Monthly Archives: August 2016

Scene 282 – Portam Raphaim

PORTAM RAPHAIM

JEFFERIES

My name is Liam Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

My group was on the west side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty. We found ourselves in an urban canyon. It was a long, wide street with tall buildings on either side, stretching as far forward as anyone could see.

Something about the place felt… off. It wasn’t just the distant gunfire. That didn’t seem directed at us, so we could ignore it. No, the problem was the street, and the surrounding buildings. There was something about them we couldn’t quite place, something wrong.

It was when we were setting up our base camp that we realized everything was built for people ten feet tall.

The doorways—all shut and locked tight—were taller and wider. The chairs and benches were bigger and broader. Even the water fountains and vending machines were bigger. There were usually normal-sized ones right next to them, like one for a child and one for an adult.

The place was abandoned, but that didn’t make any of us feel better. Between the looming buildings and the bizarre furniture, it felt like playing in the Three Bears’ house. Sooner or later, the bears would come home.

They waited until we had everything set up. Barricades, gun turrets, first aid stations, the works. Some of our scouting parties even had a chance to return, reporting nothing else out there.

The sound of drums echoed down the street.

It was a slow, deep beat. It didn’t take long for everyone to notice. Everyone stopped what they were doing and just stared in the direction it was coming from. Some of us tried to put on brave faces, and others looked terrified.

Because any fool could recognize the beat of a war drum. Some things are etched into your bones.

We all retreated behind our barricades, pointing our weapons down the street. We couldn’t see much, since the skyscrapers blocked too much light. But we could hear where the drums were coming from. We could feel where they were coming from.

The armies marched into view.

There was no other way to describe them. They didn’t all march perfectly, they didn’t all wear any recognizable uniform. But they marched towards us, guns and swords and axes in hand. I saw pale ones who looked European, dark ones who looked South American, blue ones, red ones…

And they were all at least six feet tall, judging by the tall doorways they passed. Most of them were eight feet, with a few ten feet tall or more. And not a skinny sort of tall, either. These men and women had biceps bigger than my head. Some were shirtless, and seemed built like Sumo wrestlers.

They had segregated themselves along… racial lines? Is that what you called it? The Europeans didn’t mix with the South Americans, who didn’t mix with the multicolored ones. And none of them mixed with the bare-chested ones with the too-large teeth.

They marched under flags, the biggest one looking like a fist bursting out of the ground. I recognized the Asgardian Valknut from my Nordic studies. There was another that looked like two mountains clashing. Another which seemed to just be gnashing teeth. There were more in the back, symbolic designs I couldn’t hope to identify. But I knew what it meant: A dozen groups or more, all working together.

All to drive us out of their homes.

With one last quick drum beat, the horde, which filled the entire street in front of us, stopped. They stood maybe a hundred yards in front of us, in range of our guns but far out of range of their swords.

One man, nearly the tallest of them all, stepped forward. He wore a sharp business suit, sized up to appear loose on his massive frame. He appeared unarmed, but a man of that size could throw a car at us if he was so inclined.

“I am Odin,” he called, his voice echoing through the urban canyon, giving him the voice of a god. “I am the Colossus of the Aesir, and have the honor of negotiating with you on this fine day. Who is in charge here?”

The highest ranking man was a captain, a young blond man who had been looking pretty confident. At least before the drums started. He swallowed, but took a step forward and raised a megaphone. Thankfully, he had prepared.

“What do you want?”

The man who called himself Odin smirked. I had played bodyguard to some negotiations. The captain had made a mistake. He sounded weak and conciliatory. He shouldn’t have even acknowledged the man’s right to speak, much less negotiate.

But he was right. This was a man of the city, one way or the other. We were invading his home. He deserved the chance to speak, despite the tactical implications.

Besides. Our echoes were on their way. We just needed a little more time.

“We want you to leave, good sir,” Odin called. “We do not appreciate our streets invaded by fools who think they know what is best for us. We have enough of that here as it is. Leave, and no harm will come to you. You have my word.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” the captain said, displaying more backbone than I had expected. “My orders are clear and explicit. Do not test me on this. Do you want your streets to run red with blood?”

And they laughed.

More of a quiet chuckle. All the giants laughed with genuine amusement at that statement. It was enough to make the street we were standing on rumble just a little. While Odin didn’t make a sound, he did smirk.

“Do you know where you are, good sir?” Odin asked.

“Domina City,” he said. “A United States city that has been beset by crime and worse for far too long.”

Odin nodded, conceding the point. “True. Somewhat. But I meant more specifically. Here in Domina City, do you know where you are?”

The captain’s silence spoke volumes.

“You are at West Gate,” Odin said, his tone patient. “You are at Ginnungagap. The Yawning Void. The heart of all giants. It is something of a holy place, as much as we can have such things.”

To the captain’s credit, he didn’t ask unnecessary questions. “Then you would not want to have blood spilled here.”

There it was again. That slow, dangerous chuckle, moving through the entire army—all the armies—like a wave. We were doing something very, very wrong, and we didn’t have the slightest idea what it was.

“You misunderstand, good sir,” Odin said. “Do you know why Ginnungagap is a holy place to our culture?”

The captain didn’t speak, but I did see him make a few signs behind his back, where Odin didn’t see.

“Ginnungagap is holy because of all the blood spilled to defend it.”

Someone next to him handed him some massive object, and it took me a moment to realize it was a gun. It had to be be at least ten feet long, and the barrel was as thick as a baseball bat. He could wipe out half our army just by swinging it around like a club.

Menn!” Odin cried. “Vi slåss!

VI SLÅSS!” they roared, and rushed forward like a wave.

But the captain wasn’t a fool. Out of his depth, true, but not a fool. The second the giants started charging forward, we all raised our guns, took aim, and fired. We had prepared ever since he started signing orders at us.

A solid wall of roaring flesh was met by so much lead that it must have felt like a solid wall. Dozens of the giants fell, trampled or avoided by their fellows.

Dozens fell. But there were hundreds.

The ones with guns stayed in the back, while the ones with swords or axes or just bare fists charged. Normally, such a tactic would never work for a second against a prepared enemy. But each foe took dozens of bullets to put down. Despite the number of giants falling to the street, the horde made solid progress.

In what felt like moments, they were upon us.

A massive hand grabbed the barricade in front of me and pulled itself up and over. I pointed my rifle at it and squeezed the trigger, but the shot went wild. I emptied half a clip without hitting him even once. The giant grinned, grabbed the gun, and ripped it out of my hands. With his other hand, he brought around a massive sledgehammer, big enough to squash my head like a tomato. He wielded it as if it was cardboard.

I scrambled back, barely managing to dodge as he brought the hammer down on the street where I had been standing, leaving a small crater. He grunted in surprise, but grinned and adjusted his grip, bringing it up again with two hands this time.

He looked like a normal person, besides his size. He was wearing a nice white shirt with a tie and everything. What was it that made him act like a screaming berserker warrior?

It didn’t matter. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was screaming. All that mattered right now was my hand finding my sidearm. I pulled it out and pointed it at the man coming after me.

Three red blossoms appeared on his white shirt.

Had I done that? The gun in my hand was smoking, but I didn’t remember pulling the trigger. It had just happened.

The giant flinched and swayed for a moment, but growled and managed to step forward. His sledgehammer was still raised above his head.

I pulled the trigger again and again, knowing I couldn’t miss at this range. This time, I could actually see the bullets impact him, could see them force him back a half step each shot. In moments, his white shirt was completely soaked with red.

The sledgehammer dropped from weak fingers. It hit the ground hard enough that I could feel the impact several feet away. A moment later, the giant himself followed, landing face-first with a wet smack.

I scrambled to my feet and glanced around, reloading as I did. The place was a war zone. They had pulled down our barricades like so much kindling, and bodies were strewn everywhere. Most of them were American soldiers, but there were a few of the giants as well.

It was like watching children fight adults. The captain and the other officers tried to establish firing lines. Then the giants just waded in and started tearing everything apart. I saw one soldier get picked up by the leg, and then used as a club by the hairy beast who had grabbed him. Within a few moments, there was nothing left of him and his squad but a bloody mess. The giant tossed him aside like so much trash.

The sound of gunfire was everywhere, but it wasn’t all coming from our side. At least so much as there were ‘sides’ in this horrific melee. Some of the giants had guns, massive things that looked like they should be sitting on a tank. They kept their firing line. They shot up our lines whenever it looked like we were about to get organized. Odin stood in the center of it all, relaxed and unconcerned. His own gun leaned against a nearby wall like some unimportant trinket or broom.

