Monthly Archives: December 2013

Scene 140 – Quarens Auxilium



“Thank you,” Akane said genuinely. “For coming.”

I shrugged. “It’s no big deal. You’ve known her longer than I have.”

I’m not sleeping with her.”

“If that’s what you need her help with, then I think we need to have a nice long talk about boundaries. How does meeting on a rooftop at dawn sound?”

The samurai rolled her eyes. “Not that. I just…” she looked away. “Ling is having a hard time.”

“With what? I can’t imagine anything Lily would be able to help with.”

Akane glared. “No way to talk about your girlfriend.”

“That’s not what I mean. Lily’s a pacifist, and one who’s too busy to watch any type of entertainment—sports, anime, whatever. I just don’t see any overlap between their skillsets.”

She thought for a moment. “Pacifists the ones who don’t fight?”

I sighed. This god-damned city… “Yeah, pacifists don’t fight. Sometimes they’re called ‘conscientious objectors.’”

“Whatever. We’re here.”

Oh, she was right. I hadn’t noticed, but we had arrived at Lily’s apartment while we were talking. I slipped past a maintenance man installing a speaker on the corner, pulled out my key, and unlocked the door, stepping inside before Akane.

She gave me a funny look. “You have a key?”

“She gave it to me yesterday,” I explained. “Maybe she knew she’d be unavailable the next few days? Not the best of signs.” I closed the door behind us, and locked it for good measure. “C’mon, let’s look around. Lily? You here?”

My girlfriend didn’t respond, not that I really expected her to. She hadn’t answered her phone, which meant…something. It was hard to tell what.

Her apartment was only about twice as big as my dorm room (plus a bathroom), and was completely filled with boxes. Cardboard boxes, plastic bins…even a few steel crates with a variety of warning labels plastered over them. They covered everything but the unkempt bed in the corner, and the chest of drawers against the wall. The bed, of course, because it had been used recently. The drawers because it was covered instead in old-fashioned pictures in frames, as well as a few devices.

There was no order or organization that I could discern; it would take weeks to find anything. Well, anything that would fit into a box.

“Not here,” Akane muttered. “You said she’d be here.”

“No, I said she might be. She has so many jobs, she barely even stops by.”

“Waste of time.”

“Not quite.” I walked over to something that looked like a radio, and tapped the large button on top. The response was immediate.

“What’s up?” MC’s cheerful tone crackled a little brokenly through the speakers. There was a loose wire or something, and Lily hadn’t gotten around to fixing it. “You never call me from your apartment any more.”

“Actually, it’s Adam,” I apologized. “I’m here with Akane. We’re looking for Lily, but she’s not answering her phone. Want to help us out?”

“Wait, when did you get a key to Lily’s apartment?”

I sighed. “Yesterday.”

“Right, okay…give me a couple minutes. Her phone seems to be switched off.”

Akane frowned. “Off?”

I understood what she meant. Lily never turned off her phone. She had too many people trying to get in touch with her at all times. I had assumed she had lost it.

This could be a very bad sign.

“Got her,” MC chirped after five minutes, before we could freak out too much. “She’s waiting tables at Nervi’s right now. Her phone broke earlier.”

I groaned loud enough for the hacker to hear. “Then we were worried for nothing.”

“Well, it did break while she was being chased by a superpowered angel.”

I did a double take. “Wait, what?

“Uh…nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

Nothing?” I grabbed the radio, and that loose wire made it briefly shriek with feedback. “One of the lasers was chasing her? Is she okay?”

“Yeah, she’s fine. Just had a fall, and apparently landed on her phone.”

That was a relief, but still… “Why was she being chased anyway?”

“Well, um, it was one of the ones we hadn’t captured yet, so…”

“But why was she even in the area? It should have all been evacuated.”

The hacker on the other end sighed. “This didn’t happen at the Heaven, Adam. The screamer was wandering around about a mile north, past the barricades, and she happened to run into him. But don’t worry. He’s captured and everything, so it’s all fine now.”

I took a step back and plopped onto the bed. For a second I had thought…she might get infected.

For a second I had imagined having to shoot Lily.

“How?” Akane asked.

I looked up. “What?”

“How did he get past the barricade? Necessarius is very good at defense.”

I could almost hear MC fidgeting nervously. “Um…we’re still not sure. I mean, we know the path he took and everything. We’re just…we think the Composer may have been piloting him. Personally.”

“Hm,” I muttered. “Like when she communicated with me through Zaphkiel?”

Exactly like that.”

I laid back on the bed. “God dammit. I was hoping that was just a one-time thing.”

“She can’t do it easily,” Akane mused. “Otherwise that singer couldn’t have warned me.”

I rolled my eyes. “I still think that might have been a trap.”

The samurai shrugged.

She had a point. We had survived, which was enough for now. Now…

Now what? With the Composer captured, was everything over and done with? I mean, we had killed most of those renegade guys, the Blackguards. Maybe the rest would just go into some sort of sleeper mode, waiting for orders that would never come.

No sense worrying about it now. I jumped off the bed and headed towards the door, past a surprised Akane.

“C’mon,” I told her. “I don’t know how to get to Nervi’s from here.”

“Train,” she explained. “Few miles south-east.”

Thankfully, Domina’s trains have a pretty easy schedule, and we managed to get to the central city restaurant with an uneventful hour.

I suppose with anyone else, the silence would have been awkward and uncomfortable. But that’s one of the nice things about Akane. She doesn’t give off that need to fill the silence. It’s just there, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

So it was a bit surprising when we got off at our last stop, and she chose to strike up a conversation.

“You going to class today?”

I blinked, then shrugged. “Eh, probably not. I’ve been spending most of my time at the shooting range, practicing and testing out new loads for the Saint George. They’ve got some ridiculous stuff.”

“Not worried about skipping class?”

“Not really. I mean, turns out I have a marketable skillset already. In this city, I can go pretty far.”


“Well, it’s the same with you and Derek, right? You don’t really need to worry about getting degrees.”

She shrugged. “His mom insisted.”

I raised an eyebrow. “But aren’t you guys paying your own way?”

“Yeah, but she insisted.”

Oh, okay, Derek didn’t want to disappoint his mother. I guess I could understand that. Although… “I’m still not sure why she cares.”

“Not sure who cares about what?”

I turned to see Lily, holding a pad and an empty tray of drinks, standing a few feet away from the tables belonging to an outdoor restaurant. I hadn’t realized we had come this far already.

I kissed her on the cheek by way of greeting. “Derek’s mom making them go to college. With the money they’re making, it seems like a waste.”

My girlfriend shrugged, her tail twitching. “She wants them to hedge their bets. Otherwise if they get injured, that’s the end.”

“But they can still act as advisers and so on. I just—”

“Enough,” Akane interrupted. “Not why we’re here. Lily, I need your help with Ling.”

Lily looked bewildered. “What for?”

“She’s having trouble killing people.”

Blunt and to the point.

Lily looked pained. “I’m not…really the best person to talk to about that.”

“You are,” Akane insisted, taking a step forward. “You’re the only one who can give better advice than ‘get over it.’”

The demon rubbed her horns nervously. “Look, I’m the only waitress here right now, I don’t have time—”

“You only have three customers,” Akane pointed out.

Lily winced. “Yeah, but—”

“What’s the big deal?” I asked, genuinely confused. “You’re usually more than happy to help random people.”

“Yeah, but that’s before I found out she—” Suddenly her mouth snapped shut like a steel trap. “Nevermind. It’s not my place to say.”

Well, that certainly wasn’t odd. I put my hand on her shoulder. “Lil, whatever’s wrong, we can talk—”

She shrugged off my arm, surprising me. “Can’t Laura talk to her about it? I know Derek is one of the ‘get over it’ crowd, but Laura should be better.”

Akane shrugged. “Maybe. But we don’t know where she is.”

Lily looked at us both in turn with those big red eyes…before shaking her head firmly.

“No. I’m sorry, but…no.” I opened my mouth to protest, but she placed a finger on my lips. “Please, Adam, for me. Just…don’t ask any questions.” She kissed my cheek and sashayed away.

“That was weird,” I muttered.

“You want to grab something to eat?” Akane asked.

I turned to stare at the swordswoman. “That’s random.”

She shrugged. “Hungry.”

I shrugged too. “Sure, why not.”

“There are seats over here.”

As we sat down a thought occurred to me. “Say, its been bugging me…”

Akane looked up expectantly.

“Where is Laura, anyway?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 140)

Lily is a fixture of the city (especially the inner city), but she rarely talks about her personal life. Which is why Akane didn’t know where her apartment was.

Scene 139 – Constringitur



There was a knock on the door.

“Ling? I’m coming in.”

I didn’t move. Didn’t open my eyes or come out from under the covers. I didn’t make any sign that I was in the room at all.

I heard the sound of the door opening and closing quietly. I really should have known that wouldn’t fool Akane for a second.

Soft footfalls pattered over to my bed. “Ling, get up.”

I didn’t react, even when she started shaking me gently. Maybe if I didn’t move, she’d eventually give up.

For future reference, here’s a tip: ‘Giving up’ is not a trait Derek Huntsman encourages.

It was over in less than the blink of an eye. One second I was nestled under my covers, the next the mattress was completely bare, and Akane had all my sheets and so on gathered up in her arms.

She cocked her head. “Why are you naked?”

I curled up into a ball and growled. “I’m more comfortable like this.”

“Hm. Well, cover up. People will get the wrong idea.”

I tensed, and eyed her warily. “And what would the wrong idea be?”

She looked at me oddly. “Uh…that you’re loose? This isn’t complicated.”

