Monthly Archives: March 2014

Scene 157 – Domus

DOMUS

ADAM

I kneaded my forehead. “Okay, so when you say ‘the fey have gone crazy,’ you mean…?”

“They’re a culture now,” Derek insisted. “Apparently they’re recruiting and everything.”

I was having a little trouble figuring out what my roommate’s problem was. “Well, isn’t that a good thing? Now they have to play nice with everyone else, right?”

“Yes, because the cultures are known for their boundless friendship and camaraderie.”

“Fine, I get your point. What I don’t get is why we’re here.” I indicated the building we were standing in front of. It was a large, industrial structure at odds with the general architecture of the Central district, located about ten or fifteen minutes away from NHQ. “What’s so special about this place that you had to drag me out of bed so early in the morning?”

He looked at me sideways. “It’s ten.”

I shrugged. Between studying for class and the fact that my sleep schedule was still screwed up from the screamers, I had been waking up at noon or later some days.

“Anyway, this is part of the whole fey thing,” my roommate insisted. “Kinda. This is the Zero Forge.”

Well, I knew that name. “You mean that company that makes those Black Knight guns?”

“They’re named after it, yes, but they don’t actually own it. The Zero Forge was the very first factory ever built in Domina City. Before they had even started drawing up the blueprints or importing workers.”

“Okay, that’s kinda cool, but what does that have to do with the fey?” I hadn’t paid too much attention to the history of the city and the Culture Wars and all that, but any idiot knew Domina was thirty years old, and the toy maker only fifteen. The fey couldn’t have been involved back then.

He rolled his eyes. “Just come inside.”

The first thing I noticed when I walked through the doors was the noise. The clang of metal, the hiss of steam, and the wrenching screech of something I couldn’t quite identify all echoed through the room in a constant din of work and motion.

And what a room it was. The entire building was hollow on the inside, thirty floors removed to make space for tall machines and piping of some arcane purpose I couldn’t discern. There were pistons and conveyer belts and troughs filled with molten metal, illuminating the chamber so much they didn’t even need lights.

Chamber. That was a good word for it. That’s what it felt like. The den of some great beast. Something old, and worthy of respect.

There were workers, bustling to and fro, many of them sporting the now-familiar horns that marked them as demons. I also spotted a few vampires, who I assumed to be Canians. It would only make sense for them to have a presence here.

It took me a moment to realize that I was supposed to be looking for something specific—something to do with the fey. But I couldn’t see anything that popped out.

“Well, they seem to be making…stuff.”

Derek clapped me on the back, hard. “Very observant.”

I rolled my eyes. “Then why don’t you tell me what I’m supposed to be looking at? Because until five minutes ago, I couldn’t tell this place from one of the Heavens.”

My blond friend winced slightly, and I realized I must have hit a nerve. He was still a bit touched over the damage Elizabeth had done with her screamers, including the fall of Chronias.

I stumbled over my words a little. “Just…am I looking for a new type of gun? Or have the fey hijacked the factory?”

Derek grinned, which was a relief. “Trust me, if they hijacked Zero Forge, you would have heard about it already. No, just look.”

I did. I saw the workers, bustling about like insects in a hive, components being pulled off assembly lines and carted off deeper into the facility, saw the boilers and the cutters and—

I blinked. “They’re not making guns.”

“Of course not. The Zero Forge doesn’t make guns.”

I ground my teeth, beginning to feel frustrated. “Then I don’t see how this is supposed to help against the fey.”

He smiled, and placed his hand on my shoulder. “It’s not. I just wanted you to see it.”

“Is this really the time for tourism?”

“Yes, it is.” He smiled at the factory floor. “Look at it. The Culture Wars are a hair’s breadth away from going hot again. The fey have decided to take a more active role in the city. And there is some…thing unleashing zombies on the city. But this…”

I saw it then. Not in the factory. That didn’t look any different to me. But reflected in his eyes, I saw…something. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“Silver and gold,” he said quietly. “The Zero Forge is the heart of Domina, and it’s still beating strong.”

Hope?

Is that what it was?

He was staring at the same thing I was—a dirty, busy, dangerous factory—but we didn’t see the same thing. He didn’t see just another production plant, albeit an impressive one, with metalshops and (judging by the signs leading to the back) liquid nitrogen and all sorts of other things grinding away at all hours of the night. He saw something beautiful.

It was like when my mother had taken me to see the Statue of Liberty, I realized. Everyone else had seen something. They looked at that titan of steel and saw everything it represented. They hadn’t been in awe, but they had certainly been impressed.

I had just seen a really big statue. Impressive? Maybe. But I hadn’t been inspired, or anything like that.

This was Domina’s Eiffel Tower, or Great Wall of China, or Reiner Gamma Memorial. A stupid, pointless, inefficient relic that could be torn down and replaced…

But it meant something.

Damned if I knew what.

My phone rang, thank God. I felt uncomfortable with Derek baring his feelings like that. Like an atheist stumbling into Sunday mass. I might be welcome, but this place…was not for me.

