Monthly Archives: September 2016

Scene 286 – Dagon Ira

DAGON IRA

LORI

My name is Lori Lemaris. I am a morgen Dagonite living in the mouth of the South Depthward Run. It’s one of the small underground rivers that runs beneath Domina City. Our Tridents deal with the fey, but I’ve surfaced once or twice to talk to cityfolk. Met enough of them to know that I wanted to be involved in the fight to save the city from invaders. It’s what separates us from the Atlanteans, who just sit on the ocean floor all day. Or even the Rahabs, who killed anyone and everyone who got too close.

The Dagonites also killed anyone who got too close, but we did it with style.

I swam through the depths. My mermaid tail gave me more than enough acceleration to outpace the Dagonites who were still using boring old human legs. I glanced up towards the surface, wincing at the light, but saw what I needed: The shadows of the surviving American ships.

I turned my gaze lower, to the deeper and darker waters where broken pieces of ships and lifeboats were raining down. The merrow would be living like kings from the salvage for months, if not years.

But I wasn’t interested in the salvage. Or even in the sailors, struggling against the Dagonites pulling them down to the depths. My job was a different one, but still important. I swam upwards, towards the surface and that distant ship. I kept my nighteyes squeezed shut so that the light didn’t blind me.

There was a distinct rush of water and air that could only come from one thing—a torpedo launch. I opened my eyes, squinting and trying to locate the weapon. That was the game here. I had to find it before it found any of us.

There. Wasn’t that hard. It was speeding away from me, down deeper towards the floor of White-Cap Bay. It might even be aimed at one of the Atlantean cities. They would be easier for the ships to target than individual Dagonites.

I was tempted to just let it hit them, teach them a lesson about banding together in a crisis, but I knew I couldn’t. The Atlanteans weren’t bad people, they just stayed underwater all the time. It wasn’t hard to understand their insistence that this war had nothing to do with them. Who cared what some kemo did? Most of them didn’t even know what Soaring Eagle had done, why she’d brought warships to the city.

I sighed, bubbles rushing out of my mouth, and tapped the band on my wrist. It was strapped tight and as flush with my scales as possible, to cut down on water resistance. “This is Lemaris,” I said, more bubbles escaping as I did. “Torpedo heading depthward in sector SG-009. Seems to be heading straight down, maybe for Tolkien itself.”

“Copy that,” a voice said over the radio. It was high-pitched to carry better through the water, though my ears were used to it. “We’ve got a team on the way. Keep an eye out for more. We think they should be running low.”

I glanced up at the shadow above me, a massive dark shape on the otherwise glittering surface. “Any luck getting bombs on the ship?”

“Negative.” There was a pause. “Lori, don’t you dare do anything stupid.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” I said. And I really wasn’t. I had better things to do with my day than try to sink a ship by myself. I wasn’t a boat-killer or anything of the sort. I was just a whale-watcher, and that was my role in this fight.

But it was still annoying that this ship and a few others had managed to get lucky and drive us off. When ships started sinking across the Bay, this one had launched a torpedo. It took out half the demolition team and scared off the rest. Now, the crew was prepared for most of their tricks. That was why they were still afloat and raining artillery on Domina City.

They were prepared for most of our tricks. Not all.

“Control, this is Lemaris. I have a stupid idea.”

Control jumped on me instantly. “Lori, don’t you dare—”

I shut him off by tuning to a different channel. “MC?”

“Yes?” her tinny, fake voice came over the line. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“About how many enemy soldiers would be on the ship above me?”

“The USS Huron boasts a crew of sixty seven, along with a marine complement of fifty.”

“Do you know how many of them are still onboard?”

“I’m sorry, I do not have that data. I can, however, tell you that the ship left New York City harbor on time. Nothing was reported as having gone wrong.”

Okay, so they left with the full complement. We hadn’t managed to pull more than a handful off the ship. That meant I could expect to fight nearly a hundred men at once. Hardly good odds.

I tuned my wrist-phone to the general channel. “This is Lemaris. Requesting all shifters in sector SG-009 meet me below the ship. We’re going fishing.”

I heard a few chuckles and cries of appreciation over the general channel. Control soon drowned them all out, yelling about how he’d court martial me and everyone I’d ever met. Of course, I wasn’t actually an official member of any military, so he couldn’t do much besides yell.

Within a few minutes, a few dozen Dagonites had swam up to meet me. Most of them were the more monstrous examples of our culture. Morgen and merrow, kappa and vodyanoy. Definitely no rusalka or vodnik.

I probably wasn’t the highest-ranking Dagonite in the pod. Salt and spear, I wasn’t even a razor, much less a Trident. But I was the one who called them, so all the shifters deferred to my authority.

