Tag Archives: Fey

Scene 313 – Aestas Domus

AESTAS DOMUS

JEFFERIES

Baile Samhraidh was like something out of a fairy tale.

When I realized we were being led into the sewers, I had expected… well, a sewer. The kind of thing you see in games. Dripping water, green slime, gelatinous monsters. And Domina’s sewers didn’t disappoint there. But just because Baile Samhraidh was in the sewers didn’t mean that it was a sewer.

We had been here for two days, and I still hadn’t gotten over the majesty of it all. The fey had dug down deep, creating a single room thirty feet tall, a hundred feet long, and about forty wide. Massive concrete pillars, crafted to look like stone, held up the ceiling. There were smaller side rooms and hallways, but there was no question that this one area—called the Park—was the center of it all. The walls were steps, like a Mesopotamian pyramid, and filled with beautiful plants and flowers.

In fact, the entire room was filled with plants, anywhere they could fit. Flowers around the edges. Bushes and herbs in plants along the walkways. There were thick trees wrapped around the stone pillars like vines, their leaves covering the ceiling above. Even with the canopy, the bulbs set in the ceiling created perfect artificial sunlight, providing light and nourishment to the plants below while making the entire place feel like a natural forest.

Despite it still being winter outside, the entire demesne was a balmy eighty degrees. It was comfortable enough that most of the feyborn walked around in short sleeves and shorts. The whole place smelled of life and nature, and I could even hear birds somewhere. It was easy to forget that you were under a city when you were here.

I was sitting on one of the steps, looking at a butterfly that had alighted on a nearby flower. Seriously, a butterfly. I couldn’t believe that they could even survive down here, so far from the sun. I was so distracted I almost didn’t notice when someone sat down next to me.

I turned to see Maiden Aurora, the Princess of Soil and Flame, smiling at me. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, and she wasn’t the one in charge of this entire demesne.

“Enjoying yourself?” she asked.

“This is a very beautiful place you have,” I said, keeping my voice carefully polite.

Her smile turned sad. “That’s not what I asked.”

I looked away.

She put her hand on my shoulder. “I know that the treatments are painful.” She chuckled. “And Titania’s bedside manner leaves much to be desired. But we’re almost done fixing your flawed body. By the end of the week, there will be no difference between you and a natural-born human.”

“That’s just the problem,” I said. “What do I do once I’m not dying?”

“…I assumed you’d contribute to the betterment of the city. Get a job. Slay monsters, fight Nessians. Something like that.”

I gave her a look, and lowered my voice. “Most changelings… they’re made from scratch, right?”

She nodded. “Mostly. We throw in a bit of DNA from random human samples and let it cook in an artificial womb. We let it grow to a random age, give it an imprint from the game maker, and then wait for them to escape.”

I frowned. “Game maker?”

“It’s a memory modification device,” she said. “Like the toy maker, but for minds.” She chuckled. “Hilariously impractical, though. It has absolutely no effect on normal brains. It only works on newborn changelings because they’re blank slates. It wouldn’t work on anyone else, even a newborn baby. Even then, we can’t do much more than give them basic instincts. Give them a starting point to learn language, motor skills, and so on more easily early on. If we didn’t use it, every changeling would take about eighteen years to grow to adulthood.”

I stared. “Is… is that something you should be just telling me?”

“People already know about the game maker,” she said, unconcerned. “It’s been on the open market for almost fifteen years—it’s just completely useless to everyone but us. And you already know where changelings come from.” She leaned back on her hands. “Though I am curious how you got your mind.”

I shook my head. “We’re getting off track. My mind is what I wanted to talk about. I’m not just a vatborn human. I’m a clone, body and mind, of a specific man. One of the President’s bodyguards.”

“That seems odd. Why was he chosen?”

“I was told it would be harmless,” I said. “And it was, I think. They needed someone loyal and self-sacrificing, someone who was in peak physical condition. That was me.” I paused. “Him. It was him.”

She frowned, but nodded. “Okay, let’s put aside the question of how the memories got copied so perfectly. What’s the problem?”

I sighed. “The problem is that there’s already someone out there living the life I want. My dream job, my dream family… I can’t even use my old name.” I put my head in my hands. “This was all so much easier when I only had weeks to live. I figured I’d either go to the afterlife and deal with this then, or not, and never have to worry about it.”

Aurora snorted, a surprising sound from her. “I don’t trust the afterlife. I much prefer to obtain real, tangible immortality, rather than just hoping in something beyond death. Every religion feels like a scam to me.”

“Uh…”

She forced a smile on her face. “But this isn’t the time to discuss my views on religion. The point is that you were procrastinating. Trying to put off the decision to later, when hopefully it wouldn’t matter. Now it is later, and it does matter. You have to decide who you want to be.”

I remained silent.

“Thankfully, you’re not alone.” She stood, and I followed her gaze to see Lieutenant Backstrom and Hall walking towards us. “I’m sure that your friends have opinions that could be helpful. One way or the other.”

“Private,” Backstrom said by way of greeting. She nodded at Aurora. “Honored Princess.”

“So polite,” Aurora said. “I’d love to speak with you more. But I’m sure you three have much to discuss, so that will have to wait for another time.” She patted me on the hand as she left. “Good luck, Mister Jefferies.”

Backstrom watched her go with a critical eye. “I’m still not sure I trust that woman.”

I shrugged. “If she wanted to kill us, why bring us here? Why feed us, shelter us, and heal me?”

“Because the fey are crazy,” Hall said. “Even the feyborn say that.”

“Regardless,” Backstrom said. “Even if she isn’t planning on killing us, she clearly wants something. She wouldn’t be investing so much unless she expected to reap some reward in the end.”

“Maybe.” I stood up, stretching. “I’m not going to worry about it, though.”

Backstrom raised an eyebrow. “You’re not?”

I shrugged. “What would it get me? Some ulcers? No choice but to deal with it when the time comes.” I winced and poked at my side. “I was going to take a walk. Either of you want to tag along?”

“You shouldn’t,” Hall said. “You don’t want to strain yourself.”

“I won’t go far,” I said. “I was just going to walk down Primrose Path.”

“I’ll come with you,” Lieutenant Backstrom said. “The last thing we need is for you to have an accident or something.” She shook her head. “I’m guessing that without you, our contract with the fey would be voided.”

Hall frowned. “What makes you say that? The fey didn’t mention it.”

“I just went for the most inconvenient thing I could think of. It seems like what they would do. Anyway, Hall, you go back to our quarters, make sure the others haven’t set anything on fire or gotten themselves killed or something.”

Hall looked like she wanted to argue, but just shrugged and saluted, then ran off.

I started walking towards the exit—the Primrose Path was in that direction—and Backstrom gave me a look. “You are going to be all right, aren’t you?”

I gave her a weak smile. “For this walk? Yes. For good? I have no idea. This body wasn’t designed to last more than a couple weeks at most. The fact that the fey have kept me going for as long as they have is a miracle.”

Backstrom fell into step beside me. “You never told me why you agreed to get cloned in the first place.”

“I thought—” I sighed. “Sorry, Bryan Jefferies thought that he was serving his country.” I chuckled. “The doctors say it’s important that I distinguish myself from him. We have all the same memories up until my creation, but we are not the same person.”

“So he’s still alive?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Secret Service, personally protecting the President.”

Really.” Backstrom shook her head. “That just raises more questions. Why would you—I mean, he—agree to this, or even be selected in the first place? And then they sent you off as a random grunt in a war. I’m not sure what the point was.”

“Proof of concept, mostly,” I said. “For both the clone bodies and the memories. As for why Bryan was selected, part of it was his peak physical fitness. The much bigger part, though, was his self-sacrificing nature. They wanted clones who wouldn’t mind that they were going to die after just a few weeks.”

Backstrom stared. “That might be the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard.”

I shrugged. “What would you prefer? Pick people who aren’t willing to die? Or just choose people at random, without giving them any say in the matter at all? I’m sure they learned a lot from me and my…” I waved my hands. “Whatever you’d call the others. My brothers, maybe? I dunno. I’ve never had brothers.”

Backstrom sighed, then gently took my arm and led me down a side passage. It wasn’t the Primrose Path yet, but I could smell it. “I suppose of all the terrible ways this could have gone, this was the best solution. Though I still don’t understand why it was important in the first place. What concept was being proven? Is there really such a use for a dozen clones bodyguards?”

“That’s way above my pay grade. I think they wanted to find a way to copy skilled people so that there can be more than one of them around at a time, but that’s just a guess. They didn’t tell me much.”

“Of course,” she said bitterly. We took a turn, and there was the Primrose Path before us. It was just another tunnel, but it was lined with primroses. Hundreds of them, of every color imaginable. It was beautiful, and smelled heavenly. Good thing, too, since this was the path to the sewers themselves. There was a guard at the far end of the path, a bored kemo standing in front of the door.

“I’m sure it’s for a good cause,” I said. “They were prepping for full production when I left, and they’d only do that if they had a really good reason.”

Backstrom frowned. “What is full production, exactly? How many?”

“I heard someone say ten thousand.”

TEN THOUSAND!?” she screeched. She glanced around, then continued in a lower voice. “What could possibly require ten thousand short-lived clones of a Secret Service agent? I don’t care if you—”

“Bryan,” I said.

“Whatever! I don’t care if these clones come out as the best soldiers the world has ever seen! I can’t imagine how they could ever be worth the cost. From both a monetary and moral perspective.”

I shrugged again. “I trust them.”

“What, a bunch of scientists who wouldn’t even tell you why?”

“No, I mean the clones. They wouldn’t do anything crazy, like execute a coup or destroy the country.”

She paused for a minute, staring at me. “Well, I suppose you know yourself well enough.”

I chuckled. “Yeah. I guess so.”

“I’m still curious how the memories were transferred, though. That’s far beyond what the toy maker is capable of.”

“Aurora mentioned something called the ‘game maker.’ Apparently it’s like the toy maker, but for memories.” I shook my head. “Except it can’t do anything like this either. Not yet, anyway. They use it to implant their new changelings with basic skills, but that’s about it. Full memory transfer should be impossible.”

