Monthly Archives: April 2016

Scene 264 – Dicio

ARTEMIS

DICIO

“You could have given us some warning!”

“At least an hour!”

“Or more than five bleeding minutes—”

“The people are panicking. My constituents are actually talking about leaving the city.”

“It’s only a matter of time before riots start. There’s widespread looting—”

“There’s always widespread looting!”

“I meant more than—”

I slammed my fist against the desk hard enough to crack the wood.

The large television, an entire wall filled with hundreds of arguing faces, instantly fell silent as each and every one of those faces shut their babbling mouths. I had always been able to project a presence when I wanted to. My ability to stand strong on my own two legs without a cane was only enhancing that.

“Warlords. Senators,” I said calmly, once I was sure I had everyone’s attention. “I do apologize for the abrupt and unforeseen announcement. I would like to lay this blame on the American president—his address was quite a surprise to his nation as well as our city—but he has enough to answer for already. No, this was my fault. I could have delayed the announcement, at least until the senators and major warlords knew. I chose not to.”

“Why not?” the Dragon asked. He seemed largely unconcerned, even amused, by the turn of events. But then, when you’re one of the strongest things in the entire city, it was hard to feel threatened by anything. “I’m not trying to undermine you, Knight Butler. I’m genuinely curious why you made this decision. I doubt very much that it was rash and spur of the moment.”

The rest of the members of our impromptu virtual meeting waiting patiently for my answer.

I paused, considering my words carefully.

“Domina City has never been united,” I said slowly. “My rule is largely based on allowing everyone to do whatever they want. You all bicker and grumble about my laws, about my ‘sarians, but you comply because your lives would not be significantly improved by overthrowing us in any capacity. It simply isn’t worth the risk.”

“Don’t underestimate your importance, Butler,” Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves noted. “We might fight amongst each other, but this city is no longer a killing field filled with roving gangs of blood-thirsty murderers. There is law, and there is order, even if neither are traditional.”

I inclined my head in thanks. “Perhaps. But you bring up an important point: We fight amongst each other. The Guruhi and the Nictuku were nearly wiped out because they couldn’t stop fighting during the bats attack. Days, hours after the Rampage, the war between the sasquatches and the yetis was back in full force. All it took was the death of Mjolnir to destroy years of friendship between the trolls and the Thors.”

“We survived Elizabeth Greene,” Ulr, a senator from North Outer, said confidently. “We can survive this.”

“Greene was a fluke,” Mephistopheles said with a bitter laugh. “She was supposed to fail. You can’t expect the same to be said of the United States military. They are still the greatest military force on this planet.”

“So you expect us to just lay down and die?” Hextor, Power of Scourgehold, hissed through razor-sharp shark teeth.

“No,” I cut in before anyone else could speak. “That’s what I was getting at. We fight. We always fight. We can win this. We just have to work together.” I smiled grimly. “We are Domina City. We do far worse to each other on a daily basis than anything America can dream up.”

The warlords and other city leaders pondered my words, sitting in their distant domains and offices, considering whether or not I was right—whether or not we actually had any chance of fighting a war apparatus that could probably conquer the entire world if need be.

“They won’t be able to use tanks,” Dispater said. “Not until they establish control of at least one port. And even then they will be heavily limited by the gates. They’re not going to be able to knock down the wall with anything less than a battleship.”

“The Dagonites will be able to handle any oceangoing vessels,” Ambassador Georgia promised us. “But we can’t do anything about anything in the air. What happens if they decide to just carpet-bomb the city? We’ll be fine; you won’t.”

“They want to capture the city, not level it,” I assured her. “That’s also why we won’t have to worry about artillery shelling us from the mainland. If they get sea superiority, they might make a few pinpoint strikes with their ship cannons, but nothing major.”

“If we annoy them enough, they might decide to make a very loud and dangerous example,” Chronepsis, the Wyrm of the Dispassionate Watchers, noted. “Do we have any form of point-defense, anything to shoot down enemy missiles or shells?”

I shook my head. “None, unfortunately. We can talk to our space-based allies, but they won’t have much to offer, and depending on when the attack comes, might not be able to get here in time anyway. Our only hope is to keep them from taking such drastic measures.”

“The Heavens and a number of other angel outposts can have their lasers reconfigured for defense,” Sealtiel, the Defender, offered. “Nothing strong enough to take out an artillery shell, but a couple missiles shouldn’t be too hard.”

Nemeni of the Blood-Doused Hunters looked thoughtful. “Lots of ‘scrapers have turrets on them, especially now that fliers are… ” She waved her hand. “Flying around. Shouldn’t be too hard to point those at the sky and shoot down anything incoming. They’ll need some new target programming, but the changelings can provide that easily enough.”

“So it will turn into an infantry battle,” Gruumsh grunted. “We can fight infantry battles.”

“If the general in charge has any brain at all, he won’t try to take the whole city at once,” Juan Keller cut in. “He’ll focus all the men he can spare on one gate, try to establish a foothold as fast as possible. We will be fighting at least dozens, more likely hundreds of soldiers at once. None of us have any experience with that sort of scale.”

“But we have been fighting in urban warfare our entire lives,” Laura said as she stepped up beside me, into camera range. I had no idea how long she had been there, but knew better than to act surprised. “This isn’t going to be easy. But we have the homefield advantage, not even mentioning our powers—which the Americans will have no ability to anticipate. Soaring Eagle fled before the MEE, and might not have even mentioned the screamers and Elizabeth.”

“Speaking of the traitor,” Tiamat, one of Chronepsis’ sisters, spoke up. She was specifically the warlord of the Unholy Ravagers, which was pretty much everything you needed to know about her. “When do we get to take revenge on Soaring Eagle for betraying the city? The outside world has never cared about us; seeing an ave anthro wouldn’t change their minds. She had to spin up quite the tale, promise that president a lot, to make him do her dirty work for her.”

There were murmurs of agreement; I silenced them with a single raised hand.

“Soaring Eagle is outside our reach at the moment,” I reminded them all. “Outside the reach of anyone and everyone affiliated with Domina City, even our ghosts. For now, we must focus on more important things.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 264)

Short scenes never sit well with me, no matter how well they come out. I was actually seriously considering removing this one completely, but I needed to show some planning.

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Scene 263 – Nuntiatio

NUNTIATIO

LING

The toy box beeped.

It whirred and clicked, delicate machinery I didn’t understand withdrawing into recesses within the shell. In just a few moments, the device sent a report to the stolen phone in my hand. The light of the screen brightened the interior of the high-tech coffin considerably, and it hurt my eyes to look at it. Not enough to trigger repair, thankfully.