“We’ll wait for the next torpedo,” I explained. My modified vocal cords let me speak at a high enough pitch to carry through the water. “That will give us a big enough window to finish this once and for all.”

The others nodded.

The torpedo came fast, and nearly slammed right through a kappa with claws the size of swords. But he got out of the way in time, and the torpedo continued on, before heading down at an oblique angle.

“Control, this is Lemaris. Torpedo heading depthward in sector SG-009. Seems to be heading towards SG-007, maybe the Coral Graves.”

“Lori, if you attack that ship, then I swear I am going to have you chopped up as ten-damned fish bait—”

I turned him off again. “All right, people! Everyone here is a shifter, right?” They all nodded. “Good! Let’s do this!”

I powered up towards the surface, beating my tail like mad with my arms held at my sides to gain maximum speed. Around me, the others swam as well, some faster and some slower, but all as fast as they could manage.

Then, all at once, we broke through.

Our speed brought us up, out of the water, arching over the ship itself, tumbling down onto the deck.

When Elizabeth Greene had infected the entire city with her song, she hadn’t forgotten the merfolk. The Atlantean cities were rigged with speakers to fill them with that damnable sound, and all the Rahab radios were hacked. Even the Dagonite nests and cubbies were seeded with those same speakers, installed over months so that no one noticed anything odd. Between them all, the waters within ten miles of Domina City had vibrated with the song, and every single one of us was infected.

Which meant, of course, that now we all had powers.

Shifters weren’t unique underwater, but we were more common under the waves. Even the simplest of merfolk toys was a huge investment in time and money, so it was unfeasible to just switch back and forth on a whim.

Powers were based on whatever the person wanted most. As it turned out, a lot of us wanted to be able to shift back to human form, if only for a few moments.

I concentrated, and felt myself envelop in black mist, the same as the other Dagonites flying with me. In a heartbeat, my scales were gone, my webbed fingers split, my shark teeth flattened. Even my black nighteyes, blinking and squinting in the light of day, were baseline again.

And most importantly, I had my legs back.

I landed, barefoot, on the slippery metal deck, my Dagonite loincloth barely covering me. All around me, the other Dagonites landed, some gracefully and some not. But they had time to recover, because the sailors and soldiers on the deck of the ship were too shocked to do anything but stare.

I grinned with my perfect white baseline teeth. The first few moments were always the most fun.

I pulled a spike out of my loincloth. It was nothing but a metal rod, about six inches long. It had been sharpened for spearing fish that happened to wander too close while I was swimming. It wasn’t any good against a prepared opponent.

These men weren’t prepared.

I stabbed the closest man. He was a soldier with a big bulky rifle that he was having trouble bringing around fast enough. I got him right in the gap between the plates of his plastic armor, and he went down like a sack of potatoes.

Another man raised his gun at me. Before he could pull the trigger, he was tackled by the merrow, who had managed to keep her fangs in the shift. She ripped his throat out with her teeth, spraying blood everywhere.

Someone was screaming, but I tried not to pay attention to it. It was like when hunting a pod of dolphins—all the angry clicking had to just be background noise. If you let it get to you, you’d hesitate, and hesitation equaled death.

I dove at another soldier, tackling him to the ground and stabbing him repeatedly with my spike. He was moving and rolling, trying to keep me from hitting anywhere vulnerable, and it was working. My spike kept glancing off his armor, not sinking in anywhere squishy.

I tried to bite at him, but my teeth had not survived the shift. You could do a lot of damage with human teeth if you knew what you were doing, but not if you were used to shark teeth. I was biting him in entirely the wrong way. Maybe if I—

My reservoir was depleting.

It was like an alarm went off in my head, warning me that I had only seconds left. I had trained myself to keep one part of my mind always watching my reservoir. I knew I would be beached if it went empty at the wrong moment.

I gave the soldier I was fighting one last punch before clambering off him. I ran for the side and leaped over the railing. Most of the other shifters jumped with me. Maybe it was because their own reservoirs were almost gone. Or maybe it was because they thought I was the leader and that they should follow me.

My reservoir emptied completely half a second before I hit the water.

Suddenly I had webbed fingers and a tail again, shark teeth and gills, scales and nighteyes. I took a deep breath of water, letting it filter through what they called the mermaid lungs. Once I felt comfortable again, I flipped over so that I could swim down while watching the boat on the surface. I saw shifters hitting the water and swimming down again, but I couldn’t count how many. A dozen? Two dozen? I should have counted them before we launched the attack in the first place. Should I go back and check to make sure everyone was okay? Should I go back to attack again? My reservoir wasn’t quite filled, but it was getting there.

“Lori!” my wrist chirped. “You there?”

