Tag Archives: Lily

Scene 333 – Sororibus

SORORIBUS

ROBYN JOAN

We landed our stolen para shuttle in the center of the Cathedral, the main base of the Servants in Domina City. It was a bit annoying to get the shuttle door open, but once we did, we all piled out and took a moment to just appreciate where we were.

The Cathedral took up an entire block, a single massive skyscraper of glass and polished steel. There were a few arches and open-air tunnels through the structure which gave it a Renaissance décor, but they were far more decorative than practical.

The skyscraper itself, however, was just the perimeter of the block. The center of the building was a massive park, the largest in the city, surrounded on all sides by that single skyscraper, like a huge wall. The walls on the interior were not glass—except for a few strategic windows—but simple stucco and sheetrock covered in a profusion of vines. The vines bloomed with a rainbow’s worth of beautiful flowers, and the park itself was a beautiful grass field with some tall trees for shade.

We landed at the very center of the park, right next to a babbling fountain that served as the mouth of a small ornamental river. I tossed a quarter into the fountain without really thinking about it. The Servants cleared out the coins at the end of every day and used them to help keep the park functional.

Speaking of which, there were two Servants in white robes standing just a few yards away from the shuttle. They were clearly trying very hard not to jump straight towards dismantling the shuttle to see how it worked. Servants were tech geeks as a rule, and most of them were engineers of some type or another. They’d need to share this one with Necessarius, but I doubted that they would mind.

Both Servants bowed as we walked up. “Honored Lilith,” one of them, an ogre, said. “Honored Robyn Joan. Thank you for deciding to land here. Your sister is waiting for you inside, in one of our main server rooms.”

I frowned, then glanced at Lily. She had the same confused look on her face. I turned back to the Servants. “Why not just talk to us out here, where we can enjoy the park? That’s what we usually do.”

The other Servant, an angel, just smiled. “I think it’s best if you see for yourself.”

“All right,” I said. “Can the ambassadors come?”

“Actually, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Bahamut said.

I raised an eyebrow at him. He had barely said two words this entire time. I hadn’t met him before today, so I had no idea if this was normal for him. “Why do you say that?”

Zero signed something.

The White Cat nodded. He pared his nails as he spoke, as if the entire conversation bored him. “Exactly. We need to look into the hive. We should return to our cultures and prepare for the worst. At the very least, we’ll need to get our scientists prepared.”

“Actually, I meant that we should help Akiyama with the Malcatari,” Bahamut said. “We don’t know how many slipped into the city.”

I frowned. “That’s really where you want to be concentrating your effort right now?”

“Yes,” he said. There was an air of finality to it.

I shrugged. “Okay, whatever, but Lily and I are staying.” And Adam, of course, but that didn’t need saying.

“I will too,” Eccretia said. “I have some questions for MC, and I already called my engineers to meet us here. I want to coordinate their work with the Servants.”

Zero made a few signs with her fingers.

“Thank you,” Lily said. “We do appreciate it, I promise.” She turned to the others—Dracul, Bahamut, the White Cat, Pale Night, Zaphkiel, and Odin. “Thank you all for your help today. Please do not feel obligated to stay on my account.”

The warlords bowed deeply and left, one by one. Most of them probably had cars already on the way, ready to pick them up.

Lily turned back to the Servants. “Please, lead the way.”

Our much reduced group walked inside the Cathedral itself. It was a building with tall ceilings, white marble arches, and rounded edges. It looked like ancient Roman architecture married to a Mac, with plenty of computer interfaces and monitors in recessed panels here and there.

There were a few Servants of every culture and clan wandering the halls, but not many. They had better things to do than hang out here, far away from anyone who might need help. That meant the place was very empty, and our footsteps echoed off the walls.

It felt like a church, which was of course the point. The Servants were a religion, and they were absolutely shameless about their faith. Luckily, deifying a computer made them a bit more pragmatic than most religions. I had read a whole bunch of articles on how the Servants differed from normal religions, but the main point I cared about was that they hadn’t tried to sanctify me or Lily. The last thing I needed was to be worshiped by a bunch of geeks who thought my sister was a goddess.

The Servants led us to a large corner room, big enough to hold an entire religious mass. I wasn’t sure if it had been meant for any specific use originally, but now there was a huge bunch of devices and wires in one corner, being fussed over by Servants making sure everything was set up right. Extension cords snaked across the floor in every direction, and I spotted at least a dozen computer towers, all connected to each other through that spiderweb of tangled cables.

At the front of this mess was a large, old chair, a comfortable leather lounger. Many of the cables and wires terminated in the seat, like a spider at the center of its web. I couldn’t see where they were supposed to connect, because there was a woman sitting there. The metaphorical spider.

She was about my age, so twenty years old, maybe twenty-five at most. She had lightly tanned skin, a slender build, and was wrapped in nothing but a white shawl that emphasized her modest curves. She had red hair like mine, but cut short like Lily’s. As we got closer, she looked up and I saw her red eyes. The shape of her face seemed familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where from. Was she another Servant? Had I met her somewhere before?

“Lily,” the woman said with a smile. “Robyn. You both came. Thank you so much.”

We stopped a few feet away from the chair. “Uh,” I said eloquently.

“You—” Lily started, then stopped. She looked like she had been hit in the face with a fence post.

“You sound like MC,” Adam said. I glared at him, but he didn’t seem to care. Always the blunt one.

The woman in the chair smiled. “That’s because I am MC.”

I scowled. Anger brought me back to my senses nice and quick. “I’m not interested in games.” I turned to the Servants who had escorted us in. “Who is this? What is the meaning of all this?”

“This is the Lady Domina,” the angel said calmly, trying and failing to hide a smile.

“Surprise!” the ogre said, then laughed.

I glared at them, then turned back to the woman. “Even if MC was working on an android body—”

“Gynoid,” the woman said.

I frowned. “What?”

“The word ‘android’ means ‘man-like.’ While the word has been used in a gender-neutral context for decades now—and it’s quite possible it was intended to be gender-neutral even when the Greeks first used the word androdes—it is still more accurate to use the word ‘gynoid’ to refer to female life-like robots.”

We all stared. She just smiled.

“Red skies,” I said. “It is you.”

MC laughed and stepped off the chair. She gave me a big hug, but I was too distracted to hug her back. She was… warm, and soft, everything she had never been before, and yet somehow she reminded me of every time I had ever stayed up late talking to her on the phone.

I pushed her away. “Wait a second, I have questions. How—” I frowned. “Why do you have wires—” I looked closer. “You have wires plugged into you.”

She was where all the wires terminated. Dozens went through holes in the back of her shirt, presumably to connect to her spine, but there were others that plugged into the back of her skull, a few on her legs, and a handful on her arms. She had so many wires connected to her body that it was hard for her to move, but she still managed it.

“MC,” Lily said, her voice quiet and worried. “What is this?”

MC smiled at her. God, it was weird to be able to say that. “Blame Silk. Remember when she said she gave me a power, and we couldn’t figure out what it was?” She held out her arms, showing off her body. “Ta-da.”

Robyn and I looked at each other.

“You’re a morpher,” Lily said. “Like Isaac and Artemis.”

“But more than either of them,” I said. “They can shape their skin and muscles, but this…”

MC rolled her eyes. “Well, apparently Silk cheated more than a bit. The process would have been super slow, normally. But she forced me to morph straight to a human body so that I’d be out of the way with the para.”

“But you did intervene with the para,” Adam said.

MC shook her head. “I wasn’t able to prevent their raids, or them from launching the hives. Though admittedly, those were both longshots anyway. The bigger problem is that I could have destroyed the mothership. There are quite a few flaws in its basic structure that I was able to identify.”

“Then tell us now,” Adam said. “We can finish this stupid war in five minutes.”

She shook her head. “No. I’ve had a lot of time to think. Their leaders are doing terrible things, that is true, but there are thousands of innocent people on that ship. I’m not going to help you commit genocide.”

I grunted. “That sounds like something Silk would say.” I was one of the few people who saw her on a regular basis, due to her help with my therapy. She wasn’t doing it herself any more, but she popped in every once in a while to make sure the doctor I had gotten was good.

MC nodded. “I believe that was the lesson she was trying to teach.”

“My Lady Domina,” Eccretia said, bowing her head deeply. I had almost forgotten she was here. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you face to face.”

MC smiled. “Likewise, Honored Paragon.”

“I do, however, have some questions. For example…” She waved her hand vaguely at MC’s body. “What is the purpose of the cyborg look? As I understand the morphing power, morphing non-organic material is impossible except for specific power variants.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know how it all works. All I know is that I was fully human, and then I slowly started morphing back. Starting with this.” She held up her arm and unplugged one of the cables, revealing an old USB port. I got the feeling that most cybernetic implants didn’t look like that. She plugged the cable back in. “I was about halfway through morphing back with the help of the Servants when I heard what you guys were doing. I figured you might need help.”

Zero tapped Lily on the shoulder. We both turned to see her signing a question.

“This is our sister, MC,” I said. “She acts as the communications controller for most of the city. She went missing a little while ago, but she’s back now.”

I had hoped that would be enough to assuage her curiosity, but it wasn’t. Somehow, that blank white mask managed to look confused, and she signed a few more questions. They almost came too fast to understand, so I had to think for a second to sort out what she said.

Lily answered first. “She’s not a cyborg. Not a traditional one, anyway.” She glanced at me. How to explain this? “You know those powers we have?”

Zero nodded emphatically. She was getting better at hiding it, but she still jumped any time anyone used a power around her. She definitely still remembered them.

“Well, MC got one called ‘morphing.’ It let her change from her natural shape into a human one. Right now, she reverted, just a little bit, so that she can use computers in the way that she’s used to.”

That mask glanced between the three of us, as if she was looking at us each in confusion. Could she even see through that thing? I had never asked. She made another sign.

MC chuckled. “Well, I suppose technically, but calling me a computer is like calling Robyn an ape.”

Zero stopped signing. She stood stock still.

“Is something wrong?” Lily asked, putting a hand on Zero’s shoulder.

Zero made a few quick signs.

I frowned. That wasn’t a normal kemo word. “Grey… mind? Is she a greymind?” I glanced at Lily, but she just shrugged. “I don’t know. What’s a greymind?”

“I saw references to this in the para network,” MC said. “I didn’t have time to follow through, though.” Her eyes went distant. “One second, I copied most of the archive, let me look for it.”

Zero’s hand signals turned frantic.

“Wait wait, slow down,” I said. “So she’s a… greymind. Is that your word for AI?” Zero cocked her head at me. “Never mind. Let’s say you’re right. What does that mean? What’s the problem?”

She made a few quick signs.

Lily frowned. “We gave… a greymind… a body.” Now it was her turn to cock her head. “Okay… sure. Maybe we did. Sort of. So what’s the problem?”

She started signing again, too fast for me to follow. “Um, can you slow down…”

“I don’t think that’s kemo battle sign any more,” Lily said. She was frowning, but still trying to watch Zero’s fingers.

“I think it’s Colorless sign language,” MC said. “It’s in the archive, but I got rid of all the pictures, so I really don’t think I’ll be able to…”

Zero stopped signing, somehow giving off a sense of exasperation. She shook her head, then held up her hand.

In half a second, the hand had folded back and become part of the arm, revealing a long gun barrel that hummed with energy.

It was pointed straight at MC.

Before I could do much more than cry out in alarm, two Servants stepped out in front of MC. A split second after that, Lily stepped right in front of the gun, letting it press against her breast without fear.

Lily was understandable—she was most of the ways invincible, after all—but I was impressed with the Servants and their quick response. They had always said that they would give their lives to defend MC, but they had never needed to prove it before.

“Zero,” Lily said curtly. “Explain yourself.”

Zero used her free hand to make some signs, this time using the kemo battle cant again.

“Why?” I demanded. “What’s wrong with a greymind with a body?”

Zero didn’t sign anything. She tried to poke the gun past Lily, but Lily just moved with it.

“Oh dear,” MC said.

I looked back. Her eyes were clear again. “What? Did you just notice the gun?”

“No, I—” She frowned. “What gun?” She looked past her Servants, then yelped. “Oh! Gun!” She held her hand to her chest, as if to contain a rapidly beating heart. “She—I—oh dear. This just gets worse and worse.”

I glanced between Zero and MC. “Lily can survive that shot, right?”

MC winced. “Probably. Depends on the ammo. But… let’s just say that this is going to be representative of the typical para response to my existence. Reverting back to a computer fully will help, but won’t get rid of it entirely.”

“Leeno doesn’t seem to mind,” I said.

MC rolled her eyes. “Leeno’s not here.”

I frowned. “What?” I looked around. “Where’d he go?”

“He never got off the shuttle,” MC said. Then she frowned. “Wait, a Servant with a camera is in the shuttle right now… he’s not there. That’s odd, I didn’t see him leave.”

Adam—holding a gun on Zero—gave me a look. “He got on the ship, right?”

I nodded. “Definitely.”

“I remember him getting on the ship, too,” Eccretia said.

Zero looked between all of us, as if trying to figure out if it was a trick, before she let her gun fold away and reassemble back into a hand. She then made a few quick signs and shook her head.

“So everyone saw him on the ship,” Eccretia said. “And then he just… disappeared? How does that make any sense?”

“He technically has all the powers,” MC said. “He could have teleported.”

I stared at her. “How do you figure that? I’ve only seen him use electricity.”

She shook her head. “He’s tapping into the source of the powers directly, whatever that is. Basically, we all have one gun each, but he’s an engineer. He can make whatever he wants.”

“…all right,” I said slowly. “I think I follow. But even assuming that’s right, let me extend the metaphor a bit and say that he still needs time to assemble those new powers. Or figure out how to use them or whatever. That’s why he’s only been using electricity.”

MC nodded. “Fair.”

“So I doubt he figured out how to teleport sometime between getting on the ship and landing.”

“Maybe he was hiding it.”

Eccretia shook her head. “No, a teleporter would have been very useful on the mothership. He could have saved us some time and effort.”

“We made it work,” Lily said. She looked a little embarrassed by something, but I couldn’t imagine what. “Maybe he just… forgot he could teleport? Especially if he has all the powers, I imagine that’s a lot to keep track of.”

“Okay, fine, let’s pretend he can teleport,” I said. “Then why now? Why would he just randomly disappear without a word? He even left Zero behind.” She started to sign something about how she didn’t mind, but I waved her off. “I mean you’ve been very helpful to him. Leaving you behind wouldn’t make sense.”

She thought for a moment, then nodded.

MC sighed and rubbed her hair back. Something about it shocked me for being so… normal. She had only been human for a week. How was she so used to it already? “Great. So in addition to the war with the para, we’ve lost their ambassador—one of the only people in the system who might have been able to stop this thing—and we’ve still got the Malcatari running around.”

“I’m sure Bahamut and the kensei will have them contained shortly,” Eccretia said.

Those Malcatari, sure,” MC said. “But Akane is sure that there are more, and Elizabeth herself escaped. She can always attack again, and next time won’t be so easy.”

“Won’t we be better prepared?” I asked.

“Yes, but so will she,” Eccretia said. “She’ll fight smarter. Did you look over the report? All she did this time was send some troops to hassle a market. High body count, but in the grand scheme of things, not very important. What happens if she decides to attack one of the space cannons? Or one of the industrial sectors? And let’s not forget that she’s immortal. She’s going to get lucky eventually.”

MC nodded solemnly. “We’ll need an organization dedicated to fighting her. Something that will last. I’m sure Derek and Akane will be happy to help with that.”