Backstrom pursed her lips. “I’d like to say they’re underestimating America, but given all we’ve seen…”

“If the fey say something is impossible, I’m inclined to believe them,” I said. We reached the end of the path, with the kemo guarding the door. “But obviously, it happened. There’s no use arguing about it.”

She chuckled. “You’re just letting everything slide off your back, aren’t you?”

“I could die any day,” I said. “I don’t have time for stress.” I turned to the kemo. “Can we go outside?”

Backstrom frowned. “Jefferies!”

“What? You’re with me, you’re armed. It will be fine.”

“Lot of monsters just find bullets annoying,” the guard said. “Especially sewer monsters. You gonna try to shoot a jumper swarm? A school of mudfish? Fur and fang, even a basic leapeater will probably kill you before you can pump enough lead into it.”

“We’ll take our chances,” I said.

Backstrom rubbed her forehead. “Jefferies…”

“What, I’m not allowed to take risks?” I said. “Come on. I just want to see something besides flowers for once.”

“So you want to go out into a sewer.”

I shrugged. “Better than nothing.”

“Most people would disagree. It is, in fact worse than nothing, because it’s a sewer.”

“Filled with monsters,” the kemo added.

I shrugged again.

Backstrom sighed. “You know what? Fine, I don’t care. Let’s go.” The kemo opened the door for us, and she paused. “If we come running back here with monsters on our tail, you’ll open the door for us, right?”

He smirked. “Sure. Funny as it would be not to, Aurora would get mad.” His smile disappeared. “No one wants to see Aurora mad.”

I nodded in thanks and stepped outside.

The sewers… well, they were sewers. Not modern sewers, either. They were like underground rivers, flowing down stone tunnels with walkways on the sides. The walls and ceilings looked like they were stone blocks, but I was pretty sure that was just a texture on top of concrete. Or whatever it was what modern sewers were normally made of. Metal, maybe? No, that would rust. Plastic, then?

I started walking north. It was slightly darker than the other direction. Most of the electric lights had broken, and the only illumination came from the phosphorescent glow of insects too small to see.

“Jefferies,” Backstrom said, her tone curt. “Where are we going?”

“Just walking,” I said.

“You’re walking too fast for someone who is just walking. You have some goal in mind, and you’ve been too set on the sewers from the start.” She stepped in front of me and turned to face me, hands on her hips. “Tell me what your plan is or I’m dragging you back to the demesne. Are you running away?”

I rolled my eyes and handed her the note Aurora had given me. “Here.”

She frowned and took it. “’Walk the Primrose Path to the sewers, then turn to the darkness. You will find something interesting.’” She looked up. “Who gave this to you? One of the feyborn?”

“Aurora herself,” I said. I pushed past her. “I didn’t see much of a choice.”

Backstrom hurried to follow. “Fine. And what if this is a trap?”

“Aurora doesn’t seem that malicious.”

“Maybe trap is the wrong word. Possibly-lethal prank, maybe?”

I winced. “Okay, yeah, that’s more in-character for her.” I sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t think she’d do anything to risk me, but it’s hard to tell with her.”

“Then why go along with it?” She waved the note. “This doesn’t promise any reward.”

“I just thought it was a good idea to obey her,” I said. “Keep her happy. Besides, maybe ‘something interesting’ will be a good thing.”

I heard gunfire up ahead. Just a single shot, echoing through the tunnels.

I stopped dead and glanced at Backstrom. We waited a few moments.

“Monsters don’t use guns,” I said. “And a person would have kept shooting.”

“Unless the monster killed them after the first shot,” Backstrom said.

I struggled to make a decision, then ran forward. If I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror tomorrow, I didn’t have a choice. I heard Backstrom grumble something, but she followed a moment later.

It wasn’t far, which was good, because my body still wasn’t in perfect shape yet. I was already panting at the first turn, but we found what we were looking for right there. A bodyguard’s eyes were sharp, and I took in the scene in a glance.

Three people stood on the sides of the sewer. One was big with jet-black skin and a powerful tail, one was a baseline male with a ‘sarian band tied around his arm, and the last was a kemo female with the same band. She had feline ears, maybe tiger. Hard to say. She was the one with the gun out, though it was pointed at the ground.

In the middle of the sewer, in the water itself, was some kind of gargant. Large, maybe eight feet long, and muscled like a linebacker. It seemed to be quadrupedal, but it might have just been on its hands and knees. It was covered in hair so thick that it was impossible to tell much else about it. I couldn’t see a mouth or eyes. For all I knew, it didn’t have any.

Backstrom pulled her gun out with a practiced motion and pointed it at the gargant. “Friendlies! What’s the plan? Fight or retreat?”

The kemo and the one with the tail stared at her, but the baseline reacted quickly. “Neither. Diplomacy.” I noticed that he had a gun of his own, though he hadn’t drawn it. “Where’d you two come from?”

“Baile Samhraidh,” I said. I jerked a thumb back the way we came. “One of the side exits is pretty close. Situation stable?”

The man glanced at his partner and frowned. “…stable enough.” She gave him a glare, but pointedly holstered her gun. He turned to us. “I’m Detective Abraham Gosling. This is Detective Utako Tora, and Noble Nyashk of the Mals.”

“I’m—” I stopped as his words sunk in. “Wait. Why is Necessarius running around the sewers with a vampire warlord?”

“I am helping them with…” She glanced at the gargant. “…their problem.”

“What are you doing here?” the kemo—Tora—asked. Her hand was still on her gun.

I forced a smile onto my face. “I am Curtis Jefferies. Just Jefferies will do fine. This is Evelyn Backstrom. We were sent out here by one of the fey.”

“Which one?” Nyashk asked.

“Aurora. Maiden of Summer.”

The three of them glanced at each other.

“Aurora… took something from me,” Nyashk said. “At least, I believe it was her. It was before the reformatting.”

Backstrom shook her head. “Before we get into the politics, can we please discuss the giant ugly gargant?”

The gargant growled and rose out of the water. I could see two beady little red eyes under the fur, glaring at Backstrom. And there was… something else. A feeling in my chest. Not quite pain, but definitely pressure.

Nyashk rushed over and smoothed down his fur, whispering something. The pressure in my chest faded, but the gargant still stood there, glaring.

“…what was that?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Nyashk said. “He didn’t like her tone, that’s all.”

“Lady, I’ve worked with animals before.” Well, Bryan had, but whatever. “Backstrom’s tone was fine. Her words set him off. He understood her.”

The gargant slowly turned to face me. The pressure in my chest returned.

“And he has a power, doesn’t he?” I whispered.

The pressure in my chest increased.

Nyashk pet the gargant more, whispering where his ears should be. The pressure eased up again, but slowly.

Gosling coughed to get my attention. “As far as we can tell, the fey engineered him with a blood weakness so that he couldn’t turn on them. Either too high pressure or too low pressure, I’m not sure, but he needed them to fix it. Then when the Rampage hit, he gained the power to control blood, including his own. And suddenly he didn’t need them any more.”

I clutched my chest. “So he—”

“If he wanted you dead, he’d make your heart explode out of your chest,” Gosling said. “He’s done it before.”

I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I really hated these powers. Monsters, I could deal with. Yeah, they were weird, but in the end they were just big animals. The powers… I could deal with those on a case-by-case basis. Pyros were just like people with a flamethrower, telepaths were basically just really good spies.

But a gargant with a power… that was something else.

What did Aurora expect me to do here? Kill him? I’d probably have more luck killing a mountain. Take Nyashk hostage to force his compliance? She was a warlord. Besides, I still didn’t know what exactly their connection was. Maybe it would just send him into a mindless rage.

“How?” Backstrom asked.

I frowned. “What?”

“How did he get a power? None of the other monsters did. What makes him special?”

I stared at her. “You really don’t know?”

“Know what?”

I glanced at the others. The ‘sarians looked embarrassed, but I wasn’t sure Nyashk was even listening. She was still petting the gargant and whispering into its ear.

“I don’t exactly know the full details myself,” I said. “I just made some guesses. Maybe you guys can fill in the blanks?”

“…I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Tora said. “I think this whole thing might technically be classified something or other. It’s not really a standard case. I mean, it started as a standard case, and then everything went sideways…”

“Tora,” Gosling said. “Who are they gonna tell? The fey? They obviously already know.” He jutted his chin at the gargant. “I’m guessing they’ve got a tracker in our friend here. It’s the only way they found us so easily.”

“Will someone explain something?” Backstrom demanded. “I have had it with insane fey, monsters, and now super-powered gargants—”

“He’s my son,” Nyashk said.

Backstrom’s mouth shut with a click.

“I wasn’t sure about the son part,” I said, “but otherwise… yeah. Only humans got powers when the Composer hit the whole city.” Aurora had helped a bit with recent history. “If he got a power, that means he’s human. Simple as that.”

“I…” Nyashk took a deep breath. “I made a deal with the fey. Maybe it was a good idea, maybe it wasn’t, but I made it. They weren’t supposed to… anyway. They took one of my eggs. They grew the egg.” She patted the gargant again, tears in her eyes. “Modified it. Turned it into a weapon. I still don’t know why.”

“What about the other gargants?” Backstrom asked. “Were they all human—”

“He is human,” Nyashk snapped, eyes flaring.

“Right. Sorry. My point is, do the other gargants have powers?”

Nyashk glanced at the ‘sarians.

“No one has seen any,” Gosling said. “And no one has ever seen a gargant—besides this guy—display anything more than bestial cunning. I’m guessing the rest are just what we always thought: Normal animals, horrifically modified.” He looked sadly at the gargant. “Then someone got a bright idea to modify humans in the same way.”

“Like changelings,” I said.

Everyone stared at me.

“I mean, sort of.” Changelings were homunculi like me, made from scratch, but as far as I knew there was no reason they had to be. “In the end, isn’t that pretty much what he is? A changeling that’s more monstrous than usual? I heard that some of them don’t even look human when they escape. And, well…” I shrugged uncomfortably.

“You know, that’s a good point,” Tora said. “The changelings might be able to fix him. Revert the modifications.”

“He was modified as an egg,” Gosling said. “Not even as an embryo, a God-dammed egg. I think you’d find it easier to grow a human from scratch than fix him.”

“It’s worth a shot,” Nyashk said. She was still petting the gargant. “I have a friend among the changeling warlords. She’ll be willing to take a look, if nothing else.”

