Tag Archives: Turgay

Scene 276 – Naves

NAVES

NEPHORTHEES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 He had been getting more quiet and withdrawn with each passing day, to the point that he barely spoke any more.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

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

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

They both nodded, Turgay with significantly less enthusiasm.

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

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

Then everything stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you say so.”

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

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

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

There was a pause as she stared at the sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged. “If you say so.”

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

Silk disappeared, and time resumed.

“Kids, wait.”

They both stopped, surprised.

“…good luck.”

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

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

I hated this body so much.

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

There. That should do the trick.

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

A water tower.

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

I concentrated on my hand, and pulled.

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

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

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

Where the guards likely would still be at their posts.

Whoops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That brought them running.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll be more careful next time.”

“Yes, sir.”

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

Everyone visibly relaxed.

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

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

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

The cook rolled his eyes. “Fine.”

Everyone cheered.

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 276)

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

Scene 275 – Iter

ITER

LING

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

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

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

“You didn’t teach us anything!”

“Yeah, well, good luck.”

She disappeared.

And that was it.

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

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

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

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

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

She just smiled. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “She—she’s what?”

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

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

I remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice use of metaphor,” I said.

“Those aren’t metaphors.”

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

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

Turgay and I just stared at her.

Context. So much context needed.

“You haven’t learned that lesson yet.”

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

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

“I got Guy back.”

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

“I would not!”

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

“You’re exaggerating.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like… like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She didn’t tell you?”

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

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

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

“They?” Turgay asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

“What was that about gods?” Turgay added.

I shushed him. “Nephorthees. Spaceship?”

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

“Song thing. You mean the powers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both turned to him.

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

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

“Don’t call me that.”

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

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

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

I didn’t interrupt. I knew better.

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

I shut him up with a smack upside the head.

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

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

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

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

Still, I didn’t interrupt.

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

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

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

“What this hobbling you mentioned?”

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

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

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

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

Nephorthees shrugged. “She has willpower.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 275)

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

Scene 272 – Lapos

LAPOS

LING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I walked over to the elevators without a word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across from us were Nephorthees and Turgay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

“Just to start: What exactly are you?”

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

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

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

“More like a coffin.”

Everyone ignored me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carter no longer looked amused. Her face was stone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that a threat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carter made a sound. I strengthened my grip.

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

Carter nodded desperately.

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

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

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

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

She smirked, but nodded.

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

“…Novaehollandiae?”

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

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

“O-of course.”

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

Carter gave a weak smile as we left.

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

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

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

“Not that.”

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

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

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

“What does it matter?

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

I stared at her.

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

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

“What is wrong with you?”

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

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

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

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

I stared. She smiled pleasantly.

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

Nephorthees glanced at him, then turned away again.

“Come. We have work to do.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 272)

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

Scene 267 – Advena

ADVENA

LING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged. “Fences.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The airport.”

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

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

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

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

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

We found ourselves in a world gone mad.

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

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

And of course, there were the people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Took you idiots long enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the time I turned, she was gone again.

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

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

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

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

“Help how?

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 267)

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

Scene 266 – Sepulcrum

SEPULCRUM

LING

Reaching the Pentagon was easier than expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I dodged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have children,” he said quietly.

“So do I,” I noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I was facing the aves protecting their King.

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

They didn’t so much as blink.

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

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

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

Four more warhawks. Then the King.

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

Three.

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

Two.

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

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

And then there was only Soaring Eagle.

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

Then Turgay was there.

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

I didn’t stop. “This is exactly me.”

“You are not a killer, Ling.”

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

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

And I had killed them.

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

He didn’t.

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

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

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

She slashed me across the face without hesitation.

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

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

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

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

Wonderful.

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

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

She exceeded it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I found it.

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

Like I had.

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

And now the seam had widened. Just barely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any last words?” I asked.

She paused to consider, then opened her beak—

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

“I don’t actually care,” I said.

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

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

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

Elizabeth.

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

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

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

But I did know better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

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

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

But then…

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

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

I cursed and prepared to strike again—

My knees buckled.

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

And then I was kneeling.

Before Silk.

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

I looked up at her, horror on my face.

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

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

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

“You bitch,” I spat. “I’ll kill you.”

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

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

That meant there was only one other option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we were outside.

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

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

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

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

“No,” I said tiredly. “We couldn’t.”

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

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

“Like we were children, yeah.”

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

“Some would argue the housecat is the master.”

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

He shivered. “That can’t be true.”

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

I looked around the empty field.

“Where are we?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 266)

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

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

Scene 265 – Saxum

SAXUM

RICHARD

“You can’t declare war on Domina City!”

“That’s right, you need Congressional approval!”

“Pretty sure it’s not a war. Domina is technically still a part of the US—”

“Oh shut up, Grain! We know you’ve been begging for this for years!”

“I want to save the city, not burn it to the ground—”

“ENOUGH!” I roared.

To my surprise, the dozen or so senators and representatives on my computer instantly shut up. Maybe because I never snapped like that. Heh, I needed to remember that trick.

I was in a video conference call with the congresscritters relevant to the attack on Domina City. Thankfully, there weren’t many of them. Dealing with this group was like herding cats. If I had the entire Congress on my hands, it would be like herding… lions. Loud, angry lions who weren’t actually dangerous because they were declawed… okay, that got away from me a bit at the end.

“Let’s just talk this over,” I said. “Calmly.”

“We still need to discuss why,” Representative Graham said. “You’re asking for five battalions and a small carrier group for one city that hasn’t done anything to anyone outside their borders.”

“It’s what they are doing inside their borders that worries me,” I shot back. “It’s practically a third world country. From what Sele has told me, it’s worse in many ways. This toy maker is used to make monsters and worse, people are kidnapped off the street at random… we need to fix this.”

