Tag Archives: Maeve

Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

It took two days to arrange everything. Longer than I would have liked, but at ten AM on Thursday, January 10th, the first inter-species diplomatic meeting started right on schedule. It was still held in NHQ, but in one of the outer buildings, so that the representatives didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed.

As Zero had promised, Leeno had snapped out of his meditative fugue state after a few hours. He had promised not to do it again, and while I wasn’t sure he could keep that promise, it would at least increase the likelihood of him making it through the entire meeting awake.

I was a little worried he couldn’t promise anything, in fact. There had been no communications from the mothership, either to us or its little fleet. No threats, no recall orders, nothing besides basic patrol data going back and forth. They were acting like nothing of significance had happened, which didn’t bode well. I had been hoping that Leeno was a prince or equivalent who had decided to do the right thing over objections. It seemed instead that he was just a random nobody.

Except for the fact that Robyn sensed he had a power. Now, down in the city, it was impossible to say for sure—surrounded by so many others with powers, there was just too much interference for anyone to get a good read on him. Maybe he didn’t have a power. Maybe Zero had a power. We had no way of knowing, and I hadn’t wanted to broach the subject in case he thought he was successfully hiding it from us.

The two of them hadn’t done much in the two days of waiting. I had provided him with a pad that had a bunch of informational articles pre-loaded on it, but disabled the internet by physically pulling out the router. The articles would give him a basic understanding of Earth and our recent history, but there was nothing dangerous in there. It was possible he had access to more information—his translator was programmed with English, so obviously they had sorted through quite a bit of our information—but there was nothing I could do about that. I had made sure not to give him any false information though, so we wouldn’t be caught in any lies.

Regardless, now that the time had arrived, the delegates started filing into the meeting room, with its long rectangular table. Butler was already sitting at one end, with President Martinez from America on the other. President Aleks Petrov from the Soviet Union sat with Martinez, while Mayor Milanka Ó Súileabháin sat with Butler—she was from Mons Agnes, and we had been lucky she had been able to come down from Luna on such short notice. Prime Minister Jeong Park from Korea sat with Martinez, then Senator Grain from America took the seat next to him.

So on and so on, everyone filed in, the vast majority choosing to sit on Martinez’s side of the table. Most of the Earthbound countries didn’t like our city very much, and the space colonies simply hadn’t been able to get here in time.

Of course, we had our own representatives.

Once all of the foreigners took their seats, the Dominites started to file in. Lily, of course—she had come with Martinez, but she sat next to Butler—Pale Night from the demons, Nyashk from the vampires, Zaphkiel from the angels, Evangel from the kemos, Odin from the giants, Maeve from the fey, Meldiniktine from the changelings, Ariel from the Dagonites, and Chronepsis from the dragons. The Servants of the Lady had sent two representatives, but they were fussing over the food, and started passing it out once everyone was seated. We had actual paid servers, but it was pretty hard to get the Servants to sit still when there was work to be done.

Once all the humans were seated, the para walked in.

Zero looked the same as ever, but Leeno looked much better. He stood straighter, with a smile on a face as he scanned the room. His clothing was different as well, a multi-layered robe of a dozen different colors. I still hadn’t managed to tease out any information on the meaning of the colors he used—not to mention the distinct lack of colors on Zero.

The Servants quickly moved forward and pulled out two seats for the pair at the middle of the table. Leeno smiled at them and nodded in thanks, then took his seat. Zero hesitated for a moment before taking her seat as well.

“Hello,” Leeno said, smiling at everyone in turn. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

No one spoke.

“Let’s start simple,” he said. “Yes, I am an alien. My people come from a planet three thousand light-years away. It took us a little less than three thousand light-years to get here. The engine we used for most of the journey is what I believe you would call a warp drive. It largely negated the effects of relatively on the transit.”

Butler glanced at me, and I nodded. It was all the truth.

“Now, there is much I can share with you,” Leeno said. “But first, I’m sure you would all like some sort of peace treaty. Let me assure you all that my people do not want war. We came here expecting a habitable world, bare of life.” He shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, our information is six thousand years out of date at this point. You are here, and I am sure you will be happy to hear that you are too powerful to simply be destroyed.”

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

“However,” Leeno continued. “We are too strong for you to simply destroy us, either. Both sides have no choice but to find another solution. I believe we should start with a simple show of trust on both sides.” He nodded at Zero.

She glared at him as best as she could with that expressionless mask of hers, but he didn’t back down. She put her arm on the table and started dismantling it, placing nuts and bolts and strange glowing crystals in neat rows. It looked like the arm was almost entirely machine.

When she removed the first gun barrel, that got everyone’s attention.

After a few minutes of that, she started on the other arm—even with so many parts missing that her arm was see-through, the hand still worked fine. She dismantled the second gun faster than the first, then pushed the parts into the center of the table.

“As you can see, we are now unarmed.” Leeno paused, then frowned. “My translator just informed me that was a pun. Apologies, that was unintentional. Regardless, I would like a similar gesture of good faith from you.”

“We are all unarmed,” President Martinez said. I noticed he conspicuously did not look at the Dominite half of the table. Sure, they were all unarmed, but any one of the warlords could easily kill Leeno and Zero with their bare hands. Even Meldiniktine—maybe even especially Meldiniktine.

Leeno smiled. “Thank you, but that’s not what I meant.” He turned to me. “Stop.”

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

I chuckled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh?” He quirked his head. “So you’re not using a low-level form of mind-reading to monitor me for patterns consistent with lies?”

I stopped smiling.

He could sense my power. He knew that I could detect lies. More than that, he seemed to know how it worked. I barely understood it myself, but I had discussed some theories with MC. My power did seem to have quite a bit in common with the mind-reading powers.

“She’s what?” Senator Grain said. Martinez shushed him.

I went through the possibilities in my head. Was Leeno bluffing? Possibly. He could have learned from my power from another source. But I had carefully kept powers out of the data I had given him, so that was unlikely—possible, but I’d file it away for now.

More likely, he really did know what I was doing because he could sense it somehow. Like what Robyn had done to him.

And there was the answer.

“Fair’s fair,” I said carefully. “You’ve seen mine, show me yours.”

“Is that language appropriate?” Grain said. “Mister Butler, who is this girl? Why is she—”

“Grain,” Martinez said tiredly. “Shut up.”

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

“Fair’s fair,” Leeno said. He held up a three-fingered hand. Sparks danced like ball lightning.

Most of the representatives were a bit surprised, but Zero jumped out of her seat as if Leeno had zapped her. She tensed like an animal waiting to figure out whether to run or attack, but Leeno just patted her seat.

“We don’t have time for frivolities,” he said. He turned back to me. “Stop it. Please.”

I grit my teeth and then, for the first time in eight months, I turned off my power.

I expected the world to feel different. Less clear, perhaps. Less certain, as I couldn’t detect the lies any more. But no, nothing changed. There was a brief feeling of emptiness in my chest, but even that faded in a moment. Everything was still the same as ever.

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

Nyashk stood. “If he has a power, that means they could all have powers. This suddenly became much more dangerous than expected.”

“I agree,” Martinez said, standing. “With… um…” He waved his hand at Nyashk. “Scary dark lady. These people, these para, already had higher tech than us. If they have powers too, then maybe this just became a fight we can’t win.”

Odin snorted. “We have powers as well, little American.”

Martinez let the insult pass without comment, which I was thankful for. Odin was looking for an excuse to get violent. “I’ve spoken with your mother, Lilith. I know you’ve only had powers for a few weeks. How long have the para had theirs? How experienced are they with them? Not to mention we still don’t know how many there are. They could outnumber the entire human race a hundred to one for all we know.”

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

Martinez sighed. “Okay, I’m prone to fits of exaggeration, but still. This is not good.”

“Not all of them have powers,” Butler said.

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

“How could you possibly know that?” Martinez’s senator, Grain, asked.

“Zero was surprised,” Butler said. She managed to look a little contrite even through that expressionless mask. “I am quite certain that she, at least, does not have a power.” He cocked his head to the side, considering. “And judging from the strength of her reaction… I would lay even odds that no one else has any powers.”

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

“Correct,” he said calmly. “I am the only para with a power.”

I really wished I had my power on. “How?” I asked.

“I already told you that the trip here took three thousand years,” he said. “Of course, as you might expect, we were put in cryopods to sleep.” He smiled sadly. “Except… I didn’t sleep. Not really. My body slept, but my mind was awake and aware.”

Meldiniktine leaned forward. “You were trapped in a pod for that entire time?”

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

“Yes and no,” Leeno said with a smile. “My body, as I said, was sleep, and trapped. But it didn’t take me too long to discover how to send my mind wandering away from my body. I memorized every single inch of the ship.”

“That doesn’t explain your power,” I said. “Did you meet someone? Someone who sang at you?”

He frowned. “Sang? What are you—” He chuckled. “Ah, yes. It can be like a song at times. But no, I gained this power, this ability, simply by observing and practicing.” He smiled. “You can learn a lot about the universe in three thousand years.”

There was silence as everyone tried to digest the implications of that.

“Well,” Martinez said with a smile. “Why don’t we move onto more grounded topics, hm? Mister Leeno. Please, tell us what your people want.” It was a blunt attempt to change the subject, but at the moment it was what we needed.

Leeno’s smile faded. “They want a place to live. Our sun was dying when we left. By now, there is nothing left but cinders. Other ships were sent out in other directions, but we have no guarantee that any of them survived. We may well be the last para in the universe, and our leaders will do anything to survive.”

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

Leeno nodded. “Not full genocide, but they will crush your civilizations under their heels if they feel they have to.”

Nice use of metaphor. I made a mental note to try to get a hold of that translator tech.

“What do we need to do to prevent that?” Butler asked. “What do they need in trade?”

“To start with, a world of our own,” Leeno said. “Your homeworld is the only suitable one at the moment, but we do have terraforming tools, and your resources should help with that. It could only take a few decades.”

“You have one in mind?” Petrov asked, his accent thick. He did that whenever he wanted people to underestimate him; I knew that he spoke perfect English.

