This was a bad idea.
“This is a wonderful idea,” Yolanda said cheerily as she clung to my arm, tugging at my scars. “I’m glad you finally agreed.”
The train slowed to a stop, and we piled out as the doors opened. “I just think…” I said slowly. “I just think that we should have thought this through a bit more, you know? Planned it out a bit more—”
She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “You’ve been underground for over two weeks—”
“Fifteen days, actually,” I muttered. Wait, that was how long I had been awake. How long had I been down there before I woke up? I knew they told me, but I couldn’t recall…
She ignored me. “And you still haven’t told your friends you are alive. I think coming back to the surface is a good thing.”
I winced up at the sun. “Maybe. But I wish I had at least remembered sunglasses.”
My girlfriend rolled her eyes. “It’s twilight. Give it another half hour and it will be dark.”
It was October 31st, Halloween. Eleven days after Titania had mentioned that my former Power, Narek Nhang, had been killed. Fear of him had been one of my primary reasons for staying in the ruins of Shendilavri, but not the only one. I had been able to put it off for a while, but now I had run out of excuses.
Yolanda led me to a small coffee shop not a block from the station, mostly abandoned except for a single demon girl waiting on the sole occupied table. The street outside, while not excessively crowded, was busy enough that it took us a few minutes to navigate through the throng. We almost knocked over a man on a ladder installing a speaker on the corner; he glared at us, but didn’t say anything.
“Hey there, Yolanda!” Adam called, making the rest of the group turn to face us. “Who’s your friend?”
Laura, sitting between Adam and Derek at the large table, put her drink down with wide eyes. “I think that’s…Simon?”
Derek slowly stood, a disbelieving look on his face. “No, I thought Simon died! He couldn’t have just…”
I grinned as best as I could, considering the scars. “Don’t write me off too soon, bastard.”
My old friend grinned as he came around the table and wrapped me in a massive bear hug, squeezing so hard I could barely feel my screaming scars over my cracking ribs. “You stupid demon, why didn’t you call!?”
“Put him down,” Yolanda begged. “He’s still not completely healed.”
The baseline did so quickly, as the rest of the table came up to pat me on the back. All my surviving friends were there. An extremely well-armed Pam, that Dagonite Eric, a grinning Steve, a surprised Laura, a glowering Akane, Delphie’s nephew Leon…
There was something different about her, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but that wasn’t the important part. She was staring at me, daygoggles off, as if she had seen a ghost.
“Simon,” she whispered very, very quietly. “You…I…you were dead. Nhang said you were dead.”
I grimaced. “Well, he wasn’t far off. I just got lucky. Found by some ghouls who didn’t feel hungry, that whole thing.”
“Is that what happened to your cosmos?” Adam asked. “Your purple skin, the horns, and…” He frowned. “What’s up with the scars, anyway? Toy maker should be able to get rid of those, right?”
Another grimace. “It’s a long story. Can we sit down?”
Lily—who was the ‘demon’ girl I hadn’t recognized earlier—stole two chairs from nearby tables, and we all sat down, me a little bit more gingerly than the others.
“Let’s start simple,” the waitress said firmly. “Introductions all around. Who here doesn’t know Simon?” Three hands were raised a little meekly. “Okay, everyone, this is Simon Lancaster, Seena’s brother. Simon, this is Akane’s boyfriend Flynn—” The man in question blushed slightly, and Akane punched Lily in the shoulder hard enough to break bone. She didn’t react. “And these are Eccretia’s bodyguards, Domothon and Ferenil of the Never-Known Thieves.”
I nodded at the swordsman, and the two golden-haired changelings. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Flynn nodded back politely, and the changelings—seated at a smaller table nearby—waved in response.
“Why didn’t you call?” Seena demanded the instant introductions were over. “I thought you were dead!”
What was it that was different about her? I mean, her voice sounded a little different, but since my ears had been rebuilt, everything sounded a bit off.
I tried to find an answer that wouldn’t end with Derek leading Necessarius into the ruins of Shendilavri. “It’s a long story. I wasn’t exactly mobile for a while, and the place where I was resting didn’t have any phones.”
Laura looked up, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Really. No phones at all.”
I squirmed under her gaze. “I…I dunno. No phones I could use, anyway. They didn’t trust me not to do something stupid.”
That seemed to placate her for the moment. “Fine. But why come up now? Healed up sufficiently?”
“Mostly.” I smiled as best I could. “Besides that, it’s Halloween! It’s like, the most important day of the year, right?”
Pam snorted. “Subtle subject change.”
