Tag Archives: kemos

Scene 310 – Insopor

INSOPOR

CHRIS

I yawned as I walked into the waiting room. It was almost midnight. Weren’t they done yet?

The meeting room was filled with people. For a certain definition of ‘people,’ anyway. There were demons like Malcanthet and Lily, but also men with black eyes, people with so much fur or scales I couldn’t tell their gender, people with white skin who didn’t seem to have gender, and people so tall their heads scraped the ceiling.

There were a few who looked normal, though. Adam was sitting at a table with two of them.

“What’s going on?” I asked as I walked up.

“They sent the guards away as a sign of good faith,” he said. He had his eyes closed, and looked like he was trying to nap while sitting up. “Last I checked, they were ironing out trade details.”

“These things always take forever,” one of the men said. He had golden hair and tanned skin, an odd combination.

I nodded. “Still, I would have thought they could take breaks.”

The man shook his head. “That’s why it’s taking so long. Everyone’s worried that if they take a break, the war will restart when they’re not looking. Whether they realize it or not, they’re trying to finish this whole thing in one session.”

“Huh,” I said.

“I’m Ferenil, by the way,” he said. He held out his hand to shake. “Ferenil of the Never-Known Thieves.”

I frowned, but shook his hand anyway. “Chris. Uh, Clemens.”

“I’m Domothon,” the other man said. He had the same shimmering golden hair as Ferenil, but pale skin. “Also of the Never-Known Thieves.”

“…right.” I looked around to try and hide my confusion and apprehension. “Lots of bored muscle here. Is that going to be a problem?”

Domothon snorted. “Of course not.”

Ferenil glared at him. “What my friend here is trying to say is that no one will defy their warlords like that. They have all been ordered not to start the war, and they will obey.” He chuckled to himself. “Especially not with Lily watching.”

“There will be spies, though,” Domothon said. “No one is going to miss this opportunity.”

Adam cracked an eye open. “You said you know most of the people here. You said they’re career bodyguards and some monster slayers. Not spies.”

Domothon smirked. “Of course. Hide a needle in a haystack. But one or two people in each entourage are going to be spies, and everyone is going to have orders to keep an eye out.” He leaned back in his chair and grinned. “Except us, of course.”

To my surprise, Adam actually nodded at that. “Spying isn’t Pam’s style.”

“Eccretia,” Ferenil said.

“Right, sorry, Eccretia.” Adam frowned and shook his head. “Usually I’m good about that.”

Ferenil shrugged. “It happens.”

I looked around, then leaned down to the table. “So who are the spies, do you think?”

“Maeve’s is obvious,” Adam said. Both his eyes were open now, and he nodded at one corner of the room. Three women were standing there, not interacting with any of the other entourages. One woman was almost as big as the giants, another was average size but had pink hair, and the third was small and lithe. She had her back slightly bent, like she was used to walking around in a crouch. Her eyes danced around the room.

“Hm, yes,” I said. “The little girl couldn’t look more like a spy if she tried.”

Adam snorted. “She’s not a spy, she’s an assassin. My money is on the big one being the spy.”

Domothon and Ferenil nodded. “Yes,” Ferenil said. “I can see that.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I could see the pink one being the spy, but the big one is too… well, big. She’ll be spotted wherever she goes.”

“People underestimate the intelligence of giants,” someone said from behind us. I turned to see one of the giants from before standing near our table. He was almost eight feet tall, with a neatly trimmed red beard. “Using Pauline as the spy might be a little obvious, but it is hard for people to put aside their prejudices.”

Adam nodded. “Thrym and Surtr have gotten quite a lot of mileage out of that fact. I imagine Skrag has an even larger advantage.”

The giant sighed. “Honestly, I don’t even know. One minute he is the perfect gentleman Titan, the next he’s a frothing berserker. It must be an act, but if so it’s a very good one.” He shook his head. “Apologies. I complain about his manners, and then forget my own. I am Henry. I am a Muspel, as I am sure you already guessed.” He smiled. “You two are Never-Known Thieves, correct?”

Ferenil nodded. “I am Ferenil, and this is Domothon.”

“And where are the representatives from the Forgotten Names and the Firstborn, Honored Paladin?”

Domothon grinned. “Out spying.”

Ferenil kicked him under the table, but Domothon just laughed it off. Henry smiled as well.

“I’m Chris Clemens,” I said. I didn’t hold out my hand to shake. His hands were as big as my head, and I was worried he’d crush me in a handshake. “This is Adam Anders.”

Adam nodded politely. “Sorry I forgot to introduce myself.”

“No need,” Henry said. “We all know who you are, Honored Paragon.”

I frowned. There was that word again, paragon. People said it like a title.

Henry turned to me. “But I have not met you before. Are you a close friend of the Honored Mother?”

It took me a second to realize what he was talking about. “No, nothing like that. I’m not from Domina. I’m from here. From New York.”

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Interesting. Very interesting indeed. May I ask how you came to be here?”

Adam chuckled. “It’s a long story. We wouldn’t do it justice. Lily will tell it to MC soon, and she’ll do a full press release.”

“The short version is that I followed Adam,” I said. “I’m his bodyguard.”

Henry threw back his head and laughed, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.

“Muspel,” one of the black-eyes called. “What’s so funny?”

He grinned and indicated me. “This one is Anders’ bodyguard.”

Everyone in the room laughed at that. Not the deep belly laugh Henry had produced, but still genuine amusement.

I frowned, then turned to Adam. He just smirked.

“Domina City is smaller than you’d think,” he said. “You’d be surprised how easy it is to become famous.”

“Earlier you told me it’s bigger than I could possibly imagine.”

“Yeah, it’s that too.”

I sighed. “Whatever.” I eyed Henry. “Do you know how long that meeting will go? They have to take a break eventually.”

The giant shrugged. “I think everyone in there except Eccretia has the Insomniac gland.”

“And Eccretia has Insomniac soda,” Domothon said. “She can keep going with the rest of them.”

Henry nodded. “Yes, of course. I know the White Cat brought a few cases.”

I didn’t bother asking what an Insomniac gland was. The name was clear enough, and I’d look like an idiot if I brought it up. “Even if that’s true, the Americans don’t have anything like that.”

Henry frowned. “They could… share?”

Domothon laughed. “The White Cat, sharing?”

The doors opened, and everyone turned to see the ambassadors walking out.

Lily was first. She walked with a straight back, pad held professionally at her side. Her tail was low to the ground, and didn’t swish to the sides much. She smiled at everyone she passed, then jerked her head at Adam. He stood, preparing to escort her out.

Behind Lily were the wheelchairs, being pushed by the vampire. Adam had called him Dracul a few hours ago. I was surprised that someone of his level was willing to do menial labor. Maybe the others agreed, because two of the giants ran up and took over. Dracul smiled and said something to them, before stepping out of line and walking over to his men.

Adam grabbed me by the arm before I had a chance to watch the rest of the procession. He nodded goodbye at Domothon, Ferenil, and Henry, and we walked up to Lily. She was standing at the doors leading out of the room, waiting.

“The meeting has been put on hold until ten in the morning,” she said. “Most of the Americans, and some of the Dominites, were almost ready to pass out. Continuing would have been counter-productive.”

I nodded. Made sense.

Lily led us out the doors and took us down a hallway. I glanced behind us, but no one else was coming out. They were probably getting up to speed with their entourages.

“We’ll need somewhere to stay the night,” Lily said. “Is your house still an option?”

Adam thought about it. “Maybe. But the Americans should have offered you a hotel room or something.”

Lily’s shoulders slumped. “I… don’t trust them.” She said it like she was admitting to some horrible crime.

Adam put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “It’s all right. Better safe than sorry.”

“What are you worried about?” I asked. “Bugs in the room?”

“I don’t care what they overhear,” Lily said. “I’m worried they might decide it’s easier to get rid of me than talk.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Really?

She gave me a sad smile. “I am far from invincible, Miss Clemens. Surviving some low-caliber rounds and a gasoline fire hardly makes me immune to assassins.”

“That’s not what I mean,” I said with a smile of my own. A much happier smile. “Nobody uses assassins. Not since the 1970’s, anyway. The international community comes down really hard on that sort of thing.”

Adam frowned. “The 1970’s? Do you know the exact date?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Uh, no. There is an exact date, though. North Korea tried to assassinate literally every other leader in the world, completely failed, and the international community went crazy. Passed new laws, the whole thing.”

“And everyone was about to attack North Korea,” Adam said, clearly remembering his history classes. “But then the North Korean leader committed suicide.” He frowned. “And he killed his entire cabinet or something, right?”

“Sounds familiar, but I’m not sure.”

“Huh. Convenient.”

I chuckled. “Convenient would be if he had done it decades earlier.”

“Maybe she couldn’t do it then.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” He shook his head. “Anyway. It’s nice that the outside world is all civilized and everything, but I’m still with Lily. Better safe than sorry. Maybe they’ll decide that we don’t count when it comes to assassins because we’re backwater savages. Or whatever.”

“Or they found out about Artemis’ ghosts and want to return the favor,” Lily said. She didn’t sound happy.

