Tag Archives: Pigeon

Scene 291 – Victoria

VICTORIA

ROBYN JOAN

The cork from the champagne bottle almost hit me in the eye.

“To victory!” Tekhiko yelled, holding aloft the foaming bottle. He hadn’t noticed the near-miss. “Domina City still stands! Sumus firmi stare!

Sumus firmi stare!” the rest of us echoed as we raised our glasses. There was much clinking and smiles, even before most people got any champagne.

“I would like to say something,” Fimmtu said as Tekihoko filled his glass. “First, thank you Orla, getting this nice little venue arranged on such short notice.”

Calling this place a ‘venue’ was giving it too much credit; it was just a reserved room at Nervi’s. It was on the second floor, so most people didn’t even know it existed. So, yeah, I guess Orla did a good job finding it.

There was some polite clapping, and a single cheer from Tekihoko. How much had he had to drink?

Fimmtu smiled an ave smile, but continued. “Domina City won its first war—its first war against outsiders, I mean.” There was some chuckling at that. “That’s something to be proud of.” He shrugged. “And, yeah, we fliers didn’t really do anything, but personally, I’m fine with that. We were ready, but we weren’t needed. I’m not sure what else we could have asked for.” He raised his glass higher. “To victory.”

“AD VICTORIAM!” Tekihoko cried, then burst out laughing.

Fimmtu chuckled. “Sure, buddy. Ad victoriam.”

Ad victoriam,” everyone else said, much more calmly, as we drained our glasses.

The toast done, the group broke apart into little cliques of three or four people. Orla went with Justine, Reinhold went with Sascha and Kora, so on and so on. Platon half walked, half carried Tekihoko over to a seat. Other than that, there weren’t any actual drunks yet.

Fimmtu sidled up to me. “Hey, boss.”

I smiled. “Hey. What’s up?”

He shook his head and pretended to sip at his wine. He couldn’t actually drink it, at least not easily, since the glass wasn’t designed for his ave beak. “Hell of a thing that happened here today. Never thought I’d see the day where Domina was attacked by outsiders.”

I rolled my eyes. “My dad saw this coming. Well, he’s just generally paranoid, but he was right this time. I have a feeling he and Butler would have unveiled something nasty if things hadn’t gone our way.”

“How is your dad?” Fimmtu asked. “NHQ, I mean. Did it get attacked at all?”

“Didn’t you look at the battle maps?”

“Local ones only. I couldn’t find the city maps.”

MC had given those to me without a second thought. “They’ll probably get published soon. The Americans didn’t penetrate far, and definitely not as far as NHQ. I think they barely got as far as Little Romania. Even that’s just because the vampires were having too much fun playing with their food.”

“I heard North Gate got hit pretty hard, though.”

“Mostly the gate itself. Shops and businesses. Though I hear they did put a pretty big dent in Seventeen Forge, so that’s gonna be annoying.”

Fimmtu looked thoughtful for a moment. “Seventeen is fully automated these days, right?”

I shook my head. “You’re thinking of Ninety-Seven, over in Dire Maul. I didn’t hear anything about it getting attacked. Besides, it’s still just an experiment anyway.”

He shook his head. “Which one is Seventeen? What’s it called?”

I struggled to remember. “…Tanzō.”

He nodded. “Right, right. Yeah, I spent some time there. Basic assembly line work. You have a casualty report?”

“I could look it up.”

“Nah, it’s fine.” He sighed. “It’s got safe rooms and all that. If any of my friends got killed, it was because they were too stupid to run.”

I frowned. “Victim blaming isn’t healthy.”

He raised an eyebrow, which was impressive to see on a full ave anthro. “Since when did you sound like a psychologist? Have you actually been showing up to class?” He chuckled. “Surprised the school hasn’t shut down completely.”

I took a deep pull of my wine. “I’m…”

In therapy.

I could say it. No need to mention Silk or any of the weirder stuff. Just… I’m in therapy. Simple and easy. All I had to do was say it.

The only problem was that Domina didn’t like therapy. In this city, if you had problems, you were supposed to go out and kill something like a normal person. Monsters were great for catharsis.

“I’ve picked up a few things here and there,” I said. “Being trapped in NHQ for a few years gave me a lot of free time.”

“I can imagine.” He shuffled his wings. “Any chance you’ve picked up anything about bird mites?”

I chuckled. “No. Pretty sure you’re one of the first humans to have that problem. Why don’t you go ask Delia, or someone else at G’Hanir?”

He rolled his eyes. “I didn’t exactly leave on good terms.”

“So? First time I was there, Akane exploded her shoulder breaking through a top story window. We’ve gone back there a few times since, no problems.”

Fimmtu gave me a confused look. “I know what those windows are made of. How did she just shoulder it open?”

“Super speed. Like a bullet from a gun.”

He shivered. “Ugh. She’s lucky she didn’t just splat like a bug.”

“Speaking of bugs…”

He rolled his eyes again. “Okay, I set you up for that one.” He pretended to sip his drink again while scanning the party. “I’ll look into it. Some of the hawkmasters might have something. Until then, let’s just enjoy this party.” He took a deep breath. “I doubt things are going to stay peaceful forever.”

I chuckled. “Half the city is partying right now. We won a war!”

“Parties can turn to riots when enough drink is involved. Besides, it’s not like the entire city stopped fighting each other to defend against the Americans. The ‘sarians still have plenty to worry about.”

“Like what? All the major cultures were involved in the fight, even the fey. Unless you think the skulls used the opportunity to try and claim some territory.”

He wasn’t amused by the joke. “Off the top of my head, I didn’t hear anything about the Nessians in the fighting.”

My smile disappeared. “Did they take someone?”

“I’m sure they did, but no, I don’t have any direct evidence of it.” He sighed. “I’m sure someone will just disappear in the chaos, and we’ll never find them again. Maybe one of the lesser kemo clans will get a new slave, but no one will be able to prove anything.”

I leaned back against the wall. “Is Asmodeus still doing business with the fey?”

Fimmtu gave me a sad ave smile. “Skies above only know. I haven’t heard anything about it since their reformatting. They might have just taken it underground. On the other hand, the fey don’t seem to need slaves these days. People are joining them willingly.”

“Maybe it will be enough to finally kill them off,” I said. “The Nessians, I mean. Force of arms couldn’t get rid of them, but if they have no customers, they’ll dry up on the vine. Even the Belians are ignoring them now.”

Fimmtu looked confused for a moment, before nodding. “Oh, right, Fierna cut ties with them. I heard about that. She seems to be doing well—better than her father, at least. She sent some drakes to help on East Gate.”

Fierna. Yeah. Kelly had been doing well for herself. Or at least the best she could.

I sighed. “I’m gonna go get another drink.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 285)

Sumus firmi stare is the official Domina City motto. It doesn’t get much use, but nothing stirs patriotic feelings like being attacked by an outside army.

Scene 254 – Scultator

SCULTATOR

ROBYN JOAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

I stared. “What?”

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

“Then why am I even here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard someone land on the roof behind me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was exactly what Kelly had been doing.

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 254)

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

Scene 240 – Fugam

FUGAM

ROBYN JOAN

“No,” I said, and turned to step off the roof.

“Honored Paladin, please, just hear us out!” Fimmtu, the crow anthro, cried. “You’ve been avoiding us for weeks! All we want is to talk.”

I floated a few feet off the edge of the roof, and turned to face him. “The fact that I’ve been avoiding you for weeks is a sign that I don’t want to talk. I have work to do. MC needs someone to spy on those kytons.” Probably shouldn’t have told him that, but oh well.

“Is that what you’ve been doing?” he asked as he stepped closer to the edge. He clearly wasn’t scared of heights; his wings might not give him flight as precise as my levitation, but he still had little to fear from a mere fifty-floor drop. “Spying on the colleges?”

That was the name Laura had coined for the new, power-based gangs. MC had thought it was clever and decided to spread it around, and the rest was history.

“I’m not interested in being recruited.”

“This isn’t about you joining anyone.”

I sighed. I understood what he meant. He wasn’t looking for a follower, he was looking for a leader. At least he had come alone this time. It was easier to talk to him without a flock of fliers watching.

“Fine,” I said, floating just outside of reach, arms crossed over my chest. “Speak.”

The ave paused for a moment. “…we may have found Ling.”

I blinked. “What?

“Maybe!” he insisted, holding up his claws in a placating gesture. “She’s not staying anywhere specific, and seems to be just wandering the city at random. But there are people after her, who are trying to find her to get her help.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That sounds familiar.”

He continued bravely on. “We can’t guarantee it’s her. But she wouldn’t have left the city, so it’s as good a chance as any. Watching Hawk has been letting us use the top floors of G’Hanir as a temporary base, so—”

“Wait, Watching Hawk?” I interrupted. “Haven’t heard of that one.”

“Oh.” His feathers ruffled, and I had a feeling he would have been blushing in embarrassment if he still had any exposed skin left. “That’s Delia. Remember, she was the leader of the warhawks? With Soaring Eagle gone, she’s taken over as Animal King.”

“All right, whatever.” Was that adverb-noun naming convention tradition now? “I assume that’s your offering. You help me find Ling, I help you with your little flight school.”

“College, actually.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “You know I’m not a fighter.”

His tone was subdued. “Yes, Honored Paladin.”

