Tag Archives: Obould

Scene 244 – Esca

ESCA

AKANE

Veronica crushed me in a bear hug that put Maria’s to shame.

“You should have come by sooner!” she cried, apparently unaware that I couldn’t breathe. “Why didn’t you tell me you finally found your nephews?”

I struggled to get my face out of her chest, but to no avail.

“Let the poor girl go,” Derek’s mom chided. “She can’t help clean this place up if you smother her to death.”

Thankfully, Mrs. Arrow complied, and I suddenly found I could breathe again, though I had to lean against the wall for a moment.

We were in the Arrow apartments, specifically the first floor kitchen where Veronica served meals. Last time I had been here, the place had been under guard by the Hellions and some other demon clans, trying to protect Obould from the Composer despite his protests. Mrs. Arrow had done her best to ignore them all and continue making her famous meals.

Now, there were more demons than last time, but most of them weren’t guarding. They were scattered around the apartment, helping to clean up the massive mess made by the MEE—and Veronica Arrow’s personal rampage.

The clean white walls of the kitchen were covered in dust and dirt produced by the massive rents and tears that dug down to the sheetrock. The pictures of friends and family—including myself—carefully framed and hung at eye height had been thoughtlessly knocked down, the glass shattered and scattered across the floor carelessly. The oven appeared to have been actively attacked, with massive dents and gouges as if it had been struck repeatedly with an axe.

The beautiful oak table and chairs had been reduced to kindling, but those had already been replaced, albeit with temporary cheap plastic ones. There were a couple Kellions (judging by the emblems on their shoulders) sitting down eating, but they hastily stood when they realized who we were.

Derek waved them off. “Please, don’t get up on our account.” He took in the destruction with a critical eye. “It’s not quite as bad as I expected. But I thought when Elizabeth turned the city, most people retained their minds enough to not just destroy anything in sight. Were you one of the exceptions?”

The big Italian woman shook her head. “No. Well, we don’t have cameras, so it’s hard to be sure. But as far as we can tell, it’s just that I wouldn’t stop trying to use my new found ability.” She shrugged. “I can’t control it, so this is what happened.”

Yuudai looked at her, wide-eyed. “Mama Arrow, you did all this?”

She smiled fondly at the boy. ‘Mama’ was a title usually given to the matrons of orphanages. You know, when it wasn’t being used for actual mothers. “You would be… Yuuki, correct? The younger of the pair?”

“I’m Yuuki,” the boy in question corrected from my side. “The older. That’s Yuudai.”

She nodded in apology. “Well Yuudai, yes, I did do all this.” Her smile turned sad. “Quite a few people did things… that they would later regret. During the Rampage, I mean. All things considered, I am lucky most of my home survived intact.”

“Too true,” Maria said, patting her old friend on the shoulder as she and Victor walked by and put their bags on the table, ignoring the demons eating there. “But the best thing to do is move past it, and start working on fixing things.”

They might be ignoring the demons, but the demons seemed well aware of who they were, and weren’t interested in getting in anyone’s way. They suddenly found that they had other, very important things to do, and fled with their food as fast as their legs could carry them.

The pair and Veronica didn’t seem disturbed by the sudden exodus, if they even noticed, and Victor spoke after shuffling through his bag for a moment. “All right, I’ve got some white paint here, but that’s for later. Anybody got spackle compound for the walls?”

One of the women who was working—and hadn’t fled—reached around a corner and pulled out a small container. She was a hag, of all things, judging by the fresh needle marks on her arm, but she seemed surprisingly together for a drug-addled loon. “Here. Probably not enough for everything, though.”

Victor took it without even looking at her. “Thanks. Maria, you have the tools, right?”

“You said you had them.”

“Yes, for painting, but I mean—”

“I didn’t know what else we needed. How would I?”

“I don’t know, you seemed to know what you were doing!”

I rolled my eyes and patted my nephews on the shoulders. “This can go on for a while. Why don’t you two go upstairs and try to find Obould? He should be in his office. It’s labeled.” I pulled them away from the shouting and pushed them towards the stairs around the corner.

As the boys left, I turned to see Flynn standing before me. When I jumped, he shrugged. “Sorry. Thought you were leaving.”

“So you decided to follow me?” I asked, a little skeptical. What, was he a stalker now?

“Rather than stay and watch Derek’s parents yell at each other? Yes, actually.” He looked over his shoulder and frowned. “Actually, that hag creeps me out. Never thought seeing someone normal instead of giggling and insane would be so weird.”

Is she a hag?” I asked. “I saw the needle marks, but she could be from another clan…”

“She has a jacket with the hag emblem,” he explained.

Again, that wasn’t iron-clad proof of her subculture, but it took a very, very stupid person to wear the hag symbol openly. Even most hags, drugged out of their minds, weren’t that stupid. Usually.

But this girl wasn’t drugged out of her mind. She seemed… intelligent. Lucid. Her eyes were sharp, and her mind was clear. I felt like I was missing something very important about the whole situation.

I shook my head. That was a problem for another time. “Let’s go down to the cellar. Get some food Mrs. Arrow can make to interrupt the arguing.”

He followed me to the small door that led downstairs. “Are you sure she can? I mean, I’m not sure her oven is working.”

“No idea,” I said as we headed into the dark cellar. There was a light switch around here somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. It was a small room, mostly too small; leaving the door open would illuminate things well enough. “But that oven of hers was a gift from Dispater. It’s tougher than it looks.”

Flynn started gathering up cans seemingly at random. “If you say so. If nothing else, she can throw something in the microwave.” He frowned at one of the cans he was holding. “…what is Atlantean god-crab?”

“Giant crabs,” I explained as I carefully selected a few items of my own. “Fey-modified, of course. They’re at the bottom of the bay, so we don’t see them much.” But Mrs. Arrow would have the connections necessary to get a hold of them—the bigger question was why. “Here. Take this.”

He hefted the covered plastic bucket I handed him without complaint. “This thing has water in it? Some kind of fish, I’m guessing?” He sloshed it around a little before nodding to himself. “No… more crabs. They alive?”

“Kinda. They’re hibernating.”

“Crabs hibernate?”

“I’m not sure. These are fey coral-sleepers. They sit still for days or weeks waiting for something to happen by. They might have been modified to hibernate so that they could go without food forever.”

Flynn frowned again as he hefted the bucket. “This feels kinda light for its size, but it feels completely full, too. These some of those helium fish that float or whatever?”

I chuckled. That was one of the fey’s more public failures. Most of their failures either never left their labs or did enough destruction once outside that the fey didn’t care. The helium fish had just been embarrassing.

“No.” I checked the label. “That’s fifty pounds. Sounds about right.”

“It’s—” He stared at the bucket in his arms in shock. “This is fifty pounds? That can’t be right! It feels like…” He bounced it in his arms, trying to gauge the weight. “…twenty? No, closer to thirty, I think.”

“The power package increases your physical attributes,” I noted as I led the way back up the stairs and out of the dank, cramped cellar. “Strength, agility, toughness. Not much, but enough to be noticeable.”

“I didn’t hear anything about this!” he cried, seemingly unaware that he was hefting the fifty-pound bucket up the stairs without any difficulty whatsoever. “When did you figure all this out?”

“Way at the beginning. The first night, when Laura made us test our powers. Wasn’t it part of the ‘sarian announcements after the MEE?” I had been in New York at the time, and hadn’t cared enough to look it up online after.

“Well, I didn’t see it, I was so busy with everything, and I figured I knew everything I needed to know about the powers anyway…” He shook his head. “It seems like people would be making a bigger deal out of this.”

“You mostly hang out with the Paladins,” I noted as we walked into the kitchen. I placed my armful of canned goods on the scarred countertop next to the oven. Flynn followed suit with the bucket of crabs. “We got all of that out of our systems before the worm hunt.”

Maria and Victor, it seemed, had likewise gotten something out of their systems, and had stopped arguing, and were now having a pleasant conversation in the corner with the hag. I made a mental note to keep an eye on her.

Derek was speaking with Victoria near one of the walls, apparently discussing the damage to the walls. He didn’t notice us come in, but she did, and walked over to us with a smile.

“Very good job, you two. Ooh, and you brought the butter too. Good.” She ruffled my hair, making my beads click. “You always forget the butter.”

I smoothed my hair back into place as she turned to remove the lid from the bucket and inspect the crabs. “That was once, and I was twelve.” If I recalled correctly, she hadn’t even given me a list, just told me ‘go get the stuff for dinner.’

She ignored my protests, and just started pulling crabs out. “Flynn, could you be a dear and get me the pot? The big one, of course.”

Flynn raised an eyebrow at me. He had never been here, so he had no idea where she kept anything. I rolled my eyes and led him down the pantry, the hallway behind the kitchen where the Arrows stored all their kitchen hardware. Finding the crab pot didn’t take long, and we went to fill it up at the sink.

Which didn’t work.

“Oh, right,” Veronica said mournfully. “I cut a few of the pipes during the Rampage.”

“You can just use the water the crabs came in,” Maria suggested.

Mrs. Arrow sighed. “Maria, this is why none of your food is edible. That water has been home to a few dozen crabs for a couple months. It is not fit for drinking at the moment. It probably won’t kill us after it’s brought to a boil, but it will taste terrible.” She turned back to us. “The bathroom sink still works. Get it there.”

I hefted the pot, Flynn following, and found the bathroom in question down the hall and to the left. Getting it into the sink was a pain, and we ended up splashing more water onto ourselves than into the pot, but we finally managed to collect a respectable amount of liquid, and returned to the kitchen.

By that point, Yuuki and Yuudai were back, and they had brought Obould with them.

Obould smiled at us as we walked in. “Oh, you’re helping with the food? That’s not necessary, I could have handled it just fine.”

“Last time you said that, dinner was three hours late,” Derek said idly as he tapped something on his pad. No wait, it wasn’t his pad, it was Veronica’s. He handed it back to her and she nodded in thanks, placing it on the counter where she could read it while cooking.

Obould didn’t seem offended. “But it was a good meal, you have to admit.”

“Either way,” I said as Flynn and I placed the pot on the oven-top stove. “Here is your water, Mrs. Arrow. Did you need anything else?”

She smiled, trying to focus on me and the cookbook on her pad at the same time. “Bless you, no. You’ve done enough. I would like someone to set the tables…” She trailed off, glaring at her husband. He completely failed to take the hint.