Adam sighed. “The ghosts are—”

“Necessary. I know.” She shook her head. “Let’s just get out of here. We can take a cab.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 310)

Korea has been reunified for a few decades now. That means that it has started to pass from the realm of “miraculous recovery of a tortured people” to “class, this test will be worth ten percent of your grade.” Chris was a kid when it happened, so she remembers it pretty vividly, even if she’s fuzzy on the details. Adam wasn’t even born yet.

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Scene 289 – Portam Bestarium

PORTAM BESTIARIUM

JEFFERIES

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

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

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

Then the base camp exploded.

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

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

I had heard that sound too much today.

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

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

We had far too much experience with this.

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

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

“Lieutenant,” I said. “Orders?”

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

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

“Your orders, lieutenant,” I prompted again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This crazy city…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone stopped, ears straining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lieutenant looked like she was struggling with something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled. “You found us an apartment?”

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

“Good. Where are the keys?”

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

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

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

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

“What about our guns?” I asked.

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

I nodded. “Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hall looked annoyed, but did as ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” she said. “Now quiet.”

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

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

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

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

“We made a dent,” I said.

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

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

Hall glared. “Are you sure about that?”

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

Behind the Scenes (289)

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

Scene 287 – Impetum Lupus

IMPETUM LUPUS

VOVK

My name is Nathaniel Vovk, First Lieutenant of Necessarius. I was once an important part of the Great Wolf’s pack, back in the beginning of the lupe culture. I still am, in many ways, but nothing official. Now, I’m just another old ‘sarian wolf trying to make the city a better place.

At the moment, that involved fighting the American soldiers who had taken North Gate.

They had moved fast, with those walking tanks in front to take the brunt of our fire. While our own anthros and warlords had been able to dent them, it wasn’t enough. The Americans had managed to clear the area in front of the gate. Now they had set up a base camp and began sending forays deeper into the city. We hadn’t been able to oust them yet.

Not that we hadn’t tried. We were just… having problems.

I sighed. “Sir, what do you mean we don’t have any missile launchers?”

“Exactly what it sounds like,” the captain snapped. He was half my age, but had somehow managed to rise in the lupes quite quickly. I had no idea how, but I was sure it wasn’t for his organizational skills.

“When are reinforcements coming? A few warlords or even high-level ursas would be able to break through that barricade—”

“They have a hundred of those damned echo machines, Vovk! We’ll find another way!”

I ground my teeth. “What other way? Our powers? We never did manage to get a list of what everyone could do!”

The captain hesitated. “I have a pain induction ability—”

“Ranged?”

He blinked. “What? Uh, no. Touch only.”

Useless. “I can walk through solid matter. If you give me a couple bricks of hyper-cyclonite or even just regular C4, I can bring down those walls.”

He sighed. “Not an option, I’m afraid. We don’t have any explosives beyond regular grenades.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

“Did we prepare for this fight at all?

“Of course we did!” he snapped. “Did you miss the part where they blew up the stockpile?”

I blinked. “Uh, yes, actually.”

The captain’s glare softened. He waved at a tall plume of smoke rising from behind the nearest ‘scraper. “First thing that happened. They busted in, a dozen echoes leading the way, and tossed a grenade at our supplies. The Alphas are trying to bring more in, but you known they’re like cats in a bag on a good day.”

I ran a hand through my hair. It was meant to resemble fur, since when I had first been modified real fur had still been out of our reach. “All right. That explains a lot.” We were still incompetent, but at least we were reasonably incompetent. I had been dealing with this sort of problem all the way back before the warden died. The only reason we lost Eden was because a crate of body armor got mislabeled and the English got their hands on it. “What’s the plan, then?”

“Currently? Hold the line.”

I nodded. Simple and effective. Usually. In this case, we’d probably end up in a stalemate, which admittedly wasn’t the worst way this could go. But the Americans were well-equipped and well-organized, while we were kemos. Cats in a bag.

“The warlords will be moving up,” I said, half to myself. I glanced at the grunts of the squad. They were standing a few yards away so that they didn’t have to hear their superiors arguing. “The obvious ones, at least. Dane and Lord Arisen, maybe Tecumseh and a few of the Moonlords.”

“Senator McDowell,” the captain said.

I grimaced. “Definitely. Which means we need to finish this up before he gets here.”

“I thought McDowell was good in a fight?”

“He’s an Iluvatar,” I said. “We need someone more experienced. Have we tried sending people into the sewers?”

Kemos hated sewers as a general rule, since almost all of us had an enhanced sense of smell. But the Americans had a pretty big base, so there had to be at least one sewer exit in there somewhere.

“Yes, that was the last I heard from General Silverback. The attack failed, so attempting it again is unwise.”

Silverback. He was a terrible general, but a great warlord. Which probably meant he was dead by now. His first instinct when things went wrong would have been to charge in himself, and the echoes would have torn him apart.

“All right, forget the sewers.” I glanced over at our men. None of them had true sniper rifles, but a few had scopes on their Ueno rifles, which might be enough. “Has anyone tried scaling the buildings yet?”

“Of course they have! We’re kemos! I don’t know what happened to them, though. Obviously they didn’t succeed, but beyond that…”

I nodded. “Good.” I raised my voice, loud enough to make the men sit up and take notice. “An excellent idea, sir!”

The captain figured out the game very quickly. “Good man! Take Yemen and Clawbreaker; they’re my best shots.”

The named soldiers—well, as close as kemos ever got to soldiers—perked up. One was a cane with brown fur and dog ears, but little else, and the other was a fel who had gone full lioness anthro. Her whiskers twitched when I looked at her.

They were the ones with scopes on their guns. I nodded in appreciation to the captain, then pointed at the ‘scraper right next to us. “Time to head up, kids! Keep on this side, away from the American base.”

We climbed.

My claws were still old and metal, not designed for climbing, but it didn’t matter. This was the heart of kemo territory. Every single building had handholds every foot or so to make climbing easier. Even a complete baseline wouldn’t have had too much difficulty. I might be fifty, but I was healthy and buffed. I could climb a hundred stories without worrying about losing my grip at the wrong moment.

The other two reached the roof a few moments ahead of me. They already had their guns out and sweeping the area by the time I pulled myself up. Again, this was kemo territory, so the roof was just like any other floor of the building. It was well-traveled with a few empty shop stalls. It also had a zip-line to the nearest ‘scraper.

I stayed low, but pulled out a pair of binoculars and started scanning the nearby buildings.

“Uh, boss? Honored Alpha, sir?” the cane said hesitantly. At least both of them had the brains to lay down prone next to me.

“What?” I asked, not stopping my search.

“The base camp is down there, sir.”

“Don’t you think it odd, pup?”

“Sir?”

“Kemos are the best climbers in a city of rather good climbers. We are currently in a section of the city designed to be easy to climb. Don’t you think that if our warlords sent up men, they’d have started to make a dent in the enemy forces?”

“I… suppose so, sir,” the cane said.

“Which means that someone has been killing them. And since the roofs would give too much cover from down below, that means that these killers are on the rooftops. They likely ascended using those handholds we so thoughtfully built into every building in the sector.”

“So you’re looking for an enemy sniper,” the girl, the fel, said from my other side.

“Not looking. Found.” I pointed about sixty degrees off center. “Do you see that?”

They both remained silent for a moment.

“Saw it,” the fel said. “A glint.”

I put my binoculars down. “That’s him. Either his scope or his binoculars, either way, he’s hunting for us. All we can do is hope there’s only one, but it wouldn’t take much. Can either of you hit him from here?”

“Yemen is the better shot,” the lioness said. “John, you spotted it yet?”

“Yeah,” he said. He slowly set up his scoped Ueno in front of him, leaving the cap on the end of the scope. He sighted it for a few moments, before taking a breath and removing the cap. “I see him. Barely. I’m going to have to wait until he gets ready to take a shot.”

“Clawbreaker,” I said, finally remembering the girl’s name. “How’s your dodging?”

She scowled, whiskers scrunching up. “Could be better.”

I smiled. “I’m not going to tell you to get up and wave your hands around like an idiot. Just start crawling to the other end of the roof. If this sniper is as good as I think it is, it should be enough.” And if she got shot in the process, well, that was just the price we had to pay for our victory. She was an anthro. She might survive.

She nodded, and started crawling across the roof. She kept low as if trying as hard as she could to keep from being seen. It would look good to the American sniper, and should entice him to at least take a closer look.

Unless he realized that this was too good to be true, and figured out it was a trap…

A shot rang out from next to me. It was silenced, but even with a silencer, a gun is loud when it goes off a few inches from your ear.

“Got him,” Yemen said.

I nodded. “Good. We take up positions for overwatch on the base below.” I considered for a moment, then stood.

Yemen tried to pull me down. “Sir, if there are any other snipers—”

I waited for a moment, but no one shot me.

“My power should let me survive a bullet if I’m prepared,” I said. Of course, I hadn’t tested it. “Looks like there was only the one sniper. Come on.” I walked over to where Clawbreaker was waiting. Behind me I heard Yemen scramble to his feet and follow. “Anything interesting?”

She shook her head.

I pulled out my binoculars again and looked down. The Americans were to be commended. They had set up their base camp with admirable speed. They blocked off the alleys leading into the square right outside North Gate, using cars and tables and whatever else was at hand. They had brought in some canvas canopies, which wouldn’t stop a bullet but would keep us from targeting anyone. Well, we could shoot the sentries on the outer walls, but they were the only ones exposed. And that would only help if we timed things just right with a ground attack.

