Monthly Archives: March 2013

Scene 94 – Homines et Monstra

HOMINES ET MONSTRA

SEENA

Out of the corner of my eye, I registered my brother protecting his girlfriend with his own body, but I knew I had bigger things to worry about. The gargant’s iron-armored hand was flailing about the store, searching for us, and it was only a matter of time before it found someone.

I dove in the opposite direction of the trembling couple, towards the baseline with the guns, hoping that if nothing else, I could grab one of his weapons and maybe take out one of the iron-lord’s eyes.

For his part, the bland man was doing a much better job than five minutes ago. He seemed to know what he was doing, now that we were in the heat of battle and he didn’t have to think as much.

He ran away from the gargant, heading for the back of the store, and vaulted over the counter separating the main store from the back rooms. He pointed a submachine gun in my direction, and I winced, expecting to get killed by a hail of lead.

When he fired, however, he only hit the giant hand that had been about to crush me. The beast’s iron skin kept it from actually being hurt by the attack, but it definitely gave it pause, and I took the opportunity to scramble to the back as well, tugging the Dagonite and Zusa behind me.

I cursed myself for getting distracted watching the baseline. I should have been paying more attention to my surroundings.

I wasn’t a soldier, as my Mal superiors kept reminding me, but I should have been better than I was. What if an angel burst into a class I was teaching, and the children were hurt because I wasn’t paying attention?

There was another roar from the gargant, and I was yanked back to the present. This was my problem. All the buffs in the world wouldn’t save me if I kept getting distracted.

I scampered over to the baseline. “Hi. I’m Seena. You are?”

He stared at me for a moment before answering. “Adam Anders. A friend of Yolanda’s. And Laura’s, actually.”

“Good. Great.” I jerked my thumb in the direction of the rampaging monster. “She ever tell you how to deal with an iron-lord gargant?”

“No.” He checked an ammo pouch and cursed. “And I don’t have anything with the punch to hurt it. Any better ideas?”

“We just have to exploit its weaknesses.”

The gunman frowned. “Okay…and those are what, exactly?”

There was a muffled boom from the street outside; it sounded like something had exploded. A grenade? No, something bigger.

“Seena,” Adam said, grabbing my arm. “Focus. How do we kill it?”

Jelena slid up next to me, wincing in the light. She had lost her daygoggles at some point; I imagined the constantly shifting daylight as the gargant moved around was torturous. “We really don’t have time to wait. Sooner or later, it’s gonna get bored and find something else to kill.” She glanced at the creature and immediately regretted it, wincing towards the dark rear of the store. “It’s a miracle it’s still here, really.”

“Yeah,” Adam muttered. “A miracle that’s trying to kill us.” He holstered his shotgun, a massive thing that looked like it was designed for use against tanks, but was little use here. “What are those weaknesses you mentioned?”

I thought for a moment before speaking. “If it gets cold enough, it will break itself to pieces.”

He looked thoughtful. “Like ice cold?”

The Dagonite I had dragged along barked out a laugh. “More like liquid nitrogen cold.”

Adam rubbed his forehead. “Wonderful. I don’t—” the gargant roared again as its thrashings managed to collapse part of the ceiling on its hand. It wouldn’t actually hurt it, but it gave the others enough time to join us. “I don’t suppose anyone has liquid nitrogen on hand?”

Pam plopped next to me casually, opposite of the spot Simon and Yolanda had chosen, seemingly unconcerned about the amount of danger she was in. “Why should we even bother? Let the gargants run wild.”

Everyone stared at her.

She didn’t seem to care. “Think about it. The monsters—all the monsters—fill a vital role in the city, by melting away weakness in the crucible of battle. Hell, the screamers are the same way. The weak get killed, and the strong—”

Every single gun in the room was suddenly pointed at her face. Including her own; she had left it on the ground next to me, and I snatched it up.

“Stop talking,” I said, speaking for everyone. “Right now.”

The red-haired girl scowled and looked away, muttering something about how we were all sheep.

I lowered her gun slowly and took a deep breath. “Okay, so any chance anyone knows a place nearby that would have something cold enough? Actual liquid nitrogen would be best.”

The green-haired man nodded. “There’s a Niflheim outpost down the street. They probably have something.”

“You moron,” the Dagonite muttered. “There are gargants attacking and you didn’t think to mention that there were frost giants nearby?”

The man shrugged uncomfortably. “Yeah. I’m not even supposed to know about it. What’s the big deal? I didn’t realize they could help until now.”

“No use crying over spilled milk,” Adam declared, checking his submachine gun. “If these guys are anything like an ogre I know, they’ll have lots more than just liquid nitrogen on hand. We just need to get there fast enough so that there’s something left to save.”

My brother finally spoke up. “We can’t all go. Some of us need to keep the iron-lord distracted.”

“I’ll go,” Veda said instantly. “I have some friends in the Nifs. I might be able to help.”

“And me, obviously,” Adam added.

I nodded. “I’ll go too, in case we need nighteyes. That should be enough.”

“Me too,” Jelena volunteered.

“No!” nearly everyone shouted at once. Well, not Adam, the Dagonite, or the green-haired baseline, but everyone else.

The Glasyan glanced around. “What the hell? Why not?”

Adam, bless his crazy little heart, managed to come up with a plausible lie before awkward silence fell. “Because if they have some lights to knock out vampires, this way we’ll only need to carry one back instead of two.” He shrugged. “Of course, you can still come if you want, but we’ll probably end up leaving you there.”

Jelena seemed to accept that. Good thing, too; we couldn’t have the fey watching through her eyes at a time like this.

“We should hurry,” Veda muttered, glancing at the gargant in our path. “It’s gonna pry the roof off sooner or later.”

Adam nodded. “Agreed. Everyone else, hide deeper in the store. There’s probably a back exit you can escape through if things get really bad. Let’s go. Uh…” he paused. “Green-hair—”

“My name is Eric.”

Adam didn’t miss a beat. “You’re right behind me. Stay close. The kemo and Seena are next. Everyone good?” We nodded. “Good, let’s go.”

The baseline led the way, keeping his gun trained on the gargant’s searching hand like a pro. The rest of us followed a bit hesitantly. After all, Veda didn’t have any weapons, and myself and our green-haired new friend only had pistols.

Getting out was easier than I expected. Avoiding the hand wasn’t too hard, and the shattered storefront meant we didn’t have to use one small exit. We just had to slip out the corner when the beast wasn’t looking.

The second we were outside, Eric pointed down the street in the direction the iron-lord had come from, and we set off. Behind us, our friends were still keeping the big metal ape occupied, and farther back the blind-rammer was still rooting around for something or other.

In front of us turned out to be a bigger problem. Although the street was empty of pedestrians, all of them having fled in the face of the fey’s monsters, they had left behind haphazardly-parked cars and a few burning wrecks. It would be impossible to get through it all quickly.

“Always the same,” Adam muttered under his breath. “One day I’ll find a disaster where everyone has parked carefully out of the way.”

I raised an eyebrow under my daygoggles. “Seen a lot of monster attacks recently?”

He ignored me. “We need to head to the rooftops. It will be faster that way.”

Our new friend Eric blanched. “I—I’m not good with heights. There’s an alley we can—”

Veda snorted impressively. Although it didn’t look like it from the outside, her nostrils were enhanced to give her sense of smell a boost, so when she wanted to, she could make a lot of noise. “Use the alleys, when there are fey around? C’mon, you know they’ll have monsters swarming down there. I’m with the baseline. Let’s go up.”

The green-haired man looked around nervously. “Maybe I could just tell you the way, and you could—”

But I had had enough of this. People were dying. Acrophobia was the least of our problems right now. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him towards the closest ‘scraper built with kemo’s handholds. This was kemo territory, so most of them were built to make climbing as easy as possible.

None of us had claws, of course, but we would be able to scramble up pretty easily. Each handhold was a few inches deep and wide; more than enough.

As Adam holstered his guns, I clambered up, going as fast as I could while still being careful. Which was actually pretty fast, despite my inexperience. The handholds made it only a little bit harder than using a ladder.

Even with Eric protesting the entire way up, it didn’t take more than ten minutes to go up thirty floors. Adam scanned the empty roof quickly, then nodded.

“Good. I was half expecting an ambush. Eric, which way?”

But the green-haired man was laying near the edge of the roof, gasping. He couldn’t hear us.

