Tag Archives: Evangel McDowell

Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

It took two days to arrange everything. Longer than I would have liked, but at ten AM on Thursday, January 10th, the first inter-species diplomatic meeting started right on schedule. It was still held in NHQ, but in one of the outer buildings, so that the representatives didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed.

As Zero had promised, Leeno had snapped out of his meditative fugue state after a few hours. He had promised not to do it again, and while I wasn’t sure he could keep that promise, it would at least increase the likelihood of him making it through the entire meeting awake.

I was a little worried he couldn’t promise anything, in fact. There had been no communications from the mothership, either to us or its little fleet. No threats, no recall orders, nothing besides basic patrol data going back and forth. They were acting like nothing of significance had happened, which didn’t bode well. I had been hoping that Leeno was a prince or equivalent who had decided to do the right thing over objections. It seemed instead that he was just a random nobody.

Except for the fact that Robyn sensed he had a power. Now, down in the city, it was impossible to say for sure—surrounded by so many others with powers, there was just too much interference for anyone to get a good read on him. Maybe he didn’t have a power. Maybe Zero had a power. We had no way of knowing, and I hadn’t wanted to broach the subject in case he thought he was successfully hiding it from us.

The two of them hadn’t done much in the two days of waiting. I had provided him with a pad that had a bunch of informational articles pre-loaded on it, but disabled the internet by physically pulling out the router. The articles would give him a basic understanding of Earth and our recent history, but there was nothing dangerous in there. It was possible he had access to more information—his translator was programmed with English, so obviously they had sorted through quite a bit of our information—but there was nothing I could do about that. I had made sure not to give him any false information though, so we wouldn’t be caught in any lies.

Regardless, now that the time had arrived, the delegates started filing into the meeting room, with its long rectangular table. Butler was already sitting at one end, with President Martinez from America on the other. President Aleks Petrov from the Soviet Union sat with Martinez, while Mayor Milanka Ó Súileabháin sat with Butler—she was from Mons Agnes, and we had been lucky she had been able to come down from Luna on such short notice. Prime Minister Jeong Park from Korea sat with Martinez, then Senator Grain from America took the seat next to him.

So on and so on, everyone filed in, the vast majority choosing to sit on Martinez’s side of the table. Most of the Earthbound countries didn’t like our city very much, and the space colonies simply hadn’t been able to get here in time.

Of course, we had our own representatives.

Once all of the foreigners took their seats, the Dominites started to file in. Lily, of course—she had come with Martinez, but she sat next to Butler—Pale Night from the demons, Nyashk from the vampires, Zaphkiel from the angels, Evangel from the kemos, Odin from the giants, Maeve from the fey, Meldiniktine from the changelings, Ariel from the Dagonites, and Chronepsis from the dragons. The Servants of the Lady had sent two representatives, but they were fussing over the food, and started passing it out once everyone was seated. We had actual paid servers, but it was pretty hard to get the Servants to sit still when there was work to be done.

Once all the humans were seated, the para walked in.

Zero looked the same as ever, but Leeno looked much better. He stood straighter, with a smile on a face as he scanned the room. His clothing was different as well, a multi-layered robe of a dozen different colors. I still hadn’t managed to tease out any information on the meaning of the colors he used—not to mention the distinct lack of colors on Zero.

The Servants quickly moved forward and pulled out two seats for the pair at the middle of the table. Leeno smiled at them and nodded in thanks, then took his seat. Zero hesitated for a moment before taking her seat as well.

“Hello,” Leeno said, smiling at everyone in turn. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

No one spoke.

“Let’s start simple,” he said. “Yes, I am an alien. My people come from a planet three thousand light-years away. It took us a little less than three thousand light-years to get here. The engine we used for most of the journey is what I believe you would call a warp drive. It largely negated the effects of relatively on the transit.”

Butler glanced at me, and I nodded. It was all the truth.

“Now, there is much I can share with you,” Leeno said. “But first, I’m sure you would all like some sort of peace treaty. Let me assure you all that my people do not want war. We came here expecting a habitable world, bare of life.” He shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, our information is six thousand years out of date at this point. You are here, and I am sure you will be happy to hear that you are too powerful to simply be destroyed.”

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

“However,” Leeno continued. “We are too strong for you to simply destroy us, either. Both sides have no choice but to find another solution. I believe we should start with a simple show of trust on both sides.” He nodded at Zero.

She glared at him as best as she could with that expressionless mask of hers, but he didn’t back down. She put her arm on the table and started dismantling it, placing nuts and bolts and strange glowing crystals in neat rows. It looked like the arm was almost entirely machine.

When she removed the first gun barrel, that got everyone’s attention.

After a few minutes of that, she started on the other arm—even with so many parts missing that her arm was see-through, the hand still worked fine. She dismantled the second gun faster than the first, then pushed the parts into the center of the table.

“As you can see, we are now unarmed.” Leeno paused, then frowned. “My translator just informed me that was a pun. Apologies, that was unintentional. Regardless, I would like a similar gesture of good faith from you.”

“We are all unarmed,” President Martinez said. I noticed he conspicuously did not look at the Dominite half of the table. Sure, they were all unarmed, but any one of the warlords could easily kill Leeno and Zero with their bare hands. Even Meldiniktine—maybe even especially Meldiniktine.

Leeno smiled. “Thank you, but that’s not what I meant.” He turned to me. “Stop.”

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

I chuckled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh?” He quirked his head. “So you’re not using a low-level form of mind-reading to monitor me for patterns consistent with lies?”

I stopped smiling.

He could sense my power. He knew that I could detect lies. More than that, he seemed to know how it worked. I barely understood it myself, but I had discussed some theories with MC. My power did seem to have quite a bit in common with the mind-reading powers.

“She’s what?” Senator Grain said. Martinez shushed him.

I went through the possibilities in my head. Was Leeno bluffing? Possibly. He could have learned from my power from another source. But I had carefully kept powers out of the data I had given him, so that was unlikely—possible, but I’d file it away for now.

More likely, he really did know what I was doing because he could sense it somehow. Like what Robyn had done to him.

And there was the answer.

“Fair’s fair,” I said carefully. “You’ve seen mine, show me yours.”

“Is that language appropriate?” Grain said. “Mister Butler, who is this girl? Why is she—”

“Grain,” Martinez said tiredly. “Shut up.”

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

“Fair’s fair,” Leeno said. He held up a three-fingered hand. Sparks danced like ball lightning.

Most of the representatives were a bit surprised, but Zero jumped out of her seat as if Leeno had zapped her. She tensed like an animal waiting to figure out whether to run or attack, but Leeno just patted her seat.

“We don’t have time for frivolities,” he said. He turned back to me. “Stop it. Please.”

I grit my teeth and then, for the first time in eight months, I turned off my power.

I expected the world to feel different. Less clear, perhaps. Less certain, as I couldn’t detect the lies any more. But no, nothing changed. There was a brief feeling of emptiness in my chest, but even that faded in a moment. Everything was still the same as ever.

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

Nyashk stood. “If he has a power, that means they could all have powers. This suddenly became much more dangerous than expected.”

“I agree,” Martinez said, standing. “With… um…” He waved his hand at Nyashk. “Scary dark lady. These people, these para, already had higher tech than us. If they have powers too, then maybe this just became a fight we can’t win.”

Odin snorted. “We have powers as well, little American.”

Martinez let the insult pass without comment, which I was thankful for. Odin was looking for an excuse to get violent. “I’ve spoken with your mother, Lilith. I know you’ve only had powers for a few weeks. How long have the para had theirs? How experienced are they with them? Not to mention we still don’t know how many there are. They could outnumber the entire human race a hundred to one for all we know.”

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

Martinez sighed. “Okay, I’m prone to fits of exaggeration, but still. This is not good.”

“Not all of them have powers,” Butler said.

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

“How could you possibly know that?” Martinez’s senator, Grain, asked.

“Zero was surprised,” Butler said. She managed to look a little contrite even through that expressionless mask. “I am quite certain that she, at least, does not have a power.” He cocked his head to the side, considering. “And judging from the strength of her reaction… I would lay even odds that no one else has any powers.”

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

“Correct,” he said calmly. “I am the only para with a power.”

I really wished I had my power on. “How?” I asked.

“I already told you that the trip here took three thousand years,” he said. “Of course, as you might expect, we were put in cryopods to sleep.” He smiled sadly. “Except… I didn’t sleep. Not really. My body slept, but my mind was awake and aware.”

Meldiniktine leaned forward. “You were trapped in a pod for that entire time?”

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

“Yes and no,” Leeno said with a smile. “My body, as I said, was sleep, and trapped. But it didn’t take me too long to discover how to send my mind wandering away from my body. I memorized every single inch of the ship.”

“That doesn’t explain your power,” I said. “Did you meet someone? Someone who sang at you?”

He frowned. “Sang? What are you—” He chuckled. “Ah, yes. It can be like a song at times. But no, I gained this power, this ability, simply by observing and practicing.” He smiled. “You can learn a lot about the universe in three thousand years.”

There was silence as everyone tried to digest the implications of that.

“Well,” Martinez said with a smile. “Why don’t we move onto more grounded topics, hm? Mister Leeno. Please, tell us what your people want.” It was a blunt attempt to change the subject, but at the moment it was what we needed.

Leeno’s smile faded. “They want a place to live. Our sun was dying when we left. By now, there is nothing left but cinders. Other ships were sent out in other directions, but we have no guarantee that any of them survived. We may well be the last para in the universe, and our leaders will do anything to survive.”

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

Leeno nodded. “Not full genocide, but they will crush your civilizations under their heels if they feel they have to.”

Nice use of metaphor. I made a mental note to try to get a hold of that translator tech.

“What do we need to do to prevent that?” Butler asked. “What do they need in trade?”

“To start with, a world of our own,” Leeno said. “Your homeworld is the only suitable one at the moment, but we do have terraforming tools, and your resources should help with that. It could only take a few decades.”

“You have one in mind?” Petrov asked, his accent thick. He did that whenever he wanted people to underestimate him; I knew that he spoke perfect English.

“The second world in your system should do,” Leeno said. “The hot one with the clouds.”

“Venus?” Martinez asked, eyebrows raised. “You want Venus?”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s just…” He glanced at the other representatives, but no one jumped to his defense. “My advisers tell me that Venus would be the hardest planet to terraform. No one can live there right now, that’s for certain.”

“Many para are cybernetically augmented,” Leeno said. “Our workers will be able to survive and make the world livable, in time.”

Now this was getting interesting. We had pieces of Zero’s cybernetics laid out on the table in front of us, but if it was cheap enough for even the normal workers to use, that meant we might be able to trade for it. “We’ll need to look into a way to share our technology, as well,” I said. “We have some bio-engineering tools that you might find helpful.”

“Wait a second,” Grain said. “You promised those to us.” Most of the other foreign representatives murmured as well.

“We can do both,” Butler said.

I touched my necklace, thinking. “The only people on Venus right now are the crew from Cytherean Watch.” I glanced at Súileabháin. “That’s what, a hundred people?”

“Fifty, though they cycle out,” she said. “Most of the crew belongs to various Lunar cities.”

Martinez frowned. “I thought they were all American citizens.”

