Monthly Archives: March 2016

Scene 260 – Oppugnatio

OPPUGNATIO

ADAM

It was Thursday night, shortly after dusk. November 29th. Why did that feel important?

“So we’re raiding the domain of a bunch of drugged-up vampires,” I said.

Laura didn’t even look at me. “The slaves aren’t the problem. The nightstalkers, the ones who still have their minds, are the issue.”

“But they’re not as strong as the sclavi,” Kelly said as she strode up to the edge of the roof next to us. She observed the skyscraper across the street with a critical eye. Phlegethos was the opposite of the angel domains in a lot of ways; while the Heavens were covered in light reflected and refracted a million times over, the Black Crypt was completely, utterly dark. Even at this distance, I couldn’t use my phone; the vampires had a ‘dark zone’ set up, which was sort of a specialized EMP field for taking out lights. It just had an annoying habit of killing most other electronics as well.

Even without the conspicuous darkness, the vampire domain would still be easy to spot. Two buildings next to each other were joined by walkways and paths. The walls were lined with spikes and blades, which I suspected were sharp enough to cut any kemo stupid enough to try to climb them. There were a few outcroppings here and there, manned by turrets that slowly scanned the area. Even the glass was black and bulletproof.

“I have ways of neutralizing the sclavi,” Kelly said, apparently unconcerned with the view before us. “But I’m not sure if it will work more than once or twice, so I’ll save it for an emergency. In the meantime, aim for the leaders, and the rest will scatter.”

“We still need to get in. Unless you’re suggesting walking in the front door?”

The ex-Belian shrugged. “They wouldn’t expect it, that’s for sure. But we need a better plan.”

“Roof?” Derek suggested. He nodded at Kat and Robyn. “We’ve got two fliers.”

“I can’t carry more than two people,” Robyn said.

“And Kat can’t carry anyone,” Laura said. “We can’t have Robyn make three trips; we’ll be spotted.” She frowned, then shook her head. “But it’s still a good idea. Robyn, go high. Really high. See what the security looks like on the roof.”

Robyn nodded and shot off like an arrow from a bow, likely more than happy to have a mission that didn’t involve getting in firing range of anyone. In a moment, she was out of sight, disappeared into the night sky.

“I still feel like we should have done this during the day,” I said. “Night gives them too many advantages.”

“We got here as fast as we could,” Laura said, still not looking at me. “Considering how clingy Ishtar was and how far Phlegethos is from Jealous Heart, we were lucky. We’re not waiting until tomorrow.”

“She’s always been clingy,” Kelly said. “The drugs aren’t helping.”

Kelly hadn’t gone into Jealous Heart with us. Considering how bad her ex-girlfriend was, I really couldn’t blame her. Ishtar was nice, even friendly, but she was still a Belian, and still crazy. Not fey crazy, but pretty out there.

I was getting distracted. We had more important things to worry about.

Derek’s phone beeped. He flipped it open and turned it to speaker mode. “Robyn?”

“I’m here,” her voice sounded out of the speaker. “The roof isn’t too heavily guarded, but I’d prefer not to test it. Three nightstalkers, all clear-headed, as far as I can tell. We wouldn’t be able to get them all before they called for backup.”

“Well that’s out,” I said. “Are there any sewers?”

“None big enough to crawl in through,” MC said, cutting into the conversation without missing a beat.

I sighed. “Of course not. Well, maybe a frontal assault is our only option. “Flynn—” He turned away from Phlegethos, then frowned. “Wait, where’s Flynn? Wasn’t he with us a minute ago?”

“I sent him back to NHQ to watch over the kensei,” Akane said without blinking.

I sighed again. Losing one of our main heavy-hitters was going to make this more difficult than it needed to be. “Okay, fine, whatever. Uh, then Akane, you’ll be on point, Derek you’re a bit behind, then the rest of us will take the rear, with Robyn and Laura staying out of it—”

“You’re missing something important,” Laura interrupted. “MC, any chance you have a list of the powers the Belians might have at their command? The slaves aren’t as important; focus on the nightstalkers.”

“Sorry, but they weren’t exactly interested in registering with Necessarius.”

“Great.”

“Vampires tend to gravitate towards powers of darkness and blood, though, if that helps.”

“A little,” Laura admitted. “Though it would probably help more if we had an angel.”

“I can go find one,” Robyn said through Derek’s phone. “That Adele Lucifer, maybe?”

“No, she’s busy.”

Everyone’s busy,” I said. “Including us. We shouldn’t be here.”

Kelly glared at me. “Are you saying we should abandon friends to slavers?”

“No, I’m saying we should try to buy them back the ‘sarian way.”

But she shook her head. “Won’t work. If they were grabbed at random, maybe, but we’re pretty sure that they were targeted specifically. Calling and offering money will just make them accelerate their plans.”

“Why can’t anything be easy?” I shook my head. “I swear, things were simpler when the whole damn city was screaming.”

“A graveyard is simple too,” Kelly said. “That doesn’t mean you should make more of them.” She sighed. “But in this case, I think ‘simple’ might be our only option. There are no secret side entrances or anything, no other way into the domain besides the roof and the front door.”

Kat signed something.