Veda’s furry ears twitched. “You know, maybe it wasn’t the best of ideas to drag him up here…”

“Well, too late now,” Adam noted. He grabbed the man by his disheveled collar. “Up and at ’em, buddy. Which way is the outpost?”

Our poor guide raised a trembling arm, pointing farther away from the rampaging gargants. As if on a signal, there was a great roar from behind us; I turned to see the iron-lord thrashing in a cloud of dust as more of the ‘scraper our friends were hiding in collapsed.

“We don’t have much time,” I warned. “We need to go now.”

“One second,” Adam promised. “Eric, what’s the address of the outpost?”

“Th-three seven two one. Should be the second-to-last building on this side of the street. The entire ‘scraper is theirs.”

The armed baseline patted him on the shoulder. “That’s all we need. Stay put, we’ll be back soon.”

If Eric responded, we didn’t hear it. Adam bounded off in the indicated direction, and it was all Veda and I could do to keep up. Not bad for a baseline.

If this wasn’t kemo territory, our rooftop flight would have been significantly slower. However, for most of their subcultures running on roofs was only slightly less common than running along the streets, so most buildings were designed to accommodate that. Zip lines, simple bridges…all sorts of nifty little things sped us on our way.

Besides, we didn’t have all that far to go, really. Five jumps later, we landed on the roof of the second-to-last ‘scraper.

I glanced at the street address helpfully painted on a small sign near the edge. “This is it. Should we climb down to street level, or just use the stairs?”

After thinking for a moment, Adam proclaimed “Stairs. Less chance the fey are watching up here, and the giants probably won’t be able to ambush us from this direction. At least, not before we’ve had a chance to explain ourselves.” He nodded at the stairwell in the middle of the roof, protected by a large metal door. “Can one of you girls pick that?”

Veda sauntered over to the door, removing a lockpick set from her pocket. I had left mine at home, so I didn’t bother trying to do it myself. The alarm would sound once she started, of course, but hopefully we’d still have time to explain ourselves before the Nifs started shooting.

“You going to be fine with just that?” Adam asked as we waited, indicating Pam’s pistol, which I had taken with me. “You probably need a higher caliber for giants.”

I shrugged. “Hopefully, we won’t need to shoot at all.”

The baseline laughed heartily, then stopped suddenly when he noticed I wasn’t joining in. “Wait, you’re serious?”

I frowned. “Yeah, of course. There’s a fey attack nearby, I’m sure the Nifs will see reason.”

He snorted and checked his submachine gun. “This is the same city where people were perfectly willing to fight a civil war while a zombie apocalypse dropped on their heads. Somehow, I don’t think a couple gargants will be enough to convince these guys we need to work together.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Veda called. We looked over to see that she had gotten the door open. “They’ll be here soon.” She stood to the side, to let us go first. Made sense; she wasn’t armed.

Adam brushed past her quickly, gun raised, with me close behind. A few seconds after I entered the stairwell, I heard Veda’s feet behind me, and then the door closed.

It was dark enough so that I couldn’t see with my daygoggles on. As we exited the stairwell I moved them to my forehead, making it seem like the entire room was lit as bright as day. My eyes watered a little, and I blinked to clear them, but they slowly adjusted. The room wasn’t very big, and was mostly empty except for what looked like the remains of an unmanned barricade oriented towards the stairs we had just exited.

Adam noticed my discomfort. “I can see well enough. You might want to leave the goggles on.”

I shook my head. “No, we’ll need the advantage. Besides, I’d be basically blind with them on.”

“I think you’re blind enough without them.”

Adam instantly turned his gun on the man who had spoken; a small Mexican boy with angry eyes, nonchalantly standing in the doorway to the next room. It took me a second to recognize him.

“Kevin?” I said. I motioned for Adam to lower his gun; he did so grudgingly. “What are you doing here?”

My brother’s roommate shrugged as he holstered his Raaze on his hip. “Seemed like a good spot to hide. You?”

“Looking for something to stop those gargants outside.”

“Isn’t there a gun shop nearby?” a friendly voice from behind Kevin said. The smaller man stepped aside, and Steve walked through the doorway. My brain did a double take. Was he a giant? He was almost big enough, but I had always assumed the dark-skinned baseline was…well, baseline.

Veda managed to get me back to the matter at hand just by answering the man’s question. “It’s a blind-rammer and an iron-lord. It’s gonna take a bit more than a couple god slayers.”

Steve frowned. I think it was the first time I hadn’t seen him smiling. “Blind-rammer…those are the gargant trackers, right? They hunt something down by scent? What are they looking for?”

I shrugged, which seemed to be enough of an answer for him. Who knew what the fey ever wanted?

“It’s not important,” Adam said decisively. “We need to talk to whoever is in charge of this outpost. Get something that can kill the iron-lord, at least.”

Kevin nodded. “Fair enough. I know the Colossus in charge, I’ll take you to him.” He headed back to the stairwell we had just exited and quickly disappeared downstairs.

I was almost too surprised to follow. He knew the local warlord? It really seemed more logical to assume Steve.

The large man seemed to understand my confusion. As he walked over to the stairs, he shrugged, giving me a silly little grin. “Don’t look at me. I just followed him here. I don’t know anything about the place.”

I shook my head to clear away distracting thoughts and followed the rest of the group down. There would be time for all that later.

Kevin led us down to the third floor from the bottom, where the Nifs seemed to have decided to make their stand. I had to put my daygoggles back on because of the light, but that was about the only problem. The giants parted to let us through, apparently trusting Kevin wasn’t leading enemies into their base.

There weren’t that many, maybe half a dozen. But all the giants were bare chested and heavily armed with weapons that looked too big for me to even lift. At first I was a bit surprised by their choice of clothing—or lack thereof—but then I noticed them sweating and realized what it was.

Nifs liked cold weather, and usually kept their bases at around freezing. However, this outpost had apparently been a secret, so they were forced to keep everything at normal temperature to avoid arousing suspicions. The cool room must have felt like a sauna to them.

Kevin glanced around, frowning. “Where’s Eva?” he asked the giants. “I need to talk to her about something.”

The biggest one, a bearded man almost eight feet tall, shrugged and rested his shotgun on his shoulder. At least I think it was a shotgun. It was big enough to be mistaken for a missile launcher. “She left the second the gargants attacked. Said she wasn’t going to let them kill people.”

My brother’s small roommate—made even smaller by the giants surrounding him—cursed under his breath. “Titan’s testes. Of course she did. And why didn’t she bring the rest of you? She couldn’t believe she’d have a chance on her own.”

“She thought a half-dozen Nifs appearing in the middle of kemo territory would be suspicious.”

I frowned. “Makes sense. Who’s domain is this, anyway?” While some of the domains were mostly permanent, such as the skyscrapers belonging to the vampires or angels, most of them were fluid, and changed every few weeks as the subcultures gained and lost territory. This area was generally kemo, but other than that I didn’t pay attention to who was in charge.

“Canes,” he explained. “Since a couple weeks ago.” He shrugged. “It’s actually been pretty quiet over here. Nothing really worth fighting for, not with the screamers distracting everyone.”

Adam rubbed his forehead. “The politics and so on are interesting—really, they are—but we need weapons. You got some kind of…” he wiggled his hand back and forth. “Liquid nitrogen…thing?”

The giant snorted. “I wish. Nothing but basic air conditioning, and that died during the last attack. We do have some rocket launchers, but those aren’t gonna be enough.”

Veda scratched her chin. “Maybe…depending on what kind of air conditioning set up you have, I might be able to rig something…”

Adam glanced at her in surprise. “Really? You can do that?”

The cherve rolled her eyes. “Don’t act so surprised. You don’t know anything about me. I’m majoring in Military Engineering, and my main class this semester is Scavenging and Repair. If the air conditioner isn’t enough, I’ll build you a nuke out of a few sticks of gum.”

The baseline took the joke in stride. “No nukes, please. We’re trying to save the area, not level the entire city.” He nodded to the giant who had been speaking. “Honored Titan, please, show my friend to your air conditioner.”

The titan signaled to one of his men, who gently pulled Veda in the direction of the stairs. As they started going up, she turned back. “I’ll also need some tools and those rocket launchers, if anyone wants me to do anything useful.”

Adam glanced at the titan, who nodded. He turned back to the kemo. “It will be up in a minute. Just do your best.”

Veda grinned. “My best? Of course not. You already said no nukes.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 94)

Not much to say about this one, really. I think it came out well, though.

