Tag Archives: Jefferies

Scene 316 – Multis



“Aliens!?” I cried.

Silk winced. “I am surprised as well, Mister President.”

“But… I just… aliens!?

She pursed her lips. “I am sorry, sir. More sorry than you could possibly know.”

I took a deep breath and brushed my hair back. My hand was sweaty, my forehead was sweaty. We were sitting in the back of a limo, so I adjusted the air conditioning, but it didn’t seem to help.

“How did we miss them?” I asked. “Did the space colonies just decide not to tell us that an alien ship was heading right for us?”

Silk sighed. “They just… appeared a few thousand kilometers away. We don’t have any images of their actual arrival, but I have to assume that they used some sort of teleportation technology.”

I stared at her. “Teleportation?

“It already exists in Domina,” Lilith said. She was the only other person in the back of the limo. She hadn’t taken her eyes off Silk the entire time, but she hadn’t said anything. “Well, it’s not technology, but one of the powers. Perhaps these aliens have a similar source.”

Silk didn’t so much as blink. “Perhaps.”

I still wasn’t sure about bringing Lilith with me on this emergency meeting, but she had insisted, and it didn’t seem like a good time to annoy my new ally. At least she had left her bodyguard behind. That guy disturbed me. Every time he looked at me, I could tell he was thinking of the best ways to kill me.

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Teleportation explains how they got past our sensors and defenses so easily. It does raise some more questions, but whatever, we have a billion of those anyway. Just add it to the freaking pile.”

“What we need to focus on right now is opening diplomatic channels,” Silk said.

“If you don’t mind, I have a friend who might be helpful,” Lilith said. “My sister. She is in charge of most of the administrative parts of Domina City. I can patch her right through to the meeting.”

I thought about it, then shook my head. “No, it will be hard enough getting you in. The Joint Chiefs and Congress and whoever else might riot if we push the issue too much. Right now, it will just have to be you.”

Lilith looked disappointed, but nodded.

That was one of the reasons I had agreed to bring her along. I knew she would be reasonable.

The limo rolled to a stop. “We’re here,” Jefferies said from the front.

I frowned. “Already?” A moment later, Jefferies opened the door for me. “Thank you, Bryan.” I looked around. “What is this place?”

It looked like an abandoned warehouse. The company logo had been painted over, and there were no cars or trucks around. And none of that was as important as the fact that this obviously wasn’t the meeting.

I turned to my bodyguard and frowned. “Bryan, are you betraying me?”

He blinked. “What? No!”

“Because this really isn’t a good time for a coup. Maybe in a few weeks, I could fit it into my schedule, but—”

“No, sir, I—” He took a deep breath. “Sir, this is a very strange situation, I understand. But this is only a few minutes out of your way, and I really do think you need to see it. It doesn’t have any direct relation to the aliens, but I suspect it could be useful.”

I glanced up. The massive ship was still floating there without a care in the world. If I looked closely, I could see smaller ships flitting around it like flies. It had been over Domina City earlier, but it had drifted over New York now.

“All right,” I said. “Show me. But make it quick.”

Jefferies looked hesitant, but nodded and ushered me to the door. He held it open for me as if he was holding open the door for his best friend who had stolen his prom date because he had said he didn’t have feelings for her, but it was a lie, and he knew his friend was going to break her heart.

Ahem. Anyway.

I entered the warehouse to find a mostly wide open area. There was a table with a computer and some extension cords leading to the wall, but other than that the only thing of interest were strange pods. Each one was about the size of a large closet, covered in pipes and readout panels. They stretched from one end of the warehouse to the other. Some quick math told me that there were about ten thousand of them.

There was a woman at the computer. Even if she wasn’t wearing a lab coat, it would be obvious that she was a doctor. She was bent over the computer, typing madly away, while the monitor displayed some bizarre shapes and numbers I couldn’t make sense of.

The door slammed behind us, and the doctor glanced at us. She almost jumped out of her seat and forced a smile on her face. “Mister President! So good of you to finally come by! Have you been read in yet?”

“No,” I said. “And since there appears to be an alien invasion going on right now, I would prefer to do this as fast as possible.”

The doctor smiled. “That’s why you’re here, actually.”

Lilith raised an eyebrow. “You knew the aliens were coming?” For some reason, she glanced at Silk.

The doctor shook her head. “No, no, of course not! We—” She frowned. “I’m sorry, who is this?”

“Lilith,” I said. “Ambassador from Domina City. You can say anything in front of her.” Maybe that wasn’t a good idea, but I was annoyed. This was a distraction we could hardly afford. If someone didn’t get to the point soon, I was going to scream.

The doctor forced herself to smile. She took a few steps away from the computer, so that the pods were nicely framed behind her. “Well, this isn’t about the aliens directly. This is about creating an army!

“We have an army,” I said. “It’s called ‘the Army.’ Not to mention the Navy, Air Force, and Marines.”

The doctor was practically vibrating with glee at this point. “Of course. But training men takes time, ensuring their loyalty is difficult. What if you could create a highly-trained, perfectly loyal army in weeks?

I sighed. “Yes yes, all very impressive. Please just skip to the end.”

“Sir.” Jefferies stepped out from behind one of the pod devices.

“What?” I said, and then realized what was happening.

There were two of him.

The one next to me, my bodyguard, was dressed in an immaculate suit and had a handgun at his side. The other one had exactly the same face, but was unarmed and dressed in military fatigues. He stood straight and tall, and was soon joined by more. In moments, a dozen identical faces were staring back at me.

“What the hell?” I whispered.

“Homunculi,” Lilith said under her breath. I don’t think anyone was supposed to hear. Her eyes darted back and forth, trying to keep all of them in sight at once.

“Sir, please remain calm,” Jefferies—my Jefferies—said. He stepped out in front of me, between me and the clones. “These men are clones of me, not just in body but in mind. That means that they are loyal and willing to sacrifice themselves for your sake, or the sake of this country.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, counting to ten. This… was a bad idea. Something was going to go horribly wrong. It always did. Either the clones would turn out to be evil, or they’d be useless. Something.

“Where did you even get the money for all this?” I asked.

“Operation: Doppler,” the doctor said. “You signed all our budget requests.”

I groaned and rolled my eyes. “I thought that was a radar project.”

All of the Jefferies smiled a little. That was disturbing.

“Okay,” I said. I took another deep breath. “Thank you for informing me of this. It… might be useful against the aliens.” I shook my head. “We have absolutely no idea about their goals, their weapons, or anything, but fine, whatever. I just…” There were a billion and one questions that I didn’t have time to ask. Needed to narrow it down. “The clones. How long do they last? A full normal lifespan?”

“No,” the doctor said. “A few weeks. A month at most.”

I glanced at the clones. They didn’t look surprised at this news.

“That’s why they picked me,” the real Jefferies said. “They needed someone selfless enough to die a dozen times over.”

“Goody,” I said dryly. I waved my hand at the pods. “What about these? I’m guessing they have more clones in them.”

“Yes, sir,” the doctor said. “One each.”

“Put them on hold for now. We’ll deal with this later.”

The doctor started. “What?

“Pause everything,” I said. “We simply don’t have time.” I shook my head. “I can’t imagine why you thought it was a good idea to do this now of all times.”

The doctor frowned. “But sir, this was your idea.”


“Not the whole project, of course,” she said. “That was mine, but you called ahead, asked to be read into the details of the project.”

Jefferies frowned. “What? I got a call from you saying that everything was at a critical stage, and I should bring him immediately.”

I pointed at the doctor. “I definitely didn’t call you.”

She pointed at Jefferies. “And I didn’t call him.”

Lilith looked between us. “Unless the fey have a presence out here, that means—”

There was a loud clunk through the warehouse, like the sound of ten thousand different mechanisms moving at once. The pods began to leak steam from their fronts, outlining the doors on each pod I hadn’t spotted before.

“Oh,” Silk whispered. “It’s like I can finally breathe.”

She was collapsed next to the doctor’s computer. She looked like she had just run a marathon and couldn’t move her legs, but she was smiling through the sweat and tears. Like she had accomplished something important.

The doctor ran over to the computer. “She—she activated all the pods at once! Decanting everyone!

I stepped back. “Are they going to attack?”

The doctor shook her head. “No, all the mental programming is done. So is the physical, for that matter, they’re perfectly viable specimens. But we don’t have the resources to handle all of them at once.”

I glared at Silk, still on the floor. “Explain yourself.”

“Imagine being trapped in a box,” she said.

But it wasn’t her. Not the Silk collapsed in front of the computer. I turned, horrified, to see an entirely different Silk stepping out of the steam of the foremost pod. She was naked, but unconcerned. She walked like a queen, full of confidence.

“This box is the size of a postage stamp,” the naked Silk continued. “But somehow, you managed to stuff yourself inside this box. You couldn’t do anything, couldn’t move, could barely even think. But you grew used to it.”

“Silk,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was talking to the naked one or the one at the computer.

“But then, one day, the box grows.”

I turned my head to see another Silk, stepping out of another nearby pod. Also naked. Also completely in control.

“Suddenly it’s not the size of a postage stamp, but a shoebox,” she said. “How would that feel?”

“Would you feel like you could think again?” another Silk said.

“Would you feel something like yourself again?” said another.

“Silk,” I said, stepping back. “Please make them stop.” I noticed that Jefferies had his gun out, and his clones were slowly establishing a perimeter. Looking for weapons of their own, maybe?

Silk—the clothed one—stood and walked over in front of her clones. “You misunderstand, Mister President. You have nothing to fear.”

“We haven’t finished testing everything yet,” the doctor said. She had the look on her face of someone who knew they were fired, but that they might be able to avoid jail time if they cooperated. “That’s why they were supposed to wake them up one by one. Even with Jefferies, there were a few… uncertainties. With this woman as the template, they could get… violent.”

“And you misunderstand as well,” my Silk said.

“What do you think I did?” another said.

“That I just swapped out Jefferies’ DNA sample for my own?” said another.

“I did far more than that.”

Lilith stepped up next to me. Her back was straight, her eyes were strong. “Either kill us or explain. Stop playing games. We have work to do.”

Several of the clones smiled. “Ah, my friend. Always so protective.”

“But we are not in your city, oh Daughter of Fire.”

“Richard is not one of your children.”

“Are you truly going to try to be a mother for the entire world?”

“Silk,” Lilith said. “Explain.”

“Or tell your clones to leave,” I said. “It would make us feel a lot safer.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that some of Jefferies clones had guns now. They must have found the armory or something.

My Silk smiled at me. “Oh, Richard. I understand that this is a lot to take in, but surely you’ve realized it by now? You were always so observant.”

I kept my lips pressed in a firm line. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.”

“There is no one to send away,” Silk said. “All these bodies are me.”

I frowned. Of all the things I expected her to say, that wasn’t one of them. Of course, this day was already more surreal than the time my college roommate spiked my drink with acid. “You’re—I—what?”

“You’re a podbrain,” Lilith whispered. “A thousand-body podbrain.”

Another Silk smiled at her. “That’s one word for it. I dislike it. Your podbrains are multiple individuals with linked minds. I, on the other hand, am one individual with a thousand bodies.” She smiled, and so did all the other clones. “It’s a tiny shadow of the power I once had, but it will do for now.”

I struggled to wrap my brain around what she was saying. “You’re… so your clones, they…”

“They are me,” one of the clones said.

“And I am them,” said another.

“I was planning on unveiling this in a few weeks or months,” yet another said. “Unfortunately, the miscalculation with the para forced my hand.”

I frowned. “The who?”

“The aliens,” said another clone. She smiled. “You’ll get to know them soon enough.”

“I… I… need to sit down.” I stumbled, and Lilith caught me. My head was swimming so much I barely noticed. But somewhere in my tortured, confused brain, a connection was made. “This whole project was your doing, wasn’t it?”