There was a pause as they considered my words. They didn’t actually want to fight me on this. They were just annoyed that I had gone forward without consulting them.

“They have allies in space,” Senator Lindsay said. “That will make things complicated.”

Of course. My predecessors had used the space colonies as convenient punching bags and scapegoats, blaming them for everything from rising energy prices to strange weather patterns. Why couldn’t they have just taken up golf, or some other normal hobby?

Senator Kines, the former general, stroked his chin. “We don’t know what the space colonies are capable of. They have full manufacturing capabilities; they can make pretty much whatever they want. If they decide to assist Domina in full force, I’m not sure we can stop them.”

Of course we couldn’t stop them. Our military was the most powerful on Earth—emphasis on. We had like, three spacecraft, and they were all unarmed shuttles. Even our air force wasn’t that great. It was still the best in the world, but only barely, and even that was more of a weight of numbers thing. It couldn’t defend against Ceres deciding to chuck rocks at us.

“We have tank support, though,” Representative DaSanto said. “Surely that will give us an incredible advantage.”

Kines snorted. “Tanks are basically useless in a city, and that city has a giant wall around it, with only four gates. Getting them in would be a pain in the ass for very little benefit.” He sighed. “I hate to say it, but I think we’ll need to rely on the Navy for this one. Once they control the waters, our lives will be much easier.”

I didn’t comment on the stupid rivalry. He’d just throw a hissy-fit like last time. “If we were willing to level the city, we could just park some artillery on the east coast and shell them. We want to liberate them. With any luck, we won’t have to fight any but a few of the worst gangs.”

Griggs smiled sadly. “If it’s that easy, just infantry will work. But it’s never that easy.”

I chuckled. “You’re right. I think—”

The feed cut out, the windows with the faces of my allies replaced by a dozen error messages.

“Hello?” I said hesitantly, as if that would actually help fix it. “Can you hear me?”

The door to my temporary office opened, and Sele, the woman who looked like a hawk eagle, came out. Her guards, also similarly modified into various bird forms, flanked her imperiously.

“Mister President, someone cut the internet and phone lines. The entire building is dead to the outside world.”

I scoffed. “This is the Pentagon. What about the backups?”

“Dead. And the backup backups.”

I almost asked about the backup backup backups, but restrained myself. See? I could totally be serious when the situation called for it. “There’s no way this was an accident. Do we still have internal communications?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get me a general. Whoever is in charge at the moment.”

“That would be me, Mister President,” General Hoshi said as she walked through the opposite door, flanked by several guards of her own. “I have men looking into the source of this attack, but for the moment I am assuming it is an attempt on your life. You need to get to safety.”

“An assassination attempt at the Pentagon?” I asked incredulously.

“People have done worse,” Sele said.

“But perhaps not stupider,” Hoshi said calmly. “This will be resolved shortly. Just—”

Her radio crackled to life. “Sir! We found it!”

She plucked it off her belt. “Found what? The break?”

“No, sir! The assailant!” There was gunfire in the background. “We need backup!”

“Lieutenant, calm down. How many are there?”

More gunfire. “There’s—shit!” There was an explosion. “Just one, sir!”

The general blinked like an owl. Probably not a good idea to mention that. “One?”

“She’s—AAAGH!” Anything else he was going to say was terminated by a very large and very fatal-sounding splat.

It made me sick to my stomach, but General Hoshi had dealt with worse, and I was fully confident that she’d be able to find an answer to this problem that didn’t involve detonating half the building again.

But before she had a chance, the radio crackled to life again, and an unfamiliar voice came out. It was unmistakably female, but it was a very deep voice, like the speaker had been gargling with gravel.

“I am here for the whore.”

I scrunched up my face. “…what?”

“That’s a new one,” Hoshi said slowly. “Mister President, don’t take this the wrong way—”

“I’ve never been called a whore,” I said, distracted. “Not even that time I dressed up as a hooker for Halloween.” I generally got oh so clever dick insults used on me instead. Who the hell thought Dick was a good nickname for Richard? “I’m not sure she’s here for me.”

“She’s here for us,” a new voice whispered.

We all turned to see another of Sele’s retinue, the bald eagle who was always twitching like a scared rat, coming out of the same room Sele had been in a few moments before. His eyes were wide as dinner plates, and he had to lean against the wall for support. Watch the claws, buddy. We just got the whole place repainted.

“It’s her,” he insisted. “She’s come for revenge.”

“Ling Yu is dead,” Sele insisted. “I’m sorry Turgay, but she is. The calciophage ate her bones. Not even the toy box can fix that.”

The sound of more gunfire erupted from the general’s radio. “I think I have her, sir!” a soldier whispered. “Just let me—AAGH!” What followed was a few minutes of… ripping and tearing noises, punctuated every few moments by screams of raw terror.

“Tell your soldiers to stand down,” that voice said again, with the kind of cold and dispassionate calm that only the worst and most dangerous killers could manage. “I am here for the whore. No one else.”

“C-can I try?” the bald eagle, Turgay whispered, holding out his hand—talons—to Hoshi. “I don’t know if she’ll listen to me.” His beak… quirked oddly, and I had the strong impression that he was smiling sadly. “But I know she won’t listen to you.”

“Young man, I’m not about to—”

“Hoshi,” I interrupted tiredly. “Let him try.” More gunfire from the radio. “At least let him try.”

She still looked hesitant, but after only a moment handed the radio over to the bird.

He nodded in thanks, then held the thing in both hands and slowly brought it up to his beak. “Ling? Ling, can you hear me? It’s Turgay.” She swallowed visibly. “Ling, please talk to me. I want to talk to you.”

“Ling Yu is dead,” the voice said coldly.

The bird wasn’t buying it. “Ling. This isn’t you. You’re not a killer.”

More gunfire. More screams.

My guards strode up protectively. “General, is there a safer place we can take the president?”

