Scene 92 – Sanguis

SANGUIS

ADAM

I watched as Laura very carefully drew a vial of blood out of her own arm, then placed it in a large mass spectrometer.

At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. The paper she had handed me said that’s what she was supposed to do now. But I didn’t know what one looked like. How was I supposed to know she wasn’t tricking me?

“Adam,” she admonished without turning around. “You’re not paying attention.”

“What? Yes I am.”

“Lie.”

I sighed. That power of hers only seemed to work when it was most annoying. “Sorry. I just can’t really tell what you’re doing.”

“Testing my blood for Malcanthet’s masking agent.”

I waved my hand. “Yes, I know. And the lab instructions are clear enough. But I mean…” I indicated the dial she was adjusting on the machine. “Like that, right there. I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What does the paper say?” she asked with exaggerated patience.

I glanced at it. “’Adjust to nine percent power and auto-calibrate.”

She stepped aside so I could get to the machine. I walked up to get a closer look, and it did indeed see that the dial was at nine percent. Next to it was a small digital panel blinking ‘Auto-calibrate?’ with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ buttons below it.

“Happy now?” she asked, again with a sigh of strained patience.

“Very,” I replied. “Please continue.”

The pale girl nodded and stepped forward again.

She followed the rest of the instructions to the letter, as far as I could tell. The point of this exercise was to check if she was a sleeper, using me as an observer. Hopefully this would prove effective, but it would take time.

Laura’s current theory, that Malcanthet was the Composer, was not a pleasant one. I had heard enough stories about the Succubus Queen to know that things would only get worse from here on out.

The masking agents she used in her sleepers were apparently extremely complex. Chemicals masking chemicals masking chemicals. If you weren’t testing for it specifically, it was pretty much impossible to detect. Worse, it wouldn’t be too hard for her to just add another masking agent on top, which would make this entire exercise futile.

Laura assured me that was unlikely, mostly because the number of masking agents Malcanthet could use was dwindling. That didn’t really make me feel much better, since the number was still in the double digits, and we simply didn’t have the ability to check them all, but it seemed to calm her.

“You almost done down there?” a woman’s pleasant voice called down from upstairs. “I almost have dinner ready.”

“Just a few more minutes, Mrs Arrow,” Laura called back.

“Well, don’t take too long. The butter-crusts will get cold.” I heard the sound of the basement door closing.

I frowned. “Butter….crusts?”

“Shellfish cooked inside their shells with butter and spices,” Laura explained as she tapped a couple more buttons. “Veronica generally uses crabs.”

“Right. What else is there for you to do?”

“It needs about an hour to run, but we don’t need to be here for that. Just…” she tapped another key, which I’m pretty sure was the one the paper said. “Done.” She smiled. “C’mon. We can deal with the rest later.”

We walked upstairs into Obould’s house. It was really just a big apartment; ‘house’ might have been stretching it a little. But it certainly felt like one. It had that warm feeling of home, especially with the orc’s kids running around our feet. The two older ones, a pair of fourteen-year old twins, boy and girl, were a demon and a vampire, respectively, but everyone else was baseline. Mrs Arrow pulled a steaming metal sheet out of the oven, which did indeed seem to be carrying crabs, cut in half lengthwise and turned into bowls.

“Eat, eat,” she insisted. “The least I can do.”

Veronica looked a lot like a smaller version of Derek’s mother, although her skin was lighter. Apparently the two had grown up together, which probably meant she was Italian as well, but you couldn’t tell from her accent—or lack of one.

“Where’s your husband?” I asked as we sat down at the giant table. It was big enough to fit about forty people, but there were only seven right now. As I understood it, Obould was something like the landlord of the building, so he invited everyone over for holidays. It was a small skyscraper with big apartments; otherwise they would never fit.

“He’s off collecting specimens again,” the woman said with a roll of her eyes. “I probably should have told him you were using his lab, but it’s his loss.”

I frowned a little as I picked up one of the butter-crusts. It smelled good, at least. “Will he mind? We didn’t mean to be a nuisance—”

She laughed. “No, not at all. I meant he has to miss dinner, and you two.”

I had some difficulty with the chopsticks, but no one else seemed to notice, so I didn’t mention it, and ate my meal in silence. Mrs Arrow spent most of the time arguing with her children as they tried to talk their way out of chores. It was a nice background noise.

I eventually managed to finish my food. By that time, everyone else was already done, and chatting even more than before. After a minute, Laura glanced over.

“Done? Good. The tests should be done by now.” She stood up and carried her empty shell and chopsticks over to the sink.

Mrs Arrow scrambled up. “Oh, let me handle that, dear. You go finish your experiments.”

The sharp Spanish girl nodded gratefully, then headed back to the basement. I followed only a few steps behind.

“It’s done,” she said as she glanced at the machine. “Here, look for yourself.”

I grabbed the lab sheet again, and checked it against the readout. As far as I could tell, it looked like she was clean.

“I guess that’s the most we can hope for. What’s next?”

She pulled out the needles again. “I do the same to you. And while I’m doing that, you go get a sample from everyone else.”

I sat down and extended my arm, frowning. “Okay, who’s everyone?”

She tied some surgical tubing off on my arm. “Everyone close to us. Derek, Ling, Akane, Lizzy…” she paused. “Maria and my father, the retinue…everyone. I already did Doctor Clarke, but I couldn’t find Robyn. Oh, and I guess I should send you after Seena and Simon too…”

I bit my lip as she started drawing blood. “What…about Lily? She shouldn’t be a danger…right?”