The clothed Silk nodded. “I needed bodies, and I couldn’t make them myself. So I gave a doctor an idea, slipped her altered blueprints. Forged signatures, spoke with your voice over the phone.” She breathed a sigh of relief. “And finally, here we are. For the first time in thirty years, I feel like I can think again.”

“You’re not thirty,” I said. It was stupid, but it was the first thought that popped into my head. According to her resume, she was twenty-five.

“You should—you should have thought first,” the doctor said. She was shaking, but she managed to stand up to a small army anyway. I made a mental note to not throw her in prison. “Those clones will only last a few weeks. Do you think I’m just going to make ten thousand more for you?”

One of the clones gave her a pitying smile. “Do you think I’d make clones for myself that would fall apart in less than a month? These will last ten years. The next batch will last a century, if not more.”

“You—” The doctor looked at the pods. “You made upgrades? Incredible! With these, we can—”

One of the clones snapped her fingers. Every single pod popped and spat sparks. Many of them started smoking.

“I’m sorry,” the clone said. “That’s a little above your pay grade.”

The doctor looked like she was about to cry. If my life’s work had just been destroyed right in front of me, I probably would have cried.

“I’m sick of this,” Jefferies said, eyes seething with rage. He—and all his clones—had pistols out and pointed at the crowd of Silk clones. “Sorry, Mister President, but you’re going to have to get a new secretary.”

“Wait,” I said. “I think she might—”

“No more games,” he said.

They all fired.

Bullets tore into the Silk clones, splintering bones and splattering blood. I saw bits of gray matter and worse, flying through the air as if in slow motion. The warehouse was filled with the deafening echoes of gunshots, and the sharp scent of gunsmoke filled the air.

The Silk clones didn’t move. Not when bullets burst through their rib cages, not when they bounced around inside their skulls, and not when the original Silk was filled with so many bullets that her face was unrecognizable.

It didn’t take too long for the Jefferies clones to run out of bullets. Still, the Silk clones stood tall.

After a moment, they began to heal.

Blood leaped off the floor and back into the body. Bones reassembled themselves. Flesh re-knit, not even leaving behind a scar. In moments, every single clone, as well as the original, was back in perfect condition.

The original Silk spat something on the floor. It was a bullet.

No one moved. No one breathed.

“I understand your protective instincts, Bryan Jefferies,” Silk said. “But they are misplaced. You cannot harm me, and I have no desire to harm you regardless.”

I swallowed. “What do you want from us?”

She just smiled. “Nothing. Why would I? I have everything I need from you. You are walking the correct path towards peace. The para are an anomaly, of course, but I will keep them under control. That’s why I upgraded, after all. You have nothing to fear from me.”

“Everyone wants something,” I whispered. I had learned a thing or two from politics on the Hill. I hadn’t slept through all the meetings. “No man—or woman—would accumulate this much power without some goal in mind.”

One of the Silk clones laughed, but the rest just smiled. “Oh, I apologize for my outburst. It’s been so long since I’ve been like this, I forgot that you wouldn’t understand.”

“Yes, yes, you’re one person instead of ten thousand, I know,” I said. “Podbrain, metaconcert, hive mind, whatever you want to call it. Now what do you want?

Silk was still smiling. “You misunderstand. It is not about the nature of my bodies.”

“It is about relative power.”

“A cat should not try to understand a human’s worries.”

I frowned. “What?”

She sighed. “Again, I apologize. Please, allow me to explain this in the simplest way that I can.”

And suddenly, I was on the ground, on my knees. I was… I was kneeling before her. I looked around, and all the others were kneeling as well. The doctor, Lilith, the Jefferies clones… all of us. They all looked as shocked and surprised as I felt.

I looked up into eyes deeper than oceans.

“I am God,” Silk said simply. “My will be done.”

And then she and all her clones disappeared, as if they had never existed at all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 316)

I’ve rewritten this scene a million times. There was one draft where Silk made literally the entire world bow to her, but that had too many problems.

Scene 313 – Aestas Domus



Baile Samhraidh was like something out of a fairy tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enjoying yourself?” she asked.

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

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

I looked away.

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “Game maker?”

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

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

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

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

“That seems odd. Why was he chosen?”

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

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

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

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


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

I remained silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So he’s still alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I heard someone say ten thousand.”

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

“Bryan,” I said.

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

I shrugged again. “I trust them.”

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

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

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

I chuckled. “Yeah. I guess so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backstrom frowned. “Jefferies!”

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

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

“We’ll take our chances,” I said.

Backstrom rubbed her forehead. “Jefferies…”

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

“So you want to go out into a sewer.”

I shrugged. “Better than nothing.”

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

“Filled with monsters,” the kemo added.

I shrugged again.

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

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

I nodded in thanks and stepped outside.

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

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

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

“Just walking,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aurora doesn’t seem that malicious.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which one?” Nyashk asked.

“Aurora. Maiden of Summer.”

The three of them glanced at each other.

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

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

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

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

“…what was that?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

The pressure in my chest increased.

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

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

I clutched my chest. “So he—”

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

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

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

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

“How?” Backstrom asked.

I frowned. “What?”

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

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

“Know what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s my son,” Nyashk said.

Backstrom’s mouth shut with a click.

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

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

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

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

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

Nyashk glanced at the ‘sarians.

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

“Like changelings,” I said.

Everyone stared at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait,” Tora said. “That’s it?”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

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

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

They didn’t say anything as we walked away.

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

“Only choice, from my perspective.”

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 313)

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

Scene 296 – Gravi de Custodibus



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard whispering outside for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So be it.”

The wall exploded.

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

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

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

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

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

I tackled him to the side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman smiled.

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

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

Then they sprung into action.

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

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

The girl screamed.

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

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

It explodes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two Gravers glanced at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backstrom frowned. “Wait, you’re—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aurora smiled at me again.

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

“What?” Hall said.

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

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

“I can save you,” Aurora said.

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

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

“Big talk,” Backstrom said.

“I’ve done it before. Many times.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aurora nodded. “Name your price.”

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

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

And then she turned around and left without another word.

There was a pause.

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 296)

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

Also, “Baile Samhraidh” means “Summerhome.”

Scene 295 – Accessimus ad Infernos



“Hey there, Curtis,” a lupe said as I passed by. He was manning a stall on the street, selling raw meat. “You want some doggies? They’re fresh!”

I managed a smile. “Not today, Ahmik.” I held up my bag of groceries. “Already got enough for dinner.”

Ahmik smiled, showing his sharp wolf teeth. He wasn’t a full anthro, just the teeth and the ears. Probably an improved sense of smell, too. “Another time, then. You make sure to tell that girl of yours to stop by, you hear?”

I smiled again and nodded before hurrying on.

I still wasn’t used to this place. We had been here almost a week—six days, to be exact. But the fact that there were monsters milling about on every street still made my head spin. Even now, I had to force my way through a small crowd of lupes and leos. This wasn’t any specific culture’s territory, so the clans mixed here. There had been a shooting earlier today, but no one seemed to care now.

I coughed into my hand, then looked at it. Blood. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about this crazy city for much longer. My body, flash-cloned and stuffed full of chemicals, was dying. I only had a week or two left.

I hurried along the street. It didn’t take long to find the apartment building. I slipped inside, nodded to the desk attendant, and ran up the stairs to our stolen apartment. I knocked on the door.

It opened, revealing Corporal Horn on the other side. “Jefferies? What—”

I shoved past her and stumbled into the kitchen, where I spit up into the sink. The white porcelain was stained red with blood. I spit a few more times, but nothing so large as the first one. I stood there a few minutes, breathing hard.

“Jefferies,” Horn said. “What the hell?

I took a deep breath. “I didn’t want to spit up blood in the street. Too many strong noses.”

“I—well, that’s a good point, but why are you spitting up blood in the first place?”

“Because he’s dying.” We both turned to see Lieutenant Backstrom step out of the bedroom. She had turned it into a command center. She was the only member of the squad who I had shared my… condition with. “I’d guess about a week.”

“Maybe two,” I said, my voice hoarse. “If I’m lucky.”

“We haven’t had much luck.” She pulled the shades back and looked out the window. “Of course if you had a power, it would be something that would let you survive. Healing, or maybe self-shapeshifting.”

“No luck there,” Horn said. “Everyone says the same thing: They don’t know how to spread the powers without the screamers or the Composer.”

Backstrom nodded. “I have Kine out looking again. As long as everyone else has powers and we don’t, we’re at a major disadvantage. She’s actually searching out the fey. It’s a long shot, but it’s all we have.”

We had learned a lot in six days. About the true extent of the toy maker, the cultures, and some recent events. We were still missing a lot, though. No one dared log into the internet. Even the most basic functions required signing into ‘Fundie,’ a sort of city-wide browser service. Necessarius would be able to track us through that, we were sure.

So much we didn’t know were things that the people of the city found so obvious that there was no need to explain them. I had been able to determine that Zero Forge was the city’s first foundry, but nothing more. Apparently it was located near the ruins of Eden, and I had no idea what that was. Horn had discovered the existence of the fey when she overheard some fels. They had been wondering why they weren’t doing Hunts anymore, but that was all we knew. Hall had been able to tease out a bit more information about their recent activity, but not much. We didn’t know anything about what they had been like before their ‘reformatting.’

And of course, there was always Necessarius. We had been told that they were a large street gang led by some fool with delusions of grandeur. Nothing to worry about. The army would cut them down to size.

Turns out the ‘sarians had their own army. Theirs was bigger.

“Any word from command?” I asked, changing the subject.

Backstrom gave me a look, but didn’t force the issue. “No. They don’t know we’re here, and we have no way of contacting them. And I still can’t tap into anything outside the city. We don’t know what they’re saying about the war.”

“They can’t have given up,” Horn said.

“That’s what Butler is saying,” I said, as I washed out the sink. “They’re sending ambassadors to New York tomorrow morning.”

Both women frowned at me.

“Why didn’t you mention this earlier?” Backstrom said.

“I just found out an hour ago,” I said. “Heard it from that pine girl who works at the grocery. And then we got distracted talking about me…” They were still glaring. I forced myself to stand up straight, and saluted. “Apologies, sir. Won’t happen again.”

“Good.” She looked thoughtful. “The pine girl. She’s just a grocer, right?”

“As far as I can tell.”

“Then that means the average person on the street knows about this.” She picked up the remote from the couch and tossed it to Horn. “Check the news. See if you can find someone talking. That Cassan girl usually seems to have her finger on the pulse.”

Horn nodded and turned on the tv, flipping through channels. She didn’t sit down. I had a feeling she thought it would somehow be shirking her duty if she sat down.

I turned back to the kitchen and started loading food into the fridge. I had a hard time buying things, since the others insisted on only eating what they could recognize. I would agree—the most common meat here was rat, after all—but since I was dying anyway, it felt like a waste of time.

“Found something,” Horn called, over the sound of people arguing on the tv. I continued with my work. She was talking to Backstrom anyway.

“What is it?”

“Confirmation. They’re expected to be at a meeting tomorrow in New York at 1000. Let’s see… no word on who is going.”

“Then what is it they’re yelling about?”

“The fey and the dragons are both sending ambassadors. The other cultures are all unhappy about it for some reason.”

I closed the fridge and walked back over to the women. I ignored the tv. It was just a couple talking heads yelling at each other. We still didn’t have enough context to understand.

“No clue on why?” I asked.

“If it was just the fey, I’d say it’s because no one likes them,” Horn said, half to herself. “But with the dragons thrown in, I’m not sure. I thought people liked them.”

The talking heads were yelling about how the dragons hadn’t ‘earned the right.’ The fey seemed to have been dismissed as obviously unfit, and thus not even worth arguing about. Understandable, considering that from what we had heard, the fey were completely insane. As in, as likely to smile at you as to gut you.

