Tag Archives: Dracul

Scene 331 – Proditione

PRODITIONE

ROBYN JOAN

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when we walked onto the para ship. The shuttle up had been simple and utilitarian on the inside, with multicolored buttons and color-coded lockers but little else. It was a decent size, but the thirteen of us had barely fit. Once we docked, we all spilled out, and it was such a relief that it took me a moment to really look around.

We had arrived at what Leeno had called the primary work docks. They were the place where they launched the ships that had attacked most of the system. Normally shuttles wouldn’t dock here, but they were trying to show off their strength. Everything they were doing was to show off, from ‘offering’ to host the negotiations on their ship to waiting five days—a para standard week—before calling us up.

The docks were at least a hundred yards tall, a hundred wide, and twice that deep. There was a giant lock that had opened at our arrival, but it wasn’t an airlock. The entire dock was open to hard vacuum to increase efficiency, and any pilots or passengers had to wear suits just to walk to and from their ships.

There were hundreds of the small para fighters lined up in racks, all carefully polished and perfectly painted. As far as I could tell, every single one was unique. Some were painted a single color with only a splotch here and there, others had whorls and swirls of a dozen colors, and others seemed to have images of creatures I couldn’t identify.

The colors were not limited to the ships. The inside of the dock was a massive mural, stretching from one side of the cavernous space to the other, that seemed to be portraying the para’s rise from hunter-gatherers to farmers to city-dwellers to space-travelers. The mural was abstract, but it used simpler colors than much of the rest of the art. The ships, the ceiling, even the floor were painted a hundred colors I couldn’t name, but the beautiful mural was only simple black, white, red, blue, and yellow.

I wondered if that had something to do with the way para saw colors. Leeno had said that every para was born with slightly different color vision. Some were optimized for night, some for day, and some in between. Maybe the colors on the mural were kept simple to ensure that all para would be able to see it.

With that in mind, I looked over the ships and equipment again as we walked through the hangar. That ship over there, which I had thought looked pure yellow, had a few discolorations that might look obvious for someone better at differentiating yellow and orange. Every button on every machine was striped with at least three colors—perhaps to maximize the number of para who could read the warnings and understand them. Even their language, what little of it I could see, was multicolored, but the shapes of the letters were stark and obvious from each other. Exactly what you’d want if you couldn’t be sure everyone would be seeing the same things.

Leeno and Zero led us through the docks to a large door painted a dozen different shades of green. He placed his hand—still in his vacuum suit—on the middle, and it whirred open, splitting diagonally. Odd, the doors in the shuttle had just slid to the side, like human doors.

We found ourselves in a small room, still green, and I realized belatedly it must be an airlock. The door closed behind us, and a moment later I heard rushing air. Suddenly, I could hear beyond the confines of my suit.

Lily was the first one to take her helmet off, before even Leeno or Zero. She took a deep breath, then nodded. She’d be able to detect any poisons in the air and survive them more easily than anyone else in the group.

The next was Odin. He grunted in annoyance as he took his helmet off. The ceiling was tall enough to accommodate him, but only barely. We had sent word ahead that we’d need high ceilings, but I wasn’t sure if the para would honor that. At least we had confirmed that they could. That massive hangar certainly didn’t make it look like they were strapped for space.

The rest of us took our helmets off after only a little hesitation. Dracul and Pale Night were first—though Pale Night had to be careful with the veil she wore underneath—then I took mine off at the same time as Zaphkiel, the White Cat, and Bahamut. Cailleach quirked her head, as if considering, and then took hers off as well, and carefully pulled her waist-length black hair out of the suit to properly display it. I wasn’t sure the homunculus would last this far from Earth, but she insisted her connection was stable.

Adam and Eccretia waited until Leeno and Zero took off their helmets before doing the same. Maybe a little paranoid, but not unjustified.

Other than Adam and Zero, there were no bodyguards. Just one representative of each culture—not counting the merfolk because we were keeping them quiet in case their cities needed to be used as refuges—and plus me for the guilds, and of course Lily for the city itself. Uncle Art couldn’t come for safety reasons, and Derek had simply refused to let Laura go. Ling would probably have been a better choice than me to actually represent the guilds, but no one knew whether or not they trusted her right now. Besides, with MC still missing, Lily needed my moral support.

Even ignoring the politics of it all, we were thirteen of the strongest people in Domina City, if not the entire system. We could probably conquer this entire ship by ourselves if we felt like it. Of course, Lily would never let us do that without just cause, but it was still an idea at the forefront of my mind.

“I really like these suits,” Dracul said. “The air didn’t get stale or anything. Much better than the last Lunar suits I wore.”

“These were built in conjunction with Domina support,” Pale Night said. “Modified mosses and fungi keep the air recycled much more efficiently.” She fidgeted in her own suit. “They are not designed to be worn over too much clothing, however.”

Dracul raised a perfect eyebrow. “You’ve got clothes on under the veil? I always assumed you were naked underneath.”

“Of course not,” she snapped. She was still fidgeting, pulling at her suit. “I need—to—oh, Nine Hells—”

“Let me help you with that, sweetie,” Lily said, walking over. Pale Night settled down and Lily started unsealing the suit. All the dials and clasps were on the front, but between Pale’s damaged hands and her extra layer of clothing, she hadn’t been able to make them work.

It was almost funny seeing Pale Night, perhaps the most powerful demon in Domina City, being fussed over like a girl going to prom. Especially since Lily was easily a foot shorter than her. But Lily was serious about her duties, and worked quickly to get the suit off. She told Pale Night when to raise her arms, when to wriggle them out of the sleeves, and finally when to step out of the suit entirely.

As Lily was folding up the suit, I glanced over Pale Night. It took her a second to readjust her veil, so for a moment it was plastered tightly against her skin. It was hard to get a good look, but there were odd shapes and holes, strange things that couldn’t be explained as a result of the clothing underneath. There were clearly parts of her missing, and other parts were there that shouldn’t be.

But then the moment passed, and the veil was fluttering around her elegantly like it always was. It was woven from Minerva silk, so an hour stuffed into a sweaty spacesuit hadn’t done much to dampen it.

Once all that was done, the other side of the airlock opened, leading deeper into the ship. There were three large para on the other side, all dressed in some sort of high-tech armor painted a rainbow of colors. They didn’t seem to have any weapons, but I remembered Zero’s arms, and her cybernetic guns. No one here was going to assume that anyone we met was safe.

They didn’t seem the least bit surprised by our bizarre variety. The one in the middle spoke, his tone stilted. “You will follow to elders.”

Everyone glanced at Leeno. He nodded.

Then we glanced at Lily. She tucked Pale Night’s suit under one arm and stepped forward, chin held high. She was smaller than the para—smaller than everyone else in the airlock, in fact—but she carried her authority well. “Very good. We have much to discuss.”

The lead para turned on his heel and started walking down the hallway, not even bothering to look if we were following. The other two took up positions on either side of the group as we fell into step behind the leader.

We walked through what felt like dozens of corridors, each painted with countless of colors. Some were more abstract designs, elegant lines and curves that probably didn’t mean anything specific, while others were murals showing this battle or that war. I noticed a lot of the murals portrayed space battles. Probably to remind us how outclassed we were in that department.

We were eventually led into something that looked like a command bridge, though for all I knew it may have been their rec room. It was circular, with tall ceilings that I could tell Odin appreciated, and a few wall panels that seemed to be showing different parts of the ship. There was a very short holographic table at the center of the room displaying the entire solar system, with some color-coding I didn’t understand that probably indicated ships.

There were a dozen bodyguards dressed the same as the ones who had been guiding us, as well as two shorter people standing next to the table. They were barely two feet tall, with insect-like wings folded up on their backs. With a start, I realized that the table must have been built for their size. Did that mean these were the para leaders?

One of them had a large metal arm and a few silver spots on her temples. I wondered if those were more cybernetics. And I was pretty sure she was female. She didn’t have any obvious breasts and she was dressed in the same pattern of rainbow uniform as the para next to her, but her face was a bit leaner. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but she struck me as feminine.

I frowned, looking around as I realized something. Everyone in the room had multicolored clothing, and even the walls were painted with a few simple patterns. Zero was the only para anything I had ever seen without color. There had to be a reason for that.

The woman with the cybernetic arm said something, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. They were actual words instead of insect-like clicks and buzzes, but still. I would have had more success keeping up with Greek.

“I think it would be best to speak using the local language,” Leeno said. His tone was deferential, and he kept his eyes down. “I know you both have language chips. This one is called ‘English.’”

There was a pause, and then the woman scowled. Was that a function of the chip? “Fine.” She turned to the rest of us. “You, humans. I am Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado, elder of this ship. You may call me Zan.”

“And I am Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” the second one said. He didn’t have any obvious cybernetics that I could see, but he seemed a bit older than Zan. “You may call me Li-Po. We will be conducting this negotiation.”

Leeno frowned, looking around the room. “Where is Elder Leeno?”

Zan frowned. “Elder Leeno… or Dolor, as he insisted on being called at the end… has chosen to pass on to the next stage.”

Leeno blinked those tangerine-colored eyes of his. I put a hand on his shoulder, just briefly. He had told us a little bit about Elder Leeno. No real details, but enough to know that Leeno had been looking forward to seeing him again. He had also implied that Elder Leeno would be on our side during negotiations. So this was hardly the best start.

Lily stepped forward. “Greetings, Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado and Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” she said. She didn’t stumble over a single syllable. “I am Lilith, the First Monster, Daughter of Fire and sister of the Lady Domina and the Princess of Necessity. I am the mother to four hundred and fifty million children, and this is my world.” Her eyes flashed. “I am afraid that I will have to demand to know your intentions here. Many have died as a direct result of your actions.”

I noticed several of the bodyguards at the edges of the room shifting into combat stances. Clearly at least a few of them understood English. Adam’s hand carefully went to the pistol on his hip, and Eccretia already had the safety off her own weapon. Odin and Zaphkiel were tense, but everyone else managed to look relaxed. I knew that Dracul, if no one else, would be able to kill half the people in the room before anyone blinked.

Li-Po looked ready to get angry, but Zan stepped forward instead. “We are simply looking for a home, Honored Lilith.” I was surprised she got the honorific right, but I shouldn’t have been. They had studied our language and our city, after all. “We have come a very, very long way.”

“That doesn’t justify attacking our space colonies,” Lily said.

Zan smiled. “We needed to make sure you understood our position.”

Leeno stepped forward, looking a little disturbed. “Elder Zan. I have spoken to several world leaders, and they have offered the second planet in the system for our use. It will require terraforming, but with their help, our hives—”

“Colorless,” Zan said. It had the tone of an order.

Zero stepped forward and put Leeno in an arm lock, slapping her hand over his mouth in the process.

Zan turned her attention back to Lily. “I do not know what this adult has told you.” She said ‘adult’ like a mild insult, like she was calling him a kid. Translation glitch? “But he has no authority to negotiate for our people. Whatever he has promised you is void.”

Lily’s face was impassive. I knew what that meant. “He promised us peace.”

“That most certainly was not his to promise.”

Leeno bucked Zero off; Zan didn’t say anything, so she didn’t try to fight him. “Elder Leeno would not want this. And why did he advance so soon before such an important negotiation?”

Zan didn’t even look at him. “Elder Leeno has done more for you than you know. He made a deal.”

Leeno narrowed his eyes. “What deal?”

She finally deigned to look at him. “We needed another hive, he wanted the killing to stop.”

Leeno recoiled as if slapped. “The attacks—they weren’t a show of strength? You really were going to conquer this entire system?”

“Yes,” Zan said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Lie.”

We all turned to Odin, who was standing there with his arms crossed, glowering down at the little para. He was almost ten times her height, so it would have been ridiculous if it wasn’t so damn serious.

