Tag Archives: Lizzy

Scene 105 – Absens

ABSENS

LING

I frowned once I was away from the others. Laura and Derek were still farther afield, while the happy couples stayed at the table.

“Okay, slow down,” I said into the phone. “What in Tezuka’s name happened?

“She’s gone,” Turgay replied flatly. He had tried to give me all the details first, like he always did when he got nervous, but at least now he understood to just give me the end.

I shook my head to clear it. “Right, okay…is there any reason for her to just leave?”

“Not that I can think of. We were just sitting there, talking about the…item. I was arguing with one of the scientists about it—they’re getting really possessive, it’s creepy, and actually—”

“Back to Lizzy,” I prodded him.

“Right, sorry. Anyway, she just got up and left. I didn’t think much of it at the time, since she wasn’t really involved in the conversation, but that was an hour ago, and I haven’t been able to get a hold of her.”

I took a deep breath and sent my awareness into my surroundings, feeling the soil and grass beneath my feet. Not that I thought it would help find Lizzy, of course. The range was only a little more than ten feet. I just found it…soothing.

Now, what was the right response in this situation? Send out a search party? Yes, of course. But if she was kidnapped, then it would be dangerous. Sending in the wrong people would just be adding fuel to the fire.

“Has anyone gone looking for her yet?”

“A few of the new soldiers,” Turgay said quickly, purposefully avoiding the word ‘warhawks’ in case someone was listening. “With baselines for scouts.”

Of course. The aves were still getting heat for stealing the toy box, so they were having trouble mixing with the rest of the city. They stood out far too much.

Turgay continued. “We haven’t heard anything back from them yet, and they missed their check-in.”

Well, they were clearly dead. But that wouldn’t be something he wanted to hear. “How well-trained are they? Maybe they just forgot.”

“The security chief is pretty sure that wouldn’t happen. And he won’t let me call them, in case they’re in danger and it gives away their position.”

I knew that made sense from my time with Derek and the ‘sarians. But Turgay wasn’t a military man; I could hear the frustration in his voice. He thought that was a stupid reason to delay.

I frowned. I couldn’t involve Derek and the others, not yet. Even discounting the party, this was hardly the time or the place. Lily hated violence, Flynn was still a burden, the parents were just a couple of thieves, and Simon and Seena had their own allegiances. Not to mention that Derek would jump after that girl like a hound after a hare…no. I needed to work this out on my own.

“How many soldiers did you send out? Including the fle—baselines, I mean?”

“Twenty-five.”

I blinked. More than I expected. “Okay, then something is definitely wrong. At least one of them would be able to call back. You got GPS or whatever on them?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Send out five more and wait.”

There was a pause of about a minute on the other end, where I could hear my childhood friend talking. Actually, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was barking orders.

“We sent another twenty-five,” he said finally, a little breathlessly. “That should be enough.”

That was about when I asked the question I should have asked the moment I understood what was going on. “Why exactly was Lizzy there with you?”

There was a pause.

“If you choose now to start hiding things…” I warned.

“Fine, fine,” he said hastily. “Don’t worry. I just needed to figure out how to word it. It’s just…the item emits this field. We’re calling it the Sauron effect. Anyone within a certain radius slowly goes insane with greed for it. You, me, and Lizzy are the only ones who seem immune. That’s actually why I asked her to meet me, I needed to test that.”

I swallowed as he trailed off. “What,” I said very, very carefully, “is the first thing I told you about the fantasy genre?”

“Uh…” he racked his brain for the answer. “The kid with the sword is the hero?”

“That was number two,” I reminded the ave, resisting the urge to reach through the phone and strangle him. “What was number one?

He paused. “…if it makes you want to touch it, don’t touch it?”

“Close enough. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that your little toy screwed with Lizzy’s brain somehow, so I am officially taking this out of your hands. MC, you there?”

There was a long pause, during which Turgay tried to speak. “Wait—”

“I know you can hear me,” I said, grinding my teeth. “MC, I have information regarding the whereabouts of the toy box.”

“Right, sorry, I’m here,” the operator’s real voice chimed in a moment later. “I wasn’t before, but I have a couple programs lurking on a few—very few—phones to tell me when a couple words are used…”

“Yes, yes, you’re a champion of the privacy act,” I interrupted before she could really get into a rant. “Lizzy was driven insane by the toy box. Where would she go?”

“She was immune,” Turgay insisted. “And I don’t like involving MC—”

“There’s a very real possibility she’s one of the Composer’s sleepers,” I cut in. I still couldn’t believe it, but it was always the ones you least expected. Besides, it was good to get the worst case out of the way first. “It probably interacted with the—what’d you call it?”

“Sauron effect,” the ave muttered glumly. “And I suppose that’s possible. But Ling, MC is going to call Necessarius…”

“Not if you don’t want me to,” the woman promised. “Though I really think this is beyond your pay grade at this point.”

There was a pause as Turgay considered his options.

“Fine,” he sighed. “But don’t blame me if there are unexpected consequences.”

“I’ll call up the retinue right away,” MC said quickly. “Turgay, text me the GPS codes. And Ling, what are you going to do about the other Paladins?”

I frowned. Nothing had changed; telling them would be a bad idea.

But…

“I’m just going to tell one,” I decided quickly. “One minute.”

I closed my phone and returned to the table as fast as possible without looking hurried.

“Excuse me, I need to borrow your boyfriend for a moment,” I apologized to Lily. “Adam, let’s talk.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 105)

A bit short, perhaps, but I think this still went well.

Advertisements

Scene 95 – Solutio

SOLUTIO

JELENA

The iron-lord was still grasping around for us. Why? It didn’t make any sense. It should have abandoned us for easier prey within minutes. Instead, it had stuck around for over an hour.

I kept hearing explosions outside, which just made it even stranger. If people were attacking the thing, it would return the favor. Unless everyone was focusing their fire on the blind-rammer, which was possible, but unlikely.

I needed to get out there. I had to figure out what was going on, and sitting here wouldn’t help. I pulled off my daygoggles and started inching forward across the suddenly bright room.

“Jelena!” Pam hissed from behind me. “What are you doing?

“I’m gonna see if I can help,” I called back. “Stay here with the others.”

“But you can’t! You’re—” She suddenly stopped talking, and I had to glance back to assure myself she hadn’t been crushed.

She was still alive and well, but she looked like she had tasted something horrible in her mouth—so about her default expression, only more so. She had been about to say something. Something important.

Well, if she thought it could wait, I guess I agreed. I turned back to the task at hand, absently scratching at my neck.

My entire spine had been itching ever since the fey released me. Glasya had looked me over personally, and had assured me that nothing was wrong, so I suppose I got off light. A little bit of phantom pain was nothing compared to what Fevered Day could have done to me.

It was slow going, getting past the gargant, since I had to stop every few feet to wait for its thrashing hand to sweep past. My hands and knees were bleeding by the time I reached the entrance, the shattered glass from the doors having cut deeply into my flesh. I glanced at the wounds briefly, then resolved to ignore them. They were clotted with concrete dust and the glass fragments were still embedded in some places, but I had enough buffs so that the pain was minimal and I didn’t have to worry too much about bleeding out.

The iron-lord’s hand lunged towards me, and I dove out of the way again, out the shattered front doors. I landed on more glass, scraping up my side and tearing my clothes.

Bloody night…I wasn’t built for this. I was a secretary with a sharp ear, that’s all. The closest thing to combat I had seen was that time my orphanage managed to score tickets to laser tag. I was on the losing team.

But I had to do something. No one else was. Especially not the whore, Yolanda. Last I had seen her, she had been huddled in Simon’s embrace, trembling like a leaf. Maybe her queen would save her.

I heard voices nearby. Not from inside the store, where the gargant was still rooting around, but from somewhere down the street. One of them, soft as down feathers, drifted through the clamor of injured and dying civilians.

“I told you we should have stayed on the roof.”

“No, Seena, it would have just climbed up and killed us, and we wouldn’t have had anywhere to run.”

Adam and the others. They had found something, then. Some sort of weapon.

“Aim for the knees,” another, somewhat familiar voice suggested. It was…Steve? Simon’s roommate? What was he doing here? “That’ll do the trick.”

“I know killing,” Adam grunted. “I know what to do.”

“Frost and—God dammit, just hurry up. The blind-rammer looks like it’s coming this way.”

The fourth voice sounded familiar as well, but I couldn’t place it. Male, definitely, but other than that I couldn’t tell. ‘Frost and fire’ was a Jotuun curse, so he was probably one of the Nifs.

The Nifs weren’t supposed to be in the area, but it wasn’t all that surprising. The cultures spied on each other as much as possible, both for defensive and offensive reasons. I was more interested in what Joel and Nathan, the local feuding warlords, would do when they found out. Would they leave them alone, or retaliate? Both canes had a reputation for being warmongers, but they had to know better than to piss off Niflheim.

That wasn’t important now; Seena’s group was talking again, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I crept towards the voices, trying to get a better look, maybe let them know I was here, but I winced at my wounds. Buffs or no, having little pebbles of glass embedded in your flesh, slicing through skin and muscle, etching bone…

Stop it, I told myself. That kind of thinking was hardly productive. Pushing the pain to the back of my mind, I turned the corner and found…

Steve and Kevin, Simon’s roommates. And Seena, Veda, and Adam, of course. The green-haired baseline was nowhere to be found.

I glanced around as I scrambled to my feet. “Where’s the Nif?”

Adam turned to me, frowning. “You are…”

“Jelena, my roommate,” Veda supplied. “She was trapped with the others.” A look of apprehension crossed her face, and she cursed. “Fangs and—it didn’t destroy the building, did it?”

“No, it was still just trying to grab people last time I checked.” I shifted on my feet and winced as my wounds were pulled.

Seena stepped forward and looked at my side. “You look like you ran through all nine hells. What happened?”

I started to shrug, but immediately stopped from the pain. “Had some trouble.”

The Mal glanced back at the others. “You need to take down that gargant right away,” she said firmly. “It’s not going to be distracted forever.”

“There’s still the blind-rammer,” Kevin noted. I blinked when he spoke; I recognized his voice as the one I hadn’t been able to identify from before. Why was he using Jotuun curses? He wasn’t a giant.

It was probably just some stupid thing. Simon and Seena used demon curses because their orphan patron had been one, so maybe it was something like that. It really wasn’t important right now, anyway.

“The rammer is secondary, right?” I asked a little hesitantly. Yeah, as a Glasyan I knew a bit more about monsters and such than the average person, but I’ve always found personal applications of the toy maker more interesting than the whole creating monsters part.

The fact that everyone else just kind of looked at each other didn’t help my anxiety.

“I’ve never seen one of those things,” Adam said, as he hefted what looked like a missile launcher covered in tubes over his shoulder. “Monsters aren’t quite my area of expertise…”

“I…think it’s relatively safe,” Veda muttered haltingly. “I mean, it doesn’t seem to be doing anything all that dangerous. It doesn’t even have eyes.” She glanced at Steve.

