Tag Archives: Eric Papadopoulos

Scene 205 – Prædandum

PRÆDANDUM

SEENA

I had a massive headache.

I groaned as I picked myself up the floor, rubbing the side of my face that had landed on some scrap metal. Heh, if I didn’t have my warlord buffs, falling on that probably would have killed me.

Okay, thinking about that wasn’t making my headache any better. First, I needed to get my bearings. A quick glance around the room confirmed that Veda was long gone, and it also elicited another pang from my skull.

What in all Nine Hells had she shot me with? There hadn’t been any muzzle flare, just a weird, screechy noise. I could see the gun where she had abandoned it, the hastily-applied duct tape still smoking from dangerous overheating—

Still smoking. That meant I hadn’t been out for long. I might still be able to catch her!

I rushed out of the room at top speed, only pausing briefly at the door to nurse my headache. If I could just find her again—

I nearly tripped over Eric as I ran to the stairs.

“Eric!” I cried, skidding to a stop and plopping down next to him. “What are you doing? Did you see V—the fey?”

He blinked twice.

Nothing else.

“Uh,” I said slowly. “Okay, so…” I saw what looked like a snake bite on his neck. Some kind of paralysis poison, I guess. “Right. Blink once for no, twice for yes.”

He blinked twice.

“Right, good. Did the fey pass by here?”

Two more blinks.

“Did she go up or down?”

Glare.

“Sorry, sorry…did so go up?”

One blink.

“Okay, so she went down.”

Two blinks.

What else could I ask? I couldn’t think of any decent yes/no questions, and there was no way to know if he had seen anything more. It’s not like I could just ask

Oh. Duh.

“Is there anything else you can tell me?”

Another two blinks.

Wonderful. Now I had to figure out what he knew. “Okay, how about—”

A whistling sound from outside interrupted me.

I moved over to the window to see a massive crowd outside, just filling the intersection, hemmed in by monsters on every side.

And Veda, standing in front of the very building I was in right now.

I didn’t wait. I ran down the stairs as fast as my legs would take me.

I heard her yelling something to the crowd, but I couldn’t tell what. I heard the effect, though—more screaming, the sort of raw, animal scream that can only be made by a fleeing mob.

Then I heard the clapping.

And when I reached the door, I saw Elizabeth Greene.

One of my oldest friends. The girl all the boys—especially Derek—had drooled over. The sweet, innocent girl who wouldn’t even go to action movies, because she couldn’t stand to see people get hurt. The girl who handed out cheap presents like candy, and voiced a few minor characters in anime and cartoons.

The girl accused of being the Composer.

And there she was, covered in blood.

I recognized the dress she was wearing. I had bought her the dress. It had once been a fluffy white thing, designed for our warm and humid summers, but now there were only a few splotches of off-color white here and there. The rest…was just blood.

And she was grinning from ear to ear, her golden eyes glittering like stars in the night.

I had never seen eyes that dangerous. I was the warlord of a culture of assassins, and I had never seen eyes like that.

I’ve met sociopaths before. Tons of them. They tend to do well in Domina City, and even better in the Mals. A lack of empathy is a powerful weapon for an assassin.

Sociopaths have cold eyes. Not cold like ice, cold like the ocean. Not hard and dangerous, but soft and dangerous. Uncaring. They didn’t kill you because they enjoyed it, just because you were in their way.

Lizzy’s eyes weren’t soft and uncaring. They didn’t have the hardness that comes from repressing your emotions, either. They were alive. Alive with light and music and emotion. She knew exactly what she was doing.

And she loved it.

This was the Composer. I knew that now. How could she be anything else?

“An interesting plan, fey-slave,” she noted with a chuckle, presumably referring to something Veda had said. “Not as hands-on as I would prefer, but…” Her grin widened, if that was possible, and suddenly there were two glowing orange swords in her hands, leaking mist like fire. “But that’s what I’m here for.”

No hesitation.

I wasn’t armed, but it didn’t matter. My warlord buffs would be more than enough. I rushed forward as fast as lightning, not trying for anything fancy, just tackling her bodily.

She dodged to the side, avoiding my attacks while simultaneously swiping at my torso with one of her blades, and at my tail with the other. The hit to my chest burned as though it was on fire, the smoky sword cutting deeper than I would have liked or had expected and sending shocks of pain through my body.

Oddly enough, my tail didn’t hurt. It should have. I had quite a few nerve endings there, and it was quite a bit less durable than my chest and—

My tail was gone.

Not all of it, but a full foot from the tip, just gone. Lopped off like a dandelion.

Now it started hurting.

I tumbled to the ground screaming as my legs gave way in the middle of my charge, clutching at my bleeding stump of a limb.

A foot kicked me, flipping me over onto my back, but I couldn’t do anything beside desperately try to endure the pain as Lizzy look down at me with disdain.

“Pathetic,” my old friend muttered. “This is the new warlord of the Mals? I was hoping for some fun. You’re just a weak little girl.” Then she grinned, pulling back her sword to strike. “Or rather, you were.”

She was tackled before she could cut out my throat.

I had a handle on the pain now. My whole body was going numb, though I couldn’t tell whether it was from shock or willpower, so I was able to contort my body around to see who had just saved my life by attacking the most dangerous woman in the city.

Veda.

She had slammed into Lizzy at full speed, even her lightweight frame packing quite a punch at that velocity. The pair tumbled almost a dozen yards down the street, civilians and monsters alike fleeing before them. By the time they skidded to a stop, they had a nice, clear arena to fight in, surrounded by gawkers either too stupid to run or just incapable of escaping through the thick crowd.

Veda dusted herself off quickly, but I could see her wincing at her wounds. She didn’t have anything too bad, thankfully; a few scrapes on her knees and arms, plus her entire body covered in dirt, gravel and blood, but her wings were still intact.

Lizzy’s wounds were about the same, though with a nasty gash above the eye. They were even, if nothing else, and if Veda could take advantage of that head wound…that…was…closing up even as I watched…

Veda, along with the entire crowd, just stared as Lizzy brushed herself off, revealing a few more wounds that were almost done healing themselves. Blood flowed backwards into the wound, skin knit, and she was left without even a scar from her rough tumble.

“Now,” the Composer said as she summoned her swords again, grinning like a wolf. “Aitil Péine, was it? Some obscure reference to some random comic book, I assume?” She laughed wickedly. “The fey are getting soft. Since when did they name their furniture?”

Veda let out a strange, keening war-cry that probably wasn’t possible with a baseline throat, and flew at her opponent so fast she wasn’t even a blur.

Elizabeth was faster.

I barely had time to register the glowing orange swords disappearing as the bloodstained woman blurred with speed no human being should be capable of. Suddenly, Veda was impacting the nearest wall in a cloud of dust.

The fey girl stumbled out of the crater she had made, but even with my minimal combat expertise, I could tell that the one blow had finished her. Whatever her mistresses had done to her skeleton had kept it from shattering under the impact; she seemed mostly in one piece, and all her limbs still bent the right way.

Except for her wings.

Her perfect, miraculous wings were twisted and crumpled like discarded paper. As she pried herself out of the wall, one of the wings was stuck, and torn in half as she carelessly tried to pull too hard. She cried out in pain, falling to the ground in shock.

Lizzy didn’t give her the chance to recover.

Suddenly, the Composer was just there, standing in front of her with a demonic grin on her face and a glowing sword in her hand. She swung at Veda’s neck—

Gealach Tapaidh tackled her from the side.

“Stop doing that!” the golden-haired woman cried as she swiped at the new feyborn, only for him to dodge the clumsy blow. “Stupid slime, just LET ME KILL PEOPLE!”

She brought around her other sword, with far more speed and skill than the first. The Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn would not be able to dodge, not at that range.

So he blocked.

His own sword, a powerful broadsword with what looked like Gaelic runes scrawled up and down the blade, deflected her strange weapon with ease. Pretty impressive, considering how it had sliced through me like bread. I didn’t know what his weapon was made of, but it definitely wasn’t base steel.

Elizabeth screamed in rage, striking at him with a flurry of blows that would have turned me into a pureed mush. The feyborn was far better than me, though, and blocked each strike with calm, lightning efficiency. He was forced into what even I could tell was a defensive stance, and slowly backed up as he deflected the wild attack, but he was still in control. All he needed was to stay alive until something tipped the odds in his favor.

Then, as he was stepping back, his foot found a loose rock.

He slipped, and fell.

The Composer was on him like fire on dry tinder, both swords plunging down into his chest like the fangs of a snake.

The fey coughed up blood, struggled on the blades for a moment, then lay still.

“Blind moron,” Lizzy growled as she yanked out her swords, making the body jerk again. “You might have actually had a chance if your eyes worked.”

Oh, right, he had dayeyes, and it was already too dark for even baseline eyes to see reliably. Wait, he was fighting almost completely blind? Nine Hells and Nine Gates, she was right. He must be an absolute monster when in top condition.

“Well,” the bloodstained woman said blithely. “Is that everyone willing to fight back? I’ve been told I’m not thorough enough, so I want to make sure I get everyone at once before—”

She fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

Veda struggled to her feet from where she had crawled up to the Composer below her sight range. She wiped her mouth, eyes hard and victorious. “The paralysis will keep her out for an hour.” She stumbled over to me. “Noble Nyashk, I’ll call off my monsters, please bring some of your men down—”

A glowing orange blade erupted out of her chest.

Elizabeth Greene, fully recovered in less than ten seconds, tossed my reconstructed friend aside like a rag doll.

“This is starting to become less than fun,” she growled. She glared at the crowd, as though trying to decide who to kill next, and I took the opportunity to slide across the street—biting my tongue to keep from moaning in pain—towards Veda.

I don’t know if Eccretia realized what I was trying to do or if fate just nudged her in the right direction, but she opened fire on the Composer with one of those Blue Knight guns, causing Lizzy to scream in rage and launch herself at the changeling warlord. I saw my friend take cover behind the dromo from earlier, but that wouldn’t last forever.

As I suspected, Veda was still alive, though her breathing was shallow. The wound on her chest had largely sealed up; no doubt she or my brother would be able to describe how that worked in great detail. All I knew was that she wasn’t likely to bleed out any time soon.

“Veda,” I hissed into her ear. “You awake?”

“Yes,” she muttered, so quietly I could barely hear her. “We both are.” It took me a second to realize she was referring to her partner, the princeling with the dayeyes. “But if she realizes that, it won’t last.”

“Right, I understand.” I glanced up at the fight; Eccretia was holding her own, but Lizzy was making good use of her healing ability. She dodged in order to turn wounds that would have been crippling into merely debilitating ones. And those, of course, healed up in moments.

