Monthly Archives: April 2013

Scene 99 – Fides

FIDES

AKANE

Faith is what keeps me going. It’s all I have, really.

At first, it was faith in my father. Despite my mother’s disapproval, he would always tell me stories about our ancestors, about how our family protected the Tokugawa from all comers. I went to sleep dreaming of ancient warriors—most of whom were probably fictional.

When he died, I clung to the honor he had taught me like it was a lifeline. I cried myself to sleep every night, wishing for the world to right itself.

After four years, there wasn’t much faith left in me. Getting ridiculed for your beliefs by everyone—including your own mother—will do that to you. On the first day of middle school, some of my ‘friends’ cornered me and decided to start beating my honor with a baseball bat.

I came out of that stronger than before. My faith became stronger than steel, and I started truly embracing my family’s legacy, rather than just paying lip service. I got a sword—well, one was given to me—and started training. At first, I just did kendo, but after Derek’s debacle with the wrestling team, he suddenly had a lot more free time on his hands.

So we started doing missions.

A sword isn’t much use against a gun-wielding opponent smart enough to use range to his advantage, but we were slaying monsters, not people. Against a dumpster dog or an alley crawler, a sword is actually more effective than most firearms.

I trust my training. I trust my sword, I trust my skills, and now I trust my powers. I trust Laura and her tactics; she’s proven herself an able commander. I even trust Ling, although half the time it seems like I have to bail her out of trouble.

But most of all I trust Derek.

He has never led me wrong, not once. Oh, in the short term he makes mistakes, same as anyone else. He’s too trusting for his own good, which has led us into trouble before, and he’s not forgiving enough when someone tries to double-cross us. But I have never thought he was trying anything less than his best.

That’s what kept me going now, huddled in a small artificial cave under the street, waiting for our reservoirs to replenish.

“This isn’t going to work forever,” Ling warned. “I’m screwing with the ground too much. It will give soon.”

“When?” Derek asked, taking deep breaths to recover his energy.

The little delinquent shrugged. “Hard to tell. I don’t really have enough experience. Call it three more times, up and down.”

Derek nodded. “Then we’ll have to make do with that. Akane, any luck getting a signal?”

I shook my head. Ling had created a small tunnel, only a couple inches wide, directly above me in hopes of getting some cell reception. It wasn’t working, but then phones are rarely designed to work underground. Even the super phone Lori had given me for my birthday wasn’t up for the task.

He clicked his tongue in annoyance. “Fine. We’ll do this the hard way. Ling, take us up whenever you’re ready.”

She muttered something mutinous, but fell into horse stance and moved her arms up in a lifting motion, as if she was physically pushing us to the surface. There was a loud grinding sound, slightly undercut by a noise similar to mud flowing, as we slid upwards. The second light began to peek out from the top of the dome, Derek reactivated his shield, bathing us all in soft blue mist.

The screamers noticed us immediately as we rose from the ground, and started peppering the shield with lasers. The attacks were weak, but there were lots of them. Derek wouldn’t be able to hold the shield for more than a few minutes.

As we had already done a few times, I activated my speed just as Derek released his barrier for a moment. I ran out in that split second—more than long enough for me to get out—and started attacking the screamers with my sheathed sword. I used my speed sparingly, reserving it for when Derek flickered his shield again.

Fighting screamers, even ones with such a dangerous power, was actually almost ridiculously easy. They didn’t learn from their mistakes, didn’t seem to have any plan other than ‘attack.’ There were the defensive ones like Kat to worry about, which seemed to retain some measure of intelligence, but those were very rare. Not to mention that if you so much as look at a ‘defensive’ screamer wrong, it switches to ‘aggressive’ and stupid, and never switches back.

After two minutes, the shield flickered again, and I ran back inside. Before Ling had a chance to lower us underground again, every light went dead, all at once, like some massive switch was flipped.

I didn’t know the cause, but I know an opportunity when I see one. I tapped Derek on the shoulder and he let his shield fall completely. In the darkness it would only make us a target.

“Prioritize the singers,” he ordered. “Ling and I will handle the screamers.”

I nodded and headed off in the direction the singers had been last. I still couldn’t see very well, but my eyes were slowly adjusting, and I was still better off than the infected angels.

They tried to swarm me, but I was able to keep them at bay with wide two-handed slashes. I was tempted to unsheathe my blade and carve my way through the horde, but Derek wouldn’t like it, and I still didn’t know what had killed the lights again. They could come back at any moment.

So the moment I saw a clear path through, I activated my speed and took it.

I killed the first two singers on a single pass, but the next cluster was too far away to reach before my reservoir ran out. So I let my speed fade and rushed them normally. The first one, a glowling girl maybe a couple years younger than me, punched at me clumsily. I dodged without any real effort, and quickly skewered her through the heart, then spun away, taking my blade with me.

The second singer, a thin young man with gray skin and a shaved head, glared at me, still singing that unearthly tune, and tried to grab me. He had much better aim than the others; I couldn’t tell in the darkness, but he might have had normal eyes, which would explain it.

I wasn’t able to get my sword around in time, but long experience had taught me the solution to that problem. I flicked one of my knives at his eye, eliciting a scream of pain, and stepped forward to take off his head.

But singers are smarter than screamers, if only barely. This one managed to summon the intelligence to drop to the asphalt, dodging my strike by a hair’s breadth.

I cursed and jumped back a few steps, instinctively putting distance between us. That was a mistake. I could have finished him right then and there, but I was sloppy.

To my surprise, his next move wasn’t to charge me.

It was to rip the knife out of his eye.

He gripped it tightly in his hand, ready to use it against me. It was one of the double-bladed ones Maria had gotten me for my birthday, so it was cutting his hand pretty badly, but he didn’t seem to notice. He just advanced on me still singing, his remaining eye cunning and alert.

A knife might not sound like much against a sword, but it all depends on how you use it. A sword has obvious advantages in reach, but at the same time is harder to manipulate. An experienced knife-wielder is sometimes more dangerous than a swordsman, especially if they know where the important arteries are.

Not that it really mattered. Super speed would more than even the field. At full power, it would seem as though he was standing still, and I’d be able to slice his head as easily as pulling a dandelion.

I rushed forward at full speed, sword ready. We hadn’t measured my speed in a while, but I was moving at least twenty times normal, with a mind to match. Nothing and no one could hope to compete.

And yet he did.

A foot away from the singer, a field of light sprung up before me, just a soft glow, and I felt the sharp, tingling and burning sensation I recognized from my mission to North Island a few months ago. It felt like diving into a fire, and the more I pushed forward, the more it hurt. I veered off, let my speed die, and eyed the singer warily.

I knew that feeling. It was the very distinct pain of weaponized radiation—in this case, light, used as a sort of defensive wall.

I had grown sloppy. There wasn’t enough light for the screamers to utilize, but there was light, and apparently the singers were more powerful. But still, he shouldn’t have been smart enough to use his powers like that.

This wasn’t a singer. At least, not like the others. This one seemed to have retained all his intelligence. A ‘defensive’ singer. Laura had thought there might be some, but we hadn’t seen any until now.

Where had this one come from? He wasn’t like the others; even the defensive zombies had never been smart enough to directly counter my abilities before. This was someone well-trained and experienced in using his powers. Did that mean—

My brain was forced back to the matter at hand when the singer rushed forward, brandishing my knife.

I readied myself, falling into a defensive stance.

I had faith.

Behind the Scenes (scene 99)

A little bit more characterization for Akane. And next scene is the last of the light screamers (blinders? Lasers?), promise.

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Scene 98 – Musicae

MUSICAE

ADAM

I took out another singer with my Athena. Kelly and the rest of the retinue were busy keeping the screamers off Derek, but they’d overwhelm him soon. We were out of reach for the moment, on top of a short building, but that couldn’t last. The zombies were starting to notice us, and would start scaling the building pretty quickly.

I had tried shooting out the lights, but my aim wasn’t good enough, and the streetlights were only a small part of the problem anyway. Most of the glow—bright enough to illuminate the entire street as if it was day—came from inside the buildings.

At least we had found a way around the singers’ infection. We were all wearing big, bulky headphones that filtered through all the external noise, removed any hint of the song, and played it back for us. There was a lag of a few milliseconds, which was very dangerous in the middle of combat, but it was either that or stab out our own eardrums.

“Some Draculas will be here in about half an hour with an EMP,” MC said into my ear. “Can you hold out ’til then?”

I shot another singer in the chest. I wasn’t quite good enough to reliably get headshots. “Maybe. But Derek and the girls won’t, and if we try to protect them we’ll get swarmed too.”

There was a brief pause. “One sec, I think they’ve got an idea.”

