Tag Archives: Maria Huntsman

Scene 249 – Sanctum Gladium



Monday, November 26th, started out pretty simple. March over to Zero Forge with Necessarius, watch Chronepsis and Lendys sign some papers Butler provided, then everybody shakes hands and munches on snacks for a while.

“I’m surprised you agreed to come to this,” my mother said with a chuckle as she stirred something into her tea. “I know you dislike stepping into the spotlight. What made you change your mind?”

“It was the right thing to do,” I grumbled.

She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t argue the point.

I knew she wanted to, though, and the reason why was obvious. Giving a potentially dangerous band of lizards the rights and responsibilities of a culture without vetting them at all looked like a really bad idea from the outside. There was a difference between cautious optimism and blind stupidity. Necessarius couldn’t even spy on them too much; part of the rights of a culture meant they couldn’t do that without just cause. They’d do it anyway, of course, and everyone knew it, but they’d have to keep it minimal.

But I had discussed this with Butler. Io had been a good man, and while his children were an eclectic band of characters, they worked well together when they allowed themselves to. Chronepsis, the new warlord of the Dispassionate Watchers, was not the type to break laws. If anything, his biggest problem was that he might just stand idly by while everyone else did whatever they wanted.

But that was what Lendys had been recruited for. He was not called the Balancer for nothing. The pair would work well together, building a culture that their brothers and sisters would be proud to be a part of.

But try explaining that to my mother. She was a criminal, born in the slums surrounded by criminals, and helped build this city with other criminals. She was a social Darwinist, a member of the Kongeegen party. She just didn’t understand altruistic motives.

I was being too harsh on her. She certainly tried her best, she just had difficulty always seeing the best in people. Mostly, she assumed everyone would betray her, and always stood in a position to take advantage of that. It made her surprisingly chipper.

“Well, if you don’t want to talk about it with me, you don’t have to,” she admitted. “But the Silent is coming this way. I think you’ll need to spend just a bit more time talking with him.” She patted me on the shoulder as she headed off.

The eight-foot tall mountain of muscle, scales, and other body modifications nodded politely to my mother as she passed, and then to me as well. “Honored Paragon. Thank you again for your assistance in this matter.”

“All I ask is that you live up to your promises, Honored… Wyrm. The city has enough cultures like the Nessians and the ekolids. I would appreciate it if the dragons were not added to that list.”

“A reasonable enough request,” the warlord rumbled. “Though I will admit I have heard little from the ekolids recently. Mister Anders’ reports from the Rampage noted that their nests seem abandoned. And Obox-ob has been missing for quite some time.”

“Rumor is that the Composer got him,” I said. “She didn’t say anything about it, but she rarely does. I don’t think she ever even took credit for Mjolnir’s death, now that I think back. Or anyone else, really.”

The dragon quirked his head, almost like a bird. “How are the Thors? I know that the Hammer was the glue holding them together. Thor himself has never been much of a leader of any sort.”

I sighed and sipped at some juice, beginning to wish I had picked something stronger. “Well, they haven’t imploded, but that’s about the extent of the good news. They ended up in a war with the trolls somehow—don’t ask me how, I have no idea—and last I checked the two were trying to destroy each other.” I shrugged. “Though that was before the MEE.”

“Wasn’t the Hammer dating a troll?”

I nodded. “A nice Manca girl doing research on…” I couldn’t remember. I had met her once, and she had told me, but it was a while ago. “…something. Something space related, maybe. Plotting more efficient angles for the space cannons? Anyway, the Thors adored Mjolnir. You’d think they’d follow his legacy and cut down on the racism. But they somehow managed to get themselves embroiled in a war instead.” I shook my head again as I sipped my drink. “At least the other Aesir clans and troll colors are staying out of it for now.”

“That is best,” the massive bronze dragon said with another nod. “Let them work it out. Interference breeds contempt. And worse.”

That made me smirk. “You named your subculture the Dispassionate Watchers. I already knew what your opinion on the matter would be.” My smile faded. “But it’s not like we have much choice. Everyone is too busy dealing with the fallout of the MEE to waste energy on two giant subcultures feuding.”

“Yes. But Anders’ CS Squads and your kensei are helping.”

“Well, I—wait. Adam’s CS Squads? They’re Necessarius.”

“Butler put Anders in charge of training them.”

“Really?” That was news to me. Silver and gold, why was I always the last one to hear about this sort of thing? “Good for him, then. I guess that explains why they’ve been doing so well.” If anyone had experience fighting people with powers, it would be Adam Anders. True, he fought screamers rather than speakers, but still.

I couldn’t read the expression on the dragon’s face. Not just because his elongated maw made it hard, but because he didn’t appear to have an expression. Again: Dispassionate Watchers. “The fact that the two most successful organizations of the moment are aligned with Necessarius helps cement his legitimacy.”

“As does a new culture requesting his permission to operate,” I added.

Finally, Chronepsis managed an expression I recognized—a smirk. “Yes. That helps.”

“Derek,” Laura said as she strode up, only giving a slight nod to the dragon. “We should probably leave. We have things to do today.” I was sure he couldn’t tell, but her stiff demeanor around the newborn warlord told me that she was afraid of him more than she would like to admit. I wondered if she even realized it herself.

“Quite right. Apologies, Honored Wyrm, but we should really be going.”

We bowed to each other slightly, Laura and I said goodbye to our parents, and we headed out through the ever-present noise of Zero Forge itself. It had been a few weeks since the battle between Adam and Elizabeth, and the engineers had done an excellent job of repairing the facilities. Other than a few banks of equipment being newer than the rest, you’d never be able to tell.

Laura remained silent even as we left the Forge, though, and passed through a couple ‘sarian checkpoints. It wasn’t until I realized that we were halfway back to the dorms that I finally decided to speak up.

“Okay, stop,” I said as I grabbed her arm. “What’s up with you? Weren’t you the one who said it was dangerous for us to be walking out alone?” The street was busy enough that people had to walk around us; I pulled us to the side. Many of them gave us second glances, but luckily it didn’t seem like they recognized us.

She took a deep breath. “This has just been a very long day, that’s all.”

“It’s not even noon.” I checked my watch. “Scratch that, it’s not even ten.”

“Yes, that would be my point,” she snapped. She closed her eyes, hand on the diamond ring hanging on a chain around her neck. Where did she get that? It was bugging me. She didn’t have it before she left the district years ago, but she said it was a gift from her mother. It was all very confusing.

I focused back on her. This was not the time to wonder about irrelevant things. “Laura—”

She sighed. “I’m sorry. The city is… changing, and we’re all in the middle of it. It’s very stressful. I just need some time alone, that’s all. I think I’m going to walk back alone.”

“That’s not a good idea. Are you even armed? Let me—”

“It wasn’t a request,” she spat, eyes suddenly hard. She threw off my hand and stomped away, in a slightly different direction than we had been walking before. That way was slightly faster, but it would probably involve walking through ghoul territory.

I sighed, waited until Laura was out of sight around a corner, and whistled.

A young man, fifteen or sixteen with ruddy red skin, dropped down beside me. His brown hair was longer than expected, and tied up in a ponytail with a red ribbon. He nodded deeply as a greeting.

“Honored Paragon?” he asked, hand on his sword.

“Follow her, please,” I ordered. “Without being seen. If there’s any trouble, handle it, but don’t worry about her seeing you in that case. She’ll figure it out anyway.”

“Yes, Honored Paragon,” the kensei said with another nod.

Then he was gone, the only mark of his disappearance being a red streak of light, the afterimage of his ribbon as he activated his speed and jumped to the top of the nearest ‘scraper.

Not all the changes the city was going through were bad.

Behind the Scenes (scene 249)

The kensei were one of the first things I thought of for the series, after the cultures. This has been a long time coming.

In other news, I’m finally getting a Patreon!  Should have done it months ago, but it should be ready by next week.

Scene 243 – Tutus



After a long discussion with Butler about what Io’s son was up to, Laura stayed behind to talk about the sewers, and how the disappearance of Obox-ob, the ekolid warlord, would affect the city’s plumbing. I couldn’t exactly contribute to that conversation, so I took a walk.

A few quick questions to the ‘sarian guards told me what I wanted to know, and it only took a few minutes to find the place I was looking for.

The prison.

I had never seen a prison before. Domina didn’t have any, in the same way oceans didn’t have baths. The entire city had been designed as a prison, and in many ways it still was one. Sure, ever since the screamers had appeared, Butler had been forced to create a large number of temporary holding cells, but those were more like cages for animals than anything. Regardless, I had tried to avoid those anyway.

Since this was a Necessarian prison, it was clean and orderly, with guards carefully placed where they could keep an eye on the prisoners, the entrances, and each other. Alarms and intercoms were always within arm’s reach, and cameras watched every inch, occasionally with gun turrets for muscle.

There was a small corner that acted as a waiting room, which had a pair of posters: One contained pictures of every single guard working here, and the other all the prisoners. If anyone tried to impersonate a guard or escape, they would have a hard time of it.

It felt like overkill, considering that there were only fourteen prisoners, but when you stopped and thought about it, the two hundred cells Butler had managed to put together on short notice would probably be filled very quickly. At our current rate, we had seven new prisoners per day. I had a feeling that rate was only going to increase.

