Monthly Archives: July 2014

Scene 175 – Disciplinia

DISCIPLINIA

LING

“Please,” Akane begged. “You need this.”

“No I don’t,” I snapped back. “I’ve been doing perfectly well so far.”

“Against mindless zombies!” my roommate cried. “Not against intelligent, dangerous super-powered people who know how to exploit your weaknesses!”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m not taking combat training, and that’s final.”

Flynn took a step forward, his fingers drumming against the hilt of his sword in consternation. “Ling, please, there’s no need to be so antagonistic about this. Just a few quick lessons. I’ll teach you myself, if you want.”

I glared at him, then turned my attention to Akane. “Keep your boyfriend out of this.”

She blushed scarlet and stammered something about how they totally weren’t dating, yaddy yadda yadda, you know how this one goes.

Flynn seemed to be at least as aware of this plot as I was. He ignored Akane in favor of giving me a steely glare.

I met his eyes without flinching. I took the full brunt of one of Derek’s death glares; Flynn’s mild annoyance was nothing.

“I thought everyone already went over this with you. The rest of the team has to be able to trust that you’re up to par.”

I waved my hand dismissively. “I can control concrete, and we’re in a city. It’s fine.”

The swordsman sighed. “You are really impossible, you know that? This isn’t shounen anime, Ling. The heroes don’t always win just because they’ve got cooler powers.”

“I know that. Don’t insult me. I know reality from fiction, thanks.”

“Really? Do you, really?

Now it was my turn to give him a glare. It didn’t have much effect. “Yes. I know better than to think all it takes too win a fight is to take a few hits and then give a speech about friendship.”

He sighed again. “But you still think the good guys always win, just because they’re the good guys.”

I stood up a little straighter. “Maybe. What’s so wrong with that?”

“Fine,” he muttered. “We’ll do this the old-fashioned way.”

Then his face was an inch away from mine.

I was so surprised it took me a second to feel the open-palm punch to my chest.

I flew back under the force of the blow, literally lifting off the ground, but I managed to use the enhanced reflexes granted by the power package to keep my legs oriented, and land mostly upright a few feet away.

But Flynn didn’t give me a chance to recover. He charged across the training mats and launched a punch at my head. When I dropped down, dodging it easily, he used his leg to sweep my feet out from under me before I even knew what was happening.

I blinked, to see him slamming his elbow down into my face. I rolled to the side, which let me avoid his pile-driver by pure luck.

Before he could recover, I lashed out from the ground with a two-legged kick, utilizing years of soccer to my advantage. I caught him in the shoulder, sending him rolling across the mats, but he recovered almost as fast as I had.

He hadn’t drawn his sword.

I bellowed and bull-rushed forward, but I may as well have stood still for all the good it did me. Flynn dodged to the side as silent as a whisper, and tripped me up again without a word.

For the second time in as many minutes, I went sprawling, this time with my face grinding against the exercise mats.

But still, combat training or no, I was an accomplished athlete, and the power package only enhanced that. I was able to get my hands under me and use my momentum to flip back onto my feet, only skidding a last few inches before stopping.

But again, Flynn was there.

I guarded against the punch to my face, but it was a feint; he got me in the ribs with a lightning-fast kick. I was wearing my armor, as I always did these days, but it still made me stagger, and left me open for another sweep on my legs that sent me sprawling once again.

Wait. I was wearing my armor…

He tried the pile-driver on me again, but I used my power to grab my armor and move a few feet to the left.

Flynn didn’t seem upset that he had missed again. Instead, he grinned.

“Okay,” he said. “Now we can have a real fight.” He took a few steps back and fell into a basic fighting stance, waiting for me to get up.

He still hadn’t drawn his sword.

Tezuka’s name, he wasn’t taking me seriously. I might not be as bad as Akane, but I still don’t like being mocked.

This time when I charged, I did it with the full weight of my power behind me, launching me forward at speeds no human could hope to match.

If I hit him, he’d die.

And then suddenly, I was upside down, bits of plaster falling down around me, my back having slammed into the wall.

“What…what happened?”

Akane pulled me out, brushing off the larger pieces of rubble as she helped me to my feet. “You didn’t react fast enough.”

“React fast enough to what?

She gave me a look. “Flynn tripped you again and flipped you over his shoulder. It’s a basic move when someone is charging at you.”

“I…” I glanced at the swordsman, who was standing a few feet away, looking embarrassed.

“Uh, sorry,” he managed. “Not really sure what came over me.”

“I was moving…” I didn’t even know how fast I was moving. “How did you react that fast?”

He shrugged. “It wasn’t hard. It doesn’t really matter how fast you’re moving, when you’re running in a straight line. I knew where you were going to be, so it was easy to brace myself.”

“If you had training, you’d be able to do the same,” Akane noted. “And you’d know better than to do a charge like that in the first place.”

Tezuka’s…what did she think I was, a child? “Yeah, thanks, I got that,” I snapped.

“Hey, calm down,” a voice called from behind us. I turned to see Adam, dressed in a sharp leather jacket and carrying his briefcase of guns, walk into the dojo. “What’s got you all worked up?”

I rolled my shoulders, trying to stretch them out a little bit. “Flynn decided to prove a point. Violently.”

The bland baseline looked at the swordsman, bewildered. “Uh, okay. What was the—” Flynn opened his mouth to answer, but Adam held up his hand. “Never mind, I have a feeling I don’t want to know.”

“Men and monsters, you make it sound like I did something horrible,” Flynn muttered, miffed. “She’s barely even bruised.”

Adam ignored the man, instead turning his attention to me. “I came here to tell you the news. Assuming you haven’t heard it already.”

