Scene 46 – Cruor

CRUOR

ADAM

Derek shook me awake quickly. I had never expected to go to sleep at reasonable hours at college, but when zombies can attack at any moment, you don’t really have the luxury of staying up to late. You get whatever rest you can.

I glanced at the clock. 1 AM. Dammit, it was a Thursday too. I had classes in the morning. Well, I guess I’d have to skip them.

I jumped out of bed quickly, dressing in a small set of tactical armor (basically just black cloth with plastic plates woven in) and grabbing my gun case. I belted everything in their now-familiar positions: Pistol on my right hip, SMG on my left, shotgun over my right shoulder and the rifle over my left.

The others were ready before me, of course. Akane was wearing the new black gi Ling had given her, but she wasn’t wearing Flynn’s earrings. I guess that wasn’t all that surprising, but she had seemed so excited when she first got them. Whatever. I had more important things to worry about.

We collected Laura in the lobby, and met the retinue out front. It seemed as though Necessarius was using Laura’s changeling as an early warning system. Not to mention that they were always outside our dorm in the van.

Kat was conspicuous by her absence, and no one talked much. Usually I ended up striking up a conversation with George, but he was too subdued. He hadn’t been very close with Kat, I knew, but its still hard when someone is just ripped out of your life like that.

I didn’t say anything stupid like ‘She’ll be fine,’ or ‘We’ll find a cure.’ She might be and we might find one, but right now they were just empty platitudes.

Our destination was under a mile away, so at least the silence didn’t stretch for more than a couple minutes. Before it had any real chance to get awkward, we were already there, at the Necessarian redoubt, piling out of the van.

“Where is everyone?” Kelly asked, glancing around. Alex followed, fumbling for her night vision goggles.

Jarasax frowned. “I don’t know. MC said they were here. Something’s not right.”

I agreed. Even disregarding MC, there was obviously a redoubt here, built within the last five minutes or so. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a bunch of upended tables arranged outward, in the hopes it would keep the screamers out, but that isn’t something that people just leave in the middle of the street.

But there was no one around. No ‘sarians, no civilians, and no screamers. I couldn’t even hear them.

I nudged Derek. “Where are they? Can you tell?”

“Up ahead,” he muttered, and listening closely I could hear a dull drone coming from that direction. “I have a bad feeling. It’s a big group.” He gestured Akane and Ling forward, and they headed off at a fast pace, with only the slightest hesitation on Ling’s part. In the darkness, they fell out of sight very quickly.

“Let’s get up in the buildings,” Kelly advised. “Travel by rooftop.” Domina’s structures were so close together that it was actually a viable option to jump from roof to roof. Hell, half the time there were ziplines already set up for the bigger gaps.

We went for the structure to the left, a vertical mall of stores, leaving Derek on the ground with Akane and Ling. We actually had to pick the lock—oddly, none of the windows were broken, and Kelly didn’t want to risk any screamers hearing us. It only took a moment; Alex’s skills were supreme.

The ground floor was just clothing, mostly winter stuff, and the second floor was their storeroom. We could have used the customer elevator, but no one felt comfortable with that, so we used the stairs in the back, peeking at each floor in case there was anything useful.

There wasn’t. There were a few electronics stores, but most were more clothing. Every other floor was another storeroom, and we did see some useful things in those, but nothing really worth mentioning.

It was a twenty-story building, but we finally managed to come out on the roof. My legs were sore, but not aching. Weeks of running and fighting for your life toughens you up pretty fast.

We made good progress over the rooftops. As expected, there were various planks, ziplines, and ladders that made the whole thing easier. Laura had a bit of trouble on some of the more difficult jumps, but the power package improved agility enough so that we didn’t have to worry about her too much.

Eventually we reached the last building, overlooking the square where the screamers were. It was about thirty stories, so with the darkness it was hard to tell what was going on below, but I could see a massive crowd writhing below. Their screams wafted up slowly, that same emotionless sound we had all come to dread.

Laura glanced down, then stepped back from the edge and pulled out her phone. The rooftop was relatively uncluttered, just a couple air conditioning units and a short wall to keep maintenance men from falling. She leaned against one of the boxy metal units, more tired than the rest of us.

“Derek, what’s it look like down there?”

The rest of us could hear heavy breathing; she had her phone on speaker. After a moment, Derek spoke.

“Not good. There are maybe a thousand screamers here. I haven’t seen them use their powers, but I think they already infected everyone in the area. I can’t see any survivors.”

“What about the ‘sarians?” I asked. I noted out of the corner of my eye that Kelly was looking down on the crowd with a pair of binoculars; with her nighteyes, she’d be able to see more.

“I see a few,” he replied quickly. “All infected. They’re kinda just…milling around. They aren’t as destructive as most of the other screamers. I don’t know why.”

“Probably because there’s no one for them to fight,” Laura mused. “Do you see any singers? If the Composer was smart, that might be why they all got infected so fast.”

“No, no, I don’t see any.”

“One second, Derek.” I turned to Kelly. “How about you?”

She lowered the binoculars and scratched the device on her left arm, shaking her head. “No, me neither.” She frowned. “I don’t like this. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“We need to know their power,” Jarasax pointed out. “But the second those three strike, the zombies are gonna be on them like maggots on a corpse. They can’t hold them all off.”

“If their power is geared completely towards infection, we should be fine,” Ling pointed out from over the phone.

Alex shook her head. “Not something we want to test. That’s still a lot of zombies.”

George shifted the weight of his minigun, frowning. “Hey…if they’re not attacking at all…” he trailed off.

“Yes?” I prompted. He might not be the smartest in the retinue, but he knew it, and kept his mouth shut unless he actually had a good idea.

He shook his head. “I’m just wondering—if they’re all infected, and they’re not attacking, that means that there are no civilians left to get hurt, and no one to shoot down a chopper.”

Laura brightened. “Of course. Have Necessarius airdrop some knockout gas. That’ll do the trick.”

I threw up my hands. “Why didn’t we do that before? Not all of them had ranged attacks.”

She shrugged. “Most did, but more importantly, screamers have a higher resistance to that sort of thing than civilians. It takes longer for it to take effect, and it won’t last as long. The civvies would get torn to shreds in the meantime.”

I snorted. “Seems like an acceptable price to pay, considering the losses we’ve been taking.”

“There is a difference between failing to protect civilians and signing their death warrant yourself,” Derek insisted from the phone. “This was never an option until now.”

