Tag Archives: Kensei

Scene 332 – Infamem Hactenus

INFAMEM HACTENUS

AKANE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except the Malcatari had powers.

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

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

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

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

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

I drew my sword and activated my speed.

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

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

And so the sword-god reveals herself at last!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless someone did something stupid, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which was what I had been counting on.

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

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

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

She always had been a sore loser.

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

Nothing happened.

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

I frowned. What?

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

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

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

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

Her eyes narrowed. “Silk.”

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

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

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

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

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

I followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stabbed down at her heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t?”

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was an explosion behind me.

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

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

Once again, the hunt was on.

Behind the Scenes (scene 332)

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

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Scene 326 – Eversio

LEENO

EVERSIO

I watched with interest as the humans reacted to the chaos of an unprovoked, system-wide assault.

“Reports of attacks on the asteroid belt. Sylvia and Cybele folded instantly, but Ceres and Vesta are fighting back.”

“First reports from Lemuria, confirm the attack. There are also ships in orbit, closing in on Arean Watch.”

“Hearing something similar from Cytherean and Hermean. Looks like they’re going after the space stations.”

Laura Medina, the human with the lie-detecting ability, looked thoughtful. “What about the Watches farther out? Any word back?”

The woman from the moon nodded. “Haven’t gotten turnaround yet, but first responses are positive. Jovian Watch and Cronian Watch haven’t seen any alien ships, and Uranian Watch saw some, but they went dark and were missed. No word back from Neptunian Watch yet. They should have responded by now.”

Medina rolled her eyes. I could hear the singing of her soul, sense that she had reactivated her lie-detecting ability, but I didn’t say anything. “It’s a science station. They’re probably just too busy to obey basic communications protocol.”

The moon-woman smiled. “Perhaps.”

“Enough,” Butler, the big human who seemed to be in charge, said. “They seem to be attacking everywhere at once. We do not have the ships to reach anyone in time, so we will have to leave everyone to their own devices for the moment.” He glared at me. “Unless you can call off your people. Do you have FTL communications?”

It took a second for my translator to give me a likely explanation for that. It didn’t like acronyms. “No. Most likely, all the ships were simply ordered before they were sent off to start their attacks at the same time.”

“Small favors,” Medina said. “That’s one advantage we have.”

The president of America gave her a look. I had read about him and his country a bit in the notes Medina had given me, but I still didn’t understand exactly who he was or what he was doing here. “You have those tele-whatsits across the system?”

Medina scowled. “No. That’s why it’s just a small favor.”

The man who always stood close to President Martinez—I hadn’t learned his name—looked thoughtful. “You know, if we’re going to do the full alliance against an alien menace thing, we should start shipping telepaths to every base we have.”

“While an excellent idea for the future, it will hardly help us now,” Medina said. “Even with modern advancements, it still takes at least a month to get to Mars, and that’s assuming that nothing intercepts them. We need to deal with the para first.”

I thought for a moment. “Mars is the fourth planet, correct?”

Moon-woman nodded. “Right before the asteroid belt.”

I did some calculations in my head. “Your ships are about six times faster than we anticipated. I’m impressed.”

“How fast are yours?” Martinez asked.

“Just slightly slower,” I said.

“But probably far more fuel-efficient,” Medina said.

I nodded, conceding the point. “My people have been space-faring for centuries, even though this was our first time truly leaving our star system. Fuel efficiency is usually more important than raw speed.”

Butler frowned. “If we’re all done with the posturing and discussing theoretical plans for the future, we have some more immediate matters to discuss. Ambassador Leenoreynrey, please. Tell us all you can about these attacks.”

I glanced over at the map that was projected onto the wall. It was primitive, but it was color-coded, which made it easy for me to understand instinctively. “The cerulean blue are your ships, and the Ferrari red are my people’s, correct?”

Everyone stared at me. I frowned. Had I said something wrong?

“…yes,” Butler said after a moment.

“And the Gainsborough are…”

“You mean the gray ones?”

I scrunched up my face. Such an imprecise word, gray. “Yes. What do those dots represent?”

“Neutral ships,” Medina said.

I cocked my head, a gesture my translator told me meant light confusion. “I thought humans were the only species in the system?” I had known the information she had given me was censored, of course, but I had assumed it wasn’t that bad.

