Tag Archives: Demons

Scene 326 – Eversio

LEENO

EVERSIO

I watched with interest as the humans reacted to the chaos of an unprovoked, system-wide assault.

“Reports of attacks on the asteroid belt. Sylvia and Cybele folded instantly, but Ceres and Vesta are fighting back.”

“First reports from Lemuria, confirm the attack. There are also ships in orbit, closing in on Arean Watch.”

“Hearing something similar from Cytherean and Hermean. Looks like they’re going after the space stations.”

Laura Medina, the human with the lie-detecting ability, looked thoughtful. “What about the Watches farther out? Any word back?”

The woman from the moon nodded. “Haven’t gotten turnaround yet, but first responses are positive. Jovian Watch and Cronian Watch haven’t seen any alien ships, and Uranian Watch saw some, but they went dark and were missed. No word back from Neptunian Watch yet. They should have responded by now.”

Medina rolled her eyes. I could hear the singing of her soul, sense that she had reactivated her lie-detecting ability, but I didn’t say anything. “It’s a science station. They’re probably just too busy to obey basic communications protocol.”

The moon-woman smiled. “Perhaps.”

“Enough,” Butler, the big human who seemed to be in charge, said. “They seem to be attacking everywhere at once. We do not have the ships to reach anyone in time, so we will have to leave everyone to their own devices for the moment.” He glared at me. “Unless you can call off your people. Do you have FTL communications?”

It took a second for my translator to give me a likely explanation for that. It didn’t like acronyms. “No. Most likely, all the ships were simply ordered before they were sent off to start their attacks at the same time.”

“Small favors,” Medina said. “That’s one advantage we have.”

The president of America gave her a look. I had read about him and his country a bit in the notes Medina had given me, but I still didn’t understand exactly who he was or what he was doing here. “You have those tele-whatsits across the system?”

Medina scowled. “No. That’s why it’s just a small favor.”

The man who always stood close to President Martinez—I hadn’t learned his name—looked thoughtful. “You know, if we’re going to do the full alliance against an alien menace thing, we should start shipping telepaths to every base we have.”

“While an excellent idea for the future, it will hardly help us now,” Medina said. “Even with modern advancements, it still takes at least a month to get to Mars, and that’s assuming that nothing intercepts them. We need to deal with the para first.”

I thought for a moment. “Mars is the fourth planet, correct?”

Moon-woman nodded. “Right before the asteroid belt.”

I did some calculations in my head. “Your ships are about six times faster than we anticipated. I’m impressed.”

“How fast are yours?” Martinez asked.

“Just slightly slower,” I said.

“But probably far more fuel-efficient,” Medina said.

I nodded, conceding the point. “My people have been space-faring for centuries, even though this was our first time truly leaving our star system. Fuel efficiency is usually more important than raw speed.”

Butler frowned. “If we’re all done with the posturing and discussing theoretical plans for the future, we have some more immediate matters to discuss. Ambassador Leenoreynrey, please. Tell us all you can about these attacks.”

I glanced over at the map that was projected onto the wall. It was primitive, but it was color-coded, which made it easy for me to understand instinctively. “The cerulean blue are your ships, and the Ferrari red are my people’s, correct?”

Everyone stared at me. I frowned. Had I said something wrong?

“…yes,” Butler said after a moment.

“And the Gainsborough are…”

“You mean the gray ones?”

I scrunched up my face. Such an imprecise word, gray. “Yes. What do those dots represent?”

“Neutral ships,” Medina said.

I cocked my head, a gesture my translator told me meant light confusion. “I thought humans were the only species in the system?” I had known the information she had given me was censored, of course, but I had assumed it wasn’t that bad.

Most of the humans looked confused, but Medina had clearly already figured it out. “We’re the only species, but we’re not united. There are still many, many individual countries on Earth, and the space colonies barely pay lip service to the nations that supposedly own them.”

Many of the humans looked annoyed, but no one looked surprised.

“Oh,” I said. Quite a few confusing things made more sense now. “Well, then…” I shook my head. “It is not my place to tell you how to handle your own politics. Clearly I don’t know enough. But what I do know is this:” I pointed at the map. “That is not all of our ships. It’s barely even a large fraction. I suspect that they are the standard armed reconnaissance ships that were dropped as we were traveling through your system at FTL speed. That’s why they’re all over your system, when it would take years to go from here to some of the outer planets.” I had memorized standard scouting protocols centuries ago.

“And what does that mean?” one of the other men asked. He… Petrov, I was pretty sure. The names had blurred past me.

“It means this isn’t a real attack,” I said. “It’s a show of force, or maybe a test. A way of reminding you that they have assets throughout the system.”

“Seems like a poor idea to use that if they’re not planning to follow up on it,” Petrov said.

“Most of our stations are unarmed, and half the rest may as well be,” Medina said. “Even with just a few scout ships, they might be able to conquer a significant portion of the system. I doubt they’ll be able to hold anything, but they’ll make a pretty strong point.”

“This is a standard way of opening negotiations for my people,” I said. “I suspect they will be calling once the attacks have finished.”

Martinez pointed to the map. “Can you tell us which of these colonies your people will be able to capture? Just going by the ships.”

I glanced over them. “All of the farther ones, easily. These ones.”

“Anything past Jupiter,” Medina said to the others. “Not unexpected. I’d be surprised if all the stations on Neptune, Saturn, and Uranus had a hundred bullets between them. I’m sure they’ll surrender as soon as they can.”

“How do your people treat captured prisoners?” a woman asked. I wasn’t sure who she represented. I was pretty sure her name was Korea.

“Reasonably well, by your standards,” I said. It had been in the information Medina gave me, and it had been the first thing I looked for. “Confined to a room, with food and modular light levels. Interrogation is illegal until negotiations have started.”

They all looked surprised at that. “Really?” Martinez asked.

I nodded. “The Right of Silence is sacred in our culture.”

Everyone glanced at Zero. I didn’t look at her. The Right of Silence was sacred, but there weren’t many laws protecting speech. Thankfully, if the prisoners talked too much, the worst that would happen was that they would be gagged. Making someone Colorless was far more complicated, both legally and practically.

“All right,” Petrov said. “You say your people will open negotiations. Who will they contact, and where will these negotiations take place?”

I blinked in surprise. “I… don’t know, actually. The negotiations will take place on the mothership, of course, that’s part of why they attacked, to gain the leverage to demand that. But since you don’t have a unified government, I have no idea who they would contact.” I glanced around the table. “Who has the most powerful military?”

Everyone looked at Martinez.

He smirked. “Well, I don’t like to brag…”

“Most likely, they will send a diplomatic shuttle to your capital,” I said. I had no idea where that was, but the elders would surely have figured it out by now.

“Maybe not,” the moon-woman said. “They don’t have anything in space. How would that affect the power equation?”

It took me a moment to puzzle out what she meant. It wasn’t a euphemism that my translator had in its database. “It shouldn’t affect it much. I suppose if one of the colonies has a sufficiently powerful military, they might be declared the leaders of the system, but that seems unlikely.”

“None of the colonies have more than a few ships,” Butler said. “I doubt very much any of them will be mistaken as the leaders of our species.”

“I should probably be getting back, then,” Martinez said, adjusting his clothing. “Need to receive the ambassador in person and all that.” He turned to me. “Anything else I’ll need to know about?”

“Nothing immediate,” I said.

He nodded. “Excellent.” He turned back to Butler. “I would like to speak to you about Silk at some point, though.”

Butler gestured at a small human woman with tattoos of an indecipherable design. “Lily has given me most of the details.”

Martinez chuckled. “I need more details. Maybe we can talk on the way to that mayor you mentioned earlier.”

“Aren’t you the mayor?” Martinez’s friend said to Butler.

Butler smiled. “President. A different mayor wanted to meet him.”

The human with the jet black skin and tail smiled. “Oh, you’re sending him down to Timmy? I have a friend who has family down there.”

“Yes, I’m sure that Mayor Konstantopoulos will be happy to—” There was a knock on the door, and Butler frowned. “Hm. Odd.” He glanced at Medina. “Guards are still in place, correct?”

Medina checked a device, a small brick of plastic with a glass screen. “Yes. This isn’t an attack.”

“Attackers wouldn’t knock anyway,” Martinez said with a smile.

Butler sighed. “Some do, in this city.” He raised his voice. “Enter.”

The door opened and a human woman with a royal blue ribbon in her hair stepped in. She wore simple clothes and had something long at her side that was holstered like a weapon. A sword? Seemed an odd choice for a technologically advanced society.

But when she scanned the room, I could feel her singing with the universe, taking just a bit of power to speed her body and mind. That would be a very useful ability for a swordswoman to have.

She stepped aside and two more people stepped in. One was another human with a sword, though this one had a red ribbon in his hair instead of blue. The third was a subspecies of humanity I hadn’t encountered yet, a hairy creature with large ears, curling horns, and backward-bending legs that ended in hooves.

I noticed that many of the humans flinched when the creature walked through the door, though they tried to hide it.

The strange man looked around the room before settling on Butler and the woman standing next to him, Lily.

He bowed deeply at the waist. “Mister Butler. Honored Mother. It is a pleasure to see you both.”

I cocked my head. So the small woman was an elder? Did this mean that older humans were smaller, like the para? They didn’t have stages like we did, but perhaps they shrank over time.

“Speak, man,” Butler said.

The man straightened. “Of course. I am Ziege, of the bulezau. I come bearing a message.”

Oh.

The timing was too perfect. It was obvious now that I thought about it. Who cared about the armies and fleets when the real power was in politics? In the end, the most important place in the world was simply the place where all the important people flocked to.

“The para are sending an ambassador, Mister Butler. They wish to speak to you.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 326)

The para have names for every single possible color, which are number-based and also used for their names. Since different para see different colors, it is important for them to be precise when describing colors. Leeno’s translator changes these names into the far less logical human color names, which of course are not used with anywhere near the same frequency.

Oh, and Leeno’s eyes give him color vision that’s mostly the same as human. He just has a bit more red.

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.

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 299 – Relinquo

RELINQUO

ADAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough. That was why we were dating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the White Cat.”

“Never heard of him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you recognize anyone in her entourage?”

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

“What about the medium-sized one?”

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

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

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

“Those the Dagonites?” I asked.

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

“Why don’t they have an entourage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but you need to leave soon.”

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

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

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

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

She rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

I sighed and sat back in my seat.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what’s the problem?”

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

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

I scowled. “It is not.”

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

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

She just sat there, smirking.

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the scenes (scene 299)

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

Scene 280 – Portam Daemonia

PORTAM DAEMONIA

JEFFERIES

My name is Paul Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

My group was on the south side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty. We found ourselves in a wide-open square of shops and little restaurants, with a wide street running down the center. We moved into the square, policed the area, and moved on. We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us.

That’s when everything started going wrong.

They were ready for us. The second we stepped out of the square down the main street, we were greeted by gunfire. Dozens of men with horns fired at us with professional precision. Three of my comrades were cut down in seconds, and I barely managed to dive behind cover with a bullet in my leg.

“Just do whatever you have to do so I can fight,” I told the medic.

He shook his head. “If I do this wrong, it could result in permanent damage. We need to be careful.”

“I don’t care about permanent damage! Just get me on my damned feet!”

There was an explosion. Huge chunks of our wall blew past us. We had built it from tables and chairs thrown into place under covering fire. It wasn’t enough to stand up to anything more than small-arms fire.

“What the hell was that!?” the sergeant yelled.

“No idea, sir!” someone called back. “Must have been some kind of missile!”

He cursed. “Hold that line! And where are my echoes!?”

Another explosion rocked the barricade. A table missed the sergeant by about a foot.

“You and you!” he said, pointing at me and one other man. “Do nothing but watch this hole! Something pokes its head through, shoot it!”

The two of us both nodded and leveraged our rifles at the gap.

I fought down my pounding heart. This wasn’t my first battle. I wouldn’t act like a green little recruit just because I had barely been born a month ago. Okay, it was my first war, but still. I ignored the gunfire, the screams of pain and rage, the roars of challenge from the things on the other side of the wall.

Guard the gap. That was all that mattered.

The man next to me screamed as something dropped on top of him.

I jumped, but shifted my focus over to him. He was flailing around too much, I couldn’t get a clean shot. Maybe I should have just taken it, but my body was acting on autopilot. Working on old bodyguard instincts that didn’t apply any more.

I reached forward and grabbed the thing that was clinging to his back. I ripped it off him by kicking off him for leverage and tossed it onto the street.

It was like something out of a nightmare.

Small, maybe three or four feet tall, with thin and spindly limbs. It had muscles like steel wires, green skin, and needle-like teeth. It hissed at me and leaped, but I punched it in the face mid-flight. It produced a satisfying crunch as its jaw broke. I placed my boot on its chest, pinning it down.

