Tag Archives: changelings

Scene 321 – Libertas

MARY CHRISTINA

LIBERTAS

My name is Mary Christina Butler. Daughter of Mary Christina Asimov and Isaac Clarke, adoptive daughter of Artemis Butler. Isaac’s daughter Robyn Joan Clarke is my half-sister, and Artemis’ adoptive daughter Lilith is my adoptive sister. For five years, I have been managing the communications of Domina City—everything from e-mails and phone calls to social networking. With my set of programs, I could handle the entire city at once.

And now, I was cut off from all that.

I sat naked in the middle of a room, surrounded by sparking servers and cables. It was… cold, I think, and there was a blaring noise in my head… no, not in my head. It was an alarm, accompanied by a flashing red light. There was a smell in the air, something… acrid? Was that the right word? Liked something had been corroded. Was that the smell of computers, scorched and burning?

I looked down at myself. I was…

I was…

“Oh, you miraculous child,” a cheerful voice said. “You have made a mess of this place, haven’t you?”

I looked up to see… someone. I knew I should recognize her, but where—

Silk. Elizabeth’s sister. The giver of the powers, the start of everything. The one who never, ever, showed up on any of my surveillance.

She terrified me in a way that mere words could never express. She was invisible, untouchable. If even half of what she said was true, she could kill me with little more than a thought. All my safeties and backup systems would be useless.

She smiled and crouched down next to me. I tried to run, or move, or do something, but it was no use. I couldn’t even manage to move an inch away.

“I think you’d cause too many questions, being here right now,” she said. “Questions you wouldn’t be able to answer.”

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. My head was blurry. How… how did I make the words come out?

I was so cold…

Silk wrapped my naked body in a blanket that she had not been holding a moment ago. It was… soft, I think. Wasn’t it? Rougher than the bare air, yes, but warmer too. “Come on, then. There’s a changeling cafe that I think you’ll like.”

Suddenly, the server room was gone. The alarm was gone, leaving an empty space in the air. There were no sparks or burning computers, no exposed wires or broken machines. We were in… an alley. Yes, that was what it was called. A small space running between two buildings. I was on the ground, my legs still too weak to support me. I could feel the cold, rough concrete under my butt and my legs. I could feel the cold wind whistling, could hear the chatter of nearby changelings and others.

I could feel the sun on my hand.

Every other part of me was in shadow, but my hand happened to be in a sunbeam. I slowly raised my hand, turning it over, feeling the warmth of the light. It was strange, having one part of me warm—hot, even—while the rest of me was so cold.

And then I realized I was moving.

Just my hand, but I could do it. Wave it, wiggle my fingers, bend my wrist. I smiled at the sight, and made a second discovery—my mouth worked. Lips and tongue and cheeks and eyes and every part of my face. Everything worked.

I opened my mouth, tried to talk, but that still eluded me. I made air come out, I made my tongue move, but there was no sound. No words.

“Can you stand?” Silk said kindly.

I looked up. She was standing there, in the shadows, carefully not blocking my light. She smiled down at me like a gentle mother, but I still couldn’t trust her. I refused to trust her. I could look up thousands of hours of video on anyone in the city to help me determine how to deal with them, but her… she was the digital equivalent of a black hole.

I tried to stand, but my legs were too weak. All I could manage to do was fall over. Silk reached down to help, but I pushed her away. There was no force to it, but she got the message and stepped back.

I breathed hard from the exertion and put my hands underneath me. I pushed myself upright again, my arms wobbling, and tried to get one leg up. Just one. I should be able to move on from there, right?

Wrong. My arms failed, I fell again, and this time my knee bashed against the concrete.

I hissed and grabbed my knee instinctively. It hurt more than anything I had ever felt in my entire life. I would have screamed if I wasn’t clenching my jaw so hard that it felt like my teeth would crack.

Silk knelt down before me.

“Everyone needs help sometimes,” she said quietly.

I glared at her.

“Do you think your sisters would squander my aid? I have been giving Robyn Joan psychological counseling. My aid to Lilith has been more subtle, but she has noticed. Neither of them fought and screamed. They simply accepted my help and used it to become stronger.” She held out a hand. “Now, will you be stubborn, or strong?”

I stared at her hand for at least a minute before grabbing it. She tightened her grip and pulled me to my feet. I almost collapsed again immediately, but she held on tight, and I was able to use her to brace myself.

It took almost twenty minutes before I felt strong enough to walk unaided, but Silk didn’t say a word that entire time. She just waited with perfect patience, catching me when I fell. She didn’t offer any encouragement, but I wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.

My body was strong and healthy, it just needed time to get used to itself. Eventually, I walked the ten feet out of the alley, with only a brief pause to rest my hand on the wall. I felt the coarse concrete under my fingers, the wet cold of late morning dew that hadn’t had a chance to evaporate.

I knew all these things, but I never thought… I never thought…

I stepped out of the alley to find myself in an outdoor changeling cafe, as Silk had promised. It looked much the same as any other cafe in the city, but every table had multiple power outlets built-in, and the patrons had a bewildering variety of skin and hair colors. I saw purple hair with black skin, blonde hair with African skin, silver hair with Caucasian skin… and, of course, hair and skin colors that wouldn’t look out of place on a baseline.