I went outside as quickly as I could; the din and clang of machines would have made talking inside impossible. I didn’t even bother checking the caller ID before answering. There were only three people who called me. Laura was MIA, and Derek was right behind me. “Hey, Lily. What’s up?”

“Who’s Lily?”

I blinked. The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I glanced at the screen—number blocked. Annoyed, I returned the phone to my ear. “Excuse me, who is this?”

“That’s no way to talk to me, young man. Have you forgotten all manners in just three months? I knew letting you go to that God-damned city was a mistake.”

“Wait…mom?

“Yes, who did you think?”

“I thought…I…” I shook my head. I had sent her my number, of course, but I hadn’t expected her to actually call! Or be able to, for that matter. “How’d you get a hold of me? Domina is supposed to be on a completely different system.”

“Oh, yeah, Chris mentioned that.” That would be my father’s head of security. “It was taken care of.”

I sighed. Somehow, I doubted getting a line to Domina City was quite that simple. While my mother might be willing and able to drop the amount of money to make such a thing possible, Chris Clemens was a practical sort, and wouldn’t do so lightly. Certainly not so my mother could catch up with her son.

I decided to blame MC. Lily claimed the hacker liked practical jokes, though I had never seen any evidence before now.

“What’s up, mom?” I said with the same interest I had always feigned when talking with my mother.

“With me? Nothing. I want to know what’s going on with you.”

“Eh? Why?”

“Why? I haven’t seen you in three months! Surely something interesting must have happened since then!”

Interesting?

Let’s see…attacks by six different types of supernatural zombies, monsters roaming the streets, friends of mine—including my own girlfriend—molded and modified by illegal technology to fit legends, battles with people who could throw cars and shrug off bullets…

And the Composer, laughing above it all.

“Nothing much, uh, I guess.”

“Really?” She sounded dubious. “Because there are all these horrible things on the news…”

That gave me a start. I hadn’t even thought about what the outside world had heard about the screamers and everything. “What? What are they saying?”

“That there are gangs, kids putting on plastic devil horns, pretending to be vampires, all sorts of things like that.”

That was…too precisely inaccurate to be anything but deliberate. “Well, I mean, it’s not really that bad…”

“So you’re not in a gang?”

Did Necessarius count? Probably not, and even if it did, I wasn’t really part of it. “No.”

My mom jumped on that word like it was a confession. “You hesitated. Adam Andrew Anders, if you’ve joined a gang, I swear to God, I’ll have Chris pull you out of that city even if—”

“I didn’t join a gang!” I shrieked. A few nearby workers installing speakers on the corner—Canians, if I was any judge—looked at me oddly, but I waved them off.

“Hm,” she muttered on the other side of the line. “I suppose I’ll have to take your word.”

I brushed my hair back. She always did this. She had this knack for throwing me off. “I’m…mom, I’m fine.” I took a deep breath. “I promise. Better than ever, in fact. I’m making friends, having fun. Seriously, I love it here.”

“Well…that’s good. It can’t be too bad if you really like it that much.”

“I do, and it’s not.”

“What about Dale? You two still getting along?”

“I…” Dale? She was still thinking about Dale? I hadn’t talked to him in months, before I got to the city in fact, and in Domina City that almost certainly meant he was very, very dead. Why would—

Oh, right. I hadn’t told her that. Duh.

“Uh…it’s…”

“Adam,” my mother said in a low, dangerous voice. “What happened with that boy? The only reason I let you go in the first place was because he seemed like a safe, kind young man.”

“Uh…well, see…when I got to the room, there was someone else there. Apparently they got switched by the system, or whatever.”

“And you just let that go? You need to flex your muscles more. If you just let people walk all over you, they’ll be doing it for the rest of your life.”

“I know, mom, I know. Anders are fighters. I’ve heard it before.”

“Then why didn’t you fight?

“Because it wasn’t important,” I snapped, forgetting for a moment who I was talking to. “Because I had bigger things on my mind than a friend who hadn’t returned my calls in a week, and I wouldn’t know how to fix it anyway.” I winced at my tone. “It’s…just not real important, mom.”

There was a brief silence.

“Fine,” she muttered curtly. She knew when it was time to change the subject. “Let’s talk about something easier. How are you doing in school?”

“Uh…” That was an odd question. On the one hand, I was about half a step away from failing every single class except Applied Firearms. I just didn’t have time to study, what with the screamers disrupting my sleep schedule and helping Derek out on hunts.

On the other hand, the hunts were going great, and I was making boatloads of money. Especially since right now I wasn’t paying for my own room. The property prices in this city were absolutely ridiculous, but luckily my parents still had that under control.

“School’s going well.”

“What did I just say about lying?”

God dammit, how could she always tell? “It’s hard to explain, mom.”

“What are your grades?”

“That’s not really—”

“That’s enough of an answer. What is the problem? You’re going to class, right? You’re a smart boy, as long as you go to class you’re halfway there.”

I looked around desperately, searching for some excuse to get out of this conversation, but to no avail. Even the Canians were gone, either their lunch break was over or they had decided to give me privacy. “Things…come up…”

“I know they do, sweetie, and that’s a big problem with college. You’re thrown into a new environment, with no support. It’s easy to just sleep in, or go to parties instead of studying. That’s why I was happy you would be with Dale.”