“Yes and no,” Laura said slowly, probably realizing it was a sore subject. “On the one hand, she knows than to get into situations where she could get drugged, hypnotized, the whole process. On the other hand, Malcanthet is probably still very angry at her, specifically, for the Battle of Shendilavri.”

I winced, and not because of the needle. “I know, I know, but…”

“However, I already got her blood,” she explained. “I tested it at Clarke’s machines, and it came up clean, but I still have enough to do it again here.” She smiled as gently as she could, which wasn’t saying much. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

I sighed in something close to relief. She wasn’t quite clear yet, but close enough. “Okay. Okay, good. How should I get the samples? I’m guessing just asking is out.”

“Of course. Even the two of us knowing is still a risk. If she finds out our plans, things will start to go south.”

I snorted. That was an understatement.

“Start with the other Paladins,” she advised. “I doubt they’d be stupid enough, especially Akane and Derek, but we have to be sure. I can get my parents.”

I accepted the band-aid she offered and patched myself up. “Fair enough. I’ll be back in a few hours.” I grabbed the small box of syringes, already in a convenient carrying case.

“Don’t forget to label the samples,” she reminded me. “The last thing we need is to identify the wrong person as a sleeper.”

I nodded, and left.

Mrs. Arrow tried to get me to take some food with me, but I assured her I’d be back soon enough, which seemed to placate her. The second I got outside, I flipped open my phone.

“MC,” I said. “I need to know where the closest Paladins are.”

Her fake voice replied instantly. “That would be Miss Yu, about a mile north.”

“Thank you.” I hung up and started walking.

I could have caught a bus or a train, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Quite the opposite, actually. I kept expecting to get a call from Laura telling me that I was a sleeper, and they needed to lock me up so I didn’t hurt anyone.

We still weren’t completely certain, but the evidence was definitely pointing towards Malcanthet. Lily wasn’t going to be happy. I knew she wanted to put the Succubus Queen completely out of her mind. Finding out she was behind the recent attacks would not be good for her.

But what else could I do? Not tell her? Ridiculous. I had to. Sure, we had only been going out for about a month, but ‘By the way, your arch-nemesis is loose in the city again’ isn’t something you keep from people you care about.

I’d decide how to explain all that later. Right now I had to figure out how to get a syringe of blood out of a girl who could throw boulders at me, without her noticing.

The first thing that sprang to mind was knocking her out, but that was a bad idea. Short of giving her a concussion, the only way to neutralize her would be to drug her, which would probably screw with the test results.

Well…did Laura need an entire syringe? No, just a little bit. All I needed was a small sample.

The beginnings of a plan began to form in my mind.

“Adam?”

I looked up. I had walked for longer than I thought. Ling and Lizzy were standing in front of me, weighed down with shopping bags.

“MC called,” the little Chinese girl said. “Something about you wanting to see us?”

Ah. So we had met halfway. “Yeah, Laura said you guys were out shopping, and I was wondering if you got anything for Lily.”

Lizzy grinned. “Liar. You just want to know if we got anything for you.”

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I glanced around the sidewalk. It was about twilight, so there weren’t many people around, but still too many. “C’mon. Let’s find a cafe.”

“There’s one on the fifth floor,” Ling promised, ducking into the nearest building, with Lizzy close behind.

The first four floors were restaurants too, fast-food places. Normally in a configuration like this, the bottom floor would be the main area, with all the others bringing their food down when ordered. But for some reason—maybe because there wasn’t enough space out front, or maybe just poor planning—that wasn’t the case here. We had to take a thin staircase to the side up to the fifth floor.

We sat down at a table near the window, and the girls ordered some hot chocolate from the squirrel-kemo waitress. I didn’t get anything, mostly because I still had to figure out how to get the samples. It was going to be tricky, but I was pretty sure I could pull it off.

“You not thirsty?” Ling asked innocently, and I was pulled back to the matter at hand.

I shook my head to try and clear it. I had time to think later. “No, not really. Anyway, what’d you buy?”

“A dress,” Lizzy replied cheerfully, pulling out the item in question. It was a red, slinky thing, but I don’t really know enough about clothing to be sure if it would look good on her. “Luckily, I already had Lily’s size.”

I had a swarmbuster grenade, which shoots out plastic shards. It wouldn’t kill a human, but it would definitely make them bleed. Unfortunately, Ling could sense all solids. She’d notice that I was the one who used it, even if I just pulled the pin and dropped it under the table. Wait, didn’t she have to concentrate to do that? Not sure, but I couldn’t risk it.

“So…why did you buy it for her, again?” I knew why; Lizzy apparently just buys things, and eventually gifts them to people. But I needed to get her talking so I could have a minute to think.

While she went on about stimulating the economy and getting presents for her friends and so on, I scanned the room as subtly as I could. The cafe was pretty busy, mostly with vampires just getting up for the evening. No one looked at us sideways, though, since a lot of the customers were diurnals meeting up with their nocturnal friends.

The waitress carried drinks around precariously on a tray. Including…a large glass pitcher of water.

That was an answer. Not a perfect one, but I wasn’t exactly in a perfect situations here.

Ling turned to me. “What do you think?”