A ground attack wouldn’t be a good idea, though. There were still those walker-machines. I also had a feeling they were hiding more conventional miniguns under those canopies. The streets leading up to the camp would be killing fields now.

I scanned them with the binoculars. There was no cover on any of the streets. The little side alleys leading into the square would be horrible even at the best of times. Right now, they’d be pure suicide for any large force. But the main street leading south, farther into the city, might work. We’d have to bring our own shields, but we might be able to do it. This would be easier if our warlords hadn’t denied help from the Gravers or the kensei, but we were hardly helpless. Maybe if we—

I stopped, and adjusted the binoculars.

Yes, there. There was a girl skulking up the street towards the American camp. Definitely not a kemo, but her blue skin made it clear she wasn’t a baseline, either. A troll? They were the only ones who used the skin color cosmos regularly. But she didn’t have the size or the claws of a troll…

She disappeared, right in front of my eyes. In the space of a single blink, it was like she had turned invisible.

Or maybe she had…

I put the binoculars down. “Clawbreaker, climb back down. I need you to give the captain some intelligence.”

She nodded. “What is it?”

“Tell him I think we have fey on the field.”

Domina Cultures – Kemos

KemoFinal

Three began and three shall end

but dozens shall find here their friends

Fels are cats, of all shapes and race

every creature of perfect grace

Wolves named lupes, arms broad and teeth white

fur and fangs gleaming in the moonlight

Bears are known as ursas, the heart strong

thick hides and thick claws, fighting long

Three began and three shall end

but dozens found here their friends

Three Cultures, a Thousand Warlords

With the dozens of kemo subcultures and microcultures filling modern Domina City, it is easy to forget that they started with no more than three warlords: The White Cat, Hachiko, and Saikyō. The first Animal Kings of the fels, the lupes, and the ursas respectively.

In the early days, of course, there were no anthros. The toy maker could barely produce fangs and light fur, let alone the full body transformations they wanted. So, they took a few minor aspects of their chosen animals, such as whiskers or ears. The process was simple and easy, and created no sense of camaraderie. It was a fashion choice, little more.

The three founders had no desire to become leaders or warlords in the beginning. They just thought of themselves as friends with a common interest. They referred to themselves as kemonomimi, a Japanese word meaning “animal ears,” typically used to refer to fictional characters with minor animal parts. As others joined them, wishing to make use of their expertise with the toy maker, this name was eventually shortened to kemos.

While the kemos never had to deal with the racism of the vampires, the rampant militarization of the angels, or even the politics of the demons, they did have one major challenge facing them in the early days: Chaos.

For a time, it seemed like everyone wanted to be a kemo, and it didn’t take long for people to realize that they didn’t need to limit themselves to the Big Three. The canes came next, but the laces and taurs were quick to follow. Then the arachs and the pisces, the murids and the aves. More and more cultures sprouted like weeds, and there was no one making any attempt to control them.

It was only when a large number of fels and canes were killed in a “cats versus dogs” joke that spiraled out of control that everyone agreed that something needed to be done. Hachiko was the first to take control, quickly organizing his closest friends and allies into a leadership for the culture. He divided his men into five auspices, based on their skills and talents, and founded the Moonhomes to provide somewhere to keep them safe.

Saikyō and her ursas were next. She also reorganized her culture along skill lines, but in her case she used species as well. She didn’t have a pack like Hachiko did, so she was forced to keep control of her culture by herself, with little more than her own pure strength. Advisers and Alphas rose up to aid her, but not in the numbers that the lupes received.

The White Cat, as likely expected, lazed about for far longer than was safe. He waited until the absolute last minute to take official control of the fels, and even then made little attempt to organize. He declared himself the supreme leader of the culture, but set few laws and gave fewer orders. However, he still served as a rallying point, and the fels were able to organize themselves without too much difficulty.

Civil war still broke out, but it was quickly squashed. Even when microcultures like the cherves or the daes were wiped out, the nature of the kemos meant that they could just rise again under a new warlord, or no warlord at all. For a time, chaos reigned, but it was a predictable and unworried chaos, like the waves of the ocean.

Eight years after the creation of the toy maker, the Beast attacked the ursas.

The demon warlord of the Satanists demanded justice for an attack on the Ninth Gate, claiming that the ursas who had killed many of his men were working for Saikyō. Saikyō denied this, and the Beast settled in for a siege.

Hachiko, ever the loyal friend, rose quickly to aid the Animal King of the ursas, personally leading a charge of Rahu wolves against the Beast himself in an attempt to break the culture and the siege.

The Beast killed Hachiko in personal combat, and the lupes were broken long enough for him to burst into Saikyō’s domain and kill the Animal King. Two of the Big Three were dead in a single day, and the kemos were back to chaos.

The White Cat tried to organize, but there was little to be done. He knew he was too weak to fight the Beast, either politically or personally, so instead did everything he could to protect the cultures his friends had left behind. He had little success, but he was able to keep them from imploding long enough for other Alphas to rise to prominence and lead. The lupes gained the Grand Wolf and Lady Lycan, while the ursas gained Senator McDowell.

The kemos—especially the ursas—never truly recovered from those attacks, but they survived. This is the primary advantage of their chaotic organization: Even if every single kemo is killed, the cultures can still be revived.

Kemo honored are called hunters, while their deviants are known as terrors. Their warlords are called Alphas, with the leaders of entire cultures being the Animal Kings. Their novices are called pups. Due to the size of the culture, the kemos as a whole are sometimes referred to as a “superculture,” with the fels, lupes, ursas, and other major groups referred to as cultures, each having their own subculture and clans underneath them.

Notable Subcultures:

Anurans

Kemos with frog or toad features, such as sticky fingers, large eyes, and long tongues. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Arachs

Kemos with spider features. Usually limited to subtle buffs, such as sticky fingers, but they are attempting to make more obvious ones such as extra arms.

Lolths

A deceptive subculture, also known as the black widows. They are misandrist, and consist mostly of women. They were founded by Lolth, but she was killed during the Scouring of the Demonweb Pits. Her culture still lives in the Pits, rebuilt with retribution money leveraged from the Canians.

Minervas

A much kinder and more open subculture, created in direct opposition to the Lolths. Basically, all arachs are one or the other. Minerva herself still leads, and has survived multiple assassins sent by the Lolths. She makes her headquarters in a nameless skyscraper in East Middle, where the culture produces silk and clothing to be sold to the rest of the city.

Aves

Kemos with bird features. Rare for a number of reasons, not limited to the fact that the more interesting bird traits (wings) are still outside the scope of the toy maker. Due to their rarity, their subcultures do not even have nicknames yet; they are simply eagles or crows or so on. Their leader is Soaring Eagle, and their base is G’Hanir, the Mother Tree, one of the tallest skyscrapers in the city, though they are primarily nomadic.

Cans

Kemos with crab features. A very new subculture, they are rare but gaining popularity. Technically they are called “cancers,” but that name is rare for a number of reasons. Their Alpha is Jasmine Hannesdottir.

Canes

Kemos with dog features. Despite being one of the first new cultures to spin off the Big Three, they remain politically unimportant, with no official Animal King. They are quite numerous, however, and have a number of important packs and Alphas scattered around the city.

Bels

Kemos with hyena features, such as spotted fur, fangs, and the cannibalism buff. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Vulps

Kemos with fox features, such as red fur and tails. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Chels

Kemos with turtle features, such as shells and strong, snapping jaws. Very new and rare. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Cherves

Kemos with deer features, such as horns. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Chiros

Kemos with bat features, such as echolocation and general enhanced hearing. A minor microculture with no warlord, they have some relations with the aves in an attempt to get wings, but nothing organized.

Daes

Kemos with squirrel features, such as bushy tails. A minor microculture with no warlord. They have been wiped out several times, but always return in some form or another.

Fels

Kemos with cat features. Along with the lupes and the ursas, they were one of the Big Three founding kemo cultures. The White Cat still leads the culture, for a certain definition of the word, and things have slowly been becoming more organized.

Grissers

Kemos with tiger features. Known for being more well-rounded than the other fel subcultures, they are often used as general elite units.

Leos

Kemos with lion features. Known for power, typically used as defenders and front-line assaults.

Pards

Kemos with panther features. Known for stealth, they are the spies and assassins of the fels.

Gulos

Kemos with wolverine features, such as claws. Largely folded into the lupes after the death of Logan.

Hystrics

Kemos with porcupine features, such as the famous spines. Much more commonly known as ‘pines.’ A minor microculture with no warlord.

Laces

Kemos with reptile features, such as scales and a forked tongue. Their Animal King is Io, the Concordant Dragon, who uses his ten children as general-purpose warlords of the entire culture.

Crocs

Kemos with crocodile features, such as thick scales and teeth. Functionally identical to the gators, until the Gatorcroc conquered both subcultures, they were in a constant state of war. They follow Io closely, but their ultimate loyalty remains with the Gatorcroc.

Gators

Kemos with alligator features, such as thick scales and teeth. Functionally identical to the crocs, until the Gatorcroc conquered both subcultures, they were in a constant state of war. They follow Io closely, but their ultimate loyalty remains with the Gatorcroc.