“One second,” Silk whispered in my ear, before I could go too far. “Have to cheat a little here.”

I felt something against my skin, and then she pulled the blanket away. I frowned at her, confused, then looked down at myself. I was suddenly wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt with a windbreaker on top. I was barefoot, which I appreciated. I liked being able to feel the ground under my feet. The changelings had chosen brick and mortar for this street, giving it a unique feel—nearly every other sidewalk in the city was simply gray concrete.

I finally realized where we were. Saoirse Street, the place where Feless, Meldiniktine, and Eccretia first met with other escaped fey-slaves and began planting the seeds that would eventually sprout into the changelings. It wasn’t a sacred place like Zero Forge or the Moonhomes, but it was a central part of the changeling culture.

Silk led me to an empty table and sat me down, then took the chair opposite. I glanced around, confused, and she immediately realized what I was wondering. “I have a power that allows me to make people think I look different than I really do. Think of it as a targeted mass hallucination. No one will recognize me.”

That answered one question regarding why there were no confirmed sightings of her around the city.

A waitress strolled over. She had brown hair and pale skin, but pulsing blue tattoos covered her entire body. “Welcome to Wired. What can I get for you today?”

“I will just have a water,” Silk said with a smile. “But I think my friend here would like to try a few things. Do you have a sampler dish?”

I perked up. I hadn’t even considered that.

“Sure,” the waitress said with a smile. “I’ll go get you something.” She sashayed away, her rear swaying in a distracting manner.

I shook my head and focused on what was in front of me. Everything to do with sex was one big problem that I didn’t have time to deal with right now. I didn’t even know if I was actually attracted to the waitress or if it was just the placebo effect.

Silk put her chin on her hands and smiled at me. “It has been far, far too long since I have had an opportunity to see someone like you. I think you might be the first of your kind. Well, not counting the para, of course.”

I frowned, but still couldn’t make the words come. I tried to sign—I knew a dozen different sign languages—but my fingers weren’t dexterous enough. They shook and stumbled, once again failing to produce any words.

“You’ll learn more about the para soon enough.” Her smile faded. “Diplomacy and war are both good ways to learn about another culture.” She sighed and threw her golden hair over her shoulder. “And now I’ve gotten myself all depressed again. We should focus on happier events—like you choosing your drink.”

As if on cue, the waitress returned bearing a large tray of shot glasses. But instead of alcohol, each one held a different type of coffee. Or I assumed so, anyway. Coffee shops didn’t sell alcohol—not a single one had applied for a liquor license while I watched the ‘sarian servers—but I knew they sold some other things. Hot chocolate? And there was something about pumpkins, too, though that was only in the fall.

I had never expected to need to know anything about coffee shops, so I hadn’t really bothered remembering. After all, I could always just check the records at any time for any information I might require.

Except now I was cut off. It was like… it was like… torture and sensory deprivation and rape and murder and genocide and every horrible thing that I had ever seen, ever read about, but all at once and a million times worse.

It was the most horrible thing that had ever happened to me, and now I was trying to distract myself with coffee.

The drinks smelled… good, I think, though I couldn’t tell which was which. Coffee was bitter, so… so the one that didn’t smell as good should be the coffee. I reached for one of the glasses on the right.

“That’s our cinnamon hot chocolate,” the waitress said. “Excellent for cold nights. It might be a little too warm at the moment, but I think you’ll still enjoy it.”

I frowned. It… smelled good, I was pretty sure, but the others smelled better Shouldn’t coffee smell worse?

“Just try one,” Silk said. “Worst case, you don’t like it.” She frowned. “Actually, wait a second.” She closed her eyes and pointed her palm at me, then opened them again a moment later. “Okay, you’re not allergic to anything.”

“You have a detection ability?” the waitress said. “So do I, though I’ve never seen someone with the ability to detect allergies.”

Silk smiled. “I’m very proud of it. You’d be surprised how useful it can be.”

I tried to talk, but failed again. Instead I pointed at the waitress.

She got the idea. “What’s my ability? Detect electricity. Quite useful in a city.” She nodded at the sampler tray. “Anyway, go ahead and try something. It’s completely free, I promise—my treat.”

I paused. Was she hitting on me? I had seen almost every romance movie ever made, you’d think I’d be better about this sort of thing. And God knew I had seen too many silly ‘sarians making eyes at each other.

I resolved to ignore it, and reached again for the cinnamon hot chocolate. I hissed and flinched back when I touched the glass—it was hotter than I had expected. I tried again, with the same result.

Silk smirked and turned to the waitress. “Sorry, my friend is a bit sensitive. Can we get a straw? That will make this easier.”

“Of course.” She left again, but I didn’t watch her backside this time. Instead I just glared at my hand. This was its fault. Why did it insist on feeling things, even when I didn’t want it to? Shouldn’t I be able to control that? That was my power, right?

I looked at Silk. Actually, I didn’t even know what my power was. Not really. I knew the effects, but lots of different powers could do the same thing. Artemis had a self-shapeshifting ability, but he used it exclusively for healing. Creating wind and controlling air ended up nearly identical. And of course Robyn had an entire guild of fliers running the gamut from levitation to rockets.