Of course. There would be no reason for her to suspect…that. I had destroyed all traces of that past. Now the only ones who knew were my orphanmates, and they were not the type to share secrets.

Especially now that they were all dead.

Dark spots appeared on my mattress. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the source was my own tears.

My powerful Matron, harsh and uncompromising but fair as a ruler, dead.

Helena, one of the few friends who had been at my side during my darker times, and always ready with a smile, dead.

Teresa, the fallen angel. Quiet and reserved, but with a sharp tongue once you got her going.

Drake, the little vampire boy and his gang of miscreants. Thieves to a man, but loyal and reliable. Dead.

Of the forty-six orphans I had grown up with, only one was still alive. Mitchel St. John. The one who had set fire to the orphanage at twilight, when a maximum number of people would be asleep. The one who had barred the doors, trapping the only family I had ever known, and watched as they burned to death.

I would kill him. I would tackle him to the ground, bind him with concrete, then slowly crush the life from him.

He was a murderer, and he needed to die. I would do it. I could see it every time I closed my eyes.

What I saw terrified me.

This was just the last straw. I was still getting over my realization that the screamers were still people, victims. Fighting the renegades was worse—I had never even seen someone die before, let alone helped perform the deed.

And then, last night, I found out about the orphanage.

Apparently, Akane had already known for a week or more, she had just assumed I knew too, so didn’t mention it. It seemed like everyone had come to that same conclusion.

Which is why I only found out when I decided to stop by for a visit, and found nothing but a smoldering ruin.

Akane sat down on the bed gently, careful not to bounce me around too much. “This about your first kill? Or the orphanage?”

“I didn’t kill anyone,” I insisted sullenly.

She nodded sagely. “Of course. So, you’re crying for your family.”

I turned my back on her. “Don’t pretend to understand.” Harsh, yes, but I wasn’t in any mood to be polite.

To my surprise, instead of arguing or leaving, she slipped onto the mattress and pulled my back to her.

I stiffened. It had been a long time since I had been this close to anyone. Three years? No, two. Forgot about Alexander.

When it became clear she wasn’t going to let go, my face reddened involuntarily. “A-Akane, what are you doing?”

“My dad died when I was seven years old,” she whispered, so quietly I could barely hear her. “On my birthday, no less. My second-oldest sister died a year and a half before that. My oldest sister died December, about nine months before my father. And my youngest sister—but still older than me—died about five months later.”

I didn’t say anything. What was there to say?

“My mother…” she paused. “Was not supportive. My grandfather was worse.” She nestled closer.

Oh. So that was it.

She wasn’t trying to comfort me. My jabs had dug deeper than I had intended, dredged up bad memories I hadn’t known she had.

She needed a little human contact right now. The fact that it might make me feel better was just a bonus—if she had thought of it at all.

“A few people helped me survive my childhood. Derek, of course. His mom and dad—Victor, I mean. And Miss Arrow, and Obould a little bit too. Lily and MC were always friendly, but then they’re friendly to everyone…” She trailed off.

The silence stretched.

“I…don’t want to kill anyone,” I said quietly. “The screamers are one thing, I can deal with that. But someone who is talking to me, who has hopes and feelings, I can’t—”

She shushed me gently. “None of that, little one.”

I tensed. “Why are you being so nice? You’re the loyal soldier. Shouldn’t you be shouting at me about how fighting the Composer is my duty or whatever?”

I felt her shake her head. “Of course not.”


“Because the point of fighting is to protect those who won’t fight.” She released me slowly, and I heard her slide off the bed. “I thought you were like me or Derek. A protector. Or maybe even like Adam—a killer who happened to be on the right side.” The young samurai patted my head. “It seems I was wrong.”

I felt my muscles tense, and a scowl cross my face. “Screw—”

“Haven’t you been listening? There is nothing wrong with not being a soldier. Nothing wrong at all.” There was a slight pause, in which I could imagine her staring out the window and smiling. “So you do whatever you want, Ling. Fight with us, don’t, either way is fine. Just don’t let this war break you.”

I turned to look at her. “What about you?”

She smiled at me warmly. “That’s exactly what I’m doing. If I sat on the sidelines, I’d go insane. I have to fight.” She walked towards the door.

I sat up, a little worried. “Akane?”

“Take a few days off, Ling,” she advised. “Go on a trip. Catch up with that Turgay boy. We have the time, with Elizabeth captured.” She shook her head a little sadly. “We all have things we need to sort out.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 139)

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Scene 138 – Declinatio



It was time for class. Math, to be specific. Akane had already gone ahead, and I had told her I was right behind.

I stayed in my room instead.

Three months. That’s how long it had taken for my life to go to hell. I couldn’t deal with this. Between the zombies and superpowers and now Elizabeth…I was burned out.

The others weren’t helping. Akane’s destruction during our most recent mission was par for the course, but still frustrating. Her tsundere attitude towards Flynn was almost worse. She loved him except she didn’t blah blah blah. I was tempted to just lock them in a room and let nature take its course.

Yeah, like that was an option.

Whatever. Laura, or even Ling, would have some ideas. Maybe Lily, too. She had the most experience.

Agh, what was I even thinking about? This wasn’t the time to be playing matchmaker. The game had just been turned completely upside-down, and Laura was nowhere to be found. Right when we needed her the most, she decided to run off to who knows where.

Elizabeth was captured, but we knew we couldn’t hold her for long. There was at least one or two of her renegades running around, likely far more. They’d come to break her out sooner or later.

Which is why we needed a game plan.

Ling had been a bit helpful there, but only a bit. Her encyclopedic knowledge of fiction was only so much use. And I just wasn’t experienced fighting humans. For something like this, we needed an experienced tactician. We needed Laura.

At least she wasn’t actually missing. Skipping class and avoiding her dorm room like the plague, yes. But she had called MC and me, so we knew she was doing all right. She just hadn’t given me any more details that.

I laid back in my bed and sighed. Even when we were winning, it felt like we were losing.

I couldn’t really do anything about that right now. I didn’t have enough information to go on the offensive, and probably wouldn’t even if I did. I’m defensive by nature—as evidenced by my power—which had the side effect of making me reactionary.

The renegades would strike sooner or later. When they did, we’d be ready.

So why was it that instead of preparing for that, all I could worry about was Laura?

I could still smell the faint scent of lilacs, left over from when she spent the night last week after my birthday party. Oddly, I couldn’t detect the odor of the sewers we had been crawling around in earlier that day, even though it should have lasted much longer. I had washed the sheets twice since that night; did that mean it was all in my head?

Whatever. I had had a very long night. I drifted off, soothed to sleep by pleasant memories that smelled of lilacs.

Some people remember their dreams in vivid detail, but I’m not one of them. Other than a few vague feelings that remain behind, only the worst night terrors stay with me.

This dream wasn’t one of those. It was…unique. It didn’t feel like a dream, but it wasn’t quite real either.

I was young. Ten at most, probably younger. And I was crying.

I did that a lot when I was a kid, though never in front of the other children. When I saw a sad movie, or I made a mistake, and sometimes even just when I saw someone else’s father. I just…had to start crying. I could hold it in long enough to get out of sight, but that was all. I was just delaying the inevitable.

What was I crying about this time? Actually, did it matter? Just forget about it, you’ll feel better…

No. I clamped down on my brain, refusing to be distracted.

Because I recognized the soothing voice, urging me to forget.

Elizabeth Greene.

My eyes snapped open, and I cursed. Silver and gold…this was something important, I could feel it. And yet it was slipping through my fingers like sand.

A memory Elizabeth had hidden from me.

What could it be? I was just a little kid in the memory; I hadn’t done anything interesting or important at that age. I think the most impressive moment from my childhood was when I managed to eat an entire extra large pizza at once. Somehow, I didn’t think the Composer cared about that.

Maybe I had discovered something about her identity, even back then? That would make some sense, but then why would I still not be able to remember? I thought I had broken those blocks. I had recovered the memories of her hypnotizing me to love her, which triggered when I saw her in the white dress the first day of middle school. What else was there?

Ugh, this was so freaking impossible. I had enough normal problems to deal with, like Ling throwing herself at me every time I so much as looked at her. Who in their right mind would think it’s a good idea to drop an amnesia storyline into that?

“I thought I might find you here,” a hard-edged voice muttered.

I looked up to see Akane standing in the doorway, hands on her hips, glaring at me. She dropped her backpack unceremoniously on the floor. “You didn’t fall asleep, I know that much.”

“Well, actually, I did.” And for longer than I thought, too. I glanced at the clock to confirm. Yeah, class was over already.

“I mean you didn’t forget about class,” she retorted. “Not unless you got brain damage when I wasn’t looking.”

That hit a little too close to the mark, so I answered snappishly. “What do you want? If you just want company, Flynn is four floors up.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What is wrong with you today? It’s more than exhaustion.”

I sighed. “Akane, you blew up a building. again. Yes, I’m a little pissed.”

“This is only the third one that’s really my fault.”

“I don’t care enough to argue.” I closed my eyes again. “I just want to go back to sleep.”

There was a long pause, long enough that I assumed she had quietly left. Fine by me. I might feel a little bad about snapping at her, but I really wasn’t in the mood for anything.

Then I heard the distinctive sound of a sword being drawn from its sheath.

I opened my eyes just in time to see Akane swinging at me two-handed. She wasn’t tapping into her speed, but the strike would still kill me easily enough if it connected.

I dodged off my bed by kicking off the wall, avoiding the blade by the width of a single hair. Akane didn’t hesitate to follow me, slashing horizontally at my neck. It was all I could do to summon a shield, a mobile one I attached to my arm like a buckler.

My friend’s sword bounced off the barrier with a vibration that shook my arm hard enough to let me know that she had been attacking for real. But before I could think about retaliating, she took a step back and fell out of ready stance, holding her sword casually at her side.