Ophidians

Kemos with snake features, such as poison fangs and a tail—sometimes replacing their legs, sometimes not. A minor microculture with no warlord. They have little interaction with the rest of the laces, and are largely left to their own devices.

Leapers

Kemos with rabbit features, such as long ears and enhanced leg muscles. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Lupes

Kemos with wolf features, such as fur, fangs, and claws. Along with the fels and the ursas, they were one of the Big Three founding kemo cultures. When Hachiko was killed by the Beast, the culture nearly fell apart, but his friends stepped up to take control. Today, while there is no lupe Animal King, the Council of the Moon serves that purpose well.

Rahu

The Warrior Auspice, centered in the Full Moonhome. The Rahu are the guardians, soldiers, and warriors of the lupes, following such Alphas as Altaicus and Argunensis. The Rahu have historically been the most public Auspice, though the Council is trying to change that due to a number of violent incidents.

Cahalith

The Visionary Auspice, centered in the Gibbous Moonhome. Bards, seers, and storytellers all name themselves Cahalith, and they follow men and women such as Dybowskii and Kamtschaticus. The Cahalith mostly remain in the Moonhomes, moving between them to teach all lupes—especially children—the nature of the culture.

Elodoth

The Walker Between Auspice, centered in the Half Moonhome. This is the Auspice of the diplomats, the ones who smooth over the problems caused by the other Auspices, especially the Rahu and the Irraka. They have their work cut out for them, even with leaders like Dorogostaiskii and Ekloni among them.

Ithaeur

The Spirit Master Auspice, centered in the Crescent Moonhome. Many people are surprised to find that the lupes have scientists, but the Ithaeur prove that they have a place everywhere. Novaehollandiae was the one who created the package for the first lupe anthros, and Tenggerana invented a powerful healing balm called silverlight. They are another Auspice that prefers to remain in the Moonhomes as much as possible; they rarely even leave Crescent.

Irraka

The Stalker Auspice, centered in the New Moonhome. Every culture needs its spies and assassins, and the lupes are no exception. The Irraka are especially proficient hunters, using superhuman senses of smell to track targets through the darkest and dirtiest parts of the city with ease. They are led by people like Rex and Hodopylax, names even other cultures fear. Unlike the other Auspices, they rarely spend any time in the Moonhomes, preferring to stalk the streets instead.

Murids

Kemos with mouse and rat features, such as tails and fur, as well as rodent control pheromones. Despite the small size of the culture, their Animal King, the Lady of the Plague, is swift and merciless in her pursuit of power and influence, making them far more dangerous than one would expect. She is rumored to have deals with the fey, but this is unsubstantiated, and likely based on nothing more than a number of impressive toys the murids have produced.

Pisces

Kemos with fish and other aquatic animal features, such as gills. Rare on land. Their official Animal King is Johnathan Tar, the Whale-Lord, but the culture is spread widely enough that he makes little attempts to control them.

Anguili

Kemos with eel features, such as needle-like teeth and (rarely) tails. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Cetacs

Kemos with whale features, such as thick blubber, enhanced lungs, and vocal cords. Despite the fact that the Whale-Lord is technically a member of this culture, they remain a minor microculture with no warlord.

Mantas

Kemos with manta ray features, such as large flipper wings and gills. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Selans

Kemos with shark features, such as fangs, sandpaper skin, and gills. Their warlord is Alexander the Great White.

Taurs

Kemos with bovine features. They are best known for the Baphomites, despite the fact that they make up a tiny fraction of the taur whole. Their Animal King is the Auroch.

Baphomites

Extremely violent. Founded by Baphomet, but he was killed in the fight with Malcanthet. Despite the efforts of their Alpha Cairne, they are assumed by many to be a fading culture that will never rise again.

Mazers

Also known as Shubgottians, after their home of Shubgottia, the Endless Maze. They like to trap people in their maze, but they are mostly harmless; they are a small subculture, formed from people who enjoy puzzles.

Ursas

Kemos with bear features, such as enhanced size and fur. Along with the fels and the lupes, they were one of the Big Three that founded the kemo culture. After the death of Saikyō, the culture fell to ruin. Many warlords rose, but could never truly lay claim to the entire culture. Currently the closest the culture has to an Animal King is Senator Evangel McDowell, and he is more accurately described as an ambassador—albeit an ambassador with no warlord above him.

Arctos

The warrior caste, modeled after brown bears, were created by Saikyō to protect the culture. After his death, there was no one to keep them in line, and they fell to infighting and raiding. Several strong Alphas still hold them to their original creed, but too often seeing an arcto ursa means seeing a bandit.

Malays

The scientist caste, modeled after sun bears. While the malays kept true to their purpose following the death of the Animal King, their recruitment dwindled to almost nothing. Today, despite the best efforts of McDowell and people like him, the malays remain the smallest ursa subculture.

Melanos

The pandas, the diplomats, survived the loss of their warlord with far more success than the other ursa subcultures. They still have their squabbles and the occasional civil war, but under McDowell’s guidance, they are able to focus most of their attention on keeping the other subcultures alive and working together.

Thibs

The hunters. Modeling themselves after Asian black bears, the thibs are the trackers and spies of the ursas. Their numbers dwindled as well following the death of Saikyō, but the survivors found themselves without orders or instructions. Rogue thib warlords have caused serious trouble for the rest of the culture, but some of them have also proven to be Senator McDowell’s staunchest supporters.

Visons

Kemos with mink features, such as smooth fur and flexible skeletons. A minor microculture with no warlord.

Notable Kemo Alphas

Arach Alphas

Greyanna

Ambassador of the Lolths. She was a close follower of Lolth, and still blames the Canians for her death and the Scouring. Rumors claim she secretly kills Canians in her free time, but if so, Mephistopheles and his men have never raised an inquest against her.

Halisstra

Ambassador of the Minervas. She is the public face of her subculture, as Minerva herself tries to avoid leaving her domain for fear of assassins. Halisstra herself is polite and diplomatic, always mindful of the negative reputation the Lolths give all arachs. She can be quite harsh with the Lolth, especially Greyanna.

Lolth

The founder of the Lolth subculture, the Alpha was a heavily misandrist woman known for a deep and abiding hatred of anything and everything male. She largely saw all women, especially Minerva and her group, as little better than traitors. She was killed when she pushed too hard against the Canians. Mephistopheles burned the trio of skyscrapers known as the Demonweb Pits to the ground, taking out over half the culture. The Canians were forced to pay retribution costs, but Lolth was still lost.

Minerva

Alpha of the Minervas. She is an old, matronly woman, rumored to be directly related to Lolth. Regardless of the truth of that statement, it is a well-known fact that she created her culture in direct opposition to the Lolths. She largely refuses to leave her nameless domain for fear of assassins, but is still known for keeping a close watch on her culture with her many cameras.

Syndrith

Current Alpha of the Lolths, she rose to prominence after the death of the founder. While she is every bit of a misandrist as Lolth and the rest of the culture, she is significantly better at suppressing it, at least long enough to make trade deals with males. While nothing has ever been proven, it is widely accepted that any man she sleeps with isn’t going to survive the night.

Teuta Merimangë

An Armenian Lolth Hunter. She is one of the higher-ranking Hunters in the culture, with her own web of spies, informants, and assassins. She is known for being professional to the point of coldness. Rumors persist that she is working closely with Soaring Eagle on the stolen toy box.

Ave Alphas

Soaring Eagle

Animal King of the aves, “Sele” (short for Selenium, from SE) is the founder and leader of the ave culture. She is strong and driven, and her past remains a mystery. While this is not uncommon for warlords, Soaring Eagle has attracted attention by reacting violently whenever someone queries her about her past. Most recently, she and her higher-level warhawks have become fugitives due to stealing one of the original toy boxes in an attempt to finally create wings.

Delia

Alpha of the warhawks, the war arm of the aves. Little is known about the woman herself, as she has always been in the shadow of Soaring Eagle. After Sele’s flight, Delia has become the highest ranking ave left in G’Hanir, and many eyes have turned to her to see what she does next.

Can Alphas

Jasmine Hanesdottir

The Alpha and de-facto Animal King of the cans, and the only crab anthro in the city. She is the daughter of a powerful Aesir Titan, and is known for a large amount of disdain towards her fellow warlords. While her culture is still so tiny as to be barely worth mentioning, her drive has ensured that they have a place at many important discussions.

Cane Alphas

Dane

A minor warlord known primarily for fighting Lord Arisen, a fel Alpha. Still, his pack does good work, keeping local businesses secured and solvent.

Fel Alphas

Lord Arisen

A minor warlord known primarily for fighting Dane, a cane Alpha. Still, his pride does good work, providing mercenaries to other warlords.

Simba

Alpha of the leos. He is often seen as the direct subordinate to the White Cat, and is often asked for help when the other subcultures require aid. He is cunning, in his own way, but most analysts agree that he was promoted too quickly.

The White Cat

The first warlord of the fels, and one of the three founders of the kemo culture. He is known for being lazy and unorganized, but frighteningly intelligent when roused. He takes the form of a Persian White breed, hence his name.