I held the phone in my hand, tapping the keys with my thumb. A quick scroll through the report confirmed that everything was in working order, and that I could leave at any time without issue.

Finally.

I pressed a key on my phone, and the box hissed with pneumatic steam as it creaked open. It could only open so far, though, and I had to crawl out of the small opening with my own strength, using only my left arm and right leg.

The box was entombed in concrete. Buried under the broken ave outpost as surely as if someone had poured cement over the top. I had made a bubble around it, just a small one, and the box itself could cycle the air. I had needed to hide from my many enemies while I recovered from the calciophage and worse.

But now it was done. I checked the date on my phone. It wasn’t getting a signal, of course, but it could at least keep track of the date. Today was December 12th, a Wednesday. Thirty-nine days after I had first crawled out of the toy box, and taken my revenge on the aves who had captured me.

In theory.

Oh, they were dead, that part wasn’t in question. I could feel their corpses, entombed in the concrete, by extending my sixth sense as easily as I opened my eyes. The question was whether or not these birds had deserved it. Had they even known I was here?

That wasn’t important right now. I turned to the toy box, looking it over, my right arm hanging stiffly at my side. When I had initially brought the building down and managed to have the foresight to hide myself in the box with a bunch of concrete, it had projected that it would take at least two months to fix me. That I’d wake up in the new year, at the earliest.

Well, I wasn’t going to complain about waking up early. Maybe the fact that it had actually been able to put me to sleep this time, since I didn’t have to worry about the calciophage eating my bones, had accelerated the process. I needed to remember this restful state. Now that I had the Insomniac gland, I wasn’t ever going to be able to sleep again.

For now, I needed to get out of here. I turned, using my left leg as a pivot—

No. No, I didn’t need to treat it as a stiff peg leg. I wasn’t a cripple, not any more.

I took a deep breath and concentrated, feeling beneath my skin and muscle. Once I found what I was looking for, I reached down to my leg, and…

Took a step.

I stumbled and fell to the ground, nearly bashing my face because I only had my left arm to catch my fall. But no. I wasn’t going to let that happen. Another deep breath, another moment of concentration, and I slowly, ever so slowly, pushed myself back up to my feet—with both arms.

It was slow and awkward, like using a fork to eat soup, but I was doing it.

I was on my feet. I could have cheated, just levitated up, but no. I needed to do this right. To make sure my body worked the way it was supposed to. If I had to spend another couple days in the damn box, then fine. As much as I hated the thing, I would do whatever I had to.

I took a deep breath, then another, then fell into a basic karate stance. It was pretty much the only one I knew, and it probably wasn’t even right, but it would work. I just needed to stretch my limbs.

I punched with my left hand. Perfect. A quick, sure strike, with no pain to speak of. A couple more to ensure that all the joints were staying attached where they were supposed to, muscles stretching and contracting correctly.

Then I moved to my right—

I almost ripped it off my shoulder.

I hissed and grabbed at the connection point. Too much strength. Far too much strength. I needed to tone it down, learn to use it normally, or I’d need a new limb before the end of the day. Keep calm and… punch.

More pain. My time dealing with the calciophage made shoving it to the back of my brain easy enough, but it didn’t change the basic problem. I was still punching too hard. My damn arm would fly off if I wasn’t careful.

I focused on my sixth sense, through my body and into the ground. It had already been on—it was always on now, I was good enough at using it that I saw no need to ever turn it off—but I concentrated. Concentrated on my own body, on my own new limbs. My arm, my leg. Concentrate.

I punched.

A good strong punch, enough to knock a man’s teeth out.

But not enough to hurt me.

I smiled grimly. It felt like decades since I had last smiled.

I punched a few more times, making sure I had the force right, making sure that the first time wasn’t a lucky fluke. Once I felt satisfied with my performance, I moved on to kicks. They should have been harder than the punches, and I was expecting to fall over at least once, but it was easy. A few kicks with my left leg were enough to confirm that the lessons I had learned with my arm had carried over.

I flexed the fingers of my right hand. It was amazing how easy it was, how simple. I kept expecting something to go horribly wrong, like for a finger to fall off of to take a step and leave behind my foot.

It was time to go outside.

I turned to the wall that I knew with my stonesense was the thinnest. My reservoir might be as deep as an ocean now, but it still wasn’t limitless, and I had other things to spend my power on. I didn’t want to deplete it unnecessarily.

I walked towards the broken slab of concrete, what had probably once been a floor of a lab or something similar. It barely took a thought to mold it. I didn’t even have to slow my stride as I stepped through the tunnel I was making. I opened it in front of me even as I closed it behind me, molding away dust and dirt as easily as concrete and stone.

And then I was through. Walked through fifteen feet of rubble as easily as some tall grass.

I blinked in the light; it was morning. I had known that intellectually, of course. My phone had said 0700 when I woke up. It just hadn’t really clicked that it meant I’d have to readjust my eyes to the brightness.

But even as I was squinting in the sun, my stonesense was clear and strong. I could feel every ounce of concrete in a hundred yards, and had a pretty good idea of everything touching it. My sense for things I couldn’t affect was still poor, but I could vaguely tell the difference between cars and trees and people.

There wasn’t really anyone around, as far as I could tell. It was one of the reasons I had decided to leave now, from this direction. There was some movement in a nearby alley—likely either ghouls or dumpster dogs—but the streets were almost completely empty. Even the nearby buildings didn’t seem to have many people in them.

Part of that would be because of the hour—dawn was just an hour or so back—so vampires had gone to sleep and diurnals weren’t quite up yet. But it still felt lifeless. As if people were avoiding this place on purpose.

That might be because of my tomb.

I hadn’t spared the juice when I destroyed the ave outpost. I had poured out every last drop of my power to animate every single shred of concrete I could, bringing the entire ‘scraper down and shredding the inhabitants in the process.

Now, it looked like a big mound of rubble, but smooth like clay in seemingly random places. Massive spikes of concrete twenty or thirty feet long burst out here and there, like some huge violent porcupine was trying to escape from underneath.

I hadn’t done any of that on purpose to scare people away, but that seemed to be the effect. I could sense a few spots here and there were people had tried to dig into the rubble, but none of them had gotten far before giving up. I supposed the whole thing was too intimidating for no promise of reward.

There was no screaming.

It had been… months? Since I last heard the screams of Elizabeth Greene’s zombies. That didn’t sound right, but that’s what it was. It was still weird not having that constant droning noise in the back of my head, like suddenly turning all the appliances in your apartment off at warning. I wasn’t complaining, not by any means, it was just… odd.

