Tag Archives: Fierna

Scene 298 – Amor et Sanguine

AMOR ET SANGUINE

FIERNA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, which is why—”

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

“A few hundred. But—”

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

I frowned. “No, but neither do you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bel nodded. “Good. Excellent.”

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

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

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

“What exactly are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cure them,” I said.

Bel frowned. “It’s a trick.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A little less,” I muttered.

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

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

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

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

I sighed. “A quarter percent profit.”

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

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

“I just bought from you the other day!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ishtar, get off the ceiling.”

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

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

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

“Please don’t make it.”

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

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

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

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

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

However, I have a condition.”

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

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

“I need your help to cure the hags.”

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

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

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

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

“And drugs?” Ishtar asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“And if they don’t want that?”

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

The Dragon nodded.

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

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

Behind the scenes (scene 298)

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

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Scene 252 – Discessum

DISCESSUM

DEREK

This was shaping up to be a weird day.

I wasn’t exactly close with Kelly. She and the retinue had always stayed in the back with Adam, away from the screamers, and I hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to her off the job.

I didn’t know much about her, but I hadn’t thought I needed to. Sure, her name was obviously fake, but she was an ex-Belian, so that wasn’t a surprise. The fixer on her arm was more than a little disturbing as well, but not too much. The device monitored her blood and pumped counteragents that neutralized the drugs in her system; while the chemical fixer was common, the device of the same name was only necessary if you had drug producing glands. I had always wondered why she hadn’t just had those glands removed, but had resolved not to think about it.

Then we got dragged in front of the Belians, and she had ripped off the fixer.

Now, she sat on the Obsidian Throne of Abriymoch, claiming to be Fierna, daughter of Belial the Lord of Secrets, Noble of the Fourth Crypt. She was naked except for a seductively draped fur-lined cloak, and lounged on the oversized throne as easily as if it were a seat by a pool.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” she proclaimed. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The right of blood was obvious—she had killed her way to the top. I was less certain about the shadow one. That was something about fear, or political skill, about how her reputation was broad and deep like a shadow, or something. Or maybe it was just about knowing lots of secrets. Belial had been the Lord of Secrets, after all.

This was too much, too fast; everyone knew Fierna was dead, and I couldn’t think of anything Kelly had ever done to make me suspect otherwise. If I said anything, asked any questions, it might be taken as a challenge, and despite my earlier bluster, Adam and I couldn’t take the whole damn domain by ourselves. I didn’t know what to do.

The Nobles, however, seemed to have some idea. One of them, the one with the long and forked tongue and the strangely bulbous joints, started speaking despite the fact that he was still kneeling on the ground. “I do not doubt Noble Fierna’s right to our culture,” he said, his voice a little quiet. “But I do doubt this woman’s claim that she is our lady.” His voice gained strength, and he rose to his feet. “She is just some random ‘sarian traitor. You can still see the scars of the fixer on her arm. In time, she will—”

Kelly’s hand snapped out, stiff and flat as a knife but as fast as lightning.

The Noble’s head fell off, and his body collapsed to the ground a moment later.

I recognized the hungry look in Kelly’s eyes. It was the naked bloodlust that I had seen on Elizabeth’s face too many times. In this case, I would assume it was the result of the drugs in her system. Psycho and buffout, particularly, caused such reactions as a side effect of their strength increases.

With visible difficulty, she wrestled the feelings down. “Gaziel was well aware of who I am,” she explained patiently, ignoring the horrified looks we were all giving her. All of us except the Nobles flanking her throne, that is. They kept their heads obediently bowed. “He sent Chamo to recruit me, and when I responded to that rudely, sent Inanna to punish me.”

“Kel—Honored Noble,” I said, correcting myself mid-sentence as I stepped forward. “Forgive me for being… confused.”

She raised an eyebrow elegantly. “About what?”

About everything, but I didn’t say that. “About—”

I was interrupted by a tug on my leg.

Surprised, I looked down to see Alex, crying enough silent tears to fill a lake. The angel shook his head. “She can’t let us go,” he whispered. “Gazra will be on her side no matter what happens, but Balan and Bathym control the majority of the nightstalkers. Even with the sclavi, she can’t fight them all.”

“What are you saying?” I hissed back.

“Throw yourself on her mercy. It’s the only way she can save us.”