The big baseline raised his hands in front of himself to ward off her attentions. “Hey, don’t look at me, I’m a bike messenger. I don’t know the first thing about monsters.”

“I think…” a voice like warm honey said haltingly from behind me. “I think it might be looking for someone.”

Surprised, we all turned to see Elizabeth Greene, of all people, leaning against the building dejectedly. She was wearing a long, flowing dark blue skirt and a short-sleeved white shift with a black corset over the top. The corset turned her already somewhat impressive bust into something truly marvelous. To my surprise, she also had a fake flower in her golden hair, behind her ear. It was the same deep, royal blue of Akane Akiyama’s hair ribbon.

But while her outfit was still perfect, her entire stance and bearing spoke of someone who had taken on the world and lost. Her face lacked her usual smile, and her glittering golden eyes seemed on the verge of tears.

“Miss Greene,” Steve said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

She smiled, just the tiniest bit, but at least it meant she wasn’t completely defeated. “Mister Gillespie…I need you to deliver another message for me, I think.”

The large man nodded, as Kevin and I moved forward to catch the girl before she fell. “Of course, of course. Whatever you need.”

But Kevin frowned. “Wait, she said the blind-rammer was looking for someone. What—”

Seena punched him in the arm. “Let her talk. She’ll get to it.”

Chastised, he shut his mouth and nodded.

Lizzy smiled again in his direction. “It’s fine, I understand…” she shook her head. “I need to sit down. It’s…been a long day.”

We guided her carefully to the ground, trying to ignore the sounds of gunfire nearby, and the still-roaring iron-lord. We didn’t have much time, but we still had to be careful with her.

The girl took a deep breath, and when she spoke there was some strength in her voice. “Gillespie, I need you to find Nabassu. He should be at his apartments. Tell him what’s going on here, leave nothing out. He’ll be able to organize everything.”

“At once,” Steve said, and immediately ran off at top speed around the corner. I turned to watch him go, surprised that such a big guy could run so fast.

“About the one over there…” Lizzy began weakly, and I was forced to turn my attention back to her. “The big metal thing is just a distraction. I don’t think the fey want to cause too much damage, they just want it to look like they do.”

My spine was itching like crazy, and I reached back to scratch it as subtly as possible.

But Adam was the one who spoke. “So…ignore the iron-lord for now? After all the trouble we went to to get a weapon?”

The girl on the ground nodded. “It’s the other one…the blind one—”

“Blind-rammer,” Seena supplied.

“Right, that one. Nabassu told me the fey use them to track people sometimes. Like, when they just need to find them, and don’t have to worry about subtlety.”

Adam nodded. “I think I heard Simon or Yolanda mention that…something about them having extra nostrils?”

Lizzy shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know that the fey want something here.”

I shook my head. “But this isn’t their style. Why send something like this when a couple dogs would work just as well?”

“I don’t know,” Adam muttered, rubbing his forehead. “Laura might be able to figure it out, but I just…this isn’t anything any of us are good at.” He shook his head suddenly. “It doesn’t matter. Once it finds its target, bad things will happen. So we need to kill it first.”

I indicated the weapon in his arms. “You were going to use that on the iron-lord, right? How many shots do you have?”

“Not many,” Veda cut in. “I didn’t have a lot to work with. I can’t be sure, but no more than five. Absolute max.”

Oh, that’s right, she was a mechanic or an engineer or whatever. I had completely forgotten. I guess…she had made the weapon? How the hell did she cobble together a missile launcher out of spare parts?

Adam saw where I was going. “It should work just as well on the rammer, if not better. And we should just need one or two for the iron-lord.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow. “So, what, just shoot it in the face and hope it works?”

The bland baseline shrugged. “I guess so.”

“The belly,” I said suddenly. “Aim for the belly. That’s the weak spot.”

Everyone stared at me. “What?” Seena asked weakly.

Where had that come from? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. “The belly drags on the ground—it can’t be armored as much.”

“That makes sense…” Adam said slowly. “But I’m not gonna just dive under it.”

“Explosions will scare it and make it rear up. But it has to be a big one.”

“A grenade wouldn’t be enough?”

“Not nearly. Maybe a…” an image flashed into my mind, a dull metal barrel with a white label saying ’55 gallons.’ “An oil drum would work. There should be one in this building here.”

Seena looked disturbed and was avoiding my eyes, but I couldn’t understand why. I spent a lot of time paying attention to important people; I had probably just heard about this on some forum or whatever and forgotten until now.

Kevin broke down the door pretty easily (the security gate wasn’t even up), and in a few moments he and Adam were wrestling an oil drum, exactly like the image I had in my head, out onto the sidewalk.

Lizzy wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, oil. I hate that stuff.”

“Well, don’t go in there, then. The place is full of the stuff.” Adam frowned. “Why the hell is there so much, anyway?”

“There are three offshore oil platforms owned by the city,” I found myself saying, as I suddenly remembered. “Two are owned by Yamatoto Silver Rush, while the third is the property of Fillian Andrews Enterprises, which is a front for—”

“I think he meant why is it here,” Kevin interrupted hastily. “The outer city would be more logical.”

Again, I knew the answer. “Money laundering.”

It was odd. Usually I kept an ear out for all the dirty rumors, of course, but this was more than that. I knew the barrels would be there, I knew where they had come from. But I didn’t remember hearing anything about it before right this moment.

Ugh, there I went, getting distracted again. Delphie and the others inside were counting on us, and I was letting my mind wander. “Roll it over at the gargant,” I instructed. “The smell should make it curious. Anyone have incendiary rounds?”

The boys had the barrel on its side, but hadn’t started rolling it yet. Adam put his foot on it to keep it from moving, and fished a shotgun shell out of one of his ammo pouches. “I have a few, but I’m not sure they can penetrate the drum.”

“My Raaze is incendiary,” Kevin said, pulling out the strange pistol in question. It was…a revolver, except it didn’t revolve, and fired all the chambers at once. “It should work.”

Adam shrugged. “Sounds good to me.” He picked up the missile launcher again from where he had placed it on the ground. “You ready?”

The small Southern-American baseline checked his gun and nodded. “Ready.” Together, they kicked the barrel forward, where it slowly rolled towards the blind-rammer.

The gargant was facing the other way, but its strong sense of smell caused it to notice the oil quickly, just as I had anticipated. It turned as the barrel rolled down the street, sniffing the air and edging towards the item that had piqued its curiosity.

“Now,” I hissed.

I don’t know if Kevin heard me or if he just came to the same conclusion I had. But the gargant was in the perfect position now, its face just a few feet from the barrel, so this was the perfect opportunity. He raised his gun, sighted carefully, and fired.

His aim was dead on, which was good since he only had the one shot. There was a slight ding as the rounds hit the metal barrel, then the dull whumph of the explosion. I dived out of the way quickly; while we were far enough so that we didn’t even feel the heat, I had completely forgotten about the explosion. Shrapnel flew by, and a piece even clipped my shoulder.

Luckily, the others were fine, though there was one large piece of red-hot metal embedded in the wall behind Lizzy. It was probably a miracle she was still alive.

While I was glancing around, making sure everyone was okay, Adam was all business. My prediction had proven correct; the blind-rammer was rearing up on its hind legs, its instinctive response to a loud noise exposing its unprotected underbelly. Adam didn’t waste any time. He went down on one knee, aimed, and fired.

The missile sped off with a small boom, leaving a cloud of foul-smelling exhaust behind Adam. He didn’t lower the launcher, but watched as the projectile crawled a path through the air towards the beast.

And, just as the gargant began to bring itself down from its precarious position, the missile hit.

The explosion was very strange, but I should have expected that. I don’t know what Veda did to it, but instead of exploding in fire, it burst into a cloud of a dark blue gas that seemed to freeze the gargant’s scales where it touched. Not that it mattered. The force of the missile itself had torn open a huge hole in the beast’s flesh, and now blood and guts were beginning to spill.

The blind-rammer began to wobble, clearly in pain but unable to scream in torment. It smashed sideways into the nearest building, causing the ‘scraper to groan, then smashed into the opposite side of the street, leaving massive puddles of gore underneath it.

It tried to smash the other side again, perhaps in an attempt to shake off whatever it thought was damaging it, but at this point it had lost too much blood.

The gargant fell to the ground, shaking the entire street so much that I almost lost my footing. It shuddered once, and died with a wet gurgle.

Just as I thought everything was going to work out, there was a great roar from behind me, and I turned to see the iron-lord had finally given up on our friends in the clothing shop, and had decided that we were the more important targets. Was this the fey’s doing? I had no idea how much control they had over their beasts.

Adam cursed and dodged behind the building where Lizzy was cowering, dropping the launcher in the process. But the gargant just smashed a fist into the building, raining down some glass and plaster but otherwise leaving us unharmed.

Everyone was scattered, in no position to fight back. But I…I hadn’t moved. I had stayed rooted to the spot for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. Despite my terror, I was only a few feet away from the bulky missile launcher.

I couldn’t possibly…could I?

I found myself running towards the weapon, as if something else was controlling my limbs. Then it was in my hands.

I didn’t know how to use a missile launcher. I had never used anything more complicated than a revolver.

But my hands flew across the metal tube as if possessed, flipping switches, reconnecting wires, and checking valves. The gargant was still roaring, and the falling glass was slicing into my skin, but I was unhurried. I could do this. I knew I could do this.

In just a few moments, I was done. The weapon began to hum as whatever power source Veda added began to work again; something had been knocked loose when Adam dropped it, but I had fixed it. How, though? I didn’t know anything about fixing anything, much less a jury-rigged missile launcher built out of what looked like an old air conditioner.

But while my mind was still asking questions, my body was moving like a well-oiled machine. I went down on one knee, just like Adam had earlier, ignoring the glass pebbles getting embedded into my leg. I raised the weapon carefully, sighted through the large, bulky scope, and…

Waited. The gargant was at a bad angle; I couldn’t hit its legs from this position. I didn’t have enough shots—I needed to get the knees. I briefly considered repositioning myself, but then the iron-lord took a few steps forward, exposing its weak points perfectly.

I fired.

Even as the missile flew through the air, I was already aiming at the second knee, checking that the launcher was still working through nothing but touch. Without removing it from my shoulder, I was able to confirm that everything was still in place.

The missile hit, exploding once again into a cloud of blue gas. The iron-lord bellowed in pain as it tried to move and its knee shattered, bringing it thudding to the street in a lopsided position. It struggled to grab hold of the nearby buildings and prop itself up, but it ended up just clawing off more glass and plaster. I didn’t give it a chance to find a better hold.

I fired again.

The second shot was also dead-on, and the beast fell flat on it’s face without any leg to stand on.