She shook her head. “This is a reinforced titanium bunker. It rivals the one underneath the White House. There’s no place better for her to be.”

“Is there any concrete?” Sele demanded.

I frowned. “What? What does that have to with anything?”

“Just answer the question,” she said, looking at the general. “Is there any concrete, stone, anything of that sort involved in the construction of this bunker? Anything at all. It’s important.”

Hoshi looked as confused as I felt, but answered regardless. “Uh, no.” She stomped her foot, producing a ringing sound muted by the thick carpet. “Even the floor is titanium. This was built when North Korea was still an independent country, and they were trying to build that weird tunneling machine. This is proof against everything up to a nuke.”

More screams sounded through the radio. No gunfire, though.

“Ling,” Turgay whispered. He was close to tears. “These men have done nothing to you. You’re not Butler. You’re not even Derek. You are not a killer. Please. Just turn around and go home!”

The wall clanged.

“What was that?” I babbled.

Turgay visibly swallowed. “Ling, don’t—”

Another clang.

This time, I could see the pictures on the wall shake.

“This will have consequences you cannot foresee,” the bird hissed into the radio. “And that’s assuming you survive! Don’t throw everything away just for some meaningless revenge! Please!”

Clang.

There was a dent in the wall.

It seemed to be the size of a fist.

My bodyguards and Hoshi’s had their guns trained on the dent, on the spot where this… person would come through. Assuming it was a person after all, and not just some human-shaped monster being led around by this Ling girl.

Clang.

The entire bunker shook.

Sele had told me about warlords, such as herself. The princes and princesses of the toy maker. She hadn’t gone into much detail, but I had been able to read between the lines. The cosmetic enhancements were secondary. It was the physical ones we shouldn’t underestimate. That kind of thinking led to your skull getting squashed like a tomato.

But jokes aside, punching through titanium with your bare hands simply was not possible.

Silence.

I blinked. Looked around at everyone else, the general and our guards and the birds. Everyone else seemed to be just as confused as I was. Had she really stopped so easily? Or maybe the guards outside had managed to kill her.

“…Ling?” Turgay whispered into the radio.

The entire bunker shook like an earthquake. Suddenly, it was like we were inside a box being shaken by a kid trying to figure out what his new Christmas present was. We were all thrown to the ground, along with anything on any desks or walls. Glass shattered somewhere, and I felt a heavy oak desk slam me in the gut. Ooh, that one was gonna be hard to explain to the wife.

Then, the shaking stopped.

It took me a moment to realize it; I was too dizzy to see straight. But years of drunken nights had given me a near superhuman ability to operate even when my brain wasn’t working quite right, and I managed to struggle to my feet.

There were people, standing in front of where the door should be. Now, there was just a vague blackness; the door was either open, or the assailants had ripped it off its hinges. There were five, maybe six of them. That explained a lot. Turgay’s friend had help—

Oh. Wait. My head was clearing now. There was only the one girl. I had been wondering why they all looked identical.

She was smaller than I expected. Much smaller. Five feet tall at the most, with the proportions of a frail doll. She looked Chinese—though the name was a big hint—but her hair was bleached blonde.

She wore a simple pair of blue jeans, white sneakers, a tight black t-shirt, and a long black glove that covered her entire right arm. She kept clenching her fist over and over, as if just waiting for someone to use it on.

There was no way a little girl like this ripped through a fortified titanium bunker. Not by herself. It simply wasn’t possible.

But the look on her face…

This was a girl who had fought the world and lost. Multiple times. The world punched her down, and sooner or later she popped back up, ready for another fight. Someone who had lost friends and family and more.

This little girl couldn’t have done this. But with a face like that, I was willing to believe it.

“I am here for the whore,” she said, her voice like gravel.

Some of the rubble of broken furniture shifted, and Turgay slowly rose, talons held up in a supplicating motion. “Ling, let’s just talk this through, all right? You keep saying whore. But there’s no one here who’s called that.”

“I had a lot of time to think, in that box,” the girl mused aloud. I could hear hints of friendliness and honesty in her voice. She had been a normal girl, once, but there wasn’t much of that left. “About your boss. About why she seemed familiar, and about the way she spoke.”

The bald eagle blinked those giant eyes. “What? What are you talking about?”

“I’ll skip the pleasantries. Your boss is a girl who was cast out of her culture for being too extreme even for the Whore-Lord. The woman who murdered her husband, and then hundreds more.”

Turgay shook his head. “That’s not possible, she died years ago—”

Her eyes were as hard as stone. “Xinivrae, the Black Widow, sister of Malcanthet the Succubus Queen.”

Behind us, more rubble shifted, and Sele rose from the wreckage, back straight and bearing strong. I might have absolutely no idea what the hell was going on—not an unusual situation for me to be in—but she met the accusation head-on.

“I was cast out of Shendilavri,” she said quietly. “I am no longer a succubus. I have not been a succubus for almost fifteen years.” She puffed up her chest. “I am Soaring Eagle, Animal King of the aves. I built the culture with my own hands. Xinivrae and the Widowers are long dead and gone.”

“I am not here to argue identity,” Ling growled. “I’m just here to kill you.”

“How did you survive the calciophage?” Sele demanded. “Your skeleton should be completely gone. Even with the toy box, merely holding you together was the extent of its abilities. Regrowing new bones should have been impossible.”

“It was,” the little girl said. “Clarke might have been able to find a way, but I wasn’t Clarke. I had to find an alternative way to replace my bones, and the arm and the leg that were ripped off in my escape.”

She grabbed the glove on her right arm with her left, and pulled it off.

It took me a second to realize what it was.

It was stone.

The entire arm was some mixture of rock and concrete, animated by some fel process that I couldn’t possibly understand. All I knew was that it moved, twisted and flexed and twitched exactly like a real arm. It was just made of stone.