I frowned. I… was not fond of that idea. I was a paladin, technically a warlord, and more importantly, a Huntsman. I was not going to grovel before a drugged-up warlord, no matter who it was. I’d just have to—

“Apologies for the insolence, Honored Noble,” Laura said with a slightly stiff bow as she rose to her feet. I hadn’t even realized she was awake. “Knight Derek is a soldier, and not good with words.”

“Laura,” I hissed. “What are you doing—”

She shut me up with a glare.

Of course. I knew what she was doing—saving my ass.

“Speak, then, Highlander,” Kelly drawled. She definitely had that royal apathy down pat.

Laura winced at the nickname. “Please, Noble Fierna. That is the Composer’s name for me.”

The vampire nodded slowly. “Apologies, Dame Laura.” She extended her palm, as if offering us something. “Please, continue your defense. You have trespassed in my domain. Why should I allow you and yours to leave it alive?”

I kept my power at the ready, prepared to throw up a shield if things got messy. While the Nobles around the throne seemed content to stand around their warlord with heads bowed, the nightstalkers lining the rest of the room were less composed. Even if the slaves didn’t come into it, I wasn’t sure I could fight all of them at once if they decided to stop playing around.

Laura didn’t so much as blink. “We brought you home, Honored Noble. Allowing us to go home seems like a basic courtesy.”

Kelly smiled slightly, and I could see her fangs poking out of her mouth. She was enjoying this far too much. “Ah, but you did not intend to bring me home. You did, however, intend to trespass. To steal back more trespassers, in fact.”

“They were kidnapped, not trespassing.”

“Are you sure about that?” she asked with a smirk. She turned to one of the lesser vampires lining the hall. “Kiara, I believe? Please tell me what happened when you encountered the angel and the changeling at Avernus.”

The girl looked hesitant, and bit her lip—a bad idea, considering her fangs. “We, uh, we tried to talk to them. And they attacked us. I think it might be on video, maybe, but I’m not sure if they—”

“That’s quite enough, dear, thank you,” Kelly interrupted with a surprising amount of warmth. Kiara seemed to agree; she looked like she didn’t know how to react to a Belian Noble being nice.

I tapped Laura on the shoulder. She looked me in the eye, frowning, before she understood what I was trying to say. She nodded and turned back to Kelly. “What do you want for them?” she asked evenly.

Them?” the newborn… reborn Noble laughed. “You are my prisoners just as much as the angel and the giant, dear children.” She leaned forward, that fur cloak of hers not quite slipping off her shoulders. “I have plans for you, and you still have not given me a good reason to release you.”

There was a click from behind her, and a massive shotgun poked her in the ear.

“I’ve got one,” Adam said levelly, his mouth set into a grim line that matched his eyes. “You should have hidden my guns farther away. Now let everyone go, and you get to keep your stupid kingdom of slaves.”

Kelly didn’t seemed perturbed by the Necessarian Saint George—almost certainly loaded with a god slayer—pointed at her skull. “Oh, you clever little psychopath. You are good. I didn’t even notice you move.”

“Sociopath, technically,” was his only response.

Some shadow of the old Corporal Sanguinas returned as she shrugged. “Well, those two terms have become so muddled over the years that it’s hard to tell when and where they apply. The medical community doesn’t even use them anymore, they’ve become too diluted—”

One of the Nobles, the one with a soft and gentle face sharply at odds with his power and position, cleared his throat. His boss turned to him with a frown, and he gave her a look I couldn’t interpret.

She definitely understood it, though, as she sighed and turned her attention back to Laura. “I tire of this game. Honored Paragon, you may leave with your lover and your pet murderer.” It took me a second to realize the ‘lover’ part referred to me; I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment, but wisely kept my mouth shut. “The angel, the giant, the changeling, and the kemo all stay with me.”

“And what of Akane?” Laura demanded, eyes narrow. “Gaziel said she was under guard in your hospital. What will happen to her?”

Kelly waved her hand blithely. “What do I care? It’s too much effort to go collect her. She stays.”

Laura’s hand went to her necklace, but she managed to remain calm. “She is the magister of the kensei. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? The samurai warriors with super speed? Some are already calling her kenkami.”

“Sword-god,” Kelly translated with a chuckle. “Cute. But what of it?”

“If you don’t release her, they will come for you,” Laura said.

“And if you don’t release the others, we will come back,” I added, stepping up next to Laura.

I heard a crack from Kelly’s direction. Someone had handed her a glass of wine at some point, a deceptively delicate goblet that was actually a thick and durable chunk of carved crystal, designed for warlords. She had still managed to put a large crack in it, from which black wine was now leaking.