“Mom, I can’t get into it too much, but trust me, there are really good reasons why I’m missing classes.”

“Parties?” she asked, skeptical.

“No, mom, not parties.” I shook my head. “I’ve only been to two parties since I got here, and those were both just birthday parties, in the middle of the day.”

God, I just realized that. I really hadn’t been to any parties since I got here. Not any real ones, like at a frat house or whatever. Did AU even have fraternities? I hadn’t seen any, but I had been kinda busy.

“You can’t get away with just a few words,” my mom warned. “Why have you been missing classes? Are they too hard? Dale did say it was something of a prestigious school. Maybe you should drop one if you need more time.”

God damn…I rubbed my forehead, trying to find a way to placate her that didn’t involve the words ‘guns,’ ‘monsters,’ or ‘killing for money.’ “I’m…preparing for my future, mom.”

She wasn’t buying it. “You do that by going to class. Right now, that’s the most important thing.”

But I finally had a way out. “No, it’s just like dad always says. I’m networking, you know? Talking to high-powered people. Mother of fire, the other day I had a long conversation with Isaac Clarke, the inventor of the toy maker!”

Oops. That might not be the best thing to bring up. I had intentionally not mentioned Butler—my mom probably wouldn’t know he was a gang lord, but better safe than sorry—but bringing up the toy maker wasn’t much better. If she asked a few pointed questions…

Thankfully, she was distracted by my other mistake. “Mother of fire? What’s that mean?”

“Oh, uh…” It meant I had been hanging out with Lily too much, that’s what. “It’s just some new slang some of the kids around here use. I’m not quite sure what it means…”

“It refers to Mary Christina, one of Isaac Clarke’s engineers,” Derek said from behind me. “He was the father of fire—the toy maker—and she was the mother, the one who brought it into this world.”

I turned to see the blond young man smiling at me, not a care in the world.

“I was talking to the foreman,” he said, explaining his absence until now. “What about you?”

“Who’s that?” my mother said into my ear. “What did he say?”

I held up a finger to Derek, before turning my attention back to my phone. “Mom, that’s my roommate. I gotta go—”

“Your roommate? Put him on. I want to talk to him.”

“No, he’s busy, he can’t talk—”

“I have a few minutes,” he said cheerfully, completely failing to read the mood. He held out his hand for the phone. “I’d love to talk to your mom.” He grinned. “You’ve already met mine, after all.”

Cursing my luck and praying he didn’t say anything too stupid, I handed him the phone.

He took it happily, switching it to speaker mode. “Hello? This is Adam’s roommate, Derek Huntsman. I understand I’m speaking to his mother?”

“Yes, that’s right,” her voice came out, crisp and cautious. “Why did you switch with Dale? I don’t like the idea of my son rooming with a stranger.”

“I don’t know the full details on Mister Abraham,” he apologized. “I just know that I got a call the day before I moved in, saying I was now on the ninth floor. It wasn’t until Adam explained the situation that I realized he was as much in the dark as I was.”

“Hm,” my mother muttered, slightly mollified. “Fine then. I need to know more about you, if you’re planning to continue as my son’s roommate.”

“Well, we have been living together for three months now, and I haven’t gotten him killed yet. Surely that’s a point in my favor.”

“A small one,” she admitted, not realizing that in this city, it was an absolute miracle. But I was happy Derek hadn’t brought up the fact that he had literally saved my life on the first day. That would have raised too many questions. “He said he hasn’t been going to parties. Is that true?”

He looked at me sideways. “Well, he went to my birthday party, and Akane’s before that, but otherwise…”

“Who is Akane? A girl he likes?”

“No she’s my—”

“Then what about this Lily girl?”

“Oh yeah, that’s his girlfriend.”

I closed my eyes. Crap.

Well, I suppose if given the choice between this and my mom finding out I was getting into life-or-death situations on a regular basis, her finding out I had a girlfriend was the lesser of two evils.

There was a very, very long pause on the other end of the line.

“I’m sorry,” my mother said slowly. “I don’t think I caught that. Could you repeat yourself, please?”

“Lily is Adam’s girlfriend,” he obliged, seemingly unaware of the importance of those words. “They got together the…” he thought for a second. “The second day he was in the city, actually.” He looked at me. “Wow, I guess that means you guys have been together three months already, huh?”

I shrugged.

My mother remained silent.

“Uh…” Derek seemed to have finally realized that this was all a surprise to her. “She’s a nice girl. Very well known around here, for…being friendly with everyone and so on. She’s two years older, but that’s really not a big deal, I mean…I don’t think it is…” He trailed off.

The silence was deafening.

“Mom?” I said after a minute. “You still there? Mom?”

After about five more minutes of yelling at her over the phone, my dad wandered in to find my mom unconscious on the floor, and the rest of the call consisted of lots of yelling for ambulances and doctors.

She had fainted when she heard I had a girlfriend.

What the hell did that mean?

Behind the Scenes (scene 157)

Been wanting to bring up the Zero Forge for a while, this seemed like the spot.