“Aren’t you technically immortal?” I asked.

MC shrugged. “Maybe? It’s too early to say. Isaac thinks a few of the warlords might be immortal, but he hasn’t been able to confirm it. Either way, there’s a difference between ‘can’t die of old age’ and ‘can’t die, period.’ We’re all going to die sooner or later. Elizabeth, not so much.”

I closed my eyes. “This is a nightmare. A war on two fronts, with no end in sight.”

MC sat back down in her chair, careful to keep from tangling her wires. “Speaking of that war, somebody needs to look into that little present that the para dropped on our door.”

“I’ll get on it,” I said.

MC smiled. “Actually, I think someone else already called dibs.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 333)

Note that while originally MC was looking through the computers on the shuttle Leeno first flew down, now she has the Servants helping her hack into the new shuttle. Hence why she hasn’t finished downloading everything yet.

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Scene 331 – Proditione

PRODITIONE

ROBYN JOAN

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when we walked onto the para ship. The shuttle up had been simple and utilitarian on the inside, with multicolored buttons and color-coded lockers but little else. It was a decent size, but the thirteen of us had barely fit. Once we docked, we all spilled out, and it was such a relief that it took me a moment to really look around.

We had arrived at what Leeno had called the primary work docks. They were the place where they launched the ships that had attacked most of the system. Normally shuttles wouldn’t dock here, but they were trying to show off their strength. Everything they were doing was to show off, from ‘offering’ to host the negotiations on their ship to waiting five days—a para standard week—before calling us up.

The docks were at least a hundred yards tall, a hundred wide, and twice that deep. There was a giant lock that had opened at our arrival, but it wasn’t an airlock. The entire dock was open to hard vacuum to increase efficiency, and any pilots or passengers had to wear suits just to walk to and from their ships.

There were hundreds of the small para fighters lined up in racks, all carefully polished and perfectly painted. As far as I could tell, every single one was unique. Some were painted a single color with only a splotch here and there, others had whorls and swirls of a dozen colors, and others seemed to have images of creatures I couldn’t identify.

The colors were not limited to the ships. The inside of the dock was a massive mural, stretching from one side of the cavernous space to the other, that seemed to be portraying the para’s rise from hunter-gatherers to farmers to city-dwellers to space-travelers. The mural was abstract, but it used simpler colors than much of the rest of the art. The ships, the ceiling, even the floor were painted a hundred colors I couldn’t name, but the beautiful mural was only simple black, white, red, blue, and yellow.

I wondered if that had something to do with the way para saw colors. Leeno had said that every para was born with slightly different color vision. Some were optimized for night, some for day, and some in between. Maybe the colors on the mural were kept simple to ensure that all para would be able to see it.

With that in mind, I looked over the ships and equipment again as we walked through the hangar. That ship over there, which I had thought looked pure yellow, had a few discolorations that might look obvious for someone better at differentiating yellow and orange. Every button on every machine was striped with at least three colors—perhaps to maximize the number of para who could read the warnings and understand them. Even their language, what little of it I could see, was multicolored, but the shapes of the letters were stark and obvious from each other. Exactly what you’d want if you couldn’t be sure everyone would be seeing the same things.

Leeno and Zero led us through the docks to a large door painted a dozen different shades of green. He placed his hand—still in his vacuum suit—on the middle, and it whirred open, splitting diagonally. Odd, the doors in the shuttle had just slid to the side, like human doors.

We found ourselves in a small room, still green, and I realized belatedly it must be an airlock. The door closed behind us, and a moment later I heard rushing air. Suddenly, I could hear beyond the confines of my suit.

Lily was the first one to take her helmet off, before even Leeno or Zero. She took a deep breath, then nodded. She’d be able to detect any poisons in the air and survive them more easily than anyone else in the group.

The next was Odin. He grunted in annoyance as he took his helmet off. The ceiling was tall enough to accommodate him, but only barely. We had sent word ahead that we’d need high ceilings, but I wasn’t sure if the para would honor that. At least we had confirmed that they could. That massive hangar certainly didn’t make it look like they were strapped for space.

The rest of us took our helmets off after only a little hesitation. Dracul and Pale Night were first—though Pale Night had to be careful with the veil she wore underneath—then I took mine off at the same time as Zaphkiel, the White Cat, and Bahamut. Cailleach quirked her head, as if considering, and then took hers off as well, and carefully pulled her waist-length black hair out of the suit to properly display it. I wasn’t sure the homunculus would last this far from Earth, but she insisted her connection was stable.

Adam and Eccretia waited until Leeno and Zero took off their helmets before doing the same. Maybe a little paranoid, but not unjustified.

Other than Adam and Zero, there were no bodyguards. Just one representative of each culture—not counting the merfolk because we were keeping them quiet in case their cities needed to be used as refuges—and plus me for the guilds, and of course Lily for the city itself. Uncle Art couldn’t come for safety reasons, and Derek had simply refused to let Laura go. Ling would probably have been a better choice than me to actually represent the guilds, but no one knew whether or not they trusted her right now. Besides, with MC still missing, Lily needed my moral support.

Even ignoring the politics of it all, we were thirteen of the strongest people in Domina City, if not the entire system. We could probably conquer this entire ship by ourselves if we felt like it. Of course, Lily would never let us do that without just cause, but it was still an idea at the forefront of my mind.

“I really like these suits,” Dracul said. “The air didn’t get stale or anything. Much better than the last Lunar suits I wore.”

“These were built in conjunction with Domina support,” Pale Night said. “Modified mosses and fungi keep the air recycled much more efficiently.” She fidgeted in her own suit. “They are not designed to be worn over too much clothing, however.”

Dracul raised a perfect eyebrow. “You’ve got clothes on under the veil? I always assumed you were naked underneath.”

“Of course not,” she snapped. She was still fidgeting, pulling at her suit. “I need—to—oh, Nine Hells—”

“Let me help you with that, sweetie,” Lily said, walking over. Pale Night settled down and Lily started unsealing the suit. All the dials and clasps were on the front, but between Pale’s damaged hands and her extra layer of clothing, she hadn’t been able to make them work.

It was almost funny seeing Pale Night, perhaps the most powerful demon in Domina City, being fussed over like a girl going to prom. Especially since Lily was easily a foot shorter than her. But Lily was serious about her duties, and worked quickly to get the suit off. She told Pale Night when to raise her arms, when to wriggle them out of the sleeves, and finally when to step out of the suit entirely.

As Lily was folding up the suit, I glanced over Pale Night. It took her a second to readjust her veil, so for a moment it was plastered tightly against her skin. It was hard to get a good look, but there were odd shapes and holes, strange things that couldn’t be explained as a result of the clothing underneath. There were clearly parts of her missing, and other parts were there that shouldn’t be.

But then the moment passed, and the veil was fluttering around her elegantly like it always was. It was woven from Minerva silk, so an hour stuffed into a sweaty spacesuit hadn’t done much to dampen it.

Once all that was done, the other side of the airlock opened, leading deeper into the ship. There were three large para on the other side, all dressed in some sort of high-tech armor painted a rainbow of colors. They didn’t seem to have any weapons, but I remembered Zero’s arms, and her cybernetic guns. No one here was going to assume that anyone we met was safe.

They didn’t seem the least bit surprised by our bizarre variety. The one in the middle spoke, his tone stilted. “You will follow to elders.”

Everyone glanced at Leeno. He nodded.

Then we glanced at Lily. She tucked Pale Night’s suit under one arm and stepped forward, chin held high. She was smaller than the para—smaller than everyone else in the airlock, in fact—but she carried her authority well. “Very good. We have much to discuss.”

The lead para turned on his heel and started walking down the hallway, not even bothering to look if we were following. The other two took up positions on either side of the group as we fell into step behind the leader.

We walked through what felt like dozens of corridors, each painted with countless of colors. Some were more abstract designs, elegant lines and curves that probably didn’t mean anything specific, while others were murals showing this battle or that war. I noticed a lot of the murals portrayed space battles. Probably to remind us how outclassed we were in that department.

We were eventually led into something that looked like a command bridge, though for all I knew it may have been their rec room. It was circular, with tall ceilings that I could tell Odin appreciated, and a few wall panels that seemed to be showing different parts of the ship. There was a very short holographic table at the center of the room displaying the entire solar system, with some color-coding I didn’t understand that probably indicated ships.

There were a dozen bodyguards dressed the same as the ones who had been guiding us, as well as two shorter people standing next to the table. They were barely two feet tall, with insect-like wings folded up on their backs. With a start, I realized that the table must have been built for their size. Did that mean these were the para leaders?

One of them had a large metal arm and a few silver spots on her temples. I wondered if those were more cybernetics. And I was pretty sure she was female. She didn’t have any obvious breasts and she was dressed in the same pattern of rainbow uniform as the para next to her, but her face was a bit leaner. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but she struck me as feminine.

I frowned, looking around as I realized something. Everyone in the room had multicolored clothing, and even the walls were painted with a few simple patterns. Zero was the only para anything I had ever seen without color. There had to be a reason for that.

The woman with the cybernetic arm said something, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. They were actual words instead of insect-like clicks and buzzes, but still. I would have had more success keeping up with Greek.

“I think it would be best to speak using the local language,” Leeno said. His tone was deferential, and he kept his eyes down. “I know you both have language chips. This one is called ‘English.’”

There was a pause, and then the woman scowled. Was that a function of the chip? “Fine.” She turned to the rest of us. “You, humans. I am Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado, elder of this ship. You may call me Zan.”

“And I am Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” the second one said. He didn’t have any obvious cybernetics that I could see, but he seemed a bit older than Zan. “You may call me Li-Po. We will be conducting this negotiation.”

Leeno frowned, looking around the room. “Where is Elder Leeno?”

Zan frowned. “Elder Leeno… or Dolor, as he insisted on being called at the end… has chosen to pass on to the next stage.”

Leeno blinked those tangerine-colored eyes of his. I put a hand on his shoulder, just briefly. He had told us a little bit about Elder Leeno. No real details, but enough to know that Leeno had been looking forward to seeing him again. He had also implied that Elder Leeno would be on our side during negotiations. So this was hardly the best start.

Lily stepped forward. “Greetings, Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado and Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” she said. She didn’t stumble over a single syllable. “I am Lilith, the First Monster, Daughter of Fire and sister of the Lady Domina and the Princess of Necessity. I am the mother to four hundred and fifty million children, and this is my world.” Her eyes flashed. “I am afraid that I will have to demand to know your intentions here. Many have died as a direct result of your actions.”

I noticed several of the bodyguards at the edges of the room shifting into combat stances. Clearly at least a few of them understood English. Adam’s hand carefully went to the pistol on his hip, and Eccretia already had the safety off her own weapon. Odin and Zaphkiel were tense, but everyone else managed to look relaxed. I knew that Dracul, if no one else, would be able to kill half the people in the room before anyone blinked.

Li-Po looked ready to get angry, but Zan stepped forward instead. “We are simply looking for a home, Honored Lilith.” I was surprised she got the honorific right, but I shouldn’t have been. They had studied our language and our city, after all. “We have come a very, very long way.”

“That doesn’t justify attacking our space colonies,” Lily said.

Zan smiled. “We needed to make sure you understood our position.”

Leeno stepped forward, looking a little disturbed. “Elder Zan. I have spoken to several world leaders, and they have offered the second planet in the system for our use. It will require terraforming, but with their help, our hives—”

“Colorless,” Zan said. It had the tone of an order.

Zero stepped forward and put Leeno in an arm lock, slapping her hand over his mouth in the process.

Zan turned her attention back to Lily. “I do not know what this adult has told you.” She said ‘adult’ like a mild insult, like she was calling him a kid. Translation glitch? “But he has no authority to negotiate for our people. Whatever he has promised you is void.”

Lily’s face was impassive. I knew what that meant. “He promised us peace.”

“That most certainly was not his to promise.”

Leeno bucked Zero off; Zan didn’t say anything, so she didn’t try to fight him. “Elder Leeno would not want this. And why did he advance so soon before such an important negotiation?”

Zan didn’t even look at him. “Elder Leeno has done more for you than you know. He made a deal.”

Leeno narrowed his eyes. “What deal?”

She finally deigned to look at him. “We needed another hive, he wanted the killing to stop.”

Leeno recoiled as if slapped. “The attacks—they weren’t a show of strength? You really were going to conquer this entire system?”

“Yes,” Zan said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Lie.”

We all turned to Odin, who was standing there with his arms crossed, glowering down at the little para. He was almost ten times her height, so it would have been ridiculous if it wasn’t so damn serious.

“I beg your pardon?” Zan said. “You have no right to moralize at us—”

“I wasn’t judging you, Elder Zan,” he said. “I was simply stating a fact. You do not believe that conquering this entire system is the right thing to do. That’s all there is to it.”

I had forgotten that Odin’s power was lie detection. It worked exactly like Laura’s, though apparently he actually had to worry about depleting his reservoir. Laura just left hers on all the time. I glanced at Leeno. Had he known about Odin’s power? He had identified Laura’s back in Domina.

He was smirking. Yeah, he had known. He probably knew about everyone’s powers. At the very least, he had to know that they had them, though maybe he couldn’t actually identify them all. I knew some of them were weird.

I looked back at Zan. Her face was carefully blank. Li-Po, on the other hand, looked close to exploding.

“Our offer still stands,” Lily said quietly. “Venus, the second planet in this system, in exchange for a lasting peace.”

Zan made a clicking sound. I had no idea what that meant. “The greenhouse planet?”

Lily nodded. “Correct. We have biological modification tools that will help with the terraforming. Leeno has read quite a bit of the literature. I am sure that he would be happy to point out some of the benefits.”

“We are aware of your toy maker,” Zan said. “We are also aware of your Kongeegen and Granit parties.”

Everyone except for Lily winced. The Granit party had been trumpeting conquering the rest of the world for years, especially using diseases modified by the toy maker. The Kongeegen weren’t as proactive, but their Darwinist talking points were similar. They had become closer ever since the para had showed up, and had suggested several plans of attack.

They didn’t know about the deal with Venus, but it was easy to see how they might try slipping some diseases into the terraforming mix. Done right, they could kill off the entire para species in days.

Lily, of course, wasn’t fazed. She was in her Mother Monster mode, nothing could so much as make her blink. “Tell me, Elder Zan, do you have any children?”

Zan nodded. “Sixteen.”

Leeno stepped up. “That’s a bit high by para standards, but not too much.” He withered under everyone’s glares. “You know… for context…” He stepped back again.

I shook my head. He was like a different person. In Domina City, he was strange, but knowledgeable and confident. Here, he was like a child. Was he faking it so that the elders underestimated him, or did they just make him feel small and powerless? I could empathize with that.

Lily didn’t bother acknowledging him. “And of all your children, Elder Zan, have any of them ever done anything you didn’t agree with?”

“Several,” she said. “Your point?”

“My point, Honored Elder, is that we cannot control our children completely. We certainly cannot control what they think. We must accept that they are independent people.” She sighed. “And sometimes they decide to spend a disturbing amount of time contemplating genocide.” Her face turned hard. “But until the day comes where they actually attempt it, at which point I will stop them, then I fear the topic is not relevant.”

Zan gave Lily a long, hard look. It was like there was no one else in the room except the two of them.

“I understand,” she said finally. “If you truly view these people as your children, taking a preemptive strike against them is not an option.”

