Tag Archives: Yuuki Akiyama

Scene 297 – Genus

GENUS

AKANE

I rubbed some plaster dust between my fingers. The wall had exploded, but there weren’t any scorch marks that would indicate a bomb. Instead, it looked like something massive had smashed its way through.

Any giant could have made this hole. Tezuka’s name, I probably could have made this hole, with effort. The wall was just cheap sheetrock. It wasn’t designed to actually defend against anything. It may as well have been made of paper.

“Aunty, what are we doing here?” Yuuki asked with a sigh.

I looked up. He was standing in the middle of the chaotic apartment, looking around with disdain. His hand was on his sword, but he flicked his red hair-ribbon off his shoulder in an absent-minded way.

The two of us weren’t the only kensei here. Yuudai wasn’t here, but there were three more, all baseline, who had come with me when I asked. They were currently trying to look like they weren’t eavesdropping on our conversation.

“We’re looking for clues,” I said.

“The Gravers did it,” Yuuki said.

I smiled. “Yes, I know.” The corpse covered in petrakinetic stone armor had been a red flag. “But why were they here? Who managed to kill at least one of them, and why didn’t they police the corpses? These are all questions we need answered.”

“I heard Anders call them a cult worshiping a ghost.”

“Even cults have reasons,” I said. I frowned and blew some of the dust away, revealing a spent shell casing. I picked it up with a pair of tweezers and slipped it into an evidence bag. It wasn’t a make I recognized, but there were lots of bullet makers in this city. “Even the truly, completely insane have patterns. We just need to find it.”

“Then why are we here? Why not Butler’s CSIs, or Miss Medina?”

“Laura is busy, and I know Ling better than the CSI team.” I took out my phone and took a picture of a bootprint that we had missed when we first came in. It was only partial, but it was better than nothing.

“But Miss Yu is dead.”

I smiled sadly. “I know. But the Gravers are trying to emulate her.” I stood up and looked around the apartment again. “For some reason, they thought the people here needed to be killed. But why?”

There was a brief sound of rushing air. I turned to see one of my kensei standing out in the hall. She was a fel, but just the ears. Hopefully her sudden arrival hadn’t disturbed the scene at all. I didn’t chastise her, since she clearly had something important to say.

“Report,” I said.

“Records indicate that the apartment was bought in cash,” she said. She had a slight Romanian accent from growing up in one of the vampire domains. I didn’t know which one. “No names, of course. But the thing is, the landlord doesn’t remember selling the apartment. He could be lying—”

“No,” I said, frowning. “That’s unlikely.” It would gain him nothing, and he likely wasn’t happy with these tenants. They had got a giant hole blasted in the wall and left him with the bill. “Get a hacker on it. Call the changelings.”

She nodded, pulling a cell phone out of her gi and walking further down the hallway for some privacy.

“Kenkami,” one of the others called. “Come take a look at this.”

I stepped around the shattered television and ripped-up couch. One of my kensei led me into the sole bedroom.

There was no bed. There wasn’t much of anything. No cabinets, no suspicious stains or ashes of burned letters. As far as I could tell, this was exactly what it looked like right before anyone moved in.

“Sam,” I said curtly.

He nodded. “Sorry. Look here.” He knelt down on the floor, and I followed suit. I immediately saw what he meant—big, square indents in the floor. Some of them had the circles of little rubber feet. “This place was filled with computers. I can’t give you an exact number, but I’m guessing it’s ‘as many as they could get their hands on.’ You can even see where they sat on the floor, here.”

I raised an eyebrow. I could see a small butt imprint in the carpet. Now that I was looking at it correctly, I could see it. There were all the signs of someone surrounding themselves with a ring of computers. Just as many as they could.

I sniffed the air. Yes, and there was that stench of ozone. The smell of computers not quite overheating, but running for long and hot.

“A hacker?” I asked.

“I checked with MC. No internet usage in this apartment for the last week.”

“Well maybe—” I blinked as the sentence caught up with me. “None?

“None,” he said. “Somebody opened up the Fundie login page on Christmas Day, and then nothing ever since.”

Christmas Day. The day of the war.

That had been a confusing day all around. But still… they wouldn’t be that stupid…

But that was just it. They weren’t being stupid, were they? They had managed to remain in hiding for a week. Most spies from outside the city barely lasted two days.

I chided myself. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. There were plenty of other explanations. Maybe some changeling had been perfecting his rig in private. They sometimes had odd, almost religious reverence for their machines. Staying unconnected from the internet for a week was pretty tame compared to some of the things I had heard.

“Yuuki,” I said.

He immediately poked his head into the room. “Yes?”

“Have you determined how many people were involved in this fight?”

His lips moved slowly. I could tell he hadn’t been paying attention to the crime scene after all. He had been treating it as something he just had to grin and bear, like a dentist’s appointment. “Uh…”

“Start with the bootprints,” I said. “Not as good as fingerprints, but they’ll give us a number. Then we’ll try and sort them between the Gravers and the residents.”

Yuuki glanced behind him, back into the main room. I pretended not to know that the other kensei were frantically signaling him with the answers.

He looked back at me. “Six in the apartment. Not sure how many outside. Not as much dust. There’s just the golem’s footprints.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe the golem was the only attacker? It would explain why the Gravers left the bodies.”

“Gravers attack in groups,” I said. “Ling was smart enough to never go alone if she could help it. Her cult—or college, or whatever—seems to have learned that lesson well.” I groaned and rose to my feet.

“So… a few Gravers attacked six people, got fought off, and the people ran before they could come back with reinforcements?”

“Sounds about right.”

“Probably within the hour,” Sam said. “That butt imprint wouldn’t last long.”

I smiled. “Sam, we know already.”

He frowned, then blushed. “Right. The landlord said it happened an hour ago. I forgot.”

“It’s fine.” I turned back to my nephew. “Have you seen any other signs that might indicate who was here?”

Yuuki tried to think. “The corpse next to the door. Killed with a single shot to the head.”

I nodded in what I hoped was an encouraging manner.

He continued, but still looked like someone was torturing it out of him. “Um, that means that was one of the Gravers, right? Because Gravers don’t use guns. They’d do the golem-armor, or throw rocks.”

I nodded. “Very good. Search his pockets for anything useful.”

Yuuki paled. “The corpse? Search the corpse?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that a problem?”

He glanced at the body, then back at me. “No. No, it’ll be fine.” He walked over to the body, and I carefully pretended not to notice how he was clearly trying not to throw up. At least the smell wasn’t bad yet.

I pointed to one of the other kensei. “You.” I pointed to the golem. “Get the armor off.”

She nodded and pulled out a knife. “Yes, sir.” She knelt down, paused for a moment, and then seemed to blur as she activated her power. At that speed, the little knife might as well have been a chainsaw.

The kensei I had sent away earlier returned. “Eccretia said she checked with her men. She confirmed that this wasn’t a changeling operation. From what her hackers could determine, this apartment was never actually paid for. Someone hacked the accounts to make it look like it was occupied, then just started squatting.”

I frowned. That made things a little more difficult. “Fine.” I waved my hand at the room. “Sniff. You have the best nose.” I stepped aside to let her in, then walked out into the hallway myself. I needed a moment to think.

Work backward. Assuming that the residents were American spies, or leftovers from the war or whatever, would all this make sense? The Gravers would have motive to attack them, but the Gravers attacked pretty much everyone except for Necessarius. That wasn’t proof of anything.

This would be so much easier if the Gravers would just talk to anyone. But they refused to let any of us get within a hundred yards of the Grave. MC said they didn’t even bring their phones in.

The internet, though, that was something. Everyone in Domina used Fundie. Absolutely everyone. Even hardened criminals on the run from Necessarius used it. Butler was emphatically not allowed to use it to track people down. But on the other hand, criminals might be paranoid enough to avoid it anyway. And they’d probably be right to. So again, that didn’t prove anything. Weak evidence.

The computers were odd. If they had only been here since Christmas, how had they managed to assemble a rig that fast? It was doubtful that they had brought it with them. The Americans had invaded, they hadn’t brought hackers and data miners. Besides, what would they even do with an overpowered rig if they weren’t connected to the internet? It would have made so much more sense if it was just a weird changeling.

But maybe…

I flipped out my phone and dialed MC.

“Yes, Akane?” her fake voice said cheerily.

“Were any computer stores robbed in the past week?” I asked. “In a ten-block radius.”

“There were eighteen robberies in the specified time and location range.”

Of course. There was Domina City for you. “What about big robberies? A thousand dollars minimum.”

“There were twelve robberies in the specified time, location, and price range.”

I sighed. “Ten thousand, then.”

“There were two robberies in the specified time, location, and price range.”

“Send me both locations.” I hung up. “Yuuki!”

He jumped up from the corpse and saluted so fast I heard the air crack. “Haven’t found anything yet!”

“We need to check out some robberies,” I said. My phone buzzed in my hand, but I didn’t even bother looking at it yet. “Might be related. Maybe we can get some security footage on the robbers. Could be the ones who were squatting here.”

Yuuki relaxed visibly. “Okay, sure. Sounds good.”

I nodded. “Sam!”

He stood up. He had been observing something on the ground, in the corner. “Sir?”

“You’re boss.”

He beamed, and saluted. “Yes, kenkami!”

Yuuki and I headed down the hallway. He was quiet as we reached the elevators.

“Something wrong?” I asked once we were inside. “Worried about your brother?”

He shook his head. “He’s in good hands. And it’s not anything dangerous, anyway.”

True enough. “What, then?”

He sighed. “It’s about Saki.”

Saki Akiyama. Murasaki Akiyama’s daughter, Yuuki’s cousin, and my niece. She had been one of the first people tossed into the CS cells. She had a dangerous power. She could make anyone treat her as the most important thing in their life. They became willing to kill anyone—including themselves—if it kept her safe.

It was one of the strongest powers I’d seen. She had lost her voice in exchange. That was called a discord, losing something in order to boost the power in some way. Laura had theorized that Derek’s shields were a discord. She had observed similar powers, and thought that the power was the ability to create shaped energy barriers. The fact that he was limited to just shields instead of swords and knives like Elizabeth was his own limit, not one of the power itself.