Another slave stepped up and replaced the damaged glass with a new, full one. Kelly took it without a word, her narrow black nighteyes focused solely on me.

“Derek Huntsman,” she said quietly, her voice low and dangerous like the first rumblings of an earthquake. “You are an annoying one, aren’t you? How is it, Honored Paragon, that you manage to find all sorts of warlords and future magisters by just stumbling through life? How is it that a random boy from South Central manages to attract the attention of Elizabeth Greene herself?”

It seemed best not to answer.

She sniffed. “No matter. However you do it, you do have a surprising number of allies. Even if the Cripple doesn’t side with you, there are many others who would.” She made a face. “I might even have to talk with Dracul again… ugh.”

Laura and I remained silent. Adam’s Saint George remained level, though I knew he’d be straining to keep it that way. If Kelly decided to act like a Belian after all, to attack without thought of the consequences, Adam likely wouldn’t be able to kill her.

But she didn’t.

“Gazra,” she ordered. “Fetch Ogrémoch, tell him to check on the kenkami’s progress. If she’s well enough to leave, allow her to. If not, throw her out. She is no longer welcome in Phlegethos.”

The pretty-faced vampire from earlier bowed low and left.

“Everyone else, out. Everyone except for our guests.” The two remaining Nobles stepped quickly, walking down the aisle past the still-startled nightstalkers, but the rest were more hesitant. Kelly waved her hand impatiently. “Everyone. That includes the sclavi. OUT!”

This last was a sudden shout loud enough to hurt my ears, and enough to make the rest of the vampires hop to action, fleeing from the royal audience chamber as fast as their legs would carry them.

Once they were gone and the thick concrete doors closed behind them, the Noble pointed at poor George, still nailed to the wall. “I suggest someone help the giant down. His buffs are impressive, but that must still be painful.”

‘The giant.’ Not George or even ‘the ogre.’ She was still acting like Fierna.

But we had little choice. Jarasax and I—the changeling had been faking unconsciousness for most of the conversation—stepped over to the wall and started pulling stakes out of George’s limbs, carefully removing him from his position, spread-eagled on the wall like some grisly trophy.

It took both of us to catch him, and even then he was too heavy for us to keep upright. It was more like we kept him from dropping too quickly. He still fell to his knees, but at least slow enough that they didn’t crack on the hard concrete floor.

He was definitely in a lot of pain, but Kelly was right. He was made of stern stuff, and his wounds weren’t bleeding as much as they should. He couldn’t fight, but he should be able to walk out of here with help. Adam came over to help, apparently realizing he wasn’t doing much good covering the warlord.

“Is that silly angel still crying?” Kelly asked in a bored drawl.

I turned to see Alex, still curled on the floor in the fetal position, silently weeping. Laura ran her hand through his hair, whispering something that didn’t seem to have any effect. Wincing, she turned to the throne. “Yes. I’m not sure why. He might be in shock.”

“Bah,” Kelly said with a wave of her hand. “He just wants a fight. I’ll kick him around a few times and he’ll leave.”

I blinked. How did she come to that conclusion? This was the problem with dealing with drug-addled minds. “What? No! You can’t do that!”

“I’m doing him a favor.”

“No, I mean—”

She nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right. Duels shouldn’t have witnesses. Leave.”

I tried to step forward, ready to pound something like sense into her, but George collapsed again the second I let him go. Cursing, I glanced between the giant and the angel, before Laura sidled up beside me.

“We can come back,” she whispered. “Try and talk her down. But George needs to be moved.”

Frustrated but not seeing another choice, I nodded. I slipped under George’s arm again, the three of us pulling his massive bulk towards the doors, which Laura opened as we reached them. She was careful not to close them all the way behind us, leaving them open just a crack.

We put George down on a table we found maybe ten or twenty yards down the tapestry-lined corridor, and left Adam and Jarasax to tend to him. Laura and I returned to the royal audience chamber to save Alex. Laura peeked through the crack in the door… before waving me over, motioning me to silence.

What I saw was not what I expected.

Alex sat up on the floor just a few feet from the door, with Kelly in front of him, carefully wiping the long tracks of moisture from his ivory cheeks.

“Fi,” the angel whispered, new tears welling up already. “C’mon, don’t… don’t do this… ”

The vampire smiled sadly, all traces of her previous arrogance and apathy gone. “It is done.”

