Tag Archives: Ling

Scene 329 – Reconciliatio

RECONCILIATIO

DEREK

“Hello, Ling,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

She just looked up at me without expression. “Hello, Derek.”

We were in the AU dorms, and we were finally moving out. The school year didn’t officially end for a few more months, but considering how crazy everything was, we really should have moved out months ago.

Laura had decided that this was as good a time as any to call up Ling for a reunion. I just wished she had told the rest of us first.

I gestured at Ling’s room, across the hall. “Akane got all of your stuff together as best as she could. All your anime and games and whatnot.” I shuffled on my feet. “I’m not sure you still care about any of that any more.”

Ling was silent for a moment. “Thank you,” she said finally. “No, I should thank Akane.” She glanced around. “Where is everyone, anyway?”

“Akane is back at NHQ,” Adam said, carrying a box out of our room. He had even less stuff than I did, but there were a few odds and ends that he had left behind over the months. “She has the kensei and the CS training pretty hard, just in case the whole thing with the para goes south.”

“And Laura should be back soon,” I said. “She’s escorting the American president to Timaeus to talk to some of the merfolk, and then to New York.” I was worried about her, but I tried not to show it.

Ling gave me a thousand-yard stare that told me she could see right through me. “She took one of my gravers. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

I smiled. “She also has three of my Defenders. Between those four and Laura herself, she could probably conquer New York if she felt like it.”

Ling cocked her head. “Defenders? Haven’t heard of them yet. Are they new?”

I nodded. “Trying to keep them quiet for now. They’re people with force field powers, like mine, though some of them have blades instead of shields. Some of them have been training with the kensei, but mostly they’ve been working on their own.”

“I didn’t think you wanted to start a gang,” Ling said.

I shrugged. “Guilds are different,” I said lamely, not really believing it myself. “Or colleges or whatever we’re calling them.” I walked into my room and finally started packing things up. Ling followed. “Having people working together to figure out their powers just seems like a good idea to me.”

“I wasn’t disagreeing,” Ling said. I thought I saw the slightest of smiles on her lips, but it was gone before I could be sure of anything. “I’d be a hypocrite if I tried to chew you out for having a guild. I was just curious why you changed your mind.”

I winced. “Uh, well, it’s complicated.”

“His brain got stapled to like fifty other people during the siege,” Adam said. “Apparently it left an impression.”

I groaned. “You make it sound so horrible.”

“It kinda was. Laura looked like she had thrown her puppy into traffic.”

Ling glanced between us, frowning, before her face cleared. “Oh, the shield. I heard about that from my spies.” She rolled her eyes, some of the first real emotion I had seen from her today. “Before Butler got rid of them all. Anyway. You became a podbrain or something, right? Telepaths and shielders working together?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” I paused. “Most of my first recruits were from that group. I chose them because they were the strongest shielders around, but I wonder if the concert led us to trust us more.”

Adam gave me a look. “Concert?”

“Impermanent mutable telepathic metaconcert,” Laura said as she walked into the room. “That’s what Clarke has been calling it, anyway.” She smiled at me and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “Hey.”

I smiled back. “Hey yourself. Things go fine with Martinez?”

She nodded. “Yeah, he seemed to hit it off with the Atlanteans.”

“So his bodyguards didn’t shoot anyone?”

“He didn’t have any bodyguards,” she said. She shook her head. “I understand why he fired his previous one, but come on. I’m pretty sure it’s against the law for him to run around without some basic protection.”

“I’ve definitely seen him with Secret Service,” Adam said. “After the whole… thing with Silk, I mean.”

I frowned. “Really?”

“Sure. Those guys in black who follow him everywhere? Who did you think they were?”

I shrugged. I hadn’t really noticed them. That probably meant they were doing their jobs well, blending into the background.

“I know about them,” Laura said. “He had a few with him on the boat. But he went to meet the Atlantean delegates without them, which just seems odd. Even Mayor Konstantopoulos had bodyguards.”

I shrugged and gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “He seems like a casual man. Maybe he just ditches his guards whenever he gets the chance.”

Laura sighed. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“What thing with Silk?” Ling asked.

All three of us turned to her.

“What?” I asked.

“You said he fired a bodyguard after something with Silk. What, did he turn out to be Silk? Maybe using some sort of disguise power?”

Laura and I glanced at each other, then at Adam.

He kneaded his forehead. “It says something about the world that we live in that ‘some sort of disguise power’ makes more sense than the truth.”

Ling folded her arms across her chest. She still wasn’t smiling, or making jokes, or… doing anything like she normally would. There was a silence in the air, waiting for her playful banter, but she said nothing. The silence just hung there, empty as the grave.

“Right,” Adam said after a moment of awkwardness. “Now, I wasn’t actually there, but Lily told me everything—”

“Get to the point,” Ling said. Her tone was sharp and curt. It reminded me of when Akane gave orders to her kensei.

“Silk cloned herself,” Adam said. “Martinez’s bodyguard had been involved in some sort of cloning project to make the perfect soldier by copying him. I don’t know why anyone thought that was a good idea.”

Ling frowned. “So these clones… they’d be like American homunculi?”

“Uh, yeah. I guess. Why?”

Ling waved him on with her hand that was still flesh. “Later. Please, continue.”

“Okay. So Silk cloned herself like ten thousand times or however many cloning tanks they had.”

“How did they do it?” Ling said, some of her old geekiness poking through. “Did they use the toy maker? Did America finally make enough progress to do something useful with it? Did they use a toy box? Did the fey help them at all?”

Adam held up his hands. “I have no idea. I mean, I’d assume that the toy maker was involved, but it’s just a guess.”

“Logical deduction,” Laura said.

“Sure, or that. I’m pretty sure the fey haven’t made any deals with the US yet, but who knows with them.”

Ling nodded. “Of course. Please continue. So Silk cloned herself. What’s the benefit of that? Did the clones even have powers?”

Adam gave a sad chuckle. “Oh, yes. Immortality, the works. But the important thing is that she’s a podbrain. She linked all ten thousand minds together, and then they all just disappeared. Lily says one second they were there, the next they weren’t.”

Ling blinked. “A… ten-thousand body hive mind,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“…with powers.”

“Uh, yeah. I just said that like two seconds—”

Ling threw back her head and laughed.

Not a shy or small laugh, but a deep, belly-busting roar or humor. I had never heard her laugh like that even on her happiest day, and hearing it from the Lady of the Grave was downright stunning.

I took an involuntary step back. Had her brain finally snapped from all the stress it was under? With her power level, that could be… worrying. Was it my imagination, or was the building itself shaking with the force of her laughter?

“Ten thousand?” she screeched between laughs. “Ten thousand immortals, all working in unison… and nothing’s changed? Do you realize what that means?

I glanced at Adam. He was edging towards one of his guns, in a holster hanging from his bed. I wasn’t sure if I should stop him or not. I wanted to stop him—this was Ling, after all. We could trust Ling.

But could we trust the Lady of the Grave?

I decided to stall. “What does it mean?”

Ling had a wicked, cruelly delighted smile on her face. “It means that she’s God, and everything is going according to plan.”

I blinked. I wasn’t sure how to process that. “Uh…” I glanced at Laura for support.

She seemed unconcerned by Ling’s outburst, but the fact that she wasn’t stopping Adam from doing anything spoke volumes. “Silk didn’t plan for the para. That’s hardly a sign of an omniscient deity.”

Ling chuckled. “Maybe she didn’t plan for them before, no, but they’re definitely in her plan now. Unless you think that a woman with the power of ten thousand people—including teleportation—can’t kill one ship if she feels like it?”

Laura frowned.

“This explains so much!” Ling said, shaking her head. “Intervening when I was going to kill the president—”

I blinked. “Wait, when did that—”

“Teleporting me out of the Pentagon but not straight to Domina.”

Laura frowned. “I’m not sure how that has anything to do with—”

“And of course kidnapping MC.”

My jaw dropped open. “Wait, what? She did what?

Ling raised an eyebrow. “Surely you know she’s missing.”

“Well, of course!” It wasn’t common knowledge, but the upper levels of Necessarius had been going crazy the past week trying to figure out what had happened and how to get her back. It wasn’t like her software had been deleted, her entire core processing unit was simply gone. A few trusted changelings had been brought in to look over everything, and they had declared that absolutely any hardware that contained any trace of her mind had disappeared into thin air. There were quite a few computers and paraphernalia left behind, but apparently that was just all her equipment. It was like a person disappearing from inside their car when they were driving. “But, I mean—”

“Why do you think she was kidnapped by Silk?” Laura asked.

“And how do you even know she’s missing?” I added. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Adam had gotten to his gun. Now that Ling seemed to have calmed down, he didn’t draw it or anything, but he stayed within reach.

“I can always talk to the real MC whenever I want,” Ling said. “I haven’t been able to since Leeno and Zero arrived, meaning she disappeared.”

“…okay,” I said. “I’ll buy that. But it’s still a bit of a jump to assume that Silk was behind it.”

“Well who else would it be?”

Laura sighed. “Let’s ignore the logic of that particular deduction at the moment. What’s your point? Why does it matter if she has a plan or not?”

Ling gave her a patronizing smile. “Oh, Laura. Surely you’ve thought about it. Laid up at night worrying about it. An uber-powerful immortal of unknown goals—who knows what she’ll do? She could teleport into Butler’s bedroom and kill him. Or teleport into your bedroom and kill you.”

I growled. “I’d like to see her try.”

Ling raised an eyebrow, then smirked. “…well. Maybe that would be harder than I’d have first thought. But still, the point stands that she can do an awful lot of damage if she felt like it. I already failed to kill her once, and I doubt I’d do any better on a second attempt.”

That sounded like a story I wanted to hear, but I didn’t interrupt.

Laura crossed her arms over her chest. “What is your point?”

Ling smiled. “If Silk is a god… if everything is going according to plan… then she doesn’t need to make such gross adjustments. We’re never going to wake up to find Silk or Nephorthees or whoever else they have standing over us, about to deal the final blow.” She spread her hands wide. “We are free.”

We were all silent as we digested the implications of this.

“That’s a weird definition of freedom,” Adam said finally.

“And who is Nephorthees?” I asked.

Ling smirked. “Silk’s assassin. She’s a spaceship.”

“What?”

Laura waved away my questions. “I think I can see some logic in what you’re saying, but there are some parts that don’t track. If she doesn’t care what we do, then why kidnap MC? Assuming, of course, you’re right about that.”

Ling shrugged. “MC is too powerful, too big an advantage. Depending on how the para handle software security, she might have been able to hack into their mothership through Leeno’s shuttle and blow up the whole fleet.”

“The changelings say that’s impossible,” Laura said.

I glanced at her. I was more than a little disturbed that she had asked something like that, but I squashed the feeling down. War was hard, and of course we had to consider every weapon available.

“That still doesn’t track,” I said instead. “How is her intervening to take out a dangerous player proof that she won’t intervene to take out a dangerous player?”

Ling sighed with a frown. Her good humor was fading, and she was slowly turning back into her new, dangerous persona. “Because she didn’t kill her. Now, I’ve never tried to kill an AI in real life, so who knows how hard it is. But I’m guessing it’s harder than kidnapping one.”

I glanced at Laura. How much should we tell her?

Laura just glared at Ling. “True. So you think that if she wants us out of the way, she’ll just kidnap us?”

“No, she—” Ling sighed. “MC is a special case. She is easily the most dangerous person in the entire city.”

“I thought she didn’t have any control over any military hardware,” Adam said. “She doesn’t have any drones or remote tanks or whatever.”

“She has information,” Laura said. “Far more dangerous.”

Adam looked like he wanted to argue, but kept silent.

“The point is, MC is far more dangerous to Silk than the rest of us.” Ling shrugged. “Oh, I have my gravers, Akane her kensei and now Derek his Defenders… but really, what happens if we’re killed or kidnapped? Our guilds will survive without us.”

Laura brightened at the opportunity to correct someone. “Historically, cultures need more time to become stable—”

Ling waved her off. “Guilds are different. There will still be petrakinetics without me, and they’ll want to train. There will be tachyists without Akane, there will be fragmatists without Derek. The guilds might change goals, but maybe not. It’s hard to say, this early on. My point is that if Silk saw the most dangerous person in Domina City—the AI threaded throughout the entire city, always watching and possibly immortal—and only kidnapped her, then there is no way the rest of us have anything to worry about.”

“You said she stopped you from killing Martinez,” Laura said.

I frowned. I still wanted more detail on that, but now was not the time.

Ling nodded. “Yes, she did. But she didn’t kill me or make me disappear or even leave me for the American authorities to arrest.” She paused to consider. “Although that was likely more for their benefit than mine. But she doesn’t consider us a real threat, just children who need to be pushed out of dangerous situations every once in a while.”

Adam snorted. “So your definition of freedom is that we’re too weak for anyone to care enough to stop us from doing anything.”

Ling smiled again, just briefly. “Exactly. And if she does show up to stop you, consider it a compliment.”

“I can do without that sort of compliment.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She smirked. “I’m feeling much better knowing that I don’t have to worry about her randomly deciding to obliterate my gravers.” She clapped her hands and looked around. “Now, we’ve got some work to do. And after that, who’s up for sandwiches down at Nervi’s?”

Behind the scenes (scene 329)

I mentioned before that guilds usually don’t care how you do things, but more what you do, which is why Robyn will accept anyone who can fly, no matter whether it’s with rockets or levitation. Derek went in something of the opposite direction here, not caring what people can do as long as they all have the same core power—creating force fields. This creates an atmosphere of shared circumstances while still giving them some flexibility with the different talents branching off that power. Shield-makers are the core of the Defenders, but he also has access to sword-makers (who train with the kensei occasionally), knife-makers, wall-makers, and more.

Ling also called herself a petrakinetic, Akane a tachyist, and Derek a fragmatist. Derek is more precisely an aspifragmatist, but fragmatist is the general term. Laura is a latheanakalist (general term anakalist), and Robyn Joan a barykinetic. Technically “kinetic” refers to the power and the term for its user would be kineticist (or petrakineticist or barykineticist), but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so it’s shortened. Artemis Butler, Isaac Clarke, and MC are all various types of morphers, or allagists.

Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

It took two days to arrange everything. Longer than I would have liked, but at ten AM on Thursday, January 10th, the first inter-species diplomatic meeting started right on schedule. It was still held in NHQ, but in one of the outer buildings, so that the representatives didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed.

As Zero had promised, Leeno had snapped out of his meditative fugue state after a few hours. He had promised not to do it again, and while I wasn’t sure he could keep that promise, it would at least increase the likelihood of him making it through the entire meeting awake.

I was a little worried he couldn’t promise anything, in fact. There had been no communications from the mothership, either to us or its little fleet. No threats, no recall orders, nothing besides basic patrol data going back and forth. They were acting like nothing of significance had happened, which didn’t bode well. I had been hoping that Leeno was a prince or equivalent who had decided to do the right thing over objections. It seemed instead that he was just a random nobody.

Except for the fact that Robyn sensed he had a power. Now, down in the city, it was impossible to say for sure—surrounded by so many others with powers, there was just too much interference for anyone to get a good read on him. Maybe he didn’t have a power. Maybe Zero had a power. We had no way of knowing, and I hadn’t wanted to broach the subject in case he thought he was successfully hiding it from us.

The two of them hadn’t done much in the two days of waiting. I had provided him with a pad that had a bunch of informational articles pre-loaded on it, but disabled the internet by physically pulling out the router. The articles would give him a basic understanding of Earth and our recent history, but there was nothing dangerous in there. It was possible he had access to more information—his translator was programmed with English, so obviously they had sorted through quite a bit of our information—but there was nothing I could do about that. I had made sure not to give him any false information though, so we wouldn’t be caught in any lies.

Regardless, now that the time had arrived, the delegates started filing into the meeting room, with its long rectangular table. Butler was already sitting at one end, with President Martinez from America on the other. President Aleks Petrov from the Soviet Union sat with Martinez, while Mayor Milanka Ó Súileabháin sat with Butler—she was from Mons Agnes, and we had been lucky she had been able to come down from Luna on such short notice. Prime Minister Jeong Park from Korea sat with Martinez, then Senator Grain from America took the seat next to him.

So on and so on, everyone filed in, the vast majority choosing to sit on Martinez’s side of the table. Most of the Earthbound countries didn’t like our city very much, and the space colonies simply hadn’t been able to get here in time.

Of course, we had our own representatives.

Once all of the foreigners took their seats, the Dominites started to file in. Lily, of course—she had come with Martinez, but she sat next to Butler—Pale Night from the demons, Nyashk from the vampires, Zaphkiel from the angels, Evangel from the kemos, Odin from the giants, Maeve from the fey, Meldiniktine from the changelings, Ariel from the Dagonites, and Chronepsis from the dragons. The Servants of the Lady had sent two representatives, but they were fussing over the food, and started passing it out once everyone was seated. We had actual paid servers, but it was pretty hard to get the Servants to sit still when there was work to be done.

Once all the humans were seated, the para walked in.

Zero looked the same as ever, but Leeno looked much better. He stood straighter, with a smile on a face as he scanned the room. His clothing was different as well, a multi-layered robe of a dozen different colors. I still hadn’t managed to tease out any information on the meaning of the colors he used—not to mention the distinct lack of colors on Zero.

The Servants quickly moved forward and pulled out two seats for the pair at the middle of the table. Leeno smiled at them and nodded in thanks, then took his seat. Zero hesitated for a moment before taking her seat as well.

