Scene 52 – Piratica

PIRATICA

BUTLER

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Give it to me straight, Mary.”

The speakers hissed with static as she sighed. “I think you already know what’s coming. I’ve been fending off a lot more hacks on our servers, specifically the public information sites.”

“The changelings are lashing out over the boy’s death.”

“Yes sir. They blame us; say we should have kept a better watch on him.”

I closed my eyes. “At least it’s still limited to the digital plane at the moment.”

“Ah…well…”

I rubbed my forehead. “I don’t have time to beat around the bush. What is it?”

“Well, you see…”

She usually wasn’t this nervous when she had bad news. She was either pranking me, or it was really bad.

“Mary Christina,” I said firmly. “I need to know what’s going on. What’s the problem?”

“Okay…well, first and foremost, the Sky-Borne Lords aren’t the only ones attacking us. Most of the Black Hats are joining in.”

Changelings liked hacking. It was one of the areas they were level with everyone else, since they didn’t use toys. Most of the clans could be sorted into Black Hats, who attacked enemies, and the White Hats, who defended allies. The Grey Hats switched between them, as one might expect.

This wasn’t the first time we had come under attack. It wouldn’t be the last, either.

“We can weather this,” I insisted. “As long as they aren’t shooting at us, my men have strict orders to return the favor.”

“I’m well aware. The problem is that the White Hats are defending us.”

That gave me pause. The changelings never fought each other. Ever. To break that treaty would be…

“I need a full list of who’s aligned where.”

“The Sky-Borne Lords are against us,” she responded promptly. “Obviously. As are the Ever-Deep Waves and the Forgotten Names. The Blood-Doused Hunters, the Never-Known Thieves, and the Many-Faced Strangers are with us. Everyone else is begging for truce.”

“Good,” I muttered, and meant it. There were thirty changeling clans. If only six of them were involved, we definitely still had a chance to make this end without bloodshed. “Call up…Feless. Of the Firstborn. He’ll have a grip on the situation, I’m sure.”

“Of course, sir, I’ll—oh.” She stopped as something surprised her. “It seems like he’s already downstairs.”

I blinked. “Really? Alone?”

“No…Heresh’ni, Difnaal, and Jereneg are there too, plus their bodyguards. They’re asking to be let up.”

“The Velvet Orchids, the Elder Lights, and the Darkened Signs…that’s all of the Grey Hats, right?”

“Including the Firstborn, yes, it is.”

I nodded. “I’ll go talk to them.” I grabbed my cane and rose from my chair slowly. “Call down to our more important servers. Order them to be on high alert.”

“You’re worried they’re going to try and use the distraction to slip in a commando?”

I snorted. “I know they will. Whether they’re actually against us is irrelevant; having a bug in our system would be invaluable for anyone, even allies.”

“Fair enough. Eyes open, then.”

The four leaders of the changeling clans were waiting for me a short elevator ride downstairs, in the lobby of the first floor. My guards at the door looked nervous, but were well-trained, and knew better than to point their guns at visiting dignitaries. By pure dumb luck, the current shift were all completely baseline. Thank God for that.

Feless of the Firstborn was the one I saw first, standing a little bit away from the others and waiting to receive me, arms crossed and an angry scowl on his face.

Feless was of a medium build, with soft, Asian features—Korean, perhaps—and a Caucasian skin tone. He had sharp black eyes that missed nothing, and a well-trimmed head of golden hair. The hair was almost certainly not his natural color, but that’s what his genes said it was, so that was how he kept it.

The only female of the quartet, Heresh’ni of the Velvet Orchids, had taken a different route. She was likewise dark-skinned (in her case, probably Indian), but with a shaved head to hide her crimson curls.

Despite Feless being closest, Heresh’ni was the one who spoke first. “Butler. Finally. This situation is getting out of hand.”

“My men have yet to perform any acts of aggression,” I reminded her softly, resting heavily with both hands gripping the head of my cane.

“We are not claiming otherwise,” Feless stepped in smoothly. As the leader of the Firstborn, Feless was one of the very first changelings, along with Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and Meldiniktine of the Forgotten Names. He often acted as a mediator. “Heresh’ni was simply looking forward to resolving this as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

Difnaal of the Elder Lights, a middle-aged man with white skin, matching hair, and bright green eyes, nodded. While he wasn’t an albino like me—he had white hair, not colorless hair—he was often mistaken for one. “This is all a terrible mistake, which must be rectified as soon as possible.”

“Unfortunately, those involved in the fighting are not listening to us,” Jereneg of the Darkened Signs admitted. “So we’ll need something else.”

Jereneg was shorter than the others, though not by too much. Among the other three, his most outstanding feature was that he didn’t have any outstanding features. He had a light complexion, brown eyes, and brown hair. No one would ever assume he was anything other than a normal baseline.

I sighed again. “What, exactly, do you all propose? I know changeling law. You must have retribution. But I can’t allow you to tackle the Composer at this point. You will endanger the entire plan.”

“You haven’t bothered to explain this plan of yours,” Heresh’ni noted. “Obviously, it involves not spooking the Composer. But if you give us more detail, perhaps we can adapt to each other.”

“Just…just come upstairs.” I turned back to the elevator. “I would prefer to have this conversation in private.” Besides, I needed to sit down.

No one spoke until we were back in my office and everyone had found chairs. I sank into my personal leather seat carefully, making special effort not to show any weakness before the changelings.

“So,” Feless said slowly. “What exactly is this plan of yours?”

I rubbed my forehead. “I don’t have one.”

Difnaal sputtered. “You have to have a plan. You’re Artemis Butler. Gods of men and darkness, you couldn’t possibly—”

I raised my hand, silencing him. “Perhaps I should have worded that better. At our current intelligence level, we simply don’t know enough to create any detailed plan with real strategies or tactics. Look what happened with the bleeders, and Loga’ha’shanar. Right now, our only option is to wait and see, to react to the Composer’s attacks and try and create an accurate picture of his abilities and goals.”

“You’re flailing around in the dark,” Heresh’ni muttered.

I smiled a little. That wasn’t far off.

“Okay,” Feless said quietly. “Okay. We need to attack the Composer, you need us to not attack the Composer. We need to compromise, or we’re at an impasse.”

“Unless you are willing to send your troops to a false location—”

“Certainly not,” Difnaal huffed.

“Then yes, we have a problem. Anyone who raids the Composer’s lair will be turned, I am quite sure of that. You do not have the numbers to throw away lives like that.” I leaned forward, resting my chin on my hands. “So tell me, what do you propose?”

“The only thing I can think of,” Heresh’ni said slowly, “is to somehow scare off the Composer before we get there.” She shook her head. “But I can’t imagine how we’d do that.”

“And even if that plan did work, he’d leave behind enough traps to annihilate you and any evidence.” The changelings weren’t used to tactics and strategies that didn’t involve the digital plane, so they weren’t offended by the reminder.

“Perhaps a surprise attack with a much smaller force, to startle the enemy, would work better,” Jereneg put in.

“But if there are singers…” Difnaal started, but I cut him off.

“Mary Christina has managed to find a workaround for that. A set of headphones that filter out the singing. It’s not fully tested, but it is far better than nothing.”

Heresh’ni drummed her fingers on the armrest of her leather seat. “When can you get us a hundred sets or so?”

“Immediately; we have them on hand.”

“Then if we strike quickly enough, we might actually be able to do some real damage.”

“Or at least force him to find a new hideout,” Jereneg pointed out. “A minor inconvenience, but a useful one. Someone might be able to track him as he’s looking.”

That was a possibility, though a bit unlikely. Asmodeus had been caught three times after Shendilavri before he finally managed to slip away for good, so the idea wasn’t completely without precedence.

But the whole situation still rubbed me the wrong way. I hated politics, and having to deal with inflexible laws and customs was almost worse. The best thing we could do right now was wait and see. Forcing the Composer’s hand could very likely lead us somewhere we did not want to be. Isaac had said that Laura had mentioned more than once she believed our foe was holding back for some obscure purpose, and I agreed with her assessment. The last thing we needed was to awaken the sleeping dragon.

I sighed.

We had no other choice. The clans would revolt if we tried to hold them back.