But it wasn’t dead, not yet. The ‘blood’ used by the creature was more like oil than anything else, and it would take too long to let it bleed out. It was moaning now, a deep and dejected song that made my teeth shiver. It was like it was begging for death.

I checked the launcher one last time, this time taking it off my shoulder and inspecting it visually. Despite my unfamiliarity with weapons, I knew to be very careful. Jury-rigged weapons had a tendency to explode if something came loose at the wrong moment, so I didn’t rush.

Finally, I was as certain as I could be that it wouldn’t kill me on the next shot. I raised the launcher to my shoulder again, took aim, and waited. Slowly, the gargant raised its head and looked at me, as if intentionally giving me exactly the opportunity I had been waiting for.

I didn’t hesitate. I fired, the targeting reticule centered on the monster’s face.

Right before the missile hit, the iron-lord gargant gave one last pitiful moan.

Then the projectile exploded in that dull whumph, and the head was suddenly covered in frost.

The beast wobbled for a moment, some last signal from its frozen brain telling its arms to keep it upright, until its elbows went limp and let its face smash into the concrete. Frozen metal and shattered asphalt flew everywhere.

I put the missile launcher down slowly and settled down on my rear, suddenly very, very tired. Wherever those reserves of strength had come from, they were gone now. Was this what they called an adrenaline crash?

I turned to the others, smiling a bit weakly, hoping they would be willing to help me limp back to my room and take a very long shower.

But all I saw was Seena, staring at me in horror.

Behind the Scenes (scene 95)

Yes, it is an odd coincidence that all these people who knew each other were within about two blocks of each other all at the same time. It is not a coincidence that this is the moment the fey chose to attack.

Also, I was originally going to do a fake ending for April Fool’s, but the site problems this weekend meant I didn’t have time to write it, and wouldn’t have felt comfortable posting it anyway.

Scene 92 – Sanguis

SANGUIS

ADAM

I watched as Laura very carefully drew a vial of blood out of her own arm, then placed it in a large mass spectrometer.

At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. The paper she had handed me said that’s what she was supposed to do now. But I didn’t know what one looked like. How was I supposed to know she wasn’t tricking me?

“Adam,” she admonished without turning around. “You’re not paying attention.”

“What? Yes I am.”

“Lie.”

I sighed. That power of hers only seemed to work when it was most annoying. “Sorry. I just can’t really tell what you’re doing.”

“Testing my blood for Malcanthet’s masking agent.”

I waved my hand. “Yes, I know. And the lab instructions are clear enough. But I mean…” I indicated the dial she was adjusting on the machine. “Like that, right there. I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What does the paper say?” she asked with exaggerated patience.

I glanced at it. “’Adjust to nine percent power and auto-calibrate.”

She stepped aside so I could get to the machine. I walked up to get a closer look, and it did indeed see that the dial was at nine percent. Next to it was a small digital panel blinking ‘Auto-calibrate?’ with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ buttons below it.

“Happy now?” she asked, again with a sigh of strained patience.

“Very,” I replied. “Please continue.”

The pale girl nodded and stepped forward again.

She followed the rest of the instructions to the letter, as far as I could tell. The point of this exercise was to check if she was a sleeper, using me as an observer. Hopefully this would prove effective, but it would take time.

Laura’s current theory, that Malcanthet was the Composer, was not a pleasant one. I had heard enough stories about the Succubus Queen to know that things would only get worse from here on out.

The masking agents she used in her sleepers were apparently extremely complex. Chemicals masking chemicals masking chemicals. If you weren’t testing for it specifically, it was pretty much impossible to detect. Worse, it wouldn’t be too hard for her to just add another masking agent on top, which would make this entire exercise futile.

Laura assured me that was unlikely, mostly because the number of masking agents Malcanthet could use was dwindling. That didn’t really make me feel much better, since the number was still in the double digits, and we simply didn’t have the ability to check them all, but it seemed to calm her.

“You almost done down there?” a woman’s pleasant voice called down from upstairs. “I almost have dinner ready.”

“Just a few more minutes, Mrs Arrow,” Laura called back.

“Well, don’t take too long. The butter-crusts will get cold.” I heard the sound of the basement door closing.

I frowned. “Butter….crusts?”

“Shellfish cooked inside their shells with butter and spices,” Laura explained as she tapped a couple more buttons. “Veronica generally uses crabs.”

“Right. What else is there for you to do?”

“It needs about an hour to run, but we don’t need to be here for that. Just…” she tapped another key, which I’m pretty sure was the one the paper said. “Done.” She smiled. “C’mon. We can deal with the rest later.”

We walked upstairs into Obould’s house. It was really just a big apartment; ‘house’ might have been stretching it a little. But it certainly felt like one. It had that warm feeling of home, especially with the orc’s kids running around our feet. The two older ones, a pair of fourteen-year old twins, boy and girl, were a demon and a vampire, respectively, but everyone else was baseline. Mrs Arrow pulled a steaming metal sheet out of the oven, which did indeed seem to be carrying crabs, cut in half lengthwise and turned into bowls.

“Eat, eat,” she insisted. “The least I can do.”

Veronica looked a lot like a smaller version of Derek’s mother, although her skin was lighter. Apparently the two had grown up together, which probably meant she was Italian as well, but you couldn’t tell from her accent—or lack of one.

“Where’s your husband?” I asked as we sat down at the giant table. It was big enough to fit about forty people, but there were only seven right now. As I understood it, Obould was something like the landlord of the building, so he invited everyone over for holidays. It was a small skyscraper with big apartments; otherwise they would never fit.

“He’s off collecting specimens again,” the woman said with a roll of her eyes. “I probably should have told him you were using his lab, but it’s his loss.”

I frowned a little as I picked up one of the butter-crusts. It smelled good, at least. “Will he mind? We didn’t mean to be a nuisance—”

She laughed. “No, not at all. I meant he has to miss dinner, and you two.”

I had some difficulty with the chopsticks, but no one else seemed to notice, so I didn’t mention it, and ate my meal in silence. Mrs Arrow spent most of the time arguing with her children as they tried to talk their way out of chores. It was a nice background noise.

I eventually managed to finish my food. By that time, everyone else was already done, and chatting even more than before. After a minute, Laura glanced over.

“Done? Good. The tests should be done by now.” She stood up and carried her empty shell and chopsticks over to the sink.

Mrs Arrow scrambled up. “Oh, let me handle that, dear. You go finish your experiments.”

The sharp Spanish girl nodded gratefully, then headed back to the basement. I followed only a few steps behind.

“It’s done,” she said as she glanced at the machine. “Here, look for yourself.”

I grabbed the lab sheet again, and checked it against the readout. As far as I could tell, it looked like she was clean.

“I guess that’s the most we can hope for. What’s next?”

She pulled out the needles again. “I do the same to you. And while I’m doing that, you go get a sample from everyone else.”

I sat down and extended my arm, frowning. “Okay, who’s everyone?”

She tied some surgical tubing off on my arm. “Everyone close to us. Derek, Ling, Akane, Lizzy…” she paused. “Maria and my father, the retinue…everyone. I already did Doctor Clarke, but I couldn’t find Robyn. Oh, and I guess I should send you after Seena and Simon too…”

I bit my lip as she started drawing blood. “What…about Lily? She shouldn’t be a danger…right?”

“Yes and no,” Laura said slowly, probably realizing it was a sore subject. “On the one hand, she knows than to get into situations where she could get drugged, hypnotized, the whole process. On the other hand, Malcanthet is probably still very angry at her, specifically, for the Battle of Shendilavri.”

I winced, and not because of the needle. “I know, I know, but…”

“However, I already got her blood,” she explained. “I tested it at Clarke’s machines, and it came up clean, but I still have enough to do it again here.” She smiled as gently as she could, which wasn’t saying much. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

I sighed in something close to relief. She wasn’t quite clear yet, but close enough. “Okay. Okay, good. How should I get the samples? I’m guessing just asking is out.”

“Of course. Even the two of us knowing is still a risk. If she finds out our plans, things will start to go south.”

I snorted. That was an understatement.

“Start with the other Paladins,” she advised. “I doubt they’d be stupid enough, especially Akane and Derek, but we have to be sure. I can get my parents.”

I accepted the band-aid she offered and patched myself up. “Fair enough. I’ll be back in a few hours.” I grabbed the small box of syringes, already in a convenient carrying case.

“Don’t forget to label the samples,” she reminded me. “The last thing we need is to identify the wrong person as a sleeper.”

I nodded, and left.

Mrs. Arrow tried to get me to take some food with me, but I assured her I’d be back soon enough, which seemed to placate her. The second I got outside, I flipped open my phone.

“MC,” I said. “I need to know where the closest Paladins are.”

Her fake voice replied instantly. “That would be Miss Yu, about a mile north.”

“Thank you.” I hung up and started walking.

I could have caught a bus or a train, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Quite the opposite, actually. I kept expecting to get a call from Laura telling me that I was a sleeper, and they needed to lock me up so I didn’t hurt anyone.

We still weren’t completely certain, but the evidence was definitely pointing towards Malcanthet. Lily wasn’t going to be happy. I knew she wanted to put the Succubus Queen completely out of her mind. Finding out she was behind the recent attacks would not be good for her.

But what else could I do? Not tell her? Ridiculous. I had to. Sure, we had only been going out for about a month, but ‘By the way, your arch-nemesis is loose in the city again’ isn’t something you keep from people you care about.

I’d decide how to explain all that later. Right now I had to figure out how to get a syringe of blood out of a girl who could throw boulders at me, without her noticing.

The first thing that sprang to mind was knocking her out, but that was a bad idea. Short of giving her a concussion, the only way to neutralize her would be to drug her, which would probably screw with the test results.

Well…did Laura need an entire syringe? No, just a little bit. All I needed was a small sample.

The beginnings of a plan began to form in my mind.

“Adam?”

I looked up. I had walked for longer than I thought. Ling and Lizzy were standing in front of me, weighed down with shopping bags.

“MC called,” the little Chinese girl said. “Something about you wanting to see us?”

Ah. So we had met halfway. “Yeah, Laura said you guys were out shopping, and I was wondering if you got anything for Lily.”

Lizzy grinned. “Liar. You just want to know if we got anything for you.”

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I glanced around the sidewalk. It was about twilight, so there weren’t many people around, but still too many. “C’mon. Let’s find a cafe.”

“There’s one on the fifth floor,” Ling promised, ducking into the nearest building, with Lizzy close behind.

The first four floors were restaurants too, fast-food places. Normally in a configuration like this, the bottom floor would be the main area, with all the others bringing their food down when ordered. But for some reason—maybe because there wasn’t enough space out front, or maybe just poor planning—that wasn’t the case here. We had to take a thin staircase to the side up to the fifth floor.

We sat down at a table near the window, and the girls ordered some hot chocolate from the squirrel-kemo waitress. I didn’t get anything, mostly because I still had to figure out how to get the samples. It was going to be tricky, but I was pretty sure I could pull it off.