“Of course,” Li-Po said, “they are not our children.” He pressed a button on the table. There was a strange chime, and the hologram rearranged to show something streaking from the mothership down to Earth. An incomprehensible line of vertical characters appeared, tracking with the falling object.

Adam and Eccretia both had their pistols out in a heartbeat, pointed at Li-Po and Zan respectively. The bodyguards all drew weapons of their own, and the other ambassadors tensed for a fight.

“Explain. Now,” Adam said.

“We have done what we must,” Zan said without fear. “To ensure the survival of our species.”

We all glanced at each other, and I could see panic written on everyone’s faces. There were a lot of things the para could do that we just couldn’t counter. If they decided to launch an asteroid at Domina, we wouldn’t be able to stop it. Even the shield wall would be overwhelmed.

If it came to that—if the para really had used this distraction to destroy Domina City—then everyone here would fight to exact retribution. Between all of us, we might even be able to conquer this mothership.

But they wouldn’t have invited us here if conquering the ship was easy. More likely, we were going to just go down in a blaze of glory.

Lily somehow managed to remain calm. “Leeno, dear? What did they do?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure… it’s not a missile—very different alarm for that.” He stepped forward, peering at the words. “Improvised launch? What does that mean? Did you throw a bunch of rocks at…” His expression suddenly turned to horror, and he recoiled. “Hives! You’ve dropped a hive on them?”

“We did what we must,” Li-Po said.

“Elder Leeno would have never stood for this!” our Leeno said. “Is that what all this was about? You tricked him into passing on so that there would be no one to oppose your plan? Or maybe you just needed a hive.”

“We had enough votes to do this with or without him,” Zan said. “It was his idea to advance. This way, he can look after this world, ensure that we do not do anything he finds abhorrent.”

Leeno spat something that didn’t translate and turned away.

“Wait,” I said. I was a little behind, but I was beginning to piece things together. “I thought Elder Leeno died.”

Zan frowned. “Why would you think that?”

“He simply advanced to Hive stage,” Li-Po said. He gestured at the screen. “He is now being sent to your world.”

I frowned. “Okay, what the hell—”

“Wait,” Leeno said, stepping closer to the table. “There are others.” He tried to press a holographic button, but nothing happened.

“It’s keyed to us,” Zan said. “You can’t use it.”

Leeno gave her the side-eye, then passed his hand over the table. There was a brief rush of static, and then when he started pushing buttons, they responded to him.

Zan jumped. It was amusing to see her actually surprised by something. “What did you just do?”

“Manipulated the electricity in the table to give myself admin access,” he said, tapping a few buttons while he kept his eyes on the display. “I figured out how to do it a few hundred years ago, I just never bothered until now.”

Zan stared at him. “We were asleep a hundred years ago.”

“I don’t sleep.” Leeno pressed one more button and the hologram split into four different sections, all showing a projectile moving through an atmosphere. “Here we are. There are three more hives—heading towards Mercury, Venus, and Mars.”

“Are any heading towards Lemuria?” Pale Night asked.

“I don’t even know what planet that’s on.”

“Mars,” Odin said. He pointed at the display. “Can you turn that around? Thanks.” He scratched his chin. “I don’t think that’s going to hit anything important. It’s heading for the opposite side of the planet as Lemuria, but there might be some mining stations down there.”

“Call them back,” Adam said, his gun still pointed at Zan’s head.

“I couldn’t if I wanted to,” she said. “They’re unpowered and unguided.”

Adam narrowed his eyes, clearly deciding whether to kill her anyway.

I tried to head that off. “Leeno, these hives. What are they going to do?”

“It’s… they’re…” He clicked his tongue. “Hard to explain. They will become staging grounds for para troops, but they are not inherently dangerous on their own.”

“Anything you drop from space is going to make a pretty big impact when it hits,” Dracul said. He didn’t seem particularly concerned either way.

“As long as the hive doesn’t actually hit anything important, it should be fine,” Leeno said. “They’re not explosive, and they absorb a good amount of the impact back into themselves. Of course, then they’ll start eating everything in sight to fuel their growth…”

I stared at him. “They’ll what?

Leeno winced. “They’re alive. Mostly. Not particularly aware, but alive. And they grow.”

Cailleach perked up. She hadn’t said a single word yet, but now she was starting to get interested.

Adam was less so. “Give me one good reason we shouldn’t kill everyone in this room and then take the ship.” The guards at the edges readied their weapons, but everyone ignored them. Any one of the warlords could handle them alone. Red skies, Adam could probably do it. I was the closest thing to a noncombatant in the room.

Zan didn’t look concerned. “This room has been cut off from the rest of the ship. It has no control, and all the airlocks are sealed behind doors that even you people cannot break through.” She glanced briefly at Odin, before focusing back on Adam and his gun. “The air can be pumped out in moments. If you start a fight here, it will also end here.”

I glanced at Eccretia. Her eyes were flickering around the room, clearly using her powers to see through the walls. She saw me looking, and made a quick few motions in Necessarian sign language.

I nodded. We might be able to escape, but it was far from guaranteed. It was best to play it safe for now. I wasn’t sure if the para knew about our powers, but other than Lily, we didn’t have many offensive powers. Probably because the warlords hadn’t needed them. Zaphkiel’s lasers were probably the most dangerous, unless Cailleach had some nuke she was hiding.

Lily stepped forward. “Elder Zan, I hope you realize that you have just declared war on humanity.”

Zan didn’t look concerned. “Call it what you will. If we wanted to annihilate you, we’d just drop kinetic bombardments on you from orbit. But Elder Leeno demanded that we avoid extermination.” She shrugged. “Kill us now or leave. It doesn’t matter in the long run. You can’t attack our ships.”

A chuckle emerged from the wall speakers. “Are you absolutely sure about that?”

Finally, Zan and Li-Po looked surprised. They glanced at each other, and something unspoken passed between them. Zan looked up at the ceiling. “Who is that? How have you infiltrated our systems?”

I grinned. “MC! You’re finally back!”

She chuckled again. “More than you know, sis. More than you know.”

“What happened? Who took you? Did you escape? How—”

“Not really the time. We’ll talk once you’re groundside. Now, Elder Zan.” MC’s voice turned cold. “I wasn’t able to prevent you from launching those hives. I assure you, that was not a wise move.”

“I don’t know who you are, but if you are Earth-based, it is impossible for you to simply hack into our essential systems. Your threats are colorless, and get you nowhere.”

“I didn’t hack your ship at all,” she said. “I hacked Leeno’s ship. The Big Boss put a bug on it the second it touched down. Now I’m just using the communications system to call you. And reading through the archive.” She made a sound like clicking her tongue. “I know what those hives are, Elder. Are you really going to pretend those are for anything but war?”

Li-Po looked indignant. “They can produce food, shelter, everything a colony needs—”

“Yeah, or a military base deep in enemy territory. You dropped one in the most densely populated city on our homeworld. Even if no one dies from the landing, the intent is obvious. One second…” She paused. “Found a precedent. Book seven, chapter eighty-two, paragraph nine, line two. During your medieval period, some soldiers smuggled a hive into an enemy castle. The international council unanimously declared it an act of war.”

Li-Po scowled. “I refuse to be lectured by a disembodied voice.” He waved a hand. “Leave us, and spare us your inelegant posturing. You have nothing to threaten us with.”

“Are you sure about that?” MC asked, amused. “Because this shuttle has a very interesting central reactor.”

I saw Leeno’s eyes go wide.

Then, there was an explosion. It rocked the entire ship, throwing me and several of the para to the ground. The warlords kept their feet, of course. A massive metal screech reverberated through the entire ship, making my teeth feel like they were going to rattle out of my skull.

“Adam, we’re leaving,” Lily said over the blaring alarms, her tone clipped. Adam holstered his gun and drew his shotgun, ready to lead the escape. “Elder Zan, I am afraid I am going to have to officially declare war between humanity and the para.” Her face was completely expressionless, as if it had been made from porcelain.

I recognized it as the face she made when she was trying not to cry.

“Everyone, let’s go,” Lily said, and turned to leave quickly. The rest of us followed, leaving the para behind, too confused by alarms and their still-shaking ship to complain or shoot.

We found ourselves in the same confusing corridors as before, but now there were a dozen different colors of lights and blaring alarms—and no guides.

“MC, which way?” I asked.

Silence.

“She destroyed the ship, child,” Cailleach said. “No signal.”

I blinked. “But… you’re still here. Can you use yourself as a relay?”

“Perhaps,” she said, unconcerned. The flashing alarms gave her face a demonic cast, and I could barely hear her over the blaring. “But I feel it would be better to detonate this body to cover your escape.”

Eccretia scowled. “Bloody homunculus.”

Lily nodded at Cailleach. “Thank you, Honored Crone. Please do not kill any of the para in the process. I am still hoping for as little bloodshed as possible.”

Cailleach nodded. I didn’t bring up the fact that countless people had already been killed when MC detonated Leeno’s ship.

“So then how do we get out of here?” Odin asked.

“I can’t see a clear path,” Eccretia said. “Everything is too confusing.”

“This way!” Leeno said, running up with Zero in tow. “I know every single centimeter of this ship.”

Dracul grabbed him by the throat before anyone could react. “And how do we know you’re not leading us into a trap?”

“Drake, let him go,” Lily said. “We don’t have time for this, and he was as surprised as we were. Leeno? If you have an idea how to get us out of here…” She gestured down the corridor. Leeno nodded, then ran off. Lily followed, and once again, the rest of us followed like a bunch of puppies after their owner.

We eventually came to an airlock that looked the same as the one we came in through. As we were all preparing our space suits, Pale Night suddenly stepped back. “My suit…”

Lily stopped, then looked horrified. “I… I must have dropped it back in the control room. I can’t…”

Pale Night steadied herself. “Go without me.”

No,” Lily said, her tone brooking no argument. “We are not leaving anyone behind.” She paused, then nodded at Cailleach. “Remote bodies don’t count. The point is that you are coming with us.”

Pale Night shook her head. “You’re just wasting time arguing. You need to save as many people as you can.” She looked down at her feet. The veil obscured her face, of course, but her body language was clear. She wasn’t budging on this. “I will not have anyone else die because of me, mother. Especially not you.”

Lily just glared at her. Neither one of them was willing to back down.

I sighed. “This would be easy is Derek was here.”

Everyone turned to stare at me.

“What?” I said, defensive. “He could wrap Pale in a shield bubble, hold in the air. But none of us have… shields…” I trailed off.

We all slowly turned to Lily.

“Honored Mother,” Pale Night said, “does Derek Huntsman love you?”

Lily smiled. “Oh, very much so.”

Pale Night bowed. “Then, if you would be so kind…”

Lily cracked her neck, ready to shield her, but I grabbed her arm. “Wait. Do it for all of us.”

Lily cocked her head to the side. “Why? You all have your suits.”

“But we don’t know what the hanger will look like. Could be dangerous. Better safe than sorry.”

She looked at me for a second, then nodded slowly. “Of course. Everyone, gather in close.”

Twelve people—including one giant—huddled as close together as possible without stepping on each other’s toes. Cailleach, of course, stood off to the side, out of range and unconcerned. Zero looked confused, as best as I could tell with that expressionless mask, but Leeno was practically vibrating with glee.

Leeno hit a button, closing the airlock and leaving us in a small, windowless room. Cailleach was on the other side, and would be detonating her homunculus any second. Or maybe she’d try to fight the para off a bit first. Hopefully she was following Lily’s instructions and avoiding killing if possible.

“Leeno,” Lily said. “Which button will open the vacuum side of the airlock?”

Leeno pointed, but didn’t push it. “That one.”

“Good. Adam. On three, I need you to hit the airlock release.”

Adam nodded.

“Then one… two… three!”

Adam hit the button. A split second later, as the airlock began to open, Lily closed her eyes and pushed her hands out.

A shimmering globe of blue force enveloped us, leaking mist that faded in moments. It was exactly like the shields that Derek created, down to the color of the mist.

Amazing,” Leeno said, grinning from ear to ear. “I can feel you singing in tune to him. What a marvelous ability you have.”

The airlock was opening, and some smoke was pouring in. Should there be smoke in a vacuum?

“You can’t keep this up forever, though,” Leeno said.

“Correct,” Lily said through gritted teeth. “So please, just let me concentrate.”

Leeno nodded, contrite, and didn’t say another word. The airlock was open enough now for the smoke to clear and give us a good view of the docks beyond.

It was chaos. A huge chunk of the bay was simply gone, like a massive mouth had taken a bite out of it. The doors were blasted apart like they were made of tinfoil, and I could see through the floor and ceiling to other decks.

Great gouts of flame burst forth from the floor and the walls—likely the result of cracked gas pipes. The beautiful murals were blackened and charred, mostly unrecognizable. I could see para running back and forth in their space suits, signaling at each other for tools or maybe for damaged pipes and sparking wires to be turned off.

No one was paying attention to twelve humans, even if they were in a glowing blue bubble.

Leeno looked around the dock in mute horror. He had likely never seen this level of destruction.

The rest of us, however, had. Most of the warlords had caused quite a bit worse. Thankfully there was no blood or obvious dead bodies, so even I didn’t really have any problem with it all. I elbowed Leeno in the gut. “Hey. You good?”

He started a little, but then nodded. He turned to Lily. “Do you have enough power?”

She grimaced. “My reservoir isn’t as deep as Derek’s, but I can get us to the ship.”

Eccretia blinked. “You mean the ship MC blew up?”

There was a pause.

“Shit,” the White Cat said. “I knew we were forgetting something.”

I glared at him. He never had anything useful to contribute. Instead I turned to Lily. “Can you get us to Earth?”

She frowned. “What? You mean… fall through the atmosphere?” She shook her head and I noticed her sweating. “No way. It would get too hot.”

“Most of you would survive,” Eccretia said, glancing at Adam. The three of us were the only ones without warlord-level buffs, and I could probably survive with my flight, if I angled my descent correctly.

“I don’t mean inside the shield,” Lily said. “I mean the shield would break, and then everyone would die.”

Everyone paused to let the implications of that sink in.

Adam snapped his fingers to wake everyone up again. “Hey, c’mon! We need ideas, people! Lily’s reservoir is going to run out soon, and the para might catch up with us eventually. Or these workers might take notice of us. Does anyone have any other powers that might be useful here?”

Everyone shook their heads.

But I had a thought. “I can fly.”

“Well yes, obviously…” Adam’s face cleared. “Meaning you can fly the globe. Any chance that fixes the atmospheric re-entry problem?”

“No,” I said. I pointed up at one of the docking cradles. “But I can get us there.”

The cradle in question held a small shuttle, about the same size as the one we had flown in on. I was pretty sure it was a different model, but with all the custom paint jobs, it was hard for me to be sure.

“Will that work?” Odin asked.

“No time,” Lily said still straining. Was her power already drained? Was she redlining it like Derek had done right before he fought Elizabeth? “Robyn, take us there.”

I nodded and flew straight up.

I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting. Maybe I had been hoping that I’d be able to extend my power to the entire globe and float us up.

Instead, I ended up plastered against the top of the globe, dragging the thing with me.

It was an embarrassing way to move, but I had the power to do it and more. I was at least as strong as the other Paladins now—except for Laura, of course—so moving two thousand plus pounds of weight for a few minutes wasn’t really all that difficult for me.

The cradle was only about a hundred feet up, and I landed us on the gantry or dock or whatever it was supposed to be called. I floated back down to the floor, wincing as I stretched my muscles. My power had handled the weight easily, but my body was another matter. Maybe I had been able to extend my power to the globe a little, because I was pretty sure pushing two thousand pounds onto my body should have turned me to mush.