I turned my gaze to Derek’s azure force field, flickering every time a laser struck it. The attacks were coming in faster, and it was clearly taxing him to keep up the shield. But then…

The street swallowed them.

The asphalt under their feet opened up, like a great big maw, and sealed itself up after they fell in. The screamers milled around in confusion for a few minutes, before they began to notice us again.

“MC,” I said as calmly as I could. “Are they all right?”

“Yeah. I mean, I can’t get a signal, so I’m not sure…”

I switched to my Caedes as the horde pressed closer. “But that was the plan, right?”

I could almost hear her nodding. “Yes, yes, that was the plan. In a few minutes, once their reservoirs are replenished, they’ll pop back up and sneak attack the horde.”

I frowned as I unleashed a barrage on some of the closer zombies. “But isn’t their only attack Ling? And she needs to conserve her strength.”

“Derek will flicker the shield long enough for Akane to run out and attack. I have stuff to do. Focus on the screamers in front of you.”

I nodded, slightly chastised. Derek knew what he was doing. I needed to stop asking questions. “Got it.”

“Oh, there is one more thing. Keep an eye out for Zaphkiel. We think he jumped the fence.”

I cursed under my breath. Wonderful. Now we had a crazy racist running around.

But I didn’t have time to worry about that. The screamers were scaling up the side of the building—though not all the structures in the area had handholds for easy climbing, enough did to make our lives annoying—and would be in laser range soon. We kept them at bay as best we could, but the angle was bad, and there were so many of them. It seemed like every angel in the district was turned.

We were forced away from the edge, where we put our back to a wall—the stairway down, to be exact. It wasn’t much protection, but at least we could flee inside if we had to.

Even though they were trying to kill us, I found the screamers’ attack interesting. It really did look like they grabbed rays of light and threw them at us, as if they were spears. Each laser caused a small, smoking explosion where it hit. The holes weren’t much bigger than those caused by a small-caliber firearm, but there were so many that they were dangerous enough.

“At least their aim sucks,” I muttered.

Surprisingly, it was George who answered. He hadn’t really spoken much since Kat was turned. “We need to fall back. Too many of them.”

Kelly hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “We can’t help Huntsman if we’re dead. Sax, the door.”

The Middle-Eastern changeling complied quickly, opening the roof access door and dodging inside. Alex was next, followed by Kelly and myself. George held the way for us, unleashing bursts of fire from his minigun to force the zombies back.

“George, now!” I called. He was the one who suggested running. Why wasn’t he running?

He ignored me, but as luck would have it, that was about the moment the screamers started to find their range. A laser struck him in the shoulder, throwing up a burst of acrid smoke and causing the ogre to bellow in pain. At the same time, a few more beams lanced forward, but the giant was already stumbling back into the dubious safety of the building.

I pulled the door shut behind him as fast as I could and sabotaged the lock, which should keep them from picking it. Yes, it sounds stupid to assume zombies can pick locks, but apparently everyone in the city can do it in their sleep, and it just took two seconds to jam it anyway. I stuck a bobby pin in and broke it off.

“Let’s secure the building,” Kelly said quickly, scratching that device on her left arm as she always did. “Or at least one floor.”

I glanced around as we came away from the stairs. It seemed as if the place was another office/apartment complex, which at least meant there would be lots of supplies to use to make the place defensible. Maybe even some ammo.

“We need to find…the manager’s office. He should have maps and floorplans…” I frowned when I realized what was bugging me about the place. “Why are there no signs?” There weren’t any names or numbers over the doors—or anywhere else, for that matter. I picked up a sheaf of paper off one of the cubicle desks. It seemed blank, but it had creases and other signs of use. There were a bunch of other similar papers scattered around.

Alex read over my shoulder. “’Staff meeting tomorrow at noon to discuss budgetary concerns.’” When she noticed me staring at her, she just shrugged. “Invisible ink. Also called angelscript. You need dayeyes to read it.”

“All right then. Lead on, Honored Daybreaker,” I said with a bow and a flourish.

She rolled her eyes, but led me to the manager’s office as requested.

It took a few minutes of scrambling through his drawers, but eventually we found a carefully-labeled floorplan. I couldn’t read it, of course, but Alex took a look at it.

“Exits are here, here, and here,” she said, pointing to them around the floor. “There’s a supply closet over here.”

“Kelly, you guys secure the exit,” I suggested. “We’ll look at the supplies.” The vampire waved us on, nursing a headache from the lights.

The odd thing about this building (not to mention most of the others in the area) was that there were lights everywhere. Every surface, including the floor, was covered in fluorescent light strips, usually shaped into aesthetic designs. It looked a lot like the patterns of an angel’s dayskin, actually.

Luckily, this place was built to accommodate people with baseline eyes as well, so while the lights were bright, they weren’t blinding. Alex said they were ‘angelic script,’ which was somehow distinct from angelscript, and used it to help us navigate.

“This is just a janitor’s closet,” she reminded me. “Don’t get your hopes up.” She started picking the lock, and after a few minutes it clicked open.

“Why does this city even bother with mechanical locks any more?” I muttered as she pulled open the door.

“There’s an electric sensor inside that’s much harder to defeat,” she explained. “It sets off a silent alarm. We don’t have to worry about it, but a real thief would have much more trouble trying to explain why he’s picking locks.”

I nodded and glanced around the closet. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like there was anything useful.

“Maybe the break room will have something,” I mused. Last time I was in this situation, I found a half-empty case of ammo in a break room. Just sitting there, next to some doughnuts. This city was pretty seriously messed up.

Alex laughed. “What? No, this is more than enough. Haven’t you spent enough time with Kelly to know by now?”

She handed me a bunch of cleaning supplies—bleach, windex, Comet…

I was having trouble holding it all. “Wait, hang on. What’s all this for?”

The androgynous angel grinned, picking up her own armful. “Kelly will mix it all together. Always remember: Belians are very good with chemistry.”

“I don’t think we need meth,” I complained as we walked back to the stairway, which the others had already blockaded pretty solidly.

She just smiled. “What you need is to have faith.”

Before I could retort, there was a knock on the barricade.

I glanced at Alex, and she nodded. She had heard it too.

The knock came again, a little louder this time. Something had come up the stairs and was trying to get in. Politely, too.

“Hello?” I called, putting down the chemicals and readying my shotgun just in case. “Who’s out there?”

There was a long pause, and for a moment I thought they had simply left.

Then the barricade exploded.

Wood from the tables flew everywhere in a blinding flurry. Something long and hard—probably one of the metal legs—clipped me in the shoulder, but I just shielded my face with my hand and stayed put, keeping my Saint George as steady as I could.

It only took a moment for the dust to clear.

And there was Zaphkiel, one of the highest angels in existence, standing there as if nothing was wrong.

He looked about the same as before, except his skin—all his skin—was softly glowing. His dayskin didn’t have any patterns, and for a moment, I was curious as to why.

But that question fled my mind when I noticed that he was screaming.

His jaw was open so wide it was practically unhinged, and his eyes tracked us with single-minded purpose. We couldn’t hear him; the headphones must have a glitch or something. They were filtering out that too. But he was definitely turned, there was no question about that.

I opened fire on him mostly out of reflex, hitting him full in the chest with a load of buckshot, but he didn’t so much as flinch. It didn’t even bruise his alabaster skin. Buckshot isn’t exactly designed for penetration, but it should have still had some effect.

Alex was uninjured from the explosion, but white as a sheet and trembling like a leaf. “A warlord…a warlord has been turned.”

Zaphkiel raised his hand in an aggressive gesture.

Without bothering to explain, I tackled Alex as fast as I could, throwing her out of the way and behind a desk just as the Saint’s laser exploded at the spot we had occupied moments before.

“We can’t kill him,” I muttered. “Angels will have our heads.” I glanced at Alex. “You got any ideas?”

But she was still trembling. “A warlord…”

I frowned. It would only be moments before the bigger angel realized where we had gone. At least he was as stupid as the others. “Alex, c’mon. How do we beat him?”

She swallowed visibly, and shook her head. “He…he’s a warlord. He stands a decent chance against armies.” She licked her lips, thinking. “Perhaps…perhaps Kelly…”

What the hell would she be able to do? Ah…the chemicals. But wherever the vampire was, it wasn’t here, and she probably wouldn’t be much use against someone built specifically to fight her kind anyway.

Looked like it was all up to me, as usual.

But I couldn’t kill him. Even if it was within my ability, he was probably the most important angel in the city. Laura’s little history lesson on the way over hadn’t been very detailed, but she had managed to get it into my head that Zaphkiel was the founder and leader of the culture. They would not take kindly to his death, however necessary it was.

My thoughts were interrupted as the floor next to me started burning.

It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t an attack. It looked like someone was writing with a pen that used fire for ink—in other words, a laser.

