The murmur of the ball around her rose and fell like the familiar tide. It was starting to get late in the evening, when the men and women who’d struck out, or had business in the morning retired, leaving the dance floor filled with half a dozen slow-dancing couples.
The musicians had been relieved by one of the older patrons, who played an enchanting melody on a delicate glass instrument.
Diplomacy wasn’t the art of tracking someone down and begging them for help, It was selling yourself and your country. Whenever Asabei thought of Gadvera, he’d think of the Gadveran ambassador.
She’d been wowing the man with a description of the jungles just outside Mujenan, when her internal clock told her it was about time to go check on Calvin again.
“What!?” Asabei shouted over the soft tinkling, humming noise of the glass pipes, aiming the horn in his ear at her.
Kala briefly considered screaming over the crowd as he had, then decided it wasn’t worth it. She had to leave to check on Calvin anyway, and she was more than half certain the old man pretended to be more deaf than he was, simply to make people embarrass themselves.
“I have to go check on a friend,” Kala said with a slight curtsy. “I hope to speak to you again.”
“Okay, the bathroom’s that way.” Asabei said, leaving Kala to wonder how much of her tales of beautiful green forests he’d actually heard.
She excused herself and headed through the party. It was easier to navigate now, now that so many of them had drifted away in ones and twos. Some of them retired to empty rooms in the old magnate’s mansion for trysts they could only afford at a private party.
Sounds like fun. She thought sourly. She probably wouldn’t be able to do anything like that for many years, given her current spotlight in Gadveran politics.
Even checking on Calvin was risky. If someone got the wrong idea seeing her leaving his room, they could start a rumor fire…and those were hard to put out.
Kala discreetly checked in front and behind her as she entered the hall, then swooped into the room quickly and quietly, hopefully no one would notice.
When she raised her eyes, however, all thoughts of how her behavior was perceived flew violently out of her head.
The bed was covered in streaks of blood, and two Nadia’s were crouched over Calvin’s body, One biting his face, the other reaching her hand into his splayed open chest, clawing out his heart.
Kala drew the stiletto from her thigh and plunged it into the heart-clawing one’s chest as she looked up, driving the evil bitch off of Calvin and pinning her against the wall.
“What?” was all Nadia was able to say before she dissolved into green mist into the bookshelf.
“Get off him!” Kala turned as the blood covered one biting his face sat up to look at her.
“We’re keeping him alive, you fuckstrated bitch! Grab his heart and start squeezing! It’s not working on its own!” Nadia screamed, pointing at the exposed heart before she leaned down and blew two breaths into Calvin’s chest.
Kala glanced down at the exposed lump of meat. It wasn’t moving.
“Shit!” She dove onto the bed and began squeezing Calvin’s heart, prompting the muscle to contract on it’s own, scraping her wrist on the jagged open ribcage at the same time.
“What the hell happened!?” Kala demanded.
“Not there!” Nadia shouted, putting her hand over Kala’s and changing the position of her fingers. “Squeeze over this chamber, then this one, don’t just try to crush the damn thing. Get a good rhythm going!”
Kala did as she was instructed, and the heart began pumping a bit more, a bit faster.
“Oh, look at that, physical evidence that you’re good with your hands,” Nadia cackled, grabbing a nearby knife resting on top of a lamp. She pressed it to a reopened blood vessel with a soft hiss before she dived down and gave Calvin two more breaths.
“What is going on?” Kala asked again, wrist deep in her crush.
“He didn’t give me the whole story, just terse orders,” Nadia said, rolling her eyes.
After a couple minutes of breathing for him, she sat up and put a bloody hand on her cheek, making a coy, calculated pose.
“Soo…how was the party?” Nadia asked.
Calvin opened his eyes blearily, finding an unfamiliar ceiling above him. It certainly wasn’t the one he’d been in when he’d gone into Medi-tate.
Calvin tried to speak, but his mouth was too weak and dry to form words. There was a bowl of slowly cooling soup beside his bed, on a glass cabinet. Beside the soup was Kala reading a book. He couldn’t see her face, but he recognized the dress and the slender, dark-skinned legs.
Calvin tried to raise his hand to get her attention, but that made him aware of the sudden searing pain in his chest, forcing out a quiet moan of pain, which made everything hurt even more.