“Look at your shield,” she ordered angrily. Akane never spoke to me in that tone. All I could do was follow her instructions.

There didn’t seem to be anything odd about my barrier. It was the same as always, a deep and azure blue, with light leaking off it like mist. What was she talking about?

As I looked up at her in confusion, she ripped the ribbon out of her hair, letting her hair fall free and the beads clatter to the ground, and showed it to me.

It was the exact same shade of blue as my shield.

“I don’t know what you’re moping about,” she almost snarled. “But you are the leader of this little band we have. You can’t afford to be weak, or second-guessing yourself.” She forced the ribbon closer to my face. “That’s what you said when you gave me this. That you would always be strong enough.”

I sniffed the ribbon cautiously. “That’s the same one I gave you seven years ago? How has it lasted—”

“Not the point!” she screeched, surprising me almost more than when she had drawn her sword on me. “You made a promise, Derek Huntsman.” She looked away. “Don’t break it.”

Was she…was she crying? No way. I hadn’t seen her cry in seven years.

I steeled myself. She was right. This was not the time for moping about.

I stood up, back straight. She turned to me, a little surprised, but didn’t say anything.

“Tie up your hair and go check on Ling,” I ordered. “I’m not sure she’s moved in the past twenty-four hours.”

The samurai suppressed a smile and started tying up her ponytail again. “And you?”

I marched over to my desk and pulled out my laptop. “I have some people I need to talk to.”

Now I just had to remember how many warlords owed me favors.

Behind the Scenes (scene 138)

Foreshadowing. Ooh, spooky.

Scene 137 – Accidens



“Ten million dollars, Akane,” Derek whispered, kneading his forehead. “Million. If BOB didn’t have everything insured, I’d be paying for it out of my own pocket.” He sighed. “It will be an absolute miracle if no one dies.”

I looked away. “Not my fault.”

“You always say that.”

Flynn, sitting next to me, looked up from the white worms wriggling around his plate. “’Always?’ How many times has she burned down a building?”

Derek shook his head. “I have no idea. MC has the numbers, if you care.”

It had started out as a simple mission. The three of us—Derek, Flynn, and myself—took a job to clear out one of BOB’s factories. Somebody had managed to get it infested with fire ants, which were never fun, but we could handle them. The only hard part was the fact that the job was at midnight.

So last night, Sunday the seventh, we all met at the factory building. It had already been evacuated, of course, so we didn’t have to worry about casualties or anyone seeing our powers or anything. We could get in, spread some poison on the main nest, and then just wait for it to spread to all of them.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy.

I would like to point out that the ‘scraper was already a total loss when I started throwing incendiary grenades around. The ants had completely torn apart the assembly lines, following the smell of gunpowder, and they had picked clean most of the storage rooms. The whole building would have had to been torn down anyway. Now, it was going to be a bit easier.

The firefighters—at this hour, they consisted mostly of Canians—had the fire well in hand, so we weren’t needed there. But we couldn’t go too far, so now we were stuck at a vampire cafe at four in the morning, waiting for Necessarius to come find us for a proper debriefing.

If there was a waitress, I hadn’t seen one. We were just sitting at the outdoor tables since there was nothing better to do.

“So how’s that job going anyway?” Derek asked, addressing Flynn in a blatant attempt to change the subject.

The swordsman absentmindedly traced a few symbols in the ash on the table. We were close enough that the wind sent a light dust at us every few minutes. “Well…it was going okay. The kids were fun to be around, and I felt like I was doing something important.”

Derek nodded. “Sounds perfect. What went wrong?”

Flynn rolled his eyes. “What do you think? The Composer.” He sighed. “After she was outed, people started panicking. And then we found out she killed the Hammer of Thor—”

“Unconfirmed,” I noted. I immediately regretted opening my mouth; some bitter flakes of ash found their way onto my tongue.

Flynn nodded, conceding my point. “True. But people certainly think she killed him, and no matter who did it, the point is that Mjolnir is dead. That’s freaked people out.”

“I hear Odin has gone on a bit of a rampage recently,” Derek put in.

“Yeah. The Hammer was like a son to him. If Elizabeth—or whoever—was trying to start a war, screwing with one of Butler’s oldest allies is a great way to start.” He waved his hand. “But the point is that parents have been pulling their kids from my class.”

“Huh.” Derek drummed his fingers on the table, thoughtful. “You know, part of the reason my mom lets me fight and train so much is because my dad got killed by a couple thugs. I would think parents would want their kids to be able to defend themselves.”

“Not normal,” I grunted. “Most parents turtle when they think their kids are in danger. Pull them close, don’t let them go.” I remembered my mother’s reaction to a similar situation was about the same, albeit more…heartless.

“Yeah, that’s about the size of it,” Flynn agreed. “Though now that you’ve caught her, maybe they’ll come back.” He smiled ruefully. “At least, forty-two percent of them.”

I blinked. That was awfully specific. “Forty-two percent?”

“You didn’t hear? That’s from MC’s official poll of the city. Forty-two percent believe Elizabeth is the Composer.”

Oh. I had voted, but I hadn’t realized the results were up.

Derek buried his face in his hands. “Of course. She somehow managed to convince the entire city she’s a saint.” He looked up, a curious expression on his face. “What are the demographics on that?”

“Mostly older people, I think.”

“The kind of people that wouldn’t watch her shows or meet her in person.”


Derek sighed. “Of course.”

“Now it’s your turn,” Flynn noted. “What have you guys been up to since you captured her?”

“Not much.” Derek shrugged. “Mostly missions like this, though usually with Adam.” He paused to think. “Laura disappeared, after we caught Elizabeth.”

“She didn’t disappear,” I noted absently. “She called to say she’d be gone for a little while.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but doing what? Her dad doesn’t know where she is either.”

“Sorry to interrupt, but are you the ones who burned down that ‘scraper back there?”

I turned around in my seat to see that a haggard vampire in a scorched yellow firefighter jacket (with the Necessarius red and black band on his arm) had approached from the direction of the burning building.

“We are,” Derek said a little defensively. “There a problem?” He leaned forward intently. “Has anyone been hurt?”

“We’re still assessing the situation, but it doesn’t look like it,” the drake assured us. “You called it in fast enough, so we managed to keep it contained.”

Derek breathed a sigh of relief, and I couldn’t blame him. We had gotten lucky so far—no civilians had ever gotten killed during one of our hunts. But our luck had to run out one day.

Flynn was the one who asked the obvious question. “Then what’s the problem?”

“Not really a problem, just…” the firefighter scratched the back of his head, trying to find the words. “The Canian warlord wants to talk to you.”

Derek blinked. “Mephistopheles is here?

“Oh, no no! Not the warlord warlord, just a high-level Nightstalker. Didn’t catch his name, though.”

Derek thought for a second. “Sure. As long as you don’t think we’ll be in the way.” That was the reason we had left in the first place.

“Wait, don’t we get a say in this?” Flynn asked as Derek rose to leave.

The blond Paladin clearly hadn’t even considered that. In fairness, neither had I. “Uh…sure. Did you not want to come?”

“Of course not! I have enough pyrovamps to deal with already.” As I rose from my seat to join Derek, his eyes flicked over to me briefly. “…but I guess I should come anyway.”

I blushed deeply, but luckily it was too dark for baseline eyes to notice. If the vamp saw anything, he didn’t mention it. We headed off, and were back at ground zero in under ten minutes. Even with all the firetrucks and foot traffic surrounding the still-blazing building, it only took about five minutes to find the Canian who had summoned us.

He wasn’t a large man, and he didn’t have any obvious toys besides the eyes. But he still had a commanding presence, something about him that made everyone follow the orders he barked without question.

“Smith, tell the ‘sarians to stop trying to undercut us. Finley, double check the north firebreak. Hanson, Raptis, get the hoses over to quadrant six. Negrescu says something might fall there. It will bypass the firebreak; minimize the damage. What do you want?”

It took me a second to realize he was talking to us, so my brain stuttered for a moment. Thankfully, Derek is in charge for a reason.

“We’re the ones who set the building on fire,” he explained crisply. “You wanted to see us?”

The Canian adjusted his daygoggles—which were necessary despite the dark night due to the bright flames—and tsked. “Yes. What possessed you idiots to use fire against gun eaters?”

Derek didn’t waver. “There were too many. We were surrounded, and it was either burn them or die.”

The vampire shook his head. “Miracle you survived. Miracle you didn’t turn the ‘scraper into a giant bomb and spread your entrails across the district. Fire ant hives are basically giant ammo dumps, you know.”

“Really? I hadn’t heard.”

“Don’t be a smartass, punk. You cost the city over a million dollars tonight—”

“Ten million, actually. And BOB has it all insured.”

“That’s not the point—look. I’m sure you’ve done all sorts of wonderful things for the city, but you’re not needed here. You can go home.”

Derek narrowed his eyes, and I backed up a little, pulling Flynn with me. Derek wouldn’t strike first, but the way things were going…

But thankfully, neither of the men were that stupid.

“All I ask is that MC call us if there are any casualties,” the blond slayer insisted as he turned to leave. “Think you can manage that?”

The vampire eyed him with scorn. “I think so,” he responded sarcastically.

“Good. Akane, we’ve got a few hours before our class. Let’s get back and grab some showers and sleep.”

I sighed and followed, Flynn close behind.

Leaders and their pissing contests…

So annoying.

Behind the Scenes (scene 137)

“Warlord” is a bit of a blurry term in the city. Anyone who leads a subculture is a warlord, no question. But below them are lieutenants and clan leaders, who can be difficult to quantify.

