“Strange?” Seena asked, taking a sip of my drink before I could stop her. “Strange how?”
I gave up trying to rescue my beverage from my sister and just shrugged. “I don’t know…like halfway through talking to me, he realized he was saying something he shouldn’t.”
It was the morning after my little talk with Steve and Kevin; it was the earliest I’d been able to meet with Zusa. She’d decided to bring along Seena, Delphie, Veda, and Yolanda, which I approved of, especially Yolanda. The blonde demon sat to my right, with my sister to my left. It was a good brainstorming group, as long as we didn’t get off topic.
Unfortunately, she’d also brought Jelena.
Zusa apparently hadn’t gotten the memo, and looked at the Glasyan with concern. “What’s wrong? You’ve been scratching all morning.”
Jelena grimaced, her arm arched behind her head to get at her back. “Got an itch on my spine that won’t go away.”
“Have you seen a doctor?” Seena asked with well-faked innocence.
As expected, the pale girl nodded. “Glasya herself checked me out. Said nothing was wrong, it was just a psychosomatic reaction to my capture.”
I felt for the poor vampire, but there was nothing I could do. Glasya had explained to Seena that Jelena’s spine was now a large radio transceiver, similar to the ones the fey used in their homunculi. It wouldn’t allow for any kind of direct control, but all her sensory data was being piped directly to one of the crazy naked bitches.
Jelena didn’t know any of this, of course. Which was probably why she was scratching the back of her neck, a frown on her face.
“Then I’m sure that’s all it is,” I lied with as straight a face as I could muster. Luckily, she didn’t seem to be paying much attention to me, otherwise she would have seen right through the ruse.
“That’s not—” Yolanda blushed as everyone turned to her, but still managed to stammer out “Simon was saying something about MC.”
I brushed my hair back. “Uh…yeah.” I didn’t really want to talk about it in front of Jelena, though. “I just need to figure out how to convince her to talk to someone really paranoid.” Then I shrugged. “Well, I guess I really need to find a way to get him to talk to her.”
“It’s MC,” Jelena noted. “If he can’t trust her, who can he trust?”
I winced. “Yeah…this guy is paranoid enough that that’s not a good argument.”
“Bah,” Veda said with a wave of her hand. “That part is easy. You give him an ultimatum. Tell him he can talk to her or…” she waved her hand again. “Or something bad happens. I don’t know the situation. No,” she leaned forward eagerly, her furry ears twitching. “What I’m interested in is your suspicious roommate.”
Seena put my drink down. “Why? What’s so special about him?”
“Well, your brother thought it was worth mentioning. I’m curious as to exactly why.”
I shrugged again, a little uncomfortable at the attention I had heaped on Kevin without his knowledge. “I don’t know, I just thought it was weird. He seemed so confident, and then just did a complete 180.”
“You probably said something stupid and didn’t notice.” Delphie didn’t even bother looking up from the mouse she was feeding in her lap. “You do that sometimes.”
I sighed and put my face in my hands.
“Aw, you broke him,” Veda crooned. “Be nice, mousie.”
“This from you? You’re the one who almost got us killed yesterday when you called those orcs ‘retarded vampires.’”
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Didn’t…you spend too much time on the internet. It’s desensitized you.”
I looked up and interrupted before Veda had a chance to respond. “So, there was another screamer attack the other day.”
Seena quickly jumped on the opportunity to switch subjects. “Yeah, five days ago. That was…Tuesday?”
Jelena leaned forward. “Yeah, that’s right. Reports are scarce, but I heard that the Composer unleashed some kind of secret weapon. Killed most of the ‘sarians.”
Zusa frowned. “The screamers just hardened their skin, right?”
The Glasyan shrugged. “That’s what the official report says. But does that sound like something that could kill ninety percent of the Necessarians involved?”
“Hellions and Thors,” Yolanda corrected quietly. The blonde demon blushed, but continued. “My uncle said most of them weren’t from Necessarius. The General and the Hammer sent men to support the Paladins.”
Veda shook her head. “No, that doesn’t make any sense. They aren’t exactly on the best terms with Butler. Actually sending troops out under his command would—”
“—would take something major?” I finished. “Like, for example, a zombie apocalypse?”
The cherve shut her mouth quickly.
“Simon’s right,” Jelena noted. “The cultures were all gearing up to work together.”
Seena sipped at my drink. “Were?”
The Glasyan smiled grimly. “They lost a hundred men or more each the first time they tried it. You think they’re going to keep it up after that? Everyone’s digging in, fortifying their bases. No one is sending Butler men anymore.”
Veda regained her courage. “That’s good. The fortifying, I mean. Before, they were basically just milling around, waiting to get attacked.”