I stood in the center of it all, untouched. No, not untouched, just unnoticed. The giants seemed to have to make an effort to notice anything as small and unimportant as us. And since I wasn’t currently running away or shooting anyone, I just wasn’t worth their time.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to ignore the screams and sickening crunch of bones all around me. All I had was my pistol, and two more clips. Would it be enough against these monsters? No, no it would not. But I had little more than a week or two to live anyway. May as well go out fighting.

Nearby, there was… something. A large and shirtless purple-skinned beast. It had arms long enough to knuckle-walk and claws like razor blades. It advanced on a small squad that had managed to regroup, hoping to ambush them from the rear. It would cut through them like so much wheat.

I took a deep breath, and fired.

My first shot caught it in the shoulder. It wheeled around and roared at me, revealing a mouth full of needle-like teeth. I fired again, trying to get it in its mouth, but instead missed it completely.

It loped forward, initial quarry forgotten, and I forced myself to focus. If I wasn’t quick, I was dead. More dead than I already was, anyway.

I squeezed off three more shots, getting it once in the shoulder and twice in the chest. It didn’t even slow, and then it was upon me. It tackled me to the ground and raised those terrible claws to disembowel me.

My back felt like all the skin had been ground off by the street. I could smell the foul stench of rotten meat on the monster’s breath. Gunfire filled my ears, along with the wet, painful sounds of meat being sliced and cut. It was like my body knew that this was the last moment of my short life. Like it was trying to give me everything it could in these last few precious seconds. Just in case there was anything important.

There was.

There was still the gun, held in my hand in a death grip.

I was underneath the monster, so I just had to point the gun up and pull the trigger. The odd angle of the recoil hit me in the chest like a kick from a mule. But the beast roared. I swore I could hear the sound of the bullet breaking through its rib cage and into the vulnerable organs behind it.

I fired four more times, emptying the clip, until the beast finally collapsed on top of me. It was like getting crushed under a bear. I could feel my ribs cracking. Not to mention the warm and disturbing feeling of its blood soaking my clothes.

With a great deal of effort, I managed to roll the beast off me. I just lay there for a few minutes, breathing heavily and trying not to throw up. There were still the sounds of battle and carnage, but they felt distant for the time being. Right now, I just needed to catch my breath. I stared up at the sliver of sky visible through the top of the urban canyon.

Then I heard something shifting next to me.

Very slowly, I turned to look. I was unsure what I could possibly see, but I knew that whatever it was, I wouldn’t like it.

The beast was sitting up.

It was grunting in pain, but it was alive. One of the wounds I had given it was closing up even as I watched. It was a massive bullet hole that had exploded out the back of its chest, but it was healing. Like some grisly flower opening its petals in reverse.

After a moment, the beast sighed in relief, then turned to grin at me.

“Good fight,” it said, before ripping out my throat.

Behind the Scenes (scene 282)

I feel like I haven’t done enough with the giants. The Jotuun only have two warlords, and there aren’t many named giants outside the Aesir. I’m trying to rectify it, but I’ve got a whole lot of characters as it is.

break

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Scene 281 – Furor Inferorum

FUROR INFERORUM

YOLANDA

My name is Yolanda McDowell. Daughter of the so-called ‘Loony Lovers,’ niece of Senator Evangel Athanasius Kane McDowell. Succubus of the Mahathallah clan, follower of Agrat Bat Mahlat. I’m dating a nice boy who was broken by the toy maker, and am going to school at Akamatsu University. Sometimes it felt like I was the only one still bothering to show up for class.

And now, little old me was stuck in the middle of the battle for Demon’s Gate.

I hadn’t planned it this way. Everyone in the city knew the Americans were coming, and it was obvious that they would strike at the Gates. Where else would they attack? But unfortunately, the ruins of Shendilavri—the ruins under which modern succubi had hidden their domains—were just a stone’s throw from South Gate.

I didn’t want to be here. I had no combat skills but some stupidly-designed guns left to her by my insane parents.

I was wrong.

“Hands above your head,” the man said. He was definitely American. He had a few patches on his camo-uniform indicating that he was a sergeant. Beyond that, I couldn’t say.

As I raised my hands, I found myself looking over his gun, trying to identify the model. It wasn’t a gun we got in Domina, but I still recognized a high-caliber military assault rifle when I saw one. Any demon fiend with up to date bullet resistance buffs would have a hard time surviving a burst from a gun like that. I, of course, didn’t have any bullet resistance buffs, so it would chew through me like tissue paper.

Another American, this one a lieutenant, stepped forward. He picked up the gun I had dropped on the ground and looked over it. “What’s this?” When I didn’t answer, he frowned. “I asked you a question.”

There wasn’t much fire in his voice, but I still flinched. I wasn’t good with confrontation. “’s a gun, sir.”

“I can see it’s a gun. What kind is it? I’ve never seen one like it.”

“…’s a McDowell gun, sir.”

“All right, fine. Nothing important. We’ll—”

“Nothing important?” I demanded, all shyness forgotten in the face of simple stubborn familial pride. “That is a McDowell MD91/5.0 ‘Snake Eyes-Shooter,’ a two-round 5.00 mm revolver. It was intended as a sniper’s pistol, and while no one knows what the Hells that means, it has found use as an excellent hold-out weapon. If I hadn’t been holding it when you found me, you’d never know I had it until I put a bullet in your skull! And while the width of the chambers are only enough to accommodate 5.00 mm caliber bullets, the length is larger than necessary, allowing for custom-made bullets that are longer than normal. Bullets with extra powder are common, as are shrapnel rounds and even exotic darts or battery bullets.”

The lieutenant, the sergeant, and the six privates all stared.

“I also have an MD90/3.0 ‘Pocket Sniper’ in my back pocket, and while I can’t get it out before you shoot me, it has also become a staple of the city’s arsenal due to its impressive concealment capabilities! It isn’t strong enough to beat even the weakest bullet resistance, but assassins who use it on a regular basis are known as ‘eye poppers’ due to their penchant for shooting their targets right through the eyes!”

The grunts circled around me, slowly, to keep an eye on me from all angles.

“And then of course there is the MD90/200.0 ‘Anti-Infantry Grenade!’ A shaped explosive strong enough to breach tank armor, it was, as the name suggests, originally intended as a weapon for use by infantry against other infantry! The shaped charge means that I could blow you up at this distance without so much as ruffling my clothing, sir!”

The lieutenant took a step back. “And you… have one of these on you?”

“No, sir!”

“No? Then why—”

A succubus walked up, completely naked.

“Hello boys,” she said, eyes twinkling with passion. “Would you like to help me out with something?”

The soldiers were completely and utterly gobsmacked. It’s hard to do anything when confronted with a naked succubus—a creature with a body as perfect as the toy maker can make it—and not just take a minute to stare.

The fact that she was pumping out enough pheromones to make a gay man straight didn’t hurt, either.

I knew to keep my eyes away from her. The pheromones were tugging at the edge of my brain, whispering all sorts of little promises that made me blush, but I kept my head. I was in a position to see when three more demons slipped out of the shadows. They came up behind the soldiers, slitting their throats before anyone even knew they were there.

I felt the pheromones cut off, and I took a deep breath of clean air while trying not to look at the corpses on the ground. “Thanks, girls.”

The naked succubus accepted a robe from one of the others. “No thanks necessary. It is the duty of all Daybringers to aid any succubus or incubus who may be in trouble. Besides, you did a good job distracting them.”

I shrugged awkwardly. “Honestly, I was just upset about what he said about my guns.”

“Ah, yes.” She bent down to pick up the fallen Snake Eyes-Shooter. It was inches away from the pool of blood expanding from the lieutenant’s body. “You’re that McDowell. I always forget. Still, good job regardless. Are you ready to come back to the domain?”

I nodded. “I don’t think I’ll survive much longer out here alone.”

She cocked her head, listening to the sound of gunfire on the air. “It seems like they haven’t quite reached Shendilavri yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

“Are there troops defending it?”

She chuckled. “Of course not. That would just make it obvious that it was something worth defending. The hope is that people will just avoid it.” She shrugged. “The demons will, at least, but I don’t know about the hired Gravers.”

“I just want to get home. My boyfriend is down there, I need to make sure he’s safe.”