“Besides,” Laura put in. “The biters were the only ones without a ranged attack. They sent a helicopter near the burners, and it got shot down.” She scratched her chin. “Of course, we’ll need backup. The gas will only work for about an hour. MC? You listening?”

The woman’s cheerful voice chimed in. “Yes, I am. You said there were about a thousand, all confined to the one square?”

I blinked. We hadn’t said that. But it was true regardless, so Laura confirmed it. “Yes.”

“Good. I’ll have a chopper and a company of peacekeepers down there shortly. You might want to figure out the screamers’ power first, though. Don’t want them walking into it completely blind.”

“Agreed,” Laura replied tersely. “But we’ll still need to wait for reinforcements. Derek, you on board?”

“Yeah, of course. Just give us a minute to get in position.”

It was a small thing, but those are always the ones that give you pause. Kelly had started looking down on the horde again, and she spoke. She didn’t say ‘crap,’ or ‘uh-oh’ or any of a thousand other things that would have immediately clued us in on the danger.

She just said “Huh,” in a curious tone of voice. Like she had seen something unexpected and unimportant.

That got my attention pretty quickly, though I’m still not sure why, and I walked to her side with a frown.

“What’s up?”

She shook her head, not putting down the binoculars. “I’m not sure. It’s…interesting, but I don’t quite know what to make of it.”

I frowned. “Out with it.”

She shrugged sheepishly. “Well…the screamers are bleeding.”

I blinked.

“It took me a while to notice. At first I thought they were just covered in blood from their victims. But every single one I’ve seen has been bleeding, usually from the hand. It’s curious.”

I flipped out my phone and speed-dialed Derek. He picked up quickly.

“Their power has something to do with blood,” I told him. “Hell if I know what, but Kelly noticed that they’re all bleeding. Be careful down there.”

“We will,” he promised, and hung up.

Somehow, I wasn’t reassured.

I walked back to the others, specifically Laura. “We think their ability is blood-based. What’s your research say about that?” Laura and Doctor Clarke—mostly Clarke—had been studying the powers as much as possible. She had explained that progress was frustratingly slow, since the screamers wouldn’t cooperate (obviously), and the sane people with powers were too busy to help.

She shook her head. “It’s hard to say. We’ve identified a few interesting things, but nothing that will really help here.”

I leaned against the air conditioner. It’s not like I had anything else to do. “What kind of interesting things?”

She warmed to the subject. This was probably a perfect time to ask. Keep her mind of Kat’s absence, and more specifically her inability to fix it.

“Well, it seems powers are both more and less specific than you’d think. Take Ling’s power, for instance. What would you call it?”

I shrugged. “The power to control earth?”

She grinned. “Yes, but its more than that. You see, she’s actually telekinetic.”

“Meaning…she can move objects with her mind.”

“Yes, exactly. That’s her power. But it seems like everyone—or the kineticists, anyway, since they’re our largest sample group—have a talent as well.”

“Ling’s is to move earth,” I said slowly.

“And the burners’ is to move fire,” she finished excitedly. “We don’t have any conclusive list of powers yet, of course, but it seems like the first one we encountered was actually a pyrogenic, rather than a kineticist. She could create it, but not control it.”

Jarasax put his phone away. I hadn’t even noticed him pull it out. “Alpha Company is here, and is advancing on the southern flank.”

“Good,” Laura said with a nod, jumping back on track. “Tell them to lay down some suppressive fire, get the screamers’ attention, while Derek’s team does recon.” Jarasax nodded and pulled out his phone again to relay the orders.

Something didn’t feel right.

“This is Alpha leader,” his phone chirped. He apparently had thought to put it on speaker. “All platoons are moving forward now.”

I was missing something important.

“We are in visual range of the enemy. Advancing. They don’t seem to have spotted us.”

Something about what Laura had said…

“Engaging now.” There was a brief pause. “They seem to be returning fire…”

That was finally enough for my subconscious to decide it had enough information, and explain the situation to my conscious mind.

I grabbed Jarasax’s phone frantically. “Alpha leader, fall back now! I repeat, fall back now!”

Sax tried to grab his phone back. “What the hell, Adam?” The rest of the retinue were staring at me too, though George was moving towards the edge with his minigun. He was confused, but he had learned to trust his instincts.

“Negative, sir,” Alpha leader responded. “Enemy fire is minimal. We can handle it.”

“It’s not fire! It’s blood! That’s how they infected everyone! They’re shooting infected blood!”

The only response from his end was screaming. A tuneless, emotionless scream of pure noise. Then the line went dead, probably as a zombie stepped on the radio.

I cursed and tossed the phone back to Jarasax. “They’re lost,” I said tiredly, brushing my hair back from my sweat-stained forehead. “Derek, you hear all that?”

“Yes, and we can still save them—”

There were sounds of a scuffle from his end of the line.

Laura immediately jumped up, her hand on her necklace. “Derek, respond. What’s wrong?”

Ling’s voice replied instead. “He’s trying to run into a horde of zombies. Akane’s trying to stop him. One sec.”

I cursed. “Derek, Alpha Company is gone. We’ll collect them when we gas the rest of the screamers.”

There was muffled cursing from the line, then I heard his voice in the background. “No…I…get off me—”

“Derek is out cold,” Ling reported after a moment. “We have to run. There’s no way we can fight while protecting him.”

Laura muttered something unprintable. “Fine. We’ll take it from here.” She hung up the phone and looked at the rest of us, a determined expression on her face. “We’re going to have to be careful. One drop and you’ll turn. But we should be safe up here.”

“Wait,” George said. “I’m still confused. What’s their power?”

“Something to do with blood,” I replied. “Either controlling it or creating it and shooting it like a squirt gun, it doesn’t matter.”

“Probably the former,” Laura mused. “If it was the latter, it might not be infectious.”

I waved my hand. “Whatever. When’s that chopper getting here?”

She wiggled her hand from side-to-side. “Eh, twenty minutes. We can just wait. It’s dark, and the helicopter is remote-piloted. They won’t sense any blood on it, and probably wouldn’t be able to reach it if they did.”

I frowned. “Wait, back up. What do you mean ‘sense any blood?’”

“Oh, didn’t I mention that?” She shrugged. “Yeah, from some of the things Loga and Ling said, its become clear that kineticists can sense things they can control. That’s why using a helicopter against the burners was right out; they could sense the heat of the engine, and make it explode. Well, they did do it.”

I stared at her. “So these bleeders can sense us?”

Her mouth gaped in surprise for a moment, but then she blinked, and smiled again. “Yes, of course, but they would have already attacked if they were going to.”