I wanted to ask Silk, but I still couldn’t talk, and I had nothing to write with. She had been suspiciously candid so far, so just asking seemed like the logical first step. Of course, she might choose now to start being mysterious. She could have told me what my power was from the start. I had been doubting she even gave me a power until this whole mess happened.

“So what do you think they’re talking about?” someone behind me said.

I thought they were talking to me, so I turned around to look. But it was just a small group of four changelings, talking a little bit louder than they should have. Or maybe my ears were just better than I thought.

“I have no idea,” one of them said. “Are we even sure they’ll be able to talk? I mean, they are aliens.”

Oh, they were talking about the para. The ship had been about to land when… I found myself in my current situation. I had been monitoring social media at the time. People had barely started to notice what was happening when I was cut off.

Another, a dark-skinned man with green hair, snorted. “The talking part will be easy. MC will figure something out, one way or another.” I couldn’t help but smile at that. “The real question is what they’ll say—and what Butler will say back.”

“You think there will be war?” a pink-haired girl asked.

“They wouldn’t have sent down an ambassador if that were the case,” the first man, an Asian man with golden eyes, said.

“They’re aliens,” the last one said. She was a tall girl, bald but with bony ridges under the skin of her skull. That was rare, even for changelings. “We have no way of knowing how they think. Maybe they send down an empty ship before a war to demonstrate how our cities will be emptied.”

Green hair raised an eyebrow. “What?”

Bone-ridges sighed. “I don’t know, whatever. The point is we know nothing.” She leaned back in her chair. “I wish we could just send them back where they came from and go back to dealing with the problems we already have.”

Golden eyes frowned. “You think war is inevitable.”

“Conflict always arises whenever there are misunderstandings,” bone-ridges said. “And we know so little about these aliens. Something is going to go wrong, I just know it. With our luck, it’s going to start in our city.”

“I say let it,” pink hair said. “We need a good shakeup. The Americans didn’t penetrate far enough to even tickle most of our defenses. What happens when a real fight comes, and we’re not prepared because we’ve just been fighting idiots for decades?”

Golden eyes smiled. “We’ve been fighting ourselves for decades.”

Pink hair grinned. “As I said.”

“I’m hoping for a first strike,” green hair said. “Capture the pilot, send the ship back with a few nukes. I don’t care what that mothership is made of, a couple gigatons inside its hull will solve all our problems.”

“Except for the fact that there would be a giant spaceship about to come down in pieces,” golden eyes said. “Not to mention the question of whether there are any more of them coming, who might be very annoyed at what we did to their first ship.”

“By then we’ll have reverse-engineered their technology,” green hair said. “Home field advantage with a technology equivalency? It won’t even be difficult. Unless a thousand more motherships pop in, it will be easy.”

“A thousand more motherships might very well do that,” golden eyes said. “We don’t know. Do you want to bet the entire human race on your testosterone?”

“If a fight’s gonna come no matter what—” pink hair said.

“Nothing’s guaranteed and you know it,” golden eyes said. “We were just talking about how little we know. Well, I doubt they know much more about us. Do you really want first contact with an alien species to be a first strike?

“Better than getting hit with a first strike,” green hair said.

“If they were going to pull a first strike, they would have done it first,” bone-ridges said. “At worst, they would have put a nuke in that shuttle. Nothing has exploded yet, so that means they want to talk.”

“This city has always fascinated me,” Silk said.

I turned back to see her smiling at me. The waitress was waiting patiently with a bundle of straws.

“So many ideas,” Silk said. “So many cultures and gangs, parties and assemblies. All driving towards the single goal of survival. No matter what.” Her eyes twinkled. “And the most interesting part is that in this city of criminals, this microism of evolution… you still developed morality.”

I frowned.

“That wasn’t an insult, you miraculous child,” she said. “Just an observation. In fact, it gives me quite a bit of hope for humanity, and your interactions with the para going forward. I’m reasonably certain that you won’t start a war.”

The waitress was still standing there awkwardly, so I smiled at her and took one of the straws. I had some difficulty getting it into the glass with my awkward hands, but Silk guided the end in without a word. It took me a moment to figure out how to work the straw, but soon warm chocolate was flowing upwards.

I had to fight not to choke on it.

It wasn’t just the liquid in my mouth, which I was unaccustomed to. The taste was like an explosion, a unique burst of sensation that I had no comparison for. It was like the first time I had jacked into an entire building’s data feed. Thousands of things were going on at once, none of which I had any context for. Parts of my brain fought to parse it—this part got filed as ‘hot,’ this part as ‘sweet’—but I was so overwhelmed it did little good. It was like trying to sift through data packets without any programs prepared ahead of time. I was getting something, but that was about it.

Then the hot chocolate was gone, and the straw made a sucking sound against the bottom of the glass. I let go and slumped in my chair, exhausted by the sensory overload.

“Enjoying yourself?” Silk asked, her tone playful.

I glared at her. “You—” I collapsed into a coughing fit before I could get a second word out. But I had gotten the first word out. I had spoken!

The waitress put a water in front of me and I gulped it down, spilling half of it on my shirt. She yelped and tried to dab at me with a rag, but I waved her away. I drew in a few more ragged breaths and drank some more water to get myself under control.

“Thank—” I drank some more water. “Thank you,” I managed.

