Tag Archives: toy box

Scene 119 – Aquila Volantis

AQUILA VOLANTIS

LING

I woke up laying on my back with a throbbing pain in my—

Wait…

Actually, there was no pain. At all.

What?

Lizzy had given me a pretty bad beating. I had at least a couple fractured ribs, about a dozen stab wounds from her barrier-blades, and was missing more blood than I’d like to think about. So why wasn’t I in pain?

Oh crap.

Was I…dead?

I tried to sit up quickly—and immediately banged my head on something about two inches above my face.

Okay, so probably not dead.

I heard muffled voices from outside…wherever I was. I felt around with my hands. Judging by the shape…it was a coffin. I was inside a coffin?

I almost pounded on the lid and shouted to get the attention of whoever was outside, but quickly thought better of it. People who put living bodies in coffins are not the type you want to give any more of an advantage than necessary. I’d need to take them by surprise.

I extended my sixth sense, the one granted by my power. It didn’t give me a lot of detail, just enough to make out very vague shapes, but it was enough to determine that I was in a coffin on the ground, surrounded by people.

Well, probably people. Tall and skinny bundles of solid matter. They could have been trees for all I knew; like I said, my sense is not terribly specific.

The floor was concrete—that I was absolutely certain of. It was outside my range to affect, of course, since I wasn’t touching it, but once I got out of the box I’d be instantly armed.

The coffin was vibrating slightly at irregular intervals, probably caused by people speaking outside. It was impossible to tell how many there were, but it had to be more than a few. I had a feeling they were going to open the coffin soon. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but I had to be ready for the opportunity.

One of the people I could sense moved a bit closer. Good, they were going to open it. I tensed myself, ready to spring…

“Ling? You awake in there?”

I banged my head on the lid again, as I jumped from surprise.

They hadn’t opened the coffin. The voice had come from a speaker grille just next to my ear. And it was a voice I recognized.

“Guy?” I asked, rubbing my head again. “That you?”

“Yeah Ling, it’s me. How are you doing?”

“Feeling claustrophobic. Where am I?”

“Inside the toy box.”

Oh. That explained a lot. Such as why nothing hurt. Well, nothing but my forehead, but I realized even that pain was fading faster than I would normally expect. Now that I was paying attention, it did feel familiar. I had been in one of Clarke’s boxes before, to get rid of most of my toys, but those copies were open-air. “I think I’m done in here. Can you let me out?”

There was no response, and I had a much stronger flash of claustrophobia. They could lock me in here forever, performing experiments on me…

Then the lid opened, briefly blinding me as daylight flooded in.

“Rise and shine, sleepy head,” Turgay said with a chuckle. From what I could see of his silhouette, he seemed to realize I was being blinded by the sun. “Oops, sorry about that.” He threw some sort of blanket over the box, dimming the light to almost nothing. “Take your time. You’ve been in there a few hours.”

Despite his advice, I got out a fast as I could, nearly tripping over my own feet in the process. I threw the blanket aside quickly, blinking a little as I adjusted to the light. Normally I probably wouldn’t be so hasty, but I had noticed blood stains on the cloth, and didn’t want to be under it a second longer than I had to. Thankfully, Turgay had a robe ready, which I used to cover my naked body before anyone noticed.

I realized soon enough that we were still on the Ring, though I had been carried over to the ruins of the ave lab at some point while I was unconscious. The toy box itself was sheltered as best as possible in one of the shipping containers that was the least jostled from my fight with Lizzy, and the ave techs scrambled everywhere, doing things I didn’t understand.

Looking around, I belatedly noticed a small crowd around us, trying to see what all the fuss was about, being sent away by ‘sarian troops. The few warhawks who had survived Lizzy’s rampage were handcuffed to each other while the ave techs tended to their wounds.

“Nice to see you survived,” a dull voice commented from the side.

I turned to see Adam, heavily bandaged and being tended by Lily, sitting on the concrete a dozen feet away. His wounds couldn’t have been too bad; if he was in any real danger, he would have been put in the toy box before me. Sure, he was a clay, but it would still help a little. Lesser toys would have been able to keep me alive while I waited for him to finish.

Lily, for her part, was pointedly not looking at the pile of corpses a dozen yards behind her, consisting mostly of ave warhawks and a few unlucky dockworkers. Considering her issues with violence, I was surprised she was even out here at all.

I frowned as I realized who was missing. “Where’s Akane?”

“She went chasing after Lizzy. Came back an hour or so ago, but left again when Necessarius showed up.”

That made sense. She probably wanted to give Derek a report in person. “Anything interesting happen while I was out?” I waved my hand at the assembled troops. “Other than the obvious, I mean.”

He shrugged, and winced as he pulled at his wounds. “Nothing much. The birds fussed over the box a lot, taking readings and such. No one else is allowed within ten feet, probably because of that Sauron Field thing.”

I glanced at the device I had just stepped out of. “I feel fine. I don’t feel any desire to protect it, or control it or whatever I’m supposed to be feeling.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” Turgay asked as he placed a stethoscope over my heart. “You and I are immune. I have no idea why, but I have a few theories. I’ll need to run some tests to be sure.”

I wasn’t entirely convinced he knew what he was doing. “Aren’t you worried about everyone else in the area being affected?”