“The second world in your system should do,” Leeno said. “The hot one with the clouds.”

“Venus?” Martinez asked, eyebrows raised. “You want Venus?”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s just…” He glanced at the other representatives, but no one jumped to his defense. “My advisers tell me that Venus would be the hardest planet to terraform. No one can live there right now, that’s for certain.”

“Many para are cybernetically augmented,” Leeno said. “Our workers will be able to survive and make the world livable, in time.”

Now this was getting interesting. We had pieces of Zero’s cybernetics laid out on the table in front of us, but if it was cheap enough for even the normal workers to use, that meant we might be able to trade for it. “We’ll need to look into a way to share our technology, as well,” I said. “We have some bio-engineering tools that you might find helpful.”

“Wait a second,” Grain said. “You promised those to us.” Most of the other foreign representatives murmured as well.

“We can do both,” Butler said.

I touched my necklace, thinking. “The only people on Venus right now are the crew from Cytherean Watch.” I glanced at Súileabháin. “That’s what, a hundred people?”

“Fifty, though they cycle out,” she said. “Most of the crew belongs to various Lunar cities.”

Martinez frowned. “I thought they were all American citizens.”

Súileabháin rolled her eyes. “They work on an American space station, but they live on Luna, get supplies from Luna, and take orders from Luna. Next you’re going to tell me that you think you still own Ceres.”

Grain looked furious on Martinez’s behalf, but Martinez didn’t say anything, so neither did he.

I waited until they settled down a little. “Regardless of which human government owns the Watch right now, we do need to decide what to do with them. We can move them out if necessary, but it would probably be best to negotiate a way for them to stay. They can serve as ambassadors to the para.”

“You are sure your people will agree to this?” Martinez said.

Leeno shook his head. “I can’t be sure of anything.

Súileabháin threw up her hands. “Then what is the point about this?”

“The point,” Butler said, “is to pave the way for future negotiations. To make sure that we can find a way through this that does not involve war.”

“But none of that matters if their actual leaders of these para refuse to listen,” Grain said.

“There is at least one,” Leeno said. “He was going to talk the others around after I left.”

“Well, if there’s one guy, then our problems are solved,” Grain said sarcastically.

“They haven’t attacked yet,” I said. “That’s a good sign.”

“Why should your opinion matter?” Grain demanded. “Who are you? Why are you even here?”

“I am Laura Medina,” I said. “One of the Paladins who fought off the Composer, and the general behind the defense of this city when your people attacked.” I could see that one shocked him, though he tried to hide it. “I organized this meeting, chose who to invite, and prepared all the contingencies in case you became violent.” Everyone squirmed a little at that, though I pretended not to notice. “I have more right to be here than you, Senator Grain.”

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

Then Nyashk chuckled. “You always could play a room.” She smirked. “I vote to give the para Venus, if they want it. Furthermore, we’ll take out a first-tier protection contract on the colony, effective system-wide.”

The Dominites started murmuring among themselves, but the foreigners and the para just looked confused.

Martinez gave me a meaningful look. “Miss Medina, would you mind explaining?”

I smiled. “Simply put, it means that Nyashk and her people will kill anyone who takes major actions against the colony. First-tier covers… let me see…” I started counting on my fingers. “War, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Second-tier includes sabotage and espionage, and third-tier goes all the way to protecting against economic sanctions.”

“It normally costs a small fortune,” Butler said. “Mister Leeno, you should know that Nyashk’s offer is very generous.”

“I can imagine,” Leeno said. He sounded a bit overwhelmed.

“While I am sure that will work out well for Domina, the rest of the world will want a bit more,” Martinez said. “We can hardly give you everything just in exchange for you not fighting us. That’s not a trade, that’s extortion.”

Leeno nodded. “Of course. And I think—”

The doors burst open.

The foreign dignitaries all jumped up in outrage, while all the Dominite warlords moved into fighting positions. I remained seated—I had my own preparations, and they would go more smoothly if I didn’t jump in the middle of everything.

But when I saw who was at the door, I burst out of my seat.

She was flanked by two gravers who were wearing stone armor that was completely unnecessary but served as an intimidating badge of office. She herself looked small, dwarfed by her guards by almost two feet, but she carried herself like a queen. Her eyes had gone hard since I had seen her last, and her hair was filled with stone dust and past her shoulders instead of cut short, with a few braids held in place by clips of stone. She still wore a long black glove to disguise her stone arm.

It was Ling.

Of course. Ling was the Lady of the Grave. It hadn’t been confirmed—she rarely left the Grave itself—but it had been at the top of my list of possibilities. It explained her power, and the devotion the others showed to her.

I pushed past the startled representatives and one of the gravers who tried to stop me, and pulled Ling into a big hug before she even knew what was happening. I could feel her stone arm, but I didn’t care. I just held her to my chest and tried not to cry.

After a moment, Ling patted me on the arm. I realized she couldn’t breathe, and let her go with a smile. “Sorry about that.”

She smiled back. “It’s okay. Didn’t expect that from you, though. Akane, maybe.” She looked around. “Where is Akane, anyway?”

She should have burst in with the kensei by now. The fact that she hadn’t either meant she knew Ling wasn’t a threat, or something had gone very wrong.

“Can someone explain what’s going on?” Odin asked.

“Yeah, Ling, why do you look like you just crawled out of a collapsed building?” Nyashk said.

I turned to them all and smiled. “Honored warlords, esteemed representatives, this is Ling Yu, one of the Paladins who helped take down Elizabeth. She is—”

“The Lady of the Grave,” Martinez said. For once, his face was dead serious. “I remember from when she attacked the Pentagon.”

Ling quirked her head. “Didn’t Silk erase your memories?”

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

“Well, anyway, yes, I am the Lady of the Grave. Or Lady Grave, or Grave, or Ling. Whatever you prefer. It is wonderful to meet you all.” She grinned at Leeno. “Especially our friends from out of town.”

Zero had her hand on her belt, clearly ready to use a weapon, but Leeno just looked contemplative. “Some sort of stone manipulation ability, I’m guessing? It’s hard to tell, but it seems like you’re using it on yourself. That doesn’t make sense.”

Ling raised an eyebrow. “You have powers? Interesting. We’ll talk more later.” She turned to me. “I’m afraid this isn’t a social call.”

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

“Of course.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, we got a bit sidetracked. Lemuria has been attacked.”

I blinked. “What?”

“How did you find out before we did?” Butler demanded. “We—” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Right. Without Mary Christina, our chain of command is a little bit… messy.”

Ling frowned. “Wait, what? I talked with MC earlier.”

“The real one?” I asked.

“Uh, no, she said she was busy, and…” Ling winced. “Oh, damn. Should have seen that one coming.”

“This Lemuria,” Leeno said. “Where is it and who attacked?”

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

“It’s been attacked by the para,” Ling said. “Or rather, it is being attacked by the para. I came here hoping someone had some plan to stop it. Lemuria is a factory colony, mostly building terraforming and colonization equipment. They have no defenses.”

Everyone glared at Leeno.

“I know nothing about this,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“Wait,” I said. “How can you possibly know this? We don’t have any direct lines to Mars, not even getting into the light-speed delay.”

Ling waved her hand without even glancing back. One of her gravers stepped back into the hallway and returned a moment later with a small squirrel kemo. She just had the tail and big black eyes, but she certainly twitched with nervous energy like a squirrel. She looked like she was going to run at any second.

“Just tell them what you told me,” Ling said soothingly.

The girl glanced around, shivering. “Well… um…”

I cursed. “Everyone, back up! You’re crowding her too much! Back to your seats!”

There was some grumbling, but everyone sat back down, leaving the girl alone with the gravers at the door.

The girl seemed more confident now that she wasn’t surrounded by people towering over her. “Well, I’m not a graver. I’m a telepath, actually. I can… link my mind to another.”

“Instantaneous communication, even over several light-minutes,” Ling said. “It’s very impressive.”

The girl nodded. “I linked with my cousin before he left for Lemuria. He called me when the attack started, and I called my brother…” She trailed off, and one of the graver bodyguards—her brother, I had to assume, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

“The colony can still be saved,” Martinez said.

Súileabháin nodded. “Agreed, but Mars doesn’t have the military to help, and nothing else can get there in time.” She paused. “Unless… Butler, do you have any ghosts on Lemuria? They might be able to do something.”

“Does he what?” Park asked. Her confusion was echoed on the faces of the other foreigners.

Butler’s face, on the other hand, was impassive. “I can neither confirm nor—”

Súileabháin slammed the table. “Now is not the time! Do you have any ghosts or not!”

“What are ghosts?” Martinez asked. “Another of your cultures?”

“They are…” Butler paused to try to find words that weren’t too damning. “…spies. And unfortunately, Madame Mayor, I have none on Lemuria. There was one, but he was in an industrial accident a few weeks ago and transferred out.”

“Wait,” I said. “I remember that. MC talked to me about it. She knew we needed another ghost on the colony, and asked for suggestions. We ended up sending four. They’re not real ghosts, but I figured they were better than nothing.”

“Really?” Butler said, surprised. “Who did you send?”

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

Sorry, cliffhanger, I know, but it’s resolved next scene. It just flows better this way.

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Scene 310 – Insopor

INSOPOR

CHRIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Domothon snorted. “Of course not.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Eccretia,” Ferenil said.

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

Ferenil shrugged. “It happens.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domothon grinned. “Out spying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it’s that too.”

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

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

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

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

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

Henry frowned. “They could… share?”

Domothon laughed. “The White Cat, sharing?”

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. Made sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds familiar, but I’m not sure.”

“Huh. Convenient.”

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

“Maybe she couldn’t do it then.”

“What?”

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

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

Adam sighed. “The ghosts are—”

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 310)

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

Scene 309 – Matre Monstro

MATRE MONSTRO

RICHARD

“Mister President,” the aide said. “They’re ready.”

