Monthly Archives: January 2013

Scene 83 – Meretrix




Lizzy looked at me, clearly worried. “Are you sure you guys need to go? They’ll be fine without you.”

She towered over both of us, at just over six feet. She was gangly, like most kids our age, and looked like nothing so much as a bronze beanstalk. Those matching, bewitching golden eyes of hers glimmered with unshed tears. She was wearing the same type of plain white dress she had been wearing on the first day of middle school.

She was beautiful.

I smiled and did my best to reassure her. “I know they’ll be fine, but we need to go, for moral reasons.”

She bit her lip. “But…it will be dangerous—”

“We’ll be fine. We’ll be with everyone else, and besides, we’ve been training. Right, Akane?”

The little Japanese girl nodded, clutching her sword for comfort. It was still a little new; I had only bought it for her a month ago. But she already seemed to never want to let it go.

Lizzy grasped Akane’s hand. “Ken-chan, kare no ue ni miru. Watashi wa kare ga anata nitotte jūyō ka shitte iru.”

Akane looked a little confused, but nodded slowly. She still wasn’t quite fluent in Japanese, but with Lizzy’s help, she was getting better. And by ‘help,’ I mean Lizzy refused to speak anything else to her.

“We’ll be back,” I promised, and meant it. I wasn’t going to die before I finally mustered up the courage to tell her how I felt.

“You better,” she insisted. Then she walked away and disappeared into the night.

Right. Time to focus. We were in South Outer, right next to South Gate, about a block away from our goal. It was pretty far from home, and my mom would probably kill me if she found out where I was, but it was for a good cause.

Across the street was the Monster Liberation Army, a force of vampires, demons, giants and kemos nearly a thousand strong, getting ready to march. I took a deep breath and walked over to the orc camp, Akane dogging my heels.

“Whoa there,” an orc said as he stopped me a few yards from the center of camp. He had big claws and fangs, but otherwise looked like a normal orc. In other words, like any other demon, except with nighteyes. “Where do you think you’re going?”

I stood as tall as I could manage. “I need to speak with him.”

The orc shook his head. “This is no place for kids. Get out of here before you get hurt.”

“He’ll want to talk to me,” I insisted. “Let me through.”

The guard sighed. “Look kid, just—”

“Obould,” a deep voice grumbled from behind him. “The kid has stones. Let him speak.”

The orc sighed again, but nodded and stepped aside, allowing me to see the folding camp table at the center of the army.

At the table was the man who had spoken, the one I had come to see. He was massive. Eight feet tall at least and built like a truck, he clearly had at least one instance of the Bigger buff, probably more. His skin was blood red, from his bulging muscles to his tired face. He was just wearing jeans and a short white t-shirt, not really appropriate for the weather. He probably had some cold resistance buffs as well, or maybe he was just used to it.

His horns were what caught my attention, though. Unlike the short stubs most demons had, this one had massive horns, seemingly as wide as my hand, curving back from the top of his head like a goat. Because of the angle, I doubted it would be easy to use them effectively, but if he could, they’d gore a man in seconds.

Knight Orcus Bloodhand, founder and leader of the orcs, glared down at me with his pitch black nighteyes. Nearly all nighteyes were that same uniform black, of course, but they somehow seemed…deeper, and darker on him.

“What’s you name, boy?”

I pushed aside the fear that was screaming at me to just run and never look back. “Derek Huntsman, Honored Devil.”

“Huntsman?” the massive orc rumbled. “The wrestler?”

“Monster slayer these days, sir,” I corrected.

“Hm.” He eyed me warily. “How old are you, boy?”

“Thirteen, sir.”

“Hm.” He looked at Akane, before turning his gaze back to me. “And what is a thirteen-year-old monster slayer doing at an army formed to rescue the First Monster?”

“She doesn’t deserve what she’s getting,” I said quietly. “No one deserves that.” I met the orc’s gaze again. “It’s not right, and we’re going to help you put a stop to it.”

“Cuss,” the guard said, in a frustrated tone. “His heart’s in the right place, but this isn’t the place for children. Besides, Maria will kill us both if her son gets hurt. And Lily said—”

Orcus stopped him with a raised hand, looking thoughtful. “How many people have you killed, boy?”

I didn’t like talking about it, but I knew it was my only chance to make a positive impression. “Three, Honored Devil. Not counting monsters.”

He nodded at Akane. “And your sword?”

She flinched away, so I answered for her. “No people, but many monsters.”


The guard pinched the bridge of his nose. “Orcus…”

“They’re not children, Obould,” the Power said quietly. “Lily said no children, but they’re not children. They’re killers, born and bred, whether they like it or not. They can come with us if they wish.”

“Thank you, Honored Devil,” I said, trying to keep the earnestness out of my voice. “You won’t regret this.”

“I honestly don’t expect to, Huntsman,” he assured me. Then he smiled a little sadly. “You do have something of a reputation, you know.”

I just nodded. “When will we be moving out?”

“Shortly,” he promised. “We’re just waiting for a few others—Sargeras and Dispater said they’d be here soon.” He turned back to the orc who had tried to stop us. “Obould. Get young Huntsman up to speed while we make our plans.” He turned back to the table, clustered with a few other demons and vampires. The kemos and giants were in another camp; despite being united behind a common goal, they were clearly still having trouble working together.

The guard grumbled a bit, but did as he was ordered and led us away. “Make it quick. I don’t have all day.”

“I just want to know who we’re fighting against, that’s all.”

The orc stared at me. “You…you come and force your way into an army and you don’t even know who we’re fighting?

I suppressed my frustration. “I know who we’re fighting. Malcanthet and her succubi. Who else? We wouldn’t need an army this big for a few dozen crazy demons.”

Obould sniffed. “Fair enough. Belial is in there, along with his wife and daughter and maybe half their house.”

The Belians were chem-heads. Crazy and addicted to drugs, yes, but also very, very dangerous. Chems could make you nearly invincible, and they were pumped full of pretty much all of them.

“There are also the Nessian slavers and the Satanists. We’re not sure if the Beast is there, but Asmodeus definitely is.”

I nodded. “So the enemy are mostly vampires. Good.”

“Mostly,” he admitted. “But we can’t underestimate Malcanthet’s slaves. If we try and use light against them, we’ll just be making ourselves targets for their snipers.”

I made a mental note to keep our flashlights unused unless we had no other choice. “Okay, what else?”

“You’ll stay near me,” Orcus rumbled as he strode up. “We have teams in place to rescue the Mother Monster already. We’ll be making the main push, but it’s just a distraction.”

“She doesn’t like being called that, you know,” the tall, thin vampire with long black hair and gray skin standing at the demon’s side said. He raised an eyebrow at me. “And who’s this?”

“Derek Huntsman,” the Power grunted. “Derek, meet Dispater. Leader of the warblood vampires.”

“A pleasure,” I said with a nod.