“Hello,” Leeno said, smiling at everyone in turn. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

No one spoke.

“Let’s start simple,” he said. “Yes, I am an alien. My people come from a planet three thousand light-years away. It took us a little less than three thousand light-years to get here. The engine we used for most of the journey is what I believe you would call a warp drive. It largely negated the effects of relatively on the transit.”

Butler glanced at me, and I nodded. It was all the truth.

“Now, there is much I can share with you,” Leeno said. “But first, I’m sure you would all like some sort of peace treaty. Let me assure you all that my people do not want war. We came here expecting a habitable world, bare of life.” He shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, our information is six thousand years out of date at this point. You are here, and I am sure you will be happy to hear that you are too powerful to simply be destroyed.”

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

“However,” Leeno continued. “We are too strong for you to simply destroy us, either. Both sides have no choice but to find another solution. I believe we should start with a simple show of trust on both sides.” He nodded at Zero.

She glared at him as best as she could with that expressionless mask of hers, but he didn’t back down. She put her arm on the table and started dismantling it, placing nuts and bolts and strange glowing crystals in neat rows. It looked like the arm was almost entirely machine.

When she removed the first gun barrel, that got everyone’s attention.

After a few minutes of that, she started on the other arm—even with so many parts missing that her arm was see-through, the hand still worked fine. She dismantled the second gun faster than the first, then pushed the parts into the center of the table.

“As you can see, we are now unarmed.” Leeno paused, then frowned. “My translator just informed me that was a pun. Apologies, that was unintentional. Regardless, I would like a similar gesture of good faith from you.”

“We are all unarmed,” President Martinez said. I noticed he conspicuously did not look at the Dominite half of the table. Sure, they were all unarmed, but any one of the warlords could easily kill Leeno and Zero with their bare hands. Even Meldiniktine—maybe even especially Meldiniktine.

Leeno smiled. “Thank you, but that’s not what I meant.” He turned to me. “Stop.”

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

I chuckled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh?” He quirked his head. “So you’re not using a low-level form of mind-reading to monitor me for patterns consistent with lies?”

I stopped smiling.

He could sense my power. He knew that I could detect lies. More than that, he seemed to know how it worked. I barely understood it myself, but I had discussed some theories with MC. My power did seem to have quite a bit in common with the mind-reading powers.

“She’s what?” Senator Grain said. Martinez shushed him.

I went through the possibilities in my head. Was Leeno bluffing? Possibly. He could have learned from my power from another source. But I had carefully kept powers out of the data I had given him, so that was unlikely—possible, but I’d file it away for now.

More likely, he really did know what I was doing because he could sense it somehow. Like what Robyn had done to him.

And there was the answer.

“Fair’s fair,” I said carefully. “You’ve seen mine, show me yours.”

“Is that language appropriate?” Grain said. “Mister Butler, who is this girl? Why is she—”

“Grain,” Martinez said tiredly. “Shut up.”

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

“Fair’s fair,” Leeno said. He held up a three-fingered hand. Sparks danced like ball lightning.

Most of the representatives were a bit surprised, but Zero jumped out of her seat as if Leeno had zapped her. She tensed like an animal waiting to figure out whether to run or attack, but Leeno just patted her seat.

“We don’t have time for frivolities,” he said. He turned back to me. “Stop it. Please.”

I grit my teeth and then, for the first time in eight months, I turned off my power.

I expected the world to feel different. Less clear, perhaps. Less certain, as I couldn’t detect the lies any more. But no, nothing changed. There was a brief feeling of emptiness in my chest, but even that faded in a moment. Everything was still the same as ever.

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

Nyashk stood. “If he has a power, that means they could all have powers. This suddenly became much more dangerous than expected.”

“I agree,” Martinez said, standing. “With… um…” He waved his hand at Nyashk. “Scary dark lady. These people, these para, already had higher tech than us. If they have powers too, then maybe this just became a fight we can’t win.”

Odin snorted. “We have powers as well, little American.”

Martinez let the insult pass without comment, which I was thankful for. Odin was looking for an excuse to get violent. “I’ve spoken with your mother, Lilith. I know you’ve only had powers for a few weeks. How long have the para had theirs? How experienced are they with them? Not to mention we still don’t know how many there are. They could outnumber the entire human race a hundred to one for all we know.”

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

Martinez sighed. “Okay, I’m prone to fits of exaggeration, but still. This is not good.”

“Not all of them have powers,” Butler said.

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

“How could you possibly know that?” Martinez’s senator, Grain, asked.

“Zero was surprised,” Butler said. She managed to look a little contrite even through that expressionless mask. “I am quite certain that she, at least, does not have a power.” He cocked his head to the side, considering. “And judging from the strength of her reaction… I would lay even odds that no one else has any powers.”

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

“Correct,” he said calmly. “I am the only para with a power.”

I really wished I had my power on. “How?” I asked.

“I already told you that the trip here took three thousand years,” he said. “Of course, as you might expect, we were put in cryopods to sleep.” He smiled sadly. “Except… I didn’t sleep. Not really. My body slept, but my mind was awake and aware.”

Meldiniktine leaned forward. “You were trapped in a pod for that entire time?”

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

“Yes and no,” Leeno said with a smile. “My body, as I said, was sleep, and trapped. But it didn’t take me too long to discover how to send my mind wandering away from my body. I memorized every single inch of the ship.”

“That doesn’t explain your power,” I said. “Did you meet someone? Someone who sang at you?”

He frowned. “Sang? What are you—” He chuckled. “Ah, yes. It can be like a song at times. But no, I gained this power, this ability, simply by observing and practicing.” He smiled. “You can learn a lot about the universe in three thousand years.”

There was silence as everyone tried to digest the implications of that.

“Well,” Martinez said with a smile. “Why don’t we move onto more grounded topics, hm? Mister Leeno. Please, tell us what your people want.” It was a blunt attempt to change the subject, but at the moment it was what we needed.

Leeno’s smile faded. “They want a place to live. Our sun was dying when we left. By now, there is nothing left but cinders. Other ships were sent out in other directions, but we have no guarantee that any of them survived. We may well be the last para in the universe, and our leaders will do anything to survive.”

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

Leeno nodded. “Not full genocide, but they will crush your civilizations under their heels if they feel they have to.”

Nice use of metaphor. I made a mental note to try to get a hold of that translator tech.

“What do we need to do to prevent that?” Butler asked. “What do they need in trade?”

“To start with, a world of our own,” Leeno said. “Your homeworld is the only suitable one at the moment, but we do have terraforming tools, and your resources should help with that. It could only take a few decades.”

“You have one in mind?” Petrov asked, his accent thick. He did that whenever he wanted people to underestimate him; I knew that he spoke perfect English.

“The second world in your system should do,” Leeno said. “The hot one with the clouds.”

“Venus?” Martinez asked, eyebrows raised. “You want Venus?”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s just…” He glanced at the other representatives, but no one jumped to his defense. “My advisers tell me that Venus would be the hardest planet to terraform. No one can live there right now, that’s for certain.”

“Many para are cybernetically augmented,” Leeno said. “Our workers will be able to survive and make the world livable, in time.”

Now this was getting interesting. We had pieces of Zero’s cybernetics laid out on the table in front of us, but if it was cheap enough for even the normal workers to use, that meant we might be able to trade for it. “We’ll need to look into a way to share our technology, as well,” I said. “We have some bio-engineering tools that you might find helpful.”

“Wait a second,” Grain said. “You promised those to us.” Most of the other foreign representatives murmured as well.

“We can do both,” Butler said.

I touched my necklace, thinking. “The only people on Venus right now are the crew from Cytherean Watch.” I glanced at Súileabháin. “That’s what, a hundred people?”

“Fifty, though they cycle out,” she said. “Most of the crew belongs to various Lunar cities.”

Martinez frowned. “I thought they were all American citizens.”

Súileabháin rolled her eyes. “They work on an American space station, but they live on Luna, get supplies from Luna, and take orders from Luna. Next you’re going to tell me that you think you still own Ceres.”

Grain looked furious on Martinez’s behalf, but Martinez didn’t say anything, so neither did he.

I waited until they settled down a little. “Regardless of which human government owns the Watch right now, we do need to decide what to do with them. We can move them out if necessary, but it would probably be best to negotiate a way for them to stay. They can serve as ambassadors to the para.”

“You are sure your people will agree to this?” Martinez said.

Leeno shook his head. “I can’t be sure of anything.

Súileabháin threw up her hands. “Then what is the point about this?”

“The point,” Butler said, “is to pave the way for future negotiations. To make sure that we can find a way through this that does not involve war.”

“But none of that matters if their actual leaders of these para refuse to listen,” Grain said.

“There is at least one,” Leeno said. “He was going to talk the others around after I left.”

“Well, if there’s one guy, then our problems are solved,” Grain said sarcastically.

“They haven’t attacked yet,” I said. “That’s a good sign.”

“Why should your opinion matter?” Grain demanded. “Who are you? Why are you even here?”

“I am Laura Medina,” I said. “One of the Paladins who fought off the Composer, and the general behind the defense of this city when your people attacked.” I could see that one shocked him, though he tried to hide it. “I organized this meeting, chose who to invite, and prepared all the contingencies in case you became violent.” Everyone squirmed a little at that, though I pretended not to notice. “I have more right to be here than you, Senator Grain.”

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

Then Nyashk chuckled. “You always could play a room.” She smirked. “I vote to give the para Venus, if they want it. Furthermore, we’ll take out a first-tier protection contract on the colony, effective system-wide.”

The Dominites started murmuring among themselves, but the foreigners and the para just looked confused.

Martinez gave me a meaningful look. “Miss Medina, would you mind explaining?”

I smiled. “Simply put, it means that Nyashk and her people will kill anyone who takes major actions against the colony. First-tier covers… let me see…” I started counting on my fingers. “War, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Second-tier includes sabotage and espionage, and third-tier goes all the way to protecting against economic sanctions.”

“It normally costs a small fortune,” Butler said. “Mister Leeno, you should know that Nyashk’s offer is very generous.”

“I can imagine,” Leeno said. He sounded a bit overwhelmed.

“While I am sure that will work out well for Domina, the rest of the world will want a bit more,” Martinez said. “We can hardly give you everything just in exchange for you not fighting us. That’s not a trade, that’s extortion.”

Leeno nodded. “Of course. And I think—”

The doors burst open.

The foreign dignitaries all jumped up in outrage, while all the Dominite warlords moved into fighting positions. I remained seated—I had my own preparations, and they would go more smoothly if I didn’t jump in the middle of everything.

But when I saw who was at the door, I burst out of my seat.

She was flanked by two gravers who were wearing stone armor that was completely unnecessary but served as an intimidating badge of office. She herself looked small, dwarfed by her guards by almost two feet, but she carried herself like a queen. Her eyes had gone hard since I had seen her last, and her hair was filled with stone dust and past her shoulders instead of cut short, with a few braids held in place by clips of stone. She still wore a long black glove to disguise her stone arm.

It was Ling.

Of course. Ling was the Lady of the Grave. It hadn’t been confirmed—she rarely left the Grave itself—but it had been at the top of my list of possibilities. It explained her power, and the devotion the others showed to her.

I pushed past the startled representatives and one of the gravers who tried to stop me, and pulled Ling into a big hug before she even knew what was happening. I could feel her stone arm, but I didn’t care. I just held her to my chest and tried not to cry.

After a moment, Ling patted me on the arm. I realized she couldn’t breathe, and let her go with a smile. “Sorry about that.”

She smiled back. “It’s okay. Didn’t expect that from you, though. Akane, maybe.” She looked around. “Where is Akane, anyway?”

She should have burst in with the kensei by now. The fact that she hadn’t either meant she knew Ling wasn’t a threat, or something had gone very wrong.

“Can someone explain what’s going on?” Odin asked.

“Yeah, Ling, why do you look like you just crawled out of a collapsed building?” Nyashk said.

I turned to them all and smiled. “Honored warlords, esteemed representatives, this is Ling Yu, one of the Paladins who helped take down Elizabeth. She is—”

“The Lady of the Grave,” Martinez said. For once, his face was dead serious. “I remember from when she attacked the Pentagon.”

Ling quirked her head. “Didn’t Silk erase your memories?”

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

“Well, anyway, yes, I am the Lady of the Grave. Or Lady Grave, or Grave, or Ling. Whatever you prefer. It is wonderful to meet you all.” She grinned at Leeno. “Especially our friends from out of town.”

Zero had her hand on her belt, clearly ready to use a weapon, but Leeno just looked contemplative. “Some sort of stone manipulation ability, I’m guessing? It’s hard to tell, but it seems like you’re using it on yourself. That doesn’t make sense.”

Ling raised an eyebrow. “You have powers? Interesting. We’ll talk more later.” She turned to me. “I’m afraid this isn’t a social call.”

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

“Of course.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, we got a bit sidetracked. Lemuria has been attacked.”

I blinked. “What?”

“How did you find out before we did?” Butler demanded. “We—” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Right. Without Mary Christina, our chain of command is a little bit… messy.”

Ling frowned. “Wait, what? I talked with MC earlier.”

“The real one?” I asked.

“Uh, no, she said she was busy, and…” Ling winced. “Oh, damn. Should have seen that one coming.”

“This Lemuria,” Leeno said. “Where is it and who attacked?”

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

“It’s been attacked by the para,” Ling said. “Or rather, it is being attacked by the para. I came here hoping someone had some plan to stop it. Lemuria is a factory colony, mostly building terraforming and colonization equipment. They have no defenses.”

Everyone glared at Leeno.

“I know nothing about this,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“Wait,” I said. “How can you possibly know this? We don’t have any direct lines to Mars, not even getting into the light-speed delay.”

Ling waved her hand without even glancing back. One of her gravers stepped back into the hallway and returned a moment later with a small squirrel kemo. She just had the tail and big black eyes, but she certainly twitched with nervous energy like a squirrel. She looked like she was going to run at any second.

“Just tell them what you told me,” Ling said soothingly.

The girl glanced around, shivering. “Well… um…”

I cursed. “Everyone, back up! You’re crowding her too much! Back to your seats!”

There was some grumbling, but everyone sat back down, leaving the girl alone with the gravers at the door.

The girl seemed more confident now that she wasn’t surrounded by people towering over her. “Well, I’m not a graver. I’m a telepath, actually. I can… link my mind to another.”

“Instantaneous communication, even over several light-minutes,” Ling said. “It’s very impressive.”

The girl nodded. “I linked with my cousin before he left for Lemuria. He called me when the attack started, and I called my brother…” She trailed off, and one of the graver bodyguards—her brother, I had to assume, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

“The colony can still be saved,” Martinez said.

Súileabháin nodded. “Agreed, but Mars doesn’t have the military to help, and nothing else can get there in time.” She paused. “Unless… Butler, do you have any ghosts on Lemuria? They might be able to do something.”

“Does he what?” Park asked. Her confusion was echoed on the faces of the other foreigners.

Butler’s face, on the other hand, was impassive. “I can neither confirm nor—”

Súileabháin slammed the table. “Now is not the time! Do you have any ghosts or not!”

“What are ghosts?” Martinez asked. “Another of your cultures?”

“They are…” Butler paused to try to find words that weren’t too damning. “…spies. And unfortunately, Madame Mayor, I have none on Lemuria. There was one, but he was in an industrial accident a few weeks ago and transferred out.”

“Wait,” I said. “I remember that. MC talked to me about it. She knew we needed another ghost on the colony, and asked for suggestions. We ended up sending four. They’re not real ghosts, but I figured they were better than nothing.”

“Really?” Butler said, surprised. “Who did you send?”

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

Sorry, cliffhanger, I know, but it’s resolved next scene. It just flows better this way.

Scene 322 – Exitium

EXITIUM

LING

I pulled my hand out of the woman’s chest and let her corpse fall to the floor. I shook her blood off, then morphed my hand from a stone blade to a stone hand. Some distant part of my mind kept watch on my reservoir, but there was little need. I had such reserves and it regenerated so fast that practically nothing could deplete it.

I stepped around the corpse, stalking in front of the rest of the prisoners. They were all kneeling in front of me, heads down, my gravers keeping them contained with concrete shackles. No one spoke.

“That one was easy,” I said in a pleasant voice. I had watched enough shows to know that the really disturbing enemies were the ones who spoke calmly and quietly. “I know for a fact that she was a spy. Evidence, pictures…” I waved my bloodied hand flippantly. A few drops landed on some of the prisoners, and they flinched away. “For the rest of you, the evidence is not so… concrete.”

I waited to see if anyone—prisoners or gravers—reacted to my pun. No one did, so I moved on.

“I would prefer not to resort to violence without certainty,” I said. “I would prefer more facts, more information. Which is why I am offering you all a choice. Give up an American spy, and I will simply exile both of you. Remain silent, and I start killing people.”

No one spoke. Someone sniffled, another shuffled in place.

“I understand,” I said, nodding. “You don’t know if you can trust me to keep my word. In fact, it’s possible that some of you are true, native Dominites, who don’t know anything useful to me at all.” I stroked my chin with my flesh hand. “If only there were some way to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone was from Domina City.”

Still no one spoke. Like scared animals, they sensed a trap.