“It works off pheromones. Out in the open like this, it’s nothing to worry about. The ten-feet thing is just a precaution.”

I sat down on the box a little gingerly. Sure, it was the most valuable item in the entire city, but I was tired, and there was nowhere else to sit. “When’s Clarke coming down to collect this thing?”

My ave friend shrugged his feathery shoulders. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt, and I realized a little belatedly that all those feathers must be pretty hot in the sun. “Probably never. He’s already got a toy box to play with; he doesn’t care about this one. Butler, on the other hand, will probably be down in an hour or so. I heard the ‘sarians mentioning that that’s when they’d be able to leave.”

“Then we have more than enough time.”

I jumped off the box at the new voice, and turned to see…

A tall, thin ave anthro, possessing even more toys than Turgay. She had a black hooked beak, beady black eyes, and dusky gray feathers on her head. The feathers darkened to black as they reached her shoulders, then turned sharply to white slightly below her breasts. If she still had breasts, anyway—it was hard to tell.

Her only clothing was a small loincloth around her waist and a wrap around her chest. She wasn’t even wearing shoes, since her feet and hands were strong orange bird feet, tipped with wickedly sharp black talons.

Soaring Eagle, Animal King of the aves.

“Dame Alpha!” Turgay exclaimed. “You’re early!” He bowed a little awkwardly, which drew the attention of everyone else as well. The aves all bowed, the injured warhawks struggling to their feet in order to do so, but the Necessarians just glared, hands on their weapons.

“Honored Hunter,” the woman said smoothly, her voice lilting and musical, but with an iron underneath. Or was I just imagining the strength in her voice, since I knew how dangerous she was? “Thank you for your assistance in this matter. I will handle things from here.”

My orphan-mate swallowed. “Ah…” he glanced around at the trigger-happy troops. “I’m not sure I understand, Dame Alpha.”

The King fixed him with a very slow and deliberate gaze. “I have made a deal. There will be no problem.”

One of the ‘sarians, who I assumed to be the leader, stepped forward. “I didn’t hear anything about this. You’ll have to stay put while I call my CO.”

“There seems to have been a misunderstanding,” the ave replied after a moment. “My deal was not with Necessarius.”

Then all the soldiers fell to the ground, like puppets with their strings cut.

They had all been distracted by the arrival of Soaring Eagle, and had stopped paying attention to the crowd.

That was a mistake.

The supposedly innocent civilian gawkers swept forward with military efficiency, quickly disabling the few remaining ‘sarians with poison fangs and claws. They were probably just paralyzing them, but I still felt sick watching. I knew they weren’t dead, but they certainly looked that way.

I would have tried to intervene, but I felt Turgay’s claws on my shoulder, holding me back. I didn’t need much more incentive than that to stay out of it; I wasn’t really all that good of a fighter. I’d never be able to take everyone.

Adam seemed to believe otherwise, as he tried to rise and grab a nearby gun, but instead started swearing and wincing as his bandages darkened with blood. He had pulled his wounds.

Lily, for her part, was off in a corner retching. At least I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with violence.

There was no way out of this. The King had won.

“And what about these two?” one of the assailants asked as she walked up, indicating Adam and myself.

“Leave them be,” Soaring Eagle said. Then she met my gaze with those black eyes of hers. “But if they try to make trouble, kill them.”

I ground my teeth in frustration. “Is this really the time to be playing this kind of game? There are more important things to worry about. Like, I don’t know, the super-powered murderer running around the city?”

Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “If I wanted advice, I wouldn’t get it from one of your kind.”

I blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Leave the adults to their work, whore.”

It took me a second to figure out what she had said. I guess…I guess I hadn’t really expected her to know who I was, or even anything about me. But once it clicked into place…

I screamed and threw a punch, intending to break her smug little beak. Thankfully, Turgay figured out what I was planning before I did, and tackled me to the ground. It was a good thing they had removed my armor when they had put me in the box; if I still had it, I would have done some real damage.

As it was, Turgay held me back well enough that Soaring Eagle simply looked down on me with disdain, not even bothering to have me shot.

I calmed down after a minute or so, but by that time the aves and their allies—except for Turgay—were already leaving, carting the toy box away in a small truck. We were left alone with a bunch of unconscious Necessarians, Adam and Lily, and the same pile of dead bodies from before.

“You all right?” my friend whispered into my ear as I stopped struggling.

I sighed and nodded, then relaxed a bit in his feathered arms. It was a strange feeling, especially since it made me remember the last time he had held me.

“I thought no one knew,” I said quietly after a moment.

“Sele has…ways of uncovering information. Considering the company she keeps, that’s hardly unexpected.”

“Speaking of which,” Adam said as he limped towards us, half supporting, half being supported by Lily. “Who were those guys? They didn’t look like aves.”

“I recognized the leader,” Turgay muttered a little bitterly. “Teuta Merimangë. An arach.”

Adam frowned. “Spider kemos?”

I felt my ave nod. “A Lolth, to be specific. Not the pleasant ones. Soaring Eagle has struck a deal with both them and the Minervas, getting information and support in exchange for some high-level toys that they’ve wanted for a while.”

“Like…what? Silk glands?”

“Well, they’ve already got those, though the toy box can improve them. No, they want multiple arms, multiple eyes—the real spider stuff.” He shrugged. “Part of my job as director was to coordinate research on side projects like that.”