“I’m sure he’s fine. Shendilavri is a haven—”

“He’s not an incubus.”

“Oh.” She grinned. “In that case, I’m definitely sure he’s fine. Left alone with a thousand succubi… assuming his heart doesn’t pop from sheer pleasure, he’ll be right as rain by the time you get down there.”

I blushed, and all the Daybringers laughed. “He won’t… they won’t…”

The leader clapped me on the back. “Relax, kid. They won’t actually steal your boy-toy.” She sobered. “Especially at a time like this. They’ve got more important things to worry about.”

I stepped around the corpses of the soldiers, making sure not to look down. “Can we get going, then? I don’t want to stay out here longer than necessary.” There was an explosion from the direction of South Gate. “I really don’t want to stay.”

“I think that was Keller,” she said, not quite paying attention to me. “He always did like explosions. Hopefully he pointed it at those stupid echoes of theirs.” She noticed the look on my face, and smiled. “It should distract everyone long enough for us to get back. Come on.”

They headed out, and I followed, surrounded on all sides by Daybringers. Rather than focusing on what they were protecting me from, I tried to distract myself with their guns.

The leader—I still hadn’t caught her name—had a Crisis 08091945, named after the Nagasaki bombing. It was a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun. It was overpowered against infantry, but it would get the job done.

Another had a Hiroshima Crisis, the 08061945. That was a 10-gauge single-barreled shotgun, with a good amount more stopping power. I had no idea what we could face that could need that amount of firepower. Maybe if there were any crazy warlords running around, that might be able to drive them off. Depended on what kind of ammo she had loaded.

The other two both had Hellion guns. Good and reliable, if a little boring. They sacrificed raw damage in favor of accuracy and magazine size. It took me a second to identify them as the 93-061 Assault, an improvement on the 93-060. There was a manufacturing flaw in the 060, a minor quirk in the barrel that reduced accuracy and range. The Hellions had released the fix within two weeks.

All their guns had suppressors, good ‘sarian made ones with the digital status indicator on the side. They couldn’t eliminate sound completely, but they were the best on the market. With the amount of ambient noise from the war right now, they were as close to perfect silencers as you could get.

Odd choices, all around. Soldiers usually preferred to have the same caliber so that they could swap ammo. The ones with the Hellions could do that, but the Crises couldn’t. It just seemed like a stupid risk to take, especially since we weren’t fighting anything that required heavy firepower. We could most likely all survive just by using the naked distraction trick a couple more times.

“How did you get grabbed, anyway?” the leader, the one with the 12-gauge, asked as we walked for a few minutes. “It’s not like these guys have a whole lot of patrols out this far. The Erlking is holding them pretty well at Demonia.”

Demonia was one of the more formal names for South Gate. I had never liked it. Sounded too pretentious. Better than North Gate, though—some people called it Kemoia, and that was just silly.

“I think they were scouts. Or deserters, maybe. Anyway, I was running, and they found me. Then they saw my gun, and they freaked out. I don’t think I would have been able to keep them from shooting me for long. They’ve got it into their heads that anyone who uses the toy maker is the enemy.”

12-gauge spat on the ground. “Blame Soaring Eagle for that. She had their president’s ear for a while. Long enough to tell him all sorts of sweet little lies.”

“You think she’s still out there?” I asked.

“I heard she died,” one of the girls with the 93-061 Assaults said. “Isn’t that the reason for this invasion? Or his excuse, anyway. Straw that broke the camel’s back or whatever?”

12-gauge smiled. “I don’t know about that last part, but yeah, word is she’s dead. I heard it from some of my informants who work at some of the companies that talk with America. Rumor has it that it’s a Dominite that killed her, but then of course they’d say that.”

“Might be true,” 10-gauge said.

“Not by Butler’s order. And not any other warlord, either. Who would be that stupid?”

“The fey,” everyone said at once.

Everyone except me. “I don’t think they’d do this.” I blushed when they looked at me.

12-gauge nodded. “She’s right. We’ve all met Titania. She’s a little harsh, but not enough to start a war with America. I doubt the other fey are much different.”

“Have you met any?” one of the girls asked me.

I shook my head. “Just Titania.”

The other Assault girl cocked her head. “Oh! You’re Scarboy’s girl, aren’t you?”

“…please don’t call him that.”

“Right, sorry.” She smiled. “Thought I’d recognized you. Yeah, you spent a lot of time with the Matron. You agree with the boss? Not crazy enough to assassinate a wayward bird for no good reason?”

I thought about it. Would Titania do that? She had no connection to Soaring Eagle, other than the fact that the kemo had stolen a toy box. A toy box that the fey had already sold, and had no claim on. She wasn’t prone to revenge or flights of fancy anyway, and had been building up a reputation as a doctor. It would have been one of the Winter fey who did it. But no, it wouldn’t have been them either.

“Not flashy enough,” I said finally.

Everyone remained silent to consider this.

“Fair enough,” 12-gauge said finally. “We would have heard about a horde of monsters or people with wings or whatever. The fact that we didn’t means this was probably just a quiet knife in the dark. That’s not their style.”

“Might have been us, actually,” 10-gauge said, a little eagerly. “I heard that Soaring Eagle was actually—”

“Enough,” 12-gauge snapped. She glared at the other woman. She relented when her withering gaze caused her target to, well, wither. “Enough,” she said, more softly. “These are just rumors. We don’t need anyone spreading them around.”

The two girls with the Assaults leaned forward. They didn’t say anything, in case the other two remembered they were still there. Succubi liked gossip, and the Daybringers thrived off it.

“It’s not just a rumor,” 10-gauge said, a little petulantly. “I overheard Naamah talking to Agrat Bat Mahlat and Eisheth Zenunim. They were definitely talking about Soaring Eagle when they said that—”

Enough,” 12-gauge said, firmer this time. “Not in front of the others.”

All three of us deflated a bit when 10-gauge frowned at us. Whatever secret connection Soaring Eagle had to the succubi, we weren’t going to discover it today. She was probably just a secret lover of someone important. That happened a lot, for obvious reasons.

“Come on,” 12-gauge said. “One of the secret entrances isn’t far. We’ll be back underground before you know it.”

No one else spoke, but I knew everyone could tell that there seemed to be more gunfire than there was a few minutes ago. And we were headed straight towards it.

Behind the scenes (scene 281)

Yolanda is an interesting character to write for due to her shyness combined with her love for guns. I need more chances for her to shine.

Scene 280 – Portam Daemonia

PORTAM DAEMONIA

JEFFERIES

My name is Paul Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

My group was on the south side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty. We found ourselves in a wide-open square of shops and little restaurants, with a wide street running down the center. We moved into the square, policed the area, and moved on. We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us.

That’s when everything started going wrong.

They were ready for us. The second we stepped out of the square down the main street, we were greeted by gunfire. Dozens of men with horns fired at us with professional precision. Three of my comrades were cut down in seconds, and I barely managed to dive behind cover with a bullet in my leg.

“Just do whatever you have to do so I can fight,” I told the medic.

He shook his head. “If I do this wrong, it could result in permanent damage. We need to be careful.”

“I don’t care about permanent damage! Just get me on my damned feet!”

There was an explosion. Huge chunks of our wall blew past us. We had built it from tables and chairs thrown into place under covering fire. It wasn’t enough to stand up to anything more than small-arms fire.

“What the hell was that!?” the sergeant yelled.

“No idea, sir!” someone called back. “Must have been some kind of missile!”

He cursed. “Hold that line! And where are my echoes!?”

Another explosion rocked the barricade. A table missed the sergeant by about a foot.

“You and you!” he said, pointing at me and one other man. “Do nothing but watch this hole! Something pokes its head through, shoot it!”

The two of us both nodded and leveraged our rifles at the gap.

I fought down my pounding heart. This wasn’t my first battle. I wouldn’t act like a green little recruit just because I had barely been born a month ago. Okay, it was my first war, but still. I ignored the gunfire, the screams of pain and rage, the roars of challenge from the things on the other side of the wall.

Guard the gap. That was all that mattered.

The man next to me screamed as something dropped on top of him.

I jumped, but shifted my focus over to him. He was flailing around too much, I couldn’t get a clean shot. Maybe I should have just taken it, but my body was acting on autopilot. Working on old bodyguard instincts that didn’t apply any more.

I reached forward and grabbed the thing that was clinging to his back. I ripped it off him by kicking off him for leverage and tossed it onto the street.

It was like something out of a nightmare.