Eccretia couldn’t keep this up for long.

I turned back to my downed friend. “The monsters. How do you control them?”

“Pheromones.”

“And you can use those without moving?”

“Of course.”

“Then can’t you order them to only attack Lizzy?”

“No,” she said, and my heart fell. “They’re dumb animals. They aren’t smart enough to distinguish individuals. Their orders are given based on scent, and location. As in ‘kill everything in this building except things that smell fey.’”

Wait, that didn’t sound right… “But what about for assassinations, or captures or whatever? How does that work?”

Veda’s eyes snapped open in surprise. “You’re right! If you hit her with target pheromones, we can order the monsters to attack her! And she won’t be able to just heal them away like the poison I bit her with!”

I nodded eagerly. Now we had a plan. “Right, great. Where do I get these target pheromones?”

She winced. “You need to chop off my arm.”

“Wait, what?”

She squirmed a little on the street. “The gland is on my wrist. I’ll set it to secrete a liquid version of the pheromones, then you just need to wipe Lizzy with it.”

I tried to scratch my head in exasperation, but only succeeded in pulling my chest wound and making me wince in pain. “Ow…okay, but do I have to cut off your arm? Why not get a towel or something?”

“Not potent enough. They’re designed to dissipate quickly if not used on someone, so that they can’t be used against us.”

“Right, yeah, that’s fair.” I looked around for something sharp, trying not to think about cutting off my friend’s limb. She’d be fine, her bosses had literally the best medicine in the entire city…

But even Clarke had barely gotten the heart working. The fey wouldn’t have the ability to regenerate limbs yet, right?

“Seena,” Veda hissed. “What’s taking so long? We don’t have much time!”

She was right. Eccretia was losing. She might be one of the most powerful baselines in the city, used to fighting against overwhelming odds, but she was still baseline, and Lizzy was something she had never trained to fight.

Then the lights came on.

All at once, the streetlights around the impromptu battlefield were switched on, nearly blinding me, and eliciting screeches of pain from other vampires as well.

“Sorry for the light,” a strong male voice called. “Need to be able to see what we’re doing.”

And there, striding through the mob like an explorer through waist-high grass, was Derek Huntsman. He had a few cuts and bruises, plus his face and clothes were splashed with monster blood, but for the most part he had survived in one piece. Akane followed a few steps behind, the blue ribbon in her hair far more vivid than usual, considering it was the only part of her not wet with blood.

Next to me, Veda chuckled. “Oh, good. I get to see him fight before we all die. At least that worked.”

I glanced at her. “You did this?”

“I can’t give the monsters specific targets, but I can tell them to stand down.”

Before I could formulate a proper response, someone else spoke.

Huntsman.”

Elizabeth had her blades out again, and was staring at the man who had been in love with her since we were kids with naked and undiluted hatred. If looks could kill, she wouldn’t need the swords.

“You are a cockroach,” she hissed, as she slowly fell down into a fighting crouch. “You keep popping up in the most annoying places.”

Eccretia, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, was taking the opportunity to retreat, and presumably find a better tactical position.

Derek fell into his own fighting stance, a simple open-palmed one that even I recognized as being one of the most basic. He didn’t think he could beat an immortal with martial arts, did he?

“Let’s hurry this up,” he said, grinning mockingly. “There are some cartoons I want to watch later.”

Elizabeth screamed and roared forward, trailing orange mist like a blazing demon.

Behind the Scenes (scene 205)

For the record, Aitil’s and Gea’s names are not references to “some random comic book.” Aitil Péine means “juniper pine,” while Gealach Tapaidh literally means “moon quick,” and might be translated by someone poetic as either “quick as the moon” or “moon’s quickness.” Maeve and Aurora just liked the sound of the names, that’s all.

Also, for the sake of nipping some of the more rampant speculation in the bud, the “Gaelic runes scrawled on the blade” of Gea’s sword is simply his full name and title. An extremely powerful Seelie Maiden with a rather childish sense of humor might compare it to a boy’s mother writing his name on his underwear.

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Scene 202 – Abscondens

ABSCONDENS

SIMON

This was a bad idea.

“This is a wonderful idea,” Yolanda said cheerily as she clung to my arm, tugging at my scars. “I’m glad you finally agreed.”

The train slowed to a stop, and we piled out as the doors opened. “I just think…” I said slowly. “I just think that we should have thought this through a bit more, you know? Planned it out a bit more—”

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “You’ve been underground for over two weeks—”

“Fifteen days, actually,” I muttered. Wait, that was how long I had been awake. How long had I been down there before I woke up? I knew they told me, but I couldn’t recall…

She ignored me. “And you still haven’t told your friends you are alive. I think coming back to the surface is a good thing.”

I winced up at the sun. “Maybe. But I wish I had at least remembered sunglasses.”

My girlfriend rolled her eyes. “It’s twilight. Give it another half hour and it will be dark.”

It was October 31st, Halloween. Eleven days after Titania had mentioned that my former Power, Narek Nhang, had been killed. Fear of him had been one of my primary reasons for staying in the ruins of Shendilavri, but not the only one. I had been able to put it off for a while, but now I had run out of excuses.

Yolanda led me to a small coffee shop not a block from the station, mostly abandoned except for a single demon girl waiting on the sole occupied table. The street outside, while not excessively crowded, was busy enough that it took us a few minutes to navigate through the throng. We almost knocked over a man on a ladder installing a speaker on the corner; he glared at us, but didn’t say anything.

“Hey there, Yolanda!” Adam called, making the rest of the group turn to face us. “Who’s your friend?”

Laura, sitting between Adam and Derek at the large table, put her drink down with wide eyes. “I think that’s…Simon?”

Derek slowly stood, a disbelieving look on his face. “No, I thought Simon died! He couldn’t have just…”

I grinned as best as I could, considering the scars. “Don’t write me off too soon, bastard.”

My old friend grinned as he came around the table and wrapped me in a massive bear hug, squeezing so hard I could barely feel my screaming scars over my cracking ribs. “You stupid demon, why didn’t you call!?”

“Put him down,” Yolanda begged. “He’s still not completely healed.”

The baseline did so quickly, as the rest of the table came up to pat me on the back. All my surviving friends were there. An extremely well-armed Pam, that Dagonite Eric, a grinning Steve, a surprised Laura, a glowering Akane, Delphie’s nephew Leon…

And Seena.

There was something different about her, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but that wasn’t the important part. She was staring at me, daygoggles off, as if she had seen a ghost.

“Simon,” she whispered very, very quietly. “You…I…you were dead. Nhang said you were dead.”

I grimaced. “Well, he wasn’t far off. I just got lucky. Found by some ghouls who didn’t feel hungry, that whole thing.”

“Is that what happened to your cosmos?” Adam asked. “Your purple skin, the horns, and…” He frowned. “What’s up with the scars, anyway? Toy maker should be able to get rid of those, right?”

Another grimace. “It’s a long story. Can we sit down?”

Lily—who was the ‘demon’ girl I hadn’t recognized earlier—stole two chairs from nearby tables, and we all sat down, me a little bit more gingerly than the others.

“Let’s start simple,” the waitress said firmly. “Introductions all around. Who here doesn’t know Simon?” Three hands were raised a little meekly. “Okay, everyone, this is Simon Lancaster, Seena’s brother. Simon, this is Akane’s boyfriend Flynn—” The man in question blushed slightly, and Akane punched Lily in the shoulder hard enough to break bone. She didn’t react. “And these are Eccretia’s bodyguards, Domothon and Ferenil of the Never-Known Thieves.”

I nodded at the swordsman, and the two golden-haired changelings. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Flynn nodded back politely, and the changelings—seated at a smaller table nearby—waved in response.

“Why didn’t you call?” Seena demanded the instant introductions were over. “I thought you were dead!

What was it that was different about her? I mean, her voice sounded a little different, but since my ears had been rebuilt, everything sounded a bit off.

I tried to find an answer that wouldn’t end with Derek leading Necessarius into the ruins of Shendilavri. “It’s a long story. I wasn’t exactly mobile for a while, and the place where I was resting didn’t have any phones.”

Laura looked up, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Really. No phones at all.”

I squirmed under her gaze. “I…I dunno. No phones I could use, anyway. They didn’t trust me not to do something stupid.”

That seemed to placate her for the moment. “Fine. But why come up now? Healed up sufficiently?”

“Mostly.” I smiled as best I could. “Besides that, it’s Halloween! It’s like, the most important day of the year, right?”

Pam snorted. “Subtle subject change.”

Adam, however, was willing to humor me. “How is Halloween the most important day of the year? I mean…” he indicated Lily and my sister. “…it kinda seems like there’s no point in dressing up.”

Lily just gave him a look. “What do you mean, no point? I’ll have you know, I look wonderful in a dress.”

He waved his hands frantically, realizing there was some cultural miscommunication here. “No, sweetie—” Oh, right, those two were dating. I kept forgetting that. She wasn’t really known for steady relationships. Plus, she only dated outsiders, which limited her opportunities. “I mean, on the mainland, on Halloween people dress up as monsters and stuff. I’m guessing that doesn’t happen here.”

Laura nodded. “Right, I remember hearing about that. And they visit strangers’ houses for candy, right?”

Leon perked up. “Candy?”

But Pam placed her hand on the boy’s head, quieting him, and gave Laura an odd look. “That sounds remarkably dangerous. Screening the candy for poison seems like it would be impracticable.”

“These are kids,” Laura noted.

Everyone at the table nodded in sudden understanding; we all knew what happened if you hurt children. Everyone nodded except Adam, that is.

“What? No, they don’t not poison the candy just because kids are involved! They just…don’t poison the candy.”

“Why not?” Pam pressed. “As long as you’re careful only to hand out the poisoned ones to enemies—”

“Most people outside this city aren’t willing to murder!

The changeling nodded. “Right, I understand leaving children out of it—”

“Not just children!” Adam nearly shrieked. “No murder! At all!”

The well-armed woman blinked, then turned to Laura. “You’ve been outside Domina. You know what he’s talking about?”

“Oh, yes,” the Spanish baseline admitted. It took me a second to recognize the look on her face as a smirk. “But I think it’s better for him to explain it.”

Before anyone could ask him any more questions the man in question threw up his hands. “So! What do you do on Halloween?”

Derek shrugged. “I dunno, I didn’t really have any plans…”

“I meant what does the city do. Your idea of a social event is a monster hunt.”

“Well, that’s part of it,” Lily admitted. “There are a lot of hunts on Halloween. Orphanages and stuff go after rats and other easy things like that to give the kids some experience.”

“But that’s a kid thing,” Derek cut in. “The professional slayers just try and keep the more dangerous stuff out of the way for the night.”