“That still requires that Miss Clarke kill two guards as fast as possible,” Kelly reminded her. “You’re not going to be able to take out more than one before they call for help. Not an option.”

“Robyn could carry me up there, then Kat snipes one while I get the other two,” I said.

“Better,” Laura cut in before Kelly could speak. “But it still has problems. The roof is likely covered in cameras, and no one can get close enough to drop a transceiver on one before being seen.”

“If we go in from above—”

“You’ll have to start from high above. Do you have some kind of gas mask?”

MC snorted, a strange sound to hear from a phone. “We can get him a damn gas mask, no problem. The cameras, though… I think some of them are pointing up. I’m not sure that there’s any angle of approach where you won’t be spotted.”

“The roof is still a better option,” I said. “Even if reinforcements come.”

“Adam,” Derek said firmly. “Most of us can’t fly. You want to be trapped on a roof with no way out but a sheer drop to the pavement?”

“No, he has a point,” Laura murmured, half to herself. “It’s not designed to withstand any kind of siege; it’s out of reach of all other buildings, and they wouldn’t have had time to revamp it, even if they realized that fliers could come in that way.”

I tried not to look smug.

Apparently it didn’t work. “Wipe that grin off your face,” Kelly snapped. “This plan should work, but it’s still Plan B. Plan A is getting in undetected. Miss Clarke. Do you see any angle where you can get next to a camera and drop a node on it?”

“Uh… maybe. I think the north—”

I heard the metallic click of a gun behind us.

I pulled out my Sica as fast as humanly possible, spinning towards the sound.

Derek, seeing my panicked reaction, immediately covered us in a glowing blue force field, an entire globe covering us from every angle. Not a second too soon, either—bullets started bouncing off it almost before he finished making it.

Vampires were stalking onto the rooftop, vampires with the vacant stares that only the heavily drugged could manage. They were still well-armed, though, and I knew better than to underestimate a couple dozen men armed with machine guns.

“How long can you hold the shield?” I muttered.

“Not long,” he whispered back. “I don’t want to dissolve the back side, in case they try to snipe us from Phlegethos.”

I looked back towards the Belian domain, and realized he was right. If they had found us here, they could have already called the men on the rooftop and requested support. Give one of them a sniper rifle—or even a basic infantry rifle with a decent scope—and we were screwed.

Then another Belian strode onto the roof.

This one clearly wasn’t drugged—at least not to the extent of the slaves. Her black eyes were clear, her stride straight and strong. She walked right up to Derek’s shield, and smiled as she traced the force field with a long black talon.

“A bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”

Derek was visibly sweating. “No.”

“Hm. Of course. Derek Huntsman, I presume?” The girl smiled, baring sharp fangs. “The first Paladin, the first Paragon, first in the fight against the evil Composer.” I wasn’t enjoying her mocking tone, but she just chuckled at our annoyance. “You all think you’re so clever. As if the rest of us don’t know how to deal with powers now.”

“Akane,” Derek hissed.

The shield blinked briefly, just long enough for his bodyguard to run out at superspeed, slashing at the Belian with a knife.

Next thing I knew, she was slammed against the wall on the other side of the roof. A moment later, she fell to the ground, leaving behind a massive crack in the concrete wall. She didn’t move.

That was a clever trick,” the nightstalker said in a patronizing tone. “Very clever indeed. Even without a sword, the kenkami is dangerous enough that I’m sure there are very few people in the city who would survive. Even with my superspeed and judo training, it was very difficult.” She grinned again. “Thanks for that warning.”

I closed my eyes. Dammit, Derek.

“Well, I think it’s past time to take you all in, don’t you think?” the woman continued. “After all, your friends are already inside. The angel and the changeling, that is.” Her eyes twinkled like black stars. “We expected you ages ago.”

“That’s why you took them?” Laura asked thickly. “Bait?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The vampire shrugged. “How should I know? I just follow orders.”

Derek swallowed. “If I drop the shield, do I have your word that no one will be harmed?”

Derek,” Laura hissed.

He ignored her. “Well?”

The Belian placed her hand on her chest. “On my honor, you will all be escorted to Phlegethos safely.”

Derek nodded slowly. “Adam, everyone, drop your guns.”

I stared at him. “You can’t—”

Drop it.”

Gritting my teeth, I slowly did as ordered. I heard a clatter as the others did the same.

The shield faded a moment later.

“Excellent,” the woman said. She clapped her hands, and the slaves moved forward to surround us more totally. “We’ll have to keep the guns pointed at you the whole time; security precaution, I’m sure you understand. We—” She frowned. “What’s she doing?”

We all turned—

Laura was the one who figured it out first. “No, don’t—”

With a scream, Kelly ripped the device off her arm, the needles taking a significant amount of her skin with them. What was left behind was little more than a bloody, ruined mess, with white bone showing through in places.

One of the slaves bashed her over the head with a rifle. She fell like a sack of potatoes.

“Idiot,” our captor muttered. “Come. The Nobles will wish to speak with you all.”

Behind the scenes (scene 260)

It’s hard to describe exactly what is wrong with the Belian sclavi. They’re not robots, and they’re not zombies; they retain their minds, in theory, and can take action on their own initiative. But they’re barely aware of their surroundings, and extremely susceptible to orders according to their programming.