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Scene 156 – Damnum

DAMNUM

MAEVE

“The murid is dead.”

Veda tried to jump off the cot. Thankfully, she had been given a localized paralytic; otherwise, she would have wrenched her spine and undone days of work. “Delphie? Where is she? I need to see her!”

I placed my hand on her chest, more as a gesture than anything—she wasn’t going anywhere. “In time, little one, in time. Right now, we need to worry about you.”

She settled down, and nodded as best she could. “How…” she teared up. Clearly, she was still fixated on her friend.

“Three days,” I answered her unfinished question. I needed to focus her on other things. “We kept you under for three days straight. It’s Friday now.”

She looked down at her body. “I don’t…look different.”

“Most of what we did was internal,” I admitted. “But we had to cut it short. We repaired your wounds, and made what modifications we could while we were in there, but we were more worried about getting you ready to move as fast as possible.”

The girl blinked, finally realizing that something must be wrong—besides our inability to save the life of Delphie Murinae, that is. “Wait, is something happening? Are you…are we under attack?”

I smiled. Good, she was already thinking of herself as part of a new culture. It could take a while, sometimes.

“Yes and no. We were under attack, but managed to fight them off with…” I searched for the right words. “…a gargant. That’s scared them off for the past couple days, but they’ll be back sooner rather than later.”

She struggled in her restraints again before settling down. “Right. Well…when are we…” she swallowed nervously. “You’re not planning on leaving me here, are you?”

“Of course not.” I produced a small syringe. “This will reverse the paralysis. Be careful, though; you’re still not fully healed.”

She winced. “I don’t like needles.”

I injected her anyway. “Not a lot of options at the moment.”

As I undid the restraints, Veda slowly flexed her fingers and toes, trying to accelerate the blood flow.

“It’s all pins and needles,” she muttered with a wince.

“It will pass in a few minutes.” Some dust fell from the ceiling. Not much. I doubt Veda even noticed. But I saw the cause through our cameras.

They were here. And they had explosives. Lots of explosives.

“Unfortunately, that is time we don’t have.” I scooped the surprised girl up in my arms before she could protest. My homunculus had more than enough strength, though I did find myself thankful we had taken the time to decrease her bone density.

“W-wait! Don’t you have defenses—”

“They’re already past the first line, and they’re almost through the second.” I headed towards the hidden door—currently open, revealing a brick-lined side corridor that ran away from the sewers.

“Second out of how many?”

“Three. And the last one is just some frogs and a blast door.” I jabbed the button with my elbow, causing the brick wall to slide into place behind us. That might slow them down.

“I figured the fey would have more robust defenses…”

“We do—for our demesnes. This is just a minor outpost. Doesn’t even have a name.”

The girl fell silent, for which I was grateful. I was having enough trouble splitting my attention as it was. One part of my brain kept an eye on the cameras, while I was also wirelessly setting up a proximity overload on the toy box I had left behind. The box itself was just another cheap knockoff, but it was still worth millions.

The corridor shook, nearly knocking me off my feet. I cursed and struggled on, while I felt Veda’s heart beating like a drum.

“What the fang was that?!” she shrieked, a little too close to my ear for my liking.

“My toy box,” I muttered. “I figure that gives us maybe another five minutes to play with.” It depended on how organized they were. A random mob might see a dead end and turn back. But if they had a leader who knew what they were doing…

“Maeve,” a voice in my head spoke up clearly. “We need to talk.”

I stumbled again. “Ice and shadow—”

Veda twitched. “What now?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just concentrate on breathing.” I turned my attention to Aurora, the one yelling in my brain. “Not a good time,” I snapped at her without moving my mouth. “Running for my life.”

“Just detonate the homunculus and get back here. This is important.”

“Correction: Running for Veda’s life.”

“Oh. Well…” There was a long pause. “How much did you want her?”

I grit me teeth. “A lot. What’s wrong?”

“About a dozen of our outposts are under simultaneous attack. Professional, too. Not like the mob from last time.”

“Eccretia,” I muttered. I was beginning to regret not killing her. We tried to leave changelings alone, but sometimes they crossed the line.

“Probably. I doubt she’s leading the charge personally, but she’s definitely driving it.”

I heard a howl behind me. I didn’t bother turning; they had found my bolt hole.

“We can talk later. Right now, I need to focus.”

“Ah, right, the running. Just kill yourself.”

Aurora—”

“I’m serious. Just stash the girl in a corner, and use your homunculus as a bomb against the mob.”

I rounded the first corner and immediately put on another burst of speed, pushing my body to the limit. It’s not like I didn’t have spares.

“Maeve? You there?”

“There’s nowhere to stash her, and Veda can’t even walk right now!”

“What, seriously? What did you do to her, chop off her legs?”

“No, I just gave her a paralytic, and it hasn’t quite worn off yet.”

“Oh. Well, then why don’t you do what I said?”

“Because she can’t walk!

The Maiden sighed in my ear. “I know she can’t now, but give it a few minutes, and she’ll be fine.”

That stupid…

Actually, that was a pretty good point.

