Monthly Archives: January 2015

Scene 204 – Fera Venari

FERA VENARI

VEDA

I tossed aside my makeshift gun—it had blown out after the first shot—and stepped over Seena’s unconscious body. It was a miracle she had been the one to follow me; anyone but a warlord would be bloody chunks after that. She’d live. Probably.

Of course, I was unarmed again, and couldn’t risk staying in the apartment long enough to build anything new, but between my monsters and my partner, I should be able to handle the crowd of civilians and the rest of my friends without too much difficulty.

Lady Maeve had given us a few tips to make our lives easier—don’t attack Lily, don’t torture anyone or Huntsman will get mad, so on and so forth. The point of this was to cause chaos, not death, so there shouldn’t be too much interference. Derek was the big problem, but he’d be tied up between the monsters and containing the civilians.

I tapped my ear, activating the earbud communicator there. “Gea, how are things over there?”

“My name is Gealach Tapaidh, Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn,” his snobbish voice sounded in my ear.

“I’ll be sure to remember that, Gea,” I deadpanned. “Judging by your response, you’re not dead?”

“Barely. That Akiyama is quite the swordswoman. She fought me off easily, and killed my mount. I’m hiding out in a nearby building while I wait for reinforcements to arrive. The crowd seems to be keeping her busy for the moment.”

“You drove everyone out, right?” Those were our orders; drive as many people as possible out of the surrounding buildings, get everyone ready for the main event. The Ladies would be here soon, and we didn’t want to disappoint them with a lackluster turnout.

“Didn’t really need to. It’s the building where the changelings and Mals are fighting Horde number three. Pretty much everyone fled already.”

As I reached the staircase, a baseline with green hair rounded the corner with a pistol in hand and fired. Wait, no, not a baseline, the Dagonite, Eric. Former Dagonite, whatever.

Anyway, I dodged his clumsy shots with ease, and jabbed him quickly in the throat. As he stumbled back, coughing, I snapped forward and bit him in the shoulder, using the snake fangs that I had deployed the moment I saw him.

The paralytic turned him into a limp rag doll nearly instantly, and I caught him before he went tumbling bonelessly down the stairs. I grunted at the effort; I was much, much, much stronger than someone of my weight had any right to be, but that still wasn’t saying much. Maeve could fill me with all the super toys she wanted, I still only weighed fifty pounds and didn’t have a proper skeleton for leverage.

I set him down carefully out of the way next to the stairs.

“I know you can hear me,” I said as I pocketed his weapon. “The poison should wear off in half an hour. The Wild Hunt will have moved on by then. Just don’t do anything too stupid, and you’ll survive this.”

The only thing he could move was his eyes, but he gave me as good a glare as possible anyway.

It would take a bit more than that to kill me. I patted my friend on the head and started back down the stairs again. Sure, I could fly, but I wasn’t in much of a hurry, and I wanted to examine Eric’s gun.

It was an AIG Coldbore v12 pistol with a digital sight and some accelerator coils added. That was a pretty obscure model, even for a Dagonite. AIG didn’t really make gunpowder weapons like this any more; they stuck with the weirder stuff their client base preferred.

Whatever. Made my life easier. I could easily rework this into something more useful, especially with the coils. There wasn’t much I could have done with one of those stupid sonic cannon things they were peddling these days.

As I started to dismantle the weapon, I got another call on my earbud. I cursed under my breath and bumped my ear into a nearby wall to activate the thing, since both my hands were busy. “Gea, what is it? I thought you said you had everything under control.”

“Aitil,” a calm, melodious female voice sounded in my ear. “What news from the front?”

I stopped dead in my tracks and nearly dropped the parts in my hands from shock.

I recognized the voice. It wasn’t Gea. And it wasn’t Lady Maeve, either.

“I—Lady Ériu! I, um, didn’t expect—” I swallowed my anxiety. “Apologies, Honored Crone. I assumed you were my partner. May I inquire as the the reason for this most unexpected honor?”

The Maidens dealt with us Chosen, not the Queens or Queen-Mothers. I didn’t know if it was because we were beneath the notice of the higher Ladies or what, but it was not normal for freaking Mother Summer to call me up in the middle of an operation.

Especially since I served the Princess of Wind and Frost, the Maiden of the Unseelie Court. Ériu was the Seelie Queen-Mother. While the courts weren’t at each other’s throats as much as they liked to pretend, they still did keep their minions separate.

“Just checking in with all the feyborn involved in the Hunt, dearest. Making sure nothing has gone wrong. It hasn’t, has it?”

“No, of course not! Civilians are running around screaming, Derek is busy handling a small horde of monsters, and Lady Maeve is on her way. Everything is going according to plan.”

There was a short pause.

“Derek Huntsman, you mean?”

Oh dear. I knew that tone of voice. “Um, yes. Why, is that a problem?”

“Tell me who is with him.” Ériu’s order was curt and to the point.

“Well, last I checked, Akane Akiyama, Laura Medina—she’s hiding, though—and Adam…Anders, I think is his last name.”

“And Miss Yu?”

That name didn’t sound familiar to me. “I don’t think so.”

“Short, blonde Chinese girl.”

“Not last I checked, no.”

The Queen-Mother swore under her breath. “Ghrian agus tine…what about Robyn Joan? Red hair and red eyes, usually wears a red jacket.”

“No, the only other people around are Seena—who I shot with a homemade differential pulse cannon—Eric the Dagonite, Simon, Yolanda McDowell, Leon Murinae, and some swordsman friend of Akane’s.”

“Eric’s surname is Papadopoulos,” she muttered distractedly. I blinked; no wonder he avoided mentioning his last name. “No one else? You are certain?”

“Well, there’s Pam—” I facepalmed. “—I mean, Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves. I am sorry, my Lady, I’ll—”

“Eccretia and her changelings are irrelevant,” Ériu interrupted. “She doesn’t care about them, and we already accounted for them in our calculations. Who else?

I leaned against the wall with a sigh. “With all due respect, Honored Lady, I might be able to help more if I knew what you were looking for.”

“Never you mind. Just keep everything…contained. Maeve may be a little late.” The call abruptly cut off.

Wonderful. Most of the fey had become significantly less mysterious after I had joined the newborn culture. The crones had done the opposite. Okay, well, whatever. I had my orders. Keep everything contained. Shouldn’t be too hard, with two warlord-level fey and multiple hordes of monsters.

I stepped out of the building to find complete and utter chaos. The once-empty street was now completely flooded with civilians, all screaming and running from our monsters, but unable to flee far—we had the exits sealed off with a few choice beasts.

There were only two exceptions. Off to my right was Eccretia, her back to the wall of the cafe while she defended everyone inside with a few ZF guns. Presumably, that’s where Simon, Steve, Lily, and the other noncombatants from the earlier meeting were.

The other exception was at one of the entrances to the intersection, where Derek, Akane, Flynn, and Adam were holding off nearly an entire horde of monsters by themselves. I couldn’t see clearly enough to tell exactly what they were doing, but I could tell that they had largely blocked off the street with the corpses of their foes.

Gea, that idiot, what was he doing? Had he really not been able to come up with any tactics better than ‘send everything at them?’

As usual, it was up to me to fix everything. I pointed my stolen gun at the sky and pulled the trigger, the modified round whistling through the air like a flare. It didn’t actually glow or explode or anything, but the sound was enough to get everyone’s attention riveted on me.

The fact that I ordered the monsters to stop fighting at the same moment may have helped.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” I said by way of greeting, reciting my lines with ease. “I hope you enjoyed the prologue, but now the real fun begins.” I spread my arms wide. “This marks the beginning of the first Wild Hunt Domina City has ever seen.”

I paused slightly, long enough to let a slight murmur run through the crowd. Perfect.

“The rules are simple.” I grinned wolfishly. “Join, hide, or die. Those are the only choices when the Wild Hunt comes to call.”

Dead silence.

Then they began to run.

Like a herd of cattle, they panicked, simple prey instinct taking over and forcing them to run as far away from me as possible. But they were trapped in a cage, with monsters on every side.

The results were predictable.

When people fell, they were crushed. Shoved or tripped, it mattered not. If they were lucky, the fallen received bruises and broken bones. More likely, they ended up as little more than gory puddles splashing onto the boots of their fellows.

While watching the slow, methodical suicide of several hundred people, I had a grin on my face that would make a shark proud, but it didn’t reach my soul.

