Scene 90 – Apsurdis

APSURDUS

AKANE

“Akane?”

I froze at the sound of my name, and turned very, very slowly to face the man who had called out to me.

“Flynn,” I said, with what I thought was an admirable veneer of calm. “It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, it sure feels like that, huh? You only went to what…one class since—”

“Yes, well,” I interrupted, before he could finish. “Very busy. Don’t really have time for kendo.”

“Uh…yeah. I can imagine.” He fell silent.

I shifted on my feet, unable to look at him.

He had been helpful with the skins, both before the attack and after, of that there was no doubt. And that kiss…but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about him.

I shouldn’t be having this many problems. This was not supposed to be complicated. Derek—

I needed to stop bringing Derek into this. He was irrelevant. He had absolutely nothing to do with my love life. Never had.

“If you want to…” he trailed off.

I tried to finish for him. “…come to class more?”

He blinked. “What? No, I was going to ask if you wanted to go get coffee or something, but that’s a stupid idea…”

I shifted more. “Yeah, I don’t drink coffee…”

“Well, I know, that’s why I said it’s stupid.”

“Oh, I forgot I told you.”

“No, that’s understandable. I mean—”

“I can’t remember everything I say.”

“Right. Yeah.”

An awkward silence fell. It was debatable whether it was better or worse.

“Akane?”

Oh, thank Musashi himself. I turned to see Ling and Lizzy walking towards us, shopping bags under their shoulders.

The little blonde delinquent smiled. “I thought that was you. What’s up?”

I waved my hand in what I hoped was an offhand manner. “Oh…nothing. You?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, I was at soccer practice, but Laura apparently ran out on Lizzy before they finished shopping, so I had to step in to get the job done.”

We got some stuff for you too,” Lizzy said in her usual flawless Japanese. “Another sharpening kit—don’t look at me like that, this one is specifically for knives. We also found some coupons you might be interested in. But mostly, we got you lingerie.

I nearly choked. “Lingerie?

Ling brightened. “I understood that! Yeah, we got you lots of lingerie.” To my horror, she started rooting around in her bag. “Here’s some black lace, a see-through set, white lace—”

I rushed forward to try and stop her. At the very least, she shouldn’t be pulling these out in the middle of the sidewalk. It wasn’t particularly busy, but still.

Flynn tried to step in. “Uh…maybe we should do this somewhere else…”

Before Ling could react, I activated my speed, grabbed the bag, and ran towards the nearest alley. It was a stupid thing to do, with everyone around, but no one noticed. At least, no one started screaming in panic, so good enough.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ling hissed, glancing around as she followed me. “Are you crazy?”

Me?” I demanded. “You two…” I shook my head, unable to find the words.

Don’t be mad, Ken-chan,” Lizzy said soothingly. “It’s all right if you’re not at that stage yet. Everyone’s relationships advance differently.

I sputtered. “What are you—no. No, no, no!

Ling rolled her eyes, catching my tone well enough. “Here,” she declared, handing me another bag. “All yours.” She nodded at Flynn. “I’m sure you two will be very happy.” Then she grabbed Lizzy by the arm, turned on her heel, and walked away.

Flynn blinked at me. “Uh…”

I looked in the second bag with some trepidation.

Ah. Right. ‘Relationships.’

Behind the Scenes (90)

As you might expect, Japanese doesn’t really have a word for lingerie, other than “lingerie” with a Japanese accent (in all fairness, English did the same thing). That’s why Ling understood that part.

And yes, extra update Wednesday. This one just wasn’t going quite the way I intended.

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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).

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 66 – Cutis

CUTIS

DEREK

I woke up when the screaming started.

It took me a minute to shake the sleep from my head, longer than usual. The interference from Butler’s captured zombies made it hard to identify new ones, but I could hear them coming from the North, probably past NHQ. I glanced at the clock; it was six in the morning. Not that bad at all.

I shook Adam awake quickly, and he immediately started getting ready. It was lucky he was even here. He had been going out with Lily most nights, doing who knows what. I don’t think she had an apartment, so it wasn’t that, but it still meant he only slept in our room about half the time.

We were ready in a few minutes, and when I opened the door Akane was waiting in her Minerva silk, looking frazzled. Ling, however was nowhere to be found.

“Where’s—”

Akane shook her head. “Don’t know, don’t care, let’s go.” She headed for the elevators before I could say anything else.

I shrugged at Adam a little weakly. “She’s never been a morning person.”

We went downstairs, collected Laura and the retinue, and headed north. Like last time, the van was mostly quiet. It was strange how empty it felt without one little fel who didn’t even speak.

“We’re going to have some help on this one,” Kelly said after a few minutes of driving. I noticed that she was scratching her fixer a little. “The General’s hellions and the Hammer’s Aesir will provide support.”

I was surprised. The two were hardly enemies, but they had never worked together either. “That’s wonderful news. How’d they manage it?”

“The Big Boss managed to convince pretty much everyone last night that an alliance was the only hope for survival. This is a test run.”

Adam frowned a little. “Okay, now…the Aesir are giants, right?”

“The first giants, actually,” George rumbled. “Though there is a little bit of argument on that.”

“Right. But I don’t think I’ve heard of the hellions.”

I chuckled. “Even I know that. They’re one of the first demon subcultures.” When he stared blankly at me, I elaborated. “They’re demon soldiers. Sargeras is in charge of…Laura, which Legion is he in charge of?”

The Legion,” she replied, without looking up from her phone. She seemed to be studying a map. “Also known as the Army. Their emblem is a red wasp.”

“Oh, right,” I muttered. “I forgot how unimaginative the General is.”

“And the Aesir?” Adam asked.

She just shrugged. “The standard mythological symbol. The threefold triangle, I think it’s called.”

“We’re here,” Jarasax said as he pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript ‘scraper. “Time to meet the neighbors. Watch your step, it’s a little bit icy.”

We piled out into a small square already crowded with armed men. On the left there was a Legion of demons, well-equipped with the latest anti-personnel weapons and with red wasps stitched on their shoulders. On the right was a clan of giants, carrying oversized guns and emblazoned with the threefold triangle Laura had mentioned.

A hellion and an Aesir were arguing in the empty space between the two camps, next to a fountain. That was the most important place to be at the moment; I walked up, with Laura following. Everyone else stayed behind, probably to check their weapons and such.

“We can’t send them in now,” the hellion was saying as I strode up. “We don’t even know what the screamers’ power is. We need more intel.”

The Aesir—a Thor, if the hammer sigil on his shoulder was any indication—waved a massive hand airily. “We don’t need them at all. Either send them in now and let them die, or force them to stay back. We don’t need to change our strategy to match a bunch of crazy vampires.”

“What seems to be the problem here?” I asked.

Both leaders turned to look at me, apparently surprised I was here. It was the hellion who spoke. “You’re the Paladins, I take it?”

I nodded. “I’ll be personally leading a small strike force. This is Laura. She’s strategy.”

The demon frowned. “Well, I’m not sure we need help…”

“You’re arguing,” I pointed out. “That means you need help.”

He shrugged. “Fair enough.” He scratched near his large horns. “The problem is that a couple Canians have shown up, and we don’t know quite what to do with them.”

Laura grimaced. “Who’s leading them?”

The giant barked out a laugh. “Leading? Leading Canians? If that’s your question, I’m not sure you should be in charge of strategy, little girl.”

She glared daggers at him, enough to make him swallow visibly.

“There’s always a leader, Honored Titan,” she said calmly. “Even if it’s just the one who happens to be in front. Where is the one who speaks for them?”

The giant pointed without saying a word.

“Thank you,” she replied scathingly, and walked off in the direction he indicated—farther down the no-man’s-land between the two armies. I nodded at the men and quickly followed her.

The Canians was closer to the screamers than the demons and giants, but still far enough away so that we couldn’t see the zombies. They seemed to be mostly confined to a street about ninety degrees to the staging area, blocked in by a barricade of cars. That’s also about when I noticed that the streets were relatively undamaged. Even the intermittent patches of frost were undisturbed. Did that mean their power was something non-destructive, or had they just not come this way yet?

Not important at the moment. The Canian leader was talking to someone, surrounded by perhaps two dozen of his men. The second man was clearly not a Canian; he didn’t have daygoggles or a flamethrower, for one thing. He seemed mostly baseline, of some South American ethnicity I couldn’t identify. He was arguing with the Canian pretty vehemently, but the pyro didn’t seem all that concerned. As we got closer, the crowd parted to allow us through, and I got a good look at the speakers.

I blinked. “Flynn?

He started. “Derek? Oh, of course you’d be here…”

“Yeah, but what about you? You’re not a Canian.”

The swordsman just shrugged. “My roommate is.” He indicated the pyrovamp he had been arguing with. “This is Guland.”

“Pleased to meet you, Honored Nightstalker,” I said diplomatically. “Are you the one who led these Canians here?”