“The obvious answer would be to look for toys,” I said. “But that would be incorrect. An outsider can get toys, and a Dominite can choose not to.” Most of the people kneeling in front of me were baseline, though a few had minor toys. “And simple tests of knowledge can easily be faked. Anyone can learn about Eden, or Bloody Thirteen, or Elizabeth’s Crusade. What then, can be tested? What does every Dominite have in common?”

I waved to my gravers. They grabbed the prisoners roughly by the arms and started dragging them away to individual interrogation cells. Some of them started sobbing—good. I needed them scared. The questioning would go easier that way.

“Lady Grave,” one of my men said once the prisoners were gone. “I just have one question, if you don’t mind.”

I looked him in the eyes and smiled. He was an angel, so he had dayeyes. Violet, in his case. “You’re wondering what this thing is that only a Dominite would know. What test I could use to ensure that we found the spies.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Yes, my lady.”

“There isn’t one,” I said.

He blinked. “What?”

“Nothing reliable, anyway. It’s all about getting them panicked, tricking them into making mistakes. That’s all interrogation is, Mister Ishim. Tricks and subterfuge. Speaking of which…” I kicked the woman on the ground. “Please get up.”

My gravers all gasped as the ‘corpse’ groaned and clambered to her feet. She still had the hole in her chest where I had speared her.

“How are you feeling?” I asked. I was serious—she couldn’t die, but that hardly meant getting hurt was fun.

“Not good,” she groaned. “You missed my heart, but only barely. Can I talk to a doctor? I just need to get patched up, I can take care of the rest on my own.”

I nodded. “Of course. You,” I said, pointing out a graver at random—a baseline. “Take her to Doctor Terra, then go find my accountant.” I smiled. “Miss Howlett needs to be paid for her services.”

The graver nodded and took the woman through one of the side entrances, opposite the direction the prisoners had gone. Speaking of… I waved my hand and covered all the doorways with concrete.

“What was that for, my lady?”

“I’m feeling paranoid of late.” I shook my head. “Superpowers and aliens. This whole city is going mad.” I sighed. “How many more groups of spies do we have on the list?”

One of the other gravers stepped up, a pad under her arm. “That was the last of them, ma’am. Of course, it’s quite likely we missed a few. There’s a rumor about the fey sheltering some spies in Summerhome, but that’s the only lead we have left.”

I frowned. “Why would the fey do that?”

“Perhaps they want to interrogate them themselves? Or maybe they’re just insane.”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. Whether the fey are exploiting them or protecting them, they are out of our reach.” I concentrated and molded a large chair out of the concrete beneath me. I let myself fall into it. There were no cushions, of course, but pain was a distant memory for me at this point. “If the city is clean of spies, that means we can focus on the aliens.”

My graver with the pad nodded. I specifically chose not to think of her name. She didn’t like it, and was trying to choose a new one. That was her right and I needed to respect it, even if she was taking an annoyingly long time. “Necessarius has been quiet regarding the alien ship that landed a few hours ago, but they have assured everyone that it did not come to start a war.”

“A bit of good news, then,” I said. I had watched more than enough science fiction—and read enough real science articles—to know that even that small shuttle could probably level the city if it decided to self-destruct. “What of our spies?”

“They say the alien is still in quarantine,” she said. “Beyond that, no detail. They can’t even be sure whether or not Butler has spoken to the alien.”

“He has,” I said. “Or Laura has, at least. She wouldn’t let an opportunity like this pass. What about the mothership?”

“Nothing. It hasn’t changed course or sent any messages that we could detect, let alone intercept or decrypt. I’m not sure that they are even aware of the shuttle.”

I drummed my real fingers on the concrete armrest. “That’s an interesting thing to say. You think the shuttle was a rogue launch?”

“It makes sense, ma’am,” she said. “If this were a large-scale, coordinated action, they would have sent multiple shuttles. One to every capital city would have been the wisest course of action, but at the very least they would have sent one to Mars. Probably Luna and Ceres as well. Domina City is important, but it is not the most important or most populated city on Earth. Like I said, this feels like a rogue faction that chose someplace at random.”

“…I was with you up until the end,” I said. “Why do you think it’s random?”

She shrugged. “What reason would an alien have for coming here specifically?”

I ticked the reasons off on my fingers. Again, the ones that were still flesh. “The toy maker. The powers. Elizabeth. Silk. Or maybe they just thought the giant circle looked like a landing pad.” I sighed. “I shouldn’t get snippy. You are going an excellent job.”

She smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“However, I still believe that there is more going on here than random chance. Look into that.”

She bowed. “Of course, ma’am.” She turned to go. She had to place her hand on one of the concrete-covered doorways to open it, but she managed it. She even sealed it again behind her. Such a thoughtful girl.

“Is there anything else on the agenda today?” I asked.

The remaining gravers bowed their heads. “No, Lady Grave.”

I waved my stone hand. “Then leave. Prepare the prisoners for interrogation, but wait for my signal to start. Just start with the simple stuff like distant screams and the sound of flesh being burned. Anything to keep them on edge.”

They bowed again and left. They didn’t seal up the passage behind them, which I found annoying, but I fixed it with little more than a thought.

I sighed and leaned back in my chair. With all the entrances sealed, this chamber was dead silent. There were some windows far above, letting light in through a few shattered floors. I had replaced the broken original windows with soundproof ones in my first week. This chamber, this tomb, would eventually run out of air, but with only one person that would take days, if not weeks. For now, it was just my own personal sanctum, free from all distractions of the universe.

…I needed to get a tv in here.

After an hour or so of silence, I heard the sound of something smacking against one of the stone walls I had used to cover the doorways. I expanded my stonesense and realized that someone was trying to get through the northernmost doorway. That was the one that led directly to the front of the Grave.

“Enter,” I said.

The wall started to melt, and one of my newer gravers forced his way through awkwardly. He was a fel anthro, and he was left with a bunch of hardened clumps of stone in his fur like he had lost a fight with a wax factory.

“My—” He cursed under his breath as his foot got stuck in the wall. “Fur and fang, just give me a second—”

I concentrated, channeling my power through the stone of my chair, into the floor, and finally into the wall. I molded it away from him, but then closed it up again behind him. Whatever this was, I had to assume it was best kept private. As an afterthought, I molded my chair around so that I could face him.

“What is it?” I demanded. “Have you found more American spies?”

“No, my lady.” He attempted an awkward bow. “It’s about the aliens, my lady. The ones Necessarius captured and put into quarantine?”

Aliens, plural? That was the first bit of actual intelligence we had yet. “So our spies have found something? Excellent.”

He hesitated. “My lady, I am so sorry—”

“Out with it,” I snapped.

“Our spies have been outed,” he said. “In fact, it appears that Butler has known the entire time. His people hand-delivered these to all our informants on the inside.” He proffered me a stack of papers. No, not papers, cards.

“What are they?” I asked.

“Invitations, my lady,” he said. “All addressed to you, all identical.”

I took one and looked it over. It wasn’t anything special. Just a simple formal invite for the Lady of the Grave and two bodyguards to a meeting. It didn’t say my name, I noticed, just my title. I wondered if that was a sign they didn’t know who I was, or if they were just being polite. Either way, it was simple and to the point, as with everything Necessarius did.

Except this one was to an interplanetary summit with a representative of an alien species.

That begged the question of why Butler was inviting the gravers. My people weren’t exactly known as diplomats. Maybe he thought they might need muscle? Even in the middle of NHQ, he could still be surprised. Perhaps he wanted a few surprises on his side as well.

The fact that our spies were compromised was one of those surprises, but I couldn’t bring myself to be mad about it. It wasn’t like he had killed them all. I knew some warlords had demanded retribution for spies being outed, but it always just made them look petty, like little kids throwing a tantrum.

“The meeting is on Thursday,” I said, reading over the invitation again. “That’s two days. I want our best to be assembled and ready in the morning. Whether we’re defending against Necessarius or aliens, we have to be ready for anything.”

“Of course,” my graver said, bowing low. He left, the wall sliding back into place behind him.

I lay back and stared at the ceiling. Aliens. Even by the standards of this city, that was pretty damn weird.

Well, if I wanted to live somewhere normal, I should have moved to Kentucky.

I stood up, stretched, and left the room.

I had work to do.

Behind the Scenes (scene 322)

I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while, to show that while Ling is much more violent and pragmatic than she used to be, she’s still Ling. She has decided she’s the villain of the story, and is trying to guide the story in a direction that ends with the villain still alive. Top of the list is not actually torturing and murdering random people.

Scene 294 – Cimeterium

CIMETERIUM

LING

Pain.

The world was pain.

Needles and spikes and tearing razors and things I didn’t have names for. Every second my flesh felt like it was about to slough off my bones, because that was exactly what was going to happen. It took a constant effort of will to keep my concrete skeleton in one piece, to keep myself the right shape.

I took a deep breath and pushed it back. All of it, like holding back a river with a single plank of wood. But I did it, and the pain faded to a dull roar. Always there, like my heartbeat or the pull of gravity, but no longer so all-consuming.

I opened my eyes.

I was in the ruined skyscraper that had once been an ave base. The entire building had collapsed from my assault, but the same spikes and twists of concrete that had brought it down also prevented it from falling any further. In fact, the concrete turned the place into a near-perfect fortress, with no entrances or weak spots.

They called it the Grave.

“Alexander,” I said.

He stepped out of the shadows swiftly, but without rush. “Yes, my lady?”

“There is a party upstairs.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, my lady. A celebration following the victory against the Americans. There are countless similar parties all across the city.”

“I’m sure.” I stood up from my cross-legged position. I had been meditating. I couldn’t sleep anymore, not when I needed to use my power at all times to keep my skeleton working properly. Clarke’s Insomniac gland was a godsend, but I still needed rest. “Call down three of our strongest. I have a job for them.”

He looked hesitant, but bowed low anyway. “Yes, my lady.” He stepped into what seemed to be a solid wall—the old elevator shaft, now sealed up. The elevator itself was scrap metal at the bottom of the shaft, but it was still useful.

I used my stonesense to track him, or rather the concrete belt he used to ascend the shaft towards the roof. He was almost at the edge of my sense when he stopped at the roof. A few moments later, he and three others began to descend the shaft again, levitating their stone belts to control their speed.

The concrete wall of the shaft opened up like a curtain, and Alexander escorted three people into my chamber. Two girls and a boy. All baseline. Most of my people were baseline. It wasn’t a requirement, it was just the way it had ended up.

“Do you believe the war is over?” I said without preamble.

All three of them stood with their backs as straight as arrows. “No, Lady Grave.”

“Do you believe that now is the time for celebration?”

“No, Lady Grave.”

I levitated my own skeleton, allowing me to float a few feet off the ground and move into a cross-legged sitting position in mid air. “Artemis Butler believes he can solve this with diplomacy and deals. Perhaps he is right. But that is not the way of the Grave.”

“No, Lady Grave.”

“How does the Grave handle its enemies?”

Three voices barked the response with one voice. “We bury them!”

I nodded. “Good.” I pulled a small object out of my pocket. It was about the size of a pen, and I pointed it at the factory-smooth concrete ground. I pressed a button on the side and a light shone out of it, projecting a flat map of the city with a number of red dots scattered around it. They were clustered around the four city gates, especially North Gate.

“Each red dot represents a suspected American soldier, squad, or piece of scrap left behind when the army fled the city.” I clicked the pen again, zooming in farther onto kemo territory. “Perhaps these people were simply unlucky. Abandoned by their country. Perhaps they are kindred souls, who need nothing more than friendship and open arms to become contributing members of this city.” I clicked the pen off. “And perhaps not.”

One of the three—one of the girls—stepped forward. “Lady Grave. Butler’s orders are quite explicit. Defense only. He doesn’t want to further antagonize—”

“Who rules the Grave?”

The girl swallowed. “You do, Lady Grave.”

I slowly stopped levitating myself, setting my bare feet back on the concrete ground. Since I could only use my power on stone I was touching, that meant I could now control the entire building again. The girl flinched, but didn’t step back. Good for her.

“Artemis Butler.” I nodded. “He is a good man. A man trying to do what is best for this city, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. But he has controlled this city for far too long.”

One of the others, the boy, blanched. “You… you’re not talking about a coup?

I waved my hand. “Of course not. He is what is best for this city. I am simply saying that he is sometimes more worried about keeping his word and making deals than he is about taking out the trash.” I tossed the pen to the second girl, the one who hadn’t spoken. “Today, that will be our job. Your job.”

She nodded, holding the pen. “What would you have us do?”

“Take kemo territory,” I said. “All three of you together, hitting every hot spot you can find. Don’t give them a chance to respond, don’t give them a chance to radio for help. Crush them. Bury them. Leave no evidence behind.”

They all bowed. “Yes, Lady Grave.”

I nodded. “Go, now. Take a few of the novices with you, if you feel it is necessary, but no more than a dozen. I want the report of your first success within the hour.”

They left quickly, running at a solid wall and passing through it like mud. In moments, they were gone.

“They’ll be caught,” Alexander warned. “Anders has his CS squads. Those three won’t be able to fight them.”

“They are not supposed to fight them. They are supposed to distract them. Pull them to this sector of the city, far away from where I will be.” I had been hit with a counter-song twice since I had returned to the city. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, but it had paralyzed me completely.

Alexander nodded, as if he had expected such a response. “And where will you be?”

“East Gate,” I said. “Vampire territory.”

He nodded again. “Very well. I will collect an escort for you.”

“No,” I said, grinning. “I will handle it alone.” I shivered in delight. “It’s been far too long since I was really able to let loose.”

And then I sank into the ground, swimming through the concrete and asphalt of the city streets as easily as if it was water.

Behind the Scenes (scene 294)

Somehow I completely forgot to upload this.  I have no idea what happened.  Better late than never.

break

Scene 276 – Naves

NAVES

NEPHORTHEES

My name is Nephorthees. Once the flagship of the Via-na starfleet, the death of a thousand galaxies. Later, I was an assassin, slipping through the dark places between stars to end emperors and kings. Now, I am still an assassin, but stuck in a pitiful little body that doesn’t even come with any guns.

I wasn’t entirely helpless, though. I had a link to Besceriul in my skull that allowed me to download data updates, software patches, and other upgrades that made my life easier. Right now, it was giving my eyes a zoom function so that I could scan the boats from half a mile away.

“Lady Grave,” I said, calling to the girl. She was a petrakinetic half-golem, probably the only one on the planet. I once met an entire species of people like her. “I’ve found one that’s less defended from the rest.”

She nodded, calm in the face of danger. Poor girl. I had seen some videos of her before her capture. She had seemed like a nice and gentle soul. But unrelenting pain and torture had burned that off. I’d never tell her how sorry I felt for her. She wouldn’t appreciate it, anyway. The gentle girl was gone; all that was left was the Lady Grave.

“Can’t you just teleport us straight into the cargo hold?”

My Song didn’t work like that. I could only teleport to places I had been, and even then, if things had changed too much, it could fail. Boats—or any sort of vehicle, really—were extremely difficult to teleport onto.

“No,” I said. “You’ll have to sneak in.”

She sighed. “Yeah, I expected—wait. You’re not coming with us?”

“It will be easier to just sneak you two in. I’ll meet you in Domina later.” Of course, one of my other Songs let me turn invisible, but there was no need to mention that one.

Grave took a deep breath to steady herself. “Can you at least help us as a distraction?”

I glanced at the bird, Turgay. He had been getting more quiet and withdrawn with each passing day, to the point that he barely spoke any more. Sometimes he did better, sometimes he did worse, but this was clearly one of his worse moments.

He’d never make it onto the boat. Not like this.

“Yes,” I said, turning back to Grave. The computer in my skull tried to scan her face to calculate her exact emotions, but I dismissed it with a thought. Her stone skeleton had messed up her physiology enough that the scanner was useless. “I’ll take us closer, then you two take it from there while I distract everyone. Agreed?”

They both nodded, Turgay with significantly less enthusiasm.

“Good.” I grabbed their arms and teleported. Suddenly, we were on top of another skyscraper, far closer to the docks and the military boats loading up men and cargo. A quick scan of the area told me the best route through. “Get down there and get on those boats. You’ll know the distraction when it happens.”

Grave and Turgay nodded again, then headed towards the fire escape.

Then everything stopped.

I sighed. “I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

Silk strode up beside me. “It’s fine, this won’t take long.”

“Funny.” We were currently in a virtual space while our minds were sped up so fast that it seemed like the world wasn’t even moving. Well, my mind was sped up. Silk’s brain was overclocked as a general rule. “What’s the problem?”

“No problem. I was just checking in.” She looked over the pair, apparently frozen mid-step. “How’s Turgay?”

“Worse than Grave,” I said. “Or at least less functional. She might go crazy and start killing people soon, but at least she’ll last long enough to do so. Turgay needs hand-holding just to get out of bed in the morning.”

“Returning to Domina will be good for him. Your constant moving around isn’t helping his mental state.”

I shrugged. “Your orders weren’t very specific.”

She waved off the excuse. “I wasn’t chastising you. He needed time away from the city, for more reasons than one. And Ling does better when she’s taking care of him. It reminds her that she’s human.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.” She turned back to me. “And what of the other matter I asked you to look into?”

I shook my head. “I can’t find them. It’s like the para just disappeared. They didn’t make any detours that I saw. I’m not sure why you sent me. Vearon had a lot more time than me, and he didn’t find anything either.”

“Vearon has never been a ship, or even a captain of a ship. You have a perspective he lacks.”

There was a pause as she stared at the sky.