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Scene 259 – Reppertum

REPPERTUM

ROBYN JOAN

I was perched at the edge of a rooftop, looking down at a much shorter building down below. The one I was on was some random business, a software firm like dozens of others in this part of the city.

The building below us tried to pretend to be the same, but from our angle, it was easy to see the truth. Most of the satellite dishes on the ceiling were fake, as was everything within sight of the windows. People pretended to work, but they were just a cover for whatever was going on inside.

“Are you sure this is a Belian outpost?” I asked. “The workers don’t look drugged.”

“I’m sure,” Fimmtu, at my side, said. “They might like using addiction to ‘recruit’ people, but they know that a chain comprised of nothing but drugged-up idiots is a pretty stupid chain. For operations like this, they use clearer heads.”

I peered through the small high-tech telescope my father had given me for my last birthday. It was the same kind the asteroid miners used. Dad had imported it from Ceres, probably at some horrific expense. I didn’t want to think about it. The point was, the thing worked perfectly, letting me zoom in close enough to see their faces.

“They don’t have nighteyes,” I said. Most appeared baseline, but there were a few kemos and such scattered around as well. There was even at least one full angel. A Jegudiel, if I was reading the tattoos right. “Passers, or just not vampires?”

“A few passers, I’m sure,” Fimmtu said. “But the majority don’t know what’s going on.”

I put the scope down and turned to him with a frown. “I thought you said this whole operation was a fake. Are you telling me the people in there actually think they’re working for a software company?”

“They are,” he said. “And that fact makes them an excellent front for the vampires hiding inside.” He looked me in the eye, which was always a disconcerting experience, considering his big bird eye. “Don’t underestimate the Belians, Honored Magister. Not all chems enhance the physical at the expense of the mental.”

Mentats, that sort of thing. Yeah, I knew the Nobles and other high-ranking Belians were using those. I just hadn’t really thought very hard on the implications. I knew mentats had side effects, but couldn’t recall what they were at the moment.

I shook my head. Not important. “It’s just the outer ring of the building that’s real, right? Nothing past those doors that say ‘authorized personnel only.’” They were locked with digital handles; not actually that difficult to hack, but harder than using a standard electronic lockpick.

“Correct,” the ave said. He pointed a talon at the roof. “There’s only one camera up top, pointed at the door down. If we can hack that, we can get inside. If we’re really lucky, we can hack the rest through it.”

“I doubt we’ll be that lucky,” I muttered. “Remind me again how you found this place.”

“Followed a nightstalker who wasn’t paying enough attention.”

Flight did make that sort of thing easier. I still wasn’t sure this wasn’t a trap, but it wasn’t like I had much choice. What else could I do, just go home and twiddle my thumbs while friends were being tortured or worse?

It was tempting. It was far, far too tempting. But Silk said that confronting your fears was important. That you needed to look at the emotion calmly and objectively, and see whether or not you should be afraid, and what to do about it.

This was not a time to be afraid. I was just looking for excuses.

“Let’s go,” I said, stepping off the roof.

I floated down carefully, heading straight for the small half-floor that contained just one room and the stairs down. It was probably a security center as well; I landed as quietly as possible. Fimmtu landed a bit louder with a rush of wings a moment later, but still not too bad.

He held up a talon, indicating silence, and pointed to the camera at the edge. It was pointed down and away from us, as expected, keeping an eye on the door to the stairs, the single weak point in this fortress.

“How are your hacking skills?” the anthro whispered in my ear.

“Horrible,” I said. “But we’ll be fine.” I slipped a wireless transmitter onto the camera case and switched it on. The air was filled with the scent of burning plastic, and then it was in, attached to the wires inside.

I pulled out my phone. It had been on this entire time, so that she could listen and actually understand what was going on. “MC? You got it?”

“Yeah,” she answered instantly. “Already set up a loop. Got every camera in the building I could, but the ones on the interior must be on a different system. I can’t find any trace of them anywhere.”

Of course. “Just get us inside, we’ll handle the rest.”

“Both of you? One will be easier.”

I thought for a moment. If I sent Fimmtu in, I could stay out here where it was safe…

No. That wouldn’t work. He was too obvious. Aves in general were an oddity after Soaring Eagle fled, and an ave anthro would stick out like a sore thumb. He couldn’t go in, with or without me.

I took a deep breath, then another. “I’ll do it.”

There was a slight pause on the other end, but when she spoke, there was no sign of surprise. “Good. Follow my instructions exactly. First, drop down and open the door. Quietly. There’s a guard, he’s just facing the other way right now.”

I nodded to myself, then turned to Fimmtu. “Keep watch. If something goes wrong, MC will call you. Other than that, stay safe.”

“And you as well.”

I dropped down.

The door wasn’t even locked; someone had held it open an inch with a rubber doorstop. Maybe he was planning on going out for a smoke or something, or maybe he was just an idiot in general.

The room was, as expected, a security room, with banks of computer monitors showing everything in the building. Why they had it up here instead of somewhere more defensible, I’d never know.

The guard himself was watching the monitors—in theory. He had earbuds in, and seemed to be reading a book on his pad. I didn’t stick around to see if he was going to turn and look back any time soon; I just headed straight down the stairs, clipping my own earbud on as I did.