Scene 136 – Relaxatio



“Where’s your sister?” Yolanda asked as she slurped some hot chocolate through a straw. “I thought she was going to be here.”

I waved my hand dismissively. “Something about the Mals. I don’t know.”

Yolanda gave me an odd look—perhaps sensing I wasn’t being entirely truthful—but let it slide. She had been acting like she was treading on eggshells around me recently. Probably worried that I was upset she was a succubus.

I wasn’t, though. I mean, maybe I should have been worried about mind-control pheromones or whatever, but those were just stupid rumors on the net. They weren’t real.

Delphie leaned forward intently. “I think I heard her saying she was going to talk to the ‘sarians about Lizzy. She’s really worried.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, the whole thing is ridiculous. Butler’s dropping the ball on this one.” I still wasn’t sure whether or not Lizzy was the Composer, but Necessarius should be more careful about their propaganda. They knew no one thought she was the Composer, at least.

“Ah, but…” Yolanda started to say something then blushed as everyone turned to her. “I…I can see where they’re coming from. The Composer has everyone running scared. They say the murid Alpha was killed by sleepers.”

I blinked. “She what? I hadn’t heard about that.” I turned to Delphie. “When did that happen?”

“She shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. “Sunday.”

“Huh.” I shook my head. “That’s…I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

“Yeah, but…she was always so nice to me.” I smiled. “I remember she used to steal meatbuns for us.”

The tiniest hint of a smile flitted across the brunette’s face. “Yeah. And Seena kept dropping them because they were too hot. Every single time.”

“She’s the one who introduced me to Glasya,” Jelena put in. “They barely knew each other, but Plague spoke up for me and convinced Glasya to take me in.”

Veda and Yolanda looked confused. “You all…knew the Lady of the Plague? Personally?” The deer kemo asked.

Delphie brushed her hair back a little nervously. “Yeah. She’s…my sister.”

Veda’s phone snapped shut. “Your sister was a warlord and you didn’t even mention it?” she shrieked. “You knew I was looking for a patron!”

Delphie raised an eyebrow. “Veda, you’re a cherve.”

So? I’d become a mouse for that!”

Pam snorted. “Way to show loyalty, there.”

Veda jabbed her finger in the baseline’s direction angrily. “Don’t give me that.”

The bland girl eyed the finger with narrow eyes. “You touch me, and you’re going to lose that finger.”

The dark-skinned girl continued as if she hadn’t spoken—though she also didn’t press the point and touch her. “The cherves are not a subculture. We’re barely even a quasi-culture. Census reports put our numbers at under a thousand. That’s for the entire city.”

“That’s more than the sibriex,” I pointed out. “Or the Mals.”

“Not what I mean and you know it,” she snapped angrily. “Subcultures are just big gangs. The kemo subcultures are more like cultures unto themselves. There are over ten million kemos in Domina City. That put it in perspective?”

She was way off. Of the two-hundred and forty million or so people in the city who identified as part of a culture, almost sixty million were kemos. The other five cultures were about equal, at forty million or so each. Well, the other four cultures were equal, with the angels skewing the stats quite a bit.

Still, her point was valid. Most kemos were fels, lupes, or ursas, since those were the three founders. The rest had little power, and even if they did have their own cultures and warlords, not everyone joined. There were over ten thousand murids in the city, but only a tiny fraction served under the Lady of the Plague.

“I’m sorry, Veda,” Delphie apologized grumpily. “I didn’t see the need to mention it.”

The cherve huffed. “Well, when your fang-torn sister is a fledgling warlord who needs all the recruits she can get, it’s only expected that you might mention it once or twice.”

“Um, for the record…” my girlfriend said quietly. Once again, she turned red as a tomato when everyone looked at her. “It’s just…I agree with Delphie, that’s all.” She stared into her cup. “I know I don’t always like people knowing my uncle is a senator…I’m sure being a warlord would be worse.”

There was a brief minute of silence. Veda turned away, her mouth firmly shut.

“Thank you, Yolanda,” Delphie said sincerely after a moment. “That is exactly what I was trying to say.”

The blonde demon turned even redder, if that was possible, and took a shaky sip of her hot chocolate.

Pam drummed her nails on the table, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I’m curious…your sister created the murids herself, right?” She waved her hand. “The culture, I mean, not the package.”

Delphie looked suspicious. “Yes. Why?”

“Well, that means this is the first time they’ve lost their warlord.”

“Yes, yes,” the murid snapped. “What’s your point?”

The baseline grinned like a wolf. “Doesn’t that mean you could be the next warlord?”

Huh. I hadn’t thought of that.

I guess it made sense. There wasn’t really any sort of standardized rules for this sort of thing, but it wasn’t uncommon for the title to pass to the next of kin or the next strongest in the culture. Delphie was both, so it was pretty much hers if she wanted it.

The look on the girl’s face, however, made it clear none of this had occurred to her either.

“I-I can’t lead a culture!” She stood up and started circling the table, staring at the ground. “Ratko would never accept it, and then the Arrnet twins would back him…”

When she came within reach a third time, Pam pulled her back down into her seat. “Calm down. Let’s start slow. How many murids officially followed your sister?”

“One hundred and ninety, as of last month’s census.”

Pam nodded. “Census, good. That means someone is organizing things. Your sister’s right hand, so to speak. Who is that?”

“Chuot. But he’s not…he wouldn’t follow me…”

The bland little baseline grabbed her friend by the chin, forcing her to look her in the eyes. “Then make him.”

“Pam, please,” Jelena said plaintively. “There are about a billion things wrong with what you’re saying, starting with the fact that Delphie doesn’t know if she wants to do this. Being a warlord is a massive responsibility.”

“What’s there to discuss?” Pam asked. She seemed genuinely bewildered. “There are a hundred and ninety mice scrambling to figure out what to do, and she can tell them. I don’t see how there’s even a question.”

“Why the hell do you even care?” the mouse in question snapped. “You’re usually all about Darwinism and the strong devouring the weak and all that.”

If Delphie expected that to pierce the baseline’s armor, she was in for a disappointment. “And if you take over the culture, you’ll either devour or BE devoured. There’s no contradiction.”

“Well, I don’t feel like doing either.”

“Apathy is death.”

“Says the baseline who punched a Necessarian recruiter.”

Pam narrowed her eyes. “You did not just imply that the only worthwhile organizations are the cultures and the ‘sarians.”

The murid didn’t back down, which made me wince. She had to know this was a bad subject. I guess she was still upset about her sister. “What else is there? All the old gangs are dead. Well, except the Rahabs, but that’s a Dagonite problem.”

Veda pulled out her phone again, muttering something about how that was why the Rahabs had survived this long.

Pam didn’t seem to notice. “Most corporations aren’t owned by cultures.” She indicated Yolanda. “McDowell Guns is operated by an ursa, and doesn’t discriminate. BOB is still owned by Robert Bailey, and as I understand, he won’t hire people who are officially a part of a culture. And then there’s government work.”

Delphie spat on the ground. I couldn’t tell if she was making a point or if she disliked her coffee. “That’s all crap. The corporations and government don’t have any real power—push comes to shove, they call for a friendly culture or Necessarius.”

“You both make great points,” I interjected in the friendliest manner possible. “But why don’t we calm down and—”

“Shove off, Simon,” Pam growled without taking her eyes off her verbal opponent. “The sheltered little ojou wants a lesson in the real world, I’m happy to give it to her.”

Sheltered?” Delphie said with false calm. Her voice might be steady, but her eyes were on fire. “I’m in this stupid city because my parents got caught robbing banks. My sister earned our fortune by killing anyone who stood in her way.”

The only baseline at our table didn’t back down. “You said before that your parents were both born rich, and they were robbing banks because they were bored. And killing anyone who stands in your way isn’t that impressive if no one stands in your way.”

Delphie stood up suddenly, sending her chair clattering back, and slammed her hands against the table. The other patrons at the cafe stared and started edging away, but the girls didn’t pay them any mind. I pulled Yolanda close, but otherwise didn’t move. I wanted to be close enough to stop the girls if they came to blows.

“Shu Zhu killed nearly three hundred people before my sister stopped him,” she said quietly, dangerously. “He was picking off murids, specifically, because they didn’t have any protection. My sister cut through his army by herself to save the hostages.”

Pam gave her a dull look. “One sociopath and his drinking buddies hardly counts as an army.”

“Butler himself couldn’t defeat—”

One green, understaffed company does not represent the full might of Necessarius.”

“Girls, please calm down…”

Suddenly, Pam whipped out her pistol and pointed it at Delphie’s head.

Now the rest of us, including the rest of the customers, scooted back hastily. Pam was the only one armed, and none of us had any buffs that would even the playing field. Even a maintenance worker in the background, installing speakers in the corner, got off his ladder and took cover.

Again, the girls didn’t seem to notice. In fact, they both had calm, almost serene looks on their faces. It was disturbing as hell.

“Call them off,” Pam ordered in a level voice.

Delphie didn’t flinch, but she did allow a razor-thin smile to spread across her face. “Lower your gun.”

“You started this, you first. Call off your mice.”

Mice? What was she talking about?

Then I spotted something moving around her ankles, and it made sense.

While they were arguing, Delphie had used her pheromones to summon a small swarm of mice—half a dozen or so, it seemed—and prepare them to attack. Pam seemed to have noticed earlier than intended. It wasn’t quite a Mexican standoff, since the gun would kill far faster than the mice, but Delphie could at least ensure she didn’t die alone.

“All right, this has gone too far.” I turned to see the speaker, a tall black-furred kemo with the ‘sarian black and red band tied around his arm, pointing a shotgun at Pam. “Peacekeepers. Weapons down, everyone.”