My sister spoke up. “Most adults go to parties. Fancy balls and dinners. All very elegant and everything, I assure you. My culture is actually hosting one tonight, if anyone is interested.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The Mals are having a public party?”

“Not at Maladomini. We rented a space.” She shrugged. “Just a good-will public relations boost. It was Moloch’s idea.”

Pam nodded. “I expected as much. I knew your viceroy before he joined Baal, you know.” She thought for a moment. “Before Baal founded the culture, now that I think of it.”

“Oh right,” I muttered. “I keep forgetting you’re a freaking warlord.”

She glared at me. “Don’t call me that. Warlords are for the cultures. The changelings are not a culture.”

“…wait wait,” Derek said with an upheld hand. “I think we missed something. You’re a warlord?”

The changeling turned to glare at him in turn. “No. But I am Eccretia, of the Never-Known Thieves. Didn’t we go over this earlier?”

“…no, no we definitely did not. I just remember you from…” he waved his hand. “A couple months ago. Around when school started. You were just Pam.” He looked her up and down. “And you were less well-armed.”

Flynn, the guy introduced as Akane’s boyfriend, didn’t seem particularly surprised. He grinned. “What, the changeling bodyguards weren’t a clue?”

“I thought they were just more friends of Seena’s, or something. Strangely enough, my first thought was not ‘bodyguards for one of the original changelings.’”

“I said they were bodyguards,” Lily put in.

“And the others?” Akane asked quietly.

Her boss shrugged. “Figured they were spies. Assassins. The usual.”

Yolanda and I looked at each other in confusion. “…what others?”

“There are about a dozen baselines—or changelings, rather—watching us right now,” Derek noted nonchalantly. She gave Pam a sideways look. “I’m assuming they’re yours.”

The Paragon nodded. “I am impressed you noticed them, though.”

“I’ve been stalked by vampires. Changelings aren’t very hard to spot, compared to that.”

Akane started to speak. “There are—” but she fell quiet when Derek gave her a look.

There was an awkward silence for a moment there, before Lily spoke up. “I’m not sure how I feel about a Mal party, but maybe we can go somewhere. Eccretia, what are the changelings planning?”

Pam raised an eyebrow. “Nothing. Why would they?”

“Uh, actually…” Domothon piped up from the other table. “We’ve got a few things set up. The Jovian Killers and the Murdered Summers have rented a small warehouse just inside the borders of NHQ, with the Elder Lights handling security.”

His superior stared at him, hard. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Actually, why didn’t Gan’neeg, Kish-kish, or Difnaal tell me?”

The golden-haired changeling shrugged. “C’mon, boss, you haven’t gone to a single party in fifteen years. No one invites you to anything any more.”

Pam looked annoyed, but didn’t argue. “Fine. Whatever.” She sighed. “Anyone want to go to that party? I’ll pay for everyone.”

“I’m in!” Steve cooed with a grin, to the surprise of no one. “Never been to a changeling party before. What kinda food you guys got? Any beer?”

The not-warlord ignored him. “Anyone else?”

Derek looked contemplative. “Well, it would be safer than most of the alternatives. And we could use a night off…” He looked at Laura. “Our parents will be at the Big Boss’s party, so we’ll probably have to poke our heads in there, at least for a few minutes.”

“And I’ll need to put in an appearance at the Mal party,” Seena added. “Zepar will be pissed if I don’t spend an hour or two schmoozing.”

What an odd thing to say. “I…guess I can go with you,” I said slowly. “I don’t really want anything to do with the sibs any more.” I turned to Yolanda. “Unless you wanted to go somewhere else…?”

“My friend is doing something.” From the look in her eyes, I could tell by ‘friend,’ she meant one of the succubus warlords. “But I think I can skip that. I’d prefer to be with you.”

“My vote’s the changeling party,” Adam spoke up. “No offense to everybody, but I think I’d like going somewhere where being baseline is the norm, not the exception.”

His girlfriend nodded. “I’ll admit, that’s what I was thinking as well.”

Adam gave her an odd look. “Um, sweetie, you’re not exactly baseline yourself.”

She grimaced. “Baselines…don’t treat me the same way as everyone else. Sometimes it’s nice to just be another girl, albeit one with horns.”

Her boyfriend looked confused for a moment before nodding in understanding. “I—got it. Okay. I guess…sure. I’m with you.”
She grinned and kissed him on the cheek.

“What about you, Leon?” my sister asked, addressing Delphie’s orphaned nephew, sitting beside Pam. “You want to go to a changeling party?”

“I’m already going!” he chirped happily. “I’m the cook’s assistant!”

Seena blinked her nighteyes in the twilight. “You’re what?

Pam growled. “Another thing I wasn’t told about, Dom?”

The changeling bodyguard shrugged. “He saw all the party prep, and he wanted to be involved, so…”

I looked between the two changelings. “Wait, what’s going on? Am I missing something?”

“Leon’s living with the Never-Known Thieves for now,” Eric, the Dagonite who didn’t really look like a Dagonite, explained. “No one really trusted Delphie’s hunters to look after him.”

Oh. I guess that made sense. “Well, what time is that? The party, I mean. Seven or so?”

“Six, actually,” Domothon corrected. “Though you can show up whenever. I’ll call ahead, make sure…they know to…expect…” he trailed off, looking at something behind me.

The rest of the table was staring, too.

I swallowed. “So. How big is the monster that’s sitting right behind me?”

“Oh, not too big,” a friendly female voice giggled.

I turned, slowly, careful not to provoke her, only to find…

A girl with honey-brown skin, brown hair, and eyes as black as night sat astride a monster I didn’t recognize, some sort of four-legged beast vaguely resembling a horse. The girl wore what appeared to be a backless black dress of purest midnight.

Next to her, astride a similar beast, was a man with alabaster skin, a fine white silk shirt, and similarly made white pants. His eyes, while violet, appeared otherwise baseline, but could have been dayeyes. His hair was a relatively subdued blond, but done up as spikes that would have been impossible without a lot of product.

Behind them were their monsters.

At least two massive alley-crawlers, bigger than any I had ever seen, reared up over the horde. A dozen small yokvel, like furless cats with iron claws and a disposition to hunting in packs, prowled around the crawlers. Two deathmarked—powerful ape-things with bones visible through their thin and hairless skin—stood directly behind the mounted man and woman, like an honor guard. I even spotted an infernal dromo, a fire-spitting scorpion the size of a car.

I doubted very, very much that this was the limit of what these two had brought.

“My name is Aitil Péine,” the woman said. “Prince of Night’s Southern Autumn. And this is Gealach Tapaidh, Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn.”

The fey woman grinned at us.

“The Wild Hunt has begun.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 202)

Isn’t it interesting that this would happen not a day after the fey received the full rights of a culture?

Scene 186 – Diversis

DIVERSIS

SEENA

Steve Gillespie cocked his head as he looked at me. “I don’t think you look that different.”

I glared at him. “Really? I haven’t seen you since Kevin died and you got put into a coma, and that’s the first thing you say to me?”

He just shrugged. “Well, the first thing you said was ‘I know I look different,’ so yeah, that’s the first thing I say.”

Leon looked me up and down, frowning. “Did you get taller?”

“I also got a tail,” I noted, flicking it lightly towards his face.

“Well, I saw that right away.”

I was glad Leon had managed to survive the fey attack—mostly due to Eric—but I wasn’t sure how to tell him that his aunt was dead. I didn’t want to burden him with that so soon after his mother’s demise. Okay, sure, it wasn’t confirmed that Delphie was dead, but she had been in pretty bad condition, and there hadn’t been any sign of her since.

It had been Eric’s idea that we all meet up today, at one of the many nearly-empty cafes near AU. The Dagonite had called me, not sure what to do with Melanie’s son. I hadn’t really been able to think of anything either—Delphie would come back from the grave and throttle me if I brought Leon to the Mals—so he had suggested gathering everyone together and seeing what we could all come up with.

Steve had gotten out of the hospital yesterday, so this was a good chance to catch up. Simon…Simon was dead, and Yolanda nowhere to be found. With no one else to call, I had done the unthinkable.

I had called Pam.

I had called Eccretia, Paragon of the Never-Known Thieves and co-founder of the changelings. One of the most powerful women in the city.

And she had come.

She didn’t look anything like before. Instead of her bland shirt and pants, she was wearing a light ceramic body armor overlaid with Kevlar. The kind of thing that would ward off animal bites as easily as bullets, but it was probably ungodly heavy.

And that was just the start. In addition to the pistol she had always carried before—a Black Knight ZF740, if I remembered correctly—she also had a Necessarian Saint Jude on her opposite hip, and some kind of Hellion machine gun strapped across her back, with a spare ammo belt slung over her chest.

She looked ready for war, but I suppose I wasn’t one to talk, what with my new found ability to punch through concrete and such. And with the Composer running around slaughtering people, I guess there was no such thing as being over prepared

Only her eyes were the same. Cold, hard, and calculating.

She had brought two young men with her, who I assumed to be more changelings. The one with pale skin and bright golden hair put his coat over the back of a seat and pulled it out; my plain-faced friend sat down without looking at him. He adjusted the rifle slung over his shoulder and took a seat nearby, next to another changeling with similar hair, but a slightly darker complexion.

Eccretia didn’t take her eyes off me.

I coughed. “So, I take it you understand why I called you here?”

“You said it was because of Delphie’s nephew,” she noted. “But I’m guessing that’s not the extent of it.”

I averted my eyes from hers, glad my daygoggles disguised the action. “Let’s focus on Leon right now. The murids are already searching for him.”

The changeling warlord raised an eyebrow. “Why? I assume if they honestly wanted to help him in memory of their Alpha, you’d have handed him over already.”

“You probably know better than I do. But from what I’ve gathered, the culture is on the verge of imploding. Every hunter and wanna-be Alpha is trying to hold it together by consolidating around their chosen leader—themselves, usually.”

Pam—Eccretia nodded. “They want Leon as a figurehead. No one will pretend he’s the leader, but if they can convince everyone else he’s on their side, the memory of his mother will earn them a lot of converts.”

Leon looked like he was going to say something, but Eric silenced him just by placing his hand on his shoulder. Instead, the Dagonite spoke. “How many murids are there, anyway? Ballpark.”

“I dunno…” I thought about it. “A little over ten thousand. But I don’t know how big Plague’s group was—”

“There are eleven thousand, three hundred and eighteen murids as of the last census report,” Eccretia corrected. “Nine hundred and four followed the Lady of the Plague.”