“This is not the place for children,” he admonished, frowning. “Orcus, they’ll just get in the way. Besides, Lily said—”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me,” Orcus interrupted. His tone was amused, not hostile. “This is Derek Huntsman. That ‘child’ you were hoping to recruit.”

Dispater started, then looked at me with wide eyes. “Wait…seriously? You’re the wrestler?”

“Monster slayer these days, Honored Nightstalker.”

He glanced at Akane. “And this would be…Akiyama?”

She nodded swiftly, but kept her mouth firmly shut.

The Noble nodded in approval. “Yes, maybe you should be here. You two will go places, I think. This is a good place to learn. Just stick with us.”

“I will, sir,” I promised, and meant it. I was terrified, and knew that a couple of kids wouldn’t be much help against crazed demons. But I had to be here. Even if only for moral support.

Another vampire, a smaller man with pale skin and dazzling violet eyes, strode up. If not for the black-eyed men flanking him, I wouldn’t have even realized he was a vampire. “Sargeras is here. Dis, give the order.”

The warblood nightstalker nodded. “Of course, Knight Dragon. It is an honor.” He raised his voice. “Monster Liberation Army—march! Onwards to Shendilavri!”

His order was greeted by a wordless roar of bloodlust, and the army began to march north, towards the domain of Malcanthet, Queen of the Succubi.

It didn’t take long, even with such a massive group. Her ‘scraper was only a block away, and we didn’t have to worry about the supply trains and so on that would have slowed larger armies. We surrounded the building quickly, despite the fact that it took up the entire block, with Orcus and the other warlords (and Akane and I) on the west side, the side with the entrance. It took about twenty minutes, but eventually everyone was in position.

“MALCANTHET!” Orcus roared, loud enough to rattle nearby windows. I nearly wet myself. This was the man I had walked up to and demanded accept me?

“MALCANTHET!” he cried again. “We know you’re in there!”

A window on the third floor opened. It was a very large portrait window, and the demon girl who poked her head out looked like she deserved to be in a model catalog. Perfect white skin, delicately curved horns, and eyes a rosy red. Even thirty feet away, she was dazzling.

“Orcus?” she called, stifling a fake yawn. “Is that you? What are you yelling about?”

“Don’t play dumb!” he called back. “Release your prisoners, or we will come in and take them.”

“Oh?” A slow smile spread over her face. “You’re here for dear old Mother, then?” She grinned, and her fangs glimmered in the dim light of the streetlamp. “I don’t think she wants to leave any more.”

I swallowed. Was it already too late? Had the succubi already broken her?

“Bloody hell,” Obould cursed under his breath; he had clearly come to the same conclusion.

“She’s lying,” Dispater said firmly. “Don’t worry.”

I didn’t share his confidence, but I didn’t refute him. We just needed to end this, period, and if the slaves could be saved then it was a bonus.

Orcus clearly agreed. “You have ten seconds!” he roared. “After that, we’re coming in! TEN!”

The succubus narrowed her eyes and stepped away from the window.


Metal bars slammed into place—not just over the one, but all the windows. In seconds, the place was a fortress.


Around me, everyone started readying their weapons. The warbloods and hellions checked their ammo, the violet-eyed vampire’s men pulled out their knives, and the Nosferatu fell into fighting crouches. Akane unsheathed her sword, preparing to charge.


I saw something scaling the building’s south and north faces.


Kemos. Spies and saboteurs. Of course. This was all a distraction; the real purpose was to give everyone else a chance to get into place.


I saw them place something on a few windows. Bombs, probably, but what good would they do that high? Not even most of the army could climb like that.


A few more shapes appeared on the roof, readying rappelling lines.


Some of the thinner window opened as arrow slits, and Nessian snipers prepared to fire.


The entire army was coiled like a spring.


Everything happened at once.

About a third of the ‘scrapers windows exploded messily, setting fire to the rooms behind them. At the same time, a few select windows, farther from the others, exploded without fire, and the spy-demons began rappelling down to those.

The army leaped forward at the explosions as if shot from a gun, quickly enveloping the building like a flood. Everyone with the claws to do so began scrambling up the walls, struggling for purchase on a ‘scraper never designed to be climbed. Slaves and slavers popped out of windows to drop boiling liquids or just open fire on the crowd below, but our own snipers took care of them pretty well.

We were in the back now, with most of the warlords. Most of them had the glint of bloodlust in their eyes, but they were more valuable in the back, giving orders, than wading into the thick of battle.

“Assassins on the left,” Dispater reported in a bored tone. Even back here, the sound of gunfire was so loud I could barely hear him. The assassins the warblood had spotted—Belians, by the look of it—had most likely been trying to take advantage of that to sneak up unnoticed.

There were only three of them, clad in dirty rags and clearly hopped up on chems. Their breathing was ragged and their gazes unfocused. They could barely even run in a straight line.

“Akane and I will handle them,” I assured everyone. “Be right back.”

I’m not sure if they let us go because they thought we could handle ourselves, or if they were just too surprised to stop us, but in the end it didn’t matter. We were gone before anyone said a word.

We closed the distance quickly enough. The lead Belian just grinned at me with broken teeth. “This is no place for children, little boy. We can smell your fear.”

I was afraid. Fighting adults is scary enough, but fighting someone built for intimidation and killing was something else entirely. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that any one of these men could kill both of us easily, without any mercy or hesitation.

Belians are monsters. That’s the entire point, really. They abandon any shred of morality to the sweet freedom of drugs and bloodshed. Sure, they have leaders—Belial, his wife Naome, and their daughter Fierna—but they don’t really lead so much as run at the head of the mob.

My mind froze, fear keeping me from thinking straight.

But my body kept moving.

It hadn’t been that long ago that I had burned that into my muscles, forced them to fight even when the rest of me was screaming in terror. My body had only frozen up on me once in my life…but a bright young girl had her knee shattered by a baseball bat as a result.

Speaking of knees…

I was thirteen and my opponents at least twenty, so they were nearly twice my size, not even counting all their combat toys. They underestimated me greatly, but not enough to even the scales.

So to tip the battle in my favor, I went for their knees.

No matter how many muscle buffs and skin enhancements you get, no matter how many chems you pump yourself full of, you can’t change the fact that knees are designed to bend. That’s just what they do. So if you want to bring someone to the ground, you don’t try to break the knee. You just try to make it bend.

I kicked the lead Belian as hard as I could in the back of his knee, and he fell to the cold concrete in surprise. Before he knew what was happening, Akane lunged forward and skewered his heart with her blade, running him through with a single stroke.

It was hard to tell who looked more surprised, Akane or the Belian. It didn’t matter; after a moment, he gurgled, blood bubbling from his mouth, and she hurriedly withdrew her sword.

The other two howled in rage and rushed us. Whether they realized a couple of kids wouldn’t be able to take them in a fair fight or if they were just too angry to care, I don’t know.

