Tag Archives: Kat

Scene 325 – Manes

MANES

ALEX

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

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

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

George paused. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First time in the arboreum?” someone said.

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

“Yes,” I said. “It’s… amazing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you design the seeds?” Jarasax asked.

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

“I mean you as in Lemuria.”

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

“Do you remember from who?” Sax pressed.

I frowned. Where was he going with this?

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

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

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

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

The gardener looked in that direction.

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

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

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

“But… didn’t you hear that?”

“Yes. Sounded like an explosion.”

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

“Or something getting firebombed,” Sax said.

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

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

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

He stared. “What?

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

“Y-yes, of course, but—”

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

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

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

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

“But… but…”

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

“I guess…” he muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gardener frowned. “Hacking?”

Kat elbowed Sax in the ribs.

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

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

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

“Both, yes.”

“Alright, thank you, that worked.”

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

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

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

“Alex Gabriel!” he shouted.

“Yes?” I said. “That’s me.”

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

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

There was another distant explosion.

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

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

“The who?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t have tv on the shuttle?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beats me,” I said.

Kat signed something.

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

She shrugged and signed something else.

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

I blinked. “Wait. Seriously?”

The boy heaved a great sigh. “YES!

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

“Retinue, weapons free,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully, we had brought our own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grenades,” I muttered. “Figures.”

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

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

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

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

Two more of the automatons were coming down the ramp.

“They have robots? I shrieked.

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

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

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

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

At least a dozen groans were my answer.

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

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

Normal aliens. Was that an oxymoron?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

He still looked hesitant. “But—”

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “Good. Secure the prisoners.”

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

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

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

The dockworkers all stared at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My smile fled. “I’m sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stared. “A tele-what?

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

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

I nodded. “Good. Sax, pay the kid.”

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

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

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

“Take us to your leader.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 325)

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

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

Scene 251 – Talio

TALIO

KELLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t get light,” Alex noted.

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

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

Kat signed something.

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

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

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

“Only things I’ve touched recently.”

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

Sax nodded and took another swig.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kat signed a question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Necessarian, correct?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no one did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their hearts had literally exploded out of their chests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I froze.

“What did you just say?”

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

“Not that. What did you call me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded weakly.

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

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

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

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

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

Kat smirked lewdly and signed something quickly.

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

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

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

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

I glared. “What.”

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

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

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

“They were kidnapped.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 251)

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

Scene 245 – Sanctus

SANCTUS

KELLY

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

But sometimes the past came back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More fingers dancing in the daylight.

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

Her signing took on an angry, aggressive energy.

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

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

I rolled my eyes. “Age or IQ?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was the gun… glowing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powers. This was getting annoying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found a cluster near his spine and poked it.

His screams brought me back to the world.

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

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

Then his head fell off.

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

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

“Is that the thanks I get?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head. “Already dealt with.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at him. “Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The British one quirked her head. “Who?”

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

At that, they all chuckled lightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NOBODY MOVE!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I raised an eyebrow. “Not Lily’s?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (245)

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

Scene 232 – Vis

VIS

KATHERINE

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we drive?”

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

“We don’t even sleep,” Kelly noted.

“It’s the principle of the thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I signed quickly—

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

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

Then South Gate opened.

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

And then she walked through the gate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take me to your leader.”

END BOOK TWO

Scene 103 – Sumptu

SUMPTU

ARTEMIS

The fel threw herself at the strong metal mesh of her cage, snarling at us. Or trying to, anyway. Her mouth was open, but no sound came out, the wound that had severed her vocal cords years ago still visible as a scar on her furry throat.

“I told you, Artemis—she hasn’t settled down at all. She’s still clearly ‘aggressive.’ I don’t know why you expected her to revert.”

“It was just a theory,” I apologized, patting my friend on his shoulder. I looked down at him and smiled. He wasn’t too short, but I was tall, and he was hunched over with his fake age. “Weren’t you the one who told me to always tell you about my theories?”

Isaac rolled his eyes. “Because last time, it set me on the path to the toy maker.”

“Exactly. Sometimes you need a non-scientist to give you a fresh perspective.” I shrugged. “But if I was right every time, I’d be a scientist.”

He smiled a little. Just a little, though. We had far too much on our minds for humor.

“Admiral Ursler,” I addressed the old-looking ophidian woman who was patiently waiting a few steps behind us. “You have those numbers I requested?”

Like Isaac, Janelle Ursler used the toy maker to appear older than she actually was, but for her it was because no one would take her seriously otherwise. She was very young for an admiral. Not that I cared. I promoted my men based on merit, not age or position.

“Four biters,” she responded promptly. “One-hundred and twenty-eight burners. Five-hundred and three bats, nine-hundred and eighty bleeders, an even two-hundred skins, and nine-hundred and seventy two lasers.” She put the pad down. “That’s two-thousand, seven-hundred and eighty-seven total. That includes the ones gained in testing, accidents, and those lost due to accidents.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking the pad from her. “I appreciate the help.” We were short-staffed at the moment, so I had asked her to grab the data for me, even though normally someone of her rank would never have to play aide like that. “Now, what about your own report?”

“Sir,” she saluted crisply. “The Battle of Chronias was an utter failure. In addition to having the second-highest number of new screamers, we also had the highest number of deaths, and the second-highest amount of property damage. But even if that had all gone well, we still lost Zaphkiel.” She bowed—an interesting trick, with the massive tail that had replaced her legs. “I will accept any punishment you deem necessary.”

“None,” I said without hesitation, and the snake-kemo looked up at me in surprise. “You are an admiral. I know your skill on land is less than perfect.”

She worked her mouth silently, searching for something to say, before simply bowing her head again. “Thank you, sir.”

“I do have other questions, of course. First, how did Medina do?”

Ursler’s brow furrowed briefly, before clearing. “Oh, right, the Highlander.”

Now it was my turn to be surprised. “The…Highlander?”

She nodded. “Yes, one of my men moonlights as a bodyguard for Medina’s friend Lizzy. Apparently that’s her nickname for her.” The ophidian shrugged. “It kinda stuck with me.”

I waved my hand. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t matter. How did she do?”

“Pretty well, considering everything that went wrong. She got the Draculas whipped into shape quickly, and used them to take out the generators while the EMP had them disabled. After that, it was pretty much a turkey shoot.”

That was about what I had expected. All the reports I was getting praised Laura’s strategy; Victor and Maria would be pleased, at least. “That’s more than enough; I’m sure your written report will provide more detail.” I turned back to Kat, still thrashing about in her cage. She turned into a bat briefly and threw her herself against the double-layered mesh weakly a few times, before smoking back into a cat-girl. “What is the situation with the Northern Fleet?”

“The Rahabs are getting more aggressive—not something I would have thought possible. They probably think the screamers are weakening us.”

I snorted. “They are. The question is whether or not it will be a weakness the Rahabs can take advantage of. How many ships have we lost?”

“Just one so far, the Merchant Registry ship Eatonrun. Just a food supplier—as that ridiculous name implies—so there was minimal crew on board, and they all survived. We were also able to salvage most of the cargo, though the ‘habs stole enough of it to keep themselves going for a while.”

The Rahabs weren’t a culture, not really. They were just a gang, united by nothing but hatred. They were the last of the old gangs, in fact, largely because they kept to Whitecap Bay, where our forces were already spread thin.

But that was precisely what made them so dangerous. They didn’t have the numbers of any of the subcultures, but it didn’t take many men to sink a ship, if you knew what you were doing.

Well, I didn’t have time to worry about that right now. The screamers were taking all of my attention. “Thank you, Ursler. Admiral Briggs is in the West Wing. I’m sure you two have many things to discuss.”

The ophidian performed that strange bow again and slithered off to find her southern counterpart. It was indicative of our small navy that we had a grand total of two admirals.

I turned my attention back to my friend. “Well? How bad is it?”

He rubbed his forehead. “Between the cages, feeding them, and all the precautions we have to take in order to keep our guards and aides from getting infected…” Isaac shook his head. “Too much. It costs far too much.”

“Domina isn’t equipped with prisons,” Mary Christina noted from a wall speaker. “The city is a prison. I’m not sure how much longer we can last like this. We’re going to have to start eliminating captured screamers soon.”

I leaned heavily on my cane. Killing enemy combatants or criminals was one thing. But the only thing these people were guilty of was getting infected. If we just started throwing them to the dogs, there would be riots. And the public would find out. The Paladins would notice when the screaming started to die down, and Derek at least wouldn’t let it stand uncontested. And he wouldn’t be the only one.

“I take it you still haven’t had any luck curing them?” I asked Isaac.

He gave me a sad little smile; we both knew he would have told me about something that important. “No progress whatsoever. I think the singers might be the key, but we don’t have any of those in custody.”

“I hope that’s not what you called us here for.”

I turned at the cheerful voice to see Victor Medina and Maria Huntsman striding up.

I felt a smile find its way onto my face, despite the grim situation. Those two reminded me of happier times. “I wasn’t sure you two would make it.”

The full-bodied woman shrugged. “We were in the area. And getting past your security sounded like fun.”

I had given the pair a set of alpha-level security badges pretty much at the same time as we created the security system in the first place. Not that it mattered. They insisted on sneaking in every single time. Sometimes they actually succeeded, but most of the time my men just pretended not to see them.

“Well, nevermind that now. I have an assignment for you two.” I saw the disturbed looks on their faces. “And before you ask, it doesn’t involve capturing a singer.”

“As long as it’s not capturing the Composer himself instead, I think we’ll manage,” Maria said with a grin.

“I need you to find Zaphkiel.”

Victor leaned against the cages, either not noticing or not caring about the screamers trying (and failing) to claw at him. “What do you need the Watcher for?”

“And why do you need us to find him?” Maria pressed. “I thought you were still on relatively good terms with him.”

“I am. But he’s a screamer now, and the Composer has him.”

Maria groaned. “Silver moon and golden sun, Artemis. Can’t you ever give us anything easy?”

“If this was easy, I’d just send your kids.”

Victor held up his hand. “Wait one second.”

“Don’t worry, I know you’re busy tomorrow. This can wait a few days.”

“That’s not what I meant. We’re not exactly humble, we know we’re good. But surely you can’t expect us to beat a warlord, let alone a screamer?”

I started walking away from the cages, limping a little, and the others followed. “Don’t worry about that. I just need you to find him. I’ll have someone else capture him.”