Scare the sheep, look like you’re having fun, pull out when the crowd hits fifty percent causalities. These were my orders.

But I didn’t have to like them.

Then I heard something. The crowd heard it too, and something about it dug into their primitive fear state, dragged them back to rationality, and made them stop killing themselves in their impossible dash for freedom.

Clapping.

I turned to my left to see a woman. A tall, stately woman with bronze skin, chocolate colored hair, and golden eyes. She would have been beautiful, if her white sundress—out of season for this weather, a distant part of my mind noted—was not drenched red and brown with blood new and old. Her hair, once long and luxurious, was unkempt and snarled, matted with blood and gore.

Her shark-like smile was not fake.

“An interesting plan, fey-slave,” Elizabeth Greene noted with a chuckle. “Not as hands-on as I would prefer, but…” Her grin widened, if that was possible, and suddenly there were two glowing orange swords in her hands, leaking mist like fire. “But that’s what I’m here for.”

The Composer.

This was not according to plan.

Behind the Scenes (scene 204)

AIG stands for Atlas Island Gunsmiths. If anyone cares.

Oh, and about the new fey names: Lady is the proper honorific, like Noble Nyashk, but the “honored” honorific can also be applied broadly. For example, Ériu’s formal title is Lady Ériu, Queen-Mother of Summer, Crone of the Seelie Court. Honored Lady, Honored Ériu, or Honored Crone would all be correct forms of address. As would Honored Queen-Mother, but that sounds a little odd, so most people don’t use it. Honored Princess or Honored Queen is common for the Maidens and Matrons, though.

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Scene 203 – Venatio

VENATIO

SEENA

Two fey slaves and a small army of monsters.

No hesitation.

“Umbră!” I cried. “Atac pe fata!”

A shot rang out, echoing around the street, but the girl was already gone. Just disappeared. Where—

Then she was in front of us. How did she get there so fast? Quicker than lightning, she lashed out with a kick, knocking my brother through the table and scattering the rest of us in his wake.

“Simon!” Yolanda cried, rushing towards her downed boyfriend.

She had that well in hand. I would handle the fey.

I wasn’t really sure what to call her, since she clearly wasn’t a fey fey, but that was something to worry about later. I dashed forward with the strength of my warlord buffs, whipping around my steel-like tail to—

Miss. Again.

How had she dodged so fast?

Then I saw them. Translucent green, like a cicada’s, sprouting from her back and fluttering in the breeze.

Wings.

Actual, functional WINGS.

They were three pairs of insect wings, similar to what you sometimes saw on a traditional mythological fairy. Even as I watched in stunned fascination, they blurred, beating too fast to keep track, sending the woman back a few steps and holding her hovering a few inches off the ground.

“Seena…” I heard behind me. “…you have a tail?”

I turned to regard my brother. “Yes, just…I’ll explain later, all right?” The changelings were already getting him, his girlfriend, and Leon out of danger. Steve and Eric were running in the other direction with Laura, while Derek, Akane, Flynn, and Adam were fending off another horde of smaller monsters I hadn’t even noticed coming from another direction.

Lily was huddled in a corner, eyes squeezed shut and hands over her ears. She didn’t like fighting, so that was only to be expected. At least the fey never attacked her. Well, they used to never attack her. What if that rule had changed as well?

Nine Hells, where were my soldiers? “Umbră! Este timpul pentru a lupta!”

There was an explosion from one of the nearby ‘scrapers, about where the earlier shot had come from. I peered up, cursing the twilight, and saw what looked like pojoes milling around in the flames.

“I-mi cer scuze, onorat nobil,” my Mal bodyguards called. “Dar suntem OCUPATI!”

“Seena,” I heard again from behind me. “Listen.”

“Not a good time, Simon!”

“No, it’s—Nine Hells, get over here!

His tone brooked no argument, so I backed up, keeping my eye on the fey and her monsters, until I was next to my brother.

I looked down at him, but he seemed mostly fine, with Yolanda tending his injuries. He couldn’t be dying, not from something as small as getting thrown through a table. But he clearly wasn’t in the best condition to begin with…

His eyes were strong, at least. “The winged girl. Just hit her.”

I rolled my eyes. “Thanks, that never occurred to me.”

“No, I mean…even with three pairs of wings, she has to be really lightweight in order to fly like that. I mean, seriously. I doubt she even has a real skeleton any more, probably got it replaced by cartilage…” he coughed, spitting up blood. That wasn’t good. What if he was bleeding internally? “She probably weighs like, fifty pounds. Just hit her. She’ll crumple like wet cardboard.”

Okay. That was actually good advice. That was something I could use.

“You guys keep them safe,” I told the changelings. “I’ll handle Miss Butterfly.”

But Eccretia pulled out her rifle with a hard look. “I am far from helpless, Noble Nyashk. I can provide support.”

Simon gurgled. “Noble what?

We both ignored him. “How do I know you won’t shoot me in the back?”

“You don’t. Now hurry up before Derek and them get overrun, or we’ll have to fight on two fronts.”

I glanced at the other end of the street, where Derek, Akane, Flynn, and Adam were fighting, and saw she was right. They were doing very, very well, especially considering all four were baseline, but they were facing more monsters than us. We needed to finish off the two leaders quickly, then join them.

“Where are your changelings?” I grunted as I punched through a yokvel trying to claw at my face.

“With your Mals, I expect,” she responded in a crisp and professional tone as she fired off a few more shots, focusing on the deathmarked. “Holding off the third group.”

A few more quick punches and some swipes with my tail scattered the rest of the cats. “My nightstalkers aren’t front line fighters. What about yours?”

“Competent enough in most situations, and I’d normally say more than a match for any fey monsters.” She fired again, getting one of the ape-things in the eye, causing it to roar in anger. “But…”

“But the rules have changed,” the winged girl said as she fluttered in front of us.

She slashed at me with her open hand, which I barely managed to dodge even with the speed of my warlord buffs. In theory, she shouldn’t be strong enough to deal any meaningful damage to me. In practice, I didn’t want to find out what weapons the fey had decided to give their newest slave.

Still, I needed to keep her away from the baselines. I bull rushed forward, a move she dodged easily, but it had the intended effect of setting her up for Eccretia’s attack. The changeling fired off a few rounds from her Blue Knight ZF987, testing the fey’s response.

Our winged opponent dodged again, which was also anticipated. I swept my tail around, getting the crazy chick in the legs, sending her sprawling.

I had hoped that she would land on her wings and maybe damage them, but no such luck. She managed to land on her hands, and when I rushed forward again to finish her off, she zipped off, an inch above the ground, dodging my strike by a hair.

Before I could give meaningful chase, one of the deathmarked jumped me with a bellow, the tortured ape-thing swinging at me with a bony fist. I knew how powerful they were, so I dodged the first strike, then the second, and then—

And then I remembered that I was a warlord.

I dodged under the ape’s third strike, coming up inside its guard, and grabbed its wrist with my tail to keep it from grabbing me. Then, I unleashed a flurry of blows to its chest, sending it staggering back with a dozen cracked and broken ribs.

While it was reeling in pain, I shoved it aside; there was little point in trying to actually kill a deathmarked with anything short of high explosives, warlord or not.

The fey was upright now, floating a few feet off the ground. I leaped on top of the infernal dromo, dodged its tail, and then launched myself at the fey.

I missed.

“Nine Hells,” I spat as I hit the ground at a roll. The monsters piled on top of me, but they got in each other’s way too much to do any real damage. I punched out a few more furless cats, tossed one crawler at another, and—

Where had she gone?

I had lost track of her while I was fighting the monsters. Most of them were dead or dying now, but they had served their purpose, distracting me from the fey. Had she escaped entirely? And where was the other one, the male? I hadn’t seen him since the fight started. I—

I heard a massive, clicking screech behind me.

Oh. Right. The dromo.

I turned to regard the beast. In most important respects, it was a giant scorpion about the size of a car, with four pairs of legs, two massive claws, and an arching tail with a poison stinger, all covered in thick black carapace.

Except it had been painted with red stripes.

The beast screeched again, spraying fire from its dripping maw.

So, yeah: Infernal dromo.

The fire didn’t get anywhere close to me; it wasn’t actually attacking yet, just letting me know it was angry. I backed up slowly, the instinctive reaction making me feel better even though I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Fire was only one half of the infernal package; the other half was aggression.