“I’ve never led anyone at all. This is probably going to end up with us all dead.”

“Yes, Honored Paladin.”

“All right,” I muttered grumpily, annoyed but still more interested than I would like to admit. I opened my eyes and stepped onto the roof, then strode across it, heading for the other side. “Follow me. We’re heading to G’Hanir.”

Once Fimmtu spread his wings and soared after me, I had a chance to get a better look at his wings. They were sleek with black feathers, and maybe ten or more feet wide from tip to tip. Even at that size, and even with hollow bones, I was surprised that they could still carry him at any speed.

He did have speed, though. He was faster than me, though neither of us was going at full tilt, and he had the ability to stop flapping and just glide for minutes at a time. That was a skill I was still lacking; you really need wings or some other broad, flat surface to glide for more than a couple seconds. I pretty much had to have my ability on at all times, or else I’d start falling.

That was another advantage of his. Since his power was morphing, he didn’t really need to do anything with it any more. It was so slow that it took days to make any sort of major changes—but on the plus side, those changes were permanent. His wings weren’t going to disappear or weaken if his reservoir ran out.

He did explain though, during one of our rest stops while we waited for my reservoir to replenish, that he could use his power to smooth over fatigue and exertion. So while I had much, much better maneuverability and control than him (and possibly speed), he could fly for most of the day without any problems, while I only had about an hour and a half before I needed to rest.

We were on the opposite side of the city when Fimmtu found me, but we were able to make very good time. It probably would have taken the entire day to reach G’Hanir if we had gone by car (maybe a third of that if we took the light rail), but by air it was only about two hours.

We eventually landed on one of the smaller buildings surrounding the massive ave ‘scraper. With a start, I realized it was one of the ones I had perched on the last time I was here, looking for Ling.

“Can we go through the front door?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

He shook his head. “We could, but it would be a bad idea. Lending us the top few floors is a favor; marching through the rest of the building would annoy the aves, and Watching Hawk might decide to change her mind. Besides, enemy spies watch the door.”

“They don’t watch the skies?”

“We’ve only been here a day,” he noted with one of those ave beak-smiles that was so hard to describe. “Give them a little more time. I’m sure someone will look up at the wrong moment soon enough.”

“Yes, well…” I nodded at the massive edifice in front of us. Even standing on the roof of a fifty-floor building, it seemed to stretch up out of sight. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to make that? I know vertical lift is difficult with wings.”

“There are plenty of thermals coming off the streets,” he assured me. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Not seeing any alternative, I sighed, slipped on my mask, and rocketed up towards the top of the tower.

It was easier than last time, probably because I actually knew I could do it. I did notice a surprising number of ledges that weren’t there last time, though, apparently recently installed to give fliers spots to land and rest if necessary. I didn’t need them, but at my leisurely pace, I was moving slow enough to spot the cameras dotting the platforms. Apparently my last break in had taught the aves the weakness of their security.

Speaking of my last break in, I couldn’t spot the window Akane and I had destroyed the last time I was here, even after a quick loop around the building. They must have replaced it already. Good thing, too. At this height, an open window would have rendered the entire floor practically uninhabitable.

I landed on the very top of the ‘scraper, above the tier I had crashed on last time. The door was where I remembered it, and I waited a few minutes for Fimmtu.

He wasn’t too far behind, and I was surprised to find that he wasn’t wearing a mask of any kind. The air was pretty thin up here, and he was getting a little wobbly, so I rushed him inside. There were some buffs to make high-altitude breathing easier, but nothing good enough to stay here for long. He needed fresh air, fast.

The second I closed the airlock behind us, I found a half-dozen guns pointed at us.

I raised my hand in shaky surrender—the other was around Fimmtu’s shoulders, supporting him—and tried to smile. “Easy there, boys and girls. We’re fliers, just like you. Fimmtu gave me the impression we were invited.”

It was crowded in the small space, and the guns didn’t make it feel any better. After a moment though, one of the men clad head to toe in black tactical gear nodded and lowered his weapon. The rest followed suit, and I nodded in thanks as I dragged my ave friend down the stairs.

The security guard who had signaled the all-clear to the others was only a few steps behind me. Once we reached the landing a couple flights down and had more room, I stopped and turned to face him.

“Thank you,” I told him honestly. “I know everyone’s on edge recently. I appreciate you trusting us.”

“Trust nothing,” a female voice from behind the face-concealing helmet quipped. “I knew you were coming. Just wish Pig had called when you were a few minutes away.”

I tabled the question of who ‘Pig’ was. “I saw cameras on the ledges, down below. There still aren’t any on the roof?”

The woman pulled off her helmet, revealing the lightly olive colored skin that I always thought of as the mark of Mediterranean ancestry and a pretty face marred by a scowl. “No, there aren’t. I keep trying to talk to Watching Hawk about it, but she’s been distracted recently.”

“Understandable.” As Fimmtu regained his senses and stopped leaning on me, I extended my hand to the guard. “Robyn Joan Clarke, at your service.”

“Teuta Merimangë,” she said as she shook my hand firmly. “Pleasure.”

It took me a second to realize where I recognized that name. “You’re an arach. A Lolth. One of the ones who disabled all the ‘sarians on the Ring, when Soaring Eagle needed to steal the toy box back.”

The passer raised an eyebrow as she broke off my grip. “You’re good. Good memory, good sources. That was what, two months ago? With everything that’s happened, I’m surprised you remember the name of some random merc who was on the scene.”

“I did some research, and your last name means ‘spider.’ It stuck in my memory.”

She laughed, white teeth flashing, and I had a feeling that those slightly enlarged ones in the front were probably hollow and connected to poison glands. “Yeah, not the most original name for a spider kemo, is it? But it’s as good as any other.” She headed towards the door. “C’mon, let’s get out of this boring stairwell. You need to meet your college.”

I followed her quickly, Fimmtu still dazed but not too far behind. “Are you a flier?”

She shook her head as she led us through the calm office space filled with cubicles I remembered from last time. It still amazed me how the fact that every cubicle had a good view of the broad windows made the room feel so much more open than those cramped offices most cultures used.

“I’m a teleporter,” she explained. “My range is incredible—ten miles and change—but I need an accurate photo of where I’m jumping, and it kicks me right in the ass every time I do it. My reservoir is slow to refill, too. I’m lucky if I can jump twice a day.”

“Keep at it,” I recommended. “The powers improve as you practice. They all start out hard to use, though I will admit yours is on the deep end.”

She smiled again. She had a nice smile. Most passers did, I found—it was easier to hide in plain sight when people liked you. “Thanks, I appreciate it. I know this must be overwhelming, suddenly being a celebrity.”

I smiled back. “Well, I’m used to people knowing who I am. The problem is, I usually deal with it by running away.” I shook my head sadly. “It’s stupid, but I’d probably feel better if I knew I had some way out of this. Like a trampoline under a tightrope walker.”

“We don’t have a trampoline, unfortunately,” the arach apologized, still grinning. “But this might make you feel a little better.” She dropped a small remote in my hand, with only a single button hidden behind a safety panel, like a detonator. It was labeled ‘Conference Room 9.’

“What is—” I blinked. “This can’t be what I think it is.”

“It is.”

“But—I thought—” I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t make any sense. I was up here before, I was in a position to know whether or not they have some sort of emergency override or whatever—”

“They didn’t,” she admitted. “But a lot of damage was done during the Rampage. Most of this level and several others had to be replaced. With the large number of fliers up here now, Watching Hawk thought the adjustments were only prudent.”

I carefully slipped the remote into my pocket. “Thank you very much.”

“You are very welcome,” she answered genuinely. “And while I’d love to talk to you a bit more about the powers and everything, but I think your apprentices will get mad at me if I take up any more of your time.”

That threw me off balance. “My… my what?”

“Your apprentices,” she repeated, stopping before a door to some sort of conference room. Presumably, number nine. Ah yes, there was the label, on a small plaque next to the door. “If the group is a college, then you are the teacher, and they your students.” She gave me a grin and a wink as she opened the door. “Show your apprentices what you can do, Magister Clarke.”

I was practically shoved into the room, Fimmtu once again a step behind me. I heard the door click shut, and had to make an effort of will not to turn to check if it was locked. Pupils or not, I didn’t want to show weakness in front of these people.

And what a group of people they were. I recognized many of them from the other times Fimmtu had tried to speak to me, but most were new. Baselines and aves and demons and trolls—three or four dozen people, crammed into this relatively small conference room, all to see me. How had this been set up so fast?

At least the avian preference for big windows made the room feel larger than it was. Akane and others I had spoken to said they found the view disconcerting at this incredible height, but everyone here was a flier. It would take more than a half-mile drop to make us blink.

I had no idea what to do.

I was not a leader of any stripe. I had never even taken charge of so much as a tiny little school project for class. I had no idea what these people wanted from me, let alone how or whether to give it. I was seriously considering running out the door, breaking it down if I had to.

Adapt or die.

That was what my father always said. His answer to every problem in the universe. It was why he had invented the toy maker; he had created the perfect device for adaptation. A device that could allow even Uncle Art, a man with more diseases than most epidemiology books, to survive for decades.

I wasn’t a leader? Fine. I’d become one. And this was a college, right? Even if being a leader might be difficult for me, I could at least pretend to be a teacher. I had enough experience with both leaders and teachers to fake some combination of the two. Probably.

