Tag Archives: Chris Clemens

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.

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Scene 308 – Reverentia

REVERENTIA

CHRIS

I sat on the back bumper of an ambulance as the police led people away.

There had to be a couple dozen cop cars, surrounding the building completely. There were also SWAT vans, firefighters, news crews, the whole deal. I wasn’t sure exactly what Malcanthet’s people were being arrested for. Conspiracy? Drug abuse? For all I knew there was even some treason mixed in there.

The police had cordoned off the area, keeping the crowd of rubberneckers at bay. I didn’t even look at them. Adam had given me a job: Guard this ambulance. So while I looked like I was just sitting around like another victim, I was actually keeping an eye on anyone who got too close.

Lily was in this ambulance, crying her eyes out.

I still didn’t know what had happened. Not exactly. Either Lily was a lot older than she looked, or Malcanthet was just crazy and thought she was her mother. Since Malcanthet had lit them both on fire, I was leaning more towards the second explanation.

On fire…

I glanced briefly in the back of the ambulance. Lily’s clothes were gone, but the paramedics had given her some new ones. Other than that, she was physically unharmed. There was some ash in her hair, but that was it.

She just sat there, sobbing. Weeping for a woman who would have killed us all or worse.

I sighed and turned my attention to outside again. I saw Adam walking over, leading a small Asian girl by the arm. She was glowering, but made no attempt to run. Her hands were in front of her, covered in a blanket. I recognized that trick. She must be handcuffed underneath.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“Saki,” he said. “The one we were looking for, my friend’s niece.” He frowned at the chaos and destruction surrounding us. “I have half a mind to blame all this on her.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

He sighed. “No. She wanted to make an alliance, but she got captured instead. She’s just another of Malcanthet’s victims.”

She spit in his face.

He wiped it away but didn’t otherwise react. “Anyway, local prisons won’t be able to hold her. The Dominites will handle her, and then transfer her back to the city as soon as possible.”

“Why isn’t she saying anything?” I asked. “Does she not speak English?”

Saki glared at me. Adam smiled. “She does, but she’s mute. It’s a long story. We need to—oh. There you are.”

A Dominite had walked up. He was instantly recognizable by the small red horns growing out of his forehead. As far as I could tell, that was his only modification. Once he was sure we knew who he was, he put on a hat. He probably didn’t want to cause a riot.

“Sir,” he said to Adam. “The Power sent me.”

Adam nodded. “Yes, he called ahead. It’s not just you, right?”

The… demon pointed at a van just outside the police cordon. “Four more hellions ready and waiting, sir.”

“Good. You’ve been briefed on what she can do?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Even better.” Adam pushed Saki lightly by the shoulder. She stumbled into the demon’s arms, then glared at Adam. “Her bracelet is still on and working, but be careful all the same. You got a CS device in your van?”

“No, sir.”

Adam frowned, then reached past me into the ambulance. He pulled out a backpack I hadn’t seen there before. It was the same one he had been wearing when we picked him up from the airport. “Use this one. You know how it works?”

The demon nodded. “Honored Sargeras made us disassemble and reassemble them until we could do it blindfolded.”

Adam smirked. “Of course. I need to remember that. Anyway, if either the bracelet or the pack goes down, you shoot Saki.” His eyes were hard, and his smirk was gone. “No hesitation. Right between the eyes.”

The demon looked disturbed. “I—all right. But will Dame Akiyama accept that?”

“She understands what is necessary.”

The demon paused. Then he bowed. “As you wish, Honored Paragon.” He left, dragging Saki behind him. She continued glaring at Adam until she was out of sight.

I frowned at Adam. “What was that about?”

“Just helping out a friend,” he said. He smirked. “Akane would kill me if I let her niece run around free in New York.”

“I meant that paragon thing. And the bowing.”

“Oh, that.” He shrugged. “It’s a long story. Basically, people like me.”

I gave him a look. “That’s not ‘people like me.’ That’s…” I shook my head. “I don’t even know what that was. Who even bows these days?”

“It’s more common in Domina,” he said. “Laura says it’s due to influence from Asian immigrants.” He rolled his eyes. “Besides, sometimes the whole damn city feels like a feudal war ground. Lots of lords and ladies and masters and whatnot.”

I sighed and looked towards the building again, and all the people swarming around it like ants. “What’s going to happen to this place?”

Adam shrugged. “Dunno. Lily will probably figure something out. Maybe it will get torn down. She doesn’t like being reminded of Malcanthet.”

“Her… daughter.”

Adam was silent.

I scooted closer and lowered my voice. “Adam, what was all that about? Your girlfriend’s daughter was some insane… I don’t even know what to call her—”

“Hedonist probably works.”

“Sure. But you don’t seem surprised.” He seemed relaxed.

Adam sighed. “I knew about Malcanthet. She’s a boogeyman in Domina. Eat your vegetables or the Succubus Queen will come take you away.” He smirked to himself. “Wonder if her death will stop that kind of thing. Probably not.”

“But Lily—”

“Lily has a lot of daughters,” Adam said. “A lot of sons, too. I knew Malcanthet was one or hers.”

I glanced back at Lily. She didn’t seem to notice us. “How old is she, anyway?”

“Older than she looks. But not that old. Twenty-six, I think. Thirty at the outside.”

“And how many kids does she have?”

“Somewhere around four hundred million.”

I stared at him.

He smiled back. “It’s a city of orphans, Chris. Everyone wants a mother figure.”

I rubbed my forehead. “I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than her being an actual mother.”

“She is an actual mother,” he said, a bit of an edge creeping into his voice. “She loves every single person in that city. The fact that some of them are older than her doesn’t change the fact that they are her children.”

I didn’t dispute the point. I just sat there, silently, watching Malcanthet’s slaves get processed. There seemed to be no end to them. The police had to call in more cars and vans in order to have any hope of holding them all.

“I’m surprised the guards didn’t put up more of a fight,” I said. “Even if they weren’t drugged, I would have thought enough of them were loyal to make a ruckus.”

Adam stood, frowning.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You!” Adam said, grabbing a random cop.

“Hey, watch it, buddy! You crazy idiots are in enough trouble—”

“I’m one of the people who called you in.”

The cop’s demeanor changed instantly. “Uh, right. Sorry. Thought you were one of the crazies.” He looked at Adam’s hand, which still had any iron grip on his wrist. Adam didn’t let go. “Uh, what did you need?”

“Where are the Malcatari?”

“The what?”

“The guards,” Adam snapped. “Anyone with a gun. Really, anyone who is sober enough to walk in a straight line. I haven’t seen any of them being brought out. What’s going on with them? Are you holding them somewhere separate?”

“I don’t really know—”

Adam shoved him away. “Find out. Now.”

