Scene 294 – Cimeterium

CIMETERIUM

LING

Pain.

The world was pain.

Needles and spikes and tearing razors and things I didn’t have names for. Every second my flesh felt like it was about to slough off my bones, because that was exactly what was going to happen. It took a constant effort of will to keep my concrete skeleton in one piece, to keep myself the right shape.

I took a deep breath and pushed it back. All of it, like holding back a river with a single plank of wood. But I did it, and the pain faded to a dull roar. Always there, like my heartbeat or the pull of gravity, but no longer so all-consuming.

I opened my eyes.

I was in the ruined skyscraper that had once been an ave base. The entire building had collapsed from my assault, but the same spikes and twists of concrete that had brought it down also prevented it from falling any further. In fact, the concrete turned the place into a near-perfect fortress, with no entrances or weak spots.

They called it the Grave.

“Alexander,” I said.

He stepped out of the shadows swiftly, but without rush. “Yes, my lady?”

“There is a party upstairs.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, my lady. A celebration following the victory against the Americans. There are countless similar parties all across the city.”

“I’m sure.” I stood up from my cross-legged position. I had been meditating. I couldn’t sleep anymore, not when I needed to use my power at all times to keep my skeleton working properly. Clarke’s Insomniac gland was a godsend, but I still needed rest. “Call down three of our strongest. I have a job for them.”

He looked hesitant, but bowed low anyway. “Yes, my lady.” He stepped into what seemed to be a solid wall—the old elevator shaft, now sealed up. The elevator itself was scrap metal at the bottom of the shaft, but it was still useful.

I used my stonesense to track him, or rather the concrete belt he used to ascend the shaft towards the roof. He was almost at the edge of my sense when he stopped at the roof. A few moments later, he and three others began to descend the shaft again, levitating their stone belts to control their speed.

The concrete wall of the shaft opened up like a curtain, and Alexander escorted three people into my chamber. Two girls and a boy. All baseline. Most of my people were baseline. It wasn’t a requirement, it was just the way it had ended up.

“Do you believe the war is over?” I said without preamble.

All three of them stood with their backs as straight as arrows. “No, Lady Grave.”

“Do you believe that now is the time for celebration?”

“No, Lady Grave.”

I levitated my own skeleton, allowing me to float a few feet off the ground and move into a cross-legged sitting position in mid air. “Artemis Butler believes he can solve this with diplomacy and deals. Perhaps he is right. But that is not the way of the Grave.”

“No, Lady Grave.”

“How does the Grave handle its enemies?”

Three voices barked the response with one voice. “We bury them!”

I nodded. “Good.” I pulled a small object out of my pocket. It was about the size of a pen, and I pointed it at the factory-smooth concrete ground. I pressed a button on the side and a light shone out of it, projecting a flat map of the city with a number of red dots scattered around it. They were clustered around the four city gates, especially North Gate.

“Each red dot represents a suspected American soldier, squad, or piece of scrap left behind when the army fled the city.” I clicked the pen again, zooming in farther onto kemo territory. “Perhaps these people were simply unlucky. Abandoned by their country. Perhaps they are kindred souls, who need nothing more than friendship and open arms to become contributing members of this city.” I clicked the pen off. “And perhaps not.”

One of the three—one of the girls—stepped forward. “Lady Grave. Butler’s orders are quite explicit. Defense only. He doesn’t want to further antagonize—”

“Who rules the Grave?”

The girl swallowed. “You do, Lady Grave.”

I slowly stopped levitating myself, setting my bare feet back on the concrete ground. Since I could only use my power on stone I was touching, that meant I could now control the entire building again. The girl flinched, but didn’t step back. Good for her.

“Artemis Butler.” I nodded. “He is a good man. A man trying to do what is best for this city, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. But he has controlled this city for far too long.”

One of the others, the boy, blanched. “You… you’re not talking about a coup?

I waved my hand. “Of course not. He is what is best for this city. I am simply saying that he is sometimes more worried about keeping his word and making deals than he is about taking out the trash.” I tossed the pen to the second girl, the one who hadn’t spoken. “Today, that will be our job. Your job.”

She nodded, holding the pen. “What would you have us do?”