“Honored Paragon,” the guard at the information desk greeted me, even making the effort to stand up and salute me through the bulletproof glass. “It’s a pleasure. You can go right in; no need to sign the book.”

I smiled and pulled the pen and pad towards me. “Nice trick. If I was an impostor, do you really think that would work?”

She shrugged. “Eh, maybe. We’ve got other ways of verifying your identity, anyway.” As she spoke, I followed the instructions on the pad and allowed it to scan my hand for fingerprints. “You know how it is.”

“I do,” I admitted as I finished the process. There were almost certainly a few more besides the fingerprint and signature that I couldn’t see. Thermal imagers in the walls, perhaps, maybe even some sort of X-ray backscatter device. “Where are the power suppressors?” They required line of sight, but I didn’t see them anywhere.

“You mean the silencers?” She grinned, and pointed up. I frowned and followed where she indicated, squinting, but didn’t see anything besides the lights in the ceiling. “They’re in the lights. Each individual emitter is pretty small, but altogether they work fine, and they’re easier to hide. Try it.”

I did as she suggested, attempting to use my power, but it didn’t work. Well, no, that wasn’t quite right. I could feel something happening, and could still sense my reservoir and everything, but I couldn’t conjure any shields, and my reservoir remained full.

I shrugged. “I guess I’ll just have to take your word on it.” I headed off, before stopping and stepping back to the counter. “The suppressors—silencers—are on a different circuit than the lights, right?”

She nodded. “They have their own power supply. With an individual backup for each that can last up to six hours.”

“Good. And who has the key to turn them off?”

“No one. They don’t turn off.”

That might be a problem when they needed maintenance, but until then it certainly sounded clever enough. “Thank you. Tell Clarke I’m impressed with his security arrangements.” I thought about it. “I mean, the Big Boss.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Vovk is the one in charge of the prison.”

That name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Well, then pass my compliments on to him.”

Another nod, and I headed in.

Finding the cell in question wasn’t hard. In addition to being one of the only ones occupied, it was the only one with a visitor. Or rather, four visitors. Akane, Flynn, and her nephews Yuuki and Yuudai. I was still having a little bit of trouble remembering which name went to which.

The boys didn’t have any swords, and I was surprised to find that Akane had one. Her previous one, the one I’d bought her years ago, had been destroyed by Silk, and she still hadn’t gotten around to replacing it. Or I thought she hadn’t, anyway.

She turned as she heard me coming, the blue ribbon in her hair briefly getting caught on her shoulder. She fixed it without even noticing. “Derek. What are you doing here? You should be with Laura.”

“They started talking about sewers, so I left.” I stepped up to the cell. “Hello, Saki.”

She looked so much like Akane. The same shape of the face, the same tint of the skin. Even her annoyed glare was the same, her eyes tilted at just the right angle. Akane had said she looked like her mother, Murasaki, but I had never met any of Akane’s sisters, so I couldn’t make the distinction.

She didn’t say a word, just sat on her cot, knees pulled up to her chest, glaring at me like I had done her some personal disservice. The prison uniform that had been provided for her sat in a carefully folded pile on the floor. She was still wearing some ratty street clothes, dirty jeans and a tattered brown shirt with some faded band name scrawled across the front.

The cell itself was immaculate, with the exception of a few pieces of trash that probably represented things they had tried to give her, and that she had refused to take. The place simply hadn’t been occupied for long enough to become dirtied.

“How long has she been like this?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the girl. Everything I knew about the Akiyamas told me that she would be planning her escape. The question was, could she escape without her power? She didn’t appear to have the training necessary to slip through the bars or subdue the guards.

“Ever since she woke up,” Flynn said quietly, likely hoping she wouldn’t be able to overhear. “Akane and the boys have been trying to reach out to her, but she’s not responding. It seems like she still suspects it’s all some trick, and they’re not actually related.”

I frowned. “That makes no sense. Why would anyone go to such lengths to pretend to be her family?”

“She’s been on the street for her entire life,” he reminded me. “I’m not sure why her grandparents didn’t adopt her when her mother died, but I guess that could give you a pretty strong trust issues.”

That made me wonder. “Who raised her, then? If she was born in NHQ, she should have gone to one of Mary Christina’s orphanages. But if it were that simple, it wouldn’t have taken Akane so long to find her…”

Akane turned away from the cell and led us a few steps away, where we could talk in private, while Yuuki and Yuudai continued to try and reach their cousin. “She was sent to one of Zaphkiel’s orphanages in West Middle. Parents never told me why, and I’m not going to ask my mother.”

“Where in West Middle?”

“East of Maladomini, west of the Troll Bridge. But it burned down a year after she was moved there, anyway. That’s why it took so long to find her. No one was even sure if she had survived for the longest time.”

I peered back at Saki, who hadn’t moved an inch, and was eyeing her cousins with wary disdain. Even in this city, it seemed extreme that an eleven year-old could be so world-weary. It left a sick pit in my stomach, like a bad joke.

“Well,” I muttered. “She has to talk sometime.”

“Not really,” Flynn noted. “She’s mute.”

My head snapped in his direction. “Why didn’t you mention it? We can get Clarke in here—”

“It’s not physical,” Akane interrupted tiredly. She sounded like she had already had this conversation. With Clarke, most likely. “It’s the price of her power. She’s extremely strong—probably as strong as us, if not stronger—after only a day and change, but she can’t speak. At all.”

“Baftis says she thinks she might not be able to write, either,” Flynn noted. “She certainly won’t.” For the first time, I noticed a few pens and papers scattered around the small cell. “But obviously, that’s a lot easier to just fake.”

“I don’t know a Baftis.”

“The Mal’s only scientist,” Akane grunted.

“Noble Nyashk lent her to us as a show of cooperation,” Flynn elaborated. “She’s proven very adept at puzzling out the way the powers work. Clarke loves her.”

“Clarke loves everyone,” I noted. Or he pretended to, anyway. It was hard to tell how much of his personality was part of his ‘affable mad scientist’ act. I also made a mental note to thank Seena for the help. “But I’m guessing you’re impressed with her, too?”

Flynn nodded. “She’s been working on classifying the powers. Right now she’s got an interesting theory that the stoneshaping power that Ling had is actually the same as Robyn’s flight. Two different types of kinesis, controlling things, just with vastly different applications.”

“That seems like a stretch. If you’re going to define things that broadly, then maybe you and Akane are also the same. After all, you’re just controlling speed, right?”

Flynn shrugged. “I don’t know. But it goes with how everyone is describing how their powers feel. The speedsters all seem to feel the same as each other, while the kineticists—including Robyn Joan—are something else.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The speedsters all feel the same? It’s just you and Akane, right?”


I whacked myself on the forehead. “And Yuuki and Yuudai, of course. Completely forgot.”

“And Sefu,” Akane noted.

It took me a second to realize who she was talking about. “You mean… that thief you caught?” I glanced around the small prison. “Isn’t he here somewhere? I remember you said something about the ‘sarians coming to get him…”

“No. I paid off his debt and hired him.”

“Oh.” I frowned. I knew she had a decent amount of money—I was the one paying her, after all—but she never really went out of her way to spend any of it. “All right. What are you having him do, anyway?”

She shrugged. “Remember that courier job you gave to me this morning?”

“Yeah, it was just delivering a letter, but—” I stopped as I realized the implications. “Wait, you gave that job to a thief? That’s crazy! He’s completely untested, we have no guarantees of his loyalty, and—”

“And he performed perfectly,” she interrupted calmly. “No problems.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Akane, you can’t… just hand something off to some random guy without any supervision. What if he had decided to take the package and run? Or gotten stopped by the ‘sarians, or—”

“It was a minimal-security operation,” she reminded me dourly. “It was just delivering a love letter from a paranoid idiot. Sefu had no reason to steal it, and no one else had any reason to stop him. You need to learn to trust a little.”

“Quite right,” a cheerful voice declared.

I turned to see my mother and Victor Medina, Laura’s father, walking over and smiling. Victor ruffled Yuudai’s hair as he passed; the boy brushed him off with a grin. Apparently, they had already met.

My mom gave me a quick hug. “Oh, it’s been too long, dearest. I think it’s been… a week? A very long week.”

I swallowed nervously. I… hadn’t seen them since capturing Elizabeth. Capturing her during the fey’s little Wild Hunt, that is. We had left the city without saying goodbye, or telling them what was going on, or anything of the sort. Sure, they were old friends with Butler, so they probably had a better idea of what was going on than I did, but still.

She released me before pulling Akane into another hug. She kept her eyes on me, though. “Seriously Derek, you make us worry too much. Akane was kind enough to bring her nephews over, and you couldn’t find time in your schedule to do the same?”

I sighed, and decided to dodge the question. “I don’t have any nephews, mom.”

Maria Huntsman ignored me, instead looking Akane up and down with a critical gaze. She clicked her tongue. “Silver moon and golden sun, you still look like a damned skeleton. You haven’t been eating enough. Derek, you’ve been pushing this girl too hard!”

I rubbed my forehead. “It’s been a very long week…”

“We should go to Veronica’s,” Victor suggested. “I think she needs help with the re-building, anyway. Apparently they did a lot of damage during the Rampage.”

