Chapter 36

As the employees filtered outside to the daily exercise field, many were surprised to see it completely transformed. The grassy expanse now ended with a large stage that had been set up throughout the day. The stage itself was obscured with a black barrier, but massive resonance plates stood on either side of the stage, assuring the employees that they were in for, at the very least, an immersive experience.

At the side of the field, a sturdy-looking portable bar had been set up. A large awning shielded it from the setting sun and any potential inclement weather. The bar seemed fairly utilitarian, but most employees assumed it would be well-stocked, given the attitude that the company seemed to take concerning the retreat so far. Further back and to the side, a tented pavilion stood, sporting a full bar with stools, multiple grills, tables, and a multitude of chairs for those who preferred to take a less active part in the concert.

Steve and Mike arrived on the field and looked around, impressed.

“I’ll say one thing for CEO Volnocht,” Mike said. “The guy really knows how to let you play as hard as you work.”

“It’s the old-school warrior mentality,” Steve said, recalling Alan’s words on the subject. The two of them watched the gathering crowd for a few moments, and then began their trek to the bar.

Zap and Pazi stood in the pavilion, also watching the crowd. Near Pazi’s shoulder, a small orange-and-white fish with the furry face of a mouse floated serenely in the air. The mouse-fish glowed faintly and surveyed the surroundings with great interest.

“This is what’s nice about a gathering of just a few hundred people,” Zap said. “They can really go all-out on treating you right.”

“It’s nice,” Pazi agreed.

A young woman with dark skin and bright, flowy clothing approached the couple. When she drew near, her face lit up and she ran the rest of the distance.

“Oh em gee Pazi you brought Koizumi!”

“Hi Layla,” Pazi said with a smile, then shouted “Horn!” in warning as the dark-skinned woman threw her arms about Pazi in a hug.

Layla drew back and surveyed Pazi. “Oh, look at you, girl,” she said. “All done up like a Summoner. And look at your little friend!” She reached over to the mouse-fish and tickled it. It made a peculiar cooing noise and nuzzled against Layla’s hand.

“You look really great too,” Pazi said, then gestured to Zap. “Layla, this is my boyfriend Zap.”

“Oh really,” Layla said, turning to Zap and smirking. “You’re the boyfriend, huh? I was beginning to wonder if you were actually here or if Pazi was making you up.”

“I’ve been sort of busy,” Zap admitted sheepishly.

“Well, I’ll overlook it this time,” Layla said, smiling. She reached up to where the fishmouse was floating and scritched him. “Because I’m so very forgiving, aren’t I Koizumi? I’m a very forgiving girl, oh yes! Oh, who’s a cute little fish mousie!” The spirit cooed, pushing against Layla’s hand.

“Don’t get him too hyper,” Pazi said with a smile. “He’ll start draining me before the concert even starts.”

“Well, all right,” Layla said. “And I’ve gotta go make my rounds. But I expect to see more of you two later.”

“Sure thing,” Zap said.

Layla began walking away from the two, and hadn’t gone four paces before she spotted someone she knew, threw her arms into the air and ran toward her new target.

“She’s so enthusiastic,” Pazi said, laughing.

“She’s a quarter earth-mutant, isn’t she?” Zap asked.

Pazi’s face registered surprise. “She is, yes,” she confirmed. “You’ve got a really good eye, Zap.”

“I do, don’t I?” Zap said idly. “You wanna get some food?”

“Sure,” Pazi said.

A minute later, Matt Del Fye and Don Stiles emerged from the facility. Don turned his beady black eyes toward Matt.

He began, “Do you know who—”

“Why don’t you go get a drink and try to find a girl to hit on, you creepy fucker?”

Don paused, startled by the unexpected hostility. “Uh,” he said. “Okay.”

Thus snubbed, “Creepy” Don Stiles walked away, approaching the last bar at which he’d ever have the opportunity to buy a drink.