The gargant seemed to like that idea. He nuzzled her hand, and she smiled. But how much did he really understand? Yes, his monstrous appearance was making me underestimate his intelligence, but how long had he been alive? How much knowledge or experience could he have accumulated?

Huh. Accumulated. I was spending too much time around the feyborn. A lot of them were college-educated toy nerds. Their higher vocabulary was rubbing off on me.

“Well, good luck,” I said with a smile. I was afraid if I said too much more, I’d say something stupid and insensitive. “We should really be getting back.” I grabbed Backstrom’s arm. She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t resist.

“Wait,” Tora said. “That’s it?”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You’re not going to… I dunno… try to capture him? Or us? Or convince us to bring him to Summerhome?”

I smiled. “I don’t have any orders here. Not even a suggestion of an order. If Maiden Aurora wanted me to do something, she should have said so. Not just thrown me in this direction and hoped for the best.” I nodded politely. “Hopefully we will see you around, detectives, Noble. It’s been a pleasure.”

They didn’t say anything as we walked away.

Backstrom pulled out of my grip once we turned the corner. “Interesting choice.”

“Only choice, from my perspective.”

“Uh-huh. And what if this is what the fey intended from the start? For you to drive the gargant into the waiting arms of the changelings? Maybe use it to ferret out some hidden base or destroy a troublesome warlord?”

I sighed. “I think, at this point, I can safely say that it’s just not our problem.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 313)

The gargant has been a long time coming. His plot is mostly done, but there’s still a little bit left.

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Scene 310 – Insopor

INSOPOR

CHRIS

I yawned as I walked into the waiting room. It was almost midnight. Weren’t they done yet?

The meeting room was filled with people. For a certain definition of ‘people,’ anyway. There were demons like Malcanthet and Lily, but also men with black eyes, people with so much fur or scales I couldn’t tell their gender, people with white skin who didn’t seem to have gender, and people so tall their heads scraped the ceiling.

There were a few who looked normal, though. Adam was sitting at a table with two of them.

“What’s going on?” I asked as I walked up.

“They sent the guards away as a sign of good faith,” he said. He had his eyes closed, and looked like he was trying to nap while sitting up. “Last I checked, they were ironing out trade details.”

“These things always take forever,” one of the men said. He had golden hair and tanned skin, an odd combination.

I nodded. “Still, I would have thought they could take breaks.”

The man shook his head. “That’s why it’s taking so long. Everyone’s worried that if they take a break, the war will restart when they’re not looking. Whether they realize it or not, they’re trying to finish this whole thing in one session.”

“Huh,” I said.

“I’m Ferenil, by the way,” he said. He held out his hand to shake. “Ferenil of the Never-Known Thieves.”

I frowned, but shook his hand anyway. “Chris. Uh, Clemens.”

“I’m Domothon,” the other man said. He had the same shimmering golden hair as Ferenil, but pale skin. “Also of the Never-Known Thieves.”

“…right.” I looked around to try and hide my confusion and apprehension. “Lots of bored muscle here. Is that going to be a problem?”

Domothon snorted. “Of course not.”

Ferenil glared at him. “What my friend here is trying to say is that no one will defy their warlords like that. They have all been ordered not to start the war, and they will obey.” He chuckled to himself. “Especially not with Lily watching.”

“There will be spies, though,” Domothon said. “No one is going to miss this opportunity.”

Adam cracked an eye open. “You said you know most of the people here. You said they’re career bodyguards and some monster slayers. Not spies.”

Domothon smirked. “Of course. Hide a needle in a haystack. But one or two people in each entourage are going to be spies, and everyone is going to have orders to keep an eye out.” He leaned back in his chair and grinned. “Except us, of course.”

To my surprise, Adam actually nodded at that. “Spying isn’t Pam’s style.”

“Eccretia,” Ferenil said.

“Right, sorry, Eccretia.” Adam frowned and shook his head. “Usually I’m good about that.”

Ferenil shrugged. “It happens.”

I looked around, then leaned down to the table. “So who are the spies, do you think?”

“Maeve’s is obvious,” Adam said. Both his eyes were open now, and he nodded at one corner of the room. Three women were standing there, not interacting with any of the other entourages. One woman was almost as big as the giants, another was average size but had pink hair, and the third was small and lithe. She had her back slightly bent, like she was used to walking around in a crouch. Her eyes danced around the room.

“Hm, yes,” I said. “The little girl couldn’t look more like a spy if she tried.”

Adam snorted. “She’s not a spy, she’s an assassin. My money is on the big one being the spy.”

Domothon and Ferenil nodded. “Yes,” Ferenil said. “I can see that.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I could see the pink one being the spy, but the big one is too… well, big. She’ll be spotted wherever she goes.”

“People underestimate the intelligence of giants,” someone said from behind us. I turned to see one of the giants from before standing near our table. He was almost eight feet tall, with a neatly trimmed red beard. “Using Pauline as the spy might be a little obvious, but it is hard for people to put aside their prejudices.”

Adam nodded. “Thrym and Surtr have gotten quite a lot of mileage out of that fact. I imagine Skrag has an even larger advantage.”

The giant sighed. “Honestly, I don’t even know. One minute he is the perfect gentleman Titan, the next he’s a frothing berserker. It must be an act, but if so it’s a very good one.” He shook his head. “Apologies. I complain about his manners, and then forget my own. I am Henry. I am a Muspel, as I am sure you already guessed.” He smiled. “You two are Never-Known Thieves, correct?”

Ferenil nodded. “I am Ferenil, and this is Domothon.”

“And where are the representatives from the Forgotten Names and the Firstborn, Honored Paladin?”

Domothon grinned. “Out spying.”

Ferenil kicked him under the table, but Domothon just laughed it off. Henry smiled as well.

“I’m Chris Clemens,” I said. I didn’t hold out my hand to shake. His hands were as big as my head, and I was worried he’d crush me in a handshake. “This is Adam Anders.”

Adam nodded politely. “Sorry I forgot to introduce myself.”

“No need,” Henry said. “We all know who you are, Honored Paragon.”

I frowned. There was that word again, paragon. People said it like a title.

Henry turned to me. “But I have not met you before. Are you a close friend of the Honored Mother?”

It took me a second to realize what he was talking about. “No, nothing like that. I’m not from Domina. I’m from here. From New York.”

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Interesting. Very interesting indeed. May I ask how you came to be here?”

Adam chuckled. “It’s a long story. We wouldn’t do it justice. Lily will tell it to MC soon, and she’ll do a full press release.”

“The short version is that I followed Adam,” I said. “I’m his bodyguard.”

Henry threw back his head and laughed, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.

“Muspel,” one of the black-eyes called. “What’s so funny?”

He grinned and indicated me. “This one is Anders’ bodyguard.”

Everyone in the room laughed at that. Not the deep belly laugh Henry had produced, but still genuine amusement.

I frowned, then turned to Adam. He just smirked.

“Domina City is smaller than you’d think,” he said. “You’d be surprised how easy it is to become famous.”

“Earlier you told me it’s bigger than I could possibly imagine.”

“Yeah, it’s that too.”

I sighed. “Whatever.” I eyed Henry. “Do you know how long that meeting will go? They have to take a break eventually.”

The giant shrugged. “I think everyone in there except Eccretia has the Insomniac gland.”

“And Eccretia has Insomniac soda,” Domothon said. “She can keep going with the rest of them.”

Henry nodded. “Yes, of course. I know the White Cat brought a few cases.”

I didn’t bother asking what an Insomniac gland was. The name was clear enough, and I’d look like an idiot if I brought it up. “Even if that’s true, the Americans don’t have anything like that.”

Henry frowned. “They could… share?”

Domothon laughed. “The White Cat, sharing?”

The doors opened, and everyone turned to see the ambassadors walking out.

Lily was first. She walked with a straight back, pad held professionally at her side. Her tail was low to the ground, and didn’t swish to the sides much. She smiled at everyone she passed, then jerked her head at Adam. He stood, preparing to escort her out.

Behind Lily were the wheelchairs, being pushed by the vampire. Adam had called him Dracul a few hours ago. I was surprised that someone of his level was willing to do menial labor. Maybe the others agreed, because two of the giants ran up and took over. Dracul smiled and said something to them, before stepping out of line and walking over to his men.

Adam grabbed me by the arm before I had a chance to watch the rest of the procession. He nodded goodbye at Domothon, Ferenil, and Henry, and we walked up to Lily. She was standing at the doors leading out of the room, waiting.

“The meeting has been put on hold until ten in the morning,” she said. “Most of the Americans, and some of the Dominites, were almost ready to pass out. Continuing would have been counter-productive.”

I nodded. Made sense.

Lily led us out the doors and took us down a hallway. I glanced behind us, but no one else was coming out. They were probably getting up to speed with their entourages.

“We’ll need somewhere to stay the night,” Lily said. “Is your house still an option?”

Adam thought about it. “Maybe. But the Americans should have offered you a hotel room or something.”

Lily’s shoulders slumped. “I… don’t trust them.” She said it like she was admitting to some horrible crime.

Adam put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “It’s all right. Better safe than sorry.”

“What are you worried about?” I asked. “Bugs in the room?”

“I don’t care what they overhear,” Lily said. “I’m worried they might decide it’s easier to get rid of me than talk.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Really?

She gave me a sad smile. “I am far from invincible, Miss Clemens. Surviving some low-caliber rounds and a gasoline fire hardly makes me immune to assassins.”

“That’s not what I mean,” I said with a smile of my own. A much happier smile. “Nobody uses assassins. Not since the 1970’s, anyway. The international community comes down really hard on that sort of thing.”

Adam frowned. “The 1970’s? Do you know the exact date?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Uh, no. There is an exact date, though. North Korea tried to assassinate literally every other leader in the world, completely failed, and the international community went crazy. Passed new laws, the whole thing.”

“And everyone was about to attack North Korea,” Adam said, clearly remembering his history classes. “But then the North Korean leader committed suicide.” He frowned. “And he killed his entire cabinet or something, right?”

“Sounds familiar, but I’m not sure.”

“Huh. Convenient.”

I chuckled. “Convenient would be if he had done it decades earlier.”