That was a name I had heard bandied about for the MEE, for people who thought acronyms were silly. At least they hadn’t insisted on choosing a Latin word.

“Fine,” I said, though I wasn’t really in the mood. It was important to spend time with your parents. Everyone in this city knew that very well. “Akane, Flynn, you guys coming?”

They both nodded.

Yuuki, the older brother, looked at my mother, wide-eyed with faked innocence. “Can we come too?”

If she noticed that it was faked, she didn’t mention it. She just smiled and patted him on the head. “Of course! You two haven’t met Veronica or Obould yet, have you? It will be good for you. They’re nice people, with good food.”

As we turned to go, Yuudai, the younger brother lingered at Saki’s cell for a brief moment. “We’ll bring you back something, okay?”

His cousin just glared at him.

Behind the Scenes (scene 243)

The “curse” that Saki is under is not uncommon, just more obvious than most. Taking a penalty to increase your power (officially referred to as a “discord,” but no one in the city is aware of that term) is something that happens to pretty much everyone. For example, Derek has the power to create force fields, and technically could create the blades or knives Elizabeth used. However, his discord means his talent is limited to shields, which also means they are far more powerful than they would be if he tried to be capable of everything.

You’ll see other, stranger discords like Saki’s soon. A pyro who needs a wand to channel his power, a hydro who can’t manipulate water while dry, a shifter who automatically changes form based on light level. There are all sorts of drawbacks like which help turn the powers into something more unique than the stock ones we’ve been seeing so far.

Scene 200 – Vigilem



“Maria, Victor,” I said in surprise. “I didn’t expect to see you two here. I thought we were meeting up later, at the Forge itself.”

“We come by every now and again,” Maria explained. “To check on him. Make sure Isaac hasn’t done anything too crazy.”

“Hm, yes.” I turned to regard the man in front of us. A tall angel, built like a brick house with flawless, pure white skin and muscles like steel cables.

Zaphkiel, the Watcher, lord of Chronias and founder of the angel culture.

One of Elizabeth’s screamers.

He howled at us like a wild animal, throwing himself against the bars of his cell in a blind rage. Emphasis on ‘blind.’ We kept him liberally dosed with angelweight, the clever drug that disabled an angel’s dayskin. Combined with the minimal light in the impromptu jail—a converted warehouse—he was well contained, without the ability to create the dangerous lasers from which this variety had received its name.

The warlord threw himself at the bars inches from my faces, screaming in wordless hate and spitting up blood—blood which spattered harmlessly on the glass wall that surrounded his cell. The screamers had converted too many of our researchers with a drop or two of blood. We had learned our lessons well.

“At least he was easy to catch,” Victor noted. “Thought it would be a lot harder.”

I smiled. “Never underestimate that woman, old friend. Zaphkiel’s ‘mother’ could probably have captured him by herself, but I couldn’t risk her.”

“How’d you even get her to do it the first place?” Maria put in. “You know she’s not good with violence. She almost had a breakdown after we caught him.”

“It was her idea, actually. She takes her duties as a mother more seriously than you might think.”

Victor sighed. “That poor girl. She carries the weight of an entire city on her shoulders because a vampire needed to trick her.”

“She’s not a girl any more,” I reminded them, as I turned away from the cell and started walking towards the exit, with them at my side. “She’s strong and capable enough to survive on her own, even in this city. And besides, the people love her.”

“It is a city of orphans,” Maria murmured. “I suppose it’s only natural they’d latch onto a mother-figure.”

“I suppose so,” Victor nodded. “But enough about that. How are things going, Artemis? Anything we can help with?”

“Other than our appointment? Your children have lost one of their Paladins,” I noted as I climbed into the backseat of my car. Maria and Victor followed; my driver, holding open the door, looked annoyed, but didn’t say anything. “The Chinese girl, Ling. She appears to have been kidnapped by Soaring Eagle.”

Maria frowned, thinking, as the car began to speed off. “Which one was that, again?”

“The little blonde one, I think,” Victor muttered. “No, wait, am I thinking of Kristie?”

“Kristie died years ago, didn’t she?”

“I don’t know any Kristie,” I cut in. “But Ling is the blonde one, yes.”

“Well. I guess you want us to find her?”

“That would be nice, yes, but Laura has precisely zero leads, and Derek already has the warbloods and a lupe Hunter sniffing the streets trying to find her. I’m honestly not sure what you do to help here.”

“Point,” Victor mused. “Besides, I don’t think the kids would like us interfering.”

Maria scratched her chin. “We could always find Lizzy. I know there are no leads, but we know her pretty well, and I’m sure—”

“No,” I interrupted Maria flatly. “I’m not letting you two within a thousand yards of anywhere I think that woman might be. She is dangerous, and if she sees you, she will kill you—if we’re lucky.” I shook my head. “I have a feeling she would find using you two against Derek and Laura to be absolutely hilarious.”

Victor looked pained. “I know things seem…complicated right now. But I’m sure—”

“It’s not complicated. Victor, I’ve had this conversation before. Greene is dangerous. You always said you knew something was off about her, ever since Derek fell in love with her overnight.”

“No, actually, we thought something was off about Derek,” Maria corrected. “Some sort of obsessive disorder. Seemed to make more sense than…everything.”

“Well, in hindsight, everything fits together rather well.” The car slowed to a stop. “Anyway, we’re here.”

I led them out of the car and up to the large steel door that made up the pedestrian entrance. The guards, despite recognizing all of us on sight, were very careful to check our identification before opening the door for us.

Despite the presence of extra guards at every exit, the Zero Forge was mostly unchanged from its daily function. The workers still directed the vats of chemicals and molten metal, still watched closely as assembly lines beat out glowing metal bars into usable shapes.

We walked through the first room, following the line of guards, without saying a word. It would have been nearly impossible to hear each other over the screech and scream of distant machinery, all clamoring away without a care in the world. The heat pressed on me, forcing me to lean more heavily on my cane, but I was careful to conceal it. Not all these guards were mine.

After what felt like an eternity, we reached another door, this one a normal-sized featureless white one. The guard checked our ID’s again, then let us in and closed the door behind us.

Instantly, all sound disappeared, like a switch had been flipped. This entire office, from walls to ceiling, was carefully constructed with the best sound-proofing techniques the city was capable of. A bomb could go off right outside that door, and no one inside would hear a thing.

The room was a simple cube, with white walls and bare concrete floors, and a door in the corner to further such offices. But while those were actual offices for the managers who worked in this facility, this was more of a meeting room, with little more than a large table in the center and a smaller one with coffee and breakfast rolls in the corner.

Maria and Victor looked around in surprise before turning to me. “This is what you brought us here for?” the full-bodied Italian woman asked. “Couldn’t you have told us beforehand?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Couldn’t you have asked beforehand?”

Despite my sarcasm, I understood their shock.

Because the six Ladies of the fey were seated around the table.

On the left side was the Seelie Court—Maiden Aurora, Matron Titania, and Crone Ériu.

Aurora, the Princess of Soil and Flame, was easily identifiable by her boyishly short golden hair. It was so closely associated with the fey Maidens that it was usually called a Maiden cut. She wore a gorgeous and airy sundress in a mix of white and fire colors; red and orange and yellow. Her green eyes sparkled, and she smiled at us from her seat.

Titania, the Queen of Earth and Light, was sitting between her junior and senior, and the one with the aptly-named Matron cut. Her golden hair was cut to just past shoulder length, and tied in a simple braid. Her dress, however, was…odd. On the one hand, it was just a white spaghetti-strap piece that emphasized her shoulders. On the other hand, she had pinned all sorts of flowers—live flowers—to the garment. It looked pretty, but also quite strange.

Ériu, sharp-eyed Ériu, was easy to spot even at a distance. The Queen-Mother of Summer sported waist-length golden hair, without any decorations or fancy braids, and a simple white dress that covered her shoulders and bust. She also wore a pair of pure white gloves that reached all the way to her elbows, which somehow didn’t seem out of place on that outfit.

On the other side of the table, of course, was the Unseelie Court. Maiden Maeve, Matron Mab, and Crone Cailleach.

Maeve, the Princess of Wind and Frost, wore her black hair in a Maiden cut identical to her Seelie counterpart. Her tight Chinese dress was also a mirror of Aurora’s in many ways, sporting cool blue, purple, and black colors. She glared at me with eyes the color of crushed ice, but I had been on the receiving end of far worse.

The Queen of Air and Darkness actually took a moment to properly identify. Not only was Mab up from her seat, studying the snack table as if it was some monster on a lab table, but she had her hair—presumably shoulder length, like Titania’s—up in a bun. Her dress was an elegant midnight black ballgown, studded with diamonds like stars in the night sky.

And last, of course, was the Queen-Mother of Winter, Cailleach herself. She was a perfect mirror of her Seelie counterpart. Her black, waist-length hair was also plain and unadorned, while her black and conservative dress also came with a matching pair of black opera gloves.

When it came to actual skin color, facial features, and so on, all six women were completely identical. Other than the hair and eye color differences between the two Courts, any two or three of them could easily have passed themselves off as twins or triplets without anyone batting an eye.

“Ladies,” I said by way of greeting. “I hope you don’t mind I brought two witnesses.”

Maeve eyed them carefully. “The parents of Derek and Laura.” She nodded. “They’ll do.”