“How are arms more spider-like than…” Adam shook his head. “Nevermind. Let’s just go, all right? Butler will want to know about this.”

“Give me a few more minutes,” I whispered, nestling deeper into Turgay’s warm embrace.

I doubted I’d see him again after this.

Behind the Scenes (scene 119)

I think this one came out pretty well, all things considered.

Scene 115 – Timor

TIMOR

LING

“Why in Musashi’s name did she kick us out of our rooms?” Akane muttered, pulling her jacket a little tighter. She had settled down a little after being rudely waken up by Laura pounding on our door, but she was still pissed.

I sighed. “She didn’t kick us out. She was right: We need to figure out if Turgay’s okay, and he isn’t answering his cell.” I felt wretched about that. I find out the girl I introduced him to is evil—or possessed or whatever—and don’t even bother to call and mention it? Tezuka, what was wrong with me?

“She could have gone herself.”

I looked at her a little sideways. “She’s never met Turgay.”

“Neither have I.”

“You’re my bodyguard, remember?” That wasn’t me being snarky; Laura had actually ordered Akane to escort me to Turgay’s secret lab.

And Akane had done it without a word of dissent. That made me curious. Well, okay, she was dissenting now, so maybe I was just giving this too much thought.

It had already been about an hour since we had left our room. Turgay’s lab was apparently outside the wall, at the southern docks. We had taken two light rails to get here, but had to walk the last couple blocks on foot.

Around us, the city was like a ghost town, even though it was early in the morning, when normally there were a good number of people around. Baselines, mostly, but lots of non-vampires and angels used this time to get work done.

Not today. The streets were completely deserted. What few people we saw were well-armed and traveling in groups. The cultures’ domains were sealed up like fortresses, with very few people entering or leaving. No one was taking any chances.

The news about the Composer’s identity had a lot of people scared. Before, it had just been this distant enemy, possibly fictional. Now that she had been outed, people were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Many people were confused too. As a moderately successful voice actress, Lizzy wasn’t anything like a household name, but she was definitely known among certain circles. She had a well-deserved reputation as a kind, if ditzy, young girl. Most people who knew her personally assumed it must be some kind of mistake.

I would have thought that too, if I hadn’t been there last night.

Whatever was riding around in that girl’s body was evil and dangerous, I had no illusions about that. But it was still difficult to believe. The girl I had been spending time with these past few weeks couldn’t be the Composer. Something had to be going on.

“This is really weird,” Akane muttered. “No one is eying me.”

I raised an eyebrow. She’s not hard on the eyes, by any means, but she isn’t the type to expect to turn heads as she walks down the street. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Normally people notice the way I walk,” she said quietly. “The bullies take confidence as a challenge, so they look me over to see if they can take me.” She shrugged. “If I’m in a bad mood, I let them think that they can.”

“Ooookay.” It took me a minute to work through that. “So you’re mad because no one wants to pick a fight?”

“Yeah.” She frowned, and shook her head. “It’s weird.”

Then I realized the implications. “Ah. Of course. You’re still upset over Lizzy.”

She didn’t say anything, and we walked in silence for another block or so.

“I’ve known her for eight years,” she said finally, as we passed a gun shop with three heavily-armed men guarding the entrance. The rest of the ‘scraper was probably pissed about the impact that was having on their sales. “I’ve never been exactly friends with her, but…” she shook her head. “This is all too much to swallow. Was the Composer always there, watching and pulling the strings? Or did she only drop by every once in a while, like to hypnotize Derek?”

“It’s impossible to know for sure,” I admitted. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.” I brightened a little. “Though at least now that the hypnotism is gone, Derek’s finally started to notice us.” I grinned and elbowed her lightly in the ribs. “Wanna make a fight out of it?”

The swordswoman just glared at me. “One of our closest friends was brainwashed for…what? Over a decade? And you want to turn his affections into a game.”

My grin faded. I had to admit, teasing him had been more fun when I didn’t understand why he was refusing my advances.

I wasn’t going to stop, of course. That’s just not who I am. Especially now that I was pretty much the only one in the running. But I could be a little more tactful about it.

“Yeah,” I said slowly, covering my embarrassment with a cough. “Ah…sorry about that. I wasn’t thinking.”

After a few more minutes of silence, we reached the wall. Thankfully, we had told MC to expect our arrival, so we didn’t have to wait twenty minutes for the stupid gate to creak open. We just slipped through the small crack and out the other side without any trouble.

The docks of Domina were a bit weird. At each of the four compass points, there was a long, traditional dock right outside the gate, over a hundred yards long. It was solid concrete and rebar, supported from underneath by powerful concrete columns that reached all the way to the bottom of Whitecap Bay. This was where the rare visitors to the city docked, and where the barbecues were located. They were completely abandoned today, which was not unexpected.

The weird part was the Ring; a twenty-yard wide concrete belt circling the entire city. This was where most of the baseline fishermen lived and worked, in shacks and lean-to’s built right up against the wall. They were easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look, since they were the same dull gray color as the wall itself, and buried between stacks of abandoned shipping containers people used as restaurants and shops.

Although I said ‘baseline,’ most of the people here had a few toys to make it easier to live exposed to the elements. People who preferred a warm roof over their heads instead of a dingy little shelter that barely kept out the rain generally commuted.