George readied his minigun. “Didn’t you say something about the screamers having both ‘aggressive’ and ‘defensive’ types?”

Laura nodded. “Correct. And these are clearly defensive.”

“But they can switch, right?”

“Yes. Only from defensive to aggressive, but yes.”

“Would an entire company of peacekeepers be enough to make that switch?”

Kelly, still looking down the side of the building, was the one who answered. “Apparently so. Or maybe they just want to say hi.” She stepped back from the edge and readied her pistol, a Necessarian model I couldn’t identify. “Either way, they’re coming.”

I looked around the roof and found a few tall air conditioning units arranged in a square, with only one space open so mechanics could get in for maintenance. I pointed to it. “That should help us hold them off. Force them to bottleneck themselves.”

“Unless they climb,” Alex noted.

I grinned, trying to look more confident than I felt. “Aggressive ones are stupider, remember? C’mon.”

It was a tight fit for all six of us, but we managed to get George’s minigun pointed at the opening, which was pretty much all we needed. We waited anxiously for a few minutes, not even sure if they were coming.

Then I heard the screaming.

Quiet at first, but it built swiftly, that emotionless cry coming from every direction at once, as the zombies got closer and closer.

“Remember,” Laura said. “Try not to kill them if possible.”

I shook my head as I pulled out my Sica. Anything bigger than a pistol would just cause problems in this enclosed space. “No way. We’re going to have enough problems if we’re willing to kill.”

“Plus, they can control their blood,” Kelly pointed out.

Alex nodded. “Exactly. If they’re wounded but alive, they might be more of a danger than if they were uninjured. Killing is the only option.”

Laura swore under her breath. “Fine. But when the helicopter drops the sleeping gas, we’re capturing as many as possible.”

“Hopefully they send another company, too,” I muttered. MC hadn’t said anything, but Necessarius wasn’t stupid enough to think nine people—eight, with Derek unconscious—could tie up a thousand people in an hour. They probably had troops on the way.

Probably.

The first screamer poked his head into our makeshift fort, and Sax blew his head off before anyone could move. George had his minigun ready, but he was saving it for large groups, like always.

Two more came; I got the girl on the left in the head, and someone else got the man on the right with a double-tap to the chest. A half-dozen more tried to get through at once, tripping over each other in the process, and George tore them apart with the minigun. The roar nearly deafened me, but it was temporary.

We were doing well, but we couldn’t keep this up for long. And without Derek’s shields, if they got a chance to use their abilities, we were pretty much dead.

Another one jumped over the corpses of his comrades. I shot him in the leg, and as he stumbled, Kelly got him in the head. More came, more died. It got tedious very quickly. Luckily, the screamers didn’t seem to know what to do with their ability in an enclosed space, so we didn’t have any real trouble.

To my surprise, though, the flow of zombies stopped after only about a dozen more tried to force their way through the gap. We stood there for a few minutes waiting for more, but none came, and the screaming had faded again.

“That can’t be all of them,” I muttered.

Laura took out her phone. “Ling? You guys all right? The screamers stopped attacking us up here.”

The little blonde delinquent sounded exasperated. “Yeah, probably because we’ve got the entire horde behind us. Can’t talk. Bye.” She hung up before we could say anything else.

I cursed. “We need the screamers in one place. How big an area can the gas hit?”

Laura held up her hands, signaling that she had no idea, but luckily someone did.

“The bombs can be spread as far as a full square mile,” Alex explained. “Though with screamers, I’m not sure the gas would be dense enough at that point to affect them.” She chewed her lip and adjusted the night vision goggles on her face. “As long as they stay on one street or intersection, it should be fine.”

“Okay, I’ll tell Akane,” Laura promised, typing out a text. That was a good idea; with her speed, Akane could read it even in the middle of combat if she really had to. “We should also keep them out of the buildings, so that they can’t avoid the gas.”

I paused before answering, thinking of the full implications of that statement. “So that means it would be best if we were down on ground level.”

“Yes.”

“Among the screamers.”

“Uh…”

“Who can infect us very, very easily.”

Laura touched her necklace. “Well…yes, unfortunately. We don’t have much of a choice.”

“There’s a sloped ‘scraper nearby,” Kelly said, pointing out into the darkness. The moon was still a little more than half full, so I could indeed see a large skyscraper with one of the faces (the one in our direction) sloping upwards at a steep incline, forming a very large and dangerous slide.

I scratched my chin. “I see your point. If we’re up there, the bleeders will come up the slope at an angle we can shoot them.”

“They’ll die from the fall,” Laura argued, apparently already assuming that we wouldn’t be going for kill shots.

“Probably,” I admitted. “But maybe not. They’re hardy, you said so yourself.”

She frowned. “Not that hardy.”

Alex sighed. “Look Laura, this plan gives not just us a better chance to survive, but the screamers as well. I know…I know we all want a cure,” it was the first time anyone had actually come close to speaking about Kat. “And we might even find one. But right now we have to worry about ourselves.”

Laura looked at the rest of us, and nodded once.

“Good,” Kelly said decisively, putting away her binoculars. “Let’s go. We need to find a way to cross that intersection full of screamers.”

I peered across. “The building right across from us is lower. We might be able to rig up a zipline or something.”

Laura buried her face in her hands. “Not again.” She looked up. “Derek and I did that with the burners. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t quick.”

I cocked my head. “A zipline wasn’t quick?”

She waved her hand. “He made a rope, and we headed across hand over hand. If we can find an actual zipline, then I’m all for it, but I don’t think we’ll have much luck.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Alex interjected with a grin. “There’s a hiking store just three floors down. I’m sure they have something we could use.”

Turns out she was right, and I managed to come back within ten minutes with a zipline and a spike to attach it to. The spike then went in my shotgun, to be shot across the urban gorge. The box said the spike was designed to work with the Saint George specifically, but I was still a bit leery. One of the first things I learned about guns was that sticking things down the barrel and expecting them to work right was asking for trouble.

Turns out I was overreacting. I shot it across without any trouble, and it buried itself in the roof of the target building. We tied it off on our side, tested the weight, and got out the zipline handles we had with us. Again, these things are pretty common in Domina, so carrying the handles is just the result of being even slightly prepared.

“I’ll go first,” George said, lumbering up. As a giant, he probably outweighed the rest of us by a hundred pounds, so if the line could hold him, it could hold anyone.

Before he went, he locked his minigun’s safety and clipped it to the line, then let go. It zipped across quickly and smoothly, before we heard it thump into place on the other roof. The first time I had seen him do that, I had been worried, but apparently the GE XM134 was a sturdy model.