“I beg your pardon?” Zan said. “You have no right to moralize at us—”

“I wasn’t judging you, Elder Zan,” he said. “I was simply stating a fact. You do not believe that conquering this entire system is the right thing to do. That’s all there is to it.”

I had forgotten that Odin’s power was lie detection. It worked exactly like Laura’s, though apparently he actually had to worry about depleting his reservoir. Laura just left hers on all the time. I glanced at Leeno. Had he known about Odin’s power? He had identified Laura’s back in Domina.

He was smirking. Yeah, he had known. He probably knew about everyone’s powers. At the very least, he had to know that they had them, though maybe he couldn’t actually identify them all. I knew some of them were weird.

I looked back at Zan. Her face was carefully blank. Li-Po, on the other hand, looked close to exploding.

“Our offer still stands,” Lily said quietly. “Venus, the second planet in this system, in exchange for a lasting peace.”

Zan made a clicking sound. I had no idea what that meant. “The greenhouse planet?”

Lily nodded. “Correct. We have biological modification tools that will help with the terraforming. Leeno has read quite a bit of the literature. I am sure that he would be happy to point out some of the benefits.”

“We are aware of your toy maker,” Zan said. “We are also aware of your Kongeegen and Granit parties.”

Everyone except for Lily winced. The Granit party had been trumpeting conquering the rest of the world for years, especially using diseases modified by the toy maker. The Kongeegen weren’t as proactive, but their Darwinist talking points were similar. They had become closer ever since the para had showed up, and had suggested several plans of attack.

They didn’t know about the deal with Venus, but it was easy to see how they might try slipping some diseases into the terraforming mix. Done right, they could kill off the entire para species in days.

Lily, of course, wasn’t fazed. She was in her Mother Monster mode, nothing could so much as make her blink. “Tell me, Elder Zan, do you have any children?”

Zan nodded. “Sixteen.”

Leeno stepped up. “That’s a bit high by para standards, but not too much.” He withered under everyone’s glares. “You know… for context…” He stepped back again.

I shook my head. He was like a different person. In Domina City, he was strange, but knowledgeable and confident. Here, he was like a child. Was he faking it so that the elders underestimated him, or did they just make him feel small and powerless? I could empathize with that.

Lily didn’t bother acknowledging him. “And of all your children, Elder Zan, have any of them ever done anything you didn’t agree with?”

“Several,” she said. “Your point?”

“My point, Honored Elder, is that we cannot control our children completely. We certainly cannot control what they think. We must accept that they are independent people.” She sighed. “And sometimes they decide to spend a disturbing amount of time contemplating genocide.” Her face turned hard. “But until the day comes where they actually attempt it, at which point I will stop them, then I fear the topic is not relevant.”

Zan gave Lily a long, hard look. It was like there was no one else in the room except the two of them.

“I understand,” she said finally. “If you truly view these people as your children, taking a preemptive strike against them is not an option.”

“Of course,” Li-Po said, “they are not our children.” He pressed a button on the table. There was a strange chime, and the hologram rearranged to show something streaking from the mothership down to Earth. An incomprehensible line of vertical characters appeared, tracking with the falling object.

Adam and Eccretia both had their pistols out in a heartbeat, pointed at Li-Po and Zan respectively. The bodyguards all drew weapons of their own, and the other ambassadors tensed for a fight.

“Explain. Now,” Adam said.

“We have done what we must,” Zan said without fear. “To ensure the survival of our species.”

We all glanced at each other, and I could see panic written on everyone’s faces. There were a lot of things the para could do that we just couldn’t counter. If they decided to launch an asteroid at Domina, we wouldn’t be able to stop it. Even the shield wall would be overwhelmed.

If it came to that—if the para really had used this distraction to destroy Domina City—then everyone here would fight to exact retribution. Between all of us, we might even be able to conquer this mothership.

But they wouldn’t have invited us here if conquering the ship was easy. More likely, we were going to just go down in a blaze of glory.

Lily somehow managed to remain calm. “Leeno, dear? What did they do?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure… it’s not a missile—very different alarm for that.” He stepped forward, peering at the words. “Improvised launch? What does that mean? Did you throw a bunch of rocks at…” His expression suddenly turned to horror, and he recoiled. “Hives! You’ve dropped a hive on them?”

“We did what we must,” Li-Po said.

“Elder Leeno would have never stood for this!” our Leeno said. “Is that what all this was about? You tricked him into passing on so that there would be no one to oppose your plan? Or maybe you just needed a hive.”

“We had enough votes to do this with or without him,” Zan said. “It was his idea to advance. This way, he can look after this world, ensure that we do not do anything he finds abhorrent.”

Leeno spat something that didn’t translate and turned away.

“Wait,” I said. I was a little behind, but I was beginning to piece things together. “I thought Elder Leeno died.”

Zan frowned. “Why would you think that?”

“He simply advanced to Hive stage,” Li-Po said. He gestured at the screen. “He is now being sent to your world.”

I frowned. “Okay, what the hell—”

“Wait,” Leeno said, stepping closer to the table. “There are others.” He tried to press a holographic button, but nothing happened.

“It’s keyed to us,” Zan said. “You can’t use it.”

Leeno gave her the side-eye, then passed his hand over the table. There was a brief rush of static, and then when he started pushing buttons, they responded to him.

Zan jumped. It was amusing to see her actually surprised by something. “What did you just do?”

“Manipulated the electricity in the table to give myself admin access,” he said, tapping a few buttons while he kept his eyes on the display. “I figured out how to do it a few hundred years ago, I just never bothered until now.”

Zan stared at him. “We were asleep a hundred years ago.”

“I don’t sleep.” Leeno pressed one more button and the hologram split into four different sections, all showing a projectile moving through an atmosphere. “Here we are. There are three more hives—heading towards Mercury, Venus, and Mars.”

“Are any heading towards Lemuria?” Pale Night asked.

“I don’t even know what planet that’s on.”

“Mars,” Odin said. He pointed at the display. “Can you turn that around? Thanks.” He scratched his chin. “I don’t think that’s going to hit anything important. It’s heading for the opposite side of the planet as Lemuria, but there might be some mining stations down there.”

“Call them back,” Adam said, his gun still pointed at Zan’s head.

“I couldn’t if I wanted to,” she said. “They’re unpowered and unguided.”

Adam narrowed his eyes, clearly deciding whether to kill her anyway.

I tried to head that off. “Leeno, these hives. What are they going to do?”

“It’s… they’re…” He clicked his tongue. “Hard to explain. They will become staging grounds for para troops, but they are not inherently dangerous on their own.”

“Anything you drop from space is going to make a pretty big impact when it hits,” Dracul said. He didn’t seem particularly concerned either way.

“As long as the hive doesn’t actually hit anything important, it should be fine,” Leeno said. “They’re not explosive, and they absorb a good amount of the impact back into themselves. Of course, then they’ll start eating everything in sight to fuel their growth…”

I stared at him. “They’ll what?

Leeno winced. “They’re alive. Mostly. Not particularly aware, but alive. And they grow.”

Cailleach perked up. She hadn’t said a single word yet, but now she was starting to get interested.

Adam was less so. “Give me one good reason we shouldn’t kill everyone in this room and then take the ship.” The guards at the edges readied their weapons, but everyone ignored them. Any one of the warlords could handle them alone. Red skies, Adam could probably do it. I was the closest thing to a noncombatant in the room.

Zan didn’t look concerned. “This room has been cut off from the rest of the ship. It has no control, and all the airlocks are sealed behind doors that even you people cannot break through.” She glanced briefly at Odin, before focusing back on Adam and his gun. “The air can be pumped out in moments. If you start a fight here, it will also end here.”

I glanced at Eccretia. Her eyes were flickering around the room, clearly using her powers to see through the walls. She saw me looking, and made a quick few motions in Necessarian sign language.

I nodded. We might be able to escape, but it was far from guaranteed. It was best to play it safe for now. I wasn’t sure if the para knew about our powers, but other than Lily, we didn’t have many offensive powers. Probably because the warlords hadn’t needed them. Zaphkiel’s lasers were probably the most dangerous, unless Cailleach had some nuke she was hiding.

Lily stepped forward. “Elder Zan, I hope you realize that you have just declared war on humanity.”

Zan didn’t look concerned. “Call it what you will. If we wanted to annihilate you, we’d just drop kinetic bombardments on you from orbit. But Elder Leeno demanded that we avoid extermination.” She shrugged. “Kill us now or leave. It doesn’t matter in the long run. You can’t attack our ships.”

A chuckle emerged from the wall speakers. “Are you absolutely sure about that?”

Finally, Zan and Li-Po looked surprised. They glanced at each other, and something unspoken passed between them. Zan looked up at the ceiling. “Who is that? How have you infiltrated our systems?”

I grinned. “MC! You’re finally back!”

She chuckled again. “More than you know, sis. More than you know.”

“What happened? Who took you? Did you escape? How—”

“Not really the time. We’ll talk once you’re groundside. Now, Elder Zan.” MC’s voice turned cold. “I wasn’t able to prevent you from launching those hives. I assure you, that was not a wise move.”

“I don’t know who you are, but if you are Earth-based, it is impossible for you to simply hack into our essential systems. Your threats are colorless, and get you nowhere.”

“I didn’t hack your ship at all,” she said. “I hacked Leeno’s ship. The Big Boss put a bug on it the second it touched down. Now I’m just using the communications system to call you. And reading through the archive.” She made a sound like clicking her tongue. “I know what those hives are, Elder. Are you really going to pretend those are for anything but war?”

Li-Po looked indignant. “They can produce food, shelter, everything a colony needs—”

“Yeah, or a military base deep in enemy territory. You dropped one in the most densely populated city on our homeworld. Even if no one dies from the landing, the intent is obvious. One second…” She paused. “Found a precedent. Book seven, chapter eighty-two, paragraph nine, line two. During your medieval period, some soldiers smuggled a hive into an enemy castle. The international council unanimously declared it an act of war.”

Li-Po scowled. “I refuse to be lectured by a disembodied voice.” He waved a hand. “Leave us, and spare us your inelegant posturing. You have nothing to threaten us with.”

“Are you sure about that?” MC asked, amused. “Because this shuttle has a very interesting central reactor.”

I saw Leeno’s eyes go wide.

Then, there was an explosion. It rocked the entire ship, throwing me and several of the para to the ground. The warlords kept their feet, of course. A massive metal screech reverberated through the entire ship, making my teeth feel like they were going to rattle out of my skull.

“Adam, we’re leaving,” Lily said over the blaring alarms, her tone clipped. Adam holstered his gun and drew his shotgun, ready to lead the escape. “Elder Zan, I am afraid I am going to have to officially declare war between humanity and the para.” Her face was completely expressionless, as if it had been made from porcelain.

I recognized it as the face she made when she was trying not to cry.

“Everyone, let’s go,” Lily said, and turned to leave quickly. The rest of us followed, leaving the para behind, too confused by alarms and their still-shaking ship to complain or shoot.

We found ourselves in the same confusing corridors as before, but now there were a dozen different colors of lights and blaring alarms—and no guides.

“MC, which way?” I asked.

Silence.

“She destroyed the ship, child,” Cailleach said. “No signal.”

I blinked. “But… you’re still here. Can you use yourself as a relay?”

“Perhaps,” she said, unconcerned. The flashing alarms gave her face a demonic cast, and I could barely hear her over the blaring. “But I feel it would be better to detonate this body to cover your escape.”

Eccretia scowled. “Bloody homunculus.”

Lily nodded at Cailleach. “Thank you, Honored Crone. Please do not kill any of the para in the process. I am still hoping for as little bloodshed as possible.”