Maria and Victor looked surprised, but Victor was the one who spoke. “You know our kids?”

“I kidnapped them about a week and half ago,” she said nonchalantly. “And we had some meetings before that, as well.”

“Oh, good,” Maria said dryly. “I was worried it was something serious, like collaborating on a bake sale.”

“Do not misunderstand me, Maria Huntsman,” the Maiden said in a warning tone. “My methods were somewhat extreme, but my purpose was benign. And I trust those two far more than I do the pair of thieves in front of me now.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Stop. Maria, I brought you two here as witnesses, not prosecutors. And Lady Maeve—please don’t antagonize her.”

The princess nodded in quiet acknowledgment, while Maria made a huffing sound I chose to interpret as agreement.

“If we have finished the part where we circle each other warily, I would like to get started,” Cailleach growled. She indicated a seat at the middle of the table. “Honored Paragon, please.”

With a sigh, I sat down, and pulled the paperwork from the center of the table. And it was actual paperwork, not data files. I wanted to be sure to have hard copies of everything involved in this affair. I still didn’t trust the fey as far as I could throw them.

But for all my paranoia, the task was a simple one. I signed the papers while Maria and Victor watched carefully over my shoulder, and that was that. The fey had already signed their own names—in what appeared to be Gaelic script, if I was any judge—so it was quick and easy. The whole process took less than ten minutes.

“Thank you, Honored Paragon,” Ériu said warmly, as we all rose from our seats at the same time. “We expected more resistance from you on this.”

“You followed the proper procedures,” I replied thinly. “I am not going to ignore my own laws simply because I am wary of the ones taking advantage of them.”

The Queen-Mother of Summer nodded. “I did not say we were disappointed. Merely surprised. You will not regret this, I promise.”

“I will hold you to that.”

Without another word, all six women filed out of the room. The raucous sounds of the Zero Forge could be heard briefly while the door was open, and then it was closed, and they were gone again.

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding, and sunk back into the chair.

Maria and Victor didn’t say anything. Maria just put her hand on my shoulder, lending me silent support.

What was there to say?

I had just given the fey the full rights of a culture. That meant right to claim domains, right to make business deals and receive payments from their members. None of those were particularly important to anything whatsoever; they already did most of it anyway.

But they also had the right to legal retribution.

This was not going to end well.

Behind the Scenes (scene 200)

Been wanting to write this one for a while. Came out well enough, I think.

Scene 104 – Amicitia



“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEREK!” we all cried.

He grinned. “I thought we were doing this later?”

I shrugged. “Maria and Dad had something come up, so we decided to do it early.”

“Besides, this is payback for my party,” Akane put in, playfully punching him in the shoulder. “Now you know how it feels.”

Ling smiled, shifting her present under one arm. “Hardly the same thing.”

“Come on,” I said, pushing past Derek and out of his room. “They’re waiting down at the park.”

He glanced around, a small frown beginning to form. “Where’s Lizzy?”

“Sorry, that’s my mistake,” Flynn apologized. “I forgot to tell Ling until the last minute, and she wasn’t able to get a hold of her.”

“She’s in the middle of something with Turgay anyway,” Ling added.

I bit my lip. “Have we met Turgay?”

The blonde delinquent shrugged. “Adam has, and Lily already knew him. I don’t think the rest of you have.”

We finally managed to reach the elevator—with nine of us, it was much harder than it had any right to be—and headed downstairs without any more incident.

“How’s that new job treating you, Flynn?” Derek asked before the silence had a chance to become uncomfortable.

“Good actually,” the swordsman admitted. “The kids are great, and it gives me something to do.” He grinned a little. “I’m not like you guys; with my skills, I really shouldn’t be wandering the streets looking for monsters to slay.”

“Got that right,” Akane muttered, her beads clicking as she pushed her hair back. I noticed that she was wearing the onyx earrings Flynn had bought her for her own birthday earlier in the month. Good for her.

Adam frowned as the elevator doors opened. “You’re…teaching ‘sarian kids sword fighting, right?”

We all piled out into the lobby, past Emily, who was still reading one of her magazines. “General self-defense,” Flynn corrected. “These are eight and nine-year olds. Too early for swordplay.”

Akane shrugged as we walked out the front doors. “I started when I was five.”

“You’re hardly normal,” Lily pointed out with a giggle. “Most kids aren’t from samurai houses.”

“Don’t be mean,” Derek chided.

“Technically, it was a ronin house at the time,” the swordswoman muttered. When she realized she had spoken aloud, she blushed and turned away.

Seena rolled her eyes under her daygoggles and patted her friend on the shoulder. “You’re among friends. Why are you still all meek?”

Simon smiled. “Probably this one here,” he said, indicating Flynn with a nod of his chin. When Akane glared at him, he held up his hands. “Whoa, I’m not judging. I’m just saying.”

I rolled my eyes. “They’re waiting for us at a park a couple blocks north. Come on.”

Everyone dutifully followed, but Adam was hesitant. “It’s getting a bit cold. Is this really the best time for a picnic?”

“We can move inside if we have to,” I pointed out. “Right now, this is the plan.”

Adam grumbled a bit, but didn’t say anything else.

There was a bit of an uncomfortable silence for the next few minutes, as we walked out of the campus, to Kagurazaka Park. Luckily, that didn’t last too long.

“Kids! Over here!”

Maria had already secured a table and laid out everything. My dad was nowhere to be seen.

“Victor will be back soon,” the plump woman explained as she started pulling the presents we had given her earlier out of a bag and placing them on the table. “Come, sit, sit.”

We did as we were asked, crowding around the big concrete table set on the grass. There were a few, scattered around. It wasn’t the most comfortable seat in the world, but it was better than using anything lighter. People would just steal the tables.

“Who else are we waiting for?” Derek asked once we got the seating arrangement worked out. I ended up next to him, mostly to make sure that Akane sat next to Flynn instead. A little juvenile, but they were acting like twelve year-olds, so we didn’t have a choice. Not to mention we still needed to keep her away from Simon.

“Robyn’s not coming,” I admitted. “She’s busy again.”

Akane shook her head. “After my party, she promised to make time.”

I shrugged. “Guess she didn’t. It’s no big deal, though.”

Derek grimaced as he accepted a soda from his mother. “She’s been like this since we were kids. She’s terrible with schedules.”

“You shouldn’t talk about people when they’re not here,” Maria admonished lightly, as she passed sodas around to everyone else. “Besides, with Isaac as that girl’s father, I think it’s a miracle she remembers to eat.”

Derek sighed, recognizing the hypocrisy but wisely choosing not to mention it.

“Where is Dad?” I asked, trying to deflect the conversation back to kinder subjects. The two were normally attached at the hip; if he was off alone, it had to be for something important.

“Just getting some more sodas,” Maria lied smoothly.

Ever since I had got my power, I had noticed them doing that a lot.

“I think we have enough,” I said as calmly as I could, nodding to the cooler chest. At the same time, I tweaked Derek’s kneecap through his jeans. That was the signal. He should be smart enough to not immediately act on it.

“So long as he actually buys them, I guess there’s no harm in getting more,” the blond man admitted. “There are a lot of us, after all. Though I hope he’s not too late.”

“Not too late at all,” my dad called from the direction of the street. He had four cases of soda cans in his arms. How many were in each? Twenty-four? Couldn’t remember. More than we needed, anyway. “Sorry, the line was long.”

And that was another lie.

You understand on a general level that your parents lie every once in a while. It’s quite another to know that they do it all the time.

I sighed, and made sure to tweak Derek’s knee again, though he had probably figured it out for himself. It wasn’t fair, really. Parents shouldn’t keep big secrets from their children. Okay, maybe that wasn’t true, but I had a sneaking suspicion these lies had to do with Butler, and in turn the screamers. That was something we needed to know.

Maria clapped her hands. “Now that everyone’s here, we can start presents!”

Everyone started; Adam nearly choked on his soda.

“Now?” he asked. “I thought the plan was lunch first?”

“Well, we forgot the food,” she lied with a wink (and I tweaked Derek’s kneecap again). “So I guess those sodas are all we’re getting.”

“Here, do ours first,” my father said, pulling a poorly-wrapped box out from under the table. Derek took it carefully—he had probably already figured out that it was some sort of weapon; only an idiot would shake the thing to see what was inside.

As he finished unwrapping it, he smiled and pulled out the item. “Six frag grenades. How thoughtful.”

“And a bandolier for them and others,” Maria pointed out.

“Thank you so much,” the blond man said graciously, as he carefully put them back in the box and into the middle of the table where everyone could see. “But where did you find them? Most stores haven’t gotten their stock in yet, for some reason.”

“Katarina’s Explosives,” my father lied smoothly. I think my had reached out to tweak Derek’s knee before he even started talking. “Just good luck, I suppose.”

I sighed, because I had a feeling that if I let them keep talking, I wouldn’t like what I heard. “Can we move on, please? I think I’m next.”

A little bit miffed, Maria pulled out a small box wrapped in bright paper; Derek accepted it without a word.

He blinked when he got it open. “A watch?”

“Waterproof and durable enough to withstand even what you can throw against it,” I promised. “I remember you said you stopped wearing them because they kept breaking. This shouldn’t have that problem.”

