Monthly Archives: May 2014

Scene 165 – Effugere

EFFUGERE

LAURA

“We need to discuss Elizabeth’s escape,” I said without preamble, as I dumped my bag on Derek’s bed.

He stared at me. “Um…”

“Three days ago, Friday the 12th of October, a renegade—or Blackguard or whatever—snuck into the warcage where we were keeping her, and used some sort of rust power to free her. There hasn’t been a peep since. No attacks, no demands, nothing.”

Adam, sitting over by the window next to Akane, spoke up. “Yeah, we know all that. Been spending the whole weekend racking our brains trying to find a way to prepare.”

Derek nodded at everyone in turn. “Adam, Akane, Ling, and Robyn,” the last two were sitting on Adam’s bed barefoot. “We’ve been thinking about what she might do. My question is…” He turned back to me. “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!?”

I winced, touching my necklace. “Silver and gold, Derek, not so loud.”

“You disappeared for almost two weeks!

“I called. Told you I was still alive.”

He snorted in derision. “Yeah, but that was it. No word on where you were or what you were doing. For all I knew, Elizabeth had captured you and forced you to say that.”

“Well, she didn’t. I captured her.” I waved my hand. “You know what I mean. Clarke called me in to do the vivisection with Doctor Henry.”

Robyn perked up at that. “He did? Why not do it himself?”

“He was busy,” I explained. “Not to mention that he’s a little lax on safety, which would have gotten him killed in this case.”

Derek’s eyes were narrow. “What do you mean by vivisection?

I met his steely blue gaze with one of my own. “Exactly what I said. I spent the last few days cutting her apart, piece by piece, trying to find some answers.”

“And?” Akane asked.

“Results are…inconclusive.” I shook my head. “But what we do have is not good. I wasn’t able to find any usable limits to her regeneration. Any body part, including her head, will reattach within seconds. Doesn’t matter how small the pieces are—throwing her in a woodchipper just pissed her off.”

While the others gawked, Ling tapped her lip thoughtfully. “I would have thought completely destroying the brain would work. It normally does in these cases.” She looked up. “Please tell me you took my advice?”

“Yes, I attacked her with all sorts of different materials. Holly, garlic, silver, and anything else that might hurt a mythological creature. No luck.” I shrugged. “Even the weirder stuff, like enriched plutonium, didn’t seem to have any effect.”

“Well, worth a shot.”

“Yes, I agree. Because I did find one thing that works.” I paused.

Everyone looked at me expectantly.

“Well?” Adam asked. “What was it?”

“Liquid nitrogen. Well, I suspect any extreme cold would do the trick, but that was all I had on hand. Freezing a cut-off body part keeps it from reattaching.”

Derek smiled briefly. “Did you tell her to chill out when you did it?”

That made me smile, but I came back on topic quickly, ignoring the childish pun. “Look, the point is, we can’t actually use this.”

“Why not?” Adam asked. “Last time I saw Ling’s friend Turgay—before the whole thing on the Ring, I mean—he showed me some liquid nitrogen shotgun shells. I’m sure a few of those will do the trick.”

I shook my head. “No. Because will freezing the limbs prevents them from reattaching, it doesn’t stop her from regenerating.” I paused to let that sink in. “She just regenerates new limbs from thin air. I watched her do that with her head.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Ling muttered. “Unkillable villains are always the worst. Of course, they’re usually in fantasy settings, so then the heroes go on a quest to get a nearby god to help, but that’s not an option here.”

“It’s far more than unfortunate,” Robyn said in a slightly hysterical voice. “Creating matter out of nothing? That’s nowhere near possible.”

“Says the girl who can fly,” Adam quipped.

My red-haired friend jabbed a finger in his direction. “That’s not related. That’s just…moving gravity around. Yeah, we don’t know how I’m doing it, but it’s not playing hopscotch with the laws of physics.” She turned to me. “This is impossible.”

I smiled. “You know, that’s pretty much exactly what MC said? You two really are sisters.”

Adam blinked in surprise. “Wait, she’s your sister?”

Robyn waved his words away. “She’s my dad’s daughter. Kinda. It’s a long story, and we don’t really treat each other like sisters. The point is—” again, she turned to me. “How can we use this against her?”

“We can’t,” I answered. “That’s what I was saying. I suspect those nitrogen shells Adam mentioned will slow her down, but they won’t stop her. And she’ll have the Blackguards with her.”

“And we still don’t know how many of those there are,” Derek contemplated. “Not to mention that if that ambush in the alley was any indication, they’ll know how to fight together well.”

“I have a tiny bit more of that sleeping gas,” Robyn perked up. “We just need to lure them somewhere enclosed—”

“Won’t work,” Ling and I said at the exact same time.

I blinked, then nodded to the blonde little delinquent, conceding her the floor.

“Elizabeth is smart,” she said slowly. “Or…actually, I’m not sure that’s the right word. If she was smart, she wouldn’t have been captured in the first place. But once she was captured, she chose to stay, and be tortured, even though she could escape at any time. Why?”

“She wanted to see what I would do,” I muttered.