I turned my attention back to my pursuers. They were gaining, but I was still maybe five minutes ahead of them. If Veda recovered fast enough…

“Veda,” I said aloud. “How are your legs? Can you move them?”

“Um…a little. Maybe.”

“Oighear agus sneachta,” I muttered. “We don’t have any other options.” I skidded to a stop, and laid her in a seated position against the brick wall of the corridor.

“Maeve?” the girl asked plaintively. “Uh…Lady Maeve? What are you doing?”

“Sacrifice play.” I pulled a GPS bead out of my pocket and slipped it into her pants. Marvelous things, pockets. I had forgotten how useful they were. “Start running in the opposite direction the second you can. I’ll have some people meet up with you. Password is ‘oíche.’ Repeat that for me.”

“Oíche.”

“Good girl.” I kissed her lightly on the forehead. No soporifics or paralytics this time; just a simple kiss. I smiled at her wide eyes.

She’d be a good one. I knew it.

“You stay safe,” I ordered. “You’ll see me again soon.”

I made sure to bring the ceiling down where it wouldn’t fall on her.

Behind the Scenes (scene 156)

A little on the short side, but I think it works.

Scene 155- Martyrium

MARTYRIUM

SIMON

I couldn’t move.

I could open my eyes, but only the barest crack; I couldn’t see anything.

At first I thought I was tied down, strapped to an operating table with a bright light above my head, but I slowly realized that wasn’t the case.

If there were any ropes or bindings, I couldn’t feel them. I couldn’t feel…anything.

No, that wasn’t quite right. There was…something at the edge of my awareness. A bare tingling in my fingers and toes.

But I couldn’t move. Couldn’t even twitch.

And it was very, very cold.

“This is your fault, you know,” a sibilant voice hissed.

I stiffened. Well, I felt like I stiffened, anyway. I couldn’t move enough to actually do so. Was he talking to me?

“You wanted a lab rat just as much as I did,” a second voice pointed out angrily. I recognized it, but I couldn’t quite place…

You led me to believe it would work. That we’d have a grateful balor running around, not a twisted waste of flesh!”

“Honored Power, you of all people know that mistakes are often more useful to science than successes. Mister Lancaster served his purpose quite well.”

Oh no. Oh, by every Heaven and every Hell, no.

The Balor reconstruction had failed.

I had failed.

I couldn’t…what use would I be to my sister now? How could I protect her? Or myself, for that matter. After they restored me, I’d be in debt to the culture for the rest of my days even if I lived to a hundred.

Nhang—I could identify his voice now, it was the lower, hissing one—grumbled. “I don’t understand what went wrong. It worked fine last time.”

“Well, everyone is a little bit different,” the second voice replied, which I now recognized as Aramazd. That also explained the cold. They must have dragged me to the server room, so that the guardian could look over me personally. “Judging by the muscle damage, I’m guessing there was some protein imbalance we didn’t account for. He must have a slightly different diet than the other one.”

I struggled to remember what I had eaten recently that could account for anything screwing up the process, but I couldn’t think of anything.

Okay…I could find a way out of this. I could buy my way out of this debt I could…

No. There was nothing.

I didn’t really have any marketable skills. Oh, I could play around with the toy maker well enough, but every other sibriex was a thousand times better than me. I wasn’t bad with a gun, but no one would hire me for protection instead of a hellion or warblood. And my hacking skills were laughable.

There was nothing I could do that a thousand people couldn’t do better.

There was no way out of this. Nhang was going to own me for the rest of my life, and there was nothing I could do to change that.

“Well,” my warlord said with a sigh. “Point me to the garbage chute. Let’s get this over with.”

Wait, what?

“North side of the room,” Aramazd rasped. “Did you actually forget, or are you just being a dick?”

“A little from column A, a little from column B…”

The gurney or whatever I was on started to roll forward, almost certainly from someone pushing it towards the north side of the room.

They couldn’t possibly—

A shadow flitted across my vision briefly, as though someone was looking down on me.

“You think he’s awake?” Nhang asked.

“Who knows?” Aramazd’s voice was farther away now. “It doesn’t really matter. He’s got about an hour left to live no matter what we do. Though if you were willing to let me vivisect him—”

“No, I think not. We have taken more than enough from this young man already.” I felt the gurney roll to a stop. “Most of his internal organs are failing, and his heart can’t support the irregular blood flow Let him die in peace.”

“And of course, you won’t be the one actually killing him. That would be the environment.” There was a bitter, gurgling laugh, under which I heard the rusty squeak of some sort of metal door opening. “Keeps your hands pretty and clean.”

“Be silent,” Nhang spat back. “One of us is still human.”

“Only in your dreams, Honored Devil. Only in the sweetest of your dreams.”

Then my warlord gathered me up in my arms, and dumped me down the garbage chute, into the sewers some twenty-six or so floors below.

Behind the Scenes (scene 155)

Yes, another short one, unfortunately. Basically, this and the previous scene should be taken as a pair.

Scene 154 – Responsio

RESPONSIO

SEENA

“Hail, Noble Seena,” Laura Grand said, raising her mug in salute.