He smiled warmly, his azure eyes twinkling. “Thank you.” He carefully put it on, checking to make sure the time was right (it was, of course). “I’ll be sure to keep it with me always.”

Before things got too awkward—that was always a problem with Derek, he had this way of creating dramatic silences—Maria grabbed another present from the pile, a flat one. “This one is from Ling, I believe.”

Across from us, the blonde delinquent nodded.

It turned out to be a jacket. Not a great jacket, not leather or anything like that, but still nice. It would last a long while. Derek wasn’t really a clothes man, but he smiled and thanked her nonetheless.

Flynn’s gift was a flash card with some violent roleplaying game I had never heard of—I prefer strategy. Derek apparently had, and had been anxiously anticipating it. The two promised to play against each other later.

Surprisingly, Adam and Lily’s present was similar, except the drive was a dating sim instead. Lily seemed to think the entire idea was hilarious.

Obould and Veronica had sent a gift card to one of Derek’s favorite restaurants, one of those live shrimp places. Lizzy (via Ling) gave him a very nice outfit, a suit and tie which might have been made from real silk. That girl had too much disposable income.

Simon and Seena went the obvious route, and gave him a toy voucher. He didn’t really buy toys, but it would cover healing and so on as well. It was a thoughtful gift, though an unnecessary one. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know we got free healing as Paladins.

After Robyn’s gift (a map of the city alleys that she seemed to have made herself) we were done. I asked Derek in a whisper why Akane hadn’t gotten him anything, and he just said he refused any and all gifts from her on general principle. And then my dad got the cake from the car, and my mind was elsewhere.

As usual, Gloria Nervi had outdone herself. I was glad that hadn’t changed while I was hiding in the north. The ghoul always claimed that cakes were beneath her dignity as a chef, but I had no idea if that was an obscure Italian thing, some baker/chef rivalry I didn’t know about, or just a lie.

But she always made an exception for Derek Huntsman.

People do that quite a lot.

It was a beautiful cake, nearly as wide as the table, and covered in light brown frosting. The words ‘Happy Birthday’ were written on the top with blue icing—the same shade of blue as Akane’s ribbon.

In all honesty, the cake looked a bit plain. But it tasted divine. It had the perfect amount of sugar density, and the cake itself was as light as an angel’s breath.

Despite its size, everyone’s first servings went very quickly. I was picking through my second slice when my dad started talking.

“So Derek,” he began. “Any plans for today?”

The birthday boy shrugged. “Catch up on some reading. Not much else.” The second was a lie, and I’d have known even without my power. He was still stewing over the hypnotism plan. And he would say yes eventually, but he wouldn’t like it.

“What about the rest of the week, then?” Maria asked casually. A little too casually.

Derek noticed it too; he swallowed carefully before speaking. “A few more missions. Just making money and such. Why the sudden interest?”

“No reason,” my father lied through his teeth. “We were just—”

I got up and left. I couldn’t take it any more.

I heard people calling after me, and I heard Derek tell them to calm down, then follow me at just less than a run.

I waited until we were far away from the rest of the group, definitely out of earshot, before speaking.

“Every word out of their mouths is poison,” I whispered, trying as hard as I could not to cry. This was all my power gave me? I would give it up in a heartbeat, if I could. “They lie, and lie, and lie…”

“Not everything,” he said, quietly. “Not everything, right?”

I blinked away tears that I refused to shed, not willing to turn and face him. “Maybe. Or maybe that’s just what’s slipping past my filters.”

Derek shifted on his feet. “It’s possible…nothing. Nevermind.”

I closed my eyes. “It’s possible they’re doing it on purpose. Testing my limits.” Which just made it worse.

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “That’s what I was going to say.”

I started crying.

I wasn’t sobbing. My shoulders weren’t shaking. I wasn’t facing him, so he shouldn’t even have been able to tell.

But he figured out what was happening anyway, and walked over to my other side so he wouldn’t have to turn me to face the others, and pulled me close.

It was strange, and I couldn’t figure out why. It was the same as the last time I remembered, when we were eleven years old. He was still warm, and powerful, though perhaps a little bit less warm, and a little more powerful. It was comforting, but there was something wrong…

That was it.

I hadn’t been hugged by anyone for seven years. Not since this idiot, the night before we started middle school. I hadn’t let anyone so much as touch me if at all possible. Not even my own stupid father.

Then I started sobbing.

He whispered into my ear that it would be okay, kept whispering for however long it took for my tears to stop flowing, and dry in tracks on my cheeks.

I don’t know how long it was. But it was too soon when Derek said “Everyone’s waiting for us.”

That. Moron. I was seriously considering shooting him in the face. I wasn’t a tsundere like Akane; I honestly would be doing the world a favor to take this crazy bastard out of it. Seriously, who tells a crying girl her time’s up?

“Um, Laura?” he whispered. “It’s just that hugs give me headaches, and…”

I frowned. “Headaches? Really?”

“Yeah. And we should probably go back soon anyway—”

“Then we can stay like this a little while longer,” I declared quietly.

Headaches. Not quite as final as a bullet to the brain, but a fitting punishment for now.

Behind the Scenes (scene 104)

The next birthday is Adam’s, in eighteen days.

Scene 103 – Sumptu



The fel threw herself at the strong metal mesh of her cage, snarling at us. Or trying to, anyway. Her mouth was open, but no sound came out, the wound that had severed her vocal cords years ago still visible as a scar on her furry throat.

“I told you, Artemis—she hasn’t settled down at all. She’s still clearly ‘aggressive.’ I don’t know why you expected her to revert.”

“It was just a theory,” I apologized, patting my friend on his shoulder. I looked down at him and smiled. He wasn’t too short, but I was tall, and he was hunched over with his fake age. “Weren’t you the one who told me to always tell you about my theories?”

Isaac rolled his eyes. “Because last time, it set me on the path to the toy maker.”

“Exactly. Sometimes you need a non-scientist to give you a fresh perspective.” I shrugged. “But if I was right every time, I’d be a scientist.”

He smiled a little. Just a little, though. We had far too much on our minds for humor.

“Admiral Ursler,” I addressed the old-looking ophidian woman who was patiently waiting a few steps behind us. “You have those numbers I requested?”

Like Isaac, Janelle Ursler used the toy maker to appear older than she actually was, but for her it was because no one would take her seriously otherwise. She was very young for an admiral. Not that I cared. I promoted my men based on merit, not age or position.

“Four biters,” she responded promptly. “One-hundred and twenty-eight burners. Five-hundred and three bats, nine-hundred and eighty bleeders, an even two-hundred skins, and nine-hundred and seventy two lasers.” She put the pad down. “That’s two-thousand, seven-hundred and eighty-seven total. That includes the ones gained in testing, accidents, and those lost due to accidents.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking the pad from her. “I appreciate the help.” We were short-staffed at the moment, so I had asked her to grab the data for me, even though normally someone of her rank would never have to play aide like that. “Now, what about your own report?”

“Sir,” she saluted crisply. “The Battle of Chronias was an utter failure. In addition to having the second-highest number of new screamers, we also had the highest number of deaths, and the second-highest amount of property damage. But even if that had all gone well, we still lost Zaphkiel.” She bowed—an interesting trick, with the massive tail that had replaced her legs. “I will accept any punishment you deem necessary.”

“None,” I said without hesitation, and the snake-kemo looked up at me in surprise. “You are an admiral. I know your skill on land is less than perfect.”

She worked her mouth silently, searching for something to say, before simply bowing her head again. “Thank you, sir.”

“I do have other questions, of course. First, how did Medina do?”

Ursler’s brow furrowed briefly, before clearing. “Oh, right, the Highlander.”

Now it was my turn to be surprised. “The…Highlander?”

She nodded. “Yes, one of my men moonlights as a bodyguard for Medina’s friend Lizzy. Apparently that’s her nickname for her.” The ophidian shrugged. “It kinda stuck with me.”

I waved my hand. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t matter. How did she do?”

“Pretty well, considering everything that went wrong. She got the Draculas whipped into shape quickly, and used them to take out the generators while the EMP had them disabled. After that, it was pretty much a turkey shoot.”

That was about what I had expected. All the reports I was getting praised Laura’s strategy; Victor and Maria would be pleased, at least. “That’s more than enough; I’m sure your written report will provide more detail.” I turned back to Kat, still thrashing about in her cage. She turned into a bat briefly and threw her herself against the double-layered mesh weakly a few times, before smoking back into a cat-girl. “What is the situation with the Northern Fleet?”

“The Rahabs are getting more aggressive—not something I would have thought possible. They probably think the screamers are weakening us.”

I snorted. “They are. The question is whether or not it will be a weakness the Rahabs can take advantage of. How many ships have we lost?”

“Just one so far, the Merchant Registry ship Eatonrun. Just a food supplier—as that ridiculous name implies—so there was minimal crew on board, and they all survived. We were also able to salvage most of the cargo, though the ‘habs stole enough of it to keep themselves going for a while.”

The Rahabs weren’t a culture, not really. They were just a gang, united by nothing but hatred. They were the last of the old gangs, in fact, largely because they kept to Whitecap Bay, where our forces were already spread thin.