The baseline ignored his order and narrowed her eyes. “Not until she calls off the vermin.”

I heard the sound of a safety clicking off, and saw the Peacekeeper’s partner, another kemo of undetermined culture (something with fluffy ears), pointing a revolver at Delphie. “Sounds fair to me.”

“Tch,” Delphie muttered. “Few minutes too late, boys.” But I heard a quiet puff of air, like when someone blows on a dog whistle, and the mice clustered around Pam’s feet withdrew. She holstered her pistol a moment later.

As Delphie sat down, Pam remained standing, glaring at the lawman with the shotgun. “We under arrest?”

“Not unless you want to be,” he replied, not lowering his weapon an inch.

“Good,” the baseline grunted, dropping back into her own chair. “Then shove off. We’re busy.”

Thankfully, the ‘sarians chose not to make anything of the comment, holstering their weapons and withdrawing. The rest of the patrons, including me, Yolanda, and Veda, slowly returned to their seats.

“Get us some shots,” Delphie called to the terrified waitress. “Some shots for a toast. In memory of my sister, warlord of the murids.”

“And you,” Pam added. “In honor of you, the next Alpha.”

Delphie glared at her for a moment…then turned back to the waitress.

“Fur and fang, why not. Two rounds.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 136)

Yes, those demographic numbers are correct. Remember that Domina is a circle with a diameter of a hundred miles. It’s BIG.

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 29

The sinhearts were driven into a blind rage by the death of their knight. Although the ones surrounding Jack and myself almost killed us, even with my new found strength and reflexes, it proved quite fortuitous for our allies. The sinhearts attacking them broke and ran back towards us when they heard the howls, and were easily cut down by the shield wall and the archers. They were able to come rescue us shortly thereafter.

A few hours later, once we were finished hunting down as many of the fleeing monsters as we could, we decided that it was safe to call in Chief Explorer Varn and his delvers to start dismantling the bones of the fortress and haul everything back to New Grandsbriar.

“I heard you had some minor trouble with a sinheart playing at knighthood,” Vale quipped immediately upon seeing me, after he gave me a hug. He looked me up and down. “Rather sprightly for a dead fellow.”

I grinned. “Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated, I assure you.”

The blond man smiled. “I am sure.” Roark came stalking out of the grass, presumably having finished organizing his archers, and Norn strode up from the pyre of corpses, his mouth conspicuously shut. “So what is the plan now?”

“Same as it was before,” I noted. “Get the materials back to the Hellpit, help the bandits with their building, then dismantle Old Grandsbriar…” I smiled, still trying to keep my mind off the fact that I had killed my daughter—monstrous or not. “Lots to do.”

“I meant with our report to the king,” Vale insisted. “We have been gone for two weeks, after all. He only gave us three. What do you think will happen if we do not make it back in time? Send more troops?”

“Who will promptly be slaughtered by monsters they do not believe exist,” Jack noted as she stepped up to my side. She, like Norn, was carefully not mentioning what she had seen and heard on the battlefield today. “You need to leave immediately.”

“Unless we leave a week ago, we will never make it back in time,” I pointed out. “By road, it is a three week trip. Even as the crow flies, it is still two.”

“Only on foot,” Captain Gaven said as he came up from behind me, clapping me on the back. “Our carts may not be fast, but they are faster than walking. Especially if they are otherwise empty. And we can teach you how to get the leaf-dancers to jump. You can cross ravines and rivers, all sorts of things that would normally be impassable to a horse.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You are giving us one of your leaf-dancer carts?”

“You need something to show your king, do you not?” He grinned. “It is the least we can do for the men who helped save the village! I saw you out there, Wreth! You fought like a demon. I had no idea men could even move like that!”

I smiled weakly, uncomfortable at the reminder of my recent…change. “Yes, well, we appreciate it greatly.” I looked over at the delvers and other workers, loading up the carts. “I suppose we should wait until you take the first load back to town, at least.”

Gaven just grinned. “Perfect! That means one last hot meal before you go!”

I nodded. “Sounds wonderful.”

It would also give me time to figure out what exactly I had done to myself.

It seemed harmless enough.

But I was slowly remembering that the Devil always did, at first.


And Then There Were Monsters Scene 28

My first breath in the land of the living was a painful one.

As was the second.

And the third.

It did not take me long to realize that all my breaths were painful, and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Had life always been this painful? Or did it have something to do with the giant gaping hole in my chest?

Involuntarily, against my better judgment, I felt my hand searching for the wound the sinheart knight had inflicted on me. To my surprise, I could not seem to find it. I looked down at my chest and found a large, blood-stained hole in my leather armor, but no matching hole in the flesh below it.

I should not have been surprised, but I was. At least it was a happy surprise.

I had a feeling the rest would not be.

Because I was a dire man now, I knew that. A true dire man, not the misnamed sinhearts who we were fighting. A creature transformed by a dire spirit into something…different. It had been just a guess, but the girl’s reaction had confirmed it.

I did not feel any different, however. Other than the rather welcome lack of a lethal wound, I felt exactly as I had several minutes ago. I did not have any extra limbs or eyes that I could tell, nor any strange and unexplained aggression.

In fact, I felt calm. Almost unnaturally calm, actually. Was that normal? Was I supposed to be just lying on my back in the ash and dirt, content after being killed and resurrected by an entity that might be a demon?

It did not take long for that particular illusion to be shattered.

I heard screams, the war cries of sinhearts, the whistling call of Jack, and the constant clang of steel on steel.

The sound of battle.

I was needed.

There was a sword at my side, lying in the ash and the dirt. I picked it up, and used it as a walking stick to leverage myself to my feet. Everything still hurt. But I was getting used to the pain, pressing it down. By the time I was upright again, I did not even need any assistance to stand.

The war camp was largely empty, to my surprise. Most of the sinhearts appeared to be south in the grasslands, fighting the hunters and the shield wall. That was a good sign, at least. If they had slaughtered them already, they would have returned.

But while it was mostly empty, it was not completely empty.

Perhaps two dozen more of the enemy monsters were scattered around the camp. About half were clustered around something, one large clump hooting and howling at something in the middle. I had no idea what that was, but they did no appear to be fighting, so I had to leave them alone for now.

The rest were chasing after my subordinate, Jon Norn.

He was doing an admirable job. He knew he could not fight all of them at once, so he used cover, dodging around piles of supplies, the steel framework of the fortifications, and anything else that might give him the slightest advantage over his foes. Speed was not his strong suit, but he was doing his best, dodging in and out with a slash from his scythe here and a chop from his axe there.

But he still needed help. He could not keep this up for long.

I gripped my sinblade in one hand. I had no time to find my shield, and I doubt it would have been any use at this point anyway. I needed to reach my friend as soon as possible; he was already tiring.

And then I was there.

It was so fast, I was not even sure it happened. One moment I had a vague impression of running across the scorched earth, and the next I was blocking a sword that would have taken Norn’s head.

I batted aside the blow. The beast howled and pressed the attack, putting his full and considerable weight behind his blade, using a two-handed downward strike to make absolutely certain to cut through everything in his path.

I held him off.

It took me two hands as well, but I held him off.

The sinheart blinked in surprise, then roared in rage and pushed harder. I could still have stopped him with sheer strength, but that would not have solved anything. Instead, I stepped aside, letting the beast stumble forward at the sudden lack of resistance, and sliced off his head with a single, casual one-handed strike.

Wreth?” Norn blurted in surprise. I turned to see him just staring at me. “But, you—”

I whispered past him and skewered the sinheart who had been about to stab him in the back. “Not the best time, Norn.” I smiled thinly. “I think we should save this conversation for later, do you not agree?”

I cut through the small horde of sinhearts like a hot knife through butter, my subordinate following behind as closely as he dared.

It was all so…easy. Fighting dozens of inhuman monsters just seemed like the simplest thing in the world. I felt twenty years old again, standing against an enemy army, but even better. My reflexes, which had slowed with age, were faster than ever. My weak and tired muscles were strong and rejuvenated. Everything was easy.

And then all the sinhearts Norn had been fighting were dead.

And I was close enough to realize what the other group was doing.

They had formed an arena using a circle of living bodies. I could barely see inside the press of black flesh, but their hoots and howls, the clang of metal, made it clear that someone was fighting inside their little Colosseum.

Just like before, when I felt the need, there was no effort. No worrying about how to get past dozens of human-shaped abominations, or what I would do once surrounded by them. I simply was suddenly there, in the center of the crowd, and I knew I had jumped over their heads like a gazelle. It was so easy I could not even remember it. Did you remember every time you drank a glass of water?

I took in the scene in a glance. Sinhearts on all sides. The dire knight, still armed and armored, standing a few feet away. Jack, on the ground, a few shallow cuts on her arms and her swords out of immediate reach.

They were all staring at me like they had seen a ghost.

I grinned. I couldn’t help it. I felt like a boy again, playing pranks on the school bullies. “Something wrong, everyone?” I nodded in mock understanding. “Ah, I see, I see…” I saluted Jack, still on the ground, seriously with my sword. “Lady Grandsbriar, apologies, but I believe I am going to have to cut into this dance.”

She swallowed. “Sir Wreth, I saw you—you were—”

I smiled sadly. “I would honestly love to explain now. But I have more pressing issues at hand.”

I can explain, little blade-dancer,” the dire knight hissed, in that same disgusting and friendly voice as before. “Your knight made a deal. His first deal. I had not realized it was this early.” There was that laugh again. “Perhaps your next death will be permanent after all.”

No longer in the mood for jokes and games, I stepped back into an attack stance, sinblade held before me in two hands. “Before I kill you,” I told the monster seriously. “I would like to know your name. Assuming you have one.”