“My entire right arm,” the girl said calmly, even as Sele, Turgay, and the other birds recoiled in horror. “My entire left leg. Every single bone in my body, from the fingers and toes in my remaining hand and foot to my skull and even my teeth.” She grinned dangerously, and I did indeed realize that her teeth were made of the same color stone as her arm. “I survived, whore, despite your best efforts. And now I’m here to kill you.”

“Ling… ” Turgay whispered.

“Ling Yu is dead,” she said again. Her grin widened. “But I have some new friends who came up with a new name for me. Based on the tomb I made of that outpost where you left me behind.”

She flexed her stone hand—and it shifted into a blade even as I watched.

“I am Grave,” she said simply. “And I am going to bury you.”

Behind the Scenes (265)

Richard Martinez is one of those characters who developed his own voice despite my best efforts.

Scene 211 – Misertus

MISERTUS

LING

I hadn’t slept since I first woke in the toy box.

How long had that been? Weeks? Months? Hours? I had no way of knowing. No way of marking the time while trapped inside the box, no way of knowing anything but the constant, agonizing pain that filled every single moment.

All I could do was extend my awareness as far as possible, try to focus on something other than the pain.

I couldn’t actually affect anything, of course. But my sixth sense was… sharpening. Only barely, but still. Over time, the details of my own body became more and more clear, until I could count the individual shards that made up what used to be my skeleton.

I could feel other things, too. Outside my body, and outside the toy box. Sometimes I could feel things moving at the edge of my perceptions. Too far away to get even the most general shapes, but I assumed they were people, or something alive.

Mostly, I just lay in the toy box, waiting.

Waiting and trying to use my power.

I could feel every single inch of concrete within a hundred yards. The wood-paneled pillars nearby, the floors above and below, and even a couple nearby buildings. I could feel them, as easily as if I was running my hand over their bare surfaces. I could almost see them sometimes.

Sometimes, but not always. Usually, they were just a presence. Sixteen pillars on this floor. Fifteen above, fifteen below. What was unique about this floor? And why wasn’t the floor made out of concrete? Was it an addition, some extra level off the books?

There was a pool nearby, or a pool-shaped concrete floor at least, one floor down and a bit off to the side. I had no idea what it was doing here, and I didn’t care. All I knew was that that was my target. It was the biggest chunk of concrete in the area. If I could do something with it, I had won.

No matter how much I tried, though, no matter how far I extended my sense or pushed my limits, I just could not make the concrete move. I couldn’t lift it, break it, twist it or shape it. The first rule of my power still held true: I had to be physically touching earth and stone to be able to affect it.

I screamed once again, cried out in agony as I burned through every drop in my reservoir in an attempt to do SOMETHING.

But nothing happened. Nothing but my heart tearing a little more from the added strain, nothing but my vocal cords shredding like wet tissue paper. Nothing but the toy box, chugging away and repairing the damage as best it could, bringing me back to this never ending hell of perfectly balanced life and death.

Heh. Turns out pain made me poetic. Who knew?

And I was downplaying my own achievements. Very little was happening, it was true. But every time the toy box finished repairing me, and I started fighting again, my reservoir was a little deeper, my power a little stronger.

Not much. Just a hair deeper, and just a hair stronger.

But still.

Deeper, and stronger.

Eventually, I would have enough power to break out of this prison. It might take a while, but I had time and to spare. Velvet hell, I might technically be immortal as long as the stupid box was plugged in.

Wait.

I felt something.

Something was moving closer, for the first time since… however long I had been in here.

I focused on it, trying to get a clearer picture. Yes! Tall, thin… it was a person, almost certainly! I just needed to get their attention.

But what was I supposed to do? Pounding on the inside of the box was useless; I wasn’t sure if it was actually soundproof, but it was close enough so that my weak, broken fists couldn’t be heard from the outside. Trying would just send more shocks of pain through my body—I knew that from experience.

“Ling,” a small speaker grill rasped. “Can you hear me?”

I jumped, sending my entire body into pain-induced spasms and causing a few of my muscles to rupture again.

The pain was indescribable, but I had gotten used to that. I just kept my lips firmly shut for a few moments to keep from screaming. Doing that would just cause me more pain.

“Are… you asleep?” the mystery voice asked.

“A… wake…” I managed to rasp without any of my vocal cords snapping. “What—”

“Oh, skies above… I’m sorry I haven’t been able to come see you. Soaring Eagle has been trying to disentangle us from the Composer, but it was slow going.”

“Who—”

“It’s… it’s me, Ling. It’s Turgay. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

“No… ears…”

“Oh, your ears are damaged? Right, I guess that makes sense.”

Yeah, and that was extremely illuminating. Thanks, Guy. It’s not like I’ve been sitting here for who knows how long, with no idea how I got in this situation in the first place. “What… what—”

“What happened? Well… how much do you remember?”

I didn’t bother answering.

“Uh… right. You’re not in a position to… right. Well, during your meeting with Soaring Eagle, you ran into Mitchel, so Sele had to keep you from reporting that she was working with the Composer.”

I remembered that much. But what did she hit me with?

“That would have been all fine and good, but, um…”

He was dodging the subject. He only did that when it was something he knew I wouldn’t like to hear.

Guy.”

“She hit you with the calciophage,” he admitted. “It was the only thing she had on hand.”

The calciophage. The bone-eater. It was designed for use against some types of gargant; hit them with it, and their bones would weaken, and within moments they would be crushed under their own body weight.

Yeah. That sounded about right.

“We put you in the toy box when Mitchel wasn’t looking, and it’s keeping you alive, but… this is beyond us. Us scientists, I mean. We don’t have any disease experience, so we can’t cure this.”

“But… But…”

“Butler?” There was a slight pause, during which I could imagine him shuffling his feet uncomfortably. “That’s… a bad idea. For more reasons than one.”

