Monthly Archives: September 2014

Scene 186 – Diversis

DIVERSIS

SEENA

Steve Gillespie cocked his head as he looked at me. “I don’t think you look that different.”

I glared at him. “Really? I haven’t seen you since Kevin died and you got put into a coma, and that’s the first thing you say to me?”

He just shrugged. “Well, the first thing you said was ‘I know I look different,’ so yeah, that’s the first thing I say.”

Leon looked me up and down, frowning. “Did you get taller?”

“I also got a tail,” I noted, flicking it lightly towards his face.

“Well, I saw that right away.”

I was glad Leon had managed to survive the fey attack—mostly due to Eric—but I wasn’t sure how to tell him that his aunt was dead. I didn’t want to burden him with that so soon after his mother’s demise. Okay, sure, it wasn’t confirmed that Delphie was dead, but she had been in pretty bad condition, and there hadn’t been any sign of her since.

It had been Eric’s idea that we all meet up today, at one of the many nearly-empty cafes near AU. The Dagonite had called me, not sure what to do with Melanie’s son. I hadn’t really been able to think of anything either—Delphie would come back from the grave and throttle me if I brought Leon to the Mals—so he had suggested gathering everyone together and seeing what we could all come up with.

Steve had gotten out of the hospital yesterday, so this was a good chance to catch up. Simon…Simon was dead, and Yolanda nowhere to be found. With no one else to call, I had done the unthinkable.

I had called Pam.

I had called Eccretia, Paragon of the Never-Known Thieves and co-founder of the changelings. One of the most powerful women in the city.

And she had come.

She didn’t look anything like before. Instead of her bland shirt and pants, she was wearing a light ceramic body armor overlaid with Kevlar. The kind of thing that would ward off animal bites as easily as bullets, but it was probably ungodly heavy.

And that was just the start. In addition to the pistol she had always carried before—a Black Knight ZF740, if I remembered correctly—she also had a Necessarian Saint Jude on her opposite hip, and some kind of Hellion machine gun strapped across her back, with a spare ammo belt slung over her chest.

She looked ready for war, but I suppose I wasn’t one to talk, what with my new found ability to punch through concrete and such. And with the Composer running around slaughtering people, I guess there was no such thing as being over prepared

Only her eyes were the same. Cold, hard, and calculating.

She had brought two young men with her, who I assumed to be more changelings. The one with pale skin and bright golden hair put his coat over the back of a seat and pulled it out; my plain-faced friend sat down without looking at him. He adjusted the rifle slung over his shoulder and took a seat nearby, next to another changeling with similar hair, but a slightly darker complexion.

Eccretia didn’t take her eyes off me.

I coughed. “So, I take it you understand why I called you here?”

“You said it was because of Delphie’s nephew,” she noted. “But I’m guessing that’s not the extent of it.”

I averted my eyes from hers, glad my daygoggles disguised the action. “Let’s focus on Leon right now. The murids are already searching for him.”

The changeling warlord raised an eyebrow. “Why? I assume if they honestly wanted to help him in memory of their Alpha, you’d have handed him over already.”

“You probably know better than I do. But from what I’ve gathered, the culture is on the verge of imploding. Every hunter and wanna-be Alpha is trying to hold it together by consolidating around their chosen leader—themselves, usually.”

Pam—Eccretia nodded. “They want Leon as a figurehead. No one will pretend he’s the leader, but if they can convince everyone else he’s on their side, the memory of his mother will earn them a lot of converts.”

Leon looked like he was going to say something, but Eric silenced him just by placing his hand on his shoulder. Instead, the Dagonite spoke. “How many murids are there, anyway? Ballpark.”

“I dunno…” I thought about it. “A little over ten thousand. But I don’t know how big Plague’s group was—”

“There are eleven thousand, three hundred and eighteen murids as of the last census report,” Eccretia corrected. “Nine hundred and four followed the Lady of the Plague.”

I blinked in surprise. Not at the changeling knowing the numbers—I should have guessed she’d have that data—but at the numbers themselves. “She had almost a thousand people under her? Seriously? I thought it was a couple hundred, tops.”

“What’d you think when you heard ‘biggest murid subculture?’”

“I don’t know, but less than ten percent!”

“That is less than ten percent.”

“You know what I mean. A lot less.”

She shrugged. “Plague was very charismatic and driven. There’s a reason she was assassinated; no one can really take her place.”

I sighed. “Well, I mean, I guess I understood that, it just never quite…clicked.” I waved my hand. “I mean, c’mon, a single mother—”

I stopped breathing as I suddenly remembered something very important.

Steve leaned in with a frown. “Seena? You alright?”

“Leon,” I managed. “What happened to your sister?”

He looked guilty. “Um…I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her since the nest was attacked—”

“Nine Hells,” I hissed, grabbing him by the shirt. “Didn’t you say it’s your job to look out for her? If—”

“Calm down, Nyashk,” Eccretia said soothingly. “Sable is fine. One of Plague’s hunters spirited her away the second things started going wrong. We’re keeping an eye on them, but he seems to have everything in hand.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. “You could have mentioned that.”

“I just did.”

“Wait one second,” Eric said, looking at me strangely. “Nyashk? I thought your last name was Lancaster.”

It took an effort of will not to wince. “It…is. I’m just…” I took another deep breath. “There’s a bit of a story behind my new toys.”

The pale-skinned changeling at Eccretia’s side looked confused. “I thought you just decided to get some buffs after your brother died.”

Steve choked, crushing his glass in his hand in the process. He didn’t seem to notice. “Simon is dead? When did that happen?”

“Domothon,” my sour-faced changeling friend admonished her pale bodyguard. “Don’t act like you knew him.” She turned back to Steve. “Yes, Simon is dead. The exact details are unclear, but apparently a sibriex experiment went awry.”

The massive man jumped to his feet, making the whole table shake. “Then we need to do something! Call—” he choked again, searching for an answer. “The ‘sarians! Someone! I—”

“It’s been dealt with,” I said tiredly. “Sit down.”

He blinked at me, slowly. “What do you mean, dealt with?”

“Nhang is dead,” I explained. “Necessarius witnessed the attack. A retribution fee has been issued, and paid. It’s done.”

Except for the treaty with Aramazd, which Zepar had jumped on like a hound on a bone. New toys in exchange for some simple protection? My fellow warlord had literally hugged me at the news.

“How is the new Power?” Eccretia asked curiously. “I don’t have any information on him.”

I shrugged. “He’s a misshapen bundle of flesh tied to a server farm. I’m not really sure what to make of him.”

The bodyguard who had spoken before piped up again. “There are a few weird things going on there. Narek Nhang was the Gatekeeper of the Eighth Hell, Ani Kamakhym, which is named after an Armenian mythological site. But Nhang was Chinese, and his first name—though Armenian—a pseudonym. I don’t understand—”

“You’re right, you don’t understand,” his boss interrupted, causing his mouth to snap shut. “For example, you don’t understand that Ani Kamakhym was the main sanctuary of the father-god of the Armenian pantheon.” She fixed me with a steely glare. “Aramazd.”

