Monthly Archives: December 2016

Scene 299 – Relinquo

RELINQUO

ADAM

January 1st, 2002. A Tuesday, of all days. It felt weird for this to be happening on a Tuesday. It just seemed… random. Which I guess it was. The fact that it was the first of the year was far more important.

I stood in a crowd at the square of South Gate, watching the ambassadors leave. South Gate was also called Demon Gate, which was an important symbol. The demons were the most open-minded culture, or so Lily had told me.

There were ten ambassadors, but they each had at least a handful of bodyguards. That made the procession a more confusing than it needed to be. Thankfully, Lily was standing right next to me the whole time.

“That’s Sargeras,” she said, pointing at an older demon in a crisp military uniform. He was tall and muscular with red skin, but just normally muscular. He didn’t look like a warlord. Most warlords looked like they bench-pressed cars in their spare time. “He’s one of the founders of the demon culture.”

I nodded. I wasn’t completely ignorant. “He’s the leader of the hellions, right?”

“The first one, at least, and he leads the largest Legion. But calling him the leader of the entire subculture is a stretch.”

Sargeras continued marching, looking straight ahead. His face was impassive and unreadable, and his six bodyguards looked about the same. One of them had a flagpole with two flags. I recognized the demon flag on top, but underneath it was another one. That was probably the hellion flag, or even Sargeras’ personal one.

“That’s the Dragon, right?” I said, pointing to the next group in line. The vampire leader was easy to pick out—he was the only one not wearing daygoggles. He smiled and waved at the crowd, those perfect eyes of his twinkling. His entourage remained stone-faced, like they were just putting up with his antics. He had a flag-bearer too, but his only had one flag. That must have been a statement; the Dragon didn’t need his own flag. The vampire one was more than enough.

Lily nodded. “Dracul is the one who started all this, you know.”

I frowned. “I thought it was Butler and President Martinez.”

“Not that. I mean he’s the first one who decided to come himself, rather than send a representative. Everyone else decided to follow suit. That’s why they each sent a major warlord instead of just a diplomat.” She smiled. “He often does things like that.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You like him? I thought a lot of people had problems with him.”

She shrugged. “I like everyone. I see the best in people.”

Fair enough. That was why we were dating.

“Here come the angels,” Lily said. “That’s Pistis Sophia up front.”

The woman was… well, she wasn’t quite a woman any more. She was naked, but she had no sex organs at all. Even her breasts werelittle more than bumps. Her skin was a light green and glowed just a tiny bit. It was hard to see under the morning sun. She smiled and waved at the crowd, but her six angels didn’t. They wore large, concealing brown robes, probably to hide their dayskin from American eyes.

I struggled to remember. “She’s in charge of… the spies, I know that, but which Heaven…”

“Solania,” Lily said. “The Crystal Heaven.”

“Ah, yes.” The second flag on her pole was crystalline. “I should have guessed. Should the angels be sending spies to these things?”

She smiled at me. “They’re all spies, dear.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean one so obvious.”

“Ah.” She shrugged. “She has her uses. The Hebdomad knows what they’re doing.”

I sighed, and nodded to the next in line. “Who’s the fel?”

He was a full anthro, with a squashed face and white fur. I was pretty sure he was wearing clothing, but it was hard to tell. The fur was light and fluffy, and obscured most of his body. He gave a few half-hearted waves to the crowd, but otherwise didn’t seem to be paying much attention.

“That’s the White Cat.”

“Never heard of him.”

Lily chuckled. “Oh, you are such a dear. That’s the founder of the fels. One of the three founders of the kemos, in fact.” Her smile faded. “He’s the last one alive.”

I watched him walk by. He didn’t seem all that impressive.

His entourage was far more interesting. There were two fels, two lupes, and two ursas. There was one flag-bearer for each, with a different flag underneath the kemo one. I didn’t recognize the flags, but I was willing to bet that they were the fel, lupe, and ursa flags.

Next were the giants. Most of the subcultures were represented in their entourage. I recognized the trolls, Nifs, and Muspels, but they were easy. There were a few hairy guys who I assumed were either sasquatches or yetis. I didn’t recognize the ambassador himself, though.

“Who’s that?” I asked. “That’s not Thor, right?”

Lily chuckled, but she seemed a bit sad. “No. That’s Skrag the Slaughterer.”

I stared at her.

She shrugged. “He was the only option. The ogres are mostly neutral among the giants.”

I turned back to the procession. I should have known Skrag was an ogre. He was shirtless, with a big bouncy sumo belly. His muscular arms were adorned with tribal tattoos. Broad, sweeping designs that probably meant something important. Not that I knew what. He had a short beard and was bald. This contrasted with the other ogres in his entourage, who wore their hair wild.

Behind the giants was another group. Their leader was a beautiful young woman in a stunning black gown dusted with diamonds. Her black hair was cropped short, like a boy’s, and her eyes glittered like stars. She smiled at everyone as she passed, but no one smiled back. I didn’t need Lily to tell me who this was.

Maeve, the Princess of Wind and Frost. Maiden of the Unseelie Court.

One of the bigger girls behind her was carrying a flag. It was one I hadn’t seen before. It seemed to be a standard mythological fairy, with cute wings and long hair. It looked absolutely nothing like Maeve or any of the other fey I had seen. I wondered if that was the joke.

“I’m surprised one of the actual fey is going,” I said. “Are they sure the homunculus will be able to operate so far from the city?”

Lily nodded. “That one has an upgraded radio package. She could pilot it on Luna with only a tiny delay.”

“Do you recognize anyone in her entourage?”

She shook her head. “No. But they might have been altered too much to tell for sure. Maeve is loaded for combat, though. The big one is a tank, the little one is stealth. With those two, she could probably conquer New York if she felt like it.”

“What about the medium-sized one?”

“Either a support gunner or something specialized. Poison, maybe. Now shush, the changelings are coming.”

They were. I was surprised they were right behind the fey, but I guess whoever decided the order of the procession had a reason for it. I recognized Eccretia in the front, followed by Domothon and Ferenil. There were two other changelings I didn’t recognize. They were probably representatives of the Black Hats and the Gray Hats. They were all glaring at the fey in front of them, but Maeve didn’t even seem to notice. The changelings didn’t have a flag, which made them seem a bit awkward among the other proud cultures.

Behind them came something unexpected: Two women, twins. They appeared to be completely baseline, but I wasn’t fooled. They both worked together to hold up a a flagpole with two flags. The top was a twisting fish, and underneath it a shark.

“Those the Dagonites?” I asked.