I sighed and turned to my nephews. “Past the stairs is the dining room,” I explained, in a louder voice than normal. “You’ll find all the plates and place-mats and silverware in the cupboards. Help Knight Obould set everything out.”

The knight in question looked up, blinking owlishly. Odd, he wasn’t squinting. The kitchen light wasn’t exactly glaring, but it was certainly there, and someone with naked nighteyes should have found it annoyingly bright. A couple of the other orcs we had seen scattered around were wearing their daygoggles.

But that was a mystery to be solved later. The orc Power frowned, confused, as Yuuki and Yuudai led him towards the dining room, understanding my request even if he didn’t. That would keep all three of them out of trouble for half an hour or so.

“Thank you for that,” Veronica said graciously as she started placing crabs in the warming pot. “You know how he can get. He’s been distracted by that gargant.”

Derek, speaking with his mother, frowned and looked up. “What gargant? I thought the fey weren’t attacking any more.”

“There are still a couple, here and there. The strikes are seemingly random, but they also have a surgical precision that you don’t often see with the fey. Enter a shop, kill everyone inside, remove everything of value, and leave. Cameras fried before they even get within sight.”

He considered. “You’re right, that doesn’t sound like the fey, new or old. Are you sure—”

“They’ve taken credit,” she interrupted. “Paid retribution fees and everything. But they can’t keep this up for long. It’s only been a day, and there are already murmurings of discontent. Butler’s going to start demanding they pay their retribution in blood rather than cash soon.”

“Wait, it’s only been a day?” Flynn asked as he took a seat. I followed suit. The plastic chairs were hard and uncomfortable, but I had dealt with far worse. “How does he know it’s a gargant? That sounds like some dangerous new power, to me.”

“The bodies were killed in the same way as the ones from when the fey announced their changes.” She turned away from the pot for a moment, and seeing everyone’s blank looks, elaborated. “Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves organized a band of adventurers and monster slayers to head into the sewers, and they were slaughtered to a man. It’s still not clear exactly what killed them, but it’s the same as now.”

“And since there appears to be only one, it’s only logical to assume a new gargant,” Derek mused. “What exactly have they been taking?” He shook his head before she could answer. “No, right, you said everything.”

“Clearly meant to cover their tracks, hide their true goals.”

“Right. Well, what kinds of places were attacked?”

“That’s the thing. There’s no pattern—which, admittedly, makes it sound more like a fey ploy. There have been three restaurants, four banks, two gun shops, and even the Graveyard, of all places—”

“Graveyard?” Derek and I interrupted at the same time. We glanced at each other, and he continued. “Haven’t heard of that one. Some sort of bar or club, I’m guessing?” There were no graveyards in Domina City. There had just never been room. Generally, the dead were either dissected by companies for research, eaten by ghouls, or cremated. We had the Halls of the Dead, of course, but those were just names carved into the walls.

Veronica glanced at Maria and Victor, who just shrugged, before turning back to us. “Sorry, I assumed you knew. The Graveyard is what they’re calling…” She paused, trying to find the right words. “…Ling’s tomb.”

“Her WHAT?” Derek jumped up, knocking over the cheap chair in the process, and I was only a half moment behind him. “Ling’s dead!?” He took a deep breath. “That’s not… I mean, we knew that was a possibility.” His eyes turned hard. “But when was she found? And silver and gold, how does she have a tomb?

“Guys, you know this,” Flynn said gently. “That ave lab she destroyed right as Silk came.”

I blinked, feeling some of the shock washed away by understanding. I had heard about that, a lab completely and utterly destroyed by massive concrete spikes, bursting out of the ground and the building itself in impossible ways. “I thought they hadn’t found Ling’s body. Or even confirmed that it was her.”

“It had to be her,” Derek muttered, distracted, as he righted his chair and sat back down. “No one else has that kind of level of power yet. But other than that, you’re right. Last I checked, the ‘sarians digging there hadn’t even found the toy box.”

“Well, they found it,” Victor said quietly. “Entombed in concrete, with a twisted corpse inside. It was too… broken to identify, but Isaac confirmed Ling’s DNA. She must have tried to retreat to the box after destroying the lab, but it was too late.”

“The toy box was nonfunctional?” I asked, frowning. Those things were supposed to be indestructible. The originals, at least. They were covered in enough amorphous metal to deflect a small nuke.

“No, it was still working. Still on, I think, but the body…” He looked away. “There are some things even the toy box can’t fix.”

The room fell silent as everyone gave Derek and I some peace.

After a few minutes, Mrs. Arrow banged the side of the pot, sending out a chime. She smiled slightly. “There will be time enough for tears and depression later. For now, it’s time to eat.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 244)

Veronica’s lack of control is one of the more common discords.

And as for the physical ability increase that comes as part of the power package: It’s additive, not multiplicative. So you’re not going to find giants doubling in strength; for them, the increase was such a small part of their total strength that they likely didn’t even notice. Butler, on the other hand, noticed it immediately, since he was always so weak beforehand.

Scene 149 – Conventus

CONVENTUS

DEREK

It was October 10th, a Wednesday. Two days after Akane had managed to snap me out of my depression, two days after I had decided we needed to prepare for Elizabeth’s inevitable escape. That was how long it had taken to gather everyone.

Obould of course, Power of the orcs. One of my closest friends and allies. I couldn’t have kept him away if I wanted to.

Aleksander Hagebak, also known as Thor. One of the lesser Colossi of the Aesir, and son of Odin. He preferred to keep out of the Culture Wars. He had only come because Elizabeth had killed his Hammer, Mjolnir, but that was good enough for me.

Speaking of giants, Sinmara, wife of the Muspel Colossus, had come in person as well. Hagebak was glaring daggers at her, but the blacksmith was better behaved than that, and just sat in a chair in the corner, staring at a wall.

From the kemos, we had Senator McDowell of the Iluvatar party representing the ursas, Alpha Hannesdottir for the cans, and Alpha Tecumseh for the lupes. Evangel wasn’t technically a warlord, but his political ties were more than enough. He might just make up for Hannesdottir—the crab kemos didn’t really have anything to bring to the table.

Only a single vampire had come: Titivilus, from the warbloods. He was Dispater’s second in command, and had assured me that the only reason the old Noble hadn’t come himself was because he still refused to leave the Iron Tower.

I had hoped for more from the vamps, but I shouldn’t have. While I was technically on good terms with the Canians, Mephistopheles was still understandably upset that we had killed one of his favorites. The ghouls were obviously out—Akane had a tendency to hunt down and destroy their outposts when she got bored. The Nessians were still angry about Shendilavri, and the Nosferatu were still disorganized from the bats incident. I didn’t really know any of the other subcultures, which was probably for the best.

But we did have one ace in the hole: Pale Night, Power of Androlynne. I was surprised she had answered my summons. I had done a few favors for her over the years, but only minor ones, and she was pretty high up the totem pole to come personally. She was basically the very first warlord, the ‘Daughter of Lilith’ and the mother of demons.

“Thank you all for coming,” I greeted them sincerely. “Especially for coming personally. I understand that it would have been easier to just send a messenger.”

Wait, crap, would Titivilus take that as an insult? It wasn’t Dispater’s fault for being agoraphobic, and I understood that sending his nuncio was the next best thing…

Thankfully, the pale-skinned vampire just winked at me. He understood.

“What is this place, anyway?” Tecumseh growled. He wasn’t angry, it was just that he was one of the first lupe anthros, and his modifications had screwed with his vocal cords a little. He was always growling. “It smells like an ammo dump.”

‘Here’ was the BOB skyscraper Akane had burned down Monday morning. It was perfect—it had only been two days, so there were no squatters yet, and the company had written the whole building off, so we technically weren’t even trespassing. Other than a few half-burned speakers that had somehow survived the fire, everything of value had been removed.

“Just another warehouse slated to be torn down,” I assured the warlords. “We won’t be bothered. Although I wouldn’t recommend going much higher than the first floor.” I indicated the walls, still covered in scorches and smoke. I could hear the distant sound of dripping water, from where the firefighters’ had attacked particularly bad sections. “Fire damage has left the place a bit…unstable.”

“Why don’t we get down to business?” Evangel suggested gently. As a politician, he had the most experience with how meetings like this usually went. I assumed he wanted to keep us from getting sidetracked. “Huntsman, this is your show. You were quite vague in your message. What exactly is this about?”

I nodded in thanks, and leaned against the wall in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner. “This is about the Composer, as you all know. We need to be prepared when she escapes.”

Obould spoke up for the first time. “Necessarius has her, she’s not going anywhere—”

“Why aren’t there any ‘sarians here?” Hagebak interrupted. “I’m sure Butler would be too busy, but there has to be someone who can come.”

“I still want confirmation that Lizzy is this Composer,” Jasmine insisted. Despite the fact that she was a crab anthro, her speech was surprisingly clear. As I understood, she still had her human lips hidden under everything else. “I just can’t believe—”

I held up my hand to silence them, and was mildly surprised when they took the hint.

“I will answer all questions in time,” I promised. “But let’s start with the easy ones. First: Yes, Elizabeth is the Composer.” I locked eyes with the can warlord. “No ifs, ands, or buts. I don’t have any video footage for evidence, but in our most recent confrontation she was quite clear.” I smiled a little sadly. “She seemed to find the idea that it was still in doubt to be hilarious.

“Second, there are no ‘sarians here because if Elizabeth has any more spies or sleepers, Necessarius is the most logical place to find them. I have tacit approval for Butler for anything and everything, but he doesn’t know any details, just in case.”

“And third, she is immortal. We can’t kill her, so her escape is only a matter of time.”

There was silence at that.

“When you say ‘immortal,’” Titivilus said slowly. “What exactly do you mean?”

“She can regenerate from any injury. Shooting her just pisses her off, and blowing off her head slows her down for less than a minute. Her exact words were ‘you do not possess the ability to end my life.’”

The vampire drummed his fingers on the scorched desk he was sitting on. “Well, the most logical assumption is that she was simply lying—”

“She wasn’t. One of the Paladins can tell when someone is lying.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Damn. Then I’ve got nothing.”

“We could always toss her down an underwater trench,” Evangel suggested.

