Tag Archives: Malcatari

Scene 332 – Infamem Hactenus

INFAMEM HACTENUS

AKANE

I landed on the street with one hand out for balance, activating my speed at the last second to absorb the force of the fall. I scanned the battlefield, trying to take in everything at once and then sort it into useful information.

The street was chaos. Ten minutes ago it had been crowded with foot traffic, an outdoor mall that had forced the ‘sarians to cordon off the street from cars. Merchants brought their wares out from the nearby skyscrapers, selling them at temporary stalls set up in the middle of the street. Such things were common throughout the city, and one could pop up almost anywhere.

Now, the street was choked with the bodies of those who had not been able to flee, the stalls either ripped apart or set on fire. Strange structures grew out of the asphalt, slashed walls and grasping hands. Blood was splattered everywhere.

And in the middle of it all, my kensei fought the Malcatari.

Months of training had served them well. My kensei used their speed in short, precise bursts, killing with strokes as fast as lightning and leaving them more than enough of a reservoir left over for an emergency. They had been tested time and time again against some of the most dangerous forces in the city, both in practice and true combat. They could fight nearly any opponent and win.

But the Malcatari were legion, outnumbering my kensei ten to one or more. And while Malcanthet herself had the tactical skills of a wet potato chip, she had clearly found someone more skilled than her at some point. Her soldiers fought carefully and efficiently, covering each other like professionals and working to keep from being caught off guard.

That alone wouldn’t have been enough to save them. There was a certain level of overwhelming force that strategy and tactics simply could not stand against. It didn’t matter how perfect their formation or how many angles they covered, a sword moving at several times the speed of sound would cut through a soldier like a scythe through wheat. There would be some casualties on our side as kensei overextended themselves, but the outcome of the battle should never have been in doubt.

Except the Malcatari had powers.

I watched as one of the soldiers planted his feet and thrust his hands up as if lifting something above his head. Suddenly a wall of asphalt rose out of the street, blocking the path of the kensei who was speeding towards him. She corrected at the last moment so she didn’t collide with it, but her charge was broken. The petrakinetic’s friends flanked my kensei around the wall and fired at her, and she had to speed away.

I saw another place his hands on a car, turning the entire thing to rust in seconds. The kensei hiding behind it was surprised to find his cover suddenly useless, and tried to run off. He was cut down by a hail of bullets before he could so much as take a step. On the other side of the street, a soldier used super speed to match a kensei, but his reservoir ran out unexpectedly and the kensei was able to counter and kill him. Fire blossomed from the hand of another Malcatari, which the kensei dodged, followed by a burst of electricity that slowed her down long enough for her to be overwhelmed. Not too far away from where I stood, a glowing orange shield blocked a super-speed sword strike.

I frowned. Stone, fire, electricity, rust, speed, shields, knives… these were all Elizabeth’s powers. The obvious ones, anyway. Had she allied herself with Malcanthet? She must have. Unless Malcanthet had managed to brainwash hundreds of people who had been in the city during the Rampage and then given them Malcanthet’s emblem to wear, which was doubtful.

I hadn’t actually seen Malcanthet yet, and I had no idea how she could possibly have survived, but when combined with Elizabeth, things started to make sense. Elizabeth decided to save Malcanthet in order to give the Malcatari powers and set them loose on the city. Only Malcanthet could control the Malcatari, of course, so that was really the only option that made any sort of sense.

I did another quick scan of the battlefield, hoping to spot Malcanthet, but I didn’t have time for a real search. My kensei were dying, and she probably wasn’t even here anyway. The Succubus Queen never got her hands dirty if she could help it.

I drew my sword and activated my speed.

I sheared through the arm of one soldier who was pointing a gun at a kensei with a dry reservoir. I moved past him, ignoring the slow spray of blood, to behead a woman who was shooting electricity out of her fingers. A man was shielding himself and his team with glowing orange force fields, but I slipped through a gap in the walls and stabbed him in the heart. The barriers disappeared, and my kensei fell upon the Malcatari as I sped away.

In seconds, I stood in the middle of the street, my gi stained red and my beautiful new sword dripping blood. I looked around again. The worst of the fires were out, but my people still needed help. I took a deep breath and waited a few moments for my reservoir to recover.

And so the sword-god reveals herself at last!

I turned to see Elizabeth striding out of a large black van, flanked by two more Malcatari. She was wearing a new dress, as white as ever but not yet stained with blood. She had a giant grin on her face, like she had just sprung an awesome surprise party on an old friend.

I was wondering when you’d show yourself,” she said, still speaking perfect Japanese, like she always did. She had been doing that to me for my entire life, trying to make me feel stupid and isolated.

I scowled. I wasn’t that shy little girl any more. “Come off it, Elizabeth. Speak English.”