“Then… I’ll stay! I’ll stay with you! I can—I can—”

She interrupted him with a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Don’t you dare,” she said, her voice quiet and filled with barely restrained tears. “You know how much effort Mom went to in order to keep you out of Dad’s clutches. Don’t throw that all away now.”

“But you’re—”

Kelly placed a finger on his lips, still smiling that sad smile. “No. I am a vampire, and you are an angel. That is the end of our story, dear heart.” Tears started to well up in her own eyes, but she blinked them away. “But—but I would like to hear it.”

Alex frowned, not even bothering to hide the tears running down his cheeks again. “H-hear what?”

“My name,” she whispered. “My real name. The one Mom gave me.” She was blinking rapidly, trying and failing to keep the tears from coming. “You’re the last one alive who knows it, and I just want to—”

Now it was the angel’s turn to comfort the vampire. He pulled her close in an embrace. “Shh… shh, it’s all right. I promise, everything is going to be all right.”

Then he whispered something in her ear, too quietly for the rest of us to hear.

Kelly laughed, a sorrowful giggle full of heartbreak, and hugged the angel closer. “Thank you, Alex.” Then she smiled. “I mean… Ilarion Marinov.”

Alex laughed, sniffing away his tears. “You know I’ve always hated that name.”

“I know Ill, I know.”

The vampire and the angel touched their foreheads together, crying softly and quietly.

I glanced at Laura, giving her a questioning look. She looked almost as uncomfortable as I felt, but still gave me a glare. The message was clear: Just be quiet and give them their space.

“I need you to be strong, little one,” Kelly said, not moving her forehead from Alex’s own. “Stronger even than your days at the orphanage.”

Alex cried some more, but managed a smile. “The orphanage wasn’t so bad, you know?”

“I know Ill, I know.” She closed her eyes. “But this… this will be.” She took a deep breath. “They’ll be coming for you soon. You and anyone else associated with me. All four of you need to be pull together and protect each other, but they’ll be looking to you for help.”

“Sax—”

“Sax is not a leader, and has no interest in becoming one. If you let him lead, he’ll just follow whatever his mother tells him to do. You have to take over, little one. You can’t come to me, asking for help. Not this time.”

Alex nodded. “The angels will be coming after you. Once we fight off the vampires, I can talk to them. Zaphkiel can—”

“Oh, dear heart,” she said quietly, not opening her eyes. “The angels will be coming after you, too.”

Alex stared in mute horror, before nodding slowly. “I… I suppose you’re right.” He closed his eyes. “They won’t be able to do anything overt, but Pistis Sophia will send her best. Her Initiates at least, and maybe even Drusulai himself.” He blinked back tears again. “But you will have to deal with Raziel, and almost certainly Evansheer.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she said, finally opening her eyes again. Tears were streaming down her cheeks now as well, but she ignored them. “I’ll be fine. Zaebos and Zapan have done their jobs too well. We have many, many sclavi to use in a fight. Once I let them study my toys a little, we may even be able to gives the slaves back their sanity.”

“But Fi—”

She didn’t let him even start. “But that is all my problem,” she said firmly, her marble-black eyes strong. “This is my culture, Honored Daybreaker. My inheritance, the only gift I ever received from that bastard father. I will deal with it. Alone.”

“You know you don’t have to.”

“Yes. I do.” She kissed his forehead again. “Stick close to Huntsman and Medina. Those two are going to do good work.” She looked him up and down. “Are you strong enough? I don’t want this to kill you.”

He dried his tears and nodded. “Ready and waiting, Noble Fierna.”

She shook her head. “I hate that name.” She sighed and stood. “Incoming.”

I pulled Laura out of the way a split second before Alex was thrown through the doors, slamming them open with a boom and crashing into the back wall like a cannon.

Kelly—no, Fierna—strode out of the throne room, eyes wild, laughing with mad bloodlust. “Is that all the angels of Necessarius have to offer? I’ve fought dumpster dogs with more spirit in them!”

Her voice echoed in the concrete corridor, and at the far end I could see several nightstalkers and their sclavi watching the fight with interest. George, Adam, and Jarasax seemed to have gotten out of the way already.

The Noble strode up to the angel, picked him up casually with one hand, and tossed him a dozen yards down the corridor, where he skidded to a stop at the feet of the other vampires. “This one is boring. Send him away with the others.”

