Tag Archives: Jarasax

Scene 325 – Manes

MANES

ALEX

“Jarasax,” I called. “Kat, George! C’mon, we gotta go!”

George stepped out of the shuttle and immediately hit his head on the airlock. “Ow,” he said, rubbing his forehead. He kept his hand out to watch for more dangers. “Why does Lemuria have such low ceilings?”

“Because it was founded by dwarves fleeing persecution by the elves of Rivendell.”

George paused. “Really?”

“Of course not.” I signed the last of the customs forms and nodded in thanks to the clerk. “They just didn’t have giants in mind when they built this place.”

Lemuria was one of the middle-aged colonies, a little over twenty years old. Since Mars still hadn’t been terraformed, there were a lot of domes and tunnels and airlocks, all made of white plastic and metal. The whole thing felt like living in a space station, and the low gravity didn’t help. But at least it was better than being on that cramped shuttle for a month.

I still couldn’t believe we had agreed to this mission in the first place. With everything that had happened, I had mentioned to Medina that we should get away from the city for a while. I meant maybe take a quick tour to one of the space stations, or a working vacation on Luna. I hadn’t expected her to send us to Mars—especially not as a team of ghosts.

I shouldered my bag and glanced around. There was a sign pointing new arrivals down one direction of the T-bone junction, but there was another saying that there was a park in the other direction.

I glanced back at my friends. George was hunched over and had most of our stuff on his back, but there wasn’t really that much. Jarasax had a laptop under one arm and was looking around curiously, while Kat just had a toolbelt and was sniffing the air. I also noticed that the customs clerk was staring at Kat while trying not to be obvious about it. She was probably the first anthro he had ever seen.

They all looked like they needed a chance to unwind just a bit from their long trip.

“Let’s go to the park,” I said. “See how the Martian terraforming is coming along.”

The others grinned, and I smiled as well. Fi hadn’t officially named me her successor or anything like that, but the retinue followed me as long as I gave good orders.

The park was only a few turns from the dock, but it still took about ten minutes to get there, since we had to press through a crowd of people in the corridor who couldn’t stop goggling at George and Kat. I resolved to talk to them about that later. Body shame wasn’t a big deal in Domina, but it might be a serious problem here.

All thoughts fled my mind as we stepped out into the park.

Domina didn’t have many parks. A few small fields of grass where people hadn’t built anything yet, some rooftop or wall gardens and one or two flower displays in some of the weirder domains. I had never been outside Domina before this, so I was expecting something like that. A field of grass, definitely, maybe with some rows of planters and a couple trees.

The Lemurian park was encased in a giant glass dome so that you could see the stars above, but that almost seemed like a waste. Massive, towering trees blocked the view, everything from vine-wrapped jungle trees to sky-scraping redwoods.

Down at ground level, there was thick, soft green grass that came up to my knees in some places, but someone had mowed a winding path through it. There were bushes with berries and bright leaves, sprawling vines and beautiful flowers. It looked like a wild forest from every part of the world combined.

The entire place smelled of plants and loam and life. I could hear distant birds singing, and rustling that might have been larger animals

“I’m not a botanist,” Jarasax said. “But I don’t think this is what a normal park looks like.”

“First time in the arboreum?” someone said.

We all wheeled around to see a man standing next to the door we had just entered through. My hand went to my side, but my dayknives were in my bag. I prepared myself to blast a burst of light into his eyes, but forced myself to remain calm. He was just saying hello.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s… amazing.”

He grinned. “Isn’t it, though? I’m just a gardener, but I still can’t believe how lucky I am to work here. To see it every single day.”

“How is everything so big?” George asked. “It hasn’t been long enough for them to grow, and you can’t have carted everything from Earth.”

The gardener chuckled. “No, of course not. These plants were genetically engineered to grow quickly, with special artificial sunlight and exceptionally rich soil. These all grew from seeds. The oldest is… ten years old, I believe. We tried starting without genetic engineering, but nothing would take to the soil.”

“Interesting,” I said. “It seems dangerous, though. What happens if they get out of control?”

“Well, I’m not a geneticist or a botanist,” he said. “I can’t go into the full details. But as I understand, they were engineered so that they wouldn’t pass on their altered genes to their progeny. That way, we get a head start without having to worry about unanticipated side effects.”

That seemed odd. I knew a bit about genetic engineering, and while what he was saying was possible, it was a little tricky.

“Did you design the seeds?” Jarasax asked.

“No,” the gardener said. “I told you, I’m—”

“I mean you as in Lemuria.”

“Oh.” The gardener smiled. “No, they were bought on Earth.”

“Do you remember from who?” Sax pressed.

I frowned. Where was he going with this?

“From a company called the Viridian Children, I believe,” the gardener said.

We all nodded in understanding. The Children were a changeling clan, known for using the toy maker on plants. They would have been able to do what the gardener was describing very easily.

“Thank you for your time,” I said. “I think we’ll just start walking around.”

Before he could respond, there was a distant dull whumph of an explosion.

The gardener looked in that direction.

“If you want to point us to somewhere we can sit, that would be nice,” I said.

The gardener turned back to me with a frown. “What?”

“We’ve been on a shuttle for a month,” I said. “We just want to stretch our legs a bit.”

“But… didn’t you hear that?”

“Yes. Sounded like an explosion.”

“Might have been a car overloading,” George said.

“Or something getting firebombed,” Sax said.

Kat made a few quick motions with her fingers, and we all nodded in agreement.

The gardener shook his head. “But… there was an explosion?

“Well, I guess,” I said. “I’m sure the lawmen will handle it. You have pyromachites around here, right?”

He stared. “What?

“The people who put out fires,” I said, slower. “You live in a station where oxygen is at a premium, please tell me you have someone in charge of getting rid of fires.”

“Y-yes, of course, but—”

“Then it’s fine.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “You can’t worry about every little thing.”

There was another whumph. It was smaller, or perhaps more distant.

The gardener nearly jumped out of his skin. “What that another one?”

“That’s common when fighting a fire,” George said. “Either the fire is uncontrolled or the pyromachites are directing it to something nonessential. Either way, it’s not our problem, so don’t worry about it.”

“But… but…”

“Look,” I said, guiding him down the mowed path. “If there was actually something wrong, an alarm would have gone off. Right?” The gardener nodded hurriedly. “Of course. So that means it’s under control. There are a million airlocks around here, so in the worst case they can just seal off the affected sections.”

“I guess…” he muttered.

“And if a bunch of oxygen is lost to the fire, do you know what’s suddenly going to be very important?”

The worried look on his face cleared. “The arboreum?”

“Exactly!” I patted him on the back. “The city might be in a bad situation right now, but don’t feel bad for taking a bit of advantage. You can do the right thing and make a profit at the same time.” There was another explosion, and I frowned. “Or maybe the city’s in a really bad situation. There are alarms that would go off if things went really crazy, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” We were walking further into the forest, and things were getting too dark for me. I doubted the gardener even noticed the difference, but with dayeyes, even normal shadows could be as black as deepest night to me. “I’m not in charge of those, of course. Maybe they’re broken or something?”

I rubbed my forehead. This shouldn’t be our problem. We were supposed to be spies. Emergencies should be left to lawmen and pyromachites and paramedics and whoever else was paid to run towards danger. We had just got off a month-long shuttle ride, we deserved at least a little bit of rest.

“Is there a bench or something?” I asked. “Somewhere we can sit down?”

“Also, do you have the wifi password?” Jarasax asked. I glanced back to see his face illuminated by the light of his tablet. “I’m having trouble hacking in.”

The gardener frowned. “Hacking?”

Kat elbowed Sax in the ribs.

Getting in,” he said. “That’s what I meant. Just a slip of the tongue.”

“Um… right. Anyway, the password is Kumari Kandam. Two words, spelled like it sounds.”

Sax’s fingers flew over the keyboard in a way that only a changeling’s could. “Hm. That didn’t work. Capitalized?”

“Both, yes.”

“Alright, thank you, that worked.”

“That password will give you access to most public wifi in Lemuria,” the gardener said.

We came out into a small clearing with a few benches. “Well—” I began. I was interrupted by someone crashing out of the bushes behind us.

It was a baseline boy, maybe fifteen or so. He was panting heavily and had a device in his hand. It looked like a pad, though with a bit of extra armor on it, and a glance told me that he was using it to track something.

“Alex Gabriel!” he shouted.

“Yes?” I said. “That’s me.”

The boy took a deep breath. “I need… you need…” He bent over, his hands on his knees. “Whoo…”

“Take your time, boy,” George said. “There’s no rush.”

There was another distant explosion.

The boy stood up straighter, fire in his eyes. “This is important! The para are attacking!”

I glanced at my friends, but they shook their heads. They didn’t know either.

“The who?” I asked.

The boy blinked. “…the para. The aliens?”

I scowled. “I’m not in the mood for practical jokes.”

“How do you not know about the aliens!?” the boy asked, aghast. “It’s been… everywhere the past few weeks! All over the news!”

I raised an eyebrow. “Convenient that this only happened while we were on a shuttle for a month.”

“You didn’t have tv on the shuttle?”

“Couldn’t agree on what to watch,” Jarasax said.

“Yeah, well, there are aliens, and they are attacking Lemuria!

“Sure.” I patted him on the shoulder and walked past him. “Whatever you say, buddy. Try your prank on someone else.”

“I have orders from Dame Medina to send you into battle!”

I raised an eyebrow. “I highly doubt that.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Telepathy is—look. Just give me one second.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“What’s he doing?” Sax asked after a moment.

“Beats me,” I said.

Kat signed something.

“Only if he’s actually a telepath,” I said. “What’d he do, leave Domina five minutes after the Rampage?”

She shrugged and signed something else.

Before I could respond, the boy opened his eyes. “Okay, got it. Dame Medina says code AG-7248-G-KL. ‘Ilarion Marinov, get off your ass and save that city or I am personally coming over there to smack some sense into you.’”

I blinked. “Wait. Seriously?”

The boy heaved a great sigh. “YES!

“Um, for what it’s worth,” the gardener said. “The para are real. They were orbiting Earth last I checked, but—”

“Retinue, weapons free,” I said.

We all dropped our bags on the ground and started rifling through them. I took off my shirt to better expose my dayskin, found my dayknives, and even clipped my Shachar-class pistol onto my belt. Fi had insisted I start carrying an actual gun once she left, and I had insisted on something angel-made.

I glanced behind me. George and Kat were finishing reassembling their gatling gun and sniper rifle, respectively, and Sax was checking over his rifle.

“Ready?” They nodded. I turned to the boy. “Show us the way.” He ran off, and we followed. As an afterthought, I shouted over my shoulder at the poor confused gardener. “Keep an eye on our bags!”

The boy led us out of the arboreum and through a maze of twisting passages. There were more explosions now, or perhaps we were just close enough to hear them. It took far longer than I would have liked, but eventually we came upon the battle scene.

The boy had led us to the industrial docks, used for shuttling raw materials and finished products between colonies, unlike the residential docks we had come in on. It was the size of a football field, and made completely out of gray steel and concrete. The entire place had the dirty grime of a place that no one bothered to clean more than was necessary. Giant shutters acted as airlocks big enough to allow entire tons of cargo to be shifted at a time. One of the shutters was open, with a ship attached.

Spilling out of the ship were dozens of people, roughly human-shaped, dressed in some sort of brightly-colored armor. It almost seemed like they had been painted at random, just a brush of color here and there. If there was any pattern or ranking system, I couldn’t see it.

They had guns, or something like them. The number of human corpses in maintenance uniforms were a testament to that. There were only a few defenders left, returning fire with small arms that were probably just personal defense weapons. I didn’t see any of the heavy ordnance that would be required to repel an attack like this. Lemuria was a quiet port, they hadn’t seen the need to keep miniguns stashed nearby.

Thankfully, we had brought our own.

I already had an earpiece on, so I broadcast on all Lemurian channels. “Cavalry incoming!”

George took the hint, planted his feet, and fired.

His minigun roared like a dragon, sending hundreds of bullets towards the invaders. The defenders knew to keep their heads down, but the enemy were not so lucky. Almost a dozen were shredded to pieces before the rest dove behind cover, but that was fine. The point of suppressing fire was not to kill the enemy—that was just a bonus. It was to force them to hide and stop shooting at you.

Kat took advantage, lining up her shots and taking out one, two, three before anyone noticed she was there. I just saw heads exploding around me as I ran.

Because I was taking advantage or George’s distraction too.

I rushed forward, knives at my sides, ducking under the hail of fire. I dodged around a crate, found the enemy soldier hiding behind it, and slashed him across the throat. Warm red blood splattered in the air, but I was already gone, heading for the next one.

This time, my knife hit something metal when I went for the throat.

The alien grinned and threw me aside with the strength of a giant. I hit a stack of boxes and was dazed, but still retained enough awareness to see the alien touch his neck to check the wound there. There was blood, but nowhere near enough for a wound that size, and I thought I saw the glint of metal under the flesh.

He—and I was pretty sure the alien was a he—had lost his gun when I attacked him, but he didn’t seem to mind. He raised his arm, and a long knife snapped out from his wrist, just above the hand.