She shrugged. “If that’s what you want, Kenkami. Doesn’t matter to me one bit.” She grinned broadly. “I have far more interesting things to concern myself with today.”

I glanced at the Malcatari flanking her. They wore the same black tactical armor as the rest of the soldiers, but they didn’t have any guns. In the context of the powers, that struck me as a bad sign.

“What did you have to do to get them on your side?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Nothing much. With Malcanthet dead, their brainwashing was easy to repurpose. Some empty platitudes about serving their Queen even in death, then my standard hypnotism package I use on all my blackguards.”

I tried not to let my surprise show. I had been assuming that no one but Malcanthet could control the Malcatari, and then worked backwards from that ‘fact.’ That was why I had assumed she must still be alive. But it would make more sense for Elizabeth to just take control of the entire organization. This way, she didn’t have to share.

“So is that it?” I asked. I waved back at the street. The fighting was mostly over, with my kensei just mopping up. “Give the Malcatari a power each and throw them at us just to see what happens?”

“Of course not,” she said with a grin.

I knew that. There was no way this was all the Malcatari. She probably had both reinforcements on the way and reserves she wouldn’t commit to this battle. So did I—I had fewer kensei, but they could get here faster. I just needed to keep her talking.

“I didn’t commit all my new toys here,” she said with an exaggerated eye roll. “How stupid do you think I am?” She grinned wider, if that was possible. “Unless… is that what you did? Throw all your kensei in the city at one problem?”

I chose not to answer. Best to let her think I was incompetent.

She threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, Red, how I’ve missed you!” Her grin turned predatory, and I could swear her golden eyes flashed with hunger. “I might even regret killing you. Briefly.”

“You can’t kill us,” I said. “Silk won’t allow it.”

“Oh, don’t you know?” she said, her voice dripping with mock concern. “You Paladins were only needed to stop the Rampage, help defend Domina from America, and found the guilds. Now that we’re done with all that, I can kill every single one of you.”

I frowned. Wait, how was that Silk’s plan? Adam stopped the Rampage, and anyone could have founded the guilds. Even our parts in the war against America could have been played by others if necessary.

“Sorry to cut this discussion short,” Elizabeth said, “but my friends are here.” A dozen more black unmarked vans skidded to a stop just behind her. She waved her fingers at me. “See you around, Akane.” She winked. “Or not.”

Dozens of Malcatari poured out of the vans, most armed but some not. They took up position, ready to fire at Elizabeth’s command. Before she had a chance to give the order, a dozen of my kensei sped to my side.

We stood there for a moment, two opposing lines glaring at each other, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

“You can’t win,” I said finally. “My kensei have the advantage. They’ve been practicing with their powers for far longer, and I’ll handle you.”

She gave me a mocking look. “Handle me? I don’t think it will be as simple as you seem to believe.” Then she grinned. “Besides, this fight isn’t quite as even as it looks. You see, I didn’t give my Malcatari one power. I gave them two—each.”

Then one of the Malcatari charged forward at super speed, wreathed in flames.

I cursed and jumped back to dodge. “Duelist strategy!”

My kensei quickly scattered to attack as many of the Malcatari as possible one on one. Despite the surprise of extra powers—which we hadn’t even known was possible—I was confident that they’d be able to overwhelm them soon.

Unless someone did something stupid, of course.

One of my kensei, a hot-headed young man named Victor, roared in rage and charged straight at Elizabeth. She didn’t even bother to dodge when he stabbed her in the gut with his sword. He blinked in shock, but she just grinned at him and grabbed his sword.

It immediately began to rust. In seconds, there was nothing left but red dust and a hilt.

“Better luck next time,” she said mockingly, and cut his head off with a single swipe of a glowing orange blade.

I screamed in rage and ran forward, sword out. I slashed at her throat, but she blocked it easily.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her eyes wide with false innocence. “Did you like that one?”

I roared again and unleashed a flurry of slashes, but she blocked each and every one. I wasn’t using my speed yet. I knew I should, but I was too angry to think straight. Which was probably the point.

Elizabeth riposted a blow, then countered with the sword in her other hand. She got me with a shallow slash on my arm—not particularly dangerous, but it hurt. The pain, however, shocked me back to my senses, and I tapped my speed just briefly to dodge a scissor-cut that would have taken my head off. I stepped back a few feet to reassess.

Both the kensei and the Malcatari were giving us plenty of room. No one wanted to get in the middle of our fight. It was like we were the one calm spot in the middle of an ocean of chaos, filled with fire and blood and stranger things.

I needed to disable Elizabeth. That would take the fight out of the Malcatari, give us time to mop them up. Cutting off her head was the obvious solution, but she was ready for it. Maybe I should start with her spine. Easier to get to.