“She’ll survive, and come back pissed.”

“Wait,” Jasmine interjected. “Even if I do agree that Lizzy could be the Composer—”

“She’s tried to kill me three times in the last two weeks,” I noted drily. “We are far past ‘could be’ at this point.”

She waved her massive claw. “Whatever, Composer or not, immortality is just ridiculous!”

I sighed at the crab anthro. “Honored Hunter, our city is currently under attack by superpowered zombies. We have witnessed eight different powers, from electricity control to light control, not counting what the Paladins have access to.” I spawned a glowing blue shield, a small buckler attached to my arm. I held it up so the Alpha could see it leaking azure mist. “Immortality doesn’t seem all that far-fetched any more.”

“Broken fang,” Tecumseh spat. “This city is screwed-up enough without…” he waved his hand at my shield, trying to find the words. “Damned witchcraft.”

I let the shield fade. “We’re not sure what it is, but I am not going to refuse to use a weapon at my disposal—”

Hagebak raised an eyebrow. “Then why don’t you use guns?”

I sighed. “Because I’m no good with guns, Honored Titan,” I lied smoothly. It wasn’t like it was a big lie; I definitely wasn’t great with guns. “Nothing moral about it.”

Sinmara smiled. “Yes, I remember when you came over to buy a gun for your Akane. We tried to get you one too, and you took it to the shooting range…” she chuckled. “You were impressively bad.”

“Thank you for the reminder,” I managed through gritted teeth, cutting off a more caustic reply. “I’m sure you understand why I prefer hand-to-hand combat.”

She nodded. “Forge and fire, yes. My son is still annoyed that he could never beat you in training.”

I blinked. “He…what?” I would remember that. Sure, I had wrestled giants before, even won, but not every time.

“He wasn’t a giant yet,” the Colossus explained, reading the question on my face. “He’s always been big, but he only got the buffs last year.”

I frowned. “Wait…over six feet, brown skin, built kinda like a dump truck?”

“Yeah! That’s Jose!”

“Huh. I never knew he was your son. How’s he doing these days?”

“Not bad, not bad. He—”

“Can we focus, people?!” Tecumseh barked. Literally. “This is about the witch.” The old lupe turned to the others. “Does anyone have anything that will help?”

“I own a factory that makes shotguns that fire rockets,” Evangel noted mildly. “That can’t hurt.”

“There’s a reason no one uses McDowell guns, Senator,” Titivilus cut in. “Your brother’s designs are too crazy to be useful.”

Obould laughed. “You clearly aren’t a monster slayer, warblood. Once you find their niche, McDowell guns are some of the best on the market.”

Hannesdottir made a clicking noise. “Well, we aren’t fighting monsters.”

I smiled a little sadly. “And you clearly haven’t fought screamers. They’re like monsters—dangerous, but stupid. They don’t have much beyond instinct.”

A low, husky feminine voice spread through the room. “The screamers are not the problem. The renegades are.”

It took me a moment to identify the source.

A tall, willowy woman, wrapped completely in a white silk sheet, barely showing her soft curves. The sheet stayed pure and untarnished, despite all the ash and charcoal in the room, giving her an…untouched and innocent appearance.

Appearances can be deceiving.

“Pale Night,” I said slowly.

The first demon, the obyrith, architect of the tanar’ri, Keeper of the First Gate of Hell. Power of Androlynne, where she sat upon the Throne of Chaos and watched the other demons from above. Self-proclaimed daughter of the Mother Monster. Founder of the demon culture, inspiration to Malcanthet, Orcus, and Sargeras.

One of the most powerful people in the city, and she had showed up to my impromptu meeting. Personally. I had invited her, true, but I hadn’t expected her to actually send anyone, let alone show up herself.

I steeled myself before replying. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. The renegades are something to worry about, but the screamers can do far more damage.”

“There will be no more screamers,” the woman declared in her calm, soothing voice.

I looked at the others; they seemed as confused as I was. “Ah…what makes you say that?”

“The Blackguards are guns, while the screamers are swords. She will not use the screamers any more; she has no need to.”

I sighed. And here I had been hoping for some actual reasons. “Okay, sure. We’ll be careful about that.”

The sheet fluttered. “You do not believe me.” It wasn’t a question.

With effort, I kept my tone polite. “It’s not that, it’s just…” I shrugged. “We don’t really know anything about how she thinks, her goals, anything like that. It seems like a pretty big leap.”

“Making assumptions about your enemies never ends well,” Titivilus agreed.

Pale Night turned to face him. With the thick shawl obscuring her features, the effect was a little unnerving. “Mock me if you will, Disian, but I have seen more wars than you have years. This is not a guess, or an assumption.” She turned back to me. “I know the girl’s type. More concerned with blood and carnage than actually defeating the enemy. Combined with her supposed immortality…”

“She’ll fight personally as much as possible,” I finished, finally following her line of reasoning. “Using the screamers wouldn’t be any fun.”

She nodded. “She was hiding her identity, for whatever reason. Now that she no longer has to worry about that, the screamers are superfluous.”

“Hm,” Obould murmured thoughtfully. “I can see your point…she hasn’t been reusing screamer types, I suppose it makes sense that she’d ignore them completely now.”

“So…what?” Hagebak asked in an annoyed tone. “Just wait for these…” he waved his massive hand. “Renegades, these Blackguards, to pull Greene out of whatever hole Necessarius dropped her in, and everything starts over again like nothing happened?”

Tecumseh snarled. “Weren’t you listening, boy? With just Greene and her Blackguards, we’re talking just a squad or two at a time.” He grinned toothily with his wolf-maw. “We can handle that, no problem.”

“I wouldn’t say no problem,” I warned. “The last batch we fought had some interesting ways of using their powers, and I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.” The lupe growled, but I ignored him. I had known him long enough to understand he was just frustrated, not angry at me specifically. “But it will be easier than the screamers, that’s for sure. Speakers—Paladins and Blackguards—can’t infect people.”

“But still,” Hannesdottir said slowly. “He’s right, isn’t he? We can’t do anything but wait for the Composer to make a move?” She made an angry click. “Of course, that’s assuming you’re right about Lizzy anyway.”

I didn’t bother responding to the second part. “There’s not much we can do, true. But we can prepare. You can lend soldiers to the ‘sarians.”

Sinmara shook her head. “Bad idea. I trust my men, but Butler doesn’t. I doubt he would want them anywhere near Greene. You remember what happened last time.”

“We can help with that indirectly,” Evangel pointed out. “Shore up the peacekeeper forces and so on, give them slack to send the most trustworthy to guard her.”

I nodded. “That’s what I meant. Even if it only gets one more person guarding the Composer’s cage, this meeting will have been worth it.”

That wasn’t the real purpose of the meeting, of course. We needed to forge alliances, bonds of trust between the disparate clans and cultures. Just getting eight warlords in a room without having to threaten violence was a massive step in the right direction.

“For the time being, why don’t we table the issue of the Composer?” Jasmine asked slowly, her giant claw clicking nervously. “We have bigger things to worry about right now.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Bigger than Elizabeth Greene?” The crab winced, which was my intent. She didn’t want to admit the Composer’s identity, so I needed to hammer her with it as much as possible. “I’ll confess I don’t pay much attention to politics. What happened now?”

Evangel stared at me. “You…don’t know? I mean, it’s been a full day.”

“That’s my bad,” Obould apologized. “He gets most of this kind of news from me, and I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to even toss him an e-mail.”

“About what?” I was getting exasperated now. Couldn’t they just get to the point? “By now, I’m half-expecting that one of the fusion reactors exploded when I wasn’t looking.”
“That would be less destructive,” Hagebak muttered. “In the long run, I mean.”

What—”

“The fey have reformatted themselves into a true culture,” Pale Night cut in with all the bluntness of a sledgehammer. “With only six fey, split into Seelie and Unseelie courts—Summer and Winter, that is. They have also started recruiting.”

“And they announced all this with a couple dozen monsters each,” Tecumseh growled. “Minimal deaths. A couple hundred, maybe less. Some of the ones missing might have been kidnapped or recruited.”

I closed my eyes and slumped my back against the wall. Silver moon and golden sun…how in the world did I not hear about this before?

“And it was yesterday, you said?”

“Around noon,” Evangel confirmed.

“You should also know about the hundred or so fools who rushed into the sewers after the Unseelie Princess,” Titivilus added cheerfully. “Hearts in the right place, of course, but they were still idiots. We’re not even sure what the fey used to kill them. There were no survivors, and not as many body parts as there should have been.”

I kneaded my forehead. Come on

Jasmine shrugged her carapaced shoulders. “So they threw a gargant at the poor bastards. I don’t see why everyone is making such a big deal.”

“These weren’t a bunch of random kids, Honored Hunter,” Obould corrected. “They were disorganized, but they were experienced monster slayers. The fact that there were NO survivors, not to mention no evidence they even managed to injure their opponent, is…worrying.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “Okay.” I nodded. “Let’s focus on that for now.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 149)

More new characters. I think I’ve got too many running around right now.

Scene 124 – Dictrictio

DICTRICTIO

AKANE

I arched my back as far as it would go, using my sheathed sword as a brace to let me bend more. “Ahh…much better.”

Adam chuckled. “Of course. How many kills is that?”

I frowned. “Not the killing. The exercise.”

He shrugged. “Semantics. When you exercise by killing people…”

I flicked one of my knives at his ear, where it sank into the soft sheetrock of the wall next to his face. “Dick. What’s with you?”

He didn’t seem to care about the knife, and just shook his head. “This entire city…no one believes Lizzy is the Composer. No one.”

Now it was my turn to shrug. “Not sure myself.”

The bland baseline sighed, stepping off the dumpster he was sitting on, careful to avoid the puddles of blood. “See, that’s exactly what I mean.” He yanked my knife out of the wall—it wasn’t one of the double-bladed ones Maria had given me for my birthday—and handed it to me. “I met Lizzy more than once, and I’ll be the first to admit she doesn’t seem like a likely suspect. But still…”

“Powers give people excuses,” I noted. “Body-swapping and shapeshifting. Illusions. Something no one has thought of.”

A surviving ghoul roared as it threw back the lid of the dumpster that Adam had been sitting on and swiped at him. He barely even turned around, just whipped out his pistol and spat a few rounds in the vampire’s direction. The cannibal gave one last keening cry before spitting up a mouthful of blood and collapsing into the dumpster.