Súileabháin rolled her eyes. “They work on an American space station, but they live on Luna, get supplies from Luna, and take orders from Luna. Next you’re going to tell me that you think you still own Ceres.”

Grain looked furious on Martinez’s behalf, but Martinez didn’t say anything, so neither did he.

I waited until they settled down a little. “Regardless of which human government owns the Watch right now, we do need to decide what to do with them. We can move them out if necessary, but it would probably be best to negotiate a way for them to stay. They can serve as ambassadors to the para.”

“You are sure your people will agree to this?” Martinez said.

Leeno shook his head. “I can’t be sure of anything.

Súileabháin threw up her hands. “Then what is the point about this?”

“The point,” Butler said, “is to pave the way for future negotiations. To make sure that we can find a way through this that does not involve war.”

“But none of that matters if their actual leaders of these para refuse to listen,” Grain said.

“There is at least one,” Leeno said. “He was going to talk the others around after I left.”

“Well, if there’s one guy, then our problems are solved,” Grain said sarcastically.

“They haven’t attacked yet,” I said. “That’s a good sign.”

“Why should your opinion matter?” Grain demanded. “Who are you? Why are you even here?”

“I am Laura Medina,” I said. “One of the Paladins who fought off the Composer, and the general behind the defense of this city when your people attacked.” I could see that one shocked him, though he tried to hide it. “I organized this meeting, chose who to invite, and prepared all the contingencies in case you became violent.” Everyone squirmed a little at that, though I pretended not to notice. “I have more right to be here than you, Senator Grain.”

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

Then Nyashk chuckled. “You always could play a room.” She smirked. “I vote to give the para Venus, if they want it. Furthermore, we’ll take out a first-tier protection contract on the colony, effective system-wide.”

The Dominites started murmuring among themselves, but the foreigners and the para just looked confused.

Martinez gave me a meaningful look. “Miss Medina, would you mind explaining?”

I smiled. “Simply put, it means that Nyashk and her people will kill anyone who takes major actions against the colony. First-tier covers… let me see…” I started counting on my fingers. “War, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Second-tier includes sabotage and espionage, and third-tier goes all the way to protecting against economic sanctions.”

“It normally costs a small fortune,” Butler said. “Mister Leeno, you should know that Nyashk’s offer is very generous.”

“I can imagine,” Leeno said. He sounded a bit overwhelmed.

“While I am sure that will work out well for Domina, the rest of the world will want a bit more,” Martinez said. “We can hardly give you everything just in exchange for you not fighting us. That’s not a trade, that’s extortion.”

Leeno nodded. “Of course. And I think—”

The doors burst open.

The foreign dignitaries all jumped up in outrage, while all the Dominite warlords moved into fighting positions. I remained seated—I had my own preparations, and they would go more smoothly if I didn’t jump in the middle of everything.

But when I saw who was at the door, I burst out of my seat.

She was flanked by two gravers who were wearing stone armor that was completely unnecessary but served as an intimidating badge of office. She herself looked small, dwarfed by her guards by almost two feet, but she carried herself like a queen. Her eyes had gone hard since I had seen her last, and her hair was filled with stone dust and past her shoulders instead of cut short, with a few braids held in place by clips of stone. She still wore a long black glove to disguise her stone arm.

It was Ling.

Of course. Ling was the Lady of the Grave. It hadn’t been confirmed—she rarely left the Grave itself—but it had been at the top of my list of possibilities. It explained her power, and the devotion the others showed to her.

I pushed past the startled representatives and one of the gravers who tried to stop me, and pulled Ling into a big hug before she even knew what was happening. I could feel her stone arm, but I didn’t care. I just held her to my chest and tried not to cry.

After a moment, Ling patted me on the arm. I realized she couldn’t breathe, and let her go with a smile. “Sorry about that.”

She smiled back. “It’s okay. Didn’t expect that from you, though. Akane, maybe.” She looked around. “Where is Akane, anyway?”

She should have burst in with the kensei by now. The fact that she hadn’t either meant she knew Ling wasn’t a threat, or something had gone very wrong.

“Can someone explain what’s going on?” Odin asked.

“Yeah, Ling, why do you look like you just crawled out of a collapsed building?” Nyashk said.

I turned to them all and smiled. “Honored warlords, esteemed representatives, this is Ling Yu, one of the Paladins who helped take down Elizabeth. She is—”

“The Lady of the Grave,” Martinez said. For once, his face was dead serious. “I remember from when she attacked the Pentagon.”

Ling quirked her head. “Didn’t Silk erase your memories?”

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

“Well, anyway, yes, I am the Lady of the Grave. Or Lady Grave, or Grave, or Ling. Whatever you prefer. It is wonderful to meet you all.” She grinned at Leeno. “Especially our friends from out of town.”

Zero had her hand on her belt, clearly ready to use a weapon, but Leeno just looked contemplative. “Some sort of stone manipulation ability, I’m guessing? It’s hard to tell, but it seems like you’re using it on yourself. That doesn’t make sense.”

Ling raised an eyebrow. “You have powers? Interesting. We’ll talk more later.” She turned to me. “I’m afraid this isn’t a social call.”

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

“Of course.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, we got a bit sidetracked. Lemuria has been attacked.”

I blinked. “What?”

“How did you find out before we did?” Butler demanded. “We—” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Right. Without Mary Christina, our chain of command is a little bit… messy.”

Ling frowned. “Wait, what? I talked with MC earlier.”

“The real one?” I asked.

“Uh, no, she said she was busy, and…” Ling winced. “Oh, damn. Should have seen that one coming.”

“This Lemuria,” Leeno said. “Where is it and who attacked?”

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

“It’s been attacked by the para,” Ling said. “Or rather, it is being attacked by the para. I came here hoping someone had some plan to stop it. Lemuria is a factory colony, mostly building terraforming and colonization equipment. They have no defenses.”

Everyone glared at Leeno.

“I know nothing about this,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“Wait,” I said. “How can you possibly know this? We don’t have any direct lines to Mars, not even getting into the light-speed delay.”

Ling waved her hand without even glancing back. One of her gravers stepped back into the hallway and returned a moment later with a small squirrel kemo. She just had the tail and big black eyes, but she certainly twitched with nervous energy like a squirrel. She looked like she was going to run at any second.

“Just tell them what you told me,” Ling said soothingly.

The girl glanced around, shivering. “Well… um…”

I cursed. “Everyone, back up! You’re crowding her too much! Back to your seats!”

There was some grumbling, but everyone sat back down, leaving the girl alone with the gravers at the door.

The girl seemed more confident now that she wasn’t surrounded by people towering over her. “Well, I’m not a graver. I’m a telepath, actually. I can… link my mind to another.”

“Instantaneous communication, even over several light-minutes,” Ling said. “It’s very impressive.”

The girl nodded. “I linked with my cousin before he left for Lemuria. He called me when the attack started, and I called my brother…” She trailed off, and one of the graver bodyguards—her brother, I had to assume, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

“The colony can still be saved,” Martinez said.

Súileabháin nodded. “Agreed, but Mars doesn’t have the military to help, and nothing else can get there in time.” She paused. “Unless… Butler, do you have any ghosts on Lemuria? They might be able to do something.”

“Does he what?” Park asked. Her confusion was echoed on the faces of the other foreigners.

Butler’s face, on the other hand, was impassive. “I can neither confirm nor—”

Súileabháin slammed the table. “Now is not the time! Do you have any ghosts or not!”

“What are ghosts?” Martinez asked. “Another of your cultures?”

“They are…” Butler paused to try to find words that weren’t too damning. “…spies. And unfortunately, Madame Mayor, I have none on Lemuria. There was one, but he was in an industrial accident a few weeks ago and transferred out.”

“Wait,” I said. “I remember that. MC talked to me about it. She knew we needed another ghost on the colony, and asked for suggestions. We ended up sending four. They’re not real ghosts, but I figured they were better than nothing.”

“Really?” Butler said, surprised. “Who did you send?”

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

Sorry, cliffhanger, I know, but it’s resolved next scene. It just flows better this way.

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Scene 149 – Conventus

CONVENTUS

DEREK

It was October 10th, a Wednesday. Two days after Akane had managed to snap me out of my depression, two days after I had decided we needed to prepare for Elizabeth’s inevitable escape. That was how long it had taken to gather everyone.

Obould of course, Power of the orcs. One of my closest friends and allies. I couldn’t have kept him away if I wanted to.

Aleksander Hagebak, also known as Thor. One of the lesser Colossi of the Aesir, and son of Odin. He preferred to keep out of the Culture Wars. He had only come because Elizabeth had killed his Hammer, Mjolnir, but that was good enough for me.

Speaking of giants, Sinmara, wife of the Muspel Colossus, had come in person as well. Hagebak was glaring daggers at her, but the blacksmith was better behaved than that, and just sat in a chair in the corner, staring at a wall.

From the kemos, we had Senator McDowell of the Iluvatar party representing the ursas, Alpha Hannesdottir for the cans, and Alpha Tecumseh for the lupes. Evangel wasn’t technically a warlord, but his political ties were more than enough. He might just make up for Hannesdottir—the crab kemos didn’t really have anything to bring to the table.

Only a single vampire had come: Titivilus, from the warbloods. He was Dispater’s second in command, and had assured me that the only reason the old Noble hadn’t come himself was because he still refused to leave the Iron Tower.

I had hoped for more from the vamps, but I shouldn’t have. While I was technically on good terms with the Canians, Mephistopheles was still understandably upset that we had killed one of his favorites. The ghouls were obviously out—Akane had a tendency to hunt down and destroy their outposts when she got bored. The Nessians were still angry about Shendilavri, and the Nosferatu were still disorganized from the bats incident. I didn’t really know any of the other subcultures, which was probably for the best.

But we did have one ace in the hole: Pale Night, Power of Androlynne. I was surprised she had answered my summons. I had done a few favors for her over the years, but only minor ones, and she was pretty high up the totem pole to come personally. She was basically the very first warlord, the ‘Daughter of Lilith’ and the mother of demons.

“Thank you all for coming,” I greeted them sincerely. “Especially for coming personally. I understand that it would have been easier to just send a messenger.”

Wait, crap, would Titivilus take that as an insult? It wasn’t Dispater’s fault for being agoraphobic, and I understood that sending his nuncio was the next best thing…

Thankfully, the pale-skinned vampire just winked at me. He understood.

“What is this place, anyway?” Tecumseh growled. He wasn’t angry, it was just that he was one of the first lupe anthros, and his modifications had screwed with his vocal cords a little. He was always growling. “It smells like an ammo dump.”

‘Here’ was the BOB skyscraper Akane had burned down Monday morning. It was perfect—it had only been two days, so there were no squatters yet, and the company had written the whole building off, so we technically weren’t even trespassing. Other than a few half-burned speakers that had somehow survived the fire, everything of value had been removed.

“Just another warehouse slated to be torn down,” I assured the warlords. “We won’t be bothered. Although I wouldn’t recommend going much higher than the first floor.” I indicated the walls, still covered in scorches and smoke. I could hear the distant sound of dripping water, from where the firefighters’ had attacked particularly bad sections. “Fire damage has left the place a bit…unstable.”

