GRAVI DE CUSTODIBUS
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 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.”