But this wasn’t time for any of that. I looked down at myself. I was wearing shorts that ended about four or five inches above my knees, and my shirt was a dirty sleeveless undershirt a few sizes too small. I needed new clothes, if only to hide my new arm and leg. Those would attract attention.

I could go to a shop, but if word got back to MC—

“H-hello?”

My head snapped around, towards the voice. A ghoul of some type was slinking out of a nearby alley, cringing at my glare. He was wearing a blanket. He must have been asleep and still a moment ago, that’s why I hadn’t been able to distinguish him.

“What?” I demanded, wincing only slightly at the slight grinding sound of my new bones as I worked my jaw. I’d need to fix that later. “What are you looking at? It’s just a Halloween costume.”

“…Halloween was a month and a half ago.”

“What do you want?

He flinched again. “Nothing! Nothing, I promise. I just… have a question.”

“Spit it out.”

He swallowed, and glanced at the destroyed ‘scraper behind me, though his daygoggles made it a little hard to tell. “I just… I thought… did you come out of there? Out of the Grave, I mean?”

Is that what they were calling it? I preferred tomb. “Yes.”

The ghoul swallowed. “So… you’re her, then? The Lady of the Grave?”

“I’m a lady, and I came out of a grave,” I growled. “Call me what you want.”

He nodded nervously. “Y-yes. It’s just… I wasn’t placed here at random, I was given specific instructions in regards to what I should do should anyone appear. I didn’t actually expect anything to happen, and I don’t think the acolyte really did either, but—”

“What,” I said with narrow eyes. “Are you supposed to do?”

He paused.

“Test you,” he said finally.

Then he swept his leg forward, and the concrete flowed with it, rolling forward like a wave.

It barely took a thought to squash the amateur attack, to push it down and smooth out the street again. The ghoul didn’t seem surprised, and didn’t hesitate for a moment. He switched to horse stance, a broad and solid stance, and lifted up with his arms. I felt the ground under my feet beginning to move, but I countered it before it had a chance to really begin.

The ghoul took a step back, but it was a tactical move, not an expression of surprise. He reached down to the floor and scooped up two massive handfuls of asphalt as easily as grabbing mud. But when he threw the handfuls, I knew they would be hard as stone again, accelerated with all the force he could muster.

I still didn’t move. With a thought, I brought up a wall in front of me, formed out of the same street that he was attacking me with. His missiles impacted with a solid pair of cracks, and I could see the damage they had done quite clearly with my stonesense. They probably would have killed me if they had hit.

I smoothed the road back down, still not moving an inch, and even got the part the ghoul was standing on ten feet away, where he had ripped out the asphalt. He danced back to avoid the ripple in the ground, afraid I might be attacking him, but I wasn’t.

I checked my reservoir. Lower than I’d like, but not dangerously so.

“Anything else?” I demanded.

He dropped to one knee.

“No, my lady,” he said quietly. “I apologize for the rudeness, but I had to be sure.”

“Whatever. I’m leaving now.” I turned to walk away.

“Ah, my lady, wait!” I heard him struggle to my feet behind me. “Don’t you want to meet your college? Knight Alexander would be honored beyond words for a chance to receive instruction from you—”

“Then Knight Alexander is an idiot,” I growled. “Go home, little ghoul.”

Maybe he did as I ordered, maybe he didn’t. But either way, he seemed to have enough of a brain not to chase after me. He was probably worried I’d bury him under the street. He’d survive, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.

The truth was, I had a million questions and more. The fact that he had a power, and his references to some sort of college of like-minded people, intrigued me. This couldn’t be why the screaming stopped, right? They killed Elizabeth, and all her screamers woke up? She must have created at least one more type, stoneshapers like me, while I was away.

But whether they had actually managed to kill the immortal killing machine or not, I had other things to worry about right now. Getting out of the city and figuring out where to go next was top of that list.

No, no, I was thinking too far ahead. The most important thing right now was clothes. Pants and a long-sleeved shirt, or something like that. It was the middle of December, so it was pretty cold, even with the host of temperature regulation buffs I had given myself in the toy box. I wasn’t going to die of exposure, but if it started snowing, I wasn’t going to be happy.

Speaking of which, why hadn’t it started snowing already? There wasn’t even any ice on the street, as far as I could tell—anything from overnight seemed to have melted in the morning sun. How close was I to Canian territory? Maybe they had come through with snow blowers recently. Or maybe it just hadn’t been snowing for some reason.

Still, snow or no snow, I needed clothes fast. I figured I had about an hour before more people started showing up for the day shifts at the various office buildings surrounding me. Domina might be a city where the insane was commonplace, but if even a single person posted a picture of me on Fundie or asked MC who I was, my life was going to become much more difficult.

I’d find a shop. Central didn’t have anything big like Middle did, but they had to service the corporate offices and server farms around here somehow. I should be able to find a clothing store, or failing that—

…I could just find some clothes on the street?

Lying right there on the sidewalk of a smaller street heading off the main, were some clothes. Not much, just a short-sleeved shirt and some pants, but still, clothes. They looked like they had been discarded in a hurry, like someone had ripped them off at a run and just tossed them aside.

Weirder things had happened, but I carefully probed the clothes first with my stonesense, then by lifting up the sidewalk under them. I didn’t find any traps or tripwires, and nothing exploded, so maybe it really was exactly what it looked like.

I picked up the pants, a simple pair of blue jeans, and slipped them on right over my tight shorts. They were basically underwear already anyway. I slipped off the shirt I was wearing quickly—my life as a succubus and a daeva made it easy to ignore my own nudity when I had to—and pulled the black silk replacement on. Both the pants and the shirt were roughly the right size, luckily, but while the jeans covered my left leg pretty easily, the shirt’s sleeves were too short—

There was something else, that had been hidden under the shirt.

A glove.

A very long black glove that appeared to be long enough to reach all the way up to my shoulder. I picked it up, hesitant, and slipped it on only to discover that it was made of the finest silk, not the cheap mass-produced stuff the Minervas made, but the slow and perfect Lolth silk.

And it did reach all the way up to my shoulder, hiding my entire right arm perfectly. Even the elbow bent at the right place, and I had a feeling that if I still had any real feeling in that arm, it would have breathed like air.

Huh.

That was…

Huh.

Akane and Adam would have dismissed it as coincidence. Probably Derek, too. Laura would have thought about it a bit, before deciding that it didn’t matter as long as it wasn’t hurting her.

But I had watched too much tv for any of that. Stuff this convenient always came with strings attached. Enemy action, payment for services rendered from a mysterious benefactor… there were all sorts of explanations. None of them were random. The universe was rarely so lazy.