Maria still sounded confused. “Who?”

I grinned a little wolfishly. “His mother, of course.”

Victor quickly stepped in front of me, blocking my path. “You can’t get her involved. If the Mother Monster is turned—”

I raised my hand to quiet him. “Simmer down, Victor. She won’t get close to him. She hates violence, anyway.”

Mary Christina spoke up from the speakers. “Let’s just say that the most powerful monster in the city will make good bait.”

“I did most of her buffs myself,” Isaac noted at Victor and Maria’s apprehensive looks. “They’ll never catch her.”

I smiled. “And that’s why she’s good bait.

Behind the Scenes (scene 103)

Yes, Domina does not have any prisons whatsoever. It works on a more simplistic fine and penalty system that doesn’t involve long-term incarceration. The fact that most criminals get shot before any sort of official legal action takes place also keeps things easy.

Scene 36 – Quiritationis

QUIRITATIONIS

KATHERINE

My name is Katherine Lisbon. It is not ‘Kat,’ but people called me that even before I became a fel, so I really shouldn’t expect them to stop now. Being mute makes it hard to argue, anyway.

I had woken up strapped down in a van, but before I had a chance to try and free myself I had been unbuckled and dragged into a lab. The last thing I remembered was the fight with Akane, in the burning building. Why had she attacked me?

There was a song in the back of my mind, more beautiful than anything I had ever heard. Something was wrong with it, though—pieces were missing, notes out of tune. It was beautiful, but it could be so much more.

I tried to sing it to Akane, but she didn’t react. She just continued to pin down my arm, while Ling kept hold of the other. I had fought Akane before. Why had she attacked me? I didn’t understand. I had tried to ask her, but she hadn’t responded.

Of course. I was mute. They couldn’t hear me. Why had I forgotten that? Everything was getting fuzzy…

How long ago had that been? It was getting hard to think. I had never spoken much to start, so I hadn’t cared much when I took a bullet to the throat.

They tried to fix it, but vocal cords were tricky things, and back then the toy maker was a bit simpler. Now it would probably be easy, but I honestly liked it. If you can’t talk, no one expects you to.

I saw Derek, looking down on me with a sad expression on his face. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, so I could see the large, bloodstained bandage across his chest, as well as a smaller one on his neck.

He was saying something. I could hear him, but I didn’t care enough to understand. Would he know the missing parts of the song?

Maybe…maybe that’s what he was saying. Maybe he was trying to tell me about the song right now.

With regret, I pushed the music to the back of my mind and concentrated on his voice. I still tried to sing, still tried to show everyone around me how beautiful it was, but it was more an unconscious action than anything else. It was no different than twiddling your thumbs.

“She hasn’t tried to transform?” he asked someone I couldn’t see.

I heard another voice. “No. That’s not that odd. A number of the captured screamers don’t use their powers unless threatened. They seem to vary between aggressive and merely defensive. Luckily, she is defensive.”

It was Doctor Isaac Clarke’s voice. That distinct, breathy excitement, like everything was the most important thing in the world…it was unmistakable.

Derek looked at me closer. “Is it just me, or is she thrashing less?”

“The defensive ones are smarter. She probably realized she couldn’t escape, and decided to conserve energy. Henry, get the clamps.”

A large man came into my vision, and I felt cold metal bands around my arms. I heard the sound of a power screwdriver, fastening me to the steel slab I was laying on.

“I doubt that will keep her contained if she transforms,” Laura’s voice pointed out.

“We don’t know enough about this power,” Clarke retorted. “She might not be able to wriggle out of this. Either way, we’ll get her in a cage as soon as possible.”

“Shouldn’t you be resting?” Ling asked from my left side, with a slight lisp. I noted blearily that she seemed to be missing a few teeth. The toy maker would fix that soon enough. She was looking at Derek. “You lost a lot of blood.”

He waved his hand. “I’ll be fine.”

“We can handle this,” Kelly said from behind me. I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her shadow. “Go to sleep.”

He sighed. “Okay, okay.” He pointed at Ling and Akane. “But you both need to get some attention too. You guys got banged up pretty bad.”

They both left without another word, and I found myself singing louder again. Derek was clever. He would know the missing parts. I should have asked him when I had the chance.

The others were talking, but I wasn’t interested. I had to share the song. They couldn’t hear me. What could I do?

Change.

That would be a good idea. But why hadn’t I thought of it before?

Change.

It wasn’t my thought. It took me a moment to parse it, but it was an alien word, reverberating under the song. I knew I shouldn’t listen to it. I’m cautious by nature, and a sourceless voice in my brain wasn’t going to change my mind.

Change.

I changed.

It was a strange feeling, one that is difficult to describe. As my body dissolved into black smoke, I felt as though I had slipped into a cool pool of water. All my sensations disappeared, leaving behind nothingness. I couldn’t see or hear or feel. It wasn’t particularly unpleasant, but it wasn’t quite enjoyable either. It simply was.

But it faded quickly, as the smoke re-coalesced in a new shape.

I was smaller now, out of the restraints, and all the color had bled from the environment. I flapped my wings and flew off the table, fluttering past a shocked Akane.

I could feel…something. Some energy, some power source in my gut draining fast. I needed to escape, to share the song, before it emptied completely.

But I was trapped in a room, a lab twenty feet wide and long. There was nowhere to run to.

My reservoir depleted while I was circling one of the dim lights in the ceiling, and I instantly reverted to my original form. I landed on the floor easily; I’ve always had good reflexes, even before I became a fel.

I looked at my friends and the doctor, clustered around the table I had just fled. They eyed me warily.

Kill.

Now, hold on. Why would I want to do that? These were my friends, and even if Clarke was annoying, he hardly deserved to die. The thing with Akane was probably just a misunderstanding. Besides, I just wanted to share the song. They could hardly fill in the blanks if they were dead.

Kill.

No, I didn’t think so. Instead, I backed slowly into the corner of the room, keeping an eye on my friends. They weren’t armed, except for Akane, but they were still dangerous if they decided to attack for some reason.

Kill.

No. I wouldn’t. Not now.

As soon as I thought that, I felt a sense of freedom. The song eased in my mind, and I began to think more clearly. I quickly realized the implications.

I had thrown off the compulsion! If I could do it, so could others. It wouldn’t be easy, but with patience we could cure everyone. We just had to give them something to fight for, a reason to push aside the song.

Then my body lunged forward.

I tried to stop. I mentally hit the brakes as hard as I could, but nothing happened.

It wasn’t under my control any more. It was like my body belonged to someone else entirely. I could only watch as I attacked my friends, and Akane slashed at my legs, trying to immobilize me as quickly as possible.

Now it made sense. If throwing off the song was truly so easy, I wouldn’t have been the first one. No, the ‘defensive’ screamers were simply those who had been completely seduced by the song, and retained some semblance of intelligence behind it. The ‘aggressive’ ones, the far more common variety, were those who tried to fight the compulsions, and were rendered prisoners in their own bodies because of it.

Collaborator or slave. No choice at all, really.

The lights suddenly flashed, and I felt pain through my nighteyes. My body stumbled back, dazed. Before it could recover, Akane hit it hard in the center of the forehead with the hilt of her sword.

Unconsciousness swept over me like a warm blanket.

Behind the Scenes (scene 36)

Loga (the screamer changeling) went through a similar process as this when he was turned. Everyone does. And they never remember if they are cured.

Of course, there’s only one way to cure a screamer, and the Composer has made that option pretty much impossible. Sure, he/she/it/they has a few more obstacles that way, but that’s fine with him/her/it/them.

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 34 – Persequemini

PERSEQUEMINI

AKANE

I slashed quickly, bisecting the bat cleanly. It burst into a cloud of black smoke, which quickly coalesced into two halves of a young Nosferatu, cut diagonally from shoulder to opposite hip. Underneath the claws and fangs and nighteyes, I was surprised to find an ordinary Asian girl, only a bit older than me.

Not much different from my sisters.

I shook my head to clear away the distracting thoughts. Now was not the time to relive those memories. Kat was gaining ground even as I stood here brooding. I had to catch her before she found victims. I sped forward, my power at about half strength, trying to make up for lost time.

I could see her ahead of me, albeit only barely. Her tawny coat wasn’t the best camouflage for a moonlit night, but she made up for it by turning into a bat every few minutes. Every time she did that, I almost lost her.

Where was she going? We were heading away from the battle, past locked and gated shops and apartments. The people here knew better than to poke their noses into a warzone, so at least I didn’t have to worry about even more screamers yet.

What was she thinking?

And she was thinking. There were two types of screamers Laura had identified: The more common ‘aggressive’ types, which were dumb as dirt, and the rarer ‘defensive’ screamers, which seemed at least as intelligent as before their infection.

Kat was obviously of the latter variety, based solely on the fact that she hadn’t just turned around and tried to kill me. But then that meant she had a plan. I just had to figure out what it was.

She dodged around a corner, and I hurried to catch up. I needn’t have bothered. By the time I rounded the corner, the street in front of me was completely empty.

Musashi’s sword, this was an annoying hunt. At least with monsters I knew what they were looking for, so I could predict them better.

I stalked forward slowly. I hadn’t lost her entirely; I could still hear her screaming with that weird sixth sense we had, but it wasn’t accurate enough to pinpoint her location.

“Hey.”

I stopped dead at the sound of the soft, feminine voice.

Unlike the screaming, this was easy to find the source of. To my left, from the bottom floor of the building, just a few doors from the corner. A large horizontal metal grate covered the door and windows, an anti-theft measure that proved equally adept at deterring wandering murderers and zombies.

“You’re not a ferret,” the voice noted. It was a female voice with an accent I couldn’t quite identify. It wasn’t Romanian though, and she didn’t sound like her mouth was overstuffed with teeth, so the chances of her being a Nosferatu were low. But still, I couldn’t take any chances. I nodded politely in her direction and headed forward again.

“Wait!” she hissed. “You’re chasing that fel screamer, right? We can help!”

I stopped and glared suspiciously at the door. “Why?”

“Trade for information. C’mon, get in here.” She opened the door wider and unbolted the grate.

Regretfully, I slipped inside the dark building. I knew from experience that if someone offered you help on a hunt it was always best to at least hear them out, but usually Derek did that part.