Lily was breathing hard. “Pale, sweetie? I’m going to try to get a smaller shield around you now. Don’t move.”

“Ready,” Pale Night said.

Lily nodded, then her brow furrowed even further. A globe of blue energy appeared around Pale Night’s head a split second before the bigger one around all of us disappeared. There was a pop as all the captured air spread out in the vacuum.

Adam moved over to the ship and tried the door, then turned back and shook his head. No good. Was it locked?

Leeno pushed him aside gently and placed his gloved hand on the side of the ship. A moment later, I saw electricity crackling over his fingers, and then the door popped open to reveal a tiny airlock.

There was no way we would all fit in that. Red skies, Odin might not fit in it at all. On the way up, we had been forced to stick him in the cargo bay. The ships had a lot of space compared to our own shuttles, but that really wasn’t saying much.

Leeno grabbed Pale Night and shoved her unceremoniously inside, before using his powers again to close the door. A moment later it opened, empty.

The rest of us cycled through the airlock as fast as possible, though Odin had to sit in the cargo hold again. There was no air for him, but his suit would last for days.

Once we were all cycled through, Leeno took his helmet off, and the rest of us did the same. “Zero should be able to fly us out of here.” He nodded to her, and she walked over to the front of the craft, then took the controls. Leeno continued watching her, an odd look on his face.

Eccretia saw his look, and leaned in to whisper quietly. “How loyal is she?”

Leeno shook his head. “I have no idea. She’s Colorless, of course, so there’s no love lost for the elders, but they’re also the only ones who can reverse her condition. I feel like if she was going to turn on us, she would have done it already.”

I frowned. “What do you mean by Colorless?”

Leeno gave me an odd look, then sighed. “Of course, you don’t know. You see, when a criminal is considered low-risk—”

He was interrupted by the shuttle shaking hard enough to almost throw us all off our feet, and then shaking some more.

Zero turned around in her seat and started signing desperately. It wasn’t the kemo battle sign that she had used before.

Leeno winced. “The docking clamps have us locked in. We can’t take off.”

“So?” Adam said. “Just do your electric thing, unlock them.”

“I can’t do that from inside the shuttle,” Leeno said.

“Then go outside,” I said.

“Then I won’t be able to get back in. The doors won’t open unless the shuttle has landed.”

“What kind of stupid safety feature is that?”

Leeno rolled his tangerine-colored eyes. “It’s not a safety feature, at least not in that way. This is one of the old prison shuttles. They bought a bunch of them for cheap before we left home. The doors won’t open except in a docking cradle, so that criminals can’t hijack the shuttle and just land wherever they like. It’s a hardware thing, not software. I can’t override it.”

I looked around the small ship. Now that he mentioned it, I did see some signs of a ship designed to hold prisoners. Nothing so obvious as cages or manacles, but there were a number of sturdy metal handles—painted a rainbow of colors, of course—on the floor, where people could be chained. I also noticed that none of them were in reach of the controls.

I frowned. “But your shuttle didn’t have that problem.”

He shrugged. “That was a different model. Most of them aren’t prison shuttles.”

I threw up my hands. “Then why don’t we go find another one? One that wasn’t designed for transporting criminals?”

“I didn’t see any more shuttles out there, did you?”

“We don’t have time for this,” Adam said. “Does anyone have any powers that might help? Any kind of kinesis, super strength or… I don’t know, teleportation?” Everyone shook their heads. He cursed under his breath. “Just need five feet of teleportation. Is that too much to ask?”

Super strength… “What about the cargo bay? Does that stay locked, too?”

“Yes, sorry. I don’t think—”

The shuttle shook again, but this time it was from an explosion outside the ship.

“No time!” Adam said. “Zero, full power! Rip out of the clamps!”

Leeno recoiled. “What? No! That could damage the ship!”

Adam met his stare without flinching. “More damage than being caught in an explosion, or more damage than being caught by angry guards?”

Leeno blinked, then turned to Zero. “Full power.”

She nodded and started manipulating the controls. The ship shook again.

“Everyone, helmets on, just in case,” Lily said. “Pale, I’ll get ready to shield you if I have to.”

As everyone got ready, there was a long, tortured screech of metal. I could feel every atom of the ship straining against the clamps, like a living thing trying desperately to break free. And then…

And then we were thrown against one side of the ship as the clamps finally failed.

The shuttle wobbled a bit, but smoothed out, and in moments we were outside the mothership, heading down to Earth.

“How did we do?” Leeno asked, as he walked up next to Zero. I followed. She had her hands full, of course, so he had to look over the screens himself. “Grey skies… we lost three thrusters.”

“Can we still land?” I asked. “I doubt my power is enough to fly this whole ship.”

“Well, we’ll hit the ground, if that’s what you mean,” Leeno said. “No guarantees on a soft landing.”

“Head for the water.” I marked the west side of the Domina island. “We’ve got allies underwater who will help us. Plus, these suits have enough air to last us a while, if it comes to that.”

“What about your niece?”

I frowned. “Who?” I glanced behind me. “Oh, you mean Pale Night. She’s not—” I paused. Now probably wasn’t the time to get into the oddities of Lily’s relationship with the people of the city, and what that meant for me. “She should be fine. Hey, Pale!” She looked up. “You’ve got Mermaid lungs, right?”

She nodded. “As well as a few depth buffs.”

I turned back to Leeno. “See, she’s fine. She’d probably last longer underwater than the rest of us.”

He nodded. “Very well. We should still warn your people that we are coming.”

“Yeah, my guild might try to swat us out of the sky.”

Adam walked up. “Why didn’t they do that to the hive, or whatever it was?”

“A hive is not technological,” Leeno said. “No radio, no thermal signature. It’s basically a rock, and not even a shiny rock. I doubt anyone in your city noticed it until it was too late. Though perhaps this MC of yours managed to warn someone.”

I snapped my fingers. “That’s who we’ll call.”

Adam frowned. “Are you sure she’ll still have the same number? We have no idea what happened.”

“She’ll be monitoring it, if nothing else,” I said. “She knows it’s the first thing anyone would call to get in touch with her.” I gave the frequency to Zero, who plotted it in without question. If she was planning betrayal, she was doing an excellent job of hiding it.

A moment later, the radio crackled to life. “Hello? Robyn? Lily?”

“I’m here,” I said. I glanced back at Lily. She had been talking with the warlords, but she walked over when she heard MC’s voice. “We’re both here, with everyone else except for Cailleach. She detonated her homunculus to give us time to escape.”

“Speaking of which,” Leeno said quietly, “I have many questions—”

I silenced him with a wave.

“I’m sure she has her hands full down here,” MC said. “I’m in the Cathedral right now. Bring that shuttle down and we’ll talk. I’m sure the Servants will love to get their hands on para tech.”

I glanced at Leeno. If he had a problem with this plan, he didn’t show it. “Sounds good. It, uh, might be a hard landing…”

“Aim for the pond. It will be messy, but better than the alternative.”

I nodded. Despite what I had said to Leeno, I was much happier to know we’d be landing in the middle of the city instead of out in the Bay at the mercy of the Dagonites.

The White Cat strode up. “I would very much like to see what the para have as well. I can call some of my engineers, have them meet us there.”

MC chuckled sadly. “I’m afraid that they’ve already got their hands full.”

Adam cursed. “The hive.”

“Actually, that’s secondary,” MC said. “There was a more… immediate problem.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 331)

At the moment, Lily can only borrow one power at a time, though that will eventually change as her power grows and evolves. No matter how many powers she has, however, they will always pull from a single reservoir. Also remember that her reservoir is not influenced by the person she borrows the power from; Derek, for example, could have kept up the shield bubble she uses here for hours if not days.

Scene 316 – Multis

MULTIS

RICHARD

“Aliens!?” I cried.

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

“But… I just… aliens!?

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

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

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

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

I stared at her. “Teleportation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lilith looked disappointed, but nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

He blinked. “What? No!”

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

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

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

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

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

Ahem. Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two of him.

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

“What the hell?” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doctor started. “What?

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

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

“…what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But then, one day, the box grows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did far more than that.”

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

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

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

“Richard is not one of your children.”

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

“Silk,” Lilith said. “Explain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I am them,” said another.

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

I frowned. “The who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait,” I said. “I think she might—”

“No more games,” he said.

They all fired.

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

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

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

After a moment, they began to heal.

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

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

No one moved. No one breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is about relative power.”

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

I frowned. “What?”

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

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

I looked up into eyes deeper than oceans.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 316)

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

Scene 308 – Reverentia

REVERENTIA

CHRIS

I sat on the back bumper of an ambulance as the police led people away.

There had to be a couple dozen cop cars, surrounding the building completely. There were also SWAT vans, firefighters, news crews, the whole deal. I wasn’t sure exactly what Malcanthet’s people were being arrested for. Conspiracy? Drug abuse? For all I knew there was even some treason mixed in there.

The police had cordoned off the area, keeping the crowd of rubberneckers at bay. I didn’t even look at them. Adam had given me a job: Guard this ambulance. So while I looked like I was just sitting around like another victim, I was actually keeping an eye on anyone who got too close.

Lily was in this ambulance, crying her eyes out.

I still didn’t know what had happened. Not exactly. Either Lily was a lot older than she looked, or Malcanthet was just crazy and thought she was her mother. Since Malcanthet had lit them both on fire, I was leaning more towards the second explanation.

On fire…

I glanced briefly in the back of the ambulance. Lily’s clothes were gone, but the paramedics had given her some new ones. Other than that, she was physically unharmed. There was some ash in her hair, but that was it.

She just sat there, sobbing. Weeping for a woman who would have killed us all or worse.

I sighed and turned my attention to outside again. I saw Adam walking over, leading a small Asian girl by the arm. She was glowering, but made no attempt to run. Her hands were in front of her, covered in a blanket. I recognized that trick. She must be handcuffed underneath.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“Saki,” he said. “The one we were looking for, my friend’s niece.” He frowned at the chaos and destruction surrounding us. “I have half a mind to blame all this on her.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

He sighed. “No. She wanted to make an alliance, but she got captured instead. She’s just another of Malcanthet’s victims.”

She spit in his face.

He wiped it away but didn’t otherwise react. “Anyway, local prisons won’t be able to hold her. The Dominites will handle her, and then transfer her back to the city as soon as possible.”

“Why isn’t she saying anything?” I asked. “Does she not speak English?”

Saki glared at me. Adam smiled. “She does, but she’s mute. It’s a long story. We need to—oh. There you are.”

A Dominite had walked up. He was instantly recognizable by the small red horns growing out of his forehead. As far as I could tell, that was his only modification. Once he was sure we knew who he was, he put on a hat. He probably didn’t want to cause a riot.

“Sir,” he said to Adam. “The Power sent me.”

Adam nodded. “Yes, he called ahead. It’s not just you, right?”

The… demon pointed at a van just outside the police cordon. “Four more hellions ready and waiting, sir.”

“Good. You’ve been briefed on what she can do?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Even better.” Adam pushed Saki lightly by the shoulder. She stumbled into the demon’s arms, then glared at Adam. “Her bracelet is still on and working, but be careful all the same. You got a CS device in your van?”

“No, sir.”

Adam frowned, then reached past me into the ambulance. He pulled out a backpack I hadn’t seen there before. It was the same one he had been wearing when we picked him up from the airport. “Use this one. You know how it works?”

The demon nodded. “Honored Sargeras made us disassemble and reassemble them until we could do it blindfolded.”

Adam smirked. “Of course. I need to remember that. Anyway, if either the bracelet or the pack goes down, you shoot Saki.” His eyes were hard, and his smirk was gone. “No hesitation. Right between the eyes.”

The demon looked disturbed. “I—all right. But will Dame Akiyama accept that?”

“She understands what is necessary.”

The demon paused. Then he bowed. “As you wish, Honored Paragon.” He left, dragging Saki behind him. She continued glaring at Adam until she was out of sight.

I frowned at Adam. “What was that about?”

“Just helping out a friend,” he said. He smirked. “Akane would kill me if I let her niece run around free in New York.”

“I meant that paragon thing. And the bowing.”

“Oh, that.” He shrugged. “It’s a long story. Basically, people like me.”

I gave him a look. “That’s not ‘people like me.’ That’s…” I shook my head. “I don’t even know what that was. Who even bows these days?”

“It’s more common in Domina,” he said. “Laura says it’s due to influence from Asian immigrants.” He rolled his eyes. “Besides, sometimes the whole damn city feels like a feudal war ground. Lots of lords and ladies and masters and whatnot.”

I sighed and looked towards the building again, and all the people swarming around it like ants. “What’s going to happen to this place?”

Adam shrugged. “Dunno. Lily will probably figure something out. Maybe it will get torn down. She doesn’t like being reminded of Malcanthet.”

“Her… daughter.”

Adam was silent.

I scooted closer and lowered my voice. “Adam, what was all that about? Your girlfriend’s daughter was some insane… I don’t even know what to call her—”

“Hedonist probably works.”

“Sure. But you don’t seem surprised.” He seemed relaxed.

Adam sighed. “I knew about Malcanthet. She’s a boogeyman in Domina. Eat your vegetables or the Succubus Queen will come take you away.” He smirked to himself. “Wonder if her death will stop that kind of thing. Probably not.”

“But Lily—”

“Lily has a lot of daughters,” Adam said. “A lot of sons, too. I knew Malcanthet was one or hers.”

I glanced back at Lily. She didn’t seem to notice us. “How old is she, anyway?”

“Older than she looks. But not that old. Twenty-six, I think. Thirty at the outside.”

“And how many kids does she have?”

“Somewhere around four hundred million.”

I stared at him.

He smiled back. “It’s a city of orphans, Chris. Everyone wants a mother figure.”

I rubbed my forehead. “I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than her being an actual mother.”

“She is an actual mother,” he said, a bit of an edge creeping into his voice. “She loves every single person in that city. The fact that some of them are older than her doesn’t change the fact that they are her children.”

I didn’t dispute the point. I just sat there, silently, watching Malcanthet’s slaves get processed. There seemed to be no end to them. The police had to call in more cars and vans in order to have any hope of holding them all.

“I’m surprised the guards didn’t put up more of a fight,” I said. “Even if they weren’t drugged, I would have thought enough of them were loyal to make a ruckus.”

Adam stood, frowning.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You!” Adam said, grabbing a random cop.

“Hey, watch it, buddy! You crazy idiots are in enough trouble—”

“I’m one of the people who called you in.”

The cop’s demeanor changed instantly. “Uh, right. Sorry. Thought you were one of the crazies.” He looked at Adam’s hand, which still had any iron grip on his wrist. Adam didn’t let go. “Uh, what did you need?”

“Where are the Malcatari?”

“The what?”

“The guards,” Adam snapped. “Anyone with a gun. Really, anyone who is sober enough to walk in a straight line. I haven’t seen any of them being brought out. What’s going on with them? Are you holding them somewhere separate?”

“I don’t really know—”

Adam shoved him away. “Find out. Now.”

The cop looked a little shocked that a civilian was giving him orders. “What? Uh, okay. So these Mal—Malis—”

“Just ask your war—your boss if the guards are being kept anywhere.”

The cop gave a shaky salute and ran off.

I didn’t say anything. I just watched Adam. The way he moved, the way he gave orders… he wasn’t an amateur. These were things he had done before. He had experience with ordering cops around.