I cursed and jumped up from my seat. They delay the meeting for eight hours, and then call it again with no warning. Maybe it was a Domina thing, a show of strength. I didn’t really care how strong they were, I just wished I had a chance to finish dinner.

I cursed, struggling with my tie. Never had been able to get used to the stupid things. Normally Silk helped me before important events like this, but she was gone. Some sort of family emergency, she had said. I was curious, but hadn’t asked. To put it bluntly, I had more important things on my mind.

If I had thought ahead, I probably would have asked her to tie my tie before she left. Then I could have just never untied it. But then the knot would probably get dirty over time… maybe that was why people didn’t do that.

After a couple eternities, I managed to get the stupid thing tied. I took a deep breath and stepped outside.

There were dozens of people waiting for me outside my office. No press, thankfully, but I would have almost preferred them. Instead I had to deal with generals and senators who all wanted pieces of my time.

“Sir, I understand you have refused to have the so-called ambassadors arrested—”

“Now, I know it’s too late, but I still think we should have had this meeting in Domina City—”

“These stupid children think they can dictate terms to us—”

“Sir, please be careful, they are more dangerous than they appear—”

“Sir, I think—”

Senator Grain stepped up beside me as I followed my guards through the crowd. I smiled and nodded to everyone trying to give me advice, but ignored them. Most of the people I would be listening to weren’t here.

“We should make them wait,” Grain said.

“No,” I said.

He sighed. “Richard—”

“No,” I said again. I pulled open a door and slipped inside. Grain followed me, and the hubbub died as the door closed. This room wasn’t the meeting room, just a waiting room. There were half a dozen of my closest advisers sitting here, but they didn’t make any noise. “Stalling at this point would just make us look petty.”

Grain brushed some dandruff off my shoulder. “Fine. I guess I can’t argue with that logic. You remember the talking points?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, mom. Start with requesting reparations for the damage done to our ships and armies. They’ll refuse, but it will put us in a better bargaining position for the rest. Ultimate goal is to get their toy maker mods, and figure out where the hell that shield came from.”

Grain nodded. “Yes, that’s perfect.”

I smirked. “This isn’t my first rodeo. I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, but you’ve never negotiated with someone who can rip you apart with their bare hands.” He brushed at my other shoulder, frowning as some piece of dust proved stubborn. “And now you have to deal with ten of them. And their bodyguards.”

“Thank you so much for that reminder,” I said dryly. A thought occurred to me, and I filed it away for later. “Anything else?”

“Nothing much.” He went to brush my shoulder again, but I batted him away. “The meeting is being recorded, but not broadcast live. It could be decades before anyone sees it.” He paused. “I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.”

I sighed. “Neither am I.” I nodded to the others, and they all stood. My guards opened the doors, and I strode into the meeting room.

There were a couple of dozen people, all standing around a long table. They stuck to their half of the room, leaving us plenty of space. They were talking among themselves, but they all turned to look when we entered the room.

I had been briefed as best as possible, but it was still hard not to be shocked. So many of them all in one room… half of them barely looked human any more. There was one that looked like a giant lizard, or maybe a dragon. He was the most extreme, but there was also a naked woman with light green skin glowing slightly. She was speaking to an anthropomorphic white cat, who sniffed in my direction and frowned. There was a group of men who were all eight or nine feet tall. They were speaking with a man who appeared perfectly normal, but his bodyguards all had eyes of pure black. A man with horns was standing next to two women in wheelchairs. They had black eyes as well, but they had patches of fish scales and I could see tails peeking out from under the blankets they had in their laps. A woman in a stunning black dress, dusted with glittering stars, stood with her entourage, smiling at me. On the other side of the room, a normal-seeming woman and two normal-seeming bodyguards glared daggers at her.

I adjusted my tie and forced a smile onto my face. “Welcome, ambassadors of Domina City. I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

“We were,” the normal-looking man said. He stepped up behind a seat next to the head of the table. “But that was not your mistake. Please, do not feel obligated to apologize.”

The others seemed to take his lead, standing behind seats on their half of the room. Even thew wheelchairs were around so that the women could get a better view of the room. They were put behind the man with the horns, who had taken the chair next to the head of the table. Right across from the man with the black-eyed bodyguards.

The head chair itself remained empty. I wasn’t sure what to think of that.

My own people spread out to stand behind their chosen seats on our side of the table. I took the head seat, but paused before pulling the chair out. Was there some hidden ritual here I didn’t understand? Some part of Dominite culture I was missing?

“If you would all take your seats, we can get started—”

“Not quite, President Martinez,” the woman in the black dress said. “We’re just waiting on one more.”

“You appear to have me at a disadvantage. What is your name?”

She smiled. “Lady Maeve, Maiden of the Unseelie Court, Princess of Snow and Frost.”

O…kay… “Lady Maeve. “Who are we waiting on?”

The doors opened.

A girl strode through.

She couldn’t be more than five feet tall. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was barely more than four. Though her professional suit covered up most of her tan skin, I could see tribal tattoos peeking out from her hands and neck. She had a pair of small red horns jutting out of her forehead, short black hair, and a lithe tail snaking up from behind her. Her eyes were red, in more ways than one. The iris was red, yes, but they were also bloodshot and puffy. She almost looked like she had been crying. Still, they were stronger than I expected. Whatever she had been forced to deal with, she had pushed through.

She had one bodyguard, a young man with hard eyes. His suit didn’t fit quite right and his gun was worn too openly, but at least he looked human. He didn’t have any modifications that I could see.

I cleared my throat. “Young lady, I don’t know who you are—”

“Mister president, you have a daughter, correct?”

I paused for a moment. “I think it would be more accurate to say I have a daughter-shaped bundle of energy, but yes.”

She smiled. It faded quickly. “Less than eight hours ago, I held one of my daughters in my arms as she burned to death.” Her eyes were as hard as steel. “She was not a loyal daughter. She died trying to take me with her. When she realized there was no way for her to win, she decided she wanted everyone to lose. But she was still my daughter.”

My eye twitched. I was pretty sure I could smell something scorched. I really didn’t want to know what it was.

“So we can discuss my credentials at another time. Right now, I am too tired.” Her bodyguard pulled out the chair at the head of the table for her, and she sat. The Dominite ambassadors all followed suit without a word. She looked at the papers in front of her. “Now, first on the agenda. Domina’s sovereignty.”

The rest of us slowly sat as well. “I—I think it would be best if we dismissed our bodyguards,” I managed. “As a show of good faith.”

The girl looked at me, frowned, then nodded. “Agreed.” She waved her hand. All the Dominite bodyguards immediately marched out of the room, not even bothering to wait for confirmation from the ambassadors. The girl’s own bodyguard paused for a moment, but left along with the others.

Our own bodyguards filed out as well, but again, slower. They exited the room behind me, and I was suddenly very happy that there were two waiting rooms. Leaving our bodyguards with theirs for the duration of the meeting would probably lead to a fight.

“Most of the difficult parts of Domina’s sovereignty are already accounted for,” the girl said. “We do not pay you taxes, and you do not support us in any way. The prisoner ships might require some new paperwork, but we already receive prisoners from other foreign countries. Putting America in that category shouldn’t be overly difficult.”

“Young miss,” I said. I felt like the world was spinning away beneath me, and my tie was too tight. “I’m sorry for underestimating you. But please—who are you?

She looked up and met my eyes with a level gaze.

“I am Lilith,” she said. “The First Monster. The Mother Monster, the Great Matron. Everyone who uses the toy maker is my child, and everyone in Domina City uses the toy maker. Artemis suggested that my presence would be beneficial to these negotiations, and I agreed. So, I have come.”

I chuckled and glanced at some of the other ambassadors. “Look, I’m willing to take a joke pretty far—”

“I’d stop right there if I were you, friend,” the man from before said. The one with the bodyguards with the black eyes. He smirked, and I could see a hint of fangs in his mouth. “Some of these people might be willing to start a war over an insult to dear old Mom.”

“Dracul,” Lilith said. “Nu-l amenința. Mă voi ocupa de asta.”

Dracul rolled his eyes, but fell silent. His smirk didn’t disappear, however.

Lilith turned back to me. “Any other questions, Mister President?”

I sighed. “No. Not for now, anyway.”

“Excellent.” She tapped at her pad. “Let’s discuss trade. Currently, Domina only trades digitally with America. Outsourced server time, call centers, so on. That should be able to continue uninterrupted, but we can also add a few more things. We can give you toys and monsters, while you can give us food and other goods that are difficult to make offworld. This will take some pressure off some of our allies in space, which will be good for the system as a whole.”

Next to me, Grain cleared his throat. “We haven’t—I don’t think the president has agreed to grant you sovereignty yet.”

Lilith nodded, then gathered up her things and stood. The other Dominite ambassadors followed suit.

“Wait wait wait!” I said. “What are you doing?”

“If you are not willing to grant Domina sovereignty, then we have nothing else to talk about,” she said. “The war will resume, and we will be forced to take drastic measures.” She turned to Maeve. “How fast can you get a dozen gargants in Washington DC?”

Maeve grinned. “Tomorrow. Easy.”

I took a deep breath. I didn’t know what gargants were, but the context made them frightening enough. “You’re trying to scare us. It won’t work.”

“No,” Lilith said. “I am trying to do what is best for my children.”

“A good mother wouldn’t get them killed.”

Half the Dominite ambassadors gasped. The giant growled under his breath and grabbed the table. I couldn’t tell what his plan was, but Lilith stopped him with a raised hand. He reluctantly stepped back.

Those red eyes bored into me. “Is this truly how you want to play this?” she said. She just ignored the insult, which I was thankful for. It had slipped out, and I hadn’t meant it. “Do you really want to jump back into a war? I understand bluffs. I understand acting stronger than you are. But if you do not accept Domina’s sovereignty, people will die. People you could have saved. Do you really want that on your conscience?”

Grain scoffed. “Little girl, if you think—”

“Shut up,” I said.

Grain glared at me, but shut his mouth.

I continued holding Lilith’s gaze, looking deeply into those red eyes of hers.

She didn’t blink.

“Everyone out,” I said.