I shoved Akane to the right while I dodged left, and the Belians missed grabbing us by inches. That also put me in the perfect position to strike at their knees again. I took one down, but Akane didn’t stab him, so I grabbed him by the hair and slammed his head into the concrete again and again until he stopped moving.

That’s the trick when dealing with chem-heads: Never stop moving. It confuses them. I looked around the last one…

He was flat on the ground already, his ankles bleeding and multiple holes in his back. I watched as Akane stabbed him again…then again…then again, weeping the entire time.

I should have stopped her, but I couldn’t move. What if she turned her sword on me? What if more Belians came out of the shadows? What if the succubi had sleepers in our army? Now that the battle was over and my life wasn’t directly in danger, my mind took control again. But I was too terrified to so much as twitch. What kind of man got paralyzed with fear? I looked back towards Orcus and the other warlords, hoping to get some encouragement…

And saw Asmodeus and his Nessians attacking.

The Nessians were vampires, operating out of Nessus, and slavers. They kidnapped children off the street and sold them to Malcanthet or the fey. They cared nothing for the suffering of others, only the weight of their wallets.

Asmodeus was the worst of them. He was over six feet, with a sharp face and blood red skin. He was dressed in a fine coat and wielding a pair of wickedly curved short swords, which seemed designed to cause as much suffering as possible before the kill.

The warlords were fighting back valiantly, but they had been caught by surprise, and were outnumbered. It looked like the Slave King had brought half his kith with him.

I saw him knock the strange-eyed vampire to the ground and step on his chest, swords ready. “We’re vampires, old friend,” he said mockingly. “Everything must be paid in blood.”

It was the look on his face that did it for me. It wasn’t a look of terror, or determination or professional detachment. It was a look of joy, and bloodlust. He was going to kill this man for no better reason than to satisfy his own selfish desires.

Life was a precious thing. I knew that better than most. It is fleeting, ephemeral, and always beautiful, even when it isn’t. You can’t just crush it for no good reason.

It isn’t right.

“Hey, Ass-Man!”

Asmodeus Slave King, Noble of the Nessians and Master of Nessus, turned in my direction, a look of mild surprise on his face.

I threw my shoe at him.

It was all I had on hand, but it didn’t matter. He was a warlord; it wouldn’t have changed anything if I had thrown a live grenade instead.

It bonked him on the head lightly, and he growled in anger, abandoning his target to stalk me instead.

Which was all the distraction the Nosferatu needed.

He barreled into the Nessian at full speed, without any battle cry to give him away. He still looked mostly human, except his hands were replaced with massive claws dripping with poison. Still eerily silent, he scratched at Asmodeus everywhere he could reach.

The Noble, however, was not silent. He screamed in pain and fury, striking the Nosferatu again and again with the hilts of his swords—the only part he could use at that angle. The brave vampire didn’t let up, and took the blows without complaint. He just keep drawing blood, getting more and more poison into the slaver’s system.

Eventually, Asmodeus managed to get his knee between himself and the Nosferatu, and flung his opponent away. He stood, ready to go on the offensive—

And dropped to the ground, screaming in agony, as the poison finally began to take effect.

The other Nessians abandoned their own battles and rushed over. They gripped their leader tight and carried him away, him screaming the entire time.

“Well done, Hal,” the strange-eyed vampire said as he rose and dusted himself off. “You too, Huntsman.”

I nodded my head as he handed me back my shoe. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

The man picked up the swords Asmodeus had dropped, eying them warily. “Not really my style…” he glanced at the Nosferatu. “Doesn’t your brother use swords?” He presented them to the silent vampire, hilts first. “Consider them a gift.”

He took them graciously, then backed away and nearly ran towards the battle.

The strange vampire chuckled. “Nosferatu are always interesting. I do hope he survives.” He frowned at me as I put my shoe back on—no, he frowned at something behind me. “Is your Akane okay?”

I turned to see her standing there, covered in blood spatters and clutching her sword. Her eyes were wide, and I’m not entirely sure she was breathing.

She was staring at the Belian she had killed, the second one, the one she had stabbed repeatedly.

“Akane? You all right?”

Her gaze jerked to me. “No. No. No. No…”

“Okay.” I held up my hands to stop her. “Okay. You’re not all right. I get it. What’s wrong? Specifically?” I had a pretty good idea, of course. Killing is never easy. At least, not for sane people. It was actually a good sign that she was freaking out this much, but this was not a good time for it.

“I…” she swallowed and started again. “I killed somebody. Two of them. What does that make me? I’m no different than them.”

“Yes you are,” I said soothingly. “They were murderers. You were defending yourself and others.”

“What’s the difference? Is there a difference?” She shook her head violently. “No, there isn’t. It’s like my mom always said. Killing is killing, and its wrong.”

“Akane,” I said, putting my hands on her shoulders, forcing her to look at me instead of the corpse. “There is a difference. Trust me, this was necessary.”

She looked at me, nearly crying. “But, I don’t know—”

Trust me, Akane,” I insisted firmly. “That’s an order.”

Something changed in her. Something…clicked into place. She stopped sniffling, and wiped away her tears. Her shoulders no longer trembled under my hands. She looked me in the eye, and adjusted the blue ribbon in her hair slightly.

“Yes, sir,” she said, and her voice only barely quavered. “I’m with you.”

I nodded and turned back to the others.

Most of the warlords weren’t paying attention to us. They were too busy licking their wounds and shouting into their phones, demanding to know how the Nessians got past the line. The strange purple-eyed vampire was chatting with Orcus, and gestured to me. The giant orc smiled in my direction and gave me an approving nod.

After a few minutes, most of the warlords dispersed. There was still a battle going on, and as the chaos increased, they needed to be able to actually shout at their men in person to get their orders across. Not to mention that splitting up and fading into the army would decrease the success of any more assassination attempts.

The only ones who remained behind with us were Orcus, Obould, Dispater, and a few of Dispater’s elite warbloods. Mostly, everyone just stood around barking orders into radios and phones. There wasn’t much for Akane and I to do.

About an hour after the Nessian attack, Obould closed his phone with a snap. “Front door is finally breached. But Shendilavri is a fortress. We’re having trouble just getting up the stairs.”

“We just need to rescue the prisoners, Ob,” Orcus assured him. “After that, we can turn this into a long-term siege.”

“They’re not going to be easy to find,” Dispater cautioned. “Or to get out. Have your spies found anything useful?”

“No,” Orcus grunted in annoyance. “They’re having too much trouble moving around inside. The Draculas are having a little more luck, though not much.”

“Well, let me know,” the warblood said. “I want to get our men out of harm’s way as quickly as possible.”

Malcanthet has a way of suborning people, of breaking their minds and forcing their allegiance. I don’t know the details; I don’t want to know the details. But she can create ‘sleeper’ agents who act perfectly normal until a predetermined situation occurs.

