Monthly Archives: February 2014

Scene 151 – Atria Mortuorum

ATRIA MORTUORUM

AKANE

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO

My father rubbed my head lightly. “It’s going to be okay, Red. Dry your tears.”

I sniffled, trying as hard as I could to pretend there were no tears. Dad wasn’t crying, so I couldn’t either.

On the other hand, Mom was weeping and blubbering on the floor, hugging Murasaki so tightly my sister was going blue in the face. Midori managed to separate them, and Mom immediately latched onto her instead.

Murasaki rubbed her eyes and looked down at me, before turning to Dad. “Why do you keep saying that? Shiro is…” she started crying again, unable to speak.

I tugged on Raven, the sword hanging at my father’s side, in order to get his attention. “Daddy, why can Murasaki cry and I can’t? You told me not to cry…”

“Because he hasn’t given up on you yet,” Midori spat bitterly, still holding our weeping mother in her arms. She glared at me with the bright green eyes that had earned herself her name. “He still thinks you can earn his sword one day, even though it killed Shiro—”

“That’s enough,” our father said firmly. “I know you are upset, but I am in no mood to take the blame for this.” I belatedly noticed a quaver in his voice.

Was he barely holding on?

“I’m eighteen years old, Dad!” Midori shouted, disentangling herself from our mother and striding up to our father. “I’ll blame whoever I choose! You’re the one who—”

“Midori, that is quite enough,” Mom’s soft voice floated through the air. We all turned to see her slowly regaining her feet, wiping her tears away as gracefully as she could. “If you have something to say to your father, you can do so later.” She indicated the room with her hand. “You are embarrassing us.”

It didn’t seem like it. The Hall of the Dead was crowded with grieving families, come to visit the names engraved on the walls. But no one was paying attention to us. Why should they? We were far from the only crying family, and I could hear shouted arguments echoing from the floors above and below.

I decided to ignore my mother; she did tend to be worried about appearances too much, so this was nothing new. Instead, I turned my attention to the wall—granite, I think—we were standing in front of.

Every person had four lines dedicated to them. The first was their birth name, then indented underneath was their nickname or title, and then indented under that were their dates of birth and death, and finally a few words about the person.

I loved this place. There were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of names on this floor alone, and it was only floor ten out of fifty. The Halls recorded all the dead since the Zero Forge was first lit, every soul who died on Domina’s soil or seas immortalized in stone.

Immortalized was a new word. My Dad was the one who taught it to me.

I liked it. Immortalized.

‘Shiro Akiyama,’ my sister’s engraving read. Then the single character of her first name, and the two of our family name. Then the dates—born December 4th, died February 5th. She was fourteen years old when she died. It seemed like forever to me, but everyone else was going on about how young she was.

I read the last line aloud. “’She died smiling.’”

My father patted my head again. “Yeah. There wasn’t…” he momentarily gripped my hair hard enough to hurt, but I didn’t cry out. I don’t think he even noticed what he was doing, but either way his grasp quickly loosened. “There wasn’t much of her left, after the explosion. But they found her head. And she was smiling.”

“I suppose that is all anyone can ask,” a thick, breathy voice declared from behind us.

We all turned to see a man about Dad’s age, wearing a white lab coat and standing in front of the wall with a woman and two children, a boy and a girl. The girl looked about my age, but the boy was way older, like ten.

“Isaac,” Dad said with a smile. “Thank you for coming.”

Always a pleasure, Akio. Even at times such as this.”

Mom wiped her face again. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said to the woman at the man’s side. She extended her hand. “Yasu Akiyama.”

“Janet Gertrude,” the woman replied, shaking my mother’s hand. “This is David,” she patted the boy on the head. “And Robyn Joan. You’ve already met my husband, Isaac, I believe?”

Mom smiled as best she could and shook the man’s hand. “Doctor Clarke? No, we haven’t met, but I’ve heard so much about you.”

He grinned in return. “Likewise, my dear.”

I shied away from the new family, gripping the sword belted at my father’s side for comfort. I’m not good with new people, and these ones had just come out of nowhere…

“I’m touched you invited us,” Miss Gertrude said with a sad smile. “I know this is a tough time, and you need friends to get through it.” She glanced around. “Speaking of which, is anyone else coming?”

“I invited Maria and Victor, but they’re always pretty busy.” Dad adjusted Raven a little bit. I guess all my pulling on it was uncomfortable for him. “Artemis, of course, couldn’t make it.”

“That’s quite a few people, Akio. Were you planning a funeral after all?

My father smiled sadly. “No…no, unfortunately not. We don’t have the time or money for something like that.” He gestured at the wall. “Musashi’s sword…if the engraving wasn’t free, we might not have even been able to afford this much.”

Quite right, quite right,” the doctor muttered, shaking his head. I noticed his daughter staring at me, and looked away. “The same thing happened with my first wife. We had our differences, but I would have preferred…” he trailed off, a pained look on his face.

There was a long, awkward silence, punctuated only by Murasaki sniffling off to one side. At Miss Gertrude’s silent urging, the Clarkes turned to the wall, studying the names engraved with such care.

I tugged lightly on Dad’s pant leg to get his attention.

He rubbed my head, smiling down at me, but I could still see that pained expression on his face. “What’s wrong, Red?”

“It’s just…” I whispered, not wanting to disturb the silence for some reason. “…about what Doctor Clarke said…”

He frowned. “What exactly—?”

“What’s a funeral?”

My father blinked owlishly. “What?”

“That thing Doctor Clarke mentioned. What’s a funeral?”

“I’m—you…you can’t possibly…” he trailed off, staring down at me as if I had suddenly grown a second head.

I bit my lip. “Is it something bad?”

