Tag Archives: Mals

Scene 312 – Ingens

INGENS

SEENA

“Noble Nyashk,” my majordomo said, bowing low. “May I introduce Detectives Abraham Gosling and Utako Tora, of Necessarius.”

The two people who stepped into the conference room were obviously Necessarius. While there was no formal dress code, Butler’s detectives liked to wear nice suits that could take a beating, in addition to the ‘sarian armbands and prominent guns. The man was baseline, while the woman was a kemo with just tiger ears.

The conference room was nothing special, just a big room with a long table and a nice wide window. The window was of course polarized to keep light out. It was only two or three—I hadn’t checked the clock—and the sun was high in the sky.

“Thank you,” I said to my majordomo. He bowed and left. I turned to the ‘sarians. “Badges, lawmen. I’ve been feeling paranoid of late.”

They both nodded and pulled out their badges, presenting them without complaint. I peered closely. They looked authentic enough. I could have someone check to make sure later, after they left.

“Thank you,” I said, sitting down. “How may I help you two today?”

They glanced at each other.

“Please, sit,” I said. “Did you want something to drink? We have water, iced tea, whatever you want.”

They took their chairs a little hesitantly, sitting across from me at the end of the table.

“Honored Noble,” the man said. Gosling. “There’s no easy way to say this…”

I sat up, a chill running down my spine. “Is Simon all right?”

“What? Yes! I mean—” He glanced at his partner. “Uh, we don’t know anything about your brother. Someone from our precinct was looking for him a few days ago for something unrelated, but couldn’t find him.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sure that’s nothing. He’s been spending a lot of time with that girlfriend of his, Yolanda.” I smiled. “He had an… accident recently. He’s resting up a bit.”

“Right,” Tora said. “But that’s not what we came here to talk to you about.”

“This is a very strange situation,” Gosling said. He still looked hesitant. “I’m just going to come out and say it, because I don’t know how to soften the blow. There’s a gargant that’s been killing people.”

I smirked.

Gosling chuckled. “Okay, yeah, that sounds… redundant. But this one is acting like an assassin. Moving intelligently, killing specific people. The current theory is that the fey put a homunculus control module inside a gargant.”

I frowned. “I’m not sure that’s possible.” I shrugged. “Maybe you should go looking for my brother after all. He likes toy maker theory, though he’s not that great at the actual art of it all.”

“Regardless, its latest victim managed to rip a few hairs off it in the struggle. We had them tested, and…” He paused. “We found your DNA.”

I stared at him.

“What?” I said after a moment.

“Necessarius has your DNA on file. Pre-Nyashk, anyway. Something about a blood drive before they figured out how to clone blood with the toy maker—”

“Yes, yes, I know all about that,” I said tiredly. “But… a gargant can’t have my DNA. What did they do, clone me?”

The detectives glanced at each other again.

“Out with it,” I snapped.

“The gargant has half your DNA,” Tora said.

Half.

That was how much a child of mine would have.

Like the child I sold to the fey.

“Our first thought was that they stole a sample of your blood,” Tora said. “Mixed it up with whatever they wanted for the gargant. But we got a hit on the other half of the DNA, and…” She paused. “We can stop if you want.”

“Why would I want that?”

“Honored Noble,” Gosling said quietly. “You’re crying.”

My hand went to my cheek. I felt something wet there.

I sniffed and wiped the tears away and forced my voice to remain level. “Thank you for informing me of this, detectives. Is there anything else?”

Gosling nodded. “We didn’t come here just to tell you about… well. We have someone at the precinct with a scrying ability. Uh, that means he can—”

“See distant places,” I said. “Yes, I know. Several of my drakes have variants of it. I also know that it is rarely so convenient as to simply choose who you want to scry on. What do you want from me?”

“His ability is bloodline locked,” Tora said. “Or… bloodline boosted. Not sure about that. Anyway, if this gargant is… what we think it is, he should be able to use you as a focus for his power. Use you to find the gargant before it kills again.”

“He hasn’t had a chance to try it on a homunculus,” Gosling said. “So we’re not sure how it works with clones—”

“The gargant is not a clone.”

The detectives didn’t say anything. They had suspected, but hadn’t wanted to step out of place by saying it aloud.

“How urgent is this?” I asked after a moment.

Very,” Gosling said. “We haven’t been able to determine any sort of pattern for the attacks. Sometimes they come within just a few days of each other.”

“Oh, good.”

He stared at me. “Good?

“I just wanted to know if I should wake up Zepar and go with you right now. I’m the only Noble awake at the moment.”

“Oh.” He relaxed. “Okay, that’s fine. So you want to do this tonight?”

“We can even bring him here, if that would make things easier,” Tora added.

I considered it. “No, I will go to meet him. I will be safer than he would be. Besides, I’ve been cooped up in here for too long.”

They both nodded in agreement.

“Is ten PM a good time?” I asked, rising.

They rose as well. “That should be fine,” Gosling said. “I’ll double-check that he’ll still be around and give your secretary a call.”

“You can get his card—”

Gosling flipped out a card. “Got it right here.”

I smiled. “Of course. Thank you both for your attention to detail on this investigation.” I frowned. “Actually, I am curious. Why are you involved in this at all? I thought I heard something about the Paladins and their retinue investigating a string of gargant attacks.”

They exchanged a look again.

I rolled my eyes. “Detectives…”

Tora winced, her ears laying flat against her head. “The retinue…” She shook her head. “They’re having problems. Don’t know the full details. But we got the case because it intersected one of ours. Pure coincidence, really.”

“Ah. Well.” I indicated the door. “Please, see yourselves out. I am sure you have much to do today, and I would like to rest up for tonight.”

They both bowed slightly and left.

I collapsed into a chair the second the door closed.

I put my face in my hands. How long was this going to come back to haunt me? One mistake—a big mistake, but still just one—made years ago. I should never have dealt with the fey. I should have taken off running in the opposite direction the second I had seen that naked bitch.

At least the ‘new’ fey were showing their true colors now. Using an old project to attack innocent people didn’t fit with their friendly new ‘culture.’ Well, okay, innocent was a nebulous concept in Domina City, but—

I frowned. Wait one second.

I flipped out my phone and called the front desk. “Have the ‘sarians left yet?” I asked without preamble.

The secretary sounded surprised. “Uh, yes. They just left. Two seconds ago.”

“Bring them back in.”

“Honored Noble, I don’t have my daygoggles, I’ll need to fetch someone—”

Now.”

“Yes, Honored Noble.” There was a pause, then he returned, out of breath. “They are on their way, Honored Noble.”

“Thank you.” I took a deep breath. “I promise, this is important.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

I smiled. “Of course not.” I hung up.

A few minutes later, the detectives walked back into the conference room, looking confused.

“Apologies,” I said with a smile. “But I thought of something I would like to ask.”

“All right,” Gosling said. I didn’t sit, so neither did they.

“This gargant,” I said. “My—” I couldn’t say it. “This gargant. You said there’s no pattern to its attacks. But is there a pattern to its victims?

“Possibly,” Tora said, still confused. “Where are you going with this?”

“Are they all criminals?” I asked. “People who couldn’t be touched through normal channels for whatever reason.” I shook my head. “I don’t even know what I’m asking. Maybe they were escaped criminals who changed their faces or something.”

“Or something,” Gosling said. He kept his face impassive. But I could smell something from him—sweat, mixed with something else. I wasn’t good at determining emotions from scents, but there was something there.

Tora shook her head. “Honored Noble, where is this coming from?”

“I was thinking about the fey,” I said. “They’ve stopped their Hunts. They never act aggressively, but they fight ruthlessly when on the defensive. They’re trying as hard as they can to look like a respectable culture.”

The detectives didn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell if they hadn’t figured it out, or if they just didn’t want to accidentally give me any clues.

“That means that whatever they’re doing with this gargant, they think it’s important. Either important enough to their culture to risk their reputation, or important enough to the city that they’ll be vindicated in the end.”