Small, maybe three or four feet tall, with thin and spindly limbs. It had muscles like steel wires, green skin, and needle-like teeth. It hissed at me and leaped, but I punched it in the face mid-flight. It produced a satisfying crunch as its jaw broke. I placed my boot on its chest, pinning it down.

“Sergeant!” I called. “Prisoner!”

He frowned, and I realized my mistake. We couldn’t keep prisoners. Killing an enemy in combat was one thing, but executing one we had captured was another. Half of us had cameras on our helmets, so there was no way we could get away with this.

And our iron-clad morals, of course. Those also stopped us.

Thankfully—for a certain definition of the word—he was spared that decision by the barricade exploding. I was knocked back, more than enough for my captive to escape, but I wasn’t worried about that any more.

Dozens of… I didn’t know what. Demons? Creatures with horns and red skin and tails. They marched forward in perfect formation, firing in a line to drive us back. We were hardly helpless; we fired back, and even managed to take a few down. But they moved to reinforce themselves, not even blinking at the casualties. We were driven back to the gate in a handful of minutes.

Then an echo stepped out of the gate.

Ten feet tall and built new from shining steel, the mechanized suit was halfway between a tank and a suit of armor. Two large legs brought it into the city, and two fully articulate arms carried a gun bigger than I was. The pilot inside the chest cockpit swept a line of fire over the enemy, and their line buckled. They began to retreat. Swiftly and efficiently, while laying down covering fire, but they still retreated.

Then a wall appeared.

I had to look twice, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. One second the line was collapsing, the next the echo was reloading. Before it could do anything, a dozen men ran in. They slammed their hands on the ground and a ten-foot tall wall of concrete appeared. It blocked off the entire square. I had no doubt that the enemy soldiers were regrouping behind that wall.

A few more echoes stepped out, ready to fight, but they didn’t shoot yet. Did we even have ordnance heavy enough to breach that wall? The echoes could jump it, but the rest of us couldn’t, and they’d be overwhelmed alone.

And there were still questions. I didn’t care what kind of magical bio-tech you had, people couldn’t make a wall just by… by what? By thinking it? I had no idea what they had even done.

“Sir,” I said to the sergeant, who happened to be nearby. “I—”

“No, I don’t know either,” he interrupted with a growl. “Right now, we need to fortify right here. We underestimated them. We’re not going to make that mistake twice.”

“…okay. Actually, I was going to ask where you want me. With the echoes, or watching the wall?”

He looked surprised, but thought for a second. “The wall. They’ll send scouts over soon.”

Before I could do more than nod, a gunshot so loud it seemed to shake the world resounded around the square.

A moment later, one of the echoes toppled, a massive hole in the cockpit.

The sergeant cursed. “Sniper! Find him!”

I glanced over the ridiculously high rooftops. “What is he even using?

“Something anti-materiel,” the sergeant muttered. “Maybe even a railgun.”

I struggled to remember my advanced weapons training. “Don’t those burn out after like three shots?”

“Yes, but three dead echoes is three too many. We need to—”

“There!” someone shouted, firing at one of the lower rooftops nearby. I wasn’t sure he actually got his shots within a mile of the sniper, but it was enough to scare him off, at least.

“Someone clean out that echo!” the sergeant yelled. “And be ready! They’ll try a push any second!”

They seemed to take that as their cue.

We were expecting them to jump over the wall. That was our first mistake.

The wall disappeared. A solid wall of asphalt and concrete molded back into the ground as if it were soft clay shaped by invisible hands. The demon soldiers opened fire immediately, cutting through us like wheat. Dozens of men fell, and one echo stumbled, as a rain of fire managed to pierce the cockpit and kill the pilot inside. The demons must be using some sort of armor piercing rounds. The suits were strong, but they weren’t tanks.

Next to me, the sergeant hid behind an overturned table. He yelled into his radio, demanding an artillery barrage from the ships. I could hear the calm voice of mission control denying him, but promising more reinforcements.

A wave of men rushed through the gate, pushing the demons back again. They retreated again, laying down covering fire. Those strange men and women from before stepped forward. It took me a minute to realize most of them didn’t have horns or weird skin colors. Did that mean anything? They interrupted my thoughts by raising another wall of stone.

I looked around. Dozens of dead, too few of them enemies. The only reason we hadn’t lost more was because we hadn’t had more. When the next rush came, they’d kill us all, reinforcements or no. Especially since all three of our echo pilots were dead. We had more on the ships, but they wouldn’t want to risk them.

But…

I rushed forward, shoving aside one of the men who seemed to be in shock. I slipped into the open cockpit of one of the echoes. It was the one that the sniper had taken out. There was a giant hole in the top of the shielding, but the body had been removed. I could ignore the blood splashed everywhere.

I slipped into the seat and pressed the green start button. The hatch swung closed, and the screen on the inside booted up. Of course, the big hole, about the size of a fist, made things a little confusing. But other than that the HUD showed a perfect representation of the outside world. There was even an overlay identifying friendlies and so on.

I slipped my arms into the metal sleeves at my side and flexed my fingers. The machine echoed my movements perfectly. I could even feel resistance in the controls from where one of the hands was stuck under some rubble. I shook it off, and put my feet on the pedals. The echo slipped similar sleeves around my legs, and I was soon able to awkwardly stand.

I grinned. I was driving an echo. Sure, someone was going to kill me in about ten seconds, but I didn’t have long to live anyway. I had always wanted to drive one of these things.

From my higher vantage point, I could almost see over the wall. Not quite, but enough to see the horns of some of the taller things on the other side. Glancing around, I found one of the echo’s discarded guns. It synced up with my HUD, showing me how much ammo I had left. Seemed like I had a full clip. Good, because I wasn’t sure how to reload.

The wall came down.

Acting on instinct, I opened fire. I think I killed a dozen men on my first pass, then another dozen on the second. The gun didn’t shoot bullets so much as giant lead spikes. They cut through infantry like water.

Behind me, another of the echoes rose, then the third. Someone had taken my idea and run with it. The sergeant? Maybe. Didn’t matter.

I didn’t get any orders over the radio. Maybe it was busted, or maybe they knew I knew what I was doing. With no other option, I advanced, firing carefully and effectively. The other two echoes mimicked on either side. For a moment, we were gods. No one could touch us.

Then I ran out of ammo.

Remembering what happened last time an echo tried to reload, I didn’t even bother. I threw the gun with all my strength, punching a hole through the enemy line with a sickening crunch. The other two echoes continued firing, but they wouldn’t last long.

The demons started to retreat.

Oh no. I knew this game. I wasn’t doing it again. With a grunt, I dashed forward, charging with my shoulder. I didn’t aim for the demons, but for the weird people making the walls, hiding behind them.

They yelped in surprise and tried to run, but too late. I kicked one a good twenty feet into the closest building. I grabbed another with a mechanical hand, slamming him into the ground twice. I tossed his broken body aside and grabbed for the next.

But they were wise to my tricks now. Their initial panic had faded, and they retreated out of my range. They were planning something, but I couldn’t tell what. All I knew was that I had to do something, and quick.

The strange men and women were swept away, cleared from the street as if by a broom.

I turned to see one of the other echoes, without any obvious damage, standing next to me. It was wielding a sign pole that had clearly been ripped straight out of the concrete. The sign itself was now covered in blood where it had cut through the enemy like a blade.

I nodded in thanks and continued forward. I hoped to take out the rest of the stone-makers before they had a chance to recover.

Before I could, though, I heard screeches to my side. I turned back to see the pole-wielding echo covered in those small, multicolored demons. They had dropped down from the sky, and were crawling over his back, looking for weaknesses. He struggled and flailed, but couldn’t get a good angle at any of them.

I cursed and stomped over, knowing full well this was a distraction to give the demons time to retreat. I just didn’t have any choice; the echo was too valuable.

I grabbed a few of the little ones and threw them away as hard as I could, but I wasn’t sure I actually killed any of them. In just a few moments, the rest of them scrambled off. They ran off and clambered up the sides of the buildings before I could even blink.

I looked over the echo to make sure there were no bombs or other surprises left behind, then gave a thumbs-up to the pilot. The entire cockpit bobbed a little. It was the closest we could come to a nod in these things. He picked up the fallen street sign and twirled it like a quarterstaff.

“Jefferies!” the sergeant yelled as he walked up. “Good job!”

I guess my radio was out after all. “Thank you, sir!”