“Why don’t we get down to business?” Evangel suggested gently. As a politician, he had the most experience with how meetings like this usually went. I assumed he wanted to keep us from getting sidetracked. “Huntsman, this is your show. You were quite vague in your message. What exactly is this about?”

I nodded in thanks, and leaned against the wall in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner. “This is about the Composer, as you all know. We need to be prepared when she escapes.”

Obould spoke up for the first time. “Necessarius has her, she’s not going anywhere—”

“Why aren’t there any ‘sarians here?” Hagebak interrupted. “I’m sure Butler would be too busy, but there has to be someone who can come.”

“I still want confirmation that Lizzy is this Composer,” Jasmine insisted. Despite the fact that she was a crab anthro, her speech was surprisingly clear. As I understood, she still had her human lips hidden under everything else. “I just can’t believe—”

I held up my hand to silence them, and was mildly surprised when they took the hint.

“I will answer all questions in time,” I promised. “But let’s start with the easy ones. First: Yes, Elizabeth is the Composer.” I locked eyes with the can warlord. “No ifs, ands, or buts. I don’t have any video footage for evidence, but in our most recent confrontation she was quite clear.” I smiled a little sadly. “She seemed to find the idea that it was still in doubt to be hilarious.

“Second, there are no ‘sarians here because if Elizabeth has any more spies or sleepers, Necessarius is the most logical place to find them. I have tacit approval for Butler for anything and everything, but he doesn’t know any details, just in case.”

“And third, she is immortal. We can’t kill her, so her escape is only a matter of time.”

There was silence at that.

“When you say ‘immortal,’” Titivilus said slowly. “What exactly do you mean?”

“She can regenerate from any injury. Shooting her just pisses her off, and blowing off her head slows her down for less than a minute. Her exact words were ‘you do not possess the ability to end my life.’”

The vampire drummed his fingers on the scorched desk he was sitting on. “Well, the most logical assumption is that she was simply lying—”

“She wasn’t. One of the Paladins can tell when someone is lying.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Damn. Then I’ve got nothing.”

“We could always toss her down an underwater trench,” Evangel suggested.

“She’ll survive, and come back pissed.”

“Wait,” Jasmine interjected. “Even if I do agree that Lizzy could be the Composer—”

“She’s tried to kill me three times in the last two weeks,” I noted drily. “We are far past ‘could be’ at this point.”

She waved her massive claw. “Whatever, Composer or not, immortality is just ridiculous!”

I sighed at the crab anthro. “Honored Hunter, our city is currently under attack by superpowered zombies. We have witnessed eight different powers, from electricity control to light control, not counting what the Paladins have access to.” I spawned a glowing blue shield, a small buckler attached to my arm. I held it up so the Alpha could see it leaking azure mist. “Immortality doesn’t seem all that far-fetched any more.”

“Broken fang,” Tecumseh spat. “This city is screwed-up enough without…” he waved his hand at my shield, trying to find the words. “Damned witchcraft.”

I let the shield fade. “We’re not sure what it is, but I am not going to refuse to use a weapon at my disposal—”

Hagebak raised an eyebrow. “Then why don’t you use guns?”

I sighed. “Because I’m no good with guns, Honored Titan,” I lied smoothly. It wasn’t like it was a big lie; I definitely wasn’t great with guns. “Nothing moral about it.”

Sinmara smiled. “Yes, I remember when you came over to buy a gun for your Akane. We tried to get you one too, and you took it to the shooting range…” she chuckled. “You were impressively bad.”

“Thank you for the reminder,” I managed through gritted teeth, cutting off a more caustic reply. “I’m sure you understand why I prefer hand-to-hand combat.”

She nodded. “Forge and fire, yes. My son is still annoyed that he could never beat you in training.”

I blinked. “He…what?” I would remember that. Sure, I had wrestled giants before, even won, but not every time.

“He wasn’t a giant yet,” the Colossus explained, reading the question on my face. “He’s always been big, but he only got the buffs last year.”

I frowned. “Wait…over six feet, brown skin, built kinda like a dump truck?”

“Yeah! That’s Jose!”

“Huh. I never knew he was your son. How’s he doing these days?”

“Not bad, not bad. He—”

“Can we focus, people?!” Tecumseh barked. Literally. “This is about the witch.” The old lupe turned to the others. “Does anyone have anything that will help?”

“I own a factory that makes shotguns that fire rockets,” Evangel noted mildly. “That can’t hurt.”

“There’s a reason no one uses McDowell guns, Senator,” Titivilus cut in. “Your brother’s designs are too crazy to be useful.”

Obould laughed. “You clearly aren’t a monster slayer, warblood. Once you find their niche, McDowell guns are some of the best on the market.”

Hannesdottir made a clicking noise. “Well, we aren’t fighting monsters.”

I smiled a little sadly. “And you clearly haven’t fought screamers. They’re like monsters—dangerous, but stupid. They don’t have much beyond instinct.”

A low, husky feminine voice spread through the room. “The screamers are not the problem. The renegades are.”

It took me a moment to identify the source.

A tall, willowy woman, wrapped completely in a white silk sheet, barely showing her soft curves. The sheet stayed pure and untarnished, despite all the ash and charcoal in the room, giving her an…untouched and innocent appearance.

Appearances can be deceiving.

“Pale Night,” I said slowly.

The first demon, the obyrith, architect of the tanar’ri, Keeper of the First Gate of Hell. Power of Androlynne, where she sat upon the Throne of Chaos and watched the other demons from above. Self-proclaimed daughter of the Mother Monster. Founder of the demon culture, inspiration to Malcanthet, Orcus, and Sargeras.

One of the most powerful people in the city, and she had showed up to my impromptu meeting. Personally. I had invited her, true, but I hadn’t expected her to actually send anyone, let alone show up herself.

I steeled myself before replying. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. The renegades are something to worry about, but the screamers can do far more damage.”

“There will be no more screamers,” the woman declared in her calm, soothing voice.

I looked at the others; they seemed as confused as I was. “Ah…what makes you say that?”

“The Blackguards are guns, while the screamers are swords. She will not use the screamers any more; she has no need to.”

I sighed. And here I had been hoping for some actual reasons. “Okay, sure. We’ll be careful about that.”

The sheet fluttered. “You do not believe me.” It wasn’t a question.

With effort, I kept my tone polite. “It’s not that, it’s just…” I shrugged. “We don’t really know anything about how she thinks, her goals, anything like that. It seems like a pretty big leap.”

“Making assumptions about your enemies never ends well,” Titivilus agreed.

Pale Night turned to face him. With the thick shawl obscuring her features, the effect was a little unnerving. “Mock me if you will, Disian, but I have seen more wars than you have years. This is not a guess, or an assumption.” She turned back to me. “I know the girl’s type. More concerned with blood and carnage than actually defeating the enemy. Combined with her supposed immortality…”

“She’ll fight personally as much as possible,” I finished, finally following her line of reasoning. “Using the screamers wouldn’t be any fun.”

She nodded. “She was hiding her identity, for whatever reason. Now that she no longer has to worry about that, the screamers are superfluous.”

“Hm,” Obould murmured thoughtfully. “I can see your point…she hasn’t been reusing screamer types, I suppose it makes sense that she’d ignore them completely now.”

“So…what?” Hagebak asked in an annoyed tone. “Just wait for these…” he waved his massive hand. “Renegades, these Blackguards, to pull Greene out of whatever hole Necessarius dropped her in, and everything starts over again like nothing happened?”

Tecumseh snarled. “Weren’t you listening, boy? With just Greene and her Blackguards, we’re talking just a squad or two at a time.” He grinned toothily with his wolf-maw. “We can handle that, no problem.”

“I wouldn’t say no problem,” I warned. “The last batch we fought had some interesting ways of using their powers, and I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.” The lupe growled, but I ignored him. I had known him long enough to understand he was just frustrated, not angry at me specifically. “But it will be easier than the screamers, that’s for sure. Speakers—Paladins and Blackguards—can’t infect people.”

“But still,” Hannesdottir said slowly. “He’s right, isn’t he? We can’t do anything but wait for the Composer to make a move?” She made an angry click. “Of course, that’s assuming you’re right about Lizzy anyway.”

I didn’t bother responding to the second part. “There’s not much we can do, true. But we can prepare. You can lend soldiers to the ‘sarians.”

Sinmara shook her head. “Bad idea. I trust my men, but Butler doesn’t. I doubt he would want them anywhere near Greene. You remember what happened last time.”

“We can help with that indirectly,” Evangel pointed out. “Shore up the peacekeeper forces and so on, give them slack to send the most trustworthy to guard her.”

I nodded. “That’s what I meant. Even if it only gets one more person guarding the Composer’s cage, this meeting will have been worth it.”

That wasn’t the real purpose of the meeting, of course. We needed to forge alliances, bonds of trust between the disparate clans and cultures. Just getting eight warlords in a room without having to threaten violence was a massive step in the right direction.

“For the time being, why don’t we table the issue of the Composer?” Jasmine asked slowly, her giant claw clicking nervously. “We have bigger things to worry about right now.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Bigger than Elizabeth Greene?” The crab winced, which was my intent. She didn’t want to admit the Composer’s identity, so I needed to hammer her with it as much as possible. “I’ll confess I don’t pay much attention to politics. What happened now?”

Evangel stared at me. “You…don’t know? I mean, it’s been a full day.”

“That’s my bad,” Obould apologized. “He gets most of this kind of news from me, and I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to even toss him an e-mail.”

“About what?” I was getting exasperated now. Couldn’t they just get to the point? “By now, I’m half-expecting that one of the fusion reactors exploded when I wasn’t looking.”
“That would be less destructive,” Hagebak muttered. “In the long run, I mean.”

What—”

“The fey have reformatted themselves into a true culture,” Pale Night cut in with all the bluntness of a sledgehammer. “With only six fey, split into Seelie and Unseelie courts—Summer and Winter, that is. They have also started recruiting.”

“And they announced all this with a couple dozen monsters each,” Tecumseh growled. “Minimal deaths. A couple hundred, maybe less. Some of the ones missing might have been kidnapped or recruited.”

I closed my eyes and slumped my back against the wall. Silver moon and golden sun…how in the world did I not hear about this before?

“And it was yesterday, you said?”

“Around noon,” Evangel confirmed.

“You should also know about the hundred or so fools who rushed into the sewers after the Unseelie Princess,” Titivilus added cheerfully. “Hearts in the right place, of course, but they were still idiots. We’re not even sure what the fey used to kill them. There were no survivors, and not as many body parts as there should have been.”

I kneaded my forehead. Come on

Jasmine shrugged her carapaced shoulders. “So they threw a gargant at the poor bastards. I don’t see why everyone is making such a big deal.”

“These weren’t a bunch of random kids, Honored Hunter,” Obould corrected. “They were disorganized, but they were experienced monster slayers. The fact that there were NO survivors, not to mention no evidence they even managed to injure their opponent, is…worrying.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “Okay.” I nodded. “Let’s focus on that for now.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 149)

More new characters. I think I’ve got too many running around right now.

Scene 19 – Pietas

PIETAS

ARTEMIS

My name is Artemis Butler.

And I am very, very tired.

