Monthly Archives: February 2017

Domina Cultures – Changelings

Songs are for children and fools. We have more important things to worry about.”

Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves

When the fey first announced themselves and their Hunts, they had slaves with them. Hideous, mutated beasts that were so changed and tortured that they couldn’t even be called monsters. Fey monsters were powerful and dangerous, but these usually couldn’t even stand up straight. Every single one was different, and no one knew where they came from.

The answer came quickly when one of them escaped the fey and found Isaac Clarke. The creature managed to speak, and Clarke realized that it was a person. He removed all its fey toys, leaving only a teenage boy with blue hair. Two more joined him within the next few days: An older man, and a young girl. All three had lost their memories and even their names. In time, they made up names for themselves, bizarre and fanciful names to spit in the faces of the fey who had tortured and ignored them. They were Feless of the Firstborn, Meldiniktine of the Forgotten Names, and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves.

Soon, more changelings were found and rescued. They followed in the footsteps of the first three, taking strange names and dedicating themselves to fighting the fey. While the three had no desire to lead anyone, the other changelings disagreed. A young man who called himself Galgurus was the first to make it official, pledging his life to Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves. Other changelings quickly followed suit, turning the Firstborn and the Forgotten Names into powerful gangs.

In theory, the changelings are not a culture. They resolutely refuse to use the toy maker except indirectly, and they do not claim domains in the same way as others. They typically insist that they are nothing but an organization of baselines dedicated to fighting the fey.

The truth is, the changelings have a strong claim to being one of the oldest and most powerful cultures. Every time a slave escapes from the fey, the toy maker is used to revert them to human form, and they are named a changeling. They then make up a name and choose a clan. They can even create a new clan if they wish, though these usually end up folded under the existing clans before long. Nine were founded in the first few months, but over the years that number has slowly gone up.

Since the changelings refuse to use the toy maker—except for their initial reversion—they needed another way to fight. Meldiniktine was the one who first decided to try computer hacking against the fey. It worked surprisingly well. The fey had technology, machines and cameras to build their monsters or spy on the city. Since they never left their toy boxes, everything had to be remote operated, which meant it could be hacked. Lil’wan even managed to hack a homunculus and activate its self-destruct, before the fey upgraded their security to be encrypted randomly based on the fey brain patterns. As more and more changeling clans became hackers, they split into three “hats” to describe what type of hacking they preferred. Black Hats attacked, White Hats defended, and Grey Hats did both.

The changelings do their best to stay out of the Culture War, the Twilight War, and all other forms of politics. They prefer to focus all their energies on fighting the fey. However, they are rarely so lucky. Wars cost money, so they often hire themselves out as hackers for the cultures, or even simple data programmers for the companies. When they are truly forced into politics, they usually default to siding with Necessarius, but they are willing to ally with other cultures in the short term.

There are only a few million changelings in Domina, but they are still a strong force. They protect each other like family, and exact harsh vengeance upon anyone who harms one of their own. They actually have the lowest death rate in the city by a large margin.

Changelings who break the clan rules are rare. When they are found out, they are cast out of the clan, stripped of their name, and refused any aid. Such criminals are not considered changelings anymore. They are bruscar, fey-trash. The rules of the clans are simple: Never use the toy maker for personal modifications, never work with the fey, and never kill another changeling.

Despite their reticence, the changelings eventually adopted honorifics and titles, borrowed from the baseline ones. Changeling honored are called paladins, while their deviants are known as bruscar or blackguards. Their warlords are called Paragons. They have no microcultures, but their subcultures are called either clans or Hats.

Black Hats:

The Forgotten Names

One of the first three changeling clans, founded by Meldiniktine. They were the first hackers, a fact that they hold with pride. While they are primarily Black Hats, they rarely hire themselves out to other cultures. They prefer to attack the fey to the exclusion of all else.

Meldiniktine herself appears as a middle-aged woman with long pink hair that she keeps in a braid. She is a proud and driven woman, who has sworn to see the fey destroyed before she dies. She is also the one who decided that the changelings should make up names for themselves, which is where the name of the clan came from.

The Sky-Borne Lords

In addition to being hackers, the Lords have the singular honor of boasting a very large number of pilots and aerospace engineers. They own one of the largest helicopter fleets in the city. While they are not the only air force in Domina, they are the only one among the changelings.

Their leader, Lil’wan, appears as an old bald man. But that is just a mask; underneath, he is as young and strong as any other changeling. He loves flying, and owns two of the only fighter jets in the city. He rarely gets a chance to use them, but has been called by Butler to fly missions more than once.

The Ever-Deep Waves

The Waves are the only changeling clan to interact with the merfolk on a regular basis. In fact, their primary headquarters is in Plato, the Atlantean capital, and they have notable presences in Critias and Timaeus.

Haranasash makes no secret that he would be a merfolk if not for the fact that it would violate changeling laws. He is known for always wearing scuba gear so as to best simulate his dream. As a leader, he is often seen as ineffective, but no one has suggested trying to replace him. The fey presence underwater is minimal; Haranasash sends his men to track and fight leviathans, but other than that they are largely left to their own devices.

The Level-Born Shadows

In theory, the Shadows are hackers just like the rest of the changelings. In practice, they rarely bother with computers. They are the spies and assassins of the changelings, and are often called upon to plant wifi bugs for other clans.

It has been years since anyone has seen Ilininidar, the founder of the Shadows. No one is sure if this means she is dead, or just having fun hiding from the world. Despite the seriousness of her position, she has always been whimsical at best. It is unclear what she even looks like, since she would occasionally have her subordinates pose as her.

The Remembered Years

The Years are the archivists of the changelings, and have invented some truly astounding data compression algorithms to record the history of every single changeling to ever live. However, they do not neglect their hacking duties, and one of their projects is hacking fey computers trying to find information on changelings that escaped.

Oleandruss is a painfully average-looking man who is best described as just another face in the crowd. He began wearing glasses to make himself stand out more, but it didn’t help. The glasses are fake, of course. Few people in Domina City ever have problems with their eyes that the toy maker cannot fix, and the changelings never have any eye problems at all.

The Viridian Children

The Children are herbalists and gardeners, working to grow food for the changelings and the city as a whole. They are one of the few clans to use the toy maker on a regular basis, skirting the ban by only using it on plants, never on themselves. Regardless, they still make many other changelings uncomfortable, and rumors persist that they have the highest bruscar rate of the clans.

Dawanan is a tall woman with gold hair and eyes. She is dour and suffers no fools, and considers the toy maker ban to be little more than unnecessary moralizing. Still, she makes sure her toys never break the ban, as the resources the rest of the changelings offer her are too enticing to toss aside.

The Great-Born Nights

While many assume that the Nights are spies, the truth is the opposite. They guard changeling holdings from Night fey and vampires, using lamps and flashlights instead of nighteyes or daybreaks. They are not like the angels, however. They have a very good working relationship with vampires who are willing to listen to reason. Those who are not quickly find their computers hacked and their darkest secrets held for blackmail.

Pelenas is a small, fat man who looks like a giant grape. Many people are surprised to find how quick and dangerous he is; despite the fat, he is still a changeling, and a healthy specimen of humanity. Pelenas himself is friendly and jolly, trusting in his political might to handle any threat against him.

The Jovian Killers

The Killers are happy to tell anyone that asks that Jove is the Roman name for Zeus, greatest and most terrible of the gods. Whether the name of the clan is supposed to mean the people who kill Zeus or killers aligned with Zeus, no one can say for sure. Regardless of their name, the Killers are known for remorseless first strikes, both physically and digitally. Their hacking is typically more destructive than other clans, but no one can find fault in their results.

Gan’neeg is a big, booming woman with white and violet hair. She is very friendly, but rarely works with other clans, and almost never with non-changelings. If anyone presses the issue too far, she is not above bodily tossing the offender from her territory.

The Nightly Wanderers

Many outsiders are surprised to find that the Wanderers are explorers, not spies. The “Nightly” part of their name simply refers to the fact that their leader preferred to explore after dark, with less people around. While the advent of the vampires has changed that, the tradition remains. They possess some of the best maps in Domina City, and also help patch up the internet and wifi in abandoned regions of the city. They do still hack, however, and many of the clan find this the most interesting exploration of them all.

The Paragon of the clan, Yian’us’nor-ek, was a child when he was rescued from the fey. While he quickly struck up a rapport with Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves, he ultimately decided to turn his hat black instead of white. Exploring foreign systems was simply too enticing for him.

The Chapel’s Singers

One of the few explicitly religious groups in Domina City, the Singers credit their escape from the fey to a divine miracle. They are one of the smallest changeling clans, but they make up for it in passion and ferocity.

They are guided by Ul, who gives heart-pumping sermons on a weekly basis, driving his clan into further frenzy. He looks mostly normal, but his eyes are just too bright blue to be entirely natural. They glow slightly in the dark, and it is said that Ul blames Isaac Clarke for improperly removing the fey toys.

The Murdered Summers

Summer, as the changelings of this clan will tell you, is a time of happiness and freedom. This is what the fey took from them, murdered and left in the dark to rot. The Summers are known for causing enemy computers to overheat by remotely hacking them to overclock unnecessary processes. While this rarely causes actual fires, it does ruin many expensive components. One of the clan’s most well-guarded tricks is making sure that the replacement parts are bugged.

The one behind this odd form of attack is Kish-Kish, a small woman who is estimated to be of Native American ethnicity. Many theorize that she was a pyrovamp before she was captured by the fey, and she does have a strong alliance with Mephistopheles.

The Hereafter Notes

The general consensus is that the Notes’ name refers to habit of playing battle music while hacking. However, they insist that the name simply refers to their meticulous note-taking skills. When you hire a Note, not only do they get the job done, they send you a fifty-page step-by-step report of exactly how it was done.

Nihan is what is called a “meddy” changeling. Medium height, medium build, medium features. He has no problem pretending to be a normal baseline when the need arises. The man himself is as patient and meticulous as you would expect, given his clan. He rarely does jobs himself, instead preferring to keep his people organized.