As expected, instead of taking my retreat as a sign of a competitor leaving its territory like most natural predators would, it screamed in triumph, recognizing my fear and sensing a weakness.

It charged forward.

So did I.

I didn’t have any specific training for dealing with dromos, but they’re not too hard to figure out. Stay away from the claws, the tail, and for the infernal variety, the mouth. The only problem was that they had reflexes like greased lightning, and would instantly skewer you if you made the mistake of jumping onto their back.

But I was a warlord.

I dodged the first strike from the tail, batting it aside with one hand and using the other to attack the tail directly, jabbing it with an open palm stronger than steel. The monster screeched in pain and bucked, trying to throw me off. I just redoubled my attack, trying to break the tail in half.

I managed to break through the carapace—

And was immediately reminded that this was an infernal dromo.

Boiling hot blood spurted out of the wound, searing my hand and missing my face by inches. I was forced to release the tail to dodge, which proved to be a mistake. The stinger stabbed at me again—blood spurting out again as the tail flexed—and I was only able to avoid it by jumping off onto the street.

I turned to face the beast again, not quite sure how I was supposed to—

An explosion burst up from beneath it, flipping it over with an unearthly screech.

And there was Eccretia, pulling another grenade from her belt even as I watched.

“Go after the fey, you idiot!” she cried as she pulled the pin and threw it. “I’ll handle the monsters!”

There wasn’t time to argue. I ran off, searching for the woman even as another explosion rocked the street behind me. Where was she? There was her mount, some four-legged monster horse thing that I couldn’t identify, and there was the man, riding into battle against Derek and the others, slashing with a sword.

But where was the woman?

The sun was mostly below the horizon by now, so my sight was much better than it had been at the start of this fight. I scanned the battlefield, trying to find her, but to no avail. I had a hunch she wasn’t the type to flee, especially not after making a big entrance, so she had to be hiding out somewhere, preparing.

Derek, Akane, Flynn, and Adam had that end of the street bottled up, which involved Akane swordfighting the male. My brother, Eccretia’s two changelings, and Yolanda and Leon seemed to be relatively safe, cowering behind a hasty barricade of tables. Lily hadn’t moved, but the monsters were ignoring her. Steve and Eric were trying to break into one of the nearby buildings for some reason.

Where was she?

Where?

If I were a delusional sociopath, where would I be? Not up in the building where my shadows had been hiding; they and the rest of Eccretia’s changelings were still fighting. They would have called if the fey showed up there.

Not with any of the monsters, not fighting anyone…

Wait, why were Steve and Eric trying to break into one of the buildings?

I rushed over to them—punching the recovering deathmarked as I passed—and skidded to a stop at their side.

“Boys,” I said by way of greeting. “Explain fast.”

“Steve says he say the winged girl go in here,” Eric reported. “I didn’t, but it’s the best bet. But the door’s locked, and we can’t get it open. I think it might be welded from the other side—”

I reared back and kicked the solid steel door, knocking it off its hinges with a single blow.

“You two stay out here,” I insisted. “I’ll deal with the fey.”

“No,” Eric hissed, grabbing my arm. “You have nighteyes, and she knows it! You need someone who’s not vulnerable to light!”

I shook him off. “You’ll just get in the way. Stay here.”

The Dagonite glared at me. “You know I’m going to ignore you. Why even bother saying it?”

“Because this way, when you get shot in the face, I can say I told you so,” I growled as I brushed past him.

To my surprise, a young kemo—he ran past too fast for me to identify his subculture—screamed by me, followed by a few more kids. It took me a minute to realize they were probably fleeing from the fey.

As I plunged deeper into the gray corridors of the apartment building, running into more and more fleeing civilians, I quickly realized that I had no idea where I was going. All the halls looked alike, and the fey wasn’t really leaving a clear path to follow.

I grabbed a vampire as he rushed past me, causing him to scream and flinch back in fright.

“Young drake,” I said with as much politeness as I could muster considering that he was pummeling me ineffectually with his weak fists. “Calm down. I need to find the fey.”

To my surprise, he did calm down, and pretty quickly too. Probably realized pissing off a Noble wouldn’t end well for him, whether he was in my subculture or not.

“She was on floor twelve a few minutes ago,” he managed without stammering. “She’s forcing everyone out.”

I blinked. “Out? What do you mean, out?”

He shrugged. “She’s knocking down doors and throwing people out of their apartments. Scaring everyone.”

Huh. That…was weird. Could she be trying to avoid innocent bystanders? No, neither one of us were armed. It would be child’s play to keep our duel from causing too much collateral damage, if that were actually her purpose. No, there was something else going on here…

I released the young vampire, done with him, and he ran off gratefully while I pondered this new information.

Well, whatever she was planning, I needed to find her first. Floor twelve, he had said? That was nine floors up. I had to hurry before the trail went cold again.

One of the side benefits of the warlord package I hadn’t really noticed before now was increased endurance. I ran up nearly a dozen sets of stairs at full speed and wasn’t even breathing hard by the time I reached the top. Lot better than the days when I could barely jog a block without gasping for breath.

Not that it mattered. The twelfth floor was empty by the time I got there, all the doors open to empty apartments, the inhabitants having all fled. I guess the only option was to keep climbing. Maybe she was expecting reinforcements on the roof or something? I’d have to—

Wait. One door wasn’t open.

The lock was broken, but otherwise the door was unharmed; still firmly attached to the frame and tightly closed.

If that wasn’t suspicious, I didn’t know what was. I moved as carefully and quietly as I knew how, sidling up to the door and easing it open without a sound.

The reason this particular apartment had been spared was immediately obvious. The living room I could see from the door didn’t look like a home so much as a machine shop. Countless tools lined the shelves, with blueprints pinned to the walls like posters and spare parts scattered around like a child’s toys.

The fey I was searching for was tinkering at a workbench in front of the window, her back to me. I couldn’t tell exactly what she was doing, but the simplest answer would be assembling a bomb. That would be the easiest and most dangerous thing an amateur could build quickly.

I quietly grabbed something big and heavy off the floor—looked like one of those miniature fusion cell things—took careful aim, and threw it at the back of the fey’s head with all my might.

She dodged.

Nine Hells, she must have seen the reflection in the window. I leaped forward, arms outstretched and tail ready, in order to try and take advantage of the limited space to keep her from dodging past me with those stupid wings of hers.

Then I noticed she had something in her hands and froze.

It was not a bomb.

I didn’t know what it was. It looked like some unholy cross between a boom box, a music player, and a small metal bucket, all married together with a liberal application of duct tape, with far too many wires poking out every which way.

But it had a trigger.

“Sorry, Noble Nyashk,” the fey said pityingly. “It didn’t have to be this way. But the Wild Hunt must go on.”

Then all the clues fell into place.

Not the babbling about the Wild Hunt, whatever that was. But the genuine apologetic tone, from a fey-slave, who was scarily competent with machines…

“Veda?” I whispered. “Is that you?”

She grimaced, and fired.

Behind the Scenes (scene 203)

The “miniature fusion cells” Seena describes are at approximately the level of 3D printers in the real world. That is, they are available to civilians, but prohibitively expensive, frustrating to use, and not particularly reliable. In Domina City, MFC’s go for about ten thousand dollars each and usually die after about a day. Not that it matters, but the owner of the apartment built that one himself.

Scene 202 – Abscondens

ABSCONDENS

SIMON

This was a bad idea.

“This is a wonderful idea,” Yolanda said cheerily as she clung to my arm, tugging at my scars. “I’m glad you finally agreed.”

The train slowed to a stop, and we piled out as the doors opened. “I just think…” I said slowly. “I just think that we should have thought this through a bit more, you know? Planned it out a bit more—”

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “You’ve been underground for over two weeks—”

“Fifteen days, actually,” I muttered. Wait, that was how long I had been awake. How long had I been down there before I woke up? I knew they told me, but I couldn’t recall…

She ignored me. “And you still haven’t told your friends you are alive. I think coming back to the surface is a good thing.”

I winced up at the sun. “Maybe. But I wish I had at least remembered sunglasses.”

My girlfriend rolled her eyes. “It’s twilight. Give it another half hour and it will be dark.”

It was October 31st, Halloween. Eleven days after Titania had mentioned that my former Power, Narek Nhang, had been killed. Fear of him had been one of my primary reasons for staying in the ruins of Shendilavri, but not the only one. I had been able to put it off for a while, but now I had run out of excuses.