“You not thirsty?” Ling asked innocently, and I was pulled back to the matter at hand.

I shook my head to try and clear it. I had time to think later. “No, not really. Anyway, what’d you buy?”

“A dress,” Lizzy replied cheerfully, pulling out the item in question. It was a red, slinky thing, but I don’t really know enough about clothing to be sure if it would look good on her. “Luckily, I already had Lily’s size.”

I had a swarmbuster grenade, which shoots out plastic shards. It wouldn’t kill a human, but it would definitely make them bleed. Unfortunately, Ling could sense all solids. She’d notice that I was the one who used it, even if I just pulled the pin and dropped it under the table. Wait, didn’t she have to concentrate to do that? Not sure, but I couldn’t risk it.

“So…why did you buy it for her, again?” I knew why; Lizzy apparently just buys things, and eventually gifts them to people. But I needed to get her talking so I could have a minute to think.

While she went on about stimulating the economy and getting presents for her friends and so on, I scanned the room as subtly as I could. The cafe was pretty busy, mostly with vampires just getting up for the evening. No one looked at us sideways, though, since a lot of the customers were diurnals meeting up with their nocturnal friends.

The waitress carried drinks around precariously on a tray. Including…a large glass pitcher of water.

That was an answer. Not a perfect one, but I wasn’t exactly in a perfect situations here.

Ling turned to me. “What do you think?”

I hadn’t heard a word of their conversation, of course, but I know an opportunity when I see one. “I think I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”

“It’s next to the counter,” Lizzy advised. “Ask the barrister.”

Perfect.

I did as she suggested, timing my slow press through the table-crowded room to reach the door to the back (and presumably the bathrooms) at about the same time as the squirrel-waitress.

“Come here real quick,” I muttered. “I need a favor.”

She raised an eyebrow, and her bushy tail twitched. That was the only toy she had, as far as I could tell. “No. This is a respectable establishment.”

I rolled my eyes. “Not that, I promise. I just need to ask you something out of sight of my friends.”

She sighed and followed me around the corner.

“I just need you to break one of those pitchers near my friends,” I explained, the second they couldn’t see us.

The eyebrow arched again. “Why would I possibly do that?”

“Call MC. She’ll explain.”

The squirrel looked at me funny for a moment, but sighed, and pulled out her phone. “Hello, I’d like to speak to the real MC.”

“Tell her it’s regarding Laura’s tests,” I urged.

She glared at me. “It’s regarding Laura’s tests.”

She continued glaring at me for about ten seconds, until suddenly her expression transformed into one of surprise. “MC? Well—yes.” She looked me up and down. “Yes. He wants me to—well, all right then.” She closed the phone with a snap, a bewildered expression on her face.

“You’ll help,” I said, trying not to sound too smug.

“I’ll help,” she confirmed, still too shocked to say much else. “I’ll…be over in a few minutes.”

I returned to the table, feeling pretty good about myself.

“Did that waitress follow you into the bathroom?”

I blinked at Lizzy. She had noticed that?

“Ah, no. She went to the women’s.”

The bronze-skinned girl rolled her eyes. “Well, obviously. That’s what I meant.”

Thankfully, before she could say anything else, the squirrel kemo walked by, an empty glass pitcher balanced on a tray she was holding with one hand.

“Your drinks will be out in a minute,” she promised. “Was there anything else you needed?”

Both girls shook their heads, and I answered for them. “No, we’re good.”

She smiled. “Holler if you change your minds.” She turned to go, and I almost thought she had decided not to help.

Instead, her tail knocked into Lizzy.

Even though I knew it was faked, I could barely tell. Her squirrel tail wasn’t anywhere near as flexible as Lily’s demon one (though whether that was limitation of the technology or the girl’s finances, I wasn’t sure), and it was very bushy. It had probably taken her lots of practice to not bump into things; I imagine it wasn’t that difficult to do the opposite.

Lizzy cursed in a language I didn’t understand, flailing about and unintentionally completing the illusion. With a yelp, the waitress lost control of her tray. The pitcher slid off and shattered on the tabletop, shards flying everywhere.

I didn’t know if the girls were injured or not, but it didn’t matter. I grabbed a small hand towel in each hand, both covering a small pocketknife. Under the pretense of leaping up to help, I slashed both Ling and Lizzy near the upper shoulder, hopefully making it look like they had just been cut by flying glass.

“I am so so so sorry,” the waitress cried. “Let me—oh fur and fangs, you’re bleeding!”

She was good. The girl had a future in acting, if she cared.

“Let me get that,” I said, holding the knives with only two fingers each, and using the rest to hold the towels and mop at the wounds I made. I just needed to make sure not to mix them up.

“The one time I’m not wearing armor…” Ling muttered. “Lizzy, you okay?”

The amazon swallowed, and nodded. “I…think so. Can we just leave? Right now?”

“This is all my fault,” the waitress apologized frantically. “If there’s anything I can do—”

“Let us leave,” Lizzy replied instantly. “Right now.”

The manager had run over by this point. “Of course, of course. Next time you’re here, you will of course get free drinks—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ling brushed him off. “C’mon.”

We left quickly, only stopping once we were on the empty street outside.

“What are you doing?” I asked, noticing the girls had dumped out everything in their bags on the ground and were slowly putting it back in.

“Checking for broken glass,” Ling said bluntly. “I have half a mind to get that waitress fired.”

I really hoped it didn’t come to that. “She made a mistake. Happens to everyone.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she muttered. Having decided her purchases were as close to glass-free as she could get them, she picked up her bags and headed north.

“Where are you going?”

She turned to me, eyebrow raised. “Back to the dorms. You?”

I scrambled for an excuse. “Ah…no, I think I’m going to take a walk.” I jerked my thumb south, towards Obould’s place. “This way. I’ll see you both later. Be sure to get those wounds looked at.”

“We will,” Lizzy promised. “Good night.”

It took me about twenty minutes to get back to Laura, despite the fact that it was only two blocks away. I had to take a few small detours, mostly to avoid hungry-looking ghouls in dark alleys. I was armed, and confident in my abilities, but not that confident, and I didn’t want to risk contaminating my samples. I kept them in separate pockets the whole way, to make sure I didn’t get them mixed up.

“That was quick,” Mrs. Arrow commented when I walked through the open door. “You find what you were looking for?”

“Ah…yes. Is Laura…”

“Downstairs,” she assured me. I thanked her and headed to the basement.

The sharp-faced woman looked up as I came down the stairs. “I thought that was you. Good timing. Your results just came in. Looks like you’re clean. You get Ling’s sample?”

“And Lizzy’s. But…I had to use towels to do it. There was no way I would have been able to do it with the syringes.”

She cursed lightly under her breath. “Hardly ideal…you at least made sure they were clean, I trust?”

I nodded.

“Good,” she said, nodding in turn. “Then we should be able to get a good reading regardless.”

I pulled out the towels, in the small plastic baggies I had put them in, and carefully set them on the table. They weren’t ziplock bags; I wouldn’t have been able to get them closed without the girls noticing anyway.

“Left is Lizzy,” I explained. “Right is Ling.”

She examined them closely. “How, exactly, did you get the samples?”

I shrugged. “Recruited a waitress to break some glass near them, then cut them while they were distracted and daubed up the blood.”

She held up both samples carefully. The towels was pure white, without a drop of red.

“You missed,” she said flatly.

I cursed under my breath. Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 92)

Squirrel kemos are known as “daes.” The waitress (her name is Grace) is actually a chipmunk kemo, or daemarm, but no one really cares.

Scene 90 – Apsurdis

APSURDUS

AKANE

“Akane?”

I froze at the sound of my name, and turned very, very slowly to face the man who had called out to me.

“Flynn,” I said, with what I thought was an admirable veneer of calm. “It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, it sure feels like that, huh? You only went to what…one class since—”

“Yes, well,” I interrupted, before he could finish. “Very busy. Don’t really have time for kendo.”

“Uh…yeah. I can imagine.” He fell silent.

I shifted on my feet, unable to look at him.

He had been helpful with the skins, both before the attack and after, of that there was no doubt. And that kiss…but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about him.

I shouldn’t be having this many problems. This was not supposed to be complicated. Derek—

I needed to stop bringing Derek into this. He was irrelevant. He had absolutely nothing to do with my love life. Never had.

“If you want to…” he trailed off.

I tried to finish for him. “…come to class more?”

He blinked. “What? No, I was going to ask if you wanted to go get coffee or something, but that’s a stupid idea…”

I shifted more. “Yeah, I don’t drink coffee…”

“Well, I know, that’s why I said it’s stupid.”

“Oh, I forgot I told you.”

“No, that’s understandable. I mean—”

“I can’t remember everything I say.”

“Right. Yeah.”

An awkward silence fell. It was debatable whether it was better or worse.

“Akane?”

Oh, thank Musashi himself. I turned to see Ling and Lizzy walking towards us, shopping bags under their shoulders.

The little blonde delinquent smiled. “I thought that was you. What’s up?”

I waved my hand in what I hoped was an offhand manner. “Oh…nothing. You?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, I was at soccer practice, but Laura apparently ran out on Lizzy before they finished shopping, so I had to step in to get the job done.”

We got some stuff for you too,” Lizzy said in her usual flawless Japanese. “Another sharpening kit—don’t look at me like that, this one is specifically for knives. We also found some coupons you might be interested in. But mostly, we got you lingerie.

I nearly choked. “Lingerie?

Ling brightened. “I understood that! Yeah, we got you lots of lingerie.” To my horror, she started rooting around in her bag. “Here’s some black lace, a see-through set, white lace—”

I rushed forward to try and stop her. At the very least, she shouldn’t be pulling these out in the middle of the sidewalk. It wasn’t particularly busy, but still.

Flynn tried to step in. “Uh…maybe we should do this somewhere else…”

Before Ling could react, I activated my speed, grabbed the bag, and ran towards the nearest alley. It was a stupid thing to do, with everyone around, but no one noticed. At least, no one started screaming in panic, so good enough.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ling hissed, glancing around as she followed me. “Are you crazy?”

Me?” I demanded. “You two…” I shook my head, unable to find the words.

Don’t be mad, Ken-chan,” Lizzy said soothingly. “It’s all right if you’re not at that stage yet. Everyone’s relationships advance differently.

I sputtered. “What are you—no. No, no, no!

Ling rolled her eyes, catching my tone well enough. “Here,” she declared, handing me another bag. “All yours.” She nodded at Flynn. “I’m sure you two will be very happy.” Then she grabbed Lizzy by the arm, turned on her heel, and walked away.

Flynn blinked at me. “Uh…”

I looked in the second bag with some trepidation.

Ah. Right. ‘Relationships.’

