The Monday after Akane’s birthday, we were in History again. The cane was droning on about some ancient war or another. I’m usually interested in that kind of thing, and it was a testament to the professor’s soporific voice that he could make even that seem boring.
Then the screaming started.
I should rephrase that. Ever since last week, when the burners attacked, the screaming hadn’t stopped. The ‘sarians had so many in captivity, it was a constant drone in the back of our minds.
But this was something new. A new source of screaming, to the east. Far east, if I was any judge. The Necessarian base where they were holding the burners was south-west.
I nudged Adam with my elbow and he nodded, packing up his things. Akane was already doing the same, of course. I noted she wasn’t wearing Flynn’s earrings anymore. She seemed to have shied away from him in the past few days, and I couldn’t figure out why.
The professor sighed. “Running away again, Mister Huntsman?”
I winced. I may not be the best of students, but I can usually manage to at least stay through the entire class. “Yes sir. It’s an emergency. You see—”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t care. Go.”
I nodded in thanks and sped off, leaving Lizzy looking confused. Silver and gold…at least she’s not that smart. Otherwise she would have figured it out in a heartbeat, and insisted on going with us.
We met up with Ling, Laura, and the retinue outside, and sped off in their van, with me giving directions. Akane insisted on clinging to me like a limpet the whole way, claiming that Jarasax’s driving kept throwing her around the cabin. He was going a bit fast, but I still thought she was overreacting.
As expected, the screaming was coming from South-East Central, so it was a bit of a drive. What I didn’t expect was our final destination.
Adam frowned, looking out the window. “What are those big awnings stretched between the buildings?”
“Sun canopies,” Laura said evenly. I admired her control; I was having trouble not lapsing into a fit of cursing. “So that the vampires can handle the daylight.” She pointed to a signpost bearing two symbols; the vampire bat on top, and another, more stylized symbol below. “This is Nosferatu territory.”
Every culture had its own subcultures, of course. Some more than others. The kemos, for example, were pretty much nothing but subcultures, and those had subcultures of their own, more properly called microcultures. Vampires were a bit more generalized; pretty much anyone with the nigtheyes was considered a vampire, and the subcultures barely got along.
The Nosferatu were vampires who embraced the physically monstrous aspects of the package. They had a lot in common with ghouls; in fact, many of them even had the cannibalism buff.
But more importantly, most of them also had large, dangerous fangs that they liked to use early and often. Normally, these weren’t any more dangerous than the claws they also had. But Laura and I had discussed this at length. It was quite possible that if a Nosferatu—or any vampire, to a lesser extent—became a screamer, he would retain the compulsion to bite people, thus spreading the virus as quickly as the biters. Add in the fact that they were almost always enhanced in other ways, and we had a serious problem on our hands.
By the time we reached our destination, the attack had already been underway for about an hour. It was nearly pitch-black, so it was difficult to see anything, but I could sense shapes moving beyond the wall the ‘sarians had set up. More disconcertingly, many of these shapes appeared to be in the air.
The redoubt, of course, was well-lit, though I did see a large number of men and women with goggles to protect themselves from the harsh light. I’m sure the benefit of keeping away the screamers—who were likely almost exclusively vampires—was worth the trouble.
To my surprise, the one in charge was a full-fledged general, albeit one with only a single star on his shoulder. He was an old baseline, maybe about fifty, and he saluted me crisply as we got out of the van. I wasn’t sure if I was actually his superior or not; he was probably just being respectful. He eyed Akane—still clinging to me—with distaste, but didn’t otherwise let his disapproval show.
“Honored Paladins,” he said as I finally managed to pry Akane off my arm. What was with her today? “I’m happy you were able to make it on such short notice.”
“Let’s start simple,” I replied. “How many screamers are we dealing with?”
“There were only about a dozen when we first noticed them,” he said, handing me a pair of night-vision goggles so I could see for myself. “They’re been multiplying, as I’m sure you can guess, but we haven’t had a chance to do a proper headcount. On the plus side, we haven’t seen any of those singers.”
