Scene 71 – Cura

CURA

AKANE

I wasn’t worried. Not in the slightest.

The sleepers were…something to think about, but Laura had that all under control. That wasn’t our job, we were just here to make sure nothing went wrong.

No, the thing I wasn’t worried about was Flynn.

“You can’t just run off on your own like that,” Derek insisted. “There was an emergency and you were nowhere to be found.”

Ling tried to meet his gaze and failed. “I was busy helping a friend.”

“Doing what?” She tried to answer, but Derek just cut her off. “I don’t care. You should have answered your phone, explained the situation.”

She planted her feet firmly. “I’m not a ‘sarian, and I’m not Akane. I’m not a soldier, I didn’t volunteer for any of this.”

Flynn had already proven willing to follow friends into dangerous areas. The fact that today’s screamers were relatively harmless was nothing short of a miracle, but probably not one that would be repeated.

He shouldn’t be doing that. It didn’t matter that he could handle himself in a fight; he wasn’t immune to infection, so he was always at risk. That’s why we always went in first. Was it really so hard to understand?

“Sometimes you don’t get a choice,” Derek retorted. “You’ve been recruited. Stand up and do your duty.”

Ling snorted and shook her head. “Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with?”

I needed a way to keep him out of danger, but nothing was coming to mind. Flynn might not have the stupidly unconquerable heroic spirit Derek did, but he still wasn’t one to let others get hurt when he could stop it.

I glanced over at him. He was taking a nap in a small folding chair, his sword held close. Adam was doing the same, though he had managed to secure a slightly more comfortable seat. Both of them had been up for too long. The rest of us should probably be sleeping too (except for the retinue, but they don’t sleep), but…well, Ling and Derek were yelling at each other.

Derek sighed. “You’ve been fine the past few weeks. What changed all of a sudden?”

Ling started looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Nothing, really. I just don’t like being tied down.”

He noticed the discrepancy instantly. “You’ve also never been afraid to share what’s on your mind. What aren’t you telling me?”

“I…I…” she floundered for a minute or two, but then her expression shifted, almost scary fast. She grinned, and took a step closer. “I’m hiding several things from you.” She stepped directly into his reach and put her arms around him. “Which I’d be more than happy to…reveal.”

“This is no joking matter,” he insisted, frowning. “If you don’t give me a half-decent explanation, Butler’s going to ask for your security pass back.”

She sniffed and laid her head on his chest. “Like I care.”

Derek pushed her away. “You should care. What do you think will happen if Butler writes you off as a loss?”

The little delinquent shrugged. “I get a black mark in the Necessarius books. So what?”

Maybe I should talk with that Canian, Guland. He was Flynn’s roommate, after all, he might be willing to help a little. He was off in the cell block talking to the Romanian that got hypnotized, but he’d be back.

Even if I could get Guland on board, that still left the problem of getting Flynn to listen. I suppose I could ask Derek or Laura for help…

No. Out of the question. This wasn’t their concern. I needed to handle this on my own.

“A black mark from Necessarius is a little more than a ‘so what,’” Derek said with a snort. “You won’t be able to get a job with anyone respectable. Unless you’re planning to join up with the Nessians? The Satanists?”

Maybe that was the answer. Convince him to get a job, something that would tie him behind a desk for as long as this stupid zombie apocalypse was still going on. Not a literal desk job, of course. He had too much energy to stay sane doing that. Maybe training? He had said he liked kids, maybe he could act as an instructor for one of the Necessarius junior classes. They taught kenjutsu at that level, which he could definitely help with. I had started learning iaido at about that age, but I’m not sure if that’s normal curriculum.

Ling just huffed. “Of course not. But there are plenty of options. The Belians would take me. They’ve never had a good relationship with the ‘sarians. Then there’s the Jotuun, the goblins, and the angels. I’ve also got some friends in the aves.”

“The Belians are just a bunch of chem-heads,” Kelly said from the door without even turning around, scratching the skin around her fixer slightly. “Stay away from them.”

Ling waved her hand. “That’s still four good options for me.”

“The angels require a level of devotion far greater than Necessarius,” Alex pointed out. “If you chafe under Butler’s command, the Saints will be infinitely worse.”

She scowled. “Fine. The goblins and the aves are perfect.”

Derek shrugged. “Even if you’re willing to go through the extensive modification required—which I doubt—neither of them has much power. You’ll be trapped in dead-end jobs for the rest of your life. Didn’t you want to be a director? That will never happen with them.”

Ling grinned. “The aves might surprise you soon,” she said cryptically. But then her smile faded. “Of course, I probably wouldn’t look good with feathers…”

“That’s one reason,” Derek deadpanned. He rubbed his head again. “Look, if you can’t make it because there’s an emergency, that’s fine. You’re only human, and its not like these things are happening on a schedule. Just call and explain it as best you can.”

She threw up her hands. “And I don’t think I should have to. This is a voluntary outfit.”

Derek took a deep breath, and I could tell her was counting to ten. “I know. I am just asking you to extend some common courtesies. Let us know when we’re going to be a man down, and why.”

Alex had some pull with the teachers, right? He had mentioned something about his friend being a Necessarian Lucifer. I should ask him. Maybe he could get Flynn a job. Of course, I still needed to ask Flynn, but I’d wait for Guland to come back. Present a united front.

Ling shook her head again. “You military types and your rules. Whatever.” She turned to leave.

Derek blocked her way with a barrier.

She cursed as she bumped into it. “Derek, what the hell—”

Without the slightest sign of hesitation or anger showing on his face, he grabbed the small girl by the neck with one hand, lifted her up, and slammed her back against his still-glowing barrier. The rest of us all scrambled back, knocking over our chairs in our haste to get as far from what was about to happen as possible—while still staying close enough to watch.

“In combat,” he said calmly, as if nothing was amiss. “A lack of intelligence can get a lot of people killed. Something as simple as not knowing what kind of shops are in the area can mean the difference between life and death.”

Ling struggled, but she just wasn’t strong enough. She wasn’t wearing her armor, and she had to be touching stone in order to move it. She also couldn’t talk; Derek knew just how to press on the throat to prevent someone from speaking without killing them. It’s harder than it sounds.