The Chinese girl nodded. “Exactly. We bested her once, so she needed to get the upper hand again. Like…” she scrunched up her face, searching for the words. “Like a lion who has been burned by a fire. He doesn’t just jump in again, he hangs back and circles, watching and waiting.”

Derek scratched his chin. “That would explain why she’s been quiet the past few days.”

“She’s probably also gathering her followers,” Ling added. “I imagine they went underground when she got captured. The point is, the same trick won’t work on her twice. She’ll be ready for gas.”

Adam looked at the rest of us. “So, what? We just wait for her to make the next move?”

I glanced at Derek, who shrugged. I turned back to our little psychopath and shrugged too. “I guess so.”

“There’s not much else we can do,” Derek added. “What with the fey going crazy, all we can really do is try and resolve that as soon as possible, then hopefully get the alliance together again to prepare for the Composer.”

“Delphie might be Alpha of the murids,” Akane put in. “Her sister was the Lady of the Plague.”

I frowned. “Delphie, Delphie…that’s the small girl with the long brown hair, right? Seena’s friend?”

The swordswoman nodded.

“I still can’t believe her sister was a warlord,” Derek muttered, somewhat angrily. “We’ve done jobs for Plague before. You’d think it would have come up.”

“Delphie’s dead,” Robyn cut in bluntly. “She took some injuries when the fey appeared, and was taken back to their base for treatment. She was found there, dead, after the raid.”

That was an…odd bit of trivia. “How do you know that?”

The fire-headed girl shrugged. “You hear a lot, flying around. You hear more when you’re one of MC’s only friends.”

Adam frowned. “I thought you were sisters.”

Robyn sighed. “Kind of. But we don’t…” She shook her head. “Does it really matter?”

Derek spoke up before Adam could answer and turn this into a full-blown argument. “Okay, that’s one warlord off the list.” He tapped his chin. “But we’ve still got Obould, Thor, Sinmara, McDowell, Hannesdottir, Tecumseh, Dispater, and Pale Night.”

That got my attention. “You got Pale Night to say she’d help? Silver and gold, how’d you manage that? You ask her mom to talk to her?”

Derek shrugged. “She came when I asked, and that was it. Surprised me, to be sure.”

“Wait, Pale Night. I’ve heard that name before,” Adam said with a frown. “She’s in charge of…the kids, I think it was? Is she from an orphanage?”

Ling smiled. “No. She was the first demon warlord. It’s just that she tries to mimic her ‘Mother’ so much, that people call her House kids. You know, as an insult.”

“Oh. I see.” But he still had a confused look on his face.

“So I guess that’s it then,” Derek said. “Call up the warlords, make sure they’re on high alert. Is there anything else we can do?”

Everyone shrugged, or shook their heads.

“Okay, then I guess this meeting is over. We’ll take things as they come.”

There were a few surprised looks, but mostly everyone started packing up what little they had in preparation to leave.

“Derek,” Akane said as she sidled up to the blond man. “I need to take a few hours off. I have…something I need to go do. I just need a few hours.”

“Can it wait for ten or fifteen minutes?”

She blinked, and fiddled with the blue ribbon in her hair. “Uh…yeah. Why?”

“I need you to come with me.” He turned to me. “You too, Laura.”

“What? Why?”

“We’re going to the roof,” he said, dodging my question. “This won’t take long.”

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 165)

Nothing much got done here, I know, but it’s one of those important transition scenes. Next one has more plot.

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Scene 164 – Superessendam

SUPERESSENDAM

SIMON

The first thing I felt when I woke up was very, very surprised.

Hadn’t expected that. Waking up, I mean. The sibriex had a deal with a nearby ghoul bloodline; they disposed of the flesh from our failed experiments for us, and nobody on either side asked any questions. I had assumed my bones would be picked clean by the end of the weekend.

The second thing I felt was a horrific headache. I mean brain melting out your ears bad. Thankfully, I was somewhere pitch-black, because I suspected bright light would have made it a hundred times worse. I groaned loudly, and flopped backwards.

Which is when I felt the third thing: Comfortable. I was in a bed. Not my bed; this one was softer than air. It was almost distracting me from my headache. Almost.

“Here,” a soft female voice said from my side. “Drink some water.”

I felt a glass being pushed towards my mouth, and I took it, only spilling a little bit in the process. The second the liquid touched my tongue, I realized I was so thirsty I could hardly stand it, and drained it in a single gulp. And then nearly hacked it all up, as more than a little went down the wrong pipe.

“Sorry about that,” the voice said, and I felt a towel dabbing the spilled moisture from my mouth. “We’ve had you on an IV,” which was when I became aware of the tube keeping me from moving my arm too much. “But I knew you’d want some water anyway.”

My headache was dying down, if only slightly. “Th-thank you.” I looked around, not that it did any good. There were a number of eye buffs you could get to improve night vision without going full nighteyes, but I hadn’t gotten around to them yet. My eyes may as well have been closed, for all I could see. “Where am I?”

There was a brief pause. “Underground.”

Why did that voice sound familiar? Still, I chose to focus on her words instead of her voice. “I kinda guessed that. Next you gonna tell me we’re on Earth?” I snorted in derision, then immediately moaned in pain. Snark apparently makes headaches worse.