Meanwhile, Alan and Paru sat at the bar in the pavilion, facing toward the crowd. They watched as Zap and Pazi chatted with each other.

“They’re cute,” Paru said.

“I guess,” Alan said.

Paru raised an eyebrow and gave Alan an inquisitive look, but did not question further. She spun on her stool, faced the bar, and placed her forearms on the bartop. “Lorenzo, my dear barkeep,” she said.

“Miss Dupree?” the bartender asked.

Paru gestured to Alan as he too spun to face the bar. “My employee and I,” she said, “will each have a Wyrmscale.”

“A Wyrmscale?” Alan asked. The bartender whistled a low tone and went to work.

“Do you know what a Wyrmscale is, Alan?” Paru asked.

“It’s one of about five drinks that both contain Dragon’s Breath liquor and are non-fatal to humans.”

“Right you are,” Paru said. “I heard about your shift’s Kekkai exercise today.”

“Oh?” Alan said.

“I heard that you beat Raimi And The Soft Winds Blow in single combat,” Paru continued.

“Well, that’s not exactly—”

“I heard it from Raimi,” Paru said. She clapped Alan on the shoulder. As always, Alan was caught off-guard by his manager’s iron grip. “While she may embellish, Raimi does not lie.”

Alan shrugged.

“Alan, when I first hired you I never figured you for a fighter,” Paru said as the bartender worked. “When you went to uni for business, I never thought you’d achieve anything further than Business Casual combat certification. When you gained your rifle certification, I thought it was a business decision and would never be anything more.”

“It was,” Alan said.

Paru looked at him intently. “But you took those skills and you put your heart behind them in combat. You’ve gained fire, Alan, and I appreciate that. That is why you are going to have a Wyrmscale with me, and you are going to speak a dragon rune.”

Alan looked more than a bit unsettled at the prospect.

Just as cheering erupted from the stage area of the pavilion, the bartender set three small shots on the bartop, all three giving off faint plumes of smoke.

Paru canted her head and gave the bartender a pointed look. “I only ordered two shots, Lorenzo.”

“Be that as it may,” a deep voice said, “you’re not the only one who heard of this morning’s magnificent battle.”

Both Paru and Alan whirled to see the square-shouldered figure of Sir Orin Erdrick standing nearby. “Allow me to drink with you,” he rumbled.

Alan and Paru made room for the Knight.

At the grassy open area of the pavilion, the crowd roared as Thorvald Volnocht walked onstage. He reached the center of the stage and saluted the crowd, who cheered their approval.

“My cherished employees,” Thorvald said, his voice washing over the crowd, augmented by the stage’s resonance plates. “On this our sixty-seventh employee retreat, we have arranged a very special group of performers for today’s concert. You have trained and fought hard. You have made me proud. And it is for that reason that I am delighted to present to you…”

The magical screen flickered off, revealing a stunningly beautiful woman standing in front of a full band.

Ellis Manteaux!” Thorvald shouted. The audience of hundreds cheered as though they were thousands, their surprise overtaken by their enthusiasm.

Thorvald made way for the megastar, who approached the front of the stage slowly. The employees there would later relate to their friends that the celebrity was even more beautiful in person than on the ether. She was curvy but svelte and moved to emphasize her assets. Her hair was long and lustrous, blonde with colorful streaks. She wore a silver-themed outfit, completed with a flat-topped cap.

She reached the stage and held up one hand. The crowd silenced at her command.

“You know,” Manteaux murmured, her honey-like voice carrying from the resonance plates and washing over the crowd, “I’ve been shopping at the Securemarket™ since I was a little girl, and these days I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.”

The crowd screamed. Ellis gave them a wide grin and counted off her first song. “One! Two! Three! Four!”

“Wow,” Pazi said.

“Holy shit,” Zap said, blinking. “That’s really Ellis Manteaux. To’mas is going to spooge himself.”

Not too far away, his eyes riveted to the stage, To’mas said to Violet, “I think I just came.”

“You’d better save some for later,” Violet scolded.