What the hell was going on in that city?

In a few minutes, the cop returned with a lieutenant. She dismissed him with a wave, then stood in front of Adam. She glared at him for a few moments, but to no effect.

“I am Lieutenant Katherine Vine,” she said. “I understand you have some intelligence to offer.”

“The Malcatari are still out there,” Adam said without preamble.

Lieutenant Vine raised an eyebrow. “The guards?”

“Malcanthet’s military,” Adam corrected. “We fought a few. But there were many still alive last I checked. If you haven’t found any, that means they’ve gone to ground.”

“Their leader is dead,” Vine said. “They will fade sooner rather than later.”

Adam shook his head. “When she was still in Domina, Malcanthet’s armies were the most loyal, most highly trained, most well-equipped in the city. If we’re lucky, her standards went down after she fled. But I doubt it. I think you need to consider the worst-case scenario here.”

“Which is?” Lieutenant Vine had an excellent poker face. I had no idea what she thought about Adam’s assertions.

“An angry terrorist force loose in your city,” Adam said. “They’ll know Malcanthet’s recruiting methods. They can kidnap random people, drug them up to the gills, and brainwash them into fighting for them.”

There was a pause.

“That seems a bit implausible to me,” she finally said. “Especially since two untrained kids managed to take out their entire headquarters in about an hour. Do you have any proof that these… Malcatari are anywhere near as dangerous as you say?”

Adam sighed. “No. None that you would believe.”

“Then I believe we have nothing more to talk about.” She turned to go, but patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll keep an eye out. I just think you’re overestimating them.” She walked away without looking back.

Adam shook his head. “These idiots are going to get killed.”

I was disturbed. They couldn’t really be as dangerous as he was saying, right?

He glanced at his watch. “We should probably get going. The meeting was supposed to start an hour ago. They’ll be willing to wait even longer if necessary, of course, but still. I should at least call ahead.” He flipped out his phone.

I frowned. “What meeting? Who are you calling?”

He smiled. “The Dominite ambassadors, of course.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 308)

One thing that doesn’t get brought up a lot, regarding the toy maker, is diminishing returns. Despite all the incredible things it can do, there is a limit to how much you can manipulate the human body. Ten strength buffs are not ten times as effective as one strength buff.

So, for example, Lily has more buffs than many entire cultures put together. But that doesn’t mean she is stronger than those cultures. In terms of raw power, she’s a very powerful warlord—but that’s all. In a fair fight, most warlords would have a low, but reasonable, chance of overpowering her. And that’s not counting things like training, minions, and so on.

I just wanted to make it clear that Lily isn’t some unstoppable juggernaut who can solve any problem by herself. She’s not, and she can’t. And that’s without even getting into her issues with violence.

Also, yes, Adam is technically a warlord at this point. He has no domain, all his men were given to him directly by Necessarius, and he gets paid out of Butler’s pocket. By most definitions, he’d just be an honored, which for baselines is simply called “paladin.” However, people still treat him like a full Paragon due to his actions during the Rampage.

Scene 307 – Amor

AMOR

I had a name once.

The name my mother gave me. It was beautiful, and I was very proud of it. I practiced saying it every day, so that I wouldn’t slur it with my childish voice. But when my mother left, abandoning me to the streets of Domina City, I abandoned the name she had given me as well. Petty, perhaps, but it was the only vengeance I had left.

It didn’t take long for them to find me. The scientists, in the employ of one Professor Isaac Clarke. He told me that he had something he wanted to try, something I could help him with. He said it was perfectly safe.

I knew he was lying, of course. But I went along anyway. I had nothing left to live for, I thought I may as well spend it on something.

I was surprised when I survived. Clarke had given me two little red horns on my head, like the plastic headband girls sometimes wear as part of a devil costume for Halloween. The scientists fawned over me, took blood samples and skin scrapings and watched over me for a week before finally bringing him to see me.

That was the first time I met Artemis Butler; shivering in a paper hospital gown, staring up at this pale, fat, giant of a man leaning heavily on a cane that looked like it could have been carved from the trunk of a tree. He eyed me up and down, calculating. Not like I was a piece of meat, but similar. Like… well, like he was judging my worth.

“The horns are fully integrated?” he wasn’t asking me, although he was still looking me in the eye. He was asking Clarke.

The scientist in question was very excited. “Fully. She may as well have grown them herself. There is even some evidence that they will be able to repair damage over time, like any other bone in her body. But we would need longitudinal studies for that.”

“Of course,” the Big Boss said. “And no rejections? Inflammations? Infections?”

“None, none, and none. It was the easiest thing in the world—like slotting a child’s toy together. We’re going to be famous, Artemis. And so very rich.”

He chuckled. “You know I’m not interested in fame and fortune. No, this is something else.” He nodded to himself. “But she’s perfect. Dress her in something warmer, then take the pictures. We may as well provide an ‘after’ image. Then remove the horns.”

“Of course,” Clarke nodded. “We’ll need more test subjects for the longitudinal studies, but once we publish the initial findings we’ll have volunteers very quickly.”

“I could do it.”

Everyone in the room turned to stare at me, but I didn’t falter.

“I could do it,” I repeated. “The long study. I could do it.”

Butler stared at me, genuine curiosity in his eyes for the first time. “You’d have to keep the horns, little girl. And more besides.”

I looked at my feet for a moment. What should I say? That I was empty, and ready to be filled with anything? That I wasn’t smart enough, or cute enough, or clever enough to amount to anything, so I was willing to accept disfigurement instead? How would they react to that?

I looked up. “I like the horns, sir.”

Butler stared at me for a moment, nearly shocked. Then he laughed, a deep bellow that shook me to the core. “Oh, I like this one, Isaac. Where’d you find her?”

“South-West Middle,” the scientist replied. He had a perplexed look on his face. “Scrounging through a dumpster for food.”

“Hm.” Butler was frowning now; he glanced at me. “This isn’t the only way to earn food, you know.” I had been fed—not well, but fed—for the week I was under observation. “We can set you up with some sort of daily food budget…”

I shook my head. “Horns,” I said. I couldn’t say much else. “I like the horns.”

He smiled. “Alright then, fair enough.” He rubbed my head in a fatherly fashion. “What’s your name, little demon?”

I shut my lips tight. I had no desire to honor the name my mother had given me.

He removed his hand, surprised. “Do you not have a name, little demon?”

I shook my head vehemently.

“Alright, then how about I give you a name? Would you like that?”

I paused for a moment, then nodded carefully.

He smiled. “Then we’ll call you Lilith, the first monster.” He chuckled. “The first of a new age.”

One of Clarke’s assistants, Mary Christina, rolled her eyes and took my hand. “C’mon, Lily. Let’s get you into some warmer clothes.”

Three days after my pictures were sent out along with Professor Clarke’s data, I received my second toy—a prototype muscle enhancement. One month after that, the toy maker was declared illegal for non-military use. That was also the day I received my third toy, red eyes.

I became the poster girl for the toy maker. Everyone knew my name. Some people even got horns of their own, a way of showing solidarity and support. I didn’t know how to react to that. I was just a little girl. I didn’t understand how to handle being the center of attention.

Then, one day, a woman came to see me. She found a way past the guards, whispering through locked doors. When she found me, I wasn’t afraid. I was too young to be afraid. Not that I had anything to worry about anyway. She was just there to ask me for something.

She wanted the toy maker Isaac Clarke had given me as a gift. I wasn’t sure I wanted to give it. It was supposed to be for me, and me alone. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it, but I did know that it was mine.

Then the woman told me that she was my daughter, and it was my responsibility to help her.

It was a laughable lie. She was at least ten years older than me. But something about it… resonated with me. I understood what she meant. Anyone who took the horns, anyone who used the toy maker, was following in my footsteps. They were all my children.

After Striga and her Bloody Thirteen, others came to me, begging for aid. Most were turned away. Some, like Pale Night, were given simple things. An idea here, a friend there. Others were altered and changed under my supervision. Zaphkiel became the first angel at Clarke’s touch and my recommendation.

But I was still the first monster.

I was always the first to try out the newest buffs. Some I got for free, as part of the experiments, but many more I bought myself, with the small profit I made from my part-time jobs. I didn’t have to pay for food except what went beyond my monthly budget, and Butler set me up in a small apartment. He arranged for me to attend school, but I didn’t bother going. I knew what I was, and what I wasn’t. I was an empty canvas to be painted on, nothing more. He eventually arranged for a tutor instead, and I took the lessons he demanded. But I always focused on the toys more.

AT Tattoo, a minor buff for writing notes on your own skin. HOUR adrenaline boost, increasing speed and strength of adrenaline. BT adrenaline dampener, reducing the detrimental effect adrenaline has on conscious though, creating the appearance of slowing time. BB gland, for naturally producing anabolic steroids. DSD buff, for eliminating the dangers of rapid pressure changes. Canary+ buff, for subsisting on the bare minimum of breathable air. Mermaid-class internalized gills, for breathing water. The Insomniac gland, removing the need for sleep. Enhanced olfactory senses, giving me a nose better than a trained hunting dog. Working fangs, with five different poison sacs. Three different acid glands located in the back of the throat. Cannibalism buff, for digesting anything and everything. Blooddrinker buff, for metabolizing blood. Nighteyes and dayeyes, and sixty-seven separate buffs to make them work together. A fully articulate tail, with with enough muscles to lift nearly as much as my arms. Two-hundred and seventeen disease resistance buffs. Eight-hundred and sixty-two muscle enhancement buffs. A thousand and one bone enhancement buffs. And a million others I’ve forgotten.

So when a bullet flattened against my forehead, coming down from a couple times the speed of sound to zero in a fraction of a second, my head did not explode in bloody chunks. My brains did not evaporate out the back of my skull in a fine, pink mist.

My forehead ached.

Slightly.

I focused my eyes on where the shot had come from and brushed the flattened lump of lead away. A small trail of blood trickled down from the wound; I ignored it.

The guard closest to me looked surprised, but still reached out to grab me. I batted away his grab, breaking his hand, then pushed him hard in the chest. He had to weigh over two hundred pounds; he was a big guy. Someone of my size shouldn’t be able to push him anywhere he didn’t want to go.

But my bone density meant that I weighed almost three hundred pounds. With proper bracing, I could really push.

He hit the far wall, making a dent and crumpling to the ground. The other guard stumbled away in shock.

I turned back towards the others. Everyone looked shocked. Adam was doing a good job of hiding it. He had already known what I could do, but that was different to actually seeing it. Chris looked like she was the one who had been shot. The guards clearly wanted to run, but Canny’s drugs and training kept them rooted to the spot.

And Canny… my dear Malcanthet… she knew. She knew who she was facing.

She ran.

She dashed back through those ornate doors and barred them behind her. She had to know that they wouldn’t hold against me for long.

The guards she left behind didn’t know quite what to do, so they fell back on their training. They shot me. A lot.

Bullets impacted my flesh, but I ignored them. I might have a few bruises, but those would heal quickly. I had more healing buffs than a dozen trolls put together. Before anyone else had a chance to move, I dashed forward. I grabbed the guards by their faces and drove them to the ground. I slammed their skulls against the floor, and they squished like tomatoes under my hands.

Don’t think about it, don’t think about it…

I stood quickly, trying not to look at the corpses. Instead, I strode forward to the ornate doors and kicked them open. They were steel covered in wood, meant to look fancy while still being functional.

They bent like a tin can at my kick, the wood splintering. She had put a metal bar behind the doors. It was already bent at a harsh angle, so I kicked again. The metal squealed, and the doors burst open.

I found myself in her bedroom. There was of course a massive lush bed in the middle of the room, but that wasn’t all. There were velvet curtains on the walls, a liquor cabinet in the corner, and a nice tv that took up most of one wall. There were smells in the air that I refused to identify, but also the sharp scent of fear.

I sniffed a few times, following the trail to a corner of the room. More velvet drapes. I ripped them aside to reveal a small private elevator. Of course. I should have known she would never let herself be cornered.

I pressed the button, but nothing happened. It didn’t even light up.

“She must have disabled it from down below,” Adam said. He had gotten leather workman’s gloves from somewhere, and was putting them on. He grinned at me. “That means we’ll have to do this the fun way.”

I blinked at him. I didn’t quite trust myself to talk.

“Do you remember the job I did with Mohamed the Silver?”

I smiled. I turned to the elevator doors and pried them open. I was surprised at how easy it was. A complete baseline could have done it.

The open doors revealed a long elevator shaft, with nothing but a few cables leading down into the depths of the building.

“What are you doing?” Chris demanded.

“We’re going the fun way,” Adam said again. He had a few of those D-rings, the clips hikers used. Had he had those with him this whole time, or had he found them somewhere in the room? He started buckling them on in an odd configuration. Probably designed to give him a way to brake and slow safely.

Chris’ eyes slowly went wide as she realized what his plan was. “No. No, no, no—”

“You take the stairs,” Adam said. He stepped carefully into the elevator shaft, one foot resting on the cable. He clipped onto it quickly, then held out a hand to me. He grunted a bit as he took my weight, but didn’t say anything. “We’ll meet you down there.”

Chris looked like she had to choose which of her children to save from certain death. “But—”

“You better run.” Then he released the brake.

We fell so fast it felt like we were attached to a rocket. There was a faint zipping sound from some of the clips, but that was it. Other than that, it was just us and the wind rushing past our faces.

I tried to count the floors as we passed, but gave up after the first two. We were just moving too fast. Adam didn’t even try. He kept his eyes down, watching the bottom of the shaft quickly rising up to meet us.

My heart was beating so hard in my chest I could feel it hitting my rib cage. But I would survive. Both my heart and my ribs had been built for worse things than this.

After what seemed like an eternity—thanks to my BT buff—Adam hit the brakes.

All the brakes.

Suddenly we were covered in a hail of sparks as all the clips ground against the cable. They lit up the elevator shaft like millions of tiny fireworks. Shouldn’t Adam be worried about his eyes? No, his gaze was still cast down. That must be why. My heartbeat began to slow as our descent did the same.

Then one of the clips snapped. We lurched, still heading down at a disturbing pace.

Then another snapped.

“It’s fine!” Adam yelled over the sound of rushing wind. Still too much wind. “We’re just coming in a little too fast!”

Another snapped.

“Brace yourself!”

I did so, doing my best to make sure that my feet would touch the ground before Adam’s.

We hit.

It hurt, but far more for Adam than for me. Though my legs—enhanced beyond all point of reason—had taken the brunt of the shock, the sudden stop still hit him like a truck. He was knocked out, just briefly, and hung from the clips in a daze.

I ached, but was otherwise fine. I unclipped us, then laid him out on top of the elevator. I opened his eyes, checked his pupils, and thought for a moment. Then I nodded to myself and kissed him.

I had five different poison sacks in my mouth. I could choose to use any one of them at any time. Three of them were paralytics, but two were more virulent and dangerous. I, of course, was immune to them, and a thousand more besides. Adam was not.

What people often forgot was that the difference between poison and medicine was just dosage.

I chose a very painful poison, dribbling just a few drops from my fangs and into Adam’s mouth. I pulled back, and half a second later he sat up, wide-eyed.

“What the HELL was that?”

I smiled. “Think of it like smelling salts.”

He blinked. Once. Twice.

“Adam? You going to be okay?”

“Uh, yeah.” He seemed to relax, then groaned. “Oh God, I think I bruised every single muscle in my body…”

“Let me handle things from here.”

He gave me a sad look. “Are you sure?”