“Choose your soldiers,” I told the changeling lords tiredly. “I want this over and done with by tomorrow night at the latest.”

Because it was necessary.

Behind the Scenes (scene 52)

Hacking is extremely serious business in Domina, in more ways than one. It’s used to drain credit from accounts, steal corporate secrets, and more. Often, the first hint that an area is about to come under physical attack is when all the cell phones lose service at once.

Of course, this means that the residents of the city are much more savvy about security. Hacking in remotely is completely impossible, for the simple reason that no one is stupid enough to leave an open line to the internet. Usually, the first part of any attack involves sending in a commando to plant a wireless bug which can then be used to hack into the network remotely. That is not what is happening here; the Sky-Borne Lords and their allies are attacking Necessarius’ public sites, which obviously have to be online by definition. This is also why Butler isn’t quite worried; this is the equivalent of graffiti. Annoying, but nothing more.

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Scene 51 – Eruditio

ERUDITIO

LAURA

I looked down at the corpse with a frown. It was so burned it was barely recognizable as human. It was lying on an operating table, its limbs twisted and cracked from the heat, its skin nothing but a black sheet of charcoal, flakes of it already coming off. I saw something that had once been the skull; it looked like it had exploded, perhaps as the brain inside boiled.

“Clarke, what is this?”

The old doctor shook his head. He wore a white lab coat, large coke-bottle glasses that didn’t actually do anything, and a stethoscope. He had a wild shock of pure white hair springing out of his head, only barely combed backwards, as if blown in a stiff wind. His skin was pale and wrinkled like old leather, and he walked with a limp.

All in all, he looked exactly like what you would expect the inventor of the toy maker to look like—which was the point. He wasn’t really that old; he was fifty, and very fit for his age, but he altered himself to look older, mostly because he thought it was more ‘sciency.’ His words.

That,” he said with far too much drama, “is all that is left of Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords. He was assassinated this morning, during the screamer attack.”

I took a deep breath, touching my necklace. No crying. No emotions. I felt my nose begin to run, the first sign of tears.

No. I sniffed. No crying, no emotions. Think through it logically.

“Wha—” I paused, nearly choking. No crying. No emotions. “What do you mean, assassinated?”

Someone forgot to lock up one of the burners properly,” he explained. “And it got out.” He shook his head again, that distinctive voice of his, like everything was the most interesting thing the world, beginning to grate on my nerves. “But the thing is, it didn’t act like a screamer. It walked out of the cage, closed the door behind it, then found the poor changeling and ashed him.”

I cursed. “The Composer can control screamers directly.”

That’s what I assumed. Hopefully he can only do one or two at a time, though. Otherwise we’re in big trouble.”

“Did you examine the screamer?”

Yes, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It’s in solitary confinement now. But that’s not the biggest problem right now.”

I blinked, then nodded in understanding. “The Sky-Borne Lords.”

The changelings were a close-knit group, and very insular. As escaped slaves and experiments of the fey, they knew they needed to look out for each other, or no one would. They couldn’t go back to their families; they were all mind-wiped when they were first captured, and the fey’s (illegal) genetic modification made it impossible to even figure out for certain what they originally looked like.

“They want to take the fight to him,” I muttered. This was the reason the changelings survived after they escaped. They only had one rule when dealing with outsiders: Screw with one of us, you screw with all of us. And they didn’t play fair.

“Yes, unfortunately,” Clarke admitted. “Of course, that’s not a bad idea, but they’re not going to do this the smart way. They’ll run in, guns blazing, and kill anything that moves.”

I frowned, realizing the implications of that last statement. “Wait, they have a location?”

The doctor shrugged. “They have something. Apparently there’s a hole in the culture territories, where no one has any men. They want to look into it.”

I bit my lip. “That seems too obvious. What did the Big Boss say?”

“The same.”

I brushed my hair back. Some of the changelings were with Necessarius, but most weren’t. If they insisted on trying to avenge Loga, they’d start another war. They had done that more than once before, but starting one with the ‘sarians was something different altogether. “If they go through with that…”

Clarke waved his hand. “Artemis is talking them down right now. Everything will be fine. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.”

I sighed. He was always like this. He changed topics more than a schizophrenic. “What is the topic at hand?”

“The screamers,” he insisted. “The attack on Loga’ha’shanar proved that there are things we don’t understand about them. They infect people and have powers, but what else?” He clicked his tongue. “Perhaps the Composer isn’t a single person, but a mind that travels from one host to the next.”

Hm. That had some merit. “And the screamers are the potential hosts?”

He bobbed his head happily, cheered that I was keeping up. “Exactly, exactly.”

“And the singers are some sort of…radio tower. They spread his wavelength around more efficiently than the other types of infection.”

“Right, that’s obvious.”

I scratched my head, frowning. “Well, the only confusing part is why a former screamer would retain powers, and be able to hear them.”

“Well, if the link is severed quickly enough, it isn’t permanent,” Clarke mused. That was our working theory on why Loga had been cured. “But the subject retains enough of a connection to keep the powers and can still ‘hear’ the hive mind, to a point.”

“At least now we have proof that former screamers can’t be reinfected,” I pointed out. “If they could, the Composer would have done that to Loga, rather than killing him.”

“Yes, unless he wants us to think that. After all, it would be disastrous if the Paladins were to be reinfected.”

It hadn’t taken us long to realize that the only logical explanation for our powers was that the Paladins, like Loga, had once been screamers. His powers and sixth sense were exactly the same as ours, so it was the only thing that made sense.

But who had cured us? It couldn’t have been random luck. If we all had the same power, then perhaps. It would be somewhat believable that the singer who turned us accidentally walked off a ledge or something and died within minutes of us getting infected. But as far as we knew, each singer only gave one power. It would be ridiculously improbable for five singers to just randomly die after empowering us.

That meant someone had done this to us intentionally.

Was it the Composer? Or was there someone else in the game?

Game. Huh. As good an analogy as any. Somebody was playing a game with the city, with rules we didn’t understand. Otherwise, they would have just hijacked a zeppelin or something with a megaphone and blasted the song to the entire city at once.

“Hopefully that’s not the case,” I muttered. “I don’t want to think too long on the implications of that.”

Well, if we could find a way to cut you off from the hive mind completely…”

I raised an eyebrow at the old doctor. He had a look on his face that I didn’t quite like. “If you’re trying to convince me to let your perform brain surgery on me or my friends…”

“My mother says just whacking him is easier than trying to talk to him,” a female voice cut in from behind me.

I turned to see a pretty young girl, about my age, with long crimson hair tied into a single braid that went down to her waist. The color clashed a little with her pale skin, but she was slightly darker than when I had seen her last. Curious. She was also wearing a long-sleeved black shirt and jeans, which was also odd. She normally preferred short sleeves.

She glared at Clarke with her red eyes—to the best of my knowledge, the only toy she had. “I’m just here for my allowance. But I’d be happy to whack him for you.”

The doctor clapped his hands, grinning. “Robyn Joan! Good to see you! It’s been too long. How’s your mother? She hasn’t returned my calls.”

His daughter sighed. “No, dad, you haven’t returned her calls.”

He frowned. “You sure?”

“Yes. MC? Can you back me up here?”

“She’s got you there, Isaac,” MC’s voice said from one of the speakers in the wall. “You haven’t replied in months. I think you said you were busy with that heart thing, but I’m not sure. I have it on record somewhere…”

The old man brushed his hair back. “Mary Christina, couldn’t you be on my side just once?

The reply from the speakers was instantaneous. “Nope.”

I smiled a little at their antics. It helped keep my mind off the twisted pile of charcoal that used to be someone I had promised to protect. “How’ve you been, Robyn?”

She smiled back. “I’m all right. I haven’t seen you since…” she frowned, searching her memory.

“Since you visited North Outer last year,” I reminded her. “You still dating that Frank guy?”

Clarke looked up. “Dating who in the what now?”

The red-haired girl glared at me. “Thanks for that. And no, I’m not. That didn’t last long.”

Why didn’t you tell me about this?” the doctor demanded, seemingly actually angry for once. “I could have—”

“Thrown your weight around and caused more problems than you solved,” his daughter interrupted. “That’s why I never tell you anything.”

