You will be dealt with in a moment.”

I ignored him, and instead took off my clothes.

It wasn’t hard. My armor was missing—most likely taken—and the underclothes were ripped and torn in places. A single hard yank was enough to remove my shirt, and my pants weren’t much more difficult.

Everyone in the room stared at me. Not in lust, either. Just in sheer confusion.

“…someone get this girl out of here,” Gaziel said, waving his hand lazily in such a way that the bulbous, bony joints of his wrists were seen under his robe, and I could see the hint of his long, purple-red forked tongue in his mouth. “Sclavi. Scoateți-o.”

Instead of following his orders, one of the sclavi quietly stepped up from behind me, dressing me in a long, fur-lined cloak that went right over my naked body. There was no tie around the waist, but it was expertly tailored to my physique, and carefully clung to my body to hide both my breasts and groin.

I smiled. “Sclavi. Îngenuncheze.”

And the slaves knelt before me.

Now the Nobles and nightstalkers jumped back in fright, understanding exactly what they were dealing with. No, not yet. I saw the looks in their eyes—they were afraid of my power to control their sclavi, but they didn’t understand why.

They didn’t recognize me yet.

I strode through the rows of kneeling vampires, past the crying angel still on the floor, ignoring the baselines who were staring at me, as well as the Belians who had no idea what was going on.

I strode towards the obsidian throne, with no one to stop me.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Gazra looked from me to the throne.

Then he knelt.

Balan and Bathym followed suit a moment later, and Gaziel, looking between his three colleagues, knew he had no other choice but to do the same. I noted his hesitation, but kept my lips shut for the moment.

I turned to see the confused faces of the rest of the vampires, the nightstalkers who had joined after I had left. They saw what their Nobles were doing, but couldn’t believe it, couldn’t understand it. They had no more idea what was happening than the baselines we had captured or the giant stapled to the wall.

The angel knew, though. He was still crying, still begging me to stop.

Oh, dear, sweet Alex. You knew this was how it was going to end.

“…Kelly?” Derek asked slowly. “What—”

“Drakela Sanguinas never existed,” I explained, as if to a child. “She was a broken mask worn to interact with others.” I met the Paragon’s wary gaze with a firm one of my own, knowing full well what I was doing.

“I am Fierna,” I said calmly. “Daughter of Belial, heir to the Throne of Abriymoch, the Fourth Black Crypt Phlegethos, and all the secrets of my mother, Naome the Golden.”

I sat in the throne, the black obsidian seat too large for me—it had been designed for my father, after all, who was almost eight feet tall.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” I said, my voice echoing throughout the chamber. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The power in my veins sang. It felt good to be home

The only problem was my conscience screaming in the back of my skull.

Behind the Scenes (scene 261)

I’ve been waiting for this one for a very, very long time. Still not sure if I should move it to later.

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Scene 260 – Oppugnatio

OPPUGNATIO

ADAM

It was Thursday night, shortly after dusk. November 29th. Why did that feel important?

“So we’re raiding the domain of a bunch of drugged-up vampires,” I said.

Laura didn’t even look at me. “The slaves aren’t the problem. The nightstalkers, the ones who still have their minds, are the issue.”

“But they’re not as strong as the sclavi,” Kelly said as she strode up to the edge of the roof next to us. She observed the skyscraper across the street with a critical eye. Phlegethos was the opposite of the angel domains in a lot of ways; while the Heavens were covered in light reflected and refracted a million times over, the Black Crypt was completely, utterly dark. Even at this distance, I couldn’t use my phone; the vampires had a ‘dark zone’ set up, which was sort of a specialized EMP field for taking out lights. It just had an annoying habit of killing most other electronics as well.

Even without the conspicuous darkness, the vampire domain would still be easy to spot. Two buildings next to each other were joined by walkways and paths. The walls were lined with spikes and blades, which I suspected were sharp enough to cut any kemo stupid enough to try to climb them. There were a few outcroppings here and there, manned by turrets that slowly scanned the area. Even the glass was black and bulletproof.

“I have ways of neutralizing the sclavi,” Kelly said, apparently unconcerned with the view before us. “But I’m not sure if it will work more than once or twice, so I’ll save it for an emergency. In the meantime, aim for the leaders, and the rest will scatter.”

“We still need to get in. Unless you’re suggesting walking in the front door?”

The ex-Belian shrugged. “They wouldn’t expect it, that’s for sure. But we need a better plan.”

“Roof?” Derek suggested. He nodded at Kat and Robyn. “We’ve got two fliers.”

“I can’t carry more than two people,” Robyn said.

“And Kat can’t carry anyone,” Laura said. “We can’t have Robyn make three trips; we’ll be spotted.” She frowned, then shook her head. “But it’s still a good idea. Robyn, go high. Really high. See what the security looks like on the roof.”

Robyn nodded and shot off like an arrow from a bow, likely more than happy to have a mission that didn’t involve getting in firing range of anyone. In a moment, she was out of sight, disappeared into the night sky.

“I still feel like we should have done this during the day,” I said. “Night gives them too many advantages.”

“We got here as fast as we could,” Laura said, still not looking at me. “Considering how clingy Ishtar was and how far Phlegethos is from Jealous Heart, we were lucky. We’re not waiting until tomorrow.”

“She’s always been clingy,” Kelly said. “The drugs aren’t helping.”

Kelly hadn’t gone into Jealous Heart with us. Considering how bad her ex-girlfriend was, I really couldn’t blame her. Ishtar was nice, even friendly, but she was still a Belian, and still crazy. Not fey crazy, but pretty out there.

I was getting distracted. We had more important things to worry about.

Derek’s phone beeped. He flipped it open and turned it to speaker mode. “Robyn?”

“I’m here,” her voice sounded out of the speaker. “The roof isn’t too heavily guarded, but I’d prefer not to test it. Three nightstalkers, all clear-headed, as far as I can tell. We wouldn’t be able to get them all before they called for backup.”

“Well that’s out,” I said. “Are there any sewers?”

“None big enough to crawl in through,” MC said, cutting into the conversation without missing a beat.

I sighed. “Of course not. Well, maybe a frontal assault is our only option. “Flynn—” He turned away from Phlegethos, then frowned. “Wait, where’s Flynn? Wasn’t he with us a minute ago?”

“I sent him back to NHQ to watch over the kensei,” Akane said without blinking.

I sighed again. Losing one of our main heavy-hitters was going to make this more difficult than it needed to be. “Okay, fine, whatever. Uh, then Akane, you’ll be on point, Derek you’re a bit behind, then the rest of us will take the rear, with Robyn and Laura staying out of it—”

“You’re missing something important,” Laura interrupted. “MC, any chance you have a list of the powers the Belians might have at their command? The slaves aren’t as important; focus on the nightstalkers.”

“Sorry, but they weren’t exactly interested in registering with Necessarius.”

“Great.”

“Vampires tend to gravitate towards powers of darkness and blood, though, if that helps.”

“A little,” Laura admitted. “Though it would probably help more if we had an angel.”

“I can go find one,” Robyn said through Derek’s phone. “That Adele Lucifer, maybe?”

“No, she’s busy.”

Everyone’s busy,” I said. “Including us. We shouldn’t be here.”

Kelly glared at me. “Are you saying we should abandon friends to slavers?”

“No, I’m saying we should try to buy them back the ‘sarian way.”

But she shook her head. “Won’t work. If they were grabbed at random, maybe, but we’re pretty sure that they were targeted specifically. Calling and offering money will just make them accelerate their plans.”

“Why can’t anything be easy?” I shook my head. “I swear, things were simpler when the whole damn city was screaming.”

“A graveyard is simple too,” Kelly said. “That doesn’t mean you should make more of them.” She sighed. “But in this case, I think ‘simple’ might be our only option. There are no secret side entrances or anything, no other way into the domain besides the roof and the front door.”

Kat signed something.

“That still requires that Miss Clarke kill two guards as fast as possible,” Kelly reminded her. “You’re not going to be able to take out more than one before they call for help. Not an option.”

“Robyn could carry me up there, then Kat snipes one while I get the other two,” I said.

