Scene 18 – Torrida Tellus

TORRIDA TELLUS

DEREK

I watched the building Laura had gone into fall, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. The front of the shop sloughed away like a collapsing cliff face, but most of the building remained standing. It was only three stories high anyway, so there wasn’t that much rubble raining down. A few zombies got squashed, but mostly they just dodged out of the way and watched as the intersection filled with dust.

The horde was moving towards us again, some latent instinct keeping them away from what might still be dangerous. I released my barrier on the storefront I was in, and the survivors opened fire on the zombies. I moved back behind the firing line and flipped out my cell.

“MC? Is Laura alright?” I asked once I got to her.

“Seems to be,” she said quickly. “She brought the roof down on purpose, and it sounds like she’s moving around…” she paused. “One sec, she found a singer.”

“What? Tell her to stay away from it. MC?”

I glanced at my screen; as expected, she had hung up. This was not good. I knew Laura would feel the need to experiment and test our immunity. She was the one who found out about the secondary benefits of our package, just because she decided to see if she could suddenly do a backflip.

But I was the one who should be risked, not her. The girls were too valuable to lose.

I glanced at the survivors in my redoubt, but I knew they wouldn’t be able to help, even if I could communicate my needs to them. There were only six of them, equipped with small arms, and they had stabbed out their own eardrums to save themselves from the song. It might sound like overkill, but with the toy maker they’d get fixed without a great deal of effort.

But then again, they were all big ursas, a malay (black fur) and five thibs (black fur with a big white spot on the chest). I might be able to barrel through the horde in time…

No way. Even if we could get to point C without them getting infected, we’d still have to dig her out. We couldn’t possibly do that in time. Not even Ling would be able to manage it.

I’m not often in situations where I can’t do anything; I felt so helpless and afraid. Normally, if nothing else, I can get Akane’s help, but she was probably having a harder time of it than I was.

Then my phone buzzed. MC.

“Hello?” I said too quickly.

“Direct order to everyone from Laura:” My heart felt tight in my chest. She was alive. “Kill the singers, all at once if possible, as soon as possible.”

I couldn’t see any from our redoubt, and I didn’t like the idea of jumping into the horde without a plan. Besides, Adam and the retinue would have a better vantage point, so I left it to them.

After a few more minutes, MC called back, this time only to me.

“Something’s wrong with Laura,” she said without preamble. “She’s crying, and isn’t responding.”

I blinked, confused, and decided to get the worst possibility out of the way first. “Crying like…screaming?”

“No, like with tears. I don’t know what’s going on. I told her the singers were dead, she asked if anything happened, I said it didn’t, and then she just went all BSOD.”

Well, at least she wasn’t a zombie. “Do you have any of the survivors in her vicinity on the line?”

“No. When I heard about the singers, I told everyone to destroy their phones, just in case.”

“Sounds like overkill,” I pointed out disapprovingly.

“At least one store got turned by their intercom system,” she replied flatly. “I’d have you nix yours too if I didn’t know you need them.”

Silver and gold. That was too smart for zombies. Whoever was behind this…why wait til now? Why only do it to one store? Too many questions.

“Can you isolate the communications systems, make it harder for them to do that to multiple places at once?”

“Did already,” she replied. “Spawned a couple failsafes, including a sort of self-destruct, that I control. I can kill the entire network in a moment if something goes sideways.”

“And you’re the only one with access?”

“Of course.”

“Okay, good.” I took a deep breath. “Order Akane and Ling to retreat to the ‘sarians redoubt. I’m going to try and rescue Laura.”

“Got it. But what about the retinue?”

I frowned. I wasn’t sure. I’m used to fighting with two people, including myself. This was a bit beyond my expertise.

Well, Laura definitely knew what she was doing. “Tell them to stay put and provide supporting fire. Kill any singers they see.”

There was a brief pause. “Done,” she said cheerfully. “Good luck with your girlfriend.”

I blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Oh, come on, not even you could fail to notice after that kiss.”

“How did you know about…” I shook my head violently. “No, Akane and Ling were being cruel, and Laura was shutting them up. That’s it.”

There was another pause, much longer than the first. “Dear lord, you’re stupid.”

She hung up before I could respond.

I sighed. I’d never understand women. The cruel and disingenuous flirting, I was used to. But with MC getting in on it, I was beginning to think all women were just born crazy.