“One of the biggest causes of casualties in combat is reinforcements,” he continued. “Either the enemy has backup you don’t know about, or you don’t have the backup you thought you did.” He gave Ling a level gaze. “So I’m sure you can see why you always need to know when one of your soldiers is otherwise engaged.”

Ling tried to meet his eyes, but broke the gaze after a few seconds. That wasn’t so shameful; there weren’t many people who could do better.

Derek dropped her as he let the shield fade into wisps of azure. She gasped, sucking in as much air as she could. After a moment she calmed down, but she didn’t rise from the floor.

“I’m glad we had this talk,” Derek said, and left without another word.

Just as our fearless leader stepped out, Guland stepped into the room with a plate of doughnuts in his arms. He looked around at us all quizzically. “What’d I miss?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 71)

Ling’s power is slightly different from other kineticists’, in that she has a limitation called a “control radius.” Basically, when she’s touching some sort of stone (it doesn’t have to be directly, but close), she can control any stone connected to it within a certain radius—currently, about ten feet. So, for example, if she’s standing on the street, she can mold the asphalt within ten feet of her, but she can’t do anything to the rock sitting on the mailbox three feet away.

This limitation is one of the reasons she started with so much power; it’s what gamers call “min-maxing.” Taking small, unimportant flaws in order to gain more benefits. Of course, these decisions were all subconscious, which is why the stupid anime fan ended up with a better build than the team genius (that would be Laura).

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Scene 70 – Identifico

IDENTIFICO

LAURA

I rubbed my forehead. Today was not going well. I had chosen to simply skip my classes in order to get more time for working with Clarke, but we weren’t making much progress. The others were in a nearby room, mostly in case I needed help restraining a sleeper, but also so that Derek could yell at Ling. She had given us all a scare, disappearing like that. Now, of course, she was taking full advantage of Derek’s attentions to drape herself all over him. That might change fast, though. He could get scary in full tongue-lashing mode.

Robyn handed me a coffee, and I thanked her with a nod. I really didn’t have time to think about stupid Derek’s love life. Everyone was alive, that was all that was important. Now on to the matter at hand.

The sleeper who had started the whole mess, Horace Warfield, was dead. We had a few other prisoners, but they weren’t much more helpful than the corpse, since none of them remembered anything.

I glanced around and frowned. “Where’d your dad go?”

Robyn shrugged. “He said he had an idea for the heart and ran off. I don’t think he’ll be much more use on this project today.”

I sighed. Honestly, it was a miracle he had stayed this long. That man had the attention span of a goldfish.

At least he had left me one of his assistants. “Henry, tell them to bring in the next sleeper.” The tech nodded and walked out of the lab, past the room with Derek and the rest.

“Didn’t they find a way to identify sleeper agents before?” Robyn asked, sipping her coffee. “When Malcanthet’s started popping up, I mean.”

“Already tried something like that,” I grumbled. “However these are being controlled, it’s not through any drugs we can detect. That’s how she always did it, so it’s easier to test.” I suppose I could run some tests for a few masking agents just in case, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the effort.

If she had another idea, I never heard it, because we were interrupted by Jasmine Hannesdottir barging into the room.

Jasmine was the can ambassador, and one of the only—perhaps the only—can anthro in the city. There weren’t very many cans in general, since people didn’t really care about crabs all that much, so Jasmine was leader in all but name.

She was covered in an orange shell, thick and spiked, that hugged her body like a second skin. Her right hand was shelled, like she was wearing a gauntlet, but her left was replaced with a massive claw. Her lips were obscured by a collection of small mandibles, and two extra eyes on stalks slowly scanned the room.

“I’m sorry, madam dames,” Henry apologized. “I couldn’t stop her.” No doubt. He was completely baseline, and she was known for using that claw to snap people’s heads off.

“Where is Butler?” the kemo demanded in a surprisingly human voice, supporting my theory that she still had her normal lips hidden under all the crab parts. “I need to speak with him immediately.”

“Calm down,” I said slowly. “He’s resting. Can I help you with anything?”

She looked me up and down in obvious disdain. Her main eyes were still normal, and thus easy to read. She tried to shove me aside in disdain with her mostly-human hand.

I ground my teeth, resisting the urge to scream. I am not good with physical contact, creepy toys notwithstanding. “What do you need?

The kemo realized she needed to actually pay attention to me. “And who are you supposed to be?”

“I’m Laura,” I explained with all the patience I could muster. “One of the Paladins.”

The crab woman seemed to calm a little. “You’ll do. I am here to speak about my father.”

“Knight Michael Johnsson has been sent back to his clan for a funeral,” I said, thankful that I had been forced to personally sign away his body after all. It had been an annoyance, but at least now I knew for sure what had happened. “I’m sure you can make any necessary arrangements with them.”

She spat on the ground. “Hinir dauðu eru dauðir. No, I want to know who killed him.”

“Also dead.”

Jasmine narrowed her eyes. “Convenient.”

I chuckled. “Far from it. He had information we needed.” I shrugged. “But there was an air strike. A lot of people are dead.”

She pounded on a table with her claw. It split in half under the impact, dumping lab papers and glassware to the ground. That was going to be a bitch to clean up. “Stop mocking me! I want retribution! Who killed my father? I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” I asked. “Kill his family? His clan? His culture?” I stepped closer. “That’s exactly what the Composer wants, you know. He chose the perfect moment to start a civil war.”

Her mandibles clicked furiously, and she stepped forward angrily. “Don’t patronize me, little girl.”

I held my ground. “You’re not much older than me. And clearly less intelligent. You’re a diplomat, you know this is a bad idea.”

She snapped her claw dangerously close to my face. I ignored it. It was grandstanding, nothing more. Like a captured monster that knew it was caught. “Life for life, baseline!”

“And that code has been satisfied,” I pointed out. “The man who killed your father is dead. Now you get to carry on their legacy.”

Jasmine backed up, her mandibles waving slowly. A gesture of confusion. “Wait…their legacy?”

“The legacy your father and his murderer shared,” I said gently. “They both wanted peace and cooperation between the cultures.”