I find it hard to complain at times like this; I hadn’t been directly involved in the fighting. The 9th South Central Infantry Battalion had fought the screamers for hours and taken heavy losses in the process. They’d need to be merged with another battalion sooner rather than later. The 16th might be a good choice; one of their companies had been nearly annihilated in the biter attack on Saturday.

I hadn’t fought. I couldn’t fight. My body was too weak. I had a number of incurable degenerative muscle and bone disorders that had kept me bed-ridden most of my childhood, until I was surgically implanted with steel and titanium bone reinforcements. Even with that, normally at my age I would be long dead. But the toy maker could hold even the worst diseases at bay. For most with similar conditions in Domina City, there was a simple monthly procedure to let them live a normal life. Expensive, yes, but well worth the cost.

But I was lutum informis, ‘the unformed clay.’ I was resistant to the toy maker. Irony of ironies.

I received weekly treatments, but my body was still frail. I could stand, I could walk, I could even run if I really had to. But I couldn’t fight. It just wasn’t possible.

My phone rang in my pocket, five simple beeps. I clicked the desktop terminal, which also put it on speaker. It was just easier that way.

“Yes, Mary? What is it?”

Her simple program responded quickly and smoothly. “Senator McDowell is on the line. Would you like me to patch him through?”

“Yes, thank you.” I switched on my monitor as well; the senators almost always used video calls.

Evangel’s face appeared on my screen within seconds. As usual, his black and white fur was carefully groomed, and his teeth brushed til they shone. His blue eyes, however, had lost some of that gleam I had grown to expect from him. He was tired too.

The ursa anthros were still a little odd; most of the other kemos were obviously human, albeit in animal skins. But ursas looked like nothing so much as bears lumbering around on their hind legs. I suppose that was the point, but it was a bit disconcerting.

“Senator,” I said with a smile. The melano and I might not be friends, precisely, but I found his debates intelligent and well-reasoned. “You look tired. I take it the screamers woke you?” I frowned as I realized the full implications. “Actually, don’t you live in that area?”

“Yes,” he replied tiredly. “I’ve been fighting with your troops since this all started.”

Men and monsters. I bit back a curse and kept my face passive with decades of practice. This was either good, or very very bad.

“I trust they were more than competent,” I said smoothly.

He grinned toothily. It looked a bit crazed. Lord, he needed sleep more than I did. “That’s a pretty apt description, actually. More than competent.” He shook his head. “And those Paladins…I don’t know where you found them, but well done.”

“Luck,” I admitted. “Nothing more. But I’m guessing you didn’t just call to praise my new troops.” While he had done that before, he had always waited until he had rested. No, this was something else.

He nodded. “Indeed. First, it’s about the captured screamers. I believe in addition to the burners, you still have a biter?”

“Yes. And our tests are inconclusive. We tested on a few volunteers, and preliminary assumptions were correct: They are still contagious. Killing the singers hasn’t seemed to change anything.”

“On that note, what about Loga? He hasn’t reverted, has he?”

“Oh, far from it. In fact, as far as we can tell, he’s exactly the same as the Paladins now.”

The big melano blinked. “Really?”

I nodded. “Yes, he’s immune to infection, and he has a power—pyrokinesis, in his case. I don’t think we have to worry about him reverting any time soon.” I sighed. “The bad news is we still don’t know why he was cured when his singer was killed, and no one else was. The only logical explanation we have at the moment is that its because he was only infected for a few moments.”

“Which would mean the others are incurable,” the senator muttered. He frowned. “You’re not going to make him a Paladin, are you?”

“Of course not. He’s far too young. He might be useful as an early warning system, since he can hear the screamers as well, but we’re not sending him into combat.”

Evangel nodded in agreement and steepled his claws in front of him, thinking. “What I’m more worried about,” he said slowly. “Is that the singers were apparently seeking a fey.”

“They didn’t find her,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but the fact that they thought to look indicates an intelligence behind these attacks.” We had assumed that for quite some time, of course, but this was unshakeable proof. “Zombies are a nuisance, Mister Butler. If they have something pulling their strings…”

“I am well aware of the problems this presents, Senator,” I said quietly. “And I promise you we are doing everything in our power to find this perpetrator and stop him.” I smiled. “But for now, I have work to do, and you need to go to sleep. You’ve earned it.”

He just chuckled. “I didn’t do much, but I’ll admit that I need it. I pray for your continued success.” He hung up, and my monitor switched back to the desktop.

I sighed and sat back in my chair. So tired. But I had to stay up. Had to coordinate rebuilding efforts in the damaged district, console the populace, make sure Isaac wasn’t getting too caught up in his experiments…

I got up out of my chair and headed towards the door, leaning heavily on my cane.

It was necessary.

Behind the Scenes (scene 19)

Butler has always had problems delegating.

Extra update Wednesday, as apologies for the super-short one.

Scene 18 – Torrida Tellus

TORRIDA TELLUS

DEREK

I watched the building Laura had gone into fall, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. The front of the shop sloughed away like a collapsing cliff face, but most of the building remained standing. It was only three stories high anyway, so there wasn’t that much rubble raining down. A few zombies got squashed, but mostly they just dodged out of the way and watched as the intersection filled with dust.

The horde was moving towards us again, some latent instinct keeping them away from what might still be dangerous. I released my barrier on the storefront I was in, and the survivors opened fire on the zombies. I moved back behind the firing line and flipped out my cell.

“MC? Is Laura alright?” I asked once I got to her.

“Seems to be,” she said quickly. “She brought the roof down on purpose, and it sounds like she’s moving around…” she paused. “One sec, she found a singer.”

“What? Tell her to stay away from it. MC?”

I glanced at my screen; as expected, she had hung up. This was not good. I knew Laura would feel the need to experiment and test our immunity. She was the one who found out about the secondary benefits of our package, just because she decided to see if she could suddenly do a backflip.

But I was the one who should be risked, not her. The girls were too valuable to lose.

I glanced at the survivors in my redoubt, but I knew they wouldn’t be able to help, even if I could communicate my needs to them. There were only six of them, equipped with small arms, and they had stabbed out their own eardrums to save themselves from the song. It might sound like overkill, but with the toy maker they’d get fixed without a great deal of effort.

But then again, they were all big ursas, a malay (black fur) and five thibs (black fur with a big white spot on the chest). I might be able to barrel through the horde in time…

No way. Even if we could get to point C without them getting infected, we’d still have to dig her out. We couldn’t possibly do that in time. Not even Ling would be able to manage it.

I’m not often in situations where I can’t do anything; I felt so helpless and afraid. Normally, if nothing else, I can get Akane’s help, but she was probably having a harder time of it than I was.

Then my phone buzzed. MC.

“Hello?” I said too quickly.

“Direct order to everyone from Laura:” My heart felt tight in my chest. She was alive. “Kill the singers, all at once if possible, as soon as possible.”

I couldn’t see any from our redoubt, and I didn’t like the idea of jumping into the horde without a plan. Besides, Adam and the retinue would have a better vantage point, so I left it to them.

After a few more minutes, MC called back, this time only to me.

“Something’s wrong with Laura,” she said without preamble. “She’s crying, and isn’t responding.”

I blinked, confused, and decided to get the worst possibility out of the way first. “Crying like…screaming?”

“No, like with tears. I don’t know what’s going on. I told her the singers were dead, she asked if anything happened, I said it didn’t, and then she just went all BSOD.”

Well, at least she wasn’t a zombie. “Do you have any of the survivors in her vicinity on the line?”

“No. When I heard about the singers, I told everyone to destroy their phones, just in case.”

“Sounds like overkill,” I pointed out disapprovingly.

“At least one store got turned by their intercom system,” she replied flatly. “I’d have you nix yours too if I didn’t know you need them.”

Silver and gold. That was too smart for zombies. Whoever was behind this…why wait til now? Why only do it to one store? Too many questions.

“Can you isolate the communications systems, make it harder for them to do that to multiple places at once?”

“Did already,” she replied. “Spawned a couple failsafes, including a sort of self-destruct, that I control. I can kill the entire network in a moment if something goes sideways.”

“And you’re the only one with access?”

“Of course.”

“Okay, good.” I took a deep breath. “Order Akane and Ling to retreat to the ‘sarians redoubt. I’m going to try and rescue Laura.”

“Got it. But what about the retinue?”

I frowned. I wasn’t sure. I’m used to fighting with two people, including myself. This was a bit beyond my expertise.

Well, Laura definitely knew what she was doing. “Tell them to stay put and provide supporting fire. Kill any singers they see.”

There was a brief pause. “Done,” she said cheerfully. “Good luck with your girlfriend.”

I blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Oh, come on, not even you could fail to notice after that kiss.”

“How did you know about…” I shook my head violently. “No, Akane and Ling were being cruel, and Laura was shutting them up. That’s it.”

There was another pause, much longer than the first. “Dear lord, you’re stupid.”

She hung up before I could respond.

I sighed. I’d never understand women. The cruel and disingenuous flirting, I was used to. But with MC getting in on it, I was beginning to think all women were just born crazy.

Whatever. I put it out of my mind. I had work to do.

I managed to communicate my intent to the ursas, and they split off towards the Necessarian redoubt, cutting through the screamers without much difficulty. While they distracted the zombies, I swallowed my terror and made a beeline for point C.

I had to kill a few screamers, but I had a lot of experience fighting hand-to-hand, and my shields blocked fire without faltering in the slightest. And, again, they seemed more interested in the ursas. I wondered if that had something to do with the fact I had powers. Maybe they thought I was friendly until proven otherwise? Well, maybe not friendly—they still attacked me when no one else was around.

Whatever. It wasn’t important right now; Laura could probably figure it out.

It took me over half an hour to cross the square, even with the screamers distracted. Laura had collapsed the entire storefront, but I quickly found a loading dock around the back. Both the large gate and the normal-sized metal door were locked, and I didn’t have anything to break it.

I pounded on the door until my fists hurt, but no one answered, and I didn’t expect them to. They’d all be deaf by now, or they found some other way to protect themselves. Either way, I doubted they could hear me.

I cast around something, anything. A sledgehammer to batter down the doors, an intercom to call inside…

Or an abandoned ladder, to climb onto the roof.

The ladder was old, and covered bits of dried mud from being left out in the rain, but it was stainless steel, so it was still serviceable. I set it up and clambered up to the second story roof. I had the presence of mind to kick away the ladder so the screamers couldn’t use it, thankfully. There were no windows, but I was able to reach the third story roof pretty easily.

It really was an old style building; the roof was flat, and it didn’t have the stairwell entrance most structures in the city had. Clearly, the builders didn’t intend for anyone to hang out on the roof smoking during their lunch breaks.

I managed to find a trapdoor without much difficulty, however. Luckily it was on the backside of the roof, so I didn’t have to worry about landing in rubble because of Laura’s little stunt. The lock was rusted over, but the door itself was cheap plywood, so I just kicked through it. There was no ladder, but it was less than ten feet down, so I just jumped.

All the lights in the store were out; whether that was intentional or Laura had screwed with the electricity when she brought the roof down, I didn’t know.

This was clearly the office level, with many well-labeled rooms like “Head Manager” and “Hiring Manager.” I found the stairs quickly and headed down, skipping the second floor entirely. I had a feeling Laura would be on the first level. The offices made it clear that this was a hardware store; any risks caused by being on the ground floor would be offset by easy access to power tools and other improvised weaponry.