I couldn’t see Turgay’s lab anywhere. I don’t know what I expected; it wouldn’t be outdoors, obviously, but there was really no idea where to start. I wish he had given me better directions.

I heard the squeaking sound of a metal door opening and turned to see a girl in a lab coat standing outside an open shipping container, set in a long row with a bunch of others. She waved us over, and we came with little hesitation.

Once we were closer, I saw feathers in her hair, and any doubts about whether or not this was the right place disappeared.

“I’m Jenna Strigi. You’re…Ling?”

I swallowed. I wasn’t very worried, but it was still a secret lab researching one of the most important objects in the city. I was allowed to be a little apprehensive.

“Ah…yeah. I’m Turgay’s orphan-mate,” I indicated Akane. “And this is—”

“Her bodyguard,” Akane finished. Her face was set in stone; if she was joking, I sure as Tezuka couldn’t tell. Was she really taking Laura’s suggestion that seriously?

Jenna, however didn’t seem to find anything in the least bit odd about that. “Of course. Come in.” We did, and she closed the door behind us with a loud clang.

It was nicer than I had expected; they had knocked down most of the walls of the containers to free up space, and used white-painted plywood when they needed privacy. I liked the design. It had a very comfortable, homey feel to it. But I knew from Turgay that most aves didn’t like confined spaces—after all, the reason they joined the subculture in the first place was usually because they wanted to fly. This probably wouldn’t be a very fun place to work for them.

“I’ll fetch the Director right away,” Jenna promised. “Stay here.” As she walked off deeper into the complex, the heavily-armed aves on either side of us drew meaningful mechanical noises from their guns. I could take a hint, and made sure not to look at them.

Akane, however, decided to take her sword out of her bag and holster it at her waist. It was a testament to the guards’ training that they managed to restrain themselves from shooting.

I grinned at them a little weakly.

“Ling?” I glanced up to see Turgay striding forward, a concerned look in his eyes. He was the only anthro around; he looked like practically royalty. Everyone else had only one or two toys, and looked like they were trying to mimic him.

“Ling, what are you doing here?” He hugged me fiercely, then glared at me sharply. “You weren’t supposed to come unless there was an emergency.”

After Lizzy went missing yesterday, Turgay had been forced to give the location of the lab to MC. While she hadn’t told me explicitly where it was until today, I had been able to guess pretty well based on the sewer entrance we had used when we were tracking Lizzy.

“It is,” I insisted. “Guy, is Lizzy here?”

He frowned. “No, of course not. I assumed you found her. She’s not still missing, is she?”

I rubbed my forehead. “It’s…complicated. Is there somewhere we can sit down?” Now it was my turn to frown. “Actually, Jenna said she was going to go fetch the Director, maybe we should wait…”

“No,” he assured me. “That’s me. I’m the Director.” He grinned at my shock. “Come on, I have seats in my office.

His ‘office,’ as I had expected, was just a slightly larger area deeper in the complex, cordoned off with plywood walls and a thick sheet for a curtain.

I sat down in a dinky little folding chair and glared at him. “You didn’t mention that you were in charge down here.”

He shrugged. “You didn’t ask.” As though that settled anything.

Whatever, not important. I needed to figure out a way to explain everything without…

You know what? Screw being sensitive. This guy was the leader of a secret, illegal project studying stolen technology that brainwashes anyone who spends too much time around it.

So, I just looked him straight in the eye and said “Lizzy is the Composer.”

He frowned and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, we heard about that during our last status update, but I can’t believe it. Are you sure?”

“Positive,” I said firmly. I waved my hand. “There might be demonic possession or some weird power involved, but the point is is that whatever is driving around in Lizzy’s body is unbelievably dangerous.”

“Immortal,” Akane noted.

I nodded. “That too. Laura shot her face off, and she just laughed.”

“Laura shot her own face off?”

“No, Lizzy’s.” I sighed. I could tell he didn’t believe me, even though I didn’t have all that much experience reading anthros. “Look, just…stay away from her, all right? Call Necessarius if you see her.” I stood to leave, and Akane rose as well.

Turgay shook his head. “Lizzy has given us quite a bit of help. I’m not going to just throw her out in the cold if she comes calling.”

“She could kill you all,” Akane said bluntly.

Before the anthro had a chance to answer, his plywood wall—the one facing the door—exploded inwards as the body of one of the warhawks was thrown through.

“No, I will kill them all.”

I knew what I’d see before I even turned.

And there she was, in all her glory. Elizabeth Greene. Still over six feet tall with skin like a bronze goddess. Still in the white dress from last night—now stained completely crimson, with darker patches underneath the still-wet blood, indicating older battles. She was barefoot, and stood with one foot in the shattered ribcage of a warhawk on the floor, laying unmoving in a puddle of ever-widening blood. Behind her, the other two guards were little more than red splashes against the walls.

In her hand she held Turgay’s assistant Jenna by the throat, as casually as if she weighed nothing more than a bag of groceries. But judging by the way the ave woman was struggling, there was nothing casual about the strength of her grip.

Everything about Lizzy was different, from the haughty way she stood to the cruel smile, to the natural way the blood of her enemies looked, splashed upon her skin. She looked like an entirely different person, pretending to be Elizabeth Greene.

