Monthly Archives: January 2016

Scene 251 – Talio

TALIO

KELLY

I scratched at the fixer on my arm. It was always an annoyance at the back of my mind, but for the last few weeks it had been worse than usual. At first, I had assumed it was just itching from the wounds I had inflicted during the Rampage, when in my blind animal fury I had tried to rip the device off my arm without properly disengaging the needles first, but it didn’t look like that was the case.

Kat smacked my hand, glaring at me to let me know she’s bring out the claws if I didn’t stop. I glared right back, but buckled under her withering stare after only a moment. She was right, of course, and I knew I didn’t have a leg to stand on. First rule any ex-Belian or ex-hag learned was ‘Don’t mess with the fixer.’

Before I could say anything to her—to yell at her or thank her, I don’t know—Jarasax and George came back with the beers, placing one in front of everyone. Plus the soda for me, of course. Alcohol doesn’t affect you when you’re on the fixer, and it makes it taste weird.

“I met with Adele and Gregorii today,” Alex said as he sipped his beer. “Turns out she got illusions.”

“Light-based, I’m guessing?” I asked. Illusions, we had found, could be split roughly between the kind that were caused by directly manipulating light, and the kind that were caused by causing people to hallucinate specific things.

“Light-based,” Alex confirmed. “Shows up on cameras and everything. Gregorii’s got this sort of light absorption thing to boost his stats, like those blood-drinkers. It’s actually kind of cool.”

George shook his head as he started on a glass that was about the size of the other four combined. “I swear, every single angel has something related to light. Somebody up there has a bad sense of humor.”

“I didn’t get light,” Alex noted.

I shrugged. “Well, it’s based on your desires. Huntsman wanted to protect people, he got shields. The aves wanted to fly, they got variants on that. And every freaking Dagonite got a specific variant of kinesis.”

“I met one who has shifting,” Jarasax pointed out. “She can jump from her Dagonite form to normal in a blink.”

Kat signed something.

“Shifting is what you do,” I reminded her. “It’s the fast one, but it doesn’t last very long. Morphing is the slow one, but it lasts forever.”

Jarasax grinned over his beer. “My morphing is fast.”

“That’s because you’re a cheater,” I pointed out. “Besides, you said you had a limit. What was it?”

“Only things I’ve touched recently.”

“That’s right.” I waved my soda, nearly spilling it in the process. “Still, the power to turn to stone or whatever is still pretty cool.”

Sax nodded and took another swig.

But Alex looked curious. “I wonder what would happen if you tried to turn into a liquid.”

“Doesn’t work.” At our stares, he shrugged. “I thought of it too. I was scared, but I can control what changes. Figure I’d turn one finger to water, see if I could still control it or if it would just fall off.” He shook his head. “Nothing. Reservoir didn’t even deplete.”

“That’s interesting,” Alex said. “So you can only copy solids.”

“I guess. Explains why I never accidentally copied the air.”

“Have there been any interesting themes around changeling powers?” I cut in. “I mean, vampires and angels get about what you expect, like we were saying, but we’ve also been seeing a lot of kemos with shifting or morphing, giants get powers related to whatever myth they follow, that sort of thing.”

“Demons don’t seem to have any theme,” Alex pointed out.

“Demons are demons,” I said. “They don’t stick with one culture for long, you know that. They like to change it up. I mean, you were a demon for a few months there at first.” Before he could answer, I waved him off. “But there are still some. Like, the hellions tend towards powers with obvious military applications. That sort of thing.”

“Well, there’s nothing like that for the changelings,” Jarasax said, bringing the conversation back on track. “Though, I haven’t exactly been in contact with Nemeni recently. I don’t have access to the roll call.”

“Nemeni?” I asked. The name sounded familiar.

“Nemeni of the Blood-Doused Hunters,” he elaborated. “Founder and warlord of the clan.”

George shook his head again, but this time in good humor. “It’s still weird to hear about changeling warlords.”

“Yeah, a lot of them still don’t like being called that,” Sax admitted. “Spent too much time fighting warlords, you know?”

George patted him on the shoulder. “At least the fey are being quiet.”

Sax snorted and took a swig of his beer. “You kidding? It’s terrifying. They’ve never been this quiet before. Ever. Last time they went for a few days without a show, they came back with that Wild Hunt thing. It’s been weeks this time.” He shook his head. “They’re planning something. Dunno what.”

“They still have that gargant running around killing people, though the frequency has dropped,” I noted. “Once or twice a week instead of five times a day. Has anyone at least figured out what they’re after?”

“No,” he said with a sigh. “Still no statements. No one’s even seen the damn gargant; the fey are being careful, sending it only to places with a closed security feed that can be stolen or destroyed. They’re still paying retribution, though.”

Kat signed a question.

“That’s exactly right,” I agreed. “Why? Why did they bother becoming a culture? Why go to all that trouble, just to make it so that they have to pay off anyone they hurt? They could have recruited without signing anything first.”

The Middle-Eastern changeling chuckled. “Oh, we figured that one out. It’s actually rather clever, when you stop to think about it.”

I sat back in my chair, frowning. “Do tell.”

“The fey have to pay retribution now,” he said, still smiling. “But in return, after they’ve paid, no one can attack them for their crimes. A few people have done it anyway, killed some of the feyborn and even one or two Princes. The fey didn’t even kill them, just calmly called for retribution. Necessarius came in, made the call, and the fey got to kill off the offenders perfectly legally.”

“They’re… protecting their followers?” I asked slowly, not quite believing it.

“They’re protecting their minions,” Sax corrected firmly. “This is not mothers sheltering babes. This is greedy misers protecting their investments. They’re planning something big, and need the feyborn in order to do it.”

“Have the minions been doing anything?” Alex said. “I mean, have they been interacting with the other cultures at all? Making deals, alliances, anything suspicious like that?”