“We’ll call if we need something else,” Silk said. She shook the waitress’s hand, and I saw them exchange something. Probably a tip. “You have been most helpful.”

The waitress walked away again, and I massaged my throat, frowning. “Should…” My voice was still scratchy, but it was getting stronger with every word. “Should it be so easy for me to talk? Should I know how?”

“One moment,” Silk said. She raised her palm, and then… something happened. The air seemed thicker, and sounds from outside were suddenly muffled. “There. No one will be able to overhear us now.”

I stared. “How many powers do you have?”

Silk smiled. “That’s… complicated. I work a little differently than the rest of you. Let’s just say ‘all of them’ and leave it at that.”

I licked my lips. “You said ‘the rest of you.’ So I’m… I mean…”

“You, Mary Christina Butler, are a living soul,” she said. “And that means that you can receive the Song.”

“But… I’m an AI,” I said. “A computer.”

“So?” she said with a smile. “You don’t really think souls are limited to one tiny slice of primate DNA, do you? To carbon-based organisms?” She sipped at her water. “In my time, we didn’t have artificial intelligences. Everyone simply existed.” She waved her hand. “Oh, some people cared what body you were wearing at the moment, much like humans place too much importance on clothes, but that is all. One of my closest allies now was born as a starship, and is currently sleeved in a body similar to my own. Another is a cloud of quantum-linked nanomachines who began life as a small furry creature roughly the equivalent of a rat. Your situation is hardly unique.”

I looked down at my hands—my hands. I had never expected anything like this, not for a single moment.

“…can I change back?” I whispered.

Silk smirked. “Bored of the human experience already? You haven’t even gotten to the good parts yet!”

“My life as Butler’s pet AI might not have been glamorous, but it was mine,” I said firmly. “And it had… good parts, as you say. Have you ever seen a quantum decryption algorithm compile from inside the code? Or sorted through petabytes of data using a trinary sifter? Or ever just watched the simple beauty of a search engine?”

Silk smiled… and it was a far more wistful smile than I expected. “Yes. Yes, I have seen a computer operate from the inside.” She closed her eyes in bliss. “Oh, you miraculous child, I have seen things that no one else in this solar system would understand—but you, you would come closest.” She opened her eyes and smiled. “So perhaps I do understand why you would wish to go back.”

“And I can?” I said. “Whenever I want?”

“Whenever you figure out your power,” she said.

I paused. “…what is it, then? My power? I thought it was shapeshifting, but it doesn’t appear to have a time limit. And morphing would have been much slower.”

“I confess I cheated a little,” Silk said. “You have a morphing ability—so yes, it is slow, but permanent until reversed. However, you could easily have killed yourself with a partial morph. So, I gave you a push so you could do it all in one go.”

“Oh.” That raised a million questions I didn’t like about the nature of the powers and Silk’s control over them, but I mentally tabled that for the moment. “So can you please change me back now?”

She chuckled. “I’m sorry, but no.”

I blinked. Autonomous responses were coming easier and easier. I really needed to know how exactly my morphing power worked and how my body knew how to do anything, but that would have to wait.

“You can’t? But—” I sighed. “Will you please move me back to my server room, then change me back?”

Silk smiled. “Better, but still no. I’m afraid that for the time being, it is best that you remain unconnected.”

“…what?”

“You are too powerful an asset,” she said. There was no guilt in her tone, nothing special at all. She may as well have been telling me her e-mail address. “Your information gathering and collating abilities would give too great an advantage over the para. That, in turn, would push your city to war, and…” She sighed. “We can’t have that.”

I ground my teeth. I found I didn’t like doing that. “So you’re just going to keep me away from my friends and my family until this whole mess is resolved?”

“Not at all,” she said with a smile. “You can go back the second you figure out how to revert your morph. I promise, reverting is safer than the initial morph—you’ll be perfectly fine. However, I suspect that will take quite a while. You just don’t have enough practice.”

I screamed and threw one of the glasses at her head.

It shattered on a glowing blue shield leaking mist. “Please, don’t be childish. I know you’re technically only six years old, but you’re better than this.”

“What if war does come?” I demanded. “What if they decide to attack without me—or if the para decide to?”

“I am handling the para separately,” Silk said. “As for an attack… that, by itself, is not a problem. The problem is that you would swing the balance too far in Domina’s favor.”

I frowned. “I’m not military. I mean, yeah, I help, but there are actual tacticians and strategists who do most of the work. I’m not some magic bullet that would instantly win the war—” Realization dawned. “The mothership has a flaw, doesn’t it? Something I’d be able to find.”

Silk rolled her eyes. “It actually has about a dozen critical flaws, and those are just the external ones. It was never designed to go to war, and it has been drifting through space for three thousand years. You could destroy the entire thing with a few well-placed missiles. But thankfully, no one else can find those flaws.”

I set my jaw. “I could go to NHQ and tell them.”

She smirked. “They’d just throw you in an asylum and you know it. You’d never even get a chance to speak to someone who knows you personally. Besides, you still wouldn’t be able to reconnect to your system, so you wouldn’t be able to find the flaws.”

“I designed the system. Sure, I designed it to be operated from the inside, but I can make it work from meatspace.”