I needed to process this. But… whether an ambush or something else, someone expected me to pick these up. They then expected me to do something else. I needed to figure out what that was, so that I could throw off their plan, whatever it was. So if they thought I would go straight, I should go left… but what if they anticipated that…

Okay, I could already see that this was going to get ridiculous very quickly. I was going to drive myself crazy if I tried to outmaneuver someone I had never met, and who might not actually exist. Faced with no other option, I just continued walking down the street, trying not to wince every time I heard distant gunfire.

I walked a few blocks, not quite sure where I was going. I knew that I needed information, but I also knew that I couldn’t go to any of my friends. The Paladins and the retinue would just confine me to NHQ for my own safety—escaping wouldn’t be too hard, but I didn’t want to have to kill ‘sarians if I didn’t have to.

My orphanage was dust and ash, with the few people who had graduated before me out of reach. The daevas might help if I asked, but more likely they’d just call Butler. Even Lily wasn’t an option. She hated me. I had known the rumors about her compassion were exaggerations, but it had still hurt to get shunned like that by her, of all people.

Who else was there? In the absolute worst case scenario, I could go to the fey, but I wasn’t that desperate yet. Maybe I should have taken up that ghoul’s offer. At least pumped him for a little bit of information. Tezuka’s name, why did I always think of these things only after.

Even slipping into an internet cafe and checking Fundie wasn’t really an option. MC would track me in half a second. The stolen phone I was using had all the good options password protected, and my hacking skills were best described as nonexistent.

How did people get information before the internet? Somehow, I didn’t think hanging out in a bar or at an inn would work as well as it did in anime. I couldn’t stay in a bar for long anyway; I looked too young. They’d want an ID, which I didn’t have.

Whether for internet or overhearing conversations, a cafe was probably my best bet. I just needed to stay out of Central, where the Paladins and Lily spent most of their time. This area might actually have more than normal, to service the businessmen and the like—

“This is Eliza Cassan, with a special report.”

I was passing an electronics store. Cell phones and laptops, it looked like. Portable things that the working man liked. For some reason, there was a television in the window, tuned to the local news station. That was a bit odd, but far from unheard of. It was convenient for people who didn’t have space in their homes. After all, cell phones still weren’t very good at streaming video like this.

“Just moments ago, this studio received a call from Artemis Butler himself,” she continued. “It appears that the president of the United States is giving a national address at the moment, and it is relevant to the interests of this city.”

What? Since when did we pipe in direct news feeds from America—or anywhere else, for that matter? Even second and third-hand news from the outside world was a little hard to come by. Our internet didn’t connect to them directly, and no one really cared enough for the reporters to investigate more than the bare minimum.

But if the Big Boss thought it was important…

The scene shifted, to a view of a man standing at a podium in front of a flag with red and white stripes. There were flashes every couple of seconds, and I belatedly realized that the man was standing in front of a crowd of reporters, and they were all taking pictures constantly.

“My fellow Americans,” the man said in a slow and calm voice. “Thirty years ago, Domina City was founded as part of a cooperative effort on the part of several nations—including our own. The goal was to give prisoners jobs and lives, and to see if they could be trusted with colonization, including our blossoming space program.

“The undertaking was a complete and utter failure. The criminals overran the city within months, if not weeks, and communication was lost not soon after, with the last word being a hurried call from the warden as his office was raided.

“At the time, we had neither the will nor the manpower to retake the island. There was simply no need. We—and many other nations—simply continued sending them new prisoners, and the gangs that controlled the city retained enough sanity not to disrupt that supply line.

“Fifteen years ago, a prisoner named Doctor Isaac Clarke perfected a biological manipulation device, which he named the toy maker. He tested this by giving a young girl devil horns, and broadcast the information and schematics across the scientific community.

“America led the charge to criminalize use of the toy maker, though exceptions were made for military use. We were, with great difficulty, able to communicate with the doctor, who agreed to abide by the new laws. Due to the unstable status of the city, little more thought was given to it.”

He took a deep breath, and I slowly realized how difficult this must be for him. This wasn’t a quick update on a war or minor shootout. He had something important to say, and he hadn’t even gotten to it yet.

“It has long been my dream to bring peace to that broken city,” he said, his voice rising in strength. “But it has always been deemed too dangerous, not worth the risk. As long as the prisoners sit there quietly, the entire world has been content to ignore it.”

He stepped aside, and the flag-curtain behind him parted to allow someone in a hooded cloak through. They stepped up to the president, face carefully hidden as much as humanly possible.

“Several months ago, a survivor fled the city,” the president explained. “She told a very different tale than the one we knew. Instead of roving bands of impossible to control gangs, there were massive cultures, led by dictators with more soldiers than some nations. Instead of small arms, harmless to any organized army, they possess weapons that could threaten us if used properly—a surprise strike could take out New York. Bring the towers tumbling down like dominoes.”

Another deep breath.

“And instead of a city where they at least pretend to uphold the law, we have one where the worst nightmares of fifteen years ago walk the streets in broad daylight.”

The woman pulled down her hood.

And revealed a hawk’s head, with gray feathers and golden beak. Large, darting golden eyes scanned the room, reveling in the shocked and appalled gasps of the reporters in the audience, blinking in the sudden increase of camera flashes.

Soaring Eagle.

“This young woman is named Sele,” the president said loudly, over the turmoil. “She has been modified by the toy maker to look like this. She is not the only one. There are a half dozen more of her closest friends who fled with her.”

Her damned warhawks. I felt my fist clenching tight enough to crack stone.

“Sele has warned that Domina City is no longer content to sit idly by, taking the prisoners and supplies we send to them. They are gearing up for something more. An attack on American soil, with no provocation whatsoever. She fled when it was discovered that she planned to warn us.”

What? What in the velvet-draped halls of Shendilavri was he babbling about? …oh, of course. Lupa had spun up a little fairy tail for him so that she could kill off everyone who had driven her out. Cute.

“We must strike first, and strike hard. These people have had fifteen years to use this hellish device to come up with all manner of plagues and diseases that they plan to unleash on us. I have seen the reports, written by the scientists in charge of these projects. I am not a religious man—but if sin could have a physical form, a plague that makes everyone burst into flame in sunlight might be it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Oh right, that thing the angels had tried to make for use against the vampires. I thought that didn’t work. Even if it did, what reports and scientists would he have seen to convince him that it was an imminent threat—

I closed my eyes. The Granit. The Imperialist party. They… actually had been developing that sort of thing, for exactly the reasons he had just said. Oops. Was kinda regretting voting for that Ozoliņš lady last time…

“As we speak, I am forming a large task force, several battalions strong, to take Domina City and bring it back into the rule of law. They will liberate the people of these gangs of monsters controlling them, and restore the colony to its rightful place in our great nation.”