“Better,” Laura cut in before Kelly could speak. “But it still has problems. The roof is likely covered in cameras, and no one can get close enough to drop a transceiver on one before being seen.”

“If we go in from above—”

“You’ll have to start from high above. Do you have some kind of gas mask?”

MC snorted, a strange sound to hear from a phone. “We can get him a damn gas mask, no problem. The cameras, though… I think some of them are pointing up. I’m not sure that there’s any angle of approach where you won’t be spotted.”

“The roof is still a better option,” I said. “Even if reinforcements come.”

“Adam,” Derek said firmly. “Most of us can’t fly. You want to be trapped on a roof with no way out but a sheer drop to the pavement?”

“No, he has a point,” Laura murmured, half to herself. “It’s not designed to withstand any kind of siege; it’s out of reach of all other buildings, and they wouldn’t have had time to revamp it, even if they realized that fliers could come in that way.”

I tried not to look smug.

Apparently it didn’t work. “Wipe that grin off your face,” Kelly snapped. “This plan should work, but it’s still Plan B. Plan A is getting in undetected. Miss Clarke. Do you see any angle where you can get next to a camera and drop a node on it?”

“Uh… maybe. I think the north—”

I heard the metallic click of a gun behind us.

I pulled out my Sica as fast as humanly possible, spinning towards the sound.

Derek, seeing my panicked reaction, immediately covered us in a glowing blue force field, an entire globe covering us from every angle. Not a second too soon, either—bullets started bouncing off it almost before he finished making it.

Vampires were stalking onto the rooftop, vampires with the vacant stares that only the heavily drugged could manage. They were still well-armed, though, and I knew better than to underestimate a couple dozen men armed with machine guns.

“How long can you hold the shield?” I muttered.

“Not long,” he whispered back. “I don’t want to dissolve the back side, in case they try to snipe us from Phlegethos.”

I looked back towards the Belian domain, and realized he was right. If they had found us here, they could have already called the men on the rooftop and requested support. Give one of them a sniper rifle—or even a basic infantry rifle with a decent scope—and we were screwed.

Then another Belian strode onto the roof.

This one clearly wasn’t drugged—at least not to the extent of the slaves. Her black eyes were clear, her stride straight and strong. She walked right up to Derek’s shield, and smiled as she traced the force field with a long black talon.

“A bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”

Derek was visibly sweating. “No.”

“Hm. Of course. Derek Huntsman, I presume?” The girl smiled, baring sharp fangs. “The first Paladin, the first Paragon, first in the fight against the evil Composer.” I wasn’t enjoying her mocking tone, but she just chuckled at our annoyance. “You all think you’re so clever. As if the rest of us don’t know how to deal with powers now.”

“Akane,” Derek hissed.

The shield blinked briefly, just long enough for his bodyguard to run out at superspeed, slashing at the Belian with a knife.

Next thing I knew, she was slammed against the wall on the other side of the roof. A moment later, she fell to the ground, leaving behind a massive crack in the concrete wall. She didn’t move.

That was a clever trick,” the nightstalker said in a patronizing tone. “Very clever indeed. Even without a sword, the kenkami is dangerous enough that I’m sure there are very few people in the city who would survive. Even with my superspeed and judo training, it was very difficult.” She grinned again. “Thanks for that warning.”

I closed my eyes. Dammit, Derek.

“Well, I think it’s past time to take you all in, don’t you think?” the woman continued. “After all, your friends are already inside. The angel and the changeling, that is.” Her eyes twinkled like black stars. “We expected you ages ago.”

“That’s why you took them?” Laura asked thickly. “Bait?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The vampire shrugged. “How should I know? I just follow orders.”

Derek swallowed. “If I drop the shield, do I have your word that no one will be harmed?”

Derek,” Laura hissed.

He ignored her. “Well?”

The Belian placed her hand on her chest. “On my honor, you will all be escorted to Phlegethos safely.”

Derek nodded slowly. “Adam, everyone, drop your guns.”

I stared at him. “You can’t—”

Drop it.”

Gritting my teeth, I slowly did as ordered. I heard a clatter as the others did the same.

The shield faded a moment later.

“Excellent,” the woman said. She clapped her hands, and the slaves moved forward to surround us more totally. “We’ll have to keep the guns pointed at you the whole time; security precaution, I’m sure you understand. We—” She frowned. “What’s she doing?”

We all turned—

Laura was the one who figured it out first. “No, don’t—”

With a scream, Kelly ripped the device off her arm, the needles taking a significant amount of her skin with them. What was left behind was little more than a bloody, ruined mess, with white bone showing through in places.

One of the slaves bashed her over the head with a rifle. She fell like a sack of potatoes.

“Idiot,” our captor muttered. “Come. The Nobles will wish to speak with you all.”

Behind the scenes (scene 260)

It’s hard to describe exactly what is wrong with the Belian sclavi. They’re not robots, and they’re not zombies; they retain their minds, in theory, and can take action on their own initiative. But they’re barely aware of their surroundings, and extremely susceptible to orders according to their programming.

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 255 – Subpetiae

SUBPETIAE

ADAM

“You should have told me,” I said.

Kelly didn’t look at me. “This I my problem, not yours.”

“Call me crazy, but I kinda want to know if two of my friends get kidnapped!”

“Stop waving your gun around,” she said, scratching at the device on her arm. “Didn’t they teach you basic safety at that stupid firearms class of yours? Seriously.”

I rubbed my forehead as I holstered my Sica. “…look. I understand the whole ‘don’t get people involved’ thing. Really, I do. But trying to do everything yourself is just going to get those two killed.”

She gave me a sour look. She knew I had a point, but didn’t want to admit it. “How did you even find out about this, anyway? Clarke’s daughter tell you?”

“In a manner of speaking. MC, not Robyn.” Their relationship was… odd.

Kelly sighed. “Fine. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep this under wraps for long. But I was hoping to finish this up before we had to call anyone in.”

“Start at the beginning. Do you have any clues as to who took them?”

“No,” she said. “But I still know who.”

I blinked. “Uh, okay. Who?”

“The Belians.”

Oh. Oh dear.

Kelly’s eyes were hidden behind her daygoggles, but I could easily imagine the murderous fire that filled them. She was an ex-Belian, and while I had never gotten any details on why she had left her culture, it was clear she wasn’t on good terms with them.

“If you know who took them, we can get some ‘sarians and raid the place.”

She shook her head. “Not enough evidence, and they’d just kill the captives before we could get through. We need something more subtle. Kat and George are watching their outpost now. We’ll know when they try to move, and we’ll hit the convoy.”

I held up my hand to forestall her explanation. “Wait a second, back up. You said you don’t have enough evidence. What evidence do you have? How do you know they did this? Should we be looking elsewhere?”

“For the past few months, lesser Belian Nightstalkers have been ambushing me,” she said as calmly as if we were discussing today’s rather mild weather. “I have, of course, been fighting them off. They must have decided to go for my friends instead.”

“That’s it?” I asked incredulously. “That’s all your evidence?”

“Yes.”

“At least tell me that you confirmed that they were at Nishrek! That they had the opportunity to pull off this little kidnapping.”

“No. Not confirmed.”

I sighed. “Well, no wonder you’re trying to do this by yourself.” If she called Necessarius, they wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing. I couldn’t even call in a couple CS squads, not with this. “How do you even know you have the right outpost?”

“It’s the only one remotely nearby,” she said without emotion.

“Of course it is. And those two have it on stakeout, right?”

A nod.

“Good. Then it will give us a chance to search out other leads.” We were standing next to the van, which was parked on the side of the street. I opened up the door and slipped behind the wheel.

What are you doing?” she demanded.

“We need to drive,” I said. “I used to drive big vans like this all the time, whenever my dad needed an extra hand at his shipping business.” Actually, those vans were a little bigger, which would make this even easier, right? “C’mon.”

Kelly sighed and got in the other side as I started the van. The electric engine purred to life as she buckled in. “Where are we going? Do you even know? This isn’t exactly a part of the city you know well.”