I hadn’t heard a word of their conversation, of course, but I know an opportunity when I see one. “I think I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”

“It’s next to the counter,” Lizzy advised. “Ask the barrister.”

Perfect.

I did as she suggested, timing my slow press through the table-crowded room to reach the door to the back (and presumably the bathrooms) at about the same time as the squirrel-waitress.

“Come here real quick,” I muttered. “I need a favor.”

She raised an eyebrow, and her bushy tail twitched. That was the only toy she had, as far as I could tell. “No. This is a respectable establishment.”

I rolled my eyes. “Not that, I promise. I just need to ask you something out of sight of my friends.”

She sighed and followed me around the corner.

“I just need you to break one of those pitchers near my friends,” I explained, the second they couldn’t see us.

The eyebrow arched again. “Why would I possibly do that?”

“Call MC. She’ll explain.”

The squirrel looked at me funny for a moment, but sighed, and pulled out her phone. “Hello, I’d like to speak to the real MC.”

“Tell her it’s regarding Laura’s tests,” I urged.

She glared at me. “It’s regarding Laura’s tests.”

She continued glaring at me for about ten seconds, until suddenly her expression transformed into one of surprise. “MC? Well—yes.” She looked me up and down. “Yes. He wants me to—well, all right then.” She closed the phone with a snap, a bewildered expression on her face.

“You’ll help,” I said, trying not to sound too smug.

“I’ll help,” she confirmed, still too shocked to say much else. “I’ll…be over in a few minutes.”

I returned to the table, feeling pretty good about myself.

“Did that waitress follow you into the bathroom?”

I blinked at Lizzy. She had noticed that?

“Ah, no. She went to the women’s.”

The bronze-skinned girl rolled her eyes. “Well, obviously. That’s what I meant.”

Thankfully, before she could say anything else, the squirrel kemo walked by, an empty glass pitcher balanced on a tray she was holding with one hand.

“Your drinks will be out in a minute,” she promised. “Was there anything else you needed?”

Both girls shook their heads, and I answered for them. “No, we’re good.”

She smiled. “Holler if you change your minds.” She turned to go, and I almost thought she had decided not to help.

Instead, her tail knocked into Lizzy.

Even though I knew it was faked, I could barely tell. Her squirrel tail wasn’t anywhere near as flexible as Lily’s demon one (though whether that was limitation of the technology or the girl’s finances, I wasn’t sure), and it was very bushy. It had probably taken her lots of practice to not bump into things; I imagine it wasn’t that difficult to do the opposite.

Lizzy cursed in a language I didn’t understand, flailing about and unintentionally completing the illusion. With a yelp, the waitress lost control of her tray. The pitcher slid off and shattered on the tabletop, shards flying everywhere.

I didn’t know if the girls were injured or not, but it didn’t matter. I grabbed a small hand towel in each hand, both covering a small pocketknife. Under the pretense of leaping up to help, I slashed both Ling and Lizzy near the upper shoulder, hopefully making it look like they had just been cut by flying glass.

“I am so so so sorry,” the waitress cried. “Let me—oh fur and fangs, you’re bleeding!”

She was good. The girl had a future in acting, if she cared.

“Let me get that,” I said, holding the knives with only two fingers each, and using the rest to hold the towels and mop at the wounds I made. I just needed to make sure not to mix them up.

“The one time I’m not wearing armor…” Ling muttered. “Lizzy, you okay?”

The amazon swallowed, and nodded. “I…think so. Can we just leave? Right now?”

“This is all my fault,” the waitress apologized frantically. “If there’s anything I can do—”

“Let us leave,” Lizzy replied instantly. “Right now.”

The manager had run over by this point. “Of course, of course. Next time you’re here, you will of course get free drinks—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ling brushed him off. “C’mon.”

We left quickly, only stopping once we were on the empty street outside.

“What are you doing?” I asked, noticing the girls had dumped out everything in their bags on the ground and were slowly putting it back in.

“Checking for broken glass,” Ling said bluntly. “I have half a mind to get that waitress fired.”

I really hoped it didn’t come to that. “She made a mistake. Happens to everyone.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she muttered. Having decided her purchases were as close to glass-free as she could get them, she picked up her bags and headed north.

“Where are you going?”

She turned to me, eyebrow raised. “Back to the dorms. You?”

I scrambled for an excuse. “Ah…no, I think I’m going to take a walk.” I jerked my thumb south, towards Obould’s place. “This way. I’ll see you both later. Be sure to get those wounds looked at.”

“We will,” Lizzy promised. “Good night.”

It took me about twenty minutes to get back to Laura, despite the fact that it was only two blocks away. I had to take a few small detours, mostly to avoid hungry-looking ghouls in dark alleys. I was armed, and confident in my abilities, but not that confident, and I didn’t want to risk contaminating my samples. I kept them in separate pockets the whole way, to make sure I didn’t get them mixed up.

“That was quick,” Mrs. Arrow commented when I walked through the open door. “You find what you were looking for?”

“Ah…yes. Is Laura…”

“Downstairs,” she assured me. I thanked her and headed to the basement.

The sharp-faced woman looked up as I came down the stairs. “I thought that was you. Good timing. Your results just came in. Looks like you’re clean. You get Ling’s sample?”

“And Lizzy’s. But…I had to use towels to do it. There was no way I would have been able to do it with the syringes.”