Most of the humans looked confused, but Medina had clearly already figured it out. “We’re the only species, but we’re not united. There are still many, many individual countries on Earth, and the space colonies barely pay lip service to the nations that supposedly own them.”

Many of the humans looked annoyed, but no one looked surprised.

“Oh,” I said. Quite a few confusing things made more sense now. “Well, then…” I shook my head. “It is not my place to tell you how to handle your own politics. Clearly I don’t know enough. But what I do know is this:” I pointed at the map. “That is not all of our ships. It’s barely even a large fraction. I suspect that they are the standard armed reconnaissance ships that were dropped as we were traveling through your system at FTL speed. That’s why they’re all over your system, when it would take years to go from here to some of the outer planets.” I had memorized standard scouting protocols centuries ago.

“And what does that mean?” one of the other men asked. He… Petrov, I was pretty sure. The names had blurred past me.

“It means this isn’t a real attack,” I said. “It’s a show of force, or maybe a test. A way of reminding you that they have assets throughout the system.”

“Seems like a poor idea to use that if they’re not planning to follow up on it,” Petrov said.

“Most of our stations are unarmed, and half the rest may as well be,” Medina said. “Even with just a few scout ships, they might be able to conquer a significant portion of the system. I doubt they’ll be able to hold anything, but they’ll make a pretty strong point.”

“This is a standard way of opening negotiations for my people,” I said. “I suspect they will be calling once the attacks have finished.”

Martinez pointed to the map. “Can you tell us which of these colonies your people will be able to capture? Just going by the ships.”

I glanced over them. “All of the farther ones, easily. These ones.”

“Anything past Jupiter,” Medina said to the others. “Not unexpected. I’d be surprised if all the stations on Neptune, Saturn, and Uranus had a hundred bullets between them. I’m sure they’ll surrender as soon as they can.”

“How do your people treat captured prisoners?” a woman asked. I wasn’t sure who she represented. I was pretty sure her name was Korea.

“Reasonably well, by your standards,” I said. It had been in the information Medina gave me, and it had been the first thing I looked for. “Confined to a room, with food and modular light levels. Interrogation is illegal until negotiations have started.”

They all looked surprised at that. “Really?” Martinez asked.

I nodded. “The Right of Silence is sacred in our culture.”

Everyone glanced at Zero. I didn’t look at her. The Right of Silence was sacred, but there weren’t many laws protecting speech. Thankfully, if the prisoners talked too much, the worst that would happen was that they would be gagged. Making someone Colorless was far more complicated, both legally and practically.

“All right,” Petrov said. “You say your people will open negotiations. Who will they contact, and where will these negotiations take place?”

I blinked in surprise. “I… don’t know, actually. The negotiations will take place on the mothership, of course, that’s part of why they attacked, to gain the leverage to demand that. But since you don’t have a unified government, I have no idea who they would contact.” I glanced around the table. “Who has the most powerful military?”

Everyone looked at Martinez.

He smirked. “Well, I don’t like to brag…”

“Most likely, they will send a diplomatic shuttle to your capital,” I said. I had no idea where that was, but the elders would surely have figured it out by now.

“Maybe not,” the moon-woman said. “They don’t have anything in space. How would that affect the power equation?”

It took me a moment to puzzle out what she meant. It wasn’t a euphemism that my translator had in its database. “It shouldn’t affect it much. I suppose if one of the colonies has a sufficiently powerful military, they might be declared the leaders of the system, but that seems unlikely.”

“None of the colonies have more than a few ships,” Butler said. “I doubt very much any of them will be mistaken as the leaders of our species.”

“I should probably be getting back, then,” Martinez said, adjusting his clothing. “Need to receive the ambassador in person and all that.” He turned to me. “Anything else I’ll need to know about?”

“Nothing immediate,” I said.

He nodded. “Excellent.” He turned back to Butler. “I would like to speak to you about Silk at some point, though.”

Butler gestured at a small human woman with tattoos of an indecipherable design. “Lily has given me most of the details.”

Martinez chuckled. “I need more details. Maybe we can talk on the way to that mayor you mentioned earlier.”