“What is with these guys?” he muttered. I knew what he meant; it seemed like everyone with a bounty on their head was a ghoul. Not all of our kills today were ghouls or even vampires, but many were. It certainly made one wonder, but it was just one of those psychological tricks the mind plays on itself. Most ghouls weren’t murderers and most murderers weren’t ghouls, but they were the ones that stuck in your brain.

He shook his head and turned back to me. “I know there are a lot of alternatives available, but it still seems odd that this city,” he indicated the dozen or so slowly-cooling bodies surrounding us. “Wouldn’t just decide to kill Lizzy.”

“Better safe than sorry?”

“Exactly. I know individuals wouldn’t want to do it themselves, but they should see the logic in it.”

I leaned on my sword a little, like it was a walking stick. “Proof, maybe?”

Adam tilted his head. “They need proof?”

“No, this is proof. Her hypnotism or such.”

He nodded as he finally holstered his pistol. “Right, right. I see what you’re getting at. Like what she did with Derek, but probably not so extreme.” I felt a shiver at the mention of Derek’s condition, but ignored it. “She probably just implanted general feelings of admiration and trust for her.”

“Probably,” I admitted, following him out of the alley. “Hard to tell.”

The baseline pulled out his rifle, and I snapped back to alertness. Laura had told me to keep an eye on him, make sure he didn’t go crazy suddenly, which was why we were hunting alone together. I understood why she was worried, but I really didn’t think he’d just suddenly start killing random people.

Her worries proved unfounded—for now, at least. He was just cleaning his gun.

He glanced back. “You’ve been a bit jumpy all morning. What’s up?”

It didn’t take me long to find a credible lie. “Just…Lizzy.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I get it.” He glanced around. “Did you want to wait for the CSI guys, or just go straight to lunch?”

I glanced at my watch. It was two in the afternoon, so there was nothing else to do until history class at seven. And we had already called MC, so that was done too.

“Lunch,” I said after a moment. “Need to talk to them.”

Adam holstered his rifle again and frowned. “Talk to who?”

I didn’t answer, just led him down the streets.

We probably should have taken the light rail; it took about half an hour to walk to our destination. Not that we had anything else to do.

At least we didn’t run into any more assailants. Like Adam said, people still didn’t know exactly what to believe where Lizzy and the Composer were concerned, but they were staying off the streets until they were sure. Even the gang we had eliminated earlier had been hiding in a warehouse, not prowling the streets.

Even if I hadn’t been to the house a thousand times, it would have been easy to spot. The apartment building was guarded like a fortress, with two big demons at the front door, snipers on the adjacent rooftops, and a few more scattered around—and those were only the ones we could see. There were surely more, better hidden.

I was surprised that the demons at the door weren’t orcs. Judging by the stylized spear patches on their shoulders, they were actually hellions, demon soldiers. I knew they occasionally rented themselves out as mercenaries, but I had thought they still weren’t on very good terms with the other demons. The demon flag—a stylized demon skull—fluttered alone above the doorway, which was also odd. Normally, the culture flag was always displayed with the subculture’s flag directly below it.

“Obould inside?” I asked the guard on the left.

She looked me up and down with what seemed like violet dayeyes—the lack of a pupil was the only outward sign, so it could be hard to tell. I couldn’t remember ever seeing dayeyes on a demon before, but I didn’t say anything. There were much stranger things in this city.

The guard shrugged. “I think he’s arguing with the boss. Talk to his wife before you try and get between them.”

I nodded in thanks for the advice and stepped inside, Adam at my heels.

I’ve always loved the Arrows’ home. Unlike most apartment buildings, which sequester the tenants as far from each other as possible, Veronica had reorganized the interior so that the main dining room and nearby kitchen were only a few steps off from the lobby, past a few empty doorways. The stairs and mailboxes were in the other direction, so you didn’t have to interact with everyone else if you really didn’t want to, but most people took the opportunity anyway.

Even now, I could smell something fresh and buttery from the direction of the kitchen. Veronica had always cooked when she was upset, so I just followed my nose to find her.

“Akane!” The small Italian woman immediately crushed me in a bear hug that drove the wind out of my body. “I think it’s been months, dearie! Black hells, let me look at you.” She released me before I suffocated, then clicked her tongue in disappointment. “Are you forgetting to eat again?”

I shrugged out of her grip. “Been…busy.”

She just rolled her eyes. “Yes, Artemis has you running around the city, fighting zombies and whatnot. That’s no excuse. What would Maria say if I let you starve to death? Sit down.”

I followed her orders a little grudgingly, knowing it was useless to resist. Adam slid into the seat next to me, a bemused expression on his face. I glared, daring him to say something.

If he was planning to, he never got a chance. Veronica came back and plopped a couple steaming bowls of beetles in front of us. They might not be her famous butter crisps, but any of her cooking was enough to die for.

Steam had already softened the shells, so I flipped one of my combat spikes off my belt and started spearing the pebble-sized insects.

Really, Akane,” Veronica tutted again. “I have silverware you can use. Who knows where that thing has been?”

I glanced at the armor-piercing spike. “I clean it after…”

“Actually, we came here for a reason,” Adam interjected, even though he still probably hadn’t figured out exactly what that reason was. “Is Obould in? Akane wanted to talk to him.”

She just rolled her eyes. “Black…yes he’s in. He’s shouting at Knight Keller right now.”

I frowned. A warlord named Keller…had I heard that before? It didn’t sound all that familiar, but then I was never much better than Derek at keeping up with politics.

Veronica seemed to notice the look on my face. “He’s a new hellion Power. You know how those guys are. He rose to prominence about when the General took that hit with the sleepers.”

Adam looked up, and I noted that he was barely picking at his beetles. Veronica had given him chopsticks, but he didn’t seem to know how to use them. “Wait, the General? You mean the Power lost his…” he coughed. “The warlord lost his power base?”

“A lot of them died in the bombing,” she explained. “Most hellions are mercenaries, selling out their services. Sargeras lost some men, and a lot of trust. So yes, there was a power vacuum, but not in the way you would think.”

Which was when the warlord in question walked into the room.

Keller wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Honestly, I shouldn’t have expected anything. Demons aren’t exactly the most homogenous lot; they were the first culture, after all, mimicking the Honored Mother, Lilith. The problem with mimicking her is that she cares far more about trying out new toys than maintaining a consistent appearance, although she has settled down in recent years.

The warlord had reddish-black skin, mostly hidden under the military fatigues he wore. Other than a rifle strapped to his back and a pistol at his hip, he was relatively unarmed. No ammo pouches or grenades on a bandolier across his chest, no obvious knives.

He had a large, strong tail, which probably cost more than the rest of his toys combined. It was the same red as the rest of him, and ended in a small but sharp metal blade, apparently surgically attached to the bone.

His black horns were small and curved a little to the side, and were hard to see in his equally black hair. I knew people who had worn that style before, and most of them told me it got in the way of their hair too much. But Keller’s dark hair was cropped into a short crew cut, so I suppose he didn’t have that problem.

But the thing that struck me the most was the large black eye-patch he wore covering his left eye. His right eye was red and lacking a pupil; almost certainly a dayeye, considering the relatively low lighting in the room. If it were a normal eye, I would be able to see his pupil at this lighting.

The hellion Power glared at me as he stepped into the kitchen, Obould a few steps behind. I glared right back. I fought Asmodeus when I was thirteen years old, before the Nosferatu poisoned him. I wasn’t scared of some upstart hellion.

Obould didn’t seem to notice our presence. “Black hells Juan, don’t walk away from me! We have more to discuss!”

I hadn’t seen the orc this upset in…ever, actually, but the hellion clearly wasn’t aware of the trouble he was in. He hadn’t broken our gaze.

“Are you…Akiyama?” he asked after a moment, still ignoring Obould. He had a small country drawl that I couldn’t quite place. That accent wasn’t from Domina, but that was as much as I could tell.

I narrowed my eyes. Derek and I might be a little famous, and I can handle it better than him, but I still don’t like it when random people know my name. “Yes. You?”

He grinned, displaying eight prominent fangs—four on the top and four on the bottom, in doubles. That was a style I hadn’t seen before. “Knight Juan Keller, Power of the Twilight Reavers.”

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Twilight Reavers’ was a little bit out there, even for a mercenary gang.

Juan,” Obould said with more force, finally drawing the hellion’s attention. “I want you to remove your men from my home immediately. My family and friends have a right to privacy that you are trampling over in the name of security. Necessarius already offered me protection, and when I turned them down, they left me alone.”

“You may not have noticed,” the eye-patch wearing man drawled. “But there are more than hellions out there—and more hellions than just mine. I managed to convince them of the threat. I’m sure you’ll come around.”

The orc snorted. “Your ‘evidence’ doesn’t impress me. Veronica, get me my shotgun.” It was testament to Obould’s easy-going nature that he didn’t just keep the weapon on hand, or at least in easy reach.

“Ling Yu’s orphanage is gone,” the hellion said, turning back to me. “One of the orphans, a young man named Mitchel St. John, decided to set it on fire. No survivors. Except St. John, of course. The peacekeepers are still looking for him.”

If I was supposed to recognize that name, the warlord was in for a disappointment. Ling didn’t talk much about her orphanage, other than how she never had enough privacy.

But he wasn’t done.

“Your mother, along with Maria Huntsman and Victor Medina, were shot at by two young women who didn’t even own firearms—we still don’t know where they got the guns. This was in NHQ, so the girls were put down quickly, but your mother still suffered some minor injuries.”

Adam blinked. “Wait, I thought your mom was dead?”

We both ignored him, and Keller continued.

“Your friend Seena Lancaster’s group—including Zusa Pham, Veda Korrapati, Yolanda McDowell, Jelena Aune, Delphie Murinae, and Pam—were attacked by a trio of kemos of unclear subculture. Miss Aune proved an unexpectedly competent marksman, and used Miss Pam’s gun to fight off the assailants with only minor injuries all around.”

I swallowed. I was starting to see the pattern.

“Simon Lancaster’s roommates were likewise attacked, though by who is less clear. Kevin Irwin is dead, and Steve Gillespie remains in a coma. He is expected to come out within a week.