That pained smile came back again. “No…no, of course not.” He patted my head again. “A funeral is just…a sort of party for someone who has died. You invite over everyone who was close to them, and spend a few hours telling stories about when they were alive. That’s all.”

I thought about it for a second. “But…that doesn’t make any sense.”

His eyebrow quirked upwards, and he smiled a little more genuinely. “Oh? How so?”

“If people spent that much time on everyone who died, there wouldn’t be time for anything else.”

My father’s smile disappeared like a rat down a hole.

“Yes,” he said very, very quietly. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 151)

Yes, Midori has green eyes. No, they are not a toy, she was born with them, and she is fifteen years older than the toy maker. Normally, such a thing would be nearly impossible for a pure Japanese girl, which confused her parents to no end. However, a paternity test confirmed that Akio was her father. It was just one of those random quirks of genetics.

Oh, and Akane is about six months away from being 6 years old here. Midori is three days past 18, and Murasaki is almost 13.

Scene 150 – Perdidit Familia

PERDIDIT FAMILIA

AKANE

“It was dangerous,” MC said breathlessly in my ear. “Illegal, too. If Artemis finds out what I did—”

“Don’t let him,” I suggested. “I guess.”

“Yeah, I figured as much, thanks,” she snapped back harshly.

I started. MC never snapped at me. “I—uh…”

She sighed. “Sorry. It’s been a long couple months.”

“Yeah.” That was the truth. Since…August what, the 24th? Yeah, that sounded right. That was when the first screamer appeared, and everything went all sideways.

Of course, my life had been a complete cluster since the moment I was born.

“Still,” I managed. “Thanks.”

“Hey, you’ve done enough for this city, even before the screamers.” She chuckled. “Of course, you’ve also caused a lot of property damage.”

I bristled. “Most weren’t my fault. It was just—”

“I’m just teasing, Red, no need to fuss.”

I closed my eyes, gripping my phone so hard I heard it start to creak. “Please…don’t call me that.”

“What? Oh…right. Elizabeth called you that. Sorry.”

Wait, she had? Well…thinking back, yeah, I guess she did. Usually, she went with ‘Ken-chan,’ but when she was talking about me in English (not to me, she always used Japanese for that), she did call me Red.

That wasn’t why I disliked the nickname, though. No need to tell MC that.

The woman continued quickly, trying to dodge the awkwardness. “I figured breaking a few privacy laws was the least I could do to return the favor.”

“Yeah, and I appreciate it.” I swallowed my anxiety as best as I could as I looked over the orphanage I was standing in front of. It was the same as any other orphanage in West Middle; fifteen stories tall, with walls covered in trellises and potato and tomato vines. “I-I’m going in.”

“Good luck,” MC said earnestly, and hung up.

I put my phone away slowly, still desperately searching for some way to delay this even a moment more. Musashi’s sword, I couldn’t possibly do this. Why had I ever thought this was a good idea?

I should go home. Turn around, get back on the train, and go back to the dorms. I had…training. And homework. Lots of homework. All sorts of things I needed to do other than—

“Who are you?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin at the quiet voice. I hadn’t even noticed the front door open, but a curious little demon girl, maybe nine or ten years old, was staring up at me with bright orange eyes.

Thankfully, I’m generally good with kids, otherwise with everything combined I probably wouldn’t have been able to speak. “I-I’m…” I coughed, and started again. “I’m here to see Yuuki. Is he in?”

“Oh, yeah!” she chirped cheerfully. “Come on in!” She stepped aside to let me pass.

“Thank you,” I said as I stepped over the threshold. “I hope he’s not busy…”

“No, he just got back from work.” Of course. He was…sixteen? Thereabouts. Of course he’d be working.

“Well, I don’t want to interrupt his leisure either…”

The demon waved her hand as she led me through the building. “It’s fine! What gang are you in?”

I blinked at the sudden change of subject, but managed to regain my bearings quickly enough. I had a lot of practice from Lizzy. “Uh, I’m not in a—”

“Sure you are! You’re wearing your colors!”

Oh, right. The ribbon in my hair. I guess I could see how someone could mistake that for a symbol of allegiance to one of the surviving gangs. “Well, you see—”

“Which gang is it? The Greenhearts? The Smiths? Or maybe the Ajellos?”

It wasn’t like when I was growing up, and the gangs were all bloodthirsty psychopaths in the middle of being exterminated by Necessarius. These days, the gangs were more like businesses and companies.

Which gave me an idea.

“I’m with Huntsman.” A perfectly true statement, if a tiny bit misleading. Two people wasn’t exactly a gang, but…

The little girl frowned. “I haven’t heard of them. What do they do?”

“We do mercenary and protection work. Monster slaying and the like.”

“Well, that’s nice. Matron says people like you are the only ones standing between the city and total annihilation.”

“Uh…” At her age, I’m not sure I could even pronounce ‘annihilation,’ let alone knew what it meant. “I think that might be going a bit too far, but thanks.”

The door in front of us opened, revealing a tall, gangly teenage boy with soft Asian features. His black hair was cropped short, and he was dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, so there was really nothing to mark him as unique or special. If he had any toys, I didn’t see them.

He did, however, have bright green eyes, a color that was virtually impossible for a full-blooded Asian.

“What’s going too far?” He frowned at me, then turned to the girl guiding me. “Who’s this?”

She just shrugged. “Dunno. She said she was looking for you.”

The boy’s frown deepened, and he turned his attention back to me. I noticed his hand slip behind his back, likely to grip a weapon in case I turned hostile.

“Well?” he asked bluntly, after it became clear that I wasn’t going to volunteer anything. “What do you want?”