The view switched to a reporter I didn’t recognize, and it took me a second to realize that it was still the feed from outside the city. Some dark-skinned baseline woman was pretending to look all grim.

“That was President Richard Martinez, live from the Pentagon, detailing a new military action against the prison-island located off the coast of the state of New York. We now go to our panel of experts, who will discuss whether such a drastic action is truly necessary.”

The view switched back to Eliza Cassan before they got to the experts.

She was saying something. Something about safety, and trusting Necessarius or maybe the nicer warlords, I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention. None of that mattered anymore. Not Butler, not his mouthpieces in the media, not even the city itself.

I had Soaring Eagle’s location. I had a target.

The Pentagon. I had no idea where that was, but it sounded important. The kind of thing that people outside the city would know where it was. All I had to do was ask someone once I was outside.

I turned around and started marching towards the west gate… before reconsidering, and heading back in the direction of the ghoul from before.

I had a whore to kill, and an old friend to rescue.

I’d need at least a little help.

Behind the Scenes (scene 263)

Ling doesn’t have quite enough information to understand the source of her luck, since she’s been out of contact for months.

Scene 252 – Discessum

DISCESSUM

DEREK

This was shaping up to be a weird day.

I wasn’t exactly close with Kelly. She and the retinue had always stayed in the back with Adam, away from the screamers, and I hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to her off the job.

I didn’t know much about her, but I hadn’t thought I needed to. Sure, her name was obviously fake, but she was an ex-Belian, so that wasn’t a surprise. The fixer on her arm was more than a little disturbing as well, but not too much. The device monitored her blood and pumped counteragents that neutralized the drugs in her system; while the chemical fixer was common, the device of the same name was only necessary if you had drug producing glands. I had always wondered why she hadn’t just had those glands removed, but had resolved not to think about it.

Then we got dragged in front of the Belians, and she had ripped off the fixer.

Now, she sat on the Obsidian Throne of Abriymoch, claiming to be Fierna, daughter of Belial the Lord of Secrets, Noble of the Fourth Crypt. She was naked except for a seductively draped fur-lined cloak, and lounged on the oversized throne as easily as if it were a seat by a pool.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” she proclaimed. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The right of blood was obvious—she had killed her way to the top. I was less certain about the shadow one. That was something about fear, or political skill, about how her reputation was broad and deep like a shadow, or something. Or maybe it was just about knowing lots of secrets. Belial had been the Lord of Secrets, after all.

This was too much, too fast; everyone knew Fierna was dead, and I couldn’t think of anything Kelly had ever done to make me suspect otherwise. If I said anything, asked any questions, it might be taken as a challenge, and despite my earlier bluster, Adam and I couldn’t take the whole damn domain by ourselves. I didn’t know what to do.

The Nobles, however, seemed to have some idea. One of them, the one with the long and forked tongue and the strangely bulbous joints, started speaking despite the fact that he was still kneeling on the ground. “I do not doubt Noble Fierna’s right to our culture,” he said, his voice a little quiet. “But I do doubt this woman’s claim that she is our lady.” His voice gained strength, and he rose to his feet. “She is just some random ‘sarian traitor. You can still see the scars of the fixer on her arm. In time, she will—”

Kelly’s hand snapped out, stiff and flat as a knife but as fast as lightning.

The Noble’s head fell off, and his body collapsed to the ground a moment later.

I recognized the hungry look in Kelly’s eyes. It was the naked bloodlust that I had seen on Elizabeth’s face too many times. In this case, I would assume it was the result of the drugs in her system. Psycho and buffout, particularly, caused such reactions as a side effect of their strength increases.

With visible difficulty, she wrestled the feelings down. “Gaziel was well aware of who I am,” she explained patiently, ignoring the horrified looks we were all giving her. All of us except the Nobles flanking her throne, that is. They kept their heads obediently bowed. “He sent Chamo to recruit me, and when I responded to that rudely, sent Inanna to punish me.”

“Kel—Honored Noble,” I said, correcting myself mid-sentence as I stepped forward. “Forgive me for being… confused.”

She raised an eyebrow elegantly. “About what?”

About everything, but I didn’t say that. “About—”

I was interrupted by a tug on my leg.

Surprised, I looked down to see Alex, crying enough silent tears to fill a lake. The angel shook his head. “She can’t let us go,” he whispered. “Gazra will be on her side no matter what happens, but Balan and Bathym control the majority of the nightstalkers. Even with the sclavi, she can’t fight them all.”

“What are you saying?” I hissed back.

“Throw yourself on her mercy. It’s the only way she can save us.”

I frowned. I… was not fond of that idea. I was a paladin, technically a warlord, and more importantly, a Huntsman. I was not going to grovel before a drugged-up warlord, no matter who it was. I’d just have to—

“Apologies for the insolence, Honored Noble,” Laura said with a slightly stiff bow as she rose to her feet. I hadn’t even realized she was awake. “Knight Derek is a soldier, and not good with words.”

“Laura,” I hissed. “What are you doing—”

She shut me up with a glare.

Of course. I knew what she was doing—saving my ass.

“Speak, then, Highlander,” Kelly drawled. She definitely had that royal apathy down pat.

Laura winced at the nickname. “Please, Noble Fierna. That is the Composer’s name for me.”

The vampire nodded slowly. “Apologies, Dame Laura.” She extended her palm, as if offering us something. “Please, continue your defense. You have trespassed in my domain. Why should I allow you and yours to leave it alive?”

I kept my power at the ready, prepared to throw up a shield if things got messy. While the Nobles around the throne seemed content to stand around their warlord with heads bowed, the nightstalkers lining the rest of the room were less composed. Even if the slaves didn’t come into it, I wasn’t sure I could fight all of them at once if they decided to stop playing around.

Laura didn’t so much as blink. “We brought you home, Honored Noble. Allowing us to go home seems like a basic courtesy.”

Kelly smiled slightly, and I could see her fangs poking out of her mouth. She was enjoying this far too much. “Ah, but you did not intend to bring me home. You did, however, intend to trespass. To steal back more trespassers, in fact.”

“They were kidnapped, not trespassing.”

“Are you sure about that?” she asked with a smirk. She turned to one of the lesser vampires lining the hall. “Kiara, I believe? Please tell me what happened when you encountered the angel and the changeling at Avernus.”

The girl looked hesitant, and bit her lip—a bad idea, considering her fangs. “We, uh, we tried to talk to them. And they attacked us. I think it might be on video, maybe, but I’m not sure if they—”

“That’s quite enough, dear, thank you,” Kelly interrupted with a surprising amount of warmth. Kiara seemed to agree; she looked like she didn’t know how to react to a Belian Noble being nice.