Lily nodded. “Hevatica and Dilithase. They’re both sirens, which is only to be expected. The Naiads almost managed to get one of their own chosen as the ambassador, but fought with the Nereids and the Oceanids. The twins swooped in and took the place themselves.”

“Why don’t they have an entourage?”

“They do. Made up of representatives from both the Atlanteans and the Dagonites. But the twins are the only ones with a power that lets them stand for long enough to be part of this procession.”

I glanced at her. “What are they going to do for the actual discussions? Wheel in a fish tank?”

She smiled. “Maybe. The merfolk don’t need much from America. They just need to make sure they don’t get screwed over when they’re not looking.”

“Well, I—” Something caught my attention. “Who is that?

The last group in the procession consisted of five people. They strode with their heads held high, but I didn’t recognize their culture. They had thick scales, more like a crocodile than a lizard, and some of them had long and narrow snouts. Each of the five had different color scales: Red, green, white, blue, and the woman in front was silver. Her eyes were strong, and she smiled an anthro smile at everyone she passed.

I didn’t recognize the flag, either. It looked like ten triangles arranged in a circle around a sphere. It was more geometric than some of the other ones.

“That is Tamara, the Mercy,” Lily said. “Wyrm of the Compassionate Healers. They’re one of the ten dragon subcultures.”

Oh, right, dragons. I had forgotten they were a thing now. Laura had tried to explain to me the politics of Io’s death, but I hadn’t been able to pay attention. Tamara appeared to have wings on her back, but they were folded up and were hard to spot.

“I’m surprised they’re allowed to send an ambassador.”

“They’re an official culture. They registered with Necessarius and everything.” She smirked. “Besides, can you imagine the riots if the fey were allowed to go and the dragons weren’t?”

I chuckled. Yeah, even someone as politics-blind as me could see how that would be a bad idea.

Lily watched for a few moments longer, then pulled me away, away from the procession.

I frowned. “What is it? Isn’t the ‘sarian delegation coming up next?”

“Yes, but you need to leave soon.”

I sighed as she pulled me through the crowd, down a few side streets. I had been trying not to think about it. “I didn’t—maybe I made a mistake. Maybe this isn’t the best time for me to leave the city.”

“You need a vacation,” Lily said. “Besides, this is the perfect time. With the ambassadors coming in, no one is going to pay attention to you.”

That would be nice. I was beginning to miss my anonymity. Even now, some of the people we passed whispered and pointed me out. Well, some of them pointed to Lily, but most noticed me first. I had tried not to make a big deal of it, but I had saved the city pretty much by myself. That was the kind of thing people remembered.

“Do I have to take a plane?” I asked. We were out of the crowd now. Lily hailed a cab. “Couldn’t I just… I don’t know… hide out on the ambassador boat?”

She rolled her eyes.

“Okay, fine, that wouldn’t work.” For like a million reasons, starting with the fact that the ambassadors wouldn’t let me. “But can’t I just take a different boat?”

“All the ‘sarian ships are either escorting the ambassadors or remaining behind to guard the city, just in case. There aren’t any others available.”

The cab pulled up, and we piled inside. “What about the prisoner transfer boats? I came in on one of those. Not as a prisoner, but you know what I mean.”

“The airport, please,” Lily said to the driver. He nodded and drove off. She turned to me. “Those boats are controlled by New York, not Domina. Calling for one would attract a lot of attention. Defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”

I sighed and sat back in my seat.

Lily cocked her head at me. “Are you that worried about your parents?”

I rolled my eyes. “No. They’re annoying, but it’ll be fine.”

“They won’t force you to stay home or anything?”

“No, nothing like that. They’ll tell me to be careful about a million times, but that’s all. They’re big on the whole trusting me to make my own decisions thing.” I smiled. “Besides, what are they gonna do? Cut me off? I make more money monster hunting already.” I thought about it. “I should tell them to stop sending me money. It’s not like I’m going to class any more.”

I never used to think about that sort of thing before I met Lily. If someone offers you money, you take it. Well, you check that it’s not a trap first, but you don’t worry about morality. Growing a conscience was annoying.

“Then what’s the problem?”

I paused, embarrassed. “I’ve… never been on a plane before.”

Lily blinked, then laughed. “You’re scared! That’s so cute!”

I scowled. “It is not.”

“Yes it is! You fight monsters on a daily basis, but one little plane ride has you looking for escape routes! That is just adorable.” She pinched my cheek and giggled. “Oh, I wish I had more time to make fun of you for this.”

I pushed her off. It took two tries. The first time, she accidentally used her strength to resist me. I couldn’t even move her an inch. “I’m getting on the plane, don’t you worry about that. I almost came to the city in the first place on a plane! I just…” I shrugged helplessly. “I just wish that there was another way.”

She just sat there, smirking.

I sighed. “What are you going to be doing while I’m gone? More work with Clarke?”

“No, we’re mostly done with that. I will be doing a few things for Necessarius, but nothing directly related to Clarke’s experiments or the toy maker. It’s a bit complex, not something to discuss in the back of a cab.”

I nodded. “Fair enough.” The cabbie didn’t seem to be paying attention to us, but that didn’t mean anything.

“We’ll talk more next time I see you,” Lily said. “But for now, let’s just enjoy the drive.”

She leaned up against me. I put my arm around her, and we spent the rest of the drive to the airport like that.

Behind the scenes (scene 299)

Lily/Adam scenes are a bit too cute for me to write regularly. But they also work great since Lily has so much knowledge of the city, while Adam is still lagging behind everyone else on that front.

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Scene 298 – Amor et Sanguine

AMOR ET SANGUINE

FIERNA

“Can we hurry this up?” the Dragon asked. “I have to be in New York City tomorrow morning.” He adjusted the cuff links on his black suit. “It would be very embarrassing if I was late.”

Bel growled. “The only reason it took so long is because you were busy playing war games. We should have had this meeting weeks ago.”

Dracul smiled at him, his godeyes sparkling. “I was defending our fair city, Honored Noble. What exactly were you doing when warships arrived on our shores?”

Before they could get into another argument, Ishtar slowly took her seat, languishing across the velvet couch like a great cat. Her sensual dress made her every motion the center of attention. “You are the one who called us here, dearest Fierna. I think it is only appropriate that you be the one to get us started.”

‘Here’ was Jealous Heart, Ishtar’s aptly named domain. It was patterned after Shendilavri’s velvet halls, which always made me a little uncomfortable. But it was warm and quiet, which made it better than Phlegethos right now. Sure, I had plenty of cold-weather buffs, but it was the middle of winter and half the damn domain was styled after a medieval castle. Concrete walls made the whole place feel like an icebox.