The cop looked a little shocked that a civilian was giving him orders. “What? Uh, okay. So these Mal—Malis—”

“Just ask your war—your boss if the guards are being kept anywhere.”

The cop gave a shaky salute and ran off.

I didn’t say anything. I just watched Adam. The way he moved, the way he gave orders… he wasn’t an amateur. These were things he had done before. He had experience with ordering cops around.

What the hell was going on in that city?

In a few minutes, the cop returned with a lieutenant. She dismissed him with a wave, then stood in front of Adam. She glared at him for a few moments, but to no effect.

“I am Lieutenant Katherine Vine,” she said. “I understand you have some intelligence to offer.”

“The Malcatari are still out there,” Adam said without preamble.

Lieutenant Vine raised an eyebrow. “The guards?”

“Malcanthet’s military,” Adam corrected. “We fought a few. But there were many still alive last I checked. If you haven’t found any, that means they’ve gone to ground.”

“Their leader is dead,” Vine said. “They will fade sooner rather than later.”

Adam shook his head. “When she was still in Domina, Malcanthet’s armies were the most loyal, most highly trained, most well-equipped in the city. If we’re lucky, her standards went down after she fled. But I doubt it. I think you need to consider the worst-case scenario here.”

“Which is?” Lieutenant Vine had an excellent poker face. I had no idea what she thought about Adam’s assertions.

“An angry terrorist force loose in your city,” Adam said. “They’ll know Malcanthet’s recruiting methods. They can kidnap random people, drug them up to the gills, and brainwash them into fighting for them.”

There was a pause.

“That seems a bit implausible to me,” she finally said. “Especially since two untrained kids managed to take out their entire headquarters in about an hour. Do you have any proof that these… Malcatari are anywhere near as dangerous as you say?”

Adam sighed. “No. None that you would believe.”

“Then I believe we have nothing more to talk about.” She turned to go, but patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll keep an eye out. I just think you’re overestimating them.” She walked away without looking back.

Adam shook his head. “These idiots are going to get killed.”

I was disturbed. They couldn’t really be as dangerous as he was saying, right?

He glanced at his watch. “We should probably get going. The meeting was supposed to start an hour ago. They’ll be willing to wait even longer if necessary, of course, but still. I should at least call ahead.” He flipped out his phone.

I frowned. “What meeting? Who are you calling?”

He smiled. “The Dominite ambassadors, of course.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 308)

One thing that doesn’t get brought up a lot, regarding the toy maker, is diminishing returns. Despite all the incredible things it can do, there is a limit to how much you can manipulate the human body. Ten strength buffs are not ten times as effective as one strength buff.

So, for example, Lily has more buffs than many entire cultures put together. But that doesn’t mean she is stronger than those cultures. In terms of raw power, she’s a very powerful warlord—but that’s all. In a fair fight, most warlords would have a low, but reasonable, chance of overpowering her. And that’s not counting things like training, minions, and so on.

I just wanted to make it clear that Lily isn’t some unstoppable juggernaut who can solve any problem by herself. She’s not, and she can’t. And that’s without even getting into her issues with violence.

Also, yes, Adam is technically a warlord at this point. He has no domain, all his men were given to him directly by Necessarius, and he gets paid out of Butler’s pocket. By most definitions, he’d just be an honored, which for baselines is simply called “paladin.” However, people still treat him like a full Paragon due to his actions during the Rampage.

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 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 304 – Custos

CUSTOS

ADAM

“But why would she name her domain that?” I asked. “Or her company, whatever. Why risk being exposed?”

“It’s not much of a risk,” Lily said. We were across the street from Miomanta, at a small cafe. Hopefully they didn’t have any cameras pointed in this direction. “There are less than a dozen people in the world who would recognize that name. Malcanthet, myself, Sargeras, Pale Night, maybe Eisheth Zenunim…” She thought for a second. “Probably Naamah. She was always good at ferreting out secrets.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“If you’re counting the dead, Orcus and Malcanthet’s sister both knew, but I doubt Orcus told Obould—”

“Wait wait,” I said. “Malcanthet has a sister?

“Had,” she corrected. “Xinivrae, the Black Widow. You know her better as Soaring Eagle.”

I sat back, stunned. I hadn’t even considered what Soaring Eagle might have been before she became a kemo. I knew that people often transferred from the demons to another culture, but still.

“Anyway, here.” Lily slid something across the table. It was a small syringe filled with a clear liquid. “You’ll need this if we’re going to face Malcanthet.”

“What is it?”

“Something the Avernans and the Sibriex came up with. Long story short, it turns off your sexuality for about a day.”

I frowned. “It… what? Is that a thing?”

“Yes,” she said. “Sort of. Not really. It’s complicated. Look, the point is that Malcanthet won’t be able to seduce you if you use this.” She thought for a moment. “You might want to pretend to get seduced, though. She doesn’t like losing.”

Something clicked. “That’s the point of the name. It’s a game.”

Lily nodded. “She wants to see if anyone else is smart enough to figure it out. She’s always liked meaningless challenges like that. She likes being in control.”

I stretched out my arm, readying the syringe. “What can we expect, going in? Will she have a toy maker?”

“Not sure.” Lily took the syringe from me, tapped my vein, and jabbed me. I winced, but she knew what she was doing. The pain only lasted a second. “The destruction of Shendilavri made it difficult to piece together exactly what happened. But I’ve spoken to the Powers. They agree that—”

“Wait, which Powers?” I winced again as she withdrew the needle. I didn’t feel any change yet. She got a small bandage and applied it to my wound. “I know Obould and Dispater were there, but Derek doesn’t talk about it much.”

“Not the demon Powers. The succubus Powers.”

I stared at her.

She smiled. “Did you really think an entire culture would die so easily? They went underground. They remained safe, even as the city hated them. And soon, they will be able to reveal themselves again.”

I swallowed. It wasn’t really a big deal. But I had a feeling the rest of the city wouldn’t think of it that way. They’d probably react like if you found out your next-door neighbor was a Nazi.

“Naamah and her Daybringers searched the ruins as much as possible. They are quite convinced that Malcanthet only intended to leave the city for a short time. A few months, at most. It is unlikely that she had a toy maker with her.”

“And getting one outside the city would be nearly impossible,” I said. “I’d be surprised if there are a dozen in the country. All would be in military hands.”

Lily leaned back. “Yes. Malcanthet could seduce her way onto a military base, of course, but that would attract too much attention for only a minor benefit. I suspect that she is just making do with what she has.”

“And what does she have?” I asked.

“Pheromones, obviously,” she said. “Five years out of date, but still very effective. Especially when combined with her own skills in seduction. She’s also immune to most poisons, though the Avernans have invented a few since that would test her limits. Same with diseases. Not that we’d want to unleash a modded disease here…”

“She bulletproof?”