“But you should, right?” I said. “You have a good idea of where else to look. Other Belian nests—”

“Like I said, there aren’t any nearby. Besides, that would tip our hands.”

I nodded as I eyed the road, looking for a break in traffic. “Fair enough. But what about other cultures that might have taken them?”

“There is no one else.”

I couldn’t look at her as I focused on merging into the busy street—someone honked at me, but someone was always honking—but I sighed. “Kelly, please stop and think. Everyone has multiple enemies, and the retinue have more than most. Who else could it have been? The fey, finally grabbing a wayward changeling? The angels, taking an opportunity to kidnap a traitor? Explore the other options.”

Laura was silent for about a block.

“Not the fey,” she said finally. “There were no signs of monsters. Their new Chosen or Princes or whatever could have done it without leaving a trace, I suppose, but that’s an awful lot of effort to waste on one little changeling.”

I nodded. “Good, good. What else?”

“The angels are unlikely for the opposite reason. Alex has always been on good terms with them, despite leaving for Necessarius. Some rogue Host could be going around hunting traitors, but I haven’t heard of any such thing.”

“Neither have I,” I said. That was the two obvious suspects down. “What about something random? Maybe someone in Acheron just grabbed two unprotected men when they saw the opportunity. What’s that club next door?”

“The Club Macabre, owned by Wee Jas. But we already asked her. She said she had nothing to do with it, and I’m inclined to believe it.” I could tell by her tone that she was considering my questions carefully, but I couldn’t turn to look. “Hextor or Bane would be happy to pull a random kidnapping, but not from Nishrek. They need to stay on good terms with Gruumsh. No, everyone in Acheron needs to stay on good terms with him.”

“Maybe we should stop by, crack a few skulls, just in case.”

“No, I already used Robyn Joan to scout them out,” she said. “Before I sent her home. They’ll be ready for any further intrusions, and they won’t be happy. No, Acheron is cleared. We need to focus on other possibilities. Take a right up here.”

I followed her instructions, taking a right at the next intersection. “All right. Who else is there?”

“The giants,” Kelly said instantly. “The ogres, to be specific. George left them on good terms, or I thought he did, but the entire culture has been in turmoil ever since Mjolnir died. Mostly between the Thors and the trolls, but it’s been spilling over to the rest. Including the ogres.”

“Wasn’t George the favored of the King or whoever?”

“Gordok, yes. But his is a small tribe, despite his claim to the title of king. Another right here. The ogres aren’t particularly unified, and the Gordoks pissed off a lot of the more violent ones.” I turned my head briefly, to see her scratching the device on her arm with a thoughtful expression on her face. “The gronn? Maybe, Gruul has been making some noise lately…”

“What about Kat?”

Kelly looked at me sideways. “What about her?”

“We’ve gone through your enemies, Sax’s, Alex’s, and George’s. What about Kat’s?”

“Kat doesn’t have enemies,” she scoffed. “No dark secrets in her past, nothing more interesting than losing her parents at a young age. She’s a fel who decided to get nighteyes, and then later decided to become a full anthro. That’s all there is to it.”

“Hm. No enemies at all? Really?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kelly shrug. “Oh, she has a few. But mostly individuals, family members of people she’s had to kill. She’s served Necessarius for a while, so they take the brunt of the hate that would otherwise be directed at her. Plus, it’s surprisingly hard to provoke someone into a murderous rage if you’re mute.”

“Right.” I decided to table that issue for now. “Let’s get back to you. Besides the Belians, who else would want to kidnap your subordinates just to get to you? Vampires, demons, anyone? Someone who likes kidnapping?”

“Belians are still at the top of that list,” she said. Then she thought about it. “…the Nessians, maybe? That would be a daring move, but if they can hide anywhere, it’s Acheron. They might have thought it was better than their usual haunts.”

“Okay, so we have a list of suspects,” I said as I merged left. “What about motive? Or more specifically, motive and opportunity together. Why choose now to grab them? And assuming they are your enemies, why not just grab you?”

“I was in the center of Nishrek, surrounded by orcs, including Gruumsh’s own son. On the other hand, Alex and Sax were in the security room, alone, with no one to protect them from—” She stopped talking.

I risked a glance over to see a frown of confusion on her face. “What?”

“We never did get a look at that security footage,” she said quietly. “There aren’t cameras in the actual room, and I was so convinced it was Belians, I didn’t even think about it. But we were investigating a couple murders. Could this whole thing have been just to keep us from delving too deeply into that?”

“Call Laura the second we get wherever we’re going,” I said. “We’ll—”

“We’re here. Park right there.”

I blinked in surprise, but still managed to maneuver the van into the designated spot. We stepped out, and I frowned up at what appeared to be a perfectly normal office building, maybe a hundred stories tall. Probably a bit less.

“What’s this? Someone’s domain?”

“No,” Kelly said as she pulled out her phone, presumably to call Laura. “It’s just an empty office building. He’s rented it out temporarily while he’s in the area; it used to be owned by a vampire company, so it suits his needs.”

Who’s needs?”

“We’re hunting vampires,” she said. “So it only makes sense to go straight to their boss.”

I swallowed. “The Dragon.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 255)

This is the first time the Dragon has shown up in a long, long time, but we’re still going to have to wait just a little while longer.

Scene 254 – Scultator

SCULTATOR

ROBYN JOAN

“Clarke,” Kelly snapped in my ear. “Have you found them yet?”

I ground my teeth and resisted the urge to tear off the earpiece. “No, nothing new since you asked five minutes ago. Calm down, Corporal. It’s been less than a full day. These things take time, and that’s all there is to it.”

Alex Gabriel and Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters had gone missing from Nishrek ten hours ago, late at night on November the 27th—a Tuesday, if that mattered. It was early Wednesday morning now, and I had been flying around Acheron pretty much the entire time. I had a lesser version of the Insomniac buff, so I didn’t need as much sleep as others, but I was still getting tired.

I heard the vampire take a deep breath. “…apologies. It’s been a long night for everyone. George and Kat aren’t having any more luck than you, I was just hoping, from your elevated position…” She paused. “Come on down. We’ll talk in person.”

I scanned the buildings below me, and quickly found the distinct architecture of Nishrek. I didn’t land there, though. Instead, I aimed next door, at a ‘scraper covered in neon lights and signs advertising all manner of attractions. They were off now, since they were just a waste of power in the light of day, but the building would still be inhabited.

I slowed to land on the roof with a minimum of dust kicked up, but I needn’t have bothered. Kelly had her daygoggles on to protect against the rising dawn. They were more than thick and strong enough to protect against a bit of dust as well.

She didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “Anything?”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but no. I told you before: There’s only so much I can do from the air. Unless you tell me who took them, I’m basically just flying around at random, hoping I spot them out in the open.”

“The identity of the kidnappers is irrelevant,” the vampire growled.

I blinked, and pulled off my flight goggles to emphasize the point. “Wait, you actually know? You know who grabbed them, and you didn’t think to tell me? This changes everything! I might not be a good tracker, but I’m a damned good scout. Just point me towards the enemy.”

“No.”

I stared. “What?”

“No,” she repeated. “I am not sending you into that viper’s den.”

“Then why am I even here?”

“Because MC called you,” she said, and I could tell her eyes were narrow even under her goggles. “I had no interest in involving outsiders. This is a problem for the retinue. George and Kat haven’t made much progress, but they have made some.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “So calling me nonstop for ten hours, demanding constant status updates, that was all…” I threw up my hands. “What, a trick meant to convince me you needed me?”

She at least had the grace to look away. “Not quite. You have helped us confirm that they are not in Acheron. That, by itself, is invaluable.” She turned strong again. “But your services are no longer required. Go home, Miss Clarke.”

I ground my teeth in frustration… then blasted off the roof with all the strength of my power, sending up a huge cloud of choking dust and grit in the process.

She didn’t want my help? Fine. I’d just find them myself first.

The vampire had said ‘pit of vipers.’ That meant the lace domains were the logical place to start looking, especially the ophidians—the snake kemos. She could have been speaking metaphorically, but it was my only lead. The giant and the fel would have disabled the GPS devices in their phones hours ago. MC wouldn’t be of much use here.