I blinked in surprise. Not at the changeling knowing the numbers—I should have guessed she’d have that data—but at the numbers themselves. “She had almost a thousand people under her? Seriously? I thought it was a couple hundred, tops.”

“What’d you think when you heard ‘biggest murid subculture?’”

“I don’t know, but less than ten percent!”

“That is less than ten percent.”

“You know what I mean. A lot less.”

She shrugged. “Plague was very charismatic and driven. There’s a reason she was assassinated; no one can really take her place.”

I sighed. “Well, I mean, I guess I understood that, it just never quite…clicked.” I waved my hand. “I mean, c’mon, a single mother—”

I stopped breathing as I suddenly remembered something very important.

Steve leaned in with a frown. “Seena? You alright?”

“Leon,” I managed. “What happened to your sister?”

He looked guilty. “Um…I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her since the nest was attacked—”

“Nine Hells,” I hissed, grabbing him by the shirt. “Didn’t you say it’s your job to look out for her? If—”

“Calm down, Nyashk,” Eccretia said soothingly. “Sable is fine. One of Plague’s hunters spirited her away the second things started going wrong. We’re keeping an eye on them, but he seems to have everything in hand.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. “You could have mentioned that.”

“I just did.”

“Wait one second,” Eric said, looking at me strangely. “Nyashk? I thought your last name was Lancaster.”

It took an effort of will not to wince. “It…is. I’m just…” I took another deep breath. “There’s a bit of a story behind my new toys.”

The pale-skinned changeling at Eccretia’s side looked confused. “I thought you just decided to get some buffs after your brother died.”

Steve choked, crushing his glass in his hand in the process. He didn’t seem to notice. “Simon is dead? When did that happen?”

“Domothon,” my sour-faced changeling friend admonished her pale bodyguard. “Don’t act like you knew him.” She turned back to Steve. “Yes, Simon is dead. The exact details are unclear, but apparently a sibriex experiment went awry.”

The massive man jumped to his feet, making the whole table shake. “Then we need to do something! Call—” he choked again, searching for an answer. “The ‘sarians! Someone! I—”

“It’s been dealt with,” I said tiredly. “Sit down.”

He blinked at me, slowly. “What do you mean, dealt with?”

“Nhang is dead,” I explained. “Necessarius witnessed the attack. A retribution fee has been issued, and paid. It’s done.”

Except for the treaty with Aramazd, which Zepar had jumped on like a hound on a bone. New toys in exchange for some simple protection? My fellow warlord had literally hugged me at the news.

“How is the new Power?” Eccretia asked curiously. “I don’t have any information on him.”

I shrugged. “He’s a misshapen bundle of flesh tied to a server farm. I’m not really sure what to make of him.”

The bodyguard who had spoken before piped up again. “There are a few weird things going on there. Narek Nhang was the Gatekeeper of the Eighth Hell, Ani Kamakhym, which is named after an Armenian mythological site. But Nhang was Chinese, and his first name—though Armenian—a pseudonym. I don’t understand—”

“You’re right, you don’t understand,” his boss interrupted, causing his mouth to snap shut. “For example, you don’t understand that Ani Kamakhym was the main sanctuary of the father-god of the Armenian pantheon.” She fixed me with a steely glare. “Aramazd.”

That set me back in my chair. “Nhang’s subordinate was named after the highest figure in his chosen pantheon? That seems odd. There’s no way he would have missed that reference.”

“Maybe he just didn’t want to change his name?” Leon said, a little quietly. “I mean, a lot of warlords do like my mom did, but I know Auntie Delphie thought it was stupid, and that crab lady kept her real name.”

Steve laughed. “That’s a point. Maybe it was just the server-monster, and no one cared enough to make a fuss. Did any of the other sibs have Armenian references in their names?”

“How should I know?” I muttered. “Until thirty seconds ago, I didn’t even know Aramazd meant anything important.” I huffed. “Hells, I didn’t even know Ani Kamakhym was Armenian.”

The second changeling, the one with darker skin but the same golden hair, finally spoke. “But you did know the Eighth Gate was Ani Kamakhym, not Arhestanots, right?”

I nodded. That was a mistake people made a lot with the various one-building domains. The sibriex domain was Ani Kamakhym, but since that domain only consisted of a single building (Arhestanots), a lot of people confused the two. The Mals got around that problem simply by not naming our building. Our domain was Maladomini, and that was it. Simon had always had trouble—

I closed my eyes, willing tears to stay back.

Nine Hells, was this going to happen every time I thought of my stupid brother?

I felt a hand on my arm, and turned, blinking, to see Eric looking at me with concern.

“It’s going to be all right,” he insisted. “Eventually.”

Steve and the changeling bodyguards looked a little bit uncomfortable, but Eccretia and Leon just looked confused.

“What are you two talking about?” she asked. “Did Aramazd do something I didn’t hear about?”

The pale changeling, the one I think she had called Domothon, sighed. “Gods of men and darkness, boss, learn to read the mood.”

The boss in question just glared at her subordinate, and he immediately shut up.

I forced a smile on my face and changed the subject. “Actually, I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced.” I held out my hand to shake.

The pale one took it firmly. “Domothon of the Never-Known Thieves,” he confirmed. He indicated his darker companion with a jerk of his thumb; the second man didn’t seem interested in shaking hands. “This is Ferenil, also of the Never-Known Thieves.”

“You two brothers?” Leon asked innocently. “Your hair is the same.”

The changeling pair winced, and I couldn’t help but feel for them. Leon was a bit young to understand the whole…loss of identity that fey-slaves went through.

Thankfully, Domothon recovered quickly, managing a pained smile. “No, it’s nothing like that. We just happen to have the same hair color, that’s all.”

“Oh. That’s boring.” He turned back to me. “I want to hear more about what happened with Seena and Simon.”

Steve’s perpetual smile was briefly replaced by a small scowl. “Don’t be rude, boy. I’m sure she’s still hurting.”

I’m still hurting?” I asked, a little incredulous. “You got out of a coma yesterday.”

“Actually, I woke up on the sixth. I was released yesterday—”

I barreled on as if I hadn’t heard him. “A coma you were in because someone tried to kill you and succeeded in killing your roommate.” I managed to shrug, a nonchalant gesture I didn’t feel. “I got my revenge. I think you need help more than me.”

The not-giant looked pained. “It’s…complicated. It’s not clear who attacked us—”

“Probably the Aesir,” Eccretia noted, taking a sip out of her cup. “Maybe the trolls or the ogres, but I’m betting on the Aesir. It was two days after Mjolnir’s death. I think they were just lashing out.”

Steve glared. “Look, Pam—”

“Eccretia,” she corrected.

He chuckled a little, waving his hand. “Yeah, yeah, I heard. I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but you’re not much older than me. You don’t get to act all high and mighty.”

The warlord raised an eyebrow. “Steve, I escaped from the fey when I was physically somewhere in the neighborhood of four years old. I’ve been leading the Never-Known Thieves ever since. You’ve been a courier for the last three years. So yes, I do get to act ‘all high and mighty.’ Especially when dealing with Jotuun spies.”

The large black baseline frowned briefly, before barking out a bitter laugh, which contrasted strongly with his normal happy chuckle. “For crying out loud—just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m a freaking Jotuun.” He shifted in his seat a little uncomfortably, as though reminded he didn’t quite fit in it. “I thought you were better than that.”

“So you didn’t know Kevin was a Jotuun spy?” she replied blandly. “Interesting.”

Steve blinked. “He what.”

“Yeah,” I piped up. “Pam told us…” I thought back, then winced. “Right before the fey came out and grabbed Veda.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me!?”

“You were in a coma.”

“I meant after!”

“We just did,” Eccretia said with that same damnable calm. “What does it matter? He’s gone.”

The baseline rubbed his bald scalp in apprehension. “It matters because apparently the reason behind the attack was because he was a spy!” His eyes were going wild; I didn’t understand why he was freaking out so much. “Good God…if I had known…”

“Steve, you’re scaring me.” I could feel my tail twitching a little—that had been happening recently, and I frowned as I tried to get it under control. “Everybody has spies. Yeah, you got caught in the middle this time, but is it really such a big deal?”

“It…it…” he wet his lips. “Michelle. He had a sister, Michelle Irwin. What happened to her?”

I turned to Eccretia, but she just shrugged. “I stopped paying attention to all that after Kevin died. Don’t look at me.”

I shrugged too. “I don’t know either. Simon might—” I fell silent.

Eric managed to break it quickly enough, though. “Simon had a girlfriend, right? The demon? Maybe she’d know.”

“I haven’t been able to get in touch with her,” I muttered, still sullen. “She hasn’t been back to the dorms that I can tell, and no one has seen her at school.”

The green-haired Dagonite winced. “Yeah, I can see how this would be a hard time for her. She probably ran back to her orphanage for a while.”

“Yolanda has a surviving uncle,” Eccretia noted. “Our own Senator McDowell, actually.”

Eric blinked. “Wait, the guy they called a vote of no-confidence on?”

“Yes.”

“Huh.” He scratched his chin. “Well, I guess she’s probably off with him, then. My roommate went on about how awesome this guy was yesterday when we got the call, so she must be fine.”

That got Steve’s attention again. I was also happy to see his normal half-smile was back. “So you didn’t vote to out him?”

“Why would I?” Eric asked with a shrug. “I have nothing against the man. Besides, did you see the guys who would be replacing him? The Granit is the one who has the most support. No thank you.”

My phone beeped; I checked it to find a message from Zepar. Some minor discipline problem had come up back at the domain, and he wanted me to take part.

“I’ve gotta go,” I said to the others apologetically. “Eccretia, can you get Leon to those murid hunters who are looking after his sister?”

“I can, but I’m not sure it would be best.”

Please,” I begged. “It’s better than leaving him with a defenseless Dagonite.”

“Point of order,” the man in question piped up. “I’m not a Dagonite any more—”

“Shush,” Eccretia interrupted without taking her eyes off me. “The adults are talking.” She bit her lip, thinking, before nodding. “I’ll look into the hunters. If they don’t work out, I can keep the boy at my base for a week or so.”

Such a generous offer surprised me, but I kept it off my face, and just nodded. “Thank you, Dame Eccretia.”

She grinned thinly. “Thank you, Noble Nyashk.”

Steve, Eric, and Leon all blinked owlishly and said in unison “Noble who?

“Gotta go,” I chirped as I rocketed out of my chair. “Call if you get a hold of Yolanda!”

Behind the Scenes (scene 186)

“Arhestanots” is Armenian for workshop. Which summarizes what the sibriex do pretty well.

And in regards to Eccretia’s age, remember that changelings can only guess on anything except what their DNA explicitly codes for. She might have looked about four or five by the time they had stripped her of all her fey toys, but she definitely didn’t act like it.