I rolled my eyes. Should have known he’d find a workaround. He might have asked MC for help. “Yes, Control, I’m here. If you’re going to give me a lecture—”

“Are you off the boat?”

“What? Yes, I’m off the boat. Pretty sure everyone else is, too.”

“Good. Tell them to get away from it, fast.”

I frowned I confusion, before suddenly realizing what he meant. “Copy that.” I switched to the general channel. “All units at surface sector SG-009, withdraw from the ship. Repeat, withdraw. Put some distance behind you.”

There was a pause. Five seconds that felt like a thousand years.

Then, the explosions.

The first one hit the starboard bow. It blossomed like a yellow and orange flower underwater, before dying nearly instantly. Another five exploded along the length of the ship, one after another. They sent shockwaves out through the water strong enough that I could feel them even a hundred yards away. If I had been much closer, they would have knocked me around like a pinball, maybe even torn me apart.

Pieces of the ship were starting to rain down into the water, steaming scrap metal and shattered remnants of crates stored in the hold. There was a terrible groaning sound as what was left of the ship tried to hold itself together, but it wouldn’t last long. I could already see men jumping into the water, and there were a few lifeboats being hastily paddled away before the undertow could get them.

I raised my wrist to my mouth. “Plato’s eyes! Control, was that you?”

“I figured I may as well take advantage of your recklessness. You served as an excellent distraction while my boat-killers placed their bombs.”

I watched more Dagonites swarm up from the depths to attack the swimmers and lifeboats. I felt a pang of regret, but pushed it aside. They had made their choices. This was war. People died in war.

“Have any of the sailors been captured?”

Control sounded confused. “What, from that boat?”

“No, just in general. From all the sunken ships, how many captures have we had?”

“Uh, I dunno. I’ll have to check. Not quite my department. Why?”

I sighed. “No reason. Just curious.” I pulled the harpoon gun out of my loincloth. “I’m going hunting. See if we can get some live ones to talk to.”

This was war. People died in war, and expecting anything else was naive.

But that didn’t mean I had to kill indiscriminately.

Behind the Scenes (scene 286)

“SG” simply stands for “South Gate,” for the record.

Note from the future:  The torpedo was originally heading for Critias, an Atlantean city nowhere near South Gate.  I changed it to Tolkien, a Dagonite town built into the west side of the island.  Makes far more sense this way.

Scene 285 – Oceanus Album

OCEANUS ALBUM

JEFFERIES

My name is Franklin 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.

I was on one of the boats surrounding Domina. The flagship, the USS Puerto Rico. By sheer blind luck, I had ended up attached to General Hoshi as her aide. She had pointed at me and demanded I stick with her; that was it.

Don’t stand out, they had told me. Well, they should have mentioned my situation to Hoshi.

“New orders to all captains,” President Martinez said tiredly through the radio. “Weapons free. Support our men, and put some more holes in that wall. I want more landing sites.”

“Yes, Mister President,” Hoshi said without hesitation. She handed off the radio to me without even looking, then nodded to the captain.

The captain—I had never gotten his name—nodded in turn and grabbed his own radio. “Full order to the fleet! We’re giving the army boys artillery support! All ships except Hewlett and Jefferson, open fire on the wall. Hewlett, you’re firing at the enemy at South Gate, and Jefferson, you’re on East! Danger close, get those freaks off their backs!”

The ship groaned as massive guns turned towards their targets. Machines ground away to deliver their huge rounds to the waiting firing chambers.

Then they fired, and the whole ship shook.

There was a roar like a dragon, and I had to clap my hands over my ears like some greenhorn. I guess it worked out, since it made me look like the stupid little newbie I was pretending to be.

The guns only fired once, then fell silent. Even I thought that was odd.

“What’s going on?” the captain demanded. “What was that?”

I thought he meant why the ships stopped firing at first, but his own aide just shook his head. “No idea sir. Equipment malfunction?”

The captain scowled. “How could that be an equipment malfunction?” He grabbed his radio. “Fire again!”

The guns didn’t groan as much this time, as they were already in position, but the actual shooting was just as loud. This time I was ready for it, and was able to track the massive rounds as they whistled towards the city…

And slammed into a glowing blue forcefield, leaking blue mist, that appeared out of thin air.

Hoshi snatched the radio back from me. “Sir, the city is surrounded by some sort of… energy barrier. Our shots can’t punch through. Orders?”

There was only a brief pause on the other end. To his credit, the president didn’t waste any time trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I knew I was still in shock, and most of the soldiers on deck were too.

“Continue firing,” he ordered. “If they could keep that up indefinitely, we never would have landed. We’ll figure out where they got this thing later.”