“Shh…don’t speak.” A damp cloth dabbed at my forehead, which soothed the pain a little. “Just rest.”

But I did need answers. “I will. After you answer my question.”

“South Outer,” she said after a moment. “About a block away from South Gate.”

“Ah, okay.” That sounded familiar, too. Something about that area was nagging at my brain…

“A small group of ghouls found you in a waste dump,” the woman explained as she continued dabbing my head. “Still alive, if barely. Whatever your culture did to you, it left you…” she paused, searching for a word. “…broken. Twisted. Your bones were brittle, your muscles spastic and unresponsive. And you looked…” the damp rag stopped for a moment before resuming. “They weren’t completely certain you had started out human. You were lucky you had your ID in your wallet.”

I swallowed. If it was really that bad, it was a miracle I had survived at all, not even accounting for the fact that the ghouls who had found me apparently didn’t enjoy eating the living.

And while I still couldn’t see, I could feel my body well enough. It seemed to be healthy and whole. As far as I could tell, my only problem at the moment was possible malnutrition.

Someone had reversed the failed effects of the Balor Reconstruction.

But who? Who would be able to use the toy maker to fix something that two of the most accomplished toy designers in the city couldn’t?

And why couldn’t I see?

I swallowed, slowly coming to a few disturbing realizations. “Can…you turn the lights on, please? I’d like to see who I’m dealing with.”

There was a pause.

“But…the lights have been on the entire time.”

I took a deep breath. Then another.

“Simon, calm down.”

“No,” I whispered. “No no no.” Nine Hells, I couldn’t deal with being blind. Not again.

“She’s right,” a new voice said from somewhere behind me. “You’ll hyperventilate like that.”

I strained my ears to listen. I couldn’t be sure, but I was mostly certain that the newcomer was alone. Okay, I could deal with that.

But I couldn’t deal with…with being blind. I spent the first few years of my life blind, until my sister and I got involved in testing some eye modifications for the toy maker. I would not go back to that.

I’d kill myself before I went back.

“You’re not blind,” the new voice said calmly, as if she could read my mind. The tone was gentle but firm, like a mother or older sister. “But your eyes are heavily damaged. I gave you a chemical cocktail to shut them down temporarily. Give them a chance to heal.”

I…wasn’t blind?

Not permanently?

I took another deep breath, but that was the last one.

There was no danger here. I was just…

Okay. I could stop and think now.

“Thank you for saving me,” I managed slowly. “I’m not sure I can ever repay you. But I am still going to need to know who you are. And why you saved me.”

“I saved you for a number of reasons,” the motherly voice answered, sidestepping the question of her identity with an ease I found disconcerting. “Chief among them being that I wanted to see if I could. The damage your culture did to you…” she clicked her tongue. “It was quite extensive.”

I swallowed. “How extensive?”

“Your bones were shattered,” she said bluntly. “Calcified and made brittle by their ham-fisted attempts to strengthen them. They broke like glass when they dropped you down the shaft. Knitting everything back together was difficult, but not the hardest part. Are you aware of the vampire curse?”

I frowned, searching my memory. “It’s…a disease. The angels commissioned the Avernans to make them something to make vampires more vulnerable to light. Make it so they’d actually burn. But that never got off the ground.”

“Not as such, no. They couldn’t turn it into a disease. But making a toy that causes your skin to catch fire when exposed to ultraviolet light wasn’t too difficult. They gave you that too; lucky for you, they dumped you at night.”

I rubbed my forehead, only to find my nurse’s hand going to dampen it with the wet rag again. She withdrew quickly, and I did my best to ignore it. There was something wrong with my skin, but I couldn’t quite place it.

“Now that’s just stupid. What possible reason would they have for giving me that?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea. Perhaps they wanted to give you the ability to set parts of your skin on fire as a weapon?”

“Hm.” That made some sense. In some legends, Balors did have that ability. But still, how stupid could you be?

“They tried to give you godeyes, as well. I’m sure you know those—perfect eyes that can see in any light.”

I swallowed. “Normally, it just makes you blind.”

The motherly voice scoffed. “Yes, it is a very difficult procedure. But they even managed to screw that up. Luckily for you, the procedure went wrong at the very beginning of the process, before the damage was permanent.”

I nodded. “Okay, bones, skin, and eyes. Anything else?”

“They placed pyrophoric glands in your throats, apparently in an attempt to give you the ability to spit fire. One of them burst, but luckily the damage from that was relatively minimal. Though we still had to replace much of the skin on the inside of your throat.”

That explained some of the pain, anyway. “Nine Hells…”

“I’m not done. Your ears. It is not clear exactly what they were trying to do, but your eardrums had torn by the time you got here. Thankfully, ears aren’t very complicated, but I suspect your hearing is a little different than before. It may take some getting used to.”

Again, I nodded. At least that wasn’t so bad.

“About half of your blood vessels ruptured. They gave you increased oxygen levels and a few healing glands—both of which greatly increase your blood pressure—without reinforcing your vessels first. We pretty much had to strip out your old circulatory system and start from scratch.”