But that was precisely what made them so dangerous. They didn’t have the numbers of any of the subcultures, but it didn’t take many men to sink a ship, if you knew what you were doing.

Well, I didn’t have time to worry about that right now. The screamers were taking all of my attention. “Thank you, Ursler. Admiral Briggs is in the West Wing. I’m sure you two have many things to discuss.”

The ophidian performed that strange bow again and slithered off to find her southern counterpart. It was indicative of our small navy that we had a grand total of two admirals.

I turned my attention back to my friend. “Well? How bad is it?”

He rubbed his forehead. “Between the cages, feeding them, and all the precautions we have to take in order to keep our guards and aides from getting infected…” Isaac shook his head. “Too much. It costs far too much.”

“Domina isn’t equipped with prisons,” Mary Christina noted from a wall speaker. “The city is a prison. I’m not sure how much longer we can last like this. We’re going to have to start eliminating captured screamers soon.”

I leaned heavily on my cane. Killing enemy combatants or criminals was one thing. But the only thing these people were guilty of was getting infected. If we just started throwing them to the dogs, there would be riots. And the public would find out. The Paladins would notice when the screaming started to die down, and Derek at least wouldn’t let it stand uncontested. And he wouldn’t be the only one.

“I take it you still haven’t had any luck curing them?” I asked Isaac.

He gave me a sad little smile; we both knew he would have told me about something that important. “No progress whatsoever. I think the singers might be the key, but we don’t have any of those in custody.”

“I hope that’s not what you called us here for.”

I turned at the cheerful voice to see Victor Medina and Maria Huntsman striding up.

I felt a smile find its way onto my face, despite the grim situation. Those two reminded me of happier times. “I wasn’t sure you two would make it.”

The full-bodied woman shrugged. “We were in the area. And getting past your security sounded like fun.”

I had given the pair a set of alpha-level security badges pretty much at the same time as we created the security system in the first place. Not that it mattered. They insisted on sneaking in every single time. Sometimes they actually succeeded, but most of the time my men just pretended not to see them.

“Well, nevermind that now. I have an assignment for you two.” I saw the disturbed looks on their faces. “And before you ask, it doesn’t involve capturing a singer.”

“As long as it’s not capturing the Composer himself instead, I think we’ll manage,” Maria said with a grin.

“I need you to find Zaphkiel.”

Victor leaned against the cages, either not noticing or not caring about the screamers trying (and failing) to claw at him. “What do you need the Watcher for?”

“And why do you need us to find him?” Maria pressed. “I thought you were still on relatively good terms with him.”

“I am. But he’s a screamer now, and the Composer has him.”

Maria groaned. “Silver moon and golden sun, Artemis. Can’t you ever give us anything easy?”

“If this was easy, I’d just send your kids.”

Victor held up his hand. “Wait one second.”

“Don’t worry, I know you’re busy tomorrow. This can wait a few days.”

“That’s not what I meant. We’re not exactly humble, we know we’re good. But surely you can’t expect us to beat a warlord, let alone a screamer?”

I started walking away from the cages, limping a little, and the others followed. “Don’t worry about that. I just need you to find him. I’ll have someone else capture him.”

Maria still sounded confused. “Who?”

I grinned a little wolfishly. “His mother, of course.”

Victor quickly stepped in front of me, blocking my path. “You can’t get her involved. If the Mother Monster is turned—”

I raised my hand to quiet him. “Simmer down, Victor. She won’t get close to him. She hates violence, anyway.”

Mary Christina spoke up from the speakers. “Let’s just say that the most powerful monster in the city will make good bait.”

“I did most of her buffs myself,” Isaac noted at Victor and Maria’s apprehensive looks. “They’ll never catch her.”

I smiled. “And that’s why she’s good bait.

Behind the Scenes (scene 103)

Yes, Domina does not have any prisons whatsoever. It works on a more simplistic fine and penalty system that doesn’t involve long-term incarceration. The fact that most criminals get shot before any sort of official legal action takes place also keeps things easy.

Scene 53 – Praesidio




My name is Maria Pittaluga, daughter of Natale Pittaluga and Lelia Idoni. Both of my parents died ten years back, when I was starting middle school. I hadn’t been too keen on the idea of school in the first place, and even less on a foster home, so I left. Through a series of hilarious misadventures which were not my fault, I ended up helping to build Domina City.

That was three years ago, and I hadn’t found reason to leave the island since. Victor—the cause of many of the aforementioned hilarious misadventure—and I had gotten a nice apartment in a skyscraper we had helped build, and things seemed to be going pretty well. Technically our terms had expired six months ago, but it was easier like this. We weren’t rich or anything, sure, but we were surviving, and the city was getting better by the day.

“I swear, the city is getting worse by the day,” Gloria Nervi muttered from her seat on the ground next to me.

I had met Gloria on my third day in the city, when one of the guards tried to get me to translate for her. It turned out she wasn’t speaking Italian because she couldn’t speak English, but just because she thought the guard was a dick and didn’t want to deal with him. She still hadn’t told me what her original crime was, but it couldn’t be too bad. None of the prisoners had sentences worse than ten years.

I patted the girl on the head affectionately. “C’mon Glory, it isn’t that bad. At least the guards aren’t screaming at us as much any more, right?”

“Yeah, because they’re dead or in hiding,” she snapped back with a scowl. “Christ, much as I hate those assholes, they’re all that’s keeping the city in one piece. You should be more worried.”

“Bah. Details.”

“Agh, you’re hopeless. It’s too nice a day to argue with you.”

I’d give her that, at least. It was September 8th, in the depths of a good autumn. The air was refreshingly cool, and filled with the smell of fall. Foot traffic was a little slow because it was a Sunday, which made our jobs that much easier.

“I guess you’re right,” I admitted, leaning back on my hands to look up in the sky.

The slender little girl just rolled her eyes and pulled some kind of sandwich out of her lunch pail.

I whistled. “That smells good. What kind of meat is it?”

She looked away, as though embarrassed. “It’s…dog. One of the feral ones attacked me, and I fought back.”

Seriously, this city was even turning her into a killer? “Silver moon and golden sun, Glory…”

She glared at me. “Oh, screw you. I did what I had to. At least I’m not eating goddamn people.” She shook her head and changed the subject. “And what is with that weird curse…thing? What does it mean?”

I shrugged. “It means that the moon is silver and the sun is gold. Does it have to have anything deeper than that?”

She shook her head again. “Freak.”

“Don’t be cruel, Nervi,” old miss Ljunborg admonished gently from behind us. I turned to see her leaning against the door of the apartment complex we were sitting in front of. “I think their little quirk makes them cute.”

“I didn’t know you lived here,” I greeted her happily. The old Swede had been sentenced over a few minor embezzlement charges, but everyone knew she had entire mountains of money her government hadn’t been able to find. In Domina, she helped train people to handle finance—people including me.

Of course, I had a tendency to fall asleep during her classes, but I still liked her as a person. It wasn’t her fault her teachings clashed so much with my skillset.

She smiled. “Just moved in a few days ago. Got transferred a little closer to the center of the city, so I realized I needed an apartment to match. What are you two doing?”

“Lunch right now,” Gloria said around a mouthful of sandwich. “Obviously. But we’re also helping to build that big storehouse over there.” She pointed at the skeleton of a building, rising on the other side of the intersection. “Mostly just organization and stuff while the boys move heavy things.”

Just organization and stuff?” Ljunborg said with a laugh. “That’s management, dears. Most girls would kill for a job like that.”

I shrugged. “It’s small stuff. Directing traffic, double-checking to make sure we don’t have one team digging ditches and another filling holes, that kind of thing. No actual decisions.”

“Oh. Well, still. In my day, it was considered improper for women to be too close to physical labor. Count your blessings.”

Gloria snorted in derision. “They still won’t let me on guard duty.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s what happens when you threaten to shoot them if you ever get your hands on a gun.”

“Hey, I was joking! Mostly.”

“Well, you’re the one always going on about tensions between the guards and the prisoners. You shouldn’t rile them up.”

“They started it.”

Ljunborg kicked Gloria playfully in the side with a smile. “Someone always starts it. Just don’t continue it.”

“Words to live by if I ever heard them,” an unfamiliar male voice called out.

I turned to see a tall, smiling Asian man a few feet away, his black hair tied up in a topknot. He wore a loose white t-shirt, jeans cut off to act as shorts, and steel-toed boots. His entire outfit was covered in dust and patches of grime, so he looked much the same as any other unskilled laborer running around the city.

Except for the long Japanese-style sword belted to his side.

“You have a sword!” I shrieked in delight, only refraining from bounding forward with an effort of will. “Where can I get a sword?”

Gloria looked at him with narrowed eyes. “It’s supposed to be impossible for prisoners to get weapons. Who’d you kill to get that?”

The man just smiled. “No one. I brought it myself. I’m not a prisoner.”

That made me do a double take. “Wait, you mean…you moved here? Voluntarily?”

He nodded. “With my wife and daughter.”

Ljunborg shook her head. “Why in God’s name would you do that?”

“I don’t know, there wasn’t any work on the mainland, and they had positions available for pretty much anything, so…”

“That seems pretty stupid,” Gloria muttered. She had never been one for subtlety. “Your life back in Japan couldn’t have been that bad.”