Once inside, it took me a second to notice the person I had been speaking to, hidden behind the door. As the woman stepped—or rather, slithered—out of the shadows, the first thing I noticed was that her legs had been fused into one long, sinuous tail, which was clearly strong enough to hold her upright. An ophidian? In vampire territory, no less? Odd.

But on second glance, I realized I was mistaken. Her horns and red skin marked her as a marilith, not an ophidian. That was pretty odd all on its own; mariliths weren’t all that rare, but ones who got the full package definitely were. And the Nosferatu were not exactly friendly to outsiders, so it was strange seeing anyone flaunting their toys so blatantly.

As she locked the grate and door behind us, I noticed a few other people scattered around the room, lit by dim light coming from one of the doorways. Two were normal demons, but one was covered in fur, had a long and powerful tail, and had the face of a goat, with the horns to match.

First a marilith, and now a bulezau? I hadn’t seen one of those in person since Shendilavri.

“This is the demon embassy to the Nosferatu,” the marilith explained as she slithered over to the others. She had probably noticed the confused look on my face. On second glance, I could see the demon flag hanging on the wall. It was probably outside, too. “We boarded up immediately once the fighting started. Is it really screamers out there?”

Too many people. “Yes.”

The woman frowned. “Are we safe here? I don’t even know what their powers are. I can’t find a way out without more information.”

The main draw of the marilith subculture was not the package, but the environment they had created—that is, the culture itself. They got accused of being armchair tacticians a lot, but most of them were actually extremely cunning strategists. It wasn’t at all uncommon to find one of them hired to help another subculture with one of their fights. They tried to stay out of politics, but even maintaining neutrality as a mercenary was difficult. Mostly, they helped defend against the fey.

The bulezau shook his head. “Superpowers…I still can’t believe it. What’s next? The angels will grow wings and open the gates to Heaven?”

“The aves are working on wings,” one of the other demons noted. “And depending on your definition of Heaven—”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“Safe,” I cut in before they had a chance to really start sniping at each other. “…probably.” I indicated the door I had just entered through. “Keep locked.” I blushed when I noticed they were all staring. “Ah…and the fel?”

The marilith clapped her hands. “Right, of course. It’s not much, but we do have some nets that should prove useful. Sobber is a birdcatcher.” She nodded at the bulezau. “He’ll go grab one.”

As the goat-demon growled left, the man he had been arguing with seemed to notice my confusion. “His name is Song of Blood, but he hates it—for obvious reasons. Call him Seth.”

“Well, that’s what happens when your parents are chem-head vampires,” the man in question noted as he returned from the next room, with a folded net in his arms. It was pretty big, but the holes were small enough that a bat shouldn’t be able to slip out. “They come up with really weird names and think they’re a good idea.”

I blinked. The toy maker was invented fifteen years ago. The vampires, the first culture, rose about six months later. Chems were a bit harder to pin down, but even if we threw that out completely, that would mean this bulezau was less than fifteen years old.

He could easily pass for thirty.

That was one of the side effects of the toy maker. It was hard to pin down someone’s age when they could change it on a whim.

Regardless, I took the net with a grateful nod. I still had to find her, but once I did at least I’d be able to catch her.

Although it ramped up the awkwardness more than a tad, I left as quickly as I could, with the marilith locking the gate again behind me. They had clearly wanted to wring me for more information, but that was hardly my strong suit. I made a mental note to tell Laura about them later. She could decide what they should know.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of the cold night air, and concentrated. The screaming was…ahead, above and to the left.

I snapped my eyes back open. As I suspected, the screaming was coming from a building, a ‘scraper some forty or fifty stories tall. Hopefully it was an empty one, but I doubted it. This area wasn’t exactly residential, but it definitely wasn’t abandoned either.

Well, the situation wasn’t going to improve with me just standing here. I rushed across the street and pushed my way inside, past the flimsy security grate crumpled to one side. The sign on the door marked it as an apartment building. Not good. Too many potential victims.

Kat’s screams led up the stairs at the back, but I was more interested in the muffled whimpering I could hear off to my right. It might be a trap, but I felt confident it was genuine.

Kat had left survivors.

It didn’t mean much, I reminded myself as I strode towards the door in question. She hadn’t done it on purpose. But still, I couldn’t hear any new screamers, and I didn’t see any bodies. Whatever the cause, it boded well.

I rapped on the steel door twice, trying not to make too much noise, lest I attract unwanted attention. But whoever was on the other side evidently heard me; the whimpering stopped immediately, and I heard footsteps come up to the door.

“Hello?” a very small, probably male voice asked. He sounded young, probably five or six. Good. I could deal with kids. Usually.

“I’m a Paladin,” I said softly. “Are you all right? How many people are in there?”

“I’m fine. I-I think I am.”

“That’s good. What about everyone else? How are they?”

“I’m the only one in here. I don’t think…you’re the first one to come looking.”

The sole survivor was a kid? Well, at least there was a survivor. And better him than a dozen murderous Nosferatu.

“I’m Akane. What’s your name?”

“P-Patrick.”

“Okay Patrick, I need you to stay right here, okay? Don’t open the door until an adult tells you its all clear. Can you do that for me?”

“Uh-huh.”

“All right. Someone will be here soon enough.”

I turned back and started up the stairs, not bothering to use my speed. My reservoir was full, but I didn’t want to risk facing Kat with anything less than full power. I still wasn’t really sure how smart a defensive screamer would be, so I was being cautious, even though I didn’t see Kat anywhere nearby.

It was at the third floor that my caution became justified. I felt a tug at my ankles, and heard the distinct twang of a snare trap snapping.

I didn’t have time to think. I cranked my speed up to full and ran forward, desperately trying to escape the blast radius. But still, I couldn’t resist looking back.

Slow motion explosions are my favorite parts of most movies. Honestly, they’re pretty much the only reason I go. Whether it’s a real explosion or CG, the attention to detail required never ceases to impress me.

In real life, I found that it’s even better. The slowly expanding sphere of fire lighting up the stairwell was impressive enough on its own. But I could feel the rising heat. I could feel the air rushing past me into the temporary vacuum, feeding the hungry flame. Shrapnel, shards of the bomb and slivers of the stairwell, flew past me, shining like stars from the heat.

My reservoir dried up just as I managed to round the corner. I dodged the explosion by less than five feet. Worse yet, the fire had caught most of the stairwell. The entire ‘scraper would go up soon, if I couldn’t find the sprinkler system. Why wasn’t it already on, anyway?

But that could wait. Someone had set that trap, which meant they would be expecting an enemy. I had to get out of here quickly. They probably thought I was a screamer.

Turns out I was mistaken.

The trap hadn’t been set for screamers.

Something large and human-shaped dropped onto my back, short but sharp claws tearing at my flesh. I shrugged her off, losing a bit of skin in the process, and confirmed my suspicions.

Kat. She had set a trap and an ambush, and was trying to take me out before my reservoir could replenish.

Her fur looked a little singed here and there, probably from hanging from the ceiling just outside the radius of an incendiary grenade. But if it pained her, she didn’t show it. She slipped into a three-point stance as gracefully as one of the felines she was emulating. She kept her right hand up, claws out, ready to leap forward and strike.

Her mouth was still open, trying to scream, but nothing came out. But there was…something. Something in her expression. Anthros are hard to read, and nighteyes aren’t much better, but I could tell she was analyzing the situation. Considering it from a tactical perspective, unlike the other screamers, who just rushed in like blind animals.

I didn’t give her a chance to come up with a plan. I rushed forward, hoping to catch her off guard. I didn’t have my power to fall back on, but I’m still pretty fast when I want to be.

But I wasn’t packed with a few thousand dollars worth of buffs.

She dodged my slash easily by leaping to the side, landing on the solid railing of the stairwell with her hands. She then lithely brought her feet back down and started running up the rail away from me. I followed along the stairs.

Which, of course, was her intention.

The second trap wasn’t another grenade—either she ran out of explosives or she was afraid the first one would have set off the second prematurely. Rather, it was just a couple weak steps, probably weakened even more by the explosion. The second I stepped on them, they shattered under my feet without even a groan of warning.

I managed to grab the unbroken step in front of me with one hand as I fell, but it wasn’t enough to pull myself up. I scrambled to sheath my sword and get a free hand, but I didn’t have much luck.

Kat cartwheeled onto the stairs a few steps in front of me, the claws of her bare feet gripping the wood tightly.

I didn’t have a choice. I needed both hands.

So I dropped my sword.

My sword wasn’t all that important, in the long run. It wasn’t a very high-quality sword, and it was getting old enough that I really should be considering buying a new one. I definitely had the money to get one of the best on the market. It didn’t have any real importance other than the fact that it was a gift.

But it was my sword. A symbol of my dedication, a reminder of why I fought. No matter how little sense it made, some part of me was terrified that if something happened to it, my determination would suffer the same fate.

I steeled my heart as I heard it clatter to the ground three or four stories below. I could collect it later, but I had to be alive to do that.

With my newly unburdened right hand, I reached out and grabbed Kat’s ankle and yanked hard. She didn’t fall, but she did lose her balance long enough for me to scramble up out of my precarious position. On my hands and knees was better than dangling above a raging inferno.

The fire was climbing higher, the temperature was rising, and smoke was filling the air. But I didn’t have time to worry about any of that right now. Kat slashed upwards at my face with her claws, aiming at my eyes.

But I had some power in my reservoir now.

I didn’t drain it completely, just tapped into it enough to leap to my feet faster than she anticipated and dodge her attack. She stepped forward and slashed with her other hand, but I dodged that one by stepping inside her reach and slamming my shoulder into her.

I’ll admit, I’m not really used to fighting humans. Oh, I take care of a few angry ghouls now and again, and I’m at the top of my kendo class, but most of my skills are geared towards fighting monsters. Humans are a different beast altogether, and not just because they walk upright. The fact that I got caught in no less than two traps is evidence enough of that.

Kat, however, was used to fighting humans. She knew our tricks and how to play to our weaknesses. She was a sniper first and foremost, true, but a good sniper can mix it up in melee for when the enemy finds their nest. The furry little screamer had blackbelts in at least three different martial arts disciplines, and could give pretty much anyone in the city a run for their money in hand-to-hand.

Also, she had claws.

I bit my lip to keep from crying out as she embraced my tackle and started shredding my back. I was already bleeding from her earlier attack, but this was worse.