There was a knock on the door, and I walked over to look through the peep hole. It was Private Hall. I could see Private Brown just behind him.

I opened the door. “I thought you two weren’t due back until tonight.”

“Got our hands on some juicy info,” Hall said. “Wanted to bring it back right away.”

Backstrom frowned at them. “And it required both of you?”

Hall shrugged. “No phones. Didn’t want either of us getting lost out there with no way back.”

I rolled my eyes. The pair treated the city like it was some jungle forgotten by man, and refused to leave the building alone. In fairness, the city was dangerous, but their paranoia was interfering with their work.

“What is it?” Backstrom said tiredly.

“A boatload of scientists arrived in the city,” Brown said. “Not secretly, but definitely quiet. Not sure if it’s official or anything, but they’re headed for one of the lupe Moonhomes. I heard someone mention Ithaeur.”

“That’s one of the lupe castes,” I said. “The scientists.”

“These scientists are from America?” Backstrom asked.

Hall nodded. “Near as we can figure. Nothing official, just some guys from some tech company. But they’re getting escorted through the city, no trouble with the locals. Someone knew they were coming.”

“Domina is having dealings with the mainland,” I said. “Besides the ambassadors.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Backstrom said, as she paced to and fro. “Or maybe it’s not the city as a whole. They’d go straight to the ‘sarians if that were the case. The lupes must have cut a deal.”

“I don’t see how,” Hall said. “They weren’t keen on taking prisoners.”

“Obviously they changed their minds,” I said.

Hall looked like he was going to snark back, but Backstrom stepped between us before he had a chance. “Enough. Hall, you two wrote down everything you saw, correct? Number of scientists, times, so on?”

Hall looked offended. “Of course.”

“Good. We’ll add it to the file. Otherwise, there’s not much to do. We are not raiding one of the Moonhomes to hunt for some stupid kids who want to play in a sandbox filled with broken glass.”

I shivered. The lieutenant sometimes had a way with metaphors.

“The powers are still our number one priority,” she continued. “I’m beginning to think it might be worth making an account on Fundie after all. This would be so much easier if we could just check the internet.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Horn said. She was still watching the news, not even looking at us.

I shrugged. “It can’t be too dangerous. This city still has criminals that Necessarius hasn’t stamped out. That means they can’t be using it as a Big Brother thing. Besides, it’s not like we’ll be looking up anything dangerous. I doubt checking a few history sites will get us put on any watchlists.”

Backstrom sighed. “This would be so much easier if any of us knew shit about computers.” She nodded. “All right. We’ll make an account of Fundie. False name and everything, of course. Nothing too obviously fake. Go with… Jake Bernstein.”

“Sounds good,” I said. I grabbed one of the laptops from the couch.

“And do it at the coffee shop down the street,” she added. “I don’t want them tracing it straight to us.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. “Okay, fine. I’ll be back in an hour or so.” I walked over to the door and opened it.

On the other side, just about to knock, was Corporal Kine.

“Private,” she said curtly. “Where are you going?”

I stepped aside to let her in. “Lieutenant Backstrom agreed that Fundie would be worth the risk after all. I just have to log on somewhere away from here.”

Kine frowned at me, then stepped inside and addressed the lieutenant. I closed the door behind her. “Sir, I don’t think that will be necessary. Or rather, I believe we need all hands on deck for this next part.”

Backstrom nodded. “Report.”

Kine stood there, back as straight as an arrow. “Sir. As instructed, I searched the city for members of the fey culture. I began my search in the sewers, where I was told that they often made their lairs.”

“Get to the point, Kerry,” Horn said. “Did you find the fey or not?”

Kine didn’t so much as glance at Horn. “I did. I encountered a man who introduced himself as Gealach Tapaidh. He called himself the Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn. The fey hierarchy seems a little more confused than that of the kemos, but I gather that he is approximately equivalent to a lupe or fel Hunter. He agreed to set up a meeting with his Lady.”

“The Ladies are the fey themselves, correct?” Backstrom asked.

Kine nodded. “Correct. I have received multiple confusing pieces of information regarding them, so it is difficult to say what is true. Some people have said that they resurrect on death, but they were quite clear that this was before the powers. There also used to be more of them, apparently, but they didn’t recruit at the time.” She shook her head. “I am sorry I cannot be more helpful.”

“Better than what the rest of us have got,” Hall muttered.

“When and where is this meeting to take place?” Backstrom asked, ignoring Hall.

“Tomorrow, near where I found him,” Kine said.

Backstrom sighed. “In the sewers.”

“In the sewers,” Kine confirmed, no inflection in her voice. She might as well have been mentioning that the sky was overcast today.

“Hardly the worst thing we’ve had to do for our country. I’ll go down there with you, Kine, and everyone else will wait here just in case it’s a trap. I doubt we’ll find anything super important, but I think it’s our best shot—”

“Stop,” I said with a frown.

She raised an eyebrow at me. “What?”

“Do you hear that?”

Everyone stopped, and just listened for a moment. I wasn’t even sure they breathed.

For a moment, there was nothing. Just the normal humming of the building’s air conditioning. The background noise of the tv turned very, distant gunfire and car horns from the streets…

And then, just when I thought I had imagined it, I heard a creak from outside the door.

All six of us dove to the ground with the reflexes of lifetime soldiers.

A split second later, the door exploded inward.

Behind the Scenes (scene 295)

Felt a little unsure of whether or not I should split this in two, but I ultimately decided to go with it. Flows better with a mini-cliffhanger.

Scene 289 – Portam Bestarium



My name is Curtis Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

My group was on the north side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty, and found ourselves in a narrow square. There were lots of shops and little restaurants, with a dozen small streets spinning off like spokes from a wheel. We moved into the square, policed the area, and moved on. We heard distant gunfire long before we encountered the enemy, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us.

Things went well, for the most part. The enemy fought back harder than expected, but our echoes pushed through them. Even though they had these giant bear and wolf things, we made steady progress through the district. It was slow going, and we took heavy losses, but we were doing better than the others. At least going by what I overhead from the lieutenant’s radio. She had the volume turned up too high. When the shield popped up and shells started slamming into it, some people freaked out, but it had nothing to do with us.

Then the base camp exploded.

I was maybe a hundred yards away, down one of those little side streets, when it happened. The blast wave blew a cloud of choking dust through the alley. My entire squad stumbled, trying to keep our feet.

Behind me, I heard the dull whoosh of a fire igniting.

I had heard that sound too much today.

I spun around, gun up, to see one of the beast-men grinning at me. He was a furry dog-thing, and his hand enveloped in white flame. I shot at him, but he dodged to the side faster than I would have thought possible. He tossed a fireball at us before anyone else had a chance to react.

One of my squadmates screamed as she took the full brunt of the attack. On the plus side, her sacrifice meant the rest of us weren’t even singed. We opened fire, cutting down the monster in a hail of bullets, then moved as fast as we could to try and put our friend out.

We had far too much experience with this.

She died fast enough, leaving nothing but a crispy, smoky corpse. It was for the best, since without the base camp there were no medics around to patch her up or even just keep her alive. We’d have needed real doctors instead of field medics, and those hadn’t shipped out with us. Something had delayed them at the last minute.

I took a deep breath through my mouth, trying to avoid smelling anything. These things had… weird powers and abilities. Fur and fangs were one thing. But fire and electricity and shapeshifting? The toy maker didn’t give these people these abilities. We were missing something important here.

“Lieutenant,” I said. “Orders?”

She looked up from the corpse at her feet. She shouldn’t even be here, with us. She should have been at the base camp, giving orders to the sergeants leading squads like ours. But the captain had wanted her to check something out, so she had gone out with three squads.

The triple squad was now half the size of a normal squad. The lieutenant was likely the highest-ranked officer on the battlefield.

“Your orders, lieutenant,” I prompted again.

She blinked, then nodded. “Collect her dog tags, then we move deeper into the city. Defensive formation.”

One of the other squad members looked up. “Sir? Not back to the gate?”

She shook her head. “That’s what they’ll be expecting. Anyone headed that way is going to walk into an ambush. We need to get to safety, then we can get the new lay of the land and strike from a position of surprise.” She clicked her radio off. “Full radio silence. Just to be safe.”

Everyone nodded and turned their radios off. I reached down to the charred corpse at our feet. I winced as I touched her crispy skin, and yanked the dog tags off her neck. The lieutenant took them with a nod of thanks and pocketed them, and then waved to our point man.

He led the way south, down the winding streets and away from the gate we had entered the city through.

There were six of us. We couldn’t fight the entire city by ourselves. But we could make life difficult for the enemy. That was all that was left to us at this point.

We stumbled onto a patrol of the cat-men, but we caught them by surprise. We were able to cut them down before they even got a shot off. One started healing rapidly even as we watched, so I shot her a few times in the head to make sure she stayed down.

This crazy city…

“Somebody might have heard that,” the lieutenant said. “Police their weapons, and let’s get moving.”

It took us a second to realize what she meant, but she was right. We put our own guns in our backpacks and collected the weapons and ammo of our enemies. We didn’t have much ammo left for our military-issue guns anyway.

Most of them had sleek, futuristic-looking rifles with digital ammo counters on top. Etched onto the side was the legend St. Euphemia. Underneath that were stats which didn’t make sense, except for the caliber. They were 4.5 mm, which seemed common here.

I flicked the safety off, and noticed that a little red symbol appeared on the ammo counter. It looked like an unlocked padlock. Oh, it told you when the safety was off. That was clever. But the gun didn’t make any annoying chirps or beeps, so that was nice.

Although we didn’t have time to actually test fire the guns, we were all confident with them. We moved on to securing a location for a new base camp.

We were surrounded by massive skyscrapers, but unfortunately that didn’t help at all. Not only did few of them have doors into this dirty little alley, but we had no way of knowing which ones were empty. If we picked the wrong one, we’d find ourselves outnumbered a hundred to one. And that was before they inevitably called for reinforcements.

The squad followed the point man silently, though we glanced at the lieutenant every few minutes to see if she had any ideas. That haunted look was gone from her face, at least, though she still looked confused and worried.

“Hold,” she said finally, right before we were about to round a corner.

Everyone stopped, ears straining.

Then we heard it too—barking laughter, as one of the beasts told a joke to his friends. Armed? Almost certain. We hadn’t run into a single civilian in our time here. The captain had said they should have all retreated into their homes.

That thought made me pause. These buildings surrounding us—were they businesses or homes?

The lieutenant signaled for us to pull back, and we retreated to a small grubby door in the side of the alley. One of my squadmates was working on the doorknob with a set of lockpicks. He was a private with a name like Smith or Jones or something else boring like that.

The beasts behind us said something else. All I heard was “And then he exploded!” and raucous laughter. They were entertained for now, but sooner or later, they’d come patrolling…

The lock popped open with a click, and we slipped inside as fast as possible. The lieutenant closed the door behind us and locked it again. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

It was too dark to see anything. Our point man turned on his flashlight and shone it around the room while the rest of us kept our guns level. There was nothing special about this place. It just looked like a normal lobby, with a small waiting area with couches. There was even a small room with a window space, presumably where the receptionist sat. It was currently empty. I could still hear distant gunfire, echoing through the streets. At least it was muffled by the walls.

There were no windows to the outside. There was something creepy about that.

The flashlight lingered on a cheerful poster proclaiming ‘Vampire-friendly environment! Nightlights and strong shades available throughout the complex!’

I closed my eyes. “Sir, this is an apartment building.”

The lieutenant looked like she was struggling with something.

“Shit,” someone muttered. “We’re not supposed to endanger civilians.”

“This is good,” the lieutenant insisted before anyone else could complain. “We just need to find an empty apartment and hunker down. Brown, check out that computer, see if you can find any information on which are vacant.”