It took me a moment for me to parse what I was seeing through the goggles, and connect it to what I was being told. Nosferatu—not screamers—were attacking each other.
“General,” I said slowly, not lowering the goggles. “Why exactly were you in the area?”
I cursed and handed the device back to him.
“The Guruhi and Nictuku have been building to this for months,” he continued. “Minor slights that we haven’t had time to investigate. When the screamers started up…” he shrugged. “We haven’t had the presence to keep them afraid. Nightfall today, they finally went all out.”
“And then the screamers appeared.”
He nodded. “Yeah.” He sighed deeply, shaking his head. “And it barely even slowed them down.”
These idiots were literally waging a civil war in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
I presumed the Guruhi and the Nictuku were just more subcultures. Vampires call those ‘bloodlines’—each culture has their own name for it—but I didn’t know much about them. All I knew was that they were Nosferatu, and they were fighting.
“What powers are the screamers displaying?” Laura asked, getting straight to the point. She was right. The civil war was irrelevant; we’d deal with them eventually, but the zombies had to take precedence.
“Shapeshifting,” the general growled. “Into bats.”
I blinked. “You’re joking.”
He snorted. “I wish. They can’t seem to hold the form for longer than a few seconds, but that’s enough to slip past our barricade.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Any good news?”
The general shrugged. “Our angels are on their way. Don’t know the ETA, though.”
Laura nodded. “How many?”
He just grinned. “All of them.”
Well, at least there was some good news. “Laura, stay here. Use the retinue as you see fit. Adam, keep an eye on the general. Last thing we need is him getting turned. Ling, Akane, we’re going in.” I clambered over the barricade, not even bothering to see if my orders were being obeyed. Not everyone was used to listening to me yet, but Laura was persuasive, and she would have organized the defenders whether I told her to or not. Sometimes looking like a leader was just that simple.
I landed on the empty street directly in front of the redoubt and stood carefully. There weren’t very many screamers nearby, which was probably why the Necessarians had lasted so long. Instead, they were focusing on the stupid vampires, fighting blessedly far from our own lines.
On second thought, the screamers could wait. If we could bring the vampires in line, everything else would be easier. I waited until I heard the two thumps that indicated Akane and Ling had followed me, then swallowed my apprehension and headed forward.
I ran quickly but quietly, avoiding the rubble and debris that would cause too much noise. The floodlights from the wall only illuminated for about a hundred paces or so; all the fighting took place beyond that.
Once we were out of the lighted area, we moved more cautiously. We stayed alert for ambushes and kept our ears open, but we were still at a major disadvantage. Our eyes were adjusting to the dark quickly, but we would never be a real match for a vampire in this environment. The screamers might be easy to spot, but the Nosferatu wouldn’t announce their presence so blatantly.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that they were the ones who ambushed us.
I heard two jump from behind, but I didn’t have time to deal with them. Another was in front, just barely discernible in the darkness as a hulking shape, built like a gorilla. He came at me, fangs bared.
I was scared. More accurately, I was terrified. That was pretty much the entire point of the Nosferatu; they looked like nightmares to demoralize their opponents, make them sloppy. But fighting always scared me. A lot of things did, honestly, but fighting was the worst. Everything happened so fast, and the stakes were all for keeps. Every time a fight started, I was terrified it would be my last. Terrified at what would happen to my friends, and terrified that I would never be able to tell Lizzy how I felt. Every time a fight started, my brain froze.
Once, my body froze too. That was my first fight. I heard a commotion in the girls’ bathroom when I was eleven and rushed in to find three girls threatening a fourth with a baseball bat. I hadn’t been able to act until they used the bat to break the girl’s knee.
Ever since then, although my brain might be frozen, my body was not.
I sidestepped the attack and tripped him up, but he recovered quickly, slashing at me with his claws. I dodged those and caught his wrist as he overswung. Then I pulled him down, bringing up my knee at the same time to meet him in the face. This stunned him long enough for me to get my arm around his neck and twist it, snapping it with a loud crack.
Now that the immediate threat was gone, I found I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move forward—not with those monsters out there—but I couldn’t go back. So I froze.