She cursed lightly under her breath. “Hardly ideal…you at least made sure they were clean, I trust?”

I nodded.

“Good,” she said, nodding in turn. “Then we should be able to get a good reading regardless.”

I pulled out the towels, in the small plastic baggies I had put them in, and carefully set them on the table. They weren’t ziplock bags; I wouldn’t have been able to get them closed without the girls noticing anyway.

“Left is Lizzy,” I explained. “Right is Ling.”

She examined them closely. “How, exactly, did you get the samples?”

I shrugged. “Recruited a waitress to break some glass near them, then cut them while they were distracted and daubed up the blood.”

She held up both samples carefully. The towels was pure white, without a drop of red.

“You missed,” she said flatly.

I cursed under my breath. Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 92)

Squirrel kemos are known as “daes.” The waitress (her name is Grace) is actually a chipmunk kemo, or daemarm, but no one really cares.

Advertisements

Scene 88 – Taberna

TABERNA

LAURA

It was a full week after Lizzy’s little stunt with the calciophage. She hadn’t promised to not do anything like that, no matter how much I asked, so I had decided to distract her with shopping instead.

“We also need something for Robyn,” she said as we walked out of the sushi place. “We forgot last time.” She chewed her tongue. “Hm…maybe a gas mask?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why a gas mask?”

“Didn’t she say something about going down into the sewers?” Lizzy shrugged. “I’m sure she’ll find some use for it.”

Well, she was always better with gifts than I was, so I didn’t argue.

“We also need to get something for Derek,” I reminded her. “Something big. His birthday is next Saturday.”

She frowned. “No, Saturday is the 22nd. His birthday is the 29th.”

I sighed. With my power on, I knew she wasn’t lying, just an idiot. “I know that. Next Saturday, Lizzy. Next.”

She blinked those beautiful golden eyes of hers, then nodded. “Right. Right. So what did you want to get him?”

I couldn’t really think of anything. “I dunno. He has pretty much everything he needs. His mom will be getting him more grenades. What else is there?”

“Food, I guess. Him and Akane spend all their money on school, healing, and mercs, in that order. We could get him some of those giant slabs of fish jerky he likes.”

Well, now that their power level had taken a bump, I doubted Derek would be spending much money on mercenaries any more, but I didn’t feel the need to explain that to Lizzy. We were still hiding the whole Paladin thing from her, and bless her heart, she wasn’t asking questions.

Either way, there weren’t many options. Jerky might work, but it still felt like a cop-out.

“Ooh, here’s that French place I told you about!” Lizzy cried, pulling me inside a small clothing store. “Let’s get you a purse.”

“There’s a meat vendor down the street,” I reminded her. “Let’s get Derek’s present first.”

She held up a little black bag to my arm. “Don’t you think this contrasts nicely with your skin tone?”

I sighed. There was no talking to her when she got like this. So I just smiled and nodded as she squealed and went to find clothes for me to try on, and let my mind wander to more important things.

We still hadn’t made any real progress on the sleepers, which worried me. Blood tests did show a few minor chemical abnormalities in the ones we had caught, but they were so small they could have also come from drinking some bad mineral water.

“Ooh! I found a little black dress in your size!”

The Composer was good. It seemed that just like with the empowered, it was impossible to use our current medical technology to identify the sleepers. Considering that Domina was the bleeding edge of medical and bio-tech for the entire human race, that was really saying something.

Lizzy ran out of the clothes racks, held a dress up to me, and frowned. “No, that’s not…” Then she fled back to her cloth jungle.

We had to find a weakness. Some way to turn his weapons against him. A way to control screamers was a possibility. Clarke and I were beginning to think that the Paladins might be able to pull that off, but it was mostly still a theory.

No, our real hope was in researching the sleepers more. They were clearly just hypnotized, albeit to an extreme extent. If we could just find a way to identify them, we would learn so much.

The blood tests would help, if only barely. It would help eliminate suspects, at least. I made a mental note to start taking samples and performing the tests without Clarke’s knowledge, just in case. Of course, I’d need someone to get the samples…

Lizzy grabbed my hand and started dragging me to the changing room. “C’mon, tell me if you like this one.”

She came into the changing room with me and handed me a small, simple black dress with spaghetti-strap shoulders. I touched it lightly; it was made out of silk. Very nice silk, if I was any judge.

I sighed again. She kept derailing my train of thought. “Lizzy, just…no.” It ended at six inches above my knees, which was about twenty-four inches too short for me.

She pouted, in a way that reminded me why Derek was in love with her. “Something else, then?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Yes. Something else.” Almost anything else would do, but if I said that she’d come at me with lingerie.

She ran off, and I was able to think again.

I shouldn’t treat being with her like it was a chore, but it was, really. When I shopped, it was simple and easy. Grab what you need, buy it, leave. But Lizzy…well, she shopped like a girl. She spent hours playing in stores she had no intention of spending money in, bought things for no good reason, and altogether wasted time.

She had been like this even when we were kids. At least now she actually had money to spend. Before, Derek and I had always been forced to buy her out of the holes she had dug. Who the hell extends credit to an eight year-old?

We really did need to get Derek something, and food wouldn’t cut it. Well, we were in a clothing store. Maybe that would work. Okay, it was woman’s clothing, but it was still an idea. Maybe a t-shirt. He wore shirts.