But that particular train of thought quickly screeched to a halt when I realized that the screamer was writing words.

I am the Composer, the scarred floor proclaimed. Join me.

I licked my lips nervously. I had to keep him talking. Unlikely as it might seem, Kelly and the others might be able to get us out of this. They’d be here soon enough.

“Join you?” I asked, trying to make it seem as though I was considering the offer. “And do what?”

Kill, the laser wrote.

I frowned. “Kill who?”

Anything. Everything.

“Any chance I can change your mind on that? Maybe you should get interested in sports.”

No. Tried that. Kill everything.

I stared, convinced I was misreading. This guy had decided to go omnicidal because he sucked at sports?

“Look, just because you fail once—”

The laser wrote again, faster and angrier. No. Tried everything. Love. Power. Wealth. Knowledge. None of it is of any interest. There is only killing.

“There’s other stuff besides killing,” I insisted. I really doubted I’d be able to reason with him, but I was the only one in a position to try.

To my surprise, Zaphkiel laughed. Oh? The laser wrote. Tell me, Adam Anders, other than killing, what has caught your interest lately?

I froze. Not because he had made some deep, cutting remark that made me question my entire life—no. That wasn’t it.

He knew my name.

Oh shit.

Apparently, he took my hesitation for something else entirely. Join me, and you can have the powers that were denied to you.

I answered before I could stop myself. “Wait, what? You can give me powers?” Then I realized my mistake, and I rolled my eyes. “Oh, yeah, like I want to spend the rest of my life as a zombie. No thanks.”

No. Not like this one. Like Derek, like Akane. Power, no strings attached. Just so long as you use it to kill.

I’d like to say that the offer wasn’t enticing. After all, a guy who made zombies was offering me vague promises of power; it was pretty clear where that ends.

But…

I had meant what I said when we first discovered these powers. I hadn’t wanted one. We didn’t know anything about them. But as time wore on, it was becoming increasingly clear that there were no downsides—at least none that popped up too soon.

I would like to say to that I would have turned him down, preferably giving him my reply in the form of a god slayer to the face.

But I would have said yes. If out of curiosity, if nothing else. It was just too interesting an offer to refuse, too much power for the taking. This story would have ended very differently, in that case.

But then the Draculas detonated their EMP, and all the lights went out, leaving only the warlord, glowing like a nightlight.

So I ran.

The fact that the retinue got out as well was nothing but a lucky coincidence.

Behind the Scenes (scene 98)

Angelscript is slightly more advanced than traditional invisible ink, though it does still show up under the right kinds of UV light.

Oh, and angelic script is actually a simple code based on the Hebrew alphabet, specifically Rashi script, combined with English. Alex’s dayskin, for example, is the Hebrew letter “G” for Gabriel, then the letter “N” for Night (not the Hebrew word for night, the English one). The rest is a poem about his character and personality. It gets repeated three times: Once on the left side of his body, one on the right, and once on his back.

Scene 97 – Caeli Ruina

CAELI RUINA

LING

“Ling,” a harsh voice called, while rough hands shook me. “Ling, wake up.”

“Nnngh?” I opened one eye a crack to see an annoyed Akane standing over me.

“Screamers again,” she said without preamble, and started dressing at super speed.

Now that I was awake and she had mentioned it, I could hear new screamers, far to the north. It was just hard to sift it all out from the background noise of the captured ones.

It had been a week and two days since the shopping trip with Lizzy, not to mention a little over two weeks since the last screamer attack—which, of course, I hadn’t participated in.

I was tired. It was barely even morning, sometime around two, and I had been up late playing with my armor. In fact, I had fallen asleep with it on, which hadn’t helped anything.

“Five more minutes,” I muttered.

I heard Akane step up to my bed. “By Musashi’s sword, that’s not happening.”

I instantly snapped awake as I felt her grab me by the torso and yank me out of bed at super speed, pulling me towards the open window.

Despite the danger, I couldn’t help noticing the strange sensations of super speed. Akane had never mentioned it, which was hardly a surprise. Maybe it was different for her, or maybe she just didn’t feel like talking about it. But for me, it felt like being dragged underwater. Warm and fluid, like every molecule of air was trying to hold me back.

Then she threw me out the window, and everything went back to normal.

Except the fact that I was falling thirty floors to my death, of course.

With the cold wind and burst of adrenaline, all thoughts of sleep were gone. Thankfully, I had enough experience with getting thrown in soccer that I didn’t waste any precious seconds screaming or flailing in terror.

The first thing I did was flip so that my feet were facing the ground, using my powers on the plates in my armor (which I thanked Tezuka I had worn to bed). Fighting gravity was more difficult. I had the power, no question, but that was part of the problem. I had too much power, so I usually just ended up sort of bobbing up and down until my reservoir ran out. When I was practicing, it was no big deal. Here, it was a matter of life and death.

Luckily, I had been practicing, and I was able to pull up on my armor with enough strength and control to slow me down. I still hit hard, and my ankles buckled under me, but I was alive. Sore, yes, but alive and kicking.

I settled onto my hands, breathing deeply and willing my jack-hammering heart to slow. Velvet hell, what was that? Even if Akane had known I was wearing my armor, it still seemed…like an overreaction. To say the least.

But I didn’t have time to get mad about it, I was sure, and I doubted anything good would come of confronting her about it later. I guess…I guess I’d just have to forget about it.

Yeah, forget about being thrown out a window. I’d get right on that.

Kelly appeared at my side within moments, her pistol held at the ready in a two-handed grip. “You okay? What happened?”

I shook my head. “I…” I sighed. “I decided to jump out the window. You know, as a test.”

The Belian raised an eyebrow. “Did you try to flirt with Derek around Akane again? I told you she’d fight back eventually.”

“No, actually,” I admitted, standing slowly. I was a little nauseous from the spinning on the way down, but it was fading fast. “I wouldn’t get out of bed.”

“So she threw you out the window?”

“She’s not a morning person.”

“I gathered.” The vampire glanced back at the van, scratching the fixer still strapped to her arm. “Well, whatever. I hope the others are down quick. The attack is at North Outer this time. Janelle is having a hell of a time.”

I didn’t know which Janelle she might be referring to, and that wasn’t the most important part anyway. “Where’s the attack? Exactly, I mean?”

“Chronias,” the vampire said flatly. “The Illuminated Heaven.”

The others came down quickly enough, and after a few questions about why I decided to jump out the window, we were off. Jarasax was insisting on driving faster than normal—which was saying something—and we were able to use some Necessarian shortcuts, but it still took nearly an hour and a half to reach our destination.

“How much longer?” Adam asked, glancing at the GPS on his phone. “We should be there already.”

“We are,” the driver said grimly, pulling to a stop next to a dark ‘scraper on an even darker block. Now that I was paying attention, I realized I hadn’t seen any lights for a few minutes. “This is it.”

I had already noticed the screamers were nearby, of course, but Adam didn’t have that luxury. We weren’t quite close enough to hear with normal senses yet.

“I thought we were stopping by Chronias?” Alex inquired. “The actual headquarters, not just the general domain.”

“We are,” the changeling repeated. He pointed to the skyscraper, over a hundred floors high and without a single light on. “That’s it.”

I think my heart stopped in my chest.

That…

That couldn’t be.

It was impossible.

Alex slid open the van’s door as fast as he could and stumbled outside, retching onto the unlit street.

Adam was just confused. “What’s wrong?”

Laura was the one who managed to answer. “What the hell do you think the angels’ sanctuary would look like, you moron?”

He glanced around at our horrified faces. “More…light, I guess?”

That was the understatement of the century. The Heavens were impossibly beautiful. Covered in mirrors and magnifying glasses stretching out from the central structure like the limbs of a tree, during the day Chronias reflected the sunlight with unspeakable perfection, looking like nothing so much as a giant tree made of light.

At night, depending on the state of the moon, artificial lights would be used to produce a similar effect, but even more striking. Without the sun to interfere, the light architects could craft even more impressive displays, such as a small-scale aurora borealis that would hang about the Heaven like a warm cloak. Even though the sky was overcast, the skyscraper should have been glowing bright enough to see for miles.

But it was dead. Completely dead, not even the smallest spark of light dancing in its heart. I might not have any love for the angels, but seeing them brought low so quickly…

“It’s not as bad as it looks.”

We all turned to see a demon, cloaked in soft red light from a lantern hanging from a staff he carried, standing on the street a few feet from Alex. He nodded to the dark ‘scraper. “The screamers here can manipulate light. They had to turn everything off, otherwise it would be like just handing a bomb to the enemy.”

That made sense, to everyone’s unimaginable relief. It also explained why all the other lights in the past few streets were off as well.