He grinned around his cigar—a safe cig, if the smell was any indication—and nodded. “Meph didn’t want to come down himself. The Nessians are getting violent again. So I called up a couple of my kithmates, and they called a few more, and…” he grinned a little wider. “Here we are.”

Laura didn’t seem to care. “You need to stay back and wait for orders. You’re upsetting the plan.”

Guland’s fuel pack started to shriek as gas began to leak out. He reached back and adjusted a valve, quieting it, without even looking. “It’s not our job to take part in any plans, Mrs. Paladin.” He hefted his flamer. “We’re just here to burn things.”

“If you don’t at least have some idea what you’re getting into, you’re just going to get killed or infected,” Flynn pointed out. “Nobody’s asking for you not to fight, just cooperate a little.”

One of the other Canians, a shorter white boy with smoke-stained skin, spat on the ground in disgust. “Ca şi Iad. Ei toţi ne urăsc. Am putea foarte bine uita doar despre ele. Ei nu vor fi nici un ajutor.”

“He’s right,” Guland insisted, though damned if I knew what his friend had said. Languages were Lizzy’s department. “Worse, they’ll probably throw us on a suicide mission. We’re useful. Let us fight.”

“We’re going to,” Laura promised. “But you clearly don’t want to die, right?”

The pyro’s eyes narrowed. “That a threat, Mrs. Paladin?”

She met his gaze evenly. “Far from it, Honored Nightstalker. But right now you have two choices: You can rush the screamers in a kamikaze strike, or stay back with us and help us with building up our strategy. That way, when you do attack, you can be certain its not a suicide mission.”

He shifted the cigar around again. “And if it is?

The Spanish woman just shrugged. “Then you either take it, or you leave. Either way, you get to choose whether you live or die. No one can force you to do anything.” She smiled grimly. “But you won’t be getting any support if you go in alone.”

The Noble—at least I think he was at actual warlord level, it can be hard to tell—turned to the vampire who had spoken earlier. The smoke-stained pyro in question shrugged in defeat. “Se pare de bun cu mine, domnule.”

Guland sighed. “Fine. Fine.” He raised his voice. “Everybody, back up! We’re playing nice with the other kids on this one.”

The other vampires murmured in annoyance, but obeyed, holstering their flamers for the moment and returning to the demon and giant camps.

As we returned, the hellion raised an eyebrow. “That was fast. I figured it was a toss-up on whether they’d run off or you’d shoot them.”

“We didn’t have enough ammo,” I quipped. “So we settled for recruiting them instead.”

“We have more ammo,” the Aesir grumbled, glaring at the pyros in annoyance. “If you need it.”

I smiled a little weakly. “I think we’ll be fine.”

“Suit yourself. So what is the plan?”

“I’ll go in first with two of the other Paladins.” Akane was already walking up…which was when I remembered Ling wasn’t here. “Ah…one of the other Paladins. Laura will stay here and coordinate everyone. The others will act as a fireteam.”

“When you go in, be sure to call back with details on their powers as soon as possible,” Laura advised. “We can’t really do anything until we figure that out. Don’t want a repeat of the bleeders.”

“MC,” Akane said. All these people she didn’t know were clearly making her nervous, but I got the message and flipped out my phone.

“MC? You’ve got something for us?”

“Not much, sorry. There were singers before, but they’re out of sight now. And whatever spec the screamers have, it’s not something flashy.”

I frowned. “Well, if we’re lucky, we can still get to the singers. Akane and I will scout ahead, try and get more information.” That reminded me. “Oh, and call Ling for me, would you?”

“She’s not there?” MC asked, incredulous. “Yeah, I’ll ping her right now.”

“Thanks.” I hung up and turned to Akane. “Ready?”

She nodded, and off we went, with Akane conspicuously avoiding looking at Flynn. The barricade of cars was actually surprisingly difficult to bypass. Someone—the giants, probably—had physically thrown the vehicles together about three high until they blocked the entire way. Unless the screamers sensed enough people on the other side, they’d look for an easier path.

Luckily, we were smarter than the zombies. It took some doing, but we managed to clamber up to the top of the barrier quickly enough and get a good look around.

The street that greeted us was surprisingly empty. Well, it was full enough by most normal standards, with more people milling around than you could count, but for screamers that was positively empty. Normally, the horde was so massive you couldn’t even see the street beneath their feet.

It also became clear that whatever their power was, it wasn’t directly dangerous. They were destroying everything in sight; bashing in windows, stomping on appliances and so forth, but they were doing it all with their bare hands. They didn’t even have the intelligence to pick up weapons.

They were still screaming, of course, so I couldn’t really say anything to Akane, but we both knew what to do. We knew what their power wasn’t, it was time to figure out what it was.

We slid down on the zombie side of the barricade as quietly as possible, though with the toneless shrieking, I doubt it particularly mattered either way. There weren’t any within twenty feet or so of the barrier, but they’d notice us quickly.

I held my hand out to Akane, and she placed her Colt in it. True, I wasn’t very good with guns (not to mention my moral leanings on the matter), but I wasn’t going to tackle a superpowered zombie until I had some idea of what it was capable of. So I squared my shoulders, planted my feet, and took aim using both hands to hold the gun.

Then I fired.

The closest screamer stumbled back, stunned, before regaining its balance and resuming its wordless chorus. Of course, now it was aware of us, as were a few more nearby ones. They rushed forward as one, their undulating pitch making it difficult to think.

Okay, they were bulletproof. But I couldn’t tell how. They weren’t morphers, like the biters; in the early dawn light, it was easy to tell that they at least looked normal. Was it possible they had some sort of ability that let them deflect the bullets? Metal control, or something?

That was something to think on later. For now, we had to run. We couldn’t go back the way we came; we’d just end up leading the horde past the barricade.

We ducked into a nearby ‘scraper, jumping through the shattered ground-level window. The lowest store was just clothing, with all the racks knocked over and the shirts ripped up, but the next ones up were a few food places. That format popped up a lot, with food being cooked upstairs and eaten downstairs while people browsed.

We were ahead of the screamers for now, but I knew they’d catch up sooner or later. The way to prevent that was obvious.

So as we reached the third floor, I tossed a grenade over my shoulder.

Akane glanced back as she heard the grenade bounce, cursed, and sped up the stairs at superspeed. I don’t know why she was so worried. It wasn’t like it was a big grenade.

It exploded behind me a little too close for comfort, but I just popped a shield and didn’t feel so much as a flash of heat. The zombies howled in outrage before reverting to their emotionless screams. It was only when I reached the fourth floor—where Akane was glaring at me—that I turned to look at my handiwork.

The entire stairwell was on fire.

I had intended for the grenade to just take out a dozen steps or so. Just enough to make a hole too big for the screamers to jump over. But that’s the problem with incendiaries: They rarely just burn what you want them to. The fact that this building wasn’t quite up to code didn’t help either.

On the positive end of things, I could see a few zombies on fire, writhing in pain. So it seemed like the Canians would be useful after all.

“Should’ve at least used a frag,” Akane admonished.

I shrugged. “Probably. Too late now, though.” We needed to jump to the next ‘scraper before the fire gutted this one completely. Fortunately, it was a relatively short building, at only ten stories.

Unfortunately, that meant the next one over was too high to jump to.

The shortest adjacent building wasn’t that high, only about fifteen stories, but that’s still way too big a difference to jump. Even jumping down would have been a problem. But smoke was already billowing out of the stairwell, and this ‘scraper wouldn’t last much longer. Not to mention that the screamers might be attracted by the smoke. Were they smart enough to make that connection?

“I can jump that high,” Akane muttered, eying the distance. “But not while carrying you.”

Oh right, physics got a little bent when she activated her speed. Unfortunately, mine was useless here.

I frowned. Well, my ability might work. I hadn’t really thought about it, but my barriers could by either stable, floating in the air without moving, or mobile, and could be carried around. If I could…

I held out my hand and concentrated. This would be a little difficult, but I thought I could manage it.

I made the first shield about six inches wide and placed it face down a couple feet away from the edge and higher in the air. Then I made an identical one a few feet from that, and then another and another until I had a crude staircase up to the next roof. It looked good, but my reservoir was draining fast, and I wasn’t even sure it would support my weight.

Akane stared at me. “Don’t tell me—”

“Then I won’t,” I quipped, and jumped onto the first shield.

It held, mostly, though I could only fit one foot on it. The small part of my mind that kept track of them noted that the shield was weakening rapidly; they wouldn’t last more than a few seconds each.

It was difficult getting to the next one, and I was beginning to regret placing them so far apart. I had to stretch, balancing on one foot, until I could get my free leg up to the right level and leverage myself up. It got easier, but only barely.

I released each shield as I finished with it, lessening the rate my reservoir was draining, but I was still worried. Creating new shields cost more than maintaining existing ones, so I couldn’t just start over when I was in the middle of it. I just had to hurry.

I reached the next rooftop with maybe ten seconds to spare and had to resist the urge to collapse in the early morning sun. Straining the boundaries of my power was a workout, but not a physical one. It was hard to explain.