Everyone stared at me. Grain was the one to speak. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” I said. “Everyone out. Lilith stays, but that’s it.”

They stood silently for a moment, as if they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. I couldn’t quite believe what I was saying. But when I didn’t retract the order, they grumbled and started packing up their things. Everyone, on both sides of the table. They all filed out, muttering and whispering. Even the wheelchairs got pushed out by Dracul and the giant.

Once they were gone and the doors closed behind them, I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “You would have done it, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” Lilith said quietly. “I am sorry. But my children must come first.”

I cocked my head. “So that’s real? You’re not just pandering to the audience?” I jerked my thumb at the camera. “It’s not live, if that’s what you’re worried about. We can delay it for years, if that’s what you want.”

Lilith walked over. She didn’t come all the way to my side of the table, but she did come over to the half way point. She sat on the table and smiled at me.

“None of it is faked,” she said. “I’ve never been a very good liar.”

I stood and walked over opposite her. Now we were only a few feet apart instead of almost twenty. “That’s exactly what good liars say.”

She chuckled. “The truth is… I’m doing my best.” She shrugged. “Parenting is hard enough with a handful of kids, or even just one. I have over four hundred million. I can’t possibly look after them all.”

“What do you do, then?” I asked. I could tell that she was being genuine. A woman like this wouldn’t take the title without trying to live up to it. She had to get to know her children somehow, or she wouldn’t call herself their mother.

“I’m a waitress,” she said with a smile.

I blinked. I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t that.

“I know it sounds silly,” she said. “Everyone always says that.” She leaned back on her hands, a wistful look on her face. “But it lets me meet people. Talk to them. Find out what they like, what they do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

I didn’t say anything. I had spent some time as a waiter when I was a kid, and all it had done was test my faith in humanity. Luckily, we had served alcohol and my boss was very understanding.

“I have to do what is best for my city,” Lilith said. “I am sorry.”

I nodded. “So your sovereignty is non-negotiable. I understand. But I need something in exchange. Favored trade status would go a long way to making this pill easier for congresscritters to swallow.”

She quirked her head. “You’re afraid of them overriding your decision?”

I smirked. “It’s not that bad. They’ll grumble about it, but they don’t want to start a war either. I pretty much just need to give them an excuse to accept it.”

She smiled. “And favored trade status is a very good excuse.”

I smiled as well. Then I stopped. “How does trade with your city work, any way? I know you exchange packages with the space stations, but I don’t know the exact details.”

“Artemis normally sets the specific trade tariffs,” she said. “Smuggling isn’t a major problem, due to the difficulties of trading at all. I suspect we’ll start seeing many more problems once we start trading with the mainland more. And not everyone will like the idea of giving you toys.”

“If it makes them feel any better, we’re not going to be usurping their monopoly any time soon. We still have all those laws against the toy maker in place, and getting rid of them won’t be easy.” I rolled my eyes. “It’s part of the reason we attacked in the first place. Kind of like invading because someone kept parking on the sidewalk.”

“What about the monsters?” she asked. “What do your laws say about that?”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“The fey modify animals. Make them larger, more dangerous. Gives them interesting properties that are useful. Food, some types of medicine, that sort of thing.”

“There’s no way we’ll be able to ship live animals,” I said. “Maybe if you were still a client city, but as your own sovereign state, it’s out of the question. Not sure if there will be enough of a demand for that sort of thing anyway.”

“As long as the option is on the table, it’s a good start.” She headed back to her seat. “I think that is enough for the moment. Should we call the others back in?”

“Maybe.” I paused. “Just one last thing. Your daughter. The one who died.”

She stopped. She didn’t look at me. “Yes?”

“You said she died eight hours ago. That means it happened here, in New York.”

“Yes.”

“What, exactly, happened? Does it have anything to do with the fugitive I heard about?”

Lilith sighed, and turned to face me. She still didn’t look at me, though. She kept her gaze turned down. “Malcanthet… always wanted power. When Domina City wouldn’t give her enough, she fled here. Tried to build what she wanted. When I arrived, she kidnapped me, we fought, and she killed herself. That is all.”

I took a deep breath. Oh boy… “That is the kind of thing we would like to know about.”

She looked up and met my eyes. She didn’t seem defiant, just a little confused. “You want us to send you our criminal profiles?”

“That would be nice,” I admitted. “I think Interpol might be necessary. I don’t know. But what I meant was the part about a foreign ambassador almost getting killed on our soil. That sort of thing can cause… problems.”

Lilith smiled. It seemed genuine. “Don’t worry, Mister President. I was never in any danger.”

I gave her a look. “Yes, because every time someone tries to kill an ambassador, we just ignore it if they survive. Do the others even know what happened? How will they react when they find out?”

She thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. I think that they will decide that Malcanthet was our problem. They will not blame you. Several of them were at the Battle of Shendilavri. They will blame themselves for letting her escape in the first place.”

“Okay. Just as long as they don’t say that.”

She frowned. “Why?”

“Because my people will blame you,” I said. I shrugged. “Not you specifically. Domina. Whoever was in charge of this… Shin…”

“Shendilavri was Malcanthet’s domain,” Lilith said. “An alliance of cultures drove her out and burned the building to the ground.”

She said it so casually. “Right. Sure. But then she came here. How much damage has she done in the past few weeks? Do you even know?”

She frowned. But this time it was in confusion, not annoyance. “What?”

“I doubt she’s just been sitting around doing nothing.”

“Well, you’re right, but… why do you think she’s only started trouble in the past few weeks? Did something happen?”

“I was just guessing,” I said. “I don’t know when all this happened. She got driven out before the war started, right? So at least a few weeks.”

Lilith looked like she was struggling with something.

“What?” I said. “What is it?”

“Mister President,” she said slowly. “Malcanthet was driven out of Domina almost six years ago. I have to assume that she has been here this entire time.”

I sat down.

“Oh,” I said.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “Well… that might be problematic. From a public relations standpoint, at least. More of that ‘all immigrants are criminals’ crap.” I looked up. “What exactly did she do?”

She winced. “I think my sister can explain a little better than I can.” She pulled out her phone and started tapping buttons. “She wrote an article a while back summarizing everything. It’s required reading in most universities these days.” She slid the phone across the table to me.

I grabbed it, frowned, and started reading the text on the tiny screen. She could have at least put it on a pad.

I blinked. I continued reading.

I blinked again.

“I… I…”

“Yes,” Lilith said.

“But—she could have taken over the city!” I said. “We’re not prepared for this sort of thing!”

“It’s harder than you’d think. Anyone who holds political office is very closely scrutinized. It’s unlikely she could brainwash anyone. Not to mention that routine medical checks would have caught their odd blood chemistry.”

“But—you should have told us!”

“And what would you have done?” she asked. “Or your predecessor, rather. Would he have believed us? And if he did believe us, what would he have done about it? Would he have decided that Domina City was too dangerous to leave free? Would he have sent in the armies, looking to arrest every single one of our warlords?” She shook her head. “Artemis made his choices. I agreed with them at the time, and I still do now.”

I swallowed and slid the phone across the table. “Maybe keep the details to yourself for now. Just until we get something signed, and people calm down a bit.”

Lilith nodded.

“But for the future, we will need some system of sharing criminal profiles.” I shook my head. “Even if I didn’t understand what half of those crimes were. Like, what is retribution evasion?”

She smiled. “Short version? Tax evasion.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s always what gets them in the end.”

She walked over to the door on her side. “So should we invite them back in?”

I nodded. “Let’s try and finish this up quickly.”

Behind the Scenes (309)

This is another scene that I ran through a dozen variations of, from random monster attack to Malcanthet secretly still being alive and declaring undying revenge. This is one of the lower-key versions of the scene, but I think it works better.

Scene 288 – Scuta

SCUTA

LAURA

Of all the people with shield powers in the city, not even Derek could deflect an artillery barrage. He might manage one shell, perhaps, but it would have knocked his reservoir all the way into the red, like when he caught that building. And yet, we needed some way of blocking them. It was inevitable the city would be shelled, and our point-defenses would barely catch a fraction.

I was proud of my solution.

I was also terrified of it.

We sat in one of the war rooms of NHQ. It was a large and fortified chamber with countless computer screens on the wall and a real-time tactical table in the middle. The table was updated on the fly by MC’s programs, using information from all over the city. Akane and Flynn were there, in addition to myself, Butler, Clarke, and about a dozen of their aides.

And, of course, the Shield Wall.

That’s what we were calling them, because it was just the only thing we could think of. Thirty-six shield-producers like Derek were sitting on the floor in a ring around the war table. Each one had someone standing behind them, hands on the shielders’ temples, concentrating as hard as they could.

Those were telepaths, the best and most trustworthy ones we could find in the city. They used their powers to connect the shielders to themselves and each other, creating a hive mind. It was like what the pod-brains used, but this time made up of seventy-two people.

“Shield Wall,” I said. “What is the status of the barrier?”

One of the girls spoke in a flat tone without opening her eyes. “Barrier is stable. Sectors A-17, A-18, B-29, and C-09 are under fire, but holding. Enemy fire has been reduced, and is virtually non-existent in all other sectors.”

This hive mind was an invaluable field asset, but I was worried about side effects, both long-term and short-term. What would happen when we tried to untangle them? They could all die, or just refuse altogether. Would the other members of the hive remember Derek’s secrets even after they were separated? Would Derek even be the same person?

I touched the ring on my necklace. I had just got him. I had waited nearly my entire life, and I had finally got that idiot to pay attention to me as a woman. Had I just killed him, all for some momentary tactical advantage?

I closed my eyes. No matter what happened, I would not apologize for saving this city.

I opened my eyes and managed a smile. “So the Dagonites took down the fleet.”

“White-Cap Bay is their territory,” Butler said. “The fleet was an insult.”

I scanned the war table. “They’ve still got more ships afloat than I’d like. MC, what’s the status of those?”