Lovely.

There was a crackle of ozone as he advanced on me. So it was an electrified knife. Even better.

I flipped out my dayknives and slashed forward. I was still on the ground, so the attack came in low, and the alien was forced to jump backwards to dodge. That gave me time to clamber to my feet and fall into a real fighting stance.

The alien scowled and closed the distance, slashing with his knife from up high. I blocked with one of my blades—they had good thick rubber handles, so I didn’t have to worry about the electricity—and slashed at his chest with the other one. He dodged, but I managed to scratch the garish paint on his armor.

He pulled back for another strike, but I pressed the attack, forcing him on his guard. He parried a few more blows, but then I feinted for his chest and went for his neck again instead. That didn’t do much more than draw some blood, but it did distract him long enough for me to stab him in the eyes with both dayknives.

He instantly fell limp, and something electric popped and sizzled in his skull. I grunted and kicked him off my blades, then glanced around the battlefield.

Kat was still trying to provide supporting fire, but the aliens had closed with George. He had been forced to drop his minigun and engage them in melee, using what appeared to be the ripped-off arm of one of his assailants as a club. I didn’t see Sax anywhere, which I took as a good sign, especially since I could still hear him shooting. He must have hidden, and was now taking shots of opportunity. There were also a few more Lemurian dockworkers than before, trying to retake their home.

“Watch out!” I called. “They’re cyborgs! Don’t know what tricks they’ve got!”

One of the aliens climbed up onto the crate that I was using as cover and leveled his gun at me. I grabbed my knives, but I knew I wasn’t moving fast enough—I’d be dead before I managed to close. Before he was able to fire, bloody holes appeared in his skull, and he collapsed in a heap.

Jarasax slid into place next to me. “Maybe don’t announce your position to the entire battlefield,” he said.

“Sorry,” I said. “Lost my earpiece in the scuffle.” I looked around and found it at the spot where I had first been thrown into the boxes. I put it back on as we spoke. “Have they called in reinforcements yet?”

“There are no more ships coming in, if that’s what you mean,” he said. He checked a small wrist screen. “But there should be more still on that ship. I expect that they’ll be coming out any minute now.”

A stack of crates a few yards away exploded into a million pieces. Sax and I had to duck to avoid getting hit by red-hot shrapnel, but from the screams of pain, some of the dockworkers weren’t so lucky.

“Grenades,” I muttered. “Figures.”

Jarasax shook his head. “That wasn’t a grenade, that was a missile.”

“You mean like from a—” I was interrupted by the sound of something big and heavy coming down the ramp from the enemy ship. I spared a glance, assuming it was a couple big guys carrying a missile launcher, but had to look again when I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

It was a massive metal automaton, easily ten feet tall, with shoulders nearly as wide and two huge arms holding a missile launcher that was bigger than I was. It had four surprisingly small spiked legs that pounded the deck with a rhythmic ringing noise, and no head at all. It had a dozen glowing red lights on its chest, which I had to assume were its optical sensors. The torso swiveled every once in a while, trying to get a better view.

Unlike everything else the aliens used, this thing was not painted in a rainbow of colors. Instead it was simple steel, the dull gray color of metal that had not been polished in months or even years.

Two more of the automatons were coming down the ramp.

“They have robots? I shrieked.

“You’re surprised?” Jarasax said. “It seems to fit with their cybernetics and everything. So I guess I should say no, I don’t think they have robots—that’s probably more similar to an echo.” He smiled. “I’ll bet the pilots have their brains plugged directly into the controls…”

“Admire the enemy when they’re dead!” I snapped. “Kat!”

The rocket launchers were of a design that was unfamiliar to us, but they had what looked like coolant vents all along the sides. I saw a spark from Kat’s bullet when it hit those vents, and then the whole weapon exploded, taking out the robot’s arm with it. The machine screeched in pain and rage, almost like a living thing. That certainly lent credence to Sax’s theory.

“Aim for the guns,” I said on the general channel. “We can handle the bots when they’re disarmed.”

At least a dozen groans were my answer.

I smirked. “Just do it, unless you want more puns.”

I saw a burst of black mist behind me. That would be Kat, shifting to bat form. Good, she’d be in position for another shot in a moment. In the meantime, the others were firing at the missile launchers, but the injured robot was helping shield them. Not to mention that there were still a dozen normal aliens to contend with.

Normal aliens. Was that an oxymoron?

More gunfire hit the box I was hiding behind, and I forced myself to pay attention. There were three aliens spread out in front of me, firing in my direction. I checked for any other enemies in range—none—jumped out from behind the box, and started glowing. It wasn’t a full daybreak, but definitely enough to make the aliens flinch. When they did, I dashed forward and sliced them all to ribbons. The second had the same metal throat as the one I had fought earlier, but I just slashed across his face instead, sending him to the ground screaming.

Another of the robots lost an arm—George’s enhanced bullets had found their mark. I grabbed a grenade from one of the fallen aliens, pulled what looked like a pin, and threw it at the robots.

At first I thought nothing had happened, but then there was the sound of electricity, and all three machines were pulled together by a massive magnetic force. They struggled to break free, but everyone immediately focused fire on them. Thick armor or not, that was the kind of thing that made a dent. After a full minute of the sound of bullets impacting steel like rain on a tin roof, the grenade’s effect ended, and the robots slumped over, dead. Someone had finally hit something important.

I rushed forward, through the burning hulks, in order to prepare to attack whoever came out of the alien ship first. There were a few crates stacked up at the airlock, which would give me more than enough cover for an ambush.

Before I could get into position, the entire city shook. The airlock remained closed.

One of the aliens, wrestling with one of the dockworkers, looked up. He babbled something in his language, then tossed his opponent aside and held up his hands in surrender. The other aliens looked at him in shock before throwing down their own weapons and surrendering as well.

“What happened?” an unfamiliar voice asked over my earpiece. Probably one of the dockworkers.

“The ship left,” I said. “They abandoned their soldiers.” I did a quick count. “I guess they decided saving four men wasn’t worth it.”

“I think one’s a woman,” someone said helpfully.

One of the dockworkers put a gun in the face of one of the aliens. “So what now? We finish them off?”

I rolled my eyes and walked down the ramp. “No. These are prisoners of war, and must be treated with respect.”

He licked his lips. “But they never signed the Geneva Convention, right? So you can’t commit war crimes against them.”

I couldn’t remember what the Geneva Convention was, though it did sound familiar. Geneva was a city in… Italy? “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. We’re still bound to uphold the law even if they are not.”

“But—”

“And even if you are right, we still have a moral obligation not to slaughter prisoners.”

He still looked hesitant. “But—”

I rolled my eyes. “For crying out loud man, we need them alive for interrogation. What is with you?”

He lowered the gun and pouted. “I didn’t get to shoot anyone.”

I sighed. “I’m sure they’ll invade again at some point.” I glanced around. I still didn’t see any authority figures. There had to be police or something somewhere on this colony, but if so they hadn’t shown up yet. Or maybe they were just out of uniform. Either way, I was the only one taking charge.

One of the dockworkers walked up to me and showed me some handcuffs. “Broke up one of the boxes, sir.”

I nodded. “Good. Secure the prisoners.”

“And mark the box as opened,” someone else said. I was surprised to realize it was George. “We don’t want you to get in trouble with your boss when all this is done.”

The dockworker nodded and went to work. I glanced around at all the destroyed crates, then raised an eyebrow at George. He just shrugged.

“Okay,” I said, clapping my hands once to get everyone’s attention. “Where’s the prison?”

The dockworkers all stared at me.

“C’mon, there has to be one,” I said. “This colony has been here for twenty years. Someone has committed crimes in that time.”

“Criminals get shipped to Phobos,” one of the dockworkers said. “There’s a penal colony there.”

I shook my head. “Okay, sure, whatever. Where’s the nearest bathroom?”

He pointed at a far wall, and I saw the signs.

“Excellent,” I said. “Put them in there, lock the doors, and post guards outside. If you’re not sure how many guards you need, post more.”

Most of the dockworkers still looked confused, but a few started leading the prisoners away—including the blond who had gotten the handcuffs in the first place. I made a mental note to keep an eye on him. Initiative was rare in situations like this.

“Why a bathroom?” one of the other dockworkers asked.

I smiled. “Because it’s a room with only one exit and a toilet. Unless you would rather lock them in a room without a toilet?”

Someone muttered something about the Geneva Convention again. I ignored him. If it was important, he could speak up.

“Sax, Kat, secure those weapons,” I said, pointing to the alien guns. “George, find somewhere to put those robots. A machine shop should do—I’m sure that there’s one around here somewhere.”

“I’ll show you,” one of the dockworkers said. She was a woman, and seemed too eager for my tastes. George liked them bubbly, though, and he was smiling when she led him off.

I nodded as Kat and Sax went to work. “Excellent. Anything else?”

“Yeah,” one of the dockworkers said, frowning. “Who are you?”

My smile fled. “I’m sorry?”

“You don’t look Lemurian,” he said. “And I definitely don’t recognize you.” He looked me up and down. “Are those tattoos Hebrew?”

“It’s more like high-tech ritual scarification,” I said. “And while it’s based on Hebrew, it’s actually a cipher—”

“Alex,” Jarasax said, a warning tone in his voice. “Check them.”

I took a deep breath and, for the first time in well over a month, activated my power.

I still didn’t know exactly what it did. It was some form of mind-reading, that much was clear, but nothing so simple or useful as directly hearing thoughts. At first I thought I could feel emotions, but that wasn’t it either.

I could feel intent, or something like it. Not what someone would do, but what they wanted to do. I had found it less useful than I might have expected. Turned out that most people spent a lot of time wanting to do things and then never acting on that intent.

When I turned on my power and pushed my senses towards the Lemurians, I got a lot of different readings. Some of them wanted to lie down and sleep. Some wanted to eat, or take a shower, or just shoot things. One worker had a surprisingly strong desire to get into his ship, chase after the aliens, and ram them. The desire was so strong I could almost see it, but he just stood there calmly.

Oddly, none of the crowd wanted to kill me, or even attack me. That was what Jarasax had been warning me about, but it turned out he was just being paranoid. That wasn’t uncommon for changelings.

I relaxed. If I hadn’t used my power, I probably would have freaked out and ran. With it, I could tell that we weren’t in any danger, so we could try to talk them down.

“We just got in today,” I said. “Came all the way from Earth, actually.” I shrugged, as if it was no big deal, but I knew that Lemurians rarely saw Earthers. The older colonies didn’t really like outsiders. Not much different from Domina, actually. “We heard what was happening, so we decided to lend a helping hand.”

Most of the dockworkers relaxed, but the leader didn’t relax. “That doesn’t explain your tattoos. Or why people with your kind of training are here in the first place.”

I pursed my lips. ‘We were sent here as spies because we weren’t doing any good in a city of monsters’ probably wasn’t the best tact to take. I was reasonably certain he hadn’t realized we were from Domina, but the second he looked up my tattoos, he’d figure it out. Basic culture information had been shared after the war with America, and Lemuria probably had that information on hand even before that.

Before I was forced to think of something to say, the telepath from before ran up, skidding to a stop in front of me. “Honored Daybreaker! New orders!”

“New orders from who?” the lead dockworker demanded. “No one on Lemuria called for you.”

I decided to go all-out. “Orders from Domina City. He’s a telepath.”

He stared. “A tele-what?

“We have superpowers, you have aliens. It’s a weird universe.” I turned to the boy. “Spit it out.”

He took a deep breath. “Code AG-7248-G-KL-VC2. ‘Liaise with local authorities to fortify Lemuria. If the para return, stop them.’ That’s all, sir.”

I nodded. “Good. Sax, pay the kid.”

The boy happily accepted a small wad of cash from Jarasax, bowed to us both, and ran off again.

“Liaise with local authorities?” the lead dockworker asked. “What does that mean?”

I smirked. I had been waiting to say this my whole life.

“Take us to your leader.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 325)

Took me a while to figure out who I wanted on Lemuria. I didn’t want to introduce any new characters, especially with the added baggage of being a ghost. Then I remembered that I had been planning on sending them offworld after the whole thing with Fierna, and it all clicked into place.

Just remember that the retinue make absolutely terrible ghosts. Most ghosts have things like “training” and “subtlety.”

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Scene 269 – Sollemne

SOLLEMNE

DEREK

A party felt like a stupid idea.

But we needed this, dammit. After months of stumbling from crisis to crisis, we needed something that didn’t involve monsters or assassinations or superpowered goddesses from the future.

More people had come than I expected. In addition to the rest of the Paladins and the retinue, five of Akane’s kensei—plus both her nephews—had come, and were chatting amiably with the half-dozen scientists Laura had brought. It seemed like they had met before at NHQ, and were now discussing some old missions. Akane had more kensei, but they seemed to mostly be busy right now.

The real surprise was that Simon, Seena, and all their friends had come as well. I recognized Simon’s girlfriend and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and her bodyguards (who had been polite enough to leave their guns at home), but the last girl, who Seena had called Veda, was unfamiliar. She wore a big concealing cloak and seemed to be avoiding me, which usually meant that I had tried to kill her at some point. Oh well, as long as she didn’t start something, it was fine.