“The compound isn’t far,” the demon promised. “We actually saw you guys drive past.”

We all filed after him quickly enough, though Alex took some coaxing. He kept glancing back over his shoulder, as though to reassure himself the Heaven hadn’t crumbled into dust when he wasn’t looking.

It quickly became clear that we really had driven right past the ‘sarian redoubt. It was nestled in a wide alley just a few minutes walk from where we had stopped, out of sight of the road.

Once we clambered past a hastily-erected barricade made of parked cars—parked, not stacked—we found ourselves in a small tent city. The alley was nearly big enough to be a road itself, but it was a dead end with nothing important, so no one had bothered to give it a name.

The entire camp was illuminated by that same soft red light as before. It was nightlight; nothing special, just bright enough for baseline eyes to see, but not so bright to blind nighteyes.

I noticed that none of the armed men and women were angels, though only a small fraction wore Necessarian armbands. What few angels I did see were sitting on the ground, as though waiting for something.

Laura noticed the same thing. “The angels can’t see in this light?”

“Barely,” our guide answered as we navigated the small maze of tents. “They raised a fuss at first, but then some idiot daybroke over at Camp Beta, and the whole place was nearly destroyed. Quieted down, after that.”

Derek was the next with a question. “How many of these camps do you have?”

“Ten. Got about two hundred souls in each.”

Derek frowned. “I hope that’s more than it sounds.”

“Nope. There are about five hundred thousand people in the threatened area. There aren’t that many screaming yet, but that will change. They’re just hiding in their houses, that’s no defense.”

We had reached the end of the camp by now, blocked off by the back wall of a building. An old woman, maybe fifty years old, looked up from a table strewn with papers. “Thank you for getting them up to speed, Gavin. Return to your duties.”

The demon saluted, then left quickly.

The woman came out from behind the table, and even in the dull red light, it became clear she wasn’t baseline. Although her upper body was normal, her legs had been replaced—or, more accurately, fused together. Whatever the exact process, the result was a long, sinuous snake tail, which she used to slither over to us with ease.

“I am Admiral Janelle Ursler,” the ophidian said without preamble. “And you would be the Paladins. What do you need to know?”

“First, we need to know more details about the screamers,” Laura said, stepping into her role as strategist smoothly. “Gavin said they could control light. To what extent?”

“Also,” I couldn’t help myself asking. “Why is an admiral in charge?”

“They can shoot beams of light which explode on contact,” she said, ignoring my question. “Not a big explosion, not even enough to kill a man, but it adds up quickly. We’ve also spotted quite a few singers, which is how it’s spreading so fast. We killed a couple, but it hasn’t had much effect.”

Laura frowned. “I should have expected as much. I take it you killed any angels they captured? Otherwise, we’d have seen their light.”

“Actually, we found an alternative solution.”

We all turned to see a massive naked and androgynous angel stride forward with all the grace he could muster, despite the fact that he clearly couldn’t see more than two feet in front of him.

He was nearly seven feet tall, with unblemished alabaster skin, even in the dull glow of the nightlights. He was muscled like a championship boxer, but moved gracefully—again, even though he was basically blind.

I don’t pay too much attention to the angels, but even I recognized him.

Zaphkiel, the Watcher, founder of the angels. Arch-Saint of Chronias, warlord of the Illuminated Host. He hadn’t led a battle in years, but warlords spent millions on their bodies. I had no doubt that this man could fight off armies with his bare hands, half-blind or not.

But against an enemy that can infect you with a single drop of blood, he was powerless.

“We spread angelweight through the air,” he explained. “It negates the abilities of the dayskin, rendering the turned angels powerless.”

“I’ve heard about that,” Laura said slowly. “It’s a drug,” she explained for the benefit of the rest of us. “It works through skin contact, acts fast, with few side effects, and is very easy to cure.” She turned back to the warlord. “You have a stock of the Grace?”

The massive angel tapped what looked like a watch on his wrist. “Every angel in our domain has one of these. It is a simple matter to administer some Grace, which will cure the angelweight in minutes. However, the screamers are not intelligent enough to use it.”

“Inspired,” Derek admitted. “Hopefully, we can finish this up soon. With the drug distributed, the skies are safe, and we can spread some sleep gas around.”

“Can’t,” Laura cut in. “We’re out.”

I blinked. “The entire city is out of sleeping gas?”

She glared. “Yes, actually. They’ve been using a lot of it, to get the screamers to the prison facilities. And then a few days ago, the manufacturing plant shut down when one of the employees threw himself down a very important maintenance shaft.”

I shivered. That would be more sleepers, no doubt. Laura said she had something in the works regarding that, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence on that front. Villains don’t have their main plots foiled because a scientist finally figured out a cure or whatever. Maybe if this was a sub-plot…

Derek interrupted my thoughts with his accusatory tone. “You were going to mention this when?

Laura just rolled her eyes. “Until today, I had no reason to suspect it was anything but an accident. Silver and gold, it might have been. We still don’t know how the Composer works.”

The blond man opened his mouth to say something, then apparently decided not to bother arguing. “That’s a question for another time,” he said decisively. “Akane, Ling and I are going back the way we came, to see if we can make a dent in the screamers.”

I frowned. I hated being ordered around. The fact that his orders actually made sense made it easier to deal with, but only barely.

“Good luck,” Laura said. “And be careful.”

We left swiftly, finding our way back to the disturbingly dark Chronias within a few minutes. Once we were out of the nightlights, our eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness, but with the cloud cover, it was still only enough to see vague shapes.

“It’s times like this I wish I had nighteyes,” I muttered. That got a smile out of the others, but nothing else. It’s not like we had time to rectify that.

It wasn’t hard to find the screamers, even without any light. Even without our ability to sense them at a distance, we would have stumbled upon them soon enough.

There were a lot of them. A thousand, maybe more, just standing in the streets screaming. Apparently, without light to manipulate, they were largely helpless. Sure, they smashed windows and threw garbage cans around, but it was nothing a few small community cleanup projects wouldn’t fix. It almost seemed silly.

No. Silly wasn’t the right word. Petty. The Composer had a horde of night-blind, helpless screamers, and was angry about it. This was all he could do with them.

Which made me realize something.

“The Composer is going to be here soon with light,” I warned. “Or he’ll manage to use one of these to turn on a light switch.”

Akane shrugged. “Kill them before then, then.”

Derek shook his head. “No. No killing unless absolutely necessary. We can capture them, like the others.”

“No time, like Ling said,” Akane admonished with a frown. “On the clock here.”

“Then we’d better move fast.” His tone brooked no argument. He headed forward, into the crowd of blind, violent screamers, and we reluctantly followed.

It became clear that we didn’t even need to fight. Most of the zombies had dayeyes, and thus were completely nightblind, so all we had to do was be a little careful to keep out of their way. The majority of the civilians had apparently managed to keep away from the singers, which was definitely a good sign. Without a source of fresh bodies, this battle would just take time.

Time we didn’t have, unfortunately.

“Singers are in the middle,” Akane noted after a minute of moving very cautiously through the screamers, avoiding their flailing limbs by inches. “If we can kill them, this gets much easier.”

“Unless Derek insists we can’t kill them,” I muttered drily.

“We wouldn’t be able to carry them out,” Derek replied. “And with the package, nothing short of killing will keep them down for long. A few dozen deaths for a few thousand lives is an acceptable trade.”

That’s what he said, anyway. But the firm set of his shoulders and frustrated look in his eyes made it clear that he didn’t like the idea.

“Akane, scout ahead,” he ordered tersely, likely to distract himself.

She sped off without a word, while we followed at a slower pace. Stopping was out of the question; the zombies were easy enough to avoid while moving, but if we stayed in the same place they’d pile on us in seconds.

“Counted about a dozen,” the swordswoman informed us as she blurred to Derek’s side. “Probably more.”

Derek nodded. “Let’s kill them quickly. If we’re lucky, the screamers will be cured.”

It was a long shot, and everyone knew it, but there was still the chance.

But then the lights turned on.

I shielded my face against the sudden glare, but even half-blind I could tell what was going on. Every building along the street, every streetlight…the entire horde was suddenly bathed in light. On the other side of the street, opposite of where we came, I saw screamers maintaining a number of portable generators, which were probably hooked up to everything else.

And suddenly, the screamers could see us.

A trap. Wonderful. Should have known it was too easy.

Behind the Scenes (97)

I did actually research lasers and so on, but there’s only so much you can do in this situation. Physicists give you weird looks when you tell them you need to know how light would act when weaponized using fosikinesis.

Scene 96 – Sanguine Prima

SANGUINE PRIMA

ARTEMIS

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO

Isaac rushed over to a corner and retched, emptying his stomach of his last meal. For once, I was happy he didn’t eat much.