Whatever. I put it out of my mind. I had work to do.

I managed to communicate my intent to the ursas, and they split off towards the Necessarian redoubt, cutting through the screamers without much difficulty. While they distracted the zombies, I swallowed my terror and made a beeline for point C.

I had to kill a few screamers, but I had a lot of experience fighting hand-to-hand, and my shields blocked fire without faltering in the slightest. And, again, they seemed more interested in the ursas. I wondered if that had something to do with the fact I had powers. Maybe they thought I was friendly until proven otherwise? Well, maybe not friendly—they still attacked me when no one else was around.

Whatever. It wasn’t important right now; Laura could probably figure it out.

It took me over half an hour to cross the square, even with the screamers distracted. Laura had collapsed the entire storefront, but I quickly found a loading dock around the back. Both the large gate and the normal-sized metal door were locked, and I didn’t have anything to break it.

I pounded on the door until my fists hurt, but no one answered, and I didn’t expect them to. They’d all be deaf by now, or they found some other way to protect themselves. Either way, I doubted they could hear me.

I cast around something, anything. A sledgehammer to batter down the doors, an intercom to call inside…

Or an abandoned ladder, to climb onto the roof.

The ladder was old, and covered bits of dried mud from being left out in the rain, but it was stainless steel, so it was still serviceable. I set it up and clambered up to the second story roof. I had the presence of mind to kick away the ladder so the screamers couldn’t use it, thankfully. There were no windows, but I was able to reach the third story roof pretty easily.

It really was an old style building; the roof was flat, and it didn’t have the stairwell entrance most structures in the city had. Clearly, the builders didn’t intend for anyone to hang out on the roof smoking during their lunch breaks.

I managed to find a trapdoor without much difficulty, however. Luckily it was on the backside of the roof, so I didn’t have to worry about landing in rubble because of Laura’s little stunt. The lock was rusted over, but the door itself was cheap plywood, so I just kicked through it. There was no ladder, but it was less than ten feet down, so I just jumped.

All the lights in the store were out; whether that was intentional or Laura had screwed with the electricity when she brought the roof down, I didn’t know.

This was clearly the office level, with many well-labeled rooms like “Head Manager” and “Hiring Manager.” I found the stairs quickly and headed down, skipping the second floor entirely. I had a feeling Laura would be on the first level. The offices made it clear that this was a hardware store; any risks caused by being on the ground floor would be offset by easy access to power tools and other improvised weaponry.

The first thing I noticed when I came out of the stairwell was the dust. It was everywhere, floating in the air like mist. I coughed and waved my arm in the air, trying to disperse it. I wasn’t really sure where to start looking, but the collapse seemed as good as any.

It was a bit harder going than I expected. What little light there was refracted off the dust in unexpected ways, so I was jumping at shadows the whole time. All in all, it took me nearly ten minutes to walk about thirty feet.

But as I turned the last corner, I saw a group of survivors wearing large headphones, clustered around something. There was a big melano, a panda ursa, who I assumed was the leader. He had some huge device slung across his back—after a moment, I identified it as an air compressor, hooked up to a large nailgun in his paw.

I called out to them, but no one noticed, which wasn’t unexpected. I almost walked up and tapped the melano on the shoulder, but thought better of it at the last moment. Instead, I conjured a shield between us.

As expected, they all noticed the glowing blue barrier instantly and jumped nearly three feet. Commendably, they didn’t actually open fire, which I had been worried they might. Once I was sure I had their attention, I dropped the shield and mimed taking off headphones. The melano did so, but motioned for the others to keep theirs on.

Cautious. Good.

“There was a girl here earlier,” I said, not bothering with the niceties. Melanos had a reputation as diplomats, so he probably wouldn’t like it, but he’d be far too polite to mention it. “A paladin. I’m told she’s the one who dropped the roof. Where can I find her?”

The big ursa blinked at me, then just stepped aside without a word.

With him out of the way (and my gaze no longer being drawn up), I saw what they were protecting: Laura, sitting on the floor, weeping and clutching the ring she kept on a chain around her neck.

“Laura?” I whispered, kneeling down next to her. She didn’t respond, but she was whispering something I could barely hear. I leaned in closer.

“It should have worked why didn’t it work it should have worked why didn’t it work…”

I turned to the melano. “How long has she been like this?”

