I blinked. “Oh hell, we forgot Akane’s birthday!”
Seena turned and looked at me from where she lay on my roommate’s bed. The lower bed, that is. I had two roommates, and I had gotten the single, while they were stuck with the bunks. “Were we even invited to that? You’re still not exactly her favorite person.”
I tossed my laptop onto my pillow and rubbed my hair back. “Yeah, we were invited. Derek made me promise to not do anything.” I shrugged. “It was mostly to get you there.”
Jelena, also on the lower bunk, looked up from where her head lay on a very embarrassed Yolanda’s lap. “Which one is Akane again? The angry Japanese giant?”
Ugh. Her. “No, that was Umeko. Although she goes by Konoko ever since she became a warlord…” I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “Anyway, Akane is Derek’s…something.” I frowned. “You’ve met her, right? The quiet girl with the sword.”
The Glasyan ran her hands through her white-and-black streaked hair and frowned. “…no. No, not that I remember.”
“It was when Derek saved us from that grue,” Delphie reminded her. “She was the one carrying the strobe light.”
Jelena snorted and tapped her daygoggles. “Well, no wonder I don’t remember. The light knocked me out. I lost about six hours.”
The murid, sitting on the upper bunk, just continued laying on her back, petting a small mouse. “I seem to remember you forcing me to track him down so you could ‘thank him properly.’ She was the girl standing next to him when you took off your top.”
“Ohh…” the vampire cooed. “That’s right. So it’s her birthday?”
“Yeah. It’s just seven floors down. But if we go now, we’d be crashing the party.”
I saw her doing some quick math in her head. “Wait, she’s actually on the sixth floor? I thought it was just storage.”
“That’s just room sixty-six,” Yolanda said quietly. “For obvious reasons.”
Jelena snuggled a little deeper into the demon’s lap, making herself more comfortable. Yolanda, on the other hand, just started blushing again. “I can understand that. Honestly, I think we’re lucky we even got floor thirteen at all.”
Delphie let her mouse go, and it scurried down the bedpost and out the open door. “What floor are you guys on, again?”
The Glasyan opened her eyes, annoyed. “You were just up there earlier.”
“I know, but I wasn’t really paying attention to the floor number.”
“Just curious. I might want to visit or whatever.”
I stretched my legs out over the edge of the bed a bit and leaned back against the wall. “What about you, Delphie? What floor are you and Zusa on?”
“Fourteen.” She leaped down from the bunk, not even bothering with the rudimentary ladder that was more a consequence of the way the beds were stacked than anything intentional. “Which reminds me, I need to get back. Zuzu is getting back from a mission, and needed help with homework.”
“Well, okay,” I said as she walked out. “Don’t be a stranger.”
No one else said anything for a few minutes. Seena had her laptop, Yolanda her book, and Jelena was practically asleep already.
I shrugged, retrieved my own computer, and logged onto Fundie.
Even just glancing at a few blogs made it clear that things were deteriorating. The cultures were fighting, with civil wars popping up everywhere. The warlords were struggling to keep things under control, but they were only having limited luck.
I’m not a soldier, and I have no interest in becoming one. But even I could tell that the more the cultures fractured, the easier time the screamers would have. This was all just falling apart too well to be completely natural.
MC and others were cruising the internet as well, of course, trying to put out the worst fires, urging calm and composure instead of panic, but it wasn’t helping much. There were entire message boards dedicated to nothing but freaking out over the attacks.
It was all way too coordinated. Maybe it was just a couple trolls inciting things for kicks. Or maybe there really was someone behind it all. I was beginning to believe in that ridiculous ‘Composer’ meme, some super-zombie controller acting behind the scenes.
A blank chat window popped up.
I frowned. As the newest sibriex, getting messages from unknown demons was something I was used to. But this wasn’t that. The window was completely empty, which shouldn’t happen. Normally, it only popped up after someone messaged me. Not only that, but the spot where the name and avatar of the other person would normally be was blank.
Then a message appeared.