EDIT:  For some reason, this missed its scheduled update.  Gonna have to look into that.

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Newspost

Newspost 3/25/2013

We’re in the middle of some site updates at the moment, as you may have noticed. Everything should work perfectly now, but please let me know if you encounter any problems.

Speaking of letting me know, one of the major changes was getting rid of Akismet! Akismet is a notorious spam blocker that came with my site when I first made it. If you ever commented on the site and it never showed up, that’s because Akismet decided your comment was spam and deleted it. I never even got to see it. I’m using a new blocker now; there should be a simple checkbox when you make a comment. Check it to certify that you are not a spammer, and I’ll be able to moderate your comment soon.

You will also be seeing a new type of ad soon: Project Wonderful! It is a wonderful project (see what I did there?) that is much, much easier on the publishers than the clunky Google ads, or the WordPress ones I was using previously. It also means anyone with a Project Wonderful account can bid on an adspace. In fact, you probably found this site in the first place through one of my Project Wonderful ads.

That’s all for now! Hopefully the new design was worth the trouble.

Scene 93 – Expertus

EXPERTUS

SIMON

It was Friday afternoon, two days since Yolanda and I started dating. It was going better than I expected; most of my relationships crashed and burned by this point. Either they decided I wasn’t worth dealing with, or I accidentally insulted them, or they turned out to be a lesbian. Okay, that last one only happened once, and at least Jelena and I were still friends.

So I was understandably concerned when she called me this morning, saying she wanted to talk. I was terrified that I had done something wrong again, and this would go the same way as all my other relationships. Or maybe she was pregnant. That was never fun.

Thankfully, it turned out to be just poor word choice on her part.

The bland baseline reached across the table to shake my hand. “Hi, I’m Adam. I’m in Applied Firearms with Yolanda.”

I shook his hand a little hesitantly. He had a good strong grip, which wasn’t unexpected for a gunner, but I was still reeling.

“Sorry,” I said slowly. “I…” I glanced at Yolanda; she was smiling innocently. I turned my attention back to her friend. “Sorry. Didn’t really know what to expect.”

He grinned. “Living in this city, I’d assume you’d learn to expect anything.”

“Well, that’s just it. You’re not from the city, are you?” I shrugged. “I guess I was just expecting something other than a baseline.”

“That’s pretty much exactly what outsiders are,” Yolanda noted with a smile.

“Except for the cyborgs,” Adam noted mildly, as he sipped his coffee. “About sixty percent of the population has metal bits instead of fleshy ones.”

I stared…then frowned. “And now you’re just screwing with me.”

He grinned over his coffee cup. “And you’re smarter than you look.”

I rubbed my forehead, between my horns. “Oh, this is going to be…interesting.”

Yolanda gripped my hand. “Simon, be nice.”

Adam put his coffee down, frowning. “Wait, Simon…I’ve heard that name before.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, yeah. Not exactly rare.”

“No, that’s not it.” He reached into his pocket, searching for something. “She said a purple demon named Simon…crap, what was the last name?” He retrieved a slip of crumpled paper and glanced at it. “…Lancaster?”

Now it was my turn to frown. “Yeah, that’s me. What’s the problem?”

He rubbed his forehead, muttering curses under his breath. “Uh…I’m a friend of Laura’s. Laura Medina? You guys knew each other from…somewhere.”

“Yeah, from before she moved.” The waitress placed my drink in front of me; I thanked her and took a sip. “Ack, too hot…sorry, but why did Laura tell you about me?”

“She, uh…” he floundered for a second before finding the right words. “I’ve only met like three people beyond my roommate and my girlfriend, so she keeps trying to introduce me to new people.”

I blinked. “You’re dating Laura?”

Thankfully he had only just started reaching for his drink; otherwise he would have probably spat it all over us in surprise. “Wait, what—no, no! I’m dating Lily! Lily, uh…” He frowned. “You know, its really hard to describe people when half of you don’t have last names.”

Yolanda chuckled. “Don’t worry, we know who you’re talking about.”

I was still skeptical. “You’re the baseline she’s dating?”

“Um…yes.” He scratched briefly behind his ear. “Why?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, I kinda figured it was just a stupid rumor. She’s never gone steady with anyone before.” I paused, thinking. “Unless Malcanthet counts.”

“She doesn’t,” Yolanda said immediately and firmly. “By any stretch of the definition. How could you even think that?”

I winced. “I just…c’mon, from a certain point of view—”

“No. Not from any point of view. Seriously, where’d you get your info? The gossip blogs?”

I sighed. “Let’s just drop it, okay?”

Adam, thankfully, swooped in quickly to help change the subject. “Laura mentioned you have a sister, Simon. Where’s she?”

I latched on to the distraction quickly. “Seena? She’s off with her culture right now. Probably more training.”

He took another sip of his coffee. I noticed that he had a small white cloth concealed in his hand. What was that for? Was he worried about spills or something? “Laura said she’s a vampire.”

“Yeah, a Mal. Got recruited right before school started.”

“Can’t say I know them.”

I blinked, surprised. The Mals weren’t exactly a huge subculture, but still…then I nodded in understanding. “Ah, right, most of what you’ve heard about the cultures would be through Lily. She doesn’t like talking about the Mals.”

The baseline frowned. “Really? What’s so bad about them? I mean, she avoids any talk of succubi or daevas like the plague, but—”

“The Mals are assassins,” Yolanda explained. She waved her hand airily. “Lily has some weird thing about that. Doesn’t even think about it if she has to.” She bit her lip adorably and turned to me. “There’s a word for that. I just can’t recall…”

I closed my eyes, trying to remember. “Starts with a ‘p,’ I think…”

“Pacifism?”

I snapped my fingers and pointed at Adam. “Yes, that’s it. She’s a pacifist.”

The baseline stared at each of us in turn. Then he just shook his head. “This goddamned city…”

Yolanda cocked her head questioningly.

He waved the hand that wasn’t holding his coffee—which, I noticed, also had a small white rag concealed. “Don’t worry about it. So you’re a…”

“Sibriex,” I explained. “We invent new ways to use the toy maker. Or…well, the rest of the culture does. I’m really not very good at it.”

He sipped briefly from his coffee. “I thought that was a vampire subculture.”

“You’re probably thinking of the Glasyans. And yeah, they’re basically the same, but for vampires.”

The waitress, a dae with a big bushy tail, sashayed up to the table with an empty glass pitcher balanced on a tray. “You guys all right? Anything else I can get you?”

I smiled politely. “Ah…no. We’re fine, thanks.”

“Well, let me know.” She turned to go.

Turned a little too fast, actually. Her tail smacked me full in the face. I spluttered as hair got in my mouth, and started flailing around, trying to push it away.

That was the exact wrong thing to do. I knocked her off balance, and the platter immediately went flying. She yelped and dodged to the side, while the pitcher landed on the table and shattered.

Glass went flying everywhere. I tried to shield Yolanda, and got small pieces in my back for my trouble. Thankfully it was some kind of safety glass, so it broke it little pebbles rather than razor-sharp shards, but it still hurt like hell.

“God, you guys okay?” I turned to see Adam rushing forward, my enhanced eyes spotting something glinting in both of his fists, still gripping those little white towels. What the hell? Was he coming at us with knives?

I would never learn the answer to that question, because a split second after he leaped out of his chair, a roar shook the entire building.

I looked behind me, past the dae waitress still cowering on the floor, to see what all the fuss was about. It was a street-level open air cafe, so I had a pretty good view of what was going on.

It was a gargant.

A massive one.

It was bigger than a bus—had to be at least thirty feet long and fifteen tall. It had six legs, each as thick as a tree trunk, splayed about its body. Its belly was low to the ground, and a rational part of my mind noted that this probably indicated it was built from some kind of lizard.

It didn’t have a tail, but its entire body was covered in thick plates of cartilage, fitting together like the scales of a crocodile. These were a dull yellow, giving the impression the gargant was armored in gold.

The most distinctive part of its anatomy, however, was the creature’s head. It had no eyes or mouth, and no visible nostrils—though I knew from my studies that there would be a large number of very small ones scattered around its skull. The gargant was blind and deaf, but that was intentional.

I knew from my time with the sibriex that it was a blind-rammer gargant. Not the most dangerous creation of the fey, but dangerous enough, and very hard to kill. But something about it bothered me…

I tabled my thoughts about the gargant itself for the moment, cursing my luck at having been caught in a fey attack. They liked doing one big attack a day—each—so it was inevitable to get caught up in one every once in a while, but they usually didn’t use full gargants.