Elizabeth wasn’t interested in waiting around. She casually grabbed the blade of a nearby kensei as she reared back to strike. The blade began to rust, and before my kensei realized what had happened, she was unarmed—and easy pickings for the Malcatari she was fighting. Luckily he was killed moments later by a different kensei.

All right. Attack Elizabeth’s spine, don’t let her touch my sword. If she destroyed it, I’d be essentially helpless. Besides, this was the Queen of Ravens, the sword that Flynn had made for me. I wasn’t interested in losing another weapon to a rust attack.

I rushed forward at super speed with a flurry of blows too fast for Elizabeth to keep up. She tried using her swords to block at first, but soon grew bored with that and switched to just using super speed to dodge. She could only speed her body instead of her mind, but when combined with her already excellent reflexes and instincts, she was easily able to dodge most of my attacks. The blows that did land were not debilitating, and healed in seconds.

I lowered my speed but pressed my attack, trying to keep her on the defensive long enough to give my reservoir a chance to recharge. Elizabeth immediately realized what I was trying to do and summoned her swords again, countering my every move with lightning speed. In seconds, I was on a defensive footing. I was knocked out of stance and she reached forward, eyes filled with glee, to grab my sword.

Which was what I had been counting on.

I moved my sword out of her grasp and shoulder-slammed her with a burst of speed. She was knocked ten feet back into a group of Malcatari. My kensei knew an opportunity when they saw one and quickly killed the off-balance soldiers, but retreated instead of attacking Elizabeth. They had learned that lesson.

Before she could get up, I sped forward and slashed at her ankles, causing her to howl in rage and pain. It wouldn’t keep her down forever, but it would do for now. I stabbed down at her face with my sword, but suddenly there was a glowing orange force field there, a small buckler attached to her arm. I had seen Derek do something similar a few times.

She used her other hand to send a burst of fire at me. It wasn’t much, but I instinctively fled, giving her ankles time to heal and her time to climb to her feet. She glared daggers at me. There was no mocking humor any more. Now, she was just filled with pure and burning hatred.

She always had been a sore loser.

She rushed forward at super speed, only to stop dead at the last second, a sword in each hand, and slash at me. I raised my blade to block, but that was what she had been waiting for. She dismissed her swords faster than I could blink and grabbed my blade with both hands. She grinned, and—

Nothing happened.

My sword didn’t collapse into rust. It didn’t even look tarnished.

I frowned. What?

She frowned and looked down at my sword. “What the hell?”

I ripped the sword out of her hands—costing her a few fingers in the process—and slashed at her again. She dodged back, fear, anger, and confusion in her eyes.

“What is that sword?” she demanded. “Where did you get it?”

I fell into a ready stance. “This is the Queen of Ravens, and it was forged for me personally.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Silk.”

I had no idea if she had anything to do with it, so I kept quiet.

Elizabeth howled in rage and ran away at super speed, bowling over kensei and Malcatari alike in her haste to get away. I followed, dodging through strange stone growths and bursts of flame to keep her in sight.

I knew I had to press my advantage while I had it. Her fingers were gone and would take a few minutes to regenerate, and she was still confused about my sword. So was I, but I was handling it better. If I could catch up to her now, I might be able to put a swift end to this.

She ran down the street, out of the battle zone. She dodged around cars and through pedestrians who hadn’t been smart enough to run away. She left broken bones and worse in her wake, likely trying to force me to stop and tend to them, but I ignored them. Right now, the only thing that mattered was the hunt.

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at me, cursed, and then ran at a nearby building. She ran straight up its sheer wall, her impossible speed allowing her to outrun even gravity itself. By the time gravity remembered where she was and tried to pull her back down to Earth, she was long gone.

I followed.

Running up a building was just like running down a street, but instead of the wind pushing against you, it felt like something pulling you. If you didn’t run fast enough, you could feel yourself growing heavier, falling back into the grasp of that impossible monster that had kept a tight grip on you your entire life. The only answer was to just keep running, and pray your reservoir didn’t run out.

Suddenly I was on the roof. Elizabeth stood in the center, next to a large air conditioner, staring at her half-regenerated fingers as if she could will them to heal faster. Maybe she could. Who was I to say.

I didn’t bother with any challenges, last chances, or one-liners. I just rushed forward at full speed, sword out, and slashed at Elizabeth’s neck.

She dodged, but not fast enough, and I got a good cut in at her artery. She instinctively raised one of her hands to staunch the wound, and I used the opening to stab her in the chest, right between her ribs. I ripped my sword out, the impossibly sharp blade tearing through her torso like cheese.

Elizabeth stumbled. I kicked her legs out from under her, then slashed down at her ankles. She cried out in pain and rage, bloody spittle flying everywhere, as the tendons were cut. If she were a normal person, she’d never be able to walk again. With her healing, I figured I had five minutes.