I took another deep breath. “Yeah. I’m ready.”

He nodded. He reached down and opened the emergency hatch in the elevator. We slipped inside, then pried open the doors.

We found ourselves in a large underground parking garage. Cold concrete all around, with large halogen lights in the ceiling. There weren’t many cars around, but there were a few, mostly near the exits. We were deep enough that I couldn’t see daylight anywhere, but I knew it couldn’t be too far. They couldn’t have dug too far down.

Malcanthet and her guards stood about thirty feet from the elevator. They were clustered around her, but she seemed to be waiting for something. A getaway car, perhaps? But why didn’t she just steal any random car?

“I want this entire building locked down,” Malcanthet was saying to one guard. “She could be coming down any second—”

“Your Majesty!” One of the guards had spotted us. He leveled his gun, but didn’t fire.

Malcanthet turned. Her eyes were hard. She had managed to hide her fear. “So you managed to follow. I knew that scared child act was fake.”

I kept my breathing steady. Don’t think about the blood on your hands, don’t think about the corpses left behind…

“Lamps out, men,” Malcanthet said. There was a mechanical clunk as the lights went out, plunging the entire room into darkness, except for a few slivers of light from the elevator shaft.

More than enough for my eyes to see.

Her thralls crawled out of the woodwork like worms, light amplification goggles strapped over their faces. They had knives and clubs, but no guns. Maybe they were afraid of hitting each other, or more likely, their queen.

Don’t think.

I reached out with the swiftness of lightning, so fast that the air cracked, as the same sound came from my victim’s neck. I took a step forward and swung my hand like a sword, flesh as strong as steel and muscles stronger than iron cutting through the second man’s neck like cheese.

Don’t think.

“She’s a vampire! She has nighteyes!” The Riven backed away from me like scared animals.

This was important.

This was necessary.

“Eyes!” another guard cried. Suddenly, the lights were back on, but a hundred times brighter than before. It was like staring straight into the sun. The Riven surrounding me cried out in pain, and a few who hadn’t managed to get their goggles off actually fainted from the sudden assault.

But I could still see.

My godeyes gave me a world without shadows, without glare. A world where brightest noon and darkest midnight barely looked any different.

My heart, my perfect heart, given to my by Isaac Clarke himself, beat hard in my chest as I dashed forward at one of the men who looked like he was about to recover. I bent his knife behind his back, breaking his arm in the process, and tossed him aside like a rag doll, crying in pain.

He wasn’t dead. Everything else could be fixed. He wasn’t dead…

I was shocked out of my fugue by a shower of something cold.

I looked up, frowning, as the light level returned to normal. The sprinklers had turned on, drenching me and Adam, while Malcanthet stood in another section of the garage, still dry. Even as I watched, her Riven joined her, most of them soaked. She had the higher ground.

But it wasn’t water. I could smell it something foul, but it wasn’t something I recognized…

My enhanced nose wasn’t needed here, and Adam figured it out before me, his eyes going wide. “Gasoline.”

Malcanthet smirked, and gestured to one of her Riven—one of the dry ones. He pulled out a lighter as she spoke. “Sorry, Lily, but this is it. If you survive the burning, I’ll stick a grenade in your mouth and finish you off quick.” Her grin widened. “Relatively.”

I frowned. Not out of anger, out of confusion.

“You really haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on back home at all, have you?”

She looked confused, but her slave followed her orders well. He tossed the lighter onto the concrete floor, and the gasoline caught fire with a loud whoosh, rushing towards us like a living thing, a massive monster that would devour us whole.

I’ve always been ever so good with monsters.

I reached down into my soul and found what I was looking for. I tapped into the reservoir granted to me by the Rampage, the Rampage where the Song had driven everyone in the city to fight and destroy.

Except for me. Elizabeth had been forced to match her will against mine, to wrench control of my own body away from me, to put my body on autopilot.

Because I loved my city. I loved the streets and the buildings, the people and the cultures. I was Lilith, the First Monster, and every single monster in Domina City was my child.

I reached into that love, tapped into that connection to every man and woman in Domina, and found the proper response to this danger.

Alexandar Jonson was the son of an Aesir giant, a Thor to be precise. He wasn’t a giant himself, but he was considering becoming a demon. He looked over my pictures, read my speeches.

He loved me, and I loved him.

I reached out my hand, will strong, and the fire leaped into it. Leaving not even an ember behind, the gasoline stopped burning, and the rolling orb hovered over my hand, even the heat trapped to keep it from scorching me.

Malcanthet staggered back. “You—what did you—”

“There are more miracles in Domina City than those of Clarke and his toy maker,” I said quietly. I clenched my fist around the flame, and it died as easily as if it was but a single spark, but with less heat. “Do you surrender?”

She looked at me in shock, then barked out a laugh. “Surrender? One trick doesn’t change the game, girl! Malcatari! Ready!”

They raised their guns—not pistols this time, but rifles. They were models that even I could tell were old and cheap, but old rifles would still do a lot of damage. They couldn’t kill me, but Adam was baseline, and didn’t have a power to defend himself. Just one bullet in the wrong place could kill him instantly.

I searched in my heart for another answer, something else to save me.

Dennis Hall was a kyton, one of the new chain-demons who had sprung up after the Rampage. He argued that they should remain demon only, but the others weren’t so sure. He argued that blurring the culture lines was an insult to the Mother Monster.

He loved me.

And I loved him.

I held out my hand, concentrating my will. I formed an invisible shield around us, shaped like a wedge. The bullets split before us like a river around a rock. I felt every single bullet, each one depleting my reservoir by the tiniest sliver. The power I borrowed from Dennis wasn’t a shield, not really. It was a very specific form of kinesis, an ability to control metal to the point that I could deflect anything moving into a specific zone. But enough gunfire would overwhelm it. My reservoir was far from infinite.

The guards stopped firing, awestruck. Malcanthet had clearly explained much of the nature of Domina City to her Riven, but this was something beyond her understanding. The fact that they were out of their depth was penetrating their minds. They weren’t drugged, or at least not as much as the workers above. Malcanthet needed her guards to actually have their wits about them.

They ran.

“Get back here!” Malcanthet cried. “I command you to stop!”

The runners didn’t stop. There were only a few left, less than a dozen. They looked apprehensive, but they stayed strong. They kept their rifles trained on me, but didn’t fire.

The stairwell door burst open. Chris charged out, gun at the ready, and skidded to a halt on the wet floor. She glanced at me, at Malcanthet, and then at Adam. She sniffed the air and saw the burned patch on the floor. “What the hell?”

“Everything is under control,” he said. He sounded calm. He had taken to killing far too easily. I had thought I would be able to save his soul, but… but…

“Shut up,” Malcanthet said. “This changes nothing.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “You keep saying that. Do you actually believe it? The only reason you’re still alive is because Lily is too nice for her own good.”

Malcanthet scowled. “I’m going to rip your guts out with my bare hands—”

“Canny,” I said. I almost whispered it. “Honored daughter. It’s over.”

“DON’T CALL ME THAT!” She ripped a pistol from the holster of a nearby guard. She fired at me a few times. Her aim was surprisingly good, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t even need to use any powers. Malcanthet would never arm her slaves with weapons that could hurt her, and my skin was far stronger than hers.

Chris pointed her pistol at Malcanthet, but I stopped her with a raised hand. She looked reluctant, but didn’t fire. Her eyes kept flickering over to me, as if she wasn’t sure what she was seeing.

“Malcanthet,” I said. I took a step forward. She shot me again, the bullet just missing my cheek. She was trying to get a bullet in my eye. It wouldn’t kill me, but it would stop me. “Little heart, do you remember when we first met?”

“Shut up shut up shut up—”

Another step. “It was right after Bloody Thirteen. You came to Necessarius. You agreed to take part in some of the toy trials.”

Shut up!” She shot me again. Her hand was trembling now, and her shot went wide. It actually hit the ceiling.

Another step forward. “Clarke asked what you wanted.”

“I…” She kept the gun pointed at me, but didn’t shoot. Her hand was shaking so much I thought she’d drop the gun. “I don’t have to listen to this…”

I didn’t stop. “You said you wanted to be beautiful. Like your mother.”

“I didn’t…” She ground her teeth. “He was just a stupid idiot, he didn’t know what I was asking—”

“He did,” I said quietly. “He knew about the whispers and the rumors. He knew what the city was calling me—what they were already calling me. And he knew what you meant. He knew which mother an orphan would mean.”

“We weren’t orphans,” she whispered. “I mean… we had Dad, he only died when we were teenagers, we didn’t…”

One last step, and I was there. Within arm’s length. She towered over me; she wasn’t that tall, but I was little more than four feet.

The barrel of the gun was an inch from my eye. She couldn’t have missed if she wanted to.

Malcanthet cried. “I didn’t want… I just wanted…”

“I know, baby girl,” I said. “I know.”

She collapsed to her knees, bringing her down to my level. She fell into my arms, sobbing.

She was older than me. A few years at least, though she had never said her exact age. That didn’t matter.

Sometimes you just need a mother. Anyone will do.

I brushed her hair as she cried. “Shh…” I whispered. “It’s all right. Everything is all right.”

We sat there for a few minutes, in the cold parking garage. No one interfered. Not her Riven, not Adam. They all knew that the fight was over. Perhaps there would be arguments later, recriminations and retribution, but for right now…

Right now, my daughter just needed to be held.

A phone rang. I felt it buzzing in Malcanthet’s shirt pocket.

She pulled away from me just enough to get at the phone. She sniffled and her mascara had run, but she kept herself composed. “Hello?” she said.

My enhanced hearing easily heard the person on the other end. “Your Majesty? Thank the Mother you’re all right. What’s going on? The Malcatari came running out of the parking garage! None of them will tell us what happened! What do we do?”

She closed her eyes. “Eternity’s End.”

There was a pause.

“Yes, Your Majesty.” The panicked Riven hung up.

Malcanthet dropped the phone to the ground without a care. She leaned against me again, and I patted her hair.

“Adam?” I called. “Get everyone into the stairwell and close the door.”

“Uh, sure. C’mon, let’s go.”

Malcanthet’s guards rushed over to him. I saw a few out of the corners of my eyes, but I just heard most of them. I also heard Chris complaining.

“Wait, these, these—”

“Riven,” Adam said.

“Yeah. Them too?”

“Who did you think she meant by ‘everyone?’”

“I don’t know, but—”

The sprinklers turned on. More gasoline poured down. This time, no part of the parking lot was spared. Malcanthet and I were soaked with the foul-smelling liquid, and I could hear more of it deeper in the structure.

The Riven, who had been moving a little hesitantly, started running. Running for the only safety they could see. I didn’t know how far the gasoline sprinklers went, but there weren’t any in the stairwell.

“Lily!” Chris called.

I didn’t turn. I heard Adam whispering her assurances as he pulled her away and closed the door. The slam echoed like a falling tombstone. Slowly, the sprinklers died down. It looked like the gasoline tank had run dry.

Malcanthet was crying in my arms. Quiet tears, but real ones. The kind that you can’t stop once you start.

“I just… I just wanted to be beautiful,” she sobbed. “I just wanted to be strong, and loved. I just wanted to be safe.”

“I know, baby girl,” I whispered. “I know.”

She pulled something out of her pocket.

A lighter.

She looked me in the eye, her wet bangs dripping in front of her face. “Goodbye, mama. Hopefully I’ll see you soon.”

I smiled sadly. “Goodbye, Honored Daughter.”

She flicked the lighter, then dropped it to the ground.

It caught instantly, the fire spreading like light through shadow. In seconds, the entire garage was covered in a coating of flame. There was even a burst of pressure as it consumed the air. Depending on how well-ventilated this area was, the fire might asphyxiate before it consumed all the gasoline.

And, of course, the flames covered us as well.

I did not use any of my powers. My skin was proof against far, far hotter fires than this. My internal organs could survive temperatures that could melt lead. An active nuclear reactor might be a danger to me, but nothing less.

Malcanthet was not so lucky.

She screamed in my arms, screamed as her clothes caught fire and her flesh burned. Not screams of rage, but the screams of a dying animal. A simple, instinctive pain, a wordless and desperate plea for help. She screamed until the fire reached her throat, until her vocal cords snapped from stress and heat, until her larynx boiled. She clutched at me with hands of fire, until the flames ate through the muscles and the tendons.

I sat there, in the flames, holding her. Even my perfect eyes could see nothing but fire. Even my perfect nose could smell nothing but smoke and horribly cooked flesh. The air had turned toxic, but I could still breathe. My lungs filtered the toxins, and emergency cells activated, allowing me to subsist on the bare minimum of oxygen.

I heard a car explode. Then another, then another. I felt the shockwaves through the ground, but I couldn’t see them anywhere. I knew that not all the cars were exploding, but many. No one had designed them to deal with this kind of heat.

My tears had boiled off my cheeks. I didn’t know when that had happened.

It took ten, maybe twenty minutes for the fire to finally die down. When Adam came to get me over an hour later, he found me still sitting there. He had a gas mask and some basic protective gear on. I just sat there, silent, weeping tears that would no longer come. My clothes had burned, and I was covered in a thin coating of ash.

I sat there, crying invisibly, holding the scorched, blackened corpse of one of my foulest daughters.

Sometimes, you just need a mother.

But sometimes, you need more than we can give.

END BOOK THREE

Scene 306 – Captum

CAPTUM

CHRIS

My name is Chris Clemens. I have worked for the Anders family for over ten years. They are an eclectic bunch, and I have been involved in throwing surprise parties for strangers, fighting off infiltrators looking for the secret family beer recipe, and arranging a fake arrest on Adam’s first date.

I had never been captured by heavily-armed businessmen and hand-cuffed to a chair, though. That was new.

We had been dragged into a large break room with red walls, the kind with a built-in kitchen and breakfast nook. It looked nice, or at least it had. Our captors had taken three chairs and hammered them to the floor with large pins. Then they tied us to the chairs. That was going to keep us from going anywhere.

Even so, we were well guarded. Three large beefy men in nice suits paced the room, their large guns relaxed but ready. I didn’t recognize the guns, but the men wore them comfortably. I was sure they would work well enough. Oddly, the workers outside in their cubicles didn’t seem to be paying attention to us. The door was glass and they could see right in, but they didn’t even glance our way.

The oddest thing, however, was Adam’s calm reaction to the situation.

“You should let us go,” he said to one of our guards. He seemed to be the one in charge. Probably not in charge of anything ultimately important, but at least in charge of the other two. On the few occasions I had been forced to take prisoners, I had always designated a man like him. Who he was didn’t matter too much. I just made sure he knew he was responsible if things went sideways.

He didn’t respond to Adam at all. So he at least had the ‘stay strong and silent’ part down.

“There are ten Dominite ambassadors in the city right now,” Adam said. Again, he was so calm. I expected him to be sweating like a pig. No, I expected him to be crying, but that wasn’t fair. He wasn’t so soft and sheltered to break down like that.

Maybe he was much harder than I had thought.

“What do you think will happen when they find out about this?” Adam said. “You think they won’t demand retribution?”

The guard didn’t say a word. He just pulled out a pistol and pressed in to Adam’s forehead.

My heart just about stopped. Adam was my charge. My duty. I should have dragged him away the second I knew he was planning something dangerous. Shouldn’t have even bothered waiting to find out what it was.

Adam didn’t seem concerned with the gun to his head. I was beginning to think he had lost his mind in that damned city. “She’s going to want to talk to us. All of us. I have information she needs.”