“Bullet resistant,” Lily said. She looked disturbed, but didn’t mention it. “She doesn’t have to worry about smaller calibers, but a hand cannon should be enough. I notice you don’t have your guns with you—”

“I’ll figure something out,” I said. “Steal one from one of her slaves.”

“The Riven won’t be armed with the kind of weapons you need. Malcanthet would never give her followers any weapons that could be turned against her.”

I sat back in my seat. “So, what? They’ll only have small caliber stuff?”

“And some odder things, as long as they can’t pierce her skin. Microflechette guns were her favorite. She was using the Reiner Gamma Crisis when she left, but I don’t know how many of those she had on hand. BOB doesn’t sell much outside of Domina.”

“I’m surprised they sell outside Domina at all.”

“People know quality.”

I smiled. I had a couple BOB guns. Butler had given me an Olympian Athena early on, but I had bought a few others since. The Reiner Gamma shot small darts tipped with poison. You could change the type of poison, so it was pretty common among monster slayers. I doubted Malcanthet’s men would be using sleeper toxin, though.

“Any chance you have a magic gas that will undo all her brainwashing?” I was joking. Laura and I had discussed Malcanthet’s brainwashing more than a bit, when we thought she might be the Composer. It was far too complex to be easily defeated.

Lily shook her head sadly. “No, nothing like that. My power might help, a little, but I can’t be sure.”

Her power. She didn’t talk about it much. “You’ve been practicing with it?”

She nodded. “As much as possible.”

I nodded. “Good. The more you practice, the stronger it gets. I think that might be Laura’s problem, she never pushes her ability to its limits.”

“I talked to her a bit about it. She organized a study, and she’s pretty sure the problem is actually the fact that it’s so easy to use—”

Someone sat down at our table.

Lily barely even blinked, but I jumped about three feet in the air. I got my knife out and brandished it. It was just the silly hunting knife my dad had bought me a few years ago, but it was the only weapon I had been able to find on short notice. Besides, six inches of cold steel was pretty intimidating.

Chris Clemens raised an eyebrow at the knife, but otherwise didn’t react. “Are you planning to do something dangerous, Master Adam?”

I thought for a moment, then sheathed the knife. “No. Not towards you, anyway. What are you doing here?”

“I followed you,” she said. “You were acting very suspicious. I am also interested in that device in your backpack.” She nodded at it. I had zipped up the backpack to keep from attracting attention. “Is it still on?”

“Yes,” I said. “Not that it matters. It needs line of sight to work.” The counter-song could work through some obstructions, but not many. We were still studying it. It seemed to be able to bend a bit, or maybe reflect off nearby objects. That meant that people usually didn’t block the effect, but putting it in a bag did.

Chris raised an eyebrow, but didn’t inquire further. “All right. So what are you doing here? You found your friend’s niece?”

“Yes,” I said. I nodded at the skyscraper. “She’s in there.”

“Why haven’t you gone in yet?”

“We’re planning our attack.”

She frowned. “There’s no need to attack, Master Adam. This is not Domina City. Go inside and tell the receptionist who you’re looking for.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“The building is a front,” Lily said before Chris could argue. “It is owned by a fugitive from Domina City.”

Chris sat up. “Fugitive? Then we need to alert the police.”

“No,” Lily and I both said instantly.

Chris scowled. “This isn’t time for jurisdictional—”

“Malcanthet will kill them,” Lily said. “She is a ruthless warlord, and the local police cannot handle her. We can. At least long enough to get Saki out.”

“And then what?” Chris asked, eyes narrow.

“Then we discuss things with the delegation,” Lily said. “We’ll figure it out from there.”

Chris looked annoyed. “Is this always how you solve your problems? Run in half-cocked and hope for the best?”

I chuckled. “Pretty much. Malcanthet is just a demon. She’s easier to handle than most of the stuff I’ve seen in the past few months.”

Chris turned to me. “And what, exactly, have you been doing these past few months?”

I smirked. “You know me, Chris. Nothing exceptional. Just some light exercise.”

She glared, but I didn’t break. After dealing with a warlord or two, baselines just weren’t intimidating.

“Fine.” She put something on the table and slid it across to me. When I picked it up, I was surprised that it was a pager. Who used pagers any more? “Just hit that button, and we’ll come in guns blazing.”

I frowned. “Who did you bring?”

“Almost everyone.”

“How many total?” Lily asked.

“Twelve.”

Lily and I shared a glance. Twelve wouldn’t be enough if Malcanthet decided to make a fight of it. I had read enough about the Succubus Queen to know that she was paranoid. I had no idea how many soldiers she had, but they would be numerous and fanatically loyal.

And that was assuming Saki hadn’t gotten control of them.

“We’ll try stealth first,” I said. “I’ll go in alone—”

“Alone?” Chris demanded. “No, I’ll go in with you, and—”

“And get us both caught and killed,” I said. “You have no idea what you’re walking into. I do. You don’t know what Saki looks like, or what she’s capable of. I do, and I do. You don’t have a CS device. I do.”

Chris frowned. “Now, wait here. My job is to keep you safe. I’m not about to—”

“It’s not a discussion.” I opened up my backpack, revealing the CS device. “Lily, have you found an entrance?”

Chris looked surprised at my defiance, but Lily didn’t pay attention to her. She peered at Miomanta. Her eyes were far, far better than mine. I’d probably need binoculars to see half as well as her. “Third floor. There’s an open window. Only a crack, but it should be enough.” She blinked, and turned her focus back to me. “What’s your climbing skill? On the kemo scale.”

“Oof. I never actually took the test. I think Kat said I was about a six? But she only saw me climb anything once or twice.”

“Hm.” She turned back to the building. “Should be enough. It doesn’t look like a very hard climb.”

“All right.” It was only three floors. I could do this. I stood. “Chris, you have a spare gun I can borrow?”

She chuckled. “No. Your parents would cut off my head if I gave you a gun.”

I rolled my eyes, but didn’t see the need to argue. I’d just get one inside. “Fine. I’m going. With luck, I’ll be back soon with Saki.”

Suddenly, everyone in the cafe turned around and pointed guns at us.

Chris nearly jumped out of her seat. Her hand went to her own gun, but I stopped her. I shook my head, and she nodded. One of the cafe patrons stepped up and grabbed the gun before she could change her mind. Another took the pager and carefully removed the batteries. We were on our own.

Lily didn’t look surprised so much as disappointed. “The Riven, I assume?”

One of the patrons smirked. “Of course.”

We should have known. Why would Malcanthet allow a cafe to exist freely right across from her domain? She wouldn’t. Of course she wouldn’t. She would buy or seduce every single person who ever stepped foot in the place.