She rolled over onto her back and glared up at me with hatred. Her white dress was stained crimson with her own blood, and I was covered as well.

“You weak, useless little mortal,” she spat. “What is the point? Cut me, I will heal. Capture me, I will escape. And even if somehow you do hold me forever, until the universe itself runs dry, it doesn’t matter. You’ll all be dust anyway.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But here and now, this weak little mortal defeated you.”

I stabbed down at her heart.

She moved her hands in the way, as if to catch the blade, but it was useless. The blade pierced through one of her palms and cut a half-regenerated finger off the other hand. She screamed as the blade pierced her heart and the ground beneath her, pinning her to the roof like a bug in a glass.

I stepped back, breathing heavily. I kept a wary eye on her. She shouldn’t be able to escape using the powers I knew about, but I still didn’t want another burst of fire to the face.

I pulled out my phone. “Flynn? How are things on the ground? How many Malcatari are we dealing with?”

“Good,” he said. “We haven’t won yet, but the Malcatari have fallen into defensive positions. This fight is over and they know it. There were only a few hundred of them total, so we’re actually on about even footing, numbers-wise. We’re preparing for the final attack now. None of them have surrendered.”

Of course. None of Malcanthet’s brood ever surrendered. If we captured them alive, they’d probably just try to kill themselves.

“Don’t take any unnecessary risks, but get it done quickly,” I said. “I need a heavy-duty capture team up here.” I glared down at Elizabeth. Most of her wounds had healed, but that didn’t change the fact that she was pinned to the roof. “I’ve got her.”

“Copy that,” Flynn said. I could almost hear the smile in his voice. “See you soon.”

“See you soon.” I hung up and sat down cross-legged next to Elizabeth, just outside her reach.

She had stopped futilely struggling, and was now glaring at me. “I’m going to gnaw on your bones. I will kill everyone you have ever spoken to, your nephews first among them. By the time I’m done, no one will even remember you ever existed.”

I didn’t say anything.

She struggled some more, hissing at the blade in her chest. “This sword is an abomination. Silk never should have made it.”

“She didn’t,” I said. “A normal swordsmith did. Elrond, that guy who thinks he’s an elf.”

Elizabeth scoffed. “He might have shaped the metal and sharpened the edge, but it was my sister who created this thing. No human—’elf’ or not—could have done such a thing.”

I quirked my head. I knew I shouldn’t be talking to her, but I was curious. Besides, it was better than just sitting here waiting for her to try to escape. “You know what it is? Why it survived your rust attack?”

She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t?”

I shook my head.

Elizabeth laughed, though it turned into a hacking cough after a second. “Then I see no need to educate you.” She grinned with bloody teeth. “And one day, when it turns on you, I hope to be there to see it.”

She didn’t seem like she was taunting me. Or not just taunting me, anyway. She seemed to honestly believe what she was saying.

Before I could think of anything to say, I was interrupted by a shriek of tortured air.

I looked up, frowning. It sounded almost like something dropping in from orbit at a bad angle. But that couldn’t be right, could it?

I saw something come streaking down from high above. Some object, impossible to identify at this distance, trailing smoke and flame. It screamed through the air and slammed down in the northern portion of the city, far from where I was currently sitting. I could swear I felt the ground shake when it hit, but that had to be my imagination.

What was that? The para? Or worse, the ambassadors and their shuttle? Would any of them survive a crash like that? Lily had at least a decent chance, maybe the other warlords, but there was no way Eccretia or Adam could survive.

Then there was an explosion behind me.

I was blasted forward by a wave of heat and flame. I tapped my speed to get my feet under me and flipped around to see a massive smoking hole in the roof where Elizabeth had been lying. She had used her fire powers at full blast to destroy the very floor that she was pinned to. The edges were still aflame, and it was possible the whole building could catch.

I cursed under my breath and followed down the hole, pausing only to grab my sword from where it had been stuck in a wall by the force of the explosion.

Once again, the hunt was on.

Behind the Scenes (scene 332)

How did Elizabeth get so many Malcatari so deep in the city? The fact that Domina has opened its borders more following the treaty with America is part of it, as is the continued absence of MC for the moment. None of these Malcatari had ever been to Domina before, so no one was looking out for them specifically, and it was easy to keep Elizabeth hidden. Malcanthet was planning her assault on Domina since the moment she was exiled, so it wasn’t hard to adapt to these new circumstances.

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Scene 327 – Militum

MILITUM

ELIZABETH

I kicked the door open, surprising the dozen people in the room. Eleven guns were pointed at me before I had taken two steps.

I ignored them all. “Are you the Malcatari?”

Eleven guns roared, bullets from pistols and rifles shredding my flesh and breaking my bones. In moments, I had enough lead in me to fill a bucket.