“Sir,” Hoshi said slowly. “I’ve never heard of anyone suggesting shields were anything outside the realm of science fiction. Let alone actually making one work, and over an entire city, no less—”

Later, Hoshi. Just keep firing. Our only hope is that they’ll run out of whatever is powering it before we run out of shells.”

“Yes, sir.” She looked a little unhappy, but nodded to the captain. He got on the radio and ordered the assault to continue. The guns started roaring again. The four of us—the general, the captain, and the two of us aides—walked back into the wheelhouse and closed the door. That deadened the roars of the guns to something that was at least manageable.

The sailors inside saluted the officers. “Captain! General! North Gate reports that the beast-men have retreated for now, but they’ll be back. The big ones take way too much ammo to put down, and they’re running low.”

“Have the nearest ship resupply them,” the general ordered. “Other than that, just hold the line. What of West Gate?”

“Bad, sir. Most recent report said something about their base camp being destroyed by giant icicles.”

That made all four of us sit up and take notice.

Icicles?” Hoshi demanded, more bewildered than anything. “As in… what, thrown like spears? Tossed by catapults?”

“No, sir. They just burst right out of the ground, sir. The whole base was cut right in half, and it looks like the ones on the far side have had to surrender.”

The general glanced at the captain, but he just shrugged. “All right, tell them to get more men and materiel from their ships. How are the echoes doing on that gate?”

“They hadn’t even managed to offload them before everything happened.”

She grunted. “Of course. Tell them to put the echoes on barricade building. Hold the line.”

“And South Gate?”

“Orders haven’t changed.”

Hold the line. Hold the line. Hold the line.

That was all she was telling anyone. This was a war that was supposed to be a complete cakewalk. A genuine liberation of a city held in thrall to criminals. And yet it was all anyone to do not to be pushed back into the sea.

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

Hoshi raised an eyebrow at me. “You brought your phone?”

I shrugged helplessly. It was a holdover from my bodyguard days. So to speak. “Sorry, I’ll turn it off—”

She waved magnanimously. “Answer it. It could be important.”

A little hesitant, I did as ordered, holding it up to my ear. “Hello?”

“Is General Hoshi with you?” a pleasant female voice said far too loudly. I winced and pulled it away. It had been set to speakerphone somehow.

“Uh, yes?”

“Please hold.”

I stared at Hoshi, who looked just as confused as I felt. I had been a bodyguard for ten years—or I remembered being one, anyway—and no one had ever called me to get a hold of my employer.

Within moments, another voice came over the phone, also female, but this time short and curt. “General Hoshi. I understand you command the ships clogging up the waters of White-Cap Bay.”

“Who is this?” Hoshi demanded, glaring at my phone. “How did you get this number?”

“I am Admiral Janelle Ursler of Necessarius North Fleet, flagship NS Aquilo. I have called to discuss the circumstances under which you will immediately cease fire upon my city.”

Hoshi grinned, and I understood her enthusiasm. If the barrage wasn’t a threat, they wouldn’t be trying to make a deal. “What are you offering?”

“Your ships and your lives.”

Hoshi’s smile disappeared. “I’m not in the mood for pointless grandstanding.”

“Neither am I. This is quite simple: You can stop firing of your own accord, giving you the freedom to land your detestable troops on our shores. Eventually, your reserves will be exhausted and you limp will back to your country. Or, we kill you all.”

“That is a tiresome bluff, admiral.”

There was an explosion below decks, which reverberated throughout the entire ship.

Moments later, the ship groaned, tortured metal screaming and rending the air. The deck titled, and we slowly began to sink.

The captain opened the door to shout out some quick orders, but otherwise didn’t seem worried. Neither did the general, or the captain’s aide, or any of the sailors I could see. Was I the only one who cared that we were sinking?

Hoshi raised an eyebrow. “You smuggled explosives on the ship. Cute. But the loss of the flagship won’t cripple the fleet. All the sailors have those modified lungs to breathe underwater, and the rest of us can get to the lifeboats. We’re pretty good swimmers.”

“Not good enough.”

There was a scream on the deck.

Hoshi narrowed her eyes. “What was that?”

“Your death song, General. The Dagonites will sing you to your rest.”

Hoshi stared at the phone, more perplexed than scared.

There was another scream.

“Weapons free,” the general said, still just a bit confused. “Jefferies, you’re in front.”

I swallowed nervously, but nodded. I pocketed the phone and pulled out my sidearm, flipping off the safety as I did. It was the first thing they taught you in the Secret Service.

What I hadn’t been taught was what to do when I was on a sinking ship under enemy attack by who knows what. The deck was already listing away under my feet, and I could hear things sliding around belowdecks.