“I’m sure it’s something stupid and obvious we’ve missed,” I assured her. “Something—”

“I’ve calculated every possibility a hundred times over,” Silk said. “None of them are good. Best case scenario is they veered off-course somehow. Worst case, our arrival from the future somehow destroyed them outright.”

I stared. “How? We never got within a thousand light years before you sent Vearon to check up on them!”

“The universe is complicated. You can’t track every particle and piece of dust. You have to calculate in aggregate, make assumptions and generalizations. But if you miss the wrong piece, the whole puzzle begins to collapse.” She sighed deeply. “An entire species, Neph. Lost, beyond repair or resurrection.”

I remained silent. I was an assassin who used to be a genocidal warship. Killing a species or two, even sentient ones, wasn’t that big of a deal to me. But Silk took this sort of thing pretty seriously.

Silk took a breath. “Did you tell Ling not to kill anyone?”

I shook my head. “She’s gonna have a hard enough time without pacifism.”

Silk made a face, but nodded. “Agreed. Unfortunately. Well, it should be fine. These are good men and women, but deaths are inevitable in a war. Just call me or Besceriul should she need to do something extreme like sink a ship or kill a captain.”

“Agreed.” I knew that she was speaking to me, too. She didn’t want me to blow up one ship to give them the distraction to sneak onto another. “Will I see you in Domina, or are you still babysitting the president?”

“I will be with Richard for the time being. If I come to Domina, it will be in disguise. I’ll let you know.”

“Careful,” I warned. “You gave them counter-song. You walk past a paranoid warlord’s domain, and your illusion could fall apart right in the middle of the street.”

She smiled. “Thank you for your concern, Nephorthees, but it is misplaced. I will be fine.”

I shrugged. “If you say so.”

“I do.” She gave Ling one last look, before turning back to me. “Keep them safe. Both of them. They are important.”

Silk disappeared, and time resumed.

“Kids, wait.”

They both stopped, surprised.

“…good luck.”

“Uh, yeah,” Grave said. “You too.” They both jumped over the edge of the roof without hesitation.

I sighed. I wasn’t built for this. I had enough trouble understanding this type of thing when I was growing up. At least back then I had the standard icebreaker of ‘hey, you want to dive into the nearest star?’

I hated this body so much.

I rolled my shoulders and cast my gaze across the city. A distraction with minimal loss of life… something big and expensive, but not actually dangerous. Blowing up an empty building would work, but my scanner wasn’t advanced enough to guarantee an entire building was empty.

There. That should do the trick.

I teleported to another building, eyeing the machines on its roof critically. There were plenty of air conditioners and other primitive devices scattered around. I didn’t understand how most of them worked, but the one I needed was the simplest of them all.

A water tower.

I floated up the side, then placed my hand on the cool metal and concentrated. After a moment, I removed my hand, leaving behind a glowing white hand print that throbbed with energy. Then I quickly teleported back to my starting position.

I concentrated on my hand, and pulled.

The water tower exploded with a boom that shook the city. The resulting torrent of rain was more than enough to draw the attention of every single person within half a mile. There was no way anyone could miss this.

I didn’t have as many Songs as Silk or even Elizabeth, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve.

I searched near the boats for Grave and Turgay. There they were, slipping past surprised guards with ease. Now they were going belowdeck—

Where the guards likely would still be at their posts.

Whoops.

I teleported again, this time straight into the ship. That was a bad idea, since my Song was based on sight when dealing with places I hadn’t been before, but it was fine. Yes, my foot got sliced off by a wall, but it regenerated after two steps. I had more important things to worry about right now.

I couldn’t cause too big a scene. If they realized someone was on board, they’d search the entire ship with a fine-tooth comb. Even knocking out the guards wasn’t an option.

I set my eyes to scanning, trying to find some weakness to exploit. I could see the power lines in the walls, going to speakers and all sorts of other devices. Speakers… maybe if I faked an alarm… no, that was the same problem as before. Needed to be subtle.

I smelled something on the wind. I sniffed, then smiled. Simple, yet effective. This would work beautifully.

I followed my nose, tracking the delicious scent to its source. The kitchen, manned by a single cook. Since the crew wasn’t fully embarked, the place was pretty much completely empty.

At the last second, I realized I wasn’t wearing a uniform, but it was too late. Hopefully Grave would be smarter.

The cook smiled at me. “Hey there, sailor! Coming in before anyone else?”

I smiled back. “Something like that. I smelled something wonderful, and wondered what it was.”

He chuckled at my wordplay. “Cinnamon rolls, bacon, and scrambled eggs.”

“Sounds great.” My stomach thought so, at least. I hated eating as a general rule.

He nodded happily. “The last cook actually had fish. The moron ordered it and everything. Can you imagine that?”

I had no idea if this was some aspect of human culture I was unaware of, or if the cook was just crazy. “I hope you threw all that out.”

He rolled his eyes. “No, you can’t actually throw out food on a ship. I just tossed it in the cold storage as emergency rations. We’ll never need them, though. We’re only gonna be gone for a week, tops.”

“Even if it does turn into a siege, we’ll be close enough to be resupplied from New York.”

“Exactly, exactly.” He washed his hands at a small sink, then slipped some gloves on. “Now, what are you in the mood for? If this spread’s too rich for you, I’ve got some bread rolls and soup.”

“No, this should be fine…” I tapped on the glass above one item. “What’s this?”

As he walked over to figure out what I was pointing at, I used my other hand behind his back to summon a small orb of fire. I threw it at the part of the kitchen that my superhuman nose told me was the greasiest.

It exploded like a bomb. I actually had to bend the flames away from the cook to keep him from being roasted.

“MY KITCHEN!” he cried as the fire alarms went off. He dashed forward, and I had to teleport behind him to grab his shirt. “LET GO OF ME! THAT’S MY KITCHEN!

I dragged him over to the wall easily despite his thrashing and pounded on one of the emergency intercoms on the wall. “All hands, to the mess hall! We’ve got a fire! Repeat, the food is on fire!

That brought them running.

It took nearly an hour, but the dozen guards on the ship managed to kill the fire for good. It would have been so much worse without me there to keep the flames under control, but of course they didn’t know that. As far as they knew, I was just the girl shouting for more fire extinguishers.

“Captain on deck!” someone yelled. I snapped a perfect salute with the best of them. I mentally thanked Silk for the year I spent in North Korea. Those guys made sure you knew how to show respect.

If there was anything wrong with my salute, no one noticed. The sailors were too busy staring straight ahead, while the captain was looking over the damages.

“It doesn’t seem too bad,” he mused. “Can you still cook like this?”

“Yes, sir,” the cook said stiffly. “Mostly just scorches. We got lucky. Grease fires are bad.”

“I am aware.” The captain looked the cook up and down. “This is the first such emergency in your career, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll be more careful next time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” The captain walked out of the room. “As you were.”

Everyone visibly relaxed.

“How bad was it really?” I asked, with all the fake concern I could muster.

“Things are going to taste like grease and smoke for this entire trip,” he said mournfully. “But I’ll make do. And it really could have been a lot worse. Should have been a lot worse, really.” He smiled at the sailors who had come running. “I guess I owe you all my gratitude.”

“A round of free drinks?” one of them asked hopefully.

The cook rolled his eyes. “Fine.”

Everyone cheered.

After a few rounds of drinking illegal alcohol, I slipped away from the drunken men and women, then teleported away once I was out of sight. I had done everything I could. If Grave and Turgay got caught now, it was their own fault.

Behind the Scenes (scene 276)

Nephorthees is a weird one to write for. But I think she comes off well.

Scene 275 – Iter

ITER

LING

“Well, you’re on your own now,” Nephorthees said. “See ya.”

“Wait!” I grabbed her by the arm before she could teleport away. “That’s it? You order us around for two weeks, and then nothing? No explanations, no reward, not even a point in the right direction?”

“Yep.” She squirmed out of my grip in a way that I was pretty sure a human shouldn’t be capable of. It wasn’t strength, it was just that her arm bent around like rubber. “You’ve learned everything I have to teach you, all that crap.”

“You didn’t teach us anything!”

“Yeah, well, good luck.”

She disappeared.

And that was it.

We still knew nothing about the woman. Nothing about her goals except that she seemed to be trying to cripple the US in the war. We knew even less about where she came from or how she got here. The last two weeks had been like working for a ghost.

I brushed my hair back with my good hand. “Guy, do you know where we are?”

Before he could open his beak to answer, someone else spoke.

“New York City, New York. Closest spot to Domina.”

I turned and threw up my hands. “Nephorthees!”

She just smiled. “What?”

“What are you doing here!? I thought you left!”

“Yeah, and now I’m back.” She held out a cup filled with a strong-smelling roast. “Coffee?”

“What? No, I don’t want coffee! I want to know what in the velvet Hell is going on!”

“I’ll take some coffee,” Turgay said, reaching out a claw.

Nephorthees pulled it away, frowning. “I’m pretty sure birds aren’t supposed to have caffeine.”

“I’m still human on the inside. Didn’t even touch my digestive system.”

“Hm…” She was still frowning, but she handed over the coffee. He couldn’t sip it without cheeks, but he poured it down his throat skillfully.

“Nephorthees,” I said. “Please explain what is going on?”

She rolled her eyes. “The boss sent me back. Said you’re not ready to go alone, or something.” She shook her head. “Stupid. Like I don’t have better things to do than babysit a freak and a bird.”

I let that pass without comment. “Tell Silk we’ll be fine, thanks.”

“She’s not worried about you. She’s worried about everyone else.”

I frowned. “She—she’s what?”

Nephorthees sipped at her coffee, and sat down on the edge of the rooftop. Turgay and I followed suit. This was the tallest roof we could find, and had been camped up here the past few days. If not for the short buildings surrounding us, it would almost feel like home.

“Lady Grave,” Nephorthees said somberly. “Last time you were allowed to make your own decisions, you attacked a military compound and killed a bunch of people. If not for Silk, you might have slaughtered the whole base. Assuming you weren’t killed in the process.”

I remained silent.

“And Mister Corvi. You decided to run away with a homicidal, traitorous coward to play as her lead scientist, in order to betray your home and everyone you’ve ever known, for no real reason.”

Turgay muttered something under his breath about it being more complicated than that.

Nephorthees wisely ignored him. “I’ve been in your shoes—both of your shoes.” She shook her head. “This one time, my sjhbhv got hurt, and I got so mad—”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “Your… what? What got hurt?”

She grimaced. “I hate your language. My… my…” She visibly struggled. “Parent. Sort of. My clone-source, like Silk is to Elizabeth, but different. The tree from which I fell, the factory from which I was forged.”

“Nice use of metaphor,” I said.

“Those aren’t metaphors.”

Okay. Maybe I was missing more context here than I thought.

“Anyway, my sjhbhv got hurt, so I tracked the offender across three galaxies and made his favorite star go nova while he was solar-surfing.” She chuckled at the memory. “You should have seen his face before he was vaporized.” She sighed. “Of course, the inhabitants of that star system didn’t think it was funny. I had to work for them for a thousand cycles, helping to rebuild. My sjhbhv was mad when I got back.”

Turgay and I just stared at her.

Context. So much context needed.

“You haven’t learned that lesson yet.”

“What lesson?” I asked. Incredulously, not sarcastically. I was so lost I honestly had no idea what I was supposed to take from her little story.

“That revenge isn’t worth it. What has your little quest gotten you?”

“I got Guy back.”

She chuckled. “Don’t pretend that was your doing. You would have killed him if Silk hadn’t intervened.”

“I would not!”

She shrugged. “Okay, maybe not, but you wouldn’t have ended up with him on your side. Not drenched in the blood of everyone in that base. Not having made the war against Domina City a thousand times worse by killing the president and his general.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“I think she’s got a point,” Turgay said. “I mean, killing Xinivrae is one thing. Killing some innocent president is another.” He quirked his head. “I forgot to ask how you figured out who she was, anyway.”

“I was a Widow when I was a succubus,” I said. “Don’t you remember?”

“You mean when you ran away from home? No, I don’t know what you were doing.”

I shrugged. I guess I had kind of avoided the topic, except with my matron. And even with her, it only came up a couple times to hit the highlights.

“The point is that you need a chaperone.” Nephorthees turned to Turgay. “Both of you do. Silk is busy, Lakerine is busy, Besceriul is busy, Canthil and Masgador stand out too much, and Vearon and Lorofe aren’t even on the planet. So the duty falls to me.”

I felt like those names were important, but they went by too fast for me to catch them. “I’m glad you’re so enthusiastic.”

“It’s either this or sit on a couch watching tv while I wait for an assassination order to come in. I doubt there will be any more for a while. It was only in the early days that things were busy enough to be fun.”

Turgay gave her a look. “Early days? Early days of what?”

“Early days of being here. We landed…” She frowned. “I can’t remember the date, but thirty years ago. Had to make lots of changes to make sure things worked out better. Assassinate a few leaders, impersonate a few more, so on and so on.”

“Like… like what?”

She considered for a minute. “Korea. The northern one. Lorofe and I handled that together.” She smirked, her eyes distant. “Fixed a decades-old conflict in a day and a half. That was fun.”

Turgay looked confused. “The North Korean regime collapsed when the leader—ah, I can’t remember his name—”

“Don’t look at me. I just killed the guy.”

“—announced on live television to his entire country that everything he had ever said was a lie, and that they needed to reunify with the south. And then most of the leaders committed suicide.”

“Yeah…” Nephorthees said, almost dreamily. “That was a lot of fun.”

“And the Soviet peace talks?” I demanded. “Was that your doing?”

She shook her head. “Nah, that was Silk. No assassinations or impersonations, just her doing her whole cool speech thing.” She adopted a breathy, mocking tone. “’Communism can survive, gentlemen, and will even win in the end, but you need capitalism to get the leg up.’ She’s lucky I didn’t puke right then and there.”

I rubbed my forehead. “I think… we might be getting a little off track here. What are you doing here?”

Nephorthees peered past her feet, over the edge. “I dunno. She said I’m supposed to keep you safe? Mostly. I don’t have to save you if you do something too stupid. But I don’t know what the plan is, either.”

“She didn’t tell you?”

“She doesn’t tell anyone anything. Except for Lakerine. And Besceriul. Sometimes Vearon, depending on the subject.” She thought for a minute. “Lorofe, of course, gets some coaching. Even Masgador and Canthil get brought into the loop sometimes. I guess it’s just me. And Elizabeth, but she hardly counts.”

I tried not to show any apprehension. “You know Elizabeth?”

Nephorthees snorted. “I had to retrieve her after she burned her first planet. You should have seen Silk. They were mad.” She chuckled to herself.

“They?” Turgay asked.

Nephorthees rolled her eyes. “That’s a long story. Don’t worry about it. Point is, I don’t really care why I’m doing all this crap. Silk knows that, and is nice enough to build scenarios around me so that I don’t have to think about this sort of thing.”

Turgay’s head drooped. “Sounds like a sad way to live.”

“Don’t listen to him,” I said with a scowl. “Look where thinking too hard got us. Turgay lost his culture and his warlord, I lost my bones and the ability to sleep.”

“You people are so primitive,” Nephorthees said with a laugh. “A little thing like having all your bones replaced gets you depressed.”

I bristled. “It was torture, over the course of months—”

“Lady Grave, I used to have a body half the size of this planet, capable of traveling between galaxies in minutes. You think you have problems?” She shook her head. “I used to assassinate gods. Now the only goddess around is sending me to kill individual people. It’s embarrassing.”

There was a pause.

“Let’s back up a bit,” I said. “What was that about you being a spaceship?”

“What was that about gods?” Turgay added.

I shushed him. “Nephorthees. Spaceship?”

She gave me a wry look. “What, you think a million years from now, people bother with your little metal contraptions? No, ships were intelligent and sapient, and proudly ferried people around the universe.” She rolled her eyes again. “Then that whole Song thing happened, and even that was obsolete.”

“Song thing. You mean the powers.”

She smirked. “You kids are so silly. You’ve been given a technology a hundred million years ahead of its time, and you’re all worried about zombies and one stupid immortal. Immortality isn’t even hard.” She shrugged, taking another pull of her coffee. “That particular form is a little weird, but basic biological, no aging immortality is pretty easy.”

I leaned back on the roof. “Talking to you is like trying to talk to a dolphin on cocaine.”

“I’ve done that,” she chuckled. “It’s actually pretty fun. They’ve got some weird crap on the mind.”

I took a deep breath and counted to ten, then sat up again.

“Elizabeth,” I said. “Is there any way to kill her?”

“No,” Nephorthees said instantly. “Well, Silk could kill her.” She thought for a minute. “I might, but I wouldn’t risk it. The rest, it’s possible, but don’t bet any money on it. You? Anyone else in your city?” She shook her head. “Nah. You’re fighters, but the wrong kind of fighters. It takes practice.”

I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but ‘not possible’ came through loud and clear.

“…what’s she like?” Turgay said after a moment.

We both turned to him.

“What?” I asked. “Guy, we know what she’s like. Evil monster hiding under bubbly persona. It’s easy.”

“Yeah, but…” He shook his head. “We can’t know for sure with her. She’s too good an actress. But Neph might know.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Actually, he has a point,” I said slowly, thinking it over. How many times had I seen shows where massive problems could have been avoided if the villain’s back story had come to light earlier? “I want to hear what you think of Elizabeth.”