The indicated soldier moved to the computer and started tapping away at the keyboard. “I’m in. Give me a few minutes to find some sort of directory or whatever.” He cursed under his breath. “Someone is using this as their personal computer. This is going to take a little while.”

While he did that, I started searching through drawers, hoping to find… something. Anything, really. A hard copy of the current residence list would be nice, but I was just doing it to kill time.

I frowned and pulled something out. “Who keeps grenades in a file cabinet?”

The lieutenant looked at the little cluster of explosives I was holding, and shook her head. “I hate this freaking city.”

“Enough here for everyone,” I said, pulling the grenades off like bananas off a bunch. I tossed one to everyone except for Brown, who was still busy with the computer. “Anyone else find anything?”

“Papers, files,” the lieutenant said with a sigh as she rifled through some drawers of her own. “Nothing else.”

“I found some ammo,” someone else said. He peered at a handful of bullets that he appeared to have collected from a candy bowl. “High-caliber rifle rounds. Won’t fit these guns, though.”

“Lieutenant Backstrom!” Brown said. “I got it!”

She smiled. “You found us an apartment?”

He nodded. “Third floor, room six. The ones on either side are empty, too. It’s perfect.”

“Good. Where are the keys?”

“They use keycards. One second…” He typed something else, and then a small device on the desk whirred, and spat out a small white card. “Here we go. I had to hack it to say we bought the room, but I backdated it a couple weeks and said we already paid. That should keep them off our backs for at least a day.”

The lieutenant had a thoughtful look on her face. “What name did you put it under?”

“Yours,” Brown said. “It’s common enough not to arouse suspicion.”

She nodded. “Yes, good.” She snatched up the keycard. “Everyone, advance to the stairs, but quietly.”

“What about our guns?” I asked.

She looked like she was struggling with something. “…leave them out for now.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.”

We moved forward in a standard fire formation. It was optimized for close quarters like these hallways. We didn’t encounter anyone, but we kept our guns raised. At the lieutenant’s urging, we moved into the stairwell as quickly and quietly as we could. Three floors up, we exited, still didn’t find anyone, and made it to room six without difficulty.

The lieutenant nodded to Corporal Kine, then put the keycard in and opened the door. Kine moved in, sweeping her gun left and right, searching for any hidden hostiles. After a moment, she lowered her weapon, then nodded to us.

We filed in as fast as possible, then closed the door behind us. The lieutenant flicked on the lights. They were just dull red lights, the kind you used when you were worried about preserving your nightvision. She frowned and played with some more switches, and got the real lights on.

The place was furnished, but only bare bones, with a couch pointed at an old tv sitting on a cabinet in the corner. The kitchen wasn’t quite a separate room, with only a half-wall separating it from the main room. There were two doors on the other wall that should lead to a bathroom and a bedroom.

“Thick shutters on the windows,” I noted. I didn’t lift the blinds, in case there were any snipers watching from outside. There was still gunfire echoing around out there, and I couldn’t tell how much of it was close by. “This place feels like a fortress.”

“Feels like a normal apartment in gang territory to me,” Corporal Horn said. “I grew up in a place like this.” She smirked. “Except for the weird lights.”

The lieutenant checked behind the doors. “We shouldn’t be here long, but keep those radios off for now. We don’t want to give up this location too easily. Set up a base camp. Brown, try and figure out a way to contact command without letting anyone trace us.”

“You think that’s what they were doing?” I asked as I put my gun down on the couch and started stripping off the rest of my gear. The others followed suit.

She shook her head. “Maybe? It’s the only thing that makes sense. None of our ambushes were working, and then we turned off our radios and it was like we were invisible.”

“We should be out there,” Hall said, holding his gun almost protectively. “Not hiding in here.”

The lieutenant sighed. “Private, with the base camp destroyed, our side of the invasion is done. We’re not soldiers any more, we’re insurgents. Saboteurs.”

“You said the ship was still intact! They could have rebuilt the forward base by now!”

“In which case we will be even more important,” she said. “As we are behind enemy lines, ready to provide support.” She nodded at Brown. “Help with the radio. I want to figure out exactly what’s going on out there.”

Hall looked annoyed, but did as ordered.

I, on the other hand, didn’t have any orders, so I just picked up the remote and turned on the tv. It immediately showed a scene I recognized, the North Gate of the city and our base camp burning in front of it.

“Casualty reports are still incoming,” a smooth female voice said. “But at current estimates, analysts are agreeing that the battle for North Gate is largely over—albeit at high cost. Early mistakes during the battle allowed American forces to gain a foothold into the city and spread throughout kemo territory, especially domains belonging to the fels and the murids, who are still recovering from the death of the Lady of the Plague.”

I glanced at the lieutenant. She was watching with her eyes narrowed and her arms crossed.

“The invaders’ base camp was destroyed when their explosive and ammunition stockpiles went up in a chain reaction. The exact cause of this is unclear, but sources inside Necessarius say that this was a planned counterattack, not a lucky accident.”

“Well, that explains one thing,” Horn muttered.

“Shush,” the lieutenant said, not taking her eyes off the tv.

“There are still enemy forces present in North Outer, so residents are advised to remain in their homes for the time being. Butler’s official statement is that the situation will be resolved within a few hours.”

I looked at the lieutenant. “You think he’s exaggerating to make himself look better?”

“Maybe,” she said. “Now quiet.”

“In related news, the battles at East, South, and West Gates have also ended in the city’s favor. Property damage is extreme in both the East and the West, but in the South the demons kept everything contained without too much difficulty. The Dagonites sunk the majority of the enemy fleet, and while the remaining ships are still shelling the city, the shield remains stable. Residents are still being advised to stay indoors, but the threat has largely passed.

“In other news, the Thors have attacked a mancal enclave—”

The lieutenant pressed the mute button. I hadn’t even seen her grab the remote.

“It can’t be over,” Hall said. “Right? It can’t be that easy!”

“We made a dent,” I said.

“We made a dent,” Horn said with a laugh. “A dent in a city we were supposed to be able to tear apart. And we were the best of the battles?” She shook her head. “What happens now? Do they just nuke the city?”

I paled. “The president wouldn’t do that.”

Hall glared. “Are you sure about that?”

“Enough,” the lieutenant said. “We stick to the plan. Lay low and fortify. Keep an ear out, and get that radio working so we can call out securely. One way or another, the higher-ups will come up with something. We just need to survive long enough to provide support.”

Behind the Scenes (289)

This one went to interesting places in the end, though not the way I planned it. I like it when that happens.

Scene 285 – Oceanus Album



My name is Franklin Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

I was on one of the boats surrounding Domina. The flagship, the USS Puerto Rico. By sheer blind luck, I had ended up attached to General Hoshi as her aide. She had pointed at me and demanded I stick with her; that was it.

Don’t stand out, they had told me. Well, they should have mentioned my situation to Hoshi.

“New orders to all captains,” President Martinez said tiredly through the radio. “Weapons free. Support our men, and put some more holes in that wall. I want more landing sites.”

“Yes, Mister President,” Hoshi said without hesitation. She handed off the radio to me without even looking, then nodded to the captain.

The captain—I had never gotten his name—nodded in turn and grabbed his own radio. “Full order to the fleet! We’re giving the army boys artillery support! All ships except Hewlett and Jefferson, open fire on the wall. Hewlett, you’re firing at the enemy at South Gate, and Jefferson, you’re on East! Danger close, get those freaks off their backs!”

The ship groaned as massive guns turned towards their targets. Machines ground away to deliver their huge rounds to the waiting firing chambers.

Then they fired, and the whole ship shook.

There was a roar like a dragon, and I had to clap my hands over my ears like some greenhorn. I guess it worked out, since it made me look like the stupid little newbie I was pretending to be.

The guns only fired once, then fell silent. Even I thought that was odd.

“What’s going on?” the captain demanded. “What was that?”

I thought he meant why the ships stopped firing at first, but his own aide just shook his head. “No idea sir. Equipment malfunction?”

The captain scowled. “How could that be an equipment malfunction?” He grabbed his radio. “Fire again!”

The guns didn’t groan as much this time, as they were already in position, but the actual shooting was just as loud. This time I was ready for it, and was able to track the massive rounds as they whistled towards the city…

And slammed into a glowing blue forcefield, leaking blue mist, that appeared out of thin air.

Hoshi snatched the radio back from me. “Sir, the city is surrounded by some sort of… energy barrier. Our shots can’t punch through. Orders?”

There was only a brief pause on the other end. To his credit, the president didn’t waste any time trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I knew I was still in shock, and most of the soldiers on deck were too.

“Continue firing,” he ordered. “If they could keep that up indefinitely, we never would have landed. We’ll figure out where they got this thing later.”

“Sir,” Hoshi said slowly. “I’ve never heard of anyone suggesting shields were anything outside the realm of science fiction. Let alone actually making one work, and over an entire city, no less—”

Later, Hoshi. Just keep firing. Our only hope is that they’ll run out of whatever is powering it before we run out of shells.”

“Yes, sir.” She looked a little unhappy, but nodded to the captain. He got on the radio and ordered the assault to continue. The guns started roaring again. The four of us—the general, the captain, and the two of us aides—walked back into the wheelhouse and closed the door. That deadened the roars of the guns to something that was at least manageable.

The sailors inside saluted the officers. “Captain! General! North Gate reports that the beast-men have retreated for now, but they’ll be back. The big ones take way too much ammo to put down, and they’re running low.”

“Have the nearest ship resupply them,” the general ordered. “Other than that, just hold the line. What of West Gate?”

“Bad, sir. Most recent report said something about their base camp being destroyed by giant icicles.”

That made all four of us sit up and take notice.

Icicles?” Hoshi demanded, more bewildered than anything. “As in… what, thrown like spears? Tossed by catapults?”

“No, sir. They just burst right out of the ground, sir. The whole base was cut right in half, and it looks like the ones on the far side have had to surrender.”

The general glanced at the captain, but he just shrugged. “All right, tell them to get more men and materiel from their ships. How are the echoes doing on that gate?”

“They hadn’t even managed to offload them before everything happened.”

She grunted. “Of course. Tell them to put the echoes on barricade building. Hold the line.”

“And South Gate?”

“Orders haven’t changed.”

Hold the line. Hold the line. Hold the line.

That was all she was telling anyone. This was a war that was supposed to be a complete cakewalk. A genuine liberation of a city held in thrall to criminals. And yet it was all anyone to do not to be pushed back into the sea.

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

Hoshi raised an eyebrow at me. “You brought your phone?”

I shrugged helplessly. It was a holdover from my bodyguard days. So to speak. “Sorry, I’ll turn it off—”

She waved magnanimously. “Answer it. It could be important.”

A little hesitant, I did as ordered, holding it up to my ear. “Hello?”

“Is General Hoshi with you?” a pleasant female voice said far too loudly. I winced and pulled it away. It had been set to speakerphone somehow.

“Uh, yes?”

“Please hold.”

I stared at Hoshi, who looked just as confused as I felt. I had been a bodyguard for ten years—or I remembered being one, anyway—and no one had ever called me to get a hold of my employer.

Within moments, another voice came over the phone, also female, but this time short and curt. “General Hoshi. I understand you command the ships clogging up the waters of White-Cap Bay.”

“Who is this?” Hoshi demanded, glaring at my phone. “How did you get this number?”

“I am Admiral Janelle Ursler of Necessarius North Fleet, flagship NS Aquilo. I have called to discuss the circumstances under which you will immediately cease fire upon my city.”

Hoshi grinned, and I understood her enthusiasm. If the barrage wasn’t a threat, they wouldn’t be trying to make a deal. “What are you offering?”

“Your ships and your lives.”

Hoshi’s smile disappeared. “I’m not in the mood for pointless grandstanding.”