“Seems good,” he grunted. He prepared the handle, took a deep breath, and leaped into the void.

The air conditioner we had attached our end of the line to groaned dangerously, but it held for the thirty seconds or so the ogre was weighing it down. He reached the other side, rolled once, then stood and gave us a thumbs-up.

The rest of us followed without any difficulty. Kelly went last, mostly because despite the clear moonlight, she still had the best nightvision, and would be able to spot anything sneaking up on her. In the end it didn’t matter of course, and she made it across safely.

Laura’s phone rang shortly before Kelly started across, five simple beeps—MC’s ring tone. She picked it up swiftly. “What’s wrong?” She paused, listening. I guess she had taken it off speaker at some point. “Okay, we’ll let you know when we have them in position. Drop some gas masks for us, too.” She hung up.

“That was MC,” she said somewhat unnecessarily. “The helicopter will be here in a couple minutes, but Akane says the screamers are too far out of position. So we need to lure them back. And…” there was a thump from the center of the roof, and I saw that a duffel bag had apparently fallen from the sky. “I guess they’re here. Well, those are gas masks, so we don’t get knocked out with the screamers.”

“Did she say anything about more troops?” I asked as I grabbed one of the masks. I didn’t put it on yet, though, just clipped it to my belt.

“Yeah, they’re with the prison trucks, about a mile out. They’ll come in once the place is gassed.”

Well, that was a better plan than last time. “We still need to get to that other building,” I pointed out, indicating the sloped structure next door. It was only about twenty feet away, but it was also a sheer wall with no windows or balconies. I couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be for.

“That won’t be a problem at all,” Kelly cut in. “Just get inside and take the elevator to the top.”

I stared at her. “Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be that easy.”

She shrugged.

Well, we didn’t have a better option, or any real reason not to take this one, so we quickly rappelled down to the street below. A few screamers spotted us, but I killed them quickly with my Caedes.

“That will draw there attention,” I cursed. “Alex, how are you coming on the door?”

When I looked over, the wide metal service doors were already open, my companions piling through, and the angel was grinning at me.

“No need to show off,” I muttered under my breath. She just laughed and followed me inside.

We barred the doors behind us, of course, and made sure to block the stairs leading up as well. The last thing we needed was screamers attacking our backs.

We had to take the freight elevator up due to our combined weight, but otherwise the sixty floor ride was uneventful. We took the time to call Akane and Ling again, to get a status update and make sure they didn’t think something was wrong. They had managed to throw off pursuit, which was perfect. The screamers were still scattered, but they’d come running soon enough.

The roof was completely bare, except for a trapdoor to the stairs. It was really disconcerting; with the slope, we only had about ten feet of roof in that direction, and I didn’t have any illusions that I’d somehow be able to catch myself if I fell.

I shrugged. Nothing else to do but play out the plan.

“You ready, Alex?”

She nodded and put her gloves on, the ones with the magnifying glasses in the palms. A moment later she took off her night vision goggles. She was completely nightblind without them, but that wouldn’t be an issue long. “Ready.”

We all lined up on the edge, weapons out. I had chosen my Athena; I hadn’t really had much chance to use it outside the shooting range, so this was going to be a good opportunity for me. Jarasax and George would handle the bulk of the horde, while Kelly and Laura shot anything that got past them.

“All right,” Laura said slowly. “Everyone else ready?”

We all chimed off, one by one.

She nodded. “Good. Alex, light the beacon.”

The angel stepped forward, held out her hands, and activated the patches of dayskin on her palms. Twin beams of light, too bright to look at, shone out like spotlights. After a moment, she managed to center them on our van, where a large number of the bleeders had clustered, and then slowly began to walk the beams towards us.

It worked perfectly, the zombies following the unexpected patch of daylight like a cat following a laser pointer.

“They’re almost in position,” she said calmly. “We might not even need to fight; just drop the gas on them straight.”

Of course, she spoke too soon.

While the bulk of the horde was still clustered around the end of the beam, others were already scaling the slope of our redoubt like rats, trying to get to the source of the light.

They climbed fast, despite the steep incline, and they were about half way up before I even knew what was going on. But, I was ready, so I sighted through my scope and targeted one of the screamers. Laura wanted us to shoot them in the legs, in the hopes that they’d survive to be cured later. But…

But they were too dangerous.

I adjusted my aim slightly and shot the first one dead center, in the chest. Her scream changed briefly to a screech of pain, and she fell backwards, tumbling like a rag doll back down the slope and to the street below, still covered in a writhing carpet of zombies.

Laura noticed immediately. “Adam, what the hell—”

“Talk later,” I barked out. I got another screamer in the chest, which managed to trip up another behind it as it fell. Behind me, Laura cursed, but started shooting as well.

“Get your masks ready,” Alex said, as I shot another screamer. “They’re dropping the gas shortly.”

I put my mask on quickly, as did everyone but the angel (she couldn’t spare a hand). But I had a thought. Luckily, the masks had a simple speaker so I could still talk. “Wait, if they’re dropping it down there, why do we even need masks?”

“The gas they’re using is heavier than air,” Laura explained, her voice tinny and mechanical. “They’ll spray it from high up, and it will float down to cover everything.” She shrugged. “We’re probably still safe, but best to be sure.”

I still couldn’t see the chopper anywhere. There weren’t very many clouds, but I was a little bit busy to be looking around the sky for anything. I just kept shooting, felling screamer after screamer. It was only when I stopped to reload that I noticed a fine mist, dappled with moonlight, falling from the sky.

The gas really looked quite beautiful, like a silver blanket slowly covering the streets below us. Alex’s beams looked even more like searchlights than before, shining into the fog and highlighting it, rather than cutting through it.

Then the lights flickered and died, and I remembered that she wasn’t wearing a gas mask.

Before anyone could do anything, the angel tumbled forward unconscious, rolling down the steep slope to a horrible death sixty floors below.

I cursed and holstered my Athena. I didn’t have any choice.

I jumped after her.

Of course, I went feet first, sliding on my rear, so I had a great deal more control over my descent than my freefalling comrade. I managed to increase my speed enough so that I caught up with Alex, and I grabbed her arm, pulling her close, using my body like one of those emergency sleds they have at ski resorts.

Except without seat belts.

Or brakes.

And, you know, we were both going to die.

While I clutched the unconscious angel to my chest with my left hand, I used my right to get the large combat knife off my hip, and stabbed it into the slope of the building.