“Aren’t you the mayor?” Martinez’s friend said to Butler.

Butler smiled. “President. A different mayor wanted to meet him.”

The human with the jet black skin and tail smiled. “Oh, you’re sending him down to Timmy? I have a friend who has family down there.”

“Yes, I’m sure that Mayor Konstantopoulos will be happy to—” There was a knock on the door, and Butler frowned. “Hm. Odd.” He glanced at Medina. “Guards are still in place, correct?”

Medina checked a device, a small brick of plastic with a glass screen. “Yes. This isn’t an attack.”

“Attackers wouldn’t knock anyway,” Martinez said with a smile.

Butler sighed. “Some do, in this city.” He raised his voice. “Enter.”

The door opened and a human woman with a royal blue ribbon in her hair stepped in. She wore simple clothes and had something long at her side that was holstered like a weapon. A sword? Seemed an odd choice for a technologically advanced society.

But when she scanned the room, I could feel her singing with the universe, taking just a bit of power to speed her body and mind. That would be a very useful ability for a swordswoman to have.

She stepped aside and two more people stepped in. One was another human with a sword, though this one had a red ribbon in his hair instead of blue. The third was a subspecies of humanity I hadn’t encountered yet, a hairy creature with large ears, curling horns, and backward-bending legs that ended in hooves.

I noticed that many of the humans flinched when the creature walked through the door, though they tried to hide it.

The strange man looked around the room before settling on Butler and the woman standing next to him, Lily.

He bowed deeply at the waist. “Mister Butler. Honored Mother. It is a pleasure to see you both.”

I cocked my head. So the small woman was an elder? Did this mean that older humans were smaller, like the para? They didn’t have stages like we did, but perhaps they shrank over time.

“Speak, man,” Butler said.

The man straightened. “Of course. I am Ziege, of the bulezau. I come bearing a message.”

Oh.

The timing was too perfect. It was obvious now that I thought about it. Who cared about the armies and fleets when the real power was in politics? In the end, the most important place in the world was simply the place where all the important people flocked to.

“The para are sending an ambassador, Mister Butler. They wish to speak to you.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 326)

The para have names for every single possible color, which are number-based and also used for their names. Since different para see different colors, it is important for them to be precise when describing colors. Leeno’s translator changes these names into the far less logical human color names, which of course are not used with anywhere near the same frequency.

Oh, and Leeno’s eyes give him color vision that’s mostly the same as human. He just has a bit more red.

Scene 320 – Cadere

CADERE

ROBYN JOAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, right. The aliens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or unless they had powers too.

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

Or sing.

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

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

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

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

…they had AA guns.

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

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

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

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

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

“I just waved for them to follow me.”

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

“No, of course not. But, um…”

“What?”

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

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

“I just… feel something from the shuttle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two people came down the ramp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You speak English?” Butler asked.

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

“Bodyguard?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

“…Mister Leeno?” Butler said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero shook her head.

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

Zero signed something else.

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

“Mary Christina?” Butler said again.

“MC?” I said. “You there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 320)

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

break

Scene 317 – Bellum Parat

BELLUM PARAT

AKANE

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

So, we trained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Over the aliens, or Domina?”

“Both, unfortunately.”

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

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

I frowned. “Are they leaving anyone behind?”

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

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

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

I raised an eyebrow. “She visited Lily?”

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

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

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

“Your CS squads?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He grinned. “It’s done.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “Elrond.”

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

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

Corvus Reginae,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded, but looked a little uncomfortable.

I frowned. “What?”

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

“Flynn,” I said tiredly.

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

I stared. “What?

“He seemed to think it would help.”

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

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

I smirked. “Crazy.”

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

“We have dragons now.”

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

“I’ll take my chances.”

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

I smiled as well and opened the door.

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 317)

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

Scene 297 – Genus

GENUS

AKANE

I rubbed some plaster dust between my fingers. The wall had exploded, but there weren’t any scorch marks that would indicate a bomb. Instead, it looked like something massive had smashed its way through.

Any giant could have made this hole. Tezuka’s name, I probably could have made this hole, with effort. The wall was just cheap sheetrock. It wasn’t designed to actually defend against anything. It may as well have been made of paper.