“Stop!” MC hissed right as I was about to round a corner. “Hide!”

I didn’t stop to question. I slipped my phone in my pocket and backtracked, slipping under the cover of the stairs as a few baseline women passed. The one with the green hair seemed familiar… she looked a little like that Dagonite friend of Seena’s.

“Clear,” my half-sister said after a moment. I could barely hear her over my pounding heart.

She led me down the hallways, past more than a few doors that led into the interior. The problem was that these doors were mostly in full view of more than one cubicle. They’d notice the wi-fi transmitter before too long.

Finally, after going three floors down, we found a door that seemed like it would work. It was also in view of a cubicle, but this one was clearly unoccupied, with even the computer removed weeks ago, judging by the dust buildup.

I moved to the door, which didn’t even have a handle. It just had a small steel keypad, with no visible screws or anything else to make it easy to pop off, get to the wires, and reprogram. Not to mention that if I did find a way to pop it off, there was probably an alarm.

I paused before I put the transmitter on.

“Robyn?” MC whispered. “What’s wrong? I don’t see anyone nearby.”

“Is this going to set off an alarm? They have sensors, right?”

There was a pause.

“One second.”

I could almost hear her frantically typing on a keyboard, trying to find the answer before she got me captured by the kind of people who liked to pump their captives full of enough drugs to pickle a rhino.

“I need you to look at the bottom edge of the pad,” she said suddenly. “For a serial number.”

I felt under there with my fingers, and did indeed find something. I looked down and saw it inscribed in tiny script. “You ready? H-Z-U-eight-zero-one-zero-nine-four-two-one-three-two-five-seven-nine-zero-zero-eight-seven-six.”

There was a long pause.

“You’re sure about that? Absolutely sure?”

“Yeah. You want me to snap a picture?”

“No, no, I’ve found the model and everything, it’s just… nothing. Just a bit surprised because… nothing. Anyway, I’ve looked up the specs for that lock type, and it’s fine. There’s no alarm.”

Confused as to her reaction, but not having any better ideas, I put the small transceiver on the lock. It melted through with an acrid smell, and then a moment later the door beeped and popped open.

Beyond were dark hallways.

“MC?” I whispered.

“I’m here,” she said instantly. “Let me guess, you need night vision goggles?”

“No, I have those.” I wasn’t an idiot. I knew a secret vampire outpost wasn’t going to have convenient nightlights illuminating the place in red half-light. I slipped the goggles over my head, and suddenly the place was bright and well-lit. These were the type that worked the same way as vampire nighteyes, so they just made everything brighter rather than tinged green. “What I need is for you to tell me where to plug you in.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t have any schematics of the interior, but if you can find a camera without being seen, I can access the system through there.”

Easier said than done. A quick glance around told me that there were cameras pointed everywhere but the door itself; likely to keep them from being blinded every time the door opened. I had a flashlight, but blinding the cameras would just alert the security guards I was here.

There… might be an angle where I could sneak by, but I wasn’t sure how wide a field of view the cameras had. I had to get into the corner, close enough to reach up and plant the bug. On the ground, it was impossible.

Good thing I could fly.

I floated up slowly, until my back was against the ceiling. Then, I slowly, ever so slowly, slid forward, towards the closest camera, which was pointed down at the ground. I wasn’t worried about my reservoir. It was deep enough to keep this up for days.

Finally, after what felt like hours but was probably no more than a couple minutes, I was within reach of the camera. I slipped my hand into my pocket, grabbed the small transponder, carefully pulled it out so that I didn’t drop it, and—

A door slammed.

I almost fell off the ceiling.

“Any luck?” a female voice asked.

“None,” a male responded. “I don’t think this is working.”

“You need to try another tactic. Don’t always attack head on.”

Were they talking about questioning prisoners? Maybe I should follow them…

The man laughed. “This from you? You’re not exactly subtle either.”

“True, but at least I know I should be subtle.”

They were underneath me now. Two vampires, no obvious toys besides the eyes and fangs. If I looked closer I would probably be able to see signs of drug use, but I honestly didn’t even know what to look for.

I should follow them. I slid along the ceiling—

“I’m not even sure he’s gay.”

“He hasn’t said he isn’t.”

“He might just be polite.”

I let the pair pass, staying close to my chosen camera instead, and resolved to ignore their babbling. Once I was sure they were gone, I returned to my original task and carefully placed the transceiver on it.

Some burning later, and then MC’s voice was in my ear. “I’m in. There’s… wow, there’s a lot of cameras on this system.”

“Your bunker has roughly one camera per square foot.”

“I said they had a lot of cameras. Not enough cameras. And they’re not organized very well. They can’t talk to each other, just the security office, and even that’s one way.” There was a pause, likely caused by her sorting through the data. “Okay, got it. Mentats make people paranoid, but the wrong kind of paranoid. This system is weird, but not too difficult.”

“Does that mean I can get off the ceiling now?”

“What? Oh, I wondered where you were. Yeah, sure.”

I floated down to the floor like a feather and adjusted the bulky goggles over my eyes. “Which way do I go?”