The walls of the structure—including the crazy ramp we were on now—were made of relatively weak materials like plaster, rather than concrete or even sheetrock. This unquestionably saved our lives, at least for a moment. If it was anything else, I probably wouldn’t have even been able to stab the knife in.

But luck was with me, and I did manage to create a crude brake. My arm was quickly wrenched behind me at an angle it was not supposed to go, and I felt a long, sharp pain, which probably came from a dislocated shoulder. I screamed in agony, and the knife began to cut a long line through the slope. The same weak materials that allowed me to stab the blade in in the first place also kept me from creating a functional anchor.

Eventually, perhaps a dozen feet from the end of the slope, the knife caught on something unyielding, and we stopped with another jolt. I felt like my arm was going to pop off, and I cried out again. I was having trouble breathing with the mask on, but I didn’t dare remove it; the sleeping gas was so thick at this level that I could barely see in front of my face.

I could see over the edge where the slope ended. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet up with the street. There was a long, sheer drop of five or ten floors between me and the ground. The screamers could scale it easily, and I might have even been able to manage it in better circumstances, but I couldn’t do it with a dislocated shoulder and an unconscious angel.

But now that I had a chance to pay attention, I listened closely (mostly in an attempt to keep my mind off the sharp, agonizing grinding sensation at my shoulder) and realized that I couldn’t hear any screamers any more.

“Adam! Respond! You all right?”

It was Kelly’s voice, coming from inside my mask. I guess MC had suborned the radio or something. A lot of Domina tech was designed to let her take over in an emergency.

“Uh—ow—yeah, mostly.” Talking hurt. Well, everything hurt. “I’m stuck about a hundred feet from the ground. Alex is still with me.” Mostly because my arm had tightened like a vise as I fell. I think I may have broken some of her ribs. “I’m not sure how long I can stay here. Can MC send the chopper?”

“No can do,” she cut in. “It’s a ‘bot. Full auto, no place for passengers. But there are kemos in the ‘sarian group that’s cleaning up the bleeders. Hang tight, a couple will climb up to you in a minute.”

“Okay, I can hang on for a little while longer. But make it quick.” I had a thought. “And tell the cleaners to be careful. The screamers should be bleeding, and I don’t think they have to be conscious to be infectious.”

“Don’t worry,” she chided me. “They know, and they’ve got full body gloves on. Just save up your strength. You’re done for today.”

Behind the Scene (scene 46)

For the record, Adam now knows that Alex is asexual. The others explained the whole thing to him. But when he looks at Alex, he sees a woman, so he continues to think of ‘her’ using feminine pronouns. It doesn’t really matter, just pointing it out.

Oh, and about the bleeders: They are, as Laura assumed, kineticists—aimakineticists, to be exact. What she didn’t know is that aimagenists are so incredibly rare to be nonexistent (though aimakineticists aren’t exactly common either). Since human beings have a natural ability to generate blood, if someone is receiving their powers in the normal way, it is literally impossible for them to manifest that talent. However, if a genist were to spend a few days meditating in an attempt to gain that talent on purpose, they could manifest it. But most people don’t do that. Who the hell wants to be able to make blood? It wouldn’t be able to infect anyone, and it wouldn’t be useful for blood transfusions either.

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Scene 45 – Comprimo

 COMPRIMO

The COMPOSER

I killed my newly-created conductor very quickly, reaching under his ribcage and ripping out his heart. It wasn’t anywhere near as much fun as torturing him to death, but I had limited time here.

The problem was that when I granted them their songs, I didn’t know which song and instrument they’d manifest until they actually had it, and I couldn’t take it back. Well, not without killing them, so it wasn’t all bad.

Take the corpse on the floor. His song was Immunity, and his instrument immunity to hypnotism. That was bad. Very bad. Of course, he didn’t start immune, just resistant, but that was beside the point. He would throw off my hypnotism too quickly, maybe even start to remember things. And it wouldn’t take long for his instrument to evolve towards immunity to the Score itself. I wouldn’t be able to control him at all.

Hence the killing.

Oh well. There were plenty more where he came from. That was the great thing about this city. So many people, all stuffed together on one big island.

It was the perfect target.

Unfortunately, my plans were stifled a bit, now that they knew that killing the conductors would cure the chorus. I had been forced to reset everything, so now they were connected to me directly, meaning that they’d have to kill me in order to cure anyone. This did limit the usefulness of the conductors, but it was a small price to pay.

It was about time to activate a new conductor, but I had to decide which one. I could only use them sparingly, so I had to make sure their instrument would help spread the Score as quickly as possible.

There were too many variables. The biters had no ranged capabilities, so they were easily dispatched. The bats did pretty well, but the angels incapacitated them too quickly. Fliers would be less than useless; they’d just be sitting ducks, waiting to be netted and captured.

Which reminded me, those stupid Paladins still hadn’t recruited the fifth member. They had to know who she was. If nothing else, she had to know who they were. That was the entire reason I had chosen her—and the others, for that matter—in the first place.

But I didn’t have to keep this up for much longer. Just a few more, large attacks, and then…

Something.

Crap, what was the plan again? It didn’t involve mass slaughter, so it was hard to remember.

No, wait, that was the plan. Attack as much as possible, do as much damage as possible, while killing as few as possible. That’s what they said, anyway, and its not like I had much of a choice. The Nine were stronger than me individually, and as a group I didn’t have a chance against them.

But they had promised this would work out in my favor. I didn’t trust them, of course, but I did it anyway. This would all come together in the end.

Back to the matter at hand. I needed a conductor with a strong instrument, something that would naturally lend itself to infecting others. I could take control of any of my conductors or chorus directly, of course, but that was difficult. Far easier to just guide them, and let their instincts do the rest.

Without a decent instrument, though, I wouldn’t have a choice. I had a number of good combat conductors ready. Their instruments weren’t suited for infection, but if I was careful, I could use them to spread the Score and just keep them out of harm’s way.

But the Paladins weren’t fools. They’d notice the discrepancy quickly, and go hunting for my conductors. And if they killed them before I managed to reset the chorus’ connections, I’d have a horde of angry directors, immune to the Score and baying for my blood.

Actually, that might be fun.

No, no, I couldn’t do that. The Nine were very clear on that. Avoid making directors if at all possible, except for the Paladins.

But that meant…

I licked my fingers, tasting the blood from the immunist I had just killed.

Yes…that meant I could kill the little changeling. Who would miss him? He was a changeling. Well, his clan might come after me. But that was even better. More blood, more killing. And I was just following orders, of course, just defending myself…yes, this could work beautifully.