I licked my lips, trying desperately to find the words. I couldn’t just…

“If you don’t have anything to say, then get out. I have things to do today.” He started to close the door.

“Y-you’re Yuuki, right?”

He opened the door again, eyebrow raised. “Yeah, so what?”

“Son of Midori? And your little brother is Yuudai?”

His eyes narrowed, and I heard the very soft sound of a knife being drawn from a sheathe. “Yeah, what of it?”

I smiled shakily. “I’m Akane Akiyama. Midori was my older sister.”

Yuuki’s knife clattered to the floor as he stared at me in shock.

“I’m your aunt.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 150)

For the record, Yuuki is actually half Japanese and half Vietnamese.

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 149 – Conventus

CONVENTUS

DEREK

It was October 10th, a Wednesday. Two days after Akane had managed to snap me out of my depression, two days after I had decided we needed to prepare for Elizabeth’s inevitable escape. That was how long it had taken to gather everyone.

Obould of course, Power of the orcs. One of my closest friends and allies. I couldn’t have kept him away if I wanted to.

Aleksander Hagebak, also known as Thor. One of the lesser Colossi of the Aesir, and son of Odin. He preferred to keep out of the Culture Wars. He had only come because Elizabeth had killed his Hammer, Mjolnir, but that was good enough for me.

Speaking of giants, Sinmara, wife of the Muspel Colossus, had come in person as well. Hagebak was glaring daggers at her, but the blacksmith was better behaved than that, and just sat in a chair in the corner, staring at a wall.

From the kemos, we had Senator McDowell of the Iluvatar party representing the ursas, Alpha Hannesdottir for the cans, and Alpha Tecumseh for the lupes. Evangel wasn’t technically a warlord, but his political ties were more than enough. He might just make up for Hannesdottir—the crab kemos didn’t really have anything to bring to the table.

Only a single vampire had come: Titivilus, from the warbloods. He was Dispater’s second in command, and had assured me that the only reason the old Noble hadn’t come himself was because he still refused to leave the Iron Tower.

I had hoped for more from the vamps, but I shouldn’t have. While I was technically on good terms with the Canians, Mephistopheles was still understandably upset that we had killed one of his favorites. The ghouls were obviously out—Akane had a tendency to hunt down and destroy their outposts when she got bored. The Nessians were still angry about Shendilavri, and the Nosferatu were still disorganized from the bats incident. I didn’t really know any of the other subcultures, which was probably for the best.

But we did have one ace in the hole: Pale Night, Power of Androlynne. I was surprised she had answered my summons. I had done a few favors for her over the years, but only minor ones, and she was pretty high up the totem pole to come personally. She was basically the very first warlord, the ‘Daughter of Lilith’ and the mother of demons.

“Thank you all for coming,” I greeted them sincerely. “Especially for coming personally. I understand that it would have been easier to just send a messenger.”

Wait, crap, would Titivilus take that as an insult? It wasn’t Dispater’s fault for being agoraphobic, and I understood that sending his nuncio was the next best thing…

Thankfully, the pale-skinned vampire just winked at me. He understood.

“What is this place, anyway?” Tecumseh growled. He wasn’t angry, it was just that he was one of the first lupe anthros, and his modifications had screwed with his vocal cords a little. He was always growling. “It smells like an ammo dump.”

‘Here’ was the BOB skyscraper Akane had burned down Monday morning. It was perfect—it had only been two days, so there were no squatters yet, and the company had written the whole building off, so we technically weren’t even trespassing. Other than a few half-burned speakers that had somehow survived the fire, everything of value had been removed.

“Just another warehouse slated to be torn down,” I assured the warlords. “We won’t be bothered. Although I wouldn’t recommend going much higher than the first floor.” I indicated the walls, still covered in scorches and smoke. I could hear the distant sound of dripping water, from where the firefighters’ had attacked particularly bad sections. “Fire damage has left the place a bit…unstable.”

“Why don’t we get down to business?” Evangel suggested gently. As a politician, he had the most experience with how meetings like this usually went. I assumed he wanted to keep us from getting sidetracked. “Huntsman, this is your show. You were quite vague in your message. What exactly is this about?”

I nodded in thanks, and leaned against the wall in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner. “This is about the Composer, as you all know. We need to be prepared when she escapes.”

Obould spoke up for the first time. “Necessarius has her, she’s not going anywhere—”

“Why aren’t there any ‘sarians here?” Hagebak interrupted. “I’m sure Butler would be too busy, but there has to be someone who can come.”

“I still want confirmation that Lizzy is this Composer,” Jasmine insisted. Despite the fact that she was a crab anthro, her speech was surprisingly clear. As I understood, she still had her human lips hidden under everything else. “I just can’t believe—”

I held up my hand to silence them, and was mildly surprised when they took the hint.

“I will answer all questions in time,” I promised. “But let’s start with the easy ones. First: Yes, Elizabeth is the Composer.” I locked eyes with the can warlord. “No ifs, ands, or buts. I don’t have any video footage for evidence, but in our most recent confrontation she was quite clear.” I smiled a little sadly. “She seemed to find the idea that it was still in doubt to be hilarious.

“Second, there are no ‘sarians here because if Elizabeth has any more spies or sleepers, Necessarius is the most logical place to find them. I have tacit approval for Butler for anything and everything, but he doesn’t know any details, just in case.”

“And third, she is immortal. We can’t kill her, so her escape is only a matter of time.”

There was silence at that.

“When you say ‘immortal,’” Titivilus said slowly. “What exactly do you mean?”

“She can regenerate from any injury. Shooting her just pisses her off, and blowing off her head slows her down for less than a minute. Her exact words were ‘you do not possess the ability to end my life.’”