I had met Robyn when we were kids. Her parents—or more specifically, her mother, since her father never left the lab—lived in NHQ, so we went to school together. She had a crush on Derek ever since he saved her from a stone-slasher gargant (one of the very first gargants, in fact) when we were kids, but she ignored it pretty well. After I left the district, she was my main source of information on what was going on in the area.

A lab tech ran into the room, throwing open the double doors with a crash, but skidded to a stop when she saw Robyn. “Doctor! Ah, if this is a bad time…”

Clarke grinned a little sadly. “No, no, my daughter should spend time catching up with her friends anyway. This is about the heart, correct?”

The tech nodded. “Yes, it has begun to beat, but it’s erratic—”

He silenced her with a wave of his hand. “Show me.” As he was leaving, he turned back. “Laura, we can discuss more theories later. And Robyn Joan, I’ll have your allowance after I’m done with this.” Then he was gone, the doors swinging a few times before stopping.

Robyn sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Which means I’m going to get the money sometime next week. Oh well,” she shrugged. “I didn’t really need it right away anyway.”

“You should be nicer to your father,” I admonished. “He means well. He just…”

“Gets caught up in things,” she finished in a flat tone. “I know. That’s what my mom has been saying for years.” She shook her head. “She knew what she was getting into when she married him, so she can live with it. I need someone a little bit more on top of things. Someone who remembers what year it is without having to look at a calendar.”

I chuckled. “Oh, c’mon, he’s not that bad.”

Robyn just raised an eyebrow. “You only see him here at the lab, so you wouldn’t know.” She shrugged again. “I’m really not in the mood to argue about this. I’ll talk to you more later, okay?” She left again before I could stop her.

I sighed. Robyn was a wonderful girl, she was just closed off. She and Derek were a lot alike, but he was more popular due to his hero complex. Saving lives earns you lots of friends. She had much the same complex, but she didn’t have the right instincts to rush into danger.

But there was something off about her today…

“MC?” I asked hesitantly, still trying to puzzle it out.

Her voice replied quickly. “Yeah, what’s up?”

“Has Robyn been doing any missions lately?”

“Uh…yeah. Mostly just a few lost-and-found ones, a couple of fetch quests. That kind of thing. Why?”

I frowned. “So she hasn’t been fighting.”

“Not if we’re going by her missions. Besides, it’s Robyn.”

I touched my necklace, thinking. It didn’t make any sense. She had always been non-violent to a fault. She got queasy at the merest sight of blood or death.

Well, I had nothing else to stick around for, so I grabbed my bag and headed for the doors. Clarke would call me when he had time.

“Laura?” MC said before I could leave. “Why are you wondering about Robyn’s quest log?”

I shook my head. It had a simple explanation, I was sure, but I didn’t know what it was. “She wasn’t upset by the corpse.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 51)

Okay, the toy maker and genetic modification. This one is a little bit complicated.

First off, genetic modification with the toy maker is easy, legal, and basically useless. Knowledge of DNA is not advanced enough so that people can just code up a couple of devil horns. That’s not how it works.

However, it is advanced enough to provide minor alteration for natural things, such as skin, hair, and eye color. Normally, it is more efficient to just use the toy maker for these, since it is far faster. Sometimes people use genetic modification as a sort of “foundation” before using the toy maker, which does speed up the process somewhat. However, altering gametes (sex cells) is illegal. They’re still not quite sure of the result these modifications would have on a fetus, and it isn’t something they want to look into.

The fey do not obey these laws. When they capture people, they change absolutely everything about them, from skin color, height, weight, and even sex. That’s not even getting into the buffs. They flip these back and forth at a whim, making it impossible to determine which was the original state. And since they change the DNA as well, you can’t just “restore from backup.”

Changelings, therefore, almost universally suffer from an identity crisis. Loga’ha’shanar looked black, male, and around fifteen, but he had no idea if any of those were correct. And that’s not even getting into the fact that his first clear memory involved getting turned into a monster.

Scene 50 – Seducere

SEDUCERE

LING

I closed my phone with a click. My class was over, Akane was still at the hospital with Adam and the retinue after a gargant hunt, and Laura was shopping with Lizzy again.

Perfect.

This time, I wasn’t wasting time with a swimsuit. Lingerie under a bath robe is impossible for even the most thick-headed hero to misinterpret. That didn’t mean everything would go perfectly, but I’ve seen this show enough to know what happens. Even if the hero turns down the beautiful, naked love interest, that just signifies that it will evolve into something more real later.

So, this was a win-win for me. Either it worked, in which case I would have a very nice night, or it didn’t, and I’d eventually end up dating Derek for certain.

This time, I wasn’t taking any chances. It was about four, and I had just finished soccer, so I made sure to take a shower first. Then I put on the lacey black lingerie. I called around, making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be—that is, far away from Derek. I finished it off by calling Derek himself, and acting surprised that he was in his room. He invited me over without delay.

Perfect.

I didn’t lock the door behind me; I didn’t have anywhere to put my keys, so I didn’t really have a choice. Across the hall, Derek’s door was closed, but almost certainly unlocked. I just took a deep breath—remembering the similarities to last time—and knocked.

“It’s open!” he called out. I nodded to myself, opened the door, and quickly closed it behind me.

Derek looked up and smiled. “Good, you’re here. Do you have clothes on under that?”

The way he said it threw me off-balance. It was like he wanted me to be naked. “Uh…no? Just some underwear…”

“Perfect,” he said, grinning. “He’ll be here in a couple minutes. You can try it on then.”

“I…” I was at a loss. What the hell was going on? If someone else was coming, this obviously wouldn’t be a good time to go through with my plan; I made sure to tighten the bathrobe—didn’t want it to fall off at the wrong moment.

I pretty much just stood there for about ten minutes, while Derek tapped away at his laptop, oblivious to my discomfort. He seemed to be reading something about gargants, if the pictures were anything to go by, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to lean in closer to get a better look.

Thankfully, there was a knock on the door before things got too unbearable; I jumped forward and opened it. The man standing there, a large cardboard box in his arms, was an orc.

Orcs were a bit complicated. Technically, they were a subculture of demons, but there was so much variety among them it was hard to identify them. Unlike most of the other Houses, orcs pretty much only connected ideologically. Their buffs and cosmos had little to do with their beliefs.

That being said, there were a few things they were known for. Orcs were the death-wranglers, the ones who had forced the vampires to work together long enough to stand a chance against the angels. Therefore, they shared a lot of buffs with the vampire bloodlines. The orc at the door may as well have walked out of the Codex. He was, without a doubt, the stereotypical disciple of Orcus.

He had black horns, longer than normal, curling out from under his hair, and nighteyes hidden by daygoggles. He had large, sharp claws, as well as big tusks jutting out from his lower lips. He had a long mane of dark hair, clean but poorly brushed. He didn’t have a beard, but he did have the stubble of a couple days without shaving.

He pushed past me quickly, muttering a hurried apology, and set the box down on Derek’s bed. Then he turned to me and held out his hand to shake. “Are you Ling?”

I recovered myself quickly and took his hand. His grip was loose, probably to keep me from getting cut by his claws. “Yes, I am. And you are?”

“Obould. I’m here to see how your armor looks.” He started unpacking the box.

I blinked. I had heard of Obould, of course, but I had never met him or even seen him. At least that explained his appearance. He wasn’t pandering to the stereotype; he was the stereotype.

“I asked Ob to get some armor for you and Akane,” Derek explained, turning away from his laptop. “That’s why she asked you for your measurements.”

Ah, right, now I remembered. I had assumed that was in preparation for my birthday.

The orc looked around. “Speaking of which, where is your Akane? Bathroom?”

“No, at the hospital. Some of our friends got injured taking down that gargant.”

Obould clicked his tongue, his tail (which I had just noticed) twitching. “I hope they’re all right.”

Derek nodded. “They should be. Oh! That reminds me.” He gestured to his computer, still displaying the same page as before. “I read your article. Seems interesting.”

The orc grinned, his tusks widening his smile even more. “Yes, it was a new type. Steel-plated gargant, we’re calling it.” He waved his hand. “I haven’t even begun dissecting it, so the current article is just a preliminary report.”

“It’s good,” Derek insisted. “Very in-depth and detailed.”