Cailleach nodded. I didn’t bring up the fact that countless people had already been killed when MC detonated Leeno’s ship.

“So then how do we get out of here?” Odin asked.

“I can’t see a clear path,” Eccretia said. “Everything is too confusing.”

“This way!” Leeno said, running up with Zero in tow. “I know every single centimeter of this ship.”

Dracul grabbed him by the throat before anyone could react. “And how do we know you’re not leading us into a trap?”

“Drake, let him go,” Lily said. “We don’t have time for this, and he was as surprised as we were. Leeno? If you have an idea how to get us out of here…” She gestured down the corridor. Leeno nodded, then ran off. Lily followed, and once again, the rest of us followed like a bunch of puppies after their owner.

We eventually came to an airlock that looked the same as the one we came in through. As we were all preparing our space suits, Pale Night suddenly stepped back. “My suit…”

Lily stopped, then looked horrified. “I… I must have dropped it back in the control room. I can’t…”

Pale Night steadied herself. “Go without me.”

No,” Lily said, her tone brooking no argument. “We are not leaving anyone behind.” She paused, then nodded at Cailleach. “Remote bodies don’t count. The point is that you are coming with us.”

Pale Night shook her head. “You’re just wasting time arguing. You need to save as many people as you can.” She looked down at her feet. The veil obscured her face, of course, but her body language was clear. She wasn’t budging on this. “I will not have anyone else die because of me, mother. Especially not you.”

Lily just glared at her. Neither one of them was willing to back down.

I sighed. “This would be easy is Derek was here.”

Everyone turned to stare at me.

“What?” I said, defensive. “He could wrap Pale in a shield bubble, hold in the air. But none of us have… shields…” I trailed off.

We all slowly turned to Lily.

“Honored Mother,” Pale Night said, “does Derek Huntsman love you?”

Lily smiled. “Oh, very much so.”

Pale Night bowed. “Then, if you would be so kind…”

Lily cracked her neck, ready to shield her, but I grabbed her arm. “Wait. Do it for all of us.”

Lily cocked her head to the side. “Why? You all have your suits.”

“But we don’t know what the hanger will look like. Could be dangerous. Better safe than sorry.”

She looked at me for a second, then nodded slowly. “Of course. Everyone, gather in close.”

Twelve people—including one giant—huddled as close together as possible without stepping on each other’s toes. Cailleach, of course, stood off to the side, out of range and unconcerned. Zero looked confused, as best as I could tell with that expressionless mask, but Leeno was practically vibrating with glee.

Leeno hit a button, closing the airlock and leaving us in a small, windowless room. Cailleach was on the other side, and would be detonating her homunculus any second. Or maybe she’d try to fight the para off a bit first. Hopefully she was following Lily’s instructions and avoiding killing if possible.

“Leeno,” Lily said. “Which button will open the vacuum side of the airlock?”

Leeno pointed, but didn’t push it. “That one.”

“Good. Adam. On three, I need you to hit the airlock release.”

Adam nodded.

“Then one… two… three!”

Adam hit the button. A split second later, as the airlock began to open, Lily closed her eyes and pushed her hands out.

A shimmering globe of blue force enveloped us, leaking mist that faded in moments. It was exactly like the shields that Derek created, down to the color of the mist.

Amazing,” Leeno said, grinning from ear to ear. “I can feel you singing in tune to him. What a marvelous ability you have.”

The airlock was opening, and some smoke was pouring in. Should there be smoke in a vacuum?

“You can’t keep this up forever, though,” Leeno said.

“Correct,” Lily said through gritted teeth. “So please, just let me concentrate.”

Leeno nodded, contrite, and didn’t say another word. The airlock was open enough now for the smoke to clear and give us a good view of the docks beyond.

It was chaos. A huge chunk of the bay was simply gone, like a massive mouth had taken a bite out of it. The doors were blasted apart like they were made of tinfoil, and I could see through the floor and ceiling to other decks.

Great gouts of flame burst forth from the floor and the walls—likely the result of cracked gas pipes. The beautiful murals were blackened and charred, mostly unrecognizable. I could see para running back and forth in their space suits, signaling at each other for tools or maybe for damaged pipes and sparking wires to be turned off.

No one was paying attention to twelve humans, even if they were in a glowing blue bubble.

Leeno looked around the dock in mute horror. He had likely never seen this level of destruction.

The rest of us, however, had. Most of the warlords had caused quite a bit worse. Thankfully there was no blood or obvious dead bodies, so even I didn’t really have any problem with it all. I elbowed Leeno in the gut. “Hey. You good?”

He started a little, but then nodded. He turned to Lily. “Do you have enough power?”

She grimaced. “My reservoir isn’t as deep as Derek’s, but I can get us to the ship.”

Eccretia blinked. “You mean the ship MC blew up?”

There was a pause.

“Shit,” the White Cat said. “I knew we were forgetting something.”

I glared at him. He never had anything useful to contribute. Instead I turned to Lily. “Can you get us to Earth?”

She frowned. “What? You mean… fall through the atmosphere?” She shook her head and I noticed her sweating. “No way. It would get too hot.”

“Most of you would survive,” Eccretia said, glancing at Adam. The three of us were the only ones without warlord-level buffs, and I could probably survive with my flight, if I angled my descent correctly.

“I don’t mean inside the shield,” Lily said. “I mean the shield would break, and then everyone would die.”

Everyone paused to let the implications of that sink in.

Adam snapped his fingers to wake everyone up again. “Hey, c’mon! We need ideas, people! Lily’s reservoir is going to run out soon, and the para might catch up with us eventually. Or these workers might take notice of us. Does anyone have any other powers that might be useful here?”

Everyone shook their heads.

But I had a thought. “I can fly.”

“Well yes, obviously…” Adam’s face cleared. “Meaning you can fly the globe. Any chance that fixes the atmospheric re-entry problem?”

“No,” I said. I pointed up at one of the docking cradles. “But I can get us there.”

The cradle in question held a small shuttle, about the same size as the one we had flown in on. I was pretty sure it was a different model, but with all the custom paint jobs, it was hard for me to be sure.

“Will that work?” Odin asked.

“No time,” Lily said still straining. Was her power already drained? Was she redlining it like Derek had done right before he fought Elizabeth? “Robyn, take us there.”

I nodded and flew straight up.

I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting. Maybe I had been hoping that I’d be able to extend my power to the entire globe and float us up.

Instead, I ended up plastered against the top of the globe, dragging the thing with me.

It was an embarrassing way to move, but I had the power to do it and more. I was at least as strong as the other Paladins now—except for Laura, of course—so moving two thousand plus pounds of weight for a few minutes wasn’t really all that difficult for me.

The cradle was only about a hundred feet up, and I landed us on the gantry or dock or whatever it was supposed to be called. I floated back down to the floor, wincing as I stretched my muscles. My power had handled the weight easily, but my body was another matter. Maybe I had been able to extend my power to the globe a little, because I was pretty sure pushing two thousand pounds onto my body should have turned me to mush.

Lily was breathing hard. “Pale, sweetie? I’m going to try to get a smaller shield around you now. Don’t move.”

“Ready,” Pale Night said.

Lily nodded, then her brow furrowed even further. A globe of blue energy appeared around Pale Night’s head a split second before the bigger one around all of us disappeared. There was a pop as all the captured air spread out in the vacuum.

Adam moved over to the ship and tried the door, then turned back and shook his head. No good. Was it locked?

Leeno pushed him aside gently and placed his gloved hand on the side of the ship. A moment later, I saw electricity crackling over his fingers, and then the door popped open to reveal a tiny airlock.

There was no way we would all fit in that. Red skies, Odin might not fit in it at all. On the way up, we had been forced to stick him in the cargo bay. The ships had a lot of space compared to our own shuttles, but that really wasn’t saying much.

Leeno grabbed Pale Night and shoved her unceremoniously inside, before using his powers again to close the door. A moment later it opened, empty.

The rest of us cycled through the airlock as fast as possible, though Odin had to sit in the cargo hold again. There was no air for him, but his suit would last for days.

Once we were all cycled through, Leeno took his helmet off, and the rest of us did the same. “Zero should be able to fly us out of here.” He nodded to her, and she walked over to the front of the craft, then took the controls. Leeno continued watching her, an odd look on his face.

Eccretia saw his look, and leaned in to whisper quietly. “How loyal is she?”

Leeno shook his head. “I have no idea. She’s Colorless, of course, so there’s no love lost for the elders, but they’re also the only ones who can reverse her condition. I feel like if she was going to turn on us, she would have done it already.”

I frowned. “What do you mean by Colorless?”

Leeno gave me an odd look, then sighed. “Of course, you don’t know. You see, when a criminal is considered low-risk—”

He was interrupted by the shuttle shaking hard enough to almost throw us all off our feet, and then shaking some more.

Zero turned around in her seat and started signing desperately. It wasn’t the kemo battle sign that she had used before.

Leeno winced. “The docking clamps have us locked in. We can’t take off.”

“So?” Adam said. “Just do your electric thing, unlock them.”

“I can’t do that from inside the shuttle,” Leeno said.

“Then go outside,” I said.

“Then I won’t be able to get back in. The doors won’t open unless the shuttle has landed.”

“What kind of stupid safety feature is that?”

Leeno rolled his tangerine-colored eyes. “It’s not a safety feature, at least not in that way. This is one of the old prison shuttles. They bought a bunch of them for cheap before we left home. The doors won’t open except in a docking cradle, so that criminals can’t hijack the shuttle and just land wherever they like. It’s a hardware thing, not software. I can’t override it.”

I looked around the small ship. Now that he mentioned it, I did see some signs of a ship designed to hold prisoners. Nothing so obvious as cages or manacles, but there were a number of sturdy metal handles—painted a rainbow of colors, of course—on the floor, where people could be chained. I also noticed that none of them were in reach of the controls.

I frowned. “But your shuttle didn’t have that problem.”

He shrugged. “That was a different model. Most of them aren’t prison shuttles.”

I threw up my hands. “Then why don’t we go find another one? One that wasn’t designed for transporting criminals?”

“I didn’t see any more shuttles out there, did you?”

“We don’t have time for this,” Adam said. “Does anyone have any powers that might help? Any kind of kinesis, super strength or… I don’t know, teleportation?” Everyone shook their heads. He cursed under his breath. “Just need five feet of teleportation. Is that too much to ask?”

Super strength… “What about the cargo bay? Does that stay locked, too?”

“Yes, sorry. I don’t think—”

The shuttle shook again, but this time it was from an explosion outside the ship.

“No time!” Adam said. “Zero, full power! Rip out of the clamps!”

Leeno recoiled. “What? No! That could damage the ship!”

Adam met his stare without flinching. “More damage than being caught in an explosion, or more damage than being caught by angry guards?”

Leeno blinked, then turned to Zero. “Full power.”

She nodded and started manipulating the controls. The ship shook again.

“Everyone, helmets on, just in case,” Lily said. “Pale, I’ll get ready to shield you if I have to.”

As everyone got ready, there was a long, tortured screech of metal. I could feel every atom of the ship straining against the clamps, like a living thing trying desperately to break free. And then…

And then we were thrown against one side of the ship as the clamps finally failed.

The shuttle wobbled a bit, but smoothed out, and in moments we were outside the mothership, heading down to Earth.

“How did we do?” Leeno asked, as he walked up next to Zero. I followed. She had her hands full, of course, so he had to look over the screens himself. “Grey skies… we lost three thrusters.”

“Can we still land?” I asked. “I doubt my power is enough to fly this whole ship.”

“Well, we’ll hit the ground, if that’s what you mean,” Leeno said. “No guarantees on a soft landing.”