Another deep, war-drum laugh. “Oh, if you only knew…yes, I have a name. I have forgotten most of them. But I remember at least one that will mean something to you.” The knight moved into his own stance, a copy of the one I had used earlier in our previous fight, shield forward and sword ready.

“And that name is?” I prompted.

Once again, I had the sense that the beast was grinning under his helmet. “Gerian.”

I blinked, for the first time since my resurrection knocked off guard. “What? But—”

She lunged forward, taking advantage of my confusion to launch an attack at my chest.

While I no longer had a shield, but I had reflexes honed by a lifetime of war, in a body that was seemingly beyond human. I sidestepped the powerful attack easily enough, but I was on the wrong side to launch a counterattack with my own blade. So I swept my foot around her leg, sending her stumbling farther than expected, and stabbing one of the watching sinhearts in the chest.

None of the watching monsters—except the dead one—seemed to care, and in fact hooted and howled even more enthusiastically than before. Gerian, for her part, placed her armored foot on the creature and pulled out her sinblade with the wet squelch of metal on meat.

And it was Gerian. My daughter might be two feet shorter and a hundred pounds lighter, but I would recognize her beautiful blue eyes anywhere. I had no idea how she had come to be in this situation, with the voice of a sinheart and the armaments of a monstrous knight, and I did not have time to dwell on it.

The dire spirit that had transformed me had said she came from the future. For now, I had no choice but to fight this creature to the best of my ability, and do everything in my power to keep the daughter I had left back home from becoming her at some point.

Gerian turned to me again, once more in the defensive stance she had watched me practice a thousand times in the courtyard when she was supposed to be asleep. It was not an especially rare or complicated style, but now that I understood the context, it was obviously something she had learned from me.

She lunged again, but not as fast or as far; she was testing my defenses. Rather than dodging this time, I parried the blow with my newly enhanced strength. Before she could recover, I swept my blade up from below in a two-handed grip, aiming not for her, but her sword.

I knocked it out of her grip, sending it flying away into the air, where it would land ten or twenty yards away. She cursed colorfully, nursing her hand even as she unbuckled her shield and tossed it aside.

Language,” I reminded her, using the exact same tone I always had whenever she mimicked one of Norn’s drunken swears.

The knight growled, which sounded like she was gargling burning hot tar. “Oh, come off it, Wrath. You always did act like a mother hen.”

“There is that name again,” I mused, as Gerian raised a gauntleted hand in the air, and one of the surrounding sinhearts tossed her a blade without even looking. “Where did you hear that name, Gerian?”

She howled a war cry and charged like a bull, attacking me not with her blade, but with her shoulder. On a whim, I ran forward to meet her, then jumped up onto her shoulders, flipped down her back, and turned to stab her in the spine.

The armor turned most of the blow, but it still hurt enough to make her howl in pain. She turned swiftly, ripping my blade out of her back with sheer strength, and stalked forward, dire sword raised and teeth grinding.

Then a blade burst out of her chest.

“Never,” Jack hissed from behind her, holding onto the sword she had plunged into the gap I had made in the armor. “Turn your back on a Grandsbriar.”

Gerian stumbled to the ground on her knees, and looked up at me, murder in her beautiful blue eyes as I walked up.

“Call off your monsters,” I ordered. “And you can live.”

There was a dark grin of defiance in her eyes. “See you around, Father.”

I cut off her head with a single double-handed blow.

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 27

“Is that it?”

I blinked, and frowned at my daughter, sitting on her bed. “What do you mean?”

“Is that it?” she repeated. “Is that the end of the story?”

“Of course it is the end of the story!” I insisted, ruffling her hair. “I died!”

She pouted. “But not yet! The story cannot be over yet!”

“Isabelle,” I said with a sigh. “This is my story. I am well aware of when and how it ends.”

“I am not Isabelle,” the ten year-old girl reminded me.

I nodded at my eldest child, Gerian. “Of course, dearest, of course. Apologies, it has just been a very long day.” I smiled and laughed at the silliness of my mistake. “Why, Isabelle will not even be born for another…” I stopped laughing, as it dawned on me. “…two…years.” I frowned. “How…how do I even know who Isabelle is, Gerian? Your mother is not even pregnant.”

“I never said I was Gerian, either.”

The girl looked like Gerian, seven years ago. She sat on Gerian’s straw bed with the quilt her mother made for her, in the small but private room I had bought for her using wages earned in the army. The walls and shelves were covered in Gerian’s toys and trinkets.

But the girl was not Gerian.

Her eyes were deep, and her smiling knowing. My daughter had tried to effect such an appearance more than once, and even succeeded on occasion. But the girl I was looking at was not wearing a mask, pretending to be old and wise. She wore her deep eyes and knowing smile as easily and naturally as anything I had ever seen in the world.

She was not old and wise. She was age. She was wisdom.

I stood up from the small stool next to my daughter’s bed, where I had been sitting while telling her the story. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“Good questions,” she admitted. “But you are missing a rather important one.”

I frowned. “What…what am I doing here?” I looked around for my weapons. They were nowhere to be found. “I…I was on the battlefield. Fighting the dire knight. And then…” And then I remembered the story I had been telling this girl. “And then I died.”

She sighed. “You people and your obsession with the finality of death. Seriously, you’re like one of those angsty goth kids on LiveJournal, bitching about how life is pain because daddy wouldn’t let them date who they wanted.”

I blinked. “…what?”

“Short version: You are not beyond the realm of the living. You still may return.”

I swallowed my anxiety. I did not understand all of what this girl was saying, but I certainly understood that. “How much time do I have?”

“Not long,” she replied promptly. “Your body will be dead—permanently—within a few seconds, but your mind is…” She paused, as though searching for the proper word. “Accelerated at the moment. To give you more time to think.”

I wanted to ask more about the girl, but I had a feeling she would dodge the question again. “All right, fine. How do I return?”

“Agree to my terms, and it will happen presently.”

“…what are your terms?”

Those deep eyes did not so much as blink. “Once you return, you may only harm monsters.”

I frowned. “That is it?”

“That is it,” she repeated. But her eyes were still hard. “Do not underestimate this price, Sir Nicholas Wreth. You will not be allowed to kill humans or animals of the natural world. You may not raise your blade against any bandit or murderer, not at your king’s order or any other.”

“And I assume if I do so anyway, I die?”

No,” she insisted. “You are not getting it. You will not be allowed to do it. You will not be able to do it. If you attempt to raise your sword against a human, you will not be punished, you will simply fail.” Her eyes were deeper than the midnight sky on a moonless night. “Think long and hard, young knight. Ask yourself how many of the men you killed needed to die. To protect yourself, your kingdom, and your loved ones.”

Not many, unfortunately. But…enough. Enough that if I had not been able to kill them, I knew with absolute certainty that I would be dead now, and my family lying in the grave beside my own.

“…I accept,” I said grudgingly, after remembering too many terrified faces. What other choice did I have? “But I do have one more question, if you do not mind.”

The girl nodded once.

“The dire knight,” I started. “He knows me. He knows my fighting style, knows my moves. And…” I frowned. “He knew this was going to happen, did he not? He called me a revenant. Said killing me might…knock some sense into me.”

The girl closed her eyes and sighed.

“You…do not have the proper context to understand fully,” she said slowly. “I do not mean this as an insult. Let me attempt to explain.” Suddenly, in front of her, there was a long glowing line in the air, like a string with a thousand fireflies attached.

“This,” she began. “Is history. The timeline.” She tapped the end of the string, and a glowing knot wove itself. “This is a choice. Any choice, really.” A thousand more glowing strands sprouted out of the end of that knot, like iridescent hair. “And these are all the possibilities following that choice. A thousand thousand new timelines, born from something as small as what to have for breakfast.”

“…all right,” I managed. “I believe I follow.”

She took one of the glowing strands. “Now, say the choice is the one you are making right now—whether to live or die. This strand is a timeline where you chose to live.” She looked me straight in the eye. “Following me?”

A meek nod.

“Good.” She looped the strand back, until it touched the knot in the string and connected. “This is the source of the monsters. They are from a future. The tale of their creation, and subsequently arriving here, is long and complex. But they are here, and one of them, the dire knight, remembers you.”

I swallowed. “You are saying…I created these monsters? Will create.”

“I am saying no such thing. Your survival or demise has no bearing on the creation of these creatures, or their arrival in this time. They are simply from a timeline where you survived, nothing more.”

“But…” I frowned. “So the dire knight…is someone I will meet in the future.”

“Not necessarily—” the girl who bore my daughter’s face stopped mid-sentence. “…I do not think I should confuse you further. Yes, the dire knight is someone who you will meet in the future. Multiple times.”

“Who is he?”

The girl looked me in the eye. “You really do not want to know.”

“Oh yes, because that makes me feel better.”

She smiled, and for a moment I could forget that she was not really my daughter. “Of course it does.” For some reason, she glanced at her wrist, as though looking at something there. “But I fear we are out of time. I assume your decision stands?”

I nodded. “Send me back.”

The room began to fade. “It is done.”

“Thank you, dire spirit,” I whispered.

The last thing I saw as darkness closed on me once more was the girl’s broad grin.

“Oh, you are a clever one…”

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 26

“This is not going to work,” Roark insisted.

I sighed. “Yes, you have said that fifty times in the past four hours.”

He waved at the soldiers and hunters running around the grasslands. None of them were close enough to hear us speaking, thankfully. “We have barely over two hundred men total, and most of them are kids.”

“Kids who have been fighting monsters for a year,” I pointed out. “And most commanders in our situation would kill for this many men from a village of this size.” Nearly every single villager was an able-bodied fighter. Most of them had stayed behind to guard the Hellpit, though.