“Uh…” I thought back. Had anything noteworthy happened today? Derek had called an hour ago to say he was busy with Laura at some crime scene, but that didn’t have anything to do with me. At least, it better not. If Turgay got killed and Derek hadn’t seen the need to mention it, I was gonna be pissed. “That’s a negative. What’s up?”

“Necessarius made a deal to release Delia,” he explained. “MC just shot me a text five minutes ago.” He waved his hand. “One of her automated programs, I mean. I signed up for a couple newsfeeds.”

That named sounded familiar… “Refresh my memory. Who’s Delia?”

“The ave the ‘sarians captured when they tried to get the toy box back the first time.”

I blinked. “Wait, Soaring Eagle made a deal with Butler?”

He shrugged. “That’s what it looks like.”

Flynn appeared at my shoulder, handing me a bottle of water. I hadn’t even noticed him leave. I took it, and he sipped from his own. “What’d they give in return? No way the toy box is worth one bird.”

“That’s not the end of it,” Adam warned. “The aves gave up a dozen prisoners they got from that battle on the Ring. In return, they got, uh,” he checked his phone. “They got all their captured warhawks back.”

“That’s kinda interesting,” I admitted. “But I’m not sure why I should care. Sorry if that sounds cold.”

“The problem isn’t the aves,” he insisted firmly. He held up his phone for me to see. “It’s the guy they had deliver the trade agreement.”

It didn’t take me long to identify the man in the picture.

Green hair, clashing with his russet skin.

“Mitchel,” I snarled. I threw the unopened water bottle at a newly-installed speaker in the corner with all my strength, then turned on my heel and stalked out of the room.

I had some birds to catch.

Behind the Scenes (scene 175)

I’m having trouble getting Flynn as much screen time as he deserves. Well, he has plot threads later, it’s fine if he’s a little on the light side for now.

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Scene 174 – Occidio

OCCIDIO

DEREK

I fished around in my pocket a little desperately for a cloth of handkerchief or something, but with no luck. I was forced to just pull up my t-shirt to cover my face.

It did almost nothing to block out the smell.

Death has a very unique, unmistakeable odor to it, which changes depending on how long the body has been dead. For older bodies in a dry environment, the smell can dissipate pretty quickly, depending on air flow.

It’s the newer corpses that give me problems.

On their own, new corpses don’t really smell like anything. All the mites and parasites haven’t had a chance to get involved, and the current cold climate only slowed that process down even more.

But when corpses have been ripped limb from limb, body parts strewn about like so many discarded toys, and the walls quite literally painted red with blood, it was something else altogether.

The sweet, cloying and slightly metallic taste of blood is the first thing you notice, followed moments later by the sharper tangs of waste matter from ruptured organs. Individually, they’re no big deal. But mixed together, they turn into this mutant, dire stink that some primeval part of your body instinctively identifies as death.

Silver and gold, I was too used to this smell. I hated it, shied away from it as much as possible, but I was still…inured to it. I had built up a resistance.

You shouldn’t be able to build up a resistance to death.

Still, I was here for a reason. I had a job to do. I let my shirt fall from my mouth and called to my companion. “Laura, you made the call yet?”

She snapped her phone shut and nodded. “They’ll be here soon.”

‘Here’ was nowhere special, just a small apartment complex in South Central, five or six blocks from AU. Apartments like this were a bit odd in the central city, since they were usually attached to shops for use by the employees and owners, but it wasn’t too out of place.

Now it was a mausoleum, the site of one of the worst massacres I had ever seen. For a ‘scraper this size—twenty stories or so, a bit on the thin side—you could easily fit ten families on a floor. Call it five people per family…

A thousand people, dead.

We were on the first floor right now, and there were about a dozen different corpses, judging by the number of larger bloodstains and the number of limbs strewn about. Most of them were clustered around the mail slots, but the entire floor was just…covered.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the walls were painted red with blood. There were a few arms, ripped or sliced off, just discarded near the chaotic symbols drawn on the walls. They had been used as primitive brushes, and abandoned when they ran dry.

The front doors of the building—a solid pair of glass double doors under a strong, solid steel gate—were gone completely, just torn apart for easier access. That was the source of the cold, perpetually salty wind blowing through the building.

And the source of us, in the end. It was early in the morning, too early for diurnals to be really up and about, but too late for most nocturnals to still be awake. If not for the blatantly obvious shattered entrance, we would have walked right by, none the wiser about what lay inside.

It was early Thursday morning, October the 18th. Three days after Elizabeth’s ambush on the roof. With a few quiet days, I had dared to hope we had put a dent in her plans by killing that flying giant.

Clearly, that was not the case.

“Stay down here,” I suggested. “I’m gonna see if there are any survivors upstairs.”

“There won’t be,” she warned. “Elizabeth seems pretty thorough.”

“We can’t guarantee this was her,” though I knew it was. The cultures didn’t fight like this. There were still a few—the Nessians, the darker ghoul bloodlines, maybe Satanists on a bad day—who would do something like this, but it was doubtful they could, and there would be signs. The Nessians would have taken captives, the ghouls would have eaten their victims instead of just ripping them apart, and the Satanists wouldn’t have killed everyone. Not to mention that if it was a culture, they would have left their flag somewhere.

No, this was Elizabeth’s work. It was just too similar to the attack on Mjolnir’s bar or the ave lab to be anyone else. Brutally efficient, while still unnecessarily messy.

I trudged up each floor in turn, but I needn’t have bothered. Each was exactly the same as the first, maybe with a few more or less bodies strewn about. Some of the apartments had their doors ripped open or man-sized holes broken through the walls, where the residents tried to hide.