“Neither am I. This is quite simple: You can stop firing of your own accord, giving you the freedom to land your detestable troops on our shores. Eventually, your reserves will be exhausted and you limp will back to your country. Or, we kill you all.”

“That is a tiresome bluff, admiral.”

There was an explosion below decks, which reverberated throughout the entire ship.

Moments later, the ship groaned, tortured metal screaming and rending the air. The deck titled, and we slowly began to sink.

The captain opened the door to shout out some quick orders, but otherwise didn’t seem worried. Neither did the general, or the captain’s aide, or any of the sailors I could see. Was I the only one who cared that we were sinking?

Hoshi raised an eyebrow. “You smuggled explosives on the ship. Cute. But the loss of the flagship won’t cripple the fleet. All the sailors have those modified lungs to breathe underwater, and the rest of us can get to the lifeboats. We’re pretty good swimmers.”

“Not good enough.”

There was a scream on the deck.

Hoshi narrowed her eyes. “What was that?”

“Your death song, General. The Dagonites will sing you to your rest.”

Hoshi stared at the phone, more perplexed than scared.

There was another scream.

“Weapons free,” the general said, still just a bit confused. “Jefferies, you’re in front.”

I swallowed nervously, but nodded. I pocketed the phone and pulled out my sidearm, flipping off the safety as I did. It was the first thing they taught you in the Secret Service.

What I hadn’t been taught was what to do when I was on a sinking ship under enemy attack by who knows what. The deck was already listing away under my feet, and I could hear things sliding around belowdecks.

There was another scream.

Stealing myself, I stepped out onto the deck, gun raised.

Most of the sailors were running to and fro, trying desperately to get lifeboats down to the water. Some marines had their guns out, panicked expressions on their faces, and pointed at the ocean—which was noticeably closer than the last time I had checked. I didn’t actually see any enemies, though. Where were these Dagonites the Admiral had said were coming for us?

Another scream. I looked back, and realized that one of the marines was gone. His remaining friends fired into the water a few times, but if it had any effect, I didn’t see one. Water was better than a brick wall at blocking bullets, once you were more than a foot under the surface.

Water was lapping at my boots now. “General, we need to get to the lifeboats!”

She was still frowning, confused rather than scared. I was pretty sure she should be very scared. “This doesn’t make any sense. None of this makes any sense. The bombs, now this… is this all a terror tactic?”

“General, please!”

Something tackled me, dragging me underwater.

I shook my head to clear it and opened my eyes, ignoring the burning in my lungs. Most of the sailors could breathe underwater, but I couldn’t. White-Cap Bay was known for crystal-clear waters on a calm day, but I still couldn’t see far—

There! Something moved! A shape, swimming far too fast to be a person, circling around and then charging straight at me—

It hit me like a freight train, nearly knocking what little wind I had left out of me and dragging me farther down. I did get a good look at it, though. A flat face, with pure black eyes, rows and rows of triangular shark teeth, and flapping gills on the neck.

And a large, powerful fish tail propelling both of us further into the depths.

A mermaid. A monstrous, horrific mermaid. Or some sort of merfolk, at least, as I wasn’t confident of the gender.

There was no sabotage. No spies on our boats. These… Dagonites had put the bombs on the underside of our ships from the outside.

For years, there had been rumors of something keeping unwanted ships away from Domina City. We had assumed bribes, careful usage of rumor, and perhaps torpedoes and divers at worst. But this

There were more of them around, dozens if not more, judging by the swirling shapes around me. Most of them were dragging their prizes to the depths, like some monstrous sea creatures returning food to a nest. Others were playing with their food, circling struggling sailors and swimming in only to nip at them and dodge away again. And why shouldn’t they? Everyone was completely outmatched. Most of the sailors weren’t even armed.

But I was.

I still had a death grip on my gun. I managed to bring it around to the thing’s chest, even as the pressure built up, making it feel like my head was going to crack like an egg. With the last of my strength, I pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Well, of course not. The stupid thing wouldn’t work underwater.

The Dagonite grinned with those shark teeth, and pulled something out of its belt—a garment which seemed to be made of the same material as wetsuits. It took me a moment to realize that the object was a gun, built with a much larger grip and no trigger guard. It seemed like it was designed to accommodate hands with webbed fingers.

The Dagonite turned, peered up at the surface, and fired its gun with a dull whumph I could feel in the water. Something spun out of it, trailing a line—it was a harpoon. A tiny little harpoon gun.

The Dagonite turned back to me, grinned, and winked. Then it pressed a button on the gun, reeling in the line and swimming up to meet its prey.

Leaving me behind. Like a small fish tossed back into the lake.

I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I still had some air left, and I could see light, far above. Far, yes, but not impossibly far. It was close enough that I could see the splashes where the Dagonites were dragging their hapless victims down.

I kicked off my boots and swam up with all my might, shrugging off my jacket between strokes. I dropped my gun in the process, but it was little more than a paperweight at the moment anyway.

Dagonites passed by me, close enough that I could feel my wake, but they ignored me. Did they really think I was no threat, or did they just think it would be more fun to kill me just when I thought I was free?

No, no thinking, only swimming. Just keep swimming.

Just keep…

I burst through the surface with what I was sure was the last stroke of my life. I gasped in a breath so hard it actually hurt, then I did another and another, both as hard. I settled down quickly, taking more normal-sized breaths, and looked around.

The flagship was half-sunk. Most of its lifeboats had launched, but those were torn to shreds except for one or two. All of those were on the opposite side of the sinking ship from me, of course. I’d never get to them. Just being this close might tow me under again. The ship itself was mostly empty, with just a few splatters of blood to mark some particularly energetic resistance.

There were a few sailors on the surface, but not many. I didn’t see General Hoshi anywhere.

And the rest of the fleet…

I couldn’t see more than a handful, but I could tell that most of them were in trouble. I saw one ship sinking, another on fire—there was a secondary explosion as its ammo magazine went up—and another seemed to be missing entirely. It had probably already disappeared completely beneath the waves.

I didn’t see a single ship unharmed.

I looked down. The water was too choppy to see much, but I could see dark shapes flitting around. They looked just like fish from here, as harmless as trout, but I knew better than to underestimate them.

I looked up again, this time at the city. Every few seconds, that blue dome-shield would flash into visibility again. I had to assume someone was still shelling the city. Someone had managed to keep their ship afloat. But with our firepower so drastically reduced, would we be able to make a dent in it? Hell, we didn’t even know if the whole fleet could have made a dent.

We had completely misunderstood the threat we were facing. It wasn’t like fighting gang-bangers and having them pull out automatic weapons. It was like fighting spear-wielding natives and having them pull out laser rifles.

Which, apparently, the Dominites actually had, judging by the reports from East Gate. Lasers and energy shields. What was next? A black-hole bomb? Shape-shifting spies? Truth serums and brainwashing and God-damned spaceships?

This was not my world any more. It might not have ever been my world. My only consolation was that I was going to be dead in a week anyway. I wouldn’t have to see the aftermath of this debacle.

I felt a strong webbed hand grab my ankle, and then I was pulled down below the waves.

Behind the Scenes (scene 285)

I’ve had the Dagonite reveal on my mind for a long time. I’m curious how many people saw this coming. At least some, I’m sure.

Scene 282 – Portam Raphaim



My name is Liam Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

My group was on the west side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty. We found ourselves in an urban canyon. It was a long, wide street with tall buildings on either side, stretching as far forward as anyone could see.

Something about the place felt… off. It wasn’t just the distant gunfire. That didn’t seem directed at us, so we could ignore it. No, the problem was the street, and the surrounding buildings. There was something about them we couldn’t quite place, something wrong.

It was when we were setting up our base camp that we realized everything was built for people ten feet tall.

The doorways—all shut and locked tight—were taller and wider. The chairs and benches were bigger and broader. Even the water fountains and vending machines were bigger. There were usually normal-sized ones right next to them, like one for a child and one for an adult.

The place was abandoned, but that didn’t make any of us feel better. Between the looming buildings and the bizarre furniture, it felt like playing in the Three Bears’ house. Sooner or later, the bears would come home.

They waited until we had everything set up. Barricades, gun turrets, first aid stations, the works. Some of our scouting parties even had a chance to return, reporting nothing else out there.

The sound of drums echoed down the street.

It was a slow, deep beat. It didn’t take long for everyone to notice. Everyone stopped what they were doing and just stared in the direction it was coming from. Some of us tried to put on brave faces, and others looked terrified.

Because any fool could recognize the beat of a war drum. Some things are etched into your bones.

We all retreated behind our barricades, pointing our weapons down the street. We couldn’t see much, since the skyscrapers blocked too much light. But we could hear where the drums were coming from. We could feel where they were coming from.

The armies marched into view.

There was no other way to describe them. They didn’t all march perfectly, they didn’t all wear any recognizable uniform. But they marched towards us, guns and swords and axes in hand. I saw pale ones who looked European, dark ones who looked South American, blue ones, red ones…

And they were all at least six feet tall, judging by the tall doorways they passed. Most of them were eight feet, with a few ten feet tall or more. And not a skinny sort of tall, either. These men and women had biceps bigger than my head. Some were shirtless, and seemed built like Sumo wrestlers.

They had segregated themselves along… racial lines? Is that what you called it? The Europeans didn’t mix with the South Americans, who didn’t mix with the multicolored ones. And none of them mixed with the bare-chested ones with the too-large teeth.

They marched under flags, the biggest one looking like a fist bursting out of the ground. I recognized the Asgardian Valknut from my Nordic studies. There was another that looked like two mountains clashing. Another which seemed to just be gnashing teeth. There were more in the back, symbolic designs I couldn’t hope to identify. But I knew what it meant: A dozen groups or more, all working together.

All to drive us out of their homes.

With one last quick drum beat, the horde, which filled the entire street in front of us, stopped. They stood maybe a hundred yards in front of us, in range of our guns but far out of range of their swords.

One man, nearly the tallest of them all, stepped forward. He wore a sharp business suit, sized up to appear loose on his massive frame. He appeared unarmed, but a man of that size could throw a car at us if he was so inclined.

“I am Odin,” he called, his voice echoing through the urban canyon, giving him the voice of a god. “I am the Colossus of the Aesir, and have the honor of negotiating with you on this fine day. Who is in charge here?”

The highest ranking man was a captain, a young blond man who had been looking pretty confident. At least before the drums started. He swallowed, but took a step forward and raised a megaphone. Thankfully, he had prepared.

“What do you want?”

The man who called himself Odin smirked. I had played bodyguard to some negotiations. The captain had made a mistake. He sounded weak and conciliatory. He shouldn’t have even acknowledged the man’s right to speak, much less negotiate.

But he was right. This was a man of the city, one way or the other. We were invading his home. He deserved the chance to speak, despite the tactical implications.

Besides. Our echoes were on their way. We just needed a little more time.

“We want you to leave, good sir,” Odin called. “We do not appreciate our streets invaded by fools who think they know what is best for us. We have enough of that here as it is. Leave, and no harm will come to you. You have my word.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” the captain said, displaying more backbone than I had expected. “My orders are clear and explicit. Do not test me on this. Do you want your streets to run red with blood?”

And they laughed.

More of a quiet chuckle. All the giants laughed with genuine amusement at that statement. It was enough to make the street we were standing on rumble just a little. While Odin didn’t make a sound, he did smirk.

“Do you know where you are, good sir?” Odin asked.

“Domina City,” he said. “A United States city that has been beset by crime and worse for far too long.”

Odin nodded, conceding the point. “True. Somewhat. But I meant more specifically. Here in Domina City, do you know where you are?”

The captain’s silence spoke volumes.

“You are at West Gate,” Odin said, his tone patient. “You are at Ginnungagap. The Yawning Void. The heart of all giants. It is something of a holy place, as much as we can have such things.”