Wasn’t it their job the protect the Paladins? They should be following my orders, I was pretty sure. Damned vampire, trying to do everything herself.

I checked my phone, trying to find the nearest ophidian domain. There was one surprisingly close by. Kemos tended to fight over territory a bit more than the other cultures, so who owned what varied almost day by day. I just got lucky that there was something only a few blocks from Acheron.

It didn’t take long to find the domain, such as it was. It was just a couple short ‘scrapers next to each other, with some ophidian labels hastily painted over whatever the old signs had been. I felt like this used to be cane territory, but I really didn’t care enough to check.

I landed on the roof, as always, after glancing around and confirming that there weren’t any cameras anywhere within sight. And then I—

And then I realized I had no idea what to do next.

I couldn’t break into a domain based on a couple stupid guesses. They’d shoot me, for one thing, and even if I survived, Uncle Art would make me pay retribution. Not to mention that even if I found the angel and the changeling, I probably wouldn’t be able to carry them out.

Also, they’d shoot me. That one kinda stuck in my mind.

So what was I doing here? Ah, yes, I wasn’t looking for the kidnapped or the kidnappers at the moment, I was looking for the rescuers. If I could just find Kat and George, I could bypass Kelly and help them directly.

George would be hiding somewhere, not too far but not very close, either. An ogre simply stood out too much. Kat, on the other hand, could be anywhere, including inside one of the buildings. She was specced for stealth, even before she gained the ability to turn into a bat.

I floated up above the rooftop for a moment, putting myself in clear view of all three buildings and the streets below. Not for long, but long enough that if either of the pair were paying the slightest bit of attention, they’d notice.

Once I decided it was long enough, I flew over to the other side of the street and started scanning for the retinue’s van—before before realizing that they wouldn’t be using that. Far too conspicuous. No, the van would be parked somewhere nearby, out of sight, and George would be watching from—

Um.

I spotted a dozen different vantage points at street level that provided a perfect view of the domain, while giving sufficient cover from any ophidian guards. Three of these points were occupied, but not by George. Just a few canes and an orc.

I was missing something important. I hated when that happened.

The easiest answer was that ‘pit of vipers’ hadn’t actually meant anything, and I had sent myself on a wild goose chase. But I couldn’t exactly fly back to Kelly and ask her for clarification. There was always MC, but she had her hands full. Unless it was something easy like GPS coordinates, I tried not to bother her.

I landed on a roof—not one of the ophidian ones—and paused to think. Kelly knew who had taken her teammates. Well, she strongly suspected. If she knew, she wouldn’t have bothered having me double-check Acheron. Or… maybe she would. Was she that thorough? Maybe.

Anyway. Someone who’s not in Acheron, and who would want to kidnap an angel and a changeling in the Paladin’s retinue. Definitely not the Composer. Whether or not Silk still had her contained or not, this just wasn’t her style. Not enough murder, and she had never cared about the retinue before.

While I was at it, likely no one directly connected to any of the Paladins. She would have called all hands on deck if that were the case. That didn’t narrow it down a lot, unfortunately. Derek and the others largely stayed out of politics.

So someone competent enough to infiltrate Nishrek—wait, no. Nishrek was a bloody sieve. Anyone could just walk in the damn place. You didn’t have to be some criminal mastermind to get in there. Gruumsh enforced his peace with retribution, not security cameras and guards. What if—

I heard someone land on the roof behind me.

I wheeled around, simultaneously floating a few feet off the edge, preparing to accelerate as fast as I possibly could if the worst should happen. Fighting the screamers had made me very good at running away.

“Fimmtu?” I said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

The ave anthro inclined his head. “I was worried after the event with the kytons, Honored Magister. You weren’t answering your phone, and I feared the worst. I asked MC for your location, and she was kind enough to give it.”

Oh, right, I had a million missed calls from him. I had the thing on silent, and hadn’t bothered to call back. “I’m helping a friend find someone.”

He quirked his head. “Ling? We were helping you with that.”

“No, a couple members of the Paladins’ retinue have been kidnapped.”

“Oh. Oh dear.” He straightened. “I would be happy to help, if you’d have me. I don’t know where the rest of the college went, though.” He grinned sadly, in that weird way ave anthros had. “Possibly still in hiding from the chain-wielders.”

I shook my head. “It’s fine, I don’t need—”

Don’t need any help. Don’t need to put you in danger. That was what I had been about to say.

That was exactly what Kelly had been doing.

“…all right,” I said grudgingly. “You can help.”

Another ave grin, this time genuine. “Great! Where do we start?”

I gave him a sad smile of my own. “Well, that’s the tricky part…”

Behind the Scenes (scene 254)

I know we’ve got a couple short ones right now, but we’re moving forward.

Scene 251 – Talio

TALIO

KELLY

I scratched at the fixer on my arm. It was always an annoyance at the back of my mind, but for the last few weeks it had been worse than usual. At first, I had assumed it was just itching from the wounds I had inflicted during the Rampage, when in my blind animal fury I had tried to rip the device off my arm without properly disengaging the needles first, but it didn’t look like that was the case.

Kat smacked my hand, glaring at me to let me know she’s bring out the claws if I didn’t stop. I glared right back, but buckled under her withering stare after only a moment. She was right, of course, and I knew I didn’t have a leg to stand on. First rule any ex-Belian or ex-hag learned was ‘Don’t mess with the fixer.’

Before I could say anything to her—to yell at her or thank her, I don’t know—Jarasax and George came back with the beers, placing one in front of everyone. Plus the soda for me, of course. Alcohol doesn’t affect you when you’re on the fixer, and it makes it taste weird.

“I met with Adele and Gregorii today,” Alex said as he sipped his beer. “Turns out she got illusions.”

“Light-based, I’m guessing?” I asked. Illusions, we had found, could be split roughly between the kind that were caused by directly manipulating light, and the kind that were caused by causing people to hallucinate specific things.

“Light-based,” Alex confirmed. “Shows up on cameras and everything. Gregorii’s got this sort of light absorption thing to boost his stats, like those blood-drinkers. It’s actually kind of cool.”

George shook his head as he started on a glass that was about the size of the other four combined. “I swear, every single angel has something related to light. Somebody up there has a bad sense of humor.”

“I didn’t get light,” Alex noted.

I shrugged. “Well, it’s based on your desires. Huntsman wanted to protect people, he got shields. The aves wanted to fly, they got variants on that. And every freaking Dagonite got a specific variant of kinesis.”

“I met one who has shifting,” Jarasax pointed out. “She can jump from her Dagonite form to normal in a blink.”

Kat signed something.

“Shifting is what you do,” I reminded her. “It’s the fast one, but it doesn’t last very long. Morphing is the slow one, but it lasts forever.”

Jarasax grinned over his beer. “My morphing is fast.”

“That’s because you’re a cheater,” I pointed out. “Besides, you said you had a limit. What was it?”

“Only things I’ve touched recently.”

“That’s right.” I waved my soda, nearly spilling it in the process. “Still, the power to turn to stone or whatever is still pretty cool.”

Sax nodded and took another swig.

But Alex looked curious. “I wonder what would happen if you tried to turn into a liquid.”

“Doesn’t work.” At our stares, he shrugged. “I thought of it too. I was scared, but I can control what changes. Figure I’d turn one finger to water, see if I could still control it or if it would just fall off.” He shook his head. “Nothing. Reservoir didn’t even deplete.”

“That’s interesting,” Alex said. “So you can only copy solids.”

“I guess. Explains why I never accidentally copied the air.”

“Have there been any interesting themes around changeling powers?” I cut in. “I mean, vampires and angels get about what you expect, like we were saying, but we’ve also been seeing a lot of kemos with shifting or morphing, giants get powers related to whatever myth they follow, that sort of thing.”

“Demons don’t seem to have any theme,” Alex pointed out.

“Demons are demons,” I said. “They don’t stick with one culture for long, you know that. They like to change it up. I mean, you were a demon for a few months there at first.” Before he could answer, I waved him off. “But there are still some. Like, the hellions tend towards powers with obvious military applications. That sort of thing.”