I tapped Laura on the shoulder. She looked me in the eye, frowning, before she understood what I was trying to say. She nodded and turned back to Kelly. “What do you want for them?” she asked evenly.

Them?” the newborn… reborn Noble laughed. “You are my prisoners just as much as the angel and the giant, dear children.” She leaned forward, that fur cloak of hers not quite slipping off her shoulders. “I have plans for you, and you still have not given me a good reason to release you.”

There was a click from behind her, and a massive shotgun poked her in the ear.

“I’ve got one,” Adam said levelly, his mouth set into a grim line that matched his eyes. “You should have hidden my guns farther away. Now let everyone go, and you get to keep your stupid kingdom of slaves.”

Kelly didn’t seemed perturbed by the Necessarian Saint George—almost certainly loaded with a god slayer—pointed at her skull. “Oh, you clever little psychopath. You are good. I didn’t even notice you move.”

“Sociopath, technically,” was his only response.

Some shadow of the old Corporal Sanguinas returned as she shrugged. “Well, those two terms have become so muddled over the years that it’s hard to tell when and where they apply. The medical community doesn’t even use them anymore, they’ve become too diluted—”

One of the Nobles, the one with a soft and gentle face sharply at odds with his power and position, cleared his throat. His boss turned to him with a frown, and he gave her a look I couldn’t interpret.

She definitely understood it, though, as she sighed and turned her attention back to Laura. “I tire of this game. Honored Paragon, you may leave with your lover and your pet murderer.” It took me a second to realize the ‘lover’ part referred to me; I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment, but wisely kept my mouth shut. “The angel, the giant, the changeling, and the kemo all stay with me.”

“And what of Akane?” Laura demanded, eyes narrow. “Gaziel said she was under guard in your hospital. What will happen to her?”

Kelly waved her hand blithely. “What do I care? It’s too much effort to go collect her. She stays.”

Laura’s hand went to her necklace, but she managed to remain calm. “She is the magister of the kensei. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? The samurai warriors with super speed? Some are already calling her kenkami.”

“Sword-god,” Kelly translated with a chuckle. “Cute. But what of it?”

“If you don’t release her, they will come for you,” Laura said.

“And if you don’t release the others, we will come back,” I added, stepping up next to Laura.

I heard a crack from Kelly’s direction. Someone had handed her a glass of wine at some point, a deceptively delicate goblet that was actually a thick and durable chunk of carved crystal, designed for warlords. She had still managed to put a large crack in it, from which black wine was now leaking.

Another slave stepped up and replaced the damaged glass with a new, full one. Kelly took it without a word, her narrow black nighteyes focused solely on me.

“Derek Huntsman,” she said quietly, her voice low and dangerous like the first rumblings of an earthquake. “You are an annoying one, aren’t you? How is it, Honored Paragon, that you manage to find all sorts of warlords and future magisters by just stumbling through life? How is it that a random boy from South Central manages to attract the attention of Elizabeth Greene herself?”

It seemed best not to answer.

She sniffed. “No matter. However you do it, you do have a surprising number of allies. Even if the Cripple doesn’t side with you, there are many others who would.” She made a face. “I might even have to talk with Dracul again… ugh.”

Laura and I remained silent. Adam’s Saint George remained level, though I knew he’d be straining to keep it that way. If Kelly decided to act like a Belian after all, to attack without thought of the consequences, Adam likely wouldn’t be able to kill her.

But she didn’t.

“Gazra,” she ordered. “Fetch Ogrémoch, tell him to check on the kenkami’s progress. If she’s well enough to leave, allow her to. If not, throw her out. She is no longer welcome in Phlegethos.”

The pretty-faced vampire from earlier bowed low and left.

“Everyone else, out. Everyone except for our guests.” The two remaining Nobles stepped quickly, walking down the aisle past the still-startled nightstalkers, but the rest were more hesitant. Kelly waved her hand impatiently. “Everyone. That includes the sclavi. OUT!”

This last was a sudden shout loud enough to hurt my ears, and enough to make the rest of the vampires hop to action, fleeing from the royal audience chamber as fast as their legs would carry them.

Once they were gone and the thick concrete doors closed behind them, the Noble pointed at poor George, still nailed to the wall. “I suggest someone help the giant down. His buffs are impressive, but that must still be painful.”

‘The giant.’ Not George or even ‘the ogre.’ She was still acting like Fierna.

But we had little choice. Jarasax and I—the changeling had been faking unconsciousness for most of the conversation—stepped over to the wall and started pulling stakes out of George’s limbs, carefully removing him from his position, spread-eagled on the wall like some grisly trophy.

It took both of us to catch him, and even then he was too heavy for us to keep upright. It was more like we kept him from dropping too quickly. He still fell to his knees, but at least slow enough that they didn’t crack on the hard concrete floor.

He was definitely in a lot of pain, but Kelly was right. He was made of stern stuff, and his wounds weren’t bleeding as much as they should. He couldn’t fight, but he should be able to walk out of here with help. Adam came over to help, apparently realizing he wasn’t doing much good covering the warlord.

“Is that silly angel still crying?” Kelly asked in a bored drawl.

I turned to see Alex, still curled on the floor in the fetal position, silently weeping. Laura ran her hand through his hair, whispering something that didn’t seem to have any effect. Wincing, she turned to the throne. “Yes. I’m not sure why. He might be in shock.”

“Bah,” Kelly said with a wave of her hand. “He just wants a fight. I’ll kick him around a few times and he’ll leave.”

I blinked. How did she come to that conclusion? This was the problem with dealing with drug-addled minds. “What? No! You can’t do that!”

“I’m doing him a favor.”

“No, I mean—”

She nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right. Duels shouldn’t have witnesses. Leave.”

I tried to step forward, ready to pound something like sense into her, but George collapsed again the second I let him go. Cursing, I glanced between the giant and the angel, before Laura sidled up beside me.

“We can come back,” she whispered. “Try and talk her down. But George needs to be moved.”

Frustrated but not seeing another choice, I nodded. I slipped under George’s arm again, the three of us pulling his massive bulk towards the doors, which Laura opened as we reached them. She was careful not to close them all the way behind us, leaving them open just a crack.

We put George down on a table we found maybe ten or twenty yards down the tapestry-lined corridor, and left Adam and Jarasax to tend to him. Laura and I returned to the royal audience chamber to save Alex. Laura peeked through the crack in the door… before waving me over, motioning me to silence.

What I saw was not what I expected.

Alex sat up on the floor just a few feet from the door, with Kelly in front of him, carefully wiping the long tracks of moisture from his ivory cheeks.