I nodded to her. “Thank you, Honored Ishtar. I’m not sure how much Gazra told you—”

“Nothing interesting.” She waved her hand. “Something about it being important to something or something.”

“An apt summary,” Bel said. “I have a better understanding.” He gave me a weary look. “You want to free the sclavi. Truly free them, not just cut them off from the chems and leave them to die in the back alleys of Acheron.”

“Yes, which is why—”

“It’s a nice idea,” he said. “But I’m not sure it will work. Phlegethos just isn’t set up for that sort of thing. How many members do you have right now? Real members.”

“A few hundred. But—”

Bel sighed. “Look, I know you think you can handle it. But having that many people under your command is more than just feeding them all. The freed slaves are going to want voices in the culture. They’ll be happy with you at first, but that will go downhill quickly. Do you even have a basic republic framework set up?”

I frowned. “No, but neither do you!”

“The Avernans number a little over a thousand,” he said. “Enlightened dictatorship works pretty well at that level.  Especially since my drakes can leave if they don’t like what I’m doing. Yours won’t have that option.”

“Yes, they will,” I said. “That’s the entire point.”

He gave me a pitying look. “You know it’s not that simple. Yes, they’ll be free to leave, but where else will they go? Who will take in thousands of just-clean chem-heads? Even Butler would have trouble with an influx like that. You will be their only option, so you need to make sure it’s a good option.”

I squared my jaw. “Then what do you suggest, hm? That I turn Phlegethos into an elected oligarchy? Oh wait, that’s what the pines did, and they all died. Or maybe an anarchy, like the Satanists! Because they are wonderful role models!”

“Fierna,” Bel said chided. “You’re being unreasonable.”

I nearly pulled out my hair and threw it in his face.

“Actually, I’m with her on this one,” Dracul said. He was leaning forward, that small knowing smile on his lips. “Worrying about the government of a sick culture is putting the cart before the horse. Keep it a dictatorship right now.” He winked at me. “Though maybe cut down on the executions.”

I frowned at Bel. “Is that what this is about? You don’t like that I’m executing traitors?”

“He’s a scientist, love,” Ishtar said without opening her eyes. “Executions are a waste of test subjects.”

Bel glared at her, but decided she wasn’t worth the effort. He turned back to me. “Sweetie, I know you’re doing your best. And you’re right, a lot of those people deserved worse than what you gave them.  Bleeding night, maybe all of them did. I’m just worried that you might let the power go to your head. There need to be checks and balances.”

“I already have a slave army that only I control,” I said. “Tell me uncle, how exactly is freeing them going to give me power that is more dangerous than that?”

“It’s not—I’m not—” He sighed. “I just want you to be mindful of the mistakes your father made. Please, that’s all I ask.”

“I will,” I said, and meant it. “I left because of what he did.”

Bel nodded. “Good. Excellent.”

I scratched at the spot where my fixer used to be. “Now, on to actually curing the sclavi—”

“First, we need to discuss retribution,” Bel said.

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

“What exactly are you talking about?”

“Mom already forgave her for the whole Whorestown thing,” Ishtar said. She was popping grapes into her mouth one by one. Where did she get grapes?

“I thought even you forgave her,” the Dragon said. He was looking at Bel with the gaze of a predator. “Lots of yelling, made you feel better, all that?”

“I remember the yelling,” I muttered petulantly. I couldn’t help it. Bel always made me feel like a child.

Bel looked annoyed, but nodded. “True. Your involvement in Shendilavri has been… resolved. The question is everything after. Everything the culture has done in your name since.” He pulled out a pad. “As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s quite an exhaustive list.”

I finally sat down and put my head in my hands. “Noapte, please tell me those idiots didn’t.”

Bel hesitated. “Well… yes. They didn’t. That is, they didn’t pay retribution.”

“Yes,” said, deadpan. “I was hoping they didn’t do that.”

Bel frowned. “So you were hoping they didn’t didn’t pay retribution?”

“Yes yes, I worded it poorly,” I snapped. “Get on with it. How much do I owe?”

He looked over the list. “This is an estimation, you understand—”

“Mine isn’t,” Dracul said. He pulled out his own pad and threw it at me with perfect accuracy. I caught it easily. “First page. My boys have been tracking what those idiots have been doing since your mom left.”

I scrolled through the list. “This… isn’t as bad as I thought.”

Dracul shrugged. “A lot of them got voided when people decided violence was better retribution.  After all, it’s not like your people ever actually paid. Then the judges started awarding violence for all retributions against Belians.  Your warlords started paying on time more after that. Your biggest debts are from the early days. Things people have forgotten about.”

“If they’ve forgotten, then you’re all set,” Ishtar said. I glanced up. Now she had a glass of white wine—rare, for a vampire. We drank red exclusively, due to the association with blood. “Just ignore them and you’re good to go.”

“They’ve been forgotten, not forgiven,” I said. “As the culture begins to rise again, debtors will find themselves suffering a sudden outbreak of memory.” I paged through the list again. “Very specific memories with very long numbers attached.”

“Exactly. So you need money.” Dracul smiled. “You have a big giant labor force ready and willing to make you piles of cash. Now you have a moral question: Do you want to put them to work now and keep all the profits?  Or do you want to cure them first, which is the right thing to do but leaves them with the lion’s share?”

Bel shook his head. “Don’t bother trying to appeal to her better side, Drake. She inherited her mother’s pragmatism. You’re not going to convince her to—”

“Cure them,” I said.

Bel frowned. “It’s a trick.”

“It’s basic business,” I said. “Free men and women are more productive than slaves. Especially when the slaves are literally mindless. There’s not really that much work in this city for a bunch of drones.”

“Asmodeus still has that market cornered,” Ishtar said. She was sitting upside down now, for some reason. I had given up on trying to understand her years ago. She was either genuinely insane or had so much fun pretending that it made no difference.

“That settles it,” Dracul said with a clap and a massive smile. “Bel, I’m sure with Naome’s notes, you can figure something out rather quickly, correct?” He winked at me. “I’m sure he’s been working on it since you came back.”

Bel muttered something under his breath about how he had actually been working on it for years.  He just hadn’t had much progress until now.

“Excellent!” the Dragon said. He stood up, getting ready to leave. “If that’s all, I do need to prepare for tomorrow—”

“No,” Bel said, standing up as well. “There is still the issue of payment.”

I scowled. “For years, you’ve been working to free the sclavi on your own dime, but now it’s about money?”

“Yes. Especially since we still haven’t figured out how you’ll handle the sudden influx of free vampires.”