“Well, there’s nothing like that for the changelings,” Jarasax said, bringing the conversation back on track. “Though, I haven’t exactly been in contact with Nemeni recently. I don’t have access to the roll call.”

“Nemeni?” I asked. The name sounded familiar.

“Nemeni of the Blood-Doused Hunters,” he elaborated. “Founder and warlord of the clan.”

George shook his head again, but this time in good humor. “It’s still weird to hear about changeling warlords.”

“Yeah, a lot of them still don’t like being called that,” Sax admitted. “Spent too much time fighting warlords, you know?”

George patted him on the shoulder. “At least the fey are being quiet.”

Sax snorted and took a swig of his beer. “You kidding? It’s terrifying. They’ve never been this quiet before. Ever. Last time they went for a few days without a show, they came back with that Wild Hunt thing. It’s been weeks this time.” He shook his head. “They’re planning something. Dunno what.”

“They still have that gargant running around killing people, though the frequency has dropped,” I noted. “Once or twice a week instead of five times a day. Has anyone at least figured out what they’re after?”

“No,” he said with a sigh. “Still no statements. No one’s even seen the damn gargant; the fey are being careful, sending it only to places with a closed security feed that can be stolen or destroyed. They’re still paying retribution, though.”

Kat signed a question.

“That’s exactly right,” I agreed. “Why? Why did they bother becoming a culture? Why go to all that trouble, just to make it so that they have to pay off anyone they hurt? They could have recruited without signing anything first.”

The Middle-Eastern changeling chuckled. “Oh, we figured that one out. It’s actually rather clever, when you stop to think about it.”

I sat back in my chair, frowning. “Do tell.”

“The fey have to pay retribution now,” he said, still smiling. “But in return, after they’ve paid, no one can attack them for their crimes. A few people have done it anyway, killed some of the feyborn and even one or two Princes. The fey didn’t even kill them, just calmly called for retribution. Necessarius came in, made the call, and the fey got to kill off the offenders perfectly legally.”

“They’re… protecting their followers?” I asked slowly, not quite believing it.

“They’re protecting their minions,” Sax corrected firmly. “This is not mothers sheltering babes. This is greedy misers protecting their investments. They’re planning something big, and need the feyborn in order to do it.”

“Have the minions been doing anything?” Alex said. “I mean, have they been interacting with the other cultures at all? Making deals, alliances, anything suspicious like that?”

“Probably. But if so, everyone’s keeping a tight lid on it. They mostly stay underground, in their demesnes and the sewers and stuff. They’ve pretty much had the run of the place since Obox-ob disappeared.”

Obox-ob, the Prince of Vermin, was the Power of the ekolids, a culture of bug demons that hid in the sewers. He had always been private, but around the time the Composer first showed up, he had fallen off the radar completely. His men weren’t saying much, but without their warlord, the fey hadn’t had much difficulty forcing the bugs out of the sewers and onto the surface. We were starting to see a few of them scuttling around with the rest of us, though they mostly kept to themselves.

Before we could continue the conversation, my phone rang. I frowned and checked the text, then rolled my eyes. “Blood and shadow, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” Sax asked as he started putting on his coat. The others were largely following suit. “The Paladins need help?”

We had been given an indefinite vacation now that Akane’s kensei had taken over guarding duties. I’d be more insulted, but I had met a few of them, and they all seemed competent enough. Besides, they all knew where we were if they needed us. We still stopped by every few days to discuss strategy and such.

“Worse,” I muttered. “There’s been another of those weird gargant attacks.”

George drained the rest of his beer in one massive gulp and slammed the glass down. “Where?”

I sighed. “Acheron. Nishrek, specifically, on Avalas Street.”

They all paused.

“…are you sure we can’t just let this one go?” Alex said after a moment.

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “This isn’t up for discussion. Sax, bring the van around.”

Acheron wasn’t too far, which is why we were called. That being said, it wasn’t like most domains, which were just a handful of blocks at most. It was more like Nosferatu territory—a massive sprawl of unaffiliated and uncooperative clans, broods, and houses stuffed into a nest of buildings and streets that sometimes seemed like nothing but dead-ends and dirty back alleys.

But, despite the area’s well-deserved reputation, there were real streets, which, while not exactly well-maintained, were at least in good enough condition to drive on. The roads were lined with dilapidated, windowless buildings, most still covered in the scars of the Rampage weeks ago. Armed gunmen prowled the sidewalks, even more so than in other districts.

The main thoroughfare was Styx, as could probably be expected, and we found Avalas Street a mile or so down the road. From there, Nishrek wasn’t too difficult to spot.

It had no walls. It was a forty or fifty-story tall ‘scraper that had no walls. Just floors and support columns to hold up the ceiling above it. As we drove up, I could see right inside, though as we got closer the angle made it difficult to get a good view of anything above the first floor.

It was an extremely odd design, and one without an inch of privacy. As I understood it, most of the domain was actually underground, deeper than even the sewers and concrete and into the ancient trash of the island itself. It was an excessive amount of time and effort, all things considered, and most people didn’t understand why it had been built this way.

But Nishrek did not gain the name ‘the Fifty Battlefields’ for nothing.

Each and every floor was a training ground, carefully crafted to mimic a specific battlefield. The first, the only one I could see as we walked up, was the simplest. Pillars were decorated to look like trees, concrete boulders were scattered around, and there was even a river running through the heart.

It was a forest battle. Far from common in Domina City, but we had a few parks here and there. Plus, fighting in forests was fun.

Right now, though, there was no fighting going on. The entire floor was quiet as a grave, though I could hear the sound of faux-gunfire from the floors above. Both teams were sitting around, sulking, barely even able to summon the energy to drink the beers they had found somewhere.

Acheron was a demon territory, but the teams in front of me were vampires. Mals, if I was reading the insignia right. It was hardly unexpected. Demons, with their focus on individual freedom, were a transitional culture for many people, and thus they were on good terms with the other cultures as a general rule. Nishrek, in particular, earned their keep by renting out their battlefields to other cultures for training.

As soon as they saw us, one of the drakes stood up. He was a tall, deeply tanned man with a strong yet thin tail that was knotting itself with worry. He still managed to stay strong, though, and met my gaze without fear.

“You’re Necessarian, correct?”

“Correct,” I said, as I shook his hand. His grip was a little on the weak side. “Corporal Drakela Sanguinas. Please, call me Kelly.” I waved my hand. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here? I don’t see any corpses.”

“Over here,” Alex called from deeper in the ‘forest’ before the vampire could answer.

Our greeter went first, and I was happy to let him play guide. The rest of us followed him to one of the larger fake boulders, to find Alex crouching behind it, looking over a small pile of bodies. There were a number of splatters of green everywhere, including on the corpses themselves, and it took me a second to identify it as paint.

“This is how you found them?” I asked.

The vampire nodded. “Razvan found them. He, uh, thought they were on the opposing team, so he shot them a couple times on instinct.” He looked embarrassed. “He’s really one of our best men, he just gets tunnel vision.”

“It’s fine,” I said. I knelt down next to the grisly pile of gore. It smelled terrible, but I had smelled worse. “I’m thinking… two, three hours. Honored Nightstalker, how exactly did you find them?”

It took our guide a second to respond. “Who, me? But I’m not—anyway. We had contracted with Bahgtru to use this space for a few hours. We got here an hour ago, started the game half an hour ago. Found them… maybe five minutes after that.”

“Did anyone use the space before you today?” Jarasax asked as he took notes.

“Uh, I’m not sure, you’d have to ask—”

“No, no one did.”

I turned to see a tall, broad shouldered demon with green skin and a single horn curving out of his forehead like a spike. His eyes were marble-black, most likely marking him as an orc. Despite his size, he wore a sharply tailored suit, and appeared to be unarmed. Sure, with his buffs he’d be lethal even bare-handed, but even the most powerful warlords tended to keep a gun on them at all times—or, failing that, bodyguards.

“Knight Bahgtru,” the vampire greeted him with a pleasant nod. “Thank you for coming.”