Bullet holes were everywhere from where they tried to make a stand, but I didn’t see any corpses killed by gunfire. After I had explored every floor as much as I could stomach, I sighed and slouched back down to the lobby, to find Laura talking to a ‘sarian who had shown up while I was gone.

“It looks like they came through the door while someone was standing there, maybe trying to hold the gates closed or something. Most of the people on this floor were over here, by the mailboxes, and they mostly got killed before they could run. The only real question is if they started playing with the corpses before heading upstairs.” She turned as she heard me coming down. “And here’s Derek. What’d you find?”

“About the same,” I confirmed. “No notable fortifications, though. I’m guessing they killed everyone as quickly as possible, so nobody had time to prepare, and then came back and started…” I indicated the blood, the corpses. “…playing.”

The ‘sarian, a young baseline man with brown hair, nodded. “That seems like a fair assessment. I’ll have my men contain the scene—” He gestured to a few of his subordinates, who marched back outside. “—while you two search for clues or whatever.”

“Seems like a plan,” I said, trying not to sound too depressed. I really didn’t want to sift through body parts, but I had no choice. Before he had a chance to leave, I added one more thing. “What’s your name, soldier?”

“Captain Tammaro de Angelis,” he responded, adding a crisp salute for good measure. “With the First Response Battalion.”

Another Italian? I wonder if the Big Boss had done it on purpose. “Newly formed, I take it? I don’t think I’ve heard of you guys before.”

He nodded. “Combined from the 9th and 16th South Central Infantry Battalions, sir.”

“Those were the ones who helped against the burners and the biters, respectively,” Laura added without looking up from her phone.

I rubbed my hair back. “Well…good. I was a little worried about all that. I know Kelly was reassigned from the 9th, but I hadn’t heard what happened to the rest of you.”

He shrugged. “Well, now you know. The Lieutenant Colonel will be around soon, if you want to talk to him.”

Assuming this was formatted like a normal battalion, the Lieutenant Colonel would be the one in charge. Still, we had work to do, so although I was a bit curious, I just didn’t have time.

“No thanks. We’ll be in here, holler if anything goes wrong outside.”

He nodded and hefted his rifle. “Yes sir. Same goes for you.”

I nodded in reply, and turned my attention back to the bloodied scene.

“Tell me what we’ve got, Laura.”

She was kneeling in front of a small pile of cast-aside limbs, using her phone to take pictures. “Not much, really. The ‘sarian CSI’s will be able to tell us the exact number of bodies and all that when they get here, but that’s just grunt work and basic counting.”

I crossed my arms and frowned. “I was hoping for something more along the lines of the number of attackers and what powers they have. We need solid leads.”

“Silver and gold, don’t you think I know that?” She stood up, brushed off her legs, and stalked up the stairs angrily. “But there are too many variables. Unless we find a smoking gun, I’m not holding out hope.”

I followed her up to the second floor. “We have to be able to get some answers out of this.”

She threw up her hands. “Like what? We need to know how many renegades were here—or if it was just Elizabeth—and what powers they have. But they could easily have powers where one or two of them could do this by themselves!”

We stopped by the first apartment on the second floor, a small little one-room flat with only the remnants—both bloody and more mundane—of one person inside. “Let’s start simple. We know that she likes to use those swords and her speed. Maybe we can find evidence of those.”

Laura gave me a cock-eyed look. “What, look for skids and cut marks?”

I shrugged. “It’s a start.”

My friend pulled her long black hair out of her eyes and sighed. “Fine, I guess that’s something.” She stepped into the room. “Keep an eye out for twisted concrete, too. She doesn’t seem to like using that power, but it’s worth a look.”

We searched for over an hour all through the first floor, but didn’t find anything worth noting.

Captain de Angelis finally came up to see how we were doing. “Need any extra hands?”

Laura, crouched under a table trying to look at something or other on the underside of it, blew a hair out of her face and glared at the young ‘sarian as if it was his fault.

But she managed to keep from snapping at him, for which I was grateful. “Not from your grunts. Keep the perimeter. But are the CSI’s here yet?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Silver and gold, what is taking them so long?” She tried to get out from under the table, and bumped her head for her trouble.

I rushed over. “Hey you—”

She shoved off my hand angrily. “I’m fine, it’s just a stupid bump. You.” She indicated the young captain. “Have someone call MC, figure out where the forensic guys are. If she doesn’t know, have her send a squad to their last known location.”

He nodded and departed quickly, wisely not wanting to be in the same room with an angry superior officer for too long. Well, maybe ‘officer’ was putting it too strongly.

Laura rubbed at the back of her head. “I hate this game.”

I frowned. “Game?”

“Yes, game.” She waved her hand at the room. “Look at this. The poor bastard didn’t even have a chance to fight back. He’s just a pawn, a…an art piece used to illustrate a point.” She sighed and slumped into a chair. “Though I don’t have any idea what that point is supposed to be.”

“Maybe that’s it,” I suggested. “Maybe the point is that this is a game.” I shrugged helplessly. “Or she’s mocking us for not being able to protect people…I dunno.” I sighed. “How do you get a bead on someone’s character when they were lying to you for over a decade?”

Silence fell in the ruined apartment.

But only for a few moments.

“I think what we’ve been seeing is the real her,” Laura said slowly. “Think about how she acted when we fought her, when she was in pain. She didn’t break down sobbing, she started cursing in languages we didn’t understand.”

“I still haven’t read the transcript of when you had her captured,” I muttered quietly. “But I can guess what you mean.”

More silence.

“I’m going upstairs,” she said after a few moments. “You keep searching on this floor.”

I didn’t try and stop her from leaving. She had been a little…distant ever since we found out about Lizzy. Well, she had been distant since she came back to South Central, but I had thought the night we spent together after the little adventure in the sewers was a sign of improvement. It wasn’t looking that way.

