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 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.”
The fey remained silent.
“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.”
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.