The first thing I noticed when I came out of the stairwell was the dust. It was everywhere, floating in the air like mist. I coughed and waved my arm in the air, trying to disperse it. I wasn’t really sure where to start looking, but the collapse seemed as good as any.

It was a bit harder going than I expected. What little light there was refracted off the dust in unexpected ways, so I was jumping at shadows the whole time. All in all, it took me nearly ten minutes to walk about thirty feet.

But as I turned the last corner, I saw a group of survivors wearing large headphones, clustered around something. There was a big melano, a panda ursa, who I assumed was the leader. He had some huge device slung across his back—after a moment, I identified it as an air compressor, hooked up to a large nailgun in his paw.

I called out to them, but no one noticed, which wasn’t unexpected. I almost walked up and tapped the melano on the shoulder, but thought better of it at the last moment. Instead, I conjured a shield between us.

As expected, they all noticed the glowing blue barrier instantly and jumped nearly three feet. Commendably, they didn’t actually open fire, which I had been worried they might. Once I was sure I had their attention, I dropped the shield and mimed taking off headphones. The melano did so, but motioned for the others to keep theirs on.

Cautious. Good.

“There was a girl here earlier,” I said, not bothering with the niceties. Melanos had a reputation as diplomats, so he probably wouldn’t like it, but he’d be far too polite to mention it. “A paladin. I’m told she’s the one who dropped the roof. Where can I find her?”

The big ursa blinked at me, then just stepped aside without a word.

With him out of the way (and my gaze no longer being drawn up), I saw what they were protecting: Laura, sitting on the floor, weeping and clutching the ring she kept on a chain around her neck.

“Laura?” I whispered, kneeling down next to her. She didn’t respond, but she was whispering something I could barely hear. I leaned in closer.

“It should have worked why didn’t it work it should have worked why didn’t it work…”

I turned to the melano. “How long has she been like this?”

He scratched his chin with a dull claw. “About…an hour? After she killed the singer, she called MC. MC called back, and she just…” he trailed off and shrugged.

I nodded. That fit with MC’s timeline, but did little to illuminate what happened.

Regardless, we didn’t have time for this. We needed to get to the ‘sarian redoubt. In the worst case scenario, the melano could carry her, but I was hoping I could snap her out of this.

I turned back to her. “Laura, we need to go.”

She didn’t respond, she just continued muttering and crying softly.

“It should have worked why didn’t it work it should have worked why didn’t it work…”

We didn’t have time for this. But what else could I do? I was just about to order the melano to pick her up when I had a thought.

Would it work? Probably not, but…

“If she shoots me,” I said to the big kemo, “tell her not to feel bad about it.”

Then I kissed her full on the lips.

I’ll be honest, I expected her to react slower than she did. I had barely even made contact when she pulled back, and I felt the cold metal barrel of her Occisor pressing against my forehead.

“Derek,” she said calmly, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. But her eyes were hard, and cold as ice. If I said the wrong thing, she would shoot me.

“Laura,” I answered with a smile. “Good, you’re ready to go.”

She lowered the gun with a glare, dried her eyes, and stood. I rose as well, and she indicated one of the survivors, a young black baseline.

“Protect him with your lives,” she ordered the others. They nodded, understanding some significance I had missed. I shrugged. It wasn’t important at the moment.

“We need to head to the Necessarian redoubt,” I pointed out. “All the singers should be dead, but keep the headphones on anyway.” I turned to Laura again. “Did you find out if we’re immune?”

She nodded, but didn’t elaborate.

Good enough for me.

We left from the ground floor; the doors I had found impassable were locked from the inside, and easy to open from this angle. By now, the back street was filled with smoke; the screamers were fanning out, seeking more victims. But this was still safer than out in the intersection, so we went around to the redoubt from the back.

As we should have expected, the Necessarians had constructed their fortress in a cul de sac of buildings, putting their back up to the wall, so to speak. Some of the skyscrapers had entrances on our side, but they were all boarded up and locked. Necessarius taught it’s soldiers well.

Cursing, I indicated for the others to set up defensive positions, with Laura and the kid in the center, while I called MC.

“I need you to call the ‘sarian in charge at the redoubt,” I said once she picked up. “We’re around the back, and we can’t get in.”

She muttered something under her breath I didn’t quite catch. “That’s gonna be tricky. The screamers are making a push, and they blocked those ways pretty well. It would take too many men to open it up again.”

I frowned. We couldn’t just bash through. Even if we physically could, it would leave a massive gap in the defenses.

“Are the inner doors unlocked?” Laura asked.

I started. I had expected her to mope for a while longer; apparently my kiss had pissed her off enough to bring her back to her usual self.

“What do you mean?” MC asked. I had her on speaker, which was how Laura had heard her in the first place.

“There are the doors leading in from the street we’re on,” she explained patiently. “And then on the other side, there are the doors leading directly into the redoubt. Are those blocked?”

“No,” MC replied quickly. “The Old Wolf thought they might need to use the ‘scrapers as a fallback, and kept them open. What’s your plan?”

“We can climb up the side of the building, go in through a window or the roof, and just come down.”

I looked up at the building in question, frowning. This was a server farm—most of the structures in the area were. That meant it was pretty much just a sheer cliff face. There weren’t even any windows.

“I don’t think we can do that,” I said slowly.

Laura shrugged. “They’ll ditch the nailguns and air compressors. It’ll be fine.”

“The hunter, sure, but no one else.” None of the others had claws; they wouldn’t be able to find any handholds.

“One second,” MC interrupted. We waited obligingly, and she came back a moment later. “The ‘scraper behind you is taller. Break in there, find rope or something, and zipline across.”

Laura was incredulous. “Zipline? Across an entire street? That’s your suggestion?”

“Better than expecting these guys to climb,” I pointed out.

“It’s also a climber’s ‘scraper,” MC added, and looking at the walls I could see she was right. It had been built with kemos in mind, with a large number of cunningly-disguised handholds worked into the architecture. “And there are some strong outcroppings on the roof you can tie the line to.”

“If nothing else, we can have the melano climb the server building and hold the other end,” I mused aloud.

“I can hear you,” the kemo in question put in, in an annoyed tone. “And I have a name. It’s Evangel. Evangel McDowell.”

“All right then Van, did you hear the plan? What do you think?”

“It’s a good one,” he admitted. “My main problem is that I’m worried not all of us will be able to use the zipline.”

“The biggest is you,” I pointed out. He was seven feet tall with a width to match; he probably weighed three hundred pounds or more. “And you’ll be climbing the other building, to catch the line.”

“Not everyone here is an athlete,” he said drily. “I mean I don’t think they’ll be able to hang onto the zipline. They’re tired, and they’re not used to so much physical labor.”

“We’ll worry about that later,” Laura declared decisively. “We can always rest on the roof. But right now we need to move.” She indicated the street around us. “The screamers are getting closer.”

Indeed, the smoke was becoming more thick, glowing like fog as the moonlight dappled through it, and I could hear—or rather sense—the zombies circling around the back of the redoubt to our location.

Van nodded. “Good luck to you then, Honored Paladins.” He flexed his paws, readying his large claws, and started scaling the side of the windowless building with surprising swiftness. I was honestly impressed; it would be a hard enough task on its own, but he hadn’t bothered to drop the massive air compressor slung across his back.

The other survivors had taken off their headphones, and had probably heard the tail end of the discussion, but I recapped it anyway. “We’re heading to the roof of that building. There shouldn’t be any screamers in there, but stay sharp.”

I took point and the rest followed, Laura and the baseline boy in the middle. I still didn’t know why he was so important, but I had faith it would become clear soon enough.

We broke into the building in seconds; the doors were wood, and while the lock held, they did not. We barricaded it behind us. The last thing we needed was zombies nipping at our heels.

As far as I could tell, this was an office building about half-way renovated as an apartment complex. Or maybe it was both; it was becoming more and more popular to allow workers to operate from home. Regardless, it was abandoned, as everyone had fled once Necessarius sounded the alarm.

There weren’t any screamers inside, so we had no trouble swiftly ascending the stairs. We could have taken the elevators, but I don’t think anyone felt comfortable with that idea. Laura and I might not be able to hear any screamers, but we knew we needed to be careful anyway.

As MC had said, the roof had a number of outcroppings we could use to tie off a line—air conditioners, pipes, and so on. We could clearly see the other rooftop, as well as Van, about halfway up the side.

“Establish a base camp,” I advised Laura. “I’m going to find something we can use to cross.” We hadn’t bothered scavenging on the way up, knowing that the roof would be far safer. A group of scared, untrained deaf civilians would be enough trouble up here; in the cramped corridors of the building, they would probably shoot each other if they so much as saw a rat.

The apartment/office building wasn’t that tall, about twenty stories, but I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to find something we could use—at least not without being forced to break into someone’s home. High-grade rope isn’t exactly something you need when your job involves sitting in front of a computer all day.

I started at the janitor closets. There were two per floor, and while I had a bit of trouble breaking into the first one, it had a spare ring of keys hanging on the wall, so the others weren’t a problem. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything I could use. Plenty of cleaning supplies that Laura would probably know how to turn into interesting weapons for our last stand, but no rope.

After the fifth closet—three floors down—I sat in one of the surprisingly comfortable chairs and sighed. One of the most advanced cities on the planet, and I couldn’t find something that had been invented thousands of years ago. Seriously, everything from human hair to bark could be woven into rope. No one got really bored one day and started braiding candy wrappers together?

That’s when I had an idea.

Not candy wrappers—I wasn’t that desperate—but something similarly basic.

I ran back to the janitor’s closets and grabbed as many extension cords as I could. I carried them up top, ignored the confused looks of my charges, and went looking for more. It took a while, but eventually I managed to gather a hundred different bundles, each about thirty feet long.

The roofs we were aiming for were only fifty or sixty feet apart. Braiding the cords together and attaching the resulting ropes resulted in a good, strong line nearly a hundred feet long. It would never do as a zipline; the plugs and knots would foul that up. But if we dropped all our equipment and hung from it by our hands, me might be able to do it.

As I was making this impromptu rope, Laura just raised an eyebrow.

“That will never work,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Even if it will hold, these people wouldn’t be able to manage it at their best. They’re tired and hungry—they won’t make it five feet.”

“Adrenaline can do a lot for the human body,” I pointed out.

She shook her head. “Not that much.” She sighed. “We should just have Van break open the barricade from the inside.”

“No,” I said firmly. “Only as a last resort. It would open up a hole in the defenses. This will work.”

She rolled her eyes. “I think you just want to have the experience.” She sighed again. “Whatever. I’ll tell him to hold off until someone dies and you learn your lesson.” She walked to the edge, behind me.

It took me a second to realize what was wrong. “Wait, MC said she had them smash their phones.”

“They did,” she admitted, and now that I was looking at her I saw that she was signing something in the direction of the server building. “But Van knows sign language and I had a spare pare of binoculars.” She stopped signing and pulled a small pair out of her pack, presumably to read his response.

I blinked. There was an easy solution here. The fact that Laura hadn’t thought of it first was probably a sign that she was still reeling from her freak out.