“They are still kids. And they have never been in a fight this big before.”

“Roark, enough. If you have a better plan, I would love to hear it. But right now, this is the best we have got. We certainly do not have time to collect more men from London, and Gregor’s men are needed to guard their camp in the Hellwood.”

The ranger sighed and turned away. “Fine, I understand. But we are going to see a lot of dead kids when this is all over. I hope you understand that.”

“Just worry about the hunters under your command,” I recommended. “If everyone does their part, this whole thing should go off without a hitch.” I clapped him on the back as he walked away. “Relax.”

He just rolled his eyes and left.

I walked over to Varn, the man in charge of the delvers and explorers who would be dismantling the war camp once we were done with it. I had not wanted him here, but he had insisted he needed to be involved in handling the dangerous sky flowers. “How goes it?”

The small man with soot-stained skin pulled his goggles off and frowned at me. “As well as could be expected, I suppose, but that is not saying much. No one has ever tried to use these devices as weapons before. They are designed to explode in the sky. It is not safe to attempt the same on the ground.”

“Mister Varn, they are weapons. They are not supposed to be safe.”

“Not supposed to be safe for our enemies.” He shook his head. “I have no idea how to make these safe enough for us to use. Miss Orange has been pressing me to find a way ever since we arrived in the Hellpit, in the hopes we could use them to break the stone faster. But I have had no success.”

I frowned. “Wait a moment. I have heard rumors about the Orient. Is that not one of the primary purposes of black powder? Demolition and mining and so on? Let one man do the work of a hundred, and all that.”

Varn sighed. “I have heard all that before. But no, not to my knowledge. Some people may use it, but if they do, they have fast legs and little regard for human safety.” He showed me the fuse. “The longest delay I can get is ten seconds. That may be enough time to run. Maybe.”

I picked up the long wire. “Can you not just make this longer?”

“No. The flame burns out before it reaches the end.”

Of course it did. “What about fire arrows? The hunters have excellent aim.”

The Chief Explorer scratched his chin in a way that led me to believe he once had a small beard. “Hm…perhaps. Of course, the bloodfire arrows will not do the trick. They will need the meteor arrows…” He nodded. “I will speak to Hunter Mallern. Let him know what I need.”

“Good,” I said, nodding in return. “Be quick. We need to be ready by the hour.”

Then a deep, bellowing howl shook the night, loud enough to be heard from one end of our impromptu camp to the other, freezing the blood in our veins in the process. It was soon joined by dozens more.

“…or we need to be ready now.” I ran off to the front of our force, where Captain Gaven and his soldiers had assembled, trusting Varn to know what to do on his own without me holding his hand.

I arrived to find the young men and women of the town guard, all wearing the piecemeal metal armor that was essentially their uniform, shivering from the cold night air and worse. However, despite their obvious fear, they all had their swords and shields out and had assembled in a line, forming a broad shield wall. As long as they did not break, they would do well enough.

Jack was actually in front of the formation, to my surprise. I pushed my way through the armored line to her side, and grabbed her arm. “What are you doing!? The plan is for us to circle around the back—”

“There is no time for that now,” she insisted, pointing at the approaching horde with one of her blades. The howling sinhearts were both disturbingly numerous and disturbingly close. “We need to cut straight through them when they hit the shield wall, while the hunters distract them.”

As she spoke, arrows started sailing over our heads at the enemy mass, many of them lighting monsters on fire when they hit. It appeared that Roark and Mallern had managed to assemble their wits fast enough after all.

I drew my own sword and shield. “All right, I see no other choice. NORN!”

“Here, sir,” the big man said from right behind me. He strode up beside me, axe and scythe in his hands. “Ready for whatever comes.” He gave me a sideways look. “What is the plan, anyway?”

“We are punching through.” I nodded at Jack. “Kill as many as you can, but prioritize getting through to the other side. The shield wall and the archers will handle this horde. We need to plant the black powder packages.”

Norn did a double-take. “You have those with you?”


And then the horde was upon us.

There was no time for thought. No time for even the most basic of tactics. Just drive forward, block, parry, strike. Over and over again, ignoring the pain in my arm from blocking a thousand attacks.

And then we were through.

All three of us were covered in black blood, splashes and splatters I didn’t even remember. As we stumbled forward, trying to put more distance between us and the monsters trying to push through our shield wall, I realized that we also smelled like cooked meat. Was that from the fire arrows?

We finally found the war camp, tripping over our own feet as we fell out of Whisper’s Grasslands. The camp didn’t look too different from when we had left it last night. There were a few more recent corpses scattered around, pin-cushioned by arrows, but other than that it was much the same.

“All right, we need to act quickly,” I hissed to my companions. I pulled the black powder satchels off my back and handed one to each of them. “We need to place these at strategically important locations, then signal the archers. I am going to start with the biggest piece of the fortress I can find.”

“I saw something that looked vaguely like a barracks last time,” Jack mused.

I nodded. “Good, an excellent start.”

Norn turned the package over in his hands, before tucking it into the small, otherwise empty pack on his back. “There was definitely an armory or stockpile of some sort last time. If we can destroy that, they might be forced to retreat.”

Perfect. Now, just remember, place them in line of sight of the archers, so they can hit them.” I peered back the way we came. The battlefield was only just out of sight behind the tall grass. We could still hear the howls of the monsters and the clang of metal on metal. “It is a bit far, but they should be able to make the shots.”

Jack glanced around. “We should hurry. There will be more coming—”

She got kicked backwards by a single, blunt boot to the gut.

She landed ten feet away, her swords cast aside and her form disturbingly limp, before Norn and I could so much as twitch. As one, we turned to face the new threat.

It was…a sinheart. As far as I could tell, anyway. Because the creature standing in front of us was clad head to toe in the dull gray metal I had learned to identify as dire steel. The design was smooth and utilitarian, without the barbarian spikes I had come to expect, or even the more mundane flares human blacksmiths tended to add. The only thing I could see under the armor was a pair of glittering blue, disturbingly human, eyes hidden under the helmet. They were so human they almost seemed familiar.

But the monster was not just armored. In one hand, it held a thick triangular shield that likely weighed a hundred pounds, again without any of the extra spikes or other strange accouterments I had come to expect of sinheart design. In the other hand, it held a straight-edged sword, five feet long and a full hand wide, with a solid and gleaming cross brace above the handle for protection.

The blade had a single design on it, right in the center: A simple Viking rune, a straight line with two smaller diagonal lines coming off the ends. I recognized it from our encounters with the raiders a few years back, shortly before I met Norn.

Eihwaz, the yew rune. The rune of Hel and Yggdrasil, of change, beginnings, and fear.

And death.

It was obvious what it was supposed to mean in this context.

Norn realized it too, and roared out a war-cry that shamed every sinheart I had heard so far. Still bellowing in rage, he dashed forward, axe and scythe raised, to leap straight at the monster and take its head off.

It failed.

The massive creature, the…dire knight raised his shield and batted the big man away, knocking the battle-hardened berserker ten feet off to the side as easily as if he were swatting aside a kitten. Norn threw up a cloud of dirt and ash as he skidded to a stop. He did not rise again.

I was all that remained.

I swallowed my fear and raised both shield and sword, slipping into a defensive ready stance that had been ingrained in me since childhood. Nothing complex, just one foot forward, in line with the shield, sword held back and ready to strike like a snake.

The monster laughed.

It was a deep, booming sound that brought to mind every war drum I had ever heard. This creature might very well be completely and utterly beyond my ability to defeat, and it was well aware of it.

And then it did something that froze every drop of blood in my body.

Something that shocked me so utterly I stood stock still, unable to do anything but stare.

Something that made me feel like a green soldier again, facing an enemy soldier on my first day in the king’s army.

The monster spoke.

“Hello again, Wrath,” he said, in a friendly, affable voice like the wet sound of flesh being torn. “It has been a while, has it not?” It chuckled, a sound reminiscent of gargling gravel. “Such a very long while…”

I swallowed and took another step back.

“You seem to have me at a disadvantage,” I managed. “You appear to know me, but I fear I do not know you.”

That booming laugh was back. “This is your first time meeting me? Oh, if only I had known! Oh, I could have had such fun…” I had the feeling it was grinning at me with those shark teeth. “You will learn, eventually. For now…” He raised his sword in a mock salute. “Let me have my fun.”

And then he was upon me.

He didn’t fight like the other sinhearts. They were nothing but wild rage, with all the technique of a child throwing a temper tantrum. Oh, they had the strength and speed to make up for it, but a clever swordsman could learn their patterns well enough.

Not so with the dire knight.

He started with what appeared to be a simple overhand strike—but when I tried to dodge, it turned out to be a feint, and was bashed in the shield from the other side. I was sent skidding back ten feet on the ashy ground. I managed to keep upright, but only barely.

I did not have time to recover. I knew I needed to go on the offensive as fast as possible. I darted forward, quick as a bolt, leading with my shield. My opponent swiftly moved his own shield to block, but that was what I was hoping for. I drove my sword into the opening it caused—

Only for the blade to be casually parried aside by the sinheart’s own sword. I cursed and hopped back, out of reach of the inevitable counterstrike. It never came. The beast was toying with me.

“Where is your skill, little soldier?” the monster hissed, dark amusement in his voice. “This is hardly what I would expect of you. Where is the strength and speed of that man known far and wide as the King’s Wrath?

I narrowed my eyes. “It has been a very long time since I heard that name. You have some connection to the king’s advisers, I take it?” I did not have the slightest idea how that would be possible, but I had already seen a dozen impossible things today, one more barely strained credulity.