That…was extensive. Extremely extensive. I was pretty sure not even Clarke could pull that off. “How?”

She ignored me. “The one thing they did right was your heart. It’s quite a bit bigger than it was before, to the point we actually had to alter your new ribcage so it could fit. It also has an emergency adrenal gland. If you have a heart attack, you’ll immediately get a huge shot of adrenaline, which might get it pumping again. Or kill you faster.”

My mouth felt very, very dry.

“Madame,” I said slowly. “Again, I cannot begin to find the words to express how much I appreciate you and yours saving my life.” I took a deep breath. “But I think I deserve to know who you people are.”

There was a long pause.

“I am the Queen of Earth and Light, Titania,” the motherly voice said quietly. “Matron of the Seelie Court.”

I closed my eyes. Not that it mattered; I still couldn’t see. “The fey.”

Of course. You’d need a toy box to do even a hundredth of what she had, and the skills of a fey to pull it off even then.

“Yes, but not in the way you think. This girl is not one of mine, and you are not in my demesne. My help was called for, and I came. That is all.”

I put my hands on my face and breathed deeply. “I’m not sure I can trust the word of—wait.” I felt around my face with my hands. Something…was wrong. It took me a second to place what it was, but it felt like…

It felt like my face was covered in scars.

“What did you do to me?” I whispered.

“The toy maker is a glorious miracle,” the fey said quietly. “And the toy box another on top of that. But there are still limits. In time, your scars may be healed, but there is only so much your body can—” She went silent suddenly. “Please stop crying.”

I sniffed, and wiped at my eyes. I could feel them now. Not just on my face, but on my entire body. Deep scars, carved into my flesh like a bored angel had doodled on me with a knife. Hells…it felt like I had more scar tissue than non.

“Please,” the fey said again. “We can’t put you back in the toy box right now. Not for something cosmetic. It would be too dangerous. Extensive modifications take a lot out of a body, and you’ve lost a lot of blood and nutrients.”

“When?”

The fey remained silent.

“WHEN?!”

“If I had my way, you’d never use the toy box again,” she replied bluntly. “But if you insist, we can put you under in about a month. The toy maker itself would be fine as soon as tomorrow, but it would take years to undo damage this extensive.”

I couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe.

I’m…not vain. Maybe a little, but I was a sibriex. I took pride in looking weird.

But this was something else entirely.

“To answer your other question,” Titania continued. “You are currently under the ruins of Shendilavri.”

Wait, what? “Malcanthet’s domain?”

“The succubus domain, to be a little more accurate. Malcanthet specifically controlled only Rivenheart, a small part of the building, which took up the entire block. But when Necessarius dropped their bombs, they didn’t discriminate.”

“What am I doing here? Why wouldn’t the ghouls bring me to Minauros or wherever?”

The Queen chuckled. “The ghouls at Minauros are ruled by Doresain. He is kind on the surface, but has…appetites. Those who do not wish to indulge him have found allies in the succubi.”

Wait… “You mean they’re still here? In Rivenheart?”

“Shendilavri. And yes. The succubi re-established their culture almost before the dust finished settling.” The girl, who hadn’t spoken since the fey had stepped into the room, dabbed at my face with the rag again. It took me a second to realize she was wiping away my tears. “Even in the beginning, not all the succubi followed Malcanthet. And as her methods grew more extreme, those opposing her swelled in number. She was not long for this city, even if she had not made the foolish mistake of kidnapping the Mother Monster.”

I breathed deeply.

“All right,” I said after a moment. “I think that’s all the questions I have right now.”

“Really? That’s all? You don’t want to know why your culture tried to kill you?”

“I know exactly why they did it,” I muttered. “I was a failed experiment.”

“What about your friends, your family? Don’t you want to know what they have been doing?”

“Of course!” I spat. “But does it matter? No! They’re looking for me, but they won’t find me. No one would think to look here.” Nine Hells, I was crying again. “And I don’t want them to. I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”

There was a slight pause.

“Why does this bother you?” the fey asked curiously. “I will admit, it is far from ideal. But what are a few scars compared to your life?”

“My girlfriend hates scars,” I muttered. “I’ve lost enough girlfriends. Cathy got scared off by my sister, Uma thought I wasn’t dangerous enough, Jelena turned out to be a lesbian—after she found out she was pregnant—and so on.”

There was no response but silence.

“I’ve lost enough girlfriends,” I said again. “I guess I was hoping this one would last a little longer.”

Again, there was a long silence.

“I suppose I can understand, then,” Titania admitted slowly. “Though I can’t offer much sympathy, I will leave you alone. Perhaps that will be enough.”

There was the clicking noise of a door being closed quietly.

I sighed again.

“Great job, Simon,” I muttered. “Can’t even get a freaking fey to care about the crazy abomination of science for more than five minutes.”

Then a wet rag dabbed at my forehead.

“NINE HELLS!” I cried, nearly ripping out my IV as I jumped in surprise. The girl administering to me shrieked in shock. “Hells below, I didn’t know you were still here.” When she didn’t speak, I held up a placating hand in what I thought was her direction. “Sorry, I thought you left with the fey.”