“Maybe she couldn’t do it then.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” He shook his head. “Anyway. It’s nice that the outside world is all civilized and everything, but I’m still with Lily. Better safe than sorry. Maybe they’ll decide that we don’t count when it comes to assassins because we’re backwater savages. Or whatever.”

“Or they found out about Artemis’ ghosts and want to return the favor,” Lily said. She didn’t sound happy.

Adam sighed. “The ghosts are—”

“Necessary. I know.” She shook her head. “Let’s just get out of here. We can take a cab.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 310)

Korea has been reunified for a few decades now. That means that it has started to pass from the realm of “miraculous recovery of a tortured people” to “class, this test will be worth ten percent of your grade.” Chris was a kid when it happened, so she remembers it pretty vividly, even if she’s fuzzy on the details. Adam wasn’t even born yet.

Scene 299 – Relinquo

RELINQUO

ADAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough. That was why we were dating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s the White Cat.”

“Never heard of him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you recognize anyone in her entourage?”

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

“What about the medium-sized one?”

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

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

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

“Those the Dagonites?” I asked.

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

“Why don’t they have an entourage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but you need to leave soon.”

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

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

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

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

She rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

I sighed and sat back in my seat.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what’s the problem?”

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

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

I scowled. “It is not.”

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

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

She just sat there, smirking.

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the scenes (scene 299)

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

Scene 296 – Gravi de Custodibus

GRAVI DE CUSTODIBUS

JEFFERIES

I covered my head as splinters of wood filled the room in a cloud. They cut through the cheap upholstery of the couch like razors. Anyone standing in front of the door would have been shredded like cheese.

Someone stepped into the room, moving like a soldier. He didn’t appear to be armed, but that didn’t matter. Backstrom pulled out her assault rifle from behind the couch and opened fire without so much as a whisper of warning.

From my spot on the floor next to the door, I had a perfect view of the bullets hitting him. He staggered back, but just grinned. Through the bullet holes in his shirt I saw stone, smoothing over the dents and cracks even as I watched.

“Gravers!” I yelled as I pulled out my pistol and shot him in the head. He went down. “Gravers with armor!”

Gravers were one of the new colleges, and we actually knew a lot about them. Or as much as anyone else, anyway. They had sort of appeared out of nowhere once the powers had spread. That meant everyone was talking about them, and it wasn’t suspicious for us to ask questions.

They had carved out a niche for themselves in the city quickly and violently. They were even being called the first real college, the first one with the strength to claim a domain and hold it. Theirs was the Grave, which was the tomb of some girl we didn’t know much about.

The next man through the door didn’t even look like a man any more. He was completely covered in concrete. He looked like some stupid kid who had decided to cover himself in cement for some bizarre reason. The cement had hardened, but it didn’t matter. He was a stoneshaper, a petrakinetic. He molded the concrete as easily as he flexed his muscles, letting him use it as a primitive armor.

Primitive but extremely effective. Backstrom, Hall, Brown and I all unloaded our weapons at him, to no effect. What little damage the bullets did was healed, and the golem-like beast just laughed. He would run out of power soon, but he knew we would run out of bullets first.

Then Kine sniped him in the head with an armor-piercing round.

He stood there for a moment, as if stunned that something could get past his defenses. The only real sign that he had been shot at all was the small hole in his forehead. The bullet hadn’t maintained enough momentum to punch out the back.

After a moment, the golem swayed, then fell forward. He hit the floor with a flat crack like broken pottery.

There was a roar of outrage from the hall outside, the Gravers making their fury known. The entire building shook, just for a moment, and dust rained down from the ceiling. They couldn’t push too hard, not without bringing the whole skyscraper tumbling down. For a moment I thought they might be stupid enough to do it anyway.

“Spies are buried with traitors!” someone yelled from outside. Sounded like a girl. “Buried deep!

Oh good, they were talking. Great. Now we got to listen to that crap while they killed us.

Lieutenant Backstrom didn’t see it that way. “Cease fire! We want to talk!”

There wasn’t any more yelling, which was a good sign, and none of the Gravers crashed into the room. They were waiting to see what we would do.

Backstrom looked out of her element. She wasn’t good at talking. “What do you want? Maybe we can make a deal.”

“No deals!” someone called. Another girl, but different from the one who had yelled before. “The Lady Grave has decreed that you die! We cannot allow spies to live in the heart of Domina City!”

I met Backstrom’s eyes and shrugged. They had a point. We were spies.

Backstrom licked her lips. “Can we meet this… Lady Grave?”

I heard whispering outside for a moment.

“If you surrender your weapons, yes,” she said. “Otherwise, you die. Those are the terms, no arguing.”

“We’ve got a dozen soldiers in here,” Backstrom lied. “All heavily armed. We’re not giving up our guns.”

“You sure that’s how you want to play it?” The Graver didn’t sound convinced about our superior numbers. Hell, I had no idea how these powers worked. Maybe she had some magical ability to know how many people were in a room or if someone was lying or whatever.

“We’re not surrendering,” Backstrom said, tone firm.

“All right. We’ll make it quick. No torture. That sound fair?”

In response, Backstrom yanked back the slide on her rifle, making an unmistakable noise.

“So be it.”

The wall exploded.

Dust and plaster rained down on me, covering me in choking white powder. I was bludgeonedwith pieces of the wall too big to be instantly pulverized. I coughed so hard it felt like my throat would bleed, firing blindly at the hole in the wall. I heard more gunfire from my squadmates, trying to suppress the Gravers.

Three people walked in as if they owned the place, bullets bouncing off them like rain. Their armor was smoother and sleeker than what the golem-man had been using just a few moments ago. These were the leaders. They had sent in the cannon fodder, now it was time for the elites to handle things.

Kine raised her gun, loaded with armor-piercing bullets. Before she had a chance to fire, one of the elites waved his hand. A small piece of concrete flew off with all the speed of a bullet. Kine dove to the ground, but it still hit her in the shoulder. I heard her cry out, and a spray of blood painted the wall behind her.

The gunfire stopped. How could we fight monsters like this?

“Sorry,” one of them said. The stone made their voice echo oddly. Could they even breathe in those things? Of course they had to, but I didn’t see any air holes or other weaknesses. “Like we said, we’ll make it quick.” His hand morphed into a long, sharp blade, and he started advancing on Backstrom. She finally regained her wits and resumed firing, but she may as well have been spitting for all the good it did.

I tackled him to the side.

I was pretty sure that the only reason it worked at all was because he was surprised. We both went rolling to the ground. I tried to get my hands around his throat, to do something other than just getting killed.

It didn’t work. I was on top of him, trying to strangle him, and he lay there as if I was as annoying as a fallen leaf.

“Are you quite done?” he said after a moment. He wasn’t the least bit concerned. My strangling wasn’t even preventing him from talking. “Spies are buried with traitors, boy. Sorry, but that’s how it goes.”

I screamed and punched him in the face. That went about as well as was to be expected. I whimpered and staggered off him, cradling my broken hand.

He sighed and rose to his feet. “This is just getting embarrassing. I understand fighting to the last, but there are limits…” He trailed off.

I looked up through the haze of pain to see him looking at the door. His stone face was expressionless, but I got the impression that he was confused. I turned to see what he was looking at.

There was a woman in the doorway, standing next to the other two Gravers. She didn’t look like a Graver. She was a pretty girl with boyishly short blonde hair, wearing casual jeans and a t-shirt. The shirt was black, with white letters that proclaimed ‘angels do it in the light.’

“Who are you?” the Graver demanded. “Where are our men?”

“I’m just an interested third party,” the girl said, her eyes sparkling. Literally. She smirked. “Please, don’t stop on my account.”

One of the girls grew a blade. “Answer quick. You with these spies?”

The woman gasped in mock horror. “Me? A spy? Of course not!” Then she smiled wider. “Not for America, anyway.”

All three had their stone blades out now and were focusing on the woman. She was still unconcerned.

“Name, culture, and reason for being here,” one of the girls said curtly.

The woman cocked her head. “Is it all right if I do that all in one word? I know you Graver types are so cold and efficient all the time, worried about every last second. Why, when I was younger, we took time—”

“Name, culture, and reason for being here!”

The woman smiled.

“Aurora,” she said slowly, as if savoring the word.

For a moment, all three stopped moving. Stopped even breathing. For a moment, they were nothing but the statues that they so closely resembled.

Then they sprung into action.

The six of us were forgotten. They leaped forward, blades flashing, going for the woman’s throat.

She moved faster than I would have thought possible. She dodged all three attacks with two quick motions. Then she put her hand on the chest of one of the girls, and smiled.

The girl screamed.

It took me a second to realize what was happening. Steam was coming out of the statue’s nostrils. She was shaking and vibrating like a schizophrenic leaf, and the woman had left behind a handprint glowing red with heat…

The human body is mostly water. What happens to heated water when it is trapped in a ceramic container with no easy way out?

It explodes.

It happened so fast that I wasn’t even sure it had happened for a moment. One second the woman was there, screaming like a dying banshee, and the next she was gone. All that was left of her were a few pieces of stone stuck in the walls, so hot that they were making the wall smolder. Something dripped, and I looked up to see a pink smear on the ceiling.

The other two reeled back, but kept their blades out and sharp. Loyalty was one thing. Getting killed with a single touch was another.

The woman looked between the two of them, smiling that same small, confident smile.

“Go back to Ling,” she said. “Tell her that I have business with these children. She would do best to remember that before she does something else… silly.”

“You don’t want a war with the Gravers,” the surviving girl said. “Lady Grave alone could kill every single one of you.”

That smile was still there. “Are you absolutely sure about that?”

The two Gravers glanced at each other.

After a moment, they bowed stiffly, then walked out. They didn’t even bother to collect their dead.

Once they were gone, the woman sighed. “Ah, they’re good kids. They just don’t know where the line is.” She smirked. “But they will learn.”

Lieutenant Backstrom kept her rifle aimed squarely at the strange woman’s chest. I had lost my pistol at some point. Maybe during one of the explosions. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“No thanks for saving you? You have no standing in this city. Butler wouldn’t have even required the Gravers to pay a penny in retribution.”

Backstrom didn’t waver. “Who are you, and what do you want?”