Adam, however, was willing to humor me. “How is Halloween the most important day of the year? I mean…” he indicated Lily and my sister. “…it kinda seems like there’s no point in dressing up.”
Lily just gave him a look. “What do you mean, no point? I’ll have you know, I look wonderful in a dress.”
He waved his hands frantically, realizing there was some cultural miscommunication here. “No, sweetie—” Oh, right, those two were dating. I kept forgetting that. She wasn’t really known for steady relationships. Plus, she only dated outsiders, which limited her opportunities. “I mean, on the mainland, on Halloween people dress up as monsters and stuff. I’m guessing that doesn’t happen here.”
Laura nodded. “Right, I remember hearing about that. And they visit strangers’ houses for candy, right?”
Leon perked up. “Candy?”
But Pam placed her hand on the boy’s head, quieting him, and gave Laura an odd look. “That sounds remarkably dangerous. Screening the candy for poison seems like it would be impracticable.”
“These are kids,” Laura noted.
Everyone at the table nodded in sudden understanding; we all knew what happened if you hurt children. Everyone nodded except Adam, that is.
“What? No, they don’t not poison the candy just because kids are involved! They just…don’t poison the candy.”
“Why not?” Pam pressed. “As long as you’re careful only to hand out the poisoned ones to enemies—”
“Most people outside this city aren’t willing to murder!”
The changeling nodded. “Right, I understand leaving children out of it—”
“Not just children!” Adam nearly shrieked. “No murder! At all!”
The well-armed woman blinked, then turned to Laura. “You’ve been outside Domina. You know what he’s talking about?”
“Oh, yes,” the Spanish baseline admitted. It took me a second to recognize the look on her face as a smirk. “But I think it’s better for him to explain it.”
Before anyone could ask him any more questions the man in question threw up his hands. “So! What do you do on Halloween?”
Derek shrugged. “I dunno, I didn’t really have any plans…”
“I meant what does the city do. Your idea of a social event is a monster hunt.”
“Well, that’s part of it,” Lily admitted. “There are a lot of hunts on Halloween. Orphanages and stuff go after rats and other easy things like that to give the kids some experience.”
“But that’s a kid thing,” Derek cut in. “The professional slayers just try and keep the more dangerous stuff out of the way for the night.”
My sister spoke up. “Most adults go to parties. Fancy balls and dinners. All very elegant and everything, I assure you. My culture is actually hosting one tonight, if anyone is interested.”
I raised an eyebrow. “The Mals are having a public party?”
“Not at Maladomini. We rented a space.” She shrugged. “Just a good-will public relations boost. It was Moloch’s idea.”
Pam nodded. “I expected as much. I knew your viceroy before he joined Baal, you know.” She thought for a moment. “Before Baal founded the culture, now that I think of it.”
“Oh right,” I muttered. “I keep forgetting you’re a freaking warlord.”
She glared at me. “Don’t call me that. Warlords are for the cultures. The changelings are not a culture.”
“…wait wait,” Derek said with an upheld hand. “I think we missed something. You’re a warlord?”
The changeling turned to glare at him in turn. “No. But I am Eccretia, of the Never-Known Thieves. Didn’t we go over this earlier?”
“…no, no we definitely did not. I just remember you from…” he waved his hand. “A couple months ago. Around when school started. You were just Pam.” He looked her up and down. “And you were less well-armed.”
Flynn, the guy introduced as Akane’s boyfriend, didn’t seem particularly surprised. He grinned. “What, the changeling bodyguards weren’t a clue?”
“I thought they were just more friends of Seena’s, or something. Strangely enough, my first thought was not ‘bodyguards for one of the original changelings.’”
“I said they were bodyguards,” Lily put in.
“And the others?” Akane asked quietly.
Her boss shrugged. “Figured they were spies. Assassins. The usual.”
Yolanda and I looked at each other in confusion. “…what others?”
“There are about a dozen baselines—or changelings, rather—watching us right now,” Derek noted nonchalantly. She gave Pam a sideways look. “I’m assuming they’re yours.”
The Paragon nodded. “I am impressed you noticed them, though.”
“I’ve been stalked by vampires. Changelings aren’t very hard to spot, compared to that.”
Akane started to speak. “There are—” but she fell quiet when Derek gave her a look.
There was an awkward silence for a moment there, before Lily spoke up. “I’m not sure how I feel about a Mal party, but maybe we can go somewhere. Eccretia, what are the changelings planning?”
Pam raised an eyebrow. “Nothing. Why would they?”