“My… life…”

“I’m sorry, Ling. I can’t do it. I honestly can’t. I’ve tried talking to Sele, but…” He sighed. “She’s set in this. She knows it’s only a matter of time before Butler finds her, and she doesn’t want to do anything to accelerate that.”

I didn’t say anything, just sort of… glowered at him as best I could, considering I was in enormous pain, trapped in a box, and he couldn’t even see my face in the first place.

He seemed to get the message, though, because he sighed again. “I’m sorry. And I’m also sorry I haven’t been by to see you since you were captured. But I knew I needed to talk to you before I left.”

Wait, left? Left where?

“Necessarius has started attacking a number of our old labs, as well as sites we considered before choosing this one. They’re searching for us in our most likely hiding spots, which we predicted.”

He took a deep breath.

“Because of that, Soaring Eagle is leaving the city, and taking me with her.”

What? “Nev… er…”

“I’ve never left the city? Yeah, I know. And hiding a dozen ave kemos isn’t gonna be easy outside Domina. But Sele has a plan. She always has a plan.”

“He’ll… find…”

“Butler’s reach doesn’t extend outside this city. We’ll be fine.”

No, I wasn’t talking about Butler.

Derek would find them.

If I died—or even if I didn’t, honestly—Derek would be livid. Like Turgay had said, it was difficult for anyone modified by the toy maker to hide outside the city, and that went tenfold for anthros. MC and Laura would find them, and Derek would hunt them down, with all the support the Big Boss could covertly give him.

But I couldn’t say that. Even if I wanted to, which I didn’t, I literally couldn’t get the words out. It was hard to tell, but I knew my teeth were completely gone, though I couldn’t tell if they had been dissolved by the calciophage or if they had simply fallen out of my shattered jaw.

What few words I had, I needed to use sparingly. “How… long?”

“Um… forever? I mean, I’d really like to come back, or never leave in the first place, but I doubt Butler’s ever gonna let our crimes go. Even if he dies, his successor probably won’t be all that friendly to us, either.”

“No… me.”

“Oh! Oh, you mean how long have you been in the box? Right, there’s no clock or anything in there. Probably has something to do with the fact that that fey only ever used it for their homunculi, so it wasn’t really—”

Guy.”

“Right! Okay, you were captured on Sunday… October 21st? That right?” A slight pause, which presumably involved him checking his phone. “Yeah, that’s right. And it’s the 1st of November now. A Thursday.”

That was… both better and worse than I had expected. I didn’t know if I had been hoping for more time or less, but eleven days was somewhere right in the middle there. My power had grown quite a lot in just eleven days, that was at least one thing to be proud of.

Turgay continued. “There was some weird stuff last night. The fey tried to replicate the Wild Hunt—it’s some Irish myth or whatever, I don’t know the details—but got interrupted by the Composer. The rest of the Paladins captured her again, and maybe even killed all her Blackguards, but no one’s really sure.”

Ah, that explained a lot. Such as why Soaring Eagle was suddenly in the mood to leave the city. When Elizabeth escaped again—and she would—she’d be pissed. She’d be especially angry at the aves, who had refused to help her both times while she was incarcerated. Getting as far away as possible definitely looked like a good idea.

“Take—”

“No.” He didn’t even wait for me to get more than one word out. He knew what I wanted. “We can’t take you, Ling, we just can’t. Even ignoring the logistics of moving a critically injured person, we’re in enough trouble as it is. If we take the toy box out of the city, Butler will hunt us to the edge of the star system. Besides, by leaving it here, the aves we leave behind can still do their research.”

Wait, edge of the star system? Were they planning on going off world? They had to be insane! Most of the space colonies had treaties with Domina, and with Necessarius specifically. Even looking for a spaceship would send up a million red flags. They couldn’t possibly be that stupid.

“We’re going to America, Ling. The president has offered us asylum.”

Oh. That made a lot more sense. I guess he had just been exaggerating, then.

There was a long pause, so long I almost thought he had left.

“I’m sorry, Ling,” he whispered so quietly I barely heard him. “But this is goodbye.”

And then he was gone.

Just like that, he turned around and left one of his oldest friends, dying in a box.

I felt my heart break again, and this time it wasn’t something that could be fixed so easily.

Behind the Scenes (scene 211)

I knew from the start that I wanted Ling in this situation, so I knew I had to prepare to write for her from a very odd perspective. But it’s still hard. She’s gonna get flashback scenes soon, those will be easier.

Scene 188 – Praeda

PRAEDA

LING

Sunday morning. I had found out where the new main ave lab was—and where Turgay would be—on Friday. The reason I had waited this long was simply because, according to what Guy told the goblins, he had been on tour with Soaring Eagle until today. Touring what? Who knew. The other labs, I guess.

I didn’t know how many the aves had scattered around the city, but this was clearly one of the better ones. Guards—without any obvious ave toys—patrolling nearby rooftops, lots of abandoned storefronts, so minimal number of outside observers…it was easy to see why they had picked this place.

The lab itself was about the same as the previous one, at least on the outside. Big, dilapidated skyscraper probably slated to be torn down soon, easy enough to bribe a few building permits into their talons.

I had sent Adam to a spot in the exact opposite direction.

It was a dick move, I know, but it was going to be hard enough getting any information out of Turgay. This called for diplomacy, not guns, and having one less witness around to see whatever super-secret stuff he was working on would be a point in my favor.

On that note, rather than sneaking through a back wall, I just walked right up the street, hands held high.

A homeless baseline, sitting at the street corner, stared at me like I was crazy. Considering he was sitting next to a cardboard sign that said ‘DONATE TO FIGHT AGAINST BUTLRS COMMUNIST REGIME,’ I think nothing more needs to be said.

“What in McCarthy’s name are you doing?” he growled, shifting under his dirty old blanket.

I stopped and lowered my hands, but I made sure to keep them in sight. “I need to speak to your Alpha.”

The homeless man just stared. “My what?”