It was impossible to know what exactly set him off. Maybe it was something Dispater said, maybe there was a signal we all missed, or maybe it was just the right moment, like a time bomb going off.

But one of the Iron Duke’s warblood bodyguards suddenly pointed his gun at his boss and pulled the trigger.

It was pure luck, really. I just happened to be looking at the bodyguards at the time, wondering if I should get a gun. Even though I realized what was going on the second the vampire brought his weapon up, I barely moved in time.

I tackled Dispater as hard as I could, throwing him out of the line of fire as his ‘bodyguard’ emptied an entire extended magazine at the spot he had occupied just a moment before.

It took the other two warbloods a couple seconds to get their own guns out, long enough for the traitor to start to reload. He didn’t get a chance to fire again, though. His erstwhile compatriots tore him to pieces first.

I swallowed. “You all right, Honored Nightstalker?”

Dispater was clearly terrified—not that I could blame him, I wasn’t feeling much better—but he wasn’t looking at me, or even the corpse of his bodyguard. He was staring at something near the space he had been standing before I tackled him.

I looked back and realized what had upset him.

Orcus had been standing behind him.

The massive crimson orc was on his back, lying in an ever-widening pool of blood and gore. He was already dead, that much was clear. What was left of his chest wasn’t moving and the rest of his body was barely twitching with the last dregs of life. Even his eyes weren’t so much as blinking.

Orcus was probably bulletproof, or at least heavily bullet-resistant, but Dispater had always made sure to arm his elites with the exact kind of rounds necessary for overcoming buffs like that. The bullets had torn through him like wet tissue paper.

Obould was crouching over the larger orc’s corpse, staring as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Very, very slowly, he reached out to touch his friend’s face, and started weeping.

I left him alone. Let him have his time to grieve.

I turned back to Dispater. “Your orders?”

But he was shivering. “That’s not…that’s not…”

I frowned at his men. “Can you help him up?”

They nodded and moved forward, but the second they grabbed his arms, the gray vampire started screaming and flailing. The men nearly leaped backwards.

Right. So Dispater was down for the count. I had watched enough war movies to know that left us with only one option.

“Obould,” I hissed, turning back to the smaller orc. He didn’t answer. “Obould.” He just kept staring at the corpse of his fallen friend.

Silver and gold…we didn’t have time for this. Orcus’ phone was already buzzing with subordinates asking for orders.

I slapped the orc as hard as I could across the face.

He jumped up, more surprised than angry. “What the hell was that for!?”

“Honored Power, what are your orders?”

He blinked. “What?”

“You are the Power of the orcs now, Knight Obould. What are your orders?” I held out the phone, still vibrating.

He looked at it, then at me, then nodded very slowly and took the phone and answered it.

“Grom? No, it’s Obould. I’ll explain later. How’s the assault? Good. Move to a holding pattern. You’re the distractions, don’t get yourselves killed.” He hung up and dialed another number quickly. “Garona. No, no, he’s…incapacitated. What’s the word on the infiltration?”

Good. He seemed to be adapting to the role quickly enough. I turned to Akane.

“Keep him safe,” I instructed her, and she nodded. “I’m going to see if I can help Dispater.”

Well, between myself and both bodyguards, we did eventually manage to coax the blubbering vampire into a nearby secluded storefront, which he seemed to find comforting. He kept babbling about ‘eyes in the sky’ and how they couldn’t find them inside, so we left him alone. Both warbloods remained on watch outside; he wouldn’t let them in. He had my phone number on speed dial, and he swore up and down that he would call if they did anything funny. I was pretty sure they weren’t sleepers. They would have activated by now if they were. But that’s not really something you can explain to a crazed vampire.

Then my phone started to ring.

Well, not right then. About five minutes later, after I walked back to Obould and Akane. But with fear and adrenaline compressing time, it certainly seemed like everything was happening at once.

It wasn’t my normal ring, either. It was just a series of five beeps, then a pause, then five beeps again. I answered it hesitantly.


“Derek? This is MC.”

I blinked. Very odd. I hadn’t expected to hear from her again after the rat thing. “Uh…right. Hello. What can I help you with?”

“You’re at Whorestown, right? The succubus lair?”

“Yeah, I’m in the back with…the orc Power. What’s going on?”

“I need to talk to him. Right now.”

I glanced over. Obould was still on the phone, barking out orders. “He’s busy right now. Just tell me what you need.”

She sighed in frustration. “I just need to know if they got their ‘Mother’ out.”

“Not yet,” I reported. “I’ll let you know the second they find her, okay?”

She sighed again. “Yes, all right.”

“But Derek, she’s out.”

I looked up to see Akane blinking at me. I frowned. “What?”

“They got her out,” she said again. “They’re just having trouble finding the other prisoners. Apparently Malcanthet had her somewhere separate.”

“Wait, did I hear that right?” MC said in my ear. “Let me talk to the Power. He needs to hear this.”

It was my turn to sigh this time. “Fine.”

Obould was still on the phone, but he put it down when I walked up. “What?”

“MC’s on the phone,” I explained, handing him my cell. “Something about the captives.”

He frowned. “MC? That ‘sarian hacker?”

More like communications specialist, but I didn’t feel like arguing the point. “Yes. She says it’s urgent.”

He took the phone. “Be quick.” He blinked. “What? Yes, we got her out.” Another pause. “Wait. Wait, what?” He shook his head emphatically. “No. Look lady, we’re not part of Necessarius. We don’t take orders from you.”

There was a roar overhead, behind us. It wasn’t an animal roar, it was the deep and powerful thrum of an engine. I glanced back. There weren’t any shuttles due until noon; what could it be?

Jets. Three of them, actually, painted black with a horizontal red stripe. They looked like they were coming in fast, but even my extremely limited knowledge of aircraft told me that wasn’t right. They were actually flying as slowly as possible, to maximize the amount of time the target was in their sight.

“Bombing run,” I whispered. “Obould! Bombing run!”

He stared at the jets, and I was afraid he would freeze again, but he recovered his wits in time and started yelling into his own phone for everyone to withdraw.

They did, as fast as they could, rushing away from the ‘scraper like an outgoing tide.

Seconds later, six missiles hit the center of the building, exploding in a fiery mess of glass and concrete. I could see bodies, mostly on fire, falling to the streets below, but little else.

Then six more missiles struck from the south, aiming towards the top of the skyscraper.

Then another six from the north, and another six from the east. All twelve of these were aimed at the ground levels, which were now completely abandoned by the Monster Liberation Army.

The eighty-story tall ‘scraper began to crumple to the ground, seemingly in slow motion. Dust and ash billowed everywhere until I could barely tell what was going on. I still saw the vague shape of the building slam into the wall of shorter structures that surrounded it to the south-west, keeping it from collapsing all the way to the street. But I could feel the building groaning, its weight straining to bring it closer to Earth. It was time to go.