I growled. “Nothing has been decided yet.”

She snorted as she took a sip of her drink. “Sure.”

“You’re already on target,” Serena insisted gently. “You’re not going to change your flight path at the last second.”

I rubbed my forehead. “I’m not…it’s a massive decision to make, and I’m just not sure—”

“What is there to think about?” Laura cut in. “You were offered a position as warlord in a powerful—”

“Declining,” Frank muttered.

Laura glared daggers at him. “—in a still powerful culture. That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, make no mistakes about that.”

I sighed, and got up from the table, regretting the decision to sit down in the first place. “Thanks for the drink, but I think I need some time alone.”

The short, brown-haired passer slammed her mug down, nearly toppling the other drinks. “Look here, there’s no cause to be rude—”

“Laura,” Serena said, placing her hand on her friend’s shoulder to calm her. “Just leave her be.”

I turned and walked away before anyone else had a chance to react.

They were right, of course. I had already made my choice. I was already on target to become Nyashk, and nothing would stop that. If I was really still on the fence, I wouldn’t have let Zepar announce that I was thinking about it. He had wanted to keep it secret, have ‘Seena’ die in some accident and then bring in ‘Nyashk’ a few days later.

But I hate all the lies of politics and…ugh. I just hate dealing with that kind of crap. So I insisted that if we were doing this, we were doing it out in the open. He had jumped on that quickly.

By all Nine Hells and the black gates that guard them…I shouldn’t have to deal with this. A nineteen year-old college student shouldn’t be forced to…

I’ve fought before. Killed before. Whenever the orphanage needed a bit more food or whatever, Simon and I would go rat hunting.

But that’s not much. That’s…that was like I had played soccer once or twice, and then got asked to join the South Central Zeroes.

But…

If I were in that situation, wouldn’t I do it?

If you’re given a once in a lifetime opportunity, don’t you have to take it? Otherwise, you’d spend the rest of your life wondering.

Yeah, this was a bit more dangerous. Yeah, the reconstruction could have side effects, or I could get assassinated in the night, or I could accidentally start a war, or one of a million other things could go wrong.

But what could I do right?

I spun on my heel and marched right back up to the audience chamber, everyone who saw me quickly rushing to get out of my way when they saw the look in my eyes.

The penthouse room was still in ruins from the fight last Monday, but Zepar was still waiting patiently, sitting on the ground with his legs folded under him, mighty tail twitching, and gently sipping tea.

“I’ll do it,” I declared without preamble.

The dusk-skinned vampire smiled, but still decided to play dumb. “Do what, Honored Nightstalker?”

I growled. Yeah, this was making me enjoy my decision. I plopped down in front of him, well aware he would drag this out as long as possible, and not wanting to spend the next ten minutes standing.

“I’ll become Nyashk,” I said. “I’ll go through the reconstruction. I’ll even pretend I was sleeping with Baal, if that makes things easier.”

His smile broadened, revealing his fangs over his teacup. “Oh, no worries on that front. I’ve already been spreading enough rumors. I couldn’t stop them now if I tried.”

That made me scowl. I was beginning to hate this man. “Whatever. When can we do it?”

Suddenly serious, he put down the teacup. “Whenever you’re ready. I’ll call in Baftis, and she can get you started within the hour.” He pulled out his phone and tapped a few buttons.

I sighed in relief. “Good. Hells, I just want to get this over with.”

The warlord frowned. “Ah, right, about that…any chance you can take the time to correct your speech patterns?”

Suddenly, my anger was back. “I’ve always spoken like this.”

“Well, yes, but having a vampire Noble speaking like a demon is—”

I held up my hand. “I don’t want to have this argument. But just…I’ll try, okay? I’ll try.” I had never made a conscious attempt to change the way I spoke, mostly because I had never seen the problem with it. My orphanage Patron had been a demon, so I spoke like a demon. That was really all there was to it.

“Miss Lancaster?” a gentle voice spoke up. I turned to see a pretty young vampire with a crimson body and spiral horns. She was wearing a large, thick lab coat that didn’t quite hide the fact that her back appeared to be glowing.

She winced at my gaze, specifically moving her back out of sight. As she squinted in the darkness, I noticed that she had violet eyes. Not dayeyes, but still definitely not nighteyes.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered, probably misinterpreting my look. “Noble Nyashk, can you please come with me? I’m ready whenever you are.”

Ah, this would be Baftis. Our reclusive head scientist. Our only scientist. No wonder she kept out of the public eye. With a demon’s horns and an angel’s dayskin, she probably got stared at constantly. But why didn’t she just have them removed?

Whatever. I could always ask her later. Right now, it was time to become a warlord.

Finally, I would be strong enough to be a player in the power struggles of Domina City, rather than just another victim and bystander.

Finally, I could protect my brother.

Behind the Scenes (scene 154)

As Seena implies here (and you may have already figured out due to Ling), sports are a pretty integral part of Domina culture. Currently, there are limits on what buffs you’re allowed in order to play, but those have been relaxing recently. The story hasn’t been focusing on the sports, because, to put it bluntly, I don’t care about them. The South Central Zeroes are named after the most prominent landmark of the district: The Zero Forge.