“Aunty, what are we doing here?” Yuuki asked with a sigh.

I looked up. He was standing in the middle of the chaotic apartment, looking around with disdain. His hand was on his sword, but he flicked his red hair-ribbon off his shoulder in an absent-minded way.

The two of us weren’t the only kensei here. Yuudai wasn’t here, but there were three more, all baseline, who had come with me when I asked. They were currently trying to look like they weren’t eavesdropping on our conversation.

“We’re looking for clues,” I said.

“The Gravers did it,” Yuuki said.

I smiled. “Yes, I know.” The corpse covered in petrakinetic stone armor had been a red flag. “But why were they here? Who managed to kill at least one of them, and why didn’t they police the corpses? These are all questions we need answered.”

“I heard Anders call them a cult worshiping a ghost.”

“Even cults have reasons,” I said. I frowned and blew some of the dust away, revealing a spent shell casing. I picked it up with a pair of tweezers and slipped it into an evidence bag. It wasn’t a make I recognized, but there were lots of bullet makers in this city. “Even the truly, completely insane have patterns. We just need to find it.”

“Then why are we here? Why not Butler’s CSIs, or Miss Medina?”

“Laura is busy, and I know Ling better than the CSI team.” I took out my phone and took a picture of a bootprint that we had missed when we first came in. It was only partial, but it was better than nothing.

“But Miss Yu is dead.”

I smiled sadly. “I know. But the Gravers are trying to emulate her.” I stood up and looked around the apartment again. “For some reason, they thought the people here needed to be killed. But why?”

There was a brief sound of rushing air. I turned to see one of my kensei standing out in the hall. She was a fel, but just the ears. Hopefully her sudden arrival hadn’t disturbed the scene at all. I didn’t chastise her, since she clearly had something important to say.

“Report,” I said.

“Records indicate that the apartment was bought in cash,” she said. She had a slight Romanian accent from growing up in one of the vampire domains. I didn’t know which one. “No names, of course. But the thing is, the landlord doesn’t remember selling the apartment. He could be lying—”

“No,” I said, frowning. “That’s unlikely.” It would gain him nothing, and he likely wasn’t happy with these tenants. They had got a giant hole blasted in the wall and left him with the bill. “Get a hacker on it. Call the changelings.”

She nodded, pulling a cell phone out of her gi and walking further down the hallway for some privacy.

“Kenkami,” one of the others called. “Come take a look at this.”

I stepped around the shattered television and ripped-up couch. One of my kensei led me into the sole bedroom.

There was no bed. There wasn’t much of anything. No cabinets, no suspicious stains or ashes of burned letters. As far as I could tell, this was exactly what it looked like right before anyone moved in.

“Sam,” I said curtly.

He nodded. “Sorry. Look here.” He knelt down on the floor, and I followed suit. I immediately saw what he meant—big, square indents in the floor. Some of them had the circles of little rubber feet. “This place was filled with computers. I can’t give you an exact number, but I’m guessing it’s ‘as many as they could get their hands on.’ You can even see where they sat on the floor, here.”

I raised an eyebrow. I could see a small butt imprint in the carpet. Now that I was looking at it correctly, I could see it. There were all the signs of someone surrounding themselves with a ring of computers. Just as many as they could.

I sniffed the air. Yes, and there was that stench of ozone. The smell of computers not quite overheating, but running for long and hot.

“A hacker?” I asked.

“I checked with MC. No internet usage in this apartment for the last week.”

“Well maybe—” I blinked as the sentence caught up with me. “None?

“None,” he said. “Somebody opened up the Fundie login page on Christmas Day, and then nothing ever since.”

Christmas Day. The day of the war.

That had been a confusing day all around. But still… they wouldn’t be that stupid…

But that was just it. They weren’t being stupid, were they? They had managed to remain in hiding for a week. Most spies from outside the city barely lasted two days.

I chided myself. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. There were plenty of other explanations. Maybe some changeling had been perfecting his rig in private. They sometimes had odd, almost religious reverence for their machines. Staying unconnected from the internet for a week was pretty tame compared to some of the things I had heard.

“Yuuki,” I said.

He immediately poked his head into the room. “Yes?”

“Have you determined how many people were involved in this fight?”