The Terror-Riding Soldiers

Few changelings enjoy having any association with fey monsters, but the Soldiers revel in it. Their claim to fame is the fact that they have actually been able to tame some of the fey creations, an exceptionally rare feat. While the rest of the changelings treat this as borderline blasphemy, they never take any action against the Soldiers, if only because they are so dangerous in straight combat. Despite their boasts, however, it takes time and patience to tame monsters, and at best they tame one out of every ten.

It is said that Bilganasd rides a gargant stolen right from under a fey’s nose, but this is untrue. His favored pet is a normal day-caste dumpster dog, boosted to unnatural size by a Sibriex contractor. This skirts the edges of the changeling ban, but the others allowed it. Bilganasd himself is small, as are most of his fellows. His most striking feature is his long red topknot on an otherwise bald head.

White Hats:

The Never-Known Thieves

One of the first three changeling clans, founded by Eccretia. Their name references the fact that they are unknown to the fey, and they stole themselves. They are the first of the White Hat clans, and they hack purely defensively, wrapping themselves in firewalls and hacktraps clever enough to beat even a Black Hat. They have little to fear from the fey on the digital front, and so mostly concern themselves with the physical one. The Thieves are proud to say that while they are not always the ones to rescue new changelings, they are very good at protecting them long enough to get to Clarke.

People are always surprised to meet Eccretia. Not only is she a meddy, but when she was first reverted she had the physical appearance of a young child. Her razor-sharp mind survived, albeit sans memories, as well as a very cynical view of the world. She mostly stays out of sight, but those few who meet her often comment that it seems odd that the first White Hat would be so acerbic.

The Blood-Doused Hunters

As their name implies, the Hunters fight monsters. They claim they do this to the exclusion of all else, but that is not strictly true. They work closely with a number of the Black Hat clans, keeping their defenses running smoothly. They work with outsiders to a point, but not much. In fact, they are much likely to meet with non-changelings during their duties as monster slayers than their duties as hackers. They have a cordial relationship with Obould and many of his orcs.

Nemeni (occasionally known as Nemini) is a bit of a recluse. She prefers staying behind and studying monsters to actually fighting them. Part of this is due to her physical appearance; when she was reverted, she found herself with an ugly and misshapen face, as if she had some sort of congenital birth defect. She didn’t, as all changelings are perfectly healthy, and the flaw was purely cosmetic. Clarke offered to fix it, but Nemeni put her foot down. If her DNA said she had an ugly face, she would have an ugly face.

The Many-Faced Strangers

Consisting almost entirely of meddy changelings, the Strangers are adept at slipping into a crowd and going unseen. This makes them excellent spies, especially with the addition of a number of disguises allowing them to pass themselves as members of other cultures. Digitally, the clan is nothing special, though they did patent a file-masking technique that quickly spread to the other changelings.

Their leader is Fereseg’na, a man of many moods. As a meddy, he would normally be completely forgettable, but his constant personality shifts are quite memorable. He can go from laughing boisterously one minute to fighting like a gargant the next, to shy and demure the next.

The Old-Born Knives

Following in the footsteps of the Thieves, the Knives have an impeccable digital defense and a violent physical offense. They are sought after as mercenaries and bodyguards, both by other changeling clans and the cultures. They have cultivated a reputation for professionalism—partly because they refuse any contracts against the fey. Historically, the Knives have never been able to keep themselves constrained when facing them.

Beryan Nata is a tall, dark-skinned woman with long purple hair. While she is an accomplished combatant, she has a temper on her, so she tries to avoid going on contracts unless absolutely necessary.

The Hate-Forged Flames

Despite their name, the Flames have nothing to do with fire, not even symbolically. No one is quite sure where that part of their name comes from. The other part is obvious; their hate of the fey constantly drives them to greater extremes and risks. They are the clan that most often needs to be rescued by someone else, simply because they got too far in over their head.

A small, unassuming man with blue hair, Weli Faran is not what anyone expects from the founder of the Hate-Forged Flames. He is calm at all times and always acts deliberately, never letting his rage blind him. However, that does not change the fact that he is willing to go to disturbing lengths to hurt the fey in any way possible.

The Quarreling Lovers

The Lovers are named after a theory their founder had: She believed that the fey were all simply lovers playing games with each other using people and monsters as pawns. Legend says that the Queen of Darkest Life laughed herself to death when confronted with this theory. Regardless, the Lovers themselves are defensive to a fault, based on the belief that they can’t be a part of the fey games if they never leave their base.

Perek is not the founder of the Quarreling Lovers. She inherited it from Qa-nin, who was killed while trying to protect a group of new changelings in the first year. Perek is of medium size, but she is not a meddy. She has no hair anywhere on her body, bright silver eyes, and red stripes on her otherwise white skin.

The Gilded Swords

The Swords are one of the few groups in the city that uses melee combat as a first resort. Some of the best swordsmen come from this clan, and they are known for competing in recreational sword fights in their spare time.

Zirus has been called the greatest swordsman in Domina City more than once, but he rarely competes in public. Part of this is due to his grotesque face, but he mostly prefers to remain at his base, training the new generation of changeling swordfighters. He never trains non-changelings.

The High-Tide Slaves

The Slaves are often confused for the Ever-Deep Waves, who work with the merfolk. The Slaves, instead, work with Necessarius either on the Fusion Islands or on the fleet. Their meddies are usually the ones piloting the boats that bring new arrivals to Domina City.

Xarak is unique in that she was once a member of Necessarius. When she first had all her toys reverted, she found that her oddities—violet eyes and green hair—were easily hidden, and chose to remain apart from the rest of the changelings. When she eventually decided to enter the fold after all, she brought with her many connections from Necessarius.

The Orange-Day Assassins

The Assassins are not, in fact, assassins, which confuses outsiders to no end. The name is mostly meaningless, and is simply a symptom of their strategic style. They prefer tricks and confusion above all else, leaving their opponents off-balance and ready for a finishing blow. Their firewalls and other programming defenses sell well outside the changelings, as certain people enjoy their whimsical nature and taunting style.

The founder of the Assassins, Cetherinan, spends most of his time in a full clown outfit. This makes him invisible should he choose to go without it. No one knows what he actually looks like; whispers consistently describe him as “clown-like,” but that is almost certainly nothing but a baseless rumor.

The Time-Lost Shadows

The Shadows will never forget the years and decades they lost to the fey, the memories and lives that they will never get back. While they are nominally a White Hat clan, they spend much of their time scouring the internet and any fey servers they can get their hands on, searching for any mention of their lives before the fey captured them. While they find hints and oblique mentions here and there, it is never enough to satisfy them.

The first Shadow is Lkarif, a girl who appeared barely eight years old after her reversion. She is the first to admit that the fey might have actually given her more years than they took, but she never ceases in her quest to discover her origins, as well as those of every other changeling that she can. There are even rumors that she made a deal with the fey for information, but this is completely baseless. If there was any truth to it, she would have been declared bruscar and exiled.

The Jilted Farmers

The Farmers are, as the name implies, a chem clan. They grow, refine, and manufacture drugs of all types, but focusing primarily on combat enhancements or anything with a medical use. They are careful not to use the toy-maker to enhance their plants. This puts them behind chem cultures like the hags or the Belians, but the fact that they are not addicted to their own product gives them an edge.

Sin Sordoron has jet-black skin and pure white eyes, making him stand out even in a group of changelings. He is a stern and no-nonsense man, who refuses to let his people dip into their own product unless it is absolutely necessary for a combat mission. He also refuses to deal with any chem cultures, despite repeated overtures from Baba Yaga.

The Always-Seen Liars

The Liars see their current faces as lies told by the fey, perversions of their natural forms. Unfortunately, with no ability to know what they looked like before the fey took them, they are forced to make do with masks. Whenever they are on a mission outside the base, they wear masks showing what they believe they looked like before the fey. Every Liar makes their own mask by hand, in a highly personal, almost religious experience that most of the clans reserve for building computers.

It is said that no one has ever seen the face of Il’po’nu’ly, only her mask, but this is both untrue and easily disproven. While she never leaves her base without her mask, she rarely wears it inside. While there are no pictures of her unmasked, interviewers describe her as having pure white skin, burning red eyes, and curly brown hair. She is friendly and open, always willing to answer questions.

The Reborn Winters

The Winters are unique in that they are all escapees from Winter-treo fey, creating a shared bond that outsiders—even other changelings—often describe as unsettling. The Winters move the same, talk the same, and always want the same thing: The complete destruction of the fey. But they are patient, which is why they are a White Hat clan. They believe strongly in the power of defense over offense, and are perfectly willing to simply wait the fey out. Their bases are always at least cold enough to see your breath, making them unpopular destinations for anyone but the Nifs.

Linshiddavro Kihn is a big, hairy man who is always unfailingly referred to as “bear-like.” There is simply no other way to describe him. However, his skin and hair are both gold-colored, giving the impression that he is covered in golden fur. Kihn himself is the exact same as the rest of his clan: Patient, unforgiving, and very, very cold.

Grey Hats:

The Firstborn

The Firstborn are the first changeling clan, founded by the first escaped changeling, and the first Grey Hat clan. While the changelings are not supposed to have any leading clan, the Firstborn fill that role more than most people would admit. They fight almost entirely on the digital front, with their few physical assets dedicated to protecting their bases and outposts.

Feless looks like a cross between Asian and Caucasian, with golden hair that he keeps trimmed short. As for the man himself, he always tries to act in a manner that he feels the leader of the changelings should, but he does not always succeed. He is also the first one to talk to Necessarius when he has a problem with them, rather than trolling their sites. He has a good working relationship with Butler, though few would call them friends.

The Velvet Orchids

The Orchids are known for their beautiful bases, decorated with flowers and plant life. Legend says that when their founder escaped the fey, she brought an orchid made out of velvet. Despite their soft and friendly reputation, the Orchids are an absolutely ruthless clan. They believe in using every tool at their disposal to completely crush any enemy. They keep their defenses strong enough to repel any attack, shock the enemy with digital attacks, and then send in the commandos to take them out for good.

Heresh’ni is a dark-skinned woman who looks somewhat Indian. She has bright red curly hair, but she keeps her head shaved to hide it. She can easily pass for baseline when the need arises. She often uses this ability to infiltrate enemy camps and start tearing them apart from the inside. Despite her ruthlessness, she can be genuinely friendly when the need arises. Talking to her about flowers is a sure way to get on her good side.