Lizzy skipped back into the changing room, holding another dress. “Okay, do you think this is better?”

It was pretty much the exact same dress as before, but much longer. It had a replaceable bottom hem, the kind for when the dress is expected to drag on the ground a little.

“We’ll see.” I shooed her out so I could try it on.

After putting it on, I found…I liked it. It’s pretty rare for me to like something Lizzy grabs for me, but this seemed wonderful. It fell over my body loosely, not too tight at all. Normally she tries to get me clothes that are practically painted on.

I turned a few times, checking how I looked in the mirror, and found myself pleased. She did have a good eye for color. And it would be nearly impossible for me to screw up the look by wearing the wrong pants or whatever. That was the benefit of a one-piece.

I looked at the price tag. Too much, even though it was on sale. Five percent off wasn’t much…

Five percent. A very specific number. An impossibly specific number.

Not for the sale. That wasn’t important. No, it was the sleepers. At the battle with the skins, exactly five percent of the soldiers had gone crazy. The implication was obvious; the Composer had more sleepers that he hadn’t activated.

But why unveil them then? That was what we were having trouble with. There were plenty of other, better opportunities he hadn’t used. The bats, with the Nosferatu, would have been a perfect place to use the sleepers. We had enough difficulty even without rioting. Suborn a few key drivers of the Necessarian reinforcements, and the cavalry would never have arrived. The entire area would have been turned, and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it—there weren’t even any air units in range.

None of this made any sense. There was so much the Composer could be doing, but wasn’t. So many things that would make taking control of the city easier. The only logical conclusion was that he had a different goal in mind.

But we couldn’t figure out what that was. Jarasax had theorized that he was like the fey, seeking only his own amusement, but I didn’t like that idea. There was so much chaos, but it was still under control. The fey and people like them would want more than this.

The body swapping idea would make the most sense. The Composer could fight and die in as many different scenarios as he liked, then just take over a new body and play again, all without killing the golden goose—the city, in this metaphor.

No, no, no. I needed to stop focusing on the simple solutions. I had to ignore Sax’s theories, and assume the Composer was an intelligent, rational being. Because I am an intelligent, rational being, and it’s the only kind of person I can really understand.

Fact 1: The Composer was not operating at full capacity. No matter how singers and screamers are created or controlled, there were tactical solutions that he was ignoring.

Fact 2: The Composer had sleeper agents, at least five percent in nearly every militia. None had…

And there it was.

None had revealed themselves among Necessarius.

It wasn’t much. It wasn’t anything, really. It could be data scatter or a deliberate false lead. But if the ‘sarians were somehow resistant or immune to this type of control, it would explain everything. The reason the sleepers only played their hand at Bombed Alley was because that was the first time non-Necessarian troops were involved in force.

But five percent…something was still bugging me about that.

What made the ‘sarians different? About a thousand things. They were better trained, more tightly controlled, got more regular medical check-ups…silver and gold, even their diets were more uniform. It was the same reason that Malcanthet hadn’t had much luck getting her own sleepers into their ranks a few years ago.

It was…

My brain came to a screeching halt.

It had taken a long, long time to discover the masking agents Malcanthet used to hide the drugs in her sleepers’ systems. Before that, there was no way to tell who could be one. In the end, the numbers were nowhere near as bad as anyone expected, but the fear nearly broke the city in the meantime.

But we hadn’t tested any of the new sleepers for the masking agent. We’d checked for some, of course, but not Malcanthet’s specifically. It was a complicated process, which was the point. It was difficult to detect even if you knew it was there.

But if it was…

We might know the identity of the Composer after all.

And I didn’t think Necessarius would be able to just carpet bomb her skyscraper this time.

Behind the Scenes (scene 88)

Sushi is one of the staples of the Domina diet, along with other kinds of fish. The other staples are mostly the kinds of vegetables that can be grown on the wall-farms, and meat. Spices are very common, and most Domina dishes make heavy use of them. Everything else pretty much has to come from space, including bread and sugar.

Scene 78 – Auxilius Necessarium

AUXILIUS NECESSARIUM

LAURA

I slathered some more healing paste on the hamburger that used to be Derek’s chest. I was surprised they had even managed to get him back to lab in that state. Ah, there was some premature healing, probably from a stimpack or two. That explained it. Still, I frowned at their story. “She shot three gargants?”

Derek nodded, though it clearly pained him. “With darts loaded with that calciophage stuff you and Clarke cooked up, yes.”

I rolled my eyes. “That stupid…I didn’t have anything to do with that. It’s a horrible invention. Too dangerous to use effectively. Akane, hand me that gauze, would you? Thanks.”

“It seemed to work against the gargants,” Adam pointed out.

I snorted. “And if you had been dealing with iron-heart gargants, they wouldn’t have even noticed. But that’s not what I mean. It gets into the air, then into your lungs, and kills everyone in the area.”

Adam blanched and covered his mouth. Akane giggled, and even Derek managed to crack a smile.

“Ah…but you don’t have to worry,” I assured him. “You’d be dead by now if you had gotten any in you.”

He lowered his hand sheepishly. “Of…course.” He looked around, desperately seeking to change the subject. “Where’s that red girl? Robyn, right?”

“She left a while ago,” I explained, as I added a few more bandages to Derek. “Said she felt useless.” I heard the click of heels. “Speaking of useless…”

Lizzy walked into the room.