“I’m not seeing any prisoners anywhere… or holding cells for that matter.” A short pause. “That part might be on another system. How many more of those transceivers do you have left? Please tell me you grabbed the whole pack.”

The transceivers came in packs of a dozen. “No. I just grabbed a handful. Five.”

“Two left, huh? Okay, we’ll have to do this another way. Head straight ahead. I’m looping the feed for the cameras you’re on, so you’re invisible and all that. Just be ready to hide if I tell you, okay?”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve worked together,” I chided her. “I know how it works, sis.”

“Yeah, yeah… okay, at the end of the corridor, turn right—”

“The corridor only turns right.”

“Well, yes, I know, I meant just—okay, good, like that. Now the security center is the third door on your right.” I strode forward and opened the door in question. “Just be careful, there’s no camera in there, so—”

“Crap,” I muttered.

The lone security guard turned around with a frown as the door squeaked open. “Did you idiots lose your keys again—” He jumped up when he saw me. My goggles were a dead giveaway that I didn’t belong. “Bleeding night—how’d you get in here!?” He reached for his radio.

I flew across the room as fast as I could, tackling the poor drake bodily into the monitors, which sparked as they broke and shattered. He gave a grunt of pain, but grinned with sharp fangs and kept a strong grip on my arm.

“Sorry, baseline,” he hissed. “You’re not the only one with a power.”

Electricity played over his fingers, and he reached out to grab me.

I flew up—too fast. I hit my head on the ceiling, but it worked. I dodged his grab. Before he could grab me again or call on his radio, I slammed down with all the speed I could muster, pounding him into the ground.

He must have hit his head on something, because he didn’t move when I got off him.

I… didn’t kill him, right? I couldn’t check. I couldn’t bring myself to check.

“Robyn?” MC hissed in my ear. “You all right? ROBYN!”

“I’m… I’m fine,” I managed. “Just had a run-in with…” Urp.

I ran over to the trash can in the corner and threw up.

After a few minutes of heaving my cheap breakfast up, I was finally able to settle down. MC was yelling at me the whole time, which didn’t help. “ROBYN! Should I call Artemis, or your dad? Robyn, answer me!”

“I’m fine,” I finally said. “Seriously, just… a little sick.”

She paused for a moment, but knew better than to dwell on something I didn’t want to discuss. “Okay. You need to plug that wi-fi transceiver into the mainframe. It’s probably below the desk or something.”

Wiping off my mouth, I searched around for the computer box. “I think this is it. But it’s inside a safe.”

“Electronic?”

I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see me. “Analog.”

“Shit. Uh, maybe… one second, let me think about this.”

I frowned. “Wait. It can’t be completely contained, right?”

“Uh, yeah. There are probably wires coming out the back or something. But you can’t put the transceiver on the wires. It won’t work. It needs an actual connection to the computer itself. And that little thing doesn’t have near enough thermite to burn through a safe.”

“What about two—”

“Still no.”

I peered at the dial. “What about the lock itself?”

There was a pause. “…that might work,” she said slowly. “But it’s a big might. And since the dial itself isn’t magnetic, you’ll have to hold the transceiver up to it as it burns. You might lose a finger.”

“Then Dad will just have to grow me a new one,” I muttered, trying not to think about how much it would hurt in the meantime. I crawled back to the front, dug out one of the little devices, and placed it on the dial. “Ready.”

“Go.”

I pressed the button, and held onto the little antennae to hold it in place while the thermite burned. It was far, far too hot, and the vaporized plastic washed over my hand and briefly stung like acid, but after a moment it was over. The thermite was gone, and my fingers were all in place.

I tugged on the safe. No luck.

“I’ve disengaged the magnet remotely,” MC said in my ear. “Pull it out and try the next.”

I did so, discarding the twisted transceiver covered in still-cooling molten plastic, and replaced it with the fresh one, then clicked it on as well. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to do if—

The transceiver fell inside the safe with a dull clang.

“Well, I guess that worked,” I muttered. I reached inside the broken lock and pulled at the lever, causing the door to swing open and reveal the beeping computer inside. Finally. Now all I had to do was place the transceiver—

“MC,” I said with as much calm as I could muster. “I’m now out of wi-fi transponders. How am I supposed to connect you to the mainframe?”

“Uh… grab the second one you used to burn through.”

I did as she asked.

“The thermite’s gone, but you can still use the actual transceiver. You just need to pop the case off the mainframe, and put it on something that looks important. The motherboard would be best, but even the video or sound cards would work.”

I frowned at the computer. “I need a screwdriver.”

My sister sighed over the earpiece. “Of course you do. Well, this is a security center. There should be something somewhere.”

Thankfully, it only took about five minutes to find a small maintenance kit in one of the drawers, including a convenient screwdriver. Ten more minutes later, and I got the face of the computer off, and placed the scorched transceiver on a big circuit board.

“Anything?” I asked.

“Give me a second…” she said, distracted.

My phone rang.

I pulled it out of my pocket, staring at the caller ID. “Who’s Drakela Sanguinas?”

“Corporal Sanguinas,” MC said. “Kelly, with the retinue. Should probably answer.”

Oh, her. I flipped the phone open and put it to my ear. “Hello, Kelly.”

“Miss Clarke,” she said, her tone clipped. “Have you had any luck with the search?”