Silver and gold, where were those CSI’s? If there was something here, I wasn’t going to be able to find it myself.

I took a deep breath. Okay, think it through logically. There was no evidence that Elizabeth had been here herself. We hadn’t found any signs of her known powers. No sliced bodies, no odd formations in the concrete, nothing.

So what did that mean? Either she had been tricking us again, pretending she only had a small pool of powers when she actually had far more, or she hadn’t been here. Going from what Laura had said, I thought it was more likely the second option.

Did…did that mean this wasn’t her after all? Maybe it was the fey. There was that one time when an entire strike force was completely wiped out…maybe whatever monster they had used then had attacked here as well.

I hurried up to the second floor. “Laura? You here?”

There was a strange sound coming from one of the rooms. It couldn’t be…

When I found her, she was facing away from me; she hadn’t noticed me come in.

She was crying.

Just sort of…sniffling softly, but for her, that was on the same level as bawling like a baby would be for anyone else.

Why was she crying? I hadn’t done anything too stupid recently. I cast my gaze around the room, but didn’t see anything worse than what was in every other apartment.

What should I do? Should I hug her? Comfort her like she did me? I—

Suddenly, a massive migraine flared up, forcing me to stumble backwards out of the room. I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out.

It had been almost a month, but I still recognized the feeling. I had been having headaches like that since I was eleven years old.

Elizabeth. It was one of the effects of her hypnosis. Apparently, I wasn’t quite as cured as I would have liked.

But what had set it off? Helping Laura? That didn’t make any sense. Maybe the…programming, or whatever you call it, was glitching or something.

Okay, that was something to worry about later. The easiest way to get rid of these headaches was to focus on something else. So…

Wait. There was…something Ling had said. Before the whole business in the tunnels, she had something about Lizzy…

That’s right. She said Elizabeth’s guards and driver and so on were slavishly devoted to her. Almost to a creepy extent.

At the time, I hadn’t thought much of it, not least because I had gotten a headache—which, now that I thought about it, made me zero in on that even more.

We hadn’t seen any evidence that Elizabeth had been here personally. There was no sign that anything supernatural had happened, other than the fact that it didn’t fit the style of any culture and it was nearly identical to the attack on the bar.

So…what if the renegades were hypnotized, like me, and were trying desperately to impress her? Even to the point of slaughtering an entire building full of people in a mirror of her style?

That…was something. I didn’t know what. Did it mean even the renegades didn’t know where she was? Or that she just wasn’t giving them orders? It could be anything.

But it meant something.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 174)

Rambled a bit on this one.

Scene 173 – Pax

PAX

SIMON

For the first time in two days, I was up and walking again. My vision had cleared up yesterday, but my legs had taken a little longer. I probably could have moved if I had to, but Titania had insisted I take my time.

The Seelie Queen popped in every once in a while to see how I was doing, but I never got a chance to talk to her at length. Like to figure out why the fey reformatted into a culture, or took names, or started wearing clothes or any of that. I mean, I guess it had something to do with the Composer, but you could never be sure with the fey.

Yolanda said the fey had always been involved with the succubi, from the very beginning, which wasn’t very surprising. The fey liked putting their hands in everything, and they represented exactly the kind of non-restrictive, chaotic existence that demons in general, and succubi in particular, loved.

Now, I was wandering around with Yolanda, holding her hand tightly as though she would disappear at any moment.

I still wasn’t sure what to make of this place. It was under the ruins of Shendilavri, built in the cracked and destroyed sewer system, scarred by both Necessarian bombs and the rubble from the massive building itself. They had done a lot in five years, digging down so that the ceiling was fifty or sixty feet above our heads.

The new buildings, scattered around the cavern like mushrooms, were primitive and small, mostly made of mud-packed rubble or dug into the cave walls. There were still signs of technology and advancement, though. Wires strung haphazardly, televisions in windows and speakers on every street corner…that sort of thing.

Yolanda squeezed my hand—causing by scars to ache again—and smiled at me. “What are you thinking about?”

I smiled back. “Just…this place.” I indicated the bustling underground settlement, only half-lit from a scattering of cheap light bulbs on sticks acting as pseudo-streetlights, with a wave of my free arm. “How did you manage to hide all this for so long?”

She chuckled. “You make it sound like we’ve been discovered! You’re hardly the first to find your way here.” Then she shrugged. “Part of it is solidarity. You don’t become a succubus these days if you’re willing to sell out your friends.”

“Yeah,” I mused. “Racism does strengthen the bonds of the oppressed.”

“But that’s only a small part of it,” she admitted. “Mostly, it’s due to Naamah and her Daybringers.”

“I haven’t heard of—wait.” I frowned. “Actually…actually, I have heard of Naamah. She was an angel, right? Under Pistis Sophia, if I’m not mistaken.”

“The first fallen angel. She caused quite a stir when she left them. And this was in the early days, when Malcanthet was still running around free.”

I nodded. “Definitely remember her now. I guess she didn’t escape with the Queen, then?”

Yolanda winced. “Please…don’t call Malcanthet that. No one likes her. Anyone who did, left with her five years ago.”

I patted her head lightly. “Sorry, sorry. Just…what was that about Daybringers?”

She sighed. “They’re spies. That’s really all there is to it.”

“Oh, I get it. Spread rumors about how unstable this place is, how there’s nothing good to loot, and keep an eye out for the ones who ignore the warnings and get too close.”

“Yeah, pretty much. Bribe the guys in the ruins up top, that kind of thing.”

“And…what happens to the people who get too close?”

“Look at that, we’re here,” she said, running forward the last dozen feet to our destination. “Come on, hurry up!”