The only things unchanged were her eyes. Still the same, unflinching gold, nearly glowing in the dim light of the illumination strips on the ceiling.

Her eyes were the same as always. But in the context of everything else…

They weren’t kind eyes anymore. These were the eyes of a hunting panther, watching her prey from the shadows.

“Hey, Ken. Ishi,” she said. The monster grinned, her pearly white teeth accentuating the blood splashed on her face even more. “Prepare to die.”

Behind the Scene (scene 115)

The “Ken” refers to Akane again (Sword), while the “Ishi” refers to Ling (Stone).

Scene 58 – Salutem

SALUTEM

LING

I was flying.

Well, floating. Using the stone plates in my armor, I was able to levitate myself. Not for long; only five minutes or so. But I was getting better, my reservoir was expanding, and I was finding more and more uses for the armor. Sure, levitation was the coolest, but I could also use it to enhance my strikes and dodge faster.

It was a perfect focus for my power, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. This kind of thing happened all the time in shows; now that I had the idea, I could name a half dozen anime or comics where they used similar tricks. So why hadn’t I come up with it before?

I was too complacent, that was the problem. Go to school, play soccer, kill screamers, sleep. I wasn’t spending enough time actually thinking. Sure, Laura was better at it than me, but if I approached everything from a different angle, I might be able to find something she missed.

I was on the roof of the dorm at the moment, where no one really hung out. It was the perfect place to practice, but the sun was basically set, and I really didn’t want to accidentally float over the edge and find out if I could catch myself from a fall. So I went back down, using the elevator rather than the stairs. Well, I had to use the stairs to get back into the building, but the elevator was fine for the rest. No sane person would try to run down thirty-one floors.

Focus. I needed to think about tactics.

But what was I supposed to do? This was out of my comfort zone. Zombies weren’t a common anime topic, for whatever reason.

No, no. I was looking at it wrong. None of my interests would be directly useful, but we didn’t need help killing zombies anyway. We needed to find the Composer. Laura wasn’t having much luck with that, other than that obvious trap the changelings were looking into.

But what could I do to help?

Put myself in the Composer’s shoes, that’s what. Shouldn’t be that hard. Every show had a bad guy. I just had to put together what we knew and figure out which one he was.

Okay, we knew he wasn’t as dangerous as he could be. Even though we didn’t know everything about the singers, the Composer should be able to just hook one up to some big speakers and infect half the city. Why hadn’t he? There were only two possible explanations: Either he was playing a longer game, or he was an idiot.

I nearly dismissed the second one out of hand, but it was possible. We didn’t know where these powers had come from. Clarke’s blood and DNA tests still weren’t showing any results, and even brain scans didn’t show any abnormalities. We could apparently just do things, with no explanation. If the Composer was in a similar situation, it could be that some idiot had gotten a hold of a weird power, and in testing out its limits, had unintentionally lost important chances.

No…no, that didn’t work. Because for all his mistakes, the Composer had managed to stay hidden, had avoided fighting anyone directly. Laura had some theory about it being a disembodied mind, able to manifest in any screamer, but that didn’t make sense to me. He hadn’t paused to gloat even once. And if you’re ever gonna gloat, it’s when you can swap bodies at a whim.

So we had to assume he was smart. Smart enough so that everything was going according to plan. After all, every time a screamer outbreak started, hundreds of people were turned, and he was only getting more efficient. If he was only a little patient, he could turn the whole city. Was that the plan?

Yes. That had to be it. Revealing the singers hadn’t been necessary; it was just a little clue to keep us scrambling for information while the status quo remained unchanged, to make us think we were making progress. He didn’t need the magic bullet to win the game. If nothing changed, he’d win soon enough.

Which meant we had to raid the lair that the changelings had found, despite how obvious it was. It might be a trap, but it was our only clue.

No…

No, that was just it.

Of course it was a trap. And of course we had to investigate. The Composer knew that. So the trap waiting for us wouldn’t be a slap on the wrist. It would mean certain death for whoever went in there.

As the elevator door opened, I stepped outside, but didn’t go further. The cell reception was a little bit iffy in my room. We had asked Emily to fix our broken relay, but she apparently hadn’t done anything about it.

I pulled out my phone and called Laura. She was probably either studying downstairs or with Clarke, but either way she’d have enough free time to talk.

On the third ring, she picked up. “Hello?”

“Laura? It’s Ling.”

“Yeah, I got that. What’s up?”

“We need to bomb the Composer’s lair.”

There was a very long pause on the other end of the line. “Why would we do that.”

“Because it’s our only clue,” I insisted.

There was another, shorter pause. “Yes, that’s generally why you don’t incinerate evidence.”

“No, I mean it’s our only clue, and the Composer knows that. So the trap waiting for us is probably going to be enough to level a city block.”

“And what, you want to beat him to the punch?”

“Yes, exactly! If blow it up ourselves, some evidence might survive, and if we’re very lucky he’ll be inside at the time.”

Laura sighed deeply. “Ling, there are a number of problems with that plan. But I’m going to start with this one: We’re not going in. We’re just watching the place, to see who does go in.”

My brain screeched to a halt. “That’s, uh…”

“A better plan?”

“Well, it doesn’t involve enough explosions…”

“Funny. Look, just leave the planning to me and Derek, okay? We have everything under control.” She hung up.