The beast stumbled forward into a storefront, thankfully one that had anticipated its arrival and evacuated. Metal screeched as the gargant broke concrete and twisted the rebar supports, nosing through the crushed window for…something. What, exactly, was unclear. Blind-rammer gargants were quite rare, so there was little data on the reasons behind their behavior patters.

It was clearly seeking something, though what was impossible to say for certain. Maybe it was trying to track something by smell? It was pretty much the only sense the poor thing had left.

“Grace, get up,” I heard from behind me. I turned to see Adam helping our waitress to her feet. “You need to run.”

The dae blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Run until you can contact MC. Quickly.”

The girl fished for something in her pockets, presumably her phone. “What are you talking about? I can just—”

“The phone’s are down,” the baseline insisted. “I already tried. This is not a random attack.”

The kemo swallowed, then nodded and ran in the opposite direction of the rampaging behemoth.

I mentally noted the fact that Adam seemed to know our clumsy waitress—I was starting to get more than a little suspicious of him, but there were more important things to worry about at the moment. “You think the fey sent this one?”

“Obviously,” he said as he plopped his gun case on the table, opened it up, and took out a massive shotgun. He checked it briefly, then started belting on a bandolier and holster. “But yes, I do think they sent it here for someone specific.”

“That’s what I meant,” I corrected myself. “Obviously the fey sent it. But who for?”

“Damned if I know. Crap, I knew I should have bought more god slayers when I had the chance…”

“Wouldn’t do much good here,” Yolanda muttered. She was clinging to me very tightly, but was otherwise composed. She wasn’t even trembling. Or maybe I just couldn’t feel it under my trembling. “Unless you can get a round through one of its nostrils, we’re pretty much out of luck.”

Adam muttered a curse under his breath. “Not likely. I’m not all that accurate. If Kat was here…” he stopped suddenly.

“Kat?” I asked after a moment.

“Friend of mine,” he explained. “Got too close to some screamers—the bats, actually—and got turned.”

Yolanda winced. “Sorry to hear that. Maybe there’s a cure…”

“Maybe we should save that for later,” I reminded them. “The gargant is coming this way.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t charging yet; it was just lumbering forward, head to the street, sniffing for something. Everyone else had already fled to safety behind it, where it had already searched, but there were still a few of us in front of it. And if we tried to run past it on the relatively narrow street, it would sense us through the vibrations, and likely attack outright.

I glanced around at the other cafe patrons, hoping to see some better weapons, but we didn’t seem to be in luck. Pretty much everyone had a few guns, and there were some nice big shotguns, but the only thing heavy enough to breach its hide would be a missile—and no one carried those around.

Too bad we were in kemo territory. If this were a giant domain, there probably would have been a few missile launchers or portable anti-air weapons stashed around. Something that would have been effective against a blind-rammer, at least.

Well, we didn’t have a chance, and thankfully Adam realized that. He started ordering the shocked patrons away from the lumbering beast while I was still standing around wondering what had happened with the dae. If this had been a random attack, he probably would have saved us all.

Unfortunately, it was not, and crazy as they are, the fey are still quite intelligent when they have reason to be.

The gargant roared again, and I finally realized what had been itching my brain for the past five minutes.

Blind-rammers couldn’t roar. They didn’t have mouths.

Iron-lord gargants, however, could.

Coming around the corner from the other direction, right in the path we were fleeing, was a massive ape-shaped creature, fifty feet tall easily. It knuckle-walked forward hesitantly, eying the screaming and panicking little humans at its feet warily.

A giant ape wouldn’t be that difficult to beat, especially at that size. Take out the knees, and its own weight would quickly do what no amount of bullets could do. That’s why you didn’t see ape-rager gargants and their ilk around any more; everyone knew how to kill them, so the fey didn’t bother making them.

This was far more than a giant ape.

Its flesh was iron.

Thousands, maybe millions of tiny plates of steel were stitched to its skin, so small and so fine that at first glance the creature appeared to be made of metal. I don’t know what arcane process the fey used to get around the Square-Cube Law, but apparently it wasn’t easy, since iron-lord gargants were some of the only ones they used it on.

The ape-thing leaned forward, noon light gleaming off its shiny skull, and bit a pedestrian in half with its razor-sharp teeth.

Blood spewed everywhere, especially on the gargant’s face, and I could hear the sound of crunching bones over the constant screaming, as the beast slowly chewed its meal.

Over all the incoherent cries of terror, I heard a voice I recognized. “Simon!”

“Wait—Seena?”

My sister rushed forward, away from the iron-lord, a number of other people in tow. Some of them I didn’t recognize, and seemed to be random strangers she had grabbed to keep them safe, but I quickly spotted Pam, Veda, Jelena, Delphie, and Zusa.

“We’re cornered, and the phones aren’t working,” Pam said grimly, as my sister glomped me in a bear hug. Behind her, I watched Zusa curse and adjust her daygoggles. “Unless you have a couple tanks in your pocket, we need to find some place to hide.”

“This way,” Adam said with some conviction, dashing off to the right and hopefully out of the path of the gargants. The rest of us followed, and found ourselves ducking into an abandoned storefront. “With luck, the monsters will fight each other.”

“That’s your plan?” one of Seena’s rescues snorted in derision. “The fey use pheromones to control their pets. They don’t attack each other.”

“The Dagonite has the right of it,” another one admitted, a young green-haired man. “New plan, please.”

Seena blinked at the first speaker, looking him up and down. “You’re a Dagonite?”

The man wiggled his hand back and forth. Ish.

“Not really the time,” I reminded them. “Adam, any ideas?”

He frowned. “I’m not really…tactics are Laura’s area.”

I tried to keep my calm. I sure as hell wasn’t a strategist either, but he definitely sounded like he had a better chance at leading us out of this than me. I just had to convince him, first. “Laura isn’t here. What would she tell you to do if she was?”

The baseline thought for a moment, then indicated the clothing racks scattered around the store. “Roll those over to the front, make a barricade. We should be able to hold out until help arrives.”

“Do you really think that will help?” Zusa asked, in a tone of voice that very specifically did not imply that she thought Adam was a moron. She really was a born diplomat.

“It’s mostly a visual barricade,” Adam explained, as he started tugging the racks over. The rest of us leaped to help. “Hopefully they won’t notice us.”

There was a roar, and the storefront exploded inward, showering everyone in glittering pebbles of glass.

The iron-lord gargant poked its head in, searching with its bright eyes, and then reached in the store to try and grab some fresh victims. It was all I could do to shield Yolanda, and that would be only slightly more protection than tissue paper if the beast decided we were it’s target.

Nothing left to do but pray.

Behind the Scenes (scene 93)

Adam didn’t pull that “60%” figure out of nowhere; that’s the percentage of people in Domina who identify as part of one of the cultures. That doesn’t mean that’s the number of people who use the toy maker. Everyone uses the toy maker, except the changelings and the clays, who account for less than 0.1% of the population.

Extra update Wednesday to make up for all the site issues everyone has had to suffer through.

Scene 92 – Sanguis

SANGUIS

ADAM

I watched as Laura very carefully drew a vial of blood out of her own arm, then placed it in a large mass spectrometer.

At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. The paper she had handed me said that’s what she was supposed to do now. But I didn’t know what one looked like. How was I supposed to know she wasn’t tricking me?

“Adam,” she admonished without turning around. “You’re not paying attention.”

“What? Yes I am.”

“Lie.”

I sighed. That power of hers only seemed to work when it was most annoying. “Sorry. I just can’t really tell what you’re doing.”

“Testing my blood for Malcanthet’s masking agent.”

I waved my hand. “Yes, I know. And the lab instructions are clear enough. But I mean…” I indicated the dial she was adjusting on the machine. “Like that, right there. I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What does the paper say?” she asked with exaggerated patience.

I glanced at it. “’Adjust to nine percent power and auto-calibrate.”

She stepped aside so I could get to the machine. I walked up to get a closer look, and it did indeed see that the dial was at nine percent. Next to it was a small digital panel blinking ‘Auto-calibrate?’ with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ buttons below it.

“Happy now?” she asked, again with a sigh of strained patience.

“Very,” I replied. “Please continue.”

The pale girl nodded and stepped forward again.

She followed the rest of the instructions to the letter, as far as I could tell. The point of this exercise was to check if she was a sleeper, using me as an observer. Hopefully this would prove effective, but it would take time.