I sighed. I could guess why she didn’t want to talk about it. “Yeah, one sec.” I limped forward faster, wincing as each and every scar on my legs started protesting at me.

‘Here,’ it turned out, was just a small cluster of white tents with a single black rune stitched on the side, looking sort of like a ‘v’ with a tail. Although I couldn’t read it, I recognized it from angelic script. That would make it…Yiddish? No, angels used Hebrew.

“What is this place?”

I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. “A hospital. Sit down.”

I was guided to a cot inside one of the tents, where Yolanda was already waiting. When I sat down, I was able to get a good look at the woman who had led me here.

The first thing I noticed was that she was naked.
I shielded my eyes. “Um, is there any chance you can put some clothes on?”

The woman cursed. “Velvet hell, you’ve been in Shendilavri for two days, and you still care about nudity?” She had a tough, no-nonsense voice, and I winced as though she was about to smack me.

But she just sighed.

“Fine, whatever.” I heard the sound of clothes rustling. “There, I put on a lab coat. Happy now?”

I cracked my eyes open to see that she had done as she had said, and was buttoning up the white coat even now.

She was a beautiful demon with dark skin mimicking an ethnicity I couldn’t quite put my finger on, as well as long and delicate horns maybe six inches long sprouting from her forehead. While her face was as beautiful as that of any other succubus, my trained eye noted that it was a little too beautiful. Whoever had shaped it had made the mistake of making it literally flawless, which would have landed her square in the Uncanny Valley. Ironically, it was her persistent frown that saved her, placing unexpected wrinkles and creases on that perfect face, serving to humanize her a bit.

As she finished buttoning up the lab coat, she pulled a small plastic spike from somewhere and put her long black hair into a bun to keep it out of the way.

“Let’s have a look at those legs,” she declared. “Off with the pants.”

I blinked. “Uh, what?”

Without saying another word, she reached for my belt, causing me to yelp and scramble back. She sighed.

“Look boy, I really don’t care what you’ve got under the hood. I just need to see how your legs are healing. Now take them off, or I’ll do it for you. I’m not afraid to hit you with a sedative strong enough to knock out a gargant.”

Knowing I didn’t really have a choice, I removed my pants, wincing as the jeans slid over my scars. I left my boxers on, which the succubus didn’t seem to mind. She just started poking at my legs with a long fingernail.

I hissed. “That hurts.”

“You’re just a big baby.” She stretched out my leg a bit and eyed it critically. “Hm, seems to be healing all right. But still, there’s only so much we can do without tossing you back in the box.”

My heart skipped a beat. “You’re putting me back in the toy box?”

“No,” she said instantly, and my heart fell again. “It’s Titania’s box, and she’s made it clear she’s not letting you within a hundred feet of the thing.”

“…oh,” I muttered. “Yeah, she mentioned that, but I thought she might have…changed her mind or something, I don’t know.”

“She’s not known for changing her mind.”

I looked down at the succubus curiously. “She’s a fey.”

She raised an eyebrow at me briefly before turning back to poking at my legs. “Clearly, you haven’t been paying attention recently. Now that they’re a culture, the fey have done a complete one-eighty. They’re not all flirty and inconsistent any more.”

“Well, on the surface, no one has seen them in…” I thought about it. “I don’t know how long. A few days, since the Winter Princess or whatever you call her blew up a homunculus at some guys. I don’t know, I’ve been out of contact.”

“Unseelie. Or Princess of Wind and Frost, if you prefer.”

“I’ll go with ‘Unseelie.’”

“Yeah, I thought you might.” She dusted off her hands and stood. “Well, no surprises here. Everything seems to be going all right, but those scars aren’t going away any time soon.”

I felt my shoulders slump. “I…see.”

Yolanda placed her hand on my head, and I looked up to see her smiling at me. “You’re alive, and you’re walking. That’s all that matters.”

I found myself smiling back, even though I still felt cold and empty. The ugliness was part of it, but only a small part. The fact that it wasn’t an appearance I had chosen, but one that had been forced upon me, was a bigger part, but that still wasn’t the extent of it.

I could feel them. Every time my clothes shifted, every time the wind rushed over my skin…I could feel my scars, little tight knots of flesh tugging at me, gnawing at the back of my mind.

Maybe I’d get used to it. It had only been two days, after all.

But I could always feel them. If I was going to get used to it, wouldn’t it have gotten at least a little bit better already?

The succubus doctor didn’t seem to care. “Anyway, come back tomorrow and I’ll be able to get a better idea of your progress.”

“Knight Zenunim?” A young incubus poked his head into the tent, then blushed when he saw us. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were with a patient.”

“It’s all right, I’m done here. What’s wrong?”

“That ghoul with the shivers is back.”

“Velvet hell…I told him he needs to fix his buff…” she sighed. “I’ll be right there.” The incubus nodded and left.

“Wait,” I said as I pulled on my pants—slowly, as to try not to strain my scars. “’Knight?’ You’re a Power?”

She gave me a sideways look. “Hm? Yes, didn’t I mention that?”

“Uh…no. Definitely not.”

“Well, I’m Knight Eisheth Zenunim, Power of the Zen succubus House. Any other questions?”

“Well, actually—”

“Ask your girlfriend. I’m busy.” She left without so much as a goodbye.

I turned to Yolanda helplessly.

She shrugged. “We have subcultures too.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Okay, give me the five minute summary.”

“There are basically four succubus Houses.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “The Daybringers, the Mahathallah, the Riven, and the Zens. They follow Naamah of the Dawn, Agrat Bat Mahlat, Malcanthet, and Eisheth Zenunim the Healer, respectively.”