None of my soldiers so much as blinked. Considering how much they enjoyed poking fun at him, that said something all by itself. I suspected they were only barely holding back their own bile. Thankfully, I was able to control my own stomach.

The entire building looked like a slaughterhouse. Horrifically mutilated bodies were staked to the walls with various implements, from broken-off chair legs and crowbars to swords and spears. There were a few beds scattered around the floor, with corpses tied to the bare frames with cruel metal wire. In some cases, the victims had been carefully skinned, with strange patterns etched into their muscles or bones.

Blood was everywhere. The walls, the floors…even the ceiling, dripping slowly down like gentle rain. And the smell…the bodies hadn’t been here long, so there wasn’t the cloying scent of rotting meat, but the air was suffused with the sharp iron scent of far too much fresh blood.

“General,” I said calmly. Isaac was expected to be weak. I had to be strong. “Report.”

The recently-promoted General Soun, a thirty-year-old Cambodian and former car thief, nodded a little shakily. “Yes, sir. We’ve cordoned off the entire block. The Norwegians have started a light assault to the west, but we’re holding them off well enough.”

“What about the media?”

“They’re with the English, to the south. We’ve sent orders that they’re not allowed in until they relinquish their weapons.”

I sighed. “That’s unlikely to happen any time soon. We’ll have to issue a statement.”

“Yes sir, I thought you might say that. I have Lieutenant Fitzgerald writing up a draft as we speak.”

Fitzgerald was a relatively new addition, both to the city and to my forces. The various countries of the world still dumped their criminals on us every few months or so. It was the main reason we were staying afloat despite our ridiculously high death rates. The irony of Fitzgerald was that he had been sentenced for plagiarism. Copying stories other people had posted on the internet for free and selling them elsewhere under a pen name and reaping the profits. Now, he was the closest thing we had to a spin doctor.

Still, that wasn’t important right now. “Do we know who did this? The Albanians? The Armenians? Can’t be the Germans…”

The general coughed. “Ah…yes. We know exactly who did this. Perhaps you remember Stefania Dumitru?”

I frowned. “Yes, that Romanian murderer who thinks she’s descended from Dracula. She got a reduced sentence due to her insanity, I believe.” It still wasn’t clear whether Dumitru was really off her rocker or just using a convenient famous name to garner attention. She certainly wasn’t actually descended from Dracula, though. I hadn’t studied Romanian history in too much depth, but to the best of my knowledge he hadn’t had any children. And if he had, they would likely have been killed by his enemies shortly after his death.

“Yeah, that’s her. The thing is…” he glanced over at Isaac.

The doctor struggled to his feet. “I can handle this, Soun, thank you.”

My friend looked much older than he had even a few months ago. He had been playing around with the toy maker, and had used it to add some cosmetic changes, such as wrinkles and gray hair. He probably thought it would make him look more like a scientist.

He took a deep breath before speaking. “You remember those night vision eyes I made? Not actual eyes, of course, just a virus that alters—”

“Isaac,” I prompted.

“Yes, well…Dumitru and her gang bought them. They can all see in the dark now.”

That was…not much of a concern. An extra factor to worry about, true, but hardly worse than anything else they had. Isaac did have a tendency to panic over minor things.

But still, Soun seemed at least as worried. I nodded for the scientist to continue.

“Dumitru has renamed herself Striga. There’s an accent mark in there somewhere, but I’m not sure—”

“A striga is a Romanian witch,” I interrupted before he had a chance to completely derail himself. “I imagine she has a reason for naming herself after an ugly old woman?”

Well, it’s a witch or a vampire. She is clearly going with the vampire interpretation.” He coughed lightly. “You see…she and hers have named themselves vampires.”

I frowned again. Dumitru…Striga…seemed to have chosen an interesting way of defending herself: Fear. The Romanians had been hit hard recently. I suppose if you were going to form a gang to protect your people, it made sense to choose the most well-known mythological creature of your country. If she did this right, she could terrify her enemies into making mistakes.

I took another look around the room with fresh eyes. The blood was splashed everywhere, but it wasn’t random. Strange sigils and ancient Sumerian runes were etched near the bodies, and I slowly realized that every corpse had a wooden stake thrust through their heart.

“Any word on the gang affiliations of the victims?” That would be the last piece of the puzzle. The Germans had been encroaching on Romanian territory most recently. They would be the most obvious target of this stunt.

Soun stepped forward again. “Well, yes and no, sir. Rather, we’ve determined that there was no known connection between the victims, other than the fact that they all lived in this building. Striga seems to have just killed them because it was convenient.”

I cursed under my breath. “Why can’t anyone in this city ever send messages written in something other than blood?”

The general winced. “Funny you should mention that, sir. There’s something you should see on the thirteenth floor.”

He led Isaac and I up, past twelve more floors of the same unbridled carnage. I realized quickly that the blood dripping from the ceilings wasn’t blood that was on the ceilings—rather, it was dripping through from the floors above.

Killing ‘Striga’ was edging higher up my list of priorities with every floor we climbed.

The thirteenth floor, however, didn’t seem any different from the others. Yes, it was horrifying. Another few dozen people staked to the walls and flayed alive. The entire room, redder than tomatoes. Isaac was retching in the corner again, though at this point he didn’t have anything left to hack up.

But as the leader of Necessarius, I needed to be on top of things at all times. I scanned the room, searching for whatever it was that Soun had considered so important.

Were the bodies laid out in some specific pattern? Not that I could tell. Were there more victims than the other floors? No, if anything there were less. The blood on the walls—

Ah. That was it.

I turned around and peered behind the elbow of the stairwell, the part I hadn’t been able to see coming up. As I suspected, there was a message written there in the blood of the dead.

“Luna sângeros este în cer,” I read aloud. “Vampiri au crescut.”

“The bloody moon is in the sky,” Soun translated. “The vampires have risen.”

A declaration of war. Lovely. “Any information on how many of these ‘vampires’ we’re dealing with?”

“A hundred, at least. Likely more,” the general admitted reluctantly. “Considering the amount of manpower required for something like this, we could be looking at nearly a thousand.”

I frowned. “Terrible as this is, I doubt it would take that many.”

Soun looked uncomfortable. “Ah, sir, you seem to have missed an important part of the message. That’s my mistake, Mary Christina was the one who answered the phone, and I should have known she would just summarize—”

“General,” I growled. “Enough backstory. What am I missing?”

The Cambodian swallowed and nodded. “Yes, sir…see here?” He pointed at something below the message that I hadn’t noticed before, mistaking them as just more bloody scribbles.

“1 din 13,” I read. I narrowed my eyes. “One out of thirteen.” I turned my gaze on my general; he quivered a little, but didn’t falter. “There are twelve more buildings like this?

Soun just nodded.

“So all of our efforts to contain this have been meaningless.”

“So it seems,” the general grumbled. “I did send men to secure two other sites, but that was before we knew the full extent of the problem.”

I squeezed the head of my cane tightly. We had a genocidal psychopath with a small army on our hands, and now everyone knew it. This would hurt morale.

Right now, we had more immediate concerns. “Send out scouts,” I ordered. “Find the other skyscrapers, and contain them. We need to clean these places up. Start collecting the bodies and scrub down the walls.”

Just as Soun nodded, the lights went out.

I heard the Cambodian curse. “It’s them.”

Of course. Now that they could see in the dark, their first move would always be to kill the lights. This gave them a large advantage over us, especially since it was only the three of us in the room—and Soun was the only dangerous one.

I heard an animalistic hiss from behind me, and turned to see a dark shape in the very dim light leaking in through the windows, prowling in a crouched position. It saw me too, bared long and sharp glistening canines, and leaped towards my throat.

A rifle barked from behind me, the distinctive four-round burst of a Necessarian Saint Euphemia, and the Romanian howled as he took three of the bullets to the chest. The man half-limped, half fell down the stairs, whining like an injured dog.

I had not promoted Soun for no reason. He was quick on his feet, both mentally and physically, and a dead shot. He’d be able to handle one or two ‘vampires’ easily enough, even in the dark.

“Sirs, we need to move. There could be more.”

I nodded, though he couldn’t see me. “You’re right, of course. Isaac, get up.” My fragile bones, even reinforced by the toy maker, still weren’t strong enough to lift him to his feet, but I shook his shoulder, causing him to wince. But when he realized I wasn’t an enemy, I heard him shakily standing upright again.

“I need to check on my men as well,” Soun noted, as he cracked open a small glow-rod, illuminating us all in a soft green light. It wasn’t much, but it would help. “I’ll take point.”

I let him lead without comment. This was his area of expertise, not mine. I had no place second-guessing him.

I almost expected to run into the man who had attacked us on the way down, but he seemed to know better than to try again. We didn’t see anyone at all until we exited the building and walked out onto the sidewalk.

