Scene 118 – Hiems

HIEMS

My name is…is…

I don’t remember.

Well, this is hardly off to a good start.

I have too many names, that’s the problem. Well, no, that’s not the problem. The problem is that none of them are mine. They’re just convenient lies and labels I adopt to interact with others.

On to the matter at hand. I waited patiently until I heard Akane walk out of the alley. I had half expected her to attack me, not that it would have done her any good. I would have just killed myself, and never used this face again. It would have been annoying for everyone involved, but far more so her than me.

Luckily, it hadn’t come to that. Bodies weren’t as expensive as everyone made them out to be, but they were hardly cheap either.

Once the Paladin was gone, I walked forward without fear, into the alley I had stopped her from scouting. I didn’t hear the alarm go off, but I knew it would be ringing below ground, in Elizabeth’s sewers.

Not that it mattered.

I lifted the manhole cover to the side, carefully lowered myself down, pulled it back into place over my head, and then simply let go of the ladder. I fell some ten feet; not far for an un-augmented human, and hardly even worth mentioning for me.

I landed inside a circle with a half-dozen of the Blackguards pointing automatic weapons at me. The morons. If they fired, they’d just end up shooting each other.

“Who are you?” Nabassu, the demon butler, demanded while leveling an SMG at me. I was curious where he got it so quickly, but not enough to ask.

Instead, I simply giggled girlishly and let the cloak fall to the ground, revealing my lithe naked form.

“I’m the Princess of Killing Sparrow, silly,” I said, with an apparently genuine childish grin on my face. “Who else would I be?”

The demon’s cheeks darkened, and his eyes flicked down to my chest a few times. Seriously, nudity was the ultimate combat advantage. Militaries really needed to start training their soldiers against it.

“Right this way, Lady Princess,” the butler said quickly, holstering his weapon and leading me further down the sewer. I followed, my bare feet splashing in the shallow river of sewage, unconcerned for my health. The cold didn’t bother me in the slightest, and if there any diseases strong enough to infect me they deserved to kill me.

We walked in silence for twenty-three minutes, and I pretended to not notice the guards checking out my rear the entire way. I just followed Nabassu, humming a childish ditty under my breath.

While I did that, I carefully eyed my escorts, trying to figure out their weaknesses. I couldn’t determine their powers, of course. I just didn’t know anything about how all that worked. But I was a fey, and therefore one of the foremost experts on toys in the city.

The butler demon had a few adrenal implants, judging by his abnormally fast heartbeat. It would kill him in a few years, but he’d have some pretty impressive reflexes until then. He was one to watch.

To my left and my right were a pair of male anthro crocodiles. Crocs didn’t really have their own subculture; they were still too rare, and generally stuck with the other lizards in the laces culture. Though their King, the ‘Gatorcroc,’ did have the ear of the lace King, Io.

The crocs on either side of me did their culture proud. Bulletproof and slashproof scales were the most obvious, but judging by the way they moved, they clearly had enhanced muscles and tendons as well—they’d have to, in order to support their denser bone structures. Their only weak point would be either their eyes, or if they were stupid enough to bite me with those giant jaws of their, their open gullets.

Behind me, however, were the ones I was worried about.

Three vampires girls, to all appearances triplets, with fangs that a Nosferatu would find unbearably large. The fangs, however, were just a distraction. Judging from the way they flexed their hands every once in a while (they tried to hide it, but I could tell), they had retractable claws. And if the fact that they occasionally scratched their wrists was any indication, they held a powerful poison. Assuming Elizabeth had a direct hand in their creation, each one was probably different. She was cunning like that.

I wasn’t worried about the poisons killing me. That was hardly something to fear. No, if they used the right kind of paralytic—which definitely sounded like Elizabeth’s style—I wouldn’t be able to destroy this body to my satisfaction. They’d be able to dissect it, study it, and eventually find ways to cause real damage to me.

If a fight broke out, it wouldn’t look good for me.

After a few minutes of walking and going through battle scenarios in my head, we reached a room. It wasn’t a big room; we were still in the sewers, after all. But it was large enough to accommodate the Composer and her throne.

The throne was made up of corpses, a dozen or more, all fresh and still oozing blood. They had probably been killed minutes ago. She had them arranged in the crude shape of a large chair, complete with a cushion, armrests, and a backboard. I couldn’t tell how she had forced them to keep the correct poses. Was she using some power, or was it something more mundane?

Elizabeth herself wasn’t much different than when I had last seen her a few hours ago, through the eyes of another homunculus. Her once-white dress was soaked red, with the brown of old, dried blood peeking through the fresher splashes of crimson.