I stared at the phone for a minute. ‘Leave the planning to me and Derek.’ Those two had too many people looking to them for answers. Just because they were right most of the time didn’t mean they should get swelled heads.

Really, I was just annoyed because she shot down my argument so easily. I was used to being the stupidest person in the group, but usually I had at least something to contribute.

That friend of theirs…what was her name? Laura’s roommate? That’s right, Lizzy. She didn’t have this problem. Both times I had seen her, she just smiled and let Laura do her thinking for her. I was in a worse spot; smart enough to come up with plans, and dumb enough to think they could actually work.

I shook my head and started towards my room. I needed a break.

As I turned the corner, I saw a little girl, maybe ten years old, sitting in front of my door. She jumped up when she saw me.

“Ni Ling?” she asked.

“I don’t speak Chinese,” I explained. I was surprised she did; she was white. Didn’t ‘ni’ mean ‘two’ or something? ‘Two Ling?’ What could that possibly mean?

“Are you Ling?” the girl said, without missing a beat. When I nodded, she pulled a folded-up piece of paper out of her shirt. “Your friend Turgay, the ursa anthro, told me to give this to you.”

I reached out to take it, but stopped, frowning. “I don’t know an ursa named Turgay. I know an ave…”

She nodded and handed me the paper, then turned around and headed for the stairs without saying a word.

Still frowning, I opened up the paper slowly. The message was brief: ‘Abigail and Mechanus, ASAP.’ The intersection of Abigail and Mechanus, as soon as possible.

I sighed and headed for the elevators again. Why was he going through all this trouble? Couldn’t he just call me like a normal person?

It took me about fifteen minutes to get to the intersection in question, but I didn’t see him anywhere. Just late-night students and vampires, shopping around. There was a toy store nearby, as well as a few book shops and linens stores, all things that a college student would need. The ‘scrapers edging the square were a bit smaller than normal, maybe ten or fifteen stories. It created an interesting valley effect that you don’t often see in Domina.

But I had seen it all before. Although the lights from the buildings made them stand out beautifully in the night, that wasn’t what I was here for, and the fact that I couldn’t find what I was looking for was starting to annoy me.

He was one of like, a hundred ave anthros in the city. How could it be this hard to spot him?

I wandered around for a few minutes, at a loss as to what to do, when I passed one of the alleys between buildings and heard birdsong. Aves usually have their vocal cords enhanced to let them produce sounds like that easily; I took it as the signal it was and ducked into the deeper darkness.

As expected, there was Turgay, blinking at me with his wide eyes. He had what looked like a dirty blanket wrapped around his body, probably due to the cold. Behind him was an open crate with another ave anthro, sitting on something and clutching his side. The second ave looked like a crow or a raven, but it was hard to tell in the poor light.

“Ling,” Turgay whispered breathlessly. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”

I glared at him. “You could have just called. That’s what we have phones for, you know.”

He shook his head vehemently. “No, I threw our phones away. MC was monitoring them.”

She was what? I sighed. “What did you get into this time?”

“It would be easier if I just showed you,” he said carefully, moving aside so I could get to the object he was protecting.

I stepped up to the crate, and the black-feathered ave scooted to the side so I could see what he was sitting on. It was smeared with blood, but it was impossible to mistake that mirrored coffin for anything but what it was. Clarke had spammed all of us with pictures of it the second it had gone missing.

I cursed. “Turgay, why the hell do you have the toy box?”

He nodded in relief. “Good, I wasn’t sure you’d recognize it.”

I narrowed my eyes. “That work you did for Soaring Eagle…you stole the toy box?

“Yes,” he said, meeting my gaze levelly. “And now I need your help to get it to her. Before the ‘sarians kill me.”

I sighed deeply, placing my forehead against the cool metal of the most important device in the city.

Lizzy didn’t have to deal with this. No one ever asked her for help. Hell, her friends refused to even find out what her power was, they were so worried about her safety.

Must be nice.

Here I was, smart enough to come up with plans and dumb enough to think they were good, cornered and pressed for help. Couldn’t go to Laura, or Derek, or anyone else smarter than me. Couldn’t even call MC.

Must be nice, being Elizabeth Greene.

Behind the Scenes (scene 58)

“Ni Ling” means “Are you Ling.” It’s just that most of Ling’s “Chinese” is actually Japanese that she only half-remembers, and has confused for Chinese.

Scene 54 – Occulta

OCCULTA

TURGAY

My name is Turgay Corvi. I am eighteen years old and an ave anthro—an eagle, to be exact. It was only about a week ago that I got my feathers. It was an expensive and mostly useless procedure, but it was the last in the long list of toys that made me a full anthro. Hollow bones, improved eyes, talons, beak…any one would have been expensive for me, but Soaring Eagle paid for them all.

It was my reward for stealing the toy box from Necessarius.

It was Friday morning, and it was a bit cold in the back of the shipping truck where we were keeping the device. The most recent screamer attack was yesterday morning, and it had the ‘sarians scrambling to patch giant holes in their defense. Apparently they lost a full company or more, and so they needed every man they could get on duty.

That meant they weren’t paying attention to a couple of aves trying to smuggle the hottest item in the city.