The Elder Lights

Many of the Lights appear to be middle-aged or older, which is rare for changelings. They believe in the wisdom of age, or more specifically experience. They obey the first clans without question, and own one of the largest libraries in the city—certainly the largest one under changeling control. They have been known to use their hacking to collect and disseminate information that they feel should be more public. This puts them at odds with quite a few cultures, but they are still mostly left alone as an annoyance instead of a true threat.

The founder of the Lights is Difnaal, a middle-aged man with white skin, matching hair, and bright green eyes. He is not an albino, but he is often mistaken for one. He is a calm and rational man who always prefers to think before he does anything.

The Darkened Signs

Another shadow clan, the Signs are entirely stealth-based, with no assassination on the side. They are the best scouts in the city, and are often hired out to the other clans. While they specialize in information gathering, they are also known for planting wifi bugs to allow access to closed systems.

Jereneg is a meddy, if a few inches shorter than standard. He tries to avoid confrontation if at all possible, but in an emergency he is every bit as lethal as any other changeling. It is rumored that he has personally snuck into every single fey demesne, but if so, he is keeping their secrets to himself.

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Scene 307 – Amor

AMOR

I had a name once.

The name my mother gave me. It was beautiful, and I was very proud of it. I practiced saying it every day, so that I wouldn’t slur it with my childish voice. But when my mother left, abandoning me to the streets of Domina City, I abandoned the name she had given me as well. Petty, perhaps, but it was the only vengeance I had left.

It didn’t take long for them to find me. The scientists, in the employ of one Professor Isaac Clarke. He told me that he had something he wanted to try, something I could help him with. He said it was perfectly safe.

I knew he was lying, of course. But I went along anyway. I had nothing left to live for, I thought I may as well spend it on something.

I was surprised when I survived. Clarke had given me two little red horns on my head, like the plastic headband girls sometimes wear as part of a devil costume for Halloween. The scientists fawned over me, took blood samples and skin scrapings and watched over me for a week before finally bringing him to see me.

That was the first time I met Artemis Butler; shivering in a paper hospital gown, staring up at this pale, fat, giant of a man leaning heavily on a cane that looked like it could have been carved from the trunk of a tree. He eyed me up and down, calculating. Not like I was a piece of meat, but similar. Like… well, like he was judging my worth.

“The horns are fully integrated?” he wasn’t asking me, although he was still looking me in the eye. He was asking Clarke.

The scientist in question was very excited. “Fully. She may as well have grown them herself. There is even some evidence that they will be able to repair damage over time, like any other bone in her body. But we would need longitudinal studies for that.”

“Of course,” the Big Boss said. “And no rejections? Inflammations? Infections?”

“None, none, and none. It was the easiest thing in the world—like slotting a child’s toy together. We’re going to be famous, Artemis. And so very rich.”

He chuckled. “You know I’m not interested in fame and fortune. No, this is something else.” He nodded to himself. “But she’s perfect. Dress her in something warmer, then take the pictures. We may as well provide an ‘after’ image. Then remove the horns.”

“Of course,” Clarke nodded. “We’ll need more test subjects for the longitudinal studies, but once we publish the initial findings we’ll have volunteers very quickly.”

“I could do it.”

Everyone in the room turned to stare at me, but I didn’t falter.

“I could do it,” I repeated. “The long study. I could do it.”

Butler stared at me, genuine curiosity in his eyes for the first time. “You’d have to keep the horns, little girl. And more besides.”

I looked at my feet for a moment. What should I say? That I was empty, and ready to be filled with anything? That I wasn’t smart enough, or cute enough, or clever enough to amount to anything, so I was willing to accept disfigurement instead? How would they react to that?

I looked up. “I like the horns, sir.”

Butler stared at me for a moment, nearly shocked. Then he laughed, a deep bellow that shook me to the core. “Oh, I like this one, Isaac. Where’d you find her?”

“South-West Middle,” the scientist replied. He had a perplexed look on his face. “Scrounging through a dumpster for food.”

“Hm.” Butler was frowning now; he glanced at me. “This isn’t the only way to earn food, you know.” I had been fed—not well, but fed—for the week I was under observation. “We can set you up with some sort of daily food budget…”

I shook my head. “Horns,” I said. I couldn’t say much else. “I like the horns.”

He smiled. “Alright then, fair enough.” He rubbed my head in a fatherly fashion. “What’s your name, little demon?”

I shut my lips tight. I had no desire to honor the name my mother had given me.

He removed his hand, surprised. “Do you not have a name, little demon?”

I shook my head vehemently.

“Alright, then how about I give you a name? Would you like that?”

I paused for a moment, then nodded carefully.

He smiled. “Then we’ll call you Lilith, the first monster.” He chuckled. “The first of a new age.”

One of Clarke’s assistants, Mary Christina, rolled her eyes and took my hand. “C’mon, Lily. Let’s get you into some warmer clothes.”

Three days after my pictures were sent out along with Professor Clarke’s data, I received my second toy—a prototype muscle enhancement. One month after that, the toy maker was declared illegal for non-military use. That was also the day I received my third toy, red eyes.

I became the poster girl for the toy maker. Everyone knew my name. Some people even got horns of their own, a way of showing solidarity and support. I didn’t know how to react to that. I was just a little girl. I didn’t understand how to handle being the center of attention.

Then, one day, a woman came to see me. She found a way past the guards, whispering through locked doors. When she found me, I wasn’t afraid. I was too young to be afraid. Not that I had anything to worry about anyway. She was just there to ask me for something.

She wanted the toy maker Isaac Clarke had given me as a gift. I wasn’t sure I wanted to give it. It was supposed to be for me, and me alone. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it, but I did know that it was mine.

Then the woman told me that she was my daughter, and it was my responsibility to help her.

It was a laughable lie. She was at least ten years older than me. But something about it… resonated with me. I understood what she meant. Anyone who took the horns, anyone who used the toy maker, was following in my footsteps. They were all my children.

After Striga and her Bloody Thirteen, others came to me, begging for aid. Most were turned away. Some, like Pale Night, were given simple things. An idea here, a friend there. Others were altered and changed under my supervision. Zaphkiel became the first angel at Clarke’s touch and my recommendation.

But I was still the first monster.

I was always the first to try out the newest buffs. Some I got for free, as part of the experiments, but many more I bought myself, with the small profit I made from my part-time jobs. I didn’t have to pay for food except what went beyond my monthly budget, and Butler set me up in a small apartment. He arranged for me to attend school, but I didn’t bother going. I knew what I was, and what I wasn’t. I was an empty canvas to be painted on, nothing more. He eventually arranged for a tutor instead, and I took the lessons he demanded. But I always focused on the toys more.

AT Tattoo, a minor buff for writing notes on your own skin. HOUR adrenaline boost, increasing speed and strength of adrenaline. BT adrenaline dampener, reducing the detrimental effect adrenaline has on conscious though, creating the appearance of slowing time. BB gland, for naturally producing anabolic steroids. DSD buff, for eliminating the dangers of rapid pressure changes. Canary+ buff, for subsisting on the bare minimum of breathable air. Mermaid-class internalized gills, for breathing water. The Insomniac gland, removing the need for sleep. Enhanced olfactory senses, giving me a nose better than a trained hunting dog. Working fangs, with five different poison sacs. Three different acid glands located in the back of the throat. Cannibalism buff, for digesting anything and everything. Blooddrinker buff, for metabolizing blood. Nighteyes and dayeyes, and sixty-seven separate buffs to make them work together. A fully articulate tail, with with enough muscles to lift nearly as much as my arms. Two-hundred and seventeen disease resistance buffs. Eight-hundred and sixty-two muscle enhancement buffs. A thousand and one bone enhancement buffs. And a million others I’ve forgotten.

So when a bullet flattened against my forehead, coming down from a couple times the speed of sound to zero in a fraction of a second, my head did not explode in bloody chunks. My brains did not evaporate out the back of my skull in a fine, pink mist.

My forehead ached.

Slightly.

I focused my eyes on where the shot had come from and brushed the flattened lump of lead away. A small trail of blood trickled down from the wound; I ignored it.

The guard closest to me looked surprised, but still reached out to grab me. I batted away his grab, breaking his hand, then pushed him hard in the chest. He had to weigh over two hundred pounds; he was a big guy. Someone of my size shouldn’t be able to push him anywhere he didn’t want to go.

But my bone density meant that I weighed almost three hundred pounds. With proper bracing, I could really push.

He hit the far wall, making a dent and crumpling to the ground. The other guard stumbled away in shock.

I turned back towards the others. Everyone looked shocked. Adam was doing a good job of hiding it. He had already known what I could do, but that was different to actually seeing it. Chris looked like she was the one who had been shot. The guards clearly wanted to run, but Canny’s drugs and training kept them rooted to the spot.

And Canny… my dear Malcanthet… she knew. She knew who she was facing.

She ran.

She dashed back through those ornate doors and barred them behind her. She had to know that they wouldn’t hold against me for long.

The guards she left behind didn’t know quite what to do, so they fell back on their training. They shot me. A lot.

Bullets impacted my flesh, but I ignored them. I might have a few bruises, but those would heal quickly. I had more healing buffs than a dozen trolls put together. Before anyone else had a chance to move, I dashed forward. I grabbed the guards by their faces and drove them to the ground. I slammed their skulls against the floor, and they squished like tomatoes under my hands.

Don’t think about it, don’t think about it…

I stood quickly, trying not to look at the corpses. Instead, I strode forward to the ornate doors and kicked them open. They were steel covered in wood, meant to look fancy while still being functional.

They bent like a tin can at my kick, the wood splintering. She had put a metal bar behind the doors. It was already bent at a harsh angle, so I kicked again. The metal squealed, and the doors burst open.

I found myself in her bedroom. There was of course a massive lush bed in the middle of the room, but that wasn’t all. There were velvet curtains on the walls, a liquor cabinet in the corner, and a nice tv that took up most of one wall. There were smells in the air that I refused to identify, but also the sharp scent of fear.

I sniffed a few times, following the trail to a corner of the room. More velvet drapes. I ripped them aside to reveal a small private elevator. Of course. I should have known she would never let herself be cornered.