“Sergeant!” I called. “Prisoner!”

He frowned, and I realized my mistake. We couldn’t keep prisoners. Killing an enemy in combat was one thing, but executing one we had captured was another. Half of us had cameras on our helmets, so there was no way we could get away with this.

And our iron-clad morals, of course. Those also stopped us.

Thankfully—for a certain definition of the word—he was spared that decision by the barricade exploding. I was knocked back, more than enough for my captive to escape, but I wasn’t worried about that any more.

Dozens of… I didn’t know what. Demons? Creatures with horns and red skin and tails. They marched forward in perfect formation, firing in a line to drive us back. We were hardly helpless; we fired back, and even managed to take a few down. But they moved to reinforce themselves, not even blinking at the casualties. We were driven back to the gate in a handful of minutes.

Then an echo stepped out of the gate.

Ten feet tall and built new from shining steel, the mechanized suit was halfway between a tank and a suit of armor. Two large legs brought it into the city, and two fully articulate arms carried a gun bigger than I was. The pilot inside the chest cockpit swept a line of fire over the enemy, and their line buckled. They began to retreat. Swiftly and efficiently, while laying down covering fire, but they still retreated.

Then a wall appeared.

I had to look twice, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. One second the line was collapsing, the next the echo was reloading. Before it could do anything, a dozen men ran in. They slammed their hands on the ground and a ten-foot tall wall of concrete appeared. It blocked off the entire square. I had no doubt that the enemy soldiers were regrouping behind that wall.

A few more echoes stepped out, ready to fight, but they didn’t shoot yet. Did we even have ordnance heavy enough to breach that wall? The echoes could jump it, but the rest of us couldn’t, and they’d be overwhelmed alone.

And there were still questions. I didn’t care what kind of magical bio-tech you had, people couldn’t make a wall just by… by what? By thinking it? I had no idea what they had even done.

“Sir,” I said to the sergeant, who happened to be nearby. “I—”

“No, I don’t know either,” he interrupted with a growl. “Right now, we need to fortify right here. We underestimated them. We’re not going to make that mistake twice.”

“…okay. Actually, I was going to ask where you want me. With the echoes, or watching the wall?”

He looked surprised, but thought for a second. “The wall. They’ll send scouts over soon.”

Before I could do more than nod, a gunshot so loud it seemed to shake the world resounded around the square.

A moment later, one of the echoes toppled, a massive hole in the cockpit.

The sergeant cursed. “Sniper! Find him!”

I glanced over the ridiculously high rooftops. “What is he even using?

“Something anti-materiel,” the sergeant muttered. “Maybe even a railgun.”

I struggled to remember my advanced weapons training. “Don’t those burn out after like three shots?”

“Yes, but three dead echoes is three too many. We need to—”

“There!” someone shouted, firing at one of the lower rooftops nearby. I wasn’t sure he actually got his shots within a mile of the sniper, but it was enough to scare him off, at least.

“Someone clean out that echo!” the sergeant yelled. “And be ready! They’ll try a push any second!”

They seemed to take that as their cue.

We were expecting them to jump over the wall. That was our first mistake.

The wall disappeared. A solid wall of asphalt and concrete molded back into the ground as if it were soft clay shaped by invisible hands. The demon soldiers opened fire immediately, cutting through us like wheat. Dozens of men fell, and one echo stumbled, as a rain of fire managed to pierce the cockpit and kill the pilot inside. The demons must be using some sort of armor piercing rounds. The suits were strong, but they weren’t tanks.

Next to me, the sergeant hid behind an overturned table. He yelled into his radio, demanding an artillery barrage from the ships. I could hear the calm voice of mission control denying him, but promising more reinforcements.

A wave of men rushed through the gate, pushing the demons back again. They retreated again, laying down covering fire. Those strange men and women from before stepped forward. It took me a minute to realize most of them didn’t have horns or weird skin colors. Did that mean anything? They interrupted my thoughts by raising another wall of stone.

I looked around. Dozens of dead, too few of them enemies. The only reason we hadn’t lost more was because we hadn’t had more. When the next rush came, they’d kill us all, reinforcements or no. Especially since all three of our echo pilots were dead. We had more on the ships, but they wouldn’t want to risk them.

But…

I rushed forward, shoving aside one of the men who seemed to be in shock. I slipped into the open cockpit of one of the echoes. It was the one that the sniper had taken out. There was a giant hole in the top of the shielding, but the body had been removed. I could ignore the blood splashed everywhere.

I slipped into the seat and pressed the green start button. The hatch swung closed, and the screen on the inside booted up. Of course, the big hole, about the size of a fist, made things a little confusing. But other than that the HUD showed a perfect representation of the outside world. There was even an overlay identifying friendlies and so on.

I slipped my arms into the metal sleeves at my side and flexed my fingers. The machine echoed my movements perfectly. I could even feel resistance in the controls from where one of the hands was stuck under some rubble. I shook it off, and put my feet on the pedals. The echo slipped similar sleeves around my legs, and I was soon able to awkwardly stand.

I grinned. I was driving an echo. Sure, someone was going to kill me in about ten seconds, but I didn’t have long to live anyway. I had always wanted to drive one of these things.

From my higher vantage point, I could almost see over the wall. Not quite, but enough to see the horns of some of the taller things on the other side. Glancing around, I found one of the echo’s discarded guns. It synced up with my HUD, showing me how much ammo I had left. Seemed like I had a full clip. Good, because I wasn’t sure how to reload.

The wall came down.

Acting on instinct, I opened fire. I think I killed a dozen men on my first pass, then another dozen on the second. The gun didn’t shoot bullets so much as giant lead spikes. They cut through infantry like water.

Behind me, another of the echoes rose, then the third. Someone had taken my idea and run with it. The sergeant? Maybe. Didn’t matter.

I didn’t get any orders over the radio. Maybe it was busted, or maybe they knew I knew what I was doing. With no other option, I advanced, firing carefully and effectively. The other two echoes mimicked on either side. For a moment, we were gods. No one could touch us.

Then I ran out of ammo.

Remembering what happened last time an echo tried to reload, I didn’t even bother. I threw the gun with all my strength, punching a hole through the enemy line with a sickening crunch. The other two echoes continued firing, but they wouldn’t last long.

The demons started to retreat.

Oh no. I knew this game. I wasn’t doing it again. With a grunt, I dashed forward, charging with my shoulder. I didn’t aim for the demons, but for the weird people making the walls, hiding behind them.

They yelped in surprise and tried to run, but too late. I kicked one a good twenty feet into the closest building. I grabbed another with a mechanical hand, slamming him into the ground twice. I tossed his broken body aside and grabbed for the next.

But they were wise to my tricks now. Their initial panic had faded, and they retreated out of my range. They were planning something, but I couldn’t tell what. All I knew was that I had to do something, and quick.

The strange men and women were swept away, cleared from the street as if by a broom.

I turned to see one of the other echoes, without any obvious damage, standing next to me. It was wielding a sign pole that had clearly been ripped straight out of the concrete. The sign itself was now covered in blood where it had cut through the enemy like a blade.

I nodded in thanks and continued forward. I hoped to take out the rest of the stone-makers before they had a chance to recover.

Before I could, though, I heard screeches to my side. I turned back to see the pole-wielding echo covered in those small, multicolored demons. They had dropped down from the sky, and were crawling over his back, looking for weaknesses. He struggled and flailed, but couldn’t get a good angle at any of them.

I cursed and stomped over, knowing full well this was a distraction to give the demons time to retreat. I just didn’t have any choice; the echo was too valuable.

I grabbed a few of the little ones and threw them away as hard as I could, but I wasn’t sure I actually killed any of them. In just a few moments, the rest of them scrambled off. They ran off and clambered up the sides of the buildings before I could even blink.

I looked over the echo to make sure there were no bombs or other surprises left behind, then gave a thumbs-up to the pilot. The entire cockpit bobbed a little. It was the closest we could come to a nod in these things. He picked up the fallen street sign and twirled it like a quarterstaff.

“Jefferies!” the sergeant yelled as he walked up. “Good job!”

I guess my radio was out after all. “Thank you, sir!”

“We got that sniper, so you don’t have to worry about that any more! Just be careful, and give ’em hell! We’re bringing in reinforcements as we speak.”

I nodded, relieved. The rules on echoes were still weird. Technically, he should make me give up the seat to a trained pilot. But the whole point of the ghost-movement system meant that you didn’t have to be trained to pilot one of these things. As long as I did well, no one would mind.

Besides, what were they gonna do? Execute me a week before my artificial body fell apart like so much trash?

“Help us make a barricade again!” the sergeant continued. “These things aren’t going to be gone for long.”

I nodded again, and all three of us moved to help. The third echo had been in the back, shooting while we kept the enemy distracted up close. Maybe he had been the one who took out the sniper. I hadn’t been paying attention.

A drum sounded.

I turned to the other echoes. Had they heard it too?

The drum came again, a few more beats this time.

Then again, and again.

I recognized the sound. Not the exact tune, but I recognized the sound, the feel.

It was a war drum.

Something walked out from behind the shattered barricade we had set up earlier, where the demons had retreated past. The thing was eight feet tall and covered in crudely forged steel, made to look like some sort of barbarian scavenger armor. There were spikes and breaks, patches of metal on metal on metal. Two great horns, also metal but shaped like a wild buck’s, rose from its forehead.

It carried a sword over one shoulder.

The sword was six feet long and a good handspan or more wide. It had a battered edge that looked like it had been attacked with a hammer—or maybe it had attacked the hammer. It was solid steel and must have weighed a good hundred pounds. The thing carried it as easily as a baseball bat.

A mech. They had a mech. An American echo, I would assume, but it could have been the Soviet or Chinese model. It was clearly heavily modified, as it was more humanoid than mine. It actually had a head, for one, a cold steel mask like a helmet.

How had they gotten their hands on it? Militaries kept close watch on their mechs. How had they kept it working for so long in the salty air?

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. It was just something to fight.

The demons followed behind their champion, leaving a good twenty feet of open space. They marched in perfect rhythm to the drum beats, quick but not hurried. They didn’t even have their guns raised.

The mech stopped. The drumbeats stopped with him, the last beat echoing with his last step.

Ich bin der Erlkönig, der Jäger,” he said, his voice loud and carrying. It didn’t even have the scratchy quality of a radio. “Kriegsherr der kobolde, Pförtner des Spirac, Fünfte Tor der Hölle.” He lifted that massive sword off his shoulder and pointed it me. “Who are you, machine-walker, who stand against me and my city?” He had a thick German accent, and I was guessing that was the language he was speaking.

Don’t stand out…

Way too late for that.

I didn’t say anything. Couldn’t think of anything, and with the radio busted no one could hear me anyway. I elbowed the echo with the sign. He nodded, charging forward, ground shaking under his feet, improvised weapon at the ready. I followed just a few steps behind, ready to grab the enemy mech and rip his arm off if I had to.

He moved like lightning.

One second he was standing there calmly, sword resting. The next there was a mechanical arm on the ground, severed at the shoulder.

The echo with the sign didn’t let that stop him. It helped that echoes didn’t have pain feedback. He swung the pole at the enemy mech with one hand. There was still enough force that even a tank would have to sit up and take notice.

The barbarian mech parried the blow with his sword and kicked out, sending my ally reeling onto his back. Echoes weren’t good at getting up from that position. With only one arm he was a sitting duck as the enemy stepped forward, sword raised to plunge straight into the cockpit.

I tackled the barbarian at a full run, half a ton of metal slamming into him at maybe sixty miles per hour. We both went flying, rolling across the street, and his sword wheeled off into the distance.

Everything was happening too fast, my damaged HUD couldn’t keep up. The mech was punching me even as we rolled, but he couldn’t get enough leverage to do real damage. We hit the wall, and I was on top. Using my better position, I punched him in the face, hoping that’s where his sensors were located. If I could blind him—

He kicked me off, sending me sprawling, but I managed to scramble to my feet. Maybe not in the most dignified way possible, but I did it. I closed my hand into a fist, ready for another fight, but frowned as there was some resistance. I glanced down at the hand and saw that I had managed to get the mech’s mask at some point. Good. That meant I would be able to see all the delicate machinery—

I blinked, and looked again.

My enemy was walking forward, slowly and purposefully. He had lost his sword, and most of his helmet was gone. I had the mask, but the rest was scattered across the street in scraps of twisted metal.

Under the mask was a face. A human face. Yes, it was green, but it was still a living human face. Twinkling eyes and a grinning mouth full of far too many sharp teeth.

It… what? It wasn’t a mech? How was that even possible? How could anyone fight a mech in hand to hand? I didn’t care if you were eight feet tall, humans just were not strong enough to do that.