The Succubus Queen did so like being in control.

Behind the Scenes (scene 304)

I’m always hesitant about setup scenes like this, but you can’t have all action, all the time.

Scene 301 – Domum

DOMUM

ADAM

The plane landed smoothly, but I still felt like throwing up. I didn’t like flying, and I was pretty sure the tiny little private jet was worse than most. It shook like a leaf for most of the flight. I waited until it had finally coasted to a stop on the runway before getting up and heading for the door. Then I paused, grabbed the glass of Scotch I had left behind, and downed it in one gulp. I had found the bottle next to the seat, and I wasn’t about to let the glass go to waste.

I felt a bit wobbly, but that was probably the nausea more than the alcohol. I steadied myself against a chair, shouldered my bag, and opened the door.

I immediately considered turning around and asking the pilot to fly off again.

“Hey, Adam!” my mom called from the bottom of the stairs. She waved enthusiastically. “Come on down!”

Not seeing any escape, I sighed and walked down the stairs. I felt like I was walking to my execution.

My mom tackle-hugged me the second I hit the ground. “Oh, it is so good to see you again, sweetheart! It’s been ages!” She pulled back. “You said you were coming home for Christmas! And then there was the police action—”

“It was a war, Sophia,” my father said. He stood imperiously in his immaculate suit. He looked me over. “You look… well, Adam. Healthy.”

I winced. I knew what was coming next. “Thank you, sir.”

He broke into a big grin and pulled me into a hug that drove the air out of my lungs. “It’s good to have you back.”

“Can’t… can’t breathe…”

He let me go after a moment. He was still looking at me, a curious expression on his face. “Something about you has changed, but I can’t tell what.”

“I’ve been getting exercise,” I said. I forced myself to stand up straight instead of cringing. “Maybe that’s it.”

“Maybe…” He raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t involved in the war, were you?”

I smiled. “I spent the entire thing in the middle of the safest room in the city, dad. Nobody got within ten miles of me.” Of course, maybe if I had been able to go out with my boys, I could have done some good. Laura had insisted on keeping the CS squad near the Shield Wall in case they turned against us. That had proven unnecessary.

And I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell my parents about my monster hunts or anything about the Composer. I wasn’t crazy.

“Sirs? Ma’am? We should get off the tarmac. Other planes will need the runway soon.”

Chris Clemens stood behind my parents, as calm and composed as ever. She wore a sharp suit just like my father, but a little less expensive. There were a few stiff parts of the suit which, after months in Domina City, I could recognize as Kevlar or ceramic plating. At her side was a pistol in a holster. I couldn’t see the entire gun, of course, but I recognized it as a Heckler and Koch USP Compact semi-auto. There were a few of them inside the city, though most bodyguards used either a Telum Sica or a Hellion 88-006 Semi.

Chris was my father’s head of security, and had been dealing with the eccentricities of my parents for longer than I had been alive. She was also the one who had been suspicious of what I was doing in Domina City, even before the war.

She was watching me carefully, but I remained calm. I had fought a gargant not two days ago. I could handle a couple suspicious looks.

“Excellent idea, Chris!” my father said. “Pull the car around, let’s get home.”

“Already done, sir.” Even as she spoke, a sleek black SUV rolled to a stop in front of us. It wasn’t actually on the tarmac, but I was still pretty sure driving back here was illegal. My parents had probably bribed someone to let us in. Or maybe that was just my inner cynic talking.

Chris opened the trunk and moved to take my bag. I kept tight hold of it. “I’d rather keep this with me, thanks.”

She frowned, but again, I didn’t let anything show on my face. There wasn’t really anything incriminating in the bag, or at least not anything obvious like guns. I just wanted to keep it with me.

She sighed softly, nodded, and closed the trunk. She moved to open the door to let me, in, but I opened it myself before she could.

I didn’t know why I was antagonizing her so much. She was just rubbing me the wrong way for some reason.

I sat in the back row of seats, while my parents sat in the middle row. Chris took shotgun, since someone was already driving. Once all our seat belts were fastened, he drove off immediately. Probably a little worried about being caught out here.

My mother turned around in her seat to smile at me. “So, how’s school?”

I was ready for this question. “It’s fine,” I lied. “A little boring right now, since it’s all GE classes. But I’ve got good friends and everything.”

“And the war didn’t disrupt anything?” my father asked.

“Not much,” I said. Not much more than they were already disrupted by Elizabeth, anyway. I wasn’t even sure if anyone was still going to classes. Flynn had mentioned something about meeting with AU teachers, but I had no idea what that was about. “The invaders were mostly stopped at the gates. None of them ever got past the outer ring.”

My father frowned. “Really?”

I nodded. “I didn’t really pay attention to the full strategic scope of the battle, but it’s pretty obvious. The city wall wasn’t breached, so the Americans were stuck at the gates. Everyone was prepared for that, so they got pushed back pretty easily. There were a few spots they were allowed to advance, but only to pull them into ambushes.”

My parents shared a look. It took me a second to realize that it was because I had said ‘the Americans.’ Like I wasn’t one of them. Whoops.

“Well, I’m glad you weren’t hurt,” my mother said. “I was going to say that you don’t have to go back if you don’t want to, but you don’t seem worried about it.”

I shrugged. “I don’t think there’s gonna be a second invasion. That’s what the ambassadors are here for.” I checked my watch. “I might have beaten them here. They were coming by boat. Not enough planes.”

“Do you know anything about them?” Chris called from the front. She normally didn’t intrude on our conversations.

I answered anyway. “Only Eccretia. I’ve heard of the others, of course.”

My father made a face. “What kind of name is Eccretia?”

“A changeling name,” I said. “She was a slave under the old fey, and wasn’t allowed a name. So when she got free, she chose a new name. She was one of the first, fifteen years ago.” I couldn’t remember the names of the other two founders. I remembered that they founded the Forgotten Names and the Firstborn, but I couldn’t remember the people themselves. Eccretia, of course, founded the Never-Known Thieves.

I was so lost in my thoughts I didn’t notice how quiet the car was.

“Slave?” my mother asked quietly.

“That was the old fey,” I said. “The new fey are much better about that.”

My father shook his head. “And who are these… fey?”

“Oh, they’re crazy. They think they’re Celtic fairies.” I shrugged. “Well, the Ladies do. The normal feyborn aren’t so out of touch with reality. They sent a rep to this thing, I’m sure we’ll be able to see her on the news.”

The car fell silent again.

And again, my mother was the one who broke it. “Adam… people don’t really use the toy maker, do they?”

I smirked. “Mom, that’s like asking if people wear clothes. Yes, they do, but it’s… broader than you’re thinking.”