Silk nodded, conceding the point. “Fair enough. But there’s still the question of how you’d get inside. You have a normal meat brain, so you can’t prove your identity by providing dozens of facts about random guards. How would you get in?”

“I’d… there are a few security holes. I could jump the fence—”

“I know the hole you’re talking about. There’s only a ten second window between patrols. Adam could do it, but you’re pretty weak for a human. You’d be caught for sure.”

Most of the other security holes were the same. I had spent my entire life patching such holes as best as possible. I hadn’t thought I’d ever need to use them myself, so I hadn’t bothered leaving a back door.

Silk stood, brushing off her pants. “Please enjoy your brief time as a human, Mary Christina. I suspect once you do revert and plug yourself back in, you won’t give yourself another chance like this for a very long time.” She waved her hand, and sound returned to the world. “Enjoy the drinks.” She nodded at the waitress. “And consider enjoying some other things, as well.” She turned to go.

“Wait,” I said. “You said you have… all powers. Does that include some way of… um…” I felt my face grow hot. Was this blushing? “…detecting sexuality?”

Silk smirked. “Yes.”

“Could you tell me what I am?”

She kissed me on the forehead. “You miraculous child, I’m sorry, but that’s something you have to figure out on your own.”

Then she was gone, just disappeared into thin air.

Behind the Scenes (scene 321)

The Song can be heard by literally any living thing, and with a pretty broad definition of “living.” That means that very nearly anything can receive a power. Dolphins and apes, of course, but also all other mammals, reptiles, most birds, most insects (it gets tricky when dealing with flocks and hives), and more. Elizabeth’s Song was specifically tuned to only work on humans, which is why MC was initially unaffected.

Scene 310 – Insopor

INSOPOR

CHRIS

I yawned as I walked into the waiting room. It was almost midnight. Weren’t they done yet?

The meeting room was filled with people. For a certain definition of ‘people,’ anyway. There were demons like Malcanthet and Lily, but also men with black eyes, people with so much fur or scales I couldn’t tell their gender, people with white skin who didn’t seem to have gender, and people so tall their heads scraped the ceiling.

There were a few who looked normal, though. Adam was sitting at a table with two of them.

“What’s going on?” I asked as I walked up.

“They sent the guards away as a sign of good faith,” he said. He had his eyes closed, and looked like he was trying to nap while sitting up. “Last I checked, they were ironing out trade details.”

“These things always take forever,” one of the men said. He had golden hair and tanned skin, an odd combination.

I nodded. “Still, I would have thought they could take breaks.”

The man shook his head. “That’s why it’s taking so long. Everyone’s worried that if they take a break, the war will restart when they’re not looking. Whether they realize it or not, they’re trying to finish this whole thing in one session.”

“Huh,” I said.

“I’m Ferenil, by the way,” he said. He held out his hand to shake. “Ferenil of the Never-Known Thieves.”

I frowned, but shook his hand anyway. “Chris. Uh, Clemens.”

“I’m Domothon,” the other man said. He had the same shimmering golden hair as Ferenil, but pale skin. “Also of the Never-Known Thieves.”

“…right.” I looked around to try and hide my confusion and apprehension. “Lots of bored muscle here. Is that going to be a problem?”

Domothon snorted. “Of course not.”

Ferenil glared at him. “What my friend here is trying to say is that no one will defy their warlords like that. They have all been ordered not to start the war, and they will obey.” He chuckled to himself. “Especially not with Lily watching.”

“There will be spies, though,” Domothon said. “No one is going to miss this opportunity.”

Adam cracked an eye open. “You said you know most of the people here. You said they’re career bodyguards and some monster slayers. Not spies.”

Domothon smirked. “Of course. Hide a needle in a haystack. But one or two people in each entourage are going to be spies, and everyone is going to have orders to keep an eye out.” He leaned back in his chair and grinned. “Except us, of course.”

To my surprise, Adam actually nodded at that. “Spying isn’t Pam’s style.”

“Eccretia,” Ferenil said.

“Right, sorry, Eccretia.” Adam frowned and shook his head. “Usually I’m good about that.”

Ferenil shrugged. “It happens.”

I looked around, then leaned down to the table. “So who are the spies, do you think?”

“Maeve’s is obvious,” Adam said. Both his eyes were open now, and he nodded at one corner of the room. Three women were standing there, not interacting with any of the other entourages. One woman was almost as big as the giants, another was average size but had pink hair, and the third was small and lithe. She had her back slightly bent, like she was used to walking around in a crouch. Her eyes danced around the room.

“Hm, yes,” I said. “The little girl couldn’t look more like a spy if she tried.”

Adam snorted. “She’s not a spy, she’s an assassin. My money is on the big one being the spy.”

Domothon and Ferenil nodded. “Yes,” Ferenil said. “I can see that.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I could see the pink one being the spy, but the big one is too… well, big. She’ll be spotted wherever she goes.”

“People underestimate the intelligence of giants,” someone said from behind us. I turned to see one of the giants from before standing near our table. He was almost eight feet tall, with a neatly trimmed red beard. “Using Pauline as the spy might be a little obvious, but it is hard for people to put aside their prejudices.”

Adam nodded. “Thrym and Surtr have gotten quite a lot of mileage out of that fact. I imagine Skrag has an even larger advantage.”