She was wearing black. Lots of black. Black heels with straps that went up to her thigh, black shorts that reached down to the straps, and a marvelous black corset, with a dark shawl wrapped around it all.

I practically had to use my full weight to keep Derek on the table. I don’t know what the idiot was planning to do—hug her, probably—but he was hardly in any shape to do it.

“Hello,” I greeted her neutrally. “Didn’t you say you were bringing Ling with you?”

Lizzy cocked her head in confusion (and I felt Derek’s heart rate speed up), before nodding. “Ah, right. Yes, but she wanted to spend time with her ave friend. Make sure he’s doing all right, I suppose.”

“Fair enough,” I said slowly, searching for the proper words. An awkward silence fell as my hands worked.

After a very long few minutes, I finished bandaging Derek, and I had no good reason to remain silent. I made sure to fix her with a steely gaze first, though. I may not be as intimidating as Derek, but it’s not something you want to be on the receiving end of. “Did you rescue these three morons from gargants earlier?”

She blinked, her jaw working silently for a moment before speaking. “You…know about that?”

I frowned. “Where’d you get the calciophage, Lizzy?”

She shrugged a little helplessly. “Well, you know…Clarke is not always good at keeping track of things…”

I sighed. That idiot. He had to be doing it on purpose. No one could be that stupid. “Of course. But that stuff is dangerous. Don’t use it again.”

This could mean serious trouble, and not just because of the calciophage. Lizzy was not a killer, not a fighter, and not even an athlete. If she tried to get in the middle of this mess with the Composer, she would be destroyed, in more ways than one. We needed to make sure nothing came of this. I made a mental note to speak to the others about it once Lizzy left the room.

Before the uncomfortable silence could fall again, Adam spoke. “Well, I for one am thankful for the rescue.”

“Yeah,” Akane agreed. “Dōmo arigatōgozaimashita.”

Derek couldn’t say much (I had bandaged him a little too tight), but grunted in agreement.

Lizzy just smiled with those perfect teeth of hers, her golden eyes glittering. “This…is too much. You have nothing to thank me for.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 78)

Shooort. But this wasn’t really all that important, just shows Derek healing, and explains why Lizzy isn’t suddenly going to join the Paladins.

Oops, spoiler.

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 70 – Identifico

IDENTIFICO

LAURA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Also dead.”

Jasmine narrowed her eyes. “Convenient.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She blinked. “What?”

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

She stepped back again. “That means—”

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 70)

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

Scene 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 63 – Examen

EXAMEN

LAURA

“And then she just left,” Lizzy finished. “I hope she’s feeling better. Doctor Clarke has some pills for headaches, right?”

“Probably,” I admitted. As usual, Lizzy had grabbed me after she finished her class. Technically both her her normal history and my advanced class ended at the same time, but her professor tended to drone on, so I usually got out a little earlier.

“She also left her bag and sword behind,” she added, probably not even aware that I had responded. “Derek is taking care of that. Was there somewhere you wanted to go for dinner?”

“The DC is fine.” The Dining Commons might not be the highest quality food, but it was free. Well, included in tuition. My dad was paying for it, but money was tight, so anything extra I had to pay for myself. And I hadn’t taken a consulting gig since I came back to South Central.

“Don’t be silly,” she admonished with a pout. “Aren’t these the End Times? Isn’t this when you pig out on pizza and ice cream?”

I raised an eyebrow. Lizzy had been conspicuously avoiding the subject of the screamers for as long as possible, especially regarding her ability to hear them. I hadn’t asked what her power was, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t know. Obviously, she wasn’t to know about ours, either.

Regardless, there are some comments I just can’t let slide.

“If the end is coming, you need to do everything you can to stop it,” I insisted. “If nothing else, too much junk food will slow me down when I need to run.”

She rolled her eyes. “Your metabolism can handle it.” She grinned. “C’mon, a new Peach’s opened up down Mechanus. Shouldn’t we celebrate my test?”

“Oh yeah, you got the results back,” I mused. “What’d you get?”

She stood proudly. “Ninety-three percent!”

I shook my head. “When we study together, you can’t remember any of it. How do you keep passing tests? Are you seducing your teachers?”

She looked genuinely horrified. “No! Of course not! It’s just…” she shrugged. “In an emergency, the brain can do some incredible things, you know?”

Well, she was proof of that. I almost considered the possibility that her power had something to do with memory, but quickly discarded it. She had been like this for as long as I could remember. When it comes down to the wire, something strange happens, and her brain dredges up old memories with uncanny accuracy.

I suppose that was the only way she survived past childhood. She was too ditzy and nice to pay enough attention to anything.

“Hey, you heard about that drop pod, right?”

That woman switched topics too fast to keep up. “The…Chinese one, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. Butler did an interview on it.”

I frowned. “I must have missed that. What’d he say?”

“Nothing important. A bunch about how the USP is trying to choke the independents by buying back the station.”

I shook my head and sighed. “What’s your point, Lizzy?”

She leaned forward eagerly. “What’d Adam say about it?”

I threw up my hands. “Why would you care what he said? You’ve never cared about politics before.”

“Yeah, yeah, but he’s the one who found it! Organized a recovery and everything. Very heroic, don’t you think?”