“What?” To’mas’s roommate said.

L’Chaim,” Sir Erdrick said.

L’Chaim!” Alan and Paru echoed.

The three tossed back their shots. All closed their eyes.

Nearby, Koizumi sniffed the air and made an inquisitive chirp. Pazi looked around. “Koizumi smells Dragon Magic,” she said.

Zap blinked and looked briefly distant. He turned his head to the bar and pointed. “There.”


“Wyrmscale!” Zap said, excited. “They’ve just had Wyrmscale! Brace yourself!”

Sir Erdrick’s eyes flew open, suffused with white light. He uttered the word “Thaum” in a powerful, otherworldly voice. A hot wind whipped through the area.

Paru’s light-filled eyes opened, she spoke “Agon” and all eyes nearby drew toward her.

Finally Alan, who seemed to be wracked with pain and fighting to stay upright, literally rose into the air briefly as his eyes flew open and light poured from them. He said “Talor” and every object nearby almost seemed to perk up, waiting for his command.

Emma Rammek, the quarter-dragon early-morning supervisor of 15th and Neimuth, who had been sitting near Zap and Pazi, raised her eyebrows. “Never would have pegged Alan as the type to say that one,” she said.

Alan collapsed against the bartop, coughing up smoke. Paru smiled proudly and Sir Erdrick patted him on the back.

“Holy shit,” Alan coughed and slowly straightened. “I … I feel amazing.”

“Let’s get this man another drink,” Sir Erdrick said.

Matthew watched the crowd from his vantage point, standing on the roof of the facility. He tapped his wrist and looked at the glowing numbers that appeared on his arm. When he looked up, his face was deadly serious. “It’s time,” he said.

“Good,” the cat-eared girl crouched behind him said. “I’m tired of waiting.”

Matt turned to face her. “Are you scared?”

“Yes,” she said.

“You will be safe,” Matt replied.

“I trust you,” the girl replied.

“Let’s go,” Matt said.

Far below, in the throng of people, Steve and Mike watched Ellis Manteaux move and sing.

“This isn’t even my style of music,” Steve yelled, “but I’m fucking spellbound. She’s amazing.”

“She is,” Mike agreed at the top of his lungs, still barely audible. “It’s like I’ve got no conception of time while I watch her.”

“No conception of—oh shit!” Steve yelled. “I’ve gotta go!”

“Hurry back, okay?” Mike yelled.


At the other edge of the crowd, Violet tapped To’mas on the shoulder.

“Wha?” he said.

“You need to go prep for your sting operation,” she reminded him.

“Oh!” To’mas said. “Thank you! Please keep Michael company for me.”

He took his arm from around his roommate’s shoulder, whose face couldn’t seem to decide whether it should look relieved or disappointed. Violet immediately took To’mas’s place, cuddling close to the confused young man.

Matt and the girl walked to the pavilion’s outdoor bar. Matt surveyed the area and nodded. “Mya?” he said.

“Mya?” the girl replied.

“When that man by the taps spills his drink, he will leave. Take his place. The rest will fall into place.”

The cat-eared girl nodded.

In a secluded, wooded area about a five-minute walk from the pavilion, To’mas surveyed the area. A small, glimmering magical light made the otherwise pitch-black area clear to To’mas, and he nodded.

“Just as he said,” To’mas murmured, then looked under the branch of a tree. “And there’s the bag.”

To’mas unzipped the duffel bag and began to retrieve equipment from it.

Back at the pavilion, Stephen Anderson jogged to the edge of the covered seating area, where she could see Sir Erdrick, Paru, and Alan talking and laughing. “I’m early,” she said. Her eyes swept the area and stopped suddenly as she saw that she was only five paces from Zap and Pazi, both of whom stared right back at her.

“Oh … um, hey,” Steve stammered. “Guys.”

“Hey,” Zap said. Pazi fidgeted.

“How’s it going?” Steve asked.

“Pretty good,” Zap said.

There was an awkward silence.