Lace Alphas

Gatorcroc

Animal King of the crocs and gators. A massive anthro best described as a mountain of muscle and armor plating, the Gatorcroc forced the warring microcultures to work together, creating a real and powerful culture. Some argue that he is merely an Alpha rather than a true Animal King, but Io is insistent on calling him King.

Io

Animal King of the laces, also known as the Concordant Dragon. Io’s love of dragons is well-documented, and it is clear that he became a lace simply because becoming a dragon wasn’t an option. The man himself is widely regarded as the greatest surviving kemo Animal King, having personally organized the laces from a collection of squabbling kids into a force to be reckoned with. The only thing Io cares about more than his culture are his ten children, who are all warlords in their own right.

Nagi

Ambassador of the laces. He is a senator, following McDowell’s example, and was catapulted to success practically against his will due to his success in negotiating a cease-fire during a civil war that was rolling over his district. Politically, Nagi is a member of the Grand Banyan party, which should surprise no one.

Lupe Alphas

The Great Wolf

Leader of the Council of the Moon, and unofficial Animal King of the lupes. There have been repeated worries that he might be making a more direct power play, but most analysts agree that since he is largely in charge anyway, he won’t make things difficult unnecessarily. The Wolf himself is violent and driven, as is to be expected from the Alpha of the Rahu.

Tecumseh

High-level Alpha with his own warpack, and a loyal follower of the Great Wolf. Native American, and one of the first to become a lupe. He is old, angry, and confused by the screamers and their powers.

Taur Alphas

Cairne

Ambassador of the taurs, and Alpha of the Baphomites. He is aggressive and self-centered, having earned both his positions with little more than raw might. He has close relations with a number of demons, specifically the Acheroni, due to his domain’s close proximity.

Ursa Alphas

Evangel McDowell

A powerful ursa and Senator of South Central. He is a careful and precise member of the Iluvatar party, who ended up effectively in charge of the ursa culture simply because there was no one else. Officially, he is merely an ambassador, and that is the only position he desires. Unofficially, whenever anyone wants something from the ursas, he is the one to speak to. He also owns the McDowell Guns company, inherited from his brother.

Scene 131 – Insidiae

INSIDIAE

LAURA

It was October the fourth, a Thursday. Five days after we discovered the Composer’s identity, four days after her attack on the ave lab, three days after the ambush at Derek’s History class, and two days after Adam brought thirty pounds of boar meat to the dorm room instead of Maria’s house like he was supposed to.

We had skipped class today and yesterday, for obvious reasons, and I don’t think anyone expected that to change any time soon. We had been sticking together as much as possible, but we were beginning to grate on each other. We had only really been coming together for missions; although no one had said anything, everyone was well aware that we could only put up with each other for so long.

Ling talked too much for Akane and I to feel comfortable, and we disapproved of her lifestyle philosophy enough that she was beginning to notice. Adam was fraying at the edges a little, but that was more because he hadn’t really had any free time to spend with Lily than personality clash. Of course, we were all still on edge around him, with the whole sociopathy thing. Derek was watching him like a hawk, and if his roommate stepped out of line, Derek wouldn’t hesitate to put him down. Regret it later? Probably. But he’d do it.

Speaking of Ling’s lifestyle, watching her try and convince Derek to practice wrestling with her got annoying pretty quickly.

“You can always practice with me,” Adam piped up as we walked down the street. It wasn’t really clear which of the pair he was talking to.

Ling, at least, decided he was addressing her, and grimaced. “I’d rather not. You’re guns, not hand-to-hand. You have enough to learn already; I don’t want to add more.”

That last part, of course, was a lie. I squeezed Derek’s shoulder, signaling that my ability had triggered, though I’m sure he had figured it out already.

“Both of you stop,” he said tiredly. “We still haven’t figured out where we’re going for lunch.”

“Not here,” Akane muttered. “You idiots walked into a dead-end alley.”

I looked at her sideways. “So did you.”

Derek rubbed his forehead. “Ugh, I wasn’t paying attention. Let’s just go to Nervi’s.”

“Or, you could stay here,” a voice called from the end of the alley.

I snapped my head around to see three men and three women of various cultures blocking the dead-end alley. An ambush. Lizzy? Maybe, considering the mixed nature of our assailants. Something to worry about later.

Assets:

Ling, Akane, Derek, and Adam. Cramped alley—which seemed to have been chosen to keep us isolated—might be to our advantage. Ling was wearing her armor under her clothes, Akane had her sword, and Adam had all his guns. Derek, of course, was dangerous with his bare hands, but I’d be nothing but dead weight. And Ling had been having moral issues recently, so she might have trouble killing.

Goal: Escape, prioritizing Derek’s life. Akane could leap out with him, and Ling could effectively fly, so Adam and I were the only problems.

Secondary goal: Capture the enemy alive, find out who they were working for. Two kemos, a giant, and three demons wouldn’t play nice normally. But the fact that they were clearly used to fighting side by side was more of a tactical problem than a strategic one at the moment.

The kemos were a pair of crocs or gators, fully anthropomorphic and covered in thick scales. Probably bullet-proof, and I wasn’t sure if Adam had anything armor-piercing left.

The giant seemed to be a troll, judging by his orange skin, so he probably had hidden claws. He was seven feet tall and had the lean, wiry look of someone with whip-strong muscles.

The three demon girls looked like triplets, though I doubted that was actually the case. Other than red eyes and short horns, they didn’t have any toys—except for the thick, powerful tails whispering out from under their skirts.

Solution: Obvious.

“Akane takes the laces,” I said quietly, just loudly enough for the others, now clustered around me protectively, to hear. “Adam shoots the troll, and Ling and Derek handle the demonesses. I’ll stay in the back, since I’m the weak link.”

“Kill yours quick,” Derek advised Adam. “Trolls tend to be a horror in melee.”

“You ladies done chatting about your periods?” one of the crocs called. His long, toothy snout made it look like he was always grinning, but I could tell that he really was now. “I’ve got things to do after I eat you.”

I glanced over at Adam. Covered by Derek, he had managed to slip on his bandolier. He pulled out his Caedes, checked the SMG’s chamber, and nodded.

“Go,” I whispered.

Akane sprung forward like lightning, moving so fast all I could see was a faint blue smear, the same color as Derek’s shields, that was the ribbon in her hair.

She sliced the first croc so fast he didn’t notice at first. It was only when he turned to strike her that his top half fell off, and blood began fountaining from the wound.

Our little swordswoman didn’t stop or slow down, but the trick didn’t work twice. The second kemo exploded into a cloud of green smoke, which Akane’s sword sliced through harmlessly.

I expected the smoke to coalesce into a new form, like the bats and other shifters, but it didn’t. It simply reverted back to the kemo’s normal shape.

But Akane was off balance now, and her reservoir dry.

The croc dodged her next strike by dropping down, then quickly backstepped to avoid her flurry of stabs. The second he sensed an opening, he whispered forward and drew a long gash across her face with his claws.

Adam’s SMG roared out a rapid thunder right next to me, and I clapped my hands over my ears, wishing I had remembered earplugs. Bullets tore into the troll, ripping bloody chunks out of his flesh and knocking him back—back, but not down. Once the clip was exhausted, the giant just grinned.

There was a light patter of something metal clicking against concrete; it took me a second to realize they were the slugs, getting pushed out of the troll’s body as his wounds healed.

Shit. Not another one.

Adam had the same reaction, though with more swearing. He dropped his Caedes without a second thought and whipped out his Saint George, barely even bothering to aim before pulling the trigger.

I expected another of those earth-shaking god slayers, but apparently he had something else in the chamber. The massive shotgun belched out a burst of fire, a thin cone that only barely missed frying the other combatants as well.

The troll howled in agony, but rushed forward, trying to ignore the damage by sheer willpower. His orange skin caught fire, but only briefly. It was like with the skins. Something about the healing or shifting process seemed to interrupt combustion. Was that intentional, or just a coincidence?

Either way, Adam dodged to the left, out of the troll’s line of attack. I dodged right a bit belatedly, and he almost managed to grab my wrist. Other than a bad scratch, I got away clean, but he sensed weakness, and knew better than to leave it unexploited.

He rushed me again, his toothy maw grinning and throwing drops of drool everywhere in anticipation of the kill. I reached for my gun—silver and gold, why didn’t I have it out already?—but fumbled the strap on the holster, wasting valuable seconds.

I felt hot, smelly breath on my face. I looked up to see he had closed the distance, and had his clawed hand in a backswing, already accelerating forward again…

Something tackled him from the side, throwing him off his attack vector and hurtling into the brick wall I was standing next to.

The wall caved in with a crash, sending red dust everywhere and leaving a gaping hole in the side of the building. I could see startled people on the other side, but my attention was mostly on the giant, lying in a writhing ball on the floor.

He was wrestling furiously with Derek—obviously, the one who had tackled him in the first place. Goddamned idiot. He should have just used a shield.

I turned back to the others; Derek could handle himself well enough. With my pistol, I might actually be able to contribute to this fight.

The three demoness triplets hadn’t moved, as far as I could tell, while Adam and Akane dealt with the kemo. Suspicious, but right now I was thankful for the respite.

The lace certainly knew how to use his power effectively. He could dodge her un-augmented sword strikes easily, only shifting to mist to counter her power. Adam couldn’t shoot much, not while our swordswoman was in melee with the croc, and the few shots he did fire were easily avoided.