Yolanda led me to a small coffee shop not a block from the station, mostly abandoned except for a single demon girl waiting on the sole occupied table. The street outside, while not excessively crowded, was busy enough that it took us a few minutes to navigate through the throng. We almost knocked over a man on a ladder installing a speaker on the corner; he glared at us, but didn’t say anything.

“Hey there, Yolanda!” Adam called, making the rest of the group turn to face us. “Who’s your friend?”

Laura, sitting between Adam and Derek at the large table, put her drink down with wide eyes. “I think that’s…Simon?”

Derek slowly stood, a disbelieving look on his face. “No, I thought Simon died! He couldn’t have just…”

I grinned as best as I could, considering the scars. “Don’t write me off too soon, bastard.”

My old friend grinned as he came around the table and wrapped me in a massive bear hug, squeezing so hard I could barely feel my screaming scars over my cracking ribs. “You stupid demon, why didn’t you call!?”

“Put him down,” Yolanda begged. “He’s still not completely healed.”

The baseline did so quickly, as the rest of the table came up to pat me on the back. All my surviving friends were there. An extremely well-armed Pam, that Dagonite Eric, a grinning Steve, a surprised Laura, a glowering Akane, Delphie’s nephew Leon…

And Seena.

There was something different about her, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but that wasn’t the important part. She was staring at me, daygoggles off, as if she had seen a ghost.

“Simon,” she whispered very, very quietly. “You…I…you were dead. Nhang said you were dead.”

I grimaced. “Well, he wasn’t far off. I just got lucky. Found by some ghouls who didn’t feel hungry, that whole thing.”

“Is that what happened to your cosmos?” Adam asked. “Your purple skin, the horns, and…” He frowned. “What’s up with the scars, anyway? Toy maker should be able to get rid of those, right?”

Another grimace. “It’s a long story. Can we sit down?”

Lily—who was the ‘demon’ girl I hadn’t recognized earlier—stole two chairs from nearby tables, and we all sat down, me a little bit more gingerly than the others.

“Let’s start simple,” the waitress said firmly. “Introductions all around. Who here doesn’t know Simon?” Three hands were raised a little meekly. “Okay, everyone, this is Simon Lancaster, Seena’s brother. Simon, this is Akane’s boyfriend Flynn—” The man in question blushed slightly, and Akane punched Lily in the shoulder hard enough to break bone. She didn’t react. “And these are Eccretia’s bodyguards, Domothon and Ferenil of the Never-Known Thieves.”

I nodded at the swordsman, and the two golden-haired changelings. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Flynn nodded back politely, and the changelings—seated at a smaller table nearby—waved in response.

“Why didn’t you call?” Seena demanded the instant introductions were over. “I thought you were dead!

What was it that was different about her? I mean, her voice sounded a little different, but since my ears had been rebuilt, everything sounded a bit off.

I tried to find an answer that wouldn’t end with Derek leading Necessarius into the ruins of Shendilavri. “It’s a long story. I wasn’t exactly mobile for a while, and the place where I was resting didn’t have any phones.”

Laura looked up, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Really. No phones at all.”

I squirmed under her gaze. “I…I dunno. No phones I could use, anyway. They didn’t trust me not to do something stupid.”

That seemed to placate her for the moment. “Fine. But why come up now? Healed up sufficiently?”

“Mostly.” I smiled as best I could. “Besides that, it’s Halloween! It’s like, the most important day of the year, right?”

Pam snorted. “Subtle subject change.”

Adam, however, was willing to humor me. “How is Halloween the most important day of the year? I mean…” he indicated Lily and my sister. “…it kinda seems like there’s no point in dressing up.”

Lily just gave him a look. “What do you mean, no point? I’ll have you know, I look wonderful in a dress.”

He waved his hands frantically, realizing there was some cultural miscommunication here. “No, sweetie—” Oh, right, those two were dating. I kept forgetting that. She wasn’t really known for steady relationships. Plus, she only dated outsiders, which limited her opportunities. “I mean, on the mainland, on Halloween people dress up as monsters and stuff. I’m guessing that doesn’t happen here.”

Laura nodded. “Right, I remember hearing about that. And they visit strangers’ houses for candy, right?”

Leon perked up. “Candy?”

But Pam placed her hand on the boy’s head, quieting him, and gave Laura an odd look. “That sounds remarkably dangerous. Screening the candy for poison seems like it would be impracticable.”

“These are kids,” Laura noted.

Everyone at the table nodded in sudden understanding; we all knew what happened if you hurt children. Everyone nodded except Adam, that is.

“What? No, they don’t not poison the candy just because kids are involved! They just…don’t poison the candy.”

“Why not?” Pam pressed. “As long as you’re careful only to hand out the poisoned ones to enemies—”

“Most people outside this city aren’t willing to murder!

The changeling nodded. “Right, I understand leaving children out of it—”

“Not just children!” Adam nearly shrieked. “No murder! At all!”

The well-armed woman blinked, then turned to Laura. “You’ve been outside Domina. You know what he’s talking about?”

“Oh, yes,” the Spanish baseline admitted. It took me a second to recognize the look on her face as a smirk. “But I think it’s better for him to explain it.”

Before anyone could ask him any more questions the man in question threw up his hands. “So! What do you do on Halloween?”

Derek shrugged. “I dunno, I didn’t really have any plans…”

“I meant what does the city do. Your idea of a social event is a monster hunt.”

“Well, that’s part of it,” Lily admitted. “There are a lot of hunts on Halloween. Orphanages and stuff go after rats and other easy things like that to give the kids some experience.”

“But that’s a kid thing,” Derek cut in. “The professional slayers just try and keep the more dangerous stuff out of the way for the night.”

My sister spoke up. “Most adults go to parties. Fancy balls and dinners. All very elegant and everything, I assure you. My culture is actually hosting one tonight, if anyone is interested.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The Mals are having a public party?”

“Not at Maladomini. We rented a space.” She shrugged. “Just a good-will public relations boost. It was Moloch’s idea.”

Pam nodded. “I expected as much. I knew your viceroy before he joined Baal, you know.” She thought for a moment. “Before Baal founded the culture, now that I think of it.”

“Oh right,” I muttered. “I keep forgetting you’re a freaking warlord.”

She glared at me. “Don’t call me that. Warlords are for the cultures. The changelings are not a culture.”

“…wait wait,” Derek said with an upheld hand. “I think we missed something. You’re a warlord?”

The changeling turned to glare at him in turn. “No. But I am Eccretia, of the Never-Known Thieves. Didn’t we go over this earlier?”

“…no, no we definitely did not. I just remember you from…” he waved his hand. “A couple months ago. Around when school started. You were just Pam.” He looked her up and down. “And you were less well-armed.”

Flynn, the guy introduced as Akane’s boyfriend, didn’t seem particularly surprised. He grinned. “What, the changeling bodyguards weren’t a clue?”

“I thought they were just more friends of Seena’s, or something. Strangely enough, my first thought was not ‘bodyguards for one of the original changelings.’”

“I said they were bodyguards,” Lily put in.

“And the others?” Akane asked quietly.

Her boss shrugged. “Figured they were spies. Assassins. The usual.”

Yolanda and I looked at each other in confusion. “…what others?”

“There are about a dozen baselines—or changelings, rather—watching us right now,” Derek noted nonchalantly. She gave Pam a sideways look. “I’m assuming they’re yours.”

The Paragon nodded. “I am impressed you noticed them, though.”

“I’ve been stalked by vampires. Changelings aren’t very hard to spot, compared to that.”

Akane started to speak. “There are—” but she fell quiet when Derek gave her a look.

There was an awkward silence for a moment there, before Lily spoke up. “I’m not sure how I feel about a Mal party, but maybe we can go somewhere. Eccretia, what are the changelings planning?”

Pam raised an eyebrow. “Nothing. Why would they?”

“Uh, actually…” Domothon piped up from the other table. “We’ve got a few things set up. The Jovian Killers and the Murdered Summers have rented a small warehouse just inside the borders of NHQ, with the Elder Lights handling security.”

His superior stared at him, hard. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Actually, why didn’t Gan’neeg, Kish-kish, or Difnaal tell me?”