I didn’t have anything against Necessarius, and neither did Soaring Eagle. They were just in the way, that was all. She had given us all direct orders to not kill anyone unless absolutely unavoidable, which I was grateful for. I had never killed anything sentient, and didn’t feel like starting now. Besides, the ‘sarians could forgive grand theft. Murder made them vengeful.

I hadn’t been involved in stealing the toy box back from the Guruhi a couple nights ago. That had been left to a different group, who were not under orders to minimize casualties. It might sound harsh, but the Niktuku had done worse than leave a few bodies around when they stole it from us, and the Guruhi did the same to them.

“We need to make sure it doesn’t get nabbed again,” Pigeon said next to me. I had no idea why he was called that—he was a crow anthro—but I didn’t ask.

I rolled my eyes. “If I had been in charge of security from the start, this wouldn’t have happened. Skies above, what idiot thought it would be a good idea to drive through Nosferatu territory anyway?”

Once the box was on the truck last Monday, I had gone separately, with most of the grab team. We just weren’t built for the physical task of securing it from hostiles. Clearly, at least one of us should have gone with them regardless as an adviser, but the guards were arrogant bastards, and no one wanted to deal with them.

Of course, now that they were dead, we all missed them, but that’s normal. Just because they were jackasses doesn’t mean they deserved to be tortured and killed.

Pigeon shrugged. “Dunno, Guy. But I’ve looked at the maps, and the choices were Nosferatu or Necessarius territory. Guess they thought they chose the lesser of two evils.”

I sighed. The ferrets were significantly less organized than Butler’s men. There would have been a good chance the truck could have gotten through their domain without being noticed. Just bad luck.

I felt the truck roll to a stop, and someone pounded on the side. That was the signal. Pig and I grabbed opposite sides of the box and started rolling it towards the doors at the back. The device itself didn’t have wheels, but we had it in a crate on a roller pallet.

One of the fledglings, who didn’t have any noticeable ave toys yet, opened the doors as we reached them, and helped us bring it off the truck. It was only a hundred and fifty pounds, but that’s a lot to aves. We’re built for speed, not strength. It would have been easier if our truck had an elevator pad, but nooo…

We got it down without too much trouble, and I looked around. We were inside a small warehouse, maybe ten stories tall, that was almost entirely empty. Our drivers had found more than enough room to bring the truck in completely and close the big entrance gate, so we could unload our stolen goods in private.

“Open it up,” a woman said, stepping out from behind one of the few crates in the warehouse. “I want to see it.”

The woman was one of Soaring Eagle’s most trusted lieutenants, Delia. She was a hawk anthro, with dark brown feathers, a sharp black beak, and keen eyes. She was wearing a tight short-sleeved shirt and jeans, but didn’t seem bothered by the cold. She just stared at the crate we had pulled out of the truck, fixated.

I opened it up quickly; I didn’t need a crowbar, my talons were strong enough to pry off the top. The inside was filled with golden straw, and some of the lighter pieces stirred into the air as I lifted the lid. Pig and the fledgling finished pulling it off and putting it to the side, while I brushed aside the packing to expose a pallet of shotgun shells, carefully packed away in their individual boxes.

Delia narrowed her eyes. “What is this?”

“Patience, Honored Hunter,” I advised. “This is just the smokescreen.”

The three of us—the Alpha didn’t help at all—unpacked the shells carefully. Under the second layer of them there was a plywood false bottom, which I removed. Underneath…was the toy box.

It didn’t look like much. If anything, it looked like a mirrored metal coffin, though with air vents on the sides. There was a small keyboard for controlling it, but that was hidden under a recessed panel for the moment.

Delia, however, was entranced. She brushed the reflective surface lightly with her talons, but flinched back as if worried she would hurt it, though she shouldn’t. The thing was covered completely in that amorphous metal stuff. She wouldn’t be able to dent it with a sledgehammer.

She licked the edge of her beak. “It…works? You tested it?”

I shook my head. “No, unfortunately. That was the plan, but then the ferrets intervened. We figured taking it straight here would be the best option.” We were still under orders to maintain strict radio silence. The ‘sarians would be tearing the city apart looking for this thing, and advertising ourselves was a horrible idea.

The Alpha nodded. “Good. It’s good that you don’t know. The less people that know the details, the better.”

I frowned. There’s a trick to doing it with a beak that I can’t really describe, but rest assured I managed it. “Honored Hunter, if there’s been some change of plans that we need to be aware of…”

She waved her talons, dismissing my worries. “No, no, of course not. But if you’re tortured, it’s best if you don’t know where this is going. That way, you can’t sell us out.”

I sighed. What did that have to do with knowing whether the thing even worked? But I nodded as if I understood. “Where do you want this, then?”

The hawk paused. “I’m not sure. One moment.” She turned and called to someone I couldn’t see. “Kioman! Where’s your car?”

“Look, we can just leave the toy box with you,” I pointed out. “Pigeon and I—”

I stopped as I saw my friend.

It couldn’t be. It just wasn’t possible.

No one could be that stupid.

He was on the phone.

And the caller ID clearly said ‘MC.’

I grabbed his cell and threw it as hard as I could away from us. “You idiot!” I hissed, grabbing his shirt and pulling him close. “What is wrong with you?!”

“I was just checking my messages,” he insisted, as he tried to peel my talons out of their death grip. “Screw off. MC said I won a prize.”