“Pleasure is all mine, Noble Zepar,” the demon grunted. “Not really a Power, though.”

It took me a second to process what was happening. I pointed at the drake with the tail. “So… you’re Zepar. Spymaster of the Mals?”

“And training master, unfortunately,” he said with a sigh. “Losing two of our warlords was a blow. I’ve been handling much of the subtler running of the culture, while Noble Nyashk takes care of the more violent side of things.”

I had heard something about Nyashk, but pushed it to the back of my mind for now. I turned back to the demon. “And you, Honored Devil, are Bahgtru Break-Bone, son of Gruumsh himself. Is that correct?”

He bowed formally. “Of course. At your service.”

Well, his presence made it clear that old One-Eye was taking this seriously, if nothing else. “Okay. And you rented this space to the Mals for training, but no one was here before them? Not even any cleaning crew?”

He straightened. “Correct and correct. Noble Nyashk contacted me, actually, asking for use of one of the Battlefields for the sake of power training. We’ve had a lot of people using them for that in the past few weeks. There were a few groups running through here to reach higher floors, but there is no reason to suspect they would have found the bodies. The cleaning crew was last here six hours ago, and they didn’t mention anything.”

Jarasax finished his notes, but didn’t look up from his pad. “Honored Devil, we were told this was a gargant attack. Was that a miscommunication, or is there something we’re missing about the scene? I was under the impression that the fey’s new pet didn’t leave much behind.”

Bahgtru blinked. “Oh, no, that’s right. We saw it on the cameras.”

I stared at him. “You have video evidence and you didn’t mention it until now?”

Bahgtru looked embarrassed, and his composure faltered. “I, uh, thought you knew?”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Sax, please go with the Honored Devil to take a look at those videos. Get copies if you can.”

“It’s downstairs,” Bahgtru said, pointing at a distant stairwell descending underground, but showing no interest in going himself. “Third door on your left. Ask the girl for the ones from earlier today, she’ll know what you mean.”

“I’ll go with him,” Alex said, standing and brushing off his pants. “In case he gets lost.” The angel tossed me his pad. “I think I’ve got everything I need. Check my work, would you?”

I scowled as he left. Ass. He knew full well that with my nighteyes, I couldn’t read anything on his pad. I handed it off to George, who walked away with Kat to try and decipher Alex’s poor note-taking skills.

“I need to check on my men,” the vampire warlord muttered under his breath as he headed off back to the front of the floor. “Excuse me, I’ll be back in one second… CLARA! No biting people!”

I smiled at that, but was careful not to look in the direction he was walking. Whatever happening over there was his problem, not mine. Instead, I peered closer at the pile of corpses left behind by the attack.

They… didn’t seem to be chewed up or eaten. That was normally how gargants operated, but there were exceptions. If nothing else, you’d expect the bodies to be broken and battered. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with them at all. Sure, they were obviously dead, but they didn’t appear to have any wounds.

I sniffed again. The coppery scent of blood was thick in the air, even so long after their deaths, so I knew I must be missing something. Curious, I lifted up one of the shirts to see if there was anything—

Their hearts had literally exploded out of their chests.

Just popped like something had tried to burrow its way out. The ribcage was broken and bent back, the white bones contrasting starkly with the red blood and shredded meat. I couldn’t even see the heart any more, and I doubted I’d find much more than pieces no matter how hard I looked.

I stepped back, even my abnormally strong stomach churning at the sight. I may have only seen one, but that was enough. I was sure that all the other corpses would be the same, or close enough, at least. Leave the rest for the medical examiner.

It was a Tuesday night—November 27th, specifically—so it would be a bit of a slow night for everyone. Hopefully, they would have enough men on staff to get over here as quickly as possible and get to the bottom of this mess. We had already called on the drive over, of course.

“That’s one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen,” Bahgtru muttered, sounding ill.

I patted him on the shoulder. I had to reach up to manage it. “That’s why we’re here. To get to the bottom of this, finally figure out what in the deepest night the fey are doing and why. Even put a stop to it.”

He nodded, still a bit green. Uh, greener than he was before. “Thank you. Honestly, thank you. I know this can’t be easy for you. I really do appreciate you coming out to help us with this yourself, Fi.”

I froze.

“What did you just say?”

The big demon frowned. “Uh, well, I was just trying to thank—”

“Not that. What did you call me?

He stepped back. “I’m sorry, but I knew your father, so I recognized—”

I grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him bodily against the nearest pillar.

Bahgtru struggled as the air was knocked out of his lungs. “What—”

“My father,” I interrupted, my voice level and my teeth grinding against each other like a belt sander. “Is dead. Dead and buried, which is where he belongs. I am Corporal Drakela Sanguinas of Necessarius. Anything else you think you know is irrelevant. Is that understood?”

The orc stepped away from the pillar. “I just—”

I slammed him against it again, this time holding him in place with one hand.

“Answer me, Honorless Fiend,” I spat. “Is that understood?

He nodded weakly.

“Good.” I released him, and he stumbled a few feet away, staring at me wide-eyed. “Now go to the data center and find my men. I need a report from them immediately.”

Knowing better than to argue, Bahgtru ran off, brushing past George and Kat as he did.

I let out a breath and placed my forehead on the cool concrete of the pillar. Sânge din umbră, this was not how I wanted to spend my evening. I certainly hadn’t expected some random traitor-orc to bring up old memories best left forgotten. I made a mental note to stay away from both him and his father. If Bahgtru recognized me, Gruumsh definitely would.

“What was that about?” George muttered as he and Kat walked up.

I straightened and made an effort to fix my clothing. “Bahgtru was hitting on me, I hit back.”

Kat smirked lewdly and signed something quickly.

“Puns are the lowest form of humor,” I said, refusing to be baited. “Now, what exactly did Alex’s notes say? I noticed a few things myself, but I’m not sure if he saw them.”

George shrugged and tapped at the pad again. “Nothing unexpected. Notes the smell of blood, the haphazard way the bodies are stacked, that sort of thing. He thinks there might be something on the victims’ chests, but he didn’t want to disturb them to check.”

“He’s right,” I confirmed, trying to ignore the reminder that I had disturbed a crime scene more than was strictly necessary. “CSI should be down here shortly, though, so that will get us more detail. And of course the security feeds should—”

Which was when Bahgtru ran up and skidded to a stop.

I glared. “What.”

“Your angel, and the baseline,” he managed between breaths. “They’re gone!”

“Wait, what?” I shook my head. “No, there’s no reason for them to leave.”

He met my eyes nervously, but managed to retain most of his composure.

“They were kidnapped.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 251)

I’ve been meaning to write this storyline for a long, long time.

Scene 245 – Sanctus

SANCTUS

KELLY

It had been months since I saw Kat. Months since I even thought of her. In Domina city, you learned quickly to forget about the dead as soon as possible. Dwelling on the past didn’t do anyone any good.

But sometimes the past came back.

I had forgotten that the screamers weren’t actually dead. Genuinely, seriously forgotten. A lifetime of repression made it easy for me to bury any uncomfortable truths in the back of my brain. The bats were one of the first batches of screamers we had managed to capture in large numbers, but that was just a datum to be filed away as something Clarke or Butler might want to know.

I had never considered the possibility that Kat might rejoin us one day.

I nearly jumped as the fel dropped down in front of me from out of sight, black mist clinging to her form as the last vestiges of her temporary transformation. She had been doing that a lot, shifting to bat form for a second or two in order to get a couple of wingflaps to slow a fall or gain a few extra feet on a jump or whatever. She was a bit disappointed in her power, but she was making the most of it.

Shaking myself out of my daze, I focused on her dancing fingers. The power package hadn’t repaired her throat, it seemed. Hardly unexpected, but certainly a pity. A few annoying diseases and ailments had cleared up after the MEE, though it was hard to tell what was from the package and what was screamers with healing powers plying their trade.

“Sorry,” I said. “Can you repeat that?”

She did, fingers flashing faster than before, a sure sign of annoyance.

I frowned. “Are you sure you’re not overreacting? How long has it been?”

