The world was pain.
Needles and spikes and tearing razors and things I didn’t have names for. Every second my flesh felt like it was about to slough off my bones, because that was exactly what was going to happen. It took a constant effort of will to keep my concrete skeleton in one piece, to keep myself the right shape.
I took a deep breath and pushed it back. All of it, like holding back a river with a single plank of wood. But I did it, and the pain faded to a dull roar. Always there, like my heartbeat or the pull of gravity, but no longer so all-consuming.
I opened my eyes.
I was in the ruined skyscraper that had once been an ave base. The entire building had collapsed from my assault, but the same spikes and twists of concrete that had brought it down also prevented it from falling any further. In fact, the concrete turned the place into a near-perfect fortress, with no entrances or weak spots.
They called it the Grave.
“Alexander,” I said.
He stepped out of the shadows swiftly, but without rush. “Yes, my lady?”
“There is a party upstairs.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, my lady. A celebration following the victory against the Americans. There are countless similar parties all across the city.”
“I’m sure.” I stood up from my cross-legged position. I had been meditating. I couldn’t sleep anymore, not when I needed to use my power at all times to keep my skeleton working properly. Clarke’s Insomniac gland was a godsend, but I still needed rest. “Call down three of our strongest. I have a job for them.”
He looked hesitant, but bowed low anyway. “Yes, my lady.” He stepped into what seemed to be a solid wall—the old elevator shaft, now sealed up. The elevator itself was scrap metal at the bottom of the shaft, but it was still useful.
I used my stonesense to track him, or rather the concrete belt he used to ascend the shaft towards the roof. He was almost at the edge of my sense when he stopped at the roof. A few moments later, he and three others began to descend the shaft again, levitating their stone belts to control their speed.
The concrete wall of the shaft opened up like a curtain, and Alexander escorted three people into my chamber. Two girls and a boy. All baseline. Most of my people were baseline. It wasn’t a requirement, it was just the way it had ended up.
“Do you believe the war is over?” I said without preamble.
All three of them stood with their backs as straight as arrows. “No, Lady Grave.”
“Do you believe that now is the time for celebration?”
“No, Lady Grave.”
I levitated my own skeleton, allowing me to float a few feet off the ground and move into a cross-legged sitting position in mid air. “Artemis Butler believes he can solve this with diplomacy and deals. Perhaps he is right. But that is not the way of the Grave.”
“No, Lady Grave.”
“How does the Grave handle its enemies?”
Three voices barked the response with one voice. “We bury them!”
I nodded. “Good.” I pulled a small object out of my pocket. It was about the size of a pen, and I pointed it at the factory-smooth concrete ground. I pressed a button on the side and a light shone out of it, projecting a flat map of the city with a number of red dots scattered around it. They were clustered around the four city gates, especially North Gate.
“Each red dot represents a suspected American soldier, squad, or piece of scrap left behind when the army fled the city.” I clicked the pen again, zooming in farther onto kemo territory. “Perhaps these people were simply unlucky. Abandoned by their country. Perhaps they are kindred souls, who need nothing more than friendship and open arms to become contributing members of this city.” I clicked the pen off. “And perhaps not.”
One of the three—one of the girls—stepped forward. “Lady Grave. Butler’s orders are quite explicit. Defense only. He doesn’t want to further antagonize—”
“Who rules the Grave?”
The girl swallowed. “You do, Lady Grave.”
I slowly stopped levitating myself, setting my bare feet back on the concrete ground. Since I could only use my power on stone I was touching, that meant I could now control the entire building again. The girl flinched, but didn’t step back. Good for her.
“Artemis Butler.” I nodded. “He is a good man. A man trying to do what is best for this city, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. But he has controlled this city for far too long.”
One of the others, the boy, blanched. “You… you’re not talking about a coup?”
I waved my hand. “Of course not. He is what is best for this city. I am simply saying that he is sometimes more worried about keeping his word and making deals than he is about taking out the trash.” I tossed the pen to the second girl, the one who hadn’t spoken. “Today, that will be our job. Your job.”
She nodded, holding the pen. “What would you have us do?”
“Take kemo territory,” I said. “All three of you together, hitting every hot spot you can find. Don’t give them a chance to respond, don’t give them a chance to radio for help. Crush them. Bury them. Leave no evidence behind.”
They all bowed. “Yes, Lady Grave.”
I nodded. “Go, now. Take a few of the novices with you, if you feel it is necessary, but no more than a dozen. I want the report of your first success within the hour.”
They left quickly, running at a solid wall and passing through it like mud. In moments, they were gone.
“They’ll be caught,” Alexander warned. “Anders has his CS squads. Those three won’t be able to fight them.”
“They are not supposed to fight them. They are supposed to distract them. Pull them to this sector of the city, far away from where I will be.” I had been hit with a counter-song twice since I had returned to the city. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, but it had paralyzed me completely.
Alexander nodded, as if he had expected such a response. “And where will you be?”
“East Gate,” I said. “Vampire territory.”
He nodded again. “Very well. I will collect an escort for you.”
“No,” I said, grinning. “I will handle it alone.” I shivered in delight. “It’s been far too long since I was really able to let loose.”
And then I sank into the ground, swimming through the concrete and asphalt of the city streets as easily as if it was water.
Behind the Scenes (scene 294)
That’s the last short one for a little while. Not forever, of course, but we’ve got some long ones coming up next.