“Take kemo territory,” I said. “All three of you together, hitting every hot spot you can find. Don’t give them a chance to respond, don’t give them a chance to radio for help. Crush them. Bury them. Leave no evidence behind.”

They all bowed. “Yes, Lady Grave.”

I nodded. “Go, now. Take a few of the novices with you, if you feel it is necessary, but no more than a dozen. I want the report of your first success within the hour.”

They left quickly, running at a solid wall and passing through it like mud. In moments, they were gone.

“They’ll be caught,” Alexander warned. “Anders has his CS squads. Those three won’t be able to fight them.”

“They are not supposed to fight them. They are supposed to distract them. Pull them to this sector of the city, far away from where I will be.” I had been hit with a counter-song twice since I had returned to the city. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, but it had paralyzed me completely.

Alexander nodded, as if he had expected such a response. “And where will you be?”

“East Gate,” I said. “Vampire territory.”

He nodded again. “Very well. I will collect an escort for you.”

“No,” I said, grinning. “I will handle it alone.” I shivered in delight. “It’s been far too long since I was really able to let loose.”

And then I sank into the ground, swimming through the concrete and asphalt of the city streets as easily as if it was water.

Behind the Scenes (scene 294)

That’s the last short one for a little while. Not forever, of course, but we’ve got some long ones coming up next.

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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.

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.

Scene 89 – Auxilium

AUXILIUM

LING

“Thanks for coming on such short notice,” Lizzy said gratefully. “Laura ran off the second we grabbed Derek’s present. I don’t know what’s up with her.”

“No problem,” I replied honestly. “It’s the least I can do after all that with Turgay. Besides, I also need to get Derek something.”

“Anything specific in mind?” she asked as she held a yellow t-shirt up to me, checking for size. It was weird hanging out with her, and not just because we hadn’t done it before. She was a lot taller than me, and I still wasn’t quite used to it.

“I dunno…clothes?”

Her golden eyes twinkled. “For you or for him?”

I blinked. “What?”

She grinned mischievously. “Weeell…there are lingerie stores around her, so maybe…”

I was honestly surprised. She hadn’t struck me as someone who would notice that. Maybe there was more to her than met the eye. On the other hand, it would be nearly impossible for there not to be.

“I doubt it would work,” I admitted. “He’s not exactly tuned into that channel.”

She chuckled. “Yeah, something like that.”

“Anyway, I’m not sure I can pay for much. I barely have enough for food.”

She waved her hand. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll pay for everything.”

I frowned up at the bronze Amazon. “You don’t have to do that. I would prefer not getting anything rather than owing you more.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she insisted with a grin. “I think friends can afford to owe each other a few favors.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “I…guess, but I mean…after all that with Turgay—”

She gave me a level stare. “Ling,” she proclaimed. “That was not a favor. That was just doing the right thing. You don’t owe me for that.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Becoming complicit in grand theft is doing the right thing?”

“More like spreading the toy box around is the right thing.” She licked her lips in an exaggerated way. “Can you imagine the implications?”

“Not really,” I admitted. “Cheaper healing and more anthros?”

Lizzy smiled. “A little more than that.” She opened her mouth to continue, but then bit her lip, reconsidering. “I don’t really understand it all. My agent is the one who’s really excited. She keeps going on about how it needs to be open sourced and so on, how it will completely reinvent society.”

“The toy maker already did that,” I pointed out. I indicated a nearby fel. “Or did you miss the memo?”

The Amazon just rolled her eyes and held up another shirt to me, green this time. “I mean beyond that. You saw the toy box, right? Didn’t you feel its potential?” She turned to grab another shirt.

I just stared at her. “Uh, no. No, I didn’t. I saw a shiny metal coffin.”

She turned back and blinked. “Really? Interesting. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence…”

I rubbed my forehead. “What?”

“Sorry, sorry,” she apologized. “It’s just that all my people who helped out mentioned a sort of power in the box. A feeling of infinity.” She shrugged. “Probably just all in their heads. They thought it was important, so it was.”

“I suppose,” I mused, as I took the newest shirt from her. It was a floral print, mostly with light colors. It looked nice, but I wasn’t sure how it would work with my skin tone. At least it matched my hair.