As I was still catching my breath, a blur arched over the short balcony marking the edge of the roof and landed a few feet away from me, throwing up a small cloud of dust and gravel. It quickly resolved itself as Akane, none the worse for her experience, and glaring daggers at me.

“Couldn’t you at least have tested that a little more?”

I bit back an angry retort. I get a bit defensive when I’m questioned, but she hadn’t meant much by it.

I flipped out my phone before I said anything I’d regret. “MC? We still don’t know what the screamers can do, but they’re bulletproof, and fire works on them. Tell Laura to send in the Canians.”

“Wait, Akane set another ‘scraper on fire?”

Where the hell was she getting her information? There weren’t any open-source cameras nearby. Well, I guess it was possible that the shop owners had decided to give her full access to theirs. That happened sometimes.

“Well, kinda, but it wasn’t quite on purpose.”

“Oh, that makes it so much better.”

“Hey, if you think you can do better than come down here yourself.”

There was a short pause. “Laura says figure out their specs, then fall back. She’s sending in the Canians now. Try to stay out of their way.” She hung up.

Wonderful advice. I slipped my phone away with a sigh. We weren’t even close to done here.

I spied a small plume of smoke from further to the west. That would be the pyrovamps, no doubt, coming at the screamers from a different side. I nodded to Akane, and we headed over to look, roofhopping to get there. Luckily these were close enough in height that they had ziplines and ladders set up, so we didn’t have to try riskier methods again.

We didn’t see any zombies as we traveled, but that made sense, with the Canians attracting so much attention. It also meant that we needed to get to them fast, before they were overrun.

They turned out to be holed up next to the second to last ‘scraper on the street. It was some sort of gardening store, which was probably where they got all the sandbags they had piled in front of them as makeshift barricades. They had probably used one of the back doors as a shortcut into the street. If there was a more obvious way through—like a road unblocked by piled cars—the screamers would undoubtedly have found it first.

Note I said next to the building. Any other group would find it far easier to set up inside, but these were Canians. Each and every one was equipped with some form of flamer, from the little Romanian guy and his pistol with incendiary bullets to Guland, with his massive fuel condenser and attached flamethrower.

I used my shield stair trick to walk down into the short alley between the two ‘scrapers. Akane landed next to me, glaring, but I ignored her. It had worked, hadn’t it?

“Guland!” I called, walking forward. “Any news?”

He turned back and grinned before roasting a few more zombies, who ran off squealing in pain. “Not much. The fires are keeping ’em off us, but I don’t think it’s killing them.”

Taking a closer look, I realized he was right. The smoke we had spotted were the screamers themselves, but they weren’t burning as much as they should. After a minute or two, the flames died and the screamer just came back for another run, usually with their burned clothing falling off. A few were staying down, sure, but not nearly enough.

“This doesn’t make sense,” I muttered. “You been able to tell what their power is?”

“Nope. They’ve just been rushing us, as you can see.” He let out another burst from his flamethrower. It was one of the saner, long-range types, which actually fired streams of burning liquid a few hundred yards. Some of the Canians insisted on using short-range versions, which just coughed out clouds of incendiary mist. It can be helpful at times, but it usually isn’t.

“I can check,” Akane whispered. “Quick.”

I thought about it for a moment. That was probably the best idea, since it would let her get a good slow-motion look at what they were doing, but it was hard to tell. What if they had some weird power that screwed with inertia or whatever, and forced her speed to backfire? Except that wouldn’t have helped them against the fire…

Bah. We needed intel. I nodded to her, and she blurred off.

“Hold your fire,” Guland called to his men. “Don’t hit the paladin.”

They didn’t stop entirely, of course—Akane wouldn’t be able to hold off even a tenth of the screamers by herself—but they did clearly make an effort to avoid the area she was running around in. It was hard to tell what was going on, since mostly it just looked like she was running up to them and blurring away without doing anything, but I trusted her enough to know better.

She repeated the pattern nearly a dozen times—move in at normal speed, move out at super speed—before she sped back to my side, and the Canians resumed shooting everything in sight (as opposed to merely most everything).

I raised an eyebrow at her.

“Skin,” she said with a shrug. “They harden their skin.”

I blinked. “Enough to deflect bullets?”

“Enough to deflect my sword.” That was actually more impressive. We hadn’t gotten around to actually testing it in a lab or anything, but it was pretty clear that at full speed her blade had more force behind it than most firearms. If these screamers were that tough, we had a real problem on our hands.

“What about their reservoirs? Were you able to deplete them?”

She shook her head. “But they can’t be very deep. Mine isn’t.”

That seemed to be the way powers worked. It was give and take. If you wanted more power, you got a smaller reservoir. If you wanted a bigger reservoir, you got less power. That was the trap Laura had fallen in. She wanted—or had been given—the power to detect lies all the time. So she ended up with a very weak power that she could use literally every second of the day. Worse yet, it didn’t seem to improve with use, unlike the rest of ours. It was still as useless as it was the first day we got them.

With such a strong power, these…skins had to be burning through their resources quickly. The only problem was they were retreating when that happened, so we didn’t get a chance to inflict real damage on them.

“We need to focus fire on one at a time,” I explained to Guland. “We should be able to outlast their power pretty easily.”

He nodded. I doubted he understood everything we were talking about with the powers, but at least he realized we knew more than him on this subject. “We just need to wait for Adonides. We’ll want everyone for this.”

That’s when I noticed the Romanian vampire was missing. I frowned. “Where is he? It’s not like there’s anywhere to go.”

The lead Canian just shrugged.

I sighed. “Fine. I’m going to call MC. One second.”

She answered immediately. “Derek? Jig back nowlike.”

“Uh…what?”

“The horns and hammers have gone out, plugging each other in the byway. Hell’s gonna fin, they can spawn mooks faster. Bathory either which.”

I did not spend enough time on the internet for this. “Just…calm down and speak English.”

There was a brief pause where I could imagine her taking a deep breath. “Warfield shot Johnsson, then the Aesir started shooting the hellions. You need to come back ASAP. You’re the only one who might be able to stop this.”

I cursed. “What’s Laura saying?”

“I don’t know. She shot Warfield in the chest and is trying to hold everyone apart, but not much luck there.”

I glanced around. The Canians were holding pretty well, and now that we knew how to defeat the screamers, they should be able to last. “Okay, we’re coming back.”

I turned to Guland. “The hellions and Aesir have gone crazy. Don’t do anything yet, just hold the line.”

He nodded. “Simple enough. We’ll call if something goes sideways.”

I patted him on the shoulder as we left. He was a good man, despite being a pyromaniac. I’d be really upset if he got turned.

We managed to reach the staging ground quickly by dodging through the ‘scraper the vampires had come through, but it wasn’t fast enough.

The place was a warzone. Both sides had already set up primitive fortifications, and were unloading cases of ammunition at each other. The hellions were mostly using assault rifles, while the Aesir were using large gatling guns, and a few were scrounging up missile launchers. There didn’t seem to be very many casualties; there weren’t that many corpses, anyway. I spotted the Aesir leader in the center no-man’s-land, minus a head, and some ten yards away the retinue, along with Adam and Flynn, were protecting Laura.

I summoned a large shield and ran over, skidding to a stop next to the upended car they were hiding behind. No one shot me in the process, which I took as a good sign. It seemed like both sides retained the presence of mind not to just shoot everything in sight.

“What the hell happened?” I hissed, as Akane blurred in next to me. “I thought everything was going fine.”

“The hellion just pulled out a shotgun and blew the Aesir’s head off,” Laura muttered, confusion in her eyes. “It was the strangest thing. It was like he wasn’t even aware he was doing it.”

Huh. “The Composer can control screamers, right? Maybe he suppressed it for long enough to get into a good position, or something?”

George shuddered. “That’s not a fun thought.”

“And not something we can deal with right now,” Adam cut in. “What’s the plan?”

Before I could answer, my phone rang. Not MC’s tone, just my default old-fashioned telephone ring. I picked it up, confused. “Hello?”

“Paladin?” Guland’s panicked voice greeted me. “Adonides went crazy! He started shooting everyone just as the screamers rushed us! We’re falling back, but we do not have the zombies contained.”

I cursed. “Belay that. You’ll just be fuel on the fire over here. Can you find a redoubt?”

Negative. We had to dump most of our flamers, we’re just running now. If we try and hold them, we’ll be slaughtered.”

I lowered the phone to explain the situation to the others, when I noticed that Laura was already on hers. Apparently MC had hooked her into the conversation. I put the phone back to my ear just she started talking. “Fall back to the staging area. We need all of them in one place.”

“Fair enough, Mrs. Paladin. Can you cover us as we come in?”

She glanced around. “Doubtful. Just get as close to us as you can. We’ll be at the south end. Derek will shield you as you cross.” She hung up.