Nephorthees paused for a moment, and I almost thought she wasn’t going to answer.

“Silk is something special,” she said finally. “One in a… not trillion. I’ve met trillions upon trillions of people, and only one Silk.” She shook her head. “You talk about people having drive, but that girl… her will drove the entire universe for billions of years. She’s something divine.”

I didn’t interrupt. I knew better.

Turgay frowned as best as he could with his beak. “But—”

I shut him up with a smack upside the head.

Thankfully, Nephorthees continued. “Silk… Silk had some weird biology, by your standards.” She smiled. “By mine, it wasn’t that weird. But there was cloning involved. Elizabeth is a clone who went… sideways.

“Silk blames herself. Says she should have seen it coming.” She laughed. “That’s what she does. She blames herself for everything, takes responsibility. Not that unique, but she managed to take on the entire universe.

“Anyway, the chances of Elizabeth being born, as an independent sapient, were a trillion to one. The chances of her being as smart as Silk? Another trillion to one, probably more.”

But… Elizabeth was an idiot. I was pretty sure that hadn’t been an act.

Still, I didn’t interrupt.

“But Elizabeth… she was Silk’s antithesis. Her opposite. Darkness and light, as you say. Silk was a perfect martyr, someone who could take every pain and loss of every single thing in existence and keep on moving. Elizabeth…” She trailed off, eyes distant.

“So there’s no trick?” I said after a moment. “She really is as bad as she seems?”

“Worse,” she said quietly. “She’s held in check now, by fear of Silk and the hobbling. Before, the things she would do… Entire galaxies, burning like tinder, until even the stars were nothing but ash. Done for fun, because she was bored.” Nephorthees shivered. It might have been intentional showmanship, but it was damned effective.

“What this hobbling you mentioned?”

Nephorthees blinked, then nodded. “Oh, that. Yes, Silk squashed Elizabeth’s head after the thing with the seventeen galaxies, then screwed with her regeneration so that her brain would always regenerate wrong.”

I sat up straighter. “Wait, Laura mentioned that. Some glitch in the MRI, something weird about the way they did it. Elizabeth seems to be brain-dead.”

“Elizabeth is brain-dead,” Nephorthees corrected. “It’s the only reason she hasn’t destroyed your planet with a paperclip yet.”

“She couldn’t be walking around if she was brain-dead.”

Nephorthees shrugged. “She has willpower.”

“Willpower? Willpower?” I glanced at Turgay, but he just shrugged. “Willpower is for ignoring pain, for beating the other guy in a fight or for throwing yourself in the line of fire to save someone. It’s not for ignoring brain damage.”

“She’s not ignoring it. It’s still there. It’s why she’s not a tenth as smart as she used to be.”

“She should be a lot stupider. As in not alive.”

Another shrug. “She’s got a lot of willpower.”

I took another deep breath. “Miss… Nephorthees. I’m not sure you understand enough about human biology to know how completely bonkers that sounds.”

“I’m pretty sure, from your point of view, Elizabeth isn’t really human.”

“…point. But unless she has a spare brain, it shouldn’t matter!” I started. “Please tell me she doesn’t have a spare brain.”

Nephorthees rolled her eyes and stood up, brushing off her pants. “I’ve explained as best I can, clearly that wasn’t good enough. Let’s just go.”

Turgay and I stood too, a little hastily. “Go? Where?”

“Where do you think? Domina City.” She grinned. “March, kids. We’re getting on one of those boats.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 275)

Nephorthees is proving harder to write than I anticipated. I know everything about her backstory, I’m just worried about dumping it all on readers.

Scene 272 – Lapos

LAPOS

LING

Nephorthees peered at the piece of paper in her hand. “S-Saharon—”

“Sharon,” I read. “It says Sharon Carter.”

She looked a little embarrassed, but covered it quickly. “Good.” She tucked the note away. “That’s the last target.”

I glared at her. “Is this going to go the same as the other ones?”

The strange woman smiled broadly. “Yep!” She touched my shoulder, and suddenly we were somewhere else. In front of a building, some sort of office or whatever. “Call me when you’re done!” She disappeared again.

I closed my eyes, adjusted the glove on my stone arm to make sure it covered everything, and walked through the glass doors.

There was a man sitting behind the big desk. Baseline, of course. Outside the city, they were all baseline. Except for Nephorthees. She looked baseline, but she acted like something else.

“Miss?” the receptionist asked. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I’m here to see Sharon Carter,” I grumbled. I had no idea who she was, or why Silk wanted her dead. I had learned to stop asking questions like that. Nephorthees didn’t know the answers, and thought it was funny that I even cared.

“Floor twelve,” he said with a smile. “Third door on the right.”

I walked over to the elevators without a word.

Nothing hindered me in any way. No one was in the elevator. No one tried to arrest me as I stepped out on the twelfth floor. There were no traps, guards, dogs, or mechanized fire-breathing alligators.

Nephorthees had nearly died laughing when I came back from the alligator thing.

I almost wished there were problems. If there were all sorts of security precautions, I could at least pretend there was a reason. I could at least pretend that only the guilty were so paranoid, and that maybe they deserved to be assassinated. And you know, maybe they really did. But no one ever told me anything.

At the third door on the right, I took a deep breath and knocked, my stone right hand echoing loudly on the thin metal. There was a pause, and I was tempted to knock the door down. But after the debacle the first time with the dogs, I had learned to be more patient and subtle.

A few more minutes waiting, and the door opened, revealing a pretty blonde woman, thirty years old at the most. She smiled when she saw me.

“Ling!” she cried. “Wonderful, wonderful, I thought you weren’t going to make it! Come in!”

She pulled me inside, not seeming to notice that I was as stiff as a statue—and a bit more literally than usual, considering all the stone in my body.

The woman led me through a few small corporate hallways to a reasonably sized meeting room, where she pulled out a chair for me, then sat down next to me.

Across from us were Nephorthees and Turgay.

Turgay wasn’t wearing his cloak or hood. He was sitting with his beak and feathers and talons out in the open for anyone to see. After the thing with Soaring Eagle, there was no way anyone would mistake him for some kid cosplaying.

Sharon didn’t seem concerned, though, and was still smiling broadly. “So. It was… Nephorthees, correct?”

The not-quite-human woman smiled. “Yes, very good. This is Turgay Corvi, and of course you’ve already met Ling Yu.”

“Pleasure,” I said, throat even drier than usual.

I had expected tricks and traps. I hadn’t expected them to come from Nephorthees.

“Mister Corvi,” the woman said, turning to my friend. “You’ll understand that I have questions.”

He nodded.

“Just to start: What exactly are you?”

He squared his chest. “I am a kemo, a member of a culture that modifies themselves to be more like animals. In my case, I am an ave, a bird, and furthermore I am an anthro—someone who has gone the extra mile, become a fully anthropomorphic animal.”

Carter nodded. “And this all came from the toy maker?”

“And the toy box,” he added. “It’s the same technology as the toy maker, but miniaturized and put into a box.”

“More like a coffin.”

Everyone ignored me.

“Absolutely fascinating,” Carter whispered, still looking at my friend. She tore her gaze away long enough to turn to Nephorthees again. “The amount of good my company could do with this kind of technology is breathtaking. But anything related to the toy maker is heavily restricted. Even the military can barely touch it.”

Nephorthees nodded somberly—the first time I’d ever seen her somber, or pretending to be somber, at least. Normally she varied between bored and excited, with little in between. “Just think how much worse it will be if Domina is crushed.”

“Ah…” Carter leaned back in her chair, smiling thinly. “That’s your game.”

Nephorthees shrugged. “The best games are the ones where everyone wins.”

“You want us to withdraw our support staff from the war effort. Without doctors, the invasion will be crippled.”

“No need for something so extreme. Just delay for a few days. Make sure they leave without you, say you’re right on schedule until the second the boats push off. The war will be over before you need to make any further excuses.”

Carter looked amused. “And if it isn’t?”

“Then it will become a world war,” the assassin said, as pleasantly as if they were discussing dinner. “The majority of Earth-based nations will back the United States. The space stations will back Domina. Every power in the solar system will be drawn into the conflict, and millions will die.”

Carter no longer looked amused. Her face was stone.

“One way or another, this war needs to end swiftly and decisively,” Nephorthees continued. “Domina cannot stand against the full might of the US, of course, but if they kick them hard enough in the teeth, it will cause a retreat and a reassessment of priorities.”

“And if there is no retreat? When does Domina surrender?”

“We won’t,” I growled. “We’ve been fighting each other for thirty years. We’ll fight outsiders for thirty thousand if we have to.”

I hadn’t been to the city recently, but I knew that was still true. Sure, I was leaving out the fact that we’d also be fighting each other at the same time, but there was no need to mention that. It would just make her think that Domina was a weaker target.

I still didn’t know why Silk had sent us here to do this, but the goal was clear enough.

“So either an embarrassing defeat for the US, or a world war,” Carter said, turning back to Nephorthees. “I don’t suppose there’s some sort of middle ground? Some tax concessions the city can make to avert this?”

“There are,” Nephorthees admitted. “Maybe they’ll even try them. But the only senators and congressmen willing to listen to those proposals are now disinclined to do so.”

I stiffened. I had been sent to kill several members of congress this past week. Not a lot, but a few. If the targets had been chosen carefully enough, used to stoke the paranoia of the others…

Then Silk had completely eliminated any chance of a peaceful resolution to this mess. It wasn’t likely in the first place, but Butler would have at least tried.

No wonder Nephorthees had been acting like she knew the attack was going to happen soon. In fact, she seemed to know the exact day. It was Monday the sixteenth now, four days after the president’s announcement, and my handler was acting like everything was exactly on schedule.

If Carter noticed the implied threat, she didn’t mention it. “So what exactly are you offering, Miss Nephorthees? A copy of the toy maker and some blueprints?”

“Hardly. In return for you not getting involved, we will not involve you.” She smiled. “Doesn’t that seem fair?”

“Is that a threat?”

“Yes.” Nephorthees smiled. “I hate everything about this place. The color, the stink of your chemicals and your sweating flesh. If I had my way, I would burn your stupid planet to the bedrock and start over.”

I had absolutely no idea if she was being serious or not. I still knew nothing about this woman, and I had spent the last week taking orders from her. But I at least believed that it was possible that she would—and could—kill the planet if Silk wasn’t stopping her.

Carter shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “…I’m not sure who you think you are dealing with. But this company is hardly helpless, and if you continue threatening, we will have no choice but to—”

“Ling,” Nephorthees interrupted. “Non-lethal.”

Much as I didn’t want to jump at her command, a week with her had drilled the instinct into my body. Before I knew what was happening, I had ripped Sharon Carter out of her chair by the neck and slammed her onto the table. My stone arm kept her pinned in place easily despite her struggles.

Nephorthees had only moved to grab Turgay’s arm and keep him from jumping up.

“Miss Carter,” Nephorthees said pleasantly, smiling at the terrified woman. “The only thing preventing me from murdering everyone in this building with my bare hands in the conscience of a very tired woman. Where I’m from, denying a deal like this would be grounds for a summary execution.”

Carter made a sound. I strengthened my grip.

“However, I am prepared to offer you one, small concession. You may send a team of scientists to Domina City. They will work with some of the best toy maker developers in the city, and will leave after one year—assuming, of course, they survive. Does that sound fair?”

Carter nodded desperately.

“Good.” I took the hint, and released the woman. She reached for her throat, gasping for breath, and scrambled off the table, placing her back to the wall and glancing between us like a wild animal. Nephorthees seemed unconcerned. “Ling, do you have any recommendations for who these scientists should study under?”

I thought for a moment. “Clarke is the obvious choice, but Butler is too paranoid. He’d never allow it. Perhaps Bel? He sponsors college-age scientists, this sort of thing would be right up his alley.”

“The logistics would be annoying,” Turgay said, the first thing he had said, in fact. “Pick someone with baseline eyes. Loki likes fooling around with the toy maker.”

I chuckled. “We are not sending anyone to Loki.” I raised an eyebrow at Nephorthees. “The plan is for them to actually survive, right?”

She smirked, but nodded.

“Yeah, not Loki.” I thought for a moment. “What about that lupe Ithaeur you were going on about a year or so ago? The one who helped finally crack anthropomorphism?”

“…Novaehollandiae?”

“I guess. I don’t know, you know I don’t pay attention to that stuff.”

“Novaehollandiae,” Nephorthees said, nodding. “An excellent choice.” I was sure she had no idea who he was. She stood, and Turgay rose as well. Of course, I was already up. “Miss Carter. It was such a pleasure meeting with you. If you can forward the names of those scientists to us, we can see about getting them set up after the war.” Her smile thinned. “Assuming you hold up your end of the bargain, of course.”

“O-of course.”

Nephorthees circled the table to come around to her side. “Here’s my card. Just e-mail the list to me, but if you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to call me, day or night. I don’t sleep.”

Carter gave a weak smile as we left.

I kept my mouth shut as we walked through the offices, down to the elevator, and all the way out the lobby. I knew enough about corporations to know better than to say anything where microphones could hear.

“What was that?” I snapped once we were halfway down the block.

“Aggressive negotiations,” Nephorthees said, unconcerned. “You played along very well, I thought you figured it out.”

“Not that.”

“Though your threats were a little disturbing,” Turgay said.

“Yes, okay, a little bit of that. No, I mean this was clearly the point of the whole everything we’ve been doing the past week!” I threw up my hands. “Teleport in, kill a guy, run for dear life. All to cripple the United States from fighting Domina?”

“That’s what Silk said,” Nephorthees mused. “Cripple. But I don’t like that word. My database says it means something a bit more physical, a bit more permanent. Cutting a man’s hamstring, blowing up a hundred tanks.”

“What does it matter?

“It matters because this is all temporary. Rocks in a stream. There is nothing stopping these people from fighting against Domina besides simple, base fear.”

I stared at her.

“I have killed people,” I said. “Under your orders. That is hardly ‘temporary.’ Those people are never fighting back.”

“Their friends and family could,” she said, unconcerned. “But they won’t. Because of fear.”

“What is wrong with you?”

She turned away. “It doesn’t matter. If I can’t make you understand, I can’t make you understand. Trying to force the issue is hardly going to improve the situation.”

I grabbed her arm. “Now listen here, you—”

She slipped out of my grasp like a snake, even when I tightened my stone fist like a vise.

“If you ever touch me again, I will drag you to the center of your sun and watch as your heart turns to vapor. Silk’s plans be damned.”

I stared. She smiled pleasantly.

“Why?” Turgay asked. “Why do you hate us so much?”

Nephorthees glanced at him, then turned away again.

“Come. We have work to do.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 272)

Ling’s scenes have been going weird places, but I think her dynamic with Nephorthees works.

Scene 267 – Advena

ADVENA

LING

Kansas. Silk had teleported us to Kansas. Why Kansas?

The farmer peered down from his seat in the tractor. “Miss, is your friend okay?”

I patted Turgay—covered in a tarp we had found—and smiled, careful not to show my teeth. I could kill this man if I needed to, but my power was still recovering, and my fleshy bits still sore and even torn in places. “He’s just sensitive to the light. We drank way too much last night.” I looked around. “Can you point us to the nearest city?”

We had raided a barn—this guy’s barn, probably—for clothes, but there hadn’t been any transportation we could use. The car with the Kansas license plates had been too rusted over to start. Right now, our only choice was to walk until we found something that could get us back to Domina.

I wasn’t sure if I would go, once we found that plane or boat or whatever. I still felt sick and dark in the soul. But I could at least go looking. Turgay had information that the city needed. If nothing else, he could tell them to not bother sending assassins after Soaring Eagle.

The farmer looked skeptical at my explanation, but shrugged and pointed off to the west. “Sure. Kansas City is that way.”

I bowed politely. “Thank you kindly. Come on, Guy.” We started walking.

“You’re gonna hitch the entire way?” the man behind us asked incredulously.

Actually, I had been planning to walk, but whatever. “Yes, why?”

“It’s like a hundred miles!” He shook his head and sighed. “Give me ten minutes, and I’ll drive you idiots in myself.”

I shook my head. I really didn’t want to give this man more of a chance to see Turgay under the hood. He seemed like a nice man, and I didn’t want to have to kill him. “Oh no, that’s not necessary. I’m sure you’re very busy—”

“A couple hours out of my way isn’t gonna hurt anything.” He waved his hand at the empty fields of dirt. “Not like I have much to do right now, anyway. Just turning the soil.” He turned the tractor back towards his house. “I’ll be back in a minute. Just need to get the car and tell the hubby what’s happening.”

Well, it took him about half an hour to come back, not ten minutes, but it wasn’t like we were going anywhere. If he did call the cops anywhere in the meantime, I didn’t notice, and I’d be able to handle them anyway.

His car turned out to be a dusty old blue pickup with the distinct acrid stench of a gasoline engine, rather than the pure electric ones we used in the cities. The farmer smiled as I wrinkled my nose.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “But we keep the gas-guzzler around for long-distance travel. The electric biddies are nice, but they just don’t have the range. I don’t want to have to charge up again when I’m in the city, you know?”

I nodded as we both piled in. Turgay still hadn’t made a sound, but at least he seemed to be moving on his own now. “I guess I understand that. Sort of.” I shrugged and smiled slightly. “I grew up in a city. Being out here, away from tall buildings, freaks me out.”