The vampire drummed his fingers on the scorched desk he was sitting on. “Well, the most logical assumption is that she was simply lying—”

“She wasn’t. One of the Paladins can tell when someone is lying.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Damn. Then I’ve got nothing.”

“We could always toss her down an underwater trench,” Evangel suggested.

“She’ll survive, and come back pissed.”

“Wait,” Jasmine interjected. “Even if I do agree that Lizzy could be the Composer—”

“She’s tried to kill me three times in the last two weeks,” I noted drily. “We are far past ‘could be’ at this point.”

She waved her massive claw. “Whatever, Composer or not, immortality is just ridiculous!”

I sighed at the crab anthro. “Honored Hunter, our city is currently under attack by superpowered zombies. We have witnessed eight different powers, from electricity control to light control, not counting what the Paladins have access to.” I spawned a glowing blue shield, a small buckler attached to my arm. I held it up so the Alpha could see it leaking azure mist. “Immortality doesn’t seem all that far-fetched any more.”

“Broken fang,” Tecumseh spat. “This city is screwed-up enough without…” he waved his hand at my shield, trying to find the words. “Damned witchcraft.”

I let the shield fade. “We’re not sure what it is, but I am not going to refuse to use a weapon at my disposal—”

Hagebak raised an eyebrow. “Then why don’t you use guns?”

I sighed. “Because I’m no good with guns, Honored Titan,” I lied smoothly. It wasn’t like it was a big lie; I definitely wasn’t great with guns. “Nothing moral about it.”

Sinmara smiled. “Yes, I remember when you came over to buy a gun for your Akane. We tried to get you one too, and you took it to the shooting range…” she chuckled. “You were impressively bad.”

“Thank you for the reminder,” I managed through gritted teeth, cutting off a more caustic reply. “I’m sure you understand why I prefer hand-to-hand combat.”

She nodded. “Forge and fire, yes. My son is still annoyed that he could never beat you in training.”

I blinked. “He…what?” I would remember that. Sure, I had wrestled giants before, even won, but not every time.

“He wasn’t a giant yet,” the Colossus explained, reading the question on my face. “He’s always been big, but he only got the buffs last year.”

I frowned. “Wait…over six feet, brown skin, built kinda like a dump truck?”

“Yeah! That’s Jose!”

“Huh. I never knew he was your son. How’s he doing these days?”

“Not bad, not bad. He—”

“Can we focus, people?!” Tecumseh barked. Literally. “This is about the witch.” The old lupe turned to the others. “Does anyone have anything that will help?”

“I own a factory that makes shotguns that fire rockets,” Evangel noted mildly. “That can’t hurt.”

“There’s a reason no one uses McDowell guns, Senator,” Titivilus cut in. “Your brother’s designs are too crazy to be useful.”

Obould laughed. “You clearly aren’t a monster slayer, warblood. Once you find their niche, McDowell guns are some of the best on the market.”

Hannesdottir made a clicking noise. “Well, we aren’t fighting monsters.”

I smiled a little sadly. “And you clearly haven’t fought screamers. They’re like monsters—dangerous, but stupid. They don’t have much beyond instinct.”

A low, husky feminine voice spread through the room. “The screamers are not the problem. The renegades are.”

It took me a moment to identify the source.

A tall, willowy woman, wrapped completely in a white silk sheet, barely showing her soft curves. The sheet stayed pure and untarnished, despite all the ash and charcoal in the room, giving her an…untouched and innocent appearance.

Appearances can be deceiving.

“Pale Night,” I said slowly.

The first demon, the obyrith, architect of the tanar’ri, Keeper of the First Gate of Hell. Power of Androlynne, where she sat upon the Throne of Chaos and watched the other demons from above. Self-proclaimed daughter of the Mother Monster. Founder of the demon culture, inspiration to Malcanthet, Orcus, and Sargeras.

One of the most powerful people in the city, and she had showed up to my impromptu meeting. Personally. I had invited her, true, but I hadn’t expected her to actually send anyone, let alone show up herself.

I steeled myself before replying. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. The renegades are something to worry about, but the screamers can do far more damage.”

“There will be no more screamers,” the woman declared in her calm, soothing voice.

I looked at the others; they seemed as confused as I was. “Ah…what makes you say that?”

“The Blackguards are guns, while the screamers are swords. She will not use the screamers any more; she has no need to.”

I sighed. And here I had been hoping for some actual reasons. “Okay, sure. We’ll be careful about that.”

The sheet fluttered. “You do not believe me.” It wasn’t a question.

With effort, I kept my tone polite. “It’s not that, it’s just…” I shrugged. “We don’t really know anything about how she thinks, her goals, anything like that. It seems like a pretty big leap.”

“Making assumptions about your enemies never ends well,” Titivilus agreed.

Pale Night turned to face him. With the thick shawl obscuring her features, the effect was a little unnerving. “Mock me if you will, Disian, but I have seen more wars than you have years. This is not a guess, or an assumption.” She turned back to me. “I know the girl’s type. More concerned with blood and carnage than actually defeating the enemy. Combined with her supposed immortality…”

“She’ll fight personally as much as possible,” I finished, finally following her line of reasoning. “Using the screamers wouldn’t be any fun.”

She nodded. “She was hiding her identity, for whatever reason. Now that she no longer has to worry about that, the screamers are superfluous.”

“Hm,” Obould murmured thoughtfully. “I can see your point…she hasn’t been reusing screamer types, I suppose it makes sense that she’d ignore them completely now.”

“So…what?” Hagebak asked in an annoyed tone. “Just wait for these…” he waved his massive hand. “Renegades, these Blackguards, to pull Greene out of whatever hole Necessarius dropped her in, and everything starts over again like nothing happened?”