“Nice party,” Adam said with a smirk as he walked up, Lily on his arm.

She elbowed him in the ribs. “Be nice.”

He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”

“I know this might seem like a bad time to throw a party—”

He laughed. “You kidding? It’s the perfect time. I grew up in New York high society. Most of the best parties were when there was some crisis that everybody was trying to distract themselves from. But this…” He winced. “At least the food’s nice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It looks like people are having a good time.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“They are,” Lily said, half to me and half to Adam. “They’re not just putting on a show. They’re genuinely enjoying themselves.”

“Except for the retinue.”

I glanced over at the group. They were easy to spot, due to George being the only giant on the roof. George was eating something mechanically, and Kat was doing something on her phone. Jarasax actually seemed to be having an animated conversation with one of Eccretia’s bodyguards, but Alex…

Alex looked like a zombie. I wasn’t sure he was even conscious of where he was.

After everything that had happened with Kelly, it was probably a miracle he even got out of bed in the morning. Actually, considering that he didn’t sleep, it might be that he just hadn’t gone to bed after all this happened.

Kelly… Fierna… had released a statement to the rest of the city, declaring the Belians and Phlegethos hers. There had been talk of war, but right now she seemed to be busy purging her house of discontent. None of the other vampires, or Necessarius, wanted to deal with her.

“It’s a miracle she didn’t kill him,” Adam said quietly. “That’s gotta be freaky.”

I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t mentioned what I had overheard, and didn’t see a need to do so now. I shouldn’t have heard it in the first place. Should have just left when I had the chance, no need to stay…

“You have that look in your eye,” Lily said wryly.

“What look?”

“The look you get when you’re blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault.”

I sighed. “I don’t need you to mother me, Lily.”

She raised her hand, forestalling the point. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just saying this as a friend, Derek. Whatever it is, let it go. You did everything you could, and it would have turned out worse if you weren’t there.”

I rolled my eyes. “You don’t even know what it is.”

She smirked. “You always do everything you can, and it always turns out better from your presence. You really aren’t a hard one to read, little hero.”

Please don’t start calling me that.”

She laughed, and pulled Adam away. “Come on. Nervi’s set up some of her pumpkin roast. Have you tried it yet?”

I shook my head as they walked away, and nearly ran headlong into Laura, who was walking up with a couple drinks. Sodas, thankfully. Good thing Nervi didn’t cater alcohol—I would have drank most of it already.

“This one is yours,” Laura said without missing a beat, handing me a can of Cerean something or other. The logo was stylized, I couldn’t tell what it said. The only reason I knew it was from Ceres was because their cans are always rectangles.

I took it, but frowned at the more normal can in her hand. “Shouldn’t we switch?”

She shrugged, taking a swig. “That was the last one.”

She had been trying to get me to try some Cerean brand for a while now. I guess this was it. I cracked open the lid, slightly annoyed at the lack of fizz (carbonation was a horrible idea when shooting giant packages through space) and sipped at it. It tasted light and fruity.

Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”

“No, I do, I just—” I stopped. “I don’t know why I even thought of lying to you.”

She took my arm lightly and led me to one of the groups. Scientists, I was pretty sure, but most of Akane’s kensei had left their swords at home, so it could be them. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse. Try overhearing a man telling his wife where he was last night, and realizing every word is a lie.”

I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”

“Blackmailed him later,” she said pleasantly. “That was fun.”

Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.

“Derek, these are some of the Clarke’s researchers. You’ve probably met them all before at some point or another.”

“I know I’ve met you,” I said, indicating a kemo with bat ears. Those were rare. I couldn’t even remember what the subculture was called. Well, microculture. “You’ve helped patch me up once or twice.”

She nodded. “I have a degree in medical applications of the toy maker. One of my main projects is to study our Honored Mother, to make sure her newest toys can be added safely.”

“You know she doesn’t like being called that,” one of the men warned.

The bat kemo smiled slightly. “I know. She tells me it every day.”

“What about the rest of you?” I asked, steering the topic onto grounds I felt more comfortable with. “What do you all do with Clarke? Are any of you working with him on…” I frowned, and turned to Laura. “What’s that thing he’s working on these days?”

“The heart,” she answered. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation. He almost cracked it before the Rampage, and now he basically has.”

The male researcher, the black man who had warned about the Mother Monster, snorted. “Yeah, using his power he’s cracked it. But that’s cheating. What happens if he dies, or if he’s just busy and we can’t find another exomorpher? He needs to focus more on the toy box itself, not playing with his power.”

“I’m still catching him morphing his skin when he thinks no one is looking,” Laura said. “It’s going to take a bit longer for the novelty to wear off.”

“Are people like Clarke that rare?” I asked. “With that power, I mean.”

The researcher thought about it. “A little. No one here has it, but there are more than a few scattered around NHQ. But that’s not the point. We don’t understand these powers, and shouldn’t be trusting them. What if Silk comes back and snaps her fingers, turning them all off?”

I glanced at Laura, who didn’t look as concerned as she should have. The man had a point. Silk had given us a way to disrupt powers, who knew what else she could do. I still didn’t trust her, no matter that Laura had been pointing her power at her the entire time. For all we knew, she had some way to dodge that ability.

“Excuse us,” Laura said as she tugged on my arm, pulling us away from the group. “Speaking of Clarke, his daughter just landed.” She was right, Robyn had just floated down, carrying a case of beer. Still, the second we were out of earshot, she quietly said “You had that look on your face.”

I sighed. “Everyone is noticing looks on my face tonight. What is it this time?”

She smirked a little, but quickly turned serious. “That look when you’re worrying about something you shouldn’t.”

“Is that the same as my ‘everything is my fault’ face?”

“No, of course not.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I am worried about Silk.”

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do about her.”

Before I could retort, we were within a couple steps of Robyn, and Laura was all smiles for her. “I thought you had decided to skip.”

She managed a small smile of her own. “Nope. Just grabbing some beer.” She hefted the six-pack.

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a good idea?”

She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”

“Yes.”

No,” Laura cut in. She gave me a look. “If I can’t drink, you can’t drink. That was the deal.”

“I said that when I thought there wouldn’t be any alcohol here at all,” I grumbled.

Robyn looked between us. “Why can’t you drink?” Her eyes twinkled with amusement. “Are you pregnant?

What?

“Of course not!” Laura added. “Silver and gold, when would we even had time to do that?”

I glanced at her. “That’s why you think it’s improbable? Just timing?”

Robyn snorted. “Please, if this city wasn’t constantly in danger, you two would never leave the bedroom.”

I felt myself go beet red, but Laura didn’t seem surprised at all. “Don’t exaggerate. Technically, we’re not even dating.”

“Technically nothing!” I squeaked. “We’re not dating! Period!”

She gave me a sidelong glance.

I thought back to the last month or so. Farther back, actually, all the way to the reveal of Elizabeth’s identity. About the amount of time we had been spending together, the lunches and dinners we had taken alone, without anybody else around, and all the other girls I had been turning down.

“Crap,” I muttered.

Robyn smirked. “I know a nice jewelry store if you need to apologize.”

I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

Laura was amused as well, but she kept a better lid on it. “No need for jewelry, I promise. The look on your face is apology enough.”

“Glad you find my pain funny.”

She just smiled. “Come on. You need to meet some people.” She pulled me away.

“Robyn, share,” I called back. “Don’t drink all of that by yourself.”

She flipped me off with a winning smile.

We walked across the roof, weaving through the crowd, and I tried to find the words. “I’m… sorry. That I didn’t notice we were dating.” Then I chuckled. “I think that might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.”

“I’m sure you’ve said worse.” She squeezed my arm tighter, laying her head on my shoulder briefly. “And I knew you were being an idiot, but didn’t say anything. It’s as much my fault as yours.”

“That’s not true and you know it. A little your fault, sure, but I think this is a time I really do deserve the lion’s share of the blame.” I blinked as a thought occurred to me. “Do our parents know?”

“I haven’t mentioned it to them, but that doesn’t mean much. Thieves are good at figuring things out, especially when they’re close friends with Butler.”

I groaned. “Butler knows.”

“Of course he does. Clarke doesn’t, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does, actually.” We slipped into the edge of the crowd of swordsmen and swordswomen at the corner of the roof. “Akane! How are you enjoying the party?”

At the center of the group, Akane sat on a table, sipping a drink and smiling. I couldn’t remember the last time I really, truly saw her smile, but here she was.

She raised the drink in my direction. “Derek. Good party.”

“Auntie Akane was just telling us about the first time you two fought a gargant,” one of the younger swordsmen explained. One of her nephews, obviously. Yuuki, I was pretty sure. “Was it really a full-sized blind-rammer?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Oh, don’t remind me of that disaster. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t bring the whole building down on us.”

“And somebody forgot to buy insurance,” Akane said, still smiling.

“And I forgot to buy insurance,” I said. “So we were liable for the damages.” I shook my head. “I think we spent the whole next year paying that one off.”

“She also claims you managed to kill a deathmarked,” another kensei said. This was the other nephew, Yuudai.

“We crushed it in a car compactor. It’s dead.” I swallowed. “Pretty sure.”

Sometimes I still had dreams of that thing coming after us.

Laura tugged on my arm before the silence could get too awkward. “We’ll let your boss regale you with her old war stories, kids. Mister Huntsman and I need to speak with Noble Nyashk.”

I knew an out when I saw one, and gave polite nods to them as we left. I was actually a little surprised when she pulled us towards Seena and her group, which included her brother and his girlfriend, the changeling warlord and her bodyguards, and the hooded woman.

“Noble Nyashk,” Laura said by way of greeting. “I’m pleasantly surprised that you came.”

“Dame Laura,” Seena answered in kind. “I got your invitation. It seemed downright criminal not to put in an appearance.”

“How is your new job treating you?”

She sighed. “I’m one of two warlords trying to hold the Mals together, and the other one is Zepar. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure the culture is going to survive the winter.”

“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “People always need assassins.”

“Our methods are going out of style. People prefer more subtlety than knives in the dark. Contracts are starting to dry up.” She shrugged. “But powers change the game. We’ll see, we’ve had some recent successes.”

“What’s your power, by the way?” I asked.

She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”

“Mine’s one of the stock vampire ones,” Simon said before things could get awkward. He held out his scarred hand, and shadows writhed in his hand. “I can make darkness. Shadows deep enough that even a vampire can’t see through them. Cool, huh?”

“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.

She shrank at the attention. “It’s… weird. I kind of… turn into electricity?”

I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”

“No, I don’t have enough control for that. I’m just… electricity. It kinda works like teleportation, but I have no control over where I end up, I just kind of randomly rematerialize somewhere within ten feet of my starting point.” She shrugged. “Like I said, it’s weird.”

Laura, however, looked thoughtful. “There might be something more to that. Maybe you can stop by NHQ tomorrow morning, we can run some tests.”

Yolanda shivered. “I’m not big on tests.”

“Exercises, then. No needles.”

“…okay.”

“I fix things,” one of Eccretia’s bodyguards said. Ferenil, I think.

His boss glared at him. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”

“I reverse time!” the other man, Domothon, said.

Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” I said. “Reverse time, and keep your mouth shut this time.”

He winced. “I just did. It was out of reach.”

I blinked. “…five seconds is out of reach?”

“Yes,” he grumbled. “And it takes forever for my reservoir to recharge. I mostly just use it in emergencies, like when I get shot.”

Ferenil slapped him across the face.

“Gods of men and darkness, what was that for!?

“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”

Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.

“I’m guessing you don’t feel like sharing, Honored Paragon,” I said to change the subject.

Eccretia scowled. “No. I might as well at this point, but I’m not going to. I’m sure you understand. You all hid your powers for as long as possible.”

I shrugged. “We were considering coming out for a long time. Elizabeth forced our hands.”

“Robyn hid it from us for a while,” Laura added. “We only found out when she saved us from an ambush.” She shook her head and took a sip of her soda. “Irresponsible. Understandable, but irresponsible.”

“It all worked out in the end. And besides, she was helping us.” The others looked at me blankly. “MC knew,” I explained. “Robyn acted as her scout. So she saved our lives a few times.” I tried not to grind my teeth. “…but she could have done better.”

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Miss Korrapati,” Laura said to the girl in the hooded cloak. “What’s your power? My first guess would be speed, or perhaps shapeshifting.” She shook her head. “No, any form of identity concealment wouldn’t need the hood, of course…”

The girl shuffled on her feet. “Kinesis. You know, moving things with my mind? Small things, mostly. I’m a tinkerer, so it helps me build things.” She shrugged. “Simple, but nice.” She chuckled. “Better than this friend of mine. He got one of those vampire draining things. He refuses to use it, so he’s basically powerless.”

“What does he drain?” I asked.

“Life.”

“Ah.” Yes, that would be hard to use ethically.

“I’m sure he could find a use for it,” Laura said, smiling pleasantly. “Has he tried draining animals?”

The hooded girl shook her head. “Only works on humans, as far as he can tell.”