“Wait,” Kelly said with a frown. “Why do you want us to cross to the other side? We’re safe enough here, and the screamers might convince the hellions and Aesir to pull their heads out of their asses.”

“It won’t,” Laura replied firmly. “You can count on that. And we need them all in one place.”

What did that mean? Well, I doubted she’d tell me, so I just nodded as if I understood. She was better at strategy than me. “Is everyone ready? I can shield us, but you need to stay as close to me as possible.”

Akane blurred off ahead—one less person to worry about—and the rest nodded. Jarasax and George looked worried, but Kelly, Adam, and Laura seemed to have confidence in my abilities. Well, I don’t think Kelly did, but she was ready for whatever came regardless.

“Let’s go,” I said decisively, and we went.

We dove headfirst into the hail of gunfire, Laura and I in the middle of the press of people. I raised a full shield immediately, but I could feel my reservoir depleting far too quickly for my taste. It was about a fifty yard run; our only hope was that both sides realized shooting us would bring the full might of Necessarius down on their heads.

Luck seemed with us, and the hail lessened until only a few misfires here and there plinked against my barrier. I still urged my friends on faster; I didn’t really want to find out what would happen if it failed.

Akane waved to us from behind the van, and we joined her just moments before my shield died.

“They’re crazy,” she said. “Saw their eyes. Blank, dead. Don’t know what they’re doing.”

Laura frowned. “All of them?”

The swordswoman shook her head. “No. But a few leaders.”

Laura sighed deeply. “Some sort of mind control. Wonderful. Not unexpected, but still.” MC called, and she picked up quickly. “Yes? Good, perfect. What about the Canians? Good, wait until they reach us.” She hung up and turned to me. “The pyromaniacs will be here soon. Get ready to shield them.”

I frowned at her. “What are you planning?”

“Just get ready to shield them.”

This did not bode well. But I had little choice; the Canians were rounding the corner, and the crazed demons and giants were already opening fire on them. At least they were clustered together, which made it easier to fit a barrier around them. But there were still almost a dozen (including an unconscious one Guland was carrying, which I assumed was Adonides), and unlike before the gunfire wasn’t slowing down. I didn’t know if I could hold it.

“George, Adam. Lay down some suppressive fire,” Laura ordered tersely.

They obeyed quickly enough, their guns distracting our erstwhile allies long enough to let the Canians survive the run. A few rounds hit the van, but they mostly left us alone. Shooting them had made them angry, but they still weren’t idiots.

It turned out to be mostly unnecessary anyway, since the screamers followed close behind. The hellions and Aesir quickly ignored the pyros in favor of the more dangerous and easier to hit target in front of them. The zombies didn’t seem to be taking much damage, but they were slowed.

My barrier fell almost thirty seconds before the Canians reached us, but luckily no one noticed fast enough to take advantage. “Paladin!” Guland cried, throwing the Romanian vampire to the ground roughly. A few of his men were injured, but none serious. “Burning blood, what is going on here? Why are they still shooting each other?

“We’ll explain later,” Laura cut in before I could respond. She turned to me. “How’s your reservoir?”

“Filling quickly,” I replied. “Why?”

“Let me know the second it’s full,” she said, not answering my question. She pulled out her phone. “MC, what’s the timing? Good. We just need a few minutes.” She huddled closer to me. “Everyone crowd in close. We all need to be covered by Derek’s shield.”

Well, I had figured out that she needed my power, but I still didn’t know precisely what. Judging from Laura’s side of the conversation with MC, reinforcements were coming, and we were the distraction. Fair enough, but I’d like a better explanation from her.

“I’m not sure about this,” George muttered. He was on his hands and knees, and still taking up the most space. But we’d be fine; the eight Canians that were left didn’t seem to have a problem literally piling on top of each other, so everyone was mostly within my area of affect. It would be a big shield though, and I wasn’t sure how long I could hold it. Hopefully they wouldn’t shoot at us too much.

“Isn’t there a better way to do this?” I muttered, as Adonides drooled on my foot a little in his unconscious state.

“Yes,” Laura said tiredly. “But there’s no time, and the van’s not reliable. Start the shield the second you hear whistling.”

I frowned. “Wait, whistling? What are you—”

But she wasn’t listening; she was on her phone again. “MC, go for it.”

I heard a shrill whistling, coming from almost directly above us, and put up my barrier as fast as I could, covering the retinue, the Canians, and of course all four of us Paladins.

Then the sky fell.

Bombs rained down, exploding shortly before they hit the ground, creating massive clouds of dust and fire. Nearly a dozen in all, on the entire square. I could hear the bombers overhead, and they clearly didn’t have time to sort out friend from foe. They did seem to be concentrating away from us, but even though nothing hit within a dozen yards, merely the collateral damage could have easily killed us.

After a minute or two, it stopped, and I lowered my shield with a sigh. “All right, first we need to see if any demons or giants survived—”

As I heard the whistle again, I only barely got my shield up in time.

More bombs fell. How many, I have no idea. A hundred, a thousand, it all blurred together as my brain got played like a drum. Dust and ash flew everywhere, until the outside of my barrier was completely black.

My shield failed soon enough, but the barrage continued. Nothing landed on us, but the chunks of flying concrete dislodged by the assault were dangerous enough. I couldn’t see anything; I could feel dust scraping at my eyelids and didn’t dare open them. But I already had a few injuries—cuts on my left side, and a bruise where something large had hit me in the shoulder.

After what felt like an eternity, the world stopped shaking. I opened my eyes with difficulty, the caked dust and shattered asphalt trying to hold them closed.

There wasn’t much left. The square was completely destroyed, the entire street pulverized. Most of the surrounding ‘scrapers were on fire or crumbling to the ground, and at least one was already flattened.

I turned and saw that Laura was trying to talk to me. My ears were still ringing, so I couldn’t hear her, but she seemed to be trying to justify her actions. I turned away. I wasn’t interested.

There was some movement in the demon and giant camps, but not much. A few of them had apparently had the presence of mind to hide under sandbags or other cover. It didn’t seem to have done them much good.

I saw someone standing up, and felt a shred of hope—until I saw that the person was between the two camps, where the screamers had been.

The zombie stumbled a little, clearly injured, but tried to drag himself forward anyway. More rose, trying to do the same. It was unclear how many had survived, but far more than hellions or Aesir. Had this all been for nothing? This entire exercise, a complete waste?

I groaned as something else occurred to me.

We still didn’t know where Ling was.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 66)

Why did the skins suddenly recover when they were set on fire? Simple: They turned on their powers, and suddenly they weren’t flammable anymore. Of course, other parts of them—such as their clothing, and the fuel still on their skin—still were, but they usually managed to smother those simply by spasming on the ground before their reservoirs ran out.

 

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Scene 62 – Inudiam

INUIDIAM

AKANE

Monday night, History class. I was sitting with Derek, Lizzy, and Adam, same as always, listening to the old cane droning on about the first moon landing. How old did he think we were? I swear, every history teacher feels the need to rehash everything else we had been taught.

My armor, such as it was, was working out pretty well. Derek and I had only taken six jobs since Friday; we needed a bit of a breather after the constant fighting. But still, the Minerva silk was holding up nicely.

Adam’s astronaut was in ‘sarian custody, as expected. Word had already spread about the mutiny and the USP takeover. It didn’t affect us directly, but a lot of Domina’s supplies came from free colonies, so we’d be hit hard regardless. The big nations never liked their investments deciding to simply go independent.

But we weren’t talking about that here. No current events, or indeed anything within the last twenty years. The old cane refused to even touch upon the toy maker. Ridiculous.

Lizzy, of course, was her usual bubbly self. All the horrors of the city never seemed to touch her. If anything, she seemed happier. Probably because the screamers hadn’t affected her at all, plus she was at college. She always did love meeting new people.

She was having trouble understanding what the teacher was saying—she always had that problem—so she kept leaning over to ask Derek for clarification. He tried to explain everything as best he could, but he kept getting distracted by her cleavage. In fairness, he avoided looking if at all possible, but that in itself was obviously costing him effort. He didn’t look at any other girl on the planet like that. What made Lizzy special? They met first? Unfair.

After about half an hour of this little dance, I had enough. I couldn’t watch it any more. But what was a I supposed to do? I couldn’t just ignore it; they were right in front of me. I couldn’t tell them to knock it off; they weren’t actually doing anything wrong. I could—

“Akane,” Adam whispered from the seat next to Derek, staring at me.

I glared at him.

Akane,” he repeated, more firmly using his gaze to gesture at my hand.

What was he going on about? I wasn’t—

My train of thought crashed and burned.

My hand was in my bag, on the hilt of my sword.

I felt like throwing up. I got up and ran out of the room as fast as I could without resorting to my power.

I heard the teacher’s voice cry out behind me. “Why do you people even come to my class!?”