Not far away, “Creepy” Don Stiles approached the bar near the stage, his sunken eyes sweeping over the crowd. He shouldered past a beer-soaked man who was walking away and found his own section of the bar. He leaned on it.

His eyes suddenly caught a beautiful Pol’s Cat girl in her mid-twenties standing at the bar, watching the singer onstage. Don moved in, his blood pumping in his throat, adrenaline surging. His fingertips began to burn. She was perfect.

She turned as his thigh brushed against her at the bar, excited laughter dying in her throat. Her slitted yellow eyes were reserved, but she looked straight at him and did not shy away. He wanted to push the girl down and ravage her, humiliate her and violate her in front of everyone. Ruin her beautiful face and defile her perfect body. Pull her tail, twist her ears. Reduce that cool superiority to a shame she’d never look up from. He wanted to, but he knew he could not.

Not yet.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” she replied.

“This is a really good concert,” he drawled.

“It sure is,” the girl said. “I love Ellis Manteaux.”

“Can I buy you a drink?” Don asked.

“Sure,” the girl said. “I’d like that.”

“Two rum and cokes,” Don said to the bartender, who moved to comply.

“What’s your name?” Don asked.

“Mya,” the girl said.

“I’m Don,” Don said.

“It’s nice to meet you, Don,” Mya said. The bartender set the two drinks down in front of them.

Mya took a sip of her drink and Don did the same. Don watched her throat move as she drank. He followed the outline of her breasts under her shirt. He looked back up at her eyes. She set the drink down.

“So,” the girl said. “You’re from…”

“The Malachi Park store,” Don said. “Late night shift.”

“I see,” Mya said.

Ellis Manteaux finished the song she had been playing and the audience roared in response. Mya turned to look at the stage. Don passed a hand over the drink he had bought her, and a tablet fell from his hand into the liquid.

No one saw.

Mya turned back, smiling a little bit. The smile turned stale when her eyes moved to Don, but he did not notice or care.

Drink, Don demanded silently. Drink it.

“She’s really good,” Mya said.

“Yes,” Don agreed. Smug bitch. He reached out and picked up his own drink, taking a long sip.

Do this, he tried to command her mentally. Do what I’m doing.

After a few moments of ugly silence, Mya picked up her drink with a shaking hand and took a pull from it. She stared at Don as she did so, her cat-eyes ice cold.

Don watched her drink, his mouth opening in anticipation. Mya set the drink down and blinked at him once.

“Are you having a good time?” Don asked her.

“Mm,” she replied.

“Good,” Don said. “Good.”

Moments passed.

“I feel strange,” Mya said.

“Maybe you’ve had too much to drink,” Don said.

“I haven’t even finished the one,” she said. “I feel sleepy.”

“You’re tired,” Don said. “I’ll take you to your room.” He advanced toward her.

She could not help but take a step back. “You don’t know where my room is,” Mya said.

“It’ll be fine,” Don said. He reached forward and took her around the waist as she lost her balance. “I’ll take care of you.”

“Ai’shaa protect me,” Mya said and went slack in Don’s arms. He heaved her arm over his shoulder.

“She’s had too much to drink,” he said to no one in particular.

Nearby, Steve’s shell vibrated. She gasped and picked it up, then read the message she had received.


Steve rushed over to Sir Erdrick and Paru, who were discussing the next drink that they would goad Alan, who was swaying in his seat, to consume.

She urgently tapped the Corporate Knight’s shoulder. He started and whirled, his hand on his sword hilt.

“Sir Erdrick,” Steve said. “I—I need to report a crime in progress.”

A few minutes later, Don Stiles dragged Mya Ai’o into the wooded area near the pavilion. He grunted with the effort and from the anticipation of the pleasure that awaited him. He soon found an area that suited him, confirmed that it was too far from the pavilion for him to be noticed, and dumped Mya’s prone form on the ground.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “You bitch. You think you’re better than me, but you’re not so uppity now.”