“Fi,” the angel whispered, new tears welling up already. “C’mon, don’t… don’t do this… ”

The vampire smiled sadly, all traces of her previous arrogance and apathy gone. “It is done.”

“Then… I’ll stay! I’ll stay with you! I can—I can—”

She interrupted him with a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Don’t you dare,” she said, her voice quiet and filled with barely restrained tears. “You know how much effort Mom went to in order to keep you out of Dad’s clutches. Don’t throw that all away now.”

“But you’re—”

Kelly placed a finger on his lips, still smiling that sad smile. “No. I am a vampire, and you are an angel. That is the end of our story, dear heart.” Tears started to well up in her own eyes, but she blinked them away. “But—but I would like to hear it.”

Alex frowned, not even bothering to hide the tears running down his cheeks again. “H-hear what?”

“My name,” she whispered. “My real name. The one Mom gave me.” She was blinking rapidly, trying and failing to keep the tears from coming. “You’re the last one alive who knows it, and I just want to—”

Now it was the angel’s turn to comfort the vampire. He pulled her close in an embrace. “Shh… shh, it’s all right. I promise, everything is going to be all right.”

Then he whispered something in her ear, too quietly for the rest of us to hear.

Kelly laughed, a sorrowful giggle full of heartbreak, and hugged the angel closer. “Thank you, Alex.” Then she smiled. “I mean… Ilarion Marinov.”

Alex laughed, sniffing away his tears. “You know I’ve always hated that name.”

“I know Ill, I know.”

The vampire and the angel touched their foreheads together, crying softly and quietly.

I glanced at Laura, giving her a questioning look. She looked almost as uncomfortable as I felt, but still gave me a glare. The message was clear: Just be quiet and give them their space.

“I need you to be strong, little one,” Kelly said, not moving her forehead from Alex’s own. “Stronger even than your days at the orphanage.”

Alex cried some more, but managed a smile. “The orphanage wasn’t so bad, you know?”

“I know Ill, I know.” She closed her eyes. “But this… this will be.” She took a deep breath. “They’ll be coming for you soon. You and anyone else associated with me. All four of you need to be pull together and protect each other, but they’ll be looking to you for help.”

“Sax—”

“Sax is not a leader, and has no interest in becoming one. If you let him lead, he’ll just follow whatever his mother tells him to do. You have to take over, little one. You can’t come to me, asking for help. Not this time.”

Alex nodded. “The angels will be coming after you. Once we fight off the vampires, I can talk to them. Zaphkiel can—”

“Oh, dear heart,” she said quietly, not opening her eyes. “The angels will be coming after you, too.”

Alex stared in mute horror, before nodding slowly. “I… I suppose you’re right.” He closed his eyes. “They won’t be able to do anything overt, but Pistis Sophia will send her best. Her Initiates at least, and maybe even Drusulai himself.” He blinked back tears again. “But you will have to deal with Raziel, and almost certainly Evansheer.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she said, finally opening her eyes again. Tears were streaming down her cheeks now as well, but she ignored them. “I’ll be fine. Zaebos and Zapan have done their jobs too well. We have many, many sclavi to use in a fight. Once I let them study my toys a little, we may even be able to gives the slaves back their sanity.”

“But Fi—”

She didn’t let him even start. “But that is all my problem,” she said firmly, her marble-black eyes strong. “This is my culture, Honored Daybreaker. My inheritance, the only gift I ever received from that bastard father. I will deal with it. Alone.”

“You know you don’t have to.”

“Yes. I do.” She kissed his forehead again. “Stick close to Huntsman and Medina. Those two are going to do good work.” She looked him up and down. “Are you strong enough? I don’t want this to kill you.”

He dried his tears and nodded. “Ready and waiting, Noble Fierna.”

She shook her head. “I hate that name.” She sighed and stood. “Incoming.”

I pulled Laura out of the way a split second before Alex was thrown through the doors, slamming them open with a boom and crashing into the back wall like a cannon.

Kelly—no, Fierna—strode out of the throne room, eyes wild, laughing with mad bloodlust. “Is that all the angels of Necessarius have to offer? I’ve fought dumpster dogs with more spirit in them!”

Her voice echoed in the concrete corridor, and at the far end I could see several nightstalkers and their sclavi watching the fight with interest. George, Adam, and Jarasax seemed to have gotten out of the way already.

The Noble strode up to the angel, picked him up casually with one hand, and tossed him a dozen yards down the corridor, where he skidded to a stop at the feet of the other vampires. “This one is boring. Send him away with the others.”

Her minions moved quickly to obey, picking the broken angel up roughly and hauling him down a corridor I knew led to the front doors of the domain. Fierna gave one last barking laugh at the sight, then turned back to her throne room.

And froze at the sight of us, standing silently next to the double doors.

Several emotions warred on her face. Surprise, rage, disgust…

Before finally settling on something like resignation.

She patted me on the shoulder. “Take care of him, Honored Paragon,” she whispered. She kept her face neutral. “Consider it an official request—from one warlord to another.”

I nodded, once.

She nodded in turn. “Thank you.” Her grip on my shoulder tightened, and then she flung me down the corridor as well, hard enough to fly almost to the corner. It was a dangerous throw, and if I had hit a wall it could have killed me, but she was careful. Landing hurt, but I was good at taking falls.

“Take your boyfriend and leave, baseline!” Fierna yelled at Laura as she stalked back towards her throne. “I have better things to do with my time than play with newborn warlords with over-inflated egos!”

Behind the scenes (scene 262)

I’m honestly surprised this came out as well as it did, but I like it.

This isn’t quite the end of Kelly’s arc, but we’re definitely past the climax.

Scene 261 – Quod Primogenita Vendidisset

QUOD PRIMOGENITA VENDIDISSET

FIERNA

I am Fierna.

I am power.

For years, I shackled myself. Begged that cripple who thought himself a warlord to chain me, to weaken and hobble me. For years, that damned device cursed me, held me back, denied me what was mine by right.

Even now, I could feel it. Years of poison did not fade in moments. But oh… it was fading. Burning away like ice before a flame. With every moment, my power grew. With every moment, what was mine slowly returned.

I was thrown roughly against the cold stone floor.

“My sclavi found this one with the others,” a female voice said.

“She looks like a ghoul worked her over. Did she resist?”

“No. The sclavi were simply not careful when they carried her here.”

Old instincts were surfacing, like a blade slowly being sharpened after disuse. For the moment, I merely peered around myself, trying to determine where I was. At the moment, my strength was not fully returned, and it was all I could do.

But my blood was quickening. My power would come to me soon enough.