That smile just grew wider. The woman seemed completely unconcerned with the guns pointed at her. “You’re the ones who came looking for me, Katherine. I thought I could save us all some trouble and come meet you.”

Backstrom frowned. “Wait, you’re—”

The woman curtsied perfectly. “I am Lady Aurora, Princess of Soil and Flame, Maiden of the Seelie Court.”

Wait, seriously? It was her? And she had come in person?

She seemed unconcerned at our surprise. “Gealach Tapaidh is one of my Princes.”

Hall cocked his head. “Is that like… a consort?”

Aurora laughed, musical like tinkling bells. I had heard that description before, but I had never really had a sound to attach to it. But her laugh was definitely like tinkling bells: Soft, yet sharp and happy.

“The Princes are our greatest followers,” Aurora said. “Our warlords, you might say. We have no desire for such earthly distractions.”

“I thought warlords were the highest rank in a culture,” Backstrom said. She still had the gun leveled at Aurora.

“Not for the fey.” Aurora raised her eyebrow at the rifle. “Are you going to keep pointing that thing at me for the duration of our little chat, dear? I imagine your arms must be getting tired.”

“I’m not your dear. I can kill you before you do your fire thing.”

Aurora laughed again. “Oh you are missing so much! I know you’re new to the city, but honestly, haven’t you done any research at all? You could figure it out in five minutes on Fundamentum.”

That was the name for the internet browser that we had been avoiding using. Everyone just called it Fundie because it was easier. It had taken an embarrassingly long time for any of us to make that connection.

Backstrom didn’t say anything. That must have said it all.

Aurora smiled sadly. “This body, Katherine, is a shell. A puppet. Remote-controlled by a rather large cybernetic implant.” She tapped her forehead. “There’s barely even a brain stem. My real body is quite safe in the deepest depths of Tír na nÓg.”

“So you just run around in fake bodies?” Hall said, looking a little horrified. “And you can do anything you want because people can only destroy your… puppets.”

“We call them homunculi,” she said. Then she smiled at me. “Of course, not all false bodies are mindless.”

I felt my heart seize in my chest. She knew. I had no idea how, but she knew what I was. I could see it in her eyes.

She turned back to the lieutenant as if nothing had happened. “Despite what some people say, I do care about this city. I suspect that with a little bit of time and care, your team could come to care for this city as well.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to keep you alive, Katherine. You and your men.” She smirked at me again, and this time Backstrom noticed the look. I could see her trying to puzzle it out. Aurora spoke, interrupting her thought process before she had the chance. “At the very least, I would like you to remain alive until tomorrow. Currently, you have no rights here. That means that more and more will try to exterminate you.”

Kine’s face was as hard as a tombstone. “I’ve spoken to people. I know your kind always have a price. What do you want in exchange for helping us?”

“And what form will that help take?” I added. I had read too many stories of people making deals with inhuman spirits to trust implicitly. She could chain us up in her domain if she thought it would keep us safe.

“My price and my aid are the same,” she said. “You will come to Baile Samhraidh, where you will be cared for and looked after. None will attack you in the heart of my demesne, and you will have everything you need. In return, you will be watched. Studied.”

“Waiting to see if we slip up and talk about the president’s plans to nuke the city?” Backstrom demanded.

Aurora’s eyes glittered. “Exactly. Well.” She shrugged. “That’s how it will be for most of you.” She turned to me again. “This one will require special attention.”

“What?” Hall said, frowning at me. “Why?” The others looked similarly confused.

The fey looked me in the eyes for a moment before turning to the others. “This one is… diseased. He is dying. Without my assistance, he will die in nine days.”

Hall snorted. “Bullshit. We’re not falling for that.”

Kine narrowed her eyes at the fey. “Lies get you nowhere.”

Brown nodded. “Jefferies is one of us. We’re not letting him be your little experiment.”

Backstrom, on the other hand, looked defeated. Horn just looked thoughtful.

Aurora smiled at me again.

I sighed. “Two weeks,” I said quietly.

“What?” Hall said.

“I’m pretty sure that’s how long I’ve got,” I said dully. “I didn’t… I didn’t want to worry anyone, but I knew I wouldn’t last long when I first got on that ship.” I shook my head. “This whole invasion was always a suicide mission for me.” For all of the clones.

They had told me there would be five of us, but there could have been more. For me, the whole war was just a stupid field test. One I would never live to see the end of. What could I hope for?

“I can save you,” Aurora said.

I snorted. “No, you can’t. The best doctors in America couldn’t.”

“The best doctors in America had little knowledge and less motivation. I know exactly what I am dealing with.” Because I’ve seen countless homunculi, she didn’t say. But it was in her smile. “It will take three days. But by the end of it, your natural life expectancy will have expanded to eighty years.”

“Big talk,” Backstrom said.

“I’ve done it before. Many times.”

I shook my head. “I find that doubtful.”

She smirked. “You’ve heard of the changelings?”

I blinked. I hadn’t. I turned to the others.

They all looked confused too, but at least Brown had something like an answer. “Some sort of anti-fey culture.”

“They would object to being called a culture,” Aurora said. “But yes. Every single one of them was once like your young Jefferies here.” I had a feeling that the ‘young’ was a reference to the fact that I was technically a month old. “We fixed all of them.”

So there was an entire culture of homunculi in this city? Interesting. Or maybe former homunculi, I guess. I wasn’t sure how to define that.

“There’s something else we want,” Backstrom said. “In addition to saving Jefferies.”

Aurora nodded. “Name your price.”

“Powers. We want to know how to get them.”

Aurora smiled. “All right, simple enough. I’m not sure you’ll like the answer, but I can tell you. Once you are safely at Baile Samhraidh.”

And then she turned around and left without another word.

There was a pause.

“All right,” Backstrom said, slowly lowering her rifle. “We need to get out of here as fast as we can. Leave nothing that can be traced back to us or America.” She winced. “And does anyone know how to get to Baile Samhraidh?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 296)

Been wanting the changeling reveal for a while. It was tricky, though, because while plenty of people suspect it, it’s never been proven. The only reason Aurora told Jefferies is because she knew it was unlikely to get back to the changelings. Plus, she knew he needed some hope.

Also, “Baile Samhraidh” means “Summerhome.”

Scene 288 – Scuta

SCUTA

LAURA

Of all the people with shield powers in the city, not even Derek could deflect an artillery barrage. He might manage one shell, perhaps, but it would have knocked his reservoir all the way into the red, like when he caught that building. And yet, we needed some way of blocking them. It was inevitable the city would be shelled, and our point-defenses would barely catch a fraction.

I was proud of my solution.

I was also terrified of it.

We sat in one of the war rooms of NHQ. It was a large and fortified chamber with countless computer screens on the wall and a real-time tactical table in the middle. The table was updated on the fly by MC’s programs, using information from all over the city. Akane and Flynn were there, in addition to myself, Butler, Clarke, and about a dozen of their aides.

And, of course, the Shield Wall.

That’s what we were calling them, because it was just the only thing we could think of. Thirty-six shield-producers like Derek were sitting on the floor in a ring around the war table. Each one had someone standing behind them, hands on the shielders’ temples, concentrating as hard as they could.

Those were telepaths, the best and most trustworthy ones we could find in the city. They used their powers to connect the shielders to themselves and each other, creating a hive mind. It was like what the pod-brains used, but this time made up of seventy-two people.

“Shield Wall,” I said. “What is the status of the barrier?”

One of the girls spoke in a flat tone without opening her eyes. “Barrier is stable. Sectors A-17, A-18, B-29, and C-09 are under fire, but holding. Enemy fire has been reduced, and is virtually non-existent in all other sectors.”

This hive mind was an invaluable field asset, but I was worried about side effects, both long-term and short-term. What would happen when we tried to untangle them? They could all die, or just refuse altogether. Would the other members of the hive remember Derek’s secrets even after they were separated? Would Derek even be the same person?

I touched the ring on my necklace. I had just got him. I had waited nearly my entire life, and I had finally got that idiot to pay attention to me as a woman. Had I just killed him, all for some momentary tactical advantage?

I closed my eyes. No matter what happened, I would not apologize for saving this city.

I opened my eyes and managed a smile. “So the Dagonites took down the fleet.”

“White-Cap Bay is their territory,” Butler said. “The fleet was an insult.”

I scanned the war table. “They’ve still got more ships afloat than I’d like. MC, what’s the status of those?”

“They’ve repulsed the Dagonites,” she said, her voice coming through the wall speakers. “I’m not sure how. Maybe they got lucky and saw them in the water before they set the bombs, started shooting or something. I don’t know. They’ll have to retreat once the Dagonites regroup, but that will be at least a few hours.”

I nodded. “Shield Wall. How long can the barrier last at current attack rate?”

A different shielder spoke up, with the exact some dull tone. “Approximately three-point-seven hours.”

I frowned. “Cutting it a little close.”

Clarke looked up. “Could the Atlanteans help?”

I scowled. “Yes, they could. But they won’t. They think they’re safe on the damn ocean floor. I half hope one of the sinking ships squashes them.” I tapped at the war table, and it reconfigured to overlay the location of the Atlantean cities. “Nope, they’ll be fine. I guess I should be happy.”

“Besides, they’re busy fighting off the Rahabs,” Butler said. “Blame them if you wish the Atlanteans could join the fight.” He thought for a moment. “MC, call up the kelpie warlords. Ask them the exact path the ships would be forced to flee on.”

I raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t elaborate. How would this help us drive them off faster? Whatever.

I sighed and turned back to the board. “Demon Gate is holding strong.”

One of Butler’s aides—a demon, funnily enough—stepped forward. “The Erlking reports that the stoneshapers are invaluable. He thanks the Gravers for organizing this so quickly. He also says…” She checked her pads. “’Ripping apart their silly robots is far too much fun.’”

I frowned. “Robots? The US has robots?”

“Mechanized heavy battle armor,” Butler said.

“Oh. Echoes.” I shrugged. “Not robots, but whatever. I imagine they’re sending those at every gate?”

Butler nodded. “West Gate isn’t quite as successful as South, but the giants are holding strong. At last report, Odin said they managed to cut the army in two. They’re actually capturing soldiers alive.”