It was like a scene out of a nightmare. There were no lights other than the flashes of muzzle flare as my men defended themselves. Screams tore the night, both the sharp hunting screeches of the Romanians and the terrified cries of my own men.

Soun didn’t so much as flinch. He just cracked a few more glow-rods, tossed them around, and started shooting any vampires that got too close.

“Fall back!” he called. “Into the trucks!”

The soldiers rallied, retreating to the safety of our bulletproof red-striped black vans. Being attacked by creatures out of a horror movie had panicked everyone, but my men were trained well enough to obey orders without question.

Isaac had finally mostly regained his wits, and managed to help me into the back seat of one of the vans. Soun slipped into the passenger seat, and a young woman who’s name escaped me moved behind the wheel and started the engine.

The Romanians screamed at us as we drove off, but that was about it. They hadn’t brought guns—probably to increase the fear factor a little—and they weren’t fast enough to catch us.

I rubbed my forehead; I was sweating buckets. “Soun, update.”

“No casualties reported yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. But at least all five vans are behind us, so that’s a good sign.”

We were at the head of the pack; I glanced back through the rear window and realized he was right. We wouldn’t know for certain until we got back to NHQ, but this at least meant we had enough men left to drive the cars. Could have been worse. Almost was, actually. If the ambush had managed to kill us…

I shivered. I needed to do something. Isaac and I were the linchpins of Necessarius; kill us, and the entire system would fall apart—and with it, the hopes of the city. We needed a new system, better suited to replacing one or both of us.

My musings were cut off by our driver slamming on the brakes, bringing the van to a screeching halt after ten feet of drifting. Behind us, I heard the other vans doing much the same, and there was the sound of at least one crash. I glanced back again. Third van back. It was just dented, but it could have been worse.

I gripped the seat in front of me, cursing the lack of foresight that had left me without a seat belt. “What the hell was that?!”

The driver just nodded at the road in front of us. I followed her gaze, and saw…

A young brunette woman laying in the street, in a pool of what appeared to be her own blood.

I felt my heart stop. I knew who it was. Even though she was lying face-down, the short-sleeved shirt and old jeans were a dead giveaway. No one else would be dressed like that in the middle of the night.

“Christina!” I cried, bolting out of the van as fast as my weakened legs would carry me. I barely heard Soun calling for me to get back in the car.

I collapsed at her side and gingerly touched her neck. There was a pulse. Good. But other than that…I couldn’t see a wound, which was a bit odd. With the way the Romanians were acting, I would have expected them to go for her neck.

“Mary Christina,” I whispered. “Can you hear me?”

She moaned pitifully, and tried to position her arm under her to lever herself up.

“Don’t move,” I ordered, taking her hand in mine.

Isaac sat down next to me, all trace of his normal exuberance gone. “He’s right. We’ll get you loaded up in the van, take you back home, and get you fixed up, I promise.”

I glared daggers at him. “Unless she is lutum informis, yes?”

My old friend winced, and I immediately felt terrible. “C’mon, Artemis, I’m sorry about that…”

Before I could apologize, however, I heard Soun behind me. “Sirs, I need you to step away from that woman.”

I looked up and was surprised to find three men plus my general standing in front of the van, weapons ready. “Soun, what are you doing? It’s Mary Christina. She’s one of us.”

But he wasn’t about to give up that easily. “Sir, we have no proof its her. This could be a trap.” Gunfire echoed from further behind us, and he cursed under his breath in Khmer. “We don’t have time. Please sirs, if it is her we’ll make sure she’s taken care of.”

After only a moment’s hesitation, I nodded, grunting with effort as I used my cane to struggle to my feet. He was right, and if my emotions hadn’t been clouding my judgment, I would have given the order myself. This was a perfect opportunity for an ambush. Even assuming this really was Mary Christina, the Romanians could be using her as bait, waiting for us to let our guards down before attacking.

Soun nodded to one of his men, who moved forward quickly but carefully. He knelt down next to the woman—his comrades keeping their weapons ready the entire time—and flipped her over as gently as possible.

The woman was a bit plain, but not necessarily in a bad way. Normally, she would have been quite attractive. But right now, with her long brown hair clotted with blood, her face covered in deep scratches black with dirt, and a deep and bloody wound in her shoulder, she just looked like someone in need of urgent medical attention.

“Christina,” I whispered. Then I shook my head; we needed to be quick. “General, get Miss Asimov into the van, if you would. I want the convoy moving again before more Romanians catch up.”

My men moved with the same military efficiency as always, pulling out a collapsible stretcher and strapping her in. After quickly binding her shoulder—which looked like a gunshot wound, oddly enough—they put her in the back of the van, and I sat next to her on the floor, though Isaac took one of the seats. We were off again in less than ten minutes.

“When we get to NHQ, do you think you can patch her up?” I asked my old friend.

But Isaac was distracted, drumming his fingers against the armrest. “Something’s not right,” he muttered. “Red dusk, it’s not right. I only gave twenty people those eyes. How are there so many of them?”

“Arty. She said…” Mary Christina tried to speak, gulping down great gasps of air.

I gripped her hand. “Shh.”

She shook her head. “That woman…attacked. Said…” she coughed, and grinned weakly. “Her mother gave her the designs…for the eyes. And…a toy maker.”

I frowned. “Her mother? Who the hell—”

Then I stopped.

No.

She wouldn’t have been that stupid. She couldn’t possibly have—

I pulled out my satellite phone and slammed the first number on my speed dial. Not that it mattered. There weren’t really that many people in the city with portable phones. Mary Christina had an idea about setting up ‘cell towers,’ but I didn’t know enough about technology to understand the cost or implications. She had been planning on giving me a briefing tomorrow afternoon, though that would probably need to be put on hold.

After a few rings, the person on the other end picked up, and a sweet young voice spoke. “Hello? Mister Butler?”

I resisted yelling by an effort of will—that would hardly make her answer any faster. But I still didn’t have time for pleasantries. “Did you give someone a toy maker and eye designs?”

“Uh-huh,” she answered immediately and guilelessly. “The sad lady with the black eyes wanted to let her friends see in the dark.”

Black eyes…Striga. It had to be. Or maybe one of her cronies, but it was definitely Striga’s doing. “Where did you even get those?”

“I always know where everything is,” she said, a little indignant.

Well, she was a smart and cunning little girl. Yes, she had been tricked, but that was hardly unexpected, at her age. “Why did you give those things to her? They weren’t yours to give.”

“She said they were,” she insisted. “She said I’m the Mother, so it’s all mine.”

I closed my eyes. That stupid ‘mother’ thing. Isaac and I knew things would change when we introduced the toy maker, but this was not expected.

“Thank you for your help, dearest,” I said finally, not knowing what else I could do. “I’ll talk to you when I get home.”

“Okay, Mister Butler,” she replied cheerfully, and hung up.

I let the bulky phone fall into my lap. All our plans and security…wasted, because of one naïve and trusting child.

“Sir,” Soun said from the front. “I have news.”

I didn’t bother turning around. “Let’s hear it.”

“Striga has made an announcement. She is offering the eyes to anyone who wants them, so long as…” he paused, likely reading something on the van’s extremely expensive built-in computer. “so long as ‘they are willing to fight for their freedoms.’”

I snorted. “Coming from her, that means the freedom to take whatever they want.”

But I finally understood the point of all this. Getting the eyes and the toy maker, attacking the lab and Mary Christina, the massacres, this announcement…it finally made sense.

She wasn’t warning others away. She was calling them to arms. Arms against who? Everyone, probably. But most especially Necessarius.

I shook my head. This was just one crazy woman and her followers. Kill Striga, and these ‘vampires’ would no longer be a threat.

This wasn’t something worth getting worked up over.

Behind the Scenes (scene 96)

Mary Christina Asimov survives being shot by Striga. Just, you know, in case you weren’t sure. And no, she is not lutum informis. At this point in time, the only clays in the city are Artemis Butler, a young boy named Ryan Hearing, and an old woman named Anupama Sharma.

Scene 95 – Solutio

SOLUTIO

JELENA

The iron-lord was still grasping around for us. Why? It didn’t make any sense. It should have abandoned us for easier prey within minutes. Instead, it had stuck around for over an hour.

I kept hearing explosions outside, which just made it even stranger. If people were attacking the thing, it would return the favor. Unless everyone was focusing their fire on the blind-rammer, which was possible, but unlikely.

I needed to get out there. I had to figure out what was going on, and sitting here wouldn’t help. I pulled off my daygoggles and started inching forward across the suddenly bright room.

“Jelena!” Pam hissed from behind me. “What are you doing?

“I’m gonna see if I can help,” I called back. “Stay here with the others.”