The golden-haired changeling shrugged. “C’mon, boss, you haven’t gone to a single party in fifteen years. No one invites you to anything any more.”

Pam looked annoyed, but didn’t argue. “Fine. Whatever.” She sighed. “Anyone want to go to that party? I’ll pay for everyone.”

“I’m in!” Steve cooed with a grin, to the surprise of no one. “Never been to a changeling party before. What kinda food you guys got? Any beer?”

The not-warlord ignored him. “Anyone else?”

Derek looked contemplative. “Well, it would be safer than most of the alternatives. And we could use a night off…” He looked at Laura. “Our parents will be at the Big Boss’s party, so we’ll probably have to poke our heads in there, at least for a few minutes.”

“And I’ll need to put in an appearance at the Mal party,” Seena added. “Zepar will be pissed if I don’t spend an hour or two schmoozing.”

What an odd thing to say. “I…guess I can go with you,” I said slowly. “I don’t really want anything to do with the sibs any more.” I turned to Yolanda. “Unless you wanted to go somewhere else…?”

“My friend is doing something.” From the look in her eyes, I could tell by ‘friend,’ she meant one of the succubus warlords. “But I think I can skip that. I’d prefer to be with you.”

“My vote’s the changeling party,” Adam spoke up. “No offense to everybody, but I think I’d like going somewhere where being baseline is the norm, not the exception.”

His girlfriend nodded. “I’ll admit, that’s what I was thinking as well.”

Adam gave her an odd look. “Um, sweetie, you’re not exactly baseline yourself.”

She grimaced. “Baselines…don’t treat me the same way as everyone else. Sometimes it’s nice to just be another girl, albeit one with horns.”

Her boyfriend looked confused for a moment before nodding in understanding. “I—got it. Okay. I guess…sure. I’m with you.”
She grinned and kissed him on the cheek.

“What about you, Leon?” my sister asked, addressing Delphie’s orphaned nephew, sitting beside Pam. “You want to go to a changeling party?”

“I’m already going!” he chirped happily. “I’m the cook’s assistant!”

Seena blinked her nighteyes in the twilight. “You’re what?

Pam growled. “Another thing I wasn’t told about, Dom?”

The changeling bodyguard shrugged. “He saw all the party prep, and he wanted to be involved, so…”

I looked between the two changelings. “Wait, what’s going on? Am I missing something?”

“Leon’s living with the Never-Known Thieves for now,” Eric, the Dagonite who didn’t really look like a Dagonite, explained. “No one really trusted Delphie’s hunters to look after him.”

Oh. I guess that made sense. “Well, what time is that? The party, I mean. Seven or so?”

“Six, actually,” Domothon corrected. “Though you can show up whenever. I’ll call ahead, make sure…they know to…expect…” he trailed off, looking at something behind me.

The rest of the table was staring, too.

I swallowed. “So. How big is the monster that’s sitting right behind me?”

“Oh, not too big,” a friendly female voice giggled.

I turned, slowly, careful not to provoke her, only to find…

A girl with honey-brown skin, brown hair, and eyes as black as night sat astride a monster I didn’t recognize, some sort of four-legged beast vaguely resembling a horse. The girl wore what appeared to be a backless black dress of purest midnight.

Next to her, astride a similar beast, was a man with alabaster skin, a fine white silk shirt, and similarly made white pants. His eyes, while violet, appeared otherwise baseline, but could have been dayeyes. His hair was a relatively subdued blond, but done up as spikes that would have been impossible without a lot of product.

Behind them were their monsters.

At least two massive alley-crawlers, bigger than any I had ever seen, reared up over the horde. A dozen small yokvel, like furless cats with iron claws and a disposition to hunting in packs, prowled around the crawlers. Two deathmarked—powerful ape-things with bones visible through their thin and hairless skin—stood directly behind the mounted man and woman, like an honor guard. I even spotted an infernal dromo, a fire-spitting scorpion the size of a car.

I doubted very, very much that this was the limit of what these two had brought.

“My name is Aitil Péine,” the woman said. “Prince of Night’s Southern Autumn. And this is Gealach Tapaidh, Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn.”

The fey woman grinned at us.

“The Wild Hunt has begun.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 202)

Isn’t it interesting that this would happen not a day after the fey received the full rights of a culture?

Scene 201 – Anxietudo

ANXIETUDO

ADAM

Kelly leaned back in her seat, groaning slightly. “Couldn’t we do this some other time?”

George grunted with effort. “Maybe stop complaining, boss. You’re not the one who has to row this stupid paddle boat across Whitecap Bay!”

We were currently headed to North Fusion island, the site of one of the city’s four great fusion generators, and supposedly the hiding place of Adele’s brother, who might know something about Ling.

And for some reason, we were making the journey in a tiny little boat that had no power source other than me and George.

“Why…exactly…” I gulped down breaths of air. “Are…we the ones paddling?”

“George is the strongest,” Kelly said in a bored tone, covering her eyes against the sun with one hand, even though she was already wearing her daygoggles. “It’s only logical for him to be paddling.”

“And…me?”

“You need exercise. Get some muscles on your bones.”

Bitch.”

“Builds character, too.”

Scroafă.”

The vampire looked up, eyebrows raised. “Did you learn Romanian just to insult me?”

“Just…a few…words.”

“Huh. I probably shouldn’t be impressed.”

“Please stop flirting,” Adele, sitting cross-legged at the front of the boat. “We’re almost there.”

I didn’t bother to correct her accusation. “About…the paddling…”

“A speedboat to the Fusion Islands would attract too much attention,” the angel answered before I could finish. “The ‘sarians guarding the generator are notoriously paranoid, and liable to shoot a missile at us without checking to see if we’re authorized first. My brother has a similar mindset, though he’s more likely to run and hide than kill us. Not to mention, there are also the Dagonites to worry about.”

“But…”

“Plus, it builds character.”

Kalba.”

The angel turned and grinned at me. “Oh, you’ve picked up some Hebrew, too? You are impressive, aren’t you?”

“He’s only got a few of the simpler swear words,” Jarasax noted idly as he checked something on his phone. “Not even the fun ones.”

“Shut…up…you…stupid…” I took in another few breaths, trying to think.

Mac soith is probably what you’re looking for,” he said, unconcerned.

“He doesn’t need any more swear words,” Kelly grunted.

Before I could manage to articulate a response—preferably using what little Romanian I knew—Adele spoke up. “We’re here. Everyone, get ready.”

I turned to look behind me, in the direction we were traveling, and saw North Fusion island for the first time.

It didn’t really look all that impressive. It was an artificial island like Domina itself, but on a far smaller scale—a hundred, maybe three hundred feet wide at the most, with a small band of beach around it, built from gray pebbles and stones.

On the actual island was a two or three story building, with a few pipes and similar high-tech machinery connected to it. That would be the fusion generator itself; the power lines to the city went underground, and came out under the water. It was the only feature worth noting on the small, flat island.

Other than the space cannon, of course.

I almost didn’t see it at first. It was an angular, streamlined design, built with the ability to fold down into a recess at the back of the island, where it was both inconspicuous and probably easier to load.

If the thing fired at this range, we would probably all be instantly deafened. The retinue and Adele would be right as rain in a day or two, but I would take longer. I had no idea how long it would take for the toy box to fix something like that for me, if it even could. Not something I wanted to test if I didn’t have to. Luckily, it was long past noon, when the cannons fired their payloads up to the waiting space stations and colonies. We’d be fine.

We pulled onto the beach, the hull making a crunching sound as it scraped again the pebbles, and Kelly and Sax quickly jumped out to push the boat out of the way of the gentle tide.

I just dropped the paddles and lay there for a moment, exhausted. The sound of the waves, splashing against the shore, almost lulled me to sleep, but the jolting movement of the boat and the sharp taste of salt in the air—sharper than usual in Domina, anyway—kept me awake.

Once I had my breath back, I took another glance around the island, trying to pin down what was bugging me. “I’m not really seeing any…caves, or anything. Lucifer, where’s this brother of yours?”

“We’ll ask the scientists,” she said, holding up her arms in a peaceful gesture. “Just be quiet for now.”

I gave her an odd look before popping open my gun case to make sure it wasn’t waterlogged. “Sure, whatever. Remember we’re not here for chatting, we need to—

Suddenly I was face first on the beach, my arm twisted behind my back and my face ground into the rounded pebbles of the shore.