“What the hell is going on in this city?” I whispered.

My opponent had better hearing than I thought. “Hell?” he said with a laugh. “You walked right into Hell, machine-walker. My goblins watch the skies.” He waved at the soldiers behind him. “Sargeras’ hellions patrol the streets. The Satanists and the bulezau and all the others stand ready and waiting. While you fight me.” His grin seemed wide enough to split his face right in half. “Hell is what is going on in this city, outsider.”

I gritted my teeth and rushed forward to punch him.

He caught my metal first in one hand.

“See you on the other side,” he said. He thrust his hand through the armored cockpit, crushing my neck with a single sharp squeeze.

Behind the Scenes (scene 280)

Echoes are one of the things I was worried about, but I think they’re coming off well. They sit somewhere between tanks and heavy infantry, and their ability to ghost the movements of their pilots means that minimal training is required to use them. This makes them very useful, but they’re still far from invincible.

Scene 251 – Talio

TALIO

KELLY

I scratched at the fixer on my arm. It was always an annoyance at the back of my mind, but for the last few weeks it had been worse than usual. At first, I had assumed it was just itching from the wounds I had inflicted during the Rampage, when in my blind animal fury I had tried to rip the device off my arm without properly disengaging the needles first, but it didn’t look like that was the case.

Kat smacked my hand, glaring at me to let me know she’s bring out the claws if I didn’t stop. I glared right back, but buckled under her withering stare after only a moment. She was right, of course, and I knew I didn’t have a leg to stand on. First rule any ex-Belian or ex-hag learned was ‘Don’t mess with the fixer.’

Before I could say anything to her—to yell at her or thank her, I don’t know—Jarasax and George came back with the beers, placing one in front of everyone. Plus the soda for me, of course. Alcohol doesn’t affect you when you’re on the fixer, and it makes it taste weird.

“I met with Adele and Gregorii today,” Alex said as he sipped his beer. “Turns out she got illusions.”

“Light-based, I’m guessing?” I asked. Illusions, we had found, could be split roughly between the kind that were caused by directly manipulating light, and the kind that were caused by causing people to hallucinate specific things.

“Light-based,” Alex confirmed. “Shows up on cameras and everything. Gregorii’s got this sort of light absorption thing to boost his stats, like those blood-drinkers. It’s actually kind of cool.”

George shook his head as he started on a glass that was about the size of the other four combined. “I swear, every single angel has something related to light. Somebody up there has a bad sense of humor.”

“I didn’t get light,” Alex noted.

I shrugged. “Well, it’s based on your desires. Huntsman wanted to protect people, he got shields. The aves wanted to fly, they got variants on that. And every freaking Dagonite got a specific variant of kinesis.”

“I met one who has shifting,” Jarasax pointed out. “She can jump from her Dagonite form to normal in a blink.”

Kat signed something.

“Shifting is what you do,” I reminded her. “It’s the fast one, but it doesn’t last very long. Morphing is the slow one, but it lasts forever.”

Jarasax grinned over his beer. “My morphing is fast.”

“That’s because you’re a cheater,” I pointed out. “Besides, you said you had a limit. What was it?”

“Only things I’ve touched recently.”

“That’s right.” I waved my soda, nearly spilling it in the process. “Still, the power to turn to stone or whatever is still pretty cool.”

Sax nodded and took another swig.

But Alex looked curious. “I wonder what would happen if you tried to turn into a liquid.”

“Doesn’t work.” At our stares, he shrugged. “I thought of it too. I was scared, but I can control what changes. Figure I’d turn one finger to water, see if I could still control it or if it would just fall off.” He shook his head. “Nothing. Reservoir didn’t even deplete.”

“That’s interesting,” Alex said. “So you can only copy solids.”

“I guess. Explains why I never accidentally copied the air.”

“Have there been any interesting themes around changeling powers?” I cut in. “I mean, vampires and angels get about what you expect, like we were saying, but we’ve also been seeing a lot of kemos with shifting or morphing, giants get powers related to whatever myth they follow, that sort of thing.”

“Demons don’t seem to have any theme,” Alex pointed out.

“Demons are demons,” I said. “They don’t stick with one culture for long, you know that. They like to change it up. I mean, you were a demon for a few months there at first.” Before he could answer, I waved him off. “But there are still some. Like, the hellions tend towards powers with obvious military applications. That sort of thing.”

“Well, there’s nothing like that for the changelings,” Jarasax said, bringing the conversation back on track. “Though, I haven’t exactly been in contact with Nemeni recently. I don’t have access to the roll call.”

“Nemeni?” I asked. The name sounded familiar.

“Nemeni of the Blood-Doused Hunters,” he elaborated. “Founder and warlord of the clan.”

George shook his head again, but this time in good humor. “It’s still weird to hear about changeling warlords.”

“Yeah, a lot of them still don’t like being called that,” Sax admitted. “Spent too much time fighting warlords, you know?”

George patted him on the shoulder. “At least the fey are being quiet.”

Sax snorted and took a swig of his beer. “You kidding? It’s terrifying. They’ve never been this quiet before. Ever. Last time they went for a few days without a show, they came back with that Wild Hunt thing. It’s been weeks this time.” He shook his head. “They’re planning something. Dunno what.”

“They still have that gargant running around killing people, though the frequency has dropped,” I noted. “Once or twice a week instead of five times a day. Has anyone at least figured out what they’re after?”

“No,” he said with a sigh. “Still no statements. No one’s even seen the damn gargant; the fey are being careful, sending it only to places with a closed security feed that can be stolen or destroyed. They’re still paying retribution, though.”

Kat signed a question.

“That’s exactly right,” I agreed. “Why? Why did they bother becoming a culture? Why go to all that trouble, just to make it so that they have to pay off anyone they hurt? They could have recruited without signing anything first.”

The Middle-Eastern changeling chuckled. “Oh, we figured that one out. It’s actually rather clever, when you stop to think about it.”

I sat back in my chair, frowning. “Do tell.”

“The fey have to pay retribution now,” he said, still smiling. “But in return, after they’ve paid, no one can attack them for their crimes. A few people have done it anyway, killed some of the feyborn and even one or two Princes. The fey didn’t even kill them, just calmly called for retribution. Necessarius came in, made the call, and the fey got to kill off the offenders perfectly legally.”

“They’re… protecting their followers?” I asked slowly, not quite believing it.

“They’re protecting their minions,” Sax corrected firmly. “This is not mothers sheltering babes. This is greedy misers protecting their investments. They’re planning something big, and need the feyborn in order to do it.”

“Have the minions been doing anything?” Alex said. “I mean, have they been interacting with the other cultures at all? Making deals, alliances, anything suspicious like that?”

“Probably. But if so, everyone’s keeping a tight lid on it. They mostly stay underground, in their demesnes and the sewers and stuff. They’ve pretty much had the run of the place since Obox-ob disappeared.”

Obox-ob, the Prince of Vermin, was the Power of the ekolids, a culture of bug demons that hid in the sewers. He had always been private, but around the time the Composer first showed up, he had fallen off the radar completely. His men weren’t saying much, but without their warlord, the fey hadn’t had much difficulty forcing the bugs out of the sewers and onto the surface. We were starting to see a few of them scuttling around with the rest of us, though they mostly kept to themselves.

Before we could continue the conversation, my phone rang. I frowned and checked the text, then rolled my eyes. “Blood and shadow, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” Sax asked as he started putting on his coat. The others were largely following suit. “The Paladins need help?”

We had been given an indefinite vacation now that Akane’s kensei had taken over guarding duties. I’d be more insulted, but I had met a few of them, and they all seemed competent enough. Besides, they all knew where we were if they needed us. We still stopped by every few days to discuss strategy and such.

“Worse,” I muttered. “There’s been another of those weird gargant attacks.”

George drained the rest of his beer in one massive gulp and slammed the glass down. “Where?”

I sighed. “Acheron. Nishrek, specifically, on Avalas Street.”

They all paused.

“…are you sure we can’t just let this one go?” Alex said after a moment.

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “This isn’t up for discussion. Sax, bring the van around.”

Acheron wasn’t too far, which is why we were called. That being said, it wasn’t like most domains, which were just a handful of blocks at most. It was more like Nosferatu territory—a massive sprawl of unaffiliated and uncooperative clans, broods, and houses stuffed into a nest of buildings and streets that sometimes seemed like nothing but dead-ends and dirty back alleys.

But, despite the area’s well-deserved reputation, there were real streets, which, while not exactly well-maintained, were at least in good enough condition to drive on. The roads were lined with dilapidated, windowless buildings, most still covered in the scars of the Rampage weeks ago. Armed gunmen prowled the sidewalks, even more so than in other districts.

The main thoroughfare was Styx, as could probably be expected, and we found Avalas Street a mile or so down the road. From there, Nishrek wasn’t too difficult to spot.

It had no walls. It was a forty or fifty-story tall ‘scraper that had no walls. Just floors and support columns to hold up the ceiling above it. As we drove up, I could see right inside, though as we got closer the angle made it difficult to get a good view of anything above the first floor.

It was an extremely odd design, and one without an inch of privacy. As I understood it, most of the domain was actually underground, deeper than even the sewers and concrete and into the ancient trash of the island itself. It was an excessive amount of time and effort, all things considered, and most people didn’t understand why it had been built this way.

But Nishrek did not gain the name ‘the Fifty Battlefields’ for nothing.

Each and every floor was a training ground, carefully crafted to mimic a specific battlefield. The first, the only one I could see as we walked up, was the simplest. Pillars were decorated to look like trees, concrete boulders were scattered around, and there was even a river running through the heart.

It was a forest battle. Far from common in Domina City, but we had a few parks here and there. Plus, fighting in forests was fun.

Right now, though, there was no fighting going on. The entire floor was quiet as a grave, though I could hear the sound of faux-gunfire from the floors above. Both teams were sitting around, sulking, barely even able to summon the energy to drink the beers they had found somewhere.

Acheron was a demon territory, but the teams in front of me were vampires. Mals, if I was reading the insignia right. It was hardly unexpected. Demons, with their focus on individual freedom, were a transitional culture for many people, and thus they were on good terms with the other cultures as a general rule. Nishrek, in particular, earned their keep by renting out their battlefields to other cultures for training.

As soon as they saw us, one of the drakes stood up. He was a tall, deeply tanned man with a strong yet thin tail that was knotting itself with worry. He still managed to stay strong, though, and met my gaze without fear.

“You’re Necessarian, correct?”

“Correct,” I said, as I shook his hand. His grip was a little on the weak side. “Corporal Drakela Sanguinas. Please, call me Kelly.” I waved my hand. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here? I don’t see any corpses.”

“Over here,” Alex called from deeper in the ‘forest’ before the vampire could answer.

Our greeter went first, and I was happy to let him play guide. The rest of us followed him to one of the larger fake boulders, to find Alex crouching behind it, looking over a small pile of bodies. There were a number of splatters of green everywhere, including on the corpses themselves, and it took me a second to identify it as paint.

“This is how you found them?” I asked.

The vampire nodded. “Razvan found them. He, uh, thought they were on the opposing team, so he shot them a couple times on instinct.” He looked embarrassed. “He’s really one of our best men, he just gets tunnel vision.”

“It’s fine,” I said. I knelt down next to the grisly pile of gore. It smelled terrible, but I had smelled worse. “I’m thinking… two, three hours. Honored Nightstalker, how exactly did you find them?”

It took our guide a second to respond. “Who, me? But I’m not—anyway. We had contracted with Bahgtru to use this space for a few hours. We got here an hour ago, started the game half an hour ago. Found them… maybe five minutes after that.”

“Did anyone use the space before you today?” Jarasax asked as he took notes.

“Uh, I’m not sure, you’d have to ask—”

“No, no one did.”

I turned to see a tall, broad shouldered demon with green skin and a single horn curving out of his forehead like a spike. His eyes were marble-black, most likely marking him as an orc. Despite his size, he wore a sharply tailored suit, and appeared to be unarmed. Sure, with his buffs he’d be lethal even bare-handed, but even the most powerful warlords tended to keep a gun on them at all times—or, failing that, bodyguards.

“Knight Bahgtru,” the vampire greeted him with a pleasant nod. “Thank you for coming.”

“Pleasure is all mine, Noble Zepar,” the demon grunted. “Not really a Power, though.”

It took me a second to process what was happening. I pointed at the drake with the tail. “So… you’re Zepar. Spymaster of the Mals?”

“And training master, unfortunately,” he said with a sigh. “Losing two of our warlords was a blow. I’ve been handling much of the subtler running of the culture, while Noble Nyashk takes care of the more violent side of things.”