Scene 142 – Novum Die

NOVUM DIE

DELPHIE

“This is my nephew, Leon,” I explained, patting the small boy sitting next to me on the head. “Say hello, Leon.”

“Hello,” he muttered. He was ten years old, and actually looked it, unlike a lot of kids these days. He also looked baseline, but as the son of the murid warlord, I doubted that was completely true. I had never seen his toy receipt, but then my sister had always been quite secretive.

“I’m sorry about your mother,” Yolanda said gently, while leaning against Simon’s arm. “I know it’s hard.”

He shrugged noncommittally.

I frowned, but didn’t say anything. It had been just a little over a week since his mother died. I could let him be anti-social for a while longer.

“Is your dad still around?” Eric, the green-haired baseline we had saved from the iron-lord gargant, pressed. “Do you have anywhere to go?”

Leon shook his head again.

“His dad died a while back,” I explained apologetically. “He’s staying at the domain for now.”

Eric nodded in sympathy. “Yeah, that’s rough.”

This guy was getting a little too close. I barely even knew him; Seena and Jelena had gotten some seaweed rum from his Dagonite roommate, and then Seena started inviting him places. Maybe she was trying to get in his pants or something; damned if I knew what that vampire was thinking. She had been acting weirder than normal since around when the Composer was captured.

Speaking of Seena, she elbowed her friend in the ribs half-heartedly. “Don’t be mean.”

Green-hair seemed genuinely confused. “How was that mean?”

“You’re mocking him!”

“What!? How is that mocking?”

“Both your parents are alive.”

Everybody started a little at that. It was pretty rare to see anyone like that. I think the only person our age I knew with two living parents was…

Um…

Oh, Derek’s friend Robyn. Doctor Isaac Clarke’s daughter. Living under the wing of Artemis Butler increased your life expectancy significantly.

Eric, for his part, had the good grace to look embarrassed. At least he knew better than to complain how annoying his parents were while surrounded by orphans.

He shifted in his seat. “My parents are close advisers to Arthur Curry. So…you know…they’re pretty well protected.”

Leon looked confused, and I couldn’t blame him. That name didn’t sound familiar…

“Wait,” Jelena said after a minute of silence. “You’re a Dagonite?

Veda cocked her head quizzically at the Glasyan vampire. “We weren’t supposed to know? His roommate’s one, I thought it was obvious.”

“He does use Dagonite curses,” Pam pointed out.

Eric shook his head. “Salt and spear—” Then he stopped when he realized what he was saying. “Ah…I mean…God dammit.” He shook his head again. “I spent three years unlearning Dagonite curses, and then by pure dumb luck, I ended up with Conway as my roommate.”

“Why?”

Eric seemed surprised Leon had finally said something, but shrugged and answered. “Whoever was in charge of room assignments probably did it on purpose. It’s usually a good idea to put people of the same culture together. Keeps fights to a minimum.”

“No, I mean why try to unlearn Dagonite curses?” The little murid twiddled his thumbs. “I mean…people go to a lot of trouble to learn them in the first place.”

Eric smiled a little sadly. “People…do not always stay with their culture.”

Jelena nodded. “My culture gets a lot of requests to quietly remove toys. It’s more common than you’d think.”

That caught my attention a little. I turned back to Eric. “So you’re an actual ex-Dagonite?” I had assumed his buffs were just internal, like mine.

“Well, yes, except I was never a Dagonite in the first place.”

Simon’s eyes widened. “A Rahab?”

Eric scowled. “No! Why does everyone always assume that?” He waved his hand impatiently. “Enough about me! Someone else talk.”

There was a pretty long pause.

“Steve is getting out of the hospital soon,” Simon noted.

That surprised everyone, but Pam got the words out first. “He is? When did he wake up?”

“A few days ago.”

The plain little baseline leaned forward eagerly. “Did he get a good look at his attacker? The one who killed Kevin?”

Simon shook his head sadly. “He went down in one hit, apparently. Never knew what was happening.”

Yolanda, of all people, gave her boyfriend a quizzical look. “Didn’t he get hit in the face? How could he not see anything?”

“Well, he saw the bat they hit him with, and that’s about it.”

Pam leaned back in her chair, almost bumping into the table behind her. The people there glared at her, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m still mad about that. Kevin was fun. Steve is just boring. Why couldn’t it have been the other way around?”

Seena pushed her in the arm, nearly toppling the baseline. “Don’t say stuff like that. How would you feel if you survived, and someone said that about you?”

“I wouldn’t care. I know I’m boring.”

Her midnight-skinned roommate sighed. “Not what I meant.”

Simon shrugged. “Besides, Steve is more interesting anyway.”

Yolanda took her head off his shoulder long enough to punch him in the side.

“Ow! What?”

His sister nodded. “Thanks, Yolanda. And she’s right. Don’t be a dick.”

Our dirty red-haired baseline, however, seemed to take the question more seriously. “Steve’s just an errand boy. Watching Kevin play around was a lot more fun.”

The sibriex rubbed his side, eying his girlfriend warily before turning his attention back to Pam. “I considered him a friend, and he was a good roommate, but I wouldn’t call him fun.”

“I just thought it was hilarious,” she insisted. “Watching his ham-handed attempts at espionage.”

Simon blinked. “Wait, what?”

“He was a passer. A spy for the Jotuun. Didn’t you know?”

What?” Everyone shouted at once.

“No, that’s impossible,” I insisted. Fur and fang, I had liked him. “Even ignoring the fact that he was like four feet tall—”

She snorted derisively. “You don’t really expect a Jotuun passer to have the Bigger package, do you?”

“—there’s no way he could be a giant. I met friends from his old orphanage. It was deep in orc territory, so if he’s a passer for anyone—”

“Faked,” Pam said in a bored tone while examining her nails. “Rather amateurishly, too. They paid off a couple kids to pretend to know him. It’s much easier to just say the old orphanage burned down and everyone died.”

I rubbed my forehead. “No. Just…no way. He’s definitely an ex-demon. He knows way too much about their cultures to just be a random—”

“He’s a spy. Of course he knows a lot about the other cultures. Also, he doesn’t use demon curses, which isn’t very suspicious on its own, I’ll admit—”

Jelena perked up. “Oh, right! Back at that thing with the iron lord gargant, he used Jotuun curses. I thought it was weird.”

Pam rolled her eyes. “Not as weird as knowing the location of a secret Nif outpost. that’s what confirmed it for me.”

“WHY—” Simon took a deep breath to calm down. “Why didn’t you mention any of this?”

The baseline shrugged. “Like I said, I thought you knew. Besides, it’s not like it really mattered. Most of the stuff he would be searching for you told him.”

“Like what?”

“Like the monster guarding the sibriex servers.”

I blinked. “Wait, I didn’t hear about this.”

Zusa finally spoke up. “Yeah, me neither.”

That’s it. Nothing more. She had been acting odd recently; normally she would chatter on for an hour while everyone else tried to get a word in edgewise. But ever since a week or so before school started, she had been really weird.

No one else seemed to think it was odd, though.

Simon waved his hand. “That was…I mean…”

“What ever happened with that, anyway?” Pam asked. “I don’t think you ever said.”

“Zusa and I still don’t know what it is.”

Simon ignored me. “Well, I never did manage to get in touch with MC, and once the Composer outed herself, it kind of became moot.”

“Oh, Aramazd was going to actually talk to her?” A warm and gentle voice said from behind me. “That’s really sweet.”

We all turned to the source, standing just a foot behind me. She was a tall, pale-skinned woman with boyishly short black hair and a flat chest. She wore an elegant dress—a stunning black gown with a wide skirt, no sleeves, and black silk gloves that stretched to her elbows. The entire outfit sparkled with a few conservatively-placed white gemstones, which twinkled like stars.

While we were all caught off guard by the sudden appearance of a beautiful woman with a dazzling smile, I managed to recover first. “What?”

Okay, maybe ‘recover’ is a strong word.

The woman…or girl? Her age was a bit hard to place. She raised a hand to her mouth and giggled. “Sorry. It’s just that Aramazd has always been so paranoid. The fact that he’s willing to put his own fears behind his desire to protect the city is really heartwarming.”

No one seemed to know how to respond to that.

Pam had an idea, at least. She pointed her gun at the woman’s heart. “Who are you?”

“And how do you know anything about Aramazd?” Simon added. “I never told anyone his name.”

The girl backed up a step, but she seemed more appalled at her lack of manners than the gun. “Oh! I’m so sorry. I forgot to introduce myself.” She shook her head and sighed. “My sisters and I went to all this trouble to set this up, and I fumbled it.”

I looked around, not seeing anyone other than a hundred or so people watching on the street, who seemed about as bewildered as those of us actually sitting at the cafe, listening to the woman talk.

Oh, and I saw my stupid nephew leering at her. I needed to have a talk with him, but now was not the time.

“Just talk,” Pam ordered, her gun not quavering in the slightest. There was, however, a confused frown on her face. “I know you from somewhere…”

The black-dressed woman grinned broadly. “Both of my sisters are setting up in other spots in the city.” The smile faded. “Unfortunately, my stupid cousins are probably doing the same…”

Simon stood up, pulling Yolanda with him, and started backing away. “I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. Everyone, we need to go.”

Everyone else seemed to agree, and rose to follow. Many of the other customers followed suit, walking off in every direction. Even the maintenance man installing a speaker on the corner seemed inclined to finish his business and leave as fast as possible. I grabbed Leon and dragged him behind me. I glanced back at the woman…

Only to see Pam, still sitting there with her gun pointed at her.

“I know you…”

Again, the woman didn’t seem very concerned about the gun. She seemed more upset that she was losing her audience.

“Don’t go!” she cried. “It’s not time yet!”

I scoffed. Whatever. Just some attention whore in a nice dress.

Since I wasn’t looking where I was going, I ran smack into a gargant.

I scrambled back from the beast and got a better look. It was a flesh-eater gargant, one of a trio blocking the street to keep us from passing. The beasts weren’t particularly large—more like really big dogs—but they were exceedingly dangerous. They had shark-like maws with countless razor-edged teeth, ready to tear through muscle and bone like tissue paper.

A properly buffed individual has nothing to fear from a flesh-eater. It doesn’t take more than a couple skin enhancement buffs to make their teeth more annoying than harmful, and while they were fast, they would go down in a few good hits.

None of the people here had those kind of buffs. Oh, maybe there were a few with the strength and reflex toys necessary to fight, but the lesser skin enhancements can be identified at a glance, and of the hundred or more people trapped between the gargants (there was another trio at the other end of the street), it was obvious no one had anything useful.