Gosling shuffled on his feet. “…everyone knows that the fey are crazy,” he said after a moment.

“And everyone used to know the world was flat,” I said. “The fey often have insane goals, but their means are always simple and logical enough. If you want to cause chaos, unleashing hordes of monsters works perfectly. The fact that they have soldiers and so on is proof of that.”

“How are soldiers proof of chaos?” Tora asked.

“I mean proof that they’re rational,” I said. That had gotten away from me a bit. “The monsters weren’t cutting it, so they got soldiers. And apparently that wasn’t working either, so they got a new type of gargant.” I shook my head. “Why my baby, I have no idea. Maybe they wanted to draw my attention for some reason. Who knows. The point is, there has to be a pattern.”

Gosling glanced at Tora. “Are we allowed to tell her?”

Tora closed her eyes. “I have no idea. The boss will get pissed if we bother her with this. She’s still busy entertaining the Senator.”

Gosling scratched his head. “Honored Noble. What I am about to tell you is top secret. If there are any recording devices in this room, you need to turn them off.”

I flipped out my phone and pressed a few buttons. “There we go. All off.”

He still looked hesitant, but he nodded. “Okay. It’s simple, really. The gargant is attacking American spies.”

I frowned. “What? Wasn’t this going on since before the war?”

“America has been sending spies to Domina since before the Fall of Eden,” Tora said. “They normally get eaten up and spat out, but they’ve been getting smarter. And like you said, there was the war. We’ve suddenly become much higher priority, and a number of enemy soldiers survived by hiding out in the city.”

I sat back. “And now the fey are cleaning house,” I said.

“Lady Mab claims that the gargant has slipped the leash,” Tora said. “She refuses to give any more information beyond that. Whether it’s true or not, this gargant is dangerous, and needs to be neutralized before it hurts anyone else.”

“I’m surprised you’re so protective of American spies.”

Gosling sighed. “Honored Noble, how do you think a gargant assassinates people?”

I frowned. “I would assume in a similar manner to my own culture. Swiftly, violently. Why?”

“This isn’t some steel-plated gargant that has learned how to slip through defenses and attack from stealth,”Gosling said. “It’s a big one. There’s some name for it, one second…” He flipped out his pad to check his notes.

“Category three,” Tora said. “The same size as a brick-plated gargant.”

I blinked, then felt a mounting horror in my heart. “Its not just killing the spies. It’s killing everyone who happens to be around them at the time.”

Gosling nodded. “And it’s been getting more violent.” He shook his head. “There are some… oddities. Conflicting reports about the way it kills. Regardless, we need to find this creature as soon as possible.”

“Which is why we are thankful you agreed to help,” Tora said. “We’ll see you tonight.”

“No,” I said. I grabbed my daygoggles off a hook next to the door. “We’ll go now. If my—if this gargant really is the threat you think it is, there’s no reason to delay.”

They both relaxed visibly. They hadn’t wanted to push me, but there did want to rush.

“Thank you, Honored Noble,” Tora said.

Gosling took out his phone. “I’ll call ahead, let them know to be ready for us.”

I forced myself to smile. “Hopefully we can sort this out without too much more trouble.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 312)

I’m certain I put the gargant on the back burner for far too long. But this is still the best time to polish off this old story line, along with a couple of others.

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Scene 279 – Noctu Insidias

NOCTU INSIDIAS

ILEANA

My name is Ileana. I am an ambassador of the Nosferatu vampires, specifically the Nictuku clan. After Cinder and Halifax were cast out, I became a full-time employee of Necessarius, helping them smooth over some of the more difficult Nosferatu bloodlines—which is to say, all of them.

The point was, the last place I should be was a battlefield.

I dove behind a car as bullets hit the pavement where I had been standing. The American soldiers still had those light amplification goggles on, which meant they could actually see me. We were on one of the side streets near East Gate, pretty far from the Dragon’s ambush spots. There were no angels to drop a daybreak and force the soldiers to take the goggles off. And of course this was vampire territory, so there wasn’t a flashlight within twenty blocks.

The soldiers fired again, bullets pinging off the car. It wouldn’t hold up against them for long. Weren’t Americans supposed to be soft and hesitant? They shouldn’t be willing to shoot at an unarmed observer!

Of course, the soft and the hesitant generally didn’t join the army, much less the infantry. And then the Dragon had decided to use ambush and terror tactics to scare them, make them sloppy. Well, that seemed to be working, it was just gonna get me killed in the process.

I had claws and poison fangs, but that wasn’t anywhere near enough for me to win a fight with five armed men. I didn’t even have any armor, let alone the sort of bulletproof black carapace that Halifax had been so fond of.

I did have one thing, though.

I took a deep breath and tugged at my reservoir, the fuel source for my power. I wasn’t like some people, the ones who never used their powers for one reason or another. Some didn’t want anything given to them by the Composer, some were former screamers who got powers that didn’t fit them, and some were just lazy.

I trained with my power. I knew how to use it. It was too valuable not to practice with it daily. The source was irrelevant.

No, the problem was that I wasn’t used to having to use my power while I was being shot at.

Every bullet that got too close affected my concentration, making it harder to draw out my power. None hit, none even got close. But every time something pinged off that car, I couldn’t help but think that sooner or later, the bullets would punch through and hit me…

Unless I did this.

I took a deep breath, and projected an illusion.

Suddenly, there was a copy of me crouching on the sidewalk behind the car with me. She looked exactly like me, from the dirt on her face to the black eyes to the singed hair. She should; self-projection was the most common illusion I used. Half the time these days I didn’t even talk to people face to face, I just projected an illusion of myself around the corner and let them talk to that. It had already saved my life twice.

I sent her running off in one direction, keeping her low as those she was trying to stay out of sight. The truth, of course, was the opposite. The soldiers needed to see her, because otherwise they might see me.

The shooting paused briefly, then redirected. Gunfire ricocheted off mailboxes and cars farther up the street.

“C’mon!” I heard one soldier yell, and then the sound of running boots.

I stayed still for a few moments, waiting to see if anyone was still there. When I didn’t hear anything, I crept out of my hiding place. I was safe.

Which, unfortunately, was a problem.

If I was safe, someone else wasn’t. My phone had broken in the scuffle. By the time I found someone and sent nightstalkers to deal with these soldiers, they would be long gone. They could do some real damage to our ambushes if they came at us from the right angle. Bashing around backstage, my friend had called it.

With no other choice, I crept forward in the direction the soldiers had gone. I was hoping I would find a radio or a phone or something. My only option was to hope I could somehow use my illusions to trick the soldiers into shooting each other. They might be high-strung, but I had a feeling it would be harder than it sounded.

At least they weren’t making any attempt to be stealthy. I heard them when I was still a street away. Their voices echoed off the empty streets and tall buildings as if they were in a deep cave.

I shivered. Empty streets in Domina City. Even during the Composer’s reign, it hadn’t been this bad. Yes yes, tactics and strategy rather than fear and bloodshed, but still, it brought to mind the worst moments of those days. They weren’t gone long enough that I could just ignore the similarities.

As I got closer, I actually managed to hear what the men were saying.

“Where’d she go?”

“I dunno, Sarge. You think she doubled back?”

“Don’t see how. She probably just slipped into a house or shop or whatever these places are.” I heard someone spit. “Keep your eyes peeled. She’s definitely a spy.”

“She’s just a kid, Sarge.”

“She had claws and fangs, Corporal. She looked like a damned monster. Why would she look like that, if she wasn’t planning to use it?”

Because it was fashionable, you uncultured brute.

A new voice, younger and female, piped up. “Sarge, we’re getting a bit off the beaten path here. You think we should head back?”

I froze. If they headed back, they’d find me. Should I project another illusion?

“Let me see that map,” the sergeant said. There was a pause. “We’re not too far from the gate. Let’s set up a forward outpost here. Corporal, recon that shop, it will do for a start. We’re going to hunker down, shoot anything that comes close.”

“Yessir,” the Corporal said. “You two, with me.”