He scratched his chin with a dull claw. “About…an hour? After she killed the singer, she called MC. MC called back, and she just…” he trailed off and shrugged.

I nodded. That fit with MC’s timeline, but did little to illuminate what happened.

Regardless, we didn’t have time for this. We needed to get to the ‘sarian redoubt. In the worst case scenario, the melano could carry her, but I was hoping I could snap her out of this.

I turned back to her. “Laura, we need to go.”

She didn’t respond, she just continued muttering and crying softly.

“It should have worked why didn’t it work it should have worked why didn’t it work…”

We didn’t have time for this. But what else could I do? I was just about to order the melano to pick her up when I had a thought.

Would it work? Probably not, but…

“If she shoots me,” I said to the big kemo, “tell her not to feel bad about it.”

Then I kissed her full on the lips.

I’ll be honest, I expected her to react slower than she did. I had barely even made contact when she pulled back, and I felt the cold metal barrel of her Occisor pressing against my forehead.

“Derek,” she said calmly, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. But her eyes were hard, and cold as ice. If I said the wrong thing, she would shoot me.

“Laura,” I answered with a smile. “Good, you’re ready to go.”

She lowered the gun with a glare, dried her eyes, and stood. I rose as well, and she indicated one of the survivors, a young black baseline.

“Protect him with your lives,” she ordered the others. They nodded, understanding some significance I had missed. I shrugged. It wasn’t important at the moment.

“We need to head to the Necessarian redoubt,” I pointed out. “All the singers should be dead, but keep the headphones on anyway.” I turned to Laura again. “Did you find out if we’re immune?”

She nodded, but didn’t elaborate.

Good enough for me.

We left from the ground floor; the doors I had found impassable were locked from the inside, and easy to open from this angle. By now, the back street was filled with smoke; the screamers were fanning out, seeking more victims. But this was still safer than out in the intersection, so we went around to the redoubt from the back.

As we should have expected, the Necessarians had constructed their fortress in a cul de sac of buildings, putting their back up to the wall, so to speak. Some of the skyscrapers had entrances on our side, but they were all boarded up and locked. Necessarius taught it’s soldiers well.

Cursing, I indicated for the others to set up defensive positions, with Laura and the kid in the center, while I called MC.

“I need you to call the ‘sarian in charge at the redoubt,” I said once she picked up. “We’re around the back, and we can’t get in.”

She muttered something under her breath I didn’t quite catch. “That’s gonna be tricky. The screamers are making a push, and they blocked those ways pretty well. It would take too many men to open it up again.”

I frowned. We couldn’t just bash through. Even if we physically could, it would leave a massive gap in the defenses.

“Are the inner doors unlocked?” Laura asked.

I started. I had expected her to mope for a while longer; apparently my kiss had pissed her off enough to bring her back to her usual self.

“What do you mean?” MC asked. I had her on speaker, which was how Laura had heard her in the first place.

“There are the doors leading in from the street we’re on,” she explained patiently. “And then on the other side, there are the doors leading directly into the redoubt. Are those blocked?”

“No,” MC replied quickly. “The Old Wolf thought they might need to use the ‘scrapers as a fallback, and kept them open. What’s your plan?”

“We can climb up the side of the building, go in through a window or the roof, and just come down.”

I looked up at the building in question, frowning. This was a server farm—most of the structures in the area were. That meant it was pretty much just a sheer cliff face. There weren’t even any windows.

“I don’t think we can do that,” I said slowly.

Laura shrugged. “They’ll ditch the nailguns and air compressors. It’ll be fine.”

“The hunter, sure, but no one else.” None of the others had claws; they wouldn’t be able to find any handholds.

“One second,” MC interrupted. We waited obligingly, and she came back a moment later. “The ‘scraper behind you is taller. Break in there, find rope or something, and zipline across.”

Laura was incredulous. “Zipline? Across an entire street? That’s your suggestion?”

“Better than expecting these guys to climb,” I pointed out.

“It’s also a climber’s ‘scraper,” MC added, and looking at the walls I could see she was right. It had been built with kemos in mind, with a large number of cunningly-disguised handholds worked into the architecture. “And there are some strong outcroppings on the roof you can tie the line to.”

“If nothing else, we can have the melano climb the server building and hold the other end,” I mused aloud.

“I can hear you,” the kemo in question put in, in an annoyed tone. “And I have a name. It’s Evangel. Evangel McDowell.”