“Head for the water.” I marked the west side of the Domina island. “We’ve got allies underwater who will help us. Plus, these suits have enough air to last us a while, if it comes to that.”

“What about your niece?”

I frowned. “Who?” I glanced behind me. “Oh, you mean Pale Night. She’s not—” I paused. Now probably wasn’t the time to get into the oddities of Lily’s relationship with the people of the city, and what that meant for me. “She should be fine. Hey, Pale!” She looked up. “You’ve got Mermaid lungs, right?”

She nodded. “As well as a few depth buffs.”

I turned back to Leeno. “See, she’s fine. She’d probably last longer underwater than the rest of us.”

He nodded. “Very well. We should still warn your people that we are coming.”

“Yeah, my guild might try to swat us out of the sky.”

Adam walked up. “Why didn’t they do that to the hive, or whatever it was?”

“A hive is not technological,” Leeno said. “No radio, no thermal signature. It’s basically a rock, and not even a shiny rock. I doubt anyone in your city noticed it until it was too late. Though perhaps this MC of yours managed to warn someone.”

I snapped my fingers. “That’s who we’ll call.”

Adam frowned. “Are you sure she’ll still have the same number? We have no idea what happened.”

“She’ll be monitoring it, if nothing else,” I said. “She knows it’s the first thing anyone would call to get in touch with her.” I gave the frequency to Zero, who plotted it in without question. If she was planning betrayal, she was doing an excellent job of hiding it.

A moment later, the radio crackled to life. “Hello? Robyn? Lily?”

“I’m here,” I said. I glanced back at Lily. She had been talking with the warlords, but she walked over when she heard MC’s voice. “We’re both here, with everyone else except for Cailleach. She detonated her homunculus to give us time to escape.”

“Speaking of which,” Leeno said quietly, “I have many questions—”

I silenced him with a wave.

“I’m sure she has her hands full down here,” MC said. “I’m in the Cathedral right now. Bring that shuttle down and we’ll talk. I’m sure the Servants will love to get their hands on para tech.”

I glanced at Leeno. If he had a problem with this plan, he didn’t show it. “Sounds good. It, uh, might be a hard landing…”

“Aim for the pond. It will be messy, but better than the alternative.”

I nodded. Despite what I had said to Leeno, I was much happier to know we’d be landing in the middle of the city instead of out in the Bay at the mercy of the Dagonites.

The White Cat strode up. “I would very much like to see what the para have as well. I can call some of my engineers, have them meet us there.”

MC chuckled sadly. “I’m afraid that they’ve already got their hands full.”

Adam cursed. “The hive.”

“Actually, that’s secondary,” MC said. “There was a more… immediate problem.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 331)

At the moment, Lily can only borrow one power at a time, though that will eventually change as her power grows and evolves. No matter how many powers she has, however, they will always pull from a single reservoir. Also remember that her reservoir is not influenced by the person she borrows the power from; Derek, for example, could have kept up the shield bubble she uses here for hours if not days.

Advertisements

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 309 – Matre Monstro

MATRE MONSTRO

RICHARD

“Mister President,” the aide said. “They’re ready.”

I cursed and jumped up from my seat. They delay the meeting for eight hours, and then call it again with no warning. Maybe it was a Domina thing, a show of strength. I didn’t really care how strong they were, I just wished I had a chance to finish dinner.

I cursed, struggling with my tie. Never had been able to get used to the stupid things. Normally Silk helped me before important events like this, but she was gone. Some sort of family emergency, she had said. I was curious, but hadn’t asked. To put it bluntly, I had more important things on my mind.

If I had thought ahead, I probably would have asked her to tie my tie before she left. Then I could have just never untied it. But then the knot would probably get dirty over time… maybe that was why people didn’t do that.

After a couple eternities, I managed to get the stupid thing tied. I took a deep breath and stepped outside.

There were dozens of people waiting for me outside my office. No press, thankfully, but I would have almost preferred them. Instead I had to deal with generals and senators who all wanted pieces of my time.

“Sir, I understand you have refused to have the so-called ambassadors arrested—”

“Now, I know it’s too late, but I still think we should have had this meeting in Domina City—”

“These stupid children think they can dictate terms to us—”

“Sir, please be careful, they are more dangerous than they appear—”

“Sir, I think—”

Senator Grain stepped up beside me as I followed my guards through the crowd. I smiled and nodded to everyone trying to give me advice, but ignored them. Most of the people I would be listening to weren’t here.

“We should make them wait,” Grain said.

“No,” I said.

He sighed. “Richard—”

“No,” I said again. I pulled open a door and slipped inside. Grain followed me, and the hubbub died as the door closed. This room wasn’t the meeting room, just a waiting room. There were half a dozen of my closest advisers sitting here, but they didn’t make any noise. “Stalling at this point would just make us look petty.”

Grain brushed some dandruff off my shoulder. “Fine. I guess I can’t argue with that logic. You remember the talking points?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, mom. Start with requesting reparations for the damage done to our ships and armies. They’ll refuse, but it will put us in a better bargaining position for the rest. Ultimate goal is to get their toy maker mods, and figure out where the hell that shield came from.”

Grain nodded. “Yes, that’s perfect.”

I smirked. “This isn’t my first rodeo. I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, but you’ve never negotiated with someone who can rip you apart with their bare hands.” He brushed at my other shoulder, frowning as some piece of dust proved stubborn. “And now you have to deal with ten of them. And their bodyguards.”

“Thank you so much for that reminder,” I said dryly. A thought occurred to me, and I filed it away for later. “Anything else?”

“Nothing much.” He went to brush my shoulder again, but I batted him away. “The meeting is being recorded, but not broadcast live. It could be decades before anyone sees it.” He paused. “I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.”

I sighed. “Neither am I.” I nodded to the others, and they all stood. My guards opened the doors, and I strode into the meeting room.

There were a couple of dozen people, all standing around a long table. They stuck to their half of the room, leaving us plenty of space. They were talking among themselves, but they all turned to look when we entered the room.

I had been briefed as best as possible, but it was still hard not to be shocked. So many of them all in one room… half of them barely looked human any more. There was one that looked like a giant lizard, or maybe a dragon. He was the most extreme, but there was also a naked woman with light green skin glowing slightly. She was speaking to an anthropomorphic white cat, who sniffed in my direction and frowned. There was a group of men who were all eight or nine feet tall. They were speaking with a man who appeared perfectly normal, but his bodyguards all had eyes of pure black. A man with horns was standing next to two women in wheelchairs. They had black eyes as well, but they had patches of fish scales and I could see tails peeking out from under the blankets they had in their laps. A woman in a stunning black dress, dusted with glittering stars, stood with her entourage, smiling at me. On the other side of the room, a normal-seeming woman and two normal-seeming bodyguards glared daggers at her.

I adjusted my tie and forced a smile onto my face. “Welcome, ambassadors of Domina City. I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

“We were,” the normal-looking man said. He stepped up behind a seat next to the head of the table. “But that was not your mistake. Please, do not feel obligated to apologize.”

The others seemed to take his lead, standing behind seats on their half of the room. Even thew wheelchairs were around so that the women could get a better view of the room. They were put behind the man with the horns, who had taken the chair next to the head of the table. Right across from the man with the black-eyed bodyguards.

The head chair itself remained empty. I wasn’t sure what to think of that.

My own people spread out to stand behind their chosen seats on our side of the table. I took the head seat, but paused before pulling the chair out. Was there some hidden ritual here I didn’t understand? Some part of Dominite culture I was missing?

“If you would all take your seats, we can get started—”

“Not quite, President Martinez,” the woman in the black dress said. “We’re just waiting on one more.”

“You appear to have me at a disadvantage. What is your name?”

She smiled. “Lady Maeve, Maiden of the Unseelie Court, Princess of Snow and Frost.”

O…kay… “Lady Maeve. “Who are we waiting on?”

The doors opened.

A girl strode through.

She couldn’t be more than five feet tall. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was barely more than four. Though her professional suit covered up most of her tan skin, I could see tribal tattoos peeking out from her hands and neck. She had a pair of small red horns jutting out of her forehead, short black hair, and a lithe tail snaking up from behind her. Her eyes were red, in more ways than one. The iris was red, yes, but they were also bloodshot and puffy. She almost looked like she had been crying. Still, they were stronger than I expected. Whatever she had been forced to deal with, she had pushed through.

She had one bodyguard, a young man with hard eyes. His suit didn’t fit quite right and his gun was worn too openly, but at least he looked human. He didn’t have any modifications that I could see.

I cleared my throat. “Young lady, I don’t know who you are—”

“Mister president, you have a daughter, correct?”

I paused for a moment. “I think it would be more accurate to say I have a daughter-shaped bundle of energy, but yes.”

She smiled. It faded quickly. “Less than eight hours ago, I held one of my daughters in my arms as she burned to death.” Her eyes were as hard as steel. “She was not a loyal daughter. She died trying to take me with her. When she realized there was no way for her to win, she decided she wanted everyone to lose. But she was still my daughter.”

My eye twitched. I was pretty sure I could smell something scorched. I really didn’t want to know what it was.

“So we can discuss my credentials at another time. Right now, I am too tired.” Her bodyguard pulled out the chair at the head of the table for her, and she sat. The Dominite ambassadors all followed suit without a word. She looked at the papers in front of her. “Now, first on the agenda. Domina’s sovereignty.”

The rest of us slowly sat as well. “I—I think it would be best if we dismissed our bodyguards,” I managed. “As a show of good faith.”

The girl looked at me, frowned, then nodded. “Agreed.” She waved her hand. All the Dominite bodyguards immediately marched out of the room, not even bothering to wait for confirmation from the ambassadors. The girl’s own bodyguard paused for a moment, but left along with the others.

Our own bodyguards filed out as well, but again, slower. They exited the room behind me, and I was suddenly very happy that there were two waiting rooms. Leaving our bodyguards with theirs for the duration of the meeting would probably lead to a fight.

“Most of the difficult parts of Domina’s sovereignty are already accounted for,” the girl said. “We do not pay you taxes, and you do not support us in any way. The prisoner ships might require some new paperwork, but we already receive prisoners from other foreign countries. Putting America in that category shouldn’t be overly difficult.”

“Young miss,” I said. I felt like the world was spinning away beneath me, and my tie was too tight. “I’m sorry for underestimating you. But please—who are you?

She looked up and met my eyes with a level gaze.

“I am Lilith,” she said. “The First Monster. The Mother Monster, the Great Matron. Everyone who uses the toy maker is my child, and everyone in Domina City uses the toy maker. Artemis suggested that my presence would be beneficial to these negotiations, and I agreed. So, I have come.”

I chuckled and glanced at some of the other ambassadors. “Look, I’m willing to take a joke pretty far—”

“I’d stop right there if I were you, friend,” the man from before said. The one with the bodyguards with the black eyes. He smirked, and I could see a hint of fangs in his mouth. “Some of these people might be willing to start a war over an insult to dear old Mom.”

“Dracul,” Lilith said. “Nu-l amenința. Mă voi ocupa de asta.”

Dracul rolled his eyes, but fell silent. His smirk didn’t disappear, however.

Lilith turned back to me. “Any other questions, Mister President?”

I sighed. “No. Not for now, anyway.”

“Excellent.” She tapped at her pad. “Let’s discuss trade. Currently, Domina only trades digitally with America. Outsourced server time, call centers, so on. That should be able to continue uninterrupted, but we can also add a few more things. We can give you toys and monsters, while you can give us food and other goods that are difficult to make offworld. This will take some pressure off some of our allies in space, which will be good for the system as a whole.”

Next to me, Grain cleared his throat. “We haven’t—I don’t think the president has agreed to grant you sovereignty yet.”

Lilith nodded, then gathered up her things and stood. The other Dominite ambassadors followed suit.