My mind raced. What should I do now? I couldn’t tell if this was better or worse than them continuing on. If they kept going, they might blunder into something important. It would be hard to dig them out of the shop, but it was better than letting them walk a few more streets and find the orphanages, right?

I was close enough to see them now. There were six of them. Three were heading towards a blood shop. The other three had their backs to the shop, watching the streets. Their guns were lowered, but not forgotten. If someone attacked, they’d have them up in less than a heartbeat.

The shop was abandoned, or at least the first floor was. The streets were deserted, but a lot of people lived out here, above their shops or factories or storehouses. If the soldiers decided to sweep the entire building, they could find innocent bystanders on the upper levels. Well, for a given definition of innocent, anyway. The point was, they needed to be stopped before this could escalate any further.

Evidently, someone agreed.

There was a scream from inside the shop. All three men still out on the street turned, guns raised and pointed in that direction. They spread out wide, trying to cover all exits from the shop at once. The problem was that it was a corner, so they’d have to expose themselves to do so.

“Corporal?” the Sergeant called, advancing slowly. “Report!”

His only response was another scream.

He never saw the vampire sneaking up behind him, a wicked long knife held in his hand.

The blade was darkened with ash, a common practice for the Mals. He stepped up right behind the Sergeant and clapped a hand over his mouth while slitting his throat in the same motion. He caught the body, lowering it slowly to the ground, and kept an eye on the other two soldiers. They hadn’t noticed yet, but he had seconds left, if that.

I wanted to use my illusions to help, but the only sound I could project was my own voice. I doubted I could pass for the Sergeant. Maybe if I—

But it was already too late. One of the other soldiers glanced in the direction of the Sergeant and saw the Mal.

“Contact!” the American yelled, opening fire. His companion joined suit a heartbeat later, and I almost jumped at the sudden staccato of gunfire. I was not built for this.

The Mal yelped and tried to run, but the bullets ripping through his leg and torso slowed him down too much. I concentrated and created an illusion of him, which I sent running into the blood shop. The soldiers followed it, but I’d be surprised if it kept them occupied for more than ten seconds.

I rushed over to the Mal’s side. I threw his arm over my shoulder, ignoring the fact that my heart was in my throat.

To his credit, the Mal didn’t waste time or breath trying to figure out who I was. He just struggled to his feet, hissing, and started limping away from the battle. I had to half-carry him most of the way.

“Hey!” one of the soldiers cried. “They’re over here!” Bullets hit the car next to us.

“Any ideas?” I asked.

The Mal groaned. “No. What’s your power—”

The car next to us burst into flame, and we both threw ourselves to the ground instinctively. But despite what television would have you believe, cars don’t explode at the drop of a hat. This one had probably caught from a one in a million shot, a bullet hitting just the right part of the generator. It wouldn’t get any worse than it was right now.

But a burning car is still pretty bad, especially in vampire territory. The Mal and I both cursed and stumbled away, blinded as easily as a baseline staring at the sun. My eyes were watering and my vision completely white—I couldn’t see two steps in front of me.

But at least we had experience getting blinded. I heard more cursing behind us, the sound of the Americans ripping off their light amplification goggles. They’d recover quickly. We only had seconds.

The Mal dragged us up a few steps, which probably meant into an abandoned storefront. I tripped and stumbled over something on the ground, but he threw me behind a counter instead of just letting me fall on the floor.

I took a deep breath, blinking to allow my eyes to adjust. There was still the fire outside the window, but it was far enough away. There were enough walls between us and it that it was just radiant rather than blinding.

I glanced around the shop. It was a magazine library, with pads and computers chained to desks so that people could read the latest editions of this, that, or the other thing. There were more rooms upstairs, but I didn’t want to lead the soldiers up there in case there were people hiding up there.

“What’s your power?” the Mal, sitting next to me, asked.

He got right down to business, didn’t he? “Illusions. But I think they’re getting wise. You?”

“Drug immunity.”

I stared at him. “That’s it?

He shrugged. “I used to be a Belian. Seemed pretty nice to me at the time.”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Fine. Please tell me you have backup. Someone else had to have taken out the soldiers in the blood shop.”

“They did, but I don’t know what happened to them. One of the soldiers must have got a good hit in. Still, I’m pretty sure we’re down to two bad guys.” He looked me over, frowning. “How good are you with those claws?”

“I can open bottles. That’s about it. I’m not a fighter.”

“Aren’t you a ferret?”

Nosferatu,” I corrected automatically. “And I’m not the one who got shot half-dead.”

He frowned, but didn’t press the point one way or another. “They’re going to figure out where we went soon.” He flipped a knife off his belt. “Can you take him out?”

I looked at his knife, then shook my head firmly. “I’m not a fighter.”

“Yes, I heard you the first time.” He sighed. “I’ll have to do it.”

I grabbed his arm before he could get up. “You’re still injured!”

“I have healing buffs. I’ll be fine.”

“We both know it’s not that easy! Even if you have troll-level buffs, you need a few minutes.”

“Use one of your illusions to distract them.”

“I told you, they’re getting wise. And there are no more vampire patrols in the area.” I sighed. “I didn’t want to do this, but we need to go upstairs. There might be someone up there, somewhere, that can help us.”

The Mal looked hesitant. “Nyashk ordered us not to involve civilians.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s Domina City. Do we even have civilians?” He still looked hesitant. “Look, it’s either we get help, we wait for more Mals—”

“Closest is a mile away,” he said.

“—or we sit here and die. At which point those soldiers might decide to go up the stairs and kill everyone anyway.”

That was a lie. Or a twisted truth, at best. Yes, the soldiers might go on a random killing spree. But American soldiers were known for placing high value on the lives of civilians, even enemy ones. From what I had heard of the battle so far, they seemed to be keeping themselves contained.

There was the tinkle of broken glass outside the shop, followed by a crunch as someone stepped on it. “I think I found something,” one of the soldiers called.

I glared at the Mal, then ran up the stairs.

He cursed under his breath, but followed, swiftly and silently. He made me feel like a lumbering ogre.

Either due to luck or skill, we managed to pass without the soldiers noticing, even as I heard them moving deeper into the store. They’d find the stairs at the back soon enough. They were hidden from the entrance for aesthetic reasons, but nothing more.

The second floor of the building was storage. I left the door open, but otherwise we ignored it. Hopefully it would slow the soldiers down for a few minutes, but that was all we could hope for. We ran up the stairs again by silent agreement.

Third floor was more storage, while fourth was an apartment—an empty one. As was the fifth.

Noapte adâncă,” I cursed under my breath. “E ca si cum universul conspira împotriva noastră.”

“I didn’t understand half of that,” the Mal panted. “But I don’t think I can keep going.”

I checked his wounds, specifically his chest and leg wounds. They were oozing blood, despite his buffs trying to keep them closed. Running up four flights of stairs had me winded, but it was killing him.

Sângerare noapte.” I dragged him into the empty apartment, closing the door behind us as quietly as I could. “We need to get you something. A stimpack at least. Have your buffs pushed the bullets out yet?”

“No, but I think there’s only one or two still in me. The rest just went straight through.” He collapsed to the floor. “Deep night… tell me I’m not leaving a blood trail.”

I helped him into a chair. “You’re not.” Of course, I could smell blood from a block away, but these soldiers would have baseline noses. I could barely remember having a nose so weak, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to track us by scent.

I rummaged through the desk drawers, but I didn’t find anything. No first aid kits, no convenient stimpacks just left lying around. C’mon, there had to be something

My hand closed on a needle, capped to keep it from poking anything. Hah! Found it! Now I just needed to—

Then I realized that it wasn’t just a needle. It had two smaller vials strapped to either side, ready to mix something into the main syringe at the absolute last second to ensure maximum potency. There was no label, but I didn’t need one. Anyone would recognize this.

Psycho. Belial’s favorite. Increased pain tolerance, aggression, and strength, along with decreased pain awareness, intelligence, and basic reasoning skills. I had seen people buffed with psycho bash straight through a brick wall—without even trying the unlocked door five feet away.

