“She had horns,” I said. I couldn’t get off that.
Derek looked pained. “Yes, she did. I didn’t know you were that…uh…I thought you knew a bit more about the city.”
“And fangs. And red eyes.”
“They’re all perfectly common here. Well, maybe not common, but you see them around.” He pointed somewhere; I didn’t look. “See, there’s another one.”
“And a tail.”
“Ah, yeah, that’s a new buff. Came out about two months ago. I hear it’s not very popular, though. Not useful, and it keeps hitting things.”
Something about that knocked me out of my fugue. “Wait, what do you mean not popular? It’s…optional?”
Derek sighed, sat down on a nearby bench, and put his face in his hands. I sat next to him, and after a minute he looked up.
“You’ve heard of the toy maker, right?”
I frowned. “That…gene mod thing, right? It can make muscle enhancements and stuff, make your bones stronger? I thought that was restricted to the military.”
“It…it’s not a gene mod.” He shook his head. “I never really paid attention to how it works, but it has something to do with using unrelated cells as seeds, and growing them into whatever you want, which can then be grafted with no possibility of rejection. Like stem cells without all the moral implications.” He sighed. “And yes, it is illegal. Very illegal. But this is where it was first invented, and Domina has never had a very good relationship with US law.”
“So…it gave her horns and a tail and…red eyes?”
“Yes, exactly. Well…” he frowned. This clearly wasn’t a subject he liked to talk about. I wasn’t sure exactly why, though. It seemed a sore point, and not because it was something he couldn’t adequately explain.
“You see, the toy maker can’t make complicated structures. They’re getting much better, but right now a tail—which is basically just one big muscle—is about the most complex they can make. But there are other things, engineered viruses that can make slower changes. Somehow the toy maker makes that easier, I’m not sure how.” He shrugged. “But that’s how the eyes are altered, or muscles and bones strengthened. Cosmetic changes, like Lily’s eyes, are easy. Those are called cosmos.”
I nodded, catching on. “But changes that have an actual benefit are called buffs, like her tail. Or the enhancements the military is keeping a hold of.”
“Right, exactly. And the general term is ‘toys,’ just so you know.” He sighed again. “You need to understand, Adam, Domina isn’t like other cities. Here, if you want to be a completely different person, it just costs a bit of money.” He nodded to someone on the street, wearing large goggles that seemed like they would be impossible to see out of. “That guy over there is a vampire—he had his eyes altered to allow him to see in the dark. But the downside is a pretty horrific light sensitivity.”
“Does he drink blood too?”
“Probably not. Fangs are common, but the buff to process blood is expensive, and rarely worth it. Most don’t bother any more.” He shook his head. “The thing about the toy maker…it just gives people more excuses to hate each other. The angels hate the vampires, the vampires hate the kemos, the kemos hate the demons, and everyone hates the fey. There’s no reason for it, they just…”
“Tell me about them,” I asked immediately. I could probably ask MC, but Derek clearly needed to talk about this, even though he didn’t want to. “What are these groups? Are they gangs? Why do they hate each other?” I had already seen a bunch; they were the ‘costumed’ people I had assumed were going to a festival. I made a mental note to punch Dale next time I saw him. This was not something you just forget to mention.
He waved his hand. “No, no I don’t know enough. I don’t pay enough attention to politics, I’d just end up giving you misleading information.”
I threw up my hands in frustration. Keeping his emotions bottled up wouldn’t help anyone. “I don’t need a history lesson. Just tell me what the average citizen of the city knows.”
“Okay, okay.” He sighed. “We’ll keep it simple. What you need to know. There are five cultures you need to know by sight. Everything else is secondary.
“First are the angels. They have eyes that give them incredible dayvision but virtually no nightvision. It’s a somewhat common buff, and popular among the military too. But the real distinguishing mark is the dayskin. Basically, they get phosphorescent bulbs implanted under their skin, and can act as flashlights.” He smiled sadly. “That was one of the first tricks the toy maker figured out.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“Please don’t interrupt. The problem is that the dayskin isn’t really all that useful; it’s not terribly expensive, but it’s not cheap, and its hard to control. Especially when a good flashlight usually works just as well. So the only ones who get it are the ones who really, really hate vampires, and use it as a weapon against them. Blind them when they least expect it, then shoot them or stab them or whatever.