“Wait wait wait!” I said. “What are you doing?”

“If you are not willing to grant Domina sovereignty, then we have nothing else to talk about,” she said. “The war will resume, and we will be forced to take drastic measures.” She turned to Maeve. “How fast can you get a dozen gargants in Washington DC?”

Maeve grinned. “Tomorrow. Easy.”

I took a deep breath. I didn’t know what gargants were, but the context made them frightening enough. “You’re trying to scare us. It won’t work.”

“No,” Lilith said. “I am trying to do what is best for my children.”

“A good mother wouldn’t get them killed.”

Half the Dominite ambassadors gasped. The giant growled under his breath and grabbed the table. I couldn’t tell what his plan was, but Lilith stopped him with a raised hand. He reluctantly stepped back.

Those red eyes bored into me. “Is this truly how you want to play this?” she said. She just ignored the insult, which I was thankful for. It had slipped out, and I hadn’t meant it. “Do you really want to jump back into a war? I understand bluffs. I understand acting stronger than you are. But if you do not accept Domina’s sovereignty, people will die. People you could have saved. Do you really want that on your conscience?”

Grain scoffed. “Little girl, if you think—”

“Shut up,” I said.

Grain glared at me, but shut his mouth.

I continued holding Lilith’s gaze, looking deeply into those red eyes of hers.

She didn’t blink.

“Everyone out,” I said.

Everyone stared at me. Grain was the one to speak. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” I said. “Everyone out. Lilith stays, but that’s it.”

They stood silently for a moment, as if they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. I couldn’t quite believe what I was saying. But when I didn’t retract the order, they grumbled and started packing up their things. Everyone, on both sides of the table. They all filed out, muttering and whispering. Even the wheelchairs got pushed out by Dracul and the giant.

Once they were gone and the doors closed behind them, I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “You would have done it, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” Lilith said quietly. “I am sorry. But my children must come first.”

I cocked my head. “So that’s real? You’re not just pandering to the audience?” I jerked my thumb at the camera. “It’s not live, if that’s what you’re worried about. We can delay it for years, if that’s what you want.”

Lilith walked over. She didn’t come all the way to my side of the table, but she did come over to the half way point. She sat on the table and smiled at me.

“None of it is faked,” she said. “I’ve never been a very good liar.”

I stood and walked over opposite her. Now we were only a few feet apart instead of almost twenty. “That’s exactly what good liars say.”

She chuckled. “The truth is… I’m doing my best.” She shrugged. “Parenting is hard enough with a handful of kids, or even just one. I have over four hundred million. I can’t possibly look after them all.”

“What do you do, then?” I asked. I could tell that she was being genuine. A woman like this wouldn’t take the title without trying to live up to it. She had to get to know her children somehow, or she wouldn’t call herself their mother.

“I’m a waitress,” she said with a smile.

I blinked. I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t that.

“I know it sounds silly,” she said. “Everyone always says that.” She leaned back on her hands, a wistful look on her face. “But it lets me meet people. Talk to them. Find out what they like, what they do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

I didn’t say anything. I had spent some time as a waiter when I was a kid, and all it had done was test my faith in humanity. Luckily, we had served alcohol and my boss was very understanding.

“I have to do what is best for my city,” Lilith said. “I am sorry.”

I nodded. “So your sovereignty is non-negotiable. I understand. But I need something in exchange. Favored trade status would go a long way to making this pill easier for congresscritters to swallow.”

She quirked her head. “You’re afraid of them overriding your decision?”

I smirked. “It’s not that bad. They’ll grumble about it, but they don’t want to start a war either. I pretty much just need to give them an excuse to accept it.”

She smiled. “And favored trade status is a very good excuse.”

I smiled as well. Then I stopped. “How does trade with your city work, any way? I know you exchange packages with the space stations, but I don’t know the exact details.”

“Artemis normally sets the specific trade tariffs,” she said. “Smuggling isn’t a major problem, due to the difficulties of trading at all. I suspect we’ll start seeing many more problems once we start trading with the mainland more. And not everyone will like the idea of giving you toys.”

“If it makes them feel any better, we’re not going to be usurping their monopoly any time soon. We still have all those laws against the toy maker in place, and getting rid of them won’t be easy.” I rolled my eyes. “It’s part of the reason we attacked in the first place. Kind of like invading because someone kept parking on the sidewalk.”

“What about the monsters?” she asked. “What do your laws say about that?”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“The fey modify animals. Make them larger, more dangerous. Gives them interesting properties that are useful. Food, some types of medicine, that sort of thing.”

“There’s no way we’ll be able to ship live animals,” I said. “Maybe if you were still a client city, but as your own sovereign state, it’s out of the question. Not sure if there will be enough of a demand for that sort of thing anyway.”

“As long as the option is on the table, it’s a good start.” She headed back to her seat. “I think that is enough for the moment. Should we call the others back in?”

“Maybe.” I paused. “Just one last thing. Your daughter. The one who died.”

She stopped. She didn’t look at me. “Yes?”

“You said she died eight hours ago. That means it happened here, in New York.”

“Yes.”

“What, exactly, happened? Does it have anything to do with the fugitive I heard about?”

Lilith sighed, and turned to face me. She still didn’t look at me, though. She kept her gaze turned down. “Malcanthet… always wanted power. When Domina City wouldn’t give her enough, she fled here. Tried to build what she wanted. When I arrived, she kidnapped me, we fought, and she killed herself. That is all.”

I took a deep breath. Oh boy… “That is the kind of thing we would like to know about.”

She looked up and met my eyes. She didn’t seem defiant, just a little confused. “You want us to send you our criminal profiles?”

“That would be nice,” I admitted. “I think Interpol might be necessary. I don’t know. But what I meant was the part about a foreign ambassador almost getting killed on our soil. That sort of thing can cause… problems.”

Lilith smiled. It seemed genuine. “Don’t worry, Mister President. I was never in any danger.”

I gave her a look. “Yes, because every time someone tries to kill an ambassador, we just ignore it if they survive. Do the others even know what happened? How will they react when they find out?”

She thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. I think that they will decide that Malcanthet was our problem. They will not blame you. Several of them were at the Battle of Shendilavri. They will blame themselves for letting her escape in the first place.”

“Okay. Just as long as they don’t say that.”

She frowned. “Why?”

“Because my people will blame you,” I said. I shrugged. “Not you specifically. Domina. Whoever was in charge of this… Shin…”

“Shendilavri was Malcanthet’s domain,” Lilith said. “An alliance of cultures drove her out and burned the building to the ground.”

She said it so casually. “Right. Sure. But then she came here. How much damage has she done in the past few weeks? Do you even know?”

She frowned. But this time it was in confusion, not annoyance. “What?”

“I doubt she’s just been sitting around doing nothing.”

“Well, you’re right, but… why do you think she’s only started trouble in the past few weeks? Did something happen?”

“I was just guessing,” I said. “I don’t know when all this happened. She got driven out before the war started, right? So at least a few weeks.”

Lilith looked like she was struggling with something.

“What?” I said. “What is it?”

“Mister President,” she said slowly. “Malcanthet was driven out of Domina almost six years ago. I have to assume that she has been here this entire time.”

I sat down.

“Oh,” I said.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “Well… that might be problematic. From a public relations standpoint, at least. More of that ‘all immigrants are criminals’ crap.” I looked up. “What exactly did she do?”

She winced. “I think my sister can explain a little better than I can.” She pulled out her phone and started tapping buttons. “She wrote an article a while back summarizing everything. It’s required reading in most universities these days.” She slid the phone across the table to me.

I grabbed it, frowned, and started reading the text on the tiny screen. She could have at least put it on a pad.

I blinked. I continued reading.

I blinked again.

“I… I…”

“Yes,” Lilith said.

“But—she could have taken over the city!” I said. “We’re not prepared for this sort of thing!”

“It’s harder than you’d think. Anyone who holds political office is very closely scrutinized. It’s unlikely she could brainwash anyone. Not to mention that routine medical checks would have caught their odd blood chemistry.”

“But—you should have told us!”

“And what would you have done?” she asked. “Or your predecessor, rather. Would he have believed us? And if he did believe us, what would he have done about it? Would he have decided that Domina City was too dangerous to leave free? Would he have sent in the armies, looking to arrest every single one of our warlords?” She shook her head. “Artemis made his choices. I agreed with them at the time, and I still do now.”

I swallowed and slid the phone across the table. “Maybe keep the details to yourself for now. Just until we get something signed, and people calm down a bit.”

Lilith nodded.

“But for the future, we will need some system of sharing criminal profiles.” I shook my head. “Even if I didn’t understand what half of those crimes were. Like, what is retribution evasion?”

She smiled. “Short version? Tax evasion.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s always what gets them in the end.”

She walked over to the door on her side. “So should we invite them back in?”

I nodded. “Let’s try and finish this up quickly.”

Behind the Scenes (309)

This is another scene that I ran through a dozen variations of, from random monster attack to Malcanthet secretly still being alive and declaring undying revenge. This is one of the lower-key versions of the scene, but I think it works better.

Scene 298 – Amor et Sanguine

AMOR ET SANGUINE

FIERNA

“Can we hurry this up?” the Dragon asked. “I have to be in New York City tomorrow morning.” He adjusted the cuff links on his black suit. “It would be very embarrassing if I was late.”

Bel growled. “The only reason it took so long is because you were busy playing war games. We should have had this meeting weeks ago.”

Dracul smiled at him, his godeyes sparkling. “I was defending our fair city, Honored Noble. What exactly were you doing when warships arrived on our shores?”

Before they could get into another argument, Ishtar slowly took her seat, languishing across the velvet couch like a great cat. Her sensual dress made her every motion the center of attention. “You are the one who called us here, dearest Fierna. I think it is only appropriate that you be the one to get us started.”

‘Here’ was Jealous Heart, Ishtar’s aptly named domain. It was patterned after Shendilavri’s velvet halls, which always made me a little uncomfortable. But it was warm and quiet, which made it better than Phlegethos right now. Sure, I had plenty of cold-weather buffs, but it was the middle of winter and half the damn domain was styled after a medieval castle. Concrete walls made the whole place feel like an icebox.

I nodded to her. “Thank you, Honored Ishtar. I’m not sure how much Gazra told you—”

“Nothing interesting.” She waved her hand. “Something about it being important to something or something.”

“An apt summary,” Bel said. “I have a better understanding.” He gave me a weary look. “You want to free the sclavi. Truly free them, not just cut them off from the chems and leave them to die in the back alleys of Acheron.”

“Yes, which is why—”

“It’s a nice idea,” he said. “But I’m not sure it will work. Phlegethos just isn’t set up for that sort of thing. How many members do you have right now? Real members.”

“A few hundred. But—”

Bel sighed. “Look, I know you think you can handle it. But having that many people under your command is more than just feeding them all. The freed slaves are going to want voices in the culture. They’ll be happy with you at first, but that will go downhill quickly. Do you even have a basic republic framework set up?”

I frowned. “No, but neither do you!”

“The Avernans number a little over a thousand,” he said. “Enlightened dictatorship works pretty well at that level.  Especially since my drakes can leave if they don’t like what I’m doing. Yours won’t have that option.”

“Yes, they will,” I said. “That’s the entire point.”

He gave me a pitying look. “You know it’s not that simple. Yes, they’ll be free to leave, but where else will they go? Who will take in thousands of just-clean chem-heads? Even Butler would have trouble with an influx like that. You will be their only option, so you need to make sure it’s a good option.”

I squared my jaw. “Then what do you suggest, hm? That I turn Phlegethos into an elected oligarchy? Oh wait, that’s what the pines did, and they all died. Or maybe an anarchy, like the Satanists! Because they are wonderful role models!”