Obould chuckled. “You flatter me, Huntsman. But ah, now I’m reminded as well. I transferred the money into your accounts. We agreed on twenty thousand for the corpse, correct?”

I choked, and both men turned to me curiously. I waved away their attention.

Twenty thousand? I mean, I knew monster slaying could be lucrative, but that was just…

“Yes, that’s right,” Derek replied. “And we got thirty thousand for killing it in the first place.”

I coughed, trying to get my breath back. What?

This time, they knew better, and ignored me. Obould at least seemed a little surprised. “That seems a bit much.”

The blond hero shrugged. “The park committee freaked out a little and overestimated the bounty. But you can understand where they’re coming from, with that bus it chomped down on. Also, Akane said it was completely steel plated?”

The orc scratched his hairy chin. “Yes, its completely bulletproof. Even the killing blow had to go through the eye. Though if Akane’s report is accurate, the open mouth would have been a better target.” He dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand. “Regardless, all payments have been made. And you—” he turned to me. “—need to try on this armor.”

He held up what looked like a black wetsuit, covered with small pebbles. Each tiny stone had a hole drilled in the middle, and was carefully sewn to the fabric. I touched it gingerly.

“When did you make this?” I muttered. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of pebbles. He would have had to do it all by hand.

He shrugged. “My kids did it. This is just the prototype, of course. We’re hoping it can be a sort of powered armor.”

I frowned. “Wait, what?”

“Obould knows about out powers,” Derek explained. “He wouldn’t have been able to make decent armor if he didn’t.”

That seemed…unnecessarily risky. I might not be the tactician of the group, but even I knew you don’t spread around that kind of secret. Okay, yes, we told Flynn…

“Relax,” Derek admonished me with a chuckle. “I’ve known Ob for years. Just put the suit on, see how it feels.”

“Ah…all right.” I took the armor, such as it was, from the orc. Both the men got up and stepped into the hall while I changed.

Once they were gone, I sighed and dropped my bathrobe, revealing the almost completely see-through lingerie beneath. Such a waste.

The armor was a simple two-piece suit. The comparison to a wetsuit was apt; I think it might have actually been made from one. I slid it on carefully, wary of the rocks, which clicked against each other every time I moved. The bottom was fine, but the top was a little bit tight. I realized I had forgotten to tell Akane I had gained a bit of weight in the chest area recently; I had just rattled off my sizes from memory. Oh well.

I felt silly covered in those pebbles, but I still took a few cautious steps around the room. Nothing fell off, and the suit felt very snug, but it didn’t look like it would actually be effective as any type of armor. Of course, anything is better than nothing, so it was worth a shot.

“Okay, come back!” I called. They came in quickly, nodding approvingly. “I’m ready to try it.”

This was the real payoff. The actual armor quality wasn’t important; it was seeing if I could use it to enhance my strength. And if some of Laura’s theories about out powers improving were right, that would in turn help strengthen my ability.

“Let’s start slow,” the orc counseled. “Try using your power to move your left arm.”

I nodded and closed my eyes. I took a deep breath, concentrating my awareness on my left arm. I could feel the stone woven into the fabric. I reached out and pulled it very, very gently.

My arm moved. An inch. Probably less, actually.

“Okay, good,” Obould said. “Now move it side to side a few times.”

I did, moving it a little father than before. The pebbles didn’t seem to be in danger of ripping off; whatever the suit itself was made out of was stronger than I thought.

“Good, you’re doing great,” the orc said. I heard him move around; my eyes were still closed. “Now, I want you to hold the suit steady while you fall backwards.”

“I…what?”

“Try and fall backwards, but use the suit to hold yourself upright. It’s either this or throw you off a building.”

“Okay,” I cut in quickly, before that idea had too much time to take root in his head. “I’m doing it.” I concentrated on my entire body, grabbing the pebbles of the suit as best I could. Then I fell backwards.

Or rather, I tried. I could feel the pressure on the suit, both against my skin and in my mind, as my power fought against gravity and my muscles. My reservoir was draining relatively fast; I could only keep this up for maybe a minute.

But it was working.

I grinned, keeping my eyes closed. “I’m doing it. It’s working.”

“Good,” Obould said cheerfully. “Let’s try something a little more difficult.” He pushed me on the chest, hard, upsetting my balance. I tried desperately to regain control.

The suit exploded.

I landed hard on my ass and swore, opening my eyes just in time to see Derek’s shield snap out of existence; he had protected himself instinctively. A thin film of rock dust was in the air, and Obould was coughing. I could hear the soft click of pebbles rolling around the room, having not quite expended their kinetic energy yet.

Derek glanced at me, decided I was unhurt, and turned to the orc. “You all right?”

“Yeah,” he replied as graciously as possible, sputtering a little to get the dust out of his throat. “Lucky I was wearing the goggles.” He frowned, and pulled something out of his mouth.

It was one of the pebbles, ripped in half. Not shattered, ripped. I inspected my suit; the threads that were supposed to tie the rocks to it were mostly intact. It was the stone that had failed.

“Huh,” Obould muttered, tossing the pebble away. “Interesting. Well, at least she has the power for it.”

I managed to get to my feet. “The power for what, exactly?”

He grinned. “Flight! I think if we cover you in stone, you can fly!”

I just stared at him.

Derek didn’t seem at all troubled by my destruction of the suit. He touched one of the arms, noting the same things I had. I was a little busy enjoying his grip to pay too much attention.

“Maybe you can get thin pieces of granite or something,” he suggested. “Sew them into a pocket. Think plate mail rather than chain mail.”

Obould frowned. “Well, maybe. Stone doesn’t always shape the way you want, though.”

I looked up. “I could help with that,” I pointed out, feeling useful again. “I can—”

“Affect the viscosity of stone. I know.” The orc nodded, and I didn’t mention I wasn’t sure what viscosity was. “That might work.” He grabbed the box off the bed and upended it, both to remove the pebbles at the bottom and the second set of armor. It also looked a bit like a wetsuit, but without anything sewn to it.

Derek glanced at it. “That Akane’s?”

The old man nodded. “Yeah. Let me know how it fits her.” He turned to me. “Give me back yours, and I’ll let you know when I need your help shaping the stone.”

I shrugged. I wasn’t particularly worried about my armor situation, but if Derek thought it was a good idea, I wasn’t going to say anything. “Sure, let me just give you my e-mail.” I glanced around the room, looking for a pen, but stopped when I remembered something else. “But first, leave so I can get changed.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 50)

Ling could, in fact, fly if she had the proper equipment. Hell, she could just grab a rock and levitate that around. The only limit is her own reservoir. Flight is one of the easiest tricks to pull off. Note trick. There is no power simply called “flight.” The closest would be personal levitation, the ability to control gravity. Even then, it’s more “falling up” than real flight.

But again, flight is very common. Pyrogenics can create rockets, psychokineticists can lift themselves, morphers or shifters can grow wings, people with super speed can jump really high…the list goes on.

Also:  Fifty posts!  A minor milestone, but worth celebrating nonetheless.  You know what?  Extra update Wednesday.  I don’t really like this scene anyway; seems like as good a time to move on as any.

Scene 49 – Mercennarium

MERCENNARIUM

KELLY

“That was probably a bad idea,” Alex noted as we got back into the van.

I waved at Obould’s boys loading the gargant into a truck. “It’s not so bad. It was fun, and no one died.”

George chuckled. “Boss, weren’t you the one saying we shouldn’t get involved with the Paladins more than we have to?”

I took off my daygoggles. The ambient light in the van was a bit softer than daylight, about the level of a lightbulb, which meant I could see fine, but it gave me a fierce headache. I could bear it for a little bit—I was tired of everything being dark.

“Maybe you guys are right. But we’re having a bad day, and I figured everyone could use a little R&R before another week or so of stakeout.”

Jarasax grimaced as he slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “That’s an understatement if I ever heard one. But I’m not sure this was the time or the place.”

“We did get to have a little fun,” George noted, as he scratched at his bandages. We’d need to get him better healing soon. “C’mon, Sax, you have to admit watching Adam kill that gargant was worth it.”

The changeling grunted. “Hardly. We both almost got killed. Hell, I didn’t even see the actual kill. Wouldn’t you have preferred to stay home over a few broken ribs?”