I strode over to the table in the corner piled with refreshments, hopefully with what looked like a confident gait. “Apologies for being a little on the late side,” I managed as I poured myself a water. “Honored Fimmtu did not inform me you were all assembled. I would have hurried if he had.” I turned to face the crowd and leaned casually against the table as I sipped my water. “You have information for me, I believe?”

They all stared at me.

After a moment, a pair of twin kemos—not full anthros, just ears—spoke up. “I thought you were you were here to lead us, Honored Paladin.”

And yes, both of the twins spoke at once. A pod-brain, then, and a relatively young one at that. With the advent of telepathy, true pod-brains had become more common. Or, at least, less incredibly rare. Most of them learned within a couple days that talking in stereo creeped people out.

I raised a finger. “Magister.”

Both twins cocked their heads at me.

“Honored Magister is the term, I believe.” I sipped at the water more. Could they tell my hands were shaking? No, I had that under control. Wait, what about my smell? Some kemos and vampires had noses good enough to smell fear. “That lovely arach passer said that was the preferred term for the leader of colleges, though I will confess I haven’t had time to check.”

Remain calm. Don’t shake, don’t tremble. Don’t let them see.

“…that appears to be correct,” one of the giants, a troll girl with yellow skin and some sort of plastic bands on her arms asked. She would be a Mancal, a member of the troll scientist caste. “But the bird brought you here to lead us, not to exchange information.”

C’mon, I had watched Uncle Art lead my entire life, I could fake it well enough. “What is leading but exchanging information? I will confess, I am not sure what exactly what you want from me, specifically, but I am under the impression you want to learn to use your powers more effectively.”

Slowly, most of the people in the room nodded in cautious agreement.

“The best way to learn is by doing,” I insisted blithely. “Searching for one particular girl in the entire city will strain your abilities to the limit, force you to work together, and improve both your personal and team skills.”

“That seems a bit selfish of you,” another, a demon this time, grunted.

I shrugged as casually as I could. “I am taking advantage, I won’t try and hide it. But this genuinely is for your benefit as well, I promise.” I looked him straight in the eye. “I don’t see a need to lie to any of you. The truth is easier.”

How much easier would the fight against Elizabeth have gone, if I had been truthful with the others from the very start? Sure, with the screamers cured, the death toll was surprisingly low, but still far higher than I would have liked.

“So, what?” the pod-brain from before demanded, both mouths speaking as one again. “You want us to just fly out, scouring hundreds of miles of urban landscape to find one girl who doesn’t want to be found?”

“You’re the ones who said you knew where she was,” I noted. “I suppose I could go by myself, but that wouldn’t really teach any of you any lessons, would it?”

“This isn’t a lesson,” the demon insisted. “It’s just labor exploitation.”

“You want a lesson? Fine. We’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Seems fitting, seeing as we’re in the ave’s domain.” I pulled the remote out of my pocket with one hand—the other keeping a firm grasp on my drink—flipped off the safety, and pressed the button.

The windows slid open.

It was actually an interesting design. Not only did the door behind me lock solidly the second I pressed the button, but the large panoramic glass windows were careful to slide horizontally open, where they locked into place covering the windows of the rooms to our left and our right. It was likely a safety feature, a way to keep too many windows open at once. This high up, we could lose most of the air on the floor if we weren’t careful.

“I learned some things about being a mother from my sister,” I shouted over the howling winds as everyone else in the room grabbed desperately at the table (which was bolted to the floor) or each other. The winds would die down shortly, but at the moment they were strong enough to life even the giants off the floor. I, of course, simply increased my personal gravity and stayed firmly in place. “Sometimes you’ve gotta be harsh. And this is how the birds do it—fly or die. Kick you out of the nest and see if you survive.”

I walked up to the demon who had been mocking me earlier. He was clinging to the table, wild-eyed. He didn’t need to hold on for much longer; I’d be surprised if the gale-force winds lasted another minute.

I kicked him in the chest.

He went flying out the window the second his grip loosened, and not under his own power.

I pointed after him. “FLY!”

My various pupils looked hesitant, but they knew they didn’t have a choice. The podbrain was first, her twin bodies holding hands tightly, followed by the Manca and a young demon on a flying carpet.

By the time the winds had died down seconds later, everyone had already released their grip on the table, and was outside in the open air.

Except for me, of course.

I calmly finished my water, then set it down and grinned.

I was probably having more fun with this than was healthy.

With a whoop, I followed them into the clear blue sky around G’Hanir.

G’Hanir was the ave domain.

This was ours.

Behind the Scenes (scene 240)

Originally, this was quite a bit later (253), until I realized it fit better here.

Scene 230 – Volatus

VOLATUS

ROBYN JOAN

“Huh.” I put the binoculars down and sat back on the edge of the rooftop. I had been using the perch to spy on Akane and her nephews, but unfortunately I didn’t have any ability to hear what was going on down there. She apparently caught a thief, said something to the ‘sarians sent to investigate… and now they were walking off together?

Whatever. I guess I could ask her later. For now, MC had asked me to return to NHQ for help with something or other. She hadn’t given much detail, but it was probably something small. Maybe my dad had finally perfected that high-altitude lung I had been asking about.

I tucked my binoculars into my pouch even as I walked. This was a relatively short building, just a couple dozen floors or so, so there was no need for that oxygen mask Lizzy—Elizabeth—had gotten me. It was surrounded by taller ‘scrapers, which would normally make roof hopping a pain in the ass, which was part of why I had chosen it.

I stepped off the edge of the roof without hesitation, immediately and effortlessly floating up to the top of the next building forty or fifty feet straight up. It barely even made a dent in my reservoir, and once I landed, it was full again only moments later.

“Pure levitation, huh?” a friendly voice called out. “That’s cool.”

While trying to keep my heart from bursting out of my chest, I slowly turned to see the speaker. He was a shirtless ave anthro, a crow if I wasn’t mistaken, covered from head to toe in big black feathers with an equally black beak. His arms ended in sharp talons, and his feet were much the same. It was a rather impressive amount of modification, though maybe less so when your father was the one who invented the toy maker.

Except for his wings.

Massive black-feathered wings, folded up behind his back, where they rose above his head.

Adam had mentioned the aves had a few wing designs. This was far and above what they had managed previously. Everything else was just a pitiful, feeble attempt at brute-forcing the growth of a delicate and complex appendage that nature had never intended for human use.

This was not the twisted, twitching mess he had described. I hadn’t even seen the wings unfold, but I knew that they would let this ave fly. Call it intuition.

“I think they’re calling my power morphing,” he explained, answering the question I was too awestruck to actually ask. “Slow but permanent physical changes.” His wings twitched, and he grinned in that odd way that ave anthros did. “Took me a while to get these working. I haven’t slept since Greene got put on ice.”

“But that…” I shook my head. “That still shouldn’t be enough time. Growing fully functional wings out of nothing is—”

“Not out of nothing,” he corrected. “I was part of the test trials for the wings. So I had something to build on.” He shrugged, feathers rustling. “Even if it was just a flawed and broken design, I was able to fix it and improve it with my powers.”

“And… you’ve flown?” I pressed. “You’ve actually flown around?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, grinning again. He actually winked. “Just a little.”

“I…” I shook my head. “I don’t know what to say.”

“An introduction would be nice.”

I smiled now too, and bowed with mock formality. “Robyn Joan Clarke, at your service. Paladin of Domina City, serving under Paragon Huntsman.” Derek might be pretending that he still wasn’t a warlord, but I knew better.

He bowed as well. “And I am Fimmtu Væng. Formerly a Hunter of Soaring Eagle, now making my own way in the world.”

“…didn’t she flee the city when Necessarius started closing in?”

That small grin was back. “Hence the formerly.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “While I do find your wings interesting and everything, I’m a bit curious as to what you’re doing here.” I narrowed my eyes. “I doubt it was a coincidence you just so happened to be on this rooftop.”

Fimmtu blinked. “Wait, I didn’t… ” I scratched his head, wincing. “Sorry, sorry, I had this whole… thing planned, and then I screwed it up by forgetting to do it…”

“Skip to the end,” I snapped, annoyed again.

“My kit has been tracking you, Robyn Joan,” he answered swiftly. “We wanted to meet the flier of the Paladins.”

“Your kit?” I asked with a frown. Wasn’t that a word for a baby fox or something?

“My kit,” he confirmed, sweeping his arm majestically.

The roof was flat and empty. What was he—

Then they appeared.

Aves, baselines, vampires, demons, and angels… even a couple giants. Dozens of people, of every culture and subculture you cared to name, all appeared at the crow’s call.

Every one of them flew up from below my sight range.

Some of them had wings. The aves and angels tended to have feathers, while most of the demons and vampires had leathery bat-wings. Some of them stayed firmly in place when they landed, like Fimmtu’s, but most smoked out of existence once they were no longer needed.

Most, however, had strange powers that I wouldn’t have thought to equate with flight. I saw a giant—a troll, it looked like—with flames sputtering out from her hands. A primitive and simple rocket, using some type of pyrokinesis. A baseline had steel bands wrapped tightly around his arms, and I realized with a start that he was using the same trick as Ling, levitating something he could control—metal, in his case—to levitate himself. One young demon appeared to be sitting on a flying carpet.