“We got that sniper, so you don’t have to worry about that any more! Just be careful, and give ’em hell! We’re bringing in reinforcements as we speak.”

I nodded, relieved. The rules on echoes were still weird. Technically, he should make me give up the seat to a trained pilot. But the whole point of the ghost-movement system meant that you didn’t have to be trained to pilot one of these things. As long as I did well, no one would mind.

Besides, what were they gonna do? Execute me a week before my artificial body fell apart like so much trash?

“Help us make a barricade again!” the sergeant continued. “These things aren’t going to be gone for long.”

I nodded again, and all three of us moved to help. The third echo had been in the back, shooting while we kept the enemy distracted up close. Maybe he had been the one who took out the sniper. I hadn’t been paying attention.

A drum sounded.

I turned to the other echoes. Had they heard it too?

The drum came again, a few more beats this time.

Then again, and again.

I recognized the sound. Not the exact tune, but I recognized the sound, the feel.

It was a war drum.

Something walked out from behind the shattered barricade we had set up earlier, where the demons had retreated past. The thing was eight feet tall and covered in crudely forged steel, made to look like some sort of barbarian scavenger armor. There were spikes and breaks, patches of metal on metal on metal. Two great horns, also metal but shaped like a wild buck’s, rose from its forehead.

It carried a sword over one shoulder.

The sword was six feet long and a good handspan or more wide. It had a battered edge that looked like it had been attacked with a hammer—or maybe it had attacked the hammer. It was solid steel and must have weighed a good hundred pounds. The thing carried it as easily as a baseball bat.

A mech. They had a mech. An American echo, I would assume, but it could have been the Soviet or Chinese model. It was clearly heavily modified, as it was more humanoid than mine. It actually had a head, for one, a cold steel mask like a helmet.

How had they gotten their hands on it? Militaries kept close watch on their mechs. How had they kept it working for so long in the salty air?

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. It was just something to fight.

The demons followed behind their champion, leaving a good twenty feet of open space. They marched in perfect rhythm to the drum beats, quick but not hurried. They didn’t even have their guns raised.

The mech stopped. The drumbeats stopped with him, the last beat echoing with his last step.

Ich bin der Erlkönig, der Jäger,” he said, his voice loud and carrying. It didn’t even have the scratchy quality of a radio. “Kriegsherr der kobolde, Pförtner des Spirac, Fünfte Tor der Hölle.” He lifted that massive sword off his shoulder and pointed it me. “Who are you, machine-walker, who stand against me and my city?” He had a thick German accent, and I was guessing that was the language he was speaking.

Don’t stand out…

Way too late for that.

I didn’t say anything. Couldn’t think of anything, and with the radio busted no one could hear me anyway. I elbowed the echo with the sign. He nodded, charging forward, ground shaking under his feet, improvised weapon at the ready. I followed just a few steps behind, ready to grab the enemy mech and rip his arm off if I had to.

He moved like lightning.

One second he was standing there calmly, sword resting. The next there was a mechanical arm on the ground, severed at the shoulder.

The echo with the sign didn’t let that stop him. It helped that echoes didn’t have pain feedback. He swung the pole at the enemy mech with one hand. There was still enough force that even a tank would have to sit up and take notice.

The barbarian mech parried the blow with his sword and kicked out, sending my ally reeling onto his back. Echoes weren’t good at getting up from that position. With only one arm he was a sitting duck as the enemy stepped forward, sword raised to plunge straight into the cockpit.

I tackled the barbarian at a full run, half a ton of metal slamming into him at maybe sixty miles per hour. We both went flying, rolling across the street, and his sword wheeled off into the distance.

Everything was happening too fast, my damaged HUD couldn’t keep up. The mech was punching me even as we rolled, but he couldn’t get enough leverage to do real damage. We hit the wall, and I was on top. Using my better position, I punched him in the face, hoping that’s where his sensors were located. If I could blind him—

He kicked me off, sending me sprawling, but I managed to scramble to my feet. Maybe not in the most dignified way possible, but I did it. I closed my hand into a fist, ready for another fight, but frowned as there was some resistance. I glanced down at the hand and saw that I had managed to get the mech’s mask at some point. Good. That meant I would be able to see all the delicate machinery—

I blinked, and looked again.

My enemy was walking forward, slowly and purposefully. He had lost his sword, and most of his helmet was gone. I had the mask, but the rest was scattered across the street in scraps of twisted metal.

Under the mask was a face. A human face. Yes, it was green, but it was still a living human face. Twinkling eyes and a grinning mouth full of far too many sharp teeth.

It… what? It wasn’t a mech? How was that even possible? How could anyone fight a mech in hand to hand? I didn’t care if you were eight feet tall, humans just were not strong enough to do that.

“What the hell is going on in this city?” I whispered.

My opponent had better hearing than I thought. “Hell?” he said with a laugh. “You walked right into Hell, machine-walker. My goblins watch the skies.” He waved at the soldiers behind him. “Sargeras’ hellions patrol the streets. The Satanists and the bulezau and all the others stand ready and waiting. While you fight me.” His grin seemed wide enough to split his face right in half. “Hell is what is going on in this city, outsider.”

I gritted my teeth and rushed forward to punch him.

He caught my metal first in one hand.

“See you on the other side,” he said. He thrust his hand through the armored cockpit, crushing my neck with a single sharp squeeze.

Behind the Scenes (scene 280)

Echoes are one of the things I was worried about, but I think they’re coming off well. They sit somewhere between tanks and heavy infantry, and their ability to ghost the movements of their pilots means that minimal training is required to use them. This makes them very useful, but they’re still far from invincible.

Scene 279 – Noctu Insidias

NOCTU INSIDIAS

ILEANA

My name is Ileana. I am an ambassador of the Nosferatu vampires, specifically the Nictuku clan. After Cinder and Halifax were cast out, I became a full-time employee of Necessarius, helping them smooth over some of the more difficult Nosferatu bloodlines—which is to say, all of them.

The point was, the last place I should be was a battlefield.

I dove behind a car as bullets hit the pavement where I had been standing. The American soldiers still had those light amplification goggles on, which meant they could actually see me. We were on one of the side streets near East Gate, pretty far from the Dragon’s ambush spots. There were no angels to drop a daybreak and force the soldiers to take the goggles off. And of course this was vampire territory, so there wasn’t a flashlight within twenty blocks.

The soldiers fired again, bullets pinging off the car. It wouldn’t hold up against them for long. Weren’t Americans supposed to be soft and hesitant? They shouldn’t be willing to shoot at an unarmed observer!

Of course, the soft and the hesitant generally didn’t join the army, much less the infantry. And then the Dragon had decided to use ambush and terror tactics to scare them, make them sloppy. Well, that seemed to be working, it was just gonna get me killed in the process.

I had claws and poison fangs, but that wasn’t anywhere near enough for me to win a fight with five armed men. I didn’t even have any armor, let alone the sort of bulletproof black carapace that Halifax had been so fond of.

I did have one thing, though.

I took a deep breath and tugged at my reservoir, the fuel source for my power. I wasn’t like some people, the ones who never used their powers for one reason or another. Some didn’t want anything given to them by the Composer, some were former screamers who got powers that didn’t fit them, and some were just lazy.

I trained with my power. I knew how to use it. It was too valuable not to practice with it daily. The source was irrelevant.

No, the problem was that I wasn’t used to having to use my power while I was being shot at.

Every bullet that got too close affected my concentration, making it harder to draw out my power. None hit, none even got close. But every time something pinged off that car, I couldn’t help but think that sooner or later, the bullets would punch through and hit me…

Unless I did this.

I took a deep breath, and projected an illusion.

Suddenly, there was a copy of me crouching on the sidewalk behind the car with me. She looked exactly like me, from the dirt on her face to the black eyes to the singed hair. She should; self-projection was the most common illusion I used. Half the time these days I didn’t even talk to people face to face, I just projected an illusion of myself around the corner and let them talk to that. It had already saved my life twice.

I sent her running off in one direction, keeping her low as those she was trying to stay out of sight. The truth, of course, was the opposite. The soldiers needed to see her, because otherwise they might see me.

The shooting paused briefly, then redirected. Gunfire ricocheted off mailboxes and cars farther up the street.

“C’mon!” I heard one soldier yell, and then the sound of running boots.

I stayed still for a few moments, waiting to see if anyone was still there. When I didn’t hear anything, I crept out of my hiding place. I was safe.