Then a scream split the night.
Not the toneless cry of a screamer, nor the keening banshee wail a lot of Nosferatu had. It was a simple, human scream of fear. The Nosferatu were active in this area, but there were still innocents, baseline and otherwise, who were in danger.
And they needed help.
I glanced over at the girls, who had also dispatched their foes. Ling was panting with effort and a bit pale, but seemed otherwise fine, and Akane didn’t seem any the worse for wear. I nodded, muscling aside my fear, and we headed out again.
It was only a few minutes until we found the real fighting, by following the screams as usual. It was just a small cluster, milling around over the corpses of a few Nosferatu.
The first thing that happened was one of the outlying zombies zipped up and bit me hard on the shoulder; Akane stabbed him quickly, but his jaw locked in death, and it took a minute to get him off. Thankfully, none of the other screamers seemed to notice us, and we were able to sneak up and eliminate the half-dozen or so easily.
Even with my decision to shift our focus to the Nosferatu, our main objective was to determine if there were any singers present. If there were, we needed to kill them so that the others could move in. If we were very lucky, that would result in the screamers being cured, but I wasn’t optimistic on that front.
The problem was since we couldn’t hear them like the screamers, we pretty much had to just wander around until we found something that looked interesting. I’m more used to missions where you know where the goal is going in.
The next battleground we stumbled upon favored us; one of the canopies overhead had come loose, allowing the light of the full moon to fall upon the square. The enemy would still be able to see better than us—their eyes worked fine in moonlight, though I didn’t really understand how that worked—but at least we’d be able to see what we were doing.
The Nosferatu disdained ranged weapons, probably because of how much money they spent on their bodies. There didn’t seem to be any screamers in this fight, just monstrous men and women tearing into each other with claws and fangs.
We jumped in before they knew what hit them.
I punched one of a fighting pair square in the chin and he went down like a sack of bricks. The woman he had been losing to whipped her tail at me. It was probably poisoned, and I didn’t have very many anti-toxin buffs. So, I snatched it out of the air, grabbing it a few inches from the barbs on the end like you would a snake. She shrieked in rage as I yanked on it hard. These things were still new and weak. She was probably rightly worried that it would come off if I pulled too hard.
She tried to claw at me, but I flicked her hard in the forehead, distracting her. “All I want is your Noble,” I said calmly, masking my fear with long practice. When your enemies can literally smell fear, cowards like me had to be really good at burying it. This one didn’t seem to have an enhanced nose though, so she didn’t notice either way.
She glared at me in hatred. “Broodlord Halifax will not work with baseline scum like you,” she spat. Literally. I don’t think it was intentional, its just the natural result of having too many fangs.
I threw her aside, into a concrete pillar, and she fell to the ground in a heap. I didn’t know which bloodline this Halifax led, and I didn’t particularly care. I just needed to find him and stop him as fast as possible.
Akane was already racking up an impressive body count, but Ling seemed to be having trouble. Two had jumped her at once, and athlete or not, she didn’t have training. Screamers were stupid, but vampires knew how to fight.
I interposed a shield between her and one of her opponents, saving her from his claws. She nodded thanks and went for the other one. The first came after me, angry I had stolen his prey.
I dodged the first swipe of his claws, but he expected that, and managed to stab me in the gut with his other hand. That’s not what the claws were designed for, so they didn’t go in deep enough to hit anything vital, but it still hurt. I had to yank his arm out quickly but carefully to make sure he didn’t take a large chunk of my stomach with it.
He tried to attack with the other arm again, but I grabbed him by the wrist and pulled forward on both arms, knocking him off balance. Before he could regain it, I struck him in the back of the knee, driving him to the ground. I stomped on his wrist with my boot, and it snapped with an audible crunch, undercut by his scream of pain.
“Where’s Halifax?” I demanded.
“I don’t know!” he cried. “I’m with the Guruhi!”
I sighed. Their stupid wars. “Then tell me where your Noble is.”