Behind the Scenes (90)

As you might expect, Japanese doesn’t really have a word for lingerie, other than “lingerie” with a Japanese accent (in all fairness, English did the same thing). That’s why Ling understood that part.

And yes, extra update Wednesday. This one just wasn’t going quite the way I intended.

Scene 89 – Auxilium

AUXILIUM

LING

“Thanks for coming on such short notice,” Lizzy said gratefully. “Laura ran off the second we grabbed Derek’s present. I don’t know what’s up with her.”

“No problem,” I replied honestly. “It’s the least I can do after all that with Turgay. Besides, I also need to get Derek something.”

“Anything specific in mind?” she asked as she held a yellow t-shirt up to me, checking for size. It was weird hanging out with her, and not just because we hadn’t done it before. She was a lot taller than me, and I still wasn’t quite used to it.

“I dunno…clothes?”

Her golden eyes twinkled. “For you or for him?”

I blinked. “What?”

She grinned mischievously. “Weeell…there are lingerie stores around her, so maybe…”

I was honestly surprised. She hadn’t struck me as someone who would notice that. Maybe there was more to her than met the eye. On the other hand, it would be nearly impossible for there not to be.

“I doubt it would work,” I admitted. “He’s not exactly tuned into that channel.”

She chuckled. “Yeah, something like that.”

“Anyway, I’m not sure I can pay for much. I barely have enough for food.”

She waved her hand. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll pay for everything.”

I frowned up at the bronze Amazon. “You don’t have to do that. I would prefer not getting anything rather than owing you more.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she insisted with a grin. “I think friends can afford to owe each other a few favors.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “I…guess, but I mean…after all that with Turgay—”

She gave me a level stare. “Ling,” she proclaimed. “That was not a favor. That was just doing the right thing. You don’t owe me for that.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Becoming complicit in grand theft is doing the right thing?”

“More like spreading the toy box around is the right thing.” She licked her lips in an exaggerated way. “Can you imagine the implications?”

“Not really,” I admitted. “Cheaper healing and more anthros?”

Lizzy smiled. “A little more than that.” She opened her mouth to continue, but then bit her lip, reconsidering. “I don’t really understand it all. My agent is the one who’s really excited. She keeps going on about how it needs to be open sourced and so on, how it will completely reinvent society.”

“The toy maker already did that,” I pointed out. I indicated a nearby fel. “Or did you miss the memo?”

The Amazon just rolled her eyes and held up another shirt to me, green this time. “I mean beyond that. You saw the toy box, right? Didn’t you feel its potential?” She turned to grab another shirt.

I just stared at her. “Uh, no. No, I didn’t. I saw a shiny metal coffin.”

She turned back and blinked. “Really? Interesting. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence…”

I rubbed my forehead. “What?”

“Sorry, sorry,” she apologized. “It’s just that all my people who helped out mentioned a sort of power in the box. A feeling of infinity.” She shrugged. “Probably just all in their heads. They thought it was important, so it was.”

“I suppose,” I mused, as I took the newest shirt from her. It was a floral print, mostly with light colors. It looked nice, but I wasn’t sure how it would work with my skin tone. At least it matched my hair.

“Changing room is right over here,” Lizzy said as she dragged me to the corner of the boutique. “Let’s see how that looks.”

After I finished changing and was looking at myself in the mirror, a thought occurred to me. “Your people…the ones who got Turgay in touch with Soaring Eagle. They’re trustworthy, right?”

She just laughed. “Oh, yes, I can guarantee that. They wouldn’t rat you out if their lives depended on it.”

That made me distinctly uncomfortable, because I was pretty sure she wasn’t exaggerating. “That’s good, I guess. How are you so sure?”

“I select my agents and other support staff by loyalty,” she assured me, as she gently grabbed my shoulders and turned me a little, so I could see a better angle. “There’s so much I can’t do, I need people I can rely on.”

It really was a nice shirt. Tight too, emphasizing my chest (such as it was). “Like what? What can’t you do?”

“Can’t drive,” she admitted. “Never got the hang of it, although in Domina it’s not as big a deal as it would be elsewhere. I’m horrific with computers. They make no sense. And medicine. I need help in that area. A trustworthy doctor and someone to remind me to take the right pills. I always forget otherwise.” She shrugged. “Those are the big three.”

“How’d you even get into voice acting in the first place?” I took off the shirt and pulled on the next one. I was pretty sure I was going to get the floral one, but I wanted to check all my options first.

“Same way anyone gets into anything,” she said. “Did an audition, got chosen. I mean, isn’t that basically how you got your scholarship?”

I winced. “Not…quite. There was a lot more begging involved.” The second shirt wasn’t anywhere near as good. Purple just wasn’t my color. “AU doesn’t really have an big soccer program.”

Lizzy nodded. “I know how that is. You think you’ve found something big, and it turns out that you’re the only one who cares.”

That reminded me. “I asked before, but you never answered: What kind of things have you voiced?”

“Not much you would be interested in. Kids shows, mostly.”

“Laura said something about My Little Pony…”

“Yeah, exactly. Stuff like that.”

“Hm.” I selected another shirt from the pile. “Any anime?”

“A few. I was Amane in the new Gundam. And I played a minor side character in the new Lain movie.”

I blinked. “Huh, I saw Gundam. Didn’t recognize your voice.”

She cocked her head. “Really?”

“Well, now it sounds familiar,” I said, waving my hand. “I just didn’t make the connection until you pointed it out.”

“Well, you know how it is. Everyone sounds a little different in-character.”

“Not really,” I mused. “At least, not for you. I just hadn’t thought about it.”

“It’s not really important,” she declared. “You know what is?” She grinned wickedly. “Getting you some lingerie.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 89)

Short, but relevant.

Scene 88 – Taberna

TABERNA

LAURA

It was a full week after Lizzy’s little stunt with the calciophage. She hadn’t promised to not do anything like that, no matter how much I asked, so I had decided to distract her with shopping instead.

“We also need something for Robyn,” she said as we walked out of the sushi place. “We forgot last time.” She chewed her tongue. “Hm…maybe a gas mask?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why a gas mask?”

“Didn’t she say something about going down into the sewers?” Lizzy shrugged. “I’m sure she’ll find some use for it.”

Well, she was always better with gifts than I was, so I didn’t argue.

“We also need to get something for Derek,” I reminded her. “Something big. His birthday is next Saturday.”

She frowned. “No, Saturday is the 22nd. His birthday is the 29th.”

I sighed. With my power on, I knew she wasn’t lying, just an idiot. “I know that. Next Saturday, Lizzy. Next.”

She blinked those beautiful golden eyes of hers, then nodded. “Right. Right. So what did you want to get him?”

I couldn’t really think of anything. “I dunno. He has pretty much everything he needs. His mom will be getting him more grenades. What else is there?”

“Food, I guess. Him and Akane spend all their money on school, healing, and mercs, in that order. We could get him some of those giant slabs of fish jerky he likes.”

Well, now that their power level had taken a bump, I doubted Derek would be spending much money on mercenaries any more, but I didn’t feel the need to explain that to Lizzy. We were still hiding the whole Paladin thing from her, and bless her heart, she wasn’t asking questions.

Either way, there weren’t many options. Jerky might work, but it still felt like a cop-out.

“Ooh, here’s that French place I told you about!” Lizzy cried, pulling me inside a small clothing store. “Let’s get you a purse.”

“There’s a meat vendor down the street,” I reminded her. “Let’s get Derek’s present first.”

She held up a little black bag to my arm. “Don’t you think this contrasts nicely with your skin tone?”

I sighed. There was no talking to her when she got like this. So I just smiled and nodded as she squealed and went to find clothes for me to try on, and let my mind wander to more important things.

We still hadn’t made any real progress on the sleepers, which worried me. Blood tests did show a few minor chemical abnormalities in the ones we had caught, but they were so small they could have also come from drinking some bad mineral water.

“Ooh! I found a little black dress in your size!”

The Composer was good. It seemed that just like with the empowered, it was impossible to use our current medical technology to identify the sleepers. Considering that Domina was the bleeding edge of medical and bio-tech for the entire human race, that was really saying something.

Lizzy ran out of the clothes racks, held a dress up to me, and frowned. “No, that’s not…” Then she fled back to her cloth jungle.

We had to find a weakness. Some way to turn his weapons against him. A way to control screamers was a possibility. Clarke and I were beginning to think that the Paladins might be able to pull that off, but it was mostly still a theory.

No, our real hope was in researching the sleepers more. They were clearly just hypnotized, albeit to an extreme extent. If we could just find a way to identify them, we would learn so much.

The blood tests would help, if only barely. It would help eliminate suspects, at least. I made a mental note to start taking samples and performing the tests without Clarke’s knowledge, just in case. Of course, I’d need someone to get the samples…

Lizzy grabbed my hand and started dragging me to the changing room. “C’mon, tell me if you like this one.”

She came into the changing room with me and handed me a small, simple black dress with spaghetti-strap shoulders. I touched it lightly; it was made out of silk. Very nice silk, if I was any judge.

I sighed again. She kept derailing my train of thought. “Lizzy, just…no.” It ended at six inches above my knees, which was about twenty-four inches too short for me.

She pouted, in a way that reminded me why Derek was in love with her. “Something else, then?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Yes. Something else.” Almost anything else would do, but if I said that she’d come at me with lingerie.

She ran off, and I was able to think again.

I shouldn’t treat being with her like it was a chore, but it was, really. When I shopped, it was simple and easy. Grab what you need, buy it, leave. But Lizzy…well, she shopped like a girl. She spent hours playing in stores she had no intention of spending money in, bought things for no good reason, and altogether wasted time.

She had been like this even when we were kids. At least now she actually had money to spend. Before, Derek and I had always been forced to buy her out of the holes she had dug. Who the hell extends credit to an eight year-old?

We really did need to get Derek something, and food wouldn’t cut it. Well, we were in a clothing store. Maybe that would work. Okay, it was woman’s clothing, but it was still an idea. Maybe a t-shirt. He wore shirts.

Lizzy skipped back into the changing room, holding another dress. “Okay, do you think this is better?”

It was pretty much the exact same dress as before, but much longer. It had a replaceable bottom hem, the kind for when the dress is expected to drag on the ground a little.

“We’ll see.” I shooed her out so I could try it on.

After putting it on, I found…I liked it. It’s pretty rare for me to like something Lizzy grabs for me, but this seemed wonderful. It fell over my body loosely, not too tight at all. Normally she tries to get me clothes that are practically painted on.

I turned a few times, checking how I looked in the mirror, and found myself pleased. She did have a good eye for color. And it would be nearly impossible for me to screw up the look by wearing the wrong pants or whatever. That was the benefit of a one-piece.

I looked at the price tag. Too much, even though it was on sale. Five percent off wasn’t much…

Five percent. A very specific number. An impossibly specific number.