“What is it?” the Mal asked. “What did you find?”

I showed him.

He went silent for a moment. “Oh,” he said quietly. “Well. That would work.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” I said. “Even if not for your power, your body might not be able to hold out.”

“I can turn my power off. And my body will hold. With psycho, a decayed skeleton will get up and kill people.”

“Which brings us to the next problem. I’m sure you don’t mind killing enemy soldiers—”

“I mind a little, but what other choice do we have?”

That derailed me a tiny bit—it was Domina City, who cared about killing people?—but I rallied. “But that’s not the issue here. If you don’t want to use the psycho, that’s fine, but we need something. We’re trapped up here.”

He closed his eyes. “Do it.”

I hesitated, but not for long. “Hold still.” I took his arm, eyeballed the vein, and stabbed in the needle as quickly as possible, wincing as I did. He barely even seemed to notice. A former Belian would never flinch from a needle.

I took a deep breath and pressed the plunger down on the needle.

He twitched, and I pulled out the syringe as fast as I could, before he had a chance to rip it out messily. He bled slightly from the entry would, but it clotted and sealed in seconds as I watched. His buffs really were pretty good.

He stood stock still, like a statue. I couldn’t even see him breathing, but I could smell him exhaling every few seconds, just a tiny bit.

“…Honored Nightstalker?” I asked quietly.

He opened his eyes. They were nighteyes, so they were as pure black as my own, but something about them seemed… crazed. A tint of red, or maybe just a subtle twitch.

Run,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

I dodged out of the way just in time as he roared in rage and charged head-first towards the stairs. He hit the wall, but just roared again and turned down the stairwell. I didn’t hear what the Americans said when they saw him, but I heard the gunfire, and the answering roar of a man with nothing left in his blood but chemical fire.

I could help him. A few careful illusions in the confusion could be invaluable.

But it would also put me in danger.

As the gunfire from below increased, I opened a nearby window as quietly as I could and slipped outside. The edge was only an inch wide, not even wide enough for my feet, but my claws were sharp and my fingers strong. I managed to cling to the face of the building, slowly sidling along the way until I reached the next one. I opened a window there as well—very nearly falling as I did—and slipped inside.

The gunfire had stopped. It was possible the Mal had killed both the soldiers, but I didn’t hear the roars and rage of a man high on psycho.

I could have saved him.

Instead, I found a corner and sat down with my back against the wall, legs pulled up against my chest.

I wasn’t a fighter.

Behind the Scenes (scene 279)

Ileana has been around for a while, but I haven’t really had a chance to use her. Hopefully this gives a better view of her character.

Scene 135 – Promotionem

PROMOTIONEM

SEENA

“Where’s your brother?” Zepar asked as he handed me a steaming cup of tea.

I sniffed at the brew; something cinnamon. “Back at the dorm. I didn’t want him to endanger himself by wandering around. It’s not safe.”

“They say the Composer was caught yesterday.”

“Well, I know Lizzy. I believe they caught her, but not that she’s the Composer.”

It was October fifth, the Friday of the same week two of my warlords turned out to be working for the Composer. Although on the surface the culture had accepted that explanation, underneath, rumors were flying left and right. The fact that the Paladins had seemingly managed to capture the Composer had done a lot to ease the tension. Or at least direct it somewhere other than the culture itself.

The remaining warlord frowned. “Hm. Well, I will admit the possibility that Butler is stretching the truth to improve morale and prevent a panic—”

“Zepar,” I interrupted. “You didn’t call me here to talk about ‘sarian propaganda. Two days ago, I helped you kill two of your best friends. How are the Mals going to move forward from here?”

My warlord sighed and set his steaming cup down on the floor in front of him. We were sitting on the floor of the secondary penthouse (the first was still in ruins) on small mats. I was cross-legged, but Zepar sat with his legs folded under him, Japanese-style. For the first time, I wondered what ethnicity he had been before he became a vampire.

“There is such a thing as taking one’s time, Honored Nightstalker. You don’t have to attack every topic like it killed your puppy.”

“Normally, I might agree. But this is far too important to put off for even a minute longer. The culture was suffering enough after Baal’s assassination. With the loss of Abigor and Bileth, I’m not sure we’ll even survive the winter.”

“That is an excellent assessment. I’ve been able to keep the news contained to the Mals for now, but…” His powerful tail twitched. “It is only a matter of time before we are found out. And then, they will come. Like vultures.”

I nodded. “The angels.”

“Not just them. The Nessians have always been our largest competitor, though they have faded in recent years, and are content to trade slaves to the fey when killing doesn’t pay the bills. Not to mention that some of the Nosferatu bloodlines are still angry about the way our culture was founded…”

“What about the Levisans?”

The dusky-faced vampire grimaced. “You mean ask them for help? No, no, that is not an option. Even if I was willing to put aside the fact that they are largely responsible for the continuation of the Twilight War—and by extension, the assassination of Baal—Levistus is missing. Those racist pricks wouldn’t be able to help even if I asked.”

“Then maybe the warbloods are a better option. We’ve always been close to them, right?”

“Well…” he looked away. “That was always more Abigor’s area of expertise. Dispater never really liked me.” He waved his hand. “After he locked himself in the Iron Tower, I played a harmless prank on him, and he took it far too seriously.”

I sighed. “Okay, fine. There’s still the Avernans, the Canians, the daevas, the Draculas, the Glasyans—”

He ticked them off on his fingers. “Bel is in the middle of a war with the Belians—the stupid chem-heads blame him for the murder of some legate or whatever. The Canians are insane in the best of cases, and word is Mephistopheles has been depressed lately. The daevas are whores—”

“That’s not an automatic strike against them,” I noted.

“Whores without a warlord,” he amended. “The Dragon won’t help us. Glasya is far too busy playing with the ‘sarians toy boxes to do anything.” He shrugged. “That’s about it. Unless you suggest the Belians? The ghouls? Or maybe the Mammonites?” He shook his head. “We’re alone, Lancaster.”

I wasn’t ready to give up so quickly. “We can look outside the vampires. I have a few kemo friends, and a Dagonite owes me a favor.”

He just smiled slightly. “A Dagonite? Really?”

“Yes, really. Since you’ve apparently alienated every other culture in the city, it’s not like we have any other choice.”

He closed his eyes. “That’s not what I meant. I just—”

“I know what you meant. You don’t think they’d be useful.”

Zepar sighed. “I…yes. This is…slightly out of their area of expertise. Besides, they’re still dealing with the Rahabs.”

“Again: Are there any better choices?”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said slowly. “I think we can both agree I’m not the perfect warlord.”

He paused, maybe expecting me to correct him. I didn’t.

“Ah…right. What I mean is, we need someone who can help make up for my faults. Someone who is concerned about the culture itself. I’m just too self-centered and individualistic to be much help.”

I sighed and picked up my tea. “I’ll look into it, but don’t hold your breath. We’re assassins. I’m not sure we have the right kind of people for this. The only choice might be more recruiting.”

He smiled, his fangs peeking out a little. “That’s exactly what I was thinking. But luckily, we’ve already been recruiting. And I think I have the perfect candidate in mind.”

Oblivious, I frowned. “Really? I can’t think of anyone.” True, I hadn’t met everyone, but I figured someone like that would stand out.

“Someone who has already proven her loyalty to the culture,” he said, still smiling. “Who was recruited in the first place due to a combination of her protective nature and drive to succeed.”

“Who are—oh.” You have got to be kidding me. “No. No no no.” I shook my head vehemently. “By all Nine Hells and the black gates that guard them, no.”

“Any particular reason?”

“Any—I’m not a warlord, Zepar!” I gestured at my body, only barely augmented by the toy maker. “I can’t fight, or run an entire culture! I can barely run the nursery you guys gave me!”

“I’m pretty sure fifty or so infants are actually harder to handle than a few hundred assassins.”

No,” I said again. “I don’t…I can’t deal with this. I haven’t slept in two days—Abigor’s death haunts me, is giving me nightmares. To make me do that again…”

“And that’s another good reason. In many cultures, killing a warlord automatically grants you their position.”