I stopped in the hallway, breathing heavily. It couldn’t be. I couldn’t have been about to attack Lizzy. Sure, she was annoying, but it was Lizzy. She wouldn’t hurt a fly, and she wasn’t even stealing Derek’s affections on purpose. I was not a murderer, despite what my mother said. I didn’t kill just because it was convenient.

Footsteps behind me. My hand went to the throwing knives Maria had gotten me for my birthday, holstered at my elbow, as I turned around.

But it was just Adam, wearing a concerned frown.

“What’s with you? You feeling all right?”

I waved my hand weakly. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just…”

He looked back into the classroom. “Ah. Yeah. I can see how that would upset you.” He patted my shoulder and tried to smile. “Derek’s just a moron. Don’t worry about him. He’ll come around.”

I barked out a laugh. “No, he won’t.”

“Who won’t what?”

Derek had decided to follow us, Lizzy in tow. She, of course, clearly had no clue what was going on, and clearly didn’t care. She’s always very…zen.

I sighed. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

He shook his head. “It’s not nothing if it made your run out of class. What’s going on?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Just…a headache, that’s all.”

Derek nodded in understanding. “Yeah, I get those a lot too.”

That finally made Lizzy speak up. “You really need to see a doctor about that. If nothing else, I have some pills that might help…”

He quieted her with a raised hand. “No, I’m fine. It’s—” he blinked, and grinned at me in what he seemed to believe was understanding. “It’s nothing important.”

I sighed again. He still didn’t get it.

Maybe I should just leave. I didn’t trust myself around them right now, and I had a few other things I could be doing.

“Akane was just saying she was going to go see Doctor Clarke after class,” Adam stepped in. “But I think she should go now.”

Derek nodded. “You should. In fact, I’ll go with you.”

“No,” I said quickly. “I can go on my own. And this is…different from your headaches. I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll see you later.”

He looked like he was about to say something, but Lizzy grabbed him by the arm. “She said she’d be fine. C’mon, the professor is going to be mad enough as it is.”

Derek nodded, and they all went inside, Adam giving me a reassuring look as they did.

I leaned my back against the wall and took a deep breath, silently thanking Adam for coming up with a way to keep me out of the classroom. I would have been fine, I’m sure, but I needed to be alone for a little while.

“Akane?”

I looked up to see Flynn walking down the hall towards me.

Not now. I had been avoiding him for over a week. I had even skipped kendo. Now was not the time to talk this out.

“Flynn,” I said coldly by way of greeting. Hopefully he would take the hint and find an excuse to leave.

He didn’t.

“I didn’t know you had class right now. I haven’t seen you since your party. You all right?”

I took a step away from him, then kept going, walking back towards the dorms.

He followed. “Hey, you can’t just ignore me.”

“Can,” I insisted.

“Look, we seemed to be hitting it off, and you even—” he stopped as we passed a maintenance man, installing a new speaker in the corner. Once we were out of earshot, he continued. “—you even showed me your powers. And now you’re saying that’s just nothing?”

“Yes.” I didn’t want to explain further. I didn’t have a chance with Derek. I knew that. Even if Lizzy didn’t exist, he would never look at me like that. I had known that for eight years.

My ‘feelings’ for Flynn were just the result of my heart trying to find a viable target. He was an emotional substitute, nothing more. But if I pretended he was something more, things would quickly spiral out of control.

…but he had kept our secret.

He didn’t have to. Musashi’s sword, it was becoming more and more clear that there was no real need for it to be a secret. But he had kept our trust regardless.

I stopped and turned to face him. He swallowed anxiously, but held his ground.

“Maybe…not,” I admitted. “I’ve been…mean to you. You don’t deserve to be kicked out of the loop for no reason.”

He put his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t flinch. I should have, but I found I couldn’t move. “I don’t need to be in the loop. I just want to spend time with you.”

At least he knew what he wanted. Everyone knew what they wanted. Derek wanted Lizzy, Laura wanted to be left alone, Adam wanted Lily, and Ling wanted everyone.

But I still didn’t know. Derek was out of reach. Much as I liked to pretend otherwise, that was a fact, and it had nothing to do with Lizzy.

I didn’t know what to do. I had a billion different conflicting feeling I was still having trouble sorting out. Loyalty to Derek. Love for Derek. Respect for Flynn.

“Look, why don’t we just get some coffee?” he suggested. “Lily’s at the Starcup stand just down the street. We can go there while she waits for Adam to get out of class.”

And then what? A double date? That’s not what I wanted. Lizzy kept suggesting I do it, to ease myself into the ‘game,’ but its hard to take advice from her. She’s about as smart as a bag of rocks.

I was being unfair. Yes, Lizzy wasn’t very smart. But she was cunning. She knew what worked and what didn’t.

“Akane?” Flynn asked slowly. He didn’t want to force me to give him an answer, but my silence was probably making him uncomfortable.

But I still wasn’t ready for a date. Of any kind. I had been loyal to Derek for so long—in more ways than one—that I didn’t really know what to do with the romance side of things.

And it wasn’t just me. Flynn was eager. If I went out on a date with him, even just coffee, he’d take it as a sign I approved of a possible relationship. Which could be…good?

No. It would be very, very bad.

Flynn removed his hand from my shoulder and took a step back. “If you don’t want to, that’s fine. No pressure. I’ll just—”

“Wait,” I whispered, thinking. There was something Lizzy had said, when I mentioned some of my anxiety about dating.

My sparring partner frowned, but stayed.

“’Kisu o kaishi suru ni wa yoi bashodesu,’” I quoted slowly. She seemed completely convinced it would be enough to tell me everything I needed to know. Although to the best of my knowledge, she didn’t have any first-hand experience in the matter, so I don’t know where she gets these ideas.

Flynn’s brow furrowed further. “What are you—”

I stepped forward and kissed him.

Technically, it was my first kiss. Okay, yes, it was my first kiss, since the time Robyn got drunk and licked my face doesn’t count by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps giving it to Flynn wasn’t the best of ideas.

He was surprised at first, and nearly flinched away, but after a moment he wrapped his arms around me. He was warm, and more tender than I expected. Most of my experience with men other than Derek involves working with them for hunts or hunting them, so perhaps I should have expected him to be different.

My brain stopped working shortly after that, at about the same time that he slipped his tongue in my mouth.

I lost track of time for a while there, and I’m still not sure exactly how long we stood in the hallway, but it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Twenty, tops.

Eventually, I managed to break free.

He looked me right in the eye and smiled a little. “Um, not that I’m complaining, but what was that about?”

I felt all the blood in my body rush to my face in a flush of heat. Had I really just done that? What the hell did I do now?

Drawing on my mastery of the English language, I squeaked out an “Eep” before running away at superspeed. My power had been improving ever since I decided to drown the consequences and practice; now I could go for about twenty seconds (from my perspective) at full tilt.

So I was well out of Flynn’s sight by the time my reservoir ran dry. I placed my back against the side of the building and took a few long, deep breaths. It was a long day, and Lizzy’s advice hadn’t helped much. Kissing Flynn hadn’t told me anything, didn’t make my decisions any easier. I needed to go back to the dorm and take a long shower.

That’s about when I realized I had left my bag in the classroom.

Behind the Scenes (scene 62)

Flynn speaks a little Japanese. Just barely enough to recognize simple words. He immediately picked out “kisu” (kiss), but didn’t understand the rest.

Scene 29 – Maleficus

MALEFICUS

LAURA

“Silver and gold, where are they?” I muttered, pacing in front of the dorm. The room had quickly proven too claustrophobic with eight people.

Derek leaned against the side of the building nonchalantly. “Calm down, Laura. They’ll be here soon enough. They’re only a few minutes late.”

The rest of the group was mostly clustered around Akane, chattering about how great her new earrings and necklace looked. She hadn’t removed them since she got them three hours ago. Lizzy was joking that she’d never take them off; I touched my own necklace, with the diamond ring hanging from it.

Some things you just want with you at all times.

“Happy birthday, Akane!”

And some things you want as far away as possible.

Derek jumped. “Mom! Dad! You’re early!”

Adam frowned. “I thought you said your dad was dead?”

Derek turned red as a beet and kept his mouth firmly closed.

“That’s my dad,” I explained. “Unfortunately.”

My father, Victor Medina, was only a few inches taller than me. Like me, he had a very strong European cast to his face—strong bones, pale skin, and jet-black hair, including a short goatee. But while I can barely even remember the last time I honestly smiled, he always had a goofy grin on his face, like nothing was wrong in the world.

“It’s okay,” he said, reaching forward and ruffling Derek’s hair. “I think it’s cute.”

Derek’s mother, Maria Huntsman, chuckled. The Italian woman didn’t look much like her son; she had brown hair and matching eyes, and where he had whip-thin muscles and a strong frame, she was round and full, like a cinnamon bun. Emphasis on the ‘full.’ My chest is about average, but anyone will feel inadequate next to Maria Huntsman.

“Don’t tease them,” she admonished, elbowing my father in the ribs. “This is Akane’s day.” She scuttled over to the girl in question, and handed her a squarish bag filled with tissue paper. “Here, this is for you.”