I threw the tawny cat girl to one side, intending to chuck her over the railing. But in my confusion, I accidentally threw her the wrong direction, thudding her heavily into the wall instead, stunning her for a moment.

I headed farther up the stairs as my shirt and bra fell away in shreds. Some distant part of my mind was scandalized at my nudity, but the more practical parts noted that the front of the shirt was still intact, and I should be able to turn it into a makeshift bandage. My wounds were already beginning to sting, and blood loss was getting to me, but I pushed it all aside for the moment. Everything could wait until I dealt with Kat.

I didn’t have any time to come up with a plan, though. Kat was tough all on her own, and the power package just made her tougher. Even though her skull had smacked hard against the wall, she shook off her disorientation and was after me in under half a minute.

Of course, she had a power as well, and she seemed to know how to put it to best use. She jumped back onto the railing and then leaped diagonally forward, towards a spot about ten feet ahead of me on the stairwell. She would never make the jump, but she didn’t have to. Just before she started to lose momentum, she exploded into black smoke, which reformed into a bat, flapping madly. It only lasted a few seconds before the process reversed, but that was more than enough time for her to get ahead of me and land gracefully.

The smoke was getting thicker as the flames devoured more of the building. I needed to end this before the entire place went up. Even before that, I’d start choking on the smoke soon.

My reservoir was mostly full at this point, and I still had the net clipped to my belt, but even at super speed I wasn’t confident I’d be able to capture Kat. The net was huge for bird catching, but only barely big enough for a human. If I tried to grab her, she would probably be able to just slip out as a bat.

While I hesitated, she acted. She leaped forward, claws out, ready to tear out my throat.

I might not have my sword, but that didn’t mean I was defenseless. I whipped out one of the combat knives I kept on my belt and met the fel’s attack.

Her experience reared its head again; while most people would have flinched away or taken the hit, she grabbed my wrist, moved my strike aside, and slashed at my bare chest with her other hand.

Not many people have ever had an angry cat claw at their boobs. Suffice it to say it hurts. I yowled involuntarily and tore her claws away, losing a bit more skin in the process and splattering her tawny fur with blood. She jerked her arm out of my grip and leaped backwards, where she could watch me warily.

Between the roaring fire and the blood loss…this was taking too long. But Kat still held the advantage due to the simple fact that she was trying to kill me, while I was trying to capture her. My only chance to even the odds was to stop holding back and start aiming to kill. Derek would be upset, and the retinue would be angry, but they’d understand.

I flipped my knife in a reverse grip and rushed forward without hesitation. She was ready for me, of course. She knew better than to try to grab my wrist again, but she had other tricks up her sleeve.

She dove at my feet, under my knife, probably to try and upend me. It was a risky maneuver, but a well-played one: It wasn’t something anyone would expect, and since she wasn’t injured and I was, she had a much larger margin of error to work with.

But by this point, my reservoir was full again.

I dipped into it to move at about ten percent of my maximum, just enough to give me the speed to hop up onto her head and run along her back. I let my power go and wheeled around; as expected, she was sprawled face down on the steps, just a few feet from the yawning hole that was already filling with flame from down below.

She was a bit stunned from the complete failure of her unorthodox maneuver (not to mention nearly falling to her death), and I didn’t intend to give her time to recover. I didn’t try and push her into the fire; she was ready for that, and it would snap her back to her senses faster than smelling salts. Instead, I did away with all that complicated tactical frippery and stabbed her in the back of the neck.

Except…

She was at my mercy now. Not for long, true, but I had a chance. It was a chance that probably wouldn’t come again; despite this close call, she was still fresh, while I was getting weaker by the second. Luck accounted for a lot in combat, but not everything.

But if I killed her, the retinue would be devastated. Kelly and Sax had known her for a while, and she was one of their only friends. Alex and George were warming up to her. Her death would create a rift that might never be repaired. Or, more specifically, her death at my hands would hit them like a bullet to the gut. Death was common. One friend killing another…less so.

So, using my speed to gain a little extra time, I flipped the knife back around and smacked her as hard as I could in the back of the head with the hilt.

I didn’t have time to worry about giving her a concussion. With her toys and the package, I wasn’t entirely sure I could knock her out.

Turns out I could. She slumped against the steps like a sack of sand, and a brief second with my fingers at her neck told me she was still alive.

But not for long, if I wasn’t careful. The fire was spreading. Looking down, maybe half of the lower floors were already aflame. That didn’t make much sense—fire tends to eat up faster than down—but I suppose there could have been something exceptionally flammable down there or whatever that caught when the grenade first blew.

After making a few quick bandages (including one that conveniently doubled as a bra), I wrapped Kat up in the net the bulezau had given me and strapped her to my back with my belt. My pants were a little loose without it, but I could manage. At least the fel was pretty light. If this were almost anyone else, I probably would have been forced to cut my losses and abandon them.

Once I was sure she was secure and my reservoir was full, I didn’t waste any more time. I jumped off the railing, aiming carefully for some of the non-burning floor four levels below.

The split-second before we landed, I cranked up my speed as high as it would go. For some reason, this works. When I have my speed up, the laws of physics—including the inertia that would kill me from a fall like this—don’t apply quite as strictly.

The floor cracked a bit as we landed and we threw up a huge ash cloud as everything within ten feet was blown away by air pressure, but other than that there was no harm. In fact, the ash actually put out some of the nearby fires.

I found my sword quickly enough where it had bounced under the stairwell, and took both it and Kat outside. I laid them on the sidewalk a door or two down, made sure Kat’s netting was secure, and headed back in. I couldn’t leave her alone for long, but I had one last thing to take care of.

I found the door from earlier without any difficulty. Thankfully, the fire seemed to have skipped over this part in favor of the more flammable back rooms, so there was no debris, and minimal smoke.

“Patrick!” I cried as I got closer. “Are you in there? We need to go now!”

I didn’t hear any response other than the flames roaring from every direction, but I didn’t have time to wait. I reared back and kicked the door, near the lock. It didn’t break, of course—it was a steel door—but I heard the lock squeal a little under the pressure. I kicked again, then again, and—

Then I realized that the sole of my shoe was melting from the heat of the door.

Then the door exploded.

I had weakened the lock sufficiently that the pressure of the hot air was able to do the rest of the job. Using what little of my speed I had left, I was able to dodge the brief fireball, although only by hiding behind the door and getting third-degree burns on my arm in the process.

I had more to worry about right now than a couple burns, though. The second the burst of flame had passed, I jumped back around and headed into the room. I knew what I was going to find, but I had to check—

I shouldn’t have. Musashi’s broken sword, I shouldn’t have.

Most of the room was on fire. Turns out it was one of those flammable rooms; the fire had just taken a roundabout route to get to it, through a cheap wooden door on another wall. There was a lot of old burning furniture, but no windows, which had probably combined to create the overpressure.

In the center of the room, laying on a couch, was the corpse of a small child.

I couldn’t tell any details. He was already burned mostly beyond recognition; the couch was burning violently, and had probably caught fire too quickly for him to run. I couldn’t tell if he had died in pain or not; the fire made it hard to tell what position his body was in—whether it was a horrible throe of pain or the gentle repose of a boy who died in his sleep.

I left quickly but quietly, knowing that if I stayed much longer I wouldn’t be able to function.

I had a job to do, and it wasn’t over yet.

The second I was out of the burning building, I flipped out my phone and dialed MC, even as I was checking Kat’s bonds again.

Once I got to the real MC, I didn’t waste any time. “I need an interrogation van over at the burning ‘scraper in Nosferatu territory. Make sure they have lots of sedatives. If she wakes up she’s going to escape, no matter what kind of cages they have on hand.”

“Wait, you set another building on fire? Sooner or later we’re going to start charging you, and not even you can afford that.”

I groaned. “This was not my fault. And neither was the dog house or the rat warren.”

“Yeah, yeah…” she muttered, distracted by something. Probably the main fight, with the angels and all that. “Whatever. You injured?”

“I need treatment for…” I winced and did a quick tally. “Multiple lacerations, a bad burn, severe blood loss…” I coughed. “And maybe a little bit of smoke inhalation. How soon can they be here?”

“Ten minutes,” she promised. “Along with a fire truck. Can you hold out that long?”

Ten minutes. “Yes,” I said weakly. “Just…” I focused on my breathing. “Just make sure they get here.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 34)

The building was mostly empty when the fire started, and those who remained were awake and ready to escape should the screamers get too close. Most of them survived relatively unharmed, though the people in the rooms closest to the grenade died pretty quickly.

Scene 31 – Aurora

AURORA

DEREK

The Monday after Akane’s birthday, we were in History again. The cane was droning on about some ancient war or another. I’m usually interested in that kind of thing, and it was a testament to the professor’s soporific voice that he could make even that seem boring.

Then the screaming started.

I should rephrase that. Ever since last week, when the burners attacked, the screaming hadn’t stopped. The ‘sarians had so many in captivity, it was a constant drone in the back of our minds.

But this was something new. A new source of screaming, to the east. Far east, if I was any judge. The Necessarian base where they were holding the burners was south-west.

I nudged Adam with my elbow and he nodded, packing up his things. Akane was already doing the same, of course. I noted she wasn’t wearing Flynn’s earrings anymore. She seemed to have shied away from him in the past few days, and I couldn’t figure out why.

The professor sighed. “Running away again, Mister Huntsman?”

I winced. I may not be the best of students, but I can usually manage to at least stay through the entire class. “Yes sir. It’s an emergency. You see—”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t care. Go.”

I nodded in thanks and sped off, leaving Lizzy looking confused. Silver and gold…at least she’s not that smart. Otherwise she would have figured it out in a heartbeat, and insisted on going with us.

We met up with Ling, Laura, and the retinue outside, and sped off in their van, with me giving directions. Akane insisted on clinging to me like a limpet the whole way, claiming that Jarasax’s driving kept throwing her around the cabin. He was going a bit fast, but I still thought she was overreacting.

As expected, the screaming was coming from South-East Central, so it was a bit of a drive. What I didn’t expect was our final destination.

Adam frowned, looking out the window. “What are those big awnings stretched between the buildings?”

“Sun canopies,” Laura said evenly. I admired her control; I was having trouble not lapsing into a fit of cursing. “So that the vampires can handle the daylight.” She pointed to a signpost bearing two symbols; the vampire bat on top, and another, more stylized symbol below. “This is Nosferatu territory.”