“All right then Van, did you hear the plan? What do you think?”

“It’s a good one,” he admitted. “My main problem is that I’m worried not all of us will be able to use the zipline.”

“The biggest is you,” I pointed out. He was seven feet tall with a width to match; he probably weighed three hundred pounds or more. “And you’ll be climbing the other building, to catch the line.”

“Not everyone here is an athlete,” he said drily. “I mean I don’t think they’ll be able to hang onto the zipline. They’re tired, and they’re not used to so much physical labor.”

“We’ll worry about that later,” Laura declared decisively. “We can always rest on the roof. But right now we need to move.” She indicated the street around us. “The screamers are getting closer.”

Indeed, the smoke was becoming more thick, glowing like fog as the moonlight dappled through it, and I could hear—or rather sense—the zombies circling around the back of the redoubt to our location.

Van nodded. “Good luck to you then, Honored Paladins.” He flexed his paws, readying his large claws, and started scaling the side of the windowless building with surprising swiftness. I was honestly impressed; it would be a hard enough task on its own, but he hadn’t bothered to drop the massive air compressor slung across his back.

The other survivors had taken off their headphones, and had probably heard the tail end of the discussion, but I recapped it anyway. “We’re heading to the roof of that building. There shouldn’t be any screamers in there, but stay sharp.”

I took point and the rest followed, Laura and the baseline boy in the middle. I still didn’t know why he was so important, but I had faith it would become clear soon enough.

We broke into the building in seconds; the doors were wood, and while the lock held, they did not. We barricaded it behind us. The last thing we needed was zombies nipping at our heels.

As far as I could tell, this was an office building about half-way renovated as an apartment complex. Or maybe it was both; it was becoming more and more popular to allow workers to operate from home. Regardless, it was abandoned, as everyone had fled once Necessarius sounded the alarm.

There weren’t any screamers inside, so we had no trouble swiftly ascending the stairs. We could have taken the elevators, but I don’t think anyone felt comfortable with that idea. Laura and I might not be able to hear any screamers, but we knew we needed to be careful anyway.

As MC had said, the roof had a number of outcroppings we could use to tie off a line—air conditioners, pipes, and so on. We could clearly see the other rooftop, as well as Van, about halfway up the side.

“Establish a base camp,” I advised Laura. “I’m going to find something we can use to cross.” We hadn’t bothered scavenging on the way up, knowing that the roof would be far safer. A group of scared, untrained deaf civilians would be enough trouble up here; in the cramped corridors of the building, they would probably shoot each other if they so much as saw a rat.

The apartment/office building wasn’t that tall, about twenty stories, but I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to find something we could use—at least not without being forced to break into someone’s home. High-grade rope isn’t exactly something you need when your job involves sitting in front of a computer all day.

I started at the janitor closets. There were two per floor, and while I had a bit of trouble breaking into the first one, it had a spare ring of keys hanging on the wall, so the others weren’t a problem. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything I could use. Plenty of cleaning supplies that Laura would probably know how to turn into interesting weapons for our last stand, but no rope.

After the fifth closet—three floors down—I sat in one of the surprisingly comfortable chairs and sighed. One of the most advanced cities on the planet, and I couldn’t find something that had been invented thousands of years ago. Seriously, everything from human hair to bark could be woven into rope. No one got really bored one day and started braiding candy wrappers together?

That’s when I had an idea.

Not candy wrappers—I wasn’t that desperate—but something similarly basic.

I ran back to the janitor’s closets and grabbed as many extension cords as I could. I carried them up top, ignored the confused looks of my charges, and went looking for more. It took a while, but eventually I managed to gather a hundred different bundles, each about thirty feet long.

The roofs we were aiming for were only fifty or sixty feet apart. Braiding the cords together and attaching the resulting ropes resulted in a good, strong line nearly a hundred feet long. It would never do as a zipline; the plugs and knots would foul that up. But if we dropped all our equipment and hung from it by our hands, me might be able to do it.

As I was making this impromptu rope, Laura just raised an eyebrow.

“That will never work,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Even if it will hold, these people wouldn’t be able to manage it at their best. They’re tired and hungry—they won’t make it five feet.”

“Adrenaline can do a lot for the human body,” I pointed out.

She shook her head. “Not that much.” She sighed. “We should just have Van break open the barricade from the inside.”

“No,” I said firmly. “Only as a last resort. It would open up a hole in the defenses. This will work.”