“Fierna,” Bel said chided. “You’re being unreasonable.”

I nearly pulled out my hair and threw it in his face.

“Actually, I’m with her on this one,” Dracul said. He was leaning forward, that small knowing smile on his lips. “Worrying about the government of a sick culture is putting the cart before the horse. Keep it a dictatorship right now.” He winked at me. “Though maybe cut down on the executions.”

I frowned at Bel. “Is that what this is about? You don’t like that I’m executing traitors?”

“He’s a scientist, love,” Ishtar said without opening her eyes. “Executions are a waste of test subjects.”

Bel glared at her, but decided she wasn’t worth the effort. He turned back to me. “Sweetie, I know you’re doing your best. And you’re right, a lot of those people deserved worse than what you gave them.  Bleeding night, maybe all of them did. I’m just worried that you might let the power go to your head. There need to be checks and balances.”

“I already have a slave army that only I control,” I said. “Tell me uncle, how exactly is freeing them going to give me power that is more dangerous than that?”

“It’s not—I’m not—” He sighed. “I just want you to be mindful of the mistakes your father made. Please, that’s all I ask.”

“I will,” I said, and meant it. “I left because of what he did.”

Bel nodded. “Good. Excellent.”

I scratched at the spot where my fixer used to be. “Now, on to actually curing the sclavi—”

“First, we need to discuss retribution,” Bel said.

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

“What exactly are you talking about?”

“Mom already forgave her for the whole Whorestown thing,” Ishtar said. She was popping grapes into her mouth one by one. Where did she get grapes?

“I thought even you forgave her,” the Dragon said. He was looking at Bel with the gaze of a predator. “Lots of yelling, made you feel better, all that?”

“I remember the yelling,” I muttered petulantly. I couldn’t help it. Bel always made me feel like a child.

Bel looked annoyed, but nodded. “True. Your involvement in Shendilavri has been… resolved. The question is everything after. Everything the culture has done in your name since.” He pulled out a pad. “As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s quite an exhaustive list.”

I finally sat down and put my head in my hands. “Noapte, please tell me those idiots didn’t.”

Bel hesitated. “Well… yes. They didn’t. That is, they didn’t pay retribution.”

“Yes,” said, deadpan. “I was hoping they didn’t do that.”

Bel frowned. “So you were hoping they didn’t didn’t pay retribution?”

“Yes yes, I worded it poorly,” I snapped. “Get on with it. How much do I owe?”

He looked over the list. “This is an estimation, you understand—”

“Mine isn’t,” Dracul said. He pulled out his own pad and threw it at me with perfect accuracy. I caught it easily. “First page. My boys have been tracking what those idiots have been doing since your mom left.”

I scrolled through the list. “This… isn’t as bad as I thought.”

Dracul shrugged. “A lot of them got voided when people decided violence was better retribution.  After all, it’s not like your people ever actually paid. Then the judges started awarding violence for all retributions against Belians.  Your warlords started paying on time more after that. Your biggest debts are from the early days. Things people have forgotten about.”

“If they’ve forgotten, then you’re all set,” Ishtar said. I glanced up. Now she had a glass of white wine—rare, for a vampire. We drank red exclusively, due to the association with blood. “Just ignore them and you’re good to go.”

“They’ve been forgotten, not forgiven,” I said. “As the culture begins to rise again, debtors will find themselves suffering a sudden outbreak of memory.” I paged through the list again. “Very specific memories with very long numbers attached.”

“Exactly. So you need money.” Dracul smiled. “You have a big giant labor force ready and willing to make you piles of cash. Now you have a moral question: Do you want to put them to work now and keep all the profits?  Or do you want to cure them first, which is the right thing to do but leaves them with the lion’s share?”

Bel shook his head. “Don’t bother trying to appeal to her better side, Drake. She inherited her mother’s pragmatism. You’re not going to convince her to—”

“Cure them,” I said.

Bel frowned. “It’s a trick.”

“It’s basic business,” I said. “Free men and women are more productive than slaves. Especially when the slaves are literally mindless. There’s not really that much work in this city for a bunch of drones.”

“Asmodeus still has that market cornered,” Ishtar said. She was sitting upside down now, for some reason. I had given up on trying to understand her years ago. She was either genuinely insane or had so much fun pretending that it made no difference.

“That settles it,” Dracul said with a clap and a massive smile. “Bel, I’m sure with Naome’s notes, you can figure something out rather quickly, correct?” He winked at me. “I’m sure he’s been working on it since you came back.”

Bel muttered something under his breath about how he had actually been working on it for years.  He just hadn’t had much progress until now.

“Excellent!” the Dragon said. He stood up, getting ready to leave. “If that’s all, I do need to prepare for tomorrow—”

“No,” Bel said, standing up as well. “There is still the issue of payment.”

I scowled. “For years, you’ve been working to free the sclavi on your own dime, but now it’s about money?”

“Yes. Especially since we still haven’t figured out how you’ll handle the sudden influx of free vampires.”

I sighed. “Okay, so it’s not your money you’re worried about.”

“Not just my money,” he said. “But I’ll work on this one at cost. I’ll send you an invoice later, it shouldn’t be more than ten thousand dollars or so.”

I nodded. Even though my culture was destitute, ten thousand dollars was chump change. If I decided to crack open my father’s quarters and sell some of his crap, it wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket. The problem was that selling things would attract attention from creditors. I wanted to hold off on that for as long as possible.

“The bigger expense will be the sclavi themselves,” Bel continued. “Have you given any thought to how you are going to make it up to them?”

“Freeing them and giving them appropriate medical treatment will help clear away some of the debt,” I said. “Going by Butler’s retribution laws, that is. I’ll need to check the actual numbers, but in the end it shouldn’t be much more than a couple thousand a head.”

Dracul chuckled. “That’s what, ten million or so total?”

“A little less,” I muttered.

“No way you have that much money lying around.”

“Well, I’m not going to take any more loans. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.”

Bel shook his head. “Your father’s stupidity and drugs got you into this. Take the loan.”

“Speaking of which, how is the drug trade?” Ishtar asked. At least she was sitting right side up now. “You’re following Butler’s rules and all that, but what are your profits looking like?”

I sighed. “A quarter percent profit.”

Ishtar laughed out loud. “How have you managed that? The hags have backed down since the Rampage, so you shouldn’t have any competition.”

I rolled my eyes. “Had to restructure the chem vats. You should have seen them. They weren’t just below code, they were barely working at all. I would trust chems cooked in a bathtub more than those.”

“I just bought from you the other day!”

I nodded. “We got new vats. Upgraded the whole system from top to bottom. We’re back on top, it’s just going to take us a few months to start paying off what we spent.”

“But you have enough money to pay me?” Bel asked.

“Yes,” I said with a smile. “Barely. Don’t worry about my money situation. I have a pretty good idea what I’m doing.”

“Managing the finances of a couple ‘sarians is different from managing an entire culture. There are food expenses, basic upkeep, electricity—”

“Yes, thank you,” I said through clenched teeth. “I know. As I said, I have it handled. I didn’t kill all of my advisers, you know.”

“You need someone smarter than your boyfriend, Fi.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. This man… it was almost like he was trying to get on my bad side.

“I will consider taking a loan,” I said. “I’ll talk to Glasya about it. She’ll give me a good deal.”

“You sure you should trust her?” Ishtar asked.

“Ishtar, get off the ceiling.”

“It’s my domain, I can do what I want!”

I sighed, but didn’t press it. “Yes, I trust Glasya. To a point. She doesn’t break deals, you know that. And yes,” I said, pointing at Bel before he had a chance to speak. “I will bring a lawyer with me. There are a lot of them in Phlegethos. They were some of the only ones who didn’t run away.”

The Dragon chuckled. “There’s a joke in there.”

“Please don’t make it.”

“So is that it?” Ishtar asked. “Have we settled everything? Your culture seems to be doing fine, so I don’t think we need to interfere quite yet.”

“There is something,” Bel said. “The sclavi still need to be dealt with.”

I looked away. I had been hoping he had forgotten.

“I’ll cure them,” I said. I had been thinking about it during the conversation. “Remove their chem glands, flush their systems, and give them enough treatment to make them clean. The whole process should take two weeks minimum. I’ll stretch it to a month to be on the safe side. Most of these people aren’t healthy.”

Bel nodded. “A wise move. And if Phlegethos falls due to a lack of manpower—”

However, I have a condition.”

The Dragon smirked. “I think I know where this is going.”

“I don’t,” Bel said. “Fi, I’m sure you believe you can save both the sclavi and the culture, but I think you need to accept that—”

“I need your help to cure the hags.”

Bel stopped speaking. He blinked like an owl. “What?”

“Baba Yaga has… had a change of heart since the Rampage,” I said. I had spoken to Obould and Veronica a bit. “She has little wish to keep her slaves. In fact, she wouldn’t be unduly bothered if she was knocked from her throne entirely. She has never enjoyed being a warlord. She was forced into the role because a bunch of drug-addled morons demanded it.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Bel asked. “I am honestly impressed that you are willing to help other chem-heads.  I just don’t understand how this will help you save your culture.”

“Because, dear uncle, the hags will know who saved them,” I said. “As will the sclavi. And I will give each and every one of them the option to join me at Phlegethos. Where they will be fed, sheltered, and given jobs.”

“And drugs?” Ishtar asked.

“Eventually,” I said. “But to start, I’ll just give them a place.”

Bel leaned back. “I don’t know, Fi. I don’t think it will be enough to keep the culture alive.”

I resisted the urge to grind my teeth. “It will last for long enough. As the culture regains legitimacy, more people will join us normally.”

“All right, sounds easy enough to me,” the Dragon said. “I’ll tell my boys to help you while I’m gone. I just have one question. What will happen to the rest? The chem-heads who have been cured, but don’t want to join you?”

“I will direct them to Necessarius,” I said. “Butler always needs more men, for anything and everything.”

“And if they don’t want that?”

“Then they’ll have to find jobs elsewhere. I will do my best, but there’s only so much I can do.”

The Dragon nodded.

Ishtar flipped down from the ceiling. “I’m game.”

Bel slowly stroked his chin. “…very well. My men can make tranquilizer darts that will even work on a life-long sclav or hag.” He gave me a level look. “Let’s see what you can do, dear Fierna.”

Behind the scenes (scene 298)

I’ve been pushing back the sclavi problem for a hundred chapters. But I think now that the war is over, it can finally come to a close.

Scene 278 – Portam Nocte

PORTAM NOCTE

JEFFERIES

My name is Robert 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.

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” a soldier next to me, an Indian man with bright blue eyes, muttered to himself. In the cramped confines of the troop transport, it was hard not to overhear. “Supposed to be an easy paycheck…”

I remained silent. Scared as I was, this was exactly what I had signed on for. It was literally the reason I had been born. No time for complaining now. The boats would be nearing the shore at any moment.

“Ten seconds until landfall,” a calm voice sounded over the radio.

The Indian man next to me started praying in German. Most of the other soldiers tensed up as well, expecting the worst. We were packed into the metal can like sardines, which didn’t help.

Not me. I was going to die. If not today, in a week. That gives a certain clarity of purpose.

The hull scraped against something solid. Light flowed in as the gangplank opened, slamming down onto something.

We rushed out with the haste and surety of training, and quickly found ourselves on a long concrete dock, outside the walls of the city proper. There was no one else here, but there did seem to be barbecues, of all things, set into the concrete itself.

Our squad leader barked an order, and we all moved down the dock, towards the wall, guns up and ready.

The wall itself was huge. It felt like a hundred feet tall, but that couldn’t be right. The gate, a giant metal monstrosity that looked like it was designed to stop nukes, was firmly shut.