The lace wasn’t attacking, which was a good thing, at least. But Adam would have to reload soon, and the balance of the fight would shift quickly—perhaps lethally.

I widened my stance, raised my Occisor with both hands, aimed, and fired.

The Occisor is a kid’s gun. Sure, it’s 6.0 mm, which is a pretty good caliber, but it doesn’t have the stopping power or penetration to handle anything armored. The scaled kemo would be able to shrug it off with nothing worse than a bruise.

But he didn’t know that.

Tungsten-core rounds, Avernan diamond darts, poison…there were a thousand things and more my dinky little gun could be loaded with that would make it a nightmare for anyone less than a warlord.

It wasn’t, of course.

But he still shifted to mist, allowing the bullet to pass through him harmlessly rather than risk taking it head-on. More importantly, a split second later when he solidified again, Akane and Adam were ready.

Akane jumped back to give our gunman more space, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. He sighted down his massive 6-gauge, grinned, and fired.

The Teflon-coated armor-piercing slug hit the croc in the forehead, slightly above one eye, and wasn’t slowed for even a moment by the thick scales. A fist-sized chunk of skull exploded in a burst of red mist, splattering the nearby walls.

The anthro teetered for a moment as his body tried in vain to stay upright without input from his brain, but it didn’t last. He fell to the side, landing on the dirty alley floor with a dull thump.

After a moment, with the sounds of the battle between Derek and the troll behind us still ongoing, the demon girls finally reacted.

“I liked him,” the one on the far left said, staring down at the croc’s corpse through half-lidded eyes.

“He was funny,” the middle sister agreed. Something was wrong with her, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“I suppose I’ll have to kill you now,” the third sighed. “Fighting gives me headaches. I was hoping they could deal with you.”

All three girls fell into identical fighting stances, tails raised and ready, and it hit me.

They were one mind. One mind in three bodies.

Not literally, of course—though with powers, I wasn’t ruling anything out. But some people, like Malcanthet and Belial, had experimented in improving efficiency in their slaves by using brainwashing to convince a small group that they were a hive mind. As I understood it, there hadn’t been appreciable gains until they started using pheromones to coordinate the bodies. They still weren’t actually one person in multiple bodies, but they managed to fake it enough to be dangerous.

But at the same time, there was an easy counter.

“Just try and kill one,” I advised my allies. “Then the other two will break.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Adam agreed. “Which—”

He screamed as lightning tore through him.

Blue sparks arced around his body, following his high-pitched, animal yell, and left behind angry white burns.

I cried out in alarm, but quickly squashed my terror in favor of remembering my first-aid training. First rule of dealing with electricity: Cut off the power. Which girl was—

I blinked, surprised to find that one of the demons seemed to be creating the lightning, just holding it between her hands, while one of the others was causing it to arc into her hands, and then into Adam.

A power combo. Min-maxing their advantages, as Ling would say. Clever.

The lightning cut off, and Adam staggered, but managed to keep his feet. He coughed, sputtering up blood. He really should just bow out, but there was hate in his eyes. Ironically, it made him look more human than normal. Anger in combat is to be expected. But Adam…Adam usually didn’t show any emotion when he fought. No remorse, no rage. Creepy as all get out.

The baseline raised his shotgun shakily, and I was suddenly reminded of the last time I had seen someone electrocuted.

Their gun had exploded in their hands.

Why hadn’t the same thing happened to Adam? He was covered in guns and ammo just waiting to cook off. Was it just random luck? Did supernatural lightning work differently than real electricity? Or had the girls somehow intentionally avoided anything explosive?

It didn’t matter. We couldn’t take any chances. I stepped in front of him before he could fire and shoved him back, hoping he would get the message.

The third girl moved her hands into the same position as the lightning demon. But instead of crackling electricity jumping between her fingers, roaring orange flame spun out of nothingness.

A pyrogenist, an electrogenist, and an electrokineticist. Fun times.

Adam seemed to have realized the danger; he jumped back a few steps and started shedding his guns onto the floor. But like Ling had said earlier, he wasn’t hand-to-hand. He was mostly out of this fight.

Speaking of, where was Ling? I had lost sight of her when the troll charged. She was what we needed here. Lightning wouldn’t be able to do much against a concrete wall.

The pyro’s flames suddenly shot toward Akane, who was able to dodge easily enough. They bent and snaked after her, but…

But it wasn’t the pyro who was controlling the flames.

It was the second demon.

The one who had aimed the lightning.

Of course. The same combo as before, just more than expected. The other two create the weapons—fire and lightning—while the middle sister manipulated and aimed it.

But still…she had two powers? Or just one, the general power to manipulate energy?

AGH, we still didn’t know anything about anything.

Before I could dwell on the problem too much, I heard a sharp snap from behind me. I turned to see Derek throwing off the corpse of the troll, the latter’s neck at an impossible angle. He thrust out his hand, and a misty blue shield popped into existence in front of me, blocking a lightning bolt I hadn’t even noticed.

“When are the ‘sarians getting here?” he growled.

“I haven’t had a chance to call,” I admitted. Besides, trying would have made me too tempting a target. And the retinue had been called away about an hour ago, so they were out too. “So whenever they notice the fight.”

“Silver and…fine. We need to finish these three off quickly, then. Where’s Ling?”

“No idea.”

“Wonderful. And Adam’s—”

“Out of the fight, basically.”

“So it’s three on three.”

“Two on three. I’m not going to be useful.”

He closed his eyes briefly. “Fine.” He turned to Akane. “Start with the one doing the aiming.”

She blurred forward instantly, but the demons saw her coming. A cone of lightning-tinged flame erupted from the center girl’s hands, fed by her sisters to either side. I could feel the heat from fifteen feet away, and the ozone made my hair crackle with static electricity.

Akane couldn’t dodge; the fire filled the entire alley. So she just dove right in.

I had to grab Derek to keep him from doing something stupid. He almost followed her, but my hand on his arm held him back.

I wasn’t sure if our swordswoman could survive this, but I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity she had provided. I nodded to Adam, and he picked up his Caedes and started shooting at the lightning girl, filling the air with thunder and the smell of gunsmoke.

Then Ling dropped down from the roof onto the pyro.

She landed heavily, crashing the demon to the ground and shattering the concrete with the impact.

Adam’s bullets found their mark at nearly the same time, dropping the psycho-electro with a few dozen well-placed pieces of lead.

As her power sources were suddenly cut off, the middle demon grabbed her head and started screaming.

It was heartbreaking. I could almost hear her vocal cords straining, as whatever link she had to the others snapped back and took her mind with it. She clawed at her own face, drawing blood and—

The screaming cut off as suddenly as it started, as Akane sliced her head off.

I slowly lowered my hands from my ears as the corpse hit the ground with a wet thump. Once I was certain all three were dead—it didn’t take long to be sure, not in their states—I turned my attention to Akane.

She looked all right, mostly, just a few singes to her hair and extremities, but I was worried about internal damage the lightning may have caused.

I fished around in pocket for my phone, resisting the urge to sink to the ground in exhaustion. I hadn’t been the one fighting, after all.

“Rest a bit, guys,” I advised as I put the phone to my ear. “Necessarius will be here shortly.”

Then my phone exploded.

I screeched in pain as bits of hot metal and plastic embedded themselves in my face and hand. Big pieces, too; the explosion hadn’t been that big, so there weren’t too many pieces.

But it still hurt like hell, and I nearly had to swallow my tongue to keep from ripping my vocal cords with my screams. Still, I managed it, and the pain became manageable within a few moments.

“Aw, now that’s too bad. I love it when you scream.”

I turned to look behind me, to find the source of the voice.

Elizabeth Greene, stepping through the hole in the wall Derek and the troll had created. Still wearing the same white dress as before, stained completely red with blood. There were a few flesh splashes, which I assumed came from the inhabitants of the building she had just come through.

She stepped on the troll’s corpse without a glance, discarding it without so much as a second thought.

“I am a little disappointed you killed my directors,” she mused, grinning with those too-white teeth. Her golden eyes lingered on each of us in turn, and her grin widened. “But then, that just leaves more for ME!

Behind the Scenes (scene 131)

I had a lot of trouble with this one, but I think it sets up the next scene well enough.

Scene 64 – Foedus

FOEDUS

ARTEMIS

I rubbed my forehead. “Mary, are they ready?”

“In a minute, sir,” she replied quickly. The real her, not one of her fakes. This was far too important to leave to a hacked-together bundle of code. “The Nessians are yelling about having to deal with the Nosferatu.”

“Cut them out,” I said tiredly. “I don’t know why I even bothered.” The Nessians, the followers of that bastard Asmodeus, were slavers and nothing more. They had tried to usurp the power structure of the vampires a while back, and been cut down to a shadow of their former glory as a result. In the process, their leader was poisoned by one of the Nosferatu. An exceptionally virulent poison that the toy maker couldn’t cure. Apparently he was in constant, agonizing pain. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

“Done,” she quipped. “Anyone else you want me to nix?”

“No. We need as many as will stay. Everyone else will play nice with others. Probably.”

“If you call in Kelly, the Belians will fall into line easier.”

No. She has made her feelings on the matter clear.”

“But—”

“No. Mary Christina, this topic is closed.”