More fingers dancing in the daylight.

“What? No, not enough. Call me when it’s been half and hour at absolute minimum.”

Her signing took on an angry, aggressive energy.

“Kat, Alex is our tracker. If we raised a fuss every time he disappeared for five minutes, we’d never get anything done!” More signing, but I interrupted her with a wave of my hand. “Five minutes, fifteen, whatever. You get the point. You have no proof he’s missing instead of just haring off after some interesting tracks.”

She signed a gesture that you’d didn’t need to know sign language to understand.

I rolled my eyes. “Age or IQ?”

Before Kat could find an outlet for her rage, a massive hand dropped onto her shoulder. The man it belonged to, the ogre George, smiled fondly. “It’s like not a day’s passed. Just like old times.”

“Almost,” I muttered, turning away and clambering back into the van. It shook as the two of them joined me, and then Jarasax started the engine and set off. I pulled out my phone and texted Alex as we did. Wherever he was, he would know to meet us at our destination.

The Composer was gone and the threat of screamers completely eliminated, but that didn’t mean the retinue’s job had disappeared entirely. Sure, we didn’t protect the Paladins directly as much any more, but the Big Boss had wanted us to keep an eye on some things that were cropping up.

It was November 11th, a Sunday, and just a hair over a week since the city had gone crazy and subsequently been brought back to sanity by putting Elizabeth on ice. Things had returned to normal surprisingly quickly, all things considered, though people playing with their new powers had made things chaotic for a couple days there.

In the middle of the crowded street, the asphalt bubbled, burst up, and exploded, revealing a roaring giant with the black skin and fiery red hair of a Muspel. He turned to us and gestured, causing the street under the van to buckle and bend, sending us tumbling over to the side.

This was actually pretty normal. He was just using powers on us instead of guns.

The first attack put the van on two wheels, but Sax drove on gamely while the rest of us clutched various hand-holds with white knuckles. Not for the first time, I blessed the Sax’s foresight at installing four-wheel drive.

The second strike, however, hit us when we were still trying to stay balanced, and knocked the entire van over, causing it to grind against the street with a whining screech of tortured metal, skidding for ten or twenty yards before finally coasting to a stop.

Small blessings: The left side was on the street, which meant the right side was pointing at the sky, so I could open my door unhindered. I slammed it open and immediately fired two shots from my Saint Jude.

The Muspel saw me coming though, and created a wall of stone out of the ground to block my shots. I cursed under my breath and fired a couple more times, knowing it was useless, but hopefully it would keep him occupied for long enough.

And it did. I heard George grunt behind me, even his massive strength struggling to bring his minigun to bear in this situation. I continued firing until I was out of ammo, then turned to check on George’s status. He had the gun out, obviously, and was getting the ammo belt ready, and…

Was the gun… glowing?

I dropped back through the door seconds before he started firing, clapping my hands over my ears in a vain attempt to block out the thundering roar of a 7.62 mm XM134 on full auto. Where the bullets impacted, they exploded—not just threw up clouds of dust and debris, but actually exploded in fire and light. Small explosions, certainly, but enough to provide a nice big boost to the weapon’s firepower.

I still wasn’t used to that. George’s power let him… ‘enchant’ objects, to imbue them with various enhancements for a short time. It had taken him forever to even figure out what his power was. Eventually, we had given up and just called up the security footage from the MEE. It had still taken a while to figure out, but that had certainly helped.

But the fact that he hadn’t known about it until a couple days ago meant that most of the city had been using their powers for twice as long as him. Since powers improved with use, that meant that everyone was twice as strong as him. Oh, you got into diminishing returns pretty quickly, but we hadn’t really reached that point yet.

Looking through the cracked glass of the front window, I could see that the Muspel stoneshaper weathered the storm of enchanted bullets well, stepping back and building thicker and thicker walls with the material of the street as he went. Either George’s reservoir or his ammo would run out soon, and I had a feeling our enemy had another trick up his sleeve when that happened.

Kat was setting up her sniper rifle, but despite the Apollo Crisis being more accurately described as an anti-tank gun, I wasn’t sure it was going to be useful in this situation. Locked inside this van, she didn’t have the mobility to aim properly.

Jarasax and I had powers too, but they didn’t have any sort of range on them; certainly not better than our guns. Even as I was pulling out my Saint Euphemia, he was checking the mag on his Hellion machine gun.

If we were lucky, the enemy would get close enough that we could unload everything at once and overwhelm his defenses. More likely, he was going to circle around and bury us, van and all.

I heard a crunch behind me, and turned to see a hand punching through the back door and prying it open, revealing a grinning croc anthro with a toothy maw as long as my arm.

Or maybe the Muspel was just distracting us while his allies moved into position.

Kat couldn’t bring her massive gun to bear, so I turned the Euphemia I had in my hands on him, pulling the trigger and spitting a four-round burst of lead at his chest, the weapon roaring loud enough in the confined space to drown out even George’s minigun.

The anthro’s grin didn’t falter, and he took the bullets to his thick green crocodile scales without complaint. After a moment, the clip was empty, and he was none the worse for wear.

Powers. This was getting annoying.

Kat, however, didn’t hesitate. She lashed out at the lace with a double-footed kick from the floor of the van (well, the wall, which was now the floor), sending the croc stumbling back more in surprise than anything. When he roared in fury and tried to swipe at her, she disappeared into black mist, reappearing moments later as a small bat that slipped behind him while he was confused. Before he could do much more than frown in confusion, she had returned to normal behind him, and clawed at his back, trying to find a weak point in his armor.

Once again though, that didn’t do much good. Between his thick scales and whatever defensive power he was using, her claws couldn’t so much as draw blood. It did serve to cause him to spin around and engage her, however, distracting him quite neatly, and give me enough freedom to exit the van and attack him.

This time, I didn’t use my Saint Euphemia. The Saint of Peace was powerful and dangerous, but designed more for crowd control and military use, with its well-known four-round burst designed to conserve ammo and accuracy. My Saint Jude wasn’t much better—patron saint of lost causes he might be, but 4.5 mm simply wasn’t working on this one.

Instead, I simply stepped forward, placed my hand on his back, and closed my eyes.

Time froze as my perceptions shrank, and in moments the only thing in the whole world was the croc in front of me. I could feel every artificial scale, every boosted muscle, every augmented bone. I could see the brushstrokes of the toy maker, from the organic but haphazard growth caused by the traditional device, to the brute-force shaping that came from his time in the toy box itself.

I could also feel his nerves. A delicate tracery of lightning, running through his entire body. Bunches and clusters branched out here and there, a few of them altered slightly by his modifications, but mostly left untouched.

I found a cluster near his spine and poked it.

His screams brought me back to the world.

The massive anthro spasmed and bellowed, stumbling around like a drunk, or perhaps more accurately like a man with a knife in his back. He twitched and writhed like a madman, trying to reach back and grab his spine as if that would help.

Kat looked at me as she stepped back, a questioning look in her eyes. I shook my head. My reservoir was empty, and while my pain touch was powerful, I had yet to actually kill anything bigger than a mouse with it. The croc might be out of the fight temporarily, but we still didn’t have anything that could actually kill him.

Then his head fell off.

I didn’t even notice at first. I just realized that his bellowing stopped, and then heard the dull thud of his crocodile head hitting the ground. His corpse slumped to the street a moment later, blood pooling out beneath it.

I pulled out my Euphemia again and scanned the area. Hopefully this was some unexpected new ally, but you never knew…

“Is that the thanks I get?”

I spun around to face the voice—a cheery, amused, male voice—to find a young Greek man leaning against the side of the van, grinning at me. He definitely had not been there a minute ago. Not even a second ago.

He was a little short, maybe a couple inches over five feet, with glittering black eyes and short-cropped black hair. He had a blood-red ribbon tied around his forehead like a bandana in what seemed to be a decorative fashion, and was dressed in loose jeans and a similarly-fit white t-shirt, presumably to retain full range of movement.

The thing that drew the eye, though, was the sword at his side.