Which, unfortunately, was a problem.

If I was safe, someone else wasn’t. My phone had broken in the scuffle. By the time I found someone and sent nightstalkers to deal with these soldiers, they would be long gone. They could do some real damage to our ambushes if they came at us from the right angle. Bashing around backstage, my friend had called it.

With no other choice, I crept forward in the direction the soldiers had gone. I was hoping I would find a radio or a phone or something. My only option was to hope I could somehow use my illusions to trick the soldiers into shooting each other. They might be high-strung, but I had a feeling it would be harder than it sounded.

At least they weren’t making any attempt to be stealthy. I heard them when I was still a street away. Their voices echoed off the empty streets and tall buildings as if they were in a deep cave.

I shivered. Empty streets in Domina City. Even during the Composer’s reign, it hadn’t been this bad. Yes yes, tactics and strategy rather than fear and bloodshed, but still, it brought to mind the worst moments of those days. They weren’t gone long enough that I could just ignore the similarities.

As I got closer, I actually managed to hear what the men were saying.

“Where’d she go?”

“I dunno, Sarge. You think she doubled back?”

“Don’t see how. She probably just slipped into a house or shop or whatever these places are.” I heard someone spit. “Keep your eyes peeled. She’s definitely a spy.”

“She’s just a kid, Sarge.”

“She had claws and fangs, Corporal. She looked like a damned monster. Why would she look like that, if she wasn’t planning to use it?”

Because it was fashionable, you uncultured brute.

A new voice, younger and female, piped up. “Sarge, we’re getting a bit off the beaten path here. You think we should head back?”

I froze. If they headed back, they’d find me. Should I project another illusion?

“Let me see that map,” the sergeant said. There was a pause. “We’re not too far from the gate. Let’s set up a forward outpost here. Corporal, recon that shop, it will do for a start. We’re going to hunker down, shoot anything that comes close.”

“Yessir,” the Corporal said. “You two, with me.”

My mind raced. What should I do now? I couldn’t tell if this was better or worse than them continuing on. If they kept going, they might blunder into something important. It would be hard to dig them out of the shop, but it was better than letting them walk a few more streets and find the orphanages, right?

I was close enough to see them now. There were six of them. Three were heading towards a blood shop. The other three had their backs to the shop, watching the streets. Their guns were lowered, but not forgotten. If someone attacked, they’d have them up in less than a heartbeat.

The shop was abandoned, or at least the first floor was. The streets were deserted, but a lot of people lived out here, above their shops or factories or storehouses. If the soldiers decided to sweep the entire building, they could find innocent bystanders on the upper levels. Well, for a given definition of innocent, anyway. The point was, they needed to be stopped before this could escalate any further.

Evidently, someone agreed.

There was a scream from inside the shop. All three men still out on the street turned, guns raised and pointed in that direction. They spread out wide, trying to cover all exits from the shop at once. The problem was that it was a corner, so they’d have to expose themselves to do so.

“Corporal?” the Sergeant called, advancing slowly. “Report!”

His only response was another scream.

He never saw the vampire sneaking up behind him, a wicked long knife held in his hand.

The blade was darkened with ash, a common practice for the Mals. He stepped up right behind the Sergeant and clapped a hand over his mouth while slitting his throat in the same motion. He caught the body, lowering it slowly to the ground, and kept an eye on the other two soldiers. They hadn’t noticed yet, but he had seconds left, if that.

I wanted to use my illusions to help, but the only sound I could project was my own voice. I doubted I could pass for the Sergeant. Maybe if I—

But it was already too late. One of the other soldiers glanced in the direction of the Sergeant and saw the Mal.

“Contact!” the American yelled, opening fire. His companion joined suit a heartbeat later, and I almost jumped at the sudden staccato of gunfire. I was not built for this.

The Mal yelped and tried to run, but the bullets ripping through his leg and torso slowed him down too much. I concentrated and created an illusion of him, which I sent running into the blood shop. The soldiers followed it, but I’d be surprised if it kept them occupied for more than ten seconds.

I rushed over to the Mal’s side. I threw his arm over my shoulder, ignoring the fact that my heart was in my throat.

To his credit, the Mal didn’t waste time or breath trying to figure out who I was. He just struggled to his feet, hissing, and started limping away from the battle. I had to half-carry him most of the way.

“Hey!” one of the soldiers cried. “They’re over here!” Bullets hit the car next to us.

“Any ideas?” I asked.

The Mal groaned. “No. What’s your power—”

The car next to us burst into flame, and we both threw ourselves to the ground instinctively. But despite what television would have you believe, cars don’t explode at the drop of a hat. This one had probably caught from a one in a million shot, a bullet hitting just the right part of the generator. It wouldn’t get any worse than it was right now.

But a burning car is still pretty bad, especially in vampire territory. The Mal and I both cursed and stumbled away, blinded as easily as a baseline staring at the sun. My eyes were watering and my vision completely white—I couldn’t see two steps in front of me.

But at least we had experience getting blinded. I heard more cursing behind us, the sound of the Americans ripping off their light amplification goggles. They’d recover quickly. We only had seconds.

The Mal dragged us up a few steps, which probably meant into an abandoned storefront. I tripped and stumbled over something on the ground, but he threw me behind a counter instead of just letting me fall on the floor.

I took a deep breath, blinking to allow my eyes to adjust. There was still the fire outside the window, but it was far enough away. There were enough walls between us and it that it was just radiant rather than blinding.

I glanced around the shop. It was a magazine library, with pads and computers chained to desks so that people could read the latest editions of this, that, or the other thing. There were more rooms upstairs, but I didn’t want to lead the soldiers up there in case there were people hiding up there.

“What’s your power?” the Mal, sitting next to me, asked.

He got right down to business, didn’t he? “Illusions. But I think they’re getting wise. You?”

“Drug immunity.”

I stared at him. “That’s it?

He shrugged. “I used to be a Belian. Seemed pretty nice to me at the time.”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Fine. Please tell me you have backup. Someone else had to have taken out the soldiers in the blood shop.”

“They did, but I don’t know what happened to them. One of the soldiers must have got a good hit in. Still, I’m pretty sure we’re down to two bad guys.” He looked me over, frowning. “How good are you with those claws?”

“I can open bottles. That’s about it. I’m not a fighter.”

“Aren’t you a ferret?”

Nosferatu,” I corrected automatically. “And I’m not the one who got shot half-dead.”

He frowned, but didn’t press the point one way or another. “They’re going to figure out where we went soon.” He flipped a knife off his belt. “Can you take him out?”

I looked at his knife, then shook my head firmly. “I’m not a fighter.”

“Yes, I heard you the first time.” He sighed. “I’ll have to do it.”

I grabbed his arm before he could get up. “You’re still injured!”

“I have healing buffs. I’ll be fine.”

“We both know it’s not that easy! Even if you have troll-level buffs, you need a few minutes.”

“Use one of your illusions to distract them.”

“I told you, they’re getting wise. And there are no more vampire patrols in the area.” I sighed. “I didn’t want to do this, but we need to go upstairs. There might be someone up there, somewhere, that can help us.”

The Mal looked hesitant. “Nyashk ordered us not to involve civilians.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s Domina City. Do we even have civilians?” He still looked hesitant. “Look, it’s either we get help, we wait for more Mals—”

“Closest is a mile away,” he said.

“—or we sit here and die. At which point those soldiers might decide to go up the stairs and kill everyone anyway.”

That was a lie. Or a twisted truth, at best. Yes, the soldiers might go on a random killing spree. But American soldiers were known for placing high value on the lives of civilians, even enemy ones. From what I had heard of the battle so far, they seemed to be keeping themselves contained.

There was the tinkle of broken glass outside the shop, followed by a crunch as someone stepped on it. “I think I found something,” one of the soldiers called.

I glared at the Mal, then ran up the stairs.

He cursed under his breath, but followed, swiftly and silently. He made me feel like a lumbering ogre.

Either due to luck or skill, we managed to pass without the soldiers noticing, even as I heard them moving deeper into the store. They’d find the stairs at the back soon enough. They were hidden from the entrance for aesthetic reasons, but nothing more.

The second floor of the building was storage. I left the door open, but otherwise we ignored it. Hopefully it would slow the soldiers down for a few minutes, but that was all we could hope for. We ran up the stairs again by silent agreement.

Third floor was more storage, while fourth was an apartment—an empty one. As was the fifth.