Not for the sale. That wasn’t important. No, it was the sleepers. At the battle with the skins, exactly five percent of the soldiers had gone crazy. The implication was obvious; the Composer had more sleepers that he hadn’t activated.

But why unveil them then? That was what we were having trouble with. There were plenty of other, better opportunities he hadn’t used. The bats, with the Nosferatu, would have been a perfect place to use the sleepers. We had enough difficulty even without rioting. Suborn a few key drivers of the Necessarian reinforcements, and the cavalry would never have arrived. The entire area would have been turned, and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it—there weren’t even any air units in range.

None of this made any sense. There was so much the Composer could be doing, but wasn’t. So many things that would make taking control of the city easier. The only logical conclusion was that he had a different goal in mind.

But we couldn’t figure out what that was. Jarasax had theorized that he was like the fey, seeking only his own amusement, but I didn’t like that idea. There was so much chaos, but it was still under control. The fey and people like them would want more than this.

The body swapping idea would make the most sense. The Composer could fight and die in as many different scenarios as he liked, then just take over a new body and play again, all without killing the golden goose—the city, in this metaphor.

No, no, no. I needed to stop focusing on the simple solutions. I had to ignore Sax’s theories, and assume the Composer was an intelligent, rational being. Because I am an intelligent, rational being, and it’s the only kind of person I can really understand.

Fact 1: The Composer was not operating at full capacity. No matter how singers and screamers are created or controlled, there were tactical solutions that he was ignoring.

Fact 2: The Composer had sleeper agents, at least five percent in nearly every militia. None had…

And there it was.

None had revealed themselves among Necessarius.

It wasn’t much. It wasn’t anything, really. It could be data scatter or a deliberate false lead. But if the ‘sarians were somehow resistant or immune to this type of control, it would explain everything. The reason the sleepers only played their hand at Bombed Alley was because that was the first time non-Necessarian troops were involved in force.

But five percent…something was still bugging me about that.

What made the ‘sarians different? About a thousand things. They were better trained, more tightly controlled, got more regular medical check-ups…silver and gold, even their diets were more uniform. It was the same reason that Malcanthet hadn’t had much luck getting her own sleepers into their ranks a few years ago.

It was…

My brain came to a screeching halt.

It had taken a long, long time to discover the masking agents Malcanthet used to hide the drugs in her sleepers’ systems. Before that, there was no way to tell who could be one. In the end, the numbers were nowhere near as bad as anyone expected, but the fear nearly broke the city in the meantime.

But we hadn’t tested any of the new sleepers for the masking agent. We’d checked for some, of course, but not Malcanthet’s specifically. It was a complicated process, which was the point. It was difficult to detect even if you knew it was there.

But if it was…

We might know the identity of the Composer after all.

And I didn’t think Necessarius would be able to just carpet bomb her skyscraper this time.

Behind the Scenes (scene 88)

Sushi is one of the staples of the Domina diet, along with other kinds of fish. The other staples are mostly the kinds of vegetables that can be grown on the wall-farms, and meat. Spices are very common, and most Domina dishes make heavy use of them. Everything else pretty much has to come from space, including bread and sugar.

Scene 83 – Meretrix

MERETRIX

DEREK

FIVE YEARS AGO

Lizzy looked at me, clearly worried. “Are you sure you guys need to go? They’ll be fine without you.”

She towered over both of us, at just over six feet. She was gangly, like most kids our age, and looked like nothing so much as a bronze beanstalk. Those matching, bewitching golden eyes of hers glimmered with unshed tears. She was wearing the same type of plain white dress she had been wearing on the first day of middle school.

She was beautiful.

I smiled and did my best to reassure her. “I know they’ll be fine, but we need to go, for moral reasons.”

She bit her lip. “But…it will be dangerous—”

“We’ll be fine. We’ll be with everyone else, and besides, we’ve been training. Right, Akane?”

The little Japanese girl nodded, clutching her sword for comfort. It was still a little new; I had only bought it for her a month ago. But she already seemed to never want to let it go.

Lizzy grasped Akane’s hand. “Ken-chan, kare no ue ni miru. Watashi wa kare ga anata nitotte jūyō ka shitte iru.”

Akane looked a little confused, but nodded slowly. She still wasn’t quite fluent in Japanese, but with Lizzy’s help, she was getting better. And by ‘help,’ I mean Lizzy refused to speak anything else to her.

“We’ll be back,” I promised, and meant it. I wasn’t going to die before I finally mustered up the courage to tell her how I felt.

“You better,” she insisted. Then she walked away and disappeared into the night.

Right. Time to focus. We were in South Outer, right next to South Gate, about a block away from our goal. It was pretty far from home, and my mom would probably kill me if she found out where I was, but it was for a good cause.

Across the street was the Monster Liberation Army, a force of vampires, demons, giants and kemos nearly a thousand strong, getting ready to march. I took a deep breath and walked over to the orc camp, Akane dogging my heels.

“Whoa there,” an orc said as he stopped me a few yards from the center of camp. He had big claws and fangs, but otherwise looked like a normal orc. In other words, like any other demon, except with nighteyes. “Where do you think you’re going?”

I stood as tall as I could manage. “I need to speak with him.”

The orc shook his head. “This is no place for kids. Get out of here before you get hurt.”

“He’ll want to talk to me,” I insisted. “Let me through.”

The guard sighed. “Look kid, just—”

“Obould,” a deep voice grumbled from behind him. “The kid has stones. Let him speak.”

The orc sighed again, but nodded and stepped aside, allowing me to see the folding camp table at the center of the army.

At the table was the man who had spoken, the one I had come to see. He was massive. Eight feet tall at least and built like a truck, he clearly had at least one instance of the Bigger buff, probably more. His skin was blood red, from his bulging muscles to his tired face. He was just wearing jeans and a short white t-shirt, not really appropriate for the weather. He probably had some cold resistance buffs as well, or maybe he was just used to it.

His horns were what caught my attention, though. Unlike the short stubs most demons had, this one had massive horns, seemingly as wide as my hand, curving back from the top of his head like a goat. Because of the angle, I doubted it would be easy to use them effectively, but if he could, they’d gore a man in seconds.

Knight Orcus Bloodhand, founder and leader of the orcs, glared down at me with his pitch black nighteyes. Nearly all nighteyes were that same uniform black, of course, but they somehow seemed…deeper, and darker on him.

“What’s you name, boy?”

I pushed aside the fear that was screaming at me to just run and never look back. “Derek Huntsman, Honored Devil.”

“Huntsman?” the massive orc rumbled. “The wrestler?”

“Monster slayer these days, sir,” I corrected.

“Hm.” He eyed me warily. “How old are you, boy?”

“Thirteen, sir.”

“Hm.” He looked at Akane, before turning his gaze back to me. “And what is a thirteen-year-old monster slayer doing at an army formed to rescue the First Monster?”

“She doesn’t deserve what she’s getting,” I said quietly. “No one deserves that.” I met the orc’s gaze again. “It’s not right, and we’re going to help you put a stop to it.”

“Cuss,” the guard said, in a frustrated tone. “His heart’s in the right place, but this isn’t the place for children. Besides, Maria will kill us both if her son gets hurt. And Lily said—”

Orcus stopped him with a raised hand, looking thoughtful. “How many people have you killed, boy?”

I didn’t like talking about it, but I knew it was my only chance to make a positive impression. “Three, Honored Devil. Not counting monsters.”

He nodded at Akane. “And your sword?”

She flinched away, so I answered for her. “No people, but many monsters.”

“Hm.”

The guard pinched the bridge of his nose. “Orcus…”

“They’re not children, Obould,” the Power said quietly. “Lily said no children, but they’re not children. They’re killers, born and bred, whether they like it or not. They can come with us if they wish.”

“Thank you, Honored Devil,” I said, trying to keep the earnestness out of my voice. “You won’t regret this.”

“I honestly don’t expect to, Huntsman,” he assured me. Then he smiled a little sadly. “You do have something of a reputation, you know.”

I just nodded. “When will we be moving out?”

“Shortly,” he promised. “We’re just waiting for a few others—Sargeras and Dispater said they’d be here soon.” He turned back to the orc who had tried to stop us. “Obould. Get young Huntsman up to speed while we make our plans.” He turned back to the table, clustered with a few other demons and vampires. The kemos and giants were in another camp; despite being united behind a common goal, they were clearly still having trouble working together.

The guard grumbled a bit, but did as he was ordered and led us away. “Make it quick. I don’t have all day.”

“I just want to know who we’re fighting against, that’s all.”

The orc stared at me. “You…you come and force your way into an army and you don’t even know who we’re fighting?

I suppressed my frustration. “I know who we’re fighting. Malcanthet and her succubi. Who else? We wouldn’t need an army this big for a few dozen crazy demons.”

Obould sniffed. “Fair enough. Belial is in there, along with his wife and daughter and maybe half their house.”

The Belians were chem-heads. Crazy and addicted to drugs, yes, but also very, very dangerous. Chems could make you nearly invincible, and they were pumped full of pretty much all of them.

“There are also the Nessian slavers and the Satanists. We’re not sure if the Beast is there, but Asmodeus definitely is.”

I nodded. “So the enemy are mostly vampires. Good.”

“Mostly,” he admitted. “But we can’t underestimate Malcanthet’s slaves. If we try and use light against them, we’ll just be making ourselves targets for their snipers.”

I made a mental note to keep our flashlights unused unless we had no other choice. “Okay, what else?”

“You’ll stay near me,” Orcus rumbled as he strode up. “We have teams in place to rescue the Mother Monster already. We’ll be making the main push, but it’s just a distraction.”

“She doesn’t like being called that, you know,” the tall, thin vampire with long black hair and gray skin standing at the demon’s side said. He raised an eyebrow at me. “And who’s this?”

“Derek Huntsman,” the Power grunted. “Derek, meet Dispater. Leader of the warblood vampires.”

“A pleasure,” I said with a nod.

“This is not the place for children,” he admonished, frowning. “Orcus, they’ll just get in the way. Besides, Lily said—”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me,” Orcus interrupted. His tone was amused, not hostile. “This is Derek Huntsman. That ‘child’ you were hoping to recruit.”

Dispater started, then looked at me with wide eyes. “Wait…seriously? You’re the wrestler?”

“Monster slayer these days, Honored Nightstalker.”

He glanced at Akane. “And this would be…Akiyama?”

She nodded swiftly, but kept her mouth firmly shut.

The Noble nodded in approval. “Yes, maybe you should be here. You two will go places, I think. This is a good place to learn. Just stick with us.”

“I will, sir,” I promised, and meant it. I was terrified, and knew that a couple of kids wouldn’t be much help against crazed demons. But I had to be here. Even if only for moral support.

Another vampire, a smaller man with pale skin and dazzling violet eyes, strode up. If not for the black-eyed men flanking him, I wouldn’t have even realized he was a vampire. “Sargeras is here. Dis, give the order.”