“Changing room is right over here,” Lizzy said as she dragged me to the corner of the boutique. “Let’s see how that looks.”

After I finished changing and was looking at myself in the mirror, a thought occurred to me. “Your people…the ones who got Turgay in touch with Soaring Eagle. They’re trustworthy, right?”

She just laughed. “Oh, yes, I can guarantee that. They wouldn’t rat you out if their lives depended on it.”

That made me distinctly uncomfortable, because I was pretty sure she wasn’t exaggerating. “That’s good, I guess. How are you so sure?”

“I select my agents and other support staff by loyalty,” she assured me, as she gently grabbed my shoulders and turned me a little, so I could see a better angle. “There’s so much I can’t do, I need people I can rely on.”

It really was a nice shirt. Tight too, emphasizing my chest (such as it was). “Like what? What can’t you do?”

“Can’t drive,” she admitted. “Never got the hang of it, although in Domina it’s not as big a deal as it would be elsewhere. I’m horrific with computers. They make no sense. And medicine. I need help in that area. A trustworthy doctor and someone to remind me to take the right pills. I always forget otherwise.” She shrugged. “Those are the big three.”

“How’d you even get into voice acting in the first place?” I took off the shirt and pulled on the next one. I was pretty sure I was going to get the floral one, but I wanted to check all my options first.

“Same way anyone gets into anything,” she said. “Did an audition, got chosen. I mean, isn’t that basically how you got your scholarship?”

I winced. “Not…quite. There was a lot more begging involved.” The second shirt wasn’t anywhere near as good. Purple just wasn’t my color. “AU doesn’t really have an big soccer program.”

Lizzy nodded. “I know how that is. You think you’ve found something big, and it turns out that you’re the only one who cares.”

That reminded me. “I asked before, but you never answered: What kind of things have you voiced?”

“Not much you would be interested in. Kids shows, mostly.”

“Laura said something about My Little Pony…”

“Yeah, exactly. Stuff like that.”

“Hm.” I selected another shirt from the pile. “Any anime?”

“A few. I was Amane in the new Gundam. And I played a minor side character in the new Lain movie.”

I blinked. “Huh, I saw Gundam. Didn’t recognize your voice.”

She cocked her head. “Really?”

“Well, now it sounds familiar,” I said, waving my hand. “I just didn’t make the connection until you pointed it out.”

“Well, you know how it is. Everyone sounds a little different in-character.”

“Not really,” I mused. “At least, not for you. I just hadn’t thought about it.”

“It’s not really important,” she declared. “You know what is?” She grinned wickedly. “Getting you some lingerie.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 89)

Short, but relevant.

Scene 82 – Cor

COR

AKANE

It was late, about ten. Ling was already asleep, or at least pretending to be. She had tried to talk to Derek about their little altercation, but had stumbled over her words and run away. They’d reconcile soon; we had time.

The reason I wasn’t asleep was because Derek had gotten a job for us. A land piranha swarm had gotten into the BOB facility nearby, and they didn’t have the equipment to deal with it. We’d get paid well for this one. Swarms were pretty dangerous, and we were specifically called in because they knew we’d keep damage to a minimum. If they just wanted to nix the swarm, they could talk to the Canians.

I was nearly ready. I had the Minerva silk on. It fit like a glove and breathed like air, so no problems there. I had my sword at my hip and my knives strapped to my arms. I had my beads tied to my ponytail, and the blue ribbon woven within it. I was even wearing the necklace and pendant Ling and Laura gave me.

All that was left was the earrings.

I hadn’t worn them since a couple days after my birthday. It had felt almost like a betrayal of Derek, which was ridiculous. The moron still didn’t know Ling and I were fighting over him, even after the quick little wrestling match when she got her armor.

The earrings were beautiful, and very thoughtful. I don’t have much jewelry, since most of my money goes to paying for college and healing after bad fights, but that didn’t mean I didn’t like it.

It wasn’t that I liked Flynn, of course. I just enjoyed jewelry in general. That was all. I could appreciate a present without it having any deeper meaning, right?

Of course. Anything else would be silly.

So I should just put on the earrings. There was no harm.