It was a simple katana, nothing particularly special judging by the unadorned hilt and sheathe, but he wore it well. His calm and relaxed stance, on closer inspection, was a quiet lie; he had the hilt in reach and ready to be drawn at any moment.

Swords were not uncommon in Domina City, but they were typically used for fighting fey monsters—things without the ability to shoot you. Sure, the croc hadn’t had a gun, but that was still a situation a good swordsman avoided. He must have a power to even the playing field. Or he was an idiot.

“Thanks,” I said curtly. There was time to worry about this one later. “But we still need to deal with the Muspel.”

He shook his head. “Already dealt with.”

Frowning, I realized the sound of George’s minigun was gone. He must have stopped when I was in my power trance. I turned around to see that the ogre was gone from his position on top of the overturned vehicle; a quick glance inside confirmed he wasn’t there either.

Kat and I walked around the van to find the giant standing a few yards away from the van, his minigun sitting on the ground next to him, chatting amiably with the half-dozen men and women that surrounded him.

They were all wearing katanas, and dressed in a similar style to the first one, with focus on mobility rather than fashion. With a start, I also realized that they all had red ribbons in their hair. The four girls all wore ponytails with the ribbon tied in place (a fashion one of the men mimicked), while the men, with their shorter hair, wore them as bandanas.

One of the girls, a tall and skinny black woman, said something with a smile, and George gave a bellowing laugh. The others grinned at that, though I couldn’t really hear what they were actually saying.

“What’s going on here?” I asked as I strode up, annoyed at being kept out of the loop. “And where’s Jarasax?”

“Here, Kel,” he answered promptly from behind me. He had a cooler in his hands. “Was just getting this from the van. I thought we might have lunch.”

I stared at him. “Now?

He shrugged. “I already called NHQ. A cleanup crew will be here in ten or twenty minutes to right the van and collect the bodies. Until then, we might as well relax a bit, you know? No harm.”

I scratched the fixer pumping and hissing on my arm. The damn thing had been itching worse than usual ever since the MEE. Considering that I had nearly ripped the thing off during my rampage, doing a lot of damage to my arm in the process, I guess that wasn’t unexpected. “Let’s start simple.” I turned to the swordsfolk. “Who are you people?

The tall black woman bowed, and spoke with a posh British accent. “We are the kensei, Honored Nightstalker. Dame Akiyama sent us when she heard of the Muspel’s attack. We weren’t far.”

“Akiyama?” I blinked as I realized where I had seen ribbons like that before—albeit, a deep royal blue rather than a rich blood red. “Akiyama has minions? Blood on the ground, when did that happen?”

The one with the British accent smiled slightly. “’Followers’ is generally the more polite term. And it was recently. After the Rampage, obviously. Perhaps you met Paladin Sefu? He was the first.”

One of the others, the boy with the ponytail, frowned. “I thought it was Flynn.”

“Flynn outranks Sefu,” another girl said. “But Sefu still came first, if only by a day.”

This was all happening too fast. I might have only known Akane Akiyama for a few months, but I had always gotten the very strong impression that her shyness was anything but an act. She could barely summon the strength to talk around new people; how had she been able to assemble an army?

“What about Huntsman?” I asked, finally able to sort my thoughts into some kind of order.

The British one quirked her head. “Who?”

I sighed. Oh dear, this might get tricky. “It’s—he’s—where’s Akiyama? Is she here? I would like to speak to her about…” I gestured weakly at the men and women. “This. She has super speed, she should have beat you here.”

At that, they all chuckled lightly.

“What?” I asked defensively. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” the spokeswoman assured me, trying and failing to suppress a smile. “Please don’t worry about it. As for Dame Akiyama, I’m afraid she’s not here right now. Her sword is broken, and she is still waiting on a new one. Besides, she said she wanted to see how I handled this without her.”

Well, Akiyama had the ability to delegate. That put her a step ahead of Huntsman, who was hesitant to let hirelings perform even the simplest milk runs without him. In fairness, that one time Anders took us on a milk run, it turned into a gargant hunt, but still.

“Wait, back up,” George, at my side, finally spoke. I had a feeling he had asked all the same questions I had up until now, and had wanted me to get it out of my system. “She’s waiting on a new sword? Can’t she just buy one?” Sword shops weren’t exactly on every street corner, but they were easy enough to find.

The British… kensei—I really should ask her name—shook her head. “She says someone is insisting on forging one for her. Obviously, it will take slightly longer.”

“Obviously,” I conceded. I glanced around. “Well, I don’t see a reason to keep you. Just—”

“NOBODY MOVE!”

“Maybe hold on a few more minutes,” I amended.

We all turned to see two Necessarian armored jeeps skidding to a stop in perfect barricade formation, broad side towards us for defensive purposes. Six well-armed men and women piled out of each vehicle and took up positions behind them, rifles ready and body armor gleaming.

“Let me handle this,” I muttered to the kensei, who nodded. “Don’t make any sudden moves.” I turned to the ‘sarians, raising my empty hands above my head. “I am Corporal Drakela Sanguinas! The situation here is under control!”

There was some slight hesitation from the impromptu barricade, but the guns didn’t waver. After a moment, a young man festooned with enough weaponry to equip half the damn squad by himself clambered over the vehicles to face us.

He was wearing a mask with big bulky goggles—honestly, it was getting cold enough that the mask wasn’t that surprising—but I still recognized him. “Wait, And—”

Adam Anders silenced me with a sharp motion across his throat. Understanding he didn’t want to talk in front of others, I strode forward to meet him, brain working in overdrive as I tried to figure out what was going on.

Once we were within a couple feet, he pulled down his ski mask and smiled ruefully. “Sorry about that, but—”

“You don’t want to be recognized,” I finished. It wasn’t that hard to figure out. He, unlike the rest of the Paladins, had never had to deal with being potentially recognized before. They were all well-known in their own circles, but he was a nameless outsider.

Until he single-handedly saved the entire city from madness, that is.

“I take it fame isn’t treating you well, then?”

He chuckled darkly. “Remind me to apologize to my parents for all the things they did to keep the paparazzi off my back. I haven’t even been able to go back to my dorm; they camped it out. I’ve been sleeping at NHQ.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Not Lily’s?”

“She doesn’t sleep, so that place isn’t exactly… conductive to sleeping.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, at least I don’t get bothered by a million people when she’s around.”

“Yeah, they’ve always been willing to give her a wide berth,” I noted. “It’s a sign of respect. Anyway.” I turned my attention back to the matter at hand. “I have no complaints about you playing around with Necessarius. Good training, if nothing else. I take it you’re leading this band of fools?”

He nodded. “For the moment. With all the recent casualties, the officer corp is in tatters. Vovk is having me shore it up wherever he can.”

Vovk was in charge of that? How many had we lost that a lieutenant colonel was personally organizing grunt teams?

Well, hopefully it was just one of the old wolf’s quirks. He had always been a bit of an odd one.

“I guess I appreciate your help,” I admitted. “Anything you need?”

“Just the basic stuff. Who were these guys?”

“Uh…” I frowned. “Actually, I have no idea. They just randomly attacked.”

“Wonderful,” Anders muttered. “That’s gonna be a paperwork nightmare.”

They actually had him doing paperwork? I probably shouldn’t be surprised. The Big Boss liked everything all neat and tidy, and MC even more so. Clearly though, he didn’t have much familiarity with it yet. “Actually there’s a check-box for ‘random unprovoked attack.’ Check under the ‘motives and demands’ section.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “I swear, this freaking city… Well, better than the alternative, I suppose. Why don’t you call some giants down here while I sort the rest of this out.” He turned back to the squad he had brought with him. “Kowalski! Establish a perimeter and contain that crowd!”

The ‘sarians nodded and set to it, moving away the watchers who had already started appearing to see what was going on.

I smiled. “You’re surprisingly good at this, for only being on the job for a couple days.”

“Four days. And besides, I’ve been around ‘sarians enough the past few months to know how they do things.”

“Fair enough.” He headed over to the kensei as I pulled out my phone to call MC.

Behind the Scenes (245)

Ah, the kensei. Been waiting to introduce them forever.