She rolled her eyes. “I think you just want to have the experience.” She sighed again. “Whatever. I’ll tell him to hold off until someone dies and you learn your lesson.” She walked to the edge, behind me.

It took me a second to realize what was wrong. “Wait, MC said she had them smash their phones.”

“They did,” she admitted, and now that I was looking at her I saw that she was signing something in the direction of the server building. “But Van knows sign language and I had a spare pare of binoculars.” She stopped signing and pulled a small pair out of her pack, presumably to read his response.

I blinked. There was an easy solution here. The fact that Laura hadn’t thought of it first was probably a sign that she was still reeling from her freak out.

“We could just leave the civies here,” I pointed out. “Get some food for them and barricade the door. Then we go across, clean everything up, and come back for them.”

She bit her lip, then signed something to Van. I don’t know much sign language, but I’m pretty sure it was ‘wait.’

“That could work,” she admitted. “The main problem is that we don’t know how long it will take to clean up the screamers. They could be stuck up here for days. Exposed to the weather…”

“We’ll have them barricade two floors down, instead.” I shrugged. “There’s only two entrances on each floor, not counting the elevator. So they’ll have food stores, bathrooms, and even computers.”

“They’ll be at the top of a skyscraper and facing creatures that control fire.”

“The screamers haven’t shown interest in them yet. And we’ll leave the line up, so they can escape if they need to.” She started to protest to that, but I corrected myself. “And, of course, we can simply remove the barricades on the server ‘scraper if we have to.”

“Sounds good to me,” one of the survivors chirped. The young vampire seemed much more composed than the others; being under a cool night sky probably made him feel better.

Laura sighed. “Fine. Drake, go get Loga. He’s coming with us.” The vampire nodded an hurried off.

I raised my eyebrow. “And Loga would be…”

“The little changeling,” she replied tersely. She was signing at Van again. Then, realizing that ‘changeling’ was a completely worthless descriptor, corrected herself. “The black boy.”

I nodded. He was the youngest, he needed to be protected more than the others. It was a bit odd that Laura was going to such trouble, but I knew to trust her judgment. She was simply smarter than me, and that was all there was to it.

I tied one end of my completed rope to a nice, solid pipe and instructed the defenders to keep an eye on it and make sure nothing went wrong. I tied a hammer I found to the other end, swung it around a few times, and tossed it across the way.

I’m pretty strong—you have to be, to wrestle a territorial dumpster-dog to the ground—and I still suspected my muscles had been enhanced by the empowering. The rope made it across without difficulty. Van was wise enough to not actually try and catch it; he let it land on the roof, and just grabbed it before it could slide down to the street below. He tied it to something, though I wasn’t sure what, and gave us a thumbs up.

“All right, that’s the signal,” Laura said unnecessarily. She turned to the changeling, who seemed to be having second thoughts. “You ready to go?”

The boy stared at her, eyes wide. This was probably the craziest thing he had ever done. Changelings are completely baseline, and avoid the toy maker like the plague. They try and live nice, normal lives as far away from anything that might remind them of the fey as possible. Some of them, like Jarasax, joined up with their militias, but this kid was too young for that.

But changeling or not, the boy trusted Laura enough to nod once, ready to cross the urban canyon. I guess once you’ve seen someone intentionally and successfully bring down a roof, you gain a bit of a resistance to crazy stuff.

“Laura will go first,” I said to him. “Then you, then me. Wait until she’s all the way across before starting, okay?” As the lightest, he should probably be first, but seeing Laura cross successfully would give him a good morale boost. And if anyone was going to break the line, it would be me, so I obviously had to go last.

Laura let herself down slowly, sliding off the edge of the building while gripping the line with white knuckles. She was trying hard to appear calm, and she was doing an admirable job of it. The fact that she couldn’t really see the street through the smoke and darkness below probably helped quell her fears.

She headed forward on the cord, hand over hand, slowly and surely. It took her about ten minutes, but she made it across with no problems. The line didn’t show any signs of breaking, and Van pulled her up when she reached the other side.

I clapped Loga on the back lightly. “Okay, its your turn now. Go slowly. Take your time. You’ll be fine.”

He nodded and took a deep breath…then another. And another.

I grimaced. “You’re going to hyperventilate if you keep that up. Slow breaths. Slow and steady, just like everything else.”