The can roared forward. “THEN WHY DID HE KILL HIM!?”

Exactly the response I was hoping for. I didn’t flinch. “He was hypnotized.”

She blinked. “What?”

“The Composer has some power to control people. To program them, like sleeper agents. During the battle five percent—exactly five percent—turned on their allies at the exact same moment.”

She stepped back again. “That means—”

“It could mean many things. Right now, it means we lost a battle. But we haven’t lost the war.”

She looked around, swallowed any complaints, and nodded. “What do you need me to do?”

“If you have any scientists in your entourage, send them over,” I said. “Other than that, just let us work.”

The can anthro nodded very slowly and headed back the way she came without another word. Henry and Robyn stared at her as she left, then turned to me, mouths agape.

I sat down heavily in a stool, since my shaking legs wouldn’t support me. “Henry, tell them to bring in the next sleeper.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 70)

Jasmine’s stalk-eyes don’t actually work. Oh, they transmit sight information to her brain sure enough, but its only the haziest of images. Like seeing with a good blindfold on.

Scene 69 – Post

POST

ADAM

It was a bloodbath, nothing less. Less than ten percent of our forces had survived the bombing run intact, barely enough to contain the disoriented (but mostly alive) screamers. Laura was organizing the recovery as best she could, and actually doing a fairly good job of it. Especially considering she had to coordinate the ‘sarian medical team at the same time.

Ling was still MIA, but Derek and Akane were sorting through the rubble, directing the medics to survivors they could save. A lot of the ones they brought in were horrifically injured, but that didn’t mean they were quite beyond help. The toy maker really was a miracle.

My job was simple enough. I was stationed at the perimeter of the med station with the retinue, in charge of shooting anything that tried to get close without authorizing. Not just screamers, either. The mind-controlled sleeper agents were proving dangerous, though luckily they didn’t seem to retain very much intellect in that state. It was a pretty simple job, which was good, since I was technically still recovering from that steel-plated gargant.

“Stay sharp, Anders,” Kelly instructed halfheartedly. She scratched the device on her left arm. “Not time for dozing off.”

I shot one of the skins that started running towards us, and he fell like a sack of potatoes. That was one good thing about these ones: We didn’t have to aim for the knees to have any chance of capturing them alive, since they could survive most of what we could throw at them anyway. A team clad in hazmat suits ran over to capture him.

“The fight is over, vampire,” I grumbled. We were all still sore and covered in dirt from Laura’s little carpet bombing, so tensions were high. Not to mention that rumors of the sleepers were sapping morale. Nobody wanted to wake up from a trance to find that they had started a war.

The sleeper agents who had survived were mostly contained as far away from anything sensitive as possible. They were in control of themselves again, but unfortunately didn’t remember anything from their time under. Hardly helpful.

“Over?” Alex said with a laugh. The androgynous angel was sitting on a sandbag, paring her nails with a mirrored knife that looked like it was built very specifically to disembowel people. “The political shitstorm from this is going to cripple us. And that’s assuming there aren’t any more sleepers.” She smiled grimly. “I think we can all agree that’s hardly likely.”

George let out another barrage from his minigun. “They probably got all the ones who were here,” he mused. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not guaranteed,” Kelly noted. “The Composer could have programmed them to act only under a different set of circumstances, in case there were survivors who could talk.”

“Five percent turned,” Flynn muttered. He couldn’t do much, since he didn’t use guns, but he was proving to be a pretty good spotter. “Exactly five percent. There’s no way that’s a coincidence.”

The pyro leader, Guilliman or whatever, spat out the rest of his cigar and ground it under his heel. “By my boiling blood, you’ve got that right. One of my best friends tried to kill me today. Your Ice Queen had better come up with a solution, fast.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What kind of solution? You think she can just magically tell who’s a sleeper and who’s not?”

He shrugged. “Better than I can, I’m sure.”

Flynn tried to change the subject. “You called your boss yet?”

The vampire nodded, the fuel tank on his back clanking. “He said to stay put and cooperate with the ‘sarians. They’re our only chance of getting out of this.”

Jarasax shot another screamer, and another hazmat team ran out. “I think the Composer was just trying to scare us. He has to be more limited than it seems. Otherwise, none of this makes sense.”

I let off a few more shots, though I didn’t hit anything outside of the small horde, still too large to take on at once. Hopefully I’d attract only a few; they weren’t quite smart enough to rush us all at once, thankfully. “What do you mean, doesn’t make sense? We’re fighting superpowered zombies.”

The Middle-Easterner shook his head. “Think about it. As far as we know, he could have hooked a singer up to some speakers, or hypnotized his way into NHQ. So why hasn’t he?” He shrugged. “The only reason I can think of is that he can’t.”

Flynn frowned. “You’re a changeling. You should know better than anyone that sometimes the enemies’ goals just do not make sense.”

Jarasax narrowed his eyes. Flynn was on dangerous ground here. “What do you mean?”

“If he doesn’t want to infect the city, his goals start to make more sense,” the swordsman said. “Maybe he’s trying to…I don’t know, harden us. Make us stronger.” He pointed off towards the horde. “Two o’clock.”

I took his direction and popped another screamer. “How does that make any sense? People are dying, not getting stronger.”

“It’s Domina City. People die every day.” He shrugged noncommittally. “Besides, it’s just a theory. And I didn’t say he was right, just that its the only way I can think of his actions making sense.”

Guland—that was his name, Guland—lit another cigar with the igniter for his flamethrower. “Or he’s crazy as the fey. Maybe he thinks this is fun.”

George gestured out at the devastated landscape, shattered buildings, and bustling medics trying to save what few they could. “This is fun?” he demanded in disgust.

“We’re not the ones who set up the game,” Guland pointed out, as he let loose a burst from his flamer on a cluster of skins. “We’re just more pawns.”

“Speaking of pawns,” I muttered. There was someone, a giant it looked like, running across the ruined street away from the camp, dodging the skins. “Who’s that?”

“Poor idiot,” Flynn agreed. “What does he think he’s doing?”

Guland shrugged. “Someone probably convinced him we needed a scout. Which we don’t.” He let loose another blast. “Burn the earth in front of you and sift through the ash later, that’s how you scout.”