She sat there, on her throne of corpses, her skin nearly the same color as her dress, and she looked…content. The lion in its den. The panther after the kill. Those golden eyes of hers, finally put in the correct context, were the cold and hungry light of a predator.

“My Lady Greene,” Nabassu said, bowing deeply as he stood aside to let me in. “The Princess of Killing Sparrow.”

Ah, Banphrionsa,” she said with a blood-flecked grin. “Iontach chun freastal ar deireadh aghaidh leat chun aghaidh. Chuala mé an oiread sin rudaí maith faoi tú.”

It was Irish, and unlike the crap I had learned out of an old English to Irish dictionary, it was very good Irish. I barely caught half the words.

I didn’t really know what to say, but that’s why we had crafted the capricious image of the fey in the first place: To have a fallback reaction ready at all times.

I giggled, as though not even bothering to stifle my amusement. “Your accent’s funny. Where’d you learn to speak Teanga?” ‘Teanga’ was simply the Irish word for ‘language,’ nothing more.

She raised an eyebrow. “Fine. English it is.”

I just grinned.

The monster rolled her eyes. “Childish or not, Honored Maiden, you and yours are still quite dangerous. So I’ll get right to the point.” She leaned forward and met my eyes with her own. “How would you like to work with me?”

I knew this was coming, of course. She wouldn’t have bothered to ask for a meeting if she was just going to kill or turn me.

But the Composer was not part of our mission. She did not improve the city in any way. She wasn’t like our monsters, which were designed to be defeated. No, she would gladly watch the city burn, and then complain that there was nothing else to do anymore.

The second we had received the invitation last night, we had discussed the benefits of working with a an immortal raging psychopath. The decision was unanimous:

No way in hell.

However, we couldn’t just ignore her. We had to learn her ways, her weaknesses, sabotage and destroy her if we could. The Paladins would almost certainly be the ones to strike the killing blow, but we could at least make it easier for them.

I cocked my head to the side, as if considering her offer. “I don’t know…would we get some conductors of our own?” She had educated us on some of the simpler aspects of how the powers worked. I didn’t trust a word of it, other than perhaps the nomenclature. The conductors were the singers, the chorus the screamers, and the directors the speakers—the Paladins and Blackguards.

The predator narrowed her eyes. “Why would you need any? Surely your peataí are enough.”

I shrugged. “Surely.”

She waited for me to elaborate. I didn’t.

“You’re beginning to annoy me, Princess,” she growled after a moment of silence. “You won’t get any conductors, but I can put some chorus under your control.” Interesting that it was even possible. “Now—” she glared at me dangerously. “Are you with me or not?”

I chewed my lip, pretending to think about it, buying a little bit of time to prepare.

“Wellll…” I said as slowly as I could. “I think I’m going to have to say no.” I giggled. “Sorry, sweetness.” I managed to fix her with an innocent look. “Maybe we could renegotiate later?”

She opened her mouth and began to sing.

But I was ready for her. I initiated my self-destruct process, starting at my ears so I couldn’t be affected by her song. Within seconds, my blood was converted to a very specific acid, and seconds after that, it reacted with my carefully constructed flesh, and then—

I exploded.

I opened my eyes to find myself in a toy box. One of the very first toy boxes, actually. It wasn’t really anything like the ones we had sold to Necessarius in appearance. Instead of a shiny metal coffin, it was a vertical glass tube set into the ceiling and floor and filled with nutrient solution. The actual toy maker device itself made up the back of the tube, looking like nothing less than the spine of some strange mechanical beast. A few tubes and vents pumped air and water into the machine, which then processed them into something more useful.

There was a tap on the glass, and I could see a young woman, for all appearance the twin of the body I had just abandoned except with longer hair, standing outside the tube.

“Maiden Night,” she called, speakers inside the tube letting me hear her perfectly. “Are you all right?”

I took a deep breath through my face mask and nodded, then tapped the glass in a simple pattern. That was the signal that my mind remained my own. She pressed a button on the remote in her hand and showed it to me. With a firm thought, I thrust my mind into a nearby waiting homunculus, the powerful radio transceiver that made up its spine allowing me to act as though I was the body, rather than simply piloting it.

“I’m quite fine, Matron Night,” I answered with my new mouth. The names we were using weren’t our real names, of course. We didn’t remember those. They were just simple designations to make our lives a little easier. ‘Hey you’ got old pretty fast.

I was one of two maidens, the fey who piloted the younger homunculi. I was called Night because I piloted the Autumn and Winter bodies; Day confined themselves to Spring and Summer.