Then they ran out of ammo, and stopped firing.

I waited patiently as my healing pushed the bullets out of my body and re-knit my bones.

The leader—the one who hadn’t pulled a gun on me—slowly stood up. “You are one of those creatures from Domina City.”

I snorted. “No, I’m the one who made those creatures in Domina City. I’m Elizabeth Greene.”

This didn’t get the reaction I felt it deserved. Instead of shock, awe, and horror, they just kind of looked at me funny.

“The Composer?” I said. “Ringing any bells?”

The gunmen just shook their heads. A few of them tried to reload without me noticing.

The leader just stalled for time. “We don’t know you, lady. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a pleasant conversation. What do you want?”

I looked around the room. Other than a few couches and a single table, there wasn’t much to see. It seemed like everyone had been eating when I came in. There was a big pile of cash on the counter, which I assumed was from some bank heist or mugging or however it was that criminals made money.

“Is this all of you?” I asked.

“There are others,” the leader said. “Did Malcanthet send you?”

I chuckled. “She’s dead, boy.”

One of the others shot me in the head. I ignored him.

To the leader’s credit, so did he. Everyone else looked nauseated watching me heal again, but he didn’t seem concerned. “We know our lady is still alive. Are you here to insult the Succubus Queen, or do you have something important to say?”

“You know where all the other Malcatari are?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“And does anyone else know?”

“My lieutenants.” I guessed that those were the other two men sitting at the table with him. “Why?”

I shrugged. “Wanted to make sure I wouldn’t lose anything important with your death.”

“Threats will get you—” He cut off as my glowing orange energy blade appeared in his throat. Throwing energy knives was difficult, since they took more energy to maintain the farther they were from me, but I had mastered the technique over the centuries.

The leader went down, and eleven guns snapped up again as everyone finished reloading.

I held up my hands before anyone could shoot. “Before you waste some more ammo, I have a proposal for all of you. You can’t kill me, and if you keep trying I’m just going to get fed up and kill you all.”

Everyone glanced at everyone else, but no one shot me. Good.

“Now, as I said, Malcanthet is dead.” There were angry mutterings, but I calmed them down with some gentle hand waves. “Your queen is dead. I’m sorry.” I was suddenly glad there weren’t any truthtellers in the room. “Artemis Butler has cremated her corpse, and Lilith herself is dismantling Miomanta. All the traitors who once lived there—the lesser guards and worker drones—have turned their backs on their queen.” I didn’t point out that this was mostly because Lilith had flushed the drugs out of their systems. This lot seemed to be continuing to use the prescribed drug cocktail. “Malcanthet’s legacy only lives on in you—her Malcatari.”

“Is there a point somewhere in all this?” one of them snapped.

With effort, I refrained from killing him. “You can stay here, waiting for orders that will never come, and let your queen’s legacy rot and die.” I smiled, displaying my sharp canines. “Or, you can come with me. Join me in revenge against that accursed city, and the monsters who murdered your queen.”

“What do you get out of this?” someone asked.

I gave him a look that was kind and pitying, instead of half a heartbeat away from brutal murder. “I get soldiers. I get revenge. But these are both things you want to give. You were never designed to go without a leader.” That was one of the reasons I had killed the only smart one in the group.

“All right,” said another. “Maybe we do need a leader.” He pointed an accusing finger at me. “But why do we need you? Why can’t we just find someone else? Someone who hasn’t killed one of us?”

“Because,” I said patiently. “No one else can give you powers.”

Shocked silence greeted my words.

“The same powers that the Dominites have?” one of the previous ones asked. I’d have to start learning their names soon.

“Close, but not quite,” I said. “You will have a more limited pool to choose from. But you will be able to choose, unlike the Dominites.”

They still looked hesitant. “What kind of powers can we have?”

“Does it matter?” someone else asked, annoyed. “Whatever we get, the Dominites will already have. It’s like trying to fight the army with guns. Yeah, we’ll have guns, but they’ll have so many more.”

Murmurs of agreement greeted this announcement. I noticed several of them giving me calculating looks, like they were trying to figure out if they could disable me and escape.

“I am not some one-note conductor,” I said. “I am a composer. I am not offering you a power. I am offering you your pick of two powers—each.” I smiled wickedly. “Perhaps more. Whatever it takes to wipe that city off the face of the planet.”

There was a pause.

The Malcatari glanced at each other. Several began to lower their guns.

“Can you give us a minute?” one of the lieutenants asked.

I managed to smile. “Of course. Take all the time you need.” But if they needed more than five minutes, I’d kill every single one of them and find another group to conquer. How hard was it to agree to serve the invincible immortal?