“They’ve repulsed the Dagonites,” she said, her voice coming through the wall speakers. “I’m not sure how. Maybe they got lucky and saw them in the water before they set the bombs, started shooting or something. I don’t know. They’ll have to retreat once the Dagonites regroup, but that will be at least a few hours.”

I nodded. “Shield Wall. How long can the barrier last at current attack rate?”

A different shielder spoke up, with the exact some dull tone. “Approximately three-point-seven hours.”

I frowned. “Cutting it a little close.”

Clarke looked up. “Could the Atlanteans help?”

I scowled. “Yes, they could. But they won’t. They think they’re safe on the damn ocean floor. I half hope one of the sinking ships squashes them.” I tapped at the war table, and it reconfigured to overlay the location of the Atlantean cities. “Nope, they’ll be fine. I guess I should be happy.”

“Besides, they’re busy fighting off the Rahabs,” Butler said. “Blame them if you wish the Atlanteans could join the fight.” He thought for a moment. “MC, call up the kelpie warlords. Ask them the exact path the ships would be forced to flee on.”

I raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t elaborate. How would this help us drive them off faster? Whatever.

I sighed and turned back to the board. “Demon Gate is holding strong.”

One of Butler’s aides—a demon, funnily enough—stepped forward. “The Erlking reports that the stoneshapers are invaluable. He thanks the Gravers for organizing this so quickly. He also says…” She checked her pads. “’Ripping apart their silly robots is far too much fun.’”

I frowned. “Robots? The US has robots?”

“Mechanized heavy battle armor,” Butler said.

“Oh. Echoes.” I shrugged. “Not robots, but whatever. I imagine they’re sending those at every gate?”

Butler nodded. “West Gate isn’t quite as successful as South, but the giants are holding strong. At last report, Odin said they managed to cut the army in two. They’re actually capturing soldiers alive.”

“Excellent. That will play well on the news.” I tapped East Gate, which showed an angry red scar reaching nearly a mile into the city. “What about the vampires? I’m still worried they let the enemy get too far in.”

Butler smirked. “That’s the perfect word. ‘Let.’ They knew that ambushing at the gate itself would be too costly, so they drew them to spread their forces thin, and are now striking at targets of opportunity. The enemy seems to be terrified and demoralized.”

I sighed. “There’s going to be a lot of property damage once this is over. They still haven’t finished repairing from the Rampage.”

“I’ll offer tax breaks to anyone who helps rebuild at reduced rates. I should extend that to the rest of the city…” He sighed. “Worries for another time. Right now, my bigger concern is North Gate.”

North Gate, also known as Beast Gate, Kemo Gate, and the Sprawl. It was a maze of tiny alleys and confused buildings, some of which had managed to partially collapse into each other over the years. The place barely had any streets, because the kemos of the area preferred to travel by rooftops.

We had expected that it would be easy to hold, but that was proving incorrect.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, as I observed the glowing red wound on the city. It was spreading farther and wider than it should. At least the vampires were keeping the intruders confined to a few single streets. “The kemos should never have let them run free like this.”

“Here, miss,” an aide said, as she handed me a pad.

I glanced through it. “Field report from Delia. She’s crediting the echoes.”

Butler sighed. “They were designed for urban warfare. Superheavy infantry, capable of breaching buildings and weathering moderately heavy fire. We should have seen this coming.”

I shook my head. “They shouldn’t even be able to get inside the buildings. What are the kemos doing, throwing rocks at them? Bottle them up and pour fire at them until they go away.” I read a bit more. “Ah, here’s the problem: A bunch of idiots tried to take them out hand-to-hand.”

“It worked in South Gate,” Clarke said.

“For the Erlking,” I said. “None of the kemos have that kind of raw physical power.” I paged through it a bit more. “Let’s see… yes, they fell back and started using ambush tactics, but by that point the invaders had a foothold.” I sighed. “The kemos are winning, but slowly and expensively.”

Another aide handed Butler a pad. “The Gatorcroc says he can drop a building on them, if necessary.”

I closed my eyes. “Does he even understand the phrase ‘collateral damage?’”

“Probably not.”

I thought about it. “Akane.”

She perked up. “Yes?”

“How fast can your kensei get to North Gate?”

“I can have ten men there in ten minutes.”

I nodded. “It will do. Send them. Tell them to focus on the echoes, then retreat to the warlords and request further instructions. They’re a fire team, we need them at hotspots the kemos can’t handle on their own.”

She nodded and stepped aside for some privacy as she pulled out her phone.

“We should have sent the kensei up earlier,” Butler said.

“You agreed to keep displays of powers to a minimum.”

“They should have been ready, though.” He turned back to the map. “But that’s not an issue any more. We need to figure out what to do with North Gate. They’re too dug in. The kemos will take heavy losses if they attack.”

“Bomb them,” I suggested. “Soften them up for the kemos to finish them off.”

He shook his head. “Not with the shield up. I don’t want to worry about them hitting it.”

I took a deep breath. “We have some people with invisibility. Not many, but—”

“Closest is an hour away.” He showed me a green dot on the map, moving towards North Gate. “She was supposed to be there half an hour ago, but she’s running late for some reason. We don’t have anything else in the area. All the civilians have evacuated.”

“If Obox-ob was around, we could surprise them through the sewers.”

“Still no sign of him. The only other thing that uses the sewers is…” He trailed off.

“The fey,” I finished.

Clarke looked thoughtful. “They did offer…”

“No,” Butler said sharply. “Only as a last resort. They promised to stay out of this unless we asked. I want to see if they can hold to that.”

“Oh, of course we could,” a pleasant female voice said. Every gun in the room immediately turned to point at Maeve, who was standing at the door, smiling. “If you ask, Mister Butler, we’ll stay hidden until this city is nothing but cold ash in the wind. But we would like to offer you some other options.”

Behind her, one of her Princes walked in, holding a small plastic box in her arms. It was the winged girl from the Wild Hunt, Aitil Péine. She blinked in the light—harsh to her nighteyes—but otherwise just stood quietly next to her Princess.

“Lady Maeve,” Butler said, a little stiffly. “To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Maeve smirked. “Just doing my duty for the city, Mister Butler.” She nodded at her Prince.

Aitil strode up and plopped the box on the war table, before opening it up to reveal… a radio. A radio with perhaps a larger antenna than normal, but nothing else particularly remarkable about it. I had built better radios than that.

There was a pause.

“I’m not playing along, Maeve,” Butler growled. “Explain.”

“It looks like the radios the US uses,” I said.

Maeve smiled. “I’m sure MC has already hacked the enemy communications.”

“Of course,” MC said from the speakers. “Though honestly it’s not very useful at the moment. The battlefield is nearly small enough that everyone can see what is happening. Several ambushes have been foiled, but—”

“Mary Christina,” Butler said, admonishing her. He turned back to Maeve. “Continue. Please.”

“This is something else. It is tied to their explosives.”

The room was silent. I thought I heard someone choking in surprise.

I blinked. “You managed to hack their bombs? How is that possible?”

She smiled. “Some of our feyborn have that invisibility. Such a useful talent. We simply had them slip into the camp and make a few adjustments to the equipment. Not everything has a remote trigger, of course, but those that don’t should go up in a chain-reaction when the rest blow. The base camp will be destroyed, and all that will be left is to hunt down any stragglers.”

Butler narrowed his eyes and loomed over her. “What is the price?”

Maeve smirked. “You’ll owe me a favor?”

“No,” Butler said instantly. “Name a firm, specific price, or the deal is off and you have to replace a homunculus.”

“Speaking of homunculi, did you know that there are a few scattered among the enemy troops? Very interesting—”

“Your price, fey.”

Maeve’s smile finally faded. “We want to go to New York.”

Butler rocked back on his heels. “I see.”

“I don’t,” I said. “Even assuming your homunculi can operate that far from your real bodies, what would you want there?”

“Legitimacy,” Butler said.

Maeve nodded. “Once this little war is over, one way or another, negotiations will need to occur. Many warlords will wish to send their ambassadors to represent the greatest cultures of the city, and Butler will of course agree. We just want to be remembered as one of those great cultures.”

“Instead of a bunch of insane monster makers.”

Maeve smirked. “Do I look insane, Honored Paladin? Does my dear Aitil look like a monster?” She shook her head. “Did you ever consider that perhaps the fey have moved on from their darker origins?”

None of that was a lie—but then, none of it was really a statement of fact, either.

“What about the gargant?”

Maeve raised an eyebrow. “What? I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The one at Acheron.”

Maeve’s smile disappeared.

“That is not relevant to this discussion.”

“You have a gargant hunting down people like dogs, and it seems to have a power—”

“Laura,” Butler said. “Now is not the time.”

I scowled, but stepped back.

“So,” Maeve said, as if nothing had happened. “Do we have a deal? The radio for the position?”

“No,” Butler said. “We have a deal—if this works. I’m not promising you anything in exchange for a broken radio.”

She smirked. “Come now Butler, give us some credit. Funny as that would be, it would gain us nothing in the end. The bombs will explode. Anything that happens after that, I cannot guarantee. So, deal?” She held out her hand to shake.

Butler stared at it for a moment like it was a poisonous snake, before grudgingly shaking it.

“Deal,” he said tiredly. “Miss Medina. If you would.”

I nodded. “MC, order any troops near the enemy base camp to retreat.”

“Done,” she said. “There weren’t many.”

“All right,” I said. I picked up the radio, looked at it for a moment, and then found that the ‘talk’ button had been crudely taped with red duct tape as a label. Its purpose was obvious. I took a deep breath, then pressed the button.

I imagined I could feel the shaking from here.

“Reports coming in,” one of the aides said immediately, hand to her earbud. “Big explosion at the gate… lot of smoke and confusion… enemy echoes seem to be down… no friendly casualties reported.”

“Tell the kemos to send in the best they have,” I said. “Retake that gate immediately, and hold it. Everything else is secondary.”

Maeve clapped her hands, just once, to get everyone’s attention.