“No, I don’t think that’s it,” Alex said slowly, tracking the man with a monocular she had pulled from somewhere. “He’s got something on his back. A bag of something.”

“Maybe he’s planting explosives,” I suggested. “You know, bottle these guys up and make them easier to handle.”

George didn’t seem convinced. “Maybe…but we’ve got dozens of Canians around. They’d know explosives better.”

Kelly snapped her phone shut. “I’ve got the answer. That was a text from MC. The jackoff stole a bundle of stimpacks.”

I frowned. “That’s the accelerated healing stuff, right? Why would he steal those?”

“Fungible material,” the vampire explained. When she realized I didn’t know what that meant, she elaborated. “They’re easy to turn into money. In high demand, but not expensive enough that everyone’s going to be looking for them. He can turn a decent profit off those.”

“Scum,” Flynn muttered, spitting on the ground. “Stealing medical supplies from a warzone? Men and monsters, at least the zombies attack you from the front.”

That’s when I had a really stupid idea.

“I’ll go get them,” I promised cheerfully. I vaulted over our improvised barricade, and gave a quick half-salute to Kelly. “Tell Derek I’ll be back soon.” I started running.

“Anders! Get back here! Blood and shadow—no, don’t follow him! Just cover him!”

I barreled forward, dodging past the skins. There were a lot of them, and I would have been quickly overcome, but the retinue and the others followed Kelly’s instructions, sniping zombies that got too close or seemed about to box me in. With their help, and a few well-placed blasts from my shotgun, I made it safely through the horde in minutes.

It didn’t take long to spot the alley the thief had dodged down. It had a few trucks blocking the entrance, which would be enough to keep the zombies from getting through.

Probably.

Thankfully, as a thinking creature, I was able to climb up on top of one of the boxy trailers pretty easily, where I had a good view of the alley ahead. I didn’t see anyone, which was odd. It was a dead-end alley. There were a couple dumpsters he could hide behind, but he was a giant. You’d think I’d be able to spot him.

Well, no other way to tell than to just jump right in. I pulled out my St. George and swapped the buckshot rounds I had been using for one of the Teflon-coated armor piercing slugs I had bought from Turgay about two weeks back.

Never hurts to be prepared.

I dropped down into the alley, eyes in front, ready for anything…

And immediately felt the barrel of a gun pressed again the back of my skull.

The bastard had been hiding in the shadow of the truck. Or maybe in the truck. God dammit…

“Drop the gun,” he ordered.

“I was just worried you’d get overwhelmed by the skins,” I said calmly. “No need to get upset.”

Drop the gun, ‘sarian.”

“Technically I’m sort of a Necessarian auxiliary, not officially part of—”

“Do you know what this is?” he asked, tapping the back of my head with the barrel of his gun meaningfully. “This is a MD92/14.5 Hand Cannon. One of the first guns made by the McDowells.”

I blinked. “Wait, as in Senator—”

“His brother, yes. It’s a fourteen-point-five millimeter pistol. That’s bigger than most sniper rifles. It’s insane. Ridiculous. No one needs a gun this big. You’d snap your wrists on the first shot if you tried to use it.”

He cocked the gun with a loud click.

“Unless, of course, you’re a giant. Now drop the gun, Anders. I won’t ask again.”

He knew my name. How the hell did he know my name?

Something to worry about later. I did as he ordered, tossing the shotgun a few feet to my left.

“The others, too.”

Damn. I peeled off my Sica and my Caedes and tossed them to my right. I unbuckled the clasps locking my Athena in place, and tossed it in the pile too, then raised my empty hands over my head.

“Now what?”

“On your knees.”

“Hey, if you think I’m going to just let me execute me—”

He shoved me hard in the back, forcing me to stumble forward a few feet.

“All right, all right,” I muttered. “I get the message.” I knelt down on the dirty alley floor, grateful for my jeans. “Actually, would you mind if I sit down? More comfortable that way.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

I switched to a cross-legged position that was easier on me, but also harder to stand up quickly from.

It appeared to lull the giant into a sense of security, because he walked around until he was in front of me. He still kept the gun leveled at my head, though.

And dear God, he was right about it being big. Even in his massive hand, it looked huge.

The man himself was eight feet tall and built like a body builder, with biceps literally the size of my head. He was wearing a white t-shirt, which showed off his muscles a little more than I was comfortable with, and had a leather bag slung over his left shoulder.

“I know you,” the giant said slowly. “Been hearing rumblings about you.”

I narrowed my eyes. Had he heard I was working with the Paladins? “Really.”

“Yeah. Huntsman gets a new monster slayer buddy, it’s a bit of news in certain circles. And then he let you fight a gargant without him?” He whistled appreciatively. “You must have some serious skills, to merit that treatment. Huntsman fusses over the men under him like a mother hen. I’ve never heard of him letting a hunt go down without him.”

Okay, as long as he didn’t know about the Paladins, it was fine. “What’s your point?”

“I did some research on you. Not much, but enough. I know you’re from New York, but that’s about it. Maybe you’re a military brat, maybe you’re just another street thug. Whatever, I don’t care.”

He brought his face close to mine, while keeping the barrel of his gun pressed firmly against my forehead. His hand didn’t waver a centimeter.

“But you’re not in America anymore, brat. This is Domina. You’ve been under Huntsman’s wing, so you’ve been protected. You don’t know what this place is like.”

I gave him my best death glare. He didn’t seem impressed.

“As you are aware,” I said evenly. “I killed a gargant. Mostly by myself.”

He didn’t seem to care. “I started out as a demon. A hellion, actually.” He chuckled. “Then I got an offer from the Thors, decided to become a giant. Simple enough. Thing is, my Devil didn’t want me to go. So I had to kill him and a dozen of my friends.”

I didn’t say anything.

“The Culture Wars are part of Domina and the toy maker, more than Butler and Clarke will ever admit. They think it’s just kids playing dress-up, but it’s war.” He looked down at me with a grin. “That’s my problem with you. You think the same as they do, but you don’t have an army to back you up.”

“I’m beginning to wish you’d just shoot me.”