His lips moved slowly. I could tell he hadn’t been paying attention to the crime scene after all. He had been treating it as something he just had to grin and bear, like a dentist’s appointment. “Uh…”

“Start with the bootprints,” I said. “Not as good as fingerprints, but they’ll give us a number. Then we’ll try and sort them between the Gravers and the residents.”

Yuuki glanced behind him, back into the main room. I pretended not to know that the other kensei were frantically signaling him with the answers.

He looked back at me. “Six in the apartment. Not sure how many outside. Not as much dust. There’s just the golem’s footprints.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe the golem was the only attacker? It would explain why the Gravers left the bodies.”

“Gravers attack in groups,” I said. “Ling was smart enough to never go alone if she could help it. Her cult—or college, or whatever—seems to have learned that lesson well.” I groaned and rose to my feet.

“So… a few Gravers attacked six people, got fought off, and the people ran before they could come back with reinforcements?”

“Sounds about right.”

“Probably within the hour,” Sam said. “That butt imprint wouldn’t last long.”

I smiled. “Sam, we know already.”

He frowned, then blushed. “Right. The landlord said it happened an hour ago. I forgot.”

“It’s fine.” I turned back to my nephew. “Have you seen any other signs that might indicate who was here?”

Yuuki tried to think. “The corpse next to the door. Killed with a single shot to the head.”

I nodded in what I hoped was an encouraging manner.

He continued, but still looked like someone was torturing it out of him. “Um, that means that was one of the Gravers, right? Because Gravers don’t use guns. They’d do the golem-armor, or throw rocks.”

I nodded. “Very good. Search his pockets for anything useful.”

Yuuki paled. “The corpse? Search the corpse?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that a problem?”

He glanced at the body, then back at me. “No. No, it’ll be fine.” He walked over to the body, and I carefully pretended not to notice how he was clearly trying not to throw up. At least the smell wasn’t bad yet.

I pointed to one of the other kensei. “You.” I pointed to the golem. “Get the armor off.”

She nodded and pulled out a knife. “Yes, sir.” She knelt down, paused for a moment, and then seemed to blur as she activated her power. At that speed, the little knife might as well have been a chainsaw.

The kensei I had sent away earlier returned. “Eccretia said she checked with her men. She confirmed that this wasn’t a changeling operation. From what her hackers could determine, this apartment was never actually paid for. Someone hacked the accounts to make it look like it was occupied, then just started squatting.”

I frowned. That made things a little more difficult. “Fine.” I waved my hand at the room. “Sniff. You have the best nose.” I stepped aside to let her in, then walked out into the hallway myself. I needed a moment to think.

Work backward. Assuming that the residents were American spies, or leftovers from the war or whatever, would all this make sense? The Gravers would have motive to attack them, but the Gravers attacked pretty much everyone except for Necessarius. That wasn’t proof of anything.

This would be so much easier if the Gravers would just talk to anyone. But they refused to let any of us get within a hundred yards of the Grave. MC said they didn’t even bring their phones in.

The internet, though, that was something. Everyone in Domina used Fundie. Absolutely everyone. Even hardened criminals on the run from Necessarius used it. Butler was emphatically not allowed to use it to track people down. But on the other hand, criminals might be paranoid enough to avoid it anyway. And they’d probably be right to. So again, that didn’t prove anything. Weak evidence.

The computers were odd. If they had only been here since Christmas, how had they managed to assemble a rig that fast? It was doubtful that they had brought it with them. The Americans had invaded, they hadn’t brought hackers and data miners. Besides, what would they even do with an overpowered rig if they weren’t connected to the internet? It would have made so much more sense if it was just a weird changeling.

But maybe…

I flipped out my phone and dialed MC.

“Yes, Akane?” her fake voice said cheerily.

“Were any computer stores robbed in the past week?” I asked. “In a ten-block radius.”

“There were eighteen robberies in the specified time and location range.”

Of course. There was Domina City for you. “What about big robberies? A thousand dollars minimum.”

“There were twelve robberies in the specified time, location, and price range.”

I sighed. “Ten thousand, then.”

“There were two robberies in the specified time, location, and price range.”

“Send me both locations.” I hung up. “Yuuki!”