“Well, that was fun,” she said cheerily. “Who’s up for Chinese?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 288)

One of the interesting things about writing these war scenes is the power difference. America could wipe Domina City off the map, shield or no, and there’s nothing anyone could do about it. But the thing is, with their powers and toys and sheer bull-headed stubbornness, Domina can defeat any army America sends at them. They outnumber the enemy at least ten to one, and that’s before civilian militias come into play.

So the biggest difficulty here is finding ways to justify keeping things difficult for the city. I’m proud of the echoes, but most higher-level warlords can beat one in a fair fight (though there are far more echoes than there are warlords of that level). So what other advantages does America have? Short of giving up and nuking the place, of course.

Scene 257 – Bellua

BELLUA

DEREK

The woman bowed low. “Greetings, Honored Paragon. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I need to speak with Maeve,” I said without preamble.

The fey slave didn’t so much as blink at my rudeness. “The Honored Princess is quite busy at the moment, sir.” She indicated one of the chairs in the frozen, ice-encrusted waiting room. “If you like, you can take a seat while I call her.”

“She has five minutes.”

She frowned. “Threats will get you nowhere, sir.”

I chuckled. “No, you misunderstand. Not five minutes until I go crazy and try to fight your entire little…” I waved my hand at the refurbished sewers. It had probably been some forgotten unused maintenance area before the fey got a hold of it. “Demesne, or whatever you’re calling it. Five minutes until I leave, and never come back.”

The receptionist frowned again, but this time in confusion, not anger. “Sir, I—”

“Just tell her,” I said.

A little hesitantly, she picked up the phone.

Four minutes later, Maeve walked through the door.

She was wearing a much more conservative dress than usual. Rather than something studded with diamonds or anything else ludicrously expensive like that, she simply had on what appeared to be a large fur coat—black, of course. She didn’t appear to be wearing anything under it, but she had it nicely buttoned up, so I didn’t make an issue of it.

“Derek Huntsman,” she said warmly. “This is a pleasant surprise. You here about my dinner with Mother last night? Because I swear, I didn’t mean it as an insult. I was just making a comment about her boyfriend’s physical—”

“The gargant,” I said sharply.

The girl arched one elegant black eyebrow. “You’re going to have to be just a little bit more specific, dearest. I, personally, have several hundred gargants running around the city right now. There’s a giant alley crawler in the sewer under your dorm, but it hasn’t eaten anyone last I checked. Is that what you mean?”

“The one running around killing outsiders.”

For just a brief moment, her friendly, flighty mask slipped.

Then it was back, and she turned to the receptionist. “Please hold my calls. The Paragon and I have things to discuss.” She turned back to me, and indicated the exit. “Please, walk with me.”

Recognizing the need for silence, I kept my mouth shut as we walked out of the fey domain and into the sewer outside.

I was sure the fey had other entrances to their demesnes, but this was the only one I knew of. At least it was one of the cleaner parts of the sewer system. This was one of the parts that brought in ocean water to be desalinated, so it didn’t even smell.

Maeve led me down the concrete tunnel for a few dozen yards in silence, until we were out of sight of the entrance to her domain. A couple turns later and we reached a dead end, the river disappearing deeper into a grate.

I wasn’t worried about an ambush. She could have attacked me at the domain if she felt like it, but hadn’t. She knew I would have told everyone—or at least Laura, who was currently following up on the immigration lists with Butler to see if they could find anything there—and so killing me would only bring retribution down on her head. Besides, I could handle a single homunculus. It honestly would be easier than fighting Elizabeth.

“Can you see fine?” the fey asked quietly.

I nodded. Light was sparse in the sewers, but there was a dim red nightlight nearby that provided enough for me to watch my step. I might not be able to read in this light, but I wouldn’t trip and fall into the water.

Maeve turned to face me, a serious expression on her face. It was odd to see that on a fey, but they had been weird for the past few months, and I had seen weirder, even from them. “This gargant. What do you know of it?”

“Not much,” I said. “It’s big, hairy, and last night killed a dozen outsiders who might have been spies. It’s smart, too. Dodged about a hundred cameras at Nishrek. All we got was a few shots of its back.”

The fey rubbed her forehead. Something about the way her long nails caught the light bugged me. Were they made of diamond? Sure, industrial diamonds were cheaper than ever now that we could manufacture them ourselves and didn’t have to rely on the shipments from Mons Agnes, but still.

“You’re mostly right,” she said. “This gargant is intelligent. I’m sure you’ve been hearing about the weird gargant attacks since we reformatted?” I nodded. “A number of them are false leads to draw attention away and some are rumors that just sprung out of thin air, but we have been using this creature as a sort of… brute-force assassin. His coming out party was when we had him kill those adventurers who were assaulting one of our outposts.”

I had heard about that. I had known some of those guys. Not the best monster slayers in the business, but good enough that one gargant shouldn’t have been able to take them out. If it was intelligent, that explained a lot.

“After killing the adventurers, he was pleased with his abilities and wanted to try more difficult assignments, to see what else he could—”

“Wait, wait.” I held up a hand to forestall her. “I know it’s intelligent, but… you make it sound like it’s human intelligent. Like, it can talk and everything.”

“He can. He’s young, but we gave him a basic memory package through the game maker.”

I rubbed my forehead. “The… what?”

“Memory alteration device.” Then she shrugged. “Well, that was the original idea. It doesn’t work on an adult brain, or even on the brain of a child older than ten or so. Stuff starts to solidify at that age. We’ve had the damn thing for fifteen years, and we still can’t do anything detailed.” She sighed. “Like copying the Mona Lisa with finger paint.”

“O… kay…” That was a million kinds of disturbing, but it also explained more than a few things. “So this basic memory package. What does it consist of?”

“Motor skills, language, limited social skills, basic knowledge of the cultures and the city and how everything fits together, and all the combat instincts we could fit in there.” Her expression turned sour. “Which wasn’t much. Finger paint.” She sighed. “Basically, even though he’s less than a year old, he acts about your age in most respects.”

“All right. So you sent him around the city on various missions.”

“Minor things, out of sight. Putting down one or two rogue gargants, destroying old ave labs, hunting a Nessian slaver ring… that sort of thing. Simple challenges to test his limits while improving the city.”

“Yes, you’re a real saint,” I snarked.

“We controlled him through medicine,” the fey continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Specifically, a relatively simple blood-thinner. You see, I made a slight error when making the gargant. His blood was too thick for his veins. Not a major problem, but his blood pressure was unhealthily high, especially during combat.”

Despite how useful this was, I had questions. “Why are you telling me all this?”

She sighed and leaned against the wall. “Why do you think, Huntsman?”

I closed my eyes. “He escaped your control.”

“Yep.”

“What happened, did he get a hold of his own stash of blood-thinners?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she said. “He got a power.”

I stared.

He… what?

“A gargant,” I whispered. “With a power?”

She nodded. “When we came to after the Rampage, we discovered that his cage had been torn apart from the inside, and he was nowhere to be found. That shouldn’t have happened; we keep him off the drugs when he’s home to keep him calm. If he got too excited, his heart should have popped. But he was fine, and escaped.”

“A gargant,” I said again. “With a power.”

“That is relatively low on the list of problems, Mister Huntsman,” she snapped. “He is a confused, angry, and violent child who outmasses most cars, and faster than them too. He is strong enough to carve out entire new tunnels, and tough enough that enough poison to pickle a rhino would only slow him down.”

But…

No, she was right. The fact that he had a power wasn’t really important. Like finding out that the tank about to roll over you liked to coat its shells with poison. The CS squad was worthless here.

“Does he have any weaknesses?” I said after a moment. “Besides the heart thing.”

“He’s not bulletproof,” the fey said with a roll of her black nighteyes. “But he’s still got enough mass that it’s gonna take more than a single god slayer to take him down. Besides that and his size…” She shrugged. “That’s it.”

I rubbed my forehead. “…thank you, Lady Maeve. This has all been very helpful.”

As I started to walk away, she called after me. “Remember, if anyone asks, I tried to kill you.”

I waved… then stopped as a thought occurred to me.

“Hey,” I called, turning back to her briefly. “Why’s he targeting outsiders?”

The beautiful woman smirked.

“Why do you think? Because that’s what we made him for.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 257)

I know these are short, but it’s important.

Scene 184 – Aula

AULA

DEREK

This was not the first time I had been kidnapped.

The first time was actually when I was six. I don’t remember it very much, just that it had something to do with my mom’s work with Butler. I was treated pretty well, probably because Necessarius likes to carpet-bomb anyone who hurts children.

When I was thirteen, some of the first ghouls grabbed me. Some power play against Miss Nervi. I’m still not quite sure what that was all about, but Akane helped me get out while everyone was distracted.

Last year, the Princess of Killing Sparrow trapped me while I was on a hunt. Separated me from Akane, led me into a dead-end alley, and plucked me from the street as easily as if I was some green-eared slayer wannabe, not one of the best professionals in the business. The fey had a way of defying expectations, of catching even the most experienced people off their guard.

Therefore, when sleeping gas was pumped into the elevator, my first assumption was that it was the fey.

Waking up didn’t dissuade me of that opinion.

Wherever we were, it was dark, and I could hear the distant sound of dripping water. There was a small speaker in the corner near the ceiling, almost too small to see. I could feel Laura, tied to me back-to-back and still asleep. That suited me fine—while she tended to be the go-to girl for tactics and strategy, it’s hard to tell how someone will react to a kidnapping until it actually happens. Best for her to stay asleep while I figured a way out of this.

Because it was the fey again. I could feel the snake-shackles slithering around my wrists, ready to bite if I struggled too much. I had some pretty good anti-poison buffs, but not THAT good.

There was nothing to do but wait. If there was anyone around, they weren’t showing themselves, and my eyes were stubbornly refusing to adjust to the darkness.

We had to be cautious. These new fey…I didn’t know anything about them. Didn’t understand them. They had names, and clothes, and were recruiting—the fey, recruiting. It used to be, whenever someone begged them for help, they’d rob them blind under the pretense of a deal. This…was something new.

Laura moaned and started to stir. In turn, the living handcuffs started to tighten in preparation.