I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”

“Lots of powers are,” Laura said. “One of the ‘sarians at NHQ can’t use her telekinesis unless she’s wearing leather gloves. Pretty powerful when she has the gloves, though.”

While I frowned in confusion, everyone else nodded. I guess they all had more interaction with weird powers than me. I mostly just knew the Paladins and Akane’s kensei.

I opened my mouth to say something, but Simon looked at something behind me. “Who’s that waving at you?”

“Hm?” I turned to see George the giant waving from across the rooftop. “Oh, that’s the retinue.” I paused, thinking. “I don’t want to just leave you guys—”

They waved us off. “No, it’s fine, just go.”

I nodded in thanks then peeled away, Laura still on my arm as we navigated the crowds.

“Be careful,” I told her quietly.

She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”

“Just in general. We don’t want to depress them any more than they already are.”

She looked like she had a retort ready for that, but didn’t say anything as we walked up.

“George,” I said with a smile. “What’s up? You enjoying the party?”

He smiled weakly. “Best as I can, sir. Best as I can. I was just wondering if you had any specific plans for us during the battle.”

I winced. “You don’t need to be involved.”

“With all due respect, sir, working makes us feel better.”

Kat and Jarasax nodded. Alex hadn’t so much as acknowledged our presence.

“All right…” I thought for a moment, before turning to Laura. “Vampire domain?”

She nodded. “Best place to put them. Alex will be most useful there, and the rest are used to working in those sorts of conditions. We’ll stick you on East Gate.”

I frowned, then leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Where are the Belians going to be, again?”

She stiffened, then cursed under her breath. “Of course. West Gate, then, with the angels.”

George nodded. “Probably for the best.”

I gave Alex a look. “You fine with that?”

He shrugged. “The Saints have forgiven the ‘sarian angels. Mostly.”

“Not what I meant.”

He turned away. “Yeah, well, it’s the most pressing matter. I’ll live.”

I sighed, and turned to the kemo of the group. “Kat. How is your power treating you? It must be hard, since you didn’t get one that matches your personality.”

She shrugged, and signed something.

“She’s been going to a support group for the bats and bleeders and so on,” George translated. “She’s doing okay.”

She signed something else.

“The biters have it worse.”

I nodded. Yeah, that was a weird one. The skins and the bleeders too, but at least they didn’t have that permanent morphing thing. That wasn’t going to be fun if it wasn’t what you wanted, deep down.

“And you, George?” Laura asked. “What’s going on with you these days? I know the giants are still having some difficulties without the Hammer, but war hasn’t broken out yet.”

He waved a massive hand. “I barely pay attention to the culture any more. Yeah, what’s happening to them sucks, but they’ll survive. I’ve got my own stuff going on.”

“Which is?”

“Well, besides the retinue, uh…” He thought for a minute. “Been pretty big on online gaming recently.”

“Need to do something with all that free time,” Jarasax said with a smile.

“Isn’t the Big Boss sending you on missions?” I asked. “Helping the CS-squad, that sort of thing? You have the most experience with powers, so I just assumed you’d be part of it. Maybe get folded in completely.”

Sax shook his head. “We were, but with… everything that’s happened, we’re kind of on enforced leave right now.”

I winced. “That might not be the best idea.”

George nodded. “I’d feel better if we were working regularly.”

“I’m sure if you explain the situation, he’ll be happy to put you on more missions.”

“Now isn’t the time for it, though,” Laura said. “With war just around the corner.”

“They haven’t attacked yet. May as well get this settled, instead of just waiting around forever.”

“Guys…” Sax said, jerking his head at Alex.

The poor angel looked like his brain was shutting down. This was simply not something he wanted to think about.

“…another time, then,” Laura said. “We’ll see you around.” She led me away.

“Well, at least that wasn’t a complete disaster,” I muttered.

“It could have been worse,” she agreed. “I have no idea how, but it could have been.”

“Yeah…” I shook my head. “Poor bastards. I think they might be looking forward to the war a little too much.”

She winced. “You don’t think they’ve gone suicidal.”

“Alex is the only one I’m really worried about.”

“…but the rest are spoiling for a fight.” She nodded. “They want to do something. Maybe you’re right about them needing more jobs. I’ll talk to Butler tomorrow. See if he can’t find something for them to do.”

“Maybe we can—” I frowned as I realized she was leading me to the stairs. “Were are we going?”

“Downstairs.”

“Yes, I got that.”

She squeezed my arm and laid her head on my shoulder. “I meant back to the dorms.”

“What do you—oh.” Huh.

That was…

Huh.

She chuckled. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”

She smiled. “Maybe. But flustered is cuter.”

I opened the door for her. “After you.”

Her eyes twinkled, and she laughed as we left the party.

Behind the Scenes (scene 269)

I had a huge romance arc for Derek and Laura planned. A long arc revolving around the remnants of his mind control, their interactions as children, and the reason she left South Central in the first place. I decided to go with a simpler option, keeping it mostly offscreen, because it just wasn’t working. Too reliant on cliches and so on.

break

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 251 – Talio

TALIO

KELLY

I scratched at the fixer on my arm. It was always an annoyance at the back of my mind, but for the last few weeks it had been worse than usual. At first, I had assumed it was just itching from the wounds I had inflicted during the Rampage, when in my blind animal fury I had tried to rip the device off my arm without properly disengaging the needles first, but it didn’t look like that was the case.

Kat smacked my hand, glaring at me to let me know she’s bring out the claws if I didn’t stop. I glared right back, but buckled under her withering stare after only a moment. She was right, of course, and I knew I didn’t have a leg to stand on. First rule any ex-Belian or ex-hag learned was ‘Don’t mess with the fixer.’

Before I could say anything to her—to yell at her or thank her, I don’t know—Jarasax and George came back with the beers, placing one in front of everyone. Plus the soda for me, of course. Alcohol doesn’t affect you when you’re on the fixer, and it makes it taste weird.

“I met with Adele and Gregorii today,” Alex said as he sipped his beer. “Turns out she got illusions.”

“Light-based, I’m guessing?” I asked. Illusions, we had found, could be split roughly between the kind that were caused by directly manipulating light, and the kind that were caused by causing people to hallucinate specific things.

“Light-based,” Alex confirmed. “Shows up on cameras and everything. Gregorii’s got this sort of light absorption thing to boost his stats, like those blood-drinkers. It’s actually kind of cool.”

George shook his head as he started on a glass that was about the size of the other four combined. “I swear, every single angel has something related to light. Somebody up there has a bad sense of humor.”

“I didn’t get light,” Alex noted.

I shrugged. “Well, it’s based on your desires. Huntsman wanted to protect people, he got shields. The aves wanted to fly, they got variants on that. And every freaking Dagonite got a specific variant of kinesis.”

“I met one who has shifting,” Jarasax pointed out. “She can jump from her Dagonite form to normal in a blink.”

Kat signed something.

“Shifting is what you do,” I reminded her. “It’s the fast one, but it doesn’t last very long. Morphing is the slow one, but it lasts forever.”

Jarasax grinned over his beer. “My morphing is fast.”

“That’s because you’re a cheater,” I pointed out. “Besides, you said you had a limit. What was it?”

“Only things I’ve touched recently.”

“That’s right.” I waved my soda, nearly spilling it in the process. “Still, the power to turn to stone or whatever is still pretty cool.”

Sax nodded and took another swig.

But Alex looked curious. “I wonder what would happen if you tried to turn into a liquid.”

“Doesn’t work.” At our stares, he shrugged. “I thought of it too. I was scared, but I can control what changes. Figure I’d turn one finger to water, see if I could still control it or if it would just fall off.” He shook his head. “Nothing. Reservoir didn’t even deplete.”

“That’s interesting,” Alex said. “So you can only copy solids.”

“I guess. Explains why I never accidentally copied the air.”

“Have there been any interesting themes around changeling powers?” I cut in. “I mean, vampires and angels get about what you expect, like we were saying, but we’ve also been seeing a lot of kemos with shifting or morphing, giants get powers related to whatever myth they follow, that sort of thing.”

“Demons don’t seem to have any theme,” Alex pointed out.

“Demons are demons,” I said. “They don’t stick with one culture for long, you know that. They like to change it up. I mean, you were a demon for a few months there at first.” Before he could answer, I waved him off. “But there are still some. Like, the hellions tend towards powers with obvious military applications. That sort of thing.”

“Well, there’s nothing like that for the changelings,” Jarasax said, bringing the conversation back on track. “Though, I haven’t exactly been in contact with Nemeni recently. I don’t have access to the roll call.”

“Nemeni?” I asked. The name sounded familiar.

“Nemeni of the Blood-Doused Hunters,” he elaborated. “Founder and warlord of the clan.”

George shook his head again, but this time in good humor. “It’s still weird to hear about changeling warlords.”

“Yeah, a lot of them still don’t like being called that,” Sax admitted. “Spent too much time fighting warlords, you know?”

George patted him on the shoulder. “At least the fey are being quiet.”

Sax snorted and took a swig of his beer. “You kidding? It’s terrifying. They’ve never been this quiet before. Ever. Last time they went for a few days without a show, they came back with that Wild Hunt thing. It’s been weeks this time.” He shook his head. “They’re planning something. Dunno what.”

“They still have that gargant running around killing people, though the frequency has dropped,” I noted. “Once or twice a week instead of five times a day. Has anyone at least figured out what they’re after?”

“No,” he said with a sigh. “Still no statements. No one’s even seen the damn gargant; the fey are being careful, sending it only to places with a closed security feed that can be stolen or destroyed. They’re still paying retribution, though.”

Kat signed a question.

“That’s exactly right,” I agreed. “Why? Why did they bother becoming a culture? Why go to all that trouble, just to make it so that they have to pay off anyone they hurt? They could have recruited without signing anything first.”

The Middle-Eastern changeling chuckled. “Oh, we figured that one out. It’s actually rather clever, when you stop to think about it.”

I sat back in my chair, frowning. “Do tell.”

“The fey have to pay retribution now,” he said, still smiling. “But in return, after they’ve paid, no one can attack them for their crimes. A few people have done it anyway, killed some of the feyborn and even one or two Princes. The fey didn’t even kill them, just calmly called for retribution. Necessarius came in, made the call, and the fey got to kill off the offenders perfectly legally.”

“They’re… protecting their followers?” I asked slowly, not quite believing it.

“They’re protecting their minions,” Sax corrected firmly. “This is not mothers sheltering babes. This is greedy misers protecting their investments. They’re planning something big, and need the feyborn in order to do it.”

“Have the minions been doing anything?” Alex said. “I mean, have they been interacting with the other cultures at all? Making deals, alliances, anything suspicious like that?”

“Probably. But if so, everyone’s keeping a tight lid on it. They mostly stay underground, in their demesnes and the sewers and stuff. They’ve pretty much had the run of the place since Obox-ob disappeared.”

Obox-ob, the Prince of Vermin, was the Power of the ekolids, a culture of bug demons that hid in the sewers. He had always been private, but around the time the Composer first showed up, he had fallen off the radar completely. His men weren’t saying much, but without their warlord, the fey hadn’t had much difficulty forcing the bugs out of the sewers and onto the surface. We were starting to see a few of them scuttling around with the rest of us, though they mostly kept to themselves.

Before we could continue the conversation, my phone rang. I frowned and checked the text, then rolled my eyes. “Blood and shadow, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“What?” Sax asked as he started putting on his coat. The others were largely following suit. “The Paladins need help?”

We had been given an indefinite vacation now that Akane’s kensei had taken over guarding duties. I’d be more insulted, but I had met a few of them, and they all seemed competent enough. Besides, they all knew where we were if they needed us. We still stopped by every few days to discuss strategy and such.

“Worse,” I muttered. “There’s been another of those weird gargant attacks.”

George drained the rest of his beer in one massive gulp and slammed the glass down. “Where?”

I sighed. “Acheron. Nishrek, specifically, on Avalas Street.”

They all paused.

“…are you sure we can’t just let this one go?” Alex said after a moment.

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “This isn’t up for discussion. Sax, bring the van around.”

Acheron wasn’t too far, which is why we were called. That being said, it wasn’t like most domains, which were just a handful of blocks at most. It was more like Nosferatu territory—a massive sprawl of unaffiliated and uncooperative clans, broods, and houses stuffed into a nest of buildings and streets that sometimes seemed like nothing but dead-ends and dirty back alleys.

But, despite the area’s well-deserved reputation, there were real streets, which, while not exactly well-maintained, were at least in good enough condition to drive on. The roads were lined with dilapidated, windowless buildings, most still covered in the scars of the Rampage weeks ago. Armed gunmen prowled the sidewalks, even more so than in other districts.

The main thoroughfare was Styx, as could probably be expected, and we found Avalas Street a mile or so down the road. From there, Nishrek wasn’t too difficult to spot.

It had no walls. It was a forty or fifty-story tall ‘scraper that had no walls. Just floors and support columns to hold up the ceiling above it. As we drove up, I could see right inside, though as we got closer the angle made it difficult to get a good view of anything above the first floor.

It was an extremely odd design, and one without an inch of privacy. As I understood it, most of the domain was actually underground, deeper than even the sewers and concrete and into the ancient trash of the island itself. It was an excessive amount of time and effort, all things considered, and most people didn’t understand why it had been built this way.