“…no,” she said quietly. “I didn’t see a reason to leave.”

“Okay, yeah, that’s fine. I’m fine with that.” I made an effort to control my breathing before I hyperventilated. “Just…surprised me, is all.” I lay back down in the bed again. “I don’t like being blind.”

There was a long pause, where she didn’t say anything or wet down my forehead or anything like that. Then there was a clicking noise, much softer than the one before.

“What was that?” I asked, half suspecting she had left.

“I turned off the overhead light. It was way too bright. It’s better like this.”

“I’ll have to take your word on that.”

“Hm. I suppose so.” A pause. “She didn’t tell me she disabled your eyes. I’m sorry I couldn’t warn you.”

“It’s fine,” I assured her. “Like you said, you didn’t know. And I’m sure it will wear off soon.”

“Yeah.”

Awkward silence fell.

After a few minutes, she returned to my side with the wet rag, but didn’t say anything.

It wasn’t until she finished wiping away my tears again that she spoke.

“Why would your girlfriend leave you?”

I swallowed. This was going to be a sore subject for a long while, but I suppose she deserved an answer to anything she cared to ask. “I realize I can’t see myself right now, but I can imagine it well enough. And the fey’s reaction clinched it. I look like I lost a fight with a blender, right?”

“That’s one way to describe it. But I don’t see how that leads to your girlfriend dumping you.”

“She’s beautiful,” I said bluntly. “I’m not. Cut off from my culture, in debt to a fey, and my skin feels like sandpaper—and again, looks worse. I can’t think of a reason for her to stay.”

“That’s a very shallow way of thinking.”

“Well, I have a tendency to date shallow women. It’s a flaw of mine.”

I didn’t mean to sound bitter, but…well, I was. All of my relationships had ended in humiliating failure. It spoke volumes that before Yolanda, my most successful relationship had ended with my girlfriend realizing she was a lesbian. I think I deserved to be a little cynical.

My nurse apparently disagreed, because that’s when she kissed me.

It was a long, slow kiss, and she put her entire body into it. It made my head swim, and when I came to, I wasn’t sure it was even the same day.

“Simon Lancaster, if you ever say anything like that again, I’m going to shove this stupid rag down your throat until you choke to death.”

I was still having trouble recognizing the voice, but the kiss was unmistakable. “Y-yolanda?”

“Who else?” she asked, and kissed me again.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 164)

So, there’s been a bit of confusion over Hells, domains, Shendilavri, and all that.

A domain is a subculture’s territory. Each culture has their own term for them, some of which are used more than others. Demon and angel domains are almost exclusively referred to as Hells and Heavens, while kemo domains usually aren’t called grounds (as in hunting grounds) very much. The fey have always used the term “demesne,” but nobody knows where they are, so it’s not really relevant.

Domains vary widely in size. The sibriex domain, Ani Kamakhym, consists of a single skyscraper, Arhestanots. The succubus domain was also only one building—but that building was an entire block.

Shendilavri was the succubus domain, the Fourth Hell. Rivenheart was a small corner of that domain, and was where Malcanthet held court. The fact that the succubi split one building into multiple sub-domains confused outsiders to no end, which is one of the reasons Necessarius just bombed the whole thing. They didn’t have time for more detailed intelligence. Though honestly, they probably would have done the same thing even if they had color-coded blueprints detailing exactly which parts of the block were owned by which warlord. Butler was not in the best of moods, and was never very worried about overkill anyway.

Scene 163 – Insulus

INSULUS

SEENA

My name…is Nyashk.

Nine Hells, it still felt weird. I mean, I had only officially been a warlord for three hours now, having finished my last treatment this morning, but I had figured I’d be more used to it now. The feeling of power. Of easy grace, and control. My entire body felt light as a feather, like I had shed a hundred pounds, even though the opposite had happened.

I had made my decision on Thursday, without telling my stupid brother. It was Monday now, the fifteenth of October, and I hadn’t had any missed messages from him during the meantime.

I was starting to get worried.

“Rumors are the Composer escaped on Friday,” Moloch, the culture’s viceroy, reported. “Details are scarce, however, and Butler hasn’t released an announcement yet.”

Zepar drummed his tail against the floor. “Hm…that’s something on its own. Normally, it would mean there was no truth to these rumors at all, but with something this important, he might want to keep it under wraps.”

“He didn’t do that with the screamers,” I noted, only half paying attention to the conversation.

“True,” my warlord—my fellow warlord—said with a sigh. “I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.”

“We still haven’t received any word from Necessarius regarding Grand’s assassination team,” the viceroy noted.

That grabbed my attention. I had been the one who insisted that we needed to at least attempt to kill the Composer, even though I was still a little worried Lizzy might not be it. “No word at all? Not even any confirmation that they’re still alive?”

“Not even any confirmation that they even got within a hundred yards of their target,” Moloch clarified. “But since their mission coincides with the Composer’s supposed escape…” he shrugged.

“They’re almost certainly dead,” I said flatly.

“If you feel optimistic, we can assume they killed Greene, disposed of the body, and now everyone thinks she’s dead,” Zepar put in hopefully.