“Wait, people still follow—”

“Let me finish. The Daybringers are spies, as I mentioned. The Mahathallah are the bulk of the culture; that’s the House I’m a member of, for the record. Agrat Bat Mahlat broke off before Malcanthet got really crazy. The Riven are supposed to be the ones who follow Malcanthet willingly, but, you know…” she shrugged. “With her, free will gets a little bit hard to pin down.”

“But people still follow her.”

“Not out in the open, but there are still a few sects here and there. Anyway, the Zens are healers, as you might have guessed.” She waved her hand, indicating the tent we were in. “They’re in charge of the hospitals and so on.”

“Okay.” I was sure there was lots more she could tell me, but this was enough for now. Every culture had their own history of civil wars, peace treaties, and betrayals, and if I was going to be living here for any length of time, I’d have to know it, but this was a start.

Speaking of living here, I still wasn’t sure how long I’d be doing that. My vanity wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t returned to the surface. If Nhang found out I was still alive, that wouldn’t last long.

Of course, I wouldn’t be in too much danger, probably. Unlike most subcultures, the sibriex had very little loyalty towards our warlord. He wasn’t even a warlord, really, just the guy who owned the ‘scraper we lived in. Once I assured him I wouldn’t try and seek retribution, he’d probably just ignore me.

But still…I wasn’t ready to return. Not quite yet.

“C’mon,” Yolanda said with a smile, as she grabbed my hand again. “There’s a sandwich shop nearby you’ll love.”

I smiled back.

Why did I want to return to the surface, again? It seemed like all I wanted was right here.

Behind the Scenes (scene 173)

Haven’t quite decided if the other succubus warlords are going to become directly involved in the plot. Eisheth is a bit of a special case, because Simon is a bit of a special patient. Anyway, we’ll see.

Scene 172 – Ferus

FERUS

SEENA

Nhang stood outside his domain, blocking my entrance to the ‘scraper. It was just before dawn, so he had been sound asleep, and it showed in his pale, drooping eyes. “You are not welcome here, Noble Nyashk.”

I smiled grimly. “I thought you might say that.” I signaled with my tail.

Six heavily-armed Mals stepped out of various hiding places, their weapons trained on the sibriex Power.

“Which is why I brought friends.”

The demon hissed. “You have no right—”

Right?” I spat. “You have taken something very precious to me. It is you, I think, who is outside your rights here.”

Nhang’s eyebrow—hairless today—twitched. “You won’t win this fight, vampire. Go home.”

“How many soldiers do you have, Honorless Fiend?” His eye twitched again at the insult. “Because we both know the sibriex have always been a toy culture.” I shrugged. “Which is fine, of course. Nothing wrong with that.” I felt my smile slide back onto my face. “But how many of your scientists are willing to fight for you?”

The Power didn’t answer my question, choosing to sidestep it instead. “Two days ago, when you left this domain, you said we were even. That between my…” he clicked his tongue derisively. “crimes and your trespassing, there was no need to use violence to settle things.”

I gave him a pitying look.

“I lied.”

One of my snipers shot him in the head.

The pale demon staggered, gurgling, but did not fall. After being hit by a high-caliber sniper round, his head should have popped like a tomato, but instead there was simply a large bloody wound.

Apparently the Unfleshed Lord put more money into his defenses than our spies had suggested.

“Din nou!” I shouted.

My snipers immediately complied, two more shots ringing out like early-morning thunder.

Narek Nhang, Gatekeeper of the Eighth Hell, Power of the sibriex, and the Unfleshed Lord of Ani Kamakhym, fell to the ground like nothing more than a sack of meat.

No one rushed out of the ‘scraper to his side. I wasn’t even sure the other sibriex were awake yet.

“Huh,” I said. “You know, I can’t help but feel like that was kind of a let down.”

One of the Mals who had stepped out of hiding for intimidation gave me a sideways look. “What, did you want a full-scale fight? We don’t have the numbers for that.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s just anti-climactic. I guess I thought the death of a warlord would be a bigger event.”

Another of the Mals poked the corpse with his boot. “Well, he’s kinda squishy for a warlord. Maybe most of his toys were weapons, and he didn’t get a chance to use them?”

“In that case, move back,” I advised. “The body might be dangerous.”

Before he had a chance to obey, day broke.

I screeched in pain and rage, but was able to bear the light just by raising my arm to shield my eyes. My men weren’t as lucky, and I heard several screeches cut off abruptly as they fell unconscious from the sheer sensory overload.

“Who’s there?” I called. “Show yourself!”

“You picked an interesting first act as warlord, Noble Nyashk,” a calm, measured voice called out. The daybreak did not dim at all. “Even from a Mal, the murder of a Gatekeeper will not go unnoticed.”

I scowled, trying to peer into the harsh light with little luck. “He murdered one of the members of his culture and erased him from the records.”

“Then you should have called Necessarius,” the angel replied. It had a voice that was slightly more feminine than masculine, so I decided she had been female before she took the glow. “We would have handled it. Instead, you may have started another war.”

I gnashed my teeth, slashing my tongue in the process. I spat the resultant blood onto the ground. “Let the night come back, and we can talk about this eye to eye.”

“Fair enough.” The glow receded to far more manageable levels, and I was able to lower my arm.

There was an angel in front of me—presumably, the one I had been speaking to—who was not glowing, flanked by two younger angels who were the source of the light. A quick glance at everyone’s tattoos told me that the leader was indeed a Lucifer, which was not unexpected, specifically of the Eclipse caste. They all had red and black bandanas tied to their arms, making their ultimate allegiance clear.