Tecumseh snarled. “Weren’t you listening, boy? With just Greene and her Blackguards, we’re talking just a squad or two at a time.” He grinned toothily with his wolf-maw. “We can handle that, no problem.”

“I wouldn’t say no problem,” I warned. “The last batch we fought had some interesting ways of using their powers, and I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.” The lupe growled, but I ignored him. I had known him long enough to understand he was just frustrated, not angry at me specifically. “But it will be easier than the screamers, that’s for sure. Speakers—Paladins and Blackguards—can’t infect people.”

“But still,” Hannesdottir said slowly. “He’s right, isn’t he? We can’t do anything but wait for the Composer to make a move?” She made an angry click. “Of course, that’s assuming you’re right about Lizzy anyway.”

I didn’t bother responding to the second part. “There’s not much we can do, true. But we can prepare. You can lend soldiers to the ‘sarians.”

Sinmara shook her head. “Bad idea. I trust my men, but Butler doesn’t. I doubt he would want them anywhere near Greene. You remember what happened last time.”

“We can help with that indirectly,” Evangel pointed out. “Shore up the peacekeeper forces and so on, give them slack to send the most trustworthy to guard her.”

I nodded. “That’s what I meant. Even if it only gets one more person guarding the Composer’s cage, this meeting will have been worth it.”

That wasn’t the real purpose of the meeting, of course. We needed to forge alliances, bonds of trust between the disparate clans and cultures. Just getting eight warlords in a room without having to threaten violence was a massive step in the right direction.

“For the time being, why don’t we table the issue of the Composer?” Jasmine asked slowly, her giant claw clicking nervously. “We have bigger things to worry about right now.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Bigger than Elizabeth Greene?” The crab winced, which was my intent. She didn’t want to admit the Composer’s identity, so I needed to hammer her with it as much as possible. “I’ll confess I don’t pay much attention to politics. What happened now?”

Evangel stared at me. “You…don’t know? I mean, it’s been a full day.”

“That’s my bad,” Obould apologized. “He gets most of this kind of news from me, and I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to even toss him an e-mail.”

“About what?” I was getting exasperated now. Couldn’t they just get to the point? “By now, I’m half-expecting that one of the fusion reactors exploded when I wasn’t looking.”
“That would be less destructive,” Hagebak muttered. “In the long run, I mean.”

What—”

“The fey have reformatted themselves into a true culture,” Pale Night cut in with all the bluntness of a sledgehammer. “With only six fey, split into Seelie and Unseelie courts—Summer and Winter, that is. They have also started recruiting.”

“And they announced all this with a couple dozen monsters each,” Tecumseh growled. “Minimal deaths. A couple hundred, maybe less. Some of the ones missing might have been kidnapped or recruited.”

I closed my eyes and slumped my back against the wall. Silver moon and golden sun…how in the world did I not hear about this before?

“And it was yesterday, you said?”

“Around noon,” Evangel confirmed.

“You should also know about the hundred or so fools who rushed into the sewers after the Unseelie Princess,” Titivilus added cheerfully. “Hearts in the right place, of course, but they were still idiots. We’re not even sure what the fey used to kill them. There were no survivors, and not as many body parts as there should have been.”

I kneaded my forehead. Come on

Jasmine shrugged her carapaced shoulders. “So they threw a gargant at the poor bastards. I don’t see why everyone is making such a big deal.”

“These weren’t a bunch of random kids, Honored Hunter,” Obould corrected. “They were disorganized, but they were experienced monster slayers. The fact that there were NO survivors, not to mention no evidence they even managed to injure their opponent, is…worrying.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “Okay.” I nodded. “Let’s focus on that for now.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 149)

More new characters. I think I’ve got too many running around right now.

Scene 148 – Pavor

PAVOR

MAEVE

“How are the subjects coming along?” Aurora, the Maiden of Summer, asked.

“Well enough,” I admitted a little grudgingly. There was a reason she was asking, and I didn’t need to be reminded. “A few glitches here and there, but that is to be expected.”

“There was one in particular you had your eye on…the kemo girl. What was her name?”

“Veda. She is an interesting one.”

My Summer counterpart cocked her head. “How so?”

“She watched me kill two of her friends and horrifically injure a third, but still volunteered to be a guinea pig.”

Aurora tapped something into the keyboard in front of her while she thought about what I had said. Technically we didn’t need keyboards anymore, or even monitors. We all had interfaces wired directly into our tanks that basically let us control our computers by thought, not much different than how our homunculi worked. But in our bases we preferred to to stick with the cruder interfaces. Made us feel human.

“I assume you’ve ruled out the possibility that the girl is a sociopath?” Aurora said finally.

“Not quite ruled out, but it’s definitely at the bottom of my list.”

“Interesting.”

“That’s what I just said.”

The brown-haired girl rolled her eyes and stepped away from the computer. “Were you going to move her, or leave her here?”

I blinked. “Uh…leave her here? I guess? Why would I move her before her transformation is complete?”

She scowled. “You haven’t looked outside recently, have you?”

I frowned, but did as she suggested, using my interface to tap into the exterior cameras. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the cause of the Maiden’s concern.

The sewers outside our base were swarming with enemy forces.

I cursed under my breath. Gods of men and darkness…the cameras weren’t particularly high quality, so it was hard to get a lot of detail, but as far as I could tell, this was no organized attack. A smattering of vampires, demons, kemos and giants hacking their way through our monsters the hard way. While that meant they weren’t fighting with any real tactics, it also meant there would be more random groups behind them. Kill a few soldiers in an army, and the army pauses to regroup. Kill a few men in a mob, and the mob just gets mad.