Scene 153 – Dissecare

DISSECARE

LAURA

“She has three spinal cords,” I muttered, tapping the picture MC had drawn for me. We hadn’t bothered trying to wrestle Elizabeth into an x-ray machine, since it would give her a chance to escape and clue her into our motives, but I had vivisected her enough to give us a pretty clear picture on what we were dealing with.

Doctor Henry peered closely at the drawing. We were in one of his offices, about ten minutes’ walk from the warcage where Elizabeth was still trapped. “Looks like one to me.”

I rolled my eyes. “What grade did you get in your anatomy class?”

“None. I got my doctorate in engineering.”

Well, that explained why he couldn’t read it. MC had drawn it like an x-ray, so it was a little tough for someone without the proper training to decipher it.

I pointed to the part where it was most obvious. “See, here?”

He nodded. “Right. The spine.”

“No, not her spinal column, her spinal cord. Look, that braid.”

The doctor blinked. “She has three spinal cords braided together? What’s the point of that?”

“Stability, I’d imagine,” I muttered. I wasn’t exactly a biologist myself, so I was a little out of my depth here. “And speaking of the spine, she has thirty-five vertebrae.” I peered closer. “It looks like they’re all articulating…which fits. I thought she was a little bendier than she should be, and I guess that explains it.”

“Normal is thirty-three,” Henry noted, mostly to himself. “Twenty…four? Twenty-four articulating.”

“Yeah, that sounds right.” I shuffled to another printout, showing a more detailed view of the individual vertebrae. “And they’re shaped wrong. Only barely, but you can see here—”

“Yeah, they’re more fragile. Provide less protection to the spinal braid.” He frowned, pulling the paper closer. “You know, if this were a monster—something modified by the toy maker—I’d say that this spine is designed for speed.”

I nodded. I had been thinking the same thing. “If she’s fast enough to never get hit, she doesn’t have to worry about a weak spine.”

The doctor drummed his fingers on the table in frustration. “But you said you didn’t find any brushstrokes or anything else that would indicate she’s ever used the toy maker.”

“They could have just done a good job on her,” I said, not really believing it myself. The amount of modification she had should have left some evidence behind, some mistake by whoever engineered her.

“The tissue samples will be back soon. We’ll know for sure then.”

I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “I doubt we’ll know anything. Every time we learn something new, we get ten more questions to go with it.” I plopped the printout onto the table haphazardly. “All we know for sure is that bits cut off don’t return to her body if they’re frozen, and throwing her through a woodchipper just pisses her off.” We had lost two guards in the three seconds when she had a single arm free.

Henry waved his hand. “Let’s just…let’s just keep going. We still have some info.” He pulled out another sheaf of paper. “She’s got an extra aorta and ventricle on her heart. The purpose of that is obvious.”

“More blood flow…” I frowned at another page. “Am I reading this right? No appendix, no tonsils?”

“Yeah, that looks right. I spotted that on the original pictures.” Much of what we were looking at now was pieced together from photos I had taken. I had made sure to only do it while Elizabeth’s head was paste, to make sure she didn’t realize what we were doing. “That’s no big deal, though.”

In theory, he was right. Most people in this city—myself included—didn’t have appendices or tonsils. The process was just so easy with the toy maker, that it was smarter than waiting for them to get infected. Researchers had eventually discovered that there were some benefits to having those in your body, but a few cheap toys took care of that problem as well.

“That’s not what I mean. Look. There’s no place for the appendix. Nothing was removed—it looks like there was never anything there.”

“That’s…” he rubbed his forehead. “Men and monsters, we need a break. At least let me call in some relief—”

“No,” I said firmly. “We need to minimize the number of people involved.”

He laughed. “What, the fifty ‘sarian guards outside—”

“They don’t know what’s going on. If Elizabeth gets free and starts a revenge trip, she won’t target them.”

“That’s a lie and you know it. She’ll kill anyone in her way without a moment’s hesitation.”

I looked away. “Maybe. But for now, it’s best that we keep the actual information limited to you, me, MC, and Miss Lingshen.”

“Speaking of Miss Lingshen,” a pleasant female voice announced, heralding the presence of the Henry’s lab tech, Chao Lingshen. “I have those blood tests you were waiting on.”

Chinese girls were a bit on the rare side in Domina—China sent most of their criminals to the Reiner Gamma colony before it was destroyed, rather than to us—but there were a few of them scattered around. Chao was actually first generation. She had come here herself, willingly, from Lemuria.

So clearly, she was insane.

Insane or not, Henry loved her like a daughter, and smiled wen she entered the room. “Perfect timing! What’s the verdict?”

She bit her tongue. “The verdict is…weird.” She handed me a pad.

I scrolled through the file being displayed with a frown. “All right, I think we have officially ruled out the toy maker causing her modifications.”

Henry pulled the pad away from me. “Let me see…” He blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Thirty pairs of chromosomes,” I read aloud. “Twenty-eight pairs of autosomes and two pairs of sex chromosomes. Sixty total.” I put the pad down. “Humans have twenty-two and one, for forty-six total.”