The guard cocked the hammer, making a loud click.

Adam cocked his head, the gun still pressed against his skin. “That’s a Black Knight, right? Zero Forge Guns?”

There was a pause. Then the guard grunted. “Yes.”

“Huh. A machine pistol is a bit overkill in this situation, don’t you think?”

The guard growled. I almost thought he would kill Adam right then and there, but he controlled himself.

“Is that the ZF740, or the 750? I can’t read the model number from this angle.”

If Adam thought he would trick the guard into pulling back the gun to check, it didn’t work. “The 750.”

Adam looked worried. “Oh dear.”

He seemed so earnest, even the guard had to be curious. “What? What is it?”

“You do know those tend to explode, right?”

I rolled my eyes at the obvious lie—until I got a look at the guard’s face. He was trying to keep a poker face, but I could tell. He knew what Adam was talking about.

Adam knew it too. “The 740 is a much more reliable weapon. I wonder why she didn’t just get you those…” He chuckled to himself. “Ah yes, of course. How silly of me. Because the 750s were cheaper.”

The guard pressed the gun harder against Adam’s forehead. I had to fight my instincts, which wanted to struggle out of the chair and tackle the guard to the ground. Trying wouldn’t do anything but make the guards jumpy.

“Ninety nine times out of a hundred, these guns fire fine,” the guard said. “You willing to bet your life on a one percent chance?”

Adam smirked. “Are you?”

They stared each other down for a moment.

The guard withdrew the gun and put it on the counter. He turned to one of the others. “Go find me another gun. Not a 750. One of those Hell… Hellion guns.”

“The 88-006 is good, if you have it,” Adam called after the retreating guard. “The 87-609 is a decent backup!”

The lead guard flipped a knife out of his boot and held it in a reverse grip. “This won’t explode if I try to kill you with it. So maybe you should just shut up.”

I closed my eyes briefly. If Adam’s plan had been to disarm our enemies, it didn’t seem to have worked. Honestly, they didn’t even need knives. We were tied to chairs bolted to the floor. What were we going to do, spit on them?

Adam raised an eyebrow. He still looked calm and in control. “What is an explosion?”

The guard looked at him like he had sprouted a second head. “What?

“An explosion,” Adam said calmly, “is simple. It is the same as any other form of motion, just bigger and faster. Every breeze is an explosion, in a way. Every waterfall. Every rustling leaf in the forest.”

The guard lowered the knife. “You are a crazy—”

Adam exploded into motion.

He jumped out of the chair, leaving the handcuffs behind. He tackled the guard to the ground and bashed the man’s head, hard. Before he had a chance to recover, Adam grabbed his knife and stabbed him in the throat.

The second guard grabbed his gun, but hesitated. It was the same type of gun the other had been using, and now Adam had made him paranoid.

The hesitation only lasted a moment, but a moment was all Adam needed. He took his stolen knife and charged straight at the guard, plunging it deep into the man’s chest like a rhino’s horn. The tackle bore them both to the ground, and the guard coughed up blood from the impact. Adam withdrew the knife from his throat, then stabbed him in the throat.

I stared. I had seen people do incredible things in desperate situations. But Adam wasn’t moving desperately. He was moving quickly and efficiently, killing with the bare minimum of effort. He was covered in blood—neck wounds were messy—but barely seemed to notice. He grabbed a rag to wipe his face, but that was it.

I felt hands behind me, working on my cuffs. There was a brief pinch, and then one loosened. Then another pinch, and the other came free too. I turned to see Lily crouching behind my chair. She smiled and held up the broken cuffs.

They looked twisted and mangled. Almost like she had ripped them apart with her bare hands.

“Canny is cheap,” Lily explained. “These things are barely better than toys.”

I nodded slowly. Of course. Toys. They… they must have been made of plastic.

I resolutely ignored the memory of the cold steel cuffs on my wrist.

Plastic. They must have been plastic.

Adam glanced through the glass door. “They haven’t noticed yet, but it’s only a matter of time.” He started patting down the corpses. He pulled out a few more knives and two key cards. “Lily, how drugged are these workers?”

Lily thought for a moment. “There’s a limit to how much she can drug them and still expect them to be productive. Plus, like I said, she’s cheap, and drugs are expensive. If they see any actual blood, I think they’ll freak. Anything short of that should be fine.”

Adam looked down at his bloodstained clothes. “…great. Should have worn red today.”

I rubbed my wrists, then looked down at myself. “I’m still clean. I can give you my shirt, then I’ll just wear the blazer on top of my bra.” I turned to Lily. “Do you think they’ll notice?”

She made a face. “It’s really hard to say. Probably not? But there have to be at least a few sober people in the building. The guards seemed clear-headed.”

“So we’ll avoid the guards,” Adam said. He looked in a closet, but didn’t seem to find anything interesting. He looked like he was considering dragging the bodies inside, but thought better of it. They had bled too much. Hiding them would be impossible. “Chris, give me your shirt. Lily, I want you to hide in here.”

I expected her to object. Instead she glanced at the corpses, shivered, and nodded.

I got my shirt off, and Adam didn’t even blink at my nudity. I did notice him carefully looking me in the eyes, though. I smirked, handed him the shirt, and started buttoning up my blazer. Anyone with half a brain would notice I was naked underneath, but apparently there weren’t many of those around.

Adam took off his bloody shirt and tossed it into the closet. His jeans were a bit bloody too, but they were dark enough to be mistaken for water. He washed his face at the sink and tried half-heartily to clean his pants. It didn’t work, but it did help disguise the blood by getting his pants wet.

I frowned at his bare chest. He seemed to have a lot of scars. They were mostly healed correctly, but it was still startling to see so many of them. I saw claw marks, straight cuts like from knives, a couple gunshot wounds, at least one burn…

Lily didn’t react to the scars, so I didn’t say anything. This wasn’t the time.

Once Adam was sure he was clean, he put on my shirt, buttoning it up quickly. Then he tossed me the gun from the counter, along with a holster. I nearly dropped it, I was fumbling so much. I glared at him, but he just smirked.

“What the hell?” I demanded. “I thought you said these things explode!”

“Only once out of a hundred,” he said as he buckled on a holster with a second gun. “Besides, it’s actually less than that. I have a friend who’s a big gun nut. She says that some of them are more flawed than others. If the guards have been shooting these things recently, that means they’re probably the safer versions. It’s probably more like one shot out of a thousand makes them explode.”

“Great,” I said dryly. “I feel ten times safer.”

He smiled. “It’s mostly for intimidation. People take you seriously if you have a gun.”

He sounded like he was speaking from experience. I had so many questions, but not right now. Right now, my only priority was getting him out alive.

I looked behind me and saw Lily closing the closet door behind her. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to leave her here?”

Adam nodded. “She hates violence. I don’t want her to have to see more of this than she has to.”

“But how will she escape?”

He frowned. “Escape?”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing? Looking for an escape route?”

He chuckled. “No. Definitely not.”

“Then what?”

His eyes were as hard as ice, and his smile was manic. “We’re going to find the queen bee and kill her.”

The way he spoke, the way he moved… it all painted a picture. I wasn’t sure what I had thought. Maybe I had been hoping that years of violent video games had desensitized him to violence. That didn’t explain how he was good at it, but I had been latching on desperately to that ridiculous explanation.

But this plan of his… it wasn’t one born of desperation. He wasn’t fighting to find the only way out.

He just wanted the queen dead, and he was the only person he trusted to pull it off.

“Okay,” I said. I took a deep breath. “How many do you think there are?”

“The Riven? I dunno. There are probably a couple hundred people in the building, but not all of them are going to be combat-capable.” He carefully opened the door and started walking out. I followed him quickly.

“This is a bad idea,” I hissed as we walked down the rows of cubicles.

“Act like you belong,” he said. He strode down the aisles with a straight back, nodding politely to people we passed. “If you sneak, they’ll know we have a reason to sneak. We can’t fight the whole damn building.”

While I was skeptical, he quickly proved to be correct. One or two people glanced at us, but no one gave us a second look. Whether it was the drugs or their work, they knew we weren’t their problem.

“She’ll probably be at the top,” I said, hitting the button to call the elevator.

Adam nodded, but pulled me towards the stairs. “And the elevator will be trapped.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Well, maybe not.” He opened the door, swept the landing expertly with his gun, and gestured me inside. “But if nothing else, it will have cameras. They would have called her once they figured out where we were going.”

I looked up the stairwell. “About how many do you think it is?” I didn’t know how tall the building was.

He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe ten flights or so.”

I groaned. “Wonderful.”

He chuckled. “This is nothing. Remind me to tell you about the time I had to run up twenty flights in full kit.”

I stared at him as he started up the stairs. Once again, he moved with military efficiency. He rounded the corner quickly, swept the landing and the stairs up, then continued. He didn’t waste time watching his back, either. He clearly expected me to serve as rearguard.

I did so, keeping an eye behind us, but I couldn’t help glancing at him every few minutes. What happened to the silly little gamer who had left for Domina a few months ago? He used to refuse to play shooters online because he was so bad at them.

I could have asked. Maybe would have even gotten an answer. But I remained silent, following him up the stairs.

He kept a good pace. Fast enough to eat up the steps, but slow enough that we didn’t get exhausted. We’d probably be facing a fight once we reached the top.

Eventually, we stopped outside a door. Unlike the others—which were just labeled with numbers—this one had a sign. It used strange characters I didn’t recognize. But they seemed familiar somehow…

“What’s that?” I asked. I kept the stairs down covered, just to be safe.

Adam brushed his fingers over the sign. “Demonscript. German with Cuneiform characters. I’ve only seen it a couple times. It’s a lot more rare than the angel version. Demons aren’t very unified.” He shook his head. “I didn’t think Malcanthet, of all people, would use it.”

“Can you read it?”

“No, but I can ask—” His hand went to his pocket, but he stopped himself. “Never mind.” He glared at the sign as if it was mocking him. “It’s probably nothing important. I’m sure it just says something about how employees aren’t allowed through here without special permission.”

“What if it says ‘warning, lethal gas area?’”

Adam glared at me. “I don’t remember you being this snarky.”

“We didn’t really spend a lot of time together.”

He shrugged. “Fair enough.” He played with something in his pocket for a moment, trying to come to a decision. “It’s not worth the risk. We’ll just have to go in blind.” He put his hand on the doorknob. “Ready?”

I brought my gun up and nodded.

He took a deep breath and pulled open the door. I stepped inside, sweeping the room.

It wasn’t like the office floors down below. The floor was thick carpet, and there was plush furniture scattered everywhere. Velvet tapestries covered the walls, scrawled with artistic designs. It was clean, for the most part, but there were a few glasses and bowls scattered around on love seats. Not much, but enough to tell me that this place was used. It wasn’t some waiting room, ignored until it was needed.

There were two guards. They looked out of place sitting on the comfy furniture in their sharp suits. They blinked as I entered the room, but they recovered quickly. They rose, hands going to their guns.

I shot them both, one after another. Dead center in the chest. Both men crumpled to the ground.

The gunshots didn’t echo much; there was too much plush in the room. But someone would still have heard it. We didn’t have long before someone came running.

Adam pushed past me, his gun out as well. He glanced around the room and spotted the fallen guards. Then he walked over to them and calmly shot them both twice in the head.

I started. “What the Hell!?”

“Just to be safe,” he said. He looked at me. God, those eyes… cold as ice. “Is there a problem?”

I swallowed. “No. You just surprised me.”

He nodded, then knelt down and inspected the bodies. He smirked and exchanged his gun for one the guards had. “Of course. Her elites get the 740s.” He tossed me one. “Use that one. It’s mostly the same, just doesn’t explode. Don’t swap bullets, though.”

I looked it over. He was right; it looked exactly the same as the 750, except for the different serial number. Though they both had a small lever, similar to a safety. On the 750 it was off, but on the 740 it was in the on position.

“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to it.

Adam frowned at looked at his own 740. “Not sure. It’s not a…” His face cleared. “Oh, right. I forgot. The Black Knight is a machine pistol.” He flicked the lever. “The guys downstairs had theirs on single-shot mode, these guys used full-auto.”

I clicked mine to single-shot too. “Seems like a small mag for a machine pistol.”

“Yeah, but it can be useful in the right circumstances.” He pulled something else out of the guard’s pocket. “Key card. Not sure we’re gonna need it. They might open the door for us.”

I frowned. “Why would they do that?”

He smirked. “So that they can come out and kill us, of course.”

There were three entrances to this room: The stairwell we had come from, a more ornate door to the left, and the elevator to the right. Adam and I both turned to cover the ornate door. At least we’d hear the elevator.

“Derek told me that Rivenheart had Kevlar furniture,” he said. “I have no idea if that’s true here. Just keep it in mind.”

I didn’t ask who Derek was or what Rivenheart had been. This really wasn’t the time.

I heard shouting from the other room. The guards were getting ready.

“How many are we looking at?” I asked.

Adam shook his head. “No idea. Room of that size could fit twenty armed men.”

I glanced at him. He looked worried, but not scared. Calm, determined.

“Is surrender—”

“No.”

“But maybe—”

No.” He glared at me. “Do you have any idea where these people came from? All these slaves who she has drugged into mindless obedience?”

“I would assume she hired them and then started spiking the coffee.”

Adam smirked, but controlled himself. “Maybe some. But not all. One of her favorite tricks is brainwashing her enemies to fight for her.” He turned back to the door. “Fight to the death or jump off the roof. Those are your options.”

There was another option: Escape. Or rather, there had been another option. He was right, by this point it was off the table. If this ‘Malcanthet’ had half a brain, she would have cut off our escape routes by now.

“Adam, I—”

The door opened.

Adam fired, once, twice, then dove behind cover. I followed suit, even though I hadn’t actually seen anyone returning fire. My paranoia was proven justified when bullets streaked through the air.

I waited a heartbeat, popped up, and fired in the direction of the door. I didn’t get a good look, but I did see a few men. I dropped back down again before I could count exactly how many of them there were.

I checked my clip. “Half left.”

Adam frowned. He popped up and fired twice before dropping down again. It was a very clean and professional maneuver. Who the hell had trained him? “You have some spare mags, right?”

“One,” I said.

“Shit.” He peeked out from around the corner of the couch and fired twice. I heard the sound of bodies hitting the floor. He withdrew just as the survivors returned fire. The bullets tore into the floor and threw up splinters of wood from underneath the carpet.

I took the opportunity to pop up and take a shot at the guard in front. I got him in the shoulder, and he cried out in pain.

I ducked back down. “I think three are neutralized. Unless you got more with your first shots.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

The guards started shooting again. Bullets hit the couch, but none punched through. I couldn’t tell if Adam was right about the Kevlar, or if the bullets just didn’t have enough penetration. “At least it doesn’t sound like twenty men,” I said. “I’d say six more, max.”

Adam cocked his head, listening to the gunfire. “Based on reloads… I’d say three.”

I nodded. I had been rounding up to be safe.

The gunfire slowly subsided.

I glanced at Adam. “You think that’s a good sign?”

He frowned. “No. I really, really don’t.”

“Assassin!” someone called. It was a melodious voice that made every hair on my body stand on end. Just that one word was like my first kiss all over again. “You are surrounded! Lay down your weapons and you will not be harmed!”

I almost stood. How could anyone disobey that voice?

Adam grabbed me and dragged me back down. “You’re not a lesbian.”

I frowned. “What? Of course not. What does that have to do with anything?”