Every culture had its own subcultures, of course. Some more than others. The kemos, for example, were pretty much nothing but subcultures, and those had subcultures of their own, more properly called microcultures. Vampires were a bit more generalized; pretty much anyone with the nigtheyes was considered a vampire, and the subcultures barely got along.

The Nosferatu were vampires who embraced the physically monstrous aspects of the package. They had a lot in common with ghouls; in fact, many of them even had the cannibalism buff.

But more importantly, most of them also had large, dangerous fangs that they liked to use early and often. Normally, these weren’t any more dangerous than the claws they also had. But Laura and I had discussed this at length. It was quite possible that if a Nosferatu—or any vampire, to a lesser extent—became a screamer, he would retain the compulsion to bite people, thus spreading the virus as quickly as the biters. Add in the fact that they were almost always enhanced in other ways, and we had a serious problem on our hands.

By the time we reached our destination, the attack had already been underway for about an hour. It was nearly pitch-black, so it was difficult to see anything, but I could sense shapes moving beyond the wall the ‘sarians had set up. More disconcertingly, many of these shapes appeared to be in the air.

The redoubt, of course, was well-lit, though I did see a large number of men and women with goggles to protect themselves from the harsh light. I’m sure the benefit of keeping away the screamers—who were likely almost exclusively vampires—was worth the trouble.

To my surprise, the one in charge was a full-fledged general, albeit one with only a single star on his shoulder. He was an old baseline, maybe about fifty, and he saluted me crisply as we got out of the van. I wasn’t sure if I was actually his superior or not; he was probably just being respectful. He eyed Akane—still clinging to me—with distaste, but didn’t otherwise let his disapproval show.

“Honored Paladins,” he said as I finally managed to pry Akane off my arm. What was with her today? “I’m happy you were able to make it on such short notice.”

“Let’s start simple,” I replied. “How many screamers are we dealing with?”

“There were only about a dozen when we first noticed them,” he said, handing me a pair of night-vision goggles so I could see for myself. “They’re been multiplying, as I’m sure you can guess, but we haven’t had a chance to do a proper headcount. On the plus side, we haven’t seen any of those singers.”

It took me a moment for me to parse what I was seeing through the goggles, and connect it to what I was being told. Nosferatu—not screamers—were attacking each other.

“General,” I said slowly, not lowering the goggles. “Why exactly were you in the area?”

“Gang war.”

I cursed and handed the device back to him.

“The Guruhi and Nictuku have been building to this for months,” he continued. “Minor slights that we haven’t had time to investigate. When the screamers started up…” he shrugged. “We haven’t had the presence to keep them afraid. Nightfall today, they finally went all out.”

“And then the screamers appeared.”

He nodded. “Yeah.” He sighed deeply, shaking his head. “And it barely even slowed them down.”

These idiots were literally waging a civil war in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

I presumed the Guruhi and the Nictuku were just more subcultures. Vampires call those ‘bloodlines’—each culture has their own name for it—but I didn’t know much about them. All I knew was that they were Nosferatu, and they were fighting.

“What powers are the screamers displaying?” Laura asked, getting straight to the point. She was right. The civil war was irrelevant; we’d deal with them eventually, but the zombies had to take precedence.

“Shapeshifting,” the general growled. “Into bats.”

I blinked. “You’re joking.”

He snorted. “I wish. They can’t seem to hold the form for longer than a few seconds, but that’s enough to slip past our barricade.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Any good news?”

The general shrugged. “Our angels are on their way. Don’t know the ETA, though.”

Laura nodded. “How many?”

He just grinned. “All of them.”

Well, at least there was some good news. “Laura, stay here. Use the retinue as you see fit. Adam, keep an eye on the general. Last thing we need is him getting turned. Ling, Akane, we’re going in.” I clambered over the barricade, not even bothering to see if my orders were being obeyed. Not everyone was used to listening to me yet, but Laura was persuasive, and she would have organized the defenders whether I told her to or not. Sometimes looking like a leader was just that simple.

I landed on the empty street directly in front of the redoubt and stood carefully. There weren’t very many screamers nearby, which was probably why the Necessarians had lasted so long. Instead, they were focusing on the stupid vampires, fighting blessedly far from our own lines.

On second thought, the screamers could wait. If we could bring the vampires in line, everything else would be easier. I waited until I heard the two thumps that indicated Akane and Ling had followed me, then swallowed my apprehension and headed forward.

I ran quickly but quietly, avoiding the rubble and debris that would cause too much noise. The floodlights from the wall only illuminated for about a hundred paces or so; all the fighting took place beyond that.

Once we were out of the lighted area, we moved more cautiously. We stayed alert for ambushes and kept our ears open, but we were still at a major disadvantage. Our eyes were adjusting to the dark quickly, but we would never be a real match for a vampire in this environment. The screamers might be easy to spot, but the Nosferatu wouldn’t announce their presence so blatantly.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that they were the ones who ambushed us.

I heard two jump from behind, but I didn’t have time to deal with them. Another was in front, just barely discernible in the darkness as a hulking shape, built like a gorilla. He came at me, fangs bared.

I was scared. More accurately, I was terrified. That was pretty much the entire point of the Nosferatu; they looked like nightmares to demoralize their opponents, make them sloppy. But fighting always scared me. A lot of things did, honestly, but fighting was the worst. Everything happened so fast, and the stakes were all for keeps. Every time a fight started, I was terrified it would be my last. Terrified at what would happen to my friends, and terrified that I would never be able to tell Lizzy how I felt. Every time a fight started, my brain froze.

Once, my body froze too. That was my first fight. I heard a commotion in the girls’ bathroom when I was eleven and rushed in to find three girls threatening a fourth with a baseball bat. I hadn’t been able to act until they used the bat to break the girl’s knee.

Ever since then, although my brain might be frozen, my body was not.

I sidestepped the attack and tripped him up, but he recovered quickly, slashing at me with his claws. I dodged those and caught his wrist as he overswung. Then I pulled him down, bringing up my knee at the same time to meet him in the face. This stunned him long enough for me to get my arm around his neck and twist it, snapping it with a loud crack.

Now that the immediate threat was gone, I found I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move forward—not with those monsters out there—but I couldn’t go back. So I froze.

Then a scream split the night.

Not the toneless cry of a screamer, nor the keening banshee wail a lot of Nosferatu had. It was a simple, human scream of fear. The Nosferatu were active in this area, but there were still innocents, baseline and otherwise, who were in danger.

And they needed help.

I glanced over at the girls, who had also dispatched their foes. Ling was panting with effort and a bit pale, but seemed otherwise fine, and Akane didn’t seem any the worse for wear. I nodded, muscling aside my fear, and we headed out again.

It was only a few minutes until we found the real fighting, by following the screams as usual. It was just a small cluster, milling around over the corpses of a few Nosferatu.

The first thing that happened was one of the outlying zombies zipped up and bit me hard on the shoulder; Akane stabbed him quickly, but his jaw locked in death, and it took a minute to get him off. Thankfully, none of the other screamers seemed to notice us, and we were able to sneak up and eliminate the half-dozen or so easily.

Even with my decision to shift our focus to the Nosferatu, our main objective was to determine if there were any singers present. If there were, we needed to kill them so that the others could move in. If we were very lucky, that would result in the screamers being cured, but I wasn’t optimistic on that front.

The problem was since we couldn’t hear them like the screamers, we pretty much had to just wander around until we found something that looked interesting. I’m more used to missions where you know where the goal is going in.

The next battleground we stumbled upon favored us; one of the canopies overhead had come loose, allowing the light of the full moon to fall upon the square. The enemy would still be able to see better than us—their eyes worked fine in moonlight, though I didn’t really understand how that worked—but at least we’d be able to see what we were doing.

The Nosferatu disdained ranged weapons, probably because of how much money they spent on their bodies. There didn’t seem to be any screamers in this fight, just monstrous men and women tearing into each other with claws and fangs.

We jumped in before they knew what hit them.

I punched one of a fighting pair square in the chin and he went down like a sack of bricks. The woman he had been losing to whipped her tail at me. It was probably poisoned, and I didn’t have very many anti-toxin buffs. So, I snatched it out of the air, grabbing it a few inches from the barbs on the end like you would a snake. She shrieked in rage as I yanked on it hard. These things were still new and weak. She was probably rightly worried that it would come off if I pulled too hard.

She tried to claw at me, but I flicked her hard in the forehead, distracting her. “All I want is your Noble,” I said calmly, masking my fear with long practice. When your enemies can literally smell fear, cowards like me had to be really good at burying it. This one didn’t seem to have an enhanced nose though, so she didn’t notice either way.

She glared at me in hatred. “Broodlord Halifax will not work with baseline scum like you,” she spat. Literally. I don’t think it was intentional, its just the natural result of having too many fangs.

I threw her aside, into a concrete pillar, and she fell to the ground in a heap. I didn’t know which bloodline this Halifax led, and I didn’t particularly care. I just needed to find him and stop him as fast as possible.

Akane was already racking up an impressive body count, but Ling seemed to be having trouble. Two had jumped her at once, and athlete or not, she didn’t have training. Screamers were stupid, but vampires knew how to fight.

I interposed a shield between her and one of her opponents, saving her from his claws. She nodded thanks and went for the other one. The first came after me, angry I had stolen his prey.

I dodged the first swipe of his claws, but he expected that, and managed to stab me in the gut with his other hand. That’s not what the claws were designed for, so they didn’t go in deep enough to hit anything vital, but it still hurt. I had to yank his arm out quickly but carefully to make sure he didn’t take a large chunk of my stomach with it.

He tried to attack with the other arm again, but I grabbed him by the wrist and pulled forward on both arms, knocking him off balance. Before he could regain it, I struck him in the back of the knee, driving him to the ground. I stomped on his wrist with my boot, and it snapped with an audible crunch, undercut by his scream of pain.

“Where’s Halifax?” I demanded.

“I don’t know!” he cried. “I’m with the Guruhi!”

I sighed. Their stupid wars. “Then tell me where your Noble is.”

Shaking, he pointed deeper into the square, at the side most of the Nosferatu seemed to be clustered.

I sighed again. Wonderful.

I backhanded the vampire, knocking him unconscious, before turning to Akane. “I’ll be back. Keep an eye on Ling.”

She nodded, and I headed forward alone against a horde of monsters.