“You told me to stop.”

“And if I expected you to actually listen to me, I wouldn’t have. Any luck?”

I sighed. “MC’s in the mainframe of a Belian outpost right now. Might find something.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” the vampire said. “Belians are paranoid. Good at compartmentalizing.”

“Eh.” I shrugged. “Any more luck on your end?”

“We spoke to the Dragon. He recommended checking Jealous Heart.”

I had no idea what that was. “And?”

“And the Paladins and George and Kat are in there right now, trying to get Ishtar to give up something useful. I don’t have much confidence in their success. Her domain isn’t called Jealous Heart for her generosity.”

“Wait, you’re not in there with them?”

“Ishtar and I… know each other. And we parted on bad terms last time. It’s better this way.”

“Got something,” MC said through my phone—presumably so that the vampire could hear. “Kelly, I need some quick help on Belian lingo. Strălucire refers to an angel, right? And tron means Phlegethos.”

“Yeah, that’s right. But you can’t mean that they’re taking Alex to Phlegethos. That just doesn’t make any sense.”

“That’s what I’m reading here,” she insisted. “Apparently they were in the outpost for a little while, and then got shipped off to Northwest Middle. They should be there by now, depending on traffic.”

The Belians might not be the most powerful or militant culture, but Phlegethos would still be a fortress. It was going to take time to find a way to infiltrate it. I turned to go, checking to make sure that the guard was unconscious—and just unconscious—as I did. “MC, I’m gonna meet up with the Paladins and the rest of the retinue. Self-destruct the transceivers once I’m out.”

“Agreed. I’ll send you a GPS to Jealous Heart.”

“We can make do just fine without her,” Kelly said.

“Maybe,” MC said. “But there’s something else that they called Alex.”

I could hear the confusion in the vampire’s voice. “What? What’s they call him?”

Momeală.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

It was Kelly who answered.

Bait.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 259)

Rambled a bit on this one, but it came out well enough.

Scene 258 – Draco

DRACO

AKANE

I strode up to the office building, Flynn a half-step behind me, and nodded at the guard at the door. He stepped aside, pulling open the door next to him, and gave me a small bow without saying a word.

Inside, the walls were stripped bare, the carpets ripped out, and all the furniture removed. There was a bit of dust and dirt, but surprisingly little trash; the new inhabitants must have taken at least some time to clean up after they kicked out the ghouls who were squatting.

We passed dozens of guards, armed with machine guns and rifles and all manner of carefully lethal weaponry on display. Unlike most cultures or companies, they weren’t using a few, uniform weapons. They were all allowed to choose whatever they wished.

Speaking of which, the guards themselves were similar to the weapons they bore. While many of them just had the basic vampire package, I saw representatives of every vampire subculture. The Nosferatu and ghouls were easiest to spot, but there were also Canians in their fire jackets, Belians with their fixers on their arms, and even a few Nessians.

Eventually, we found the center of the floor, a large and open room that had likely originally been intended as a conference or breakfast room of some type. Other than a few tables and chairs, there wasn’t any more here than anywhere else.

It was occupied, of course.

“Miss Akiyama,” Kelly, the ex-Belian who led the retinue, said with a slight bow. “Thank you very much for coming.”

I bowed as well, as Adam and Flynn exchanged a quick bro-hug, with lots of back-slapping. “Of course, Corporal. Anything for a friend.”

She frowned at my waist. “Where’s your sword?”

“Right here,” Flynn grunted as he returned to my side.

Kelly glanced at the man—and the sole blade at his side—for a moment, before shrugging. “Well, if you don’t want to go buy a new one, I’m not going to make you. For now, I’d just like to introduce you to someone.” She turned to the man in the chair. “Akane Akiyama, Magister of the Kensei, I would like to introduce Dracul de Moarte, Noble of the Draculas.”

The man wasn’t anything really exceptional, for a vampire. He had the black hair and pale skin they found attractive, but other than that he didn’t look particularly monstrous. His fangs were hidden behind his lips and a small smile, his long-sleeved shirt concealed his whip-like muscles. He wasn’t even armed. All in all, he looked just like any other vampire you would run into on the street.

Except for his eyes.

Beautiful, gorgeous eyes, a rich sapphire blue, a rare and enchanting color even in the era of the toy maker. But despite their allure, their color wasn’t the most important part. Not directly, anyway.

Vampire nighteyes were pure black, something related to the pupil expanding as part of the nighteye process. Angelic dayeyes were the opposite, with the iris expanding and the pupil shrinking, resulting in an eye that seemed nothing but color.

The Dragon had both.

In a city where surgery was everyday and reshaping your entire body was only slightly more difficult, the Dragon was one of only two people who had successfully combined dayeyes and nighteyes. The Kellions had cheated by making one eye day and the other night, but this was different. This was true fusion, true synthesis, something that only the Mother Monster herself had ever managed to pull off.

Dracul had godeyes. The perfect eyes, capable of seeing in virtually any light level. From so pitch black baseline eyes would swear there was no light at all to bright enough to knock a vampire unconscious, it didn’t matter. He could see everything.

There were no shadows in his eyes. No bright spots or glare. Perfect sight.