What surprised me was that the two glowlings at her side were Jegudiels of the Dawn caste. Very odd. In angelic tradition, Jegudiel was the Name of workers, the angels who performed manual labor like construction and so on. The Dawn caste were warriors, and counted very few Jegudiels among their number. In fact, I couldn’t remember ever seeing a Jegudiel outside a Heaven. Maybe it worked differently in Necessarius.

“I am Adele Lucifer,” the daybreaker said in that same calm voice as before. “I am going to need some explanation for this behavior.”

I didn’t really want to explain this to a glory of angels, but I guess I had no choice. “He killed my brother.”

She clicked her tongue. “Yes, you did mention that. I need to know why you felt the need to kill him yourself. This clearly was not a crime of passion.”

I resisted the urge to grind my teeth again. My tongue was in bad enough shape as it was.

“This was my business. I didn’t see a need to call Butler.”

The angel sighed. “That’s not the way the world works. You don’t get to pick and choose when the law applies.”

“Whatever. You are authorized to declare retribution, correct? Let’s just get this over with.”

“Fine.” She cleared her throat and stood up straighter, preparing for her speech. “Noble Nyashk of Maladomini, seventh of the Black Crypts, you are hereby charged with the murder of Knight Narek Nhang, Power of Ani Kamakhym, the Eighth Gate of Hell. How do you plead?”

“Extenuating circumstances,” I muttered, trying to not sound too bored.

The Lucifer nodded. “After intense deliberation, this judge will adjust the crime to unauthorized execution, with a class-1 fine as penalty, to be paid to the survivors of the injured culture. A jury of your peers will review this judgment, and an invoice with the exact fine will be delivered to your domain within the week. You may contest this ruling at any time within the next year, including now. Would you like to contest this ruling at the moment?”

“No.”

“Then it is done.”

“Good. Now get out of my way, I’m going inside.”

The angel nodded slightly and stepped aside to let me and a pair of my vampires pass. Of the ones still awake, most would stay behind to look after the others. Although it was tempting, I managed not to shove Adele as I stomped by. I actually owed her.

Even though a class-1 fine was about the worst fine I could get without them bending the rules to make me pay more, it was still pretty lenient. It meant that if any of the sibriex retaliated, they would be doing so illegally, rather than as just retribution. She could have given them a free pass to tear me apart.

“Marcel, take the first floor,” I ordered as we entered the empty lobby. “Razvan, you’re with me.”

We stalked up the stairs quietly, but still going at a recklessly fast pace. I didn’t really expect any trouble; from the last time I was here, I knew at least some of the sibriex didn’t have a high opinion of their warlord. But still, I wanted to make sure no one would be plotting to put a dagger in my back any time soon.

Besides, there was someone I needed to check on.

“Boss, I was wondering…” Razvan said slowly.

“Yes?” I tried not to sound impatient. Razvan was a good man, but not known for his brains. If he had a thought, I wanted to encourage it.

“Well, how’d the angel know we were even here? I mean, we were pretty quiet about it until you called Nhang out, and then they showed up two minutes later.”

“Zepar probably called them.” The bastard. “He’s the only one who could have.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

“Yes, now shush. I think I hear someone.”

The young vampire immediately went as quiet as the grave, reminding me that no matter his faults, he had gotten his fangs almost fifteen years ago, with Dracul himself being the only surviving vamp who had converted before him. He knew what he was doing.

So when the sibriex passed by our corner hiding spot a few moments later, she was completely unaware of our presence. I was able to ghost behind her, grab her, and cover her mouth before she even knew what was happening.

“Your warlord is dead,” I said without preamble. “And Necessarius has ruled the crime justified. Understand?”

She nodded vigorously. I noticed belatedly that she was the same pink-haired demon who had been manning the front desk a few days ago. What was she doing up at this hour? She was fully dressed and everything.

“Now, I don’t want to kill anyone else. I just want to see where Simon died.”

She tried to say something, but I couldn’t understand her with my hands over her mouth. Still, I wasn’t going to trust her outright.

“As I said, I don’t want to kill anyone. So I hope you know better than to scream.”

She nodded again, like a fish caught on a line.

I removed my hand slowly.

She coughed once, twice, but managed to keep it mostly quiet, and waited a minute to get her breath back before speaking.

“I don’t know where he died,” the secretary managed in a scratchy voice. “But last I saw him, he was in the server room. There’s a lab in there too, so maybe—”

“Show me.”

“Yes ma’am.” She led the way up carefully and quietly, taking us to an elevator I would never have been able to find on my own, and pushing the button for the twenty-fifth floor.

A few minutes later, Razvan coughed lightly and scratched his nose.

A few more minutes passed.

“This is a very slow elevator,” I noted.

Our guide shrugged helplessly. “Sorry.”

Finally, there was a chime, and the doors slid open, letting in a sudden blast of cold air. The girl shivered, but Razvan and I were fine. He was too well-trained to let something so minor affect him, and with my buffs it was barely even noticeable.

“I’ve only been up here once,” she whispered, pulling her arms around herself. “I’m not really sure where—”

“That’s fine,” I interrupted. “We’ll take it from here. Go back downstairs.”

She obeyed with almost indecent haste.

Once the elevator doors closed behind us, my companion gave me a look. “We gonna be okay without a guide?”

“Can you find the center of this room?”

“Easily. Why?”

“That’s where he’ll be. That’s the only point of interest on this floor.”

Razvan shrugged. “Whatever. Just follow me.”

The place wasn’t that big, and the maze of humming servers not really all that confusing. In hindsight, it probably wouldn’t have taken me too long to find my target even without a guide, but I was glad for him regardless.

When we found the pulsing mass of flesh sitting nestled between a few servers, it immediately cracked open an eye.

“Sibriex?”

“No,” I said calmly.