I sighed. “Okay, so it’s not your money you’re worried about.”

“Not just my money,” he said. “But I’ll work on this one at cost. I’ll send you an invoice later, it shouldn’t be more than ten thousand dollars or so.”

I nodded. Even though my culture was destitute, ten thousand dollars was chump change. If I decided to crack open my father’s quarters and sell some of his crap, it wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket. The problem was that selling things would attract attention from creditors. I wanted to hold off on that for as long as possible.

“The bigger expense will be the sclavi themselves,” Bel continued. “Have you given any thought to how you are going to make it up to them?”

“Freeing them and giving them appropriate medical treatment will help clear away some of the debt,” I said. “Going by Butler’s retribution laws, that is. I’ll need to check the actual numbers, but in the end it shouldn’t be much more than a couple thousand a head.”

Dracul chuckled. “That’s what, ten million or so total?”

“A little less,” I muttered.

“No way you have that much money lying around.”

“Well, I’m not going to take any more loans. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.”

Bel shook his head. “Your father’s stupidity and drugs got you into this. Take the loan.”

“Speaking of which, how is the drug trade?” Ishtar asked. At least she was sitting right side up now. “You’re following Butler’s rules and all that, but what are your profits looking like?”

I sighed. “A quarter percent profit.”

Ishtar laughed out loud. “How have you managed that? The hags have backed down since the Rampage, so you shouldn’t have any competition.”

I rolled my eyes. “Had to restructure the chem vats. You should have seen them. They weren’t just below code, they were barely working at all. I would trust chems cooked in a bathtub more than those.”

“I just bought from you the other day!”

I nodded. “We got new vats. Upgraded the whole system from top to bottom. We’re back on top, it’s just going to take us a few months to start paying off what we spent.”

“But you have enough money to pay me?” Bel asked.

“Yes,” I said with a smile. “Barely. Don’t worry about my money situation. I have a pretty good idea what I’m doing.”

“Managing the finances of a couple ‘sarians is different from managing an entire culture. There are food expenses, basic upkeep, electricity—”

“Yes, thank you,” I said through clenched teeth. “I know. As I said, I have it handled. I didn’t kill all of my advisers, you know.”

“You need someone smarter than your boyfriend, Fi.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. This man… it was almost like he was trying to get on my bad side.

“I will consider taking a loan,” I said. “I’ll talk to Glasya about it. She’ll give me a good deal.”

“You sure you should trust her?” Ishtar asked.

“Ishtar, get off the ceiling.”

“It’s my domain, I can do what I want!”

I sighed, but didn’t press it. “Yes, I trust Glasya. To a point. She doesn’t break deals, you know that. And yes,” I said, pointing at Bel before he had a chance to speak. “I will bring a lawyer with me. There are a lot of them in Phlegethos. They were some of the only ones who didn’t run away.”

The Dragon chuckled. “There’s a joke in there.”

“Please don’t make it.”

“So is that it?” Ishtar asked. “Have we settled everything? Your culture seems to be doing fine, so I don’t think we need to interfere quite yet.”

“There is something,” Bel said. “The sclavi still need to be dealt with.”

I looked away. I had been hoping he had forgotten.

“I’ll cure them,” I said. I had been thinking about it during the conversation. “Remove their chem glands, flush their systems, and give them enough treatment to make them clean. The whole process should take two weeks minimum. I’ll stretch it to a month to be on the safe side. Most of these people aren’t healthy.”

Bel nodded. “A wise move. And if Phlegethos falls due to a lack of manpower—”

However, I have a condition.”

The Dragon smirked. “I think I know where this is going.”

“I don’t,” Bel said. “Fi, I’m sure you believe you can save both the sclavi and the culture, but I think you need to accept that—”

“I need your help to cure the hags.”

Bel stopped speaking. He blinked like an owl. “What?”

“Baba Yaga has… had a change of heart since the Rampage,” I said. I had spoken to Obould and Veronica a bit. “She has little wish to keep her slaves. In fact, she wouldn’t be unduly bothered if she was knocked from her throne entirely. She has never enjoyed being a warlord. She was forced into the role because a bunch of drug-addled morons demanded it.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Bel asked. “I am honestly impressed that you are willing to help other chem-heads.  I just don’t understand how this will help you save your culture.”

“Because, dear uncle, the hags will know who saved them,” I said. “As will the sclavi. And I will give each and every one of them the option to join me at Phlegethos. Where they will be fed, sheltered, and given jobs.”

“And drugs?” Ishtar asked.

“Eventually,” I said. “But to start, I’ll just give them a place.”

Bel leaned back. “I don’t know, Fi. I don’t think it will be enough to keep the culture alive.”

I resisted the urge to grind my teeth. “It will last for long enough. As the culture regains legitimacy, more people will join us normally.”

“All right, sounds easy enough to me,” the Dragon said. “I’ll tell my boys to help you while I’m gone. I just have one question. What will happen to the rest? The chem-heads who have been cured, but don’t want to join you?”

“I will direct them to Necessarius,” I said. “Butler always needs more men, for anything and everything.”

“And if they don’t want that?”

“Then they’ll have to find jobs elsewhere. I will do my best, but there’s only so much I can do.”

The Dragon nodded.

Ishtar flipped down from the ceiling. “I’m game.”

Bel slowly stroked his chin. “…very well. My men can make tranquilizer darts that will even work on a life-long sclav or hag.” He gave me a level look. “Let’s see what you can do, dear Fierna.”

Behind the scenes (scene 298)

I’ve been pushing back the sclavi problem for a hundred chapters. But I think now that the war is over, it can finally come to a close.

Scene 297 – Genus

GENUS

AKANE

I rubbed some plaster dust between my fingers. The wall had exploded, but there weren’t any scorch marks that would indicate a bomb. Instead, it looked like something massive had smashed its way through.

Any giant could have made this hole. Tezuka’s name, I probably could have made this hole, with effort. The wall was just cheap sheetrock. It wasn’t designed to actually defend against anything. It may as well have been made of paper.

“Aunty, what are we doing here?” Yuuki asked with a sigh.

I looked up. He was standing in the middle of the chaotic apartment, looking around with disdain. His hand was on his sword, but he flicked his red hair-ribbon off his shoulder in an absent-minded way.

The two of us weren’t the only kensei here. Yuudai wasn’t here, but there were three more, all baseline, who had come with me when I asked. They were currently trying to look like they weren’t eavesdropping on our conversation.

“We’re looking for clues,” I said.

“The Gravers did it,” Yuuki said.