“You sheltered little brat. You’re still acting like this is a game. Like nothing that happens matters. This isn’t your country. If I shoot you, I don’t have to worry about cops or jail time. I just have to survive long enough to make coming after me no longer worth the trouble.” He grinned. “Butler likes to pretend he can protect people, but he can’t.”

“Maybe I don’t need protecting. You know nothing about me,” I said evenly. “You admitted as much yourself.”

“And you haven’t been listening,” he replied chidingly. “There are no laws here, other than ‘don’t cause too much trouble.’ And you? Hardly any trouble at all.”

“The Big Boss doesn’t like people breaking his soldiers. Besides, maybe I’m more than you think—”

“I know you’re a clay.” He grinned wickedly. “You seem to think that makes you unique. And you’re right, it does. But mostly? It just makes you weak.” He drew a line on my cheek with his claw. “Fragile.”

I ignored the burning sensation with difficulty. I wasn’t going to bleed out from a scratch on the cheek, but I was worried about poison. Giants didn’t usually have poison, but still. I needed to get out of this quickly.

“I may be weak,” I managed in a calm voice. “But your toys make you arrogant.”

The giant chuckled. “I can afford to be arrogant. I’m bulletproof.”

“You sure?” Then I pulled the trigger.

It had taken me a few minutes to maneuver my Saint George into position without him noticing. If I hadn’t stumbled over to it when he first shoved me, I wouldn’t have been able to at all. It was a big gun, difficult to keep out of sight, but I knew it was the only thing I had that would be able to do real damage to him.

So when the time was right, and I had the weapon carefully hidden between my legs, I brought up the barrel and fired straight into his chest.

It also bucked hard into my crotch, driving the wind out of my lungs and making me sick to my stomach. My condition didn’t improve when the damn giant collapsed on top of me, some three or four hundred pounds of muscle just bleeding on my chest.

I was already losing feeling in my legs, but I couldn’t even get my arms free to move him. I needed to…crap, what could I do? I couldn’t call for help from this position, and I couldn’t reach my phone. If I started yelling, I’d attract the screamers. And Necessarius wouldn’t be here for hours…

“Hold still,” a pleasant male voice instructed. “I’m going to roll him off you. Don’t want your hand getting caught.”

I turned to my left to see a thin young man with gray skin and a shaved head emerging from deeper in the alley. He, at least, was normal sized, so I guess it made sense that he had been hiding behind one of the dumpsters or something. But why hadn’t he come out before now?

Oh, right. The giant with the stupidly large gun. That might have something to do with it.

I at least managed to keep my mouth shut for the five or so minutes it took for him to roll the corpse off my legs. It was only when I started regaining feeling in my extremities that I felt it was the right time to start asking questions.

“Who are you?” Right, politeness. “I’m grateful for the help, but I’m a little surprised you just happened to be squatting in this alley.”

“Oh, it wasn’t a coincidence,” he said with a forced smile. “The giant was going to give the stimpacks to me.”

I did a double take. “Wait, what?”

“We planned to meet up here to baton-pass the medicine and throw off suspicion,” he clarified. “But then he decided to get cute and try and rant at you instead of just killing you. Or waiting for you to leave. Or dropping the medicine where I could find it and then running. Really, anything besides ranting at you for five minutes would have worked.” The man kicked the corpse. “Freaking Blackguards. Think they’re better than the rest of us.”

I tried to ready my gun without him noticing. “Are you going to kill me now?”

The man shrugged. “I don’t see a reason to. No orders to, though I suspect if we meet again, that will have changed. And as you pointed out earlier, killing you could cause problems. A couple thousand bucks of stimpacks is not worth the wrath of Necessarius.”

I thought about what he was saying, paired with the fact that he seemed more annoyed with the corpse of his compatriot than concerned with the bag he had been killed over.

“You can go,” I said finally. “I won’t stop you.”

He smiled, and tipped an imaginary hat to me. “Thank you, Mister Anders. I really do hate killing when I don’t have to.” He walked back into the alley, towards a fire escape. “When Huntsman debriefs you, try and jazz me up a bit. Give me a cape or something.”

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 69)

Here’s an explanation of “flamers” and such (meant to use it for Cutis, but I had other things to rant about):

 

There are three general types of “flamethrower” weapons in Domina, most of which are sold by the Canians.

 

Flamers are standard video-game style flamethrowers. They spray a cloud of flammable liquid or gas, which is then lit by an igniter located near the nozzle of the weapon. Their range is horrendous (twenty feet on a good day), but they are useful against swarms of small monsters, and anything else that requires close-up work.

 

Flamethrowers are military-spec weapons, and shoot a long stream of burning liquid. They are extremely dangerous and moderately long-range, but tend to burn everything between the weapon and the target. While they do have their uses, they typically cause more trouble than they’re worth.

 

Incinerators are the more popular long-range choice, although they are also more expensive. They fire globules of burning napalm which burst on impact. This gives them a much more limited area of effect, which is useful if you don’t want to set the entire street on fire.

Scene 68 – Exploratores

EXPLORATORES

SEENA

“Ling?” I called, before remembering she was supposed to be in hiding. Best not to draw too much attention to her. Wait, if she was in hiding, then why was she having ice cream in broad daylight with Lizzy?

The little Chinese girl seemed surprised to see me, but waved me over regardless.

“You should reconsider this,” the Mal spy who had led me here warned. The midnight-skinned boy was nestled in the boughs of a small tree planted to offer strategic shade. He’d stick out like a sore thumb otherwise. “There’s something not quite right about that girl.”

“Thank you for your help,” I replied. “I can take it from here.”

Please—

“You said you thought my friend was in trouble. You said you’d lead me to her. At this point, I trust Ling far more than I trust you.”

“That’s not what I—”

I wasn’t exactly being as diplomatic as I could have been, but I didn’t care. I had just found out, not an hour ago, that my own subculture was spying on me by order of Abigor, the very warlord who recruited me. That in itself would have been annoying enough. But it also turned out that they had sent out a list of my known acquaintances to all our spies in the field, so they knew who to keep an eye on.