“Your Alpha. Your warlord. Your leader.”

“My leader’s been dead for a while, girly.” He rattled a mostly-empty cup. “But any donations would be appreciated.”

I closed my eyes and sighed. “Please, I’m trying to be polite, here. If you insist on being useless, I’m going to get angry.”

“Get as angry as you want. That’s never resurrected anybody before.”

I leaned in close to his face, close enough to smell the musk of booze and dirt and other things I didn’t want to identify.

He just glared.

“It’s faint,” I admitted. “But I can still smell your aftershave. ‘Ancient Herb,’ is it? Not my favorite.”

The ‘homeless man’ closed his eyes with a sigh. “Skies above, I still can’t get rid of that stupid stink.”

“Something to keep in mind for next time,” I noted as I pulled back away from his face. “Tezuka, my nose is pretty much completely baseline, and I still noticed it. A kemo should be able to smell it from a block away.”

“We don’t really go for the scent buffs,” he muttered, fishing around in a nearby ratty-looking pack for what appeared to be an old broken radio. He brought the device to his lips. “Yeah, I’m made. She wants to talk to someone in charge.”

“Roger that,” the radio crackled. “Once she’s inside, switch out for debriefing.”

“Yeah, yeah…” he stowed the device again. “Just walk up to the front door. They probably won’t shoot you.”

“Thank you kindly,” I said with a nod, resuming my forward march with my hands raised again. Behind me, the passer muttered something darkly, but I didn’t get shot in the back, so I didn’t care.

The door opened as I approached it, and I heard the sound of something heavy being moved out of the way. An ave I didn’t recognize, a middle-aged man with yellow owl eyes, peered at me suspiciously.

“You’re Ling Yu?” he asked, a bit surprised. He looked at me up and down. “I assumed you would be at least a little taller.”

“Yes, I’m Ling. How’d you know?”

“I have pictures of the director’s known acquaintances. You’re basically it.” He sighed and stepped back. “C’mon in, I guess.”

I nodded in thanks as I stepped in, pretending not to notice the two warhawks flanking me armed with some flavor of assault rifle. “Thank you. Is Turgay here, by any chance? I talked with the goblins a few days ago.”

He led me down the hall. The warhawks, thankfully, did not follow. “Yes, he is, actually. Though if he knew you were coming, he didn’t mention it to me.”

I looked at him closer. “What, you his secretary or something?”

The ave huffed. “No, I am one of the project heads working under him. I’m trying to crack macro-scale MBG.”

It took me a second to parse that out. “Wait…you mean growing arms, and stuff?”

“Yes.”

“How’s that going?”

“About as well as you’d expect.”

“Oh. That’s too bad.” I guess they hadn’t gotten the wings working yet, after all. I thought the girl at the other lab had mentioned something about nearing clinical trials, though.

The building clearly hadn’t been cleaned in at least a year—there was dirt everywhere, trash in the corners, and graffiti from whatever meaningless gangs or minor clans had holed up here last. We passed quite a few closed doors, and a number more glaring warhawks, before walking up three flights of stairs, then down a hallway, down two flights, another hallway, up three flights…

If the ave was trying to get me lost, he was failing utterly. My sixth sense let me know the location of every wall and floor in the ‘scraper. I knew exactly where we were, and could have found my way back to the entrance with my eyes closed.

Before I could start getting angry at the unnecessary delays, however, we had reached our destination. A small, nondescript door that was nonetheless the most decorated one in the entire building. It wasn’t much, just a small plaque that said ‘director’ nailed to the front.

Based on my reckoning, we were at nearly the exact center of the fifth floor. Was there any particular significance in that, or just coincidence? Hm…well, I supposed putting him at the center would make him more difficult to assassinate…

The ave who had led me here rapped on the door with his knuckles. “Corvi? Yu is here.”

The voice that drifted through the closed door sounded confused. “I’m what?”

I rolled my eyes. “Lay off it, Guy. That joke wasn’t funny when we were kids, it’s not funny now.”

There was a scrambling sound on the other side, and after a moment the door swung open to reveal Turgay blinking at me.

“Ling? You’re…you…” He blinked again. “What are you doing here?”

“I think you know,” I muttered as I barged into the office. “You’ve been—”

I stopped, unable to find the words.

Because sitting right inside Turgay’s office, as calm as you please, was Soaring Eagle.

I’ve never been very good with animals, so I didn’t know exactly what species of eagle she was emulating, but it was clearly a different one from Turgay. He was obviously a bald eagle—black plumage, with the exception of the white feathers covering his head. She was something with a black hooked beak, beady black eyes, and dusky gray feathers on her head. The feathers quickly darkened as they went down her body, until they were black by the time they reached her shoulders. While I couldn’t see right now, I remembered that the feathers suddenly switched to white at about mid-chest level.

Unlike last time, she was wearing a flowing silver gown with a high neckline, long enough to hide her orange bird feet and sharp black talons. Or, it would be long enough to hide her feet, if she didn’t have one of her legs resting on the other knee, with the foot poking out.

“Hello again, whore,” she said, her sweet voice belying her harsh words. “I hear you destroyed one of my labs.”

I managed to keep from tackling the smug King, but only barely. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Hm, I’m sure you can say that about much of your life.”

This woman…was she trying to piss me off?

The ave anthro picked up an oddly-shaped coffee mug from Turgay’s cluttered desk, and took a delicate sip from the serving spout. I guess that was necessary when you don’t have lips or cheeks.

“Why don’t you have a seat, little imp? Turgay, clear the junk off one of these chairs for her.”

My friend moved quickly to obey his warlord, but I just narrowed my eyes. “Don’t call me ‘imp.’ I’m not a demon any more.”

Soaring Eagle did that weird beak-smile that is impossible to describe. Sort of letting the beak misalign a little…no, it’s impossible to explain. It was an ave smile, and that’s all there was to it. “You’ll always be a demon. A daughter of the Dame Meretrix.”