There was another scream.

Stealing myself, I stepped out onto the deck, gun raised.

Most of the sailors were running to and fro, trying desperately to get lifeboats down to the water. Some marines had their guns out, panicked expressions on their faces, and pointed at the ocean—which was noticeably closer than the last time I had checked. I didn’t actually see any enemies, though. Where were these Dagonites the Admiral had said were coming for us?

Another scream. I looked back, and realized that one of the marines was gone. His remaining friends fired into the water a few times, but if it had any effect, I didn’t see one. Water was better than a brick wall at blocking bullets, once you were more than a foot under the surface.

Water was lapping at my boots now. “General, we need to get to the lifeboats!”

She was still frowning, confused rather than scared. I was pretty sure she should be very scared. “This doesn’t make any sense. None of this makes any sense. The bombs, now this… is this all a terror tactic?”

“General, please!”

Something tackled me, dragging me underwater.

I shook my head to clear it and opened my eyes, ignoring the burning in my lungs. Most of the sailors could breathe underwater, but I couldn’t. White-Cap Bay was known for crystal-clear waters on a calm day, but I still couldn’t see far—

There! Something moved! A shape, swimming far too fast to be a person, circling around and then charging straight at me—

It hit me like a freight train, nearly knocking what little wind I had left out of me and dragging me farther down. I did get a good look at it, though. A flat face, with pure black eyes, rows and rows of triangular shark teeth, and flapping gills on the neck.

And a large, powerful fish tail propelling both of us further into the depths.

A mermaid. A monstrous, horrific mermaid. Or some sort of merfolk, at least, as I wasn’t confident of the gender.

There was no sabotage. No spies on our boats. These… Dagonites had put the bombs on the underside of our ships from the outside.

For years, there had been rumors of something keeping unwanted ships away from Domina City. We had assumed bribes, careful usage of rumor, and perhaps torpedoes and divers at worst. But this

There were more of them around, dozens if not more, judging by the swirling shapes around me. Most of them were dragging their prizes to the depths, like some monstrous sea creatures returning food to a nest. Others were playing with their food, circling struggling sailors and swimming in only to nip at them and dodge away again. And why shouldn’t they? Everyone was completely outmatched. Most of the sailors weren’t even armed.

But I was.

I still had a death grip on my gun. I managed to bring it around to the thing’s chest, even as the pressure built up, making it feel like my head was going to crack like an egg. With the last of my strength, I pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Well, of course not. The stupid thing wouldn’t work underwater.

The Dagonite grinned with those shark teeth, and pulled something out of its belt—a garment which seemed to be made of the same material as wetsuits. It took me a moment to realize that the object was a gun, built with a much larger grip and no trigger guard. It seemed like it was designed to accommodate hands with webbed fingers.

The Dagonite turned, peered up at the surface, and fired its gun with a dull whumph I could feel in the water. Something spun out of it, trailing a line—it was a harpoon. A tiny little harpoon gun.

The Dagonite turned back to me, grinned, and winked. Then it pressed a button on the gun, reeling in the line and swimming up to meet its prey.

Leaving me behind. Like a small fish tossed back into the lake.

I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I still had some air left, and I could see light, far above. Far, yes, but not impossibly far. It was close enough that I could see the splashes where the Dagonites were dragging their hapless victims down.

I kicked off my boots and swam up with all my might, shrugging off my jacket between strokes. I dropped my gun in the process, but it was little more than a paperweight at the moment anyway.

Dagonites passed by me, close enough that I could feel my wake, but they ignored me. Did they really think I was no threat, or did they just think it would be more fun to kill me just when I thought I was free?

No, no thinking, only swimming. Just keep swimming.

Just keep…

I burst through the surface with what I was sure was the last stroke of my life. I gasped in a breath so hard it actually hurt, then I did another and another, both as hard. I settled down quickly, taking more normal-sized breaths, and looked around.

The flagship was half-sunk. Most of its lifeboats had launched, but those were torn to shreds except for one or two. All of those were on the opposite side of the sinking ship from me, of course. I’d never get to them. Just being this close might tow me under again. The ship itself was mostly empty, with just a few splatters of blood to mark some particularly energetic resistance.

There were a few sailors on the surface, but not many. I didn’t see General Hoshi anywhere.

And the rest of the fleet…

I couldn’t see more than a handful, but I could tell that most of them were in trouble. I saw one ship sinking, another on fire—there was a secondary explosion as its ammo magazine went up—and another seemed to be missing entirely. It had probably already disappeared completely beneath the waves.

I didn’t see a single ship unharmed.

I looked down. The water was too choppy to see much, but I could see dark shapes flitting around. They looked just like fish from here, as harmless as trout, but I knew better than to underestimate them.