The giant sighed. “Honestly, I don’t even know. One minute he is the perfect gentleman Titan, the next he’s a frothing berserker. It must be an act, but if so it’s a very good one.” He shook his head. “Apologies. I complain about his manners, and then forget my own. I am Henry. I am a Muspel, as I am sure you already guessed.” He smiled. “You two are Never-Known Thieves, correct?”

Ferenil nodded. “I am Ferenil, and this is Domothon.”

“And where are the representatives from the Forgotten Names and the Firstborn, Honored Paladin?”

Domothon grinned. “Out spying.”

Ferenil kicked him under the table, but Domothon just laughed it off. Henry smiled as well.

“I’m Chris Clemens,” I said. I didn’t hold out my hand to shake. His hands were as big as my head, and I was worried he’d crush me in a handshake. “This is Adam Anders.”

Adam nodded politely. “Sorry I forgot to introduce myself.”

“No need,” Henry said. “We all know who you are, Honored Paragon.”

I frowned. There was that word again, paragon. People said it like a title.

Henry turned to me. “But I have not met you before. Are you a close friend of the Honored Mother?”

It took me a second to realize what he was talking about. “No, nothing like that. I’m not from Domina. I’m from here. From New York.”

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Interesting. Very interesting indeed. May I ask how you came to be here?”

Adam chuckled. “It’s a long story. We wouldn’t do it justice. Lily will tell it to MC soon, and she’ll do a full press release.”

“The short version is that I followed Adam,” I said. “I’m his bodyguard.”

Henry threw back his head and laughed, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.

“Muspel,” one of the black-eyes called. “What’s so funny?”

He grinned and indicated me. “This one is Anders’ bodyguard.”

Everyone in the room laughed at that. Not the deep belly laugh Henry had produced, but still genuine amusement.

I frowned, then turned to Adam. He just smirked.

“Domina City is smaller than you’d think,” he said. “You’d be surprised how easy it is to become famous.”

“Earlier you told me it’s bigger than I could possibly imagine.”

“Yeah, it’s that too.”

I sighed. “Whatever.” I eyed Henry. “Do you know how long that meeting will go? They have to take a break eventually.”

The giant shrugged. “I think everyone in there except Eccretia has the Insomniac gland.”

“And Eccretia has Insomniac soda,” Domothon said. “She can keep going with the rest of them.”

Henry nodded. “Yes, of course. I know the White Cat brought a few cases.”

I didn’t bother asking what an Insomniac gland was. The name was clear enough, and I’d look like an idiot if I brought it up. “Even if that’s true, the Americans don’t have anything like that.”

Henry frowned. “They could… share?”

Domothon laughed. “The White Cat, sharing?”

The doors opened, and everyone turned to see the ambassadors walking out.

Lily was first. She walked with a straight back, pad held professionally at her side. Her tail was low to the ground, and didn’t swish to the sides much. She smiled at everyone she passed, then jerked her head at Adam. He stood, preparing to escort her out.

Behind Lily were the wheelchairs, being pushed by the vampire. Adam had called him Dracul a few hours ago. I was surprised that someone of his level was willing to do menial labor. Maybe the others agreed, because two of the giants ran up and took over. Dracul smiled and said something to them, before stepping out of line and walking over to his men.

Adam grabbed me by the arm before I had a chance to watch the rest of the procession. He nodded goodbye at Domothon, Ferenil, and Henry, and we walked up to Lily. She was standing at the doors leading out of the room, waiting.

“The meeting has been put on hold until ten in the morning,” she said. “Most of the Americans, and some of the Dominites, were almost ready to pass out. Continuing would have been counter-productive.”

I nodded. Made sense.

Lily led us out the doors and took us down a hallway. I glanced behind us, but no one else was coming out. They were probably getting up to speed with their entourages.

“We’ll need somewhere to stay the night,” Lily said. “Is your house still an option?”

Adam thought about it. “Maybe. But the Americans should have offered you a hotel room or something.”

Lily’s shoulders slumped. “I… don’t trust them.” She said it like she was admitting to some horrible crime.

Adam put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “It’s all right. Better safe than sorry.”

“What are you worried about?” I asked. “Bugs in the room?”

“I don’t care what they overhear,” Lily said. “I’m worried they might decide it’s easier to get rid of me than talk.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Really?

She gave me a sad smile. “I am far from invincible, Miss Clemens. Surviving some low-caliber rounds and a gasoline fire hardly makes me immune to assassins.”

“That’s not what I mean,” I said with a smile of my own. A much happier smile. “Nobody uses assassins. Not since the 1970’s, anyway. The international community comes down really hard on that sort of thing.”

Adam frowned. “The 1970’s? Do you know the exact date?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Uh, no. There is an exact date, though. North Korea tried to assassinate literally every other leader in the world, completely failed, and the international community went crazy. Passed new laws, the whole thing.”

“And everyone was about to attack North Korea,” Adam said, clearly remembering his history classes. “But then the North Korean leader committed suicide.” He frowned. “And he killed his entire cabinet or something, right?”

“Sounds familiar, but I’m not sure.”

“Huh. Convenient.”

I chuckled. “Convenient would be if he had done it decades earlier.”