“Probably. But if so, everyone’s keeping a tight lid on it. They mostly stay underground, in their demesnes and the sewers and stuff. They’ve pretty much had the run of the place since Obox-ob disappeared.”

Obox-ob, the Prince of Vermin, was the Power of the ekolids, a culture of bug demons that hid in the sewers. He had always been private, but around the time the Composer first showed up, he had fallen off the radar completely. His men weren’t saying much, but without their warlord, the fey hadn’t had much difficulty forcing the bugs out of the sewers and onto the surface. We were starting to see a few of them scuttling around with the rest of us, though they mostly kept to themselves.

Before we could continue the conversation, my phone rang. I frowned and checked the text, then rolled my eyes. “Blood and shadow, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” Sax asked as he started putting on his coat. The others were largely following suit. “The Paladins need help?”

We had been given an indefinite vacation now that Akane’s kensei had taken over guarding duties. I’d be more insulted, but I had met a few of them, and they all seemed competent enough. Besides, they all knew where we were if they needed us. We still stopped by every few days to discuss strategy and such.

“Worse,” I muttered. “There’s been another of those weird gargant attacks.”

George drained the rest of his beer in one massive gulp and slammed the glass down. “Where?”

I sighed. “Acheron. Nishrek, specifically, on Avalas Street.”

They all paused.

“…are you sure we can’t just let this one go?” Alex said after a moment.

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “This isn’t up for discussion. Sax, bring the van around.”

Acheron wasn’t too far, which is why we were called. That being said, it wasn’t like most domains, which were just a handful of blocks at most. It was more like Nosferatu territory—a massive sprawl of unaffiliated and uncooperative clans, broods, and houses stuffed into a nest of buildings and streets that sometimes seemed like nothing but dead-ends and dirty back alleys.

But, despite the area’s well-deserved reputation, there were real streets, which, while not exactly well-maintained, were at least in good enough condition to drive on. The roads were lined with dilapidated, windowless buildings, most still covered in the scars of the Rampage weeks ago. Armed gunmen prowled the sidewalks, even more so than in other districts.

The main thoroughfare was Styx, as could probably be expected, and we found Avalas Street a mile or so down the road. From there, Nishrek wasn’t too difficult to spot.

It had no walls. It was a forty or fifty-story tall ‘scraper that had no walls. Just floors and support columns to hold up the ceiling above it. As we drove up, I could see right inside, though as we got closer the angle made it difficult to get a good view of anything above the first floor.

It was an extremely odd design, and one without an inch of privacy. As I understood it, most of the domain was actually underground, deeper than even the sewers and concrete and into the ancient trash of the island itself. It was an excessive amount of time and effort, all things considered, and most people didn’t understand why it had been built this way.

But Nishrek did not gain the name ‘the Fifty Battlefields’ for nothing.

Each and every floor was a training ground, carefully crafted to mimic a specific battlefield. The first, the only one I could see as we walked up, was the simplest. Pillars were decorated to look like trees, concrete boulders were scattered around, and there was even a river running through the heart.

It was a forest battle. Far from common in Domina City, but we had a few parks here and there. Plus, fighting in forests was fun.

Right now, though, there was no fighting going on. The entire floor was quiet as a grave, though I could hear the sound of faux-gunfire from the floors above. Both teams were sitting around, sulking, barely even able to summon the energy to drink the beers they had found somewhere.

Acheron was a demon territory, but the teams in front of me were vampires. Mals, if I was reading the insignia right. It was hardly unexpected. Demons, with their focus on individual freedom, were a transitional culture for many people, and thus they were on good terms with the other cultures as a general rule. Nishrek, in particular, earned their keep by renting out their battlefields to other cultures for training.

As soon as they saw us, one of the drakes stood up. He was a tall, deeply tanned man with a strong yet thin tail that was knotting itself with worry. He still managed to stay strong, though, and met my gaze without fear.

“You’re Necessarian, correct?”

“Correct,” I said, as I shook his hand. His grip was a little on the weak side. “Corporal Drakela Sanguinas. Please, call me Kelly.” I waved my hand. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here? I don’t see any corpses.”

“Over here,” Alex called from deeper in the ‘forest’ before the vampire could answer.

Our greeter went first, and I was happy to let him play guide. The rest of us followed him to one of the larger fake boulders, to find Alex crouching behind it, looking over a small pile of bodies. There were a number of splatters of green everywhere, including on the corpses themselves, and it took me a second to identify it as paint.

“This is how you found them?” I asked.

The vampire nodded. “Razvan found them. He, uh, thought they were on the opposing team, so he shot them a couple times on instinct.” He looked embarrassed. “He’s really one of our best men, he just gets tunnel vision.”

“It’s fine,” I said. I knelt down next to the grisly pile of gore. It smelled terrible, but I had smelled worse. “I’m thinking… two, three hours. Honored Nightstalker, how exactly did you find them?”

It took our guide a second to respond. “Who, me? But I’m not—anyway. We had contracted with Bahgtru to use this space for a few hours. We got here an hour ago, started the game half an hour ago. Found them… maybe five minutes after that.”

“Did anyone use the space before you today?” Jarasax asked as he took notes.

“Uh, I’m not sure, you’d have to ask—”

“No, no one did.”

I turned to see a tall, broad shouldered demon with green skin and a single horn curving out of his forehead like a spike. His eyes were marble-black, most likely marking him as an orc. Despite his size, he wore a sharply tailored suit, and appeared to be unarmed. Sure, with his buffs he’d be lethal even bare-handed, but even the most powerful warlords tended to keep a gun on them at all times—or, failing that, bodyguards.

“Knight Bahgtru,” the vampire greeted him with a pleasant nod. “Thank you for coming.”

“Pleasure is all mine, Noble Zepar,” the demon grunted. “Not really a Power, though.”

It took me a second to process what was happening. I pointed at the drake with the tail. “So… you’re Zepar. Spymaster of the Mals?”