I smiled. “Yes, I know.” The corpse covered in petrakinetic stone armor had been a red flag. “But why were they here? Who managed to kill at least one of them, and why didn’t they police the corpses? These are all questions we need answered.”

“I heard Anders call them a cult worshiping a ghost.”

“Even cults have reasons,” I said. I frowned and blew some of the dust away, revealing a spent shell casing. I picked it up with a pair of tweezers and slipped it into an evidence bag. It wasn’t a make I recognized, but there were lots of bullet makers in this city. “Even the truly, completely insane have patterns. We just need to find it.”

“Then why are we here? Why not Butler’s CSIs, or Miss Medina?”

“Laura is busy, and I know Ling better than the CSI team.” I took out my phone and took a picture of a bootprint that we had missed when we first came in. It was only partial, but it was better than nothing.

“But Miss Yu is dead.”

I smiled sadly. “I know. But the Gravers are trying to emulate her.” I stood up and looked around the apartment again. “For some reason, they thought the people here needed to be killed. But why?”

There was a brief sound of rushing air. I turned to see one of my kensei standing out in the hall. She was a fel, but just the ears. Hopefully her sudden arrival hadn’t disturbed the scene at all. I didn’t chastise her, since she clearly had something important to say.

“Report,” I said.

“Records indicate that the apartment was bought in cash,” she said. She had a slight Romanian accent from growing up in one of the vampire domains. I didn’t know which one. “No names, of course. But the thing is, the landlord doesn’t remember selling the apartment. He could be lying—”

“No,” I said, frowning. “That’s unlikely.” It would gain him nothing, and he likely wasn’t happy with these tenants. They had got a giant hole blasted in the wall and left him with the bill. “Get a hacker on it. Call the changelings.”

She nodded, pulling a cell phone out of her gi and walking further down the hallway for some privacy.

“Kenkami,” one of the others called. “Come take a look at this.”

I stepped around the shattered television and ripped-up couch. One of my kensei led me into the sole bedroom.

There was no bed. There wasn’t much of anything. No cabinets, no suspicious stains or ashes of burned letters. As far as I could tell, this was exactly what it looked like right before anyone moved in.

“Sam,” I said curtly.

He nodded. “Sorry. Look here.” He knelt down on the floor, and I followed suit. I immediately saw what he meant—big, square indents in the floor. Some of them had the circles of little rubber feet. “This place was filled with computers. I can’t give you an exact number, but I’m guessing it’s ‘as many as they could get their hands on.’ You can even see where they sat on the floor, here.”

I raised an eyebrow. I could see a small butt imprint in the carpet. Now that I was looking at it correctly, I could see it. There were all the signs of someone surrounding themselves with a ring of computers. Just as many as they could.

I sniffed the air. Yes, and there was that stench of ozone. The smell of computers not quite overheating, but running for long and hot.

“A hacker?” I asked.

“I checked with MC. No internet usage in this apartment for the last week.”

“Well maybe—” I blinked as the sentence caught up with me. “None?

“None,” he said. “Somebody opened up the Fundie login page on Christmas Day, and then nothing ever since.”

Christmas Day. The day of the war.

That had been a confusing day all around. But still… they wouldn’t be that stupid…

But that was just it. They weren’t being stupid, were they? They had managed to remain in hiding for a week. Most spies from outside the city barely lasted two days.

I chided myself. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. There were plenty of other explanations. Maybe some changeling had been perfecting his rig in private. They sometimes had odd, almost religious reverence for their machines. Staying unconnected from the internet for a week was pretty tame compared to some of the things I had heard.

“Yuuki,” I said.

He immediately poked his head into the room. “Yes?”

“Have you determined how many people were involved in this fight?”

His lips moved slowly. I could tell he hadn’t been paying attention to the crime scene after all. He had been treating it as something he just had to grin and bear, like a dentist’s appointment. “Uh…”

“Start with the bootprints,” I said. “Not as good as fingerprints, but they’ll give us a number. Then we’ll try and sort them between the Gravers and the residents.”

Yuuki glanced behind him, back into the main room. I pretended not to know that the other kensei were frantically signaling him with the answers.

He looked back at me. “Six in the apartment. Not sure how many outside. Not as much dust. There’s just the golem’s footprints.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe the golem was the only attacker? It would explain why the Gravers left the bodies.”

“Gravers attack in groups,” I said. “Ling was smart enough to never go alone if she could help it. Her cult—or college, or whatever—seems to have learned that lesson well.” I groaned and rose to my feet.

“So… a few Gravers attacked six people, got fought off, and the people ran before they could come back with reinforcements?”

“Sounds about right.”

“Probably within the hour,” Sam said. “That butt imprint wouldn’t last long.”

I smiled. “Sam, we know already.”

He frowned, then blushed. “Right. The landlord said it happened an hour ago. I forgot.”

“It’s fine.” I turned back to my nephew. “Have you seen any other signs that might indicate who was here?”

Yuuki tried to think. “The corpse next to the door. Killed with a single shot to the head.”

I nodded in what I hoped was an encouraging manner.

He continued, but still looked like someone was torturing it out of him. “Um, that means that was one of the Gravers, right? Because Gravers don’t use guns. They’d do the golem-armor, or throw rocks.”

I nodded. “Very good. Search his pockets for anything useful.”

Yuuki paled. “The corpse? Search the corpse?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that a problem?”

He glanced at the body, then back at me. “No. No, it’ll be fine.” He walked over to the body, and I carefully pretended not to notice how he was clearly trying not to throw up. At least the smell wasn’t bad yet.

I pointed to one of the other kensei. “You.” I pointed to the golem. “Get the armor off.”

She nodded and pulled out a knife. “Yes, sir.” She knelt down, paused for a moment, and then seemed to blur as she activated her power. At that speed, the little knife might as well have been a chainsaw.

The kensei I had sent away earlier returned. “Eccretia said she checked with her men. She confirmed that this wasn’t a changeling operation. From what her hackers could determine, this apartment was never actually paid for. Someone hacked the accounts to make it look like it was occupied, then just started squatting.”

I frowned. That made things a little more difficult. “Fine.” I waved my hand at the room. “Sniff. You have the best nose.” I stepped aside to let her in, then walked out into the hallway myself. I needed a moment to think.

Work backward. Assuming that the residents were American spies, or leftovers from the war or whatever, would all this make sense? The Gravers would have motive to attack them, but the Gravers attacked pretty much everyone except for Necessarius. That wasn’t proof of anything.

This would be so much easier if the Gravers would just talk to anyone. But they refused to let any of us get within a hundred yards of the Grave. MC said they didn’t even bring their phones in.