Akane seemed a little surprised, despite the fact that we had told her this was coming. She dug around for a moment, before pulling out a pair of large fabric bands, probably designed to be strapped on her upper arms. Each band had six knives held carefully in place with small buttons; they could likely be pulled off quickly and easily.

The knives themselves were double-bladed, making them dangerous to handle, and clearly balanced for throwing. These were no-nonsense weapons, with no ornamentation of any kind.

“Nice,” Akane whispered, gazing at the gift in wonder.

Very nice,” Derek added. “How much did those cost?”

My father laughed. “Oh, not too much, just—” He stopped, frowning.

Derek’s mother frowned as well. “Uh…”

I closed my eyes. “Tell me you didn’t.”

Maria shifted on her feet. “Well, not on purpose…”

Derek sighed deeply.

Akane looked pained, but everyone else was confused. Flynn was the one who spoke up. “I’m sorry, what’s wrong?”

Someone forgot to buy Akane’s gift,” I growled.

Adam blinked. “You mean you—”

“Silver moon and golden sun, this is not my fault,” my father insisted, his habitual grin finally gone for the moment. “I was carrying Derek’s present, not Akane’s.” Derek’s birthday was at the end of this month. Well, I guess he was getting weapons again, though that was hardly a shock.

“Did you at least pay for that one?” Derek asked patiently.

My father frowned again. “Well…”

I sighed again. This was hardly the first time they had done this. In fact, thirty years ago, it was the reason they had been sent to Domina in the first place. They ‘borrowed’ a truck, which happened to have several thousand dollars of merchandise in the back. The judge let them off lightly, mostly because they returned everything, but they still got a five-year sentence each. And, of course, prisons aren’t mixed-gender, so they weren’t able to see each other. So when the plans to build Domina were announced, they jumped at the opportunity.

The city was built on a great trash island on the Atlantic, and constructed solely by the cheap labor of white-collar criminals, with their sentences halved as a result. Some left when their terms were up, but many stayed, including our parents.

Of course, even white-collar criminals are still dangerous and unpredictable when left to their own devices, so the city devolved quickly into violent gang warfare. It wasn’t until Butler stepped in, about fifteen years ago, that things finally started to settle down.

But our stupid parents still stole anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.

I flipped out my phone and dialed MC. “My parents stole something again,” I explained tiredly. “Can you debit their account?”

“Of course,” the fake MC replied smoothly. MC had written a few programs for dealing with shoplifters specifically because of these two idiots. “What store, and what were the items?”

“I’ll let them tell you,” I said as I handed the phone off to my father. He took it sheepishly and walked off to somewhere Derek wouldn’t be able to hear, to keep his present a surprise.

“Thank you for the gift, Miss Huntsman,” Akane said quietly, with a very small bow. “I’m sure they will be useful.”

Maria smiled. “Thank Victor. It was his idea.” She clapped her hands together. “Anyway, where’s this picnic spot we’re looking for?”

“It’s over by the south end of campus,” Derek said. “Where’s the blanket and food and everything?”

His mother bit her lip. “I forgot it. It’s at the car. Akane, would you be a dear—”

“Maria,” I interrupted, barely catching myself before calling her something more embarrassing. “It’s her birthday.”

She blinked. “Oh dear.” She patted Akane on the head, avoiding the little cardboard crown she was still wearing. “I’m so sorry about that. Just force of habit. One minute, I’ll be right back.”

I sighed. I really didn’t understand why Akane took orders from those two. Okay, I understood, but it was still a bad idea.

That was about when my father came back; he handed my phone to Akane. “It’s for you.”

She took it, frowning in confusion. “Hello? Wha—MC?”

Akane’s problem wasn’t that she let people take advantage of her; it was that she was completely closed-off except for two or three people. She had ‘too defensive’ and ‘too open,’ with very little in between.

“No, I mean, I’m surprised, but…thank you. Yes, honestly, this is just unexpected. What? Yeah, that was me. They jumped me in an alley. That a problem?”

I listened to Akane’s conversation with only half an ear. Mostly, I was keeping an eye on my father; he was walking towards me purposefully.

“Yes?” I said, trying not to sound too bored. I’ve known for fifteen years that I’m smarter than my father. It’s hard to take him seriously.

But sometimes, like now, he gets such an intense look on his face that I’m forced to remember that he is not completely useless. He was sent to Domina for being a terrible thief, sure, but he was an old friend of Butler for reasons he has never fully explained to me. And I refuse to inquire further.

He led me a little away from the rest of the group, out of their earshot, before turning to look me in the eye.

He didn’t waste any time. “Are you one of the Paladins?”

I tried not to quiver in fear. “Yes. How did you know?”

“Artemis told us,” he lied.

I frowned. My ability might not be very useful, but it could be helpful at times. “No he didn’t.”

He smiled slightly. “Truthtelling, huh? Useful.”

“Not really. How did you know I was one of the Paladins?”

He shrugged. “Artemis did hint that there was something about you we should know, and recommended asking. Given the timeline, this seemed logical.” He glanced at the rest of the birthday group. “I know Derek’s part of it, which means Akane as well. Who else?”

“Ling, Akane’s roommate. And Adam, Derek’s roommate. Adam doesn’t have a power, though. Lizzy has a power, but we’re keeping her out of the action.”

He frowned. “When did you receive these powers?”

“We’re not completely certain, but the morning of August 24th at the latest. Adam came to the city after that, so whatever empowered us did it before then.”

“Hm.” He scratched his beard. “Very interesting. If we can cross-reference that with some of MC’s data, maybe take another look at those DNA tests Isaac ran…”

I shook my head. “Good luck with that, Dad.” I walked back to the group.

Akane was hanging up the phone. “That was MC.”

“We gathered,” Ling said drily. “What’d she say?”

“She…was calling to wish me a happy birthday.”

“Well, that was nice of her.” I smiled. “Although I don’t think I’ve ever heard of her doing that before.”

Akane just nodded dumbly, a small frown on her face.

I quirked my head. “What’s wrong?”

She searched for the words. “I…have friends.”

I blinked. “Well, yeah. What’d you think?”

She just stood there, staring at my phone.

I didn’t really know what to make of that, but Maria came back with an armload of quilts and baskets, saving me from thinking too hard on it.

“Victor, help me out here,” she said with a grunt.

My father laughed. “No way. You need the exercise.”

I frowned. That was a lie? Normally sarcasm passed through my filter. What was going on?

She glared. “You aren’t exactly the picture of health either, beer-gut.”

“What??” he grabbed his belly through his shirt. There was a noticeable bulge. “No, this is just fake padding. I’m actually fit as a fiddle.”

Not a lie. Or at least, it didn’t register as one. Silver and gold, what was going on?

I was distracted by Ling turning and whispering in my ear. “Are they…related?” People always asked that. They fought like brother and sister.

I mentally shelved my questions for the moment and sighed. “No, just crazy.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 29)

I’ve been meaning to do a scene with Maria and Victor for a while, not least to get some of Domina’s backstory out. Laura is vastly simplifying the story, but it hits the key points. More will come later.

Scene 27 – Natalis

NATALIS

AKANE

I woke up slowly. My hand went to my sword, hanging next to my bed, before I even opened my eyes. When I did open them, I saw Ling standing in front of the mirror, brushing her hair.

“What the fu—what time is it?” I asked groggily. I had been having trouble getting to sleep. Butler’s screamers were still wailing up a storm that only we could hear.

“Five A.M.,” Ling reported. “Derek woke me up, told me to give you that—” she pointed to something on my dresser. “And then ran off. Something about rabbits.”

Musashi’s grave…dammit. After a moment, I managed to blink the sleep out of my eyes and focus on the object on my dresser. It was small, and white, and…

It was a bead.

Fully awake, I picked it up. It was what I thought; a white plastic bead, matching the seven on the leather strap I normally had tied to my ponytail (I hung it on the wall before I went to bed each night). They had originally been ceramic, but one bad fall and half of them shattered. So now, they were plastic.

I switched on my desk lamp and turned the bead over in my fingers, trying to read the inscription on the inner edge.

“’Courage in the face of adversity,’” I whispered, smiling. Short and to the point.

I attached it to the leather strap with the ease of practice, and quickly combed my hair, getting out the knots that come from a fitful sleep. Once it was done, I tied it up in a ponytail, weaving my blue ribbon through it at the same time. Then I attached the leather strip—with its eight beads—to the elastic band I used to hold the tail in place.

“What exactly did Derek say he was going to do?” I asked, admiring my new decoration in the mirror.

“He said he had a job, something about crazed rabbits. Someone probably used them for some new drug test. You know how it is.”

I frowned and turned to her. “And he didn’t ask for my help? I figured after yesterday’s debacle, he’d want all the help he could get.”

She shrugged. “He said to let you sleep. Besides, he had Adam with him.”