That set me back in my chair. “Nhang’s subordinate was named after the highest figure in his chosen pantheon? That seems odd. There’s no way he would have missed that reference.”

“Maybe he just didn’t want to change his name?” Leon said, a little quietly. “I mean, a lot of warlords do like my mom did, but I know Auntie Delphie thought it was stupid, and that crab lady kept her real name.”

Steve laughed. “That’s a point. Maybe it was just the server-monster, and no one cared enough to make a fuss. Did any of the other sibs have Armenian references in their names?”

“How should I know?” I muttered. “Until thirty seconds ago, I didn’t even know Aramazd meant anything important.” I huffed. “Hells, I didn’t even know Ani Kamakhym was Armenian.”

The second changeling, the one with darker skin but the same golden hair, finally spoke. “But you did know the Eighth Gate was Ani Kamakhym, not Arhestanots, right?”

I nodded. That was a mistake people made a lot with the various one-building domains. The sibriex domain was Ani Kamakhym, but since that domain only consisted of a single building (Arhestanots), a lot of people confused the two. The Mals got around that problem simply by not naming our building. Our domain was Maladomini, and that was it. Simon had always had trouble—

I closed my eyes, willing tears to stay back.

Nine Hells, was this going to happen every time I thought of my stupid brother?

I felt a hand on my arm, and turned, blinking, to see Eric looking at me with concern.

“It’s going to be all right,” he insisted. “Eventually.”

Steve and the changeling bodyguards looked a little bit uncomfortable, but Eccretia and Leon just looked confused.

“What are you two talking about?” she asked. “Did Aramazd do something I didn’t hear about?”

The pale changeling, the one I think she had called Domothon, sighed. “Gods of men and darkness, boss, learn to read the mood.”

The boss in question just glared at her subordinate, and he immediately shut up.

I forced a smile on my face and changed the subject. “Actually, I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced.” I held out my hand to shake.

The pale one took it firmly. “Domothon of the Never-Known Thieves,” he confirmed. He indicated his darker companion with a jerk of his thumb; the second man didn’t seem interested in shaking hands. “This is Ferenil, also of the Never-Known Thieves.”

“You two brothers?” Leon asked innocently. “Your hair is the same.”

The changeling pair winced, and I couldn’t help but feel for them. Leon was a bit young to understand the whole…loss of identity that fey-slaves went through.

Thankfully, Domothon recovered quickly, managing a pained smile. “No, it’s nothing like that. We just happen to have the same hair color, that’s all.”

“Oh. That’s boring.” He turned back to me. “I want to hear more about what happened with Seena and Simon.”

Steve’s perpetual smile was briefly replaced by a small scowl. “Don’t be rude, boy. I’m sure she’s still hurting.”

I’m still hurting?” I asked, a little incredulous. “You got out of a coma yesterday.”

“Actually, I woke up on the sixth. I was released yesterday—”

I barreled on as if I hadn’t heard him. “A coma you were in because someone tried to kill you and succeeded in killing your roommate.” I managed to shrug, a nonchalant gesture I didn’t feel. “I got my revenge. I think you need help more than me.”

The not-giant looked pained. “It’s…complicated. It’s not clear who attacked us—”

“Probably the Aesir,” Eccretia noted, taking a sip out of her cup. “Maybe the trolls or the ogres, but I’m betting on the Aesir. It was two days after Mjolnir’s death. I think they were just lashing out.”

Steve glared. “Look, Pam—”

“Eccretia,” she corrected.

He chuckled a little, waving his hand. “Yeah, yeah, I heard. I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but you’re not much older than me. You don’t get to act all high and mighty.”

The warlord raised an eyebrow. “Steve, I escaped from the fey when I was physically somewhere in the neighborhood of four years old. I’ve been leading the Never-Known Thieves ever since. You’ve been a courier for the last three years. So yes, I do get to act ‘all high and mighty.’ Especially when dealing with Jotuun spies.”

The large black baseline frowned briefly, before barking out a bitter laugh, which contrasted strongly with his normal happy chuckle. “For crying out loud—just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m a freaking Jotuun.” He shifted in his seat a little uncomfortably, as though reminded he didn’t quite fit in it. “I thought you were better than that.”

“So you didn’t know Kevin was a Jotuun spy?” she replied blandly. “Interesting.”

Steve blinked. “He what.”

“Yeah,” I piped up. “Pam told us…” I thought back, then winced. “Right before the fey came out and grabbed Veda.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me!?”

“You were in a coma.”

“I meant after!”

“We just did,” Eccretia said with that same damnable calm. “What does it matter? He’s gone.”

The baseline rubbed his bald scalp in apprehension. “It matters because apparently the reason behind the attack was because he was a spy!” His eyes were going wild; I didn’t understand why he was freaking out so much. “Good God…if I had known…”

“Steve, you’re scaring me.” I could feel my tail twitching a little—that had been happening recently, and I frowned as I tried to get it under control. “Everybody has spies. Yeah, you got caught in the middle this time, but is it really such a big deal?”

“It…it…” he wet his lips. “Michelle. He had a sister, Michelle Irwin. What happened to her?”

I turned to Eccretia, but she just shrugged. “I stopped paying attention to all that after Kevin died. Don’t look at me.”

I shrugged too. “I don’t know either. Simon might—” I fell silent.

Eric managed to break it quickly enough, though. “Simon had a girlfriend, right? The demon? Maybe she’d know.”

“I haven’t been able to get in touch with her,” I muttered, still sullen. “She hasn’t been back to the dorms that I can tell, and no one has seen her at school.”

The green-haired Dagonite winced. “Yeah, I can see how this would be a hard time for her. She probably ran back to her orphanage for a while.”

“Yolanda has a surviving uncle,” Eccretia noted. “Our own Senator McDowell, actually.”

Eric blinked. “Wait, the guy they called a vote of no-confidence on?”

“Yes.”

“Huh.” He scratched his chin. “Well, I guess she’s probably off with him, then. My roommate went on about how awesome this guy was yesterday when we got the call, so she must be fine.”

That got Steve’s attention again. I was also happy to see his normal half-smile was back. “So you didn’t vote to out him?”

“Why would I?” Eric asked with a shrug. “I have nothing against the man. Besides, did you see the guys who would be replacing him? The Granit is the one who has the most support. No thank you.”

My phone beeped; I checked it to find a message from Zepar. Some minor discipline problem had come up back at the domain, and he wanted me to take part.

“I’ve gotta go,” I said to the others apologetically. “Eccretia, can you get Leon to those murid hunters who are looking after his sister?”

“I can, but I’m not sure it would be best.”

Please,” I begged. “It’s better than leaving him with a defenseless Dagonite.”