“America, actually. Second-generation immigrant.” The swordsman shrugged. “And I’ll admit it wasn’t so bad, not really. But I just…” He looked behind him, at the skeletons of the new skyscrapers, stretching into the blue summer sky. “It just felt like I was needed more here.”

“Oh! I understand that!” I cried. “The same thing happened with me and Victor!”

The man cocked his head to the side. “You’re here voluntarily too?”

I couldn’t help it; I giggled. He was adorable. “No, no. It’s just that we both got this strange urge to drive a truck around.” I shrugged. “And then it turned out that it was filled with a shipment to some store, so we got sentenced to five years in prison.”

Gloria rolled her eyes and sighed. “God, you’re a freak. I don’t think that is quite what the man meant.”

The Japanese man waved his hands. “N-no! That’s the same! Uh…” He winced. “…kinda, anyway.”

“Close enough,” I chirped. “Uh, you…” I frowned. “Hm. I don’t know your name.”

He relaxed. “You’re right. Sorry, I came up to you out of the blue, I should have at least introduced myself.” He held out his hand and smiled warmly. “I am Akio.”

I took his hand; he had a firm grip. “Maria. That’s Glory—”


“—and that’s Miss Ljunborg. Glory and I are just on lunch.”

“Oh, so you have jobs already? That’s perfect! Would you mind pointing me to your boss? If he’s hiring, I mean.”

Ljunborg looked at him sideways. “You don’t have a job? Jesus, how long have you been here, a week?”

Akio chuckled. “No, over two years. It’s just…” His good humor faded. “I was working as a dock guard up north. But a few days ago, it got burned down by one of the gangs. Christ, I don’t even know which one…”

Gloria leaned back and sighed. “God damn, I know what you mean. Seems like a new one pops up every week.”

Old miss Ljunborg looked past us. “Speak of the devil…”

“…and he shall appear,” the well-dressed white man walking up said with a grin. “Though I think you might be overstating my importance in the grand scheme of things just a bit.”

The Swedish woman sighed. “What do you want, Mr. Judd? It’s Sunday. Day for rest.”

The man spread his arms mockingly, which also served to help highlight the two suited goons flanking him. I could see bulges under their shirts that were probably handguns. “Now why do you insist on speaking to me like that, Miss Ljunborg? My boys and I are working hard, even today. Is it so much to ask you show some appreciation?”

She just scowled back. “Considering you’re the reason I left my old neighborhood, yes, it is too much. Did you assholes follow me?”

Judd covered his heart and faked staggering back. “You wound me, my dear. The boss simply decided it was a good time for the family to…” He grinned. “…expand.”

“I already gave Butler’s goons their ‘protection’ money,” the Swede spat. “I’ve nothing left.”

Artemis was running a protection racket now? Victor and I had met him and Isaac on the boat over. It really didn’t seem like something he would do…

What was I saying? A low-risk operation with a relatively high payout. That sounded exactly like Artemis.

Akio, I noted, was inching closer to Miss Ljunborg, hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to protect her if things got violent. I tugged at Gloria’s collar, pulling her out of the line of fire.

The gangster shook his head sadly. “That was a mistake, Priscilla. Necessarius is, as you noted, just a bunch of thugs. You should give your money to us. After all, you have this nice shiny new place…be a shame if something happened.”

“I already told you. I have nothing left to give. If I have to pay both of you, I don’t get to eat this month.”

“And if we let you slide on your payments, we’d have to let everyone slide. Where would we be then, huh?” Judd shook his head again. “We’re not running a charity here, you know.”

“Yes, I am well aware of that. But I still can’t—”

“Well, if you insist on being that way, my boys might feel the need to…provide an example of what could happen when you don’t pay.” The thugs started cracking their knuckled dangerously.

Akio drew his sword. Gloria glared at him and motioned for him to put it away, but it was too late. The thugs had their guns out before I could even blink.

Judd smiled broadly. “You might want to put that away, boy, before you hurt yourself.”

Silver moon and golden sun Ljunborg, why couldn’t you just pay the man? Victor and I could have always stolen back anything they took from you.

For the moment, we seemed to have a standoff. Akio still hadn’t sheathed his sword, and the goons were wary enough not to just start shooting. But that wouldn’t last long, and a swordsman wouldn’t be able to take out two armed thugs by himself.

“What is going on over here?” a voice called.

“Oh, come on,” Gloria hissed. “What now?”

Necessarius, that was what.

A single pale young man, unarmed and with the Necessarian black and red band on his arm, strode up without fear. He was a stark contrast to Judd; where the first man was dressed in a fine suit, Artemis’ man just had on jeans and a white t-shirt. “Is there a problem?”

Judd narrowed his eyes, dropping his friendly mask. “Nothing that concerns the ‘sarians. Run back to your crippled master, little dog.”

The newcomer ignored the jibe. “Funny, because it looks like you’re harassing…” He checked a small notepad. “…Priscilla Ljunborg. Our records show that she is all paid up on her protection money.”

Mr. Judd didn’t seem impressed. “So?”

The Necessarian smiled. “So that means she’s under the protection of Necessarius, Gabriel. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

No one spoke for a minute.

Then another.

The silence stretched on for what seemed like forever.

Then Ljunborg broke it. “Huh?”

The new man’s brow crinkled into a frown. “You are Priscilla Ljundborg, are you not? From Sweden, imprisoned for embezzlement? You gave a thousand dollars last month to our collector.” He checked his pad again. “Physical description matches, as does the address and everything else. Have we made a mistake?”

The old Swede was almost at a loss for words, but that still put her ahead of the rest of us. “Uh, no, that’s right, but…”

Judd stomped forward and shoved the young man in the shoulder. “This is our territory now, kid. You should be paying us.”

The ‘sarian raised an eyebrow. “So I assume you will continue to accost Miss Ljundborg?”

“I’ll accost whoever I damn well please!”

Artemis’ man sighed. “I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but our protocols are quite clear on the proper response in this situation.”

Gabriel Judd’s head exploded, and the thunderclap of a gunshot echoed around the street.

I screeched and jumped back, but Gloria and Priscilla held their ground, only wincing a little as they were splattered with blood and gore. The few bystanders screamed and ran in every direction, but mostly away from us.

The thugs were far better trained than I was, and whipped out their guns without a moment’s hesitation.

Another head exploded. The thug on the left collapsed to the street, next to the similarly headless corpse of his boss, while the last mook looked on in horror. It took him a minute to realize that he wasn’t dead.

“I-I’m…” he stuttered. “I-I’m…”

“A messenger,” the Necessarian explained patiently. He still didn’t have any weapons drawn, and I finally realized that he must have snipers posted somewhere or other. Artemis did like to be prepared. “Go back to your boss. Remind him who is in charge over here.”

The thug took a step back, tripping over the corpses of his friends and falling to his butt. He whimpered and scrambled to his feet, running as fast as his legs would carry him. He even dropped his gun in his mad flight.

“Well,” our rescuer said quietly, mostly to himself. “I’d say that went surprisingly well.” He turned to us and smiled. “How are you all doing?”

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the corpses, lying like discarded dolls not five feet away. They had been people, not five minutes ago…

“We’re fine,” Miss Ljunborg said with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “And how about yourself, Mister…?”

“Sinclair,” the ‘sarian replied with a smile, holding out his hand to shake. “Sergeant Irvin Sinclair, at your service.”

I ran off to the street and puked in a gutter.

I heard Akio talking behind me. “Is she going to be okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” Gloria replied. “Maria just isn’t used to death. She’s here because she did something stupid, not something violent.”

The ‘sarian made a clicking sound of disapproval. “Be that as it may, at the rate she’s emptying her stomach, I doubt she’ll be able to stand for long. Billy!”

As I heaved up the last of my lunch—dammit, that was a good lunch—I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Are you going to be okay?”

I looked up to see a kind-eyed boy about my age smiling at me. He had the Necessarius red and black band on his arm, but he didn’t seem to have any weapons.

“Y-yeah,” I managed weakly. “I just need a minute…”

“Go home,” Gloria insisted. “You know you’ll be useless the rest of the day. I’ll tell the foreman.”

I nodded and struggled to my feet, the new ‘sarian—Billy, I assumed—helping me stumble along.

“Necessarius, right?” I heard Akio say as we shuddered past. “I’ve heard of you, and I think I’d like to hear more. Anyone I can talk to?”

“There’s my captain, back closer to base. You know, we own a few apartment buildings nearby, and new recruits get free lodging as part of the contract, if you and your sword are interested.”



“My sword. It’s called Karasu.”

“You named your sword Crow?”

“Actually, I prefer to translate it as ‘Raven,’ but I suppose ‘Crow’ is more accurate.”

Once we were out of hearing range and I felt some strength returning to my legs, I turned my attention back to Billy. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” I asked, only realizing belatedly that I sounded snarky and insulting.

But he understood, and just smiled. “No, I’m just a messenger. Thankfully, I’m not on cleanup duty for this kind of thing. My stomach is about as strong as yours.”

I coughed. “Yeah, I understand…and my place isn’t too far, anyway, so I guess I’m not taking you too far out of your way…”

“It’s fine, either way. No trouble.”

It only took ten minutes or so to reach my apartment. Victor and I had gotten lucky, getting a place so close to our jobs. As I unlocked the door, I blinked, realizing what was bothering me.