The warblood nightstalker nodded. “Of course, Knight Dragon. It is an honor.” He raised his voice. “Monster Liberation Army—march! Onwards to Shendilavri!”

His order was greeted by a wordless roar of bloodlust, and the army began to march north, towards the domain of Malcanthet, Queen of the Succubi.

It didn’t take long, even with such a massive group. Her ‘scraper was only a block away, and we didn’t have to worry about the supply trains and so on that would have slowed larger armies. We surrounded the building quickly, despite the fact that it took up the entire block, with Orcus and the other warlords (and Akane and I) on the west side, the side with the entrance. It took about twenty minutes, but eventually everyone was in position.

“MALCANTHET!” Orcus roared, loud enough to rattle nearby windows. I nearly wet myself. This was the man I had walked up to and demanded accept me?

“MALCANTHET!” he cried again. “We know you’re in there!”

A window on the third floor opened. It was a very large portrait window, and the demon girl who poked her head out looked like she deserved to be in a model catalog. Perfect white skin, delicately curved horns, and eyes a rosy red. Even thirty feet away, she was dazzling.

“Orcus?” she called, stifling a fake yawn. “Is that you? What are you yelling about?”

“Don’t play dumb!” he called back. “Release your prisoners, or we will come in and take them.”

“Oh?” A slow smile spread over her face. “You’re here for dear old Mother, then?” She grinned, and her fangs glimmered in the dim light of the streetlamp. “I don’t think she wants to leave any more.”

I swallowed. Was it already too late? Had the succubi already broken her?

“Bloody hell,” Obould cursed under his breath; he had clearly come to the same conclusion.

“She’s lying,” Dispater said firmly. “Don’t worry.”

I didn’t share his confidence, but I didn’t refute him. We just needed to end this, period, and if the slaves could be saved then it was a bonus.

Orcus clearly agreed. “You have ten seconds!” he roared. “After that, we’re coming in! TEN!”

The succubus narrowed her eyes and stepped away from the window.

“NINE!”

Metal bars slammed into place—not just over the one, but all the windows. In seconds, the place was a fortress.

“EIGHT!”

Around me, everyone started readying their weapons. The warbloods and hellions checked their ammo, the violet-eyed vampire’s men pulled out their knives, and the Nosferatu fell into fighting crouches. Akane unsheathed her sword, preparing to charge.

“SEVEN!”

I saw something scaling the building’s south and north faces.

“SIX!”

Kemos. Spies and saboteurs. Of course. This was all a distraction; the real purpose was to give everyone else a chance to get into place.

“FIVE!”

I saw them place something on a few windows. Bombs, probably, but what good would they do that high? Not even most of the army could climb like that.

“FOUR!”

A few more shapes appeared on the roof, readying rappelling lines.

“THREE!”

Some of the thinner window opened as arrow slits, and Nessian snipers prepared to fire.

“TWO!”

The entire army was coiled like a spring.

“ONE!”

Everything happened at once.

About a third of the ‘scrapers windows exploded messily, setting fire to the rooms behind them. At the same time, a few select windows, farther from the others, exploded without fire, and the spy-demons began rappelling down to those.

The army leaped forward at the explosions as if shot from a gun, quickly enveloping the building like a flood. Everyone with the claws to do so began scrambling up the walls, struggling for purchase on a ‘scraper never designed to be climbed. Slaves and slavers popped out of windows to drop boiling liquids or just open fire on the crowd below, but our own snipers took care of them pretty well.

We were in the back now, with most of the warlords. Most of them had the glint of bloodlust in their eyes, but they were more valuable in the back, giving orders, than wading into the thick of battle.

“Assassins on the left,” Dispater reported in a bored tone. Even back here, the sound of gunfire was so loud I could barely hear him. The assassins the warblood had spotted—Belians, by the look of it—had most likely been trying to take advantage of that to sneak up unnoticed.

There were only three of them, clad in dirty rags and clearly hopped up on chems. Their breathing was ragged and their gazes unfocused. They could barely even run in a straight line.

“Akane and I will handle them,” I assured everyone. “Be right back.”

I’m not sure if they let us go because they thought we could handle ourselves, or if they were just too surprised to stop us, but in the end it didn’t matter. We were gone before anyone said a word.

We closed the distance quickly enough. The lead Belian just grinned at me with broken teeth. “This is no place for children, little boy. We can smell your fear.”

I was afraid. Fighting adults is scary enough, but fighting someone built for intimidation and killing was something else entirely. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that any one of these men could kill both of us easily, without any mercy or hesitation.

Belians are monsters. That’s the entire point, really. They abandon any shred of morality to the sweet freedom of drugs and bloodshed. Sure, they have leaders—Belial, his wife Naome, and their daughter Fierna—but they don’t really lead so much as run at the head of the mob.

My mind froze, fear keeping me from thinking straight.

But my body kept moving.

It hadn’t been that long ago that I had burned that into my muscles, forced them to fight even when the rest of me was screaming in terror. My body had only frozen up on me once in my life…but a bright young girl had her knee shattered by a baseball bat as a result.

Speaking of knees…

I was thirteen and my opponents at least twenty, so they were nearly twice my size, not even counting all their combat toys. They underestimated me greatly, but not enough to even the scales.

So to tip the battle in my favor, I went for their knees.

No matter how many muscle buffs and skin enhancements you get, no matter how many chems you pump yourself full of, you can’t change the fact that knees are designed to bend. That’s just what they do. So if you want to bring someone to the ground, you don’t try to break the knee. You just try to make it bend.

I kicked the lead Belian as hard as I could in the back of his knee, and he fell to the cold concrete in surprise. Before he knew what was happening, Akane lunged forward and skewered his heart with her blade, running him through with a single stroke.

It was hard to tell who looked more surprised, Akane or the Belian. It didn’t matter; after a moment, he gurgled, blood bubbling from his mouth, and she hurriedly withdrew her sword.

The other two howled in rage and rushed us. Whether they realized a couple of kids wouldn’t be able to take them in a fair fight or if they were just too angry to care, I don’t know.

I shoved Akane to the right while I dodged left, and the Belians missed grabbing us by inches. That also put me in the perfect position to strike at their knees again. I took one down, but Akane didn’t stab him, so I grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head into the concrete again and again until he stopped moving.

That’s the trick when dealing with chem-heads: Never stop moving. It confuses them. I looked around the last one…

He was flat on the ground already, his ankles bleeding and multiple holes in his back. I watched as Akane stabbed him again…then again…then again, weeping the entire time.

I should have stopped her, but I couldn’t move. What if she turned her sword on me? What if more Belians came out of the shadows? What if the succubi had sleepers in our army? Now that the battle was over and my life wasn’t directly in danger, my mind took control again. But I was too terrified to so much as twitch. What kind of man got paralyzed with fear? I looked back towards Orcus and the other warlords, hoping to get some encouragement…

And saw Asmodeus and his Nessians attacking.

The Nessians were vampires, operating out of Nessus, and slavers. They kidnapped children off the street and sold them to Malcanthet or the fey. They cared nothing for the suffering of others, only the weight of their wallets.

Asmodeus was the worst of them. He was over six feet, with a sharp face and blood red skin. He was dressed in a fine coat and wielding a pair of wickedly curved short swords, which seemed designed to cause as much suffering as possible before the kill.

The warlords were fighting back valiantly, but they had been caught by surprise, and were outnumbered. It looked like the Slave King had brought half his kith with him.

I saw him knock the strange-eyed vampire to the ground and step on his chest, swords ready. “We’re vampires, old friend,” he said mockingly. “Everything must be paid in blood.”

It was the look on his face that did it for me. It wasn’t a look of terror, or determination or professional detachment. It was a look of joy, and bloodlust. He was going to kill this man for no better reason than to satisfy his own selfish desires.

Life was a precious thing. I knew that better than most. It is fleeting, ephemeral, and always beautiful, even when it isn’t. You can’t just crush it for no good reason.

It isn’t right.

“Hey, Ass-Man!”

Asmodeus Slave King, Noble of the Nessians and Master of Nessus, turned in my direction, a look of mild surprise on his face.

I threw my shoe at him.

It was all I had on hand, but it didn’t matter. He was a warlord; it wouldn’t have changed anything if I had thrown a live grenade instead.

It bonked him on the head lightly, and he growled in anger, abandoning his target to stalk me instead.

Which was all the distraction the Nosferatu needed.

He barreled into the Nessian at full speed, without any battle cry to give him away. He still looked mostly human, except his hands were replaced with massive claws dripping with poison. Still eerily silent, he scratched at Asmodeus everywhere he could reach.

The Noble, however, was not silent. He screamed in pain and fury, striking the Nosferatu again and again with the hilts of his swords—the only part he could use at that angle. The brave vampire didn’t let up, and took the blows without complaint. He just keep drawing blood, getting more and more poison into the slaver’s system.

Eventually, Asmodeus managed to get his knee between himself and the Nosferatu, and flung his opponent away. He stood, ready to go on the offensive—

And dropped to the ground, screaming in agony, as the poison finally began to take effect.

The other Nessians abandoned their own battles and rushed over. They gripped their leader tight and carried him away, him screaming the entire time.

“Well done, Hal,” the strange-eyed vampire said as he rose and dusted himself off. “You too, Huntsman.”

I nodded my head as he handed me back my shoe. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

The man picked up the swords Asmodeus had dropped, eying them warily. “Not really my style…” he glanced at the Nosferatu. “Doesn’t your brother use swords?” He presented them to the silent vampire, hilts first. “Consider them a gift.”

He took them graciously, then backed away and nearly ran towards the battle.

The strange vampire chuckled. “Nosferatu are always interesting. I do hope he survives.” He frowned at me as I put my shoe back on—no, he frowned at something behind me. “Is your Akane okay?”

I turned to see her standing there, covered in blood spatters and clutching her sword. Her eyes were wide, and I’m not entirely sure she was breathing.

She was staring at the Belian she had killed, the second one, the one she had stabbed repeatedly.

“Akane? You all right?”

Her gaze jerked to me. “No. No. No. No…”

“Okay.” I held up my hands to stop her. “Okay. You’re not all right. I get it. What’s wrong? Specifically?” I had a pretty good idea, of course. Killing is never easy. At least, not for sane people. It was actually a good sign that she was freaking out this much, but this was not a good time for it.

“I…” she swallowed and started again. “I killed somebody. Two of them. What does that make me? I’m no different than them.”

“Yes you are,” I said soothingly. “They were murderers. You were defending yourself and others.”

“What’s the difference? Is there a difference?” She shook her head violently. “No, there isn’t. It’s like my mom always said. Killing is killing, and its wrong.”

“Akane,” I said, putting my hands on her shoulders, forcing her to look at me instead of the corpse. “There is a difference. Trust me, this was necessary.”