A Necessarian bomber came in a few minutes later to drop a few more payloads on the foundation, just in case some rats fled to the sewers. The resulting shockwaves finally caused the ‘scraper to finish its tumble, slamming into the street and shattering the concrete in every direction. Luckily everyone had already evacuated by then, urged on by Obould and the other warlords.

It wasn’t until later that we found out Malcanthet had escaped after all. She had fled into the sewers the moment the army showed up, minutes after her little speech. She was long gone, and Butler had killed at least twenty prisoners—more, if you counted the brainwashed slaves—for nothing.

There were positives, however. Belial was killed. His daughter, Fierna, escaped, but did not turn up again, leaving the chem-heads leaderless. The Satanists were decimated, though their Beast survived. Lizzy came running into the hospital room straight from the shower when she heard the news. She had dried off a little, but not much. It was a nice bonus at the end of the day.

That was the legendary Battle of Shendilavri. For all the pain and bloodshed, for the broken buildings, still lying fallow in Rivenheart, people only remember one thing. They only whisper that if even the Mother Monster could be kidnapped and tortured, then that can only mean one thing. Even for all of Butler’s reforms and peacekeepers and alliances, there was only one thing that was true:

No one is safe in Domina City.

Behind the Scenes (scene 83)

The “knight” thing needs a little bit of explanation. The leaders of gangs and subcultures are collectively called “warlords.” Each culture, however, also has their own name for them. The demons are Powers, the angels Saints, the vampires Nobles, and so on. This, unlike the “honored” meme, is more of an actual rank.

However, unlike “honored,” you normally can’t just slap the rank in front of a name and call it a day. Sometimes you’ll hear “Honored Power” (and so on), but that is somewhat rare. Instead, people use “Knight” (male) and “Dame” (female) to denote warlords. Therefore, Orcus would be Knight Orcus, while Malcanthet would be Dame Malcanthet. Angels and vampires are usually the exception, since their ranks sound more like adjectives. Saint Zaphkiel and Noble Belial are both acceptable.

Oh, and that’s not quite how the terms knight and dame relate to each other in real life, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here.

FORUM NOTE:  Fixed the glitch that made it so people only saw the admin stuff.

Scene 82 – Cor



It was late, about ten. Ling was already asleep, or at least pretending to be. She had tried to talk to Derek about their little altercation, but had stumbled over her words and run away. They’d reconcile soon; we had time.

The reason I wasn’t asleep was because Derek had gotten a job for us. A land piranha swarm had gotten into the BOB facility nearby, and they didn’t have the equipment to deal with it. We’d get paid well for this one. Swarms were pretty dangerous, and we were specifically called in because they knew we’d keep damage to a minimum. If they just wanted to nix the swarm, they could talk to the Canians.

I was nearly ready. I had the Minerva silk on. It fit like a glove and breathed like air, so no problems there. I had my sword at my hip and my knives strapped to my arms. I had my beads tied to my ponytail, and the blue ribbon woven within it. I was even wearing the necklace and pendant Ling and Laura gave me.

All that was left was the earrings.

I hadn’t worn them since a couple days after my birthday. It had felt almost like a betrayal of Derek, which was ridiculous. The moron still didn’t know Ling and I were fighting over him, even after the quick little wrestling match when she got her armor.

The earrings were beautiful, and very thoughtful. I don’t have much jewelry, since most of my money goes to paying for college and healing after bad fights, but that didn’t mean I didn’t like it.

It wasn’t that I liked Flynn, of course. I just enjoyed jewelry in general. That was all. I could appreciate a present without it having any deeper meaning, right?

Of course. Anything else would be silly.

So I should just put on the earrings. There was no harm.

Well…there was some harm. They dangled. They’d unbalance me, if only barely. They were a liability. I couldn’t wear something like that into combat.

Right, so they were off the table. I stood to leave.

Except…the necklace was in the same boat. And I wasn’t considering leaving it behind. Why should the earrings be any different?

The necklace meant something to me, that was it. The earrings didn’t. They didn’t mean anything good or bad, they were just decoration. And I didn’t need that.

Ling rolled over and snorted in her sleep, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Time to go.

I left quickly, meeting Derek downstairs in the lobby. Adam was nowhere to be found. He was probably off with Lily somewhere.

“Ready to go?” I asked.

Derek nodded, adjusting the grenade bandolier across his torso. They were just smoke grenades, but they would be very useful against land piranhas. “I am. You?”

I smiled. “Of course.”

His blue eyes flickered down to my hand. “Are you going to put those on?”

I looked down at my right hand.

I had the earrings held in a loose grip and hadn’t even noticed.

I swallowed. “Yeah. Just give me a second.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 82)

This is the shortest scene I’ve ever done, but it’s still important. And the next one is going to be long. There will not be an update on Wednesday; next is Monday, as scheduled. Trust me, it will be worth the wait.

On the other hand, you may have noticed we now have a forum! You can find it at

Scene 81 – Alae



I don’t like lying, and I hate lying to Ling. She’s done a lot for me, not even taking into account the recent adventures with the toy box. But orders were orders. She couldn’t know the details.

In truth, I did know exactly what was going on with the toy box. I knew who was involved with the project, where it was located, what security was like. I even knew what everyone was getting paid.

Soaring Eagle had made me project manager as reward for my efforts. It tied everything up in a neat little bow, reducing the number of people who knew details about the project. I probably wasn’t the best choice, since nearly everyone one involved was older and more experienced than me, but I felt I was handling myself pretty well.

“Strigi,” I called, as I put my coat on the rack. We had to wear concealing clothing while outside, due to all the hostility towards aves. It worked out pretty well, since it was getting colder, but inside it was far too hot. “Did Anseri finish up that wing design?”

“Not quite, Director,” the wide-eyed woman admitted. She wasn’t a full anthro; just a few minor buffs like improved eyes. She also had a few tawny feathers poking out of her hair, which might or might not be a cosmo. “He’s worried about bone density.”

I nodded. “Tell him to do the best he can, but to remember that the first few are unlikely to work anyway. Doing a few real real tests will help more than fine-tuning the theory.”

She nodded and went off to find him and tell him in person. We weren’t using any form of electronic communication in the lab, not even radios. Sure, we were digitally cut off from the outside world, but just because it was impossible for MC to hack in didn’t mean she wouldn’t find a way. Best for there to be nothing for her to hack into.

We did have laptops, of course, but they had no internet whatsoever, not even to each other. If we needed to transfer data, it was done using one-shot burn drives. All the precautions were slowing things down, but no one was complaining after the debacle last Friday, when Delia’s warhawks got captured. Of course, it had only been a day since the project started, so the complaining would probably come later.

“Corvi!” someone called. I turned to see Gavii, a small-faced man with talons, striding forward with an angry look on his face.