I forced a smile on my face. “What about her?”

“I haven’t been to see her since that first day,” he said. “Have you?”

I shook my head. I had considered it, but with so much lost time between us… it felt like an impossible gap to bridge.

“Yuudai has,” Yuuki said. “A bunch of times. I think he’d go every day if Mister Sifu wasn’t pushing him so hard, keeping him busy.”

The elevator dinged. We stepped out onto the ground floor.

I checked the addresses on my phone and started heading outside. “What does he do? Talk with her?”

“Not with her, I don’t think. To her, maybe. She doesn’t talk back.”

I smiled, then glanced up the street and figured out which way we were supposed to go. “You know what I mean. She writes.”

“I do know. Knew. And she doesn’t write.” He shook his head. “She doesn’t seem interested in any kind of redemption. That’s why I’m worried. I think she’s biding her time, just waiting to get out of there. And she’s going to use Yuudai to do it.”

“You shouldn’t talk about your family like that,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had treated my own mother worse over the years. It’s just… I thought maybe things would be easier with my nephews. And my niece.

“Yeah, well, the world doesn’t operate as it should,” he said cynically. “Better safe than sorry is practically the family motto.”

“The family motto is Ketsueki no yōna aka.”

“Sure. Anyway, I’m not going to sit by and let my brother get enchanted by some witch. I don’t care if she is my cousin.”

I nodded glumly. “I’ll speak to Yuudai. Failing that, I’ll ask the CS squad to keep him out. That should be enough.”

He took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you. That will have to be enough.”

I pulled out my phone and checked the addresses MC had sent me. “This is taking too long. Follow me.”

I activated my power and ran off, followed by my nephew’s surprised laughter. I smiled as I heard it. It warmed my heart.

I had far too many worries these days, and he had just added a few more.

Behind the Scenes (scene 297)

Akane and her nephews always end up going to odd places. We’ll revisit these two and the Americans later, but for now there are other things to worry about.

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Scene 269 – Sollemne

SOLLEMNE

DEREK

A party felt like a stupid idea.

But we needed this, dammit. After months of stumbling from crisis to crisis, we needed something that didn’t involve monsters or assassinations or superpowered goddesses from the future.

More people had come than I expected. In addition to the rest of the Paladins and the retinue, five of Akane’s kensei—plus both her nephews—had come, and were chatting amiably with the half-dozen scientists Laura had brought. It seemed like they had met before at NHQ, and were now discussing some old missions. Akane had more kensei, but they seemed to mostly be busy right now.

The real surprise was that Simon, Seena, and all their friends had come as well. I recognized Simon’s girlfriend and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and her bodyguards (who had been polite enough to leave their guns at home), but the last girl, who Seena had called Veda, was unfamiliar. She wore a big concealing cloak and seemed to be avoiding me, which usually meant that I had tried to kill her at some point. Oh well, as long as she didn’t start something, it was fine.

“Nice party,” Adam said with a smirk as he walked up, Lily on his arm.

She elbowed him in the ribs. “Be nice.”

He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”

“I know this might seem like a bad time to throw a party—”

He laughed. “You kidding? It’s the perfect time. I grew up in New York high society. Most of the best parties were when there was some crisis that everybody was trying to distract themselves from. But this…” He winced. “At least the food’s nice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It looks like people are having a good time.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“They are,” Lily said, half to me and half to Adam. “They’re not just putting on a show. They’re genuinely enjoying themselves.”

“Except for the retinue.”

I glanced over at the group. They were easy to spot, due to George being the only giant on the roof. George was eating something mechanically, and Kat was doing something on her phone. Jarasax actually seemed to be having an animated conversation with one of Eccretia’s bodyguards, but Alex…

Alex looked like a zombie. I wasn’t sure he was even conscious of where he was.

After everything that had happened with Kelly, it was probably a miracle he even got out of bed in the morning. Actually, considering that he didn’t sleep, it might be that he just hadn’t gone to bed after all this happened.

Kelly… Fierna… had released a statement to the rest of the city, declaring the Belians and Phlegethos hers. There had been talk of war, but right now she seemed to be busy purging her house of discontent. None of the other vampires, or Necessarius, wanted to deal with her.

“It’s a miracle she didn’t kill him,” Adam said quietly. “That’s gotta be freaky.”

I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t mentioned what I had overheard, and didn’t see a need to do so now. I shouldn’t have heard it in the first place. Should have just left when I had the chance, no need to stay…

“You have that look in your eye,” Lily said wryly.

“What look?”

“The look you get when you’re blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault.”

I sighed. “I don’t need you to mother me, Lily.”

She raised her hand, forestalling the point. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just saying this as a friend, Derek. Whatever it is, let it go. You did everything you could, and it would have turned out worse if you weren’t there.”

I rolled my eyes. “You don’t even know what it is.”

She smirked. “You always do everything you can, and it always turns out better from your presence. You really aren’t a hard one to read, little hero.”

Please don’t start calling me that.”

She laughed, and pulled Adam away. “Come on. Nervi’s set up some of her pumpkin roast. Have you tried it yet?”

I shook my head as they walked away, and nearly ran headlong into Laura, who was walking up with a couple drinks. Sodas, thankfully. Good thing Nervi didn’t cater alcohol—I would have drank most of it already.

“This one is yours,” Laura said without missing a beat, handing me a can of Cerean something or other. The logo was stylized, I couldn’t tell what it said. The only reason I knew it was from Ceres was because their cans are always rectangles.

I took it, but frowned at the more normal can in her hand. “Shouldn’t we switch?”

She shrugged, taking a swig. “That was the last one.”

She had been trying to get me to try some Cerean brand for a while now. I guess this was it. I cracked open the lid, slightly annoyed at the lack of fizz (carbonation was a horrible idea when shooting giant packages through space) and sipped at it. It tasted light and fruity.

Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”

“No, I do, I just—” I stopped. “I don’t know why I even thought of lying to you.”

She took my arm lightly and led me to one of the groups. Scientists, I was pretty sure, but most of Akane’s kensei had left their swords at home, so it could be them. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse. Try overhearing a man telling his wife where he was last night, and realizing every word is a lie.”

I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”

“Blackmailed him later,” she said pleasantly. “That was fun.”

Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.

“Derek, these are some of the Clarke’s researchers. You’ve probably met them all before at some point or another.”

“I know I’ve met you,” I said, indicating a kemo with bat ears. Those were rare. I couldn’t even remember what the subculture was called. Well, microculture. “You’ve helped patch me up once or twice.”

She nodded. “I have a degree in medical applications of the toy maker. One of my main projects is to study our Honored Mother, to make sure her newest toys can be added safely.”

“You know she doesn’t like being called that,” one of the men warned.

The bat kemo smiled slightly. “I know. She tells me it every day.”

“What about the rest of you?” I asked, steering the topic onto grounds I felt more comfortable with. “What do you all do with Clarke? Are any of you working with him on…” I frowned, and turned to Laura. “What’s that thing he’s working on these days?”

“The heart,” she answered. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation. He almost cracked it before the Rampage, and now he basically has.”

The male researcher, the black man who had warned about the Mother Monster, snorted. “Yeah, using his power he’s cracked it. But that’s cheating. What happens if he dies, or if he’s just busy and we can’t find another exomorpher? He needs to focus more on the toy box itself, not playing with his power.”

“I’m still catching him morphing his skin when he thinks no one is looking,” Laura said. “It’s going to take a bit longer for the novelty to wear off.”

“Are people like Clarke that rare?” I asked. “With that power, I mean.”

The researcher thought about it. “A little. No one here has it, but there are more than a few scattered around NHQ. But that’s not the point. We don’t understand these powers, and shouldn’t be trusting them. What if Silk comes back and snaps her fingers, turning them all off?”

I glanced at Laura, who didn’t look as concerned as she should have. The man had a point. Silk had given us a way to disrupt powers, who knew what else she could do. I still didn’t trust her, no matter that Laura had been pointing her power at her the entire time. For all we knew, she had some way to dodge that ability.

“Excuse us,” Laura said as she tugged on my arm, pulling us away from the group. “Speaking of Clarke, his daughter just landed.” She was right, Robyn had just floated down, carrying a case of beer. Still, the second we were out of earshot, she quietly said “You had that look on your face.”

I sighed. “Everyone is noticing looks on my face tonight. What is it this time?”

She smirked a little, but quickly turned serious. “That look when you’re worrying about something you shouldn’t.”

“Is that the same as my ‘everything is my fault’ face?”

“No, of course not.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I am worried about Silk.”

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do about her.”

Before I could retort, we were within a couple steps of Robyn, and Laura was all smiles for her. “I thought you had decided to skip.”

She managed a small smile of her own. “Nope. Just grabbing some beer.” She hefted the six-pack.

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a good idea?”

She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”

“Yes.”

No,” Laura cut in. She gave me a look. “If I can’t drink, you can’t drink. That was the deal.”

“I said that when I thought there wouldn’t be any alcohol here at all,” I grumbled.

Robyn looked between us. “Why can’t you drink?” Her eyes twinkled with amusement. “Are you pregnant?

What?

“Of course not!” Laura added. “Silver and gold, when would we even had time to do that?”

I glanced at her. “That’s why you think it’s improbable? Just timing?”

Robyn snorted. “Please, if this city wasn’t constantly in danger, you two would never leave the bedroom.”

I felt myself go beet red, but Laura didn’t seem surprised at all. “Don’t exaggerate. Technically, we’re not even dating.”

“Technically nothing!” I squeaked. “We’re not dating! Period!”

She gave me a sidelong glance.

I thought back to the last month or so. Farther back, actually, all the way to the reveal of Elizabeth’s identity. About the amount of time we had been spending together, the lunches and dinners we had taken alone, without anybody else around, and all the other girls I had been turning down.

“Crap,” I muttered.

Robyn smirked. “I know a nice jewelry store if you need to apologize.”

I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

Laura was amused as well, but she kept a better lid on it. “No need for jewelry, I promise. The look on your face is apology enough.”

“Glad you find my pain funny.”

She just smiled. “Come on. You need to meet some people.” She pulled me away.

“Robyn, share,” I called back. “Don’t drink all of that by yourself.”