I tried to yell, but just got a mouthful of salty rocks for my trouble.

“Stop struggling, Anders,” Kelly called in a bored tone. “They only grabbed you because you were playing with your guns.”

I wasn’t playing with—

My captor shoved me into the ground harder, and I finally got the hint and stopped fighting quite so much.

“Kepler says let the boy up,” a gruff voice ordered. “MC called. They’re authorized.”

My captor released me—though not before giving me one last shove—and I pulled myself to my feet slowly, making no sudden moves, before looking around at the soldiers who had ambushed us.

There were over a dozen of them, and they were definitely Necessarians. High-quality weapons and armor expected of elite troops, with the red and black band on their shoulders marking them as belonging to the biggest gang in the city. Their black-painted ceramic armor covered simple civilian clothes; Butler wasn’t big on uniforms, so most of his men chose to wear jeans and t-shirts under whatever equipment they were issued.

The one who was in charge—I couldn’t read his rank insignia, but the others clearly deferred to him—eyed me warily before turning to Adele. “Honored Daybreaker. Apologies for the rough welcome. Between you and the maintenance men installing the new speakers, it’s been a busy day for us. What can we help you with?”

“I’ll get straight to the point, Captain.” Ah, so that was his rank. “Apparently, my brother is squatting on a cave on this island somewhere. Have you seen or heard anything odd—”

“He’s on the east side of the island,” the captain interrupted. “The entrance is pretty small, but the cave itself was uncovered while building the underground portions of the facility, and is large enough. I can show you to him now, if you like.”

The angel blinked in surprise. “I’m…sorry, I didn’t expect you to be…I didn’t think you even knew he was here.”

“He’s not really hiding from us. He knocked on the door and introduced himself, first day he got here.” The soldier grinned. “Brought a fruit basket.”

Adele sighed. “Yes, that sounds like my brother. Well…lead on, if you would.”

It didn’t take long to find the cave, though if the soldiers hadn’t known what we were looking for, I doubt we would have ever found it. It wasn’t even a cave, really, just sort of a hole in the ground, with a lip of stone on the shore side that would keep out the tides.

“We’re going back to our patrol,” the captain said curtly. The soldiers left without another word.

“Fricken’ Fusion Guards,” Kelly muttered. “My dad had better manners.” She pulled her daygoggles off, wincing, and peered into the hole. “Looks like it widens out as it gets deeper.”

“I should hope so.” I opened my gun case, pulled out my pistol, and holstered it just in case. “Do you think it’s big enough for all six of us?”

“Probably. George should still go first, though.”

The giant nodded, and moved forward obediently, clambering down the pit very carefully, making sure he had solid footing with each and every step. It didn’t take long for him to disappear from sight, and only a moment after that that we heard his feet hit something solid.

“I think it’s big enough for everyone,” he called up. “The walls aren’t wet or slippery, but still be careful.”

We all made it down easily enough—Alex slipped, but the giant caught her—to find ourselves in a small cave, maybe ten feet wide and tall, running forward maybe a dozen feet before taking a sharp left turn. I thought it was suspiciously dry for a cave, especially one so close to the waterline, before I spotted a few small drainage grates in the corners.

I pulled out my pistol; I didn’t like this place. “Adele, is your brother the type to use traps?”

The angel rubbed her forehead. “I doubt you have to worry about anything. He doesn’t have many enemies, so if anyone comes after him, it will be angels.” She waved her hand. “You can already see that trap.”

I looked around, but didn’t see anything. “Uh…what?”

“It’s dark. If an angel starts glowing, he’ll notice.”

“Ah. Well, none of that then, you two.” I nodded at Kelly. “Our vampire can guide us just fine.” For crying out loud, even I could have guided us. It wasn’t really that dark in the cave, it just didn’t have any extra lights.

We pressed on, with Kelly in front, George and Sax in the back, me shadowing Kelly, and the angels in the middle. Adele had forgotten her nightvision goggles, so she had to hold Alex’s hand to walk safely.

I expected to run into a twisting maze of underground passages, but it was nothing of the sort. The caves—which were blatantly man-made, judging by the strong right angles of the corners—took a few more sharp turns, but there was always only one option, so there was little chance of getting lost.

However, with each turn, the reflected light from the entrance became dimmer and dimmer, until we were all holding onto one another, with Kelly in the front leading a chain of blind idiots. If this guy decided to attack right now, we were all dead, and that was the end of it.

“Hey, guys.”

I jumped so high at the unexpected voice that I think my head might have hit the ceiling.

“I found Grigorii,” Kelly deadpanned. “By the way, we’re in a bigger cave now.”

“Dawn and saints and darkened Heavens—Greg, turn on the stupid lights.”

“Sis? That you? One sec, it’s around here somewhere…”

I heard the sound of someone scrambling around the room, searching for something, and only remembered at the last second to cover my eyes before the lights came on. Judging from the curses from George and Jarasax, not everyone had taken the same precaution.

“Sorry about that,” the speaker, a small man over by a light switch on the far wall, said.

It took me a second to even realize he was an angel—sure, he had the dayskin tattoos on his face and hands, but those were the only parts of him I could see. He was wearing a light blue bathrobe that covered the rest of his body pretty completely. It was…an odd choice of clothing for an angel. They usually preferred to show as much skin as possible, so they could get the most bang for their buck out of their daybreaks.

“Sorry,” he apologized again. “Haven’t really been…” He trailed off, trying to tidy up the dusty cave—empty except for a plastic table, a few matching chairs, a fridge in the corner, and empty snack bags everywhere—without meeting anyone’s eyes. “…sorry.”

His sister looked around the small room with obvious disdain. “Please tell me you aren’t sleeping in here. Grandpa will rise from his grave and strangle me if you aren’t sleeping in some kind of bed.”

He waved his hand again. “Of course, of course. Secret door in the wall, leads to the bedroom, bathroom, and server room.” He paused. “Ah, those are all separate rooms.”

Adele frowned. “Greg, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you looking at me?”

“What? Nothing. No reason. I’m, uh…just…mad that you didn’t call first. Yes, that’s it…”

The feminine angel rubbed her forehead. “You don’t have a phone. You said they were baby-killing cancer machines.”

“I never said I didn’t own one of those baby-killing cancer machines anyway.”

Kelly cocked her head at the strange angel. “No, don’t change the subject, Adele had a point. You’re not meeting anyone’s eyes.”

“Well, um…”

“Greg,” Adele said in a low voice. “What did you do to your eyes?”

“Okay sis, what you need to understand is that I had all theoretical probabilities accounted for, and according to my calculations it was perfectly safe—”

“Saints ABOVE!” she shrieked, stumbling back. “You, I—WHAT DID YOU DO!?”

He had no eyes.

Just two scarred pits in his skull, staring out at us like a pair of black holes.

It was bad—okay, it was really bad, and I was feeling a little queasy from just looking at it—but I had seen worse stuff during the cleanup after the skins incident. “I don’t know too much about the toy maker, but I’m guessing growing new eyeballs is out of reach?”

He nodded, once.

“O—kaay…um, right.” I scratched my forehead. The others didn’t really look like they knew what to say either, and Adele was green enough I was pretty sure she was going to actually retch soon. “So…how can you see?”

“Echolocation,” he muttered, not looking at his sister. “There are subsonic pulse units built into the walls, that give a constant feed to a small cybernetic implant in the back of my head. Gives a pretty good 3D image of the tunnels. No color, obviously, but…”

That seemed unnecessarily complex. “Why not just use cameras?”

“The implant for that was way too big. I mean, I could, it just takes more processing power than I feel comfortable shoving into my skull.”

“Oh. What about when you leave the tunnels?”

“Well, I don’t, really.” He shrugged. “I have a portable sonar unit, but the picture is fuzzy, and kemos get annoyed at the sound.”

“Some vampires, too,” Kelly grumbled.

The angel grinned. “Uh, yeah. Anyone with ears enhanced over a certain threshold.”

“You still haven’t explained what you did to your eyes,” Adele growled.

Her brother shrugged. “Isn’t it obvious? I removed them. They weren’t working.”

Why weren’t they working, Greg?”

He shuffled on his feet. “Well, as you know, I am a professional information broker.”

“Who never sells any info,” Alex noted.

Grigorii Gabriel continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “I managed to intercept some of the Mother Monster’s data dumps to Clarke—”

Jarasax put his hand on his gun, still in its holster. “You what?