To the captain’s credit, he didn’t ask unnecessary questions. “Then you would not want to have blood spilled here.”

There it was again. That slow, dangerous chuckle, moving through the entire army—all the armies—like a wave. We were doing something very, very wrong, and we didn’t have the slightest idea what it was.

“You misunderstand, good sir,” Odin said. “Do you know why Ginnungagap is a holy place to our culture?”

The captain didn’t speak, but I did see him make a few signs behind his back, where Odin didn’t see.

“Ginnungagap is holy because of all the blood spilled to defend it.”

Someone next to him handed him some massive object, and it took me a moment to realize it was a gun. It had to be be at least ten feet long, and the barrel was as thick as a baseball bat. He could wipe out half our army just by swinging it around like a club.

Menn!” Odin cried. “Vi slåss!

VI SLÅSS!” they roared, and rushed forward like a wave.

But the captain wasn’t a fool. Out of his depth, true, but not a fool. The second the giants started charging forward, we all raised our guns, took aim, and fired. We had prepared ever since he started signing orders at us.

A solid wall of roaring flesh was met by so much lead that it must have felt like a solid wall. Dozens of the giants fell, trampled or avoided by their fellows.

Dozens fell. But there were hundreds.

The ones with guns stayed in the back, while the ones with swords or axes or just bare fists charged. Normally, such a tactic would never work for a second against a prepared enemy. But each foe took dozens of bullets to put down. Despite the number of giants falling to the street, the horde made solid progress.

In what felt like moments, they were upon us.

A massive hand grabbed the barricade in front of me and pulled itself up and over. I pointed my rifle at it and squeezed the trigger, but the shot went wild. I emptied half a clip without hitting him even once. The giant grinned, grabbed the gun, and ripped it out of my hands. With his other hand, he brought around a massive sledgehammer, big enough to squash my head like a tomato. He wielded it as if it was cardboard.

I scrambled back, barely managing to dodge as he brought the hammer down on the street where I had been standing, leaving a small crater. He grunted in surprise, but grinned and adjusted his grip, bringing it up again with two hands this time.

He looked like a normal person, besides his size. He was wearing a nice white shirt with a tie and everything. What was it that made him act like a screaming berserker warrior?

It didn’t matter. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was screaming. All that mattered right now was my hand finding my sidearm. I pulled it out and pointed it at the man coming after me.

Three red blossoms appeared on his white shirt.

Had I done that? The gun in my hand was smoking, but I didn’t remember pulling the trigger. It had just happened.

The giant flinched and swayed for a moment, but growled and managed to step forward. His sledgehammer was still raised above his head.

I pulled the trigger again and again, knowing I couldn’t miss at this range. This time, I could actually see the bullets impact him, could see them force him back a half step each shot. In moments, his white shirt was completely soaked with red.

The sledgehammer dropped from weak fingers. It hit the ground hard enough that I could feel the impact several feet away. A moment later, the giant himself followed, landing face-first with a wet smack.

I scrambled to my feet and glanced around, reloading as I did. The place was a war zone. They had pulled down our barricades like so much kindling, and bodies were strewn everywhere. Most of them were American soldiers, but there were a few of the giants as well.

It was like watching children fight adults. The captain and the other officers tried to establish firing lines. Then the giants just waded in and started tearing everything apart. I saw one soldier get picked up by the leg, and then used as a club by the hairy beast who had grabbed him. Within a few moments, there was nothing left of him and his squad but a bloody mess. The giant tossed him aside like so much trash.

The sound of gunfire was everywhere, but it wasn’t all coming from our side. At least so much as there were ‘sides’ in this horrific melee. Some of the giants had guns, massive things that looked like they should be sitting on a tank. They kept their firing line. They shot up our lines whenever it looked like we were about to get organized. Odin stood in the center of it all, relaxed and unconcerned. His own gun leaned against a nearby wall like some unimportant trinket or broom.

I stood in the center of it all, untouched. No, not untouched, just unnoticed. The giants seemed to have to make an effort to notice anything as small and unimportant as us. And since I wasn’t currently running away or shooting anyone, I just wasn’t worth their time.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to ignore the screams and sickening crunch of bones all around me. All I had was my pistol, and two more clips. Would it be enough against these monsters? No, no it would not. But I had little more than a week or two to live anyway. May as well go out fighting.

Nearby, there was… something. A large and shirtless purple-skinned beast. It had arms long enough to knuckle-walk and claws like razor blades. It advanced on a small squad that had managed to regroup, hoping to ambush them from the rear. It would cut through them like so much wheat.

I took a deep breath, and fired.

My first shot caught it in the shoulder. It wheeled around and roared at me, revealing a mouth full of needle-like teeth. I fired again, trying to get it in its mouth, but instead missed it completely.

It loped forward, initial quarry forgotten, and I forced myself to focus. If I wasn’t quick, I was dead. More dead than I already was, anyway.

I squeezed off three more shots, getting it once in the shoulder and twice in the chest. It didn’t even slow, and then it was upon me. It tackled me to the ground and raised those terrible claws to disembowel me.

My back felt like all the skin had been ground off by the street. I could smell the foul stench of rotten meat on the monster’s breath. Gunfire filled my ears, along with the wet, painful sounds of meat being sliced and cut. It was like my body knew that this was the last moment of my short life. Like it was trying to give me everything it could in these last few precious seconds. Just in case there was anything important.

There was.

There was still the gun, held in my hand in a death grip.

I was underneath the monster, so I just had to point the gun up and pull the trigger. The odd angle of the recoil hit me in the chest like a kick from a mule. But the beast roared. I swore I could hear the sound of the bullet breaking through its rib cage and into the vulnerable organs behind it.

I fired four more times, emptying the clip, until the beast finally collapsed on top of me. It was like getting crushed under a bear. I could feel my ribs cracking. Not to mention the warm and disturbing feeling of its blood soaking my clothes.

With a great deal of effort, I managed to roll the beast off me. I just lay there for a few minutes, breathing heavily and trying not to throw up. There were still the sounds of battle and carnage, but they felt distant for the time being. Right now, I just needed to catch my breath. I stared up at the sliver of sky visible through the top of the urban canyon.

Then I heard something shifting next to me.

Very slowly, I turned to look. I was unsure what I could possibly see, but I knew that whatever it was, I wouldn’t like it.

The beast was sitting up.

It was grunting in pain, but it was alive. One of the wounds I had given it was closing up even as I watched. It was a massive bullet hole that had exploded out the back of its chest, but it was healing. Like some grisly flower opening its petals in reverse.

After a moment, the beast sighed in relief, then turned to grin at me.

“Good fight,” it said, before ripping out my throat.

Behind the Scenes (scene 282)

I feel like I haven’t done enough with the giants. The Jotuun only have two warlords, and there aren’t many named giants outside the Aesir. I’m trying to rectify it, but I’ve got a whole lot of characters as it is.


Scene 280 – Portam Daemonia



My name is Paul Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

My group was on the south side of the city. We breached the gate without difficulty. We found ourselves in a wide-open square of shops and little restaurants, with a wide street running down the center. We moved into the square, policed the area, and moved on. We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us.

That’s when everything started going wrong.

They were ready for us. The second we stepped out of the square down the main street, we were greeted by gunfire. Dozens of men with horns fired at us with professional precision. Three of my comrades were cut down in seconds, and I barely managed to dive behind cover with a bullet in my leg.

“Just do whatever you have to do so I can fight,” I told the medic.

He shook his head. “If I do this wrong, it could result in permanent damage. We need to be careful.”

“I don’t care about permanent damage! Just get me on my damned feet!”

There was an explosion. Huge chunks of our wall blew past us. We had built it from tables and chairs thrown into place under covering fire. It wasn’t enough to stand up to anything more than small-arms fire.

“What the hell was that!?” the sergeant yelled.

“No idea, sir!” someone called back. “Must have been some kind of missile!”

He cursed. “Hold that line! And where are my echoes!?”

Another explosion rocked the barricade. A table missed the sergeant by about a foot.

“You and you!” he said, pointing at me and one other man. “Do nothing but watch this hole! Something pokes its head through, shoot it!”

The two of us both nodded and leveraged our rifles at the gap.

I fought down my pounding heart. This wasn’t my first battle. I wouldn’t act like a green little recruit just because I had barely been born a month ago. Okay, it was my first war, but still. I ignored the gunfire, the screams of pain and rage, the roars of challenge from the things on the other side of the wall.

Guard the gap. That was all that mattered.

The man next to me screamed as something dropped on top of him.

I jumped, but shifted my focus over to him. He was flailing around too much, I couldn’t get a clean shot. Maybe I should have just taken it, but my body was acting on autopilot. Working on old bodyguard instincts that didn’t apply any more.

I reached forward and grabbed the thing that was clinging to his back. I ripped it off him by kicking off him for leverage and tossed it onto the street.

It was like something out of a nightmare.

Small, maybe three or four feet tall, with thin and spindly limbs. It had muscles like steel wires, green skin, and needle-like teeth. It hissed at me and leaped, but I punched it in the face mid-flight. It produced a satisfying crunch as its jaw broke. I placed my boot on its chest, pinning it down.

“Sergeant!” I called. “Prisoner!”

He frowned, and I realized my mistake. We couldn’t keep prisoners. Killing an enemy in combat was one thing, but executing one we had captured was another. Half of us had cameras on our helmets, so there was no way we could get away with this.

And our iron-clad morals, of course. Those also stopped us.

Thankfully—for a certain definition of the word—he was spared that decision by the barricade exploding. I was knocked back, more than enough for my captive to escape, but I wasn’t worried about that any more.

Dozens of… I didn’t know what. Demons? Creatures with horns and red skin and tails. They marched forward in perfect formation, firing in a line to drive us back. We were hardly helpless; we fired back, and even managed to take a few down. But they moved to reinforce themselves, not even blinking at the casualties. We were driven back to the gate in a handful of minutes.

Then an echo stepped out of the gate.

Ten feet tall and built new from shining steel, the mechanized suit was halfway between a tank and a suit of armor. Two large legs brought it into the city, and two fully articulate arms carried a gun bigger than I was. The pilot inside the chest cockpit swept a line of fire over the enemy, and their line buckled. They began to retreat. Swiftly and efficiently, while laying down covering fire, but they still retreated.

Then a wall appeared.

I had to look twice, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. One second the line was collapsing, the next the echo was reloading. Before it could do anything, a dozen men ran in. They slammed their hands on the ground and a ten-foot tall wall of concrete appeared. It blocked off the entire square. I had no doubt that the enemy soldiers were regrouping behind that wall.

A few more echoes stepped out, ready to fight, but they didn’t shoot yet. Did we even have ordnance heavy enough to breach that wall? The echoes could jump it, but the rest of us couldn’t, and they’d be overwhelmed alone.

And there were still questions. I didn’t care what kind of magical bio-tech you had, people couldn’t make a wall just by… by what? By thinking it? I had no idea what they had even done.

“Sir,” I said to the sergeant, who happened to be nearby. “I—”

“No, I don’t know either,” he interrupted with a growl. “Right now, we need to fortify right here. We underestimated them. We’re not going to make that mistake twice.”

“…okay. Actually, I was going to ask where you want me. With the echoes, or watching the wall?”

He looked surprised, but thought for a second. “The wall. They’ll send scouts over soon.”

Before I could do more than nod, a gunshot so loud it seemed to shake the world resounded around the square.

A moment later, one of the echoes toppled, a massive hole in the cockpit.

The sergeant cursed. “Sniper! Find him!”

I glanced over the ridiculously high rooftops. “What is he even using?

“Something anti-materiel,” the sergeant muttered. “Maybe even a railgun.”

I struggled to remember my advanced weapons training. “Don’t those burn out after like three shots?”