I looked up again, this time at the city. Every few seconds, that blue dome-shield would flash into visibility again. I had to assume someone was still shelling the city. Someone had managed to keep their ship afloat. But with our firepower so drastically reduced, would we be able to make a dent in it? Hell, we didn’t even know if the whole fleet could have made a dent.

We had completely misunderstood the threat we were facing. It wasn’t like fighting gang-bangers and having them pull out automatic weapons. It was like fighting spear-wielding natives and having them pull out laser rifles.

Which, apparently, the Dominites actually had, judging by the reports from East Gate. Lasers and energy shields. What was next? A black-hole bomb? Shape-shifting spies? Truth serums and brainwashing and God-damned spaceships?

This was not my world any more. It might not have ever been my world. My only consolation was that I was going to be dead in a week anyway. I wouldn’t have to see the aftermath of this debacle.

I felt a strong webbed hand grab my ankle, and then I was pulled down below the waves.

Behind the Scenes (scene 285)

I’ve had the Dagonite reveal on my mind for a long time. I’m curious how many people saw this coming. At least some, I’m sure.

Scene 284 – Obsidio

OBSIDIO

RICHARD

“We’re running blind here!”

“All three echoes are down! We need backup! That giant—”

“We do not have South Gate contained, I repeat, not contained. Need—”

“We’re holding the dock, but that’s about it. We’ve been pushed back—”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps cut through the cacophony of screams from my soldiers. As if they were nothing but mist.

That’s what they felt like. Mist and shadow, something distant and unimportant.

I might have been in shock, but if so, so was everyone else. The tactical map showed multitudes of enemy units ambushing our soldiers quickly and professionally. They took out specialty units like the echoes with speed and precision.

Everyone in this room—even myself and the senators—had fought wars before. We’d been in the war room while the generals and admirals made the tough decisions.

But no one had ever seen this level of resistance.

The generals were on their radios. They shouted at captains, ordered retreats here and reinforcements there. It still felt hollow. It still felt a million miles away.

My phone rang again. Five simple beeps.

I pulled it out and raised it to my ear, not bothering to switch it to speaker this time. “Hello?”

“Please hold for Artemis Butler.” It was that same pleasant female voice as before.

A moment later, another voice took over. “Mister President.”

“Mister Butler.”

“Your forces are doing well.”

“There is no need to be snide.”

“I’m not. They are attacking an entrenched position with limited reinforcements and no intel. Considering that, they are doing beautifully. Your men at East Gate, especially, deserve a commendation. The vampires are very good at terror tactics, especially when combined with the angels.”

I glanced at the map. East Gate was where our men had penetrated farthest. They were still getting slaughtered and ambushed. At least they were taking a reasonable amount of the enemy down with them, though.

“It seems Sele didn’t tell me everything.”

“I did warn you.”

“How are you doing this?” I asked. “Your numbers far exceed what we expected. We were expecting dozens at a time, maybe hundreds at the most. But South Gate informs me that the streets are filled with those… demons as far as the eye can see.”

“Ah, yes, Sargeras and his hellions,” he said, his tone fond. “Not to mention the Erlking and his goblins. They’re working well together.”

How? These gangs—”

“The gangs are dead, Mister President,” he interrupted. “I killed them years ago. These are cultures. You may as well be fighting entire countries. That was your mistake.”

I knew he was right. All the special abilities that they seemed to have weren’t important, in the long run. Nightvision and ambush tactics? Please, any random second-world country could manage that. No, it was the numbers that were getting us.

And the will. The will to defend, to drive out the invaders. Gangs didn’t have that. You put force on a gang, and they run like rats. But these ones stood strong. The vampires retreated to set up new ambushes, the demons retreated to set up new barricades.

They were acting like soldiers defending a homeland.

“I would like to give up,” I said quietly.

“I expected as much.”

“I’m not going to.”

“Yes, I expected that as well.”

I took a deep breath. “Please order your men to surrender, Mister Butler.” There was no pretending he wasn’t in charge, at this point. If Domina City was its own country, he was its president.

“I’m sorry, but no.”

I nodded. “I expected that. May I ask why not?”

His voice was stone. “Because it is necessary.”

I found myself nodding again. “Necessary… yes, I think I understand that. And I think I understand the reasoning behind the name of your organization. Finally, I think I understand you, Mister Butler.”

“I am not a complicated man.”

“Yes, that was my mistake.” I closed my eyes. “The kid gloves are coming off, Mister Butler.”

“And I say the same to you, Mister President. Numbers are not our only advantage.”

I hung up, and placed the phone on the table. I cleared my throat.