“Oh, calm down, changeling. She’s never really cared who knows her secrets. Anyway, most of it was not particularly useful to me—” He waved his hand dismissively. “Some details about poison glands in her mouth, irregularities with her heart, so on. But her eyes—”

Adele sighed deeply. “You tried to give yourself godeyes.”

Godeyes. I had heard of them, of course, from Lily. The pinnacle of Clarke’s science, a combination of the angels’ dayeyes and the vampires’ nighteyes, they gave the ability to see absolutely perfectly in any light, from so close to pitch black you thought there was literally zero light, to staring straight at the sun.

I didn’t pretend to understand the science of it, but apparently combining the two was like mixing an acid and a base. It just didn’t work without a lot of time, effort, and money, and even then usually ended with the patient blind. Only two people had ever done it successfully: The ‘Mother,’ and the warlord of the Draculas.

“Wait one second here,” George said, raising a finger. “I’m far from an expert, but I know a few people on the bad side of a godeyes attempt. None of them actually physically lost their eyes. It’s a lot of damage, yeah, but the toy maker can fix it.”

“Yeah, well, mine went bad.”

Adele glared at him. “How bad?”

Her brother just pointed at his empty eye sockets.

“No, George is right,” Alex said slowly. “Any competent doctor should have been able to fix—” She closed her own eyes as realization dawned. “Oh, you idiot.”

Adele turned to the other angel, a confused look on her face. “Yeah, he’s an idiot. What’s new about that?”

“He tried to give himself godeyes,” Alex deadpanned.

“…yes?” I said slowly. “Welcome to five minutes ago.”

“No. He tried to give himself godeyes.”

We all slowly turned back to Grigorii as the full implications of that sunk in.

“Heh,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “Yeah. Not my smartest move, right?”

His sister was not amused. “YOU TRIED TO PERFORM SURGERY ON YOURSELF!? WHAT IN THE LIGHTLESS NIGHT IS WRONG WITH YOU!?”

He winced. “Not so loud, sis, ow.”

She stomped forward, grabbed her brother by the ear, and yanked him closer to her face. “It took twenty of the best doctors in the city to give the Dragon his eyes, and you thought you could do it by yourself, to yourself!?”

“I had—ow—information he never did! It seemed simple enough!”

“IT REQUIRES PULLING THE EYES OUT OF YOUR SKULL AND DOING PRECISION SURGERY ON THEM WHILE THEY ARE MUTATED BY THE TOY MAKER!”

“Um…” I said. “We were here for a reason—”

“Shut up!” Adele snapped. “Greg, you—”

“You’re here for a reason?” the blind angel chirped excitedly. I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely excited that I might need something from him, or if he was just happy to have an excuse to dodge his sister. He shook himself out of her grip with practiced ease. “Well, what is it?”

“It’s…” Behind him, Adele was struggling to grab her brother and wring his neck, but George held her back. “It’s a friend. She was kidnapped, we think by the aves, October 21st. That’s the Sunday before last. We haven’t been able to find her.”

“Anders, SHUT YOUR MOUTH! I’M NOT DONE YET!”

We both ignored her, while Kelly and George struggled with her. “Hm. Interesting.” The blind angel scratched his head. “The obvious solution is to talk to the aves still in G’Hanir, but Butler took the ‘scraper a week ago, so you’d have already tried that…besides, they’ve largely split off from the Soaring Eagle’s group anyway.”

“Exactly.” At least he seemed well-informed. “So can you help?”

Grigorii made a face. “…maybe. I can give you a few leads, at least.” He fished a pad out of his bathrobes, tapping at it. It made a surprising number of squawks and beeps, which I belatedly realized were probably for the benefit of his sonar devices. “Soaring Eagle’s core group is extremely loyal, so I haven’t managed to suborn any of them.”

“Uh,” I interrupted. “Not sure I understand that word.” I quickly amended the question, to keep from sounding stupid. “In this context, that is.”

He smiled a little. “Of course. I just mean get them over to my side. Usually, that means bribes or blackmail.” He shrugged. “Like I said, the core birds are loyal. They won’t even tell me little things, like what district they’re going to next, or when they’re leaving the current one.”

Adele, who had calmed down by this point—but was still being held carefully by George—stared at her brother. “No info at all? Seriously? Are you sure you’re doing it right?”

The information broker in question sighed. “Yes, I am, thank you very much. I am not the one who slept through Pistis Sophia’s espionage classes.”

“I never attended those classes.”

“Because you were at home, sleeping.”

Anyway,” Kelly interrupted before the siblings could get into another full-fledged argument. “We’re looking for a blonde baseline girl named Ling Yu.”

Grigorii turned to her in surprise. “Wait, the stoneshaper Paladin? She’s the one you’re looking for?”

I blinked. “You…know her?”

“You guys haven’t been doing a very good at keeping yourselves secret,” he noted, looking thoughtful. “Anyone with access to a Beta-level Necessarian security pass knows, and not all of them are immune to bribes.”

The full implication of what he had just said sunk in. “Wait, you know who I am—”

“But I didn’t know she had gone missing,” he muttered, ignoring me. “Yes, that does explain the increased activity over the past few days…I assumed it was just because of that thing with the fey…”

I was starting to get impatient. “Look, if you can’t help us, that’s fine, just—”

He held up a single finger and tutted at me. “Hardly. I can determine Soaring Eagle’s most likely hiding places—I assume she took the Paladin personally?—but it will take a day or two to collate all the data.”

“Send it to MC when you’re done,” Kelly ordered. “If you don’t want her to get a look at your network, carry it over to the lab by hand and have them send it. I’ll tell them to expect you.”

The angel nodded. “Good, yes, perfect, that should do it.”

At least this was over. I turned to leave, before stopping as I realized something.

I turned back to Adele’s brother. “We need to arrange for payment. What’s you price?”

He thought about it. “Normally for something like this? A hundred thousand. But considering that you kept her—” he jerked his thumb at his sister, who glared at him but didn’t otherwise react. “—from killing me, not to mention the safety of a Paladin directly relates to the safety of the city itself…”

He chuckled.

“This one’s on the house.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 201)

Note that unlike most full angels, Grigorii never did get around to the operation to remove his reproductive organs. It just never seemed like the right time, what with his mother’s funeral, then his father’s funeral, then his brother’s and sister’s and uncle’s…and then the other angels found out from Adele that they had never had any living family members, and he was just making up excuses to get out of it. That would be when he fled the culture.

Scene 200 – Vigilem

VIGILEM

ARTEMIS

“Maria, Victor,” I said in surprise. “I didn’t expect to see you two here. I thought we were meeting up later, at the Forge itself.”

“We come by every now and again,” Maria explained. “To check on him. Make sure Isaac hasn’t done anything too crazy.”

“Hm, yes.” I turned to regard the man in front of us. A tall angel, built like a brick house with flawless, pure white skin and muscles like steel cables.

Zaphkiel, the Watcher, lord of Chronias and founder of the angel culture.

One of Elizabeth’s screamers.

He howled at us like a wild animal, throwing himself against the bars of his cell in a blind rage. Emphasis on ‘blind.’ We kept him liberally dosed with angelweight, the clever drug that disabled an angel’s dayskin. Combined with the minimal light in the impromptu jail—a converted warehouse—he was well contained, without the ability to create the dangerous lasers from which this variety had received its name.

The warlord threw himself at the bars inches from my faces, screaming in wordless hate and spitting up blood—blood which spattered harmlessly on the glass wall that surrounded his cell. The screamers had converted too many of our researchers with a drop or two of blood. We had learned our lessons well.

“At least he was easy to catch,” Victor noted. “Thought it would be a lot harder.”

I smiled. “Never underestimate that woman, old friend. Zaphkiel’s ‘mother’ could probably have captured him by herself, but I couldn’t risk her.”

“How’d you even get her to do it the first place?” Maria put in. “You know she’s not good with violence. She almost had a breakdown after we caught him.”

“It was her idea, actually. She takes her duties as a mother more seriously than you might think.”

Victor sighed. “That poor girl. She carries the weight of an entire city on her shoulders because a vampire needed to trick her.”

“She’s not a girl any more,” I reminded them, as I turned away from the cell and started walking towards the exit, with them at my side. “She’s strong and capable enough to survive on her own, even in this city. And besides, the people love her.”