He jumped up from the corpse and saluted so fast I heard the air crack. “Haven’t found anything yet!”

“We need to check out some robberies,” I said. My phone buzzed in my hand, but I didn’t even bother looking at it yet. “Might be related. Maybe we can get some security footage on the robbers. Could be the ones who were squatting here.”

Yuuki relaxed visibly. “Okay, sure. Sounds good.”

I nodded. “Sam!”

He stood up. He had been observing something on the ground, in the corner. “Sir?”

“You’re boss.”

He beamed, and saluted. “Yes, kenkami!”

Yuuki and I headed down the hallway. He was quiet as we reached the elevators.

“Something wrong?” I asked once we were inside. “Worried about your brother?”

He shook his head. “He’s in good hands. And it’s not anything dangerous, anyway.”

True enough. “What, then?”

He sighed. “It’s about Saki.”

Saki Akiyama. Murasaki Akiyama’s daughter, Yuuki’s cousin, and my niece. She had been one of the first people tossed into the CS cells. She had a dangerous power. She could make anyone treat her as the most important thing in their life. They became willing to kill anyone—including themselves—if it kept her safe.

It was one of the strongest powers I’d seen. She had lost her voice in exchange. That was called a discord, losing something in order to boost the power in some way. Laura had theorized that Derek’s shields were a discord. She had observed similar powers, and thought that the power was the ability to create shaped energy barriers. The fact that he was limited to just shields instead of swords and knives like Elizabeth was his own limit, not one of the power itself.

I forced a smile on my face. “What about her?”

“I haven’t been to see her since that first day,” he said. “Have you?”

I shook my head. I had considered it, but with so much lost time between us… it felt like an impossible gap to bridge.

“Yuudai has,” Yuuki said. “A bunch of times. I think he’d go every day if Mister Sifu wasn’t pushing him so hard, keeping him busy.”

The elevator dinged. We stepped out onto the ground floor.

I checked the addresses on my phone and started heading outside. “What does he do? Talk with her?”

“Not with her, I don’t think. To her, maybe. She doesn’t talk back.”

I smiled, then glanced up the street and figured out which way we were supposed to go. “You know what I mean. She writes.”

“I do know. Knew. And she doesn’t write.” He shook his head. “She doesn’t seem interested in any kind of redemption. That’s why I’m worried. I think she’s biding her time, just waiting to get out of there. And she’s going to use Yuudai to do it.”

“You shouldn’t talk about your family like that,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had treated my own mother worse over the years. It’s just… I thought maybe things would be easier with my nephews. And my niece.

“Yeah, well, the world doesn’t operate as it should,” he said cynically. “Better safe than sorry is practically the family motto.”

“The family motto is Ketsueki no yōna aka.”

“Sure. Anyway, I’m not going to sit by and let my brother get enchanted by some witch. I don’t care if she is my cousin.”

I nodded glumly. “I’ll speak to Yuudai. Failing that, I’ll ask the CS squad to keep him out. That should be enough.”

He took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you. That will have to be enough.”

I pulled out my phone and checked the addresses MC had sent me. “This is taking too long. Follow me.”

I activated my power and ran off, followed by my nephew’s surprised laughter. I smiled as I heard it. It warmed my heart.

I had far too many worries these days, and he had just added a few more.

Behind the Scenes (scene 297)

Akane and her nephews always end up going to odd places. We’ll revisit these two and the Americans later, but for now there are other things to worry about.

Scene 269 – Sollemne

SOLLEMNE

DEREK

A party felt like a stupid idea.

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

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

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

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

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

He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”

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

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

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

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

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

“Except for the retinue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What look?”

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

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

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

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

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

Please don’t start calling me that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”

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

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

I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”

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

Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, of course not.”

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

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

She gave me a sidelong glance.

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

“Crap,” I muttered.

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

I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

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

“Glad you find my pain funny.”

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

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

She flipped me off with a winning smile.

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

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

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

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

I groaned. “Butler knows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is your new job treating you?”

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

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

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

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

She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”

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

“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.

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

I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”

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

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

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

“Exercises, then. No needles.”

“…okay.”

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

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

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

Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”

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

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

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

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

Ferenil slapped him across the face.

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

“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”

Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.

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

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

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

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

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

There was a moment of awkward silence.