I rubbed my eyes. The headache wasn’t too bad yet, but the incessant sniping was getting tiresome. “Fine, Sax, next time we’ll leave you with the van. Happy now?”

He frowned. “Kelly, come on. I’m just looking out for the team.”

“Oh both of you stop,” Alex admonished as he polished his dayknives. “You’re both so overprotective it’s embarrassing. Though I suppose I should be grateful Mom let us have some fun today.”

I glared at the angel dangerously, but he just grinned back. “Don’t start that again, Alex.”

“I’m serious,” he said, warming to the subject. “Ling’s been chattering about this whenever she gets the chance.”

“Why to you of all people?” Sax asked. I had to admit I found it a bit curious too. Most people were a little leery around angels, and I hadn’t thought she was an exception. “Weren’t you just complaining we aren’t friendly enough with them?”

“Hey, I wasn’t complaining.” George shifted in his spot, warningly, and Alex hurriedly continued. “It’s just that the rest of the Paladins aren’t very sympathetic to her plight. She’s not a soldier, she’s just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

George grinned. “With superpowers.”

Alex smiled, and nodded. “Yes. With superpowers. They aren’t any more interested in listening to her theories than she is to listening about tactics.”

“I don’t see the point here.” My headache was getting worse, but I didn’t put the goggles back on yet. Besides, the pain distracted me from the fixer on my arm.

The angel shrugged. “No point, really. She was just talking about each of us fit into our own little archetype. Derek’s the hero, not to mention the father of his group. Laura’s the smart one, and the mother.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” George cut in. “If anyone is the father, wouldn’t it be Butler?”

“Adoptive parents, then. Derek is in charge of caring for them, that’s all I meant. Like how Kelly and Sax are the parents of the retinue.”

I rolled my eyes. “Cute, Alex. Very cute. What did I ever do to deserve this?”

“Oh come on, I’m serious! You take care of us, and we appreciate it.”

Sax looked at him sideways. “Yesterday you threatened to disembowel me and strangle Kelly with my guts.”

“Oh, you’ve never wanted to kill your parents?” Suddenly his grin faded, and he stopped polishing his knives. “I…guess not.”

Now that was surprising. “You knew your parents, Alex? You never talk about what happened before you joined your Host.”

He slid away his dayknives with a sigh. “That’s ‘cuz I don’t like talking about it, Kel. It was a slip of the tongue. Don’t worry about it.”

I frowned, reached over, and smacked him upside the head. “That’s bull. You know George’s story, and all the details of Sax’s escape.” I shifted around and lay back in the seat. “God, you even know everything about the shit storm that is my life. You don’t get to skip your turn on our little sharing sessions.”

The angel scowled. “Fine. My dad was one of the first angels, my mom one of the second-gen vampires. Dad killed mom, I killed dad. We done?”

An awkward silence fell in the van. I became acutely aware of the orcs outside, still cleaning up the gargant.

George shuffled uncomfortably. “God, sorry, Alex. I mean…I didn’t realize.”

Sax nodded. “Not knowing your parents is better than that.”

But I just glared at the genderless little freak. “No, that’s not what happened.”

He glared right back, and his hands went to the hilts of his knives. “What did you just say? If you think you know me—”

“That’s the plot to Vampire Carmilla Saizou,” I interrupted. “I bought you the disc for your last birthday.”

The angel winced. “Crap, I thought that was Adele. Ah, right. So my mom was a high-level vampire, and my dad a lupe—”

“If your mom was a loli, that’s Dance in the Vampire Bund.”

“Uh, I was told my dad was a pilot, by my aunt and uncle—”

Star Wars.”

“My dad was an antiques dealer and an abusive gambler, and my mom killed him with a cursed sword he got—”

“Now you’re just making stuff up.”

He threw up his hands. “Saints above vampire, can’t you just let me have my cool origin story?”

My headache was getting close to unbearable. “Alex, you’re just making us curious.”

He leaned his back against the door of the van and sighed. “Fine. I was raised in one of Zaphkiel’s orphanages. Spent a lot of time watching TV. When I was eighteen—ten years ago—I took the glow and the eyes and joined the Host.” He shrugged. “You know the rest.”

George snorted, though he tried to hide it. “Well, I’ll admit I can see why you tried to hide it. It’s not very interesting.”

“Be nice,” Sax warned. “It took a lot for him to admit the real story.”

I sighed and finally put my daygoggles back on. “At least now I remember why you’d be friends with Ling.”

The ogre leaned forward a little. “That reminds me—Sax, what’s the word on that data dump Kat set up? The one using MC’s system?”

“Not much,” the changeling admitted. “I talked to Clarke and got the data, but its just a five minute audio file between a half-dozen fey, talking about something.”

I raised an eyebrow. It scraped against the daygoggles, and hurt. It was amazing how easy it was to forget that discomfort, just by taking the stupid things off for a few minutes. “Anything specific?”

“Just about how they’ll need to be careful their dead homunculi don’t fall into the wrong hands. They were talking about the kill switches, mostly.”

Kill switches were pretty much what they sounded like; self-destruct sequences the fey used for their homunculi, to make sure that the body was completely destroyed, and no one would be able to study the corpse.

“That’s interesting on its own, though,” Alex said slowly. “They’d only be worried about leaving corpses behind if they were staging a war.”

“They stage wars all the time,” I noted. “I don’t think its a big deal.”

But the angel just shook his head. “Their normal turf wars are bad enough, but right now…if a war starts now, a lot of people are going to die.”

“People die every day,” I muttered gruffly. “Besides, we can handle a few monsters.”

Alex leaned forward, between the driver’s seat and the passenger, holding himself up by the shoulder rests. He locked gazes with me and wouldn’t let go.

“How do you think we would have survived the bleeders,” he asked slowly. “If there was a horde of fey-born monsters attacking at the same time?”

I forced myself to avert my eyes. “Wouldn’t happen. The fey don’t plan.”

“Hm,” the angel muttered. “I’m sure they don’t. Kat’s intercepted communication is clearly just an anomaly. The fey couldn’t, for example, be in league with the Composer.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 49)

One of the main reasons for this scene was to show what happens when a vampire tries to see in normal light without daygoggles. The other was a little more characterization for Alex. I really don’t think I’ve given him enough time to shine.

Scene 48 – Gigas

GIGAS

AKANE

With Derek still injured, it fell to me to manage our missions alone. Ling was busy; she had class. But I managed to collect Adam and the retinue, which would be enough to put down one crazy gargant.

Adam was prepared this time, with his full assortment of weapons holstered to his hips and back. He didn’t have any real body armor, which I thought was odd, but then I didn’t have any either, so maybe I shouldn’t talk. It would probably be a better idea to worry about his obviously still injured arm. Was he going to be all right for this?

I had been a little worried the retinue wouldn’t be available, but it turned out they all had that Insomniac buff that came out a few years ago, so they didn’t need to sleep. That went a long way to explaining why they were always fighting fit no matter the hour, at any rate.

“Sorry,” I apologized quietly. I was getting used to them, but I still didn’t talk more than necessary. “Derek needs rest.”

Kelly looked up from checking her pistol, her eyes covered by daygoggles. “No worries. He’s had a rough day.” She turned to her crew. “Everyone ready?”

Everyone nodded, and we headed forward.

We were at a large square-shaped park, nestled in the shadow of three skyscrapers, with the fourth side open to the street. A large concrete wall separated the park abruptly from the street, but there was no gate, just an opening hidden behind a smaller wall. The purpose wasn’t to keep people out, but simply to make sure no one tried to drive a car around the well-kept lawns.

The wall currently had a very large hole in it, maybe ten feet wide, from where the gargant crashed through.

It wasn’t hard to follow. It had left a trail of destruction in its wake, ripping massive scars in the lush green carpet and scattering trees aside like toothpicks. The gardener would probably weep at the sight. Thankfully, the trail was not littered with bodies; the gargant had been rampaging since last night, but it wasn’t specifically hunting down victims or even doing all that much damage to the environment. That was why Derek had been able to delay so long.

For our part, we just followed the concrete path. The park wasn’t so big that we risked losing sight of the trail. In a few moments, even that became moot, since we spotted the creature bathing in the small artificial lake.