The gargants growled at us, forcing us to back away, but didn’t attack.

We—almost everyone at once—turned to the woman in the black dress, still standing at the cafe, ignoring the gun with a huge smile on her face.

She curtsied, first at my group, then at those on trapped at the other end of the street. “My name is Maeve,” she said cheerfully. “Princess of Wind and Frost, Maiden of the Unseelie fey.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 142)

Eric’s explanation of people learning new verbal tics is actually something that happens in real life, albeit more rarely. It takes a lot of effort, but you can change your own curses and catch phrases. Most people just don’t care enough to do so. It’s like unlearning an accent, really.

Extra update Wednesday. Not because this one (or the next one) is short; they just work much, much better closer together.

Scene 94 – Homines et Monstra

HOMINES ET MONSTRA

SEENA

Out of the corner of my eye, I registered my brother protecting his girlfriend with his own body, but I knew I had bigger things to worry about. The gargant’s iron-armored hand was flailing about the store, searching for us, and it was only a matter of time before it found someone.

I dove in the opposite direction of the trembling couple, towards the baseline with the guns, hoping that if nothing else, I could grab one of his weapons and maybe take out one of the iron-lord’s eyes.

For his part, the bland man was doing a much better job than five minutes ago. He seemed to know what he was doing, now that we were in the heat of battle and he didn’t have to think as much.

He ran away from the gargant, heading for the back of the store, and vaulted over the counter separating the main store from the back rooms. He pointed a submachine gun in my direction, and I winced, expecting to get killed by a hail of lead.

When he fired, however, he only hit the giant hand that had been about to crush me. The beast’s iron skin kept it from actually being hurt by the attack, but it definitely gave it pause, and I took the opportunity to scramble to the back as well, tugging the Dagonite and Zusa behind me.

I cursed myself for getting distracted watching the baseline. I should have been paying more attention to my surroundings.

I wasn’t a soldier, as my Mal superiors kept reminding me, but I should have been better than I was. What if an angel burst into a class I was teaching, and the children were hurt because I wasn’t paying attention?

There was another roar from the gargant, and I was yanked back to the present. This was my problem. All the buffs in the world wouldn’t save me if I kept getting distracted.

I scampered over to the baseline. “Hi. I’m Seena. You are?”

He stared at me for a moment before answering. “Adam Anders. A friend of Yolanda’s. And Laura’s, actually.”

“Good. Great.” I jerked my thumb in the direction of the rampaging monster. “She ever tell you how to deal with an iron-lord gargant?”

“No.” He checked an ammo pouch and cursed. “And I don’t have anything with the punch to hurt it. Any better ideas?”

“We just have to exploit its weaknesses.”

The gunman frowned. “Okay…and those are what, exactly?”

There was a muffled boom from the street outside; it sounded like something had exploded. A grenade? No, something bigger.

“Seena,” Adam said, grabbing my arm. “Focus. How do we kill it?”

Jelena slid up next to me, wincing in the light. She had lost her daygoggles at some point; I imagined the constantly shifting daylight as the gargant moved around was torturous. “We really don’t have time to wait. Sooner or later, it’s gonna get bored and find something else to kill.” She glanced at the creature and immediately regretted it, wincing towards the dark rear of the store. “It’s a miracle it’s still here, really.”

“Yeah,” Adam muttered. “A miracle that’s trying to kill us.” He holstered his shotgun, a massive thing that looked like it was designed for use against tanks, but was little use here. “What are those weaknesses you mentioned?”

I thought for a moment before speaking. “If it gets cold enough, it will break itself to pieces.”

He looked thoughtful. “Like ice cold?”

The Dagonite I had dragged along barked out a laugh. “More like liquid nitrogen cold.”

Adam rubbed his forehead. “Wonderful. I don’t—” the gargant roared again as its thrashings managed to collapse part of the ceiling on its hand. It wouldn’t actually hurt it, but it gave the others enough time to join us. “I don’t suppose anyone has liquid nitrogen on hand?”

Pam plopped next to me casually, opposite of the spot Simon and Yolanda had chosen, seemingly unconcerned about the amount of danger she was in. “Why should we even bother? Let the gargants run wild.”

Everyone stared at her.

She didn’t seem to care. “Think about it. The monsters—all the monsters—fill a vital role in the city, by melting away weakness in the crucible of battle. Hell, the screamers are the same way. The weak get killed, and the strong—”

Every single gun in the room was suddenly pointed at her face. Including her own; she had left it on the ground next to me, and I snatched it up.

“Stop talking,” I said, speaking for everyone. “Right now.”

The red-haired girl scowled and looked away, muttering something about how we were all sheep.

I lowered her gun slowly and took a deep breath. “Okay, so any chance anyone knows a place nearby that would have something cold enough? Actual liquid nitrogen would be best.”

The green-haired man nodded. “There’s a Niflheim outpost down the street. They probably have something.”

“You moron,” the Dagonite muttered. “There are gargants attacking and you didn’t think to mention that there were frost giants nearby?”

The man shrugged uncomfortably. “Yeah. I’m not even supposed to know about it. What’s the big deal? I didn’t realize they could help until now.”

“No use crying over spilled milk,” Adam declared, checking his submachine gun. “If these guys are anything like an ogre I know, they’ll have lots more than just liquid nitrogen on hand. We just need to get there fast enough so that there’s something left to save.”

My brother finally spoke up. “We can’t all go. Some of us need to keep the iron-lord distracted.”

“I’ll go,” Veda said instantly. “I have some friends in the Nifs. I might be able to help.”

“And me, obviously,” Adam added.

I nodded. “I’ll go too, in case we need nighteyes. That should be enough.”

“Me too,” Jelena volunteered.

“No!” nearly everyone shouted at once. Well, not Adam, the Dagonite, or the green-haired baseline, but everyone else.

The Glasyan glanced around. “What the hell? Why not?”

Adam, bless his crazy little heart, managed to come up with a plausible lie before awkward silence fell. “Because if they have some lights to knock out vampires, this way we’ll only need to carry one back instead of two.” He shrugged. “Of course, you can still come if you want, but we’ll probably end up leaving you there.”

Jelena seemed to accept that. Good thing, too; we couldn’t have the fey watching through her eyes at a time like this.

“We should hurry,” Veda muttered, glancing at the gargant in our path. “It’s gonna pry the roof off sooner or later.”

Adam nodded. “Agreed. Everyone else, hide deeper in the store. There’s probably a back exit you can escape through if things get really bad. Let’s go. Uh…” he paused. “Green-hair—”

“My name is Eric.”

Adam didn’t miss a beat. “You’re right behind me. Stay close. The kemo and Seena are next. Everyone good?” We nodded. “Good, let’s go.”

The baseline led the way, keeping his gun trained on the gargant’s searching hand like a pro. The rest of us followed a bit hesitantly. After all, Veda didn’t have any weapons, and myself and our green-haired new friend only had pistols.

Getting out was easier than I expected. Avoiding the hand wasn’t too hard, and the shattered storefront meant we didn’t have to use one small exit. We just had to slip out the corner when the beast wasn’t looking.

The second we were outside, Eric pointed down the street in the direction the iron-lord had come from, and we set off. Behind us, our friends were still keeping the big metal ape occupied, and farther back the blind-rammer was still rooting around for something or other.

In front of us turned out to be a bigger problem. Although the street was empty of pedestrians, all of them having fled in the face of the fey’s monsters, they had left behind haphazardly-parked cars and a few burning wrecks. It would be impossible to get through it all quickly.

“Always the same,” Adam muttered under his breath. “One day I’ll find a disaster where everyone has parked carefully out of the way.”

I raised an eyebrow under my daygoggles. “Seen a lot of monster attacks recently?”

He ignored me. “We need to head to the rooftops. It will be faster that way.”

Our new friend Eric blanched. “I—I’m not good with heights. There’s an alley we can—”

Veda snorted impressively. Although it didn’t look like it from the outside, her nostrils were enhanced to give her sense of smell a boost, so when she wanted to, she could make a lot of noise. “Use the alleys, when there are fey around? C’mon, you know they’ll have monsters swarming down there. I’m with the baseline. Let’s go up.”

The green-haired man looked around nervously. “Maybe I could just tell you the way, and you could—”

But I had had enough of this. People were dying. Acrophobia was the least of our problems right now. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him towards the closest ‘scraper built with kemo’s handholds. This was kemo territory, so most of them were built to make climbing as easy as possible.

None of us had claws, of course, but we would be able to scramble up pretty easily. Each handhold was a few inches deep and wide; more than enough.

As Adam holstered his guns, I clambered up, going as fast as I could while still being careful. Which was actually pretty fast, despite my inexperience. The handholds made it only a little bit harder than using a ladder.

Even with Eric protesting the entire way up, it didn’t take more than ten minutes to go up thirty floors. Adam scanned the empty roof quickly, then nodded.

“Good. I was half expecting an ambush. Eric, which way?”

But the green-haired man was laying near the edge of the roof, gasping. He couldn’t hear us.

Veda’s furry ears twitched. “You know, maybe it wasn’t the best of ideas to drag him up here…”

“Well, too late now,” Adam noted. He grabbed the man by his disheveled collar. “Up and at ’em, buddy. Which way is the outpost?”

Our poor guide raised a trembling arm, pointing farther away from the rampaging gargants. As if on a signal, there was a great roar from behind us; I turned to see the iron-lord thrashing in a cloud of dust as more of the ‘scraper our friends were hiding in collapsed.

“We don’t have much time,” I warned. “We need to go now.”

“One second,” Adam promised. “Eric, what’s the address of the outpost?”

“Th-three seven two one. Should be the second-to-last building on this side of the street. The entire ‘scraper is theirs.”

The armed baseline patted him on the shoulder. “That’s all we need. Stay put, we’ll be back soon.”

If Eric responded, we didn’t hear it. Adam bounded off in the indicated direction, and it was all Veda and I could do to keep up. Not bad for a baseline.

If this wasn’t kemo territory, our rooftop flight would have been significantly slower. However, for most of their subcultures running on roofs was only slightly less common than running along the streets, so most buildings were designed to accommodate that. Zip lines, simple bridges…all sorts of nifty little things sped us on our way.

Besides, we didn’t have all that far to go, really. Five jumps later, we landed on the roof of the second-to-last ‘scraper.

I glanced at the street address helpfully painted on a small sign near the edge. “This is it. Should we climb down to street level, or just use the stairs?”

After thinking for a moment, Adam proclaimed “Stairs. Less chance the fey are watching up here, and the giants probably won’t be able to ambush us from this direction. At least, not before we’ve had a chance to explain ourselves.” He nodded at the stairwell in the middle of the roof, protected by a large metal door. “Can one of you girls pick that?”