“The Lancasters themselves have become involved with something at the Mal domain. Details are still unclear, but it’s been building up for a while. Of course, you already know about the attack on Miss Yu’s friend Turgay Corvi.

“Finally, someone attacked Mister Anders’ girlfriend,” he nodded at Adam, who sat up a little straighter, finally paying attention. “But several people leapt to her defense, and she is fine. Although I understand she’s a bit traumatized, psychologically.”

I wiped off my combat spike and carefully slipped it back into my belt. “The Composer.”

“Yes,” Keller said bluntly. “I think she’s attacking anyone close to the Paladins.”

“You know?” I asked, surprised.

He shrugged. “Fought with you against the skins. I’m not surprised you don’t remember; I only had three Reavers with me.”

I nodded, and motioned for him to continue.

“The incidents I mentioned are only the ones I’m certain about. There are other people, not as close to any of you, who were also attacked, but that could just be random violence. This…is not.”

“None of these people know we’re Paladins,” Adam insisted. “Except for Lily, of course.”

“And Derek’s parents,” I added.

The baseline glanced at me, but nodded. “Yeah. Except for them. What’s the point in attacking any of these people? And why hasn’t the retinue been attacked?”

“He thinks the Mals were planning something,” Obould interjected with a snort, showing his opinion of that.

“There are too many coincidences here,” Keller insisted. “The Lady of the Plague was killed as well, at approximately the same time her sister was attacked.”

What did she have to do with anything? “The murid Alpha?”

That single dayeye blinked in surprise, then he nodded. “Ah, yes, she’s a bit private, isn’t she? Plague’s birth name was Melanie Murinae. She was Delphie’s sister.”

By Musashi’s carved oar, when did that happen? I wasn’t really close to Delphie—it had taken me six months to notice when she became a kemo—but she would have mentioned that her sister was a warlord, right? Derek and I had taken a mission or two from Plague over the years. You’d think it would have come up.

I made a mental note to have a chat with Delphie soon. Was she the Alpha of the murids now? That wouldn’t end well. The culture had been having enough problems with Plague’s iron will helping them along. Delphie was more like a dry noodle.

Obould snarled, and I found myself glad Veronica hadn’t retrieved the gun yet. “More coincidence. Plague was a warlord. We attract assassins. This was not exceptional.”

“I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this,” Keller said mildly. “If you don’t want to believe me, I understand, but why are you so hostile?”

That actually turned out to be the right thing to say, surprisingly enough. Obould tended to be emotional—not angry, but still emotional—and I wouldn’t have expected an appeal to his rational side to work.

The orc brushed his hair back and sighed. Veronica trotted up with a shotgun, which he waved off. “Sorry. But it’s true. I’m just…” he shook his head. “The Lady of the Plague was not very powerful. I’m not seeing conspiracy, just bad luck.”

The hellion heaved a sigh of his own. “That’s exactly what MC said.”

Adam finally spoke up. “Wait, she did? You’d think a dozen or so simultaneous attacks would be suspicious.”

“They weren’t simultaneous,” the demon grumbled back. “That’s why I’m having trouble getting some people to believe me.”

Ah. Yes, that made more sense. The way Keller had presented it, I had assumed…

But no, MC and Obould were right. This was Domina City. How many people had been attacked or killed in the past few days? What made the fact that most of our friends were in that number anything of note?

“Needed to talk to Obould,” I said, finally realizing the orc might actually appreciate the interruption. “Alone.”

Obould glanced at me with his marble-black eyes, then nodded. “That’s right. So I need you to remove all you Kellions from the building.”

Adam snorted with laughter. “Kellions?”

The warlord in question rolled his eye. “Reavers, please.”

“I really don’t care what you call them,” the orc huffed. “Just get them out of here.”

Keller sighed, and removed a cell phone from one of his pouches. “Pull everyone back at least thirty yards,” he drawled into it as he headed towards the door. “Yes, everyone. Yes, her too.”

The second the door shut behind the hellion, Obould turned back to me. “Thank you for that, Akane. His recent increase in power has gone to his head, I fear. He thinks because a few people have been killed, he can dictate my security.” He pulled up a chair and sat down; Veronica slid into the seat next to him. “He is a man of his word, though. We can speak freely.”

Although I was a little surprised at the abruptness the hellion had left after all the fuss he was making, I had come here for a reason. And I supposed he’d be back once we left.

I sat for a moment, trying to find the best way to phrase my question. “About the Composer—”

“Elizabeth Greene is the Composer,” the orc warlord said calmly without a hint of doubt in his voice. “I suppose she could be possessed, but that’s not really the point.”

How was he so sure? I wasn’t sure, and I had actually seen her. “But—”

To my complete surprise, it was Veronica who cut me off. “No. No buts. If you see her, you kill her. Dice her into cubes if you can, then set the cubes on fire.”

I stared at the hard-eyed baseline woman. Veronica—Dame Veronica, wife of the orc Power—stared back without fear. For the first time in the seven years I had known her, I was reminded that technically the slender Italian woman was a warlord in her own right. Even just being married to a warlord painted a target on her back; while she had gained the title through marriage, she had definitely earned it.

But she was still so sure…

“I’ve known Lizzy for seven years,” I insisted. “I can’t just kill her—”

“I’ve known her longer than you,” Veronica noted. “Since she, Derek, and Laura were five years old.” She smiled, and her gaze became unfocused. “They’d come over after school and beg for treats.” The smile suddenly disappeared. “Then one day, when they were eleven, a couple days after the first day of middle school, Derek comes in here crying. Says Laura had moved to the other side of the city.”

I stayed silent. I had heard Derek’s side of this story a few times, but never anyone else’s.

“Well, he didn’t know why she had left, but once I gave him some cookies, he got to talking, and he started to feel better. Eventually, we got past Laura…” she sighed. “And he started talking about Lizzy. Just nonstop. About how utterly, unbelievably perfect she was. About her eyes and her hair and her skin and that stupid white dress. He wouldn’t shut up about her.

“Now, Derek was always fond of Lizzy as a playmate. She brought lots of friends around, as I understand it, and you know he’s never been good at that part. But it was downright odd the way he was in love with her so suddenly. I had seen them not three days previously, so I knew that this was not a gradual thing. He had just fallen for her, like a switch was flipped.”

She let the silence stretch a bit.

“Why didn’t you say something?” I asked, trying to fill the heaviness with words.

Miss Arrow shrugged, and her husband put his arm around her. “Told Derek, but he just brushed it off. Told Victor and Maria, and they did the best they could to keep the two apart, but that wasn’t much. And while Obould and I kept an eye on both of them, the orcs have always been a small subculture, and we honestly had better things to do. I figured it was something weird with Derek, not anything malicious on her part.”

Adam shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t believe that no one saw this coming. I’m new, I have an excuse. But…no one else?”

“We knew her since she was five years old,” Veronica emphasized. “It seemed impossible that she would be able to hide any…negative personality traits for that long, or that she’d be able to do something like this even if she had the desire. It didn’t even occur to us.”

“Powers,” I noted mildly.

Obould grimaced. “Well, yeah, it seems obvious now.”

“But supernatural powers were a little outside context for us,” his wife added. “Who would think of that?” She sighed again. “I just want this nightmare to be over.” She clasped my hand in an iron grip, gazing at me with those hard eyes.

“So no hesitation, Akane. No mercy. Kill her dead. If you feel guilty after, we can have a funeral. But Elizabeth Greene has to die.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 124)

I was more than a little leery, killing off Kevin and Plague like this. It’s usually a bad idea to kill named characters off-screen. But I have too many death scenes as it is, and I need to keep the story moving.

Scene 109 – Fugae

FUGAE

ROBYN JOAN

My name is Robyn Joan Clarke. My father is Doctor Isaac Clarke, and my mother is Janet Gertrude. I never understood why she kept her maiden name, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I had an older brother, David, but he died a while back.

I sat on top of a skyscraper, not far from the entrance to the sewer the Paladins had dived into. I had a good angle from here, and could see everything clearly with my binoculars. But at forty floors up, no one would notice me unless they were looking very hard.

It had been over four hours, and I was starting to get worried. Cell service was virtually impossible to get in the sewers; you’d need to be right next to an opening to the surface to get any reception. For all I knew, they could all be dead by now. But Derek and Akane were experienced dungeon-delvers, and Laura had a keen sense of direction. They should all be fine.

I’ll admit I was a bit worried about Adam and Ling, though for different reasons. Adam could handle himself in a fight; disturbingly well, in fact. But if they ran into a singer, it was all over for him.

Ling, on the other hand, was not a fighter. Oh, she did well enough against the screamers, but they were so stupid they hardly counted. The kind of monsters you ran into in sewers would take more than a few improvised soccer tricks to kill.

My headset chirped with the real MC’s voice. “Robyn? You there?”

I tapped the device to activate it. “Yes, what is it?”

“Long story. Short version: Lizzy came out of the sewers two miles northwest. Find her, follow her, don’t let her see you.”

The eye screen on my headset lit up with a map and a destination marker, indeed a little over two miles away from my current position. I guess the lair was just a lot further underground than they thought.

I frowned though, disturbed at the unspoken implications of MC’s statement. If I wasn’t supposed to be seen by Lizzy, that almost certainly meant she was a sleeper, and anything she heard or saw would be reported back to the Composer.

That was by far the worst case scenario. I wasn’t the greatest of friends with her, but I still didn’t want to see her brainwashed and forced to spy on the people she cared about.

I shook me head to clear it. That was something to worry about later. Every minute I delayed, the girl got farther away. The sun was already beginning to sink towards the horizon; once night fell, I’d have a hard time finding her.

“Robyn Joan Clarke,” a voice called from behind me.

Surprised, I turned to see…Obould, the orc Power, standing next to the stairwell. Huh. That was strange; he normally preferred to stay home in his lab. He looked serious, more so than I had ever seen him.

“Honored Devil,” I said smoothly, while racking my brain for a way out of this situation without revealing too much. “Wonderful to see you again. Ah…what are you doing up here?”

He met my gaze evenly. “Don’t follow her, Honored Paladin.”

I cocked my head in what I’m sure looked like a genuine gesture of confusion. “Follow who?”

“Elizabeth Greene. She is the Composer.” He frowned. “Or…she is possessed by the Composer. I’m not clear on that.”