I rolled my eyes. “That’s a few spoonfuls too much optimism for me, thanks.”

He grinned sadly. “Yes, I expected as much.” He nodded to the viceroy. “Log them as KIA. If we turn out to be mistaken, so be it.”

“Yes, Honored Noble.”

“Did any of them have any close family?” I asked. Their kids didn’t count, since they had all been put up for adoption, but if they had any surviving brothers or sisters…

But the serious-faced vampire just shook his head. “None that I know of. I already checked their wills; they left what little they had to the culture.”

Zepar scratched his chin. “And what does that consist of?”

Moloch shrugged. “Nine-hundred and eighty-three bucks and a couple decent guns.”

“Yes, well, put it all in the safe. Unless there’s anything else we need to discuss?”

“No, Honored Nobles.” He bowed as he left. “I will take my leave.”

Once the door closed behind the viceroy, I was able to let my breath out. “Finally. That guy makes me feel like a clown.”

“We hired him for his ability to stay calm and serious in any situation. You’ll get used to him, and start wondering how you ever survived without him.”

“I’m sure I will,” I muttered drily, not really in the mood to debate the point. “Are we done for today? I have something I need to do as soon as possible.”

Zepar raised an eyebrow. “Outside Maladomini? You’ll stand out a bit, with your new modifications.”

I gnashed my teeth, nearly slashing my tongue to ribbons in the process. “I’ll wear a cloak.”

“It’s also mid-morning.”

“I have daygoggles.”

“That’s not really my point.”

“Look, I’ll be back in an hour—two, tops. And then we can have a long meeting over tea and dumplings.” I blinked, realizing something. “Actually, we’re supposed to be equals. So I can leave whenever I want.”

The dark-skinned warlord nodded. “True, true, but I can advise you.” He shrugged. “Still, you have a point, and I think we’re about done. I was going to go to sleep soon anyway.”

I helped him clean up his tea set before hurrying out of the building. Vampires bowed, if only slightly, as I passed, and scurried to get out of my way.

It all felt so weird.

Maladomini was in West Middle, while the place I was going was in the corner of South Middle, so it was too far to walk. I could have commandeered a car from the motor pool, but…no. It just wasn’t something I was comfortable with yet.

Even on the light rail, it still took over an hour. It was only about twenty-five miles away as the crow flies, but the rail system turned it into seventy or so.

Still, I reached the skyscraper a little after nine, so it wasn’t too bad. Of course, for a vampire this was about the same as nine at night instead of nine in the morning, but the modification regimen over the last few days had screwed up my sleep cycle, so I felt as refreshed as any diurnal person.

Besides, I wasn’t visiting vampires anyway.

Well. No more reason to delay. I wrapped up my cloak, tucked it under one arm, and walked in the door.

The demon behind the front desk had a dozen bright pink horns arranged around her shaved head like a crown, matching the neon pink braid sprouting from the back of her head and draped casually over her shoulder.

“Welcome to Arhestanots, the Fleshworks,” she greeted me cheerfully. “Capital of the sibriex, leading the city into the future. Is there anything I can help you find?” If she was surprised by my appearance, she showed no sign. I suppose when you work for a toy-oriented culture, it takes a lot to faze you.

“I’m looking for Simon Lancaster,” I said without preamble. “He joined the culture a few months ago.”

“One moment, please.” She tapped at her computer for about two minutes, before frowning.

“Something wrong?”

“I”m sorry,” she said slowly. “I don’t have any record of him in our system.”

I stared at her through my daygoggles, sure that I had heard her wrong. “That’s impossible.”

“Yes, it is,” she muttered, still frowning. “I know Simon. He hasn’t done much since he got here, but he should still…” She bit her lip. “I remember he came in a few nights ago. Friday, maybe? There should at least be a timestamp for that.” She clicked through something, and her frown deepened. “Nothing.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means something has gone very wrong.” She reached for the phone. “Give me just a minute.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “You might want to hurry. I’m not known for my patience.”

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. Within ten minutes, the Unfleshed Lord himself was striding out of the elevator.

I had heard of him. Everyone had. The warlord who refused to keep the same toys for more than a week, switching faces and limbs almost as often as clothing.

Today, he didn’t look too odd, all things considered. A pale, hairless skinny thing, more like a corpse left in the sun too long than a man. Ugly, but not some jaw-dropping miracle of the toy maker. His pure white suit was stranger than his body.

His eyes were strong though, and they measured me up carefully. “How may I help you?”

“I am looking for Simon Lancaster. Your secretary says the database has no information on him.”

“Yes,” the demon said. “That is correct. I deleted it myself.”

The bluntness of his reply set me back a bit. “That’s…surprising. Why would you do something like that? If nothing else, I’d imagine you’d want to keep his toy receipt on file.”

“Lancaster committed grievous crimes against the culture. I refuse to remember him any more than I need to.” He turned to go. “If that is all, you know the way out.”

I grabbed his shoulder, my nails unintentionally drawing blood. I still didn’t quite understand the strength of my new toys. But I didn’t let go.

I was getting a very, very bad feeling in the pits of my stomach.

“What crimes?”

“That is an internal matter.”