I’d still need a distraction. A new batch of chorus. And I definitely wouldn’t be around to play them myself; they’d have to be an instrument that could infect on their own.

I mentally paged through my options. There were a few telepaths and detectors, useless to me. Lots of kineticists, and genists, those were always popular. Healers…maybe. The internalized ones, who healed themselves, might work…swarm the enemy, bleed on them, infect them…

Blood.

Of course.

I grinned. This would be fun indeed.

I thrust out my mind, finding the conductor I was looking for. He was awake, though drunk, and stumbling down a street about a mile south of AU. The street was pretty crowded; it was only one in the morning, which is midday for half the population of the city.

I whispered a command into his mind, and he began to sing…

 

Behind the Scenes (45)

Yes, another short one. However, the next one is going to be pretty long, so I think I get a free pass. Actually, this was a supplementary update anyway, so I don’t have anything to apologize for.

Scene 44 – Sospitas

 SOSPITAS

ARTEMIS

“Mister Butler, are you all right?”

I sighed and waved the lab tech off, climbing out of the toy box. The machine had cut down the amount of time required for my treatments dramatically, but it was still tedious. I gestured for my cane, and someone placed it in my hand without delay. I stood slowly, finding my balance, and enjoying the feel of the smooth wood under my palm.

I always enjoyed getting my cane back after my treatments. It represented stability to me, although that didn’t really make much sense. I knew most men in my position hated the tools that reminded them of their illnesses.

But I liked my cane, and that was that.

I walked back to my car slower than necessary, enjoying the simple feeling of walking for as long as I could. I think, for all my contributions, I deserved two minutes of selfishness. But all too soon, I reached the vehicle, and slipped inside. The car sped off quickly, my destination already established. My driver was a professional, and knew better than to interrupt me when I was thinking.

“What’s on the agenda today, Mary?” I asked the empty air. She responded quickly. Normally my secretary would handle this, but he was busy at the moment. Besides, this briefing was most relevant to her work than his.

“Besides the fact that we have a bunch of vampires yelling at us about that apartment building that burned down during the fight with the bats?”

I sighed. “Yes, besides that. Though I was meaning to ask…how many is that? Buildings that Miss Akiyama has destroyed, I mean.”

“That makes sixteen. Though, in fairness, only two of those were really her fault.”

“Yes, well…that’s something for another time. What else?”

“Grain is trying to hook up to our ‘net.”

Brian Grain was a New York senator, and one of the largest threats to Domina City, largely because he kept to his issues like a dog with a bone. He also had a large amount of popular support, not least because he was actually a good man. That was part of the problem, really. You can’t bribe good men.

“Tell Jamie to divert their attention to that alleged child porn case in California.”

“Good call. Send them on a wild goose chase.”

“Precisely.”

One of our first lines of defense against outside interference was the simple fact that no one outside the city could view our internet. Everything was outgoing only. This did have some side effects; people inside the city had a much slower connection to the outside, for one, since they had to go through the corporate channels, but it was well worth the cost.

If Grain managed to secure funding to build their own link to the city, there wasn’t much we could do to stop him. And once outsiders could view the Domina internet, all my carefully-maintained propaganda would go to waste. No one would believe my lies any more, not with our extremely active bloggers and vloggers and so on contradicting me. The military wouldn’t believe that the illegal use of the toy maker was minor, and limited to cosmos only, not worth sending in armies to arrest people en masse. The president wouldn’t believe that the screamers were a hoax, not worth paying any attention to.

This misdirection would help, and a few careful bribes to less honest men would also make our lives easier.

Sooner or later though, that wouldn’t be enough. The day was fast approaching. I could hide it, but not for long.

The gangs were gone. Mostly, anyway. The Rahabs were proving difficult to flush out, and the cultures were still annoyingly violent at times, but overall the city was infinitely safer to live in than it was fifteen years ago. Most of my propaganda exported to the outside world was focused on maintaining the illusion that it wasn’t.

But unless I turned Domina into a police state, the outside world would find out. People could visit, and see that the city was safe. Residents sent e-mails to their friends and families outside the city, talking about how much better it was to live here now. People even left the city for greener pastures every once in a while, as people are wont to do.

Sooner or later, governments would feel safe enough to send spies that we wouldn’t be able to bribe or kill.

And very soon after that, armies.

Could we survive that? Perhaps. Domina was hardly defenseless. Besides, we didn’t have to win, we just had to weather the first couple waves, long enough to erode popular support for a war. It would require more bribes, more blackmail, and even a few assassinations. I would have to play almost completely under the table, simply to keep the city alive.

Because it was necessary.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 44)

Just to be clear, Butler is a little bit more worried than he needs to be here. There are more immigrants and visitors to the city than there are emigrants, and the first thing they tell their friends and family back home is “Don’t come, it’s too dangerous.”

 

It is still infinitely safer than it was fifteen years ago. Kinda like how diving into a bonfire is safer than diving into the sun.

 

Extra update Wednesday because it’s my birthday (and this one is so short).

Scene 43 – Lacrimis

LACRIMIS

SEENA

I blinked. “Akane?”

The Japanese girl stepped through the ‘sarian checkpoint, waving a badge to the guard, with a surprised look on her face. “Seena?” The beads in her hair clicked as she put the badge back in her pocket. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same! What were you doing in NHQ?”

She rolled her eyes. “Had to visit my mother.” She guided me by the arm a little bit farther away from the checkpoint, although whether it was because she didn’t like talking in front of a guard or just to make sure we didn’t obstruct traffic, I didn’t know. “Your turn. You don’t know anyone in there except me and Derek.”

“Actually, I was just walking over to…” I frowned. “Wait, have you been crying?”

Her beads clicked as she wiped her face hurriedly. “What? No, of course not.”

“Yes you have! What’s wrong?”

She sniffled a little. “Nothing. Nothing. Just…” she shook her head. “My mother’s being…”

Ah. Right. Akane had been forced to take a lot of crap for her commitment to her father’s ideals. I’ll admit I wasn’t always as supportive as I could be, but I wasn’t her mother.

I grabbed her arm. “How about we get ice cream? My treat. As an apology for missing your party.”

She adjusted her backpack. “You already got me that anime, you don’t have to—”

I waved my free hand. “Don’t be silly. That was just your present. You were gonna get it anyway. This is something else.”