I had heard something about Nyashk, but pushed it to the back of my mind for now. I turned back to the demon. “And you, Honored Devil, are Bahgtru Break-Bone, son of Gruumsh himself. Is that correct?”

He bowed formally. “Of course. At your service.”

Well, his presence made it clear that old One-Eye was taking this seriously, if nothing else. “Okay. And you rented this space to the Mals for training, but no one was here before them? Not even any cleaning crew?”

He straightened. “Correct and correct. Noble Nyashk contacted me, actually, asking for use of one of the Battlefields for the sake of power training. We’ve had a lot of people using them for that in the past few weeks. There were a few groups running through here to reach higher floors, but there is no reason to suspect they would have found the bodies. The cleaning crew was last here six hours ago, and they didn’t mention anything.”

Jarasax finished his notes, but didn’t look up from his pad. “Honored Devil, we were told this was a gargant attack. Was that a miscommunication, or is there something we’re missing about the scene? I was under the impression that the fey’s new pet didn’t leave much behind.”

Bahgtru blinked. “Oh, no, that’s right. We saw it on the cameras.”

I stared at him. “You have video evidence and you didn’t mention it until now?”

Bahgtru looked embarrassed, and his composure faltered. “I, uh, thought you knew?”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Sax, please go with the Honored Devil to take a look at those videos. Get copies if you can.”

“It’s downstairs,” Bahgtru said, pointing at a distant stairwell descending underground, but showing no interest in going himself. “Third door on your left. Ask the girl for the ones from earlier today, she’ll know what you mean.”

“I’ll go with him,” Alex said, standing and brushing off his pants. “In case he gets lost.” The angel tossed me his pad. “I think I’ve got everything I need. Check my work, would you?”

I scowled as he left. Ass. He knew full well that with my nighteyes, I couldn’t read anything on his pad. I handed it off to George, who walked away with Kat to try and decipher Alex’s poor note-taking skills.

“I need to check on my men,” the vampire warlord muttered under his breath as he headed off back to the front of the floor. “Excuse me, I’ll be back in one second… CLARA! No biting people!”

I smiled at that, but was careful not to look in the direction he was walking. Whatever happening over there was his problem, not mine. Instead, I peered closer at the pile of corpses left behind by the attack.

They… didn’t seem to be chewed up or eaten. That was normally how gargants operated, but there were exceptions. If nothing else, you’d expect the bodies to be broken and battered. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with them at all. Sure, they were obviously dead, but they didn’t appear to have any wounds.

I sniffed again. The coppery scent of blood was thick in the air, even so long after their deaths, so I knew I must be missing something. Curious, I lifted up one of the shirts to see if there was anything—

Their hearts had literally exploded out of their chests.

Just popped like something had tried to burrow its way out. The ribcage was broken and bent back, the white bones contrasting starkly with the red blood and shredded meat. I couldn’t even see the heart any more, and I doubted I’d find much more than pieces no matter how hard I looked.

I stepped back, even my abnormally strong stomach churning at the sight. I may have only seen one, but that was enough. I was sure that all the other corpses would be the same, or close enough, at least. Leave the rest for the medical examiner.

It was a Tuesday night—November 27th, specifically—so it would be a bit of a slow night for everyone. Hopefully, they would have enough men on staff to get over here as quickly as possible and get to the bottom of this mess. We had already called on the drive over, of course.

“That’s one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen,” Bahgtru muttered, sounding ill.

I patted him on the shoulder. I had to reach up to manage it. “That’s why we’re here. To get to the bottom of this, finally figure out what in the deepest night the fey are doing and why. Even put a stop to it.”

He nodded, still a bit green. Uh, greener than he was before. “Thank you. Honestly, thank you. I know this can’t be easy for you. I really do appreciate you coming out to help us with this yourself, Fi.”

I froze.

“What did you just say?”

The big demon frowned. “Uh, well, I was just trying to thank—”

“Not that. What did you call me?

He stepped back. “I’m sorry, but I knew your father, so I recognized—”

I grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him bodily against the nearest pillar.

Bahgtru struggled as the air was knocked out of his lungs. “What—”

“My father,” I interrupted, my voice level and my teeth grinding against each other like a belt sander. “Is dead. Dead and buried, which is where he belongs. I am Corporal Drakela Sanguinas of Necessarius. Anything else you think you know is irrelevant. Is that understood?”

The orc stepped away from the pillar. “I just—”

I slammed him against it again, this time holding him in place with one hand.

“Answer me, Honorless Fiend,” I spat. “Is that understood?

He nodded weakly.

“Good.” I released him, and he stumbled a few feet away, staring at me wide-eyed. “Now go to the data center and find my men. I need a report from them immediately.”

Knowing better than to argue, Bahgtru ran off, brushing past George and Kat as he did.

I let out a breath and placed my forehead on the cool concrete of the pillar. Sânge din umbră, this was not how I wanted to spend my evening. I certainly hadn’t expected some random traitor-orc to bring up old memories best left forgotten. I made a mental note to stay away from both him and his father. If Bahgtru recognized me, Gruumsh definitely would.

“What was that about?” George muttered as he and Kat walked up.

I straightened and made an effort to fix my clothing. “Bahgtru was hitting on me, I hit back.”

Kat smirked lewdly and signed something quickly.

“Puns are the lowest form of humor,” I said, refusing to be baited. “Now, what exactly did Alex’s notes say? I noticed a few things myself, but I’m not sure if he saw them.”

George shrugged and tapped at the pad again. “Nothing unexpected. Notes the smell of blood, the haphazard way the bodies are stacked, that sort of thing. He thinks there might be something on the victims’ chests, but he didn’t want to disturb them to check.”

“He’s right,” I confirmed, trying to ignore the reminder that I had disturbed a crime scene more than was strictly necessary. “CSI should be down here shortly, though, so that will get us more detail. And of course the security feeds should—”

Which was when Bahgtru ran up and skidded to a stop.

I glared. “What.”

“Your angel, and the baseline,” he managed between breaths. “They’re gone!”

“Wait, what?” I shook my head. “No, there’s no reason for them to leave.”

He met my eyes nervously, but managed to retain most of his composure.

“They were kidnapped.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 251)

I’ve been meaning to write this storyline for a long, long time.

Scene 244 – Esca

ESCA

AKANE

Veronica crushed me in a bear hug that put Maria’s to shame.

“You should have come by sooner!” she cried, apparently unaware that I couldn’t breathe. “Why didn’t you tell me you finally found your nephews?”

I struggled to get my face out of her chest, but to no avail.

“Let the poor girl go,” Derek’s mom chided. “She can’t help clean this place up if you smother her to death.”

Thankfully, Mrs. Arrow complied, and I suddenly found I could breathe again, though I had to lean against the wall for a moment.

We were in the Arrow apartments, specifically the first floor kitchen where Veronica served meals. Last time I had been here, the place had been under guard by the Hellions and some other demon clans, trying to protect Obould from the Composer despite his protests. Mrs. Arrow had done her best to ignore them all and continue making her famous meals.

Now, there were more demons than last time, but most of them weren’t guarding. They were scattered around the apartment, helping to clean up the massive mess made by the MEE—and Veronica Arrow’s personal rampage.

The clean white walls of the kitchen were covered in dust and dirt produced by the massive rents and tears that dug down to the sheetrock. The pictures of friends and family—including myself—carefully framed and hung at eye height had been thoughtlessly knocked down, the glass shattered and scattered across the floor carelessly. The oven appeared to have been actively attacked, with massive dents and gouges as if it had been struck repeatedly with an axe.

The beautiful oak table and chairs had been reduced to kindling, but those had already been replaced, albeit with temporary cheap plastic ones. There were a couple Kellions (judging by the emblems on their shoulders) sitting down eating, but they hastily stood when they realized who we were.

Derek waved them off. “Please, don’t get up on our account.” He took in the destruction with a critical eye. “It’s not quite as bad as I expected. But I thought when Elizabeth turned the city, most people retained their minds enough to not just destroy anything in sight. Were you one of the exceptions?”

The big Italian woman shook her head. “No. Well, we don’t have cameras, so it’s hard to be sure. But as far as we can tell, it’s just that I wouldn’t stop trying to use my new found ability.” She shrugged. “I can’t control it, so this is what happened.”

Yuudai looked at her, wide-eyed. “Mama Arrow, you did all this?”

She smiled fondly at the boy. ‘Mama’ was a title usually given to the matrons of orphanages. You know, when it wasn’t being used for actual mothers. “You would be… Yuuki, correct? The younger of the pair?”

“I’m Yuuki,” the boy in question corrected from my side. “The older. That’s Yuudai.”

She nodded in apology. “Well Yuudai, yes, I did do all this.” Her smile turned sad. “Quite a few people did things… that they would later regret. During the Rampage, I mean. All things considered, I am lucky most of my home survived intact.”

“Too true,” Maria said, patting her old friend on the shoulder as she and Victor walked by and put their bags on the table, ignoring the demons eating there. “But the best thing to do is move past it, and start working on fixing things.”

They might be ignoring the demons, but the demons seemed well aware of who they were, and weren’t interested in getting in anyone’s way. They suddenly found that they had other, very important things to do, and fled with their food as fast as their legs could carry them.

The pair and Veronica didn’t seem disturbed by the sudden exodus, if they even noticed, and Victor spoke after shuffling through his bag for a moment. “All right, I’ve got some white paint here, but that’s for later. Anybody got spackle compound for the walls?”

One of the women who was working—and hadn’t fled—reached around a corner and pulled out a small container. She was a hag, of all things, judging by the fresh needle marks on her arm, but she seemed surprisingly together for a drug-addled loon. “Here. Probably not enough for everything, though.”

Victor took it without even looking at her. “Thanks. Maria, you have the tools, right?”

“You said you had them.”

“Yes, for painting, but I mean—”

“I didn’t know what else we needed. How would I?”

“I don’t know, you seemed to know what you were doing!”

I rolled my eyes and patted my nephews on the shoulders. “This can go on for a while. Why don’t you two go upstairs and try to find Obould? He should be in his office. It’s labeled.” I pulled them away from the shouting and pushed them towards the stairs around the corner.

As the boys left, I turned to see Flynn standing before me. When I jumped, he shrugged. “Sorry. Thought you were leaving.”

“So you decided to follow me?” I asked, a little skeptical. What, was he a stalker now?

“Rather than stay and watch Derek’s parents yell at each other? Yes, actually.” He looked over his shoulder and frowned. “Actually, that hag creeps me out. Never thought seeing someone normal instead of giggling and insane would be so weird.”

Is she a hag?” I asked. “I saw the needle marks, but she could be from another clan…”

“She has a jacket with the hag emblem,” he explained.

Again, that wasn’t iron-clad proof of her subculture, but it took a very, very stupid person to wear the hag symbol openly. Even most hags, drugged out of their minds, weren’t that stupid. Usually.

But this girl wasn’t drugged out of her mind. She seemed… intelligent. Lucid. Her eyes were sharp, and her mind was clear. I felt like I was missing something very important about the whole situation.

I shook my head. That was a problem for another time. “Let’s go down to the cellar. Get some food Mrs. Arrow can make to interrupt the arguing.”

He followed me to the small door that led downstairs. “Are you sure she can? I mean, I’m not sure her oven is working.”

“No idea,” I said as we headed into the dark cellar. There was a light switch around here somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. It was a small room, mostly too small; leaving the door open would illuminate things well enough. “But that oven of hers was a gift from Dispater. It’s tougher than it looks.”

Flynn started gathering up cans seemingly at random. “If you say so. If nothing else, she can throw something in the microwave.” He frowned at one of the cans he was holding. “…what is Atlantean god-crab?”

“Giant crabs,” I explained as I carefully selected a few items of my own. “Fey-modified, of course. They’re at the bottom of the bay, so we don’t see them much.” But Mrs. Arrow would have the connections necessary to get a hold of them—the bigger question was why. “Here. Take this.”

He hefted the covered plastic bucket I handed him without complaint. “This thing has water in it? Some kind of fish, I’m guessing?” He sloshed it around a little before nodding to himself. “No… more crabs. They alive?”

“Kinda. They’re hibernating.”

“Crabs hibernate?”

“I’m not sure. These are fey coral-sleepers. They sit still for days or weeks waiting for something to happen by. They might have been modified to hibernate so that they could go without food forever.”

Flynn frowned again as he hefted the bucket. “This feels kinda light for its size, but it feels completely full, too. These some of those helium fish that float or whatever?”

I chuckled. That was one of the fey’s more public failures. Most of their failures either never left their labs or did enough destruction once outside that the fey didn’t care. The helium fish had just been embarrassing.

“No.” I checked the label. “That’s fifty pounds. Sounds about right.”