But Nishrek did not gain the name ‘the Fifty Battlefields’ for nothing.

Each and every floor was a training ground, carefully crafted to mimic a specific battlefield. The first, the only one I could see as we walked up, was the simplest. Pillars were decorated to look like trees, concrete boulders were scattered around, and there was even a river running through the heart.

It was a forest battle. Far from common in Domina City, but we had a few parks here and there. Plus, fighting in forests was fun.

Right now, though, there was no fighting going on. The entire floor was quiet as a grave, though I could hear the sound of faux-gunfire from the floors above. Both teams were sitting around, sulking, barely even able to summon the energy to drink the beers they had found somewhere.

Acheron was a demon territory, but the teams in front of me were vampires. Mals, if I was reading the insignia right. It was hardly unexpected. Demons, with their focus on individual freedom, were a transitional culture for many people, and thus they were on good terms with the other cultures as a general rule. Nishrek, in particular, earned their keep by renting out their battlefields to other cultures for training.

As soon as they saw us, one of the drakes stood up. He was a tall, deeply tanned man with a strong yet thin tail that was knotting itself with worry. He still managed to stay strong, though, and met my gaze without fear.

“You’re Necessarian, correct?”

“Correct,” I said, as I shook his hand. His grip was a little on the weak side. “Corporal Drakela Sanguinas. Please, call me Kelly.” I waved my hand. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here? I don’t see any corpses.”

“Over here,” Alex called from deeper in the ‘forest’ before the vampire could answer.

Our greeter went first, and I was happy to let him play guide. The rest of us followed him to one of the larger fake boulders, to find Alex crouching behind it, looking over a small pile of bodies. There were a number of splatters of green everywhere, including on the corpses themselves, and it took me a second to identify it as paint.

“This is how you found them?” I asked.

The vampire nodded. “Razvan found them. He, uh, thought they were on the opposing team, so he shot them a couple times on instinct.” He looked embarrassed. “He’s really one of our best men, he just gets tunnel vision.”

“It’s fine,” I said. I knelt down next to the grisly pile of gore. It smelled terrible, but I had smelled worse. “I’m thinking… two, three hours. Honored Nightstalker, how exactly did you find them?”

It took our guide a second to respond. “Who, me? But I’m not—anyway. We had contracted with Bahgtru to use this space for a few hours. We got here an hour ago, started the game half an hour ago. Found them… maybe five minutes after that.”

“Did anyone use the space before you today?” Jarasax asked as he took notes.

“Uh, I’m not sure, you’d have to ask—”

“No, no one did.”

I turned to see a tall, broad shouldered demon with green skin and a single horn curving out of his forehead like a spike. His eyes were marble-black, most likely marking him as an orc. Despite his size, he wore a sharply tailored suit, and appeared to be unarmed. Sure, with his buffs he’d be lethal even bare-handed, but even the most powerful warlords tended to keep a gun on them at all times—or, failing that, bodyguards.

“Knight Bahgtru,” the vampire greeted him with a pleasant nod. “Thank you for coming.”

“Pleasure is all mine, Noble Zepar,” the demon grunted. “Not really a Power, though.”

It took me a second to process what was happening. I pointed at the drake with the tail. “So… you’re Zepar. Spymaster of the Mals?”

“And training master, unfortunately,” he said with a sigh. “Losing two of our warlords was a blow. I’ve been handling much of the subtler running of the culture, while Noble Nyashk takes care of the more violent side of things.”

I had heard something about Nyashk, but pushed it to the back of my mind for now. I turned back to the demon. “And you, Honored Devil, are Bahgtru Break-Bone, son of Gruumsh himself. Is that correct?”

He bowed formally. “Of course. At your service.”

Well, his presence made it clear that old One-Eye was taking this seriously, if nothing else. “Okay. And you rented this space to the Mals for training, but no one was here before them? Not even any cleaning crew?”

He straightened. “Correct and correct. Noble Nyashk contacted me, actually, asking for use of one of the Battlefields for the sake of power training. We’ve had a lot of people using them for that in the past few weeks. There were a few groups running through here to reach higher floors, but there is no reason to suspect they would have found the bodies. The cleaning crew was last here six hours ago, and they didn’t mention anything.”

Jarasax finished his notes, but didn’t look up from his pad. “Honored Devil, we were told this was a gargant attack. Was that a miscommunication, or is there something we’re missing about the scene? I was under the impression that the fey’s new pet didn’t leave much behind.”

Bahgtru blinked. “Oh, no, that’s right. We saw it on the cameras.”

I stared at him. “You have video evidence and you didn’t mention it until now?”

Bahgtru looked embarrassed, and his composure faltered. “I, uh, thought you knew?”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Sax, please go with the Honored Devil to take a look at those videos. Get copies if you can.”

“It’s downstairs,” Bahgtru said, pointing at a distant stairwell descending underground, but showing no interest in going himself. “Third door on your left. Ask the girl for the ones from earlier today, she’ll know what you mean.”

“I’ll go with him,” Alex said, standing and brushing off his pants. “In case he gets lost.” The angel tossed me his pad. “I think I’ve got everything I need. Check my work, would you?”

I scowled as he left. Ass. He knew full well that with my nighteyes, I couldn’t read anything on his pad. I handed it off to George, who walked away with Kat to try and decipher Alex’s poor note-taking skills.

“I need to check on my men,” the vampire warlord muttered under his breath as he headed off back to the front of the floor. “Excuse me, I’ll be back in one second… CLARA! No biting people!”

I smiled at that, but was careful not to look in the direction he was walking. Whatever happening over there was his problem, not mine. Instead, I peered closer at the pile of corpses left behind by the attack.

They… didn’t seem to be chewed up or eaten. That was normally how gargants operated, but there were exceptions. If nothing else, you’d expect the bodies to be broken and battered. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with them at all. Sure, they were obviously dead, but they didn’t appear to have any wounds.

I sniffed again. The coppery scent of blood was thick in the air, even so long after their deaths, so I knew I must be missing something. Curious, I lifted up one of the shirts to see if there was anything—

Their hearts had literally exploded out of their chests.

Just popped like something had tried to burrow its way out. The ribcage was broken and bent back, the white bones contrasting starkly with the red blood and shredded meat. I couldn’t even see the heart any more, and I doubted I’d find much more than pieces no matter how hard I looked.

I stepped back, even my abnormally strong stomach churning at the sight. I may have only seen one, but that was enough. I was sure that all the other corpses would be the same, or close enough, at least. Leave the rest for the medical examiner.

It was a Tuesday night—November 27th, specifically—so it would be a bit of a slow night for everyone. Hopefully, they would have enough men on staff to get over here as quickly as possible and get to the bottom of this mess. We had already called on the drive over, of course.

“That’s one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen,” Bahgtru muttered, sounding ill.

I patted him on the shoulder. I had to reach up to manage it. “That’s why we’re here. To get to the bottom of this, finally figure out what in the deepest night the fey are doing and why. Even put a stop to it.”

He nodded, still a bit green. Uh, greener than he was before. “Thank you. Honestly, thank you. I know this can’t be easy for you. I really do appreciate you coming out to help us with this yourself, Fi.”

I froze.

“What did you just say?”

The big demon frowned. “Uh, well, I was just trying to thank—”

“Not that. What did you call me?

He stepped back. “I’m sorry, but I knew your father, so I recognized—”

I grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him bodily against the nearest pillar.

Bahgtru struggled as the air was knocked out of his lungs. “What—”

“My father,” I interrupted, my voice level and my teeth grinding against each other like a belt sander. “Is dead. Dead and buried, which is where he belongs. I am Corporal Drakela Sanguinas of Necessarius. Anything else you think you know is irrelevant. Is that understood?”

The orc stepped away from the pillar. “I just—”

I slammed him against it again, this time holding him in place with one hand.

“Answer me, Honorless Fiend,” I spat. “Is that understood?

He nodded weakly.

“Good.” I released him, and he stumbled a few feet away, staring at me wide-eyed. “Now go to the data center and find my men. I need a report from them immediately.”

Knowing better than to argue, Bahgtru ran off, brushing past George and Kat as he did.

I let out a breath and placed my forehead on the cool concrete of the pillar. Sânge din umbră, this was not how I wanted to spend my evening. I certainly hadn’t expected some random traitor-orc to bring up old memories best left forgotten. I made a mental note to stay away from both him and his father. If Bahgtru recognized me, Gruumsh definitely would.

“What was that about?” George muttered as he and Kat walked up.

I straightened and made an effort to fix my clothing. “Bahgtru was hitting on me, I hit back.”

Kat smirked lewdly and signed something quickly.

“Puns are the lowest form of humor,” I said, refusing to be baited. “Now, what exactly did Alex’s notes say? I noticed a few things myself, but I’m not sure if he saw them.”

George shrugged and tapped at the pad again. “Nothing unexpected. Notes the smell of blood, the haphazard way the bodies are stacked, that sort of thing. He thinks there might be something on the victims’ chests, but he didn’t want to disturb them to check.”

“He’s right,” I confirmed, trying to ignore the reminder that I had disturbed a crime scene more than was strictly necessary. “CSI should be down here shortly, though, so that will get us more detail. And of course the security feeds should—”

Which was when Bahgtru ran up and skidded to a stop.

I glared. “What.”

“Your angel, and the baseline,” he managed between breaths. “They’re gone!”

“Wait, what?” I shook my head. “No, there’s no reason for them to leave.”

He met my eyes nervously, but managed to retain most of his composure.

“They were kidnapped.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 251)

I’ve been meaning to write this storyline for a long, long time.

Scene 245 – Sanctus

SANCTUS

KELLY

It had been months since I saw Kat. Months since I even thought of her. In Domina city, you learned quickly to forget about the dead as soon as possible. Dwelling on the past didn’t do anyone any good.

But sometimes the past came back.

I had forgotten that the screamers weren’t actually dead. Genuinely, seriously forgotten. A lifetime of repression made it easy for me to bury any uncomfortable truths in the back of my brain. The bats were one of the first batches of screamers we had managed to capture in large numbers, but that was just a datum to be filed away as something Clarke or Butler might want to know.

I had never considered the possibility that Kat might rejoin us one day.

I nearly jumped as the fel dropped down in front of me from out of sight, black mist clinging to her form as the last vestiges of her temporary transformation. She had been doing that a lot, shifting to bat form for a second or two in order to get a couple of wingflaps to slow a fall or gain a few extra feet on a jump or whatever. She was a bit disappointed in her power, but she was making the most of it.

Shaking myself out of my daze, I focused on her dancing fingers. The power package hadn’t repaired her throat, it seemed. Hardly unexpected, but certainly a pity. A few annoying diseases and ailments had cleared up after the MEE, though it was hard to tell what was from the package and what was screamers with healing powers plying their trade.

“Sorry,” I said. “Can you repeat that?”

She did, fingers flashing faster than before, a sure sign of annoyance.

I frowned. “Are you sure you’re not overreacting? How long has it been?”

More fingers dancing in the daylight.

“What? No, not enough. Call me when it’s been half and hour at absolute minimum.”

Her signing took on an angry, aggressive energy.

“Kat, Alex is our tracker. If we raised a fuss every time he disappeared for five minutes, we’d never get anything done!” More signing, but I interrupted her with a wave of my hand. “Five minutes, fifteen, whatever. You get the point. You have no proof he’s missing instead of just haring off after some interesting tracks.”

She signed a gesture that you’d didn’t need to know sign language to understand.

I rolled my eyes. “Age or IQ?”

Before Kat could find an outlet for her rage, a massive hand dropped onto her shoulder. The man it belonged to, the ogre George, smiled fondly. “It’s like not a day’s passed. Just like old times.”

“Almost,” I muttered, turning away and clambering back into the van. It shook as the two of them joined me, and then Jarasax started the engine and set off. I pulled out my phone and texted Alex as we did. Wherever he was, he would know to meet us at our destination.

The Composer was gone and the threat of screamers completely eliminated, but that didn’t mean the retinue’s job had disappeared entirely. Sure, we didn’t protect the Paladins directly as much any more, but the Big Boss had wanted us to keep an eye on some things that were cropping up.

It was November 11th, a Sunday, and just a hair over a week since the city had gone crazy and subsequently been brought back to sanity by putting Elizabeth on ice. Things had returned to normal surprisingly quickly, all things considered, though people playing with their new powers had made things chaotic for a couple days there.

In the middle of the crowded street, the asphalt bubbled, burst up, and exploded, revealing a roaring giant with the black skin and fiery red hair of a Muspel. He turned to us and gestured, causing the street under the van to buckle and bend, sending us tumbling over to the side.

This was actually pretty normal. He was just using powers on us instead of guns.

The first attack put the van on two wheels, but Sax drove on gamely while the rest of us clutched various hand-holds with white knuckles. Not for the first time, I blessed the Sax’s foresight at installing four-wheel drive.

The second strike, however, hit us when we were still trying to stay balanced, and knocked the entire van over, causing it to grind against the street with a whining screech of tortured metal, skidding for ten or twenty yards before finally coasting to a stop.