This time I didn’t have to fake being skeptical. “Lizzy? The Composer? Where’d you get that idea?”

“I began suspecting a few weeks ago, when Adam failed to get her blood sample,” he admitted. “That’s when I realized she is significantly more careful about her words around Laura—almost as if she knew about her ability.” He shrugged. “And it was confirmed when I overheard the other Paladins telling MC.”

I blinked. “You overheard them? How?”

He grinned, baring his fangs. “I hacked the network.”

“YOU WHAT?” MC shrieked in my ear. I had to rip the headpiece off to avoid being deafened, but she managed to switch it to speaker mode remotely. “When the hell did that happen?”

“Well,” Obould mused. “Most of it was Garona, with some help from Veronica and me. It was a group effort, really.”

“HOW DID YOU HACK MY NETWORK?”

Even though he was wearing daygoggles, I could tell the orc was rolling his eyes. “Calm down. Garona snuck into the Cathedral. With a hardline, she was able to upload a hack we wrote, and suborn one of your spy programs.”

The ‘sarian hacker cursed under her breath. “Which one? LS0099827? I’ll bet it was her, she’s been glitching on me for months…”

Obould cleaned his tooth with his tongue, thinking. “It was…I’m not sure. Little Sister…17? No, it ended in a nine. Anyway, it was five years ago, right when you were starting up. It’s been there for a long time.”

There was a long, long pause, and I could easily imagine MC taking deep breaths and counting to ten. “Okay, I need to know exactly what this hack does.”

The orc shrugged. “Garona will have to tell you. I didn’t contribute much.”

“You can do all this later,” I pointed out. “Right now, I have to go find Lizzy.” Despite what Obould had said, I was still skeptical about her status. Lizzy, the Composer? It just seemed too silly. Besides, it’s not like I was going to walk up to her and ask.

“No, Robyn, you can’t,” the warlord insisted, stepping forward and grabbing my arm. “She’s extremely dangerous, and we know too little about her powers.”

I shrugged him off. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Knight Obould.” I didn’t like how familiar he was getting. Really, we only knew each other peripherally. “I’ve been scouting for MC since this whole thing started.” I snorted as the pieces fell into place. “Of course, you already know that.”

He shrugged a little helplessly. “Well…yes. Although I don’t quite understand why you never told the others.”

I just glared at him. “Didn’t see the need.”

He rubbed his horns and sighed. “Look…I realize I can’t actually physically stop you. But you’d have enough trouble finding her during the day. By the time you get over there, it will be dark, and she’ll be in a perfect position to ambush you.”

“I can take care of myself. Even at night.”

“Really?” he cocked his head. “I thought those red eyes were just cosmos.”

He was right, of course. My eyes—and my hair, for that matter—were colored red, but were not improved in any way. I was as nightblind as any other baseline.

But I had gone to far to back down now. And besides, we really did need intel on Lizzy or the Composer or whoever.

Obould could clearly see the determination in my eyes, so he just shook his head. “I give up. MC, help me out here?”

“One sec,” she muttered in an annoyed tone. “I’m yelling at your sister-in-law.”

I tossed the orc the headset, and he caught it in reflex.

“Don’t follow me, Honored Devil,” I advised, as I stepped backwards off the roof of the building. “I’m a little better at this than you.”

I only fell a few feet before I activated my power, reversing gravity for me and me alone. Suddenly I wasn’t falling down anymore, but rather up, head angled towards Lizzy’s last known location. As I rose, I slipped on the gas mask she had bought me recently. It was designed for…well, gas, but it worked pretty well for high-altitudes as well.

Once I was above the clouds and comfortably away from prying eyes, I changed my angle to be almost completely horizontal. I also increased my speed, simply by stacking a few more gravities on me, making me ‘fall’ faster in the direction I desired. My reservoir depleted very slowly; I had enough for a little over an hour at this speed.

I knew most of the others had wondered why they had gotten their particular powers. Not Derek, of course—it was perfectly obvious why he got the power to protect people. But the others were more confused. What did Laura have to do with lies, or Akane with superspeed, or Ling with controlling earth and stone? You could see reasons for them if you squinted, but still, it was odd.

Me, I was confused as to why everyone didn’t get flight.

Flying is the most exhilarating experience in the world. I’ve known that ever since I was a kid, when I snuck onto one of the airplane sims at the aerospace museum. It was primitive and clunky, but I went there every single day, at least until it burned down in a gang war.

But flying without a plane…with nothing between you and the air, seeing the clouds unfold beneath you like a white ocean…well. I could understand why the aves were going to such great lengths to get wings.

Obould had asked me why I hadn’t told the others I was like them. I had lied. I had a reason; a very simple, very selfish one.

I wanted to keep flying for as long as I could. I wanted to feel empty air around me, taste the wind through my hair. I knew that when they eventually found out, I wouldn’t be MC’s mysteriously competent scout anymore. I would be a Paladin, with all the duties and responsibilities that implied.

Is it any wonder I chose flying over that?

Behind the Scenes (scene 109)

And now we finally meet the fifth intended Paladin.

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.

Scene 55 – Reddita

REDDITA

DEREK

I finished off the last dumpster dog quickly, jumping on its back, grabbing its neck, and twisting violently. It snapped with a crack, and the creature fell limply to the ground.

Ling stared in what might possibly have been awe. “Derek, that was…”

“Slow,” Akane interrupted. “You took too long. You’re still injured.”

I disentangled myself from the corpse, taking care not to trip over the other dead dogs in the process. “No, I was slow on purpose. Weren’t you the one who told me to take it easy?”

She sighed as she pulled her sword out of another hound. “You’re right. Sorry.”

I smiled, trying to set her at ease. “C’mon, let’s get them loaded up.”

We had borrowed my mom’s car for this, since there were a dozen of the dumpster dogs. We couldn’t lug those the two miles back to our employer, and requesting she come get them would have cost us money. Thankfully, my mom was generous. She had even put a tarp down in the trunk so blood didn’t get everywhere.

It was nearly noon (Akane had missed kendo, but that was no big deal) by the time we stopped outside a tall and thin ‘scraper, one of the places with the really small shops on each floor. This one was mostly informal restaurants, with the food prepared inside the actual building, but bought and served outside, where small tables with umbrellas were bolted to the sidewalk. It was around lunch time, so the courtyard was about half full.

It had taken us almost two hours to get here. Domina traffic was bad most of the time, and late morning was one of the worst. I was getting a little too used to the retinue’s van, with the colors of Necessarius painted on the side, cutting through the traffic.

Regardless of our tardiness, our employer met us outside the building, smiling.

“Good, good,” she said, nodding. She was an old ghoul with big claws and daygoggles hiding her eyes, but she was a kind woman. “My son will be very happy now. The beasts were hounding his customers.”

I smiled. “That’s funny, Miss Nervi.”

She cocked her head. “What is?”

Sometimes I forgot English was her second language. “Nevermind. Where do you want the bodies?”

She waved towards the door of the shop. “The freezer is fine. We’re just on the third floor. The boys will show you. Ragazzi!”

A couple of the nearby customers, ghouls with the same shape to their faces as Gloria Nervi, jumped up. I opened up the trunk, and they helped us wrap up the tarp and carry the bodies upstairs. The freezer was large and well-stocked, but we found a plastic box to put them in, so that the blood didn’t get everywhere. My mom would want the tarp back.

When we came back down, Nervi was on her cell. She hung up as we approached.

“I’ve sent the money,” she promised. “As we agreed, a hundred dollars each. Twelve hundred total.”

I glanced at Akane; she had her phone out, and was checking texts. After a moment, she flipped it closed and nodded.

I smiled at Gloria again. “Thank you, Miss Nervi. We were happy to help.”

She grinned. “You come by more often, you hear? You never come by for lunch any more.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “College. It’s…a busy time.”

I don’t like lying. It’s a filthy habit, and a slippery slope. Even simply not telling the truth was something I liked to avoid. But revealing our nature as the Paladins would cause problems. Not too many to deal with, I’m sure, but it was better to keep it quiet for as long as possible.

But she just nodded. “I know that, for certain. You sure you don’t want to stick around for some steaks?”

“Sorry,” I apologized honestly. “We have too much to do today. If traffic hadn’t been so bad…”

She waved her hand. “Bah. Traffic. Don’t talk to me about traffic. I drafted a proposal to replace all cars and streets with more light rails. Got a couple hundred signatures, too. But it was vetoed by Congress.”

Somebody from inside the restaurant called to her, asking for help with something.

“We shouldn’t keep you,” I said. “We’ll be going now. Call if you have another job for us.”

“I will,” she promised. “Take care.”

We left pretty quickly, but it still took another two hours to get back to the dorms. Of course, traffic got better pretty much the second we dropped off the car at my mom’s. At least she wasn’t home, so we didn’t get stuck in some conversational sandtrap.

The reason we were in such a hurry was waiting outside our rooms. Obould, with another box in his arms. He grinned when he saw up rounding the corner.

“Ah, Huntsman! I thought you weren’t going to make it.”

I waved my hand. “Remind me not to deal with cars ever again.” I opened the door to my room, and everyone piled inside. Obould plopped the box on the bed again, and opened it up quickly.

“Since both of my creations were such failures last time, I pulled out all the stops.” Akane’s armor hadn’t exploded like Ling’s did, but it turned out that it wasn’t anywhere near as flexible as it needed to be, and had slowed her down dramatically. She had quickly decided it wasn’t worth wearing and sent it back.

“Ling, let’s start with you.” The orc pulled out what at first glance just looked like a black wetsuit, but on closer inspection didn’t bend nearly enough.

“You didn’t ask me for help making it,” the blonde girl noted. “Did you find something that was shaped right?”

“Well,” he said slowly, frowning. “I think the slate will work, but we’ll have to see. I actually plated it in titanium, so hopefully it will be strong enough.” He held up the suit, and I could indeed see rectangular plates, sewn under the fabric, at all the vital areas. It pretty much looked the same as any other military tactical armor, except the plating was covered in fabric.

“It’s a one-piece?” Ling asked. “How do I put it on?”

He turned it around to reveal a long zipper at the back. “You should be able to do it yourself, but if not, I’m sure Akane can help you.” He put it down on the bed. “Derek and I will leave, let us know when we can come back.”