I pressed the button, but nothing happened. It didn’t even light up.

“She must have disabled it from down below,” Adam said. He had gotten leather workman’s gloves from somewhere, and was putting them on. He grinned at me. “That means we’ll have to do this the fun way.”

I blinked at him. I didn’t quite trust myself to talk.

“Do you remember the job I did with Mohamed the Silver?”

I smiled. I turned to the elevator doors and pried them open. I was surprised at how easy it was. A complete baseline could have done it.

The open doors revealed a long elevator shaft, with nothing but a few cables leading down into the depths of the building.

“What are you doing?” Chris demanded.

“We’re going the fun way,” Adam said again. He had a few of those D-rings, the clips hikers used. Had he had those with him this whole time, or had he found them somewhere in the room? He started buckling them on in an odd configuration. Probably designed to give him a way to brake and slow safely.

Chris’ eyes slowly went wide as she realized what his plan was. “No. No, no, no—”

“You take the stairs,” Adam said. He stepped carefully into the elevator shaft, one foot resting on the cable. He clipped onto it quickly, then held out a hand to me. He grunted a bit as he took my weight, but didn’t say anything. “We’ll meet you down there.”

Chris looked like she had to choose which of her children to save from certain death. “But—”

“You better run.” Then he released the brake.

We fell so fast it felt like we were attached to a rocket. There was a faint zipping sound from some of the clips, but that was it. Other than that, it was just us and the wind rushing past our faces.

I tried to count the floors as we passed, but gave up after the first two. We were just moving too fast. Adam didn’t even try. He kept his eyes down, watching the bottom of the shaft quickly rising up to meet us.

My heart was beating so hard in my chest I could feel it hitting my rib cage. But I would survive. Both my heart and my ribs had been built for worse things than this.

After what seemed like an eternity—thanks to my BT buff—Adam hit the brakes.

All the brakes.

Suddenly we were covered in a hail of sparks as all the clips ground against the cable. They lit up the elevator shaft like millions of tiny fireworks. Shouldn’t Adam be worried about his eyes? No, his gaze was still cast down. That must be why. My heartbeat began to slow as our descent did the same.

Then one of the clips snapped. We lurched, still heading down at a disturbing pace.

Then another snapped.

“It’s fine!” Adam yelled over the sound of rushing wind. Still too much wind. “We’re just coming in a little too fast!”

Another snapped.

“Brace yourself!”

I did so, doing my best to make sure that my feet would touch the ground before Adam’s.

We hit.

It hurt, but far more for Adam than for me. Though my legs—enhanced beyond all point of reason—had taken the brunt of the shock, the sudden stop still hit him like a truck. He was knocked out, just briefly, and hung from the clips in a daze.

I ached, but was otherwise fine. I unclipped us, then laid him out on top of the elevator. I opened his eyes, checked his pupils, and thought for a moment. Then I nodded to myself and kissed him.

I had five different poison sacks in my mouth. I could choose to use any one of them at any time. Three of them were paralytics, but two were more virulent and dangerous. I, of course, was immune to them, and a thousand more besides. Adam was not.

What people often forgot was that the difference between poison and medicine was just dosage.

I chose a very painful poison, dribbling just a few drops from my fangs and into Adam’s mouth. I pulled back, and half a second later he sat up, wide-eyed.

“What the HELL was that?”

I smiled. “Think of it like smelling salts.”

He blinked. Once. Twice.

“Adam? You going to be okay?”

“Uh, yeah.” He seemed to relax, then groaned. “Oh God, I think I bruised every single muscle in my body…”

“Let me handle things from here.”

He gave me a sad look. “Are you sure?”

I took another deep breath. “Yeah. I’m ready.”

He nodded. He reached down and opened the emergency hatch in the elevator. We slipped inside, then pried open the doors.

We found ourselves in a large underground parking garage. Cold concrete all around, with large halogen lights in the ceiling. There weren’t many cars around, but there were a few, mostly near the exits. We were deep enough that I couldn’t see daylight anywhere, but I knew it couldn’t be too far. They couldn’t have dug too far down.

Malcanthet and her guards stood about thirty feet from the elevator. They were clustered around her, but she seemed to be waiting for something. A getaway car, perhaps? But why didn’t she just steal any random car?

“I want this entire building locked down,” Malcanthet was saying to one guard. “She could be coming down any second—”

“Your Majesty!” One of the guards had spotted us. He leveled his gun, but didn’t fire.

Malcanthet turned. Her eyes were hard. She had managed to hide her fear. “So you managed to follow. I knew that scared child act was fake.”

I kept my breathing steady. Don’t think about the blood on your hands, don’t think about the corpses left behind…

“Lamps out, men,” Malcanthet said. There was a mechanical clunk as the lights went out, plunging the entire room into darkness, except for a few slivers of light from the elevator shaft.

More than enough for my eyes to see.

Her thralls crawled out of the woodwork like worms, light amplification goggles strapped over their faces. They had knives and clubs, but no guns. Maybe they were afraid of hitting each other, or more likely, their queen.

Don’t think.

I reached out with the swiftness of lightning, so fast that the air cracked, as the same sound came from my victim’s neck. I took a step forward and swung my hand like a sword, flesh as strong as steel and muscles stronger than iron cutting through the second man’s neck like cheese.

Don’t think.

“She’s a vampire! She has nighteyes!” The Riven backed away from me like scared animals.

This was important.

This was necessary.

“Eyes!” another guard cried. Suddenly, the lights were back on, but a hundred times brighter than before. It was like staring straight into the sun. The Riven surrounding me cried out in pain, and a few who hadn’t managed to get their goggles off actually fainted from the sudden assault.

But I could still see.

My godeyes gave me a world without shadows, without glare. A world where brightest noon and darkest midnight barely looked any different.

My heart, my perfect heart, given to my by Isaac Clarke himself, beat hard in my chest as I dashed forward at one of the men who looked like he was about to recover. I bent his knife behind his back, breaking his arm in the process, and tossed him aside like a rag doll, crying in pain.

He wasn’t dead. Everything else could be fixed. He wasn’t dead…

I was shocked out of my fugue by a shower of something cold.

I looked up, frowning, as the light level returned to normal. The sprinklers had turned on, drenching me and Adam, while Malcanthet stood in another section of the garage, still dry. Even as I watched, her Riven joined her, most of them soaked. She had the higher ground.

But it wasn’t water. I could smell it something foul, but it wasn’t something I recognized…

My enhanced nose wasn’t needed here, and Adam figured it out before me, his eyes going wide. “Gasoline.”

Malcanthet smirked, and gestured to one of her Riven—one of the dry ones. He pulled out a lighter as she spoke. “Sorry, Lily, but this is it. If you survive the burning, I’ll stick a grenade in your mouth and finish you off quick.” Her grin widened. “Relatively.”

I frowned. Not out of anger, out of confusion.

“You really haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on back home at all, have you?”

She looked confused, but her slave followed her orders well. He tossed the lighter onto the concrete floor, and the gasoline caught fire with a loud whoosh, rushing towards us like a living thing, a massive monster that would devour us whole.

I’ve always been ever so good with monsters.

I reached down into my soul and found what I was looking for. I tapped into the reservoir granted to me by the Rampage, the Rampage where the Song had driven everyone in the city to fight and destroy.

Except for me. Elizabeth had been forced to match her will against mine, to wrench control of my own body away from me, to put my body on autopilot.

Because I loved my city. I loved the streets and the buildings, the people and the cultures. I was Lilith, the First Monster, and every single monster in Domina City was my child.

I reached into that love, tapped into that connection to every man and woman in Domina, and found the proper response to this danger.

Alexandar Jonson was the son of an Aesir giant, a Thor to be precise. He wasn’t a giant himself, but he was considering becoming a demon. He looked over my pictures, read my speeches.

He loved me, and I loved him.

I reached out my hand, will strong, and the fire leaped into it. Leaving not even an ember behind, the gasoline stopped burning, and the rolling orb hovered over my hand, even the heat trapped to keep it from scorching me.

Malcanthet staggered back. “You—what did you—”

“There are more miracles in Domina City than those of Clarke and his toy maker,” I said quietly. I clenched my fist around the flame, and it died as easily as if it was but a single spark, but with less heat. “Do you surrender?”

She looked at me in shock, then barked out a laugh. “Surrender? One trick doesn’t change the game, girl! Malcatari! Ready!”

They raised their guns—not pistols this time, but rifles. They were models that even I could tell were old and cheap, but old rifles would still do a lot of damage. They couldn’t kill me, but Adam was baseline, and didn’t have a power to defend himself. Just one bullet in the wrong place could kill him instantly.

I searched in my heart for another answer, something else to save me.

Dennis Hall was a kyton, one of the new chain-demons who had sprung up after the Rampage. He argued that they should remain demon only, but the others weren’t so sure. He argued that blurring the culture lines was an insult to the Mother Monster.

He loved me.

And I loved him.

I held out my hand, concentrating my will. I formed an invisible shield around us, shaped like a wedge. The bullets split before us like a river around a rock. I felt every single bullet, each one depleting my reservoir by the tiniest sliver. The power I borrowed from Dennis wasn’t a shield, not really. It was a very specific form of kinesis, an ability to control metal to the point that I could deflect anything moving into a specific zone. But enough gunfire would overwhelm it. My reservoir was far from infinite.

The guards stopped firing, awestruck. Malcanthet had clearly explained much of the nature of Domina City to her Riven, but this was something beyond her understanding. The fact that they were out of their depth was penetrating their minds. They weren’t drugged, or at least not as much as the workers above. Malcanthet needed her guards to actually have their wits about them.

They ran.

“Get back here!” Malcanthet cried. “I command you to stop!”

The runners didn’t stop. There were only a few left, less than a dozen. They looked apprehensive, but they stayed strong. They kept their rifles trained on me, but didn’t fire.

The stairwell door burst open. Chris charged out, gun at the ready, and skidded to a halt on the wet floor. She glanced at me, at Malcanthet, and then at Adam. She sniffed the air and saw the burned patch on the floor. “What the hell?”