Laura’s current theory, that Malcanthet was the Composer, was not a pleasant one. I had heard enough stories about the Succubus Queen to know that things would only get worse from here on out.

The masking agents she used in her sleepers were apparently extremely complex. Chemicals masking chemicals masking chemicals. If you weren’t testing for it specifically, it was pretty much impossible to detect. Worse, it wouldn’t be too hard for her to just add another masking agent on top, which would make this entire exercise futile.

Laura assured me that was unlikely, mostly because the number of masking agents Malcanthet could use was dwindling. That didn’t really make me feel much better, since the number was still in the double digits, and we simply didn’t have the ability to check them all, but it seemed to calm her.

“You almost done down there?” a woman’s pleasant voice called down from upstairs. “I almost have dinner ready.”

“Just a few more minutes, Mrs Arrow,” Laura called back.

“Well, don’t take too long. The butter-crusts will get cold.” I heard the sound of the basement door closing.

I frowned. “Butter….crusts?”

“Shellfish cooked inside their shells with butter and spices,” Laura explained as she tapped a couple more buttons. “Veronica generally uses crabs.”

“Right. What else is there for you to do?”

“It needs about an hour to run, but we don’t need to be here for that. Just…” she tapped another key, which I’m pretty sure was the one the paper said. “Done.” She smiled. “C’mon. We can deal with the rest later.”

We walked upstairs into Obould’s house. It was really just a big apartment; ‘house’ might have been stretching it a little. But it certainly felt like one. It had that warm feeling of home, especially with the orc’s kids running around our feet. The two older ones, a pair of fourteen-year old twins, boy and girl, were a demon and a vampire, respectively, but everyone else was baseline. Mrs Arrow pulled a steaming metal sheet out of the oven, which did indeed seem to be carrying crabs, cut in half lengthwise and turned into bowls.

“Eat, eat,” she insisted. “The least I can do.”

Veronica looked a lot like a smaller version of Derek’s mother, although her skin was lighter. Apparently the two had grown up together, which probably meant she was Italian as well, but you couldn’t tell from her accent—or lack of one.

“Where’s your husband?” I asked as we sat down at the giant table. It was big enough to fit about forty people, but there were only seven right now. As I understood it, Obould was something like the landlord of the building, so he invited everyone over for holidays. It was a small skyscraper with big apartments; otherwise they would never fit.

“He’s off collecting specimens again,” the woman said with a roll of her eyes. “I probably should have told him you were using his lab, but it’s his loss.”

I frowned a little as I picked up one of the butter-crusts. It smelled good, at least. “Will he mind? We didn’t mean to be a nuisance—”

She laughed. “No, not at all. I meant he has to miss dinner, and you two.”

I had some difficulty with the chopsticks, but no one else seemed to notice, so I didn’t mention it, and ate my meal in silence. Mrs Arrow spent most of the time arguing with her children as they tried to talk their way out of chores. It was a nice background noise.

I eventually managed to finish my food. By that time, everyone else was already done, and chatting even more than before. After a minute, Laura glanced over.

“Done? Good. The tests should be done by now.” She stood up and carried her empty shell and chopsticks over to the sink.

Mrs Arrow scrambled up. “Oh, let me handle that, dear. You go finish your experiments.”

The sharp Spanish girl nodded gratefully, then headed back to the basement. I followed only a few steps behind.

“It’s done,” she said as she glanced at the machine. “Here, look for yourself.”

I grabbed the lab sheet again, and checked it against the readout. As far as I could tell, it looked like she was clean.

“I guess that’s the most we can hope for. What’s next?”

She pulled out the needles again. “I do the same to you. And while I’m doing that, you go get a sample from everyone else.”

I sat down and extended my arm, frowning. “Okay, who’s everyone?”

She tied some surgical tubing off on my arm. “Everyone close to us. Derek, Ling, Akane, Lizzy…” she paused. “Maria and my father, the retinue…everyone. I already did Doctor Clarke, but I couldn’t find Robyn. Oh, and I guess I should send you after Seena and Simon too…”

I bit my lip as she started drawing blood. “What…about Lily? She shouldn’t be a danger…right?”

“Yes and no,” Laura said slowly, probably realizing it was a sore subject. “On the one hand, she knows than to get into situations where she could get drugged, hypnotized, the whole process. On the other hand, Malcanthet is probably still very angry at her, specifically, for the Battle of Shendilavri.”

I winced, and not because of the needle. “I know, I know, but…”

“However, I already got her blood,” she explained. “I tested it at Clarke’s machines, and it came up clean, but I still have enough to do it again here.” She smiled as gently as she could, which wasn’t saying much. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

I sighed in something close to relief. She wasn’t quite clear yet, but close enough. “Okay. Okay, good. How should I get the samples? I’m guessing just asking is out.”

“Of course. Even the two of us knowing is still a risk. If she finds out our plans, things will start to go south.”

I snorted. That was an understatement.

“Start with the other Paladins,” she advised. “I doubt they’d be stupid enough, especially Akane and Derek, but we have to be sure. I can get my parents.”

I accepted the band-aid she offered and patched myself up. “Fair enough. I’ll be back in a few hours.” I grabbed the small box of syringes, already in a convenient carrying case.

“Don’t forget to label the samples,” she reminded me. “The last thing we need is to identify the wrong person as a sleeper.”

I nodded, and left.

Mrs. Arrow tried to get me to take some food with me, but I assured her I’d be back soon enough, which seemed to placate her. The second I got outside, I flipped open my phone.

“MC,” I said. “I need to know where the closest Paladins are.”

Her fake voice replied instantly. “That would be Miss Yu, about a mile north.”

“Thank you.” I hung up and started walking.

I could have caught a bus or a train, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Quite the opposite, actually. I kept expecting to get a call from Laura telling me that I was a sleeper, and they needed to lock me up so I didn’t hurt anyone.

We still weren’t completely certain, but the evidence was definitely pointing towards Malcanthet. Lily wasn’t going to be happy. I knew she wanted to put the Succubus Queen completely out of her mind. Finding out she was behind the recent attacks would not be good for her.

But what else could I do? Not tell her? Ridiculous. I had to. Sure, we had only been going out for about a month, but ‘By the way, your arch-nemesis is loose in the city again’ isn’t something you keep from people you care about.

I’d decide how to explain all that later. Right now I had to figure out how to get a syringe of blood out of a girl who could throw boulders at me, without her noticing.

The first thing that sprang to mind was knocking her out, but that was a bad idea. Short of giving her a concussion, the only way to neutralize her would be to drug her, which would probably screw with the test results.

Well…did Laura need an entire syringe? No, just a little bit. All I needed was a small sample.

The beginnings of a plan began to form in my mind.

“Adam?”

I looked up. I had walked for longer than I thought. Ling and Lizzy were standing in front of me, weighed down with shopping bags.

“MC called,” the little Chinese girl said. “Something about you wanting to see us?”

Ah. So we had met halfway. “Yeah, Laura said you guys were out shopping, and I was wondering if you got anything for Lily.”

Lizzy grinned. “Liar. You just want to know if we got anything for you.”

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I glanced around the sidewalk. It was about twilight, so there weren’t many people around, but still too many. “C’mon. Let’s find a cafe.”

“There’s one on the fifth floor,” Ling promised, ducking into the nearest building, with Lizzy close behind.

The first four floors were restaurants too, fast-food places. Normally in a configuration like this, the bottom floor would be the main area, with all the others bringing their food down when ordered. But for some reason—maybe because there wasn’t enough space out front, or maybe just poor planning—that wasn’t the case here. We had to take a thin staircase to the side up to the fifth floor.

We sat down at a table near the window, and the girls ordered some hot chocolate from the squirrel-kemo waitress. I didn’t get anything, mostly because I still had to figure out how to get the samples. It was going to be tricky, but I was pretty sure I could pull it off.

“You not thirsty?” Ling asked innocently, and I was pulled back to the matter at hand.

I shook my head to try and clear it. I had time to think later. “No, not really. Anyway, what’d you buy?”

“A dress,” Lizzy replied cheerfully, pulling out the item in question. It was a red, slinky thing, but I don’t really know enough about clothing to be sure if it would look good on her. “Luckily, I already had Lily’s size.”