I suppose I was grateful he hadn’t woken me up earlier than he had to, but it still hurt. We had been fighting together for years. I understood why he thought I would prefer to sleep in, but he should know me better than that. I would much rather spend the time with him, even if it was just chasing after feral bunnies on a bad drug trip.

“That’s all right, I guess. Did you want to do anything today? I think there was a movie—”

“Sorry,” she interrupted. “Can’t. Have to help a friend of mine move. That will probably take most of the day. Although after we might catch a movie, if you wanted to…”

“No, no, that’s fine,” I said quickly. “I don’t want to butt in. Go have fun.”

She rolled her eyes. “I doubt it’ll be fun. But thanks anyway.” She left without another word.

It was too early for anyone else to be awake. With a sigh, I grabbed my sword and water bottle, and headed for the roof. I used the stairs, so I didn’t run into Ling again.

I ran up thirty-one floors at a quick jog, and was nearly out of breath by the time I reached the top. I had improved a lot since I moved in; I’m pretty sure the power package had something to do with that, but how much, I wasn’t sure.

The sun was coming up already. We were only at the start of autumn, so the nights were still short. The light got in my eyes, but I ignored it easily enough.

Once I made sure no one else was around, I started my stretches. It’s a bit embarrassing to do in front of people, and after that one time a fey’s homunculus was peeping on me, I always make sure to check.

After my stretches, I started on some unarmed katas, or martial arts forms. Those took a while, but I eventually moved on to my standard knife katas, including two knives at a time. It’s rare that it becomes relevant, but I am always very, very thankful for the practice when it does.

Then I pulled out my sword.

Sword katas always make me feel more relaxed. I feel elegant and in control when I’m swinging a sword. Things are simple, the answers are clear. Now the blade goes this way. Higher, faster—I make some mistakes, but at least I can see that. Not like when dealing with people. I always say the wrong thing, insult my friends or compliment my enemies.

But swords are easy. Find the enemy and cut them. This is how you block, this is how you feint. This is how you make the killing blow.

My mother hates my sword, hates what I do with it. She married into the Akiyama family, and not for our dying name. She loved my father, although she never liked this part of him either. She likes to remind me that it was his honor and his sword that got him killed.

My grandfather, of course, loves her. He was always a bit of the black sheep of the family. More than anything, he hated the fact that we were a ronin house. He never liked samurai in the first place, he would always say, but when the Tokugawa family fell, we should have died with them. It made no sense to preserve a ronin house.

I almost believed them. For a long time, I despaired, convinced that honor was dead and that the Akiyama name would die with me.

I don’t believe that any more.

I sheathed my sword without even noticing; I had finished my sword katas by instinct. I was sweating profusely, and finished off my water bottle in one long drink. With nothing else to do on the roof, I headed downstairs at a brisk jog for a shower.

After I got out of the shower, I texted Laura. She was busy too; she was doing something with Lizzy, apparently. It was strange—I had always hated Lizzy, not just because how she monopolized Derek’s attention but because she refused to speak anything other than Japanese to me, even before I understood it. But I’ve been warming up to her a little. Yes, she was still annoying and not very smart, but she was clearly genuine. I just wished she would talk to me in English.

With no one else to call, I sat down on my bed. What should I do? I couldn’t go to a movie alone, and honestly there wasn’t anything I was interested in watching. I had forgotten all my books and shows at home, and didn’t really want to deal with my mother. If I were interested in anime, I could have looked through one of the billion or so Ling had on her shelf, but I wasn’t that bored. Besides, she hadn’t actually given me permission, and I didn’t want to bother her with asking. I would call Seena, but since she became a vampire, her schedule was probably all twisted into knots.

I slowly realized that there was someone I could call. My exercise had taken longer than usual, probably because I was so tired, so it was about seven. Flynn would probably be up shortly; most athletes get up earlier rather than later.

But did I want to? He was still too confusing. He seemed nice enough, and Lizzy kept encouraging me to do something, but I just didn’t know enough about him. Could I really trust him?

I was overthinking it. I wasn’t asking him for anything important; I just wanted some company for the day. A couple hours, nothing more. It was no big deal.

Ten minutes later, I finally managed to send a short message asking if he wanted to do anything. I had re-written it a couple dozen times.

To my surprise, I got a reply within a minute.

He was busy. Something with friends.

I laid back on my bed and sighed. Everyone had friends, people they were doing things with. All I had was Derek, and even he had abandoned me.

I shouldn’t be so negative. He had intended to give me the day off as a gift, not a snub. I might as well make the most of it.

I warmed up my laptop and started trawling through the message boards, especially the one that Flynn had said started the Composer meme. I wasn’t able to find much—I’m hardly a technology wizard. But I did find the first person to use the name ‘the Composer.’ His screen name was ‘the conductor of the cacophonic steel chorus,’ which wasn’t a name I recognized. I sent him a private message, out of curiosity more than anything else, asking him where he got the name idea.

I wouldn’t get a response right away, of course, so I spent some more time online, checking updates on my favorite sites. The giant alley crawlers we had dispatched were already headline news on the kind of pages that care about that sort of thing. Obould had written a short blurb on the subject, and promised to publish his results once he was finished dissecting the corpses.

After about two hours of all that, I had enough, and headed out.

It was still pretty early, especially for a college town. There was almost no one on the streets except for a few dozen scattered teachers. I left AU without even looking around. There’s some stuff to do inside the Springfield wall, but not much. Mostly just the library, which I had little interest in.

I stopped by the intersection where the biters had attacked; it was already bustling again. A few of the stores had boarded-over windows, but their doors were open and customers came and went.

The regenerative nature of Domina City is really amazing. I’ve never been anywhere else, but everything I read made it clear that if this had happened anywhere else, the entire area would have been condemned.

I didn’t bother checking out Triple I. Half of those buildings were ash, and the rest skeletal remains. The burners had been thorough, and trying to capture them had given them a lot of time to play around. Thankfully it was mostly smaller businesses, rather than the massive apartments ‘scrapers of the Middle City, but a lot was lost regardless.

“Hey, sweetie, looking for someone?”

I glanced up and realized I had taken a shortcut into a dark alley without even noticing. A couple dumpsters were open nearby, and the six ghouls who had been partaking of their contents were starting forward, fierce grins on their faces. They surrounded me quickly, cutting off my escape back to the daylit street.

They were pretty heavily modified. In addition to the nighteyes and the internal cannibalism buff, they had pale skin, large fangs, enhanced jaws, and steel claws surgically bonded to their fingers. These were not homeless people trying to save money on food. They were dangerous predators, who probably killed multiple people a day.

It was like God was trying to cheer me up.

I didn’t bother with a warning; I would have just lost the advantage of surprise. I left my bag partially unzipped for exactly this kind of situation. I reached inside and grabbed the hilt of my sword, drawing it out and slashing the closest ghoul without hesitation.

He screamed and stumbled back as a deep cut blossomed on his chest, but he wasn’t out yet. As I dropped the bag and sheath, I stepped forward and made a great horizontal swing. I separated his head from his shoulders without too much difficulty. The trick is to aim between the vertebrae. It’s still hardly easy, but there’s minimal resistance that way.

Even before his blood began to fountain, I kicked the corpse away and started at the second one, on my left. His instincts were good enough that he managed to dodge my first blow. He stepped inside my swing and tried to get at my chest with his claws, probably trying to reach under my rib cage and towards my heart.

I simply released my katana with my left hand and swatted his wrist. He retracted, the same instincts that had saved him before dooming him now. Now I stepped inside his swing, and plunged my sword into his heart.

I spun away just as one of his companions slashed at me. He ended up hitting his friend’s corpse instead, but he just cursed and tossed it aside. But that gave me an opening, and I carefully cut his wrist, rendering it useless.

I would have followed through, but two of his allies were coming from behind me to either side, likely hoping they could grab my arms and end this quickly.

A quick backstep left me behind them rather than the other way around, and I got the one on the right in the heart before he even realized what was happening. The one on the left tried to attack while my sword was still in his friend, but I whipped out one of my smaller knives, meeting his claws and cutting into his fingers.

He cried out, clutching his bleeding hand, which left me enough of an opening to withdraw my katana from his companion and give him the same treatment, only from the front.

The ghoul I had injured before, the one with the newly gimp left hand, tried to feint at me a couple times with his right, but I wasn’t fooled. This wasn’t my first waltz; I knew what trick they tried next.

Sure enough, when I faked overextending myself, he whipped forward his left hand with all the strength he could muster. He might not be able to flex his fingers with the tendons cut, but there were still sharp claws at the end, and he had more than enough muscles in his arm to propel them with deadly force.

I ducked under the sloppy blow and stabbed him in the throat with the same knife I had used moments earlier. He died gurgling in surprise.

One more. Where was—

I saw him, standing behind one of the dumpsters, moments before he opened fire with a small boxy handgun. Low caliber, but still enough to kill me pretty easily.

But, again, this wasn’t my first waltz.