Gargants, as the name implies, are giant monsters, ranging from the size of a car to the size of a bus. They are the twisted and mutated result of fey experimentation, and are the monstrous equivalent of tanks—with all the same implications.

Luckily, making such a huge creature is by no means easy, never mind all the extra modifications such as durability and strength. Making such a beast capable of actually breeding new gargants is simply impossible. Each gargant is individually tailored by the fey, thus greatly limiting how fast they can be produced.

This one was on the middle end of the scale, about the size of a pickup truck. It was a four-legged creature, coated in thick, dark brown fur, almost indistinguishable from black. It’s face, however, was completely covered with white bone plating, making it seem as though it’s skull was poking out at us. If I was any judge, that armor would be able to take a rocket without cracking.

It hooted softly in contentment, splashing around the lake without a care in the world. At that, Jarasax looked uncertain.

“Do…do we really have to kill it?” he said quietly. “I mean, what’s the harm in just locking it up?”

“Killed a bus already,” I said. “Bus was full.”

Sax blinked. “But…”

“Ate them.”

He nodded, holding up his hand to keep me from continuing. “Got it, got it. Right, need to kill it.”

“Soon,” I admitted. But first, I held up my phone and carefully took a few pictures of the beast. They were decent quality, though my camera wasn’t good enough to do anything professional. I wouldn’t get paid extra for them, but Obould would appreciate it.

“So what’s this thing called?” Adam asked. “I didn’t see it in that gargant book Derek lent me.”

Jarasax clapped him on the back. “This one’s brand-new. The fey are field testing it. If it does well, they’ll make more. And since they don’t really care about names, that means we get to name it.” He scratched his chin. “Something with ‘skull’ in it, obviously. Hmm…hairy hardskull?”

I snorted in derision. “Works.” I headed forward before anyone could suggest any more stupid names.

They followed, but it didn’t stop them from talking. Kelly was the one who answered the changeling’s suggestion. “I don’t know, traditionally gargants always have ‘gargant’ in there somewhere. How about just hardskull gargant?”

The changeling drummed his fingers on his gun as he contemplated. “Hm, I’m not sure…”

“We can discuss this later,” Adam pointed out. “Right now, we just need to kill the thing.” He pulled out his shotgun with obvious enthusiasm. “I’ve got a god slayer right here. If the anti-armor doesn’t work, that will.” He regained his composure a little. “Akane, if you would do the honors?”

It wasn’t quite an order, but it still smacked of one, and I was tempted to ignore him just to be contrary. But I was planning to draw the gargant’s attention anyway, so refusing wouldn’t solve anything.

I drew my sword and ran forward. When I reached the pond—which was shallow enough to walk in easily enough—the monster looked up, startled by the sound of splashing water. Its beady little eyes, protected under those massive ridges of bone, stared at me with a mild curiosity balanced with indifference.

I activated my speed, ran in front of its head, and stabbed it as far as I could in the eye.

Right as I withdrew my blade, my reservoir ran out, and the gargant bellowed in pain, blasting me in the face with its horrific breath. It reared up on its hind legs, still howling. I quickly fell back, and the others opened up with gunfire. Their bullets mostly bounced off its thick hide; looking closer, I was beginning to think the thing was armored with steel plates bolted to the skin. The ‘hair’ seemed to actually be metal bristles, like on a brush. What were those for?

It wasn’t important. The point was that the beast was armored like a tank, and angry. It finally came back down to all fours, crashing with all its weight behind its hind legs. I was well out of danger by that point, though I did get splashed in the face with a wave of water.

My reservoir was only partly replenished, but it was enough to get me out of the water, back to Adam and the retinue, a little faster.

Adam cursed as he struggled to his feet. It seemed he still wasn’t quite used to the massive recoil of that shotgun. “It seems bulletproof.”

I nodded. “Metal plates.”

George raised an eyebrow. I hadn’t heard him fire yet; the roar of his minigun was distinctive, to say the least. “Then the skull’s the weak point?”

I frowned. That couldn’t be right. The fey were crazy enough, sure, but it would have knocked itself unconscious just trying to break through the wall if that was the case.

No, that wasn’t necessarily true. Just because the skull was the weak point didn’t mean that it was weak.

Kelly was a bit more pragmatic. “I guess we’ll find out. George, let her rip.”

The ogre grinned, revealing his sharp teeth, and lifted the massive minigun. I’ll never know why the named one of the largest portable weapons in existence the minigun.

The thing weighed at least fifty pounds, probably more, but the eight-foot tall giant hefted it with ease. He flipped a switch—presumably the safety—braced himself, and depressed the trigger as the gargant finally discerned our location and charged.

The beast ran straight into a hail of bullets thicker than a rainstorm, heralded by a thunder I can’t properly describe. Think of a marching band, playing their hearts out. Then replace every single instrument with a drum, and remove the rhythm.

Thirty 7.62 millimeter rounds per second tore through the air like screaming banshees…and bounced off the gargant’s skull with a sound like tin roof in a hailstorm. It had about as much effect, too. That is, the gargant was annoyed, but not actually harmed.

Kelly yelled something unprintable. “Scatter!”

Everyone jumped in different directions, under the assumption that such a large creature wouldn’t be able to turn fast enough to catch us. George moved a little bit too slowly, however, and got clipped as the monster ran past. He cried out as he was thrown a few feet, the minigun rolling out of his hands.

And the gargant was coming around for another pass.

“Alex,” I said quickly, indicating the fallen ogre. The angel nodded, and moved to check on his friend. Besides, dayknives were sharp and everything, but they couldn’t cut through whatever the gargant was armored with.

I gestured to Adam, and he nodded, readying another round—hopefully that ‘god slayer’ he had mentioned earlier, whatever that was.

Farther away, from a place where George was not between her and the beast, Kelly started firing at the gargant, attracting its attention. It wasn’t injured, of course, but its tiny brain was annoyed, and it bellowed as it charged forward.

I used that opportunity to slip forward at super speed and stab upwards into the roof of its mouth. I wasn’t able to cut very deep; the depth of my reservoir was increasing every day, but it was still limited, and I just didn’t have the time or the angle to get a good strike in.

As I slipped away, however, I noticed that George’s bullets had chipped away the white on the gargant’s face, revealing steel underneath. It was paint, nothing more, paint over steel shaped to look like bone. No wonder it was bulletproof.

Adam wasn’t quite in position yet, so I danced back to where the monster could see me with it’s remaining eye, hoping it would charge at me instead of the others.

It worked, of course. The beast focused on me as best it could, bellowed loud enough to wake the dead, and rushed forward as fast as its tree-trunk legs would carry it, tearing up the grass beneath its feet.

I was only about ten feet away. The gargant couldn’t build up very much speed, but with its weight that didn’t mean much. Thankfully, I had enough power left in my reservoir to dodge out of the way without too much difficulty. If I didn’t have super speed, I probably would have been killed.

The creature ended up in the water again, and made a long, wide turn, coming back around for another pass, aiming straight for me.

It was only when it started to pick up speed again that I realized I had lost track of myself. I was between George and the monster. If I dodged, it would crush him.

I cursed. If I didn’t dodge, it would crush us both. I dodged out of the way a bit early, in the hope that it would decide to chase after me again.

It didn’t.

Adam, however, had a better plan.

Before the gargant came out of the water, he jumped from the shore onto its side, grasping the metal bristles attached to its plates for purchase. He slowly crawled over to the face, scrambling for a grip on the ridges molded into its skull-armor. He finally managed to get himself on the skull, between the eyes, and while the beast bucked, he held on tightly, holding his shotgun in his right hand.

I was…stunned. This wasn’t the first time I had seen someone pull a stunt like this. I had once seen Derek jump into a gargant’s mouth just so he could throw a grenade down its gullet. But that was with years of practice and training. Adam had been fighting for what? Two weeks? Is this what Butler meant when he called him a ‘natural-born killer?’

The gargant was even more confused than before, and its deadly charge turned into a wild, erratic stampede. It missed George and Alex by a couple feet. They got showered in grass and dirt, but that was better than getting stomped by a ten-ton behemoth.