“Everything is under control,” he said. He sounded calm. He had taken to killing far too easily. I had thought I would be able to save his soul, but… but…

“Shut up,” Malcanthet said. “This changes nothing.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “You keep saying that. Do you actually believe it? The only reason you’re still alive is because Lily is too nice for her own good.”

Malcanthet scowled. “I’m going to rip your guts out with my bare hands—”

“Canny,” I said. I almost whispered it. “Honored daughter. It’s over.”

“DON’T CALL ME THAT!” She ripped a pistol from the holster of a nearby guard. She fired at me a few times. Her aim was surprisingly good, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t even need to use any powers. Malcanthet would never arm her slaves with weapons that could hurt her, and my skin was far stronger than hers.

Chris pointed her pistol at Malcanthet, but I stopped her with a raised hand. She looked reluctant, but didn’t fire. Her eyes kept flickering over to me, as if she wasn’t sure what she was seeing.

“Malcanthet,” I said. I took a step forward. She shot me again, the bullet just missing my cheek. She was trying to get a bullet in my eye. It wouldn’t kill me, but it would stop me. “Little heart, do you remember when we first met?”

“Shut up shut up shut up—”

Another step. “It was right after Bloody Thirteen. You came to Necessarius. You agreed to take part in some of the toy trials.”

Shut up!” She shot me again. Her hand was trembling now, and her shot went wide. It actually hit the ceiling.

Another step forward. “Clarke asked what you wanted.”

“I…” She kept the gun pointed at me, but didn’t shoot. Her hand was shaking so much I thought she’d drop the gun. “I don’t have to listen to this…”

I didn’t stop. “You said you wanted to be beautiful. Like your mother.”

“I didn’t…” She ground her teeth. “He was just a stupid idiot, he didn’t know what I was asking—”

“He did,” I said quietly. “He knew about the whispers and the rumors. He knew what the city was calling me—what they were already calling me. And he knew what you meant. He knew which mother an orphan would mean.”

“We weren’t orphans,” she whispered. “I mean… we had Dad, he only died when we were teenagers, we didn’t…”

One last step, and I was there. Within arm’s length. She towered over me; she wasn’t that tall, but I was little more than four feet.

The barrel of the gun was an inch from my eye. She couldn’t have missed if she wanted to.

Malcanthet cried. “I didn’t want… I just wanted…”

“I know, baby girl,” I said. “I know.”

She collapsed to her knees, bringing her down to my level. She fell into my arms, sobbing.

She was older than me. A few years at least, though she had never said her exact age. That didn’t matter.

Sometimes you just need a mother. Anyone will do.

I brushed her hair as she cried. “Shh…” I whispered. “It’s all right. Everything is all right.”

We sat there for a few minutes, in the cold parking garage. No one interfered. Not her Riven, not Adam. They all knew that the fight was over. Perhaps there would be arguments later, recriminations and retribution, but for right now…

Right now, my daughter just needed to be held.

A phone rang. I felt it buzzing in Malcanthet’s shirt pocket.

She pulled away from me just enough to get at the phone. She sniffled and her mascara had run, but she kept herself composed. “Hello?” she said.

My enhanced hearing easily heard the person on the other end. “Your Majesty? Thank the Mother you’re all right. What’s going on? The Malcatari came running out of the parking garage! None of them will tell us what happened! What do we do?”

She closed her eyes. “Eternity’s End.”

There was a pause.

“Yes, Your Majesty.” The panicked Riven hung up.

Malcanthet dropped the phone to the ground without a care. She leaned against me again, and I patted her hair.

“Adam?” I called. “Get everyone into the stairwell and close the door.”

“Uh, sure. C’mon, let’s go.”

Malcanthet’s guards rushed over to him. I saw a few out of the corners of my eyes, but I just heard most of them. I also heard Chris complaining.

“Wait, these, these—”

“Riven,” Adam said.

“Yeah. Them too?”

“Who did you think she meant by ‘everyone?’”

“I don’t know, but—”

The sprinklers turned on. More gasoline poured down. This time, no part of the parking lot was spared. Malcanthet and I were soaked with the foul-smelling liquid, and I could hear more of it deeper in the structure.

The Riven, who had been moving a little hesitantly, started running. Running for the only safety they could see. I didn’t know how far the gasoline sprinklers went, but there weren’t any in the stairwell.

“Lily!” Chris called.

I didn’t turn. I heard Adam whispering her assurances as he pulled her away and closed the door. The slam echoed like a falling tombstone. Slowly, the sprinklers died down. It looked like the gasoline tank had run dry.

Malcanthet was crying in my arms. Quiet tears, but real ones. The kind that you can’t stop once you start.

“I just… I just wanted to be beautiful,” she sobbed. “I just wanted to be strong, and loved. I just wanted to be safe.”

“I know, baby girl,” I whispered. “I know.”

She pulled something out of her pocket.

A lighter.

She looked me in the eye, her wet bangs dripping in front of her face. “Goodbye, mama. Hopefully I’ll see you soon.”

I smiled sadly. “Goodbye, Honored Daughter.”

She flicked the lighter, then dropped it to the ground.

It caught instantly, the fire spreading like light through shadow. In seconds, the entire garage was covered in a coating of flame. There was even a burst of pressure as it consumed the air. Depending on how well-ventilated this area was, the fire might asphyxiate before it consumed all the gasoline.

And, of course, the flames covered us as well.

I did not use any of my powers. My skin was proof against far, far hotter fires than this. My internal organs could survive temperatures that could melt lead. An active nuclear reactor might be a danger to me, but nothing less.

Malcanthet was not so lucky.

She screamed in my arms, screamed as her clothes caught fire and her flesh burned. Not screams of rage, but the screams of a dying animal. A simple, instinctive pain, a wordless and desperate plea for help. She screamed until the fire reached her throat, until her vocal cords snapped from stress and heat, until her larynx boiled. She clutched at me with hands of fire, until the flames ate through the muscles and the tendons.

I sat there, in the flames, holding her. Even my perfect eyes could see nothing but fire. Even my perfect nose could smell nothing but smoke and horribly cooked flesh. The air had turned toxic, but I could still breathe. My lungs filtered the toxins, and emergency cells activated, allowing me to subsist on the bare minimum of oxygen.

I heard a car explode. Then another, then another. I felt the shockwaves through the ground, but I couldn’t see them anywhere. I knew that not all the cars were exploding, but many. No one had designed them to deal with this kind of heat.

My tears had boiled off my cheeks. I didn’t know when that had happened.

It took ten, maybe twenty minutes for the fire to finally die down. When Adam came to get me over an hour later, he found me still sitting there. He had a gas mask and some basic protective gear on. I just sat there, silent, weeping tears that would no longer come. My clothes had burned, and I was covered in a thin coating of ash.

I sat there, crying invisibly, holding the scorched, blackened corpse of one of my foulest daughters.

Sometimes, you just need a mother.

But sometimes, you need more than we can give.

END BOOK THREE

Scene 294 – Cimeterium

CIMETERIUM

LING

Pain.

The world was pain.

Needles and spikes and tearing razors and things I didn’t have names for. Every second my flesh felt like it was about to slough off my bones, because that was exactly what was going to happen. It took a constant effort of will to keep my concrete skeleton in one piece, to keep myself the right shape.

I took a deep breath and pushed it back. All of it, like holding back a river with a single plank of wood. But I did it, and the pain faded to a dull roar. Always there, like my heartbeat or the pull of gravity, but no longer so all-consuming.

I opened my eyes.

I was in the ruined skyscraper that had once been an ave base. The entire building had collapsed from my assault, but the same spikes and twists of concrete that had brought it down also prevented it from falling any further. In fact, the concrete turned the place into a near-perfect fortress, with no entrances or weak spots.

They called it the Grave.

“Alexander,” I said.

He stepped out of the shadows swiftly, but without rush. “Yes, my lady?”

“There is a party upstairs.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, my lady. A celebration following the victory against the Americans. There are countless similar parties all across the city.”

“I’m sure.” I stood up from my cross-legged position. I had been meditating. I couldn’t sleep anymore, not when I needed to use my power at all times to keep my skeleton working properly. Clarke’s Insomniac gland was a godsend, but I still needed rest. “Call down three of our strongest. I have a job for them.”

He looked hesitant, but bowed low anyway. “Yes, my lady.” He stepped into what seemed to be a solid wall—the old elevator shaft, now sealed up. The elevator itself was scrap metal at the bottom of the shaft, but it was still useful.

I used my stonesense to track him, or rather the concrete belt he used to ascend the shaft towards the roof. He was almost at the edge of my sense when he stopped at the roof. A few moments later, he and three others began to descend the shaft again, levitating their stone belts to control their speed.

The concrete wall of the shaft opened up like a curtain, and Alexander escorted three people into my chamber. Two girls and a boy. All baseline. Most of my people were baseline. It wasn’t a requirement, it was just the way it had ended up.

“Do you believe the war is over?” I said without preamble.

All three of them stood with their backs as straight as arrows. “No, Lady Grave.”

“Do you believe that now is the time for celebration?”

“No, Lady Grave.”

I levitated my own skeleton, allowing me to float a few feet off the ground and move into a cross-legged sitting position in mid air. “Artemis Butler believes he can solve this with diplomacy and deals. Perhaps he is right. But that is not the way of the Grave.”

“No, Lady Grave.”

“How does the Grave handle its enemies?”

Three voices barked the response with one voice. “We bury them!”

I nodded. “Good.” I pulled a small object out of my pocket. It was about the size of a pen, and I pointed it at the factory-smooth concrete ground. I pressed a button on the side and a light shone out of it, projecting a flat map of the city with a number of red dots scattered around it. They were clustered around the four city gates, especially North Gate.

“Each red dot represents a suspected American soldier, squad, or piece of scrap left behind when the army fled the city.” I clicked the pen again, zooming in farther onto kemo territory. “Perhaps these people were simply unlucky. Abandoned by their country. Perhaps they are kindred souls, who need nothing more than friendship and open arms to become contributing members of this city.” I clicked the pen off. “And perhaps not.”

One of the three—one of the girls—stepped forward. “Lady Grave. Butler’s orders are quite explicit. Defense only. He doesn’t want to further antagonize—”

“Who rules the Grave?”