The farmer chuckled and changed gears, slowly picking up speed on the dirt road through his property. “Yeah, that’s my problem. Well, opposite, but you know what I mean. I just need open space, you know? Cities feel closed off and small.”

I smiled at that, more genuinely this time. Domina was a lot of things, but small wasn’t one of them. At a hundred miles in diameter, all packed solid with various urban structures, it was probably the largest city in human history. Well, Ceres up in the asteroid belt might be bigger, but I couldn’t remember.

“Your dirt is sweet, by the way,” I said by way of conversation. It just sort of popped out.

He chuckled. “I’m not gonna ask how you noticed that, but yeah. There’s sugar mixed in with the soil. It’s important for the genetically modified crops. Basically, they were made to need lots of sugar to grow, to make it impossible for them to grow wild and uncontrolled.”

“I know a little about that.” Not much, but a little. Domina City used some of the super high-yield modifications for our crops. My matron liked to grow pumpkins big enough for kids to crawl inside after we finished carving them for Halloween. “Do you focus more on size, or efficiency?”

“Efficiency,” he said, pleased that I understood at least a little of what he was talking about. “You gotta take care of the soil, or it will dry up like a well. Of course, no matter how efficient your super-corn is, it’s gonna suck up all the nutrients eventually, but that’s what crop rotation is for.”

“What about blight?” I asked. This was a question that I had no idea of the answer to. Domina didn’t really have to worry about crop blight, since our own fields were so small and they weren’t really our primary food source anyway. But I knew it was still a problem for real farmers outside the city.

He sighed. “That’s been a problem. The blight’s been getting stronger recently. That’s why it’s important to have more than one type of crop. But it’s starting to jump species.” He shook his head. “When a field gets blighted, you gotta burn it, and hope it doesn’t infect anything else. I hear they’re actually starting to invent new types of crops, making new species to stay ahead of the blight. Corn crossed with wheat or whatever. I dunno, I’m not sure that’s gonna work, but my husband is confident that he can make the new cash crop. There are lots of people like him, so someone will figure it out.”

I had to admit, I was starting to get a little bored of this conversation, but I still had to bring it up. “What about blight eaters?”

The farmer looked away from the dirt road for a moment to raise an eyebrow at me. “Excuse me?”

“Animals that eat the blighted crops,” I explained. “They eat the healthy crops too, of course, but if you’re already planning to burn the whole field, that’s not a big deal. Then you eat the blight eaters. Or feed them to something else and then eat that. Repeat as necessary.”

He was considering the idea, I could tell, but he still looked hesitant. “No, we don’t use anything like that. And I don’t see how it would work. Animals don’t eat blighted crops. Even locusts avoid it, most of the time.”

“You can modify the animals,” I pointed out. I didn’t actually know what they used for modifications out here, but they clearly had something. Maybe just a weaker version of the toy maker? “Make animals that can eat the blight. It’s not that hard.”

“It’s very hard,” Turgay said from behind us. I turned to see him sitting up in the back seat, tarp still pulled low over his face. I could see hints of his beak through the shadows, but hopefully the farmer wouldn’t be looking so hard. “Modifying an animal’s diet isn’t easy, and making it so that they can eat blighted crops without just dying is even harder. Even rats usually can’t do it.”

“But rats can do it,” I countered. That was how we dealt with blight in Domina: Open the gates and let the rats in. “Then they run off and get eaten by something else, so on so on until they end up on your plate. Circle of life.”

“You skipped the part where they walk over to the healthy fields and eat everything there,” the farmer said. “I don’t think that’s an actual plan.”

I shrugged. “Fences.”

“That’s a lot of land to fence off, and besides, rats can dig right through those.”

“Use a sonic fence,” Turgay suggested. “Pointed inward. It emits a tone that drives rats back, but leaves humans unharmed.” He thought for a moment. “Even if humans are harmed, you can just have the workers wear noise-canceling headphones.”

We finally came off the dirt road onto a real asphalt one. I assumed that meant we were leaving the farmer’s property. “Hm… that’s an idea, but those sonic things are expensive. And I fix tractors. I don’t know how to set one of those things up. I’d have to hire someone.”

“Is all that more expensive than losing an entire field with no way to recoup the losses?” I said.

“No… no, I suppose you’re right.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, it’s an idea, I’ll give you that. I’ll bring it up when I get back home. Not sure that anybody’s going to like the idea of eating rats, though.”

I kept my mouth shut. Rats were probably one of the most common meats in Domina, right after dumpster dogs. What else were we going to eat, beef? It cost something like a hundred bucks a pound just to get it raw.

The next hour or so passed in pleasant silence, or rather no talking. Our escort did put some country music on, but he left it low enough that it was just background music rather than blaring. It wasn’t a song I recognized, but of course it wasn’t.

He seemed a nice enough man, and knew better than to pry for details about our lives, which I appreciated. Turgay settled back into his seat, wrapped in his tarp and keeping nice and quiet to reduce the chance of his beak or feathers being seen. All in all, it was a rather pleasant drive through a sunny countryside, full of fields empty for the winter with a handful of exceptions.

It took me a while to realize that we had reached the city. There was no wall around it, no clearly marked borders. I had been to the Dagonite domains before—not to mention had seen this sort of thing on my way to the Pentagon—but it still annoyed me. The city just sprang up like weeds, with no rhyme or reason, growing taller and taller as we reached the center.

Traffic started to get bad as we edged deeper into the city. That reminded me of home, but I had a feeling that our driver wouldn’t exactly feel nostalgic.

“You can let us off here,” I said. We were in stop and go traffic, so we could literally get off anywhere. “I think that freeway entrance up ahead leads out of the city.” That’s what the sign seemed to imply, anyway, but I wasn’t exactly used to reading street signs like that.

The farmer blinked, then smiled. “I completely forgot to ask where you’re going! I was just heading to the hardware store like always. But yeah, I can let you off here if you’re sure. Where exactly are you headed, anyway?”

“The airport.”

He frowned. “That should be at the edge of the city, right? Big open fields?”

I shrugged. “No idea. We’ll figure it out.” I shook his hand firmly. “Thank you very much for the help, sir.”

He frowned down at my gloved right hand, likely noticing that it seemed suspiciously rock-solid for something supposedly made of flesh. I withdrew quickly.

He still managed a smile, and didn’t press. “Well, don’t let me keep you. You kids get home safe.”

I nodded and stepped out of the truck, Turgay doing the same from the back.

We found ourselves in a world gone mad.

Everything about this city was wrong. The ‘scrapers weren’t even really skyscrapers, not really. Oh, there were tall buildings, forty or even a hundred stories tall, but most were more like twenty, and there were plenty of short five or ten story buildings as well. I even saw some one story buildings. What was even the point of building them that short?

The cars were all of designs I didn’t recognize, more metal than plastic on their frames. I suppose that just made sense, since they didn’t have to deal with the sea air rusting everything, but it was still odd from my perspective. Even if a lot of Domina companies just randomly thought it fun to make outlandish design choices, it was still more familiar to me. I would have felt more comfortable if I saw at least one car with a hovercraft booster fan on the back.

And of course, there were the people.

They were… white and black and brown, and that was it. No purples or reds or yellows, not even any snow white or jet black colors. Even the hair was depressingly mundane, without any pink or blue or anything even slightly interesting.

No one had any fangs, or claws, or scales or feathers or horns or even daygoggles. There were no giants shoving their way through the crowds, no goblins leaping around the fire escapes, and no kemos clambering up the walls. For crying out loud, no one was even armed.

“This place freaks me out,” Turgay muttered from under his tarp as the crowd pushed him from behind. No one had noticed anything odd about him yet, but I knew it was inevitable. His tarp would come off and start a riot any minute.

“Come on,” I said, pulling him towards an empty alley. “Let’s get on the roofs, get a better view.”

Clambering up the fire escapes was more annoying than it should have been. I was able to levitate up without any difficulty, lowering the ladder for Guy, but why was that even necessary? There should have been some chain or something to pull it down from the ground. Stupid Kansas.

Still, we got to the roof of the annoyingly short building easily enough, giving us a nice wide panoramic view of the city, without any of those pesky people annoying me just by their presence. It wasn’t their fault or anything, but still. They were annoying.

“Took you idiots long enough.”

We both wheeled around to see a woman, with bronze skin and jet-black hair, sitting on a nearby air conditioner with a completely bored expression on her face. She had her legs crossed, and she was wearing dark jeans and a loose t-shirt.

“…who are you?” I asked after a moment, when it became clear that she wasn’t going to attack us. Not right away, at least.

“You can call me Nephorthees,” the woman said, raising her hand as if to tip her hat, despite not actually wearing one. “Silk sent me. Said you might need a little bit of help today. Something something war this, war that.”

We didn’t have time for this. “Yes, a war is coming to Domina city! We need—”

“Oh, already?” Nephorthees said, yawning. “I thought it was later. Maybe I really should start reading those stupid memos she sends out.” Another yawn. “Anyway, you’re not getting back to your city just yet.”

I fell into a fighting stance. “You think you can stop us?”

She quirked her head and eyed my stance critically. “Spread your feet out more. Someone with your powers needs raw strength more than speed. You need to be solid as a rock, or people will bowl all over you.”

I tried not to blush as I followed her advice. “F-fine! We’re still getting past you!”

“Yeah, no you’re not.” She didn’t look any more interested than a couple minutes ago. “Even if you could somehow manage that, the chances of you getting a flight to New York, then a boat to your little island, are laughably small.”

Then she was behind me. Between blinks, she just disappeared from in front of me and was suddenly there behind me. I could feel her presence, but before I could wheel around and attack, she had kicked me in my rear and sent me stumbling forward.

By the time I turned, she was gone again.

“I can teleport,” she said calmly. I turned to see her sitting in the same spot as before, calm as can be. “You can’t. That basically means I win, end of story. Even if you manage to escape me, I know where you’re going.”

I wanted to fight, but I knew when I was outmatched. “Fine. What do you want?”

Next to me, Turgay put a claw on my shoulder. I ignored the attempt at comfort.

Nephorthees didn’t seem to care one way or the other. “I told you. I want to help.”

“Help how?

She smiled thinly. “By helping you assassinate a few key players before this little war of yours even gets started.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 267)

Ling’s scenes always take so long, and I have trouble with Turgay. But she works well with Nephorthees, so the next one with them will be nice and smooth.

Scene 266 – Sepulcrum

SEPULCRUM

LING

Reaching the Pentagon was easier than expected.

It wasn’t that far, all things considered, and sneaking onto a train headed in the right direction had been child’s play. From there, all I had to do was walk right into the base, crush the guards trying to stop me, and rip open the titanium bunker with claws of concrete and a small earthquake.

“I am Grave,” I said to Soaring Eagle. “And I am going to bury you.”

“What are you waiting for?” the nearby elderly Asian—Japanese, maybe—woman in a crisp military uniform snapped at her guards. “Now!

Finally finding their brains and overcoming their shock, they opened fire.

They weren’t guns I recognized. Some company we didn’t have in Domina. Then again, we only had a bare handful of outsider guns imported anyway. They were handguns, though, and big ones. These clearly weren’t just for defense—they were for putting me down.

I could survive them without too much difficulty. The concrete that made up my bones was mostly bulletproof, and I could repair any damage they did cause. The problem was, I couldn’t repair my flesh in the same way.

So I dodged.

People make such a big deal about dodging bullets, but it’s not that hard. Oh, dodging a bullet is impossible for anyone without the highest-level reflex buffs, or Akane’s super speed. But dodging a guy pointing a gun at you was easy enough.

I grabbed my bones and jerked myself to the side, a direction my assailants wouldn’t have been able to anticipate me moving. Their first shots missed, the thunder and gunsmoke filling the small space with a ringing and a lingering acrid stench.

I lunged forward, my feet barely touching the ground—just enough to save my reservoir a bit of power—and plunged my right arm, the one made of stone, into the heart of the first guard. He gurgled, and fell, but the other three didn’t let up. I interposed their friend’s corpse between me and them, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before their bullets started punching through his dead meat.

I charged again, but my target anticipated that, and stepped back. I should have known the same move wouldn’t work twice; these men were not screamers. They had brains, they could think and learn and reason.

On the other hand, I had never seen a screamer trip over some debris.

I was on him like a flash, tossing the corpse I was holding at another guard like a rag doll, and slamming the blade of my hand into the throat of the one on the ground, nearly beheading him with a single strike.

Gunshots impacted my back, where my spine would have been if I still had one. Well, I had one, made of stone as a mimicry of the original artifact, but it would take more than mere bullets to pierce that armor. The bullets embedded in the stone, but a mere thought pushed them back out the holes they had caused in my flesh, and I bandaged the wounds with a flexible layer of concrete.

I turned to see the man staring at me in shock. He had completely failed to anticipate what might happen if I survived, and had gotten too close to ensure what he thought was a killshot. Amateur.

Another strike to the heart, and he was no more.

The last guard had his gun pointed at me, but he didn’t fire.

He was sweating visibly, but his hands were not shaking.

“I have children,” he said quietly.

“So do I,” I noted.

“Then you understand why I want to leave here alive.”

I stepped forward. He didn’t waver, though he did swallow a lump in his throat.

“I just need to kill the whore,” I said, in what I had intended as a reassuring tone, but instead came out cold as ice. “No one else here needs to die. No one else here needs to get in my way.”

He closed his eyes. “Forgive me,” he whispered. I had no idea who he was talking to.

It hardly mattered. He opened fire a split second after his eyes opened, but I was already moving. I swore I could feel the bullet breeze past my skull, but that was probably just the adrenaline talking.

I grabbed his gun arm—with my left hand—and twisted it out of his grip as he screamed for mercy. I broke the wrist, then tossed aside the gun like the trash it was. He was no more threat today.

And then I was facing the aves protecting their King.

“Warhawks,” I said. “I offer you a simple choice: Surrender and live, or fight for a lying whore and die.”

They didn’t so much as blink.

They were all unarmed—likely pretending that they were Soaring Eagle’s friends and allies instead of just her most loyal bodyguards—but they were some of the most powerful aves in existence. Two ran forward like greased lightning, slashing at me with sharp talons from both sides at once.

But despite their speed and strength, they were still aves. They had hollow bones.

I didn’t even bother with anything fancy. The second they got too close, I just backhanded them both. It was dull and unoriginal and if I had a martial arts teacher he would be rolling over in his grave, but it sent the birds smacking into the walls at speeds their frail skeletons couldn’t possibly handle. They crumpled like tissue paper.

Four more warhawks. Then the King.

One charged me from the front while the other tried to ghost me from behind. I tanked the one in front, grabbing her talons as she tried to slash me and crushing the bones with a bare modicum of effort. When she screamed, I reared back and kicked her in the chest, sending her into the wall even harder than the first two.

Three.

I turned to the ghost and backhanded him across the face, shattering the delicate bones behind his beak. I threw him at the ceiling, then caught him and threw him again, and in a moment there wasn’t much left of him but blood and broken bones.

Two.

One of the aves tried to grab one of the fallen guns and point it at me. A futile effort; they were never designed to be used by someone with talons. I casually squashed his head into the floor as I walked by.

The last threw a knife at me. It impacted in my chest, but other than a deep cut to my flesh, there was no damage. A moment’s concentration papered over that as well, stopping the bleeding. I caught the blade with my right hand as it fell, then left a small amount of concrete on it. I threw it with full strength, using my power to increase both its speed and accuracy. The knife-thrower fell over dead, a fist-sized hole where his heart should be.

And then there was only Soaring Eagle.

I stepped forward, savoring the moment more than I should. The hawk-eagle anthro shook, taking a step back at my advance, but ultimately knowing that there was nowhere she could run. She had trapped herself quite neatly.

Then Turgay was there.

“Ling,” he said firmly. “You need to calm down. This isn’t you.”

I didn’t stop. “This is exactly me.”

“You are not a killer, Ling.”

Part of me wanted to agree with him. It really, really did. Part of me wanted to hold him close and cry into his chest, to call up a ‘sarian and offer myself up to the Big Boss for mercy. Part of me wanted to just forget everything.

But there were ten bodies in this room alone, and a dozen more outside. These people weren’t like the screamers, diseases in the shape of men. These were intelligent people who still had their minds and souls.

And I had killed them.

Everyone in Domina City is a killer, Guy,” I said. “Just took me a bit longer than most to get with the program. Now move.”

He didn’t.

I grabbed him by the shoulder and threw him into a wall.

Not as hard as the others, but hard enough that I heard bones snap. He’d survive, but out here, without the toy maker, it would take significantly longer. Weeks, at least. Maybe even months.

“Any last words, Xinivrae?” I growled at the bird in front of me.

She slashed me across the face without hesitation.

Her talons scored deep furrows in the stone I was using as bone. I fixed it immediately, of course, but she still took a significant chunk of my flesh with it. I guess it was supposed to hurt, but after my time in the toy box, pain wasn’t really anything I could summon the will to worry about.

But I could worry about those claws. They were more dangerous than the guns the guards had been using; I should have known that a warlord wouldn’t walk around without some high-level buffs.

Before I could retaliate, she hopped back swiftly out of reach, falling into an unarmed attack stance that I had seen Derek use more than once. I still had no idea what it was called, but I had seen him snap a man’s neck in that stance.

“Dad insisted we both take self-defense classes,” the ave said by way of explanation. “Malcanthet never got past yellow belt, even though she was sleeping with the instructor. But I actually paid attention.”

Wonderful.