“But you can’t! You’re—” She suddenly stopped talking, and I had to glance back to assure myself she hadn’t been crushed.

She was still alive and well, but she looked like she had tasted something horrible in her mouth—so about her default expression, only more so. She had been about to say something. Something important.

Well, if she thought it could wait, I guess I agreed. I turned back to the task at hand, absently scratching at my neck.

My entire spine had been itching ever since the fey released me. Glasya had looked me over personally, and had assured me that nothing was wrong, so I suppose I got off light. A little bit of phantom pain was nothing compared to what Fevered Day could have done to me.

It was slow going, getting past the gargant, since I had to stop every few feet to wait for its thrashing hand to sweep past. My hands and knees were bleeding by the time I reached the entrance, the shattered glass from the doors having cut deeply into my flesh. I glanced at the wounds briefly, then resolved to ignore them. They were clotted with concrete dust and the glass fragments were still embedded in some places, but I had enough buffs so that the pain was minimal and I didn’t have to worry too much about bleeding out.

The iron-lord’s hand lunged towards me, and I dove out of the way again, out the shattered front doors. I landed on more glass, scraping up my side and tearing my clothes.

Bloody night…I wasn’t built for this. I was a secretary with a sharp ear, that’s all. The closest thing to combat I had seen was that time my orphanage managed to score tickets to laser tag. I was on the losing team.

But I had to do something. No one else was. Especially not the whore, Yolanda. Last I had seen her, she had been huddled in Simon’s embrace, trembling like a leaf. Maybe her queen would save her.

I heard voices nearby. Not from inside the store, where the gargant was still rooting around, but from somewhere down the street. One of them, soft as down feathers, drifted through the clamor of injured and dying civilians.

“I told you we should have stayed on the roof.”

“No, Seena, it would have just climbed up and killed us, and we wouldn’t have had anywhere to run.”

Adam and the others. They had found something, then. Some sort of weapon.

“Aim for the knees,” another, somewhat familiar voice suggested. It was…Steve? Simon’s roommate? What was he doing here? “That’ll do the trick.”

“I know killing,” Adam grunted. “I know what to do.”

“Frost and—God dammit, just hurry up. The blind-rammer looks like it’s coming this way.”

The fourth voice sounded familiar as well, but I couldn’t place it. Male, definitely, but other than that I couldn’t tell. ‘Frost and fire’ was a Jotuun curse, so he was probably one of the Nifs.

The Nifs weren’t supposed to be in the area, but it wasn’t all that surprising. The cultures spied on each other as much as possible, both for defensive and offensive reasons. I was more interested in what Joel and Nathan, the local feuding warlords, would do when they found out. Would they leave them alone, or retaliate? Both canes had a reputation for being warmongers, but they had to know better than to piss off Niflheim.

That wasn’t important now; Seena’s group was talking again, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I crept towards the voices, trying to get a better look, maybe let them know I was here, but I winced at my wounds. Buffs or no, having little pebbles of glass embedded in your flesh, slicing through skin and muscle, etching bone…

Stop it, I told myself. That kind of thinking was hardly productive. Pushing the pain to the back of my mind, I turned the corner and found…

Steve and Kevin, Simon’s roommates. And Seena, Veda, and Adam, of course. The green-haired baseline was nowhere to be found.

I glanced around as I scrambled to my feet. “Where’s the Nif?”

Adam turned to me, frowning. “You are…”

“Jelena, my roommate,” Veda supplied. “She was trapped with the others.” A look of apprehension crossed her face, and she cursed. “Fangs and—it didn’t destroy the building, did it?”

“No, it was still just trying to grab people last time I checked.” I shifted on my feet and winced as my wounds were pulled.

Seena stepped forward and looked at my side. “You look like you ran through all nine hells. What happened?”

I started to shrug, but immediately stopped from the pain. “Had some trouble.”

The Mal glanced back at the others. “You need to take down that gargant right away,” she said firmly. “It’s not going to be distracted forever.”

“There’s still the blind-rammer,” Kevin noted. I blinked when he spoke; I recognized his voice as the one I hadn’t been able to identify from before. Why was he using Jotuun curses? He wasn’t a giant.

It was probably just some stupid thing. Simon and Seena used demon curses because their orphan patron had been one, so maybe it was something like that. It really wasn’t important right now, anyway.

“The rammer is secondary, right?” I asked a little hesitantly. Yeah, as a Glasyan I knew a bit more about monsters and such than the average person, but I’ve always found personal applications of the toy maker more interesting than the whole creating monsters part.

The fact that everyone else just kind of looked at each other didn’t help my anxiety.

“I’ve never seen one of those things,” Adam said, as he hefted what looked like a missile launcher covered in tubes over his shoulder. “Monsters aren’t quite my area of expertise…”

“I…think it’s relatively safe,” Veda muttered haltingly. “I mean, it doesn’t seem to be doing anything all that dangerous. It doesn’t even have eyes.” She glanced at Steve.

The big baseline raised his hands in front of himself to ward off her attentions. “Hey, don’t look at me, I’m a bike messenger. I don’t know the first thing about monsters.”

“I think…” a voice like warm honey said haltingly from behind me. “I think it might be looking for someone.”

Surprised, we all turned to see Elizabeth Greene, of all people, leaning against the building dejectedly. She was wearing a long, flowing dark blue skirt and a short-sleeved white shift with a black corset over the top. The corset turned her already somewhat impressive bust into something truly marvelous. To my surprise, she also had a fake flower in her golden hair, behind her ear. It was the same deep, royal blue of Akane Akiyama’s hair ribbon.

But while her outfit was still perfect, her entire stance and bearing spoke of someone who had taken on the world and lost. Her face lacked her usual smile, and her glittering golden eyes seemed on the verge of tears.

“Miss Greene,” Steve said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

She smiled, just the tiniest bit, but at least it meant she wasn’t completely defeated. “Mister Gillespie…I need you to deliver another message for me, I think.”

The large man nodded, as Kevin and I moved forward to catch the girl before she fell. “Of course, of course. Whatever you need.”

But Kevin frowned. “Wait, she said the blind-rammer was looking for someone. What—”

Seena punched him in the arm. “Let her talk. She’ll get to it.”

Chastised, he shut his mouth and nodded.

Lizzy smiled again in his direction. “It’s fine, I understand…” she shook her head. “I need to sit down. It’s…been a long day.”

We guided her carefully to the ground, trying to ignore the sounds of gunfire nearby, and the still-roaring iron-lord. We didn’t have much time, but we still had to be careful with her.

The girl took a deep breath, and when she spoke there was some strength in her voice. “Gillespie, I need you to find Nabassu. He should be at his apartments. Tell him what’s going on here, leave nothing out. He’ll be able to organize everything.”

“At once,” Steve said, and immediately ran off at top speed around the corner. I turned to watch him go, surprised that such a big guy could run so fast.

“About the one over there…” Lizzy began weakly, and I was forced to turn my attention back to her. “The big metal thing is just a distraction. I don’t think the fey want to cause too much damage, they just want it to look like they do.”

My spine was itching like crazy, and I reached back to scratch it as subtly as possible.

But Adam was the one who spoke. “So…ignore the iron-lord for now? After all the trouble we went to to get a weapon?”

The girl on the ground nodded. “It’s the other one…the blind one—”

“Blind-rammer,” Seena supplied.

“Right, that one. Nabassu told me the fey use them to track people sometimes. Like, when they just need to find them, and don’t have to worry about subtlety.”

Adam nodded. “I think I heard Simon or Yolanda mention that…something about them having extra nostrils?”

Lizzy shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know that the fey want something here.”

I shook my head. “But this isn’t their style. Why send something like this when a couple dogs would work just as well?”

“I don’t know,” Adam muttered, rubbing his forehead. “Laura might be able to figure it out, but I just…this isn’t anything any of us are good at.” He shook his head suddenly. “It doesn’t matter. Once it finds its target, bad things will happen. So we need to kill it first.”

I indicated the weapon in his arms. “You were going to use that on the iron-lord, right? How many shots do you have?”

“Not many,” Veda cut in. “I didn’t have a lot to work with. I can’t be sure, but no more than five. Absolute max.”

Oh, that’s right, she was a mechanic or an engineer or whatever. I had completely forgotten. I guess…she had made the weapon? How the hell did she cobble together a missile launcher out of spare parts?

Adam saw where I was going. “It should work just as well on the rammer, if not better. And we should just need one or two for the iron-lord.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow. “So, what, just shoot it in the face and hope it works?”

The bland baseline shrugged. “I guess so.”

“The belly,” I said suddenly. “Aim for the belly. That’s the weak spot.”

Everyone stared at me. “What?” Seena asked weakly.