“And training master, unfortunately,” he said with a sigh. “Losing two of our warlords was a blow. I’ve been handling much of the subtler running of the culture, while Noble Nyashk takes care of the more violent side of things.”

I had heard something about Nyashk, but pushed it to the back of my mind for now. I turned back to the demon. “And you, Honored Devil, are Bahgtru Break-Bone, son of Gruumsh himself. Is that correct?”

He bowed formally. “Of course. At your service.”

Well, his presence made it clear that old One-Eye was taking this seriously, if nothing else. “Okay. And you rented this space to the Mals for training, but no one was here before them? Not even any cleaning crew?”

He straightened. “Correct and correct. Noble Nyashk contacted me, actually, asking for use of one of the Battlefields for the sake of power training. We’ve had a lot of people using them for that in the past few weeks. There were a few groups running through here to reach higher floors, but there is no reason to suspect they would have found the bodies. The cleaning crew was last here six hours ago, and they didn’t mention anything.”

Jarasax finished his notes, but didn’t look up from his pad. “Honored Devil, we were told this was a gargant attack. Was that a miscommunication, or is there something we’re missing about the scene? I was under the impression that the fey’s new pet didn’t leave much behind.”

Bahgtru blinked. “Oh, no, that’s right. We saw it on the cameras.”

I stared at him. “You have video evidence and you didn’t mention it until now?”

Bahgtru looked embarrassed, and his composure faltered. “I, uh, thought you knew?”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Sax, please go with the Honored Devil to take a look at those videos. Get copies if you can.”

“It’s downstairs,” Bahgtru said, pointing at a distant stairwell descending underground, but showing no interest in going himself. “Third door on your left. Ask the girl for the ones from earlier today, she’ll know what you mean.”

“I’ll go with him,” Alex said, standing and brushing off his pants. “In case he gets lost.” The angel tossed me his pad. “I think I’ve got everything I need. Check my work, would you?”

I scowled as he left. Ass. He knew full well that with my nighteyes, I couldn’t read anything on his pad. I handed it off to George, who walked away with Kat to try and decipher Alex’s poor note-taking skills.

“I need to check on my men,” the vampire warlord muttered under his breath as he headed off back to the front of the floor. “Excuse me, I’ll be back in one second… CLARA! No biting people!”

I smiled at that, but was careful not to look in the direction he was walking. Whatever happening over there was his problem, not mine. Instead, I peered closer at the pile of corpses left behind by the attack.

They… didn’t seem to be chewed up or eaten. That was normally how gargants operated, but there were exceptions. If nothing else, you’d expect the bodies to be broken and battered. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with them at all. Sure, they were obviously dead, but they didn’t appear to have any wounds.

I sniffed again. The coppery scent of blood was thick in the air, even so long after their deaths, so I knew I must be missing something. Curious, I lifted up one of the shirts to see if there was anything—

Their hearts had literally exploded out of their chests.

Just popped like something had tried to burrow its way out. The ribcage was broken and bent back, the white bones contrasting starkly with the red blood and shredded meat. I couldn’t even see the heart any more, and I doubted I’d find much more than pieces no matter how hard I looked.

I stepped back, even my abnormally strong stomach churning at the sight. I may have only seen one, but that was enough. I was sure that all the other corpses would be the same, or close enough, at least. Leave the rest for the medical examiner.

It was a Tuesday night—November 27th, specifically—so it would be a bit of a slow night for everyone. Hopefully, they would have enough men on staff to get over here as quickly as possible and get to the bottom of this mess. We had already called on the drive over, of course.

“That’s one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen,” Bahgtru muttered, sounding ill.

I patted him on the shoulder. I had to reach up to manage it. “That’s why we’re here. To get to the bottom of this, finally figure out what in the deepest night the fey are doing and why. Even put a stop to it.”

He nodded, still a bit green. Uh, greener than he was before. “Thank you. Honestly, thank you. I know this can’t be easy for you. I really do appreciate you coming out to help us with this yourself, Fi.”

I froze.

“What did you just say?”

The big demon frowned. “Uh, well, I was just trying to thank—”

“Not that. What did you call me?

He stepped back. “I’m sorry, but I knew your father, so I recognized—”

I grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him bodily against the nearest pillar.

Bahgtru struggled as the air was knocked out of his lungs. “What—”

“My father,” I interrupted, my voice level and my teeth grinding against each other like a belt sander. “Is dead. Dead and buried, which is where he belongs. I am Corporal Drakela Sanguinas of Necessarius. Anything else you think you know is irrelevant. Is that understood?”

The orc stepped away from the pillar. “I just—”

I slammed him against it again, this time holding him in place with one hand.

“Answer me, Honorless Fiend,” I spat. “Is that understood?

He nodded weakly.

“Good.” I released him, and he stumbled a few feet away, staring at me wide-eyed. “Now go to the data center and find my men. I need a report from them immediately.”

Knowing better than to argue, Bahgtru ran off, brushing past George and Kat as he did.

I let out a breath and placed my forehead on the cool concrete of the pillar. Sânge din umbră, this was not how I wanted to spend my evening. I certainly hadn’t expected some random traitor-orc to bring up old memories best left forgotten. I made a mental note to stay away from both him and his father. If Bahgtru recognized me, Gruumsh definitely would.

“What was that about?” George muttered as he and Kat walked up.

I straightened and made an effort to fix my clothing. “Bahgtru was hitting on me, I hit back.”

Kat smirked lewdly and signed something quickly.

“Puns are the lowest form of humor,” I said, refusing to be baited. “Now, what exactly did Alex’s notes say? I noticed a few things myself, but I’m not sure if he saw them.”

George shrugged and tapped at the pad again. “Nothing unexpected. Notes the smell of blood, the haphazard way the bodies are stacked, that sort of thing. He thinks there might be something on the victims’ chests, but he didn’t want to disturb them to check.”