“Point of order,” the man in question piped up. “I’m not a Dagonite any more—”

“Shush,” Eccretia interrupted without taking her eyes off me. “The adults are talking.” She bit her lip, thinking, before nodding. “I’ll look into the hunters. If they don’t work out, I can keep the boy at my base for a week or so.”

Such a generous offer surprised me, but I kept it off my face, and just nodded. “Thank you, Dame Eccretia.”

She grinned thinly. “Thank you, Noble Nyashk.”

Steve, Eric, and Leon all blinked owlishly and said in unison “Noble who?

“Gotta go,” I chirped as I rocketed out of my chair. “Call if you get a hold of Yolanda!”

Behind the Scenes (scene 186)

“Arhestanots” is Armenian for workshop. Which summarizes what the sibriex do pretty well.

And in regards to Eccretia’s age, remember that changelings can only guess on anything except what their DNA explicitly codes for. She might have looked about four or five by the time they had stripped her of all her fey toys, but she definitely didn’t act like it.

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Scene 185 – Dies Comitorum

DIES COMITORUM

ADAM

After our attack on the ave lab this morning, Ling found the goblins, and she dragged me to the meeting. Goblins were these monkey-demons who liked to nest at the top of skyscrapers and stuff like that. I thought it sounded pretty cool, actually. The problem?

I didn’t have the buffs to get to the nest.

So now I was stuck on the street outside, feeling like an idiot, while Ling tried to see if she could talk to Turgay, or at least get his location. He had apparently been negotiating with the goblins today, and he was the last lead on Mitchel St. John.

I could have probably let Ling go alone, both here and earlier, with the lab. But I…something about it just didn’t feel like a good idea. My guns diffused a tense situation with the aves, and I had figured I might be helpful here, too.

Of course, I had also assumed I wouldn’t be stuck a few dozen floors below the action.

After a few more minutes of waiting, my phone rang. Not Ling’s ring tone, or any of the other Paladins or the retinue, or even my mom’s. Just five simple beeps. MC’s ring tone

I nearly dropped the stupid thing as I scrambled to answer it as fast as possible. It might not be an emergency, but it usually was. And with Elizabeth still running free…

“MC? What’s up?”

“Adam Andrew Anders?”

“Um…yes?” It definitely sounded like MC, but why would she not know who she was talking to?

“Due to petitions about your local senators, South Central Senate is holding a vote of no-confidence today,” she said calmly.

Oh…I recognized it now. This was one of MC’s programs. I talked to the real one so much, I had almost forgotten. Besides, the fakes usually only called when I had asked for something before.

“Back up,” I said. “To start with, are you sure I’m even registered to vote? I’m not really sure how citizenship works in this place—”

“I registered you myself,” the computerized voice interrupted. “And you were given citizenship by Artemis Butler.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” Sort of. From a very skewed perspective like his. I scratched my head. “So…how does this work? I’m a little busy right now, so I can’t really go to a voter’s booth or whatever.”

“That will not be necessary. You can do your voting over the phone.”

I blinked. That seemed…like a bad idea. “Uh. Don’t I need a password, or anything?”

“If you like. But none is required. Do you want to set up security now?”

“No. No, that’s fine. I’ll deal with that later.” Lily, or maybe even Laura, could help me with it. Hell, I could just talk to the real MC, if she had time. “Just tell me what I’m voting on.”

“A vote of no-confidence has been called on Senator Evangel McDowell, for his handling of the screamers and the Composer.”

…huh. “What exactly did he do wrong?”

“His opponents claim that by bringing in Necessarius, he failed to coordinate the local cultures properly, leading to unneeded deaths and destruction.”

“Okay. And what does he say?”

“That the cultures would have just bickered and argued while the screamers rampaged through the district.”

I licked my lips. From what I understood of the way senators worked in Domina, the point was kinda that he should have forced them to work together anyway, and that he was being lazy by pawning it off to the ‘sarians.

“What happens if he loses?”

“The other senator from South Central, Senator Odin, will cover his duties until his replacement can be sworn in. The next election is December 10th, and the replacement will be sworn in by the end of that month.”

Right, that all made…some kind of sense. Was there anything else I needed to know? “Who’s running against him?”

“No one is running, this is a vote of no-confidence—”

“No, what I mean is, who will be running, if he gets booted out.”

“Erebus Argyris for the Iluvatar party. Gawain Jernigan is the Banyan candidate. Nahum Avner is the most likely to run for the Kongeegens. The only Granit of note in the area is Laima Ozoliņš, so she will likely be running as well.”

I rubbed my forehead. Dad always said not to get involved in politics. Said it was a bad investment, a zero-sum game. On the other hand, he also said to make sure I had all the information when making a decision. Okay, that was advice I disregarded pretty much all the time, but this was a time I could actually stop and ask questions.

“Iluvatar, Banyan, Kon…Kon…”

“Kongeegen and Granit,” MC’s fake voice finished. “Those are the four major political parties of Domina City.”

“Right. I guess I kinda assumed the cultures just ran everything.”

“The cultures tend to be too chaotic to hold actual political office. Senator Odin, the other South Central senator, is one of the few exceptions.”

Well, I could certainly understand that reasoning. I let out a breath. “Why don’t you give me the cliff-notes version of the parties. Not their entire platforms or anything, just…what do they stand for?”

“The Iluvatar are the isolationist faction. They wish to keep the city from interfering with the outside world and vice versa as much as possible. Senator McDowell is a member of this party, as is Artemis Butler.”

Huh. That was interesting. I was guessing they were the guys in charge of all the propaganda I had been hearing from my mom and security chief, too.

“The Banyan—more properly referred to as the Great Banyan—are the expansionist party. They wish to make peaceable inroads with friendly nations, who will respect Domina City’s status as an independent city-state.”

Those guys would be the ones who arranged for the treaty with Shaohao and the other space colonies, I assumed. I could check that later, but right now I was content to just let the fake MC continue.

“The social Darwinists of the city are represented by the Kongeegen party. They believe in survival of the fittest.”

…aaand they would be the guys who thought it was a good idea to let the cultures run around killing each other.

“Lastly, the Granit are the imperial party. They wish to carve out a place for Domina in the world by force.”

I blinked. Wait, what?

“Back up,” I said slowly. By force you mean—”

“War,” MC replied without any extra emotion. “Several battle plans have been proposed, but none have passed through both the Senate and the House. The most popular, which called for a first-strike attack on key military bases using modified diseases—”

“Stop. Just…stop.” This goddamned city. “I’m voting to keep Senator McDowell in.” I had known I was going to do that from the start. I might not have spent as much time with him as Derek and Laura, but he seemed sane enough, and I was friends with his niece—even if I hadn’t seen her in a while. “Please e-mail me links to the parties’ websites, and set a daily reminder telling me to study them.”

“Done and done. Anything else?”

I almost said no, before stopping myself. “Actually, yes. Can you tell me where Ling Yu is right now?”

“She is on top of the building you are standing in front of.”