She flipped me off with a winning smile.

We walked across the roof, weaving through the crowd, and I tried to find the words. “I’m… sorry. That I didn’t notice we were dating.” Then I chuckled. “I think that might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.”

“I’m sure you’ve said worse.” She squeezed my arm tighter, laying her head on my shoulder briefly. “And I knew you were being an idiot, but didn’t say anything. It’s as much my fault as yours.”

“That’s not true and you know it. A little your fault, sure, but I think this is a time I really do deserve the lion’s share of the blame.” I blinked as a thought occurred to me. “Do our parents know?”

“I haven’t mentioned it to them, but that doesn’t mean much. Thieves are good at figuring things out, especially when they’re close friends with Butler.”

I groaned. “Butler knows.”

“Of course he does. Clarke doesn’t, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does, actually.” We slipped into the edge of the crowd of swordsmen and swordswomen at the corner of the roof. “Akane! How are you enjoying the party?”

At the center of the group, Akane sat on a table, sipping a drink and smiling. I couldn’t remember the last time I really, truly saw her smile, but here she was.

She raised the drink in my direction. “Derek. Good party.”

“Auntie Akane was just telling us about the first time you two fought a gargant,” one of the younger swordsmen explained. One of her nephews, obviously. Yuuki, I was pretty sure. “Was it really a full-sized blind-rammer?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Oh, don’t remind me of that disaster. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t bring the whole building down on us.”

“And somebody forgot to buy insurance,” Akane said, still smiling.

“And I forgot to buy insurance,” I said. “So we were liable for the damages.” I shook my head. “I think we spent the whole next year paying that one off.”

“She also claims you managed to kill a deathmarked,” another kensei said. This was the other nephew, Yuudai.

“We crushed it in a car compactor. It’s dead.” I swallowed. “Pretty sure.”

Sometimes I still had dreams of that thing coming after us.

Laura tugged on my arm before the silence could get too awkward. “We’ll let your boss regale you with her old war stories, kids. Mister Huntsman and I need to speak with Noble Nyashk.”

I knew an out when I saw one, and gave polite nods to them as we left. I was actually a little surprised when she pulled us towards Seena and her group, which included her brother and his girlfriend, the changeling warlord and her bodyguards, and the hooded woman.

“Noble Nyashk,” Laura said by way of greeting. “I’m pleasantly surprised that you came.”

“Dame Laura,” Seena answered in kind. “I got your invitation. It seemed downright criminal not to put in an appearance.”

“How is your new job treating you?”

She sighed. “I’m one of two warlords trying to hold the Mals together, and the other one is Zepar. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure the culture is going to survive the winter.”

“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “People always need assassins.”

“Our methods are going out of style. People prefer more subtlety than knives in the dark. Contracts are starting to dry up.” She shrugged. “But powers change the game. We’ll see, we’ve had some recent successes.”

“What’s your power, by the way?” I asked.

She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”

“Mine’s one of the stock vampire ones,” Simon said before things could get awkward. He held out his scarred hand, and shadows writhed in his hand. “I can make darkness. Shadows deep enough that even a vampire can’t see through them. Cool, huh?”

“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.

She shrank at the attention. “It’s… weird. I kind of… turn into electricity?”

I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”

“No, I don’t have enough control for that. I’m just… electricity. It kinda works like teleportation, but I have no control over where I end up, I just kind of randomly rematerialize somewhere within ten feet of my starting point.” She shrugged. “Like I said, it’s weird.”

Laura, however, looked thoughtful. “There might be something more to that. Maybe you can stop by NHQ tomorrow morning, we can run some tests.”

Yolanda shivered. “I’m not big on tests.”

“Exercises, then. No needles.”

“…okay.”

“I fix things,” one of Eccretia’s bodyguards said. Ferenil, I think.

His boss glared at him. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”

“I reverse time!” the other man, Domothon, said.

Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” I said. “Reverse time, and keep your mouth shut this time.”

He winced. “I just did. It was out of reach.”

I blinked. “…five seconds is out of reach?”

“Yes,” he grumbled. “And it takes forever for my reservoir to recharge. I mostly just use it in emergencies, like when I get shot.”

Ferenil slapped him across the face.

“Gods of men and darkness, what was that for!?

“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”

Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.

“I’m guessing you don’t feel like sharing, Honored Paragon,” I said to change the subject.

Eccretia scowled. “No. I might as well at this point, but I’m not going to. I’m sure you understand. You all hid your powers for as long as possible.”

I shrugged. “We were considering coming out for a long time. Elizabeth forced our hands.”

“Robyn hid it from us for a while,” Laura added. “We only found out when she saved us from an ambush.” She shook her head and took a sip of her soda. “Irresponsible. Understandable, but irresponsible.”

“It all worked out in the end. And besides, she was helping us.” The others looked at me blankly. “MC knew,” I explained. “Robyn acted as her scout. So she saved our lives a few times.” I tried not to grind my teeth. “…but she could have done better.”

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Miss Korrapati,” Laura said to the girl in the hooded cloak. “What’s your power? My first guess would be speed, or perhaps shapeshifting.” She shook her head. “No, any form of identity concealment wouldn’t need the hood, of course…”

The girl shuffled on her feet. “Kinesis. You know, moving things with my mind? Small things, mostly. I’m a tinkerer, so it helps me build things.” She shrugged. “Simple, but nice.” She chuckled. “Better than this friend of mine. He got one of those vampire draining things. He refuses to use it, so he’s basically powerless.”

“What does he drain?” I asked.

“Life.”

“Ah.” Yes, that would be hard to use ethically.

“I’m sure he could find a use for it,” Laura said, smiling pleasantly. “Has he tried draining animals?”

The hooded girl shook her head. “Only works on humans, as far as he can tell.”

I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”

“Lots of powers are,” Laura said. “One of the ‘sarians at NHQ can’t use her telekinesis unless she’s wearing leather gloves. Pretty powerful when she has the gloves, though.”

While I frowned in confusion, everyone else nodded. I guess they all had more interaction with weird powers than me. I mostly just knew the Paladins and Akane’s kensei.

I opened my mouth to say something, but Simon looked at something behind me. “Who’s that waving at you?”

“Hm?” I turned to see George the giant waving from across the rooftop. “Oh, that’s the retinue.” I paused, thinking. “I don’t want to just leave you guys—”

They waved us off. “No, it’s fine, just go.”

I nodded in thanks then peeled away, Laura still on my arm as we navigated the crowds.

“Be careful,” I told her quietly.

She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”

“Just in general. We don’t want to depress them any more than they already are.”

She looked like she had a retort ready for that, but didn’t say anything as we walked up.

“George,” I said with a smile. “What’s up? You enjoying the party?”

He smiled weakly. “Best as I can, sir. Best as I can. I was just wondering if you had any specific plans for us during the battle.”

I winced. “You don’t need to be involved.”

“With all due respect, sir, working makes us feel better.”

Kat and Jarasax nodded. Alex hadn’t so much as acknowledged our presence.

“All right…” I thought for a moment, before turning to Laura. “Vampire domain?”

She nodded. “Best place to put them. Alex will be most useful there, and the rest are used to working in those sorts of conditions. We’ll stick you on East Gate.”

I frowned, then leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Where are the Belians going to be, again?”

She stiffened, then cursed under her breath. “Of course. West Gate, then, with the angels.”

George nodded. “Probably for the best.”

I gave Alex a look. “You fine with that?”

He shrugged. “The Saints have forgiven the ‘sarian angels. Mostly.”

“Not what I meant.”

He turned away. “Yeah, well, it’s the most pressing matter. I’ll live.”

I sighed, and turned to the kemo of the group. “Kat. How is your power treating you? It must be hard, since you didn’t get one that matches your personality.”

She shrugged, and signed something.

“She’s been going to a support group for the bats and bleeders and so on,” George translated. “She’s doing okay.”

She signed something else.

“The biters have it worse.”

I nodded. Yeah, that was a weird one. The skins and the bleeders too, but at least they didn’t have that permanent morphing thing. That wasn’t going to be fun if it wasn’t what you wanted, deep down.

“And you, George?” Laura asked. “What’s going on with you these days? I know the giants are still having some difficulties without the Hammer, but war hasn’t broken out yet.”

He waved a massive hand. “I barely pay attention to the culture any more. Yeah, what’s happening to them sucks, but they’ll survive. I’ve got my own stuff going on.”

“Which is?”

“Well, besides the retinue, uh…” He thought for a minute. “Been pretty big on online gaming recently.”

“Need to do something with all that free time,” Jarasax said with a smile.

“Isn’t the Big Boss sending you on missions?” I asked. “Helping the CS-squad, that sort of thing? You have the most experience with powers, so I just assumed you’d be part of it. Maybe get folded in completely.”

Sax shook his head. “We were, but with… everything that’s happened, we’re kind of on enforced leave right now.”

I winced. “That might not be the best idea.”

George nodded. “I’d feel better if we were working regularly.”

“I’m sure if you explain the situation, he’ll be happy to put you on more missions.”

“Now isn’t the time for it, though,” Laura said. “With war just around the corner.”

“They haven’t attacked yet. May as well get this settled, instead of just waiting around forever.”

“Guys…” Sax said, jerking his head at Alex.

The poor angel looked like his brain was shutting down. This was simply not something he wanted to think about.

“…another time, then,” Laura said. “We’ll see you around.” She led me away.

“Well, at least that wasn’t a complete disaster,” I muttered.

“It could have been worse,” she agreed. “I have no idea how, but it could have been.”

“Yeah…” I shook my head. “Poor bastards. I think they might be looking forward to the war a little too much.”

She winced. “You don’t think they’ve gone suicidal.”

“Alex is the only one I’m really worried about.”

“…but the rest are spoiling for a fight.” She nodded. “They want to do something. Maybe you’re right about them needing more jobs. I’ll talk to Butler tomorrow. See if he can’t find something for them to do.”

“Maybe we can—” I frowned as I realized she was leading me to the stairs. “Were are we going?”

“Downstairs.”

“Yes, I got that.”

She squeezed my arm and laid her head on my shoulder. “I meant back to the dorms.”

“What do you—oh.” Huh.