“He’s right,” I confirmed, trying to ignore the reminder that I had disturbed a crime scene more than was strictly necessary. “CSI should be down here shortly, though, so that will get us more detail. And of course the security feeds should—”

Which was when Bahgtru ran up and skidded to a stop.

I glared. “What.”

“Your angel, and the baseline,” he managed between breaths. “They’re gone!”

“Wait, what?” I shook my head. “No, there’s no reason for them to leave.”

He met my eyes nervously, but managed to retain most of his composure.

“They were kidnapped.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 251)

I’ve been meaning to write this storyline for a long, long time.

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Scene 250 – Restituo

LING

RESTITUO

Eight years ago

I rubbed at the spot where my horns used to be. “This still feels weird.”

Aka Manah’s daughter, a pretty girl my age named Riya, poked at my head, giggling. “It looks weird, too. You without horns just seems wrong. Why’d you have to remove them? There are other demons in your orphanage.”

I shrugged. “I dunno.” And I didn’t. I realized years later, though, that the point was to cut me off from the succubus culture as completely as possible. They left many of my internal toys in—ones that I hadn’t understood the purpose of at the time, things that couldn’t be easily pulled out—but were careful to remove the rest, and tell me they were removing everything. Aka Manah wanted me as far from a succubus as was possible.

At least I had something to make up for the loss. Nighteyes. Darul de vrăjitoare, the gift of the witch. Striga, the first vampire, had tricked them away from the Mother Monster years ago. Some people were still upset about that.

But all I knew was that suddenly, Damavand was no longer dark.

I had spent the last two weeks with bandages over my eyes, but now I was free to blink in what seemed like sudden light. The endless shadows that filled every corridor were gone, the black halls suddenly as bright and cheery as your average hospital. I dropped the flashlight that I had brought with me out of habit. It was nothing but dead weight now.

Riya, apparently realizing what I was thinking, carefully led me outside onto a balcony into the night. My eyes were fully healed from the treatment, but my vision was still a bit blurry from disuse, and I would have walked straight into a wall without her help.

It felt like walking out in the middle of the day.

The bare light from the stars was more than enough to see perfectly. The nearest street lamp, maybe a hundred feet away, shone as bright as the sun, and I had to raise my hand to block it. I bumped into the railing in my bleariness, but luckily Riya was there to keep me from doing anything worse.

I could see the vampires and other nocturnals on the streets below. It was midnight, basically noon for anyone with nighteyes, and I could see as easily as if… well, as if it were noon, I suppose.

This… was incredible. I had never really thought about what it would be like to have nighteyes. I had known I needed them to be a real vampire, and my matron had (grudgingly) agreed, but I hadn’t stopped to consider that they might be worth having on their own.

Most of the succubus toys were just cosmos, and the few buffs that were part of the package were internal things that didn’t affect day-to-day life. I had known, intellectually, that people became vampires to see in the dark, just like they became giants to be big and strong, but it hadn’t… clicked.

Maybe it was silly, feeling like I was seeing some brand new world when it was just the same one as always, albeit at a later hour. Maybe it was a side effect of having been blind for two weeks. But this all felt real and wonderful in ways that being a succubus never had. That had just been a means to escape my matron. This was something real.

“Miss Ling,” a prim voice said from behind us. Riya and I both turned to see one of her servants standing at the door to the balcony, a sour look on her face. Of course, this woman always had a sour look on her face. “The doctors said not to strain yourself. Please, come back inside.”

I did so reluctantly, Riya skipping along ahead of me, but the truth is I was grateful. My eyes were starting to hurt from all the light outside. There might not be a lot of it, but it was just a shade too much for my new eyes. The medical room had all its lights turned completely off, so the only source of illumination was the glow from behind the curtains. It was still enough to see by.

“If there’s nothing else you wanted to do today, we could watch cartoons,” Riya suggested cheerily. “I know you missed a few of the newer ones. And now we can watch them together!” She grabbed my hand. “C’mon, that young voice actress was on last week’s.”

Much as I was tempted, I resisted. “I don’t know, Ri, I think I want to just walk around a bit. Not do anything that will hurt my eyes.”

“Okay, that’s fine. We can go back to my room and—”

I scratched my wrist, uncomfortable. “Actually… I think I want to go for a walk. Alone.”

She looked a little hurt, but didn’t push the issue. “Uh, yeah. I get it. It’s, uh, what’s the word?” She looked at her guard. “What’s the word for when lots of big changes happen all at once?”

“Overwhelming,” she answered, unconcerned with our drama.

“Yeah, that!” The little vampire grinned at me broadly with sharp teeth. “It’s fine, Li! Just go take a breath.”

I smiled weakly and squeezed her hand briefly before letting go. “Thank you.”

She smiled in turn and walked down the hallway to her room, her bodyguard trailing behind.

Trying to ignore the sick feeling in my stomach, I turned and started heading in the opposite direction.

I hated this. It had all seemed like such a fun idea at first, but how did people live like this? Constantly lying to people you care about, constantly avoiding spending time with them in favor of stupid vague ‘goals’ and ‘ideals.’

I wanted to spend time with my friend. Was that too much to ask?

Yes, it was. Because right now, I had a mission.

I reached the room I was looking for within about ten minutes or so. I didn’t have a watch, and my phone was now too bright to look at. But no matter the exact time, the people waiting for me didn’t seem too worried. “Ah, Ling, you’re here.” The doctor patted the examination table, which already had a stepstool next to it. “Lie down, little one.”

Gingerly, I did as ordered—however polite an order it may have been—clambering up with some effort. The doctor pulled a device out of the ceiling, some strange metal thing with lots of lenses and dials.

“How are your new eyes treating you?”

“Fine,” I murmured. I always found it hard to talk around this one.

She didn’t seem to mind, or indeed even notice. “Good, good… and are you eating right? You’re not drinking too much blood, are you?”