The car rolled to a stop. We were here. I immediately jumped out, my shoes crunching on the gravel of the driveway. I looked up at the mansion that I had lived in for most of my life.

By the standards of most mansions, it was medium-sized. It was a three-story building barely wider than it was tall, giving it a bit of a square look. The building itself was earth tones, with large stone pillars creating a short entry area before we actually reached the front door. The lawns were green and manicured despite the season, but the dozens of trees were all bare of leaves. My mother was very proud of those trees, but refused to get evergreens. I had no idea why.

We weren’t quite at the edges of the city, but we were definitely far away from the tallest buildings. This kept our house from being overshadowed. This small spot of land probably cost more than most people made in a lifetime, but I was used to it. Or I had been used to it. After spending so much time in Domina City, I just found myself annoyed. It took me a second to realize it was because there weren’t enough skyscrapers around.

My parents caught up with me quickly. “Adam,” my mother said. “How should I put this?”

I frowned, turning to her. I had no idea where she was going with this. “What? What’s wrong?”

She sighed. “Are you… modified? With the toy maker?”

I scowled. “No.” I turned away and walked towards the house.

“It’s okay if you are!” she said quickly, running after me. “Sweetie, you know we love you no matter what—”

Lutum informis,” I said.

“I… formless clay?”

“That’s what I am,” I said, not looking at her. A maid bowed as I started to enter the front door. I had forgotten it was cleaning day. I stopped before going in. If the floor was still wet, I didn’t want to track footprints all over. “I have a disorder. I can’t use the toy maker.”

“Master Adam, I’ve read up on the toy maker,” Chris said. “Being immune to it would be like being born without DNA.”

“One in a hundred million, I think the number was,” I said. I grinned ruefully. “There are four in Domina City. I just got unlucky.”

My father raised an eyebrow. “So you would have been modified if not for this… disorder?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. There’s nothing wrong with being baseline.” Chris perked up. Yeah, I had slipped that in for her on purpose. “I might have just gotten something basic. Improved healing, poison resistance. That sort of thing.”

“The toy maker is illegal,” Chris said sternly.

I rolled my eyes.

I wasn’t sure if my father noticed, but he answered Chris’ question anyway. “I suspect that’s part of what the ambassadors are here for. To iron out those laws so that Domina doesn’t have to worry about a large fraction of their population being arrested.”

I laughed.

“What?” my father asked. “What is it?”

“Dad, it’s not a large fraction,” I said. “Everyone in the city uses the toy maker. Everyone. There are exactly four people who don’t. Not one more. Remember what I said about clothes? Even the changelings use it, though pretty much just for healing.”

My parents looked nonplussed. Chris just frowned. “But that doesn’t make sense. You said—well, you implied—that baselines were a significant force in the city.”

I shrugged. “More like people who look baseline. Everyone is modified in some way. Every single one.”

They looked like they were having trouble with that, but they didn’t say anything. I guess with Soaring Eagle and the war, they knew enough of this not to be too surprised.

“The house is ready now, Mister Anders,” the head maid said. The rest of them were already filing out behind her. “Sorry we couldn’t get it done in time.”

My father smiled. “It’s fine. We should have warned you. See you next week.”

She nodded and left, carrying a mop and a bucket of cleaning supplies.

I watched her go, then frowned. I felt paranoid, like she might be trying to betray us. But that made no sense at all. I had been away from home for too long.

I stepped inside. The mansion’s foyer was a large open space with lots of wood paneling and a glittering chandelier hanging overhead. I had grown up here, and had gotten used to it, but now I couldn’t stop thinking that in Domina ten people would be able to live in this one room. Hell, even in New York, costs of living were about the same. Had I really been ignoring all that my entire life?

Of course I had. I was good at ignoring things.

“Your room should be clean,” my mother said. “We didn’t do anything to it, and I’m sure the maids dusted.”

“Thanks,” I said. I walked over to the kitchen, which was just off the foyer. “But I’m pretty hungry.” I put my bag on the island and sat down. “I’d just like something with real beef. A hamburger or something.” Anything would do, as long as I could guarantee it wasn’t made from rat or dog. Or worms. Lily had showed me a mealworm place the other day. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either.

“Of course,” my mother said, slipping behind the counter and opening up the griddle. “I got some patties yesterday. We were going to have a barbecue tonight, but I would be happy to make you something right now.”

“I’ll help,” my father said.

I frowned. My parents never cooked together. They could both cook, they just tended to get in each other’s way. Why were they being so nice?

“Can we put the news on?” I said. “I want to see what the ambassadors are up to.”

They both stiffened.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” my mother said carefully.

Ah, that was it. They wanted things to seem normal, to remind me of home away from Domina City. They might even be trying to get me to stay here rather than going back. Yep, I could see a few brochures for local colleges stacked up next to the fridge.

Whatever, they couldn’t stop me even if they wanted to. In the worst case scenario, I could get on the boat with the ambassadors. Eccretia would let me, if no one else.

“I just want to know what’s happening,” I said.

Chris glanced at my parents, then tossed me the remote. Before they could say anything, I turned on the kitchen tv and switched to the news. I doubted the channel actually mattered. This sort of thing would be on every station.

I was right. The local news was showing the ambassadors walking down the street, like what they had done when they left Domina. They even had their flags out.

My father frowned. “What are those flags?”

I smiled. “Think of them as states. Sort of. In order, we have the demons, the vampires, the angels, the kemos, the giants, the fey, the changelings, the merfolk, the dragons, and…” I frowned. “That’s Necessarius in back.” I didn’t recognize the flag-bearer, though. He didn’t seem to be anybody important, just some random guard. Where was the ambassador?

“Kemo?” my mother asked.

“It’s Japanese,” I said. “Means something like ‘animal-like.’ The White Cat was one of the first, he’s in front.” The answer was mostly autopilot. I was too confused about the ‘sarians. Who would they have sent? Not Butler, obviously, and sending Clarke would have been suicidal. Derek? Or maybe Laura? I hadn’t even thought to ask them. I had just told them I was leaving the city for a few days, and that was all we had said on the matter.

“You said merfolk,” my father said. “Which—”

“Third from the back. Before the dragons.”

“…they don’t look like mermaids.”

“Yeah, well, they are.” I didn’t know much about the Dagonites and the Atlanteans, but I knew Butler wouldn’t have let the twins come if he thought they wouldn’t be good representatives of their culture. I hadn’t seen their mermaid forms yet, but I was sure they were impressive. “But the ‘sarians…”

“You said the ones in the back were Necessarius,” Chris said. She had that hard, watchful look in her eyes. “That’s the gang that controls the city, right?”