I blinked at that. ‘Meretrix’ was Latin for ‘courtesan,’ and was one of Malcanthet’s old titles. Most of her other ones were less polite.

“Well, I disagree. And I was never Lupa’s hound anyway.” Lupa was one of those others.

“Fine.” There was that grin again. “Sit down, little page.”

Don’t attack the ave King, don’t attack the ave King…

I sat in the cheap folding chair Turgay had found, trying my best to contain my anger and fear. I would not be intimidated by this woman.

“So,” the most powerful ave in the city, who had nearly started a war with Necessarius, said sweetly. “What are you here for, whore?”

Fine, she didn’t want to play nice? I could do the same. “You’ve been working with a known Blackguard. Mitchel St. John.”

She sipped from that strange mug again.

I stumbled on. “I know this particular Blackguard. He burned down my orphanage and killed my family. I need—I demand you tell me his location at once.”

“Hm,” Soaring Eagle murmured. “Turgay, this coffee is terrible. Too sweet. I said I wanted it black.”

My friend bowed. “Ah, I’m sorry—I had already sweetened the entire pot, and—”

“Irrelevant,” the King interrupted. “Whore. St. John has been a boon to this culture. It will take more than the word of a succubus to make me hand him over. Do you have some sort of proof that he is what you claim? Or perhaps a retribution notice from Necessarius?”

My teeth ground together unwillingly. “No and no.”

She shrugged her black-feathered shoulders. “Then I’m afraid I can’t help you.” She put the coffee mug down, stood up, and started doing minor warm-up exercises, rotating her neck and arms. “Rest assured, once we’re gone, we’ll call the ‘sarians, let them know where you are.”

I blinked. “Um, what?”

She smiled another ave smile. “We can’t have you reporting the location of our lab, can we? We’ll just tie you up for a day or so.”

I leaped out of the chair, taking a few steps back and falling into a fighting stance. I had my armor on under my clothes, and there was still concrete around, even if not as much as the other lab. “I’d like to see you try, terror.”

The Animal King just laughed. “Oh, can’t you take a joke? If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done it already.”

I didn’t relax. “Unless that means you’re giving me Mitchel after all, I don’t think we have anything else to talk about.”

The ave shrugged. “Well…more like I was just stalling for time.”

I heard the door open behind me.

“Hello, Ling. I hear you’ve been looking for me.”

I turned to see a ruddy-skinned young man, with garish green hair and a smile too wide for its own good.

“Mitchel,” I hissed. I glanced back at Turgay. “What is he doing here?”

My old friend winced. “Uh, you see—”

I blinked as I realized something. “Wait, your hand.”

Akane had cut off Mitchel’s hand when he tried to shoot her. But now…

He definitely had two, healthy hands, like nothing had ever happened. The toy maker could sometimes reattach severed limbs, but you needed both parts. And his hand was still locked up in NHQ.

Wasn’t it?

“St. John,” Soaring Eagle muttered angrily from behind me. I turned to see that her eyes matched her voice. Despite her playful tone when talking about Mitchel, it was clear she wasn’t actually particularly fond of him. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be helping with the evacuation.”

“Your flying pig said it was fine,” the Blackguard insisted with a disarming smile, before turning to me with a twinkle in his eye. “Besides, I’ve never been one to keep a lady waiting.”

My hand balled into a fist without my conscious will. Or, to be more specific, I used my power to ball up the stone plates in the glove; the rest of the hand was just along for the ride.

Mitchel,” I spat. “Any last words?”

He tapped his chin in mock thoughtfulness. “Hm…yes, actually.” He raised one finger. “’You shouldn’t have involved Soaring Eagle.’”

I frowned. “Wha—”

Something poked me in the side.

Blinking in surprise, I looked down to see a small feathered dart, like the kind you’d load into a tranquilizer gun, embedded in my side, pinning my shirt to my flesh, right between the armor plates. The plates were held together with Kevlar, so a normal dart shouldn’t have been able to—

Then I felt weakness spreading from the point of impact like a cold shock.

Then my rib cage started to cave in.

The English language does not have words for the kind of pain I was going through. The feeling of having bones weaken until they shattered under their own weight, a trillion white-hot knives spinning around inside my body, as the infection spread, and even the pumping of my own heart started doing damage…

I tried to scream, but only a wet noise came out. I stumbled, then fell to my knees, which cracked like eggshells, before collapsing in a twitching heap on the ground, moaning in a pathetic attempt to vocalize my pain.

“I didn’t want it to come to this,” Soaring Eagle muttered. “I figured as long as you didn’t see St. John, you wouldn’t have anything to take to Butler, and…” she sighed.

“What’d you shoot her with, anyway?” Mitchel asked, though I could only see his boots from my position on the floor. It was getting harder to pay attention as the pain worsened, but his voice had always been…grating.

“The calciophage. More bad luck on her part, I’m afraid. I knew I couldn’t fight her hand-to-hand, and it was the only other weapon I had.”

I felt something brushing my hair. A talon? Turgay, then.

But then the person shifted, and I saw that it was Soaring Eagle, looking down at my broken body with pity.

“I am sorry, Honored Paladin,” she whispered. “But there is no cure for the calciophage. This will be excruciatingly painful—but it will also be over soon.”

I passed out before I could hear anything else.

Behind the Scenes (scene 188)

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the kemos, in relation to the Animal Kings and the warlords. This seems as good a time to explain it as any.

What you need to understand is that the kemos are not a culture; they are a superculture, with the various animal types existing as cultures below them. While the three founding kemo cultures (fels, lupes, and ursas) have millions of members each, most of the other ‘cultures’ are small enough to be more comparable to subcultures. The aves are one such culture. They are, in fact, small enough that one person (Soaring Eagle) is able to rule the entire culture. These people are known as Animal Kings, with the warlords (Alphas) below them.