“We could just leave the civies here,” I pointed out. “Get some food for them and barricade the door. Then we go across, clean everything up, and come back for them.”

She bit her lip, then signed something to Van. I don’t know much sign language, but I’m pretty sure it was ‘wait.’

“That could work,” she admitted. “The main problem is that we don’t know how long it will take to clean up the screamers. They could be stuck up here for days. Exposed to the weather…”

“We’ll have them barricade two floors down, instead.” I shrugged. “There’s only two entrances on each floor, not counting the elevator. So they’ll have food stores, bathrooms, and even computers.”

“They’ll be at the top of a skyscraper and facing creatures that control fire.”

“The screamers haven’t shown interest in them yet. And we’ll leave the line up, so they can escape if they need to.” She started to protest to that, but I corrected myself. “And, of course, we can simply remove the barricades on the server ‘scraper if we have to.”

“Sounds good to me,” one of the survivors chirped. The young vampire seemed much more composed than the others; being under a cool night sky probably made him feel better.

Laura sighed. “Fine. Drake, go get Loga. He’s coming with us.” The vampire nodded an hurried off.

I raised my eyebrow. “And Loga would be…”

“The little changeling,” she replied tersely. She was signing at Van again. Then, realizing that ‘changeling’ was a completely worthless descriptor, corrected herself. “The black boy.”

I nodded. He was the youngest, he needed to be protected more than the others. It was a bit odd that Laura was going to such trouble, but I knew to trust her judgment. She was simply smarter than me, and that was all there was to it.

I tied one end of my completed rope to a nice, solid pipe and instructed the defenders to keep an eye on it and make sure nothing went wrong. I tied a hammer I found to the other end, swung it around a few times, and tossed it across the way.

I’m pretty strong—you have to be, to wrestle a territorial dumpster-dog to the ground—and I still suspected my muscles had been enhanced by the empowering. The rope made it across without difficulty. Van was wise enough to not actually try and catch it; he let it land on the roof, and just grabbed it before it could slide down to the street below. He tied it to something, though I wasn’t sure what, and gave us a thumbs up.

“All right, that’s the signal,” Laura said unnecessarily. She turned to the changeling, who seemed to be having second thoughts. “You ready to go?”

The boy stared at her, eyes wide. This was probably the craziest thing he had ever done. Changelings are completely baseline, and avoid the toy maker like the plague. They try and live nice, normal lives as far away from anything that might remind them of the fey as possible. Some of them, like Jarasax, joined up with their militias, but this kid was too young for that.

But changeling or not, the boy trusted Laura enough to nod once, ready to cross the urban canyon. I guess once you’ve seen someone intentionally and successfully bring down a roof, you gain a bit of a resistance to crazy stuff.

“Laura will go first,” I said to him. “Then you, then me. Wait until she’s all the way across before starting, okay?” As the lightest, he should probably be first, but seeing Laura cross successfully would give him a good morale boost. And if anyone was going to break the line, it would be me, so I obviously had to go last.

Laura let herself down slowly, sliding off the edge of the building while gripping the line with white knuckles. She was trying hard to appear calm, and she was doing an admirable job of it. The fact that she couldn’t really see the street through the smoke and darkness below probably helped quell her fears.

She headed forward on the cord, hand over hand, slowly and surely. It took her about ten minutes, but she made it across with no problems. The line didn’t show any signs of breaking, and Van pulled her up when she reached the other side.

I clapped Loga on the back lightly. “Okay, its your turn now. Go slowly. Take your time. You’ll be fine.”

He nodded and took a deep breath…then another. And another.

I grimaced. “You’re going to hyperventilate if you keep that up. Slow breaths. Slow and steady, just like everything else.”

He nodded again and took hold of the line with shaking hands. He let out the breath he had been holding and jumped down in a rush.

It was a good idea, like how you should just jump into a swimming pool and get it over with. But in this case, the extension cords jumped wildly, and I was afraid they might actually snap or unravel. Loga seemed frozen in fright.

But the bouncing quickly stopped, and I called down to him. “You’re doing fine, Loga. Now just start forward.” I almost said ‘don’t look down,’ but I’m not that stupid.

He made his stuttering way across, stopping when the line swayed too much, but everyone made sure to give him lots of verbal encouragement, and although it took almost half an hour, he made it to the other side without major incident.

Before heading over myself, I turned to the vampire. He was definitely the one nominally in charge, if only because he was the only one who was actively doing anything. They were all kids, a bit younger than me; apparently Van was the only adult who had survived the initial attack.

“Be careful, but don’t just shoot anything you see,” I advised. “Remember your ammo is limited.”

He nodded. “Good luck, Honored Paladin.”

I was still getting used to being called that. But, I guess it was about time us baselines got a title of our own. Sparing it no more thought, I slowly lowered myself down until I was hanging from the line by my hands. Despite my own fears, I sped forward much faster than Loga or Laura. I had a bit more confidence in my rope-braiding abilities than those two. You’d be surprised how often you need to make one rope out of two when you’re out hunting.

All in all, it only took me five minutes to cross, albeit going faster than was probably safe. The line creaked dangerously a few times, but I didn’t worry about it too much, and it held. I had used ziplines before, so I knew better than to look down or do anything else stupid.

When I took Van’s paw and climbed onto the server building’s roof, I found Laura standing there, arms crossed and eyebrow raised.

“Something wrong?” I asked. I didn’t really know what I had done wrong. We had wasted enough time as it was; wasn’t it better to get across faster?

She just rolled her eyes. “Show off.”

We found the stairs down easily enough, and Van broke the metal door off its hinges with a few good rams from his shoulder. We made sure to wedge it back into place as much as possible. It was unlikely, but the screamers could get up here, and all the ridiculousness with the power cords would be moot.

The next level down, we barricaded the door with a free desk. There weren’t a lot; this was a server farm, which meant rows and rows of blinking machines, with enough air conditioning to make our breath visible. The desk seemed to belong to the maintenance man. Well, we had carefully stacked his pictures on the chair before putting the desk on its side against the doorway, so he couldn’t complain too much.

We made sure to barricade the next few floors as well. The zombies probably wouldn’t get up here in the first place—they’d shown no predilection towards climbing—but better safe than sorry.

When we got down to the first floor, we immediately found two vampires waiting for us, rifles ready.

“Honored Paladins Darin and Laurel?” the one on the left demanded.

“Derek and Laura, actually,” I corrected him tiredly, recognizing it as a test. “And this is Honored Hunter Van McDowell, and…uh…”

Laura stepped in quickly. “Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords,” she provided. “Take us to wherever you’re keeping the captured screamers. Immediately.”

“You can explain to me later,” I said as the vamps started leading us away. “I’ll start briefing the commander.” I turned to our escort. “Who’s in charge here?”

“First Lieutenant Nathaniel Vovk,” he replied as we exited the server building. A few other ‘sarians locked and barred the door behind us, and the other vampire split off with Laura and Loga. “He’s a lupe anthro, so don’t freak out…” he glanced at Van. “Nevermind.”

I frowned. “People are discriminating against anthros now?”

He snorted. “Of course they are. People discriminate against everything. And with Necessarius spread thin with the screamers, we’re having trouble containing the riots. The packs do there best, of course, but they’re just militia, and a lot of them are just bullies anyway.” He shrugged. “But Big Boss will deal with it, sooner or later. Here’s the Old Wolf. I have to get back to the front.” He trotted off.

The lieutenant’s title was a pretty apt descriptor. He was old, covered in silver fur, with sharp wolf ears, wide wolf fangs, and long claws.

It took me a second to note that despite the vampire’s assumption, he wasn’t actually an anthro. The ‘fur’ was actually hair, and his fangs were contained within a human mouth rather than an animal snout. His claws were steel, not keratin.

He was talking to someone it took me a moment to recognize as Kelly, her crimson hair gray with ash. She had a few good burns, but otherwise looked none the worse for wear. Of the rest of the retinue, I saw no sign.

“Sir,” she said to the lupe, while indicating me. He turned.

“You’re the paladin the Big Boss sent for, then? Derek Hunter, was it?”

“Derek Huntsman, actually. What’s the status of our defense?”

“We’re holding pretty well,” Kelly reported. The lupe didn’t seem perturbed by her cutting in. ‘Lead by following the right grunt’ is a time-honored officer trick. “We haven’t seen any more singers since Miss Medina gave the kill order, so we’re having an easier time than before.” She glanced around. “Where is she, anyway?”

I waved my hand. “Inspecting the captured screamers. I’m not sure why, she’ll fill us in later.”

“Or I could fill you in now.”

I turned to see Laura walking up to us, her mouth set in a grim line. Loga was nowhere to be found.

“How did the boy take it?” Van rumbled.

She sighed. “Better than expected. He’s restrained and sedated now. Once we clear out this mess, we can do some non-invasive tests.”

“Wait one second,” I said, holding up my hand. “What exactly is going on with the changeling?”

She smiled sadly. “He got infected by a singer. When I killed her, he went back to normal.”

I nearly staggered, but kept my composure with an effort. That meant there was a cure. Perhaps not an easy one, but if we killed the singers…

“…but we already killed the other singers,” I said slowly. “And no one else was cured.”

She nodded, the same sad smile still on her face. “I know. I had…issues with that.” She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. “But Loga might be the key. He’s a changeling, so who knows what’s unique about him. He might be the source of a cure.”

“But he’s baseline,” Van put in. “I mean, he wasn’t always, obviously, but he got all his toys removed when he escaped. You’re not going to find your magic bullet there.”

Something was different about him,” she insisted. “Maybe it was his physiology, maybe it was his psychology, or maybe it was something about his circumstances.” She waved her hand, forestalling her own explanation. “But he was a screamer, and now he’s not.”

Vovk growled. “I do hope you explained the situation to his keepers. If he reverts, we’ll have a screamer in our camp.”

“Of course. As I said earlier, he’s heavily sedated and strapped down. But I told him everything as well, so he shouldn’t have any problems.”

“Good,” Van said decisively. “Then let’s get back to the matter at hand, shall we? We can’t perform experiments in a warzone.” He turned to me. “This isn’t really the place for me, Honored Paladin. Send me to where I’ll be most useful.”

I turned to Laura. “I haven’t seen him fight. What’s your take?”

She scratched her chin. “Send him to George. He probably has a spare minigun, and even if not, Van’s nailgun will still be useful. Unless…” she glanced at Kelly. “Everyone else is still okay, right?”

The vampire nodded. “Everyone accounted for. Minor burns, none worse than what I’ve got. Although Ling got scorched pretty bad on one leg. Medics are looking at her now.”

“Good,” I put in. “Specialist, take the Honored Hunter to George, if you would.”

She obeyed quickly, heading off to a distant corner of the front lines. The melano saluted crisply before he left, and I returned the gesture.

“What now?” the old lupe asked, once the other two were out of earshot.

I frowned. “We’re down one paladin, but that shouldn’t be too much trouble. We just need to make sure we get them all.” I listened to my sixth sense, the zombies screaming in my brain. “They’re pretty much all in front of us, as far as I can tell. You have some big guns?”

“A couple gatling guns. Though I’m not sure how long the ammo will last.”

Laura frowned as well. “The real problem is that we couldn’t hear the singers. We have no way of being sure they’re all gone.” She grimaced. “And there’s still the possibility they got to the Princess.”