Well, I was sitting, but I guess the GPS wasn’t perfect. “And is there anyone with her?”

“There are twenty-two registered goblins on or near the roof.” Near the roof? Oh, they were probably in some sort of structures built on top of the skyscraper. Ling had mentioned they liked making elaborate clubhouse things. “Would you like an individual list?”

“No, that’s fine.” I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get that much information if I wasn’t a Paladin. Those security passes were good for more than just ‘sarian checkpoints. “Who is she standing closest to right now?”

“Kolman Hoffman. He is the highest-ranked goblin in the area.”

That would be who Ling was talking to, trying to get info on Turgay. Oh, speaking of which… “Is Turgay up there?”

“Turgay Corvi’s phone has not been used or even moved in five weeks. It is assumed that he abandoned it.”

Well, of course. When you steal from an organization that employs the girl who invented your phone’s user interface, that’s pretty much your only choice.

“Ling Yu is now moving,” MC amended. “Based on her trajectory, it appears she is falling off the building. Should I call an ambulance?”

I looked up to see that Ling was indeed floating down from the rooftop, using the armor she was still wearing under her clothes to slow her fall. “No, she’ll be fine.” I thought for a second. “Do you ask that for everyone, or…?”

“Ling is tagged as capable of surviving such a fall,” the program explained. “In normal circumstances, I would have simply called the ambulance.”

“Ah, gotcha. We’ll probably need directions soon, but for now we’re good.”

“Have a good day, mister Anders.”

I snapped my phone shut just as Ling landed lightly on the sidewalk in front of me.

“Who was that?” she asked immediately.

“Just MC, calling about voting. More importantly, should you be flying in plain daylight?”

She shrugged. “No one’s really around. Besides, I told the goblins I just have a bunch of buffs and stuff, and that’s why I could jump ten feet straight up and stuff.”

I scowled. “I doubt they’ll believe that ‘a bunch of buffs’ lets you slow down your falling speed.”

“Whatever. Not really important right now.”

That made me perk up. “You found Turgay?”

“Maybe.” She bit her lip. “I found a lab where he’s supposed to be. But he won’t be there until Sunday.”

That was weird. It was still Friday. “What’s he doing til then?”

“Wandering around the city, I guess. The aves were always pretty nomadic, and a lot of them basically abandoned G’Hanir after they stole the toy box. He’s probably meeting with high-ranking aves and stuff.”

“Hm. Soaring Eagle?”

“Probably. Maybe it’s a status report.”

I had to smile at that. “’Dame Eagle, I regret to inform you we have made no progress on the toy box. Also, an old friend of mine ripped one of our labs in half. We’re going to need more money.’”

Ling punched me in the shoulder, hard. “Ass.” But she was smiling too. “C’mon, we got a couple days to kill. Let’s get something to eat.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 185)

This is one I’ve been meaning to do for a while, to give more insight into actual Domina politics. I think it came out pretty well.

Scene 184 – Aula

AULA

DEREK

This was not the first time I had been kidnapped.

The first time was actually when I was six. I don’t remember it very much, just that it had something to do with my mom’s work with Butler. I was treated pretty well, probably because Necessarius likes to carpet-bomb anyone who hurts children.

When I was thirteen, some of the first ghouls grabbed me. Some power play against Miss Nervi. I’m still not quite sure what that was all about, but Akane helped me get out while everyone was distracted.

Last year, the Princess of Killing Sparrow trapped me while I was on a hunt. Separated me from Akane, led me into a dead-end alley, and plucked me from the street as easily as if I was some green-eared slayer wannabe, not one of the best professionals in the business. The fey had a way of defying expectations, of catching even the most experienced people off their guard.

Therefore, when sleeping gas was pumped into the elevator, my first assumption was that it was the fey.

Waking up didn’t dissuade me of that opinion.

Wherever we were, it was dark, and I could hear the distant sound of dripping water. There was a small speaker in the corner near the ceiling, almost too small to see. I could feel Laura, tied to me back-to-back and still asleep. That suited me fine—while she tended to be the go-to girl for tactics and strategy, it’s hard to tell how someone will react to a kidnapping until it actually happens. Best for her to stay asleep while I figured a way out of this.

Because it was the fey again. I could feel the snake-shackles slithering around my wrists, ready to bite if I struggled too much. I had some pretty good anti-poison buffs, but not THAT good.

There was nothing to do but wait. If there was anyone around, they weren’t showing themselves, and my eyes were stubbornly refusing to adjust to the darkness.

We had to be cautious. These new fey…I didn’t know anything about them. Didn’t understand them. They had names, and clothes, and were recruiting—the fey, recruiting. It used to be, whenever someone begged them for help, they’d rob them blind under the pretense of a deal. This…was something new.

Laura moaned and started to stir. In turn, the living handcuffs started to tighten in preparation.

“Laura?” I asked gently. “Can you hear me?”

“Ugh…yes. What happened?”

“Sleep gas in the elevator. Do you remember?”

“No.” A pause. “Yes. Ow, my head…”

“Yeah, you get some pretty bad headaches the first few times. I need you to listen to me: Don’t move.”

“What does it matter? We’re tied—” She stopped suddenly. “Derek, what are we tied up with?”

“Just remain calm, and I’ll explain, I promise.”

Derek…”

I recognized the rising anger in her voice. Better than blind panic, but not by much. “We’ve been captured by the fey. Those are snake-shackles.”

“Actually, we prefer to call them serpentis vinclaque,” a gentle female voice corrected.

“Oh,” I said dryly. “Thanks. That’s very helpful.”

The lights came on. Just dim red nightlights, not enough to illuminate more than ten feet around us, but enough to see who was speaking.

A beautiful pale woman with pale-cropped black hair sat on a large and elegant seat, somewhere between an armchair and a throne. She was wearing a dark black dress that hugged her body tightly, with a long slit up the side of one leg. It was unadorned with any symbols of jewels that I could see, giving it a kind of quiet elegance. I was pretty sure it was a Chinese style, but I’m not exactly a fashion expert.

“Knight Derek,” the woman greeted me with a smile. “Dame Laura.”

“Describe her,” Laura hissed.

“Maiden cut. Black.”

“Maeve.”

The woman nodded. “I am Maeve, Princess of Wind and Frost, Maiden of the Unseelie court.”

“Nice,” Laura muttered. “Where’d you guys steal that from? Shakespeare? I’m pretty sure there’s no Maeve in Irish mythology.”

She cocked her head. “Is that really important right now?”

“No,” I cut in before Laura could respond. “It isn’t.” I shifted to the more polite mode of speech that the fey preferred. “Honored Maiden, it would please us greatly if you would educate us on why you have…invited us to your abode.”

“Oh, Derek, always so polite,” the fey said with a smile. “Unless your friends are in danger, of course.”

I felt Laura trying to struggle without making it obvious. That wouldn’t work. “You didn’t answer his question.”

The maiden smiled sweetly. “Isn’t it obvious? What possible reason could a beautiful young woman have for inviting a handsome young man to her home?”