It took me a minute to realize what Adam was trying to do. At first, I had just thought he was trying to distract the thing from the injured ogre, but it quickly became clear that he was struggling to bring the shotgun around to use it.

Well, he better do it quick. The gargant was coming back around, perhaps thinking the water of the pond could help it shake this mite off somehow.

I rushed forward, starting on its blind side, then leaping into its vision as quickly as I could. As expected, the animal’s primitive brain reacted much the same as the last time I had appeared so suddenly, and it reared up, bellowing a warning.

Adam didn’t waste the chance. With the gargant on its hind legs, he suddenly found it much easier to stay in position, and he let go with his hands, cocked his shotgun, placed it in the beast’s dead right eye and fired.

From the name ‘god slayer,’ I was expecting a pretty big bang. Instead, there was just a loud, dull thump and the wet sound of gore and gristle bursting out of the gargant’s eyes and mouth. The creature fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, not even whimpering as its life fled. It made a pretty big splash as it hit, though. Water, mud, and the red sluice that had recently been the contents of the creature’s skull flew everywhere.

Adam fell to his knees, breathing heavily and clutching the arm he had dislocated early this morning. I ran up to him, but it was hard to tell where he was bleeding, and where he was just covered in gore.

“Idiot,” I muttered. “You’re still not healed from earlier.” We’d need to get a doctor to look at his arm. If he hadn’t dislocated it again, he had probably torn a few tendons. I was a bit surprised when I realized his hands and arms were torn up pretty badly; apparently using those bristles as handholds was a bad idea.

“Lay down,” I instructed, forcing him onto his back. He would be fine, probably. He just needed rest and bandages.

Kelly tossed me some as she jogged up, and I started binding his wounds.

“That was pretty impressive,” she said, nodding in approval. “Stupid, but impressive.”

Adam grunted in pain and didn’t say anything. Hopefully, this little adventure had taught him to be more cautious in the future.

“I wonder if the fey consider this a success,” the vampire muttered, scratching her chin.

“Probably,” Jarasax admitted, walking forward with a limp. “The fey usually call it a success if the monster manages to escape their labs. Anything after that isn’t relevant.”

I frowned. Where had he been?

The changeling seemed to read the look on my face. “I tripped up during the first charge, hit my head. If it had noticed me, I’d be dead.”

I sighed. Well, everyone makes mistakes. Speaking of which, Alex was walking over, leaving George alone on the grass some ten feet away.

“He’s fine,” the angel reported, noticing my gaze. “Bad bruises and some fractures, but he’ll be right as rain soon enough. The gargant could have done worse.”

Kelly kicked the beast a little, as if to make sure it was dead, then snapped her fingers. “Steel-plated gargant! Of course!”

I sighed. Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 48)

Akane calls the park “large.” It is not. It’s maybe medium sized, according to any standards from anywhere other than Domina. You can see from one side of the park to the other easily—well, if there aren’t trees in the way. Of course, most parks in the city are located on top of or inside of skyscrapers, so that is indeed quite large, as far as she’s concerned.

Scene 47 – Expergefacio

EXPERGEFACIO

DEREK

I woke up slowly and groggily, with a massive headache. There was a bright light above me, a little to the left, which wasn’t helping my head. I blinked and shielded my eyes with my hand, looking away. In the process, I saw bookshelves with monster magazines, above me and to the right.

Ah. I was in bed. My bed. All right, that was the where. Now how’d I get here?

The last thing I remembered was fighting the screamers. The Necessarians had been overrun, and…

I groaned. Akane had put me in a sleeper hold. One I had taught her, no less. Wonderful. I had always been curious how those felt. Apparently, they felt like crap.

I rubbed my head and sat up. I needed to find Laura, figure out what exactly had happened. The fact that I was in my room rather than a ‘sarian hospital was a good sign, but I needed more details.

“Oh good, you’re awake.”

It was Akane’s voice. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, turned to my right…

And saw a very, very, very naked Akane, only half-covered by my sheets.

I catapulted out of my bed with a shriek immediately, though I got tangled up in the sheets and tripped over my own feet. I ended up on the floor, on my back, with my legs still half on my bed. Akane looked down at me, clutching the other end of the covers. Her beads clinked in her hair.

“You all right?”

I closed my eyes, cursed, and untangled myself as quickly as possible. Once that was done, I stood up and glared in my friend’s direction. Not at her directly. Just the general area. “Akane, where are your clothes?”

I saw her grin out of the corner of my eye. “Elsewhere.”

“Yes, I noticed. I mean why aren’t you wearing them?”

She slinked forward, and I stepped back, bumping into Adam’s (unoccupied) bed. “You woke up to find a naked girl in your bed. I know you passed health class, Derek. I think you understand this well enough.”

My headache was getting worse. I needed to figure out what was going on, and quickly. Could she have been drugged? Possible, but she seemed in control of her wits, if nothing else, and what motive could someone have for something like that?

Akane carefully held the sheets against her body in such a way as to emphasize her curves. I’ve always known she was beautiful, of course, but seeing her like that was…a very loud reminder. The fact that the sheets were white, and therefore a little bit see through, didn’t hurt.

No. That wasn’t important right now. I had to proceed under the assumption that she was sober, and had full knowledge of her actions. From there, I could come up with the most likely scenario.

I sighed. “Akane, this isn’t funny.”

She stopped leaning forward quite so much, and let the sheets loosen a little. “What?”

I shook my head. “Look, I’m sure this seemed hilarious when you thought it up, but I have a blistering migraine, and I just don’t have the capacity to deal with this right now. Can you please put some clothes on?”

She stared at me, her mouth agape, then set her lips in a grim, firm line. She slipped off the bed carefully, stood in front of me, and dropped the sheets to the floor.

I looked her in the eyes. Just the eyes. “You need to stop this, right now.”

She pouted. “Why?” She smiled coyly and tried to step forward again, but I put my hands on her shoulders—her skin was distractingly smooth—and held her at arms length.

“I want you to think for a second,” I said evenly. “What would have happened if you had tried this joke on someone else?”

She blinked. “Wait, you can’t mean—”

I shook my head again. “You really didn’t consider the consequences at all, did you? Look, obviously I’m not going to try and take advantage of the situation. But you can’t pull something like this again. I hate to say it, but not all men are as chivalrous as I am.” I let go of her shoulders and stepped aside, giving her a free run to the door. “Get dressed, then come back. I need a report.”

She looked more confused and shocked than chastised. “Derek, I—”

“That was an order, Akane.”

She swallowed, then nodded once, her face hard. “Yes, sir. Right away.” She picked up my sheets, wrapped them around herself, and left my room in a hurry. A moment later, I heard her door open and close.

I glanced at the clock. It was noon. Of course, I had no idea what day it was, so that didn’t help much. On the other hand, my headache was already fading, so there was some good news.

Within minutes, Akane was back, dressed in black cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, with her bagged sword over her shoulder and my sheets under her arm. She tossed the sheets onto my bed, before turning to me again.

“After I knocked you unconscious, Ling and I had to run. We couldn’t hope to fight effectively while protecting you. Unfortunately, the majority of the horde followed us.

“Luckily, Adam, Laura, and the retinue managed to call in an airstrike of sleeper gas. You got a pretty heavy dose of it, which is most of the reason you were out so long. Ling and I didn’t have masks either, but we managed to keep away from the worst of it, so we just got really, really drowsy.

“Regardless, before they could call in the airstrike, they had to get the horde into position. They found a tall building, and used Alex’s blinders to draw the screamers in, which was when MC dropped the gas. The ‘sarians moved in, rolled up the zombies, and we were done. Adam dislocated his arm saving Alex from a fall, but otherwise there were no other injuries.”

It always felt weird when she talked this much. Sure, she always talked more when people weren’t around, but this was a bit odd.

“Good,” I said, when it became clear she wasn’t going to continue. “How many dead screamers?”

“About two dozen. Nearly a thousand captured. This was the biggest group yet.”

I whistled. “Hopefully the Composer won’t try and use these guys again. I’m not sure we could handle them.”

Akane shrugged. “Maybe. They were easy enough once we knew what we were dealing with. Clarke and Laura are off doing tests right now.”

I nodded. “Good, good. But that reminds me: What day is it, exactly?”