“It’s—” He stared at the bucket in his arms in shock. “This is fifty pounds? That can’t be right! It feels like…” He bounced it in his arms, trying to gauge the weight. “…twenty? No, closer to thirty, I think.”

“The power package increases your physical attributes,” I noted as I led the way back up the stairs and out of the dank, cramped cellar. “Strength, agility, toughness. Not much, but enough to be noticeable.”

“I didn’t hear anything about this!” he cried, seemingly unaware that he was hefting the fifty-pound bucket up the stairs without any difficulty whatsoever. “When did you figure all this out?”

“Way at the beginning. The first night, when Laura made us test our powers. Wasn’t it part of the ‘sarian announcements after the MEE?” I had been in New York at the time, and hadn’t cared enough to look it up online after.

“Well, I didn’t see it, I was so busy with everything, and I figured I knew everything I needed to know about the powers anyway…” He shook his head. “It seems like people would be making a bigger deal out of this.”

“You mostly hang out with the Paladins,” I noted as we walked into the kitchen. I placed my armful of canned goods on the scarred countertop next to the oven. Flynn followed suit with the bucket of crabs. “We got all of that out of our systems before the worm hunt.”

Maria and Victor, it seemed, had likewise gotten something out of their systems, and had stopped arguing, and were now having a pleasant conversation in the corner with the hag. I made a mental note to keep an eye on her.

Derek was speaking with Victoria near one of the walls, apparently discussing the damage to the walls. He didn’t notice us come in, but she did, and walked over to us with a smile.

“Very good job, you two. Ooh, and you brought the butter too. Good.” She ruffled my hair, making my beads click. “You always forget the butter.”

I smoothed my hair back into place as she turned to remove the lid from the bucket and inspect the crabs. “That was once, and I was twelve.” If I recalled correctly, she hadn’t even given me a list, just told me ‘go get the stuff for dinner.’

She ignored my protests, and just started pulling crabs out. “Flynn, could you be a dear and get me the pot? The big one, of course.”

Flynn raised an eyebrow at me. He had never been here, so he had no idea where she kept anything. I rolled my eyes and led him down the pantry, the hallway behind the kitchen where the Arrows stored all their kitchen hardware. Finding the crab pot didn’t take long, and we went to fill it up at the sink.

Which didn’t work.

“Oh, right,” Veronica said mournfully. “I cut a few of the pipes during the Rampage.”

“You can just use the water the crabs came in,” Maria suggested.

Mrs. Arrow sighed. “Maria, this is why none of your food is edible. That water has been home to a few dozen crabs for a couple months. It is not fit for drinking at the moment. It probably won’t kill us after it’s brought to a boil, but it will taste terrible.” She turned back to us. “The bathroom sink still works. Get it there.”

I hefted the pot, Flynn following, and found the bathroom in question down the hall and to the left. Getting it into the sink was a pain, and we ended up splashing more water onto ourselves than into the pot, but we finally managed to collect a respectable amount of liquid, and returned to the kitchen.

By that point, Yuuki and Yuudai were back, and they had brought Obould with them.

Obould smiled at us as we walked in. “Oh, you’re helping with the food? That’s not necessary, I could have handled it just fine.”

“Last time you said that, dinner was three hours late,” Derek said idly as he tapped something on his pad. No wait, it wasn’t his pad, it was Veronica’s. He handed it back to her and she nodded in thanks, placing it on the counter where she could read it while cooking.

Obould didn’t seem offended. “But it was a good meal, you have to admit.”

“Either way,” I said as Flynn and I placed the pot on the oven-top stove. “Here is your water, Mrs. Arrow. Did you need anything else?”

She smiled, trying to focus on me and the cookbook on her pad at the same time. “Bless you, no. You’ve done enough. I would like someone to set the tables…” She trailed off, glaring at her husband. He completely failed to take the hint.

I sighed and turned to my nephews. “Past the stairs is the dining room,” I explained, in a louder voice than normal. “You’ll find all the plates and place-mats and silverware in the cupboards. Help Knight Obould set everything out.”

The knight in question looked up, blinking owlishly. Odd, he wasn’t squinting. The kitchen light wasn’t exactly glaring, but it was certainly there, and someone with naked nighteyes should have found it annoyingly bright. A couple of the other orcs we had seen scattered around were wearing their daygoggles.

But that was a mystery to be solved later. The orc Power frowned, confused, as Yuuki and Yuudai led him towards the dining room, understanding my request even if he didn’t. That would keep all three of them out of trouble for half an hour or so.

“Thank you for that,” Veronica said graciously as she started placing crabs in the warming pot. “You know how he can get. He’s been distracted by that gargant.”

Derek, speaking with his mother, frowned and looked up. “What gargant? I thought the fey weren’t attacking any more.”

“There are still a couple, here and there. The strikes are seemingly random, but they also have a surgical precision that you don’t often see with the fey. Enter a shop, kill everyone inside, remove everything of value, and leave. Cameras fried before they even get within sight.”

He considered. “You’re right, that doesn’t sound like the fey, new or old. Are you sure—”

“They’ve taken credit,” she interrupted. “Paid retribution fees and everything. But they can’t keep this up for long. It’s only been a day, and there are already murmurings of discontent. Butler’s going to start demanding they pay their retribution in blood rather than cash soon.”

“Wait, it’s only been a day?” Flynn asked as he took a seat. I followed suit. The plastic chairs were hard and uncomfortable, but I had dealt with far worse. “How does he know it’s a gargant? That sounds like some dangerous new power, to me.”

“The bodies were killed in the same way as the ones from when the fey announced their changes.” She turned away from the pot for a moment, and seeing everyone’s blank looks, elaborated. “Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves organized a band of adventurers and monster slayers to head into the sewers, and they were slaughtered to a man. It’s still not clear exactly what killed them, but it’s the same as now.”

“And since there appears to be only one, it’s only logical to assume a new gargant,” Derek mused. “What exactly have they been taking?” He shook his head before she could answer. “No, right, you said everything.”

“Clearly meant to cover their tracks, hide their true goals.”

“Right. Well, what kinds of places were attacked?”

“That’s the thing. There’s no pattern—which, admittedly, makes it sound more like a fey ploy. There have been three restaurants, four banks, two gun shops, and even the Graveyard, of all places—”

“Graveyard?” Derek and I interrupted at the same time. We glanced at each other, and he continued. “Haven’t heard of that one. Some sort of bar or club, I’m guessing?” There were no graveyards in Domina City. There had just never been room. Generally, the dead were either dissected by companies for research, eaten by ghouls, or cremated. We had the Halls of the Dead, of course, but those were just names carved into the walls.

Veronica glanced at Maria and Victor, who just shrugged, before turning back to us. “Sorry, I assumed you knew. The Graveyard is what they’re calling…” She paused, trying to find the right words. “…Ling’s tomb.”

“Her WHAT?” Derek jumped up, knocking over the cheap chair in the process, and I was only a half moment behind him. “Ling’s dead!?” He took a deep breath. “That’s not… I mean, we knew that was a possibility.” His eyes turned hard. “But when was she found? And silver and gold, how does she have a tomb?

“Guys, you know this,” Flynn said gently. “That ave lab she destroyed right as Silk came.”

I blinked, feeling some of the shock washed away by understanding. I had heard about that, a lab completely and utterly destroyed by massive concrete spikes, bursting out of the ground and the building itself in impossible ways. “I thought they hadn’t found Ling’s body. Or even confirmed that it was her.”

“It had to be her,” Derek muttered, distracted, as he righted his chair and sat back down. “No one else has that kind of level of power yet. But other than that, you’re right. Last I checked, the ‘sarians digging there hadn’t even found the toy box.”

“Well, they found it,” Victor said quietly. “Entombed in concrete, with a twisted corpse inside. It was too… broken to identify, but Isaac confirmed Ling’s DNA. She must have tried to retreat to the box after destroying the lab, but it was too late.”

“The toy box was nonfunctional?” I asked, frowning. Those things were supposed to be indestructible. The originals, at least. They were covered in enough amorphous metal to deflect a small nuke.

“No, it was still working. Still on, I think, but the body…” He looked away. “There are some things even the toy box can’t fix.”

The room fell silent as everyone gave Derek and I some peace.

After a few minutes, Mrs. Arrow banged the side of the pot, sending out a chime. She smiled slightly. “There will be time enough for tears and depression later. For now, it’s time to eat.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 244)

Veronica’s lack of control is one of the more common discords.

And as for the physical ability increase that comes as part of the power package: It’s additive, not multiplicative. So you’re not going to find giants doubling in strength; for them, the increase was such a small part of their total strength that they likely didn’t even notice. Butler, on the other hand, noticed it immediately, since he was always so weak beforehand.

Scene 239 – Somniatus

SOMNIATUS

LING

Nine Years Ago

I touched the horns on the top of my head gingerly. “Are you sure they’re still supposed to hurt? I don’t think they should still hurt…”

The senior succubus guiding me through the halls of Shendilavri patted me on the back. “Don’t worry about it, little one. It always hurts the first time.” She chuckled at some private joke. “But it will fade, in time. For now, we need to find you a matron devil to train you and protect you before you’re ready to become a part of the culture for real.”

My heart fell. “You mean… I’m not a part of the culture yet?”

She noticed my consternation and pulled me into a quick hug as we walked. “You’re just a little young and inexperienced, that’s all. A seed that needs water and light to grow.” She gestured at our surroundings. “Spend some time here, and you’ll grow into a fine Riven.”

‘Here’ was, as noted, Shendilavri, specifically Rivenheart, the center of the succubus domain in more ways than one. The building itself was nothing special, just a drab gray concrete hab block, but the Queen had ordered her followers to spruce it up a bit.

Now, despite its humble beginnings, the Fourth Gate of Hell, the Lover’s Gate, was a beautiful and inviting place that felt like home. Thick carpets lined the floors, and beautiful velvet banners were hung on the walls, depicting all sorts of romance scenes. Even the windows were kept clean to allow the sunlight to shine through, despite the thick salty air that tried to encrust everything this close to South Gate.

South Gate had nothing to do with the Gates of Hell. When I was younger, it had taken me a long time to realize that, and my life had been confusing for a while.

“So if you’re not going to be my matron, then who will?”

The blue-skinned woman thought for a moment. “Not sure. Catherine, maybe, though Nevan could be available too. It all depends on who has room to take on another new follower.”

I nodded. I had expected this. I knew the succubi worked on the master-apprentice system, though most cultures didn’t. “But you don’t? Have room, that is?”

She laughed out loud. “No, child, I don’t. Not by a long shot.” She opened a door at the end of the sun-dappled hall, still smiling. “Now, you just wait here while I go get them. It might be a while. That’s part of the test.”

I looked at the women already in the room. “Are they, too?”

“What are you—AGH!” My guide jumped nearly three feet in the air. “H-honored Devils! I didn’t know you were… here…” She bowed low, so low her back was completely horizontal. “Please forgive my intrusion, Dame Malcanthet.”

At mention of that name, I took a closer look at the succubi in the room.

The one at the head of the briefing table, the one my superior was bowing nervously to, was an inhumanly beautiful woman with long black hair, accented by a single stripe of white. Her horns were simply two small nubs, and her dress a draw-droppingly elegant black thing that seemed to be painted on—and without much paint, either.

“Rise, Georgina,” the Queen of the Succubi ordered, the hint of a playful smile on her lips. “It is my mistake. I changed the meeting room at the last minute.” Her deep, red eyes fixed on me. “Who is the girl? A new Riven?”

“Yes, Dame Malcanthet.”

“A little young for a succubus,” the woman on the Queen’s left noted. She was also strikingly beautiful—of course she was, they all were—though of a slightly different form than Malcanthet. Her pointed ears and sharp claws, combined with the gnarled horns sprouting gracefully from her brow, gave her a more demonic appearance than any I had seen. Her eyes were also golden, and seemed to see right through me.

The succubus across from her, the one with pale, almost white skin and long blonde hair, shrugged. “She came to the culture willingly, didn’t she? What does her age matter?”

“It matters if the Big Boss decides to carpet-bomb us for pedophilia,” golden-eye snapped. She turned to Malcanthet. “Dame Meretrix, I strongly recommend you get rid of this girl, for everyone’s safety, including hers.”

I felt my heart stop in my chest. Everything I had worked for… gone, just like that?

“Don’t be a fool!” the blonde one snapped. “Just keep her out of the way until she is of age, and then—”

“Out of the way where? In a box in the basement?”

“You know full well that’s not what I—”

“Shami-Amourae,” the Queen interrupted, and the blonde one fell silent instantly. “Do not be baited.” She turned to the one with the sharp golden eyes. “Xinivrae. Don’t bait her in the first place.”

Shami-Amourae, the Lady of Delights, bowed her head. “Apologies, Honored Sister.”