Where had that come from? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. “The belly drags on the ground—it can’t be armored as much.”

“That makes sense…” Adam said slowly. “But I’m not gonna just dive under it.”

“Explosions will scare it and make it rear up. But it has to be a big one.”

“A grenade wouldn’t be enough?”

“Not nearly. Maybe a…” an image flashed into my mind, a dull metal barrel with a white label saying ’55 gallons.’ “An oil drum would work. There should be one in this building here.”

Seena looked disturbed and was avoiding my eyes, but I couldn’t understand why. I spent a lot of time paying attention to important people; I had probably just heard about this on some forum or whatever and forgotten until now.

Kevin broke down the door pretty easily (the security gate wasn’t even up), and in a few moments he and Adam were wrestling an oil drum, exactly like the image I had in my head, out onto the sidewalk.

Lizzy wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, oil. I hate that stuff.”

“Well, don’t go in there, then. The place is full of the stuff.” Adam frowned. “Why the hell is there so much, anyway?”

“There are three offshore oil platforms owned by the city,” I found myself saying, as I suddenly remembered. “Two are owned by Yamatoto Silver Rush, while the third is the property of Fillian Andrews Enterprises, which is a front for—”

“I think he meant why is it here,” Kevin interrupted hastily. “The outer city would be more logical.”

Again, I knew the answer. “Money laundering.”

It was odd. Usually I kept an ear out for all the dirty rumors, of course, but this was more than that. I knew the barrels would be there, I knew where they had come from. But I didn’t remember hearing anything about it before right this moment.

Ugh, there I went, getting distracted again. Delphie and the others inside were counting on us, and I was letting my mind wander. “Roll it over at the gargant,” I instructed. “The smell should make it curious. Anyone have incendiary rounds?”

The boys had the barrel on its side, but hadn’t started rolling it yet. Adam put his foot on it to keep it from moving, and fished a shotgun shell out of one of his ammo pouches. “I have a few, but I’m not sure they can penetrate the drum.”

“My Raaze is incendiary,” Kevin said, pulling out the strange pistol in question. It was…a revolver, except it didn’t revolve, and fired all the chambers at once. “It should work.”

Adam shrugged. “Sounds good to me.” He picked up the missile launcher again from where he had placed it on the ground. “You ready?”

The small Southern-American baseline checked his gun and nodded. “Ready.” Together, they kicked the barrel forward, where it slowly rolled towards the blind-rammer.

The gargant was facing the other way, but its strong sense of smell caused it to notice the oil quickly, just as I had anticipated. It turned as the barrel rolled down the street, sniffing the air and edging towards the item that had piqued its curiosity.

“Now,” I hissed.

I don’t know if Kevin heard me or if he just came to the same conclusion I had. But the gargant was in the perfect position now, its face just a few feet from the barrel, so this was the perfect opportunity. He raised his gun, sighted carefully, and fired.

His aim was dead on, which was good since he only had the one shot. There was a slight ding as the rounds hit the metal barrel, then the dull whumph of the explosion. I dived out of the way quickly; while we were far enough so that we didn’t even feel the heat, I had completely forgotten about the explosion. Shrapnel flew by, and a piece even clipped my shoulder.

Luckily, the others were fine, though there was one large piece of red-hot metal embedded in the wall behind Lizzy. It was probably a miracle she was still alive.

While I was glancing around, making sure everyone was okay, Adam was all business. My prediction had proven correct; the blind-rammer was rearing up on its hind legs, its instinctive response to a loud noise exposing its unprotected underbelly. Adam didn’t waste any time. He went down on one knee, aimed, and fired.

The missile sped off with a small boom, leaving a cloud of foul-smelling exhaust behind Adam. He didn’t lower the launcher, but watched as the projectile crawled a path through the air towards the beast.

And, just as the gargant began to bring itself down from its precarious position, the missile hit.

The explosion was very strange, but I should have expected that. I don’t know what Veda did to it, but instead of exploding in fire, it burst into a cloud of a dark blue gas that seemed to freeze the gargant’s scales where it touched. Not that it mattered. The force of the missile itself had torn open a huge hole in the beast’s flesh, and now blood and guts were beginning to spill.

The blind-rammer began to wobble, clearly in pain but unable to scream in torment. It smashed sideways into the nearest building, causing the ‘scraper to groan, then smashed into the opposite side of the street, leaving massive puddles of gore underneath it.

It tried to smash the other side again, perhaps in an attempt to shake off whatever it thought was damaging it, but at this point it had lost too much blood.

The gargant fell to the ground, shaking the entire street so much that I almost lost my footing. It shuddered once, and died with a wet gurgle.

Just as I thought everything was going to work out, there was a great roar from behind me, and I turned to see the iron-lord had finally given up on our friends in the clothing shop, and had decided that we were the more important targets. Was this the fey’s doing? I had no idea how much control they had over their beasts.

Adam cursed and dodged behind the building where Lizzy was cowering, dropping the launcher in the process. But the gargant just smashed a fist into the building, raining down some glass and plaster but otherwise leaving us unharmed.

Everyone was scattered, in no position to fight back. But I…I hadn’t moved. I had stayed rooted to the spot for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. Despite my terror, I was only a few feet away from the bulky missile launcher.

I couldn’t possibly…could I?

I found myself running towards the weapon, as if something else was controlling my limbs. Then it was in my hands.

I didn’t know how to use a missile launcher. I had never used anything more complicated than a revolver.

But my hands flew across the metal tube as if possessed, flipping switches, reconnecting wires, and checking valves. The gargant was still roaring, and the falling glass was slicing into my skin, but I was unhurried. I could do this. I knew I could do this.

In just a few moments, I was done. The weapon began to hum as whatever power source Veda added began to work again; something had been knocked loose when Adam dropped it, but I had fixed it. How, though? I didn’t know anything about fixing anything, much less a jury-rigged missile launcher built out of what looked like an old air conditioner.

But while my mind was still asking questions, my body was moving like a well-oiled machine. I went down on one knee, just like Adam had earlier, ignoring the glass pebbles getting embedded into my leg. I raised the weapon carefully, sighted through the large, bulky scope, and…

Waited. The gargant was at a bad angle; I couldn’t hit its legs from this position. I didn’t have enough shots—I needed to get the knees. I briefly considered repositioning myself, but then the iron-lord took a few steps forward, exposing its weak points perfectly.

I fired.

Even as the missile flew through the air, I was already aiming at the second knee, checking that the launcher was still working through nothing but touch. Without removing it from my shoulder, I was able to confirm that everything was still in place.

The missile hit, exploding once again into a cloud of blue gas. The iron-lord bellowed in pain as it tried to move and its knee shattered, bringing it thudding to the street in a lopsided position. It struggled to grab hold of the nearby buildings and prop itself up, but it ended up just clawing off more glass and plaster. I didn’t give it a chance to find a better hold.

I fired again.

The second shot was also dead-on, and the beast fell flat on it’s face without any leg to stand on.

But it wasn’t dead, not yet. The ‘blood’ used by the creature was more like oil than anything else, and it would take too long to let it bleed out. It was moaning now, a deep and dejected song that made my teeth shiver. It was like it was begging for death.

I checked the launcher one last time, this time taking it off my shoulder and inspecting it visually. Despite my unfamiliarity with weapons, I knew to be very careful. Jury-rigged weapons had a tendency to explode if something came loose at the wrong moment, so I didn’t rush.

Finally, I was as certain as I could be that it wouldn’t kill me on the next shot. I raised the launcher to my shoulder again, took aim, and waited. Slowly, the gargant raised its head and looked at me, as if intentionally giving me exactly the opportunity I had been waiting for.

I didn’t hesitate. I fired, the targeting reticule centered on the monster’s face.

Right before the missile hit, the iron-lord gargant gave one last pitiful moan.

Then the projectile exploded in that dull whumph, and the head was suddenly covered in frost.

The beast wobbled for a moment, some last signal from its frozen brain telling its arms to keep it upright, until its elbows went limp and let its face smash into the concrete. Frozen metal and shattered asphalt flew everywhere.

I put the missile launcher down slowly and settled down on my rear, suddenly very, very tired. Wherever those reserves of strength had come from, they were gone now. Was this what they called an adrenaline crash?

I turned to the others, smiling a bit weakly, hoping they would be willing to help me limp back to my room and take a very long shower.

But all I saw was Seena, staring at me in horror.

Behind the Scenes (scene 95)

Yes, it is an odd coincidence that all these people who knew each other were within about two blocks of each other all at the same time. It is not a coincidence that this is the moment the fey chose to attack.

Also, I was originally going to do a fake ending for April Fool’s, but the site problems this weekend meant I didn’t have time to write it, and wouldn’t have felt comfortable posting it anyway.