“Close enough.” I was getting worried. I hadn’t thought about who Butler would send. Derek and Laura were both a little… difficult for ambassadors. But what other options were there? Politics would get in the way too much. That Banyan senator had been making noise recently, and of course the Kongeegen had tried to make a fight of it. I was most worried about a Granit getting the job. They were the imperialists; they were usually disturbingly sane, so they were more likely to influence this whole event. But Butler might not have had any other choice. Would the Iluvatar have even been willing to send someone? The only member of the party I knew was McDowell.

The doorbell rang, interrupting my fevered imaginings.

My parents both frowned. “Who could that be?” my father asked. “I don’t have any meetings scheduled.”

Chris put her hand on her gun. “I’ll look into it.” She walked away, and I was impressed by how quietly she was able to move.

My paranoia flared. If this was something to do with me, something from Domina, she’d get blindsided. I didn’t have any enemies that I knew of, but still. I glanced around the kitchen. No actual weapons, of course, but the knives were sitting in the center of the island, well within my reach. My parents would ask too many questions if I tried to grab them now, but I got ready.

“…she says she knows you, Master Adam.”

I frowned as Chris returned, leading someone into the kitchen. Who could it be? One of the ambassadors’ entourages, obviously, but I didn’t know most of them. Besides, no one knew I was taking the opportunity to come here and—

I blinked. “Lily?”

She smiled. “Hey, Adam.”

I leaped off my chair and hugged her, before giving her a quick kiss. “How did you—what are you—” I looked her up and down. She looked almost baseline. Her tail was hidden somehow, and she had a cute little beret that subtly covered her horns. She was smiling with a closed mouth, hiding her fangs, and none of her tattoos were visible. They were the kind Derek had, the ones you could control, so she had probably just willed them away. She couldn’t hide her red eyes, but those weren’t a big deal.

“I wanted to surprise you!” she said, bouncing on her feet. “I came on the boats. We made good time, so I thought I’d stop by before the meetings. We have a few hours, since they want to make sure everyone is comfortable.”

I heard my father clear his voice behind me.

I spun around. “Oh, right! Mom, Dad, this is my girlfriend, Lily.”

“Girlfriend?” my mother asked, looking her up and down.

Lily smirked. “I’m older than I look, Miss Powers.”

My father didn’t look convinced. “You’re at least eighteen, right?”

Lily laughed. “Mother of fire, yes! I’m twenty-six.” She shook her head, bemused. “It’s been a long time since someone didn’t know how old I was.”

“Twenty-six?” my mother said. Were they just going to parrot things all night?

“Yes. I promise. I am a fully legal adult.”

“Oh.” They relaxed, just slightly. My mother tried to smile. “Why don’t you sit down? We were making hamburgers.”

“Sure, of course.” We both sat down, and Lily smiled at them both like a beacon. “What kind of hamburgers?”

“Whatever kind you want,” my mother said. “We have all the condiments right here.”

Lily opened her mouth—likely to say something about the kind of meat—and I interrupted. “Beef, Lily. They’re beef hamburgers.”

Lily smiled. “I’m sure I will love them.”

My father cleared his throat. “So, Miss, uh—”

“Lily,” she said. “Just Lily.”

“Right. You are from Domina City, correct?”

“Of course. Born and raised.” Her smile turned sad. “Well, raised, at least. My mother left very early on. It’s possible we came from somewhere else.”

“Oh, you poor baby!” my mother said.

“It was a long time ago. Please, Mister Anders. You seemed to be leading to a question.”

“Yes, I just…” He sighed. “I think I’m going to just come out and say it.”

“I appreciate directness,” she said with a smile.

“Do you use the toy maker at all?”

Lily froze, stunned. She glanced at me. I chuckled.

Lily threw back her head and laughed.

My parents jumped as she gave a great, belly-aching laugh, shaking so hard that I had to grab her to keep from falling off her chair. She laughed so hard that tears started leaking from her eyes, and she looked like she was in pain.

After a few minutes, she settled down to a quiet giggle. She leaned against me, and I could still feel her shaking.

“Yes,” I said with a smile. “She uses the toy maker.”

My parents looked like they had been hit by a truck. Chris stood quietly in the background, her hand on her gun. She didn’t react otherwise.

“You don’t…” my father gestured at the tv. “You don’t look like them.”

Lily smiled and hopped off her seat. She pulled off her hat, revealing her horns. Then she adjusted her shirt and pants, freeing her tail from where it had been wrapped around her waist. She stretched, grinning broadly enough that her sharp teeth were visible. Patches of her skin slowly turned black, tattoos fading into sight. She used a pattern I hadn’t seen on her before, a sort of tribal design and aesthetic. They didn’t seem to mean anything specific.

“Ah…” she sighed in contentment. “That feels better.”

My parents had backed away. Just a few steps, but still. Chris had a strong grip on her gun now, but she still hadn’t drawn it. I palmed one of the smaller knives from the block while no one was looking.

“You’re… you’re a…” My father waved wildly at the tv. He took a closer look, then pointed. “One of those.” He was pointing to Sargeras and his delegation.

Lily chuckled. “I am not a demon.”

“You have to admit you look like a demon, sweetie,” my mother said. Even the endearment sounded strained. Scared.

“Cultures are not set in stone,” Lily said. “Someone can look like a vampire and join the kemos. Or look like an angel and join the demons. They will get mistaken for the wrong culture, but they just have to accept that.”

“So what culture are you?” Chris asked.

Lily smiled. “None. I am what I am.”

There was a pause.

“Adam?” my mother said. “I need to get these burgers started, but why don’t you and your father—”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

“One second,” I said. “I have to take this.”

Chris looked suspicious. “Who is it?”

“My sister,” Lily said.

I flipped open the phone. “MC?”

“Adam? Can you hear me?”

Good, it was the real one. “Yeah, I can hear you. What’s up? Did you want to talk to Lily?”

There was a pause. “She’s there with you? She’s supposed to be with the ambassadors.”

“Well, she’s here.”

I could imagine MC sighing on the other side. “Fine, whatever. Not important. I just got off the phone with Akane. It’s your CS prison. All the prisoners escaped while people were distracted by the procession. Some sort of EMP killed the counter-song for a few minutes.”

I cursed under my breath. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“This isn’t a courtesy call, hero. Akane thinks Saki might have hitched a ride to New York.”

Shit.

“One second,” I said. “Putting you on speaker.” I put the phone on the island and pressed a button. “Okay, we’re good.”

“Lily?” MC asked, her voice a little scratchy because of the way the speaker was obscured. “You there?”

“Yeah,” Lily said. “What is it?”

“Saki.”

I was already picking up my bag from the floor. I started to unzip it as they spoke, revealing a metal device with straps so it could be worn on the back.

Lily didn’t ask unnecessary questions. She made the connections instantly. “I didn’t see her when I was with the ambassadors.”

“Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yes.”