Others levitated with no visible propulsion, like me. Control of personal gravity. I was surprised to find myself feeling a bit of prideful arrogance, as if they were the only real fliers here.

“These are all the fliers I’ve been able to collect,” Fimmtu explained happily. “Everyone here wants what I want.” He smiled at me with that ave smile again. “To meet you, Robyn Joan Clarke.”

Despite the fact that everyone was all smiles, I was starting to get a bad feeling. They were… too friendly. Far too friendly for people I had never met. “Why? What do you want from me?”

“Nothing much,” the anthro insisted, holding up his claws in a placating gesture. “Just the opportunity to learn from your experience. You have had your power for longer than everyone here combined. We simply want you to try and teach us.”

This… was starting to feel like they were trying to induct me into a cult. A cult I would be leading, I guess, but still, it just felt… off. “Flying isn’t hard. You all seem to have figured it out well enough. What do you need me for?”

Fimmtu fumbled slightly. He didn’t seem like a very experienced public speaker. “Need? We… I…” He took a deep breath. “We don’t need anything from you. We want to form a community of fliers. A school, or college, I guess you would call it.”

“Look, I’m… flattered. But I have other things to worry about right now. I’m sorry, but I’m sure you guys will get on just fine without me.” I nodded politely at the group, and headed for the edge of the roof.

“You’re still looking for Ling Yu, right?”

I stopped dead, one foot over the edge.

I turned back around. “…yes. How did you know that?”

The ave swallowed. “It wasn’t hard to figure out. Once her roommate was outed as a Paladin, everything just sort of… slipped into place. But that’s not the point.” He steeled himself. “We can help look for her.”

“Do you know where she is?” I demanded, eyes narrow.

“No, of course not—”

“Then what use are you?”

The crow anthro was starting to get frustrated. “Skies above, we’re just trying to help! Are you really telling me that you honestly can’t see the benefit in having another dozen pairs of eyes scouring the city for her?”

“Look buddy,” I snapped back. “I don’t know you. I don’t know any of these people. I’m sorry, but I have no reason to trust you farther than I can throw you.” I stepped off the edge. “If you find Ling, or anything else you feel is important, report it to MC.”

I flew off at top speed, hoping I would prove faster than them.

They didn’t even bother following.

Behind the Scenes (scene 230)

“Kit” can mean several things. One meaning is “a group of pigeons.”

Scene 189 – Apsens

APSENS

ADAM

I rubbed my forehead. “What do you mean, you can’t find her?”

“Exactly as I said,” MC’s fake voice said calmly. “The GPS locator in Miss Yu’s phone claims she is in her room, and Miss Akiyama has confirmed she simply left it behind. Without her phone, I have no way of tracking her. I am sorry.”

Of course. Of course. When I had reached the location Ling had given me as the ave lab, I had waited an hour for her to show up, before barging into the warehouse and freaking out a couple of fels involved in some drug deal.

Although I couldn’t be completely sure, the fact that Ling herself wasn’t here made it pretty obvious that she had sent me on a wild goose chase on purpose.

I sighed. My first thought had been to call MC, but I hadn’t even considered the possibility that Ling would have ditched her phone. She was a ditz who spent most of her time watching anime! How could—

Oh. Right. On tv, people got caught all the time because they brought their phones with them when they were doing something they shouldn’t. I guess she had learned her lesson from all that.

Obviously, I couldn’t just give up, but where was I supposed to look? The ave lab we attacked the other day was surely abandoned by now, and since the birds were in hiding, there was no one else I could ask.

Unless…

“MC,” I said into my phone. “Goblins aren’t nomadic, right?”

“Most of the subculture is not, no.”

“Are the goblins from the other day still there?”

“I am sorry, I am not quite sure what you mean. Please clarify the question.”

Right, right, this wasn’t the real MC. Needed to quantify my requests a little bit. “Uh…the other day, you called me about the election while I was in front of a skyscraper with a goblin nest at the top. Are the goblins that Ling was speaking to then there now?”

“Not all of them, but most. Would you like me to call them?”

“No,” I said a little too fast. “No, just give me directions.” Before I hung up, I had another thought. “Oh, and can you call me a cab?” Normally, the traffic in this part of the city would have been bumper-to-bumper, but people were still worried due to the fey and Composer. They were filtering back into the streets little by little, but not enough to be a real travel impediment.

“Of course.” There was a short pause. “The cab will arrive at your location within five minutes. Will there be anything else?”

“That’s all, thanks.” I hung up feeling satisfied.

The cab showed up after only a minute or two, and after the driver confirmed my destination, we were off. As expected, it didn’t take too long to get to the building from the other day. Now the question was, how would I get to the actual goblins?

Well, hopefully I’d have a better idea of what to do once I was actually on the roof. For now, I just needed to take the elevator up.

The concierge of the apartment building gave me an odd look—I was still decked out in full kit, with armor and guns and everything—but otherwise ignored me as I crossed the lobby for the elevator. It was a surprisingly nice lobby too, with marble floors and professional upholstery. It looked like a nice hotel, not some cheap copy-paste apartment complex.

Still, I didn’t waste any time wondering about that. Ling would be fine for a little while, but once she got St. John’s location out of Turgay, she’d probably hare after him. That was the only reason I could think of that she would have sent me away. And while she was getting better, she still wasn’t a killer, and we had no idea what powers her old orphanmate had. Going after him on her own was a bad move.

After an excruciatingly long elevator ride—why were all the buildings in this stupid city fifty stories or taller?—I finally reached the top floor, and from there it was just a quick jog up the stairs to the roof.

I have no idea what kind of deal the goblins had made with the owners of the building, but it was immediately apparent that this wasn’t some temporary base.

Think…think of a playground. A really nice one, with suspension bridges and monkey bars and anything else you could climb on, all connected to nice, solid metal poles. Imagine this play structure as big as you can, a densely connected jungle of ropes and beams and climbing walls.

Now imagine this playground is on a rooftop, extending out into empty space for thirty feet in every direction.

It wasn’t hard to see why Ling had called it a nest. I hadn’t been able to tell the other day due to the sun being in my eyes, but I could easily imagine that from below, this building would like that it had a massive bird’s nest on the top, with twigs poking out in every direction.

I’m not a bad climber, I guess, but this thing was not designed for someone like me. Just from where I was standing, at the door back into the building, I could see a handful of spots where the only way to proceed was to jump ten or more feet. No wonder Ling had told me to stay downstairs.

“You lost?” someone asked from behind me.

I turned around to see a child, maybe ten years old or so, with emerald green skin and no hair, staring at me with large round eyes from on top of the little structure that contained the door back down. She was topless, though wearing a sport’s bra that she probably didn’t need.

“Actually, no,” I said as I turned to what I assumed was a goblin. “Can I speak to whoever’s in charge?”

“That would be me,” she responded without blinking. It was hard to tell if she was being honest or not. Sure, the toy maker could conceivably make you look like a child, but still…

She snapped her long fingers—likely designed for better gripping—to get my attention again. “Oy, baseline. You still with me?”

I shook my head to clear it. “Yeah, sorry. Were you here Friday? A friend of mine, a baseline named Ling Yu, came to talk to you guys.”

The green girl nodded. “Right, right. The one looking for the vampire.”

I did a double-take. “Uh, no. She was looking for an ave.” I glanced around, but if there were any other of the little demons around, I didn’t see them. “Is there someone else I could talk to?”

The goblin laughed. “Don’t sweat it, I was just testing you. Yeah, she came by, looking for Turgay. What’s it to you?”

Well, I could either come up with a plausible-sounding lie she wouldn’t believe anyway, or…

“I was supposed to help her find Turgay, but she sent me somewhere else. I’m worried she might be in trouble.”

My diminutive friend shrugged. “Okay. Give me a minute to get the exact location.”

Who says honesty is for suckers?

The goblin girl leaped past me, flipped around a horizontal bar, climbed up a wall, jumped to a hanging rope, until she was out of sight.
So. Goblins were good at climbing. That…was something to remember.

It didn’t take too long for the emerald-skinned girl to come somersaulting back. When she was right side up again, she handed me a flash drive.

“The same thing we gave Ling,” she explained. “Her bird’s itinerary.”

I took the device, but eyed it a little warily. “How’d you get this?”

“Corvi gave it to us. He was trying to schedule a meet between Soaring Eagle and the Erlking, so he wanted us to know his exact schedule.”

“Erlking, Erlking…” That name was familiar, but not from Domina City. “Isn’t that the name of some mythological elf? Wait, no, there was hunting involved…”

The goblin waved her hand. “You know how myths are. It’s impossible to sort everything out. But the point is, our Erlking is the Power of the goblins. He and Soaring Eagle have had some disagreements over property before.”

I frowned. “How many people has she stolen from?”

She barked out a short laugh. “No, nothing like that. Most people let goblins squat on their roofs, though for big stuff—” She waved her hand to indicate the massive structure covering the roof. “—we need to pay rent. But the aves use their roofs, so…” She shrugged. “Just lots of trouble all around that could have been avoided with a little more talking on both sides.”

“I understand that,” I muttered. “But I hope that all works out in your favor. If you don’t mind, I’ve got to…” I gestured to the door.

“Of course, of course, you do what you have to do.” She smiled up at me. “But you come back and visit some time, okay?”