“Uh, actually…” Domothon piped up from the other table. “We’ve got a few things set up. The Jovian Killers and the Murdered Summers have rented a small warehouse just inside the borders of NHQ, with the Elder Lights handling security.”
His superior stared at him, hard. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Actually, why didn’t Gan’neeg, Kish-kish, or Difnaal tell me?”
The golden-haired changeling shrugged. “C’mon, boss, you haven’t gone to a single party in fifteen years. No one invites you to anything any more.”
Pam looked annoyed, but didn’t argue. “Fine. Whatever.” She sighed. “Anyone want to go to that party? I’ll pay for everyone.”
“I’m in!” Steve cooed with a grin, to the surprise of no one. “Never been to a changeling party before. What kinda food you guys got? Any beer?”
The not-warlord ignored him. “Anyone else?”
Derek looked contemplative. “Well, it would be safer than most of the alternatives. And we could use a night off…” He looked at Laura. “Our parents will be at the Big Boss’s party, so we’ll probably have to poke our heads in there, at least for a few minutes.”
“And I’ll need to put in an appearance at the Mal party,” Seena added. “Zepar will be pissed if I don’t spend an hour or two schmoozing.”
What an odd thing to say. “I…guess I can go with you,” I said slowly. “I don’t really want anything to do with the sibs any more.” I turned to Yolanda. “Unless you wanted to go somewhere else…?”
“My friend is doing something.” From the look in her eyes, I could tell by ‘friend,’ she meant one of the succubus warlords. “But I think I can skip that. I’d prefer to be with you.”
“My vote’s the changeling party,” Adam spoke up. “No offense to everybody, but I think I’d like going somewhere where being baseline is the norm, not the exception.”
His girlfriend nodded. “I’ll admit, that’s what I was thinking as well.”
Adam gave her an odd look. “Um, sweetie, you’re not exactly baseline yourself.”
She grimaced. “Baselines…don’t treat me the same way as everyone else. Sometimes it’s nice to just be another girl, albeit one with horns.”
Her boyfriend looked confused for a moment before nodding in understanding. “I—got it. Okay. I guess…sure. I’m with you.”
She grinned and kissed him on the cheek.
“What about you, Leon?” my sister asked, addressing Delphie’s orphaned nephew, sitting beside Pam. “You want to go to a changeling party?”
“I’m already going!” he chirped happily. “I’m the cook’s assistant!”
Seena blinked her nighteyes in the twilight. “You’re what?”
Pam growled. “Another thing I wasn’t told about, Dom?”
The changeling bodyguard shrugged. “He saw all the party prep, and he wanted to be involved, so…”
I looked between the two changelings. “Wait, what’s going on? Am I missing something?”
“Leon’s living with the Never-Known Thieves for now,” Eric, the Dagonite who didn’t really look like a Dagonite, explained. “No one really trusted Delphie’s hunters to look after him.”
Oh. I guess that made sense. “Well, what time is that? The party, I mean. Seven or so?”
“Six, actually,” Domothon corrected. “Though you can show up whenever. I’ll call ahead, make sure…they know to…expect…” he trailed off, looking at something behind me.
The rest of the table was staring, too.
I swallowed. “So. How big is the monster that’s sitting right behind me?”
“Oh, not too big,” a friendly female voice giggled.
I turned, slowly, careful not to provoke her, only to find…
A girl with honey-brown skin, brown hair, and eyes as black as night sat astride a monster I didn’t recognize, some sort of four-legged beast vaguely resembling a horse. The girl wore what appeared to be a backless black dress of purest midnight.
Next to her, astride a similar beast, was a man with alabaster skin, a fine white silk shirt, and similarly made white pants. His eyes, while violet, appeared otherwise baseline, but could have been dayeyes. His hair was a relatively subdued blond, but done up as spikes that would have been impossible without a lot of product.
Behind them were their monsters.
At least two massive alley-crawlers, bigger than any I had ever seen, reared up over the horde. A dozen small yokvel, like furless cats with iron claws and a disposition to hunting in packs, prowled around the crawlers. Two deathmarked—powerful ape-things with bones visible through their thin and hairless skin—stood directly behind the mounted man and woman, like an honor guard. I even spotted an infernal dromo, a fire-spitting scorpion the size of a car.
I doubted very, very much that this was the limit of what these two had brought.
“My name is Aitil Péine,” the woman said. “Prince of Night’s Southern Autumn. And this is Gealach Tapaidh, Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn.”
The fey woman grinned at us.
“The Wild Hunt has begun.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 202)
Isn’t it interesting that this would happen not a day after the fey received the full rights of a culture?