I frowned. I honestly wouldn’t have thought that he had it in him. It was becoming increasingly clear that he was some flavor of psychopath, but you could say that about a lot of people in Domina. The fact that he rescued someone for no reason other than because he could was probably a good sign. Well, I didn’t know enough details to be certain that was exactly what happened, but I made a mental note to look into it.

“Do you think we should go get Derek and the rest?”

I blinked. “What?”

“For the pizza, silly.”

Oh, we were back on that? “I don’t think so. They’re very busy with homework.” And preparing for the next screamer attack. There hadn’t been one in four days, so another was due soon. “Honestly, I’m tired too. I’m not really in the mood for anything.”

Lizzy pouted. She seemed to think it was cute, but it just looked silly. “Why are you always like this? First you just want to eat at the crappy DC, then not even there! C’mon, a bunch of people said the new Peach’s was good. I’ll even pay, how does that sound?”

I sighed. There was no reasoning with her like this. If I didn’t give in, she’d just drag me there anyway. “Fine,” I muttered. “Pizza it is.”

She grabbed my arm tightly and started dragging me down the sidewalk. “Yay! Ooh, can we stop for ice cream after?”

I rolled my eyes. “Sure.”

She ate most of the large pizza we were supposed to share by herself, then did the same with the triple-scoop ice cream cup we got after. She also didn’t pay for either.

Seriously, if she wasn’t so goddamned nice to everyone, somebody would have shot her in the face when she was a kid just to save the hassle of dealing with her.

Behind the Scenes (scene 63)

Dear lord, a short one. Didn’t notice until I was done. Well, next one is a bit long, and this one isn’t too important anyway. Just a bit more of Lizzy and Laura’s relationship.

Scene 58 – Salutem

SALUTEM

LING

I was flying.

Well, floating. Using the stone plates in my armor, I was able to levitate myself. Not for long; only five minutes or so. But I was getting better, my reservoir was expanding, and I was finding more and more uses for the armor. Sure, levitation was the coolest, but I could also use it to enhance my strikes and dodge faster.

It was a perfect focus for my power, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. This kind of thing happened all the time in shows; now that I had the idea, I could name a half dozen anime or comics where they used similar tricks. So why hadn’t I come up with it before?

I was too complacent, that was the problem. Go to school, play soccer, kill screamers, sleep. I wasn’t spending enough time actually thinking. Sure, Laura was better at it than me, but if I approached everything from a different angle, I might be able to find something she missed.

I was on the roof of the dorm at the moment, where no one really hung out. It was the perfect place to practice, but the sun was basically set, and I really didn’t want to accidentally float over the edge and find out if I could catch myself from a fall. So I went back down, using the elevator rather than the stairs. Well, I had to use the stairs to get back into the building, but the elevator was fine for the rest. No sane person would try to run down thirty-one floors.

Focus. I needed to think about tactics.

But what was I supposed to do? This was out of my comfort zone. Zombies weren’t a common anime topic, for whatever reason.

No, no. I was looking at it wrong. None of my interests would be directly useful, but we didn’t need help killing zombies anyway. We needed to find the Composer. Laura wasn’t having much luck with that, other than that obvious trap the changelings were looking into.

But what could I do to help?

Put myself in the Composer’s shoes, that’s what. Shouldn’t be that hard. Every show had a bad guy. I just had to put together what we knew and figure out which one he was.

Okay, we knew he wasn’t as dangerous as he could be. Even though we didn’t know everything about the singers, the Composer should be able to just hook one up to some big speakers and infect half the city. Why hadn’t he? There were only two possible explanations: Either he was playing a longer game, or he was an idiot.

I nearly dismissed the second one out of hand, but it was possible. We didn’t know where these powers had come from. Clarke’s blood and DNA tests still weren’t showing any results, and even brain scans didn’t show any abnormalities. We could apparently just do things, with no explanation. If the Composer was in a similar situation, it could be that some idiot had gotten a hold of a weird power, and in testing out its limits, had unintentionally lost important chances.

No…no, that didn’t work. Because for all his mistakes, the Composer had managed to stay hidden, had avoided fighting anyone directly. Laura had some theory about it being a disembodied mind, able to manifest in any screamer, but that didn’t make sense to me. He hadn’t paused to gloat even once. And if you’re ever gonna gloat, it’s when you can swap bodies at a whim.

So we had to assume he was smart. Smart enough so that everything was going according to plan. After all, every time a screamer outbreak started, hundreds of people were turned, and he was only getting more efficient. If he was only a little patient, he could turn the whole city. Was that the plan?

Yes. That had to be it. Revealing the singers hadn’t been necessary; it was just a little clue to keep us scrambling for information while the status quo remained unchanged, to make us think we were making progress. He didn’t need the magic bullet to win the game. If nothing changed, he’d win soon enough.

Which meant we had to raid the lair that the changelings had found, despite how obvious it was. It might be a trap, but it was our only clue.

No…

No, that was just it.

Of course it was a trap. And of course we had to investigate. The Composer knew that. So the trap waiting for us wouldn’t be a slap on the wrist. It would mean certain death for whoever went in there.

As the elevator door opened, I stepped outside, but didn’t go further. The cell reception was a little bit iffy in my room. We had asked Emily to fix our broken relay, but she apparently hadn’t done anything about it.

I pulled out my phone and called Laura. She was probably either studying downstairs or with Clarke, but either way she’d have enough free time to talk.

On the third ring, she picked up. “Hello?”