I had a swarmbuster grenade, which shoots out plastic shards. It wouldn’t kill a human, but it would definitely make them bleed. Unfortunately, Ling could sense all solids. She’d notice that I was the one who used it, even if I just pulled the pin and dropped it under the table. Wait, didn’t she have to concentrate to do that? Not sure, but I couldn’t risk it.

“So…why did you buy it for her, again?” I knew why; Lizzy apparently just buys things, and eventually gifts them to people. But I needed to get her talking so I could have a minute to think.

While she went on about stimulating the economy and getting presents for her friends and so on, I scanned the room as subtly as I could. The cafe was pretty busy, mostly with vampires just getting up for the evening. No one looked at us sideways, though, since a lot of the customers were diurnals meeting up with their nocturnal friends.

The waitress carried drinks around precariously on a tray. Including…a large glass pitcher of water.

That was an answer. Not a perfect one, but I wasn’t exactly in a perfect situations here.

Ling turned to me. “What do you think?”

I hadn’t heard a word of their conversation, of course, but I know an opportunity when I see one. “I think I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”

“It’s next to the counter,” Lizzy advised. “Ask the barrister.”

Perfect.

I did as she suggested, timing my slow press through the table-crowded room to reach the door to the back (and presumably the bathrooms) at about the same time as the squirrel-waitress.

“Come here real quick,” I muttered. “I need a favor.”

She raised an eyebrow, and her bushy tail twitched. That was the only toy she had, as far as I could tell. “No. This is a respectable establishment.”

I rolled my eyes. “Not that, I promise. I just need to ask you something out of sight of my friends.”

She sighed and followed me around the corner.

“I just need you to break one of those pitchers near my friends,” I explained, the second they couldn’t see us.

The eyebrow arched again. “Why would I possibly do that?”

“Call MC. She’ll explain.”

The squirrel looked at me funny for a moment, but sighed, and pulled out her phone. “Hello, I’d like to speak to the real MC.”

“Tell her it’s regarding Laura’s tests,” I urged.

She glared at me. “It’s regarding Laura’s tests.”

She continued glaring at me for about ten seconds, until suddenly her expression transformed into one of surprise. “MC? Well—yes.” She looked me up and down. “Yes. He wants me to—well, all right then.” She closed the phone with a snap, a bewildered expression on her face.

“You’ll help,” I said, trying not to sound too smug.

“I’ll help,” she confirmed, still too shocked to say much else. “I’ll…be over in a few minutes.”

I returned to the table, feeling pretty good about myself.

“Did that waitress follow you into the bathroom?”

I blinked at Lizzy. She had noticed that?

“Ah, no. She went to the women’s.”

The bronze-skinned girl rolled her eyes. “Well, obviously. That’s what I meant.”

Thankfully, before she could say anything else, the squirrel kemo walked by, an empty glass pitcher balanced on a tray she was holding with one hand.

“Your drinks will be out in a minute,” she promised. “Was there anything else you needed?”

Both girls shook their heads, and I answered for them. “No, we’re good.”

She smiled. “Holler if you change your minds.” She turned to go, and I almost thought she had decided not to help.

Instead, her tail knocked into Lizzy.

Even though I knew it was faked, I could barely tell. Her squirrel tail wasn’t anywhere near as flexible as Lily’s demon one (though whether that was limitation of the technology or the girl’s finances, I wasn’t sure), and it was very bushy. It had probably taken her lots of practice to not bump into things; I imagine it wasn’t that difficult to do the opposite.

Lizzy cursed in a language I didn’t understand, flailing about and unintentionally completing the illusion. With a yelp, the waitress lost control of her tray. The pitcher slid off and shattered on the tabletop, shards flying everywhere.

I didn’t know if the girls were injured or not, but it didn’t matter. I grabbed a small hand towel in each hand, both covering a small pocketknife. Under the pretense of leaping up to help, I slashed both Ling and Lizzy near the upper shoulder, hopefully making it look like they had just been cut by flying glass.

“I am so so so sorry,” the waitress cried. “Let me—oh fur and fangs, you’re bleeding!”

She was good. The girl had a future in acting, if she cared.

“Let me get that,” I said, holding the knives with only two fingers each, and using the rest to hold the towels and mop at the wounds I made. I just needed to make sure not to mix them up.

“The one time I’m not wearing armor…” Ling muttered. “Lizzy, you okay?”

The amazon swallowed, and nodded. “I…think so. Can we just leave? Right now?”

“This is all my fault,” the waitress apologized frantically. “If there’s anything I can do—”

“Let us leave,” Lizzy replied instantly. “Right now.”

The manager had run over by this point. “Of course, of course. Next time you’re here, you will of course get free drinks—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ling brushed him off. “C’mon.”

We left quickly, only stopping once we were on the empty street outside.

“What are you doing?” I asked, noticing the girls had dumped out everything in their bags on the ground and were slowly putting it back in.

“Checking for broken glass,” Ling said bluntly. “I have half a mind to get that waitress fired.”

I really hoped it didn’t come to that. “She made a mistake. Happens to everyone.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she muttered. Having decided her purchases were as close to glass-free as she could get them, she picked up her bags and headed north.

“Where are you going?”

She turned to me, eyebrow raised. “Back to the dorms. You?”

I scrambled for an excuse. “Ah…no, I think I’m going to take a walk.” I jerked my thumb south, towards Obould’s place. “This way. I’ll see you both later. Be sure to get those wounds looked at.”

“We will,” Lizzy promised. “Good night.”

It took me about twenty minutes to get back to Laura, despite the fact that it was only two blocks away. I had to take a few small detours, mostly to avoid hungry-looking ghouls in dark alleys. I was armed, and confident in my abilities, but not that confident, and I didn’t want to risk contaminating my samples. I kept them in separate pockets the whole way, to make sure I didn’t get them mixed up.

“That was quick,” Mrs. Arrow commented when I walked through the open door. “You find what you were looking for?”

“Ah…yes. Is Laura…”

“Downstairs,” she assured me. I thanked her and headed to the basement.

The sharp-faced woman looked up as I came down the stairs. “I thought that was you. Good timing. Your results just came in. Looks like you’re clean. You get Ling’s sample?”

“And Lizzy’s. But…I had to use towels to do it. There was no way I would have been able to do it with the syringes.”

She cursed lightly under her breath. “Hardly ideal…you at least made sure they were clean, I trust?”

I nodded.

“Good,” she said, nodding in turn. “Then we should be able to get a good reading regardless.”

I pulled out the towels, in the small plastic baggies I had put them in, and carefully set them on the table. They weren’t ziplock bags; I wouldn’t have been able to get them closed without the girls noticing anyway.

“Left is Lizzy,” I explained. “Right is Ling.”

She examined them closely. “How, exactly, did you get the samples?”

I shrugged. “Recruited a waitress to break some glass near them, then cut them while they were distracted and daubed up the blood.”

She held up both samples carefully. The towels was pure white, without a drop of red.

“You missed,” she said flatly.

I cursed under my breath. Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 92)

Squirrel kemos are known as “daes.” The waitress (her name is Grace) is actually a chipmunk kemo, or daemarm, but no one really cares.

Scene 91 – Praeteritae

PRAETERITAE

KELLY

Alex ticked the names off on his fingers. “Barachiel, the Messenger. Domiel, the Mercy-Bringer. Erathoal the Seer, Pistis Sophia the Ascetic, Raziel the Crusader, and Sealtiel the Defender. And last is Zaphkiel, the Watcher.” He wiggled his fingers. “Those are the seven Arch-Saints. I’m not sure where you’re confused.”

George rubbed his forehead and lay back in the van. “Titan’s testes…I’m not an angel, and I’m not a vampire. Why would I care about your warlords?”

“Because it’s important?” The angel shook his head. “Look, not being to name all of them and their respective Heavens is understandable. But how could you ever mistake Lilith for one of them?”

“She doesn’t like being called that,” Sax noted absently from the driver’s seat.

I rolled my eyes. “She doesn’t like being called anything, it seems.”

“That’s not what I meant,” the giant insisted. “I thought she was a former angel. A fallen angel, you know? I wasn’t really paying attention back when everything was starting, so…” he shrugged. “I’m still a little behind the times.”

I frowned. “I thought you were at Bloody Thirteen.”

The giant shuddered, making the entire van tremble. “Don’t remind me of that, please.” He waved his hand. “But at the time, it seemed like just a new gang that was a bit crazier than usual. And besides, I wasn’t even with Necessarius back then. I was just a minor member of the Kongeegen party, working with the man who became Odin.”