They were still a good distance away from the base, maybe two or three hours (more if they got lost), but that wasn’t enough time. Veda wouldn’t be done for at least another day. It would have been faster, but we had to use painkillers, which interfered with the process. Not to mention that I had forgotten we needed to use painkillers at first, so she had spent the first hour screaming until her vocal cords snapped—repeatedly.

We didn’t use painkillers on our homunculi, since all their pain sensors were mechanical, so we could just switch them off when needed. And when making changelings, we wanted them to hate us as much as possible, so extra pain during the process was a plus. It had completely slipped my mind to change the settings for poor little Veda.

I shook my head. Regardless, the problem was clear. Our attackers might just be random adventurers banding together for revenge, but they’d be able to deal enough damage. This wasn’t a fortress, just a minor outpost that had been nearby. It barely had any defenses; why bother, when the only people who were ever here were our homunculi? Under normal circumstances, the most valuable thing would have been the signal repeaters we had installed to help us remote-control the bodies amongst all the interference.

But that was before we had decided to become a true culture, with underlings and servants. They could not be replaced, flash-cloned in a tank like our homunculi.

This was ridiculous. The fey, hiding from a mob. Not to mention that in the sewers, there were hundreds of threats that should have wiped out this silly little party before it had gone ten feet. Where was Obox-ob, the Prince of Vermin? The warlord of the ekolids normally did not take kindly to anyone encroaching on his territory like this. But he had been missing for a while now. Sometime around when the aves managed to restart the Nosferatu civil war.

“We need a plan,” I declared. “What do we have in reserve?”

Aurora raised an eyebrow. “Here? We have a box of leapers that no one has checked in a month. They’re probably all dead by now.”

Leapers? Perfect. I strode over to the freezer, yanking out the crate filled with frogs. They were stuck together from the frost, so I started separating them, careful to avoid damaging them.

One of the reason we used frog-based monsters as our most basic line of defense was because they took to freezing temperatures very well, simply falling into a state of hibernation. Not all baseline frogs could do it, and it could take them days or longer to wake up, but we had bred and molded them carefully. These leapers would be jumping around in under ten minutes.

Once I had finished pulling them apart, I put them all back in the crate, walked outside, and simply tossed them into the sewer. I closed the door behind me, confident that they would slow our enemies down, if only by a few minutes. But that wasn’t their true purpose anyway.

“A couple toads won’t do much good, Maeve.”

I scoffed. “The leapers aren’t here to defend us. They’re bait for the defenders.”

The Princess of Soil and Flame narrowed her eyes. “You seeded the sewers with leapeaters?”

“Abyssal leapeaters, to be precise.” Abyssal was a term popularized for describing monsters that had nighteyes and fire resistance. You’d be surprised how well those two went together. Normally, they wouldn’t be much use against a horde of well-armed adventurers. Many of the men and women clawing their way here would have nighteyes, and they’d be able to handle a few angry ostriches pretty easily.

But there was more wandering the sewers than just frogs and birds.

Aurora nodded slowly as she realized what I was planning. “That might actually work. The only question is if he’ll be hungry enough.”

“He’s always hungry enough,” I insisted. “For anything and everything. The real danger is that he might try and bash his way in here.”

“Then why are you baiting him?”

“Is that a serious question, or are you just trolling me?”

She sighed. “Yes, it is serious. If we stop your Veda’s procedure now, we can escape with her to someplace safer.”

I shook my head. “The modifications are extensive. If we take her out early, she’ll die in minutes.”

“So you think your favorite gargant can kill…” she paused, and her gaze went distant as she checked the cameras. “…almost a hundred men?”

I grinned. “Really dear, you’ve seen him.”

She snorted. “Been killed by him, more like.”

“Exactly. You know that a few kids with guns won’t be able to stop him.”

“Fair enough, I suppose. Though still…” a thoughtful look crossed her face.

“What?” I raised an eyebrow. “What’s the problem?”

“It’s like you said. They’re just kids. Whipped into a frenzy by our little stunt. Should we really let them get slaughtered by a creation we can’t even control any more?”

Maybe she had a point. No fey was adverse to a little bloodshed, of course. Improving a city of murderers and criminals wasn’t going to happen by handing out flowers.

But this wasn’t the usual. This wasn’t us sending a horde of monsters to break up another angel/vampire race war, or ‘randomly’ deciding to slaughter a band of slave traders.

We had brought these people here. We had known they would come, prepared for it. I hadn’t quite remembered it when I was putting Veda in the toy box, but this was part of our plan.

However, we hadn’t quite decided how to deal with them. This was the important part. This would shape much of public opinion regarding the new fey. If we simply ran, it implied we cared more about lives—both ours and those of others—than before. If we fought, killed them all, it meant more of the same. Except now, the fey wouldn’t be some mysterious group they could ignore most of the time. We were a full-fledged culture.

Was that really what we wanted? To be a culture known for murder and bloodshed?

“Yes,” I said, and pushed a button on the console.

Deep underground, through miles of twisting sewers, a massive gate dropped open.

The creature inside the cage would take time to stir, then longer to follow the trail left for him. But he would be here soon. An hour, two at the most.

And he’d be hungry.

Behind the Scenes (scene 148)

Well, clearly this is not going to end poorly for anyone.

Scene 147 – Supremus

SUPREMUS

SIMON

“Wait, you want what?”

I stood as straight as I could, pulling away the ice pack I had been using to nurse my still-bruised face. “I want to undergo the Balor reconstruction process. Sir.”

Narek Nhang, Power of the sibriex, just stared at me.

He looked different than when I had last seen him a few weeks ago, but that was no real surprise. He was called the Unfleshed Lord for a reason; he never stuck with a single form for more than a month. He had been known to switch within hours of finishing a procedure.