“Yes, but three dead echoes is three too many. We need to—”

“There!” someone shouted, firing at one of the lower rooftops nearby. I wasn’t sure he actually got his shots within a mile of the sniper, but it was enough to scare him off, at least.

“Someone clean out that echo!” the sergeant yelled. “And be ready! They’ll try a push any second!”

They seemed to take that as their cue.

We were expecting them to jump over the wall. That was our first mistake.

The wall disappeared. A solid wall of asphalt and concrete molded back into the ground as if it were soft clay shaped by invisible hands. The demon soldiers opened fire immediately, cutting through us like wheat. Dozens of men fell, and one echo stumbled, as a rain of fire managed to pierce the cockpit and kill the pilot inside. The demons must be using some sort of armor piercing rounds. The suits were strong, but they weren’t tanks.

Next to me, the sergeant hid behind an overturned table. He yelled into his radio, demanding an artillery barrage from the ships. I could hear the calm voice of mission control denying him, but promising more reinforcements.

A wave of men rushed through the gate, pushing the demons back again. They retreated again, laying down covering fire. Those strange men and women from before stepped forward. It took me a minute to realize most of them didn’t have horns or weird skin colors. Did that mean anything? They interrupted my thoughts by raising another wall of stone.

I looked around. Dozens of dead, too few of them enemies. The only reason we hadn’t lost more was because we hadn’t had more. When the next rush came, they’d kill us all, reinforcements or no. Especially since all three of our echo pilots were dead. We had more on the ships, but they wouldn’t want to risk them.


I rushed forward, shoving aside one of the men who seemed to be in shock. I slipped into the open cockpit of one of the echoes. It was the one that the sniper had taken out. There was a giant hole in the top of the shielding, but the body had been removed. I could ignore the blood splashed everywhere.

I slipped into the seat and pressed the green start button. The hatch swung closed, and the screen on the inside booted up. Of course, the big hole, about the size of a fist, made things a little confusing. But other than that the HUD showed a perfect representation of the outside world. There was even an overlay identifying friendlies and so on.

I slipped my arms into the metal sleeves at my side and flexed my fingers. The machine echoed my movements perfectly. I could even feel resistance in the controls from where one of the hands was stuck under some rubble. I shook it off, and put my feet on the pedals. The echo slipped similar sleeves around my legs, and I was soon able to awkwardly stand.

I grinned. I was driving an echo. Sure, someone was going to kill me in about ten seconds, but I didn’t have long to live anyway. I had always wanted to drive one of these things.

From my higher vantage point, I could almost see over the wall. Not quite, but enough to see the horns of some of the taller things on the other side. Glancing around, I found one of the echo’s discarded guns. It synced up with my HUD, showing me how much ammo I had left. Seemed like I had a full clip. Good, because I wasn’t sure how to reload.

The wall came down.

Acting on instinct, I opened fire. I think I killed a dozen men on my first pass, then another dozen on the second. The gun didn’t shoot bullets so much as giant lead spikes. They cut through infantry like water.

Behind me, another of the echoes rose, then the third. Someone had taken my idea and run with it. The sergeant? Maybe. Didn’t matter.

I didn’t get any orders over the radio. Maybe it was busted, or maybe they knew I knew what I was doing. With no other option, I advanced, firing carefully and effectively. The other two echoes mimicked on either side. For a moment, we were gods. No one could touch us.

Then I ran out of ammo.

Remembering what happened last time an echo tried to reload, I didn’t even bother. I threw the gun with all my strength, punching a hole through the enemy line with a sickening crunch. The other two echoes continued firing, but they wouldn’t last long.

The demons started to retreat.

Oh no. I knew this game. I wasn’t doing it again. With a grunt, I dashed forward, charging with my shoulder. I didn’t aim for the demons, but for the weird people making the walls, hiding behind them.

They yelped in surprise and tried to run, but too late. I kicked one a good twenty feet into the closest building. I grabbed another with a mechanical hand, slamming him into the ground twice. I tossed his broken body aside and grabbed for the next.

But they were wise to my tricks now. Their initial panic had faded, and they retreated out of my range. They were planning something, but I couldn’t tell what. All I knew was that I had to do something, and quick.

The strange men and women were swept away, cleared from the street as if by a broom.

I turned to see one of the other echoes, without any obvious damage, standing next to me. It was wielding a sign pole that had clearly been ripped straight out of the concrete. The sign itself was now covered in blood where it had cut through the enemy like a blade.

I nodded in thanks and continued forward. I hoped to take out the rest of the stone-makers before they had a chance to recover.

Before I could, though, I heard screeches to my side. I turned back to see the pole-wielding echo covered in those small, multicolored demons. They had dropped down from the sky, and were crawling over his back, looking for weaknesses. He struggled and flailed, but couldn’t get a good angle at any of them.

I cursed and stomped over, knowing full well this was a distraction to give the demons time to retreat. I just didn’t have any choice; the echo was too valuable.

I grabbed a few of the little ones and threw them away as hard as I could, but I wasn’t sure I actually killed any of them. In just a few moments, the rest of them scrambled off. They ran off and clambered up the sides of the buildings before I could even blink.

I looked over the echo to make sure there were no bombs or other surprises left behind, then gave a thumbs-up to the pilot. The entire cockpit bobbed a little. It was the closest we could come to a nod in these things. He picked up the fallen street sign and twirled it like a quarterstaff.

“Jefferies!” the sergeant yelled as he walked up. “Good job!”

I guess my radio was out after all. “Thank you, sir!”

“We got that sniper, so you don’t have to worry about that any more! Just be careful, and give ’em hell! We’re bringing in reinforcements as we speak.”

I nodded, relieved. The rules on echoes were still weird. Technically, he should make me give up the seat to a trained pilot. But the whole point of the ghost-movement system meant that you didn’t have to be trained to pilot one of these things. As long as I did well, no one would mind.

Besides, what were they gonna do? Execute me a week before my artificial body fell apart like so much trash?

“Help us make a barricade again!” the sergeant continued. “These things aren’t going to be gone for long.”

I nodded again, and all three of us moved to help. The third echo had been in the back, shooting while we kept the enemy distracted up close. Maybe he had been the one who took out the sniper. I hadn’t been paying attention.

A drum sounded.

I turned to the other echoes. Had they heard it too?

The drum came again, a few more beats this time.

Then again, and again.

I recognized the sound. Not the exact tune, but I recognized the sound, the feel.

It was a war drum.

Something walked out from behind the shattered barricade we had set up earlier, where the demons had retreated past. The thing was eight feet tall and covered in crudely forged steel, made to look like some sort of barbarian scavenger armor. There were spikes and breaks, patches of metal on metal on metal. Two great horns, also metal but shaped like a wild buck’s, rose from its forehead.

It carried a sword over one shoulder.

The sword was six feet long and a good handspan or more wide. It had a battered edge that looked like it had been attacked with a hammer—or maybe it had attacked the hammer. It was solid steel and must have weighed a good hundred pounds. The thing carried it as easily as a baseball bat.

A mech. They had a mech. An American echo, I would assume, but it could have been the Soviet or Chinese model. It was clearly heavily modified, as it was more humanoid than mine. It actually had a head, for one, a cold steel mask like a helmet.

How had they gotten their hands on it? Militaries kept close watch on their mechs. How had they kept it working for so long in the salty air?

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. It was just something to fight.

The demons followed behind their champion, leaving a good twenty feet of open space. They marched in perfect rhythm to the drum beats, quick but not hurried. They didn’t even have their guns raised.

The mech stopped. The drumbeats stopped with him, the last beat echoing with his last step.

Ich bin der Erlkönig, der Jäger,” he said, his voice loud and carrying. It didn’t even have the scratchy quality of a radio. “Kriegsherr der kobolde, Pförtner des Spirac, Fünfte Tor der Hölle.” He lifted that massive sword off his shoulder and pointed it me. “Who are you, machine-walker, who stand against me and my city?” He had a thick German accent, and I was guessing that was the language he was speaking.

Don’t stand out…

Way too late for that.

I didn’t say anything. Couldn’t think of anything, and with the radio busted no one could hear me anyway. I elbowed the echo with the sign. He nodded, charging forward, ground shaking under his feet, improvised weapon at the ready. I followed just a few steps behind, ready to grab the enemy mech and rip his arm off if I had to.

He moved like lightning.

One second he was standing there calmly, sword resting. The next there was a mechanical arm on the ground, severed at the shoulder.

The echo with the sign didn’t let that stop him. It helped that echoes didn’t have pain feedback. He swung the pole at the enemy mech with one hand. There was still enough force that even a tank would have to sit up and take notice.

The barbarian mech parried the blow with his sword and kicked out, sending my ally reeling onto his back. Echoes weren’t good at getting up from that position. With only one arm he was a sitting duck as the enemy stepped forward, sword raised to plunge straight into the cockpit.

I tackled the barbarian at a full run, half a ton of metal slamming into him at maybe sixty miles per hour. We both went flying, rolling across the street, and his sword wheeled off into the distance.

Everything was happening too fast, my damaged HUD couldn’t keep up. The mech was punching me even as we rolled, but he couldn’t get enough leverage to do real damage. We hit the wall, and I was on top. Using my better position, I punched him in the face, hoping that’s where his sensors were located. If I could blind him—

He kicked me off, sending me sprawling, but I managed to scramble to my feet. Maybe not in the most dignified way possible, but I did it. I closed my hand into a fist, ready for another fight, but frowned as there was some resistance. I glanced down at the hand and saw that I had managed to get the mech’s mask at some point. Good. That meant I would be able to see all the delicate machinery—

I blinked, and looked again.

My enemy was walking forward, slowly and purposefully. He had lost his sword, and most of his helmet was gone. I had the mask, but the rest was scattered across the street in scraps of twisted metal.

Under the mask was a face. A human face. Yes, it was green, but it was still a living human face. Twinkling eyes and a grinning mouth full of far too many sharp teeth.

It… what? It wasn’t a mech? How was that even possible? How could anyone fight a mech in hand to hand? I didn’t care if you were eight feet tall, humans just were not strong enough to do that.

“What the hell is going on in this city?” I whispered.

My opponent had better hearing than I thought. “Hell?” he said with a laugh. “You walked right into Hell, machine-walker. My goblins watch the skies.” He waved at the soldiers behind him. “Sargeras’ hellions patrol the streets. The Satanists and the bulezau and all the others stand ready and waiting. While you fight me.” His grin seemed wide enough to split his face right in half. “Hell is what is going on in this city, outsider.”

I gritted my teeth and rushed forward to punch him.

He caught my metal first in one hand.

“See you on the other side,” he said. He thrust his hand through the armored cockpit, crushing my neck with a single sharp squeeze.

Behind the Scenes (scene 280)

Echoes are one of the things I was worried about, but I think they’re coming off well. They sit somewhere between tanks and heavy infantry, and their ability to ghost the movements of their pilots means that minimal training is required to use them. This makes them very useful, but they’re still far from invincible.

Scene 278 – Portam Nocte



My name is Robert Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” a soldier next to me, an Indian man with bright blue eyes, muttered to himself. In the cramped confines of the troop transport, it was hard not to overhear. “Supposed to be an easy paycheck…”

I remained silent. Scared as I was, this was exactly what I had signed on for. It was literally the reason I had been born. No time for complaining now. The boats would be nearing the shore at any moment.

“Ten seconds until landfall,” a calm voice sounded over the radio.

The Indian man next to me started praying in German. Most of the other soldiers tensed up as well, expecting the worst. We were packed into the metal can like sardines, which didn’t help.

Not me. I was going to die. If not today, in a week. That gives a certain clarity of purpose.

The hull scraped against something solid. Light flowed in as the gangplank opened, slamming down onto something.