I blinked. “You won a…” Realization dawned, and I wheeled back to a clearly confused Delia. “They know! They’re coming!”

Then the doors exploded.

I don’t know what they were using, but the shrapnel from the door hit Pig in the side and the fledgling full in the face. They both went down, but at least Pigeon would be getting up again. Seconds after the explosion, Necessarian troops began piling into the warehouse, guns blazing.

Delia cursed. “To arms, warhawks!” A dozen more hawks, all armed with machine guns, appeared from hiding and started returning fire.

I wasn’t getting paid enough to fight, and I was unarmed anyway. I worked at a gun store, how was I unarmed? Regardless, I just hunkered down as best I could and tried to drag Pigeon out of danger. Unfortunately, this seemed to attract the Alpha’s attention.

“Eagle!” she cried angrily. At least she had the sense not to use my name. “Take the toy box and run!”

I stared at her. “What?” That would never work. The only sensible option right now was to return the device and beg for the Big Boss’s mercy.

“Now!” she ordered, emptying an oversized pistol at the enemy.

I cursed. I had no doubt that if I tried to surrender or even simply ignore her orders, she’d turn that gun on me without hesitation. I had no choice. I threw Pigeon on top of the toy box, tossed my own phone away, and started moving.

Luckily, the device was still in the crate and on the roller pallet, so I just had to get behind it and push. Some bullets streaked past me, but they all missed. The ‘sarians were probably afraid of hitting the toy box. Apparently someone had forgotten to brief them on its durability.

The warehouse was small, but it was pretty much empty, so there was a lot of open space to run through. The warhawks covered me as best they could, but I wasn’t worried about the Necessarians inside, so much as the ones who would be waiting for me outside.

On second thought, as long as they didn’t shoot on sight, I should be okay. I could surrender, figure out where they were taking the device, and find a way to relay that information back to Soaring Eagle. It wasn’t perfect, but it would work.

I pushed on with renewed vigor. It took me a minute to find the exit; it turned out it was behind one of the only shipping crates in the place. I ignored the landing bay, going for the smaller double doors next to the giant gate. I pushed the doors open with the crate, held my hands up in surrender, and…

Nothing happened.

I blinked.

No one was here.

Well, this was arach territory, after all. The spider kemos were a small subculture, but they liked their ambushes, and Necessarius would have to be careful about sending troops into the area. I guess I had just gotten out before their men came around.

I realized that meant I had little choice. Soaring Eagle had managed to score alliances with both the Lolths and the Minervas. Great for her and all, but it meant that if they saw me captured by the ‘sarians, they’d just kill everyone and grab the toy box. Not to mention that Butler’s troops would know that, and would shoot on sight to keep their jobs easier.

“What’s going on?” Pigeon muttered from inside the crate. He tried to sit up, but stopped when he saw his torso. “Guy, why am I bleeding?”

“Because you’re an idiot, Pig,” I spat out. “Now shut up and lay down.” Finally making a decision, I began to roll the cart north. We were in South Middle now, but my warehouse and boltholes were at the edge of South Central, not too far away.

Even just getting out of arach territory would be helpful. They bordered a giant clan in that direction, but the Colossi generally stayed out of this kind of thing. It was as close to a safe run I would get. It would be best if I could steal a truck, but I wasn’t holding out hope on that. Besides, my skill at hotwiring was below average.

I quickly pulled into a dark alley filled with dumpsters. The smell was horrific, and worse yet, told me that these were restaurants. I didn’t need food.

But where there was rotting food, there were ghouls. I saw one nestled against a dumpster, glaring at me with one eye. He was mostly baseline except for the nighteyes, and wrapped in a big wool blanket that covered his ragged clothing. It was still pretty cold.

I licked my beak. He wouldn’t part with the blanket easily, and even if I was willing to, I just didn’t have the skill to take it from him by force. Instead, I went the other route. I took out my wallet.

He came fully awake as I pulled out all my cash. Not really all that much, but five twenties is still a lot to a homeless ghoul. I nodded and offered it. “Hundred bucks for the blanket.” I licked my beak again. “And to tell the ‘sarians I went down Hades street instead.”

He hesitated for a moment, then shrugged off the blanket. He exchanged it for the money quickly, fast enough that I think he could have just stolen the cash from me if he wanted.

I understood what his speed was supposed to imply. He could have robbed me blind. But he didn’t. I nodded my thanks, wrapped the cloak around myself to hide my ave toys, and pushed the crate carrying my bleeding friend and the most valuable item in Domina down the alley.

Behind me, the ghoul started whistling as he walked away, presumably to find a store to spend his money.

Behind the Scenes (scene 54)

I have a feeling I might be dumping too many plot threads at once with this, but the toy box kinda has to happen right now.

Oh, and about the amorphous metal stuff. This is a very real thing, in development right now. The name refers to its atomic structure, not its material state; it’s still perfectly solid. Long story short, it’s basically indestructible, and holds an edge very well. We’re still at the stage of “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we made surgical tools out of this stuff?” Domina, however, is a little farther down the line, though not by much. It’s still very expensive, but they have surgical tools made out of amorphous metal, and are experimenting with other applications. Armoring the toy box with it was ridiculously expensive, but worth the cost. Note that this is the original toy box that Necessarius bought from the fey: The copies are built out of cheaper materials.