He crouched and ran his hands greedily over Mya’s form, pausing at her slender throat. “Now you’re not fighting it. Now you want me. You want it, don’t you. Well, I’m going to give it to you.”

His hands fumbled with the button of her jeans and undid them. Don’s hands shook with anticipation, and the sound of his heartbeat drowned out the sounds of the concert and crowd. He breathed heavily as he grasped the waistband of her jeans with one hand and began to jerk them down. His other desperate hand worked at his own pants.

“You’re not so superior now,” he panted. “You think you’re so big—so special—but now you can’t stop me. Now you want it, you whore. Now you want it.”

“Light,” a deep, imposing voice said, and the clearing was flooded with bright white luminescence.

Don Stiles froze where he was. One hand still gripped his quarry’s jeans and panties, holding them halfway down her lightly furred legs. The other was buried within the front zipper of his pants, moments away from pulling his unmentionables into view.

Don’s wide eyes fixated on the man who had summoned the magical light: the massive form of Sir Orin Erdrick, senior CK of Securemarket™ Incorporated stood before him and did not look happy. Behind him was a short girl with curly auburn hair whose face was a picture of rage and whose hand repeatedly opened and closed over the grip of a sleek-looking custom pistol.

Several moments passed where no one said anything.

“Well?” Sir Erdrick said. “Mr. Stiles, is this what it looks like?”

“No,” Don said.

“What, then,” Sir Erdrick said through a clenched jaw, “is it?”

“It’s consensual,” Don said.

“The lady is unconscious,” Sir Erdrick said.

“She wasn’t when I brought her in,” Don said, his mind racing. He realized the position he was still in and let go of the kitty-girl’s pants. After a few moments, he extracted his hand from his pants as well.

“The young lady behind me,” Sir Erdrick indicated the curly-haired girl, “seems to have footage of you carrying the lady unconscious from the bar.”

“And I,” a half-elf who had not previously been on the scene said, appearing on Sir Erdrick’s other side, “have night-vision footage of you dragging her into this clearing, obviously unconscious.”

Sir Erdrick fixed Don with a look and waited for an explanation.

“It’s fake,” Don said.

Erdrick sighed. “Don Stiles,” he said in a long-suffering tone, “there is one reason, and only one reason, that I do not put a bullet in your disgusting loins right now.”

Don shrank visibly, placing his hands over his groin.

The CK continued. “That reason is that there are people here whose evening pleasure might be significantly dampened by witnessing a loin-shooting. These people have just done a very good thing and I want them to enjoy the rest of their night.”

Don relaxed a little.

“You are, therefore, lucky,” Sir Erdrick said. “You will spend the night in the brig. Your reproductive organs will not be shot, but will be removed surgically under anesthetic. Isn’t that nice?”

Don gaped. “You can’t do that!” he said. “I want a lawyer!”

“Somebody needs to read up on installation law,” Sir Erdrick replied. “Come with me, Mr. Stiles, or I will hurt you. I will be carrying the girl, but do not assume that I need my hands free to kill you.”

The knight walked to the would-be rapist, who shied away but clambered to his feet. Sir Erdrick kneeled, pulled up and fastened Mya’s jeans, then lifted her. As he stood, he saw Matt standing at the edge of the lit clearing.

“…you’re Matthew Del Fye, aren’t you,” he said.

Matt nodded.

“You orchestrated this sting, didn’t you,” the knight said.

Matt nodded.

“You son of a bitch!” Don said.

“You reap what you sow, Don,” Matt said. “Annie Neuhart sends her regards. And her testimony, long-suppressed due to your threats.” He flashed his shell.

Don blanched.

“Enough,” Sir Erdrick said. “Start walking, Stiles.”

In a moment, the clearing was dark again. Back at the pavilion, the crowd cheered.

“So … I’m going to go see my favorite star now, okay?” To’mas said.

“You’d better,” Matt said. “Sir Erdrick gave up a good loin-shooting for you.”