I mostly dodged around the clusters of fighting Nosferatu. I could take any of them one-on-one easy, but they wouldn’t fight me that way, and with my gut still bleeding, I didn’t want to take any chances.

But it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t have a choice. The vampires were knotted too thickly at my destination for me to just ignore them. Many were engaged in combat, but not all of them. I knocked a few more heads in, threw a couple more people aside, asked a few more questions, and eventually managed to clear a path to where Halifax and Cinder were fighting.

Cinder was the Guruhi Noble, a large man with a short shock of white hair and blood-stained shark teeth. Other than that (and the nighteyes of course), he was surprisingly normal, especially for a Nosferatu. He didn’t even have claws; he was fighting with a pair of wicked short swords, curved with a dozen different kinks and edges, allowing them to inflict maximum pain with each strike. He had a few shallow wounds in his pale skin, but overall seemed to be enjoying the fight more than he should.

His opponent, the Nictuku Noble Halifax, was nearly his exact opposite. He was completely covered in a dark black carapace, including infinitely more delicate armor over his joints. It would offer as much protection as possible while still allowing free range of movement. He still had hair, which surprised me; it was midnight black and cut short to match Cinder’s.

His jaw was a monstrous weapon of destruction, bigger than the biters we had encountered…nine days ago? Silver and gold, had it only been that long? Regardless, while the biters were clearly just enlarged human jaws, Halifax seemed to have built a wood chipper out of teeth and chitin and fused it to his face. Dozens of razor-sharp fangs and small tendrils covered in barbs lined the inner edges, ensuring that each bite did the most damage possible.

His claws, likewise, were massively oversized, scaled more for a gorilla than a man. And it would have been a big gorilla. The claws themselves were six inches long; the fingers they were attached to were a similar length, and seemed ridiculously thin and spindly in comparison. But I knew that was just an illusion. They would be as strong as steel.

The two terrifying vampire Nobles didn’t notice my presence, which I suppose was understandable. But if I didn’t do something quickly, their minions would overwhelm me, if with nothing but numbers. And the girls couldn’t fight forever either. I nearly froze again, both with indecision and fear, until I remembered that every moment spent fighting here, more innocents died elsewhere. I refused to let that happen.

Well, when in doubt, the simplest answer is best.

I conjured a shield between the two, blocking a claw swipe aimed at Cinder. Both men flinched back from the gently glowing blue force field. I doubt it actively hurt their eyes, but vampires get used to assuming any light is going to hurt them.

“Honored Darkstalkers,” I said without preamble or sarcasm. “We are in the middle of a screamer attack. You need to put your feud on hold for the moment.”

Cinder stared at me. “Who the hell are you?” he had a rustic British accent, but I didn’t know enough to be more specific. Not that it particularly mattered.

“I am Derek Huntsman,” I replied calmly. “Leader of the Paladins. Follow me, and we can reinforce the Necessarian redoubt.”

A long, low screeching noise came from the direction of Halifax. It took me a moment to realize he was talking.

Cinder snorted. “Not if mine does it first.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me, Honored Darkstalkers, but I’m going to need an interpreter for Noble Halifax.”

One of the Nosferatu I had thrown aside when I was looking for the Nobles stepped up a little shakily, giving a small bow as she did. “Sorry for interfering, sir, but Noble Halifax said his brood is about to destroy the redoubt. Sir.”

I growled out an epithet unsuitable for children as I pulled out my phone and hit the speed dial. “Laura, what’s your status?”

“We’re under attack by Nosferatu,” she replied calmly. If I couldn’t hear all the shouting and gunfire in the background, I would have thought she was lying. “They got the lights. You should probably fall back.” She hung up.

I shook my head. That girl.

I turned back to the Nobles, who at least hadn’t resumed trying to kill each other yet. The rest of the square was likewise quiet, as word had passed along that I was negotiating with the leaders.

“We’re heading to the redoubt,” I explained, my tone leaving no doubt that I was talking about everyone present. “You will order your men to stand down, and we will fight off the screamers together.”

Halifax laughed and screeched something.

“He said ‘You can’t make us do anything,’” my translator supplied helpfully.

I didn’t bother trying to convince the monster. It would inevitably devolve into a fight, and while I could probably beat him in my condition, it would take far too long. We needed to fall back now.

So that’s what I did. I didn’t say a word, I just turned around and headed back at nothing faster than a walk, Akane and Ling quickly falling into step behind me. The translator hesitated for a moment, but soon followed as well.

Warriors don’t think quite the same as normal people. Honor means some insults are found complimentary, and complements found insulting. The tiniest things can offend a warrior, and even smaller things can make him yours for life.

Turning your back on a warrior is an insult. It’s saying ‘You’re not worth my time. I have better things to do.’

I was out of the square by the time the two Nobles finally gathered their wits. I heard Halifax screech something, and Cinder ordering his men to kill us. But more importantly, I heard the Nosferatu under their command following me. Not chasing me. Following me, at the same slow pace I was taking.

Walking wasn’t the best of ideas, but I knew the way back, and without having to worry about ambushes, we could take a shorter path. All in all, a trip that took twenty minutes out took less than five back.

Once we reached the redoubt, I picked up the pace. The lights were indeed smashed, and the barricade torn aside. Vampires were everywhere, attacking everything in sight. The vampires weren’t the problem. The screamers were.

In the close quarters of the temporary fortress, they infected faster than I could keep track. I couldn’t see them transforming like the general had claimed, but I knew better than to dismiss his words as idle fantasy.

After taking a breath to steel myself, I quickly ordered the Nosferatu to act as support, while I led Akane and Ling directly into the screaming mob.

Like I said, screamers aren’t smart, so they were easier to fight than the vampires. Simple tricks worked on them every time, and they never learned. Akane’s sword killed quickly, and Ling wasn’t skilled enough with her concrete gloves to keep her targets alive, but I tried to simply knock the zombies unconscious as much as possible. A cure could still be in the future.

Eventually, we managed to find Adam and the retinue, on the far side of the redoubt, next to the van. The general and a thin man in uniform were keeping the mob at bay with their pistols. The noise was scaring the crowd of zombies more than the bullets were actually damaging them. Alex was like a beacon, beams of light springing from his hands and blinding anything that got too close.

“Where’s Laura?” I asked as I jogged out of the fire zone. Adam just jerked his head over at the front of the van. There were two people there, wrestling on the ground. With a start, I realized it was Laura and a screamer. She was trying to keep it’s thrashing under control, but was having little luck.

Of course. She was the only one immune, so she had to do it, despite her lack of interest in anything physical. But why didn’t they just kill it? It would be easier all around. Especially since the screamer was a fel. The cat kemos were master escape artists, able to—

I blinked.

A fel? In Nosferatu territory?

And where was Kat?

“Oh no,” I whispered.

Now that I was looking more closely, it was obvious. The fel screamer Laura was wrestling with was indeed Kat. It was the strangest thing; her mouth was open, and I could hear her screaming in my mind, though it was difficult to pick out in the midst of all the others. But no sound escaped her furry lips. She really was mute.

My mouth went into a firm line. I looked back the way we had come; good, Halifax and Cinder were there. They had followed grudgingly, but they had followed. I noted their location, then turned to Alex.

“Daybreak,” I ordered.

He nearly jumped out of his boots, the night vision goggles on his face bouncing. “But won’t that incapacitate our own?”

“No time. Daybreak, NOW.”

He ripped off the goggles, stepped into the empty area between us and the screaming mob, and…

Day broke.

It was like dawn rising, not ten feet in front of me. The angel’s skin shone like every light on Earth at once, and everything within a hundred feet cast deep, dark shadows away from him. I was completely blinded, even though I had my eyes closed, but I was expecting it. Most of the Necessarians had protective goggles, so they weren’t hurt that badly.

The Nosferatu and the screamers were not so lucky.

People think that nighteyes just give you an annoying light sensitivity to go with the super-enhanced nightvision. That is a vast understatement. Bright light doesn’t just blind vampires, it is physically painful for them. Someone once told me that this was like punching a vampire in the brain through the eyes. Seeing the result, I didn’t think it was hyperbole.

Nearly every single screamer fell to the ground, dazed as if they had been kicked in the head. Many of the Nosferatu actually fell unconscious, screaming in pain. Without the power package as a foundation, they just didn’t have the stamina to survive this kind of attack.

Halifax and Cinder stayed standing, as I expected, but they snarled and screeched in fury. I could only barely make out shapes, but I remembered their positions, and marched over to them without delay. Then I kicked Halifax’s legs out from under him and pinned him to the ground. My stomach throbbed and I was getting dizzy from blood loss, but I ignored it. I could last.

“Your stupid fighting cost me a comrade, you honorless bloodsoaked bastard.” I had liked Kat. I didn’t know her very well, but she was smart and capable. “You are going to help me round up these screamers, and if you are very lucky I won’t shoot you in the face when this is over.”

I turned to Cinder and grabbed his shoulder, using that to make sure he was facing the right direction, then kneed him in the balls. He doubled over in pain and started to throw up. The combined effect was just too much for him.

“That goes for you too.” I headed back.

I shaded my eyes as I approached Alex. I still couldn’t see, but hopefully that would prevent permanent damage. “How much longer can you keep this up?”

“A minute. Probably less.” That was the reason I hadn’t just told him to do this from the start. Simple beams of light and subtle glowing was easy, but a full daybreak couldn’t be done very often. “And the screamers are starting to recover.”

What most people forgot about dayeyes was that they worked perfectly in the light. Even this kind of light. Apparently a popular pastime among angels is to just stare directly at the sun. They say its very pretty when it’s not blinding. To Alex, this looked like normal daylight with fewer shadows. He could easily keep an eye on the screamers’ condition.

I had expected them to recover, but the light would be a massive advantage while it lasted. Once it faded, the battle would depend largely on who re-adjusted to the dark first, us or the screamers.

I was betting on the screamers.

“Laura, how’s Kat?”

“Gone,” she reported. “She managed to get free before the daybreak hit.”

I cursed. “Silver and gold. Akane, find her, alive if at all possible. Everyone else, we don’t have time to be nice. Start killing any conscious screamers you find.” It wrenched at me to stoop to such a level, but it was our only choice. Kill a few to save the rest.

I heard Adam’s incredulous voice. “What, blind?”