He nodded again and took hold of the line with shaking hands. He let out the breath he had been holding and jumped down in a rush.

It was a good idea, like how you should just jump into a swimming pool and get it over with. But in this case, the extension cords jumped wildly, and I was afraid they might actually snap or unravel. Loga seemed frozen in fright.

But the bouncing quickly stopped, and I called down to him. “You’re doing fine, Loga. Now just start forward.” I almost said ‘don’t look down,’ but I’m not that stupid.

He made his stuttering way across, stopping when the line swayed too much, but everyone made sure to give him lots of verbal encouragement, and although it took almost half an hour, he made it to the other side without major incident.

Before heading over myself, I turned to the vampire. He was definitely the one nominally in charge, if only because he was the only one who was actively doing anything. They were all kids, a bit younger than me; apparently Van was the only adult who had survived the initial attack.

“Be careful, but don’t just shoot anything you see,” I advised. “Remember your ammo is limited.”

He nodded. “Good luck, Honored Paladin.”

I was still getting used to being called that. But, I guess it was about time us baselines got a title of our own. Sparing it no more thought, I slowly lowered myself down until I was hanging from the line by my hands. Despite my own fears, I sped forward much faster than Loga or Laura. I had a bit more confidence in my rope-braiding abilities than those two. You’d be surprised how often you need to make one rope out of two when you’re out hunting.

All in all, it only took me five minutes to cross, albeit going faster than was probably safe. The line creaked dangerously a few times, but I didn’t worry about it too much, and it held. I had used ziplines before, so I knew better than to look down or do anything else stupid.

When I took Van’s paw and climbed onto the server building’s roof, I found Laura standing there, arms crossed and eyebrow raised.

“Something wrong?” I asked. I didn’t really know what I had done wrong. We had wasted enough time as it was; wasn’t it better to get across faster?

She just rolled her eyes. “Show off.”

We found the stairs down easily enough, and Van broke the metal door off its hinges with a few good rams from his shoulder. We made sure to wedge it back into place as much as possible. It was unlikely, but the screamers could get up here, and all the ridiculousness with the power cords would be moot.

The next level down, we barricaded the door with a free desk. There weren’t a lot; this was a server farm, which meant rows and rows of blinking machines, with enough air conditioning to make our breath visible. The desk seemed to belong to the maintenance man. Well, we had carefully stacked his pictures on the chair before putting the desk on its side against the doorway, so he couldn’t complain too much.

We made sure to barricade the next few floors as well. The zombies probably wouldn’t get up here in the first place—they’d shown no predilection towards climbing—but better safe than sorry.

When we got down to the first floor, we immediately found two vampires waiting for us, rifles ready.

“Honored Paladins Darin and Laurel?” the one on the left demanded.

“Derek and Laura, actually,” I corrected him tiredly, recognizing it as a test. “And this is Honored Hunter Van McDowell, and…uh…”

Laura stepped in quickly. “Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords,” she provided. “Take us to wherever you’re keeping the captured screamers. Immediately.”

“You can explain to me later,” I said as the vamps started leading us away. “I’ll start briefing the commander.” I turned to our escort. “Who’s in charge here?”

“First Lieutenant Nathaniel Vovk,” he replied as we exited the server building. A few other ‘sarians locked and barred the door behind us, and the other vampire split off with Laura and Loga. “He’s a lupe anthro, so don’t freak out…” he glanced at Van. “Nevermind.”

I frowned. “People are discriminating against anthros now?”

He snorted. “Of course they are. People discriminate against everything. And with Necessarius spread thin with the screamers, we’re having trouble containing the riots. The packs do there best, of course, but they’re just militia, and a lot of them are just bullies anyway.” He shrugged. “But Big Boss will deal with it, sooner or later. Here’s the Old Wolf. I have to get back to the front.” He trotted off.

The lieutenant’s title was a pretty apt descriptor. He was old, covered in silver fur, with sharp wolf ears, wide wolf fangs, and long claws.

It took me a second to note that despite the vampire’s assumption, he wasn’t actually an anthro. The ‘fur’ was actually hair, and his fangs were contained within a human mouth rather than an animal snout. His claws were steel, not keratin.

He was talking to someone it took me a moment to recognize as Kelly, her crimson hair gray with ash. She had a few good burns, but otherwise looked none the worse for wear. Of the rest of the retinue, I saw no sign.