I nodded genuinely. The goblins seemed fun. Besides, we might need their help against Elizabeth’s Blackguards. No harm in being nice.

As I waited in the elevator back down, I plugged the flash drive into my phone—thank you Derek, for making me get one with the right port—and started looking through it. It was exactly like she had said; the ave’s schedule, formatted in a way that let it sync with a few common scheduling apps, including one I had.

Okay, right now he was supposed to be in…West Central? The edge of it, sure, but still, that seemed like an odd place to have a lab.

But looking closer, it was in the exact opposite direction Ling had sent me, so maybe it was the right spot after all. Either way, it shouldn’t take too long to get there by light rail.

I knew I should probably call the others, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to bother them. Derek and Laura had been kidnapped a few days ago, and were still dealing with the fallout of that. Trying to get access to the dorm’s CCTV network, discussing what they had discovered with Jarasax and some ‘sarian fey experts, stuff like that.

Akane would probably be a good choice normally, but she was having a lot of fun with Flynn—no matter how much she tried to deny it—and I didn’t feel right interrupting that. Besides, they were probably in the middle of NHQ by now. It would take them a bit too long to get here.

But what about…

I pulled out my phone again and dialed one of the numbers on my speed dial. She picked up by the second ring.

“Anders?” Kelly asked. “Something happen?”

“Hopefully I’m just being paranoid, but I’m having trouble finding Ling. We were gonna raid an ave lab, and she sent me to the wrong location. If you’re available, some backup would be nice.”

There was a slight pause, during which I could hear the muffled sounds of her discussing the situation with the rest of the retinue. But she was back in a minuter or two. “Sure. Do you have a location?”

“Yeah.” I gave her the address in West Middle. “You want to meet there, or you pick me up?”

“One sec…no, you’re a bit too far away. We’ll meet you there. You’re taking the rail, right?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Good, a taxi would be murder. We’ll be about a block away from the building. I’ll send you the exact spot once we’re there.”

As I thought, it didn’t take more than half an hour to get to the edge of West Middle from the disused warehouse in the South. From there, it was a simple matter to follow the GPS on my phone to the retinue’s van, parked out of sight of the suspected ave lab.

I glanced around the vehicle as I slid the door closed behind me. “Where’s Alex?”

“Scoping out the lab,” Kelly explained, as she scratched the device on her arm.

“Good thing, too,” George rumbled. “He’s been depressed recently.”

That made me frown in confusion. “Why?”

The giant shrugged as he cleaned his massive Gatling gun. “He’s the tracker, and there hasn’t been anything to track. He just feels useless.”

“He’ll be reporting back soon,” Kelly promised. “Just wait a few minutes.”

Jarasax didn’t give me time to settle in for a wait, though. “Is it true that Huntsman and Medina got kidnapped?”

I shrugged awkwardly. “Well, kinda. They escaped within the hour.”

“Gods of men and darkness,” he muttered angrily. “And the Big Boss still won’t let us confront the fey? This is getting ridiculous.”

“I thought you didn’t have anything personal against them.” Which even I knew was pretty weird, coming from a changeling.

“I didn’t. They seem to be insisting on changing that.”

Kelly’s phone vibrated, saving me from having to formulate some kind of response. “What’s it look like?” A pause. “What? Are—yeah. Give us a minute.” The vampire snapped her phone shut, a confused look on her face.

“What?” I prompted. “Did the aves invite her in for tea?”

“He didn’t see anyone guarding the lab. At all.”

Sax looked at his friend and superior sideways. “Well, they’re not going to be obvious—”

“Alex knows what to look for,” Kelly muttered dismissively, her brow still furrowed in concentration. “If he says there are no guards, there are no guards. We need to investigate.”

George looked up. “What, all of us?”

She shrugged. “If it’s a trap, we’ll have a better chance of breaking out of it that way.”

No one could argue with that logic, so we all piled out of the van, checked our weapons, and marched straight up to the dilapidated building that seemed to be an ave lab. Alex joined up with us halfway down the street.

Even I could see that the angel was right. Not only were there no obvious aves, there didn’t seem to be anyone at all. There were a few abandoned storefronts, a couple silent apartment buildings, but no living soul in sight.

“This isn’t normal,” Alex hissed, eyes darting around like nervous insects.

“People are scared, staying inside,” I suggested.

But the angel shook her head. “No one’s peeking out from the windows. Half the doors aren’t even locked. Something is very wrong here.”

“We’ll deal with it later,” Kelly muttered still distracted by something I suspected wasn’t the mission at hand. “The lab comes first.”

As Alex promised, the front door of what was supposed to be a secret lab wasn’t even locked. There was a broken padlock tossed away casually inside, but it looked to be a few days old—likely from when the aves first started squatting in this abandoned building.

But while there were a few shed feathers and forgotten ammo boxes hinting that the birds had indeed been holed up here, that was it. There were no aves, or anyone at all, to greet us in the lobby.

“Okay, I’m starting to agree with the angel,” I muttered, thoroughly disturbed at this point. I kept my Caedes level as I swept the room, but I was sweating. Give me an open fight, and I’m fine. Horror-movie scenarios are something else altogether. “Let’s hurry this up.”

No lights were on that I could see, though I could hear the distant hum of some machinery. A dark and empty corridor loomed ahead of us, looking far too dangerously creepy for my taste.

“Let’s go,” Kelly said curtly, her marble-black nighteyes narrowed. “I’ll take point. George, behind me. Alex and Sax in the middle. Anders, you got rearguard.”

We all chorused our grudging acceptance. It was hard to argue with the only person who could actually see anything.

Under the vampire’s guidance, we slowly swept the first floor, finding nothing whatsoever in the first dozen rooms other than trash and an overturned chair or two. Doors were left open, bunks unmade, and clothing was left littered on the floor. George even found a floor safe, still filled with a thousand dollars in cash.

By the time we reached the machines we had felt vibrating through the building—a bank of mostly-empty refrigerators and freezers—it was clear that there was nothing of note on this floor.

“Looks like they left in a hurry,” I muttered. “Maybe they fought Ling and ran?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Alex mused, rubbing her hands along the floor and scrutinizing it with her light-amplification goggles. “But I’m not seeing any signs of her power. None of the concrete is warped, none of the walls have holes in them…Saints above, I don’t think there was a fight at all. Anyone seen any spent shell casings or blood that I may have missed?”

Sax shook his head. “Nothing.”

“I didn’t smell any blood, either,” Kelly added in an offhand manner. She still seemed distracted by something. “Though the toy box might be masking that.”

My head snapped up. “Wait, you can smell the toy box? Here?”

She frowned. “Well, not on this floor, but it’s a pretty unique smell—”

“If anything happened, it happened around that stupid box,” I insisted. “Take us there.”

“Uhn. Sure.”

What was with her today? It was like she was drunk or something.

“Kel, you mind if I take a look at your fixer?” Alex asked as we walked. The vampire extended her arm without slowing down, and the angel took a moment to peer at it closely, before smiling at her friend and returning to the center of the group. Kelly didn’t say anything, just lowered her arm and brought her rifle level in front of her again.

I tapped Alex on the shoulder—knowing Kelly had ears that would hear anything I cared to whisper—and gave her a questioning look. The angel just shrugged. It seemed like Kelly was just acting weird, and it had nothing to do with the device that was always hissing on her arm, pumping who knew what into her bloodstream at regular intervals.

The abandoned lab only got creepier as we moved upstairs. The graffiti on the walls looked like arcane runes under the half-light Alex was emitting from her palms, and I nearly jumped when I stumbled over a discarded soda can and thought it was a land mine.

Maybe it was just a side effect of the discarded boxes of ammo, but it felt like walking through an old battlefield. It shouldn’t have—as Alex had pointed out, there were no signs of battle anywhere. But it still had that…feeling.

Feeling or no, we managed to get to the fifth floor without incident, which was when Kelly lost the scent of the toy box.

“It’s definitely on this floor,” she murmured. “But it’s spread around, diluted. I can’t pinpoint the source.”

“They use fans because of that Sauron Field thing,” I reminded her. Or told her. I wasn’t sure if she knew all that already. “Let’s find the center of the floor.”

Everyone—except Kelly, who was still distracted—gave me an odd look. Alex was the one who voiced their concerns. “Why the center?”

I shrugged. “That’s where I’d put it. Defensible location.”

“Fair enough,” Sax admitted. He looked around the room we were in, a small lobby a few doors off the stairwell. “Should be…this way, c’mon.”

It only took a few minutes to weave through the maze of corridors to find the room we were looking for, but it wasn’t what I expected.

“The door’s too flimsy,” Sax muttered, identifying the problem I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on. “This cheap thing wouldn’t hold up against an unarmed baseline.” He knocked on it; it was hollow. “No way the toy box is in here.”

“Yes, well,” I grumbled, not wanting to admit I was wrong. “Let’s at least take a look inside and see what we see.”

I opened the door—

And immediately brought my Caedes snapping up. I stepped back as I heard Sax and Kelly readying their own guns, giving them a clear line of fire.

This room wasn’t empty. It was a cluttered office, with stacks of papers and dirty clothing in heaps. While the ramshackle nature of the place made it hard to tell for sure, the abandoned power cords on the desk, still plugged into the wall socket but nothing else, led me to believe they removed everything of value when they left.