“I don’t know…” I said slowly. “Is that really a good idea? It seems like this is exactly what the Composer would want.”
Zusa smiled. “Oh, come on. You can’t pretend to understand what he’s thinking. It’s like the fey; they’re all crazy.”
“The fey can be dealt with,” Jelena pointed out. “The Composer might not even exist.”
The cherve nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard that theory. They say the hackers are just screwing with everyone.”
“The ‘sarians definitely think he’s real,” Yolanda whispered. “Wouldn’t they have a better idea than anyone else?”
Jelena shrugged. “Well, it makes them feel better if they’re getting their asses kicked by an actual person, rather than just a mindless horde of zombies. I don’t know if you noticed, but they stepped up the whole ‘Composer’ thing after this latest debacle.”
I finally grabbed my drink back from Seena. It was mostly gone, but there was still some left. “So, what, they’re just blaming someone convenient and running scared?”
“Everyone’s running scared. I’m sure Headlights can attest to that.” Veda glared, but Jelena just grinned back. It faded after a moment, though. “But yeah, they’re scared. Everyone’s scared. The warlords are pulling back, the ‘sarians have their hands full with captured screamers, and the Paladins are still only five people.” She shrugged. “I know I’m thinking about packing off to one of the other parts of the city.”
“That’s a panic reaction,” Seena admonished, as I carefully dodged her attempts to retrieve my drink. “That is exactly what the Composer wants.” She waved her hand. “Or if there is no Composer, it will still play into the zombies’ hands. It’s herd mentality. If we bunch up, that just makes us juicier targets.”
“She’s right.” Delphie’s mouse had disappeared when I wasn’t looking. “Trust the assassin to know a thing or two about killing.”
My sister buried her face in her hand. “I told you, it’s not like that…”
Delphie waved away her complaints. “You work in a bookstore, you learn how to read. You work around assassins, you learn how to assassinate. You overhear stuff. I’m not insulting you, sweetness, I’m just acknowledging you know what you’re talking about.”
Seena readjusted her daygoggles for the umpteenth time. “Yeah…it’s just not something I want to be known for.”
Zusa wisely steered the conversation back on topic. “So what are we supposed to do, then? If bunching up will get us killed, then—”
“Bunching up is different from herd tactics,” Veda interrupted. “Herds run away. The cultures are fortifying.” She shrugged. “I guess that’s the right idea.”
“They need to make friends,” Zusa corrected. “Fortifying is all well and good, but if the cultures united, no one would be able to touch them.”
“Right now, the cultures are just slightly harder targets,” I mused. I was more determined than ever to make sure Aramazd and MC allied. It was in everyone’s best interest; I had to be able to convince him of that.
“Not really anything we can do, though,” Delphie grumbled. “Like Jelena said, no one is willing to take a chance right now.”
The Glasyan in question leaned back in her chair, a pained expression on her face. “Maybe it will get better in a few weeks, but I have a feeling someone is going to get hit pretty hard before then. Probably the demons.” She turned to Yolanda. “None of your domains have been hit yet, right?”
The girl shook her head. “No…and I have a feeling you’re right about us being next.” She grimaced. “I guess there’s a decent chance this will be the last any of you see me.”
Death is a fact of life in Domina. More so since the screamers appeared; two of my friends had died at Triple I, and another one was screaming. It’s rare to really have a good idea of when you’re going to die, though. We don’t have much disease, and bullets kill faster than sickness anyway.
So this left us all with a very unique opportunity. We could try sequestering her in the domain of a culture that had already been hit to reduce her chances of getting caught in an attack, but in the current political climate, that probably wouldn’t work. Besides, what about all the other demons?
I could see it in her eyes; she was planning to stay with her culture, probably die at the next attack. She was stronger than she looked.
We could have a party, or something. Not a funeral, since that would jinx it, but even just spending more time together would make her happy. It was the least we could do, and from the looks on everyone’s faces, they all agreed with me.
So I pulled her close and kissed her.
Behind the Scenes (86)
This is…eh. I had difficulty writing it, much more than I had any right to. But I still think it came out okay.
Oh, and about Simon’s comment: Disease isn’t anywhere close to defeated in Domina. It’s a little better than our world, between the disease-resistance buffs and just general higher-quality medicine world-wide, but deaths from disease are still extremely rare. Generally, if someone gets sick enough so that their life is actually in danger, they’ll be killed by someone—maybe an old enemy, maybe just a thief, whatever—long before the disease has run its course. It’s to the point that if someone recovers from a life-threatening disease, they are often assumed to be a doppelganger, an identity thief who murdered the original after using the toy maker to disguise themselves.