“She has pheromones,” he explained patiently. “You haven’t even seen her and she’s already seducing you. Just remember: You’re not a lesbian.”

I took a deep breath, struggling to remain in control. Adam seemed unfazed. He must have more experience with this sort of thing.

“I have grenades!” that perfect voice called. “I would prefer not to ruin my sitting room further, but I will if I have to!”

I bit my hand, hard. The pain kept me centered, focused on the moment.

Adam watched dispassionately. I couldn’t tell if he thought I was weak and useless or weak and pitiful.

“If you don’t come out, I will execute your friend!”

I grabbed Adam before he could leap out. The cold look in his eyes was gone, replaced by rage and fire.

“It’s a bluff,” I hissed. “She knows there were three of us. She’s just trying to draw us out.”

“We caught her in the elevator. She will make a fine addition to my collection.”

I gripped Adam’s arm so hard it hurt. “It’s a bluff. Why would Lily go to the elevator anyway? It’s terrible tactics.”

Adam closed his eyes. “Lily… is not good at tactics.”

I frowned. Before I could say anything, the elevator dinged.

Adam and I both pointed our guns in that direction before the doors even opened. We didn’t shoot, though. Not with Lily in the way.

One of the guards pushed her out in front of him. He had a gun to the back of her head, and her hands were tied behind her back. Maybe she could get out of that, but even if she could deal with one guard, the rest would kill her before she could reach cover.

“See?” the voice said. “Come out before I get impatient.”

Adam slowly lowered his gun.

I kept mine up. “Are you sure?”

He sat there for a few moments before answering.

“No,” he said finally. “I’m not sure.” He tossed his gun over the couch, well out of reach.

I sighed and did the same. Then we both stood, hands up, and turned in the direction the voice had been coming from.

That was when I received my first look at the Succubus Queen.

The first thing I noticed was her glittering white smile and her razor-sharp teeth. She had perfectly tanned skin, curves that would make a model jealous, and was wearing a set of lacy bra and panties that would make a porn star blush. She had strange, abstract tribal tattoos all over her body, especially around her breasts and groin. Her eyes were red, but her hair was wavy black. It went down to the small of her back, but she kept it carefully brushed away from her forehead. The better to show off her horns. They were just small red things, about the same size and shape as Lily’s.

In fact, she reminded me a lot of Lily. Lily was much shorter, and had absolutely no curves to speak of, but other than that they were very similar. Even the tattoos were of the same general theme. Lily almost looked like she was aping the Queen, except for the tail. Lily had one, the Queen didn’t.

Malcanthet quirked her head. “Hello, little demon. Have we met before?”

“I’m not a demon,” Lily said. I was surprised by the strength in her voice.

“Whatever you say.” Malcanthet clapped her hands and smiled. “I lost two, but gained three. Hardly ideal, but a net gain in the end. I’ll take it.”

“You won’t get away with this,” Adam warned.

The Queen laughed. “What are you, five? Of course I will.” She grinned wolfishly. “That annoying little drug of yours will wear off in a day or so, and then you are all mine.”

“Ten ambassadors from Domina are here in New York right now,” he said. “They will come for you.”

“No. They won’t. They don’t even know I’m here.” She smirked. “Even if you did have enough presence of mind to warn them before you were captured, it won’t matter. They would much prefer to just ignore me. I’m out of the city, I’m no longer their problem.”

“Domina is changing, Lupa,” Adam said. “We look beyond our borders now.”

Malcanthet had stopped smiling. “Don’t call me that. And I looked you up, Mister Anders. You are not a Dominite. You are just some random idiot outsider.” She shook her head. “The fact that you survived in that city for months is proof that they are going soft.”

Adam frowned. “You mean you don’t have spies on the inside?”

Malcanthet rolled her eyes. “Butler and Naamah have been hunting down my Riven ever since I left. I haven’t had anyone in the city for months.” Her grin returned, lips slowly peeling back to expose those shark teeth. “But perhaps I will send you back as my spies, hm? Yes, that will do nicely…”

“Leave Lily out of this,” I said. The pain from my hand had faded, and I had to struggle to ignore how drop-dead gorgeous Malcanthet was. “She has nothing to do with any of this.”

Malcanthet grinned. “I don’t think—” Her grin faded. “Lily?” She glanced over at Lily. Then her eyes widened.

“Canny, please,” Lily said. “You don’t have to do this.”

“LIES!” Malcanthet shrieked. She stumbled back. “It’s—it’s a trick! Anyone can claim to be her! She changes toys so much, can’t ever be sure what she looks like today! It’s just a stupid trick!”

“Canny—” Lily said again.

“DON’T CALL ME THAT!” Malcanthet grabbed one of her guards by the shoulder. “SHOOT HER!”

I paled. “Wait—”

Before I could say anything else, the guard shot Lily dead center in the forehead.

Behind the Scenes (scene 306)

Demonscript uses one of the simpler forms of Cuneiform. It doesn’t track perfectly with the German alphabet, but it is close enough that any German word can be spelled without too much difficulty. They also modified the numbers, since the Sumerians used a more complex and less efficient system.

Chris discusses Adam’s training here. I’m still unsure whether or not I should have had it offscreen or not. Ultimately, I decided on only a couple of scenes with him fighting monsters, in addition to the screamer scenes. Unfortunately, this created the impression that he was entirely self-taught during combat. There was a lot of that, of course, but he also received real training from Derek, the retinue, Necessarius, and a few of Derek’s monster slayer friends.

Scene 304 – Custos

CUSTOS

ADAM

“But why would she name her domain that?” I asked. “Or her company, whatever. Why risk being exposed?”

“It’s not much of a risk,” Lily said. We were across the street from Miomanta, at a small cafe. Hopefully they didn’t have any cameras pointed in this direction. “There are less than a dozen people in the world who would recognize that name. Malcanthet, myself, Sargeras, Pale Night, maybe Eisheth Zenunim…” She thought for a second. “Probably Naamah. She was always good at ferreting out secrets.”

“Really? That’s it?”

“If you’re counting the dead, Orcus and Malcanthet’s sister both knew, but I doubt Orcus told Obould—”

“Wait wait,” I said. “Malcanthet has a sister?

“Had,” she corrected. “Xinivrae, the Black Widow. You know her better as Soaring Eagle.”

I sat back, stunned. I hadn’t even considered what Soaring Eagle might have been before she became a kemo. I knew that people often transferred from the demons to another culture, but still.

“Anyway, here.” Lily slid something across the table. It was a small syringe filled with a clear liquid. “You’ll need this if we’re going to face Malcanthet.”

“What is it?”

“Something the Avernans and the Sibriex came up with. Long story short, it turns off your sexuality for about a day.”

I frowned. “It… what? Is that a thing?”

“Yes,” she said. “Sort of. Not really. It’s complicated. Look, the point is that Malcanthet won’t be able to seduce you if you use this.” She thought for a moment. “You might want to pretend to get seduced, though. She doesn’t like losing.”

Something clicked. “That’s the point of the name. It’s a game.”

Lily nodded. “She wants to see if anyone else is smart enough to figure it out. She’s always liked meaningless challenges like that. She likes being in control.”

I stretched out my arm, readying the syringe. “What can we expect, going in? Will she have a toy maker?”

“Not sure.” Lily took the syringe from me, tapped my vein, and jabbed me. I winced, but she knew what she was doing. The pain only lasted a second. “The destruction of Shendilavri made it difficult to piece together exactly what happened. But I’ve spoken to the Powers. They agree that—”

“Wait, which Powers?” I winced again as she withdrew the needle. I didn’t feel any change yet. She got a small bandage and applied it to my wound. “I know Obould and Dispater were there, but Derek doesn’t talk about it much.”

“Not the demon Powers. The succubus Powers.”

I stared at her.

She smiled. “Did you really think an entire culture would die so easily? They went underground. They remained safe, even as the city hated them. And soon, they will be able to reveal themselves again.”

I swallowed. It wasn’t really a big deal. But I had a feeling the rest of the city wouldn’t think of it that way. They’d probably react like if you found out your next-door neighbor was a Nazi.

“Naamah and her Daybringers searched the ruins as much as possible. They are quite convinced that Malcanthet only intended to leave the city for a short time. A few months, at most. It is unlikely that she had a toy maker with her.”

“And getting one outside the city would be nearly impossible,” I said. “I’d be surprised if there are a dozen in the country. All would be in military hands.”

Lily leaned back. “Yes. Malcanthet could seduce her way onto a military base, of course, but that would attract too much attention for only a minor benefit. I suspect that she is just making do with what she has.”

“And what does she have?” I asked.

“Pheromones, obviously,” she said. “Five years out of date, but still very effective. Especially when combined with her own skills in seduction. She’s also immune to most poisons, though the Avernans have invented a few since that would test her limits. Same with diseases. Not that we’d want to unleash a modded disease here…”

“She bulletproof?”

“Bullet resistant,” Lily said. She looked disturbed, but didn’t mention it. “She doesn’t have to worry about smaller calibers, but a hand cannon should be enough. I notice you don’t have your guns with you—”

“I’ll figure something out,” I said. “Steal one from one of her slaves.”

“The Riven won’t be armed with the kind of weapons you need. Malcanthet would never give her followers any weapons that could be turned against her.”

I sat back in my seat. “So, what? They’ll only have small caliber stuff?”

“And some odder things, as long as they can’t pierce her skin. Microflechette guns were her favorite. She was using the Reiner Gamma Crisis when she left, but I don’t know how many of those she had on hand. BOB doesn’t sell much outside of Domina.”

“I’m surprised they sell outside Domina at all.”

“People know quality.”

I smiled. I had a couple BOB guns. Butler had given me an Olympian Athena early on, but I had bought a few others since. The Reiner Gamma shot small darts tipped with poison. You could change the type of poison, so it was pretty common among monster slayers. I doubted Malcanthet’s men would be using sleeper toxin, though.

“Any chance you have a magic gas that will undo all her brainwashing?” I was joking. Laura and I had discussed Malcanthet’s brainwashing more than a bit, when we thought she might be the Composer. It was far too complex to be easily defeated.

Lily shook her head sadly. “No, nothing like that. My power might help, a little, but I can’t be sure.”

Her power. She didn’t talk about it much. “You’ve been practicing with it?”

She nodded. “As much as possible.”

I nodded. “Good. The more you practice, the stronger it gets. I think that might be Laura’s problem, she never pushes her ability to its limits.”

“I talked to her a bit about it. She organized a study, and she’s pretty sure the problem is actually the fact that it’s so easy to use—”

Someone sat down at our table.

Lily barely even blinked, but I jumped about three feet in the air. I got my knife out and brandished it. It was just the silly hunting knife my dad had bought me a few years ago, but it was the only weapon I had been able to find on short notice. Besides, six inches of cold steel was pretty intimidating.

Chris Clemens raised an eyebrow at the knife, but otherwise didn’t react. “Are you planning to do something dangerous, Master Adam?”

I thought for a moment, then sheathed the knife. “No. Not towards you, anyway. What are you doing here?”

“I followed you,” she said. “You were acting very suspicious. I am also interested in that device in your backpack.” She nodded at it. I had zipped up the backpack to keep from attracting attention. “Is it still on?”

“Yes,” I said. “Not that it matters. It needs line of sight to work.” The counter-song could work through some obstructions, but not many. We were still studying it. It seemed to be able to bend a bit, or maybe reflect off nearby objects. That meant that people usually didn’t block the effect, but putting it in a bag did.

Chris raised an eyebrow, but didn’t inquire further. “All right. So what are you doing here? You found your friend’s niece?”

“Yes,” I said. I nodded at the skyscraper. “She’s in there.”

“Why haven’t you gone in yet?”

“We’re planning our attack.”

She frowned. “There’s no need to attack, Master Adam. This is not Domina City. Go inside and tell the receptionist who you’re looking for.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“The building is a front,” Lily said before Chris could argue. “It is owned by a fugitive from Domina City.”

Chris sat up. “Fugitive? Then we need to alert the police.”

“No,” Lily and I both said instantly.

Chris scowled. “This isn’t time for jurisdictional—”

“Malcanthet will kill them,” Lily said. “She is a ruthless warlord, and the local police cannot handle her. We can. At least long enough to get Saki out.”

“And then what?” Chris asked, eyes narrow.

“Then we discuss things with the delegation,” Lily said. “We’ll figure it out from there.”

Chris looked annoyed. “Is this always how you solve your problems? Run in half-cocked and hope for the best?”

I chuckled. “Pretty much. Malcanthet is just a demon. She’s easier to handle than most of the stuff I’ve seen in the past few months.”

Chris turned to me. “And what, exactly, have you been doing these past few months?”

I smirked. “You know me, Chris. Nothing exceptional. Just some light exercise.”

She glared, but I didn’t break. After dealing with a warlord or two, baselines just weren’t intimidating.

“Fine.” She put something on the table and slid it across to me. When I picked it up, I was surprised that it was a pager. Who used pagers any more? “Just hit that button, and we’ll come in guns blazing.”

I frowned. “Who did you bring?”

“Almost everyone.”

“How many total?” Lily asked.

“Twelve.”

Lily and I shared a glance. Twelve wouldn’t be enough if Malcanthet decided to make a fight of it. I had read enough about the Succubus Queen to know that she was paranoid. I had no idea how many soldiers she had, but they would be numerous and fanatically loyal.

And that was assuming Saki hadn’t gotten control of them.

“We’ll try stealth first,” I said. “I’ll go in alone—”

“Alone?” Chris demanded. “No, I’ll go in with you, and—”

“And get us both caught and killed,” I said. “You have no idea what you’re walking into. I do. You don’t know what Saki looks like, or what she’s capable of. I do, and I do. You don’t have a CS device. I do.”

Chris frowned. “Now, wait here. My job is to keep you safe. I’m not about to—”

“It’s not a discussion.” I opened up my backpack, revealing the CS device. “Lily, have you found an entrance?”

Chris looked surprised at my defiance, but Lily didn’t pay attention to her. She peered at Miomanta. Her eyes were far, far better than mine. I’d probably need binoculars to see half as well as her. “Third floor. There’s an open window. Only a crack, but it should be enough.” She blinked, and turned her focus back to me. “What’s your climbing skill? On the kemo scale.”

“Oof. I never actually took the test. I think Kat said I was about a six? But she only saw me climb anything once or twice.”

“Hm.” She turned back to the building. “Should be enough. It doesn’t look like a very hard climb.”

“All right.” It was only three floors. I could do this. I stood. “Chris, you have a spare gun I can borrow?”

She chuckled. “No. Your parents would cut off my head if I gave you a gun.”

I rolled my eyes, but didn’t see the need to argue. I’d just get one inside. “Fine. I’m going. With luck, I’ll be back soon with Saki.”

Suddenly, everyone in the cafe turned around and pointed guns at us.

Chris nearly jumped out of her seat. Her hand went to her own gun, but I stopped her. I shook my head, and she nodded. One of the cafe patrons stepped up and grabbed the gun before she could change her mind. Another took the pager and carefully removed the batteries. We were on our own.

Lily didn’t look surprised so much as disappointed. “The Riven, I assume?”

One of the patrons smirked. “Of course.”

We should have known. Why would Malcanthet allow a cafe to exist freely right across from her domain? She wouldn’t. Of course she wouldn’t. She would buy or seduce every single person who ever stepped foot in the place.

The Succubus Queen did so like being in control.

Behind the Scenes (scene 304)

I’m always hesitant about setup scenes like this, but you can’t have all action, all the time.