But that’s not what made us draw our guns.

The room had an ave anthro in it.

An ave with wings.

He was facing away from us, hunched over on the floor, and I couldn’t quite tell what he was doing. His wings, though…those were in plain view.

They looked old, or more likely incomplete, with far too many black feathers missing to be healthy. They were small, definitely too small to let a human fly—even an ave with hollow bones. But they twitched and flexed every few moments, the remaining feathers rustling.

The aves hadn’t perfected wings. But they were a hell of a lot closer than anyone had thought.

“…Honored Hunter?” Sax called out a little hesitantly.

The ave’s head snapped up, and he spun on the heels of his bird feet before falling on his butt. “Paladins?” He struggled to raise his claws in a defensive stance, but just fell again.

“I’m a Paladin,” I confirmed. “This is the retinue, from Necessarius. We’re not here to hurt you.” Unless it turns out you killed Ling, I didn’t add. “Now, let’s start simple. Who are you?”

The ave anthro—a crow or raven, I wasn’t sure, something with lots of black—sniffled a little, and wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m Fimmtu Væng.”

At my side, George lowered his massive pistol slightly in surprise. “Your name is Fifth Wing?”

The crow smiled slightly, or as well as he could with that beak. “Fifth son of the Væng family.”

“Still, that’s hardly a standard Icelandic name…”

“Mom was Norwegian. Dad a Soviet.”

The ogre looked like the ave had just grown an extra head. “How does that explain anything?

The ave smiled again. “You can just call me Pigeon. Everyone does.”

I glanced at the others. The looks on their faces made it clear they didn’t know why a crow was called Pigeon either.

“All right Pigeon…” I indicated the room, and the empty building as well. “What happened here?”

‘Pigeon’ sniffled and looked away. “She…killed everyone.”

“We found no bodies,” Alex cut in. “And no signs of battle.”

The ave stared at her like she was crazy. “What, are you blind? They’re—oh.” He nodded to himself. “I guess that makes more sense.”

I sighed. “Look buddy, we need some actual answers here. If you’re not going to be helpful—”

“No, no! Sorry, I’m…” he shook his head. “Okay. The aves all left. Soaring Eagle ordered a full evacuation.”

Soaring Eagle had been here? No, probably not. She probably just called and set down an executive order not to fight an angry Paladin.

“But while we were packing up the toy box, the Composer showed up—”

George took an angry step forward. “What.”

Pigeon gulped. “Look, most of us had no idea! I mean, we had been working with St. John for a while, and then we heard he was a renegade, and when we tried to throw him out Greene showed up—”

“We’re not blaming you.” I placed my hand on George’s shoulder; his muscles were taut with barely-suppressed rage. I gave the ogre a look. We could kill this guy after we got our information. “We’re not.” I turned back to the ave. “Just tell us what happened today.”

He nodded. “Yeah, yeah, well like I said, we were packing up, and then she just appeared out of the blue, wearing this pretty white dress.”

A distant part of my brain noted that she had finally gotten a replacement for the blood-drenched one she had been using since she came out. Actually, hadn’t it been blown off by a grenade last time? Was that the only reason she had gotten a new one?

“She talked to Guy about something—I don’t know what, don’t ask—and then started cackling. It was the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Jarasax looked confused, but he tried to keep his voice gentle. “What happened next? Did she interfere with the evacuation?”

“No,” the ave muttered glumly. “The opposite. She said she’d help by giving us more time. Then she left.” He shivered. “About ten minutes later, people started screaming.”

I blinked. “Screamers? Here?”

He shook his head violently. “Not that kind of scream.”

“…ah.”

That was why the street had seemed abandoned.

“Do you know how many people died?” Sax asked quietly.

The ave shook his head again. “Everyone on the street. Luckily, we chose this area because it was already kind of abandoned from the weapons test a few months back, but still…”

“I guess I should call in a cleanup crew,” Kelly muttered, pulling out her phone as she walked off. “You guys handle the bird.”

What was with her today? Actually, it wasn’t just today. She had been distracted for a while now, it was just worse all of a sudden.

Once I was sure Kelly was out of earshot, I turned to Alex. “Any ideas?”

The angel shrugged. “We can take a look at the crime scenes, but the cleanup crew can do that better than us. Better to just wait.”

“I meant about Kelly.”

“Oh!” She glanced back the direction her friend had gone with a frown. “I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her this bad since she first found me at the orphanage. It’s like she’s going through withdrawal again.”

Oh, right, Belians were drug addicts. Well, primarily addicted to combat drugs apparently, but still. Had she started using again?

“I don’t think it’s that,” Sax cut in, answering the unspoken question he had seen on my face. “I might not have known her as long as you, Alex, but she’s not going to relapse. I think she’s just distracted over the Belians.”

Alex shrugged again. “Maybe. I agree that she wouldn’t relapse, but it seems odd that she’d be weird today. The ambush was weeks ago.”

I looked between the angel, the changeling, and the ogre, but none of them seemed about to elaborate. “Ambush?”

“We got ambushed by Belian chem-slaves a while ago,” Alex said with a wave of her hand. “No big deal. Kelly lured them away and dealt with them.”

I frowned. “Was there any fallout from that? Maybe they attacked again or something.”

“Not that I noticed.”

“Well…” Sax said slowly. “She did get a call this morning. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but…”

I nodded. That had to be it. “They probably threatened her with something or other.” I put a hand on Alex’s slim shoulder. “Can you keep an eye on her? Maybe it’s not my place to ask—”

“It’s fine,” she assured me. “I can handle her.”

With a polite cough, Pigeon reminded us he was still present.

“If you don’t mind…I’m gonna go before any more ‘sarians get here,” the ave said with a small sniffle. “Excuse me…”

“One thing before you leave,” I insisted as I grabbed his arm before he could walk past me. “We need to know where the aves went. My friend Ling is with them.”

Pigeon blinked in surprise. “Ling was here? Are you sure?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Yes. Very.”

“Well, I didn’t see her during the evacuation. Not her corpse either,” he added quickly. “If you’re worried about that.” He shrugged helplessly, his wings flexing slightly as he did. “Sorry, buddy. She’s a friend of mine too. If I knew where she was, I’d tell you.”

Great. Back to square one.

Maybe it was time to call Derek and Laura.

Behind the Scenes (scene 189)

Considering how long this one was, I’m still not completely satisfied with it.

break

Scene 80 – Aves

AVES

LING

I met Turgay and Pigeon outside of the dorm, in the small alley that separated it from the next ‘scraper. The crow was looking better; apparently his King had gotten him some help. Maybe he had even been thrown into the toy box itself for healing, who knew.

“Thanks for meeting us,” Turgay said earnestly. “I know we’ve caused trouble for you the past few days.”

“Can we talk about this somewhere else?” I glanced at the maintenance man installing some speakers at the corner. “I don’t want to be overheard.”

He nodded. “Of course. This way.” They headed deeper down the alley, presumably the direction they had come from, and I followed. Aves were still rare, and Soaring Eagle’s actions had made them mistrusted. It was best to keep them out of sight.

Once we determined we were far enough away, I sat on a dumpster and started my interrogation. “How’s the toy box?”

He winced a little at my tone, but kept strong. “Fine. Thanks for asking. Sele is keeping it under wraps, as you might expect, so I don’t really know what they’re doing with it.”

I frowned. “Sele?”

He smiled a little. “Short for Selenium.” At my blank look, he continued. “It’s atomic symbol is ‘Se.’ Cuz, uh…Soaring Eagle is a bit of a mouthful.”

I shook my head. Never let geeks out of the lab, seriously. They come up with stuff like that. “Whatever. And you’re sure she’s using the box to advance wing research, not create super viruses or anything?”

Pig bobbed his head excitedly. “Definitely, definitely. I’m in the first wing trials, once they get a basic design made.”

“They’ll probably be non-functional,” Turgay grunted. “There just isn’t any real research into wings, since everyone has known for so long that its going to be very, very hard. I really doubt they’ll even get the first batch to flap.”

“I just hope it was worth stealing the stupid thing,” I spat with more anger than I intended. “You brought a lot of people into this scheme of yours. We all go down if Butler isn’t feeling merciful.”

The eagle’s shoulders sagged. “I know Ling, I know. But Soaring Eagle…she’s offering a lot. Giving our culture a chance to actually thrive.”

“Illegally.”

He looked away. “Well, yes. But its the only way that has a chance at working.”

I shook my head. I should be at NHQ, flirting with Derek, not dealing with this. Then again…

I wasn’t really sure what to make of our fight the other day. I had always known, intellectually, that Derek spent most of his time wrestling monsters. I knew that he could kill me, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop him. But knowing a truth and having it throw you against a wall are two very different things.

I was out of line, of course. It was common courtesy to let someone know you couldn’t make a meeting, and required when it was a life or death situation. My little rant about not being a soldier, while true, didn’t really apply to the situation.

But I don’t approve of solving problems with violence. That was one of the reasons I was still leery about our little alliance with Necessarius; Butler had a very…ballistic solution to most difficulty. If I was completely honest, I had always agreed with the succubi and the daevas: If a problem couldn’t be solved with sex, it wasn’t worth paying attention to. But saying that within a thousand feet of Lily, or even Derek and Akane, would likely get me killed.