Alex cocked his head to the side. “I thought you were more of an Iluvatar.”

“Sure, now. But the Kongs used to sound like a good idea.”

Well, this was getting interesting. “You know Odin?”

“Barely. Knew his sons a little better, but not by much. I never even talked to him after he became a giant. I got the package and everything, but I kinda went off on my own.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, nodding. “Gordok and all that, you mentioned…” I trailed off.

The van was surrounded by Belians.

How had we not seen them walk up?

It was high noon, but none of them were wearing daygoggles. They were all wincing at least a little, and were probably completely blinded by the sun. A normal vampire can adapt to even bright light over time, although they’ll still have headaches, but Belians had it worse. A lot of the drugs they took increased their light sensitivity.

Sax glanced around very carefully, trying not to move anything but his eyes. “I count six out front. Alex?”

“Six more in the back. We might be able to handle twelve blind chem-heads.”

“There will be six more, watching at a distance,” I said slowly, resisting the urge to scratch my fixer. “Probably armed with the remotes to the bombs these ones are carrying.”

“Titans…” George cursed. “They’re suicide bombers?”

“Depends on your definition. Suicide bombers usually know they have a bomb strapped to their chest. These guys probably didn’t even notice.” It was a popular tactic of the Belian warlords. Since their underlings were hooked on chems, that meant they were stupid and easily replaceable. Just kidnap some poor bastard off the street, give him a few chem-producing glands, and he’d be yours forever.

Alex glanced at me. We both knew what they wanted. Sax would too, but he still wouldn’t turn his head, in case it set them off.

“Once they’re distracted, drive off,” I ordered the changeling. “I’ll catch up.”

He grimaced. “No. They’ll—”

“They’ll do nothing.” I got out of the van and walked up to the first Belian.

She was a thin little slip of a girl, though I couldn’t tell if that was a side effect of the drugs or if it was something more natural. Other than the nighteyes and the fangs, she seemed normal. I did notice that blood stained her teeth, probably from biting her tongue or lips. Clearly, this was a newly-made vampire.

“Take me to your Noble,” I ordered, without showing any hesitation on my face.

The girl swayed a little, then nodded, and slowly turned around and headed away from the van. I was pleased to see the others following at a similar pace, freeing my friends.

I was still careful not to provoke the Belians. They might not be violent at the moment, but if I riled their blood, they’d tear me to pieces.

It only took a few minutes for them to lead me to our destination. It was an abandoned skyscraper, slated to be renovated tomorrow. Right now, however, it was completely empty, stripped down to the studs and concrete. I could see from one end to the other, since even the walls were gone. It looked like nothing so much as an empty parking garage.

A man sat in the very center of the first floor, far from any of the open windows, waiting patiently for his minions to bring me to him. He appeared as a white-haired middle-aged man, though it was impossible to determine his true age. He had blood-red skin, darkening to blue on his clawed hands, and wore loose black clothes with a high stand-up collar.

He smiled as I approached, standing to greet me. “Hello, hello…Kelly, is it?” His voice was smooth as silk, and only had the slightest trace of an accent.

I scowled. “No games, Chamo.”

He tutted softly and wagged a finger back and forth. “Don’t be so rude, my cel mic. You changed your name. I was just being polite.”

I hated his little pet names. My mother had been the only one allowed to call me cel mic. But I could endure his attentions for however long it took for the others to escape. “Let’s get down to the point. Why are you here?”

He sat down again with a sigh, wincing almost imperceptibly at the cheap folding chair he was using. “Noapte, you have no sense of decorum. Fine, right to the point.” He spread his hands wide. “Phlegethos is dying. With Belial dead, the Throne of Abriymoch is empty, and we cannot afford to have anyone fighting over it. Honored Naome is gone, suspected to be dead as well.”

I narrowed my eyes. “This has nothing to do with me, legate.”

He frowned. “Please, do not be obtuse. Your defection to Necessarius does not change who you are. We need every able fang we can find—and you are ever so able.”

“You don’t need me,” I insisted calmly. I indicated the Belians surrounding us. “You clearly have enough men. The court chemists are doing their job well enough.”

The vampire snorted in derision. “Men? These are not men, and you know it. They are sclavi, mindless slaves, nothing more. Zeabos and Zapan are…” he rubbed his forehead. “They are doing their best. But there is only one person who has ever been able to enjoy the benefits of both the physical chems and the mental ones at the same time.” His marble-black eyes met my own. “You.”

And things began to click into place once more. “You want a lab rat. I should have known.”

To my surprise, he waved his hand angrily. “Hardly, hardly. A list of your toys should be enough; we haven’t been able to find it at the domain, but at the very least the Nobles thought you might remember.”

“My mother had a copy. But—”

“Yes, it was likely destroyed in the Shendilavri Retaliation, I know. But all that is secondary.” He was starting to get a desperate look in his eyes, and it took a conscious effort of will to keep from taking a step back. “But even as a symbol…even as nothing more than a champion, you would be nepreţuit. Priceless, invaluable.”

“I’m not coming back. Period. Ask my mother if you want to know how she pulled off the trick. I sure as hell don’t know.”

Chamo narrowed his black eyes, but it would take more than that to intimidate me. I didn’t care if he commanded most of the subculture’s forces; I had never followed his orders.

He seemed to realize that at the same time I did, and instead of trying to cow me into submission, snapped his fingers.

His slaves strode forward, intent on capturing me, but I didn’t bother trying to flee.

I didn’t need to.

“Fii încă.”

All twelve of the drug-addled men and women stopped instantly at my command. They stood patiently, awaiting new orders.

Chamo, of course, wasn’t inclined to wait. He scowled and barked out a command of his own. “Sclavii! Prinde-o!”

His underlings didn’t move. They stood still as statues, obeying my order to the letter.

Chamo was sweating now, I could smell it. He was doing a good job of keeping it off his face, but that didn’t mean much against a nose like mine.

“Intraţi în formarea luptă,” I ordered. “Defensiv model, centrat pe mine.”

Again, they obeyed without hesitation, forming a screen between me and the increasingly terrified legate.

I managed to resist grinning at him, but only barely. Instead, I just raised an eyebrow. “Look, I can understand why you’re still using my mother’s behavior modification protocols. But at the very least, you should have sprung for a good pheromone buff.” I probably still would have been able to wrest them from his control, but it would have been harder.

“I will keep that in mind for the future,” he said slowly. I could hear his teeth grinding as he managed to keep himself from saying something stupid. He wasn’t a complete moron—far from it. He was a military genius, he just wasn’t used to fighting someone like me. He would not make a mistake like this again.

“You are going to give the warlords a message,” I explained patiently. “You are going to tell Balan, Bathym, Gaziel, and Gazra that I am not coming back. You will remind Zaebos and Zapan of the dangers of working with people like them.”

He nodded, perhaps a little too quickly. “Of course, I’ll tell them.”

I smiled cruelly, baring my fangs. “You don’t understand, Honorless Bloodsoaked,” I said, trying out the new insult Huntsman had developed a while back. “You are going to give the warlords a message. That is all.”

The vampire blinked, then, as realization dawned, leapt out of his chair and ran for the far exit.

“Prinde-l şi-l rupe în bucăţi.”

The sclavi bolted off as if shot from a gun, chasing after the fleeing nightstalker—ah, former nightstalker—with naked glee. He didn’t have the slightest chance of escaping them. Like most higher-ranked Belians, Chamo refused the physical-enhancing drugs and chems in favor of the mental-enhancing ones.

He tripped and stumbled, and the chem-heads were on him in a flash.

His screams echoed through the unfurbished building, bouncing off the concrete walls.

I didn’t have to stay. It would probably have been a good idea for me to run; the cries could attract attention.

But I stayed. I told myself it was because if you are going to murder someone, you should at least be willing to watch them die. But deep down, I knew the truth.

I suppose I was still a Belian after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 91)

I think this came out pretty well. Maybe too much name-dropping all around, but still.

Scene 90 – Apsurdis

APSURDUS

AKANE

“Akane?”

I froze at the sound of my name, and turned very, very slowly to face the man who had called out to me.

“Flynn,” I said, with what I thought was an admirable veneer of calm. “It’s been a while.”

“Yeah, it sure feels like that, huh? You only went to what…one class since—”

“Yes, well,” I interrupted, before he could finish. “Very busy. Don’t really have time for kendo.”

“Uh…yeah. I can imagine.” He fell silent.

I shifted on my feet, unable to look at him.