All conversation stopped. The generals and admirals froze, radios held up to their heads in mid-order. The senators and various aides seemed to be jolted out of their shock.

“General Hoshi,” I said. “Do you read me?”

“Loud and clear, Mister President.”

“New orders to all captains: Weapons free. Support our men, and put some more holes in that wall. I want more landing sites.”

“Yes sir.”

I took a deep breath. This was a war against an entrenched enemy nation. It was time I started treating it as one.

Behind the Scenes (scene 284)

I really like the conversations between Richard and Butler, and hope to have more of them in the future. Assuming Richard’s artillery doesn’t vaporize Butler, and assuming Butler’s ghosts don’t assassinate Richard.

Scene 283 – Fortitudo Gigantum

FORTITUDO GIGANTUM

EVA

My name is Eva. Just Eva. I am a titan of Niflheim, just a few steps below the Colossus Thrym himself. For months, I had been overseeing a small spy outpost in kemo territory. It was boring, but important work. It was punishment for a… minor indiscretion with a married man. The fact that he was one of Gruul’s get hadn’t helped my case.

Now, I was back in the fray, fighting to defend the Ginnungagap from invaders.

Thrym and Surtr had made it clear that it wasn’t a case of forgiveness. I hadn’t finished serving out my sentence. It was just that they needed every able hand they could get, especially skilled frost forgers like me.

I had a small group, six Nifs, all hiding in one of the small shops lining the street right outside the gate. It was a perfect ambush position, well behind enemy lines. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to actually use it that way. If the enemy saw us bursting out of a building, they might start checking all the other buildings. That would end with civilians getting hurt. Most of them had fled or joined Odin’s army, but there were still plenty of noncombatants lining the Ginnungagap.

The place was sweltering by Nif standards, but we were all soldiers. We had dealt with far worse than a bit of heat in our service. We just buckled down and did our best to ignore it, as well as the sweat it produced.

The black-out blinds were drawn, so I couldn’t see anything outside, but I had a small radar unit in my hand. Once I judged the time was right, I signaled to my giants. We headed towards the back, through the storeroom. I double-checked to make sure no one was outside, then nodded to the icebreaker. He burst out of the back door at full speed, ready to rip apart anyone waiting to ambush us.

There was no one. I had built the radar I was using myself. I’d stake my life on its accuracy.

But there was no need to. I nodded at the other Nifs, and they fanned out as I closed the door behind us. Two covered the alleys on either side of us, while the other two kept their guns on the backstreet.

I sorted through the assorted junk and devices in my belt. Thrym had given me free reign to do this however I wanted. My only orders were to make it spectacular, ‘fitting for the Ginnungagap.’ I knew {exactly what I should do. I knew what the Muspel on the opposite side of the Ginnungagap would be doing too. It would only make it more impressive.

I checked my watch. Not much time left. We were on radio silence, but we had synchronized our watches. We should be able to pull this off at the exact same time, for maximum effect.

I pulled a small silver orb out of one of my pouches, twisting and turning it in a complicated pattern to unlock it. It opened with a hiss, revealing a small panel of tiny red switches. I had to take out a needle-like tool in order to flip them, one by one, until almost all of them were green.

The device started beeping, and I pushed it back together, reverting it to its orb shape. The other Nifs glanced at it, but didn’t say anything. I had tried to explain it to them earlier, but their eyes had just glazed over. We were all soldiers, but they weren’t engineers. It would take another frost forger to appreciate what I had done here.

Still, they knew their job. I nodded at the icebreaker, and he pulled up the sewer grate before dropping in. A moment later, the other Nif followed, and when there were no sounds of screams or gunfire, I followed as well.

These sewers had been expanded years ago to accommodate giants. We still had to walk stooped over, but it was better than nothing. For most sewers in the domain, we still had to call in baselines to repair them, because there was just no way any of us could fit inside.

I looked both ways up and down the sewer, then glanced at the river of sludge running down the middle. Judging by the horrific smell, it would work for my purposes. Trying not to breathe, I indicated that the icebreaker should lead us farther down the tunnel.

Once I was sure we were far enough, I indicated we should stop. We weren’t that far at all. I could still see the entrance, light shining down like a beacon. We could have done this there, but I wanted to be sure.

I pulled the device out again, and double-checked it. Everything seemed fine, and it was beeping along at a slow and steady pace. We didn’t have long before it went off, but it would be more than enough.

I scanned the river of sewage and selected a particularly thick clog of… organic material. One of my guards sounded like he was trying not to throw up, but I just did my level best to ignore him. Once I was sure the device was in place, I nodded at them, and we went back the way we came.

We clambered out and shut the sewer behind us. The rest of the guards backed up closer to us, eyes watching the alleys, but we needn’t have worried. All the Americans were still bottled up in the Ginnungagap proper.