Oh sure, we were fighting the screamers, but that was more like weeding the garden. They weren’t people any more. Laura and Doctor Clarke were trying their best, sure, but I knew in my heart they wouldn’t have any luck finding a cure. In all likelihood, anything they came up with would just make things worse.

I should probably talk to Derek about it. I’m sure he felt worse about it than I did. I had half expected him to call and apologize, but no such luck.

“Ling?” Turgay asked slowly. “You still with us?”

I blinked, clearing my head. “What? Yes, yes, sorry, my mind wandered. What was the question?”

“I just wanted to know if you had a better idea to advance the cultures.”

I sighed. “If the screamers were gone, and the fey played nice with everyone…” I shrugged. “There are a lot of options that are off the table because of things like that. But that doesn’t mean they’re all out of reach. Did you talk to—” it took me a moment to remember the subcultures in question. “The sibriex, or the Glasyans? Either of them would have been helpful.”

My old friend clicked his beak disdainfully. “Yes, we did. As well as the autumn fey. And the Avernans, the Belians, and even the Nosferatu. Anyone who might be able to help vitalize the subculture has turned us down. This was the last option.”

I held up my hand to stop him. He was getting a bit angry. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m not involved in this, I don’t know all the details. I shouldn’t judge. It’s just…” I shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s Necessarius, Guy. You know better than to screw with them. Remember how they ended the Battle of Shendilavri? The Battle of Hathsin?” He broke eye contact, and I stepped forward, forcing him to look at me. “In five years, do you want people telling stories about how they massacred the aves at the Battle of G’Hanir?”

“It won’t—” he started, but I cut him off.

Yes, that is exactly what will happen. You guys have one ‘scraper. Butler can topple that easily enough.”

He met my gaze again, fury giving him strength. “It’s too late now. Soaring Eagle knew what she was getting us into. We’ll survive or not, that’s just the way it is.” He sighed, deflating. “Let it go, Ling. The die is cast.”

I bit my lip. “Guy—”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about Lizzy,” he interrupted, in a blatant attempt to change the subject.

I didn’t object. “What about?”

“What’s she do for a living, anyway?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t her driver or bodyguard or whatever tell you?”

He shook his head, feathers rustling. “No. They didn’t talk much.”

I shrugged. “She’s a voice actress. I think she’s doing My Little Pony right now. Not sure though.”

“She’s…what? Nevermind, the point is that she has a pretty big support system for just a voice actress.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You complaining?”

“No! No, nothing of the sort. I was just impressed, that’s all.” He shifted awkwardly on his feet. “She’s a nice girl, and her type don’t usually last long in that kind of business.”

Pigeon spoke up. “Seems like everyone likes her. Maybe that’s how she’s surviving.”

“Shut up—” Turgay began, then paused. “Actually, that’s a good point.” He shrugged. “She seems to rouse protective instincts.”

“I think you guys are making acting sound more dangerous than it is,” I said with a smile. “This isn’t some shadowy cabal. The worst these people get is paparazzi and weird letters, and voice actresses aren’t popular enough have to deal with even that.”

The crow cawwed—a laugh. “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”

I laughed right back. I might not know much, but I’ve been trying to break into the animation business since I was seven. I knew what I was talking about. “No, I do. It’s hardly a cutthroat business.”

“I was talking more about the stress,” Turgay cut in, before the argument could escalate. “It weighs on you. And Lizzy seems to have…weak shoulders, so to speak.”

“You don’t have to worry about her,” I promised. “She has lots of friends who are more than willing to shelter her, make sure she doesn’t get overworked. If anything, she’s naive and pampered.”

“Naive is better than spoiled, at least,” the eagle admitted. He paused to think, and his phone started beeping. He shut off the alarm quickly. “Sorry about that. There’s this thing we have to get to, but we can talk for—”

I held up my hand to stall his protests. “No, no, don’t worry about it. I just wanted to know you were fine, that your King hadn’t chopped you up for spare parts. Go. I have homework to do anyway.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 80)

Ehh…don’t really like this one. As Turgay and Ling’s relationship becomes more strained, it becomes harder to write for them.

Scene 67 – Destitutio

DESTITUTIO

LING

I could hear the screams, far to the north. MC had called me three times, but I had ignored her every one.

This was a mistake.

But I had no choice. Turgay needed me.

“Thanks for patching me up,” the crow said. “I still don’t know how I got hurt.”

“Shut up, Pig,” Turgay responded tiredly. “Ling, we can only lay low for so long. Sooner or later, people will come looking for you.”

That was an understatement if there ever was one. Turgay had enlisted my help Sunday night, and it was now Tuesday morning. I had managed to delay inquiries simply going to class yesterday, but they had almost been caught twice in the process. There was no way I had the time for a screamer fight. But that meant the second it was over, everyone would be looking for me.

“We have maybe six hours,” I said decisively. Probably a little more, actually, but it’s best to be safe. “We need too have you back with Soaring Eagle before then.”

He licked his beak. “We’re no closer to finding her than we were Sunday. She was nomadic even before she got on the ‘sarians most wanted list.”

I suppressed my frustration as best I could. “You have to have some idea where she would be.”

He shook his head. “The only one I ever dealt with was Delia, one of her lieutenants. But she’s dead or in custody now, so she’s no help.”

I closed my eyes. “There has to be someone.”

The crow spoke up. “There’s Delia’s boy, that…Sharptalon guy.”

“Kevin,” Turgay said in the same tired tone as before. “Useless. He’s one of her warhawks.”

Pigeon frowned. “What does that have to do with—”

“All her warhawks were with her.”

“But—”

“Shut up, Pig.”

The crow finally shut his beak.

I rubbed my forehead. This is what happens when you get involved in dinky little revolutions where no one has thought anything through. Everything starts going to hell in a hand basket the second a single thing goes wrong.

None of my friends would be of any use. Even if they didn’t turn us in—which was a pretty big if all on its own—Necessarius would find us very quickly. Aves stood out, and lugging the toy box around would only make it worse.

Couldn’t go to Matron, or anyone else at the orphanage. Even ignoring the fact that she was an avid supporter of Butler, she didn’t have any power. At least Derek and Laura would be able to negotiate; the Big Boss had nothing he wanted from a bunch of orphans.

I started paging through my address book. In all honesty, I should have probably throw my phone away, but the screamers should distract everyone from bothering to check my location with it. I may as well use it.

Not that it mattered. There were over a hundred names, and none of them would be of any help. Helena, Mitchel, Abigail, Harry, Thuron, Lily, Negi, Hayate, Adam, Akane, Derek, Laura, Lizzy—

Lizzy. She might work. Laura said she had contacts, right? She was a voice actress or something. She made a decent living, which meant she had a support network. Maybe a small one, but hopefully one that had no connection to Necessarius.

But would it work? She was actually stupider than me, and generally solved her problems by calling Laura. Was it worth the risk?

Yes.

There was nothing else to do. I pressed the call button and put the phone to my ear. It rang three times, an eternity between each, before she picked up.

“Liga bak…hello? Who is this?”

“Lizzy? It’s Ling.”

“Ling?” There was a brief pause. “Oh! Ling! Tīng dào nǐ zhème hǎo! Nǐ shénme bù kāixīn?”

Right. That was the other reason I had been leery about this. “I don’t speak Chinese, Lizzy.”

“Mmm…forgot. Yes, right, no Chinese. You’re an otaku. Nani ga mondaina nodeshou ka? ”

“I don’t speak Japanese either,” I sighed. “Look…nevermind, it’s not important.”

She stopped me before I could hang up. “No, you woke me up, you have to explain why. Not like I can get back to sleep, with those screamers.”

Right. She also had a power. Didn’t know what it was, but she had one. “I’m in a bit of a bind. I need to find someone and deliver something to them.”

“O-kay…why not just call MC?”

“The thing I need delivered is not something she would like to know I have.”

There was a brief pause. “Wait one second. You stole something?”

I didn’t, a friend of mine did.”

“A…friend.”

I scowled. “Yes, dammit, a friend. And he came to me for help. I need to get to Soaring Eagle, the ave Animal King, with two aves and a package about the size and shape of a coffin. Can you help?”

I shouldn’t have said that, but she was annoying me. I know the whole ‘my friend has this problem’ was an old cliché, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be true sometimes.

Turgay looked at me a little sideways. “Ling, are you sure—”

I shushed him and turned back to my phone. “Lizzy. Can you help?”

There was a long pause. “I’m still not quite sure what you expect me to do,” she said slowly. “I don’t exactly have very much experience with grand theft.”

I took a deep breath and counted to ten before speaking. “I just need you to find Soaring Eagle and arrange a meeting. You have contacts and everything, right?”

“Well…some. I mean, she’s a prominent member of the community, so I guess I could arrange something…”

“Okay, you just need to tell her we have the Pigeon.” From what Turgay had told me, the Animal King would remember the names of the men who had the toy box. Probably. “That should be enough.”

I could practically hear her nodding. “I can do that. Where are you now?”

I frowned. “Why is that important? You can just call once the meeting is set up.”

“That’s not quite how this works. You have to do most of it in person. It’s polite, and this crowd is big on that.”

I rubbed my forehead again. Whatever. She knew it all better than I did. “Fine. We’re in the basement of the dorms. In the farthest laundry room.”