Veda sauntered over to the door, removing a lockpick set from her pocket. I had left mine at home, so I didn’t bother trying to do it myself. The alarm would sound once she started, of course, but hopefully we’d still have time to explain ourselves before the Nifs started shooting.

“You going to be fine with just that?” Adam asked as we waited, indicating Pam’s pistol, which I had taken with me. “You probably need a higher caliber for giants.”

I shrugged. “Hopefully, we won’t need to shoot at all.”

The baseline laughed heartily, then stopped suddenly when he noticed I wasn’t joining in. “Wait, you’re serious?”

I frowned. “Yeah, of course. There’s a fey attack nearby, I’m sure the Nifs will see reason.”

He snorted and checked his submachine gun. “This is the same city where people were perfectly willing to fight a civil war while a zombie apocalypse dropped on their heads. Somehow, I don’t think a couple gargants will be enough to convince these guys we need to work together.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Veda called. We looked over to see that she had gotten the door open. “They’ll be here soon.” She stood to the side, to let us go first. Made sense; she wasn’t armed.

Adam brushed past her quickly, gun raised, with me close behind. A few seconds after I entered the stairwell, I heard Veda’s feet behind me, and then the door closed.

It was dark enough so that I couldn’t see with my daygoggles on. As we exited the stairwell I moved them to my forehead, making it seem like the entire room was lit as bright as day. My eyes watered a little, and I blinked to clear them, but they slowly adjusted. The room wasn’t very big, and was mostly empty except for what looked like the remains of an unmanned barricade oriented towards the stairs we had just exited.

Adam noticed my discomfort. “I can see well enough. You might want to leave the goggles on.”

I shook my head. “No, we’ll need the advantage. Besides, I’d be basically blind with them on.”

“I think you’re blind enough without them.”

Adam instantly turned his gun on the man who had spoken; a small Mexican boy with angry eyes, nonchalantly standing in the doorway to the next room. It took me a second to recognize him.

“Kevin?” I said. I motioned for Adam to lower his gun; he did so grudgingly. “What are you doing here?”

My brother’s roommate shrugged as he holstered his Raaze on his hip. “Seemed like a good spot to hide. You?”

“Looking for something to stop those gargants outside.”

“Isn’t there a gun shop nearby?” a friendly voice from behind Kevin said. The smaller man stepped aside, and Steve walked through the doorway. My brain did a double take. Was he a giant? He was almost big enough, but I had always assumed the dark-skinned baseline was…well, baseline.

Veda managed to get me back to the matter at hand just by answering the man’s question. “It’s a blind-rammer and an iron-lord. It’s gonna take a bit more than a couple god slayers.”

Steve frowned. I think it was the first time I hadn’t seen him smiling. “Blind-rammer…those are the gargant trackers, right? They hunt something down by scent? What are they looking for?”

I shrugged, which seemed to be enough of an answer for him. Who knew what the fey ever wanted?

“It’s not important,” Adam said decisively. “We need to talk to whoever is in charge of this outpost. Get something that can kill the iron-lord, at least.”

Kevin nodded. “Fair enough. I know the Colossus in charge, I’ll take you to him.” He headed back to the stairwell we had just exited and quickly disappeared downstairs.

I was almost too surprised to follow. He knew the local warlord? It really seemed more logical to assume Steve.

The large man seemed to understand my confusion. As he walked over to the stairs, he shrugged, giving me a silly little grin. “Don’t look at me. I just followed him here. I don’t know anything about the place.”

I shook my head to clear away distracting thoughts and followed the rest of the group down. There would be time for all that later.

Kevin led us down to the third floor from the bottom, where the Nifs seemed to have decided to make their stand. I had to put my daygoggles back on because of the light, but that was about the only problem. The giants parted to let us through, apparently trusting Kevin wasn’t leading enemies into their base.

There weren’t that many, maybe half a dozen. But all the giants were bare chested and heavily armed with weapons that looked too big for me to even lift. At first I was a bit surprised by their choice of clothing—or lack thereof—but then I noticed them sweating and realized what it was.

Nifs liked cold weather, and usually kept their bases at around freezing. However, this outpost had apparently been a secret, so they were forced to keep everything at normal temperature to avoid arousing suspicions. The cool room must have felt like a sauna to them.

Kevin glanced around, frowning. “Where’s Eva?” he asked the giants. “I need to talk to her about something.”

The biggest one, a bearded man almost eight feet tall, shrugged and rested his shotgun on his shoulder. At least I think it was a shotgun. It was big enough to be mistaken for a missile launcher. “She left the second the gargants attacked. Said she wasn’t going to let them kill people.”

My brother’s small roommate—made even smaller by the giants surrounding him—cursed under his breath. “Titan’s testes. Of course she did. And why didn’t she bring the rest of you? She couldn’t believe she’d have a chance on her own.”

“She thought a half-dozen Nifs appearing in the middle of kemo territory would be suspicious.”

I frowned. “Makes sense. Who’s domain is this, anyway?” While some of the domains were mostly permanent, such as the skyscrapers belonging to the vampires or angels, most of them were fluid, and changed every few weeks as the subcultures gained and lost territory. This area was generally kemo, but other than that I didn’t pay attention to who was in charge.

“Canes,” he explained. “Since a couple weeks ago.” He shrugged. “It’s actually been pretty quiet over here. Nothing really worth fighting for, not with the screamers distracting everyone.”

Adam rubbed his forehead. “The politics and so on are interesting—really, they are—but we need weapons. You got some kind of…” he wiggled his hand back and forth. “Liquid nitrogen…thing?”

The giant snorted. “I wish. Nothing but basic air conditioning, and that died during the last attack. We do have some rocket launchers, but those aren’t gonna be enough.”

Veda scratched her chin. “Maybe…depending on what kind of air conditioning set up you have, I might be able to rig something…”

Adam glanced at her in surprise. “Really? You can do that?”

The cherve rolled her eyes. “Don’t act so surprised. You don’t know anything about me. I’m majoring in Military Engineering, and my main class this semester is Scavenging and Repair. If the air conditioner isn’t enough, I’ll build you a nuke out of a few sticks of gum.”

The baseline took the joke in stride. “No nukes, please. We’re trying to save the area, not level the entire city.” He nodded to the giant who had been speaking. “Honored Titan, please, show my friend to your air conditioner.”

The titan signaled to one of his men, who gently pulled Veda in the direction of the stairs. As they started going up, she turned back. “I’ll also need some tools and those rocket launchers, if anyone wants me to do anything useful.”

Adam glanced at the titan, who nodded. He turned back to the kemo. “It will be up in a minute. Just do your best.”

Veda grinned. “My best? Of course not. You already said no nukes.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 94)

Not much to say about this one, really. I think it came out well, though.

EDIT:  For some reason, this missed its scheduled update.  Gonna have to look into that.

Scene 93 – Expertus

EXPERTUS

SIMON

It was Friday afternoon, two days since Yolanda and I started dating. It was going better than I expected; most of my relationships crashed and burned by this point. Either they decided I wasn’t worth dealing with, or I accidentally insulted them, or they turned out to be a lesbian. Okay, that last one only happened once, and at least Jelena and I were still friends.

So I was understandably concerned when she called me this morning, saying she wanted to talk. I was terrified that I had done something wrong again, and this would go the same way as all my other relationships. Or maybe she was pregnant. That was never fun.

Thankfully, it turned out to be just poor word choice on her part.

The bland baseline reached across the table to shake my hand. “Hi, I’m Adam. I’m in Applied Firearms with Yolanda.”

I shook his hand a little hesitantly. He had a good strong grip, which wasn’t unexpected for a gunner, but I was still reeling.

“Sorry,” I said slowly. “I…” I glanced at Yolanda; she was smiling innocently. I turned my attention back to her friend. “Sorry. Didn’t really know what to expect.”

He grinned. “Living in this city, I’d assume you’d learn to expect anything.”

“Well, that’s just it. You’re not from the city, are you?” I shrugged. “I guess I was just expecting something other than a baseline.”

“That’s pretty much exactly what outsiders are,” Yolanda noted with a smile.

“Except for the cyborgs,” Adam noted mildly, as he sipped his coffee. “About sixty percent of the population has metal bits instead of fleshy ones.”

I stared…then frowned. “And now you’re just screwing with me.”

He grinned over his coffee cup. “And you’re smarter than you look.”

I rubbed my forehead, between my horns. “Oh, this is going to be…interesting.”

Yolanda gripped my hand. “Simon, be nice.”

Adam put his coffee down, frowning. “Wait, Simon…I’ve heard that name before.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, yeah. Not exactly rare.”

“No, that’s not it.” He reached into his pocket, searching for something. “She said a purple demon named Simon…crap, what was the last name?” He retrieved a slip of crumpled paper and glanced at it. “…Lancaster?”

Now it was my turn to frown. “Yeah, that’s me. What’s the problem?”

He rubbed his forehead, muttering curses under his breath. “Uh…I’m a friend of Laura’s. Laura Medina? You guys knew each other from…somewhere.”

“Yeah, from before she moved.” The waitress placed my drink in front of me; I thanked her and took a sip. “Ack, too hot…sorry, but why did Laura tell you about me?”

“She, uh…” he floundered for a second before finding the right words. “I’ve only met like three people beyond my roommate and my girlfriend, so she keeps trying to introduce me to new people.”

I blinked. “You’re dating Laura?”

Thankfully he had only just started reaching for his drink; otherwise he would have probably spat it all over us in surprise. “Wait, what—no, no! I’m dating Lily! Lily, uh…” He frowned. “You know, its really hard to describe people when half of you don’t have last names.”

Yolanda chuckled. “Don’t worry, we know who you’re talking about.”

I was still skeptical. “You’re the baseline she’s dating?”

“Um…yes.” He scratched briefly behind his ear. “Why?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, I kinda figured it was just a stupid rumor. She’s never gone steady with anyone before.” I paused, thinking. “Unless Malcanthet counts.”

“She doesn’t,” Yolanda said immediately and firmly. “By any stretch of the definition. How could you even think that?”

I winced. “I just…c’mon, from a certain point of view—”

“No. Not from any point of view. Seriously, where’d you get your info? The gossip blogs?”

I sighed. “Let’s just drop it, okay?”

Adam, thankfully, swooped in quickly to help change the subject. “Laura mentioned you have a sister, Simon. Where’s she?”

I latched on to the distraction quickly. “Seena? She’s off with her culture right now. Probably more training.”

He took another sip of his coffee. I noticed that he had a small white cloth concealed in his hand. What was that for? Was he worried about spills or something? “Laura said she’s a vampire.”