The girl swallowed. “You do, Lady Grave.”

I slowly stopped levitating myself, setting my bare feet back on the concrete ground. Since I could only use my power on stone I was touching, that meant I could now control the entire building again. The girl flinched, but didn’t step back. Good for her.

“Artemis Butler.” I nodded. “He is a good man. A man trying to do what is best for this city, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. But he has controlled this city for far too long.”

One of the others, the boy, blanched. “You… you’re not talking about a coup?

I waved my hand. “Of course not. He is what is best for this city. I am simply saying that he is sometimes more worried about keeping his word and making deals than he is about taking out the trash.” I tossed the pen to the second girl, the one who hadn’t spoken. “Today, that will be our job. Your job.”

She nodded, holding the pen. “What would you have us do?”

“Take kemo territory,” I said. “All three of you together, hitting every hot spot you can find. Don’t give them a chance to respond, don’t give them a chance to radio for help. Crush them. Bury them. Leave no evidence behind.”

They all bowed. “Yes, Lady Grave.”

I nodded. “Go, now. Take a few of the novices with you, if you feel it is necessary, but no more than a dozen. I want the report of your first success within the hour.”

They left quickly, running at a solid wall and passing through it like mud. In moments, they were gone.

“They’ll be caught,” Alexander warned. “Anders has his CS squads. Those three won’t be able to fight them.”

“They are not supposed to fight them. They are supposed to distract them. Pull them to this sector of the city, far away from where I will be.” I had been hit with a counter-song twice since I had returned to the city. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, but it had paralyzed me completely.

Alexander nodded, as if he had expected such a response. “And where will you be?”

“East Gate,” I said. “Vampire territory.”

He nodded again. “Very well. I will collect an escort for you.”

“No,” I said, grinning. “I will handle it alone.” I shivered in delight. “It’s been far too long since I was really able to let loose.”

And then I sank into the ground, swimming through the concrete and asphalt of the city streets as easily as if it was water.

Behind the Scenes (scene 294)

Somehow I completely forgot to upload this.  I have no idea what happened.  Better late than never.

break

Scene 306 – Captum

CAPTUM

CHRIS

My name is Chris Clemens. I have worked for the Anders family for over ten years. They are an eclectic bunch, and I have been involved in throwing surprise parties for strangers, fighting off infiltrators looking for the secret family beer recipe, and arranging a fake arrest on Adam’s first date.

I had never been captured by heavily-armed businessmen and hand-cuffed to a chair, though. That was new.

We had been dragged into a large break room with red walls, the kind with a built-in kitchen and breakfast nook. It looked nice, or at least it had. Our captors had taken three chairs and hammered them to the floor with large pins. Then they tied us to the chairs. That was going to keep us from going anywhere.

Even so, we were well guarded. Three large beefy men in nice suits paced the room, their large guns relaxed but ready. I didn’t recognize the guns, but the men wore them comfortably. I was sure they would work well enough. Oddly, the workers outside in their cubicles didn’t seem to be paying attention to us. The door was glass and they could see right in, but they didn’t even glance our way.

The oddest thing, however, was Adam’s calm reaction to the situation.

“You should let us go,” he said to one of our guards. He seemed to be the one in charge. Probably not in charge of anything ultimately important, but at least in charge of the other two. On the few occasions I had been forced to take prisoners, I had always designated a man like him. Who he was didn’t matter too much. I just made sure he knew he was responsible if things went sideways.

He didn’t respond to Adam at all. So he at least had the ‘stay strong and silent’ part down.

“There are ten Dominite ambassadors in the city right now,” Adam said. Again, he was so calm. I expected him to be sweating like a pig. No, I expected him to be crying, but that wasn’t fair. He wasn’t so soft and sheltered to break down like that.

Maybe he was much harder than I had thought.

“What do you think will happen when they find out about this?” Adam said. “You think they won’t demand retribution?”

The guard didn’t say a word. He just pulled out a pistol and pressed in to Adam’s forehead.

My heart just about stopped. Adam was my charge. My duty. I should have dragged him away the second I knew he was planning something dangerous. Shouldn’t have even bothered waiting to find out what it was.

Adam didn’t seem concerned with the gun to his head. I was beginning to think he had lost his mind in that damned city. “She’s going to want to talk to us. All of us. I have information she needs.”

The guard cocked the hammer, making a loud click.

Adam cocked his head, the gun still pressed against his skin. “That’s a Black Knight, right? Zero Forge Guns?”

There was a pause. Then the guard grunted. “Yes.”

“Huh. A machine pistol is a bit overkill in this situation, don’t you think?”

The guard growled. I almost thought he would kill Adam right then and there, but he controlled himself.

“Is that the ZF740, or the 750? I can’t read the model number from this angle.”

If Adam thought he would trick the guard into pulling back the gun to check, it didn’t work. “The 750.”

Adam looked worried. “Oh dear.”

He seemed so earnest, even the guard had to be curious. “What? What is it?”

“You do know those tend to explode, right?”

I rolled my eyes at the obvious lie—until I got a look at the guard’s face. He was trying to keep a poker face, but I could tell. He knew what Adam was talking about.

Adam knew it too. “The 740 is a much more reliable weapon. I wonder why she didn’t just get you those…” He chuckled to himself. “Ah yes, of course. How silly of me. Because the 750s were cheaper.”

The guard pressed the gun harder against Adam’s forehead. I had to fight my instincts, which wanted to struggle out of the chair and tackle the guard to the ground. Trying wouldn’t do anything but make the guards jumpy.

“Ninety nine times out of a hundred, these guns fire fine,” the guard said. “You willing to bet your life on a one percent chance?”

Adam smirked. “Are you?”

They stared each other down for a moment.

The guard withdrew the gun and put it on the counter. He turned to one of the others. “Go find me another gun. Not a 750. One of those Hell… Hellion guns.”

“The 88-006 is good, if you have it,” Adam called after the retreating guard. “The 87-609 is a decent backup!”

The lead guard flipped a knife out of his boot and held it in a reverse grip. “This won’t explode if I try to kill you with it. So maybe you should just shut up.”

I closed my eyes briefly. If Adam’s plan had been to disarm our enemies, it didn’t seem to have worked. Honestly, they didn’t even need knives. We were tied to chairs bolted to the floor. What were we going to do, spit on them?

Adam raised an eyebrow. He still looked calm and in control. “What is an explosion?”

The guard looked at him like he had sprouted a second head. “What?

“An explosion,” Adam said calmly, “is simple. It is the same as any other form of motion, just bigger and faster. Every breeze is an explosion, in a way. Every waterfall. Every rustling leaf in the forest.”

The guard lowered the knife. “You are a crazy—”

Adam exploded into motion.

He jumped out of the chair, leaving the handcuffs behind. He tackled the guard to the ground and bashed the man’s head, hard. Before he had a chance to recover, Adam grabbed his knife and stabbed him in the throat.

The second guard grabbed his gun, but hesitated. It was the same type of gun the other had been using, and now Adam had made him paranoid.

The hesitation only lasted a moment, but a moment was all Adam needed. He took his stolen knife and charged straight at the guard, plunging it deep into the man’s chest like a rhino’s horn. The tackle bore them both to the ground, and the guard coughed up blood from the impact. Adam withdrew the knife from his throat, then stabbed him in the throat.

I stared. I had seen people do incredible things in desperate situations. But Adam wasn’t moving desperately. He was moving quickly and efficiently, killing with the bare minimum of effort. He was covered in blood—neck wounds were messy—but barely seemed to notice. He grabbed a rag to wipe his face, but that was it.

I felt hands behind me, working on my cuffs. There was a brief pinch, and then one loosened. Then another pinch, and the other came free too. I turned to see Lily crouching behind my chair. She smiled and held up the broken cuffs.

They looked twisted and mangled. Almost like she had ripped them apart with her bare hands.

“Canny is cheap,” Lily explained. “These things are barely better than toys.”

I nodded slowly. Of course. Toys. They… they must have been made of plastic.

I resolutely ignored the memory of the cold steel cuffs on my wrist.

Plastic. They must have been plastic.

Adam glanced through the glass door. “They haven’t noticed yet, but it’s only a matter of time.” He started patting down the corpses. He pulled out a few more knives and two key cards. “Lily, how drugged are these workers?”

Lily thought for a moment. “There’s a limit to how much she can drug them and still expect them to be productive. Plus, like I said, she’s cheap, and drugs are expensive. If they see any actual blood, I think they’ll freak. Anything short of that should be fine.”

Adam looked down at his bloodstained clothes. “…great. Should have worn red today.”

I rubbed my wrists, then looked down at myself. “I’m still clean. I can give you my shirt, then I’ll just wear the blazer on top of my bra.” I turned to Lily. “Do you think they’ll notice?”

She made a face. “It’s really hard to say. Probably not? But there have to be at least a few sober people in the building. The guards seemed clear-headed.”

“So we’ll avoid the guards,” Adam said. He looked in a closet, but didn’t seem to find anything interesting. He looked like he was considering dragging the bodies inside, but thought better of it. They had bled too much. Hiding them would be impossible. “Chris, give me your shirt. Lily, I want you to hide in here.”

I expected her to object. Instead she glanced at the corpses, shivered, and nodded.

I got my shirt off, and Adam didn’t even blink at my nudity. I did notice him carefully looking me in the eyes, though. I smirked, handed him the shirt, and started buttoning up my blazer. Anyone with half a brain would notice I was naked underneath, but apparently there weren’t many of those around.

Adam took off his bloody shirt and tossed it into the closet. His jeans were a bit bloody too, but they were dark enough to be mistaken for water. He washed his face at the sink and tried half-heartily to clean his pants. It didn’t work, but it did help disguise the blood by getting his pants wet.

I frowned at his bare chest. He seemed to have a lot of scars. They were mostly healed correctly, but it was still startling to see so many of them. I saw claw marks, straight cuts like from knives, a couple gunshot wounds, at least one burn…

Lily didn’t react to the scars, so I didn’t say anything. This wasn’t the time.

Once Adam was sure he was clean, he put on my shirt, buttoning it up quickly. Then he tossed me the gun from the counter, along with a holster. I nearly dropped it, I was fumbling so much. I glared at him, but he just smirked.