“Honored Magister,” the Dragon said warmly. He indicated a chair that one of his men had produced—a simple cheap plastic folding chair, but no worse than the one he was sitting in. “Please, take a seat. Corporal Sanguinas has been telling me all about you.”

I sat, slowly, with Flynn taking up position behind me, and forced myself to speak. “I thought we came here to discuss business. Two of our own are missing. Alex Gabriel and Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters.”

“Skipping the formalities, I can understand that.” He waved off a waiter who had been approaching with something that looked like red wine, but almost certainly wasn’t. “The Corporal tells me she suspects that Belians were behind the kidnapping.”

“That is the working theory,” I said.

“Unfortunately, I can’t just order them to explain themselves,” the vampire said with that small smile of his. “I might be leader of all vampires in name, but it is more complicated than that.” He shrugged. “Besides, the Throne of Abriymoch has been empty ever since Belial died. It makes dealing with them harder than it has to be.”

It took me a moment to parse what he meant. “You think one of the Nobles is acting alone.”

“Or pretending to act alone,” he said. “It’s one of their favorite tricks. A minor loophole in the retribution laws. They all decide on a course of action, one of them carries it out, and pays the fees if things go sideways.” He shook his head. “Sooner or later, Butler is going to get tired and authorize a killing instead of a minor fee.”

I ignored that. “But you know where they would take captives.”

“There are a number of places—their power has waned drastically since Shendilavri, but they still shouldn’t be underestimated. Safehouses, outposts, a couple hidden fortresses… not to mention Phlegethos itself.”

“They wouldn’t take them to Phlegethos,” Kelly said. “Too dangerous. Too many secrets for them to ferret out if they escape. If they hit the pheromone slave override, then the entire Belian standing army would switch off like a light.”

That was something to keep in mind.

Dracul nodded. “I agree. Belial’s lieutenants are scared and confused, but they’re not stupid. They didn’t keep their positions these past few years by taking unnecessary risks. No.” He held out his hand, and one of his men dropped a file into it. “They’ll take them the same place Belians always take things they want kept, but forgotten.”

Kelly closed her eyes. “Blood and shadow, no.”

“You knew this was coming,” the Noble said mildly. “You don’t get to act surprised.”

“I was hoping I was wrong,” she grumbled.

Adam stepped up. “For those of us who didn’t grow up in this city…”

“I don’t understand either,” Flynn said.

“The fortress of the half-succubus,” Kelly said quietly. “The Venus-Star, the Lady of the Heavens, She of the Divine Drink.” She sighed. “It is called Jealous Heart, founded by Inanna, but is now ruled by the Noble Ishtar.”

She closed her eyes.

“My ex-girlfriend.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 258)

I actually really like this scene, but it’s even shorter than normal.

break

Scene 257 – Bellua

BELLUA

DEREK

The woman bowed low. “Greetings, Honored Paragon. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I need to speak with Maeve,” I said without preamble.

The fey slave didn’t so much as blink at my rudeness. “The Honored Princess is quite busy at the moment, sir.” She indicated one of the chairs in the frozen, ice-encrusted waiting room. “If you like, you can take a seat while I call her.”

“She has five minutes.”

She frowned. “Threats will get you nowhere, sir.”

I chuckled. “No, you misunderstand. Not five minutes until I go crazy and try to fight your entire little…” I waved my hand at the refurbished sewers. It had probably been some forgotten unused maintenance area before the fey got a hold of it. “Demesne, or whatever you’re calling it. Five minutes until I leave, and never come back.”

The receptionist frowned again, but this time in confusion, not anger. “Sir, I—”

“Just tell her,” I said.

A little hesitantly, she picked up the phone.

Four minutes later, Maeve walked through the door.

She was wearing a much more conservative dress than usual. Rather than something studded with diamonds or anything else ludicrously expensive like that, she simply had on what appeared to be a large fur coat—black, of course. She didn’t appear to be wearing anything under it, but she had it nicely buttoned up, so I didn’t make an issue of it.

“Derek Huntsman,” she said warmly. “This is a pleasant surprise. You here about my dinner with Mother last night? Because I swear, I didn’t mean it as an insult. I was just making a comment about her boyfriend’s physical—”

“The gargant,” I said sharply.

The girl arched one elegant black eyebrow. “You’re going to have to be just a little bit more specific, dearest. I, personally, have several hundred gargants running around the city right now. There’s a giant alley crawler in the sewer under your dorm, but it hasn’t eaten anyone last I checked. Is that what you mean?”

“The one running around killing outsiders.”

For just a brief moment, her friendly, flighty mask slipped.

Then it was back, and she turned to the receptionist. “Please hold my calls. The Paragon and I have things to discuss.” She turned back to me, and indicated the exit. “Please, walk with me.”

Recognizing the need for silence, I kept my mouth shut as we walked out of the fey domain and into the sewer outside.

I was sure the fey had other entrances to their demesnes, but this was the only one I knew of. At least it was one of the cleaner parts of the sewer system. This was one of the parts that brought in ocean water to be desalinated, so it didn’t even smell.

Maeve led me down the concrete tunnel for a few dozen yards in silence, until we were out of sight of the entrance to her domain. A couple turns later and we reached a dead end, the river disappearing deeper into a grate.

