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.
“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?”
“Sorry, sorry…did so go up?”
“Okay, so she went down.”
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—
“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.”
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.
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?”
“And you can use those without moving?”
“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.”
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.
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.