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.”
“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.