I hated dealing with the cruel little man, and it seemed the feeling was mutual, but I masked my discomfort.

“What do you need, doctor?” I said as calmly as I could. For crying out loud, I wasn’t ten feet from the door. Couldn’t this wait? “Weren’t you working with Anseri on the wings?”

“Yes, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” He looked very perturbed, which was rare. Oh, he’s annoyed all the time, but he looked seriously off balance. “I’ve been reassigned.”

I blinked. “What? To what? By who?”

He handed me a pad. “To researching if functional-limb generation is possible. By Sele herself.”

I tapped through the pad quickly and cursed under my breath. He was right. It was a direct order from Soaring Eagle, requesting he be reassigned to work on appeasing some of our benefactors—specifically, by trying to get the multi-arm buffs the arachs had been always been hoping for.

What I couldn’t understand was why she would pass me over like this. She trusted me, I knew—

Then I reached the bottom.


I glared at Gavii. “This is addressed to me. Where’d you get this?”

He at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. “I…got it from the courier. I told him I’d give it to you, and I did. I just didn’t mention I’d read it first.”

“Of course,” I deadpanned. “I’m sure that’s exactly what she intended when she labeled it for my eyes only.”

He waved his talons dismissively. “That’s not the point, Corvi. I joined this project to advance our interests, not Greyanna’s.”

I walked deeper into the facility. It was a small place, built from about a dozen shipping containers stacked together with the walls knocked down. Plywood, covered in cloth for aesthetic purposes, acted as walls we could rearrange easily.

From the outside, it just looked like a normal stack of cargo waiting to be loaded somewhere. It got a bit claustrophobic at times, but the interior had been painted a calm gray, and the lights were gently illuminating, so it wasn’t too bad.

“The ability to grow entirely new limbs is hardly something that only the arachs will find beneficial,” I pointed out. “We’ll finally be able to regenerate limbs, rather than just repair crippled ones. Think about what that would mean.”

“It means that we’re behind the curve,” he insisted. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation is number one on Clarke’s to-do list. Even if we only count the time he’s had the toy box, he’s still months ahead of us. I hear he’s almost got the heart working.”

“Consider that incentive to work faster,” I said, settling into my chair with a sigh of contentment. My desk was in the farthest corner of the small complex, probably to force me to greet as many people as possible as I walked by.

“That’s ridiculous,” he spat. “I’m not going to be able to outstrip the greatest scientific mind in the city simply by working faster. I demand—

“Frank,” I interrupted, warningly. “Soaring Eagle has made up her mind, and I’m not going to challenge her. Just tell me what you’re starting with.”

Luckily, he could take a hint. He shut his mouth, nodded, and pulled out his personal pad, which he began to read off of.

“Macro-scale MBG has been done before, but it’s ridiculously difficult. Seven years ago, Doctor Mary Christina Asimov tried to grow a new set of limbs on a subject wholesale. The arms barely grew at all, quickly died, and had to be amputated. Similar trials had identical results.

“Four years ago, after the hags invented hydra, the experiment was attempted again. It had much more success, but the resulting limbs were still all but crippled, and the subjects required constant injections of hydra to even maintain that level of use. Hydra is a little addictive as well, and with the amount these people were using, many of them became dependent. The project was scrapped.

“Two years ago, Doctor Alison Blake came at it from another angle. Following the successful creation of tails—”

“Wait,” I interrupted, curious. “I thought tails were only about three months old.”

The man huffed, impatient. “No, they’ve only been sold for about three months. They’re too weak, so nobody could think of any use for them. After a couple trials two years ago proved it was possible, the idea was put on the back burner, until Lily got one. She convinced Clarke it would sell among demons, and it did.”

“Huh.” That was news to me.

Anyway,” Gavii continued, annoyed, “Blake decided to try and create the limb first, and then attach it to the subject. That came out even worse. There’s a reason making complicated structures is still nearly impossible; the toy maker is much better at shaping flesh that already exists.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Hold up. I understand that necrosis sets in quickly if the structure isn’t attached to a human host. But explain to me why it can’t just be attached to life support—artificially flooded with nutrients, an electric charge simulating a nervous system—and so on.”

The ave sniffed. “Because, then you can’t use the toy maker to improve it. Blake tried to get around that by making a very simple structure with the toy maker—basically just a crude lump of flesh and bone—and then editing it indirectly, using seeds, while it was still on life support. That proved impossible without creating an entire artificial body. For the seeds to work, it needs pretty much everything a human being has. Digestive system, nervous system, and so on. Building such a machine was beyond her expertise, and the project was scrapped.”

I nodded. I knew most of that, actually. I hadn’t gone to college, but I had been studying the toy maker my entire life. I knew most of the details. The ‘seeds’ were the most common way the toy maker was used. A sample of cells was taken from the host, which was then modified into something similar to a retrovirus. Once implanted back into the subject, it would change their body over time. You couldn’t use the technique to grow entirely new parts, but simple things like skin color and muscle mass were easy.

However, now that the fey had managed to successfully miniaturize the technology into the toy box, we might be able to combine the best of both worlds. That was how most anthros had been created; by just sticking us in the toy box and modifying us directly, like molding a lump of clay.

“Right, so with the toy box we should be able to do m-scale MBG quickly enough so that necrosis doesn’t set in.”

“But we’ve hit a block,” he admitted. “At least, on the wings, and I doubt the arms will fare any better. We haven’t done anything beyond theories, but we think—”

“The problem is that each person is different,” I finished. “So each arm or wing has to be individually tailored. But at the same time, the design has to be perfect, or it will just wither and die.”

He looked a little put out. “Yes. Basically. I believe Anseri thought that if we could build the wing directly on the subject, while they’re in the toy box, we might have more luck. Let the design grow more organically, like with the horns or beaks.”

“Horns aren’t functional,” I pointed out. “No moving parts, not even any different materials. Just lumps of bone. A flaw in a horn is character. A flaw in an arm is much worse.”

“I know it’s not the best idea,” Gavii admitted. “Which is why I’m against it. I still think that if the wings—or, in this case, arms—are mostly perfect, we can use the toy box to synch them up to the subject’s system, just like normal. Then, if there are any problems, we can edit them later.”

Seeds were more reliable, but very slow. Frank Gavii was being a bit of an opportunist. Rather than just coming in once, his plan would require subjects to receive multiple treatments, which would mean more money. That being said, it did have merit. Sort of like buying a standard baseball bat and later applying tape or whatever to make it more comfortable.

“Is there a working arm design on file?”

He looked surprised. “Uh—what?” He shook his head to clear it. “Yes, yes there is. I don’t have it right now, I’d have to send a runner to download it from outside.”

I steepled my talons, thoughtful. “Once you get that design, make two arms, a left and a right. One at a time—there can’t be any mistakes. Then, you’ll attach them to an arach. Can you do that?”