“It is a city of orphans,” Maria murmured. “I suppose it’s only natural they’d latch onto a mother-figure.”

“I suppose so,” Victor nodded. “But enough about that. How are things going, Artemis? Anything we can help with?”

“Other than our appointment? Your children have lost one of their Paladins,” I noted as I climbed into the backseat of my car. Maria and Victor followed; my driver, holding open the door, looked annoyed, but didn’t say anything. “The Chinese girl, Ling. She appears to have been kidnapped by Soaring Eagle.”

Maria frowned, thinking, as the car began to speed off. “Which one was that, again?”

“The little blonde one, I think,” Victor muttered. “No, wait, am I thinking of Kristie?”

“Kristie died years ago, didn’t she?”

“I don’t know any Kristie,” I cut in. “But Ling is the blonde one, yes.”

“Well. I guess you want us to find her?”

“That would be nice, yes, but Laura has precisely zero leads, and Derek already has the warbloods and a lupe Hunter sniffing the streets trying to find her. I’m honestly not sure what you do to help here.”

“Point,” Victor mused. “Besides, I don’t think the kids would like us interfering.”

Maria scratched her chin. “We could always find Lizzy. I know there are no leads, but we know her pretty well, and I’m sure—”

“No,” I interrupted Maria flatly. “I’m not letting you two within a thousand yards of anywhere I think that woman might be. She is dangerous, and if she sees you, she will kill you—if we’re lucky.” I shook my head. “I have a feeling she would find using you two against Derek and Laura to be absolutely hilarious.”

Victor looked pained. “I know things seem…complicated right now. But I’m sure—”

“It’s not complicated. Victor, I’ve had this conversation before. Greene is dangerous. You always said you knew something was off about her, ever since Derek fell in love with her overnight.”

“No, actually, we thought something was off about Derek,” Maria corrected. “Some sort of obsessive disorder. Seemed to make more sense than…everything.”

“Well, in hindsight, everything fits together rather well.” The car slowed to a stop. “Anyway, we’re here.”

I led them out of the car and up to the large steel door that made up the pedestrian entrance. The guards, despite recognizing all of us on sight, were very careful to check our identification before opening the door for us.

Despite the presence of extra guards at every exit, the Zero Forge was mostly unchanged from its daily function. The workers still directed the vats of chemicals and molten metal, still watched closely as assembly lines beat out glowing metal bars into usable shapes.

We walked through the first room, following the line of guards, without saying a word. It would have been nearly impossible to hear each other over the screech and scream of distant machinery, all clamoring away without a care in the world. The heat pressed on me, forcing me to lean more heavily on my cane, but I was careful to conceal it. Not all these guards were mine.

After what felt like an eternity, we reached another door, this one a normal-sized featureless white one. The guard checked our ID’s again, then let us in and closed the door behind us.

Instantly, all sound disappeared, like a switch had been flipped. This entire office, from walls to ceiling, was carefully constructed with the best sound-proofing techniques the city was capable of. A bomb could go off right outside that door, and no one inside would hear a thing.

The room was a simple cube, with white walls and bare concrete floors, and a door in the corner to further such offices. But while those were actual offices for the managers who worked in this facility, this was more of a meeting room, with little more than a large table in the center and a smaller one with coffee and breakfast rolls in the corner.

Maria and Victor looked around in surprise before turning to me. “This is what you brought us here for?” the full-bodied Italian woman asked. “Couldn’t you have told us beforehand?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Couldn’t you have asked beforehand?”

Despite my sarcasm, I understood their shock.

Because the six Ladies of the fey were seated around the table.

On the left side was the Seelie Court—Maiden Aurora, Matron Titania, and Crone Ériu.

Aurora, the Princess of Soil and Flame, was easily identifiable by her boyishly short golden hair. It was so closely associated with the fey Maidens that it was usually called a Maiden cut. She wore a gorgeous and airy sundress in a mix of white and fire colors; red and orange and yellow. Her green eyes sparkled, and she smiled at us from her seat.

Titania, the Queen of Earth and Light, was sitting between her junior and senior, and the one with the aptly-named Matron cut. Her golden hair was cut to just past shoulder length, and tied in a simple braid. Her dress, however, was…odd. On the one hand, it was just a white spaghetti-strap piece that emphasized her shoulders. On the other hand, she had pinned all sorts of flowers—live flowers—to the garment. It looked pretty, but also quite strange.

Ériu, sharp-eyed Ériu, was easy to spot even at a distance. The Queen-Mother of Summer sported waist-length golden hair, without any decorations or fancy braids, and a simple white dress that covered her shoulders and bust. She also wore a pair of pure white gloves that reached all the way to her elbows, which somehow didn’t seem out of place on that outfit.

On the other side of the table, of course, was the Unseelie Court. Maiden Maeve, Matron Mab, and Crone Cailleach.

Maeve, the Princess of Wind and Frost, wore her black hair in a Maiden cut identical to her Seelie counterpart. Her tight Chinese dress was also a mirror of Aurora’s in many ways, sporting cool blue, purple, and black colors. She glared at me with eyes the color of crushed ice, but I had been on the receiving end of far worse.

The Queen of Air and Darkness actually took a moment to properly identify. Not only was Mab up from her seat, studying the snack table as if it was some monster on a lab table, but she had her hair—presumably shoulder length, like Titania’s—up in a bun. Her dress was an elegant midnight black ballgown, studded with diamonds like stars in the night sky.

And last, of course, was the Queen-Mother of Winter, Cailleach herself. She was a perfect mirror of her Seelie counterpart. Her black, waist-length hair was also plain and unadorned, while her black and conservative dress also came with a matching pair of black opera gloves.

When it came to actual skin color, facial features, and so on, all six women were completely identical. Other than the hair and eye color differences between the two Courts, any two or three of them could easily have passed themselves off as twins or triplets without anyone batting an eye.

“Ladies,” I said by way of greeting. “I hope you don’t mind I brought two witnesses.”

Maeve eyed them carefully. “The parents of Derek and Laura.” She nodded. “They’ll do.”

Maria and Victor looked surprised, but Victor was the one who spoke. “You know our kids?”

“I kidnapped them about a week and half ago,” she said nonchalantly. “And we had some meetings before that, as well.”

“Oh, good,” Maria said dryly. “I was worried it was something serious, like collaborating on a bake sale.”

“Do not misunderstand me, Maria Huntsman,” the Maiden said in a warning tone. “My methods were somewhat extreme, but my purpose was benign. And I trust those two far more than I do the pair of thieves in front of me now.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Stop. Maria, I brought you two here as witnesses, not prosecutors. And Lady Maeve—please don’t antagonize her.”

The princess nodded in quiet acknowledgment, while Maria made a huffing sound I chose to interpret as agreement.

“If we have finished the part where we circle each other warily, I would like to get started,” Cailleach growled. She indicated a seat at the middle of the table. “Honored Paragon, please.”

With a sigh, I sat down, and pulled the paperwork from the center of the table. And it was actual paperwork, not data files. I wanted to be sure to have hard copies of everything involved in this affair. I still didn’t trust the fey as far as I could throw them.

But for all my paranoia, the task was a simple one. I signed the papers while Maria and Victor watched carefully over my shoulder, and that was that. The fey had already signed their own names—in what appeared to be Gaelic script, if I was any judge—so it was quick and easy. The whole process took less than ten minutes.

“Thank you, Honored Paragon,” Ériu said warmly, as we all rose from our seats at the same time. “We expected more resistance from you on this.”

“You followed the proper procedures,” I replied thinly. “I am not going to ignore my own laws simply because I am wary of the ones taking advantage of them.”

The Queen-Mother of Summer nodded. “I did not say we were disappointed. Merely surprised. You will not regret this, I promise.”

“I will hold you to that.”

Without another word, all six women filed out of the room. The raucous sounds of the Zero Forge could be heard briefly while the door was open, and then it was closed, and they were gone again.

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding, and sunk back into the chair.

Maria and Victor didn’t say anything. Maria just put her hand on my shoulder, lending me silent support.

What was there to say?

I had just given the fey the full rights of a culture. That meant right to claim domains, right to make business deals and receive payments from their members. None of those were particularly important to anything whatsoever; they already did most of it anyway.

But they also had the right to legal retribution.

This was not going to end well.

Behind the Scenes (scene 200)

Been wanting to write this one for a while. Came out well enough, I think.