How did I know all this? Because one of those spies had woken me up early to tell me that Akane’s roommate—who I met a week ago—was seen running around with a couple aves and something the size of the toy box.

I sighed. I really shouldn’t be so hard on the boy. He had already promised to keep this quiet from the Nobles, which was a pretty big risk. And the only reason he was even doing that was because he was too stupid to realize that Ling was running around with the freaking toy box.

Not anymore, it seemed. As I strode over to where the girls were enjoying their early-morning ice cream, I didn’t see anything that could hide something so large. No suspicious loitering trucks, no stacks of crates…

Maybe she wasn’t a complete moron after all.

“It’s…Seena, right?” she asked hesitantly. “No, wait, it started with an L…”

“Seena Lancaster,” I confirmed, shaking her hand with a fake smile as I sat down. “I was, uh, in the area, and I spotted you. Figured I’d say hi.”

“Okay, sure.”

Damn, how the hell was I supposed to bring up the toy box? Somehow, I didn’t think ‘so I heard you’ve been dragging around a coffin’ would go over well.

Lizzy smiled at me as I sat down. “Did you hear Ling here found the toy box?”

I almost fell out of my chair.

Ling spewed her ice cream across the table. “Y-you can’t just go around telling people—”

“It’s all right,” I said quickly, my brain working frantically to figure out how to turn this to my favor. “I understand, things happen. I, uh…” I bit my lip. “Have you told Necessarius you found it?” I specifically avoided broaching the possibility that she had been involved in the theft. That would just scare her off.

But she looked away. “No. I haven’t told anyone but Lizzy. A friend of mine just…” she sighed. “An ave friend of mine got roped into something he shouldn’t have, that’s all.” She picked at the table. “And I really can’t talk to Necessarius about it.”

“Yeah, Butler has always been a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of guy.” I mused. “But Akane—”

Ling shook her head vehemently. “Definitely not. Can’t talk to her, or Laura or Derek. They’d all go straight to Butler. They’d probably keep me safe, but Turgay…” she closed her eyes. “I’m not killing him.”

“Fair enough,” I said quietly. “So what’s your plan? Anonymous tip?”

“We called Soaring Eagle!” Lizzy chipped in cheerfully.

Ling looked like her head was about to explode. “Velvet hell, Lizzy, can you keep that stupid mouth shut?!

The golden Amazon pouted. “That’s not fair, I’m only trying to help…”

“No, it’s…” I thought about. “Okay, no, I actually need an explanation for that one. Why did you think sending it back to the chick that stole it would be a good idea?”

Ling rubbed her forehead. “I…it was…Turgay’s my oldest friend, you have to understand, it was the only way to keep him safe…”

I placed my hand gently on her shoulder. “It’s all right. I understand.” And I did. If Simon had been in the same situation, I would have done the exact same thing. Luckily, he wasn’t that stupid.

After Ling seemed to regain her strength, I nodded. “You know this is going to come back to bite you. But I guess you have no choice but to just let it lie. Pretend it never happened and go back to your normal life.”

She groaned. “Tezuka…Derek is going to kill me.”

“Just don’t tell him.”

“No, there was this thing I was supposed to help him with…” she glanced at Lizzy, but looked away quickly. Almost guiltily. “I’m not going to be able to come up with a good excuse.”

“How important was this thing?”

Derek important.”

Oh, okay, so something to do with monsters or whatever. Fair enough, shouldn’t be too big a deal. Derek was just a big softie, he’d—

Wait.

I closed my eyes. “This thing. Was it a life-or-death situation.”

“Almost certainly.”

I sighed. Yeah. She was dead. There was a lot Derek Huntsman would forgive. But if someone died because you did something stupid or selfish…

Well. Let’s just say I was glad I wasn’t Ling Yu.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 68)

This is a pretty important scene for later on, and I almost completely forgot to write it.

 

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 67 – Destitutio

DESTITUTIO

LING

I could hear the screams, far to the north. MC had called me three times, but I had ignored her every one.

This was a mistake.

But I had no choice. Turgay needed me.

“Thanks for patching me up,” the crow said. “I still don’t know how I got hurt.”

“Shut up, Pig,” Turgay responded tiredly. “Ling, we can only lay low for so long. Sooner or later, people will come looking for you.”

That was an understatement if there ever was one. Turgay had enlisted my help Sunday night, and it was now Tuesday morning. I had managed to delay inquiries simply going to class yesterday, but they had almost been caught twice in the process. There was no way I had the time for a screamer fight. But that meant the second it was over, everyone would be looking for me.

“We have maybe six hours,” I said decisively. Probably a little more, actually, but it’s best to be safe. “We need too have you back with Soaring Eagle before then.”

He licked his beak. “We’re no closer to finding her than we were Sunday. She was nomadic even before she got on the ‘sarians most wanted list.”

I suppressed my frustration as best I could. “You have to have some idea where she would be.”

He shook his head. “The only one I ever dealt with was Delia, one of her lieutenants. But she’s dead or in custody now, so she’s no help.”

I closed my eyes. “There has to be someone.”

The crow spoke up. “There’s Delia’s boy, that…Sharptalon guy.”

“Kevin,” Turgay said in the same tired tone as before. “Useless. He’s one of her warhawks.”

Pigeon frowned. “What does that have to do with—”

“All her warhawks were with her.”

“But—”

“Shut up, Pig.”

The crow finally shut his beak.

I rubbed my forehead. This is what happens when you get involved in dinky little revolutions where no one has thought anything through. Everything starts going to hell in a hand basket the second a single thing goes wrong.

None of my friends would be of any use. Even if they didn’t turn us in—which was a pretty big if all on its own—Necessarius would find us very quickly. Aves stood out, and lugging the toy box around would only make it worse.

Couldn’t go to Matron, or anyone else at the orphanage. Even ignoring the fact that she was an avid supporter of Butler, she didn’t have any power. At least Derek and Laura would be able to negotiate; the Big Boss had nothing he wanted from a bunch of orphans.

I started paging through my address book. In all honesty, I should have probably throw my phone away, but the screamers should distract everyone from bothering to check my location with it. I may as well use it.