Chromosomes, along with DNA, could be modified by the toy maker. While it’s not exactly easy, it’s far from impossible. But on this scale…

Trying to use the toy maker for that purpose was like trying to render a high-definition photograph using fingerpaint on rocks. We could make minor edits and alterations—skin, hair, and eye color, little things like that. Even the fey, the undisputed masters of genetic modification, couldn’t do something this advanced.

The only way for someone to have sixty chromosomes would be to be born that way.

“She’s not human,” Henry muttered.

“No,” I admitted. “Not even a little.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 153)

Lots of talking, but very important talking.

Scene 152 – Scrutans

SCRUTANS

LING

Take a few days off, Akane had said. Sort through all the feelings about killing and the orphanage and so on. Don’t let the war break you.

She had said that Monday.

It was Wednesday now. That was long enough, right?

She had rushed out a few minutes earlier—something about MC finding ‘them,’ whatever that meant—which made this the perfect opportunity to sneak out.

Not that I needed to sneak out. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Nothing wrong at all. I was just going out for a walk.

It’s not like I was looking for anything in particular.

Definitely not.

And I certainly wasn’t at the ruins of my orphanage on purpose. No, no, my feet just sort of…carried me here on their own. Just a coincidence.

It hadn’t been long since the arson, but a small group of Servants was already cleaning up the area and preparing it for whoever owned the land now.

Normally, the Servants wouldn’t be involved in something like this. While they did consider it their job to keep the city clean, they usually limited themselves to picking up litter around their shrines and stuff like that. Whoever owned the area must not have the money to hire a real cleanup crew.

“Something wrong, Miss Yu?”

I blinked, surprised by the demon girl who had sidled up to me when I wasn’t paying attention. And how’d she know my name…? Oh, right, MC. She probably hadn’t told the Servants we were the Paladins, just spread the word that we were important.

I rubbed my forehead. “Sorry. It’s just…” I licked my lips, an idea beginning to form. “This was my orphanage. If you don’t mind…I’d like to take a look around.”

Watch fifty million detective shows, and sooner or later something will stick.

First rule of investigating: When lying, use the truth as much as possible.

The Servant didn’t seem to find anything odd about that statement. “Fair enough. We’ll give you an hour or so.” She called to the others. “Oy! Lunch time!”

I nodded in thanks as the dozen or so men and women walked off the site, mostly towards the light rail station and presumably food. There was still some random maintenance worker installing a speaker on a nearby corner, who wasn’t affiliated with the Servants, but when he realized what was happening he quietly took a break as well.

I turned to the blackened remains of the building and rubbed my hands together. It had already been a few weeks, true, so if I just looked, I wouldn’t be finding anything more than what the Kellions and other investigators had found.

But I had one or two advantages they didn’t.

I took only a few steps into the ruins, crinkling my nose as pungent ash drifted into the air at my steps. I had come too far to let something as small as a bad smell stop me, so I plopped down in the dirt, charcoal crunching under my butt, placed my hands on the ground, and closed my eyes.

Deep breath. And then…

Extend awareness.

This aspect of my power was still limited. When touching stone or dirt, I could sense anything nearby that I could affect with my ability. Here, sitting in the dirt and ash, surrounded by the concrete foundations of my orphanage, it was like I could see, even with my eyes closed.

I could also sense solid objects that I couldn’t affect with my ability, but only in the most vague sense, like trying to identify something through triple-strength glass.

It was like…like the bones of the orphanage were covered in snow. No, that wasn’t right, because I could see what lay under the snow, the blurred objects my power couldn’t perfectly identify.

It was like…

I didn’t have words for it. Like trying to look at myself while I was under a heavy blanket…

Yes, that was it. Except not seeing. I could feel the earth and stone, the cold foundations, shattered by the Servants’ hammers and picks, scorched by week-old fire. I could feel them as if they were my own flesh and bone.

There was the pantry, where I had walked in on Helena and a couple boys. Nothing left but something I couldn’t quite see, probably broken shelves and shattered glass.

There was the laundry room, where I nearly killed myself the day I found out I was pregnant. I could feel the shattered floor, a small crater not caused by the investigators or cleaners. A gas line that had burst during the fire, or maybe where he had set off a bomb.

And I was sitting in the dining room. The room that had been dominated by that great oak table, which had probably cost more than the rest of the building combined. The table I had tried to write my name on, the table where Drake had spewed milk out his nose, where Greg had thrown up twice, and where the entire orphanage had caught Helena with some ferret who’s name I never did learn.

The table where I had first been called a whore.

Maybe…some things were better left ash.

At least this way, there was no one left alive who knew what I had been. Except Mitchel.

I felt something on my hands. Surprised, I opened my eyes to see that there was something dripping on my hands, which I had folded on my lap. Was it raining? I didn’t—

Ah. Of course.

My body already knew what my brain hadn’t quite decided yet.

If it was a choice between my family and my reputation…

I’d scream my past from the rooftops if it would bring a single one of my friends back.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 152)

Short, but I still like it.

 

Extra update Wednesday.