“She might have been avoiding you,” I said. I started to strap the device onto my back. It weighed almost ten pounds, but I had gotten used to wearing it.

“I would have thought that she’d seek her out on purpose,” MC said.

“Maybe,” I said. I double-checked the straps. The last thing I wanted was for it to flop around or fall off at the worst moment. “But she’d either go looking for her or avoid her like the plague. Lily wouldn’t just run into her by accident.”

“Fair enough.”

There was a switch on the top of my pack. I couldn’t see it, but it was able to reach over my shoulder and flip it. “Lily, you mind checking whether this thing is working?”

She closed her eyes for a moment, before opening them and nodded. “It’s working.”

“What is it?” my mother asked.

“What’s going on?” my father added.

“It’s called a CS device,” I said. “As for what’s happening…” I paused. Butler had given me a package on current intelligence reports, but I had skimmed it. I couldn’t remember if people outside of Domina knew about powers or not. “It’s complicated. The short version is that my friend’s niece has run away. I need to bring her back. I’m the only one who can.”

“…all right,” my father said after a moment. My mother gave him a glare, but he ignored it. “You do what you gotta do.”

I resisted the urge to grin like a wolf. My father was big on personal responsibility. Admirable and everything, but it sometimes blinded him. He hadn’t even bothered to ask why I was the only one who could do it.

“I’m coming too,” Lily said.

“What?” MC and I said together.

Lily’s eyes were strong. “She’s my responsibility.”

“You’ve never even met her!” I said.

She met my eyes levelly. “She is still mine.”

I sighed. It was impossible to argue with her when she got like this. “All right. But you have to be careful, okay? I don’t want you in the middle of a fight.”

She nodded, but I still felt a twisting in my gut. She was the only pacifist in Domina City, and I was bringing her into a hunt for a girl who could enslave random people to kill for her. This could go very badly, very quickly.

“I’m not sure about this,” MC said from my phone.

“If you have someone else in the area who could help, I’m all ears.”

MC remained silent. Necessarius did have people in the area, but they would all be ghosts. This simply wasn’t important enough to call them for help.

“That’s what I thought,” I said. “Now, is there any chance any of the ambassadors brought spare CS bracelets?” They were small devices that clipped on the wrist. They were supposed to suppress powers, but we hadn’t tested them enough yet.

“Unlikely. But Saki might still be wearing hers. There was a pulse that shorted it out temporarily—that’s how she escaped—but it might be working again by now.”

I frowned. “Really? I would have thought she would bash the thing off first chance she got.”

“They’re sturdy.”

“Okay…” I thought about it. “That changes the game a bit.”

“Have you called the ambassadors?” Lily asked. “Told them who to look for?”

“Yes. They haven’t seen her. Either she hid well or she suborned them.”

I frowned. The best move would be to go to the ambassadors with my CS pack and see what they said. But I didn’t want to disrupt their meeting. “Is there any way you can track the bracelet?”

“No.”

I sighed. “All right. If we have no leads—”

“There’s one lead,” MC said. “There’s someone from Domina in New York.”

It took me a second to parse that. “Wait—a ghost? You want us to talk to a ghost?”

“No, just an ordinary person.” She sounded a bit annoyed at the presumption that she would out a ghost for this. “Ryan Hearing moved here a few months back. He’s working in a local police department now.”

“Hearing, Hearing…” I murmured. “Where have I heard that name before?”

“He’s a clay,” Lily said. “Left right after you reached Domina, I believe.”

“…oh.” I didn’t know how to react to that. I hadn’t met any of the other clays. Well, besides Butler himself, but he didn’t count. “So, what, you think I should go talk to him? Common interests and whatnot?”

“Sure,” MC said. “It’s the best lead at the moment.”

I rolled my eyes. “How is that a good lead? I’d have as much luck asking my parents.”

They were standing there, looking a but shell-shocked at everything that was happening. Chris, on the other hand, looked contemplative.

“Ryan is a good lawman,” MC said. “Ex ‘sarian, first-rank detective. He earned the Medal of Service from the Servants. Twice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? And Butler let him leave?”

“You know that’s not how Butler works,” she chided me.

“Okay,” I sighed. “Okay. So, what? You think he just happened to be paying close attention to the ambassadors, and might have seen a little girl run off?”

“Yes,” MC said. There was no doubt in her voice.

“…all right. Send me his address.”

“I can do better than that. Sending you his current location. I’m also warning him you’re coming. He can be a little jumpy.”

“Of course.” I checked my screen. A GPS transponder popped up, pointing me in what I assumed was Hearing’s direction. “Thanks a bunch. I’ll buy you a drink when we get back.”

Static hissed over the connection, like a sigh. “You know I don’t drink.”

I hung up. Not much else to say.

“Well,” I said, turning to my parents. “Time to go. We’ll be back.”

“Wait!” my mother said before we could leave. “What was that?”

“I told you,” I said. “Friend’s cousin has gone missing.”

“It doesn’t sound like she’s missing,” my father said. He was eyeing my pack, but didn’t say anything about it. “It sounds like she ran away.”

“Or escaped,” Chris said.

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t worry about it. This is really just a favor for a friend.” I opened the door for Lily, then waved goodbye. “We’ll be back soon. We don’t want to miss the ambassadors meeting with the president.”

Behind the Scenes (301)

I’ve been waiting to add Ryan Hearing since pretty much the very start of the series. I also have the other clay waiting in the wings, but no plans to add her quite yet.

break

Scene 160 – Curatrix

CURATRIX

ADAM

My phone rang.

I grumbled. It had been less than three hours since my mother called. If it was her again, I swear, I’d tell her something shocking on purpose just to end the conversation early.

This time, I glanced at the caller ID before answering. It wasn’t my mom’s number, but it was one of the family phones. I couldn’t remember which one, since I hadn’t gotten around to entering them into my address book.

I answered with more than a little trepidation. “Hello?”

“Adam? Is that you?”

I sighed in relief. It was just Chris Clemens, my father’s head of security. We might not get along too well, but at least it wasn’t one of my parents.

“Yeah, what’s up?” I had a thought. “Is my mom okay?”

“She’s fine. But that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

I sighed. “You, of all people, are not talking to me about my love life.”

“What? No, not that, I meant your life in that city.”

Oh. Okay, that made a little more sense. “Uh…sure. What, specifically?”

“How are things over there?”

“They’re…fine,” I managed, a bit bewildered by the question. “I guess.”

There was a sigh on the other side of the line. “I’m not very good at being subtle, so I’ll just get straight to the point. Nothing comes out of Domina. The big corporations contract out their services, and people hire them to write programs and do other things that can be sent over the internet. But that’s it. We can’t see the city’s internet from the outside. What little information we have comes from people like Dale, who work for the corporations and get a few minutes to connect to the outside world.”