Shaking, he pointed deeper into the square, at the side most of the Nosferatu seemed to be clustered.
I sighed again. Wonderful.
I backhanded the vampire, knocking him unconscious, before turning to Akane. “I’ll be back. Keep an eye on Ling.”
She nodded, and I headed forward alone against a horde of monsters.
I mostly dodged around the clusters of fighting Nosferatu. I could take any of them one-on-one easy, but they wouldn’t fight me that way, and with my gut still bleeding, I didn’t want to take any chances.
But it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t have a choice. The vampires were knotted too thickly at my destination for me to just ignore them. Many were engaged in combat, but not all of them. I knocked a few more heads in, threw a couple more people aside, asked a few more questions, and eventually managed to clear a path to where Halifax and Cinder were fighting.
Cinder was the Guruhi Noble, a large man with a short shock of white hair and blood-stained shark teeth. Other than that (and the nighteyes of course), he was surprisingly normal, especially for a Nosferatu. He didn’t even have claws; he was fighting with a pair of wicked short swords, curved with a dozen different kinks and edges, allowing them to inflict maximum pain with each strike. He had a few shallow wounds in his pale skin, but overall seemed to be enjoying the fight more than he should.
His opponent, the Nictuku Noble Halifax, was nearly his exact opposite. He was completely covered in a dark black carapace, including infinitely more delicate armor over his joints. It would offer as much protection as possible while still allowing free range of movement. He still had hair, which surprised me; it was midnight black and cut short to match Cinder’s.
His jaw was a monstrous weapon of destruction, bigger than the biters we had encountered…nine days ago? Silver and gold, had it only been that long? Regardless, while the biters were clearly just enlarged human jaws, Halifax seemed to have built a wood chipper out of teeth and chitin and fused it to his face. Dozens of razor-sharp fangs and small tendrils covered in barbs lined the inner edges, ensuring that each bite did the most damage possible.
His claws, likewise, were massively oversized, scaled more for a gorilla than a man. And it would have been a big gorilla. The claws themselves were six inches long; the fingers they were attached to were a similar length, and seemed ridiculously thin and spindly in comparison. But I knew that was just an illusion. They would be as strong as steel.
The two terrifying vampire Nobles didn’t notice my presence, which I suppose was understandable. But if I didn’t do something quickly, their minions would overwhelm me, if with nothing but numbers. And the girls couldn’t fight forever either. I nearly froze again, both with indecision and fear, until I remembered that every moment spent fighting here, more innocents died elsewhere. I refused to let that happen.
Well, when in doubt, the simplest answer is best.
I conjured a shield between the two, blocking a claw swipe aimed at Cinder. Both men flinched back from the gently glowing blue force field. I doubt it actively hurt their eyes, but vampires get used to assuming any light is going to hurt them.
“Honored Darkstalkers,” I said without preamble or sarcasm. “We are in the middle of a screamer attack. You need to put your feud on hold for the moment.”
Cinder stared at me. “Who the hell are you?” he had a rustic British accent, but I didn’t know enough to be more specific. Not that it particularly mattered.
“I am Derek Huntsman,” I replied calmly. “Leader of the Paladins. Follow me, and we can reinforce the Necessarian redoubt.”
A long, low screeching noise came from the direction of Halifax. It took me a moment to realize he was talking.
Cinder snorted. “Not if mine does it first.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me, Honored Darkstalkers, but I’m going to need an interpreter for Noble Halifax.”
One of the Nosferatu I had thrown aside when I was looking for the Nobles stepped up a little shakily, giving a small bow as she did. “Sorry for interfering, sir, but Noble Halifax said his brood is about to destroy the redoubt. Sir.”
I growled out an epithet unsuitable for children as I pulled out my phone and hit the speed dial. “Laura, what’s your status?”
“We’re under attack by Nosferatu,” she replied calmly. If I couldn’t hear all the shouting and gunfire in the background, I would have thought she was lying. “They got the lights. You should probably fall back.” She hung up.
I shook my head. That girl.