“Unlikely,” I assured her. “The fey are crazy, not stupid. And she clearly knew what the singers could do.” I looked towards the front lines. There wasn’t much to see; smoke covered everything in an impenetrable cloud. But the Necessarians held the line anyway, shooting wherever the flames originated.

“Okay,” the lupe said with a nod. “Time to get to work.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 18)

The malays are sun bears (Ursus malayanus), while the thibs are asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus). Noticing a pattern? Of course, none of the ursa clans have a single actual bear cell in their bodies; they just look like they do. So in the end, it’s just what they call themselves.

Oh, and you may have noticed Laura refer to the vampire boy as “Drake.” This is the dimunitive of Dracula, which is (as you might expect) the most common male vampire name. Calling a vampire Drake is about the same as calling a random stranger “Jack;” it’s not exactly polite, but its a few steps up from “Hey you.”

Scene 17 – Cantor

CANTOR

LAURA

The Princess’s monsters never reached horde size, and they never swarmed. After ten minutes or so, they stopped showing up, and we killed the rest without difficulty. I guess she got bored.

Goddamned fey.

I made a mental note to explain everything about them to Adam later. At least he had stopped asking questions, and focused on the screamers. Akane and Ling would of course know everything already, and the retinue likely knew more than I did, with a changeling among their number.

Derek gave the order to move out, and we traveled the last couple blocks in the same formation as before. It quickly became apparent that the screamers were migrating away from us slowly, and they had already been through this away. Most of the cars were on fire, and all the lower-level stores had their windows shattered. There were surprisingly few bodies, which made sense; if the disease could really spread through a song, there would be a lot more zombies than before.

What really worried me, more than an infection we couldn’t protect against, was that the screamers seemed to have a purpose this time. Did that mean that whoever was behind this could actually control them directly?

I shied away from that thought. Something to worry about later.

For the time being, the song was the problem. I didn’t know anything concrete, obviously, but we might be able to rig up some sort of headphones to filter it out with MC’s help. But we definitely didn’t have anything like that on hand. Hopefully, those of us with powers would still be immune to infection, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Eventually we caught up with the horde, staying about a hundred yards behind them—close enough to observe, but hopefully far enough so they didn’t detect our presence.

“They’re chasing a crowd,” Derek cursed quietly. Don’t ask me how I could hear him over the sound of the screaming still echoing in my brain. It was like it was a sixth sense, separate from hearing. It didn’t interfere with my hearing any more than my sight did.

“We need more information before we do anything,” I advised. I turned to the fel, Katherine. “Can you scout ahead?” I didn’t mean it as an order, I honestly wasn’t sure if she had the ability. But she just nodded, slung her rifle over one shoulder, and started climbing up the side of the closest building.

A few minutes after she disappeared from view, Kelly got a text.

“Most of the crowd is safe with some Necessarians,” she reported. “They’ve set up a barricade, but it won’t last. There are other nests of survivors, but they’re getting picked off quickly.”

“Powers?” Derek asked with a grunt.

Kelly didn’t text anything; I assume she had it on speaker. After a moment, her cell vibrated again, and she frowned.

“Fire,” she said. She flipped the phone shut. “Don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

“Range,” Akane whispered, before falling silent again. She was getting better, but this was obviously still far too many new people for her to feel comfortable with.

Ling nodded in assent. “They probably have longer range than the biters. Which means…” she paused. “…ah. I’m not sure.”

“It means this won’t be the turkey shoot it was last time,” I finished for her. “Depending on how smart they are, this may be more than we can handle. But the real problem is those singers the Princess mentioned. Do you see any?”

It took almost a minute for Kelly’s phone to vibrate again. “’I see some that could be singing,’” she recited. “’But I can’t tell for sure. They’re just standing around, and the screamers are ignoring them. Should I advance?’”

“No,” I said quickly. Maybe too quickly. “We don’t know enough. Hold position, but be prepared to take them out on my order.”

Derek frowned at me. “You’re worried about the singers.”

I nodded, not afraid to admit it. “We don’t have enough information. For all we know, the Princess was just babbling nonsense.”

“That’s unlikely,” Jarasax put in. “The fey are crazy, sure, but they’re not actively delusional.” He shrugged. “It’s probably some metaphor we don’t understand.”

Well, he’d know. The Blood-Doused Hunters were changelings, escaped fey-slaves experimented on by their deranged captors. They knew more about the fey than anyone else alive.

“We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” Derek decided quickly. “Kelly, take the retinue—and Adam—to another ‘scraper. Somewhere you have a good vantage point, but can’t hear the singers. Set your cells to record, too, just in case.” He flipped out his phone, doing as he suggested. The rest of us followed suit. “I’m guessing the rest of us are immune, but we’ll go in one by one, just in case. I’m on point. Everyone else, pattern Red.”

He headed off, and Akane waited a minute before following, ten yards behind. Ling shrugged and followed her.

I considered disobeying his implied order; I didn’t owe him anything, and I might be more useful with the retinue. But they were experienced soldiers who could take care of themselves. I had a feeling that these singers were going to be confusing enough if I saw them with my own eyes. If I tried to get a second-hand description, I’d never learn anything.

So I followed Ling, and heard the retinue splitting off to the right—away from the skyscraper Katherine had chosen. I resolutely focused on what was in front of me.

We dodged around more burning cars and eventually reached an impromptu road block made from a bunch of large trucks parked as close as possible. These were also abandoned, and also on fire. Clambering over the parts that weren’t burning, we finally came face to face with the horde.

A hundred yards away, barely able to see them, that was one thing. Actually being in the thick of them…that was another entirely.

Their screams were deafening at this range; I clapped my hands over my ears, and even Derek had to resort to hand signals, though they didn’t react as violently as me. After a moment, I began to get used to the massive background noise, and lowered my hands.

There were more than last time; maybe a thousand, crowding around the intersection and crawling over wrecked cars like so many ants. They didn’t pay any mind to the flames, making it obvious they had some form of heat resistance in addition to everything else, and threw themselves at the few redoubts of humanity left.

Best as I could tell, there were four, besides the main ‘sarian bulwark directly in front of us and across the street. Some of the larger shops, mostly the ones without large windows to break through, periodically spat hails of gunfire at the approaching zombies. They responded with actual fire, grabbing it up from nearby cars and tossed it like snowballs.

“We’ll have to split up,” Derek admitted resolutely. Saw that coming. “I’ll take far left. Akane, you take far right. Ling, other left. Laura, other right.” He gave me a level stare. “Don’t be afraid to fall back to the Necessarians.” He paused. “In fact, you should just do that. We’ll take point C after the others.”

I want to make this clear: I am an intelligent woman. I knew he had the right idea. Splitting up our forces in the first place was a bad idea, but a necessary one. Sending me off to fight was virtually a death sentence, however. My combat skills were sharply limited. Even with the new athletic enhancements my powers gave me, I wasn’t much, and I was pretty sure the screamers had that as part of their power sets as well, so that was hardly an advantage.

But I don’t like being doubted, especially not by Derek Huntsman.

I didn’t even bother saying anything, I just ran off, weaving through the horde and ignoring the cries of my companions.

Apparently the screamers were more surprised than my comrades; it took them a moment to react. But I noticed instantly when they did: Flame swept towards me from all directions, most in the form of those fireballs I had seen earlier, but some came at me in great sheets, as if it was a living thing. I could taste the acrid smell of smoke, but I didn’t choke or cough. I’m not sure if that was because I was running so fast, or if it was another aspect of the package we hadn’t noticed. Either way, I made a mental note for later.

I just ran blindly ahead, dodging around the worst of it, heading for the old hardware store Derek had designated point C. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get around the barricade, at least not with a few hundred screamers trying to roast me, but a refrigerator that was blocking the way suddenly moved aside, revealing an entrance. I dove inside, and heard the fridge shoved back into place. I leaned against it and slid to the floor, breathing heavily. The smoke smell wasn’t as strong here, but it still leaked in.

“Honored Paladin, are you all right?”

I opened my eyes slowly to survey the survivors, about twenty in all, all armed. Most had pistols and other small arms, but a few of the bigger guys were lugging around nailguns, and the air compressors required to make them work. Probably weighed a hundred pounds each.

Most of them were baselines, but there were a few vampires, a demon or two, and a single ursa—the one who was talking to me.

He was a big melano, a panda kemo, and one of the first full anthros I’d seen up close, other than Katherine. They had only become feasible in the last few months or so, but this guy moved in his giant body with the grace of long practice. He was one of the ones with the nailguns, the compressor slung across his shirtless (but very furry) back. He was holding out his paw to me, and I took it, careful to avoid the claws, and pulled myself to my feet.

“Thank you, Honored Hunter,” I said carefully, returning his politeness. Melanos had a reputation as diplomats, and I didn’t want to offend him. I glanced around, frowning. “I thought this was ursa territory. Where are your packmates?”

He grunted. “Gone,” he said bluntly in a voice like crushed gravel. “Dead or screaming, I’m sure.” He gestured to the barricade. “They ran outside to fight the horde, claiming they wouldn’t let zombies stomp over their neighborhood. Most of them were melee fighters though, and if what the news said is true, that means they’ll just end up infecting themselves.”

“More than likely,” I agreed sadly. The ursas weren’t a true gang, of course; Butler made sure those were all dead and buried, although the Rahabs were putting up a fight. But subcultures often formed…militias, for lack of a better word, and as long as they didn’t break Necessarian law, they were allowed to do as they pleased.

“Have you seen—ah…” I paused. How do describe them? Something was tickling the back of my mind, distracting me from finding the words. That was it; the smell of smoke was getting stronger. I pushed it aside. “I haven’t seen them myself, so I’m not sure how to ask.”

The melano raised an eyebrow. “The singers, you mean?”

I blinked, surprised, and nodded.

“Yes, we’ve seen them. And to answer your next question, yes, their song makes screamers.” He patted his belt, and for the first time I noticed a bulky pair of headphones—identical to the pairs every other survivor had. “It’s hardly ideal, of course, but not being able to hear anything is better than turning into a zombie.”

“I agree completely,” I said with relish. “I was trying to think of a way to get around that problem, but I didn’t have time. Ah,” I paused as a thought occurred to me. “You did test it, right?”

He nodded. “Only way we could; singer came in, and we survived.” He turned to one of the vampires. “Drake, go fetch another pair for the paladin. They should be in the storeroom.” The man in question sped off.

That’s about when the barricade exploded.

It wasn’t the refrigerator, thankfully, but the stack of pipes to my left, thrown aside by a gout of roaring flame. I rolled to my right, but I couldn’t see anything through the smoke and flame. I heard the melano cursing, and I heard gunfire and a curious ‘thwip’ sound which I assumed was the nailguns.

I got a good look as the smoke blew aside for a moment; the survivors were hunkered down behind a secondary barricade, headphones on. They popped up every couple seconds to fire a few shots, then dropped down before a fireball flew towards their heads.

The area they were shooting at was so choked with smoke and blowing ash I had no idea what was going on. But every once in a while flame would rip out of the concealment, either in wild sheets or controlled bolts. And of course there was still the screaming, but it was so loud it didn’t help pin down the zombies’ location in the slightest.