“Laura?” I asked gently. “Can you hear me?”

“Ugh…yes. What happened?”

“Sleep gas in the elevator. Do you remember?”

“No.” A pause. “Yes. Ow, my head…”

“Yeah, you get some pretty bad headaches the first few times. I need you to listen to me: Don’t move.”

“What does it matter? We’re tied—” She stopped suddenly. “Derek, what are we tied up with?”

“Just remain calm, and I’ll explain, I promise.”

Derek…”

I recognized the rising anger in her voice. Better than blind panic, but not by much. “We’ve been captured by the fey. Those are snake-shackles.”

“Actually, we prefer to call them serpentis vinclaque,” a gentle female voice corrected.

“Oh,” I said dryly. “Thanks. That’s very helpful.”

The lights came on. Just dim red nightlights, not enough to illuminate more than ten feet around us, but enough to see who was speaking.

A beautiful pale woman with pale-cropped black hair sat on a large and elegant seat, somewhere between an armchair and a throne. She was wearing a dark black dress that hugged her body tightly, with a long slit up the side of one leg. It was unadorned with any symbols of jewels that I could see, giving it a kind of quiet elegance. I was pretty sure it was a Chinese style, but I’m not exactly a fashion expert.

“Knight Derek,” the woman greeted me with a smile. “Dame Laura.”

“Describe her,” Laura hissed.

“Maiden cut. Black.”

“Maeve.”

The woman nodded. “I am Maeve, Princess of Wind and Frost, Maiden of the Unseelie court.”

“Nice,” Laura muttered. “Where’d you guys steal that from? Shakespeare? I’m pretty sure there’s no Maeve in Irish mythology.”

She cocked her head. “Is that really important right now?”

“No,” I cut in before Laura could respond. “It isn’t.” I shifted to the more polite mode of speech that the fey preferred. “Honored Maiden, it would please us greatly if you would educate us on why you have…invited us to your abode.”

“Oh, Derek, always so polite,” the fey said with a smile. “Unless your friends are in danger, of course.”

I felt Laura trying to struggle without making it obvious. That wouldn’t work. “You didn’t answer his question.”

The maiden smiled sweetly. “Isn’t it obvious? What possible reason could a beautiful young woman have for inviting a handsome young man to her home?”

“That doesn’t explain why I’m here.”

“Isn’t it obvious? What possible reason could a beautiful young woman have for inviting a beautiful young woman to her home?”

Laura groaned. “I hate the fey. I hate them so much.”

Maeve pouted. “Really, Laura, you were more polite last time we met. What changed?”

I felt my friend stiffen. “What? When did we meet?”

I narrowed my eyes. Laura had probably run into a few fey during the years she was gone, but there was only one recently. “The Princess of Killing Sparrow. When the burners attacked.”

“Wh—that was You?

“Is it really such a surprise?” the fey queried innocently. “We made no secret of the fact that we are the six survivors of the courts. I suppose—”

Lie.”

I blinked at Laura’s interruption. Wait, which part was—

Maeve’s naïve smile disappeared, and she closed her eyes with a sigh. “Gods of men and darkness, I can’t believe I managed to forget about your stupid power.” She rested her chin on her hand and glared at us. “I’m beginning to see why Greene hates you so much. Then again, she seems to hate everyone, so…”

“Wait,” I said slowly. “Which part was a lie?”

“When she said ‘we are the six survivors of the courts,’” Laura managed to say even as Maeve was opening her mouth to speak.

I gave the maiden a glare of my own. “You know, everyone always knew that whole ‘the fey never lie’ thing was a pile of crap, but I didn’t expect THAT to be a lie.”

The princess looked more bored, resigned to her web of lies falling apart around her, than actively angry. “Yes, yes, I’m a terrible person.” She grinned again. “Not that it matters. That little clue won’t lead you anywhere useful, I think. And I’ll still have my way with you, regardless.”

I swallowed, not seeing an easy way out of this. “Uh, look, if you want us that bad—”

“Oh, sweetie, I was joking about that part!” she cried with a laugh. “Sorry, sorry, I know rape jokes are an acquired taste.” She tapped her lips, looking thoughtful. “It’s the imbalance of power here, that’s the problem. Made the situation too serious. Next time—”

“Lady Maeve,” I managed through gritted teeth. “What do you want?”

She clapped her hands together. “Oh, that’s right, you’re still kidnapped! Scaoileadh.”

At her command, the living handcuffs hissed and untwisted themselves from our wrists and slithered away into the darkness.

Laura stepped up beside me, rubbing her wrists to improve circulation as she watched the maiden warily. “That’s quite the show of trust.”

There was something in Maeve’s eyes that I couldn’t quite identify. “Not really. Even unbound, you two are no match for this body.”

Ah. That was it.

The creature in front of me was not the giggling, girlish twit that we all knew the fey to be. Those things were dangerous and unpredictable, almost as likely to try and kiss you as they were to kill you, but that wasn’t this.

This was something quiet, and patient, with a depth of age and wisdom that I could only guess at. A careful, perfect power, like a coiled spring. Like all the predators in the world, staring down at me after having dragged me to their lair.

She reminded me of Elizabeth.

“What do you want?” I said quietly.

The barest ghost of a smile passed by Maeve’s face. “I want what is best for this city, Honored Paragon. Nothing more, nothing less.”

I narrowed my eyes, aiming my number one death glare at her. “Sending monsters to stalk the streets is for the best?

She didn’t flinch. “Of course it is. Iron must be put to the flame and the hammer to be strengthened and forged.”

Oh, goodie. Another social Darwinist. We always needed more of those running around.

“Of course,” Laura muttered. “I should have known.”

Maeve smiled. “You know, we used to make bets on whether or not you—and a couple other people—would figure it out without being told.” She sighed. “I guess this means I lost.”

I glanced at Laura, confused. “Wait, you knew?”

“No, I…” she paused, her brow furrowed. “I’ve been thinking for a while that the fey are too beneficial to the city.”

“Ask any changeling how beneficial—”

She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. Like…with all the fey monsters. Most of them are edible. Do you know how hard it is to make something edible with the toy maker?”

I thought back to when I was a kid, with the Monster Vines incident. Even simply trying to make crops grow faster could cause…problems. It WAS a bit odd that the fey went to the effort to make sure their monsters were edible.

I rallied and turned back to Maeve. “Okay, so you’re not as crazy as you like to pretend. Even I had figured that one out. But still, what’s the point? Why grab us?”

She shifted on her throne. “I needed to be able to speak to you two in private.”

Laura narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

The fey sighed. “Are you being deliberately obtuse, dearie? Because you two are some of the most important people in the city. You are powerful, intelligent individuals with connections to people like Artemis Butler and my own máthair. Not to mention that Elizabeth Greene chose you to be her opponents.”

Máthair‘ was Irish for ‘mother,’ if memory served. No prizes for guessing who that referred to: The Mother Monster. I had forgotten that the fey were the ones who had really popularized that whole thing.

My friend folded her arms over her chest. “Fine. This is the part where you offer us some wondrous new toys in exchange for doing something, right?”

Maeve smiled. “I’d like you to stop fighting Elizabeth.”

“Point of order, Honored Princess,” I piped up. “We already established that you’re not actually insane. You can stop pretending.”

But she just shook her head sadly. “I’m afraid I’m not joking, Honored Paragon. I think fighting the Honorless Blackguard is only going to end in tears for everyone.”

Wondering if the fey really was crazy after all, I turned to Laura for support, but she looked contemplative. “Do you mean no one should fight her, or just us specifically?”

That small, mischievous smile was back. “Just you.”

Laura nodded. “Ah…I suppose that makes sense.”

I closed my eyes. She always did this. “Would one of you two like to clue me in?”

“Elizabeth made us,” Laura said. “Chose us, gave us powers. She knows exactly what we are capable of. Letting warlords fight her instead will give us an edge.”

It didn’t take me long to find a problem in that. “But other people aren’t immune to infection. That’s why the Big Boss let us do all this in the first place, remember? Unless you forgot what happened to Zaphkiel.”

“She hasn’t been creating screamers since she was outed. Maybe she can’t, or won’t.”

Maeve coughed delicately, drawing attention back to herself. “Negative on both those counts, I’m afraid. The day after your little adventure in the sewers, she tried to sing at me. I detonated the homunculus before anything happened, of course, but the fact that she tried is enough.”

I suppressed a scowl. “Then sending warlords is suicide.”

“Not necessarily.” She shrugged. “The toy maker can do many things. Inducing deafness is simply enough.”

“So, what, that’s it? You kidnapped us to say all the warlords should go deaf?” Laura shook her head. “Yeah, I’m beginning to think that you might be a little crazy after all.”

The fey princess sighed again. “Maybe if you actually stopped and listened, you’d hear what else I have to say.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Oh!” Maeve said in surprise. “This is you listening! Okay, right, well the Composer is definitely the main one—”

“Wait,” I interrupted, as something dawned on me. “Just…wait. You said you strengthen the city with monsters. I don’t need the full details. Some are set up as food, some are used to point out weaknesses so that the cultures can get stronger, whatever, I get the gist.”

“Yes…” The black-haired woman cocked her head. “What’s your point?”

I gave her my steeliest glare. “Where do the changelings fit into all this?”

She blinked her black nighteyes. “I’m not sure I understand the question.”

“You kidnap people, buy slaves from the Nessians and the less scrupulous Satanists and Nosferatu. And then you torture them with the toy maker. What is the point?

The Princess of Wind and Frost gave me a very long look before answering.

“Does it matter?”

I sighed. “I suppose not.”

We both sprang into action at the same moment. She lunged towards my throat, but despite her near-supernatural speed, I had been anticipating that, and blocked her with a half-dome shield.

The fey bounced off with a giggle. “Oh, I knew this would be fun.”

She tried to dodge around the shield, but I just let it fade into mist, then immediately formed a new one on my arm, which I smashed into her face.

Maeve grinned, her teeth bloodied, and grabbed my arm. Of course. It took more than a blow to the head to slow down the fey.