“I…I…” I don’t think he could have been more surprised if I had pulled a gun. “I think so. But this is so sudden.” He became more confident as his verbal momentum improved. “I’ll need to see the subject, and…it will require some surgery, more than just what the toy box can provide. Attaching two entirely new limbs isn’t easy.”

“I’ll ask the Minervas to send their girl over,” I promised. Yeah, the Lolths were the ones who had made the most recent request, but no way in the empty sky was I going to try and deal with those misandrist bitches. “I’m going to be honest, Gavii. I think the organic growth idea is a better one. But let’s see how your cut-and-paste one pans out.”

He swallowed, and nodded. “I’ll need access to the toy box, of course.”

I frowned as best as I could with my beak. I had just gotten comfortable. But I sighed and stood. “Fine, c’mon.”

The toy box was in the exact center of the complex, located in a small maze of plywood walls. It was guarded by both remaining senior warhawks; they were the only ones who hadn’t gone with Delia. They glared at Gavii, but I waved them off, and they let us through.

One of the first things we had done once Lizzy’s driver let us off and we got the device in Soaring Eagle’s hands was to clean the damn thing. Pigeon’s blood had been mopped off, and the amorphous metal surface polished until it shone like a mirror again.

It sat in the middle of that little ten by five room, the light shining down on it like a priceless piece of art on display. Or a coffin at a funeral.

Gavii walked up slowly, mesmerized, and brushed his talons against it. “Beautiful.”

I didn’t say anything, but that kind of behavior made me uncomfortable. It seemed like everyone treated it like a holy relic, sacred beyond all imagining. Considering its source, and the amount of blood spilled to retrieve it, I really wasn’t comfortable with the comparisons.

I was beginning to think Soaring Eagle had put me in charge merely because I wasn’t seduced by the possibilities it offered. It was mostly just a box to me.

Gavii licked his lips and looked at me, blind lust for experimentation in his eyes. “When…when can I start?”

“As soon as possible,” I promised. “The second you have something ready. Anseri and his team will have priority, but you’ll get your fair share.”

He nodded, still transfixed.

I left quickly, trying to pretend I was just going to send out that runner for the designs he needed.

But deep down I knew I wanted to get as far away from the toy box as I could.

Behind the Scenes (81)

I tried to avoid technobabble and use simple terms explaining “this is what it does,” but I’m not sure how successful I was.

Scene 80 – Aves



I met Turgay and Pigeon outside of the dorm, in the small alley that separated it from the next ‘scraper. The crow was looking better; apparently his King had gotten him some help. Maybe he had even been thrown into the toy box itself for healing, who knew.

“Thanks for meeting us,” Turgay said earnestly. “I know we’ve caused trouble for you the past few days.”

“Can we talk about this somewhere else?” I glanced at the maintenance man installing some speakers at the corner. “I don’t want to be overheard.”

He nodded. “Of course. This way.” They headed deeper down the alley, presumably the direction they had come from, and I followed. Aves were still rare, and Soaring Eagle’s actions had made them mistrusted. It was best to keep them out of sight.

Once we determined we were far enough away, I sat on a dumpster and started my interrogation. “How’s the toy box?”

He winced a little at my tone, but kept strong. “Fine. Thanks for asking. Sele is keeping it under wraps, as you might expect, so I don’t really know what they’re doing with it.”

I frowned. “Sele?”

He smiled a little. “Short for Selenium.” At my blank look, he continued. “It’s atomic symbol is ‘Se.’ Cuz, uh…Soaring Eagle is a bit of a mouthful.”

I shook my head. Never let geeks out of the lab, seriously. They come up with stuff like that. “Whatever. And you’re sure she’s using the box to advance wing research, not create super viruses or anything?”

Pig bobbed his head excitedly. “Definitely, definitely. I’m in the first wing trials, once they get a basic design made.”

“They’ll probably be non-functional,” Turgay grunted. “There just isn’t any real research into wings, since everyone has known for so long that its going to be very, very hard. I really doubt they’ll even get the first batch to flap.”

“I just hope it was worth stealing the stupid thing,” I spat with more anger than I intended. “You brought a lot of people into this scheme of yours. We all go down if Butler isn’t feeling merciful.”

The eagle’s shoulders sagged. “I know Ling, I know. But Soaring Eagle…she’s offering a lot. Giving our culture a chance to actually thrive.”


He looked away. “Well, yes. But its the only way that has a chance at working.”

I shook my head. I should be at NHQ, flirting with Derek, not dealing with this. Then again…

I wasn’t really sure what to make of our fight the other day. I had always known, intellectually, that Derek spent most of his time wrestling monsters. I knew that he could kill me, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop him. But knowing a truth and having it throw you against a wall are two very different things.

I was out of line, of course. It was common courtesy to let someone know you couldn’t make a meeting, and required when it was a life or death situation. My little rant about not being a soldier, while true, didn’t really apply to the situation.

But I don’t approve of solving problems with violence. That was one of the reasons I was still leery about our little alliance with Necessarius; Butler had a very…ballistic solution to most difficulty. If I was completely honest, I had always agreed with the succubi and the daevas: If a problem couldn’t be solved with sex, it wasn’t worth paying attention to. But saying that within a thousand feet of Lily, or even Derek and Akane, would likely get me killed.

Oh sure, we were fighting the screamers, but that was more like weeding the garden. They weren’t people any more. Laura and Doctor Clarke were trying their best, sure, but I knew in my heart they wouldn’t have any luck finding a cure. In all likelihood, anything they came up with would just make things worse.

I should probably talk to Derek about it. I’m sure he felt worse about it than I did. I had half expected him to call and apologize, but no such luck.

“Ling?” Turgay asked slowly. “You still with us?”

I blinked, clearing my head. “What? Yes, yes, sorry, my mind wandered. What was the question?”

“I just wanted to know if you had a better idea to advance the cultures.”

I sighed. “If the screamers were gone, and the fey played nice with everyone…” I shrugged. “There are a lot of options that are off the table because of things like that. But that doesn’t mean they’re all out of reach. Did you talk to—” it took me a moment to remember the subcultures in question. “The sibriex, or the Glasyans? Either of them would have been helpful.”

My old friend clicked his beak disdainfully. “Yes, we did. As well as the autumn fey. And the Avernans, the Belians, and even the Nosferatu. Anyone who might be able to help vitalize the subculture has turned us down. This was the last option.”

I held up my hand to stop him. He was getting a bit angry. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m not involved in this, I don’t know all the details. I shouldn’t judge. It’s just…” I shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s Necessarius, Guy. You know better than to screw with them. Remember how they ended the Battle of Shendilavri? The Battle of Hathsin?” He broke eye contact, and I stepped forward, forcing him to look at me. “In five years, do you want people telling stories about how they massacred the aves at the Battle of G’Hanir?”

“It won’t—” he started, but I cut him off.