Today, he had a vaguely Asian skin tone along with short (but sharp) spikes covering his arms. His eyes were solid gold, and I wasn’t completely sure he could actually see. But either way, it didn’t slow him down at all.

One of the other sibriex, a young girl who’s name I could never remember, spoke up. “The process worked perfectly fine last time. I don’t think there’s any undue risk.”

“This isn’t about risk!” the Power snapped. “Lancaster doesn’t have any money to pay for such a procedure! And I am not willing to extend that kind of credit to a brand-new demon who hasn’t even earned his keep.”

I bristled at that. “Hey, I’m not brand-new!” My Power glared at me, and I hurriedly backstepped verbally. “Uh…sir. I’ve been here two months, playing gopher and lab assistant to everyone. I helped confirm Magorian’s theories on plant-based uses of the toy maker—”

“You’ve been here two months, and you haven’t submitted a single page of original research. Reviewing everyone else’s work will only get you so far.”

“Peer review is the basis of science—”

“That’s not the point!” He stomped forward until those creepy golden eyes of his were only inches away. “I’m not going to turn an untested imp of unclear loyalty into a walking juggernaut!”

I swallowed my fear as best I could. “Sir, if you’d just let me explain—”

“Explain?” He settled back a little. “Explain what? Unless you were talking about something other than the Balor package, we have nothing to discuss.” He starting counting off on his fingers. “Enhanced strength, durability, speed, adrenaline, bulletproof skin, claws, horns, and a strong tail. Why would I give those to you?”

I shouldn’t have said anything. I should have just bit my tongue, like always.

But something about Narek’s aggressive behavior made me angry. He reminded me of the bullies from my old orphanage. Seena and I had always just run away, never confronting them. We were never very strong.

I shouldn’t have said anything.

But against this bully, I had a weapon.

“Aramazd thinks it’s a good idea.”

The girl raised an eyebrow. “Who the Hells is Aramazd?” She sighed and turned to the Power. “Knight Nhang, I can have him thrown out if you—” she stopped talking, with a sound like she was choking on her own tongue.

She had finally noticed the look our warlord was giving me.

He looked like he had just stepped on a land mine.

“How do you know that name?” He said, so quietly I could barely hear it. I couldn’t tell whether he was terrified or angry.

Probably both.

I faced him down without fear…mostly. I managed to hide it pretty well, anyway. “From the man himself, of course.” I paused, as though thinking over what I had just said. “…though I’m not sure man is the right word.”

Narek narrowed his eyes to slits. “What happened to you, Lancaster? Where is the simpering little orphan I recruited?”

I met his gaze evenly. “It…has been an eventful few days, Noble Nhang. The Composer is captured, but free enough to see and hear through the eyes of her minions. The fey have made an unexpected move, and many of my friends are dead.” I shrugged. “I can either become more powerful or die. I’m sure you understand my choice.”

My warlord took a step back in surprise. “Wait, the fey did what? I haven’t heard anything like that.”

That was odd. Yeah, it was only a few hours since the attack, but surely it would be headline news around the city.

I scratched my horns, a little self-conscious. “Uh, yeah. Their war apparently ended, with only six survivors, split into two courts. One of them, Maeve, showed up and started recruiting.” As the memory resurfaced, I felt my heart flutter. I quashed the feeling. “People…died.”

I didn’t meet anyone’s eyes.

“Hmph,” my warlord muttered. He waved his hand. “Leave us.”

The three other sibriex in the room looked at each other before the girl responded. “Uh, sir—”

Now.”

“Yes, sir.”

It only took a few minutes for the them to gather up their things at top speed and run from the room.

“Fine,” Nhang said after the others were gone.

I blinked. “Uh…sir?”

“Fine. I’ll let you go through the Balor reconstruction process.”

I swallowed my anxiety as best as I could. “Th-thank you, sir.”

“Aramazd will oversee the procedure. Since we don’t have a toy box, he’s the only one with the skill to pull it off.”

He was? I didn’t know that. I guess I had just assumed he was the culture’s hacker, and hadn’t thought it through much beyond that. But if he was just a hacker, what had he been doing for the months he was disconnected from the internet?

Playing with the toy maker, I’d guess.

“Of course, you understand what happens if you try to cross me.”

“Uh…sir?”

The Power of the sibriex leaned in close again. “I’m giving you warlord level toys here. I know what that kind of power can do.” He narrowed his golden eyes. “But your sister isn’t a warlord.”

“Is…is that a threat, sir?”

“Yes,” he said unflinchingly. “It is. I’m not letting you walk around in bulletproof skin without making sure I have some collateral on you.”

“Bulletproof skin? Really?”

The old demon sighed. “Yes, really. The package is based on the toys the Mother Monster herself has. You’ll be able to spit fire once we’re done with you.”

I managed a weak smile. I had to admit I hadn’t read the brochure as thoroughly as I should have. “So. When do we start?”

“Now,” the golden-eyed demon replied immediately, spinning on his heel and heading towards the door opposite the one the other sibriex had exited through. “To Aramazd.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 147)

I’m doing too many short ones. And they always seem to take longer to write. Why is that?

Scene 146 – Conjuga

CONJUGA

SEENA

“Noble Seena.”

That’s what Maeve had called me. As if it had already been decided.

I’ll admit, it didn’t sound so stupid when she said it.

Zusa and Jelena were dead. Delphie and Veda were…out of reach. Yolanda had two broken wrists, and Simon had a small assortment of minor injuries plus a cracked jaw. And Pam turned out to be a damned changeling warlord.

The only one who had emerged unscathed was me.