“Sir,” she said to the lupe, while indicating me. He turned.

“You’re the paladin the Big Boss sent for, then? Derek Hunter, was it?”

“Derek Huntsman, actually. What’s the status of our defense?”

“We’re holding pretty well,” Kelly reported. The lupe didn’t seem perturbed by her cutting in. ‘Lead by following the right grunt’ is a time-honored officer trick. “We haven’t seen any more singers since Miss Medina gave the kill order, so we’re having an easier time than before.” She glanced around. “Where is she, anyway?”

I waved my hand. “Inspecting the captured screamers. I’m not sure why, she’ll fill us in later.”

“Or I could fill you in now.”

I turned to see Laura walking up to us, her mouth set in a grim line. Loga was nowhere to be found.

“How did the boy take it?” Van rumbled.

She sighed. “Better than expected. He’s restrained and sedated now. Once we clear out this mess, we can do some non-invasive tests.”

“Wait one second,” I said, holding up my hand. “What exactly is going on with the changeling?”

She smiled sadly. “He got infected by a singer. When I killed her, he went back to normal.”

I nearly staggered, but kept my composure with an effort. That meant there was a cure. Perhaps not an easy one, but if we killed the singers…

“…but we already killed the other singers,” I said slowly. “And no one else was cured.”

She nodded, the same sad smile still on her face. “I know. I had…issues with that.” She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. “But Loga might be the key. He’s a changeling, so who knows what’s unique about him. He might be the source of a cure.”

“But he’s baseline,” Van put in. “I mean, he wasn’t always, obviously, but he got all his toys removed when he escaped. You’re not going to find your magic bullet there.”

Something was different about him,” she insisted. “Maybe it was his physiology, maybe it was his psychology, or maybe it was something about his circumstances.” She waved her hand, forestalling her own explanation. “But he was a screamer, and now he’s not.”

Vovk growled. “I do hope you explained the situation to his keepers. If he reverts, we’ll have a screamer in our camp.”

“Of course. As I said earlier, he’s heavily sedated and strapped down. But I told him everything as well, so he shouldn’t have any problems.”

“Good,” Van said decisively. “Then let’s get back to the matter at hand, shall we? We can’t perform experiments in a warzone.” He turned to me. “This isn’t really the place for me, Honored Paladin. Send me to where I’ll be most useful.”

I turned to Laura. “I haven’t seen him fight. What’s your take?”

She scratched her chin. “Send him to George. He probably has a spare minigun, and even if not, Van’s nailgun will still be useful. Unless…” she glanced at Kelly. “Everyone else is still okay, right?”

The vampire nodded. “Everyone accounted for. Minor burns, none worse than what I’ve got. Although Ling got scorched pretty bad on one leg. Medics are looking at her now.”

“Good,” I put in. “Specialist, take the Honored Hunter to George, if you would.”

She obeyed quickly, heading off to a distant corner of the front lines. The melano saluted crisply before he left, and I returned the gesture.

“What now?” the old lupe asked, once the other two were out of earshot.

I frowned. “We’re down one paladin, but that shouldn’t be too much trouble. We just need to make sure we get them all.” I listened to my sixth sense, the zombies screaming in my brain. “They’re pretty much all in front of us, as far as I can tell. You have some big guns?”

“A couple gatling guns. Though I’m not sure how long the ammo will last.”

Laura frowned as well. “The real problem is that we couldn’t hear the singers. We have no way of being sure they’re all gone.” She grimaced. “And there’s still the possibility they got to the Princess.”

“Unlikely,” I assured her. “The fey are crazy, not stupid. And she clearly knew what the singers could do.” I looked towards the front lines. There wasn’t much to see; smoke covered everything in an impenetrable cloud. But the Necessarians held the line anyway, shooting wherever the flames originated.

“Okay,” the lupe said with a nod. “Time to get to work.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 18)

The malays are sun bears (Ursus malayanus), while the thibs are asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus). Noticing a pattern? Of course, none of the ursa clans have a single actual bear cell in their bodies; they just look like they do. So in the end, it’s just what they call themselves.

Oh, and you may have noticed Laura refer to the vampire boy as “Drake.” This is the dimunitive of Dracula, which is (as you might expect) the most common male vampire name. Calling a vampire Drake is about the same as calling a random stranger “Jack;” it’s not exactly polite, but its a few steps up from “Hey you.”

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