I ignored the pain in my hand, the pain in my eye. I had a few toys to dull it, but mostly I just gritted my teeth and bore it. I had been a soldier since I was fifteen years old. I had taken worse hits than a knife to the eye.
The samurai girl, Akiyama, sidestepped my charge easily enough, and then increased the distance by a few more paces. She wasn’t using her power; she was being cautious. She didn’t know what I was capable of.
Worked for me.
Our powers were at roughly equal development, I think, but I was still at a massive disadvantage. There was barely any light; I was forced to use what little starlight leaked through the clouds. The screamers—or chorus, as the Composer called them—were far too weak to even manage that.
But that wasn’t the real problem.
The problem was that I wasn’t trying to kill her.
The Composer had strongly encouraged killing the Paladins at the first opportunity, so long as it was a ‘fair and honorable fight’ (complete with air quotes), but I knew better. I had worked hard to get that creature to trust me, to convince it that I would be more useful without the failsafes the others had.
All screamers and singers started out as ‘defensive,’ but if they tried to go against the Composer’s wishes, even for a moment, they switched to ‘aggressive,’ which was basically autopilot. Due to some fast talking when I was first captured, the Composer had removed (or perhaps simply never added them in the first place) the normal hypnotic blocks he put in all his creations. That meant I had free will. Mostly, anyway.
I needed to keep the Paladins alive. I needed them to find out what the Composer was up to, what his plans were. Sure, I had some idea; the bastard didn’t make any effort to hide his bloodlust. But there was someone else pulling the strings here, keeping the Composer from going too crazy, and I wanted to know who. And stop them.
I wasn’t in a position to stop the Composer. I didn’t know who he was—men and monsters, I didn’t even know his real gender. I didn’t have most of the hypnotic blocks, but I still had the one that made it impossible to identify him. Whenever I met him in person, he looked different, his image twisting and writhing before my very eyes. It gave me a headache.
Akiyama dashed forward at super speed again, and I barely got my screen up in time.
I couldn’t afford to be distracted. Right now, I needed to figure out how to get both of us out of this alive.
My reservoir was mostly spent; with the current level of ambient light, I could barely do more than a single screen before I had to wait for it to replenish.
Luckily, the swordswoman didn’t know that, and dodged to a few feet away, watching me warily. If she attacked now I wouldn’t be able to stop her, but she didn’t know that.
I did have some advantages over her, though. I could give orders to the screamers, tell them where to find her and to attack. I was hesitant to do that though, not least because it wasn’t the direct, fine-tuned command that the Composer had. He had simply left a standing order for them to obey me, and using the link we all shared, I could issue instructions. But I couldn’t take direct control, which limited my options. Orders or not, they were still stupid.
Sure, I could make the singers attack all at once, but they’d just end up killing her. But if I tried to communicate, I risked the Composer finding out. No, I needed to disengage as quickly as possible. Merely demonstrating my intelligence should be enough to set the Paladins on the right path. Probably.
Before she got the nerve to strike again, I dashed forward, making sure to keep her outside of my blind spot. I feinted with the knife, and when she instinctively raised her sword, I struck her wrist with my other hand hard enough to crack bone.
She didn’t drop her weapon—she was experienced, to be sure—but her strength was greatly diminished. Her wrist probably wasn’t actually broken, but it definitely hurt like hell. She wouldn’t be able to use that hand for a while.
Perfect. Now I just needed to disable one of her legs. Even at super speed, she wouldn’t be able to follow me on a sprained ankle. And it did need to be sprained, not broken. The screamers would get her if her injuries were too bad, and the Composer would notice if I ordered them to hold back.
“Over here! I see them!”
I glanced towards the source of the shouting and cursed. It was a vampire, about fifteen feet away, wielding what looked like a tranquilizer rifle. I couldn’t see his emblem well enough to identify his subculture, but there were more behind him, neutralizing the screamers with military efficiency.
This was the last thing I needed right now. If I was captured, nothing good would come of it. I was under no illusions that the Composer would cheerfully kill me if I became a liability. And I was pretty sure he could take direct control of me, even without the hypnotic blocks, so he’d probably make me commit suicide.
Yes, I could use this to my advantage. I opened the link to the other singers, gave the order, and waited. A heartbeat later…
The angelweight had been quite effective, at first. Screamers and singers weren’t smart enough to find the Grace bracelets, put them on, and activate them. I was, of course, but I wasn’t an angel, and even if I was, Necessarius would have gotten very suspicious if they noticed that the entire horde were wearing the things.