“That doesn’t explain why I’m here.”

“Isn’t it obvious? What possible reason could a beautiful young woman have for inviting a beautiful young woman to her home?”

Laura groaned. “I hate the fey. I hate them so much.”

Maeve pouted. “Really, Laura, you were more polite last time we met. What changed?”

I felt my friend stiffen. “What? When did we meet?”

I narrowed my eyes. Laura had probably run into a few fey during the years she was gone, but there was only one recently. “The Princess of Killing Sparrow. When the burners attacked.”

“Wh—that was You?

“Is it really such a surprise?” the fey queried innocently. “We made no secret of the fact that we are the six survivors of the courts. I suppose—”

Lie.”

I blinked at Laura’s interruption. Wait, which part was—

Maeve’s naïve smile disappeared, and she closed her eyes with a sigh. “Gods of men and darkness, I can’t believe I managed to forget about your stupid power.” She rested her chin on her hand and glared at us. “I’m beginning to see why Greene hates you so much. Then again, she seems to hate everyone, so…”

“Wait,” I said slowly. “Which part was a lie?”

“When she said ‘we are the six survivors of the courts,’” Laura managed to say even as Maeve was opening her mouth to speak.

I gave the maiden a glare of my own. “You know, everyone always knew that whole ‘the fey never lie’ thing was a pile of crap, but I didn’t expect THAT to be a lie.”

The princess looked more bored, resigned to her web of lies falling apart around her, than actively angry. “Yes, yes, I’m a terrible person.” She grinned again. “Not that it matters. That little clue won’t lead you anywhere useful, I think. And I’ll still have my way with you, regardless.”

I swallowed, not seeing an easy way out of this. “Uh, look, if you want us that bad—”

“Oh, sweetie, I was joking about that part!” she cried with a laugh. “Sorry, sorry, I know rape jokes are an acquired taste.” She tapped her lips, looking thoughtful. “It’s the imbalance of power here, that’s the problem. Made the situation too serious. Next time—”

“Lady Maeve,” I managed through gritted teeth. “What do you want?”

She clapped her hands together. “Oh, that’s right, you’re still kidnapped! Scaoileadh.”

At her command, the living handcuffs hissed and untwisted themselves from our wrists and slithered away into the darkness.

Laura stepped up beside me, rubbing her wrists to improve circulation as she watched the maiden warily. “That’s quite the show of trust.”

There was something in Maeve’s eyes that I couldn’t quite identify. “Not really. Even unbound, you two are no match for this body.”

Ah. That was it.

The creature in front of me was not the giggling, girlish twit that we all knew the fey to be. Those things were dangerous and unpredictable, almost as likely to try and kiss you as they were to kill you, but that wasn’t this.

This was something quiet, and patient, with a depth of age and wisdom that I could only guess at. A careful, perfect power, like a coiled spring. Like all the predators in the world, staring down at me after having dragged me to their lair.

She reminded me of Elizabeth.

“What do you want?” I said quietly.

The barest ghost of a smile passed by Maeve’s face. “I want what is best for this city, Honored Paragon. Nothing more, nothing less.”

I narrowed my eyes, aiming my number one death glare at her. “Sending monsters to stalk the streets is for the best?

She didn’t flinch. “Of course it is. Iron must be put to the flame and the hammer to be strengthened and forged.”

Oh, goodie. Another social Darwinist. We always needed more of those running around.

“Of course,” Laura muttered. “I should have known.”

Maeve smiled. “You know, we used to make bets on whether or not you—and a couple other people—would figure it out without being told.” She sighed. “I guess this means I lost.”

I glanced at Laura, confused. “Wait, you knew?”

“No, I…” she paused, her brow furrowed. “I’ve been thinking for a while that the fey are too beneficial to the city.”

“Ask any changeling how beneficial—”

She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. Like…with all the fey monsters. Most of them are edible. Do you know how hard it is to make something edible with the toy maker?”

I thought back to when I was a kid, with the Monster Vines incident. Even simply trying to make crops grow faster could cause…problems. It WAS a bit odd that the fey went to the effort to make sure their monsters were edible.

I rallied and turned back to Maeve. “Okay, so you’re not as crazy as you like to pretend. Even I had figured that one out. But still, what’s the point? Why grab us?”

She shifted on her throne. “I needed to be able to speak to you two in private.”

Laura narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

The fey sighed. “Are you being deliberately obtuse, dearie? Because you two are some of the most important people in the city. You are powerful, intelligent individuals with connections to people like Artemis Butler and my own máthair. Not to mention that Elizabeth Greene chose you to be her opponents.”

Máthair‘ was Irish for ‘mother,’ if memory served. No prizes for guessing who that referred to: The Mother Monster. I had forgotten that the fey were the ones who had really popularized that whole thing.

My friend folded her arms over her chest. “Fine. This is the part where you offer us some wondrous new toys in exchange for doing something, right?”

Maeve smiled. “I’d like you to stop fighting Elizabeth.”

“Point of order, Honored Princess,” I piped up. “We already established that you’re not actually insane. You can stop pretending.”

But she just shook her head sadly. “I’m afraid I’m not joking, Honored Paragon. I think fighting the Honorless Blackguard is only going to end in tears for everyone.”

Wondering if the fey really was crazy after all, I turned to Laura for support, but she looked contemplative. “Do you mean no one should fight her, or just us specifically?”

That small, mischievous smile was back. “Just you.”

Laura nodded. “Ah…I suppose that makes sense.”

I closed my eyes. She always did this. “Would one of you two like to clue me in?”

“Elizabeth made us,” Laura said. “Chose us, gave us powers. She knows exactly what we are capable of. Letting warlords fight her instead will give us an edge.”

It didn’t take me long to find a problem in that. “But other people aren’t immune to infection. That’s why the Big Boss let us do all this in the first place, remember? Unless you forgot what happened to Zaphkiel.”

“She hasn’t been creating screamers since she was outed. Maybe she can’t, or won’t.”

Maeve coughed delicately, drawing attention back to herself. “Negative on both those counts, I’m afraid. The day after your little adventure in the sewers, she tried to sing at me. I detonated the homunculus before anything happened, of course, but the fact that she tried is enough.”

I suppressed a scowl. “Then sending warlords is suicide.”

“Not necessarily.” She shrugged. “The toy maker can do many things. Inducing deafness is simply enough.”

“So, what, that’s it? You kidnapped us to say all the warlords should go deaf?” Laura shook her head. “Yeah, I’m beginning to think that you might be a little crazy after all.”

The fey princess sighed again. “Maybe if you actually stopped and listened, you’d hear what else I have to say.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Oh!” Maeve said in surprise. “This is you listening! Okay, right, well the Composer is definitely the main one—”

“Wait,” I interrupted, as something dawned on me. “Just…wait. You said you strengthen the city with monsters. I don’t need the full details. Some are set up as food, some are used to point out weaknesses so that the cultures can get stronger, whatever, I get the gist.”