I pounded my fist against the floor. “We’re not the ferrets! Or those Nessian dogs! Or…” I struggled to think of who else promoted people that way. “Or the lupes or the Rahabs or the freaking Morgen. If you make me a warlord, Maladomini will fall. I guarantee it.”

“Nyashk,” he said quietly. “That’s the name I was going to give you.”

That derailed me a bit, and I struggled to remember why it sounded familiar. “Nyashk is Baal’s consort.”

He smiled a little. “Well…in theory. We never did give anyone the name before he died. But still—I think it fits.”

I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t. It implies—” Then my brain started working again, and I smacked myself in the face at my own stupidity. “It implies I was sleeping with Baal, giving my position more legitimacy.” I sighed. I really hated politics.

“Obviously, we’ll need to give you at least one more run through the toy box, disguise your identity—”

“No. I am not doing this, Zepar.” Something lukewarm spilled on my hands, and I looked down and realized I was trembling, making my cup shake like a leaf.

He didn’t seem concerned. “Maybe if you gave me more detailed reasons—”

“I’m nineteen,” I spat. “How’s that for a reason? I just started college, I’ve got a brother to look after, not to mention one of my friends—” I took a deep breath and placed the cup on the floor. “I have a lot on my plate right now.”

“Noble Nyashk—”

“Don’t you dare.” I met his gaze with a glare strong enough to kill a man. “The answer is no, Noble Zepar. It is not up for discussion.”

He broke my gaze. “Sorry. I just…” He closed his eyes. My only other option is to take Maeve up on her offer.”

My brow furrowed in confusion. “I haven’t heard of that one. She sounds…I’m not sure what. Nordic, maybe? She a giant?”

His eyes remained firmly shut. “She is a fey.”

“What?” I shook my head. “No, the fey don’t have names. I mean, not normal ones. In this area we’d have…” I thought about it for a second. Maladomini was in the west, and it was still Autumn… “Virtuous Dusk for day and Murdered Asp at night.”

“I’m just repeating what she told me. She said that she was the Maiden of the Unseelie Court, Princess of Wind and Frost, Maeve. Her hair was a maiden’s cut, at least.”

I snorted in derision. “Yeah, because its so hard for a girl to cut her hair really short.” For a master of stealth, Zepar sure was gullible. “Did she give you any evidence other than her hair cut and nudity?”

“Actually, she wasn’t nude. She was wearing a black evening gown.”

Was he an idiot? “Zepar, the fey don’t wear clothes. Ever. Some girl is swindling you.”

He gave me a level look. “Don’t you want to hear her offer?”

I rolled my eyes. “Sure, why not.”

“In addition to a few good buffs which will attract new recruits, she said she’d give you back your baby.”

I frowned. “My kids are all in nice, stable orphanages. I have no idea what she’s talking about.”

“She said ‘Nikoli’s.’ That mean anything?”

My heart stopped in my chest.

Nikoli was an ave I had dated a while back. When he turned out to be far too possessive for my liking, I made a deal. I gave one of my eggs to Dayborn Light in exchange for getting him off my back for good. Not just any egg, though. A fertilized one. Zygote, I believe that stage is called.

The Queen-Mother had promised they’d keep it on ice, that they only needed it for research purposes.

I really should have known that was a lie.

“Seena? Are you all right?”

I couldn’t…I couldn’t sacrifice my culture for a changeling child I had never met. But the only other option…

I didn’t know who this Maeve was. But dealing with the fey would always come back to bite you—this situation made that quite clear.

I couldn’t let Zepar bring the culture to ruin by making the deal. What she’d get in return—

“Wait,” I said as something occurred to me. “What did she ask for? In exchange for the buffs and…” I swallowed. “…the baby.”

“That’s the thing: Nothing.”

“What?”

“I know, right?”

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “You know, if something seems to be too good to be true…”

He thumped his tail on the floor angrily. “Yes, thank you, I do know that. This is obviously a freebie, to get her hooks in us. But if we’re careful, we can still spin this into an advantage for the culture.”

“No, we can’t. Dealing with the fey is impossible—”

“The Glasyans do it. The sibriex do it.”

“Yeah, and see where it got them! The sibriex got their Helix stolen, and Glasya’s assistant—”

I stopped dead, literally biting my tongue to keep from saying anything more. Neither of those things were anywhere close to common knowledge. The only reason I knew about the thing with the Helix was because Simon let something slip.

And as for Jelena…

No. That was something I could not let Zepar know. Killing an unwitting spy of the fey was both well within the culture’s mission and exactly the kind of thing he was best at.

Thankfully, despite being a world-class assassin rumored to have killed an entire Host of angels by himself in retaliation for the death of Baal, he was still an idiot.

Zepar quirked his eyebrow. “The sibriex got their Helix stolen? I would have thought I would have heard about that.”

Good. He was focusing on that instead of the thing with Glasya. That was perfect.

Still, I had to sell the deception, so I waved my hands frantically. “N-no! Of course not! Don’t worry about it! It’s nothing!”

“Oh yeah, and your brother is a sibriex…”

“No he’s not! I mean, he is, but he’s new, and they don’t let him—”

He sighed. “I don’t care.”

That took the wind out of my sails. “Eh?”

He rubbed his head. “Meh, that’s all a pain, and I don’t want to deal with it. Here’s the bottom line.” He pointed his finger at me. “Dealing with the fey is bad, but they’ve got your kid. Becoming a warlord means giving up your old life, but it will save the culture.” He lowered his hand and sighed. “You’ve gotta decide which is more important.”

“Turning me into a warlord won’t save anyone! It will just cause more problems, and sooner or later—”

“Maybe,” he said quietly, not meeting my eyes. “But it will cause less problems than dealing with the fey.”

He…

Had a point.

I swallowed. I couldn’t deal with this right now.

“I…need some time to think about this.” I stood up and headed for the door.

His voice was so soft, I could barely hear it. “Take as long as you need, Noble Nyashk.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 135)

Okay, there are some confusing terms here that need to be clarified: Bel is the leader of the Avernans, a subculture of vampires based in Avernus. Belial was the leader of the Belians, another vampire subculture, based in Phlegethos. They’ve been at war for a very long time, partly for good reasons (Bel hates drugs), and partly for petty ones (Bel is still pissed Belial managed to lay claim to the Belian name before he did).

Scene 127 – Novum Inferna

NOVEM INFERNA

SEENA

Bileth made a mistake. He assumed that, as a sibriex, my brother would have a powerful set of toys. He abandoned me after throwing me against a wall, going after the demon he assumed to be a greater threat.

I didn’t have any more actual combat experience than my idiot brother, but I did have some training under my belt. If I could take the Noble by surprise, I might have a shot. But my head was still ringing from when I got thrown into a wall, and I was having trouble seeing straight.

Which way had Bileth gone? Left? No…right. Nine Hells, I couldn’t—

A scream pierced through the fog in my mind like a knife.

It was louder than I had ever heard before, and with a wet gurgle, like the screamer had blood in his throat., but I still recognized it.

My brother was in trouble.

I’m not much of a fighter, but I’ll be damned if I let the last family I had left die at the hands of some brainwashed vampire.

Simon wasn’t far; just a few yards away, pinned to the floor by Bileth. The screaming stopped suddenly, and my brother went limp a moment later—probably passed out from the pain. Bileth hesitated, poised to stab him with a wrist spike. Was he having second thoughts?

I couldn’t risk it. Without making a sound, I tackled the warlord at a dead run, yanking him off the demon and rolling to a stop a few feet away.

Bileth snarled and elbowed me in the gut; it felt like getting hit by a freight train. I doubled over, trying to keep the contents of my stomach down, and he turned to take advantage of my weakness with those spikes of his.

Once again, Zepar managed to step in. Using his ridiculously strong tail, he grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the way, while at the same time backhanding the blue-skinned warlord in the face.