I was off the the side, out of the line of fire (no pun intended), but the screamers would notice me sooner or later. I needed a place to hide.

But there was an entire horde outside, pouring in through the breach. There was no way they would stop as long as the hole in our defenses was open.

There was nothing I could do. There wasn’t anything I could use to plug the gap other than the fridge—which, even if I could move (doubtful), was already sealing one hole. The only thing that might work was bringing the ceiling down, but I didn’t have anything powerful enough to have a hope in that direction.

Unless…

It all depended on whether this building had a wood frame or not. Most structures in Domina didn’t, for about a thousand reasons, but some of the older ones did. The only question was whether this place just looked old or if it actually was.

I started kicking at one of the walls with the heel of my foot, trying to break through. After a moment, my suspicious were confirmed: My foot broke through the sheetrock, and rooting around inside I saw the wooden frame the store was built from.

Perfect.

Technically, at this point I just needed to wait for the screamers to finish the job for me. But every second I wasted increased the chances of more survivors dying, both here and at the other redoubts. So I dodged past the second barricade, diving deeper into the store.

I almost barreled into the young vampire the melano had sent for my headphones.

“Honored Paladin!” he exclaimed, clearly surprised. He fumbled for the headphones. “I’m sorry I took so long—”

“No time for that! We’re under attack!”

His jaw dropped, but he recovered quickly, moving to put his headphones on at the same time he reached for his pistol. Good lad, but I stopped him.

“I have a plan,” I explained to his questioning look. “How well do you know the store?”

“Pretty good,” he said slowly. “I started working here about a month ago.”

I nodded. “Good. Where are the hoses? If you sell squirt guns, that would be better.”

“Garden supplies, aisle—”

“Show me.”

He ran off, farther from the front, and I followed closely behind. When it came right down to it, this was a stupid plan, but weren’t they all?

Luck was with us; the store sold squirt guns after all. There weren’t many left—we were heading into winter—but I grabbed a couple of the bigger ones, and Drake did the same.

“Now, where’s your gasoline?”

He blinked. “What?”

“Gasoline! Lighter fluid! Something liquid and flammable!”

He sped off towards the camping department, and we grabbed a couple cans of lighter fluid. We busted them open—they had locks to keep people from siphoning them in the store, and we didn’t have time to find any keys—and filled the squirt guns.

“Okay, back to the front.” I ran off, lugging the suddenly much heavier guns, and he followed half a pace behind. He stopped for a moment, but I didn’t have time to turn, and he caught up anyway.

As expected, the fight was still raging, although now the acrid tinge of burned flesh was in the air. The defenders looked relatively unharmed, so the only other explanation was that the screamers lost their fireproofing upon death. Interesting.

But I didn’t have time to ponder; the smoke cloud was bigger than before, and the fire was coming more and more often. I took aim above the opening and unleashed a stream of lighter fluid at it.

As expected, the bigger guns did have more pressure; it reached its target easily, and quickly caught on fire. It petered out at the end, but I just tossed that near-empty gun into the knot of screamers (which I still couldn’t actually see) and used up my second gun.

I tossed that one away when it was empty as well, and turned to grab another gun from Drake. He had put on his headphones (smart lad) and he handed me the gun without question. I nodded, and we both fired against the same spot.

The roof—at least the part above the entrance the screamers had created—was unquestionably on fire now, and I waved for the vampire to fall back to the barricade. I searched around for a fire extinguisher and found it by the cash register before retreating back to the other defenders. It wouldn’t do to survive a zombie horde and then die because I lit the roof on fire.

It took about ten minutes, during which the fire on both sides of the bulwark never ceased, but I eventually began to hear the tortured groaning of weakening wood coming from the doorframe.

Another five minutes and the groans became more pained and more obvious. There was no mistaking it now; the roof was coming down.

I moved to where the defenders could see me (they were all still wearing their headphones) and indicated a retreat. I headed into the back first, to make sure it stayed a retreat rather than a panicked rout, and they followed close behind. After we had reached sufficiently deep in the store, and I had found a good chokepoint, I indicated they stop and set up, which they did without hesitation.

I heard the roof come down clearly, even at this distance. It sounded like the entire building was collapsing, and our little hallway shook noticeably. Dust—not ash, dust—billowed in from the corridor leading to the front, and the defenders paused in their preparations, concerned. The melano walked up to me, taking off his headphones, but I shook my head and indicated they stay put.

I advanced back to the front of the store slowly, my pistol out. I couldn’t hear any screamers nearby, but I had learned during the mission with the biters that our sixth sense wasn’t very reliable on pinpointing them with that degree of accuracy. Admittedly, I couldn’t hear any with my good old fashioned ears, either, which was a good sign, but it didn’t necessarily mean the way was clear.

As I crept closer, I began to hear something. It took me a few minutes to figure it out, as it became more clear with each passing moment. Eventually, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know what it was anymore. The words were meaningless, but it was still obvious.

There was a singer in the store.

I considered falling back, if only to grab those headphones, but decided against it. Someone had to figure out if we were immune, and if I didn’t risk it, Derek would. When it came right down to it, I was the least useful member of the team. Strategists were cheap; we still had no idea how to empower people.

But still, some precautions were needed. I spoke into my still-on cell phone, which I had left as a recording device. It would dump all its sensor data (mostly just sound) to one of MC’s caches.

“MC, I’m confronting a singer. If I turned into a screamer, stop the recording now.”

Properly prepared, I turned the corner into the entryway and found…

Well, first off, the room was half the size it had been just minutes before. Half the roof had come down, centered on where the doorframe had been, with likely more falling on the horde outside. A sloped pile of shifting rubble took up most of the space, with the rest filled with dust, spinning in the air.

And there, standing ankle-deep in broken chunks of sheetrock and not two feet from a piece of a wooden beam bigger than she was, was the singer.

She was beautiful, I’ll admit. She had that quiet, natural beauty so many people lack, to the point that even covered in a fine layer of dust and ash, rendering her skin and hair colors impossible to discern, she was still gorgeous.

She barely seemed to take note of my presence, preferring instead to sing. I’m not all that musical, but even I could tell it was a difficult song, straining her vocal range to the fullest. She chose mostly higher notes, but dipper deeper as well. There were lyrics too, but it wasn’t any language I recognized. I only spoke three languages, but I have familiarity with a dozen more. Her words didn’t ring any bells.

I was just wondering what to do when I heard a voice behind me. “How are you still sane?”

I turned to see the big melano and the other defenders, still wearing their headphones, staring at me. That was when I realized that he was right; assuming the song worked anywhere near as fast as touching blood or saliva, I should definitely have turned by now.

I just shrugged. I didn’t know what to say, and they wouldn’t have been able to hear me anyway.

“Oh, so it doesn’t make you crazy anymore?” a little black boy, no more than fifteen, said a little too loudly. He was in the middle of the crowd. “That’s good.” He took off his headphones.

“No!” I cried, diving forward. The survivors reacted similarly, crying out in alarm and training their weapons on him. The second he got his ear protection all the way off, a huge smile plastered itself on his face.

“It’s so…beautiful…” he whispered.

Huh. That was odd. I mean, the singer’s song was pretty, in a weird sort of way, but not the mind-numbingly beautiful he seemed to be experiencing.

Interesting.

Any scientific curiosity quickly was quickly drowned out when the boy started screaming, the same wordless, emotionless sound the other zombies made. The melano immediately tackled him to the ground, before anyone could shoot him, protecting him with his own body whether intentionally or not.

We had to get him off first. And we had to do it quickly. The burners didn’t bite very often, but he would eventually, and then we’d have two screamers in our midst. And if someone just shot the boy, his blood would still infect the melano.

The singer was still singing, completely oblivious. I swore loudly and shot her in the head.

I should be more specific: I raised my gun with one hand and tried to shoot her in the head. Even if she hadn’t dodged, I don’t think I would have hit her. Using a gun one-handed is hard enough for people who actually have training and experience.

But regardless, she did dodge, some self-preservation mechanism finally kicking in. She swept her hands forward, still singing, and some embers in the bits of wood in the pile of rubble glowed brighter. With a start, I realized she was trying to use the same powers as the current batch of screamers.

Interesting.

But I had the advantage: I had an 8-shot clip only missing one round. So I just gripped the gun with both hands, squared my shoulders, and emptied the magazine at her center of mass.

She dodged the first, but then one clipped her in the leg, and the next five got her good. She collapsed in a heap like a rag doll, the dust still spinning in the air from our brief fight. Finally, the singing stopped, and it was quiet, except for the screamers outside. I fell to my knees, breathing heavily.

Looking down, I watched a drop of sweat roll off my nose and hit the ground. It made a small explosion in the dust.

I breathed deeply, but my heart refused to slow down.

Something…

It was quiet.

Except for the screamers.

Outside.

I jumped up instantly and ran back to the survivors. They were staring down at the boy with utter astonishment.

He was alive, that much was clear. He was looking around, bewildered, and he wasn’t screaming.

“What happened?” I asked quickly, as I peeled the boy’s eyelid back. I didn’t have a light to do a full test, but his pupils seemed normal.

The melano answered. “It was when you killed the singer. He just…stopped screaming.”

The boy was still looking around; I grabbed his head and made him face me. “What’s your name? Do you know where you are?”

He swallowed. “I’m…Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords,” he said slowly. “And this is the hardware store I came to, looking for a power screwdriver.”

Wonderful, another changeling. The Princess had clearly been active in this area. “Alright Loga, that’s good. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I saw you facing the singer without headphones, Honored Paladin, so I took mine off. Then…” he frowned. “I…can’t remember what happened next.”

I nodded. “That’s fine. That’s very good.” I let him go and stood up, turning to the melano. “Take care of him, I need to make a call.”

I could barely keep it together, I was shaking so badly. A cure! Not for everyone, certainly, the singers would have to die, but that was far better than just killing everything. I pulled out my phone, turned off the recording function, and called MC.

“Priority one message for the real MC,” I said before the program had a chance to speak. “From Laura Medina, regarding the screamers.”

“Laura,” MC said within seconds, her voice as smooth as milk chocolate. “What’s going on?”

“I’ll explain later. I don’t have the retinue’s phone numbers. I need you to send them all a message: Kill the singers, all at once if possible, as soon as possible.”

There was a brief pause. “Done. I also put their numbers in your cell. Er…that okay?”

I chuckled briefly. “Yeah. Thanks.” I hung up, tired beyond belief.

That might be it. That might be the end. Oh, not quite, of course. We’d still need to hunt down the other singers whenever they reappeared, but we had a cure for the screamers. A better one than a bullet to the head. And it was possible…

My phone rang again. I picked it up; it was MC.

“They did it,” she reported. She didn’t say anything else.

“…and?” I asked slowly.

“And nothing. The singers are all dead, but the screamers didn’t go crazy or lose their specs. Was that your aim?”

I broke down crying.

Behind the Scenes (scene 17)

Note that the screamers here are not the same strain as the one the group first encountered. She was a pyrogenesist; she had the power to create fire, and a secondary power to give her a general idea of how it would act. The ones here are pyrokineticists, who can control fire. If they were powerful enough, they could rip heat out of thin air, but they’re not, so they’re limited to controlling open flames. The Composer was happy to provide.