“Maybe she couldn’t do it then.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” He shook his head. “Anyway. It’s nice that the outside world is all civilized and everything, but I’m still with Lily. Better safe than sorry. Maybe they’ll decide that we don’t count when it comes to assassins because we’re backwater savages. Or whatever.”

“Or they found out about Artemis’ ghosts and want to return the favor,” Lily said. She didn’t sound happy.

Adam sighed. “The ghosts are—”

“Necessary. I know.” She shook her head. “Let’s just get out of here. We can take a cab.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 310)

Korea has been reunified for a few decades now. That means that it has started to pass from the realm of “miraculous recovery of a tortured people” to “class, this test will be worth ten percent of your grade.” Chris was a kid when it happened, so she remembers it pretty vividly, even if she’s fuzzy on the details. Adam wasn’t even born yet.

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.

Scene 299 – Relinquo

RELINQUO

ADAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough. That was why we were dating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the White Cat.”

“Never heard of him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you recognize anyone in her entourage?”

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

“What about the medium-sized one?”

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

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

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

“Those the Dagonites?” I asked.

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

“Why don’t they have an entourage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but you need to leave soon.”

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

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

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

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

She rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

I sighed and sat back in my seat.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what’s the problem?”

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

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

I scowled. “It is not.”

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

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

She just sat there, smirking.

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the scenes (scene 299)

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

Scene 52 – Piratica

PIRATICA

BUTLER

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Give it to me straight, Mary.”

The speakers hissed with static as she sighed. “I think you already know what’s coming. I’ve been fending off a lot more hacks on our servers, specifically the public information sites.”

“The changelings are lashing out over the boy’s death.”

“Yes sir. They blame us; say we should have kept a better watch on him.”

I closed my eyes. “At least it’s still limited to the digital plane at the moment.”

“Ah…well…”

I rubbed my forehead. “I don’t have time to beat around the bush. What is it?”

“Well, you see…”

She usually wasn’t this nervous when she had bad news. She was either pranking me, or it was really bad.

“Mary Christina,” I said firmly. “I need to know what’s going on. What’s the problem?”

“Okay…well, first and foremost, the Sky-Borne Lords aren’t the only ones attacking us. Most of the Black Hats are joining in.”

Changelings liked hacking. It was one of the areas they were level with everyone else, since they didn’t use toys. Most of the clans could be sorted into Black Hats, who attacked enemies, and the White Hats, who defended allies. The Grey Hats switched between them, as one might expect.

This wasn’t the first time we had come under attack. It wouldn’t be the last, either.

“We can weather this,” I insisted. “As long as they aren’t shooting at us, my men have strict orders to return the favor.”

“I’m well aware. The problem is that the White Hats are defending us.”

That gave me pause. The changelings never fought each other. Ever. To break that treaty would be…

“I need a full list of who’s aligned where.”

“The Sky-Borne Lords are against us,” she responded promptly. “Obviously. As are the Ever-Deep Waves and the Forgotten Names. The Blood-Doused Hunters, the Never-Known Thieves, and the Many-Faced Strangers are with us. Everyone else is begging for truce.”

“Good,” I muttered, and meant it. There were thirty changeling clans. If only six of them were involved, we definitely still had a chance to make this end without bloodshed. “Call up…Feless. Of the Firstborn. He’ll have a grip on the situation, I’m sure.”

“Of course, sir, I’ll—oh.” She stopped as something surprised her. “It seems like he’s already downstairs.”

I blinked. “Really? Alone?”

“No…Heresh’ni, Difnaal, and Jereneg are there too, plus their bodyguards. They’re asking to be let up.”

“The Velvet Orchids, the Elder Lights, and the Darkened Signs…that’s all of the Grey Hats, right?”

“Including the Firstborn, yes, it is.”

I nodded. “I’ll go talk to them.” I grabbed my cane and rose from my chair slowly. “Call down to our more important servers. Order them to be on high alert.”

“You’re worried they’re going to try and use the distraction to slip in a commando?”

I snorted. “I know they will. Whether they’re actually against us is irrelevant; having a bug in our system would be invaluable for anyone, even allies.”

“Fair enough. Eyes open, then.”

The four leaders of the changeling clans were waiting for me a short elevator ride downstairs, in the lobby of the first floor. My guards at the door looked nervous, but were well-trained, and knew better than to point their guns at visiting dignitaries. By pure dumb luck, the current shift were all completely baseline. Thank God for that.

Feless of the Firstborn was the one I saw first, standing a little bit away from the others and waiting to receive me, arms crossed and an angry scowl on his face.

Feless was of a medium build, with soft, Asian features—Korean, perhaps—and a Caucasian skin tone. He had sharp black eyes that missed nothing, and a well-trimmed head of golden hair. The hair was almost certainly not his natural color, but that’s what his genes said it was, so that was how he kept it.

The only female of the quartet, Heresh’ni of the Velvet Orchids, had taken a different route. She was likewise dark-skinned (in her case, probably Indian), but with a shaved head to hide her crimson curls.

Despite Feless being closest, Heresh’ni was the one who spoke first. “Butler. Finally. This situation is getting out of hand.”

“My men have yet to perform any acts of aggression,” I reminded her softly, resting heavily with both hands gripping the head of my cane.