Not that it mattered. There were over a hundred names, and none of them would be of any help. Helena, Mitchel, Abigail, Harry, Thuron, Lily, Negi, Hayate, Adam, Akane, Derek, Laura, Lizzy—

Lizzy. She might work. Laura said she had contacts, right? She was a voice actress or something. She made a decent living, which meant she had a support network. Maybe a small one, but hopefully one that had no connection to Necessarius.

But would it work? She was actually stupider than me, and generally solved her problems by calling Laura. Was it worth the risk?

Yes.

There was nothing else to do. I pressed the call button and put the phone to my ear. It rang three times, an eternity between each, before she picked up.

“Liga bak…hello? Who is this?”

“Lizzy? It’s Ling.”

“Ling?” There was a brief pause. “Oh! Ling! Tīng dào nǐ zhème hǎo! Nǐ shénme bù kāixīn?”

Right. That was the other reason I had been leery about this. “I don’t speak Chinese, Lizzy.”

“Mmm…forgot. Yes, right, no Chinese. You’re an otaku. Nani ga mondaina nodeshou ka? ”

“I don’t speak Japanese either,” I sighed. “Look…nevermind, it’s not important.”

She stopped me before I could hang up. “No, you woke me up, you have to explain why. Not like I can get back to sleep, with those screamers.”

Right. She also had a power. Didn’t know what it was, but she had one. “I’m in a bit of a bind. I need to find someone and deliver something to them.”

“O-kay…why not just call MC?”

“The thing I need delivered is not something she would like to know I have.”

There was a brief pause. “Wait one second. You stole something?”

I didn’t, a friend of mine did.”

“A…friend.”

I scowled. “Yes, dammit, a friend. And he came to me for help. I need to get to Soaring Eagle, the ave Animal King, with two aves and a package about the size and shape of a coffin. Can you help?”

I shouldn’t have said that, but she was annoying me. I know the whole ‘my friend has this problem’ was an old cliché, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be true sometimes.

Turgay looked at me a little sideways. “Ling, are you sure—”

I shushed him and turned back to my phone. “Lizzy. Can you help?”

There was a long pause. “I’m still not quite sure what you expect me to do,” she said slowly. “I don’t exactly have very much experience with grand theft.”

I took a deep breath and counted to ten before speaking. “I just need you to find Soaring Eagle and arrange a meeting. You have contacts and everything, right?”

“Well…some. I mean, she’s a prominent member of the community, so I guess I could arrange something…”

“Okay, you just need to tell her we have the Pigeon.” From what Turgay had told me, the Animal King would remember the names of the men who had the toy box. Probably. “That should be enough.”

I could practically hear her nodding. “I can do that. Where are you now?”

I frowned. “Why is that important? You can just call once the meeting is set up.”

“That’s not quite how this works. You have to do most of it in person. It’s polite, and this crowd is big on that.”

I rubbed my forehead again. Whatever. She knew it all better than I did. “Fine. We’re in the basement of the dorms. In the farthest laundry room.”

“Really?” She seemed very surprised. Why should she be? There weren’t many other places we could hide. “Why aren’t—not important. I’ll be there in…half and hour.”

Wait, what? It was only six in the morning, and her first class wasn’t until noon. “Where are you?”

“About half an hour outside of campus,” she replied tersely. “I’ll see you soon. Sit tight.”

True to her word, she found us within thirty minutes. We were huddled in the corner, covering the aves and the toy box under as many towels as possible, while I pretended to be a maid. It was a laughable disguise, and any idiot could tell we were hiding something.

“It took me a little while to find you,” the bronze-skinned amazon said when we finally managed to wave her over. “It’s a good disguise. This your friend?”

Well, that was hardly getting things off to a good start, but it was a little too late to back out. “You have a meeting ready?” I gestured to the towel-covered box behind me. “And somewhere to stash this?”

She bit her lip in an almost ridiculously cute way. “Oh, right, you can’t just drag that along behind us, can you?” She looked around, as though hoping a closet would materialize out of thin air. “I guess…we need a truck?”

“That would be helpful,” I said with as much calm as I could. “And we probably need a doctor for the crow. He got hit by some shrapnel.”

Lizzy leaned over, looking at him. “It doesn’t look so bad.”

Odd reaction. It wasn’t life threatening or anything, but it looked bad. Blood was already oozing into the white bandages, despite the fact that I changed them an hour ago. It was beyond my expertise, anyway. “Can you call someone? You have doctors and drivers, right?”

She shifted her feet a little. “Well…I have people. But I’m not sure…”

“Anything is better than nothing,” I assured her. We were out of options, whatever she had was enough. The screamers were distracting enough without having to deal with her whining about helping.

She bit her lip again. “Okay, let me make a couple calls.” She shook her head violently, like a dog drying off. “Sorry, the screaming is distracting me.” She pulled out her phone and headed out of the laundry room. “One second.”

The second she was gone, Turgay turned to me, an uncertain look in his eye. “You sure about this, Ling? She’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. And what was that about the screaming?”

I sighed, and decided to simply deflect his uncomfortable question rather than try and find a decent lie. “She’s all we got. If you don’t like her, you shouldn’t have stolen the damn box.”

He shut his beak at that. He knew I had a point. How did he even get in this situation in the first place? He wasn’t a complete moron, he knew better than to screw with Necessarius.

Before I could think too much on that line, Lizzy came back, closing her phone with a satisfied snap.

“A truck is on the way,” she promised. “And the ave woman has been called. Everything is under control.”

The crow perked up. “Really? What’d she say?”

“Shut up, Pig,” Turgay grumbled. “She didn’t actually talk to her.”

“I’m not sure if we should be here for this,” I said slowly. I had seen allies who knew too much killed enough not to stick around. “I think this is an internal ave thing.”

Lizzy just shrugged. “If that’s what you want, we can leave them to it once my truck gets here.” She brightened. “Ooh, we can go for ice cream!”

Pigeon gave an ave grin. “That sounds great! Can we come?”

Turgay rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Pig.”

I sighed again and nodded to both birds. “There’s still that maintenance sign on the door, so you guys should be fine.” I turned back to Lizzy. “How long until the truck gets here?”