“Excellent. That will play well on the news.” I tapped East Gate, which showed an angry red scar reaching nearly a mile into the city. “What about the vampires? I’m still worried they let the enemy get too far in.”

Butler smirked. “That’s the perfect word. ‘Let.’ They knew that ambushing at the gate itself would be too costly, so they drew them to spread their forces thin, and are now striking at targets of opportunity. The enemy seems to be terrified and demoralized.”

I sighed. “There’s going to be a lot of property damage once this is over. They still haven’t finished repairing from the Rampage.”

“I’ll offer tax breaks to anyone who helps rebuild at reduced rates. I should extend that to the rest of the city…” He sighed. “Worries for another time. Right now, my bigger concern is North Gate.”

North Gate, also known as Beast Gate, Kemo Gate, and the Sprawl. It was a maze of tiny alleys and confused buildings, some of which had managed to partially collapse into each other over the years. The place barely had any streets, because the kemos of the area preferred to travel by rooftops.

We had expected that it would be easy to hold, but that was proving incorrect.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, as I observed the glowing red wound on the city. It was spreading farther and wider than it should. At least the vampires were keeping the intruders confined to a few single streets. “The kemos should never have let them run free like this.”

“Here, miss,” an aide said, as she handed me a pad.

I glanced through it. “Field report from Delia. She’s crediting the echoes.”

Butler sighed. “They were designed for urban warfare. Superheavy infantry, capable of breaching buildings and weathering moderately heavy fire. We should have seen this coming.”

I shook my head. “They shouldn’t even be able to get inside the buildings. What are the kemos doing, throwing rocks at them? Bottle them up and pour fire at them until they go away.” I read a bit more. “Ah, here’s the problem: A bunch of idiots tried to take them out hand-to-hand.”

“It worked in South Gate,” Clarke said.

“For the Erlking,” I said. “None of the kemos have that kind of raw physical power.” I paged through it a bit more. “Let’s see… yes, they fell back and started using ambush tactics, but by that point the invaders had a foothold.” I sighed. “The kemos are winning, but slowly and expensively.”

Another aide handed Butler a pad. “The Gatorcroc says he can drop a building on them, if necessary.”

I closed my eyes. “Does he even understand the phrase ‘collateral damage?’”

“Probably not.”

I thought about it. “Akane.”

She perked up. “Yes?”

“How fast can your kensei get to North Gate?”

“I can have ten men there in ten minutes.”

I nodded. “It will do. Send them. Tell them to focus on the echoes, then retreat to the warlords and request further instructions. They’re a fire team, we need them at hotspots the kemos can’t handle on their own.”

She nodded and stepped aside for some privacy as she pulled out her phone.

“We should have sent the kensei up earlier,” Butler said.

“You agreed to keep displays of powers to a minimum.”

“They should have been ready, though.” He turned back to the map. “But that’s not an issue any more. We need to figure out what to do with North Gate. They’re too dug in. The kemos will take heavy losses if they attack.”

“Bomb them,” I suggested. “Soften them up for the kemos to finish them off.”

He shook his head. “Not with the shield up. I don’t want to worry about them hitting it.”

I took a deep breath. “We have some people with invisibility. Not many, but—”

“Closest is an hour away.” He showed me a green dot on the map, moving towards North Gate. “She was supposed to be there half an hour ago, but she’s running late for some reason. We don’t have anything else in the area. All the civilians have evacuated.”

“If Obox-ob was around, we could surprise them through the sewers.”

“Still no sign of him. The only other thing that uses the sewers is…” He trailed off.

“The fey,” I finished.

Clarke looked thoughtful. “They did offer…”

“No,” Butler said sharply. “Only as a last resort. They promised to stay out of this unless we asked. I want to see if they can hold to that.”

“Oh, of course we could,” a pleasant female voice said. Every gun in the room immediately turned to point at Maeve, who was standing at the door, smiling. “If you ask, Mister Butler, we’ll stay hidden until this city is nothing but cold ash in the wind. But we would like to offer you some other options.”

Behind her, one of her Princes walked in, holding a small plastic box in her arms. It was the winged girl from the Wild Hunt, Aitil Péine. She blinked in the light—harsh to her nighteyes—but otherwise just stood quietly next to her Princess.

“Lady Maeve,” Butler said, a little stiffly. “To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Maeve smirked. “Just doing my duty for the city, Mister Butler.” She nodded at her Prince.

Aitil strode up and plopped the box on the war table, before opening it up to reveal… a radio. A radio with perhaps a larger antenna than normal, but nothing else particularly remarkable about it. I had built better radios than that.

There was a pause.

“I’m not playing along, Maeve,” Butler growled. “Explain.”

“It looks like the radios the US uses,” I said.

Maeve smiled. “I’m sure MC has already hacked the enemy communications.”

“Of course,” MC said from the speakers. “Though honestly it’s not very useful at the moment. The battlefield is nearly small enough that everyone can see what is happening. Several ambushes have been foiled, but—”

“Mary Christina,” Butler said, admonishing her. He turned back to Maeve. “Continue. Please.”

“This is something else. It is tied to their explosives.”

The room was silent. I thought I heard someone choking in surprise.

I blinked. “You managed to hack their bombs? How is that possible?”

She smiled. “Some of our feyborn have that invisibility. Such a useful talent. We simply had them slip into the camp and make a few adjustments to the equipment. Not everything has a remote trigger, of course, but those that don’t should go up in a chain-reaction when the rest blow. The base camp will be destroyed, and all that will be left is to hunt down any stragglers.”

Butler narrowed his eyes and loomed over her. “What is the price?”

Maeve smirked. “You’ll owe me a favor?”

“No,” Butler said instantly. “Name a firm, specific price, or the deal is off and you have to replace a homunculus.”

“Speaking of homunculi, did you know that there are a few scattered among the enemy troops? Very interesting—”

“Your price, fey.”

Maeve’s smile finally faded. “We want to go to New York.”

Butler rocked back on his heels. “I see.”

“I don’t,” I said. “Even assuming your homunculi can operate that far from your real bodies, what would you want there?”

“Legitimacy,” Butler said.

Maeve nodded. “Once this little war is over, one way or another, negotiations will need to occur. Many warlords will wish to send their ambassadors to represent the greatest cultures of the city, and Butler will of course agree. We just want to be remembered as one of those great cultures.”

“Instead of a bunch of insane monster makers.”

Maeve smirked. “Do I look insane, Honored Paladin? Does my dear Aitil look like a monster?” She shook her head. “Did you ever consider that perhaps the fey have moved on from their darker origins?”

None of that was a lie—but then, none of it was really a statement of fact, either.

“What about the gargant?”

Maeve raised an eyebrow. “What? I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The one at Acheron.”

Maeve’s smile disappeared.

“That is not relevant to this discussion.”

“You have a gargant hunting down people like dogs, and it seems to have a power—”

“Laura,” Butler said. “Now is not the time.”

I scowled, but stepped back.

“So,” Maeve said, as if nothing had happened. “Do we have a deal? The radio for the position?”

“No,” Butler said. “We have a deal—if this works. I’m not promising you anything in exchange for a broken radio.”

She smirked. “Come now Butler, give us some credit. Funny as that would be, it would gain us nothing in the end. The bombs will explode. Anything that happens after that, I cannot guarantee. So, deal?” She held out her hand to shake.

Butler stared at it for a moment like it was a poisonous snake, before grudgingly shaking it.

“Deal,” he said tiredly. “Miss Medina. If you would.”

I nodded. “MC, order any troops near the enemy base camp to retreat.”

“Done,” she said. “There weren’t many.”

“All right,” I said. I picked up the radio, looked at it for a moment, and then found that the ‘talk’ button had been crudely taped with red duct tape as a label. Its purpose was obvious. I took a deep breath, then pressed the button.

I imagined I could feel the shaking from here.

“Reports coming in,” one of the aides said immediately, hand to her earbud. “Big explosion at the gate… lot of smoke and confusion… enemy echoes seem to be down… no friendly casualties reported.”

“Tell the kemos to send in the best they have,” I said. “Retake that gate immediately, and hold it. Everything else is secondary.”

Maeve clapped her hands, just once, to get everyone’s attention.

“Well, that was fun,” she said cheerily. “Who’s up for Chinese?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 288)

One of the interesting things about writing these war scenes is the power difference. America could wipe Domina City off the map, shield or no, and there’s nothing anyone could do about it. But the thing is, with their powers and toys and sheer bull-headed stubbornness, Domina can defeat any army America sends at them. They outnumber the enemy at least ten to one, and that’s before civilian militias come into play.

So the biggest difficulty here is finding ways to justify keeping things difficult for the city. I’m proud of the echoes, but most higher-level warlords can beat one in a fair fight (though there are far more echoes than there are warlords of that level). So what other advantages does America have? Short of giving up and nuking the place, of course.

Domina Cultures – Fey

FeyFinal

Fear is proper, fear is right

In both the day and the night

See the monsters run

Let them have their fun

But fear them proper, fear them right

For the fey claim everything in their sight

They sing, they dance, they laugh and play

They kill, they murder, they slay

Undying monsters of beautiful form

Undressed of clothes worn

So stay home, children, and watch the streets

Stay bundled up in your sheets

The fey stalk these broken homes

Leaving their monsters free to roam

Fear is proper, fear is right…

The Fey

In the early years of Domina City, before the death of the warden and the fall of Eden, a psychological care facility was constructed. While the prisoners brought to the island were not especially prone to psychiatric breaks or other mental afflictions, the sheer volume of people ensured that the hospital was quickly overloaded with permanent patients. Other such hospitals were constructed, and this first, nameless institution was soon just another face in the crowd.

Until the toy maker.

The head of the hospital went insane with the possibilities, sealing up the institution and inflicting horrific tortures on the inhabitants. This was during Striga’s reign and the beginning of the Twilight War, so at the time few people noticed.

Official records kept by Artemis Butler claim that there were one thousand, one hundred and twenty-eight people in the hospital at the time it was sealed, between patients, staff, and even just visiting family members. Of these people, merely ninety-six women survived. The fey were born.

The fey wasted no time. They immediately made themselves known first by burning down the hospital, then unleashing their monsters on the streets in the first Hunt. The people of the city were not prepared for an attack of monsters led by a cruel and cunning intelligence, and were beat back long enough for the fey to make their announcements.