I didn’t waste any more time on fancy declarations. I just moved, moved at a speed that I knew she could never match, as I was using my power to throw myself forward, rocketing forward like a missile.

I was right. She couldn’t match my speed.

She exceeded it.

Watching a warlord fight wasn’t like watching a normal fight. Even without any training or real experience, someone like me could watch a real fight and have some understanding of what was happening, could keep track of what was going on.

Keeping track of Soaring Eagle’s fighting was like trying to keep track of lightning.

I felt the impacts on my body, punches and scratches and gouges. But by the time I reacted, by the time I counterattacked, she was long gone, and striking from the other side. Fighting a ghost would have been easier.

But still, I would not be defeated so easily. She was a warlord? Fine. I was something else. Something more. Ling Yu couldn’t defeat Soaring Eagle, but the Lady of the Grave could. I had a promise to keep, after all.

I rolled forward, ignoring the flesh she was slicing off me even as I did. She dug her talons into my back, aiming at my spine, but not even she could cut through it—it was harder than diamond at the moment, as I pressed as much power as I could spare in that spot.

Cutting power aside, the pain was beginning to bother me. In the same way that bright light bothered someone with baseline eyes, but still. She was trying to rip my entire spinal column out of my back. I needed to figure this out before she did. Stone skeleton or not, I was pretty sure that would kill me.

And then I found it.

A small seam in the titanium floor. Barely even a seam. It was folded over and stapled down, and would barely even be visible from the other side—assuming you had somehow managed to burrow underneath the bunker.

Like I had.

I hadn’t been able to do much to prepare this contingency, not without showing my hand. But during my earthquake, when I ripped the door off the bunker, I had also been careful to hit this specific spot a few times.

And now the seam had widened. Just barely.

But enough for me to thin one of my stone fingers to the thickness of a spaghetti noodle, and slip it through.

Enough for me to touch the earth and stone on the other side.

I triggered another earthquake the moment I had the chance. I grabbed all the dirt around the bunker and formed it into giant hands, shaking the titanium box like a tin can. Soaring Eagle was bucked off. She nearly took my spine with her, but in the end she gave before I did. I spared a tiny amount of power to put my skeleton back into place, then turned my attention back to my foe.

Despite the shaking room—which was rapidly draining my reservoir—her incredible buffs allowed her to keep her feet, even though every single other person besides me was on the ground. She locked eyes with me, glared, and charged forward with talons still wet with my blood.

A massive tentacle of stone reached through the open door and wrapped around her legs.

I stopped the shaking the absolute instant I knew I had her trapped. I withdrew my hand from the floor and rose, wincing at pain so severe even I couldn’t just ignore it. I limped forward, my right leg damaged by her attacks, and placed my hand on a nearby extension of the tentacle, placed there so that I could control the larger one.

Soaring Eagle was suspended in the air, the stone wrapped around her wrists and ankles keeping her spread out in an x formation. She struggled briefly, futilely, but quickly calmed down, knowing it was better to conserve her strength in case I made a mistake.

“Any last words?” I asked.

She paused to consider, then opened her beak—

A tentacle of stone burst out of her heart, showering the room with gore.

“I don’t actually care,” I said.

I manipulated the tentacle a bit more, making absolutely sure that her heart was completely destroyed. You always make sure they’re dead. So many problems have been caused by people not double-checking their kills.

“And thus dies Soaring Eagle,” a voice said from behind me. “Founder and Animal King of the aves, formerly Xinivrae, the Black Widow, the Exile, youngest sister of Malcanthet the Succubus Queen.”

I wheeled around, stone tentacles rising over my shoulder, to see—

Elizabeth.

Tall, bronze-skinned, golden-eyed Elizabeth Greene, standing there as pretty as you please.

Rather than the beautiful dresses I normally saw her in—albeit normally bloodstained ones these days—she wore a crisp and sharp black business suit with a stunning royal blue tie that even my amateur eye could tell was of superior material.

Instead of either a false vapid expression or a cruel and animal grin, she wore a quietly confident smile, the exact kind you’d see on any businesswoman about to close a clever deal. If I didn’t know any better, there would be absolutely nothing suspicious about her.

But I did know better.

I formed my hand into a blade again. “This isn’t going like last time.”

“Calm yourself, my lovely little girl.” Even her voice was different. Stronger, calmer, friendlier. “There have been developments since you were afflicted with the calciophage. I am not who you think I am.”

“Is this the part where you claim the whole thing was a misunderstanding?” I said.

“Of course not,” she said smoothly. “My sister is a petty little monster who would kill you with her teeth if given half a chance.” She spread her arms wide. “You are exhausted and spent from your contest with the Dame Soaring Eagle. If they were awake, Hoshi or Martinez could capture you by themselves.”

I looked around, surprised, to find that the general and the president were snoozing on the floor without a care in the world.

“Couldn’t you have done that earlier?” Turgay demanded from his spot on the floor. He didn’t look as injured as I had thought, but he definitely wasn’t going to be dancing a jig any time soon.

“I did,” Elizabeth replied with that same calm confidence. “They’ve been asleep since only a few moments after the door was ripped off. They saw no direct evidence of any supernatural powers, or even warlord-level buffs.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said, his voice thick. “Couldn’t you have put all the guards to sleep? You would have saved their lives, turned it into a one-on-one fight between Ling and Sele. Not this… ” He gestured. “Slaughter.”

“There are several reasons, the most prominent being that I try very hard not to interfere unless I have to.” She indicated the snoozing forms. “They are, to put it bluntly, too important to die here. The guards had their own roles they could have played, but in the end, this is how the story went. That’s all there is to it.”

“I’m not an idiot,” I said. Growled, more like.

The golden woman arched an eyebrow. “What engendered that statement?”

“You’re obviously not Elizabeth. Obvious for about a million reasons, not even getting into you mentioning your sister. I’m not an idiot. I noticed. Now’s the part where you tell me who you are.”

She smiled winningly. “As usual, you prove yourself to be smarter than you pretend. I know everyone acts like you’re a fool, but you really should use that marvelous brain of yours more often.”

I ground my teeth hard enough to leave a thin film of dust in my mouth. “Just answer the question.”

The girl who looked like Elizabeth bowed. “I am known as Silk. Elizabeth is my clone, and is often referred to as my little sister. She is also a pawn in a long and complex plan of mine, which involved the creation of someone like you.”

I clenched my fist. “You did this to me?”

“I set up a variety of situations that could lead to someone of your power existing,” Silk corrected, her tone patronizing like a teacher. “Keeping the toy box in play was one of the more important variables, and the fact that you were immune to the Sauron Field meant that you were always one of the more likely candidates.” She gestured at the only ave anthro still alive in the bunker. “But Turgay was another.”

The bald eagle blinked. “What? I don’t have a power.”

“An easy enough fix.” She sang a few brief and alien notes. “There.”

Turgay clutched his head. “Ooh… what the… ”

“You now have a song,” Silk said genially. “Summoning non-living objects, if I’m not mistaken. That’s an odd one—make good use of it. It can be extremely powerful if you stretch it to its limit.”

“I… I think I need to take a minute… ”

“Probably for the best.” Silk waved her bronze hand, and all my stone tentacles withdrew back out the door, presumably sinking into the earth out of sight.

“I’m not sure whether to thank you for that or kill you,” I muttered. I straightened, looking the her in the eye She was much taller than me. “But I do know that you just admitted to turning me into a monster. Is there any reason that I shouldn’t kill you right here and right now?”

She shrugged. “I wouldn’t blame you. Your creation was for the greater good, of course, but you’re hardly in a position to see that. I understand you have quite a bit of rage you need to burn off. But you should be heading home soon.” She nodded at Turgay. “You too, little eagle. You have no reason to remain outside the city for much longer.”

The ave blanched. “I can’t! They’ll kill me!”

“They’ll be quite forgiving, considering recent events.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Why? What did you do?”

“You were there,” she pointed out. “When Richard declared war on Domina City.” She reached down to the president and brushed some hair out of his face. “Well, legally speaking it’s not a war, but you know what I mean. He’s sending an entire brigade after your city.” She sipped from a delicate wine glass that definitely hadn’t been in her hand a minute ago. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?”

I formed my hand into a blade and stalked towards the unconscious president. “Cut off the head—”

“And you create a martyr for a very large and dangerous country,” Silk interrupted. “Domina cannot face the full might of the United States military; it’s simply not possible. Even excluding nukes. Besides, he has other work to do.”

“I don’t like dancing along to someone else’s tune,” I growled.

“Then you should have starved to death in your crib,” she said, a little sadly, as she sipped at her wine. “My lovely little girl, everyone dances to a tune someone else is playing. Even me. The trick is to put your own spin on the dance, make it memorable.”

I smiled.

“You know, you’re right,” I admitted. “Thank you, Miss Silk.”

Then I formed my arm into a whip with a sharp blade at the end and thrust it at Elizabeth’s sister as fast as I could. It was time to find out how good Silk’s immortality was. Maybe she didn’t even have immortality, or healing, or whatever power Elizabeth used to survive being shot in the head. I might be able to end this right here and right now.

But then…

Then suddenly my whip was my arm again, back at my side.

The woman hadn’t done anything. She hadn’t blinked or so much as twitched an eyebrow.

I cursed and prepared to strike again—

My knees buckled.

No, that’s not right. For one thing, I didn’t have knees any more, I just had a section of my legs I bent more often. But the rock I had used to replace my bones and left leg suddenly wasn’t obeying me. I felt my knees bend, my entire body bend, and then—

And then I was kneeling.

Before Silk.

I tried to resist, but I couldn’t. I almost thought she had turned off my powers somehow, but I could still feel the stone, and all the other solids in the room. I tried to manipulate the concrete of my bones, but something else had control.

I looked up at her, horror on my face.

“Do not mistake me for this frail mortal body,” she said in a calm tone, swirling the wine around in the glass as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “Do not mistake me for this meaningless name. I am older and more powerful than you can imagine. I have seen entire galaxies born, watched them grow, and finally die of old age. I have lived a trillion lives for a trillion years, and made the entire universe spin at my merest whim. I know the seven words to make entire worlds worship you, and the one that will make even the bravest man flee for his life. You, little Ling, are no more a threat to me now than the day you were born.”

She was not angry. She was not gloating, or smug, or self-confident. She simply was.

But I had to do something. I couldn’t just let her get the last word in. So I gritted my teeth until the stone cracked, and fell back to something I’d been finding more and more useful these days: Anger.

“You bitch,” I spat. “I’ll kill you.”

She didn’t so much raise an eyebrow. “My lovely little girl, words are meaningless without action to give them weight.” Suddenly I felt her control disappear, and my body was my own again. “Now… what actions will you take?”

I stood slowly. For all my bluster, I knew I couldn’t take her. She wasn’t like Elizabeth. She wasn’t hiding behind a mask—she didn’t need a mask. Immortal or not, her complete and total control of her surroundings made it perfectly clear that fighting her would be useless.

That meant there was only one other option.

I bowed my head. “Apologies, Dame Silk. It has been a very… difficult few months.”

Don’t piss off gods. That was a pretty basic piece of advice that I never thought I’d need.

Said god smiled broadly. “See? I knew you were smarter than you let on. Red didn’t stop trying to kill me until I broke her sword.” Silk sighed. “She loved that sword, but she needed a new one anyway.”

It took me a second to parse what she had said. “Wait, Red—Akane? You met Akane?”

“And the rest of the Paladins, plus Butler and Clarke,” she said. “They had Elizabeth in custody, and I took her off their hands in exchange for quite a bit of information. She won’t be troubling you again for some time.” Her gaze turned distant. “But now it’s time for you to go.”

I shook my head. “No, wait, I have questions—”

“More guards are coming,” she said. “I am fully aware you can cut through them like wheat, but there has already been more killing than I should have allowed.” She reached forward and grabbed my hand—the one still made of flesh—as well as Turgay’s. “Let’s just skip that part.”

And then we were outside.

Just… in a field, without a building in sight. Or Silk, for that matter.

Turgay collapsed on the ground. “What in the empty skies was that?

I swallowed a bit of bile. “That was our glimpse at a much, much, much larger plan than anything we ever expected to be a part of.” Everything I had done today had advanced Silk’s agenda. I had no idea what that agenda was, but I still knew that for a fact.

“But why tell us?” Guy demanded. “Why speak to us at all? We could disrupt—”

“No,” I said tiredly. “We couldn’t.”

The ave anthro struggled to his feet, wincing at his bruises. I had thought I had broken his shoulders, but apparently not. “Once we get back to Domina, we can warn them exactly what’s coming.” He seemed to realize that we didn’t know what was coming. “Or… we could stay here, and sabotage it from this end! Anything to throw her plan off!”

“We can’t throw her plan off, Guy,” I said. “Didn’t you notice? How she spoke to us?”

“Like we were children, yeah.”

“No,” I said sadly. “Like we were animals. She wasn’t talking to us, she was talking to herself, and we happened to be in the room.” I shook my head. “We have about as much power over her as a housecat has over its master.”

“Some would argue the housecat is the master.”

“It’s not,” I said bluntly. “If the master decides the cat is too much of a nuisance, the cat dies. Anything before that is just the master deciding to humor a pet.” I looked him in the eye. “That’s all we are to her. Pets.”

He shivered. “That can’t be true.”

I shrugged. “Believe what you will.” I sighed. “We can go home, stay here, split up or stay together. I don’t really care any more. But no matter what, there is one important thing we have to determine.”

I looked around the empty field.

“Where are we?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 266)

This is one I’ve been working on for forever. It’s gone through about a million different iterations, and I’m still not completely satisfied with it.

Silk is a difficult character to use, because she’s just so stupidly powerful. It appears as though she could easily solve the plot by herself, so I’m trying to underline her mysterious goals and methods.

Scene 263 – Nuntiatio

NUNTIATIO

LING

The toy box beeped.

It whirred and clicked, delicate machinery I didn’t understand withdrawing into recesses within the shell. In just a few moments, the device sent a report to the stolen phone in my hand. The light of the screen brightened the interior of the high-tech coffin considerably, and it hurt my eyes to look at it. Not enough to trigger repair, thankfully.

I held the phone in my hand, tapping the keys with my thumb. A quick scroll through the report confirmed that everything was in working order, and that I could leave at any time without issue.

Finally.

I pressed a key on my phone, and the box hissed with pneumatic steam as it creaked open. It could only open so far, though, and I had to crawl out of the small opening with my own strength, using only my left arm and right leg.

The box was entombed in concrete. Buried under the broken ave outpost as surely as if someone had poured cement over the top. I had made a bubble around it, just a small one, and the box itself could cycle the air. I had needed to hide from my many enemies while I recovered from the calciophage and worse.

But now it was done. I checked the date on my phone. It wasn’t getting a signal, of course, but it could at least keep track of the date. Today was December 12th, a Wednesday. Thirty-nine days after I had first crawled out of the toy box, and taken my revenge on the aves who had captured me.

In theory.

Oh, they were dead, that part wasn’t in question. I could feel their corpses, entombed in the concrete, by extending my sixth sense as easily as I opened my eyes. The question was whether or not these birds had deserved it. Had they even known I was here?

That wasn’t important right now. I turned to the toy box, looking it over, my right arm hanging stiffly at my side. When I had initially brought the building down and managed to have the foresight to hide myself in the box with a bunch of concrete, it had projected that it would take at least two months to fix me. That I’d wake up in the new year, at the earliest.

Well, I wasn’t going to complain about waking up early. Maybe the fact that it had actually been able to put me to sleep this time, since I didn’t have to worry about the calciophage eating my bones, had accelerated the process. I needed to remember this restful state. Now that I had the Insomniac gland, I wasn’t ever going to be able to sleep again.

For now, I needed to get out of here. I turned, using my left leg as a pivot—

No. No, I didn’t need to treat it as a stiff peg leg. I wasn’t a cripple, not any more.

I took a deep breath and concentrated, feeling beneath my skin and muscle. Once I found what I was looking for, I reached down to my leg, and…

Took a step.

I stumbled and fell to the ground, nearly bashing my face because I only had my left arm to catch my fall. But no. I wasn’t going to let that happen. Another deep breath, another moment of concentration, and I slowly, ever so slowly, pushed myself back up to my feet—with both arms.

It was slow and awkward, like using a fork to eat soup, but I was doing it.

I was on my feet. I could have cheated, just levitated up, but no. I needed to do this right. To make sure my body worked the way it was supposed to. If I had to spend another couple days in the damn box, then fine. As much as I hated the thing, I would do whatever I had to.

I took a deep breath, then another, then fell into a basic karate stance. It was pretty much the only one I knew, and it probably wasn’t even right, but it would work. I just needed to stretch my limbs.

I punched with my left hand. Perfect. A quick, sure strike, with no pain to speak of. A couple more to ensure that all the joints were staying attached where they were supposed to, muscles stretching and contracting correctly.

Then I moved to my right—

I almost ripped it off my shoulder.

I hissed and grabbed at the connection point. Too much strength. Far too much strength. I needed to tone it down, learn to use it normally, or I’d need a new limb before the end of the day. Keep calm and… punch.

More pain. My time dealing with the calciophage made shoving it to the back of my brain easy enough, but it didn’t change the basic problem. I was still punching too hard. My damn arm would fly off if I wasn’t careful.

I focused on my sixth sense, through my body and into the ground. It had already been on—it was always on now, I was good enough at using it that I saw no need to ever turn it off—but I concentrated. Concentrated on my own body, on my own new limbs. My arm, my leg. Concentrate.