I wasn’t worried about an ambush. She could have attacked me at the domain if she felt like it, but hadn’t. She knew I would have told everyone—or at least Laura, who was currently following up on the immigration lists with Butler to see if they could find anything there—and so killing me would only bring retribution down on her head. Besides, I could handle a single homunculus. It honestly would be easier than fighting Elizabeth.

“Can you see fine?” the fey asked quietly.

I nodded. Light was sparse in the sewers, but there was a dim red nightlight nearby that provided enough for me to watch my step. I might not be able to read in this light, but I wouldn’t trip and fall into the water.

Maeve turned to face me, a serious expression on her face. It was odd to see that on a fey, but they had been weird for the past few months, and I had seen weirder, even from them. “This gargant. What do you know of it?”

“Not much,” I said. “It’s big, hairy, and last night killed a dozen outsiders who might have been spies. It’s smart, too. Dodged about a hundred cameras at Nishrek. All we got was a few shots of its back.”

The fey rubbed her forehead. Something about the way her long nails caught the light bugged me. Were they made of diamond? Sure, industrial diamonds were cheaper than ever now that we could manufacture them ourselves and didn’t have to rely on the shipments from Mons Agnes, but still.

“You’re mostly right,” she said. “This gargant is intelligent. I’m sure you’ve been hearing about the weird gargant attacks since we reformatted?” I nodded. “A number of them are false leads to draw attention away and some are rumors that just sprung out of thin air, but we have been using this creature as a sort of… brute-force assassin. His coming out party was when we had him kill those adventurers who were assaulting one of our outposts.”

I had heard about that. I had known some of those guys. Not the best monster slayers in the business, but good enough that one gargant shouldn’t have been able to take them out. If it was intelligent, that explained a lot.

“After killing the adventurers, he was pleased with his abilities and wanted to try more difficult assignments, to see what else he could—”

“Wait, wait.” I held up a hand to forestall her. “I know it’s intelligent, but… you make it sound like it’s human intelligent. Like, it can talk and everything.”

“He can. He’s young, but we gave him a basic memory package through the game maker.”

I rubbed my forehead. “The… what?”

“Memory alteration device.” Then she shrugged. “Well, that was the original idea. It doesn’t work on an adult brain, or even on the brain of a child older than ten or so. Stuff starts to solidify at that age. We’ve had the damn thing for fifteen years, and we still can’t do anything detailed.” She sighed. “Like copying the Mona Lisa with finger paint.”

“O… kay…” That was a million kinds of disturbing, but it also explained more than a few things. “So this basic memory package. What does it consist of?”

“Motor skills, language, limited social skills, basic knowledge of the cultures and the city and how everything fits together, and all the combat instincts we could fit in there.” Her expression turned sour. “Which wasn’t much. Finger paint.” She sighed. “Basically, even though he’s less than a year old, he acts about your age in most respects.”

“All right. So you sent him around the city on various missions.”

“Minor things, out of sight. Putting down one or two rogue gargants, destroying old ave labs, hunting a Nessian slaver ring… that sort of thing. Simple challenges to test his limits while improving the city.”

“Yes, you’re a real saint,” I snarked.

“We controlled him through medicine,” the fey continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Specifically, a relatively simple blood-thinner. You see, I made a slight error when making the gargant. His blood was too thick for his veins. Not a major problem, but his blood pressure was unhealthily high, especially during combat.”

Despite how useful this was, I had questions. “Why are you telling me all this?”

She sighed and leaned against the wall. “Why do you think, Huntsman?”

I closed my eyes. “He escaped your control.”

“Yep.”

“What happened, did he get a hold of his own stash of blood-thinners?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she said. “He got a power.”

I stared.

He… what?

“A gargant,” I whispered. “With a power?”

She nodded. “When we came to after the Rampage, we discovered that his cage had been torn apart from the inside, and he was nowhere to be found. That shouldn’t have happened; we keep him off the drugs when he’s home to keep him calm. If he got too excited, his heart should have popped. But he was fine, and escaped.”

“A gargant,” I said again. “With a power.”

“That is relatively low on the list of problems, Mister Huntsman,” she snapped. “He is a confused, angry, and violent child who outmasses most cars, and faster than them too. He is strong enough to carve out entire new tunnels, and tough enough that enough poison to pickle a rhino would only slow him down.”

But…

No, she was right. The fact that he had a power wasn’t really important. Like finding out that the tank about to roll over you liked to coat its shells with poison. The CS squad was worthless here.

“Does he have any weaknesses?” I said after a moment. “Besides the heart thing.”

“He’s not bulletproof,” the fey said with a roll of her black nighteyes. “But he’s still got enough mass that it’s gonna take more than a single god slayer to take him down. Besides that and his size…” She shrugged. “That’s it.”

I rubbed my forehead. “…thank you, Lady Maeve. This has all been very helpful.”

As I started to walk away, she called after me. “Remember, if anyone asks, I tried to kill you.”

I waved… then stopped as a thought occurred to me.

“Hey,” I called, turning back to her briefly. “Why’s he targeting outsiders?”

The beautiful woman smirked.

“Why do you think? Because that’s what we made him for.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 257)

I know these are short, but it’s important.