I turned back to the Nobles, who at least hadn’t resumed trying to kill each other yet. The rest of the square was likewise quiet, as word had passed along that I was negotiating with the leaders.
“We’re heading to the redoubt,” I explained, my tone leaving no doubt that I was talking about everyone present. “You will order your men to stand down, and we will fight off the screamers together.”
Halifax laughed and screeched something.
“He said ‘You can’t make us do anything,’” my translator supplied helpfully.
I didn’t bother trying to convince the monster. It would inevitably devolve into a fight, and while I could probably beat him in my condition, it would take far too long. We needed to fall back now.
So that’s what I did. I didn’t say a word, I just turned around and headed back at nothing faster than a walk, Akane and Ling quickly falling into step behind me. The translator hesitated for a moment, but soon followed as well.
Warriors don’t think quite the same as normal people. Honor means some insults are found complimentary, and complements found insulting. The tiniest things can offend a warrior, and even smaller things can make him yours for life.
Turning your back on a warrior is an insult. It’s saying ‘You’re not worth my time. I have better things to do.’
I was out of the square by the time the two Nobles finally gathered their wits. I heard Halifax screech something, and Cinder ordering his men to kill us. But more importantly, I heard the Nosferatu under their command following me. Not chasing me. Following me, at the same slow pace I was taking.
Walking wasn’t the best of ideas, but I knew the way back, and without having to worry about ambushes, we could take a shorter path. All in all, a trip that took twenty minutes out took less than five back.
Once we reached the redoubt, I picked up the pace. The lights were indeed smashed, and the barricade torn aside. Vampires were everywhere, attacking everything in sight. The vampires weren’t the problem. The screamers were.
In the close quarters of the temporary fortress, they infected faster than I could keep track. I couldn’t see them transforming like the general had claimed, but I knew better than to dismiss his words as idle fantasy.
After taking a breath to steel myself, I quickly ordered the Nosferatu to act as support, while I led Akane and Ling directly into the screaming mob.
Like I said, screamers aren’t smart, so they were easier to fight than the vampires. Simple tricks worked on them every time, and they never learned. Akane’s sword killed quickly, and Ling wasn’t skilled enough with her concrete gloves to keep her targets alive, but I tried to simply knock the zombies unconscious as much as possible. A cure could still be in the future.
Eventually, we managed to find Adam and the retinue, on the far side of the redoubt, next to the van. The general and a thin man in uniform were keeping the mob at bay with their pistols. The noise was scaring the crowd of zombies more than the bullets were actually damaging them. Alex was like a beacon, beams of light springing from his hands and blinding anything that got too close.
“Where’s Laura?” I asked as I jogged out of the fire zone. Adam just jerked his head over at the front of the van. There were two people there, wrestling on the ground. With a start, I realized it was Laura and a screamer. She was trying to keep it’s thrashing under control, but was having little luck.
Of course. She was the only one immune, so she had to do it, despite her lack of interest in anything physical. But why didn’t they just kill it? It would be easier all around. Especially since the screamer was a fel. The cat kemos were master escape artists, able to—
A fel? In Nosferatu territory?
And where was Kat?
“Oh no,” I whispered.
Now that I was looking more closely, it was obvious. The fel screamer Laura was wrestling with was indeed Kat. It was the strangest thing; her mouth was open, and I could hear her screaming in my mind, though it was difficult to pick out in the midst of all the others. But no sound escaped her furry lips. She really was mute.
My mouth went into a firm line. I looked back the way we had come; good, Halifax and Cinder were there. They had followed grudgingly, but they had followed. I noted their location, then turned to Alex.
“Daybreak,” I ordered.
He nearly jumped out of his boots, the night vision goggles on his face bouncing. “But won’t that incapacitate our own?”
“No time. Daybreak, NOW.”
He ripped off the goggles, stepped into the empty area between us and the screaming mob, and…
It was like dawn rising, not ten feet in front of me. The angel’s skin shone like every light on Earth at once, and everything within a hundred feet cast deep, dark shadows away from him. I was completely blinded, even though I had my eyes closed, but I was expecting it. Most of the Necessarians had protective goggles, so they weren’t hurt that badly.