Well…there was some harm. They dangled. They’d unbalance me, if only barely. They were a liability. I couldn’t wear something like that into combat.

Right, so they were off the table. I stood to leave.

Except…the necklace was in the same boat. And I wasn’t considering leaving it behind. Why should the earrings be any different?

The necklace meant something to me, that was it. The earrings didn’t. They didn’t mean anything good or bad, they were just decoration. And I didn’t need that.

Ling rolled over and snorted in her sleep, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Time to go.

I left quickly, meeting Derek downstairs in the lobby. Adam was nowhere to be found. He was probably off with Lily somewhere.

“Ready to go?” I asked.

Derek nodded, adjusting the grenade bandolier across his torso. They were just smoke grenades, but they would be very useful against land piranhas. “I am. You?”

I smiled. “Of course.”

His blue eyes flickered down to my hand. “Are you going to put those on?”

I looked down at my right hand.

I had the earrings held in a loose grip and hadn’t even noticed.

I swallowed. “Yeah. Just give me a second.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 82)

This is the shortest scene I’ve ever done, but it’s still important. And the next one is going to be long. There will not be an update on Wednesday; next is Monday, as scheduled. Trust me, it will be worth the wait.

On the other hand, you may have noticed we now have a forum! You can find it at http://domina.forumotion.com/

Scene 80 – Aves

AVES

LING

I met Turgay and Pigeon outside of the dorm, in the small alley that separated it from the next ‘scraper. The crow was looking better; apparently his King had gotten him some help. Maybe he had even been thrown into the toy box itself for healing, who knew.

“Thanks for meeting us,” Turgay said earnestly. “I know we’ve caused trouble for you the past few days.”

“Can we talk about this somewhere else?” I glanced at the maintenance man installing some speakers at the corner. “I don’t want to be overheard.”

He nodded. “Of course. This way.” They headed deeper down the alley, presumably the direction they had come from, and I followed. Aves were still rare, and Soaring Eagle’s actions had made them mistrusted. It was best to keep them out of sight.

Once we determined we were far enough away, I sat on a dumpster and started my interrogation. “How’s the toy box?”

He winced a little at my tone, but kept strong. “Fine. Thanks for asking. Sele is keeping it under wraps, as you might expect, so I don’t really know what they’re doing with it.”

I frowned. “Sele?”

He smiled a little. “Short for Selenium.” At my blank look, he continued. “It’s atomic symbol is ‘Se.’ Cuz, uh…Soaring Eagle is a bit of a mouthful.”

I shook my head. Never let geeks out of the lab, seriously. They come up with stuff like that. “Whatever. And you’re sure she’s using the box to advance wing research, not create super viruses or anything?”

Pig bobbed his head excitedly. “Definitely, definitely. I’m in the first wing trials, once they get a basic design made.”

“They’ll probably be non-functional,” Turgay grunted. “There just isn’t any real research into wings, since everyone has known for so long that its going to be very, very hard. I really doubt they’ll even get the first batch to flap.”

“I just hope it was worth stealing the stupid thing,” I spat with more anger than I intended. “You brought a lot of people into this scheme of yours. We all go down if Butler isn’t feeling merciful.”

The eagle’s shoulders sagged. “I know Ling, I know. But Soaring Eagle…she’s offering a lot. Giving our culture a chance to actually thrive.”

“Illegally.”

He looked away. “Well, yes. But its the only way that has a chance at working.”

I shook my head. I should be at NHQ, flirting with Derek, not dealing with this. Then again…

I wasn’t really sure what to make of our fight the other day. I had always known, intellectually, that Derek spent most of his time wrestling monsters. I knew that he could kill me, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop him. But knowing a truth and having it throw you against a wall are two very different things.

I was out of line, of course. It was common courtesy to let someone know you couldn’t make a meeting, and required when it was a life or death situation. My little rant about not being a soldier, while true, didn’t really apply to the situation.

But I don’t approve of solving problems with violence. That was one of the reasons I was still leery about our little alliance with Necessarius; Butler had a very…ballistic solution to most difficulty. If I was completely honest, I had always agreed with the succubi and the daevas: If a problem couldn’t be solved with sex, it wasn’t worth paying attention to. But saying that within a thousand feet of Lily, or even Derek and Akane, would likely get me killed.