I glanced down at my new homunculus, frowning, and pulled at my blonde hair. “Wait, who is this?”

“The Princess of Dying Dusk,” she explained helpfully. “From the court of Day’s Western Spring.”

Our limits were all self-imposed, of course. I had piloted Spring bodies on occasion, when one of the others was busy or indisposed. So it wasn’t really that surprising to find myself in a new one. But still…I had grown used to Killing Sparrow.

“Why was there a Dying Dusk homunculus just lying around?” I asked. Each one generally only lasted a month or two at best. It was late September; there shouldn’t be any left outside of Autumn. Maybe one or two later-born Summers.

“To help sell the image of a war,” the Matron explained. “Matron Day was going to ask one of you to pilot it up to the surface and wreak a little havoc.” She shrugged. “Or just do it herself.”

We had to be flexible in what bodies we used. Despite our propaganda, there were not ninety-six fey, split between four seasons and four directions and day/night. Fifteen years ago, when our head psychiatrist decided to start playing with the bodies of his patients and staff using the toy maker, his experiments had been brutal and inefficient.

There were only six of us. Only six crazy little girls had survived out of a sanitarium filled with over two hundred.

We owed much to the man who’s name we refused to speak. We had been patients in his hospital, locked up in the isolation wing. None of us remembered much of our stay there, but what we had been able to piece together made it clear that we had definitely belonged there. The Nameless One had managed to cure us somewhere in his mad science, and for that we owed him our thanks.

But waking up connected to a device you don’t understand, while things that were once men screamed and roared around you…nothing made up for that.

“Anyway,” my companion started, as she sat on a nearby table. “What’s the word on Greene? You hit the suicide switch, so it clearly didn’t go well…”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. I don’t think she saw through the fey persona, but she got annoyed with it pretty quick. So at least she still underestimates us.”

Matron Night opened her mouth, then shut it, then spoke. “Crone Night wants to know if she even bothered offering you a job first.”

The radio transponders placed in the homunculi’s spines also worked perfectly for more mundane forms of communication. Normally, Crone Night would have asked the question so that both of us could hear it, but they were still a little leery about whether or not I was infected. When a disease can be transmitted by song, any level of paranoia is justified.

“She did,” I admitted. “A little bit too soon, in fact.” I waved my hand. “That all went as expected. More interesting was that I ran into Akiyama before the meeting.”

Night’s face scrunched up in annoyance—a look I recognized as what happened when too many people were shouting in your head.

I used the opportunity to continue on. “She didn’t realize it was me, of course. I got her out of there before she had a chance to think too hard on who would be meeting with the Composer.”

One of the others finally prodded the Matron to speak. “What was she doing there? Huntsman wouldn’t have sent her alone.”

I shrugged. “Couldn’t tell. She might have been on a scouting mission and decided to see if she could do some real damage in the process—you know she can get a little overenthusiastic.”

Night nodded. “And they might still be holding a grudge against Greene.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know about that. They might still think they can separate the Composer from Elizabeth.”

“They might be able to, actually. We can’t know for certain either way.”

There was a faint buzzing sound in my ear, as the others ended their radio silence with me. I guess they decided it was safe enough. Personally, I figured they should wait longer, but I was getting annoyed at being left out of the conversation, so I didn’t say anything.

“We can’t send our homunculi out anymore,” Maiden Day pointed out. “If she gets one of them, all the bodies we’re piloting at that moment will be infected.”

“Also unconfirmed,” Crone Day cut in.

“But not something we want to risk,” I retorted before my Day counterpart could. “We need to limit our interactions to monsters only. Don’t let anything vaguely human get within shouting distance of any of our bodies.”

There was a pause.

“I think it’s time to start recruiting,” Crone Night said at last.

Everyone else muttered in alarm, but Matron Day was the one who articulated herself fastest. “Where did that come from?”

“It’s time,” the Crone said again, more firmly. “We can’t control the monsters, not really. If we want to do anything useful, we’ll need actual people under us.”

“We can always make more changelings—” I started.

She cut me off in an angry tone. “Oh, now you’re just being silly. Changelings are experiments, and not particularly predictable ones. Can you imagine the Charlie Foxtrot if we trusted them with anything?” I could almost feel her shaking her head. “No, we need to recruit actual human beings.”

“We could try office drones,” Crone Day mused slowly. The way she segued into it made me think the two might have been planning this all along. “They don’t have the salaries to get the better gifts of the toy maker, and probably desire more interesting lives. Both are things we can provide.”

I cursed under my breath. This was spiraling out of control way too fast. I shook my head. “No, we can’t. They’ll find out the secret if we do. We can’t pilot enough bodies, with enough micromanagement, to convincingly portray ninety-six unique fey.”