Her minions moved quickly to obey, picking the broken angel up roughly and hauling him down a corridor I knew led to the front doors of the domain. Fierna gave one last barking laugh at the sight, then turned back to her throne room.

And froze at the sight of us, standing silently next to the double doors.

Several emotions warred on her face. Surprise, rage, disgust…

Before finally settling on something like resignation.

She patted me on the shoulder. “Take care of him, Honored Paragon,” she whispered. She kept her face neutral. “Consider it an official request—from one warlord to another.”

I nodded, once.

She nodded in turn. “Thank you.” Her grip on my shoulder tightened, and then she flung me down the corridor as well, hard enough to fly almost to the corner. It was a dangerous throw, and if I had hit a wall it could have killed me, but she was careful. Landing hurt, but I was good at taking falls.

“Take your boyfriend and leave, baseline!” Fierna yelled at Laura as she stalked back towards her throne. “I have better things to do with my time than play with newborn warlords with over-inflated egos!”

Behind the scenes (scene 262)

I’m honestly surprised this came out as well as it did, but I like it.

This isn’t quite the end of Kelly’s arc, but we’re definitely past the climax.

Scene 261 – Quod Primogenita Vendidisset

QUOD PRIMOGENITA VENDIDISSET

FIERNA

I am Fierna.

I am power.

For years, I shackled myself. Begged that cripple who thought himself a warlord to chain me, to weaken and hobble me. For years, that damned device cursed me, held me back, denied me what was mine by right.

Even now, I could feel it. Years of poison did not fade in moments. But oh… it was fading. Burning away like ice before a flame. With every moment, my power grew. With every moment, what was mine slowly returned.

I was thrown roughly against the cold stone floor.

“My sclavi found this one with the others,” a female voice said.

“She looks like a ghoul worked her over. Did she resist?”

“No. The sclavi were simply not careful when they carried her here.”

Old instincts were surfacing, like a blade slowly being sharpened after disuse. For the moment, I merely peered around myself, trying to determine where I was. At the moment, my strength was not fully returned, and it was all I could do.

But my blood was quickening. My power would come to me soon enough.

There were many shivering sclavi, standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor, guarding the entrances and simply acting as servants for the well-dressed vampires scattered around. There were several baselines, bound together in chains. They were unconscious, and irrelevant. There was a giant, pinned to the wall with spikes. Also irrelevant.

And there was an angel, staring at me with wide eyes from his spot on the floor just a few feet away. He was mouthing words, but what, I couldn’t say. I peered closer, trying to divine his meaning, but had little luck.

He seemed to be saying ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Oh good, the baselines are waking up.”

“What do we do with the vampire?”

“We’ll get to her in a moment.”

Strong hands grabbed me and dragged me to the rear of the room, where I could be stored until they were done with whatever minor thing they were doing.

“You there, baseline. What’s your name? What made you think attacking Phlegethos was a good idea?”

Phlegethos. I knew that name. The Heart of Darkness, the Seat of Despair. Sitting in Northwest Middle, it was the last spark of power of an old, dying culture, waiting for a lord that was dead and gone.

I knew Phlegethos. I knew it.

I had recovered enough to crack open my eyes and get a better look around the room. The floor was cold concrete, but the walls were lined with tapestries and paintings. There were a few lights in the ceiling, barely more than dying candles, dim enough to give baselines the vaguest impression of what was happening, but bright as day to vampire eyes.

The room itself was wide and long, large enough to park five or ten cars. It was clearly an audience chamber, a gesture of the ruler’s might and abilities. The effect was undercut by the fact that the throne at the end of the blood-red carpet was empty.

Four vampires sat on short chairs flanking that throne, a massive chair-shaped edifice of blackest obsidian. All four were distinct in their suspicious lack of distinction; they all had ivory skin and raven-black hair, fitting the vampire definition of beauty. They would have more unique toys hidden under those loose robes of theirs.

There were a scattering of other vampires in the room, in addition to the dozens of sclavi. The slaves, of course, were mostly dull-eyed with the drugs used to keep them under control, but the nightstalkers were sharp and dangerous.

“I am Derek Huntsman, Honorless Bloodsoaked,” a strong male voice called out. “And this man next to me is Adam Anders.”

The effect of the baseline’s words was electric. All the nightstalkers recoiled away from the blond man standing before them with his hands bound, and even more when his bland little friend struggled to his feet as well.