Oh sure, we were fighting the screamers, but that was more like weeding the garden. They weren’t people any more. Laura and Doctor Clarke were trying their best, sure, but I knew in my heart they wouldn’t have any luck finding a cure. In all likelihood, anything they came up with would just make things worse.

I should probably talk to Derek about it. I’m sure he felt worse about it than I did. I had half expected him to call and apologize, but no such luck.

“Ling?” Turgay asked slowly. “You still with us?”

I blinked, clearing my head. “What? Yes, yes, sorry, my mind wandered. What was the question?”

“I just wanted to know if you had a better idea to advance the cultures.”

I sighed. “If the screamers were gone, and the fey played nice with everyone…” I shrugged. “There are a lot of options that are off the table because of things like that. But that doesn’t mean they’re all out of reach. Did you talk to—” it took me a moment to remember the subcultures in question. “The sibriex, or the Glasyans? Either of them would have been helpful.”

My old friend clicked his beak disdainfully. “Yes, we did. As well as the autumn fey. And the Avernans, the Belians, and even the Nosferatu. Anyone who might be able to help vitalize the subculture has turned us down. This was the last option.”

I held up my hand to stop him. He was getting a bit angry. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m not involved in this, I don’t know all the details. I shouldn’t judge. It’s just…” I shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s Necessarius, Guy. You know better than to screw with them. Remember how they ended the Battle of Shendilavri? The Battle of Hathsin?” He broke eye contact, and I stepped forward, forcing him to look at me. “In five years, do you want people telling stories about how they massacred the aves at the Battle of G’Hanir?”

“It won’t—” he started, but I cut him off.

Yes, that is exactly what will happen. You guys have one ‘scraper. Butler can topple that easily enough.”

He met my gaze again, fury giving him strength. “It’s too late now. Soaring Eagle knew what she was getting us into. We’ll survive or not, that’s just the way it is.” He sighed, deflating. “Let it go, Ling. The die is cast.”

I bit my lip. “Guy—”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about Lizzy,” he interrupted, in a blatant attempt to change the subject.

I didn’t object. “What about?”

“What’s she do for a living, anyway?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t her driver or bodyguard or whatever tell you?”

He shook his head, feathers rustling. “No. They didn’t talk much.”

I shrugged. “She’s a voice actress. I think she’s doing My Little Pony right now. Not sure though.”

“She’s…what? Nevermind, the point is that she has a pretty big support system for just a voice actress.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You complaining?”

“No! No, nothing of the sort. I was just impressed, that’s all.” He shifted awkwardly on his feet. “She’s a nice girl, and her type don’t usually last long in that kind of business.”

Pigeon spoke up. “Seems like everyone likes her. Maybe that’s how she’s surviving.”

“Shut up—” Turgay began, then paused. “Actually, that’s a good point.” He shrugged. “She seems to rouse protective instincts.”

“I think you guys are making acting sound more dangerous than it is,” I said with a smile. “This isn’t some shadowy cabal. The worst these people get is paparazzi and weird letters, and voice actresses aren’t popular enough have to deal with even that.”

The crow cawwed—a laugh. “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”

I laughed right back. I might not know much, but I’ve been trying to break into the animation business since I was seven. I knew what I was talking about. “No, I do. It’s hardly a cutthroat business.”

“I was talking more about the stress,” Turgay cut in, before the argument could escalate. “It weighs on you. And Lizzy seems to have…weak shoulders, so to speak.”

“You don’t have to worry about her,” I promised. “She has lots of friends who are more than willing to shelter her, make sure she doesn’t get overworked. If anything, she’s naive and pampered.”

“Naive is better than spoiled, at least,” the eagle admitted. He paused to think, and his phone started beeping. He shut off the alarm quickly. “Sorry about that. There’s this thing we have to get to, but we can talk for—”

I held up my hand to stall his protests. “No, no, don’t worry about it. I just wanted to know you were fine, that your King hadn’t chopped you up for spare parts. Go. I have homework to do anyway.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 80)

Ehh…don’t really like this one. As Turgay and Ling’s relationship becomes more strained, it becomes harder to write for them.

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.