Small blessings: The left side was on the street, which meant the right side was pointing at the sky, so I could open my door unhindered. I slammed it open and immediately fired two shots from my Saint Jude.

The Muspel saw me coming though, and created a wall of stone out of the ground to block my shots. I cursed under my breath and fired a couple more times, knowing it was useless, but hopefully it would keep him occupied for long enough.

And it did. I heard George grunt behind me, even his massive strength struggling to bring his minigun to bear in this situation. I continued firing until I was out of ammo, then turned to check on George’s status. He had the gun out, obviously, and was getting the ammo belt ready, and…

Was the gun… glowing?

I dropped back through the door seconds before he started firing, clapping my hands over my ears in a vain attempt to block out the thundering roar of a 7.62 mm XM134 on full auto. Where the bullets impacted, they exploded—not just threw up clouds of dust and debris, but actually exploded in fire and light. Small explosions, certainly, but enough to provide a nice big boost to the weapon’s firepower.

I still wasn’t used to that. George’s power let him… ‘enchant’ objects, to imbue them with various enhancements for a short time. It had taken him forever to even figure out what his power was. Eventually, we had given up and just called up the security footage from the MEE. It had still taken a while to figure out, but that had certainly helped.

But the fact that he hadn’t known about it until a couple days ago meant that most of the city had been using their powers for twice as long as him. Since powers improved with use, that meant that everyone was twice as strong as him. Oh, you got into diminishing returns pretty quickly, but we hadn’t really reached that point yet.

Looking through the cracked glass of the front window, I could see that the Muspel stoneshaper weathered the storm of enchanted bullets well, stepping back and building thicker and thicker walls with the material of the street as he went. Either George’s reservoir or his ammo would run out soon, and I had a feeling our enemy had another trick up his sleeve when that happened.

Kat was setting up her sniper rifle, but despite the Apollo Crisis being more accurately described as an anti-tank gun, I wasn’t sure it was going to be useful in this situation. Locked inside this van, she didn’t have the mobility to aim properly.

Jarasax and I had powers too, but they didn’t have any sort of range on them; certainly not better than our guns. Even as I was pulling out my Saint Euphemia, he was checking the mag on his Hellion machine gun.

If we were lucky, the enemy would get close enough that we could unload everything at once and overwhelm his defenses. More likely, he was going to circle around and bury us, van and all.

I heard a crunch behind me, and turned to see a hand punching through the back door and prying it open, revealing a grinning croc anthro with a toothy maw as long as my arm.

Or maybe the Muspel was just distracting us while his allies moved into position.

Kat couldn’t bring her massive gun to bear, so I turned the Euphemia I had in my hands on him, pulling the trigger and spitting a four-round burst of lead at his chest, the weapon roaring loud enough in the confined space to drown out even George’s minigun.

The anthro’s grin didn’t falter, and he took the bullets to his thick green crocodile scales without complaint. After a moment, the clip was empty, and he was none the worse for wear.

Powers. This was getting annoying.

Kat, however, didn’t hesitate. She lashed out at the lace with a double-footed kick from the floor of the van (well, the wall, which was now the floor), sending the croc stumbling back more in surprise than anything. When he roared in fury and tried to swipe at her, she disappeared into black mist, reappearing moments later as a small bat that slipped behind him while he was confused. Before he could do much more than frown in confusion, she had returned to normal behind him, and clawed at his back, trying to find a weak point in his armor.

Once again though, that didn’t do much good. Between his thick scales and whatever defensive power he was using, her claws couldn’t so much as draw blood. It did serve to cause him to spin around and engage her, however, distracting him quite neatly, and give me enough freedom to exit the van and attack him.

This time, I didn’t use my Saint Euphemia. The Saint of Peace was powerful and dangerous, but designed more for crowd control and military use, with its well-known four-round burst designed to conserve ammo and accuracy. My Saint Jude wasn’t much better—patron saint of lost causes he might be, but 4.5 mm simply wasn’t working on this one.

Instead, I simply stepped forward, placed my hand on his back, and closed my eyes.

Time froze as my perceptions shrank, and in moments the only thing in the whole world was the croc in front of me. I could feel every artificial scale, every boosted muscle, every augmented bone. I could see the brushstrokes of the toy maker, from the organic but haphazard growth caused by the traditional device, to the brute-force shaping that came from his time in the toy box itself.

I could also feel his nerves. A delicate tracery of lightning, running through his entire body. Bunches and clusters branched out here and there, a few of them altered slightly by his modifications, but mostly left untouched.

I found a cluster near his spine and poked it.

His screams brought me back to the world.

The massive anthro spasmed and bellowed, stumbling around like a drunk, or perhaps more accurately like a man with a knife in his back. He twitched and writhed like a madman, trying to reach back and grab his spine as if that would help.

Kat looked at me as she stepped back, a questioning look in her eyes. I shook my head. My reservoir was empty, and while my pain touch was powerful, I had yet to actually kill anything bigger than a mouse with it. The croc might be out of the fight temporarily, but we still didn’t have anything that could actually kill him.

Then his head fell off.

I didn’t even notice at first. I just realized that his bellowing stopped, and then heard the dull thud of his crocodile head hitting the ground. His corpse slumped to the street a moment later, blood pooling out beneath it.

I pulled out my Euphemia again and scanned the area. Hopefully this was some unexpected new ally, but you never knew…

“Is that the thanks I get?”

I spun around to face the voice—a cheery, amused, male voice—to find a young Greek man leaning against the side of the van, grinning at me. He definitely had not been there a minute ago. Not even a second ago.

He was a little short, maybe a couple inches over five feet, with glittering black eyes and short-cropped black hair. He had a blood-red ribbon tied around his forehead like a bandana in what seemed to be a decorative fashion, and was dressed in loose jeans and a similarly-fit white t-shirt, presumably to retain full range of movement.

The thing that drew the eye, though, was the sword at his side.

It was a simple katana, nothing particularly special judging by the unadorned hilt and sheathe, but he wore it well. His calm and relaxed stance, on closer inspection, was a quiet lie; he had the hilt in reach and ready to be drawn at any moment.

Swords were not uncommon in Domina City, but they were typically used for fighting fey monsters—things without the ability to shoot you. Sure, the croc hadn’t had a gun, but that was still a situation a good swordsman avoided. He must have a power to even the playing field. Or he was an idiot.

“Thanks,” I said curtly. There was time to worry about this one later. “But we still need to deal with the Muspel.”

He shook his head. “Already dealt with.”

Frowning, I realized the sound of George’s minigun was gone. He must have stopped when I was in my power trance. I turned around to see that the ogre was gone from his position on top of the overturned vehicle; a quick glance inside confirmed he wasn’t there either.

Kat and I walked around the van to find the giant standing a few yards away from the van, his minigun sitting on the ground next to him, chatting amiably with the half-dozen men and women that surrounded him.

They were all wearing katanas, and dressed in a similar style to the first one, with focus on mobility rather than fashion. With a start, I also realized that they all had red ribbons in their hair. The four girls all wore ponytails with the ribbon tied in place (a fashion one of the men mimicked), while the men, with their shorter hair, wore them as bandanas.

One of the girls, a tall and skinny black woman, said something with a smile, and George gave a bellowing laugh. The others grinned at that, though I couldn’t really hear what they were actually saying.

“What’s going on here?” I asked as I strode up, annoyed at being kept out of the loop. “And where’s Jarasax?”

“Here, Kel,” he answered promptly from behind me. He had a cooler in his hands. “Was just getting this from the van. I thought we might have lunch.”

I stared at him. “Now?

He shrugged. “I already called NHQ. A cleanup crew will be here in ten or twenty minutes to right the van and collect the bodies. Until then, we might as well relax a bit, you know? No harm.”

I scratched the fixer pumping and hissing on my arm. The damn thing had been itching worse than usual ever since the MEE. Considering that I had nearly ripped the thing off during my rampage, doing a lot of damage to my arm in the process, I guess that wasn’t unexpected. “Let’s start simple.” I turned to the swordsfolk. “Who are you people?

The tall black woman bowed, and spoke with a posh British accent. “We are the kensei, Honored Nightstalker. Dame Akiyama sent us when she heard of the Muspel’s attack. We weren’t far.”

“Akiyama?” I blinked as I realized where I had seen ribbons like that before—albeit, a deep royal blue rather than a rich blood red. “Akiyama has minions? Blood on the ground, when did that happen?”

The one with the British accent smiled slightly. “’Followers’ is generally the more polite term. And it was recently. After the Rampage, obviously. Perhaps you met Paladin Sefu? He was the first.”

One of the others, the boy with the ponytail, frowned. “I thought it was Flynn.”

“Flynn outranks Sefu,” another girl said. “But Sefu still came first, if only by a day.”

This was all happening too fast. I might have only known Akane Akiyama for a few months, but I had always gotten the very strong impression that her shyness was anything but an act. She could barely summon the strength to talk around new people; how had she been able to assemble an army?

“What about Huntsman?” I asked, finally able to sort my thoughts into some kind of order.

The British one quirked her head. “Who?”

I sighed. Oh dear, this might get tricky. “It’s—he’s—where’s Akiyama? Is she here? I would like to speak to her about…” I gestured weakly at the men and women. “This. She has super speed, she should have beat you here.”

At that, they all chuckled lightly.

“What?” I asked defensively. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” the spokeswoman assured me, trying and failing to suppress a smile. “Please don’t worry about it. As for Dame Akiyama, I’m afraid she’s not here right now. Her sword is broken, and she is still waiting on a new one. Besides, she said she wanted to see how I handled this without her.”

Well, Akiyama had the ability to delegate. That put her a step ahead of Huntsman, who was hesitant to let hirelings perform even the simplest milk runs without him. In fairness, that one time Anders took us on a milk run, it turned into a gargant hunt, but still.

“Wait, back up,” George, at my side, finally spoke. I had a feeling he had asked all the same questions I had up until now, and had wanted me to get it out of my system. “She’s waiting on a new sword? Can’t she just buy one?” Sword shops weren’t exactly on every street corner, but they were easy enough to find.

The British… kensei—I really should ask her name—shook her head. “She says someone is insisting on forging one for her. Obviously, it will take slightly longer.”

“Obviously,” I conceded. I glanced around. “Well, I don’t see a reason to keep you. Just—”

“NOBODY MOVE!”

“Maybe hold on a few more minutes,” I amended.

We all turned to see two Necessarian armored jeeps skidding to a stop in perfect barricade formation, broad side towards us for defensive purposes. Six well-armed men and women piled out of each vehicle and took up positions behind them, rifles ready and body armor gleaming.

“Let me handle this,” I muttered to the kensei, who nodded. “Don’t make any sudden moves.” I turned to the ‘sarians, raising my empty hands above my head. “I am Corporal Drakela Sanguinas! The situation here is under control!”

There was some slight hesitation from the impromptu barricade, but the guns didn’t waver. After a moment, a young man festooned with enough weaponry to equip half the damn squad by himself clambered over the vehicles to face us.

He was wearing a mask with big bulky goggles—honestly, it was getting cold enough that the mask wasn’t that surprising—but I still recognized him. “Wait, And—”

Adam Anders silenced me with a sharp motion across his throat. Understanding he didn’t want to talk in front of others, I strode forward to meet him, brain working in overdrive as I tried to figure out what was going on.

Once we were within a couple feet, he pulled down his ski mask and smiled ruefully. “Sorry about that, but—”

“You don’t want to be recognized,” I finished. It wasn’t that hard to figure out. He, unlike the rest of the Paladins, had never had to deal with being potentially recognized before. They were all well-known in their own circles, but he was a nameless outsider.

Until he single-handedly saved the entire city from madness, that is.

“I take it fame isn’t treating you well, then?”

He chuckled darkly. “Remind me to apologize to my parents for all the things they did to keep the paparazzi off my back. I haven’t even been able to go back to my dorm; they camped it out. I’ve been sleeping at NHQ.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Not Lily’s?”

“She doesn’t sleep, so that place isn’t exactly… conductive to sleeping.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, at least I don’t get bothered by a million people when she’s around.”

“Yeah, they’ve always been willing to give her a wide berth,” I noted. “It’s a sign of respect. Anyway.” I turned my attention back to the matter at hand. “I have no complaints about you playing around with Necessarius. Good training, if nothing else. I take it you’re leading this band of fools?”

He nodded. “For the moment. With all the recent casualties, the officer corp is in tatters. Vovk is having me shore it up wherever he can.”

Vovk was in charge of that? How many had we lost that a lieutenant colonel was personally organizing grunt teams?

Well, hopefully it was just one of the old wolf’s quirks. He had always been a bit of an odd one.

“I guess I appreciate your help,” I admitted. “Anything you need?”

“Just the basic stuff. Who were these guys?”

“Uh…” I frowned. “Actually, I have no idea. They just randomly attacked.”

“Wonderful,” Anders muttered. “That’s gonna be a paperwork nightmare.”