But then, I knew that.

As she grabbed my arm, I took advantage of the motion to pull her into a wrestling hold, twisting her arm behind her and snapping it with a loud crack. She hissed and came at me with the other arm, but I stomped on her ankle, breaking it as well.

If Maeve were a normal warlord—silver and gold, even a baseline—I wouldn’t have been able to disable her so easily. Most warlords improved every aspect of their bodies to superhuman levels. True, they improved some parts more than others, but they would never consider weakening their bones in order to lighten their bodies and make themselves faster. It would leave them too vulnerable.

But the fey didn’t care about their bodies.

As I grabbed Maeve’s chin, she grinned up at me, mischief dancing in her eyes.

“Later, Huntsman.”

I snapped her neck and let her flop to the ground.

Finally, I let myself start to breathe. I had to sit down—a few yards away from the corpse, steaming with industrial-grade acid—to get my wind back.

I think I had managed to convince the fey that it had been easy for me to kill her, but it hadn’t been, not really. Sure, I was an extremely healthy baseline, on par with some of the strongest, fastest, toughest baseline humans on the planet. Add the power package and my shields on top of that, and I could could confidently fight anyone in the city.

But I WAS still baseline. Mostly, anyway. Being strong enough to be a world-class wrestler only meant so much when fighting someone strong enough to be on those shows where guys drag eighteen-wheeler trucks through the snow.

So, I needed every advantage I could get. If she thought I was stronger than I was, that might make her hesitate next time.

“Was that really necessary?” Laura asked as she trotted over, her face fixed in her usual scowl. “We were in the middle of an important discussion. Did you really have to do all this now, before we got all the information she had?”

I closed my eyes and leaned back against the wall—which was concrete, with water dripping down from somewhere above. Probably in the sewers, then. “Yes, it was. I was making a point.”

“By killing someone?”

“By killing a homunculus. It’s just a poke in the eye to the fey, and you know it. But they apparently respect our opinions, so maybe it will help.”

There was a moment’s silence, before I felt her lay herself across my lap.

My eyes snapped open, and I looked down to see her staring up at me like a cat waiting for a belly rub. “What the—”

“Because I felt like it,” she answered. She closed her eyes. “That’s all.”

“Oh,” I muttered. “Okay.”

“Though I’ll admit, you might have a point about the fey respecting our opinions.”

“Hm?”

“Did you notice how she didn’t attack me? And when she tried to dodge your shield, she went the opposite direction I was in.”

It hadn’t occurred to me at the time, but she was right. That would have been the perfect opportunity for the fey to take her hostage. Why hadn’t she?

“Maybe she was worried about what I’d do?” I mused. “I mean, last time I thought a friend was in danger was…” Lizzy. Okay, she didn’t count but…actually, I couldn’t remember the last time one of my friends had been kidnapped.

“Seena,” Laura supplied. “She mentioned you helped her out with a couple demons a year or two ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. I had forgotten.” But yeah, if Maeve knew about that little incident, she’d have a good reason not to want to hurt Laura in my presence.

Then I groaned.

Laura cracked an eye open. “What? What is it?”

“After I rescued her,” I muttered. “She got all clingy and tried to take me back to her place.”

My friend shifted on my lap a little. “Well, yeah. Even I knew that one.” She shrugged, her eyes closed once again. “Though she says she’s mostly over it these days. So I guess that’s one less to worry about.”

I grumbled but didn’t say anything on the matter. Instead, I turned back to the reason we had been waiting in the first place. “It looks like the homunculus has stopped smoking. It’s probably a good idea to leave now.”

“Uhn. If you think we can.”

I adjusted myself slightly. “What do you mean?”

She looked up at me wryly. “Now we don’t have a guide to get out.”

Oh. Right. That. Trapped in some fey corner of the sewers, with no maps, and my terrible sense of direction.

Yeah, this was going to be fun.

Behind the Scenes (scene 184)

This one has been a long time coming, but I’m still not entirely comfortable with it.

Scene 156 – Damnum

DAMNUM

MAEVE

“The murid is dead.”

Veda tried to jump off the cot. Thankfully, she had been given a localized paralytic; otherwise, she would have wrenched her spine and undone days of work. “Delphie? Where is she? I need to see her!”

I placed my hand on her chest, more as a gesture than anything—she wasn’t going anywhere. “In time, little one, in time. Right now, we need to worry about you.”

She settled down, and nodded as best she could. “How…” she teared up. Clearly, she was still fixated on her friend.

“Three days,” I answered her unfinished question. I needed to focus her on other things. “We kept you under for three days straight. It’s Friday now.”

She looked down at her body. “I don’t…look different.”

“Most of what we did was internal,” I admitted. “But we had to cut it short. We repaired your wounds, and made what modifications we could while we were in there, but we were more worried about getting you ready to move as fast as possible.”

The girl blinked, finally realizing that something must be wrong—besides our inability to save the life of Delphie Murinae, that is. “Wait, is something happening? Are you…are we under attack?”

I smiled. Good, she was already thinking of herself as part of a new culture. It could take a while, sometimes.

“Yes and no. We were under attack, but managed to fight them off with…” I searched for the right words. “…a gargant. That’s scared them off for the past couple days, but they’ll be back sooner rather than later.”

She struggled in her restraints again before settling down. “Right. Well…when are we…” she swallowed nervously. “You’re not planning on leaving me here, are you?”

“Of course not.” I produced a small syringe. “This will reverse the paralysis. Be careful, though; you’re still not fully healed.”

She winced. “I don’t like needles.”

I injected her anyway. “Not a lot of options at the moment.”

As I undid the restraints, Veda slowly flexed her fingers and toes, trying to accelerate the blood flow.

“It’s all pins and needles,” she muttered with a wince.

“It will pass in a few minutes.” Some dust fell from the ceiling. Not much. I doubt Veda even noticed. But I saw the cause through our cameras.

They were here. And they had explosives. Lots of explosives.

“Unfortunately, that is time we don’t have.” I scooped the surprised girl up in my arms before she could protest. My homunculus had more than enough strength, though I did find myself thankful we had taken the time to decrease her bone density.

“W-wait! Don’t you have defenses—”

“They’re already past the first line, and they’re almost through the second.” I headed towards the hidden door—currently open, revealing a brick-lined side corridor that ran away from the sewers.

“Second out of how many?”

“Three. And the last one is just some frogs and a blast door.” I jabbed the button with my elbow, causing the brick wall to slide into place behind us. That might slow them down.

“I figured the fey would have more robust defenses…”

“We do—for our demesnes. This is just a minor outpost. Doesn’t even have a name.”

The girl fell silent, for which I was grateful. I was having enough trouble splitting my attention as it was. One part of my brain kept an eye on the cameras, while I was also wirelessly setting up a proximity overload on the toy box I had left behind. The box itself was just another cheap knockoff, but it was still worth millions.

The corridor shook, nearly knocking me off my feet. I cursed and struggled on, while I felt Veda’s heart beating like a drum.

“What the fang was that?!” she shrieked, a little too close to my ear for my liking.

“My toy box,” I muttered. “I figure that gives us maybe another five minutes to play with.” It depended on how organized they were. A random mob might see a dead end and turn back. But if they had a leader who knew what they were doing…

“Maeve,” a voice in my head spoke up clearly. “We need to talk.”

I stumbled again. “Ice and shadow—”

Veda twitched. “What now?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just concentrate on breathing.” I turned my attention to Aurora, the one yelling in my brain. “Not a good time,” I snapped at her without moving my mouth. “Running for my life.”

“Just detonate the homunculus and get back here. This is important.”

“Correction: Running for Veda’s life.”

“Oh. Well…” There was a long pause. “How much did you want her?”

I grit me teeth. “A lot. What’s wrong?”

“About a dozen of our outposts are under simultaneous attack. Professional, too. Not like the mob from last time.”

“Eccretia,” I muttered. I was beginning to regret not killing her. We tried to leave changelings alone, but sometimes they crossed the line.

“Probably. I doubt she’s leading the charge personally, but she’s definitely driving it.”

I heard a howl behind me. I didn’t bother turning; they had found my bolt hole.

“We can talk later. Right now, I need to focus.”

“Ah, right, the running. Just kill yourself.”

Aurora—”

“I’m serious. Just stash the girl in a corner, and use your homunculus as a bomb against the mob.”

I rounded the first corner and immediately put on another burst of speed, pushing my body to the limit. It’s not like I didn’t have spares.

“Maeve? You there?”

“There’s nowhere to stash her, and Veda can’t even walk right now!”

“What, seriously? What did you do to her, chop off her legs?”

“No, I just gave her a paralytic, and it hasn’t quite worn off yet.”

“Oh. Well, then why don’t you do what I said?”

“Because she can’t walk!

The Maiden sighed in my ear. “I know she can’t now, but give it a few minutes, and she’ll be fine.”

That stupid…

Actually, that was a pretty good point.

I turned my attention back to my pursuers. They were gaining, but I was still maybe five minutes ahead of them. If Veda recovered fast enough…

“Veda,” I said aloud. “How are your legs? Can you move them?”

“Um…a little. Maybe.”

“Oighear agus sneachta,” I muttered. “We don’t have any other options.” I skidded to a stop, and laid her in a seated position against the brick wall of the corridor.

“Maeve?” the girl asked plaintively. “Uh…Lady Maeve? What are you doing?”

“Sacrifice play.” I pulled a GPS bead out of my pocket and slipped it into her pants. Marvelous things, pockets. I had forgotten how useful they were. “Start running in the opposite direction the second you can. I’ll have some people meet up with you. Password is ‘oíche.’ Repeat that for me.”

“Oíche.”

“Good girl.” I kissed her lightly on the forehead. No soporifics or paralytics this time; just a simple kiss. I smiled at her wide eyes.

She’d be a good one. I knew it.

“You stay safe,” I ordered. “You’ll see me again soon.”

I made sure to bring the ceiling down where it wouldn’t fall on her.

Behind the Scenes (scene 156)

A little on the short side, but I think it works.