When we could control who we interacted with, it was easy keeping up the illusion that there were nearly a hundred of us. We could pilot a number of homunculi each, and carefully switch between them for speaking roles.

But with direct underlings, that would get more complicated. Each fey would be expected to have her own minions, which would mean they would need to interact nearly simultaneously…

“Then we do away with the ninety-six,” Crone Night said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “And make do with six.”

No one spoke.

Maiden Day was the first to break the silence.

“Can…we do that?”

“No, of course not,” I snapped. “Without anonymity—”

“We won’t go around in our real bodies,” Crone Night assured us. “Just a more manageable number of homunculi.”

“We can’t,” my Day counterpart insisted. “What are we going to tell people? ‘We were lying to you this entire time?’ They’ll start asking questions, looking deeper into who and what we are.”

Crone Day sighed. “You’re being unreasonable. If we make the new homunculi look like the old ones, we can tell people that there were only six survivors of the war.”

I narrowed my eyes, although only Matron Night could see me. “That’s why you two suggested the war. You wanted a good cover for this.”

“…yes,” Crone Night admitted. “But the part about needing time to study the Composer was true too. Our espionage was really suffering with all the screamer attacks disrupting everything. For crying out loud, we didn’t even notice the toy box go missing!”

It was easy to spy when you could build yourself a new body whenever necessary. But with all that was going on, our efforts had been lacking for a while. One of the people we had been focusing on was Elizabeth Greene.

We had known for quite some time that Elizabeth wasn’t quite what she seemed, though we had been as surprised as everyone else when she turned out to be the Composer. We had started looking at her a few years ago, when I ran into Derek Huntsman and noticed his unhealthy fascination with the girl. From there, spying on her was easy, and we quickly noted the disturbing lengths her servants were willing to go to for her. Oh, sure, she thought no one noticed, but when you were already spying on her, it became easy to spot when she told her less-effective employees to go jump off a building.

But the city was full of petty monsters like that, and we hadn’t thought much of it. She wasn’t even on our list of potential Composers. Honestly, I thought that was a much bigger problem than the stupid toy box.

Matron Day snorted. “So, what, we just pick six of the courts and call ourselves survivors?”

“No,” Crone Day said. “We need to bring it down to one court. Present a unified front.”

“No one will believe it,” Matron Night noted. “From thirty-two to one? No way. They’ll start getting suspicious.”

I kneaded my forehead. “Are we really doing this?”

“We can’t keep this lie going forever,” Crone Night whispered soothingly. “Six women can’t pretend to be ninety-six. It’s just impossible. And we need to take a more active role here.”

I sighed. “Fine. Fine. How about…two courts? Night and Day, or whatever.”

Matron Night quirked her head at me. “Why two?”

I shrugged. “Lets us present a unified front while still pretending to be divided. Lets us preserve the Hecate Sisters dynamic, meaning minimal shifts in our personas. Hell, we’re already split appropriately. Why not?”

“I like that idea,” Crone Day muttered.

“Me too,” Matron Day agreed. “Very nice.”

Matron Night shrugged. “Well, if everyone is in favor, then I think we’re done for now. Let’s get a horde going for each of us, be ready to make a nice grand entrance. Agreed?”

Four voices murmured in assent.

We almost didn’t notice the missing voice, until Maiden Day spoke. “Wait. There’s one other thing.”

I sighed. Again. “What now?”

There was a pause, then she pushed forward. “We need names.”

The radio in my spine crackled with the force of the outcry.

“We said we would never!” Crone Night roared. “That was the deal!”

“Calm down!” I yelled back. “This is not a big deal. We can choose whatever names we like.”

“Oh?” she sneered. “Then tell me, what name would you choose?”

I paused, knowing what was about to happen.

But I said it anyway.

“For you? Cailleach.”

“See?” she cried. “That’s what the Nameless One called me.”

“Maybe it’s your name,” I shot back. “Did you ever think of that?”

Crone Day snorted. “They’re not real names, Maiden. They’re something he made up.”

I shook my head. “Then why don’t you come up with something better?”

She didn’t speak.

We all knew how this was going to end. The Crones yelled a bit more, but soon enough, they acquiesced.

And for the first time in fifteen years, we had names. Names given to us by a mad murderer, yes, but they were the only names we could imagine keeping.

My name is Maeve.

Behind the Scenes (scene 118)

I’m still a little worried that I didn’t explain the fey’s fake nature enough before this. This might not be the surprise it’s supposed to be. But I think it came out okay.

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