I punched.

A good strong punch, enough to knock a man’s teeth out.

But not enough to hurt me.

I smiled grimly. It felt like decades since I had last smiled.

I punched a few more times, making sure I had the force right, making sure that the first time wasn’t a lucky fluke. Once I felt satisfied with my performance, I moved on to kicks. They should have been harder than the punches, and I was expecting to fall over at least once, but it was easy. A few kicks with my left leg were enough to confirm that the lessons I had learned with my arm had carried over.

I flexed the fingers of my right hand. It was amazing how easy it was, how simple. I kept expecting something to go horribly wrong, like for a finger to fall off of to take a step and leave behind my foot.

It was time to go outside.

I turned to the wall that I knew with my stonesense was the thinnest. My reservoir might be as deep as an ocean now, but it still wasn’t limitless, and I had other things to spend my power on. I didn’t want to deplete it unnecessarily.

I walked towards the broken slab of concrete, what had probably once been a floor of a lab or something similar. It barely took a thought to mold it. I didn’t even have to slow my stride as I stepped through the tunnel I was making. I opened it in front of me even as I closed it behind me, molding away dust and dirt as easily as concrete and stone.

And then I was through. Walked through fifteen feet of rubble as easily as some tall grass.

I blinked in the light; it was morning. I had known that intellectually, of course. My phone had said 0700 when I woke up. It just hadn’t really clicked that it meant I’d have to readjust my eyes to the brightness.

But even as I was squinting in the sun, my stonesense was clear and strong. I could feel every ounce of concrete in a hundred yards, and had a pretty good idea of everything touching it. My sense for things I couldn’t affect was still poor, but I could vaguely tell the difference between cars and trees and people.

There wasn’t really anyone around, as far as I could tell. It was one of the reasons I had decided to leave now, from this direction. There was some movement in a nearby alley—likely either ghouls or dumpster dogs—but the streets were almost completely empty. Even the nearby buildings didn’t seem to have many people in them.

Part of that would be because of the hour—dawn was just an hour or so back—so vampires had gone to sleep and diurnals weren’t quite up yet. But it still felt lifeless. As if people were avoiding this place on purpose.

That might be because of my tomb.

I hadn’t spared the juice when I destroyed the ave outpost. I had poured out every last drop of my power to animate every single shred of concrete I could, bringing the entire ‘scraper down and shredding the inhabitants in the process.

Now, it looked like a big mound of rubble, but smooth like clay in seemingly random places. Massive spikes of concrete twenty or thirty feet long burst out here and there, like some huge violent porcupine was trying to escape from underneath.

I hadn’t done any of that on purpose to scare people away, but that seemed to be the effect. I could sense a few spots here and there were people had tried to dig into the rubble, but none of them had gotten far before giving up. I supposed the whole thing was too intimidating for no promise of reward.

There was no screaming.

It had been… months? Since I last heard the screams of Elizabeth Greene’s zombies. That didn’t sound right, but that’s what it was. It was still weird not having that constant droning noise in the back of my head, like suddenly turning all the appliances in your apartment off at warning. I wasn’t complaining, not by any means, it was just… odd.

But this wasn’t time for any of that. I looked down at myself. I was wearing shorts that ended about four or five inches above my knees, and my shirt was a dirty sleeveless undershirt a few sizes too small. I needed new clothes, if only to hide my new arm and leg. Those would attract attention.

I could go to a shop, but if word got back to MC—

“H-hello?”

My head snapped around, towards the voice. A ghoul of some type was slinking out of a nearby alley, cringing at my glare. He was wearing a blanket. He must have been asleep and still a moment ago, that’s why I hadn’t been able to distinguish him.

“What?” I demanded, wincing only slightly at the slight grinding sound of my new bones as I worked my jaw. I’d need to fix that later. “What are you looking at? It’s just a Halloween costume.”

“…Halloween was a month and a half ago.”

“What do you want?

He flinched again. “Nothing! Nothing, I promise. I just… have a question.”

“Spit it out.”

He swallowed, and glanced at the destroyed ‘scraper behind me, though his daygoggles made it a little hard to tell. “I just… I thought… did you come out of there? Out of the Grave, I mean?”

Is that what they were calling it? I preferred tomb. “Yes.”

The ghoul swallowed. “So… you’re her, then? The Lady of the Grave?”

“I’m a lady, and I came out of a grave,” I growled. “Call me what you want.”

He nodded nervously. “Y-yes. It’s just… I wasn’t placed here at random, I was given specific instructions in regards to what I should do should anyone appear. I didn’t actually expect anything to happen, and I don’t think the acolyte really did either, but—”

“What,” I said with narrow eyes. “Are you supposed to do?”

He paused.

“Test you,” he said finally.

Then he swept his leg forward, and the concrete flowed with it, rolling forward like a wave.

It barely took a thought to squash the amateur attack, to push it down and smooth out the street again. The ghoul didn’t seem surprised, and didn’t hesitate for a moment. He switched to horse stance, a broad and solid stance, and lifted up with his arms. I felt the ground under my feet beginning to move, but I countered it before it had a chance to really begin.

The ghoul took a step back, but it was a tactical move, not an expression of surprise. He reached down to the floor and scooped up two massive handfuls of asphalt as easily as grabbing mud. But when he threw the handfuls, I knew they would be hard as stone again, accelerated with all the force he could muster.

I still didn’t move. With a thought, I brought up a wall in front of me, formed out of the same street that he was attacking me with. His missiles impacted with a solid pair of cracks, and I could see the damage they had done quite clearly with my stonesense. They probably would have killed me if they had hit.

I smoothed the road back down, still not moving an inch, and even got the part the ghoul was standing on ten feet away, where he had ripped out the asphalt. He danced back to avoid the ripple in the ground, afraid I might be attacking him, but I wasn’t.

I checked my reservoir. Lower than I’d like, but not dangerously so.

“Anything else?” I demanded.

He dropped to one knee.

“No, my lady,” he said quietly. “I apologize for the rudeness, but I had to be sure.”

“Whatever. I’m leaving now.” I turned to walk away.

“Ah, my lady, wait!” I heard him struggle to my feet behind me. “Don’t you want to meet your college? Knight Alexander would be honored beyond words for a chance to receive instruction from you—”

“Then Knight Alexander is an idiot,” I growled. “Go home, little ghoul.”

Maybe he did as I ordered, maybe he didn’t. But either way, he seemed to have enough of a brain not to chase after me. He was probably worried I’d bury him under the street. He’d survive, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.

The truth was, I had a million questions and more. The fact that he had a power, and his references to some sort of college of like-minded people, intrigued me. This couldn’t be why the screaming stopped, right? They killed Elizabeth, and all her screamers woke up? She must have created at least one more type, stoneshapers like me, while I was away.

But whether they had actually managed to kill the immortal killing machine or not, I had other things to worry about right now. Getting out of the city and figuring out where to go next was top of that list.

No, no, I was thinking too far ahead. The most important thing right now was clothes. Pants and a long-sleeved shirt, or something like that. It was the middle of December, so it was pretty cold, even with the host of temperature regulation buffs I had given myself in the toy box. I wasn’t going to die of exposure, but if it started snowing, I wasn’t going to be happy.

Speaking of which, why hadn’t it started snowing already? There wasn’t even any ice on the street, as far as I could tell—anything from overnight seemed to have melted in the morning sun. How close was I to Canian territory? Maybe they had come through with snow blowers recently. Or maybe it just hadn’t been snowing for some reason.

Still, snow or no snow, I needed clothes fast. I figured I had about an hour before more people started showing up for the day shifts at the various office buildings surrounding me. Domina might be a city where the insane was commonplace, but if even a single person posted a picture of me on Fundie or asked MC who I was, my life was going to become much more difficult.

I’d find a shop. Central didn’t have anything big like Middle did, but they had to service the corporate offices and server farms around here somehow. I should be able to find a clothing store, or failing that—

…I could just find some clothes on the street?

Lying right there on the sidewalk of a smaller street heading off the main, were some clothes. Not much, just a short-sleeved shirt and some pants, but still, clothes. They looked like they had been discarded in a hurry, like someone had ripped them off at a run and just tossed them aside.

Weirder things had happened, but I carefully probed the clothes first with my stonesense, then by lifting up the sidewalk under them. I didn’t find any traps or tripwires, and nothing exploded, so maybe it really was exactly what it looked like.

I picked up the pants, a simple pair of blue jeans, and slipped them on right over my tight shorts. They were basically underwear already anyway. I slipped off the shirt I was wearing quickly—my life as a succubus and a daeva made it easy to ignore my own nudity when I had to—and pulled the black silk replacement on. Both the pants and the shirt were roughly the right size, luckily, but while the jeans covered my left leg pretty easily, the shirt’s sleeves were too short—

There was something else, that had been hidden under the shirt.

A glove.

A very long black glove that appeared to be long enough to reach all the way up to my shoulder. I picked it up, hesitant, and slipped it on only to discover that it was made of the finest silk, not the cheap mass-produced stuff the Minervas made, but the slow and perfect Lolth silk.

And it did reach all the way up to my shoulder, hiding my entire right arm perfectly. Even the elbow bent at the right place, and I had a feeling that if I still had any real feeling in that arm, it would have breathed like air.

Huh.

That was…

Huh.

Akane and Adam would have dismissed it as coincidence. Probably Derek, too. Laura would have thought about it a bit, before deciding that it didn’t matter as long as it wasn’t hurting her.

But I had watched too much tv for any of that. Stuff this convenient always came with strings attached. Enemy action, payment for services rendered from a mysterious benefactor… there were all sorts of explanations. None of them were random. The universe was rarely so lazy.

I needed to process this. But… whether an ambush or something else, someone expected me to pick these up. They then expected me to do something else. I needed to figure out what that was, so that I could throw off their plan, whatever it was. So if they thought I would go straight, I should go left… but what if they anticipated that…

Okay, I could already see that this was going to get ridiculous very quickly. I was going to drive myself crazy if I tried to outmaneuver someone I had never met, and who might not actually exist. Faced with no other option, I just continued walking down the street, trying not to wince every time I heard distant gunfire.

I walked a few blocks, not quite sure where I was going. I knew that I needed information, but I also knew that I couldn’t go to any of my friends. The Paladins and the retinue would just confine me to NHQ for my own safety—escaping wouldn’t be too hard, but I didn’t want to have to kill ‘sarians if I didn’t have to.

My orphanage was dust and ash, with the few people who had graduated before me out of reach. The daevas might help if I asked, but more likely they’d just call Butler. Even Lily wasn’t an option. She hated me. I had known the rumors about her compassion were exaggerations, but it had still hurt to get shunned like that by her, of all people.

Who else was there? In the absolute worst case scenario, I could go to the fey, but I wasn’t that desperate yet. Maybe I should have taken up that ghoul’s offer. At least pumped him for a little bit of information. Tezuka’s name, why did I always think of these things only after.

Even slipping into an internet cafe and checking Fundie wasn’t really an option. MC would track me in half a second. The stolen phone I was using had all the good options password protected, and my hacking skills were best described as nonexistent.

How did people get information before the internet? Somehow, I didn’t think hanging out in a bar or at an inn would work as well as it did in anime. I couldn’t stay in a bar for long anyway; I looked too young. They’d want an ID, which I didn’t have.

Whether for internet or overhearing conversations, a cafe was probably my best bet. I just needed to stay out of Central, where the Paladins and Lily spent most of their time. This area might actually have more than normal, to service the businessmen and the like—

“This is Eliza Cassan, with a special report.”

I was passing an electronics store. Cell phones and laptops, it looked like. Portable things that the working man liked. For some reason, there was a television in the window, tuned to the local news station. That was a bit odd, but far from unheard of. It was convenient for people who didn’t have space in their homes. After all, cell phones still weren’t very good at streaming video like this.

“Just moments ago, this studio received a call from Artemis Butler himself,” she continued. “It appears that the president of the United States is giving a national address at the moment, and it is relevant to the interests of this city.”

What? Since when did we pipe in direct news feeds from America—or anywhere else, for that matter? Even second and third-hand news from the outside world was a little hard to come by. Our internet didn’t connect to them directly, and no one really cared enough for the reporters to investigate more than the bare minimum.

But if the Big Boss thought it was important…

The scene shifted, to a view of a man standing at a podium in front of a flag with red and white stripes. There were flashes every couple of seconds, and I belatedly realized that the man was standing in front of a crowd of reporters, and they were all taking pictures constantly.

“My fellow Americans,” the man said in a slow and calm voice. “Thirty years ago, Domina City was founded as part of a cooperative effort on the part of several nations—including our own. The goal was to give prisoners jobs and lives, and to see if they could be trusted with colonization, including our blossoming space program.

“The undertaking was a complete and utter failure. The criminals overran the city within months, if not weeks, and communication was lost not soon after, with the last word being a hurried call from the warden as his office was raided.

“At the time, we had neither the will nor the manpower to retake the island. There was simply no need. We—and many other nations—simply continued sending them new prisoners, and the gangs that controlled the city retained enough sanity not to disrupt that supply line.

“Fifteen years ago, a prisoner named Doctor Isaac Clarke perfected a biological manipulation device, which he named the toy maker. He tested this by giving a young girl devil horns, and broadcast the information and schematics across the scientific community.

“America led the charge to criminalize use of the toy maker, though exceptions were made for military use. We were, with great difficulty, able to communicate with the doctor, who agreed to abide by the new laws. Due to the unstable status of the city, little more thought was given to it.”

He took a deep breath, and I slowly realized how difficult this must be for him. This wasn’t a quick update on a war or minor shootout. He had something important to say, and he hadn’t even gotten to it yet.

“It has long been my dream to bring peace to that broken city,” he said, his voice rising in strength. “But it has always been deemed too dangerous, not worth the risk. As long as the prisoners sit there quietly, the entire world has been content to ignore it.”

He stepped aside, and the flag-curtain behind him parted to allow someone in a hooded cloak through. They stepped up to the president, face carefully hidden as much as humanly possible.

“Several months ago, a survivor fled the city,” the president explained. “She told a very different tale than the one we knew. Instead of roving bands of impossible to control gangs, there were massive cultures, led by dictators with more soldiers than some nations. Instead of small arms, harmless to any organized army, they possess weapons that could threaten us if used properly—a surprise strike could take out New York. Bring the towers tumbling down like dominoes.”

Another deep breath.

“And instead of a city where they at least pretend to uphold the law, we have one where the worst nightmares of fifteen years ago walk the streets in broad daylight.”

The woman pulled down her hood.

And revealed a hawk’s head, with gray feathers and golden beak. Large, darting golden eyes scanned the room, reveling in the shocked and appalled gasps of the reporters in the audience, blinking in the sudden increase of camera flashes.

Soaring Eagle.

“This young woman is named Sele,” the president said loudly, over the turmoil. “She has been modified by the toy maker to look like this. She is not the only one. There are a half dozen more of her closest friends who fled with her.”

Her damned warhawks. I felt my fist clenching tight enough to crack stone.

“Sele has warned that Domina City is no longer content to sit idly by, taking the prisoners and supplies we send to them. They are gearing up for something more. An attack on American soil, with no provocation whatsoever. She fled when it was discovered that she planned to warn us.”

What? What in the velvet-draped halls of Shendilavri was he babbling about? …oh, of course. Lupa had spun up a little fairy tail for him so that she could kill off everyone who had driven her out. Cute.

“We must strike first, and strike hard. These people have had fifteen years to use this hellish device to come up with all manner of plagues and diseases that they plan to unleash on us. I have seen the reports, written by the scientists in charge of these projects. I am not a religious man—but if sin could have a physical form, a plague that makes everyone burst into flame in sunlight might be it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Oh right, that thing the angels had tried to make for use against the vampires. I thought that didn’t work. Even if it did, what reports and scientists would he have seen to convince him that it was an imminent threat—

I closed my eyes. The Granit. The Imperialist party. They… actually had been developing that sort of thing, for exactly the reasons he had just said. Oops. Was kinda regretting voting for that Ozoliņš lady last time…

“As we speak, I am forming a large task force, several battalions strong, to take Domina City and bring it back into the rule of law. They will liberate the people of these gangs of monsters controlling them, and restore the colony to its rightful place in our great nation.”

The view switched to a reporter I didn’t recognize, and it took me a second to realize that it was still the feed from outside the city. Some dark-skinned baseline woman was pretending to look all grim.

“That was President Richard Martinez, live from the Pentagon, detailing a new military action against the prison-island located off the coast of the state of New York. We now go to our panel of experts, who will discuss whether such a drastic action is truly necessary.”

The view switched back to Eliza Cassan before they got to the experts.

She was saying something. Something about safety, and trusting Necessarius or maybe the nicer warlords, I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention. None of that mattered anymore. Not Butler, not his mouthpieces in the media, not even the city itself.

I had Soaring Eagle’s location. I had a target.

The Pentagon. I had no idea where that was, but it sounded important. The kind of thing that people outside the city would know where it was. All I had to do was ask someone once I was outside.

I turned around and started marching towards the west gate… before reconsidering, and heading back in the direction of the ghoul from before.

I had a whore to kill, and an old friend to rescue.

I’d need at least a little help.

Behind the Scenes (scene 263)

Ling doesn’t have quite enough information to understand the source of her luck, since she’s been out of contact for months.