The internet, though, that was something. Everyone in Domina used Fundie. Absolutely everyone. Even hardened criminals on the run from Necessarius used it. Butler was emphatically not allowed to use it to track people down. But on the other hand, criminals might be paranoid enough to avoid it anyway. And they’d probably be right to. So again, that didn’t prove anything. Weak evidence.

The computers were odd. If they had only been here since Christmas, how had they managed to assemble a rig that fast? It was doubtful that they had brought it with them. The Americans had invaded, they hadn’t brought hackers and data miners. Besides, what would they even do with an overpowered rig if they weren’t connected to the internet? It would have made so much more sense if it was just a weird changeling.

But maybe…

I flipped out my phone and dialed MC.

“Yes, Akane?” her fake voice said cheerily.

“Were any computer stores robbed in the past week?” I asked. “In a ten-block radius.”

“There were eighteen robberies in the specified time and location range.”

Of course. There was Domina City for you. “What about big robberies? A thousand dollars minimum.”

“There were twelve robberies in the specified time, location, and price range.”

I sighed. “Ten thousand, then.”

“There were two robberies in the specified time, location, and price range.”

“Send me both locations.” I hung up. “Yuuki!”

He jumped up from the corpse and saluted so fast I heard the air crack. “Haven’t found anything yet!”

“We need to check out some robberies,” I said. My phone buzzed in my hand, but I didn’t even bother looking at it yet. “Might be related. Maybe we can get some security footage on the robbers. Could be the ones who were squatting here.”

Yuuki relaxed visibly. “Okay, sure. Sounds good.”

I nodded. “Sam!”

He stood up. He had been observing something on the ground, in the corner. “Sir?”

“You’re boss.”

He beamed, and saluted. “Yes, kenkami!”

Yuuki and I headed down the hallway. He was quiet as we reached the elevators.

“Something wrong?” I asked once we were inside. “Worried about your brother?”

He shook his head. “He’s in good hands. And it’s not anything dangerous, anyway.”

True enough. “What, then?”

He sighed. “It’s about Saki.”

Saki Akiyama. Murasaki Akiyama’s daughter, Yuuki’s cousin, and my niece. She had been one of the first people tossed into the CS cells. She had a dangerous power. She could make anyone treat her as the most important thing in their life. They became willing to kill anyone—including themselves—if it kept her safe.

It was one of the strongest powers I’d seen. She had lost her voice in exchange. That was called a discord, losing something in order to boost the power in some way. Laura had theorized that Derek’s shields were a discord. She had observed similar powers, and thought that the power was the ability to create shaped energy barriers. The fact that he was limited to just shields instead of swords and knives like Elizabeth was his own limit, not one of the power itself.

I forced a smile on my face. “What about her?”

“I haven’t been to see her since that first day,” he said. “Have you?”

I shook my head. I had considered it, but with so much lost time between us… it felt like an impossible gap to bridge.

“Yuudai has,” Yuuki said. “A bunch of times. I think he’d go every day if Mister Sifu wasn’t pushing him so hard, keeping him busy.”

The elevator dinged. We stepped out onto the ground floor.

I checked the addresses on my phone and started heading outside. “What does he do? Talk with her?”

“Not with her, I don’t think. To her, maybe. She doesn’t talk back.”

I smiled, then glanced up the street and figured out which way we were supposed to go. “You know what I mean. She writes.”

“I do know. Knew. And she doesn’t write.” He shook his head. “She doesn’t seem interested in any kind of redemption. That’s why I’m worried. I think she’s biding her time, just waiting to get out of there. And she’s going to use Yuudai to do it.”

“You shouldn’t talk about your family like that,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had treated my own mother worse over the years. It’s just… I thought maybe things would be easier with my nephews. And my niece.

“Yeah, well, the world doesn’t operate as it should,” he said cynically. “Better safe than sorry is practically the family motto.”

“The family motto is Ketsueki no yōna aka.”

“Sure. Anyway, I’m not going to sit by and let my brother get enchanted by some witch. I don’t care if she is my cousin.”

I nodded glumly. “I’ll speak to Yuudai. Failing that, I’ll ask the CS squad to keep him out. That should be enough.”

He took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you. That will have to be enough.”

I pulled out my phone and checked the addresses MC had sent me. “This is taking too long. Follow me.”

I activated my power and ran off, followed by my nephew’s surprised laughter. I smiled as I heard it. It warmed my heart.

I had far too many worries these days, and he had just added a few more.

Behind the Scenes (scene 297)

Akane and her nephews always end up going to odd places. We’ll revisit these two and the Americans later, but for now there are other things to worry about.

Scene 296 – Gravi de Custodibus

GRAVI DE CUSTODIBUS

JEFFERIES

I covered my head as splinters of wood filled the room in a cloud. They cut through the cheap upholstery of the couch like razors. Anyone standing in front of the door would have been shredded like cheese.

Someone stepped into the room, moving like a soldier. He didn’t appear to be armed, but that didn’t matter. Backstrom pulled out her assault rifle from behind the couch and opened fire without so much as a whisper of warning.

From my spot on the floor next to the door, I had a perfect view of the bullets hitting him. He staggered back, but just grinned. Through the bullet holes in his shirt I saw stone, smoothing over the dents and cracks even as I watched.

“Gravers!” I yelled as I pulled out my pistol and shot him in the head. He went down. “Gravers with armor!”

Gravers were one of the new colleges, and we actually knew a lot about them. Or as much as anyone else, anyway. They had sort of appeared out of nowhere once the powers had spread. That meant everyone was talking about them, and it wasn’t suspicious for us to ask questions.

They had carved out a niche for themselves in the city quickly and violently. They were even being called the first real college, the first one with the strength to claim a domain and hold it. Theirs was the Grave, which was the tomb of some girl we didn’t know much about.

The next man through the door didn’t even look like a man any more. He was completely covered in concrete. He looked like some stupid kid who had decided to cover himself in cement for some bizarre reason. The cement had hardened, but it didn’t matter. He was a stoneshaper, a petrakinetic. He molded the concrete as easily as he flexed his muscles, letting him use it as a primitive armor.

Primitive but extremely effective. Backstrom, Hall, Brown and I all unloaded our weapons at him, to no effect. What little damage the bullets did was healed, and the golem-like beast just laughed. He would run out of power soon, but he knew we would run out of bullets first.

Then Kine sniped him in the head with an armor-piercing round.

He stood there for a moment, as if stunned that something could get past his defenses. The only real sign that he had been shot at all was the small hole in his forehead. The bullet hadn’t maintained enough momentum to punch out the back.