The Nosferatu and the screamers were not so lucky.
People think that nighteyes just give you an annoying light sensitivity to go with the super-enhanced nightvision. That is a vast understatement. Bright light doesn’t just blind vampires, it is physically painful for them. Someone once told me that this was like punching a vampire in the brain through the eyes. Seeing the result, I didn’t think it was hyperbole.
Nearly every single screamer fell to the ground, dazed as if they had been kicked in the head. Many of the Nosferatu actually fell unconscious, screaming in pain. Without the power package as a foundation, they just didn’t have the stamina to survive this kind of attack.
Halifax and Cinder stayed standing, as I expected, but they snarled and screeched in fury. I could only barely make out shapes, but I remembered their positions, and marched over to them without delay. Then I kicked Halifax’s legs out from under him and pinned him to the ground. My stomach throbbed and I was getting dizzy from blood loss, but I ignored it. I could last.
“Your stupid fighting cost me a comrade, you honorless bloodsoaked bastard.” I had liked Kat. I didn’t know her very well, but she was smart and capable. “You are going to help me round up these screamers, and if you are very lucky I won’t shoot you in the face when this is over.”
I turned to Cinder and grabbed his shoulder, using that to make sure he was facing the right direction, then kneed him in the balls. He doubled over in pain and started to throw up. The combined effect was just too much for him.
“That goes for you too.” I headed back.
I shaded my eyes as I approached Alex. I still couldn’t see, but hopefully that would prevent permanent damage. “How much longer can you keep this up?”
“A minute. Probably less.” That was the reason I hadn’t just told him to do this from the start. Simple beams of light and subtle glowing was easy, but a full daybreak couldn’t be done very often. “And the screamers are starting to recover.”
What most people forgot about dayeyes was that they worked perfectly in the light. Even this kind of light. Apparently a popular pastime among angels is to just stare directly at the sun. They say its very pretty when it’s not blinding. To Alex, this looked like normal daylight with fewer shadows. He could easily keep an eye on the screamers’ condition.
I had expected them to recover, but the light would be a massive advantage while it lasted. Once it faded, the battle would depend largely on who re-adjusted to the dark first, us or the screamers.
I was betting on the screamers.
“Laura, how’s Kat?”
“Gone,” she reported. “She managed to get free before the daybreak hit.”
I cursed. “Silver and gold. Akane, find her, alive if at all possible. Everyone else, we don’t have time to be nice. Start killing any conscious screamers you find.” It wrenched at me to stoop to such a level, but it was our only choice. Kill a few to save the rest.
I heard Adam’s incredulous voice. “What, blind?”
“That won’t be necessary,” a new voice said. I turned to see a man, standing in the shadow of the van.
No, not a man. A tall angel, of undetermined gender. So almost certainly a full daybreaker. I couldn’t tell what Name he was from; his tattoos were hard to read in the strange light of Alex’s dawn.
“My name is Adele Lucifer. Miss Medina called us, informed us of the situation.”
Well, that was Laura for you. Wait… “Us?”
“Yes.” He gestured behind him, and I was barely able to make out a fleet of vans bearing the Necessarius red-on-black band disgorging an army of doctors and orderlies, lead by a few dozen angels. I had never seen so many in one place before, let alone wearing ‘sarian colors.
“Your Gabriel can stop now,” the Lucifer said patiently, as another angel started a daybreak. “We can handle it from here. Just bring us unconscious screamers, and we can do the rest.”
“Oh good,” I whispered, and collapsed.
It had been an interesting hour.
Behind the Scenes (scene 31)
This was an important scene for a number of reasons, not least because I wanted to show the Paladins actually having trouble. The problem with the screamers (from a storytelling perspective) is that while they’re dangerous to normal people, if you’re immune to infection and a bit careful, they become very easy to deal with. That’s why I brought the Nosferatu in, to show that Derek isn’t invincible. Well, and to remind readers that while Necessarius avoids racism, the rest of the city is not quite as enlightened.
And we have a shop now! More will be added later.