There were many shivering sclavi, standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor, guarding the entrances and simply acting as servants for the well-dressed vampires scattered around. There were several baselines, bound together in chains. They were unconscious, and irrelevant. There was a giant, pinned to the wall with spikes. Also irrelevant.

And there was an angel, staring at me with wide eyes from his spot on the floor just a few feet away. He was mouthing words, but what, I couldn’t say. I peered closer, trying to divine his meaning, but had little luck.

He seemed to be saying ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Oh good, the baselines are waking up.”

“What do we do with the vampire?”

“We’ll get to her in a moment.”

Strong hands grabbed me and dragged me to the rear of the room, where I could be stored until they were done with whatever minor thing they were doing.

“You there, baseline. What’s your name? What made you think attacking Phlegethos was a good idea?”

Phlegethos. I knew that name. The Heart of Darkness, the Seat of Despair. Sitting in Northwest Middle, it was the last spark of power of an old, dying culture, waiting for a lord that was dead and gone.

I knew Phlegethos. I knew it.

I had recovered enough to crack open my eyes and get a better look around the room. The floor was cold concrete, but the walls were lined with tapestries and paintings. There were a few lights in the ceiling, barely more than dying candles, dim enough to give baselines the vaguest impression of what was happening, but bright as day to vampire eyes.

The room itself was wide and long, large enough to park five or ten cars. It was clearly an audience chamber, a gesture of the ruler’s might and abilities. The effect was undercut by the fact that the throne at the end of the blood-red carpet was empty.

Four vampires sat on short chairs flanking that throne, a massive chair-shaped edifice of blackest obsidian. All four were distinct in their suspicious lack of distinction; they all had ivory skin and raven-black hair, fitting the vampire definition of beauty. They would have more unique toys hidden under those loose robes of theirs.

There were a scattering of other vampires in the room, in addition to the dozens of sclavi. The slaves, of course, were mostly dull-eyed with the drugs used to keep them under control, but the nightstalkers were sharp and dangerous.

“I am Derek Huntsman, Honorless Bloodsoaked,” a strong male voice called out. “And this man next to me is Adam Anders.”

The effect of the baseline’s words was electric. All the nightstalkers recoiled away from the blond man standing before them with his hands bound, and even more when his bland little friend struggled to his feet as well.

I felt like I should know who these two were. It was tickling at the back of my mind, but the power stirring in my body made it hard to think. Nights, it made it hard to do anything but just revel in my own strength. Why had I ever given this up? Why had I ever thought that would be a good idea?

Everyone in the audience chamber was staring at the blond and his friend, ignoring everyone else in the room, including the other two baselines still on the ground.

Everyone, that is, except for the angel. He was still mouthing words at me, now with tears dripping down his cheeks. ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Huntsman,” one of the Nobles flanking the throne, Bathym, hissed as he leaned forward, his black talons hidden in his robes. “It is… unfortunate that you are here. But the laws of Necessarius are clear. You broke into our domain. They will not rescue you from our wrath.”

“You kidnapped several ‘sarians. They will demand compensation for that.”

Bathym grinned in that annoying way he had, showing his fangs poking over his lower lip, but nothing else. “That is too bad, Huntsman. But the Belians remain a rich culture. We have more than enough money to pay retribution for a self-defense case.”

The baseline shrugged. “Perhaps. I guess we’ll just have to fight our way out of here.”

Bathym laughed loudly at that, though no one else so much as cracked a smile. “Oh, you are a confident one, Honored Paragon. But we are hardly helpless.” His black eyes turned hard. “We know what you are capable of. You are vastly outnumbered, and your clay is unarmed. Not to mention you must keep your friends safe. You are not getting out of this alive. You have no trump card.”

“Well, there is me.”

My power had not returned to me. Not completely. It would take hours, perhaps even days, before all traces of that vile chemical was purged from my system.

But I did not need physical power to deal with these wretches.

“Go back to sleep, nightstalker,” Balan, the warlord with the massive eyebrows and the tufted beard, said wearily. “You will be dealt with in a moment.”

I ignored him, and instead took off my clothes.

It wasn’t hard. My armor was missing—most likely taken—and the underclothes were ripped and torn in places. A single hard yank was enough to remove my shirt, and my pants weren’t much more difficult.

Everyone in the room stared at me. Not in lust, either. Just in sheer confusion.

“…someone get this girl out of here,” Gaziel said, waving his hand lazily in such a way that the bulbous, bony joints of his wrists were seen under his robe, and I could see the hint of his long, purple-red forked tongue in his mouth. “Sclavi. Scoateți-o.”

Instead of following his orders, one of the sclavi quietly stepped up from behind me, dressing me in a long, fur-lined cloak that went right over my naked body. There was no tie around the waist, but it was expertly tailored to my physique, and carefully clung to my body to hide both my breasts and groin.

I smiled. “Sclavi. Îngenuncheze.”

And the slaves knelt before me.

Now the Nobles and nightstalkers jumped back in fright, understanding exactly what they were dealing with. No, not yet. I saw the looks in their eyes—they were afraid of my power to control their sclavi, but they didn’t understand why.

They didn’t recognize me yet.

I strode through the rows of kneeling vampires, past the crying angel still on the floor, ignoring the baselines who were staring at me, as well as the Belians who had no idea what was going on.

I strode towards the obsidian throne, with no one to stop me.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Gazra looked from me to the throne.

Then he knelt.

Balan and Bathym followed suit a moment later, and Gaziel, looking between his three colleagues, knew he had no other choice but to do the same. I noted his hesitation, but kept my lips shut for the moment.

I turned to see the confused faces of the rest of the vampires, the nightstalkers who had joined after I had left. They saw what their Nobles were doing, but couldn’t believe it, couldn’t understand it. They had no more idea what was happening than the baselines we had captured or the giant stapled to the wall.

The angel knew, though. He was still crying, still begging me to stop.

Oh, dear, sweet Alex. You knew this was how it was going to end.

“…Kelly?” Derek asked slowly. “What—”

“Drakela Sanguinas never existed,” I explained, as if to a child. “She was a broken mask worn to interact with others.” I met the Paragon’s wary gaze with a firm one of my own, knowing full well what I was doing.

“I am Fierna,” I said calmly. “Daughter of Belial, heir to the Throne of Abriymoch, the Fourth Black Crypt Phlegethos, and all the secrets of my mother, Naome the Golden.”

I sat in the throne, the black obsidian seat too large for me—it had been designed for my father, after all, who was almost eight feet tall.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” I said, my voice echoing throughout the chamber. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The power in my veins sang. It felt good to be home

The only problem was my conscience screaming in the back of my skull.

Behind the Scenes (scene 261)

I’ve been waiting for this one for a very, very long time. Still not sure if I should move it to later.