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

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

“What does he drain?” I asked.

“Life.”

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

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

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

I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be careful,” I told her quietly.

She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George nodded. “Probably for the best.”

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

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

“Not what I meant.”

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

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

She shrugged, and signed something.

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

She signed something else.

“The biters have it worse.”

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Downstairs.”

“Yes, I got that.”

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

“What do you—oh.” Huh.

That was…

Huh.

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

“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 269)

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

break

Scene 249 – Sanctum Gladium

SANCTUM GLADIUM

DEREK

Monday, November 26th, started out pretty simple. March over to Zero Forge with Necessarius, watch Chronepsis and Lendys sign some papers Butler provided, then everybody shakes hands and munches on snacks for a while.

“I’m surprised you agreed to come to this,” my mother said with a chuckle as she stirred something into her tea. “I know you dislike stepping into the spotlight. What made you change your mind?”

“It was the right thing to do,” I grumbled.

She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t argue the point.

I knew she wanted to, though, and the reason why was obvious. Giving a potentially dangerous band of lizards the rights and responsibilities of a culture without vetting them at all looked like a really bad idea from the outside. There was a difference between cautious optimism and blind stupidity. Necessarius couldn’t even spy on them too much; part of the rights of a culture meant they couldn’t do that without just cause. They’d do it anyway, of course, and everyone knew it, but they’d have to keep it minimal.

But I had discussed this with Butler. Io had been a good man, and while his children were an eclectic band of characters, they worked well together when they allowed themselves to. Chronepsis, the new warlord of the Dispassionate Watchers, was not the type to break laws. If anything, his biggest problem was that he might just stand idly by while everyone else did whatever they wanted.

But that was what Lendys had been recruited for. He was not called the Balancer for nothing. The pair would work well together, building a culture that their brothers and sisters would be proud to be a part of.

But try explaining that to my mother. She was a criminal, born in the slums surrounded by criminals, and helped build this city with other criminals. She was a social Darwinist, a member of the Kongeegen party. She just didn’t understand altruistic motives.

I was being too harsh on her. She certainly tried her best, she just had difficulty always seeing the best in people. Mostly, she assumed everyone would betray her, and always stood in a position to take advantage of that. It made her surprisingly chipper.

“Well, if you don’t want to talk about it with me, you don’t have to,” she admitted. “But the Silent is coming this way. I think you’ll need to spend just a bit more time talking with him.” She patted me on the shoulder as she headed off.

The eight-foot tall mountain of muscle, scales, and other body modifications nodded politely to my mother as she passed, and then to me as well. “Honored Paragon. Thank you again for your assistance in this matter.”

“All I ask is that you live up to your promises, Honored… Wyrm. The city has enough cultures like the Nessians and the ekolids. I would appreciate it if the dragons were not added to that list.”

“A reasonable enough request,” the warlord rumbled. “Though I will admit I have heard little from the ekolids recently. Mister Anders’ reports from the Rampage noted that their nests seem abandoned. And Obox-ob has been missing for quite some time.”

“Rumor is that the Composer got him,” I said. “She didn’t say anything about it, but she rarely does. I don’t think she ever even took credit for Mjolnir’s death, now that I think back. Or anyone else, really.”

The dragon quirked his head, almost like a bird. “How are the Thors? I know that the Hammer was the glue holding them together. Thor himself has never been much of a leader of any sort.”

I sighed and sipped at some juice, beginning to wish I had picked something stronger. “Well, they haven’t imploded, but that’s about the extent of the good news. They ended up in a war with the trolls somehow—don’t ask me how, I have no idea—and last I checked the two were trying to destroy each other.” I shrugged. “Though that was before the MEE.”

“Wasn’t the Hammer dating a troll?”

I nodded. “A nice Manca girl doing research on…” I couldn’t remember. I had met her once, and she had told me, but it was a while ago. “…something. Something space related, maybe. Plotting more efficient angles for the space cannons? Anyway, the Thors adored Mjolnir. You’d think they’d follow his legacy and cut down on the racism. But they somehow managed to get themselves embroiled in a war instead.” I shook my head again as I sipped my drink. “At least the other Aesir clans and troll colors are staying out of it for now.”