I grit my razor-sharp teeth. Fine. “If Simon has been excommunicated, then where is he now? I need to speak with him immediately.”

The warlord glared at the blood staining his suit, then turned his gaze to me. “I really couldn’t tell you, and I wouldn’t care if I did know. Now unhand me.”

Instead, I tightened my grip. “You know something, Nhang. Speak, unless you want to become known as the Flayed Lord.”

The sibriex hissed in rage and slipped out of my grasp, losing a few chunks of flesh in the process.

“You threaten me, in my own House?” He stood up straighter, his eyes livid. “I am Narek Nhang, Gatekeeper of the Eighth Hell, Ani Kamakhym. Power of the sibriex, and the Unfleshed Lord. By all Nine Hells, who do you think you are?”

I don’t like bullies. And I hate bullies who use money and influence as their weapons.

And now, for the first time in my life, I had the power to strike back.

I didn’t hesitate. I whipped out my tail, a ten-foot long muscle that was only about two inches thick, but still strong enough to lift up the demon warlord by his neck. I was still getting used to the damn thing—and had been tripping over it all morning—but I think I finally understood why Zepar had insisted on putting the majority of my modifications into it.

“I am Nyashk,” I explained to the sputtering little man. “Noble of Maladomini. Seventh of the Black Crypts.” I narrowed my eyes (realizing a little late that my daygoggles undercut the effect a bit) and squeezed tighter. “Mine is a bloodline of assassins and killers. Yours is one of engineers and scientists. Both of us have our place.”

I pulled him close, until his face was inches from my own.

“And right now, yours is to tell me where he is.”

He glared at me defiantly…before looking away.

“Dead,” he muttered. “Dropped down the garbage chute Thursday night. The ghouls have picked his bones clean, by now.”

He…

I tightened my tail around his throat. “LIAR! Tell the truth!

He didn’t answer—he was too busy sputtering for breath. Just a few more seconds, and that wouldn’t be a problem anyway.

I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Because he wasn’t lying. Not that I could tell, anyway.

But…

My brother couldn’t be…

Four days ago I had been…what? Nine Hells, four days ago I had just decided to become the warlord Zepar wanted. Four days ago, I had gone under the knife.

Four days ago, my brother had died.

If I had made the decision sooner, would I have been able to save him?

I loosened my tail, letting the pale warlord fall to the floor, where he choked down great gasps of air. The secretary, I noticed, didn’t rush to his side.

Parts of me were shutting down. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Like all the parts of me that cared about Simon were just…turning off the lights. Protecting me from what was happening.

“I realize this was an unprovoked attack,” I heard myself say in a dead voice. “However, considering your own crimes, I am willing to call this even.” I eyed the man on the ground, rubbing his neck gingerly as he looked up at me with trepidation. “But if you ever make a move against Maladomini, I will have you and everyone you have ever met killed without hesitation.”

I turned on my heel and stomped out, desperate to get out of range of their cameras before the tears started flowing.

It was a lie, of course.

I was going to put a kill order on that stupid little shit the second I got back.

Preferably, before Zepar could wake up and stop me.

Behind the Scenes (scene 163)

“Black Crypts” is a name for vampire domains, like angel Heavens and demon Hells. But like the kemo grounds, the word is not quite as widespread as the others. It normally only comes up in formal situations like this.

Scene 162 – Inlaqueaverunt

INLAQUEAVERUNT

LAURA GRAND

My name is Laura Grand. I am a Mal passer, a vampire trained to look and act like a baseline. Every culture has people like us, though most of them deny it. Considering that we have a reputation as assassins, it’s to be expected that they’d want to distance themselves from us.

Of course, some of us are assassins.

Myself, Frank Goebel, and Serena Delgado worked together on missions like this. Our last mission—to take out the Paladins’ retinue—had been scrapped during the restructuring of our warlords. Our new Noble, Nyashk, had asked me how I felt about that.

I had answered with the truth: I felt that it was an order, and I would carry it out. I hadn’t really understood why she was asking, but that wasn’t my job. Soldiers don’t question, they obey.

Such as this mission. It was simple enough: Infiltrate the Necessarian camp under the guise of guards, and make the kill. Don’t kill any ‘sarians.

There were plenty of questions I could ask. Why now? Why not let Necessarius handle it? Why even bother with passers? Why not just send in a shadow squad, with toys optimized towards pure stealth?

But we didn’t ask questions. We just obeyed.

Getting past the perimeter had been surprisingly easy, mostly because there wasn’t one. They were relying on secrecy to protect this place, not armed guards.

Not that there weren’t plenty of those, too, but they kept themselves hidden. A dozen snipers on the city wall, looking down like hawks. A number of carefully-placed shipping containers to provide cover, and some more soldiers posing as ‘random’ Ring residents, apparently lounging in the shacks and lean-to’s.

The only thing that was obviously guarded was the crane, a giant old yellow thing with the Necessarian red-on-black hastily painted on the main structure. There were three men armed with assault rifles guarding the controls, and another five patrolling around it.

Obviously, that wasn’t the actual cell. It was just a decoy. But where WAS it? We couldn’t just go up to someone and ask, they’d capture us or worse.