“Yes…” The black-haired woman cocked her head. “What’s your point?”

I gave her my steeliest glare. “Where do the changelings fit into all this?”

She blinked her black nighteyes. “I’m not sure I understand the question.”

“You kidnap people, buy slaves from the Nessians and the less scrupulous Satanists and Nosferatu. And then you torture them with the toy maker. What is the point?

The Princess of Wind and Frost gave me a very long look before answering.

“Does it matter?”

I sighed. “I suppose not.”

We both sprang into action at the same moment. She lunged towards my throat, but despite her near-supernatural speed, I had been anticipating that, and blocked her with a half-dome shield.

The fey bounced off with a giggle. “Oh, I knew this would be fun.”

She tried to dodge around the shield, but I just let it fade into mist, then immediately formed a new one on my arm, which I smashed into her face.

Maeve grinned, her teeth bloodied, and grabbed my arm. Of course. It took more than a blow to the head to slow down the fey.

But then, I knew that.

As she grabbed my arm, I took advantage of the motion to pull her into a wrestling hold, twisting her arm behind her and snapping it with a loud crack. She hissed and came at me with the other arm, but I stomped on her ankle, breaking it as well.

If Maeve were a normal warlord—silver and gold, even a baseline—I wouldn’t have been able to disable her so easily. Most warlords improved every aspect of their bodies to superhuman levels. True, they improved some parts more than others, but they would never consider weakening their bones in order to lighten their bodies and make themselves faster. It would leave them too vulnerable.

But the fey didn’t care about their bodies.

As I grabbed Maeve’s chin, she grinned up at me, mischief dancing in her eyes.

“Later, Huntsman.”

I snapped her neck and let her flop to the ground.

Finally, I let myself start to breathe. I had to sit down—a few yards away from the corpse, steaming with industrial-grade acid—to get my wind back.

I think I had managed to convince the fey that it had been easy for me to kill her, but it hadn’t been, not really. Sure, I was an extremely healthy baseline, on par with some of the strongest, fastest, toughest baseline humans on the planet. Add the power package and my shields on top of that, and I could could confidently fight anyone in the city.

But I WAS still baseline. Mostly, anyway. Being strong enough to be a world-class wrestler only meant so much when fighting someone strong enough to be on those shows where guys drag eighteen-wheeler trucks through the snow.

So, I needed every advantage I could get. If she thought I was stronger than I was, that might make her hesitate next time.

“Was that really necessary?” Laura asked as she trotted over, her face fixed in her usual scowl. “We were in the middle of an important discussion. Did you really have to do all this now, before we got all the information she had?”

I closed my eyes and leaned back against the wall—which was concrete, with water dripping down from somewhere above. Probably in the sewers, then. “Yes, it was. I was making a point.”

“By killing someone?”

“By killing a homunculus. It’s just a poke in the eye to the fey, and you know it. But they apparently respect our opinions, so maybe it will help.”

There was a moment’s silence, before I felt her lay herself across my lap.

My eyes snapped open, and I looked down to see her staring up at me like a cat waiting for a belly rub. “What the—”

“Because I felt like it,” she answered. She closed her eyes. “That’s all.”

“Oh,” I muttered. “Okay.”

“Though I’ll admit, you might have a point about the fey respecting our opinions.”

“Hm?”

“Did you notice how she didn’t attack me? And when she tried to dodge your shield, she went the opposite direction I was in.”

It hadn’t occurred to me at the time, but she was right. That would have been the perfect opportunity for the fey to take her hostage. Why hadn’t she?

“Maybe she was worried about what I’d do?” I mused. “I mean, last time I thought a friend was in danger was…” Lizzy. Okay, she didn’t count but…actually, I couldn’t remember the last time one of my friends had been kidnapped.

“Seena,” Laura supplied. “She mentioned you helped her out with a couple demons a year or two ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. I had forgotten.” But yeah, if Maeve knew about that little incident, she’d have a good reason not to want to hurt Laura in my presence.

Then I groaned.

Laura cracked an eye open. “What? What is it?”

“After I rescued her,” I muttered. “She got all clingy and tried to take me back to her place.”

My friend shifted on my lap a little. “Well, yeah. Even I knew that one.” She shrugged, her eyes closed once again. “Though she says she’s mostly over it these days. So I guess that’s one less to worry about.”

I grumbled but didn’t say anything on the matter. Instead, I turned back to the reason we had been waiting in the first place. “It looks like the homunculus has stopped smoking. It’s probably a good idea to leave now.”

“Uhn. If you think we can.”

I adjusted myself slightly. “What do you mean?”

She looked up at me wryly. “Now we don’t have a guide to get out.”

Oh. Right. That. Trapped in some fey corner of the sewers, with no maps, and my terrible sense of direction.

Yeah, this was going to be fun.

Behind the Scenes (scene 184)

This one has been a long time coming, but I’m still not entirely comfortable with it.

Scene 183 – Ganymedis

GANYMEDIS

LAURA

“So,” Derek said. “Breakfast?”

I thought about it. “Sure. I could eat.” We were just in his room, talking strategy and tactics for the inevitable fight against the Composer. Considering how empty the streets had been recently, we could do that pretty much anywhere. “Do you know where Lily is right now?”

He flipped out his phone. “MC will. Why, you want to eat there?”

I shrugged. “May as well. Good to have a friendly face around, maybe bounce some more ideas off her.”

The problem we were having was the same as with the screamers, only more so. There was just so much we didn’t know, it was impossible to even be the slightest bit prepared. We had managed to compile a partial list of the Blackguards Elizabeth had on her side, but that was only mildly helpful.

Steven Nabassu, Elizabeth’s butler. He was a shifter and could create wings strong enough to fly. He had been with her for a long time, which might explain why his power was so strong.

Molydeus, the big fat demon with super strength Adam had killed on the Ring. He had said his name was George Nabassu, which according to public record made him the butler’s brother. His power had also been pretty strong, so maybe he had been converted a while ago too.

Elizabeth’s Jotuun driver, Marcus Oleander. The flier, like Robyn Joan. Akane had killed him during the rooftop ambush.

Willamar Enos, Derek’s cane history teacher. We weren’t sure what his power was, though it was probably either hypnotism or some telepathy ability to let his boss borrow his body. Either way, he had been killed by the Mal strike team sent in to contain the situation.

The gator Lambert Kraus, the croc Tommi Pekkanen, the troll Alan Stojanovic, and the demon triplets from the alley ambush. We didn’t know the gator’s powers since Akane had killed him too fast, but Pekkanen could shift to mist, Stojanovic could heal himself, and the pod-brained triplets had that fire/electricity combo going on. They were all dead, of course, though I wished we had saved at least one of the girls for study.

Zusa Pham, Seena’s Nosferatu friend. She apparently had telepathy, and had used it to let Elizabeth take over her body and speak to Maeve at the fey’s coming out. Maeve had killed her using another girl…what was her name? Another vampire. She had used another girl as a bomb to kill Pham.