“The vampires I already explained. But they have a whole bunch of subcultures that I’m not going to get into. The point is: Black eyes means a vampire. Most of them aren’t bad people, but watch yourself anyway.
“Kemos have animal parts. Usually just the ears or fur, but they’ve been getting much more advanced in recent years. I saw a full-on humanoid crocodile the other day, scales and tail and everything. Part of the problem is that they’re vulnerable; they don’t identify as a culture, they identify as subcultures. Canes don’t associate with fels or vulps or laces.
“Giants are pretty much what they sound like. They mostly sprung out of construction workers who figured being bigger and stronger would get them better jobs. It worked pretty well.” He shrugged. “They’re mostly harmless, or at least no worse than any of the other cultures. Just don’t piss them off.
“Demons are like Lily. Mostly, they’re just people with red eyes and horns, but there are a few subcultures. One you’ll hear about a lot is the succubi.”
“Yeah. Exactly what it sounds like. Oh, and incubi too. Obviously. But they’re not that bad. They’re a way too sexualized for my taste, but whatever. You want to have pansexual orgies in your nightclub, that’s fine with me. Just don’t expect me to show up.”
“But most of the city feels differently?”
“No, that’s not it…it’s…” he closed his eyes. “Malcanthet.”
“The self-styled Queen of the Succubi. She got run out of the city five years ago. She wasn’t your normal succubus. Most of the others stayed the hell away from her, but she became the face of their culture regardless.”
I raised an eyebrow. “So a crazy girl decides she’s in charge of one little subculture. What’s the big deal?”
“Normally? Nothing. There are a few of those running around. Some moron calling himself Dracula tries to paint himself as Lord of the Night, the lupes have a Great Wolf trying to start a pack.” He gave me a level look. “What do you think the Queen of the Succubi would be like?”
“I guess…I mean…”
“She had a very well-deserved reputation for raping her opponents into submission.”
I blinked. “She…what?”
He looked away. “One of the big problems with rape is that it’s not normal torture. It’s more than just pain and humiliation. You can turn that off. The problem is that it also feels good. And while I’m not an expert by any means, mixing all those brain chemicals together causes…problems. Malcanthet raped her opponents until they didn’t remember why they ever stood against her.” He shrugged. “And I hear she used drugs when that didn’t work fast enough.”
I mused for a moment. “So she eventually had a harem of sex-slaves willing to die for her. That’s why she got run out.”
He looked pained. “You picked it up faster than I did. I couldn’t believe something like that could exist. Part of me still thinks it was an elaborate prank.”
“You’re a better person than me, I think,” I said quietly. I could think of the advantages of having a legion of slaves at my command. “But if she’s gone now—”
“Her taint remains,” he spat with surprising violence. “Every once in a while, one of her sleepers goes crazy. Not often. She’s by far the least threat left in the city. But it’s enough to bring up the old prejudices.” He let out a long breath. “And the succubi always defend themselves the same way. ‘If we’re so bad, what about the angels? They’re entire purpose is to kill people!’ Then the angels claim vampires aren’t people and we go through the whole cycle again…”
I remained silent. What do you say to that? For a long minute neither of us spoke, but eventually Derek broke the silence.
“Things are going to get better,” he whispered. I’m honestly not sure if he knew he was talking aloud. “I don’t care if I have to wrestle every daybreaker and nightstalker and hunter and titan to the ground with my bare hands. Things are going to get better.”
He looked up suddenly, a smile on his face. It wasn’t a real smile, not quite, but it had more truth to it than I expected.
“C’mon, enough sitting around,” he said, standing up. “We’ve got a rat to catch.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 3)
A little bit of important characterization for both Adam and Derek, but mostly this is for the summary of the toy maker and the cultures. And yes, I know Derek didn’t actually mention five cultures. That was deliberate.