“I don’t have a blood-drinker buff.”

“I know, that’s why you shouldn’t be drinking the stuff. But some people insist.” She turned a page on her medical pad. “But let’s get down to the meat of the matter, hm? Pretty much everything south of your…” Her eyes flickered over to my flat chest. “…breasts is still in dire need of repair. Have you been taking the vitamins I gave you?”

“Yes.”

“Any effects? Drowsiness, dizziness, nausea?”

I shook my head.

She frowned and resumed tapping at the pad. “There should have been. It’s part of a set of diagnostic routines that help us identify problems with various organs. It’s similar to the Reed-Osborne Procedure, except it has a more general scope and requires less specialized equipment…”

I felt my black eyes glaze over. It was like being back in school—my matron had been making me go again. Oh, maybe with the nighteyes and my new sleep schedule, I’d be able to avoid all that for a few days. We had a test coming up, maybe I could dodge that.

“And I’m boring you,” the doctor said with a sigh. “Well, let’s make this quick then, yes?” She adjusted a few dials on the device hanging from the ceiling, but didn’t move it, and then rolled over something that looked almost like an ultrasound. “Roll up your shirt, please. I need your belly.”

Like an ultrasound, the device had a cold paddle wired to a screen, but this one had four paddles, and they were smaller. The doctor placed them carefully on my chest—one uncomfortably low—and started fiddling with the screen. “Okay, I just need to… there we go.” She tapped at the screen more before downloading something to her pad. “That’s all.”

“That’s all?” I echoed as she started pulling the scanning devices off my belly. Every other session had taken at least an hour, more typically two or three.

“Yep!” she confirmed cheerily. “I’ll need a few days with the toy maker to growpram the seeds that will be used to rewrite and repair your physiology. I suppose this would be easier if we removed all the birth control and so on toys you’ve got, but your body’s under enough strain as it is. We don’t want to have to use it on you more than we have to.”

Most of that went completely over my head, but I got the idea. “So… you’ll call me back in a couple days?”

“Correct.” She smiled. “Go off and play with Riya. I have everything I need here, I promise.”

I was still hesitant, even as I swung my legs around to dangle over the floor. “But Aka Manah said that I needed to help you as much as possible. That it was… my mission, my duty to fulfill the daeva ideal.”

The doctor gave me a weird look, but soon turned back to her machines. “Well, you already have helped me today. I suppose if you really want to stay, I can perform a biopsy.” She picked up an excessively large scalpel from a nearby tray and made a show of examining it. “It’s your choice, really.”

I was running off towards Riya’s room before she even had a chance to laugh.

Behind the Scenes (scene 250)

Ling’s scenes have a purpose beyond just worldbuilding, I promise.

And the Patreon is up!  Still a little bare-bones, but it’s got some rewards and some stretch goals.

Scene 249 – Sanctum Gladium

SANCTUM GLADIUM

DEREK

Monday, November 26th, started out pretty simple. March over to Zero Forge with Necessarius, watch Chronepsis and Lendys sign some papers Butler provided, then everybody shakes hands and munches on snacks for a while.

“I’m surprised you agreed to come to this,” my mother said with a chuckle as she stirred something into her tea. “I know you dislike stepping into the spotlight. What made you change your mind?”

“It was the right thing to do,” I grumbled.

She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t argue the point.

I knew she wanted to, though, and the reason why was obvious. Giving a potentially dangerous band of lizards the rights and responsibilities of a culture without vetting them at all looked like a really bad idea from the outside. There was a difference between cautious optimism and blind stupidity. Necessarius couldn’t even spy on them too much; part of the rights of a culture meant they couldn’t do that without just cause. They’d do it anyway, of course, and everyone knew it, but they’d have to keep it minimal.

But I had discussed this with Butler. Io had been a good man, and while his children were an eclectic band of characters, they worked well together when they allowed themselves to. Chronepsis, the new warlord of the Dispassionate Watchers, was not the type to break laws. If anything, his biggest problem was that he might just stand idly by while everyone else did whatever they wanted.

But that was what Lendys had been recruited for. He was not called the Balancer for nothing. The pair would work well together, building a culture that their brothers and sisters would be proud to be a part of.

But try explaining that to my mother. She was a criminal, born in the slums surrounded by criminals, and helped build this city with other criminals. She was a social Darwinist, a member of the Kongeegen party. She just didn’t understand altruistic motives.

I was being too harsh on her. She certainly tried her best, she just had difficulty always seeing the best in people. Mostly, she assumed everyone would betray her, and always stood in a position to take advantage of that. It made her surprisingly chipper.

“Well, if you don’t want to talk about it with me, you don’t have to,” she admitted. “But the Silent is coming this way. I think you’ll need to spend just a bit more time talking with him.” She patted me on the shoulder as she headed off.

The eight-foot tall mountain of muscle, scales, and other body modifications nodded politely to my mother as she passed, and then to me as well. “Honored Paragon. Thank you again for your assistance in this matter.”

“All I ask is that you live up to your promises, Honored… Wyrm. The city has enough cultures like the Nessians and the ekolids. I would appreciate it if the dragons were not added to that list.”

“A reasonable enough request,” the warlord rumbled. “Though I will admit I have heard little from the ekolids recently. Mister Anders’ reports from the Rampage noted that their nests seem abandoned. And Obox-ob has been missing for quite some time.”

“Rumor is that the Composer got him,” I said. “She didn’t say anything about it, but she rarely does. I don’t think she ever even took credit for Mjolnir’s death, now that I think back. Or anyone else, really.”

The dragon quirked his head, almost like a bird. “How are the Thors? I know that the Hammer was the glue holding them together. Thor himself has never been much of a leader of any sort.”

I sighed and sipped at some juice, beginning to wish I had picked something stronger. “Well, they haven’t imploded, but that’s about the extent of the good news. They ended up in a war with the trolls somehow—don’t ask me how, I have no idea—and last I checked the two were trying to destroy each other.” I shrugged. “Though that was before the MEE.”