Yes, that is exactly what will happen. You guys have one ‘scraper. Butler can topple that easily enough.”

He met my gaze again, fury giving him strength. “It’s too late now. Soaring Eagle knew what she was getting us into. We’ll survive or not, that’s just the way it is.” He sighed, deflating. “Let it go, Ling. The die is cast.”

I bit my lip. “Guy—”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about Lizzy,” he interrupted, in a blatant attempt to change the subject.

I didn’t object. “What about?”

“What’s she do for a living, anyway?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t her driver or bodyguard or whatever tell you?”

He shook his head, feathers rustling. “No. They didn’t talk much.”

I shrugged. “She’s a voice actress. I think she’s doing My Little Pony right now. Not sure though.”

“She’s…what? Nevermind, the point is that she has a pretty big support system for just a voice actress.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You complaining?”

“No! No, nothing of the sort. I was just impressed, that’s all.” He shifted awkwardly on his feet. “She’s a nice girl, and her type don’t usually last long in that kind of business.”

Pigeon spoke up. “Seems like everyone likes her. Maybe that’s how she’s surviving.”

“Shut up—” Turgay began, then paused. “Actually, that’s a good point.” He shrugged. “She seems to rouse protective instincts.”

“I think you guys are making acting sound more dangerous than it is,” I said with a smile. “This isn’t some shadowy cabal. The worst these people get is paparazzi and weird letters, and voice actresses aren’t popular enough have to deal with even that.”

The crow cawwed—a laugh. “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”

I laughed right back. I might not know much, but I’ve been trying to break into the animation business since I was seven. I knew what I was talking about. “No, I do. It’s hardly a cutthroat business.”

“I was talking more about the stress,” Turgay cut in, before the argument could escalate. “It weighs on you. And Lizzy seems to have…weak shoulders, so to speak.”

“You don’t have to worry about her,” I promised. “She has lots of friends who are more than willing to shelter her, make sure she doesn’t get overworked. If anything, she’s naive and pampered.”

“Naive is better than spoiled, at least,” the eagle admitted. He paused to think, and his phone started beeping. He shut off the alarm quickly. “Sorry about that. There’s this thing we have to get to, but we can talk for—”

I held up my hand to stall his protests. “No, no, don’t worry about it. I just wanted to know you were fine, that your King hadn’t chopped you up for spare parts. Go. I have homework to do anyway.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 80)

Ehh…don’t really like this one. As Turgay and Ling’s relationship becomes more strained, it becomes harder to write for them.

Scene 79 – Propsiti



Stupid directors. Stupid, stupid.

They had met that idiotic flying girl. I knew that for a fact. And they just let her run away, without so much as ‘You know, a flier would really help us out.’ Stupid, stupid directors. Also, couldn’t she have shot Anders with the calciophage in the process? Would have made my life easier.

“Lakerine,” I spat, as I ripped the intestines out of some stupid ghoul who had decided to ambush me in an alley. “What’s going on outside?”

A voice appeared in my mind. “You’re never cared about outside the city before. Why the sudden interest?”

I ground my teeth hard enough for a few of them to crack. “Because right now it’s boring. No one’s doing anything interesting. The cultures have fortified. I could turn them, but no, that would be genocide. You crazy little…”

“Fine,” the voice interrupted. “Ru Yu’s escape from Shaohao Station generated the kind of attention we were hoping for, and the buyout was drowned in heavy public opposition. They won’t be able to try that trick for a while yet, hopefully long enough for you to complete your work.”

I snorted in derision. Right, my work. Well, it didn’t really matter who’s idea it was, I was following the plan regardless.

“The secessionists on Titan are beginning to stir. Besceriul is encouraging them, to a point. He can’t do much directly.”

“Of course not,” I muttered, as I rooted around for the ghoul’s spine. “He’s a gutless bastard.”

The voice didn’t bother to acknowledge my little pun. “The loyalists on Charon are taking the initiative, and making weapons designed for use against rebellious colonies. Things that can function in vacuum.”

I frowned. “Isn’t the Charon base just five guys in a lab?”

“Fifty, actually, but yes. They’re mostly just doing weapon design. They only barely have the facilities to test their theories. Luckily it’s distracting them from their dig.”

I rolled my eyes. Who cared if a bunch of stuffy scientists found some stupid meteorite? But it was important to the Nine, so I didn’t say anything.

“Interestingly enough, the para are missing.”

I paused. That was interesting. “How is that possible?”

“Don’t know,” the voice admitted. “But when Vearon went to check on the para, they weren’t there.”

“There’s no reason for them to deviate. They should be exactly where they’re expected. Did Vearon backtrack their path?”

“To a point. He only had so much time, and his scanning equipment is sub-par. But they’re nowhere to be found.”

I chewed my lip and cracked a few more of the ghoul’s ribs. Very odd. The para were…well, honestly, they weren’t really very important, but finding out they weren’t where they’re supposed to be was like finding water running uphill. Odd.

I shook my head to clear my thoughts. It was a little interesting, but not really important. “I don’t care about Vearon’s stupid cyborgs, sage. Give me something else.”

“Here’s something a bit more relevant to your interests, then,” the voice said in a slightly miffed tone. “The United States president is taking a more active interest in Domina. He’s worried about your screamers.”

I took the ghoul’s leg in both hands and broke it off at the knee. “Why would he be? I thought Butler always handled that kind of thing. Propaganda, information control.” Intelligence wasn’t really my territory.

“Well, that’s the thing. Butler convinced the outside world that the chorus are just another gang, but now the president is convinced he can actually help.”

I barked out a laugh. “Unlikely.”

“True. But he’s annoyed at the Shaohao situation slipping out of control. He thinks if he can stabilize Domina, he can make his mark on history and maybe solve the secession crisis in the process.”

I snorted again. “He’s a moron. Even I know that they’ll never accept help from an outsider.”

“His heart is in the right place,” the voice chided.

I licked my lips. “That just means it tastes better.”

The voice sighed. “Anyway, the point is he’s going to try and send a few more spies into the city. If you can turn them, that would be helpful.”

I shrugged. “Easy enough.”

“Not that I think it will be necessary,” the voice mused. “Like you said, they don’t like outsiders. They stick out like a sore thumb, especially spies. They’ll probably be dead in a week.”

I reached into the ghoul’s chest and finally pulled out his heart, dripping in rich blood, a little thicker than in a baseline human.

“Well, that’s no fun,” I whispered. “I don’t get to kill nearly enough people.”

Then I ate the heart.

Behind the Scenes (scene 79)

Spies really do not do well in Domina. There are about a thousand reasons for that, not least because it’s low priority, which means less-experienced spooks get sent there. Butler and the cultures also keep a close eye on who comes into the city, and spot the suspicious ones quickly enough. There aren’t really that many people trying to immigrate, so it’s easier than you’d think. Not to mention that it’s an island.