He had been helpful with the skins, both before the attack and after, of that there was no doubt. And that kiss…but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about him.

I shouldn’t be having this many problems. This was not supposed to be complicated. Derek—

I needed to stop bringing Derek into this. He was irrelevant. He had absolutely nothing to do with my love life. Never had.

“If you want to…” he trailed off.

I tried to finish for him. “…come to class more?”

He blinked. “What? No, I was going to ask if you wanted to go get coffee or something, but that’s a stupid idea…”

I shifted more. “Yeah, I don’t drink coffee…”

“Well, I know, that’s why I said it’s stupid.”

“Oh, I forgot I told you.”

“No, that’s understandable. I mean—”

“I can’t remember everything I say.”

“Right. Yeah.”

An awkward silence fell. It was debatable whether it was better or worse.

“Akane?”

Oh, thank Musashi himself. I turned to see Ling and Lizzy walking towards us, shopping bags under their shoulders.

The little blonde delinquent smiled. “I thought that was you. What’s up?”

I waved my hand in what I hoped was an offhand manner. “Oh…nothing. You?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, I was at soccer practice, but Laura apparently ran out on Lizzy before they finished shopping, so I had to step in to get the job done.”

We got some stuff for you too,” Lizzy said in her usual flawless Japanese. “Another sharpening kit—don’t look at me like that, this one is specifically for knives. We also found some coupons you might be interested in. But mostly, we got you lingerie.

I nearly choked. “Lingerie?

Ling brightened. “I understood that! Yeah, we got you lots of lingerie.” To my horror, she started rooting around in her bag. “Here’s some black lace, a see-through set, white lace—”

I rushed forward to try and stop her. At the very least, she shouldn’t be pulling these out in the middle of the sidewalk. It wasn’t particularly busy, but still.

Flynn tried to step in. “Uh…maybe we should do this somewhere else…”

Before Ling could react, I activated my speed, grabbed the bag, and ran towards the nearest alley. It was a stupid thing to do, with everyone around, but no one noticed. At least, no one started screaming in panic, so good enough.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ling hissed, glancing around as she followed me. “Are you crazy?”

Me?” I demanded. “You two…” I shook my head, unable to find the words.

Don’t be mad, Ken-chan,” Lizzy said soothingly. “It’s all right if you’re not at that stage yet. Everyone’s relationships advance differently.

I sputtered. “What are you—no. No, no, no!

Ling rolled her eyes, catching my tone well enough. “Here,” she declared, handing me another bag. “All yours.” She nodded at Flynn. “I’m sure you two will be very happy.” Then she grabbed Lizzy by the arm, turned on her heel, and walked away.

Flynn blinked at me. “Uh…”

I looked in the second bag with some trepidation.

Ah. Right. ‘Relationships.’

Behind the Scenes (90)

As you might expect, Japanese doesn’t really have a word for lingerie, other than “lingerie” with a Japanese accent (in all fairness, English did the same thing). That’s why Ling understood that part.

And yes, extra update Wednesday. This one just wasn’t going quite the way I intended.

Scene 89 – Auxilium

AUXILIUM

LING

“Thanks for coming on such short notice,” Lizzy said gratefully. “Laura ran off the second we grabbed Derek’s present. I don’t know what’s up with her.”

“No problem,” I replied honestly. “It’s the least I can do after all that with Turgay. Besides, I also need to get Derek something.”

“Anything specific in mind?” she asked as she held a yellow t-shirt up to me, checking for size. It was weird hanging out with her, and not just because we hadn’t done it before. She was a lot taller than me, and I still wasn’t quite used to it.

“I dunno…clothes?”

Her golden eyes twinkled. “For you or for him?”

I blinked. “What?”

She grinned mischievously. “Weeell…there are lingerie stores around her, so maybe…”

I was honestly surprised. She hadn’t struck me as someone who would notice that. Maybe there was more to her than met the eye. On the other hand, it would be nearly impossible for there not to be.

“I doubt it would work,” I admitted. “He’s not exactly tuned into that channel.”

She chuckled. “Yeah, something like that.”

“Anyway, I’m not sure I can pay for much. I barely have enough for food.”

She waved her hand. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll pay for everything.”

I frowned up at the bronze Amazon. “You don’t have to do that. I would prefer not getting anything rather than owing you more.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she insisted with a grin. “I think friends can afford to owe each other a few favors.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. “I…guess, but I mean…after all that with Turgay—”

She gave me a level stare. “Ling,” she proclaimed. “That was not a favor. That was just doing the right thing. You don’t owe me for that.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Becoming complicit in grand theft is doing the right thing?”

“More like spreading the toy box around is the right thing.” She licked her lips in an exaggerated way. “Can you imagine the implications?”

“Not really,” I admitted. “Cheaper healing and more anthros?”

Lizzy smiled. “A little more than that.” She opened her mouth to continue, but then bit her lip, reconsidering. “I don’t really understand it all. My agent is the one who’s really excited. She keeps going on about how it needs to be open sourced and so on, how it will completely reinvent society.”

“The toy maker already did that,” I pointed out. I indicated a nearby fel. “Or did you miss the memo?”

The Amazon just rolled her eyes and held up another shirt to me, green this time. “I mean beyond that. You saw the toy box, right? Didn’t you feel its potential?” She turned to grab another shirt.

I just stared at her. “Uh, no. No, I didn’t. I saw a shiny metal coffin.”

She turned back and blinked. “Really? Interesting. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence…”

I rubbed my forehead. “What?”

“Sorry, sorry,” she apologized. “It’s just that all my people who helped out mentioned a sort of power in the box. A feeling of infinity.” She shrugged. “Probably just all in their heads. They thought it was important, so it was.”

“I suppose,” I mused, as I took the newest shirt from her. It was a floral print, mostly with light colors. It looked nice, but I wasn’t sure how it would work with my skin tone. At least it matched my hair.

“Changing room is right over here,” Lizzy said as she dragged me to the corner of the boutique. “Let’s see how that looks.”

After I finished changing and was looking at myself in the mirror, a thought occurred to me. “Your people…the ones who got Turgay in touch with Soaring Eagle. They’re trustworthy, right?”

She just laughed. “Oh, yes, I can guarantee that. They wouldn’t rat you out if their lives depended on it.”

That made me distinctly uncomfortable, because I was pretty sure she wasn’t exaggerating. “That’s good, I guess. How are you so sure?”

“I select my agents and other support staff by loyalty,” she assured me, as she gently grabbed my shoulders and turned me a little, so I could see a better angle. “There’s so much I can’t do, I need people I can rely on.”

It really was a nice shirt. Tight too, emphasizing my chest (such as it was). “Like what? What can’t you do?”

“Can’t drive,” she admitted. “Never got the hang of it, although in Domina it’s not as big a deal as it would be elsewhere. I’m horrific with computers. They make no sense. And medicine. I need help in that area. A trustworthy doctor and someone to remind me to take the right pills. I always forget otherwise.” She shrugged. “Those are the big three.”

“How’d you even get into voice acting in the first place?” I took off the shirt and pulled on the next one. I was pretty sure I was going to get the floral one, but I wanted to check all my options first.

“Same way anyone gets into anything,” she said. “Did an audition, got chosen. I mean, isn’t that basically how you got your scholarship?”

I winced. “Not…quite. There was a lot more begging involved.” The second shirt wasn’t anywhere near as good. Purple just wasn’t my color. “AU doesn’t really have an big soccer program.”

Lizzy nodded. “I know how that is. You think you’ve found something big, and it turns out that you’re the only one who cares.”

That reminded me. “I asked before, but you never answered: What kind of things have you voiced?”

“Not much you would be interested in. Kids shows, mostly.”

“Laura said something about My Little Pony…”

“Yeah, exactly. Stuff like that.”

“Hm.” I selected another shirt from the pile. “Any anime?”

“A few. I was Amane in the new Gundam. And I played a minor side character in the new Lain movie.”

I blinked. “Huh, I saw Gundam. Didn’t recognize your voice.”

She cocked her head. “Really?”

“Well, now it sounds familiar,” I said, waving my hand. “I just didn’t make the connection until you pointed it out.”

“Well, you know how it is. Everyone sounds a little different in-character.”

“Not really,” I mused. “At least, not for you. I just hadn’t thought about it.”

“It’s not really important,” she declared. “You know what is?” She grinned wickedly. “Getting you some lingerie.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 89)

Short, but relevant.