Our master of poisons was knocked off balance by the strike; Zepar had always been more physically powerful than him. But if he managed to get a hit in, his poisons would make short work of my ally.

I reacted as quickly as possible, but the warlords were still faster. While I was just starting another tackle, they were already ten feet away, with Zepar dodging Bileth’s lightning strikes one after another.

Fine, I could see I wouldn’t be much help there. Besides, there was someone else who could better benefit from my talents.

I ran over to my brother, lying on the floor in a puddle of his own blood. My heart was already hammering like a drum, as though it might break out of my chest at any second, and seeing him hurt—actually seeing it, rather than just understanding peripherally that he was in danger—only made it worse. A small whimper escaped my lips.

But before I could kneel down and check his pulse, I got hit in the face by a truck.

That’s what it felt like, anyway. Like when Bileth had thrown me into the wall earlier. There was enough force behind the blow to rattle my brain, and I tasted blood in my mouth—though whether I had bitten my tongue, lost a few teeth, or just swallowed some blood from the seething mass of pain that used to be my nose, I had no idea. All three, probably.

But where had it come from? Bileth and Zepar were still behind me, fighting, which left only Abigor. But where was he? I hadn’t seen him hit me, and I still didn’t see him anywhere. He was fast, but he wasn’t that fast.

I saw something…on the floor. Dust, suddenly moving out of the way, like…

Like invisible footsteps?

Another strike, this time to my gut. I doubled over, spewing out blood, and…

And there it was.

I could see, through bleary tear-stained eyes, my blood clinging to something invisible, to all appearances just hanging in the air.

That wasn’t something the toy maker could do.

Abigor was a Blackguard. A minion of the Composer.

A minion with a power.

The Noble suddenly faded back into the visual spectrum, fluttering hazily like a mirage working in reverse. There was a grim smile on his face—he knew I had figured it out, and wanted to show me his new trick.

“How do you like it?” he asked, sounding genuinely interested in my answer. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to figure it out on your own, but I wanted to show you my new trick.”

I blinked. Okay. He underestimated me. I was supposed to use that to my advantage and stuff, but mostly I was just insulted. I mean, how stupid did he think I was?

Stupid enough, apparently. He didn’t even bother turning invisible again before performing a massive round house kick to the side of my head, knocking me off my feet and sending me sprawling to the ground, my brain rattling too much for me to see straight.

Whether he was underestimating me or not really didn’t matter. He was still about a thousand times stronger and faster than me, and maybe a million more times more experienced at killing.

I didn’t have a chance here. I couldn’t kill Abigor if he stood still and let me. But Simon was in trouble. My little brother was dead or dying. I had to get up. But all I could taste was blood, and my head was ringing like a bell.

Distantly, as though from another room, I heard footfalls, coming towards me from behind. Abigor, then, ready to finish me off. I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything past the splitting pain in my skull, though I suppose it wouldn’t matter in a moment.

Something landed in front of me.

I blinked, trying to clear my blurry vision. Had…Abigor stepped in front of me? To try to taunt me one last time, or something?

But no, it wasn’t a leg. It was small, and thin, and white. Lying in a pool of dark liquid, with something clear dripping from the tip…

It was one of Bileth’s wrist-spikes.

In an instant, adrenaline flowed through my veins like fire. My vision cleared, or at least became somewhat less blurred, and I was able to confirm that it was one of the blue Noble’s spikes, broken off and lying in a small pool of blood. Bileth himself was nowhere to be found, for which I was grateful.

I literally could not hear a single thing other than my jackhammering heart, beating so loud I felt like I was sitting inside a drum. I was terrified it would pop at any second, and this miracle would turn out to be for naught.

So I didn’t hesitate.

I didn’t consider the possibility that the horrendously powerful poison in the spike might get into one of my many cuts and kill me in under a second.

I didn’t consider the possibility that the poison might become inert and non-lethal when left in the open air for too long.

I didn’t consider the possibility that Abigor the Bellows might have taken the precaution to immunize himself to his ally’s poisons.

And most of all, I didn’t consider that a Noble of the Mals could kill me before I took a single step in his direction.

That’s what adrenaline is for, really. It’s for suppressing your higher brain functions, because those functions slow you down and get you killed in a combat situation. No sane person would ever do what I was doing now, not if they had time to stop and consider everything.

But that is what adrenaline is for.

Because the poison didn’t get into one of my cuts and kill me.

Because the poison wasn’t inert.

Because Abigor had not immunized himself.

And most of all, because he was so arrogant that he didn’t try to stop me until it was far, far too late.

The white bone spike pierced the warlord’s midnight flesh with difficulty, like working with hard leather. I pushed as hard as I could, the ragged broken end nearly slicing open my own hand, in an effort to spear my renegade master’s dark heart.

I missed the heart by almost six inches. Didn’t hit a single vital organ.

But Bileth’s poisons were ever so effective.

The vampire who had first recruited me into the Mals gurgled, a surprised look on his face, and reached towards me with one hand.

His claws reached my face. He even managed to draw three long, shallow scratches in my cheek that bled lightly.

Blood dripped from his mouth.

Abigor the Bellows, first nightstalker recruited by the Noble Baal the Executioner, General of the Black Arm of Maladomini, and later one of the three Nobles who succeeded the Executioner, slid to the ground like a sack of flour. I tried to hold him up, but he was too heavy, and he slipped from my grasp to thud heavily on the floor.

After a second of just staring, I realized he wasn’t breathing. I checked his pulse hesitantly. There wasn’t one.

I barely managed to keep from puking on the corpse.

I missed by about four feet, and for the next few minutes didn’t care about anything except emptying my stomach of anything and everything.

My heart started to slow as the last dregs of vomit burned my throat. I took deep, shuddering breaths that burned my mouth and nose, too shocked to even be grateful for my survival.

“Ah…Lady Lancaster?”

I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of the soft voice from behind me. I whipped around, Bileth’s broken spike still clutched in my fist, ready to fight.

But it was just Zepar, looking absolutely terrified. Terrified of…me? No, he was probably just freaking out that two of his closest friends turned out to be renegades. But still, I managed to unclamp my hand and let the spike clatter to the floor, hoping it would make him a little bit more relaxed.

“Sorry,” he apologized hurriedly. “It’s just…are you all right?”

This was our Noble now. The sole warlord of the Mals. When there were three of them, they had each been able to fill certain roles. Abigor had been the muscle, Bileth the poison, and Zepar the stealth. But now…now the assassins would have to follow this cringing, dusk-skinned vampire into the future.

We were dead.

“I’m fine,” I lied, as I wobbled to my feet. “Just need a second.”

“I just thought…you might want to know…your brother is calling for you.”

“He’s wha—Simon!”

I rushed over to my brother’s side immediately, nearly tripping and breaking my neck in his blood. He was alive, I could hear him breathing…but for how long?

There was a bandage, already soaked through with blood, wrapped a bit crudely around his neck. Zepar’s work, no doubt. I started fussing with it, trying to tighten it up and move it to a more efficient position.

“Hey sis,” my brother muttered, without opening his eyes. “The guy with the tail killed the other two?”

I opened my mouth to correct him…then thought better of it. “Yes.”

“And…he hasn’t turned on us yet?”

I felt something hard grip my gut. Of course, it was always possible he would decide to finish us off now…he couldn’t be one of the Composer’s men, but there were still good reasons to kill witnesses. “I…yes. He hasn’t turned on us.”

“Good.” He let out a sigh. “I think I’m just going to lay here, okay?”

“Okay,” I said with a smile, patting him on a patch of his mottled purple skin that wasn’t completely wet with blood. “That’s fine. We’ll get you patched up soon enough.”

A phone rang.

Five simple beeps, then a pause, then five more beeps.

Turning, I saw Zepar blinking down at his phone’s small screen in confusion. “It’s…MC.” He looked at us. “Should…should I answer it?”

“No, I’m sure it will answer itself,” Simon managed to snark, albeit with a bit of a bloody gurgle. I put some more pressure on him with my hand, to remind him not to try and talk in his state.