Frank was the one who noticed that the power magnet the crane used to grab things was directly above a certain shipping crate…a crate that a couple Dagonites happened to be eating dinner in front of.

It was dark, so we could probably sneak past them, but we didn’t want to risk them having nighteyes. Not to mention getting into the cell itself would probably be loud.

“The Big Boss said we’re your relief,” Serena said cheerfully as we walked up. “Go home.”

The pair looked at each other, then back at the tall blonde passer. “We just got here this morning. I thought he said we had to stay on site for two days?”

Serena shrugged. “Men and monsters, don’t ask me. He says jump, we ask how high on the way up.”

The Dagonites eyed us oddly, but slowly put away their sandwiches. “No complaints here. But if it turns out we were supposed to stay, you’re taking the fall.”

“That’s only fair,” my comrade admitted. “But it won’t come to that.”

As the ‘sarians left, one of them turned back. “Be sure to check on the prisoner.” He tossed two heavy pairs of keys at us, and I caught them. “We just let one of the lab techs in a second ago.”

I glared at him. “You shouldn’t have let him in unsupervised.”

He shrugged. “Clarke’s techs know better than to poke things. I’m sure he’s fine.” They waved as they headed off.

“Eternal night,” I muttered under my breath, stomping over to the shipping crate with Frank and Serena in tow. “Butler’s hiring standards seem to have relaxed since last I checked.”

Turns out the reason there were two pairs of keys was because there were two locks, which had to be turned simultaneously. Serena and I handled that while Frank kept guard with his rifle. In a couple seconds, the door was open, and we slipped inside.

And there was Elizabeth Greene.

Manacled to the steel wall, like a butterfly pinned down for study, it was only expected for her to look weak. She was captured, defeated. It was only expected that she should lose some of her fire.

But she hadn’t.

She still looked as healthy as if she was living in a five-star hotel. Her bronze skin had lost none of its color, her golden eyes still shone as bright as stars. Even her hair retained its sheen. The only sign that she was even the slightest bit uncomfortable was her unkempt hair. And even then, it looked like she had just rolled out of bed, not been trapped in a Necessarian warcage for a week.

And then there was the lab tech the idiots had let in five minutes ago.

He looked about seventeen, and tall, with the ruddy skin of a pacific islander, and garish green hair. That color looks bad in general; contrasted with his skin it looked horrific. He was standing too close to Greene for my taste.

Serena stepped back, letting me take charge. “You there. Step back from the prisoner.”

The tech eyed me warily. “And who are you?”

I didn’t waver. “The new guards. Now step back.”

He smiled thinly. “I have a better idea.” He placed his hand on the wall.

And ten square feet of steel just rusted away, like a thousand years had passed in a handful of seconds.

The three of us stumbled back. Eternal night, what was—

Elizabeth Greene landed lightly on her feet, not even stopping to rub her wrists, apparently completely unharmed from being pinned to a wall for eight days.

And she was grinning, showing gleaming white teeth, and canines nearly as sharp as a vampire’s.

“Thank you,” she said to her minion. “I assume Nabassu and Oleander are nearby?”

“Oleander only,” he replied crisply. “Nabassu wanted to minimize the people involved.”

“Hm, I suppose I’ll allow it.” She turned her attention to us, still grinning. “You can kill these three.”

I’ve spent most of my twenty-six years on this Earth around guns. Worked for the McDowells when I was a kid, before they blew themselves up. Did some escort duty for Zero Forge Guns for a little while, until I joined the Mals.

ZFG was where I got the Red Knight ZF678. A nice, stable 6.00 mm hand cannon, generally referred to as a hip gun.

Twenty-six years around guns meant I could draw steel faster than pretty much anyone on the planet. A few carefully chosen internal toys lowered the number of people faster than me by a good amount.

And when I was using a Red Knight ZF678, a gun designed for being drawn from the hip at lightning speed, I was the fastest on the planet.

I didn’t hesitate. Not for a single millisecond. I whipped that gun out and emptied eight rounds into Elizabeth Greene’s skull before anyone had a chance to blink.

That’s not hyperbole.

6.00 mm is pretty big. Big enough that one is usually enough to take a fist-sized chunk out of the back of someone’s head. Eight was enough to reduce it to a fine red mist.

I sighed in relief as the Composer’s headless corpse slumped to the ground, then nodded to my companions.

“Take care of the Blackguard,” I said, indicating the green-haired boy. My gun was empty, and I felt too emotionally exhausted to reload. “No loose ends.”

“You’re right,” a female voice hissed. “No loose ends.”

Then Elizabeth Greene rose from the floor, grinning from ear to ear.

I stepped back, horrified, sputtering wordlessly. I reloaded my gun hurriedly, even as Frank and Serena started firing into the woman’s chest.

But although bloody wounds erupted in the Composer’s flesh, she didn’t seem more than mildly inconvenienced by them.

“Sorry, kids,” she said mockingly, that too-broad grin still on her damn face. “It doesn’t work like that!”

She killed me before I finished reloading.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 162)

I hate scenes like this, where nothing important is going on. Oh well. There’s always gotta be a little filler, right?