“Yeah,” I said slowly. “I get that. Knew most of it already.”

I was missing something, and the security chief was clearly pissed about that. “God damn it, do you know how much effort I had to go through just to get your mother a link to your phone? I had to call in favors from a rebel on Shaohao, not to mention a couple guys on Mons Agnes I had hoped never to speak to again. Even then, I’m surprised it worked.”

I kept silent, though internally I was cursing MC. This was definitely her doing.

There was another sigh. “My point is, according to all my sources, you should be dead. Killed by one of the gangs and strung up by your own entrails.”

“If you thought it was so dangerous, why did you let me come in the first place?”

“Have you met your father? He’s all about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and whatnot. He thought this was a perfect opportunity to prove the strength of your Anders blood.”

I frowned at that. “But…he was born rich. Like, stupidly rich.” So was I, obviously, but my parents were pretty good at keeping us at a sane level of spending. Just one house, albeit a pretty big one, and my monthly allowance had been twenty bucks until I was sixteen. My grandparents had been the ones with ten houses, who bought everything within sight.

“Look, I can’t argue with him if he doesn’t want me to. But I made sure to have an extraction team standing by in case of emergency—which is still available, by the way—and took the time to talk to Dale privately a few times. He seemed safe enough.”

That annoyed me. I knew Chris had always had a habit of butting into my private life. It was the job of a head of security, so I couldn’t get too mad. But Dale should have known better. “Then you probably already know more than I could tell you. I’m sure you grilled him like a fish.”

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t have time, and he was pretty tight-lipped anyway. He just said that the gangs were dangerous, but avoidable, and that they didn’t really get near the schools anyway.”

Yeah, because if anybody screwed with children in the city, Necessarius would call in an air strike on their heads. I had heard what happened at Shendilavri. Sure, the ‘Mother Monster’ was a large part of it, but the primary reason Butler had intervened was because of the child slaves.

I couldn’t mention that, though. If I did, that strike team would be here within the hour.

And they’d be dead about five minutes after that.

Chris Clemens would make sure they were all the best of the best. But this was Domina City. They would have no idea what they were walking into.

“That’s basically it,” I managed. “I haven’t had any major fights with the gangs.” I thought about it for a minute. “There was one, but I can’t remember—oh, right, there was a little tussle with some of those vampires, but it was over quickly.”

That would be when we intervened in the Nosferatu civil war, when the stupid ferrets were fighting each other instead of the screamers. And compared to everything else I had been through, it really was just a minor brawl.

“You met the gangs? Actually fought them?” Great, now Chris was interested. I shouldn’t have mentioned it. “Describe them for me.”

“Uh…” I frantically wracked my brain, trying to remember the propaganda. “It was no big deal, really. They’re just a bunch of kids who go out at night.”

“Hmm…”

Crap. Chris might not be quite as good at spotting lies as my mom, but I still needed to tread carefully.

“Look, like I said, it was no big deal. I didn’t even get hurt.” I was careful not to mention that I had killed three or four vamps that night, not counting the zombies. That strike team was still weighing on my mind.

“Well, that’s some good news at least. But I want more on these gangs. I’ve been hearing weird rumblings, about the toy maker.”

I swallowed. “That…military gene mod thing? What about it?”

“You tell me. You mentioned to Sophia that you met Isaac Clarke.” Of course. Mom probably didn’t realize it was important, but Chris… “How did that happen?”

Oh boy. This was going to be tricky. Chris was ex-FBI. In other words, exactly the sort of person Butler did not want knowing about how widespread use of the toy maker was.

“It just came up,” I managed. Okay, what was it that Ling kept saying about lying? Something about telling the truth…that was it. “He has a daughter, Robyn Joan. She’s a friend of my roommate, so…” I shrugged. “I sorta bumped into him.”

“I’m sure.” Didn’t sound so sure. “What did you talk to him about?”

I chuckled. “I didn’t really say anything. I think I managed to get my name out, and then he was rambling about organ rejection and removing necrotic tissue and…uh…what was it? Oh yeah, Anomalous Foreign Tissue Rejection Syndrome.” That was Clarke’s name for lutum informis, more commonly known as being a clay. No one used that name though, and apparently the outside world had a longer one for it that ended in ‘itis.’

Thankfully, Chris didn’t seem any more versed in toy maker terminology than I was. “What exactly is that?”

“How should I know? All I know is I said I wanted wings, and he said no.”

“You wanted wings?”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“I—well, maybe. But you haven’t seen any use of the toy maker?”

I was going to have to step carefully here. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I mean what I mean. How much are people using that thing?”

“Well, there’s some minor uses here and there. No big deal.” What had Laura said…damn it, if I had paid more attention to the city’s propaganda before I got here, I’d have an easier time coming up with a decent lie. “Hair color, eye color, getting rid of freckles, that kind of thing.”

“That’s what I thought, but I just wanted to make sure. Don’t want to give your mother a heart attack, after all.”

“No, I understand,” I said, trying to hide my relief that it had been bought. “It’s not exactly paradise over here, but it’s livable.”

“OY! BASELINE!”

I turned around at the sound of someone yelling. What the hell—

Two giants, carrying a couch between them, were hustling down the sidewalk. The one in front was the one yelling.

“Out of the way, boy,” he called. “Coming through.”

Oh, right, I was standing in the middle of the sidewalk. I stepped aside, and the giants nodded in thanks. I murmured a quick apology before turning back to my phone. “Sorry about that. I have to go. Stuff to do.”

“What’s a baseline?”

I felt my heart skip a beat. “What?”

“I heard what they said. What, exactly is a baseline?”

“It’s just a word for—” I couldn’t think of anything.

The voice on the other end of the line was iron-hard. “Adam, if you’ve been lying to me, I swear, I’ll lead the team myself, even if I have to tear that city apart to find you.”

I sighed, giving up. “Yeah, that won’t work.”

“Wait, what?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Look, Chris, I appreciate you trying to watch out for me, I really do. But I’m doing fine over here.”

“Adam, don’t you dare lie to me again—”

“No more lies,” I interrupted. “I’ll say it straight: If you send your team to Domina, the gangs will chew you up and spit you out.”

There was a pause on the other end.

“Good God, you’re serious.”

“As I said, I’M fine. I’ll be home for Christmas and everything. I promise.”

Another sigh. “Well, I can tell you’re not lying now. Of course, that almost certainly means you’re insane.”

“I’m hanging up now. Say hi to my parents for me.”

“Any chance you’ll tell me the truth about the toy maker now?”

“Nope,” I said, and clicked my phone shut.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 160)

Chris Clemens will be an important character later. Adam did promise to go home for Christmas, after all.

Assuming he’s still alive by then.