They actually had him doing paperwork? I probably shouldn’t be surprised. The Big Boss liked everything all neat and tidy, and MC even more so. Clearly though, he didn’t have much familiarity with it yet. “Actually there’s a check-box for ‘random unprovoked attack.’ Check under the ‘motives and demands’ section.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “I swear, this freaking city… Well, better than the alternative, I suppose. Why don’t you call some giants down here while I sort the rest of this out.” He turned back to the squad he had brought with him. “Kowalski! Establish a perimeter and contain that crowd!”

The ‘sarians nodded and set to it, moving away the watchers who had already started appearing to see what was going on.

I smiled. “You’re surprisingly good at this, for only being on the job for a couple days.”

“Four days. And besides, I’ve been around ‘sarians enough the past few months to know how they do things.”

“Fair enough.” He headed over to the kensei as I pulled out my phone to call MC.

Behind the Scenes (245)

Ah, the kensei. Been waiting to introduce them forever.

Scene 232 – Vis

VIS

KATHERINE

The first thing that happened when I got back was George crushed me in a bear hug.

I tapped him on his massive shoulder a few times. It took a minute to get his attention, but he finally realized what I was trying to say. “Oh! Sorry about that!” He released me, but kept his hands on my shoulders, grinning broadly. “I just thought I’d never see you again!”

Kelly nodded. “Good to have you back, Kat.”

I nodded as well, a little weakly, and signed out a question.

She frowned. “Really? That’s your first question?”

Yes.

She sighed. “Okay, fine. Your rifle is in lockup. We can go get it right now, if you like.”

Another quick nod. It was silly, but I felt naked without it. All I had to defend myself right now was my claws and gymnastic agility.

“All right then,” George said. “Let’s go grab that for you, then maybe—”

“Actually, I already did that,” Jarasax interrupted from his bunk. We were in the ‘sarian barracks near South Gate, where technically we were all supposed to be sleeping when we off duty. But none of us slept, so we mostly just used it to store stuff we didn’t need in the van.

Though we didn’t feel too bad about using it as a glorified storage space, since everyone else did the exact same thing. Right now, the place looked even worse than usual due to the chaos of the Rampage, but Jarasax seemed insistent on making sure his personal space was neat and tidy. He was even folding his sheets with a surprising amount of vigor.

“Why’d you do that?” George asked, regarding my rifle.

Jarasax shrugged. “Why not? I wasn’t sure where we were going to meet her, so I put it in the van.” He smiled at me. “I didn’t really consider that you’d come straight here after being freed.”

I had been turned into a screamer on September 3rd, almost exactly two months ago. I had spent the intervening time in custody, trapped in a hastily-made prison in South Central, where I was dumped with the rest of the victims of that particular attack.

Then, two days ago, the entire city got turned. And yesterday, Adam Anders freed us.

All of us.

Every single screamer Elizabeth ever converted in her run of the city suddenly had their minds returned to them. A few biters, over a hundred burners, four or five hundred bats, nearly a thousand bleeders, a couple hundred skins, and about a thousand lasers. I didn’t know what half of those guys could do, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

But I’d find out. Because we, like the rest of the city, had retained our powers when we were cured. Once people started to realize that there was no way anyone could stop them from using their powers for their own gain, we’d have chaos the likes the city hadn’t seen since the fall of Eden.

“Well, it’s not like it really matters either way,” Kelly noted. She scratched the fixer on her arm, wincing at the wounds that she had incurred during the MEE, when she tried to rip it off in her animalistic state. It was a miracle she hadn’t succeeded. “Let’s get lunch or something.”

Alex strode up. “I think at this point, we’re looking at an early dinner.”

“Whatever. I need meat. I haven’t been in this area in a while. What’s good?”

“South Gate is just a few blocks away,” Alex pointed out. “Tourist area, so lots of food and such in the square. I’m sure we can find something for everyone.”

“Should we drive?”

Jarasax snorted at Kelly’s question. “South Gate in the middle of the day? Hardly. We’d be lucky to get parking this close. Just give me five more minutes to finish making my bed, and we can walk.”

“We don’t even sleep,” Kelly noted.

“It’s the principle of the thing.”

About half an hour later, after we had sorted everything out and I had collected my rifle from the van, we strode into South Gate Square, a large… well, it wasn’t actually a square. It was just a wide street, servicing one of the four gates out of the city, with plenty of restaurants and shops on both sides.

It was crowded, as usual, with the streets themselves crammed with vendors and temporary stalls to service the milling throngs, buzzing with a thousand conversations. The only vehicles that drove through here were the buses to pick up the new residents from the boat, and that was only once or twice a week, at most.

“It’s nice to see this place populated again,” Kelly murmured appreciatively, looking around in something almost like wide-eyed wonder. “I think I had forgotten what it looked like with a healthy amount of people here.”

I frowned at her, tapped on her shoulder to get her attention, and signed quickly.

She blinked in surprise. “Right, of course, you wouldn’t know. Well, for the past couple weeks, this place has been like a ghost town.”

“The whole city,” George corrected. “No one wanted to go outside, for fear of the Composer.”

But that didn’t make sense. I signed as much quickly with both hands.

George waved me off with a sigh. “Yes, yes, we know that, and Necessarius released multiple public service announcements pointing it out, but it takes a lot to break human herd instinct. We’re used to banding together when in danger, not of dealing with something that can turn everyone in a building into zombies with the PA system.”

“Let’s stop talking about this,” Alex insisted. “Look, there’s a pizza place right over there.”

“We might have to put a hold on that,” Kelly murmured, looking at her phone with a frown. “Text from MC. There’s been some weird attack about a mile north along the wall. No detail, but it looks like it could be Ling.” She pocketed the device. “Even if it’s not, we’re the closest fireteam, with the most experience with powers.”

I signed quickly—

Kelly blinked, then laughed. “Gone rogue!? Ling? No, of course not!” She sobered quickly, though. “I’m afraid that’s not it. Rather, she got kidnapped by the aves a while back, and then Soaring Eagle went missing…” she sighed. “If we’re lucky, this is her, but I really doubt she’s still alive.”

“All right, all right,” Alex muttered, disappointed. “We get the picture. Let’s go, before we get a chance to smell anything too delicious.”

Then South Gate opened.

It ground open on decades-old gears, sending rumbling vibrations throughout the entire street. Everyone within sight turned to the hundred foot-tall mass of metal, trying to figure out why it was opening outside of schedule.

And then she walked through the gate.

As easy as you please, as if she did it every day.

It was… a woman. A drop-dead gorgeous woman, at that. She strode down the street like she owned the place, her high heels clicking on the pavement. Her bronze skin sparkled in the light of day, and her golden eyes glittered like stars. In the right light, she looked like a shining statue made from gold.

The entire crowd recoiled away from her like a wave, leaving a massive circular open space in the street around her.

She smiled, amused, as every single person within a hundred yards stared, and flipped her long, caramel-colored hair over her shoulder, which drew attention to her silk dress.

And what a dress. Black as midnight, with a short skirt ending just above the knees, a lacy corset that did incredible things to her chest, and long matching black opera gloves that went all the way up to her elbows.

I recognized her. We all did. How could we not?

There were only two small differences, other than the clothes: Her mouth and her eyes. Yes, her full lips were the same cherry red, her eyes were the same breathtaking gold.

But her lips were curved upwards, ever so slightly, in the tiniest of smiles, and her eyes twinkled at some hidden joke.

“Hello,” the woman who looked exactly like Elizabeth Greene said, in a calm and friendly tone. “I am here to negotiate the release of my sister.”

She smiled a little wider, and raised her hands in surrender.

“Take me to your leader.”

END BOOK TWO

Scene 201 – Anxietudo

ANXIETUDO

ADAM

Kelly leaned back in her seat, groaning slightly. “Couldn’t we do this some other time?”

George grunted with effort. “Maybe stop complaining, boss. You’re not the one who has to row this stupid paddle boat across Whitecap Bay!”

We were currently headed to North Fusion island, the site of one of the city’s four great fusion generators, and supposedly the hiding place of Adele’s brother, who might know something about Ling.

And for some reason, we were making the journey in a tiny little boat that had no power source other than me and George.

“Why…exactly…” I gulped down breaths of air. “Are…we the ones paddling?”

“George is the strongest,” Kelly said in a bored tone, covering her eyes against the sun with one hand, even though she was already wearing her daygoggles. “It’s only logical for him to be paddling.”

“And…me?”

“You need exercise. Get some muscles on your bones.”

Bitch.”

“Builds character, too.”

Scroafă.”

The vampire looked up, eyebrows raised. “Did you learn Romanian just to insult me?”

“Just…a few…words.”

“Huh. I probably shouldn’t be impressed.”

“Please stop flirting,” Adele, sitting cross-legged at the front of the boat. “We’re almost there.”

I didn’t bother to correct her accusation. “About…the paddling…”

“A speedboat to the Fusion Islands would attract too much attention,” the angel answered before I could finish. “The ‘sarians guarding the generator are notoriously paranoid, and liable to shoot a missile at us without checking to see if we’re authorized first. My brother has a similar mindset, though he’s more likely to run and hide than kill us. Not to mention, there are also the Dagonites to worry about.”

“But…”

“Plus, it builds character.”

Kalba.”

The angel turned and grinned at me. “Oh, you’ve picked up some Hebrew, too? You are impressive, aren’t you?”

“He’s only got a few of the simpler swear words,” Jarasax noted idly as he checked something on his phone. “Not even the fun ones.”

“Shut…up…you…stupid…” I took in another few breaths, trying to think.

Mac soith is probably what you’re looking for,” he said, unconcerned.

“He doesn’t need any more swear words,” Kelly grunted.

Before I could manage to articulate a response—preferably using what little Romanian I knew—Adele spoke up. “We’re here. Everyone, get ready.”

I turned to look behind me, in the direction we were traveling, and saw North Fusion island for the first time.

It didn’t really look all that impressive. It was an artificial island like Domina itself, but on a far smaller scale—a hundred, maybe three hundred feet wide at the most, with a small band of beach around it, built from gray pebbles and stones.

On the actual island was a two or three story building, with a few pipes and similar high-tech machinery connected to it. That would be the fusion generator itself; the power lines to the city went underground, and came out under the water. It was the only feature worth noting on the small, flat island.

Other than the space cannon, of course.

I almost didn’t see it at first. It was an angular, streamlined design, built with the ability to fold down into a recess at the back of the island, where it was both inconspicuous and probably easier to load.

If the thing fired at this range, we would probably all be instantly deafened. The retinue and Adele would be right as rain in a day or two, but I would take longer. I had no idea how long it would take for the toy box to fix something like that for me, if it even could. Not something I wanted to test if I didn’t have to. Luckily, it was long past noon, when the cannons fired their payloads up to the waiting space stations and colonies. We’d be fine.

We pulled onto the beach, the hull making a crunching sound as it scraped again the pebbles, and Kelly and Sax quickly jumped out to push the boat out of the way of the gentle tide.

I just dropped the paddles and lay there for a moment, exhausted. The sound of the waves, splashing against the shore, almost lulled me to sleep, but the jolting movement of the boat and the sharp taste of salt in the air—sharper than usual in Domina, anyway—kept me awake.

Once I had my breath back, I took another glance around the island, trying to pin down what was bugging me. “I’m not really seeing any…caves, or anything. Lucifer, where’s this brother of yours?”

“We’ll ask the scientists,” she said, holding up her arms in a peaceful gesture. “Just be quiet for now.”

I gave her an odd look before popping open my gun case to make sure it wasn’t waterlogged. “Sure, whatever. Remember we’re not here for chatting, we need to—

Suddenly I was face first on the beach, my arm twisted behind my back and my face ground into the rounded pebbles of the shore.

I tried to yell, but just got a mouthful of salty rocks for my trouble.

“Stop struggling, Anders,” Kelly called in a bored tone. “They only grabbed you because you were playing with your guns.”

I wasn’t playing with—

My captor shoved me into the ground harder, and I finally got the hint and stopped fighting quite so much.

“Kepler says let the boy up,” a gruff voice ordered. “MC called. They’re authorized.”

My captor released me—though not before giving me one last shove—and I pulled myself to my feet slowly, making no sudden moves, before looking around at the soldiers who had ambushed us.

There were over a dozen of them, and they were definitely Necessarians. High-quality weapons and armor expected of elite troops, with the red and black band on their shoulders marking them as belonging to the biggest gang in the city. Their black-painted ceramic armor covered simple civilian clothes; Butler wasn’t big on uniforms, so most of his men chose to wear jeans and t-shirts under whatever equipment they were issued.

The one who was in charge—I couldn’t read his rank insignia, but the others clearly deferred to him—eyed me warily before turning to Adele. “Honored Daybreaker. Apologies for the rough welcome. Between you and the maintenance men installing the new speakers, it’s been a busy day for us. What can we help you with?”

“I’ll get straight to the point, Captain.” Ah, so that was his rank. “Apparently, my brother is squatting on a cave on this island somewhere. Have you seen or heard anything odd—”

“He’s on the east side of the island,” the captain interrupted. “The entrance is pretty small, but the cave itself was uncovered while building the underground portions of the facility, and is large enough. I can show you to him now, if you like.”

The angel blinked in surprise. “I’m…sorry, I didn’t expect you to be…I didn’t think you even knew he was here.”