“That won’t be necessary,” a new voice said. I turned to see a man, standing in the shadow of the van.

No, not a man. A tall angel, of undetermined gender. So almost certainly a full daybreaker. I couldn’t tell what Name he was from; his tattoos were hard to read in the strange light of Alex’s dawn.

“My name is Adele Lucifer. Miss Medina called us, informed us of the situation.”

Well, that was Laura for you. Wait… “Us?”

“Yes.” He gestured behind him, and I was barely able to make out a fleet of vans bearing the Necessarius red-on-black band disgorging an army of doctors and orderlies, lead by a few dozen angels. I had never seen so many in one place before, let alone wearing ‘sarian colors.

“Your Gabriel can stop now,” the Lucifer said patiently, as another angel started a daybreak. “We can handle it from here. Just bring us unconscious screamers, and we can do the rest.”

“Oh good,” I whispered, and collapsed.

It had been an interesting hour.

Behind the Scenes (scene 31)

This was an important scene for a number of reasons, not least because I wanted to show the Paladins actually having trouble. The problem with the screamers (from a storytelling perspective) is that while they’re dangerous to normal people, if you’re immune to infection and a bit careful, they become very easy to deal with. That’s why I brought the Nosferatu in, to show that Derek isn’t invincible. Well, and to remind readers that while Necessarius avoids racism, the rest of the city is not quite as enlightened.

And we have a shop now!  More will be added later.

Scene 30 – Tempus Transit

TEMPUS TRANSIT

KELLY

“Why weren’t we invited to the party?” George grumbled.

I adjusted my daygoggles a little angrily. “We were. I turned them down. We shouldn’t get that close to them.”

Jarasax rolled his eyes from his spot in the driver’s seat. “Kelly, you make it sound like we can’t even be friends with them. I understand going to the party would be a bad idea, but we can at least be cordial.”

“It’s not like I told her to go screw herself. I just explained that we were on duty, and didn’t have time for that kind of thing.”

I saw something out of the corner of my eye; I turned and caught the tail end of Kat’s fingers flashing in a complicated pattern.

“She’s right on that one,” Alex grunted. It had taken him about two hours to learn Kat’s weird hybrid of sign language and battle-cant. George was still stumbling along. “This is boring. It’s worse than a stakeout.”

“Well, we’re not going to the party,” I insisted. “Or doing another job,” I added as the ogre opened his mouth to speak. “Not after how the last one ended.”

“That’s not my fault,” he grumbled. “How was I supposed to know the client was into bestiality?”

Jarasax shivered. “Let’s not bring this up again. I’m still having nightmares as it is.”

Kat, at least, agreed, and whipped out a portable gaming device to play the game she had bought a few days ago.

That was about the right idea, as far as I could tell, but the rest of us didn’t have anything like that. Blood and shadow, we didn’t even have any books. We really weren’t prepared for this at all. Most of us were used to participating in direct military actions. In Domina, that meant a lot less sitting around waiting for nothing at all.

George, however, was looking at the fel with a thoughtful expression on his face.

“Kat, I have a question.”

She looked up, her ears angled towards him, and signed a quick affirmative. He looked confused at first, but he knew enough to understand that, at least.

“Right. It’s just…” the big ogre chewed his lip, displaying his fangs. “I’m wondering why you’re still mute. It should be easy for the toy maker to fix, right?”

Kat’s ears suddenly stopped moving.

I blinked in surprise and sat up in my seat. This looked like it might be interesting.

I had been wondering that myself. The toy maker had many limits, true, but vocal cords weren’t all that complicated. Even if she lacked them completely, it shouldn’t have been too hard to make new ones. And as an anthro, she obviously had the money for that kind of buff. Blood and shadow, whoever did her anthropomorphization would probably have thrown in the voice for free.

She looked like she was about to sign something…then thought better of it, and quickly signed a negative response.

“Fine,” I sighed. “We’ll stay out of it.” But the rest of the team didn’t seem to be listening to me; they just looked thoughtful. I reached over and pounded the horn, making them all jump. “Won’t we?”

Sax flinched. “Yeah, yeah, of course.” The other two muttered similar affirmatives.

“Of course,” George grunted, “now we’ve got even less to do.”

Alex grinned. “Well, if Kat doesn’t want to share her life story, I guess it’s your turn.”

He laughed. “No, we should hear the boss—”

“No,” I said instantly, in a tone that brooked no argument.

The ogre grimaced. “Fine. My turn it is.”

It took him a minute to get settled; the van would have been a little cramped for five people anyway, but a giant had a lot of difficulty finding even the slightest comfort. Eventually, he decided on sitting in the lotus position on the bare metal floor of the van.

“I was twenty-seven years old when I became an ogre. I had already had some toys installed, but nothing obvious. That was eight years ago, when all the angelic fear-mongering about the vampires was finally starting to lose steam. I wanted power to protect myself from overzealous daybreakers, not nightstalkers.” He nodded to Alex. “No offense.”

The Gabriel grinned. “No worries, brother.”

“I joined up with Lord Gronn, which went about as well as you might expect. I fought in the Battle of Blade’s Edge, barely survived. The Gordoks took me in, and the King took a personal interest in me.” He shrugged. “Not really as impressive as it sounds. Gordok’s tribe is a small one, though most people don’t know it. The King made sure to greet every new recruit, and I caught his eye.

“And when he pissed off Odin, well…Odin caught his eye. Tore it right out of his skull.

“I left after that little fiasco. Amicably, you understand. I had had enough of the Culture Wars. That was…five years ago. Yeah, it was right around the Battle of Shendilavri, so that’s about right. Didn’t actually fight in that one, though. Probably for the best.

“It wasn’t until Hathsin that I joined Necessarius. Alex knows this part—I saw him fighting off a vampire, so I joined in to help.

“I actually meant to help the Nosferatu, but the stupid ferret attacked me the second I pulled them apart, so I ended up snapping his neck. Harder than it should have been, too. He had some kind of spine enhancements—”

“George,” I admonished.

He waved a ham-sized hand. “Right, right. You don’t need the blow-by-blow. Well, after the battle, I joined up with the ‘sarians. Seemed like the thing to do, and they needed men after that.” He shrugged. “And here I am.”

Jarasax raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? I doubt Alex would have suggested you for this if that’s the extent of your achievements. What’d you do after you joined up?”

“A few battles, here and there. Alex will have to tell you why he asked me to sign up for this mission.”

The angel grinned. “I thought it was obvious. The whole thing with the Lolthspire.”

Jarasax and I groaned in unison. “Ugh,” I muttered. “Alex, tell me he’s not another of those.”

“What’s wrong?” George asked with a frown. “It wasn’t even a real fight. Our sniper shot one of the Maidens the Lolths were dealing with, and I let loose some covering fire on the thralls. I don’t think anyone even died. What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is that our resident daybreaker has a thing against Lolths. Pretty much all of his suggestions for the retinue fought them at some time or another.” I shook my head. “I should have known you weren’t an exception.”

The giant turned to the angel. “While I appreciate the chance, what’s your beef with the Lolths? They thrall your brother or something?”

Alex rolled his eyes. “Why does everyone always ask that? No, they’ve never done anything to me personally. But they’re a bunch of misandrist thugs who need to be taken down a peg.”

“I don’t think anyone disagrees with you,” Sax reminded him. “You’re just a bit…zealous about it.”

The angel frowned. “That’s not fair. I’m not as bad as Kat.”

The fel’s head snapped up instantly, and she signed for him to shut up.

No,” he said firmly. “I’m not covering for you. I’m not the one who stalks Lolth territory on my time off. I’m not the one who nearly started another war by shooting one of them against orders.”

George blinked. “Wait one second—that was you? You were at the Lolthspire?”

She ground her teeth together and signed quickly, turning her back on the rest of us.

“Oh come on, Kitty,” I admonished, and immediately regretted it. She hated that name. “I mean…you guys have some mutual history. Now’s the time to bond and share and stuff.”

She signed a negative response again. But before any of us could retort, she pointed out the window.

The Paladins were leaving the park.

They’d be fine, of course. It was a birthday party, not a monster hunt or anything. But we still had to keep an eye on them, if only so we were nearby if a screamer attack started again.

The fact that it gave Kat a way out of the conversation was just bad luck.

Behind the Scenes (scene 30)

I was a little leery on George’s exposition here. Just having characters explain what is going on is an easy trap to fall into. But as the newcomer to the group, he is the one most justified to just dump his backstory on everyone.

Of course, not everything in it was completely accurate. You’ll find out what parts later.

EDIT:  Making a few changes to the site design over the next few days.  Please be patient.

Scene 20 – Custodis

CUSTODIS

KELLY

Sitting in the driver’s seat, Jarasax clicked through something on his phone. “I think that went pretty well, don’t you?”

I raised an eyebrow from the passenger seat right next to him. “Over a hundred people screaming and who knows how many dead, and you think it went well?”

From behind me, in the back of the van, George grunted. “I think he meant the Paladins held themselves together, all things considered.” He checked his minigun briefly, then threw a blanket over it and pushed it into a corner. “And I have to agree. It could have gone much worse.”

Kat’s fingers flashed, and I nodded.

“See, that’s what I meant. The kids did great, but there were some stupid mistakes. Medina should have stayed with us, for one thing. The strategist shouldn’t be on the front lines.”

The fel’s fingers twitched.

Jarasax rolled his eyes. “Don’t encourage her, Kat.” He waved away our complaints as he pocketed his phone. “Medina knew what she was doing, and it all worked out in the end.”

“And we got some interesting intelligence out of it,” Alex noted as he pared his fingernails with one of his mirrored dayknives. “That changeling boy might be able to help us win this thing before it even really starts.”

George rubbed his forehead. “Someone needs to explain that to me. I keep hearing about this kid, but no one has had time to tell me why he’s so damn important.”

“He was a screamer,” the angel explained. “Then Medina killed the singer that turned him, and suddenly he wasn’t.”

The ogre pursed his lips. “Ah,” he said quietly.

“Yeah,” Alex said with a grin. “’Ah.’ Quite important indeed.”

I pulled my ratburger out of the lunch box at my feet and handed Jarasax his sandwich. “I heard some interesting rumors about that. One of Doctor Henry’s aides mentioned that the changeling had fire powers now.”

Kat’s fingers twitched briefly.