We rushed out with the haste and surety of training, and quickly found ourselves on a long concrete dock, outside the walls of the city proper. There was no one else here, but there did seem to be barbecues, of all things, set into the concrete itself.

Our squad leader barked an order, and we all moved down the dock, towards the wall, guns up and ready.

The wall itself was huge. It felt like a hundred feet tall, but that couldn’t be right. The gate, a giant metal monstrosity that looked like it was designed to stop nukes, was firmly shut.

“Anybody see a doorbell?” someone muttered. Laughter rippled through the group.

Our sergeant smiled, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge the joke. “Breachers, forward!”

A dozen soldiers with large, bulky backpacks pushed through the ranks and started slapping small discs onto the metal door. They even tossed a few up higher, where they clamped on magnetically.

“Back up!” the sergeant cried, and we all obeyed in a wave. “Three… two… one… breach!”

I was expecting an explosion. Instead, gears inside the massive door whined, and it began to creak open.

“Everyone in!”

I was among the first to slip through the widening crack between the doors. I scanned the city with my gun held ready, establishing a beachhead. The first thing I noticed was that it was dark. Somehow, despite it being mid-morning, the sun just didn’t penetrate here. Midnight would have been less dark. At least there would have been stars.

The light from the gate illuminated some, but not much. Wide, empty streets and tall buildings without any lights on. There seemed to be a shopping center or open-air food court of some type. There were tables and chairs scattered around in a wide open pattern. Looking up, I thought I saw the edge of some sort of tarp far above, strung between the buildings to provide shade. How odd.

We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us. It was just echoing through the streets like the ghost of a battle. I almost thought that was the sound of the other gates, but that didn’t make sense. Even if they had already engaged, we wouldn’t be able to hear them from here. There must be a gang fight deeper in the city.

“Put on your lamps,” the sergeant grunted. He already had his on, and I hastened to obey. “No flashlights.”

We had been issued light amplification goggles—lamps—ahead of time. No one had explained exactly what they were for. I guess this was it.

I slipped mine on and hit the switch, then winced. The dark streets were suddenly as bright as day—and the gate behind us as bright as the sun.

“We’re leaving the gate open!” the sergeant said before anyone could ask. “Need a line of retreat. Just don’t look at it.”

In a few moments, we had about a hundred men through the gate, all wearing lamps and ready for anything. More would be coming, but this was more than enough to advance, maybe set up a base camp a few streets up.

We marched forward in tight formation, guns up as we traversed the dark streets. But there was nothing. We didn’t encounter so much as a single person, though at one point I did see a pair of dogs eating from a dumpster. They ran off before we got too close.

“This is creepy,” the Indian man next to me muttered, looking back the way we had come. We had taken a few turns at this point, so the bright light of the gate was out of sight. “Maybe we should start knocking on doors.”

The sergeant heard him. “Orders are not to disturb the civilians more than we have to. We’re here to save this city, not conquer it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hold.” The sergeant stopped us as we began to turn a corner. I was near the front, and could see what had stopped him. There was someone in the middle of the street up ahead, a naked man with skin as white as chalk. “You three. Forward. Everyone else, eyes sharp. This could be a trap.”

The three soldiers he had indicated walked forward slowly, guns steady. The man wasn’t too far away, maybe ten or twenty yards.

“Sir?” one of them said as they got close. “You all right? We’re from America, sir. We’re here to help you.”

The man stood. Our soldiers took a few visible steps back, nervous. The man was easily six feet tall, and had muscles like a linebacker. He was also completely naked, revealing a smooth crotch like a Ken doll.

“I—uh—” The soldier who had been speaking glanced back at the sergeant.

The man spoke first.

“Your services to your country are to be commended,” he said with a friendly and fatherly voice. “I salute you.”

“Yeah, that’s… thanks, man. I just—”

“I am sorry.”

And then day broke.

Some instinct led me to rip off my goggles as he raised his arms, so the blinding radiance he suddenly emitted didn’t hit me as hard as everyone else. I heard screams, and the sounds of bodies hitting the ground. Dead? Unconscious? I had no idea.

I might not have been hit as hard, but I was still completely blinded. It was like a second sun that had been born in the street in front of us. Shielding my face barely helped at all, and I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks. And someone was… singing?

Someone was singing in Hebrew. I didn’t recognize more than one word out of ten, but the tone of the song was low and sad, almost apologetic.

It was a death song. I knew that suddenly. Someone was singing us to our graves.

I scrambled back, away from the fight, and into an alley we had passed moments ago. I still couldn’t see, but my memory had always been good. I put my back to a dumpster and pointed my gun in front of me, blinking as fast as I could to try and clear my eyes.

Things started to get blurry, but that was an improvement on the shapeless mass of white my sight had been moments ago. There was someone in front of the alley—a soldier? The man from the street? No, neither. This man was smaller, and had something in each hands. Knives.

I made a decision, and fired.

Bullets cut through the air, and the thing at the front of the alley dropped. A moment later, someone else fired, and I thought they were shooting at me. They weren’t. Must be some of the others from my company, realizing that shooting was their best chance of survival.

The gunfire didn’t last long.

Within a minute or two, it faded, but so had my blindness. Of course, now I couldn’t see anything because it was still dark as night. I wasn’t planning on putting my lamp back on, but it was better than nothing. And the death song had faded as well, which was a good sign.

I crept up to the front of the alley and poked the corpse with a boot. It was… a person, but too androgynous to tell what, exactly. They had white tattoos that looked like Hebrew, but I couldn’t read them. The knives they had been carrying were buffed to a perfect reflective sheen. Like mirrors.

I turned around the corner again, gun up, to find maybe fifty of my fellow soldiers in a panicked huddle. They were surrounded by corpses. Some of the corpses were the naked people, but most of the bodies were American soldiers.

Including the sergeant.

I swallowed. I wasn’t supposed to draw attention to myself, but…

“Everybody, form up!” I called. I stalked over to the sergeant and ripped off his radio. “Defensive positions, we don’t know when they’ll come back! Strip ammo off the bodies, then leave them!”

The men looked a little hesitant, but they obeyed. They were trained well, considering how horribly this had gone.

“Control, this is the forward company,” I said into the radio. “We’ve been ambushed. Half our men are dead, sergeant’s dead, and I don’t think we made a dent in the enemy. They’ve got some… light ability, don’t know what to call it. Don’t use the goggles. Just use flashlights.”

There was a brief pause, then the radio crackled. “Confirmed, forward company. We’re sending reinforcements. Infantry first, then the echoes. Stand by.”

I took a deep breath. Echoes. Good. With those, we’d be fine. We should have led with them. “Confirmed, command. We’ll hold. You have our position?”

“Loud and clear. GPS is solid.”

“Good. Over and out.”

I swallowed, trying not to let my nerves show to the men. I had no idea what the plan was here. But whatever the plan was, it had gone to hell in a hand basket. So I guess the sergeant wouldn’t be doing much better than me if he had lived.

Our eyes were starting to adjust to the dark, if barely. Still couldn’t see real detail, but at least we could see if someone was coming. The fact that they hadn’t yet had me worried. Whoever and whatever these people were, they clearly knew exactly what they were doing.

After several heart-pounding minutes, two more squads ran up the street. Their flashlights bounced around like rays from heaven.

“Echoes are about twenty minutes behind,” the man in front said. He was a sergeant, and I quickly fell into step behind him. “This will be our base camp! Drag those dumpsters over here, we need some more walls!”

Men moved to obey, and I pulled the sergeant aside to speak with him. “Did you see what these people could do?”

He shook his head. “Something about light?”

“I don’t know what to call it. I think we’re outmatched.”

He gave me a look. “We can handle a couple nightlights, private.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant that this is not something we expected the toy maker to be capable of. We’re operating on flawed information here, in the enemy’s home. We’re sitting ducks.”

“…are you suggesting we retreat?”

I shook my head. “No. I’m suggesting we switch to defensive until we have more intel. Fortify this position and the gate, shoot or capture anyone who comes too close. Don’t overextend ourselves.”

He nodded slowly. “Good ideas. Very good. Did you try for officer corp?”

I cursed inwardly. Don’t draw attention…

“We’ll talk about that later. For now, organize some men, secure the perimeter. I’ll grab some grunts to move the bodies out of the way.”

“Good idea, sir.” I walked over to a small group of soldiers who didn’t seem to be busy.

Before I could get to them, the flashlights started flickering.

One of the soldiers frowned and started whacking it as if that would fix it. But the problem was with all the flashlights, not just his.

“We put in fresh batteries this morning,” he said. “I don’t know what would—”

He was interrupted by all the lights going out at once.

A few moments later, they returned, revealing him dead on the ground with his throat cut.

“GUNS UP!” the sergeant yelled. Everyone obeyed instantly. “You see something that’s not us, SHOOT IT! No questions asked!”

I backed up towards the sergeant, keeping my gun level and eyes scanning. “This is different from before.”

He nodded. “The first group makes us get rid of the lamps, then the second group comes in under the cover of darkness. Simple and effective.”

“How do you think they got our flashlights like that?”

“No idea. Some sort of electromagnetic distortion, like an EMP but weaker?”

The flashlights started flickering again.

“Everyone STAND READY!” the sergeant yelled. “No surprises!”

I had a thought as the flashlights kept flickering, and the men shook so hard I could hear their gear clicking. The light-people shouldn’t be directly involved in this ambush. So that meant if I put on the light amplification goggles…

I slipped them on just as the flashlights died. Just in time to see someone sneaking up behind another of the soldiers.

I didn’t hesitate. I fired, hitting him solid in the chest. He stumbled, but didn’t fall, turning towards me and hissing. I heard other soldiers shooting. Were they panic-firing, or shooting at friends of this one?

He had black eyes and massive fangs, in addition to the long, sharp claws on his hands. He rushed forward, almost faster than I could see. I fired again and again, finally piercing the Kevlar body armor he must have been wearing.

He fell to the ground, dead.

The flashlights came back on.

I cursed and ripped off my lamp, blinking away the brightness from my eyes.

The sergeant clapped me on the back. “Good shot.”

Before I could answer, rumbling laughter rolled through the city.

“You shouldn’t have done that, boy,” a deep, amused voice said. “They take it personally when you kill one of their own.”

I raised my gun, searching for the source of the voice, but didn’t respond.

The sergeant did, though. “Who are you? Show yourself!”

“I am called the Dragon.”

“These your men!?”

“No. These are men and women of Domina City, who do not wish to see their homes defiled.”

The sergeant swallowed and looked at me, at a loss for words.

Don’t stand out…

“We’re not here for your homes or your people!” I called. “We’re just here to get rid of the gangs!”

That same rumbling laugh as before. “The gangs are the homes and the people, little boy… no, no wait.” His tone changed, to something curious. “Glasya tells me you’re not a boy at all. You’re a homunculus.”

My blood froze in my veins.

That wasn’t what I was actually called. There was some long name that spelled out a meaningless acronym I hadn’t bothered to learn. AGBHC or something like that. But I had looked up some terms online, learned which ones applied to me.

Homunculus. A word the Greek alchemists used.

It meant false-man.

How had they known? How could they possibly have known? I was made from the toy maker, but that shouldn’t mean anything. American scientists were completely cut off from Dominite ones. Did they have some magic device that let them detect things made from the toy maker?

I took a deep breath. “I’m more of a man than you. Come down and show yourself!”

He chuckled. “Tempting, bruscar. More tempting than you know. But I did not reach my position by taking stupid risks.” The flashlights began to flicker again. “Our nightstalkers will handle you just fine.”

As before, when the lights went out, I slipped on my lamp. This time, most of the other soldiers followed my example.

It gave us just enough time to see almost a hundred of the black-eyed assassins dropping down from the sky.

Behind the Scenes (scene 278)

“AGBHC” stands for “Artificially Grown Biological Humanoid Construct,” by the way.