Kala threw the book away and leaned over him, looking into his eyes with concern. Despite the pain, she still smelled wonderful.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
Calvin opened his mouth and closed it again, unable to speak.
“You almost died last night. What happened?” Kala asked, leaning close, peering into his eyes. She stayed like that, staring into his eyes for a strangely long time until she seemed to shake herself out of it, directing her gaze at his nose.
Calvin opened and closed his mouth again.
“Alright, so we’ll wait until you feel better, I guess. I brought some broth in case you woke up. Can you swallow? Open your mouth once for yes, twice for no.”
Calvin opened his mouth.
Oh, hey, you’re awake. Elliot’s voice rang in the back of Calvin’s head as Kala gently lifted him into a reclining position so gravity could help him swallow, rather than drown.
“here you go,” Kala said, bringing a spoonful of broth to hip lips, which he was able to down with a little effort.
What the hell happened last night? Calvin asked.
You want the good news or the bad news?
Good news, I guess.
You’re still alive, and you’re not a vampire! Congratulations! Tomorrow you should be able to speak and feed yourself, the day after, you might be able to sit up on your own, and two days after that, you’ll be eligible for light duty. This is assuming you use Medi-tate the entire time. If you don’t it’ll take six to eight weeks. Oh, and you got two levels in Meditation for attempting to ignore open heart surgery. Congratulations!
I don’t remember that part.
You probably repressed it.
Alright, what’s the bad news?
There was a bit of a bad interaction between Lady Killer, which is Vampire adjacent, and Mesmerizing Eyes, which does carry the risk. The two built off each other in an uncontrolled reaction, and you almost died and turned into a Maculat Mulieres.
What is that? Calvin asked.
I Don’t know, but that wasn’t the bad news. That was setting the stage for the bad news.
You’ve got it latent in you now, like HIV. We didn’t stop the actual transformation, we simply avoided the whole dying part of the transformation, putting it on hold.
When you die, you’ll turn into a Maculat Mulieres.
Oh. Calvin frowned. That’s it? I thought it’d be worse.
What do you mean that’s it? you don’t even know what a Maculat is! I don’t even know what it is, there weren’t any on Marconen before I was imprisoned!
Right, but the alternative is, when I die, I start rotting and nothing happens at all. I generally try to avoid dying altogether.
Hmm… good point. Calvin heard Elliot’s fingers drumming against something…maybe a table? Well, we’ll just file that information under Death: Things to avoid. In the meantime, I’d like to give you your ethics briefing on your first suggestion/mind control ability.
Calvin groaned slightly before the pain in his chest stopped him.
“Did I do something wrong?” Kala asked. “Is the soup too hot?” She tried a bit with a frown. “Damn I wish you could speak.”
Tomorrow, I promise. Calvin thought.
The ironclad rule of suggestion, memory manipulation, and mind control is that you never, ever use it on an ally. Why, you might ask? Fiction is littered with cautionary tales that illustrate the dangers of…
Hey, don’t shut me –
Calvin drew the mental curtains of his Meditation Skill and floated peacefully through space, formless in his little bubble.
Meat Shield has reached level 7!
Ella tore the brown bolt free, getting the rest of the way in front of Maya and dragging the little archer down to where her shield was.
It must be the people from the fortress, Ella thought, surveying the dozen odd Uleisans on the ridge above them pelting their camp with glass bolts. Getting outflanked is shameful. Roughly half of the enemies were aiming at Ella and Maya while the other half were forcing Grant’s swords to work full time keeping him from being pierced, while their Legend pushed him back.
Their legend was a towering Uleisan with a jolly smile, peg leg and a sleeveless vest. His waist had a shiny rope of blue glass coiled around it and dozens of glass balls hung from the man’s shirt and pants.
I’m not exactly sure what I’m looking at, Ella thought as the man approached Grant with a glass blade. But I don’t have time to sit around. She caught a glance from Grant and interpreted it as best she could.
“Grant’s going to distract the Aiaka for us, and we’re going to take down the rest,” Ella said, pulling her shield off the ground and up over the two of them as another glass bolt glanced off the steel.
“Okay, what do you need me to do?” Maya asked.
Ella glanced behind her, the cliff beneath them was steep, but only twenty feet or so until it began to slope. A veteran like Maya could handle it. Probably. She was better in stealth than she was at standing out in the open and getting shot at. It was Ella’s job to make that happen.