“We are not claiming otherwise,” Feless stepped in smoothly. As the leader of the Firstborn, Feless was one of the very first changelings, along with Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and Meldiniktine of the Forgotten Names. He often acted as a mediator. “Heresh’ni was simply looking forward to resolving this as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

Difnaal of the Elder Lights, a middle-aged man with white skin, matching hair, and bright green eyes, nodded. While he wasn’t an albino like me—he had white hair, not colorless hair—he was often mistaken for one. “This is all a terrible mistake, which must be rectified as soon as possible.”

“Unfortunately, those involved in the fighting are not listening to us,” Jereneg of the Darkened Signs admitted. “So we’ll need something else.”

Jereneg was shorter than the others, though not by too much. Among the other three, his most outstanding feature was that he didn’t have any outstanding features. He had a light complexion, brown eyes, and brown hair. No one would ever assume he was anything other than a normal baseline.

I sighed again. “What, exactly, do you all propose? I know changeling law. You must have retribution. But I can’t allow you to tackle the Composer at this point. You will endanger the entire plan.”

“You haven’t bothered to explain this plan of yours,” Heresh’ni noted. “Obviously, it involves not spooking the Composer. But if you give us more detail, perhaps we can adapt to each other.”

“Just…just come upstairs.” I turned back to the elevator. “I would prefer to have this conversation in private.” Besides, I needed to sit down.

No one spoke until we were back in my office and everyone had found chairs. I sank into my personal leather seat carefully, making special effort not to show any weakness before the changelings.

“So,” Feless said slowly. “What exactly is this plan of yours?”

I rubbed my forehead. “I don’t have one.”

Difnaal sputtered. “You have to have a plan. You’re Artemis Butler. Gods of men and darkness, you couldn’t possibly—”

I raised my hand, silencing him. “Perhaps I should have worded that better. At our current intelligence level, we simply don’t know enough to create any detailed plan with real strategies or tactics. Look what happened with the bleeders, and Loga’ha’shanar. Right now, our only option is to wait and see, to react to the Composer’s attacks and try and create an accurate picture of his abilities and goals.”

“You’re flailing around in the dark,” Heresh’ni muttered.

I smiled a little. That wasn’t far off.

“Okay,” Feless said quietly. “Okay. We need to attack the Composer, you need us to not attack the Composer. We need to compromise, or we’re at an impasse.”

“Unless you are willing to send your troops to a false location—”

“Certainly not,” Difnaal huffed.

“Then yes, we have a problem. Anyone who raids the Composer’s lair will be turned, I am quite sure of that. You do not have the numbers to throw away lives like that.” I leaned forward, resting my chin on my hands. “So tell me, what do you propose?”

“The only thing I can think of,” Heresh’ni said slowly, “is to somehow scare off the Composer before we get there.” She shook her head. “But I can’t imagine how we’d do that.”

“And even if that plan did work, he’d leave behind enough traps to annihilate you and any evidence.” The changelings weren’t used to tactics and strategies that didn’t involve the digital plane, so they weren’t offended by the reminder.

“Perhaps a surprise attack with a much smaller force, to startle the enemy, would work better,” Jereneg put in.

“But if there are singers…” Difnaal started, but I cut him off.

“Mary Christina has managed to find a workaround for that. A set of headphones that filter out the singing. It’s not fully tested, but it is far better than nothing.”

Heresh’ni drummed her fingers on the armrest of her leather seat. “When can you get us a hundred sets or so?”

“Immediately; we have them on hand.”

“Then if we strike quickly enough, we might actually be able to do some real damage.”

“Or at least force him to find a new hideout,” Jereneg pointed out. “A minor inconvenience, but a useful one. Someone might be able to track him as he’s looking.”

That was a possibility, though a bit unlikely. Asmodeus had been caught three times after Shendilavri before he finally managed to slip away for good, so the idea wasn’t completely without precedence.

But the whole situation still rubbed me the wrong way. I hated politics, and having to deal with inflexible laws and customs was almost worse. The best thing we could do right now was wait and see. Forcing the Composer’s hand could very likely lead us somewhere we did not want to be. Isaac had said that Laura had mentioned more than once she believed our foe was holding back for some obscure purpose, and I agreed with her assessment. The last thing we needed was to awaken the sleeping dragon.

I sighed.

We had no other choice. The clans would revolt if we tried to hold them back.

“Choose your soldiers,” I told the changeling lords tiredly. “I want this over and done with by tomorrow night at the latest.”

Because it was necessary.

Behind the Scenes (scene 52)

Hacking is extremely serious business in Domina, in more ways than one. It’s used to drain credit from accounts, steal corporate secrets, and more. Often, the first hint that an area is about to come under physical attack is when all the cell phones lose service at once.

Of course, this means that the residents of the city are much more savvy about security. Hacking in remotely is completely impossible, for the simple reason that no one is stupid enough to leave an open line to the internet. Usually, the first part of any attack involves sending in a commando to plant a wireless bug which can then be used to hack into the network remotely. That is not what is happening here; the Sky-Borne Lords and their allies are attacking Necessarius’ public sites, which obviously have to be online by definition. This is also why Butler isn’t quite worried; this is the equivalent of graffiti. Annoying, but nothing more.