After a moment, the golem swayed, then fell forward. He hit the floor with a flat crack like broken pottery.

There was a roar of outrage from the hall outside, the Gravers making their fury known. The entire building shook, just for a moment, and dust rained down from the ceiling. They couldn’t push too hard, not without bringing the whole skyscraper tumbling down. For a moment I thought they might be stupid enough to do it anyway.

“Spies are buried with traitors!” someone yelled from outside. Sounded like a girl. “Buried deep!

Oh good, they were talking. Great. Now we got to listen to that crap while they killed us.

Lieutenant Backstrom didn’t see it that way. “Cease fire! We want to talk!”

There wasn’t any more yelling, which was a good sign, and none of the Gravers crashed into the room. They were waiting to see what we would do.

Backstrom looked out of her element. She wasn’t good at talking. “What do you want? Maybe we can make a deal.”

“No deals!” someone called. Another girl, but different from the one who had yelled before. “The Lady Grave has decreed that you die! We cannot allow spies to live in the heart of Domina City!”

I met Backstrom’s eyes and shrugged. They had a point. We were spies.

Backstrom licked her lips. “Can we meet this… Lady Grave?”

I heard whispering outside for a moment.

“If you surrender your weapons, yes,” she said. “Otherwise, you die. Those are the terms, no arguing.”

“We’ve got a dozen soldiers in here,” Backstrom lied. “All heavily armed. We’re not giving up our guns.”

“You sure that’s how you want to play it?” The Graver didn’t sound convinced about our superior numbers. Hell, I had no idea how these powers worked. Maybe she had some magical ability to know how many people were in a room or if someone was lying or whatever.

“We’re not surrendering,” Backstrom said, tone firm.

“All right. We’ll make it quick. No torture. That sound fair?”

In response, Backstrom yanked back the slide on her rifle, making an unmistakable noise.

“So be it.”

The wall exploded.

Dust and plaster rained down on me, covering me in choking white powder. I was bludgeonedwith pieces of the wall too big to be instantly pulverized. I coughed so hard it felt like my throat would bleed, firing blindly at the hole in the wall. I heard more gunfire from my squadmates, trying to suppress the Gravers.

Three people walked in as if they owned the place, bullets bouncing off them like rain. Their armor was smoother and sleeker than what the golem-man had been using just a few moments ago. These were the leaders. They had sent in the cannon fodder, now it was time for the elites to handle things.

Kine raised her gun, loaded with armor-piercing bullets. Before she had a chance to fire, one of the elites waved his hand. A small piece of concrete flew off with all the speed of a bullet. Kine dove to the ground, but it still hit her in the shoulder. I heard her cry out, and a spray of blood painted the wall behind her.

The gunfire stopped. How could we fight monsters like this?

“Sorry,” one of them said. The stone made their voice echo oddly. Could they even breathe in those things? Of course they had to, but I didn’t see any air holes or other weaknesses. “Like we said, we’ll make it quick.” His hand morphed into a long, sharp blade, and he started advancing on Backstrom. She finally regained her wits and resumed firing, but she may as well have been spitting for all the good it did.

I tackled him to the side.

I was pretty sure that the only reason it worked at all was because he was surprised. We both went rolling to the ground. I tried to get my hands around his throat, to do something other than just getting killed.

It didn’t work. I was on top of him, trying to strangle him, and he lay there as if I was as annoying as a fallen leaf.

“Are you quite done?” he said after a moment. He wasn’t the least bit concerned. My strangling wasn’t even preventing him from talking. “Spies are buried with traitors, boy. Sorry, but that’s how it goes.”

I screamed and punched him in the face. That went about as well as was to be expected. I whimpered and staggered off him, cradling my broken hand.

He sighed and rose to his feet. “This is just getting embarrassing. I understand fighting to the last, but there are limits…” He trailed off.

I looked up through the haze of pain to see him looking at the door. His stone face was expressionless, but I got the impression that he was confused. I turned to see what he was looking at.

There was a woman in the doorway, standing next to the other two Gravers. She didn’t look like a Graver. She was a pretty girl with boyishly short blonde hair, wearing casual jeans and a t-shirt. The shirt was black, with white letters that proclaimed ‘angels do it in the light.’

“Who are you?” the Graver demanded. “Where are our men?”

“I’m just an interested third party,” the girl said, her eyes sparkling. Literally. She smirked. “Please, don’t stop on my account.”

One of the girls grew a blade. “Answer quick. You with these spies?”

The woman gasped in mock horror. “Me? A spy? Of course not!” Then she smiled wider. “Not for America, anyway.”

All three had their stone blades out now and were focusing on the woman. She was still unconcerned.

“Name, culture, and reason for being here,” one of the girls said curtly.

The woman cocked her head. “Is it all right if I do that all in one word? I know you Graver types are so cold and efficient all the time, worried about every last second. Why, when I was younger, we took time—”

“Name, culture, and reason for being here!”

The woman smiled.

“Aurora,” she said slowly, as if savoring the word.

For a moment, all three stopped moving. Stopped even breathing. For a moment, they were nothing but the statues that they so closely resembled.

Then they sprung into action.

The six of us were forgotten. They leaped forward, blades flashing, going for the woman’s throat.

She moved faster than I would have thought possible. She dodged all three attacks with two quick motions. Then she put her hand on the chest of one of the girls, and smiled.

The girl screamed.

It took me a second to realize what was happening. Steam was coming out of the statue’s nostrils. She was shaking and vibrating like a schizophrenic leaf, and the woman had left behind a handprint glowing red with heat…

The human body is mostly water. What happens to heated water when it is trapped in a ceramic container with no easy way out?

It explodes.

It happened so fast that I wasn’t even sure it had happened for a moment. One second the woman was there, screaming like a dying banshee, and the next she was gone. All that was left of her were a few pieces of stone stuck in the walls, so hot that they were making the wall smolder. Something dripped, and I looked up to see a pink smear on the ceiling.

The other two reeled back, but kept their blades out and sharp. Loyalty was one thing. Getting killed with a single touch was another.

The woman looked between the two of them, smiling that same small, confident smile.

“Go back to Ling,” she said. “Tell her that I have business with these children. She would do best to remember that before she does something else… silly.”

“You don’t want a war with the Gravers,” the surviving girl said. “Lady Grave alone could kill every single one of you.”

That smile was still there. “Are you absolutely sure about that?”

The two Gravers glanced at each other.

After a moment, they bowed stiffly, then walked out. They didn’t even bother to collect their dead.

Once they were gone, the woman sighed. “Ah, they’re good kids. They just don’t know where the line is.” She smirked. “But they will learn.”