“Wasn’t the Hammer dating a troll?”

I nodded. “A nice Manca girl doing research on…” I couldn’t remember. I had met her once, and she had told me, but it was a while ago. “…something. Something space related, maybe. Plotting more efficient angles for the space cannons? Anyway, the Thors adored Mjolnir. You’d think they’d follow his legacy and cut down on the racism. But they somehow managed to get themselves embroiled in a war instead.” I shook my head again as I sipped my drink. “At least the other Aesir clans and troll colors are staying out of it for now.”

“That is best,” the massive bronze dragon said with another nod. “Let them work it out. Interference breeds contempt. And worse.”

That made me smirk. “You named your subculture the Dispassionate Watchers. I already knew what your opinion on the matter would be.” My smile faded. “But it’s not like we have much choice. Everyone is too busy dealing with the fallout of the MEE to waste energy on two giant subcultures feuding.”

“Yes. But Anders’ CS Squads and your kensei are helping.”

“Well, I—wait. Adam’s CS Squads? They’re Necessarius.”

“Butler put Anders in charge of training them.”

“Really?” That was news to me. Silver and gold, why was I always the last one to hear about this sort of thing? “Good for him, then. I guess that explains why they’ve been doing so well.” If anyone had experience fighting people with powers, it would be Adam Anders. True, he fought screamers rather than speakers, but still.

I couldn’t read the expression on the dragon’s face. Not just because his elongated maw made it hard, but because he didn’t appear to have an expression. Again: Dispassionate Watchers. “The fact that the two most successful organizations of the moment are aligned with Necessarius helps cement his legitimacy.”

“As does a new culture requesting his permission to operate,” I added.

Finally, Chronepsis managed an expression I recognized—a smirk. “Yes. That helps.”

“Derek,” Laura said as she strode up, only giving a slight nod to the dragon. “We should probably leave. We have things to do today.” I was sure he couldn’t tell, but her stiff demeanor around the newborn warlord told me that she was afraid of him more than she would like to admit. I wondered if she even realized it herself.

“Quite right. Apologies, Honored Wyrm, but we should really be going.”

We bowed to each other slightly, Laura and I said goodbye to our parents, and we headed out through the ever-present noise of Zero Forge itself. It had been a few weeks since the battle between Adam and Elizabeth, and the engineers had done an excellent job of repairing the facilities. Other than a few banks of equipment being newer than the rest, you’d never be able to tell.

Laura remained silent even as we left the Forge, though, and passed through a couple ‘sarian checkpoints. It wasn’t until I realized that we were halfway back to the dorms that I finally decided to speak up.

“Okay, stop,” I said as I grabbed her arm. “What’s up with you? Weren’t you the one who said it was dangerous for us to be walking out alone?” The street was busy enough that people had to walk around us; I pulled us to the side. Many of them gave us second glances, but luckily it didn’t seem like they recognized us.

She took a deep breath. “This has just been a very long day, that’s all.”

“It’s not even noon.” I checked my watch. “Scratch that, it’s not even ten.”

“Yes, that would be my point,” she snapped. She closed her eyes, hand on the diamond ring hanging on a chain around her neck. Where did she get that? It was bugging me. She didn’t have it before she left the district years ago, but she said it was a gift from her mother. It was all very confusing.

I focused back on her. This was not the time to wonder about irrelevant things. “Laura—”

She sighed. “I’m sorry. The city is… changing, and we’re all in the middle of it. It’s very stressful. I just need some time alone, that’s all. I think I’m going to walk back alone.”

“That’s not a good idea. Are you even armed? Let me—”

“It wasn’t a request,” she spat, eyes suddenly hard. She threw off my hand and stomped away, in a slightly different direction than we had been walking before. That way was slightly faster, but it would probably involve walking through ghoul territory.

I sighed, waited until Laura was out of sight around a corner, and whistled.

A young man, fifteen or sixteen with ruddy red skin, dropped down beside me. His brown hair was longer than expected, and tied up in a ponytail with a red ribbon. He nodded deeply as a greeting.

“Honored Paragon?” he asked, hand on his sword.

“Follow her, please,” I ordered. “Without being seen. If there’s any trouble, handle it, but don’t worry about her seeing you in that case. She’ll figure it out anyway.”

“Yes, Honored Paragon,” the kensei said with another nod.

Then he was gone, the only mark of his disappearance being a red streak of light, the afterimage of his ribbon as he activated his speed and jumped to the top of the nearest ‘scraper.

Not all the changes the city was going through were bad.

Behind the Scenes (scene 249)

The kensei were one of the first things I thought of for the series, after the cultures. This has been a long time coming.

In other news, I’m finally getting a Patreon!  Should have done it months ago, but it should be ready by next week.

Scene 248 – Draconem

DRACONEM

LAURA

“This was not a date,” Derek said firmly as we walked down the street.

I glanced down at his arm, which I was clinging to lightly. He had offered it to me in a gentlemanly way as we left the restaurant, and I had accepted it without complaint.

“Not that I care,” I admitted. “But a candlelit dinner at a restaurant with waiters is a date. Even you must know that. You even paid for me. I can pull up a definition for you, but I really don’t see how this is difficult to comprehend.”

“First, it was a thank-you for everything you’ve been doing decently.”

“A thank-you date.”

“Second, I didn’t realize there would be candles. Or wine. Or music. I just heard there was good food, and thought it would be nice to bring someone with me. Killing two birds with one stone.”

I smiled at the unintentional pun. “Well, I suppose being accidentally romantic is better than the opposite. Then again, you’ve always been unintentionally charming.” I felt the smile slide off my face. “This isn’t… you’re not still—”

“No,” he snapped a little too sharply. He took a deep breath. “No,” he repeated, softer this time. “I know this could have been a date. I’m still getting headaches, but they’re not as bad or as frequent. I just don’t want you to think I’m leading you on.”