I felt like I should know who these two were. It was tickling at the back of my mind, but the power stirring in my body made it hard to think. Nights, it made it hard to do anything but just revel in my own strength. Why had I ever given this up? Why had I ever thought that would be a good idea?

Everyone in the audience chamber was staring at the blond and his friend, ignoring everyone else in the room, including the other two baselines still on the ground.

Everyone, that is, except for the angel. He was still mouthing words at me, now with tears dripping down his cheeks. ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Huntsman,” one of the Nobles flanking the throne, Bathym, hissed as he leaned forward, his black talons hidden in his robes. “It is… unfortunate that you are here. But the laws of Necessarius are clear. You broke into our domain. They will not rescue you from our wrath.”

“You kidnapped several ‘sarians. They will demand compensation for that.”

Bathym grinned in that annoying way he had, showing his fangs poking over his lower lip, but nothing else. “That is too bad, Huntsman. But the Belians remain a rich culture. We have more than enough money to pay retribution for a self-defense case.”

The baseline shrugged. “Perhaps. I guess we’ll just have to fight our way out of here.”

Bathym laughed loudly at that, though no one else so much as cracked a smile. “Oh, you are a confident one, Honored Paragon. But we are hardly helpless.” His black eyes turned hard. “We know what you are capable of. You are vastly outnumbered, and your clay is unarmed. Not to mention you must keep your friends safe. You are not getting out of this alive. You have no trump card.”

“Well, there is me.”

My power had not returned to me. Not completely. It would take hours, perhaps even days, before all traces of that vile chemical was purged from my system.

But I did not need physical power to deal with these wretches.

“Go back to sleep, nightstalker,” Balan, the warlord with the massive eyebrows and the tufted beard, said wearily. “You will be dealt with in a moment.”

I ignored him, and instead took off my clothes.

It wasn’t hard. My armor was missing—most likely taken—and the underclothes were ripped and torn in places. A single hard yank was enough to remove my shirt, and my pants weren’t much more difficult.

Everyone in the room stared at me. Not in lust, either. Just in sheer confusion.

“…someone get this girl out of here,” Gaziel said, waving his hand lazily in such a way that the bulbous, bony joints of his wrists were seen under his robe, and I could see the hint of his long, purple-red forked tongue in his mouth. “Sclavi. Scoateți-o.”

Instead of following his orders, one of the sclavi quietly stepped up from behind me, dressing me in a long, fur-lined cloak that went right over my naked body. There was no tie around the waist, but it was expertly tailored to my physique, and carefully clung to my body to hide both my breasts and groin.

I smiled. “Sclavi. Îngenuncheze.”

And the slaves knelt before me.

Now the Nobles and nightstalkers jumped back in fright, understanding exactly what they were dealing with. No, not yet. I saw the looks in their eyes—they were afraid of my power to control their sclavi, but they didn’t understand why.

They didn’t recognize me yet.

I strode through the rows of kneeling vampires, past the crying angel still on the floor, ignoring the baselines who were staring at me, as well as the Belians who had no idea what was going on.

I strode towards the obsidian throne, with no one to stop me.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Gazra looked from me to the throne.

Then he knelt.

Balan and Bathym followed suit a moment later, and Gaziel, looking between his three colleagues, knew he had no other choice but to do the same. I noted his hesitation, but kept my lips shut for the moment.

I turned to see the confused faces of the rest of the vampires, the nightstalkers who had joined after I had left. They saw what their Nobles were doing, but couldn’t believe it, couldn’t understand it. They had no more idea what was happening than the baselines we had captured or the giant stapled to the wall.

The angel knew, though. He was still crying, still begging me to stop.

Oh, dear, sweet Alex. You knew this was how it was going to end.

“…Kelly?” Derek asked slowly. “What—”

“Drakela Sanguinas never existed,” I explained, as if to a child. “She was a broken mask worn to interact with others.” I met the Paragon’s wary gaze with a firm one of my own, knowing full well what I was doing.

“I am Fierna,” I said calmly. “Daughter of Belial, heir to the Throne of Abriymoch, the Fourth Black Crypt Phlegethos, and all the secrets of my mother, Naome the Golden.”

I sat in the throne, the black obsidian seat too large for me—it had been designed for my father, after all, who was almost eight feet tall.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” I said, my voice echoing throughout the chamber. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The power in my veins sang. It felt good to be home

The only problem was my conscience screaming in the back of my skull.

Behind the Scenes (scene 261)

I’ve been waiting for this one for a very, very long time. Still not sure if I should move it to later.