Lieutenant Backstrom kept her rifle aimed squarely at the strange woman’s chest. I had lost my pistol at some point. Maybe during one of the explosions. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“No thanks for saving you? You have no standing in this city. Butler wouldn’t have even required the Gravers to pay a penny in retribution.”

Backstrom didn’t waver. “Who are you, and what do you want?”

That smile just grew wider. The woman seemed completely unconcerned with the guns pointed at her. “You’re the ones who came looking for me, Katherine. I thought I could save us all some trouble and come meet you.”

Backstrom frowned. “Wait, you’re—”

The woman curtsied perfectly. “I am Lady Aurora, Princess of Soil and Flame, Maiden of the Seelie Court.”

Wait, seriously? It was her? And she had come in person?

She seemed unconcerned at our surprise. “Gealach Tapaidh is one of my Princes.”

Hall cocked his head. “Is that like… a consort?”

Aurora laughed, musical like tinkling bells. I had heard that description before, but I had never really had a sound to attach to it. But her laugh was definitely like tinkling bells: Soft, yet sharp and happy.

“The Princes are our greatest followers,” Aurora said. “Our warlords, you might say. We have no desire for such earthly distractions.”

“I thought warlords were the highest rank in a culture,” Backstrom said. She still had the gun leveled at Aurora.

“Not for the fey.” Aurora raised her eyebrow at the rifle. “Are you going to keep pointing that thing at me for the duration of our little chat, dear? I imagine your arms must be getting tired.”

“I’m not your dear. I can kill you before you do your fire thing.”

Aurora laughed again. “Oh you are missing so much! I know you’re new to the city, but honestly, haven’t you done any research at all? You could figure it out in five minutes on Fundamentum.”

That was the name for the internet browser that we had been avoiding using. Everyone just called it Fundie because it was easier. It had taken an embarrassingly long time for any of us to make that connection.

Backstrom didn’t say anything. That must have said it all.

Aurora smiled sadly. “This body, Katherine, is a shell. A puppet. Remote-controlled by a rather large cybernetic implant.” She tapped her forehead. “There’s barely even a brain stem. My real body is quite safe in the deepest depths of Tír na nÓg.”

“So you just run around in fake bodies?” Hall said, looking a little horrified. “And you can do anything you want because people can only destroy your… puppets.”

“We call them homunculi,” she said. Then she smiled at me. “Of course, not all false bodies are mindless.”

I felt my heart seize in my chest. She knew. I had no idea how, but she knew what I was. I could see it in her eyes.

She turned back to the lieutenant as if nothing had happened. “Despite what some people say, I do care about this city. I suspect that with a little bit of time and care, your team could come to care for this city as well.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to keep you alive, Katherine. You and your men.” She smirked at me again, and this time Backstrom noticed the look. I could see her trying to puzzle it out. Aurora spoke, interrupting her thought process before she had the chance. “At the very least, I would like you to remain alive until tomorrow. Currently, you have no rights here. That means that more and more will try to exterminate you.”

Kine’s face was as hard as a tombstone. “I’ve spoken to people. I know your kind always have a price. What do you want in exchange for helping us?”

“And what form will that help take?” I added. I had read too many stories of people making deals with inhuman spirits to trust implicitly. She could chain us up in her domain if she thought it would keep us safe.

“My price and my aid are the same,” she said. “You will come to Baile Samhraidh, where you will be cared for and looked after. None will attack you in the heart of my demesne, and you will have everything you need. In return, you will be watched. Studied.”

“Waiting to see if we slip up and talk about the president’s plans to nuke the city?” Backstrom demanded.

Aurora’s eyes glittered. “Exactly. Well.” She shrugged. “That’s how it will be for most of you.” She turned to me again. “This one will require special attention.”

“What?” Hall said, frowning at me. “Why?” The others looked similarly confused.

The fey looked me in the eyes for a moment before turning to the others. “This one is… diseased. He is dying. Without my assistance, he will die in nine days.”

Hall snorted. “Bullshit. We’re not falling for that.”

Kine narrowed her eyes at the fey. “Lies get you nowhere.”

Brown nodded. “Jefferies is one of us. We’re not letting him be your little experiment.”

Backstrom, on the other hand, looked defeated. Horn just looked thoughtful.

Aurora smiled at me again.

I sighed. “Two weeks,” I said quietly.

“What?” Hall said.

“I’m pretty sure that’s how long I’ve got,” I said dully. “I didn’t… I didn’t want to worry anyone, but I knew I wouldn’t last long when I first got on that ship.” I shook my head. “This whole invasion was always a suicide mission for me.” For all of the clones.

They had told me there would be five of us, but there could have been more. For me, the whole war was just a stupid field test. One I would never live to see the end of. What could I hope for?

“I can save you,” Aurora said.

I snorted. “No, you can’t. The best doctors in America couldn’t.”

“The best doctors in America had little knowledge and less motivation. I know exactly what I am dealing with.” Because I’ve seen countless homunculi, she didn’t say. But it was in her smile. “It will take three days. But by the end of it, your natural life expectancy will have expanded to eighty years.”

“Big talk,” Backstrom said.

“I’ve done it before. Many times.”

I shook my head. “I find that doubtful.”

She smirked. “You’ve heard of the changelings?”

I blinked. I hadn’t. I turned to the others.

They all looked confused too, but at least Brown had something like an answer. “Some sort of anti-fey culture.”

“They would object to being called a culture,” Aurora said. “But yes. Every single one of them was once like your young Jefferies here.” I had a feeling that the ‘young’ was a reference to the fact that I was technically a month old. “We fixed all of them.”

So there was an entire culture of homunculi in this city? Interesting. Or maybe former homunculi, I guess. I wasn’t sure how to define that.

“There’s something else we want,” Backstrom said. “In addition to saving Jefferies.”

Aurora nodded. “Name your price.”

“Powers. We want to know how to get them.”

Aurora smiled. “All right, simple enough. I’m not sure you’ll like the answer, but I can tell you. Once you are safely at Baile Samhraidh.”

And then she turned around and left without another word.

There was a pause.

“All right,” Backstrom said, slowly lowering her rifle. “We need to get out of here as fast as we can. Leave nothing that can be traced back to us or America.” She winced. “And does anyone know how to get to Baile Samhraidh?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 296)

Been wanting the changeling reveal for a while. It was tricky, though, because while plenty of people suspect it, it’s never been proven. The only reason Aurora told Jefferies is because she knew it was unlikely to get back to the changelings. Plus, she knew he needed some hope.

Also, “Baile Samhraidh” means “Summerhome.”