I threw the knife at him quickly, and immediately dodged for the dumpster. The blade didn’t get him, of course; it was hardly balanced for throwing, and even if it was, killing someone with a throwing knife is harder than it looks.

But, it served its purpose, as he tried to dodge and shoot at the same time. His shot went wild, and by the time he managed to get his wits about him, I was already there, and I stabbed him in the throat with my blade without a word.

I cleaned my sword quickly, then sheathed it and slung the bag over my shoulder again. I took a few minutes searching the bodies, but as expected they didn’t have much of value. I took the gun, though, and the extra bullets the ghoul had on him. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

As I collected my knife—undamaged, thankfully—I pulled out my phone and dialed MC.

“Hello, Miss Akiyama,” her fake voice greeted me as warmly as possible. “What can I do for you today?”

“I just killed six ghouls in an alley off Abigail and Celestia,” I said, skipping the pleasantries. “The intersection where the biters attacked. Is there a reward or anything?”

“Nothing was posted,” she responded. “And no one is reported to have gone missing in that area.”

“Well, if they had been here a week ago, they’d be dead or screaming.”

“Correct. If you would like to send me their pictures, I could check the wanted notices.”

It was a bit grisly work, getting the mug shots of the dead ghouls, but I had been forced to deal with far worse in the past. I sent them to MC and waited for her to finish searching.

“The leader had a bounty,” she said finally. “Only fifty dollars dead, I’m afraid. But it is something.”

I sighed. “Can you have that transferred directly to my account?”

“Certainly. Of course, there will be a six hour wait, in case you are trying to take credit for someone else’s kill.”

“Of course. I understand. When will the ‘sarian cleanup crew be here?”

“Now,” a voice from behind me said.

I turned to see an older baseline man, dressed completely in black except for a red stripe on his hat and white rubber gloves on his hands, walking into the alley. He set a large briefcase on the ground.

“I’ll take it from here, Miss,” he said warmly. Kind or not, it was clearly a dismissal, but I looked around with a frown. Where was the rest of his crew?

He chuckled at some private joke as he opened the case. I saw that it was packed with carefully secured objects I didn’t understand the purpose of; feather dusters, empty vials, filled vials, and other things. “I’m not actually the cleanup crew,” he admitted. “I’m the forensic man, here to make sure there was no foul play.” He indicated the mouth of the alley. “So I’m afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave the scene.”

I frowned at first, but when I held up the phone to my ear to ask MC, she spoke. “He’s genuine. The cleanup crew will be there shortly.”

I hung up, nodded to the CSI, and headed back to my dorm. I wasn’t covered in blood, but my clothes were certainly stained. Thankfully, one of the gifts of the toy maker was a spray can of genetically engineered…something or other that ate away blood, letting me get rid of stains without having to resort to bleach.

Emily stared at me a little oddly as I entered the lobby, but she just shrugged and went back to her magazine. When I reached the elevator, though, she spoke up.

“Once you change, head to Laura’s room,” she called without looking away from her reading. “She said they needed help rearranging the furniture.”

I sighed, and nodded, though she didn’t seem to care. I entered the elevator and pressed the button for the ninth floor.

Ling wasn’t home, as expected, and neither were Adam or Derek. Fetch quests can take annoyingly long, especially when the MacGuffin can run around. I threw my gi in the hamper—I’d deal with the stains later—and put on some jeans and a loose black t-shirt. It was force of habit. I don’t think I had anything that I wouldn’t be able to fight in. I made sure to bring me sword with me; again, even when I wasn’t expecting trouble, things always went wrong.

There were a couple people on the elevator when I got back on. They tried to engage me in conversation, but I found it difficult to even smile politely, so they quickly stopped trying and chatted among themselves. I felt relieved when I got off on floor six.

Laura’s room was…number sixteen? Yes, that was right. It was a few yards down the right hallway. The whiteboard was covered in Lizzy’s handwriting, inviting people in using about six different languages. I sighed and knocked.

“It’s open!” Laura called. I pushed open the door.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AKANE!”

I blinked. What?

Everyone was there, even Lily and Flynn. Derek, Adam, Lizzy, Laura, Ling… There was a large birthday banner hanging from the ceiling, and a small stack of presents on Laura’s desk. At least I think it was Laura’s. It was the side with less posters, anyway.

“I thought…” I couldn’t find words.

Derek stepped forward, grinning broadly, and placed a small paper crown on my head, the kind you find at kiddie restaurants. “Sorry I had Ling lie to you, but this took a while to set up.” He pulled me into the room gently. “C’mon, you only turn nineteen once.”

I got hugs and birthday wishes from everyone, though I was still a bit dazed. I had never had a birthday party before, not a real one. Before I met Derek, I was always that crazy girl who thought she was a samurai. Even after, pretty much my only friends were Derek, Lizzy and Seena—and I didn’t particularly like Lizzy, and Seena was often busy.

“Oh, there’s someone else!” Ling said, handing me a phone. Frowning, I took it.

“Happy birthday, Akane!” Lori’s voice chirped in my ear. “Sorry I can’t be there in person, but Derek has my present for you.

“N-no, it’s okay, I understand.” I was a little worried about what kind of present a Dagonite would give me, but I put that on hold. “Calling is enough.”

“I’m really busy, so I have to go, but I’ll call again later, all right? Have a great day!”

“Thank you,” I whispered. She hung up.

“The twins were supposed to come too,” Derek apologized, referring to Simon and Seena. “Not sure where they went off to.”

I wasn’t really all that upset that I didn’t have to deal with the sibriex today, but I was upset that I wouldn’t get to see his sister. Oh well. I’m sure they had a good reason. She always did.

Lily set up the cake, a small white-frosted dish with nineteen candles, on a folding table. She spread out the paper plates and smiled at me. “Did you want to do the cake first, or presents?”

I was at a loss. I…could barely think. “Presents,” I managed. That way while we were eating the cake, we could examine the gifts I got more closely.

Derek carefully sat me down on Lizzy’s bed, where I could see the pile of presents. Everyone else—seven in all—sat on the other bed or stood. Flynn seemed hesitant, but eventually sat down on Lizzy’s bed next to me. I didn’t say anything, but I was grateful. It felt weird sitting there alone.

“The first one is from Lori,” Derek said, bringing over the box in question. I took it; it was heavier than expected. I sort of just sat there for a moment, not really sure what to do.

“You can open it,” Adam pointed out. Quiet laughter rippled through the room.

I blushed and started ripping open the package. It was…

A cell phone?

“She said you told her about how you hate your current phone,” Derek explained. “This is a top of the line model. Waterproof, large memory, and it will take a bullet and keep working.”

“I…” I glanced around at the expectant faces and blushed again. I put the box to the side. “Remind me to thank her in person later.”

“Mine next,” Ling insisted, grabbing a long and thin box. I opened it, and found a rather elegant silver necklace. Just the chain, though. There was a place to add a pendant, but I didn’t have anything.

“Thanks,” I said honestly. I wasn’t really sure when I would have a chance to use it, but I liked it. I carefully packed it away again, and placed it with the cell phone.

The rest passed by in a bit of a blur. Laura’s present turned out to be a pendant to go with the necklace; it was a simple onyx stone, my birthstone. Lizzy cheerfully handed me The Art of War (in Japanese, of course), all the while rambling on about how it had managed to capture the intent and feel of the original Chinese. Her rambling was also in Japanese, so everyone else just looked politely confused.

Lily gave me a black gi, and I vaguely remembered mentioning to her months ago that I only had white ones. Her memory could be scary at times.

Her boyfriend, on the other hand, gave me a sharpening set. It was very high quality, I’ll admit, but I had a billion of the things. I just smiled, thanked him, and moved on.

Flynn gave me a pair of absolutely beautiful earrings, each with three onyx stones inscribed with the kanji of my name. I couldn’t resist; I put them on right away, earning murmurs of approval from everyone else. I hugged him, but withdrew quickly when I realized what I was doing.

Derek was last. “Here,” he said, handing me a lightweight bag. I frowned. Normally, he gave me knives and other practical things, but this didn’t feel like that. I opened it up gingerly.

It was a panther.

A plush panther, I mean.

Adam raised his eyebrow. “A stuffed animal? Really?”

But I smiled. Panthers were my favorite. He really did know me perfectly.

Maybe it seems odd, but that was about when I decided that I wasn’t going to let him go with just being friends. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but in a good way. He was in love with Lizzy? Fine. That just made it a challenge.

“Thank you so much,” I said, hugging him warmly. “I love it.”

I’ve never failed anything I’ve set my mind to. Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest course of action, but I had made my decision. No more pussyfooting around. The heart wants what the heart wants, isn’t that what they say?

Lily slid off the bed. “Now, its time for cake!”

Behind the Scenes (scene 27)

The leader of the ghouls stole some important documents, which is why the reward was higher for him alive. Now they probably won’t ever find them.

I guess Buxom Babes Monthly will just have to re-take their centerfold shots.