She looked at me, nearly crying. “But, I don’t know—”

Trust me, Akane,” I insisted firmly. “That’s an order.”

Something changed in her. Something…clicked into place. She stopped sniffling, and wiped away her tears. Her shoulders no longer trembled under my hands. She looked me in the eye, and adjusted the blue ribbon in her hair slightly.

“Yes, sir,” she said, and her voice only barely quavered. “I’m with you.”

I nodded and turned back to the others.

Most of the warlords weren’t paying attention to us. They were too busy licking their wounds and shouting into their phones, demanding to know how the Nessians got past the line. The strange purple-eyed vampire was chatting with Orcus, and gestured to me. The giant orc smiled in my direction and gave me an approving nod.

After a few minutes, most of the warlords dispersed. There was still a battle going on, and as the chaos increased, they needed to be able to actually shout at their men in person to get their orders across. Not to mention that splitting up and fading into the army would decrease the success of any more assassination attempts.

The only ones who remained behind with us were Orcus, Obould, Dispater, and a few of Dispater’s elite warbloods. Mostly, everyone just stood around barking orders into radios and phones. There wasn’t much for Akane and I to do.

About an hour after the Nessian attack, Obould closed his phone with a snap. “Front door is finally breached. But Shendilavri is a fortress. We’re having trouble just getting up the stairs.”

“We just need to rescue the prisoners, Ob,” Orcus assured him. “After that, we can turn this into a long-term siege.”

“They’re not going to be easy to find,” Dispater cautioned. “Or to get out. Have your spies found anything useful?”

“No,” Orcus grunted in annoyance. “They’re having too much trouble moving around inside. The Draculas are having a little more luck, though not much.”

“Well, let me know,” the warblood said. “I want to get our men out of harm’s way as quickly as possible.”

Malcanthet has a way of suborning people, of breaking their minds and forcing their allegiance. I don’t know the details; I don’t want to know the details. But she can create ‘sleeper’ agents who act perfectly normal until a predetermined situation occurs.

It was impossible to know what exactly set him off. Maybe it was something Dispater said, maybe there was a signal we all missed, or maybe it was just the right moment, like a time bomb going off.

But one of the Iron Duke’s warblood bodyguards suddenly pointed his gun at his boss and pulled the trigger.

It was pure luck, really. I just happened to be looking at the bodyguards at the time, wondering if I should get a gun. Even though I realized what was going on the second the vampire brought his weapon up, I barely moved in time.

I tackled Dispater as hard as I could, throwing him out of the line of fire as his ‘bodyguard’ emptied an entire extended magazine at the spot he had occupied just a moment before.

It took the other two warbloods a couple seconds to get their own guns out, long enough for the traitor to start to reload. He didn’t get a chance to fire again, though. His erstwhile compatriots tore him to pieces first.

I swallowed. “You all right, Honored Nightstalker?”

Dispater was clearly terrified—not that I could blame him, I wasn’t feeling much better—but he wasn’t looking at me, or even the corpse of his bodyguard. He was staring at something near the space he had been standing before I tackled him.

I looked back and realized what had upset him.

Orcus had been standing behind him.

The massive crimson orc was on his back, lying in an ever-widening pool of blood and gore. He was already dead, that much was clear. What was left of his chest wasn’t moving and the rest of his body was barely twitching with the last dregs of life. Even his eyes weren’t so much as blinking.

Orcus was probably bulletproof, or at least heavily bullet-resistant, but Dispater had always made sure to arm his elites with the exact kind of rounds necessary for overcoming buffs like that. The bullets had torn through him like wet tissue paper.

Obould was crouching over the larger orc’s corpse, staring as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Very, very slowly, he reached out to touch his friend’s face, and started weeping.

I left him alone. Let him have his time to grieve.

I turned back to Dispater. “Your orders?”

But he was shivering. “That’s not…that’s not…”

I frowned at his men. “Can you help him up?”

They nodded and moved forward, but the second they grabbed his arms, the gray vampire started screaming and flailing. The men nearly leaped backwards.

Right. So Dispater was down for the count. I had watched enough war movies to know that left us with only one option.

“Obould,” I hissed, turning back to the smaller orc. He didn’t answer. “Obould.” He just kept staring at the corpse of his fallen friend.

Silver and gold…we didn’t have time for this. Orcus’ phone was already buzzing with subordinates asking for orders.

I slapped the orc as hard as I could across the face.

He jumped up, more surprised than angry. “What the hell was that for!?”

“Honored Power, what are your orders?”

He blinked. “What?”

“You are the Power of the orcs now, Knight Obould. What are your orders?” I held out the phone, still vibrating.

He looked at it, then at me, then nodded very slowly and took the phone and answered it.

“Grom? No, it’s Obould. I’ll explain later. How’s the assault? Good. Move to a holding pattern. You’re the distractions, don’t get yourselves killed.” He hung up and dialed another number quickly. “Garona. No, no, he’s…incapacitated. What’s the word on the infiltration?”

Good. He seemed to be adapting to the role quickly enough. I turned to Akane.

“Keep him safe,” I instructed her, and she nodded. “I’m going to see if I can help Dispater.”

Well, between myself and both bodyguards, we did eventually manage to coax the blubbering vampire into a nearby secluded storefront, which he seemed to find comforting. He kept babbling about ‘eyes in the sky’ and how they couldn’t find them inside, so we left him alone. Both warbloods remained on watch outside; he wouldn’t let them in. He had my phone number on speed dial, and he swore up and down that he would call if they did anything funny. I was pretty sure they weren’t sleepers. They would have activated by now if they were. But that’s not really something you can explain to a crazed vampire.

Then my phone started to ring.

Well, not right then. About five minutes later, after I walked back to Obould and Akane. But with fear and adrenaline compressing time, it certainly seemed like everything was happening at once.

It wasn’t my normal ring, either. It was just a series of five beeps, then a pause, then five beeps again. I answered it hesitantly.

“Hello?”

“Derek? This is MC.”

I blinked. Very odd. I hadn’t expected to hear from her again after the rat thing. “Uh…right. Hello. What can I help you with?”

“You’re at Whorestown, right? The succubus lair?”

“Yeah, I’m in the back with…the orc Power. What’s going on?”

“I need to talk to him. Right now.”

I glanced over. Obould was still on the phone, barking out orders. “He’s busy right now. Just tell me what you need.”

She sighed in frustration. “I just need to know if they got their ‘Mother’ out.”

“Not yet,” I reported. “I’ll let you know the second they find her, okay?”

She sighed again. “Yes, all right.”

“But Derek, she’s out.”

I looked up to see Akane blinking at me. I frowned. “What?”

“They got her out,” she said again. “They’re just having trouble finding the other prisoners. Apparently Malcanthet had her somewhere separate.”

“Wait, did I hear that right?” MC said in my ear. “Let me talk to the Power. He needs to hear this.”

It was my turn to sigh this time. “Fine.”

Obould was still on the phone, but he put it down when I walked up. “What?”

“MC’s on the phone,” I explained, handing him my cell. “Something about the captives.”

He frowned. “MC? That ‘sarian hacker?”

More like communications specialist, but I didn’t feel like arguing the point. “Yes. She says it’s urgent.”

He took the phone. “Be quick.” He blinked. “What? Yes, we got her out.” Another pause. “Wait. Wait, what?” He shook his head emphatically. “No. Look lady, we’re not part of Necessarius. We don’t take orders from you.”

There was a roar overhead, behind us. It wasn’t an animal roar, it was the deep and powerful thrum of an engine. I glanced back. There weren’t any shuttles due until noon; what could it be?

Jets. Three of them, actually, painted black with a horizontal red stripe. They looked like they were coming in fast, but even my extremely limited knowledge of aircraft told me that wasn’t right. They were actually flying as slowly as possible, to maximize the amount of time the target was in their sight.

“Bombing run,” I whispered. “Obould! Bombing run!”

He stared at the jets, and I was afraid he would freeze again, but he recovered his wits in time and started yelling into his own phone for everyone to withdraw.

They did, as fast as they could, rushing away from the ‘scraper like an outgoing tide.

Seconds later, six missiles hit the center of the building, exploding in a fiery mess of glass and concrete. I could see bodies, mostly on fire, falling to the streets below, but little else.

Then six more missiles struck from the south, aiming towards the top of the skyscraper.

Then another six from the north, and another six from the east. All twelve of these were aimed at the ground levels, which were now completely abandoned by the Monster Liberation Army.

The eighty-story tall ‘scraper began to crumple to the ground, seemingly in slow motion. Dust and ash billowed everywhere until I could barely tell what was going on. I still saw the vague shape of the building slam into the wall of shorter structures that surrounded it to the south-west, keeping it from collapsing all the way to the street. But I could feel the building groaning, its weight straining to bring it closer to Earth. It was time to go.

A Necessarian bomber came in a few minutes later to drop a few more payloads on the foundation, just in case some rats fled to the sewers. The resulting shockwaves finally caused the ‘scraper to finish its tumble, slamming into the street and shattering the concrete in every direction. Luckily everyone had already evacuated by then, urged on by Obould and the other warlords.

It wasn’t until later that we found out Malcanthet had escaped after all. She had fled into the sewers the moment the army showed up, minutes after her little speech. She was long gone, and Butler had killed at least twenty prisoners—more, if you counted the brainwashed slaves—for nothing.

There were positives, however. Belial was killed. His daughter, Fierna, escaped, but did not turn up again, leaving the chem-heads leaderless. The Satanists were decimated, though their Beast survived. Lizzy came running into the hospital room straight from the shower when she heard the news. She had dried off a little, but not much. It was a nice bonus at the end of the day.

That was the legendary Battle of Shendilavri. For all the pain and bloodshed, for the broken buildings, still lying fallow in Rivenheart, people only remember one thing. They only whisper that if even the Mother Monster could be kidnapped and tortured, then that can only mean one thing. Even for all of Butler’s reforms and peacekeepers and alliances, there was only one thing that was true:

No one is safe in Domina City.

Behind the Scenes (scene 83)

The “knight” thing needs a little bit of explanation. The leaders of gangs and subcultures are collectively called “warlords.” Each culture, however, also has their own name for them. The demons are Powers, the angels Saints, the vampires Nobles, and so on. This, unlike the “honored” meme, is more of an actual rank.

However, unlike “honored,” you normally can’t just slap the rank in front of a name and call it a day. Sometimes you’ll hear “Honored Power” (and so on), but that is somewhat rare. Instead, people use “Knight” (male) and “Dame” (female) to denote warlords. Therefore, Orcus would be Knight Orcus, while Malcanthet would be Dame Malcanthet. Angels and vampires are usually the exception, since their ranks sound more like adjectives. Saint Zaphkiel and Noble Belial are both acceptable.

Oh, and that’s not quite how the terms knight and dame relate to each other in real life, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here.

FORUM NOTE:  Fixed the glitch that made it so people only saw the admin stuff.