“Laura? It’s Ling.”

“Yeah, I got that. What’s up?”

“We need to bomb the Composer’s lair.”

There was a very long pause on the other end of the line. “Why would we do that.”

“Because it’s our only clue,” I insisted.

There was another, shorter pause. “Yes, that’s generally why you don’t incinerate evidence.”

“No, I mean it’s our only clue, and the Composer knows that. So the trap waiting for us is probably going to be enough to level a city block.”

“And what, you want to beat him to the punch?”

“Yes, exactly! If blow it up ourselves, some evidence might survive, and if we’re very lucky he’ll be inside at the time.”

Laura sighed deeply. “Ling, there are a number of problems with that plan. But I’m going to start with this one: We’re not going in. We’re just watching the place, to see who does go in.”

My brain screeched to a halt. “That’s, uh…”

“A better plan?”

“Well, it doesn’t involve enough explosions…”

“Funny. Look, just leave the planning to me and Derek, okay? We have everything under control.” She hung up.

I stared at the phone for a minute. ‘Leave the planning to me and Derek.’ Those two had too many people looking to them for answers. Just because they were right most of the time didn’t mean they should get swelled heads.

Really, I was just annoyed because she shot down my argument so easily. I was used to being the stupidest person in the group, but usually I had at least something to contribute.

That friend of theirs…what was her name? Laura’s roommate? That’s right, Lizzy. She didn’t have this problem. Both times I had seen her, she just smiled and let Laura do her thinking for her. I was in a worse spot; smart enough to come up with plans, and dumb enough to think they could actually work.

I shook my head and started towards my room. I needed a break.

As I turned the corner, I saw a little girl, maybe ten years old, sitting in front of my door. She jumped up when she saw me.

“Ni Ling?” she asked.

“I don’t speak Chinese,” I explained. I was surprised she did; she was white. Didn’t ‘ni’ mean ‘two’ or something? ‘Two Ling?’ What could that possibly mean?

“Are you Ling?” the girl said, without missing a beat. When I nodded, she pulled a folded-up piece of paper out of her shirt. “Your friend Turgay, the ursa anthro, told me to give this to you.”

I reached out to take it, but stopped, frowning. “I don’t know an ursa named Turgay. I know an ave…”

She nodded and handed me the paper, then turned around and headed for the stairs without saying a word.

Still frowning, I opened up the paper slowly. The message was brief: ‘Abigail and Mechanus, ASAP.’ The intersection of Abigail and Mechanus, as soon as possible.

I sighed and headed for the elevators again. Why was he going through all this trouble? Couldn’t he just call me like a normal person?

It took me about fifteen minutes to get to the intersection in question, but I didn’t see him anywhere. Just late-night students and vampires, shopping around. There was a toy store nearby, as well as a few book shops and linens stores, all things that a college student would need. The ‘scrapers edging the square were a bit smaller than normal, maybe ten or fifteen stories. It created an interesting valley effect that you don’t often see in Domina.

But I had seen it all before. Although the lights from the buildings made them stand out beautifully in the night, that wasn’t what I was here for, and the fact that I couldn’t find what I was looking for was starting to annoy me.

He was one of like, a hundred ave anthros in the city. How could it be this hard to spot him?

I wandered around for a few minutes, at a loss as to what to do, when I passed one of the alleys between buildings and heard birdsong. Aves usually have their vocal cords enhanced to let them produce sounds like that easily; I took it as the signal it was and ducked into the deeper darkness.

As expected, there was Turgay, blinking at me with his wide eyes. He had what looked like a dirty blanket wrapped around his body, probably due to the cold. Behind him was an open crate with another ave anthro, sitting on something and clutching his side. The second ave looked like a crow or a raven, but it was hard to tell in the poor light.

“Ling,” Turgay whispered breathlessly. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”

I glared at him. “You could have just called. That’s what we have phones for, you know.”

He shook his head vehemently. “No, I threw our phones away. MC was monitoring them.”

She was what? I sighed. “What did you get into this time?”

“It would be easier if I just showed you,” he said carefully, moving aside so I could get to the object he was protecting.

I stepped up to the crate, and the black-feathered ave scooted to the side so I could see what he was sitting on. It was smeared with blood, but it was impossible to mistake that mirrored coffin for anything but what it was. Clarke had spammed all of us with pictures of it the second it had gone missing.

I cursed. “Turgay, why the hell do you have the toy box?”

He nodded in relief. “Good, I wasn’t sure you’d recognize it.”

I narrowed my eyes. “That work you did for Soaring Eagle…you stole the toy box?

“Yes,” he said, meeting my gaze levelly. “And now I need your help to get it to her. Before the ‘sarians kill me.”

I sighed deeply, placing my forehead against the cool metal of the most important device in the city.

Lizzy didn’t have to deal with this. No one ever asked her for help. Hell, her friends refused to even find out what her power was, they were so worried about her safety.

Must be nice.

Here I was, smart enough to come up with plans and dumb enough to think they were good, cornered and pressed for help. Couldn’t go to Laura, or Derek, or anyone else smarter than me. Couldn’t even call MC.

Must be nice, being Elizabeth Greene.

Behind the Scenes (scene 58)

“Ni Ling” means “Are you Ling.” It’s just that most of Ling’s “Chinese” is actually Japanese that she only half-remembers, and has confused for Chinese.