I pointed at the nearest fire escape, and the icebreaker nodded. It was too tall even for a giant to grab, but he was able to boost one of the others up. They pulled it down with minimal loss of dignity. I would have jumped up and down like an idiot trying to grab it.

We clambered up the metal staircase, trying not to make too much noise. We managed to get to the roof without anyone shooting at us, which was about all we could hope for.

Giant ‘scrapers weren’t built like a lot of others in the city, where people spent half their time on the roofs. There were no bridges from here to nearby ‘scrapers, no cheap stall shops or even simple benches. Just skylights and air conditioners, plus a hatch leading back down into the building. This one had a thick metal bar keeping it locked from this side. Good thing I decided not to go up from the inside. We could have broken it, but it would have taken time and might have attracted attention.

I walked to the edge of the roof and looked down, trying not to let my vertigo get the better of me. With my power, I could survive a fall from this height, but my stomach hadn’t quite gotten the message yet.

I could see the American base camp. It was in chaos. Ogres and Aesir rampaged through it, tearing through barricades and walls like so much tissue paper. They weren’t completely unopposed, of course. I could see the muzzle flare from the Americans defending themselves, and the painful howls of trolls and oni.

I looked up, to the ‘scraper across the Ginnungagap. There was someone up there, and while I couldn’t see more than his silhouette, I knew exactly who it was. I pulled a small mirror out of one of my many pouches and reflected some light at him. He returned the favor, and I nodded. Now all we had to do was wait.

Behind me, my guards kept watch on the fire escape and nearby ‘scrapers. Even if we were killed now, the plan would continue unimpeded, but it would be a very embarrassing way to win. Best to just not risk it.

Down below, I noticed the giants withdrawing from the base like ants fleeing a picnic. Odin must have seen the signal. It was hard to tell, but it looked like the Americans were letting them go. They were likely trying to shore up their defenses. Better than performing a suicide attack that wouldn’t do any good.

They might even try to retreat back behind the gate, which would be a problem. If they got a resupply from the ships, they could get the large-caliber rounds that would chew through us like paper. Our berserkers wouldn’t last long. They were powerful and dangerous warriors, but they only survived because of circumstance. Melee fighters couldn’t survive against prepared opponents with guns for long. And the Americans {would be prepared next time.

Then the building rumbled.

I grinned, and looked over to my opposite across from me. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he’d be grinning too.

Deep in the sewers, on opposite sides of the Ginnungagap, two devices were activating. Complex reactions were taking place inside them. They spread that reaction in the direction we had chosen. The organic material in the sewers worked as an excellent catalyst for this kind of reaction.

I saw his first. Across the street, a plume of flame blew out of the sewer right next to the wall of the base. It sent the soldiers scrambling for cover, but they had little luck finding any. The fire spread along the sewer, making steam and smoke hiss out. The street buckled and groaned until the concrete could no longer contain it. In moments, an entire line of fire burst out of the ground. It was like Muspelheim itself rising up to meet the soldiers.

And on the other side of the street, Niflheim rose.

The complex organic reaction sucked all the heat out of its surroundings. This dropped the temperature to well below freezing temperatures in a heartbeat. The sewers were filled to the brim with mud and water. They expanded in great blue-white icicles, bursting out of the street like thorns.

The blue was my personal touch. Just a minor tweak to the chemistry. After all, everyone {knew ice was a bright, white blue. If I had left the color to nature, the ice would have come out black. No one would have realized what we had done. It would have sucked all the drama out of it.

In seconds, the American camp was split in two, with West Gate on one side and Odin’s armies on the other. Soon the flames would die and the ice would melt, but it would take longer than the Americans had. The ones on the gate side had no choice but to flee back to their ships. The ones within the reach of Odin would either surrender or die. Or maybe surrender and die. Ogres could be hard to control when their blood was up.

I smiled down at the scene as the little ants reacted in exactly the way we had expected them to. Loki even had holding cells ready for the prisoners. We wouldn’t need to keep them for long, just enough to trade them back to America.

But my smile faded as I saw the number of giant corpses left behind on the ground.

This was not the first time the Ginnungagap had seen war and bloodshed. It wouldn’t be the last. But… still. I couldn’t help wondering if maybe fewer would have needed to die if I had come up with a better plan.

I turned away, and headed back to the fire escape. Regrets were for fools. We still had a war to win.

Behind the Scenes (scene 283)

“Icebreaker” is a Nif term that outsiders often translate as “the guy who breaks things.” The Nifs, however, use it to describe anyone who is in charge of opening things violently. Doors, locks, etc. They’re usually the point man, at the front of the squad.