But a solution had presented itself very quickly: The angelweight didn’t stay in the air as long as they thought. It only lasted about half an hour. The effects lasted much longer, true, but it was a simple matter to administer the Grace to everyone affected when the ‘sarians weren’t looking, and then simply order them not to use their dayskins.
There was no need for that any more.
Every single infected angel initiated a daybreak at once, bathing the entire street white. Even with my hands over my closed eyes, everything was just one massive blob of white that scorched my eyes.
The vampires were far worse off. Their screams of pain momentarily drowned out even the screamers, until they fell unconscious seconds later. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a few were actually killed from the shock, and I’m sure a large number were permanently blinded. Well, as permanent as anything is when the toy maker is involved.
As I ran as far from Akiyama as I could, I ordered the rest of the singers to retreat as well, with the screamers protecting us. The Composer had claimed that there was a limited window in which killing a singer would cure the screamers they had turned, but I knew he wasn’t telling me everything. I could feel him doing something to the screamers when they were ones I had personally turned—I just couldn’t tell what. I didn’t have enough experience with it yet.
A voice resounded in my mind suddenly. “We’re retreating. Now.”
I almost replied out loud (I wasn’t used to the telepathy thing yet), but thankfully my mouth was too occupied singing. It was the strangest thing. It was like there was a switch in my head I could turn on and off that controlled the singing. I didn’t have to think about it at all. It was just like turning on a hose.
“What’s the problem?” I thought back.
“No problem. That’s the point. I got what I came for.”
It took me a second to figure out what he was talking about. When I did, it hit me like a ton of bricks. “Wait, the warlord as in Zaphkiel? The Watcher?”
“Yes. Now stop talking. I have to concentrate on piloting him. Return to the meeting point. Feel free to sacrifice as many chorus and conductors as you need to to escape.”
The presence faded from my mind, and I had a chance to think again.
If the Composer had managed to turn a warlord, that was either very bad or game over, depending. I didn’t think the Saint would ever willingly cooperate, so at least that meant he would be locked into ‘aggressive,’ and therefore stupid. That was the worst possibility out of the way.
But there were many, many things the Composer could do with a warlord’s body, resisting or not. And the Paladins hadn’t made any real gains here. The captured screamers would just be another drain on their resources, and wouldn’t get them any closer to finding his base.
But…I knew where his base was.
I couldn’t tell them explicitly where it was. Even ignoring the fact that the Composer would kill me, he’d just pack up and move locations. Probably cover his tracks better the next time around. Even though he was distracted right now, he’d soon catch wind if I left a note or whatever. Not to mention that there was no guarantee the right people would get it.
If I could get close to Akiyama without her killing me…no, no the Composer would wonder why I wasn’t running away, would pay more attention, and would be able to hear me tell her the secret. And then, again, everything would become moot.
Then she was in front of me.
She was mostly blind from the daybreak. She had been forced to fight her way through a couple hundred screamers—all of whom could see perfectly—and was covered in their gore. Finding any specific singer in the horde was completely impossible.
But here she was.
Also, as a side note: Girls should not look that good drenched in blood.
Her eyes still watering, she raised her sword above her head (causing her wet silk armor to cling very closely to her chest), ready to chop me in half.
I didn’t have time to think. If I knew her, she would activate her speed on the downward swing, and I would be in two pieces before I could blink. I don’t know if, with hindsight, I would have done something differently with more time to think about it. It wasn’t that stupid of a move, in all honestly.
I just took a step back.
Instead of slicing me in half, the samurai’s sword cut a long, deep gash in my front. I could feel my organs beginning to push themselves out of my gut, I could feel blood soaking my clothes.
And, most importantly, I could feel the Composer’s gaze leave me, as it became clear I wasn’t going to kill anyone.
I would never have a better chance. I ignored all the pain screaming at me, I ignored the fact that I barely had enough blood left in my body to stand. I threw myself forward, into Akiyama’s stunned arms. Luckily, she was too surprised to get her sword up again; instead she just caught me.
“The sleepers,” I managed to gurgle into her ear. “Know the way. Don’t trust anyone…”
I’m not really sure how long it took me to die. It felt like years, centuries. Oh, my body died within a few minutes. Akiyama was too good with a sword for anything else. But I…lingered for much longer. Was it just fading electrical signals in my undamaged brain? Or perhaps something else?
I guess I’ll never know.
Behind the Scenes (scene 100)
In all fairness, Laura would have figured this out with or without the clue; the singer’s little hint just sped up the timetable a little.
Now we get to see what kind of safeguards the Composer has in place for this kind of eventuality.