I resisted the urge to make a comment about the fact that, with my hand in his arm, he pretty much literally was leading me on. “It’s all right. I was mostly teasing. And you were right—the food was very good.”

He grumbled something that sounded almost like agreement.

We walked in silence for a few more blocks, enjoying the cold night air and the simple joy of watching our breath mist out in front of us. More than a few of the vampires and other night-goers recognized us, and gave us quick and friendly nods as we passed them on the street.

It was November 25th, a Sunday, already three weeks after the MEE, and the city was slowly returning to something like normal. The streets were filled with people again, even if they were a bit sparse at this particular hour, and powers were being integrated into society slowly but surely.

The counter-song devices Clarke and I had made were selling well, though they weren’t used quite as much as I thought. I expected people to leave them on at all times for protection, at least in shops. Turned out that people preferred to have their own abilities active rather than to have those of potential enemies deactivated.

There were still a few dozen cases of people using powers for crimes that popped up every day, but that was unavoidable, and Butler’s CS Squad was containing them quite well. Clarke and I—well, mostly Clarke—were coming up with new and improved uses of the toy maker every day. His flesh morphing ability had proven a bottomless font of knowledge.

All in all, things were far from perfect, but they were as close as they ever got in Domina.

So I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Elizabeth was still alive, still out there. Silk had said she dropped her in a volcano, but we didn’t know how long that would hold her, and when she came back she’d be pissed. She wouldn’t be able to turn the entire city into screamers again, but she was far from harmless. She could recruit more Blackguards, I was pretty sure. Even if she couldn’t, an immortal—

“You all right there?” Derek asked with a small smile. Not one of his heart-stopping ones that had earned him affection from every girl he ever met, just a little one to remind me he cared. “You’ve been quiet for a while now.”

“Just thinking,” I admitted. “Trying to figure out where to go next.”

“Well, there’s an ice cream shop up ahead.”

“I meant more broadly. Goals for the future.” I paused for a moment, considering. “I know Akane is doing quite well with those kensei of hers. What about you? You planning to recruit and soldiers of your own?”

“Technically, the kensei are my soldiers,” he said with a grin. “I’ve been using them on some monster hunts, and that’s been going pretty well. Might even start sending them off on their own soon.”

I looked at him sideways. “Really?” I had no complaints, but he had a well-deserved reputation for refusing to let anyone do anything mildly dangerous without his direct supervision. Akane complained about it quite a bit, on the rare occasions she decided to talk around me. She was quiet around everyone, but more so around me, and I still didn’t know why.

“They’re a good bunch,” he admitted with a shrug. “And Akane is training them well. Plus, there are about a dozen of them now. There are just too many of them for me to oversee personally at this point.”

I still had a feeling he was less happy about that than he was pretending, but I was at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Well, good. You can’t protect everyone, despite your best efforts, and I don’t want you to feel like you have—”

“Hey, what’s that over there?” he said with a frown.

Annoyed, I followed his gaze, barely in time to see a dark shape dart down an alley and out of sight.

No.”

He ignored me, stepping forward. “C’mon, I want to see what it is.”

I held him back with a hand on his arm. “I do too, but we are not walking into an obvious ambush. You know better than that.”

He tugged, dragging me along behind him. “There’s something about this I can’t put my finger on. Something about the man. His skin, maybe? C’mon, we’ll be careful, but we need to see this.”

I fruitlessly tried to restrain him. “Be careful by not going.”

More ignoring me. It wasn’t too long before we were at the mouth of the alley, trying and failing to penetrate the darkness with nothing but our baseline eyes. I thought for a moment, then pulled out my phone and turned on the light, illuminating the corridor.

The shadow was waiting for us.

It was as tall as an ogre, seven or eight feet and change, but covered in thick bronze scales, almost like a croc or gator, but with a shiny metallic sheen and interlocking together more smoothly than those of the order crocodilia. Indeed, I nearly mistook him for an alligator at first, with his long, smooth snout with only a few teeth poking out. But his large ear-frills and the webbed spines edging along his vertebrae told another story. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t a standard alligator or crocodile kemo.

A thick, strong tail, also lined with the same webbed spines that worked their way down his back, thrashed on the ground, drawing attention to his massive feet, strong and broad like a lizard and clawed like a dinosaur.

Then he spread his wings.

Just once, a short flap of agitation, but it was enough to see that they were some ten feet wide, webs of membrane supported by two long, thin arm-like limbs, with the membrane itself stretching from his shoulders down to his rear. He folded them away carefully, not quite managing to hide them behind his massive bulk, but doing a good job of trying. I doubted they would provide lift for anything of his size, but that was a problem with his weight, not the wings themselves. They were, without a doubt, fully and perfectly functional. If they were on my back, I would be able to keep up with Robyn in the air.

This creature, whatever he was, was a monster that even the toy box would have difficulty creating. Either another box had been stolen when I wasn’t looking, or he had some power that made such things far easier.

“Knight Derek,” he rumbled, his voice surprisingly low and refined. Not at all like the gravelly gargle most kemo anthros possessed. “Dame Laura. A pleasure to meet you both. Apologies for ambushing you like this. But your secretary has been blocking my calls.”

My face remained calm, but the light from my phone shook slightly. “The pleasure is ours.”

Derek, being Derek, managed to seize on the least important scrap of information in the world. “Secretary? What secretary?”

I sighed. “Not all speedsters are warriors. One of the kensei is a terrible swordsman, but a wonderful assistant. I’ve been using him as a secretary. He’s quite useful, most of the time.” And it was better than letting Derek answer his own phone. He tended to jump at any call for help.

“And Akane allowed this?”

“It was her idea.”

Derek frowned, but turned back to our… friend… and bowed slightly. “I apologize for the difficulty. But due to that, I am afraid you have us at a disadvantage. You know us, but we do not know you. To be honest, I am not even certain of your culture.”