“Tuesday. Same as when the bleeders attacked.”

I blinked. “That means we missed Politics and Geography.” There was a possibility Akane had gone without me, but practical joking aside, she was loyal. She wouldn’t leave me unconscious and unattended.

“Don’t worry, I got some of our classmates to take notes.” She shrugged sheepishly. “Well, I got MC to ask them. Anyway, they’ll drop them off soon enough.”

“Perfect.” I searched around for my clothes. I was still wearing the same ensemble as last night, and I needed to change. “We have about an hour to get to that gargant rampaging around the Dresden mall.”

Akane frowned. “What? No, you’re still injured. You’re not fighting anything in your condition.”

I waved my hand dismissively. “We’ll grab Adam, and Flynn too. Ling’s busy, but that should be enough.”

She looked frozen. “Not Flynn,” she whispered. Then she regained her composure. “And not anyone else, either. You’re in no shape to take on a gargant, help or no.”

“Akane, I’ve been asleep for eleven hours.”

“No, you’ve been unconscious for eleven hours. There’s a difference.”

I threw up my hands. “Somebody has to do it. We’re contracted for the job, I’m not going to just give up because I’m too tired.”

She grabbed my shoulders and carefully guided me until I was sitting on my bed. “I’ll go, with Adam and Ling. Maybe the retinue too. We’ll take care of the gargant, while you rest.” She headed to the door. “Play around on your computer. See what’s going on outside your little world.” She opened the door and smiled. “I’ll see you later.” Then she was gone.

I sighed. She had a point, I wasn’t as aware of current events as I should be. Especially considering I was having a large impact on them, personally. Besides, she was pretty inflexible when I was injured.

I fired up my laptop and logged in. Domina’s internet, maintained by MC, was built on the foundation of a system called the Fundamentum. Fundie was a pretty basic code, just enough to give everyone a single user name they could use everywhere. Log onto a brand new site for the first time, and Fundie would automatically import all your settings and avatars. Pretty convenient.

For most of my life, the system had just been there. I hadn’t really appreciated it at all. But in the last few weeks, after talking to Laura for the first time in seven years, I began to understand its purpose a bit more. She had been outside the city a few times, and had launched off in more than one rant about all the problems out there. It was odd, but also somehow fitting, that one of her biggest complaints was simply that you had to create a unique account for every site you visited.

I searched around randomly for a little while, not really finding anything useful. Most of the news was on the screamers, some factual, but a lot of speculation. Clarke’s techs were doing damage control, promising that they were studying the problem as much as possible in hopes of finding a cure, but it wasn’t helping much.

Interestingly, according to a few stats on sites I trusted, the actual deaths caused by the screamers was less than I had thought. The burners were the worst, but even then casualties were relatively low. Over ninety-five percent of anyone who engaged the zombies were either fine, or zombies themselves. If they did find a cure, this whole thing would soon go from a tragedy to a minor inconvenience.

It was when I was browsing the Monster Slayer’s Information Database that a chat window from ‘many-arrows’ opened up. That would be Obould, the orc I had sold the giant alley crawlers to.

<Hey, Huntsman. How’s it going?>

I smiled. Obould was one of the first orcs, the trusted lieutenant of Orcus himself. Technically speaking, he was the leader of the subculture ever since his boss died in a fight with Malcanthet, but he took a very hands-off approach to command.

<Hey back. How are those worms?>

<Oh, fantastic! The fey somehow managed to introduce a new enzyme into their system that toughens their entire structure, allowing them to bypass the problems of the Square Cube Law.>

I frowned. <Wait, you’re saying that now crawlers will just keep growing until someone kills them?>

<Well, no. There is still an upper limit to their size, it’s just much higher than before. And the fey don’t seem to have figured out how to make the change genetic. They had to do it manually. Basically, they found an easy way to make crawler gargants.>

<That’s hardly good news.>

<True. I expect you’ll be seeing a lot more of these around soon.>

<Do you have some sort of poison we could use to fight back?> This was Obould’s real strength; he wasn’t a monster slayer, he was the support system. Monsters always had fatal flaws, even if those flaws only existed on a cellular level. It was his job to find those weaknesses and expose them. If he had to whip up some crazy new chemical in the process, he would.

<Not yet,> he replied quickly. <I have a counter agent that will destroy the enzyme and kill the worm, but I haven’t had a chance to test it, and even if it works it will take a few days to take effect. Hardly the magic bullet you’re looking for.>

<Fair enough. You mentioned something earlier about Ling’s armor?> Obould was one of the few outside of Necessarius who knew of our status as the Paladins. We had a good working relationship, and the guy you buy equipment from needs to know exactly what you’ll be facing.

<Yes, I believe I have something. She’ll have to try it on, but think chainmail, woven from pebbles.>

It took me a minute to respond to that. <Uh…>

<No, hear me out. It’s a simple body glove underneath, but everywhere possible, I sewed pebbles into the fabric. If I’m correct, she should be able to use her powers to move the stone, creating a primitive sort of powered armor.>

Huh. That actually sounded good. <There’s just one problem. I’m not sure how fine her control is. She might rip them off, or liquify them.>

There was a brief pause before he replied. <…liquify?>

<Yeah, she can affect the viscosity of stone, as well as simply controlling it.>

<You didn’t mention that.>

<Oh. Oops.> That was my mistake.

<Well, either way, she just needs to practice controlling it. This should be as good a trainer as any. Once she plays around with it a little, I’ll have a better idea of what she needs.>

<Fair enough.>

<And before I forget, I have your Akane’s armor ready as well.>

<More pebbles?> I typed, smiling.

<Hah. Funny. No, it’s pretty much just a black body glove But it’s got kevlar woven throughout, so it should stand up to pretty much anything.>

<What about other aramid fibers?>

<Some heat resistance. I didn’t add too much; she needs to be able to breathe and sweat. And I’m worried enough about how flexible it is. Have her come over once she gets a chance; I need her to try it on tell me how it feels.>

<That should be perfect.>

<I also have a friend, Elrond, who can help with her sword.>

I frowned. <Wait, is this the same Elrond who thinks he’s an immortal elf?> Elves were a pretty rare subculture in Domina, not because there was anything wrong with them, but just because the cosmos they used were barely even noticeable. Wow, you have pointy ears. Big deal.

<Well…yes. But he’s also a very good smith. He’s been experimenting with that amorphous metal stuff. You know, what they’re using for surgical tools?>

<Yeah, it’s a non-crystalline metallic alloy with a disordered atomic structure. I read the article you sent. I’m just not sure I trust him.>

<But she needs a new sword, right?>

<Well, she could use one, but the one she has is working fine.>

<Okay, okay, we’ll table that for now. Maybe I can sell you some knives, get you interested. Check out my market in the Emporium.>

The Emporium was Domina’s online marketplace. Brick and mortar stores were still more popular, if only because when ordering online there was always the chance the truck delivering your goods could get hijacked. But they were getting much better about that.

<I’ll look into it,> I promised.

<Good. Now, what about your armor?>

<I don’t do armor Ob, you know that.>

<I know, but come on, you’re not perfect. You need armor, or at least a damn gun.>

<I have an Occisor I got for my fifteenth birthday if I really need something.>

There was a pause, probably caused by Obould doing a quick search to see what model that would be. <The mark 2?>

<Yeah, that’s the one. It’s a good gun.>

<Well, it will serve. Hardly useful against gargants.>

I shook my head, chuckling. <Very little is useful against gargants.>

Behind the Scenes (scene 47)

You know, considering how much fun I have writing these, I’m not really sure why they don’t come up more. I suppose I’ll have to remedy that.

Oh, and Obould and Derek’s text messaging was not cleaned up to make it look better. They just both use complete sentences and proper punctuation when they IM people. They’re kinda strange like that.

One last thing: Originally, I didn’t mean for Ling to be able to affect viscosity as well as normal kinesis. It just sort of came out in the fight scenes. However, not all petrakineticists will have that ability. In fact, most won’t. When she received the talent, she subconsciously chose that option, which also slightly decreased her raw power and control. Many talents have these “secondary talents.” Genesis abilities, for instance, have the ability to sense how the created material will behave as a secondary talent, allowing genists to produce better effects than if they were simply throwing things at people.