They explained their origins, and their giggling, childish insanity quickly became clear. Despite their armies, the fey refused to take anything seriously, often referring to their actions as part of some game, and called the monsters their peataí, or pets. The first fey to speak was killed within moments. This is when the fey unveiled the homunculi; using remote-piloted cybernetic clones created by the toy maker, the fey were largely immortal and immune to reprisal. They explained the nature of the thirty-two Courts, the Maiden, Matron, and Crone of each Court, and promised that the city would see them again.

Hunts were a regular occurrence for nearly fifteen years after that day. The fey are divided into four séasúir: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. From there they are divided into four treo: North, East, South, and West. Last, there are the two éadrom: Day and Night. There is one Hunt per treo, per éadrom. This means eight Hunts every twenty four hours. They are random, never in the same place twice in a row, but always swift and dangerous.

The regular nature of the Hunts, despite their randomness, allowed the city to adapt around them. They became little more than a weather pattern, hordes of monsters and mutated dogs led by naked women. While in the early days, people did everything they could to kill every fey monster they saw, this quickly became unfeasible. In time, fey monsters had filled every ecological niche in the city. The fact that the vast majority of the monsters were edible helped immensely.

Even if they couldn’t be exterminated completely, the monsters needed to be beat back, and so the monster slayers were born. They were not a culture, or even an organization. Just men and women who learned how to fight the things the fey created. Many, such as Derek Huntsman or Mohamed the Silver, became famous throughout the city for their exploits.

Each of the thirty-two Courts (listed below) has three fey: A Maiden, a Matron, and a Crone. Despite their names, the homunculi always appear as the exact same age, and in most cases the fey are interchangeable. They are always flirty and flighty, like children on a sugar rush. They never hold grudges, and are always happy to make deals—even if the person making the deal killed one of them in the past. If the fey have any concrete plans besides chaos, no one has been able to divine it. Not even the changelings, the horrifically modified slaves who escape with barely the skin of their teeth, know anything about their end goals.

One of the oddities of the fey is the Invitation. It goes by many names, but whenever a new warlord appears, the local fey (usually the Matron) appears in their domain and offers them either breakfast or dinner, depending on whether it is a Day or Night fey. When the fey is denied or the homunculus killed, there is no reprisal, and a new representative is sent one month later. This process repeats for as long as the warlord exists.

Very few people have ever taken the fey up on this offer. The Mother Monster is the most famous, having stopped one of the early Hunts by accepting the Invitation she had been offered a week previous. Another would be Glasya, who uses these dinners to broker deals with other cultures, gaining new tricks and toys in exchange for apparently random gifts. Necessarius received the initial copies of the toy box through this method, using her as an intermediary.

The revelation of the Composer’s identity changed things yet again.

Many had thought that the Composer might be one of the fey. Despite the screamers being nothing like anything the fey had created before, they were the only ones even approaching the ability in the city. After the truth came out, the fey were silent for a time—no Hunts at all. This was extremely disturbing to those paying attention to such things, and some theorized that the Composer had killed them all.

When they returned, they did so much diminished in number, but no less dangerous. Six fey homunculi appeared in six apparently random locations around the city, claiming that there had been a war among the fey, and that only six had survived, divided into the Seelie and Unseelie—Summer and Winter. They were even wearing clothes. Furthermore, they would now be accepting applicants, warlords and servants. Not many took the initial offer, and most of the city tried to just forget about it all.

On Halloween night, the Wild Hunt began.

While this newest Hunt was interrupted by the Composer, the fey’s part in events was still shocking. Mortal men and women, not homunculi, led armies of monsters to attack a small square. The exact purpose of the attack was unclear, or why they chose this location, but it has been noted that both the Paladins and a number of warlords were present, including the newly-crowned Nyashk and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves. Now, the fey’s plans for themselves and their servants remains unclear, as they have been suspiciously silent since the failed attack. It has been confirmed, however, that at least one of the fey Princes joined in the attack against the Composer that night.

Every fey homunculus appears to be a genetically identical woman of Irish descent, perhaps twenty-five years of age. They are primarily differentiated by their hair: The maidens have boyishly short hair, the matrons a bit past shoulder length, and the crones much longer, past their waists. Color is also important; Spring is yellow, Summer red, Autumn brown, and Winter black. As is likely to be expected, Day fey have dayeyes, and Night fey have nighteyes. If the fey differentiate their homunculi by treo at all, no one ever noticed.

Fey Honored are called Chosen, while their deviants are Forgotten. Warlords are Princes (even when female), while the fey themselves are the Ladies. The Ladies are the Maiden (Princess), Matron (Queen), and the Crone (Queen-Mother). Novices are referred to as fetches by the majority of the members of the Courts, while the fey themselves call them changelings. Fey domains are called demesnes.

Before the restructuring, the correct honorific was [Court], [rank], [Court type]. For example: Princess of Killing Sparrow, the Maiden of Night’s Southern Autumn. The former is the name, the latter is the title. So Lady Princess and Honored Maiden would both be appropriate.

After the restructuring, the correct honorific became Lady [name], [title], [rank]. For example: Lady Maeve, Princess of Wind and Frost, Maiden of the Unseelie Court. Honored Maeve, Honored Lady, Honored Maiden, Honored Princess, and Lady Maeve would all be correct.

Fey Courts (before restructuring)

Greening Leaf: The Court of Day’s Northern Spring

Spinning Dawn: The Court of Day’s Eastern Spring

Dayborn Light: The Court of Day’s Southern Spring

Dying Dusk: The Court of Day’s Western Spring

Hidden Leaf: The Court of Night’s Northern Spring

Forgotten Dawn: The Court of Night’s Eastern Spring

Neverborn: The Court of Night’s Southern Spring

Singing Dusk: The Court of Night’s Western Spring

Harvest Burn: The Court of Day’s Northern Summer

Early Day: The Court of Day’s Eastern Summer

Eternal Silver: The Court of Day’s Southern Summer

Ceaseless End: The Court of Day’s Western Summer

Harvest Black: The Court of Night’s Northern Summer

Darkest Light: The Court of Night’s Eastern Summer

Ashen Bones: The Court of Night’s Southern Summer

Dying Jade: The Court of Night’s Western Summer

Relentless Hate: The Court of Day’s Northern Autumn

Essential Light: The Court of Day’s Eastern Autumn

Knowing End: The Court of Day’s Southern Autumn

Virtuous Dusk: The Court of Day’s Western Autumn

Lightless Past: The Court of Night’s Northern Autumn

Fevered Day: The Court of Night’s Eastern Autumn

Killing Sparrow: The Court of Night’s Southern Autumn

Murdered Asp: The Court of Night’s Western Autumn

Powerless Name: The Court of Day’s Northern Winter

Rightless Shadow: The Court of Day’s Eastern Winter

Yellow Sun: The Court of Day’s Southern Winter

White Compass: The Court of Day’s Western Winter

Loveless: The Court of Night’s Northern Winter

Leafing Tree: The Court of Night’s Eastern Winter

Orange Day: The Court of Night’s Southern Winter

Deadly Dusk: The Court of Night’s Western Winter

Fey Ladies (after restructuring)

Seelie Court

Maiden Aurora

The Princess of Soil and Flame, Aurora is kind, compassionate, and more dangerous than she looks. She is an excellent spokeswoman for the fey, and has recruited more to the cause than anyone else. Feyborn who have chosen to speak with outsiders mention she spends a lot of time with her opposite number, Maeve.

Matron Titania

The Queen of Earth and Light, Titania is warm like a bonfire: Get too close, and you’ll burn. She can be helpful, but rarely kind, and is often blunt and to the point. Regardless, she is credited as an excellent healer, and her Princes are often hired out as doctors as part of her deals.

Crone Ériu

The Queen-Mother of Summer, Ériu mostly keeps company with Cailleach and no one else. She is credited with a number of the more virulent diseases the fey have come up with since their restructuring, and many have taken a look back to see if any older diseases have her distinctive flair.

Unseelie Court

Maiden Maeve

The Princess of Wind and Frost, Maeve puts up a strong front, but underneath is one of the kinder Ladies. Records suggest that she was the first to successfully recruit any feyborn, rescuing a pair of injured kemos when she fought the Composer at her very first outing. Her Princes tend to be unique, often with wings or other obvious enhancements the rest of the city isn’t capable of yet.

Matron Mab

The Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab is one of the most dangerous of the fey. Her Princes are well-trained and highly buffed, with few cosmos to distract from strong muscles and quick reflexes. Unlike the other Ladies, she rarely uses monsters any more, much preferring intelligent servants. She seems to have the largest number of feyborn in general, and outsiders theorize that she is the fey equivalent of Sargeras or Raziel; a soldier and a general.

Crone Cailleach

The Queen-Mother of Winter, Cailleach prefers to spend her time with Ériu, her Seelie counterpart. She has no known Princes and a very small number of feyborn, typically preferring to borrow Ériu’s on the rare occasion she needs servants. Despite her anti-social behavior, rumors suggest the new status quo was her idea, which leads to the belief that she was behind the fey war in the first place—or at least the end of it. The feyborn refer to her respectfully as “Grandmother Winter,” and give her a wide berth.

Fey Princes

Gealach Tapaidh

One of the first Princes of the Seelie Court, patroned by Aurora, Maiden of Summer. “Gea” has already made quite an impression by dueling the Composer to a standstill despite being completely nightblind due to his dayeyes. Experts who observed the recorded footage after the fact have noted his sword skills to be absolutely astonishing. Many theories have been put forth regarding his identity, but none have been confirmed. There is one persistent rumor that he is Akane Akiyama, a famous swordswoman in Derek Huntsman’s employ, and that she has been heavily modified to hide her identity. The fact that Akiyama was present at Tapaidh’s debut has done little to stifle these rumors.

Aitil Péine

One of the first Princes of the Unseelie Court, patroned by Maeve, Maiden of Winter. She is immediately recognizable by her large insect-like wings, which enable her to fly around at startling speeds. Other than the fact that her skeleton must be as weak as an eggshell to allow such flight, little is known of her, though she was the spokeswoman at the Wild Hunt. No meaningful theories have been publicized regarding her pre-fey identity.