“No more than half an hour,” she promised. “Now, about that ice cream…”

I rolled my eyes. “Sure, fine. Let’s go.”

I’ll admit I felt bad about leaving them alone like that, but there shouldn’t have been any problems. And I really didn’t want to let Lizzy’s driver know my face. I’m sure she trusted them, but stuff like that tended to get spread around.

But as we walked out of the laundry room and up to ground level, a large white van pulled up. A man stepped out of the passenger side almost before it finished stopping.

He was tall and thin, dressed in an immaculate suit and tie. He was a demon with red skin and small, sharp horns, and I saw a tail flicker briefly behind his legs. I couldn’t tell precisely what subculture he was from, but that didn’t mean much. Lots of modders, especially demons, never bothered with specific subcultures.

The demon bowed deeply. “Mistress Greene, we are ready whenever you are.”

Lizzy raised an eyebrow. “That was fast. Were you waiting for my call?”

Her servant didn’t raise his head. “Yes, we were.” I noticed his tail thrash once. “That…is not a problem, is it?”

Lizzy grinned widely. “Far from it. I think I just remembered why I keep you around.” Her grin faded. “Is it just you and the driver?”

“Yes. Oleander is the driver, though.”

She nodded. “Good. The aves aren’t going to be much help, especially since one is injured. Get him inside first, then worry about the package.”

Her servant finally straightened. “Aves? Then I am I to understand the package is…”

“The toy box, yes,” she answered in an annoyed tone. I was a bit surprised; I wouldn’t have thought anything could crack that cheerful shell of hers. But then she quickly smiled again. “I’ve already made arrangements with Soaring Eagle. Just take them to the meeting point, and it will be fine.”

The demon raised an eyebrow. “You are not coming with us, Mistress Greene?”

She grinned wider and grabbed my arm. “Of course not. I saved the day, that means I get ice cream!

The demon smiled slightly and bowed again. “Of course. Now if you’ll excuse me…” he straightened and hurried past us, down to the laundry rooms. The driver got out as well, revealing himself as a giant—a Jotuun, if I was any judge.

Lizzy dragged me off by the arm, tugging me towards the eastern side of the campus, where the food court was.

It took me a minute to figure out where we were going, mostly because I was so surprised. “You like the school meals?”

“Only the ice cream,” she admitted. The Amazon had let go of my arm and was now dragging me by the hand. “It’s really good, and cheap too.”

“I believe you. Now can you let go of my hand?”

“There’s also a nice spot under the trees, but next to the air conditioner,” she said cheerfully, clearly not listening. “You get shade and warm air pumped out of the building shot at your feet. No one else seems to like it, which is perfect.”

I frowned. “I’m not sure I like the sound of it either.”

“The chef knows me,” she continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “He’ll make our ice cream himself. What kind would you like?”

“Uh…” she stared at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. “A sundae? I guess?”

“Good choice!” she chirped. “Me, I prefer just a simple cone, but I’ll get a sundae this time too.”

We found the table Lizzy had mentioned quickly enough. As she had said, it was unoccupied. I found the air conditioner a little too close for comfort, but didn’t say anything.

A small baseline man (except for some violet eyes) came up with a pad. “Hello again, Lizzy. The usual?”

“Actually, my friend would like an ice cream sundae,” the girl responded promptly and cheerfully. “And I’ll have the same.”

The waiter nodded. “A good choice. I always say that you should expand your horizons. I’m glad you’re finally doing so.”

Lizzy grinned at him, golden eyes glittering. “I think I’ve already tried enough, Mark. I know what I like.”

He wisely chose not to retort, just smiled, inclined his head, and went inside quickly.

“It will be a little while,” Lizzy explained. “Dessert is on the sixth floor.” She grinned again. “In the meantime, what’s going on with you? Other than helping kemo minorities commit grand theft, that is.”

This girl…I know she didn’t mean it, but she could be a little abrasive. “Ah…not much. Just soccer and school.”

It was a bit awkward. I mean, she knew about the screamers, obviously, but I couldn’t exactly tell her how involved I was in the whole thing. And other than that…what was I doing, really?

But she just nodded, not noticing my troubles. “Yeah, I’m about the same. School and voice acting.” She grinned. “And shopping. Lots of shopping.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure that’s loads of fun.”

“It is!” she insisted. “Hunting down the perfect item is quite satisfying. There’s a rush to it.”

“So…that’s it? That’s all you do?”

She chuckled. “Like you’re much better. What do you do in your free time? You must have some. College can’t be too time-consuming, I seem to be passing easily enough.”

Well, I hadn’t actually been doing anything recently other than sleep, since the screamers kept waking us up at weird hours, but there was always the old fallback. “Mostly, I watch anime and stuff.”

Lizzy nodded. “I think Laura mentioned that before. What kind?”

“Shounen, mostly. What about you? What’s your favorite anime?”

Her face scrunched up as she thought. “Welll…nothing specific. Just seinen in general, really. Though I’ll admit a lot of them have too much sex.”

I nodded in agreement. “I hear that.”

My phone buzzed. I reached down and turned it off without even considering answering it.

Lizzy blinked. “Shouldn’t you—”

“No,” I said firmly. “I should not.”

She winced. “Boyfriend troubles, I take it?”

Now it was my turn to blink in confusion. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Derek, I mean,” she elaborated, looking at me with those guileless golden eyes. “You two are dating, right?”

I was glad our food hadn’t come yet. I probably would have spit it all out over Lizzy.

Instead, I merely coughed. “No…ah, no. No, I’m not. We’re not, I mean. There is…no.”

“Oh, that’s a shame.” She leaned back, allowing the waiter who had suddenly appeared behind her to place our sundaes in front of us. “You’d make a cute couple.”

Thankfully, with the food in front of us, I had a good excuse for not answering, and by the time we were done eating, she had apparently completely forgotten. The next hour was much of the same, and passed in a pleasant and talkative blur.

Punctuated every five minutes by my phone ringing.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 67)

This came out better than I expected. And as for Lizzy being able to get in touch with Soaring Eagle so quickly: Remember that until very recently, the King was considered an upstanding member of the community, with many friends. She still has most of those friends, even though they’re a little more wary now.