Xinivrae, the Black Widow, mimicked the gesture. “Yes, Dame Meretrix, apologies. You know how I feel about Butler, Honored Sister. I should not have used this opportunity to try and force the issue.”

“Correct,” Malcanthet noted regally. Her gaze turned to the last succubus at the table, a demon who appeared in a relatively innocuous guise as a voluptuous red-haired woman with pointed ears. I wondered if that was what she had originally looked like, but dismissed it as irrelevant. “Lynkhab. You have been even quieter than usual. What are your thoughts on this?”

The woman looked up. “I am wondering, Honored Sister, if you set this up to prove a point.”

The other two women blinked in surprise, then turned to glare at their elder.

The Succubus Queen was unfazed, and simply addressed the two of us who had invaded this meeting. “Thank you for your help, both of you. Georgina, please take Miss Ling Yu to Eluvia’s Arch. It will be good place to learn more of the culture’s history while she waits for a matron.”

“Yes, Dame Malcanthet,” my guide assured her hurriedly. She grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me backwards out of the room so fast I nearly fell to the ground. “Hurry up, girl!” she hissed into my ear. “Be glad the Honored Devil isn’t in a bad mood!”

Once we were outside the conference room, and by outside I mean she had dragged me down the twisting hallways of velvet and silk until we were about a dozen turns away, she finally took a deep breath and leaned against the nearest wall. “Velvet hells, that was too close.”

I observed her, frowning. “What’s the problem? Dame Lynkhab said it was all the Queen’s idea in the first place for us to show up. Why would she be mad?”

“We weren’t supposed to know it was a setup,” she murmured. “No one was. The girls were supposed to learn their lesson and we’d be on our merry way. They’re gonna be mad she tried to play them, and Malcanthet doesn’t like us to see her fighting.”

I quirked my head. “…because she is the Gatekeeper of Love?”

A nod. “Yeah. It’s unbecoming for her to be anything but perfect. And if we had happened to see her as anything less than perfect… ” She shuddered. “Let’s just say that you wouldn’t need to worry about finding a matron any more.”

This was all going way over my head, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Instead of trying, I just composed a quick mental prayer of thanks to the Mother Monster and moved on to safer topics. “What about this arch she told you to take me to?”

“Eluvia’s Arch,” my superior said with a nod, regaining her composure. “Yes, it’s a stone arch in one of our interior gardens. It is the symbol of the history of our culture, and it will be a good place to learn.” She frowned. “Unless… how old are you, girl?”

“Ten.”

She made a face. “That is pretty young. Maybe Dame Xinivrae had a point about your eligibility. Either way, you’re definitely too young to see what people like to do under that damned Arch.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, which I suppose was the idea. I simply remained silent, allowing her to fill in the silence.

My guide was still considering. “Hm… perhaps the Fields of Harmony.” When she noticed the confused look on my face, she continued. “Another indoor garden, this one actually for food. It uses hydroponics and other space-saving techniques, of course.”

“Of… course,” I managed, as if I actually knew what she was talking about. “Do you think I’ll be able to find a matron there?”

She paused, considering. “You know, that’s actually a very real possibility. I didn’t even think about it. Deminsha and her step-sister like to hang out there. And Kaito, but he’s an incubus, so hardly a good match.”

I frowned. “Why not?”

“Because he’s… an incubus. And you’re a succubus. Well, a succubus imp anyway.” She grimaced. “Velvet hells, I’m going to have to give you the whole birds and the bees talk, aren’t I? I’m gonna find whoever was in charge of your orphanage and strangle them.”

I flushed with anger. “I know about all that!” I was ten years old. I wasn’t a kid any more. Of course, the matron of my orphanage hadn’t been the one to tell me. I had managed to trick one of the older kids into entering his password when he didn’t think I was paying attention, and then used it and its advanced privileges to look up everything myself. It was what had led me to Shendilavri in the first place.

“I also know that it’s not always birds and bees,” I continued. “Sometimes birds like birds and bees like bees. And Malcanthet’s followers are known for broader tastes than the rest of the city.” That last part was quoted directly from an online article. “Would I be any safer with a succubus than an incubus?”

“Well,” my guide muttered, looking away. “He’s a Gancanagh anyway. Best to steer clear of him regardless.”

That word was genuinely unfamiliar to me, and I had a feeling she wouldn’t explain it if I asked. Besides, I still didn’t like dealing with older men. If she didn’t want me apprenticed to an incubus, I wouldn’t complain.

But I did need to be apprenticed to someone. And after that confusing and frightening meeting with the culture’s warlord, I thought it was best to find someone who could protect me in this strange new life I had dragged myself into. And sooner rather than later.

Finally, after what felt like hours of walking in silence—but was likely no more than ten or twenty minutes—we reached a metal door at the end of a short corridor. It was labeled ‘side entrance,’ and bright light spilled out from under it, accompanied by the sounds of laughter and the gentle smells of earth and plants.

My guide placed her hand on the doorknob before turning to me.

“This is it,” she said seriously. “Your first real introduction to the culture of Rivenheart. If you have any second thoughts, now is the time to voice them. After this, there’s no going back. Not easily, anyway.”

I had second thoughts.

I didn’t voice them.

Instead, I simply nodded once.

My guide nodded as well, and then opened the door.

Behind the Scenes (scene 239)

This takes place in 1992.

Domina Cultures – Demons

DemonFinal

Nine Hells of sin and slaughter

Nine Hells of freedom and choice

Nine gates to guard them

Nine Powers to hold them

The first gate, Androlynne

the Mother’s shrine

The second gate, Thanatos

the Diplomat’s embassy

The third gate, Durao

the Soldier’s fortress

The fourth gate, Shendilavri

the Lover’s brothel

The fifth gate, Spirac

the Hunter’s grounds

The sixth gate, Styros

the Binder’s roost

The seventh gate, Azzagrat

the Tactician’s lair

The eighth gate, Ani Kamakhym

the Mutant’s workshop

The ninth gate, Carynach

the Beast’s kingdom

The Gates of Hell (translated from German)

When Isaac Clarke first perfected the toy maker, he tested the device by giving a little girl a pair of devil horns. There was no real meaning behind the horns; he just wanted something that would be simple and easy to remove if anything went wrong, but still complicated enough to provide solid proof of his theories.

The procedure was a complete success, but had side effects the doctor couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Outside Domina, the world was quickly stirred up into a frenzy by the implications of the device. While it is certain that religious types would have been quite vocal about “tampering in God’s domain” regardless, the devil horns made it much, much worse. A number of churches led the charge to criminalize use of the toy maker, and succeeded in limiting it to the military in a crippled form.

Inside the city, however, the reaction was very different. People from all walks of life loved the implications of being able to modify your body on a whim, and the horns spread across the city like wildfire, used to show support for the toy maker and the girl who became known as the First Monster.

For a time, it was just harmless fun. But on October 13th of that year, almost four months after the invention of the toy maker, things became more complicated. That was when Striga forged the first vampires as a weapon to protect the Romanian immigrants living in the city.

Following the rise of the vampires, others who used the toy maker realized that this was a call to action. They couldn’t just sit around and do nothing while the Mother Monster’s legacy was destroyed. For a few months, it was uncoordinated chaos, even though everyone knew something had to be done.

It was Pale Night who found a solution. She gathered the three most prominent of those who had used the toy maker—Malcanthet, Orcus, and Sargeras—and forced them to realize the position they were in. By the time they left that night, they understood they could no longer sit idly by. On December 20th, the demons were born.

The first three demon warlords each came away from the meeting with a different goal in mind. Malcanthet wanted power and comfort, so she built Shendilavri and named her clan the succubi. For years, free love and peace reigned, but as time wore on, the Whore began to desire power more than comfort…

Orcus had a singular mission: Stopping the vampires before they destroyed themselves and the city. He took on many vampiric toys—such as night vision eyes and fangs—and founded the Thanatosians, filling his inner circle with close friends and family. To his annoyance, the people of the city did not really understand the significance of the name he had chosen, and referred to his House as “orcs” instead.

Sargeras did not have any shining ideals like Malcanthet, or a far-reaching vision like Orcus. He was simply a soldier, and he wanted to keep his friends and family safe. So, he recruited an army. The hellions rose to prominence quickly, not least because of their warlord’s insistence that they not work against Necessarius. While many new leaders came to power, Sargeras remained the unofficial lord of the subculture. His own Legion was simply called “the Army” (or even worse, “the Legion”), which said quite a bit about his imagination.

Over the years, more subcultures have risen and fallen. While there have been scandals within the culture (the death of Orcus and the exile of Malcanthet chief among them), for the most part the demons get along together very well. Their central tenant has always been “the freedom to become whatever you wish.” Therefore, many people start as demons before becoming something else, and they are generally on good terms with the other cultures.

Demon honored are called devils, while their deviants are known as fiends. Their warlords are called Powers, and their novices are called imps. The microcultures (the sub-subcultures) are known as clans, Houses, Hordes, or Legions, depending on the subculture in question.

Notable Subcultures:

Acheroni (back-stabbers, weepers)

A mixed bag of traitors and various other neer-do-wells, the Acheroni are the cast-off refuse of other demon cultures. While most of them have been able to move past their troubled past and even form alliances with their old clans, they still have a very negative reputation in the city. They dwell all along the nest of streets and back alleys called Acheron, with a large number of sub-domains (realms) dotted along the way.

Bulezau (bird-watchers, deal-makers, goats)

Goat-demons with huge horns and long, dangerous tails. They enjoy brokering deals, and before Butler rose to power they were a sort of police force for the city. Now their actions are limited to the demon culture, but a deal witnessed by a bulezau is not one you should be quick to break. Their leader is Pazuzu, the Binder, who holds court in Styros.

Ekolids (bugs, sewer-demons)

Bug-demons with thin limbs, more joints than normal, and a number of artificially bred parasites. Known for living in the sewers, fighting fey-monsters over territory, they have little interaction with the surface. Their leader is Obox-ob.

Goblins (demon-monkeys, skyrats)

The only subculture other than the aves to make use of the hollow bones buff, the goblins delight in running and jumping around the city, using their lithe frames to simply leap between skyscrapers. In addition to acting as messengers and scouts, the culture makes good money from the vampires maintaining the massive shade-cloths that keep the Black Crypts dark during the day. Their leader is the Erlking, the Hunter. Their domain is Spirac, the town of bridges, and is known for a number of rooftop hunting preserves.

Hags (drug-demons, witches)

Demon chem-heads. Unorganized and easily manipulated, but still extremely dangerous. Their leader is Baba Yaga the Witch-Queen. Their domain is chaotic, the borders ever-changing, and most people try and avoid it if at all possible.

Hellions (Hell’s Army, hellguard, Legionaries)

Demon soldiers. They typically hire themselves out as mercenaries, especially to Necessarius. They also have a good working relationship with the mariliths, who they occasionally hire as tacticians and strategists. Along with the succubi and the orcs, they are one of the founding subcultures.

The Army (the Legion)

The Army were the first hellions, and are led by General Sargeras, more commonly known simply as “the General.” While they have never been interested in hoarding power, they are still the strongest hellion Legion by a fair margin. Their domain, Durao, is still one of the most fortified in the entire city, rivaling even the warblood domain Dis.

Twilight Reavers (Kellions, Reavers)

The Reavers believe very strongly in the Mother’s vision of a unified Domina, and have resolved to bring that dream to fruition, starting with the demons. Everyone is watching them closely, but they seem to be using peaceful methods to meet this end. They are more often called Kellions, after their leader, Juan Keller, and are known for being the only demons to use dayeyes regularly.

Incubi/Succubi (lusters, sex-demons, Shendilavrans, whores)

A member of the subculture that heavily fetishizes parts of the demon package, using pheromones and other similar toys to enhance their sexuality. A certain amount of sexuality is expected, of course—people wouldn’t add horns to their head if they thought they were ugly. But succubi take the implications of their connection to the mythical lust demons a bit… literally. Due to the actions of their previous leader, Malcanthet, they are shunned by just about everyone else, and mostly stay in hiding. The word is also occasionally used as an insult to refer to demon prostitutes, whether they are actually succubi or not. Along with the hellions and the orcs, succubi are one of the founding subcultures. Their domain was a block named Shendilavri, also known as Whorestown, with the skyscraper Rivenheart their crowning jewel. But when Malcanthet fled, Rivenheart was toppled. Shendilavri has lain fallow for over five years now.

Daybringers

The spies of the succubi, they closely mimic the fallen angel Naamah in the belief that knowledge is power. They maintain an extensive network of spies and informants to keep the children of Shendilavri safe in a city hostile towards them.