“I need you to disappear.” Ella said, bumping the little archer with her hip, sending her tumbling over the edge of the cliff with a startled squawk.
Now that that’s taken care of… Ella took the blood that was lazily pumping out of her arm and spread it over her skin, turning the glossy iron skin a dark red as she hid behind the shield.
Blood and Iron Mutation Triggered, each additional creature’s blood will increase the Effectiveness of Iron skin, along with a permanent increase in User’s skin toughness.
Time to go to work.
Ella jumped for her flail and spotted a glass ball half the size of her fist resting on top of it.
It turned red.
Ella reflexively threw her hand in front of her eyes as the glass exploded violently in every direction, pelting her skin with shrapnel.
Ella blinked twice as a couple glass rods ricocheted off her neck and the ribs in front of her heart.
Heavy armor has reached Level 6!
Her eyes didn’t have any glass in them, that was good. Through the after-image of the glass orb, she could see her weapon sailing off the end of the cliff.
Amehauah, she cursed internally, turning back toward the dozen archers sending sharpened glass rods down on her.
I’ll just have to do this barehanded.
Ella put her shield in front of her and bulled toward the assembled Archers.
She heard the hum of Penetrating Shot and threw the shield up, rolling to the side as she went. A flash of white shrieked through the air and tore a hole in her steel shield before penetrating partway into the stone behind her.
Her roll brought her to the face of the rock the enemy were standing on. She bunched her feet under her and jumped with everything she had, sailing up into the air and catching a rock ledge about two thirds of the way up. With a grunt, she hauled down on the ledge and sent herself flying the rest of the way up, landing on the edge of the ledge with a scramble.
One of the smarter ones ran up to her and attempted to kick her back off the ledge with his foot before she could get her bearings.
She grabbed his leg and flung him backwards, landing the hapless archer down near their campsite while stealing his inertia and rolling forward, putting herself beyond the danger of falling off the edge of the cliff.
She came to stand in front of the eleven Uleisan archers, with their little slingshot bows. There was a moment of silence where she could have said something cool, but she didn’t speak the dialect very well.
The moment passed, and they dropped their bows, rushing at her with nearly infvisible sheets of glass in their hands.
Ella charged forward and their blades shattered against her skin, doing little more than scratching her.
Her iron fist crunched through a face, putting the archer down before she felt a stinging impact on her side, where one of the soldiers had put a blade a quarter inch into the skin over her ribs. She ignored the pain and whipped around, delivering an elbow to the man’s temple, taking him out of the fight.
The sword tumbled out of his hand and Ella grabbed it, mid-fall, using the blade to sever the next man’s head from his shoulders before excessive torque snapped the handle off.
The headless body showered blood over her, and she felt her mutated skin writhe and harden in response.
Only eight left.
Rather than defend, she leapt on the closest person, snapping the man’s sword off against her stomach. She leaned down and bit into his neck and part of his jaw, sending a well of blood out.
She picked the dying man up and shook him, roaring. She did it partially to spread the blood, partially to demoralize the others, and…
A few brave young men were charging her, and she tossed the bleeding corpse at them, tearing them off of their feet and sending them to the ground long enough for her to deliver debilitating iron punches to their skulls.
Crunch went the bone as it succumbed to superior force.
They were running now, and seeing them break in front of her was all the gratification she needed.
Ella pointed her finger to aim her paralysis ability, when something struck the back of her spine, nearly folding her over it.
Ella tried to turn over and look, but all she saw was the handle of a blade. All she heard was the wind in her ear as she shot up into the sky, supported by the blade.
She glanced the other direction and spotted Grant, oozing blood from a few scratches, and bearing more than one piece of shrapnel, floating in the air beside her.
“Sorry to interrupt you when you were doing so well, but it wasn’t going great for us overall, luckily Ussein can’t Fly!!” Grant shouted down at the Aiaka standing on the lower cliff. The glass band around his waist had unwound and turned into a glowing red whip with a black core, writhing across the stone like a living thing, with three of Grant’s blades in its grasp. Four more were scattered around the stone, melted to uselessness.
“Coward!” Ussein shouted up at Grant. “I’m keeping these!”
“Where’s Maya?” Grant asked.