Noapte adâncă,” I cursed under my breath. “E ca si cum universul conspira împotriva noastră.”

“I didn’t understand half of that,” the Mal panted. “But I don’t think I can keep going.”

I checked his wounds, specifically his chest and leg wounds. They were oozing blood, despite his buffs trying to keep them closed. Running up four flights of stairs had me winded, but it was killing him.

Sângerare noapte.” I dragged him into the empty apartment, closing the door behind us as quietly as I could. “We need to get you something. A stimpack at least. Have your buffs pushed the bullets out yet?”

“No, but I think there’s only one or two still in me. The rest just went straight through.” He collapsed to the floor. “Deep night… tell me I’m not leaving a blood trail.”

I helped him into a chair. “You’re not.” Of course, I could smell blood from a block away, but these soldiers would have baseline noses. I could barely remember having a nose so weak, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to track us by scent.

I rummaged through the desk drawers, but I didn’t find anything. No first aid kits, no convenient stimpacks just left lying around. C’mon, there had to be something

My hand closed on a needle, capped to keep it from poking anything. Hah! Found it! Now I just needed to—

Then I realized that it wasn’t just a needle. It had two smaller vials strapped to either side, ready to mix something into the main syringe at the absolute last second to ensure maximum potency. There was no label, but I didn’t need one. Anyone would recognize this.

Psycho. Belial’s favorite. Increased pain tolerance, aggression, and strength, along with decreased pain awareness, intelligence, and basic reasoning skills. I had seen people buffed with psycho bash straight through a brick wall—without even trying the unlocked door five feet away.

“What is it?” the Mal asked. “What did you find?”

I showed him.

He went silent for a moment. “Oh,” he said quietly. “Well. That would work.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” I said. “Even if not for your power, your body might not be able to hold out.”

“I can turn my power off. And my body will hold. With psycho, a decayed skeleton will get up and kill people.”

“Which brings us to the next problem. I’m sure you don’t mind killing enemy soldiers—”

“I mind a little, but what other choice do we have?”

That derailed me a tiny bit—it was Domina City, who cared about killing people?—but I rallied. “But that’s not the issue here. If you don’t want to use the psycho, that’s fine, but we need something. We’re trapped up here.”

He closed his eyes. “Do it.”

I hesitated, but not for long. “Hold still.” I took his arm, eyeballed the vein, and stabbed in the needle as quickly as possible, wincing as I did. He barely even seemed to notice. A former Belian would never flinch from a needle.

I took a deep breath and pressed the plunger down on the needle.

He twitched, and I pulled out the syringe as fast as I could, before he had a chance to rip it out messily. He bled slightly from the entry would, but it clotted and sealed in seconds as I watched. His buffs really were pretty good.

He stood stock still, like a statue. I couldn’t even see him breathing, but I could smell him exhaling every few seconds, just a tiny bit.

“…Honored Nightstalker?” I asked quietly.

He opened his eyes. They were nighteyes, so they were as pure black as my own, but something about them seemed… crazed. A tint of red, or maybe just a subtle twitch.

Run,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

I dodged out of the way just in time as he roared in rage and charged head-first towards the stairs. He hit the wall, but just roared again and turned down the stairwell. I didn’t hear what the Americans said when they saw him, but I heard the gunfire, and the answering roar of a man with nothing left in his blood but chemical fire.

I could help him. A few careful illusions in the confusion could be invaluable.

But it would also put me in danger.

As the gunfire from below increased, I opened a nearby window as quietly as I could and slipped outside. The edge was only an inch wide, not even wide enough for my feet, but my claws were sharp and my fingers strong. I managed to cling to the face of the building, slowly sidling along the way until I reached the next one. I opened a window there as well—very nearly falling as I did—and slipped inside.

The gunfire had stopped. It was possible the Mal had killed both the soldiers, but I didn’t hear the roars and rage of a man high on psycho.

I could have saved him.

Instead, I found a corner and sat down with my back against the wall, legs pulled up against my chest.

I wasn’t a fighter.

Behind the Scenes (scene 279)

Ileana has been around for a while, but I haven’t really had a chance to use her. Hopefully this gives a better view of her character.

Scene 278 – Portam Nocte

PORTAM NOCTE

JEFFERIES

My name is Robert Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” a soldier next to me, an Indian man with bright blue eyes, muttered to himself. In the cramped confines of the troop transport, it was hard not to overhear. “Supposed to be an easy paycheck…”

I remained silent. Scared as I was, this was exactly what I had signed on for. It was literally the reason I had been born. No time for complaining now. The boats would be nearing the shore at any moment.

“Ten seconds until landfall,” a calm voice sounded over the radio.

The Indian man next to me started praying in German. Most of the other soldiers tensed up as well, expecting the worst. We were packed into the metal can like sardines, which didn’t help.

Not me. I was going to die. If not today, in a week. That gives a certain clarity of purpose.

The hull scraped against something solid. Light flowed in as the gangplank opened, slamming down onto something.

We rushed out with the haste and surety of training, and quickly found ourselves on a long concrete dock, outside the walls of the city proper. There was no one else here, but there did seem to be barbecues, of all things, set into the concrete itself.

Our squad leader barked an order, and we all moved down the dock, towards the wall, guns up and ready.

The wall itself was huge. It felt like a hundred feet tall, but that couldn’t be right. The gate, a giant metal monstrosity that looked like it was designed to stop nukes, was firmly shut.

“Anybody see a doorbell?” someone muttered. Laughter rippled through the group.

Our sergeant smiled, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge the joke. “Breachers, forward!”

A dozen soldiers with large, bulky backpacks pushed through the ranks and started slapping small discs onto the metal door. They even tossed a few up higher, where they clamped on magnetically.

“Back up!” the sergeant cried, and we all obeyed in a wave. “Three… two… one… breach!”

I was expecting an explosion. Instead, gears inside the massive door whined, and it began to creak open.

“Everyone in!”

I was among the first to slip through the widening crack between the doors. I scanned the city with my gun held ready, establishing a beachhead. The first thing I noticed was that it was dark. Somehow, despite it being mid-morning, the sun just didn’t penetrate here. Midnight would have been less dark. At least there would have been stars.

The light from the gate illuminated some, but not much. Wide, empty streets and tall buildings without any lights on. There seemed to be a shopping center or open-air food court of some type. There were tables and chairs scattered around in a wide open pattern. Looking up, I thought I saw the edge of some sort of tarp far above, strung between the buildings to provide shade. How odd.

We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us. It was just echoing through the streets like the ghost of a battle. I almost thought that was the sound of the other gates, but that didn’t make sense. Even if they had already engaged, we wouldn’t be able to hear them from here. There must be a gang fight deeper in the city.

“Put on your lamps,” the sergeant grunted. He already had his on, and I hastened to obey. “No flashlights.”

We had been issued light amplification goggles—lamps—ahead of time. No one had explained exactly what they were for. I guess this was it.

I slipped mine on and hit the switch, then winced. The dark streets were suddenly as bright as day—and the gate behind us as bright as the sun.

“We’re leaving the gate open!” the sergeant said before anyone could ask. “Need a line of retreat. Just don’t look at it.”

In a few moments, we had about a hundred men through the gate, all wearing lamps and ready for anything. More would be coming, but this was more than enough to advance, maybe set up a base camp a few streets up.

We marched forward in tight formation, guns up as we traversed the dark streets. But there was nothing. We didn’t encounter so much as a single person, though at one point I did see a pair of dogs eating from a dumpster. They ran off before we got too close.

“This is creepy,” the Indian man next to me muttered, looking back the way we had come. We had taken a few turns at this point, so the bright light of the gate was out of sight. “Maybe we should start knocking on doors.”

The sergeant heard him. “Orders are not to disturb the civilians more than we have to. We’re here to save this city, not conquer it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hold.” The sergeant stopped us as we began to turn a corner. I was near the front, and could see what had stopped him. There was someone in the middle of the street up ahead, a naked man with skin as white as chalk. “You three. Forward. Everyone else, eyes sharp. This could be a trap.”

The three soldiers he had indicated walked forward slowly, guns steady. The man wasn’t too far away, maybe ten or twenty yards.

“Sir?” one of them said as they got close. “You all right? We’re from America, sir. We’re here to help you.”

The man stood. Our soldiers took a few visible steps back, nervous. The man was easily six feet tall, and had muscles like a linebacker. He was also completely naked, revealing a smooth crotch like a Ken doll.