That was…

Huh.

She chuckled. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”

She smiled. “Maybe. But flustered is cuter.”

I opened the door for her. “After you.”

Her eyes twinkled, and she laughed as we left the party.

Behind the Scenes (scene 269)

I had a huge romance arc for Derek and Laura planned. A long arc revolving around the remnants of his mind control, their interactions as children, and the reason she left South Central in the first place. I decided to go with a simpler option, keeping it mostly offscreen, because it just wasn’t working. Too reliant on cliches and so on.

break

Scene 244 – Esca

ESCA

AKANE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You said you had them.”

“Yes, for painting, but I mean—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kinda. They’re hibernating.”

“Crabs hibernate?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 244)

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

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

Scene 243 – Tutus

TUTUS

DEREK

After a long discussion with Butler about what Io’s son was up to, Laura stayed behind to talk about the sewers, and how the disappearance of Obox-ob, the ekolid warlord, would affect the city’s plumbing. I couldn’t exactly contribute to that conversation, so I took a walk.

A few quick questions to the ‘sarian guards told me what I wanted to know, and it only took a few minutes to find the place I was looking for.

The prison.

I had never seen a prison before. Domina didn’t have any, in the same way oceans didn’t have baths. The entire city had been designed as a prison, and in many ways it still was one. Sure, ever since the screamers had appeared, Butler had been forced to create a large number of temporary holding cells, but those were more like cages for animals than anything. Regardless, I had tried to avoid those anyway.

Since this was a Necessarian prison, it was clean and orderly, with guards carefully placed where they could keep an eye on the prisoners, the entrances, and each other. Alarms and intercoms were always within arm’s reach, and cameras watched every inch, occasionally with gun turrets for muscle.

There was a small corner that acted as a waiting room, which had a pair of posters: One contained pictures of every single guard working here, and the other all the prisoners. If anyone tried to impersonate a guard or escape, they would have a hard time of it.

It felt like overkill, considering that there were only fourteen prisoners, but when you stopped and thought about it, the two hundred cells Butler had managed to put together on short notice would probably be filled very quickly. At our current rate, we had seven new prisoners per day. I had a feeling that rate was only going to increase.

“Honored Paragon,” the guard at the information desk greeted me, even making the effort to stand up and salute me through the bulletproof glass. “It’s a pleasure. You can go right in; no need to sign the book.”

I smiled and pulled the pen and pad towards me. “Nice trick. If I was an impostor, do you really think that would work?”

She shrugged. “Eh, maybe. We’ve got other ways of verifying your identity, anyway.” As she spoke, I followed the instructions on the pad and allowed it to scan my hand for fingerprints. “You know how it is.”

“I do,” I admitted as I finished the process. There were almost certainly a few more besides the fingerprint and signature that I couldn’t see. Thermal imagers in the walls, perhaps, maybe even some sort of X-ray backscatter device. “Where are the power suppressors?” They required line of sight, but I didn’t see them anywhere.

“You mean the silencers?” She grinned, and pointed up. I frowned and followed where she indicated, squinting, but didn’t see anything besides the lights in the ceiling. “They’re in the lights. Each individual emitter is pretty small, but altogether they work fine, and they’re easier to hide. Try it.”

I did as she suggested, attempting to use my power, but it didn’t work. Well, no, that wasn’t quite right. I could feel something happening, and could still sense my reservoir and everything, but I couldn’t conjure any shields, and my reservoir remained full.

I shrugged. “I guess I’ll just have to take your word on it.” I headed off, before stopping and stepping back to the counter. “The suppressors—silencers—are on a different circuit than the lights, right?”

She nodded. “They have their own power supply. With an individual backup for each that can last up to six hours.”

“Good. And who has the key to turn them off?”

“No one. They don’t turn off.”

That might be a problem when they needed maintenance, but until then it certainly sounded clever enough. “Thank you. Tell Clarke I’m impressed with his security arrangements.” I thought about it. “I mean, the Big Boss.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Vovk is the one in charge of the prison.”

That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Well, then pass my compliments on to him.”

Another nod, and I headed in.

Finding the cell in question wasn’t hard. In addition to being one of the only ones occupied, it was the only one with a visitor. Or rather, four visitors. Akane, Flynn, and her nephews Yuuki and Yuudai. I was still having a little bit of trouble remembering which name went to which.

The boys didn’t have any swords, and I was surprised to find that Akane had one. Her previous one, the one I’d bought her years ago, had been destroyed by Silk, and she still hadn’t gotten around to replacing it. Or I thought she hadn’t, anyway.

She turned as she heard me coming, the blue ribbon in her hair briefly getting caught on her shoulder. She fixed it without even noticing. “Derek. What are you doing here? You should be with Laura.”

“They started talking about sewers, so I left.” I stepped up to the cell. “Hello, Saki.”

She looked so much like Akane. The same shape of the face, the same tint of the skin. Even her annoyed glare was the same, her eyes tilted at just the right angle. Akane had said she looked like her mother, Murasaki, but I had never met any of Akane’s sisters, so I couldn’t make the distinction.

She didn’t say a word, just sat on her cot, knees pulled up to her chest, glaring at me like I had done her some personal disservice. The prison uniform that had been provided for her sat in a carefully folded pile on the floor. She was still wearing some ratty street clothes, dirty jeans and a tattered brown shirt with some faded band name scrawled across the front.

The cell itself was immaculate, with the exception of a few pieces of trash that probably represented things they had tried to give her, and that she had refused to take. The place simply hadn’t been occupied for long enough to become dirtied.

“How long has she been like this?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the girl. Everything I knew about the Akiyamas told me that she would be planning her escape. The question was, could she escape without her power? She didn’t appear to have the training necessary to slip through the bars or subdue the guards.

“Ever since she woke up,” Flynn said quietly, likely hoping she wouldn’t be able to overhear. “Akane and the boys have been trying to reach out to her, but she’s not responding. It seems like she still suspects it’s all some trick, and they’re not actually related.”

I frowned. “That makes no sense. Why would anyone go to such lengths to pretend to be her family?”

“She’s been on the street for her entire life,” he reminded me. “I’m not sure why her grandparents didn’t adopt her when her mother died, but I guess that could give you a pretty strong trust issues.”

That made me wonder. “Who raised her, then? If she was born in NHQ, she should have gone to one of Mary Christina’s orphanages. But if it were that simple, it wouldn’t have taken Akane so long to find her…”

Akane turned away from the cell and led us a few steps away, where we could talk in private, while Yuuki and Yuudai continued to try and reach their cousin. “She was sent to one of Zaphkiel’s orphanages in West Middle. Parents never told me why, and I’m not going to ask my mother.”

“Where in West Middle?”

“East of Maladomini, west of the Troll Bridge. But it burned down a year after she was moved there, anyway. That’s why it took so long to find her. No one was even sure if she had survived for the longest time.”

I peered back at Saki, who hadn’t moved an inch, and was eyeing her cousins with wary disdain. Even in this city, it seemed extreme that an eleven year-old could be so world-weary. It left a sick pit in my stomach, like a bad joke.

“Well,” I muttered. “She has to talk sometime.”

“Not really,” Flynn noted. “She’s mute.”

My head snapped in his direction. “Why didn’t you mention it? We can get Clarke in here—”

“It’s not physical,” Akane interrupted tiredly. She sounded like she had already had this conversation. With Clarke, most likely. “It’s the price of her power. She’s extremely strong—probably as strong as us, if not stronger—after only a day and change, but she can’t speak. At all.”

“Baftis says she thinks she might not be able to write, either,” Flynn noted. “She certainly won’t.” For the first time, I noticed a few pens and papers scattered around the small cell. “But obviously, that’s a lot easier to just fake.”

“I don’t know a Baftis.”

“The Mal’s only scientist,” Akane grunted.

“Noble Nyashk lent her to us as a show of cooperation,” Flynn elaborated. “She’s proven very adept at puzzling out the way the powers work. Clarke loves her.”

“Clarke loves everyone,” I noted. Or he pretended to, anyway. It was hard to tell how much of his personality was part of his ‘affable mad scientist’ act. I also made a mental note to thank Seena for the help. “But I’m guessing you’re impressed with her, too?”

Flynn nodded. “She’s been working on classifying the powers. Right now she’s got an interesting theory that the stoneshaping power that Ling had is actually the same as Robyn’s flight. Two different types of kinesis, controlling things, just with vastly different applications.”

“That seems like a stretch. If you’re going to define things that broadly, then maybe you and Akane are also the same. After all, you’re just controlling speed, right?”

Flynn shrugged. “I don’t know. But it goes with how everyone is describing how their powers feel. The speedsters all seem to feel the same as each other, while the kineticists—including Robyn Joan—are something else.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The speedsters all feel the same? It’s just you and Akane, right?”

“And—”

I whacked myself on the forehead. “And Yuuki and Yuudai, of course. Completely forgot.”

“And Sefu,” Akane noted.

It took me a second to realize who she was talking about. “You mean… that thief you caught?” I glanced around the small prison. “Isn’t he here somewhere? I remember you said something about the ‘sarians coming to get him…”

“No. I paid off his debt and hired him.”

“Oh.” I frowned. I knew she had a decent amount of money—I was the one paying her, after all—but she never really went out of her way to spend any of it. “All right. What are you having him do, anyway?”

She shrugged. “Remember that courier job you gave to me this morning?”

“Yeah, it was just delivering a letter, but—” I stopped as I realized the implications. “Wait, you gave that job to a thief? That’s crazy! He’s completely untested, we have no guarantees of his loyalty, and—”

“And he performed perfectly,” she interrupted calmly. “No problems.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Akane, you can’t… just hand something off to some random guy without any supervision. What if he had decided to take the package and run? Or gotten stopped by the ‘sarians, or—”

“It was a minimal-security operation,” she reminded me dourly. “It was just delivering a love letter from a paranoid idiot. Sefu had no reason to steal it, and no one else had any reason to stop him. You need to learn to trust a little.”

“Quite right,” a cheerful voice declared.

I turned to see my mother and Victor Medina, Laura’s father, walking over and smiling. Victor ruffled Yuudai’s hair as he passed; the boy brushed him off with a grin. Apparently, they had already met.