It only took about five minutes before we were called back in. I opened the door to find Ling looking very smug and covered head-to-toe in black. As she moved, I noticed that there were a few slits in the cloth at strategic locations, probably to help the armor breathe better.

“I like it,” she muttered, doing a few stretches. “Feels great.”

“How’s your range of movement?” the old armorer asked. “I had your measurements, of course, but there’s only so much I could do without you actually wearing it.”

“It’s not perfect,” she admitted. “But good. I’m not the agile one, anyway. I just need to be able to hit things hard.”

“Speaking of which,” I pointed out. “Did you test your power on it?”

She flinched a little. “No…not yet. I mean, I’m sure it will work. I can feel the plates, even under the metal. I’m just afraid something will go wrong again.” She shrugged. “Like maybe they’ll break if I push them too hard.”

“I’ll be ready to shield everyone if the suit explodes again,” I promised. “And you can always get new plates.”

She took a deep breath and nodded. “You’re right. Okay, give me a second.” She fell into horse stance, her legs bent, her breathing shallow. Akane and Obould dodged behind me. I’m sure they were both confident in his creation, but better safe than sorry, and one of those plates moving at high speed could actually kill someone. Which reminded me, we needed to look into some sort of stone bullet for Ling, if only as a last resort.

Bah. We were in a city, and she could control concrete. She’d be fine.

My thoughts were brought back to the issue at hand as slowly, ever so slowly, Ling’s arms began to move.

She moved them like in swimming class, bringing them into her chest, then out, then in again and out again. From our perspective, it just looked like she was moving her arms slowly, but I could see the strain on her face.

“Okay, perfect,” Obould said from behind me. “Now fall back and catch yourself, like last time.”

She nodded, and slowly leaned back on her heels. She fell back normally at first, but slowly lowered to an impossible angle, then back up, then back down.

I grinned. “Perfect. You’re doing great. How’s your reservoir?”

She brought herself to a normal angle and opened her eyes. “Pretty much empty. I can’t keep that kind of thing up for long.”

“Let’s take a look at Akane’s while you rest,” Obould suggested, scrambling past me for the box. “Now, I thought we could put some reactive armor weave in here, which should be able to enhance her movements even at super speed.”

Akane perked up at that. “Really?”

“Yes.” The old man paused briefly. “Well, that was the idea, but we’ve had some trouble finding anything that isn’t too bulky.”

Akane’s face fell.

“However,” he said quickly. “We did find a temporary substitute.” He pulled out what at first glance looked like another wetsuit, but I quickly realized was far too flexible to be made out of that kind of material. It was still black, though. I think Obould didn’t trust his eyesight enough to put colors in something. “It’s fitted to your size down to the millimeter. It should feel better than your own skin.”

She touched it gingerly. “Soft.”

He nodded. “It was sewn by a Minerva, using her own silk. It’s not bulletproof—there’s too much give for that—but it is cut and stab proof, and should be mostly fireproof as well.”

“We’ll leave,” I said, as she took the outfit from him.

She grinned devilishly. “No need.” She started taking off her top.

Obould quickly looked away. I started getting a migraine again, and sighed. But before I closed my eyes, right before she got her shirt off, Akane…blurred.

She was suddenly a rush of motion. It lasted barely a second, but when it was done, she was dressed in the Minerva weave, adjusting her sword around her waist.

I blinked. “You…”

She grinned again. “Been practicing in the mornings.” She shrugged. “Getting faster.”

“You should’ve seen her the first couple times,” Ling interjected, smiling a little. “She pretty much just ended up throwing her pajamas everywhere.”

My migraine came back again, and I pinched the bridge of my nose. “That’s…great.” I shook my head to clear out the mental cobwebs. “Anyway, how does it feel?”

Akane flexed her fingers a little. The material there was thinner and tighter than the rest of the suit, probably to make sure it didn’t get in the way of gripping things. The rest of the armor wasn’t quite skin-tight, but it was very well-fitted, with slack in just the right places to give her full range of movement.

“Perfect,” she practically purred. “Much better.” I blinked, and suddenly she was gone, only a slight breeze noting her departure.

“Wow, that’s something,” Obould muttered. It was hard to tell, but I don’t think he was being sarcastic.

I was a bit more impressed. I had thought I was the only one practicing my powers with any regularity. Sure, using them for mundane tasks might not be perfect, but it was something. I was glad she was finally taking this seriously. Before, she had been…hesitant to use her powers outside of combat.

She sped back in suddenly. This time, my eyes happened to be open, and I saw her speed in, albeit as little more than a blur of motion. So she still wasn’t fast enough to be effectively invisible. Well, perhaps I was setting the bar a bit too high.

“Perfect,” she said again, grinning. She blurred again, and it took me a second to realize she was going through a couple quick sword moves. She stopped, sheathing her sword, with a look on her face like…well, like a soldier given a new set of armor. Satisfied. “Perfect.”

Ling picked at Akane’s arm. “You’re right, it is soft. What’s mine made out of, anyway?”

“A high-quality variant of spandex, mostly,” the orc admitted. “It needed to be flexible and breathable. But there’s still a good amount of kevlar woven in there, especially around the plates. It will hold, I can guarantee that.”

She looked at her own arms in admiration. “It feels nice. Though I’m sure the silk is better.” She twisted, apparently trying to get a look at her own rear end. “How much is this going to cost?”

“Five thousand dollars each,” Obould replied.

Ling tripped and fell to the ground.

I raised an eyebrow. “You okay there?”

From the floor, she stared at me in shock, then at Obould and Akane. “Uh…I don’t have that much money. I’m in Domina on a soccer scholarship.”

I bit back a laugh. “Is that what you’re worried about?” I smiled and reached out a hand to help her up. She took it, and I pulled her to her feet. “Don’t even think about it. I’ll be handling the cost.”

She stared up at me again, though it was a bit more disconcerting when she was standing three inches away. “How much money do you guys make from monster slaying, anyway?”

I frowned, trying to think. “Well, that’s a bit tricky…”

“About five thousand dollars a week,” Akane said. “After expenses.” She shrugged. “Better, if it’s something unique that we can sell for a high price.”

“There have been more gargants recently,” I mused. “Which is great for business, but not a good sign.”

Obould snorted. “The Autumn courts are the most inventive of the fey, but not the most prolific. Which means we’ll be seeing fewer of the smaller monsters, and more of the unique ones—like gargants.” He shrugged. “Not much we can do, except kill them when we see them.”

Ling shook her head, as if to intentionally derail her train of thought. “This is depressing,” She grinned and pressed herself against me, which might have actually felt nice if she weren’t wearing armor. “There’s always at least one way to boost spirits.”

Before I could come up with a decent reply, Akane rushed forward at superspeed, ripped Ling away from me, and tackled her out into the hall. The little blonde delinquent yelped and tried to fight back, but Akane had much more experience. She stayed on top without any difficulty, pinning Ling to the floor.

Ling apparently realized she wouldn’t win by fighting fair. She suddenly rose into the air quickly, if a little wobbly, intent on dashing Akane against the ceiling.

Even without factoring in her power, Akane was fast, and backflipped off Ling’s chest before she was in any danger. Ling, in turn, flipped her feet back down, landing in what at first looked like a fighter’s crouch, but which I quickly realized was actually a goalie stance.

I closed the door just as they rushed towards each other.

Women. It seemed like all they did was screw with me. Seriously. I don’t understand why teasing someone is so much fun. It gave me a headache just thinking about it.

“Well,” Obould said slowly. “At least they’re putting the armor through the wringer.” He paused, thinking. “And their powers, too.”

I nodded. “That’s true. Akane’s been getting more comfortable using her speed, and hopefully this will do the same for Ling.” I shook my head. “I’m not quite sure why Akane was so hesitant, though. Usually she’s good about practicing.”

“Oh, that,” the orc chuckled. “She said something to my wife about it. She was afraid using it would age her faster.”

I blinked. “And…what’d your wife say?”

He shrugged. “That there was no way of knowing if it was true, but she needed to practice regardless. Could save her life.”

I turned to the door, beyond which I could still hear the two fighting—hopefully without bringing the entire ‘scraper down.

She was worried about aging? How was that even…what did that have to do with the fight? Maybe it was true, but what did it matter? We lived dangerous lives, in a dangerous city. We were almost certainly going to die long before old age caught up with us. What was the point in worrying about such miniscule time differences?

“Huntsman?” Obould asked. “You worried about the girls?”

I snapped out of my fugue. “No, they’ll be fine. I’m sure they won’t do anything unexplainable in sight of anyone, or destroy anything valuable.” I gestured to the box he had brought the armor in, which also contained a small pad for calculations and transferring money. “Let’s work out exactly how much I owe you.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 55)

Ling’s armor sprung from two related questions I asked myself. 1: What reason is there for her not to be wearing armor? Sure, she’s flexible and stuff, but her power has little to do with that. 2: Remember that cool scene near the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender where Toph metalbended a set of armor for herself? And here we are.

Oh, and Akane’s speed does not age her any faster, even though it really should. None of the powers have any side effects. Sure, a pyrokineticist will still burn himself if he’s not careful, but using the power itself isn’t going to give him a tumor or something.

Scene 50 – Seducere

SEDUCERE

LING

I closed my phone with a click. My class was over, Akane was still at the hospital with Adam and the retinue after a gargant hunt, and Laura was shopping with Lizzy again.

Perfect.

This time, I wasn’t wasting time with a swimsuit. Lingerie under a bath robe is impossible for even the most thick-headed hero to misinterpret. That didn’t mean everything would go perfectly, but I’ve seen this show enough to know what happens. Even if the hero turns down the beautiful, naked love interest, that just signifies that it will evolve into something more real later.

So, this was a win-win for me. Either it worked, in which case I would have a very nice night, or it didn’t, and I’d eventually end up dating Derek for certain.

This time, I wasn’t taking any chances. It was about four, and I had just finished soccer, so I made sure to take a shower first. Then I put on the lacey black lingerie. I called around, making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be—that is, far away from Derek. I finished it off by calling Derek himself, and acting surprised that he was in his room. He invited me over without delay.

Perfect.

I didn’t lock the door behind me; I didn’t have anywhere to put my keys, so I didn’t really have a choice. Across the hall, Derek’s door was closed, but almost certainly unlocked. I just took a deep breath—remembering the similarities to last time—and knocked.