The swordswoman frowned. “I…I have a bit of homework…”

I rolled my eyes and started tugging her away from NHQ, towards a place I knew a few blocks away. “Nine hells, girl, it’s just ice cream. It will make you feel better, and it will only take an hour, tops.”

She sighed. “Fine, fine.”

I smiled. “You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”

We walked in silence until we reached the ice cream parlor, sat down, and ordered.

“This is a really nice place,” Akane noted a little uncomfortably once the waiter left. She was right, of course. The entire ‘scraper was a high-class restaurant, with the first five floors dedicated to seating, and the rest catering to that. But at this hour, we weren’t dealing with the dinner crowds that normally filled the place, so it was just us and a few other groups scattered around. The downside was that service was slow, since there was only one waiter.

“It’s fine, really,” I insisted. “It’s not that expensive, especially the dessert. Besides, I have the cash to spare.”

She dropped her backpack to the floor and then carefully laid her sword-bag, open-end within easy reach. “Your job with the Mals has been going well?”

I grinned. “Yeah, really well.”

“Really,” she said flatly. She put her elbows on the table, rested her chin on her hands, and looked at me skeptically. “I find that hard to believe.”

I didn’t know whether to be insulted or not. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re unarmed,” she noted.

I chuckled. “Do you think it matters how the target is killed? There are other methods besides direct combat.”

“Hm,” she murmured, unconvinced. “The Mals are all about the violent kind of assassination. Climbing up the side of a building, slipping through the window, and killing everyone between them and their target is more their style than sending a seductress with murder on her mind.”

I tried not to let my anxiety show. “Guess which one killed Baal?”

“The former,” she responded instantly. “Don’t try and trick me with half-truths, Seena. Derek’s been researching this since the second you mentioned you joined up. I probably know more about the Mals than you do.” Her eyes narrowed. “So what, exactly, is going on?”

I rubbed my forehead. Well, at least I got her mind off her mother. “It’s…complicated, Akane.”

“I have eight hours until my next class.”

I sighed deeply. “Okay…okay. I’m not actually being trained as an assassin.”

“Noticed.”

I frowned. “Akane, don’t interrupt. This is important.”

Her expression became serious again, and she nodded.

I rubbed my forehead. “The truth is…I’m a babysitter.”

Akane’s gaze had become wooden. “What.”

“After Baal was killed, the Generals realized something needed to be done,” I explained. “The Mals have never been that big, and without him around…” I shrugged. “Well, you know how it is. Experts predicted a year, two at the most, before the subculture imploded.”

“But…babysitting?”

“See, that’s just it,” I insisted, getting into it now. “They’re planning for the future. The current Mals are bringing in their children to Maladomini, where me and a few other girls take care of them, teach them, and so on.”

For a few minutes, she didn’t say anything. She just stared at me in silence, forcing me to wonder whether telling her had been a good idea after all.

“Seena Amethyst Lancaster,” she started slowly. “I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. I want to assume you know better than to…” she closed her eyes, steeling herself, before continuing. “…than to aid in some sort of brainwashing scheme.” Her eyes snapped open again. “But I have to ask: Do you know exactly what you’ve gotten yourself into?”

I think it was the most I had ever heard her say at once. I twiddled with my hair a little to have an excuse for not responding.

The fact was, I didn’t know. I was being literal when I said I was the babysitter. I had always been good with babies, and there weren’t that many to take care of, so I did a good job. Besides, its not like I was completely alone.

But if there was any brainwashing going on, it was with the older kids, who I didn’t have access to. Well, that made it sound more nefarious than it really was. I wasn’t in charge of teaching them and didn’t have the spare time to sit in on one of their classes, but its not like I was barred from seeing them.

“I don’t know everything I should,” I admitted. “But I’ll look into a little, all right?” I reached over and squeezed her hand. She flinched a little, but only a little. “The Generals are just trying to keep it from falling apart. I’m sure there’s nothing…” I waved my hand. “Nefarious.”

“What’s nefarious?” Lizzy asked, as she slid into the seat next to me, holding a bowl of ice cream.

I blinked. “What are you doing here?” Glancing at Akane confirmed that she was as surprised as I was. She clearly hadn’t invited her.

She ate a bite. “Using my vast array of spies and informants I was able to track you from your secret lair, where I have cornered you here, for the perfect ambush.” Seeing our stares, she grinned. “My manager saw you two leaving NHQ,” she explained. “I was in the area, and I knew you like this place, so…”

“Speaking of nefarious purposes…” I muttered. “I know you mean well, sweetie, but I really don’t like thinking about that dirty old demon following me around.”

“Graz’zt isn’t following anyone,” she said with a frown. “And he’s not dirty!”

“Really,” Akane deadpanned. “What about the hentai he had you voice?”

She dug into her ice cream angrily. “Sore wa hijō—”

English, Lizzy,” I reminded her. “Please.”

She sighed. “Fine. That was one very small role in one very tasteful romance that just so happened to follow people into the bedroom. I’m proud of my part in it.”

“Uh-huh,” I muttered. “Well, you’ll understand if I don’t invite him to my birthday.”

The golden girl gave me a bewildered look. “Why would you invite him to your birthday?”

“I wouldn’t—I mean…” I sighed. “Nevermind. Don’t worry about it.”

The waiter came back with our ice cream, and Lizzy tapped the side of her bowl with her spoon in contemplation as we ate. “The next birthday is…Derek’s, right? On the twenty-ninth?”

Akane nodded. “Three weeks, three days.”

“And then the Highlander is October twenty-seventh.”

I stared at her. “Highlander?”

Lizzy grinned. “Yeah, Laura! You see, her family is from Cantabria, a mountainous part of Spain—”

I waved my spoon to stop her. “No, no, that’s all right. I don’t need an explanation for every silly nickname you give out.”

At least Akane wasn’t crying.

Behind the Scenes (scene 43)

This came out…all right. Could have been better.

Scene 42 – Despectus

 DESPECTUS

AKANE

It was about eleven when I finished my class. I try and get that kind of thing done earlier rather than later, and AU’s flexible scheduling system gave me that freedom. I had another later tonight, which was unfortunate but unavoidable.

As I adjusted my sword (still sheathed and in its bag) over my shoulder, I wondered if I should call Ling again. She hadn’t come back last night, not since her heavy-handed attempt to seduce Derek failed. Honestly, judging from his reaction, I doubt it would have worked even if Laura and I weren’t there. I was a bit worried about her, but Adam had passed along her message, so I was pretty sure she wasn’t just sleeping on the street.