“Oh! I still haven’t introduced myself!” I held out my hand to shake. “I’m Maria Pittaluga. Nice to meet you.”

He grinned, and grasped my hand firmly. “William Huntsman. The pleasure is all mine.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 53)

Our first flashback chapter! I’m still not quite sure this is the right place for this, but I think it works. More will come later, including a scene showing exactly why many people don’t quite trust Necessarius.

Scene 29 – Maleficus



“Silver and gold, where are they?” I muttered, pacing in front of the dorm. The room had quickly proven too claustrophobic with eight people.

Derek leaned against the side of the building nonchalantly. “Calm down, Laura. They’ll be here soon enough. They’re only a few minutes late.”

The rest of the group was mostly clustered around Akane, chattering about how great her new earrings and necklace looked. She hadn’t removed them since she got them three hours ago. Lizzy was joking that she’d never take them off; I touched my own necklace, with the diamond ring hanging from it.

Some things you just want with you at all times.

“Happy birthday, Akane!”

And some things you want as far away as possible.

Derek jumped. “Mom! Dad! You’re early!”

Adam frowned. “I thought you said your dad was dead?”

Derek turned red as a beet and kept his mouth firmly closed.

“That’s my dad,” I explained. “Unfortunately.”

My father, Victor Medina, was only a few inches taller than me. Like me, he had a very strong European cast to his face—strong bones, pale skin, and jet-black hair, including a short goatee. But while I can barely even remember the last time I honestly smiled, he always had a goofy grin on his face, like nothing was wrong in the world.

“It’s okay,” he said, reaching forward and ruffling Derek’s hair. “I think it’s cute.”

Derek’s mother, Maria Huntsman, chuckled. The Italian woman didn’t look much like her son; she had brown hair and matching eyes, and where he had whip-thin muscles and a strong frame, she was round and full, like a cinnamon bun. Emphasis on the ‘full.’ My chest is about average, but anyone will feel inadequate next to Maria Huntsman.

“Don’t tease them,” she admonished, elbowing my father in the ribs. “This is Akane’s day.” She scuttled over to the girl in question, and handed her a squarish bag filled with tissue paper. “Here, this is for you.”

Akane seemed a little surprised, despite the fact that we had told her this was coming. She dug around for a moment, before pulling out a pair of large fabric bands, probably designed to be strapped on her upper arms. Each band had six knives held carefully in place with small buttons; they could likely be pulled off quickly and easily.

The knives themselves were double-bladed, making them dangerous to handle, and clearly balanced for throwing. These were no-nonsense weapons, with no ornamentation of any kind.

“Nice,” Akane whispered, gazing at the gift in wonder.

Very nice,” Derek added. “How much did those cost?”

My father laughed. “Oh, not too much, just—” He stopped, frowning.

Derek’s mother frowned as well. “Uh…”

I closed my eyes. “Tell me you didn’t.”

Maria shifted on her feet. “Well, not on purpose…”

Derek sighed deeply.

Akane looked pained, but everyone else was confused. Flynn was the one who spoke up. “I’m sorry, what’s wrong?”

Someone forgot to buy Akane’s gift,” I growled.

Adam blinked. “You mean you—”

“Silver moon and golden sun, this is not my fault,” my father insisted, his habitual grin finally gone for the moment. “I was carrying Derek’s present, not Akane’s.” Derek’s birthday was at the end of this month. Well, I guess he was getting weapons again, though that was hardly a shock.

“Did you at least pay for that one?” Derek asked patiently.

My father frowned again. “Well…”

I sighed again. This was hardly the first time they had done this. In fact, thirty years ago, it was the reason they had been sent to Domina in the first place. They ‘borrowed’ a truck, which happened to have several thousand dollars of merchandise in the back. The judge let them off lightly, mostly because they returned everything, but they still got a five-year sentence each. And, of course, prisons aren’t mixed-gender, so they weren’t able to see each other. So when the plans to build Domina were announced, they jumped at the opportunity.

The city was built on a great trash island on the Atlantic, and constructed solely by the cheap labor of white-collar criminals, with their sentences halved as a result. Some left when their terms were up, but many stayed, including our parents.

Of course, even white-collar criminals are still dangerous and unpredictable when left to their own devices, so the city devolved quickly into violent gang warfare. It wasn’t until Butler stepped in, about fifteen years ago, that things finally started to settle down.

But our stupid parents still stole anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.

I flipped out my phone and dialed MC. “My parents stole something again,” I explained tiredly. “Can you debit their account?”

“Of course,” the fake MC replied smoothly. MC had written a few programs for dealing with shoplifters specifically because of these two idiots. “What store, and what were the items?”

“I’ll let them tell you,” I said as I handed the phone off to my father. He took it sheepishly and walked off to somewhere Derek wouldn’t be able to hear, to keep his present a surprise.

“Thank you for the gift, Miss Huntsman,” Akane said quietly, with a very small bow. “I’m sure they will be useful.”

Maria smiled. “Thank Victor. It was his idea.” She clapped her hands together. “Anyway, where’s this picnic spot we’re looking for?”

“It’s over by the south end of campus,” Derek said. “Where’s the blanket and food and everything?”

His mother bit her lip. “I forgot it. It’s at the car. Akane, would you be a dear—”

“Maria,” I interrupted, barely catching myself before calling her something more embarrassing. “It’s her birthday.”

She blinked. “Oh dear.” She patted Akane on the head, avoiding the little cardboard crown she was still wearing. “I’m so sorry about that. Just force of habit. One minute, I’ll be right back.”

I sighed. I really didn’t understand why Akane took orders from those two. Okay, I understood, but it was still a bad idea.

That was about when my father came back; he handed my phone to Akane. “It’s for you.”

She took it, frowning in confusion. “Hello? Wha—MC?”

Akane’s problem wasn’t that she let people take advantage of her; it was that she was completely closed-off except for two or three people. She had ‘too defensive’ and ‘too open,’ with very little in between.

“No, I mean, I’m surprised, but…thank you. Yes, honestly, this is just unexpected. What? Yeah, that was me. They jumped me in an alley. That a problem?”

I listened to Akane’s conversation with only half an ear. Mostly, I was keeping an eye on my father; he was walking towards me purposefully.

“Yes?” I said, trying not to sound too bored. I’ve known for fifteen years that I’m smarter than my father. It’s hard to take him seriously.

But sometimes, like now, he gets such an intense look on his face that I’m forced to remember that he is not completely useless. He was sent to Domina for being a terrible thief, sure, but he was an old friend of Butler for reasons he has never fully explained to me. And I refuse to inquire further.

He led me a little away from the rest of the group, out of their earshot, before turning to look me in the eye.

He didn’t waste any time. “Are you one of the Paladins?”

I tried not to quiver in fear. “Yes. How did you know?”

“Artemis told us,” he lied.

I frowned. My ability might not be very useful, but it could be helpful at times. “No he didn’t.”

He smiled slightly. “Truthtelling, huh? Useful.”

“Not really. How did you know I was one of the Paladins?”

He shrugged. “Artemis did hint that there was something about you we should know, and recommended asking. Given the timeline, this seemed logical.” He glanced at the rest of the birthday group. “I know Derek’s part of it, which means Akane as well. Who else?”

“Ling, Akane’s roommate. And Adam, Derek’s roommate. Adam doesn’t have a power, though. Lizzy has a power, but we’re keeping her out of the action.”

He frowned. “When did you receive these powers?”

“We’re not completely certain, but the morning of August 24th at the latest. Adam came to the city after that, so whatever empowered us did it before then.”

“Hm.” He scratched his beard. “Very interesting. If we can cross-reference that with some of MC’s data, maybe take another look at those DNA tests Isaac ran…”

I shook my head. “Good luck with that, Dad.” I walked back to the group.

Akane was hanging up the phone. “That was MC.”

“We gathered,” Ling said drily. “What’d she say?”

“She…was calling to wish me a happy birthday.”

“Well, that was nice of her.” I smiled. “Although I don’t think I’ve ever heard of her doing that before.”

Akane just nodded dumbly, a small frown on her face.

I quirked my head. “What’s wrong?”

She searched for the words. “I…have friends.”

I blinked. “Well, yeah. What’d you think?”

She just stood there, staring at my phone.

I didn’t really know what to make of that, but Maria came back with an armload of quilts and baskets, saving me from thinking too hard on it.

“Victor, help me out here,” she said with a grunt.

My father laughed. “No way. You need the exercise.”

I frowned. That was a lie? Normally sarcasm passed through my filter. What was going on?

She glared. “You aren’t exactly the picture of health either, beer-gut.”

“What??” he grabbed his belly through his shirt. There was a noticeable bulge. “No, this is just fake padding. I’m actually fit as a fiddle.”

Not a lie. Or at least, it didn’t register as one. Silver and gold, what was going on?

I was distracted by Ling turning and whispering in my ear. “Are they…related?” People always asked that. They fought like brother and sister.

I mentally shelved my questions for the moment and sighed. “No, just crazy.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 29)

I’ve been meaning to do a scene with Maria and Victor for a while, not least to get some of Domina’s backstory out. Laura is vastly simplifying the story, but it hits the key points. More will come later.