And, of course, Ling’s old orphanmate, Mitchel St. John. We didn’t know what his power was, other than that it apparently wasn’t healing himself, and we still had his hand, though scans on that weren’t showing anything interesting.

In theory, that meant there were only two Blackguards left, Nabassu and St. John. But we knew better than to assume that; not only were there likely more waiting on the sidelines, Elizabeth had implied she could make as many as she wanted. It might take her a little while to recruit new ones, but she’d do it sooner rather than later.

“Lily’s at Carne Sandwiches,” Derek said, jostling me out of my reverie as he snapped his phone shut.

I blinked. “Again? I thought she only worked there like once a month?”

He shrugged. “Ezio’s one of the only people still open, and his daughters refuse to leave the house.”

“Oh, well, okay.” I thought about it for a second. “He has salads too, right?”

Derek shrugged. “Pretty sure. All I know he doesn’t do is seafood.”

That made me roll my eyes. “That idiot. He hates everything to do with the ocean, but he lived on the Ring for ten years.”

He held the door open for me before locking it behind us. “I think that was something about his wife.”

“What, she insisted on living in a cold shack for a decade?”

“Don’t ask me. He gets a little bit closed off if you ask him about it.”

“Well, whatever.” We reached the elevator, slipping by a maintenance man who had just finished on the speakers in the corner of the hallway, and I pushed the button. “I know his daughters are happier about it.”

Derek gave me an odd look. “He moved…ten years ago? No, nine. They would have been six and five. Do they even remember living out there?”

“What are you talking about? He lived on the Ring since he left his mom’s place when he was sixteen, and only moved back three years ago.”

The blond monster slayer chewed his lip. “Are you sure?”

The elevator dinged and the doors opened. Luckily, it was empty, so there was none of the normal shoving and squeezing to make room. I swear, half the time it’s so bad it makes me want to take the stairs.

As the doors closed behind us with a hiss, I sniffed the air. “Do you smell that?” It was something sweet, and familiar, but—

Derek’s eyes went wide. “GAS!”

I saw him trying to cover his face as the world went black.

Behind the Scenes (scene 183)

Sorry for the short one, but this works best as a cliffhanger. There will not be an extra update on Wednesday. Next one will be on Monday, as usual.

break

Anniversary Newspost 2014

It’s been an interesting couple of years here.  A few site upgrades didn’t go as planned, and I had to move over to an entirely new domain.  Comments are still unfortunately on the same system as before, meaning that most comments simply are not showing up, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Due to difficulties with ads (both Project Wonderful and others), I had to pull them all, leading to site revenue going from “Very little” to “nothing at all.”  Even the Kickstarter project has been put on the backburner for the foreseeable future.  I was looking into Patreon to see if that would be a viable option, but I can’t really think of any reasonable reward tiers, so I’m going to wait a bit on that one.

On the positive side, the story itself is coming along well, and I still have a nice healthy buffer maintained.  I wish I could get more feedback, but other than suggesting people use the forums or e-mail me directly, there’s nothing I can do to force it.  I did add a link to the forum on the contact info page, if anyone was having difficulty finding that.

So happy anniversary, everyone, and here’s looking forward to more years to come.

Scene 182 – Status

STATUS

ARTEMIS

I disconnected from Kelly after only a few more words, mostly about her brother. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that I expected Derek to kill me eventually, but I…

I definitely shouldn’t have mentioned it. Kelly was not only fiercely loyal, but she had the power to be able to fight the man quite effectively. And the nature of that strength would mean that he, in turn, would kill her without hesitation.

Wonderful. It seemed I had just signed the poor girl’s death warrant. And possibly Derek’s too, I suppose, but if she kept underestimating him, he wouldn’t be in too much danger. Small favors.

“Mary Christina?” I called. “Are you there?”

There was only a brief pause before her voice crackled through the wall speakers. “Yeah, sorry, was talking to Lily. What’s up?”

“Call Jarasax, have him keep an eye on Kelly. I fear she might do something stupid soon.”

I could almost hear my assistant raising an eyebrow. “That’s specific. What exactly are you worried about?”

I waved a hand. “It’s not important. She’s just too loyal for her own good, is all, and I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

“Okay, sure, whatever. Oh, by the way, you know Sax is spying for his ‘Mother,’ right?”

I snorted. “Please. I knew before he did.”

“Just checking. You never mentioned it.”

“I never saw the need. Though, I have to ask why you didn’t mention it either.”

“Eh.”

Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Eh?”

“C’mon, all she wants from him is to make sure we’re following the humane treatment plans she’s set down and all that. It just didn’t seem important.”

“Until now?”

“Well, now you’re asking him to be a spy. Kinda. Anyway, it just seemed like a good time to bring it up.”

“I suppose that makes enough sense. Is there anything else?”

“Nope. Call if you need anything else.”

I smiled. “Will do. Say hello to Lily for me.”

She disconnected, and I turned my attention back to the task at hand. Now, what did we know?

The Composer…was a predator. An extremely dangerous predator, but a predator nonetheless. She had proven more than once that she preferred to fight from ambush whenever possible, even though she was to all appearances immortal.

Did that mean that I should keep the Paladins from going off on their own? Probably, but I doubted they’d listen to me.

I turned to my computer, brought up my maps. For now, I’d just try and check to make sure they were all relatively safe.

Akane was with Flynn at NHQ, probably giving him a few fresh new bruises after he misinterpreted something she said to be more flirty than it was. His class would be soon, so she might leave before that. The guards would inform me when she passed the checkpoint.

Adam and Ling were still at the ave lab, interrogating the poor birds. I should really intervene, but I was having a hard time summoning sympathy for the thieves. Besides, they might actually get something useful out of them.

According to a report that was…ten minutes old, Derek and Laura were still in his room, talking strategy. I checked my clock. They’d be leaving for breakfast soon, I expected. Hm, that was odd. The report said one of the Lancasters, the girl, had been spotted around them.

I checked her file. Yes, she had definitely been spending most of her time at Maladomini after she killed the sibriex warlord. It was odd that she’d return to the school dorms after dropping out. There wasn’t any evidence she had made contact with them…maybe she was just stalking around, checking to make sure her friends were okay.

Speaking of the Lancasters, Simon was still at Shendilavri with his girlfriend. I didn’t have too many spies among the succubi, so I couldn’t be sure, but I doubted he was doing anything worrying. He didn’t seem the type to—

Hm. Actually, I had said the same thing about his sister, before she became Nyashk and killed Narek Nhang.

I redirected a couple spies from Acheron to the pit. It would take a while to get any good intel, but if something big was about to happen, I’d hear about it.

Robyn Joan was…location unknown. Of course. She and Mary Christina were practically sisters. Even though they weren’t particularly close, Robyn still valued her privacy, and Mary would be happy to provide it.