“Anybody see a doorbell?” someone muttered. Laughter rippled through the group.

Our sergeant smiled, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge the joke. “Breachers, forward!”

A dozen soldiers with large, bulky backpacks pushed through the ranks and started slapping small discs onto the metal door. They even tossed a few up higher, where they clamped on magnetically.

“Back up!” the sergeant cried, and we all obeyed in a wave. “Three… two… one… breach!”

I was expecting an explosion. Instead, gears inside the massive door whined, and it began to creak open.

“Everyone in!”

I was among the first to slip through the widening crack between the doors. I scanned the city with my gun held ready, establishing a beachhead. The first thing I noticed was that it was dark. Somehow, despite it being mid-morning, the sun just didn’t penetrate here. Midnight would have been less dark. At least there would have been stars.

The light from the gate illuminated some, but not much. Wide, empty streets and tall buildings without any lights on. There seemed to be a shopping center or open-air food court of some type. There were tables and chairs scattered around in a wide open pattern. Looking up, I thought I saw the edge of some sort of tarp far above, strung between the buildings to provide shade. How odd.

We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us. It was just echoing through the streets like the ghost of a battle. I almost thought that was the sound of the other gates, but that didn’t make sense. Even if they had already engaged, we wouldn’t be able to hear them from here. There must be a gang fight deeper in the city.

“Put on your lamps,” the sergeant grunted. He already had his on, and I hastened to obey. “No flashlights.”

We had been issued light amplification goggles—lamps—ahead of time. No one had explained exactly what they were for. I guess this was it.

I slipped mine on and hit the switch, then winced. The dark streets were suddenly as bright as day—and the gate behind us as bright as the sun.

“We’re leaving the gate open!” the sergeant said before anyone could ask. “Need a line of retreat. Just don’t look at it.”

In a few moments, we had about a hundred men through the gate, all wearing lamps and ready for anything. More would be coming, but this was more than enough to advance, maybe set up a base camp a few streets up.

We marched forward in tight formation, guns up as we traversed the dark streets. But there was nothing. We didn’t encounter so much as a single person, though at one point I did see a pair of dogs eating from a dumpster. They ran off before we got too close.

“This is creepy,” the Indian man next to me muttered, looking back the way we had come. We had taken a few turns at this point, so the bright light of the gate was out of sight. “Maybe we should start knocking on doors.”

The sergeant heard him. “Orders are not to disturb the civilians more than we have to. We’re here to save this city, not conquer it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hold.” The sergeant stopped us as we began to turn a corner. I was near the front, and could see what had stopped him. There was someone in the middle of the street up ahead, a naked man with skin as white as chalk. “You three. Forward. Everyone else, eyes sharp. This could be a trap.”

The three soldiers he had indicated walked forward slowly, guns steady. The man wasn’t too far away, maybe ten or twenty yards.

“Sir?” one of them said as they got close. “You all right? We’re from America, sir. We’re here to help you.”

The man stood. Our soldiers took a few visible steps back, nervous. The man was easily six feet tall, and had muscles like a linebacker. He was also completely naked, revealing a smooth crotch like a Ken doll.

“I—uh—” The soldier who had been speaking glanced back at the sergeant.

The man spoke first.

“Your services to your country are to be commended,” he said with a friendly and fatherly voice. “I salute you.”

“Yeah, that’s… thanks, man. I just—”

“I am sorry.”

And then day broke.

Some instinct led me to rip off my goggles as he raised his arms, so the blinding radiance he suddenly emitted didn’t hit me as hard as everyone else. I heard screams, and the sounds of bodies hitting the ground. Dead? Unconscious? I had no idea.

I might not have been hit as hard, but I was still completely blinded. It was like a second sun that had been born in the street in front of us. Shielding my face barely helped at all, and I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks. And someone was… singing?

Someone was singing in Hebrew. I didn’t recognize more than one word out of ten, but the tone of the song was low and sad, almost apologetic.

It was a death song. I knew that suddenly. Someone was singing us to our graves.

I scrambled back, away from the fight, and into an alley we had passed moments ago. I still couldn’t see, but my memory had always been good. I put my back to a dumpster and pointed my gun in front of me, blinking as fast as I could to try and clear my eyes.

Things started to get blurry, but that was an improvement on the shapeless mass of white my sight had been moments ago. There was someone in front of the alley—a soldier? The man from the street? No, neither. This man was smaller, and had something in each hands. Knives.

I made a decision, and fired.

Bullets cut through the air, and the thing at the front of the alley dropped. A moment later, someone else fired, and I thought they were shooting at me. They weren’t. Must be some of the others from my company, realizing that shooting was their best chance of survival.

The gunfire didn’t last long.

Within a minute or two, it faded, but so had my blindness. Of course, now I couldn’t see anything because it was still dark as night. I wasn’t planning on putting my lamp back on, but it was better than nothing. And the death song had faded as well, which was a good sign.

I crept up to the front of the alley and poked the corpse with a boot. It was… a person, but too androgynous to tell what, exactly. They had white tattoos that looked like Hebrew, but I couldn’t read them. The knives they had been carrying were buffed to a perfect reflective sheen. Like mirrors.

I turned around the corner again, gun up, to find maybe fifty of my fellow soldiers in a panicked huddle. They were surrounded by corpses. Some of the corpses were the naked people, but most of the bodies were American soldiers.

Including the sergeant.

I swallowed. I wasn’t supposed to draw attention to myself, but…

“Everybody, form up!” I called. I stalked over to the sergeant and ripped off his radio. “Defensive positions, we don’t know when they’ll come back! Strip ammo off the bodies, then leave them!”

The men looked a little hesitant, but they obeyed. They were trained well, considering how horribly this had gone.

“Control, this is the forward company,” I said into the radio. “We’ve been ambushed. Half our men are dead, sergeant’s dead, and I don’t think we made a dent in the enemy. They’ve got some… light ability, don’t know what to call it. Don’t use the goggles. Just use flashlights.”

There was a brief pause, then the radio crackled. “Confirmed, forward company. We’re sending reinforcements. Infantry first, then the echoes. Stand by.”

I took a deep breath. Echoes. Good. With those, we’d be fine. We should have led with them. “Confirmed, command. We’ll hold. You have our position?”

“Loud and clear. GPS is solid.”

“Good. Over and out.”

I swallowed, trying not to let my nerves show to the men. I had no idea what the plan was here. But whatever the plan was, it had gone to hell in a hand basket. So I guess the sergeant wouldn’t be doing much better than me if he had lived.

Our eyes were starting to adjust to the dark, if barely. Still couldn’t see real detail, but at least we could see if someone was coming. The fact that they hadn’t yet had me worried. Whoever and whatever these people were, they clearly knew exactly what they were doing.

After several heart-pounding minutes, two more squads ran up the street. Their flashlights bounced around like rays from heaven.

“Echoes are about twenty minutes behind,” the man in front said. He was a sergeant, and I quickly fell into step behind him. “This will be our base camp! Drag those dumpsters over here, we need some more walls!”

Men moved to obey, and I pulled the sergeant aside to speak with him. “Did you see what these people could do?”

He shook his head. “Something about light?”

“I don’t know what to call it. I think we’re outmatched.”

He gave me a look. “We can handle a couple nightlights, private.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant that this is not something we expected the toy maker to be capable of. We’re operating on flawed information here, in the enemy’s home. We’re sitting ducks.”

“…are you suggesting we retreat?”

I shook my head. “No. I’m suggesting we switch to defensive until we have more intel. Fortify this position and the gate, shoot or capture anyone who comes too close. Don’t overextend ourselves.”

He nodded slowly. “Good ideas. Very good. Did you try for officer corp?”

I cursed inwardly. Don’t draw attention…

“We’ll talk about that later. For now, organize some men, secure the perimeter. I’ll grab some grunts to move the bodies out of the way.”

“Good idea, sir.” I walked over to a small group of soldiers who didn’t seem to be busy.

Before I could get to them, the flashlights started flickering.

One of the soldiers frowned and started whacking it as if that would fix it. But the problem was with all the flashlights, not just his.

“We put in fresh batteries this morning,” he said. “I don’t know what would—”

He was interrupted by all the lights going out at once.

A few moments later, they returned, revealing him dead on the ground with his throat cut.

“GUNS UP!” the sergeant yelled. Everyone obeyed instantly. “You see something that’s not us, SHOOT IT! No questions asked!”

I backed up towards the sergeant, keeping my gun level and eyes scanning. “This is different from before.”

He nodded. “The first group makes us get rid of the lamps, then the second group comes in under the cover of darkness. Simple and effective.”

“How do you think they got our flashlights like that?”

“No idea. Some sort of electromagnetic distortion, like an EMP but weaker?”

The flashlights started flickering again.

“Everyone STAND READY!” the sergeant yelled. “No surprises!”

I had a thought as the flashlights kept flickering, and the men shook so hard I could hear their gear clicking. The light-people shouldn’t be directly involved in this ambush. So that meant if I put on the light amplification goggles…

I slipped them on just as the flashlights died. Just in time to see someone sneaking up behind another of the soldiers.

I didn’t hesitate. I fired, hitting him solid in the chest. He stumbled, but didn’t fall, turning towards me and hissing. I heard other soldiers shooting. Were they panic-firing, or shooting at friends of this one?

He had black eyes and massive fangs, in addition to the long, sharp claws on his hands. He rushed forward, almost faster than I could see. I fired again and again, finally piercing the Kevlar body armor he must have been wearing.

He fell to the ground, dead.

The flashlights came back on.

I cursed and ripped off my lamp, blinking away the brightness from my eyes.

The sergeant clapped me on the back. “Good shot.”

Before I could answer, rumbling laughter rolled through the city.

“You shouldn’t have done that, boy,” a deep, amused voice said. “They take it personally when you kill one of their own.”

I raised my gun, searching for the source of the voice, but didn’t respond.

The sergeant did, though. “Who are you? Show yourself!”

“I am called the Dragon.”

“These your men!?”

“No. These are men and women of Domina City, who do not wish to see their homes defiled.”

The sergeant swallowed and looked at me, at a loss for words.

Don’t stand out…

“We’re not here for your homes or your people!” I called. “We’re just here to get rid of the gangs!”

That same rumbling laugh as before. “The gangs are the homes and the people, little boy… no, no wait.” His tone changed, to something curious. “Glasya tells me you’re not a boy at all. You’re a homunculus.”

My blood froze in my veins.

That wasn’t what I was actually called. There was some long name that spelled out a meaningless acronym I hadn’t bothered to learn. AGBHC or something like that. But I had looked up some terms online, learned which ones applied to me.

Homunculus. A word the Greek alchemists used.

It meant false-man.

How had they known? How could they possibly have known? I was made from the toy maker, but that shouldn’t mean anything. American scientists were completely cut off from Dominite ones. Did they have some magic device that let them detect things made from the toy maker?

I took a deep breath. “I’m more of a man than you. Come down and show yourself!”

He chuckled. “Tempting, bruscar. More tempting than you know. But I did not reach my position by taking stupid risks.” The flashlights began to flicker again. “Our nightstalkers will handle you just fine.”

As before, when the lights went out, I slipped on my lamp. This time, most of the other soldiers followed my example.

It gave us just enough time to see almost a hundred of the black-eyed assassins dropping down from the sky.

Behind the Scenes (scene 278)

“AGBHC” stands for “Artificially Grown Biological Humanoid Construct,” by the way.

Scene 264 – Dicio

ARTEMIS

DICIO

“You could have given us some warning!”

“At least an hour!”

“Or more than five bleeding minutes—”

“The people are panicking. My constituents are actually talking about leaving the city.”

“It’s only a matter of time before riots start. There’s widespread looting—”

“There’s always widespread looting!”