My mom gave me a quick hug. “Oh, it’s been too long, dearest. I think it’s been… a week? A very long week.”

I swallowed nervously. I… hadn’t seen them since capturing Elizabeth. Capturing her during the fey’s little Wild Hunt, that is. We had left the city without saying goodbye, or telling them what was going on, or anything of the sort. Sure, they were old friends with Butler, so they probably had a better idea of what was going on than I did, but still.

She released me before pulling Akane into another hug. She kept her eyes on me, though. “Seriously Derek, you make us worry too much. Akane was kind enough to bring her nephews over, and you couldn’t find time in your schedule to do the same?”

I sighed, and decided to dodge the question. “I don’t have any nephews, mom.”

Maria Huntsman ignored me, instead looking Akane up and down with a critical gaze. She clicked her tongue. “Silver moon and golden sun, you still look like a damned skeleton. You haven’t been eating enough. Derek, you’ve been pushing this girl too hard!”

I rubbed my forehead. “It’s been a very long week…”

“We should go to Veronica’s,” Victor suggested. “I think she needs help with the re-building, anyway. Apparently they did a lot of damage during the Rampage.”

That was a name I had heard bandied about for the MEE, for people who thought acronyms were silly. At least they hadn’t insisted on choosing a Latin word.

“Fine,” I said, though I wasn’t really in the mood. It was important to spend time with your parents. Everyone in this city knew that very well. “Akane, Flynn, you guys coming?”

They both nodded.

Yuuki, the older brother, looked at my mother, wide-eyed with faked innocence. “Can we come too?”

If she noticed that it was faked, she didn’t mention it. She just smiled and patted him on the head. “Of course! You two haven’t met Veronica or Obould yet, have you? It will be good for you. They’re nice people, with good food.”

As we turned to go, Yuudai, the younger brother lingered at Saki’s cell for a brief moment. “We’ll bring you back something, okay?”

His cousin just glared at him.

Behind the Scenes (scene 243)

The “curse” that Saki is under is not uncommon, just more obvious than most. Taking a penalty to increase your power (officially referred to as a “discord,” but no one in the city is aware of that term) is something that happens to pretty much everyone. For example, Derek has the power to create force fields, and technically could create the blades or knives Elizabeth used. However, his discord means his talent is limited to shields, which also means they are far more powerful than they would be if he tried to be capable of everything.

You’ll see other, stranger discords like Saki’s soon. A pyro who needs a wand to channel his power, a hydro who can’t manipulate water while dry, a shifter who automatically changes form based on light level. There are all sorts of drawbacks like which help turn the powers into something more unique than the stock ones we’ve been seeing so far.

Scene 237 – Interrogatus

INTERROGATUS

SIMON

“How in all Nine Hells did you keep this secret for so long?” I demanded.

Derek rubbed his forehead. “Simon, I’ve got a huge headache right now, and a million things to do. Can we please put this off just for a couple more days? At least until I figure out this thing with Io.”

On the other side of the small Necessarius training room, Pam—Eccretia—was paring her nails at a table, flanked by those guards of hers. “He’s right, Lancaster. He’s got a looong list of problems right now, and you’re pretty low on it.”

I whipped my hand in her direction, as if throwing something at her. Instantly, her head was enveloped in an inky black cloud that blocked her vision, causing her to curse violently and claw at it without success.

Her bodyguards, the pale and dark-skinned golden-haired Domothon and Ferenil, respectively, raised their guns in my direction, slightly bored.

I took the hint and snapped my fingers, dispelling my darkness. The motion had tugged at a few of my scars unpleasantly, so I was already regretting the action. Next to me, Yolanda recognized the look on my face, and put her hand on my shoulder for comfort.

“Childish,” Eccretia snapped, eyes sharp and dangerous. “You should be thankful that I am mature enough not to use my power every time I am annoyed.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, not looking at her. “I’m sorry, all right? I got carried away.” I turned my attention back to Derek. “The point is, why didn’t you tell us you were a Paladin? Fighting to save the city from zombies? What’s there to be ashamed of about that?”

My old friend seemed mildly amused by my antics, but ignored it in favor of the matter at hand. “I wasn’t ashamed, it was just…” He shook his head. “We wanted to retain our normal lives as long as possible. Didn’t want to be recognized everywhere we went.”

“But Aunty Akane said you guys are monster slayers,” Yuudai, the younger of the swordswoman’s two nephews, chirped cheerfully from his spot at another nearby table. Apparently Derek had been watching them practice before I barged in. “Were you ever normal?”

Derek smiled. “We were a little normal.”

I laughed at that. “Buddy, when you were twelve you marched on Rivenheart with Orcus and Dispater. You were never normal.”

His cheeks flushed slightly with embarrassment. “…I was fourteen, actually.”

Eccretia smirked. “There’s nothing wrong with getting a late start.”

Domothon gave her a look. “Not everybody founds a clan at age four.”

Yolanda stared at her. “You were four?

Eccretia just shrugged. “Who knows? I was the size of a four year-old, so that’s the body Clarke gave me. For changelings, our legal ages are pretty much just educated guesses. I was probably already an adult before the fey got a hold of me, but it doesn’t really matter.”

“No,” I said, mostly to myself. I kept letting myself get sidetracked. I pointed my finger at Derek. “Why keep all this a secret? We could have helped you with all sorts of things.”

“I have never taken you into a battle, Simon, and I wouldn’t have started with freaking zombies—”

“Not that. You know, school stuff. Or I could have brokered a deal between the sibriex and the ‘sarians, to work on some sort of cure or whatever.”

“You have read the Necessarians’ statement regarding their conversation with Elizabeth’s sister, right?” Eccretia asked from her corner of the room. “In hindsight, I highly doubt having a few extra hands studying the screamers would have helped.”

“But they didn’t know it at the time,” I snapped back. “And then there’s Seena. Did you know the Mals were plotting to assassinate the retinue? She could have run interference if we were kept in the loop.” Okay, we ran interference anyway, but that required nudging by a fey, which was never an enjoyable process.

Derek sighed. “What do you want me to say? I am sorry. I know it wasn’t the smartest move, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We were trying to keep everyone safe. We didn’t want the Composer targeting people close to us.”

“Well, it turned out the Composer was the girl you had been crushing on for almost ten years—”

“Yes, yes, I know. I said seemed.”

“Well, at least you admit you were wrong.”

“Okay, this has gone on long enough,” Eccretia muttered, standing. “Lancaster, you don’t have a leg to stand on, and you know it. Let’s start with the fact that you found out that there was an attack being planned against the retinue, and didn’t tell anyone. Then there’s your little decision to become a warlord, and how that turned out—”

The older of Akane’s nephews, Yuuki, I think, finally stopped exercising, interrupting the changeling by walking in front of her on his way to the water cooler. “You tried to be a warlord? Is that what happened?”

At the reminder of the failed Balor Reconstruction, I became aware of the pain in my scars, the ache that I normally kept buried in the back of my mind. I ignored the kid—who wasn’t much younger than I was, honestly, and focused on Eccretia. “Excuse me, but what in the Hells are you even doing here? Shouldn’t you be at your domain, I don’t know, hacking or something?”

“I’m here to discuss some things with Akiyama.” At Yuuki’s surprised look, she corrected herself. “Akane Akiyama, sorry. I have some questions about her and her new hire, the baseline she has training these two. He is extremely suspicious, and her employment of him even worse.”

It took me a second to realize precisely what she had just said. “Wait, you’re checking up on her solely for hiring some guy?”

“It’s slightly more complicated than that.”

“No, but seriously, whatever happened to all that personal freedom crap you’re always spewing?”

Yolanda tugged at my arm. “Simon, calm down…”

I ignored her, though a distant part of my brain knew that was a bad idea. “In case you didn’t realize it, Honored Paragon, you are in Necessarius territory. The Necessarius territory. Did you seriously come here to play police state?”

She glared at me. “Please listen to your girlfriend, Honored Devil. This is not your concern. If your sister were here, she’d agree with me.”

When I opened my mouth to retort—loudly—Derek stopped me with just a frown and a quick word.

“Where is Seena, anyway?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 237)

Why do the short ones always take so long?

Scene 235 – Gladius

GLADIUS

AKANE

“Sefu,” I said by way of greeting, as I entered the small training hall. “How goes it?”

“Well,” he assured me. He nodded at my nephews, currently balancing on a series of large poles. The poles were about head height, and padded; they were clearly intended to be used as simple punching bags. But he appeared to have found another use for them.

I nodded in appreciation. My father had done something similar. This sort of exercise was a great way to teach the basics of balance and control of your own body. “When will you start making them jump between the poles?” If that stage of the exercise had a formal name, I didn’t know it.

“Soon. They can already do it at speed, but even there they are having trouble. It will be some time before they can do it without their powers.” He glanced away from the boys’ efforts, and frowned at me as if noticing my expression for the first time. “Are you all right? You look… worn.”

Worn. That was a good word. Yesterday, I had discovered Elizabeth had an identical twin sister, lost my sword, sat through a looong interview with her, and then watched her casually remove her sister from our custody, all without being able to raise a hand against her. Yeah. I was worn.

“Yesterday was… an interesting day,” I managed. I was far from comfortable enough with this man to discuss my emotions with him. Sure, I was letting him help train my nephews, but we were in the middle of NHQ. No one in their right mind would hurt children in Butler’s own fortress.

“Morning, Sefu. I got that—oh.”

I turned to see Flynn standing at the entrance of the room, a box under one arm and his sword in the other. He seemed surprised to see me. “Akane. I thought you would still be with Derek, handling the fallout from that… thing with Elizabeth’s sister.”

I just shook my head. “That’s theirs to clean up. I can’t help.” For once, I was happy I had no stake in this. I had a feeling the city was not going to be happy when they found out we had given Silk her sister without a fight. MC and Laura might be able to spin it, but I doubted it.

Flynn placed the small box on the nearby table, next to a small water cooler. “Well, here’s those throwing knives you asked for.”

Intrigued, I walked over and opened the box to discover a large number of small, aerodynamic blades weighted for throwing—but padded, and not sharp.

“Practice knives,” I murmured.