All eleven survivors clustered around the table, whispering furiously. I rolled my eyes and leaned against the wall. Such children. How had Malcanthet ever put up with this? Once I started hypnotizing them, the first thing I was going to do was make them more assertive. After the standard loyalty brainwashing, of course.

After four minutes and thirty-six seconds by my internal clock, they finally broke their little huddle and turned to face me.

“We have made our decision,” the lieutenant said.

“And?” I said, trying not to let my impatience show.

The lieutenant hesitated just for a moment, then knelt before me, eyes downcast.

All the others followed suit.

“We pledge allegiance to you, Elizabeth Greene,” he said.

I slowly smiled. “Excellent. Now, where are the other Malcatari? We will need their help before this is done.”

They glanced at each other.

I rolled my eyes. “Tell me you’re not all there is.”

“No, of course not,” he said quickly. “It’s just… it may take some time.”

“What, did you lose their phone numbers?”

“No, it’s just… there are so many.”

I frowned. “How many can there be? Malcanthet was only operating outside Domina for six years, and Miomanta wasn’t that big.”

“There were only a hundred in Miomanta, this is true,” he said, still keeping his gaze lowered. Humility was a trait I was fond of in minions. “But she trained us in recruitment, in the use of her purifying drugs. New recruits were only brought to Miomanta for the queen’s final blessing, and then sent to live in hiding. We have many brothers and sisters scattered around the entire country.”

“How many?”

“Thousands,” he said, still looking down. “Maybe tens of thousands.”

I felt a slow smile spread across my face.

It had been far too long since I had an army of thralls.

Behind the Scenes (scene 327)

This takes place on Monday, January 14th, four days after the para decided to contact Domina City.

Scene 307 – Amor

AMOR

I had a name once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could do it.”

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

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

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

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

I looked up. “I like the horns, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head vehemently.

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

I paused for a moment, then nodded carefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I was still the first monster.

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

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

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

My forehead ached.

Slightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She ran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?” Chris demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the brakes.

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

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

Then another snapped.

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

Another snapped.

“Brace yourself!”

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

We hit.

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

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

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

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

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

“What the HELL was that?”

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

He blinked. Once. Twice.

“Adam? You going to be okay?”

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

“Let me handle things from here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than enough for my eyes to see.

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

Don’t think.

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

Don’t think.

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

This was important.

This was necessary.

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

But I could still see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve always been ever so good with monsters.

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

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

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

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

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

He loved me, and I loved him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He loved me.

And I loved him.

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

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

They ran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up shut up shut up—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes you just need a mother. Anyone will do.

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

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

Right now, my daughter just needed to be held.

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

“Uh, sure. C’mon, let’s go.”

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

“Wait, these, these—”

“Riven,” Adam said.

“Yeah. Them too?”

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

“I don’t know, but—”

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

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

“Lily!” Chris called.

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

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

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

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

She pulled something out of her pocket.

A lighter.

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

I smiled sadly. “Goodbye, Honored Daughter.”

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

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

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

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

Malcanthet was not so lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, you just need a mother.

But sometimes, you need more than we can give.

END BOOK THREE

Scene 306 – Captum

CAPTUM

CHRIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe he was much harder than I had thought.

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

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

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

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

The guard cocked the hammer, making a loud click.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam looked worried. “Oh dear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam smirked. “Are you?”

They stared each other down for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam exploded into motion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plastic. They must have been plastic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But how will she escape?”

He frowned. “Escape?”

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

He chuckled. “No. Definitely not.”

“Then what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

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

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

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

I groaned. “Wonderful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you read it?”

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

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

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

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

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

I brought my gun up and nodded.

He took a deep breath and pulled open the door. I stepped inside, sweeping the room.

It wasn’t like the office floors down below. The floor was thick carpet, and there was plush furniture scattered everywhere. Velvet tapestries covered the walls, scrawled with artistic designs. It was clean, for the most part, but there were a few glasses and bowls scattered around on love seats. Not much, but enough to tell me that this place was used. It wasn’t some waiting room, ignored until it was needed.

There were two guards. They looked out of place sitting on the comfy furniture in their sharp suits. They blinked as I entered the room, but they recovered quickly. They rose, hands going to their guns.

I shot them both, one after another. Dead center in the chest. Both men crumpled to the ground.

The gunshots didn’t echo much; there was too much plush in the room. But someone would still have heard it. We didn’t have long before someone came running.

Adam pushed past me, his gun out as well. He glanced around the room and spotted the fallen guards. Then he walked over to them and calmly shot them both twice in the head.

I started. “What the Hell!?”

“Just to be safe,” he said. He looked at me. God, those eyes… cold as ice. “Is there a problem?”

I swallowed. “No. You just surprised me.”

