We opened our eyes.
Seventy-two pairs of eyes surveyed the room. We looked over the Necessarians, who were holding their guns a bit too close. Dozens of them, far too many to fight. Too many of our bodies were weak and needed to be protected, and we did not know what powers the Necessarians had.
The only course of action was obvious.
I fell forward, like a puppet with its strings cut. I had to take great gasping breaths of air as I trembled on the floor on my hands and knees. I heard someone throw up, but I was too focused on keeping my own stomach under control to look.
“Derek?” Laura slid down in front of me. “Hey, it’s me. You okay? How are you feeling?”
I groaned. “Like my brain got stretched out to cover seventy-two people at once.”
She lifted up my chin, forcing me to look at her. Her hair was damp with sweat, and her eyes lined from lack of sleep. She had been running herself ragged. She probably hadn’t gotten a single moment’s rest since the American ships first launched.
She was still beautiful.
How had it taken so long for me to notice? I was going to wring Elizabeth’s neck if I ever saw her again.
Laura held up three fingers. “How many—”
“Three.” I sighed. “Now two. And three, but a different three.” I grabbed her hand before she could continue, and forced a smile on my face. “I’m fine. I think I just need rest.” I heard more retching from behind me. “And maybe some crackers.”
Laura pulled me to my feet carefully, keeping an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t dizzy. “What do you remember from the hive?”
I shook my head. “Not much. Bits and pieces, but I don’t think my brain is equipped to handle the memories. The fact that we’re not all blown up makes me think that it worked, though.” I grimaced as my stomach rebelled again. “…crackers?”
“Over here.” She led me out of the room, down a side hallway I didn’t recognize. It was different than the one we had come in from.
“How did the battle go?” I asked. I checked my phone. “Is it really the same day?”
She nodded. “We held them off long enough for Butler to arrange a cease-fire. The American president seems like a coward, so it wasn’t that hard. He didn’t want more deaths on his conscience.”
“Not important right now.”
“Derek.” She gave me a hard glare. “The war is over, the American forces in retreat, and the cultures are tending to their dead. We can worry about everything else later. You’ve already done more than enough today. You literally saved the entire city—you can worry about philosophically saving it later.”
I grumbled, but we had found the vending machines, and Laura was collecting a few bags of crackers from it. We didn’t have to pay, of course. This was NHQ, and MC controlled the vending machines. She kept track of debts and payments and so on for everyone.
Laura opened a bag of crackers and handed it to me. Once I started eating, she started talking, knowing I wouldn’t be able to answer. “People died, yes. That’s what happens in Domina City. But the casualties were minimal, and most of the damage was limited to property. Right now, pretty much everyone is partying, and the city is safe.”
I swallowed a mouthful quickly. “What do you mean, pretty much everyone?”
She sighed. “Derek…”
She touched her necklace, then let it go and rolled her eyes. “Fine. The outer city was hit, but central was completely untouched. They couldn’t even hear the gunfire. They barely stopped fighting each other during the war, and now things are worse since all the ‘sarians and hellions are partying.”
“Asmodeus.” The central city was his primary hunting ground.
She sighed. “Yes. As well as the Nosferatu, Doresain, and pretty much anyone else who has a domain nice and far away from the war.” She rolled her eyes. “The Canians helped with the war, but now they’re having a party. So they’re probably going to burn their entire street to the ground.”
“Then let’s go talk to them.”
“No.” She stepped in front of me and put her hand on my chest. “We have people handling that. Not all of Necessarius is drunk right now. You need rest. The city can survive without you for eight hours.”
I frowned, but didn’t push her aside. “Mephistopheles respects me.”
“And he also respects the ‘sarians we sent to talk to him,” she said. “We’ve got this. Gosling knows what he’s doing. He’s the one who handled that scandal with the Canians and the troll a little while back.”
The name did sound familiar. “Okay, then the Nosferatu will probably—”
“We have people for that too. And the ghouls, and the Nessians, and the hags and the kemos and the trapped American soldiers.” She tried to smile. “It’s a city, Derek. Not a sad puppy. It can take care of itself.”
I looked her deep in the eyes for a moment, trying to stare her down.
After a moment, I closed my eyes and nodded.
“Fine,” I said after a moment. “I get it, I’ll do it. Rest, relaxation, all that annoying stuff.” I looked at the crackers in my hand. Why was I even eating these? My stomach was fine now. “Just tell me one thing. Butler got a cease-fire. In exchange for what?”
Laura smirked. “In exchange for a diplomatic meeting in New York on New Year’s Day.”
I started. “That’s in a week! We need to—”
She rolled her eyes and entwined her arm with mine. “We need to do nothing.” She pulled me away from the vending machines and towards the elevator up to ground level. “None of the Paladins or the retinue are going to be involved in this.”
“Why are we using the elevator? It’s just one floor.”
“Because I don’t want you using the stairs right now.” She pressed the button. “Anyway, the cultures will send one ambassador each, including Necessarius. Most haven’t been decided yet, but it’s not us.”
The elevator opened, and we piled in. “Which ones have been decided?”
“The dragons and the giants.”
I was still getting used to dragons being real, and more than just Io. “Who are they sending?”
“The dragons are sending Tamara, the Mercy.”
I thought for a moment. “…which subculture is she in charge of?”
“The Compassionate Healers.”
“Right.” The elevator doors opened again, and we piled out onto the first floor. “What about the giants? Nicholas, or maybe even Thor? His mom would probably be a better choice.”
Laura took a deep breath. “They’re sending Skrag.”
I blinked. “Skrag the Slaughterer?”
“Yes,” she said glumly as we walked out onto the street.
“But—but—he’s Skrag! What is Odin thinking?”
“He’s thinking that the ogres are the closest thing that the giants have to a neutral party.”
“Yeah, because everyone hates them equally!”
“True, but Skrag is highly respected.” She shrugged. “As much as he can be, anyway. He was the only real choice.”
“Gordok,” I said instantly.
“Gruul would riot,” she said. “And the trolls wouldn’t be far behind. Gruul himself is obviously not on the table, the trolls would never agree on who to send, the Muspels and Nifs still dislike the Aesir ambassador after that stunt at Surtr’s birthday party, and the Aesir would never trust the Jotuun ambassador. So yes, Skrag really is the only option.”
I groaned. “I hate this city.”
She pulled me closer as we walked to a cab waiting at the sidewalk, and I received a whiff of her perfume. “Is that so?” she asked, smiling.
I smiled back. “Well, only sometimes.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 292)
We’re doing a lot of short ones right now, but the longer ones are coming back soon.
In other news, if you are an American citizen, please vote in the upcoming election. Even if you feel like you are in a “safe” state or district where your vote doesn’t matter. Democracy only works if people exercise their right to vote.