My bloodied Noble brought the phone to his ear hesitantly, as though afraid it would bite him. “Hello?”

Turns out it was on speaker; the vampire winced and held the phone out in front of him as MC’s casual tones blared out.

“Zepar? That you? I can’t get a hold of Abigor or Bileth.”

“They’re…” his eyes twitched to the corpses of his fellow warlords. “…indisposed. What’s wrong?”

“Do you any teams near AU you can use for cleanup duty? I need someone there five minutes ago, and there are no ‘sarians or hellions in the area.”

Zepar looked like he was about to say something stupid, like ‘Then why didn’t you call five minutes ago?’ but thought better of it. “Yeah, a couple. What’s the issue?”

“The Composer converted an entire classroom to sleepers, and they’re running around killing people. Minimal deaths at the moment, but we need this contained now. We’ll pay double your standard rate.”

“Text me the address. I’ll send the order immediately.”

“Thanks, bye.” The connection cut off with a click.

My warlord closed his phone with a snap, and sighed.

“I’ll have medics up for your brother in a moment,” he promised, as he turned to leave. “I have to take care of this first.”

“Wait,” I called after him. “What about Abigor’s plan to assassinate the retinue?”

The vampire smiled thinly. “It was my plan, Lady Lancaster.” Before I could find words to answer, he shook his head. “But I will inform the men it is canceled. We have far more important things to worry about right now.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 127)

Plots and plots and plots.

Scene 125 – Alta Nocte

ALTA NOCTE

SIMON

I would like to note that when we left the three passer assassins behind, I thought we knew what we were doing. I followed Seena as she ran through the halls, triggering traps left and right with a ball on a string so that they were expended before we reached them.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan. Find the bad guys, make them stop. Sure, the question of who exactly the bad guy was was getting a little wiggly, but still. It would be simple enough to figure out once we got them all in a room together.

When we reached the penthouse level—after running up nearly thirty flights of stairs, I might add—at first I thought our problems were solved. There were three vampires in the wide room, and they seemed to be talking amicably.

Emphasis on seemed, of course.

Besides the black-skinned Abigor, there were also two vampires, one with dark blue skin and the other deeply tanned. These, presumably, would be Bileth and Zepar, the other two warlords of the Mals.

I started to step forward, to announce our presence and maybe finally get to the bottom of everything, but Seena barred my way with an outstretched arm.

That’s when the generals exploded into motion.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not a fighter. The biggest fight I ever got in was when Seena and I killed a nest of rats—and after that little debacle, our patron knew better than to make us do something like that again.

I had certainly never seen warlords fight.

The amount of money a warlord spends on his body is truly ridiculous. The toy maker isn’t perfect; you start getting diminishing returns after a while, and side effects do crop up when you pile a hundred toys on top of each other. Eventually, you’re spending thousands of dollars every month just to keep a few steps ahead of the cancer and worse.

But seeing this, seeing these three men doing battle…

For the first time in my life, I wanted to be a warlord.

Abigor’s arm was suddenly a horizontal blur, and the air shrieked with the speed of his strike. The dark-skinned warlord I assumed to be Zepar was gone, in less time than it took to blink. At first I thought he had been smacked away, but on closer inspection he was on the opposite side of the room, crouched low in a fighting stance. He had dodged.

But then the blue-skinned Bileth was next to him, a white spike of bone jutting out from his wrist. In the brief moment I saw it, it was clear that it was a weapon that had been concealed in his wrist. An assassin’s blade, hidden in the Noble’s own body. It was probably poisoned as well.

He stabbed at Zepar with all the speed he could manage, but a forked tail I hadn’t noticed before wrapped around his arm and pulled off his aim. Then Zepar kicked his brother warlord in the chest, releasing his arm and using the tail to drag himself backwards, increasing the distance between them even more.

I expected Abigor to leap at the opportunity to finish off one or both of them while they were distracted, but he seemed to notice us out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly, I was on my back, the midnight warlord on top of me with his hands around my throat.

“I want you to understand,” the vampire said calmly, in a way that struck me as extremely odd considering the situation. “That this is not about you. It is about Mister Huntsman.”

Seena tried to club her boss in the back of the head with something large that I couldn’t identify. A chair, maybe? But Bileth showed up out of nowhere and threw her into the penthouse, out of my field of vision.

I found it a little difficult to care. My vision was swimming, and spots dancing before my eyes. I scratched at Abigor’s back with my fingernails, but I might as well have been politely asking him to stop for all the good it did.

“You see, Lady Greene does not like Mister Huntsman,” he continued. I realized he could have killed me at any time, but wanted me to hear this first. “But she cannot use her directors—those with powers—on him; he is too strong.”

I found myself wishing he would just skip to the killing. He had this sort of…screech to his voice that you didn’t notice right away, but was getting really annoying. As everything faded, that screech was the only thing that stayed strong.

“So she—”

Suddenly, the hands around my throat were gone, and I was gasping in great gulps of air.

I coughed, trying in vain to clear the swelling in my throat, and looked up to see Zepar, apparently uninjured, pinning Abigor to the wall.

Wait, if he wasn’t hurt, couldn’t he have saved me earlier? The dick was probably waiting for the most dramatic moment. Well, he was on our side for the moment, so I guess I had to forgive him. But we’d be having words later.

I cast my gaze around looking for my sister, but I couldn’t see much, since my night goggles had been knocked loose in the scuffle. There was a dim glow filtering in from somewhere, painting everything in faint silver dust, but it wasn’t enough to identify more than vague shapes.

Still, I had to move. Zepar seemed to have Abigor under control, judging by the grunts coming from that direction.

I dove deeper into the room, away from the writhing bodies in the entrance and listened intently for any signs of Seena or Bileth. I didn’t hear anything, which was something I really should have expected. They were assassins, after all. Hardly known for loud, boisterous fights.

But then I saw something. To my left, behind a round pillar. Just a flickering shadow. But then…

Then the shadow rushed forward like lightning, and I found myself on my back for the second time in as many minutes.

Normally, I thought, remembering the last time I’d seen Yolanda, I’d enjoy this more.

At least Bileth didn’t feel the need to rant at me. He just hissed, baring overlarge fangs dripping with slime, and bit down on my neck.

I howled with pain as his vice-like jaw clamped around my throat. Even the adrenaline in my system couldn’t mask the horrific pain of his teeth sliding through skin and muscle, grinding against bone.

And there was something else too, at the edge of my awareness. A slow burning sensation, spreading from the wound to the rest of my body, setting my nerves on fire in it’s wake.

Poison. Poison I recognized, actually. A nerve stimulant called ghoul rot. The Avernans had developed it, then sold it to Doresain, king of the ghouls.

Ghouls liked their prey to die screaming.

It wasn’t fatal, but it might as well have been. I was so busy screeching like a banshee, loud enough to make my vocal cords bleed, that I couldn’t defend myself other than by thrashing wildly.

My last thought, as Bileth nar-Baatezu, Noble of Maladomini, raised his wrist-spike to skewer me in the heart, managed to break through the pain. My last act, my dying moment, was to expend all the energy I had left, force myself to ignore the pain for one moment, stop screaming, and speak six words:

“Wouldn’t a knife have been easier?”

I only had the briefest moment to see a look of utter confusion on the vampire’s face before I passed out.

It was a pity. I was interested in his answer.

Behind the Scenes (scene 125)

I’m a little worried about how the pacing is going here, but I think it’s coming out alright.

Scene 123 – Adstutia

ADSTUTIA

SEENA

Simon kept twitching at every shadow, as though someone might jump out and attack us at any moment. It would have been sad if not for those massive light amplification goggles on his face. They made him look absolutely ridiculous, so it was hard to take him seriously.

At least the traps started to thin out as we headed back downstairs. They weren’t really dangerous, since they were mostly designed to teach the kids how to avoid traps, but Simon took forever to get through even the simplest of them. I had a ball on a string I could use to trigger the traps safely, but he needed the exercise. I made a mental note to get him a toy voucher for some dexterity buffs our next birthday. Or maybe a gym membership.