Scene 200 – Vigilem

VIGILEM

ARTEMIS

“Maria, Victor,” I said in surprise. “I didn’t expect to see you two here. I thought we were meeting up later, at the Forge itself.”

“We come by every now and again,” Maria explained. “To check on him. Make sure Isaac hasn’t done anything too crazy.”

“Hm, yes.” I turned to regard the man in front of us. A tall angel, built like a brick house with flawless, pure white skin and muscles like steel cables.

Zaphkiel, the Watcher, lord of Chronias and founder of the angel culture.

One of Elizabeth’s screamers.

He howled at us like a wild animal, throwing himself against the bars of his cell in a blind rage. Emphasis on ‘blind.’ We kept him liberally dosed with angelweight, the clever drug that disabled an angel’s dayskin. Combined with the minimal light in the impromptu jail—a converted warehouse—he was well contained, without the ability to create the dangerous lasers from which this variety had received its name.

The warlord threw himself at the bars inches from my faces, screaming in wordless hate and spitting up blood—blood which spattered harmlessly on the glass wall that surrounded his cell. The screamers had converted too many of our researchers with a drop or two of blood. We had learned our lessons well.

“At least he was easy to catch,” Victor noted. “Thought it would be a lot harder.”

I smiled. “Never underestimate that woman, old friend. Zaphkiel’s ‘mother’ could probably have captured him by herself, but I couldn’t risk her.”

“How’d you even get her to do it the first place?” Maria put in. “You know she’s not good with violence. She almost had a breakdown after we caught him.”

“It was her idea, actually. She takes her duties as a mother more seriously than you might think.”

Victor sighed. “That poor girl. She carries the weight of an entire city on her shoulders because a vampire needed to trick her.”

“She’s not a girl any more,” I reminded them, as I turned away from the cell and started walking towards the exit, with them at my side. “She’s strong and capable enough to survive on her own, even in this city. And besides, the people love her.”

“It is a city of orphans,” Maria murmured. “I suppose it’s only natural they’d latch onto a mother-figure.”

“I suppose so,” Victor nodded. “But enough about that. How are things going, Artemis? Anything we can help with?”

“Other than our appointment? Your children have lost one of their Paladins,” I noted as I climbed into the backseat of my car. Maria and Victor followed; my driver, holding open the door, looked annoyed, but didn’t say anything. “The Chinese girl, Ling. She appears to have been kidnapped by Soaring Eagle.”

Maria frowned, thinking, as the car began to speed off. “Which one was that, again?”

“The little blonde one, I think,” Victor muttered. “No, wait, am I thinking of Kristie?”

“Kristie died years ago, didn’t she?”

“I don’t know any Kristie,” I cut in. “But Ling is the blonde one, yes.”

“Well. I guess you want us to find her?”

“That would be nice, yes, but Laura has precisely zero leads, and Derek already has the warbloods and a lupe Hunter sniffing the streets trying to find her. I’m honestly not sure what you do to help here.”

“Point,” Victor mused. “Besides, I don’t think the kids would like us interfering.”

Maria scratched her chin. “We could always find Lizzy. I know there are no leads, but we know her pretty well, and I’m sure—”

“No,” I interrupted Maria flatly. “I’m not letting you two within a thousand yards of anywhere I think that woman might be. She is dangerous, and if she sees you, she will kill you—if we’re lucky.” I shook my head. “I have a feeling she would find using you two against Derek and Laura to be absolutely hilarious.”

Victor looked pained. “I know things seem…complicated right now. But I’m sure—”

“It’s not complicated. Victor, I’ve had this conversation before. Greene is dangerous. You always said you knew something was off about her, ever since Derek fell in love with her overnight.”

“No, actually, we thought something was off about Derek,” Maria corrected. “Some sort of obsessive disorder. Seemed to make more sense than…everything.”

“Well, in hindsight, everything fits together rather well.” The car slowed to a stop. “Anyway, we’re here.”

I led them out of the car and up to the large steel door that made up the pedestrian entrance. The guards, despite recognizing all of us on sight, were very careful to check our identification before opening the door for us.

Despite the presence of extra guards at every exit, the Zero Forge was mostly unchanged from its daily function. The workers still directed the vats of chemicals and molten metal, still watched closely as assembly lines beat out glowing metal bars into usable shapes.

We walked through the first room, following the line of guards, without saying a word. It would have been nearly impossible to hear each other over the screech and scream of distant machinery, all clamoring away without a care in the world. The heat pressed on me, forcing me to lean more heavily on my cane, but I was careful to conceal it. Not all these guards were mine.

After what felt like an eternity, we reached another door, this one a normal-sized featureless white one. The guard checked our ID’s again, then let us in and closed the door behind us.

Instantly, all sound disappeared, like a switch had been flipped. This entire office, from walls to ceiling, was carefully constructed with the best sound-proofing techniques the city was capable of. A bomb could go off right outside that door, and no one inside would hear a thing.

The room was a simple cube, with white walls and bare concrete floors, and a door in the corner to further such offices. But while those were actual offices for the managers who worked in this facility, this was more of a meeting room, with little more than a large table in the center and a smaller one with coffee and breakfast rolls in the corner.

Maria and Victor looked around in surprise before turning to me. “This is what you brought us here for?” the full-bodied Italian woman asked. “Couldn’t you have told us beforehand?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Couldn’t you have asked beforehand?”

Despite my sarcasm, I understood their shock.

Because the six Ladies of the fey were seated around the table.

On the left side was the Seelie Court—Maiden Aurora, Matron Titania, and Crone Ériu.

Aurora, the Princess of Soil and Flame, was easily identifiable by her boyishly short golden hair. It was so closely associated with the fey Maidens that it was usually called a Maiden cut. She wore a gorgeous and airy sundress in a mix of white and fire colors; red and orange and yellow. Her green eyes sparkled, and she smiled at us from her seat.

Titania, the Queen of Earth and Light, was sitting between her junior and senior, and the one with the aptly-named Matron cut. Her golden hair was cut to just past shoulder length, and tied in a simple braid. Her dress, however, was…odd. On the one hand, it was just a white spaghetti-strap piece that emphasized her shoulders. On the other hand, she had pinned all sorts of flowers—live flowers—to the garment. It looked pretty, but also quite strange.

Ériu, sharp-eyed Ériu, was easy to spot even at a distance. The Queen-Mother of Summer sported waist-length golden hair, without any decorations or fancy braids, and a simple white dress that covered her shoulders and bust. She also wore a pair of pure white gloves that reached all the way to her elbows, which somehow didn’t seem out of place on that outfit.

On the other side of the table, of course, was the Unseelie Court. Maiden Maeve, Matron Mab, and Crone Cailleach.

Maeve, the Princess of Wind and Frost, wore her black hair in a Maiden cut identical to her Seelie counterpart. Her tight Chinese dress was also a mirror of Aurora’s in many ways, sporting cool blue, purple, and black colors. She glared at me with eyes the color of crushed ice, but I had been on the receiving end of far worse.

The Queen of Air and Darkness actually took a moment to properly identify. Not only was Mab up from her seat, studying the snack table as if it was some monster on a lab table, but she had her hair—presumably shoulder length, like Titania’s—up in a bun. Her dress was an elegant midnight black ballgown, studded with diamonds like stars in the night sky.

And last, of course, was the Queen-Mother of Winter, Cailleach herself. She was a perfect mirror of her Seelie counterpart. Her black, waist-length hair was also plain and unadorned, while her black and conservative dress also came with a matching pair of black opera gloves.

When it came to actual skin color, facial features, and so on, all six women were completely identical. Other than the hair and eye color differences between the two Courts, any two or three of them could easily have passed themselves off as twins or triplets without anyone batting an eye.

“Ladies,” I said by way of greeting. “I hope you don’t mind I brought two witnesses.”

Maeve eyed them carefully. “The parents of Derek and Laura.” She nodded. “They’ll do.”

Maria and Victor looked surprised, but Victor was the one who spoke. “You know our kids?”

“I kidnapped them about a week and half ago,” she said nonchalantly. “And we had some meetings before that, as well.”

“Oh, good,” Maria said dryly. “I was worried it was something serious, like collaborating on a bake sale.”

“Do not misunderstand me, Maria Huntsman,” the Maiden said in a warning tone. “My methods were somewhat extreme, but my purpose was benign. And I trust those two far more than I do the pair of thieves in front of me now.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Stop. Maria, I brought you two here as witnesses, not prosecutors. And Lady Maeve—please don’t antagonize her.”

The princess nodded in quiet acknowledgment, while Maria made a huffing sound I chose to interpret as agreement.

“If we have finished the part where we circle each other warily, I would like to get started,” Cailleach growled. She indicated a seat at the middle of the table. “Honored Paragon, please.”

With a sigh, I sat down, and pulled the paperwork from the center of the table. And it was actual paperwork, not data files. I wanted to be sure to have hard copies of everything involved in this affair. I still didn’t trust the fey as far as I could throw them.

But for all my paranoia, the task was a simple one. I signed the papers while Maria and Victor watched carefully over my shoulder, and that was that. The fey had already signed their own names—in what appeared to be Gaelic script, if I was any judge—so it was quick and easy. The whole process took less than ten minutes.

“Thank you, Honored Paragon,” Ériu said warmly, as we all rose from our seats at the same time. “We expected more resistance from you on this.”

“You followed the proper procedures,” I replied thinly. “I am not going to ignore my own laws simply because I am wary of the ones taking advantage of them.”

The Queen-Mother of Summer nodded. “I did not say we were disappointed. Merely surprised. You will not regret this, I promise.”

“I will hold you to that.”

Without another word, all six women filed out of the room. The raucous sounds of the Zero Forge could be heard briefly while the door was open, and then it was closed, and they were gone again.

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding, and sunk back into the chair.

Maria and Victor didn’t say anything. Maria just put her hand on my shoulder, lending me silent support.

What was there to say?

I had just given the fey the full rights of a culture. That meant right to claim domains, right to make business deals and receive payments from their members. None of those were particularly important to anything whatsoever; they already did most of it anyway.

But they also had the right to legal retribution.

This was not going to end well.

Behind the Scenes (scene 200)

Been wanting to write this one for a while. Came out well enough, I think.