Was there anyone else? The retinue were all in their van near AU, Isaac was still working on that damnable heart, Maria and Victor were at home, Lily was at work…

I blinked in surprise.

Was…was everything actually going according to plan? No unexpected enemies popping out of the sewers, no escape pods crashing down from the sky…other than a few minor turf wars, nothing was going wrong?

I set all my spies to high alert. Clearly, if I hadn’t found anything wrong, that just meant there was something really terrible I hadn’t seen yet.

Behind the Scenes (scene 182)

Another short one. This is one of those scenes that works better as a pair though, so it’s okay.

Scene 181 – Nuntiare

NUNTIARE

KELLY

“The Composer is beating us,” I said flatly.

No need to sugarcoat it.

On the other side of the video screen, Butler narrowed his eyes. “Explain.”

“She’s bleeding us dry. Poking and prodding us, making the Paladins run around the city getting nothing done.” I shook my head. “Right now, we’ve been lucky. Most of the attacks have been on the small side. But something big is coming. I can feel it.”

I heard him tapping his fingers on something. Probably his cane, though I couldn’t see it. “I do trust your instincts, but I need a bit more than just a feeling.”

It took a measure of will to resist biting my tongue in annoyance. “Then how about this? Since we discovered who she was, Elizabeth Greene has attacked five times.” I shrugged. “Six, if you count when she broke out of the warcage. She’s gotten closer to killing the Paladins each time, and when she can’t fight them—the attack on Mjolnir’s bar, the escape from our custody—she has taken her frustration out by slaughtering nearby bystanders. We have a limited number of Paladins, but she has a seemingly unlimited number of Blackguards.”

The Big Boss nodded. “Yes, let’s talk more about that. Tell me what you think about the Blackguards.”

“They’re just slaves,” I said flatly. “They’re like the Belian sclavi, or Malcanthet’s Riven.” I blinked, then shook my head. “No, that’s not right. The sclavi are too drugged-up on battle chems to understand what’s happening, and the Riven aren’t much better. These ones…” I narrowed my eyes, thinking. “These renegades know what they’re doing. They retain their intelligence. I’m guessing she’s using her hypnotism, like on Huntsman.”

Butler leaned back in his chair. “So she can just kidnap anyone off the street and turn them into her super-powered soldier. Wonderful. Worse than the sleepers.”

I shook my head. Artemis Butler was a powerful leader with a good head for tactics, but this was far outside his area of expertise. “No, no, it’s like with Huntsman. She didn’t change anything really major, she just added an obsessive love for her, so that his annoying ‘save everyone’ personality would work in her favor.”

“Ah…” he grimaced as realization dawned. “She’s not grabbing innocents off the street. She’s finding criminals and murderers, and just modifying them to be loyal to her.”

I nodded. “That’s what makes the most sense. Modifying people is—apparently—easy. But doing the full sleeper conversion is a lot harder, maybe impossible for some people. Otherwise, Huntsman would be on her side.”

There’s a dark thought.”

I smiled. “Sir, you treat that man like grenade, waiting to go off. He’s not that dangerous. We’d be able to handle him, if he had gone renegade.”

My albino employer raised a colorless eyebrow. “Kelly, you—” He sighed. “Do you know who his parents are?”

“Maria Huntsman and Victor Medina,” I answered promptly. “Well, Victor’s not actually his father, but he may as well be.”

“Normally, that’s true,” Butler admitted. “But not this time. What do you know about his father, William Huntsman?”

“He was a ‘sarian, right? I know he died a while ago.”

“A long while ago. Before his son was even born.” His eyes turned distant. “And then poor Laura’s mother died giving birth to her…this city has too many orphans.”

I didn’t say anything. My relationship with my own parents was…complicated, and bringing it up now wouldn’t make my boss feel any better.

“But yes, he was one of mine. I had met Maria and Victor on the boat over, but I only really got to know them through William.”

He fell silent.

I could only give him a minute or so before I had to pipe up. “Uh…were you going to say something—”

“You know about Maria’s sticky fingers, I assume,” he interrupted. “It’s hard to tell who is worse, her or Victor, but William was never like that. He was never fond of theft in any form. That’s why he joined Necessarius, actually. And why those two didn’t.”

I heard the tapping sound from his cane again.

“As you might expect, William never approved of his girlfriend’s activities, and spent most of his free time trying to get her to go straight. Completely unsuccessfully, of course.” The big albino smiled slightly. “I think he would have had better luck trying to change the tides.”

“Then why did he marry her?” I pressed.

I was surprised when Butler actually laughed, a loud bark of mirth.

“Oh, he didn’t! No, no, he insisted they wouldn’t get married unless Maria could go a year without stealing anything.” He chuckled, quieter than before. “That didn’t work. When she got pregnant, he dropped the number down to a week. She still didn’t get close.” His smile faded. “She tried going clean, after William died, but…” he shook his head. “It’s not who she is. She just couldn’t do it. All she could do was change her name to Huntsman and hope that was enough.”

“How did he die?” I asked, and immediately regretted it. Oh, duh, Kelly, how would a ‘sarian die? And who would blame himself for that death?

As expected, my boss winced slightly at my words as he remembered whatever mistake he had supposedly made that lead to the man’s death. “A routine peacekeeping mission. The kind that happen every day. But the Brits ambushed his patrol…” he let out a breath I hadn’t realized he was holding. “That’s not important. I seem to have gotten off track.”

I don’t think I had ever seen the Big Boss this…shaken wasn’t the right word, just…slightly off. I knew the man a bit better than most, due to my history with the Belians and my defection, and he had always been as stable as a mountain.

Now I was seeing a few rocks tumble from the cliff face. It wasn’t an avalanche, not even close, but it was still disturbing to watch.

“My point is, Derek Huntsman is like his father. Who knows how that happened, since he never met the man, but there it is. William…was not perfect.”

“He got easily flustered by women?”

Butler chuckled. “No, that’s a problem he doesn’t share with his son.” He turned stony again. “The problem they do share is an inability to forgive anyone who does something they see as amoral.”

I thought back to the time Ling had ditched, during the skins incident. “Yeah, I’ve seen a bit of that.”

“William boiled over too quickly,” he mused. “That’s what got him killed. He saw something happening that he couldn’t abide, and he had to intervene. But his son…Derek is the type to keep it inside. To only let it off the leash when the time is right.”

I swallowed, as it dawned on me.

“He’s going to kill Anders, isn’t he?”

“Anders hasn’t done anything yet,” my boss noted. “But I’m sure Derek and Laura both think it’s just a matter of time. However, that is not the problem.”

I felt a chill then, from the tips of my toes crawling all the way up to my head. I shivered, literally shivered as the feeling settled into my bones.

“He’s going to kill you.”

“Yes,” Artemis Butler said, very quietly. “Sooner or later. Almost certainly.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 181)

Yeesh, short. Oh well, Kelly has some nice long ones later anyway.

Extra update Wednesday.