<Ever ever dies the storm.>
“Nine hells!” I spat vehemently. The girls all looked up, even Jelena, but I just smiled and waved away their worries. They shrugged and went back to what they were doing.
I had seen that phrase before, and suddenly knew exactly who was talking to me. I should have known from the start. No one else was that unnecessarily mysterious.
<Ever ever dies the night,> I typed back carefully, making sure to get the capitalization right. She was picky about that.
<Ever ever lies the fight> appeared next.
I took a deep breath and typed the last code phrase. <Ever ever lies the morn.>
Even through the impersonality of text, I could still feel her grinning. <Hello, Simon.>
I gulped before replying. <Hello, Honored Matron.>
I normally didn’t bother with the honorifics. It was one of the reasons I had become a sibriex in the first place; they didn’t care about any of those stupid titles. It was a place I could do my work without worrying about offending anyone.
But the Queen of Loveless, Matron of Night’s Northern Winter, cared. And offending a fey was never, ever a good idea. It was the middle of autumn, and day at that. Normally the fey didn’t stray out of their prescribed domains, but more and more I was finding that to be less than accurate propaganda.
<Always so polite,> the fey messaged back mockingly. <How is your sister?>
<Don’t talk about her,> I typed back angrily. <What do you want?>
<Well, you see, I have this egg I bought from a friend of mine…>
My heart nearly froze in my chest. I knew where this was going. <Don’t do that.>
<And I was thinking, “It’s practically a crime to just keep such a beautiful specimen in storage. I should really start growing it.”>
I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood. <stop>
<Applying toys to a fetus produces incredible results. Truly breathtaking.>
<Of course, I suppose if I was distracted with something else, I wouldn’t have time…>
<WHAT do you WANT>
<First and foremost, punctuation,> she admonished.
I took a deep breath, wiped the blood off my lip, and typed again. <What do you need, Honored Matron?>
<That’s better. Is it really so hard to take an extra few moments to compose yourself?>
<Says the naked girl.>
<Oh! So you have a tongue in your head after all! I was beginning to wonder.> There was a pause, and I knew she was chuckling to herself. <But my choices of apparel—or lack thereof—are of no concern to you. I just need one little thing. And then I’ll be far too busy to play with the egg your sister sold to the Queen-Mother of Dayborn Light.>
I glanced across the room to Seena, still typing away at her own laptop.
Nine hells, what could she have been thinking, dealing with a fey? If I hadn’t managed to convince Loveless to buy the egg, Seena’s daughter would be running around town, filled to the gills with more toys than the Mother Monster herself.
But she was my sister. Protecting her was my job.
<What do you need?>
<Nothing much. I just need a copy of the sibriex’s Helix.>
The Helix was a record of the toy maker experiments, as well as the buffs and cosmos of members. Every culture had one, usually only noting the more interesting creations they utilized. But more toy-centric cultures, like the sibriex, had extremely detailed records, both of the toys we had and the many experiments we had done. It wouldn’t be an understatement to call them state secrets; if the Glasyans or Clarke got their hands on it, the sibriex would be at a major disadvantage.
<Yes or no, Lancaster. You know the way this works.>
I didn’t have a choice.
<Excellent! A courier will be by shortly with the flash drive. Just put it into the Helix system, and it will hack its way through quickly.>
<How long will it take?>
<Anywhere from five minutes to an hour, including the actual download. Sorry I can’t give more detail, but I just don’t know enough about the system to be sure. You have one week.>
The chat window disappeared, even though normally I would have to specifically cancel it out.
I sighed. Wonderful. What exactly had I gotten myself into this time?
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door, despite the fact that it was already open a crack. “Hello?” a gruff voice called. “Everyone decent?”
“Yeah,” I answered, a little tiredly. “C’mon in.”
My roommates, Steve and Kevin walked in with only a little hesitation. Steve smiled at the girls. “Hello, all.”