My… employee? Was that what he was? Sefu strode up beside me and nodded. “That’s right. Those will still hurt when they hit, but they won’t kill. Especially if the boys are moving at speed. Good to start with.”

Flynn indicated the large, empty room. “You know Akane, I’m glad I caught you. I was meaning to talk to you about this ever since I met Sefu.”

When did they meet, anyway? Yesterday, when I brought the boys and their teacher back to NHQ? That would have been slightly before Silk’s arrival, I supposed. “What about?”

“This is a pretty big room for just two kids and their teacher,” he began slowly.

I raised an eyebrow. “You trying to move us somewhere smaller?”

“Quite the opposite, actually. I want you to consider taking on more students.”

I glanced at Sefu, but he just shrugged. “This is the first I’m hearing of it.”

“Is there even a particularly large demand for this sort of instruction?” I asked. Swordsmen weren’t exactly common, as he knew well. We weren’t quite rare, but swords were just automatically less useful than guns in most situations.

But Flynn wasn’t about to let it go so easily. “You’d be surprised. There are a decent number of people with varying types of super speed. That makes swords a lot more useful against guns than they were a few days ago. They’re going to need training.”

“We’re getting more students?” Yuudai asked, suddenly standing next to me.

I tousled his hair. “I think two are enough of a handful for now.”

“I understand it’s a big commitment to make,” Flynn said. “But I want you to think about it. Four hundred million people with powers need to be controlled in some way. Training speedsters in how to use their abilities, and what to use them for, could go a long way to keeping the peace.”

Now it was Sefu’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “What, like some sort of power-based culture?”

Flynn shrugged. “Maybe. Call it whatever you want. Just think about it.”

“…I will,” I promised. “If you’ll help me with my problem first.”

“Uh, sure. What problem? Is this about Ling’s attack on the ave lab yesterday?”

Necessarius had found the ruins of the ave lab where they had been keeping Ling yesterday, just minutes before Silk showed up. We weren’t completely certain she had been the one to destroy it, but the fact that every piece of stone and concrete in the lab was ripped and molded like clay to kill everyone in the building was likely beyond anyone else’s abilities. We didn’t find Ling, though, or the toy box.

“No,” I assured him. “It’s about Saki. My niece.”

“You have a niece?” He frowned at Yuuki, who had also sped over in the blink of an eye. “You guys have a sister? I didn’t hear anything about that.”

Yuuki shook his head as he collected some water from the cooler, handing his little brother a cup first. “She’s our cousin. Aunt Murasaki’s daughter.” He glanced at me. “I didn’t know she was still alive, though.”

Yuudai grinned. “We also didn’t know Auntie Akane was still alive, and she’s been running around the city as a famous monster hunter.”

“The point is,” I interrupted before the conversation could get away from me too much. “That MC was finally able to find her. She’s involved with the ferrets, though, and I doubt very much it’s willingly.”

He looked skeptical. “How old is she?”

“Eleven.”

Flynn nodded. “Okay, yeah, I think you have it right. Time for a rescue.” Then he stopped and thought about it. “You don’t need me, though. Talk to Butler. You know how he treats children. He’ll send an army if you ask.”

“We don’t know the circumstances,” I reminded him. “We should at least scout first.”

“All right, I think I can do that,” Flynn said thoughtfully. He looked up as he realized something. “You’ll also need a sword.”

Yuuki looked at me sideways. “Something happened to your sword? I was meaning to ask why you didn’t have it with you.”

I grimaced. “It was destroyed yesterday.”

Yuudai’s eyes went wide. “When the Composer’s lookalike came by?”

With a sigh, I nodded. “Yes. I attacked her, and she… rebuffed me.”

“We can stop by a store on the way,” Flynn suggested.

But I shook my head. “No. I want my next sword to be done right, not just grab a cheap mass-produced one for the sake of convenience. Getting a new one will take at least a few hours—longer, likely, since I’m probably going to get one custom built.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So you’re fine with going into a Nosferatu nest with nothing but your knives?”

“…yes,” I said after a moment’s hesitation. “It’s not preferred, but in theory, we shouldn’t have to even fight anyone.”

“You can use mine,” Sefu offered, picking up a sheathed katana from under the table. He handed it to me, pulling it out of the sheath just a little as he did so, and I could smell the strong scent of new oils. “I just bought it today.”

“I just said I—”

“I know,” he interrupted. “But you can use it for today. Once you’ve rescued your niece, you can look into having one forged brand-new.”

He had a point. Despite my bluster, I would feel far more comfortable fighting hordes of monsters with some kind of sword. I bowed slightly as I took the weapon. “Thank you very much.”
“So,” Flynn said as we headed towards the exit. “Where is this place they’re keeping her, anyway? The Nosferatu domain?”

I nodded. “Near the edge.”

It didn’t take us too long to get to ferret territory. It was only about five to ten miles southeast of NHQ itself. Of course, traffic would have been terrible, so rather than grab a taxi or what have you, we went roof hopping

It was much easier when you had super speed.

I soared through the air, jumping straight across the street without a care in the world. Next to me, Flynn grinned, turned his attention to our landing zone, and suddenly there was a subtle blur about his features as he activated his power to account for the impact.

I waited a moment longer to activate my own speed; I had more experience, and knew to conserve my energy as much as possible. I activated my power about a foot away from the roof, while Flynn did so about twenty away. My reservoir barely had a dip in it, while his was mostly empty.

“Sorry,” he said as the dust cleared. “I think I need to rest.” He grinned. “You’re clearly better at this than me.”

I shrugged with as much modesty as I could muster. “Well. I have had more experience.”

He nodded. “Of course.” He flexed his hand. “I’m still getting used to the mere idea of having a power, let alone learning how to use it effectively.” He looked up, grinning again. “Early on, did you ever use it on accident? You’re just cooking in the dorm kitchen, and then you drop a plate, and suddenly you’re moving at super speed to catch it?”

“Sure, all the time,” I admitted. “But most of that was on purpose. The accidental stuff was when I’d be waiting for a pot to boil, and then I’d realize I was at super speed, as if I somehow thought that would make it go faster.”

He blinked, then laughed. “I think that happened to me, and I didn’t even notice!” He chuckled and shook his head. “The city’s gonna get a lot stranger, before everyone gets a grip on these powers.”

“Give it a few days. Once people have a better idea of what they can do, they’ll start trying to exploit them. Like Sefu, stealing from that store.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He strode up to the edge of the roof. “It’s a good thing we’re doing this now, then. If we waited too long, the ferrets might be better equipped to stop us.”

“They might be anyway,” I warned. “They might not have any single reigning warlord, but they have a lot of mid-power ones like Cinder and Halifax.” We should be able to fight off a few vampires of that level, but we didn’t want to have to.

That was also why we were doing this in the morning. This was effectively the middle of the night for them; only the ones with the absolute strangest schedules would still be awake at this hour. That should make this rescue easy enough.

I joined Flynn at the edge of the roof, nodded at him, and we both slipped until the shadecloth stretched between buildings, and dropped down to the street thirty floors below.

The Nosferatu were clearly surprised by our sudden entrance, but despite their dangerous and inhuman appearances, they were not actually unthinking monsters. They knew better than to just attack anyone strong enough to do something like that.

Good. That would make this easier.

“I am looking for Ileana, a diplomat of the Nictuku,” I explained in a calm, carrying voice. “If anyone knows where she is, or can contact her for me, there is a modest reward.”

I stood there as I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The light leaking in through the edges of the poorly-maintained shadecloths wasn’t much, but it was enough to let me see how many people were around.

The vampires gave us a wide berth, but I could hear them whispering to each other. Ileana was working with Necessarius a lot these days, but she still lived only a few doors from where we landed. According to my sources, she should be here now. Maybe she could have gone off to a restaurant or something, but she wouldn’t be far.

When no one came forward with any information, I nodded to Flynn, and we sauntered off in the near-complete gloom caused by the sunshades far overhead, blocking out even the bright morning light.

Ileana’s apartment wasn’t really anything special, just a small one room, one bath hole in the wall on the third floor of a pretty standard cold gray concrete apartment complex. It was cold this time of year, since the landlord hadn’t spent the effort on heating, but Nosferatu normally had enough toys so they didn’t have to worry about that much.

“You know it’s not going to be as easy as knocking on her door, right?” Flynn asked.

I sighed and nodded. I had more than enough experience with how these things went to know that. Still, if nothing else, we’d be able to find some clues to her whereabouts here. I raised my fist and knocked on the wooden door twice.

It opened immediately.

“Yes?” the woman asked politely as she glanced between us. She was same the pale-skinned vampire I remembered from the bats incident. Her black hair was slightly tousled, but it didn’t seem like we had woken her up. “Is there something I can help you with?”

I just blinked in surprise. It… just seemed too easy.

Ileana turned her attention to Flynn and raised an eyebrow. “…she okay?”

“Uh, yeah. We just didn’t expect you to actually be here.”

“Ah,” she said with a nod. “Thieves. Got it.”

“No—” I began, stepping forward before she could close the door.

I smacked right into the closed door with my face.

I frowned, nursing my injured nose. The door was still open. But I had hit something

Then, before my very eyes, the open door and Ileana both blurred like a mirage, only to be replaced moments later by a very solid and very closed door.

What in Musashi’s name…

“An illusion,” Flynn murmured, running his hand over the door to make sure it was the real thing. “Very clever. I’ve seen a couple, but this is still impressive.”

I glared at him with an unspoken question.

“It’s a power,” he explained. “Ileana’s, I presume. She can make you see things that aren’t there. But she must be close.” He knocked on the door again. “Honored Nightstalker? We’re from Necessarius. We’re not thieves, we promise!” He fished his Beta-level security pass out of his pocket and held it in front of the peep hole. “See?”

After a long moment, the door finally creaked open, revealing a girl very similar to the illusion from moment’s before, only more disheveled and wearing flannel nightclothes. I hesitantly reached out and touched her shoulder to confirm she was real; unless she could fool my sense of touch, she was.

“…sorry about that,” she said nodding mostly in my direction. “I didn’t see you there, Honored Paladin.”

I quirked my head. “You remember me?”