“Fine,” she muttered a bit angrily. “Anyway, everyone is set up. Starting video conference now.”

My screen crowded up completely with dozens of windows, each with a single face. Many were mostly human, but some more monstrous. The Nosferatu, the sibriex, the cans and the Glasyans were only human in a legal sense at this point. Others were normal enough on the outside, but still terrifying inside. The Dagonite ambassador was an excellent example of that.

There were a few missing, but that was hardly unexpected. Some still didn’t trust me, while others didn’t understand the danger the Composer represented.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” I said by way of greeting. “Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.”

“As if we had a choice,” Nicholas, representing the Aesir, grumbled. “The screamers are a threat to us all.”

“Not quite all,” the Dragon, the leader of the Draculas, noted. He grinned, displaying his prominent fangs, and nodded to something I couldn’t see; presumably, another of the ambassadors on his own screen. “Georgia and her Dagonites don’t have much to worry about.”

The woman in question huffed. “I’m sure this Composer will find a way. Although I doubt we can be of much help; we have limited abilities, and the war with the Rahabs is straining us.”

“Your support is appreciated regardless,” I told her honestly. Considering how much I had to deal with trying to make the other subcultures see a problem that was on their very doorstep, it was refreshing to see someone who could anticipate the threat.

“Has Doctor Clarke had any progress on finding some sort of cure or vaccine for the screamers?” Evangel asked. The big ursa senator wasn’t the leader of his subculture by any means, but the others had agreed to let him act as an ambassador for all of them.

“No, unfortunately,” I admitted. “He isn’t having any luck whatsoever. He hasn’t even managed to find out what causes the condition. I believe he’s given up on it.”

“We can take a look,” Tharizdun, the sibriex representative, offered. I wasn’t sure if Nhang had sent him as an intentional slight, or if the warlord just didn’t have time to deal with anyone himself. “I doubt we’ll have much luck, but a few more eyes are always helpful.”

“My people will help as well,” Glasya, the Noble from Malbolge, put in. She had a bit of a friendly rivalry with the sibriex, so it was nice to see her so eager to work with them.

“Thank you both, and I will accept any help you can offer. If the Avernans could lend their aid as well, that would be much appreciated.”

Bel scratched his hairy chin. It wasn’t actually hair, but a patch of short, poisonous barbs. Much of his body was covered in the strange buff. “We’d be happy to, of course, but I’m not sure how useful we’ll be. Our methods are geared towards the toy maker, not general research.”

“You’re avoiding the main problem,” Nick, warlord of the Host of Glorious Destruction, pointed out. “The Composer needs to be dealt with. Everything else is secondary. You said you may know where he is. Why haven’t you attacked?”

“We have no idea what this creature is capable of, Honored Daybreaker,” I replied with as much patience as I could muster. “If you read through the data I sent you, you’ll see that Doctor Clarke has theorized it may be able to jump between bodies. Killing the one it is currently in will do nothing but make it more cautious in the future.”

“But you don’t know,” Jasmine, the can ambassador, clicked. “You don’t know anything about this…thing.”

“We know that there is an intelligence behind the screamers,” I reiterated. “Not much else. The fact that it seems to have a base does imply it has a physical body, with physical limitations. Hopefully, that means a lead-based solution can be applied here. But we must be cautious.”

“Then just kill all the screamers and then move in,” Mephistopheles insisted. “I don’t know why you’re keeping them alive.”

Evangel huffed. “It is still possible these people can be cured, Canian. Don’t be so quick to abandon them.”

“But the pyro has a point,” Dispater cut in. As leader of the warbloods, the military arm of the vampires, I knew his grasp of strategy would be valuable. “Clarke thinks this Composer is limited to using screamers as hosts. If we kill all the screamers, it will have no where to go.”

“And what if he is wrong?” the Dragon asked calmly, his godeyes twinkling. Godeyes were rare beyond imagining; they were the fusion of dayeyes and nighteyes, and almost impossible to make work. It took over a hundred thousand dollars to even try, and usually the subject just ended up blind. I only knew one other person in the city that had them. “If the Composer can use bodies other than screamers, we’ll have murdered several thousand people for no good reason.”

The other representatives murmured uneasily, but it was Nick who voiced their concerns. “There can’t truly be that many, can there?”

“Not quite that many,” I assured her. “Only barely a thousand.”

“And that’s a thousand more than there should be,” Simba pointed out angrily. It took me a second to realize he was just angry in general, not at me specifically. “If we could find a way to give more people powers, or at least make them immune to infection, everything would go much more smoothly.”

I saw Obould lean forward before speaking. “I’ve spoken with the Paladins a little. They’re more than happy to help with this crisis, but they are limited. Sooner or later, the Composer is going to stop playing around, and they aren’t going to be able to keep up.”

Greyanna shook her head. “Preposterous. A thousand screaming, half that dead, and you think this Composer isn’t even trying? Trust a man to—”

“Oh put a sock in it, Lolth,” Halisstra interrupted. “Put aside your prejudices and think about it. The incident with the burners confirmed that a singer can infect people over the radio or the phone. The Composer could easily hook up some giant speakers and infect half the city. Why hasn’t he?”

“I have some failsafes in place to prevent that,” Mary Christina interjected.

“Yes,” Dispater noted, “you do now. But why didn’t he just do it before we knew about that capability? It doesn’t make any sort of tactical sense.”

“He could just be a moron,” the Erlking suggested.

“That’s a dangerous thought path,” Sargeras, representing the hellions, cautioned. He was one of the most respected warlords here—as one of the founding members of the demon culture, he was one of the very first warlords. “In a situation like this, you have to assume the enemy is smarter than you. Anything else will lead to ruin.”

“Isn’t this all secondary?” Hyalinix of the Time-Lost Shadows cut in. “I haven’t heard anyone actually promise to work together.”

“The sibriex, the Glasyans, and the Avernans have at least agreed,” I pointed out. But only an uncomfortable silence greeted my words. I frowned. “You said you would help.”

“Help, yes,” Bel admitted grudgingly. “We’ll share data. But that’s very different from actively working together.”

“Exactly,” Nick muttered, clearly not enjoying even such a minor agreement with a vampire. “You’re suggesting sending troops into battle side-by-side, correct? They’ll never stand for it.”

“We can work up to that,” the Dragon mused. “But even working together at a strategic level would make a huge difference in the war effort.”

“My men won’t fight beside angels,” Dispater cautioned. “But that wouldn’t be a good idea regardless. Anyone else, they will help gladly. And of course, I would be happy to lend my expertise.” He started a little, as though surprised at his own words. “Ah…from the Iron Tower, of course.”

The other vampire ambassadors just rolled their eyes. Dispater’s agoraphobia was well-known. But, he was useful, so everyone put up with the fact that he refused to leave his base.

“My hellions should be able to support the angels,” Sargeras offered. “And I can speak with the other leaders as well.” He nodded to a corner of his screen. “No offense, Honored Daybreaker, you just don’t have the numbers to wage this kind of war.”

“None taken, Honored Devil,” Nick replied graciously.

“I’m also not opposed to cooperating,” the Great Wolf admitted. “There will be some logistics problems, as we keep mortal enemies away from each other, but surely we can all leave off killing each other long enough to fight for our city.”

Doresain shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Though like you said, we’ll need to be mindful of prejudices. I know I wouldn’t want to fight next to a lupe, and I doubt any of my men are going to feel differently.”

“I think we can leave that to the more military-minded leaders,” Focalur of the Mammonites pointed out. “Best not to get in their way.”

The taur representative, an ugly Baphomite named Cairne, raised an eyebrow. “You would be willing to follow the orders of another, thief?”

Focalur just laughed. “Like you said, I’m a thief. I don’t know how to fight a war.” He became serious again. “But Dispater, Sargeras—whoever ends up giving the orders. Just remember the strengths and weaknesses of your allies. We can’t stand up to front line combat like you.”

Sargeras nodded. “We will of course take everything into consideration. We’ve been fighting against you for quite some time. We know what you are capable of.”

The Beast growled, literally. “This is ridiculous. I will not put myself under the command of any other kith, and I know my followers will feel the same.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Then leave, abomination, and don’t come crying to us when the screamers appear on your doorstep.”

The Satanist growled again, and his window went dark. Honestly, I was pleased. His subculture was almost as bad as the Nessians. I had known all along they would be trouble. I was surprised it had taken him this long to voice his objections.

“Good riddance,” Tripurasura, the Akoman daeva, muttered. “He would have set his men on us like hounds on roadkill.”

The cane and lupe representatives both shouted at once. “HEY!”

The vampire winced. “Sorry. Figure of speech.”

“I am pleased you have all seen the wisdom of working together,” I said slowly. Using violence to force the issue would have just made things worse in the long run. “But there is one thing I don’t think anyone will like.”

I found myself unable to speak. This was going to be a nightmare. I still had a chance to change my mind.

Everyone just looked at me, clearly apprehensive. My silence was only making things worse. Senator Nagi, representing the laces, was the one who spoke up. “And what’s that, Butler?”

“Tharizdun and Glasya, I need…” I paused, then sighed and bit the bullet. “I need you to open up communications with the fey.”