Mahathallah

The followers of Agrat Bat Mahlat, their name translates approximately to “the Deception.” This name was actually chosen as representative of the lies they rejected; the Mahathallah were the first succubi to break off from Malcanthet, even before she fled the city. Most modern succubi are members of this subculture, and they are treated as the leading culture in many ways.

Riven

Generally known simply as “Malcanthet’s thralls,” the Riven are those who resided in Rivenheart under the command of the Queen of the Succubi. If any still exist in Domina City, they are well-hidden, though a few do pop up to cause chaos every once in a while. While Malcanthet only uses this term to describe those who follow her willingly, most outsiders use it to refer to all who follow her, since with the Succubus Queen “willingly” is a bit of a fluid term.

Widowers

The followers of Xinivrae, one of Malcanthet’s sisters, were largely defunct even before Malcanthet was exiled from the city. They were never a large subculture, and were more like one of the gangs of old than anything more meaningful. The Widowers made widows; it was their only purpose. They either killed married men (and left the wives alone) or killed their own husbands as part of their initiation. Their meaningless cruelty eventually led to the Queen of the Succubi casting out her sister, and purging Shendilavri of every trace of her.

Zens

The followers of Eisheth Zenunim are healers through and through, and have always welcomed all with open arms and hearts. They became extremely influential after the Battle of Shendilavri, but their numbers have never been too large.

Mariliths (armchairs, snake-demons, vipers)

Snake-demons who pride themselves on their grasp of strategy and tactics; rumors say their leader recruits from the RTS gamer crowd. Occasionally called to help the hellions. Although in theory they are seeking to use the toy maker to obtain multiple functional arms, in practice many mariliths never bother getting any more toys than the horns. People join the culture for the society itself, not the toys they have to offer. Their leader is Graz’zt, the Tactician. Their headquarters is the Argent Palace, on Azzagrat Street.

Orcs (death-demons, fang-wranglers, Thanatosians)

Demons known for leading vampires and ghouls. They have a reputation for butting their way into situations due to their founder, Orcus, who was known to press-gang vampires to help defend civilians. He was killed by Malcanthet shortly before she fled the city. Usually have nighteyes in addition to the demon package. Their warlord is Obould, Orcus’ lieutenant, but he issues very few orders. Along with the hellions and the succubi, they are one of the founding demon subcultures. Their official headquarters is Naratyr in Thanatos, in East Outer (near Little Romania), but what little organization the House still has is centered on Obould’s apartment complex in South Central.

Pales (Andies, Andros, kiddies)

Following Pale Night, the Mother of Demons, the residents of Androlynne are enigmatic, friendly, and extremely dangerous. Most stick to internal buffs, mimicking both Pale Night and her “mother,” Lilith. They try to corral the other demons as best as they can, especially the hags and Satanists. While not officially the leaders of the culture, they mirror the Draculas in many ways, including recruiting from all other subcultures. They refer to the First Monster as “mom,” something that annoys her to no end. She responded by calling them “kiddies,” which has turned into a mildly derogatory nickname for the culture. Their headquarters is Golmendicoria, on Androlynne Street.

Satanists (anarchists, baby-eaters)

A small but extremely violent subculture who follow the modern Satanist religion. They believe strongly in freedom and just retribution. Things only started to go downhill when the Beast took control of the clan. Their headquarters is under Carynach, and is often referred to as simply the Ninth Gate.

Sibriex (fleshcrafters, ‘rexes, sibs)

Also known as the fleshcrafters, the sibriex are one of the few subcultures—demon and non—that deals directly with the fey on a regular basis. Their headquarters is Arhestanots, the Fleshworks, and is located at the edge of South Middle. Their domain is technically called Ani Kamakhym, but since it only consists of the one building, many people just use Arhestanots. Their leader is Narek Nhang, the Unfleshed Lord.

Notable Demonic Powers

Baba Yaga

The Witch Queen, the Power of the hags, is quite different from her vampiric counterpart. While Belial and his ilk use chems to control their followers, Baba Yaga is just as drug-addled as her culture. While this does make her weak and non-aggressive most of the time, it also makes her dangerously unpredictable. She can be philanthropic one minute and screaming for blood the next. Most people avoid her domain like the plague.

The Beast

The violent leader of the Satanists, intent on leading his culture to glory. He took control of the culture much later than most of the other Gatekeepers, about two years after the demon culture was officially founded. The Beast himself is quick to anger and exceptionally dangerous, but he believes very strongly in just retribution—even if his definition of “just” is a bit more consistently lethal than most.

The Erlking

The Power of the goblins is very different from the culture he oversees. While most skyrats prefer dexterity and agility over all else, their leader is an eight-foot tall monster of muscle and dense bone weighing several hundred pounds. The only reason he can even move at all is because of his extremely expensive modifications. The man himself is very similar to his toys; slow, deliberate, but very dangerous once you get him moving.

Graz’zt

Power of the mariliths, the snake-demons. Like his culture, Graz’zt is an intelligent man with a head for strategy, and works closely with hellion warlords when the situation calls for it, preferring to not get his own hands dirty. Unlike much of the rest of his culture, the Dark Power has a well-documented weakness for sex, which nearly led to the downfall of the culture when Malcanthet was making her power-grab. Thankfully, he was spared from the Succubus Queen’s attentions through the efforts of bodyguards who valued his safety over his orders, but he still stays largely confined to his base for security.

Hellion Powers

Julian Keller

Power of the Twilight Reavers. He is known for having both a single nighteye (which he normally covers with an eyepatch) and a violet dayeye. He has somewhat of a blunt and abrasive personality, but he knows that he has to forge alliances with others in order to survive.

Sargeras

Power of the Army, founder of the Hellions. More commonly known as “the General.” Sargeras is a strong, no-nonsense type who believes that it is his duty to keep the city safe. He has had little luck in the fifteen years since becoming a warlord, for although his ideals and methods match Butler’s almost word-for-word, the two men have difficulty trusting each other. While they are both intelligent enough to keep from interfering with each other directly, they often unintentionally work at cross-purposes.

Obox-ob

Power of the ekolids, the Prince of Vermin rarely leaves his lair hidden somewhere in the sewers, preferring to send out elite Hands to act in his stead. Still, the subculture is quite small, so he has little need to exert his power unless his territory is threatened. There are rumors that the Composer killed him and took his domain, but this is unconfirmed.

Orc Powers

Obould

The former lieutenant and cousin of Orcus, founder of the orcs, Obould was forced to take control of the culture during the Battle of Shendilavri. Obould does not interact very much with his culture, preferring to be left alone with his studies and experiments. Now, he spends most of his time helping monster slayers like Derek Huntsman, but he also has a very strong interest in the powers possessed by the screamers and their ilk.

Orcus

One of the three founders of the demon culture, Orcus was always a powerful and charismatic man, who used his large size both for intimidation and to garner respect. He was assassinated at the Battle of Shendilavri, and control of the culture passed to his cousin, Obould.

Pale Night

Power of the Andros, The Mother of Demons, who followed in Lilith’s footsteps and created the demon culture. She recruits from all other demon subcultures, and tends to refer to the First Monster as “mom,” something that annoys the latter to no end. Pale Night keeps herself wrapped in a white shroud at all times, to cover the horrific scars she received from her modifications.

Pazuzu

One of the first aves, the kemo who would become known as Pazuzu abandoned his culture in favor of corralling the goat-demons, the Bulezau. At the time, they had no warlord, but the Abyssal Falcon was able to defeat all contenders and rise to the top. The man himself is lean and powerful, but focused more on limiting the damage of the wars than expanding the subculture’s influence. He is happy to hire his men out to Necessarius when the need arises, and if not, he sends them on general peace-keeping missions around the city.

Sibriex Powers

Aramazd

The Power behind the Power, as it were, the existence of the Firstborn is a secret to most people, even the sibriex. He tests many of the culture’s toys on himself, which has resulted in so much mutation and degradation that he can’t even move any more. He primarily keeps watch on the sibriex servers, as well as reviewing the culture’s experiment notes and their Helix—their record of their use of the toy maker.

Narek Nhang

Power of the sibriex, the Unfleshed Lord is not known for much besides his constant use of the toy maker. His title comes from the fact that he is never content to stay in one form for long, which makes identifying him frustratingly difficult. He treats his culture as a research lab rather than a military organization, and thus has found himself threatened by other, more aggressive cultures more than once.

Succubus Powers

Agrat Bat Mahlat

The woman who first took control after Malcanthet’s defeat, Agrat tries to keep to the shadows as much as possible. There are rumors that she is the mother of Asmodeus, but most agree this is simple hearsay spawned from the names they both chose.

Eisheth Zenunim

Also known as the Healer, Eisheth rejected Malcanthet’s violent ways even before the Battle of Shendilavri, forming her own subculture in defiance. Despite her philanthropic goals, Eisheth is not good with people, being rude, anti-social, and bitterly cynical.

Malcanthet

Although she has fled the city, the self-proclaimed Queen of the Succubi still has influence through the sleepers left behind. Sometimes called Damă by the vampires, which means either queen or whore. The demons call her Meretrix (courtesan) when they feel polite, and Lupa (she-wolf, whore) when they don’t.

Naamah

The Mother of Espionage, the Power Naamah is the first line of defense for the dangerously weakened succubi, using her extensive network of spies and hidden cameras to alert her fellows of any assaults on succubi meeting places.

Xinivrae

Malcanthet’s sister, the Black Widow was best known for murdering her husband—the crime which got her sentenced to Domina City in the first place. While originally the only criminals sent to the island were those who had committed minor white-collar offenses, by this point the outside world had given up. Legend says that the woman who would become known as Xinivrae arrived the day Isaac Clarke unveiled the toy maker; she and her little sister became demons days later. Unfortunately, it seemed Domina did not improve Xinivrae’s morality; she found that she enjoyed killing husbands, even those that were not her own, and even dabbled in seducing wives and making them kill the husbands themselves. Eventually, only a few years after Malcanthet was crowned Queen of the Succubi, she cast her sister out of Shendilavri and set about destroying the “culture” of killers she had left behind. Xinivrae was never heard from again.

Scene 131 – Insidiae

INSIDIAE

LAURA

It was October the fourth, a Thursday. Five days after we discovered the Composer’s identity, four days after her attack on the ave lab, three days after the ambush at Derek’s History class, and two days after Adam brought thirty pounds of boar meat to the dorm room instead of Maria’s house like he was supposed to.

We had skipped class today and yesterday, for obvious reasons, and I don’t think anyone expected that to change any time soon. We had been sticking together as much as possible, but we were beginning to grate on each other. We had only really been coming together for missions; although no one had said anything, everyone was well aware that we could only put up with each other for so long.

Ling talked too much for Akane and I to feel comfortable, and we disapproved of her lifestyle philosophy enough that she was beginning to notice. Adam was fraying at the edges a little, but that was more because he hadn’t really had any free time to spend with Lily than personality clash. Of course, we were all still on edge around him, with the whole sociopathy thing. Derek was watching him like a hawk, and if his roommate stepped out of line, Derek wouldn’t hesitate to put him down. Regret it later? Probably. But he’d do it.

Speaking of Ling’s lifestyle, watching her try and convince Derek to practice wrestling with her got annoying pretty quickly.

“You can always practice with me,” Adam piped up as we walked down the street. It wasn’t really clear which of the pair he was talking to.

Ling, at least, decided he was addressing her, and grimaced. “I’d rather not. You’re guns, not hand-to-hand. You have enough to learn already; I don’t want to add more.”

That last part, of course, was a lie. I squeezed Derek’s shoulder, signaling that my ability had triggered, though I’m sure he had figured it out already.

“Both of you stop,” he said tiredly. “We still haven’t figured out where we’re going for lunch.”

“Not here,” Akane muttered. “You idiots walked into a dead-end alley.”

I looked at her sideways. “So did you.”

Derek rubbed his forehead. “Ugh, I wasn’t paying attention. Let’s just go to Nervi’s.”

“Or, you could stay here,” a voice called from the end of the alley.

I snapped my head around to see three men and three women of various cultures blocking the dead-end alley. An ambush. Lizzy? Maybe, considering the mixed nature of our assailants. Something to worry about later.

Assets:

Ling, Akane, Derek, and Adam. Cramped alley—which seemed to have been chosen to keep us isolated—might be to our advantage. Ling was wearing her armor under her clothes, Akane had her sword, and Adam had all his guns. Derek, of course, was dangerous with his bare hands, but I’d be nothing but dead weight. And Ling had been having moral issues recently, so she might have trouble killing.

Goal: Escape, prioritizing Derek’s life. Akane could leap out with him, and Ling could effectively fly, so Adam and I were the only problems.