“Right,” I apologized around a bite of my burger. “Sorry, I forgot.” I swallowed. “Belman Henry is one of Clarke’s aides. He was put in charge of the changeling.”

George grinned. “That’s amazing. And useful. Another Paladin will help a lot.”

If its true,” Alex noted. His knife disappeared with a flick of his wrist as he finished his nails, and it took me a second to spot it in its sheath on his hip. “This friend of a friend rumor is hardly trustworthy.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” I put in. I noticed Jarasax glaring at my burger in something like disgust. “Something wrong?”

The dark-skinned changeling turned away and shook his head. “Sorry. Those seaweed buns just make my stomach churn.”

I snorted, almost choking on the bite. I made sure to swallow before speaking. “My salary isn’t good enough to splurge. I can afford my fixer, or wheat bread. Not both.”

Kat signed something again.

Sax cocked his head to the side, frowning. “Was that sarcasm? I can’t tell.”

A few more finger flashes.

He grunted and turned back to the wheel, as if he actually had to pay attention to it while we were parked. “No need to be rude.”

“I really need to learn sign language,” George muttered from the back. “I keep missing out on Kat’s jokes.”

I resisted the urge to laugh; I didn’t want to choke again. “You’re not missing out on much, trust me.”

The fel growled a little under her throat and opened the van door to leave.

“Hey, don’t be like that! I was just joking.”

She rolled her eyes—its hard to notice with all-black nighteyes, but still—and signed something.

“Oh. Sorry, I forgot.” I turned to my angelic friend. “Alex, you want to go with her to pick up that new game?”

He shrugged. “I’d be happy to, but I don’t speak sign language. Wouldn’t one of you two be better?”

“She just needs someone to ask the guy to get it from the back. And we’re eating.”

The angel leaped deftly out of the van. “Fine by me. Let’s go, Kat.”

Once they were out of sight around the corner, George raised an eyebrow. “What was that about?”

I frowned as I finished my burger. “What do you mean?”

“I meant, what was that about?”

“I know. What are you asking about?”

“I’m asking about Kat. Why’d she leave all of a sudden?”

I was beginning to get annoyed. “She’s gonna buy a video game. Weren’t you listening?”

The ogre rubbed his forehead. “Yes, I…why did she choose right now to go get it?”

Ah. That was a question I understood. “Some of the more popular vampire games come out at noon. You know, a midnight release kind of thing.” I glanced at my watch. “She’s a couple hours early, but the line is probably long.”

He nodded and settled back. “Right, that makes sense. I just lost track of time. Still having trouble getting used to the Insomniac gland.”

Jarasax perked up. “When did you get yours? Before you got this assignment, right?”

“A couple weeks ago,” the giant confirmed. “Still not quite used to not sleeping.” He frowned. “Which reminds me…I’ve been meaning to ask—”

“I don’t have the gland,” Jarasax interrupted in a blunt tone. “I’m not going to break my oath over eight hours of sleep.”

“Hey now,” George said apologetically. “No need to get worked up. I know you guys don’t use toys. Just curious how you’ve managed to stay up with us, that’s all.”

The changeling pulled an empty drink bottle out of the recycling bin situated in the center of the floor. “Insomniac energy drink,” he explained. “Pretty much does the same thing as the gland, just as a drink.” He shrugged. “Less effective, and more expensive in the long run, but it works well enough.”

“It also melts your brain if you stop taking it,” I noted, scratching the fixer on my arm.

Sax grinned a little weakly. “Well, yeah. They’re not having much success marketing it to non-changelings.”

“Seems a weird way to do it,” George said, taking the bottle from Sax’s hands and looking at it a little closer. “Wouldn’t pills be easier?”

“Doesn’t work like that,” I explained. “Right now, if you want to take it as a pill, you have to take one every hour. They can do it as a shot, though, but they were trying to market it to a wide base, and most people don’t like needles.”

“I hear they’re gonna start selling the shots,” Jarasax cut in. “Alongside the drinks, I mean. See which one sells better. Apparently some kid drank some of his dad’s or whatever, so there’s been a bit of backlash.”

George shivered. “Chems freak me out. Why do you people do that to yourselves?”

I glared daggers at him. “Hey. Some of us are reformed.”

He winced. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s just, I can’t understand doing anything that would screw with my brain chemistry.”

I sighed and decided he deserved a real answer. “Well, the side effects are minimal at first. Even when full-addiction sets in and everything starts going sideways, the benefits can still outweigh the costs.”

The giant waved his hand. “I know, I know. I just can’t imagine ever wanting to…” he shrugged. “It’s a preferences thing, I guess.”

I bit my tongue to keep from snapping at him. Preferences? He thinks people get addicted to every chem on the market because they like it?

Thankfully, before I could lose my head, Jarasax noticed my consternation. “George, why don’t you go take a walk? Check in on Kat and stuff?”

The giant glanced between us and looked like he was going to say something, but then just shrugged and crawled to the van door. He grabbed his claymore and belted it to his back before walking away; it was useless against screamers for obvious reasons, but it was a great deterrent against more mundane muggers who might think he was an easy mark otherwise.

The Middle-Eastern changeling finished up the last of his sandwich and eyed me warily. “You gonna be all right there, boss?”

I frowned. “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?”

He nodded to my hand. “I was afraid you might do something…unwise.”

I slowly managed to release my death-grip on my pistol. “Don’t be ridiculous. I was just holding it for…comfort.”

“Comfort,” he deadpanned.

“Yeah, it makes me feel better.”

He rolled his eyes. “Look, I know George has been pushing your buttons for the last few days, but don’t let it get to you. He means well, and he’s a good soldier.”

I sighed. “I know, I know. I read his file and everything I’m just…” I waved my hand weakly, at a loss for words.

“…not used to command?” he finished politely.

I nodded. “Yeah. We’re specialists. Grunt commandos. You’re in your element, but I’m not supposed to be in charge. My officer credentials consist solely of surviving the biter attack and saluting Huntsman when he shouted at me.”

He shrugged. “You’re the best we’ve got, though. Alex isn’t exactly leadership material, and the bosses still remember that time I tried to shoot my lieutenant. Kat’s a sniper, not to mention mute, and George doesn’t have a head for tactics. Who else would it be?”

“I don’t know—anyone else?” I fished around in the lunch box and managed to find my water. “C’mon, Sax, I know Necessarius has a reputation for letting in any ragtag bunch of misfits and putting them to use, but there are better options out there than me.” I shook my head and took a swig of my drink. “At least a freakin’ corporal.”

The changeling didn’t say anything, and I glanced over at him, frowning. What was wrong?

After a moment’s silent contemplation, he looked me straight in the eye. “Kelly. Do you even know what is going on with the rest of the city right now?”

I raised an eyebrow. “…no? I mean, I’m assuming you’re not talking about the screamers.”

His gaze didn’t waver, but a frustrated look did pass over his face. “Gods of men and darkness, you need to start paying attention to the news.”

I took another drink from my water bottle, using it as an excuse to break eye contact and get away from that piercing gaze. “Fine, I’ll get on that. Just tell me what you’re talking about.”

He brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Kel, we’re all that’s left.”

“What?” I shook my head. “No, don’t be ridiculous. Necessarius is stronger than ever.”

“In pure numbers, yes,” he admitted. “But that’s not what I’m talking about. We’ve taken some heavy hits recently, lost a lot of our officers. Putting down the old gangs was costly, and we still have to deal with the cultures.”

“Yes, I know,” I said as patiently as I could. “But recruitment is way up.”

“That’s the exact problem. Everyone we have is completely green.”

Then it clicked, and I put down my water. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” he deadpanned. “Oh. Right now, the five of us are some of the most experienced soldiers the Big Boss has, period.” He sighed. “Alex snooped around, and said that if we hadn’t been put on this job, we’d all have been bumped up to sergeant at least.”

“Put the veterans in charge of the greenies,” I muttered. “Definitely a better idea than promoting a couple of snot-nosed kids a few ranks up the ladder.”

The changeling nodded. “Exactly. But then the whole thing with the screamers started, and everyone was scrambling to figure out a solution.” He shrugged. “We’re most useful here. If they sent anyone else, they’d just get killed.”

“And we wouldn’t react well to being commanded by a completely green corporal or whatever.”

He tilted his head in assent. “Exactly. So don’t be so hard on yourself; we need you to stay strong.” He shrugged. “If it makes you feel better, remember that technically we’re under the command of the Paladins. You’re not actually in charge.”

“That—” I paused before I could finished my retort. “…actually, that does make me feel better. Thanks.”

“What makes you feel better?” George grunted as he slid open the door to the van using the side of his body, his arms filled with candy and chocolate.

“Never you mind,” I assured him. “And what’s with the snacks?”

The giant grinned. “The nearest 24-7 store had a sale. I figured we may as well have something better than protein bars and ratburgers.”

Jarasax snorted. “You might have the buffs to eat a couple pounds of chocolate at once, but the rest of us will get sick.”

“I didn’t mean for us to eat it all at once. Besides, we need sugar because of the Insomniac buffs, right?”

I shrugged. “He’s got a point, Sax.”

“I also got a job at the board. A quick delivery a few blocks away.”

The changeling raised an eyebrow at me. “Still think he’s got a point?”

“Just because he’s wrong about one thing doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything,” I insisted a little angrily. I turned to the giant. “We’re supposed to be keeping an eye on the Paladins in case of an attack, not taking on side-quests.”

“Ten minutes,” he promised. “No more. Maybe a little less if we drive.”

He certainly looked eager. And a nice, easy delivery mission might be just the thing to get morale up after the burner attack…

Finally, I sighed and flipped out my phone to text Alex and Kat. “Fine. But this is it. If you have an idea like this again, make sure to ask first.”

The ogre grinned and buckled himself in. “Yes, ma’am.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 20)

The Insomniac gland is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and is extremely common among doctors, law enforcement, and anyone else expected to be on call at all hours. It completely removes the need to sleep, with only two side effects: First, the modder loses the ability to sleep at all (unfortunate, but everyone saw that coming), and second, they require about ten percent more calories, mostly in sugar. All in all, a pretty good deal.

Unless you’re one of the six percent of the population that are psychologically addicted to dreams beyond what is biologically necessary, in which case a lack of REM sleep will result in a psychotic break (“dreamsick”), in which case you’ll probably end up being put down like a mad dog. But they’re getting better at weeding those out before installing the buff.