Oh, also, just like each culture has a different name for their honored, deviants, and warlords, they have names for their novice members. For demons, it’s ‘imps’. For baselines, they have recently started using ‘pages.’

Scene 159 – Ars

ARS

LING

Turgay?” I cried incredulously. “Tezuka, what are you doing here?”

‘Here’ was a random street in South Central, a couple miles from AU. There wasn’t really anyone around, but I still wouldn’t have expected to see him just walking about like nothing was wrong. Necessarius was still after him over the toy box.

The ave glanced at the other people—what few of them there were—on the street. “Let’s find somewhere to talk.” He led me down an alley, looking around nervously the whole time. Once we were out of earshot of a surprised maintenance man installing speakers under an eave, I decided we had gone far enough.

“I haven’t seen you in almost two weeks,” I hissed. “Where have you been?”

“I’ve been busy,” he muttered. “Working on that stupid box.” He shook his feathered head. “I’m the only one who can get near the damn thing, because of the damn pheromones. It’s slow going.”

I nodded with false sympathy. “I can imagine. Not to mention hiding from Necessarius, because you practically started a war with them.”

He held up his claws, trying to placate me. “Hey, that’s not my fault! I’m just a researcher!”

“You said you were one of the ones who stole the toy box.”

He rubbed his beak nervously. “I was…on the team. Mostly, I was an adviser. We needed to make sure we grabbed the right thing—”

“I don’t care,” I cut him off. “Guy, with everything that’s going on—the fey, Elizabeth—this isn’t time to be fighting.”

He blinked his big eagle eyes. “Hey, wait, I thought the Composer was captured. And the fey are keeping to themselves for the moment, right?”

I snorted. “Did you watch any of the shows I gave you? The Composer will escape, and the fey are just waiting for the most dramatic moment to strike. It’s just common sense.”

The ave sighed. “That’s not how the universe works, Ling.”

“It is in my experience.”

“Okay, I guess…whatever. I don’t care. Ling, the reason I begged for the afternoon off was because I needed to talk to you.”

That was a bit surprising. Sure, he was one of my best friends, but that was mostly because he hadn’t abandoned me after my sons were born and that whole crapfest. He tended to keep to himself.

“Must be important,” I admitted, even though I wanted to chew him out over the toy box and so on more. “Spill it.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Ling, you need to take a trip.”

I blinked in surprise. “What?”

“Take a trip to the outer city,” he reiterated. “You were born in South Outer, right? Go there. Visit the hospital where you were born. Go fishing. Hook up with a Dagonite. I don’t care. Just get out of here for a while.”

I narrowed my eyes. I knew how this story went. “Turgay, what are the aves planning?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t lie to me—”

He held up his claws in a placating gesture. “Not…nothing, but nothing to do with you, or the reason you need to leave.” He sighed again. “You need to leave because of Mitchel.”

Ah.

Well. That made sense.

I felt my face become a stone-cold mask. “He burned down our orphanage, Turgay.”

He closed his eyes. “I know. I know.”

“Killed pretty much everyone we know.”

“I understand that, but—”

“What you want me to just let him live?”

“Of course not!” he snapped. “But he’s one of the Composer’s Blackguards! You can’t fight him!”

I yelled right back. “That’s just another reason to fight him! I’m a Paladin, that’s my job.”

“No,” he shook his head. “That’s Huntsman’s job, that’s Akiyama’s job. You are not a fighter. If you go up against these people, you will die.”

Excuse me? I’ll have you know I was instrumental to capturing the Composer last week!”

“Really?” He eyed me skeptically. “I saw your fight on the Ring, remember. She took you out in under a minute.”

I bit back a retort. Okay, so maybe he had a point. But when I had fought the Blackguards, I had killed—

That’s when it hit me.

I had killed one of the renegades who had ambushed me in the alley. I hadn’t had much time to think about it at the time, with the Composer popping up less than five minutes later, but…

I had killed someone.

Yeah, it had been a podbrain, one of those brainwashed slaves who thought they were part of a hive mind. But she was still a person. And unlike the screamers, I couldn’t pretend she had some incurable disease that made it okay.

I lay my head against the wall of the alley, the cool concrete calming me.

“…Ling?” Turgay said slowly. “Are you feeling all right?”

“No,” I muttered. “No, I am not.” I leaned back, looking up at the blue sky far above, a mere sliver peeking through the skyscrapers that dominated the city.

By Osamu Tezuka’s last words, how had it come to this?

I had been one of the lucky ones. In a city of murderers, my hands were clean of blood. Human blood, anyway, which had been more than enough for me. And yet…

When I had been given the opportunity to kill, I had taken it. gladly. Jumped at it.

Part of it had been duty, responsibility, but…

How much of it, really?

Because the same thing was happening again. And this time I couldn’t claim ignorance, or pretend I was burning out a disease or whatever. For the last few days, I had been hunting a man down in order to murder him. There was no way around that.

“I’ll take you up on your offer,” I said finally. “I’ll leave. Soon. I just…”

Turgay waited a moment before responding. “You just…what?”

“I just have to do a few things first. It won’t take long. And also…” I didn’t look at him. “Can you come with me? I mean, I just…I’ll need a friendly face, and…”

“Ling,” he whispered. He put his hand on my shoulder.

No. Not his hand. His claws.

I turned to face him, and saw sadness in his bright golden eyes, in the way his feathers drooped, and the set of his beak.

“I can’t come with you,” he admonished gently. “You know that. Soaring Eagle needs me, and…” he gave me a melancholy smile. “If I run, it won’t take her too long to find me.”

Yeah. He was right about that. And he was right that I should have known that, too.

Looked like I was going to be on my own.

Behind the Scenes (scene 159)

Too many short ones, but I need to replenish my buffer somehow.

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.