“Really?” She seemed very surprised. Why should she be? There weren’t many other places we could hide. “Why aren’t—not important. I’ll be there in…half and hour.”

Wait, what? It was only six in the morning, and her first class wasn’t until noon. “Where are you?”

“About half an hour outside of campus,” she replied tersely. “I’ll see you soon. Sit tight.”

True to her word, she found us within thirty minutes. We were huddled in the corner, covering the aves and the toy box under as many towels as possible, while I pretended to be a maid. It was a laughable disguise, and any idiot could tell we were hiding something.

“It took me a little while to find you,” the bronze-skinned amazon said when we finally managed to wave her over. “It’s a good disguise. This your friend?”

Well, that was hardly getting things off to a good start, but it was a little too late to back out. “You have a meeting ready?” I gestured to the towel-covered box behind me. “And somewhere to stash this?”

She bit her lip in an almost ridiculously cute way. “Oh, right, you can’t just drag that along behind us, can you?” She looked around, as though hoping a closet would materialize out of thin air. “I guess…we need a truck?”

“That would be helpful,” I said with as much calm as I could. “And we probably need a doctor for the crow. He got hit by some shrapnel.”

Lizzy leaned over, looking at him. “It doesn’t look so bad.”

Odd reaction. It wasn’t life threatening or anything, but it looked bad. Blood was already oozing into the white bandages, despite the fact that I changed them an hour ago. It was beyond my expertise, anyway. “Can you call someone? You have doctors and drivers, right?”

She shifted her feet a little. “Well…I have people. But I’m not sure…”

“Anything is better than nothing,” I assured her. We were out of options, whatever she had was enough. The screamers were distracting enough without having to deal with her whining about helping.

She bit her lip again. “Okay, let me make a couple calls.” She shook her head violently, like a dog drying off. “Sorry, the screaming is distracting me.” She pulled out her phone and headed out of the laundry room. “One second.”

The second she was gone, Turgay turned to me, an uncertain look in his eye. “You sure about this, Ling? She’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. And what was that about the screaming?”

I sighed, and decided to simply deflect his uncomfortable question rather than try and find a decent lie. “She’s all we got. If you don’t like her, you shouldn’t have stolen the damn box.”

He shut his beak at that. He knew I had a point. How did he even get in this situation in the first place? He wasn’t a complete moron, he knew better than to screw with Necessarius.

Before I could think too much on that line, Lizzy came back, closing her phone with a satisfied snap.

“A truck is on the way,” she promised. “And the ave woman has been called. Everything is under control.”

The crow perked up. “Really? What’d she say?”

“Shut up, Pig,” Turgay grumbled. “She didn’t actually talk to her.”

“I’m not sure if we should be here for this,” I said slowly. I had seen allies who knew too much killed enough not to stick around. “I think this is an internal ave thing.”

Lizzy just shrugged. “If that’s what you want, we can leave them to it once my truck gets here.” She brightened. “Ooh, we can go for ice cream!”

Pigeon gave an ave grin. “That sounds great! Can we come?”

Turgay rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Pig.”

I sighed again and nodded to both birds. “There’s still that maintenance sign on the door, so you guys should be fine.” I turned back to Lizzy. “How long until the truck gets here?”

“No more than half an hour,” she promised. “Now, about that ice cream…”

I rolled my eyes. “Sure, fine. Let’s go.”

I’ll admit I felt bad about leaving them alone like that, but there shouldn’t have been any problems. And I really didn’t want to let Lizzy’s driver know my face. I’m sure she trusted them, but stuff like that tended to get spread around.

But as we walked out of the laundry room and up to ground level, a large white van pulled up. A man stepped out of the passenger side almost before it finished stopping.

He was tall and thin, dressed in an immaculate suit and tie. He was a demon with red skin and small, sharp horns, and I saw a tail flicker briefly behind his legs. I couldn’t tell precisely what subculture he was from, but that didn’t mean much. Lots of modders, especially demons, never bothered with specific subcultures.

The demon bowed deeply. “Mistress Greene, we are ready whenever you are.”

Lizzy raised an eyebrow. “That was fast. Were you waiting for my call?”

Her servant didn’t raise his head. “Yes, we were.” I noticed his tail thrash once. “That…is not a problem, is it?”

Lizzy grinned widely. “Far from it. I think I just remembered why I keep you around.” Her grin faded. “Is it just you and the driver?”

“Yes. Oleander is the driver, though.”

She nodded. “Good. The aves aren’t going to be much help, especially since one is injured. Get him inside first, then worry about the package.”

Her servant finally straightened. “Aves? Then I am I to understand the package is…”

“The toy box, yes,” she answered in an annoyed tone. I was a bit surprised; I wouldn’t have thought anything could crack that cheerful shell of hers. But then she quickly smiled again. “I’ve already made arrangements with Soaring Eagle. Just take them to the meeting point, and it will be fine.”

The demon raised an eyebrow. “You are not coming with us, Mistress Greene?”

She grinned wider and grabbed my arm. “Of course not. I saved the day, that means I get ice cream!

The demon smiled slightly and bowed again. “Of course. Now if you’ll excuse me…” he straightened and hurried past us, down to the laundry rooms. The driver got out as well, revealing himself as a giant—a Jotuun, if I was any judge.

Lizzy dragged me off by the arm, tugging me towards the eastern side of the campus, where the food court was.

It took me a minute to figure out where we were going, mostly because I was so surprised. “You like the school meals?”

“Only the ice cream,” she admitted. The Amazon had let go of my arm and was now dragging me by the hand. “It’s really good, and cheap too.”

“I believe you. Now can you let go of my hand?”

“There’s also a nice spot under the trees, but next to the air conditioner,” she said cheerfully, clearly not listening. “You get shade and warm air pumped out of the building shot at your feet. No one else seems to like it, which is perfect.”

I frowned. “I’m not sure I like the sound of it either.”

“The chef knows me,” she continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “He’ll make our ice cream himself. What kind would you like?”

“Uh…” she stared at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. “A sundae? I guess?”

“Good choice!” she chirped. “Me, I prefer just a simple cone, but I’ll get a sundae this time too.”

We found the table Lizzy had mentioned quickly enough. As she had said, it was unoccupied. I found the air conditioner a little too close for comfort, but didn’t say anything.

A small baseline man (except for some violet eyes) came up with a pad. “Hello again, Lizzy. The usual?”

“Actually, my friend would like an ice cream sundae,” the girl responded promptly and cheerfully. “And I’ll have the same.”

The waiter nodded. “A good choice. I always say that you should expand your horizons. I’m glad you’re finally doing so.”

Lizzy grinned at him, golden eyes glittering. “I think I’ve already tried enough, Mark. I know what I like.”

He wisely chose not to retort, just smiled, inclined his head, and went inside quickly.

“It will be a little while,” Lizzy explained. “Dessert is on the sixth floor.” She grinned again. “In the meantime, what’s going on with you? Other than helping kemo minorities commit grand theft, that is.”

This girl…I know she didn’t mean it, but she could be a little abrasive. “Ah…not much. Just soccer and school.”

It was a bit awkward. I mean, she knew about the screamers, obviously, but I couldn’t exactly tell her how involved I was in the whole thing. And other than that…what was I doing, really?

But she just nodded, not noticing my troubles. “Yeah, I’m about the same. School and voice acting.” She grinned. “And shopping. Lots of shopping.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure that’s loads of fun.”

“It is!” she insisted. “Hunting down the perfect item is quite satisfying. There’s a rush to it.”

“So…that’s it? That’s all you do?”

She chuckled. “Like you’re much better. What do you do in your free time? You must have some. College can’t be too time-consuming, I seem to be passing easily enough.”

Well, I hadn’t actually been doing anything recently other than sleep, since the screamers kept waking us up at weird hours, but there was always the old fallback. “Mostly, I watch anime and stuff.”

Lizzy nodded. “I think Laura mentioned that before. What kind?”

“Shounen, mostly. What about you? What’s your favorite anime?”

Her face scrunched up as she thought. “Welll…nothing specific. Just seinen in general, really. Though I’ll admit a lot of them have too much sex.”

I nodded in agreement. “I hear that.”

My phone buzzed. I reached down and turned it off without even considering answering it.

Lizzy blinked. “Shouldn’t you—”

“No,” I said firmly. “I should not.”

She winced. “Boyfriend troubles, I take it?”

Now it was my turn to blink in confusion. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Derek, I mean,” she elaborated, looking at me with those guileless golden eyes. “You two are dating, right?”

I was glad our food hadn’t come yet. I probably would have spit it all out over Lizzy.

Instead, I merely coughed. “No…ah, no. No, I’m not. We’re not, I mean. There is…no.”

“Oh, that’s a shame.” She leaned back, allowing the waiter who had suddenly appeared behind her to place our sundaes in front of us. “You’d make a cute couple.”

Thankfully, with the food in front of us, I had a good excuse for not answering, and by the time we were done eating, she had apparently completely forgotten. The next hour was much of the same, and passed in a pleasant and talkative blur.

Punctuated every five minutes by my phone ringing.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 67)

This came out better than I expected. And as for Lizzy being able to get in touch with Soaring Eagle so quickly: Remember that until very recently, the King was considered an upstanding member of the community, with many friends. She still has most of those friends, even though they’re a little more wary now.