He nodded, then knelt down and inspected the bodies. He smirked and exchanged his gun for one the guards had. “Of course. Her elites get the 740s.” He tossed me one. “Use that one. It’s mostly the same, just doesn’t explode. Don’t swap bullets, though.”

I looked it over. He was right; it looked exactly the same as the 750, except for the different serial number. Though they both had a small lever, similar to a safety. On the 750 it was off, but on the 740 it was in the on position.

“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to it.

Adam frowned at looked at his own 740. “Not sure. It’s not a…” His face cleared. “Oh, right. I forgot. The Black Knight is a machine pistol.” He flicked the lever. “The guys downstairs had theirs on single-shot mode, these guys used full-auto.”

I clicked mine to single-shot too. “Seems like a small mag for a machine pistol.”

“Yeah, but it can be useful in the right circumstances.” He pulled something else out of the guard’s pocket. “Key card. Not sure we’re gonna need it. They might open the door for us.”

I frowned. “Why would they do that?”

He smirked. “So that they can come out and kill us, of course.”

There were three entrances to this room: The stairwell we had come from, a more ornate door to the left, and the elevator to the right. Adam and I both turned to cover the ornate door. At least we’d hear the elevator.

“Derek told me that Rivenheart had Kevlar furniture,” he said. “I have no idea if that’s true here. Just keep it in mind.”

I didn’t ask who Derek was or what Rivenheart had been. This really wasn’t the time.

I heard shouting from the other room. The guards were getting ready.

“How many are we looking at?” I asked.

Adam shook his head. “No idea. Room of that size could fit twenty armed men.”

I glanced at him. He looked worried, but not scared. Calm, determined.

“Is surrender—”

“No.”

“But maybe—”

No.” He glared at me. “Do you have any idea where these people came from? All these slaves who she has drugged into mindless obedience?”

“I would assume she hired them and then started spiking the coffee.”

Adam smirked, but controlled himself. “Maybe some. But not all. One of her favorite tricks is brainwashing her enemies to fight for her.” He turned back to the door. “Fight to the death or jump off the roof. Those are your options.”

There was another option: Escape. Or rather, there had been another option. He was right, by this point it was off the table. If this ‘Malcanthet’ had half a brain, she would have cut off our escape routes by now.

“Adam, I—”

The door opened.

Adam fired, once, twice, then dove behind cover. I followed suit, even though I hadn’t actually seen anyone returning fire. My paranoia was proven justified when bullets streaked through the air.

I waited a heartbeat, popped up, and fired in the direction of the door. I didn’t get a good look, but I did see a few men. I dropped back down again before I could count exactly how many of them there were.

I checked my clip. “Half left.”

Adam frowned. He popped up and fired twice before dropping down again. It was a very clean and professional maneuver. Who the hell had trained him? “You have some spare mags, right?”

“One,” I said.

“Shit.” He peeked out from around the corner of the couch and fired twice. I heard the sound of bodies hitting the floor. He withdrew just as the survivors returned fire. The bullets tore into the floor and threw up splinters of wood from underneath the carpet.

I took the opportunity to pop up and take a shot at the guard in front. I got him in the shoulder, and he cried out in pain.

I ducked back down. “I think three are neutralized. Unless you got more with your first shots.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

The guards started shooting again. Bullets hit the couch, but none punched through. I couldn’t tell if Adam was right about the Kevlar, or if the bullets just didn’t have enough penetration. “At least it doesn’t sound like twenty men,” I said. “I’d say six more, max.”

Adam cocked his head, listening to the gunfire. “Based on reloads… I’d say three.”

I nodded. I had been rounding up to be safe.

The gunfire slowly subsided.

I glanced at Adam. “You think that’s a good sign?”

He frowned. “No. I really, really don’t.”

“Assassin!” someone called. It was a melodious voice that made every hair on my body stand on end. Just that one word was like my first kiss all over again. “You are surrounded! Lay down your weapons and you will not be harmed!”

I almost stood. How could anyone disobey that voice?

Adam grabbed me and dragged me back down. “You’re not a lesbian.”

I frowned. “What? Of course not. What does that have to do with anything?”

“She has pheromones,” he explained patiently. “You haven’t even seen her and she’s already seducing you. Just remember: You’re not a lesbian.”

I took a deep breath, struggling to remain in control. Adam seemed unfazed. He must have more experience with this sort of thing.

“I have grenades!” that perfect voice called. “I would prefer not to ruin my sitting room further, but I will if I have to!”

I bit my hand, hard. The pain kept me centered, focused on the moment.

Adam watched dispassionately. I couldn’t tell if he thought I was weak and useless or weak and pitiful.

“If you don’t come out, I will execute your friend!”

I grabbed Adam before he could leap out. The cold look in his eyes was gone, replaced by rage and fire.

“It’s a bluff,” I hissed. “She knows there were three of us. She’s just trying to draw us out.”