“That is best,” the massive bronze dragon said with another nod. “Let them work it out. Interference breeds contempt. And worse.”

That made me smirk. “You named your subculture the Dispassionate Watchers. I already knew what your opinion on the matter would be.” My smile faded. “But it’s not like we have much choice. Everyone is too busy dealing with the fallout of the MEE to waste energy on two giant subcultures feuding.”

“Yes. But Anders’ CS Squads and your kensei are helping.”

“Well, I—wait. Adam’s CS Squads? They’re Necessarius.”

“Butler put Anders in charge of training them.”

“Really?” That was news to me. Silver and gold, why was I always the last one to hear about this sort of thing? “Good for him, then. I guess that explains why they’ve been doing so well.” If anyone had experience fighting people with powers, it would be Adam Anders. True, he fought screamers rather than speakers, but still.

I couldn’t read the expression on the dragon’s face. Not just because his elongated maw made it hard, but because he didn’t appear to have an expression. Again: Dispassionate Watchers. “The fact that the two most successful organizations of the moment are aligned with Necessarius helps cement his legitimacy.”

“As does a new culture requesting his permission to operate,” I added.

Finally, Chronepsis managed an expression I recognized—a smirk. “Yes. That helps.”

“Derek,” Laura said as she strode up, only giving a slight nod to the dragon. “We should probably leave. We have things to do today.” I was sure he couldn’t tell, but her stiff demeanor around the newborn warlord told me that she was afraid of him more than she would like to admit. I wondered if she even realized it herself.

“Quite right. Apologies, Honored Wyrm, but we should really be going.”

We bowed to each other slightly, Laura and I said goodbye to our parents, and we headed out through the ever-present noise of Zero Forge itself. It had been a few weeks since the battle between Adam and Elizabeth, and the engineers had done an excellent job of repairing the facilities. Other than a few banks of equipment being newer than the rest, you’d never be able to tell.

Laura remained silent even as we left the Forge, though, and passed through a couple ‘sarian checkpoints. It wasn’t until I realized that we were halfway back to the dorms that I finally decided to speak up.

“Okay, stop,” I said as I grabbed her arm. “What’s up with you? Weren’t you the one who said it was dangerous for us to be walking out alone?” The street was busy enough that people had to walk around us; I pulled us to the side. Many of them gave us second glances, but luckily it didn’t seem like they recognized us.

She took a deep breath. “This has just been a very long day, that’s all.”

“It’s not even noon.” I checked my watch. “Scratch that, it’s not even ten.”

“Yes, that would be my point,” she snapped. She closed her eyes, hand on the diamond ring hanging on a chain around her neck. Where did she get that? It was bugging me. She didn’t have it before she left the district years ago, but she said it was a gift from her mother. It was all very confusing.

I focused back on her. This was not the time to wonder about irrelevant things. “Laura—”

She sighed. “I’m sorry. The city is… changing, and we’re all in the middle of it. It’s very stressful. I just need some time alone, that’s all. I think I’m going to walk back alone.”

“That’s not a good idea. Are you even armed? Let me—”

“It wasn’t a request,” she spat, eyes suddenly hard. She threw off my hand and stomped away, in a slightly different direction than we had been walking before. That way was slightly faster, but it would probably involve walking through ghoul territory.

I sighed, waited until Laura was out of sight around a corner, and whistled.

A young man, fifteen or sixteen with ruddy red skin, dropped down beside me. His brown hair was longer than expected, and tied up in a ponytail with a red ribbon. He nodded deeply as a greeting.

“Honored Paragon?” he asked, hand on his sword.

“Follow her, please,” I ordered. “Without being seen. If there’s any trouble, handle it, but don’t worry about her seeing you in that case. She’ll figure it out anyway.”

“Yes, Honored Paragon,” the kensei said with another nod.

Then he was gone, the only mark of his disappearance being a red streak of light, the afterimage of his ribbon as he activated his speed and jumped to the top of the nearest ‘scraper.

Not all the changes the city was going through were bad.

Behind the Scenes (scene 249)

The kensei were one of the first things I thought of for the series, after the cultures. This has been a long time coming.

In other news, I’m finally getting a Patreon!  Should have done it months ago, but it should be ready by next week.