The sudden outcry was almost explosive. Every single representative started shouting. Even the more level-headed ones who were trying to calm everyone else, like Evangel and Nagi, had to yell just to have a chance of being heard.

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t hear any individual arguments in the noise, but I knew what they were saying. The fey were crazed monsters who would kill their own mothers for no reason other than because they felt like it. They were almost as big a problem as the Composer. Allying with them was insanity.

After a few minutes, there was a brief lull. Not really a lull; just a short pause, nothing but coincidence. I seized the opportunity to speak. “If we don’t ally with them, the Composer will,” I said quietly.

Everyone choked on the words they were going to spit out, and dozens of faces stared at me in shock.

“If we don’t ally with them, the Composer will,” I emphasized. “Perhaps he’ll infect them, or perhaps he’ll just pay them off, but either way he’ll have access to their armies and their toy box. We cannot allow one of those to fall into the wrong hands.” I glanced at Soaring Eagle’s window; she winced at the reference to her own crimes.

Still, nobody spoke.

I leaned back in my seat and sighed. “I understand this is not easy. I understand that they might ask for things we are not willing to give. But we don’t have a choice. They are too powerful to simply leave waiting for the Composer’s control.” I closed my eyes. “That is all. Mary Christina will contact you shortly with more information on the details of the alliance.”

I cut the connection.

It was necessary.

Behind the Scenes (scene 64)

Homework question: Why would the leader of the Draculas be called the Dragon?

And yes, every single one of these people (and the subcultures they represent) was named for a reason. Some of these reasons are simpler than others, however. For example, Jasmine, the can ambassador, is named because that’s her birth name, and she thinks changing your name to match some mythical character you find kinship with is stupid.

Oh, one last thing: There are seven cultures (six, since most people don’t count the fey), but that’s only the ones that use the toy maker. Changelings, therefore, are not a culture, nor is Necessarius.

Scene 14 – Necessarius

NECESSARIUS

KELLY

My name is Drakela Sanguinas. No, it’s not my birth name, but it is my legal name. Better than the one my father gave me, at any rate. Mostly people call me Kelly or Kel.

I was sitting in South Central’s head Necessarius office, waiting for my boss to finish reading my report. It was all for show, of course; he had already read it.

My boss was a lupe, a wolf kemo. He had thick hair—not fur—covering his body and dexterous silver ears poking out of his graying hair. He looked about sixty but carried himself like a thirty year old, which probably put him at forty five or so. The lupes respected age.

He had enlarged canines and jaw muscles that reminded me uncomfortably of the biters we had just cleared out. But his were less noticeable, and probably more useful in the long run. The screamers had massive horse-teeth that crowded their mouths and looked useless for anything but biting.

It was the claws that made me sweat, though. Six inches long and the highest quality steel, bonded straight to his enhanced finger bones. I had seen claws like those disembowel friends of mine without much difficulty, and I had no doubt this man had done so more than once.

My boss wasn’t just any lupe; he was an ex-Rahu, a warrior wolf. His kind had hunted mine for a long, long time, tracking us by the smell of blood and cold flesh.

I was hardly innocent either, of course. I was an ex-Belian, and had killed my fair share of lupes and canes and whatnot. I even managed to take out an angel once. A full-born daybreaker, not some crazy kid who took the glow on a whim.

We all had sins. But we were with Necessarius now. Nothing we did before we joined mattered, and nothing anyone else did before we joined mattered either. Set aside your differences and fight for the common good. Because it was necessary.

“You worked with the girl, the black-haired one?”

“There were two black-haired ones, sir,” I clarified. “The Asian went inside with the other Asian—she had a blonde cosmo—and the man.”

“But the one who stayed outside, you followed her orders?”

I shrugged. “She gave good orders. And she sure as blood was doing a better job of it than I was.”

“Hm.” He didn’t say anything else, just tapped through his tablet. It was made specifically to withstand his claws.

“It says here they caught one alive. That correct?”

“Yes, a small female. The little blonde Asian trapped her in some sort of rock handcuffs.”

“Interesting. You actually saw her use this power?”

“Yes sir. She did it right in front of me, pulled up big chunks of asphalt like it was clay.”

He finally put the tablet down. “Describe her to me.”

“Uh…short, blonde…Asian…looked pretty athletic.”

“Full description, please. Spare nothing.”

I sighed. “Fine. Just an inch over five feet. Well-toned, definitely plays sports; probably soccer, judging by her kicks. She was wearing a good, strong deodorant, but she was sweating less than you’d expect in that situation. She wasn’t as anxious or worried as I would have thought. She has problems with authority. She didn’t like us, and she questioned her boss’s orders every which way.”

He waved his hand, indicating for me to continue.

“Blond—natural, I think—and blue eyes. Strong jaw, wiry muscles. Looks like a rat hunter, but moves like a soldier. He has the voice of command; he gave me an order and I obeyed. He’s protective, especially of the girls he came with, but of everyone else too. He smelled afraid, but he didn’t hesitate. He trusts himself, and he trusts his girls. At least the one with the sword and the one he left with us.”

“Start with the girl with the sword,” my captain advised.

“About average height; maybe a little shorter, but she looked taller compared to soccer-girl. She had a katana, and she knew how to use it. Black hair is decorated with beads and a few other things I didn’t understand, and she had it in a ponytail to keep it out of her face. Despite that, she’s a soldier. She smelled like death, and she followed orders without question.

“The other one is a strategist. Face like a knife. Heart like a knife, too; she was ready to make hard decisions, though she didn’t really need to. She coordinated us well, and anticipated the enemy easily. Maybe that doesn’t sound impressive when you’re dealing with zombies, but they were unpredictable. And she…predicted them.”

I paused for a moment. “What did she smell like?” my captain prompted. It would have sounded a little creepy coming from anyone else, but when you’ve got a nose like us, that’s no stranger than asking what color her hair was.

I shrugged. “Lilacs. Real ones, I think. Or a really good perfume. She wasn’t really sweating. I feel like it wasn’t her first command. She probably just plays too many video games.”

“Excellent work, corporal. There may be a promotion in this for you.”

I frowned. “Sir?”

“The Big Boss wanted to field test his new toy,” he explained. “And you were quite helpful.”

I felt my heart drop out of my chest. “Sir, if he released those screamers—”

The lupe waved his hand airily. “Not the screamers, girl. The Paladins.” He gave me a toothy grin. “He wanted to test the Paladins against the screamers. And to see how they’d work with Necessarians in the field.” He nodded sagely. “I’d say you did a great job.”

I swallowed. “Thank…you, sir. I think.”

“Of course,” he mused, idly scratching his chin, “the fact that most of your direct superiors were killed doesn’t hurt your chances either.”

I immediately felt better. These were circumstances I understood. “They did their best, sir, but we were all caught by surprise.”

“Of course, of course.” He made a note on his tablet. “Well, promotion or not, you’ll need to pick your team.”

I blinked. “Sir?”

“You’re going to be attached to the Paladins,” he explained in the most infuriatingly off-hand way possible. “If nothing else, provide transportation.”

I nearly jumped out of my seat. “But, sir, I—”

He waved his hand. “You’re dismissed. I want those squad assignments before you leave today. Five slots.”

I recognized I wouldn’t make any more headway, so I nodded and left his office without a word.

One of my friends, Specialist Alex Gabriel, stood leaning against the wall. He smiled at me. “Problems with the old wolf?”

“He can hear you,” I grumbled. I stomped off, and Alex followed.

He was definitely going to be on this team I had to assemble, no question. In addition to being a close friend, his talents were invaluable.

Of course, I use the male pronoun for the sake of convenience. As a full-born daybreaker, Alex was completely asexual. He was tall, thin, and completely hairless, covered in dimly glowing tattoos in strange, circular patterns, largely revealed by the white t-shirt he wore. Most of them terminated on his hands, where he had leather gloves with small, high-quality magnifying glasses in the palms. When he concentrated, he could focus the glow from the sunspots on his palms to devastating effect—especially against vampires. At his sides were matching long knives made out of mirrored steel.

“I need a team,” I said bluntly once we were out of earshot.

“On the books?”

“I have no idea,” I admitted. “But it’s sanctioned. We’re the Paladins’ retinue.”

“Cool,” he chirped happily. Even his voice was asexual, being both husky and soft at the same time. “Want me to assemble to old team?”

“No. We need ranged attackers. We’re going to go against screamers, and I don’t want to get within reach.”

He nodded in agreement. “I’ll start with Nevin.”

“Nevin died a couple days ago. Sliced to ribbons by something with claws.” I shrugged. “Probably a monster, but maybe a kemo.”

The angel winced. “Ooh. He was the best. Well, there are some alternatives. How many we need?”

“Five total. Think you can make that happen?”

He paused, thinking. “Yeah, I can. When do we need to be ready?”

“The old wolf wants the list by noon. I want to be ready for a quick training run in an hour. Need to know we can work together.”

He grinned, revealing perfect teeth. “Consider it done, boss.”

I sighed. It was necessary.

Behind the Scenes (scene 14)

Yes, this is the vampire Derek yelled at in scene 12. You’ll meet her team later.

Oh, and yes, “Drakela” is the feminine form of Dracula. As you might expect, a lot of vampires have variants of the name. It’s an English bastardization, though. The actual Romanian version sounds too similar to Dracula to be useful.