“I—uh—” The soldier who had been speaking glanced back at the sergeant.

The man spoke first.

“Your services to your country are to be commended,” he said with a friendly and fatherly voice. “I salute you.”

“Yeah, that’s… thanks, man. I just—”

“I am sorry.”

And then day broke.

Some instinct led me to rip off my goggles as he raised his arms, so the blinding radiance he suddenly emitted didn’t hit me as hard as everyone else. I heard screams, and the sounds of bodies hitting the ground. Dead? Unconscious? I had no idea.

I might not have been hit as hard, but I was still completely blinded. It was like a second sun that had been born in the street in front of us. Shielding my face barely helped at all, and I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks. And someone was… singing?

Someone was singing in Hebrew. I didn’t recognize more than one word out of ten, but the tone of the song was low and sad, almost apologetic.

It was a death song. I knew that suddenly. Someone was singing us to our graves.

I scrambled back, away from the fight, and into an alley we had passed moments ago. I still couldn’t see, but my memory had always been good. I put my back to a dumpster and pointed my gun in front of me, blinking as fast as I could to try and clear my eyes.

Things started to get blurry, but that was an improvement on the shapeless mass of white my sight had been moments ago. There was someone in front of the alley—a soldier? The man from the street? No, neither. This man was smaller, and had something in each hands. Knives.

I made a decision, and fired.

Bullets cut through the air, and the thing at the front of the alley dropped. A moment later, someone else fired, and I thought they were shooting at me. They weren’t. Must be some of the others from my company, realizing that shooting was their best chance of survival.

The gunfire didn’t last long.

Within a minute or two, it faded, but so had my blindness. Of course, now I couldn’t see anything because it was still dark as night. I wasn’t planning on putting my lamp back on, but it was better than nothing. And the death song had faded as well, which was a good sign.

I crept up to the front of the alley and poked the corpse with a boot. It was… a person, but too androgynous to tell what, exactly. They had white tattoos that looked like Hebrew, but I couldn’t read them. The knives they had been carrying were buffed to a perfect reflective sheen. Like mirrors.

I turned around the corner again, gun up, to find maybe fifty of my fellow soldiers in a panicked huddle. They were surrounded by corpses. Some of the corpses were the naked people, but most of the bodies were American soldiers.

Including the sergeant.

I swallowed. I wasn’t supposed to draw attention to myself, but…

“Everybody, form up!” I called. I stalked over to the sergeant and ripped off his radio. “Defensive positions, we don’t know when they’ll come back! Strip ammo off the bodies, then leave them!”

The men looked a little hesitant, but they obeyed. They were trained well, considering how horribly this had gone.

“Control, this is the forward company,” I said into the radio. “We’ve been ambushed. Half our men are dead, sergeant’s dead, and I don’t think we made a dent in the enemy. They’ve got some… light ability, don’t know what to call it. Don’t use the goggles. Just use flashlights.”

There was a brief pause, then the radio crackled. “Confirmed, forward company. We’re sending reinforcements. Infantry first, then the echoes. Stand by.”

I took a deep breath. Echoes. Good. With those, we’d be fine. We should have led with them. “Confirmed, command. We’ll hold. You have our position?”

“Loud and clear. GPS is solid.”

“Good. Over and out.”

I swallowed, trying not to let my nerves show to the men. I had no idea what the plan was here. But whatever the plan was, it had gone to hell in a hand basket. So I guess the sergeant wouldn’t be doing much better than me if he had lived.

Our eyes were starting to adjust to the dark, if barely. Still couldn’t see real detail, but at least we could see if someone was coming. The fact that they hadn’t yet had me worried. Whoever and whatever these people were, they clearly knew exactly what they were doing.

After several heart-pounding minutes, two more squads ran up the street. Their flashlights bounced around like rays from heaven.

“Echoes are about twenty minutes behind,” the man in front said. He was a sergeant, and I quickly fell into step behind him. “This will be our base camp! Drag those dumpsters over here, we need some more walls!”

Men moved to obey, and I pulled the sergeant aside to speak with him. “Did you see what these people could do?”

He shook his head. “Something about light?”

“I don’t know what to call it. I think we’re outmatched.”

He gave me a look. “We can handle a couple nightlights, private.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant that this is not something we expected the toy maker to be capable of. We’re operating on flawed information here, in the enemy’s home. We’re sitting ducks.”

“…are you suggesting we retreat?”

I shook my head. “No. I’m suggesting we switch to defensive until we have more intel. Fortify this position and the gate, shoot or capture anyone who comes too close. Don’t overextend ourselves.”

He nodded slowly. “Good ideas. Very good. Did you try for officer corp?”

I cursed inwardly. Don’t draw attention…

“We’ll talk about that later. For now, organize some men, secure the perimeter. I’ll grab some grunts to move the bodies out of the way.”

“Good idea, sir.” I walked over to a small group of soldiers who didn’t seem to be busy.

Before I could get to them, the flashlights started flickering.

One of the soldiers frowned and started whacking it as if that would fix it. But the problem was with all the flashlights, not just his.

“We put in fresh batteries this morning,” he said. “I don’t know what would—”

He was interrupted by all the lights going out at once.

A few moments later, they returned, revealing him dead on the ground with his throat cut.

“GUNS UP!” the sergeant yelled. Everyone obeyed instantly. “You see something that’s not us, SHOOT IT! No questions asked!”

I backed up towards the sergeant, keeping my gun level and eyes scanning. “This is different from before.”

He nodded. “The first group makes us get rid of the lamps, then the second group comes in under the cover of darkness. Simple and effective.”

“How do you think they got our flashlights like that?”

“No idea. Some sort of electromagnetic distortion, like an EMP but weaker?”

The flashlights started flickering again.

“Everyone STAND READY!” the sergeant yelled. “No surprises!”

I had a thought as the flashlights kept flickering, and the men shook so hard I could hear their gear clicking. The light-people shouldn’t be directly involved in this ambush. So that meant if I put on the light amplification goggles…

I slipped them on just as the flashlights died. Just in time to see someone sneaking up behind another of the soldiers.

I didn’t hesitate. I fired, hitting him solid in the chest. He stumbled, but didn’t fall, turning towards me and hissing. I heard other soldiers shooting. Were they panic-firing, or shooting at friends of this one?

He had black eyes and massive fangs, in addition to the long, sharp claws on his hands. He rushed forward, almost faster than I could see. I fired again and again, finally piercing the Kevlar body armor he must have been wearing.

He fell to the ground, dead.

The flashlights came back on.

I cursed and ripped off my lamp, blinking away the brightness from my eyes.

The sergeant clapped me on the back. “Good shot.”

Before I could answer, rumbling laughter rolled through the city.

“You shouldn’t have done that, boy,” a deep, amused voice said. “They take it personally when you kill one of their own.”

I raised my gun, searching for the source of the voice, but didn’t respond.

The sergeant did, though. “Who are you? Show yourself!”

“I am called the Dragon.”

“These your men!?”

“No. These are men and women of Domina City, who do not wish to see their homes defiled.”

The sergeant swallowed and looked at me, at a loss for words.

Don’t stand out…

“We’re not here for your homes or your people!” I called. “We’re just here to get rid of the gangs!”

That same rumbling laugh as before. “The gangs are the homes and the people, little boy… no, no wait.” His tone changed, to something curious. “Glasya tells me you’re not a boy at all. You’re a homunculus.”

My blood froze in my veins.

That wasn’t what I was actually called. There was some long name that spelled out a meaningless acronym I hadn’t bothered to learn. AGBHC or something like that. But I had looked up some terms online, learned which ones applied to me.

Homunculus. A word the Greek alchemists used.

It meant false-man.

How had they known? How could they possibly have known? I was made from the toy maker, but that shouldn’t mean anything. American scientists were completely cut off from Dominite ones. Did they have some magic device that let them detect things made from the toy maker?

I took a deep breath. “I’m more of a man than you. Come down and show yourself!”

He chuckled. “Tempting, bruscar. More tempting than you know. But I did not reach my position by taking stupid risks.” The flashlights began to flicker again. “Our nightstalkers will handle you just fine.”

As before, when the lights went out, I slipped on my lamp. This time, most of the other soldiers followed my example.

It gave us just enough time to see almost a hundred of the black-eyed assassins dropping down from the sky.

Behind the Scenes (scene 278)

“AGBHC” stands for “Artificially Grown Biological Humanoid Construct,” by the way.