“What the hell?” I demanded. “I thought you said these things explode!”

“Only once out of a hundred,” he said as he buckled on a holster with a second gun. “Besides, it’s actually less than that. I have a friend who’s a big gun nut. She says that some of them are more flawed than others. If the guards have been shooting these things recently, that means they’re probably the safer versions. It’s probably more like one shot out of a thousand makes them explode.”

“Great,” I said dryly. “I feel ten times safer.”

He smiled. “It’s mostly for intimidation. People take you seriously if you have a gun.”

He sounded like he was speaking from experience. I had so many questions, but not right now. Right now, my only priority was getting him out alive.

I looked behind me and saw Lily closing the closet door behind her. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to leave her here?”

Adam nodded. “She hates violence. I don’t want her to have to see more of this than she has to.”

“But how will she escape?”

He frowned. “Escape?”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing? Looking for an escape route?”

He chuckled. “No. Definitely not.”

“Then what?”

His eyes were as hard as ice, and his smile was manic. “We’re going to find the queen bee and kill her.”

The way he spoke, the way he moved… it all painted a picture. I wasn’t sure what I had thought. Maybe I had been hoping that years of violent video games had desensitized him to violence. That didn’t explain how he was good at it, but I had been latching on desperately to that ridiculous explanation.

But this plan of his… it wasn’t one born of desperation. He wasn’t fighting to find the only way out.

He just wanted the queen dead, and he was the only person he trusted to pull it off.

“Okay,” I said. I took a deep breath. “How many do you think there are?”

“The Riven? I dunno. There are probably a couple hundred people in the building, but not all of them are going to be combat-capable.” He carefully opened the door and started walking out. I followed him quickly.

“This is a bad idea,” I hissed as we walked down the rows of cubicles.

“Act like you belong,” he said. He strode down the aisles with a straight back, nodding politely to people we passed. “If you sneak, they’ll know we have a reason to sneak. We can’t fight the whole damn building.”

While I was skeptical, he quickly proved to be correct. One or two people glanced at us, but no one gave us a second look. Whether it was the drugs or their work, they knew we weren’t their problem.

“She’ll probably be at the top,” I said, hitting the button to call the elevator.

Adam nodded, but pulled me towards the stairs. “And the elevator will be trapped.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Well, maybe not.” He opened the door, swept the landing expertly with his gun, and gestured me inside. “But if nothing else, it will have cameras. They would have called her once they figured out where we were going.”

I looked up the stairwell. “About how many do you think it is?” I didn’t know how tall the building was.

He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe ten flights or so.”

I groaned. “Wonderful.”

He chuckled. “This is nothing. Remind me to tell you about the time I had to run up twenty flights in full kit.”

I stared at him as he started up the stairs. Once again, he moved with military efficiency. He rounded the corner quickly, swept the landing and the stairs up, then continued. He didn’t waste time watching his back, either. He clearly expected me to serve as rearguard.

I did so, keeping an eye behind us, but I couldn’t help glancing at him every few minutes. What happened to the silly little gamer who had left for Domina a few months ago? He used to refuse to play shooters online because he was so bad at them.

I could have asked. Maybe would have even gotten an answer. But I remained silent, following him up the stairs.

He kept a good pace. Fast enough to eat up the steps, but slow enough that we didn’t get exhausted. We’d probably be facing a fight once we reached the top.

Eventually, we stopped outside a door. Unlike the others—which were just labeled with numbers—this one had a sign. It used strange characters I didn’t recognize. But they seemed familiar somehow…

“What’s that?” I asked. I kept the stairs down covered, just to be safe.

Adam brushed his fingers over the sign. “Demonscript. German with Cuneiform characters. I’ve only seen it a couple times. It’s a lot more rare than the angel version. Demons aren’t very unified.” He shook his head. “I didn’t think Malcanthet, of all people, would use it.”

“Can you read it?”

“No, but I can ask—” His hand went to his pocket, but he stopped himself. “Never mind.” He glared at the sign as if it was mocking him. “It’s probably nothing important. I’m sure it just says something about how employees aren’t allowed through here without special permission.”

“What if it says ‘warning, lethal gas area?’”

Adam glared at me. “I don’t remember you being this snarky.”

“We didn’t really spend a lot of time together.”

He shrugged. “Fair enough.” He played with something in his pocket for a moment, trying to come to a decision. “It’s not worth the risk. We’ll just have to go in blind.” He put his hand on the doorknob. “Ready?”

I brought my gun up and nodded.

He took a deep breath and pulled open the door. I stepped inside, sweeping the room.

It wasn’t like the office floors down below. The floor was thick carpet, and there was plush furniture scattered everywhere. Velvet tapestries covered the walls, scrawled with artistic designs. It was clean, for the most part, but there were a few glasses and bowls scattered around on love seats. Not much, but enough to tell me that this place was used. It wasn’t some waiting room, ignored until it was needed.

There were two guards. They looked out of place sitting on the comfy furniture in their sharp suits. They blinked as I entered the room, but they recovered quickly. They rose, hands going to their guns.

I shot them both, one after another. Dead center in the chest. Both men crumpled to the ground.

The gunshots didn’t echo much; there was too much plush in the room. But someone would still have heard it. We didn’t have long before someone came running.

Adam pushed past me, his gun out as well. He glanced around the room and spotted the fallen guards. Then he walked over to them and calmly shot them both twice in the head.

I started. “What the Hell!?”

“Just to be safe,” he said. He looked at me. God, those eyes… cold as ice. “Is there a problem?”

I swallowed. “No. You just surprised me.”

He nodded, then knelt down and inspected the bodies. He smirked and exchanged his gun for one the guards had. “Of course. Her elites get the 740s.” He tossed me one. “Use that one. It’s mostly the same, just doesn’t explode. Don’t swap bullets, though.”

I looked it over. He was right; it looked exactly the same as the 750, except for the different serial number. Though they both had a small lever, similar to a safety. On the 750 it was off, but on the 740 it was in the on position.

“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to it.

Adam frowned at looked at his own 740. “Not sure. It’s not a…” His face cleared. “Oh, right. I forgot. The Black Knight is a machine pistol.” He flicked the lever. “The guys downstairs had theirs on single-shot mode, these guys used full-auto.”

I clicked mine to single-shot too. “Seems like a small mag for a machine pistol.”

“Yeah, but it can be useful in the right circumstances.” He pulled something else out of the guard’s pocket. “Key card. Not sure we’re gonna need it. They might open the door for us.”

I frowned. “Why would they do that?”

He smirked. “So that they can come out and kill us, of course.”

There were three entrances to this room: The stairwell we had come from, a more ornate door to the left, and the elevator to the right. Adam and I both turned to cover the ornate door. At least we’d hear the elevator.

“Derek told me that Rivenheart had Kevlar furniture,” he said. “I have no idea if that’s true here. Just keep it in mind.”

I didn’t ask who Derek was or what Rivenheart had been. This really wasn’t the time.

I heard shouting from the other room. The guards were getting ready.

“How many are we looking at?” I asked.

Adam shook his head. “No idea. Room of that size could fit twenty armed men.”

I glanced at him. He looked worried, but not scared. Calm, determined.

“Is surrender—”

“No.”

“But maybe—”

No.” He glared at me. “Do you have any idea where these people came from? All these slaves who she has drugged into mindless obedience?”

“I would assume she hired them and then started spiking the coffee.”

Adam smirked, but controlled himself. “Maybe some. But not all. One of her favorite tricks is brainwashing her enemies to fight for her.” He turned back to the door. “Fight to the death or jump off the roof. Those are your options.”

There was another option: Escape. Or rather, there had been another option. He was right, by this point it was off the table. If this ‘Malcanthet’ had half a brain, she would have cut off our escape routes by now.

“Adam, I—”

The door opened.

Adam fired, once, twice, then dove behind cover. I followed suit, even though I hadn’t actually seen anyone returning fire. My paranoia was proven justified when bullets streaked through the air.

I waited a heartbeat, popped up, and fired in the direction of the door. I didn’t get a good look, but I did see a few men. I dropped back down again before I could count exactly how many of them there were.

I checked my clip. “Half left.”

Adam frowned. He popped up and fired twice before dropping down again. It was a very clean and professional maneuver. Who the hell had trained him? “You have some spare mags, right?”

“One,” I said.

“Shit.” He peeked out from around the corner of the couch and fired twice. I heard the sound of bodies hitting the floor. He withdrew just as the survivors returned fire. The bullets tore into the floor and threw up splinters of wood from underneath the carpet.

I took the opportunity to pop up and take a shot at the guard in front. I got him in the shoulder, and he cried out in pain.

I ducked back down. “I think three are neutralized. Unless you got more with your first shots.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

The guards started shooting again. Bullets hit the couch, but none punched through. I couldn’t tell if Adam was right about the Kevlar, or if the bullets just didn’t have enough penetration. “At least it doesn’t sound like twenty men,” I said. “I’d say six more, max.”

Adam cocked his head, listening to the gunfire. “Based on reloads… I’d say three.”

I nodded. I had been rounding up to be safe.

The gunfire slowly subsided.

I glanced at Adam. “You think that’s a good sign?”

He frowned. “No. I really, really don’t.”

“Assassin!” someone called. It was a melodious voice that made every hair on my body stand on end. Just that one word was like my first kiss all over again. “You are surrounded! Lay down your weapons and you will not be harmed!”

I almost stood. How could anyone disobey that voice?

Adam grabbed me and dragged me back down. “You’re not a lesbian.”

I frowned. “What? Of course not. What does that have to do with anything?”

“She has pheromones,” he explained patiently. “You haven’t even seen her and she’s already seducing you. Just remember: You’re not a lesbian.”

I took a deep breath, struggling to remain in control. Adam seemed unfazed. He must have more experience with this sort of thing.

“I have grenades!” that perfect voice called. “I would prefer not to ruin my sitting room further, but I will if I have to!”

I bit my hand, hard. The pain kept me centered, focused on the moment.

Adam watched dispassionately. I couldn’t tell if he thought I was weak and useless or weak and pitiful.

“If you don’t come out, I will execute your friend!”

I grabbed Adam before he could leap out. The cold look in his eyes was gone, replaced by rage and fire.