“We caught her in the elevator. She will make a fine addition to my collection.”

I gripped Adam’s arm so hard it hurt. “It’s a bluff. Why would Lily go to the elevator anyway? It’s terrible tactics.”

Adam closed his eyes. “Lily… is not good at tactics.”

I frowned. Before I could say anything, the elevator dinged.

Adam and I both pointed our guns in that direction before the doors even opened. We didn’t shoot, though. Not with Lily in the way.

One of the guards pushed her out in front of him. He had a gun to the back of her head, and her hands were tied behind her back. Maybe she could get out of that, but even if she could deal with one guard, the rest would kill her before she could reach cover.

“See?” the voice said. “Come out before I get impatient.”

Adam slowly lowered his gun.

I kept mine up. “Are you sure?”

He sat there for a few moments before answering.

“No,” he said finally. “I’m not sure.” He tossed his gun over the couch, well out of reach.

I sighed and did the same. Then we both stood, hands up, and turned in the direction the voice had been coming from.

That was when I received my first look at the Succubus Queen.

The first thing I noticed was her glittering white smile and her razor-sharp teeth. She had perfectly tanned skin, curves that would make a model jealous, and was wearing a set of lacy bra and panties that would make a porn star blush. She had strange, abstract tribal tattoos all over her body, especially around her breasts and groin. Her eyes were red, but her hair was wavy black. It went down to the small of her back, but she kept it carefully brushed away from her forehead. The better to show off her horns. They were just small red things, about the same size and shape as Lily’s.

In fact, she reminded me a lot of Lily. Lily was much shorter, and had absolutely no curves to speak of, but other than that they were very similar. Even the tattoos were of the same general theme. Lily almost looked like she was aping the Queen, except for the tail. Lily had one, the Queen didn’t.

Malcanthet quirked her head. “Hello, little demon. Have we met before?”

“I’m not a demon,” Lily said. I was surprised by the strength in her voice.

“Whatever you say.” Malcanthet clapped her hands and smiled. “I lost two, but gained three. Hardly ideal, but a net gain in the end. I’ll take it.”

“You won’t get away with this,” Adam warned.

The Queen laughed. “What are you, five? Of course I will.” She grinned wolfishly. “That annoying little drug of yours will wear off in a day or so, and then you are all mine.”

“Ten ambassadors from Domina are here in New York right now,” he said. “They will come for you.”

“No. They won’t. They don’t even know I’m here.” She smirked. “Even if you did have enough presence of mind to warn them before you were captured, it won’t matter. They would much prefer to just ignore me. I’m out of the city, I’m no longer their problem.”

“Domina is changing, Lupa,” Adam said. “We look beyond our borders now.”

Malcanthet had stopped smiling. “Don’t call me that. And I looked you up, Mister Anders. You are not a Dominite. You are just some random idiot outsider.” She shook her head. “The fact that you survived in that city for months is proof that they are going soft.”

Adam frowned. “You mean you don’t have spies on the inside?”

Malcanthet rolled her eyes. “Butler and Naamah have been hunting down my Riven ever since I left. I haven’t had anyone in the city for months.” Her grin returned, lips slowly peeling back to expose those shark teeth. “But perhaps I will send you back as my spies, hm? Yes, that will do nicely…”

“Leave Lily out of this,” I said. The pain from my hand had faded, and I had to struggle to ignore how drop-dead gorgeous Malcanthet was. “She has nothing to do with any of this.”

Malcanthet grinned. “I don’t think—” Her grin faded. “Lily?” She glanced over at Lily. Then her eyes widened.

“Canny, please,” Lily said. “You don’t have to do this.”

“LIES!” Malcanthet shrieked. She stumbled back. “It’s—it’s a trick! Anyone can claim to be her! She changes toys so much, can’t ever be sure what she looks like today! It’s just a stupid trick!”

“Canny—” Lily said again.

“DON’T CALL ME THAT!” Malcanthet grabbed one of her guards by the shoulder. “SHOOT HER!”

I paled. “Wait—”

Before I could say anything else, the guard shot Lily dead center in the forehead.

Behind the Scenes (scene 306)

Demonscript uses one of the simpler forms of Cuneiform. It doesn’t track perfectly with the German alphabet, but it is close enough that any German word can be spelled without too much difficulty. They also modified the numbers, since the Sumerians used a more complex and less efficient system.

Chris discusses Adam’s training here. I’m still unsure whether or not I should have had it offscreen or not. Ultimately, I decided on only a couple of scenes with him fighting monsters, in addition to the screamer scenes. Unfortunately, this created the impression that he was entirely self-taught during combat. There was a lot of that, of course, but he also received real training from Derek, the retinue, Necessarius, and a few of Derek’s monster slayer friends.