A turret immediately popped down from the ceiling and pointed at me, but by the time it had oriented in my direction, Razvan already had his pistol drawn and aimed at the creature’s center of mass. It was a dart gun, so it was far less powerful than a firearm, but his darts were loaded with a neurotoxin that could take down a gargant.

I smiled pleasantly at the thing in front of me, trying to refrain from throwing up instead.

“Yes, we both have nice big guns. Now, we can either wave them around a bit and compare size, or put them away and talk things out.”

The monster grunted, and the turret recessed back into the ceiling. Razvan took the hint and holstered his weapon at the same time.

“Where’s Narek?” the creature asked. “He should be here for this.”

“Your warlord is dead,” I said, not bothering to sugar-coat it. “I’m here for you. Aramazd, correct?”

His beady little eyes narrowed. “Yes. But you shouldn’t know that name. With Narek dead, there shouldn’t be anyone left alive who knows it.”

“My brother told me.”

I could see his brain working slowly. And then…

His eyes widened. “The Mal. Of course.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Simon mentioned me?”

“No, but after he reconnected me to the internet, I made some cursory background checks on him. I found his sister’s profile soon enough. By the way, who joins assassins and then publishes it on Fundie?”

I managed a smile that was almost not a grimace. “I…didn’t see the need to hide anything.”

“Hm, yes, well, you haven’t changed much since you last updated your picture. Better than your brother.”

I blinked. “Haven’t changed much? Are you blind?” It was an honest question. You never knew.

“No, I can see fine. Why are you surprised? You look about the same to me. Your skin is a little darker tone, you’re clearly not used to your new strength yet, not to mention the tail, but none of that is really anything to write home about.”

I turned to Razvan, looking for support, but he just shrugged.

“He’s right, actually. I don’t know why you and Honored Zepar were acting like it was such a big deal.”

“I’m six inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier!”

Another shrug. “Your face is the same. Besides, all the weight is on the inside, right? Muscles and bones. You don’t look heavier.”

I sighed and turned back to Aramazd. “Anyway. What do you know about my brother’s death?”

He quivered. “Oh, it was a terrible mistake. Just from the very start, I knew we shouldn’t do it, but they insisted—”

“Stop babbling and talk.”

The creature took a deep breath to steady himself. “Narek has been searching for someone to test the Balor Reconstruction on, and Simon volunteered.”

I frowned. “Balor, balor…” I chewed my tongue. Damn it, I needed to stop doing that. “That sounds familiar.”

“The process is named after an Irish mythological giant-king,” he explained. “Or, more precisely, named after a type of demon named after said king.”

I nodded. “Fair enough. What was the nature of the package?”

“Full improvements across the board. Strength, endurance, speed, durability, senses…everything. Enough to bring Simon up to warlord level.”

“Hm, Simon did mention something like that. When did he get the promotion?”

The mound of flesh quivered again. It took me a second to realize it was shaking its head. “No, that wasn’t the point. He might have received a promotion after, but the point was to prove a few of Narek’s theories. This was the crown jewel of the culture. He was convinced it would catapult the sibriex to prominence, but he had never gotten it to work before.”

Now it was my turn to shake my head. “Wait, you’ve lost me. What’s so unique about this package? Making a warlord is impressive and all, but anyone can do it with time and money.”

His lip less mouth stretched into a wide grin. “Ah, but I didn’t call it a package, Honored Noble. I called it a reconstruction. A single seed, able to completely rebuild a human body over the weekend.” He shrugged—at least, I think it was a shrug. “Though there were a few additional improvements on top of that. Godeyes, that kind of thing.”

“Okay, I’ll admit that would be pretty impressive…” I frowned. “Wait. Why would he add godeyes, or anything else? Basic science says to limit the number of variables in an experiment.” Even I knew that, and I had only passed high school science by copying off Simon.

“Don’t get me started,” the beast grumbled. “I can’t tell you how many times that idiot…” He sighed. “Nevermind. The point is, the reconstruction failed, and…Simon was deemed no longer useful.” His tone turned gentle. “I’m so sorry, I tried to stop it, but, well…”

Yeah. Not a lot he could do in this state.

The sibriex creature took a moment to compose himself. “What happens now?”

I thought about it. “We’re not going to try and assimilate your culture, if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve found what I was looking for, and punished the one responsible for my brother’s death.”

“So…you’re going to just leave us alone?”

I shrugged. “I suppose so.”

His mouth slowly twisted into a grotesque grin. “Well then, Honored Noble, perhaps you would like to make a deal?”

I felt my eyes narrow. “What kind of deal?”

“Oh, nothing too complex, I assure you. Just a simple trade agreement. We give you fun new toys, you protect us while we’re in this time of…” A long tongue came out and licked where his lips would be. “…transition.”

Hm.

Well, on the one hand, it sounded like a good deal. But on the other…I’d need to discuss this with Zepar. Equals or not, I couldn’t just do whatever I wanted without consulting him. Besides, he’d have more experience with this sort of thing.

“We’ll have to see,” I said begrudgingly. “Send us a proposal, and we’ll look it over.”

He quivered in a way I thought was a nod. “As you wish, Noble Nyashk.”

I managed to force a smile onto my face. “Goodbye, Honored Devil.”

Before I could leave, that too-wide grin was back on his face. “Honored Power, my dear Noble. Honored Power.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 172)

When one examines Domina City’s justice system, they need to remember two things: First, there are no prisons, just temporary jail cells. Two, the system was created by criminals. Therefore, the law is simple and brutal, with the only punishments being varying levels of fines and full-on execution. While that sounds weird, the real quirk is that if you can prove you had a good reason for the crime, Necessarius will grant a reduced sentence. Such as turning a murder (which would normally result in summary execution) into a fine.