“I meant more than—”

I slammed my fist against the desk hard enough to crack the wood.

The large television, an entire wall filled with hundreds of arguing faces, instantly fell silent as each and every one of those faces shut their babbling mouths. I had always been able to project a presence when I wanted to. My ability to stand strong on my own two legs without a cane was only enhancing that.

“Warlords. Senators,” I said calmly, once I was sure I had everyone’s attention. “I do apologize for the abrupt and unforeseen announcement. I would like to lay this blame on the American president—his address was quite a surprise to his nation as well as our city—but he has enough to answer for already. No, this was my fault. I could have delayed the announcement, at least until the senators and major warlords knew. I chose not to.”

“Why not?” the Dragon asked. He seemed largely unconcerned, even amused, by the turn of events. But then, when you’re one of the strongest things in the entire city, it was hard to feel threatened by anything. “I’m not trying to undermine you, Knight Butler. I’m genuinely curious why you made this decision. I doubt very much that it was rash and spur of the moment.”

The rest of the members of our impromptu virtual meeting waiting patiently for my answer.

I paused, considering my words carefully.

“Domina City has never been united,” I said slowly. “My rule is largely based on allowing everyone to do whatever they want. You all bicker and grumble about my laws, about my ‘sarians, but you comply because your lives would not be significantly improved by overthrowing us in any capacity. It simply isn’t worth the risk.”

“Don’t underestimate your importance, Butler,” Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves noted. “We might fight amongst each other, but this city is no longer a killing field filled with roving gangs of blood-thirsty murderers. There is law, and there is order, even if neither are traditional.”

I inclined my head in thanks. “Perhaps. But you bring up an important point: We fight amongst each other. The Guruhi and the Nictuku were nearly wiped out because they couldn’t stop fighting during the bats attack. Days, hours after the Rampage, the war between the sasquatches and the yetis was back in full force. All it took was the death of Mjolnir to destroy years of friendship between the trolls and the Thors.”

“We survived Elizabeth Greene,” Ulr, a senator from North Outer, said confidently. “We can survive this.”

“Greene was a fluke,” Mephistopheles said with a bitter laugh. “She was supposed to fail. You can’t expect the same to be said of the United States military. They are still the greatest military force on this planet.”

“So you expect us to just lay down and die?” Hextor, Power of Scourgehold, hissed through razor-sharp shark teeth.

“No,” I cut in before anyone else could speak. “That’s what I was getting at. We fight. We always fight. We can win this. We just have to work together.” I smiled grimly. “We are Domina City. We do far worse to each other on a daily basis than anything America can dream up.”

The warlords and other city leaders pondered my words, sitting in their distant domains and offices, considering whether or not I was right—whether or not we actually had any chance of fighting a war apparatus that could probably conquer the entire world if need be.

“They won’t be able to use tanks,” Dispater said. “Not until they establish control of at least one port. And even then they will be heavily limited by the gates. They’re not going to be able to knock down the wall with anything less than a battleship.”

“The Dagonites will be able to handle any oceangoing vessels,” Ambassador Georgia promised us. “But we can’t do anything about anything in the air. What happens if they decide to just carpet-bomb the city? We’ll be fine; you won’t.”

“They want to capture the city, not level it,” I assured her. “That’s also why we won’t have to worry about artillery shelling us from the mainland. If they get sea superiority, they might make a few pinpoint strikes with their ship cannons, but nothing major.”

“If we annoy them enough, they might decide to make a very loud and dangerous example,” Chronepsis, the Wyrm of the Dispassionate Watchers, noted. “Do we have any form of point-defense, anything to shoot down enemy missiles or shells?”

I shook my head. “None, unfortunately. We can talk to our space-based allies, but they won’t have much to offer, and depending on when the attack comes, might not be able to get here in time anyway. Our only hope is to keep them from taking such drastic measures.”

“The Heavens and a number of other angel outposts can have their lasers reconfigured for defense,” Sealtiel, the Defender, offered. “Nothing strong enough to take out an artillery shell, but a couple missiles shouldn’t be too hard.”

Nemeni of the Blood-Doused Hunters looked thoughtful. “Lots of ‘scrapers have turrets on them, especially now that fliers are… ” She waved her hand. “Flying around. Shouldn’t be too hard to point those at the sky and shoot down anything incoming. They’ll need some new target programming, but the changelings can provide that easily enough.”

“So it will turn into an infantry battle,” Gruumsh grunted. “We can fight infantry battles.”

“If the general in charge has any brain at all, he won’t try to take the whole city at once,” Juan Keller cut in. “He’ll focus all the men he can spare on one gate, try to establish a foothold as fast as possible. We will be fighting at least dozens, more likely hundreds of soldiers at once. None of us have any experience with that sort of scale.”

“But we have been fighting in urban warfare our entire lives,” Laura said as she stepped up beside me, into camera range. I had no idea how long she had been there, but knew better than to act surprised. “This isn’t going to be easy. But we have the homefield advantage, not even mentioning our powers—which the Americans will have no ability to anticipate. Soaring Eagle fled before the MEE, and might not have even mentioned the screamers and Elizabeth.”

“Speaking of the traitor,” Tiamat, one of Chronepsis’ sisters, spoke up. She was specifically the warlord of the Unholy Ravagers, which was pretty much everything you needed to know about her. “When do we get to take revenge on Soaring Eagle for betraying the city? The outside world has never cared about us; seeing an ave anthro wouldn’t change their minds. She had to spin up quite the tale, promise that president a lot, to make him do her dirty work for her.”

There were murmurs of agreement; I silenced them with a single raised hand.

“Soaring Eagle is outside our reach at the moment,” I reminded them all. “Outside the reach of anyone and everyone affiliated with Domina City, even our ghosts. For now, we must focus on more important things.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 264)

Short scenes never sit well with me, no matter how well they come out. I was actually seriously considering removing this one completely, but I needed to show some planning.

Scene 258 – Draco

DRACO

AKANE

I strode up to the office building, Flynn a half-step behind me, and nodded at the guard at the door. He stepped aside, pulling open the door next to him, and gave me a small bow without saying a word.

Inside, the walls were stripped bare, the carpets ripped out, and all the furniture removed. There was a bit of dust and dirt, but surprisingly little trash; the new inhabitants must have taken at least some time to clean up after they kicked out the ghouls who were squatting.

We passed dozens of guards, armed with machine guns and rifles and all manner of carefully lethal weaponry on display. Unlike most cultures or companies, they weren’t using a few, uniform weapons. They were all allowed to choose whatever they wished.

Speaking of which, the guards themselves were similar to the weapons they bore. While many of them just had the basic vampire package, I saw representatives of every vampire subculture. The Nosferatu and ghouls were easiest to spot, but there were also Canians in their fire jackets, Belians with their fixers on their arms, and even a few Nessians.

Eventually, we found the center of the floor, a large and open room that had likely originally been intended as a conference or breakfast room of some type. Other than a few tables and chairs, there wasn’t any more here than anywhere else.

It was occupied, of course.

“Miss Akiyama,” Kelly, the ex-Belian who led the retinue, said with a slight bow. “Thank you very much for coming.”

I bowed as well, as Adam and Flynn exchanged a quick bro-hug, with lots of back-slapping. “Of course, Corporal. Anything for a friend.”

She frowned at my waist. “Where’s your sword?”

“Right here,” Flynn grunted as he returned to my side.

Kelly glanced at the man—and the sole blade at his side—for a moment, before shrugging. “Well, if you don’t want to go buy a new one, I’m not going to make you. For now, I’d just like to introduce you to someone.” She turned to the man in the chair. “Akane Akiyama, Magister of the Kensei, I would like to introduce Dracul de Moarte, Noble of the Draculas.”

The man wasn’t anything really exceptional, for a vampire. He had the black hair and pale skin they found attractive, but other than that he didn’t look particularly monstrous. His fangs were hidden behind his lips and a small smile, his long-sleeved shirt concealed his whip-like muscles. He wasn’t even armed. All in all, he looked just like any other vampire you would run into on the street.

Except for his eyes.

Beautiful, gorgeous eyes, a rich sapphire blue, a rare and enchanting color even in the era of the toy maker. But despite their allure, their color wasn’t the most important part. Not directly, anyway.

Vampire nighteyes were pure black, something related to the pupil expanding as part of the nighteye process. Angelic dayeyes were the opposite, with the iris expanding and the pupil shrinking, resulting in an eye that seemed nothing but color.

The Dragon had both.

In a city where surgery was everyday and reshaping your entire body was only slightly more difficult, the Dragon was one of only two people who had successfully combined dayeyes and nighteyes. The Kellions had cheated by making one eye day and the other night, but this was different. This was true fusion, true synthesis, something that only the Mother Monster herself had ever managed to pull off.

Dracul had godeyes. The perfect eyes, capable of seeing in virtually any light level. From so pitch black baseline eyes would swear there was no light at all to bright enough to knock a vampire unconscious, it didn’t matter. He could see everything.

There were no shadows in his eyes. No bright spots or glare. Perfect sight.

“Honored Magister,” the Dragon said warmly. He indicated a chair that one of his men had produced—a simple cheap plastic folding chair, but no worse than the one he was sitting in. “Please, take a seat. Corporal Sanguinas has been telling me all about you.”

I sat, slowly, with Flynn taking up position behind me, and forced myself to speak. “I thought we came here to discuss business. Two of our own are missing. Alex Gabriel and Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters.”

“Skipping the formalities, I can understand that.” He waved off a waiter who had been approaching with something that looked like red wine, but almost certainly wasn’t. “The Corporal tells me she suspects that Belians were behind the kidnapping.”

“That is the working theory,” I said.

“Unfortunately, I can’t just order them to explain themselves,” the vampire said with that small smile of his. “I might be leader of all vampires in name, but it is more complicated than that.” He shrugged. “Besides, the Throne of Abriymoch has been empty ever since Belial died. It makes dealing with them harder than it has to be.”

It took me a moment to parse what he meant. “You think one of the Nobles is acting alone.”

“Or pretending to act alone,” he said. “It’s one of their favorite tricks. A minor loophole in the retribution laws. They all decide on a course of action, one of them carries it out, and pays the fees if things go sideways.” He shook his head. “Sooner or later, Butler is going to get tired and authorize a killing instead of a minor fee.”

I ignored that. “But you know where they would take captives.”

“There are a number of places—their power has waned drastically since Shendilavri, but they still shouldn’t be underestimated. Safehouses, outposts, a couple hidden fortresses… not to mention Phlegethos itself.”

“They wouldn’t take them to Phlegethos,” Kelly said. “Too dangerous. Too many secrets for them to ferret out if they escape. If they hit the pheromone slave override, then the entire Belian standing army would switch off like a light.”

That was something to keep in mind.

Dracul nodded. “I agree. Belial’s lieutenants are scared and confused, but they’re not stupid. They didn’t keep their positions these past few years by taking unnecessary risks. No.” He held out his hand, and one of his men dropped a file into it. “They’ll take them the same place Belians always take things they want kept, but forgotten.”

Kelly closed her eyes. “Blood and shadow, no.”

“You knew this was coming,” the Noble said mildly. “You don’t get to act surprised.”

“I was hoping I was wrong,” she grumbled.

Adam stepped up. “For those of us who didn’t grow up in this city…”

“I don’t understand either,” Flynn said.

“The fortress of the half-succubus,” Kelly said quietly. “The Venus-Star, the Lady of the Heavens, She of the Divine Drink.” She sighed. “It is called Jealous Heart, founded by Inanna, but is now ruled by the Noble Ishtar.”

She closed her eyes.

“My ex-girlfriend.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 258)

I actually really like this scene, but it’s even shorter than normal.

break