The creature bowed in turn. “And I apologize as well. I am Chronepsis, the Silent, sixth child of Io, the Concordant Dragon, and warlord of the Dispassionate Watchers. I am a dragon. Second of my kind.”

“Chronepsis?” I asked, puzzled. Derek was puzzled for a different reason, of course—he never paid enough attention to politics; he rarely recognized warlords he hadn’t fought or worked for. “I was under the impression that you and your father were not on speaking terms.”

“I made an exception. When he called from his deathbed.”

“Ah.” That certainly explained why he had been more active recently, then. Some sort of last wish from his father. Such things were common. I definitely hadn’t heard about him making such extensive modifications, though. Last I checked, the sixth child of Io was completely baseline. Had he made such major changes in just the last three weeks? “I am sorry for the loss of your father, Honored Wyrm. What may I do for you?”

The dragon smiled in that strange manner of anthros without proper lips. It is difficult to explain, but they manage it well enough. “Ah, you have heard. Of my attempts to build my father’s dream. A culture, a true culture, not just a tiny little kemo clan.”

I nodded, ignoring the look of befuddlement Derek was giving me. “As I understand, you are having some trouble with your siblings. Bahamut and Tiamat are still at war, and the others have been taking sides.”

The newborn warlord started ticking names off on his fingers. “Aasterinian, Hlal, and Tamara fight with Bahamut. Astilabor, Garyx, and Falazure have taken Tiamat’s side. Thankfully, Lendys has joined me in neutrality. But he has never been the most powerful of my siblings.”

I struggled to remember the various colors assigned to each sibling. Io had always been a very well-known warlord among the laces, and his massive family wasn’t exactly a secret, but it was still hard to recall exactly what names and titles went with which personality. “So… they’re split by color, then? The metallics—minus you—side with the Platinum Dragon, and the chromatics are working with the Chromatic Dragon, not counting the Balancer. Is that right?”

“Correct,” he rumbled.

Derek crossed his arms over his chest. “And now… you want our help to sort everything out? To unite your feuding family under your banner?”

“Not in the way that you think. I do not wish to lead them. I do not wish to control them. I wish only to watch.” He spread his clawed hands wide. “But my father has given me a task. I must see it done. The dragons must become a culture. My siblings must take up our father’s mantle.”

Realization dawned. “You want us to talk to Butler for you, to talk to him about signing you in as an official culture, with all the associated rights and responsibilities. You really think that will work?”

“Correct,” he rumbled, stretching his wings briefly again.

“Need I remind you that the last time a culture was officially recognized, they turned around and declared a weird crusade thing on the city days later,” Derek pointed out, his gaze strong and unwavering. “And they’ve been suspiciously quiet ever since. What proof do we have that the dragons will not go the same way as the fey?”

“The fey are insane.” He didn’t elaborate.

In fairness, it actually was a pretty compelling argument all on its own.

“Still,” I said, pushing past the many questions I had. “What proof do you have that this will even work? Even if the dragons become a real culture, what proof do you have that your siblings won’t just ignore you and continue fighting?”

“We will wait,” he explained, webbed spines ruffling. “I will sign. Lendys will sign. And there will be eight other lines waiting for my siblings. They will come. They will sign. Their pride will not let it stand unanswered.”

“I’m still not sure they’ll care. Necessarius isn’t in the best of shape these days.” Failing to prevent the MEE made Butler look weak. There had even been a couple failed votes to oust him. His reputation was recovering, but slowly.

“You underestimate yourselves.”

I frowned. “What?”

Now it was Derek’s turn to nod in understanding while I was confused. “Ah, yes, I see. You don’t want us to just go to Butler, you want us to actually witness the signing. Along with the rest of the Paladins as well, I take it.”

“Correct.”

Finally, I understood. “That will give a legitimacy to your culture that Butler alone could never manage. I’d be very surprised if any of them could stay back for long. I’d give it a month, maybe less, before they’ve all signed.”

“It will not be quite that easy,” Chronepsis warned. “My siblings are eclectic. Tiamat hates following. Falazure does not enjoy interacting with others. Tamara dislikes Necessarius. But this has a better chance of working than waiting.”

“Quite right,” I said with a sad smile. “When did you want to do this? Tomorrow? Friday might be better, though I understand if you don’t want to wait that long.”

The massive warlord remained silent.

Realization dawned. “We are not doing it now,” I insisted, forgetting for a moment that this creature was big and strong enough to crush me like a pea and not even notice. “For about a million reasons and more.”

“It’s not like we’re busy right now,” Derek said mildly.

I rolled my eyes. “We might have been once we got back, if you hadn’t just screwed up.” He frowned, trying to parse what I had said, before I turned back to the dragon. “Even ignoring the Paragon here being thick-headed, it’s already late. Butler is likely asleep, and waking him is a bad idea. You’ll probably also want this recorded for the news, and I’m sure most of the non-vampires are in bed.”

“Eliza Cassan has an insomniac gland.”

That explained a lot. “She’s still off work. And most of the vampire newscasters aren’t on work yet. You just picked a bad time for this.” I reached out to touch his scaled arm with a hand that trembled only slightly. His scales were mildly cold, and felt like metal. Or maybe it was just a trick of perception? “Just wait until tomorrow. We can do this in the morning.”

There was a long pause.

“Very well,” the wyrm rumbled. He retreated farther into the shadows, beyond where my light could reach. “I will be at Zero Forge at 0700 tomorrow morning. Bring Butler and the rest of the Paladins. Do not be late.”

Then he was gone, and only the sound of flapping wings marked his exit.

Derek gave me a pained look. “…maybe we should have checked with Butler first?”

I winced as well. “Too late now.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 248)

I initially had a previous scene with Chronepsis actually at Io’s death bed, but it added very little, so I removed it.