“From the bats? Yes, I do. You were with Huntsman on the front lines, right? You and that Chinese girl.” I tried not to flinch at the reminder of Ling and her disappearance. You learned to deal with these things in Domina City, but still…

There was an awkward pause while I was too caught up in my memories to properly answer, but Flynn stepped in before things could get out of hand. “…can we come in? We just need some minor information about the area, and you seemed like the logical choice.”

Ileana nodded and stepped aside, allowing us into her apartment.

It wasn’t much more impressive inside than out. The walls and floors were built with nothing but the same cold concrete as the rest of the structure. There was a bed in the corner, a rug on the floor, and some posters on the walls, but not much else.

Ileana quickly crossed over to her bed and sat down. There wasn’t anywhere else to sit, so we just remained standing. “Well, what did you need?”

“My niece,” I said swiftly and stiffly, trying to power through the situation by sheer force. “Captive nearby. Held by Cinder’s man. Japanese baseline, eleven years old. Green eyes. You know her?”

“Yes, actually,” she said, seemingly a little taken aback. “You sure she’s captive, though? I mean, I didn’t really interact with her at all, but Ferula knows better than to mess with kids. Especially this close to NHQ.”

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Flynn explained. “Anything you can tell us about the whole situation would be most appreciated.”

Ileana scratched her chin. “Well, Ferula isn’t really too powerful. He controls pretty much just this one block, and there’s nothing here really worth controlling. He was fighting Necessarius—just basic territory disputes, barely even any death—for the last year or so, but then Hearing moved away.”

“Hearing?” I asked.

“Ryan Hearing. The highest ranking ‘sarian on the block. Nothing really impressive, but good in a fight. Ferula liked sparring with him. After Hearing left the city for some inheritance thing in New York, Ferula didn’t really know what to do.”

Flynn was skeptical. “So, what, he kidnapped a child to get the attention of the Necessarians again? Just to play around? I have a hard time believing anyone could be that stupid.”

“Look, I don’t know,” Ileana insisted. “I just stopped by a week or so ago to talk to him about the blood bank on the corner, and I spotted a little Asian girl with really bright green eyes.” She turned her attention to me. “Really bright. They a cosmo? At her age, it seems odd.”

I smiled thinly. “Natural. From her mother.”

“Huh. Okay, well, the point is that the girl didn’t seem restrained, and Ferula didn’t try to keep me from seeing her or anything. If she’s in a cage, it’s a gilded one.” She stopped and thought about it. “…well. Relatively speaking. Nothing that man owns can be called gilded.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Ferula himself looks mostly normal, like Cinder,” she cautioned. “But he likes poison, and he’s got lots of sharp teeth and a jaw like a steel vise. If you fight him, stay out of arm’s reach as much as possible.” Her eyes lingered on our swords. “…relatively speaking.”

“Guns?”

“They have an armory, but he and his guards will use their claws and teeth as much as possible.”

“How many?”

“Guards? Two dozen, max.”

I snorted. I could kill two dozen guards by myself. “Thanks.” I turned to go.

Flynn grabbed my arm before I could go two steps. “Not quite.” He turned back to the girl perched on her bed. “What’s his power?”

Oh. Right. That was something we had to worry about now. Yeah, that was going to take getting used to. I had spent the last few months as the biggest kid on the block, with an ability that almost no one else in the world had. That was all gone now.

“…it’s complicated,” Ileana answered slowly. “I don’t know what Clarke would call it. But Ferula has been referring to it as vampirism. The ability to consume blood and turn it directly into strength.”

That was a new one.

“I don’t really know how it works. All I know is that when he drinks blood, he can move insanely fast, faster than some people with super speed. And he gets tough and strong, too.” She shrugged. “Not sure what else to tell you. But a good number of vampires have a power like it, at least among the Nosferatu.”

Flynn rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, that one is gonna be fun to deal with. Well, if we’re lucky, we can manage to come to a diplomatic solution.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “That means no drawing your sword until things go south.”

“Inevitable,” I noted. Neither of us were diplomats. Flynn was better than me, but that really wasn’t saying much.

Ileana pushed herself off her bed. “Then let me come with you.”

I just stared at her.

“You know it’s a good idea,” she insisted. “Think about it. I’m a trained Nosferatu diplomat, with experience with the vampire in question. If you go in there, it’s going to be a bloodbath. And not the good kind.”

Only a vampire could reference the ‘good kind’ of bloodbath with a straight face. “…fine. But Saki is priority one.”

My companion nodded. “If something goes wrong, grab the girl and hide. Can you use your illusions to become invisible?”

She shrugged a little uncomfortably. “Not really, but I can make something to hide behind.”

“Good. Do that. Obviously, if everything goes according to plan, it won’t come to that, but…”

“Things never go according to plan,” I finished, as I turned for the door.

I heard the swordsman sigh behind me. “Ain’t that the truth.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 235)

Consumption (the power that Ferula calls vampirism) can work using a variety of different substances to consume, just like how kinetics can move a variety of different materials. Vampires just tend towards blood, for obvious reasons. As a (very) rough rule of thumb, the more rare and difficult it is to obtain the substance in question, the more power the consumer gains from it. So blood-consumers gain more power than water-consumers, flesh-consumers gain more power than blood, and gold consumers gain more power than flesh.

Scene 229 – Celeritas

CELERITAS

AKANE

“You two need to try this,” I insisted, handing both boys a small wrap each. “Nervi makes the best sandwiches.”

“This isn’t a sandwich, it’s a wrap,” Yuuki said.

“Well, he also makes good wraps,” I insisted, as I led us over to an unoccupied table. I found myself slightly giddy over the fact that the open-air dining area was actually crowded. There were people here, outside again. The city was beginning to feel normal again.

Yuudai, the younger of the two brothers, shrugged and sat down. “Sandwich, wrap, it smells good.” He took a big bite, and chewed thoughtfully. “What is this? Dog?”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I chided him, even as Yuuki took his own seat. “And this is an abyssal leapeater wrap.”

Yuuki sniffed at the item in his hands with some suspicion. “I thought abyssals were poisonous.”

“Acidic, actually. But it comes off during the grilling.”

The elder boy arched an eyebrow at me, but seeing as how his younger brother was enthusiastically eating his own food with such obvious relish, he sighed and gingerly took a bite. After a moment, he swallowed, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I can’t identify the sauce…”

“No sauce. That’s the acid.”

He whipped his head in my direction, panic in his eyes. “You said it burns off!”

“Yes, and leaves behind flavor. Like cooking with wine.”

Yuudai swallowed, peering at his wrap. “Where did they get the meat, anyway? Eve says abyssals are pretty rare.”

I bit into my own wrap. The strange, smoky flavor that you could normally only get with a very special type of oven was exactly as I remembered it. “Who’s Eve?” I asked, after I finished swallowing my bite—it wouldn’t do to provide a bad example for the boys. “That girlfriend of yours?”

He nodded eagerly. “Eve Am, that’s her. She’s just a nice demon girl.”

“No specific subculture?”

“Nope. Just some horns and a good strong tail.” He nodded at the waitress, sashaying around the tables. “Like that girl, there.”

I grinned slightly. “That’s not a demon, that’s Lily.”

He frowned. “Who—” Then the light dawned. “Lily!? The Lily? Eve goes on and on about her! Why’s she just waiting tables? Shouldn’t she be, uh…” he faltered, not really sure what someone like her was expected to do.

“She likes it,” I explained. “Likes interacting with people on a casual basis like this.”

“Besides,” Yuuki cut in. “What else would she be doing? Sitting in the middle of Necessarius with the Big Boss?”

Yuudai’s frown returned. “She’s a ‘sarian.”

I shrugged. “Not really. Kinda. She’s doesn’t like killing, so she doesn’t approve of their methods, but she respects them, especially Butler.” I smiled, remembering the argument I had walked in on earlier today, shortly after we got back. “He actually tried to get her to move into MC’s bunker, after this whole debacle.”

“Oh.” The little boy—much smaller than his brother, even though he was only a year younger—shook his head. “But you didn’t answer my question! Abyssal meat is rare. Where do they get it?”

“Oh, sorry.” His question had completely slipped my mind as I focused on his girlfriend. “Mostly, Ezio—and his mother, who runs another place—gets it from people like me. Monster slayers. Abyssal leapeaters don’t quite breed true, so it’s not like you can farm them.”

“I forgot you said you’re a monster slayer,” Yuuki muttered around a mouthful of food. I glared at him, and he had the good grace to swallow before continuing. “You’re in some gang, right? Huntsman’s?”

“Gang might be stretching it. It’s just the two of us.”

He put the wrap down in surprise. “Really? Because I looked around on Fundie a little, and apparently he’s actually pretty well-known. Or is that a different Huntsman?”

“No, it’s the same,” I admitted. “It’s a small group, but we do good work.”

“Huh. I guess I should have expected that from the Paladins.”

I paused mid-bite. “…right. I forgot that you would know about that now.”

“The whole city knows!” Yuudai chirped happily. He was grinning from ear to ear. “It was a lot of fun for us, too! We got to point at the tv and say ‘That’s our aunt!’”

You said it,” Yuuki murmured, blushing into his wrap. “I just tried to stay out of it all.”

I smiled, but didn’t say anything, knowing full well what it was like to be embarrassed like that.

After ten or twenty minutes, we finished up our food and headed down the street.

“So what did you two want to do next?” I asked as I adjusted my sword bag over my shoulder. “There are shops around here, but also a public library, some cafes, AU—”

“AU is the school you go to, right?” Yuuki interrupted. “The college, I mean.”

I shrugged. “Well, technically yes, but we haven’t been going recently.”

“Because of the Composer.”

“Exactly.” I thought about it. “I suppose we should start attending again, but it’s a little hard to care, all things considered. We already have very steady, well-paying jobs. We were pretty much only going to keep Derek’s mother happy.”

“He has a mom?” Yuudai asked with wide eyes. “Like, an actual mom?”

I ruffled his hair. “So do I! Your grandmother, in fact.” My smile faded. “I suppose you’ll want to meet her sooner or later.”

Yuudai looked a bit confused at that, but Yuuki seemed to recognize the expression on my face. “You don’t get along with her?”