Secondary goal: Capture the enemy alive, find out who they were working for. Two kemos, a giant, and three demons wouldn’t play nice normally. But the fact that they were clearly used to fighting side by side was more of a tactical problem than a strategic one at the moment.

The kemos were a pair of crocs or gators, fully anthropomorphic and covered in thick scales. Probably bullet-proof, and I wasn’t sure if Adam had anything armor-piercing left.

The giant seemed to be a troll, judging by his orange skin, so he probably had hidden claws. He was seven feet tall and had the lean, wiry look of someone with whip-strong muscles.

The three demon girls looked like triplets, though I doubted that was actually the case. Other than red eyes and short horns, they didn’t have any toys—except for the thick, powerful tails whispering out from under their skirts.

Solution: Obvious.

“Akane takes the laces,” I said quietly, just loudly enough for the others, now clustered around me protectively, to hear. “Adam shoots the troll, and Ling and Derek handle the demonesses. I’ll stay in the back, since I’m the weak link.”

“Kill yours quick,” Derek advised Adam. “Trolls tend to be a horror in melee.”

“You ladies done chatting about your periods?” one of the crocs called. His long, toothy snout made it look like he was always grinning, but I could tell that he really was now. “I’ve got things to do after I eat you.”

I glanced over at Adam. Covered by Derek, he had managed to slip on his bandolier. He pulled out his Caedes, checked the SMG’s chamber, and nodded.

“Go,” I whispered.

Akane sprung forward like lightning, moving so fast all I could see was a faint blue smear, the same color as Derek’s shields, that was the ribbon in her hair.

She sliced the first croc so fast he didn’t notice at first. It was only when he turned to strike her that his top half fell off, and blood began fountaining from the wound.

Our little swordswoman didn’t stop or slow down, but the trick didn’t work twice. The second kemo exploded into a cloud of green smoke, which Akane’s sword sliced through harmlessly.

I expected the smoke to coalesce into a new form, like the bats and other shifters, but it didn’t. It simply reverted back to the kemo’s normal shape.

But Akane was off balance now, and her reservoir dry.

The croc dodged her next strike by dropping down, then quickly backstepped to avoid her flurry of stabs. The second he sensed an opening, he whispered forward and drew a long gash across her face with his claws.

Adam’s SMG roared out a rapid thunder right next to me, and I clapped my hands over my ears, wishing I had remembered earplugs. Bullets tore into the troll, ripping bloody chunks out of his flesh and knocking him back—back, but not down. Once the clip was exhausted, the giant just grinned.

There was a light patter of something metal clicking against concrete; it took me a second to realize they were the slugs, getting pushed out of the troll’s body as his wounds healed.

Shit. Not another one.

Adam had the same reaction, though with more swearing. He dropped his Caedes without a second thought and whipped out his Saint George, barely even bothering to aim before pulling the trigger.

I expected another of those earth-shaking god slayers, but apparently he had something else in the chamber. The massive shotgun belched out a burst of fire, a thin cone that only barely missed frying the other combatants as well.

The troll howled in agony, but rushed forward, trying to ignore the damage by sheer willpower. His orange skin caught fire, but only briefly. It was like with the skins. Something about the healing or shifting process seemed to interrupt combustion. Was that intentional, or just a coincidence?

Either way, Adam dodged to the left, out of the troll’s line of attack. I dodged right a bit belatedly, and he almost managed to grab my wrist. Other than a bad scratch, I got away clean, but he sensed weakness, and knew better than to leave it unexploited.

He rushed me again, his toothy maw grinning and throwing drops of drool everywhere in anticipation of the kill. I reached for my gun—silver and gold, why didn’t I have it out already?—but fumbled the strap on the holster, wasting valuable seconds.

I felt hot, smelly breath on my face. I looked up to see he had closed the distance, and had his clawed hand in a backswing, already accelerating forward again…

Something tackled him from the side, throwing him off his attack vector and hurtling into the brick wall I was standing next to.

The wall caved in with a crash, sending red dust everywhere and leaving a gaping hole in the side of the building. I could see startled people on the other side, but my attention was mostly on the giant, lying in a writhing ball on the floor.

He was wrestling furiously with Derek—obviously, the one who had tackled him in the first place. Goddamned idiot. He should have just used a shield.

I turned back to the others; Derek could handle himself well enough. With my pistol, I might actually be able to contribute to this fight.

The three demoness triplets hadn’t moved, as far as I could tell, while Adam and Akane dealt with the kemo. Suspicious, but right now I was thankful for the respite.

The lace certainly knew how to use his power effectively. He could dodge her un-augmented sword strikes easily, only shifting to mist to counter her power. Adam couldn’t shoot much, not while our swordswoman was in melee with the croc, and the few shots he did fire were easily avoided.

The lace wasn’t attacking, which was a good thing, at least. But Adam would have to reload soon, and the balance of the fight would shift quickly—perhaps lethally.

I widened my stance, raised my Occisor with both hands, aimed, and fired.

The Occisor is a kid’s gun. Sure, it’s 6.0 mm, which is a pretty good caliber, but it doesn’t have the stopping power or penetration to handle anything armored. The scaled kemo would be able to shrug it off with nothing worse than a bruise.

But he didn’t know that.

Tungsten-core rounds, Avernan diamond darts, poison…there were a thousand things and more my dinky little gun could be loaded with that would make it a nightmare for anyone less than a warlord.

It wasn’t, of course.

But he still shifted to mist, allowing the bullet to pass through him harmlessly rather than risk taking it head-on. More importantly, a split second later when he solidified again, Akane and Adam were ready.

Akane jumped back to give our gunman more space, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. He sighted down his massive 6-gauge, grinned, and fired.

The Teflon-coated armor-piercing slug hit the croc in the forehead, slightly above one eye, and wasn’t slowed for even a moment by the thick scales. A fist-sized chunk of skull exploded in a burst of red mist, splattering the nearby walls.

The anthro teetered for a moment as his body tried in vain to stay upright without input from his brain, but it didn’t last. He fell to the side, landing on the dirty alley floor with a dull thump.

After a moment, with the sounds of the battle between Derek and the troll behind us still ongoing, the demon girls finally reacted.

“I liked him,” the one on the far left said, staring down at the croc’s corpse through half-lidded eyes.

“He was funny,” the middle sister agreed. Something was wrong with her, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“I suppose I’ll have to kill you now,” the third sighed. “Fighting gives me headaches. I was hoping they could deal with you.”

All three girls fell into identical fighting stances, tails raised and ready, and it hit me.

They were one mind. One mind in three bodies.

Not literally, of course—though with powers, I wasn’t ruling anything out. But some people, like Malcanthet and Belial, had experimented in improving efficiency in their slaves by using brainwashing to convince a small group that they were a hive mind. As I understood it, there hadn’t been appreciable gains until they started using pheromones to coordinate the bodies. They still weren’t actually one person in multiple bodies, but they managed to fake it enough to be dangerous.

But at the same time, there was an easy counter.

“Just try and kill one,” I advised my allies. “Then the other two will break.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Adam agreed. “Which—”

He screamed as lightning tore through him.

Blue sparks arced around his body, following his high-pitched, animal yell, and left behind angry white burns.

I cried out in alarm, but quickly squashed my terror in favor of remembering my first-aid training. First rule of dealing with electricity: Cut off the power. Which girl was—

I blinked, surprised to find that one of the demons seemed to be creating the lightning, just holding it between her hands, while one of the others was causing it to arc into her hands, and then into Adam.

A power combo. Min-maxing their advantages, as Ling would say. Clever.

The lightning cut off, and Adam staggered, but managed to keep his feet. He coughed, sputtering up blood. He really should just bow out, but there was hate in his eyes. Ironically, it made him look more human than normal. Anger in combat is to be expected. But Adam…Adam usually didn’t show any emotion when he fought. No remorse, no rage. Creepy as all get out.

The baseline raised his shotgun shakily, and I was suddenly reminded of the last time I had seen someone electrocuted.

Their gun had exploded in their hands.

Why hadn’t the same thing happened to Adam? He was covered in guns and ammo just waiting to cook off. Was it just random luck? Did supernatural lightning work differently than real electricity? Or had the girls somehow intentionally avoided anything explosive?

It didn’t matter. We couldn’t take any chances. I stepped in front of him before he could fire and shoved him back, hoping he would get the message.

The third girl moved her hands into the same position as the lightning demon. But instead of crackling electricity jumping between her fingers, roaring orange flame spun out of nothingness.

A pyrogenist, an electrogenist, and an electrokineticist. Fun times.

Adam seemed to have realized the danger; he jumped back a few steps and started shedding his guns onto the floor. But like Ling had said earlier, he wasn’t hand-to-hand. He was mostly out of this fight.

Speaking of, where was Ling? I had lost sight of her when the troll charged. She was what we needed here. Lightning wouldn’t be able to do much against a concrete wall.

The pyro’s flames suddenly shot toward Akane, who was able to dodge easily enough. They bent and snaked after her, but…

But it wasn’t the pyro who was controlling the flames.

It was the second demon.

The one who had aimed the lightning.

Of course. The same combo as before, just more than expected. The other two create the weapons—fire and lightning—while the middle sister manipulated and aimed it.

But still…she had two powers? Or just one, the general power to manipulate energy?

AGH, we still didn’t know anything about anything.

Before I could dwell on the problem too much, I heard a sharp snap from behind me. I turned to see Derek throwing off the corpse of the troll, the latter’s neck at an impossible angle. He thrust out his hand, and a misty blue shield popped into existence in front of me, blocking a lightning bolt I hadn’t even noticed.

“When are the ‘sarians getting here?” he growled.

“I haven’t had a chance to call,” I admitted. Besides, trying would have made me too tempting a target. And the retinue had been called away about an hour ago, so they were out too. “So whenever they notice the fight.”

“Silver and…fine. We need to finish these three off quickly, then. Where’s Ling?”

“No idea.”

“Wonderful. And Adam’s—”

“Out of the fight, basically.”

“So it’s three on three.”

“Two on three. I’m not going to be useful.”

He closed his eyes briefly. “Fine.” He turned to Akane. “Start with the one doing the aiming.”

She blurred forward instantly, but the demons saw her coming. A cone of lightning-tinged flame erupted from the center girl’s hands, fed by her sisters to either side. I could feel the heat from fifteen feet away, and the ozone made my hair crackle with static electricity.

Akane couldn’t dodge; the fire filled the entire alley. So she just dove right in.

I had to grab Derek to keep him from doing something stupid. He almost followed her, but my hand on his arm held him back.

I wasn’t sure if our swordswoman could survive this, but I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity she had provided. I nodded to Adam, and he picked up his Caedes and started shooting at the lightning girl, filling the air with thunder and the smell of gunsmoke.

Then Ling dropped down from the roof onto the pyro.

She landed heavily, crashing the demon to the ground and shattering the concrete with the impact.

Adam’s bullets found their mark at nearly the same time, dropping the psycho-electro with a few dozen well-placed pieces of lead.

As her power sources were suddenly cut off, the middle demon grabbed her head and started screaming.

It was heartbreaking. I could almost hear her vocal cords straining, as whatever link she had to the others snapped back and took her mind with it. She clawed at her own face, drawing blood and—

The screaming cut off as suddenly as it started, as Akane sliced her head off.

I slowly lowered my hands from my ears as the corpse hit the ground with a wet thump. Once I was certain all three were dead—it didn’t take long to be sure, not in their states—I turned my attention to Akane.

She looked all right, mostly, just a few singes to her hair and extremities, but I was worried about internal damage the lightning may have caused.

I fished around in pocket for my phone, resisting the urge to sink to the ground in exhaustion. I hadn’t been the one fighting, after all.

“Rest a bit, guys,” I advised as I put the phone to my ear. “Necessarius will be here shortly.”

Then my phone exploded.

I screeched in pain as bits of hot metal and plastic embedded themselves in my face and hand. Big pieces, too; the explosion hadn’t been that big, so there weren’t too many pieces.

But it still hurt like hell, and I nearly had to swallow my tongue to keep from ripping my vocal cords with my screams. Still, I managed it, and the pain became manageable within a few moments.

“Aw, now that’s too bad. I love it when you scream.”

I turned to look behind me, to find the source of the voice.

Elizabeth Greene, stepping through the hole in the wall Derek and the troll had created. Still wearing the same white dress as before, stained completely red with blood. There were a few flesh splashes, which I assumed came from the inhabitants of the building she had just come through.

She stepped on the troll’s corpse without a glance, discarding it without so much as a second thought.

“I am a little disappointed you killed my directors,” she mused, grinning with those too-white teeth. Her golden eyes lingered on each of us in turn, and her grin widened. “But then, that just leaves more for ME!

Behind the Scenes (scene 131)

I had a lot of trouble with this one, but I think it sets up the next scene well enough.