I hadn’t seen Flynn since Saturday. We only had class together on Friday, but we had each others’ phone numbers. He had called me yesterday, but I had ignored it. I needed to ignore it. He was just another distraction.

And speaking of distractions…I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t really have much choice. She was expecting me.

I headed out of the campus with a heavy heart, not even bothering to drop off my backpack at my room. I’d need it to carry the stuff I was getting. I found the light rail quickly enough, and used it to head a couple miles north, closer to the heart of the city.

There weren’t many homes this close the Necessarius Central, but there were a few nice apartment buildings here and there, nestled between Doctor Clarke’s labs and the various barracks. Of course, it hadn’t always been NHQ, but those who had lived here first now enjoyed better security than they could have dreamed of.

There were downsides, of course, like always. Higher security meant it was less convenient to come and go as you pleased, pretty much like any other military zone. Exiting the light rail station, I was stopped by a ‘sarian checkpoint, and another six just walking the three blocks to my destination. Luckily, Butler had thought to give us all Alpha-level security badges, so I was sped on my way without undue difficulty.

The apartment building I was looking for was much the same as when I had left it; well-maintained, but not terribly high-quality, without any of the hanging gardens the city was so famous for. Some idiot had built the place out of imperfect, porous materials. If gardens were allowed, they’d suck all the nutrients out of the walls, and in a few years the entire building would come crumbling down.

I passed through the front door quickly enough—they changed the locks with alarming frequency, but not that fast—and immediately crossed the lobby to the elevator, not looking at the concierge at the desk. He didn’t really like me. I had given his daughter a sprained ankle when we were younger. Of course, that was because she and six other girls were trying to beat me up at the time, but try and explain that to an overprotective parent.

Regardless, the elevator carried me to the thirteenth—sorry, floor 12B—floor soon enough, and I exited quickly. I could’ve sworn I could feel the concierge watching me through the camera, but it must have been my imagination. It didn’t matter; the only cameras were in the elevator, so I was safe now either way.

I knocked lightly on the door labeled 12B5. No one answered at first, and I began to hope that she was out, and I’d be able to avoid this for at least one more day. Normally I don’t procrastinate, but this was a special case.

Unfortunately, that proved to be an overeager assessment. The door opened soon enough, and I was greeted by the sight of Yasu Nakano.

She was a short Japanese woman, a little over forty years old—exactly how much over I could never remember. She was still beautiful, her minimal wrinkles accenting it rather than cutting into it, but her soft face was scrunched up in a frown, and her hair a bit disheveled. It seemed as though I had caught her in the middle of something.

“If this is a bad time, I can leave,” I said quickly, and headed to go.

She grabbed my arm angrily, and it took an effort of will not to shake her off. “Never mind that. Get in here.”

I stumbled into the apartment and nearly tripped over a cardboard box in the middle of the room. It was especially noticeable because the rest of the place was immaculate. The box couldn’t have been more obvious if it had been painted neon.

“There it is,” she said. “I’m sure you don’t want to stay any longer than you have to.” She retreated to the kitchen without another word.

I looked in the box with a bit more caution than was strictly necessary. However, it was as she had promised: My books and movies, what few ones I had, stacked neatly together and ready for me to take. I should be able to fit them all in my backpack and leave in moments.

I sighed. Like that was an option.

I stowed my possessions away quickly, just in case I needed to leave in a hurry, and made my way to the kitchen.

She glanced at me. “I thought you’d be gone by now.”

“I thought I could stay for some tea, Yasu.” She flinched as if I’d slapped her, and I corrected myself. “Mother, I mean.”

She sniffed. “That’s better. And of course. Sit down, I’d be happy to make you some. You still prefer milk tea?”

I blushed slightly as I sat. Milk tea was for kids. “Yes.”

My mother didn’t say anything as she fussed about the kitchen, setting the water to boil and preparing the tea bags. She was avoiding talking to me, and I couldn’t blame her.

I was, in many ways, my father’s child, not my mother’s. I had taken to the Akiyama legacy with a will, and accepted all the implications of that inheritance. If my father was still alive, or if a thousand other things had been slightly different, my mother and I might actually be civil to each other. But they weren’t, so we weren’t.

Eventually, there was nothing else for her to do except wait for the water to boil, so Yasu reluctantly sat down across from me.

She was quiet for a long time, and the silence stretched on. Before it could become unbearable, I broke it.

“I didn’t hear from you on Saturday,” I said, trying not to sound confrontational. It’s hard when dealing with her, though.

“I was at your father’s grave,” she replied without inflection. “I noticed you didn’t show up.”

Of course. My father had died on my seventh birthday. My mother never tired of reminding me.

“I was busy.”

“Doing what? You don’t have friends.”

I frowned. Don’t get angry. “I have friends. They threw me a surprise party. Gave me presents. You know, normal things that happen on normal birthdays.”

Yasu rolled her eyes. “Normal people don’t have fathers who liked threatening people with swords.”

Mother, he saved three people that day. He considered it a worthy sacrifice, I’m sure.”

“He died in the process.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Besides, he killed five more people to do it. How does that make sense?”

“Sometimes you have to kill in order to save, mother.”

She glared hatred at me. “How would you know?”

“I…” don’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her. She wasn’t Domina-born, and had spent most of her time here nestled in the safe embrace of Necessarius. She didn’t understand how the dark parts of the world worked. If I told her that I did, from personal, bloody experience, she would disown me.

I had to keep calm.

She shook her head again. “It’s that Derek character.”

I had to remain strong.

“He’s a bad influence on you. It’s just like what happened with your sisters.”

All I had to do was keep my mouth shut. It wasn’t hard; I did it all the time.

“I hear he runs around playing cowboy, just like your father did.”

Treat her like a stranger. She practically was, so that was easy. I don’t talk around strangers, so the problem was solved.

“He’s going to get himself killed, and you with him.”

All I had to do was stay quiet until she got bored and shifted topics.

“At least the city will be better off without him.”

Suddenly, she jumped out of her chair and backed away from me as fast as she could, her eyes big as dinner plates. She was breathing hard, and the only reason she hadn’t fled the room was because I was between her and the only exit. It took me a moment to identify the cause of her concern.

I had half-drawn my sword without even noticing.

I almost did it. I almost unsheathed it entirely. I wouldn’t have killed her, of course. Just scared her. A couple scars, and not even deep ones. Just a reminder.

The tea kettle whistled.

I sheathed my sword.

“Your tea is done, Miss Nakano.” Then I turned on my heel and left.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 42)

I’m not completely satisfied with this one, but it gets the point across.