There was that wicked laugh again. “Oh, poor little revenant, always searching the darkest corners for answers sitting right in front of your face.” The knight strode forward, not even bothering with a real stance. “Perhaps killing you again will knock some sense into you.”

None of this made any sense. “What—”

Then there was a sword thrusting at my heart.

My shield was suddenly in the way, decades of training taking over even as my conscious mind was still lost and confused. The dire knight’s sword punctured my dire steel shield as easily as if it were made of tin, crushing my arm and bending it an impossible angle in the process.

I cried out in pain and thrashed widely with my sword, only to find the blade clanging harmlessly off his armor. My opponent, for his part, seemed mildly annoyed at the inconvenience—not at my attacks, but at the fact that his sword was still stuck in my shield. He growled and tugged on it, dragging me forward in the process, before giving up and plunging the sword, still attached to my shield, straight at my chest.

Suddenly, there was nothing but the sound of the blade slicing through my heart.

The sickening wet sound of steel on flesh—one I had heard, and caused, far more often than I cared to remember. The distant screech of metal on metal, as his blade still slid against my shield. The drip of my blood, against the ash-covered ground.

And then the pain came.

It started slow, but after the barest moment, it was on me in full force. A deep, indescribable agony, the searing scream of every nerve in my body shouting as loud as possible that there was a hole in my heart. I couldn’t even summon the will to scream, the pain was so great.

And then the dire knight pulled his sword from my chest.

And then I found the strength to scream.

But while the spirit was willing, the body was weak. Ever so weak. I coughed up blood as I tried to find my voice, only succeeding in briefly splattering my opponent’s armor with my life fluids as I fell to the ground, unsupported.

I did hear a scream, but it was not my own. A girl’s scream, a terrible, broken thing, the cry of widowed wives and orphaned daughters. It was followed swiftly by a whistling war cry that I had heard before, but could not for the life of me place.

But the pain was fading. The screaming, burning wound in my chest was fading, replaced by a cold stillness, spreading out from my heart like a flame across oil. A slow, cold flame, ending all feeling in its path.

I closed my eyes. I could not see anything but darkness anyway.

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 25

I stared at the two leaders of the village’s fighters. “How are you two drunk this early? It;s barely past noon!”

“We got shtarted early,” Harold’s father slurred. “About right when you guysh left for your shuicide mishun.” He waved his half-empty beer mug, splashing some of it on the floor. “Orange gave us our own shuicide mishun.”

“I do not like suicide missions,” Captain Gaven declared loudly. “Too much…suicide.”

“Wench!” Mallern called. “Another round!”

The annoyed waitress from the morning looked even more annoyed than usual, and for good reason. I had a feeling that if she came over with drinks, it would be to dump them on their heads. I caught her eye and made a cutting motion with my hand, indicating she should ignore their order. She seemed only too happy to comply.

“What was that for?” Gaven demanded, eying me with sharp—but drunk—eyes. “You sig…sig…signed something at the taverness. Ess. There some sort of conspiracy at work here, boy? A vile plot against virtuous men?”

He could not say signaled, but he could manage virtuous just fine. “Yes. A conspiracy to keep you two from drinking yourselves to death.” I glared at them both, Mallern especially. “Seriously, you should be happy your son was called away on errands. Do you really want him to see you like this?”

He seemed like he was slipping into a depression, and my words did not help. “No…but I want to shend him on a shuicide mishun even lesh.”

I sighed and turned to Vale. “See, we tried it your way. You cannot argue with drunks.”

My blond subordinate bowed. “All I could do was ask.”

“Now, we do this our way.” I nodded to Norn, Roark, and Jack.

Norn and Roark took Gaven, while Jack and I took Mallern. We did not give them time to react, just slipped under their shoulder and pulled them away from their table, ignoring the beer they were spilling on us in the process. They complained, but they were too drunk to do much more than mumble incoherently.

“Apologies for the mess,” I said to the waitress as we passed. She was still frowning, but managed to nod in acceptance. She understood that this was the best way this could end. “Vale! Pay the girl a little something extra for her trouble!”

We dragged the two men down the tunnels, past our quarters and to the bathing caverns. As I understood it, a couple of the other caves in the Hellpit had natural hot springs, but there were none connected to the Town Hall cave. These were just big caves with pools of water in them.

That meant they were very cold.

We dumped the men in them without hesitation. After only a moment, they jumped up, screaming bloody murder and hacking water out of their lungs. They sat there in the waist-high water for a few minutes, leaning against the shore and shivering as they got their breath back.

“Sober?” I asked.

Nathan Mallern groaned. “…no. But enough that I think we will both take some of that clone fruit wine Miss Grandsbriar has.”

Jack stepped forward, holding a wineskin and two wooden mugs. She placed the mugs on the stone ground of the shore, within reach of both men, and poured a pink liquid into each cup. The men took the cups, clinked them against each other in a mock toast, and downed them in a single gulp each.

They then immediately turned around and wretched into the pool.

“Ugh,” Gaven muttered, wiping his mouth and staring at his clothes in disgust. “Should have gotten out first.”

“Yes, you should have,” I noted. We had seen this coming, but there was not really a way around it. “No one is going to be able to use this pool for a couple days, you know. Not until the underground river cycles out the water.”

Mallern pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed against what I assumed was a pretty bad headache. “I hate clone fruit wine. Worst hangover cure in the world. Whatever happened to that thick red stuff?”

“Too expensive,” Jack grunted. Presumably, she knew what he was referencing, because I did not have a clue. “Clone fruit wine is good enough for two idiot soldiers who got drunk a few hours before they knew they had an important mission.”

Both men groaned. “do not remind us…” Gaven murmured.

I had no sympathy for them. “You have ten minutes to get up, get dressed, and meet us in the briefing room. If you are not there by then, we are coming back and dragging you there by force. And you will not be getting new clothes.”

Nathan waved vaguely to acknowledge that he understood.

The five of us left, headed for the briefing room I had mentioned. I frowned at Jack as we walked. “You are sure it is fine to just leave them like that? I do not want to come back to find that they have drowned.”

She shook her head. “They will not. They have killer headaches right now, but they are sober.”

I sighed. “I suppose that is all we could ask for. Now we just need to make sure word of this does not get out. It would have a devastating effect on morale.” I turned to Vale. “You need to go back to the waitress—”

“Already bribed both her and the tavernkeeper to stay quiet,” he assured me. “They say no one really came through all day, so we do not have to worry about anyone else talking either. Everyone was busy with clearing the caves.”

“Small favors,” I muttered.

Ten minutes later, in the small and cramped cave that qualified as a briefing room at the moment, we were joined by the two haggard men in fresh clothes, armed and armored for battle. Harold had met up with us on the way.

The archer eyed his father up and down, especially his wet hair. “Did you take a bath?

Nathan glanced in my direction; I kept my face carefully neutral. After a moment, the hunter managed an awkward shrug. “Well, I…yes. I was a bit dirtier than usual. Ran into a dire rock colony this morning. Lots of mud.”

“All right, whatever,” the young archer muttered. “Let us just get on with this.”

The two leaders strode up the the stone table, where someone had spent an inordinate amount of time carving a surprisingly detailed map into the rock of the table itself. Unlike the stout four-legged tables in the tavern, this was just a solid block of stone, carved directly from the floor. For all I knew, it could have been here since Gregor’s bandits owned the place. In fact, this seemed exactly like something he would commission.

The point was, the map showed quite clearly the Hellpit and the surrounding area. The scale was not wide enough to see Old Grandsbriar to the north, but the Hellwood to the south had a representation etched into the rock, and someone had placed a few small stone buildings to show the location of the budding war camp.

“The camp is about three hours away,” I noted. “It is almost two o’clock now, so even if we left right now, we would only get there right as it is getting dark.” I looked at Jack and Harold. “I have a feeling sinhearts have excellent night-vision.”

They both nodded. “Very.”

“All right, but what about bright lights?”

“You fought the ones at Old Grandsbriar during the day,” Jack reminded me, a puzzled expression on her face as she questioned why I needed reminding. “They are perfectly fine with bright lights.”

“No, I mean bright lights at night. Sudden flashes, like those sky flowers.”

“That is something to consider,” Nathan mused. “I would have to check our stores, but we should have enough to make a few more big booms.” He frowned at me. “But they are smarter than they look. They will remember from yesterday the sound of them going up, and will close their eyes.”

“Only if we send them up,” I insisted. “What if we detonate them closer to the ground? Has that ever been tried before?”

Gaven chuckled. “Not on purpose. These things are not weapons, but they are dangerous. Playing around with them without knowing what you are doing is just going to get a lot of people hurt.”

“And letting the sinhearts build a fortress on your doorstep will hurt more.”

The captain sighed. “Fine. I am not an expert, but I will talk to the delvers, see what they think about the idea.” He pointed a finger at me. “But if they say no, that is it, we are not doing it. You have to listen to the experts.”

I nodded. “That is fine, and I agree completely.”

Gaven nodded as well. “Good. So what is the plan after that?”

Norn frowned at him. “Look, I trust my lord’s judgment, but should not you be the one making the plans? you are the one with the men.” He waved his hand at Nathan Mallern. “Both of you are, that is. And you have more experience fighting sinhearts.”

The armored man grinned mirthlessly. “Enough experience to know all that will come to squat. Nathan, what was the biggest group of sinhearts we ever fought at once? Not counting the suicide run on the Dire Abbey.”

“Thirty, I think,” the hunter mused. “Well, each wave was thirty of them.” He looked up at the rest of us. “They came in waves about five minutes apart, twenty or thirty at a time. We never did find out why they did not just rush us all at once.”

“Well, Let us not make that same mistake,” I said firmly. “I think this should work…”