“She is just… a very trying woman,” I managed diplomatically. “She never really got used to living in a city of criminals. And she’s inside NHQ’s radius, so she’s perfectly safe, meaning she doesn’t really understand how people need to fight to survive.”

“But she’d want to meet us, right?” Yuudai pressed. “Why wouldn’t she?”

I grimaced. “She’s… delicate, in some ways. She doesn’t like being reminded of what she’s lost.”

Yuuki frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I remind her too much of your grandfather.” I lifted my sword, still in its bag slung over my shoulder, to emphasize my point. “And I’m afraid you two might remind her too much of your mom.” I ruffled Yuudai’s hair again, smiling at his green eyes. “You both look just like her.”

“Oh,” the younger boy said, clearly disappointed. “That’s… I mean, I’m happy we look like her, but if it causes problems, we could get some cosmos…”

I whacked him on the head.

“Hey!” he cried, his upper lip quivering as if he was about to cry. “What was that for?”

“If you want to use the toy maker, that’s fine,” I informed him sternly. “But you don’t need to change just because you want someone else to like you. That just leads to those fourteen year-old girls with D-cups.”

Yuudai settled down a bit, and Yuuki rubbed him on his head where I had hit him. “You’ve got a point,” the elder brother admitted.

“Besides, you especially don’t need to change yourself to make that woman like you,” I muttered darkly. “She’s going to find something to hate. Honestly, your appearances are pretty low on the list.”

“I… see…” Yuuki said slowly. “Well, how about you—”

A man ran out of the shop in front of us at breakneck speed, nearly bowling the three of us off our feet.

“Musashi’s broken oar,” I muttered. “What was that?”

The shop clerk, a young boy about Yuudai’s age, came out of the shop as if in answer to my question. “Stop! Thief!”

“Huh,” Yuuki muttered. “I wonder if there will be a reward.”

I smacked him lightly upside the head again. “Doesn’t matter.”

Then I sped off.

It felt weird, being able to use my power in front of the dozens or hundreds of witnesses, and not have to worry about anybody finding out. They all knew by now. They might not have made the connection between me and the Paladin with super speed, but there was nothing exceptional about having a power.

Though, to be perfectly fair, I probably could have caught up with the shoplifter even without my power. I’m pretty fast all on my own, and he wasn’t too far away when I started running. This also meant that when using my speed, I was able to catch up to him in barely a heartbeat, and quickly get in front of him.

Since to my perspective, it looked like he was moving in slow motion, it was easy to size him up. He was a young baseline African man—not just black, African. The horizontal spike piercing his chin made it pretty obvious. Though I suppose he could have just been a run of the mill black kid interested in his people’s history, the sharp cut of his jaw and the weathered look of his skin made him seem like someone who had experience in an actual tribal lifestyle.

Tucked under his arm was one of those bulk boxes of nutrient bars. The kind of thing you ate as a snack on the go. There would be about fifty in the box; more than enough to feed a young boy for a couple weeks.

I met his eyes. They were strong, but desperate. He was clearly hungry, almost certainly homeless, and probably too busy saving up for a Cannibalism buff to be able to afford to buy food.

Then he blinked, almost too quickly for me to notice.

Wait, did he just—

Then his eyes narrowed and focused on me.

Oh crap

I didn’t even have time to draw my sword. All I knew was that suddenly, he was moving at normal speed—except he wasn’t, not really.

He was just moving at the same speed I was.

He had the good sense to drop the box. To all appearances, it just hovered in midair; it would fall eventually, but at the rate we were moving, that was going to take a minute. Unburdened, he stepped swiftly inside my guard and punched once, twice, straight at my face.

Shocked as I was, my combat instincts kicked in quickly, and I was able to easily dodged his attacks just by taking two steps back.

He kept on the offensive, moving like a boxer—light on his feet, throwing lightning-fast punches with unerring accuracy.

I could probably beat him in a moment if I went on the offensive, but I was hesitant. Partly because I was worried I’d do far too much damage to him—he was just a thief, he didn’t deserve to die, but I wasn’t used to having to hold back—but also because I knew that I could easily outlast him. My reservoir was undoubtedly far deeper than his own; I had barely even tapped into mine, but assuming he was at about the same level I was in my first couple days, he’d be spent soon.

But if he realized that I was trying to wait him out, he might go full power long enough to do some serious damage to me. Stronger than him or not, if he was quick, especially if he had a blade, he could very well kill me.

I wasn’t going to let that happen.

I dodged the first of his one-two punches, then dove forward into the second, tapping a little bit more speed in order to dodge the blow by a hair’s breadth. He was too shocked by the odd maneuver to recover fast enough.

Not that it mattered. I was inside his guard, and faster than him. Before he had a chance to draw more power from his reservoir, I punched him hard in the gut, causing him to double-over in pain. Rather than calling that the end of it, I tripped him up with one foot, sending him sprawling to the ground, and then put my foot on his chest, pinning him with the full weight of my body.

I returned to normal speed—the thief following suit a moment later, when a little bit of thrashing confirmed that he still couldn’t escape—and looked over my shoulder at the kid from the store. “Necessarius.”

He blinked, then nodded and fished out a phone to call MC.

Then the applause started.

Now it was my turn to blink in surprise. Now that I had a moment to stop and look around, I realized that the sidewalks were packed with people—people who were now smiling and clapping in appreciation for my swift take down of the thief.

I blushed and shuffled my feet. I didn’t really deserve any praise like this…

I really didn’t.

Because the second I let down my guard, the thief took advantage.

Suddenly I was on the ground, flat on my back, and he was standing above me, anger in his eyes. Thankfully, he wasn’t in the mood for revenge. He just stooped down and picked up his box at super speed and ran off—

Only to get tackled bodily to the ground.

It happened so fast that I barely saw it happen. It was someone else with speed, no question; no one else would have been able to move that fast. I rose to my feet to see the thief’s face being pushed into the concrete by the man sitting on his back…

It was Yuuki.

He grinned when he noticed me staring at him in shock, but didn’t let up on the criminal.

“You have… super speed?” I asked dumbly.

The grin widened. “I couldn’t think of a way to tell you. I guess this works, huh?”

A distant part of my brain noted that Laura would find this very interesting. The implications of two members of the same family having the same power were staggering. But at the moment, I didn’t care about that. I just cared that my nephew had successfully taken down a criminal. Easily taken down a criminal, in fact.

I stepped forward and tussled his hair again. “Good job,” I said, putting as much gratitude into those two words as I could. It seemed like it worked, because he blushed in embarrassment and turned away, pretending to be focused on the captive.

Yuudai suddenly sped up to my side. I nearly jumped out of my skin. He had speed too? “The shop keeper says the ‘sarians are gonna be here in a couple minutes.” He eyed the African man, who had largely stopped struggling. “What’ll they do with him?”

“Well, that depends,” I mused. “Best case scenario, he just pays for the food, plus the penalty on top.” It was what, double the item’s price these days? No, wait, I think the penalty was just the item’s price, but then you also had to pay for the item, so it came out to double. More if he was a repeat offender. “Of course, I doubt he’d have stolen food if he could pay for it, so he’ll likely have to work it off.”

Utumwa,” the man spat viciously.

I glared at him, and mustered the fortitude to speak more than a couple words. “I don’t understand… whatever language that is, but I’m guessing it was an insult. It will be a day’s work. Just do it, no complaining.”

“Easy to preach hard work when you’re not the one starving.”

I picked up the box he had dropped and turned it over in my hands, looking for a price label. “Thirty dollars? You couldn’t scrounge up thirty dollars?”

He scowled. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“What, no one would hire you? Those fighting skills didn’t grow out of thin air. Even before the MEE, you could have found a job as a boxer or a hit man or a trainer. Now, with your speed, you should be even more in demand.”

He looked away.

“Honored Paladin?” a voice called from behind me. I turned to see the shivering young clerk, and two large and furry kemos, both with the Necessarian red and black band on their shoulders. “They’re here for the thief. They’ll take him in for processing.”

“Wait,” I said, as the ‘sarians moved forward. There was… an idea, tickling at the back of my brain. Obviously, there was something the thief wasn’t saying. Something that made his life harder than it should be. But whatever it was, he was fast, and quick on his feet. “How much?”

The kemos looked at each other, then at me. The one on the left, the one with vaguely ursine features, spoke. “You mean his penalty? Sixty-six dollars, including tax. But you can’t buy his debt. That’s slavery, and you of all people should know how the Big Boss feels about the slave trade—”

“Not buying his debt,” I said firmly. “Paying it. Puts him in the free and clear.” I pulled out my wallet.

There were six dollars in it.

Oh, right, I had left all my money behind when we left the city, and what little I had picked up when we got back was spent at Nervi’s place, on the sandwiches. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t need to have more cash on me.

“Um… I have money at my dorm. If you’ll just let me run back—”

“No need,” the ‘sarian on the right assured me quickly. “We know who you are.”

“Normally, we’re supposed to take him into custody while you get the money,” his companion noted. “But since it’s you, we can take your word on it.” He pulled out a pad, tapped on it for a moment, then proffered it to me. “Please read it, and sign at the bottom.”

It was basically just a bill, stating that I would pay the sum at the next available opportunity. I signed it, the lawmen left, and the street slowly settled back down into a normal routine.

“Yuuki, get off him,” I ordered once the shock of the whole event had worn off and I had a chance to think again. My elder nephew did as I suggested a little ruefully.

I eyed the thief as he slowly clambered to his feet, still glaring at me. “I hope you don’t think this puts me in your debt.”

“No,” I agreed, handing him back his stolen box of nutrient bars. He took it a little suspiciously. “Your debt is paid. You’re free.” I shrugged. “But… maybe I have a job? You don’t have to take it.”

He narrowed his eyes. “A paying job?”

“A paying job.”

“And no assassinating people?”

“No assassinations. Maybe killing, but no assassinating.”

The baseline looked at me a good, long while, trying to size me up, determine my motive.

“Sefu,” he said finally, holding out his hand to shake.

I smiled, and took it. “Sefu. I’m Akane Akiyama.”

Behind the Scene (scene 229)

This is one of those that builds up to something important, rather than being important itself.