Was it just luck? Or was there some reason for it? Maeve had seemed interested in me…could she have avoided injuring me on purpose?

No, no, that wasn’t it. She hadn’t really hurt anyone. Everything that had happened had been someone else’s fault. Even Jelena—

Oh lords of Hell, Jelena…

We had all known the fey had done something to her, that it was only a matter of time before their machinations were revealed. But it was one thing to know something was coming, and quite another to watch it explode in front of your face.

I still couldn’t get it out of my head…blood everywhere, the street sizzling with acid, Delphie screaming…

Would anything have been different if I had chosen to become a warlord? Would I have been able to stop Maeve, save Jelena and Zusa?

Zusa…I still wasn’t sure what to make of all that.

She had been my friend for years. Not a close friend, sure, but still. Her bubbly personality had kept me going more than once when I otherwise would have quit. Giving up my kids, the whole thing with Nikoli…she kept me afloat, a life raft in the writhing cesspool that was Domina City.

Then a few months ago, at the start of school, that all changed. She became introverted, closed off, with only small bursts of cheer and energy.

I had assumed that the Composer and the screamers had affected her emotionally. It was beginning to look like I was closer to the mark than I thought.

But…I mean, she had certainly looked like a willing volunteer when she confronted the fey. Like she had known what she was getting into.

“Sis? You listening?”

I blinked and shook my head to clear it. “I’m sorry, what?”

He groaned, shifting the ice pack he was holding against his head. “You keep spacing out! We need—” He winced, touching his jaw. The EMTs had done a great job patching him up, but he was still in a lot of pain. “We need an attack plan. Get Veda and Delphie back.”

I leaned back flat on the street. We were still on the same street where the attack had occurred, just moved down half a block to avoid most of the devastation.

Bustling EMT’s and field doctors ran to and fro, trying to keep the injured alive while waiting for ‘sarian reinforcements to show up with a toy box, or at least some better medical toys. Most people weren’t hurt too bad, but more than a few had been trampled, and had broken ribs and other internal injuries. Things were already starting to get back to normal, with a maintenance man installing or fixing a speaker on a corner.

“We can’t save them,” I said finally. “Nine Hells, we weren’t any help today. We’re not fighters.”

But if I became the warlord of the Mals, that would be a non-issue. Even ignoring the toys I’d get, I’d have an army of assassins at my fingertips. Enough to fight the fey? Probably not. But stealing back one cherve and murid would be easy enough.

“A warlord could save them,” Simon muttered.

I nearly jumped back up again. This was the one thing I had hidden from my brother. He couldn’t—

But there was something about the look on his face that told me he wasn’t thinking about me.

“Simon,” I said carefully. “What are you planning to do?”

He licked his lips nervously. “If I talk to Aramazd, I might be able to turn myself into a warlord strong enough—”

“It’s not worth a coup!” I hissed. “You think they’ll appreciate getting thrown in the middle of all that?” He looked away; I grabbed his face and forced him to look me in my eyes, ripping off my daygoggles to emphasize my point. “If you conquer a culture, you’ll paint a giant target on your back, along with anyone you’ve ever spoken to.”

My brother knocked my hand away. “I didn’t mean a warlord warlord. Just that power level. Hells, Narek will probably appreciate it. Everyone knows we need more muscle.”

I shaded my eyes to ward off a rising headache only partly caused by the light. “I doubt he’ll be too happy. Warlords don’t trust followers stronger than them.”

Simon’s shoulder’s stiffened. “Narek brings plenty to the table that I do not. Leadership, charisma—

I snorted, remembering the time I met the portly demon who I had suspected was intentionally breeding parasites in the pustules on his face and body. “Other warlords, maybe. But the sibriex are basically just a bunch of science nerds, and your Power knows it. You start acting like a real warlord, things will get ugly.”

He hunched over. “I’m not going to just show up with two hundred pounds of muscle and expect everything to go fine. I’ll talk to him first.”

“And I’m sure that will go GREAT. Oh, and by the way, the Mals are always looking for talented toy engineers. Just so you know.”

My brother scowled, then winced at his wounded jaw.

I bit back a smile. “I’m sorry, let me help with that.”

He glared. “No thanks. At this rate, you’d end up making it worse.”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby.” I pulled a small tube of ointment, made out of some sort of modified mold, and squirted it onto my hand. “This will make you feel better.”

“Wait, you had that the entire time?

“Yeah.”

“Nine Hells Seena, why didn’t you use that before?”

I shrugged nonchalantly, unwilling to admit I forgot. “It’s like Patron Anton used to say: Pain makes you stronger.”

My brother scowled again, rubbing his jaw. “He was a Satanist, and got killed by…” he paused, trying to remember.

I took the chance to start rubbing the balm into his jaw. It would speed up the healing a tad, and also dull the pain. “A warblood. One of Dispater’s men. He was excommunicated after, though.”

“Yeah,” he said slowly. “That’s right…how could I forget something like that?”

I looked at him oddly. “What’s the big deal? So you forgot who killed him. Is that really so important?”

He pushed my hands away with a glare. “Of course it matters. It’s disrespectful to forget about people who have died!”

I sighed. My silly brother. His compassion might be a little odd in this city, but the really stupid thing was that he expected to keep this mindset after becoming a thug and enforcer for his culture. When we were kids, he sometimes felt bad for the rats and dogs we killed for dinner. How would he handle killing people?

He wouldn’t, that’s how. This warlord thing would be forgotten shortly.

Now me, on the other hand…

I was beginning to think I might be suited for that role after all.

Noble Seena.

It had a nice ring to it.

Behind the Scenes (scene 146)

Clearly nothing horrible can come from this!

Extra update Wednesday.