“He’s not really hiding from us. He knocked on the door and introduced himself, first day he got here.” The soldier grinned. “Brought a fruit basket.”

Adele sighed. “Yes, that sounds like my brother. Well…lead on, if you would.”

It didn’t take long to find the cave, though if the soldiers hadn’t known what we were looking for, I doubt we would have ever found it. It wasn’t even a cave, really, just sort of a hole in the ground, with a lip of stone on the shore side that would keep out the tides.

“We’re going back to our patrol,” the captain said curtly. The soldiers left without another word.

“Fricken’ Fusion Guards,” Kelly muttered. “My dad had better manners.” She pulled her daygoggles off, wincing, and peered into the hole. “Looks like it widens out as it gets deeper.”

“I should hope so.” I opened my gun case, pulled out my pistol, and holstered it just in case. “Do you think it’s big enough for all six of us?”

“Probably. George should still go first, though.”

The giant nodded, and moved forward obediently, clambering down the pit very carefully, making sure he had solid footing with each and every step. It didn’t take long for him to disappear from sight, and only a moment after that that we heard his feet hit something solid.

“I think it’s big enough for everyone,” he called up. “The walls aren’t wet or slippery, but still be careful.”

We all made it down easily enough—Alex slipped, but the giant caught her—to find ourselves in a small cave, maybe ten feet wide and tall, running forward maybe a dozen feet before taking a sharp left turn. I thought it was suspiciously dry for a cave, especially one so close to the waterline, before I spotted a few small drainage grates in the corners.

I pulled out my pistol; I didn’t like this place. “Adele, is your brother the type to use traps?”

The angel rubbed her forehead. “I doubt you have to worry about anything. He doesn’t have many enemies, so if anyone comes after him, it will be angels.” She waved her hand. “You can already see that trap.”

I looked around, but didn’t see anything. “Uh…what?”

“It’s dark. If an angel starts glowing, he’ll notice.”

“Ah. Well, none of that then, you two.” I nodded at Kelly. “Our vampire can guide us just fine.” For crying out loud, even I could have guided us. It wasn’t really that dark in the cave, it just didn’t have any extra lights.

We pressed on, with Kelly in front, George and Sax in the back, me shadowing Kelly, and the angels in the middle. Adele had forgotten her nightvision goggles, so she had to hold Alex’s hand to walk safely.

I expected to run into a twisting maze of underground passages, but it was nothing of the sort. The caves—which were blatantly man-made, judging by the strong right angles of the corners—took a few more sharp turns, but there was always only one option, so there was little chance of getting lost.

However, with each turn, the reflected light from the entrance became dimmer and dimmer, until we were all holding onto one another, with Kelly in the front leading a chain of blind idiots. If this guy decided to attack right now, we were all dead, and that was the end of it.

“Hey, guys.”

I jumped so high at the unexpected voice that I think my head might have hit the ceiling.

“I found Grigorii,” Kelly deadpanned. “By the way, we’re in a bigger cave now.”

“Dawn and saints and darkened Heavens—Greg, turn on the stupid lights.”

“Sis? That you? One sec, it’s around here somewhere…”

I heard the sound of someone scrambling around the room, searching for something, and only remembered at the last second to cover my eyes before the lights came on. Judging from the curses from George and Jarasax, not everyone had taken the same precaution.

“Sorry about that,” the speaker, a small man over by a light switch on the far wall, said.

It took me a second to even realize he was an angel—sure, he had the dayskin tattoos on his face and hands, but those were the only parts of him I could see. He was wearing a light blue bathrobe that covered the rest of his body pretty completely. It was…an odd choice of clothing for an angel. They usually preferred to show as much skin as possible, so they could get the most bang for their buck out of their daybreaks.

“Sorry,” he apologized again. “Haven’t really been…” He trailed off, trying to tidy up the dusty cave—empty except for a plastic table, a few matching chairs, a fridge in the corner, and empty snack bags everywhere—without meeting anyone’s eyes. “…sorry.”

His sister looked around the small room with obvious disdain. “Please tell me you aren’t sleeping in here. Grandpa will rise from his grave and strangle me if you aren’t sleeping in some kind of bed.”

He waved his hand again. “Of course, of course. Secret door in the wall, leads to the bedroom, bathroom, and server room.” He paused. “Ah, those are all separate rooms.”

Adele frowned. “Greg, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you looking at me?”

“What? Nothing. No reason. I’m, uh…just…mad that you didn’t call first. Yes, that’s it…”

The feminine angel rubbed her forehead. “You don’t have a phone. You said they were baby-killing cancer machines.”

“I never said I didn’t own one of those baby-killing cancer machines anyway.”

Kelly cocked her head at the strange angel. “No, don’t change the subject, Adele had a point. You’re not meeting anyone’s eyes.”

“Well, um…”

“Greg,” Adele said in a low voice. “What did you do to your eyes?”

“Okay sis, what you need to understand is that I had all theoretical probabilities accounted for, and according to my calculations it was perfectly safe—”

“Saints ABOVE!” she shrieked, stumbling back. “You, I—WHAT DID YOU DO!?”

He had no eyes.

Just two scarred pits in his skull, staring out at us like a pair of black holes.

It was bad—okay, it was really bad, and I was feeling a little queasy from just looking at it—but I had seen worse stuff during the cleanup after the skins incident. “I don’t know too much about the toy maker, but I’m guessing growing new eyeballs is out of reach?”

He nodded, once.

“O—kaay…um, right.” I scratched my forehead. The others didn’t really look like they knew what to say either, and Adele was green enough I was pretty sure she was going to actually retch soon. “So…how can you see?”

“Echolocation,” he muttered, not looking at his sister. “There are subsonic pulse units built into the walls, that give a constant feed to a small cybernetic implant in the back of my head. Gives a pretty good 3D image of the tunnels. No color, obviously, but…”

That seemed unnecessarily complex. “Why not just use cameras?”

“The implant for that was way too big. I mean, I could, it just takes more processing power than I feel comfortable shoving into my skull.”

“Oh. What about when you leave the tunnels?”

“Well, I don’t, really.” He shrugged. “I have a portable sonar unit, but the picture is fuzzy, and kemos get annoyed at the sound.”

“Some vampires, too,” Kelly grumbled.

The angel grinned. “Uh, yeah. Anyone with ears enhanced over a certain threshold.”

“You still haven’t explained what you did to your eyes,” Adele growled.

Her brother shrugged. “Isn’t it obvious? I removed them. They weren’t working.”

Why weren’t they working, Greg?”

He shuffled on his feet. “Well, as you know, I am a professional information broker.”

“Who never sells any info,” Alex noted.

Grigorii Gabriel continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “I managed to intercept some of the Mother Monster’s data dumps to Clarke—”

Jarasax put his hand on his gun, still in its holster. “You what?

“Oh, calm down, changeling. She’s never really cared who knows her secrets. Anyway, most of it was not particularly useful to me—” He waved his hand dismissively. “Some details about poison glands in her mouth, irregularities with her heart, so on. But her eyes—”

Adele sighed deeply. “You tried to give yourself godeyes.”

Godeyes. I had heard of them, of course, from Lily. The pinnacle of Clarke’s science, a combination of the angels’ dayeyes and the vampires’ nighteyes, they gave the ability to see absolutely perfectly in any light, from so close to pitch black you thought there was literally zero light, to staring straight at the sun.

I didn’t pretend to understand the science of it, but apparently combining the two was like mixing an acid and a base. It just didn’t work without a lot of time, effort, and money, and even then usually ended with the patient blind. Only two people had ever done it successfully: The ‘Mother,’ and the warlord of the Draculas.

“Wait one second here,” George said, raising a finger. “I’m far from an expert, but I know a few people on the bad side of a godeyes attempt. None of them actually physically lost their eyes. It’s a lot of damage, yeah, but the toy maker can fix it.”

“Yeah, well, mine went bad.”

Adele glared at him. “How bad?”

Her brother just pointed at his empty eye sockets.

“No, George is right,” Alex said slowly. “Any competent doctor should have been able to fix—” She closed her own eyes as realization dawned. “Oh, you idiot.”

Adele turned to the other angel, a confused look on her face. “Yeah, he’s an idiot. What’s new about that?”

“He tried to give himself godeyes,” Alex deadpanned.

“…yes?” I said slowly. “Welcome to five minutes ago.”

“No. He tried to give himself godeyes.”

We all slowly turned back to Grigorii as the full implications of that sunk in.

“Heh,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “Yeah. Not my smartest move, right?”

His sister was not amused. “YOU TRIED TO PERFORM SURGERY ON YOURSELF!? WHAT IN THE LIGHTLESS NIGHT IS WRONG WITH YOU!?”

He winced. “Not so loud, sis, ow.”

She stomped forward, grabbed her brother by the ear, and yanked him closer to her face. “It took twenty of the best doctors in the city to give the Dragon his eyes, and you thought you could do it by yourself, to yourself!?”

“I had—ow—information he never did! It seemed simple enough!”

“IT REQUIRES PULLING THE EYES OUT OF YOUR SKULL AND DOING PRECISION SURGERY ON THEM WHILE THEY ARE MUTATED BY THE TOY MAKER!”

“Um…” I said. “We were here for a reason—”

“Shut up!” Adele snapped. “Greg, you—”

“You’re here for a reason?” the blind angel chirped excitedly. I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely excited that I might need something from him, or if he was just happy to have an excuse to dodge his sister. He shook himself out of her grip with practiced ease. “Well, what is it?”

“It’s…” Behind him, Adele was struggling to grab her brother and wring his neck, but George held her back. “It’s a friend. She was kidnapped, we think by the aves, October 21st. That’s the Sunday before last. We haven’t been able to find her.”

“Anders, SHUT YOUR MOUTH! I’M NOT DONE YET!”

We both ignored her, while Kelly and George struggled with her. “Hm. Interesting.” The blind angel scratched his head. “The obvious solution is to talk to the aves still in G’Hanir, but Butler took the ‘scraper a week ago, so you’d have already tried that…besides, they’ve largely split off from the Soaring Eagle’s group anyway.”

“Exactly.” At least he seemed well-informed. “So can you help?”

Grigorii made a face. “…maybe. I can give you a few leads, at least.” He fished a pad out of his bathrobes, tapping at it. It made a surprising number of squawks and beeps, which I belatedly realized were probably for the benefit of his sonar devices. “Soaring Eagle’s core group is extremely loyal, so I haven’t managed to suborn any of them.”

“Uh,” I interrupted. “Not sure I understand that word.” I quickly amended the question, to keep from sounding stupid. “In this context, that is.”

He smiled a little. “Of course. I just mean get them over to my side. Usually, that means bribes or blackmail.” He shrugged. “Like I said, the core birds are loyal. They won’t even tell me little things, like what district they’re going to next, or when they’re leaving the current one.”

Adele, who had calmed down by this point—but was still being held carefully by George—stared at her brother. “No info at all? Seriously? Are you sure you’re doing it right?”

The information broker in question sighed. “Yes, I am, thank you very much. I am not the one who slept through Pistis Sophia’s espionage classes.”

“I never attended those classes.”

“Because you were at home, sleeping.”

Anyway,” Kelly interrupted before the siblings could get into another full-fledged argument. “We’re looking for a blonde baseline girl named Ling Yu.”

Grigorii turned to her in surprise. “Wait, the stoneshaper Paladin? She’s the one you’re looking for?”

I blinked. “You…know her?”

“You guys haven’t been doing a very good at keeping yourselves secret,” he noted, looking thoughtful. “Anyone with access to a Beta-level Necessarian security pass knows, and not all of them are immune to bribes.”

The full implication of what he had just said sunk in. “Wait, you know who I am—”

“But I didn’t know she had gone missing,” he muttered, ignoring me. “Yes, that does explain the increased activity over the past few days…I assumed it was just because of that thing with the fey…”

I was starting to get impatient. “Look, if you can’t help us, that’s fine, just—”

He held up a single finger and tutted at me. “Hardly. I can determine Soaring Eagle’s most likely hiding places—I assume she took the Paladin personally?—but it will take a day or two to collate all the data.”

“Send it to MC when you’re done,” Kelly ordered. “If you don’t want her to get a look at your network, carry it over to the lab by hand and have them send it. I’ll tell them to expect you.”

The angel nodded. “Good, yes, perfect, that should do it.”

At least this was over. I turned to leave, before stopping as I realized something.

I turned back to Adele’s brother. “We need to arrange for payment. What’s you price?”

He thought about it. “Normally for something like this? A hundred thousand. But considering that you kept her—” he jerked his thumb at his sister, who glared at him but didn’t otherwise react. “—from killing me, not to mention the safety of a Paladin directly relates to the safety of the city itself…”

He chuckled.

“This one’s on the house.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 201)

Note that unlike most full angels, Grigorii never did get around to the operation to remove his reproductive organs. It just never seemed like the right time, what with his mother’s funeral, then his father’s funeral, then his brother’s and sister’s and uncle’s…and then the other angels found out from Adele that they had never had any living family members, and he was just making up excuses to get out of it. That would be when he fled the culture.