“How much farther?” he panted, as he limbo-ed under a chest-height tripwire.

“Not too far,” I promised. “They’re probably at the bar just—ah, here we are.”

The three assassins we were looking for were easily spotted, as they were sitting at the only table with a light, albeit a dim one. Still, in the peaceful darkness of the rest of Maladomini, they may as well have set out a flare.

Frank, Laura Grand, and Serena were passers, people who appeared baseline despite belonging to a culture. Although technically the word could be used to refer to people like Delphie, who stuck to internal toys, it was usually used more in this context. These three didn’t have any obvious toys intentionally so that they could blend in better.

It was easier to assassinate people that way.

Most Mals preferred a more traditional sort of assassination. Slip into a building in the dead of night, sneak past the guards, and slit the target’s throat while they were sleeping. These three were of the more subtle variety, who would bump into a target on the street. Then, four hours later, the victim would die without ever realizing they had been poisoned in that brief collision.

The three didn’t always work together like this, but it wasn’t their first time. They chatted together amiably, not a care in the world.

“You’re completely missing the point,” the tall and blonde Serena insisted.

The short, brown-haired Grand waved her hand dismissively. “I understand the point quite well. You’re the one who keeps adding on unrealistic restrictions.”

Frank, the quiet one, just rolled his eyes and didn’t interrupt.

Serena wasn’t quite so mature. “It’s just the opposite—I’m trying to add realistic restrictions, to reasonably simulate the situation.”

“You really think its realistic to assume these people won’t be willing to kill?”

“Yes, actually, I do. Clearly you haven’t done enough research.”

Grand sighed. “Fine. Fine. If we assume no one will kill…” she shook her head morosely in defeat. “Batman would win. Superman would spend too much effort holding back, and Bruce could use to opening to floor him.”

Serena grinned and spread her hands wide. “Was that so hard to admit?”

The shorter girl punched her friend playfully in the shoulder. “Don’t be a dick.”

Frank peered out of their little oasis of light. “Company.”

That was our cue. “Hello again, guys.”

“Hey, Lancaster,” Grand greeted me with some warmth. “Who’s the demon?”

“This is Simon, my brother.”

She whistled softly. “Deep night, you didn’t mention he was a cutie.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sorry if I don’t go around talking about my brother that way.”

“Well, you should. Advertise him a little more.” She grinned at Simon. “Puteţi veni în camera mea de mai târziu, dacă doriţi să.”

Simon met her gaze levelly. “Nu, mulţumesc,” he replied flawlessly. He switched back to English right away, though. “If you really meant that, you would have said it in a language you knew I understood.”

Grand blushed deeply, and hid her embarrassment in her mug of coffee.

I looked at my brother sideways. “Since when do you speak Romanian?”

“Since you joined the Mals. What, you don’t?”

“Well, I’ve been learning a bit here and there, but I haven’t really had time for full lessons.”

“You really should take the time. Aren’t you supposed to be teaching classes in Romanian?”

“No, I’m supposed to be teaching classes on Romanian—”

“Guys,” Serena interrupted. “Please, let’s get to the point. What are you doing here?”

Nine Hells, I shouldn’t have let myself get off topic like that. I fished around in my pocket and pulled out the general’s signet ring. “I have orders from General Abigor. The attack on the retinue is called off.”

The three gave me a puzzled look, then just shrugged. “Fine,” Grand said.

I blinked. “Really? Just like that?” I had half-expected them to draw weapons.

Serena chuckled. “Why not? We can always kill them later. Defying an order would be a bloody lot worse than letting them run around for another day or so.” She gestured to the waiter for a couple more stools. “Sit down. Tell us the whole story.”

After ordering a few drinks (and turning down the light to a level that was more comfortable for me), it all came out. How the Queen-Mother of Killing Sparrow had told me about the attack, and how I had spent the last month frantically searching for any scrap of information to confirm it. They knew that part already; I had confronted them about it earlier once I had enough evidence, and they hadn’t tried to hide it for even a moment. They were surprised at Abigor’s reaction, though.

“He’s always had some problems with the ‘sarians,” Serena said slowly. “Bileth implied the whole thing was his idea.”

My mind slowly spun its gears. “I hope this wasn’t all a red herring. What if he’s sending out another team right now?”

Grand shrugged. “Then the retinue dies. Does it really matter?”

I wouldn’t have been able to believe my ears—except they had said similar things last time. They were all members of the Kongeegen party, the social Darwinists. Actually a lot of Mals were, they were just more open about it. “It will start a war with Necessarius. A war we cannot win.”

Serena waved her hand dismissively. “By the night, stop your preaching. The generals know what they’re doing. If they want the retinue dead, its all for the best.”

“Stop and think for a minute,” I insisted. “It wouldn’t just start a war, it would weaken the war against the Composer. What possible reason could there be behind that?”

“Weed out the weak,” Frank answered instantly. “Natural selection.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Simon quietly put his head in his hands. I knew his views on this subject. Mine were a little bit more open, mostly because in a culture of assassins, you have to get used to hearing stuff like this. Not to mention Pam could get a bit loud about her beliefs when monsters showed up.

“Ignoring the pros and cons of social Darwinism, don’t you think its in everyone’s best interest to unite against something that’s trying to destroy all of us?”

“You’re missing the point,” Grand insisted, jabbing her finger in my direction for emphasis. “This ‘Composer’ is still hypothetical. We have no way of knowing that there is anyone behind these zombies at all. If there isn’t, then its just like any other weather pattern. Let everyone fend for themselves.”

I narrowed my eyes, not bothering to point out that the Paladins had discovered her identity. I had barely believed it; these three would never trust anything Necessarius said. “You have any kids?”

“Five,” she replied instantly. I couldn’t tell if she knew where this was going. “Two boys and three girls.”

“I have two,” I said, nodding in camaraderie. “A boy and a girl. Simon, you have two boys, right?” He nodded, and I turned back to the assassin. “I take it you put them in an orphanage, like we did?”

Her eyes were very narrow slits now. She had figured it out, but she had to let everything play out anyway. “Yeah.”

“What if the orphanage was attacked by screamers?”

“I’d stop it.”

I ignored the fact that she was bending the rules of social Darwinism a little bit. “You’ve never fought screamers before. Besides, you could be on the opposite side of the city. You gonna sit outside the window for the rest of their lives?”

“Don’t talk to me about them, Lancaster. I can—”

“What if the retinue could save them?”

“Deep night,” she cursed. “The Paladins are still gonna be around. And don’t you dare try and use slippery slope fallacy on me. The generals love the Paladins.”

I nodded in agreement on both counts. “True, true. But the Big Boss assigned them the retinue for a reason. What if they’re not fast enough without trusted companions watching their backs?”

This, more than anything else, was what I knew I had to hinge my argument on. Sometimes it was hard to feel strongly about children you had given up—I know sometimes I found myself forgetting the names I had given to my babies before handing them off.

But these three were soldiers, through and through. They knew you need someone you trusted watching your back, always. That was just how it worked.

Not that it mattered. Frank just shook his head. “The generals want them dead, they die. Move on.”

Yes, being a soldier meant having someone watch your back, so they could sympathize with the Paladins and the retinue. But the other half was following orders—and they were very, very good at that part.

Arguing with them was a waste of time, anyway. We might be a small subculture, but the generals would be able to find someone else willing to take the mission while we were dealing with them. That was probably why Abigor had sent us down here in the first place.

“C’mon,” I said, grabbing Simon’s arm. “We have to go.”

He raised an eyebrow as I pulled him out of earshot. “Look, I know you want to help the retinue, but I don’t think we have any chance of convincing your warlords to change their minds.”

“I agree,” I admitted. “But what do you think will happen if the fey find out that the retinue is in danger, even after I was warned?”

He didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to.

Sooner or later, everything in Domina ended in blood.

Behind the Scenes (scene 123)

I would just like to remind everyone that the views expressed by the characters do not necessarily mirror the views of the writer.