“It’s open!” he called out. I nodded to myself, opened the door, and quickly closed it behind me.

Derek looked up and smiled. “Good, you’re here. Do you have clothes on under that?”

The way he said it threw me off-balance. It was like he wanted me to be naked. “Uh…no? Just some underwear…”

“Perfect,” he said, grinning. “He’ll be here in a couple minutes. You can try it on then.”

“I…” I was at a loss. What the hell was going on? If someone else was coming, this obviously wouldn’t be a good time to go through with my plan; I made sure to tighten the bathrobe—didn’t want it to fall off at the wrong moment.

I pretty much just stood there for about ten minutes, while Derek tapped away at his laptop, oblivious to my discomfort. He seemed to be reading something about gargants, if the pictures were anything to go by, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to lean in closer to get a better look.

Thankfully, there was a knock on the door before things got too unbearable; I jumped forward and opened it. The man standing there, a large cardboard box in his arms, was an orc.

Orcs were a bit complicated. Technically, they were a subculture of demons, but there was so much variety among them it was hard to identify them. Unlike most of the other Houses, orcs pretty much only connected ideologically. Their buffs and cosmos had little to do with their beliefs.

That being said, there were a few things they were known for. Orcs were the death-wranglers, the ones who had forced the vampires to work together long enough to stand a chance against the angels. Therefore, they shared a lot of buffs with the vampire bloodlines. The orc at the door may as well have walked out of the Codex. He was, without a doubt, the stereotypical disciple of Orcus.

He had black horns, longer than normal, curling out from under his hair, and nighteyes hidden by daygoggles. He had large, sharp claws, as well as big tusks jutting out from his lower lips. He had a long mane of dark hair, clean but poorly brushed. He didn’t have a beard, but he did have the stubble of a couple days without shaving.

He pushed past me quickly, muttering a hurried apology, and set the box down on Derek’s bed. Then he turned to me and held out his hand to shake. “Are you Ling?”

I recovered myself quickly and took his hand. His grip was loose, probably to keep me from getting cut by his claws. “Yes, I am. And you are?”

“Obould. I’m here to see how your armor looks.” He started unpacking the box.

I blinked. I had heard of Obould, of course, but I had never met him or even seen him. At least that explained his appearance. He wasn’t pandering to the stereotype; he was the stereotype.

“I asked Ob to get some armor for you and Akane,” Derek explained, turning away from his laptop. “That’s why she asked you for your measurements.”

Ah, right, now I remembered. I had assumed that was in preparation for my birthday.

The orc looked around. “Speaking of which, where is your Akane? Bathroom?”

“No, at the hospital. Some of our friends got injured taking down that gargant.”

Obould clicked his tongue, his tail (which I had just noticed) twitching. “I hope they’re all right.”

Derek nodded. “They should be. Oh! That reminds me.” He gestured to his computer, still displaying the same page as before. “I read your article. Seems interesting.”

The orc grinned, his tusks widening his smile even more. “Yes, it was a new type. Steel-plated gargant, we’re calling it.” He waved his hand. “I haven’t even begun dissecting it, so the current article is just a preliminary report.”

“It’s good,” Derek insisted. “Very in-depth and detailed.”

Obould chuckled. “You flatter me, Huntsman. But ah, now I’m reminded as well. I transferred the money into your accounts. We agreed on twenty thousand for the corpse, correct?”

I choked, and both men turned to me curiously. I waved away their attention.

Twenty thousand? I mean, I knew monster slaying could be lucrative, but that was just…

“Yes, that’s right,” Derek replied. “And we got thirty thousand for killing it in the first place.”

I coughed, trying to get my breath back. What?

This time, they knew better, and ignored me. Obould at least seemed a little surprised. “That seems a bit much.”

The blond hero shrugged. “The park committee freaked out a little and overestimated the bounty. But you can understand where they’re coming from, with that bus it chomped down on. Also, Akane said it was completely steel plated?”

The orc scratched his hairy chin. “Yes, its completely bulletproof. Even the killing blow had to go through the eye. Though if Akane’s report is accurate, the open mouth would have been a better target.” He dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand. “Regardless, all payments have been made. And you—” he turned to me. “—need to try on this armor.”

He held up what looked like a black wetsuit, covered with small pebbles. Each tiny stone had a hole drilled in the middle, and was carefully sewn to the fabric. I touched it gingerly.

“When did you make this?” I muttered. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of pebbles. He would have had to do it all by hand.

He shrugged. “My kids did it. This is just the prototype, of course. We’re hoping it can be a sort of powered armor.”

I frowned. “Wait, what?”

“Obould knows about out powers,” Derek explained. “He wouldn’t have been able to make decent armor if he didn’t.”

That seemed…unnecessarily risky. I might not be the tactician of the group, but even I knew you don’t spread around that kind of secret. Okay, yes, we told Flynn…

“Relax,” Derek admonished me with a chuckle. “I’ve known Ob for years. Just put the suit on, see how it feels.”

“Ah…all right.” I took the armor, such as it was, from the orc. Both the men got up and stepped into the hall while I changed.

Once they were gone, I sighed and dropped my bathrobe, revealing the almost completely see-through lingerie beneath. Such a waste.

The armor was a simple two-piece suit. The comparison to a wetsuit was apt; I think it might have actually been made from one. I slid it on carefully, wary of the rocks, which clicked against each other every time I moved. The bottom was fine, but the top was a little bit tight. I realized I had forgotten to tell Akane I had gained a bit of weight in the chest area recently; I had just rattled off my sizes from memory. Oh well.

I felt silly covered in those pebbles, but I still took a few cautious steps around the room. Nothing fell off, and the suit felt very snug, but it didn’t look like it would actually be effective as any type of armor. Of course, anything is better than nothing, so it was worth a shot.

“Okay, come back!” I called. They came in quickly, nodding approvingly. “I’m ready to try it.”

This was the real payoff. The actual armor quality wasn’t important; it was seeing if I could use it to enhance my strength. And if some of Laura’s theories about out powers improving were right, that would in turn help strengthen my ability.

“Let’s start slow,” the orc counseled. “Try using your power to move your left arm.”

I nodded and closed my eyes. I took a deep breath, concentrating my awareness on my left arm. I could feel the stone woven into the fabric. I reached out and pulled it very, very gently.

My arm moved. An inch. Probably less, actually.

“Okay, good,” Obould said. “Now move it side to side a few times.”

I did, moving it a little father than before. The pebbles didn’t seem to be in danger of ripping off; whatever the suit itself was made out of was stronger than I thought.

“Good, you’re doing great,” the orc said. I heard him move around; my eyes were still closed. “Now, I want you to hold the suit steady while you fall backwards.”

“I…what?”

“Try and fall backwards, but use the suit to hold yourself upright. It’s either this or throw you off a building.”

“Okay,” I cut in quickly, before that idea had too much time to take root in his head. “I’m doing it.” I concentrated on my entire body, grabbing the pebbles of the suit as best I could. Then I fell backwards.

Or rather, I tried. I could feel the pressure on the suit, both against my skin and in my mind, as my power fought against gravity and my muscles. My reservoir was draining relatively fast; I could only keep this up for maybe a minute.

But it was working.

I grinned, keeping my eyes closed. “I’m doing it. It’s working.”

“Good,” Obould said cheerfully. “Let’s try something a little more difficult.” He pushed me on the chest, hard, upsetting my balance. I tried desperately to regain control.

The suit exploded.

I landed hard on my ass and swore, opening my eyes just in time to see Derek’s shield snap out of existence; he had protected himself instinctively. A thin film of rock dust was in the air, and Obould was coughing. I could hear the soft click of pebbles rolling around the room, having not quite expended their kinetic energy yet.

Derek glanced at me, decided I was unhurt, and turned to the orc. “You all right?”

“Yeah,” he replied as graciously as possible, sputtering a little to get the dust out of his throat. “Lucky I was wearing the goggles.” He frowned, and pulled something out of his mouth.

It was one of the pebbles, ripped in half. Not shattered, ripped. I inspected my suit; the threads that were supposed to tie the rocks to it were mostly intact. It was the stone that had failed.

“Huh,” Obould muttered, tossing the pebble away. “Interesting. Well, at least she has the power for it.”

I managed to get to my feet. “The power for what, exactly?”

He grinned. “Flight! I think if we cover you in stone, you can fly!”

I just stared at him.

Derek didn’t seem at all troubled by my destruction of the suit. He touched one of the arms, noting the same things I had. I was a little busy enjoying his grip to pay too much attention.

“Maybe you can get thin pieces of granite or something,” he suggested. “Sew them into a pocket. Think plate mail rather than chain mail.”

Obould frowned. “Well, maybe. Stone doesn’t always shape the way you want, though.”

I looked up. “I could help with that,” I pointed out, feeling useful again. “I can—”

“Affect the viscosity of stone. I know.” The orc nodded, and I didn’t mention I wasn’t sure what viscosity was. “That might work.” He grabbed the box off the bed and upended it, both to remove the pebbles at the bottom and the second set of armor. It also looked a bit like a wetsuit, but without anything sewn to it.

Derek glanced at it. “That Akane’s?”

The old man nodded. “Yeah. Let me know how it fits her.” He turned to me. “Give me back yours, and I’ll let you know when I need your help shaping the stone.”

I shrugged. I wasn’t particularly worried about my armor situation, but if Derek thought it was a good idea, I wasn’t going to say anything. “Sure, let me just give you my e-mail.” I glanced around the room, looking for a pen, but stopped when I remembered something else. “But first, leave so I can get changed.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 50)

Ling could, in fact, fly if she had the proper equipment. Hell, she could just grab a rock and levitate that around. The only limit is her own reservoir. Flight is one of the easiest tricks to pull off. Note trick. There is no power simply called “flight.” The closest would be personal levitation, the ability to control gravity. Even then, it’s more “falling up” than real flight.

But again, flight is very common. Pyrogenics can create rockets, psychokineticists can lift themselves, morphers or shifters can grow wings, people with super speed can jump really high…the list goes on.

Also:  Fifty posts!  A minor milestone, but worth celebrating nonetheless.  You know what?  Extra update Wednesday.  I don’t really like this scene anyway; seems like as good a time to move on as any.