“Yeah, a Mal. Got recruited right before school started.”

“Can’t say I know them.”

I blinked, surprised. The Mals weren’t exactly a huge subculture, but still…then I nodded in understanding. “Ah, right, most of what you’ve heard about the cultures would be through Lily. She doesn’t like talking about the Mals.”

The baseline frowned. “Really? What’s so bad about them? I mean, she avoids any talk of succubi or daevas like the plague, but—”

“The Mals are assassins,” Yolanda explained. She waved her hand airily. “Lily has some weird thing about that. Doesn’t even think about it if she has to.” She bit her lip adorably and turned to me. “There’s a word for that. I just can’t recall…”

I closed my eyes, trying to remember. “Starts with a ‘p,’ I think…”

“Pacifism?”

I snapped my fingers and pointed at Adam. “Yes, that’s it. She’s a pacifist.”

The baseline stared at each of us in turn. Then he just shook his head. “This goddamned city…”

Yolanda cocked her head questioningly.

He waved the hand that wasn’t holding his coffee—which, I noticed, also had a small white rag concealed. “Don’t worry about it. So you’re a…”

“Sibriex,” I explained. “We invent new ways to use the toy maker. Or…well, the rest of the culture does. I’m really not very good at it.”

He sipped briefly from his coffee. “I thought that was a vampire subculture.”

“You’re probably thinking of the Glasyans. And yeah, they’re basically the same, but for vampires.”

The waitress, a dae with a big bushy tail, sashayed up to the table with an empty glass pitcher balanced on a tray. “You guys all right? Anything else I can get you?”

I smiled politely. “Ah…no. We’re fine, thanks.”

“Well, let me know.” She turned to go.

Turned a little too fast, actually. Her tail smacked me full in the face. I spluttered as hair got in my mouth, and started flailing around, trying to push it away.

That was the exact wrong thing to do. I knocked her off balance, and the platter immediately went flying. She yelped and dodged to the side, while the pitcher landed on the table and shattered.

Glass went flying everywhere. I tried to shield Yolanda, and got small pieces in my back for my trouble. Thankfully it was some kind of safety glass, so it broke it little pebbles rather than razor-sharp shards, but it still hurt like hell.

“God, you guys okay?” I turned to see Adam rushing forward, my enhanced eyes spotting something glinting in both of his fists, still gripping those little white towels. What the hell? Was he coming at us with knives?

I would never learn the answer to that question, because a split second after he leaped out of his chair, a roar shook the entire building.

I looked behind me, past the dae waitress still cowering on the floor, to see what all the fuss was about. It was a street-level open air cafe, so I had a pretty good view of what was going on.

It was a gargant.

A massive one.

It was bigger than a bus—had to be at least thirty feet long and fifteen tall. It had six legs, each as thick as a tree trunk, splayed about its body. Its belly was low to the ground, and a rational part of my mind noted that this probably indicated it was built from some kind of lizard.

It didn’t have a tail, but its entire body was covered in thick plates of cartilage, fitting together like the scales of a crocodile. These were a dull yellow, giving the impression the gargant was armored in gold.

The most distinctive part of its anatomy, however, was the creature’s head. It had no eyes or mouth, and no visible nostrils—though I knew from my studies that there would be a large number of very small ones scattered around its skull. The gargant was blind and deaf, but that was intentional.

I knew from my time with the sibriex that it was a blind-rammer gargant. Not the most dangerous creation of the fey, but dangerous enough, and very hard to kill. But something about it bothered me…

I tabled my thoughts about the gargant itself for the moment, cursing my luck at having been caught in a fey attack. They liked doing one big attack a day—each—so it was inevitable to get caught up in one every once in a while, but they usually didn’t use full gargants.

The beast stumbled forward into a storefront, thankfully one that had anticipated its arrival and evacuated. Metal screeched as the gargant broke concrete and twisted the rebar supports, nosing through the crushed window for…something. What, exactly, was unclear. Blind-rammer gargants were quite rare, so there was little data on the reasons behind their behavior patters.

It was clearly seeking something, though what was impossible to say for certain. Maybe it was trying to track something by smell? It was pretty much the only sense the poor thing had left.

“Grace, get up,” I heard from behind me. I turned to see Adam helping our waitress to her feet. “You need to run.”

The dae blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Run until you can contact MC. Quickly.”

The girl fished for something in her pockets, presumably her phone. “What are you talking about? I can just—”

“The phone’s are down,” the baseline insisted. “I already tried. This is not a random attack.”

The kemo swallowed, then nodded and ran in the opposite direction of the rampaging behemoth.

I mentally noted the fact that Adam seemed to know our clumsy waitress—I was starting to get more than a little suspicious of him, but there were more important things to worry about at the moment. “You think the fey sent this one?”

“Obviously,” he said as he plopped his gun case on the table, opened it up, and took out a massive shotgun. He checked it briefly, then started belting on a bandolier and holster. “But yes, I do think they sent it here for someone specific.”

“That’s what I meant,” I corrected myself. “Obviously the fey sent it. But who for?”

“Damned if I know. Crap, I knew I should have bought more god slayers when I had the chance…”

“Wouldn’t do much good here,” Yolanda muttered. She was clinging to me very tightly, but was otherwise composed. She wasn’t even trembling. Or maybe I just couldn’t feel it under my trembling. “Unless you can get a round through one of its nostrils, we’re pretty much out of luck.”

Adam muttered a curse under his breath. “Not likely. I’m not all that accurate. If Kat was here…” he stopped suddenly.

“Kat?” I asked after a moment.

“Friend of mine,” he explained. “Got too close to some screamers—the bats, actually—and got turned.”

Yolanda winced. “Sorry to hear that. Maybe there’s a cure…”

“Maybe we should save that for later,” I reminded them. “The gargant is coming this way.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t charging yet; it was just lumbering forward, head to the street, sniffing for something. Everyone else had already fled to safety behind it, where it had already searched, but there were still a few of us in front of it. And if we tried to run past it on the relatively narrow street, it would sense us through the vibrations, and likely attack outright.

I glanced around at the other cafe patrons, hoping to see some better weapons, but we didn’t seem to be in luck. Pretty much everyone had a few guns, and there were some nice big shotguns, but the only thing heavy enough to breach its hide would be a missile—and no one carried those around.

Too bad we were in kemo territory. If this were a giant domain, there probably would have been a few missile launchers or portable anti-air weapons stashed around. Something that would have been effective against a blind-rammer, at least.

Well, we didn’t have a chance, and thankfully Adam realized that. He started ordering the shocked patrons away from the lumbering beast while I was still standing around wondering what had happened with the dae. If this had been a random attack, he probably would have saved us all.

Unfortunately, it was not, and crazy as they are, the fey are still quite intelligent when they have reason to be.

The gargant roared again, and I finally realized what had been itching my brain for the past five minutes.

Blind-rammers couldn’t roar. They didn’t have mouths.

Iron-lord gargants, however, could.

Coming around the corner from the other direction, right in the path we were fleeing, was a massive ape-shaped creature, fifty feet tall easily. It knuckle-walked forward hesitantly, eying the screaming and panicking little humans at its feet warily.

A giant ape wouldn’t be that difficult to beat, especially at that size. Take out the knees, and its own weight would quickly do what no amount of bullets could do. That’s why you didn’t see ape-rager gargants and their ilk around any more; everyone knew how to kill them, so the fey didn’t bother making them.

This was far more than a giant ape.

Its flesh was iron.

Thousands, maybe millions of tiny plates of steel were stitched to its skin, so small and so fine that at first glance the creature appeared to be made of metal. I don’t know what arcane process the fey used to get around the Square-Cube Law, but apparently it wasn’t easy, since iron-lord gargants were some of the only ones they used it on.

The ape-thing leaned forward, noon light gleaming off its shiny skull, and bit a pedestrian in half with its razor-sharp teeth.

Blood spewed everywhere, especially on the gargant’s face, and I could hear the sound of crunching bones over the constant screaming, as the beast slowly chewed its meal.

Over all the incoherent cries of terror, I heard a voice I recognized. “Simon!”

“Wait—Seena?”

My sister rushed forward, away from the iron-lord, a number of other people in tow. Some of them I didn’t recognize, and seemed to be random strangers she had grabbed to keep them safe, but I quickly spotted Pam, Veda, Jelena, Delphie, and Zusa.

“We’re cornered, and the phones aren’t working,” Pam said grimly, as my sister glomped me in a bear hug. Behind her, I watched Zusa curse and adjust her daygoggles. “Unless you have a couple tanks in your pocket, we need to find some place to hide.”

“This way,” Adam said with some conviction, dashing off to the right and hopefully out of the path of the gargants. The rest of us followed, and found ourselves ducking into an abandoned storefront. “With luck, the monsters will fight each other.”

“That’s your plan?” one of Seena’s rescues snorted in derision. “The fey use pheromones to control their pets. They don’t attack each other.”

“The Dagonite has the right of it,” another one admitted, a young green-haired man. “New plan, please.”

Seena blinked at the first speaker, looking him up and down. “You’re a Dagonite?”

The man wiggled his hand back and forth. Ish.

“Not really the time,” I reminded them. “Adam, any ideas?”

He frowned. “I’m not really…tactics are Laura’s area.”

I tried to keep my calm. I sure as hell wasn’t a strategist either, but he definitely sounded like he had a better chance at leading us out of this than me. I just had to convince him, first. “Laura isn’t here. What would she tell you to do if she was?”

The baseline thought for a moment, then indicated the clothing racks scattered around the store. “Roll those over to the front, make a barricade. We should be able to hold out until help arrives.”

“Do you really think that will help?” Zusa asked, in a tone of voice that very specifically did not imply that she thought Adam was a moron. She really was a born diplomat.

“It’s mostly a visual barricade,” Adam explained, as he started tugging the racks over. The rest of us leaped to help. “Hopefully they won’t notice us.”

There was a roar, and the storefront exploded inward, showering everyone in glittering pebbles of glass.

The iron-lord gargant poked its head in, searching with its bright eyes, and then reached in the store to try and grab some fresh victims. It was all I could do to shield Yolanda, and that would be only slightly more protection than tissue paper if the beast decided we were it’s target.

Nothing left to do but pray.

Behind the Scenes (scene 93)

Adam didn’t pull that “60%” figure out of nowhere; that’s the percentage of people in Domina who identify as part of one of the cultures. That doesn’t mean that’s the number of people who use the toy maker. Everyone uses the toy maker, except the changelings and the clays, who account for less than 0.1% of the population.

Extra update Wednesday to make up for all the site issues everyone has had to suffer through.