He was a big black baseline with light brown skin and a shiny shaved head. He had a bit of fat around his belly, but mostly his size was the result of big bones and strong muscles. He was always smiling, and had a round face well-suited to it.
Kevin frowned a little at the girls, before climbing up onto his bunk and pulling out his laptop. He was a bit harder to read. He was a small South-American man, also baseline, and he didn’t talk much. But his sharp black eyes missed nothing, and when he did speak he did so with a tongue as sharp as a knife.
Seena looked up from her own laptop. “Hey there. Where were you guys?”
Steve shrugged. “Had a few jobs to do.” He a deep, gruff voice that didn’t match his personality at all. He had mentioned when he got drunk a few days ago that it scared the kids at his orphanage. “And Kevin tagged along as my bodyguard.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Wait, I thought you were out of ammo?”
My other roommate frowned from his bunk. “I was. Went out with him to get more. He’s just being weird.” He turned back to his laptop. “Didn’t find good prices, though. Just got a box for my pistol.”
That got Yolanda’s attention. “What do you use?”
“Tiamat Raaze 4.4 Special.”
“Oh,” she scrunched up her face into an adorable frown. “I don’t think I’ve heard of that one.”
“Yeah, no one has,” he admitted. “That crazy lace who thinks she’s a dragon—”
“Gonna have to be more specific,” Jelena noted without even opening her eyes.
Kevin continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “She only made them on special order.” He unholstered it and dangled it down from his bunk; Yolanda took it carefully. “I’m sure you can see why.”
“Interesting design,” the demon girl noted dimly, as she turned the strange weapon over in her hands. It was built like a revolver, but it had five stationary barrels, arranged around a solid center.
I leaned forward to get a closer look. “How many shots do you get out of that thing?”
He chuckled lightly. “Just one. But if you use armor-piercing bullets, you can kill a warlord with that one shot. If you’re lucky.”
I whistled as Yolanda passed the weapon back up. “Now that’s a hand cannon.”
Jelena addressed the girl who’s lap she was laying in. “What’s Pam’s, again?”
“Standard Necessarian Saint Jude,” the demon answered promptly. “Though she said she also has a Black Knight ZF740 that she never uses.”
I bit my lip. “740…isn’t that the one with the manufacturing flaw? Explodes in your hands?”
“750,” she corrected. “But you can understand why she leaves it at home.”
“Let’s switch to a less violent topic,” Steve suggested. “What have you guys been up to all day?”
Yolanda shrugged. “Just reading. It’s a Saturday. Not much else to do.”
“We should probably get a present for Akane at some point,” Seena noted lazily.
“I’ll go out later and buy a sharpening set.”
My midnight-skinned sister turned and glared at me. “Are you an idiot? She has a billion of those. We need something more unique.”
I threw up my hands. “Well, I don’t know. What else is there? We’re not exactly rolling in cash, you know.”
She sighed. “It doesn’t have to be big. Something small and easy would work just as well.”
Steve blinked. “Huh. That reminds me.” He fished around in his pocket and pulled out a rolled-up small white envelope, like the kind people use for letters, and handed it to me. “Sorry about that. Courier office gave it to me about an hour ago, and it slipped my mind.”
Other than ‘Simon Lancaster’ written across the front in delicate script, the envelope was unmarked and still sealed. There was something inside, but I couldn’t quite tell what. It definitely wasn’t a letter, though. I opened it up and…
Pulled out a flash drive. The kind you plug into a USB port.
My big roommate raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t plug that into any computer you want to keep. Flash drives from anonymous sources—”
“It’s fine,” I said, swallowing my anxiety and willing my heartbeat to slow back to a normal pace. “I know who sent it.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 28)
The Tiamat Raaze 4.4 Special is definitely not a real gun. However, it’s based off the much more plausible (but still fake) Tiamat Raaze 4.4, which is just an ordinary 4.4 caliber revolver.
Other than that, I really like how this one came out. I originally created Simon and Seena for little reason other than to have a few POV characters who didn’t know the Paladins’ secrets, but they’ve evolved into their own since.