“It’s a bluff,” I hissed. “She knows there were three of us. She’s just trying to draw us out.”

“We caught her in the elevator. She will make a fine addition to my collection.”

I gripped Adam’s arm so hard it hurt. “It’s a bluff. Why would Lily go to the elevator anyway? It’s terrible tactics.”

Adam closed his eyes. “Lily… is not good at tactics.”

I frowned. Before I could say anything, the elevator dinged.

Adam and I both pointed our guns in that direction before the doors even opened. We didn’t shoot, though. Not with Lily in the way.

One of the guards pushed her out in front of him. He had a gun to the back of her head, and her hands were tied behind her back. Maybe she could get out of that, but even if she could deal with one guard, the rest would kill her before she could reach cover.

“See?” the voice said. “Come out before I get impatient.”

Adam slowly lowered his gun.

I kept mine up. “Are you sure?”

He sat there for a few moments before answering.

“No,” he said finally. “I’m not sure.” He tossed his gun over the couch, well out of reach.

I sighed and did the same. Then we both stood, hands up, and turned in the direction the voice had been coming from.

That was when I received my first look at the Succubus Queen.

The first thing I noticed was her glittering white smile and her razor-sharp teeth. She had perfectly tanned skin, curves that would make a model jealous, and was wearing a set of lacy bra and panties that would make a porn star blush. She had strange, abstract tribal tattoos all over her body, especially around her breasts and groin. Her eyes were red, but her hair was wavy black. It went down to the small of her back, but she kept it carefully brushed away from her forehead. The better to show off her horns. They were just small red things, about the same size and shape as Lily’s.

In fact, she reminded me a lot of Lily. Lily was much shorter, and had absolutely no curves to speak of, but other than that they were very similar. Even the tattoos were of the same general theme. Lily almost looked like she was aping the Queen, except for the tail. Lily had one, the Queen didn’t.

Malcanthet quirked her head. “Hello, little demon. Have we met before?”

“I’m not a demon,” Lily said. I was surprised by the strength in her voice.

“Whatever you say.” Malcanthet clapped her hands and smiled. “I lost two, but gained three. Hardly ideal, but a net gain in the end. I’ll take it.”

“You won’t get away with this,” Adam warned.

The Queen laughed. “What are you, five? Of course I will.” She grinned wolfishly. “That annoying little drug of yours will wear off in a day or so, and then you are all mine.”

“Ten ambassadors from Domina are here in New York right now,” he said. “They will come for you.”

“No. They won’t. They don’t even know I’m here.” She smirked. “Even if you did have enough presence of mind to warn them before you were captured, it won’t matter. They would much prefer to just ignore me. I’m out of the city, I’m no longer their problem.”

“Domina is changing, Lupa,” Adam said. “We look beyond our borders now.”

Malcanthet had stopped smiling. “Don’t call me that. And I looked you up, Mister Anders. You are not a Dominite. You are just some random idiot outsider.” She shook her head. “The fact that you survived in that city for months is proof that they are going soft.”

Adam frowned. “You mean you don’t have spies on the inside?”

Malcanthet rolled her eyes. “Butler and Naamah have been hunting down my Riven ever since I left. I haven’t had anyone in the city for months.” Her grin returned, lips slowly peeling back to expose those shark teeth. “But perhaps I will send you back as my spies, hm? Yes, that will do nicely…”

“Leave Lily out of this,” I said. The pain from my hand had faded, and I had to struggle to ignore how drop-dead gorgeous Malcanthet was. “She has nothing to do with any of this.”

Malcanthet grinned. “I don’t think—” Her grin faded. “Lily?” She glanced over at Lily. Then her eyes widened.

“Canny, please,” Lily said. “You don’t have to do this.”

“LIES!” Malcanthet shrieked. She stumbled back. “It’s—it’s a trick! Anyone can claim to be her! She changes toys so much, can’t ever be sure what she looks like today! It’s just a stupid trick!”

“Canny—” Lily said again.

“DON’T CALL ME THAT!” Malcanthet grabbed one of her guards by the shoulder. “SHOOT HER!”

I paled. “Wait—”

Before I could say anything else, the guard shot Lily dead center in the forehead.

Behind the Scenes (scene 306)

Demonscript uses one of the simpler forms of Cuneiform. It doesn’t track perfectly with the German alphabet, but it is close enough that any German word can be spelled without too much difficulty. They also modified the numbers, since the Sumerians used a more complex and less efficient system.

Chris discusses Adam’s training here. I’m still unsure whether or not I should have had it offscreen or not. Ultimately, I decided on only a couple of scenes with him fighting monsters, in addition to the screamer scenes. Unfortunately, this created the impression that he was entirely self-taught during combat. There was a lot of that, of course, but he also received real training from Derek, the retinue, Necessarius, and a few of Derek’s monster slayer friends.

Scene 305 – Virtutis et Consolationis

VIRTUTIS ET CONSOLATIONIS

MALCANTHET

My name is Malcanthet, the Succubus Queen. The Empress of Love, the Meretrix. Greatest daughter of the First Monster, the only one who had a chance at usurping the Mother from her throne. I am love and hate, courage and fear. All who see me love me, and despair.

But I was betrayed. Cast out of my home, first by Necessarius and their bombs, then by those rats who had called themselves my succubi. Agrat Bat Mahlat refused to shelter me, choosing instead to steal my broken throne. Naamah set her hounds on me, her spies and her shadows. Even Xinivrae, my own dear sister, refused to lend me aid when I needed it most.

So I escaped. I fled my city, my home, and found a new one. Not for long, I told myself. I only needed a few weeks, just long enough to lick my wounds and regain my power. In the meantime, my Riven, those most loyal to my heart, would remain behind. They would prepare the city for my return, remind the people who and what was coming for them.

But weeks turned to months. Months turned to years.

And then my sister died. Xinivrae, my blood, my love. Killed by one of my own. Poor lost, frightened little Ling. She had tried to cast aside the mantle of the succubus, but I knew that she was still mine.

They were all still mine.

America had gone to war against my Domina, my home, my betrayers. I had supported them as much as I could, in my own way. I didn’t send any Riven, of course, but I sent money. A few more of those echoes, a few more lamps. Whispers about how to fight vampires, suggestions about how to kill trolls.

And now?

Well, now America had lost. Been sent home with their tail between their legs. I was disappointed, at first. But perhaps it was for the best. My home would still be there when I returned. My betrayers would still be waiting to be punished.

And I knew just how to do it.

Domina had sent ambassadors. A pretty name for a band of bickering warlords. I knew most of them. I owned some of them. And I would own all of them. They would return to Domina and throw open the gates for me. I would remind the city of why I was queen.

Then I would speak to my mother. One last time.

But not now. Right now, other things were on my mind. There was a man kneeling before my throne. A baseline, but only because all of my people in this cursed city were baseline. No toy maker meant no improvements. No change. Nothing at all but the same faces, with flaws I couldn’t fix. Weaknesses I couldn’t remove.

“Speak,” I said. My voice was honey and chocolate, warm and sweet. I had spent years perfecting it. Even without my pheromones, anyone who heard it would shiver in delight.

The man remained kneeling. “Your Majesty. We have captured three spies at the cafe across the street.”

I smirked. I did so love when a trap justified its expense. How much had that silly little cafe cost over the years? And yet, on the rare occasions when fools actually attempted to spy on me, it proved worth a thousand times what I had spent on it. I had agents in all sorts of interesting places thanks to that little cafe.

“Who are they?” I asked. “More FBI? Or has the CIA finally decided that I’m worth the trouble?”

“They are Dominites, Your Majesty.”

I frowned, and sat up. “What?”

“At least one of them is. Most likely all three, but—”

I stopped listening. My mind was racing. Who could have found me? I never left Miomanta. None of my Riven here were given any obvious signs I owned them. No tattoos or emblems, and they weren’t allowed to take drug tests. Even the Dominite girl shouldn’t have aroused suspicion, if she had been tracked.

That meant whoever it was knew the meaning of Miomanta. That was a very short list of people.

“These Dominites,” I said. “Describe them.”

“Two baselines and a demon. Baselines are male and female, possibly native New Yorkers. Demon is female. Horns, eyes, teeth, and a tail.”

I frowned. That didn’t sound like anyone I knew. Unless they changed their toys since I had left the city. Which was possible, but it was more likely that they had simply sent one of their underlings. Yes… that made more sense. Still a bit improbable, as it required a warlord to hear about this domain, but not too wild.

“Put them in the Red Playroom,” I said. “Tie them up, and keep guards watching them at all times. Especially the demon.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

I waved my hand, and he rose to leave. I plucked some grapes from a bowl next to my throne. It was being held by a pretty young woman in a gauzy harem dress.

My Riven stopped, looking back.

I raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Your Majesty… I assumed you would wish to interrogate them immediately.”

“In time. But not immediately, no. Give them a few hours to stew.”

The Riven bowed low. “Of course, Your Majesty. Apologies for my impertinence.”

I waved him off again. This time he left without turning back.

I smiled to myself. Yes, a few hours should be enough. But I wasn’t going to be sitting around doing nothing during that time. These intruders might not be spies, but scouts. Domina had sent ambassadors to this city—what if they had snuck in an army? It would have to be a small one, of course, but Dominite armies did not have to be large to be dangerous. If the ambassadors themselves decided to fight me, I would find it difficult to drive them off.

Of course, I had spent five years preparing for an attack. I was not a fool like my sister, wallowing in my own hedonism.

I snapped my fingers. A man appeared next to my throne instantly. He was baseline, just like all the others, but wore enough tactical gear to weigh down a giant. He had at least six guns, a Kevlar vest, and a riot helmet under his arm. And those were just the things I could easily identify. I was sure he had explosives stashed somewhere on his person.

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Assemble the Malcatari,” I said. “All of them. Equip them, and ready them for an attack. Tell them to assemble in the entrance hall.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.” He bowed slightly. “But if I may ask, who are we expecting to attack?”

I smirked.

“Jealous gods.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 305)

Ah, Malcanthet. I’ve been waiting to use her for so long. I’m still not sure I properly portrayed her odd mentality, but this is the best of my attempts.