“It’s a shame that Mya had to end the evening unconscious,” Steve said.

“Actually,” Matt said, “she’s going to meet somebody important this way. It’s all for the best.”

“Ok,” Steve said. “Going back to my date now.”

“All right,” Matt said. “Oh, and guys?”

“Yeah?” Steve said.

“Yeah?” To’mas, slightly further away, said.

“Thank you.”

Back at the concert, Ellis Manteaux had whipped the crowd into a frenzy. She strutted back and forth, fixing them all with a playful smile.

“You all seem so happy!” she said.

The audience cheered.

“But you haven’t always been happy, right?” she asked, tracing a tear down her face. “Everybody has sad times. And angry times.”

Music started up behind Ellis, and she walked to the time of the beat, grinning at the audience. She held up one finger. “I know that once you were sad…”

She held up another finger. “And you’ve had angry times two…”

Realizing what was coming, the audience started to shout their approval.

“But if you’re like me you know you’ll be…” Ellis said.

She gestured to the band, then sang, “A whole lot better once you get to three…

The band struck up a high-energy beat and got an enthusiastic response from the crowd. Ellis sang, letting her powerful voice fill the pavilion.

Johnny met Ellie at the club
and Johnny decided he was in love
but Ellie didn’t share his point of view

After time Ellie changed her mind
About being the Johnny-loving kind
but sadly Johnny had changed his too

The first try
they just couldn’t get
The second try
no it’s not right yet

We can’t seem to find our luck
Isn’t it time to give it up?

Ellis beckoned to the audience, who shouted in unison, “NO!”

Ellis enthusiastically belted out the chorus.

What’s here, what’s there, what’s in-between
Brown, red and green upon the trees
What is, what was and what’s to be
All understand the Rule of Threes

The flower, honey and the mead
The gale, the still air and the breeze
The oak, the sapling and the seed
All understand the Rule of Threes

“How did it go?” Mike shouted to Steve as Ellis continued the song, much of the crowd singing along with her.

“What?” Steve shouted.

“How did it go?!”


“I’m glad!”


In another part of the crowd, To’mas and Violet draped over To’mas’s roommate Michael Duncan, whose uncertainty seemed to have been soundly trounced by the sensation of being touched by pretty people.

“Michael,” To’mas said into his roommate’s ear.

“Yeah?” Michael said.

“Violet is coming home with us,” he said.

“Oh,” Michael said.

“That sound okay?”

“Uh…” Michael said, hesitant. Violet made a happy noise, running her hand down Michael’s chest.

“Yeah,” Michael said, “that sounds fine.”

At the covered area of the pavilion, Alan reeled. “Shouldn’t … I be getting sick at this point?”

Paru laughed, a bit inebriated herself. She slapped Alan hard on the back. “Study harder, Alan!” she said, grinning. “The Dragon’s Breath you had raises your body’s natural defenses; you won’t be getting sick tonight. Come on, let’s go dance.”

“O-okay,” Alan said, moving off of his stool cautiously.

Zap saw Alan pass by unsteadily and laughed. “Oh man, Paru’s got Alan blitzed. She looks so steady compared to him.”

“Hey Zap…” Pazi said.

“Yeah?” Zap said, turning toward Pazi.

“Kiss me,” Pazi said and shifted the horn upward on her head. “I promise not to stab you.”

Zap smiled at Pazi, then took her into his arms and kissed her.

On the lawn in front of the stage, Steve and Mike swayed to the thrumming beat. Mike moved his head down and gently nuzzled Steve’s cheek. Steve nuzzled back. Mike kissed Steve’s cheek, and she turned her head. They shared a kiss in the middle of the crowd while Ellis Manteaux sung only meters away.

What’s here, what’s there, what’s in-between
Brown, red and green upon the trees
What is, what was and what’s to be
All understand the Rule of Threes

The flower, honey and the mead
The gale, the still air and the breeze
The oak, the sapling and the seed
All understand the Rule of Threes